Monday, December 31, 2018

The year filmmakers got away with bloat

I've just finished my 2018 series looking at the works of auteurs I had previously been unfamiliar with. But I feel like I was watching the work of auteurs throughout 2018, even when I didn't specifically select to do so.

We tend to think of "auteur" as a term from the past, reflecting a time when studio notes did not apply to certain directors, who could muscle through any eccentric vision they wanted. Of course, the past was also the era of the studio system, when directors were largely just hired guns under contract and were often not meaningfully described as the authors of their own movies. But in the years following the studio system, particularly the 1970s, a large number of directors achieved final cut on their films, as the studios appeared to entrust them with the best judgment on when their films should end and what they should contain.

I'd argue that another correction has occurred in the recent few decades, when studios became more risk averse on things that were not considered established properties, and feared the judgment of audiences in test screenings. Although you don't want a truly great artist to be shackled, I think you also don't want there to be no checks and balances on their most indulgent impulses. I feel like I saw a lot of films in the 1990s that were a really tight 95 minutes, and all the better for it.

Well, something has changed again in 2018. Especially as the year wore on, I couldn't help notice how many really loooong movies I was seeing.

To determine if there was some truth behind this, I took the 127 movies I've watched so far from 2018 that I've considered eligible for year-end ranking and recorded their running times. I then added and divided by 127 to get an average.

The average length of the 2018 movies I've seen is 109 minutes, or 109.4724 minutes if you want to carry it out four decimal places as my Excel does by default.

That seems pretty long to me. I don't have data from any other year to compare it to, and though I could probably accumulate that for a truly scientific comparison, it took long enough to record these 127 movies as it was. That's only ten minutes shy of two hours. And though we often describe movies as being "two hours long," most of them truly are not -- or should not be, anyway.

But this year, many were. Many were well over two hours long. In fact, I've seen 31 2018 films that have been at least 120 minutes long, 16 of which were over 130 minutes. That's compared to only six that were 90 minutes or less. Only six.

If you change your cutoff to 100 minutes -- triple digit minutes -- a full 89 of those 127 films were at least 100 minutes. Leaving only 38 that were shorter than that.

At one point this year I also saw 14 straight 2018 movies that were at least 100 minutes long.

Have filmmakers been allowed to slouch into a self-indulgent kind of inefficiency? Have they not been "killing their darlings"? It would seem so.

The poster child for this phenomenon -- quite literally as I've chosen it as the poster for this post -- was Luca Guadagnino's Suspiria. Guadagnino made the longest film I saw this year at 152 minutes. It was a remake of a 1977 film that was only 98 minutes. Now, I certainly understand that Guadagnino did not want to make a shot-by-shot remake of Dario Argento's original, and I appreciate that. But there are a lot of unchecked indulgences in 54 extra minutes of footage. That film was going in six different directions in once, and as a result, it didn't go in any of them in a way that felt truly satisfying.

Steve McQueen's Widows was another example, though a lot shorter and more successful. McQueen had a lot of movie he wanted to bit off and chew, and to his credit, he managed to bite and chew it in a comparatively economical 128 minutes. But in the past, he would have been required to bite off less, and spit out some things he'd already started chewing at the editing stage.

Directors who have had about two to three well-received movies prior to this one seemed especially susceptible. Did Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to Blue Ruin and Green Room really need to be 126 minutes? And yet Hold the Dark did run for that long, slow and agonizing duration.

However, it wasn't just moody genre mashups that were bloated. Movies that traditionally come in much shorter were pushing the two-hour mark, like the Amy Schumer comedy I Feel Pretty at 111 minutes. At this point it's no surprise that the shortest of the superhero movies I saw this year, Venom, was still 112 minutes, but a bit more of a surprise was that the two animated superhero movies I saw, Incredibles 2 and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, were 118 and 117 minutes, respectively.

So it wasn't just directors with an inflated sense of their own genius who were making long movies. It was a bloat that crept through the industry.

And not every person we would think of as an auteur had to make long movies. In a demonstration of economy that's highly endangered these days, Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here) and Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War) made two of the four movies I saw that were under 90 minutes. I wasn't in love with either of those films, but they demonstrated that you can execute your vision tightly by focusing on a single compelling story, rather than veering off into more subplots than you can ever properly resolve.

From the studio's perspective, the logic would seem to be that shorter would be better, to compete with shorter form content on the internet and to appeal to shorter attention spans. Then again, the reverse could be true, if the idea is to provide a clear alternative to peak TV by giving audiences longer content that draws them out to the theater. Maybe the more you have to pay, the longer you want the movie to be -- although MoviePass-style subscription packages were also being tested out by a lot of theater chains, deemphasizing the payment for an individual viewing experience and perhaps shifting the bias to shorter films again.

In short, I don't know.

I do, however, think that every filmmaker should kill his or her darlings, just as every writer should do that. Easier said than done, though. I probably go on at excessive length on this blog, because I have no one telling me to shave off 300 words. If no one's doing that for the excessive subplots for these directors, they'll be inclined to leave them in.

Maybe in 2019 we can at least get that 109-minute average down to 105.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Chantal Akerman

This is the final installment of my 2018 monthly series Audient Auteurs, in which I’ve been seeing two movies per month from a renowned director whose works had previously eluded me.

I spent a lot of this series not knowing who my next auteur would be and whether I would be able to track down any of his or her movies, but I’m ending it on a positive note. Not only am I finishing with one of the directors on my original list, but she also adds some diversity to the group, becoming my third woman of the 11 auteurs I’ve watched for this series.

That would be Chantal Akerman, the Belgian director whose life came to a tragic end when she committed suicide in 2015 at age 65. So I guess it’s only sort of ending the series on a positive note.

When I looked for Akerman earlier in the year, I swear I could not find any of her stuff available for streaming or rental. I guess I should say, I couldn’t find Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles anywhere, and didn’t look beyond that because I didn’t see any point in watching Akerman if I was not going to watch that. It may have been user error on the search or its availability may have actually changed over the course of the year, but when I took another look in November, voila, Jeanne Dielman was available for rental on iTunes. Not only that, but I could select my second film from a handful of others also available for rental.

I have a funny pre-existing relationship with Jeanne Dielman, which is that it has taken over the mantle of the title I go to when I am looking for a random obscure movie with a long and unwieldy title. In these situations I used to always use The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, but Jeanne Dielman has eclipsed it in perceived humor value, probably because it’s in French and has all those commas. And as I did eventually see Englishman, I figured I was destined to one day catch Jeanne Dielman. That day ended up being December 4th. And 5th. But we’ll get into that in a moment.

First, a bit about Akerman. She was born in Brussels to a Holocaust survivor in 1950, and attended a Brussels film school at age 18. She claimed to have been inspired to become a filmmaker by Godard’s Pierrot le Fou, and you can see that Godard’s non-traditional approach to filmmaking has rubbed off on Akerman’s films. Stylistically, she’s known her for use of long takes and for her incorporation of feminist themes into her work, specifically the toxic intersection of femininity and domesticity. However, Akerman also rejected the labels critics tried to ascribe to her, be they “Jewish” or “feminist” or “lesbian,” and claimed to feel more of her identity stemmed from her relationship to her mother, with whom she was very close. She killed herself in October of 2015 after being hospitalized with depression.

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

This is not just a long title – it’s a long movie. I knew that going in. I can’t imagine getting much more bang for your rental dollar, on a per minute basis. The movie is three hours and 21 minutes long.

That wouldn’t be a surprise if it were some kind of war epic, but Jeanne Dielman is as far away from that as you can get in. In fact, it’s a portrait of three days in the life of a suburban Belgian mother who feeds and houses her young adult son. And it’s three days in which nothing much happens. Jeanne’s life is one dominated by chores – washing the dishes, preparing meals, doing the laundry, running errands around the neighborhood. Oh, and there’s also the occasional sex with a stranger. See, Jeanne supports herself and her son through prostitution.

That makes this movie sound exciting in some way, but it’s really not, and that’s by design. Dialogue is sparse, and usually pedestrian when it does occur. The interactions with the johns are mostly boring as well. This is meant to be a stultifying 200-minute document of the tediousness of this woman’s domestic life, and though something does happen in the final 15 minutes, I think it’s worth not spoiling for you what that thing is, or how effective it is as an outcome of what’s come before.

Any movie that goes on for more than three hours involves some kind of strategy for watching it, whether that’s splitting it up over the course of several viewings or engaging in some other task while you’re watching. I did both. In fact, I got this idea that the best way to watch Jeanne do chores was to do chores myself. So I did put away laundry. I did write Christmas cards. I did wash dishes. In fact, there was one brief moment when Jeanne and I were both cutting vegetables at the same time. It was sublime.

Watching this for three hours and 20 minutes is some kind of endurance test, but it does have its moments of reward. Although Jeanne’s interactions with her son are mostly banal, each night as he’s going to bed he plunges into some kind of thoughtful and in-depth analysis of a past event in their life, involving his father, or a dream he had. In a movie chock full of dialogue, a moment like this might not mean much, but in this movie it does make you sit up and take notice. Ditto a scene where Jeanne reads a letter from her sister. I thought the film’s most profound moment is when Jeanne is standing at her door after returning the baby she’s been babysitting to the mother. You can’t see the mother – you can only see Jeanne on her side of the door – but you can hear the mother’s disjointed comments on being at the butcher and trying to figure out what to order. When she gets to the front and hasn’t decided, because it’s not her comfort zone, she panics and orders the same thing the woman in front of her ordered. This little anecdote mirrors the desperation we are starting to realize that Jeanne also feels.

There are some interesting formal things Akerman is doing here as well. The camera is exclusively stationary as the film is composed entirely of long takes of mundane activities. One thing that’s interesting, though, is how many of the shots involve Jeanne walking into or out of a room and turning its lights on or off. It demonstrates the way Jeanne’s life can be compartmentalized into all these little “rooms,” these chores and tedious obligations, which get switched on and off ad infinitum until the end of time.

I ultimately came out positively on Jeanne Dielman, but I kind of feel like the same effect could have been accomplished in half the time, and it still would have felt quite long and tedious (in the useful ways Akerman is intending, I mean). There’s certainly something impressive about how the actress, Delphine Seyrig, goes through these tasks in a single take without botching them, and how her commitment to the project brings home the soul-killing nature of this woman’s existence. However, as can be the case with art films, you get the concept pretty early on, and it’s hard to compute exactly what quantity of it is really needed to achieve the goal. Why 201 minutes? Why not 401 minutes? Why not film three days in real time? Certainly, part of what makes Jeanne Dielman Jeanne Dielman is the torturous running time, and it wouldn’t feel like nearly the experiment it is at only 90 minutes. Even at 90 minutes, though, it would still be a distinct creation, and would have been possible for me to take down in a single sitting. And maybe consider watching a second time at some point in the future.

I actually watched Jeanne Dielman for even longer than I needed to. The resumption of one of my pauses during the 48-hour rental window brought me back to an earlier point in the running time without me initially realizing it. I watched footage I’d already seen for somewhere between 15 or 20 minutes before realizing I’d already watched it. I just thought the repetitive nature of it all was part of the point.

No Home Movie (2015)

Flash forward 40 years and Akerman is still interested in some of the same things, though this time, they relate to her own mother. No, her mom was not a prostitute -- I think we established earlier she was a Holocaust survivor. And though I suppose those two things are not mutually exclusive, let's give her the benefit of the doubt.

This is a documentary that consists largely of conversations between Akerman and her mother in the last months of her mother's life -- some in person, some over Skype. There's a lot of eating of meals in her mother's home, some chores, even some turning on and off of lights. It made me wonder if this also constituted the core text of Akerman's other films that I haven't seen.

It appears she may have finished filming but not finished editing before Natalia Akerman died. Akerman never states that her mother died -- that would not be very Akerman of her -- but the images she chooses to close the film create that impression. After two hours of footage mostly of her mother pottering around her Brussels house, her health steadily deteriorating, the final shots are of the house without her in them. These are not the movie's first lingering shots of the house -- lingering a bit too long, some might argue -- but they are the first in which the elder Akerman does not eventually wander into the shot. That's saying something without actually saying it.

The film has other footage that doesn't obviously relate to Natalia Akerman and her immediate environs/circle of acquaintances. There are a number of long takes of a camera looking out the windows of moving vehicles at barren landscapes and the like. This is travel footage but there is no overt explanation of its relationship to Akerman (who appears regularly in the film) and her mother. Some of them last for five or six minutes. In fact, the film's most profound shot is its opening shot, which shows a tree against such a landscape being buffeted about by violent winds. This too goes on for several minutes, and is sort of hypnotizing.

As with Jeanne Dielman, there are a number of profound moments, but a lot of material that strikes me as a bit indulgent. Comparing this to other documentaries or narrative features is a bit apples to oranges, as this is clearly a personal film about an extremely personal subject -- which is also why I feel very hesitant about criticizing it in any way. Never mind the fact that it was Akerman's last movie, as she killed herself the year after her mother died, which was the same year the film was released. Clearly her relationship with her mother was one of the things that had been sustaining her.

But it did beg the question, for me, of what questions she asked herself about which material would comprise this movie. Of the 40 hours she purportedly shot, how did she choose these particular 115 minutes? Quite a bit of it seems to be lacking in thematic import. It's tricky because neither do I want her to be on the nose, though there was never any risk of that with this filmmaker. I guess I just prefer a bit more rigor in terms of the choice of what to include and what not to include, and to have the reasons for each seem clearer to me. Put another way: Would this even have been worth making as a film had her mother not been dying? That's cold but it's a legitimate question on my part.

Part of me also wondered if she knew her mother was dying when she started making the film, although the fact that she was 86 at her death indicated it was in the relatively near future no matter the state of her health when filming began. There's never any prognosis, negative or otherwise, about Natalia's health mentioned in the film, though she asks if the physio is coming in an early scene, and as the movie goes on, she develops an alarming cough that does not portend good things. If the younger Akerman had just wanted to record her mother's stories, I suppose that's reason enough to make the movie, though I wonder if it then does belong more in the realm of the "home movie" it claims not to be. Maybe it's Akerman's mere status as a filmmaker that makes her mother's stories worth sharing with a larger audience. Maybe if we all had the capacity to do so, we'd tell our parents' stories too.

Okay! That brings Audient Auteurs to a close. Instead of recapping what I watched and which were my favorites, I'll give you my regrets: the auteurs who were on my list who never made it into the series, in all cases because I couldn't source their movies despite repeated checks throughout the year. They are:

Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Hal Hartley
Jacques Rivette
Eric Rohmer
Lina Wertmuller

So the other seven names I gave you in my original post back in January did make it into the series, which I guess is pretty good. With Hartley I may not have looked hard enough, because I think his stuff is generally available, and I feel like I should be able to get my hands on some Eric Rohmer. Well, it's in the past now, so I won't worry about it.

A few others that I added to my list during the year but could never find:

Charles Burnett
Philippe Gurrel
The Shaw Brothers
Lav Diaz

Once the clock strikes 2019 I'll be back to tell you about my new monthly series for the new year. Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 28, 2018

Poppin' the champagne corks on New Year's?

There may be no movie more tailor made to this year's holiday season than Mary Poppins Returns.

If you argued the point with me, you might suggest The Grinch or The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, since those are actual Christmas movies. (Was there another in there? I forget.)

But what I'm really talking about is movies that feel like Christmas incarnate, like little bundles of magic and pretty art direction. The cinematic version of a gingerbread house. That's Mary Poppins Returns to a T.

In the U.S., it opened on December 19th. That was perfectly timed for many people to see it as an accompaniment to their final weekend's worth of shopping. For those who didn't, it made for an ideal family theatrical outing on Christmas day.

But in Australia it's getting released on ... January 1st?

That's right. It isn't even a Thursday.

Thursday is the day of the week movies bow here in Australia. But the biggest release date of the year is undoubtedly Boxing Day, when no less than 15 new movies open, this year including the likes of Ralph Breaks the Internet, Aquaman, Vice, Holmes & Watson and The Favorite. That's a recognition of the fact that okay, going to the movies on Christmas is not a big thing here, but by Boxing Day, theatrical attendance explodes. Not only is it a public holiday, but you've usually got to get out of the heat.

Mary Poppins Returns should have joined their lot. But it didn't. It's coming out on New Year's Day, when it'll still undoubtedly be hot, but when the holiday season is kind of "over."

I'm oversimplifying a bit. Really, the holiday season starts about December 15th and doesn't end until Australia Day, which is January 26th. You could argue that any movie released during this time is designed to capitalize on kids being out of school and people needing to get out of the heat. As a prime example of that, the third How to Train Your Dragon movie opens just two days later, on the proper Thursday. It doesn't open in the U.S. until February 22nd (also a weird time of year, I might add).

But there's something so ... gingerbready about Mary Poppins Returns. And if gingerbread houses feel anathema already in 100 degree heat, they'll feel even more so after the calendar has rolled over into 2019.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

A super year, minus one

The cynic in me feels like I should be getting sick of superhero movies, that they should be decreasing in quality as studios recognize them more and more for what they are – cash cows – and make them with a corresponding amount of their own cynicism.

In reality, though, superhero movies are getting better, or at the very least, I am liking them more.

Right now there are four superhero movies that are in contention for my top 20 of the year, and that’s not even including the year’s most praised superhero movie, which is likely to earn the first-ever best picture nomination for a film of its kind. But, I do hope to watch Black Panther again before finalizing my year-end rankings, to give it too a chance to contend.

There’s one I won’t be seeing, however, and both critics and audiences seem to think it is also worth my time.

That’s Aquaman, the movie that figured to be your typical DC crap but I guess is quite a lot better than that. (It’s not like DC is incapable of it; Wonder Woman was my #2 movie of 2017.)

In this case, the release date is not a problem. Unlike some end-of-year releases, Aquaman is bowing in plenty of time for me to see it before the Oscar nominations are revealed on January 22nd, which is my personal deadline for finalizing my list. In fact, it came out yesterday, just a few days after its U.S. release date. Which is common for superhero movies. Sometimes we in Australia even get them a week earlier, as happened with at least one if not both of the Captain America sequels.

No, the reason I won’t be seeing it is that I’ve already got tickets to see it … after my ranking deadline.

Aquaman will have already been out for a month when I see it on January 27th at an outdoor cinema in Melbourne’s botanical gardens. My wife and I have known about and talked about this venue for some time, but never actually pulled the trigger to go see a movie there. She finally pulled that trigger as a Christmas present for me this year. They’re VIP seats, too, as we’ll be sitting in the fancy shmancy bean bag seating area. (Note: This is the first time in history the words “fancy shmancy” and “bean bag” have appeared in the same sentence.)

I knew something was up, because about a week ago my wife asked me if I’d already seen Bohemian Rhapsody. The answer was yes. Then she moved on to Aquaman, and at that point it wouldn’t have been possible to see Aquaman because it wasn’t out yet. “Don’t see Aquaman,” she told me in no uncertain terms. On Tuesday, the secret was revealed.

I have mixed emotions about these tickets. On the one hand, I love any opportunity to watch a movie in an unusual venue, particularly a venue I’ve never before partaken in. Aquaman seems like a fun movie to see in this environment. On the other hand, though, it means I will forgo seeing a 2018 movie I would have undoubtedly caught before my ranking deadline.

But you know, I’m fine with it. Why wouldn’t I be? It’s a wonderful gesture by my wife, one that proves how well she knows me, and the food trucks and available drinks (plus a night of babysitting from my sister-in-law) promise to make the evening a real treat. Besides, if I were to really love Aquaman and it too became a contender for my top 20, it might seem more like the top 20 of that guy in the stormtrooper costume at Comicon than my own. At a certain point, for the sake of your own credibility, you don’t want to see any more good superhero movies in a given year.

This might also create an opening for me to see a movie that I felt safe in skipping, until it too received widespread praise: Bumblebee. For a while I didn’t care how much better this was than your average Transformers movie, it was something I thought I could safely give a miss. Until the “Bumblebee is actually really good!” chatter become too deafening for me to drown out.

A Transformers movie contending for my top 20? Now that would really be something.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Christmas 2003

A lot of increasingly tedious energy has been expended this holiday season on a Christmas movie turning 30 years old. The debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not has raged like never before, with stranger permutations than ever before, and an almost troll-like insistence on pushing this argument well past its breaking point. (In the interest of chiming in with my two cents: Die Hard was released in the summer and was not intended as a Christmas movie, but has subsequently become one.)

A little less has been put toward two Christmas movies turning 15, both of which have come into my life or will be coming into my life in the next two days.

Given the dearth of holiday classics released in the 21st century, what are the odds that two of them would have come out in 2003?

Those movies are of course Love Actually and Elf. Some people hate the former while others love it dearly; most people seem to have at least a limited fondness for the latter. There seems little argument, though, that they are the two most prominent 21st century entries on the list of popular holiday films, and they both came out in the same year.

They also happen to be the last movie I saw in the theater with my then-girlfriend, who was my most serious relationship prior to meeting my wife, and the movie I saw on the weekend we broke up, the seeing of which contributed to one of our final arguments. Considering that I spent the better part of the next year regretting our break-up, you'd think I'd sentimentalize the one I saw with her (Love Actually) while cursing the one I chose to see with my friends instead of spending that afternoon with her (Elf). Yet the critic in me rises above my viewing circumstances and names Elf one of my top 100 movies of all time, while relegating Love Actually to a spot somewhere south of mediocre on my Flickchart (it currently ranks 3023 out of 4778). Though to be fair, I saw it only that one time all the way through.

Of course, neither of these movies was actually part of my Christmas season per se in 2003. I saw them on November 15th and 22nd, respectively, and my girlfriend and I were broken up before Thanksgiving. And besides, that's all really more of an aside than what I came to talk about here today.

We'll be watching Elf on Christmas Eve this year, a second viewing for my older son and a first for my younger. They actually started to watch it one Saturday morning a few weeks ago before I went and yanked the remote control out of their hands. It was too special to waste on a Saturday morning. If they want to watch it in that context on subsequent viewings, fine, but the first one needs to be with us and a bowl of popcorn on the night before Santa brings them their presents. My older son was only five when we watched it in 2015, so this probably qualifies as something of a first viewing for him as well. The younger one turns five just a week after Christmas.

I had no plans to have Love Actually play any role in my holiday season, until I went out running this morning and they were discussing the public's love-it-or-hate-it relationship to this movie on The Slate Culture Gabfest. The discussion became animated enough that it took up nearly 30 minutes of my nearly 38-minute run. They didn't mention that the movie was turning 15 but I suspect that was the reason for the discussion. (Check that; they said that the movie was "only 15 years old" in decrying its retrograde gender politics.) While three of those discussing it were decidedly anti-, those being the regular hosts (Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner), they did bring in former Slate editor David Plotts to defend its glorious schmaltz. (And he's not the only one -- someone in my Flickcharters group on Facebook, whose opinions about movies I respect, has it ranked as her #1 movie of all time.)

More than take a position on these movies myself, since I think I've indicated my feelings so far, I really just want to muse about the unusual congruence of holiday-related cinematic magic that year. Because you know what? Those weren't the only two Christmas movies released that year.

If we go back to Flickchart, and this time look at the global lists rather than my own, the next TWO 21st century Christmas movies appearing on their global "Holiday Film" chart are both from 2003. Now I should say, this chart is a bit problematic as it also includes films from other holidays (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and films whose holiday connection is a bit slight (Batman Returns) -- not to mention having Die Hard as its #1 film (to answer the previous debate). What can you say, the site attracts some genre enthusiasts.

But that doesn't change the naked fact that after Love Actually (#16) and Elf (#19) on this chart, the next 21st century film is a Satoshi Kon 2003 anime, Tokyo Godfathers (#22), followed by Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa (#31), also from 2003. Even setting aside the fact that Tokyo Godfathers (which takes place on Christmas Eve) is probably ranked higher as a result of the biases of this particular user base, that's fairly astonishing.

You have to go down to 39th on this list before you finally get another 21st century movie, Christian Carion's 2005 film Joyeux Noel (which is actually quite good, so good on the Flickchart community for recognizing that). That's followed by #42 The Holiday (2006) and #44 Rare Exports (2010).

So what was it that caused us to need -- and to be able to produce -- such enduring Christmas escapism in 2003? I could try to posit some kind of theory based on my own political biases, like we needed some good comfort food to get us out of the fetal positions we'd adopted when George Bush became president, or perhaps to heal from 9/11. But the former implies that these movies appeal disproportionately to liberals, which is obviously not the case -- the lone admitted conservative on the Gabfest panel, David Plotts, was the one who defended Love Actually. And as for 9/11, well, the need for comforting art does not necessarily engender the ability to produce it.

It could be just one of those things where Hollywood is sharing a head space around a particular time, like there being two asteroid movies made at the same time, or two Truman Capote movies, or two remakes of The Jungle Book. However, none of the four movies above appear to have much in common with each other, though I haven't seen Tokyo Godfathers. In fact, one of them (Bad Santa) doesn't even try to tug at your heartstrings, as it's fairly rancid as Christmas movies go.

I'm wondering if part of the key to the endurance of Love Actually and Elf in particular is that no one has tried to make a sequel. That's rare at a time when Hollywood picks any and all IP clean of all its potential profits. Hollywood may have done that slightly less in 2003, but they're making up for it now, and in fact, those 2003 movies would probably be prime targets. In fact, Bad Santa itself got a sequel in 2016, and it was total shit. Let's hope that's a lesson to its 2003 brethren, which so far have not been touched.

So I'm looking forward to my Elf viewing, and having written this, feel like I should probably give Love Actually another chance to win my heart.

Then again, hearing the Slate folks tear apart some of its more problematic elements cured me of most of my desire for a revisit.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Stars are just like us

I don't tweet, but I do get regular email notifications that keep me up to date on the tweets of people Twitter thinks I'm interested in, even if I don't actually follow them. It's some algorithm.

And so it was that I just saw this awesome picture. (Which will qualify as the first of a couple attempts to inject the holiday season into my blog, as well as giving me something quick to write about on a Saturday morning when I still have a lot to do.)

It was tweeted out by Ryan Reynolds with the caption: "These assholes told me it was a sweater party."


If you can't tell, that's Hugh Jackman on the left. Jake Gyllenhaal is easier to recognize.

If I was active on Twitter, photos like this would be par for the course. But since I'm not they strike me as comment worthy.

And the comment is that when you and I have Christmas parties, we invite our friends. So do Ryan, Hugh and Jake, except they have friends like Ryan, Hugh and Jake.

If these are just three of maybe three dozen people at the party, you can just imagine who else is there. Maybe Chris Hemsworth is the one holding the camera. Is he friends with these guys? Could be.

It's also interesting to learn who has connections to each other. I knew about Reynolds and Jackman since they have this joke rivalry over the Deadpool and Wolverine characters, but I wouldn't have necessarily matched Gyllenhaal to either of them, even though Gyllenhaal has his own superhero credentials as the villain Mysterio in Marvel's next Spider-Man movie.

But what I love most is that they punked Ryan Reynolds into wearing a classic ugly holiday sweater ... when no one else at the party was planning to do so. Yeah, this could be staged, but it probably isn't. Maybe it's actually George Clooney holding the camera. That's a Clooney thing to do.

I hope you are enjoying your Christmas parties and smiling in the face of any pranks delivered your way.

Friday, December 21, 2018

An unsquashable cinematic trope for male characters

When I was about 16 I got a taste for racquetball. Through my church youth group we had adult
mentors that were selected from the church community, and mine belonged to a racquetball club. He may have only taken me to play once, but it was probably twice. In any case, I had enough of a blast that when I went looking at colleges the next year, I wasn't as interested in whether they had a good English program as whether they had racquetball courts on campus.

The answer, in most cases, was no. Most colleges I looked at had squash courts. I didn't know what the difference was, and think I still don't. However, it does seem like squash is the slightly more common sport.

Though I don't think either of them is that common anymore. It could just be that I'm not in a squash place in my life anymore, or a racquetball place, or a place involving an indoor court with white walls, two racquets, two men, and a small rubber ball. But I don't know anyone who plays either of these sports, and I don't think it's only because they aren't in those places in their lives either. It seems like an activity that reached its peak in 1989 and has played a diminishing role in the zeitgeist ever since.

Except at the movies, where it still serves its role as a trope for getting men together one on one for private conversation, and possibly confrontation.

Reminding me of this fact was Tamara Jenkins' Private Life, which I saw on Wednesday night. Racquetsquash (that seems like a good way to indicate my ambiguity about which is which going forward) hardly seems like what should be prompting me to write about this film, which I thought was excellent and has many qualities that would be better suiting for praising than nitpicking. But what can I say, this was what occurred to me, and I need to keep feeding this blog beast lest you stop coming to this site altogether.

In a movie that is otherwise an incredibly true and realistic portrait of a couple trying to adopt, artificially inseminate, in vitro fertilize or in some way or another produce a child, two men engage in what I considered to be a very anachronistic game of racquetsquash. The sport fits a lot more logically in the other films that came to mind, such as Splash! and Wall Street, which are just a few of the many in which men have convened in a small court to bond, communicate, or butt heads. If this were the old days and it weren't the Christmas season, I'd probably have scrounged the internet to find a dozen other examples for your edification.

But in 2018? Are men still getting together to smash these small balls at each other, almost like boxers going at each other for 12 rounds?

That's when it occurred to me that this is a trope, used as much for it symbolic value as its relation to the real world. As it has typically been used in the movies, the racquetsquash court provides a small, enclosed environment in which friends can be real with each other, telling each other the unvarnished truth about whatever is bothering them, or frenemies can try to intimidate one another into submission. It's either a safe space like the confessional, or a pressure cooker -- and the sweat pouring from their brows tends to indicate the latter. In either case, it's a place where men can be alone to blow off steam or bounce around ideas, and where they can't be overheard.

Interestingly, there wasn't much of either of the traditional uses of racquetsquash in Private Life. And perhaps that's an indication of how much we've seen scenes like this in the movies, that they've developed a third usage: connector scenes. Perhaps racquetsquash scenes are so familiar to us now that they can operate just as a comfortable bridge from one scene to another, with maybe a little exposition or moving forward of plot mechanics.

If it weren't after midnight four days before Christmas, I could probably produce some additional thoughts on this. But I'll leave off here.

And as for my own love affair with racquetsquash? I actually haven't played again since those one or two times in high school. Though would still love to, for just plain physical reasons if not metaphorical ones.

I'll finish by giving Private Life its due: It's fantastic. See it exclusively on Netflix, and add it near the top of your own 2018 list, as I have.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Present research

If you're wondering why I haven't posted in ten days, well, you're correct! It's the holidays and I've been slammed. Not only am I feeling the pressure of the gifts I still need to arrange and other typical holiday distractions, but I'm also trying to catch up on what now seems like an onslaught of 2018 movies I need to see before my ranking deadline in just over a month.

I'm sure I've had plenty of blog post ideas during that time, but none of them have been fully baked enough to write themselves, as you need posts to do when you are busy and don't have time to devote to research.

But I don't want you looking at George Clooney's handsome mug any longer when you come to my blog. Time for some new content.

And this one relates to both watching movies and buying presents.

I got ahead of the game with presents for my international family this year, in that I transported ten or so presents with me when I flew to America at the end of October. Unfortunately, I couldn't buy all the presents I would ultimately need for my family members, so I planned to supplement with a shipment in late November or early December.

Well, it's now mid-December and well past any realistic deadline for shipping to America. So the supplementing I'm now doing is gifts purchased from online retailers ... though I'm getting behind on that too.

I'm particularly short on gifts for my dad, which is tough because he's very generous with me. All my family are, of course, and I'd probably say that if I were short for anyone else as well. But it's the person for whom you're short on gifts at the moment whose generosity tends to feel particularly profound. You don't want a failure to supply the requisite number of gifts to serve as an unwitting indication of your gratitude for that generosity.

But I don't want being short on gifts to prompt me to get "just anything." "Just anything" is not a reflection of my gratitude either. I still want to put in a decent amount of thought, even now that time is running short.

So, I vetted a film just to see if it was right for him as a gift.

It was a film I had already seen, of course, and by now you've used your intuition to identify that movie as Kogonada's 2017 indie Columbus. I got the idea it would interest my dad because he's always had a love for architecture, and Kogonada's film is all about that. In fact, if he hadn't become a mechanical engineer it's easy to imagine he might have given architecture a spin. He remains an aficionado for a well-designed building, especially those modernist beauties that improbably populate the otherwise little-known town of Columbus, Indiana.

The idea popped into my head with the joy that accompanies the completion of a difficult task or the solution of a tough riddle. "Columbus, of course," I thought.

But I only just gave him another movie for his birthday back in September, which was also based on his interests: Paul Schrader's First Reformed. My dad is also an environmentalist, and has been so for about 15 years now.

That one ended up being a hit -- though he forgot to tell me that until I asked him -- but that didn't mean I wanted to open the floodgates and just start gifting him movies left and right. My dad is not naturally a film buff, and I've never tried to mold him into being one. Two movie gifts in the space of four months might suggest that this is what I'm trying to do.

So Columbus had to be right. It had to contain enough architecture content to make the purchase worth it, and also be astute in the rest of its observations about the world, of which there are many.

So even with everything else I needed to accomplish on Sunday, I rented Columbus for the second time from iTunes (it informed me I had already watched it, helpfully) and devoted parts of my Sunday afternoon and evening to it. It was my #17 movie of 2017, but I needed to be sure.

After 15 minutes I was sure, but I kept watching it out of pure enjoyment, and because it seems silly to waste a $4.99 rental fee, even when you have plenty else going on. Not only does the architecture present itself beautifully and regularly, and not only are there engrossing discussions on design and the philosophy of why a person loves a building, but there's also a really interesting conversation on attention spans. Rory Culkin's character has one of those conversations with Haley Lu Richardson's character that tend to be favored by Richard Linklater, where the character is essentially functioning as a mouthpiece for the director on some little theory of his he's aching to cram in somewhere. In this case, it has to do with a bookish person's tendency to accuse a video game enthusiast of having a short attention span, because the video game enthusiast doesn't like reading for more than a few minutes. But in reality, the video game enthusiast has a plenty long attention span, just not for things that don't interest him. The bookish person's attention span for video games is equally short.

Anyway, I thought that might give my dad a slightly different perspective on his grandson, who is engrossed in Minecraft for hours on end. I don't think my dad's judging my son, but just in case he is, it's a little useful extra bonus content beyond the architecture.

Now, I just hope he doesn't get extra bonus meaning that I'm not intending about the relationship between John Cho's character and his absent dad, who's lying in a coma for most of the movie. That would be the wrong takeaway.

Also, I hope he doesn't happen to read this before Christmas.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: Hail, Caesar!

This is the final installment of my bi-monthly 2018 series in which I reconsider certain Coen brothers movies I didn’t love (and one I did).

If I’d made a list ranking Coen brothers movies from first to worst before starting this series, the second-to-last spot on that list might have been reserved for the one that was, until November of this year, their most recent.

That’s right, I really didn’t care for Hail, Caesar! when I saw it back in February of 2016.

And sleepiness victimizes yet another movie.

As written about here, I saw it with a friend, which kept me from smuggling in the snacks that are meant to keep me awake during a movie. (The dubious value of which were discussed only yesterday on this blog.) And the result was one of my most epic struggles to stay awake in recent memory.

I had no such trouble for my second viewing of Hail, Caesar! this past Tuesday night. As a result, I have now upgraded it from a non-plussed two-star rating in 2016 to ... “a hoot.”

So I still don’t love this movie, not by a long shot, but now I do think of it as “a hoot.”

I always had an appreciation for the big set pieces in this movie, particularly the “No Dames!” sequence led by Channing Tatum. But that’s just what this movie felt like to me on the whole: a series of disjointed and disconnected set pieces. Neither of the movie’s two real narrative throughlines – the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by communists and the makeover of the image of movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) – held much value for me. They were both fatally slight.

Of course, the major narrative throughline is supposed to be the day-to-day struggle of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he keeps the lid on any scandals that may threaten the studio and its stars. He’s also trying to decide if he should jump ship for a cushy job at Lockheed. But his arc didn’t interest me much -- he is, paradoxically, a supporting player in multiple storylines, giving him enough screen time to function as the main character. He doesn’t feel developed enough to be a traditional main character. He’s more like a fast-talking prop, played for humor even though the Coens think he isn’t being played that way. Then again, I can’t tell what the Coens actually think for a lot of the parts of this movie.

I do, however, now find this movie a hoot. Certain individual moments exist as isolated delights, like everything Hobie Doyle does with a lasso, like he and Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) duelling in their deliveries of “Would that it were so simple,” like some of the dialogue between the communists. They just don’t add up to more than the sum of individual hoots.

Given what the Coens have given us in 2018 – the anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I watched a few weeks ago – I now have a bit more context for where they were headed creatively. When they made Hail, Caesar!, they didn’t essentially want to make a single coherent narrative. They wanted to give us flavors of a world through the eyes of different characters. They erred, I think, by not just breaking it up into an anthology as they did with Buster Scruggs. There’s strain in the effort to make the connections between characters in Caesar. Like, what sense does it make that Hobie Doyle goes off in search of Baird Whitlock? I loved what they did in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and think Caesar could have benefitted from turning their creative impulses more explicitly into that kind of finished product.

During this series I’ve come to recognize that I tend to like melancholy Coens (Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis) more than bug-eyed Coens (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading), except when I don’t – Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men being the exceptions in each category. But Raising Arizona, my favorite movie of all time, is actually bug-eyed Coens undercut by a genuinely moving ending that brings home the film’s underlying sentiment. I suppose that’s my favorite version of the Coens, when they pull it off.

I think they try to pull that off here, but it doesn’t work. The sentiment doesn’t carry much emotional weight, and the jokes in the bug-eyed parts don’t land for me. I’ve noted the exceptions to that latter part. But for example, the scene where Mannix sits at a table full of religious leaders and asks them about the studio’s proposed depiction of Jesus Christ? I can tell that scene is designed to be hilarious, and that the Coens think it is. It just doesn’t land for me.

Still, though, the upgrade in my overall impression of the movie is reasonably significant. My two-star rating is more properly a three, I’d say, which makes this probably the most successful re-coen-sideration of the whole series.

And that finishes the series. In summation, there wasn’t a single film I watched that I actually liked less the second time I saw it. I wonder if that’s a Coens thing, as I just listened to the Filmspotting episode on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and they talked about how Coen movies benefit from repeat viewings, to a greater extent than your average movie. Of course, the results of my series are a bit skewed, as I only watched one movie I already liked. If I had watched exclusively movies I liked instead of mostly movies I didn’t like, I might have seen some of those drop in my estimation.

Still, positive result for the series, though possibly not a profound enough result to really reach any conclusions. The Coens are still some of my favorite filmmakers and I still have issues with some of their films. Two of the most beloved Coen films, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, are movies I didn’t rewatch for this series because I’d already done that on my own time. I still can’t reach others’ level of affection on them.

Most creative talents are going to hit with you sometimes and miss sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. But when the Coens do hit, they hit better than almost anyone else.

I’ve got a bi-monthly series lined up for 2019, and it also concentrates on the work of a well-known director(s). I’ll tell you about that another time.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Sorry to run to you

Sorry to Bother You got a very late release in Australia – just last Thursday. At least that puts it ahead of Eighth Grade and First Reformed, which are still awaiting release dates as far as I can tell.

In fact, the release was so late that I considered just renting it on American iTunes in order to review it, rather than going to the theater. That would mean I could do it any night, while saving my trips to the theater for movies I couldn’t see elsewhere.

But it’s also been one of my most anticipated movies of the year since, I don’t know, March? Meaning it also carried some of the greatest potential to end up near the top of my year-end rankings. If I were indeed to like it that much, I should also do it the honor of watching it on the big screen, to give it that extra boost enjoyed by most of its competitors. (Not since 2012 has my #1 movie been a movie I’ve seen for the first time on video.)

Unfortunately, then I undid all my good intentions by running to the movie.

I wasn’t late; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying it was time for my weekly run, and I ran to the movie theater.

See, I’m training to run a marathon. Not soon, but when I turn 50. That will be in 2023. Have to start now or I’ll never get there.

Right now and since about May, I’ve been running one night a week for 30-35 minutes. I plan to increase that to two nights a week in 2019, as well as increasing the duration of each run. I’ll step it up from there over the course of the next four years, and hopefully be able to tackle the thing by my stated deadline, which I’m advertising to everybody as a means of making myself stick to it.

I really don’t like to skip a week. I’ve skipped only two so far. One was when I pulled a hamstring while playing baseball, though not badly enough to hamper me for more than a week, and one was the week after I returned from the whirlwind trip to the U.S., when jet lag was getting the best of me. Every other week, I’ve run.

Last week was in danger, though. Given how I knew my schedule was going to play out, I really needed to get my run in on Thursday. However, I also needed to see Sorry to Bother You on Thursday night, the night of its release, in order to get the review up on our site as soon as possible. (Joke was on me; I didn’t finish it until Monday, and it went up on Tuesday, which means I could have just as easily gone either Sunday or Monday night.)

So, I did both.

Running to the theater only gets me about half of the amount of time I’d like to run each week, so I was planning to run home as well. But by then it was 11:45 and it felt ridiculous at that point. So it was only a half run, but that was something.

I thought it would work out fine. I ran with a small backpack in order to carry a Coke and some chocolates to give me an energy boost when I needed it. And I’ve been running enough this year that the physical exertion alone does not put me to sleep. It’s rare that I go to bed before midnight, even and perhaps especially on nights I go running.

But as much as I love them, movies have a tranquilizing effect on me. It’s why I always load myself up with caffeine and sweets when I go to the theater. I view those things as my only savior from slumber if my body becomes overwhelmed with the desire to sleep, whether there’s any truth to that or not. (With the Coke, some truth; with the chocolates, very little beyond a psychosomatic effect, and sometimes it’s only the benefit of being engaged in a repetitive motion activity, which in itself is enough to keep you from sleeping.) At home, I could pause it, but not at the theater.

If I’m really enjoying the movie, I won’t worry about eating and drinking up the snacks and drinks near the start. If I have two of one or both, I’m usually in good shape, as gobbling up one early still leaves an emergency supply in reserve. But I don’t really want to eat two separate bags of sweet treats. You know, to avoid turning into a blimp.

If I have only one of one or both, and I’m loving the movie, I just eat them as I feel like. Which usually ends up being in the first 45 minutes.

And I was really loving Sorry to Bother You. At the start, anyway. I was laughing and grooving on it. I thought there was very little chance exhaustion would overpower me.

So I ate my chocolates at about the half-hour mark, and drank the Coke (No Sugar Coke, I should say) around maybe an hour.

And then Sorry to Bother You started to lose me.

And then the run started to catch up with me.

I wouldn’t say that I actually slept for any portion of the second half of the movie, though I was definitely fading in and out in the last 20 minutes, as the movie became increasingly chaotic. It may have been that there was less need to grasp the specifics of the plot at that point anyway. I don’t think there were any holes in my viewing experience, though I can’t say for sure.

But when I left the theater, I was a tad disappointed with Sorry to Bother You. When pondering the grade I planned to give it on my review, I considered only a 6/10. I’d decided on a 7/10 after a little additional consideration, and by the time I wrote about it (you can read the review here), I knew my thoughts were more in line with a 7/10. But I’d expected it to be either an 8 or a 9, so it still qualified as a disappointment.

And then there was the nagging element of how much of my appreciation was lost as I struggled against my body’s impulses in the second half. Where this movie goes in the second half requires you to be on your toes a bit more, I’d say. Let’s just say I was not.

I considered the matter sort of settled. Regrettably settled, but settled nonetheless. Then I listened to them discuss it on The Next Picture Show, one of my handful of film podcasts. I’d been holding this episode since July or whenever, eager not to listen to it before I’d seen the movie. And good that I didn’t, as they had no concerns about spoiling the strange turn the movie takes in its second half.

And though I’ve been a bit down on this podcast lately, finding myself inclined to pick numerous nits with it, their discussion got me retroactively enthused about what I had seen.

I hadn’t exactly forgotten the interesting parts of the movie, but their mentions of them brought them swimming back up from some part of my subconscious. “Oh yeah, that happens in this movie. And that. And that. Wow!” Their discussion reminded me of how many interesting, daring, and batshit crazy things Boots Riley does in this movie. The fact that not every single one of them works is less important than the fact that he did them, and boy isn’t that great, and boy isn’t that refreshing.

That discussion will almost certainly push the movie higher in my rankings, but that’s not enough for me. And given that long delay between the U.S. and Australian release of the film, I may actually have a chance to watch it again before my ranking deadline. I mean, I definitely will, since it’s already available for rental via iTunes, as stated earlier. But they may even make it the 99 cent rental in one of the coming weeks, and that’s probably the excuse I’ll need to prioritize a second viewing.

At home, where I can pause, with a refrigerator full of gastronomic stimulants just a few feet away, and no run, partial or otherwise, on the same night.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Timing The Grinch

I know The Grinch is not going to be great.

If there was ever much doubt, I snuck a peak at its Metacritic score, which is an uninspiring 51. That's only five points higher than Ron Howard's 2000 garish debacle Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A new holiday classic it will not be. Or, I should say, a new holiday classic it already is not.

But dammit, I at least want to see it before Christmas.

Last night my wife suggested that we hang on to it until we are on our beach holiday on the Mornington Peninsula, which will run December 31st through January 4th. Now, that's not a beach holiday timed to swim in the snow drifts, mind you. That'll be peak summer here in Australia.

Her logic is that we know we want to take the kids to their first drive-in movie down there -- or rather, first since the older one was an infant -- and we don't know if we can rely on another kid appropriate movie playing there.

After Christmas. She wants to watch the movie after Christmas.

I like that she can continue to carry the Christmas spirit with her on into January, but for me, Christmas is dead to me on December 26th. Never happened. On to the next thing.

If you think that's contrary to my ordinary level of sentimentality, don't worry. We leave our tree up until at least January 20th. But that doesn't mean I want to have the pop culture pastimes I imbibe be Christmas-oriented ones after the 25th. Heck, I don't even want to watch a Christmas-oriented TV show or movie on Christmas itself. Christmas Eve is the latest I'll go for that. Without grumbling, anyway, as I am doing now.

Besides, I think her thinking is flawed. The Grinch didn't release here as early as it did in the U.S., where a friend described seeing it way too early (before Thanksgiving), but it did bow within the month of November, on the 29th. There's good reason to believe that drive-in will have already stopped showing it by then, especially if it's not that great, and especially given that we get a cavalcade of new releases on Boxing Day each year.

One of which is always the latest Disney and/or Pixar movie, and this year, is Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Now, there's absolutely no denying that this movie will be playing at that drive-in. They do realize they need something for families, and that'll be it. One hundred percent guarantee. You can't say the same for a movie that'll be a full month old by then, plus no longer have its relevant holiday still awaiting in the future.

I suppose it's an especially long delay given how much later her suggestion is than when I originally planned to see it. Which was this past weekend.

See, I'm the only guy at my website who will review an animated movie. That's not entirely true, as my editor was the one who reviewed Finding Dory. But he spent half the review talking about how it would have made a lot more sense for me to review it. No kidding. That's the kind of reviews he writes. They're hilarious.

The Grinch seems like the kind of movie that deserves a review on our site, especially since I recently reviewed another holiday movie that hardly met that same standard: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. What site reviews a weird Nutcracker movie and not The Grinch?

Yet I've got a thing about reviewing a movie after its moment of greatest freshness. I don't even like the delay of a review of mine not posting until Monday after a Thursday release, which often happens because I don't have time to write it that night after getting home, and Website 101 says you don't post new content on weekends.

My editor doesn't care about this. He'd take a review of The Grinch from me in March. He views the site less as an ongoing news feed of new posts but as a repository that will ultimately be used by future readers to search out our reviews. He'd have more of a point, I think, if the percentage of movies that got reviews weren't so scattershot, leaving the whole thing well short of the type of completism I like. But I'm getting sidetracked.

The critic in me wanted to see The Grinch on opening weekend. But my heart grew three sizes at my wife's suggestion that we see it on the weekend immediately before Christmas itself.

This was a tolerable sacrifice, and maybe something better than that. I don't review the film, but I get to see it at a time of its maximum impact boosting my holiday spirit. That's in theory only, mind you -- chances are the kids will be fighting that day and it will be 100 degrees out, meaning it won't feel much like Christmas anyway.

I was just settling into the idea and had barely 24 hours to do so before my wife floated this idea of grinching possibly as late as 2019.

There's some sweet spot between my friend seeing it before Thanksgiving, me planning a December 2nd viewing, watching it on or around the 23rd and waiting until January. I don't know what it is, but I've got to find it.

That's a lot of emotional energy expended on a movie with "mixed or average reviews."

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Stricken from the record

I'm not the right person to eulogize Filmstruck.

As a resident of Australia, I never even had my chance to sign up for the streaming service, or if I did, then I never realized it. I certainly would have signed up if I'd been able.

And maybe that's all the more reason why my eulogizing it is appropriate in some way. (I must be in a eulogizing mood, as I just wrote a short eulogy to George H.W. Bush on Facebook.)

The streaming service that shuttered on November 30th after two years was a beloved repository for classic films and films from the Criterion collection, though those two things were not mutually exclusive. Well, it was beloved among cinephiles. Your average joe was not subscribing, which certainly had something to do with its perceived lack of sustainability.

I've bemoaned lately -- to myself if no one else -- how difficult it can be to find even really good movies from the decades prior to the 1970s. You can scrounge and scrape and find things through the library and other sources, but it almost always involves some kind of premeditation. You can't just rock up to your TV and start watching, as you can with even the lesser films of the last ten to 15 years due to their heavy presence on your mainstream, non-niche streaming services.

And it's that scarcity that I blame for my dwindling totals of such films in recent years. Clearly that's not the only explanation, as you can shell out a couple bucks and buy a lot of them on iTunes, which is the equivalent of streaming them except for the per-transaction payment. Even then, though, it's difficult to see all your choices in one place, and just browse through them until you find the exact fit for that particular evening.

Filmstruck did that for many, and would have for me if there hadn't been such obstacles to overcome in rolling it out internationally. In fact, it's so bad with being an international customer for most of these services that I just assume they aren't available in Australia without even investigating whether they might be. Anyway, I didn't sign up for it, and I'm pretty sure I never had the chance.

And now I never will.

It's not like other options won't pop up just because this particular business model didn't work. In fact, several have already been announced, from a Criterion streaming channel to a Warner archive service. But I get the impression that none of them will be as comprehensive as Filmstruck was. If they were, well, then that business model would have worked for Filmstruck. Any service they launch going forward is going to have to be compromised toward the lowest common denominator.

I wish I'd had the chance to write about Filmstruck before its demise. I wish I'd been catching a classic a week, or at least every fortnight (might as well use the Australian term), through this great service.

Now I'll just have to hope that whatever takes its place is successful enough to reach me overseas ... rather than just following Filmstruck to the cinematic graveyard.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Personal apocalypse

For whatever reason, in the past couple months I have rewatched two movies where the events can be read as a metaphor for the main character cracking up. Don't worry, I'm fine.

But it does appear I really like a movie like this, in which the events have one literal interpretation, and a second that functions as kind of a personal apocalypse for the main character.

Of course, sometimes those apocalypses are literal as well, and sometimes the main events can't be interpreted in a way that also makes sense literally.

Both Melancholia, which I rewatched on September 28th, and mother!, which I rewatched on Friday night, are excellent artistic distillations of what it looks like for a person losing their marbles and seeing their world come to an end.

It's difficult to do this, mind you, without some very heady concepts and intense imagery, like a planet colliding with Earth or a house being overrun by religious fanatics and exploding in an inferno.

Oops, spoiler alert.

Lars von Trier stays more with the literal interpretations, even though they are fairly fantastic from a scientific perspective. Not that a rogue planet couldn't collide with Earth, just that it wouldn't in the way shown here. There are any number of laws of astrophysics broken here, one of which I suspect is the one that allows the characters to see the planet filling the sky as it comes close to its impact. That's one of the film's many wonderful images, so I'm glad von Trier went with it. And it functions very well as a metaphor for a depressed woman who sees no hope.

Darren Aronofsky is a lot more always in the realm of the imagination, something you get the sense of when you first see the house where all the action is set, which is isolated in a natural setting without anything like a driveway or a road leading away from it. We're in the realm of metaphor pretty much from the start. You could argue it's a metaphor for at least a half-dozen things, but one of these is a woman who no longer recognizes the perfect man and idyllic home she thought she once knew, feeling her world close in on her until it suffocates her.

(Both films, I just realized, are kind of neatly divided into two halves -- an old testament and a new testament in the case of mother!)

I haven't experienced depression very often in my life, but when I have, I can easily understand either of the metaphors presented in these two movies. You feel like you don't recognize your surroundings, or in any case, can find no joy in them. You feel a sense of doom that seems inevitable. You know on a rational level that you will not always feel this way, but when you're in the depths of it, you feel there is no way out.

Art in its purest form should approximate the experience of emotions we cannot otherwise put into words. It should dramatize scenarios that allow us to grapple with feelings we have, and at its best, it should give us a valuable new perspective on those feelings that keep them from dominating us.

Surprisingly, mother! is actually the more bleak of the two films, which is strange considering that a) von Trier is probably considered more the misanthrope than Aronofsky, and b) Melancholia portrays the literal end of the world. But Jennifer Lawrence's title character ends as a used up resource, looking on helplessly in the last charred moments of her life as her husband prepares to go on and start the cycle again with a new muse. Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst's depressed bride is the calming influence as her sister and nephew wait for impact, a slight smile on her face.

If a personal apocalypse is inevitably ahead of us, it's something at least if we can face it with equanimity.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Frederick Wiseman

This is the penultimate installment of Audient Auteurs, my 2018 monthly series in which I watch two movies by a respected filmmaker who was previously unfamiliar to me.

During this series, I have struggled month in and month out to source movies from filmmakers who a) were prominent enough to include in a series like this, and b) didn’t have at least one movie I had already seen. And with some of the candidates I announced at the start of the year, they just proved unsourceable – by legal means, anyway.

I nearly expended the whole series before realizing that one of the original targets on my list had over a dozen movies available for free.

That’s Frederick Wiseman, the acclaimed documentarian whose entire catalogue (or close to it) is available for free on Kanopy. I’m not sure what happened between making and publishing my original list and going out to find my next monthly target each month, but I almost missed out on Wiseman entirely. (Actually, I can tell you what happened – I was working off a list in a saved draft in my email, and for some reason Wiseman wasn’t included on this list, even after making my original shortlist.)

So November was my easiest month of the series once I got around to recognizing my prior omission. In fact, there’s such an embarrassment of Wiseman riches on Kanopy that I considered watching three of his movies, before ultimately deciding that the format of this series should be rigidly respected. (I am my own worst police officer, you see.)

November marks the first time I’ve broken another informal rule of the series, one not very worth respecting, which is a habit of watching the two movies in the order of their release date. No particular reason for that rule except it would help me better appreciate the growth of the filmmaker over the course of his or her career. Though that hardly matters in this case as the films I chose were released one year apart, right at the beginning of a career that is still going today, even as Wiseman has reached the ripe old age of 88. (Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana may still be available in theaters, in fact, or may have yet to be released, depending on where you live.)

I knew what my first film was going to be, and expected my second to be one of the movies Wiseman has released later in his career, such as In Jackson Heights or Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. But you know what? Those new movies are each pushing three hours, and with the number of theatrical releases I’m seeing these days that eclipse the two-hour mark (practically all of them), I just needed something that was more of a snack size. So I ran a poll on my Flickcharters group on Facebook, and my second was the only movie that got mentioned. (I guess these people are unfamiliar with Wiseman as well). As it happened, it was the only movie Wiseman released before the movie I’d already locked down as one of my two choices.

But enough on the uninteresting machinations of my own decision making. Wiseman occupies a unique spot on the documentary landscape with his fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking. From the very beginning of his career he has demonstrated an interest in putting American institutions of one type or another under the microscope. But not probing them; rather, letting them speak for themselves. He just turns on his camera and starts filming, with an almost total lack of on-screen titles (one of my films containing one of the few exceptions), and with audiences only able to discern his perspective on what he’s filming if they want to read into his editing choices. This approach has continued to produce profound work that has interested people for 50 years.

Like me, Wiseman is a Boston native. He got into filmmaking comparatively late in life, though he did produce his first film (The Cool World) by age 33. Since his debut as director, he has produced and directed all of his films. He spent time in the military and taught law (after getting a bachelor of laws from Yale) before devoting his life to filmmaking. Wiseman apparently does not do extensive preparations before tackling the institutions in question, learning them on the fly as he films, and getting his “dramatic structure” (though rarely a traditional narrative arc) in the editing. Rarely do his films have traditional climaxes, as climaxes need to be assessed on a scene-by-scene basis to the extent that they exist at all.

Let’s look at a few of those films in particular, shall we?

High School (1968)

High School was the first Wiseman film I ever heard of, as it was referenced on Filmspotting some years ago (probably multiple times). As such it felt like the most essential of his films to see. It also had the mercifully short running time of 75 minutes.

I’m not calling that running time “merciful” because I expected to want to escape the subject matter, a fly-on-the-wall look at a high school in Philadelphia. I use that term in comparison to the length of some of his other films, as well as most films in general these days.

However, as I began watching, I did realize that the unconventionally structured nature of a Wiseman film can make it difficult to sustain longer exposures to it. You aren’t propelled along by a story, so the way you assimilate the information, to the extent you do at all, is random and non-sequential. In fact, you could make the following argument, if you weren’t afraid of people calling you a philistine and ejecting you from respectable cinephile circles: You can step out at any time from a Wiseman movie, say to go to the bathroom, and not really “miss” anything. As it’s all part of an ambient exposure to a particular world, no one part is key to understanding the whole.

It's an interesting approach to making films, and definitely distinctive, but I don’t know that it made much of a rapt audience out of me. As I was still recovering from jet lag from my recent trip to America when I saw High School (and in some ways don’t feel completely over it today, nearly three weeks after getting back), I did actually fall asleep multiple times during the movie, though I did at least pause it. Without characters to follow (you do see some of them multiple times, but you don’t know that the first time you see them) and without stories to follow (there are some themes and repeated actions, but nothing close to a narrative spine), it’s perhaps inevitable that your level of engagement will suffer. Or at least, it was inevitable for me.

Conversely, I completely and easily recognized that this is kind of a brilliant film, and I couldn’t quibble with someone for giving it the highest possible star rating. There’s something revolutionary in its simplicity, in the way Wiseman just sets up his camera and goes. I think part of what makes it revolutionary is that he truly has been able to make himself a fly on the wall. None of his subjects seem aware of the camera, either because it was everpresent so they just came to ignore it, or because he didn’t use any of the footage where they clearly were aware of it. In a project like this, it’s very likely he had 50 hours of unused footage, maybe 100, maybe 200. He’s distilled what’s most useful, which of course gives the impression that it was all like this. Still, it’s a skill to make yourself so unobtrusive that you do get natural behavior from your subjects, and he’s clearly done that.

Even just ten days after I saw it, the individual episodes that I found captivating are already fading from my mind. That’s the nature of an experience like this. Wikipedia is no help in drawing attention to any particular scenes. However, there are a fair number of episodes of teachers and staff disciplining students for things like forgetting their gym clothes, student involved in gym, a number of teachers reading passages of literature to their students, some of it quite topical and moving. As there would be, there are sections of dialogue and their reactions to these everyday events that seem quite profound, though others that are totally banal. Still, the profound far outweighs the banal, simply because this is such an unusual approach to filmmaking and whatever it produces is going to be interesting on some level.

As I was watching I was struck by a similarity to the work of Terrence Malick, but in a sort of negative sense I suppose. As with a Malick movie, there’s almost no defensible explanation for why scenes are shown in the order they are shown. Why does one sequence in the “narrative” follow another? Would the movie “feel” different if they came the other way around? And if so, is that a strength or weakness of the film? With Malick – depending on the movie – it can feel like a sublime skill, as this sequence of events creates this specific experience, and in that sense they could not be sequenced any differently if you find the experience transportive. However, with Malick’s lesser films, the apparent randomness of it all is likely to leave you a lot more annoyed.

Titicut Follies (1967)

My second Wiseman film, his first, is a lot more clearly a political, polemical work. By focusing on Massachusetts' Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, Wiseman a lot more clearly embeds a kind of judgment into his film. Again his approach is the same – or, I should say High School has the same approach as this – where he’s a fly on the wall and he’s just capturing whatever goes on around him. Though what to include and what to omit has a lot more of a weighted quality to it here, as it deals with men spouting hatred and nonsense and conspiracy theories, and sometimes appearing naked on camera.

While privacy seems like it should have been an issue in High School, and surely was (there was supposedly “vague talk of a lawsuit”), nothing that happens there paints anyone in a bad enough light to regret it. No teachers or authority figures seem to abuse their power, and no students say or do anything that will follow them later on. Here, though, it’s totally different. The state of Massachusetts claimed that these patients/inmates were in no position to give informed consent to appear in the film, and Wiseman clearly shielded himself behind what legally defined consent he did manage to extract from them, using that to display things that verge on shocking. The legal limbo left the film unable to be shown publicly for more than two decades, until the point that many if not most of the subjects had died.

What’s so shocking? Well, in addition to the standard spewing of paranoid drivel that any homeless person on a street corner might provide you on any given Thursday, there are a number of instances of patients being treated roughly and inhumanely. There’s more than one instance where these patients are disrobed entirely, and though I didn’t interpret it as such at the time I was watching it, apparently you can also see the guards taunting them. It goes to show how unaccustomed people were to being filmed back then that they would allow such material to be captured by the cameras.

Although there’s the same interchangeable quality to the scenes as there was in High School, a few of the particular “set pieces” do stand out, though that could just be because I’ve seen this movie more recently, only two nights ago. One in particular is worth drawing attention to, in part because it also showcases a type of parallel editing that I never noticed from Wiseman in High School.

It involves the hospital staff inserting a feeding tube down the nasal cavity of a patient, either because he was unable or unwilling to swallow food himself. As might be expected from a patient who is not properly ingesting his food, this man eventually died. Wiseman intercuts the forced feeding scene with footage of his corpse being prepared for burial by an undertaker. It really takes you aback, as it kind of shatters the illusion that “Yeah, these people are all out of their gourd, but at least no one’s dead or anything.” Well, someone’s dead, and whether it’s the result of negligence on the part of the hospital or the natural progression of a disease, Wiseman’s approach never clarifies.

One recurring element that gives the film additional emotional power comes from its title. In one of the film’s happier aspects, a choral leader conducts a singing group of prisoners/patients that performs Broadway type songs on stage. It’s a nice reminder that not everyone has given up on these people and their quality of life is still a consideration. However, when contrasted with how desperate it is for these people most of the time, one is reminded just what type of situation they’re in, and the tragic crimes they have committed to get themselves here.

The film includes a judge-mandated on-screen text at the end (the exception I referred to earlier) stating that "Changes and improvements have taken place at Massachusetts State Correctional Bridgewater since 1966," though Wiseman makes clear he was obligated to include it -- which is about his most definitive statement of opinion in the whole film. I originally thought this was strange since it was only a year later, but then I read up and realized that this was added in 1991, when the film was finally allowed to be shown for a general audience.

Final month next month! Who will I watch? Who knows.