Tuesday, February 27, 2018

That other time I chose the Aussie film over the best picture nominee

Remember back on February 5th, when I told you about opting for the Australian movie Sweet Country over a chance to see Phantom Thread?

Well, I've done it again, this time with a movie I liked a whole lot less over a movie I'm sure I'll like a whole lot better.

And I also placed that second movie, the best picture nominee, in danger of not being seen by me before the Oscars -- or possible in the theater at all.

That's right, last night I went to see Winchester, or Winchester: The House That Ghosts Built, a subtitle I am happy to report appears nowhere in the actual movie. I opted for it over Lady Bird. And if I don't see Lady Bird tomorrow night -- which I won't, since I'm scheduled to watch my second Audient Auteurs movie of February on the last day of the calendar month -- I will miss the two-week window in which I can watch the movie for free on my critics card at Cinema Nova. (It's playing at other theaters, but this feels like a "Cinema Nova type experience.")

At one point it was going to be a no-brainer, and I hadn't even bothered to find out that Winchester was even out yet. We were supposed to do a podcast on Lady Bird and it was supposed to be Wednesday night. But then one of my fellow podcasters had to go out of town for the week, with the alternate out of town for the week already. We don't do two-person podcasts, so the whole idea was shitcanned. Which is just as well, since I wasn't necessarily feeling LB as a topic of discussion on the podcast. Not only would it have already been out for two weeks here, but it's been out since the beginning of November in the U.S. Everbody, and I mean everybody, has already said everything they need to say about this movie.

I still felt a desire to see the movie, but freed up from this commitment, I decided to do something I hadn't done since the last time I made this "Australian movie or best picture nominee" choice -- watch something I could actually review. It had been three weeks since my Sweet Country review, and if you go too long without reviewing a movie, you start to feel a bit itchy.

Now, Winchester isn't totally an Australian movie, though you'd be hard-pressed to characterize it as something else. To your average filmgoer elsewhere in the world, it probably just seems like the latest off the Hollywood horror assembly line, seeing as how it has a trailer full of jump scares and is set in California. However, the movie was shot mostly in Australia, is directed by two Australians (Peter and Michael Spierig), stars an Australian (Jason Clarke) and features a lot of Australians in bit parts (Sarah Snook and Angus Sampson, and Bruce Spence gets honorary Australian status by being from New Zealand). I also know the film's art director. She was at my wedding.

Well, I'm glad to say that the art direction was the best part. Fortunately I didn't have to worry too much about a conflict of interest or hurting her feelings, as though I didn't like the movie as much as I wanted -- 5 out of 10 on the ReelGood rating scale -- I have nothing but positive words on its production design. My friend kicked the ass that the rest of the movie didn't. Good on her.

As for Lady Bird ... first I diss it in comparison to Black Panther (which I had not yet seen and didn't totally love), then it loses out to a fairly standard issue period horror movie. Will it ever catch a break?

Maybe. Especially in hindsight, I'm thinking I might use my Thursday night to get out there and finally watch this movie before the Oscars on Sunday. If I do, I'll be in a position that has become fairly unusual for me, though I did accomplish it last year: having seen all of the best picture nominees before the ceremony.

And chances are, Lady Bird will be better than Sweet Country, Phantom Thread, Black Panther or -- last and definitely least -- Winchester.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: Miller's Crossing

This is the first in a 2018 bi-monthly series reconsidering the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, mostly (but not always) films I didn't care for the first time. Thar be SPOILERS ahead.

When you watch movies, you usually want to watch movies you think you will like. So it's kind of dispiriting to begin a year-long bi-monthly series watching movies you already know you don't like that much, and don't necessarily expect to view more favorably after a second viewing.

Therefore, it's nice to at least start a series like this with a movie you know you loved ... and discover you love even more after the second viewing.

That was my experience with Miller's Crossing (1990), the first film chronologically in my series Re-coen-sidering, in which I'm watching six Coen films I've seen only once, every other month in 2018.

It wasn't my intention to revisit one I'd really liked, but the title Re-coen-sidering alone does not suggest you're trying to improve your opinion of a movie you didn't like. You could also be putting a movie you loved to the test, to see if it was worthy of that love. (And anyway, I could only find five Coen films I'm cool on that others like, if you exclude The Big Lebowski, which I've already seen twice and still can't really get behind.)

But just catching up with Coen movies I'd loved but hadn't seen in 20 years -- which also include Blood Simple and Hudsucker Proxy -- seemed like a useful component of this series, though I'll only start this way. Blood and Hudsucker -- Bloodsucker, if you will -- will have to wait for another time.

I was in the movie's groove right from the pre-credits scene in which Jon Polito confronts Albert Finney about John Turturro, but a possible problem did occur to me early on. Namely, one of my realizations as a cinephile in the past five to ten years is that film noir is not one of my favorite genres. I suppose Miller's Crossing is a neo-noir and its first genre might be considered a gangster film, but if Gabriel Byrne's character is not a stand-in for your noir private dick who gets beat up all the time, and Marcia Gay Harden is not a stand-in for your noir femme fatale, I don't know what better corollaries you could find out there.

It was a genre I once thought I loved, but films like The Big Sleep and Inherent Vice have forced me to confront that many of this genre's tropes and convoluted storylines just don't work for me.

But it's truly all in the writing. A noir film's plot does not have to be convoluted just because it's complicated. And the best Coen scripts, of which this is certainly one, don't only have the great patter and other linguistic flourishes that go down smoothly rather than seeming showy. They also pay everything off, tie everything together, and leave you fully satisfied.

As I was watching I couldn't believe what kind of well-oiled machine this is. Every part truly matters. There's no character introduced who doesn't play some integral role in the story. There's no throwaway scene. The script keeps on building upon itself, layering upon itself, but miraculously, paradoxically, it makes everything seem more simple rather than more complicated as it goes. I have no idea how they did that, but it's true.

I suppose if your mind were to wander for five minutes at some point, you would still be lost. This is not the type of movie that is going to dumb things down for you. But it's not trying to trick you either. There are no red herrings or other strategies that unnecessarily muddy the waters. If you pay attention, you will be with this movie the whole way, and will feel increasingly satisfied with every minute that passes and every plot development.

I will acknowledge certain small confusions that did resolve themselves for me as time went on. Because we see Steve Buscemi's character in only one scene -- only one scene alive, anyway -- I was not sure for a while that he was actually Mink. In fact, I thought they were saying "the Mick," which would have been a way to refer to Finney's Irish character, Leo O'Bannon. But the context in which he was discussed eventually helped me sort it out, plus this fact: We wouldn't have even been introduced to Buscemi's character if he were not in some way important to the plot. So I fit him in as the loose end in my character synopsis, and all was well.

That's the thing about this script. It gives you exactly what you need for the movie to play out properly, and not a bit more. As another example, the gangster to whom Tom Reagan is in debt -- his Jabba the Hutt, as it were -- is seen as little as Jabba the Hutt was seen in the original Star Wars (before George Lucas went back and "fixed" it). The famous Lazarre is not seen once, simply because he does not need to be seen, and it's kind of interesting to have a character who is talked about but never seen. (I feel like there are other prominent examples of this in the Coen filmography, but none is immediately coming to mind).

It was also kind of amazing to me that this movie is almost exclusively about the shifting dynamics between characters, and that is more than enough to sustain it. There are a few big set pieces, of course. The attack on Leo's house, set to "Danny Boy," and both trips to the titular location are very memorable. But most of the rest of the time, it's just people in rooms talking about their relationships to each other, their suspicions of double crosses, their accusations, their attempts to convince each other of loyalty. Ordinarily I think of this as the type of narrative convolutions that bother me about film noir. Here, they crackle and leave me fully engrossed.

I've spent a lot of time on the writing, but I shouldn't fail to mention the look of the film as well. As I was watching I was really appreciating the cinematography of Barry Sonnenfeld, who many people forget had this life before he became the director of Men in Black and increasingly lesser films. I especially admired the movement of his camera, particularly his zooms in and away from characters, and his tracking of action across a room.

I could certainly go on about this film, but you know how great it is and you don't need me to break it down scene by scene.

I do want to spare a few words for Byrne's Tom Reagan, though. He's such a compelling character because of the codes he lives by that so often seem counter to his own interests, yet he does the things he does anyway, because of his heart. He's often accused of having no heart, but nothing could be further from the truth. Everything he does for either Leo or Verna is because he loves them, though he would never tell them that, because then they wouldn't believe the deceptions he believes are necessary in order to save them. And because then there would seem something less pure, to himself, about what he's doing. What movie character you've ever seen tells a powerful man who could easily kill him that he's been sleeping with his girlfriend? A man who loves both of those people and thinks that this will be the best thing for them, even if they can't possibly see it. He's a man who knows all the angles, and it almost gets him killed on numerous occasions. But he plays those angles because he's a gambler, and because he's thinking two steps ahead of everybody else.

The movies are filled with characters who think two steps ahead of everybody else, and a lot of times they are insufferable. They are the con men version of a Mary Sue, though I guess I'm not sure if that metaphor really applies. What I mean is that they are perfect in their grasp and manipulation of a scenario and its interpersonal dynamics, and when the final act comes around, it seems that they were playing puppetmaster the whole time.

The brilliant thing about Reagan is that even with his calculations, he still sometimes gets it wrong. When he leaves Bernie alive, calculating that Bernie's best move will be to disappear so no one makes another attempt on his life, he takes Bernie for the coward that Bernie is not quite. This almost gets Tom killed when he is muscled out to Miller's Crossing by Dane to find Bernie's corpse that should be there, rotting. Tom knows he's cooked and even kneels to vomit by a tree, until voila, the corpse of Mink is revealed. (Making Bernie more shrewd than we thought he was, as well.) Our Mary Sue conman would never have gotten in that position, and never would have shown fear of his own impending demise.

The reason Tom gets it wrong sometimes, and does things counter to his own best interests, is because he does have that heart that people say he does not have. His arc, in a matter of speaking, is coming not to have the heart -- by killing Bernie at the end. Of course, that's not what's really happening there. There he's only reading people for what they really are and refusing to have his heart appealed to. And Bernie is pond scum who has caused nothing but trouble for anybody. By closing that loop, he's not only getting everybody square, he's further honing his craft of reading the angles. But really, he's demonstrating his heart both toward Leo, whom he unaccountably still wants to protect despite his numerous faults and vulnerabilities, and Verna, whom he still loves despite her own moral shortcomings and other compromised qualities. Bernie's death is the best thing for both of them, though only one of them realizes it. He's willing to be quits with her because that's the best thing for her, even if he's not sure it's the best thing for him. And he doesn't have to be quits with Leo, but chooses that, because even though he still loves him, in his way, something has been broken between them that cannot be repaired.

What I like more than anything about Tom is that he is his own man. He pays his own debts in his own ways, and even when he is compelled to carry out an order, he takes ownership of it and does it in a way that will preserve his own dignity and give him an angle on it. His dignity and his control over his own personhood are the most important things to him, which is why he's tormented by that dream of chasing his hat as it blows away in the wind. There's nothing more undignified and foolish than a man chasing his own hat.

The thing I am wondering now about Miller's Crossing is how it compares to Inside Llewyn Davis. For years I'd considered Crossing my third favorite Coen film, behind only Raising Arizona and Fargo. But because I'd seen it only once, and have already seen Davis three times now in barely four years of existence, Davis had kind of bumped Crossing out of that third spot. I'd have to think about it a bit more, but I think Crossing might have a leg up again.

Anyway, amazing movie.

I can't say things are likely to continue on this note, though many if not most people will think I have another good one in store for me next time. In April we jump forward ten years to 2000, when I will grapple with the first film in this series that I struggled with on first viewing, O Brother Where Art Thou?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Poolside Narnia

You know how I like the unique viewing experiences, right?

Well, I like them enough that I'm even willing to see mediocre 143-minute movies that I've already seen in order to experience them.

Last night was the final movie night of the summer (yes, it's summer here) at our neighborhood pool. They did about six of them, I guess, none of which was significantly more appealing than The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. But that one had the advantage not of content, but timing. This was also the only movie night in which my kids' grandparents, who just arrived from America on Thursday, would be in town. It seemed like a fun activity that created an opportunity for a picnic, and I love picnics almost as much as I love unique viewing experiences.

It was a unique viewing experience we'd tried to have once before, two summers ago. The pool was playing Frozen that night, but it never happened. There was thunder and lightning and perhaps the slightest splotches of rain in the leadup to the 8:45 start time. (The sun sets late in summer, you see.) So they preemptively called it off, probably with good reason, though on our walk home we noticed that the rain had stopped, and in fact it did not rain again.

Rain threatened this time as well, but that was before Friday actually arrived. A few angry clouds earlier in the day was all we got, and by dinnertime there were only healthy, fluffy clouds in a blue sky.

The bigger problem was probably the late start time and the length of the movie. Because I couldn't force my kids to wait until 7:30 or 8 to eat their dinner, I had to exclude them from the picnic plans and feed them at home before we left. There would be treats for them in the picnic basket later. In communicating this to my dad and his wife, though, somehow the idea was expressed that none of us would be eating a picnic and they should eat before we picked them up. Which they did. Leaving my ridiculous quantity of picnic foods just for myself, though they did pick at it as well.

Ridiculous quantity? How about this: Ham sandwiches, olives, crackers, boursin cheese, brie, grapes, strawberries, carrots, cucumbers slices, nuts, hummus, and pasta salad. And that's to say nothing of the various other chippy and cookie type things, and about five different options for drinks.

Oh well. It was the thought that counted, and it counted big time with them. Gratitude combined with chagrin = far greater total gratitude.

Probably the best part of the evening for the greatest number of people was getting in about 20 minutes of swimming before we settled in for the movie. My seven-year-old is a regular porpoise now, after being afraid to put his head under water as recently as a year ago. The four-year-old has always been adventurous in the water, and continues to be so. Their grandfather did not go in, but was enjoying watching everyone else, including their grandmother, who I had forgotten was such a big pool swimmer.

When we got out and dried off, and at least I ate my dinner, the wait for the movie to start seemed interminable. As the sky darkened and I thought it was plenty late to start the movie, the DVD start menu just sat their tauntingly on the inflatable screen. I tried to jokingly get a "Start the movie!" chant going, seeing if I could interest my kids in taking up the mantle so it would not seem rude coming from an adult. But the crowds were sparse -- there were only about 15 of us -- so I can imagine they didn't want to make an early start just to get us home at a reasonable time. With two kids under seven and grandparents suffering from jet lag, that seemed highly in my interest, but probably not in anyone else's.

It did eventually start, maybe a few minutes earlier than the projected approximate time, so that's something. And we were on our way.

Thinking this was a fairly bright movie, as that's the way I had remembered all the Narnia scenes, I was a bit dispirited to discover how dark all the pre-Narnia scenes, and even most of the actual Narnia scenes, are. I've found that on the times that I've seen movies projected in this manner, it's always difficult to detect the contrasts between shapes in the dark scenes, so that you have to figure out what's going on by the voices alone. The sound was plenty good, though. At times it felt downright booming.

The kids of course wanted to exhaust their supply of treats within the film's first 15 minutes, so 15 minutes after that they were already begging for ice creams. Which I'd planned to get them, but not until later in the movie. But kids are not adults, and they do not understand apportioning out their gratification. Then again, I don't understand it that much either. I'm the guy who eats his popcorn down at a consistent rate from right when I sit down, even if it means being nearly done with it when the trailers are finished.

Anyway, I couldn't really disguise my annoyance at having to take the kids to get the ice cream so early in the movie because they wouldn't stop bugging me. An annoying experience become even more annoying when my younger son selected a popsicle flavor that was a risk for him -- bubble gum. It probably should have sent off warning flags for me, but didn't. So it took until we got back to our spots on the lawn for him to take one lick of it and declare he didn't like it. I tried to see if my older son would like it and switch flavors with him -- he'd smartly chosen chocolate, as the younger should have -- but he wasn't having any of that. (He did at least take a lick to do his due diligence, but he passed on it.)

I was originally going to force the younger one to stick with his choice, but that attempt ended up in him wandering off by himself in what I expected to be quite a significant disruption. I wasn't worried about him ending up in the pool -- it's pretty easy to hear the splash of a single person in the water, so there's no chance he could do it undetected -- but I also had to demonstrate some model of good parenting to his grandparents. So I took him back to the snack bar to procure the chocolate popsicle, muttering under my breath probably more demonstrably than I should have. (I think the grandparents might have heard me spit out the word "idiot.") I ended up eating the bubblegum popsicle myself, which I actually thought was pretty good.

The rest of the movie was relatively free of disruptions, and miraculously, we stayed for the whole thing. My wife (who couldn't attend because she was taking this opportunity to clear some work off her very busy schedule) predicted we would not, that either sleepy grandparents or sleepy children would force the issue. Since you can kind of bend children to your will, it was the grandparents I was more worried about, especially coming off their first night's sleep in the new country. But that night's sleep actually turned out quite well for them, and every time I looked over, they were awake and engrossed. (By "engrossed" I don't necessarily mean that they loved the movie -- none of us did -- but that they were willing to give it their full attention at least.)

And yeah, it's as mediocre a movie as I'd remembered. Although C.S. Lewis' original story is supposed to be a classic, I wonder if it too is a bit of a disappointment (I've never read it). Certainly, Andrew Adamson delivers the product with enough technical proficiency and post-LOTR majesty, but the story feels a bit inert at times.

And speaking of Adamson ... one thing I noticed this time, which I might have noticed in 2006 when I first watched this but didn't write about because I didn't have a blog then, is how funny it is that this particular director directed the movie. I have to wonder if he was selected just because of this fact, though that would hardly seem like a good basis for gambling $100+ million of the studio's money.

In the movie (and book), human females are referred to as "daughters of Eve" and human males are referred to as "sons of Adam." (Bible much?) The director is, quite literally, a son of Adam -- Adamson.

Now, you might say that this makes some sense, that Adamson was attracted to the material because of his own Christianity, and that may be true. But it's one thing to be a devoted Christian, and it's quite another to have a family name -- a name that extends back generations -- that denotes your devoted Christianity. Any "son of Adamson" could have gone astray over the years and become a total heathen, passing that heathenism on to his offspring.

Just before 11 and wayyyyyy past my squirming kids' bedtime -- kids who had been invited to take a "nap" but couldn't -- the credits finally rolled. We hurriedly shoved half-completed containers of food and dirty dishes into various bags, and had a reasonably quick packup all told, before herding everyone into the car and delivery everyone home. The kids were a little ratty in the process of actually getting into bed, even though they were already in their pajamas, but by 11:30 everyone was asleep.

And I look forward to having this unique experience again next year ... with a shorter (and better) movie.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Setting a $404 million bar

I have to imagine that the phenomenon that immediately followed the phenomenon that was Black Panther's $404 million worldwide opening weekend was this phenomenon:

"Is that all?"

That being said by some audiences who saw the movie after the first weekend, but had heard about the first weekend and were extra pumped.

That was me, sort of. This is a good movie, but I'm not sure it's a whole lot more than that. Raking in that kind of cash made me think it would be a masterpiece, that it would spin my head, blow my mind, and fill me with emotion the way something like Wonder Woman did.

It didn't. And I heard one person walking out of my screening saying "Well that was pretty mediocre." And then another person whose first reaction was "But none of that explains where it fits in the timeline." (I know what timeline they're talking about. We saw T'Challa become king in Captain America: Civil War, and then go off to get involved with Iron Man and the rest of the guys. That part of the story is not at all touched on here, though presumably it was happening at about exactly the same time.)

I guess the point is, it was impossible for this movie ever to live up to the hype and that box office. And, it doesn't.

There are some cool things in this movie, but I was surprised by how few of the moments really felt transcendent or stuck with me. I shudder to think that it has anything to do with an inherent inability on my part to relate, because my God I hope it's not that. I like to think I can put myself in anybody's shoes, even if it's not entirely true; the goal of a critic is to divorce yourself from the exact demographic you inhabit, and view a movie through others' eyes. And, for example, the stuff that made me so emotional in Creed, Ryan Coogler's previous film, didn't have anything to do with Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. It was all about Adonis, played by Michael B. Jordan, who also features here.

I just think it's not that great an example of storytelling. Especially when I know what Coogler is capable of.

The story ... well, there isn't really a story. Or the characters don't really have firmly established goals (except for the villain). It's much more satisfying if a movie's hero is striving for something, but T'Challa is not -- not really. He's staving off a challenge from Eric Killmonger (Jordan), as well as from another tribe's chieftain earlier on, but in terms of his own agency? There isn't a lot there. What functions as a driving narrative force is the quest to bring Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to justice, but then that gets knee-capped halfway through, leaving not a lot that this movie is about.

I suppose it's about T'Challa's quest to realize his own destiny as a king, to make the tough decisions a king has to make, the decisions that a "nice guy" can't make. But that doesn't really happen. He kind of remains a nice guy, meaning his narrative arc is not all that satisfying.

The example of Wonder Woman seems to be instructive here too. If asked "What does Wonder Woman want?" the answer is obvious, because the movie tells you about a hundred times: she wants to kill the god of war. No two ways about it.

What does T'Challa want? To serve his people? To honor his father? These are rather nebulous goals. And I suppose it's okay for a reluctant hero to have goals that are not as well defined, but they should at least become clearer as the narrative moves forward.

I don't really want to go on nit-picking this movie, especially when there are things I loved about it, like each and every female character. The world was pretty fully realized, and Jordan was awesome.

I primarily wanted to talk about my expectation that there will be some backlash -- some Blacklash, if you will -- on this movie that will inevitably be viewed as some kind of racism, and may of course have that component to it as well. I'm here to say that this movie is just a lot more standard superhero stuff, a lot more infused with CGI, and a lot more good-but-not-great than that box office would indicate, and realizing/publicly acknowledging these things does not make you a racist.

What it represents = terrific. Its box office = fantastic, and it makes me exquisitely happy.

What it actually is = could have been better. That's all I'm saying.

Monday, February 19, 2018

People used to get older younger

I’m turning 45 years old this year.

It’s not until October, but it’s hanging out there with an air of inevitability. It will no longer be possible to finesse the semantics in my favor and say that I’m in my “early 40s.” “Mid-40s” will now be the only accurate term for me, and soon enough, the semantics will easily be finessed in the opposite direction to characterize me as “in my late 40s.”

While this is dispiriting in some respects, watching Road House makes it feel a little less so.

There are two actors in Road House, which I saw for the first time last night, who also turned 45 in the year the movie was released, 1989. In fact, Sam Elliott is only four days older than Kevin Tighe, born on August 9th and August 13th, respectively, in 1944. They are both still going strong today at age 73. They were 44 at the time the movie was released on May 19, 1989, but they officially hit their mid-40s three months later.

And my God do I look younger than they do.

These guys were old versions of 45. Actually, they were old versions of 44 at the time the film was made, or maybe even 43, but probably not. Just check out the pictures below:

Those guys do not look the same age as I do.

I’m not going to share a picture of me so you can judge for yourself. Switching from an anonymous blogger handle to my own name a few years back was a big enough deal for me, and I still don’t mention the names of my wife or my kids on this blog. Some things need to remain private.

But trust me, I look a lot younger than these guys. Granted, people do say I have a baby face. But these guys look like they could be at least ten years older than I am, maybe more.

And there’s no judgment in that. I would switch faces with Sam Elliott any day of the week. (Kevin Tighe, maybe not so much.) It’s not that I think they look decrepit, because Elliott is downright hunky in this movie. Just look at the way he runs his hands through that mane of salt and pepper hair. But it’s the sexiness of an older man, not a spring chicken like myself.

I might not have noticed it as much if the movie didn’t go on and on about how old Elliott is supposed to be. He’s the mentor to Patrick Swayze’s character, Dalton, the guy with the first name that’s begging for a great last name but never gets one. Swayze himself is no baby in this movie at age 36 going on 37, but you don’t get the sense he’s only eight years younger than Elliott. That’s just crazy.

Anyway, there are a number of lines of dialogue about how Elliott’s character, Wade Garrett (who does get a last name), is getting to be past his prime in the “cooler” business. (A “cooler,” I guess, is like the supervisor of the bouncers, the guy who is in charge of cooling heads and escorting people off the premises with a minimum of ego and violence.) THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE CONTAINS SPOILERS. Later on, the character played by Ben Gazzarra, after dispatching Wade Garrett through one of his minions, talks about “putting an old man out of his misery.” (And Gazzarra was one to talk, pushing 60 in this movie – though to be fair, he does not look significantly older than either Elliott or Tighe.)

It makes me think about that thing where Tom Cruise was the same age in one of his recent Mission: Impossible movies as Wilford Brimley was at the time he appeared as a grandfather in Cocoon, and how there was a world of physical difference between the athletic, health-conscious Cruise and the more normal, portly gentleman with the walrus moustache. Now I’m not saying I’m Cruise to Sam Elliott’s Wilford Brimley – I’d not only take his face, but also his physique and that hair, to say nothing of his voice. But I do think I look like a boy in comparison to him.

Good, I guess? Yay, I’m not the oldest looking nearly 45-year-old out there. And despite my baby face, I’m doing the best to make myself look grizzled, as my sideburns are almost completely white, yet I keep them around.

I guess I’m probably somewhere between Tom Cruise and Wilford Brimley, which is probably the best I can hope for.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Actresses who give me the Krieps

As I still try to wrap my head around Phantom Thread, I'm also still trying to wrap my head around Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps.

Deciding how I feel about her may be key to deciding how I feel about the movie.

I don't have any doubt that Krieps gives a good performance in this movie. But there's something about her that gives me the creeps, and I'd say that even if her last name didn't make it a play on words. (I was going to say "clever play on words," but I don't know how clever it is.)

Being given the creeps by someone is usually a good thing in a movie. It means they are burrowing into some core part of your subconscious that produces a reaction of revulsion in you. It may not seem like it, but that's usually something you want. The unsuccessful actor is the one that makes you feel nothing.

But I don't know with Krieps. I find it kind of hard to look at her. I don't mean that she's ugly; she is probably quite pretty, though this movie takes pains to make her seem very plain at times, and it's to her credit that she allows the camera to see her this way. It's a performance lacking in vanity, which is another thing we usually want, or should want anyway.

No, the thing I find hard to look at is encapsulated pretty well in the above picture, which is why I searched until I found it. Yes, that's a pleasant expression, for sure. A warm, welcoming expression. But there's also something alien about it that I can't quite put my finger on. It's the eyes, or maybe the smile looking just a little forced. I find it discomfiting.

But what I really find discomfiting is the emotions that are behind it. Krieps looks at Daniel Day-Lewis in this movie with an almost confronting level of need. She yearns in a way that is off-putting. But it's not the desperate need that expresses itself by clinging to someone's leg as they try to shake you off, staring at them with haunted, pleading eyes. That might have almost been better. Krieps expresses a kind of psychopathic unwillingness to disguise the nakedness of her need. When Day-Lewis shows her some attention in that restaurant over his breakfast order, she looks at him with these eyes that seem to say "You have just signed an unwritten contract with me, and it is a lifetime contract, and I am so certain of its successful fulfillment that I am not even being demure or coquettish. I am diving in headlong, and I lack the self-awareness to realize I need to cloak my intentions through the traditional techniques of flirtation and seduction. I am scooping an overflowing helping of my need onto your plate and making you eat it." Of course, the food metaphor becomes a lot less metaphorical later on.

Can all that be gotten from one expression? Well, then Vicky Krieps is a good actress indeed.

Certainly we would say that should become part of her perspective as the movie goes on and she grapples with her jealousy and desire to shift his attentions back to her. But it's this opening scene where this gawky girl exudes a sort of resplendent, vampiric emotional dependency that throws me. Maybe it throws me in the right way, maybe it doesn't. I'm still deciding.

Vicky Krieps isn't the first one to unsettle me in this way. Here is another actress who I find it hard to look at, because her expressions are so needy and confronting:

Although I'm a huge fan of her sister Rooney, I have just never been able to fully come around on Kate Mara. She also gives me the creeps. I think it dates back to how she was used in American Horror Story in the only season of that show I watched. She constantly had this look in her eyes that was equal parts needy and accusatory. I felt like her eyes were boring through the screen into me, and I wanted to squirm right out of my seat.

There's going to be something vaguely unsavory to the fact that the three people I feature in this piece are all women, but at least with the third we are going to end on a positive note. I used to get a creepy vibe also from her:

That still is from Wicker Park, and it was my first exposure to Rose Byrne. I suppose she would have something in common with Mara's character from American Horror Story, to the extent that I remember the plots from either of those films/TV shows -- an "other woman" spurned, trying to make hell for some man, but only because she's so desperately in love with him that her rage and passion have gotten all twisted up. (You'd think I had a woman like this in my own life, but I haven't.) There was something about the look in Byrne's eyes in that movie that made my skin crawl.

The good news is that Byrne has come back from that to become one of my favorite working actresses, in part because she did something seemingly counterintuitive with her career -- she became one of the most deft comediennes going. As just one example, she absolutely kills it in Spy, particularly this line reading: "When I was a little girl growing up in Bulgaria, which is the worst by the way. Poor people everywhere and cabbages constantly cooking. There was this woman who was kicked out of her house and she lost all her money. She couldn't even sell her body. So she became a clown on the streets. She would perform all her tricks standing in mud, and just cry and cry. You remind me of this woman." And later: "You're funny. It's the Bulgarian clown in you."

Where was I?

Oh yeah, so there's hope for Krieps and Mara.

And no, I don't really live in fear of women needing me and wanting to kill me in equal measure. Why do you ask?

Friday, February 16, 2018

White bird, black panther

Yesterday, February 15th, was an important day on the Australian cinematic calendar. The best movie of 2017 and the best movie of 2018 both opened -- on the same day. (Well, I suppose either of them could be challenged for their respective honors by Paddington 2, depending on what hemisphere you live in, as the movie was released in a different year here than it was in the States.)

That's right, a mere 104 days after the date of its first limited release in the U.S., best picture nominee (frontrunner?) Lady Bird finally graced our shores. A day before its U.S. release, so did Black Panther.

And yes, they both have ridiculously high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. The once unblemished Lady Bird still stands tall at 99%, while Black Panther sits a mere percentage point behind it at 98%. (Glad my editor at ReelGood does not get tabulated on RT, as he gave it a mere 5 out of 10.) Humorously, both movies still do trail Paddington 2, which remains at 100%.

Their release dates and high RT scores is where the comparison between these two movies seems to end.

Though they could be flip sides of the same coin.

Although it has not suffered for this in any significant way, Lady Bird may be one of the last of a dying breed -- a movie craving widespread mainstream acceptance that does not have any characters of color in significant roles. In scanning the credits list on IMDB, it appears that there is a Latino guy and a woman who seems to be of mixed race, though without having seen the movie, I can't comment on the size of their roles. I can say they are 10th and 11th on the cast list, though.

Black Panther is kind of the opposite, though this, paradoxically, does not seem to be as much of a problem in today's climate. (Which, unmistakably, seems like a good thing to me.) Instead of token minorities, it has token whites, as Andy Serkis is the 12th ranked member of the cast, followed by David S. Lee three spots later.

As I said, this is a good thing. Until I came up with the current take on its release, I was going to write a post heralding the opening of Black Panther with a title along the lines of "Marvel makes a movie with a bunch of black people in it." You know, summarizing a very exciting development -- a Wonder Woman-style development in terms of its social significance -- in a provocative manner that would certainly turn your head if you weren't expecting it.

But we also know Marvel only does things that it thinks are in its best financial interest, which is the truly encouraging thing about Black Panther. The movie has proven Marvel right, shattering ticket presale records, because there is a collective hunger for this type of movie, obviously among black audiences, but among white audiences who find themselves poised to embrace the type of movie that might have made them feel alienated just five years ago. White audiences -- thinking white audiences, anyway, which may only be a small percentage of them -- want this. Not as much as black audiences do, but they want it too. And that's fantastic.

You know that thing where you walk into a movie that isn't aimed at you, and you find yourself in kind of a demographic Twilight Zone? "Oh, this is what it feels like to be ... a three-year-old kid, or an old person, or yes, a black person." Well congratulations on this "unique" experience. This is how black audiences felt for years, when only a handful of films each year truly felt like a reflection of their lives and experiences. And since those movies weren't made with big budgets by big studios, they often didn't attract the most talented filmmakers, or actors.

Well, that may be changing. Slowly, but then sometimes dramatically. Black Panther still could have continued taking baby steps by making a movie that was, maybe, two-thirds black. Five years ago, it might not have dared to be any more than 51% black in the cast. And it almost definitely wouldn't have been directed by a black man, though Ryan Coogler is one of the best talents we have going of any race.

But this is 2018, and something has happened -- something in our culture that has allowed this to happen. At a time when things seem their worst under Trump, something is still bubbling underneath, more like a majority than a minority, that celebrates the diversity that seemed to be repudiated by the last election.

And hallelujah, amen.

So where does that leave Lady Bird? I guess the answer is, Lady Bird will be fine. Lady Bird has always been fine, and it will continue to have a place in the cinematic landscape. You can't really make a movie with no black characters anymore, anyway, though some people still try. Lady Bird is close, but not totally there. And it's directed by a woman, so at least that's something. And I still look forward to trying to see it over the next week ... though I will see Black Panther first.

I do think there's an important shift that's occurring, that makes Lady Bird seem like the movie that's a bit tone deaf, a bit antique, a bit in its own hermetically sealed universe in which not only the people are white, but the problems are also white, no matter how many characters who are not quite white it may have in it. I think we are moving closer to a Black Panther world, and that's a world I want to live in.

And hallelujah, amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A hard eight: Ranking Paul Thomas Anderson

Twenty-two years ago Paul Thomas Anderson began his feature-directing career with a movie called Hard Eight, or known by its original title, Sydney. (Not the city with the opera house; a man's name.)

Many other directors would have made a lot more than seven feature films since then. Heck, Woody Allen has made 22. But Anderson is no ordinary director. He's a craftsman with a vision, and he takes time to make his films. He has two separate gaps of five years without a film during that period, bookended by Punch-Drunk Love in 2002 and The Master in 2012. When he makes a movie, it's an event, and whatever it is, or however much you end up liking it, you need to see it.

That's why I did in fact go see Phantom Thread in the theater on Tuesday night, even though I've moved on from 2017. (I may still see Lady Bird, which finally opens today.) I've seen every Anderson film on the big screen except Hard Eight, because I didn't know who he was at the time, and Inherent Vice, which I skipped on the big screen because I had moved on from 2014 at the time it was released.

It's an event. You can't not.

And though I haven't done a post like this in a long time, ranking the career of a prominent director, I figured I couldn't wait for Anderson to get to ten feature films, because that could take another ten years. Besides, the symmetry with eight films and Hard Eight was too good to pass up.

So, without any further ado, my rankings of the the top eight films of one of our great contemporary masters, Paul Thomas Anderson. Interestingly, I noted that each of his films, including Phantom Thread, already has a label on my blog, meaning it's been discussed by me at least once before. Definitely worthy of a career retrospective, I'd say.

And sorry for the lack of drama, but when I've done these in the past -- with Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Pixar, all of whose films I had also seen at the time -- I've gone from the best to the worst.

1. There Will Be Blood (2007) - It probably comes as no surprise that my #1 movie of 2007 is also my #1 Anderson movie, though I suppose you can't take that for granted, as one ranking year is different from another. Though in this case it does hold true. It was not only my best of the year, it was my eighth best of the decade. It's also the Anderson movie I'm most due to rewatch, as I saw it twice in the theater and then not again since then. (If you are this convinced of the quality of a film, you don't need to revisit it to decide its worth on a best-of-the-decade list.) What can a person say about There Will Be Blood that has not already been said? Well, I don't know that this exact phrase has been used: it's a capitalism horror movie, with a frightening monster at its core in Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview. I can't remember another instance of this film's era being recreated with such epic grandiosity, one strangely unbound by the Hollywood traditions with which it rubs elbows. This is a movie that opens with the entrancing, moldering noise of Johnny Greenwood's score, then moves into 20 minutes without dialogue as a man digs desperately for gold in the bottom of a well. Ultimately, though, the dialogue belonging to Plainview -- and its delivery by Day-Lewis -- is one of the most indelible, indisposable elements of the film. "Bastard in a basket" and "I drink your milkshake!" both came from a film that didn't need a single word to put us in its spell and keep us there.

2. Boogie Nights (1997) - It's the greatest Martin Scorsese movie that Martin Scorsese never made -- but so what. Anderson has good taste, and a skill set to honor that taste. It's interesting that Anderson was once considered a very successful mimic of other great directors (including Robert Altman in Magnolia), because as he has honed his voice, he's given us films that are truly like no one else's. Which doesn't mean that the voices he channeled didn't represent some of his best work. This sprawling epic through the porn industry is a tour de force of set design and cinematography, and it felt like a first with its frank look at the inner workings of that industry. (A topic that has since been revisited umpteen times in lesser films by less talented filmmakers.) In addition to breaking Mark Wahlberg as a star who would become one of Hollywood's most in demand, it also revived Burt Reynolds (briefly), and gave great showcases to the likes of Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle and William H. Macy. (And let's not forget Alfred Molina's one scene, a total mindfuck of gonzo tension.) Boogie Nights is a director's movie, it's an actor's movie, it's just a damn rollicking specimen of the craft, and it still holds up today like nobody's business.

3. Hard Eight (1996) - Anderson's least Andersonian film -- at least in terms of the size of the canvas on which he would come to paint -- is also my third favorite. I may have trouble articulating why this film works so well for me, but it probably gains from being seen within the perspective of the rest of Anderson's career, since it is so small in scale, making it feel like an example of Anderson's range rather than just the film on which he cut his teeth. Its intimacy it its most winning element, as every scene feels small and compressed, but only because the lives these people live are so small and compressed. They operate in very small circles, circling around craps tables and anonymous motel rooms, ultimately finding themselves in the position to express their deepest yearnings and fears to one another. Philip Baker Hall puts on a master class as Sydney, the man whom the movie was initially named after, and it reminds us that it's a shame he was not given more starring roles. (He's not dead yet, but being 86 years old tends to limit some of the prospect of that ever happening.) Sydney's dialogue is probably one of the clearest examples you'll see of a writer-director directly delivering his own ruminations about the way the world works, but Sydney and Anderson are both wise people from whom I am ready to receive such ruminations.

4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - This is the highest Anderson film on my list that I've seen only once, and I do think it benefits some from the words of rhapsody directed toward it that I have absorbed in the ensuing years. This is the first time I found Anderson really burrowing down into something truly eccentric, and I admit that it left me off balance for much of the movie, in a way I was not always sure of. But just recalling some of the scenes and images from that film that still stick with me -- like the piano being dumped off the back of that truck, or Adam Sandler pacing around the room on the phone while the walls and score seem to close in on him -- remind me of the power of Anderson's tools as a filmmaker. Punch-Drunk Love is often thought of as a line of demarcation between when Anderson was doing things that were sort of conventional and when he stopped doing that -- the moment of him finding his voice. (The plague of frogs at the end of Magnolia could also be considered such a moment.) The filmmaker that has excited us with the sense of not knowing what he will do next, that has characterized all his subsequent films, was born here. The fact that some of that has resulted in diminishing returns for me is something I hope to grapple with on second viewings of some of the films lower on this list. Punch-Drunk Love was the beginning of Anderson not giving a fuck what we thought of his films, and that in itself is exciting.

5. Magnolia (1999) - And here is my highest ranked Anderson film where I find significant portions of the film problematic. I previously mentioned that this felt like an homage to Robert Altman, and it was earlier in the 1990s that I fell in love with that director, first with The Player, then with Short Cuts. Magnolia feels a bit like Anderson's Short Cuts ... with a downpour of frogs at the end. Even back then, when I was less jaded and more open to any way a director wanted to try to blow my mind, I found parts of this movie too clever by half, like the story about the person who was committing suicide but shot halfway through the leap from atop the building, transforming the death from a suicide into a murder. I don't even remember what the point of that little interlude was, and that's emblematic of Magnolia, in which Anderson seems to be working out some of his sophomoric musings, the possible ramblings of a stoner. I also consider it to be one of the most emotionally overwrought films I've ever seen. That said, bits of this movie stick with me like few other movies do, and some of Anderson's big gestures truly hit, particularly all the characters breaking the fourth wall to sing along to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up." It's probably a film I will always struggle with and love in equal measure.

6. Phantom Thread (2017) - Over time and with another viewing, I could see this flip-flopping with Magnolia, or even climbing higher than that on this chart. But one thing I've heard most people say about Phantom Thread, even those who love it, is that they didn't know quite what to make of it on first viewing. Some found that a thrilling, exhilarating experience; others, alienating. I probably land closer to the second camp than the first, but a second viewing could push me closer to the first. It's been only 48 hours since I saw this, so it's fair to say that the processing phase is still going on. It's always a joy to watch Daniel-Day Lewis, and Lesley Manville deserves the praise that has been lavished on her. The person I'm not sure about -- who could be key to my affection for the movie going one way or another -- is Vicky Krieps, about whom I'd like to devote her own blog post (and may still). I find it difficult to look at her, as her performance conveys quantities of vulnerability and yearning that leave me feeling discomfited. Being discomfited in an Anderson film is often a good thing, but after the movie I described it in a text to a friend this way: "It's a handsome puzzle box that I am not all that interested in prying open." But maybe one day I will pry it.

7. The Master (2012) - After waiting patiently for five years after There Will Be Blood for another PTA film to hit theaters, it was probably inevitable I would be a little disappointed by The Master. And yet I can easily recognize this as a kind of masterwork, so to speak, as it may be Anderson's greatest technical achievement, even including There Will Be Blood. Although I think he's too modest for this, Anderson could be describing himself with this movie's title, as the film feels like kind of an arrival at an otherworldly level of cinematic mastery. And yet the film leaves me so very cold, never able to relate to either Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy Quell or Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, both of whom are performed expertly but feel kind of like empty vessels. It's easy enough to watch this film merely for surface pleasures, if that's all you can get from it, and I'm kind of afraid to say that may have been all I did get from it. I think the parasitic relationship between a shepherd and his sheep is explored in a fascinating way, but toward what purpose, I'm not quite sure. I do think I would benefit greatly from a second viewing, but then I've said that about almost every film on this list.

8. Inherent Vice (2014) - Some people say there's a great film buried somewhere within Inherent Vice, but I could not dig it out. This is the only Anderson film that gets lower than a passing grade on the star scale, as I gave it only 2.5 stars -- I was inclined to go even lower, but granted it the extra half star on account of me failing to get this movie certainly being a "me problem" on some level. My problem is I'm a bit biased against the detective movie in which the plot cannot be easily discerned, or discerned at all, Exhibit A being The Big Sleep, which I kind of can't stand. I was hoping this would strike me more like Altman's The Long Goodbye, which I do love, but I just couldn't get there. I also love Joaquin Phoenix, but he happens to appear in my two least favorite PTA movies. What are you going to do. This is the only movie on this list that I expect never to watch again, though I may be wrong about that. Certain moments do really stick with me, though, moments in which I can almost see my way through to his vision. I don't know why, but I remember this scene where Phoenix and -- Katherine Waterston, is it? -- go running through the rain to find a store that isn't there anymore. Why does that moment stick with me? I don't know, but it's got to be further evidence of Anderson's greatness as a filmmaker.

And that greatness is downright indisputable. It does sadden me that I'm writing this post in what must described as a downward trajectory in my own feelings toward Anderson, as his last three films make up the bottom three on this chart. From that you must conclude that I think Anderson is getting worse, not better.

But those films are full of daring and a total lack of convention, making Anderson feel less like a cinematic imitator and more like a maverick. We need mavericks like him around.

If anything, I think of Anderson as like Samantha in another Phoenix movie, Her. He has evolved to the point that he has progressed beyond my mere human capability of understanding him.

Which I think means he should keep right on doing exactly what he's doing, and one day, if I'm lucky, I'll catch up.

Here's to his 2020 release being my #1 of that year.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

More than just your Valentine's Day Plan B

So Valentine's Day was likely to go by the boards in our house without much celebration whatsoever. It's already been a busy week for me (I was out both Monday night and Tuesday nights), and for my wife, it's been a busy past six months, perhaps none more so than now, when she's preparing for the first of three three-day workshops for screenwriters that she's organized, which is starting tomorrow. We'd already waved our hand at the idea of celebrating it in any major way, in part because her birthday is on the 19th, so we always kind of give February 14th the short shrift.

We do usually watch a romance-themed movie on Valentine's Day, though in scanning the history of our February 14th viewings together, I saw that we've also watched The Band's Visit, Happy Feet and The Woman in Black, none of which is particularly romantic in nature. Well, we almost always watch a movie, anyway.

This year figured to be an exception, as my wife needed to plan for the aforementioned workshop on the eve of its commencement. But we needed to watch something during dinner, which was a homemade pizza that featured red peppers cut into the shape of hearts, along with chicken an onions. We bandied about ideas like romance-themed short films, but ultimately rejected that idea as too risky of committing ourselves to a dud. I even specifically googled streaming TV shows with a romantic comedy theme, but the ones offered to us on Netflix were ones we'd already watched.

So we decided to commit ourselves to a longer dud, the new Netflix movie When We First Met. Just the beginning of it, after which she would peel off to do the rest of her work, and I would decide if the rest was worth watching. (Of course, the answer would be yes -- I can't intentionally leave a film unfinished.)

Except it wasn't a dud. And she didn't peel off to do the rest of her work -- the rest of her urgent, can't-put-it-off-another-day work -- until after the credits had rolled. (Well, the start of the credits, anyway -- we never seem to be able to click the right buttons to prevent the next trailer from starting.)

It was easy to assume that this movie would not be good. I've started 2018 with two real stinkers among Netflix original films, The Open House and The Cloverfield Paradox, and it isn't much of a leap to think that most of the things that Netflix buys up and dumps on the platform are just more spaghetti thrown against the wall. "Here, this is a movie -- whadaya think? Answer: I don't care what you think! Next!"

Besides, although I really like Adam Devine from his days on Modern Family (are those days still in progress? we don't watch the show anymore), the stink of his movie Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates was still fresh with me. The failure of that movie was undoubtedly in the writing and not in Devine's performance, but it was all too easy for me to imagine a narrative for his career where he's perennially unable to translate his small screen charm to the big screen. (Er, in this case, translate his small screen charm to ... the small screen.)

Then there's Alexandra Daddario, an appealing presence who I worried might just be a pretty face and a gargantuan chest. (Seriously; I don't like to get into describing women's bodies too much on this blog, but there's a scene in this movie where she's jogging, and I wondered what type of heavy duty support was necessary to keep her ... contained.)

Well, we laughed twice in the first five minutes, and then at least that much in every five-minute interval that followed. John Whittingham wrote this script, and checking IMDB now, I see he was a writer on both of last year's Lego movies. Sure, he might lose some points for the Ninjago movie, but the Batman movie is a first-rate example of comedy writing. A good deal of that was present here.

I also really loved an actress who was new to me in this film, Shelly Hennig, as "the friend." I guess she isn't totally new to me, as she was one of the faces on the computer in Unfriended, which I liked quite a bit. But I didn't remember her from that. I don't think I'll have trouble remembering her going forward, though. She's got personality and can deliver a line.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that appeared to be going against this movie, but didn't, was its Groundhog Day narrative structure. I don't know if I've railed against it to you here, but last year I saw two very similar movies involving young people in repeated day structures, Before I Fall and Happy Death Day. I hated both of those movies, and decided that Groundhog Day -- still a fresh idea for a movie as recently as Edge of Tomorrow in 2014 -- had completely wore out its welcome as a template for cheap imitators.

That's not this though. Yes, Devine's character does discover a magical photo booth -- you know, the kind that spits out a sheet of four wacky photos of you -- that allows him to go back in time three years to repeatedly try to seduce his soul mate so she ends up with him instead of meeting her future husband the very next day. When I read the premise, my eyes rolled. But when I watched the movie, I marveled at the way the film deviated from what I expected. Sure, some of the elements are repeated in each timeline, but it doesn't have to wear us out by heaving 12 to 17 elements repeat themselves on each iteration, simultaneously calling our attention to the gimmick and revealing exactly how annoying it is. Whittingham's script takes a few detours as a result of the character making major, rather than minor, changes each time. It was different enough to feel fresh.

And Devine and Daddario both maximize what they do well. In the case of Daddario, I'm glad to report that isn't just accentuating her body, as a very blatant and otherwise unnecessary bikini scene in San Andreas did. She's got the comic chops and she shows them. And this movie made me believe that Devine is headed for really good things in the comedy world, not just serving as Zac Efron's sidekick in woefully inferior gross-out comedies. He's got all the charisma and heart to be a leading man, and Jim Carrey's commitment to the more physical side of his shtick.

So if you're in North America and looking for a late Valentine's Day recommendation -- and I'm posting this before I go to sleep on Valentine's Day in the hopes that you are -- you could do a lot worse than When We First Met. And hey, it's already in your collection, assuming you have a Netflix subscription. No muss no fuss.

Forget about whatever your Plan A was. This is good enough to be your Plan A-, at the very least.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Netflix's ongoing impersonation of everybody

First Netflix wanted to be that distributor that released small indie movies that you wouldn't care about missing on the big screen, but were worth watching (I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore).

Then Netlfix got into the business of high-profile (partially) foreign language films by acclaimed foreign language directors, which probably should be seen on the big screen, but oh well (Okja).

Then Netflix thought they can/should be in the business of delivering big-budget blockbuster entertainment with major stars (Bright).

Now, they want to be that distributor that drops a movie by surprise, to capitalize on the type of buzzy viral phenomenon that was sort of launched by The Blair Witch Project and has become the bread and butter of the Cloverfield series (The Cloverfield Paradox).

Pick an identity and stick to it, Netflix.

Then again, Netflix flying out in all directions is nothing new, and has been discussed much before, both on this blog and by everybody else.

Netflix is operating under the -- well, I'm not going to say "misconception," because it may not be -- that any type of cinematic experience you could imagine yourself having can be recreated on the small screen. And if so, they should be the ones to do it.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if Netflix tried to make itself the exclusive home of one of the next Star Wars spinoffs, though I suppose Disney is actually ending its arrangement with Netflix in order to have their own streaming service, not considering deepening that relationship.

I don't have a lot more to say about this, but I did think it was worth noting. I also thought it was worth noting that the last two of these in particular, Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox, have felt a lot like failures in what they were trying to do. Then again, the business model of Netflix has always allowed the company to absorb failures. Any particular investment is such a small percentage of their overall portfolio that they'll hit with some other thing if this particular thing fails.

We finally saw The Cloverfield Project last night, and I say "finally" because it really does seem like pretty much everyone saw the movie at an earlier point of its first week of availability. I suppose this fact alone suggests that Netflix was successful in creating the type of event buzz that they wanted from this movie. I had to actively dodge discussion of the movie's qualities in various locations on social media, and ultimately couldn't, knowing the movie was supposed to be bad. So I carried in that preconception ... and had it resoundingly confirmed.

This movie is not good. In fact, it earned my first one-star rating of the young year on Letterboxd. It's poorly conceived and tonally scattershot, and what's more, it just doesn't look like a movie. It felt incredibly TV in its design and camerawork. (I was truly distracted by the handheld cinematography of Dan Mindel, with its little infinitesimal movements that were small enough for me to feel like they were not intentional, but large enough to make me feel subtly nauseous.) It's too bad too because some actors I really like are in this movie, particularly Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debecki and Chris O'Dowd, the latter of home is perhaps the embodiment of the movie's tonal confusion.

If you are one of those who hasn't seen it yet, I won't pick apart plot points here, because I don't necessarily expect a Cloverfield movie to stand up to heavy scrutiny. I will say that director Julius Onah has made such an inferior entry in the series that it feels like a step down from Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane by orders of magnitude. While those two are an all-time great in the found footage genre and a very clever thriller that is defined by its success at withholding information from us, Paradox feels kind of like a vomit of exposition, but bad exposition. The movie ends up withholding information from us out of clumsiness in the script rather than actual intent.

Two final, unrelated comments about the movie and/or Netflix before I close out.

We had a paradox of a different sort on our hands last night even trying to watch the movie. As you know if you've done many searches on Netflix, it has an uncanny ability to produce the movie you're looking for just by typing a single letter or two, probably because you're trying to watch one of their buzzed about products and the search algorithm is weighted toward those results. But this did not happen when we searched The Cloverfield Paradox. The original Cloverfield came up, but not its second sequel.

My first instinct was to curse Australia for somehow failing to negotiate the rights to one of Netflix's own bits of original content. I complain about how a lot of things in Australia seem to be done in this inscrutable, backwards way that defies logic, and Australian Netflix not carrying The Cloverfield Paradox would have been a perfect example of that.

I had just sent my wife, who had a computer nearby, to search whether the movie is not available in Australia when I had an idea about a different search to do. I started typing in "God Particle," the original title of the movie, and sure enough, when I got those first two letters in, The Cloverfield Paradox came up. Not God Particle, mind you -- The Cloverfield Paradox. We selected it and started watching straightaway.

I looked online to see if this was one of the "gimmicks" about a movie with a viral release strategy, that it was "hidden" and you had to know to search it under this secret other title in order to find it. But no, that did not seem to be the case, according to my friends in my Flickcharters Facebook group, who checked on the American Netflix just to be sure. It seems as though somebody in the Australian Netflix just failed to update the search algorithm when the title was changed -- and that would be the perfect example of Australian backwardness -- though it surprises me that something like that is even customized at the local level.

The other thing is that I noticed that Netflix has made a subtle change to how they bill some of their original content, specifically their movies -- in response to this post, I would like to think. In the trailer that gets thrust upon you just from landing on the home page, which in this case was for When We First Met, I noticed that they call it "A Netflix Film" rather than "A Netflix Original Film." The omission of that single word is significant -- perhaps an admission that this was not something that originated with them and should sully them by association, but rather, something that they picked up off the scrap heap in their ongoing content dump?

Netflix distancing themselves proactively from their own potential failures. Now they really do resemble every other distributor.

Friday, February 9, 2018

5K with Dr. Seuss: A finger per film

Sometimes a milestone is just another movie.

For a few weeks now I have been imprisoned by my ticking movie clock, which has been steadily counting down toward one of the most epic milestones I have ever crossed. It wasn't just another increment of a thousand movies; it was the fifth increment. You would certainly agree that 5,000 movies is more epic than 4,000 was, or than 6,000 will be. In fact, this is probably the most epic milestone I will have until I get to 10,000, if I ever do. (I will also want to watch a really scary horror movie for 6,666.)

But sometimes you just can't find the perfect way to recognize it, no matter what you do. Sometimes, you just need to watch a movie.

Oh, I still recognized it, but that perfect movie that felt equal to the occasion just never materialized. You could say I've spent the past 5,000 viewings making sure that there was no egregious classic oversight that was just waiting to be corrected when the time came. These days, I don't even have an immediate title in mind if asked what movie I am most embarrassed never to have seen. Sure, there are great movies, classic movies, I've never seen. But one important enough to enshrine it with #5,000? It just never presented itself.

And as I was dicking around, worrying about what I would watch, I wasn't moving forward with the regular day-to-day business of watching other movies. As I said, I was imprisoned.

So I went with the thematically appropriate choice, not to mention the one that was available for rental on iTunes.

That's how, on February 8th, 2018, at approximately 9:29 p.m., I came to watch Roy Rowland's 1953 children's musical written by Dr. Seuss, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, as my 5,000th lifetime viewing.

It felt like an admission of defeat on some level. After all, for my 4,000th movie, I had made that definitive choice on a classic that I had not yet seen: F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Whether that was truly worth of a thousandth viewing, I don't know, but it felt right and I never doubted it.

I was consumed with doubt this time around. And there were some classics I considered. I don't mind telling you now which ones didn't make the cut. Two in particular I considered very seriously.

The first was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A few years ago I saw both Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America in the same year, making me realize how much I had been neglecting the brilliant work of Sergio Leone. If you can believe it, I haven't seen any of the Dollars trilogy, but my father-in-law's girlfriend gifted them to me for Christmas, so now I own them on BluRay. The timing seemed provident.

I ultimately didn't go with that choice because it's the third of those movies, and I felt I needed to watch the other two first. A friend almost convinced me that I didn't, as TGTBATU is actually the earliest in the chronology. But just as I would never tell a Star Wars neophyte to start with the prequels, I think it's important to watch the movies in the order they were released. And after finishing a long and regimented period of watching 2017 films, I didn't feel like using three of my available five titles before 5,000 on those movies.

Then the other contender was Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, a good choice also because Bresson is one of the filmmakers I will watch as part of this year's Audient Auteurs series. It was #16 on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll and it's the second highest film on that list I haven't seen. (I guess I could have also considered the highest on that list I haven't seen, Man with a Movie Camera.) Furthermore, it's available for rental on iTunes.

Which is also a reason I didn't go with it. It's not available on the Australian iTunes, only the American. And while I have access to both, I'm running through two gifts cards that only work on the Australian store, so it felt silly to spend my hard-earned money at the American store when I have $80 in Australian credit. (Besides, the same friend who suggested I could watch TGTBATU first also said that Balthazar would make a very depressing 5,000th movie.)

Dr. T was indeed available from Australian iTunes, and it had been hanging around in the background ever since I jokingly suggested it to close out this post. So the joke turned into reality and that was the choice.

A choice I remain not entirely happy with, as I've said. But there are a couple good things about this choice, as I am in a rationalizing mood, and it's over now so I can't do anything about it anyway.

For one, this may be my last opportunity to celebrate a milestone like this with a themed viewing. When I hit 3,000, I watched Mr. 3000 -- easiest decision I ever made. Five thousand actually had a number of choices beyond this one, not all of which were readily available, but I probably could have pirated them if I were really desperate. But 6,000? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? I can't readily think of any movies with those numbers in their titles. If I didn't select the thematically appropriate option this time, I might never get the chance again.

Plus there's the fact that this allowed me to see a movie I absolutely, positively never would have sought out otherwise. Not because it's completely outside my interests -- in fact, quite the opposite, as having Dr. Seuss as a writer gave me a natural curiosity about it. Rather, I'd just never heard of it, and it's hard to seek out something you've never heard of.

Ultimately, I determined there's a reason this isn't a more prominently discussed part of Theodore Geisel's illustrious history. The story, screenplay and lyrics were all written by Dr. Seuss, but they catch him in a really raw and unfocused place. It's the story of a young boy (Tommy Rettig) who has an extended fantasy about being trapped in the castle of his evil piano teacher, the titular Dr. Terwilliker, played by Hans Conried. His mother (Mary Healy) and a kindly plumber who becomes his mother's love interest (Peter Lind Hayes) also factor in.

To be clear, it's got Seuss coming out the wazoo. There are fantabulous musical instruments, including a piano that wraps and curves around a whole room (at which the 500 boys and their 5,000 fingers are eventually meant to sit). There are a pair of men on roller stakes joined in the middle by their interconnecting gray beards. There are ladders to nowhere set against instantly recognizable Seussian buildings and other backdrops. There are holes in floors leading to hidden staircases and dungeons into which all other players of all other types of instruments have been banished. It's enriching in a very real way to see Seuss' concepts in a live action film, years and years before the abominable live action Grinch and Cat in the Hat movies. In fact, in many ways this serves as a preview of where Seuss would go in the future, rather than a rehashing of ideas already debuted in his books. Nearly all of his classics came after Dr. T; in fact, the only one of the dozen or so Seuss books we own that was written before this is Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. 

Still, even with a great like Seuss involved and working out some of the best sides of his fruitful imagination, this is a pretty difficult sit. Although I'm sure these actors were doing other things and had successful careers, I didn't get an ounce of charisma between the four of them. The story lurches along with very little forward momentum; the young Bart Collins' goal is to try to prevent Dr. T's musical academy, where he's imprisoned, from opening, but it's unclear why Dr. T's plan to have 500 boys play piano simultaneously is inherently evil and must be stopped. (His plan to execute the plumber is a bit more sinister, and reflects just one of the ways this movie is a bit more explicitly about the potential death of major characters than a movie aimed at this age child would be today.)

As a musical, it's pretty much a total failure. The first song does not come until the movie is nearly 30 minutes old, feeling especially abrupt as the staging of the first number involves the plumber and the boy sitting in a chair together. Then there's a weird dance where the plumber and Dr. T are pantomiming cursing each other. There's one truly inspired number with a whole bunch of dancers in the dungeon, which also features the Seussian instruments and a man on a swing ring a bell at the apex of his arc. But to give you some idea of its structural failings as a musical, the final number is a song called "Dressing Song," in which the villain whimsically orders his minions to dress him for his big performance. In most musicals, a song like this would be third or fourth and would serve as a kind of introduction to the villain. It would not be the final song in the whole movie. I was put in mind of another disastrous Dr. Seuss-related musical I haven't seen, Seussical. That was not received particularly well. Maybe Seuss just isn't meant to be set to music.

Anyway. I'm glad I will saw it. It's completely inconsequential and I will never watch it again.

But sometimes, milestones are just another movie.

Monday, February 5, 2018

That time I chose the Australian movie over the best picture nominee

I'm not sure if it's my commitment to writing reviews, my sense of duty as a critic for an Australian publication, or just my exaggerated tendency to write off a cinematic year once my year-end list is published, but on Thursday, I watched a new Australian movie rather than the best picture nominee that had just been released.

The best picture nominee directed by a man who had once directed my #1 movie of the year, if we want to tie that in.

Yes indeed, on Thursday night, for my first trip to the movies since I closed that much-discussed year-end list, I opted for Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country over Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread.

Not something I could have imagined myself doing five years ago.

Now, there's a logistical aspect of this that must be considered as well. Sweet Country had been out for a full week already, whereas Phantom Thread was debuting that night. If I still wanted to review Sweet Country, I needed to see it now or else forfeit the opportunity. Given the way movies tend to hang around at Cinema Nova, Phantom Thread will still be playing in early April -- though Sweet Country could be too. (That doesn't help me in terms of reviewing it, though. And Nova is only supposed to let us see it with our critics card within the first two weeks of its release.)

Anyway, if I had been thinking purely as a cinephile with a bias toward cinema with the most prominence on the world stage, I would have clearly opted for Phantom Thread. I'm sure that movie benefits from being seen on the big screen, as any movie with a strong visual sense obviously does (or any movie in general does -- discuss). Anderson makes epics that need to wash over us, or should, anyway.

But in this case I was thinking as a critic who believes that potentially one of the most important Australian films in a decade needs to be reviewed on our site, and my editor is out of town (has been for a month), so he's certainly not in a position to do it.

(Of course, I was also thinking as the same list obsessive, who could add Sweet Country as my second viewing of 2018.)

Even without having seen Phantom Thread yet, I can share with you how little I am disappointed with my decision. Sweet Country is a masterpiece, one that grapples with the soul of a country that has abused its native population in a way very similar to what the U.S. has done, and has an ongoing debate about whether we should get the day off work for Australia Day, which commemorates the arrival of Europeans in Australia. Not only is it an absolute triumph in terms of filmmaking, with terrific acting, cinematography and even arthouse editing, but it's something every Australian should see.

And I hope people other than Australians will see it, giving it the relevance on the world stage that theoretically gave Phantom Thread an advantage over it. It's just finished playing at Sundance, which means American audiences are likely to eventually see it, as well they should. As well they will want to. In addition to everything else, it makes for a great western.

As for Phantom Thread ... I may still see it in the theater, I may not. I have not loved an Anderson film since my beloved There Will Be Blood, my #1 movie of 2007. With the two I've seen since then and not loved, The Master and Inherent Vice, I saw one on the big screen and one on the small. Seeing it writ large may have made me like The Master more than I would have otherwise, but I didn't like either of those movies a huge amount, so I don't know if I owe Anderson anything in terms of this one. He may need to win me back, in a way. (I did like The Master, and probably owe it a second viewing; with Inherent Vice, I think I'm done after one.)

My Sweet County review should be up on the site and linked in a couple days. Read up on it, and look for it coming to a theater near you.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Cat in the Hat progression of time

It's unusual that you'd watch a movie for the seventh? maybe? time, and still have significant new takeaways.

In the case of Run Lola Run, my 12th favorite film of all time according to Flickchart, I actually have two.

We watched it Saturday night as research for a project my wife is working on, though this is at least her third time seeing it, probably her fourth. As I like only 11 films better than this, and had not seen it since 2014, I was more than game.

And I realized while watching it that my love for it is as high as it is despite something that nags me every time while watching it, this time being no exception:

Those 20 minutes would never take 20 minutes.

Forty, maybe. Not 20.

It's something I've felt about the film ever since I named it my #1 movie of 1999 (it was released in Germany in 1998, but didn't get to us until the following year). And while I'm obviously able to suspend disbelief in this case, still: Those 20 minutes would never take 20 minutes.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, then shame on you -- go watch Run Lola Run right now. But in case you'd rather finish this post before doing so, well, I should tell you that there are spoilers about Run Lola Run ahead. But if you're not worried about that and still require an explanation, Franka Potente plays the title character, the girlfriend of a low-level criminal who accidentally abandons a bag containing 100,000 marks on the subway on his way to giving it to his boss. He was only on that subway in the first place because she could not meet him at the designated spot due to her moped being stolen. When he calls her in desperation, it's up to her to try to find the money in the next 20 minutes before noon -- or else his boss will rub him out. Or really, or else he'll rob the grocery store across the street, making him a wanted criminal and putting their lives on a significantly different trajectory.

So Lola runs, of course.

The thing is, it takes her fully half the available time to actually arrive at the bank where her father works, leaving only ten more minutes to hastily extract the money from him with enough finesse that he'd actually agree to do it, then get to the meeting spot with Manni before he pulls a gun on the grocery clerks.

Never happen.

I mean, even if she ran into her dad on the front steps of the bank, he had the 100,000 marks in his pocket, and he forked it over to her within 30 seconds of her arrival, she wouldn't seem to have the time to get to Manni. And of course it doesn't go like that on any of the three attempts as the movie restarts the crucial 20-minute period twice. There are logistical problems each of the times, not to mention time lost on learning things like the fact that her dad is cheating on her mom and that he's not actually her biological father.

Yet each time she actually does show up by noon, not always with any money in her hands, but with the possibility of having money if everything had gone right.

I call bullshit.

Except I don't care. Just as I don't really care that the kids in The Cat in the Hat could not possibly accomplish as much as they accomplish in the time it takes for the fish to see their mother approaching on the sidewalk outside, and when she actually reaches the front door.

I read this Dr. Seuss classic for the umpteenth time Thursday night to my younger son -- well, third or fourth to him, with the remaining part of the umpteen having been expended on his older brother. It's not my favorite Dr. Seuss by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like it quite a bit, and have distinct voices for the titular cat, the aforementioned fish, the boy, and even the one line of dialogue belonging to his mother, after she finally arrives home.

But every time I read The Cat in the Hat I can't help but think "Damn! Why does it take so long for the mum to reach the front door?" (See, I live in Australia now, and sometimes I think the word "mum" rather than "mom.")

If you need a fuller explanation of this, I will give one, this time without the spoiler warning. The goldfish, who is basically the house's resident narc, has spent the entire book in an apoplexy of anxiety, worried that the titular cat, his two Things and the two children should not be destroying the house while Mom is out. His fears are finally vindicated when he spies the approaching leg of the mom, as indicated in the picture above.

The problem is, the house is a total mess. It's not only a mess, but there are two Things running loose creating havoc, not to mention a giant cat in a ridiculous hat kicking his feet up and having a grand old time with all the chaos. In reality, the fish probably wouldn't even have the time to read them the full riot act before the mom reached the front door. But in this book, the boy then has to go get his net, has to have luck enough to catch both Things in his net on the first attempt, return the Things to their box, watch the cat leave in a huff, watch the cat return with a crazy device that will clean up "the cake and the rake and the gown" and everything else that's on the floor, and then leave again.


The timing of watching Lola again was fortuitous as I had actually just posted the following on Facebook shortly after reading: "One of the world's great mysteries: Why does it take the mom in Cat in the Hat so long to walk from the sidewalk outside her house to the front door of her house?" I got 17 likes and five comments. People other than me have thought about this.

I think the unrealistically productive 30 seconds in Cat in the Hat bothers me more than the unrealistically productive 20 minutes in Lola, but in both cases I accept it because the work of art in question is doing so much else right. I do think there's an important difference between the two, though. While both rely on a sense of urgency and a need to act immediately, I think Theodore Geisel could have figured out a way to herald the approach of the mother without the fish looking out the window and seeing her approaching footfall. I mean, the way that's drawn, that means she's going to be at the door in like ten seconds, let alone 30, let alone the 20 minutes it might take to do everything they need to do indoors to get the house ready. Pivoting on that 20 minutes, I don't think Tom Tykwer could have stretched that out to 30 or 40, because although that's still an incredibly small amount of time in which to acquire 100,000 marks, it would stretch out the available time period enough to damage the sense of immediacy.

And as I said, I'm happy to suspend disbelief. If I'm going to start quibbling with how much (or really, how little) time it takes Lola to run to far-flung corners of Berlin, there are also a number of movies I'll need to reckon with involving ticking time bombs and people holding their breath underwater.

Oh, I said I had a second takeaway. And it has to do with who has free will in this universe and who determines the course of the action on each of the film's three attempts at getting the money.

If you answer "Lola" to that question, you're wrong.

It's the guy on the stairs.

You know how the movie becomes momentarily animated as Lola drops the phone and bolts her apartment? This is the key sequence of the whole movie, as there is a punk with a dog on one of the lower landings of the stairwell she sprints down.

On the first time through, Lola notes the guy and his dog, but just passes them and they have no impact on her. In fact, they are really nothing more than scenery.

Not true on the second time through, though. The second time, the guy has an otherwise unexplained injection of free will, and decides to stick out a leg to trip Lola. As she falls down the stairs, it's a great start to the second iteration of the film's narrative, as we already know this is destined to be a failure right from the start.

Improbably, this only slows her down a small amount, even though she suffers a nasty spill and has to limp her way out of the apartment building. I guess she gets back up to speed pretty quickly or maybe makes up the time somewhere else, because when she proceeds through the other series of events and people in her path, she's only a few seconds off the pace of the first iteration, when she went down the stairwell unmolested.

Interestingly, no one else in the narrative makes a free choice of any kind. They end up doing slightly different things as a result of her slightly different arrival times, but only the change in her arrival time dictates these differences. They don't decide to do something different one time to the next, which, granted, could be because the guy on the stairs has taken the decision out of their hands. You could say that once he has made his choice, the rest of them are just pawns destined to act out the proscribed series of involuntary responses that result from the particular compositions of the chemistries in their brains.

So why does the guy on the stairs get to be different? Is he the god of this universe? If he had not made a different choice, would someone else have?

It's interesting to note that in the third iteration, he again decides to be a passive observer, not an active participant in this nascent journey which he couldn't possibly know anything about it. But the interaction is slightly different. The dog growls, but instead of shrinking from it in an instinct of self-preservation, Lola jumps over it and growls back at it.

It's meant to indicate that these experiences have not occurred in a vacuum for Lola. She has learned something from having lived each of the previous ones already. She still makes a very poor initial choice, to get the money from her father, each time. But she's clearly carrying something with her, as by the third attempt she has gained enough confidence, enough of an edge on the situation, to growl back at the dog rather than shrinking from it.

However, only Lola and the guy on the stairs seem to be accumulating any knowledge over the course of the three iterations. No one else seems to behave differently as a result of a vague sense of deja vu. This guy clearly does, as he actively decides to throw a wrench in her second attempt by doing something he didn't do the first time, and you can't argue that his decision was the result of something she did differently, because she hasn't done anything differently in the albeit very short amount of those 20 minutes that have elapsed. She clearly did retain some knowledge from the first to the second -- in the second, for example, we see her removing the safety on the gun, something she learned to do the first time through, in a different context involving a gun -- but it doesn't seem as though she's used any of her retained knowledge to alter anything prior to the interaction with the man on the stairs.

So is he the god of this universe? Or possibly the devil?

I guess I'll leave that one to my eighth viewing.