Thursday, May 31, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Elaine May

This is my fourth month of Audient Auteurs, a 2018 series in which I watch two movies per month by a director whose work is unfamiliar to me. Yes, I skipped January.

We were spared four white men in a row, and three Frenchmen in a row, when my expected May target, Jacques Rivette, had one of his two movies disappear from Kanopy between when I first checked on it in April and now. Which is just as well, because a) that movie was nearly four hours long, and b) it allowed us to finally bring a woman (not to mention an American) into the series.

Elaine May was not one of three women I had on my original shortlist, however. Those other three -- Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman and Lina Wertmuller -- have all been presenting me difficulties on the sourcing front, though I should be able to get Varda at least in a month or two when Faces Places becomes available for rent. May actually came to mind as an afterthought. She is the second straight month of something, as she follows our April auteur, Robert Bresson, as another subject of a recent marathon on the Filmspotting podcast.

May's much smaller filmography as director -- she made only four features -- made me originally question whether she was appropriate for this series. But hey, if she's good enough for Filmspotting, she's good enough for me. And when I could find one of her movies on Kanopy and another for rental on iTunes, it worked out perfectly for me to tackle half of her filmography.

May is not probably known first and foremost as a director, but as half the comedy team of Nichols and May, that Nichols of course being Mike Nichols, director of The Graduate and others. They met during their involvement in a Chicago improv troupe in the 1950s and ultimately splintered off into their own enormously popular act, both writing and performing their sketches. Which they subsequently abandoned at the height of its popularity only four years later. Apparently, they both wanted to become filmmakers, as May also developed a distinguished writing career that featured, among others, the Warren Beatty hit Heaven Can Wait and a couple of Nichols-directed features, The Birdcage and Primary Colors. She received Oscar nominations for the first and third of those. It seems likely she would have had a longer directing career except for what happened with the second film we're going to discuss today. She's also the first subject of this series who is still alive (age 86 as of this writing).

If I'd seen either of her first two features, A New Leaf (1971) or The Heartbreak Kid (1972, which the Farrelly Brothers eventually remade), I might have quite a different idea of her style as a director, one that might have made it easier to produce a "take" on May. The two I did see gave me the impression of a director capable of a wide range of things ... though not all of them good.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)

May's third feature is a big turn away from the comedic sensibilities that informed her career as a sketch performer and her first two movies. In fact, it reminds me quite favorably of the directing work of one of its two stars, specifically the only film of his that I really like.

That star is John Cassavetes, who plays Nicky, a low-level hoodlum with a price on his head after he ripped off some gangsters. Mikey (Peter Falk) is his childhood friend who is also in with the same criminal syndicate, but is not implicated in Nicky's double crosses. Whether Mikey is trying to steer Nicky clear of danger, or directly into it, is something Nicky spends most of the movie trying to determine. The story takes place all in one night as Mikey and Nicky change locations around New York City, which move them closer to and further away from a hapless hitman played by Ned Beatty.

When you watch a movie like Mikey & Nicky it seems almost impossible to reconcile the fact that it was directed by a woman. Although there are female characters in the film, at its core it's a story of two men in a relationship at a point of particular vulnerability. Nicky knows he's got a price on his head and doesn't know who to trust, but he feels he can only turn to Mikey, even if he knows he may not fully be able to trust him. After all, they have a shared history that gets teased out in the dialogue over the course of the evening, which includes friends and family members long since dead, not all of whom died under pleasant circumstances.

Why it's not stereotypically "female" is because of the G-word: "gritty." This is a film that looks like it might have had its celluloid intentionally damaged or afflicted with lint or scarred with so-called "cigarette burns" (thanks Fight Club) just to make it look more grungy. And you've got two truly streetwise and intense actors here, one of whom made films that were very similar to Mikey & Nicky. Cassavetes is of course thought of as a filmmaker first and an actor second, but this film reminds me how good he was in the latter role. As the man on the run, he's truly desperate and untethered and cracking apart at the seams. No one can wear a pained smile like Cassavetes can, and he wears it nearly throughout this film, giving off the impression that his eyes are boring through the artificiality of these interactions while his mouth holds the smile for the purpose of keeping up appearances and pretending he doesn't know what's what. As he starts to catch on to the idea that Mikey might not be there as his friend, he shifts to calling on their personal history to try to prevent Mikey from taking the action he fears Mikey will take, without naming that action in so many words. It's a desperate cry for help from a man who refuses to beg, and whose speed in belittling his friend in mixed settings during happier times may have turned Mikey against him.

The saga they go through is by turns symbolic and absurd. They spend time sussing each other out in a hotel room, in which Nicky at first refuses to open the door to Mikey, so sure is he that Mikey is bringing his doom with him; Mikey has to practically beg Nicky to let him leave so he can go to a pharmacy to get medication for Nicky's painful ulcer. Then the action shifts to a bar, where an assassin may or may not be coming for him. Spooked, Nicky gets the urge to leave and take them to an all-night movie theater, but they also spontaneously jump off a bus to go visit Nicky's mother's gravestone. Later, they pay a visit to Nicky's damaged lady friend, with whom he's cheating on his wife. And oh yeah, did we mention Nicky has a child that's less than a year old? A bizarre scene plays out here as it does later at Nicky's own house with his estranged wife. The whole thing goes humming along on a flow of great dialogue and a vibe of apocalyptic doom.

In terms of Cassavetes' filmography, I was reminded most of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, not so much because the plots are very similar (to my recollection, they aren't), but just because of how much I love them both. When I did a similar examination of Cassavetes back in the Getting Acquainted series (see here for that post), I waded through two Cassavetes films that didn't really connect with me before getting to Bookie, which knocked my socks off. Mikey & Nicky knocked my socks off equally, but in this case, it was my very first exposure to May, and set some very high expectations.

Ishtar (1987)

Expectations that, unfortunately, were not at all satisfied by the second movie I watched. Which might have been expected, given its reputation as an infamous turkey. Ishtar is often cited when people are looking for a good go-to example of a famous flop, and I can still remember reading the review of it when it was released, back when I was in my early teens. The Boston Globe critic at the time, though the internet refuses to reveal to me who it was, wrote approximately this in a capsule review: "One star for Dustin Hoffman. One star for Warren Beatty. No stars for anything else."

And yet Ishtar has also been reconsidered over the years, to the point that some critics now consider it a worthwhile exercise at worst, and possibly a misunderstood comedic gem. It was in that spirit that I finally saw a movie I had been curious about seeing for some 31 years, which had been hard to get your hands on until recently. I'm not sure why May had to wait 11 years to make her next film after Mikey & Nicky, but having seen Ishtar, I can kind of see why she never made another one.

May is back in comedic mode after her single-film departure, but it's almost a slapstick kind of comedy, deaf in its tone about ethnic issues and, well, pretty much everything else as well. Its two superstars play a pair of would-be musicians, though in a bit of honest self-assessment, they are really only good at the writing part, as they can't sing and can only play instruments functionally. If they see clearly about their own performing abilities, they're deluded about their writing abilities, as the opening sequence in which they try to hash out the lyrics for a song called "Dangerous Business" amply demonstrates. These guys, in fact, don't appear to be good at much of anything. But they do get an opportunity to ply their "trade" when they are dispatched to perform at a club for American expatriates in a fictional country near Morocco called Ishtar, which is on the verge of political upheaval.

The less said about the rest of the plot, the better. Let's just say that a blind camel factors in prominently. Said camel is the result of a misunderstanding of a code word meant to be used as part of a communication with a potential revolutionary. Why are these bozos involved so closely in political revolution? It's the result of a chance contact with a beautiful spy at the airport (Isabelle Adjani) and an ongoing contact with an American CIA agent (Charles Grodin). There's a lot of bad singing, wandering around in deserts, and Hoffman pretending he can speak in the tribal dialect of nomadic Africans, which results in some of the movie's least sensitive and groan-worthy passages.

The ingredients for something funny are present in Ishtar, but Ishtar is not funny. I've heard the arguments that it's fully intended as a satire, I mean even beyond the ways it is superficially supposed to be a satire. But layers upon layers of theoretical comedic intent don't actually make me laugh, and I feel really bad for Hoffman and Beatty, who do really give it their all. I only think they're actually worthy of about three-quarters of a star each, though, as I could only bring myself to give Ishtar 1.5 stars on Letterboxd.

I'm not really sure who I'm doing in June. It could be Varda, it could be some other Frenchman, or it could be another auteur I haven't even thought of yet. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Celebrating 2,000 posts -- almost on time

I completely flailed when I wrote my thousandth post for this blog, which was sometime in early 2013. I don’t know what I would have done to celebrate the milestone, but given my general affinity for recognizing milestones, it should have been something.

I’m more on top of things now that 2,000 is rolling around, though still not quite as on top as I'd like. Unwittingly, I wrote my 2,000th post yesterday, frivolously frittering it away on a post about how I’d seen Michael Pena in two movies where he played a cop on consecutive nights last weekend. It was the very antithesis of a 2,000th post.

But at least I’m getting in a proper recognition only one post late.

So what should I do to recognize the arrival of this milestone, which comes about half a year before the blog’s ten-year anniversary?

I gotta be honest, I don’t have anything planned. However, I do have a couple other potential posts backed up, so I need to write something and then just move on with my life.

So I thought, why not take a look at the movies I’ve discussed the most during that time?

I thought of doing the top ten tags, but all the year-long series have their own tags, so each of them would have at least 12. Then you’ve got the topics like Netflix, which I’ve tagged 40 times, perhaps because Netflix has probably been the single most discussion-worthy topic over the last decade that can be distilled down to its own convenient tag. (Granted, the conversation about Netflix has shifted significantly over that time – my first dozen or so posts were devoted to how I preferred Blockbuster’s disc-through-the-mail service to Netflix’s, before I’d ever even heard of streaming. Which really dates this blog and shows you have far Netflix has come during that time.)

So here are the movies, just the movies, I’ve tagged the most. There are some ties, but I listed them as a countdown with individual spots nonetheless, because that's how I roll. Only at #10 did I list an actual tie since otherwise it would have been a top 14. 

10) Boyhood/The Avengers/Titanic/Toy Story (7) - Boyhood would certainly be one of the most significant movies of the past decade for most people, but I'll have to audition it with another viewing before I can be sure whether I'll include it in my top 25 of the decade 18 months from now. But I certainly found it discussion-worthy. Titanic and Toy Story likely got discussed out of general love and social relevance, while The Avengers was purely social relevance -- and in some cases, a shorthand tag for talking about the franchise in general. 

9) Up (8) - This is pretty mystifying for me, though the movie did come out in the first year of the blog, so that partially explains it. This is within the lower half of my Pixar chart, though I guess I do struggle with my feelings toward it, and have seen it three times now, allowing me to write about that struggle on several occasions. 

8) The Matrix (8) - Perfectly logical movie to see mentioned a bunch, as it's one of the most influential movies of the last two decades. (And will be two decades old next year. Yikes!)

7) Moon (8) - Like Up, this not only came out in the blog's first year, but it was also my #1 movie of that year. There are a couple of glancing mentions among the eight though.

6) Children of Men (8) - Again another #1 movie of the year, but this time 2006, before the blog started. A couple glancing mentions in there too, but it did provide the poster art for four of those posts, prompting me to get ever more creative with the use of posters (I have a rule of never using the same art twice for a post).

5) The Social Network (9) - My #3 movie of 2010 will likely figure in a very elevated spot in the top 25 of the decade, and I've had the occasion to watch it three times now. The fact that the score was by my favorite musician, Trent Reznor, is responsible for a couple of these mentions though. 

4) Run Lola Run (9) - My #1 movie of 1999 (it was released in Germany in 1998) is also in my top 20 of all time (which it has in common with Children of Men). I've rewatched it three times alone during the lifespan of this blog, and written about the viewing each time. 

3) Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (9) - The tag is only "birdman" though. Another #1 movie, this time from 2013, though most of my mentions were surrounding its nomination for best picture. I do think I still like the movie quite a bit, but I am not really looking forward to my eventual third viewing, which will determine where or whether it appears in my top 25 of the decade.

2) Avatar (10) - All cultural relevance and "state of the film industry" posts here, as I did not love Avatar and still have only seen it once. But it sure was/is worth talking about. 

1) Star Wars (24) - And we end with a cheat. Although possibly enough of these posts are about the original movie to win on its own, the tag has also been used to refer to issues related to the franchise in general. In fact, I have stopped italicizing "Star Wars" unless I am referring specifically to the first movie, so much of a brand has this become.

And there you have it. A small smattering of useless stats from 2,000 blog posts. 

And now, that leaves me about seven months to determine a more proper way to celebrate the blog turning ten. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Michael Pena Plays a Cop movie weekend

I had no good reason to watch CHiPS on Saturday night. It was my reluctant choice after a lot of lethargic clicking of the right arrow on my remote control between different titles on Netflix.

The best reason, in fact, was that I had just watched Michael Pena play a police officer in a movie the night before as well.

The night before I watched End of Watch, which had never interested me but which has a decent amount of critical respect (especially compared to some of David Ayer’s other movies, **AHEM** Suicide Squad). Pena stars in that opposite Jake Gyllenhaal. They both play LA cops.

Pena’s CHiPS co-star is Dax Shepard, who is also the film’s director, which should have told me something about what to expect. Dax Shepard may appear in one of my favorite comedies of the 21st century (Idiocracy), but that doesn’t mean I’d trust him to make a movie. In fact, I’d only trust him marginally more than the character he plays in Idiocracy. (And figured what he’d make would be the 21st century version of the 26th century classic Oscar-winner from Idiocracy, known simply as Ass – a feature length shot of an ass farting).

In both instances he’s a cop in Los Angeles, too, though in CHiPS he’s actually on assignment from Miami, secretly infiltrating the California Highway Patrol.

Not that Michael Pena playing a cop is actually particular novel, though his other appearances as a cop are also unseen by me. If I’d wanted to make it a quintuple feature (and if these movies were available on a streaming service to which I subscribe), I also could have seen War on Everyone, Gangster Squad or the remake of Vacation.

For slight variations on this in movies I have seen, Pena plays a security guard in Observe and Report, a border patrol agent in Babel and a detective in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Can you say “typecast?”

As for the movies themselves, both disappointed, though I oddly have the slightly more favorable impression of the clearly less good movie. CHiPS was slightly better than I expected it to be, especially since I’d set the bar so low for Dax Shepard. As it turned out, Shepard was more charming than I expected as an actor and, um, perfectly adequate as a director. End of Watch was worse, though probably not a lot worse, than I expected it to be. It was weirdly kind of a cop hagiography, which is especially troubling given that some of what these guys do is questionable at best. Ayer seems be pretty tone deaf in most of his movies, and this was no exception.


Yeah, he can play a cop. No doubt about that.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Say it ain't so, Mo

I did not expect to be writing another #MeToo post, not because it's not important, but just because I'm so exhausted and dispirited by the whole thing that I've generally gone into avoidance mode. Sad but true. At the very least, I figured the next series of accusations I talked about here would have to be so earth-shattering that I couldn't avoid talking about them.

I wouldn't say that's true in this case, but I've decided to devote a post to the accusations against Morgan Freeman because of this post.

Don't care to follow the link? That's fine, let me summarize for you.

The subject of that November 21st post should be clear enough from its title: "Five sexual assault allegations that would crush me." Four of the men named in that post -- Tom Hanks, Barack Obama, George Clooney and Steven Spielberg -- are still untainted.

The fifth is now not.

In fact, what I wrote about Morgan Freeman in that post was weirdly prescient (I swear I had not heard any rumors about his conduct): "Maybe he's inherited the grandfatherly black gentleman mantle I had once entrusted to Bill Cosby. Freeman is a treasure, and if I heard he was a skirt chaser, who would be the voice of God in my head?"

The unfortunately accurate part of that is that one of the specific charges against Freeman is that he chased someone's skirt. I can't remember who the person was because I want to read that long CNN article once and only once. But one of the more problematic of a number of problematic accusations is one where Freeman was allegedly trying to lift of the skirt of an underling to see if she was wearing any underwear. And this was on the set of a movie that came out last year. Alan Arkin, thank goodness, appears to have shamed him from continuing to pursue that course of action.

"Freeman is a treasure" is another important phrase in that brief two-sentence writeup. The fear of losing their job might not have been the only reason women didn't come forward about Freeman's behavior, and had to be asked about it by the CNN reporter who began investigating the issue based on her own experience of harassment from Freeman. The importance of Morgan Freeman being our collective treasure might have been just as much of a motivating factor.

We need to believe that some people are above the fray. And some people certainly are. But they are not always the people we wish were.

Because I continue to be able to separate the art from the artist, for the most part, this will not taint my personal ability to appreciate Freeman's film work. But many others are not able to do that, nor should they. Freeman will now follow others we used to respect into that same gutter of taint. People like my wife will now no longer feel comfortable watching Morgan Freeman movies. (Though I should note that she is also in denial a bit about this, as she had not read the accusations against him the last time I checked in with her.)

Oh Morgan. You knew it was bad. You needed to stop. And now you have issued an apology that is lame and hollow and leaves us without the opening we needed to try to rehabilitate your image in our minds.

God is dead, I guess.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Better Call Han

No real spoilers.

I won’t go into spoilers on Solo: A Star Wars Story, though there’s only one thing in it that I think qualifies as a genuine surprise that has any bearing on the rest of the Star Wars universe.

I will say that I think the movie is kind of like the cinematic version of Better Call Saul, and that’s not even something I probably needed to see the movie to know.

Like Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad, it gives us a look at the origins of a character we have come to know as a bit of a rapscallion, when he was less of one. Of course, Han Solo is a lot more of an old softy than Saul Goodman a.k.a. Jimmy McGill, and he undergoes a character arc over the course of the original Star Wars trilogy that Saul does not undergo in six seasons of Breaking Bad.

But there’s the same kind of sense in watching it that this cannot end well.

And not just because Han Solo will one day end up on a bridge with a lightsaber through his stomach.

Better Caul Saul goes to great lengths showing us that the man once known as Jimmy was a good guy. I mean, he was always a trickster and he never met a scam he didn’t like, but he lived his life following a certain moral compass. The people he duped were (almost) always deserving of that usury, or at least the ends justified the means. At the end of the day he wanted to do the right thing for people who deserved justice.

But of course, at some point – a point we have not yet reached in the narrative of that TV show – it all came apart.

It’s a similar situation with Han Solo. Now, Han is not as compromised, morally, when we meet him at the start of A New Hope as Saul is when we meet him in Breaking Bad. He’s a bit more of a genuine hero than an anti-hero, whereas Saul isn’t either – he’s essentially just comic relief. We didn’t know then how much we would love him and how much we would thirst for a whole series devoted to him, which in some ways even surpasses the series from which it span off.

But if things had really “gone well” for Han Solo, we wouldn’t first encounter him in a seedy bar on Tatooine, trying to escape his debts to a gangster and the bounty on his head, shooting first on the bounty hunter who tries to take him back as a hostage to that gangster. Hey, I’m sure Greedo had some kids to feed.

And so Solo: A Star Wars Story cannot really end well for him either, though it remains to be seen if they are going to try to squeeze some sequels out of this material. I won’t give away the ending, but you already know it has to be on some kind of downward trajectory, because of something you might not know: Han Solo might also be described as something of an idealist at the start of this movie. Sure, his charm is rakish and his schemes reckless, but we find out in the first five minutes of this movie that what he’s doing, he’s doing for love. Sorry if you think that’s a spoiler, but it’s in the damn first five minutes of the movie.

So the journey with Han, as with Jimmy, is the loss of that idealism, to be replaced by something more jaded and cynical.

And in both cases, there’s a love driving that idealism, a love that is lost. We don’t know what’s going to happen between Jimmy and Kim (please don’t die) because the series hasn’t gotten that far yet. But she makes no appearance in Breaking Bad, so she’s out of the picture in one way or another. And with Han’s love interest in Solo … again not spoiling anything, but let’s just say you already know Han is single when he first meets Princess Leia.

I just hope Jimmy can live long enough to meet someone, have children, and die of a lightsaber wound to the gut.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The mellowing of our Star Wars expectations

Solo: A Star Wars Story opens this week.

Ho hum.

Han Solo is arguably one of the most popular characters in movie history, yet a movie devoted to him is not causing the stir we have come to expect, especially from Star Wars movies.

I think this says more about the state of Star Wars movies than it does about Han Solo.

Forget the “troubled production,” about which the average person likely knows diddly squat. Also forget whether the previous movies have been good, because some people have loved each of the three newest Star Wars movies and some people have loathed them. There isn’t one that can be acknowledged generally as a turd, the way the prequels were.

But we are now in our fourth straight year with a Star Wars movie, and we’ve just mellowed out on all this hype and other tangential buzz. Which is both inevitable and a bit disappointing.

Even 18 months ago, when Rogue One was released, I made sure I was there at a midnight screening. Actually, I think the midnight screening was necessitated by the fact that I needed to record a podcast about it two nights later, and had to be sure I’d get to see it before then. If something terrible happened and I missed the screening, I’d have time to compensate with another showing before the podcast recorded. But I suspect I would have been drawn to that midnight screening anyway.

What Rogue One and Solo have in common is that they are both prequels, meaning certain characters were guaranteed to escape them alive. Spoilers were not the big factor they might be in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

What they don’t have, or seem to have, in common is the hype leading up to them.

For one, I noticed that they already screened Solo for critics. My editor has already written and posted his review, even though the first public screenings are still nearly 32 hours off as I write this. For the previous three movies, they wouldn’t show anybody the movie until about six hours before those midnight screenings were set to happen. My editor beat the rest of us plebes to the screening, but only by a short time, barely even enough to brag.

Then I noticed the relative paucity of midnight screenings tomorrow. At the Village Cinema at Crown Casino, where I have started to go for my big budget movies on large screens, there’s only a single midnight screening, and it’s actually at 12:15. Hoyts, the other option for big screens, does have three screens showing the movie at 12:01, but only three, and only once each. When The Last Jedi came out last year, I’m pretty sure it played a good 20 times before weary Hoyts theater staff got to go to bed that night.

Again, I don’t think it’s the fault of Han Solo. But I do think Rogue One makes a good point of comparison, as these both have the “A Star Wars Story” label on them. Just 18 months ago, people were hungry enough for more Star Wars, any Star Wars, to line up for a midnight showing, even when they knew that nothing they didn’t already basically know would happen in the movie. Now, not so much.

You could argue that the narrative of stealing the Death Star plans is inherently more interesting than watching Han Solo on just some random adventure, though I’m sure the movie will do its darnedest to convince us of the stakes of this particular adventure. But I really don’t think so. Solo allows us to explore a beloved character – three beloved characters, actually – while Rogue One focused on characters we didn’t know and only hinted at a few we already did. (We knew Darth Vader was going to be in it, and we probably thought that was going to be cool, but I don’t think it could be described as the film’s primary draw.)

What I really think is that this is the first sign of our Star Wars fatigue, the fact that a new movie is coming out this week and only in the past day or two did I even start to think about my intended strategy for seeing it. Basically, I don’t think I’ll need one. It’ll be playing enough, with few enough total people seeing it, that I’ll probably be able to just roll up to the theater on Thursday night and use my critics card to snare a ticket. (I am going to see it in its first 24 hours – I haven’t mellowed that much.) But I also am not that worried if I go and it’s sold out. A need to see it does not feel desperate. Too bad, because it should.

I guess I partly blame Rogue One, as I didn’t really care for it and it demonstrated to me that the characters I knew probably played more of a role in my affections than I wanted to acknowledge. Or maybe these particular characters were just lame. Or maybe they turned the stealing of the Death Star plans into an epic battle the likes of which would be discussed in history books, when it should have been a cloak and dagger mission. But now I’m getting sidetracked.

I blame Rogue One more as the first sign of the new normal in the Star Wars universe, where after 2019 we will continue to get Star Wars movies but they will each be a bit more shrug-worthy than the one that preceded them. Once the Skywalker saga is (presumably) over next year, each new Star Wars movie will be a Solo, with increasingly fewer midnight screenings, increasingly less urgency over how soon we see it, and increasingly fewer characters we care about.

I don’t totally mind the mellowing, mind you. That day after the midnight screening is always rough, and my this Thursday at work thanks me in advance.

But there’s something I’ll miss about the excitement of Star Wars, which reduced my capacity for rational thought and just turned me into a fanboy.

I guess I’ll get one more shot with Episode IX next year.

In the meantime … Alden Ehrenreich, eh? I still wish they’d gone with Anthony Ingruber.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Honoring Kidder and surfacing from the bottom

I probably wouldn’t have watched Superman II Wednesday night only to celebrate the life of Margot Kidder. Although I cherished her on some level, this was really the only movie I much remember her from, as I only saw the original Superman like three times (one of which was in the past few years) and I only just saw The Amityville Horror last year for the first time. I’d memorialized her on the blog on Wednesday and that was probably enough.

But there was also an interest in surfacing Superman II from the bottom of my Letterboxd list for rewatched movies.

I’ll explain.

I’ve kept track of my movie viewings for a long time, but one of the most recent was starting to make note of when I re-watched a movie. That started about 12 years ago, in July of 2006. The first re-watch I recorded was Ghostbusters. I don’t know why Ghostbusters prompted me to start recording rewatches, or whether I made the decision and Ghostbusters happened to be the first one I saw after that. But either way, I’ve consistently kept track of every movie I’ve rewatched since then.

They say the flesh is weak, but so is the Microsoft Word file, even though I’m an avid backer upper. So when I started on Letterboxd maybe seven years ago, I decided to transcribe my list of rewatches over there, and kept adding any rewatch in both locations. Call it a cloud backup of sorts. I’d put the date watched in the notes field, so that information was preserved too.

When you add new movies to a list on Letterboxd, they automatically go to the end of the list. I might be able to tweak that but I’ve never figured out how. The list was more interesting to me, though, with the newest entries first. So each time I add a new movie, I change its number in the list from 400-whatever to #1, then it jumps to the top. (I’ve rewatched over 650 movies, but about 200 of them were before I started keeping track of rewatches, and I have not watched them since so they aren’t on this list.) This means that the same movie is always last.

For a long time that was Ghostbusters. Every time I moved the newest addition to the top, I’d have to first go down and look at the bottom and see Ghostbusters there.

But then I watched Ghostbusters again in 2016. And because no movie can appear in a Letterboxd list more than once, it was moved to the top, with the latest rewatch date added to the existing rewatch date.

The new last film on the list? Superman II.

It’s been that way for nearly two years, and because I like to consider very inconsequential things (which offers an explanation for this entire post), I had been idly wondering when I would give Superman II another watch and surface it from the bottom of this list.

And that brings you up to Wednesday night.

Now that I’ve watched it again, the new last film on the list could stand awhile, unless I artificially watch it just for the purpose of surfacing it. That movie is The Matador, and though that’s a film I like quite a bit, a third viewing is not really fighting its way into existence. I may soon surface the second-to-last movie on the list, though. That’s Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46, which I own and which I have been on the verge of popping into the DVD player for some time now.

I suppose I should actually devote some of this post to Kidder and Superman II, shouldn’t I?

I did appreciate Kidder in this movie, though I think I realized that I had slightly exaggerated just how charmed I am by her here. Although this is a childhood favorite that I thought was impervious to reevaluation upon multiple viewings, I had a number of small criticisms of the movie. I wouldn’t say that Kidder or her performance was one of them, though I didn’t feel the pang of nostalgia and sorrow I expected to feel when I watched it – that I feel when I watch Star Wars and see Carrie Fisher, for example. Ultimately it makes sense that Fisher would have had more of a sway over me than Kidder did, as she appeared in three beloved movies to Kidder’s one. The sense of sorrow is probably a bit greater as well as Fisher died before her work was really done, as she was going to appear in at least one (and probably only one) more Star Wars movie. (I should acknowledge also that Princess Leia in Jabba’s slave outfit was probably also working on my budding sexuality when I first saw it at age nine, and there’s no equivalent for Lois Lane – though if I had seen her turn in Amityville Horror there might have been.)

The interesting thing about Superman II on the whole was how hurried it felt to me on this viewing. You want a tight script to move you along in the action, but some of the jumps seemed downright nutty. For one, when the three Kryptonians first land in that hick town and start wreaking havoc, there is already talk on a concurrent newscast about the use of nuclear weapons being ruled out due to the risk to the population. Hasn’t the world only been aware of these three for like 15 minutes? Who’s talking about nuclear weapons? Sure, there was that incident on the moon, but at this point the powers that be are still likely trying to piece together what that was. When Zod takes the camera, he’s already asking if there’s no one on Earth to even challenge him. The very next scene, they’re changing the faces on Mt. Rushmore to their own. Isn’t that a little fast?

Then I was also reminded how little screen time there is between when Superman forfeits his powers and gets them back. It’s hard to say how much time is actually passing in the movie, but it couldn’t be more than a day or two, a week at most. The only scene outside the fortress of solitude is when he and Lois take a ride to a diner to get dinner and he has the fight with the local bully. He’s already walking back to the fortress (what happened to their car? And where did Lois go?) and already shouting in empty fury at his dead parents, telling them he “failed.” I should have timed it, but it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes of screen time.

Lex Luthor’s time with the Kryptonians also feels very hurried. Gene Hackman as Luthor is one of my favorite parts of the movie – he works so much better as comic relief than “the big bad.” But there’s barely any time between when he introduces himself and having to scurry to explain his relevance and avoid being killed. Both sides are shrewd enough and pragmatic enough for a feeling out period to be logical.

Still a favorite and I’ll still miss Margot Kidder.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

An evening with the recently deceased

I had a weird experience watching The Circle on Tuesday night. It was like I was watching a ghost, or rather, ghosts.

Because I was.

Emma Watson is the movie’s protagonist, and I’m quite happy to say that she’s alive and well.

The actors who played her parents? Not so much.

When Glenne Headley appeared as her mother, I thought, “Oh too bad, she just died.” It was on June 8th of 2017, actually, so nearly a year ago.

Then I looked at the man sitting next to her at the dinner table, playing her husband and father to Watson’s character. He was a bit bearded and scruffy, and he was playing a character with MS, making it difficult to immediately identify the actor. But then it finally happened and I thought, “Wait wait wait … is that Bill Paxton? Shit, he’s dead too!”

That happened on February 25th of 2017.

Paxton died about two months before the release of James Ponsoldt’s film. Headley died about two months after.

Both deaths were sudden. Paxton had a stroke and Headley a pulmonary embolism. Yikes. They were both heart related.

It’s not strange to see an actor who has recently died appearing in a recent movie, as many actors are working up until their sudden deaths. It is a bit strange to see it happen with two characters in the same movie, even if The Circle was only a posthumous release for one of them. And two characters who were married to each other in the movie, too.

I wonder how Emma Watson feels about all this.

I guess it’s been a pretty morbid week on The Audient with yesterday’s post about Margot Kidder’s death. Here’s hoping there are livelier days ahead.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Two of my three princesses are now gone

Margot Kidder died on Sunday.

My Lois Lane -- forget Amy Adams or Kate Bosworth -- is now gone.

On social media it was heralded as something of a joke. Not really, but a friend on Facebook memorialized her thus: "RIP Margot Kidder. Pro tip: memorize the recent winning lottery numbers in case Superman spins the earth backwards again." I don't fully get the reference to the lottery numbers, but I suspect it has something to do with Kidder's "crazy" later years, which allowed her to go out as a "joke" rather than someone we loved.

That post got 15 likes, two laughs, and one crying emoji.

I was the crying emoji.

I won't say I'm "taking it hard" -- an actual friend I knew, not well, but a friend nonetheless died of cancer the same day, and that's much worse. She was only in her early to mid 40s.

But I did consider how this now means I've lost two of the three princesses I grew up with.

I kind of always associated Kidder with two other women from movies around the same time, one of whom preceded her in death by about 18 months. Those two women are Carrie Fisher and Karen Allen, otherwise known as Princess Leia and Marion Ravenwood from the Star Wars movies and Raiders of the Lost Ark. They're all three brunettes, and they were all three love interests of seminal characters for me when I was growing up.

And two of them are now gone.

I never got to properly eulogize Fisher on this blog, as she died when I was on vacation in America and still had two weeks remaining of my stay. I don't think I wrote a single blog post the whole time I was gone. But I've felt her loss on numerous occasions, most notably, of course, when watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi (twice). So I'll make up for the oversight a little now.

You might think it strange to include Allen, as she appeared in only Raiders of the Lost Ark. (Well, she returned in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but you'd hardly consider that ten-year-old movie as part of my cinematic maturation.) But then again, Kidder only appeared in one movie that I watched with any regularity, which was Superman II, still far and away my favorite of those original movies, and the only one I've seen more than twice. (I've actually seen it more than ten times, as we owned it on VHS when I was growing up.)

The loss of Kidder struck me since the last time I saw her, she was so young. Last Halloween I finally saw The Amityville Horror, in which she's so young she's a downright sex object. Maybe not quite as young as the photo I've selected above, but young and vibrant, with her best years still ahead of her.

But only a few of them I guess. Kidder was gone from the Superman movies after Superman II, though I guess she did return in Superman IV for what I believe was only a cameo. Looking it up just now, I was surprised to discover that she worked pretty regularly for the rest of her life, but never in any roles that approached a signature role like Lois Lane. And to be honest, I couldn't name you a single thing she did without consulting IMDB.

But for a while there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she had "it," that unmistakable combo of beauty and spunk that makes someone a star. Her Lois Lane was a real spitfire, the type who wouldn't take no guff from no one. And though Lois Lane is kind of the prototypical "woman who must be saved," in Kidder's hands, she was never helpless. In fact, I just think about the balls she shows trying to cover terrorists strapping a bomb to an elevator in the Eiffel Tower, or fighting back against the Kryptonians who captured her, ultimately punching Ursa down a crevasse in Superman's fortress of solitude after Ursa loses her powers. ("You know something? You're a real pain in the neck.")

Taken in combination with Fisher's death in late 2016, it does leave me saddened about the loss of these women who played an early role in my understanding of a cinematic heroine. Sure, they were products of their time in some respects, but they also stood tall and proud. Princess Leia wouldn't take no guff from no one either, and Marion Ravenwood? Forget about it. She can drink you under the table too. In fact, I think the term "drink you under the table" was coined for Marion Ravenwood.

I hope I'll still have Allen for a few more years, though she does turn 67 in October. Unlike the others, she is in good physical and mental health. And much as I might like to see her on screen again, I kind of hope she sits out the fifth Indiana Jones movie.

As for Princess Leia and Lois Lane ... they're both princesses to me, and may they rest in peace.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Celebrating motherhood, without the schmaltz

Poor mothers.

Not only are they constantly taken for granted, but when there is a day designed to celebrate them, it can't help but seem too earnest by half. Similarly, a movie whose goal is to praise the everyday sacrifices of the female parent can't help but invoke thoughts of the Hallmark Channel, and other ideas of hopelessly precious schmaltz.

Fortunately, Jason Reitman's Tully is something of an antidote to all that.

For one, it doesn't actually characterize itself as a celebration of motherhood, though I don't know how you could get to the end of the movie and not see it as that. It doesn't actually say it, though, which is a useful distinction that helps the movie feel a bit less blatant in its intentions.

Then it has a bit of a high-concept element to it involving the impact of a night nurse on the life of Charlize Theron's main character, a mother who has just given birth to her third child. This is another layer of distraction from the fact that you're essentially watching a portrait of an everyday hero and the toll her everyday heroism takes on her.

Then it's written by Diablo Cody, a writer with a natural instinct for sarcasm who'd probably prefer to write dog food commercials than to deliver dialogue whose only layer of interpretation would be pedantic earnestness.

So in Tully you've got a movie that actually kind of starts out on shaky footing, that I actually thought was heading toward a negative review from me before I realized what it was up to, and how shrewdly it was up to it. And, as I said in my eventual review, it's the kind of movie that made me want to go home and do the dishes.

I'm not sure how Reitman pulled off, especially since he wouldn't deserve to actually tell this story under some of our more strict viewpoints of representation, but the movie comes off as a powerful reminder of what the women in our lives do for us, especially those of us husbands and fathers who are just trying to figure out how to pass the time until our games are on TV. We don't mean to be doing our jobs in a perfunctory way, but sometimes we do anyway.

Mothers can't afford to be perfunctory. They remember to enroll children in swim classes and after school programs. They know which foods you're not allowed to pack in a school lunch. They're aware of when all the forms are due and all the inoculations are needed. They instinctively understand which psychology is effective on a child and which is counterproductive. They get up in the night when the kids need something, because pretending they don't hear it and sleeping through it (as a dad will do) is just not an option.

I've been guilty of all types of benign neglectfulness as a parent, but my wife never has. That's because she's a great mother and because excuses don't fly when it's something as important as your kids.

Tully reminded me of all that without having to scold me about it, and it's one of those movies with the potential to have an actual profound effect on how I live my life. And how I help those closest to me, the ones who depend on me, live theirs.

Because though they depend on me, they need my wife. Without what she brings to our family, we'd all be lost.

So if you're reading this in the early part of the day on Mother's Day in the U.S., and you're wondering about a film that might bring you into the spirit of the day, Tully is your choice. And it's an easy one.

And it's not even necessarily a great choice for your wife. She'd nod along, sure, but she's lived it.

You? You need to understand how great she is, and Tully will help you do that.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Which vvitch? The one with subtitles

When I first added Robert Eggers' 2015 film to my various lists of movies seen, it was before it was released or even before a poster was available. To see what I had to use when I watched it in August at that year's MIFF, and then wrote about it on my blog, see this post. That's the very definition of "placeholder."

And so I alphabetized the movie in the W's, knowing no reason not to. If I happened to notice that the title was stylized with two V's when I watched the movie, it wasn't a thought that was still lingering with me after the credits ran.

If I watched it today for the first time (rather than Friday for the second time), I might consider the V section. Those V's are an essential part of the title, though it does present an interesting problem of only really working when the entire title is either capitalized or not capitalized. You can't call it The Vvitch because it does't really look right.

The version of the title is not what I'm interested in today, though. It's the version of the dialogue, as in, with an assist from the written word or not.

The first time I saw The Witch (easier I think) at MIFF, subtitles were of course not an option. And in a way that was key to the movie's charm. You felt truly immersed in the 17th century, as if you'd stepped out of a time machine and started eavesdropping on a bunch of religious fundamentalists who had banished themselves into the woods. If you were really there with them, you wouldn't catch half of what they were saying. Why should watching them from the third row of your local movie theater be any different?

But I did miss a lot, I think -- a lot whose gist could be understood in context, from inference, but missed material nonetheless. It's sometimes useful to know the nuances that cause a family to tear itself a part from fears that one or more of them have been corrupted by the devil.

And so this time, when it was available for streaming on Netflix, I availed myself of the subtitle option. Which made the film both better and worse.

Better because there were indeed misunderstandings and moments of ambiguity that led characters down certain paths from whence they could not return. I had wondered why some were so credulous to believe the worst of others, and knowing exactly what was being said allowed me to appreciate why things unfurled the way they did. Besides, when you've got this type of antiquated speech, seeing it in print allows you to appreciate its poetry and beauty on a literary level as well.

But worse because knowing exactly what was said and done seemed to be putting too fine a point on it. Poetic the written words may be, but rob the events of some of their mystery they do. The first time I watched The Witch, it seemed like inability to fully understand the language might have been part of the point, part of the confusion inherent in a situation involving a bewitching. Those characters don't understand what's happening to them any better than we do. Having some of that clarified inevitably reduces the disorientation that works in the favor of this film's tone.

Still, I'd do it again. I can get a lot of things from context, but I don't want to have to. The other night I started watching the French film Things to Come on Kanopy, but I had to stop because the quality of the stream would go fuzzy from time to time, and the subtitles would almost become illegible. Now, I took plenty of years of French so I can make out some of what they're saying anyway, and fuzzy English words usually look enough like themselves for you to work out what they must be, especially in the context of other unmistakable words in the sentence. But I don't want to have to do that (I stopped watching Things to Come), so The Witch (or THE VVITCH or the vvitch) with subtitles was ultimately the way to go.

Which doesn't mean I liked it any better, and in fact, I think I liked it a little bit worse. With some of the mystery stripped away and an ending that I still don't like, expressly because there is not enough mystery in it, the movie's just a bit more pedestrian than I'd like it to be. While still of course being a singular type of vision, and a great recreation of an era.

It'll be interesting to see vvhich vvay Eggers goes from here.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Boy to man

Donald Glover is already having a big month of May, and Solo: A Star Wars Story hasn’t even come out yet.

One of the biggest viral phenomena in ages – if that’s the right way to refer to it – is Glover’s new song and video “This is America,” which already has nearly 55 million views on YouTube at the time I’m writing these words, a number that will likely increase by five million by the time I actually publish. And it only came out like five days ago.

It’s all anyone’s talking about, or so I assume, as I don’t hang out on Facebook like I once did or on Twitter like I never did.

Only 24 hours after watching it (three times) did I even realize that Glover was the artist on the song. In fact, I did not even know he rapped.

The song is released by Childish Gambino, a name I’d heard, as had my wife. Neither of us realized it was an alter ego for Glover himself. I saw Glover dancing in the video, and his mouth moving to the words – he grooves through a warehouse as all sorts of outlandish things happen, though I don’t need to tell you because you have no doubt already watched it. But I thought Glover was doing kind of a Christopher Walken in “Weapon of Choice,” not actually doing the rapping himself. I thought he was just putting a celebrity face on the lacerating lyrics that wrestle with the place of black people in today’s America, in a way that’s oblique enough not to be pedantic.

But no, that’s Glover, rapping and dancing and running for his life in the chilling final ten seconds of the video.

And getting a nation, even a world, talking.

That’s a long way to have come for the boy who started out as very much of a boy.

It was impossible to do anything other than infantilize Glover on Community, as he played a guy who was essentially a nerd despite his good looks and athletic abilities. He was best friends with Abad (Danny Pudi), a nerd so aggressively nerdish that he was either actually on the spectrum, or on it for all intents and purposes. Their interactions involved the fetishization of geek culture, and often consisted of role-playing, larping, or other activities traditionally associated with arrested development.

Glover’s years since Community ended have entailed a fairly rapid maturation toward adulthood.

I’ve only watched one episode of Atlanta, which I watched on a plane, hoping to be able to pick up the rest of the series at some point. That hope has ultimately gone frustrated, as I’ve never subscribed to the right services to easily find it (and didn’t like the one episode enough to go out of my way to pay for it). But I immediately noticed the change in Glover. Not only was this not a jokey role at all – the one episode I saw, anyway – but it reflected a conscious choice to trade in his nerd bonafides for something more clearly hip and stylish. The difference seemed to be how much he was “trying,” which also indicated his range as an actor. Troy Barnes was a very try-hard type of role, as the comedy in Community was broad, and everyone needed to play to the back row. Atlanta represented something entirely different – a human-scale rap drama (do I have that right?) in which Earnest Marks was the coolest cat on the screen. I’m sure Glover does more with that character than I’m suggesting, and I’d be able to tell you what it is if I’d seen more episodes. But either way it’s meant to be a compliment.

His movie roles have not been an abandonment of his geek affiliations by any means. One is a movie about male strippers, Magic Mike XXL, in which I should clearly have realized he has the ability to rap, as that’s what he does. (More spoken word, maybe, if I remember correctly.) But then it’s been The Martian and Spider-Man: Homecoming, both very genre, or at least genre adjacent. I actually don’t remember him in Spider-Man: Homecoming, but in The Martian he plays a bit of a frazzled genius trying to figure out how to save an astronaut stranded on Mars. It’s also a different role from Troy Barnes, a step toward adulthood, which was appropriate as he was in his early 30s at the time.

Lando Calrissian is kind of a mixture of both. Yes, being in a Star Wars movie obviously means Glover is still steeped in geek culture. However, even a young version of Lando is a debonair motherfucker. The charm of Lando is an inherently adult type of charm, and you wouldn’t cast someone in this role unless he was pretty capable of demonstrating a certain type of maturity. He looks pretty regal in that cape, or robe, or whatever it is.

The “This is America” video is really what made me sit up and take notice of how far Glover has come in the persona he projects. He may not be playing the role of a rapper in this video, as it turns out he is actually that guy, but he is playing a role. The choice of his outfit is meant to tell you what that is, as well as the gray in his beard, which might even be artificial (he could be a greybeard at 34, but probably not).

I’m a little hesitant to write this next paragraph because I’m concerned about being misconstrued. If I’ve misunderstood what Glover is doing in this video, it could make me part of the problem rather than part of the solution. But it seems to me that he’s playing a role defined by white America’s view of him, not his own self-perception or presentation of self. By choosing to wear his bear long and scraggly (with that fleck of gray), and by opting for no shirt, and by making that crazy expression he’s making in the shot featured above, Glover seems to be playing the role of “crazy drunk black guy a white cop might accidentally shoot.” He’s not the geek from Community. He’s not the hip and street smart producer from Atlanta. He’s a 54-year-old welfare recipient drunk on malt liquor. And it’s only one of the buttons he’s pushing in this engrossing and eminently rewatchable video.

Glover seems not to be so much rejecting his status as a boy, but rejecting the way he was once an easy pill for white America to swallow. It’s no secret that the fans of Community were largely white males, even with not one but two African-American main characters, which means it managed to exceed the requirements of tokenism. Glover’s involvement in the show, and particularly the role he played, made him a comfortable type of black person for whites to like. He was “one of the good ones.”

Now, Glover wants to show us he’s not that. He’s as much of a part of our conversation on race as anyone in the culture is. In fact, in very real and profound ways, he’s driving that conversation.

Which is a pretty damn adult thing to be doing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Thank God I hated Pixels

Liking The Emoji Movie last year had a profound impact on my identity as a cinephile. When everyone else reserved nothing but their choicest vitriol for the movie, it made me question whether I truly lacked the critical faculties to differentiate between something with a legitimate heart and creative spark, and a moronic, cynical attempt to make some money by stealing somebody else’s ideas. I’d probably have to see the movie a second time to determine which one it is, but I dare not. At some point I will.

It’s dampened some of my enthusiasm for going back and seeing other movies widely heralded as turds from recent years. If I liked these movies too, I’d start to wonder if I were capable of rendering sound judgments about movies in general.

But Sunday night I faced that fear and watched one with some obvious surface similarities to The Emoji Movie: the Adam Sandler-starring, Chris Columbus-directed 2015 flop Pixels.

And I’m glad to say that I hated it.

“Hate” might be a strong word as the movie did not make me angry. But I did not laugh once, and I grimaced numerous times. “Srongly disliked” might be a better word as I decided that the movie warranted 1.5 stars rather than 1 or .5. You don’t truly “hate” a movie unless you give it one star or lower. But 1.5 stars is no kind of endorsement of Pixels, when you contrast it with the four stars (!) I handed out to Emoji Movie.

And boy did not liking Pixels feel good.

You shouldn’t go into a movie thinking you won’t like it or wanting not to like it, as that’s not giving the movie a fair shake. It’s also conforming to your preconceived bias, which is part of the very hivethink I loathe that led so many people not to like The Emoji Movie. And in fact I do feel like I went in with an open mind about possibly finding a surprisingly charming film that was widely misunderstood, like The Emoji Movie. Despite my acknowledged trepidations.

But it didn’t take long for me to realize that Pixels was DOA, flat in concept and execution, and unfunny. I was with it through the opening flashback sequence in which a young version of Sandler’s character is seen mastering numerous 1982 arcade games while Cheap Trick plays on the soundtrack. Promising enough. But the moment we thudded into the present day, with Sandler looking even older and more haggard than I think he was supposed to, the movie lost whatever potential liveliness it had. Learning that Kevin James was playing THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, a dim-witted childhood buddy of Sandler’s who can’t really read, pretty much squelched any hope. Even the arrival of one of our most charming actresses, Michelle Monaghan, and a true cinematic/TV treasure, Peter Dinklage, could not salvage the movie.

A paragraph’s worth of qualitative analysis of Pixels is all I care to give it at the moment, because that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is to breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t like all bad things. And that’s a good thing.

I did think it was funny to compare Pixels with a more recent cultural touchstone, Ready Player One. The similarities are rather striking – striking enough that I considered titling this post “Ready Pixels One.” Both movies deal with how an intimate/obsessive knowledge of 1980s culture proves key to saving the world. Knowing the right moves on a video game is actually key to both movies, though RPO expands that to include memorization of movies and other pop culture relics. Both heroes are men who devoted themselves to learning those things, though in the case of Pixels, it’s because he loved them, whereas it’s more a means to end in RPO (with love following as a byproduct). And both movies are ridiculous, with RPO perhaps only seeming more valuable because of its superior execution.

Now that I know I can see bad movies for what they are, maybe I’ll go on a little binge.

Or, maybe I’ll cleanse my pallet from Pixels with something good.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Last days of the undifferentiated stacks

While we were in Bali, my kids fell in love with Night at the Museum.

It was one of a half-dozen shiny new distractions brought over by my sister-in-law, who was looking after them while we were out of the country alongside my mother-in-law. Others included Rise of the Guardians, Fantastic Mr. Fox and a few others I'm not thinking of right now. But the clear winner of the bunch was the 2006 Ben Stiller vehicle. They've watched it at least three times, maybe four, which is a lot for just a few weeks' time.

When I told them there were two other movies in that series, well, acquiring the next one became priority #1.

But I figured this would probably be an owner, not a renter. Yeah, we could have seen if they had it at the library (I can't imagine they didn't), and we could have borrowed it for multiple periods of three weeks, but purchasing seemed to be the way to go.

However, you kind of have to be lucky to find a movie like this at a decent price. You might well find it in the two for $5 bin somewhere, but you're just as likely not to. And if it's filed properly on the shelf, it's going to be at least $10, possibly even $15. Australia hasn't fully caught on to discounting physical media to the level that the public actually values it, which is close to zilch.

So I decided to try a different kind of luck and go to the wacky used DVD store in nearby Moonee Ponds.

What's wacky about this store? Well, a lot. For one, it is both a cinephile's dream (it has tons of movies) and a cinephile's nightmare (it's almost impossible to find the one you're actually looking for).

I should start by saying that DVDs are not the only thing sold here. They also sell CDs, books, and video games I think. CDs and books anyway.

The thing they all have in common is that they are in undifferentiated stacks that clog and spill out the shelves, in no order whatsoever.

This store might have literally 5,000 DVDs. I would not be surprised if you told me it was twice that. But the only way to go through them is to scan their spines until you find the title you're looking for. Or really, to not look for a title at all, but to scan them until you find something you want.

So going in looking for a specific movie was set to be a treasure hunt indeed.

The older child can read, so I sent him off to one section of shelves. The younger one can't, but he seemed dutifully committed to the search as well. I handled the higher shelves that they couldn't reach.

It was slow going. Not only are the shelves full, but the shelves are deep enough to contain an outer later of stacked DVDs as well as an inner layer hiding behind them. No effort has been made to put the more attractive titles on the outside and bury the lesser titles behind. The owner and proprietor and sole worker at the store -- a bald man in his early 60s who looked cantankerous as hell -- had just acquired them however he acquired them and threw them up there wherever he could find a crevice large enough.

So I was picking up stacks of maybe 20 DVDs at a time, accordion-style, and reviewing their contents as well as the hidden stack behind them, before sticking them carefully back in place, sure to knock back any corners that stuck out and prevented the stack from sliding surgically back into its vacated opening. This went on for upwards of ten minutes, maybe closer to 15.

I'd figured the kids would be getting annoyed and bored, and would start creating havoc, and more to the point, that the grumpy bald man would be getting annoyed with them. But none of these things happened, so the search continued.

At one point I asked him if he has a way of knowing whether he has something or not, phrasing the question so it didn't seem like a judgment. He gave me kind of a pained look of hopelessness but asked for the title anyway. I gave it. Same look. "Even if I knew, you'd still have to go digging for it."

As it turned out, in the end, it was less a case of digging and more a case of ascending. I finally found Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian at the very top of a stack that was above my head but still within my reach.

It had a BluRay logo on it, but it was not in a BluRay-sized package. It also had Chinese writing all over the front. But it did not look patently fake. I did ask the guy if it was definitely in English, and he nodded in a kind of resigned but definitive fashion. (It ended up being almost certainly pirated, but decent enough quality that only adults would have known the difference.)

The kids were overjoyed, and I must admit I felt pretty satisfied to have gone into a haystack and actually found the needle. As we were checking out, I was still feeling the rush of victory and was in a generous frame of mind. So I said to them in a voice that was obviously intended for the owner to hear that it was wonderful to be able to still find a place like this at all in this day and age.

"And this one's only just hanging on," the man said. Now his previous hopeless misery was a bit more clear. "We just don't have the customers anymore."

I commiserated with him for a moment and felt the urge to extend the search and pick out maybe three more titles that I had seen in passing and would have been glad to own. I knew neither the $5 Battle of the Smithsonian cost me nor the $20 I might have given him for three more was going to save his business, but at least it'd make his day a little better.

But we were on something of a schedule, as we had a few more errands to run and still needed to get home in time to watch the movie during "quiet time," the hour-plus that precedes dinner on a weekend night. So we left with only the one purchase.

To give some indication of how much the man has already given up, he inexplicably charged me less than the price on the sticker. Knowing it was $5.50, I'd gotten out a $20 to pay with. But when he charged me only $5, I exchanged bills and gave him exact change.

I've purchased from this place before on a handful of occasions, and really don't want it to go by the wayside. But like all others of its ilk, its days are numbered. It's kind of a miracle it's still open at all, though maybe the used books help prop the business up. I doubt the CDs are doing much in that regard.

And even though you have to dive in without any idea if you'll find what you're looking for, it's amazing to have this many movies available in one location these days. It makes for a great last resort if you're having trouble sourcing something you need to see. You don't know if you'll find the movie, but you know that you can go for a long, long swim in those titles, holding out hope the whole time that maybe it'll be in the next stack behind the one you're looking at.

I couldn't help but wonder whether some quick and dirty alphabetization might -- well, not save his business, but at least extend it a bit longer. And I'm not talking about making sure that About a Boy and About Time appear next to each other and go on from there. All you really need is a shelf of A, a shelf of B, and so on. I even had a wild thought about going in there and volunteering to take 12 hours and do it for him.

But if that had been the kind of business this guy wanted to run, he would have done that a long time ago. No, he wanted to be surrounded by stacks and stacks of DVDs, CDs and books, like some hoarder trying to live among the detritus of a well-spent life.

And God bless him for being one of the last stubborn holdouts in an era that has moved on. Here's hoping he holds out a lot longer -- or at least, until the next time I want to take a deep, desperate dive for some title I can't otherwise source.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Bad parenting double feature

If my wife wasn't happy with the parenting in The Florida Project, I told her definitely not to stick around for Mom and Dad.

Both iTunes rentals were expiring within 48 hours on Saturday night, so I lined them up as a double feature. I'd already seen both, of course -- The Florida Project was my #8 movie of 2017, and Mom and Dad has thus far been occupying the top slot on my 2018 rankings (though Avengers: Infinity War is trying to muscle it out -- yes, I liked the 37th MCU movie that much. I'm still thinking about it).

Due to a weird quirk with iTunes, the 48-hour clock never started for Mom and Dad when I first watched it in early April, so I've had the entire 30-day rental period to potentially watch it again. And since it is currently so high on my 2018 chart, I figured I ought to give it another look to make sure I wasn't just smoking drugs the first time I saw it.

As for The Florida Project, I rented it as a 99-cent rental, but had been unusually lax about prioritizing my second viewing, and it almost expired without me even noticing.

I figured my wife was along for the ride on The Florida Project. She commented very early on how gorgeous it looked (in contrast to Sean Baker's iPhone-shot last feature, Tangerine, this was shot on film), and when I interrupted the film to point out that the characters were singing happy birthday -- something that wasn't legally possible in a film up until very recently -- she shushed me.

So you can imagine my surprise when she got up with about 15 minutes left to pause it and check the remaining time.

One of my initial complaints about The Florida Project -- the only one, I'm pretty sure -- was that it was possibly 15 minutes too long. This one would have done better around Tangerine's 88 minutes, rather than 110. But in terms of the content, I was loving everything.

Not so with my wife. She found it interminable not because there was one too many scenes that were essentially filler -- which I'd argue is key to this movie in some respects -- but because she hated the characters.

She HATED Halley, played by Brian Vinaite, but she didn't particularly like Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, either. For disliking the latter she blamed the former. She just could not get emotionally invested in a film in which a parent is so neglectful of her child, a big dickhead shaping a little dickhead in her image.

It made me think. It wasn't that Halley did bad things, as almost any character in any film is more interesting if they're capable of bad things, and if indulging in them is part of their fatal flaw. My wife is the first to acknowledge and endorse that truth. But the character needs to have a heart. Her problem was that Halley did not.

I don't indict Halley's behavior quite as much as she does -- I pointed to a couple moments in which Halley's parental instincts emerged from a general cluelessness and irresponsibility -- but it did make me wonder if we'd all given the movie a bit of a free pass on this count. Although I think of Baker as a consummately liberal type -- you don't make a sympathetic portrait of transgender prostitutes otherwise -- she was concerned that the portrayal of Halley might even entail some misogyny on the part of the filmmaker.

Having a character be completely unsympathetic is usually a problem for me too, though I guess that's not how I see Halley. Let there be no doubt that she's a bad parent. But she does try a number of different methods for making money, shady though they may be, before she resorts to turning tricks. Each time one of these efforts dead-ends, you can see on her face the defeat. That look of defeat is the frustration of a legitimate effort, at least from her perspective. Her legitimate effort might not be yours or mine, but in her world, this is what passes for trying. Of course, her fatal flaw is then that she doesn't value the money she does make, taking Moonee on a 99 cents store shopping spree instead of saving the money she made from the stolen Disney bracelets, but that spree is also a demonstration of any parent's need to feel like a provider to their child.

I'm not saying my wife should have seen the things I saw in Halley, but I do think that her view is more clouded by being a parent than mine is. I've been developing this notion that as people go along in life, they acquire personal life experience that clouds their objective perspective on the themes in movies. It could be things they're born with, or it could be the result of trauma or strong political beliefs that cause them to be triggered by certain things they see up on screen. Parenting is such an important duty for my wife that this may now be the thing that reduces her objectivity.

If it sounds like I'm criticizing that, I'm not. I think it's kind of beautiful, and it's definitely a good thing for our kids, who will benefit from her commitment to that duty. For me, I just try to leave these complicating factors on the sideline, because of my role as a critic. I can't be triggered by anything, because I need to recommend or dissuade someone from seeing a movie based on its core qualities, not my own baggage about them.

I guess I don't have as much to say about the second feature in the double feature, which my wife did not watch, as I started it at around 10:30. Mom and Dad is actually the 88 minutes that The Florida Project could have been, so the 10:30 start was very reasonable. And this being a satire, the bad parenting here is of course over the top, the result of some kind of telepathic signal being sent through TV screens making parents want to kill their own (and only their own) children.

I do think the film examines parenting in serious ways too, though, which is why it's not just an outrageous genre movie with no business at or near the top of my early 2018 rankings. While there is a high concept explanation for the murderous intent of these parents, the movie demonstrates the ways parents sometimes feel like they actually do want to kill their children, and why that happens. There are some interesting passages in here that dramatize the ways parents feel reduced to shells of their former selves by the drudgery of parenting, the type of thing that leads to their mid-life crises. The film takes really thoughtful pauses from its violent and zany overall tone to consider why a parent would build and then destroy a pool table, as a symbol of his own sense of being stuck in the mud, and then an exaggerated response to that feeling.

And then it gets funny again, and boy is it funny.

When I told her I was going to make Mom and Dad the second movie, my wife told me we probably would have been better off watching that than Florida Project. I volunteered to delay my second viewing of Mom and Dad until Sunday night, as that would still get it in prior to the expiration, but she said she couldn't watch movies in which parents are awful to their kids on two straight nights. Fair enough. I might have even suggested that instead if the driving force of the evening weren't to watch Florida Project once before it expired, but instead to watch Mom and Dad twice.

Besides, I thought she'd like The Florida Project more.

When it comes to images of shitty parenting on screen, even ones I consider thoughtful like this one, you never know what will trigger whom.