Sunday, May 28, 2017

Giving myself the option

I've now watched three movies this year just so that I could prepare myself for a new movie that's coming out this year ... but have yet to watch any of the new movies.

At least in the case of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the new movie's only been out for three days.

The first of these was Sleepless Night back in January, which was made available as the 99 cent rental on iTunes in anticipation of the American remake, Sleepless, starring Jamie Foxx. My primary interest was in the actual French film, since it had always been on my list of films to see, but I no doubt had a curiosity about how Hollywood would remake the same story. Besides, there's always something fascinating about the first movies to come out in the new release year, and Sleepless was one of the first. I have yet to watch Sleepless, and in fact passed over a chance to rent it on Friday night when I opted for the cult/torture porn movie Rupture instead. (Which I actually kind of liked.)

Then earlier this month it was a second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy, to get myself ready for Vol. 2. Or more properly, to hopefully create the necessary excitement to want to see Vol. 2, which would occur if I found myself more favorably disposed to the original Guardians on second viewing. I didn't, and so that viewing of Vol. 2 has not transpired yet either.

Last night was probably the strangest -- pun intended -- and most unwarranted of these, a belated viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth Pirates movie that came out six years ago.

If you are going to watch any Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it's probably safe to say that you can come in anywhere in the timeline and not be too confused. Oh, the events relate to each other I suppose, but this is not a series among whose chief pleasures is its mythology. If you are going to a Pirates movie, you're going for the world and probably for the performance of Johnny Depp, if you are somehow not sick of Jack Sparrow by now.

Yet I decided two unlikely things this weekend:

1) That I might actually want to see Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and that I might actually see it this Wednesday night. There's no end to my optimism about this world, I guess.

2) That a potential viewing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales would potentially be enriched by having seen Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

And I guess there was actually a third unlikely decision:

3) That I would start watching this two hour and 18 minute movie on Saturday night at 10:45 after driving two hours home from a friend's house in the country, after a couple beers earlier in the afternoon and a glass of wine at dinner, and nearly running out of petrol (gas) on the way home. That's a story for another time, or would have been if it had gone into movie territory by actually running out of gas with two sleeping kids alongside a country road in rural Australia.

But I wanted to give myself that option of watching Dead Men Tell No Tales when I am out Wednesday night, as I'll be needing something in the 9 o'clock time slot after my earlier event finishes. (It's either that or Guardians 2. Heh.)

Even though I certainly liked On Stranger Tides less than I like Guardians of the Galaxy -- the parts I remember, anyway, as I may have slept through a full third of it all told -- I remain slightly more likely to watch Dead Man Tell No Tales on Wednesday, even though I hear it's awful.

The reason for this?


That's right, my most unexpectedly enjoyable ten-minute stretch at Disneyland when we went in January was on the very ride that inspired this series of movies.

I think I might have been on Pirates of the Caribbean in Disney World back in the early 1980s when I went with my family, but that was a lifetime ago and obviously I retain no useful memory of it. But I'd never been at Disneyland (probably because I'd been to Disneyland only once before this trip), and it felt like a seminal Disney experience that I needed to get in this time.

Well, I loved the damn thing.

I mentioned earlier the "world" created in the Pirates movies, and there's kind of a literal component to that as a reason myself and others enjoy that ride so much. You really feel transported to a time of swashbucklers and wenches, drunkards sitting on the stoops of little villages as cannon blasts go off around the corner. I loved the detail of the sets and the nooks and crannies I could imagine myself away into. Listing its charms in reverse, I set off on the right foot with the ride by noting that there's a restaurant set into the front of the ride where you load on the boats, so you can dine slightly entrenched into the Pirates world. (We didn't as it was all booked out.) There's always something at Disneyland that reduces me to an excited kid, and this time, this was it.

You might argue that for purists who love the ride -- if it's not ridiculous to refer to such people as "purists" -- the movies do all they can to ruin that world. But I guess I want to give them every chance to get it right this time. Which is why I discussed my cautious optimism about On Stranger Tides in this post back in 2011, and which is why I'm giving myself the option of seeing Pirates 5 on Wednesday night.

They're saying it's the last one -- heard that one before -- so I guess they've got one more chance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The death of my Bond

For the average viewer unencumbered by sentimentality -- if such a person can be said to exist -- the argument about who was the best James Bond seems to come down to a battle between the first and the most recent, Sean Connery and Daniel Craig.

For my generation, though, the answer was obvious: Roger Moore, who left us yesterday at age 89.

Sure, there were even some in my generation who were immune to Moore’s charms and gave all the credit to Connery, perhaps to curry favor with other cinephiles or perhaps just because they really believed it. (Their parents might have shown them Dr. No and Goldfinger before they showed them For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy.) But I can’t ever give my heart to one of these other Bonds, because Moore always had it and always will.

So it saddened me considerably when I woke up to the news that my Bond was no more, even though he lived nearly 90 years and that is plenty of time.

The praise for Moore, especially from people like me, is surely spidering across the internet today, and I don’t expect to be able to add much unique to the conversation. I owe it to him to share a few words about the impression I always had of the man, though, even if it repeats what everyone else has already said about him.

The people who say they didn’t like Moore argued that he wasn’t taking the role seriously, though I think his sense of humor was one of the keys to what made him so great. I don’t want to say he was fully winking at the audience, but he was definitely attuned to the absurdity of the whole enterprise in a way not equalled outside of Woody Allen’s Casino Royale. (Which I have not actually seen, I’m only guessing.) The ribald way he made sexual innuendos gave him such a loveable sense of kookiness. He was charming and rakish and just plain goofy sometimes, and that was a lot of fun.

But don’t ever say that he was incapable of being serious. His earnest commitment to stopping the bomb at the circus in Octopussy, far and away my favorite Bond movie and the only one I’ve seen more than once, is equally memorable to me – in part because he plays the moment with deadly seriousness while wearing a clown outfit. In that moment where nuclear catastrophe was close at hand, he did not wink.

My love for Moore stems almost entirely from this one movie, as I’ve only seen three other Moore Bond movies, none of which I remember very well or fondly. I could seriously pick apart both Moonraker and A View to a Kill, slightly less so For Your Eyes Only. And Live and Let Die, The Man With the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me have all eluded me to this point. Maybe I’ll watch one this weekend.

But my love for Octopussy is strong. It was in the rotation of VHS tapes that I wore out when I was a kid. If I’d had one of these other movies on VHS, it might have been that movie I loved rather than Octopussy. But I like to think of Octopussy as rising above the mere convenience of its proximity to me, and being an underrated Bond movie in the grand scheme of things.

And because I watched it so much, I really loved and appreciated the way Moore had made that character his own. I can’t imagine any other Bond doing as funny a job of sliding down a bannister with a machine gun, and madly shooting away the ball-shaped ornament at the bottom before it crushed his own balls.

Moore was sometimes a goofy Bond, but that’s why I loved him. I’ll take it over Daniel Craig’s brooding, I’ll take it over Sean Connery’s suaveness, I’ll take it over Timothy Dalton’s weird kind of anger, I’ll take it over Pierce Brosnan’s breeziness, and I’ll definitely take it over George Lazenby’s ????. (I haven’t seen On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.)

Moore also becomes the first Bond to die, shepherding in an era of probable Bond death that might soon include Lazenby (77) and Connery (86). So something about that is also sad, as Bond – the longest running hero in film – was always thought to be immortal.

But Moore is no longer with us, and I will miss that wry presence he brought, that twinkle of mischief, that signal that he was just happy to be here and having a good time.

I’ll miss my Bond. 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The first one hundred free movies

You know how I like my milestones, so here's another:

Even though this post doesn't seem all that long ago, in July of 2015, it's not two years later yet and I have now seen 100 movies for "free" on my Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA) card.

You'd know I would keep such a list, and indeed I have. And it's probably a fitting assessment of the state of the movies that my first movie seen with the card (Terminator: Genisys) and my 100th movie seen with the card (John Wick: Chapter 2) are both action movie sequels.

Why I'm only now seeing JWC2 is probably worth touching on for a moment. Like Get Out, The Lego Batman Movie (both of which I also saw on this card) and several other early 2017 releases in the U.S., John Wick: Chapter 2 is a mid-2017 release in Australia, having just hit cinemas last Thursday. It's available for rent from the U.S. iTunes already, I believe, but if I saw it that way I'd have to actually pay for it.

The AFCA card has allowed me to not pay for things, for the most part, for nearly two years now. As I have discussed on a couple occasions, I was accepted into this association by virtue of being a working critic in Australia, having provided clips and links and whatnot. I say "for the most part" and put "free" in inverted commas (which is what they call them down here) in the second paragraph because it's not, of course, 100% free.

But it's dirt cheap, and getting ever dirtier. For the privilege of seeing these 100 movies, I have paid exactly $180 dollars. That's $30 for the first partial year, then an additional $75 each of the past two Januarys. So for those of you quick at math -- or "maths," as they call them down here -- that's $1.80 per movie. And since I don't pay again until next January, that average cost will drop even further by then.

So it's not free free -- the only truly free ones are the ones where I go to critics screenings, and I still do that on the average of about once a month as well -- but it's as close as you can get in today's world. The only movies I pay less for, while still paying something at all, are the 99 cent rentals from iTunes. Though if I'm really diligent in getting out to movies for the rest of 2017, I could bring my per-film cost down close to that by the end of January.

I guess I don't have a lot more to say on this topic, as the primary purpose of this post was indeed to mark the milestone.

Except I guess I can say this to all the readers out there, who may be jealous of my access to movies in the theater:

Na-na na-na boo boo.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The insufficiency of liking a title

I took My Soul to Take out of the library, and in fact renewed it when I didn't watch it during the initial three weeks of having it at my house, mostly because I found the title interesting.

That was my impression of the film seven years ago when it was released. I didn't remember until the closing credits that there was another factor that probably interested me at the time: it was directed by Wes Craven. In fact, it ended up being his second-to-last film.

But the title was the only thing I remembered this time around, imagining that a movie that cleverly repurposed the last line of a child's bedtime incantation must have something to offer. It's a title that credits the audience some level of intelligence and an appreciation for the poetic abstract, so I thought some level of intelligence might also be present in the filmmaking.

Boy was I wrong.

This movie is dreadful from its very opening seconds. In fact, it begins with such a discordant level of absurdity that even my wife, who was in the room but not watching it, snapped to attention and started laughing at it because it was just so off.

The best thing I can say about the movie after this inauspicious beginning is that it morphs into something boringly conventional, at least in terms of its plotting. Its execution remains disturbingly amateurish.

Craven was 71 years old when he made it, and though that doesn't necessarily guarantee he had lost it, I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. The other choice is just to assume he considered this the best possible version of pretty silly material that he should never have selected in the first place. (And by "selected" I mean "wrote" -- yes, he was responsible for this disaster from top to bottom.)

Craven did direct one more film, Scream 4, which I certainly won't watch until I've seen Scream 3, which may never happen.

Only then will I know if Craven went out with bang or faded away -- or if he went out with a "so bad it's good" kind of bang.

My Soul to Take is almost so bad it's good, but really, it's just bad.

Good title, though.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The dangers of burnout

I saw a lovely documentary called Quest on Thursday night for closing night of HRAFF, the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, which I helped curate.

I should have seen it at the beginning of February, but, you know -- burnout.

I started watching this movie about an "ordinary" African-American family in North Philadelphia as one of my last movies to consider for this year's festival. It had debuted at Sundance, and our festival director had gone there to see it, as well as any other new films tackling the broad subject of human rights.

And even though I know she's fond of Sundance movies -- both for their increased marketability and to justify her long and expensive trip to Utah -- I turned it off after 20 minutes.

You know, burnout.

I will admit, even after the second viewing, that the first 20 minutes of Jonathan Olshefski's film do not give it its absolute best showcase. He follows the Rainey family, two of whom are pictured above (the film has no proper poster at this point), for a nearly ten-year period, the first few years without any idea what he was going to do with the material. That shows in the kind of rambling nature of the oldest footage we see. "Why are we watching this particular family?" I wondered at the time.

But when certain events in their lives really kick in, boy does this movie get going. And then there's the natural affection you start to feel for them just by spending time with them, which can only occur gradually over the course of a film's running time, increasing power and profundity the longer it goes.

I shut it off for two reasons:

1) Too much American content. Every time we choose movies for HRAFF, we seem to become acutely conscious, almost immediately, about how much good material we have from the U.S. As this is an international festival, and as Australia naturally has a bit of a "little brother" syndrome related to the U.S., we really try not to hit the American material too hard. Last year, that resulted in one of my favorite films we were considering being left off the program.

2) Too little, too late. When it's the end of the reviewing period, and the lineup is basically set, a film really needs to knock your socks off, or else you might as well just shut it off.

Quest didn't knock my socks off in those first 20 minutes, either time I saw it. But to have disqualified it so quickly discounts the possibility of a movie growing in power as it goes along. The conventional wisdom when reading a script is that if it hasn't grabbed you in the first 20 pages -- maybe even 15, maybe even 10 -- then it's never going to get any better. Movies must be front-loaded in order to get made. But that doesn't mean that a back-loaded movie can't be exquisitely satisfying, and Quest is one such movie.

I'm writing about this today primarily as a kind of apologia to Quest, which would have sat out in the cold if my advice had been followed. Advice that was based on an assumption formed after only 20 minutes, when any movie really deserves to have its whole running time considered.

But I'm also writing about it to suggest the practical limitations of any intense period of considering films for a festival. And HRAFF is, I have to imagine, one of the more intense out there, especially for a comparatively small festival (only about 30 features). Eight of us watch five dozen films over a period of five months from August to January, as many as five to six per week. If each contender were only being watched by one of us, we'd get through the lot more quickly, but it's an issue of fairness that demands each be watched by at least two people. That way, a programmer feeling a bit cranky that day can't single-handedly sink the fortunes of any particular film.

Or, a programmer suffering from burnout.

But we all suffered from burnout at one point or another during those five months, and I don't know that there's any way to avoid it short of considering fewer contenders overall. When I first started with HRAFF, I wondered how many human rights films could be made in any given year. The answer, as it turns out, is: a lot. And you won't really know if they're right for the festival until you watch them.

So now I'm questioning whether that's something I'll be doing again next year.

Two years should be sufficient to show myself as a seasoned festival programmer on my resume, should that kind of thing be necessary to any future career goals I have. But that kind of practical resume polishing wasn't the only reason I returned to HRAFF for a second year. Seeing the fruits of my labors in last year's festival, which included my three written pieces in the handsome festival program, and reveling in gala opening and closing nights that featured copious amounts of wine, I really felt the reward of all those months of grind. It was something I wanted to do again.

I suppose everything that is rewarding about HRAFF was rewarding again in 2017, if maybe to a slightly lesser degree. I was still proud of the blurbs I wrote about the films in the program. I still had my baby that I felt I had personally shepherded into the festival, Tanna this year on the heels of The Armor of Light last year. And opening and closing nights still consisted of copious amounts of wine.

But everything that is challenging about HRAFF was even more challenging this year -- and more challenging to a greater degree than it was more rewarding (particularly since it was slightly less rewarding). I think the burnout was a bit harder this year, and I think I have suffered even more of a setback in my overall desire to watch documentaries. That's not something I want. Sooner or later I will be far enough removed from watching 50 documentaries in five months that I will eagerly pop them into my DVD player again (or the digital equivalent thereof). But that day still seems pretty far in the future.

I guess there is a third reason I'm writing this post today: to sing the praises of Quest. Sadly, I doubt a theatrical release is forthcoming, and the director, who spoke about it at closing night in an engaging Q&A session, talked about it being most likely to materialize on public television. And while I would not want to denigrate public television, especially as it comes under threat from Donald Trump, I'm realistic in my idea of how many eyeballs it reaches in that capacity -- even though it should theoretically be available to everybody. Here's hoping it does eventually appear on Netflix or something, which will confer it some of the prominence it deserves.

The fact that we're living in Trump's America -- even if we live halfway across the world -- is all the more reason for a film like Quest to be seen. It's a film that celebrates the everyday exceptionalism of one underprivileged African-American family trying to navigate uncertain times, though it's not even explicitly about race or politics. Families that expect to be further marginalized under Trump deserve this kind of loving spotlight that doesn't preach at you, only showcases their messy, inspirational humanity.

That fact that we're living in Trump's America also gives me real pause when considering whether to come back for a third HRAFF, which will be kicking off all too soon in scarcely two months. While a part of me is inclined to reclaim the hours devoted to watching human rights movies, 80 percent of which won't make the festival, another part -- a stronger part? -- feels even more committed to doing my part to contributing art to the human rights conversation.

Even if it means debilitating levels of burnout.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Asian Audient: Korean double feature

This is the fifth in my monthly series Asian Audient. Yes, I know it's a broad subject. At least I didn't call it "Oriental Audient."

Last month I couldn't properly source a movie made in South Korea (or by a South Korean filmmaker). This month, I sourced two of them, though I'm only counting one as May's "official" entry in the series.

That official entry is Kim Jee-woon's 2008 western The Good the Bad the Weird, which I am choosing to write without commas, though the internet is fairly evenly split on how to manage that. There are no commas when the title appears on screen in the movie, which is usually how I make such decisions. Also, I just don't really like it when a movie title contains commas, as it makes it more difficult to write when listing it along several other movies in the same sentence. You have to get semi-colons involved, which no one wants. And even that is a grammatical compromise, a typographic way of representing something that betrays the original (and quite useful) function of a semi-colon.

The unofficial entry, which I actually watched first, was last year's The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook. I didn't consider this as a full-on regular entry in this series because it came out too recently. The original impulse behind these annual themed viewing series was to create a regimented system for watching older films. I guess 2008 counts as "older" for these purposes -- it's not a new release, anyway, which is the type of film I am most naturally motivated to seek out (for reasons of compiling year-end lists and what not). And just to avoid confusion -- whatever that means -- I probably would not have watched The Handmaiden this month, except that it was made available from iTunes as the weekly 99 cent rental. That was an opportunity I couldn't bypass, especially since the HD version is also 99 cents and I expected this film to look beautiful (and possibly even "gorgeous," ha ha. See my most recent post if you don't know why I'm laughing). And because I touched on it briefly in my last post, I'll touch on it only briefly again here.

The two movies do have more in common than being Korean, though. They both take place in the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and they also both include characters who chop off people's fingers. That's fairly specific. The Handmaiden was based on a book called Fingersmith, and The Good the Bad the Weird has a character known as Finger Chopper. After cutting my thumb on Saturday night while slicing a lime, just an hour or two before I started The Handmaiden, I might have watched those scenes with a little bit of an extra wince.

But let's get specifically into the film that pays homage to Sergio Leone in more than one way, The Good the Bad the Weird. This is an electric gas of a good time. It's so fun, in fact, that I had a hard time recognizing it as the work of the same man who made the misanthropic, ultra-violent serial killer movie I Saw the Devil. TGTBTW is violent, too, but in a cartoonish way. As I was watching, I was pretty sure Kim was the guy whose American debut, the Schwarzenegger vehicle The Last Stand, was a surprisingly fun time a couple years ago. The two films have similar temperaments. But I wouldn't have seen the I Saw the Devil connection, as that film seems to represent completely opposite sensibilities to these. (And speaking of The Last Stand, the timing of seeing this film is interesting, as well, as we're currently watching season 2 of Netflix's Love, which features a Korean director making an American action movie.)

In fact, if only because of the broad similarity of them both being from Asian filmmakers (and what is this series about if not making things more broad than they probably should be?), the filmmaker this reminded me of most is Stephen Chow, director and star of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. Hustle is where the similarity really strikes me, even though there's little hand-to-hand combat in TGTBTW and none of the ancient arts. Yeah, this is a gunslinger movie to be sure, but the same kind of heightened reality, active camera and snappy editing inform both films.

The plot is not super important but I will give you some of it anyway, by custom. It essentially focuses on three gunslinger/mercenary types, played by Jung Woo-sung ("The Good"), Lee Byung-hun ("The Bad") and Song Kang-ho ("The Weird"), though only through IMDB did I learn that these characters were meant to correspond directly with the three thirds of the title. The three are variously involved with the attempted acquisition of a map to buried treasure somewhere in the Manchurian desert, which takes them through gunfights aboard trains, in shanty towns, on horseback in the open expanses of the desert, and so forth. There's an uneasy alliance between the characters representing good and weird, with possibly the most lethal of them ("The Bad") tracking them. It's a truly international effort involving Korean and Chinese mercenaries and the Japanese imperial army. Anyway, the map is a bit of a MacGuffin designed to get them all shooting at each other.

And shoot at each other they do. This is some of the most entertaining gun play I have ever seen in a movie, and the staging is truly operatic, with the camera whipping around in time to catch that person falling off that balcony but still getting another person jumping through a window a second later halfway across the set. This is absolutely virtuoso action filmmaking. Kim does one of the most impossible things I have ever seen with a camera in the backseat of a taxi cab in I Saw the Devil, so in retrospect, all this fantastic camera work is no surprise.

But Kim is also a director in the original sense of that word, getting truly charismatic performances from his three stars, as well as a variety of colorful extras. I have rarely seen a cast having as much fun as everyone clearly had making this movie, even with a body count probably over 100. The tone works perfectly.

I suppose at the end of the day it's essentially an inconsequential film, which limited my star rating to "only" four stars. But it's an immensely enjoyable watch, and I don't know how a whole two hours and 11 minutes passed while I was watching it. It flies by.

It strikes me as a bit odd that I have now seen The Good the Bad the Weird, but I have yet to see the movie whose title inspired this one, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (See, there's that awkward sentence structure when the title has commas.) One of these years I'm going to need to focus on westerns as the theme of my annual viewing series.

As for The Handmaiden ... well, that got 4.5 stars, both because of its enviable beauty and because of an intricate narrative that is both intellectually rewarding and easy enough to follow. The story of a rich heiress, a conman trying to seduce her out of her fortune and the handmaiden he hires as his inside woman is told twice from different perspectives, the second of which elucidates things we thought we knew the first time, then continues toward a compelling conclusion with several more twists along the way. It's a feast for the eyes, of course, and sure, it's also quite sexy. (The film features graphic lesbian sex at certain points, if you didn't know.) But the script is also an unexpected strength. I say "unexpected" because Park's movies, while always quite memorable, do not always proceed forward tightly or in ways that make total sense. This is a real exception, and the movie is so composed and fully realized that I have a hard time believing it was made by the same person who made the dull and disastrous Stoker.

What say I for this series in June? I see that getting out of China and Japan (while not totally escaping them, as the content of these two movies reveals) worked quite well, so I'll try it again. I'm thinking something by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but it'll kind of depend on the availability of those films, which is so far somewhat elusive. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Overused words in film writing: "gorgeous"

There must be hundreds of synonyms for the word "beautiful" in the English language.

However, as film critics, we seem to be aware of only one: "gorgeous."

I don't know how there came to be this unspoken agreement, but far and away the most popular word to describe the lush cinematography, costumes or set design of a film is "gorgeous." And I'm not just attacking this proclivity in others, though I have become hyper-aware of it. I myself have fallen back on this word more times than I can count.

A film like The Handmaiden, which I watched on Saturday night, certainly deserves such an assignation. It is gorgeous. It's also intricate, fascinating and narratively dynamic. Oh, and incredibly sexy. So combine all that with the gorgeousness and we're talking about a helluva good movie.

But we must find another way of expressing its surface beauty, mustn't we?

When I googled "The Handmaiden" and "gorgeous" I got 383,000 results. Now surely, many of those would be duplicates or unrelated, in some cases only happening to find those things within 100 words of each other touching on two separate topics. I started going through seeing if I could count the separate relevant instances, but around 20 decided it was a fruitless exercise.

And I guess I can't empirically prove my theory of this word's overuse, as when I google "The Handmaiden" and "beautiful" I get 525,000 results. Maybe suggesting that "gorgeous" is the word we all opted for when we decided "beautiful" was too commonplace.

I'm wondering if we so readily use the word "gorgeous" to describe a thing as a reaction to our repressed desire to use it to describe a person. You can't call a person "gorgeous" anymore -- not in print, anyway, unless you want to be accused of objectifying him or her. If I must discuss the beauty of a woman, I'll objectify her in more objective ways, as it were. I'll make reference to her "striking presence" or even her "ethereal beauty," as possessing beauty seems to be an objective observation of someone whereas calling her "beautiful" makes it subjective. Or, you can call a member of your own gender "gorgeous," because then you can't be assumed to be objectifying him or her because you presumably do not want to sleep with her, if we are assuming a heteronormative default for the writer.

In any case, we feel liberated to use the word "gorgeous" to describe a cinematic sunset, or an ornate castle, or a blooming rose garden, or a rich robe worn by the main character. Preferably, all four together.

I guess I don't know what our other best options are, if we want to avoid "gorgeous" as well as, more obviously, "beautiful." I find myself sometimes opting for words like "lush" or "exquisite," but after a while I almost feel like I'm getting into thesaurus territory. Constantly seeking new words just for the sake of variety is not great. I give you the example of the writer who believes it's bad writing to repeatedly use the word "said," so he/she peppers the text with "exclaimed," "noted," "yelled," "smiled" and other increasingly inexact synonyms for "said." Just say "said." That word alone does not determine how good your writing is, though its synonyms can determine how bad.

But am I maybe not as bad an abuser of this term as I think I am?

I did a quick search of my documents on my computer to call up the uses of the word "gorgeous" in my own reviews, and found only 20. I've written over 1,300 reviews that are stored somewhere on this computer since I first started saving them nearly 20 years ago. (Not initially saving them on this computer, mind you, but steadily moving them down through the computers over the years.) And one of those is a synopsis I wrote ages ago for Revenge of the Nerds, in which I refer to the sorority sisters as "gorgeous." And then one of them, weirdly, is my review of Something's Gotta Give, in which I cannot actually find the word "gorgeous" at all. How it came up in this search I have no idea, which tends to severely undercut the value of these results.

The results do tell me that I've used this word in four reviews written within the past two years, which tells me either a) this is an increasing phenomenon in recent years, which is why I never noticed it before now or b) that a word appearing four times within two years is actually a pretty low occurrence.

But I invite you to listen for this word in the podcasts you listen to, watch for it in the reviews you read, and note it in yourself as you describe movies that look particularly, well, gorgeous.

Maybe we don't have to actively avoid it, if it does do the best job of describing something of any word available to us. Maybe it's like "said" in that way.

But if the quest as a writer is to ever be improving your craft, I know I personally will be seeking synonyms going forward.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The original audience didn't know shit

There's a tendency -- or at least, one could argue there should be -- to give movies made in other eras a certain benefit of the doubt. It was a different time, so if you view it only through the lens you have as a modern-day viewer, you will miss the things that appealed to the audience at that time.

National Lampoon's Van Wilder is not my best example of that, only my most recent.

But it is the example that's causing me to question the value of the whole thing.

If you're looking for the best and possibly most extreme example, take silent movies. If you were born after, say, 1970 and take only your current viewing standards as a means of judging the quality of movies, you might not like silent movies at all. You'd say they were too exaggerated, they were racist, they had a goofy sense of humor, the images didn't look good, and they were boring. I mean, if you were a philistine, you could say things like that.

But a certain element of appreciating a silent movie is putting yourselves in the shoes of its original audience. The greatest silent movies rise above even these adjustments, but the ones that are merely good would benefit from a little bit of a perspective shift. Imagine yourself as an audience member of that time, and you'll enjoy it a lot better.

I'm wondering, though, if this causes us to elevate films that truly aren't worthy.

Take National Lampoon's Van Wilder, a comparatively recent film, having come out only 15 years ago. In a lot of ways I think of 2002 as part of this era, not a different era, but watching Van Wilder Friday night reminded me that 15 years can actually feel like a long time in something like cinema, in which trends involving both a film's central elements (like its humor) and its superficial ones (like music or the opening credits) can undergo regular changes.

As I was watching (and not liking) this film, my first instinct was to think, "Well, if I'd seen it in 2002 I'm sure I would have liked it a lot more." And I already felt myself starting to adjust my star rating upward accordingly.

But would I have?

At the time Van Wilder was released, I remember thinking it looked really dumb (which is why I never saw it). But over the years, people I respected started describing their fond memories of it, mostly while being sure to speak of it in guilty pleasure terms, though sometimes not. That was part of the reason I gave it a shot Friday night.

The problem with trying to convince myself that I would have liked it better 15 years ago is that it assumes that I necessarily agree with those people.

Tastes are very subjective, and when it comes to humor, that's even more the case. You'll find yourself wildly disagreeing even with people who share your sense of humor in most ways. Plus, humor is often contingent on the circumstances of your viewing. If you were having a good day or seeing it with people who were ready to laugh, you might really find a movie funny. Without those conditions in place, you might hate it.

So it seems especially tricky to try to decide if something might have been funnier if you'd seen it 15 years ago, because it might have been funnier if you'd seen it two weeks ago, depending on your personal circumstances. And yet humor in particular can benefit from an enforced perspective shift, because something might have been incredibly funny in 2002 because it was specific to that moment. Just because that moment has passed does not mean that it wasn't highly effective at the time it was made.

But what if it wasn't effective at the time it was made?

Original effectiveness is an unsafe assumption to make, and if you make it just because some other people liked it once and because you might be unqualified to properly make that judgment now, you might be artificially championing a film that doesn't deserve it. We need to be able to call a spade a spade. If something seems bad, it might just be bad.

And maybe those people could only call it a guilty pleasure because they saw it at the exact moment of its peak timeliness, after which (or before which) it would have no value at all. "It was dumb but I enjoyed it," you'll often hear people say of movies like Van Wilder. Over time, the only part of that statement that truly endures is "It was dumb."

So how much of this thinking can be applied more broadly?

It's hard to say. It's certainly possible to genuinely dislike films from the earlier decades of cinema history, which you can define to continue as recently as is meaningful for you. If you're a young-un today, that might mean as recently as the 1980s or 1990s. You can legitimately dislike those films just because they might not be very good. Just because some people like them, it doesn't mean you have to.

But I'd say that the older a movie is, the more likely you are to feel the need to give it a star ratings boost beyond your actual feelings for it. "I'd give that movie a 2.5, but since it was made in 1933, it's probably really a 3.5." That kind of logic is pretty pervasive, I'd say, unless you are just so confident in your own opinions or some kind of illusory absolute value of the quality of a film that you feel like whatever star rating something deserves is the one it deserves, no asterisks necessary.

Conversely, as Van Wilder is only 15 years old, I can trust this version of myself to view it pretty similarly to how that version of myself would have viewed it.

There should be a kind of bad, though, that is so clearly bad that it transcends any specific moment in time. The bads that are so bad that no audience could have, or should have, liked the movie in question, whenever they lived. I kind of hope and pray for these types of bad, as they leave me with no ambiguity about how the film deserves to be judged. They're pretty rare, though. More likely you're left with a sense of something seeming just a bit lame, then tell yourself it was probably good at the time.

Van Wilder does not deserve such consideration, I've decided. So I'm calling a spade a spade.

The funny thing is that I am still kind of imprisoned by this mindset, on some level. I toyed with 1.5 stars as its rating on Letterboxd, but ultimately went with two, in part because of that nagging part of me that feels like I would have liked it better 15 years ago.

Still, I think even 28-year-old Vance would have found the sophomoric, obnoxious bro humor and gross-out gags wanting.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Tanna: This year's Creed

I'll explain that potentially confounding title in a moment, but first:

Fucking Tanna.

Excuse my language, but that's all I could say in December, after my second viewing of Australia's first best foreign language Oscar nominee: "Fucking Tanna." And if that needs explaining, I'm not mad at Tanna. Far from it. In fact, it had so reduced me, emotionally, that the only way I could think to describe its impact on me was to call out its pernicious effectiveness as an example of a medium designed to manipulate us -- in the best sense of that word -- via a slow shake of the head and a seemingly incongruous expletive.

You've heard of Tanna by now, if you follow the Oscars, but you certainly wouldn't have heard about it last August, when I first watched it, or last December, when I confirmed its lofty spot in my year-end rankings with a rewatch. So Friday night's viewing was the third one, as it took its rightful spot in the lineup of this year's Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), which I helped curate. A rightful spot we were determined to deny it because the movie is already available on DVD and digital rental, a reality that made us less likely to sell tickets to it.

Or so we thought in September. But as the months went along and it ultimately got an Oscar nomination, we thrust it back into contention, and there it was in the program. And it turns out our optimism was justified. Last night's showing was not a sellout, but it was damn near close, and the co-director, Bentley Dean, appeared afterward for a Q&A, coming across as thoughtful, gracious and funny. I shook his hand afterward, in part because my wife was talking to him -- she had helped approve some funding for Tanna in her job with the Victorian film body, and was in fact thanked in the credits. Which was the cherry on the top of her first viewing last night, the other cherry being that she loved it (almost) as much as I do.

So what does this movie have to do with Creed?

I'll tell you.

1) Both were my #2 ranked movie of their respective years, consecutive years as it happens.

2) Both were movies I gave five stars on Letterboxd.

3) Both were movies I saw three times before a year had passed since my first viewing.

4) In both cases, I saw them a third time before I saw the only movie that bested them, my #1 of the year, a second time. Last year I saw Inside Out for a second time only a few days after my third Creed viewing. I have yet to see Toni Erdmann a second time, though I'm not currently expecting to see it tomorrow, to complete the parallel.

5) The dates of the viewings even align in a sort of weird way. Although the first viewings were not aligned, date-wise (August vs. November), my second viewings of each movie came only a few weeks apart (Creed on November 30th, Tanna on December 15th), and the third viewings were only a month apart on the calendars of their respective years -- exactly a month apart, in fact (Creed on June 12th of last year, Tanna on May 12th of this year).

6) And I'm not going to even talk about the shared skin color of the stars of both films because that's really not relevant, and the cultures of the people in question are as different as they could be. The only reason I'm even not talking about it, as it were, is because I can't avoid the allure of even superficial similarities when making this type of side-by-side comparison.

There's even a funny way the films are inversely related, in terms of my own experience watching them. In the case of Creed, I saw it the first two times in the theater before seeing it a third on video (for my wife's first time). It was the opposite with Tanna, as I did not see it in the theater until the third viewing -- which was also my wife's first time.

And I don't know if it was because of that theatrical setting for my third viewing, but here's the part where my experience with the two films diverges. While I was conscious of my appreciation of Creed dropping just a tick on the third viewing, it was the opposite with Tanna. I feel like each viewing of this beautiful, touching, magnificent film is giving me a little more than the one before it, which is crazy, because I gave it five stars after the first viewing. Simply put, I spent most of my Friday Tanna viewing tingling with the same goosebumps I lamented not getting in this post.

Funnily enough, there's also a Tanna connection to that post I just linked to, discussing the thrills I'm not getting from movies that rely too heavily on CG (Goosebumps being the example in that post). You wouldn't expect CG to be a word that would come anywhere near a movie set on the island of Vanuatu and enacted by the natives in a recreation of a story from their own history. But in the Q&A afterward, it somehow came up that a very small amount of computer graphics was indeed necessary. There's a scene in the film where two tribes exchange kava and pigs to symbolize a peace treaty between them, but apparently, they did not finish filming before someone thought they were done and roasted one of the pigs. So, yes indeed, a pig was inserted digitally.

Could have fooled me.

So here's hoping this little additional dose of Tanna-related PR will bring more eyeballs to this phenomenal achievement.

See it. Love it.

If you do the former, you won't be able to help doing the latter.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The confused messaging of Get Out

It's never a good idea to talk about what a movie "should have been." All conventional wisdom about reviewing a movie endorses meeting it on its own terms, rating the movie you have in front of you and not some hypothetical permutation of that movie that might have done x, y or z differently.

Yet we all do it. And that's not only because a central part of reviewing movies is quibbling with decisions, and implicitly if not actually proposing alternate ways of accomplishing the movie's goals.

I suppose the sin comes out as a matter of degrees. You can talk about small adjustments to a movie, but you can't suggest sweeping changes, or else you're talking about a different movie altogether.

And yet I can't help but wish sweeping changes upon Get Out ... while still wanting it to stay more or less the same movie.

I'll try to explain. But first, some background.

I have been keeping up the cone of silence around Get Out like around no recent movie I can remember, and that's probably because I've waited longer for the release of Get Out here in Australia than any movie I can remember. It was basically nine weeks between the February 24th release of the movie in the U.S. and the May 4th release in Australia. That's a lot of podcast discussions to avoid (four, to be exact), online comments to not parse too closely (several), and theatrical trailers to plug your ears and scrunch your eyes shut as they played (about four as well).

Yet I did it because I had such high hopes for what this movie had the possibility of being.

For a while it looked like it was going to get there. And watch out, because now I'm going to spoil the hell out of this movie.

When it looked like it was going to get there, I thought it might be a horror movie version of Django Unchained. When I realized it wasn't going to get there, it had turned into a horror movie version of Self/Less.

One of those is a more common reference than the other, so I'll explain the other.

Self/Less is a 2015 sci-fi thriller directed by Tarsem Singh, in which the consciousness of a dying man (Ben Kingsley) is swapped into the body of a much younger, more attractive man (Ryan Reynolds). It's not all that good but it has its moments.

I don't love Django Unchained either, but boy do I wish this movie was more like Django than it was like Self/Less.

See, the movie I thought Get Out was going to be -- and, to return to the fallacy of wishing a movie were a different movie than it is, the movie I wished it had been -- was that horror Django Unchained, or maybe the horror version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, which is probably the most obvious point of comparison. Attractive young white girl brings handsome young black boyfriend home to her supposedly accepting family, and all hell breaks loose.

It was the way in which the hell broke loose that I didn't like.

I expected this movie to be about racism, and it is -- sort of. But racism is actually kind of a red herring in this movie. Or, it's racism of a totally different sort, or reverse racism, or extremely hurtful behavior directed at a particular race of people that has more to do with wanting to be them than not wanting to be them.

And it's about swapping brains into bodies where they don't belong.

But how much more interesting would this movie have been if it were really about racism?

I love the idea of untested liberal values. So few of us liberals have to prove that we are actually the liberals we say we are. We believe in equal rights, and we tell everybody we'd love a gay or trans child just as much as we'd love one who's straight, and we tell people we "don't see skin color." But rarely are we required to provide the proof of this in our own lives.

So I love the idea of a movie where a girl brings her black boyfriend home to her liberal parents, who have their liberal values tested for the first time and fail that test spectacularly. And fail that test in a way that drops the movie they're in into the horror genre.

Jordan Peele could have made that movie. That he made a movie about body swapping instead is to this movie's detriment.

I don't want to say there are not cool parts of the plot he did choose to tell. The most chilling thing I can think of in Get Out is the performance of Betty Gabriel as Georgina, the maid/servant who shows the most obvious signs of being "off" -- of, basically, being a lobotomized zombie. She's terrifying. And if it had been this other movie, we'd likely lose her performance.

But I think the scariest thing about scary movies is the ways in which they are plausible on some level. I don't know about you, but movies involving the threat of fantastical creatures don't get under my skin the way that movies involving the real behavior of humans can. I want to see what a liberal father who suddenly realizes he can't stomach the idea of his daughter being with a black man might surprise himself by doing. I also think that movie is a more interesting conversation starter.

More interesting than, you know, a mad brain surgeon who sticks the minds of old white people into young black bodies, first having gotten his wife to hypnotize those young black bodies' original hosts.

And let's get to that. This movie puts you on the lookout for racist behavior against black people, and it certainly gives you it, or some version of it. But more than anything it's really giving you a look at the awkwardness of white people around black people, who try to find that perfect balance between trying too hard to ingratiate themselves to them and trying too little. Well-meaning white people try to engage black people on subjects that they believe to be of mutual interest, like Barack Obama, in the case of liberals (and in the case of Bradley Whitford's character in this movie). I find that pretty interesting, because although it's a sort of racism, it's really just a sort of racial hyper-awareness. The requirements of how to behave in a situation they consider fraught with the potential to offend causes them to become extra conscious of everything they say or do, which can turn them into babbling idiots stumbling over themselves. Whereas if they just shut off their brains, they'd probably interact with the person who is different from them in a natural fashion that might even contain genuine bonding.

That stuff is all interesting, and it becomes even more so when you throw in an element of how it might go wrong. How it might go horribly, horribly wrong, and how things might escalate into dark places over the course of a well-intentioned weekend.

What Peele does instead is he confuses his message through seemingly contradictory elements of that message.

Because they are inexplicably sinister, the white family in this movie treats their daughter's boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya) with a kind of thinly veiled contempt. That would be all well and good if they were secret racists posing as a picturesque liberal family accepting of all shapes, sizes and colors.

But these people are not secret racists, or at least, I don't think they are. Their secret is not that they're racists, but that they want to be Kaluuya and the others they have kidnapped, hypnotized and lobotomized over the years. They find there to be something essentially superior about a black person that makes his/her body ripe for this mind swap procedure. And yes, some of that is based on a Jimmy the Greek-style "blacks have better hips for running" type of racism, but the end result is still that these people choose to transplant their brains into the bodies of people they want to serve as physical vessels for their consciousness for the remaining days of those bodies. You don't assume the form of something you loathe, do you?

And it's not all "blacks can run faster" stereotyping. Some of it is "blacks are cooler," or "blacks are better lovers," or whatever fantasy these old white people have conjured up about these idealized corporeal vessels. In any case, they are not just trying to be rejuvenated via some younger version of themselves. They are actively seeking an experience that they consider foreign to theirs, and implicitly, superior to theirs.

The confusion of the message comes in the sense that there is a disdain and loathing in the attitudes of the captors toward their prey. Maybe only because they are movie villains and Peele is playing things a bit on the broad side in his first feature, but Peele requires them to appear to hate this thing they are also trying to attain. There's no essential reason they have to behave in a sinister fashion toward Kaluuya's Chris and the others they also enslave. They do so because the beats of a horror movie require it. I'd argue it might almost be more scary if they were appearing to worship these people they were about to lobotomize.

And another confusion results from all this, namely, Chris' certainty from the very start of the movie that it is a bad idea to bring your black boyfriend home to your white parents without telling them he's black. Which, I suppose, is a bit of conventional wisdom I would tend to agree with. However, he's so focused on the likelihood that they will balk at him that it almost feels like it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He's looking right away for any sign that something's wrong, and he gets those signs because Peele has written those characters to give off signs. He's done this because they are villains in a movie and he doesn't trust them to be scary if they are not scary in obvious ways, ways that align them with mad scientists more than with real people whose actual complexities are scary enough on their own.

So what ends up happening is that Chris ends up being right, but for the wrong reasons. Sure, he's got pretty good evidence in the spooky handyman and spooky maid he encounters upon arriving, who, one might argue, are also written to too much of an extreme. (I mean, why would you want to transplant the brain of a loved one into another person's body if it meant they were going to entirely cease behaving normally?)

But I'd argue that his prediction that her family is secretly racist is not actually borne out. They don't hate Chris, they want to be him, though it's conveyed in a problematic way because Peele also kind of wants to have them be racist, even though that doesn't make sense. And the daughter, who turns out to be their field agent luring in their subjects, can't be very racist either if she's dated and slept with a string of black men. She too displays a loathing toward Chris (and presumably, her previous boyfriends) though she has presumably committed months if not years of her life to sleeping with them and spending significant amounts of time in their company. That's like someone saying they smoke two packs a day because they hate cigarettes.

So if I've got this litany of complaints about Get Out, why do I kind of also just want to leave it exactly as it is?

Because there are great things in this movie. Like the hypnotism scene. Like Kaluuya's performance in that scene, and in general. Like the mood of dread that permeates the movie. Like Gabriel's aforementioned performance, and like the performance of Lakeith Stanfield as another enslaved vessel. Like the opening scene, which could make a great short movie in itself. Like the last third of awesome genre satisfactions. Like the promise it shows in a director who has cut his teeth as a comedian, but is not laughing here.

I just wish the thoughts and ideas of this movie, which are bursting with social and cultural relevance, could be streamlined into something more coherent.

And that, you know, maybe the movie didn't have to be about brain swapping.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The goosebumps I didn't get

This post is not exclusively about Goosebumps, but rather, an opportunity to discuss something that has been bothering me for a while, that others have talked about plenty and I have probably talked about in this space myself. Goosebumps was just a reminder of the thing that’s been bugging me, and it had the benefit of providing me a good headline for this piece.

The problem with Goosebumps, which I watched on Wednesday night, and movies of its ilk is that they just don’t wow us anymore. They don’t provide – you guessed it – goosebumps.

The goosebumps we once got from effects-driven movies have all but dissipated in recent years. Goosebumps the movie was just the most recent example.

Although you’re likely familiar with it, I’ll give you a quick description of this movie anyway. The best way to describe it is as a mash up of Jumanji, Night at the Museum, Gremlins, and even something like Ruby Sparks (though the reason for that last is a bit of a spoiler, so I won’t go into it). The concept is that the creations of author R.L. Stine – a real person played here by Jack Black – are real beasties that are trapped inside his locked books, Jumanji-style. When they escape, they create havoc, because what else would they do?

There was a time when we would have been awed just by the ability to create digital beasties that escaped from books and took a small Delaware town by storm. Even if the writing was not great, which it usually isn’t in movies like this, the visuals would be enough to get you geeked out. What would we see? How would we see it? What cinematic marvels would be newly unveiled to us, things that we never knew before might be possible?

Well, digital effects have progressed so much, and become so available to the common man relatively inexpensively, that the movies that contain them – the movies that used to give us goosebumps – have become commonplace. Instead of one movie per year where creatures materialize out of books, you have six. And that’s joining the six movies set in Middle Earth (or similar), the six movies set in outer space, and the six major disaster movies in which familiar landmarks collapse before our eyes.


I consider this one of the greatest losses of my life as a cinephile. Few things seems like a more tragic frittering of the magic of motion pictures.

The thing is, I don’t know what they could have done differently.

It might have been possible not to saturate us with digital effects, such that not only was everything and anything possible, but we saw anything and everything be possible in almost every movie. But you can understand why any individual studio or visionary director might be hesitant to forfeit their right to use those effects in their movie. Once those effects existed, and could be made to look really great, they were a tool that would remain valuable right up until the moment of overexposure. And it was impossible to know when that moment might arrive, so get it while the getting’s good.

But that moment has arrived. It’s here. And I don’t know if it’s ever leaving.

I guess we’re probably just ready for a new paradigm shift. You know, VR, something like that. That’s the next great technological leap that we can ride, then chew up and spit out. And now it almost feels like it can’t get here fast enough.

So what is a person’s refuge?

Why, movies that don’t require visual effects, of course.

I’m not in a position to do any tabulating now, but I’d venture that in the past three to five years, my yearly top 20 has become almost totally devoid of effects-driven movies. Now, the logic that this is related entirely to digital oversaturation is a bit specious, since writing in movies with significant digital effects tends to be pretty weak. And because of the significant investment in the effects, they can’t afford to take risks in the plot, lest they offend some important segment of their anticipated audience. So these movies end up being bland. As ambitious as they may be in their visual approach, they are that safe in narrative, and truth be told, they are probably not as ambitious visually as they are opportunistic.

But back in the good old days, films that relied on the possibilities of digital effects would regularly grace my top 10, be it Titanic or Starship Troopers or Cloverfield or Gravity. And I guess Gravity was not that long ago, but that’s because Gravity was doing something new. There’s a lot less new nowadays. As recently as 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was knocking on the door of my top 10, but that had a whole other set of things going for it, which didn’t have anything to do whether Snoke or Maz Kanata looked good. Which they didn’t, really.

Can visual effects make a comeback?

Who’s to say. I mean, I do have affection for some of these movies. Last year, for example, I was quite taken with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The reliance by that film on digital effects was heavy.

History is littered with examples of one phenomenon running its course and being replaced by another, one that makes everything feel fresh again, one that we may not have even been anticipating when it snuck up and bit us. I mean, we won’t be stuck with comic book movies forever, either. At least, you wouldn’t think.

So I’ve got my arms open, wide, just waiting for something to come along and renew the fundamental cinematic aspect of creating magic before our eyes.

And maybe the next type of magic will give me goosebumps again. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A breakdown in methods of distinguishing

HRAFF is upon us again -- you know, that's the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, which I have been helping curate for two years now. Opening night was last Thursday night with The Opposition, followed by much drunkenness on free wine. Sunday night was the first of two regular sessions I'm attending before closing night on May 18th.

That was the lovely Ethiopian movie Lamb, directed by an Ethiopian named Yared Zeleke. It's a feature that I did not see in the course of helping select the films, and it is the second movie named Lamb I've seen with a release year of 2015.

The first was directed by Ross Partridge, an American who also stars in the film.

Both posters appear here.

The seeing of this second movie, lovely though it was, has thrown my lists into disarray.

Normally, when I see two movies with the same name, I distinguish them in my lists by including the release year in parentheses afterward. But this is the first time in my long history of watching movies -- exactly 4,800 with my Sunday night viewing of Get Out -- that I have seen two movies released in the same year with the same name.

So to fix it, I wrote them as Lamb (2015, Ross Partridge) and Lamb (2015, Yared Zeleke), though I did not like doing so.

It may seem like a small point, but ... well, it is a small point. There is no "but."

Wikipedia handles the distinction slightly differently, calling them Lamb (2015, American film) and Lamb (2015, Ethiopian film). Wikipedia does not consider its readers to know or care who Ross Patridge and Yared Zeleke are, or more to the point, does not consider the director of a film to be its most salient distinguishing characteristic. And they're probably right, that country of origin is a more universal distinguishing method.

Me? Country's not such a great idea, but I now know that I will accept director as a secondary distinguishing characteristic, if release year fails. And the actual way of writing it has precedent as that's how I display the titles, release years and directors of films in my Most Recently Seen lists to the right on this blog.

If there are ever two films directed by the same director in the same year, I don't know what I'll do -- though I can only imagine that happening if a director was so successful with a short film that someone immediately handed him or her the money to make it into a feature, and somehow that feature was released in the same calendar year.

The Lamb/Lamb problem could have been resolved if only release year were determined by theatrical release date, as part of me argues it should be. But I suppose it was hard to really consider Partridge's version a 2016 film when it played at South by Southwest in March of 2015, only finally attaining a limited release in January of 2016 after playing countless other festivals. (Okay, I counted them -- there were only six.)

Zeleke's film is a bit more definitively a 2015 film, having premiered at Cannes that year and having not to this date attained a U.S. release date (because come on, the U.S. is really what we're talking here, isn't it? Even though I live in Australia). Though it did get a theatrical release in Frances, Germany, Denmark, Spain and Mexico, of all places. And, of course, Ethiopia. I suppose going by the logic of theatrical release dates, Lamb could actually be a 2017 or even 2018 film, if it ever does get that U.S. release. Its Australian release is certainly in 2017, if we are going to count HRAFF, its Australian premiere.

So I guess I have seen either two or zero films named Lamb released in the year 2015.

That really clears things up.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Live-tweeting Guardians of the Galaxy

Not the sequel, mind you. I had to go back and try again with the original before I tried for the first time with the sequel.

But I didn't expect to live-tweet it. Especially since I told my friend I was chatting with on Facebook that I was not going to live-tweet it, having seemed to introduce the possibility by shooting him a couple comments about the opening.

But then I thought, why not live-tweet it? Or really, my equivalent of live-tweeting something -- writing a stream of comments in a Facebook message thread and then transplanting that to my blog. (I tried with Twitter years ago, but lasted only a month or two. One day I will inevitably have to pick it up again.)

And as he was in Chicago beginning his Friday morning as I was winding down my Friday night, he got kind of a kick out of it -- or told me that he did, anyway.

So the following is that transcript, edited for relevance, typos, grammar and some extraneous personal chat. It doesn't contain any time stamps or anything like that, because that was pretty much beyond me (I didn't want to divide my attention any further than it looked like I was starting to plan to do). But if you're familiar with the film you'll probably easily imagine where I am in the narrative.

And if not, maybe it will just make an interesting read in its own right.

But first, my reasons for returning to Guardians of the Galaxy before I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2.

The movie doesn't really work for me. It never did. I gave it a three-star rating on Letterboxd that I now think was too generous by at least a half star. I'm basically a hater when it comes to Guardians of the Galaxy, not in that I hate the movie, but that I act the role of hater when it comes up in conversation. I'm a naysayer. And I rarely resist the chance to tell people it didn't really do anything for me.

But I thought maybe it didn't have to be this way.

Rewatches have sometimes brought me on board with movies I wasn't sure about, and there was an obvious precedent. When Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring came out, I didn't like it. I scoffed at it, actually. But fortunately, that didn't stop me from going to The Two Towers a year later, though I did not rewatch Fellowship to prepare. I ate The Two Towers up, and Flickchart actually shows it to be in my current top 50, though these rankings tend to be fluid and sometimes inaccurate to a concerning degree. (It's #42, to be exact.) I still don't love Fellowship -- the maudlin display of emotion at the end remains kind of laughable to me -- but I do have a great fondness for it, as part of a trilogy that became beloved for me.

I'd rather like Guardians than dislike it, so I had to try.

So let's finally do this thing. My comments start with Me: His comments start with Him: Again, I've discarded some of both, particularly the ones that were too irrelevant. And anything in brackets is me speaking to you now, to give you a little context for what I meant if it's not clear. I've included several photos I sent him along the way, as well.

Here we go:

Me: Man the beginning of this movie is waaaaaay too heavy.

Him: I love the beginning when he's dancing in the space cave.

Me: No, I mean when the fucking mother dies of cancer!

Him: Yeah that part fucking sucks.

Me: What a weird way to start a "good time movie"!

Him: Is that the opening scene?!?

Me: YES.

Him: Dumb. Yes. I remember the dancing first.

Me: I like this kind of rewatch. A visually dynamic film that I may have been wrong about. Looking forward to it but off to a bad start.

Him: I love the scale of that dancing.

Me: Splash title. [That was me indicating that the way the title fills the screen is a great touch.]

Him: He's the perfect size on screen.

Me: Don't worry, I won't live-tweet the whole thing. [Famous last words.]

Me: How does he keep getting batteries for that walkman? [Peter Quill has been in space for more than 20 years.]

Him: Magic. Space batteries.

Me: Nuh uh.

Him: You are fundamentally hateful of space batteries.

Me: Awesome line delivery: "Who?" - Djimon Hounsou

Me: I know more about space batteries than you think.

Me: I could see me showing my kids this movie but I'd have to start after the cancer scene.

Him: I was using space batteries when you were sucking your mother's [REDACTED].

Me: My mother is a woman so she does not have a [REDACTED].

Me: I don't like Rooker in this film. [Michael Rooker]

Me: There are too many blue people in this movie. I'm racist against blue people.

Me: And there's Stan Lee. Yawn. [Marvel granddaddy Stan Lee makes a cameo in every MCU movie.]

Me: Groot = The Iron Giant. Discuss. [Vin Diesel voiced both.]

Him: Oh oh oh hold on that Stan Lee judgment.

Me: Okay.

Me: Zoe Saldana was going to kill him! Until that raccoon jumped on her. [I meant but could not elaborate that it was a strange choice to have our eventual hero trying to use lethal force on one of our other heroes.]

Me: Apparently I'm live-tweeting the whole thing. [Ya think?]

Him: Keep going. I'm reading and driving. [Don't hold it against him, people.]

Me: John C. Reilly is in this!

Me: And Glenn Close.

Me: Glenn Close is in the Jodie Foster in Elysium role.

Me: "You can't hear this? Do you want me to turn it up?" [The cranking up of the middle finger, as in the picture above]

Me: I also think it's weird that they used "Hooked on a Feeling." Doesn't Tarantino own that?

[This is where I told him about my intentions of turning this into a blog post.]

Me: When I look at Gamora I think of that line some comedian once said about Captain Kirk "fucking a green bitch" or whatever the exact wording was. [It later occurred to me that it was Eddie Murphy. Confirmed online.]

Me: Dave Bautista is the best part of this movie. Discuss.

Me: Ronan and Thanos. Are they Greek?

Me: Don't worry, I'm not going to force it. Organic observations only. I'm not going to be "looking for things." [You be the judge whether I lived up to my promise or not.]

Me: "Units" is their currency. Is that kind of like bitcoin?

Me: This space rock where they're meeting is giving me bad Green Lantern flashbacks.

Me: I have to say, Karen Gillan really disappears into her role. Unrecognizable.

Me: Like Groot in the background pulling the battery early. [At the space prison.]

Me: Prison guard: "Drop the leg and get back to your cell." In the middle of a full-scale riot. He'd just have shot him.

Him: Drax is the first autistic main character ever in a blockbuster. Discuss.

[He gave me Dave Bautista's character's name here but I didn't pick up on it and I never learned it otherwise during the course of viewing.]

Him: Who the fuck is Karen Gillan?

Him: You don't know anything about space prison.

Me: Love the random comment about all the jizz in his spaceship.

Him: Is she orange in the movie? [Regarding Gillan.]

Me: These fucking villains are ridiculous looking.

Me: She's blue.

Me: Rooker's floating space arrow is dumb.

Him: Oh. Robot Sinead. [Re: Gillan again.]

Me: If you must.

Him: I like the arrow. Love the red line that it makes.

Him: It's like a kids book.

Him: That kills people.

Me: This movie suffers from that "naming of funny sounding things" problem that tends to afflict Hobbit movies.

Him: It's better than The Hobbit on that front. It knows it's a problem and just goes for it.

Me: Love the use of the Bowie even though it's on the nose. "Moonage Daydream."

Me: News flash: Groot is kind. (Gives a flower to a little girl.)

Him: Of course he is. He's the Iron Giant. Made of wood. [He had not read my earlier comment likening Groot to the Iron Giant at this point.]

Me: Starlord puts the headphones on Gamora in a clever reversal of the iconic scene in the masterwork of that great auteur Zach Braff, Garden State.

Me: Benicio del Toro, you can do better.

Me: Here's the part where Benicio del Toro tells us about everything.

Me: That girl just blew up. Yeah, probably not showing it to my kids after all.

Me: Ronan looks like The Golem from that old movie.

Him: Don't know Ronan.

Him: Still don't remember.

Me: He's not memorable.

Him: Is he like the big bad or something? Or at least you think he is and then there's a bigger bad?

Me: There's a bigger bad but I think he is meant to factor more into future installments. Gamora's dad.

Me: I feel like Rocket probably has the most useful set of skills overall.

Me: Cue "their lowest moment."

Him: Yes Rocket is cool. And he's psychotic.

Me: Wow, he was really lucky Michael Rooker wasn't on the shitter or something so he could pick them up before they died without their helmets on in space. (I will eventually learn Michael Rooker's character's name.)

Me: Toyota? Honda? Something like that. [It's Yondu, but at the time I wrote this I thought it was Hondu.]

Me: The bigger bad serves the equivalent role of the Emperor or Snoke.

Me: Lee Pace is a strange choice for Ronan.

Him: They kept saying his name in part two and I never knew who they were talking about.

Me: Thanos?

Me: Thermos?

Him: Lee Pace can go fuck himself.

Him: Thanos is the big bad.

Him: As he is in Marvel in general.

Me: Remember that twee show about dead people starring Lee Pace?

Me: Pushing Daisies, was it?

Me: That's the problem with Marvel in general. In what universe does Captain America interact with Thanos?

Me: The Marvel CINEMATIC Universe, that's what universe.

Me: There's more space in comic books than I like.


Me: Between this, Thor and Green Lantern, it's too much.

Me: The squabbling over semantics is really forced.

Him: This is why I like Batman.

Him: When the comics bring Batman to space, I check out.

Me: Yeah but now Batman fights Green Lantern's villains, right?

Him: And Batman doesn't give a shit about semantics.

Him: Not often.

Me: But he has.

Him: No. I don't think so.

Me: I guess Batman has probably done everything. Even horse tranquilizers.

Him: Batman may have fought them in space.

Me: Locker room speech is not working for me, Starlord.

Him: Batman fights Superman's villains and Green Arrow's villains and Flash's villains. But not so much Green Lantern's. [And it occurs to me now: Why the hell did DC have two characters with Green in their names? Confusing. Then of course there was also the Green Hornet, unrelated.]

Him: Because Green Lantern sucks.

Him: You are filled with so much hate over Guardians.

Me: But he's got that ring!

Him: Thousands of other beings also have the same ring. Maybe millions. He ain't so cool.

Me: Spoiler alert: Groot is about to say he's Groot.

Me: Ch- ch- ch- ch- ch- ch- ch- ch- cherry bomb.

Me: Now everyone's explaining their role in the plan. When did they turn into Jeff Probst?

Me: "The stone." This is the dictionary definition of a MacGuffin.

Me: Oh hey, John C. Reilly and Glenn Glose. Good to see you for the first time in an hour.

Me: You know what the problem with this movie is? Everyone's Han Solo.

Him: It's true. But that's my problem with Marvel in general.

Me: And somehow, there's a giant space battle.

Me: Why is Peter Serafanowicz in this and why doesn't he get to be funny?

Me: Where did a million x-wing pilots come from all the sudden?

Me: And I am reminded of the fact that Footloose exists in this world.

Me: And Groot does something magical and beautiful. Cue the violins.

Me: Oh, now Gamora's sister gets to have her moment. No wait she doesn't! Dave Bautista shoots her mid-sentence. Classic!

Me: And super arrow finally gets to kill everybody really quickly.

Me: Oh wait, Gamora's sister is back. Cat fight!

Me: The pink-skinned mother and daughter are okay!

Me: (I realize almost nothing I'm saying has any context for you.)

Me: Alright, end battle growing tiresome. Just kill yourself already, Groot, and let's get on with the credits.

Me: Wait, Djimon Hounsou was a robot?

Me: "You stand accused." Oh right, he's called Ronan the Accuser. Somehow I know this.

Me: Glad Rocket thought Dave Bautista would surely be okay when he crashed a spaceship into where he was standing.

Me: More magic for Groot.

Me: Use the force, Groot.

Him: You root for Groot. Hard.

Me: How many movies have featured a spaceship crashing into a city in the past five years?

Me: Groot is fine.

Him: All the movies.

Me: Was especially unexpected in Boyhood.

Me: And after all that we still have more Ronan shit to deal with.

Me: Oh, he just named them the Guardians of the Galaxy!

Me: You're a legend, Ronan.

Him: But not unexpected in The Hottie and the Nottie.

Me: Oh yeah, and now Starlord sings The Five Stairsteps at Ronan. [I had to look up who sings that "Oooh child, things are gonna get easier" song]

Me: Have you seen The Hottie and the Nottie? It's not awful. [See here.]

Me: Now they all have to share the explosive power of the stone.

Me: Ah, the stone affects people like the one ring goes. Knew there was another Hobbit connection.

Him: I really don't like the infinity stones/glove/gauntlet.

Me: "The tesseract."

Me: The true uselessness of Close and Reilly in this movie is astonishing.

Him: They're famous.

Me: I hear Reilly is fun in Kong.

Him: I also heard that.

Me: Wait, he really never opened the present?

Him: He knew it would be more poignant if he did it in 23 years.

Me: Heh.

Me: Why do we need a post credits sequence reminding us that Benicio del Toro was in this movie, which includes Howard the Duck? Okay, live tweeting over.

Was it worth typing all that out? Probably not. Will I do it again? Probably not. But you can never rule anything out.

So as you can see, I'm just never really going to like this movie. It took me three times to start to love 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Guardians is not 2001.

I guess I also wonder if deciding to live-tweet something makes you inevitably snarkier about it. Perhaps you only live-tweet something you are expecting to be snarky about. Like the Golden Globes.

Well, I guess we'll never know now.

I'm not sure whether this leaves me in a better position to like the second Guardians or worse -- it could be worse, but I also now have lower expectations so it could be better. However, word on the street is that it's pretty disappointing.

Then again, maybe I'm just a bizarro Guardians fan -- what other people like, I don't, and vice versa.

We'll find out sometime this week.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The best and worst of Ben Wheatley

It's not often I see two films by the same director within a two-week span, and it's really not often that those would be the director's best and worst films.

But that's what's happened with Ben Wheatley. And for those of you who like current releases, I'm pleased to say that his best is the one that's in theaters right now.

That would be Free Fire, a giddy, goofy action comedy that also gets away with being downbeat and even melancholy in spots. It reminded me most in spirit of The Nice Guys, but really, anything directed by Wheatley has a spirit all its own. I saw it on Tuesday night.

Unfortunately, that would leave the worst as A Field in England, which I watched two Friday nights ago, and which I couldn't properly follow from its very first moments. Heavy accents had something to do with that. A muddled concept and extremely poor execution of that concept had a lot more to do with it.

Until a few moments ago I thought two other things about Ben Wheatley that I no longer think:

1) That A Field in England was his first film. It being a first film is the only way to excuse its miniscule-budget, single-location aesthetics. In fact, he made it in 2013, after his two best films I'd seen before now: Kill List and Sightseers.

2) That I had completed the Ben Wheatley filmography. His actual first film, Down Terrace, was a 2009 release that I have yet to have the pleasure, or possibly displeasure, of seeing.

That's right, as I was discussing with a friend last night, Wheatley is a really hit or miss filmmaker. It seems like you are always getting either his best or his worst, in terms of what he's capable of if not in absolute terms. He's just as likely to hit as to totally misfire, if we want to use the gun lingo inspired by Free Fire. You really have no idea whether a film of his will be a pleasure or a displeasure.

In my own personal Wheatley viewing sequence, it's been pleasures followed by displeasures. Kill List and Sightseers really interested me, the first for its unwillingness to be shackled to the genre it starts out with (and that's all I'll say for those of you who haven't seen it), the second for following its black comedy into casually murderous arenas.

But then I fell off the Wheatley wagon a bit. Actually, it's all come this year as Free Fire is actually the third Wheatley I've watched in 2017. The year started out, almost literally, with High-Rise, the fourth full feature I watched in 2017, an unsatisfying satire on class warfare played out in an apartment building set against a barren landscape. Then A Field in England, which I had a sense would be pretty WTF, was WTF in all the wrong ways. A black and white period piece with unintelligible dialogue in which the survivors of some poorly specified battle cross over the same patch of land about a hundred times while searching for treasure and eating mushrooms? I tried to make it sound bad just now, but it sounds a lot better than it actually is.

But hey, Free Fire! It's a ton of fun. And it's certainly the director's biggest move toward the mainstream, starring the likes of Brie Larson, Sharlto Copley, Armie Hammer and Cillian Murphy. But where that kind of slouching toward commercialism can really queer an artist's vision, Wheatley has figured out a way to make his work accessible (possibly for the first time) without compromising his own particular perspective. I have a lot more I could say about it, except I already did, here.

Who knows if Wheatley will give us more of his best or more of his worst with the next film I see, but I can tell you that the next two films of his I see will continue to represent another type of dialectic within his filmography: his newest and his oldest. Since some of his old stuff is better than some of his newer stuff, but then his newest is the best, I have no idea whether I'll gravitate more toward Down Terrace or toward Freakshift or Untitled 'Ideal' Film (IMDB is unclear on which might come out first).

Either way, I do think Wheatley will continue to make interesting films. Whether they are interesting successes or interesting failures remains to be seen.