Saturday, August 26, 2017

A week up north

I don't know if this is where I will actually be for the next week -- it was just the first image I found when I googled "Darwin, Australia." In fact, I don't know a whole lot about this trip. It was planned by others and all I have to do is show up.

What I do know is that where I'm going will be something, if not a lot, like this, and I will not be writing any blog posts.

Enjoy your week off from me, and you can be sure upon my return I will have some funny story about a movie I watched on the plane.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The balls Apes doesn't have

My favorite moment in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, now clearly the standout of this trilogy, is when Koba plays into the stereotype of being an ape. He "monkeys around." He "acts the fool." He makes ooo-ooo-ooo ah-ah-ah noises.

And then he takes a machine gun and caps the humans who have so underestimated him.

That moment has balls. It's unafraid to show a species with disdain for another species that has subjugated it for so long. It's abrupt and nasty and wonderful.

Where are those balls in War for the Planet of the Apes?

Nowhere. The same place as the war itself is: Nowhere.

I finally caught up with this movie Thursday night, as I use this last week before I go on vacation to tie up any loose ends from the summer viewing season, the last month or so of which was truncated first by my wife's trip to America, then by the advent of MIFF. As you recall from yesterday's post, it was Valerian on Wednesday night; on Thursday, finally Apes.

I might have waited for video with the amount of rousing big-screen action this movie was set to give me, or more appropriately, not give me.

I wouldn't have ordinarily minded a summer blockbuster that kind of deconstructs our expectations for a blockbuster, but this movie has the word "war" right there in its title.

Not "battle." Not "skirmish." Not "brouhaha." Not "donnybrook."


And the word "war" sets up certain expectations. You expect not only one battle, but many, with loads of indiscriminate death and bodies strewn across battlefields. You expect a knock-down, grind-out confrontation that ends in the utter decimation of one of the sides. And because you are familiar with the history of this nearly 50-year-old franchise, you know the decimated side is supposed to be the humans.

But my goodness if this film didn't get skittish about the idea of apes wiping humans off the map.

It's the outcome we knew was coming all the way back in 1968, when Franklin J. Schaffner's Planet of the Apes fried our noodle with that big ending, where we realize that lo and behold, this damn place is Earth. The humans were not dead and gone, not totally, but they were an endangered species forced into slavery. It's not something we've had any illusions about in the half-century since then. (And incidentally, why not delay War of the Planet of the Apes one more year and just release it on the 50th anniversary of the first film?)

But the studio got squeamish. It didn't back away from the idea of humans approaching extinction, because that still happens, if only for the sake of continuity. Instead, it bent over backwards to make the new conquering overlords as sensitive and humanistic as possible. (Though since humans are often portrayed pretty negatively in these films, "apenistic" might be a better term for the moral disposition I'm describing here.) In fact, these apes are damn near overburdened with a nearly fatal dose of gentility and grace.

I wanted to see them rise up and make a conscious choice to become the dominant species on the planet. I didn't want to see them nice their way into supremacy.

And just because they rise up and kill their enemy does not mean we can't still sympathize with them and love them. Good people -- er, good creatures -- are forced to do bad things if their enemies give them no choice. But instead of being pushed to the brink and unleashing hell, these apes are the equivalent of the Disney hero, who never kills the villain -- the villain dies as a result of being too aggressive in his attempts to kill the hero. In fact, many times, the hero makes a vain attempt to save the villain before the villain plunges to his death.

Rather than crushing him under his boot, which I wanted these apes to do.

It would be like George Lucas coming to the end of Revenge of the Sith and saying "You know what? Maybe Annakin Skywalker doesn't kill all the young jedis in training." Nope. Can't do that. He already did.

I can't even enumerate the moments of gooey sentimentality devoted to just how enlightened these apes are. The movie pauses maybe two dozen times to linger on their benevolence and kindness. The score swells, a tear rolls down an ape cheek, a flower is tucked behind the ear of a small mute girl they take as their charge. These are not killing machines. They are hippies.

Where is damn Koba?

Dead, of course. Koba and his worldview were squelched in the second film when Caesar's rival and philosophical opposite was dropped from one of those great heights that kills every Disney villain. There's no Koba stand-in in this movie. Except, of course, for Koba himself, who appears once or twice as a vision to Caesar.

This movie needed some damn Koba. It needed some disdain for human beings, who are presented in almost ludicrously monstrous fashion as embodied by Woody Harrelson's merciless colonel. It's a problem that we don't see a single human being in this film who is not a soldier (okay, one -- the girl). I do like the better balance of following the human story and the ape story that we are given in Dawn, but the real problem is not that the humans are cardboard caricatures of villains. The problem is that the movie doesn't use that status as license to let the apes indulge their primal urge to protect themselves and become the alpha species. With what they've been through, we wouldn't even blame them.

Yet they spend all their time caressing the faces of and sticking flowers in the hair of mute girls.

Get some fucking balls, War for the Planet of the Apes.

And we're talking about a whole planet here, right? Maybe the apes who overthrew the humans in France or Nigeria or China or Brazil weren't a bunch of pussies.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Looks like I'm seeing Thor: The Dark World

If there was any Marvel movie I was pretty sure I never needed to see, it would have been Thor: The Dark World.

I didn't much care for the first Thor movie -- it was fine, but nothing more. The second never became a priority, and it landed with Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as the only MCU movies I (so far) haven't seen.

I'll probably watch Guardians before the end of the year, and now it looks like Iron Man 3 may be hanging out by its lonesome in this group. Because Thor: Ragnarok looks so damn awesome that I think I'll need to do it the courtesy of watching its predecessor before I see it.

Truth is, the involvement of Taika Waititi probably meant I'd be seeing Ragnarok anyway, but watching the trailer last night just amped up my excitement level for it from, well, basically non-existent to almost uncontrollable.

And sure, you could just say that any trailer cut to Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" is going to be awesome almost no matter what the accompanying images are. But in this case, the accompanying images are fantastic. The very outer-spacey Ragnarok looks exactly like what I've wanted the Guardians movies to be, and which at least half of them haven't been -- an outer space-set comic book movie that is actually pretty badass. (Sorry, Green Lantern, you don't qualify.)

I'm not sure I even remember half of what I thought was so great about this trailer, but that's probably better, as it'll remain fresh for me when the movie releases in November. And of course, now that I've seen the trailer once, I won't watch it again.

My normal trailer rules are that I don't watch trailers for movies I already know I want to see. As soon as I realize what trailer it is, I stop watching it. But movies I'm not that excited about get a pass. Instead of worrying about ruining the movie by seeing some of its best imagery in advance, I use the advanced imagery to possibly fuel my excitement about it.

I suppose there's a middle ground where I could go from not wanting to see a movie, to wanting to see it, to having some of its best images ruined for me, all in the space of one trailer. But I'm willing to take the risk, in part because seeing trailers was something that I always used to look forward to until I decided that not seeing them was truer to the experience I want to have with the movies. (It all goes back to that one year where I realized that I hadn't seen a trailer for nine of my top the movies of the year.)

Anyway, Thor: Ragnarok's trailer fucking ruled. Nice job.

And as a validation of my standard trailer-watching policy, the movie I subsequently saw was Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, whose trailers I had been steadfastly avoiding. I ended up liking the movie a fair bit, and I think I can chalk that up in no small part to not having glimpsed any of the images of the movie's opening 20 minutes or so, which are by far its best parts. "That's some Avatar shit right there," I may have even said out loud as I watched the beginning set on the planet Mul, which is an immersive environment on the scale of Pandora.

If Ragnarok immerses me that much and has a good story to boot? Watch out.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Asian Audient: Headshot

This is the eighth installment in Asian Audient, a monthly series in which it is surprisingly difficult to find Asian films that were not made in China, Japan or South Korea.

My desperate desire to expand the horizons of a series that looks at a whole continent's worth of films, yet somehow is more limited in possible candidates than I could have ever imagined, has driven me to a movie I wouldn't have otherwise spent my time on: an undistinguished, modern-day martial arts movie.

But Headshot at least gets me to Indonesia for the first time, so that's something, right? (And it was easily sourced, through Netflix.)

Indonesia figures to be where I first set my own actual foot in Asia next April. That's right, I've never once been on Asian soil, but that will change when my wife and I take a trip to Bali to celebrate ten years of being married.

If I wanted to get there figuratively through this series, it occurred to me very belatedly -- after I'd already started watching Headshot -- that there was a far easier way to do it. The most famous Indonesian cinematic export in recent years has been The Raid, which I saw and enjoyed about two years ago. I had not yet seen the sequel, which some people say is even better.

Like its predecessor, though, The Raid 2: Redemption is directed by Gareth Evans, a director who hails from Wales. And though that was not a decisive factor in my decision -- in fact, I just forgot about this movie entirely -- I'm glad I wasn't so desperate that I succumbed to this kind of cheating of the spirit of this series. At least by choosing a different movie starring Raid star Iko Uwais, I got a movie directed by two legitimate Indonesians: Timo Tjajhanto and Kimo Stamboel.

Uwais -- whose name I could not properly remember, so I kept mentally referring to him as Udo Kier -- stars as a man who is essentially a lot like Jason Bourne. He washes ashore without his memory, having sustained a gun shot that has not quite killed him. As he convalesces in a hospital, he develops a bond with a female doctor (Chelsea Islan), who rather predictably becomes kidnapped by a man who is key to remembering his past identity, a vicious escaped criminal named Lee (Sunny Pang). Bodies ensue.

That's really all there is to the plot, but as I was watching it, I wondered if there was even that much. The way his memories get pieced together, and action set pieces get strung together, plot hardly matters at all. That can be a good thing, but in Headshot I found it to be a bit of an endurance test. It's not boring, precisely, as someone is almost always being kicked in the face in slow motion, leading an artful spurt of blood to arc across the frame. But the inclination to ask who this guy is, and why he's showing up here, and what it all means, is almost constant. The film makes the most meager attempts at developing a logical story or any characters within that, and though that's a common criticism of movies that are designed mostly as fight scene feeding mechanisms, it seems to be even more acutely a problem in this film.

That would all be okay if the fight scenes were really engaging, but all they really are is bloody. There's almost a comical level of brutality to much of the action here, not because the violence is so over-the-top that it makes a person squeamish, but because the wanton blood lust of the characters is so extreme that the only way to label their indifference toward the value of human life is to call it brutal. In fact, the extremity of the film is such that I can't tell if it is purposefully stylized or not. Notably, characters take an exceedingly long time to die, suffering certainly fatal quantities of bullets and other injuries yet still living long enough to perform anywhere from ten seconds to maybe a full minute of additional actions after they should obviously already be dead. In one typical example, a guy gets riddled with nearly a dozen bullets from a machine gun, and it's not enough to blow him off his feet backwards -- in fact, after absorbing all of this metal, he ultimately falls dead in a forward direction. If these scenes were obviously cartoonish, like a scene out of Kill Bill Vol. 1, then that would be something. But they are not executed at a level where that kind of intentional thought can be ascribed to them.

Uwais himself is a bit of a problem as well. I can't remember him making that much of an impression on me in The Raid, but he definitely did not make a negative impression. Here he kind of does, as he's got a real deficit of charisma and makes it nearly impossible to feel like we know him or relate to him as an action movie hero. The script is largely to blame, but Uwais needed to contribute a lot more than he does in the personality department.

So I did not like this film, and in fact had to see it over two nights -- something I can blame more on the fact that the first night was on the day of my son's seventh birthday party, an event that exhausted me and from which I wound down with a couple glasses of wine. But the viewing was instructional as a look into a burgeoning part of the film industry, an example of a film made regionally in Asia that is trying (and possibly succeeding) to cross over internationally. One way in which that's obviously the case is that Headshot premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, before debuting in a small release earlier this year. (Which means hey, it counts on this year's list!) Another is the fact that maybe a quarter of its dialogue is in English, though the accents are heavy enough that they go with subtitles for all spoken dialogue in the film. And if subtitles are going to be on screen the entire time anyway, one wonders what the point of 25% English dialogue is in the first place.

I didn't fully figure out the meaning of the title, though there were a couple scenes in which one combatant repeatedly stabbed his opponent in the head with a broken off sword. In a movie generally devoid of meaning, that's about as much meaning as you're likely to get.

September? I may go with the film I promised for August, which was Enter the Dragon. But two martial arts movies in a row may ultimately seem imprudent, and besides, I'm still trying to get to Thailand with one of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's earlier films. So essentially: You'll just have to wait and see.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

MIFF: Lovers for Loveless, and a Strange ending

Hi there! And welcome to my final MIFF post for 2017.

My final new film of 2017 involved my second switcheroo of the festival. My previous exchange, as you may recall, was when I accidentally bought tickets to the wrong session of Let the Sunshine In, and was able to switch them for the correct one (for a very reasonable $1 fee). The second, however, was an actual switch in titles, as it was on the festival's second-to-last day and there would be no opportunity for any encore screenings of the title in question. But the movie I chose had a number of funny things in common with the film it was replacing.

I was supposed to see the Cannes Jury Prize winner Loveless from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, about a couple going through a bitter divorce. That was playing at 3:45 Saturday afternoon at the Forum, and at the time I purchased the tickets it was set to be my only screening of the festival in my favorite venue. (Wednesday's Golden Exits screening was ultimately moved there, but I didn't know this at the time.) But I was forced to abandoned that viewing due to a late-developing conflict with an early dinner my wife had to attend. I greeted this with a shrug -- I wanted to see the movie, in part because I was pretty heavy on English language films this year, but I wouldn't say I had a particular preference for it.

I did have a preference for seeing something at the Forum, so I looked to see what was on there earlier in the day on Saturday, and found Azazel Jacobs' The Lovers, which had been on my initial long list of candidates when the schedule was first released. It was playing at 11 a.m. The movie hits theaters here in only a couple weeks, which was one of the reasons it hadn't progressed on my initial shortlist. But under the circumstances, it was a good fit.

Jacobs directed the film Terri, which I really liked, and The Lovers featured Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, both of whom I also like. It's funny how much The Lovers and Loveless have in common -- both are about a divorcing couple, both have the word Love in their title, and both were on at the Forum on Saturday. It was almost like a little inside joke by the festival programmers.

Braving a burst of rain that wasn't at all previewed by the sky at the time I left, I ditched my bike a couple blocks away from the theater and made it in plenty of time for the screening. I was damp, but the screening was only 2/3 full, and I always like to sit off to the right at the Forum, so I had most of the row to myself to spread out and dry out.

I can't speak to the quality of Loveless, of course, but I was very glad I'd chosen this as its replacement. Jacobs takes a big step forward in craft from Terri and has made an extremely humanistic (and very funny) film about a husband and wife, the parents of a college-aged young man, who are in the last stages of a dead marriage. They're both having affairs (unbeknownst to each other), but as they sit on the precipice of confessing their affairs to each other and separating, they realize a renewed mutual attraction and affection. The film follows a cute but effective parallel structure between them, as their relationships with the people they're cheating with are strained in ways that mirror each other, and even the timing of the impending confessions -- right after their son visits -- is aligned.

I don't know why I found this film so entrancing, but the performances of Letts and Winger must have a lot to do with it. I have long appreciated the talents of Debra Winger, but Letts, the playwright, really surprised me in the first leading role in which I had seen him. Both bring enviable subtlety and layers of emotional complexity to their performances. Their lovers, played by Melora Walters and Aidan Gillen, are a bit more purposefully broad, but still effective as well. The movie was sailing toward my top five of the year until it faltered just a little bit in the third act. But, just a little bit.

I enjoyed having an early afternoon -- nay, morning -- screening for the first (and of course last) time of the festival, for its own sake but also because it allowed me to make my first visit to the festival lounge downstairs for a bit of lunch afterward. The downstairs area at the Forum is set aside for a fancy bar and dance floor area, which I'd tried to visit on Wednesday except it was already closed for the night. At 12:45 it was understandably sparsely attended, but no matter. It looked as glitzy and well-appointed as it always does, and I enjoyed a craft beer and pastrami sandwich in an enjoyably mellow state of post-film bliss.

My final film of the festival came that night at 9 p.m., and it was my second film of the festival I'd already seen. The circumstances of the first -- Fantastic Planet with live musical accompaniment -- made it a must see. The second was just because I felt like it, dammit.

That was my first-ever big screen viewing of Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days, and my fourth overall. The film is a personal favorite, ranked #62 on my Flickchart. At this writing I am still not sure why it was selected as part of the festival program, as these old releases usually conform to some theme, like all the films of a particular director, or some overt sociopolitical topic. I could probably find that information online somewhere, but I can't be bothered right now.

I will say that when it became clear my wife was going to use only one of the two evening tickets that still remained on our festival minipass, I started scouting for possible candidates on the final weekend, and when I found this one, I couldn't shake it from my mind. Sure, on some level it goes against my festival-going philosophy, which is to acquire new films before they're available, or films that might never be in any easy way. But I thought of this last ticket a bit like found money -- I never expected to have it. I was already feeling good about my selection of films for the festival and didn't feel like I really needed another. So might as well take that rare opportunity to see a film you love on the big screen. It felt like a fitting way to close the festival.

And it did have that effect on me, though I'll say that I liked the film a little bit less than when my last viewing in 2011 reconfirmed it as a personal favorite. It's still a personal favorite, no doubt about that, but #62 on Flickchart seems a bit high. As such, it'll probably steadily get busted down, maybe landing around #100 to #120, where it probably really belongs.

But I still love the sci-fi vision of this film, as it's that rare type of sci-fi that serves as a great mixture of our current world and a vision of a possible near future. At the time this was made in 1995, it was looking only five years into the future, yet Bigelow and screenwriter James Cameron (!) imagined a world where people were addicted to a black market product that allowed them to immerse themselves in other people's recorded experiences. As VR is really taking off in a big way now, and as tensions between the police and African-Americans are as bad as they have ever been, the film feels timely in any number of ways. And those may indeed by the reasons it was considered a good candidate for inclusion in this festival.

It was timely for me as well. At my fourth MIFF, I also had fourth viewings of both this and Fantastic Planet. And that's the type of synchronicity you know I love.

And I love MIFF, so it's with a little melancholy that another good one comes to an end.

Until next August ...

Friday, August 18, 2017

MIFF: Calling all chiropractors

I didn't realize how truly diabolical the seats are in the Comedy Theatre until I saw a really long movie there.

I've made little comments on my blog throughout MIFF about this venue and its uncomfortable seats, which are probably the only drawback of an otherwise gorgeous classic theater. But so far I'd been pretty lucky. Of the four other features I'd seen there this year, The Killing of a Sacred Deer was the longest at two hours, while the shortest, Fantastic Planet, was a mere 72 minutes. And with Deer, that was an engrossing two hours, never mind that I had the privilege of sitting in the isolation of my own one-seat row.

By contrast, the 142 minutes of Ruben Ostlund's The Square nearly killed me.

I was on the end of something like the sixth row, otherwise quite a good seat in this theater. Arriving uncharacteristically early, a full 15 minutes before showtime, won me that seat.

But by the 70-minute mark or so -- knowing I was only halfway through -- I longed for that luxurious single seat in the front row.

I was constantly grinding my neck back and forth, extending my arms way above my head, cracking the bone just below my right wrist the way someone would crack knuckles, and scanning the theater to see if there was possibly a better seat for me somewhere. The film was surprisingly not sold out, surprising as The Square won the Palme d'Or at Cannes three months ago. But from my vantage point, I could not see anything more advantageous, and especially not across to the other side of the theater where my Deer seat may have been empty and waiting for me. Instead, I just silently grumbled as I tried to avoid intermingling my legs with the old man sitting next to me, who suffered in a similar silence.

How much was The Square responsible for the experience I was having? It's hard to say. This is a pretty entertaining movie that had a number of scenes that really made me laugh, not to mention a few that made me think. But it's also a bit of a discombobulated mess, full of plot strands with no resolution and ideas that often come off as half-baked. Two likable English-speaking stars, Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, are kind of lost in this messy shuffle, exemplifying both the half-baked ideas and the plot strands without resolution. I can see why a body like Cannes awarded it the top prize, but I can also see why this movie won't work for everybody, and why not quite fully working for me combined with the torture devices they call seats to make the whole thing a bit of an endurance test.

I should say that The Square does a lot right. In fact, it reminded me in rather significant ways of some films I consider the best of the decade so far. It's got the same interest in interpersonal dynamics across social classes as A Separation, including some of that film's themes about our responsibilities to each other. The square of the title is, literally, a physical symbol of our social contract, executed in the form of a modern art exhibit at a Stockholm museum. And in form and structure it probably most closely resembles my #1 of last year, Toni Erdmann, another very long multi-lingual comedy from a European director, sharing that film's reliance on bizarre set pieces for much of its humor. There's even some of the absurdism of a director I've already indirectly referenced in this piece, Yorgos Lanthimos.

But it made me think long and hard about how much of a role the circumstances of the viewing play in our enjoyment of a film. Take Erdmann, for example. That movie is a further 20 minutes longer than The Square, but last year's MIFF programmers had the good sense to schedule it at the Forum, which has far better seating -- in fact, seating good enough that I don't really notice it one way or another. It was not a chore to watch a 160-minute movie at the Forum. What if I'd had to watch Toni Erdmann at the Comedy Theatre? Instead of it being my #1 of last year, might it have been my #30? The Square doesn't pack Erdmann's emotional wallop, so I don't think the reverse will be true, that a movie that will probably be somewhere around #30 (if not lower) might have been #1 under different circumstances. But it does make a person wonder.

If the 142 minutes in those seats weren't long enough, there was a delay in getting things started, plus I was seated a bit earlier than usual as a result of my earlier arrival. Then a further delay came on behalf of the director himself. From a beach in Greece, Ostlund recorded a selfie video to greet us at the festival. What at first I thought was a charming and nicely personal idea -- he was there flitting around with a daughter who must have been about 12 -- quickly grew tiresome as he started prattling on about the theme of the movie and why he made it. It must have gone on for three minutes. Thirty seconds would have been about right. It ended up feeling a bit like a preview of the way his movie would sort of prattle on about nothing.

Again, don't get me wrong, it's a good movie. I think I must just not be quite on Ostlund's wavelength. I didn't like Force Majeure as much as most people seemed to, and that figures to be my destiny on The Square as well. Both got 3.5 stars from me.

Though without feeling like someone was cramming me inside a box for more than two hours, who knows, maybe it would have gotten a four.

On the way out, as I was pushing my way down the sidewalk with a bit of the mad panic of a person finally free from a claustrophobic space, a woman in line for the next movie called out to me. She wanted to know if I wanted to go, because they had an extra ticket.

It was all I could do to keep from laughing at her.

Okay, I am DONE with the Comedy Theatre for 2017. And almost done with MIFF. Just two more screenings on Saturday to wrap things up.

And oh yeah, I thought I should tell you -- even though the movie ran long and I was in serious danger of missing the start, I never like to miss an easy opportunity to squeeze in another movie. So I beat feet to the closest regular cinema, just two blocks away, in time for a screening of The Dark Tower. It was the perfect contrast to the experience I'd just had. There were only two other people there (on opening night!) and the seats were large and luxurious.

The movie sucked, but as a purely physical experience of indulgent freedom for my appendages, it's one I won't soon forget.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

MIFF: Golden slumbers fill my eyes

Every time the title of my seventh MIFF movie of 2017 came into my head, I couldn't help but start singing to myself the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers," one of the final songs on their classic album Abbey Road. Hence, you get this title for this post.

Last year, when I increased my MIFF viewings from a modest four in 2015 all the way up to 11, I started thinking that a good goal for an expanded schedule was to try to target the new films by filmmakers whose work I had loved in the past. I suppose that's an obvious goal for any festival, but I suppose I mean that articulated the goal to myself and specifically pursued it. I immediately got a great chance to test that approach to selecting films, as the 2016 slate happened to include new films from the guys who made my #1 film of 2011 (A Separation), my #1 film of 2013 (Beyond the Hills) and my #2 film of 2014 (Like Father, Like Son), all three of which had earned five stars from me on Letterboxd. Unfortunately, of Asghar Farhadi's The Salesman, Cristian Mungiu's Graduation and Hirokazu Koreeda's After the Storm, only the last film earned as many as four stars, while the other two dwelled in the lukewarm three range.

The closest I could get to that philosophy in 2017 was Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits. Perry made my #10 film of 2015, Queen of Earth, a psychological horror starring Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, which left me well and truly throttled. I didn't expect that Golden Exits would delve into that territory, and indeed it did not. But I did like it a lot, as it's earned a four full starts and slotted in as my third favorite of the festival so far.

It was also my first chance to get to what I consider the crown jewel of the festival venues, the Forum on Flinders Street, which used to be a much larger performance space, but has had its upper balcony area walled off into a smaller (but still pretty big) screening space while the floor area now serves as a festival hub and bar. The place has the ornate stylings of old-world movie palaces, and I was almost worried I would miss out on it for 2017, until Golden Exits had a last-minute venue change from ACMI across the street to here. (I'm also getting there on Saturday afternoon, but that was a last-minute change as well as I had to scrap a later afternoon session that was scheduled at the Forum. More on that in the upcoming post about that viewing.)

Exits is a lot more like Perry's previous film, Listen Up Philip, than it is like Queen of Earth. And since I wasn't a huge fan of that film -- I was a fan, but not a huge fan -- I was concerned that Exits would indulge in the same kind of intellectual navel gazing that had put me off just a little bit in that film. That's certainly how this film starts out, as it again explores the relationship between the adult children of an important literary person and their deceased father. Actually, Queen of Earth also explores that, and maybe Listen Up Philip doesn't, but it explores similar territory. Let's just say Perry has his particular interests.

This was a film that really grew on me, though. The cast is lousy with talent, headlined by the likes of Jason Schwartzman, Chloe Sevigny and Mary-Louise Parker -- not to give short shrift to the talented younger actress, Emily Browning, and to Adam Horowitz, who has quiet the dramatic instincts for a Beastie Boy. Actually, this is my second Schwartzman film of the festival, after he starred -- his voice starred, anyway -- in the animated movie I saw last Thursday, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.

But the actress who really grew on me, much as the film did, was Lily Rabe, who has the kind of face that sort of alienates me. I can't really figure out a better way to describe it. But as I continued to watch her, I realized that Rabe is portraying so much pain in her performance -- not loudly, but firmly -- that it almost hurt to look at her. That was what I found alienating about her appearance, and I think that has to be a compliment.

It's essentially a "first world problems" type of film, where a bunch of generally privileged white people in New York ponder their unfulfilling lives and unquenchable desires. But as the movie went on, scored unobtrusively by a plaintive piano, I started finding profundity in their ruminations, ruminations that might have seemed self-indulgent in lesser hands. The familiar temptations toward betrayal and bad behavior are all there, but they do not culminate in familiar plot beats, and a number of these characters end up doing the right thing -- which does not leave them feeling any less hollow.

I'm out for consecutive nights for the first time during MIFF, as a bigger winner at this year's Cannes is up next for me on Thursday.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Audient Anime: Only Yesterday

This is the fourth in my bi-monthly 2017 series watching films from the world of anime.

As determined as I was to finally watch something that had not been directed by Hiyao Miyazaki in the fourth installment in this series, I nearly backtracked on that resolve once the August viewing rolled around. At the library, I happened across a copy of the film that had eluded me in June, Howl's Moving Castle, when I instead watched another Miyazaki castle movie (Castle in the Sky). A perfect opportunity to watch it arose when my soon-to-be seven-year-old was home sick last Tuesday, and I was tasked with staying home with him. All seemed to be working out.

Until I presented him the movie. "No," he said, definitively, in a tone I translated as "enough of your bullshit, Dad."

See, I'd strong-armed him into three previous viewings in this series, and though they all had positive outcomes, it was becoming clear that he was less and less amenable to my tactics. This month, he finally put his foot down.

So I went in another direction entirely.

Not only was the film I chose the first in this series not directed by Miyazaki, it was also:

1) The first I watched entirely in Japanese, as I had no child who had to understand the words because he couldn't keep up with the subtitles;

2) The first that didn't involve magic, sprites or other woodland creatures;

3) The first that possibly didn't even need to be animated.

That was the big adjustment in Isao Takahata's Only Yesterday, an animated film that is unlike any I have seen before, as everything that happens in it could be accomplished just as easily with actors and natural settings. As another indication of what type of film it is, the BluRay cover advertises that it contains "Adult Themes." When was the last time you saw that on the box of an animated movie other than something like Heavy Metal or South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? This movie is not "adult" because it contains sex, violence or bad words; it's "adult" because it would be boring to kids.

And boy would it have been. I knew not even to try Only Yesterday on my son, as the cover promised something far less fantastical than the Studio Ghibli films that had already been a hit with him. This is Ghibli too, but it's Takahata's special brand of Ghibli, one we saw in the far more adult-themed Grave of the Fireflies, which had been my favorite anime film of all time until My Neighbor Totoro assumed that honor earlier this year.

If I had realized before watching that Takahata was responsible for Grave of the Fireflies, I would have a) understood better what to expect, and b) been a lot more excited for Only Yesterday, which I kind of stumbled across and ended up watching when a friend endorsed it as a possible option for this series. And so I did spend the first half of Only Yesterday only slightly less bored than my kids would have been. I kept waiting for the high concept hook to present itself, for a flurry of magic and color to break out on the screen. It never happened, and I actually abandoned the viewing after 40 minutes on the first night -- not because I intended not to finish it, but because I was just too tired.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending, as the second half enchanted me in a manner entirely different from, though similarly fulfilling to, its predecessors in this series.

It's probably time I tell you something about this movie.

It's almost disarmingly simple. The main character, Taeko, is a 27-year-old Tokyo woman who longs for a holiday in the country. She doesn't have any direct relatives she can visit, so she calls upon a somewhat strained connection, the brother of her brother-in-law, to take a week-plus in a remote farming country to help with the safflower harvest. On the train ride there, she reviews coming-of-age memories from her childhood. Once she gets there, she becomes entranced with the slower speed of life, devoting her full energies to the harvest and impressing the locals with her work ethic. She also catches the eye of a local young man, Toshio, while continuing to process memories from her youth and consider the future.

And this is really it. When I went to wikipedia to brush up on the plot after I finished, to see if I had missed anything from my sleepy first night viewing, I chuckled at how little detail it offered. The movie is small and quiet and contemplative, though of course it also includes the beautiful vistas of the Japanese countryside, and the equally beautiful vistas of the landscape of emotion and memory.

At first, as I said, I was thrown by this. It may have been the slight difficulty of watching the movie in Japanese -- I resisted the opportunity to hear Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel voice the leads in English -- but I was a bit unclear on the film's flashback structure at the start. A lot more time was spent with precocious ten-year-old Taeko at the start than her modern-day self, and I might not have always realized that they were the same character or that these were flashbacks to her life. It was also difficult for me to understand the relationship of the memories she was processing to the events she was currently facing, clouding my understanding all the more, and the film only uses a slightly muted color palette to offset the flashbacks, making it sometimes hard for me to pick out which occurred in which time period.

As it happened, my second night's viewing coincided with when she arrived in the country, at which point the film also struck a better balance between the present-day "plot" (such as it is) and the flashbacks. It was here when I, like the main character, fell in love with Japanese village life, and with the modest ambitions the film was trying to pursue.

By the end, a likely 3-star rating had risen all the way up to 4.5 stars, as the denouement -- which plays almost entirely over the closing credits -- was like the wondrous realization of all the emotional capital this film had slowly been building. Takahata also indulges here, for one of only a very few times, in the ways that animation as a medium can amplify his story.

In thinking about this film since I finished, I decided that Takahata is like the Yasujiro Ozu of anime. His apparently quiet methods are actually penetrating deeply into the human heart, and into the ways the small dynamics in our relationships with others, especially family, speak volumes. These fellow countrymen undoubtedly have an affinity for one another's world views.

All four of the animes I've watched so far have garnered at least four stars from me, with two of them hitting a full five. Will my luck continue in October? I'll do one other non-Miyazaki film in this series, and then one final Miyazaki, but which will be in October and which in December, I have not yet decided.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

MIFF: Shenanigans rewarded, and my second MIFF Lanthimos

On Saturday I caught what would be called a "day-night doubleheader" in baseball terms -- one MIFF movie in the afternoon, a break in between, and another MIFF movie at night. If the schedule holds, I'll be doing the same thing next Saturday to close out the festival.

"If the schedule holds" is an important phrase to include here, because my first film was an example of the schedule not holding -- twice.

The first was a 3:45 screening of Claire Denis' film Let the Sunshine In, whose French title literally translates as "Bright Sunshine In" (and is translated on screen as such). I guess a Hair reference seemed like a slightly better marketing hook for the film.

There were two different reasons I might not have seen Denis' film, whatever you want to call it. The first was that I had originally intended to use that time slot for the moving Van Gogh painting Loving Vincent, which just looks gorgeous. But as I twiddled my thumbs and failed to buy tickets in a timely fashion, it sold out, and I had a conflict for its second screening. I'll just have to catch that in the theater or on video later on.

Then the second shenanigan was when I bought tickets for Let the Sunshine In as a substitute, but bought them for the wrong session. Last Sunday my wife called out to me, freaking out as she received a reminder about my Monday screening of this movie. A screening which conflicted with an event she already had on for the evening. I'd inadvertently clicked on the wrong link, and as the account is under my wife's name and email address, she received the reminder.

Fortunately, MIFF is very forgiving about these things -- surprisingly so. For a fee of only $1, you can exchange a session you can't make for any other session for which there are available tickets. And though it did eventually sell out, the second Let the Sunshine In screening qualified. First time I've had to do an exchange in four years at MIFF, and it worked like gangbusters.

Well it was worth the effort. I really enjoyed this film which has (as you can see from the poster) Juliette Binoche at its center. After one previous Denis film under my belt, Bastards, I had the sense that she was a pretty dark and brooding filmmaker, but this one is pretty much as sunny as its title. That's not to say Binoche's character doesn't both encounter and inflict pain as she fumbles through the romantic life of a divorcee in modern-day Paris, but that most of it is leavened with humor, if not downright comedic in nature. Binoche herself is 53, though I don't know if the character she's playing is meant to be that old. But she's definitely meant to be someone at an age where she has more than enough options for suitors, but none she really wants, or the ones that she wants don't want her. I suppose that describes the romantic fumblings of anyone at any age, but this is a mature, wistful look at the dwindling optimism a woman who is increasingly less sure she will end up with a soulmate. That might sound banal, but this film isn't, in part because all of Binoche's many gifts -- for humor, for pain, to laugh as tears are streaming down her cheeks -- are on display here. She matches and unmatches with a half-dozen potential mates in this movie, almost disregarding logic and chronology, and each teaches her something she doesn't really want to know but is gradually growing to accept.

And though I don't usually like to spend much time on the appearances of actresses on this blog, as that's a bit shallow at best and sexist at worst, allow me a moment to do so in Binoche's case, in part because she is indeed on the wrong side of 50 and it's a bit less leering to do so. Although I've always recognized that Binoche is considered a beautiful woman, she hasn't really done it for me, especially not when she was a young woman (in films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The English Patient). Now that she is 53, I have never found her more beautiful, and this film accentuates this wonderfully with a bunch of long takes and intimate close-ups of her face.

I returned at night -- again to the Comedy Theatre, for my fourth time in six MIFF screenings -- for my second Yorgos Lanthimos film at MIFF. Two years ago I saw The Lobster here, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer tied Lanthimos for the most films at MIFF I've seen from a particular director. (I saw Kelly Reichardt's Night Movies in 2014 and Certain Women in 2016.) But this one was not without its shenanigans as well.

Although I'd been caught in the rain riding my bike home from Sunshine -- a bit ironic I guess -- I'd planned on that as my mode of transport back into the city for the 9:30 show of Deer. And five minutes before leaving I reconfirmed that decision by opening our back door and detecting an absence of actively falling precipitation.

Unfortunately, the situation was not the same five minutes after that. A light rain that almost immediately became a pelty rain greeted me when I tried to leave, and I just couldn't use my bike for transportation. And you can't get to this theater quickly by tram, a reality I faced two years ago when I had to call an Uber to get to The End of the Tour before its start time. The difference between two years ago and now was that now we have a car, but that prospect didn't provide me much comfort on a Saturday night, when parking was likely to be scarce in the city.

Well, I did manage to "find a park," to use the local parlance, but there were a few hairy moments in the wet weather, and a few traffic lights that seemed to last an eternity. Actually, I didn't end up cutting it all that close because they didn't let us into the theater until at least five minutes after its start time, and the movie itself did not commence until nearly 9:45. But the final shenanigan was that I inadvertently stood in the MIFF members queue when I first got there, which already seemed long enough. When I was pointed toward the obviously much longer general admission queue, which was an additional three-minute walk from where I'd been, I was pretty sure I'd be the last one in line, guaranteeing me an awful seat. Maybe ten others gathered behind me before we were let in, finally getting shelter from the rain, but the seating still didn't seem promising.

As luck would have it, it turned out great. There was a single seat floating in a row by itself, in the front and off to the side. And though that sounds kind of bad when you just describe it that way, I've never been one who has balked too much at a close seat. I prefer being closer than farther away -- you know, the whole "frame filling your field of vision" thing -- and at least in this case I had no one on either side of me to contend with. Quite a help in a theater not known for its comfortable seating.

And now we finally get to Lanthimos' film, which is an immediate contender for his best, and one of the best of the year. Before The Killing of a Sacred Deer, that honor was reserved for Dogtooth by a long shot. As I continue to process this I will really have to reconsider that.

A big difference between this and The Lobster, both of which star Colin Farrell, was that I knew nothing about the story before coming in. The Lobster's bizarre story could not help but precede it, but as this one is slightly more conventional, it had not yet been revealed to me. That turned out to be a great way to see one of Lanthimos' films, and the first time I'd seen one that way since Dogtooth. Lanthimos is always walking a tightrope between the comedic and the tragic, and he does that even better here than in his other films. In fact, while I laughed quite hard a number of times in this film, its overall tone reminded me much more of something by Stanley Kubrick or Jonathan Glazer than the tone of The Lobster -- and that is most certainly a good thing. The performances are great too, most notably Nicole Kidman and a younger actor I hated when I saw him in Dunkirk, Barry Keoghan, who reminds me a bit of a young Joel Edgerton, and whose contributions to this film defy description.

And that's all I'm going to give you on The Killing of a Sacred Deer at the moment, because I'd like you to go in as blankly as I did -- and because I already promised a friend of mine I would divulge nothing further about it (though hopefully he saw I was going to talk about it and stopped reading this).

I'm taking a few days off from MIFF now, with my next screening scheduled for Wednesday night. Hopefully I'll blog about something not related to a film festival for the first time in like a month in the interim.

Friday, August 11, 2017

MIFF: Alternative animation double feature!

In an earlier post, I told you that at this year's MIFF, for the first time in my four-year history of the festival, I was going to be seeing a movie I'd seen before.

Three times before, in fact.

And the way it worked out, it allowed for a nice themed double feature, albeit separated by 90 minutes to allow me to get a dumpling dinner in between.

My fourth MIFF seemed like an appropriate time for my fourth viewing of Renee Leloux's trippy 1973 film Fantastic Planet, but just seeing it on the big screen for the first time would not have been excuse enough to expend one of my minipass tickets on it. No, this particular Fantastic Planet screening was special, involving live musical accompaniment.

It's part of the Hear My Eyes film series that a friend of mine is involved with. A couple times a year, his organization curates films whose visual style or other characteristics invite an in-house trio of musicians -- this roster may change, I'm not sure -- to compose and perform an accompanying score. As I know the guy who's involved with it -- he's a "friend" but really more of an acquaintance -- I'd been looking for an excuse to finally pull the trigger. And though the live musical accompaniment took this outside the realm of tickets eligible under my festival minipass, costing a separate $35, it was clear from the moment I heard it was scheduled that this was something I was doing.

And indeed I really dug it. Despite having seen the film three times before, my last viewing was in 2012, so I couldn't immediately call to mind the film's original score. Whatever it may have been, this was preferable. It was a hard-to-describe combination of synth and jazz, making regularly use of a saxophone but in only suitable ways. It didn't necessarily seem like an attempt to graft modern music on top of a period movie, like Giorgio Moroder's score to Metropolis. It was more like an amplified, intensified version of music that might have been available at the time, but with very modern sensibilities. It cast a spell and I was rapt.

The one thing that worried me was that the music was going to play over the whole movie, relegating the movie itself to a trippy backdrop. You know, like how you go to a party and someone has left Fantastic Planet playing on one of the TVs just because that's a cool thing to do. Which might have actually worked in this case because the movie is in French with English subtitles, so you don't strictly need to hear it. But no, this was intended as a proper screening of the film, as presumably most of the audience had never seen it, so the music only played over parts with no dialogue. More than losing the dialogue, I was worried we might lose some of this movie's fantastic sounds, like the inimitable shrieking noises of this guy:

But no, he was shrieking in full glory, and all the other wonderful, irreproducible sounds from the original film were left lovingly intact.

As I mentioned in my Ingrid Goes West post, the seats in the Comedy Theatre aren't all that comfortable, so I was glad for the film's brevity (just 72 minutes). Before I knew it I was off for dumplings.

The second film kept the alternative animation theme going. It was Dash Shaw's My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, playing at Cinema Kino, one of my regular viewing locations (where I just saw The Big Sick on Tuesday in fact). From the opening moments I knew I was under this film's spell as well, though it didn't rise to the level of greatness of Fantastic Planet -- and really, how could it.

Bolstered by the voice work of a number of familiar talents (Jason Schwartzmann, Maya Rudolph, Lena Dunham, Susan Sarandon), High School tells pretty much the story advertised in its title. A high school built at water's edge on a fault line, then left to deteriorate over the years as the principal forges reports from the building inspector to keep it from closing down, does indeed break off and begin sinking after an earthquake. As its levels steadily submerge and it starts to flip sideways (think Titanic), our three nerdy heroes, who write for the school paper, must navigate the the school's social hierarchies as well as the conditions of the disaster (not to mention sharks). They are assisted by a lunch lady built like a linebacker (Sarandon).

Since I'm not an expert on the techniques of animation, I can only describe what I believe to be the technique they used. It's an intentionally rudimentary technique in which far fewer then the number of cells needed for typical hand-drawn animation are required, and each cell is drawn a little bit differently than the one before, so there's a jumpy quality from frame to frame. Not distractingly jumpy, of course -- just meant to indicate that these are kind of like somebody's notebook doodles come to life. This should give you some idea what the characters look like:

Some idea? It's what they look like.

But the heavy black lines were drawn a millimeter to the left or to the right from one frame to the next, so they are constantly bouncing around, kind of giving the impression of old-fashioned stop motion animation -- but most assuredly in a good way. The painterly backgrounds are often changing colors as well, and at times I was reminded of a favorite film of mine, Richard Linklater's Waking Life, even though that film aims for a much greater sense of realism with the rotoscoping technique it uses.

The movie is pretty clever and funny as well -- perhaps just a little less clever and a little less funny than I wanted it to be. I also have to wonder how much my enjoyment of the movie was tempered by the guy sitting next to me. He was engaging in the type of bad audience behavior that is most difficult to fault -- he was laughing too hard. So in other words, he was not doing anything intentionally toxic, as I'm sure it was just his natural reaction to the movie and nothing purposefully disruptive. But there was a disconnect with my own enjoyment of the film, which was more mildly amused in nature, and driven further in that direction by his outsized reaction.

All in all, when you factor in the little errands I squeezed in and the foods I ate (I also had a mini chicken sandwich with cole slaw before the first movie and a chocolate milkshake just before the second), this made for a great MIFF evening on the town. It's the only double feature I have planned in which both films are festival films, and if it's the only one I end up getting, it sure was the right way to do it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The little sick followed by The Big Sick

This is the spot that would ordinarily be reserved for telling you about my second trip to MIFF, but I didn't find it all that interesting so I'm going to send it to the bottom of the post and opt instead for the clever post title.

Just because I'm spending most of my available theatrical viewing time in August on the Melbourne International Film Festival doesn't mean I can fall behind on current releases, and in fact, there are about four things other than The Big Sick I want to see in the theater right now. But The Big Sick was the priority as one of the films I was most anticipating this year. And so when my 6:30 Tuesday night MIFF screening of The Ornithologist got out, I made it a double feature with Michael Showalter's new film.

But first, I had to deal with the little sick at home.

That being my soon-to-be seven-year-old, who is "little," but also only "a little sick." Yes, he threw up twice during the night, which would ordinarily be a bit alarming. Except that my other son and myself are also "a little sick," as only my wife -- whose immune system should be the most compromised from her recent international travels -- is fully healthy. Although my son was pretty much fine in the morning, it was an obvious choice to keep him home from school. And as my wife was busy with an all-day workshop, I was the obvious guy to stay home with him.

It was quite a nice day. With him being officially designated as sick, I didn't put any pressure on myself to get up to anything productive with him -- you know, going somewhere, doing something. Instead I let him watch TV and play video games. It's what sick people should get to do. (We did also play some games of Uno, relieving some of that guilt that was creeping in.) In the meantime, I was quite productive myself. I cleaned and organized my entire cubby area in our bedroom, which may not sound like a big task. Trust me, it was.

I just wish The Big Sick had been quite as satisfying. After Dunkirk, here is another 2017 film whose massive appeal mystifies me a bit. Sure, all the ingredients are there, and I do like this film enough to recommend it. I was just surprised at how little I laughed during it. Like, I did not laugh once. That's certainly not the only thing The Big Sick professes to have going for it, as I had heard that you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Well, I did neither. It was just a lot more limp than I thought it would be, with many scenes playing awkwardly or trying to end on a laugh that never came. Each performer brought certain strengths, but each also mixed in unanticipated weaknesses, with Ray Romano possibly being the only guy on screen who had only the former. I suppose the discrepancy between how much I liked it and how much I expected to like it probably can explain some of my unfavorable impression of it. With me having loved previous works by Showalter (The Baxter, Hello My Name is Doris), Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks among others) and Kumail Nanjiani (anything he's been in, ever), I really expected to love this one. This sounds awful to say, but I barely even liked it.

That still made it slightly better than The Ornithologist, a perfect "film festival film" if ever there was one. I hardly need to go on at length about it because you will never see it and probably never even hear about it, but it's about a Portuguese ornithologist who gets lost on a river and has a bunch of bizarre adventures that involve heavy Christian allegory, gay themes, and any number of supernatural occurrences. Toward what end, I couldn't tell you.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Setting forth on my fourth MIFF

Yes, that subject is meant to be a tongue twister.

In two weeks I will have been in Melbourne for four years. When I arrived in 2013, however, I had just missed that year's Melbourne International Film Festival. I haven't missed one since, and on Thursday night it kicked off for 2017.

However, Thursday night I was wrapping up a film festival of my own making, set in my living room, and it didn't seem right to start going to MIFF movies on either Friday or Saturday night with my wife deep in the fog of jet lag. So I made a later than usual debut this year, but it was worth the wait. More on that in a moment.

This year's MIFF is a bit different than last year's in that this year I'm paying for it. We failed to secure my press credentials before the deadline, meaning that instead of gallivanting my way to 11 free movies this year, I'm seeing "only" nine, and they are on my own dime. But after I got over the initial disappointment I sprung for that mini-pass. Because hey, it's MIFF.

And MIFF has meant quite a bit in terms of serving up some of my favorite movies of each year. Last year, it was responsible for allowing me to see my favorite film of 2016, Toni Erdmann, which would have eluded my year-end rankings by not releasing in Australia until February of this year. In 2014 I saw The Skeleton Twins, my #4 movie of the year, at this festival. Even in the "down year" of 2015, I still saw what ended up as my #16 movie of the year, The End of the Tour. So you can understand why I look forward to these 18 days with great anticipation.

No matter how the other eight films go after this -- seven new films, since I'm also seeing one old film for the first time this year -- I'm already pretty sure I've got a film that will beat #16.

Matt Spicer's Ingrid Goes West was not supposed to be on my schedule at all. The way I'd originally drawn it up, I was going to take in a double feature on Friday night: Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits, which I will still be seeing a week from Wednesday, and Takashi Miike's Blade of the Immortal, which has fallen by the wayside. That was because I did not consciously realize that my wife was only returning home that morning from America, and that if I went to a double feature I would leave her alone with both kids on her first night back and not even see her until Saturday morning. Yeah, I'm a little thick sometimes.

But I had to get something in before the end of the first weekend, and I landed on Ingrid Goes West. Star Aubrey Plaza was not a selling point on this movie; in fact, if you've read any of my diatribes about her on this blog (specifically this one), you'll know it was just the opposite. But I do really like Elizabeth Olsen, and I thought the subject matter of a woman stalking another woman she's following on Instagram was ripe with potential. (In fact, Ingrid ended up bearing some similarities to one of my favorite films, The Cable Guy). So I shrugged and bought the ticket.

Well, let's just say I'm tagging Plaza with her own label on this post, with the hopes of balancing out the bad things I've said about her before.

Simply put, I loved this movie. Not only is it really funny, a thing you tend to notice all the more when you're joined by a full house who are also laughing (an increasing rarity these days), but it's got some profound truths about our social media-obsessed culture and its not-so-funny casualties. Ingrid Goes West is not full of surprises, per se, as there have been a number of movies that have grappled with the way that social media poisons the already fragile brain of a disturbed person. But I never knew where it was going to go, and that's something you don't get much from the movies these days either. In fact, so involved was I with the story that I found myself sitting forward in my seat as it progressed toward its conclusion -- and not only because the seats in Melbourne's Comedy Theatre are pretty uncomfortable.

Plaza is great in this -- not typical for her lately, unfortunately -- and Olsen is a bit more typically great in a role that could have been sort of thankless in lesser hands. But special kudos go to Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., who is capable of a lot more than playing his dad in Straight Outta Compton. He's the heart, soul and funny bone of this movie, and I can't wait to see him appear in every movie in the next five years if he wants to. It's possible he's even more charming than his dad. And speaking of actors with famous dads, I'm really developing a fondness for Kurt Russell's son, Wyatt, who was great in Everybody Wants Some!! and brings more of the same here. I don't know who Billy Magnusson might be related to, but he steals his scenes as Olsen's douchy brother. It can be hard to make douchiness specific and memorable, but boy does Magnussen do it.

But I should probably give Plaza her own paragraph. I thought I had made up my mind that she was just someone I didn't like after she seemed content to slum it in movies like last year's Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. But she's back in my good graces in a big way. This role is a departure for her as it does not involve her deadpan shtick and is free from holier than thou sarcasm. Plaza can act, and now I'm almost excited to see that period piece about the horny nuns. Almost.

Because I won't be reviewing most or possibly any of the films I see at MIFF -- which I did last year as a condition of getting my press credentials -- I don't know exactly how I will cover my 2017 MIFF experience on my blog. Last year I mostly did not review the movies in this space because I was already doing that for ReelGood, and tended to bore you with anecdotes related to the circumstances of the viewings themselves. I guess I'll just go with the flow and see what happens.

I'm just glad to have set forth on another cinematic adventure full of promising new releases, which has started as promisingly as any of them.

In fact, as I have actually been underwhelmed by my first film in each of the previous three years, this could be my best MIFF yet.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Cat's Away: Closing Night

This is the final night of the personal "film festival" I orchestrated while my wife was in America. And boy, are my eyes tired.

And here we are. Closing night.


I can't even begin to tell you how long overdue a viewing of Pulp Fiction has been. This is my fourth ranked movie of all time on Flickchart, and it's a film I saw four times in the theater -- a record that has yet to be broken. And yet it has been at least 15 years since I've seen it. (Delayed fatigue from all the theater viewings, perhaps?) I can only say for sure back to 2006, which is when I started keeping track of rewatches. But I don't recall a viewing since the turn of the century. In fact, I don't recall the context for my last viewing of Pulp Fiction at all.

To put that in a little bit of a context, I've seen every other film in my top ten since 2011, some of them more than once, with the exception of #10 Do the Right Thing, whose most recent viewing was even longer ago than Pulp Fiction. Which is why I also considered that 1989 Spike Lee film for the closing night of Cat's Away, ultimately rejecting it because I wanted something that was a little bit more fun.

It hasn't been for want of trying. As you may recall from this post -- though if you did recall it, I'd probably tell you to get a life -- I had Fiction lined up as a birthday rewatch three years ago. But the DVD we brought from the U.S. did not play in our region-free DVD player, one of only two we've tried that have not worked. I think I actually suggested it again for one of the two birthdays since then, by which point it had become available on one of our streaming services, but at that point it was rejected by my viewing companion as too long. And I can't fault her for not wanting to try to take down a 155-minute movie on what was probably a Thursday night or something.

But one of the defining goals of this festival was to take advantage of her being out of town to watch things she wasn't willing or able to watch, and I told myself that a viewing of Pulp Fiction with her -- despite a professed interest in such a viewing on her part -- was not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon.

So, with one last dramatic gasp, I undertook the longest film of the festival -- and also one of my favorite of all time.

It did not disappoint. There was likely a small part of me that wondered if I would now be "too mature" for Pulp Fiction, if the movie was something that spoke particularly to impressionable twentysomethings who had underdeveloped ideas of what's considered "cool" and nascent ambitions toward cinephilia. Is this a movie I only loved because I was a young male -- just 20 years old -- when I first saw it?

Nope. This is, as you surely know, a relentlessly entertaining reimagining of the possibilities of cinema, and it still feels fresh. Even with all the imitators. Even with all the ways the movies have changed in 23 years. It's still an effort head and shoulders above the others.

It occurs to me that it reminds me, in a strange way, of another groundbreaking piece of art from 1994. Namely, my favorite album of all time, Nine Inch Nails' The Downward Spiral. Every time I listen to that album it feels newly fresh, and I often think to myself that it would still seem groundbreaking if Trent Reznor released it today.

Pulp Fiction is the same. And I noticed on this viewing just how not-cool this consummately cool movie sometimes is. For all that John Travolta's Vincent Vega has become an iconic cinematic figure, in some ways a new definition of cool that Quentin Tarantino introduced to us, he's also an incredible dweeb. Twice he is found to be obliviously sitting on the toilet when an incredibly important event involving guns is unfolding just yards away from him. And as much time as he spends in that black suit with that pencil thin black tie, he spends almost as much time wearing shorts and a tee-shirt that make him look like he's going to a volleyball game, as one character observes. As another character (Tarantino himself) observes, he and Jules look like "dorks." Tarantino was both establishing what it means to be cool and completely undercutting it, all in one character.

A few other stray observations:

1) I've talked in the past, in this post about Run Lola Run, about how a movie can be so good that you feel like you want to cry, even in moments that are not overtly emotional. The one time I did that in Pulp Fiction? "Any of you fucking pricks MOVE and I'll execute every last motherfucking one of you!" Yeah, maybe that's because I knew "Misirlou" was about to kick in. But more than anything, Amanda Plummer's batshit crazy change of character was that moment that announces the movie's greatness. A greatness it never dials back down for the rest of the running time.

2) Kathy Griffin is the bystander who tells Marcellus Wallace about the guy who hit him with his car. I can't believe Kathy Griffin gets to say she was in Pulp Fiction!

3) I love that The Wolf is at some kind of black tie house party at 8:30 in the morning. Just as Brett and friends are awake eating hamburgers at 8. What kind of lives do these people live?

4) Do you think Butch saves Marcellus from Zed, Maynard and the Gimp because he just can't stand to see a man treated that way, even his sworn enemy, or because he calculates that by saving Marcellus he can remove the price from his head? Or just that he now has a taste for killing and sees another low-risk opportunity to explore that? I always assumed it was either the first or the third, or both, but for the first time this viewing I wondered about the middle option. For the record, I think I reject that idea, but it did occur to me.

5) Tarantino orchestrates chaotic conversation scenes beautifully. I marveled over the conversation between Vincent and Lance as Lance is trying to find the little black medical book. The timing in that scene is great. So much fun.

6) I appreciated on this viewing how the movie explores unspoken intimacies between men and women, after first laying out the thesis directly in the dialogue. I'd always thought that conversation about the foot massage and Tony Rocky Horror was just an exercise in linguistic flourish by QT -- a very welcome one, make no mistake, but essentially frivolous and disconnected in nature. But this time I really noticed how the movie profoundly, soulfully, explores non-sexual intimacy between men and women, first with Mia and Vincent on their date (most notably when they dance, but even when they shake hands goodbye), and then with Butch and Esmeralda Villa Lobos, who share something ephemeral but incredibly deep during their taxi ride. I even liked the paternal intimacy, another form of non-sexual intimacy, between Harvey Keitel and Julia Sweeney in that brief scene at Monster Joe's. And then in the final scene, the film explores pure and unabashed love, both between Pumpkin and Honeybunny, and between Jules and his God. At its core, Pulp Fiction is romantic, explore all varieties of love and intimacy that almost never express themselves sexually. Even the one consensual sex act in the movie, between Butch and Fabienne, is sweetly tender.

I'm sure there's plenty more to say but that's probably a good place to stop.

With this post. With this festival.

But wait! I have to do this quickly. A complete recap of the films I watched, in order:

The Tribe
Train to Busan
Kong: Skull Island
Hall Pass
Pan's Labyrinth
Citizen Kane
A Hologram for the King
Harry and the Hendersons
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
The Shining 
Room 237
Pulp Fiction

That includes:

- Ten movies that were new to me
- Eight rewatches
- Fourteen movies in English
- One movie in Spanish
- One movie in French
- One movie in Korean
- One movie in Ukrainian sign language
- Eight movies from the 2010s
- Two movies from the 2000s
- Four movies from the 1990s
- Three movies from the 1980s
- One movie from the 1940s
- Nine library rentals
- Six movies from streaming
- Two movies from my own collection
- One iTunes rental
- And a variety of different genres and styles


Can't get enough Cat's Away? Then you really have to get a life. But you're also in luck!

My wife goes away for about the same period of time in the middle of September. So watch this space for Cat's Away 2 ... coming next month. Where I figure out everything I did wrong in this one and get it right next time.

Now, I think I will take a break from this blog for the weekend.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Cat's Away: Australian entry

This is the penultimate evening of Cat's Away. You know what Cat's Away is by now.

If you're going to have a film festival set in Australia, might as well have at least one Australian film.

(But if it's just in my living room, is it really "set" anywhere other than that hermetically sealed space, which could be here, Timbuktu, or 200 other places? Discuss.)

I wouldn't have felt the need to program an Australian movie per se except I saw this at the library and had to grab it. The reason is that my esteemed colleague on the ReelGood website, John Roebuck, considered Fell his favorite film of 2014. I don't always agree with him (we disagreed wildly on Dunkirk) but I always value his perspective. If he loved it I knew it would be worth seeing.

And it was. But maybe not a whole lot more than that.

I shouldn't sell it short as it's a very well made film and it contains reasonably affecting contemplations on grief, parenthood and the quest for some kind of closure, whether it comes in the form of revenge or not. I'll keep it vague so as not to spoil for anyone who hasn't seen it. Which I imagine is almost everyone reading this.

The thing I probably liked about it best was its length. It clocked in at just under 90 minutes, this despite various sources erroneously reporting its length at 100 minutes. After more than four hours of movie watching the night before, I needed it.

There isn't a lot "discussion-worthy" about this viewing, in part because it helps me to discuss things with you if I think you might have seen the movie and might have your own perspective on it. In this case, I doubt that's true. Which is just as well, as I am just about discussioned out at this point.

Got to save it up for the grand finale tonight, about which I may have quite a bit to say.

That is, assuming I stick to my current choice. I'm wily like that.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Cat's Away: The order I decided on

This is the third-to-last night (I'm starting to count down rather than count up now -- a telling sign) of yada yada yada film festival.

I hadn't yet seen Room 237, which has existed for nearly five years now, because I had long been torn on when to watch it relative to a rewatch of The Shining, and which one I would watch first. The argument was almost academic a couple years ago, when I started to watch the copy of The Shining in our collection during a pre-Halloween horror fest. But I promptly stop watching it upon discovering that the copy my wife had acquired was not letterboxed. Simple, simple girl.

The idea of which movie to watch first, which would have been settled had I gone through with that viewing, reemerged when I got the idea to use the extra viewing hours accorded me during my wife's trip to do the two films as a double feature.
My initial instinct was to watch Room 237 first. If there were going to be some oddball theories presented in it, I wanted to have them fresh in my mind to see if they held water as I watched the movie. It was only logical.

What ultimately caused me to reverse myself was the desire to have a "pure" rewatch of The Shining, rather than possibly being sick of the movie after a documentary devoted to it and just deciding to forego the viewing altogether. Besides, I was sure Room 237 would do a good enough job contextualizing its crackpot theories that I wouldn't have to do my own work trying to locate them. I was sure the documentary would spend ample time providing every bit of possible context for me, no matter how strained.

That settled, the next task was to determine how much of my evening this double feature would consume. Which led to the following statement on my part:


The answer is, of course, Stanley Kubrick. And it shouldn't surprise me, as his movies tend to be long.

But with the movie taking up nearly 150 minutes, and with me already being exhausted from a series of nights of shitty sleep, it was the documentary itself -- the main excuse for the double feature in the first place -- that threatened to fall by the wayside. Despite clocking in at a much more reasonable 104 minutes.

Of course, I could have just postponed the whole thing, but I'd already had both of the movies out from the library for a couple weeks (I even renewed Room 237), so I kind of wanted to just get this taken care of.

So what ended up happening? Well, I'll tell you.

I fit them both in. I was up until 1 a.m. on a school night, but I fit them both in.

And I cherished every minute of The Shining, not wanting it to be even a minute shorter than its 146. I suppose I knew I would, but I hadn't seen the movie in maybe 15 years and I had forgotten quite how much it had gripped me. Plus, the BluRay -- on which the aspect ratio was certainly correct -- looked crisp and magnificent. Hallelujah.

One thing I was really taken with on this viewing was the score. I hadn't remembered that being such an indispensable component of the movie's many expert elements, but indeed it's ethereal and haunting and moldering and dread-inducing. Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind should be applauded.

I don't have a lot of additional takeaways of note to mention here, but maybe that means it's a good time to shift to Room 237 -- a movie whose whole purpose for existing is to take away extra-textual meanings from The Shining.

And in short, I didn't find that a very useful purpose. Oh, it could have been -- I'm not opposed to the idea at all. But the fools who have been given a soap box in this movie present some of the flimsiest alternate readings of this movie I could imagine someone producing. Most of them hold about as much water as if you decided to sit down with any random movie and compile a stack of circumstantial evidence that would support some given reading. In short, I think you could do this for almost any movie, and in those other instances the evidence would be no more or less compelling than it is for The Shining. It's like in that movie The Number 23 -- that number is everywhere if the number 23 is all you are looking for, and are willing to squint and twist logic in order to see it.

It's a shame, as I am on record saying that Rodney Ascher's follow-up film, The Nightmare, is the scariest documentary I have ever seen, and among the scariest films I've seen, period, in the past ten years. And to be fair, some useful stuff does come out of Room 237. For example, I think it was this film that first introduced us to the idea that the Overlook Hotel has an impossible floor plan, which I find kind of interesting -- even if it's just as likely to be a continuity error as a conscious choice. For the purposes of argument I'm willing to believe it's part of Kubrick's master plan to give the space a dreamy, surreal quality. I did know about that before seeing this film, however, so it wasn't a discovery of last night's viewing.

The majority of things that I found interesting were not philosophies on the themes the movie was trying to explore, which I almost always found unconvincing -- sometimes extremely so. (The whole thing where that woman talks about seeing a minotaur in the poster of a skier -- WTF. And the bit about Kubrick's face appearing in the clouds? No, didn't see that.) Most of the bits I found worthwhile involved people just pointing out cool techniques that were being used, things that I may not have appreciated but which have only a single interpretation that everyone would observe just by doing a close reading of the film. Anything that deviated from that -- like, the stuff about Native Americans and Kubrick's involvement in faking the moon landing -- just seemed like clutching at straws. And the stuff I found worthwhile I could have gotten from any 12-minute video essay on YouTube.

I did also find the experience of watching them consecutively interesting. It was a bit like watching the movie, then watching its DVD extras.

And yes, my choice for the sequence of watching them also proved to be the way to go.

Now that this festival finally includes a documentary, I think I've ticked all the usual film festival boxes, and will promptly begin my stagger to the finish line. Two more nights to go. Come home, my dear wife!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Cat's Away: Brief Thief

Night # 7 of Cat's Away. I've been at this for a week!

On Monday night, I needed a night of rest and recuperation.

A 123-minute Michael Mann film was probably not the way to do that. Nonetheless, I watched Thief.

But because all this watching and all this writing has left me feeling like a candle burned at both ends, I will be brief on Thief.

My exposure to Thief was in the context of it being considered that hidden gem in Michael Mann's career, for those who were mostly familiar with things like Heat and The Insider. It was that gem for those who had dug back to his other older hidden gem, Manhunter, and felt they hadn't dug back far enough. And as I started watching, there was every reason to believe that hidden gem status would be fulfilled. Being greeted right away by a Tangerine Dream score was a good thing. A very good thing.

But the sum total of good things and very good things was not what I'd hoped for in Thief. It has that ambling, rambling, shambling quality of other 70s-era gritty crime dramas that have left me kind of unsatisfied, even if this is a full two years into the 1980s. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, for example, or another James Caan film I saw from that time, Hide in Plain Sight.

It was one of those films where I felt like I had spaced out for a key line of dialogue here and there. For example, in what I thought was possibly the scene where Caan's and Tuesday Weld's character first met, suddenly later in the scene he's talking about spending his life with her, and a few scenes later they are at an adoption agency trying to adopt a baby. It seemed incongruous enough that for a moment I wasn't sure if he was casing the adoption agency to try to rob it. The film was filled with those little missed connections in my brain that left me consulting the plot synopsis on Wikipedia afterward.

I'd say I appreciated Thief enough to give it a positive rating. It was interesting from a film education perspective to go back and see Mann's first feature, which established themes and considerations he would continue to explore throughout his work. But Mann is a filmmaker who has as many failures as successes to his name, at least for me, and this is probably a bit closer to the former than it is the latter.

I was interested to see that Willie Nelson is in this movie, and that even back in 1981 he was considered old, when he was only 48 (which is just five years older than I am now). There's a line of dialogue where someone says "Who's that old man?" It seems that what was once said of Wilford Brimley applies also to Nelson: Was he ever young?

Okay, back on the horse tomorrow with an expected double feature ... and hopefully a bit more stamina.