Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Four heads are better than one

A possibly accidental, probably intentional arrangement of paste-up movie ads really brought my attention to a marketing trend that is probably not new, but is definitely having a moment.

As you can likely guess from this picture, it's the use of character heads from the movie -- one per poster -- to sell the movie in and of themselves.

Usually it's characters you're familiar with from at least one other movie, as in one of these examples, but sometimes, the strength of the brand is enough. Or I guess, Rogue One was enough of a hit that the heads of brand new characters can now sell it -- though maybe that would have only worked for a BluRay release, not the original theatrical.

As both Star Wars and Marvel are owned by Disney, these posters are likely in cahoots with each other, but I like to think of their placement as random, as it would do more for my thesis that this advertising strategy is gaining in popularity. (There are also four Rogue One posters, but I had to cut off Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso for framing reasons. I was stopped at a red light so I'm kind of lucky I was able to snap this shot at all.)

And there's no doubt there's something really captivating about it. The Guardians posters benefit from their color scheme, to be sure, as the array of pastels is really pleasing. The Rogue One posters stand in contrast to that, though, their uniform blue and black color scheme probably subliminally functioning as a way to make you think of the packaging of a BluRay itself. (Or not so subliminally, as an actual Rogue One BluRay figures into each poster.)

I suppose I don't have a lot more to say about this -- it doesn't really strike me as indicative of some greater trend in the advertisement of movies, or some underlying psychology about the modern-day viewer. It's just smart design.

And thanks in part to the proximity of two ad campaigns with similar concepts, I'll now surely be on the lookout for it elsewhere.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Asian Audient: Eat Drink Man Woman

This is the next installment in Asian Audient, my monthly cinematic tour through the great continent of Asia.

Didn't I say I had plans for a trip to South Korea in April?

I did, didn't I.

Well, despite having four solid choices for movies I wanted to watch -- five if you include Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden, but I consider that a bit too recent for a series like this -- I couldn't find any of my candidates easily available to source. True enough, I could not find Bong Joon-hoo's Memories of Murder (2003), Kim Jee-won's The Good, the Bad, The Weird (2008), Lee Chang-dong's Poetry (2009) or Park's Lady Vengeance (2005), the only film in that trilogy that has still eluded me, available for streaming, iTunes rental or from the library. And yes, I know there are plenty of other Korean movies I haven't seen. But after this I just felt a bit defeated, and moved on to China.

Actually, that decision was made sort of passively as I came across Eat Drink Man Woman in the video section at the library. It's considered to be Ang Lee's breakthrough, as it was immediately followed by Sense and Sensibility, but I've never seen it. Lee is, understandably, a director who interests me quite a bit -- I've seen every film he's made since this movie, which came out in 1994 -- so I thought this would slot in nicely as April's film. I'd seen two straight films made in Japan, and a return to greater China -- which includes Hong Kong, and in this case, Taiwan -- was the obvious step in the absence of a ticket to Seoul.

Before I start to tell you about my experience of watching it, I'll tell you about the dinner I had to accompany it. I wish I could say it was some nice spread of steamed Chinese dishes, like the ones we see in this movie, but it was more appropriate than that for this particular blog series. I had, and enjoyed, our grocery's pre-packaged "Asian Salad." I thought that seemed about right, as Woolworth's seems to have as little ability to distinguish between the countries of Asia as I do, if we're going only on the broad title of this viewing series.

Eat Drink Man Woman immediately struck me as a likely take on King Lear, as it involves an older man (Sihung Lung) and his three adult daughters (Kuei-Mei Yang, Chien-lien Wu and Yu-Wen Wang). However, the dynamic appears to be more of a coincidence -- or rather, one of a handful of fairly common compositions for a nuclear family -- because only a few references on the internet explicitly link Shakespeare's play with Lee's final movie before coming west. I don't think the plot details mirror Lear either, though to be honest, I don't remember Lear all that well, having only read it once and having never seen it performed. In any case, Lee's film is certainly not a tragedy.

It actually reminded me a bit more of the last movie I saw in this series, Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring, as one of the central plot points involves an adult daughter caring for her aging father. In this case, though, it's not something sought after. The eldest daughter, Jia-Jen, worries that if her two sisters leave home, she will be saddled with the responsibility for their aging father, one of Taipei's greatest chefs. And this is a realistic possibility, as the middle daughter (Jia-Chien) has just bought an apartment in a fancy new complex, and the youngest (Jia-Ning) is impetuous and a poor fit for domestic responsibility. The story basically follows all four characters on their journey through present-day Taiwan, both in their interactions with each other and in their romantic and other social entanglements that function as independent storylines, often involving their work.

I was surprised, though maybe I shouldn't have been, about how conventional this film actually is. Lee is not an abstract storyteller, so explicit repetitions of major plot points and reinforcements of character relationships is probably par for the course with his work. Occasionally these struck me as a bit on-the-nose, but I have to admit they were also helpful, as it can be difficult to orient yourself (sorry, bad choice of words) in foreign language films without some additional help at the start. Lee is very obliging in giving that help.

And conventionality does not mean it wasn't worth my time. Far from it. I really liked Eat Drink Man Woman, which felt so familiar to me that I got overwhelming senses of deja vu throughout. I feel like there's a movie out there that mirrors this movie's details almost exactly, probably something that came after it, actually. I just can't quite figure out what that movie is. I even scanned AllMovie's helpful section devoted to related movies, but did not see the title I was looking for. I suppose it reminded me somewhat of The Joy Luck Club, which came out only a year earlier, but that's probably only a superficial similarity as they both involve family dynamics between Chinese characters. (Though Eat Drink does also make frequent reference to the west, mentioning characters who live in America and making heavy suggestions about how American culture is changing Chinese culture). It may just be that tightly structured stories with familiar character arcs tend to resemble one another, when made by people who really know how to do it.

And Lee is one of those people. We recently talked about Lee on an episode of my podcast on Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, in which one of the others argued that Lee has many very good films but no great ones. My co-podcaster also argued that he had no bad ones, though I thought the film we were actually discussing qualified as bad. I also do think he has a few great ones. The point is, he's really good at making solid B+ or A- movies, and Eat Drink Man Woman is another one of those. It doesn't do anything flashy from a technical standpoint, which differentiates it from Lee's future work, but otherwise it fits in pretty well with his continuum of films. Which is kind of odd to say in and of itself, as Lee's career has been characterized by a constant changing of genres and moods. He's never made two films that directly resemble each other, but with a few exceptions both good and bad, the common thread has been that B+/A- level of quality.

What more to say about the details of Eat Drink? Probably not a lot, though not in a bad way. It's a really humanistic look at the way the three daughters are trying to make their way in the world, fumbling through life with good and bad decisions, and the ways they are tempted by love. It also nicely contemplates aging and the sacrifices one makes. And it also lovingly showcases the food made by both the chef and his middle daughter, who secretly would prefer to be a chef than her high-powered job as an executive at an airline. Watching the dumplings being twisted into existence and vegetables steaming to perfection, I really wished I had something to eat other than my "Asian Salad."

Okay, so how will we handle this Korean outage going forward?

I will source at least one of my Korean films, but I don't know when, and I don't want to even predict what I might view for this series in May. I have, however, arrived at a logical way to structure the rest of this series. I figured it makes the most sense to break down the 12 months, four of which have already elapsed, this way: Four movies from China (which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan), four movies from Japan, and four movies from other countries. I've already gotten two movies each from China and Japan, leaving two more for each. So now I need to scrounge the likes of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos and others for the four other picks ... with expected support from Korea, of course.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The one movie I hadn't seen, part 2

Finding it difficult to find a movie I haven't seen has been the theme of the last week. As first discussed in this post, and now set to be discussed again just below.

On my podcast -- which is now available on iTunes, so subscribe, rate and review! -- we recently decided to start a rotating informal series in which one of the hosts will pick a movie he loves that the other two haven't seen, to watch and then discuss on the next episode. We'll go to this well whenever we're not all that enthused about the new releases hitting theaters during a particular fortnight. (As I live in Australia, I am obliged to refer to a two-week period as a "fortnight." That's also about how often we record our episodes.)

It was my idea, and naturally I felt prepared to go first. As I am more than ten years older than my co-hosts and have also dedicated myself to watching movies more single-mindedly than they have, I knew I could easily find candidates from my list of favorites that were new to them. But since I'm not the founder of this website or the "host" of this podcast -- that honor goes to my friend John -- I suggested he make the first selection. (So magnanimous, aren't I?)

John agreed, but he did state a reservation: He figured it would be difficult to find a movie he loves that both Blake, our other co-host, but especially I had not seen. As I said, I've got the years on them, and 4,791 films that would immediately be removed from contention the second the series started.

Fortunately, he hit on a film outside of those 4,791 on the very first try.

John's suggestion was Barry Lyndon, a member of his personal top ten and a fortuitous choice in any number of ways. As the last really prominent Stanley Kubrick film I had yet to see, it had been on my list to watch for some time now, and I likely would have already if it weren't for the three-hour running time. But what really made it a perfect choice was that I actually had the movie at my house at the very time he suggested it. I'd borrowed it from the library just a week or two earlier, and it was easily renewable.

Did I like it as much as Nocturnal Animals, the first film I talked about a couple days ago that landed in that increasingly smaller set of movies I've never seen?

You'll have to listen to the podcast to find out.

I'll include a link here to the ReelGood website, since I don't think you can link to iTunes. But what I'd really love you to do is subscribe, rate and review, as that does good things for us and eventually will make us famous or something. It's called The ReelGood Podcast, not to be confused with ReelGood Podcast, another podcast available on iTunes that technically predates us, but has not had a new episode since February of 2016, so screw them.

As the Bartles & Jaymes guys used to say, thank you for your support.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The one movie I hadn't seen

Picking a movie to watch in our house can be a bit of a hassle, since I've always already seen most of the good candidates.

Which is not a problem for me, since I don't mind rewatching films if I liked them. But my wife finds it a bit disappointing as she likes to be a part of my first time watching a movie if she can be. Especially if the movie has surprises, you want to ingest them for the first time at the same time as the person you're watching with.

The odds of resolving this age-old dilemma seemed particularly thin on Sunday night, when we were only just getting organized our possible viewing options at about 6:30, and needed to download something before we intended to start watching it around 8:30. Streaming wasn't an option because we were going to watch it in the garage, where the noise would not keep our kids awake, but where our WiFi is shit.

My wife was tasked with searching iTunes for something she would like to watch, knowing she was under a time crunch.

"It's all so hopeless because you've already seen everything," she said, coming into the kitchen. I feared our evening was destined for a Plan B or even a Plan C.

"I know you've already probably seen it, but what about Nocturnal Animals?"

I hadn't seen it. Miracle of miracles.

We started downloading immediately, and with the benefit of shutting off other wireless connections around the house and plugging directly into the ethernet cable, we had it downloaded and ready to watch by 8:40.

It was pretty unlikely that I hadn't seen this, as it was a prominent 2016 release with big stars and ambitions, and it was released in plenty of time for me to watch it before my ranking deadline. But it just got lost in the shuffle, as November releases sometimes do, and having seen the trailer about five times kind of diminished some of my eagerness to prioritize it.

But had I seen it, it would have been a candidate for my top ten.

Not only is this a satisfying and engrossing thriller, with an intense yet relatable psychology underpinning it, but it also pulls off the nifty narrative trick of following three parallel storylines, involving the same characters in different time periods and the same actors playing themselves and characters in a book, without once being confusing to follow. I admired Tom Ford's first feature, A Single Man, though my actual affection for it was limited. So I had no idea he was capable of something like this. Perhaps that's also the case because I had pigeonholed him as a guy whose projects would focus on homosexuality, him being a gay man himself, but that was clearly unfair and I feel like a fool to have ascribed limited ambitions to him. (Many times when someone crosses over from another visual art -- in Ford's case, fashion design -- it's to pursue very specific thematic interests, but that's not the case with Ford. Neither was it the case with John Cameron Mitchell, a one-time actor, who pursued LGBT subject matter in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus before going completely the other way with Rabbit Hole. But I'm getting sidetracked.)

The other exceptional aspect of this movie is the acting, up to and including incidental characters. Acting nominations went to Michael Shannon (Oscars) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Golden Globes), and they may be the standouts. But Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are doing great work as well, and I think I prefer what Adams is doing here to what she did in her more widely acclaimed 2016 work in Arrival. Gyllenhaal seems to set aside some of the tics that he can sometimes rely on too heavily and just gives a performance that's truthful.

To nitpick for just a moment though ... what the hell is going on with Amy Adams' age in this movie? She's playing a character who has been divorced for at least 19 years. She says at one point that she hasn't seen her ex (Gyllenhaal) in that long, so the divorce could have been even longer ago. Add another year or two on to that and she must have gotten married when she was like 20, though the character says she is in grad school. Amy Adams is 42 ... could she be playing older here? Unusual for an actress. Or maybe it's just weird to think that she and Gyllenhaal (age 36) are old enough to have teenage children.

But that's just a nit, and now that I've picked it, I'm not even sure it doesn't add up.

And let's hope we have as much luck the next time my wife blindly attempts to identify something I haven't seen.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Is it better before, or after?

I'd seen Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock before, and I'd been to the actual Hanging Rock before, but neither in close enough proximity to each other for one to provide meaningful perspective on the other.

For my second of both, I vowed to do them both in the same weekend -- but the question became which one to do first.

My conventional thinking was to see Weir's 1975 film, which I'd first seen in 2005 as one of the Australian films my Australian girlfriend (now wife) wanted to show me, first. Then I'd have it in my mind as my family and I spent Easter on "the Rock," our first visit in three years. (Which I found kind of an interesting corollary to the events of Joan Lindsay's novel source material, which takes place on a different holiday, Valentine's Day, of 1900.)

But the opportunity was lost when I motioned to make it our second movie of Saturday evening, but my wife hemmed and hawed. I could have just watched it myself, but she expressed enough interest in seeing it, though not that night, that I was compelled to wait. She did suggest it as probable/possible Easter night viewing, so that seemed good enough.

I guess I thought Hanging Rock, a dramatic and anomalous geographical formation about 45 minutes' drive from Melbourne, would have an extra creep factor for me if I'd seen the movie -- in which three school girls go into a trance and disappear into its crevices -- the night before. But with the place absolutely swarming with people, that tended to diminish some of its more ominous properties.

Oh, there's a photo in case you want to get a sense what it's all about:

And one from the movie, during the key scene:

Bye girls. See you never.


So instead of having the viewing recently in my mind, I took pleasure in seeing the movie with the recent visit in mind. We did indeed watch it Sunday night after a great day up on the Rock -- or, as close to a great day as you can come with a six-year-old and a three-year-old, who don't want any of the foods you brought for your picnic (yes, we did) and are constantly coming dangerously close to killing themselves.

It was wonderful to be reminded how good movies looked back in the 70s, when film was king and when period pieces had an indefinable air of mystery to them. It was a lot better reminder than I got when watching the comparatively cruddy looking Carrie on Thursday night. This movie is lyrical and mysterious and entrancing. I am listening to Gheorge Zamfir's haunting pan flute score as I write this. (And might as well link it for you here in case you want a listen, which alone might prompt a viewing.)

Although the rock formation is, unsurprisingly, identical now to how it would have been 40-some years ago, it was difficult to say "Hey, we climbed that one today!" or "I remember that exact view" because there are so many different rocky outcrops that are easy to mistake for one another. I imagine it was this very maze-like quality the rocks have, with their various nooks and crannies and secret passageways, that inspired Joan Lindsay to write her 1967 novel.

And alas, it is just a novel. Although there are persistent rumors that the place is haunted, most of them stem from this story, which Lindsay once refused to classify as fictitious. It was probably a pre-Blair Witch Project attempt to lend an additional air of strangeness to something, pretending it was really in order to goose the buzz about it. Though we all now know that the girls of Appleyard College (which does not and never did exist) never made a fateful visit to the Rock on St. Valentine's Day in 1900.

The whole place is suffused with such a powerful and delirious oddness that I really wish they had.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

I don't have trailers, but I have these


Star Wars teaser posters are the things that will get me through to December, as I steadfastly refuse to watch the trailers (one of which has just become available, presumably for this Star Wars celebration that's marking the 40th anniversary of the franchise).

And this one for The Last Jedi is, simply, great.

I don't know what else to say about it.

The traditional route would probably have been to show Kylo Ren with his mask on, but how much more powerful is it to have him meet mano-a-mano -- humano-a-humano -- with his one-time mentor and trainer, Luke Skywalker. Unlike Darth Vader, Kylo Ren -- the erstwhile Ben Solo -- is a mask remover. Which may ultimately be the thing that's key to his salvation, even though he killed his dad.

In googling for this image, though, I also found another poster that captivated me, even though it's just a fan mock-up. It was nicely done enough that I thought it was worth showcasing it here:

Will a star destroyer actually be coming to Luke's secret island?

I guess we'll find out in December.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Edie McClurg was never a teenager

When an actor or actress becomes famous in a certain type of role, it can be damn near impossible to imagine them as anything else.

Which is why I found it particularly strange to watch Carrie (for the first time) on Thursday night and see Edie McClurg ... as a teenager.

It wasn't so much that I couldn't imagine Edie McClurg playing a teenager, although I couldn't. It was that I couldn't believe Edie McClurg was still of the right age range to be cast as a teenager in 1976.

If you aren't familiar with the name Edie McClurg, you obviously didn't watch a lot of movies in the 1980s. But since that undoubtedly describes some of my readers (and I don't begrudge you being younger than I am, really I don't), here's this picture to help you:

That's McClurg in one of her most recognizable roles, as Grace, secretary/assistant to principal Ed Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) in the 80s classic Ferris Bueller's Day Off. McClurg is only 34 in this picture (she was born in 1951 and Bueller would have been filming in 1985 for a 1986 release), but she certainly plays a lot older in the movie -- or an older character type, anyway.

It's hard to believe that just ten years earlier she was considered young enough for the role of one of the title character's classmates in Carrie. She was playing someone younger than her, but that's pretty much the last time McClurg would do that. After this, she went straight into middle age.

But for your reference, here's how she looked in Carrie:

Doesn't look all that much like a teenager there, in part because she wasn't -- she was 24. But maybe she just never really looked like a teenager. And since Carrie was her first role, we can't really know for sure.

But part of the reason there's a disconnect is that she started getting typecast as the quirky, folksy type who always seemed to reveal a streak of naughtiness under her sweetly square exterior. With that voice and those chirpy mannerisms, she was ready to play 50 even when she was only 30. She went straight into "age indeterminate," a period that would probably still be going on today if she were still getting cast in movies (she's still working, but it's been primarily on TV and voice work for Disney and Pixar).

Anyway, it was funny to see.

As for the movie itself, which I had rented from the library before but never gotten around to putting in my DVD player, I liked it -- but less than I hoped I would. At the start I thought I would rank it as one of those 70s movies that benefited from the new freedoms of the era in which it was made, without being held back by some of the period's cheesy excesses that might intrinsically make it a product of its time. You know, something great like Halloween. Instead, outside of a particular few sequences -- like the frightening bullying of Carrie in the shower -- it was mostly not as technically accomplished as I hoped it would be, and does indeed revel in a musical score and other signature design details of its time. I expected to be a bit more disturbed by the finale than I was, which was not much at all. The shower scene is really the standout in terms of discomfiting, visceral horror.

I also enjoyed watching a young William Katt in this movie, five years before The Greatest American Hero would make him famous. Probably another case where I wouldn't have thought he was the right choice to play a teenager (he was also 24) only five years before he was the right choice to play the bumbling Ralph Hinkley in that beloved show. Maybe my problem is just that adults all were "age indeterminate" when I was a kid, meaning that everyone seemed about 38 years old to me.

Speaking of people who are too old for things ... the only real criticism I have about the plot of the movie is its inciting incident, Carrie having her first period in the shower. Now, I don't have any daughters and I've never been an expert on female biology, so I did in fact have to google this, but most girls get their first period around the age of 12, with a range going anywhere from 8 to 15, the extremes being particularly unusual cases I would think. Carrie is supposed to be a senior in high school, placing her at a minimum of 16 years old if she were really gifted, but more likely 17 or even 18 if it's the end of her senior year (which it is, as that's usually when they hold the prom). And I don't think there's any indication she's gifted. So even with a sheltered upbringing in which her religious zealot mother prevents her from understanding even the most basic elements of her anatomy, there would be almost no chance she'd only be getting her first period as a late teenager. I mean, ignorance doesn't delay biology, does it?

Edie McClurg, wise for her years, certainly could have filled her in.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Furious return to the theater

I saw the first Fast and the Furious movie in the theater in 2001.

I saw the eighth Fast and the Furious movie in the theater in 2017.

And none in the theater in between – despite seeing all the movies.

It’s weird to have been committed enough to a series to see all eight movies that comprise it, yet only two of them in the theater. And to have been living during the entire duration of the series, I should say. You can’t see movies in the theater that came out before you were born, unless they’re classics and make a return to the big screen.

But I guess the answer is that I’m not really that committed to these movies – yet have seen all of them anyway.

For this I can credit the choice two years ago to marathon the ones I hadn’t seen, allowing me to see and rank Furious 7 – which I think I assumed would be the last in the series – in time for my 2015 ranking deadline. I'd learned that the movies were interestingly intertwined enough that I shouldn't just skip ahead to the seventh. That meant watching The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious, Fast Five, The Fast and the Furious 6, and Furious 7 all in the space of about six months. Leaving them even more of a blur in terms of what happens in which movie than they already would be.

It was reasonable to assume that the death of Paul Walker would result in them closing the series down, as he was in all but one of the movies (the outlier Tokyo Drift) and he was one of the central pillars of the “family” this series is always going on about. But these movies keep making gobs of cash, and none of the other cast members seemed to think they were betraying Walker’s memory by making more movies, so more movies they’ve made – and will continue to make, it would seem.

And darn it if it this isn’t one of my favorite in the whole series.

You can read my full review here, but short of that I will just tell you that this is a super fun movie that is actually better made than most of its predecessors as well. Add in a little credibility from two Oscar-winning actresses – Helen Mirren and Charlize Theron – and you’ve got a series that is only gaining validity as it gets into a truly absurd number of sequels.

But I’m basically repeating my review at this point. What I couldn’t ponder in the review is whether seeing this movie in the theater – at the gala Melbourne permiere, no less – made me like it a significant amount more than I otherwise would have.

“Gala” in this case means that there was a fancy racing car parked outside the cinema and a number of “babes” (no other word to describe them) walking around for photo opportunities in tight-fitting white outfits that tapered off into miniskirts. Oh, and the fact that we got free popcorn and soda. There were also door prizes if you had a special envelope taped underneath your seat, but I did not. I even felt up the seat next to me with no luck.

And though I am sometimes susceptible to a movie wining and dining me, so to speak, I don’t think that played a significant role in my enjoyment of The Fast and the Furious 8. (And by the way, only once I was sitting in my seat did I get the play on words between “Fate” and “F8” – needless to say, I had not previously seen the above poster.) It’s just a fun, silly movie. It has moments when it takes itself pretty seriously, but it has more moments when it’s ludicrous. And not only because it has Ludacris in it.

Big screen? May have helped.

Fun movie? Helped more.

I'll probably see the next one in the cinema too. 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A country best left undiscovered

How is it that the more movies you like a film rips off, the less likely you are to like it?

I mean, if a movie is going to rip off better movies, at least it's good if it's better movies you really like. You'd think that would be a good start.

Yet despite borrowing heavily from the likes of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Donnie Darko, Edge of Tomorrow and, I guess, Flatliners -- all movies I quite like -- The Discovery was a total snooze.

Netlfix's second-released (if I'm keeping track) high-profile movie picked up at this year's Sundance, The Discovery is from Charlie McDowell, the guy who directed a mind-bender from a few years ago that I liked slightly less than everyone else: The One I Love.

That movie didn't do all it could have and the ending was disappointingly predictable, but before that it was a genuinely fresh vision that refused to explain all of its secrets. The setup of that movie is unlike any I'd seen before. Whereas the setup of The Discovery is ... a tad more familiar.

The idea is good. A scientist uncovers irrefutable proof of the existence of some kind of afterlife, as they have detected brainwaves leaving the body on a subatomic level at the moment of death. At least, I believe that's the explanation. Let's just say it's irrefutable proof within the world of the movie and we'll just have to accept that.

Which I would be perfectly willing to do, but the movie doesn't do much with its interesting concept. This evidence has prompted a spike in suicide rates around the world, as no longer do unhappy people feel like they need to live the rest of their miserable existences in their corporeal shells. Instead, they can immediately punch their ticket to the next plane of existence. I'm doubtful that this would really happen, but again I am willing to suspend disbelief.

It's just that this movie doesn't show us much at all, and it tells us things relentlessly, unambiguously, starting right with the amateurish exposition in the opening scene -- an interview between a TV journalist (Mary Steenburgen) and this scientist (Robert Redford), in which she recaps everything we need to know in a dozen lines of awkward stiffness. About 15 minutes in I commented to my wife that this was about the most talky movie I had ever seen. (An exaggeration, but the degree of my dissatisfaction with what I'd seen thus far prompted me to it.)

To tell you the ways this rips off the movies I've referenced above would constitute spoilers, so I won't do that. But I do think it's worth telling you about the hilariously derivative meet cute between the romantic leads, played by Jason Segel and Rooney Mara, which happens near the beginning so it's spoiler free.

Segel, a reserved introvert, and Mara, an extrovert with manic pixie dream girl ambitions (except that she's suicidal), meet much the same way that the characters played by Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, Joel and Clementine, meet in Eternal Sunshine. Joel being a reserved introvert and Clementine being an extrovert with manic pixie dream girl ambitions (though not suicidal). In both cases they are the only two in each other's vicinity on a public transport, here a ferry, there a train. In both cases he sits in his seat normally while she drapes herself over her own seat. In both cases she tries to crack his facade with acerbic wit while he gradually warms to the unfamiliar situation. In both cases they even talk about the meaning of the woman's name (Clementine's bit about the song and her hair color, and Mara saying her character doesn't look like an Isla, though of course she does). In Charlie Kaufman's case, though, he was at least happy to go with ordinary names that have no thematic meaning -- well, maybe not totally ordinary names, but at least no thematic meaning. Not the case with McDowell, who names one Will (one of the most metaphorical names we have, right after Grace) and names the other Isla (she's an island, you see).

Everything thuds down with about that same level of subtlety.

I don't think there was an intended play on words with the title The Discovery and Shakespeare, who called death "the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."  But it's clear that Charlie McDowell is no Shakespeare, and this country is not worth visiting.

Friday, April 7, 2017

An end to eight years of gray

Some changes are gradual, the result of lots of thought, planning and market testing.

Others occur overnight.

Kind of like the long overdue decision to change the layout of my blog, something I have not done once in its eight-year-and-three-month history, despite numerous advancements in layout design and the related technology.

Why has my blog been a drab, uninviting gray for its entire existence?

It's hard to say, except that every time I demo'd another template -- and I did check the other options every year or so -- I always came back to the good-old defining blandness of my status quo.

Mind you, I didn't really consider it bland. Rather, I decided I would let my banner do the talking, and would prize readability over all the other design flourishes that popped in and out of Blogger's offerings, some of which are still available. 

I've got other blogs I visit that are just too hard to read with the text they've chosen against the background they've chosen, and consequently, I just don't visit them as much anymore. (An overall lack of time the more children I've gotten -- from zero to two over the life of the blog -- has also contributed to this.) I didn't want my own site to be a site people stopped visiting because it hurt their eyes to look at. 

But it's time for a change. In fact, it's long past time for a change.

It's not a radical change, but it's all I can handle for right now. For example, it still retains the format where the top post appears on the top of the page, and the rest of the posts appear consecutively in reverse chronological order as you go down the page. There are other options for how to do this, believe me. Lots of them, even without porting my blog to a pay service like Squarespace. And some of them are quite attractive.

But on a lot of those other layout styles, where you see the artwork and post titles only and you have to click into them to get any text, it looked like I'd be losing attributes of my current blog. Some of the post titles were in all caps, and would lose the italics I stuck into them, replacing them with the actual HTML used to indicate italics (which looks like this, if you're interested: < i > and < /i > ). On others, the italics were lost in the body of the posts. And over eight-plus years of writing this blog, I've italicized a lot of movie titles. (Not to mention the italics I've used just for emphasis, as in the previous sentence.)

So this is what I've decided on, and I may explore some tweaks on it in the coming days if I decide there are things that don't read perfectly or that I can modify to the site's benefit. It retains most of what I like about my blog without remaining hindered by a slavish adherence to gray.

Will I stick with this for another eight years? Probably not. Now that I've dipped my toe in the water, I'll probably have the courage to be a bit more ambitious with my design layout, maybe even going for one of those other attractive layouts, italics be damned.

But for now, this is enough. I'm hesitant enough to officially make the change. But make the change I will.

Right ... now.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Audient Anime: Kiki's Delivery Service

This is a bit-monthly 2017 movie series in which I catch up on Studio Ghibli and other anime I haven't seen, with my six-year-old son whenever possible.

As you may recall if you read this post, My Neighbor Totoro was a smashing success with my six-year-old son. He loved it. He said it was maybe the best movie he'd ever seen.

I still didn't have any illusions about his chances of liking the second movie I'd chosen for this series, Kiki's Delivery Service, which promised fewer mythical creatures and more ... girls? Yeah, I guess I thought he'd think it was too girly, even though the two main characters in Totoro are both girls.

And indeed, he didn't like it. Until he did.

The difference between our viewing of Totoro and our viewing of Kiki's was a pretty significant one, plot and subject matter aside. In the six weeks since we saw Totoro, my three-year-old son has pretty definitively ditched his nap. Saturday or Sunday afternoons during his nap was when I figured my six-year-old and I would watch these Ghibli movies, but that nap is no longer a regular part of the schedule. At the same time, however, we are getting closer to taking my three-year-old to his first theatrical movie, and with that is the implied assumption that his attention span is getting better. So I risked putting on Kiki's with him and his still very distractable ways in the room, as part of the target audience.

The three-year-old wasn't fully paying attention, but he did claim to be liking the movie. The same could not be said for the six-year-old. He gave it about 25 minutes of reasonably attentive viewing before telling me that he wasn't liking it anyway. (The "anyway" being a reaction to the fact that his brother was starting to escalate his monkeying around from low-level to truly intrusive.)

So the six-year-old dropped out and the three-year-old and I struggled through another ten minutes before the writing was on the wall. I would finish it that night on my own.

There was an advantage to this. Having obviously been watching the movie in English so far, I now had the chance to switch over to Japanese with English subtitles, my preferred method for consuming anime if all else is equal. Having a child watching with you makes all else unequal, and you have to watch in English. Now that both children were gone, I could watch it as Hayao Miyazaki originally created it. And as if a flip had been switched in me, I instantly started liking the movie -- which I had been enjoying but not loving -- a whole lot more.

This only lasted for five minutes.

After five minutes my six-year-old came in for one of his approximately three instances of bugging us about something after we've sequestered him off for bed. Except my wife was out that night, so "us" was just me.

Seeing that I had resumed Kiki, he suddenly became interested in it again.

Whether he was interested in the movie itself or in staying up past his bedtime and watching a movie with Dad was uncertain. But since it was the start of school holidays and he wouldn't be at school the next morning anyway, I did allow him to join me on the couch, to resume at the point where he had left off. I'd be sacrificing the Japanese, but the potential to keep our momentum going in the series was well worth it.

And it was a good decision. He instantly became involved in it. Perhaps the switch that flipped in me also flipped in him, and perhaps the change of language was not what had flipped it in me in the first place. Perhaps the plot just started to interest me more. And maybe that was it -- if you know the movie, it was at the point where the wind blows Kiki and Jiji off course, causing them to crash in the trees and lose the toy cat they're delivering. Something about that scene really stimulated me, and did for my son too.

He nestled into me and watched the movie to its end, and as we watched together, my 3.5-star rating shot up by half stars until it reached the previously unthinkable: five stars. Yes, Kiki's Delivery Service became the second straight movie I've watched for Audient Anime that has gotten the maximum star rating available. It had overcome the biases I realized I also brought into this movie.

What biases? Well first, I assumed it was about something entirely different than it was actually about. I had no idea, for example, that Kiki was a witch. Knowing that this movie was less fantastical than something like Totoro or the other Miyazaki film I'd seen, Spirited Away, I guess I assumed that it was entirely earthbound. For some reason I got it into my head that Kiki made her deliveries on a bicycle, which can possibly be explained by the fact that she does actually ride on a bicycle at one point in this movie -- a bicycle with wings, which is an aeronautic invention by her friend Tombo. But I guess I thought she was like some kind of newspaper delivery girl, which didn't seem very magical to me at all. If I'd known she was a witch carrying out deliveries on a broomstick I might have gotten to this movie years earlier.

I guess I was also worried it would contain what I will call "caricature anime." That's that cruder style of anime that's incredibly exaggerated, where characters' mouths open really wide and their eyes do all sorts of goofy things. I should have known that Miyazaki doesn't work in this style, but I guess I was concerned about that kind of broadness making its way into the movie.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The movie gently and lovingly details the growing pains of a young girl metaphorically coming into adulthood -- she's only 13, but she's left her parents at home and gone off to live in a city she doesn't know. She faces a number of teen issues but also issues faced by twentysomethings striking out of their own for the first time, and the movie delivers us really humanistic messages about striving to find one's own identity and not giving up in the face of obstacle. Messages like that can be foisted on us in really ham-handed fashion, but after three Miyazaki features I am now positive that Miyazaki's hands are thoroughly and utterly pork free.

I mightn't have loved Kiki as much as I did if it weren't for a truly exciting and grandiose finale involving an out-of-control dirigible and Kiki's heroic attempts to save her friend, who is in fatal danger as he dangles from it. It put a perfect capper on a movie that had been selling us on the value of summoning your inner strength, and gaining strength from the people you come across in your life.

The nice realization I got from watching this in English was that I really will be alright not watching these movies in Japanese. If the storytelling is this good, it doesn't matter all that much if the lines are delivered in a way other than the director originally envisioned them. There could not, for example, be a more striking difference between the way that Jiji the cat is portrayed in the Japanese and the English versions. From the five minutes of Kiki I watched in Japanese, I know that there Jiji was portrayed by what sounds like a child actor with a high-pitched voice. In the English version? At least, the 1998 Disney-sponsored English version? Phil Hartman. Not only Phil Hartman, but Phil Hartman at his most sarcastic sounding. And though I like being exposed to any of the dearly departed comic's performances that I have not yet seen, I prefer the Japanese interpretation.

But you know what? I don't care, and pretty soon after this Jiji stops talking anyway. A good script is a good script no matter who's saying the words, and Kirsten Dunst isn't phoning it in in the lead role. She's good. As long as most of these movies have English voice casts in the same talent neighborhood as Totoro and Kiki, I should be fine.

Having started with two films in the 1980s, I think it's time to jump forward and watch something more recent, as well as something with a more explicit aspect of imaginative fantasy to it: Howl's Moving Castle (2004). I've got two months to source it, so check back here in June to see what I -- what we -- think.

And maybe after that, I'll see who else makes anime movies other than Hayao Miyazaki.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A good couple days for Will Arnett

I hope you were one of the lucky ones who managed to watch Netflix Live - Canceled, as it has already gone the way of the dodo bird.

Netflix' April Fool's Day joke didn't last much longer than April 1st. I looked for it here at the end of the night on April 3rd, and found that it is no more.

But in the short time it existed it was glorious. The setup was this: Netflix was supposed to be testing out some kind of live program, but when it went belly up, Will Arnett was left at an anchor desk, providing color commentary on mundane activities around the office. You know, kind of like that Bill Murray Christmas special from a few years ago, only funny and with less singing.

And boy was it funny, thanks in no small part to Arnett's brilliant dry delivery. In the 48-minute program, Arnett commented (in agonizingly wonderful real time) on such activities from around the Netflix office as a burrito cooking in the microwave, a toaster toasting toast, a man getting a printout from the printer, two people thumb wrestling, a person trying to parallel park (that was the best), a guy doing a crossword puzzle, and whether a puddle would get stepped in or not.

It was a hoot. I laughed out loud multiple times. And it looks like (for now) you can still get it here.

Two nights later I got out to see Arnett in again, in The Lego Batman Movie, which has finally opened here now that school holidays have begun. Oddly enough, this also contains a scene of Arnett waiting for something to cook in the microwave for longer we would expect, though the team of Lego writers cut it short at about 15 seconds, as opposed to the full three minutes and thirty seconds in Netflix Live - Canceled.

That microwave scene in Lego Batman is followed by probably the funniest single scene of the movie, as Arnett's Batman sits in a bat jet ski floating in the bat cave, surrounded by a bunch of bat aquatic vehicles, eating a lobster (shell and all) with loud crunching sounds that echo through the space.

But that wasn't nearly the only time I laughed in this movie, which I think I liked just a little more than its predecessor, definitely preferring Arnett as my lead to Chris Pratt. (I like Pratt in other things but did not much care for his performance there.) That Arnett delivery gets me every time.

So yeah, Arnett has done a good job wiping out my memory of his Netflix show Flaked. No amount of delivery helped the two episodes we watched of that.

But hey, without Flaked we may never have gotten Netflix Live - Canceled.

Watch it before Netflix makes YouTube take it down.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Rick Vaughn was a recovering alcoholic

And another happy baseball opening day to you!

It's just a few games on Sunday, but we'll be at it for real on Monday. And to celebrate the start of another baseball season, not only did I watch The Battered Bastards of Baseball on Wednesday night (enjoyable), but I also quit the belly-aching and did what I should have done a few years ago: buy Major League.

A year ago I wrote a post about how I wanted to start the 2016 baseball season by watching one of my favorite baseball movies, and one of my favorite sports movies period, but that I couldn't get it on Australian Netflix. This year, I just stopped messing around and added it to my collection. The $4.99 purchase price from iTunes was only a dollar more than a rental might have been, and I've recently cleared up about 20 gigs of free space on my hard drive, so I figured, now was the time.

Good decision. I enjoyed it as much as I ever do.

But it's often the case, when rewatching a favorite movie, that you discover something new about it each time. My first Major League viewing in five years was no different.

Namely, I discovered that Charlie Sheen's Rick Vaughn, the visually impaired pitcher with a devastating fastball who gets nicknamed "Wild Thing," is a recovering alcoholic.

There's nothing in the dialogue about it. Nope, it only appear in shots of what he drinks, or does not drink.

Namely, when Vaughn goes out for a fancy dinner with Tom Berenger's Jake Taylor and Wesley Snipes' Willie Hayes, to celebrate the start of the season, he toasts with a glass of Coke, while they each raise a flute of champagne. When he goes to a bar later after setting an American League record by throwing four wild pitches in one inning, he's seen drinking a Coke again while Taylor downs a beer.

It's only when he's at his lowest, after not being selected to start the playoff game intended to settle a tie in the standings with the Yankees, that we see him at a bar actually drinking a beer.

I'd describe it as a bit of a visual shorthand to show his inner emotional state, much as a director will shoot a sad person through a window pane streaked with rain to symbolize his or her tears (to provide a very broad and cliched example). Except that because his alcoholism is never spoken of, it takes a viewer to find it like they would find Easter eggs, something I'm only just now doing on what is probably my sixth or seventh viewing of the movie.

There may have been a scene in which his alcoholism is addressed, and it was just too heavy-handed so they left it on the cutting room floor. That's often the explanation for otherwise extraneous plot details such as this. But I like to think it was just part of the back story of his character, an additional detail of Rick Vaughn that brings him dimension and allows the actor to understand the character more fully. "You're not really going to use this explicitly," the director, in this case David S. Ward, might say. "But just so you know, this guy is a recovering alcoholic."

If you want to get all moralistic about it, you could say the movie is trying to suggest that only when he goes back to booze does he make "mistakes" like the one he makes that night, when he sleeps with the wife of one of his teammates (Corbin Bernsen's self-involved prick, Roger Dorn, who develops a soul as the movie goes on). Then again, Dorn's wife targeted him as a revenge plot against her own philandering husband, so even if he had one beer, he's still more a pawn in her personal marital chess game than a sexual deviant further freed of his inhibitions by the contents of a little brown bottle.

I just love that this low-key sports movie with modest ambitions cared enough to flesh out its world, even in ways we were only seeing tangentially, and only if we were watching closely, perhaps for our sixth or seventh time.

I'm looking forward to my seventh or possible eighth viewing, to see what other little detail the movie is generous to give us that I may have missed.

Which should be all the easier to do, now that I own it.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

12 awkward pauses

Let me say this up front: 12 Angry Men is a five-star masterpiece, and I felt the same about it on my long overdue second viewing as I felt on my first.

But that doesn't mean it's perfect, and there was one particular device that bothered me on this viewing.

As you know, 95% of this film's action takes place in a single room where 12 jurors debate the guilt or innocence of a man accused of murder. Instead of being bored, we're enraptured by their exchanges, their contrasting styles, their differing opinions, their compassion or lack thereof, and their commendable skills of deduction, reasoning and reenactment.

Unfortunately, 12 Angry Men is not content with just that.

One of the most certain holdovers from the play, though I have never seen it staged so I can only guess, are the handful (it could be a dozen) one- to two-minute interludes that break up the flow of ongoing debate.

And do they ever break it up.

I was distracted this viewing by how unnatural it seems to have pairs of these men break off, more or less two at a time, to share small talk in between bouts of heated debating. It's not that this group wouldn't occasionally dissolve from its central focus and the task at hand for little breaks, moments to cool down both figuratively and literally. It's the way the film does it.

One minute, men will be shouting across the table at each other, leveling attacks on each other's heritage and character, and threatening physical violence. The very next moment -- and this was the awkward part -- two of them would be at the window together, as casually and carelessly as if they had found themselves standing next to one another at a bus stop, spouting small talk like "Hot enough for ya?" and "I think it's gonna rain."

I have to imagine that on stage, this was handled through ten of the men momentarily darkening while two others are caught under the spotlight for a little side conversation. (That's how I might have staged it, anyway.) There might have been something intentionally artificial about it, but that's okay in a dramatic space like the stage, where the form is explicitly used for things like this.

A movie is a bit different, especially a movie striving for realism as Sidney Lumet's does. In a movie, you can't have these abrupt changes of tone and pace. You want to believe that the action flows as it logically would, not that these characters would break off, almost as if receiving stage directions in real time, and have little shallow conversations with each other.

Not all of the conversations are shallow, of course. Many of them continue to push the film's themes, and probably establish important dynamics for how the deliberations will continue to reshape themselves. But it just isn't convincing -- not the way it's handled here, anyway. It feels a bit like those episodes of TV shows where characters who aren't usually matched up with each other get to participate in the same third subplot because the first two plots have involved all the rest of the other characters. Simply put, these little pauses in the action feel like a construction. They feel like the plot devices, the contrivances, that they are.

That noticing something explicitly weak about 12 Angry Men does not even prompt me to consider docking it half a star tells you just how good the rest of it is. And it is great. And I'm looking forward to my third viewing, in part because it's great to spend 90 minutes with a terrific assemblage of actors who went on to have really fruitful careers -- those that weren't already having them, that is.

Sometimes, it's imperfections like these that remind you how perfect something really is.