Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Dawn of the Dead, post zombie saturation and post Snyder

By bad-mouthing cinephiles who set out on horror-themed viewing projects in October, in this post, I've cursed myself to a pretty lackluster month of horror viewing. I've tried, but all I've summoned forth is mindless slasher movies (Most Likely to Die), or mindless remakes of slasher movies (A Nightmare on Elm Street).

With two days remaining in October, I hoped it wasn't too late to turn things around.

The problem was, Monday night wasn't a very good night for a horror movie, as it was the night I'd set aside to carve this year's jack-o-lantern. Of course, that doesn't mean I wasn't going to watch a horror movie while carving it -- I definitely was. But because I wasn't even going to be turning out the lights -- you can't carve a jack-o-lantern in the dark -- it needed to be something I either didn't care about or had already seen, and I've already seen enough horror movies I don't care about this October. But even with something I'd already seen, I wanted it to be something that didn't too much depend on mood, so I'd be going for something without much in the way of startle scares or atmosphere.

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead fit the bill perfectly. That movies takes place mostly during daylight hours, and (if memory served) it's more awesomely gruesome than scary. And I'd seen it only once, this despite ranking it in my top 20 of 2004 (#19).

There was another reason I was interested in watching this movie, though. Two reasons, actually. Two of the film's defining characteristics -- being about zombies and having been directed by Snyder -- have taken on new meaning in the 13 years since this movie came out. I wanted to see if it held up, despite being directed by a guy who's now a bit of a critical whipping boy, and despite featuring subject matter that has been done to death (or maybe undeath) in the 13 intervening years.

Dawn of the Dead was a bit of a trailblazer in the zombie movie comeback of the last decade-plus, following closely on the heels of 28 Days Later as some of the first films to capitalize on that trend, and the first real Hollywood movie. But would it still feel ahead of its time, or would it seem kind of old hat?

The answer is, both. While I still remember the ways Dead felt very fresh in 2004, and was reminded of them as those moments arose on this viewing, I did catch myself thinking things like "The Walking Dead does that a lot better now." I also remembered the movie being more fun than it felt this time. I suppose it's not intended as horror comedy, but it seems unlikely that Snyder et al didn't want it to be at least a bit funny, as it features an ironic lounge lizard version of Disturbed's "The Sickness," sung by Weird Al heir apparent Richard Cheese.

Far and away the most interesting aspects of this film are its human elements. The zombie kills are truly been there and done that, even if these things hadn't particularly been done in 2004. But I don't recall anything in subsequent zombie projects that I found quite as endearing as the relationship between Ving Rhames' Kenneth and Bruce Bohne's Andy. The relationship exists entirely at a remove of two parking lots away from each other, as the two men hold up signs to communicate between the rooftops of a mall and a gun shop, respectively. Even when words are necessarily few and can only be viewed with the assistance of high-powered binoculars, they develop a joking rapport, and can even play an entire game of chess with each other. It's any port in a storm in a zombie apocalypse, but even though Kenneth has a dozen possible friends to choose from over at the mall, his really simpatico kindred spirit is stuck on that other roof.

I was also curious to see how much Zack Snyder would be ZACK SNYDER in his directorial debut. In some circles nowadays he's thought of as little better than a slightly more talented Michael Bay, but in 2004 he was just a hot shit up and comer who was giving us something we wanted (albeit already at the advanced age of 38 years old). Some great visual touches signal him as a person worth paying attention to, and there is a little bit of the slow motion that would later become his trademark. But nothing like in 300, which may still be Zack Snyder's most Snyderian film. I wasn't a huge fan of 300, but Snyder did have at least one more great accomplishment in him (Watchmen) before things started to take a turn he hasn't yet recovered from. Still, he's not so bad these days that I would say my current impression played much of a role as I watched Dawn of the Dead.

I'm starting to lose a bit of focus here -- it's just after midnight now (Happy Halloween), and I still have one little thing left to do on my son's costume. Yes, kids do trick-or-treat in Australia, but we must have brought it with us, as we've noticed a big uptick in participation in just the four years we've been living here. So, I must sign off for now, even though I'm sure I have a few more profound thoughts about zombies and bombastic directors rattling around inside my brain.

But oh yeah, I'll leave off with the fruits of my labors. Here's this year's jack-o-lantern, with a bit of Australian flavor to it.

Friday, October 27, 2017

How to keep your voice in a Marvel movie

After the infamous episode with Edgar Wright and Ant-Man, fans, critics and other related observers rightly wondered if any director of any Marvel movie would ever be able to let his (or her) freak flag fly, or whether they would all just be neutered down to some version of whatever the studio wanted.

Well, Taika Waititi has kept his voice in Thor: Ragnarok alright -- in part by doing that literally.

Waititi voices a rock-like creature called Korg in one of the funniest aspects of an incredibly funny movie, which had me not only snickering, but bursting out in gales of joyous laughter. In this one character, Waititi has encapsulated everything you could want to encapsulate about the clipped and humorous line deliveries that are unique to people from New Zealand, as well as everything that illustrates his own perspective as a director.

Say "Hi," Korg.

Waititi has done it with Thor: Ragnarok, however you want to define "it." He has made the best comic book movie set in space. He has given a jolt of life to probably the most disappointing Marvel franchise. And most of all, he has let his freak flag fly up, down, and all over this movie.

Eccentricity oozes from every pore of Thor: Ragnarok, all within the recognizable parameters of a Marvel movie. The idea behind hiring someone like Waititi is to do exactly what's been done in this movie. You want a director to freshen up material that has inevitably started to bear a resemblance to earlier incarnations of itself, and Waititi has done that and then some. In certain very real ways, and without more than a small amount of hyperbole, this movie doesn't resemble anything that has come before it.

Simply put, I loved it. It's wild and woolly and shaggy and hilarious and joyous. It doesn't play by the rules. Of course, that sometimes means it's all over the place, and there are certain things we just didn't need (Dr. Strange, anyone?). But the amount we need the totality of Thor: Ragnarok overrides any of the smaller aspects we don't need.

It's not just funny. It's also an awesome spectacle, a triumph of special effects, a dazzling display of filmmaking techniques and imagination, and a damn fine usage of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" -- not once but twice.

The purpose of this post should not and will not be to enumerate the film's wonderful surprises, dear American reader, if that's who you are. When I saw it Thursday night, I knew I had at least a day on you -- turns out I've got more than a week. You won't get to see it until next Friday, and you deserve to be surprised by whatever parts of this film you haven't seen in the trailers.

Just know: It's a helluva good time.

And the way Waititi brings it home, with a good share (if not all) of his personal directorial style intact, will hopefully be a model for future such weird variations on our all-too-familiar blockbusters.

All hail Thor, and all hail Waititi.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Reviewing an idea, and following a herd

The Emoji Movie has a 12 on Metacritic.

I'll let that sink in a moment.




That's not just bad. That's historically bad. That's "only the most brainless horror movies and tone-deaf Christian movies" bad. That bad.

The thing is, The Emoji Movie is not actually bad.

I was as surprised as anyone to discover this. I finally saw it yesterday at a 10 a.m. showing at Hoyts Highpoint. Why was I able to see a 10 a.m. showing on a Wednesday morning? Well, because yesterday was my wife's final day out of town on her most recent (but much shorter) work-related trip, and we (uh, she) decided that our youngest needed a day at home to break up five straight days in daycare. When asked to take off work for this reason, I usually put up a token opposition on the grounds of lost money/the hassle of requesting time off from my boss ... but then I remember that a day off from work can be a fun thing if done right. And "done right" can include going to the movies. I can use my critics card at Hoyts any weekday before 5, and I figured another $10 for my three-year-old would make it a pretty good morning excursion. It was actually $16 -- for a three-year-old -- but I will rant about that another time.

He chose The Emoji Movie over Captain Underpants, an outcome I was secretly glad about and subtly pushed for. I didn't think either movie would be good, but I deemed The Emoji Movie the more "culturally significant" of the two of them -- "significant" as in "everyone is talking about how horrible it is," and I wanted to join the conversation.

But it's not horrible. Far from it. I was on board from the first moments through the final. In fact, I pulled out my balls and put my reputation on the line and have given this film FOUR STARS on Letterboxd.

I'm as shocked as you are. But I can't lie to myself. The Emoji Movie combines elements of Inside Out and Wreck-It Ralph to give us something inventive that stays consistent with the logic of its own world, is fun, and has a surprising amount of heart.

Of course, if you are taking the negative angle on it you'd call it a rip-off of those movies, but I don't know why that has to be the case. It borrows some of the logic behind those movies, but it executes it differently enough to exist plenty fine as its own distinct entity.

So why the 12?

I've got some thoughts on that.

This was one of those movies that most critics pre-judged. I told you last week that I wrote my first paragraph of my Geostorm review before having seen it, since that first paragraph wasn't a substantive comment on the film itself, but rather a consideration of the recent career of its director (who turned out not to be its director, necessitating a rewrite). Well, I can see how a number of critics might have written the first paragraph of their Emoji Movie review, at least in their heads, before walking into the theater, based not substantively on the movie itself, but on the industry that allowed it to exist in the first place. They were predisposed to the movie being terrible -- and let what they saw complete the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because just on a basic idea level, The Emoji Movie feels like a major insult to our intelligence. It's the type of movie whose very existence prompted these exact words in 73% of people upon hearing about it: "Has Hollywood sunk so low that they are now making a movie about emojis?" The answer is, of course, "Duh." If Hollywood has not sunk lower, it's only because Hollywood hasn't thought of a way to do that yet.

But you don't review ideas. You review films. So what if Hollywood sunk so low as to make a movie about emojis. Now that the movie exists, review that movie -- don't review the system that birthed it into existence.

And if you review The Emoji Movie, you will find a somewhat formulaic movie -- The Lego Movie is another inspiration -- that nonetheless manages to tweak the formulas enough to make it distinctive. Or distinctive enough, anyway. And so what if it is a lesser facsimile of other movies I've loved. Some people go to the movies simply to see the same movie over and over again, when you boil down their instincts to the most basic level. Anytime you've told someone "If you liked Movie A, you will probably like Movie B," you've basically accused them of craving similar things when they go to the movies. If you liked (or loved, as I did) Inside Out or Wreck-It Ralph or The Lego Movie, why wouldn't you crave something similar?

Now of course, the x factor in any discussion like this is the quality of the execution. But The Emoji Movie passes most if not all of the bars here as well. The vocal cast is enjoyable and engaging, with the likable T.J. Miller playing Gene, the "meh" emojji, and Steven Wright perfectly cast as his dad. Was there ever anyone whose delivery has more perfectly encapsulated the emotion of "meh"? Jennifer Coolidge plays his wife, not such an obvious casting as Wright, but an effective one, as it turns out. James Corden gives it his all as a high five emoji, and less recognizable but still useful is Anna Faris as a hacker. In a great bit of stunt casting, you also have Patrick Stewart as the poop emoji. See, the people who graded this idea rather than this movie objected to Patrick Stewart lowering himself to play a poop emoji, in principle. They didn't wait to see if it worked.

I wouldn't call the writing a laugh a minute, but I did laugh -- a number of times. And the animation is perfectly in keeping with industry standard. It looks good. In fact, I like how it looks a lot better than many of Dreamworks' recent efforts.

I don't want to go completely in the bag for The Emoji Movie, but maybe I should. I should own that four stars rather than trying to retract some of my enthusiasm and whittle it down to a 3.5. Maybe the world needs a few positive voices on The Emoji Movie, and if I have to shout louder and more stridently to make the impact of my opinion felt, maybe I should do that.

Because no one else is. I mean, no one. I am very much of the opinion that a few stinking turds (voiced by Patrick Stewart, perhaps) were dropped by the first critics who saw this, and a wave of subsequent reviewers came in poisoned and ready to add to the flow of vitriol. I mean, who wants to be the one critic who likes this abomination? Leave that to some other fool.

Some fool like me.

I think some people are capable of saying a movie is bad simply because it is derivative. I won't notice a movie is "bad," by their definition, if it produces enjoyment in me. I think some people actively shun their feelings of enjoyment because they are opposed philosophically to what a movie is doing or how it is doing it. For me, enjoyment is enjoyment and it's as simple as that.

Maybe my credibility with you will suffer. I don't care. I call a spade a spade and a poop emoji a poop emoji, and The Emoji Movie is not a poop emoji.

I challenge you to watch it -- fresh, unpoisoned, giving a full share of your open mind.

And then tell me if you think -- you really, really think -- it's down there with brainless horror movies and tone-deaf Christian movies.

And if you do ... well, poop to you.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Audient Anime: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

This is the fifth in my 2017 bi-monthly series watching anime.

I thought when I finally got away from Miyazaki viewings after June, I might at least sample a smattering of different anime directors for the rest of the series. But nope. In October I watched my second straight film directed by Isao Takahata, who has proven just as much of a master as Miyazaki -- both in ways that are similar and in ways that are different.

There was almost nothing of Miyazaki in my August film Only Yesterday, a wholly realistic contemplation on memory and the restorative powers of the countryside. There's considerably more in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, a 2013 film that was doing the critical rounds in the western world last year, which found its way to me via the library. (As have all the movies in this series, I suppose.) This one features a princess born out of a bamboo shoot who then turns into a baby and grows at an alarming speed, which I suppose has Miyazaki written all over it. But it's different in one key way: the animation. This is a sketchy, almost experimental, impressionistic style that deviates from the standard Studio Ghibli look, as you can see from the poster. I was a fan of it, but not overly -- more than anything it just struck me as different for different's sake.

The princess of the title is found by a bamboo cutter and raised by him and his wife. The bamboo cutter later finds gold and cloth forthcoming from the magical bamboo, as the young (but increasingly less young) princess develops relationships with the young children. Her life's adventure eventually takes her into the city, where her parents believe she will better live the life befitting a princess, and where she earns the attentions of five suitors who want to marry her, and all go on different quests to try to do so. Throughout she displays abilities that could possibly be construed as magic, or possibly a dream, or possibly just an indefinable plane of existence woven within the overall narrative.

I've given you the story in sort of broad strokes for two reasons: 1) This is a movie that dwells on fine details within larger and largely unimportant broad narratives strokes, and 2) I started this 137-minute movie after 9 p.m., foolishly, on a Sunday in which I had been single parenting my kids all day. Because I was not watching it with them (a venture I abandoned after the third movie in this series), I also watched it in Japanese with subtitles, so when I was dozing off (as I did quite regularly), I would miss little bits of dialogue here and there. I had to go back and read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia just now to be sure I had not missed many of the details. I had not, but it's so loosely plotted that you feel like there should be details you've missed. This is a slow and deliberate film that lets you swim in the magic.

Swim I did, and yet I felt strangely uninvolved. I always felt there should be something "more" to The Tale of Princess Kaguya, even as I have adjusted myself to the deliberately slower pace of many if not most of the anime films I've watched this year. In the end I was swept enough away by the general beauty of it -- really, it's quite distinct -- that I awarded it four stars. But I felt compelled to give it 3.5, simply because I never had a moment of transcendence while watching it. Only Yesterday left me similarly disengaged for a while before I suddenly "got it" and clicked in, and by the end I was enthusiastic enough for 4.5 stars. Kaguya never quite clicked in to the same degree, though it does have a really nice denouement that has stuck with me.

What I'm discovering about the anime I've watched is that it's got a very high floor. Out of five films so far, two have received a perfect five stars, one has received 4.5, and two have received four. Maybe I've just chosen well, but it seems like anime movies -- the ones that tend to be made available outside Japan, that is -- start at a really high level of quality and then just go up. So this has been an incredibly rewarding series so far. Kaguya just doesn't happen to have been the most rewarding film I've seen.

And I've got only one left. I think I know what December's viewing is, but I won't reveal it to you in case plans change. Plans have changed more than once in this series already, and as suggested above, that has ended up working out quite well so far.

Friday, October 20, 2017

This film is not directed by Roland Emmerich

I still have a vivid memory from my senior year of college, of this one time I was confronted with the prospect of starting over an important paper from the very beginning. I guess the memory is not vivid enough for me to remember what the paper was about, but I do remember that about halfway through the writing -- and it was a long one -- I confronted the reality that it was not going as I had hoped. I could forge on with my current wrong trajectory, which is probably what I would have done nine times out of ten. Doing anything else was just too awful. Or, I could opt for that tenth time and bravely start over, to see if I could get it right the second time. I'm proud to say that I did start over and that I got an A on the paper. The other paper would most certainly not have been an A.

The reason I'm reminded of this was because of a similar, though far lower stakes episode last night. I had to start over my review of Geostorm because it was based on the false assumption that the movie was directed by Roland Emmerich. In fact, it was directed by Emmerich's old partner, Dean Devlin.

I discovered this at about 12:50 a.m., when I was giving the piece a last polish before submitting it, so my editor could run it first thing Friday morning.

So much for that.

It's too bad because I really liked my opening two paragraphs:

Few directors strive to rise above their directorial typecasting more poignantly than Roland Emmerich. When fellow schlockmeister Michael Bay tries to do that, it’s always a thinly veiled version of his usual bombast. But Emmerich really takes it in another direction. These efforts have been either reasonably well received (the Shakespeare unmasking movie Anonymous) or not reasonably well received (the gay rights history Stonewall), but they always result in the studio coming back to Emmerich and saying “Nope. Now go direct Geostorm.”

And direct Geostorm Emmerich has. Unfortunately, it also seems to be a thumb in the eye of those studios. It may be crediting Emmerich with too much control over the finer qualities of his schlock, but this seems just about the most by-the- numbers possible version of his brand of global apocalypse film, of which he has made about seven.

The blatant falsehood that opens the second paragraph is a humorous reminder of how wrong my assumptions were. I tried to get smart by writing the opening paragraph of my review before I'd even seen the movie, something I rarely do, but something that is possible if you plan to start only with overview and state nothing of substance in your opening words. The value of which can certainly be debated. I did it this time because I knew I was going to get home late and wanted to get a head start on the writing. In fact, I brought my computer with me and wrote most of the review on the tram ride home.

I might have been able to re-jigger those opening two paragraphs even at just before 1 a.m. last night if I hadn't also continued to make references to the man who did not direct Geostorm throughout the rest of the review. It was one reference too many. So I tabled the corrections for my morning break today.

And as it happened, my editor posted the thing so quickly that it was up on the site by my lunchtime anyway.

The same courage to start over was not required as it was in college, but it made me think of that story, and then I told you that story, and we are all better people for it.

And if you want to see what I thought of Geostorm, here is that post that is now up on the web for your perusal.

In short: I wish Roland Emmerich had directed it.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

And with that, my idea is well and truly dead

I'm going to the movies tonight, and I came close to seeing Happy Death Day on the eve of my birthday, which is tomorrow.

However, my wife talked me out of it, asking me to wait and see it with her, and for good reason. She and I were, at one time, developing a script on a similar idea, in whose coffin the nails have now been finally, definitively, driven.

I actually don't really know much about Happy Death Day -- if I'm not mistaken, it's a horror version of Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow -- but the thing it has in common with our idea is also the best thing about our idea: its title.

Our movie was to have been called Death Day, and since I'm pretty sure we'll never make it (especially now), I'll give you its general idea. It's the story of a mystical device found by a bunch of kids (we think) that can predict the day you're going to day -- but not the year. So the bulk of the narrative would be about the characters taking precautionary measures each year their death day arrives, but also about an increasing alignment of all the predicted death days the more people they test -- suggesting a possible apocalypse that they must work to try to prevent.

I always loved my idea for a tagline: "What if you knew the day you were going to die ... but not the year?"

Although we thought it had a great high concept, the details were difficult enough to pin down that we could never really crack it.

Now, it looks like we've been dealt the Death blow.

It's not that Happy Death Day kills our idea, as ours is probably pretty different than the one explored here. But if we don't have the title going for us, what do we have?

We were working seriously on this right about ten years ago. I know this because we were also planning our wedding, which was in April of 2008, at the time. I know this because I remember a particularly productive Sunday afternoon where not only did we have a breakthrough on the story idea, but we also resolved like three big nagging wedding planning issues. I still remember that day as one of the most productive I have ever had.

Well, we did get married, but we never made Death Day.

And that's okay. We really couldn't crack it. The arrival of Happy Death Day only acts as a symbolic confirmation of what we already knew.

And so I won't see it tonight, but sometime a couple months from now, I will sit down with my wife to watch it. We'll have a glass of wine and commemorate what never quite was.

And who knows, maybe we'll be inspired to think up our next great idea.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Requiem for my eyeballs

If you ever wondered how many movies one man can watch in one weekend when he checks himself into a hotel Friday at 2:30 and checks out Sunday morning at 10, the answer is: 12.

I suppose if the man had filled every available waking moment with movies, had chosen purposefully short ones, and forewent basic needs like using the toilet, that number might have been closer to 18. I'm crazy, but I'm not that crazy.

Given that I predicted three on Friday, five on Saturday and one on Sunday, which would have been only nine, I'd say I did quite well ... though in retrospect, those were pretty conservative guesses.

I actually started what would have been a 13th -- or, would have been 12th at the time and pushed my actual 12th to 13th -- at about 12:30 on Saturday night, but after 15 minutes of fighting my drooping eyelids, I gave in to reality. Besides, had to get up in time for that one final movie on Sunday morning before checkout.

Before I get into the movies (and the approximate times I started watching them), I'll just give you a bit of background, even if some of it will be repeating what I told you in Friday's post.

About once a year each, my wife and I like to take a break from parenting to go to a hotel for a night, to operate on schedules that are beholden to no one but ourselves. This is usually a single overnight, but we've recently acknowledged that this is not long enough -- that you barely feel like you've settled before you have to pack up and go home. So in what might be the start of a new tradition, we are now extending these trips to two nights, starting this past Friday afternoon. I took a half day on Friday and made my way out to my hotel of choice, just enough outside the city to feel like I was actually getting away, where I settled in for a long weekend of eating, drinking, being merry, and watching movies.

Not only did this experience deviate from other similar recent experiences by being an extra night, but it also marked the return of a formerly essential element of this experience: a projector. The little one my wife got me for Christmas in 2014 crapped out after less than six months, meaning it wasn't working for the first one of these I did after our move to Australia, to celebrate Australian Father's Day in September of 2015. Burned by that consumer experience, we didn't buy another one right away to replace it, but two weeks ago I took the plunge again. For $70 I bought something on Gumtree (the Australian equivalent of Craigslist) that I thought, or at least hoped, would do the trick of projecting my movies on one of the blank walls of the hotel room.

And boy did it. It's certainly not something you would make the centerpiece of a home theater. But it's extremely portable (the thing is barely bigger than your hand), and after fussing with the various settings on it, I got it to display a reasonably decent image with better-than-expected sound. Certainly good enough for movies I'd already seen, and plenty good for new movies as long as they were not renowned for their visuals or heavily reliant on subtitles. (More on that in a minute.)

And even despite watching these 12 movies, I also ate out a nice brunch, wrote a blog post, watched two innings of Game 1 between the Yankees and Astros streamed and projected on my wall, took two naps, and even video-chatted with a friend in America. I never took a walk in the park, but walking across to the shops across the street about four times ensured that I got out into the fresh air, at least when my supplies were running low.

Okay, enough preamble. Let's get to the movies. Just don't expect me to say all I might want to say about each. With 12 to get through, we're talking a couple of short paragraphs each.

1) Shawn of the Dead
Approximate start time: Friday, 2:30 p.m.

When watching movies during the day in a marathon like this, it behooves you to break movies down into "daytime movies" and "nighttime movies." Shawn of the Dead, as it does mostly take place during the day, seemed like a good "daytime movie." Even better, it was totally unpremeditated. After I lined up all 32 (!) movies I'd brought with me, it just jumped out at me and said "Me first!" So I acquiesced.

I've seen Shawn of the Dead twice, but my last viewing was more than a decade ago, and in fact, I saw it twice before I saw any other Edgar Wright movie. I hadn't seen it since Wright managed to build up some wariness in me over the course of his last couple films. The good news is, it charmed me just as much as it always does, and I really appreciate the funny things Wright is known for doing with his camera. Also, Bill Nighy's death scene is even more emotionally resonant for me now that I'm a parent. It seems unlikely Wright will ever make another movie that's this good.

2) Welcome to New York
Approximate start time: Friday, 5 p.m.

This was in a collection of movies I borrowed from the library a couple weeks back as kind of an "eh, why not?", and about the same level of decisiveness went into the choice to watch it in the second slot on Friday. It's Abel Ferrara's barely disguised retelling of the Dominique Strauss Kahn rape case, in which Gerard Depardieu plays Strauss Kahn, a sex addicted French politician named Devereaux. It made for my second unpremeditated pick of the day, which was nice, though I did secretly question the wisdom of devoting nearly two hours to such a shot in the dark. Didn't want to follow up Shawn of the Dead with a wrong turn.

Which it certainly seemed I had for about the film's first 30 minutes, during which time I was also reminded "Oh yeah, Abel Ferrara directed Bad Lieutenant." I consider that film pretty loathsome, and so is this one at first. The opening of this film is basically soft-core porn as Depardieu plays the role of a walking erection, a man who sleeps with high-end prostitutes in at least three different graphic scenes, treating them roughly and barking at them like a wolf. The amount Ferrara shoves this down our throat is off-putting, and must have felt really defamatory to someone like the real-life Strauss Kahn, scoundrel though he may be. By the time of the inept staging of his sexual assault of a hotel maid, I was wondering whether this film would earn a half-star or make its way all the way up to one whole star. However, the film does recover, especially in its last hour, when the crux of the drama shifts to the conversations between Devereaux and his wife, played by Jacqueline Bissett. These are some really thoughtful passages, and they almost worked the film up to three stars. Almost, but not quite.

This was also my first challenge in terms of clearly reading subtitles on my projector, as some of this film takes place in French. I was pleased to note that these particular subtitles were crafted in such a way that I could read them fine ... though I did not know if that would remain the case.

3) Thor: The Dark World
Approximate start time: Friday, 8:30 p.m.

This one was strictly business. I'd reserved this from the library in order to see it before Thor: Ragnarok comes out in a couple weeks, in case it's useful to know what happens here in order to truly appreciate that film. But I wasn't particularly excited for it. Consequently, I didn't mind the likelihood that the cheap-o projector would minimize some of its visual flair. So I sat down with my roasted chicken and chips that I'd just brought back from the shops, and got to work.

And I have to say, I kind of liked this movie. I can't even really explain why, as it's probably worse than the first Thor, and I don't really like the first Thor. Maybe I'm just becoming soft in my old age. Anyway, ludicrous as it was, I enjoyed it well enough. I think now that I've seen Tom Hiddleston in a lot more stuff since the last time I saw him as Loki, in The Avengers in 2012, I appreciate him more in this role now.

I should say that this was the first sign that not all subtitles would be good subtitles. This film's "big bad" speaks a made-up language for most of the time he's on screen, and I could not read the subtitles in this case. So when he was speaking, I did need to crane my neck over and read the words directly off the laptop screen. Fortunately, at least he spoke English when taunting our heroes.

4) House 
Approximate start time: Friday, 10:45 p.m.

I already devoted a post to this yesterday, so I will only comment that this was the one movie that prompted me to abandon the projector. The whole movie is in Japanese, and the subtitles were just too hard to read ... not that the dialogue was particularly helpful in making sense of this particular movie. So this one mostly got watched off the laptop screen, though I'd look up to the wall from time to time if dialogue were absent for any particular stretch.

After this, I decided I'd save any remaining foreign language films for another time.

5) Maggie's Plan 
Approximate start time: Saturday, 7:30 a.m.

Even when I have no kids to wake me up, my body won't let me sleep in, so open my eyes popped around 7:15 a.m. Might as well get my coffee and a couple donuts and get right into it.

Maggie's Plan had been part of my plan, so to speak, from the start. I knew Rebecca Miller's 2016 film would make a great choice for an afternoon or even morning movie, and it was probably the top contender for the opening slot on Friday before Shawn of the Dead presented itself. An indie with a lot of daytime scenes, more funny than sad probably.

It didn't disappoint. I must say, I was really taken with this. Although the film has the chance to present its high-concept scenario in really broad strokes, exaggerating its characters and those characters' traits, I found it quite humanistic in its approach. In particular I worried about the character portrayed by Julianne Moore, the Eastern European (I suppose?) self-absorbed intellectual, as not getting a fair shake, since it would be so easy to portray her as an outsized shrew. She's not, and as the movie moves along, you love her in all her imperfections, the same way you love all these imperfect characters. I'm looking forward to an eventual second viewing.

6) But I'm a Cheerleader 
Approximate start time: Saturday, 11 a.m.

After the aforementioned nice brunch across the street of gourmet fritters and bacon, in which I was too cold to be sitting outside in only a t-shirt, I knew it was time for another movie I'd already seen, having watched four in a row that were new to me. In fact, that's pretty much how I devoted the remainder of my viewing time after this, with just one exception. But I'm a Cheerleader worked great as a morning/early afternoon movie, and I figured to love it just as much as the first time I saw it, maybe ten years ago.

What an adorably sweet movie -- and that's no backhanded compliment. Movies can be sweet because they don't challenge us and try too hard to please us, or they can be sweet like Cheerleader is, because it portrays genuine human beings in a way free from cynicism. I love both the performances in this movie (Natasha Lyonne has never been better) and the message it's trying to convey, which is a simple one that bears repeating in the case of closeted homosexuals: Just be yourself. I was reminded to my delight that an unrecognizable Rupaul is in this movie, and also that it includes some scenes from Michelle Williams before everyone considered her a critical darling. But the relationship between Lyonne and Clea Duvall is the film's touching center, and I love that the script has the smarts to reverse their roles as the film goes on, in a manner of speaking. This is a true gem that more people need to see.

7) Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Approximate start time: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Cheerleader's run time was pushed out a bit by the video chat I had with my friend, and then Barcelona's run time was stretched by the two innings of the aforementioned baseball game. Here was another movie that I'd seen only once and really liked, and whose many gorgeous Spanish exteriors were primarily seen by day, making it a good afternoon movie. I knew I'd lose a bit of what made the movie so nice to look at on the projector, but you usually watch Woody Allen for the dialogue and the character dynamics, don't you?

And those did not fail me. It's a really interesting study of the complicated yearnings of the human heart, something Allen classically does really well, lately less so. But Barcelona joins last year's Cafe Society to constitute one of his better films of his late-period output, with Rebecca Hall and Javier Bardem particularly strong among a note-perfect cast. (And I can't forget Penelope Cruz, who actually earned herself an Oscar for this one.) Allen's films tend to be very similar to each other, varying mostly in the quality. This is one of the good ones.

I appreciated how Bardem's character is constantly telling Cruz's character to speak in English in deference to Scarlett Johansson's character. It was also in deference to me, as I had trouble reading the subtitles of her Spanish.

8) Valkyrie
Approximate start time: Saturday, 4 p.m.

Sensing a theme here? I suppose not, unless I tell you: This was the third straight movie I'd really liked but seen exactly one time previously. Liking Valkyrie' had surprised me a lot more than liking either of its two predecessors on the viewing schedule, and I was dying to see if my affections were justified. (And now that were getting to late afternoon, the subject matter could feel free to get a little heavier.)

This is a solid, straightforward telling of one of the unsuccessful plots to assassinate Hitler, and if I didn't like it as much the second time as the first, it was almost as much. Bryan Singer's film is well made and it pulses with a certain type of righteous energy, while benefiting from the intrigue involved in the fine details of complicated plots, and the uncertainty about who you could trust to be a traitor to their country for the purpose of saving it. Valkyrie takes care of the language problem by giving Tom Cruise's character just a few lines of spoken German dialogue as he writes in a journal at the start, and then translating those words to English, which becomes the spoken language of the rest of the film. Clever, and also helpful in my current situation.

9) Poseidon 
Approximate start time: Saturday, 6:30 p.m.

This one was a total surprise. I mean, I had it with me, but I seriously did not expect to watch it. However, I also did not expect to fit anything in between Valkyrie and my primetime viewing slot, which is the slot to go along with my dinner. But given the way I'd snacked all day (I was popping Tums all afternoon), there was no way I was eating dinner at 6:30.

Poseidon was probably a little worse than I expected it to be. It should be called "Poseidon, or Josh Lucas Does 37 Heroic Things" or "Poseidon, or That One Latina Woman Really Is Scared." Yeah, in addition to not being a very satisfying disaster movie, with only a few of the "whoa" moments that you come to movies like this for, it's also not very satisfying in terms of repudiating the white male patriarchal viewpoint. Mostly white males, mostly doing heroic things relative to their female counterparts. I think this was just before the "women can't be saved by a man" mandate hit Hollywood.

At least it was short at only 94 minutes, which was why I chose it.

10) Inside Llewyn Davis
Approximate start time: Saturday, 9:00 p.m.

You could say I didn't need another viewing of Insight Llewyn Davis, as it's existed for only four years and I've already seen it twice. I just wanted one. Enough to make it my primetime movie, the movie I enjoyed with my pad thai from the multi-Asian cuisine restaurant from across the street.

The third time was no better or worse than the other two, which is to say that I loved it from the very first (ranking it #3 of that year) and have not experienced either an uptick or downtick since then. So the only thing I'll really say is the one big takeaway from this viewing: It's at least the second Coens movie in which someone comments on the quality of their cereal. This is funny, because cereal is something that by its very nature is predictable and unvarying -- saving a change of recipe, it's the exact same thing every time you eat it. Yet in Raising Arizona, Evelle comments "Mighty fine cereal flakes, Mrs. McDunnough," and here, Troy Nelson, upon completing the cereal that woke up Llewyn, looks at the empty bowl and says "Well that was very good."

With the films you love, it's the deep dives.

11) Requiem for a Dream
Approximate start time: Saturday, 10:45 p.m.

This was my one absolutely certain viewing of the whole weekend. With us having just discussed Darren Aronofsky's career two podcasts ago, when mother! was our main review (I'm going with the little m), I felt that my first Requiem viewing in about 13 years (and third overall) was overdue. Like most people, I find this film hard to watch, but also kind of exhilarating, as it's a confrontational-ass piece of filmmaking that really provokes deep, hallucinatory fears. I just wondered if it was a confrontational-ass piece of filmmaking that would hold up. There are some who accuse it of being shallow, or worse, a pretentious student film.

That may describe his debut, Pi, to some degree, but I found myself as wrapped up in this film as I had on my two (or was it three?) previous viewings. I was suitably disturbed, but maybe not as shaken as I had been on previous occasions. More than anything I just admired the audacity of the filmmaking, and of techniques that have since been repeated elsewhere but never quite as powerfully as here. In fact, in an unintentional link to my first film of the weekend, I noticed that Edgar Wright actually utilizes the quick montages of drug use that are Requiem's most memorable stylistic flourish. Only Wright uses it kind of to poke fun at it, as the close-ups are of boring things like pouring coffee and brushing teeth, to emphasize the dull routine of Shawn and his mates.

12) Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Approximate start time: Sunday, 7:30 a.m.

And the final film is always a film I know like the back of my hand, so I can watch it while also packing up the room and cleaning up the mess I have invariably made. I set an alarm to make sure I had time, but was up 45 minutes before it was set to go off, at the same 7:15 awakening time as the day before. Damn body clock.

Holy Grail is one of my favorite comedies of all time, and the movie that made me laugh the hardest I have ever laughed in my life during one particular scene -- the one where King Arthur steadily lops off the limbs of the black knight, who protests that the loss of an arm is "just a flesh wound." But I hadn't seen it in more than ten years, so it shouted out at me from the racks at the library as the obvious candidate for this spot. I know whole scenes by heart -- I can still recite the "constitutional peasant" scene word for word after memorizing it to perform all three parts during a talent show in the late 1980s -- but there are still some lesser scenes I don't know well at all. As it turns out, the scene where Sir Galahad goes to the castle populated entirely by women still does not work for me at all, and I tuned out just as I always do. But man, is this packed with comedy gems, and I was long overdue for a revisit.

And that's it. Then I went home.

The extra night did make all the difference. When you know you still have hours upon hours of viewing ahead of you, you don't stress too much about a wrong choice, or about losing an hour and getting "off schedule." With two nights, there's still plenty of time to recover. And there was.

I recommend the two-night hotel movie binge to any cinephile -- and try to get your hands on a projector if you can.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Asian Audient: House

This is the October installment of Asian Audient, a series in which I watch one movie from Asia every month in 2017. And aren't I clever?

I certainly wasn't planning to write a blog post while away in my hotel for the weekend watching movies, but then I discovered, to my surprise, that my room has free WiFi. I discovered it by noticing that my computer had automatically connected to the wireless ... from the last time I was here. You'd think I would remember that I was connected the last time I was here, but I didn't. Free WiFi is not one of the offerings on the website, and there's a computer in the lobby where the guests can connect to the internet. For some reason, I thought that was the sum total of this place's internet.

I still might not have written a post today except that I think it's probably a good idea to isolate my Asian Audient viewing, my fourth viewing on Friday after I checked in, as its own post, rather than letting it get lost in a sea of 10+ movies in tomorrow's post. It's the least I can do. And now I have the internet to do it.

I knew in October I wanted to watch a horror movie to honor Halloween, and I figured a J-horror would be a good choice. Last month I told you it would be Ringu, but you know what? I can't source that anywhere, and I'm still a guy who obtains his movies by legal means.

Then I noticed a friend post on Letterboxd that he had seen House, the 1977 Japanese horror that's supposed to be all sorts of batshit crazy, and that he gave it five stars. I've heard House recommended a bunch over the years, most recently on a podcast within the past year or so, and lo and behold, it was available from iTunes. So I got some J-horror after all, it's just from before that term actually meant anything.

House is, indeed, batshit crazy.


It follows a story of a Japanese schoolgirl who invites six friends to her aunt's home in the country over school vacation. One by one, the house proceeds to eat them.

Sounds gruesome, but it's not, or not very, because the whole thing is told like an extremely innocent fairytale that goes bananas from time to time, or all the time. You know when people spoof Japanese subject matter and it includes a lot of wild zooms, quick cuts, and bizarre and inexplicable things happening? I'm convinced that House is the starting point for all of that.

There are numerous things I could tell you about what happens, except it's all like a bit of a fever dream, but a happy fever dream -- the score is almost always buoyant to the point of being dopey, in keeping with the fairytale presentation. But some of the things I remember is that a disembodied head flies around and bites people, a piano eats a girl, a girl gets trapped inside a grandfather clock and ground into a bloody goo by its gears, and at one point, for no reason that is clear at all, a man sticks his head into the frame and aggressively eats noodles, at which point the film cuts away to three or four men eating noodles in some other location before returning to the main thrust of the "narrative" just as suddenly.

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi achieves his special effects through mattes and other construction paper-type techniques, as well as other tricks that I also probably can't effectively describe. House is truly a film that needs to be seen to be fully understood -- and by "understood" I mean simply understanding its singular atmosphere. I don't know that there is any possibility of actually understanding House, as such.

Throughout these apparently horrible things that are rendered rather innocuous by the distinctly Japanese logic that informs the aforementioned spoofs, there's a throughline about the aunt waiting for her beloved to return from World War II, which informs the powers she has and the nature of her existence. There's also a bit about the protagonist's father having remarried and the stepmother wanting to connect with her. Many of these scenes occur in settings that today we would recognize as the realm of Michel Gondry, or possibly a crazier version of Wes Anderson (but without all the compositional exactitude).

I find myself at a loss to put into words exactly what it's like watching this movie, and I suspect I shall soon abandon the attempt. I did want to say that while I thought this film was a gas for much of the time, the overriding impression I have of it is that it didn't quite perfectly land for me. There's the temptation to reward such total insanity with a perfect or near-perfect star rating, but I have to admit that it didn't get all the way there for me. So my star rating is just below that, which still honors the singular nature of the film.

Because the film defies categorization so stridently, it didn't totally scratch my itch for J-horror, but you know, Ringu just isn't anywhere right now.

Don't know exactly what's in store for November and December, but I do know I'm going to make one more visit to China, and hopefully one more visit to one other country that is not either Japan or China, or preferably Korea, which I have already visited twice as well.

Friday, October 13, 2017

The mouse is away

Remember all those times the cat (my wife) was away, leaving the mouse (me) home to watch over the kids, and as many movies as humanly possible?

Well, as a thank you from the cat to the mouse, the mouse is now going away as well.

And an already strained metaphor is being stretched to its breaking point.

This weekend I am checking in to a hotel not far outside of town for a little R&R, as a reward for my selfless parenting and support of my wife's far-flung endeavors on two ten-day trips to North America. (And as a bit of an early birthday present).

At this hotel, I will watch movies.

Pretty much non-stop.

It's something I do about once a year anyway, but the difference this time?

Two nights instead of one.

That's a lot of movies.

My wife and I both take these nights away from time to time, about once a year each, to have a little time away from parenting and theoretically to recharge our batteries. However, we have both lamented that not long after you reach your destination, you start to think about how the weekend is almost over. It's almost like the anticipation of the event held more value for you than its actual arrival.

But that's because we would arrive on Saturday, in order to come home on Sunday.

This time, I'm arriving on Friday. Friday afternoon, at that, as I plan to work only a half day.

That's a lot of movies.

Exactly how many I'm not sure. I figure to get in at least three on Friday, at least five on Saturday and one Sunday morning for good measure before checkout time. Any more than that is probably a bonus.

But I will try to get in more than that, if the number I'm bringing is any indication.

I have a duffel bag that has almost nothing but movies checked out from the library, and though I haven't counted, there could be 25 in there. I probably should count, as if I fail to come home with any of them I will owe the library money. But they're already packed, and at this point I'm not unpacking them.

I also have two rented from iTunes for good measure.

You can, of course, expect a full recap on this blog after I return.

I told a friend last night that if I had any balls, I would use this unusually luxurious amount of time to do a 24-hour movie marathon. It's something I've always wanted to do.

But the way I figure this would work is by starting at 7 a.m. one morning and managing to stay awake until 7 a.m. the next day, using some combination of caffeine, sugar, and shots of tabasco sauce directly to the tongue. But I can't finish the marathon three hours before I'm supposed to check out, then be a useless lump for my family once I return to them.

He suggested I arrive at the hotel, sleep for a few hours, start at midnight, finish at the following midnight, and then sleep again. But he's crazy.

The thing is, having two nights means I can do things other than watch movies, and probably will need to in order to give myself a change of pace. This particular hotel is not in an interesting location -- that's not the point of the excursion -- but I can get out to some of the local eateries to actually sit at their tables (rather than ordering to my room), and there's a park nearby I can and probably should walk in.

If you'd like to make the argument that it's a waste of money to spend two nights on a hotel room just to watch movies, well, you lost that argument three decades ago when I became a cinephile.

So wish me luck, or whatever the version of luck is involved in showing up at a hotel and watching movies for the parts of 44 hours I'm not sleeping. Wish me no technical difficulties, I guess. I'm trying out a new projector I bought on the cheap. I know it's cheap, but I also know it will give the occasion a bit of an extra air of festivity.

More than anything, wish me luck not arriving at the hotel and starting to immediately stress how it's almost over.

Because this time, it's two nights, not one.

The mouse will play.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A reminder why we love sports

I didn't intend to watch a movie about female soccer fans in Iran who are so crazed, they will risk imprisonment or execution in order to get in to "the big game," on the same day that I woke up before 5 a.m. to watch my Boston Red Sox get eliminated from the 2017 baseball playoffs.

But one did inform the other, in a way. Because of my early rising time, I needed something really short if I were to watch a movie last night. Offside, Jafar Panahi's 2006 film, was the shortest in the collection of library movies in my possession, at just 88 minutes. Even so, I was tired enough that I took about five short naps during it.

Fortunately, my regular need to pause was a reflection only of my exhaustion, and the fact that I was reclined on the couch way too close to parallel with the cushions to have any hope of staying awake. I was quite captivated by the film, and it was perfectly timed in many respects.

First, some explanation of that early awakening.

I live in Australia, which, as you know, has a very different time zone than North America. This often means that the sports I want to watch are on at terrible times. Coming on in the middle of my workday is bad enough, but it can be even worse when it's an afternoon game, and the damn thing starts at 4 in the morning. Because Major League Baseball didn't consider the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros much of a draw -- not the draw it considered the Cleveland Indians and the New York Yankees, anyway -- all four of the games in that opening series were played in the afternoon, with the earliest coming at just 1 p.m. Eastern on Monday. That was 4 a.m. my time on Tuesday.

I wouldn't have considered waking up at all, except that the Sox showed some unlikely mettle by blowing out the Astros in Game 3 to stave off elimination, after getting blown out themselves in Games 1 and 2. It's only a five-game series, so one more win and suddenly the thing would go to a decisive Game 5. And the 4 a.m. start time might have its advantages, in the following respect: It might cut into my beauty sleep, but it might also finish entirely before I even left for work. In a way, this was actually my best opportunity to watch an entire game.

I left it to my body clock, which has been waking me up at strange hours in recent weeks for much less important reasons than a playoff baseball game. And though it didn't get me up for start time, I was awake not long after 4:30. At which point I saw my first innings of Boston Red Sox baseball in 2017. Hey, there's a trickle down effect to those inconvenient start times, and this year, I hadn't managed to get in a single bit of live game action.

Unlike the other games in the series, this one was close throughout. (Game 3 was close for seven innings before becoming a blowout.) I missed the Sox' first run, but they were down only 2-1 when I decided to get in another hour's sleep from 6 to 7, a decision prompted by the prediction that the game was about to be halted by inclement weather. Apparently, it was never halted. By the time I woke the Sox had taken a lead, 3-2.

By the time I left for work, they were down 4-3, and that eventually became 5-3 before they gave their fans a last gaps of hope with a leadoff homer in the ninth. But they ultimately fell short by a 5-4 final score. They scored on three separate occasions, none of which I saw, and I ended up catching a total of about four innings. This being the total number of innings I watched my favorite sports team all year.

Clearly I wasn't as invested in the Red Sox this year, in part because my favorite player (David Ortiz) retired last year, and in part because as a Boston sports fan, I've had it too good for too long. Since everything turned around for Boston sports teams in February of 2002 when the New England Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, there have been four more championships for the Patriots, three championships for the Red Sox, and one each for the Celtics and Bruins, if I cared about hockey. At this point I don't have the right to be disappointed about any of my teams not winning a championship, and it's not much of a step beyond that to just disengage. I wouldn't say I'm fully disengaged from the Red Sox, but during the baseball season I get much more involved in my fantasy team -- even though it too has experienced the thrill of a championship in 2010 and 2013.

Offside reminded me what it's like to be hungry for victory.

And I'm going to spoil this movie, because it's 11 years old and I don't flatter myself that my writing about it is going to make you run out and see it. Though you really should.

Continuing a proud tradition that I suppose you could call Iranian neo-realism (perhaps some people do call it that), Jafar Panahi -- you know, the guy who has been placed under house arrest by his government and can't make movies for 20 years -- filmed his last movie before the government descended upon him about the Iranian soccer team's attempt to qualify for the World Cup in 2006. Of course, it's not really about that quest per se. It's about the attempt of a handful of young women to view that quest.

See, in Iran, the government does not allow women to enter a football stadium -- the rest of the world calls it football, remember -- for fear that they will become sexually aroused by seeing men in shorts. Or something like that. Anyway, the punishment for even attempting to enter the stadium is severe. The movie never completely reveals what is expected to happen to these young women, but one who dressed up as a soldier to try to gain entry is told she would have been executed if she had come in an officer's outfit. Yikes.

But some women do try to get in anyway, or at least, some did in this movie -- about seven or eight that we see. We follow one girl on a bus of male revelers before the game, looking nervous as hell as she has stuffed her hair inside a hat and painted her face, in the hopes of coming across as male. And because this is as close as you can get to real life, and not some Hollywood movie, the ruse is completely unconvincing. Everyone she comes in contact with sniffs her out in an instant, and in the case of those that don't, you have to figure they just can't be bothered and are going to let her try to get away with it.

She doesn't. Not even close. She successfully buys a ticket from a scalper -- at a heavily marked up price, to cover his risk for making the sale -- but she completely loses her composure when a guard at the gate motions to pat her down prior to entry. She doesn't even sniff the seating area, being escorted directly to a makeshift detention area outside one of the gates, that might have been mistaken for a smoking section. A half-dozen girls are already being kept there, and more join as the narrative progresses.

In a Hollywood movie, our protagonist would find a way to sneak away from the guards, or perhaps receive the help of a sympathetic guard, but in Iran, they're as much at risk of punishment for aiding and abetting as she is for trying to break the law. One girl does escape when she concocts a story about needing to use the bathroom -- the guard escorting makes her wear a poster over her face so others don't see her gender -- but we don't follow her into the stadium. She reports back later on, presumably having gotten in at least some of the action. But our protagonist? She never gets closer than a guard having pity on her by offering her a brief bit of secondhand play-by-play commentary.

As you keep watching Offisde, you figure that something has to break their way and these girls get to see at least a couple plays of Iran's match with Bahrain. But it never comes to pass. Instead "the chief" finally appears and directs them down to a waiting bus, where they are going to be taken elsewhere to have whatever punishment is waiting for them meted out to them.

In that bus, the closest they get to experiencing the game finally transpires, when one of the guys who has been guarding them the whole movie takes pity on them and fixes the broken antenna well enough to get the game on the radio. You sense this is as much out of self-interest as it is an actual favor to the prisoners. But the upshot is that they get to listen to about the final five minutes of action -- something they could have done at home, of course. At home, they could have even watched it on TV.

And they hear Iran wrap up a 1-0 victory that helps them qualify for the World Cup. A victory that really happened, fortunately, as Panahi was filming in and around the actual match, in the guerrilla style for which he has since become famous. Though I suppose, given his methods and his commitment to harsh realism, Panahi would have been able to turn either a win or a loss into compelling drama.

I'm happy it was a win, because my God does bedlam ensue. Whatever fates may await them, these girls go crazy, lost in the sheer exhilaration of victory -- a victory not even really comparable to winning the championship, except that when you love the game and you love your team, even a lesser victory is the occasion for intense exultation.

Panahi captures the celebrations not only inside the bus, but outside of it, catching the passing cars honking, the people hanging out their windows holding up Iranian flags, through the bus windows. Then the bus stops, the guards as overcome as the prisoners, none of them fearing the repercussions that may await them, as everyone pours out and joins the pandemonium in the streets. Oh, and did I mention that contraband fireworks are whizzing everywhere, both inside and outside the bus?

The film's final shot is a return to our protagonist, focus on whom has drifted from time to time during the narrative, as she becomes enveloped by the crowd, a sparkler in each hand.

They might have watched this game at home, but if so, they mightn't have experienced a moment of community, a loss of inhibition, a surge of pure happiness quite like this.

That's what sports can do. And that's how I want to feel about sports again. So if my teams need to go another ten years without a championship, just to give me that feeling again, then so be it.

When you consider imprisonment as a consequence of trying to see your favorite team compete, losing three hours of sleep doesn't seem like much at all.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Long overdue: no longer overdue

If you think that subject line is just intended to confuse you, well, it's not just intended to confuse you. There's a meaning in it too.

I've continued to connect to the American version of iTunes the entire time I've lived in Australia -- something Apple actually allows you to do. Take a lesson, Netflix.

The advantages have been almost total. Because release dates are generally earlier in America, you get almost all movies sooner, excepting probably the Australian movies (or rare others that get released in Australia first). In fact, this is sometimes so extreme that on multiple occasions, I have rented a movie for 99 cents -- a price that becomes available only after something has been available to rent for a couple months -- before it's even been released theatrically in Australia. The prices tend to be lower, too -- by around a dollar I think.

One disadvantage so far, though, is that Australian iTunes -- which my wife mostly uses -- gives you a full 48 hours to watch a movie after you press play on it, not only 24 as in the U.S.

That too has now finally been corrected.

I guess it happened more than two weeks ago, but this weekend for the first time I noticed that American iTunes is now allowing 48 hours to watch movies once you press play.

It's long overdue, in part because it costs them almost nothing to do it. You still get the money from the customer. What incentive do you have to force them to watch this movie within a single day?

I suppose they must have thought some percentage of customers would think they were really sticking it to Apple by watching the same movie multiple times over the same weekend. But so what if they want to watch it on both Friday night and Saturday night? For the extremely small number of people who want to do that, you make so many more happy by loosening your restrictions.

The vast majority of people watch a movie in one sitting anyway. But for those of us who sometimes don't, you do indeed worry about starting something you're not sure you can finish in the next 24 hours. Now you don't have to.

So the thing that's overdue is now you don't have to worry about your movies being "overdue" -- which is another way of saying you're cut off from watching them. (That's the meaning of the subject of this post.)

Thanks, Apple, for making a good service slightly better.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Lowering my defenses

I have always believed, and recently reemphasized on this blog, that in order to be a good film critic, you need to divorce yourself from the specifics of your own perspective as a viewer. You can't just see a movie through your own eyes. You have to see it through the eyes of the person for whom it was intended. Or really, you should continually become that person. You should be Arya Stark on Game of Thrones, and have all the faces at your disposal. You should be No One.

I didn't do that when I watched Get Out the first time.

Fortunately, in this case, I was not reviewing it. Not officially for ReelGood. But I did "review it," in a manner of speaking, on this blog, in this post. And you can tell from the way I labored to say exactly what I meant that not only was I trying desperately not to offend anyone, but that I might not have actually known exactly what I meant. Or might have felt uncomfortable with what I meant on some level. SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

To summarize, so you don't have to link back to that post, I wished that the movie had dealt more realistically with the genuine problem of parents who can't accept that their daughter is dating someone from another race, complicated by the fact that they consider themselves open-minded liberals. I didn't like the fact that the movie took a more fantastical, science fiction approach to its contemplations on racism, thinking that it damaged our ability to draw real messages from it.

Then I saw Get Out again.

I always knew I would, before finalizing my year-end list. At the pace it was going, it looked likely to sink down as far as somewhere in the 50s, which would mean it wouldn't even make the top third of the movies I saw this year. That didn't seem right, something I knew even when I struggled to write that post.

I got my opportunity at the Hoyts kiosk last night, purportedly to rent the Will Ferrell-Amy Poehler comedy The House to watch with my wife that evening. She had accepted that choice with a bit of a shrug, and I thought maybe I could do better. So instead of just picking The House on the opening screen, I scrolled four screens in and was reminded that she had not yet seen Get Out, and had stated an express desire to see it. Thinking she still might have her mind set on something a little lighter that evening, whether she shrugged at The House or not, I texted to be sure, and got an enthusiastic response. A few minutes later, Get Out was spat out of the machine.

For some reason I was with Get Out every step of the way this time. Knowing where it was going to go was a big help in that regard. Instead of being blindsided by it, I was able to view earlier occurrences in the plot in light of what I knew was going to happen. I have also recently said on this blog that a film shouldn't take two viewings in order to figure out why it's great -- this was in reference to Dunkirk -- but I'd also be a fool if I suggested the implied opposite, which is that it's never worth watching a movie a second to see if you missed a brilliance that was always there.

But I think the big difference was how I lowered my defenses this time. And that gets back to my perspective as a viewer.

See, the first time I saw Get Out, I found it all too easy to put myself in the shoes of the Armitages, the supposedly liberal family living in the country who are proven be demented psychopaths. Of course, it wasn't the second part I related to. It was the part where they were asked to put their liberal views to the test and accept their daughter's black boyfriend.

I don't have a daughter, and if I did, she wouldn't be of dating age. But my sons will one day be of dating age, and if they date outside their race, I want to be their biggest champion.

But there's that nagging part of me, as I suspect there is of anyone who considers themselves post-racial, that wonders just how I would react. Would I be as supportive as I think I would be? If I weren't, I doubt it would be because my son's prospective partner were black, or Indian, or Japanese, or extra terrestrial. It would be because that person is in some way different than what I had envisioned. The same scenario would confront me if that person were male rather than female, and again I hope I would be cool with that -- but I can never really be sure until actually being in that situation.

The first time I saw Get Out, I got off on the wrong foot with Chris because I thought he wasn't giving his girlfriend's parents the chance to make good on their own ideals. He doubted them out of the gate, continued to doubt them the whole time, and was ultimately proven correct. It felt, on some level, unfair.

The second time I watched Get Out, I fully realized what others had told me the first time -- which is that the movie is not meant to be told from their, or in this case my, perspective. It's Chris' perspective, and his perspective has a lot of history informing it. Throughout history, dads of white girls have been a lot more likely to chase people like him off their lawn with a shotgun than welcome him into their homes. A little skepticism is only practical.

It's true that Chris warns his girlfriend and then says "I told you so." But he was justified in worrying about it, and justified in "telling her so." This time around, with my defenses lowered, I was not as sensitive to the evidence he was stockpiling to feel weirded out by them. He does give them a fair enough shake, it's just that things are so weird, so early, that his instinct to say "I told you so" is stimulated almost the moment he walks through their door.

And since this movie isn't doing what I thought it should be doing -- exploring the micro-aggressions of subtle racism -- I met the movie on the terms of what it was doing. Namely, existing as a paranoid fantasy that says real things about blacks and their fears of what white people might do to them. These fears are not always as straightforward as "white people hate me so they will try to lynch me." They are sometimes more nebulous, with less of an identifiable and explainable psychology behind them, like "white people might turn me into a sex slave."

What happens in this movie is so gonzo, scientifically, that it seems clear there is no other way to interpret it but metaphorically. That's what I called "confused messaging" the first time around, as it seemed arguable that what the Armitages do with blacks is as much out of a desire to be them as a hatred for them. But what's really happening in this movie is that Chris is imagining the worst possible thing that could happen when he's introduced to his white girlfriend's parents -- and that thing actually manifesting itself. Whether it "really" happens or whether the whole movie is meant to be taken as a metaphor is somewhat less important. The important part is that it is an expression of a fear that black people really carry around with them -- a paranoid fear, but just because they're paranoid doesn't mean that people aren't out to get them.

Because, as the world today continually tells us, they are. Maybe not in this exact way, but they are. And Get Out dramatizes this fear viscerally.

My reevaluation of Get Out is probably still not enough to make it a candidate for my top ten, as I still have nagging concerns about it. But it was great to watch it in a spirit of giving myself over to it, and not feeling defensive about it.

And thought it may not make my top ten, it no longer has to worry about being mired in the 50s.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The horror prodigy I don't care about

One of the most ascendant names in horror, or possibly filmmaking in general, has got to be Adam Wingard. If you don't believe me, in addition to the output he's already given us in the past five years, which I'll get to in a minute, he's also been tapped for the American remake of Kim Jee-woon's I Saw the Devil, and a future film in Legendary Pictures' MonsterVerse, Godzilla vs. Kong, which are both announced for 2020 at the moment.

But in four features since he really broke, all of which I've seen, Wingard is 0-for-4 with me.

The most recent on that list is Death Note, the Netflix original film I saw last night. Like some (but not all) of Wingard's other films, it looks great. The story is ultimately underwhelming, though, and in the end it couldn't even get to three stars for me, falling short at 2.5.

That should seem familiar, and in fact represents almost a high watermark for Wingard's work. You're Next made it to three stars, grudgingly; last year's Blair Witch, only two, and that might have been generous. The Guest matched Death Note's 2.5 stars, but the way I think about that movie is much worse than a 2.5 star film.

What does Wingard have that I am missing?

Even in his contributions to these recent horror anthologies, which is probably when I started thinking of him as ubiquitous in the horror world, he comes up short. I didn't really care for The ABCs of Death, and when I looked up his segment, it was Q is for Quack, a self-referential short in which the filmmakers are annoyed with being assigned the letter Q so they try to kill a duck (which goes horribly wrong). I don't even remember this, but the description does not sound good. (Though when I look it up on my post devoted to The ABCs of Death, I did rank it seventh out of the 26th films, but my comment was "Predictable resolution to the two directors' outside-the-box 'What do we do with the letter Q?' short, but it was funny enough." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.) Then I have a limited fondness for V/H/S, but just discovered that he directed the framing story, which was not what I like about that movie.

I suppose there are two movies of Wingard's that people really celebrate, those being You're Next and The Guest. I'm not on that same page. I was actively disliking You're Next until one of its twists was revealed, and I thought that was clever enough that I elevated it to three stars. The Guest, however, was sour for me from the start and never recovered, feeling especially cliched in its house of mirrors finale.

Death Note starts out promisingly enough. It's based on Japanese source material with which I am not familiar, and in both instances it deals with a magical notebook that can kill anyone whose name you write in it, as long as you are also picturing their face when you write it. I guess that helps the book distinguish between the world's 73,822 John Smiths.

It's definitely in Final Destination territory in terms of its look and feel, and how many of the deaths rely on Rube Goldbergian mishaps. That's a good thing for me as I really like the first two Final Destination films.

But then the monster shows up.

His name is Ryuk, and he looks pretty cool:

And it was probably a good decision to have him voiced by Willem Dafoe, at least on the surface.

But what happens is that Dafoe's delivery is primarily comedic, making Ryuk not very scary at all. Plus the ADR is not very good, so Dafoe's dialogue does not sound as though it's emanating from Ryuk. Making him even more of a distraction than something scary. Really, the character is just a nuisance.

I like the high concept of a book that will allow you to kill any person whose name you know and whose face you can picture, and the story considers the power of such a book in some interesting ways. The problem is, the film covers a lot of this territory in its first 30 minutes, then spins its wheels for another hour. That hour is devoted primarily to the book's many rules, some of which seem to contradict each other and not all of which are ever learned. The film even jokes about how many rules there are, self-referentially. The problem with this is that what the book can or cannot do is never satisfactorily established, leaving it possible for the writers to fly in with any deus ex machina rule to write themselves out of a corner. With so many rules it's not even possible to determine what might be a plot hole and what might not be, which is a problem.

If what he did with an existing property in Blair Witch is any indication, I'm not particularly hopeful for his remake of I Saw the Devil, a film that does not beg for a remake. And my affection for Kong: Skull Island is such that I don't want to see anyone other than Jordan Vogt-Roberts make a future King Kong movie, and especially not someone whose worth I haven't liked so far. That's how I felt and continue to feel about Gareth Edwards, whose Monsters disappointed me before Godzilla disappointed me even more, and then Rogue One even more than that relative to my expectations. So I supposed it's good that he's not making that announced clash between the two monstrous titans ... but I'm not any more hopeful for Wingard's potential.

In a year in which I feel out of sync with the popular impression of a lot of films, I suppose it's not a surprise that I also feel out of sync with the popular impression of Adam Wingard.

Whether he'll ever get me in sync with him remains to be seen.

Friday, October 6, 2017


I saw Blade Runner 2049 last night.

You haven't seen it yet, so I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Even to tell you whether I liked it or not. Just don't go to Letterboxd if you follow me there, because you'll see my star rating.

I did want to use today's blog slot to post a funny Blade Runner 2049-related picture, though ... or should I say, Blade Runner Twenty Fourty Nine.

Please note not only the odd decision to spell out the year, but also the careless decision to misspell "forty."

Cinema Kino is one of my favorite places to see a movie, only a few blocks from my work and staffed by nice people. But I have to rib them publicly just a bit for this strange choice as well as this inexcusable gaffe. (It's also not where I happened to see the movie -- this was taken at lunch yesterday.)

It's a real case of maximalism, a particular contradiction when you consider that much of what makes the original Blade Runner captivating is its keen sense of minimalism. (Whether the sequel follows suit, I won't tell you, but I will say that it's hard to be truly minimalist in a movie that runs two hours and forty-three -- or should I say fourty-three -- minutes.)

When I posted this on Facebook, a friend joked that they had lost the box that contains the numbers. Something like this may in fact be the case. This is Australia, after all, where up until recently I'd see numerous instances where an event was posted somewhere, but the time it started was not posted. That type of thing. They're just a bit more laid back over here, and can't be shamed if something appears to have been sort of half-assed. Half of the ass is sometimes all they have to give, and I love them for it.

I did think it was possible simply because this is an arthouse cinema, and generally does not play as many sequels, not that most sequels even have numbers in them these days.

Still, I'd have gone with just "Blade Runner" rather than spelling out the whole title ... and then also misspelling it.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A documentary crisis

I know I got burnt out from watching documentaries in two years of vetting movies for the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF), but this is ridiculous.

Of the 75 films I've ranked so far in my upcoming year-end 2017 list, only two of them are documentaries -- and they're both films I watched at the tail-end of last year's HRAFF viewing period.

I'm taking HRAFF off this year in part because it takes up too much of my precious viewing time during the last four months of the year, in part because my wife is incredibly busy this year and needs 100% of my availability, and in part because I need a break from the cavalcade of non-fiction film viewing, as my love for that form has suffered these last two years.

It's a love that's been slow to recover, apparently.

Or has this just been a bad year for documentaries?

Last night I rented Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent from iTunes, as the beginning of an attempt to rectify this deficiency in my viewing schedule. I haven't watched it yet. I wouldn't have rented it if it weren't this week's 99 cent rental, but it was. And I probably wouldn't have rented it if I hadn't known it was a "real documentary" -- in other words, not some pseudo TV special or other special interest feature -- because a review of it still sits in my podcast feed of unlistened Joe Morgenstern reviews. But I do know that, fortunately.

I think it may be a bad year for documentaries, as I cannot think of any prominent ones that have crossed over to the zeitgeist (or, the documentary version of the zeitgeist, which is far more niche). But the bigger problem is what I have discussed before, which is that in the age of streaming, documentaries have been the first films to lose their status as "real films."

If I were truly generous, I would consider any moving picture of feature length a "real film." But in reality, I still need to set some aside in the ghetto of what we would have once considered "straight to video." Nowadays, that term has lost some of its meaning, as truly legitimate films are debuting on Netflix and never getting released theatrically. But it's kind of easy to figure out which fiction films would have been released cinematically in the olden days, and which would not have. The creative talent behind them is usually a tip-off.

Not so with documentaries. Since few documentary directors are household names, and since documentaries tend not to have the same featured players as other documentaries, you can't tell just by looking at a documentary whether it's one that we once would have seen in the theater, or one that would have gotten fobbed off to TV or some lesser format. There are some exceptions, like the 2016 film from Ava Duvernay that debuted on Netflix called 13th, which ended up reaching a lot of viewers and becoming talked about. But where might it have been without the director of Selma associated with it?

A larger problem documentaries have, at least for me, is the issue of their subject matter. A friend rants about what he calls "inconsequential documentaries," or some similar term, which are highly specific movies about eccentric things that no one really cares about. Movies like that can be fun, of course, but I agree with him that there have been far too many of them in recent years. I got that vibe majorly from a film released earlier this year called Chicken People -- one of the few 2017 documentaries I'm aware of -- that looked at people who entered their chickens into competitions, not unlike dog shows. Without even having discussed that film with him, I agreed implicitly with the perspective on that film I'm sure he has, which is that neither of us needs to see a movie about championship chicken specimens and the goofy people who breed them. Like many other "inconsequential documentaries," the Christopher Guest mockumentary of it is impossible because it already basically is a mockumentary itself.

But then the other problem is documentaries that are too consequential, too much like homework, too heavy to contemplate in a world where the news depresses us on a regular basis. For last year's HRAFF we considered not one but two documentaries about people who go into the rubble in Syria to pull out bodies, hoping to find some live ones. That's got the opposite problem. It's too sobering and has no possibility for humor.

So what's the middle ground?

Is it Jeremiah Tower? Could be. The movie is about a celebrity chef, which certain seems inconsequential enough. But he pioneered California cuisine, and maybe there's something more substantial in that, if it looks at interesting trends in culture and lifestyle.

Well, Joe Morgenstern saw it fit to review, so maybe that's proof of its value in itself.

Can you offer any suggestions of essential 2017 documentaries I need to get on my schedule?

My year-end list is depending on you.