Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Asian Audient: Drunken Master


This is the first in my new monthly series Asian Audient, in which I watch a movie I haven't seen from the continent of Asia. Duh.

My first choice in Asian Audient was not actually on my original list of about 15 titles, a list I had always planned to build on. And that building on might certainly have included Drunken Master, a "where it all began" type movie for star Jackie Chan, even though it technically "all began" years before that, as he was a child actor (a fact I've only just discovered). I kind of backed into the choice as my January days were dwindling and a number of my first choices weren't available right away without having to pay for them. This was available on Netflix.

But indeed, I had always been curious about Woo-Ping Yuen's 1978 film, not to be confused with its 1994 sequel/reboot, The Legend of Drunken Master. I'd heard it really showcased Chan's skills years before I first discovered him in 1995, in Rumble in the Bronx -- at a time when he was legitimately a young man, rather than just having the physique and the abilities of a young man. (He was already 41 in 1995, meaning most of the career that "we" -- as in, western audiences -- know came after he turned 40, making him comparatively an old man in the martial arts community.)

And yes, it's easy to see the influences of Drunken Master on all of the subsequent Chan projects that "we" know, most of which feature a comedic ballet of kicks, punches and props. Is it sacrilege to say that the ballet had not yet been perfected in 1978? Drunken Master was, it would seem, a new/different enough type of movie that we would hardly expect it to have reached the heights of cleverness that Chan would reach later on, when this was his calling card rather than a foray into something new. (As I say this, though, I fully realize that I have no credibility on the topic -- it's a bit like discovering the Gary Cherone incarnation of Van Halen and suggesting it's superior to the Sammy Hagar or David Lee Roth versions.)

Still, I can't deny that I wanted the fight scenes to feel a bit more joyously insane. There's a lot of kicking near, kicking around, punching over, punching under, and precious little of what seems like actual contact. The choreography has almost a tentative quality to it, as though the first order of business was just to make sure no one got hurt. And probably, that's a logical way to go about it.

But the Chan we would come to know later on is one who was always getting hurt -- something we saw ample examples of in the closing credit outtakes. I'm thinking of that one movie (was it Bronx? Or maybe Mr. Nice Guy?) where Chan wears an oversized sneaker in one of his scenes so he could continue to do his stunts despite having a broken foot. That's the type of balls that gave Chan the reputation as a man who would do anything to entertain us.

Don't get me wrong -- Drunken Master is entertaining, if overlong at an hour and 51 minutes. But as I watched it, I couldn't help but think of professional wrestling more often than I wanted to. Professional wrestling in its most stereotypical form involves a lot of obvious cooperation by both partners, voluntary moves that a person would never undertake if his only goal was to avoid a pummeling. I'm thinking about when a wrestler is thrown off the ropes, for example, and has to willingly run back into the awaiting clothesline, when a simple forced stoppage of his own momentum would have evaded the next move.

So yeah, Drunken Master plays like that some of the time.

But there's undeniable joy here too. This is a goofy movie. It's never serious, except for a couple apparently dramatic moments that are also played so much to the back row of the theater that one would have to assume that they too are just a big goof. Chan does a lot of eye crossing and over-emoting, and most of the time it's pretty fun. The sheer number of fight scenes, though, begin to grow exhausting.

Plot? Sure, it's worth telling you something about it. It's basically about the rascally son of a prominent land owner who gets disowned by his father and has to prove his worth to him. This occurs through any number of fights and the tutelage of wizened old master with a fondness for drink, who also submits him to a training regimen that reminded me (again, because of my limited frame of reference) of Mr. Miyagi's tasks for Daniel-sahn. Of course, that wasn't the only thing putting me in the mind of The Karate Kid -- Chan's character also does the crane fight style that's favored by Miyagi and Daniel.

What surprised me was how long it actually took to get to the bit about Chan's Freddie Wong (more on the film's Americanization in a moment) being a better fighter when he's drunk. There's more than an hour of screen time and more than 73 fights by the time it's determined that Freddie (like his master) has a taste for wine. And it turns out that the more wine he downs, the more fluid and effective his fighting style. It's a funny conceit, and it does pay good dividends, especially when Freddie alternates fighting with swigging from a ceramic jug. It sometimes seems like he drinks enough to kill him, adding to the humor.

And thank goodness the movie is eventually about drunken fighting because the fight choreography really comes to life in the film's last half hour. There's some diverting stuff before then, of course, but the fight scenes gain an extra sense of vitality in the final act. It almost seems to be an intentional choice on the director's part, to punch up the climax (literally and figuratively), but it just made me wish we'd gotten to this a bit earlier rather than having so many other disconnected fight scenes that alternately demonstrated the skill Freddie does have (which is not negligible) and the distance he still has to go to become a transcendent fighter.

By far the oddest thing in Drunken Master, though, has nothing to do with the way the film was originally made, but rather, how it was ultimately presented to English-speaking audiences. You've seen dubbed movies from Hong Kong. You've seen Hong Kong movies in Chinese with English subtitles. But when was the last time you remember seeing both at once? And presented totally randomly, at that?

That's right, while 80 percent of the spoken dialogue in this film is Chinese -- and even that's badly post-dubbed, as was par for the course for logistical reasons -- the other 20 percent is English. And it's interspersed completely randomly, sometimes changing to English and back again in the same scene for no apparent reason. It's almost as though a full English dub was not possible for some reason, but they figured they'd hook western audiences by giving at least a little English, to make the medicine of reading subtitles go down more easily. Of course, the subtitles don't actually go away when the dialogue switches to English, they just duplicate the spoken word.

There was enough about Drunken Master that didn't quite work for me that I was ready to go marginally negative on it until the last 30 minutes redeemed it to a marginally positive review. And indeed, it was fun to see some of the on-screen origins of a first-rate physical dynamo.

What's up for February? Possibly Akira Kurosawa's High and Low. I've reserved it from the library, anyway. In delving into more of the catalogue of one of my favorite directors, I actually feel more of an interest in The Hidden Fortress, Stray Dog and Dreams, but this is the one that I could easily source for free, so in February it shall be.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Presto goes poof!


We never intended to have three subscription streaming services.

When we first got to Australia, we had none -- well, no legal ones anyway. We still had our American Netflix subscription, but we had to connect via VPN, something they had yet to crack down on. Then Netflix entered the Australian market and we could just use it without any adjustments to our account -- only an adjustment to our expectations, as there was a significant disparity between the amount of available content.

We signed up to Stan for reasons I can't fully remember -- cheap price, available content, it being an exciting new Australian-owned venture, something like that. And indeed it made a useful complement to Netflix, especially once Netflix got hip to the use of a VPN and blocked access to the American-only content.

Presto was meant to be a very targeted, very short-term relationship on our part -- in fact, I think we only meant to use a month's free trial and then drop it. It seems strange to recall it now, considering how much we ended up liking the show -- not very much -- but we got Presto primarily because it was carrying Mr. Robot. We thought Mr. Robot was going to revolutionize our lives, I guess. It didn't. In fact, it took us months to even get around to watching the final episode of the first season.

Needless to say, that meant we kept the service, in part because we ended up watching plenty else on it. In fact, it seemed to be getting better new/recent releases than either Stan or Netflix, and it had a number of shows my wife wanted to binge as well. (She's the TV binger of the family while I'm the movie binger.)

However, in just two days it's going poof!, maybe not as suddenly as it arrived, but with as little a trace as before it was in our lives.

We've gotten a good six weeks of warning, hence the lack of suddenness, but yes, it's leaving the Australian landscape and making our streaming lives a little less complicated. It struggled to gain momentum originally, and then it kind of did, but then they decided to subsume its offerings into the Foxtel cable service, probably in an attempt to make Foxtel even more dominant than it currently is.

I'm a little sad to see it go.

Yeah, I've had my fun at Presto's expense -- it never felt like it was ready for primetime, either in terms of its presentation or its browseability -- but the truth of the matter is, I've used it for movies as much as I've used Netflix for movies lately (though Netflix has greater overall viewing time because of its original content). And when I heard it was closing its doors on February 1st, I had a list of relatively recent releases that still felt like "good gets" that I wanted to watch first, among them Legend (2015 version), Rock the Kasbah, The Theory of Everything and 45 Years. (I didn't say they were "great movies," just "good gets.")

The one of those that most qualifies as a great movie, probably, is 45 Years, and I did indeed squeeze it in before the deadline. Didn't love it as much as it was hyped, but it gets a solid four stars from me.

Why the "squeeze"? Well we've also been plowing through the most recent completed season of The Walking Dead, which seemed like another "good get" for the service. It wasn't necessarily what we wanted to spend most of our Christmas season watching, but at least now it's late January and we're almost done with it. (Last episode is tomorrow night, also the last night of the existence of the service.)

Enforced consolidation does seem like a good thing, though. To speak of the "limitations" of any streaming service is to forget the hundreds of available movies on each that you haven't seen. And now that my 2016 film watching is over, I can choose any of those hundreds of available movies on Netflix and Stan.

As for Presto in all its purple-hued glory ... we'll wish it goodbye by looking back to when it was just saying hello:


And in case we get lonely with "only" two streaming services ... well, Amazon Prime just made its big Australian debut last month, opening a whole new can of worms.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Garths vs. Gareths


When I first heard the name of the director of Lion, I thought "Is that one of those two Garths I always talk about?"

Of course, the two Garths I always talk about are actually Gareths. And I always talk about them because they both have a last name that begins with E.

Gareth Edwards directed Monsters, Godzilla and Rogue One. Gareth Evans directed the Raid movies. And the thing I "always" say about them is that it must be really annoying that they both came to prominence within the past few years, making it a virtual certainty that people would confuse them for each other.

Garth Davis is the director of Lion, and it's his first feature. But he doesn't have any peace -- even as the only member of the group with a best picture nomination to his credit -- because another movie released within the past month, Sing, was directed by Garth Jennings. And like Gareth Edwards, Garth Jennings also has some high-profile sci-fi to his credit, as he directed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

It's complicated.

At one point the only Garth that anybody knew about was Garth Algar, Wayne's buddy. Back then, if you were named Garth, you had it all to yourself, and it was party time, excellent.

But now there are Garths coming out the wazoo, even if only some of them are actually named Garth.

And Gareth? That guy from the British Office, Gareth Keenan, used to have it all to himself. But before he could say "Why's my stapler in that jello?" he was joined by Evans and Edwards.

Don't mind me. I'm just riffing here.

What do Jennie Garth, Garth Brooks, Garrett Hedland, Garret Dillahunt and Brad Garrett have to say about this?

I'll let you know.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A dog's breakfast


One of my favorite Australian phrases I've learned is "a dog's breakfast," which translates into "a mess." It probably doesn't require explaining, but you would apparently feed a dog any available scraps of barely edible food you had, disregarding the extent to which they might complement each other. In other words, a mess. The idea of it coming in the morning, long after the food was warm, gives it a greater sense of absurdity.

I don't know that A Dog's Purpose looks like a mess -- if anything, it probably looks overly conventional. But that title is pretty much a dog's breakfast, and not only because it sounds like the phrase "a dog's breakfast."

What better way to "get back to work," as it were, than returning to the glory days of my blog, when I used to write posts every week about the new movie coming out, and pontificate about the effectiveness of its title, posters and trailers?

I caught a lot of posters/billboards and I think exactly one trailer for A Dog's Purpose when I was in the U.S. In fact, the one trailer made me wonder if I was in the wrong movie, as it came before my screening of Hidden Figures -- my 11 p.m. screening of Hidden Figures, which served to heighten the disconnect. (That's a family movie of sorts, I guess.)

If the movie didn't have a bad enough title and a fatally earnest premise -- it feels like something out of the early 1990s -- it's also facing protests from PETA after a video went viral of a German shepherd looking terrified when having to perform a stunt for the movie. All of which will contribute, I'm sure, to a truly pathetic showing at the box office this weekend. (Who knows when Australia will get to weigh in on it. No Australian release date is listed.)

It's also the latest in a truly dispiriting turn for director Lasse Hallstrom, whose career I combed over here. It's another confirmation that a one-time respected director has gone full hack. Though one sort of understands why he was considered a logical option, as he also directed Hachi: A Dog's Tale (which I understand is quite good).

The cast? Dennis Quaid, Josh Gad ... yeah, it all makes sense.

Any further berating of this movie?

It serves no purpose.

Friday, January 27, 2017

2016 in portmanteaus


Back for the third time, my post devoted to mashing the titles of two (or more) movies from the previous year together into a "hilarious" (you be the judge) new movie. And hey, I'm getting better with Microsoft Paint!

Zoolandertopia - A look into an ideal society where rival male models can coexist peacefully.

Captain America: Civil Warcraft - Sick of feuding amongst themselves, the Avengers open a portal to fight an army of orcs.

The Moonlight Between Oceans - A gay Floridian teenager finds a lost Australian baby, raising it as his own.

Holy Hell or High Water - A charismatic cult leader woos impressionable young people to carry out bank robberies in Texas.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Invade Next - A wizard loses control of the creatures in his magical briefcase, leading an escaped Michael Moore to run rampant in Europe.

Under the Shallows - An Iranian djinn takes possession of a shark in Mexico; shark develops Jaws-like obsession with surfer.

Me Before Southside With You - Upon meeting a paralyzed Barack Obama, Michelle Robinson must convince him to run for president instead of killing himself.

A Money Monster Calls - Gullible dreamers take glib financial advice from a talking tree.

Triple 9 Lives - A man gets stuck inside the brain of a cat, plots to kill a cop as a diversion for a major heist.

Hello, My Name is Dory - A forgetful fish who wears quirky outfits gets a job in a New York office building, can never remember whom she's already met.

Weinerve - Turns out Anthony Weiner sent out those dick pics because he was part of a social media game of escalating dares.

Jason Bourne to be Blue - Jason Bourne forgets who he is again, wakes up as Chet Baker.

Don't Breathe, Resist or Think Twice - A day in the life of the American police officer.

God's Not Deadpool - But the reverse may not be true.

I Saw the Lights Out - Hank Williams gets way too drunk, swears he sees a creature when the lights are off.

Blair VVitch - The disappearance of a family of Pilgrims is documented through found parchment scrolls.

How to be Sing Street - A single New York gal writes an instruction manual on how to form an Irish new wave band to impress girls.

The Birth of Indignation - A student at an Ohio college in the 1950s starts a rebellion in which he and his fellow classmates rise up and kill their professors.

Office Christine Party - Rebecca Hall and Kate Lyn Sheil discuss their differing interpretations of Christine Chubbuck while drinking spiked egg nog.

Swiss Army Erdmann - A farting corpse dons a wig and false teeth to teach a man the value of his existence.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The utopias and dystopias of 2016











Twenty sixteen.

To quote Ryan Gosling in La La Land: "Oh my."

It was a year whose lows were more memorable than its highs. A lot more memorable.

It was a year in which we lost an inconceivable number of entertainment luminaries (David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Debbie Reynolds, Carrie Fisher, Muhammad Ali, and that's just to get your started), and also lost a number of political luminaries forced into retirement (Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). And even if not all those political luminaries were the perfect realization of what we wanted or needed, they gave us a much better chance of reaching the light than their alternatives.

And so we end the year in darkness.

But you know what? Whatever an individual year may be like, a cinematic year is always on a spectrum, with utopia on one end and dystopia on the other. And the highs outweighed the lows at the movies this year. A ridiculous 102 of the 151 movies I saw this year were movies I gave three stars or higher, which is 68%. So there was plenty of quality this year, even if 2016 was not quite as top heavy as some recent years.

And yeah, I can be a bit of a softie when it comes to star ratings. Perennially working on that, it seems. But it was a genuine reflection of my enjoyment at the movies this year.

So let's take a deep dive into the good, the bad and the ugly from 2016:

Three who had a good year

Ryan Gosling - If Ryan Gosling wasn't the most charming man in Hollywood this year, he might have been the funniest. Gosling's year was so good, he might have been both. Gosling had shown flashes of a comedic sensibility in the past, with movies like Crazy Stupid Love and last year's The Big Short (which I actually saw in mid-January of 2016, further burnishing his resume for this year). Committing himself to the effort proved he could be brilliant. First as as a hapless private eye in The Nice Guys (#29), and any time you doubt that comedy is all about timing, go back and watch Gosling in that scene where he's trying to hold a bathroom door open while also keep his gun trained on his adversary. It was physical comedy worthy of Keaton. Physicality is of course key to his role in La La Land (#5), which may not be as out-and-out funny a role, but makes up for it with charm, jubilant intensity, and terrific dance moves. Oh, and who knew he could tickle the ivories so expertly? (No one, since he actually learned piano for the movie.) Even when he was giving great performances, like in Half Nelson, I never knew how many tricks Gosling had up his sleeve, and he seemed intent on limiting his gifts through his collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Gosling and Refn went their separate ways this year, and it was a benefit to them both -- Refn hit big with Neon Demon (#19), and Gosling became possibly my favorite male movie star. And my God, does he fill out that 70s private detective wardrobe. Hubba hubba.

Oona Laurence - My favorite new discovery of the year was of a young actor who feels, in a way, like she's been with us for years. That's not just a comment on Oona Laurence's mature talent. It's a comment on her appearance -- she looks and acts so much like a young Ellen Page that she could be the actual inspiration for describing someone as "a young _____." Except I'm not sure Page was ever this good. First I encountered her in Lamb, a film I like a whole lot more than its #56 ranking would suggest. (It was a good year for four-star movies, as I mentioned yesterday). She plays a girl who strikes up a strange (but not sexual) relationship with a 40-year-old man, played by the film's director, Ross Patridge. Her naturalism is off the charts. Most recently I encountered her in Bad Moms (#14) as the daughter of Mila Kunis' character, doing the neurotic concerns of a mainstream overachiever as well as she did the dangerous curiosity of her Lamb outsider. In the middle there was Pete's Dragon (#42), though up until a moment ago I remembered her as being in Midnight Special (#87) instead. Well, Pete's Dragon is an even better third film than the one I remembered, which is only okay. (I remembered her being the friend of an outsider boy, but there are no other children in Midnight Special.) In my Pete's Dragon review I called her "preternatural," trying to indicate that there's something otherworldly about her realism. She's only 14, and she's here to stay.

Kristen Bell - There was a time when Kristen Bell was trying to be an earnest romantic lead type. Like Gosling, she too just needed to indulge in her funny side, and her ability to play second banana. Bell was an indispensable part of two of my favorite comedies of the year, Bad Moms (#14) and The Boss (#59), and as a cherry on top, she even had a two-word role in my #3 movie, Zootopia. (Until the moment of writing this I had no idea -- and why would I -- that she plays the second sloth at the DMV, who listens to the joke about the three-hump camel.) Bell has a great sense of comic timing and a real ability to be self-effacing, first as the most buttoned-up of the three bad moms (I remember her getting whipped around in the back seat of that sports car), then as the put-upon assistant to Melissa McCarthy, who has a whole scene in which she's accused of wearing a sweater that turns her breasts into "sad basset hounds." Bell's only 36 and not over the hill yet, but she seems like the type who will embrace her inevitably changing roles as she's done with her two (three) films this year. Funny's not such a bad choice, is it?

Honorable mentions: Kristen Stewart (Cafe Society, Certain Women, minus Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk), David Oyelowo (A United Kingdom, Queen of Katwe), Nicole Kidman (Lion, The Family Fang)

Three who had a bad year

Zac Efron/Aubrey Plaza - Efron and Plaza tie for first mention because they were both in both movies I hated them in, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates (#144) and Dirty Grandpa (#151)Both are entrenched in my bottom ten for the year, the latter pulling up the rear out of all 151 movies I ranked. Efron was also in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and might have redeemed himself a bit there but I didn't end up catching it so I can't say for sure. There's a further distinction between the two, though. Efron gives a reasonable performance in both movies, but gets a demerit for making the bad choice; Plaza is just awful. I already devoted a whole post to the caricature Plaza has made herself, so I won't rehash that all here. I will say, as a sort of summary, that she has started giving performances that are so broad, they have quotation marks around them. Efron is the hapless nice guy in both of these abysmal features, but that doesn't take him off the hook. I mean, at least Plaza is trying something. But both need to seriously rethink things in 2017, and at the very least, not team up again.

Kate Winslet - And to think ... I didn't even see what might have been Kate Winslet's worst film this year, if people I trust are to be believed: Collateral Beauty. The two I did see were bad enough. First it was The Dressmaker (#108), which played in Australian cinemas last year but I counted with this year because this was the year of its U.S. release (and I saw it on video). The Dressmaker, which appeared to be a whimsical little romantic comedy about a woman who designs dresses returning to the small Australian outback town where she grew up, goes off the rails so completely in its final 20 minutes that it played like a sick joke. My ranking is still decent enough because of all the things that it (and Winslet) does right at the start. But the movie (and Winslet) start making some seriously bad choices and never recover. Her role in Triple 9 as a Russian mob boss was not a sick joke -- I think they meant it seriously. But it's laughable. The year started with her getting an Oscar nomination for Steve Jobs (which I still haven't seen), so overall it's a mixed bag for her, but that was a 2015 movie so it really doesn't count. And she'll bounce back. She's Kate Winslet.

Kevin Smith - I started writing a post on Tom Hiddleston (see the dishonorable mentions) but then I thought "Since so few creative talents other than actors are involved with more than one movie in a year, can I really turn down the chance to shine a spotlight on a non-actor?" I decided I could not. And that non-actor -- and yes, this is a criticism of his actual acting -- is Kevin Smith. Smith dared us all to hate a 2016 movie more than Yoga Hosers (#150), and I did -- but only just barely (the aforementioned Dirty Grandpa was the only one worse). The idea behind that movie, to give his and Johnny Depp's daughters a starring vehicle, was a nice one. But the idea behind that movie was just so terrible that it failed to clear even the lowest bar for getting a movie greenlit. Unfortunately, in the age of Kickstarter, directors can greenlight their own movies, if they've got enough of a following. Smith had a hand in another movie this year, though, which was Holidays (#74), an anthology horror I actually like quite a bit on the whole. But "on the whole" could never me more than 7/8ths, because one of the eight shorts was directed by Smith, and it made for easily the worst of the bunch. I kept watching each new one begin and thinking "I wonder if this is the one Kevin Smith directed?", never knowing for sure until I saw the director's name revealed at the end of the segment. Until I saw the one begin that was undoubtedly Smith's, and it broke my delusion that he could have been responsible for anything other than the one he actually made.

Dishonorable mentions: Kevin Hart (The Secret Life of Pets, Central Intelligence), Tom Hiddleston (I Saw the Light, High-Rise), Teresa Palmer (Lights Out, Hacksaw Ridge, Triple 9)

The year I died a little inside

There's no doubt that the election of Trump was a major blow. Cinematically, it had victims that were incredibly likely (Mascots and I Saw the Light, both of which I tried to watch that first awful night) and probably not as likely (Arrival, which I saw slightly more than 24 hours later on almost no sleep, and ranked only #64 after Denis Villeneuve's last two movies hit my top ten of the previous two years). In fact, in a year in which I gave out four-star ratings more than any other (see below), it took a full additional ten days after the election for me to hit that mark again.

The election continued to affect the things I viewed and did not view for the rest of the year, both positively and negatively. In what feels like a negative, I boycotted a movie purely on subject matter for the first time in as long as I can remember: Weiner, the documentary that once might have played as humorous, but developed a possibly decisive role in Hillary Clinton's failure to win. It was probably the single must-have documentary I had on my list this year, at one point in the year. And I avoided it. Too painful.

But then that pain also resulted in weird emotional catharses in unexpected places. It couldn't get more unexpected than The Purge: Election Year. I hated the first movie in that series and didn't even watch the second one. I only ended up with the third as a result of a rental snafu, when I had to choose something and some positive word-of-mouth led me to choose this one. And as you may recall because I mentioned it more than once, this movie reduced me to nearly a minute of heaving tears at one point.

That was the empathy coming through, the empathy I already employ as part of my daily life that became so much more heightened after a bigot was elected president. And that had additional positives throughout. I wept again watching the story of a gay man struggling with his love life and a mother dying of cancer (Other People). I wept again when an Indian boy separated from his family for 25 years goes looking for them (Lion). I wept again when a young black boy asks what it means to be called a faggot (Moonlight). I wept again when circumstances and life choices kept apart two people who seemed like they should spend their lives together (La La Land). In 2016, I even felt empathy for a corpse (Swiss Army Man).

It's not that all these experiences are dissimilar from my own. It's that having empathy for others makes all struggles feel like your own struggles. And realizing that a bunch of wonderful, disadvantaged people are going to be struggling more than they usually do keeps a person's emotions close to the surface at all times.

And yes, I did see movies before November 8th. But 2016, a bad year in many respects even before then, came to be defined for the way a man who can't feel empathy became the leader of the free world.

Maybe he just needs to watch more movies.

2016 by the numbers

Breakdown of 2016 movies by star ratings: 5 stars (3), 4.5 stars (14), 4 stars (37), 3.5 stars (33), 3 stars (15), 2.5 stars (18), 2 stars (11), 1.5 stars (9), 1 star (8), .5 stars (2) - That's only 150 so I must have miscounted somewhere. But a miscount won't make the difference in this likely being my first year in which 3.5 stars wasn't my most common rating. Also, this is usually pretty much a bell curve, but not this year as I saw more movies that were 2.5 stars than three, creating a dip in the curve.
Total new movies watched in the calendar year: 325
Total rewatches: 57 (and yes, if you do the math, that's more than one movie per day -- also almost certainly a first)
2016 movies seen for the first time in the theater: 60
2016 movies seen for the first time on video: 91
2016 movies I saw twice: 3 (The Bad Kids, Tanna, Zootopia)

Best non-2016 movies I saw this year

I like to use this spot to highlight my favorite ten films I saw this year that weren't released this year. Here they are, listed alphabetically, with a short explanation for each:

The Big Parade (1925, King Vidor) - The silent movie war epic I never knew I wanted, or could love.

Downfall (2004, Oliver Hirschbiegel) - Like a sprawling Robert Altman movie but with Nazis. So much more profound and compelling than it sounds, and so much more than a meme.

The Exterminating Angel (1962, Luis Bunuel) - I've been catching up with old Bunuel movies at a pace of about one per year. I suspect he will perennially be a candidate for this list. Wonderful, intense absurdism.

Greed (1924, Erich von Stroheim) - "Greed is good." So says Gordon Gekko. I think he undersells it. Greed is fantastic, and undoubtedly the best four-hour movie I've ever seen.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen) - One of two 1980s Allen classics I saw this year, and the one that stayed good throughout. (I was a bit disappointed in where Crimes and Misdemeanors ended up going.)

JCVD (2008, Mabrouk El Mechri) - Who ever expected this self-aware, semi-fictionalized story of Jean Claude Van Damme being involved in a Belgium hostage crisis to have an emotionally devastating direct address monologue from the star halfway through?

The Kid (1921, Charlie Chaplin) - Chaplin makes this list for the second year in a row after The Great Dictator last year. Great, indeed.

The Illusionist (2010, Sylvian Chomet) - Does a similar thing to what The Red Turtle accomplishes with an absence of dialogue and a presence of the magic of the moving image.

Sherlock, Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton) - Speaking of movie magic ... this is the very definition.

Taste of Cherry (1997, Abbas Kiarostami) - Saw it before he died. If after, its themes of mortality would have felt even more poignant.

This and that

Weird trend of the year: Actors sharing last names with characters

Kyle Chandler as Joe Chandler (Manchester by the Sea)
Emilia Clarke as Lou Clark (Me Before You)

Five weirdest things for multiple 2016 movies to be about:

1) Famous Texas shootings of the 1960s (Jackie, Tower)
2) Anthropomorphized sausages (Yoga Hosers, Sausage Party, The Secret Life of Pets)
3) Man on deserted island joined by unlikely/dead companions (Swiss Army Man, The Red Turtle)
4) Christine Chubbuck, a journalist who killed herself on the air in 1974 (Chirstine, Kate Plays Christine)
5) Superheroes who should be friends fighting each other (Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Captain America: Civil War)

Five best uses of existing popular music:

1) "Plainsong," The Cure - Closing credits, Toni Erdmann
2) "Drops of Jupiter," Train - Multiple uses, Other People
3) "I Love It," Icona Pop - Bad Moms trash the supermarket
4) "Miss You Much," Janet Jackson - Opening credits, Southside With You
5) "Sabotage," The Beastie Boys - virus song (or something), Star Trek Beyond

Opposites:


1) Lion, Lamb
2) Sully, Passengers
3) Dark Night, Moonlight
4) I Saw the Light, Lights Out
7) The BFG, Little Men
8) Deepwater Horizon, Eye in the Sky

Thank you MIFF! 

Seeing 11 films at this year's MIFF gave me:

- My #1 movie of the year (Toni Erdmann), which does not release here in Australia for two more weeks
- Two of the five best foreign language nominees (Toni Erdmann and The Salesman)
- Four movies in my top 30
- 11 movies in my top 150 (wait a minute ...)

Thank you HRAFF!

Vetting films for HRAFF gave me:

- My #2 movie of the year (Tanna), which I otherwise never would have heard of
- Two movies in my top 20
- Four movies in my top 50

Lighting round

And to finish with a bunch of quick hits:

Highest ranked best picture nominee: Hell or High Water (#4)
Lowest ranked best picture nominee: Hacksaw Ridge (#138)
Best picture nominees I haven't seen: Fences
Craziest eyebrows: Emilia Clarke, Me Before You
Least crazy eyebrows: Slimer, Ghostbusters
Fartiest corpse: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man
Fartiest giant: Mark Rylance, The BFG
Best remake: Pete's Dragon (#42)
Worst remake: Morgan (#133 - practically a remake of Ex Machina)
Best reboot: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (#33)
Worst reboot: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (#131)
Best sequel: The Purge: Election Year (#9)
Worst sequel: Bad Santa 2 (#142) or Yoga Hosers (#150), depending on your definition
Best prequel: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (#33)
Worst prequel: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (#106)
Best movie that's not related to any other movie: Toni Erdmann (#1)
Worst movie that's not related to any other movie: Dirty Grandpa (#151)
Director I finally trust: David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water)
Director I no longer trust: John Hillcoat (Triple 9)
Director who no longer trusts me: Kevin Smith (Yoga Hosers)
Director who keeps going one on, one off: The Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!)
Most exclamation points: Everybody Wants Some!!
Fewest exclamation points: Paterson
Fewest exclamation points while still having at least one exclamation point: Hail, Caesar!
Actor who should have gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man
Actor who shouldn't have gotten an Oscar nomination: Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Actress who should have gotten an Oscar nomination but didn't: Molly Shannon, Other People
Actress who shouldn't have gotten an Oscar nomination: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins
Actress who should have gotten a lifetime dissing Trump award: Meryl Streep
Most languages in a movie: Toni Erdmann
Least languages in a movie: The Red Turtle
Overrated: Hacksaw Ridge
Underrated: Cafe Society
Biggest surprise: Hello, My Name is Doris
Biggest disappointment: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

One more 2016 wrap-up piece tomorrow in the form of my now-traditional portmanteaus humor piece, and then I will leave you alone.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

2016 unmasked


I'll make one prediction to you right now: This is the last year I set a new personal record for movies ranked.

In 2017, I won't have a round trip to the U.S. on which to watch nine movies (not to mention four more on domestic flights), and it's undecided whether I'll be vetting films for HRAFF again.

But for now, I'm in my own personal record books once again.

Netflix's 13th was actually 151st, as in the 151st movie I saw fit to rank in 2016 according to my own personal and somewhat inscrutable rules for which films qualify, by this traditional deadline, when Oscar nominations are announced.

Inscrutable? All the films I saw in the theater, you'd think, except not really -- I decided that Sherpa had had a U.S. theatrical release in 2015, so my 2016 theatrical screening didn't qualify it. None of the films that didn't get U.S. or Australian theatrical releases, unless they were films I vetted for HRAFF from last year's Sundance, which I assumed would get theatrical releases at the time I watched them, even though most of them didn't. And this year I also had to allow, for the first but not last time, for films that debuted on Netflix, as that will be a legitimate reality of our viewing lives going forward.

Anyway, I ended up with 151 -- eight more than last year -- and now indeed, I think I need to go drink some Bacardi.

It was a year when there were fewer absolutely knockout films, but many of very high quality, as films I gave four stars are appearing as low down as the 60s on my list. (With some 3.5-star movies ahead of them, of course -- that's part of the messy uncertainty of this whole process). It was also a year when real-world events made us want to escape into movies like never before.

Before I get into my top ten and the complete list, I thought I'd mention a few that I regret not escaping into. Usually this list is comprised of films that weren't available to me yet because I live in Australia, but my Christmas Los Angeles trip gave me access to literally anything that was released in time to qualify for the Oscars. So this year, it was movies I ended up not seeing through choices I made not to see them when I had the chance -- all part of the sixty-seven films on my Letterboxd watchlist that I didn't get a chance to see.

Listed alphabetically:

The Edge of Seventeen (see this post)
Elle (played here for ages, never got around to it)
Fences (chances in L.A. but saw Hidden Figures instead)
The Handmaiden (played here for ages, never got around to it)
Loving (right down the street from SoCal hotel, would have had to skip out mid-afternoon on family)
Moana (repeated campaigns couldn't interest my kids)
Morris From America (lost out in a numbers game for stretch run iTunes rentals)
Silence (would have been tricky but had the chance in L.A.)
Tickled (never became available for rental and couldn't justify buying it)
The Wailing (2:40 running time killed last-minute prospective viewing)

And others I could name. The more you see, the more you regret missing, it seems.

Here are the top ten of those I did not miss:

10. Moonlight - The most acclaimed movie of the year almost didn't make my top ten. It had something to do with impossible levels of hype, but more than that, the film has (for me) a diminishing impact over the course of its three-act structure. But in the last few days I've decided not to penalize Barry Jenkins' Moonlight for what it didn't quite do for me and honor what it did. One of the most visually dynamic films of the year is also one of the most emblematic of what I want cinema to be -- a look into lives that "matter," to evoke one of this year's most powerful social movements, but that I don't often get to see on screen. It's all part of the Roger Ebert empathy machine I referenced in Sunday's post about Obama. The trio of actors who played Chiron made me love him, but none of them held a candle to Mahershala Ali, which is (spoiler alert!) one of the reasons I didn't dig the second two stories as much as the first. This is no Place Beyond the Pines, though -- it's a brilliant first act (like Pines) and only slightly less brilliant second and third (unlike Pines).

9. The Purge: Election Year - If you read this post, you are surely expecting to see this movie here. If you didn't, you're like "Wha?" There were five movies in my top ten that made me cry, but this surprise entry was the only one that reduced me to uncontrollable sobbing. That's right, the Jason Blum-produced horror movie. It was all about the fact that I saw it in the period recovering from Trump's election, and how viscerally it addressed the issues that had consumed the two sides of the political debate in 2016. A movie that would already have felt very intense just because of its flamboyant exploitation subject matter left me quivering from the sheer force of its metaphorical power. The multi-ethnic group of resistors, led by a woman, who challenge a corrupt system that's trying to become more corrupt by literally murdering the opposition ... well, it didn't feel too far off from what we were really seeing. And the expert execution of it all by James DeMonaco (I had to look up his name) left me putty in his hands. Slobbery, emotional putty. If only all genre films could marry the physical and the intellectual so fully.

8. Lion - "One more prestige awards contender in the theater before I close my list ... check." That was the procedural nonchalance with which I walked into Lion on Monday night ... and I walked out feeling kind of transported. Transported to India (for nearly the first 45 minutes!), and even transported within my own current city, where some of the ensuing action takes place. I really kind of expected this to be generic Oscar bait but it's really not -- it's much more complicated than I would have expected, taking a fierce and no-holds-barred look at its characters while still giving us a story that is no less inspiring. The way an incredible Sunny Pawar is cast off by random occurrence into a large and terrifying world left me speechless, and the fact that director Garth Davis stays with him for what feels like (but doesn't feel like) an eternity was an essential component to making this such an immersive experience. And Nicole Kidman ... Jesus. Recency bias may be playing a factor here, but I don't want that to detract from the terrific Lion.

7. Other People - Movies about family members suffering from The Big C are as common as disease movies get, and you'd think we would have drained that well long ago. If we did, Chris Kelly's Other People fills it back up with fresh tears. Okay, that was cheesy. But this movie did choke me up on multiple occasions as it follows a gay twentysomething (Jesse Plemons) during the year between his mother's cancer diagnosis and her death. (Which we know about from the opening scene, so that's not a spoiler.) In addition to doing the cancer progression points very well -- Molly Shannon is quietly heartbreaking -- I love how gay forward this film is, as it includes two other gay characters (Plemons' boyfriend and a platonic friend) as well as a boy barely into his teens who has already come out as trans. The movie is about being gay to some extent, but more than that it's about trying to send your mother off into the great beyond with the knowledge that you're doing okay -- even if you're really not. Moving stuff. 

6. Swiss Army Man - Who knows the heights this movie might have reached in my top ten if it weren't for something about that ending leaving me flat. And who knows if I'd had the chance to watch it again before the end of the year to determine if I were just wrong about that ending. But I was suspended in a state of sensory wonder and a kind of ecstasy for the first two-thirds of this splendidly weird movie, and that counts for a lot -- my sixth favorite film of the year. Paul Dano returns to my top ten for the second straight year and sixth time overall (twice in 2012), and Daniel Radcliffe keeps proving that Harry Potter didn't continue to define him. Twenty sixteen was the year a corpse taught us how to live and love (and use his farts as aquatic propulsion), and for that we have the wonderful Daniels, Kwan and Scheinert, to thank.

5. La La Land - Yes, it's just as delightful as everyone says it is. Which you probably already know, since you've surely seen it as well. Even seeing it after most you, long after you had hyped it to within an inch of its life, was not able to squash the joy I felt watching it. My feelings for La La Land enabled its writer-director, Damien Chazelle, to function as this year's only director ever to appear in my top ten before (2014, Whiplash)*. I don't know that I can contribute anything original to the discussion of why this movie is so light on its feet, so to speak, and so damn charming. But I'll suggest that it allows us to revel in something we want to revel in -- a pure passion for the movies -- by giving us a delirious celebration of all the things that make the movies magic. It also reminds us why the periodic revival of the musical as a popular form is always welcome. What's more, it showcases two stars at the peak of their power to woo us. The whole movie is like one big woo, and we're smitten.

* - UPDATE: By neglecting to mention the directors in my bit on Zootopia (see below), I failed to note that both Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph) and Byron Howard (Tangled) are past top ten directors.

4. Hell or High Water - Perhaps the only "macho" movie in my top ten is Hell or High Water, a real surprise from David Mackenzie, a director who had previously left me completely cold (Young AdamAsylum) or mid-level appreciative (Starred Up). I guess it's not a surprise from writer Taylor Sheridan, who made my top ten last year as well with Sicario. If you're looking for tired topics for a movie, you could do a lot worse than bank robbers on a spree through Texas. One of the great joys of this movie, though, is how it invigorates familiar tropes, and ends up being about something more far-reaching than its simple genre trappings appear to convey. Chris Pine also gives a performance that demonstrates how much he's really capable of. This is the movie I wanted a notable disappointment for me, No Country For Old Men, to be. It exists in the same milieu but does so much more with it, a modern-day cowboy movie with a whiff of nostalgia for simpler times, and a palpable sense of the specter of the financial crisis. Oh, and it's funny, too.

3. Zootopia - The second of my top ten to wrestle directly with our current America is Disney's most socially ambitious film in ages, possibly ever. For a while it looked like it could be the second straight animated film to top my year-end chart (after Inside Out in 2015). Now it also functions as a solemn look back on the hopes we had of a true melting pot under Hillary Clinton, but back in March it was a stunningly timely parable about the police brutality that had been escalating racial tensions in the U.S. the past few years. But Zootopia is one of those rare movies that manages to have it all ways. While it's hyper conscious of their sad tendency to racially profile, it views its police as heroes. While it makes villains of hicks in the form of a backwoods fox, it redeems that hick and makes him a central part of resolving the story's conflict. This movie really does love all the animals in its kingdom, and the permutations of that love are both touching and funny. It's cinematic utopia.

2. Tanna - And a movie you've never heard of is my 2016 runner up. Actually, you may have just heard of Tanna, as it's just secured a best foreign language Oscar nomination. I certainly hadn't heard of Tanna when I had to watch it at the end of August -- "had" because it was one of my assignments that week for the human rights film festival I'm helping curate, ultimately falling short of contention because it had already screened theatrically in Australia. What might have initially seemed like a chore quickly transformed into an immense pleasure. This story of native islanders in Vanuatu is engrossing, transportive and emotional devastating, before ending on a kind of ecstatic high. It's basically a Romeo & Juliet story where the two young lovers are in the same tribe -- but tradition dictates that Juliet must be married off to a man she doesn't know in another tribe, to keep the peace. A true story told by the natives about themselves -- with technical assistance from Australian directors Martin Butler and Bentley Dean, including gorgeous cinematography -- it's not only about the attempt to incorporate "love marriage" into tribal customs, but it even has a surprise thematic resonance for our current broadening acceptance of gay marriage. It crushed me, then did so again on my second viewing back in December.

1. Toni Erdmann - I knew there was something special about this movie from the way Alison Willmore described it on Filmspotting: SVU. It was her favorite film from Cannes (and ended up her favorite of the year), and the plot synopsis was given to us bemusedly, with a knowing sense of its apparent absurdity. But apparently absurd movies are often the ones most likely to challenge us -- see my #6 -- and Toni Erdmann was a challenge in all the right ways. The wrong ways would have been exhaustion over its 160-minute running time, which I never felt. The right ways are how it makes us consider what we want, how we want to go about getting it, and how we can maintain the relationships in our lives -- especially with an older generation that won't be around forever -- on the road to getting there. As anyone who has already praised this movie will tell you, it's laugh-out-loud funny at one moment -- I laughed the hardest I've laughed in five years during one ten-minute stretch -- and heartbreaking in the next. Movies you would describe that way are often schmaltzy, a Terms of Endearment or something, but Toni Erdmann replaces that schmaltz with genuine profundity. I can think of plenty of terms of endearment for this unconventional German dramedy directed by a woman (Maren Ade), my first exclusively female-directed #1 since Sofia Coppola managed that feat in 2003 with Lost in Translation (Valerie Faris co-directed Ruby Sparks in 2012). But the best is that it's my favorite of the year.

And with the good there comes the bad ... the very very bad. My five worst:

5. Special Correspondents - A shockingly lazy effort from writer-director-star Ricky Gervais in which he and Eric Bana play journalists who pretend they are in a war zone while sitting in a building across the street from their radio station. It's slapdash and has idiotic ideas about character dynamics. For all the good stuff Netflix picks up, it also picks up shit.

4. American Honey - Long, boring, incredibly self-indulgent, weirdly anti-American, and Shia LaBeouf playing a douchebag poet savior with a bad rat tail (is there any other kind?). Some people worshipped this film. I wanted to claw my eyes out.

3. Triple 9 - The worst waste of talent this side of, um, anything I can think of recently, with a nihilistic attitude toward sleazy cops, sleazy bad guys, and Kate Winslet doing an awful Russian accent as some kind of ridiculous crime boss. 999? Should have called 911. What happened, John Hillcoat?

2. Yoga Hosers - The absolute worst possible iteration of nepotism by Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp. Their daughters can't really act, but it's their fathers' fault for trying to build a movie around them using an idea that barely begins to qualify as flimsy. Dumb Canada jokes + homicidal teenagers + Nazi sausages + Ralph Garman doing celebrity impersonations = a movie that would be my worst in nearly any other year.

1. Dirty Grandpa - But not this year. Yoga Hosers, you're off the hook. I shouldn't be surprised that Robert DeNiro would sink so low, yet I am still offended that he chose this crass spring break "comedy" that loathes its characters and especially its audience. I spent this movie engaged in one long head shake that could have earned me a trip to the chiropractor.

And now the whole, big, giant thing, from #1 to #151:

1. Toni Erdmann
2. Tanna
3. Zootopia
4. Hell or High Water
5. La La Land
6. Swiss Army Man
7. Other People
8. Lion
9. The Purge: Election Year
10. Moonlight
11. Hello, My Name is Doris
12. The Red Turtle
13. Cafe Society
14. Bad Moms
15. Off the Rails
16. Snowden
17. Captain America: Civil War
18. The Invitation
19. The Neon Demon
20. Blood Father
21. A Month of Sundays
22. Paterson
23. Manchester by the Sea
24. Seoul Station
25. Everybody Wants Some!!
26. Tower
27. A United Kingdom
28. Do Not Resist
29. The Nice Guys
30. The Lure
31. Sully
32. Southside With You
33. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
34. Kate Plays Christine
35. Clown
36. Dheepan
37. Don't Think Twice
38. Rams
39. Don't Breathe
40. After the Storm
41. The Founder
42. Pete's Dragon
43. Deepwater Horizon
44. Embrace of the Serpent
45. When Two Worlds Collide
46. Nerve
47. 10 Cloverfield Lane
48. Kubo and the Two Strings
49. The Birth of a Nation
50. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping
51. Chasing Asylum
52. Eye in the Sky
53. Trapped
54. Certain Women
55. Under the Shadow
56. Lamb
57. The Bad Kids
58. 13th
59. The Boss
60. The Fits
61. Cameraperson
62. The Witness
63. The Family Fang
64. Arrival
65. Green Room
66. Krisha
67. Queen of Katwe
68. Little Men
69. The Salesman
70. The Phenom
71. Jane Got a Gun
72. Sunset Song
73. Too Late
74. Holidays
75. Hunt for the Wilderpeople
76. Zoolander 2
77. Keanu
78. Love & Friendship
79. Christine
80. 13 Hours: The Secret Solders of Benghazi
81. How to be Single
82. Grimsby
83. Jackie
84. Passengers
85. Ben-Hur
86. Graduation
87. Midnight Special
88. Sing Street
89. Hidden Figures
90. Florence Foster Jenkins
91. Ghostbusters
92. Life, Animated
93. Cemetery of Splendor
94. The Shallows
95. Hooligan Sparrow
96. Synchronicity
97. Deadpool
98. Last Days in the Desert
99. The BFG
100. Under the Gun
101. Office Christmas Party
102. Finding Dory
103. Sausage Party
104. Hail, Caesar!
105. X-Men: Apocalypse
106. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
107. Holy Hell
108. The Dressmaker
109. Star Trek Beyond
110. Miles Ahead
111. Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World
112. Criminal
113. Storks
114. The 5th Wave
115. Tumbledown
116. Doctor Strange
117. Dark Night
118. The Meddler
119. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
120. Hardcore Henry
121. Where to Invade Next
122. Me Before You
123. Baskin
124. The Girl on the Train
125. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
126. I, Olga Hepnarova
127. Warcraft
128. I Saw the Light
129. The Secret Life of Pets
130. High-Rise
131. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
132. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
133. Morgan
134. Central Intelligence
135. Lights Out
136. Eddie the Eagle
137. Money Monster
138. Hacksaw Ridge
139. Hush
140. Suicide Squad
141. Regression
142. Bad Santa 2
143. Mascots
144. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
145. I.T.
146. Gods of Egypt
147. Special Correspondents
148. American Honey
149. Triple 9
150. Yoga Hosers
151. Dirty Grandpa

*exhale*

Another year-end post in the books. PLEASE COMMENT. I love comments. I know you love some of my choices and hate some of my choices ... tell me so!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Why now? Well ... why whenever?


I was trying to put my finger on why I didn't think Pablo Larrain's Jackie was so great -- okay, but not "so great" -- and I came up with the idea that it didn't feel timely.

This realization was immediately followed by the realization that almost no film about an event from another time period can be considered "timely."

If we filmed movies only when there were landmark anniversaries -- say, 1492 being made on its quincentennial -- we would miss out on a lot of good historical dramas. And the Oscars would be largely bereft of Oscar bait.

Sometimes, a movie can feel timely because it speaks to something else that's going on in our news or just in our collective psyche. Still, given the long lead time for the production of a typical movie, you can't bank on capturing the zeitgeist in that way. Being a year or two out of sync with the news can feel even worse than having no relationship to the news whatsoever.

Jackie felt like it had no relationship to the news or our collective psyche, even though it probably does. It's a story featuring presidential transition that comes out at a time of presidential transition. It's a story about a nation mourning the loss of a president at a time that we are mourning the end of a beloved president's administration, the failure of another president to get elected and the election of a third.

Yet as I was watching Jackie I thought "Why am I watching this?"

And I still don't know why this movie caused me to ask this while a hundred others didn't.

It's an especially unusual question to ask about a movie centering on the Kennedys, a perennial source of fascination to the nation, even the world. You might consider this an ever-replenishing well of ongoing interest.

But maybe that's part of why I have a different standard. If you are going to give us something new on the Kennedys, doesn't it have to be something crazy and groundbreaking? Is a view of the events of her husband's assassination from Jackie's perspective crazy and groundbreaking enough to qualify?

Formally, it might be. Larrain definitely brings a particular vision to this project. The film's most astonishing shot -- from behind Kennedy's convertible as it speeds him toward the hospital -- will make your jaw drop. Larrain also spends a lot of time in and up close to Natalie Portman's face, which would be an unusual choice were this to be considered a straightforward biopic. Further, by being shot the way it was (Super 16 mm) it feels like a real relic of its time, a bit grainy and somehow hyperreal. I'm on board for all of that.

But I still thought "Why am I watching this?"

Maybe I just don't care that much about the Kennedys. I haven't seen a lot of supplemental filmed material on them, and really only a couple movies (like Thirteen Days and a few others). Even though I think of John F. Kennedy as one of the great presidents of the 20th century, despite not having lived through his administration and being personally familiar only with its broad strokes, maybe I just don't buy into the static surrounding his family, which has come to feel more like a tabloid story or a soap opera than a portrait of a great trio of brothers and their impeccable liberal ideals.

Or it could be the whole timing thing. But I hope not ... because I'll have a lot of reevaluating to do in terms of how I judge the relevance of the movies I'm watching.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The weirdest sellout


One film I will not be seeing before I close my rankings is The Edge of Seventeen, though it's through no fault of my own. (Well, maybe just a small amount.)

I tried to see it on Saturday at 2:45, 16 days after it first hit theaters in Australia, and the damn thing was sold out.

I guess I should be encouraged at this unambiguous evidence of people still going to the movies, but instead it just left me annoyed.

I had it all worked out perfectly. My sister-in-law had taken both my kids for most of the day, a rare treat that allowed an even rarer daytime movie screening. I got to the Sun Theatre in Yarraville with enough time before my show to have a coffee at the cafe next door -- kind of a little tradition I have when I go to the movies at this theater.

I'll never know exactly when they sold the last ticket to The Edge of Seventeen, but that coffee likely cost me the screening.

What 16-day-old movies ever sell out their 2:45 p.m. Saturday screening? Even the latest Star Wars movie never likely does that, if only because it's also playing at 2:15 and 3:35 at the same theater.

Again, the sign of health for the film industry is little consolation. Some consolation was that I chose instead to see A United Kingdom, a film I was not prioritizing before the closure of my list because it doesn't open in the U.S. until February, and like it or not, I'm still mentally comparing and contrasting my year-end list with those of American critics. That was a good decision, as what could have been a standard socially progressive, awards-bait period piece ended up being really good, and will place highly on my list.

But I did want The Edge of Seventeen to be there too. It's made the top ten list of a couple critics I really respect.

Then again, I kind of like my top ten as it is now. So close to my deadline, I kind of want to fill out the rest of my viewings with the mediocre, just to play out the string. If Edge had edged something out of that top ten, it might have felt problematic to me.

In answer to your unspoken question, it was pretty much my only opportunity to see the movie before Tuesday night, without inconveniencing the people in my life. You see, Seventeen is no longer playing past 6:35 at night in any theaters, and that's right in the middle of when my children are eating dinner. If I could get to a 9 o'clock screening, I'd go, but there aren't any anymore. Yet another sign of how unusual it was that it sold out -- they have already begun scaling back the screening times in response to a perceived diminishment of interest. (Although I suppose this might have been viewed as a movie aimed at young people, meaning the 9 o'clock show wouldn't do any business, and was never scheduled in the first place.)

So my last trip to the cinema before my deadline at 12:19 a.m. Wednesday morning (5:19 a.m. Tuesday in the U.S., when the Oscar nominations are announced) will be Lion, which I'll see tonight. Another awards contender I'll be glad to get under my belt, but likely not possessing the same chance of standing out that Seventeen possessed.

Well, regrets at this time of year are many. I suppose I should be glad to have fewer of them this year than most years, having already seen all of the "Big Three" (which would be La La Land, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea).

I guess I'll just have to see Seventeen sometime later in '17.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Ten films that embody Obama


I probably should have posted this yesterday, for inauguration day, or better yet, the day before, when Barack Obama was still president of the United States.

But the truth of the matter is, I didn't think of the idea until yesterday, so today it is.

And that also allowed me to watch the Obama first date movie Southside With You last night, a lovely little movie that was the perfect antidote to a day that began with Donald Trump becoming president.

In trying to think of a way to honor the Obama era -- an important time for me, which saw the purchase of my first house, the birth of both my children, and my actual (temporary) departure from the U.S. -- I knew there were a couple ways to go about it. I could scour the internet to talk about movies Obama liked, though the internet has already done that story and I'd likely just be stealing. I could tell you about my own favorite movies from that era, though that's material I've already covered elsewhere in year-end posts. I could even just post a couple dozen awesome photos of the guy, though this site gives you a hundred great ones -- and I really enjoyed flipping through them on Friday at work, to honor his last day in office.

So instead, I thought I'd talk about the movies that came out during Obama's administration that most honored his philosophies as a human being and a president. The following ten films are films I've seen that were released between 2009 and 2016 (haven't seen any 2017 releases yet, sorry), and together, they give a portrait of a great man whose greatness will likely only be further unveiled to us the farther away he gets from the Oval Office ... especially in contrast to the man succeeding him.

They didn't come as easily as I thought they might. The characteristics that make a great man don't necessarily make a great movie. There's an earnestness about Obama that would feel like a burden to a film if applied to that film. This is not to say Obama is unfailingly earnest -- I love his sense of humor. But he's earnest enough that if you're trying to replicate the qualities that make him great in a movie, you might fail spectacularly.

So while many of these are probably not perfect fits, they're the best I could come up with in the amount of time I allotted myself. I hope you'll at least see why I chose the movies I chose, even if only because I plan to explain that logic as well.

Alphabetically:

Agora (2009, Alejandro Amenabar) - Amenabar's film about a female mathematician and philosopher (Rachel Weisz) in fourth century Roman-controlled Egypt, who becomes persecuted for her unwillingness to convert to Christianity, does not have literal applications to Obama. What made me think of it was the trailblazing spirit she shares with Obama, a man who claims more of a kinship with Christianity than he probably actually feels for the purposes of political expediency. (In Southside With You when he talks about his religious associations, he says he's still discovering himself.) Hyapatia would never compromise those principles in the way that you might argue Obama has, but then again, she was killed rather than living on to change the system from within. I think of Obama as a pragmatic iconoclast, one whose belief in his principles causes him to devise methods of implementing them that are so subtle, it's almost like he's made the person he's trying to convince think that they came up with the idea themselves. You could call that sneaky; I call it brilliant. (Because I agree with the things he's trying to do, I suppose.) So he takes inspiration from a character like Hyapatia but then deviates from her in ways that are more useful for the world he's trying to change.

The Armor of Light (2015, Abigail Disney) - One of the most sadly recurring images of Obama's administration was him wiping away tears (real tears) as a he struggled with the aftermath of an incident like the Sandy Hook shooting. These were eight years when America's failure to adopt common-sense gun laws were repeatedly in the spotlight, a number of times that would be comical if it weren't so tragic. Abigail Disney's documentary (my favorite contribution to the 2016 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival) looks at an evangelical minister who decides his pro-life beliefs are inconsistent with a support of gun rights, and works tirelessly to change the minds of fellow conservatives on the topic. (It splits its time with the mother of a teenager who was shot for playing his music too loud, whose tear-soaked testimony is gutting.) The kind of campaign mounted by the Rev. Rob Schenck is reminiscent of one of Obama's impossible causes, which he works steadfastly toward despite the lack of likelihood of its success. And with the right drive, sometimes it does actually work, like the Affordable Care Act. Obama won't have to wipe away any more tears as a president commenting on an unnecessary loss of life, but let's hope battles like gun control continue on despite the improbability of their success.

A Better Life (2011, Chris Weitz) - The DREAM act was not a piece of legislation that originated with Obama -- it was first introduced in 2001 -- but it was something he championed wholeheartedly. It's also one of the ideas most likely to go down in flames under Trump, who still wants to build that wall along our southern border. The need for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is documented wonderfully in Weitz' 2011 film, which is a bit like an American companion piece to The Bicycle Thief. An undocumented gardener (Demian Bichir) and his son search Los Angeles for his stolen pickup truck, the key to his ongoing livelihood, with destitution and deportation both looming as consequences of not succeeding. There have been other lesser films made on this topic during this time, and some that I like quite well, but I chose this one because it contains the type of optimism that describes Obama, avoiding the excessive earnestness that I discussed in the opening. Its protagonist is a dogged pursuer of the dream Obama wanted to bring all illegal immigrants, and the movie's title is what Obama wanted to give them.

42 (2013, Brian Helgeland) - The reasons for including this pick are so on-the-nose that it almost makes me hesitate to include it. Obama broke the color barrier in the U.S. presidency just as Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. But Helgeland's film beautifully captures other things Obama shares in common with one of baseball's all-time greats, namely, a consistently successful tendency to greet every insult thrown his way with an impassive form of stolidity. This is not to say either man was without a temper. 42 shows scenes where Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) privately agonizes and unleashes impotent anger at the society he lives in and the threats to his family. But both Obama and Robinson believed that you could not show your frustration to those attacking you, because then they win. Also both believed in their roles as representatives of something bigger, both a race of people and a dignity that all people of any color should aspire to.

Good Hair (2009, Jeff Stilson) - A documentary in which Chris Rock interviews various African-American women about their hair -- proudly natural, proudly artificial, or not-so-proudly of either -- might seem like a strange choice here. But one of the things I've always loved about Obama is his occasional frankness about race, particularly as it applies to himself and his family. Upon adopting a mixed breed dog, for example, he said the dog was a mutt, just like him. More specifically related to hair, though, is the fact that Obama lives in a family of three beautiful women, whom he loves and encourages in equal measure. Although Good Hair is meant to be funny and often is, underlying it is a serious topic that is also covered in the children's book Nappy Hair -- that society has taught women of color to be ashamed of the way their hair behaves, and to take measures to make it better resemble the hair they see in fashion magazines. Good Hair grapples with that issue and ultimately comes out in a very women-positive and black-positive manner. Obama teaches his children (and doesn't need to teach his wife, but would if he needed to) to love themselves, and not to aspire to some unrealistic ideal that's an illusion and fundamentally hurtful.

Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter) - I might have the most trouble explaining why I picked Inside Out. It's my favorite movie on the list, having topped my year-end rankings last year, and that counts for something in a list that is also about me and the movies I love. (For example, there may be some films that fit the criteria a bit better but I haven't included them just because I don't like them as much.) But if trying to mount a defense for the pick, I might tell you that Obama's optimism and his ability to use grief productively are the things that made me see Inside Out as a movie that represents him. One of Obama's strongest moments as president was when he gave us an example of how to deal with the news that Trump had beaten Hillary Clinton. It might not have seemed like a standout moment because we were only concentrating on our own sadness, but Obama helped many of us immeasurably with his ability to give perspective and remain presidential despite his own evident grief. Obama is defined by his ability to keep the non-happy emotions in the spectrum in balance, and to use them productively in pursuit of a more perfect self. It's an ability worth celebrating.

Life Itself (2014, Steve James) - Another possibly unusual choice that I picked for a number of very specific reasons. For one, it seemed good to get a Chicago movie in there (and I strongly considered another Chicago-set Steve James film from this period, The Interrupters). But the reason I went with Life Itself -- a biography of another man -- was because of the way Roger Ebert describes the function of movies in his life, a function he believes it has for all of us. "We are all born with a certain package," says Roger in a bit of audio recorded from earlier in his life. "We are who we are. Where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We're kind of stuck in that person. And the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us." Barack Obama was, and still is, a machine that generates empathy, in human form.

Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg) - Perhaps the most slam dunk pick I had here. One of the first things Barack Obama did after winning a tough Democratic primary from Hillary Clinton was to name her his secretary of state, one of the most important positions in his cabinet. It surprised some, as it was assumed that Obama and Clinton hated each other -- and maybe they did. But Obama took his lead from Abraham Lincoln, who surrounded himself with trusted advisors who saw things differently than he did, in order to challenge his perceptions and bring about a more thoroughly reasoned ultimate outcome. Doris Kearns Goodwin called it a "team of rivals," and Spielberg's film, starring an astonishingly good Daniel Day-Lewis, dramatizes Lincoln's philosophy expertly. Other presidents have given lip service to reaching across the aisle -- Obama actually practiced it. And of course, Clinton is on the same side of the aisle as he is. But (as just one example) Obama also appointed James Comey, a Republican, as the head of the FBI. It's a decision that may have cost Clinton her own bid to be president, but that's not the lesson we should take from that. The lesson we should take is that there are risks involved with doing what you think is the best thing for the country, but that doesn't mean you should ever stop doing it.

Magic Mike XXL (2015, Gregory Jacobs) - This could be the most unusual pick on this list for a number of reasons. For one, it's my least favorite of the films I've chosen. Secondly, it's about male strippers. But what made me persist in thinking about it was the way others who talked about it at the time, before I even saw it, made me think about what it was doing. Among other things, Magic Mike XXL was praised for being casually post-racial. The film featured a true cross-section of people of different races without making a fuss about that fact. It just existed in a world in which race, at least theoretically, didn't matter, or was not even worth discussing. The fact that we noticed it, and are discussing it, means we're not really there yet. But the movie existed as a kind of utopia for those purposes, and even though there are other things about it that I don't totally love, this is one I do. Barack Obama sought to give us a world that was post race. He didn't succeed, of course -- and one could argue, pretty effectively, that racial tensions became increasingly worse during his administration, creating the possible conditions for the election of Donald Trump. But Obama has always been an advocate of gradual change -- as a perfect encapsulation of his political philosophy, in Southside With You he discusses the "building blocks" for change in his capacity as a community organizer. Obama has put in the building blocks for us to be post racial, and I hope we'll get there in his lifetime.

The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott) - At the start of this piece, I talked about the difficulty of finding a film that expresses Obama's earnest optimism without being hokey. The Martian is probably as close to that as you can get. It's a film about a solo man up against unthinkable odds, who must devise solution after solution to stay alive while a team works doggedly and selflessly to help him attain that outcome. The Martian is pure fantasy, of course -- it has plenty of good science underpinning it, but it's an optimism even greater than what Obama brings to the table to think that Mark Watney (Matt Damon) would actually survive his marooning on Mars. But it's that kind of insane positivity that achieves impossible outcomes, and Barack Obama made that kind of insane positivity his calling card. He wanted to achieve the impossible, and sometimes, he actually did. More often than not he didn't, but that's because he's a human being who lives in our real world. But he sought an America in which people would work together selflessly to achieve the greater good, and his vision for that type of America remains untarnished, even in the wake of its inevitable and frequent failure. "The greater good" may be an unusual ideal to be invoking here, as The Martian, on the surface of it, seems to advocate the opposite -- that sometimes, unimaginable resources should be committed to the saving of just one life. But it's that commitment and moral determination that is the greater good. In the messy world of politics, social policy and economic initiative, we can never lose sight of the fact that ultimately, it's about saving each individual person, one at a time.

I don't have high hopes for the Trump administration. Every time he gives us a little something to be encouraged about, he snatches it right back. In four or (my God, I hope not) eight years, I don't expect to be sitting here writing an ode to a successful presidency embodied by ten hopeful films.

But Barack Obama is the type of person who consistently reminds us to stay positive, to believe we have the power to change the world, and to give even sinister characters the benefit of the doubt.

Barack Obama hoped for great things for this country, and will continue to do so.

As not only a tribute to him, but a symbol of the way he changed me, I will do so as well.

Thank you, my great president. You are a hero to me, and a shining example of the way we want the world to perceive America.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Faulty Tower


There were two different times I was going to be able to see Keith Maitland's Tower for free, but I ultimately paid for it, realizing only moments later that I didn't need to.

And so it was that four nights before my list closes, I finally struggled to the ground one of 2016's most elusive movies, a rotoscoped recreation of the killing spree by sniper Charles Whitman at the University of Texas in 1966.

Rotoscoping is right up my alley -- I still count Richard Linklater's Waking Life among my top 100 films of all time -- so I got Tower on my MIFF schedule when it became clear that I'd have one more ticket to use on the last day of the festival.

A few days after that, once I'd already grown accustomed to the idea that I'd be giving MIFF a proper sendoff on its final day, I learned that we did not in fact have one more ticket, though I remain convinced we must have lost it somewhere. (Most of my tickets were free anyway, so I couldn't complain about one lost one.) So I reluctantly released my grasp on Tower, feeling like I'd really missed an opportunity. (It was pure greed, though -- the 11 movies I saw at MIFF were already my personal record by a margin of a half-dozen films.)

My next opportunity to see Tower came when it appeared among the candidates for this year's HRAFF (Human Rights & Arts Film Festival), which I'm helping curate. It wasn't assigned to me personally to vet, but the screener passwords are shared to all of us in the weekly emails, and all I had to do was follow the link and pop the password in there.

What caused me to pause was when I saw that this version of Tower just 82 minutes. I wouldn't have known there was anything wrong with that had it not been for Adam Kempenaar, the co-host of Filmspotting, who observed that the film (which he would later name his favorite the year) lasted exactly 96 minutes, which was also the length of Whitman's spree. HRAFF sometimes sees festival or other earlier versions of films, so I assumed we had access only to a truncated version of the one Kempenaar praised so highly. I'm uncomfortable enough as it is by movies that exist in several distinct versions, and I figured, one that Adam loved so much should be seen in its pure and unadulterated form.

But time was passing and it was becoming almost a certainty that I'd miss Tower before my ranking deadline. Then, just yesterday in a Facebook chat, a friend advised me that it was finally now available on iTunes. I'd checked only recently and found no sign of it, but here it was, now available. I moved a few things around and planned a viewing for Friday night.

Of course, in my haste to begin downloading it I neglected the one most important piece of information: its running time. Three dollars and ninety-nine cents are not a king's ransom, but after we spent so much money in the U.S., I'm trying to limit my luxuries. A quick and cursory check at the running time was not only possible, it was something I should have done.

Well, I didn't. And I found out that the version that had just cost me four bucks was also 82 minutes, meaning I had access to this very version for free.

So where did this 96-minute version come from, the one Adam talked about and the one advertised on IMDB?

I'm guessing not many people, including Adam, have seen it. In his attempt to make a clever extra-textual observation, Adam probably noted the running time listed on IMDB, couldn't specifically remember it being shorter than that, and took the opportunity to attribute it to the director as an intentional choice, in some way mirroring the experience witnesses had that August day in Austin. A check of the movie's Wikipedia page lists a longer 92-minute version that originally showed at festivals -- possibly including MIFF -- but this was cut back by ten minutes and never made it out to the likes of us common folk, which in this case also includes Adam.

Well I'm glad I got it on my viewing schedule because Tower did not disappoint. It uses the medium terrifically and generates good tension from that extended period of chaos and uncertainty on that university campus. The only thing actually "faulty" about it for me is that instability regarding its running time, which may just be one dude -- albeit an influential dude on a popular movie podcast -- making a simple mistake.

As I am posting this, Donald Trump is becoming the next president of the United States.

Where are those snipers in towers when you need them?