Monday, July 31, 2017

Cat's Away: Sunday blitzkrieg

This is the sixth post in Cat's Away, an informal film festival of one I'm putting on while my wife is away in America.

When I wrote yesterday's post and entitled it "Saturday blitzkrieg," I didn't really think there would be a Sunday edition. But then my sister-in-law surprised me by taking a vague "after lunch" timing for returning my kids from their sleepover, and shifting it back all the way to 5 p.m., allowing me to watch a lazy Sunday afternoon movie in addition to the one I'd had planned for that morning, and two more later on at night. And this was even after I cleaned the house in preparation for their return. So in the end it was another four-movie day, or even five, I suppose, since the majority of Showgirls was watched after midnight the night before. A "blitzkrieg" if ever there was one.

Citizen Kane

When I do these movie marathons at the hotel, I always save a beloved favorite for Sunday morning, something I know so well that I can also be packing up my hotel room while watching it if need be. And given that the same basic structure applied for this marathon, albeit at my house rather than a hotel, I decided to do the same here.

Because it's one of only four movies I'll be discussing here, I won't go on at length about my personal history with Citizen Kane in this post. You can read more about that here if you're interested. What I will say is that on this, either my fifth or sixth viewing of the film, I loved it more than I have ever loved it before. I'm still discovering things about The Greatest Film Ever Made (screw you, Vertigo) and my love for it is still deepening. In fact, so enamored was I with it on this viewing that it gave me chills multiple times. It had been nearly eight years since my last Kane viewing in 2009. I can guarantee you another eight won't pass before I see it again.

I can't believe how much Welles packs into two hours. If Kane were made today -- I imagine someone like Paul Thomas Anderson might make it -- it would struggle to come in under three. So Kane is a brilliant example of economical filmmaking, in addition to being a brilliant example of just about everything else.

I also considered while watching it that Kane gains something from a viewing during the Trump era. The similarities between Charles Foster Kane and Donald John Trump were not lost on me anyway, but they were made manifest in moments like Kane's campaign speech right before his scandal breaks, when he swears that he's going to put his opponent behind bars. The crowd doesn't start chanting "Lock him up!" but they might as well have. Kane is also described as "the most loved and most hated man of his time," or something to that effect, which also describes Trump, though we are quickly forgetting a time when we loved him. Trump won the election that Kane couldn't, but I think there's a very real chance he comes to an equally miserable end, in a prison of his own making. (And speaking of learning new things -- somehow on all my previous viewings of the film I had failed to glean that Xanadu is in Florida. Because it's based on the Hearst Castle, I guess I thought it was in California. But the location makes Susan's line asking what time it is here, and then what time it is in New York, all the funnier, since it's the same time zone. Not too sharp, was she.)

I really want to write more but I must move on.

A Hologram for the King

When it became clear that my sister-in-law was not coming back with the kids right away and the house was looking pretty clean, I made a much happier spur-of-the-moment decision than the one to watch Megamind the day before. A Hologram for the King might have been something I prioritized watching in time to rank with my 2016 movies, given my love for its writer-director, Tom Tykwer. Yet it eluded me until this past week, when I saw it at the library and brought it home with me.

There have been a lot of movies in the past five to ten years that have featured Americans as fish out of water in the Arab world, and there have been both successful and unsuccessful ones. (This one even has a fish joke in it -- "What do you call a fish without an eye (i)?" "Fsssh." Yeah, that one sounds better spoken than written out.) A Hologram for the King is one of the very best of these, in part because it doesn't go for any cheap jokes and in part because it is so humanistic. Not going for cheap jokes doesn't mean it doesn't go for jokes, though. I laughed out loud ten to 15 times in this movie, as Tom Hanks indulges his fondness for the comedic in a way we haven't seen quite as much in the last few years.

Speaking of comedic Hanks, I couldn't help find some funny similarities between this and another fish-out-of-water film he starred in, that one more of a straight comedy: Splash. It started out with just me noticing that his character has the same first name, Alan -- and a quick perusal of IMDB tells me this is the first time Hanks has played a character named Alan since Splash. (He's Alan here and Allen there -- to-may-to/to-mah-to). But then there's also a scene in Hologram where Hanks goes swimming underwater hand in hand with a beautiful woman -- it just happens to be an Arab doctor rather than a mermaid. To-may-to/to-mah-to.

Harry and the Hendersons

Started the weekend with a movie about an ovesized ape, finished the weekend -- well, almost finished it -- with a movie about an oversized ape. Harry and the Hendersons didn't charm me as much as Kong: Skull Island did, but I did find it quite charming, if too long by about 20 minutes. This may seem like an even more random choice than Megamind was yesterday, until I explain the reasoning behind it.

See, my older son has just recently become fascinated with Bigfoot. I suppose it was a natural outgrowth of his recent fascination with the Loch Ness Monster -- fascination/horror, as he sometimes still tells us he has nightmares about the mythical Scottish beast. Unable to leave well enough alone, I went and showed him the Patterson-Gimlin film of Sasquatch on the internet. Fortunately, no nightmares yet.

Harry and the Hendersons struck me as an opportunity to capitalize on this fascination while keeping the nightmares at bay. I wouldn't have sought it out, but when I saw it on the library shelves it was definitely coming home with us. And I figured the kids would be disappointed to return from the sleepover at their aunt's, so I decided to arrange a special "pajama movie" for Sunday night. The rules: They had to get into their pajamas, and they could stay up to watch the whole movie if they wanted. If they didn't want to, they could go to bed. But I made it clear there would be no negotiations about other possible titles if they weren't enjoying it -- and then made it clear that the noises the younger one was making driving toy cars across the couch would not be tolerated.

The movie being too long was definitely something I felt more when dealing with fidgety children, but I ultimately was able to keep them on task and they both professed to like it. It took me 30 years to see Harry and the Hendersons, and I might logically have never seen it after that kind of delay and with its minimal enduring significance as a family classic. But I'm glad I did see it ... and also glad that I was not awakened last night by a six-year-old with Sasquatch nightmares.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

My final film of the day made an unintentional Pacific Northwest double feature with Harry and the Hendersons. It also allowed me to finally complete David Lynch's feature filmography.

This one was a purpose-driven viewing. Sometime after my wife comes back -- possibly not until September or October -- we are finally planning to start the new Twin Peaks episodes. Part of the reason we weren't all over them the moment they were released was the perceived mental work we would need to do to watch this series. I figured, what better time to give me a little relief on that perceived mental work?

Of course, I'd heard that it probably doesn't matter what you know, what you've seen recently to jog your memory -- you still won't know what's going on. And after finally seeing Fire Walk With Me, I'm inclined to believe that nothing there will really help me all that much. I enjoyed the Lynchian moodiness, as I do in all of his films, but I didn't end up all that interested in the events leading up to the murder of Laura Palmer. It felt like 135 minutes of demystification. I remembered my viewing of the original series well enough to piece together connections to those events, and to recognize, for example, that Moira Kelly is now playing Lara Flynn Boyle's character. (Did Boyle perceive herself to be too big of a star at that point to make this movie? It scarcely seems possible, but maybe she did.) But I felt myself not really caring, even when I did make connections with the things I remembered.

It turns out that Laura Palmer is not really that interesting of a character to spend that much time with. She works a lot better as a "pretty dead girl" than a flesh-and-blood person having a really bad week. I think part of that is due to the weaknesses in Sheryl Lee as an actress. She's not terrible or anything, but she seemed to verge on hysterics quite regularly, and I found that a little of her goes a long way. Also, I'm reminded that the actor who plays Bob, Frank Silva, is just not that disturbing. Bob, too, is more interesting as a person, an entity, we know very little about.

I found myself a lot more interested in the prologue, if you want to call it that, which features Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland as FBI agents. But they were in it only for the first 30 minutes, and in true Lynchian style, were never heard from again.

Also, I noticed Heather Graham's name in the credits and then failed to identify her. Disappointing.

Okay, I am ready for a one-movie day on Monday.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Cat's Away: Saturday blitzkrieg

This is the fifth post recounting the movies I'm watching while my wife is overseas for ten days. 

Any time I have my Saturday all to myself to watch a marathon of movies, which happens approximately once a year and usually when I'm staying over at a hotel for the express purpose, I go through a predictable series of phases.

The first is overwhelming excitement and optimism, which lasts the entirety of my first movie. That's part of the reason I like to keep the first movie light. During this phase you imagine you might somehow squeeze in ten different movies that day. The sky's the limit. At the very least, five should be possible.

The second comes during the second movie, when you are taken hold by the sedentary nature of the experience and the realization you have the luxury to just close your eyes for a bit without any children needing anything from you. This is when a nap that's possibly as long as two hours transpires. Then, when you wake up with 30 minutes still to go in the movie and already encroaching on your evening viewing slots, a sort of panic sets in. You then realize that no more than four movies will be possible and you immediately regret the choice of movie you've just made. Do you even have to finish it?

The third movie comes during dinner and this is usually the prestige slot. Something really good you're revisiting, most likely. Something with a guarantee of satisfaction. You eat a good dinner (though are starting to feel a bit bloated from all the junk food you've already consumed) and restore a bit of the equanimity you lost during the nap and the realization that the total possibilities for the day are not, indeed, limitless.

The last movie is usually designed as a bit of a "midnight movie," and by this time you're struggling just to make it through. While you're probably enjoying it -- or not, since a midnight movie can go either way -- you are pretty ready when the time finally comes to close your eyes, probably sometime between one and two.

That was the shape my day did indeed take yesterday when my sister-in-law picked up my kids for an overnight at her house, leaving around 12:45, which would have given me even a bit longer than I usually have when I check in to a hotel. But I had two errands to run: to the library to return soon-to-be overdue books and movies (and to check out some more movies, one of which I actually ended up watching), and to the store to buy some junk food I didn't want to buy in the presence of my kids (else they'd ask why they couldn't have some). I got started at about 1:45, still on track to fit in five movies, even with 30-minute breaks between movies built in to do housework (and break up the routine).

But I ended up at only four, and that's because I had arrogantly believed my previous night's sleep would not come back to haunt me. I'll spare a few words here for that, to let you know why it was impossible it wouldn't. I got a late start to bed anyway, after 1 a.m., and shortly after that I was joined by my younger son -- this is a bad habit he's developed since my wife left. Sleeping with him is no picnic anyway -- he does this weird thing that I call "sleep running" -- but that sleep was shattered at 3 a.m. when the smoke detector started cheeping that its battery was dying. That took five minutes to deal with, involving a precarious stacking of chairs to get to our high hallway ceilings, and though it allowed me to deliver my son back to his bed, it did not allow me to return to sleep right away. I was awake another hour on my computer, and around 5:30 my younger one broke up my newly deep sleep by coming back to my bed, now ready to be awake for the day and imploring me to get up with him. He let me linger in the bed another 90 minutes, perhaps dozing off a bit himself during that time, but that period was also broken up by him asking me questions and being cute. We finally arose at 7.

So yeah, there was no way I wasn't going to take that two-hour nap.

Okay, should we finally talk movies? I'll go through them somewhat briefly in deference to the fact that a) I've already written a whole lot this morning on my procedure, which may be only of marginal interest to you and b) I need to get watching my Sunday morning movie before my kids return in a couple hours.

Hall Pass

If you remember from my post earlier in the week, Contact was the movie I originally had envisioned for this time slot. When I pushed that up to opening night, I replaced it with Hall Pass, the second-to-last movie I bought in this sale that I had yet to watch. (Hustle & Flow, I still have a future date with you). I chose it for a couple reasons. One was that the Saturday afternoon time slot is always good for a comedy -- something I'd temporarily forgotten when I targeted Contact -- but there are plenty of other comedies I could have chosen. I chose this one in part because I thought it was worth grappling again with how good the movie actually is. I like this movie more than anyone else I know, including my wife, who also does like it, but I think finds it fairly juvenile. Plus, the subject matter makes it one of those "Why are you watching this?" movies -- it's about a week off from marriage. Don't want my wife to think this topic interests me more than it actually does, which makes it a good movie to watch when she's not here. (When, in fact, I am sort of getting "a week off from marriage" with her out of town -- something I am not using to try to pick up chicks at Applebee's, I'll have you know.)

I nearly put this movie in my top ten of 2011, so observant did I find it and so capable of producing big laughs in various moments. A very necessary January 2012 rewatch before my list closed talked me down off that ledge, but I still ranked it #12 for the year. My first rewatch since then has further sobered me on the merits of this movie -- the Farrelly humor is indeed pretty juvenile -- but I still like it quite a bit. It was a good Saturday afternoon choice.


This was a really random choice, something that was not in my considerations at all until I picked it up at the library earlier that day. (Though I daresay it's probably available on one of our streaming services as well.) It perfectly exemplifies the on-the-fly element I want Cat's Away to have, but it's my one possible regret from yesterday. The reasons I chose it were: 1) I'd always meant to see this -- "wanted" may be a bit too strong a word -- and I was enjoying keeping the "light" afternoon tone after Hall Pass; 2) It's short, and I was still trying to get in five movies at this point; 3) It was the only chance to have a "new to me" movie, and these Saturday marathons usually have at least one of those. When I realized it was too early to watch the movie I'd planned for the dinner slot, I decided something short would be perfect, which led to me discard other possible contenders City of God and Watchmen. Besides, neither of them would have kept the light tone.

Megamind was fine. I'd even say I liked it. In fact, when I was reminded that a comedic actor I love, Will Ferrell, does the voice of the title character, for a few moments it felt like an inspired, felicitous choice. But ultimately it hardly rose to the level of essential animation I have not seen, which I kind of knew was the case before I even started. It would have been totally fine if this were not the movie I interrupted with that two-hour nap I was powerless to stop. When I woke up at 7:45 with the aforementioned 30 minutes still remaining, which would push dinner to nearly 9 o'clock when you factor in the proscribed 30-minute break between movies, I wished I'd gone another direction. This choice ultimately doomed my original midnight movie choice, Spring Breakers, which will now have to wait for another occasion. Which is okay, since I have already seen Spring Breakers four times and it hasn't even existed for five years yet.

Pan's Labyrinth

And here was the prestige time slot movie that restored order. I targeted Guillermo del Toro's film because I'd loved it at the time (it was in my top ten of 2006) but still had seen it only that one time. I don't know what has held me back from a second viewing -- possibly the heavy subject matter, possibly just opportunity. In any case, I was overdue for a rewatch.

The film did not disappoint. The interesting thing I found as I was watching it was that I considered its fantastical elements, which are what have delivered the film to its classic status, kind of superfluous. I mean, it clearly would not be the same movie without the great creature effects we have come to associate with del Toro and his muse, Doug Jones (who is like the Andy Serkis of practical effects). And though I still found those effects wondrous, I find their narrative function somewhat dubious, and in fact am far more interested in the real-world elements of this film. Sergi Lopez' villain is one of the most hissable in modern cinema, and I felt freshly frustrated by an element of this film that bothers me (in a good way), wishing that Mercedes had just taken her advantage over him to kill him during that scene where she slices out the side of his mouth. I guess that still allows him to have his perfectly staged death scene later -- "No, he will not even know your name" -- but it also would have saved the life of the little girl.

One thing I noticed after the movie, when I was adding this to my list of rewatches on Letterboxd, was that I awarded this movie "only" four stars when I added it to Letterboxd. (Which would not have been at the time of its release, of course -- I think it would have been around early 2012.) In just five years I've kind of radically altered my conception of what constitutes a four-star movie. I probably would not give Pan's Labyrinth five stars, as it does not rise to the level of a personal favorite, but it surely would have been worth 4.5 today. Which I guess is only a half-star difference ... so that's not that bad I suppose.


And we finish with Showgirls.

This was also a film I've only seen once, but for different reasons. I'd been one of those ones who considered Showgirls an unmitigated disaster when I first saw it. But in the 22 years since its release there has been a small but determined segment of the movie-going populace who have reappraised this film as a work of comic and satirical genius. And so I decided I needed another viewing to watch it through that lens.

But I just didn't see it. I don't really think this movie's tongue is in its cheek, or if so, that aspect does not manifest itself in ways I found interesting. It really just seems tawdry for tawdry's sake, and has numerous moments where it doesn't get how silly something plays. That said, it's also not as bad as I remembered it. When I entered this film in Letterboxd, I gave it one star, probably just due to foggy memories of how awful it was, and to align my star rating with the general consensus of respected critics. But this movie might actually deserve 1.5 or even 2 stars. Its greatest sin is that it's pretty boring, even with a number of pretty steamy sex scenes (whether you are describing "sex" as actual intercourse, an intense lap dance or even just Elizabeth Berkley licking a stripper pole).

And let's talk about Berkley for a moment. Even though I think this movie has rightly thrust her into a kind of iconic status, leading to the idea that she's kind of "perfect" for the role, her performance in numerous spots leaves much to be desired. Whether this is a Paul Verhoeven issue or an Elizabeth Berkley issue is up for debate. I will say that there are a comical number of times when she seems to wildly overreact to something that's said to her, and I lost count of the number of times she stormed off from an interaction, her high heels clicking against asphalt.

Okay, you can go now.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Cat's Away: Because also new releases

This is the fourth night in Cat's Away, a cheekily named series of nightly viewings I'm doing while my wife is in America.

Now, on to the one trait this is shared by almost all films in almost all film festivals: actually being new.

Or, comparatively new, anyway.

I'm not flipping over my viewing calendar to focus on 2017 releases until next week; you may recall I divide my viewing year into new releases (August to January) and older releases (February to July), with plenty of overlap from the other in each. But I couldn't let the Friday night of my festival pass without a good 2017 popcorn movie.

I just didn't know how good.

Yes, I loved Kong: Skull Island.

After hearing good things about it, I was cautiously optimistic, which is why I downloaded a rental from iTunes last week and programmed it in this time slot. But emphasis on the word "cautiously." You can find someone to say something good about nearly every event movie of a given year, with the possible exception of Transformers, but I'd already been pretty disappointed in the likes of Alien: Covenant and John Wick: Chapter 2, among others. I didn't know if I had any reason to trust the good word of mouth on Kong more than any of these other movies.

But this movie had me from its opening seconds, its audacious style immediately grabbing me. It starts with a crackerjack prologue in which an American pilot crash lands in spectacularly absurdist fashion, his plane nose-diving into the desert sand as his parachute follows suit moments later, landing closer in the same frame. Jordan Vogt-Roberts -- remember this name, people -- immediately announces himself as a visual stylist with a whipsmart wit, and everything else just continues in the same vein. This film is replete with unconventional camera setups in small moments, finding that perfect balance between calling attention to themselves and blending seamlessly into the narrative.

I think I might get breathless, or my fingers might get tired, if I tried to tell you everything I liked in this movie, but let's just touch on a number of them here. Tread carefully, as there may be some spoilers.

1) The Vietnam War era setting really worked for me. It's become an increasingly common strategy to set big budget brand movies in other historical eras -- Wonder Woman, the recent X-Men movies -- but I don't think I had yet seen one that was so influenced by the familiar beats of a Vietnam War movie. In fact, this felt kind of like a mashup of a Vietnam War movie and a summer blockbuster, and I'm always a fan of a good mashup if done right.

2) What a wise decision to make this movie rated R. Not only did it allow some truly unbridled carnage -- I'm thinking of a couple people being torn limb from limb, and a soldier getting lanced by a spider leg down his throat -- but it also allowed John C. Reilly to say a thing like "It sounds like a bird, but it's a fucking ant." Interestingly, we never did actually see that ant, but that's okay, because this movie showed us so much else that we didn't need it. It was stronger for leaving some things up to our imagination.

3) But when it did offer us a big set piece, it didn't scrimp on it. Kong vs. the helicopters is one for the ages, but that's not what I'll focus on here. Instead, that scene where the soldiers have to take down the 60-foot? 80-foot? spider is one such an example. They had to work really damn hard to level the thing, not to mention to avoid getting stepped on by it -- which, it should be said, may not have been a thing the spider was even trying to do. I get the sense it was just strolling along and happened to squash some soldiers, just as we might unknowingly crush a bug. I loved moments like when the spider's stomach is perforated and it unleashes a torrent of guts on the soldier below, which reminded me of my beloved Starship Troopers.

4) And speaking of throwaway set pieces, what about when Kong fights the octopus and then eats it, its appendages still writhing as he shoves them down this throat? I messaged my friend at that time: "This movie is the best."

5) The cast was something I uniformly liked as well. I'd heard there were just entirely too many characters, and sure, not all of them got a proper character arc. But there was enough development dolled out to each that I was grateful for the large size of the cast, rather than resentful of it. In fact, the large size of the cast reminded me of a type of entertainment that was common to the era in which this film is set: the all-star cast disaster movie. With the number of famous faces here being whittled down by attrition, the movie put me in mind of movies like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Which is most assuredly a good thing.

6) If I weren't covering this movie as a Cat's Away post, I might have devoted a solo post to the topic of Brie Larson's recent trend of appearing as either the only or one of the only women in a movie filled with men with guns. I would have called that post "Brie Larson, Sausagefest Queen." Larson is literally the only woman in Ben Wheatley's Free Fire from earlier this year, and here she's one of just two women, though the second is so underdeveloped that she might as well be the only one. Interestingly, both films are also set in the 1970s, when that gender dynamic would have just been a reality.

7) It always impresses me when films walk the line between comedic and tragic, and this one does it terrifically. Some of this movie is insanely funny, though you also really feel the moments of loss. Anything John C. Reilly says is a riot, but Shea Whigham is actually quite funny as well, among others. In fact, Whigham may embody this delicate tonal balance more than anyone else, because SPOILER ALERT AGAIN his death is actually one of those solemn moments. It's also a moment that undercuts our expectations. He's ready to sacrifice himself by by letting a giant creepy crawlie eat him and then pulling the pins on a couple grenade to blow the thing up. But in another one of those moments like the spider randomly squashing the soldiers below, the creepy crawlie does not choose to eat him, but rather flicks him into the side of a distant rock face with his tail, where the grenades detonate harmlessly. The moment struck me as a comment on the senselessness of loss in war, as even when this guy is trying to be a hero he is robbed of that chance by random occurrence.

8) The visuals look great in this film, no better example than in Kong himself. I remember being impressed with the way Kong looked in Peter Jackson's film, and I'm sure he still does look good. But 12 years later, this Kong looks magnificent. More than anything I was impressed with how he seems to occupy clear three dimensional space and carries with him a specific weight and tangibility. That's been a big problem with digital creations in general, but it is no problem here.

9) How is it possible that this director only made one other film that has gotten any attention, and it's the 2013 coming of age comedy The Kings of Summer, which I have not even seen? This is like Colin Trevorrow going from Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World, but even more so, as this film is far more visually assured than Jurassic World, and I'm a Jurassic World fan. In fact, this film operates like a Jurassic Park movie in a number of senses -- the encounter with the giant water buffalo is like the first discovery of the brontosauruses -- only it does it in a way that does not overtly reference dinosaurs. Unlike, unfortunately, Jackson's King Kong, which has that very problematic middle section.

10) They are making more of these movies, which excites me. Please please please let Vogt-Roberts direct.

If this were a weeknight I might be done. But it being a Friday night, I watched a second movie, which was this:

Oof, I bet you didn't expect this to be intruding on your Kong: Skull Island post! Sorry, what a punch in the nuts.

Spoilers to follow.

If you don't know Irreversible, it's the movie that contains a ten-minute scene of Monica Bellucci being brutally raped, and a guy getting his head bashed in with a fire extinguisher, the result of about ten separate bludgeons. For many, it is a consummate one-timer.

But this was my second time seeing it. Gaspar Noe's films have a way of burrowing into your brain, and Irreversible joins Enter the Void as films of his I've seen twice and cannot shake. Third, fourth and fifth viewings may eventually be forthcoming for both.

As I have already written a lot today I am not going to give a full "review" of Irreversible, though if you follow the tag for Irreversible you'll find I've referenced it twice on this blog previously. However, I will tell you that it's so much more than a movie reverse-engineered around a ten-minute rape scene, and I'll also say that having watched it twice now does not make me a bad person. You know how they say that many supposedly anti-war films end up glamorizing war? That's not the case with this rape scene, which is one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen in a film but is not even remotely titillating in the way war can titillate you, even when the filmmakers are not intending that. The scene is agonizing and sickening and upsetting, and it absolutely serves a function in making us think about brutality and its consequences -- which the entire film contemplates quite effectively, even more so for being told in reverse chronological order. That decision, executed so smartly, is reason enough for many cinephiles to watch the film, and then you've also got the audacious cinematography (most of the film is composed of long takes and there are many instances of vertiginous, swirling cameras) and the haunting score (a queasy dirge that sounds like a hazardous materials siren that's running out of batteries). Well look, here I've gone and tried to jam everything I like about this film into one paragraph after all.

But the most profound moment of this film requires its own paragraph. Irreversible finishes in an incredibly warm place, with Bellucci and her boyfriend (Vincent Cassell) lovingly intertwined in bed hours before her brutal rape. As Roger Ebert pointed out, the arc of the narrative is toward greater morality, forcing you to confront most of the awfulness in the first half. The very last scene is of Bellucci lying on the grass, reading a book, as kids dance around a sprinkler and Beethoven plays on the soundtrack. We pull in on the sprinkler and it becomes nearly indistinguishable behind a strobe light that fills the screen for the last 20 seconds of the movie, both a punishing and enthralling visual exercise, as the distant sprinkler looks kind of like a view of the cosmos.

And once the strobe light ends, the movie ends, with only these last words on the screen:

"Time destroys all things."

And in the spirit of Gaspar Noe, I will also end without a further word.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Cat's Away AND Asian Audient: Train to Busan

This is both the third night of my informal viewing festival while my wife is out of town, and the seventh installment of my monthly Asian-themed viewing series Asian Audient.

Train to Busan was only a name I'd heard of as recently as a month ago, but during the intervening weeks it's taken the shape of one those popular phrases that suddenly starts collectively coming out of people's mouths at the same time. When I heard Ana Lily Amirpour, director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the new film The Bad Batch, select it as her "random film she loves" in a recent interview on Filmspotting, I decided that its mentions had reached critical mass, and I could ignore them no longer.

And, it was streaming on Netflix.

Making it by far the easiest to get my hands on of the prospective candidates for Asian Audient. My only other Korean film (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) I was able to rent from iTunes with little drama, but that was after striking out on about five other Korean films I wanted to see more.

And going outside of the three nationalities I've watched so far, Chinese, Japanese and Korean? It's been a total failure. I even had a friend try to track down the (probably illegal) digital copy he had of Apichitpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, as he and his mate recently watched all of Weerasethakul's films as part of their own themed viewing series. So far, he hasn't found it, and Thailand remains shut out of the proceedings. (I'd be able to get my hands on Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendor, but I've already seen both of them.)

But not only is this the July entry in Asian Audient, of course it's also my third night of Cat's Away. After going to Ukraine last night I thought I'd keep the international flavor going, a bit to the north and east of there.

It was a relief, also, to finally get a movie under two hours, even if it only missed the two-hour mark by two minutes.

I was led to believe that Yeon Sang-ho's film is more than just a zombie movie, but really, it's just a zombie movie. But that's not a criticism. I guess I had the impression, from what Armipour said, that there was going to be some unexpected dimension to it, or at least a WTF aspect I couldn't have guessed. However, Train to Busan doesn't need that extra dimension or WTF aspect because it does the zombie genre proud. And it's got a high concept element to it -- it's basically Snakes on a Plane, except it's Zombies on a Train.

Unlike the movie I saw last night, though, in which deafness was a weirdly inessential aspect of the story they told, the train setting is incorporated very smartly into this one. It reminded me on more than one occasion, for probably obvious reasons, of another recent Korean-directed, train-set thriller, Snowpiercer. Both films make the train setting an essential component and use it in satisfying ways, with Snowpiercer bordering on the implausible and fantastical in its attempt to deliver social commentary (don't start pulling threads or it all come unraveled), and Train to Busan -- in the genre that almost always involves social commentary -- concentrating more on straight genre thrills that remain basically plausible. Both films do a really good job with the clever strategies for bypassing roadblocks to get from one side of the train to the other, and the ones here are clever enough for me not to spoil them for you.

Interestingly, both of those films have connections to other films I've seen recently -- if we are stretching "recently" back nearly a year to last year's MIFF. One of the films I saw at MIFF last year was also a zombie movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho, that one being a terrific animated film called Seoul Station. I'd say Sang-ho is a one trick pony -- I mean, both of those films have the name of a Korean city and a reference to trains in the title, plus they're both zombie movies -- except that they are made in two entirely different styles, animated and live action. How often do we see the same directors excel in both forms? Yet Yeon does so.

And as for Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho, this very month I have also seen his new film, Okja, a Netflix original. That one's quite different from Snowpiercer in many respects, but is recognizably the same director as it also features Tilda Swinton and has quite an eye for absurdist social commentary.

I won't get too deeply into the details of Train to Busan, largely because it's late (I'm writing this directly after the viewing) and because it's actually fairly conventional in most respects. It just does those conventional things very well. It's got really exciting set pieces and heart at its core.

I will spare one quick paragraph for the zombies themselves, though. They are fast zombies as opposed to the lurching kind, and the way the infection spreads and the way their insatiable hunger dominates them are both pretty familiar. But I did really like the physicality of these zombies, whose broken appendages flail about to the sides while never impeding their momentum. Plus, this film does something really well that World War Z tried to do and didn't quite get: those shots where there's such a teeming tangle of crazed undead that they spill out like water bursting through a dam wall. While the CG was anything but transparent in World War Z, here its much more seamless, and obviously therefore more convincing. And horrifying.

Next up in Cat's Away: It's a surprise, but I will tell you it has a 2017 release date.

Next up in Asian Audient: Enter the Dragon, maybe? If you can believe it, I've never seen a Bruce Lee film.

I may have to give up on Thailand.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cat's Away: Showing, not telling

This is the second night of Cat's Away, the nightly film festival I'm running while my wife is overseas. Um, I'm running it for myself.

Yesterday I outlined the reasons why Contact made a good opening night film for Cat's Away, so I figured I ought to follow suit with The Tribe on night #2.

There's no particular reason this is well suited as a second night film, particularly since a second night film tends not to have a personality to speak of. But there's a good reason it's a film festival film, which is that my goodness is it challenging. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's film originates in Ukraine -- my wife tells me not to say "the Ukraine" -- but language difficulties are not what make this film difficult. Or, not the way you think. There's no spoken language, and there are no subtitles for the Ukrainian sign language in which the film is told. What's more, it proceeds this way for a full 132 minutes.

So it's kind of doubly foreign, but even more than that, because it would be impossible even for most Ukrainians to understand. In fact, an argument can be made that few films have been made in the history of the medium whose language is understood by fewer people than The Tribe. There may be more Aramaic scholars in the world who can understand Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (without subtitles) than there would be Ukrainians fluent in Ukrainian sign language. In fact, I might not be underestimating if I said that there existed only 5,000 to 10,000 people in the world who would be able to tell exactly what the characters are saying to each other in this movie.

Which is the point, of course. In a medium in which the maxim is to "show, don't tell," The Tribe shows like no other film has before it -- shows without ever a single crutch of occasionally telling. Consequently, we don't even know the character's names (although the wikipedia plot synopsis has somehow managed to learn them), let alone the exact nuances of what they are saying to each other. We can go only on their actions, their expressions, and what they must be saying given the vigor of their gesticulations and the context of those actions.

Although I could mostly follow what was happening, as much as it was necessary to follow it, unfortunately the exercise became increasingly tedious as the story became increasingly nihilistic. The story is set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, and it's seen through the eyes of a newly enrolled young man who becomes plunged into a gang of reprobates who run the school by robbing, abusing and intimidating their classmates. But mere petty lunch money stealing is small beans for these guys, who also assault members of the public and even prostitute out their women to the men sleeping in their big rig trucks in snowy rest stops.

At first I loved the "gimmick," if we want to call it that. I could indeed glean character dynamics and plot developments from nothing more than what was happening on screen, captured in numerous unbroken takes that sometimes lasted minutes on end, and certainly aided by the fact that sign language resembles the movements of a mime from time to time. Gestures were assigned their meaning in this language because there was something universal and intuitive about them, like the frequently used flicking of the arm that's the international sign for "Get lost." So while there were some moments when I didn't get exactly what was transpiring, or who a newly introduced character was supposed to be, the overall thrust was something I could follow without a problem.

But as gimmicks can do, this one started to become arduous. And I started thinking about the 2015 German film Victoria, directed by Sebastian Schipper, an astonishing technical achievement in that it occurs in a single 138-minute take with incredibly high degrees of difficulty in the choreography. That should have been my favorite film of that year, but instead it ground me down and gave me major gimmick fatigue (as I wrote about here in the context of the similarly conceived Open Windows).

The Tribe started to do the same, not necessarily because I was fighting against the gimmick to extract meaning or understanding from the film, but because I began realizing it was not going to be in service of anything I found enriching. In a quick glance of the reviews of this film on Metacritic -- the fast majority of which were very possible -- I saw a couple mentions of Larry Clark's Kids, which is apt. The Tribe imagines an apocalyptic world in which a sophisticated criminal ecosystem has cropped up at a deaf school, one that knows no limits to its malfeasance and extremity. Yet it seems just to wallow in this sense of anarchy without exploring why the conditions of a deaf school might create this environment, or whether their being deaf even plays a role in it.

And then I started to consider the exercise highly artificial, because although it takes place at a deaf school, the actual details of the school's day-to-day operations -- like the fact that a light strobes when class ends, rather than a bell ringing -- become a red herring. Because the idea is to give us a film in which words play no function whatsoever, it's not just the students and staff of the school who are deaf, but all the characters that these characters come across. When they are signing to truck drivers in rest stops and people they are mugging on the train, the sign language becomes less a diegetic element of the world of the movie and more a linguistic choice. The filmmakers chose to tell this story in Ukrainian sign language in the same way that a French filmmaker would choose to tell his film in French. If that was going to be the case, why even have them go to a school for the deaf in the first place?

Had this film been cranked out in a quick 90 minutes and found a clever and intrinsic way to incorporate the deafness into the story -- instead of just having a guy get run over by a truck because he doesn't hear it backing up -- we might be talking masterpiece. Instead, I admired quite a bit about The Tribe, but I did not like watching it and I will never watch it again.

But this, too, is an experience a person might have at any good film festival.

Back to something lighter and less arduous on Thursday night.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cat's Away: First Contact

This is the first night in my film festival Cat's Away, as I watch (at least) one movie per night while my wife is overseas for ten nights.

There are any number of reasons why Robert Zemeckis' Contact might have made a good opening night film for Cat's Away, but I originally imagined watching it this Saturday afternoon, after my kids get picked up to go for a sleepover at their aunt's.

I don't know why I thought it would be well suited for an afternoon time slot, except maybe relative to the movies I had planned after that (which shall remain shrouded in secrecy for now).

But I ultimately changed my tune as a result of the overriding philosophy of this festival, which is: Don't plan too rigidly. I keep adding to the custom list of possible titles on Letterboxd -- it's up to 30 films now -- and I do really want my whims to help dictate what I watch. And so I discarded two other opening night films I thought I'd settled on and moved Contact up to the front.

What makes it such a good opening night film?

Well for one, the film is celebrating its 20th anniversary. This very month, in fact. Contact opened in the U.S. on July 11, 1997, and part of the reason I remember this (other than looking it up on the internet) was that I saw it on a date with a girl I'd met on the 4th of July. (It was one of only two dates we had.) There should always be a spot in a film festival for a film celebrating a landmark anniversary, and opening night seems as good as any time to do it.

Then there's the fact that it's also a tribute of sorts to John Hurt, who plays a small but significant role in this film. Twenty years before he actually did die, Hurt played a Richard Branson/Elon Musk-style billionaire visionary dying of cancer, who wants the legacy of his immense fortune to be playing a major role in putting humans in touch with extra terrestrials. It was poignant to see the man we lost this January, whom I belatedly celebrated in the most recent post on this blog, in a role in which his own mortality was a pressing consideration.

But then I just like the expansiveness, the philosophical struggle between science and religion, and the sheer ambition at the core of Contact as a symbolic way to usher in a viewing series. The film prides itself in taking measure of the entire breadth of existence in the universe, a theme it gives us straight off the bat with that terrific opening shot that starts with a satellite's view of the earth, then pulls out by millions of light years until the galaxies fly by as little specks, finishing in the iris of our protagonist as a young girl, dreaming dreams of infinity. In that one shot, the film also takes in the entirety of every other story that has ever been told in the movies.

But enough with all the ways Contact might work as the opening of a real film festival. This is a film festival of one, so I'll shift to my personal takeaways as I watched this movie for probably the third time overall, but possibly only the first time this century.

The MVP bit player of 1997

Contact was my #2 ranked movie of 1997. My fourth ranked film was Starship Troopers.

Only on this viewing -- which falls less than two months after my most recent Starship Troopers viewing -- did I realize that both movies feature the same bit player.

And I'm talking about an itty bitty bit player, a blink and you'll miss him player. This guy, in fact:

His name is Timothy McNeil, and it took a lot of random clicking in IMDB before I finally figured out which one was the right guy. In Troopers, he's probably a bit more memorable despite less screen time than he has here. He plays a talking head expert on a TV show who has the following line: "Frankly, I find the notion of a bug that thinks offensive." Or something to that effect.

In Contact, he's one of the other astronomer geeks who mans the station with Jodie Foster's Ellie Arroway at the beginning of the film. He disappears after that but he's in two or three scenes and has about that many lines of dialogue in each.

Is Timothy McNeil in any way crucial to the success of two of my favorite films of 1997?

Of course not, but it was fun to notice it anyway.

Oh, and in case you're keeping track at home, Starship Troopers has flip-flopped with Contact in my favorite films of 1997 on Flickchart, with Troopers occupying the #2 spot, Contact the #4 and Boogie Nights in between them. As it was in 1997, Titanic is still ranked above them (though I actually think I like Troopers better). Incidentally, my #3 movie when I did my rankings in 1997, or rather early 1998, was Face/Off, which has dropped all the way to #8 -- the exact ranking Boogie Nights had then. So they too have flip-flopped.

Alright alright alright

I was struck by just how young, and how studly, Matthew McCounaghey looks in this first scenes here. This was one of the actor's earliest showcases, in his first ascendant period before he slummed it in romantic comedies for the better part of a decade.

It was interesting to see him occupying kind of the opposite role to the one he played 17 years later in Interstellar, at the height of his second ascendancy. In fact, both characters expend dialogue on the elasticity of time in space, as McConaughey's Palmer Joss talks about how four years in space could be the equivalent of 50 Earth years for the prospective traveler to Vega, the source of the radio transmission that has left everyone aflutter. However, the conclusion is quite different from McConaughey's Cooper in Interstellar, who jumps at the opportunity to fly to impossible distant worlds and possibly never come back to Earth. Palmer Joss looks at the exact same scenario and says "Why would you want to do that?"

So I guess I'm saying he really is multi-talented.

The woman gets to be the careerist

Contact was feminism before Hollywood was really all that worried about it. I really like how Ellie never lets love sway her from her professional goals, and not only because her romance with Palmer Joss is always a bit half-baked, more of a screen contrivance than a genuine emotional component of the film.

In fact, she's the one who runs out on him after a one-night stand, declining to call him. Sadly, that's the role stereotypically ascribed to the man, while the woman, presumably the one more focused on monogamy, is desperate for any scraps of his attention. But yeah, she leaves Palmer cold and pining for her.

He's also kind of the traditional beauty -- the other role usually played by the woman -- while she is of course beautiful, but prized particularly for her brains.

Good on ya, Contact.


A very minor point here but this is the fourth and last of my notes, despite not being the totality of my impressions, so I thought I'd give it its own subheading anyway.

When Hurt's S.R. Hadden first reaches out to Ellie by hacking into top secret information, sending her little riddles, she types back on her oh-so-dated computer screen: "Who are you?"

I don't know why this occurred to me, but isn't "Who is this?" the more likely phrasing there?

The semantics between the two are similar but one sort of feels more natural. I guess the difference could come down to accusation vs. inquisitiveness.

If someone is prank calling you and you want it to stop, you demand "Who is this?" But when someone is dangling a carrot in front of you and you want to eat that carrot, perhaps you are more likely to say "Who are you?" as the more open means of communicating the same query. "Who is this?" is a stop sign; "Who are you?" is a green for go.


In my final estimation of Contact, I don't like it quite as much as I once did, but I also marveled over how well it moves for being a 140-minute movie which goes long stretches without what you would consider as traditional "action." In fact, I suppose you could say there's almost no "action," if you are defining that as set pieces or moments that rely specifically on the physical, to speak of.

Instead, this is a film that exists on the strength of its ideas, and the occasional ways it blows your mind ... whether you are a fan of that ending or no.

Good start here -- nine more nights (and blog posts) to go.

Monday, July 24, 2017

First Hurt, now Heard

I don't know about you, but whenever I heard the names John Heard or John Hurt, I always had to
pause for a moment to remember which was which. One was an American appearing mostly in comedies and one was a Brit appearing mostly in dramas, so we wouldn't have mistaken them for one another based on their bodies of work. But their names, their similar ages and their similar times of coming to prominence (at least with me as a young viewer) made them forever interlinked.

That interlinking may continue in perpetuity, as we have now lost both of them in 2017.

John Heard was found dead in his hotel room in Palo Alto on Friday morning, where he was recovering from what was deemed minor back surgery. John Hurt lost his struggle with cancer back in January.

Although I always liked John Heard, his death may not have risen to the level of post-worthy on my blog if it didn't also give me the chance to pay delayed tribute to John Hurt.

But first, Heard.

John Heard was a staple of my 1980s comedy upbringing, sometimes as a villain (Big) but sometimes as a sympathetic character -- even if a forgetful one (Home Alone). To say he appeared "mostly" in comedies seems a bit inaccurate, as scanning his filmography on IMDB reveals far more dramas and thrillers than I would have guessed. But he became famous in films that tickled our funny bones, so I have come to associate him with that. And though he brought a definite smarm factor, which was why he was cast the way he was in Big, Home Alone also showed his capacity for warmth.

Of note: At the top of his page on wikipedia, it says "Not to be confused with John Hurt."

John Hurt has a bit bigger hit list, with classic features like Alien, The Elephant Man, A Man for All Seasons and Contact to his name, as well as a number of Harry Potter movies. But one of his most important functions for me was providing the narration in a personal favorite, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer -- his distinctly musical tones make it one of those rare examples of narration that seems indispensable. He had a certain craggy wisdom to him even when he was a younger man, and he feels like an extension of that great wing of elder British actors that included the likes of Alec Guiness, Ralph Richardson and Peter O'Toole.

Of note: At the top of his page on wikipedia, it says "Not to be confused with John Heard."

They were both in their 70s -- Heard early, Hurt late -- so their remaining contributions to cinema did not figure to be voluminous. But both were working straight up to their deaths, though Hurt had the luxury/burden of being aware the end was coming, while Heard presumably did not. We'll find out more about how Heard died in the coming days.

Goodbye, John H. and John H. You will be missed, and my memory of each of you will be distinct.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Thou shalt watch movies

I'm not sure if The Ten Commandments will actually be one of the movies I watch in the upcoming personal "film festival" I'm about to tell you about. It would suck up two nights all by itself, which is problematic. And though it was one of the original films up for contention, I now have 25 other films on my custom list on Letterboxd, and only ten nights of available viewing time. (Plus one long stretch on a Saturday afternoon, which may really be the time to do it.)

What is this I'm talking about? Why, I'll tell you.

A delegation from my family will be making a trip to the United States this week, but that delegation will not include me. In fact, it will be composed entirely of my wife. She's coming to a conference in Orlando for her work, and will be out of the country for a total of ten days.

While she's gone, I will watch movies.

Oh, I'll also go to work, do all the shopping, do all the cleaning, be a single dad to my two boys and all that that entails, and sleep.

But when I'm not doing those things, I will watch movies.

I pretty much do that anyway, of course, which is the only way to keep a pace of five to six viewings a week. The difference about the upcoming period is that I can start these movies just after my kids go to bed, not an hour later after my wife and I have watched some appointment TV together. (We're just wrapping up The Handmaid's Tale.) And that means I can tackle longer movies when I'm still fresh enough to watch the whole thing without falling asleep. Maybe not as long as The Ten Commandments -- not in one sitting, anyway -- but a 150-minute movie should be no problem on a given weeknight.

What makes it a "film festival," as such, is that I have been curating the films over recent weeks, in terms of library rentals, iTunes rentals and titles available on our streaming services. I'm not going to program which movie plays on which night in advance -- I'd like to leave it a bit more subject to my own whims and moods -- but I will indeed draw from this available list of titles on Letterboxd. (It's a private list, so don't bother trying to check it out -- as if you would do that.)

And as in a real film festival, there will be no nights off. Each night between this Tuesday night and the following Thursday night will feature at least one movie, with themed double features hoped for on other nights. (Just a taste of that: The Shining paired with Room 237 and Trainspotting paired with T2: Trainspotting, the latter of which I have not seen in both cases.)

The Saturday viewing slot comes courtesy of my sister-in-law. She has agreed to take both my kids on a sleepover at her house the Saturday night my wife is gone, allowing me to remain home and lie around in my own filth for a day. (Not that kind of filth -- just the general mess that I like to leave when I'm home alone, for no other reason than that I can.) As I do when I have mini film festivals on an overnight hotel stay, I will try to fit four movies into Saturday (depending on when she picks them up) and one more Sunday morning before they return.

And yeah, I could use that afternoon slot to swallow The Ten Commandments whole, but who knows if that mood will strike me when I'm actually in that position. I've already got a perfect four other titles lined up for that day -- again, mood pending.

Of course, now I've gotten carried away and short-listed entirely too many movies, leading to inevitable disappointment. But, we shouldn't spend too much time worrying about things that are inevitable.

I will do my best to document all this viewing -- much of which will be revisiting -- on my blog. And because I like catchy titles, I will label these blog posts "Cat's Away," and then whatever title I consider appropriate following the colon. (Either the movie title or a little pithy comment about the viewing experience.)

It's not that I really am a mouse playing while my cat's away, since my cat basically lets me watch whatever I want, as long as I'm infringing on nothing other than my own sleep. But there is indeed a "mouse playing" mentality when you suddenly gain complete dominion over the television for a period of time, and I will undoubtedly watch some things that would require explanation to my wife -- not even necessarily because they involve sordid subject matter (though there will be some of those), but just because any time you watch something, another person in your house might ask "Why are you watching this?" And you feel like you have to give some answer that makes sense.

I also like this festival as a symbolic baton passing between the two distinct halves of my viewing year. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, I like to break my viewing patterns down into six-month chunks. From February to July, I focus on old releases and rewatches, with new releases sprinkled in. From August to January, I focus on films from the current release year, with old releases and rewatches sprinkled in. It's about to become August, so this festival will operate as a last binge of old releases and rewatches, probably with an emphasis on the latter.

Then the baton gets passed to a real film festival, which symbolizes my shift to focusing on new releases. The very day my wife returns, the Melbourne International Film Festival begins, kicking off another viewing orgy devoted to new releases. I'll be going to about nine films during those 17 days, though for the first time this year, that also includes one old release (but more on that when the time rolls around).

Will this intense viewing period over the next month exhaust me? Well, have you met me?

Here's to the start of a bunch of exciting film watching ... whether it involves Charlton Heston and stone tablets or not.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Christopher Nolan bombs, and other Dunkirk thoughts

There are plenty of times I have been out of sync with the Metascore for a movie. That probably goes without saying. I'll come home, go to the site, and think "Huh." Baby Driver is one very recent example, as 86 seems extraordinarily generous for a film that is entertaining but quite flawed. Then again, I knew its Metascore before I even entered the theater.

I can't remember a time feeling as shocked by this disconnect, though, as when I came home from Dunkirk last night.

Dunkirk has a 94 on Metacritic. I think it deserves less than half that.

In fact, the one score of 38 on there -- and I sighed in relief that at least one person agrees with me -- might even be too generous.

I ended up giving the movie two stars on Letterboxd, but I wanted to give it 1.5.

What's wrong with Dunkirk? Where to start. This is one of the most dramatically inert films in recent memory. For all the somber energy invested in meticulously recreating a famous World War II battle -- is it even a battle? -- Nolan couldn't give a whip about character development or even mounting tension. Hans Zimmer's bludgeoning score -- seriously, it's even worse than the one for Interstellar -- tells us that every moment is overloaded with dread, but otherwise we'd have no idea that anything was at stake. Images are disconnected from consequences, things are happening for apparently no reason, and the little character arcs that are meant to occur make no impression whatsoever. Oh, it's not that Nolan disregards the notion of human drama altogether in opting for something more abstract and expressionistic -- it's that the dramas he chooses are utterly uncompelling.

What went so wrong? Nothing, according to most of you. When I went on Letterboxd to log my two-star rating, I saw a five-star rating from a person I trust on the landing page. Of the film's 50 positive reviews on Metacritic, 29 are grades of a perfect 100, including three critics whose opinions I've held dear throughout my career: Joe Morgenstern, Dana Stevens and Richard Roeper, all three of whom I've spoken to, and the last two of whom I've had my picture taken with (including Dana Stevens just in May).

Why did I see such a different movie than most of these people? It's hard to say. When you are in the minority on a film, the inclination is of course to view it as a "you problem." You figure you must lack some essential component of your critical faculties that allows you to appreciate what the film is doing. Or, you demand a film to fit into a certain conventional box, the inability to fit into that box being what makes it great. Maybe that is indeed the case with me and Dunkirk.

But I don't think so. This film is a fucking bore. Christopher Nolan is so impressed with his ability to film fighter planes moving in space -- an undeniable strength of the film -- that he doesn't seem to care whether he gave us any characters to relate to. I don't mind that we don't know their names, as there are some great films out there where we never learn any names. I mind the fact that they don't have names or personalities. They are just pawns in Nolan's desire to mount a moving Life magazine photograph. And that's all he's done.

And that's not enough.

I look forward to engaging with other people on this, figuring out the deficits in my character that led me to have so totally missed the boat, so to speak, on this film. But I can't do that for now. In fact, I can't even read Dunkirk's one mixed review -- thank you, Rex Reed -- or Dunkirk's one negative review -- thank you, Jake Cole -- for now. The reason for this is that I'm recording a podcast about this tomorrow night, and I want my bile to be untainted by the bile a few others have already spewed on the topic.

A very few others.


On this podcast, my fellow podcaster will insist that the reason I didn't like it was that I was drunk when I saw it. And the reason he will say this is that I told him I was drunk in a text message about 20 minutes before the movie started. And the reason I know he liked it, even though we don't usually share our opinions on the films before we meet for the recording, is because he pleaded with me to go the next day to an IMAX screening when I was sober, rather than seeing it on Friday night with four glasses of wine in me, at a theater that has no really big screens.

The four glasses of wine -- and a beer -- were courtesy of a volunteer thank you party for my contributions to the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) earlier this year (though mostly last year, when most of the heavy screening occurred). I had expected this to be a tame little affair that I could quickly skip out of -- it had been held in the organization's tiny office the year before -- and I planned to stay no longer than 30 minutes, leaving in time to watch a 6:40 showing of The Beguiled before my 9:20 Dunkirk.

But this year the party was held in a private room at a pretty cool bar, and when 6:30 rolled around and I was still enjoying myself, I gave Sofia Coppola's film with the middling reviews (at least among my friends) a pass. And got into one of those rambling, animated cinephile discussions with two women about films we love and hate, using the thinnest of connective tissue to jump from one film to the next -- the kind of discussions that are especially well lubricated by wine. I became so engrossed that I nearly didn't leave in time for Dunkirk.

Given my thoughts on the film, I am immensely glad I did not sacrifice that experience for the movie, and also that I did not shift around a Saturday with my family in order to see Dunkirk on IMAX (and pay for it out of my own pocket, something I wasn't having to do on Friday night on the smaller screen).

But the question is, did being "drunk" -- how far along on that spectrum I was is debatable -- impact my enjoyment of the film?

As I am biased here and predisposed to endorse my own decision making, I'm going to say "no." But I guess I can't really say for sure, because I can't see it for the first time sober as a point of comparison.

What I can say is that falling asleep was not a problem as I watched the film, which I always figure to be the biggest danger in a film starting at 9:20, whether you're drunk or not. As I said, I was bored, but it was not because the alcohol was making me distractable. It's because Christopher Nolan made a boring film.

I don't even think IMAX would have helped. I was able to appreciate this film's visual accomplishments just fine on the screen where I saw it, and I honestly don't think this is a case where those accomplishments, given a proper showcase, would have rendered some of the film's shortcomings less important. In fact, even in a state of somewhat compromised perceptions, I was glad to feel clear-headed enough not to be swayed by the sweet persuasions of impressive visuals. A film needs to either have a compelling story to be a success, or if not that, then just be a straight art film with no story whatsoever. Nolan's middle ground in Dunkirk is a bad place to be.

July 20th -- again

Methinks Christopher Nolan needs to concentrate more on making a good movie and less on making sure that movie comes out on July 20th.

And incidentally, how can July 20th fall on a Friday every single year?

July 20th was of course a Thursday this year, but movies get released on Thursdays in Australia, so the 20th was its release date indeed.

It may be a Warner Brothers thing, but Nolan's movies have long been perceived as a late-summer sort of counterprogramming, or maybe just a delayed infusion of prestige to a season that has already included its share of Pirates of the Caribbeans and Transformerses.

The July 20th trend got started in 2008 -- on July 18th. That's when The Dark Knight hit theaters. Its predecessor, Batman Begins, was a June release, but I guess The Dark Knight felt right in late July.

So right, in fact, that they duplicated the release strategy for Inception in 2010. It being two years later and without the benefit of any leap years in between, Inception could not land exactly on July 20th either. So July 16th was the chosen release date.

We finally get to an exact July 20th release date, with the benefit of a leap year, two years later for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. That date may of course be etched into your memory for being the night of the horrific theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Warner Brothers deviated from the strategy with a November 2014 release for Interstellar, but it's back with Dunkirk -- a film whose awards aspirations might have more logically dictated a November release date than Interstellar. Though I suppose some of these things have to do with when a film is actually ready to go to print.

What relationship does the release date have to the quality of the film?

None, of course. And I'm sure my criticisms of Dunkirk don't seem very substantive, since I haven't delved in to why I dislike it so much.

I could. Believe me, I could. But I guess I already feel like enough of a grinch for raining on the parades of readers who may have already bought their tickets for a screening at some point later in the weekend, but happened to do their Friday check-in with my blog before then.

But as a wise friend told me last night when I texted him my initial reactions and then apologized for shitting on a movie he was excited to see, "Maybe I will love it, maybe not. It will have nothing to do with you. When any movie comes out, there will be people who don't like it."

In the case of Dunkirk, just not very many of us.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Saoirse Ronan is a grownup

There's a scene near the start of Brooklyn, which I just saw on Wednesday night, where Saoirse Ronan's Ellis (pronounced Eye-lish) watches a friend walk off with a cute boy at a dance in her small Irish town. Her expression toward her departing comrade, who looks back to smile and giggle, is at first one of supportive encouragement. As the girl recedes into her dance, the expression becomes by degrees more hollow, slackening into disenchantment, then dissatisfaction, then disillusionment, then discomfort, then awareness of discomfort, then a resolve that it's time to walk away and do something else. In this one 20-second shot, Ronan has given us a mini master class on acting.

This is not how a 20-year-old acts. This is how a grownup acts.

In fact, when principal photography on Brooklyn began on the first day of April in 2014, Ronan was not even 20 yet. She was 11 days shy of that birthday.

Actors who show absolute command of the craft at a young age are not total anomalies. One family, the Fannings, even has two such actresses, with Elle possibly being even better than Dokata. But there is something so prepossessed about Saoirse Ronan that it seems to put her in a different category. She was an adult even when she was a child.

I remember my first experience with her in Atonement, which it's hard to believe was nearly ten years ago now. She would have been only 11 or 12 at the time that was filmed, and though she was playing a child making bad decisions -- fatal decisions, in fact -- she was making them in adult ways. Making them with a kind of prepossessed shrewdness, which made them seem calculated rather than careless. There was something old and wise about the look in her eyes, something that indicated she'd be better off tried as an adult than a child in a court of law.

Recognizing the unmistakable presence she brought to her work, Hollywood of course targeted her for a number of familiar type teenage roles in movies aimed squarely at that demographic, things like City of Ember and The Host. But many of her roles were in projects that were a bit more challenging, making a bit more unusual use of a girl in her teenage years, like The Lovely Bones, Hanna, Byzantium and How I Live Now. I haven't seen all of these movies and some I am judging on a vague perception only, but all of them, in their way, seem to require someone with a certain maturity and sophistication. A maturity and sophistication Ronan had long before she had any business having it.

In some of those roles, there is an explicit sense of adulthood to her character. In Hanna, for example, she has been raised as a lethal weapon, a fighter who can incapacitate an adult despite her tender age. In How I Live Now, she's a surrogate mother looking after younger siblings in a post-apocalyptic England. In Byzantium she's, well, a vampire. The oldest of the old -- eventually if not now.

In Brooklyn it feels hard to imagine her as anything other than a fully grown, fully blossomed human being. Ellis the character is no older than Ronan is, but she travels on her own to New York to start up a new life. Both the decision to go and the going by oneself are signs of adulthood, but it's the stolid way she handles everything that comes her way that truly distinguishes her as a grownup. This is not to say she doesn't succumb to the occasional bouts of overwhelming homesickness, which crack her professional facade at her job. But there's nothing childish about her homesickness -- it's the mature pangs of guilt and fondness over a sister and mother she left behind in the old country. When she begins a courtship with a handsome young Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), and begins progressing with him at a rate that might seem impetuous, she's making pragmatic choices here too. Even though she feels swoony, she behaves practically, at one point even telling him that she will commit to two movie dates with him -- "even if the first one goes terribly, I'll give it another go." Sensibility incarnate.

An argument might be made that the best young actors show us what it's truly like to be a child, remaining in close contact with the turbulent emotions of that age. There'll be time enough later for them to show us how grown up they can be. Hailee Steinfeld is an actress who excels at that type of thing.

But an actress like Saoirse Ronan reminds us, refreshingly, that young people are just adults who are not yet fully formed -- or sometimes, are fully formed. The truth in her performance is that she plays characters with a kind of preternatural wisdom -- a wisdom that we believe because it can be just as true to life as characters who are changeable and petulant.

It'll be interesting to see what she's capable of when she really is a grownup.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The temptation to scold Edgar Wright

Rightly or wrongly, a director who leaves a movie before its completion can assume a certain "holier than thou" aspect. Sometimes directors get kicked off movies, which is no fault of their own. However, sometimes they cite the ever-popular "creative differences" and depart a movie on their own terms, and rightly or wrongly, this opens them up to scorn.

Warning: The following argument comes dangerously close to taking the side of The Man. But hear me out.

Certainly, you'd think that if Edgar Wright left Ant-Man, it was because Marvel Studios wanted to control him and fit him into a tiny artistic box that he didn't want to occupy. He had sprawling, rambling ideas that consisted of a type of genius that didn't jibe with their conception of the movie. Fine. Leave the movie, Peyton Reed will finish what you started with something halfway watchable (but pretty bland compared to what you would have done), the movie will be reasonably warmly received and everyone will go their merry way.

But I'd be lying if a small part of me didn't say "What, too good for Ant-Man, Edgar Wright?" Rightly or wrongly.

Because it's a bit inevitable to perceive someone who leaves a movie -- leaves, not gets fired from -- as having a bit of an inflated sense of their own self worth. Some would argue that this is a very reasonable estimation of their own worth, as any person should stand up for themselves and not just accept being the puppet of some studio. But there's a certain element of standing up for yourself that seems like rocking the boat. Movies are made by people who become inextricably linked with one another despite inevitable compromises in how they imagined things going, and if you're a good soldier you just grin and bear it.

Wright wasn't a good solder, and some people would celebrate him for that.

I did, sort of, while also wondering what terrific use of his talents he was saving himself for. What thing would be worth not sullying his name or reputation by having a credit on an imperfect realization of his vision for Ant-Man.

The answer is: He was saving himself for Baby Driver.

Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I don't dislike Baby Driver, but let's say that in just 24 hours since I finished watching it, I have already rounded my 3.5-star rating down to three stars and am thinking of going lower. The movie doesn't stand up to even a little bit of scrutiny, and it's not even all that great when you don't scrutinize it.

But I don't want to litigate the strengths and weaknesses of Baby Driver in this post, though I could go on at length with nits to pick and parts that annoyed me, especially in the last 30 minutes. (And for a guy who prizes his own vision for a film, he felt awfully like he was channeling Quentin Tarantino in this movie, didn't he?)

Instead I'd like to concentrate on how Baby Driver is burdened by being an alternative choice to Ant-Man, though in reality, it likely would have been his next movie with or without the MCU film in his filmography.

If Baby Driver had just followed on the heels of The World's End, the 2013 Wright movie that I like even less than Baby Driver, it might have concerned me as a sign that a once-sharp filmmaker who made at least two bracingly original films (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was on a wayward path. But as is, it's what he's offering the world as proof of what he's capable of -- when someone isn't trying to pull his strings. With Baby Driver, Wright says to the world, "My shackles are off. Now watch me fly."

Or maybe, crash land.

In Wright's defense, he has established himself -- through no fault of his own, or to put it another way, "rightly or wrongly" -- as a creative talent from whom a lot is expected. He has a passionate cult of followers who worship his films. There's a lot of pressure on a person like that, a pressure to continually outdo yourself and be greater than you were last time. Even if only two of his now five features have actually earned him that kind of devotion.

So my under-appreciation of Baby Driver could just be a manifestation of my own frustrated expectations for the man's next work.

But I don't think so. I think I have had a love-hate relationship with Edgar Wright that is equally happy to be pushed in either direction. I look forward to his next film either because it will confirm he's great or confirm he's a hack, and I kind of don't care which. I can argue either narrative. (If you're wondering where the one film I haven't mentioned, Hot Fuzz, falls on the love-hate spectrum -- which is really a spectrum of "love" to "don't love that much" -- it's pretty much in the middle. I like it, but not overly.)

And I guess something about the Ant-Man debacle has kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Am I an apologist for a gigantic movie studio like Marvel, or to step out one level greater, like Disney? I don't think I am, but if I generally trust the things a company does -- and that's the case with Disney -- I do extend them a certain loyalty. I do think that someone should think of it sort of as an honor to be entrusted with a Disney product, and if they don't properly appreciate that opportunity, it's a them problem.

But still, had Baby Driver seemed like the inevitable next chapter in the cinematic universe inside Edgar Wright's brain, I would have been happy to argue his genius.

Instead, I'm yielding to that temptation to scold him.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The last scraps of 2016

If you can believe it, there's still one more movie with a 2016 U.S. release date that has yet to come out in Australia. It doesn't even come out until next Thursday, the 27th, actually.

Fortunately, due to the magic of press screenings, you can already read my review here.

I'm not sure why J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls had such a slow progression to the Australian cinemas, but perhaps they just wanted to wait until it was the dead of winter and the movie could not depress us any further. (It's actually not "depressing" in the pejorative sense that one would usually use if describing a movie; it just happens to be about sad things.)

I do have a bit of mixed emotions about reviewing a movie like this, if only because I've mentally moved on by late July and feel like I want to be spending time on movies that count toward my 2017 list. I see 2016 movies at home, but in the theater it feels a bit weird. (Even the private critics screening room where I saw it.)

Then again, I love hearing myself talk, so if someone wants me to talk about a movie that had even its wide release more than six months ago in the U.S., I'm your man.

And though U.S. readers will have likely had the option to rent this for a good four months, Australian readers are advised to check it out in the cinema. It's worth the big screen.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Not this year's Jupiter Ascending - or so I hope

After Jupiter Ascending came out two years ago, I didn’t know if there would ever be another Jupiter Ascending again.

I mean, I didn’t want another Jupiter Ascending, per se, because that movie was awful. No sequels necessary. But I did want another “Jupiter Ascending.”

The difference indicated by those quotation marks is as follows: I wanted another movie that took the same risks as Jupiter Ascending, in a genre in which only sure bets are usually green lit. I wanted it still to be possible to have movies that fit that small cinematic niche of “big, imaginative science fiction movie with fantasy worlds and no established characters.” I didn’t want studios only to gamble on Star Wars movies, though that’s obviously no gamble at all. I wanted them to gamble on what might become the next Star Wars.

But after several recent major flops in this arena – Ascending, but more catastrophically, John Carter – it seemed less and less likely that we would see many, or even any, more of these. One cautionary tale is enough for most studios – two, and you have serious cinematic leprosy on your hands. No one wants to go anywhere near it.

So I guess the pressure is really, really on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

When I was at the movies on Wednesday, I watched enough of the trailer for Luc Besson’s new movie to know that I didn’t want to watch any more of it. In a good way. I start avoiding a trailer once I get to that point where I say “Yep, I’m hooked, now leave the rest of it as a surprise.”

“Hooked” may be the wrong word for Valerian, because there are a million ways a movie like this could go wrong and only a scarce quantity of ways to do it right. So just because it looks nice – like really, really nice – doesn’t mean that it’s got anything going for it.

But if it’s great, I want to experience its greatness unspoiled.

And if it’s not great … well, we definitely won’t see another Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Cirque du Soleil: the one ideal incarnation for Avatar

While at the movies Wednesday night I saw an advertisement for Toruk, the upcoming Cirque du Soleil show inspired by Avatar. Whether it fits into the narrative of Avatar, or even has any narrative to speak of, is not certain. What is certain is that the acrobats are dressed up like Na’avi, and they do their leaps, twirls and somersaults through a stage manifestation of the Pandora forest.

What’s also certain is that this is a great way to use the world of Avatar.

In less than five seconds of this ad, I went from rolling my eyes about the concept (which I’d heard of only a few days before) to saying “Hell yeah, what a good idea.” I’d probably see Toruk, and not only because I’m overdue for my first Cirque show since the early 2000s, when I saw two in fairly close succession. One of those was the Las Vegas show called O, which involves a swimming pool built into the stage floor. It left an impression on me, and I still have a soft spot for the troupe despite the persistent suspicion that they might be sort of lame.

What’s also certain is that this is a far better way to use the world of Avatar than to have 11 more sequels coming out by the year 2030.

That’s only a slight exaggeration of how many more Avatar movies are on the horizon. Officially, it’s four. One would certainly hope James Cameron will have said everything he needs to say about this world after four more, but if the fourth still makes good money, who knows how much longer it could go.

And if the fourth still makes good money, I suppose we won’t have a problem. But that’s what I’m considering highly unlikely at this point.

You might logically say that Cameron had said everything that needed to be said after one Avatar movie. Some would argue that everything that needed to be said about Avatar had been said in Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas, calling into question the need for even a single Avatar. Though since the movie became the biggest box office hit of all time and stayed that way for six years (until Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it’s reasonable to conclude that there was a legitimate hunger for Avatar’s offerings, at least at some point.

But as I may have discussed on this blog before – and if not, I’m overdue – Avatar has endured poorly in our popular consciousness. Many of us (including me) only saw it that one time, and even those who loved it at the time do not really go to bat for it these days. You don’t hear anyone with an obsessive ongoing relationship with Avatar, like they have with something like Star Wars, for example. And while that’s an impossible standard for anything, it seems reasonable that a film that had made more money than any other movie, and has four sequels planned, would be one of the most capable of meeting it. In fact, would need to come close to meeting it to justify the expenditure on four more expensive sequels.

Part of the reason no one talks much about Avatar could be that the Na’avi themselves seem like a short-sighted creation. There are a couple reasons for this. One is the unfortunate white savior/exotic savage dynamic that’s intrinsic to their conception, with Cameron trying to cast Jake Sully (or himself) as the outsider who can come in and rescue a bunch of noble natives who are being abused by big corporations/military institutions. Even if it’s the good fight from a liberal perspective, it has bad optics. Then there’s the idea that the Na’avi just seem goofy, with their blue skin and big eyes. Maybe we got into bed with them only because they were part of a mind-blowing, sumptuous 3D experience, and we always would have preferred characters who were a bit less like humanoid lizards with mystical tendencies.

But what makes “us” want to disassociate ourselves with the Na’avi also makes them perfect for Cirque du Soleil. When we go to the circus, or the ballet, or any other art form that celebrates the physical movements of the human body, we want a world that’s a bit mystical and fanciful, where blue skin and lizard-like movements are a help rather than a hindrance. We want to see majesty on display, and we’re a little less beholden to the narrative utility of the majesty we’re seeing. It’s not important that the characters seem adaptable to other environments, as, for example, the Star Wars characters have been repurposed for umpteen other uses that have enabled the ubiquity that supports umpteen sequels.

So while I’m not at all sure the Avatar sequels will make their money back, I feel fairly confident Cirque du Soleil will do just fine. And they may be smart with their timing as well. It’s still a few years before we get Avatar 2, so in one sense this seems to be coming out of nowhere (out of the blue, har har). But it might be better now than after the movies come out, because it’s very possible we’ll become saturated with Avatar and may not respond well to that. There definitely won’t be any hunger for a Cirque du Soleil incarnation of Avatar if we’ve roundly rejected the cinematic version.

I like Avatar enough that I want it to endure as an institution, something that maintains a certain level of cultural cache rather than being consigned to the dustbin of cinematic history. But the way to do this is not by sequeling us to death, by releasing a bunch of merchandise of blue Na’avis who look enough like each other that we can’t really tell the difference between the girl one or the boy one, and our kids don’t want to play with either of them. The best way to do it is through something like Cirque du Soleil, which will encapsulate some of the things we liked about Avatar while excising some of its more problematic elements.

But there aren’t billions of dollars bound up in a traveling circus show, so fat chance of that.