Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Da fuq?

Well that was weird.

Remember that time everyone though Jack Palance read the wrong name, leading Marisa Tomei to win an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny?

Well if that did happen, no one was willing to let the mistake be repeated in 2016.

I've only just finished watching and so I'm sure there's a lot of "getting to the bottom of this" that will occur in the next 24 to 48 hours, but somehow, the wrong best picture winner was announced at the Oscars.

It doesn't sound like Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were at fault, but boy, they sure are likely to take the blame.

Here's hoping that the thrill of winning outweighs the unintentional dilution of the spotlight Moonlight's creative team should have had all to themselves. And congratulations to them. As you know, I was rooting for them.

My biggest "da fuq?" moment of the evening, though, may have come when my #1 of 2016, Toni Erdmann, did not win best foreign language film. It turns out it's "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" for Erdmann, which was predicted to win the top prize at Cannes last year but came away the (presumptive) runner-up to I, Daniel Blake. Then at the Oscars, somehow the least great film Asghar Farhadi has ever made swooped in and won best foreign language film, leaving Toni as the (presumptive) runner up once again.

But which film is getting an American remake starring Jack Nicholson, I ask you?

Also: Would the results have been different without Trump's Muslim ban?

It was a weird ceremony for any number of reasons -- mostly in a bad way. But here were some other good "da fuq?" moments, like:

- The best picture animated feature was not given out by Dory and Marlon

- Sascha Baron Cohen did not come out dressed up as one of the aliens from Arrival

- No famous diva came on and performed an unusual ode to some beloved film from 50 years ago

- Jimmy Kimmel didn't make a joke that the show was at its halfway point just before best picture was announced (oh wait, that did happen)

And some not so good "da fuq?" moments:

- Almost any rehearsed comedic bit between two presenters, most notably that bit with Kate McKinnon and Jason Bateman

- The awarding of two Oscars to Hacksaw Ridge

- The awarding of any Oscars to Suicide Squad, which had one more Golden Raspberry nomination than it had Oscar nominations

- That time Justin Hurwitz didn't thank anybody because he spent all his time talking about how thanking people would bore everybody ... but then did thank them when he won the very next Oscar, something he presumably knew would happen

- The (predictable but still disappointing) shunning of Hell or High Water

As for Kimmel? Mostly flat, though I did get a chuckle or two. His two attempts to create an "Ellen selfie moment" -- the parachuting snacks and the bus of unsuspecting tourists -- were actually reasonably successful, I thought.

And yeah, I liked all the Matt Damon stuff, particularly the We Bought a Zoo bit and the orchestra playing him off ... when he was a presenter.

There's probably more I could say and you certainly deserve a more in-depth Oscar recap, but it's 12:35 a.m. and if I don't hit publish on this right away it will really be yesterday's news by my next chance to do so.

But in closing ... yay Moonlight. The Oscars have "seen the light" for the second year in a row, after Spotlight last year.

Now ... which 2017 film is going to hurriedly change its title to Starlight or Backlight or Flashlight?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Oscars alignment

There are years when my own year-end list has been heavily aligned with the Oscars, as when my #1 Birdman won best picture in 2014, when my #1 A Separation won best foreign language film in 2011, and when my #1 Inside Out won best animated feature last year.

Rarely do all three types of alignment occur in the same year.

That's what's happening this year, when my top five movies of the year are all nominated for three of the four awards that honor an entire feature length film (and not one of its specific collaborators). The only category I missed is one on which I pretty much always miss: best documentary feature. (I've only seen two of the nominees, and didn't have either of them ranked higher than 58th.) Seven of my top ten films are actually nominated in one of the three remaining such categories, with only Swiss Army Man (#6), Other People (#7) and The Purge: Election Year (#9) missing out. (Though how The Purge didn't get nominated for best costume design is beyond me. I jest.)

The category I've got the most skin in this year has to be best foreign language feature, as my top two movies of 2016 -- Toni Erdmann and Tanna (pictured) -- are both nominated in that category. Tanna was a true surprise -- it was a movie no one I talked films with had even heard of when I first saw it, and only one or two have subsequently seen. (And one of those is a guy who makes a point of watching all the nominated films every year. Yeah, he's crazy.) It stands no chance of winning, of course, but that's because my #1 movie is perhaps the evening's biggest shoe-in not named Casey Affleck.

And then my #3 film, Zootopia, is a best animated feature nominee, and the current frontrunner according to fivethirtyeight.com. (And yes, I somehow decided to return to that website despite considering it painfully emblematic of our collective deception about the 2016 presidential election, and irrationally blaming Nate Silver for Donald Trump's victory.)

As discussed yesterday, my favorite best picture nominee is my #4, Hell or High Water, which does not figure to win. But there's a good chance that my #5 film, La La Land, will win best picture, as we all seem to be in for a couple more sessions of soul-searching and hand-wringing about what we value when it comes to the movies we choose to represent the best and brightest of the medium. (Would I rank La La Land lower than #5 if I were doing it today? Probably.)

So there's a very real chance that the best foreign language film, the best animated film and best picture will all come from my top five movies of the year.

Is this something to be excited about, or is it further concerning evidence of my own conventionality?

It's hard to say. Toni Erdmann and Zootopia both seem to be fairly unconventional choices to be great films, Erdmann for any number of reasons and Zootopia because social commentary in children's movies runs the risk of being terminally didactic when it's as ambitious as what we see in Zootopia. So I guess I don't need to eulogize my own iconoclastic streak just yet.

Still, it seems fairly certain that my #1 film will be recognized at the Oscars for the third straight year. Means in 2017 I really need to go back to more eccentric choices for #1s like I had in 2012 and 2013, when neither Ruby Sparks nor Beyond the Hills even made the lists of prominent Oscar snubs.

But I still don't figure I'll be watching the Oscars any more attentively than I usually do, in part because my enthusiasm for the actual ceremony has been on the decline for probably a decade now (the nominations remain the most interesting part for me), and in part because I won't have someone to watch it with for the first time in as long as I can remember. I'll still make a series of fairly uninformed choices on a ballot, just out of habit, but not having someone sitting next to me, checking off correct choices and putting a red X through incorrect ones, will be a bit sad.

I don't know how my wife can't watch if only to see the barbs thrown at Trump. The Oscars may pale in comparison to real-world events, perhaps more than ever this year, but even if we don't need an evening of Hollywood glitz and glamour, we could always use more barbs thrown at Trump.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

My favorite best picture nominee

I don't have any formalized Oscar preview post this year, but I did think the approach of the Oscars made a good opportunity to both rewatch and write about my favorite of the best picture nominees. I watched it for the second time, but this is actually my first chance to write about it at any length on this blog, and it's long overdue. (I did review it and discuss it during my year-end rankings post, but this is the first time it's gotten its own post.)

No, it wasn't La La Land or Moonlight, though I did write a post last week in which I touched on which of those presumptive favorites I'm rooting for. My favorite of this year's crop was, in fact, David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, the most pleasant surprise among the nine nominees. (The most unpleasant surprise? Hacksaw Ridge.)

I might have taken the time to rhapsodize about this movie in October, but I felt like I'd said exactly what I wanted to say in this review, which I will again point you to now. The second viewing gives you the chance to see it with fresh eyes, and notice things you didn't the first time, which of course I did. It was also nice to see it through the eyes of my wife, who was seeing it for the first time and whose desire to see it was primarily responsible for getting it on the schedule. (Though it was me who pressed the issue. Not much pressing was needed, but left to her own devices she probably would not have scheduled it as an Oscar appetizer of sorts, especially since she says she is not going to watch the ceremony this year -- the first time in our history she won't see any of the show if she sticks to that.)

So without any further ado, my new thoughts about Hell or High Water. Oh, and MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, STARTING IMMEDIATELY.

Consecutive portents

Watching this movie a second time with a knowledge of who lives and who dies put me in mind to notice certain tricks Mackenzie uses to telegraph what's going to happen. Of course, they weren't particularly obvious -- the best filmmaking is subtle -- but once you know, you can appreciate them all the more.

Just before the movie is set to begin its climax, which will leave two of our four main characters dead, we get some hint as to who those might be.

One of the warmest scenes in the film comes as the two bank-robbing brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), are engaging in a little of old-fashioned roughhousing by sunset at their ranch, set against one of the film's many perfectly mood-setting song choices. It's an elegiac moment that certainly suggests what's about to happen to one of them, but we get an idea which one when Tanner walks out of the frame, leaving Toby there looking after him.

Saying that this telegraphs his death might be a stretch if Mackenzie didn't do the same thing in the very next shot. This time it's our other team of buddies, rangers Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), separating for the night as they have been, as Alberto is so eager to do, and Marcus so loath. Alberto does the same thing, walks away from Marcus in the same direction Tanner walked away from Toby. Only difference is that the camera follows him for a moment as he heads up toward his room.

In a film all about people being left behind, economically (the financial crisis) and culturally (Native Americans losing their land and prominence), this is the most literal instance of two men being left behind by their other halves -- in one case a "better half," and in one case maybe not so much.

Or maybe? Read on ...

What did Toby do?

One of the most fascinating unknowns in this film is the ways in which Toby is a bad person. It's clear he is. He doesn't deny it. His family doesn't deny it. Even his brother, who is far worse than he is by most superficial measures, doesn't deny it.

But in the penultimate scene of this film, we find out that Toby is not a suspect in the bank robberies carried off by his brother primarily because of his squeaky clean record. He even looked after his dying mother for three months.

So Toby is not a criminal, but he is a shitty father, husband, and all around citizen. "Don't be like us," he tells his estranged son.

So what did he do?

Something he's done has pissed off his ex-wife and his kids awful good. Alcoholism is certainly suggested, as his son rejects his offer of a beer just so he doesn't have to "be like" his dad. But what else was there? Was there violence? He seems so averse to it.

Or does he?

The scene where he savagely beats the hot shot at the gas station who pulls a gun on his brother is certainly telling. This man has beaten a man savagely before. One just hopes that man was a man, and not his wife. One just hopes that man was an adult man, and not his son.

So Toby certainly has something to atone for. We just don't know what.

Let's just hope it was only cheating with a local floozy he picked up at the bar.

The music

I noted something I had forgotten in the film's opening credits, which is that Nick Cave and Warren Ellis wrote the score. I saw Nick Cave (and Warren Ellis?) in concert only a month ago, though not because he's a personal favorite. I didn't know him at all before my wife introduced me to her favorite musician, and in those dozen years I've developed a healthy appreciation for his work.

The score is really great, but more than that I noticed the soundtrack choices, which are largely comprised of some offshoot of country music. Well, this is the first time I'm considering buying a country soundtrack. Country is not far removed from rock, folk or a couple other genres I like better, and the most interesting songs are the ones that dabble in a couple genres at once. That may ultimately lead me to purchase this soundtrack, after all. (Unless I can find it at the library, which would be even better.)

Why do Toby and Tanner stare?

The first time I saw Hell or High Water, I think I figured the various scenes of Toby and Tanner staring out across the Texas plains from their ranch were just a bit of iconic posturing by Mackenzie and his cinematography, Giles Nuttgens. These scraggly-looking brothers looked particularly good swept by light wind and staring out into infinity, I thought.

On this viewing, I recognized these shots' purpose.

They're watching, waiting, to see if anyone is after them. It's yet another example of how every detail has been planned out in carrying out their week-long spree. They don't only bury their stolen cars in the back yard, but they watch doggedly from the uniquely good vantage point they have on whether anyone is coming to arrest them. At this ranch they can see for miles on all sides, so any approaching vehicle gives them a chance to trigger the next part of the plan -- whatever that may be.

Because Toby has planned things so well, we never get to find out what that might have been.

What happens after the end?

Do Marcus and Toby have that final showdown? The first time I didn't think so, but this time I'm not so sure. Toby says he "just wants it to all be done with," the closest he comes to admitting to Marcus that he was his brother's partner on the bank robberies. But it also suggests that he can't live with the guilt of the price that has been paid -- four lives -- for the acquisition of his family's future security. The movie has a happy ending, of sorts, but you can't escape the toll of the loss of life. Toby mourns for his brother, sure, but you get the idea he bears even more regret for the three people who shouldn't have died, when Tanner probably should have.

The two set an indefinite future date to meet at Toby's house in town. They both seem to agree to it. They both will come armed. And maybe, they both will leave this earth, just as their partners did, because in the old west, justice eventually comes for all.

Thursday, February 23, 2017


I found out the hard way that my critics card isn't accepted for IMAX.

Well, almost the hard way.

I showed up more or less on time for the 9:30 IMAX screening of The Great Wall at Hoyts Highpoint on Monday -- actually early, but I fiddled around on other things before buying my tickets because I didn't expect any issue with doing that. And when I say "buying" I mean that sort of literally in this case. Even with my critics card, I knew that Hoyts charges surcharges for things like screen size and 3D. (I've ranted before about how the so-called X-treme Screen costs us an extra four bucks, even though it is only marginally bigger than its "regular" sized brothers.)

But when I got to the front of the short queue, I learned that $28.50 was what they expected me to pay for some shitty Matt Damon whitewashing movie set in China.

I pushed back, but it turns out that they were right: IMAX is not covered. IMAX, in most if not all cases, is an independent body that more or less rents space in theaters, meaning the agreement Hoyts has with the Australian Film Critics Association is something IMAX can choose to honor or not. It chooses not. And I can kind of understand that logic. You don't have to see a movie in IMAX in order to properly review it, though if positive reviews that lead to more ticket sales were the goal, you'd think they'd want us to see it that way.

I got out of line long enough to realize I couldn't actually disprove what they were saying with any documentation I had on hand. Which then left me behind about six other people. I was seriously facing the prospect of seeing no movie whatsoever, since 9:30 was the last starting time for anything, and I wasn't about to fork over $28.50.

Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve. The Great Wall was actually playing at 9:15 on one of those "regular-sized" screens, so I ended up getting to see it without even the $10 in surcharges I thought I'd have to pay. I couldn't have waited a moment longer, though, as I got to my seat perhaps 30 seconds after the movie had already started. (And if you come in to a movie like The Great Wall late, you'll have no idea what's going on. I kid. Plot is not its strong suit.)

But there were strong suits to The Great Wall, many of which come down to that first battle scene. To anyone who has seen a trailer for this movie (which is probably everybody) it won't be a spoiler to say that the humans in this movie have very non-human adversaries -- four-legged green monster-beasts called Tao Tei. The swarming of these beasts in unimaginable quantities as they attack the titular wall was truly impressive, to say nothing of the defenses mounted by the Chinese awaiting them, which might put us in mind of the display of synchronization and force demonstrated by the Chinese in their Olympic opening ceremonies. Accompanying this whole scene is the syncopated drumming of rows of drummers, who in function and even a bit in form reminded me of the guitarist that plays them into battle in Mad Max: Fury Road. The sequence is a spectacle of color, action, violence and generally impressive digital effects, and it reminded me of my favorite sequences of Starship Troopers -- a very high compliment for me.

The rest? It was fine.

Still, I got enough out of those visuals that I can't imagine myself having liked it significantly more by seeing it in IMAX 3D.

I mean, IMAX can't make a script more interesting, can it?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Asian Audient: Kurosawa weekend

This is the second in my 2017 series Asian Audient, in which I watch movies created by Asians and set in Asia. I believe they are also speaking "Asian." (That's a Cable Guy reference.)  

Only one of the two Kurosawa movies I watched this weekend is the official entrant in this series, that being the poster you see to the right here, High and Low. But I'm calling the post "Kurosawa weekend" because I did indeed watch two movies by Akira Kurosawa in the space of about 28 hours, leaving only 22 hours left over to do other things.

The one I revisited, on Saturday night, was the one where it all began: Seven Samurai. I saw Seven Samurai twice before the age of 19 ... and then not again since then. The reason is fairly obvious. The movie runs for a whopping three hours and 27 minutes, and almost never can I find a block of time like that. Or if I do find that block of time, Seven Samurai is not necessarily how I want to fill it, great as it may be.

But when you consistently rank a film among your top 50 of all time (according to Flickchart), you do need to revisit it at least once every 25 years. Especially if it's the movie that has driven you to watch as many of the other films by its director as possible, slowly but surely, to the point that I am now almost in double digits.

The opportunity for a rewatch of Kurosawa's masterpiece arose because of the two following factors: 1) My wife was going away to stay at a hotel Saturday night for her birthday, and 2) It's streaming on Stan. So I decided to screw up my courage and put one of the longest movies I've ever seen on my Saturday night schedule.

But first, the "appetizer" on Friday night, when my wife was also out.

High and Low had been on my list of "next Kurosawa films" for a while, alongside titles like The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood and Stray Dog (any of which we may see later in this series). But I didn't know much about it. It's the story of a wealthy man vying to take a controlling stake in a shoe manufacturing company, who is approached by other controlling interests who want to overthrow the current president, who holds the highest share. Right as he's about to execute his power play his son is kidnapped for a 30 million yen ransom. Only it's not actually his son -- it's his son's playmate, the son of the man's limo driver, who was mistaken for the rich man's son. The need to pay the ransom is then shifted from a matter of certainty, based on blood relation, to a moral obligation, based on doing the only decent thing. Whether the man will do that decent thing or continue to try his hostile takeover -- for which he is mortgaged to within an inch of his life already -- consumes the first half of the narrative. The second is a police procedural in search of the kidnapper.

When I watched The Bad Sleep Well a few years ago, and had a bit of a "ho hum" reaction to it, I concluded that the Kurosawa that works best for me is that set in feudal Japan. I like my Kurosawa with swords and samurai, and fortunately, there's a lot of that in his filmography for me to choose from, including other classics like Rashoman and Yojimbo. I hadn't gotten the chance to test this theory again until now.

Fortunately, High and Low worked a lot better for me than The Bad Sleep Well, without reaching the heights of his feudal Japan work. It is very strangely two different movies married together, though. For its first half it really is primarily interested in a rich man who holds his own interests in high regard being faced with the impossible choice of his personal fortune or the life of his employee's son. It does not address those issues with a huge amount of delicacy, as it's mostly right there in the dialogue and not much is left up to nuance. But it's an interesting dilemma that I saw repeated in a strange place, cinematically: the Luke Wilson vehicle Middle Men, about the beginning years of online porn (which I actually liked quite a bit). Were it his own son kidnapped, there's no dilemma. But someone else's ... it introduces all kinds of complications that get expertly teased out. Not only the guilt of the man considering not paying the ransom, but the guilt of the father of the boy, forced to ask his employer to go into financial ruin in order to save the life of his son. This plot culminates in a brilliantly staged sequence in the middle of the movie that I won't spoil here.

The second half, as I said, is almost purely police procedural, and I think this might be the more interesting half -- though I'm still not sure. Kurosawa really gets into the details of how police crack a case, and the fact that they're all working in the high heat of summer, fanning themselves however they can manage, just makes it more visceral and compelling. There are some sequences in this second half that go on a bit longer than they need to, and I missed the man who was the center of the first half (Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) being absent from the second half (I won't tell you why he was absent, though -- don't assume he died or anything). But I love Kurosawa's close reading of a police force using all means at their disposal to find a suspect.

The film's duality is certainly represented in the dialectic established by its title, with highs and lows being extremes. Numerous instances of high and low proliferate the plot, from the employer and employee, to the physical location of the man's house high above the "low" below that has targeted him. I ended up feeling quite strongly about the film without being able to enshrine it as a Kurosawa classic. At least not after only one viewing, anyway.

Speaking of second viewings, Seven Samurai didn't disappoint, though I can't say that I loved it quite to the extent as my first two viewings. My first two viewings would have been very different, but both were equally satisfying in their own ways. The first time was in my high school class Art of the Film, in which we split the film's running time over what I would guess was more than a week of classes. You could argue that that's not a great way to watch a film, but it sure made me love Seven Samurai. The second time was in my freshman year in college, when I watched it all in one sitting on a weekend night in a classroom that was functioning as a movie theater for this event. I didn't get tired then like I do now, so I don't recall even struggling with it. This viewing more resembled my second viewing in that I watched it over the course of only about 4.5 hours, just an hour longer than its running time. I started at 8 and finished around 12:30. But the ability to pause, and the couple short naps I took, did wear me down and ultimately contributed to me loving the movie a little less, I think. I chose to have a sushi dinner with it, but I should not have chosen that Sapporo, as it left me struggling.

One takeaway from my second viewing was something I had forgotten: that the village that "hires" the samurai (i.e. agrees to give them meals for their services) is not actually as destitute as they make themselves out to be. Even though it would seem like they have pushed their resources to their limits in order to buy a defense of their village from bandits, and come across as a true charity case worthy of a noble samurai's generosity, as the story goes on it's revealed that they have access to sake and other luxuries that belie the circumstances they are presenting to the outer world. The movie, then, is really about the way that the code of honor samurais live their lives by is really disappearing from the landscape, and only lives on as an antiquated affectation in them. The ending line about the village winning and the samurai losing -- as they always do -- brings that idea home. They are a dying breed, exemplified also by the gun that factors into the finale and takes the lives of two of them. One of those is the "fool," Kikuchiyo (again Mifune), who despite his ravings and drunkenness was also the only one to realize that the villagers had resources they weren't letting on about, and essentially have been playing the samurai for fools.

One final thought about Seven Samurai: Only on this viewing did I finally acknowledge that the title does not have a "The" in it. I've been referring to it as The Seven Samurai most of my life, but it was finally time to admit the lack of a definite article and update all my various lists accordingly.

Okay, on to March. I've got a few ideas of where I might go, geographically, or I might also stay put in Japan and check in with Kurosawa's countryman Yasujiro Ozu. But since I haven't actually sourced my next film yet, I will just leave you in suspense for now.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Audient Anime: My Neighbor Totoro

"Whoa! Introducing a new series on us just like that, Vance, without any lead-up or lengthy preamble?"

Yes I am. Because it's more of an informal bi-monthly series, like when I rewatched all six Star Wars movies leading up to the release of The Force Awakens back in 2015. When you are doing bi-monthly series you gotta get started in February, so I'm launching one now in the hopes that we make it all the way through to December.

I'm couching my language in uncertainty because this series involves my son, and his viewing habits are not always predictable. But the attempt to predict them is what's causing me to launch Audient Anime, which makes for a very logical series to intermingle with my monthly series, Asian Audient.

My son, now six-and-a-half, is a huge Pokemon fan. There are Pokemon movies that I'm sure he'd love to watch with me, some of which we saw at a Hoyts kiosk when I was getting a different movie a few months ago. I promised him then that we would rent one "next time," but fortunately, he hasn't held me to that promise yet.

See, I don't want to watch Pokemon movies with him. But there are plenty of movies that will remind him of Pokemon that I'd love to watch with him.

I've been pretty derelict in my Studio Ghibli viewing. Almost impossibly, I have still only seen one film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, that being Spirited Away. I've seen probably 20 other anime films, but the medium's undisputed shining star has mostly eluded me. If you want to read the various obstacles anime presents for me, or has presented for me at different points in my life, you can follow the tag below this post to my other posts on anime. But let's just say the fact that I have not made a priority out of anime would be an understatement.

That had to change, and there's no better time than now to do it.

Although Miyazaki's films in particular, and anime in general, mostly have little crossover with the world of Pokemon, I figured the similar animation style would put my son in the mind of Pokemon and lower his barrier to entry. I sought advice on which film to start with, initially imagining Kiki's Delivery Service (for no good reason), but the members of my Facebook Flickchart group steered me toward My Neighbor Totoro. One said "Totoro looks kind of like a Snorlax," referencing a Pokemon even I was familiar with.

It wasn't easy to get my hands on -- I couldn't rent it from iTunes and it's not on any streaming services I subscribe to -- but after a couple weeks my library reserve did come through. I scooped it up yesterday.

We started out on a potentially worrisome note. I'd showed my son the cover and it piqued his interests, but shortly before we began watching he asked "Is it going to have battles in it?" I knew it wouldn't. In fact, I'd considered starting with something like Princess Mononoke because I knew it probably would have battles, but the Flickcharters advised against it -- too violent and nightmarish for a six-year-old. (So maybe we'll save that one for after he turns seven in August.) "I don't know," I lied. "I guess we'll find out."

So we put the younger one down for his nap and started watching.

Almost immediately I was put at ease. It was clear this was a world in which he felt comfortable already. He's watched hours of Pokemon and has recently discovered the similar Digimon. Anime is his bag, baby.

But I still worried about whether it would hold his attention, a sweet fantasy story with nothing in the way of physical conflict.

I needn't have worried about that either. Even just the two central little girls discovering their new house in the country was enough to draw him in, but when the soot sprites recede from the door to the bathhouse opening, he was properly fascinated. Hooked.

My only concern from then on came in the form of him asking how soon we were going to meet Totoro. The film doesn't actually introduce us to its title character until the 30-minute mark. But the wait was worth it. He loved Totoro, and we both especially loved the "cat bus" (does it have a name?) who shows up later. Totoro got me started, but the cat bus was the perfect emblem of the type of wonderful fantasy world in which we were now ensconced -- a fantasy world that it now seems crazy has largely eluded me to this point.

At one point he turned to me and said, "This might be the best movie I've ever seen."


And the score is much more satisfying than if I had just introduced him to a bit of anime involving "battles." It was heartening to see that my son has not lost his sense of wonder, and that an innocent world beautifully rendered can captivate him just like Pokemon using their moves on each other. I was similarly captivated, so it was a relief that my viewing companion wasn't squirming on the couch next to me.

One concern that I've had -- that I still have going forward with this series -- is that by watching these movies for the first time dubbed in English, rather than in Japanese with English subtitles, I wouldn't be giving myself my best first impression of them. It's something I wrote about here. But this English voice cast was on point. None of that sense of the words being disembodied from the actions or characters. In fact, the performances of the two little girls were particularly excellent. I was in love with the little girl Mei. So adorable, and so adorably voiced. If I understand correctly, Totoro may be one of the only movies where the English voice cast is this good, so I may have a bumpy road ahead of me. But then again, I suspect this whole series will feel a tad bumpy trying to meet the impossibly high standard set by Totoro. It's a tough act to follow.

Despite the fact that I can't possibly love the next movie -- maybe Kiki's, maybe something else -- as much as I loved this one, I am indeed licking my chops about our April viewing choice, and I suspect my son is too, though I haven't actually told him that this is a formal "viewing series."

Instead, I'll just choose a random April Saturday afternoon and show him a BluRay cover of our next movie, and I hope it will remind him of the experience we shared when we both discovered My Neighbor Totoro.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Moonlight first-acters vs. Moonlight third-acters

Finally getting a chance to feature possibly my favorite movie poster of 2016 on my blog.

There's no consensus frontrunner for best picture at the Oscars this year. Some favor timeliness in terms of our country's current social ills (Moonlight), while others predict Hollywood's ever-reliable tendency to congratulate itself (La La Land). (Not to mention a number of Oscar nominations tied for the most ever with three other films, all of whom ended up winning best picture.)

But the most universally liked film of 2016 seems clear. It's Moonlight. While some people hate La La Land -- like, really can't stand it -- it's only varying degrees of like for Moonlight.

And that's what I want to talk about today: the levels of like people have for Moonlight, and what factors may contribute to them.

If you want to separate Moonlight's fans into two categories, it's easy enough to do. They seem split between those who like the first chapter the best, and those who like the third chapter the best.

Interestingly, the second seems to be the consensus second-best episode. No matter your thoughts on the first and the third, you seem to think the second is the next most effective. The second has that scene on the beach. Everybody likes that scene. Well, maybe not homophobes, but I don't consider their opinions on this movie -- or anything, really -- to have serious merit.

The fact that everyone likes the middle chapter tends to mean the two categories of Moonlight fans are kind of diametrically opposed to one another. If you like the middle act the second-best, it means you like the other side's favorite chapter the least.

Remember, though, we're talking about degrees of like here. There are no bad chapters. Only less good ones.

Those who like the first chapter groove on things like the performance of Mahershala Ali, the introduction to this world, the most harrowing moments involving Chiron's mother, the swimming scene, and the poignant denouement.

Those who like the third chapter like ... boring conversations between two men, I guess?

I'm kidding, but I'm also tipping my hand. I'm a first-acter, loud and proud. And I'll give a real answer why people like the third act: the performance of Trevante Rhodes, and a quiet, melancholy, yet perfect resolution to this character and his unresolved issues.

And here's another thing I think I've determined.

If you like the first act the best, you have a healthy respect for the movie. Or you even love it, but you don't LOVE IT love it. Like me. It was my #10 movie of the year, but was almost as low as #13.

If you like the third act the best, on the other hand, Moonlight is like your flipping favorite movie of all time.

It seems like any time I encounter someone and we have a disparity between our affections for Moonlight, they always love the way the movie concludes. Like, it blew their mind.

And so I feel a bit defensive about my own position. I feel like if I didn't love the way the movie ended, I don't -- can't -- "really" love it. I feel like I am "appreciating Moonlight wrong."

And maybe they're right -- "they" being a hypothetical set of Moonlight snobs who probably do not actually exist. But if they're right, they're right not because I'm interpreting the movie in an invalid way. Rather, it's because any time a movie ends better than the rest of it, you are likely to love that movie all the more. It's rare that a bad movie redeems itself in its final third, but a good movie can become a great one. Sticking the landing is a huge factor in how much we like a movie. It's the last impression we are left with.

The reverse is of course also true. My last impression of Moonight was too much on the shruggy side for my liking. So yeah, of course I'm going to like it less than those who felt it ended with a sense of overwhelming catharsis.

Why was I underwhelmed, just a little bit? I get into it here, if you want to listen to the latest episode of The ReelGood Podcast. But as a summary, I felt two unshakable cNn feelings: 1) that Chiron, having taken a certain control of his life at the end of act two, would not have failed to further explore his sexuality for the next decade; 2) that Kevin, having played a comparatively small role in his life, would not somehow end up as key to a moment of personal revelation Chiron needed to have. I don't want to downplay the importance of Chiron's first sexual experience. But it was essentially one act of passion and one act of betrayal, surrounded by a bit of convivial friendship. Not the makings of a lifelong cross to bear. (UPDATE: Only eight hours after posting this, while listening to the film discussed on a podcast, did I realize Kevin was actually present in the first episode. I thought he was a new character in the second episode. Duh.)

But I'm not here to debate plot details. I'm more interested in determining the ineffable aspects of the film that seem to have drawn some of us in in radically different ways. And in some ways I guess that does come down to plot.

Interestingly, though, I'd say that the middle chapter is the most plot heavy. That's where the two biggest "scenes" occur, or possibly three biggest -- the beach scene, the scene where Kevin is goaded into repeatedly punching Chiron, and the scene where Chiron breaks the chair over the back of the bully. It's more plot per pound than any other part of the movie, while the others tend to be a bit more like a Terence Malick movie, or what I've seen of David Gordon Green's George Washington.

Still, the first episode and the last episode are fairly dissimilar, and it does come down to a left brain-right brain type of thing. The first episode appeals to me in a concrete, left brain-dominated way. Oh yeah, I appreciate James Laxton's camera encircling the characters as much as the next guy, but the first chapter does appeal to the part of me that likes things explicit. Here is our introduction to this world, to these characters. Here is the detail about this world. Here are the events that start to shape our young hero. Here is a riveting fight between a drug dealer and our hero's mother. Here is a perfect scene in which two imperfect people reveal the things they are ashamed about.

There's plot here too, but more than anything, I think there are conventional narrative payoffs. That's something I need, most of the time. I've acknowledged that and try not to be ashamed of that myself.

The third act appeals more to people who considered themselves more right brain, the part that doesn't call for the explicit and that indulges more in creativity. Separating myself from this group pains me because I feel like I am very in tune with my own creativity, but I know I'm not as in tune with abstraction. Abstraction characterizes that final scene, comprised mostly of conversation between Chiron and Kevin, with what isn't said being as important as what is. It doesn't give us big moments or predictable narrative beats. It ends with a whimper not a bang, but for the people who "get it," it's the most beautiful whimper they've ever seen. They like it because it's a whimper.

When asked how I would end the movie, though, I can think of no better answer. It's not that I don't like that last chapter or consider it a useful scene, a scene that's important to both characters and is all the more truthful for its life-sized scale. I would not want the movie to become a melodrama all the sudden, or end with a big gesture, either of love or of violence. And so I like that ending fine, it just does not have the emotional impact on me that I feel it should.

But that's okay. I still love you, Moonlight. You were my 10th favorite movie of the year, out of 151.

And since many of you probably haven't clicked on that link to listen to that podcast, I'll tell you that I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in two years ago, when Birdman and Boyhood were vying for top honors. I liked Birdman slightly better than Boyhood, my #1 vs. my #8, though a second viewing of each has left me close to reversing my preference. But I still rooted for Boyhood to win best picture, since it said more about what I wanted the movies to be.

The two movies vying for best picture this year are extremely similar to those two in terms of subject matter: one is a movie that celebrates the craft of acting and making movies/entertainment, while the other charts the coming of age of a young man. And again, although La La Land finished slightly higher on my year-end list -- #5 vs. #10 -- I'm rooting even harder for Moonlight to take the evening's top prize. It says more about what I want the movies to be.

Another similarity: I suspect an eventual second viewing of both -- which will be coming, I assure you -- will flip these preferences as well.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017


I started to watch Her on Friday night for only the second time. My first time was in the theater, of course, on the last day of my ranking year in 2013 (so it was January of 2014). Three years later, I've never given it the chance to prove that I was wrong when I gave it a reluctant four stars (out of five) and ranked it "only" 21st for the year. I suspect I might have ranked it lower if I'd had more time to think about it and if I weren't so shocked that what I pegged as a contender for my #1 movie kind of disappointed me.

The second chance didn't come Friday night either, even though I was fresh off the Black Mirror episode "San Junipero," which put me in the mood for another technology-enabled love story set in the future. When my wife saw me starting it at the time when she would normally peel off to go to bed, she showed unmistakable signs of interest -- you know, the kind that says "I'm not going to stop you from watching this right now but I am kind of interested in watching this too." Her own first experience was inevitably underwhelming as she saw it in the company of our infant son at one of those "Mums and Bubs" sessions (they call them "Babes in Arms" in the U.S.). When I put the question to her directly, she did indeed say she'd watch it with me soon. As such, it remains a possible option for our Valentine's Day viewing tonight.

Which is how I came across this image above, perusing the choices on Netflix for Valentine's Day.

And what a strange image this is indeed.

If there's going to be a single person pictured in an advertisement for Her, you'd figure it would be Joaquin Phoenix, right? After all, the most common advertising image from the movie is this one:

Same color scheme. Same font for the title.

Not the same actor.

That's not only not Joaquin Phoenix, it's also not Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt or Olivia Wilde.

It's not even the disembodied voice of Scarlett Johansson.

It's not even the disembodied voice of Kristen Wiig as "Sexy Kitten Voice" or Bill Hader as "Chat Room Friend #2."

No, it's an actor named Matt Letscher, who plays "Charles." And as I watch this movie again, you better bet I'm going to pay intention to just what exactly he does in this movie that warrants making him the face of it on Netflix.

Matt Letscher did look a little familiar to me, but not from Her. No, it turns out he played ambassador Chris Stevens in Michael Bay's 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. And though he was certainly good enough in it -- good enough to make me really consider his character's passing to be tragic -- I wouldn't consider him one of the first half-dozen faces to promote that movie either, even though he plays a far more central role there.

I have to think this is some weird failure of Netflix's Australian wing. I mean, you wouldn't get something like this in the U.S., would you? I think not.

Career-wise, Letscher is no slouch. IMDB shows him as incredibly busy. But he's appearing mostly in TV shows that, while acclaimed, are shows I happen not to be watching. Shows like The Flash, Boardwalk Empire, Scandal, Castle and The Carrie Diaries. Well, maybe not all acclaimed.

I would almost understand it if Letscher were an Australian actor and this were just some kind of provincial attempt to big-up the homegrown talent. But no, Letscher was born in Grosse Point, Michigan. Since he seems a little bland to me ... would it be too mean to refer to him as a Grosse Point blank?

Is it some kind of rights issue? Does Netflix own the right to stream the movie, but not to feature the likeness of any of its half-dozen most prominent stars? Stars who, almost without exception, are up to incredibly big things in the movies these days?

Letscher may get there, but it should not be on the back of Her.

Especially as it inspires people like me to write incredulous posts like this one.

Check back tomorrow, probably, to determine what we did end up choosing for Valentine's Day. And a happy Valentine's Day to you, wherever you are.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


"Nosedive" is the name of my favorite Black Mirror episode, which I saw for the first time only a few weeks ago.

It's also the best word to describe the plummeting quality of a movie I just saw.

Sleepless Night, the 2011 French thriller from Frederic Jardin, has just been remade as a Jamie Foxx vehicle called Sleepless, which is why iTunes presented it as the 99 cent rental a few weeks back. I don't have all that much interest in the Foxx version, but the original had been on my radar because a friend considered it among the best films he saw the year it came out (I guess that would have been 2012 in the U.S.). I jumped at the bargain rental opportunity.

And as I was watching this movie in its first half-hour last night, I caught myself drifting from the plot for a moment to have one of those internal debates I almost always have while watching a movie these days: where its star rating currently stands. What I had gotten so far was traditional four-star quality, but I asked myself if it weren't a little better than that, maybe deserving of a 4.5. Then I talked myself back into the four with the reminder of how I've got to forcibly push my star ratings downward a bit as I'm giving out too many ratings of at least four stars these days. I even got distracted enough to contemplate the loss of a 3.5 as a perfectly respectable rating to give a movie. I need to empower that 3.5 again, I thought.

By the end of the movie, this discussion was all academic. By the end of the movie, Sleepless Night had dropped all the way down to a 1.5.

I tend to notice when movies lose or gain a star rating as a result of something that happens. But there were no gains to be had here. I remember when I settled on the 3.5, and then also the moment when I decided it may be no better than three. And then things just devolved from there.

What were some of the things wrong with this movie, that may have always been present but revealed themselves as ever greater problems as it went along?

Well, let's give you that big SPOILER warning before continuing.

1) Probably because the movie is French, it's fairly unafraid to give us an unlikable protagonist. The guy whose face you see being pushed above is an undercover cop -- well, he's undercover as a cop, but he's pretending to be a dirty cop so he can bust an actual dirty cop. The problem is, we don't actually know he's undercover for at least the first hour; in other words, long after we already are supposed to have developed sympathies for him. And we do, because his teenage son has been kidnapped as retaliation for a theft of the mob's cocaine and leverage to get said cocaine back. But the problem is, we see him do so many questionable/violent things, never crossing lines but always getting very close to them, that our sympathies are complicated from the get-go, and the reveal that he's undercover doesn't do much to mitigate that. In fact, because it's French and is not forced to be conventional, I almost wished they'd just left him as a dirty cop.

2) His treatment -- actually, the whole movie's treatment -- of women is kind of appalling. There's a female cop on his trail, who actually finds his stash of cocaine -- which he's hidden in order to see proof of his son being alive before handing it over -- and moves it to another location in order to give it to her bosses (also corrupt, though she doesn't know it). So we are introduced to her in this weirdly shady context in which we think she might be corrupt as well, though it turns out she's only incompetent. Almost all the things she does in the movie end up being stupid in some way, including several major blunders near the end. But the worst scene involving her character is one in which our hero roughs her up in a store room in trying to get his cocaine back. There's no actual hitting with open or closed fists, but there's a lot of slamming against shelves stocked with canned goods, pushing of photos into faces, and wrenching of arms behind backs with the intent to break them. Not only does this weaken our sympathies for him, but she doesn't come across particularly well here either. Although she does not give up the information until she's already endured quite a bit of this, her partner later finds her recovering from the incident, huddled and eating soup (or some equivalent victim behavior). And then she mentions he trapped her in a freezer full of meat -- and she's a vegetarian. That's the worst thing that has happened to you? Three or four other female characters appear for a short time and are discarded in narratively unsatisfying ways, including a woman "our hero" saves from a thug who was behaving brutishly toward her, and who then follows him around like a puppy dog with stars in her eyes, trying to kiss him. Ugh.

3) The film is called Sleepless Night -- actually "White Night" (Nuit Blanche) in French -- but it does almost nothing to show the passage of time or make note of there being anything particularly interesting related to the fact that he spends a whole night trying to get his son back. The whole movie takes place inside one sprawling nightclub, only rarely going outdoors for a minute or two, while always immediately returning to its prime location. There are so many reversals of power and so many times when a particular failed tactic should have cost him his son's life (spoiler: they don't, and the son never really feels in danger) that it all becomes kind of a blur. Now they're here again. Now they're there again. Now this person sees that person from across a crowded club. Now they're all on the move again. At the very end you finally see them out in broad daylight and only then do you realize that it took all night. The thing that tends to diminish that idea is that the club stays packed with patrons, kitchen staff, and all other signs of being in a permanent state of 10 p.m. primetime that the passage of time is deemphasized further. Shouldn't the dynamic undergo some kind of evolution over the course of the evening, with a lesser density of fellow human beings somehow playing into the strategies employed by both sides? This movie does not think so.

4) There are more "why did this person do this at this time?" moments in this film than I can possibly count. But if you've read to this point, you've probably seen it and maybe you can remember some of them on your own. Or, you'll simply remember that this is what you thought, too, as you were watching it. In #4 I'll also throw in the characters who are introduced, then not checked in on for large quantities of time, then discarded unceremoniously upon their return, without seeming to factor into the narrative trajectory in a way that justified their inclusion in the story in the first place.

5) The oddest thing about Sleepless Night is how it ends. As "our hero" has finally delivered his son back home, he passes out in his car as the result of his injuries. His son sees this and runs back downstairs to take him to the hospital. The only potentially fatal injury I could remember, though, was the reopening of a stab wound he had acquired in the initial theft of the drugs, a separate incident that starts the film. Had he gotten shot since then? Stabbed again? Poisoned? Drowned? I could remember none of these. So the reopened stab wound is suddenly being considered a life-threatening condition. Son gets him to the hospital, hospital staff put him on a gurney and rush him off, son has frightened look on his face, and ... credits roll. That's it. We never find out what happens to the man. There are plenty of ways to end a movie without telling us what happens to a character, and many of them are sublime. This one felt like the movie ending in the middle of a sentence. What's useful about ending on the boy looking panicked over the uncertain health of his father? Nothing I can think of. What catharsis is gained by us? None I can think of.

So I entered Sleepless Night not caring about the American remake, and I came out wondering if maybe they took a good concept and turned it into something worthwhile. "You can see why it was remade," said my wife, who was similarly disappointed by the film's complete nosedive.

Sleepless will doubtless sanitize many of the elements that made the French version edgier and could have made it a modern classic. But it will also likely obey more of the basic tenets of good filmmaking, which in this case seems like it will be a good thing.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Seeing 'em all

For the first time in a while, I will have seen all the best picture nominees before the Oscar ceremony airs.

Okay, "a while" is not really that long -- I last did it in 2012. I thought there was a chance that I had never accomplished this since the field expanded to as many as ten nominees (but usually exactly nine, right?), but it turns out I did do it that year, thanks to a fortuitous limited release of Amour in Los Angeles before my ranking deadline. The reason I didn't do it other years was not that I didn't have the opportunity, just more like once I close off my list from the previous year, I usually turn the page, expecting to catch up on the ones I missed at some unspecified future date.

The task is especially difficult to accomplish in Australia, even with a concerted effort. The last best picture nominee still has not been released yet. Hidden Figures opens next Thursday, a mere ten days before the ceremony. That doesn't affect me, though, as I saw it on our last night in the U.S. last month. I also saw Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea on that trip, but they have both now opened here and I might have prioritized them even though my list had already closed by the date of their release.

The capper to this year's nine nominees came Tuesday, when I went to an "advanced" screening of Fences in order to review it for its Thursday release. This had all the makings of the token best picture nominee that I wouldn't catch until that unspecified future date, which in the last few years has included films I still haven't seen (like Philomena and Brooklyn) and ones I did eventually see but not until much later (The Wolf of Wall Street). But when my editor could not go to the screening and asked if I would review it instead, it helped complete my collection of 2016 Oscar nominees. (And I'm glad I went, since I liked the movie more than I was expecting to. You can read my review here.)

I suppose this is not in itself such an exciting thing to write a post about, but I've been busy with other things and haven't been watching a lot lately. (I thought I might write about last night's viewing of Army of Darkness, my first rewatch in nearly two months, but I didn't find I had much additional to say about a movie that is only really awesome in its first half-hour.)

So since I am writing about it, I thought I would take a quick peak on the other years where I saw all the nominees before the Oscars aired:

2012 - For posterity: Argo, Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty

2010 - There were ten nominees in 2010? How don't I remember that? Oh wait -- that's when it was exactly ten nominees for a few years there. Anyway, I saw Inception, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, The Fighter, Black Swan, The Kids Are All Right, True Grit and Winter's Bone before the ceremony -- before my list closed, in fact. So this year will probably always hold the record for the most number of best picture nominees in a year in which I saw them all before the ceremony, since having a full slate of ten nominees again seems unlikely at best.

2008 - Pretty easy when there were only five: Milk, The Reader, Frost/Nixon, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. It was a good year for best picture nominees, as even my lowest ranked of these (The Reader) was #27 on my list (out of 87).

2007 - Michael Clayton, Juno, Atonement, There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men

2003 - The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Seabiscuit, Mystic River

2001 - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge!

2000 - Gladiator, Chocolat, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

1998 - Shakespeare in Love, The Thin Red Line, Elizabeth, Saving Private Ryan, Life is Beautiful

1997 - Titanic, L.A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting, The Full Monty, As Good As It Gets

1995 - Braveheart, Babe, Sense and Sensibility, Il Postino, Apollo 13

So glad I committed that to permanence, aren't you? It was highly instructive and not at all tedious.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Imperfect Erdmann

You know you love a movie when you pick up the double-sided promotional brochure available at the movie theater ... six months after you saw the movie. Not just one, but a handful of them, in case the others get damaged. (I saw my favorite movie of 2016 at MIFF in August, and it's only just opening at Cinema Nova tomorrow.)

But Toni Erdmann is not a perfect film ... as this brochure represents in a humorous and unintentional visual fashion.

Okay, first the brochure. Here, check it out.

Someone at Madman, the Australian distributor, failed to properly proofread this before they made several thousand copies of it. As you can see, the last name of the lead actress, Sandra Huller, didn't have enough room to complete and was continued on the (not present) next line. Never mind that they probably shouldn't even be using a format that allows for words to be broken up between two lines, as that will never be necessary on such a brochure. Simply looking it over would have prevented the error.

But it got me thinking of the larger issue of whether our favorite movies are always movies we consider to be "perfect."

I did give Toni Erdmann five stars on Letterboxd, one of only three films from 2016 I bestowed with such an honor (one of which didn't quite end up making my top ten of the year, actually). Five stars does seem to suggest perfection.

But you know what?

As little as I say that I felt the length of Toni Erdmann, I did -- once or twice. I distinctly remember a portion, probably around the hour forty-five minute mark, when I asked myself if Maren Ade could have tightened up the movie and still given us the same transcendent experience we were getting. Also, the scene people often cite as a standout for them -- when the aforementioned Ms. "Hul" sings Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" -- does comparatively little for me. You'd think that if I ranked a movie as my #1 of the year, everything would be clicking all the time.

There's something about the messiness of Toni Erdmann, though, that makes it perfect even in its imperfection. Or maybe it's that a two-hour-and-forty-minute German comedy with melancholy overtones could never aspire to perfection, by its very nature. Its imperfections are our imperfections, the imperfections of life. The flaws we see in ourselves are mirrored back to us by a movie like Toni Erdmann. But so are our strengths.

One thing I doubt will be perfect: the American remake. Tony Berman, or whatever they call it, will likely have little of what makes Ade's film special and a lot of what makes Hollywood films generic. It'll be shorter, no doubt, but the soul will likely be absent. It'll be a more "perfect" version of the story by having its imperfections ironed out, its running time shrunken to a tidy 100 minutes. But what we love about Toni Erdmann will likely be gone.

However, there is news of note just breaking today: Jack Nicholson appears to be coming out of retirement in order to play Peter Simonischek's role. I can certainly see that, and I can certainly see it working.

Then again, Nicholson will be 80 by the time filming starts (he turns that on April 22nd) so it remains to be seen how much he has left. That makes him only a decade older than Simonischek ... but that's a pretty important decade when you're an octogenarian.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

THX 1138, take two

Certain movies benefit from watching them when you are at your most conscious, without having had anything to drink, being too tired, or having a fan in the living room drowning out half the dialogue.

But with some movies, it's absolutely essential.

Which is why I did something I rarely do on Saturday night, especially given my busy and ever forward-pushing viewing schedule: I rewatched the first 45 minutes of a movie I'd started on Friday night.

That movie was George Lucas' debut, THX 1138, and if you've seen it you can probably imagine why.

It's not all that difficult to grasp what's going on -- if you are fully awake and can hear everything. But I mightn't have known this, or what was going on, if I'd just plowed forward at the 45- (actually 48-) minute mark when I resumed Saturday night.

Oddly, that was also the mark where the movie goes from ominously dystopian to kind of silly. Not fully silly, but silly enough that I started to lose a bit of focus anyway.

At least this time I made it to the end.

I've been on a bit of a run of 70s sci-fi/dystopia in the past few years, having watched for the first time the likes of Silent Running, Logan's Run and Zardoz, the latter two of which didn't work for me at all. I'm glad to say THX 1138 is a lot closer in quality to Silent Running, a film Lucas actually borrowed from when he made Star Wars (though THX 1138 predates it).

So I wanted to see it for its own sake, but the birth of some of his Star Wars visuals and concepts is the reason most people probably seek it out.

And that stuff's definitely in there. The chrome robot police force is obviously a kind of proto-stormtrooper, and the kind of spare and antiseptic hallways of the building where the title character works easily preview similar locations in the Star Wars universe.

But the biggest similarity I noticed was in the sound design. The slightly mechanical "chatter" we hear between various droids on the Death Star and in the headsets of the X-wing pilots definitely had its origins in THX 1138, and the sounds the actual spaceships make as they cut through the emptiness of space are pretty much 100% developed for the car chase that occurs near the end of this first film.

Being in the company of these early Star Wars ideas likely led me to rate the movie a little more highly than I might have otherwise done, but there's still a lot to like in here. The opening half of the movie is genuinely bizarre and discomfiting, though not in the comical fashion that starts to characterize the second half when Donald Pleasance's character becomes more involved in the story. Lucas achieves some excellent framing in the way he sets up this world of sedated, hairless workers living platonically with one another. In fact, I was taken enough with this particular shot to have grabbed a photo of it:

That's Robert Duvall's title character giving a confessional to a back-lit static image of Jesus that responds to him in a soothing AI voice that is clearly not listening to the particulars of what he's saying. (A couple times it asks him rather eerily: "Can you be more ... specific?") Occurring near the start, this was one of the images that drew me in and made me certain I wanted to watch the first half again, so that possibly my only time watching this movie wouldn't be a botched one.

I do wonder, however, if I've seen a "pure" version of THX 1138.

This was George Lucas' director's cut, which may or may not be the only version available for rental these days. (I got the DVD from the library.) And though director's cuts usually leave me wary -- especially when they're from George Lucas -- it's a bit of a different story when I've never seen the original version. I later learned that the movie was polished up and some additional scenes were even filmed for this 2004 director's cut, which mostly involved expanding crowd scenes and new special effects -- though it did increase the running time by two minutes, which itself feels a little ominous. And that does explain certain things, like the fact that some of it appeared too visually sophisticated for 1971. Like I said, though, having never seen the unadulterated version, I'm okay with seeing this version. It looked good, and I guess that's what's important.

One final bit about THX 1138 was that I realized for the first time ever that my favorite album begins with a sample from it. I never had occasion to learn before last night that the persistent whipping sound of a man being beaten that opens the track "Mr. Self Destruct" on the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral (1994) was sampled from this movie. It's a television program THX 1138 is able to select when he's at home at night (when he's not masturbating to the hologram of a gyrating naked woman, another image that I suspect was enhanced for this version). You see a prison guard kicking and beating a prisoner with increasing frequency and some barely audible yelps from the victim. I thought "Hey, that sounds familiar!" and sure enough, googling proved it to be true.

So THX 1138 is a part of my all-time favorite album. Cool.

And that's something I only picked up on by watching those first 45 minutes a second time.

I think maybe I ought to start doing these "take two"s more often.