Saturday, December 30, 2017

The year without documentaries or foreign films

I've written a couple times on this blog about the paucity of "legitimate" documentaries released this year. By that I mean documentaries released in such a way that they distinguished themselves from run-of-the-mill documentaries on lesser platforms and crossed over into the public consciousness/discussion. In fact, I seem to write some variation on this post about every six months.

What hadn't struck me until recently was how few foreign language films have gained any traction in the zeitgeist this year.

Because I assumed they had just eluded me, I asked the members of my Flickcharters Facebook group what they were looking at as their 2017 foreign language films. They didn't have any either.

Or really, they had some, but they were ones I ranked last year because that's when I saw them at MIFF.

They came forward with suggestions like After the Storm and The Lure, films I was glad to see attaining a certain prominence after I'd ranked them both high on my list last year. They also mentioned films I was a bit less high on, like The Salesman and Graduation, which I also saw at MIFF 2016. (Guess that was a pretty good MIFF.) Then there were those that I saw at this year's MIFF, like The Square, which I do indeed have on my current list. There were a few assorted others but I tend to think of them as stretches to qualify as "prominent." The one exception may have been the French film BPM, an award winner at Cannes. But that may be the only exception.

What gives?

As always, we should blame Netflix.

In addition to siphoning off legitimate films and making them seem somehow less legitimate -- or at least, removing any fanfare from their release and reducing them to "just another thing to watch on Netflix" -- the company also creates a platform for low-level foreign films, the type that might otherwise not make a dent anywhere except their country of origin. While this seems like a good thing, it also helps make the greater market more murky. We find it hard now to tell the difference between foreign movies that might have once crossed over and been marketed it to us as international phenomena, the type we should see in the theater, and "just another foreign film."

Funny, that's kind of the same as what they've done to documentaries.

Of course, whether to truly blame Netflix for this, or just to acknowledge that they were the best to capitalize on an inevitable trend, is a matter of debate. I do think, however, that the effects can be seen rippling outward and having an impact on areas such as this one. Whether anything Netflix has done has actually crippled the market, or the perceived market, for foreign language films is unclear. It does seem clear that the wider-ranging impact of the Netflix business model is not yet known, and may not be known for some time.

I also wonder if it can be explained by the fact that foreign directors no longer stay in their own countries, or at least not to the extent that they used to. Twenty seventeen saw new releases from Zhang Yimou, Yorgos Lanthimos, Tomas Alfredson, Olivier Assayas, Nacho Vigalondo, Ana Lily Amirpour, Luc Besson and Niels Arden Oplev, but all of their films had English as the dominant language. That's to say nothing of directors like Guillermo del Toro and Lasse Hallstrom, who have been entrenched in English language films a lot longer. Foreign films are becoming a victim of the success of their directors.

All I know is, when I want to go to the movies to see a foreign language film, there ain't much on to see.

Here's hoping it's just a statistical aberration, a function of the random nature of release dates and the fickleness of public tastes. I don't want my future as a consumer of foreign films to be sifting through all the "just another film"s available on Netflix.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Departing Asian Audient

This is the last in my 2017 bi-monthly Asian Audient series.

In a series in which I repeatedly failed in my attempts to find useful films from countries other than Japan, China (Hong Kong) and South Korea, it's fitting that I would end with a failure to find the movie from China that I wanted. Make that "movies."

Once I could tell that things were heading toward ending with a Chinese movie in December, I identified two primary candidates for the honor: Edward Yang's 2000 film Yi Yi, which I'd always heard listed among the best of that decade, and Wong Kar-Wai's 1994 film Chungking Express, which has always been a familiar title I thought I should seek out. (I'm mixed on the Wong films I have seen.)

I bet you can guess what happened. Neither film could be scraped up in any format I searched. Not streaming. Not for rental from iTunes. Not from the library. I probably could have bought it from Amazon or something but I don't really believing in buying a movie that I haven't seen, even though I'm sure there are sometimes good reasons to do so.

I did ultimately fulfill my desire of ending with a movie of some significance, though. And it ended up being one of my top three films of the whole series.

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs (2002) was of course known to me, as it is to many, as the film that inspired The Departed. (Hence also the play on words in the subject of this post.) Probably because I loved The Departed as much as I did -- it was my #2 of that year -- I never sought out Infernal Affairs, like I did when, say, I loved Vanilla Sky and wanted to see what Abre Los Ojos was all about. I thought there was little chance that I would view it as anything other than an inferior Departed, since it's usually impossible to see a second version of a movie you love and consider its merits independent from that movie. You're always going to like the first thing you loved the best.

Well, Infernal Affairs is really making me reconsider that stance. It's like the lean and mean version of The Departed, which feels quite flabby when taken in comparison to Lau and Mak's movie.

As epic as The Departed is, I didn't think it was possible to tell that story in significantly less than that film's two hours and 31 minutes. It's long, but long in a way that always felt fully necessary to me.

Well, it's not fully necessary. Lau and Mak have given us the most clever parts of what ended up becoming The Departed without all the stuff that Martin Scorsese crammed in to graft that plot onto the story of Whitey Bulger (played by Jack Nicholson in that movie and fictionalized as a person named Frank Costello). And in doing so, they've brought the movie in at a mere one hour and 42 minutes -- a whole 50 minutes shorter. In fact, now I'm really eager to watch The Departed again as soon as I can, to determine exactly what Scorsese's contributions were that elevated the material -- other than just giving us the story without forcing us to read subtitles. It wasn't the closing shot of the rat running along the railing, I can tell you that.

Infernal Affairs contains certain lines of dialogue that I thought were overly expository when I first heard them, but in thinking about it, I realized that's only because I'm familiar with The Departed and didn't need the essential character dynamics elaborated for me. In reality, whatever conveniences may exist in the dialogue are indeed quite helpful. This movie has the potential to be quite complicated, as any film with double crosses and multiple undercover agents infiltrating the other side can be. The help from the dialogue is decidedly not excessive.

I also liked the way the film explores a greater level of moral complexity than The Departed, from what I remember of The Departed. SPOILERS for both movies. In Infernal Affairs, Lau (Andy Lau), the guy who infiltrates the police from the side of the drug cartel (called a triad), seems to have genuinely complicated feelings about serving the mob boss, a result of his long-term exposure to a conventional life. He ends up shooting and killing his boss, much as Matt Damon's Colin Sullivan does to Costello in The Departed.

However, that shooting seems motivated by the unnecessary twist of Costello himself actually being a mole, which is not an element of Infernal Affairs (and indeed feels like one of the most narratively problematic parts of The Departed, needed to make it resemble the life of Whitey Bulger). So you get the sense that Damon's character is not really undergoing a change, but rather, doubling down on his enforcement of the criminal code. It may be more complicated than that (I haven't seen The Departed since 2007), but I remember thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio's Billy Costigan as unambiguously the hero of that piece, and Sullivan as unambiguously its villain, especially after the other villain gets knocked off. Infernal Affairs is not nearly so eager to assign those roles, to its credit. It's sad that western audiences weren't considered capable of fully appreciating the shades of gray.

Infernal Affairs also reveals how set pieces that I thought might have been Scorsese's invention clearly were not. The memorable bit where Damon and DiCpario are on opposite sides of a cell phone conversation, both refusing to speak for fear of exposure to the other, did indeed originate here. So too does the bit with the police captain getting thrown off the building, and even DiCaprio getting shot in an elevator, which happens to Tony Leung's Chan in this film. Was Scorsese's contribution really only limited to Costello gesticulating with a severed arm while having his lunch?

I also really loved the lead performances from Lau and Leung, who are some of Hong Kong's biggest male stars. (And seeing Leung, who has worked regularly with Wong, helps with having missed seeing him in Chungking Express.) The fact that Lau also co-directed the film just makes it all the more impressive.

If there's one area that gets the short shrift with the decreased running time, it's the development of the two female characters, played here by Kelli Chan and Sammi Cheng, in The Departed by Vera Farmiga -- as both characters. I didn't remember until looking it up just now that Farmiga is entangled with both Sullivan and Costigan, which is a bit convenient. Chan's psychiatrist character really only gets two short scenes with Tony Leung's character, and really nothing to speak of in terms of a romantic relationship, though one is hinted at. I suppose I missed that element of the movie, but not overly.

Overall I was just really impressed with what a tight and solid film this is, boiling the story down to its essential elements while still allowing us the space to contemplate the origins of good and evil and the way exposure to the other can change you. I suspect that the film's sequels are significantly less interesting, as is pretty much always the case in these instances, but Infernal Affairs itself is first-rate.

Okay. That's it for Asian Audient. When finishing a series I usually like to give you some kind of look back on the previous 12 months and 12 films, though I don't always do it within the same post. However, I don't see myself getting back to this in the crunch of January, so I'll just wrap up with some quick thoughts here.

One of my disappointments about this series is that a number of the films I watched ended up feeling more like films I'd stumbled over than essential viewing. That was in part due to my personal mandate to diversify among countries. The stumbling element might have started with me watching Drunken Master at the end of January in order to cram something in to the first month of the year, just because it was available on Netflix. That film feels especially redundant looking back now, as I ended up with two other movies in the martial arts genre (Enter the Dragon and Ninja 2: Shadow of a Tear, both of which don't even have an Asian language as their primary language). You can kind of add one more if you include the Indonesian film Headshot, which was also the series' worst film. So I kind of got off on the wrong foot and never fully recovered. Though you could also say that conceiving of a film series in which I watched one film per month from the extremely large region of Asia was getting off on the wrong foot even before then. What can I say, I like my alliteration and could not resist the title Asian Audient once I'd thought of it.

On the positive side, I did expose myself to some genuine classics that have become new favorites, such as two of the Japanese prestige pictures I watched, Ozu's Late Spring and to a slightly lesser extent, Kurosawa's High and Low. I found myself wishing I could watch more films from both directors, though because I'd limited myself to only four from Japan for the whole year, it made sense not to repeat any directors. Which brought me to Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff ... which I did not like.

If the purpose of the series was to kickstart my tendency to watch films from this region of the world, then I think it was a success. There were times when I wanted to watch another Asian film this year but I thought it would have disrupted my one-per-month schedule, which is just silly. In 2018 I won't be limited even by that artificial constraint. I thought I had gotten lax in watching Asian films, which is what prompted the series in the first place, and I think I'm over that now.

Stay tuned in January for a preview of what I'll be doing in 2018. I think it will be good, and will require twice the viewing, with the same likelihood of sourcing difficulties. Should be interesting!

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Audient Anime: In This Corner of the World

This is my final of six films in my bi-monthly Audient Anime series.

I haven’t exactly stuck the landing on Audient Anime. It’s not been the result of too few choices. It’s been the result of too many.

For a while I had assumed I would finish my 2017 bi-monthly series with Your Name, the acclaimed Makoto Shinkai film that hit theaters here in 2016, but would count for my 2017 rankings because it didn’t receive a theatrical release in the U.S. until 2017. That’s the kind of killing of two birds with one stone I try to accomplish in December. Unfortunately, the film is not available for rental from iTunes, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to get my hands on it short of piracy.

Then I also came into possession of two other Miyazaki films, since I’d considered concluding with anime’s most celebrated director, having started the series with three of his films. In fact, I still have rented from the library both Howl’s Moving Castle, which I’d wanted to make my June film before settling on Castle in the Sky, and Miyazaki’s “final film,” The Wind Rises, which has since become his penultimate film at worst, as he has un-retired and will be releasing another new film in 2019. But in my rush to watch 2017 films in the month of December, neither of them has made it into the DVD player.

Part of the reason I haven’t felt that urgency is that I did see an anime film this month, one that I was not planning on at all, and in fact had not even heard of prior to watching it. Back on December 5th I watched In This Corner of the World, Sunao Katabuchi’s film that feels like a thematic cousin to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. The distributor had sent a vimeo link to my editor and he shared it with me so I could review it for the site prior to its Australian theatrical release. I thought the movie was great, but I already briefly wrote about it in this post, and given my wealth of other options and prospective options, I thought I’d include it in a possible anime smorgasbord to end the series. As it turned out, on December 28th, it’s the only one of my choices I’ve actually watched.

I might still watch Howl’s Moving Castle with my kids when we’re having a beach holiday to close the year, but given that we’re leaving tomorrow and won’t be back until January 3rd, it’s time for me to just get down to business and write my final Audient Anime post.

So that final film is indeed In This Corner of the World, which is a doozy, but not quite as much of a doozy as Fireflies. Both films feature characters living (or failing to live) through the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, which is why they earn a direct comparison. It could be that there are other anime movies that overtly wrestle with this period of Japanese history, with its tragedy on an epic scale intermingled with the shame of its imperialist agenda, but given that many anime films are aimed at or at least appropriate for children, I suspect there aren't a ton of them.

Corner follows its characters up to and slightly beyond the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and Grave kind of starts just before and follows them afterward. But both deliver images that can't be unseen, which befall characters we would never expect them to befall. Corner is probably slightly less gut-punchy, and slightly less good. But both films earned a 4.5-star rating from me, which is still high praise even though I give those out a bit more freely than I once did.

Dang it, after two paragraphs I already feel like I'm out of fresh things to say about this movie. Which could be because I already said them. So without forcing myself to adhere to some preconceived format that I'm the only one who probably cares about, I will instead link to my review of the movie, which has most of what I want to say about it anyway. Go take a look at that here.

So even though this isn't quite the end to the series I wanted -- writing about the film more than three weeks after I saw it can't help but feel like a bit of a whimper -- it's been a phenomenally successful series, one that has opened my mind to anime just as I'd hope it would. I'm not sure that I was completely closed off to anime, but I'd taken the worst parts of some anime movies I'd seen and conflated them to somehow representing most examples of the genre.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Of the six films I watched, two received a perfect five-star rating from me, two received 4.5 stars, and the "worst" two were still all the way up at four stars. And this is without consciously selecting the cream of the crop. Half of the movies I saw were not even on my radar when the series began, including both 4.5-star movies (Only Yesterday and this movie).

If I want to extrapolate out from there, that means that not only are there some legitimate masterpieces in anime, but that even the "average anime" is at a very high level of quality. I'm disappointed in myself for ever assuming less than that.

The really good thing is that this has stoked my thirst for more. That's no guarantee. I had an incredibly positive experience during my 2016 monthly series of watching one silent film per month, but you know what? The entirety of 2017 has passed without me watching another one. I seriously doubt that will be the case in 2018. I'm eager to see as much more anime as I can. I'm motivated.

I know what my 2018 bi-monthly series will be, and damn does it have a clever name. But I may make that the subject of its own post sometime in January before my first post in February. Stay tuned for that. I know you can't wait. 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Philosophically speaking

Since I did not read the books, my first exposure to Harry Potter was through a 2001 movie called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Actually, that's not entirely accurate. I'd started to read the first book before seeing the movie, but didn't finish it until, well, until I read it with my son a few months ago. But that book was also called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

When I read it with my son, it was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. That's because we're in Australia, and Australia gets everything from England, and in England, this book and the corresponding movie were both called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

I always knew this, but it was something I always objected to. Sure, J.K. Rowling is British, and whatever she originally wrote back in 1997 was obviously what it should actually be. While we're on the topic of the world's introduction to Harry Potter, it's funny to think that this is only the 20th anniversary of Rowling's first book. I contend that Harry Potter is the last great massive industry to have been introduced to pop culture. Pretty much everything else we love with this kind of name recognition has been with us far longer than 20 years and has just been continually rebooted.

Anyway, I preferred the American title for two reasons, both of which were probably considered when making the change for American distribution: 1) "Sorcerer" is better than "Philosopher" for purely linguistic reasons, as it allows alliteration with the next word, "Stone;" and 2) What the heck does a philosopher have to do with magic?

A mystical MacGuffin like the stone in question should conjure images of Merlin or Gandalf, not Immanuel Kant or G.W.F. Hegel. A philosopher sounds like a person who sits around talking your ear off with existential ideas. A sorcerer, on the other hand, is a person of action. Just try to think of the word "sorcerer" without imagining a man in a robe and pointy hat gesticulating his hands in order to whip up some kind of fireball or colored smoke. Can't, can you?

So who knows why Rowling initially called it the Philosopher's Stone, except that the British are funny sometimes and they don't always want to be held accountable to what we might consider reasoned logic. Then again, it's also a matter of perspective. Americans have a bunch of different words for things than British or Australians do, and maybe to a Brit or Aussie, a philosopher is indeed someone who waves a magic wand and makes things explode.

The point of me telling you all this is that over the past two days -- this movie is pretty long -- the four of us watched Chris Columbus' 2001 movie, which, like the book, is called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone here in Australia. Even though I accept that this is its proper title, I will still refer to it as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in my Most Recently Revisited section to the right, and in the tag for this post. At least the second of those choices is partly motivated by the fact that I already have a tag for the other title, and I'm not about to go back and rewrite history on my blog.

The thing that's interesting about this is that other sites are rewriting their own history. If you type Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in wikipedia, it will not bring up an entry for that. It will instead redirect you to Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, informing you very early on of the alternate title for its American release. IMDB does a variation on the same thing. It will produce a result in the search area if you type in the American title, but it still takes you to a single IMDB page under the name Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Underneath that it reads "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (original title)." Which just makes things all the more perplexing.

This last kind of gets at what I think is unusual about the whole situation. There are any number of movies released with different titles in different countries, but in many if not most situations, the American title is considered the default title. That's especially so if the films are released simultaneously in the different countries, or staggered by only a small amount. If a foreign film is released in its country of origin, takes off there, then receives a title that's easier for Americans to understand or pronounce, we'd expect the original title to take precedence on the web, if only because its page on something like IMDB would have been created at the moment of its origin. But this is, for all intents and purposes, a Hollywood movie, something expecting to do the majority of its business in America, its British origins basically an afterthought in terms of marketing muscle and other logistics.

And yet I do think it's right that websites have recognized that the original text was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, and that the only reason it was changed for anybody was that Americans were considered too unimaginative to expand the boundaries of their understanding of magic. Who knows how well the book would have sold in the U.S. with its original title; we'll never know. But we do know it became a sensation in this incarnation, so obviously it was well worth it.

As I was watching the movie, I was interested to see what kind of shenanigans might have occurred in order to substitute one word for the other. In a printed text it's pretty simple -- you just do a find and replace command, and there would be no false positives, as I'm sure the word "philosopher" does not occur in any contexts in the original book other than in discussion of this particular stone. But in a movie, characters have to mention it in dialogue. Would they go to the trouble of filming the scenes twice just for this small change?

Well either they did, which would not be so hard because it doesn't actually get discussed all that much, or they only filmed it the one way. I can tell you for certain that Emma Watson is making the word "philosopher" with her mouth in one clear instance of discussing it. It does get spoken off camera once or twice, but I think there was another instance where the actor was clearing speaking it.

What I don't know is whether Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has any instances of the word "sorcerer" being clearly spoken, since I don't have access to that version. Though the internet tells me they did film some scenes twice, and worked around it in other ways when they couldn't (having the actor's mouth not appearing in the shot when the word is spoken, for example).

The kids seemed to like it. The first book was as much a hit with my son as I'd hoped it would be, as we got it in this beautiful hardcover book with pictures:

We finished that in mid-September, and it was difficult to wait until the next gift-buying occasion after his birthday, Christmas, to get Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. If you want your kids' interests to take root at this age, you really have to stoke the fire so it doesn't go out. But his fire remained lit, and he was so eager to get through the next book that he nearly threw a tantrum last night when I wouldn't read him the third chapter, having read the first that afternoon and the second as his bedtime story.

The movie was pretty much perfect for him and his younger brother, containing some scary moments but nothing too crazy, as the characters themselves are just a few years older than the older one. And he seemed to really enjoy seeing the things he'd learned about in the book coming to life.

Me? I always defend this movie, my standard argument being that the movie has a special place for me because it was the first time we had seen Hogwarts, or quidditch. Of course, if the person on the other end of that argument is smart they can and often will say "No it isn't. We first saw those things in the books, in our minds." Damn. Great point.

And on this, my second viewing -- I had previously seen every Harry Potter movie exactly once -- I was a bit struck by its flatness, in general but also compared to certain movies that come later in the series. There are only a few I think are really distinctive, most notably Alfonso Cuaron's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and indeed this one is only really distinctive for being the first.

Still, it definitely works as a kids movie ... whether its MacGuffin was forged by a sorcerer or a philosopher.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Missing only the Stallone Christmas movie for the trifecta

If you were to name the three most iconic action stars of the 1980s, you would likely identify Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. In fact, I believe one of the Expendables movies does that very thing, getting all three together in one scene. (I only saw the first Expendables movie so I will have to take the word of some review I read.)

That designation is a little bit of a fallacy, as Willis had never done an action movie before Die Hard in 1988, and didn't get his second on his resume until Die Hard 2, which is already in 1990. But it's easier to say "the three most iconic action stars of the 1980s" than "the three most iconic action stars of the 1980s and 1990s." And besides, Die Hard is so iconic that it can fill in Willis' gaps in that decade all by itself.

Anyway, the point of telling you that is to tell you this: In the past two nights, we saw one Christmas movie each from two of those three guys.

On Christmas Eve it was Jingle All the Way, not Schwarzenegger's only foray into comedy, but his only foray into Christmas movies (that I could tell by just looking at the titles of the movies on IMDB).

On Christmas night we watched the aforementioned Die Hard for the first time in six years, not Willis' only foray into Christmas movies, but the only other of which (that I could tell just by looking at the titles of the movies on IMDB) was also a Die Hard movie: Die Hard 2.

We're just missing the Stallone Christmas movie for the trifecta, but alas, that won't be an option for Boxing Day. As far as I can tell (just by looking at the titles of the movies on IMDB), Sylvester Stallone has not made a Christmas movie.

Hadn't seen Jingle All the Way before, which is funny since I consider myself something of an Arnie completist. Then again, it's funny I consider myself that as I have also not seen Stay Hungry, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Red Sonja, Raw Deal, Predator, Red Heat, Junior, End of Days, Collateral Damage, The Kid & I, The Expendables 2, Escape Plan, The Expendables 3 and Killing Gunther.

Anyway, I didn't like Jingle All the Way. Arnold's charm carries the movie farther than it should, but very little of the comedy works and the thing is just that fateful combination of slapstick and schmaltzy, with an ending that crosses over into the absurd. My wife gave up on it before the finish, and not only because it was Christmas Eve and we had to get to bed at a reasonable time. (In fact, the only reason we were watching it in the first place was that The Night Before didn't end up available on Netflix streaming in Australia, only America.)

It did allow me to see the movie that, I guess, prompted them to cast Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker, though he was also in Unhook the Stars that same year, 1996. And though I hate bashing the acting of Lloyd -- especially considering what the experience of playing young Anakin has done to the guy's life -- he's really not good here, even for a child actor. There's one moment where he tears his neglectful dad a new one that I guess must have been the moment George Lucas saw the potential for petulant anger in him. Then again, Anakin isn't even petulant at that age, as far as I remember. I guess Lucas must have just thought he was really good.

As for Die Hard ... I imagine this would be my eighth viewing or so. I still remember the grand time I had on my first at that small four-screen theater that used to be at the Burlington Mall in Massachusetts, watching with a half-dozen friends and howling with laughter and joy. I commented to my wife last night that I half expect Die Hard not to be good the next time I see it, since upon its release I thought it was just another gritty Charles Bronson-type thriller that was already feeling like a moribund genre at that point. And of course, every time I watch Die Hard it's just as good as it was the time before.

So we got no Stallone, but funnily enough, Die Hard actually has him covered. As a matter of fact, it's got both of the other guys covered in various lines of dialogue.

First (chronologically), there is this line by Hans Gruber: "Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Just another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?"

Which is perfect, of course, because Stallone played Marshal Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke.

But then, just to put the cherry on top, we get this line from John McClane: "They have missiles, automatic weapons and enough plastic explosives to orbit Arnold Schwarzenegger."

Which is perfect, because Schwarzenegger played an automatic weapon in My Life as a Machine Gun.

After the movie my wife reminded me that both Stallone and Schwarzengger were offered the part of John McClane before they somehow landed on the star of Moonlighting for their movie.

I'm just as glad we don't have to live in a world where we have to see Arnie's bulky frame trying to shimmy through an air duct as I'm glad we don't live in a world where we have to see Eric Stoltz hopping in and out of a Delorean.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry and Bright

I'm not sure if Netflix planned to release its new movie at Christmastime because it was called Bright, or called it Bright because they were planning to release it at Christmastime. It's kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing, and at this point Netflix has enough power that I think either could be true.

But either way, I did indeed watch it in the thick of Christmas season; on the actual first night of its availability, in fact, mostly because it was Friday night and it felt like the type of night for a genre movie. (What genre Bright is actually in may be the subject of further discussion.)

I didn't fully consider the similarity of the name and the season until I paused it to go to to the bathroom, and could not help noticing this on my return:


Bright Christmas tree, Bright movie.

Critics say it's not so bright. In fact, because there seems to be a tendency to go on a frenzy when there's blood in the water, a number of authorities have come forward to call it the worst film of the year.

That's just nonsense, and this isn't just the 2017 Contrarian Vance talking. Yeah, I'm the guy who liked The Emoji Movie, which means you should probably not trust me on anything. But Bright is not that bad. It's definitely sort of bad -- I give it only two stars out of five. But it's trying, and that's more credit than I can give a lot of movies these days.

Weirdly, it's kind of like Lord of the Rings if Lord of the Rings were real, set on Earth (instead of Middle-earth) and fast-forwarded into the 21st century. This is a world where magic is real and the others who share the space with humans are orcs and elves. (And fairies, though only one fairy gets one quick scene in which it is smooshed by Will Smith.) In a rather obvious allegory for race relations, orcs are the lowest rung of the racial totem pole, while elves actually occupy a very elevated position, something like the 1%. Humans are somewhere in between. This particular movie is about an orc who joins the police force and partners with a very wary Smith, and the day-to-day prejudices and earth-shattering end-of-the-world scenarios they face. David Ayer is the director so it probably resembles End of Watch, though I'm only guessing because I haven't seen that.

And though it doesn't totally work, or possibly work at all, I liked what they were going for, and I really liked the performance of a barely recognizable Joel Edgerton as the orc cop. He brings a real sensitivity to the role that took me aback.

And if the movie is trying to be about different types of creatures (races) living together in harmony, that's something we need in the holiday season, and something we really need in 2017.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Star Wars. Finally.

I didn't get to a second viewing of Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week, but I did get to a tenth? eleventh? viewing of Star Wars, the one they now call A New Hope for the sake of clarity. It was nice to reacquaint myself with the original incarnation of characters who are now, in some cases, being taken in directions I don't totally like.

But this viewing was far more important than that, and driven by something else entirely.

After being on this planet for seven years, three months and 28 days, my older son has now, finally, seen Star Wars.

It was a full year-and-a-half ago that I wrote this post, in which I offered him what had previously been a forbidden fruit: the chance to watch this movie that all of his friends had been talking about. He declined the offer on the grounds that it might be "too scary."

Since then he has never fully demanded a viewing, as I am led to believe kids usually do in these situations, but he did start talking about hearing about the recent Star Wars movies "with Kylo Ren," and in that conversation indicated he was ready to get started. We decided to spring it on him for the last day of the school year, which fell yesterday, as we are now on summer break here in Australia.

That also meant that his younger brother was going to get to watch it at a much more "appropriate" age. And by that I don't mean that he was better suited to the themes or violence or anything like that. By "appropriate" I mean that I was just about the same age he is now, maybe just a bit younger, when I saw the movie in 1977. He turns four next week.

So we engaged in a bit of "special occasion behavior" and ate our dinners in front of the TV, to get an earlier start on the movie. We followed dinner with popcorn, an ice cream the kids had each picked out at the store, and one additional sweet treat I had relented and given them as part of the path of least resistance.

This was when my nerves kicked in.

A lot is riding on a child's first viewing of Star Wars. I had been told that many kids think the first Star Wars is "boring" -- even that some adults who came of age a generation later than I did think it's boring. And your first exposure to something dictates whether an addiction to it will take hold. I felt there was a lot riding on my kids becoming addicted to Star Wars. Though you can't expect your kids to follow in your own footsteps in every way or even in most ways, there are certain dreams you just don't want to give up on.

We had long ago decided against starting with a "less boring" Star Wars movie. One of the big debates people have about exposing their kids to Star Wars, though I think most people believe there is one far better choice, is whether to start with Episode IV or to start with Episode I. In fact, we had to have a whole conversation during the movie last night explaining why this was episode four and promising him that he had not missed three other movies.

The only real argument for starting with The Phantom Menace, as I see it, is that it is a far more visually stimulating film. It has all the lights and colors and swirly things that a child demands. And sure, it also has its slow stretches, but children are less likely to get bored by a bad story than by a deliberately paced one. What I always remind myself of every time I watch Star Wars is how long it spends on Tatooine before "getting to the good stuff," if that's your perspective on it. The Phantom Menace, of course, also spends a long time on that planet, but it has a pod race, an appearance by Darth Maul, and a number of other stimulating elements.

Indeed, the kids did squirm during this part. In fact, the term I used was that they were "flopping." They floundered about on the couch like fish out of water, frequently banging into me and turning themselves upside down. Their treats, which we had been hoping to save for the second half of the movie, were being regularly demanded. To make matters worse, this was when our BluRay from the library was also at its most technically challenged. Even after we removed it to wipe off smudges, it still had a moment or two when it stuttered, then jumped ahead by as many as 15 seconds.

My wife, who is less precious about these things than I am, was giving me "that look," the one that says "This isn't working." She asked my older son if he was just too tired to watch this right now. I didn't want that question to be aired, but once it was, we couldn't put it back in the box. We'd have to go with whatever his response was.

"No," he said in that way that indicates no uncertainty, and perhaps some bemusement that the question was even being asked. It seemed pretty clear to us and the viewing continued. The younger one even managed to settle down as well. A bit.

They indicated their engagement in age relevant ways -- my younger one pointing out characters and vehicles he was already familiar with, the older one not vocalizing as that was the way he becomes engrossed in something. With relief, I could tell at this point we would make it through the whole thing.

The second half of the movie does, of course, have a lot more of the elements that traditionally entertain a child, and our two kids were no exception. There was a dip in their attention between the part where the Millennium Falcon escapes the Death Star and the X-wings start to attack it, but it didn't last. And though my younger one was flopping about again and regularly dropping these flat plastic Christmas ornaments on the ground in a way I found incredibly distracting, I had long since given up trying to govern his behavior. He'd take in Star Wars in the way he saw fit. And just because my attention span was much better at that age -- or maybe it was the fact that I was a captive audience in a movie theater -- or maybe it was that this was the only thing available that would stimulate me in quite this way -- it doesn't mean I could really blame him for it.

When it was over, the older one told me it was "the worst." However, this was just him trying out his Daddy's sense of humor. He had a big grin on his face and eventually gave his real answer. "It's my favorite movie," he said.

When I incredulously asked for clarification on his answer, hoping for something like this but never daring to expect it, he said "So far."

The only real drawback to the experience was something I had feared and something I also aired on this blog back in February of 2016. My kids had received a gift of Star Wars storybooks that told the story of the six older movies, and my big concern at the time was "What about spoilers?" I vainly hoped that the "I am your father" moment, for example, could be as much a surprise for them as it was for me. But knew that Star Wars had become legend, and that all the essential story elements would likely reach them before they had a chance to see the movies.

So indeed, as we may have read the storybook based on Episode IV a good ten times, the older one was regularly saying "Oh this is the part when." And then "Yup, I knew it." The good thing is, I didn't get the sense this was detracting from his enjoyment. I mean, adults will still watch Shakespeare even though they already know Hamlet is going to die, and how. Perhaps Star Wars is now the kid equivalent of that. They don't watch a Star Wars movie to see what's going to happen -- they watch it to see how it will happen.

And how it happened was pretty darn great for my kids.

My wife wants to make it a Christmas tradition and see "the next one next year." I can't imagine waiting a whole year to show them The Empire Strikes Back, and part of that is for selfish reasons -- my last Empire viewing was sub-par, and I am eager to revisit it so I can decide if that was a one-off reaction or if, in fact, I don't really like the movie as much as I have always said I liked it. Besides, the BluRay set we've borrowed from the library contains all three of the original trilogy.

Part of how soon we watch it may be determined by whether they a) realize we have the other movies in the house, and then b) demand the viewing. And something happened this morning may give me a preview of at least the b) part of that equation.

As I started writing this post, they started watching Star Wars again. I was only too glad to accommodate the request. However, after less then 20 minutes I heard silence coming from that room. I found that my older son had shut it off and gone back into his room.

"What happened?" I asked. "Bored?"

"Yeah," he said. "I just needed a break."

Whether it'll be a year break, or just a couple of days, The Empire Strikes Back will be next.

And I think, indeed, an addiction has been born. Maybe not the type that needs to be fed by immediate or regular or complete viewings, but one that develops into a life-long Star Wars fandom.

Of course, some of that is dependent on how good the next 15 Star Wars movies are. And that's the biggest reason to watch Empire soon. We need to get them ready to see the final of the nine movies, Episode IX, in cinemas in late 2019.

Before then, there will be lot of Star Wars goodness, some not-so-goodness, and potentially a bunch more "favorite movies ... so far."

Friday, December 22, 2017

At last, the arrival of awards contenders

After a month of December in which I spent most of the time trying to choose between Daddy's Home 2 and Bad Moms 2, finally the awards contenders are starting to come out.

Last night's viewing of The Florida Project (on its opening night) kicked off a fecund period that will be followed by Call Me By Your Name (December 26th), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (January 1st), All the Money in the World (January 4th), The Post (January 11th) and The Shape of Water (January 18th).

I’m not listing the January 25th releases (I, Tonya) because that will be after my ranking deadline, which is all I really care about. Which means I’m really not mentioning Phantom Thread (February 1st) and I’m really REALLY not mentioning Lady Bird (February 15th, which seems like cruel torture).

It happens every year, but I never fail to be amazed by the way that Australian distributors avoid the lead-up to Christmas for their prestige pictures. Even the December 21st release of The Florida Project seemed strangely timed. I suppose they are not only competing with Christmas, but with summer, which carries with it a different mentality of what people might want to see.

At least the late Oscar nominees announcement date this year (January 23rd) will mean I’ll get in most of the movies I need to see, with the few exceptions listed above. Unfortunately, it also means that neither of Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two movies will have come out in Australia in time for me to rank them, just as neither of Martin Scorsese’s last two films came out in Australia in time for me to rank them.

In these cases, the consistency of Australian distributors is maddening.

The Florida Project? What did I think?

Well, it's just about exactly a month until I release my rankings. Maybe I'll make you wait so you know how I feel. 

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The right thing to want from Star Wars


SPOILERS. I hope this goes without saying at this point.

Such an online debate has cropped up around Star Wars: The Last Jedi that it has started to resemble other big binary debates in recent memory, like Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton. But really, this is more like political in-fighting in the same party. A true parallel with Trump vs. Clinton would be people who like Star Wars vs. people who do not like Star Wars. This fight is entirely between people who love Star Wars.

I love Star Wars, but I just now had to defend myself against being a “hater.” It was not done in an aggressive way. The person said “I can’t keep track. Are you a TLJ hater? It would seem so.”

My response: “I only hate the term ‘hater.’ ‘Hater’ implies disliking something for illegitimate reasons with the possible intent to troll. I have legitimate concerns with the movie, which does not make me a hater. I give it 3.5 stars out of 5 with a far greater inclination to talk about the things that disappointed me than the things I liked.”

I was possibly going to grapple with my feelings about the movie by seeing it again last night, in conjunction with a trip to the mall to do Christmas shopping. (The mall is open until midnight the week before Christmas, as opposed to closing at 5:30 (!) like it usually does on weekdays.) The other options was Bad Moms 2, which had the benefit of being an hour shorter. As it turned out, my shopping took too long and I saw neither.

I did, however, grapple with The Last Jedi last night by consuming two different well-argued pieces that took both a pro and a con stance on the movie. The first was this piece during my dinner at the mall, entitled “The Last Jedi Doesn’t Care What You Think About Star Wars.” The second was after I got home, when, exhausted from walking around the mall for four hours, I should have just gone to sleep. Instead I watched the Red Letter Media video on The Last Jedi, all 45 minutes of it, which can be found here.

The Red Letter Media video was nice because it made me laugh and confirmed a number of my own concerns with the movie, plus added some I had not previously considered. (The line about the cumulative effect of these two movies being like John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison being shot in the same night was the best.) But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that the arguments made in the SlashFilm piece were also resonant for me.

Whether you like this Star Wars movie or not comes down to what you want from a Star Wars movie. And what’s frustrating about this debate is that people are trying to tell each other what they should want, rather than just accepting that everyone wants different things.

If you want the strain of relatively uncomplicated heroism that has been explored in most, if not all, of the previous Star Wars movies to continue, this movie may not be that satisfying for you. Those who don’t want that will tell you, or at least imply, that you are wrong to want it.

The thing is, Star Wars has not really always been uncomplicated in its heroism. The entire prequel trilogy followed a hero who would turn out to be one of the most infamous villains of all time. If that’s not complicated, I don’t know what is. And since we knew that was what was going to happen, we were okay with it. If Star Wars had started with Episode I and sent Anakin Skywalker on a Walter White-style descent into evil, we might have felt much differently about it. (Though we shouldn’t have been surprised in Breaking Bad, either, as it’s all there in the title. To follow a protagonist who is going to turn bad, you kind of need to know it from the start.)

So I don’t think those of us displeased with the character arcs of the main heroes necessarily demand a lack of complexity in our heroes. A little complexity is great. A lot of complexity may be too much, and may ultimately feel depressing. The Half in the Bag guys talked about this being a movie where everybody always fails. On a basic cinematic level, that’s disheartening.

But the pro Last Jedi faction argues that we should want these people to seem more human, if not only because it’s more realistic, then because it gives the Star Wars universe more space to grow. Rian Johnson clearly did not want to be imprisoned by everything that had come before in this saga, and boy did he show it. So that’s what Johnson wanted, and what those who have loved this movie (including most critics) clearly wanted.

But it doesn’t mean that it is, by necessity, the right thing to want, and that anyone who doesn’t want it is intellectually stunted in some way. The success of the MCU has showed that we like movies to be fun, and I would argue that this is not a fun movie. But are we to be derided for wanting something to be fun?

The conventional wisdom is that fun is good in a superhero movie, as the continued rejection of the DC superhero model has proven. But if we want Star Wars to feel more escapist, suddenly we aren’t holding ourselves to a high enough intellectual standard. 

Which makes The Last Jedi even more complicated, because its attempts at slapstick humor are some of its most derided elements. So The Last Jedi is trying to be fun, and in some corners being derided for its attempts to follow the MCU model, but it doesn’t have a natural sense of how to be fun, which is what I would argue is one of the best attributes of The Force Awakens. So it's an unfun movie trying to be fun but dwelling on depressing things. It's kind of one of those situations where it seems like you can cherrypick the elements of the movie that most directly speak to your argument, ignoring ones that directly contradict it.

The reason this resembles a political debate is the sense on both sides of how wrong the other side is. If you want heroes to succeed, and fail only because they are trying so hard to succeed (which is kind of what happens with Poe), you think the movie and the people who love it have no respect for the grand history of Luke Skywalker, one of the most prominent heroic figures in modern popular culture. If you want heroes to be human and Star Wars to surprise you, you think the people who don’t like the movie are shallow or intellectually inferior.

But really, it’s okay to want different things from Star Wars. We all do. And we all should. 

And wanting something I didn’t get doesn’t make me a hater. It just makes me a spurned lover.

And part of the reason I may not go again to see it in the theater is very simple:

I know that nothing different is going to happen this time around. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Dante/Feldman/Miller/Goldsmith weekend

I know you aren't really that interested in coincidental things in common between movies I see in or
around the same time period, but this one was too good to pass up.

This past weekend I watched two movies that had four distinct collaborators in common, but were otherwise unrelated to each other.

That's right, both Gremlins (1984) and The 'Burbs (1989) were directed by Joe Dante, scored by Jerry Goldsmith, and featured Corey Feldman and Dick Miller in supporting roles.

To add to that, both featured the idea of suburbia turned upside down, as a bonus.

The Gremlins viewing, a re-watch, was prompted by my wife. She hadn't seen it in years, which didn't make her any different from me in that regard. She was different from me in having a real pressing desire to see it, but I was happy enough to go along, it being a Christmas movie and all. Glad I did. Even though I find most of the stuff with the gremlins dressing up like humans and drinking and smoking in bars to be incredibly stupid, I was surprised at how tight the script was, and how many pleasures the movie does actually contain. The kitchen scene is, and always will be, the best. (Love Frances Lee McCain as an incidental badass.)

The 'Burbs viewing, my first, was the result of a Secret Santa gift. "How's that?" you say. Well, in my Flickcharters Facebook group we have a side group each Christmas in which everyone draws the name of another participant out of a hat (a virtual hat, in which the organizer assigns you a pick), and then has to gift that person a movie they haven't seen that seems like it would align with their tastes. I got 'The Burbs from my Secret Santa, presumably because I have a couple Tom Hanks movies high up on my Flickchart (Big is in my top 20). (I gave Ruby Sparks to the person I picked.) I didn't love The 'Burbs -- a bunch of patently unbelievable choices and behavior in that movie -- though the Tom Hanks completist in me is glad to have seen it, and I did enjoy particular moments quite a bit.

It was watching 'The Burbs Sunday morning after my Saturday night Gremlins viewing that I noticed the similarities in the opening credits. I can't really recall the sound of Goldsmith's score for 'The Burbs a couple days later, though the Gremlins one is pretty memorable. And of course the similarity in theme and tone is a good indicator of Dante's influence.

The really funny thing is the similarity of the roles of the actors. In both movies Feldman plays a character that can be described as "neighborhood kid" -- a role the passage of five years did not render him ineligible from playing. And in both movies, veteran character actor Dick Miller is a public works worker, driving a plow in the first film and collecting garbage in the second.

We're not hearing much from any of these guys anymore, though only Goldsmith is dead. Miller is 88 and recently had a documentary made about him that I want to see, called That Guy Dick Miller. Dante is 71 and is technically still making movies, with his most recent having been released only three years ago. And at 46, Feldman of course manages to stay in the spotlight, even if not for making any reputable movies -- his latest crusade has involved unveiling those who sexually abused him when he was about the age he was in these movies.

Interestingly, though, the collaboration between some of these guys was not an isolated event. The last two movies directed by Dante -- 2014's Burying the Ex and 2009's The Hole -- were also Dick Miller's last two films.

Some collaborations are just too good to abandon.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Star Wars, or something

I just listened to the Slate Spoiler Special podcast on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and even though they obviously included spoilers in that, I don't need to spoil anything here today. (Or, only very, very minor spoilers.)

Instead, I want to talk about how they talked about it.

The panel was composed of Slate Culture Gabfest host and Slate film critic Dana Stevens, and two other Slate writers, Forrest Wickman and Sam Adams. I don't know those two apart from each other so I will refer to them interchangeably in this post. "Samrest" seems like as good a portmanteau as any.

Dana Stevens, bless her heart, is not a Star Wars fan. She's a wonderful personality and a great film critic, but when it comes to basic Star Wars terminology, she's hopeless. When one of the guys talked about how the training of Rey by Luke on Ahch-to (that's not a spoiler) was this film's version of Dagobah, poor Dana thought that Dagobah was a method of training Jedi, not the planet Yoda lived on.

Dana has to be on every show because she's the film critic and the host of this series. The other two, though, were on the show specifically because they were thought to have substantive thoughts and opinions on Star Wars from knowing something about it.

Well, it's questionable.

Actually, I won't say they don't know anything. I'll say that they undercut the things they know by having a strangely dismissive attitude toward the conventions that define the world's most popular entertainment property.

Instead of projecting confidence in the things they know, they would undermine it by saying "or something" after every plot development they discussed. "The rebels are trying to use their bombers to take out the dreadnaught, or whatever it's called." You know it's called a "dreadnaught," Samrest, if not because you just saw the movie and loved it, then because you're a dutiful journalist and looked it up if you were planning to talk about it. But we know it's really the first option.

What I felt as I listened to it was a reluctance to take Star Wars seriously. If a planet is called "Cantonica" in the newest Star Wars movie, you don't have to make a Hannukah joke, which Samrest did, saying that today was the third day of Cantonica. If the movie chooses to call one of its planets Ahch-To, just call it Ahch-To, don't say it's called "Ahch-To, or something."

I could see that dismissive attitude if they hadn't liked the movie, but both professed to love it, despite not being able to rein in their snark. Maybe it's kind of what I discussed in yesterday's post, how loving Star Wars and hating it are strangely intermingled emotions. You love it so much that you can't help but hate aspects of it. But the names of the aliens or the planets or the spaceships are no goofier in this movie than in any other movie, and to say "or something" after you produce the perfectly accurate name for that thing is just disingenuous.

Then there were the times that Samrest just got something wrong. Samrest raised an objection to how these new movies killed the "happily ever after" of Return of the Jedi, saying something along the lines of "You defeated the empire, and then ten years later, here they come again." Isn't the passage of time between Jedi and The Force Awakens thought to be about 30 years? Being wrong by two decades on that time estimate was either a careless mistake, or an intentional case of getting it wrong, which brings us back to the unaccountable dismissiveness.

And as much as I am in the bag for Dana Stevens -- I attended a live recording of The Slate Culture Gabfest in Melbourne back in May, and had my picture taken with her -- she didn't help matters by introducing every new plot point with kind of a giggle about the unfathomable absurdity of it all. So both the people who like Star Wars and the people who like it but have purposefully learned nothing about it let me down in this episode.

I am reminded of the words of my seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Murray, who had a theatrical way of making points about not only the English language, but the world. I considered him a great teacher, but the fact that he had already forgotten me like two years later dimmed his star a bit. Anyway, Mr. Murray was once talking about the right level of enthusiasm to have for something, and gave a person's reading of the beginning of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as his example. The first person was a turn off by being too invested in it. "Four score ..." he boomed in a way that was frighteningly earnest and intense. Indeed, it was a turn off. But then the person who thought he was too cool for school and barely spat out the iconic opening words in disinterested fashion was equally problematic. The right way to do it was to read the words with seriousness of purpose and with feeling, but not too much or too little of either.

I don't really know what point he was trying to make, but his words stuck with me, and they feel instructive here. If you start getting into the nerdy details of what Star Wars canon says to be the case and what creatures came from what homeworld and whether anything they did would be realistic in the scope of the Star Wars universe, you turn people off. But it's equally a turn off to pretend that those details don't matter. It's best to discuss Star Wars with seriousness of purpose and with feeling, but not too much or too little of either.

At this point I think we all must accept the fact that Star Wars is serious business. You can laugh it off as a lark, and indeed, sometimes the movies themselves invite you to laugh at them, either because they robotically try to insert laugh lines (see the prequels) or are genuinely funny (see these recent films). But if you don't take them seriously you fail to meet them not only on their own terms, but on the terms that legions of fans have come to view them.

So get over the fact that these things have "silly names." A porg is a porg, and it would be no more or less silly if it were called a flerg, a fur-penguin, or a space bunny.

When you laugh at Star Wars, you laugh at the people who have devoted their lives to it. Laugh with them, but not at them.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

That divisive new Star Wars movie

Have you had enough time to see this movie?

No?

Then stop reading. I will SPOIL. And I won't repeat the spoiler warning like five more times in the next three paragraphs, because if you haven't seen it, you are intelligently on the lookout for spoilers and don't need to be told twice. If you do need to be told twice, well, I have no sympathy for you.

Here goes.

This may happen every time a new Star Wars movie comes out, and if so, the premise for this post is off base. But I can't concretely remember the last time I heard people arguing that the new Star Wars movie was either their favorite in the series, or their least favorite -- with equal vigor on both sides, and about as many voices.

Critics don't seem to be very divided, as the Metascore in the high 80s would attest. But audiences are a different story.

In the past few days of discussing this movie in various formats on Facebook, I have heard both of the following comments:

"I hated it."

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi > A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi combined."

That second comment is patently ridiculous and probably should be thrown out as an outlier lacking in credibility, but it does say something about just how passionate some people feel about this movie. As does the word "hate" when describing the others' equal passion in the opposite direction.

Me? Glad you asked.

I gave it a 3.5 stars. I felt inclined to give it four. But when I talk about it, my words are more like a three.

Simply put, I am far more compelled to talk about the things I didn't like about it than those I did. That should not be mistaken with standard internet negativity or holding the film to an impossible standard. I'm a guy who felt like I was walking on air after The Force Awakens, my impression of it only tainted by the fact that I was depressed over Han Solo dying. I can be just as forgiving of a Star Wars movie as I can be critical of it. Since I am actually a critic, what I hope emerges is my genuine feelings toward a movie's strengths or weaknesses.

Here I am more focused on the weaknesses. I did not laugh much in this movie. I did not feel swept away by it. I felt two of its three plots had serious momentum and relevance issues, with only the Kylo/Rey/Luke plot feeling like it truly grabbed me. However, that plot also contains the film's most bold choices, including the deaths of Snoke and Luke, which both felt premature to me. So even while that plot was the most interesting to me, it also contained potentially the most problematic developments in the larger story. (A piece I read suggested that by getting story beats from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi out of the way now, it free up Episode IX to be truly original -- though I'm still struggling with whether I think that's exactly what I want.)

And yet I'm giving this movie 3.5 stars, and seriously toyed with four. Any given Star Wars movie is doing so much and has so much going on that within the context of cinema at large, these things are worthy of celebration. They suffer more within the context of Star Wars.

At least I'm not as bad as that guy who said he "hated" it. I noticed that on Letterboxd he gave it four stars, as, presumably, he could not bear to give a Star Wars movie any less. ("Marge, this gets my lowest rating ever: seven thumbs up.")

I guess I have to consider that I am a person who has trouble letting go. This weekend we packed up a lot of the books we used to read to the kids when they were babies, and only the most insipid could I really bear to part with. A hoarder wants everything he has ever had to remain accessible to him. Therefore, a hoarder wants Luke Skywalker to still be around, should he need him.

I guess I'm struggling with the idea that the old Star Wars needs to be purged to allow for a new one, which is one of the most direct themes of this movie. I like the old Star Wars. I'd like to keep it in the attic so I can take it out and look at it whenever I want. But that's not good for me, this movie says.

What I'm struggling with is this: Purge the old Star Wars so we can have what kind of new Star Wars? Isn't the next movie the last "new Star Wars" anyway? Oh, they'll keep exploring the Star Wars universe forever, of course, but are these characters we're going to keep following beyond the next movie? Daisy Ridley has said she's done playing Rey after the next movie, but did they plan to keep following Rey anyway? Something like that makes sense to me in a movie like Star Trek Generations, where Kirk had to die to pass the baton on to a new cast who were going to go make another three movies. But as far as I know we're not getting three more movies with Rey, Finn and Poe. So why do I have to purge the old Star Wars at all?

At this point I don't think this post can be anything more than my disconnected thoughts. I'm obviously still processing the movie, though the big difference between this and The Force Awakens is that I don't feel compelled to have a second theatrical viewing be part of my processing. It doesn't feel particularly likely that I am going to like it a whole lot better.

But there are still plenty of arguments I am undecided on, decisions in the movie that are not clearly either strengths or weaknesses. You'd think that a second viewing would help decide those, but to be honest, watching The Last Jedi was not a fun experience for me. I never gave myself over to it like I did with The Force Awakens, and the things that were good about it felt good for me, like medicine. They felt like they were supposed to be good for my soul, but I want a Star Wars movie to be more than medicine. I want it to be an upper in parts, not a downer throughout.

When I started writing this piece I felt an urge to catalogue some of the things I liked and some of the things I didn't like, the way everyone does on the internet all the time, just to be on the record about those things. But I think I'm going to leave off without doing that. I'd like to say how good I thought Mark Hamill, Adam Driver and Ridley were, or how wasted I thought Finn and Poe were in side plots that weren't worthy of them. Or how I feel like characters like C3PO, R2D2 and Chewbacca are being kept around specifically to be given the short shrift as a way of further differentiating these films from their forbears.

But I'm not going to. You've seen the movie and either liked it or not liked it -- more likely loved it or hated it -- and you know where you fall on those topics, whether they play a role in your feelings or are things you overlooked because of everything else you loved about it. I don't bring you to The Audient to repeat everything you can get everywhere else.

So I guess I myself didn't love or hate it. Even the movie I did sort of hate, Rogue One, I could bear to give no lower than 2.5 stars. I love Star Wars, and I hate not loving any particular movie. And sadly, I don't love The Last Jedi.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The surprise accessibility of The Room

I'd heard that Tommy Wiseau kept The Room under lock and key, tightly controlling its distribution, forcing you to either purchase it from his website (only in physical, not digital, form) or go to a Saturday midnight screening. He did this either out of eccentricity or a shrewd plan for his own maximum profitability.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the complete movie available on YouTube.

This may be a "known secret," but you can watch The Room in its entirety for free, as long as you are willing to put up with Spanish subtitles on the screen. And really, why wouldn't you be -- it's not like it would distract from the movie's copious amounts of artistry or anything. (In fact, I found it a useful way to brush up on my Spanish a bit.)

Since YouTube is regularly scrubbed by entities who have the copyright to various material, I thought it was strange that The Room slipped through, as Wiseau would seem to be just as keen to protect what's his as those studios. And it's not like I caught it during some limited window of its availability before it gets removed -- it's been viewed nearly 400,000 times. (And searching just now, I actually found another version, so Wiseau is really lying down on the job.)

I've already seen The Disaster Artist so I had not particularly planned to watch The Room again, at least not right now. But the same was not true of my wife. She was toying with the idea of seeing The Disaster Artist on Thursday, but had lamented only a few days earlier "I guess I'll never see The Room." Being unwilling as she was to go to a midnight screening, which is what I did when I first saw it back in 2013.

That comment prompted me to start looking into securing a copy of The Room as a surprise for her, which is when I discovered that digital isn't one of the purchase options on Wiseau's website. (To think that I might have paid $15 or whatever he saw it fit to charge for this movie, only was stopped by concerns of shipping logistics.) Then I thought to check on YouTube, and lo and behold.

I meant for it to be a surprise for our Friday night viewing, but this is when she mentioned the possible plan to see it on Thursday, so I had to show my cards. She went to see The Last Jedi instead. Funny that The Disaster Artist would have been her preference among those two. You can really tell the difference between a casual Star Wars fan and a serious one.

I enjoyed -- if that is the right word for it -- my second viewing of The Room more than my first, if only because I could actually hear all the awful dialogue rather than having an audience full of delirious fans laughing and chanting over it. Every moment with Wiseau on screen is sheer joy, though many of the other moments really drag. (Juliette Danielle as Lisa has some great random line deliveries as well.) There are some especially slow moments near the start and I was worried I might lose my wife, who was pretty tired after a holiday lunch earlier that day in which alcohol was consumed, and who has been known lately to give up on under-performing movies for lesser reasons. So I was glad when it picked up and she got in a bunch of good laughs.

Really glad I did not pay for it and now own it, though. It's bad, but it's a bad I would not subject myself to regularly. I probably will watch it a few more times in my life -- especially if it stays available on YouTube -- but actually owning it seems to over-represent my own level of affection for it.

And though I did quite like The Disaster Artist, I listened to a fairly convincing podcast takedown of it earlier that same day. When I watched The Room and found that what I had seen in The Disaster Artist did not significantly inform what I was watching now -- it did not deepen my appreciation, I mean -- that may have taken it down a notch as well. Still nestled safely within my top 20 of the year for now, though.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The enduring need for children's entertainment

When I was at Target on Tuesday for a little Christmas shopping, I happened to notice The Emoji Movie for sale on DVD. It came out here in September, so December is a logical time for the DVD release. No big whoop.

However, then I was at the Hoyts Highpoint on Wednesday for a little Daddy’s Home 2 and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and I also saw The Emoji Movie available there. It was still, somehow, clinging to a nominal theatrical release, playing exactly once per day in a pre-noon showing.

Which goes to show just how much Australian parents require a cinematic babysitter for their kids.

Now granted, that’s not a suggestion that Australians rely excessively on screens to entertain their children. If anything, I’d say Australian parents are probably a bit better about that than their American counterparts. It’s really more of a commentary on Australian theater chains and their mission to cater to all demographics at all times.

I’ll note that at the time I saw that “there are no more showings today for this feature – please contact staff to enquire about tomorrow’s showings,” the last showing of The Emoji Movie, period, had already played. This was Wednesday at midnight when Star Wars was about to premiere, and lo and behold, Ferdinand also opened on Thursday. As soon as The Emoji Movie was no longer needed, it dutifully shuffled off into oblivion.

What I find interesting about this is that it represents a wholly different mentality from the U.S. Theatrical windows in the U.S. seem to be based a lot more on cold, hard dollars and cents. If a movie is earning, it stays, and if there’s nothing but violent action movies playing at a particular theater, meaning there’s nothing for the kids to watch, well then that’s just too bad for them. All money is equal, and the U.S. theaters don’t care whether it’s the violent action movies or the family friendly movies that are doing the earning.

Not so, or not quite so, in Australia. I’d imagine that the holy dollar continues to be the largest motivating factor, but a something-for-everyone mentality also plays a role in what stays and what goes. It’s been a weird year for animation, with not a lot of really compelling features and some big gaps between their releases. It may not be that The Emoji Movie was particularly performing for Hoyts, it’s just there was nothing to take its place. In Australia, that matters. In the U.S., not so much.

It also seems a bit or a lot less likely for American theater chains to keep around a movie that will play in only one time slot each day. Perhaps the fees paid by cinemas for the right to show movies are structured differently here, but I get the feeling you can’t keep around a niche movie in the U.S. because the cost is prohibitively high. When you have the right to show a movie, that means you have the right to show it 20 times a day if you want. You'd pay the same price to show it only once. Not so in Australia, or at least potentially not so. (What do I know? I’m not looking this stuff up.)

Something about seeing The Emoji Movie still available warmed my heart; it felt like an endorsement of my own perspective on the movie. I saw it with my younger son at this same theater back before Halloween, in that same pre-noon screening slot, which even then was the only time it was screening (if I remember correctly). I think it was even before 11, actually. I think I liked it more than he did, but we both liked it, making us two of the only people in the world who can claim that. The fact that it played at this theater for like three months feels like a small bit of evidence that we’re not crazy.

Or, maybe just evidence that Australian theater owners are.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

This year's Star Wars appetizer

I’m groggy as hell today and probably shouldn’t be writing a blog post at all, but then again, that’s easier than working. I slept less than four hours, in case you’re wondering. I got home around 3:15 a.m. and then stayed up for another ten minutes beyond that, because whenever you get home, you can’t go to bed immediately -- even if it’s 3:15.

And though I won’t tell you about Star Wars: The Last Jedi – even whether I liked it – I did think I could spend a few minutes on what I watched as an appetizer.

Because I have to take advantage of any nights out of the house I get to watch movies, especially as my year-end list closes a little more than a month from now, I’ve seen it fit to catch a movie before my midnight Star Wars viewing each of the past two years, letting me out in plenty of time to queue up for the midnight screening. But because December is weirdly kind of a dead zone for new releases in Australia – many of the prestige awards movies don’t hit here until January or February, informally kicked off by Boxing Day – I am usually stuck with something a bit less than award-worthy. Making it a true cinematic appetizer, an amuse bouche maybe, rather than a film of equivalent stature to Star Wars.

As it happens, both of those films have been sequels to Christmas comedies.

I could have called this post “Daddy’s Home and daddy’s not home,” if I wanted to make a reference to absentee father Han Solo from The Force Awakens. But I’ve gone with what I’ve gone with, and that is that.

I did indeed see Daddy’s Home 2 – or Daddy’s Home Two, as it is written in the credits – in the slot in which I saw Bad Santa 2 last year. The similarities extend beyond their status as Christmas comedy sequels. Even as I viewed myself to be sort of “stuck” with these movies, when I would rather be ticking off awards contenders, I did like the first movie in both series, after a bit of an initial bad taste. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the original Bad Santa after my first viewing, but came to really like it after my second. That trajectory was significantly compacted for the first Daddy’s Home. That movie has a really bad, really broad first half, before bringing it home with a very satisfying second half.

This is where the similarities end.

I really disliked Bad Santa 2. I mean, intensely. Looking back on my star rating on Letterboxd, I gave it only a single star. It was difficult to find even any rancid delights in that movie. I’m not sure I smiled or chuckled even once.

Oddly, and somewhat shamefully, I am willing to go as high as 3.5 stars on Daddy’s Home 2/Two. That’s a half star higher than I gave the first (a bad first half and a good second half averages out to a three, in case you’re interested). What can I say, I really enjoyed it. Oddly, it does have a similar structure to the first movie in terms of having a second half that’s better than its first – odd because that’s a fairly rare thing to find in movies in general. But in this case the first half was not as bad as the first half of Daddy’s Home, so when it brought it home again, it brought it to that higher star-rating plane.

That puts me wildly at odds with its score of 30 on Metacritic, but what can I say – it’s something I’m getting accustomed to with 2017 films.

But did I like it better or worse than Star Wars: The Last Jedi?

That’s something I will reveal to you, once a few more days have passed and some of you have actually seen it.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Another Star Wars opening, this time with mates

For the third straight year, I’m going to know what happens in the latest Star Wars movie as many as 48 hours earlier than you will.

This time, some mates are joining me.

The “crazy scheme” – well, crazy for a 44-year-old with kids – of going to the first midnight showings of Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been cosigned by two friends who used to work with me. Then again, one of them isn’t working at all right now, and the other isn’t starting work the next day until 1 p.m. So I still “out-crazy” them.

If it’s possible, I am even more ignorant about this movie than I was with either of the previous two since Disney bought Star Wars. In those instances, I never saw a full trailer, but I did see snippets of footage here and there, due to the difficulty of fully avoiding that type of thing. This year, I somehow never found myself in front of any footage, never needed to avert my eyes. Even though I’ve been going to the theater at least once per week, and certainly haven’t been consciously avoiding the types of movies that might expose me to these trailers, I have not had to cover my eyes or plug my ears even once.

I wonder if it’s been easier to avoid temptation because this is the first of the recent Star Wars movies not to contain anything “new.” The Force Awakens had new characters, plus the first glimpses of what the old characters looked like at this age, in their familiar duds. Rogue One had an (almost) entirely new cast of characters. The Last Jedi would figure to involve mostly characters we met last time, and even though we didn’t get to see Luke in action, we did see him, so he’s not a huge novelty either.

On the other hand, I can’t believe the temptation hasn’t won me over simply because of how good I expect this to be.

You got the sense that Disney was confident in J.J. Abrams, and rightly so – he delivered a very satisfying Star Wars movie, one that was probably safe in some respects but actually quite risky in others. However, at that time, Abrams was not tasked with directing any other movies in the series. (He has since replaced Colin Trevorrow on Episode IX.)

With Rian Johnson, we have the recent announcement that he is going to be directing three more Star Wars movies. No creative personality other than George Lucas has been given this much control over the vision and trajectory of Star Wars. In fact, if all goes as planned, by the late 2020s Johnson will have directed as many Star Wars movies as Lucas did.

I hardly think that kind of commitment would be warranted if this movie weren’t fucking awesome.

Unfortunately, it’s also fucking long, the longest in the series to date. When you factor in trailers and commercials, the 152 minutes of The Last Jedi will be dumping me out on the street, blurry but hopefully giddy, at 2:53 a.m. And I need to be at work at 8:30.

You know, maybe I’ll skip that midnight viewing of Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Either that or planned to be unemployed.