Saturday, June 30, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Chris Marker

This is the fifth in my 2018 series Audient Auteurs, in which I'm considering two films per month by acclaimed directors -- or "auteurs" -- whose movies I have never seen before.

It's a busy June in Audient Auteurs, as I am both correcting something I tried to do in February and cheating at the same time.

In February I placed a library reservation for a single DVD that would net me both of my monthly viewings, as you can get Chris Marker's feature length Sans Soleil and his short film La Jetee on the same single disc. It seemed a good pairing for the shortest month on the calendar. But the library told me they couldn't find the movie despite it being listed as in stock at one particular location, and ultimately I had to cancel my reservation to remove the distracting apology in red typeface from my account.

Then, on a random trip to a different branch of the library last week, before I had started watching either of the movies for the auteur I'd initially selected for June (the patiently waiting Agnes Varda), I found the disc in question. Or possibly another version of it. It's hard to say. So Agnes will get bumped to July.

The reason it's a bit of a cheat, though, is that La Jetee is not a feature film. In fact, I have not even entered it into any of my film lists, since I use those lists for only features (and a few shorts that were grandfathered in before I made that rule, like Un Chien Andalou). But the movie is such an important text among cinephiles, especially those who cherish Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (which is a feature- length reimagining of La Jetee), that I made the exception. It's a film I'd been meaning to see probably since 12 Monkeys came out, which was 23 years ago now, and I wouldn't even know who Marker was or consider him a candidate for this series without it.

And his candidacy is certainly supported by the other ways he conforms to our idea of what an auteur is. As the two films I watched are not alike each other stylistically, I have a hard time saying if his auteurism is borne out through his style. But they share a distinct mentality that seems to permeate his work, if I'm understanding him correctly. Marker's films consider the past with a skeptical eye, a sense of fatalism and a preference for montage. They take the literal truth, tease it and prod it and produce a metaphorical truth, as demonstrated in one of his famous quotations: "Rarely has reality needed so much to be imagined."

Chris Marker is not his real name, which explains to me my long-time confusion over the fact that his name does not sound French. He was born Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve, and I can certainly understand why that name called out for a pseudonym. He claims to have chosen this specific pseudonym because it would be pronounceable in most languages and he wanted to travel the world. Which he did.

Marker is also classified as a writer, photographer and multimedia artist, and his films, even when they are documentaries, are thought of as essays more than anything else. He's associated with the Left Bank Cinema movement of the late 1950s, and it's easy to see how his films are in conversation with others from that movement, particularly Alain Resnais. (Varda is also considered part of that movement, so I guess we'll be continuing in this vein in July.)

As might be consistent with what we know about him already, Marker was very secretive about his past, refusing to confirm his place of birth despite a number of far-flung rumors supported by some facts, and even his date of birth was not known with certainty (though he appears to have confirmed it as July 22nd, which was also the date in 2012 when he died). He served in the resistance in German-occupied France in World War II, and became a paratrooper in the U.S. Air Force during the war as well, for reasons he probably would also not divulge if he were alive and you asked him. His extensive travels after the war as a journalist and photographer certainly give us context for the second film I'm going to discuss.

La Jetee (1962)

What you probably know is that La Jetee is a 26-minute short film that provided the inspiration, and more or less the narrative structure, for 12 Monkeys. What you might not know, although you probably do, is that it's composed entirely of still photographs. (Well, not entirely -- there's one single insert of a woman blinking her eyes somewhere around the middle.)

The fascination over this stylistic approach should have led me to La Jetee years ago, even if my love for 12 Monkeys didn't. Maybe I just never knew where to get it. The library the other day is the first time I recall being face to face with a physical copy of the movie, and though I could probably find it on the internet, I was never specifically compelled to, since the time of its greatest and most urgent novelty to me was before the internet existed.

I figured I'd be taken with the approach, but only when I started watching did I realize why, or the other movie it reminded me of. As part of my silent movie monthly series two years ago, No Audio Audient, I watched Erich von Stroheim's Greed. Some of the footage of Greed has been lost over the years, but the version I watched, which absolutely blew me away, supplemented the lost footage with still photographs of it that had survived. I don't know why, but the use of still photography felt more profound to me than the moving image might have been, almost like it was an intentional artistic choice. The fact that the camera would pan across the still photo, allowing us to take in parts of the scene individually, gave me a sense of being ensconced in the scene, and also kind of "eavesdropping on history."

I was immediately greeted with that same sensation watching La Jetee, especially in its opening five minutes, which set the scene at the airport -- the same location that bookends the action in 12 Monkeys. Where I was not quite as satisfied as I hoped to be with La Jetee was the part between the book ends. I'm not sure if it was false expectations of what that content would be based on 12 Monkeys, or just a failure to become fully invested on their own terms, but the biometric experiments that cause the narrator to time travel to spend time with a woman he didn't know, in happier times, felt like they could have been more, I don't know, sci fi? We're talking a difference of 33 years between La Jetee and 12 Monkeys, and a very different sensibility between him and Terry Gilliam, but I couldn't help wishing Marker had included some more Gilliamesque elements in these scenes, which are mostly straightforward pictures of a man and woman walking in parks and viewing animals in a museum. Which is patently ridiculous, as Marker is the creator of the content and Gilliam just the interpreter. I guess it goes back to my theory that you often like the first version of a song you hear the best, whether it's the original, the cover, or the dance remix.

I do imagine it was quite profound seeing this movie at the time, as even without any Gilliamesque elements it's pretty mind-blowing in terms of the post-apocalyptic world it presents, and the time travel conundrums that are featured within that world. So I think it's a stunning achievement, but I'll never be able to consider it or watch it outside the context of 12 Monkeys.

Sans Soleil (1983)

We jump forward two decades for Marker's next film, which is equally oblique in its style but in entirely different ways. Movement is key in this film, but narrative is not. In fact, for most of the time I was watching Sans Soleil I could not make heads nor tails of it. Ultimately, I realized that was the point.

It's clear Sans Soleil is an essay in the truest sense of that word, and right out of the gate it reminded me of something like Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, which was actually released only a year before. But I guess I still expected the essay to have more of a narrative backbone than this does. The purported backbone, if Marker were being held down by a studio asking him to justify the budget for his film, would be a study of the culture of Japan and an attempt to view it through a lens of the country's history, pre- and post-atomic era. But it's really hard to get anything quite that concrete from the film. From the almost constant flow of mostly obscure narration, which are fictional letters written from the fictional cinematographer who was supposed to be shooting the movie in question, it's clear that Marker is trying to tease out and toy with ideas of our perception of time, truth and history. Which allows him to do pretty much anything he wants.

And so the film also contains interludes set in Cape Verde, Paris, Iceland and San Francisco, the latter almost entirely in service to a five-minute tangent on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. There is also, quite disturbingly and quite famously (it appears on one of the posters for this movie I did not choose), a scene of a giraffe being shot by hunters. You see it take on the first few bullets and start staggering around, and then when it is finally grounded but not yet dead, you see a hunter shoot it in the head at point blank range. Yep, that's what this movie is about.

There are also some other fascinating bits that play like montages out of horror movies, such as the image above of the close-up of an eye (I mentioned Un Chien Andalou earlier in this piece, didn't I?) and these terrifying images of Japanese people involved in what looks like acts of voyeurism, one after another until the effect becomes almost unbearable. However, many sections of the film almost feel mundane, showing Japanese women walking the streets of Tokyo in kimonos.

As I said, I didn't know what to make of this, and for a while I was turned off by it. Gradually, I got in step with it and decided that instead of being self-indulgent and disdainful of cinematic conventions, it was profound and immediate. I don't think it's a movie I'm going to come back to regularly, or possibly even at all, but like the films of countryman and compatriot Resnais, it produces a sensation in the viewer that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Just because we can't understand why Marker chose to film what he chose, why he constructed it in the sequence he constructed it, or what most of it means, it does not mean it doesn't have a disquieting and discomfiting effect on the viewer that defies description. The "ecstatic truth" that Werner Herzog seeks in his projects is something that comes through in spades in Sans Soleil.

Okay! Agnes Varda finally gets her turn in July, and pretty soon, as my iTunes rental of Faces Places (which is the second movie I will watch) expires in about 15 days. We'll see if I get some of that Marker sensibility in Varda's work.

Friday, June 29, 2018

One is an audience

Rarely has the name of my blog had a more literal meaning than last night.

The result of my experiment about going to see and review the French film Two is a Family, as discussed earlier this week, is that I was the only audient in the theater.

On opening night.

Part of that is certainly a commentary on ticket prices in Australia, which are upwards of $20 in most cinemas. Now, a dollar here is worth less than an American dollar, but that’s still higher than U.S. prices, especially when a lot of people are using services like MoviePass in the U.S.

Part of that is certainly a commentary on the decreasing habit of going to the theater, when home viewing environments are increasingly sophisticated, when all the movies you want are generally available with the click of a button through Netflix or iTunes, and when peak TV claims an advantage over movies anyway.

Part of that is certainly that it’s a French movie with modest artistic ambitions – in other words, populist rather than artistically significant.

But man, not a good outcome for the distributor.

That was just the one theater I chose to visit, Cinema Nova. It’s also playing at Cinema Kino and possibly a couple others. I’d like to think there was more than just one person in those other ones.

But … it wouldn’t surprise me if there weren’t.

Not a good sign for the health of cinema as a diverse form with a multiplicity of types of movies that might appeal to audiences, but then again, it’s hardly the first one either.

It was a pretty nice movie, though ultimately too broad in some spots. But I find Omar Sy to be about the most charismatic actor working today, and damn sexy, so at least there’s that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The trouble with the problem with fridging

An offshoot of the #metoo movement, or maybe just a byproduct of our general discussion about the representation of women in Hollywood, has been that I’ve been hearing the term “fridging” thrown around lately. It’s come up in particular in relation to Deadpool 2, and the unfortunately clueless reaction of its screenwriters to the charge that they “fridged” one of the characters.

At first I thought the term was a variant of “nuke the fridge,” which is derived from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and I believe is roughly the equivalent of “jump the shark.” (Actually, in researching just now, I've learned it’s described as the point in a franchise when it begins relying too heavily on special effects, thus creating a line of demarcation between when it was good and when it sucked.)

The term “fridging” has nothing to do with that, though it does have vaguely to do with a refrigerator. It turns out the term dates back to when some female character in some comic book (I’m being intentionally dismissive about the details) was killed and shoved in a refrigerator for the hero to find. The resulting angst then fuelled his heroic journey.

“Fridging” more generally refers to any time a female character is written into a story just so that her very early death can lend righteousness to the fury of the hero as he exacts his revenge.

It may be a lazy trope, but I don’t think it’s an example of sexism in Hollywood.

I think we would all agree that a hero’s journey is more interesting if he (or she!) is recovering from a trauma and seeking to set things right. It’s certainly common in any genre involving superheroes or antiheroes or vigilantes of any kind. We don’t feel angry on behalf of the hero unless he (or she!) has lost something. It’s an age-old idea behind story writing.

Want to hear something else that’s been around forever? Love.

Love – the pursuit of love, the lack of love, the loss of love – is probably the single most common element in any story. Even stories that are not explicitly about love often give the lead character a romantic interest or some kind of love-related entanglement. This is likely because we can all relate to the pursuit of love, the lack of love and the loss of love, and we become more engrossed in stories whose details we can relate to. I scarcely need to belabor this.

“Fridging,” I would argue, is a logical outcome of all these things familiar narrative concerns, not some regrettable Hollywood trend that must be reversed. And not, I think, some kind of measure of how we think about or treat female characters in movies, or women in general.

In order to discuss this further we must agree on a couple things:

1. Some protagonists in movies are men. In fact, a disproportionate number in the history of the medium, and even still today.

2. We like to see our protagonists have purposes behind their journeys. 

3. Screenwriting is the art of making everything on screen count and minimizing the flab.

I’m being intentionally simplistic to a point. And the point is this: Not every character in a film can be developed to the extent you would want to develop them. Some movies must contain characters who die in the first ten minutes. Most characters who die in the first ten minutes will not be fully developed.

To say that this character cannot be female is just way too restrictive.

But let’s say, for a minute, we exclude women from being these characters. Let’s say that a male character is motivated by the death of his father, his brother, or his son, just to take the mother, sister and daughter out of the equation. Are we okay with not developing those characters? Or is it only a problem if they are women? Aren’t most dead children in movies also “fridged”? Is the logical conclusion that no character should be killed off in the first ten minutes of any film?

Besides, I’m just not as invested in a movie where a guy wants to avenge the death of his brother.

The problem with the way these issues get debated is that they leave creative types paralyzed about what they can or cannot do. Nowadays, no writer in Hollywood would dare write a female character who needs to be saved, at any point in the story, under any circumstances. That’s a too-extreme outcome to a good impulse. And I think we generally accept it because it is better to have too many female characters seem stronger than they might really be, than too few, which is what Hollywood was on about for way too many years.

But now you include fridging. A female character can demonstrate immeasurable amounts of strength and self-sufficiency in the opening ten minutes of a movie, if you let her. But if she is then killed, the writer is still accused of “fridging” her. Now granted, not all accusations of fridging are meant to imply that the writer only values women for their ability to make men miss them when they die. Some accusations are probably more of the teasing variety. But behind every tease there is a kernel of truth.

If you extrapolate this out to a level that does not really benefit anybody, but for the sake of argument let’s do it, the only way to acceptably handle a female character in a movie is to keep her in the movie for much of its narrative, make sure she has conversations with other women that don’t involve men (let’s throw the Bechdel Test in there while we’re at it), and make sure she is never in a position to need saving at any point during the film.

As I said, I’m being a bit deliberately provocative here. But I hope you see some truth in what I’m saying. A kernel of truth, anyway.

Is “fridging” overused? I’m sure. But we should accuse a screenwriter who uses it of laziness, not sexism. If the result of this discussion is that the death of a female character is never again a source of inspiration for a male character, I do think we will have lost something. We will have lost something more profound than what we lose by no longer having men save the damsel in distress. The man who is unable to save the damsel is a tragic figure upon whom the movies have historically leaned, and I want to live in a world where that is still something I might see.

The steep increase in female protagonists in recent years should hearten us. If only to err in the opposite direction for a while – but probably also because studies have shown that women dictate more ticket purchases than men – Hollywood has recently tried, wherever practical, to cast women as the heroes.

Since this is happening, can’t we live with some of them getting “fridged” from time to time? And does it even have to have a derogatory name like “fridging”?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Whether to legitimize parochial French cinema

My editor has been away in Europe for the better part of a month, so I’ve been doing my best to tailor my theatrical viewings to things I thought it was important to review in his absence. He can still post my reviews from the road, but he’s only had the time to see and review one movie himself while he was gone: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which he saw in Rome just for the novelty of seeing a movie while on holiday. It’s a sentiment I can relate to as I enjoy that quite a bit myself. In order to keep the site feeling current, I’ve been trying to write about two reviews per week to compensate for the absence of his usual output.

Though there are always things out that a person can review, I’ve got this idea that we really should review something within the first week of its Australian release if we don’t want to miss the boat on it. He differs with me slightly on that, thinking of every review as contributing long-term to the repository of our searchable reviews, which means it doesn’t really matter whether you review it a week or a year or a decade after it’s released. You can tell I was once a newspaperman, as I have the old-fashioned interest in there being a “news peg” for something you write – even if, in the case of a movie, the “news peg” is the release date itself.

Anyway, that brings us to this week, surely one of his last out of town (though he hasn’t actually told me when he’s returning). Thursday is a bit light on new releases. Hotel Transylvania 3 is coming out, but I’m not going to see that on Thursday night when it will make a perfect movie to watch with my kids – though whether that will happen this weekend, in time for me to review it, or next, when it will be past my preferred seven-day window, I can’t be sure. In any case, a lot of the time they don’t even schedule evening viewings of kids movies, though I do remember having the odd experience of watching Finding Dory at like 9:40 at night.

One thing that’s coming out is a movie whose trailer I have seen a number of times. It’s a French movie called Two is a Family – the title probably sounds nicer in French. (It’s called Demain Tout Commence, which I think translates as “Tomorrow Everything Begins.”) It stars two semi-international stars, Omar Sy (The Intouchables) and Clemence Poesy (In Bruges, 127 Hours, the last two Harry Potter movies). Their characters had a fling on holiday that produced a child – something he’s only aware of when she shows up on his doorstep, hands him the kid, and then buggers off.

My 2018 film rankings are severely lacking in foreign language films – in fact, I don’t yet have my first. I really like both the stars and it looks like a sweet movie. But I am philosophically conflicted about whether to see it at all, let alone review it.

See, this is not a French movie released to cross over to a world audience. This is a French movie intended to be seen by French people. And Australians, apparently.

What I really mean is: It hasn’t been released in the U.S., and given that the movie debuted in France in 2016, it does not seem likely to be.

For a long time I have been interested in compiling year-end lists of movies viewed based on trying to share common references with American critics, such that we are comparing apples to apples when we name our top ten. I hesitate even to include Australian films that I don’t think will receive a U.S. release, even though this is the actual country in which I review films. I’ve lightened up on that, which seems like a good stance to take when I am a member of a body called the Australian Film Critics Association, which gets me into unlimited movies in the theater for $75 a year. If I’m not even reviewing movies made by and for Australians, I’m doing something wrong. (And I’m pleased to say that one of these, Sweet Country, is still in my top five for the year.)

French movies made for French people are a bit different. The fact that an Australian distributor saw it fit to release the movie here means that there is thought to be an audience. I don’t know if the readers of our website are that audience, but I like to think they could be, and besides, I have a philosophy of seeing and reviewing films from a wide diversity of sources and about a wide diversity of people. Seeing and reviewing a movie made by French people for French people would be good for me.

But I still feel like a U.S. release is what marks a movie as “significant on the world stage,” and not just the niche product of a smaller film industry that only produces a couple dozen movies a year, if that. Two is a Family getting released in Australia means it has exceeded those modest aims, but it may not cross my personal threshold of what warrants a review.

Why is this, though? Are the tastes of American audiences really such an important standard? Especially when Americans are the people who elected Trump as president?

Would that it were so simple, to quote Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich. Foreign language films have never been released in the U.S. because the distributor thought they would appeal to Trump voters. The distributor is targeting American intellectuals, liberals, cultural snobs. And those people’s opinions are important to me.

If Two is a Family is not considered to be a good bet for American cultural snobs, is it really better suited to the French equivalent of Trump voters?

Well that’s a big no, too. As it stars a Frenchman of African heritage, Omar Sy, it’s already alienating those people in France, of which there are many. So it passes that minimum standard of liberal correctness. If it’s good enough for France’s intellectuals, and if it’s good enough for Australia’s intellectuals, should I even care if it’s good enough for America’s intellectuals?

And France and Australia are, of course, not the only two countries where this movie has been released. Its IMDB page shows it has also opened in Belgium, Hungary, Estonia, Germany, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine, Netherlands, Greece, Croatia, Israel, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Norway, Brazil, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, Sweden, Chile, Argentina, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

How can not having a release in one country – one increasingly stupid, frustrating and annoying country – give me pause?

It shouldn’t, and in fact, it won’t. Writing this blog post has given me the resolve to see and review Two is a Family. Done and done.

The only obstacle now might be that I may already be going to the movies on Wednesday and Friday nights. Wednesday, I’m thinking of going to the restoration of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Friday, I may cap drinks with coworkers with a drunken viewing of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, as I understand that may be the best way to view it. It’ll be hard to convince my wife, and myself, that I need to fit in a random little French movie on the night in between.

But dammit, that random little French movie is being supported by its Australian distributor, and I want to be the kind of film critic that legitimizes it with a review.

I guess we’ll see what happens.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: The Ladykillers

This is the third in my bi-monthly 2018 series Re-coen-sidering, in which I’m looking (mostly) at Coen brothers films I didn’t get the first time, to see if that’s still the case.

This is supposed to be a series in which I give a second chance to Coen brothers movies others liked, but I did not particularly like. However, only one of the three films to date actually conforms to that concept.

In February, I started with a movie I love, Miller’s Crossing, just because I could only find five movies I didn’t particularly care for that I hadn’t already revisited for some other reason. Essentially, I used this series as an excuse for a second viewing. In April, I watched a movie that did qualify, as O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one others like but I don’t (that much).

This month, though, I reverted to an exception to the rule, watching a movie that pretty much no one likes.

The Ladykillers is the first of an eventual two remakes in the Coens’ career to date, the other being True Grit, which is what I’ll be watching in October according to the current schedule. It’s probably the least-liked Coens movie overall. It’s only the second lowest on my Coens chart on Flickchart – we’ll get to the lowest in August – but in the global list on Flickchart, it’s dead last. Though, I must say, still at a respectable 6718 out of 68551, putting it in the top ten percent of all movies in the database. That’s either a recognition of how much people like the Coens in general, or of how many more bad movies get made than good ones.

My first time seeing The Ladykillers was under unusual circumstances. It’s the only time I can remember having a suitcase with me while going to the movies.

It was late March of 2004, and I was on a week’s trip back to the east coast from Los Angeles. The first weekend featured my friend’s wedding in New Jersey. The second weekend featured my fantasy baseball draft in Philadelphia. In between, I’d visit with my parents in the Boston area. I also took a day in New York to visit some old haunts, as I’d lived there from 1998 to 2001. And apparently, also to see a movie at one of the theaters I used to frequent. But I believe I was staying with different friends on the Sunday night and the Monday night, so I dragged my bag with me around the city that Monday as I stopped in for coffee and meals with people.

It was also a weird time as I was deep in the throes of trying to get back together with my ex-girlfriend. She had been invited to the wedding also – something that took me aback, since she only knew the bride and groom because of me – and I’d tried to rekindle our relationship at the wedding. It was no go, and I’d say it probably put me in a bit of a funk. (But did not stop my efforts to get back together with her, which I continued on and off for the rest of the year until I met the woman I would end up marrying.)

Anyway, I don’t think any of that had anything to do with me liking or not liking The Ladykillers. Nothing about the movie had any thematic relationship to my circumstances at the time. It just wasn’t a very good movie.

However, given those circumstances, I thought there was at least some possibility I’d feel more favorably toward it this time around.

I got off to a bad start with the movie, though. Right before inserting the DVD into our player, I noticed the box said it was a full screen version of the film. You know, otherwise known as “pan and scan.” I avoid these mangled versions of the director’s vision whenever possible, but this was a library rental, and I didn’t feel optimistic enough about my chances of liking The Ladykillers significantly better to prioritize renting the intended widescreen version from some pay service. Still, as the Coens are known for their visual compositions, it was not a promising omen.

I do think I might have like it just a smidgen better than the first time. Just a smidgen.

I still don’t think this is the right role for Tom Hanks. The Coens are really self-indulgent with his dialogue, which is literary to the point of being baroque, and the overwriting very much informs Hanks’ performance. Even though some of his most famous roles, such as Forrest Gump, involve Hanks playing a character with a capital C, he’s usually better off playing some variation on his regular persona. The role of Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr – even the name is ridiculous – would be something more suited to the proclivities of Johnny Depp than someone like Hanks. He’s probably not the film’s biggest problem, but he doesn’t help anything either.

I’m also not really sure how well this film fares on racial issues. Whether it’s the Coens’ direction or Marlon Wayans’ natural tendencies as an actor, Wayans does a lot of bugging of his eyes that reminds us rather unfortunately of a history of uncharitable characterizations of African-Americans in film. There may be a reason the Coens have not had as many black characters front and center in their films as they do here, which is that the broadness of their comedic instincts may present surely unintentional but nonetheless unfortunate reminders of a shucking and jiving history of blacks on film that we are trying to put behind us. The “lady” of the title, played by Irma P. Hall, is not quite as broad but I can’t quite tell whether the film does right by her either. I do love the portrait of her dead husband, though, the film’s one bit of magical realism. It changes expressions from grumpy to bemused to alarmed to superior depending on what’s going on in the living room below.

I also have some complaints about other members of Hanks’ crew of subterraneous thieves, particularly Ryan Hurst as a football player so dumb that the only conclusion must be that the Coens asked him to play the role as mentally retarded. Like their approach to the movie in general, it’s too much.

The thing I liked a little better, though, was the way the characters are hoisted on their own pitards as they make their march to the trash barges constantly passing on the river below, one by one. I noticed this time that each of the thieves dies as some result of a fatal flaw, be it being slowed by IBS (J.K. Simmons’ character trying to escape with the cash a moment too late) or being dumb (Hurst’s character shoots himself in the face when he thinks a gun is not loaded). Like everything else, it’s at the broader end of the Coen spectrum, but I liked how it came together, mostly.

I do have to ask, though – what city produces so much trash that it has to send a full trash barge off to a trash island once an hour throughout the night?

When I watched O Brother, Where Art Thou? last month, I noticed a number of design details or other themes that had come up numerous times in the Coens’ work. I noticed only one this time that I wanted to bring up, but it relates to one of my favorite Coens movies so I thought it was worth mentioning. A recurring joke in this movie is how the widow’s cat, Pickles, is always getting out of the house and climbing up the tree in the yard. I couldn’t help but be reminded of how Ulysses, the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis, escapes the Gorfeins’ apartment and becomes symbolic of Llewyn’s Oddyssey-like journey through New York and Chicago.

There’s also a funny, though slightly gross, epilogue to my Sunday night viewing.

One thing I always remember about The Ladykillers is that it introduced me to the disorder known as IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Although I found it useful to know that this was an actual medical condition, my main association with it is how it is another too-broad-by-half element of the movie, especially since it really doesn’t play as much role in the events as the movie sets it up to play. Specifically broad is the expression on Simmons’ face as he tries to stifle a sudden onset of diarrhea before he needs to make a quick change of pants.

Then this morning, when I came to work, I must have eaten something that mildly disagreed with me in the previous 12 hours, because it was all I could do to get there and get to the bathroom before I had an accident myself. Fortunately, that was the only episode of loose stool rather than it being an all-day thing. But while trying to get to the bathroom that first time, I did have at least three instances where I focused every fiber of my being on making sure I held in the torrent that wanted to unleash itself.

I imagine the expression on my face was something like the one on Simmons’.

Okay, I teased it before, and now here you go: In August I confront the only Coen brothers movie I can truly say I hated, Burn After Reading. We’ll see how I go.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Todd Solondz: Bad taste never looked so bad

Todd Solondz is one of the "Hallowed 22." And by that I mean he directed one of the 22 films I have named as my favorite of their respective years, dating back to 1996 when I first started the practice. (And there have been exactly 22 different directors in those 22 years, as no one has ever directed more than one of my top-ranked films.)

Solondz got in pretty early in the whole shebang. He was the third director I presented this honor when I named Happiness my favorite film of 1998. He was a real dose of the eccentric after I'd handed my first two such honors to Al Pacino in 1996 (Looking for Richard) and James Cameron in 1997 (Titanic).

So you could say that Todd Solondz holds a special place in my heart.

But boy do I hate his movies.

I didn't imagine it would be this way, and it's not that I don't "get" Todd Solondz. After I saw (and obviously loved) Happiness, I then caught (and also liked very much) Welcome to the Dollhouse, his debut. I was on board with Todd Solondz and everything he was doing.

Then came 2001's Storytelling, which curdled my positive Solondz feelings right quick.

I don't suppose anything more outrageous really happens in this movie than in the others, but I could tell he was going for something more outrageous -- intentionally pushing buttons, seemingly only for that purpose. Yeah, I'm thinking of the bit about Robert Wisdom's Mr. Scott telling Selma Blair's Vi to repeat "Fuck me, nigger" while they're having sex. It just felt like empty provocation.

But that was actually the part of that movie I sort of liked. Its haphazard structure spends one third of the running time on the story of Vi and Mr. Scott and then two-thirds on a genuinely boring story involving Mark Webber. I don't even remember what it was about. I just remember it was boring and tedious.

I'm now learning that there was actually a third story featuring James van der Beek as a closeted football player. If Solondz stuck with these two other stories because he thought they worked, just imagine what a disaster this story must have been. (I think it was actually cut due to the explicit sex scene between men.)

Great Belle and Sebastian score, though.

I was so put off by Storytelling that I skipped 2004's Palindromes, and have not yet caught up with it in the 14 years since. I got the gist of what it was about, and how it featured like five different people playing the same character, and I just thought "No thanks." Apparently, it was already obvious to me that Solondz was continuing to stray from anything that was remotely digestible to anyone but himself.

I did watch Solondz' next film, 2009's Life During Wartime, as part of a series I wrote for another blog in 2013 in which I watched a movie set in each state. This one takes place in Florida. And it continues Solondz' "narrative sauciness," to put it generously, by functioning as a sequel to Happiness, only with the characters in that movie re-cast with different actors. Yep, sure Todd.

I don't hate Life During Wartime, but I think I give it a bit more credit than it deserves simply because of my feelings toward Happiness. It's an interesting failure. Its biggest problem is that it's incredibly stilted. Solondz has really lost his way in terms of directing actors.

I didn't intentionally skip 2012's Dark Horse. I knew it was Solondz and saw it available on streaming a number of times. Its running time was short, too. But no night was ever "the night" to watch it, and I still haven't seen it. I don't even know what it's about.

But for some reason I decided to come at his latest, 2016's Wiener-Dog, which I watched on Friday night, with a sense of optimism. I think it was something about the whimsical title, though I might have also subconsciously remembered that Greta Gerwig was in it. I didn't remember, until watching it, that Solondz was at it again; Gerwig's character is an older version of Heather Matarazzo's character from Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn Wiener. Can't you see the resemblance?

No one resembled anyone in Life During Wartime, which I thought was okay there, so I'm not going to get stuck on this one here. This was the least of Weiner-Dog's problems.

The most of its problems is what I considered its bad taste. Solondz has made his willingness to tackle taboo subjects -- rape, pedophilia, masturbation -- his calling card, and I obviously didn't mind in Happiness, which includes all three. But if you don't do something like this right, it just looks like you're trying to get attention, for all the wrong reasons.

The first of the four stories got me off on the wrong foot. The titular wiener dog has a nasty bout of diarrhea as a result of eating a granola bar with chocolate chips in it, and we get to see lots, and lots, and lots of dog diarrhea. But the amounts of dog diarrhea we see -- including a slow pan down a street strewn with it -- is probably what we'd see if a dog ate a chocolate cake or a whole bag of chocolate chips. Not half of a granola bar that, from the looks of it, had about three chocolate chips in it. So yes, if you're going to give me dog diarrhea, I'm at least asking for realism in my dog diarrhea.

But I probably should have started with the story Julie Delpy's character tells her young son about dog rape. I can't even remember her reason for telling it, though I think it had something to do with being a justification for getting the dog spayed. She goes on and on about how the dog she had when she was growing up was raped by another dog in the woods, and how this dog went around raping other dogs and giving them venereal diseases. The boy is like eight.

Funny, right? Oh Todd, you card.

Look, I'm not some blushing conservative who cannot listen to discussion of dog rape in a movie. But I just wonder what Solondz' point is. It's not delivered as humor by Delpy, or if so, it's an incredibly misguided idea about the delivery of what's meant to be comedy. It just seems to be another one of those instances of Solondz rubbing our noses in something naughty he's saying, the mere saying of which strikes him as some kind of victory. Be rude, be crude, but do it with a purpose other than just trying to show off that you are free from the shackles of other people's good manners.

The movie progresses on to three other boring stories, only the last of which I sort of liked. The second one involves Gerwig's character and a heroin addict played by Kieran Culkin, who go on a road trip to tell his brother, who has Down's Syndrome, and his brother's wife, who also has Down's Sydrome, about the death of their dad. Never mind that you would call someone to tell them about his own father's death, rather than make a long road trip there. Never mind the fact that the actors with Down's Syndrome do not seem to be very well served by this movie. The thing that annoyed me most about this sequence was that Culkin's character sees Gerwig's character in a convenience store, recognizing her as a person he went to school with, then blows her off rather rudely, then leaves the convenience store and pets the leashed wiener dog, then abruptly invites Gerwig's character to accompany him on this long road trip. Solondz would never want to give us an interaction between characters that feels realistic; oh no. To me, it just reads like something that would never happen, and what's the point.

The thing that annoyed me about the structure overall is that the movie sets us up to see how this wiener dog is passed between owners. See, Dawn Wiener works in a veterinarian's office, which is how she gets the dog initially after its near-fatal bout with diarrhea. Delpy and family took her to be put down, but Dawn saves her from this fate (despite the fact that she must have to do things like this on a daily basis), and that launches her story. All well and good, right?

Well no. After the dog is left with Culkin's brother and his wife, we have no idea how it gets in to the hands of Danny DeVito's miserable film professor, or then into the hands of Ellen Burstyn's miserable elderly woman. If you're going to start with a high concept of a dog passing between owners, and show us the first transition between owners, why just drop it after that? The answer is because Solondz does not hold himself accountable to any narrative conventions. He thinks his freedom from these conventions is what makes him great. I just think it's lazy, or worse, indifferent.

I did kind of like the last segment, but only because of this one weird fantasy sequence where Burstyn is confronted by a dozen eerie versions of herself as a young girl with brilliant red hair. The girl talks in a voice reminiscent of the twins in The Shining, and it's a discomfiting reminder to this character of the opportunities in life she passed up, leaving her as this shell of a person. But the scene lasts for about a minute, after which Solondz ends the movie with another of his bad jokes. I won't bother to tell you what that joke is.

As I write these words, I think Solondz, if he were reading this, would imagine me as being exactly the type of person he makes his movies to piss off. But see, I was not always that person. Possibly his most controversial film, when you combine its subject matter with the level of prominence that allows something to become controversial, is Happiness, my #1 movie of 1998.

I just think Solondz needs to do a better of job doing what he's trying to do, and he has not done so for 20 years now. He's capable of it. There's proof. But he seems more interested in squatting, shitting, and calling it art.

I need a lot less of Todd Solondz' diarrhea.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Not the story of a time-traveling pimp

One of my favorite jokes in a movie with a lot of them, Mike Judge's Idiocracy, is how the prostitute played by Maya Rudolph always fears the reprisals of a pimp named Upgrade -- even when she's spent 500 years in a cryogenic sleep.

He's actually not named Upgrade, technically. He's named Upgrayyed, as we learn once when we see his name in print.

When Luke Wilson's Joe tries to make her see reason by suggesting that the vengeful pimp would have died 450 years ago, Rudolph's Rita counters that Upgrayyed is determined enough to get what he wants that he would travel through time in order to come after her. Or something to that general effect.

Any time we hear the word "upgrade" -- because we almost never hear the word "upgrayyed" -- my wife and I will say it in Rudolph's voice. It never ceases to amuse us.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I went to the movie Upgrade on Thursday night and found it not to be the story of Rita's dogged pursuer.

In fact -- as you probably know since it's been out in the U.S. a lot longer -- Upgrade is about a man who is paralyzed in an attack that kills his wife, who gets an implant in his neck that not only allows him to walk, but to become a kind of killing machine in pursuit of vengeance.
For how much Upgrade is like other movies that have come before it in general concept, I was surprised by how original it actually felt.

See, the guy is kind of like an empty vessel when the thing in his neck -- which is called Stem, and which resembles a miniature version of a woman's hair clip -- takes control of his functions. And so a scene in which he's repeatedly smashing mugs and plates over the head of an assailant is pretty funny, as it allows actor Logan Marshall-Green to look on with horror while it's happening, unleashing comments like "Oh God" as his hands complete these actions.

It even has a bit of a clever twist at the end, though don't worry, this is not the type of movie where saying there's a twist is any surprise. It's directed by Leigh Whannell of Saw fame, after all.

The movie about the pimp would have been good too.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

... and incredibly close

It was really fortuitous that I went in person, three hours before showtime, to buy my kids and me Incredibles 2 tickets on Sunday. If I’d been 15 minutes later, I probably wouldn’t have gotten them at all.

I had to do it in person rather than online because that’s the only way for me to get a free ticket as a critic. And I had to do it three hours early because it was raining cats and dogs and pigs and horses, so that theater was gonna be full, especially on opening weekend.

I could have done it after my son’s 11:45 a.m. weekly basketball class, rather than before my son’s 11:45 a.m. weekly basketball class. But it was already going to be borderline ridiculous that we were going home for lunch for an hour between basketball and the movie, and stopping to get tickets would have made it even more so. (The gap was too long just to kill time, especially when it was raining cats and dogs and pigs and horses.)

And besides, if I’d gone afterwards, I wouldn’t have gotten tickets.

Even at 11:30 a.m. only the front row was still available for the 2:05 show. See, most people actually buy their tickets online.

And that’s where the subject of this post finally comes in. (You knew I was getting there.)

We did indeed see The Incredibles 2 incredibly close, though it was not extremely loud – I was surprised to notice myself straining to hear the dialogue at times. I suppose that could have just been the steady rumble of a theater filled with children on a Sunday afternoon.

And though I was initially concerned, if not for myself then for my kids, about having the Incredibles dwarf and consume us, it does not seem to have unduly affected any of our experiences. My parents and other parents of their generation used to tell us we’d hurt our eyes if we sat too close, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside these days. Kids sit too close to screens all day long. It’s a byproduct of modern existence.

Being so close did make me feel even more immersed in the tremendous retrofuturism I was seeing on screen, glimmering at me in all its glory. In my review (which you can read here) I called the movie a Rolls Royce, as that was all I could think when I watched it. Pixar movies have looked fantastic before, but I’m not sure I can remember one looking this fantastic. Which I suppose only makes sense given that they’re improving the technology a little bit each time out.

Anyway, don’t need to go into too many details on my thoughts as my review pretty much says it all.

But yeah, if any movie is a front row kind of movie, this one is.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Tron's journey from dated to timeless

The thing about Tron that likely lingers with most of us -- and which was one of the chief perceived advantages of making a modern update in 2010 -- is how dated the effects look. A good encapsulation of that impression came in that great Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where Homer steps into the 3D world, and it's likened to Tron -- a movie all the other characters say they have not seen (except Chief Wiggum, who quickly changes his answer to "no" so he does not stand out). I'm not sure why the writers wanted to engage in a little round of Tron bashing, but that's clearly what it is.

I would have probably subscribed to that hot take, as it had been since the 1980s that I saw it, and only had my occasional exposure to stills to go on when formulating an impression adjusted for modernity.

So I was taken aback by just how absorbing I found the world when I saw it for the first time in probably 30 years on Saturday night.

It could have just been my new TV talking, but what others call dated, I called a wondrous stylized odyssey.

Calling Tron's effects dated feels like an incredible misnomer ... but it's not because they were never dated. I think at one time they probably were.

In the 1990s they probably looked dated. Very dated. But what was originally an attempt at a "realistic" look inside a computer fantasy world now seems like something with its own particular aesthetic that just looks awesome. The new effects Tron: Legacy was capable of in 2010 may have "looked better" or "looked more realistic," but they didn't plunge me into a world like I felt like I was plunged Saturday night.

I think it's in part because we are trying to do retro science fiction more than we used to. Tron is not retro futurism, an aesthetic I would more ascribe to something like Tomorrowland (or The Incredibles 2, which I will write about tomorrow). But Tron fits comfortably into a world where retro futurism is something we crave seeing done well.

It also, ironically, fits well into a world where we celebrate practical effects. There's nothing practical about Tron, but there is something quaint about it, something the icy digital creations of Tron: Legacy just didn't understand.

But to be clear, watching Tron today is not just an exercise in nostalgia, in being pleased with the limitations of earlier modes of filmmaking in and of themselves. Tron actually looks good. If someone today could make a celebration of retro science fiction that looks as good as Tron looks, they'd be quite happy with themselves. The closest I can think of someone accomplishing that might be something like Speed Racer.

There's something about the simple, blocky designs that really works, but also feels like a conscious aesthetic choice now, even if it was not then. There's something about it that feels very clean and lean, with the pristine straight lines of the light cycle light trails, and the perfect circles in that microchip version of jai alai they play.

And again this could be the TV talking, but the depths that were conjured by the movements of the camera also gave the world a sense of space and dimension. I dove down into it.

Before you think I'm going to start proclaiming Steven Lisberger's movie as some kind of masterpiece, I'll tell you that the plot was confusing enough that I was basically left zoning out. I couldn't really explain to you what happens or why it happens, except in the broadest strokes. I also thought some of Jeff Bridges' choices on how to play the character were a bit broad.

But as a visual spectacle, it was glorious, and I enjoyed every damn minute of it.

Tron is not a masterpiece, but I think it is properly described as a "classic," one that has transcended the apparent limitations of the moment in which it was made to become something that just looks beautiful. I'll look forward to my next viewing much sooner than 30 years from now.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Mea culpa on Atlanta

This isn't a TV blog. You know that.

But I made it one momentarily by bringing up Atlanta in the context of discussing Donald Glover just a little over a month ago. (Which in itself was more about Childish Gambino's "This is America" than any of his film exploits, though I did see it as a bit of a Solo tie-in, justifying its inclusion on the blog.)

I couldn't have said anything of substance about Atlanta back then, because I'd only seen a single episode -- one I caught on the plane at that. However, I thought I knew enough about the show to be a bit dismissive of it. For some reason, I thought it was Glover's attempt to "be cool," after his character on Community had been so dorky. This is what I said about Glover in that piece:

"It reflected a conscious choice to trade in his nerd bonafides for something more clearly hip and stylish."

"... Earnest Marks was the coolest cat on screen."

I had actually wanted to be more dismissive except I was conscious of how little I did actually know about the show.

Some of that dismissiveness was a result, I will admit, of this poster. Not knowing the other two characters and finding this to be a big break from what Glover was doing on Community, I guess I thought of it as an instance of Glover "forsaking his roots" -- "roots," of course, being a very weighted word when it comes to an African American performer. But I have a long history of being mildly annoyed when someone thinks that "what got them there" is now passe, something they should turn their back on. This was my impression of Glover vis-a-vis Atlanta.

And then I actually watched Atlanta.

"This is America" re-attuned my wife and me to the fact that we had always wanted to watch Atlanta, and a very little digging made us realize we had that opportunity right now. It plays in Australia on a network called SBS, and SBS has an on demand component that allows you to pick up whatever shows you want for as long as they're sitting there. As it happens, both seasons of Atlanta were sitting there, ready for us to watch them.

And in about a month's time, we've watched all but the final two episodes of the second season. That may take us a little longer than what our pace has been to this point, simply because we want to savor what remains before we have no more Atlanta in our lives until next season.

I could never have guessed how much this show would play by its own rules. I'm not sure I knew what I thought the show would be, outside of the posturing I thought Glover was guilty of, but the one episode I saw did give me some idea of what I thought its narrative thrust would be. Episode one of season one is devoted mostly to Earn (Glover) trying to represent Paper Boi (the wonderful Bryan Tyree Henry), his cousin and a burgeoning rap star. I kind of figured it would be a fairly plot heavy show about the trials and tribulations of making it in the music industry, and though that would be interesting, it did not feel like it would be particularly novel.

Having watched most of Atlanta now, I don't think I can imagine a more novel show on television. And it's only gotten better in its second season.

It being plot heavy could not have been further from the truth. There are a couple episodes where they nudge forward the narrative of Earn's attempts to manage Paper Boi and to pull his own broke ass up by his bootstraps, and of course, that's still the narrative backbone of the series. But it's a particularly squishy backbone, and the series is happy to have three or four consecutive episodes where how or whether Earn is managing him at all is not even touched on.

What is touched on? The day-to-day lives of its characters as black people living in Atlanta, though even that makes it sound more pedantic than it is. Each episode is interested in some fashion with the social norms experienced by blacks in America, either with regards to whites or in among themselves, but there isn't a single moment of this series where any message feels obvious or foregrounded. Many of the episodes are, in fact, these weird one-off exercises in comedic drama, total departures from the story and even from any recognizable narrative convention. Like the episode where Paper Boi gets involved in a bizarre odyssey with his barber while trying to get a haircut. Like the episode where Earn's girlfriend Van (the wonderful Zazie Beetz) attends a New Year's Eve party at Drake's house. Like the episode where Paper Boi's friend Darius (the wonderful Lakeith Stanfield) tries to pick up a piano from an oddball music legend who has been whitening his skin (Glover). In fact, I think those may have been three consecutive episodes (though not in that order) in season two.

If I were trying to find the most similar TV show -- that I've watched, anyway -- it would be Louie, in its disregard for traditional episode structure, or the role of each piece within the series' overall structure. But even that is a poor comparison, and not only because Louis C.K. has been revealed as a sexual deviant. Atlanta goes outside the box in ways Louie had only started to touch on.

There were times during season one when I felt a bit frustrated by the series' unwillingness to be more like the thing I thought it was going to be. This was part of that adjustment period when I was still figuring out what Atlanta was. In season two I fully embrace everything that it is, and don't wish it to be anything other than exactly what it is. And can't imagine a better way to spend 24 minutes of viewing time. (Honestly, it feels shorter than that -- each episode flies by.)

I've got two left, and then however long until season three.

Of which there were certainly be one, but I hope it's not the last. Glover strikes me as the type of person for whom to stand still is to die. Even when a show is doing as many things right as Atlanta is, he will probably not want to make five or six seasons of it because at some point it will start to feel less vital than it currently does. At some point the ideas will start to run out, and the show will have overstayed its welcome. I suspect Glover will reach that moment before we will.

Until then, I'm going to appreciate the hell out of it. It's not, in fact, Glover's attempt to "be cool" -- Earn isn't even all that cool much of the time. It's Glover's attempt to inject something true and incisive and scintillating into the entertainment landscape, and he has done so, brilliantly.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The reason I called it "Ju-bad-ji"

My friends and I have a clever way of indicating when we think a movie is bad, one that started years ago and has unaccountably held on to the present day. And by “clever” I mean “incredibly lame but it consistently makes us laugh.” And that is to replace a word or even a syllable of a word in the title with the word “bad.”

Example: “Wild Wild West was Wild Wild Bad.” Or maybe “Wild Wild West was Bad Bad West.” I think you get the idea.

Sometimes we’ll get even more clever and use a synonym for “bad,” one that perhaps is a better phonic match for whatever syllable we’re replacing. Let’s call it growth over the years.

One of the first examples I ever remember, though, was when I saw Jumanji and made this pronouncement about its poor cinematic quality: “Jumanji? How about Ju-bad-ji.”

I’ve continued to not like Jumanji whenever I think about it, though my one viewing remains sometime in the late 1990s, likely within a year of when it was released. I’m quite sure I did not see it in the theater, but I think I also would have prioritized it within a year or two. Anyway, it’s been 20 years, but what you felt about a movie tends to be something that sticks with you. And I thought this one was bad, as memorialized in my clever (there’s that word again) alternate title for it.

But in the last six months, my relationship with the Jumanji brand has undergone a change. You’ll remember from this post that my sister gifted my kids the storybook, complete with audio CD read by Robin Williams, for Christmas. Probably not coincidentally in terms of the timing of her gift, there was also a Jumanji reboot released. We both opened the present from her and watched Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle while we were on a five-day holiday down on the Mornington Peninsula over New Year’s. The kids loved the movie and became addicted to the storybook, or rather, its audio version. We’ve since listened to Williams read that story so many times that my wife and I have a dozen of his line readings that we find particularly snort-worthy – not because we like the line readings, but because we find them kind of ridiculous. (Sorry Robin – R.I.P.)

The next logical thing to do was to watch the original cinematic adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg's story with my kids. I knew it wasn’t a whole lot like the book, which plays out in only 18 minutes on the CD, and that’s with some pregnant pauses and filler to stretch it out a bit. But I also knew it was possible they’d love it, and that I had misjudged it. I knew those younger than me consider it a childhood classic (I was in my early 20s when it was released in 1995), so maybe I was missing something, or just at the wrong age to appreciate it. Maybe seeing it through parent lenses would soften my hard heart.


We finally watched it on Monday, which was a holiday to celebrate the queen’s birthday (two months after her actual birthday). We logically might have watched it much sooner, as it’s been available streaming on Stan all year. Our delay was because my wife wanted to be involved, but is always the one with the schedule least likely to allow it.

When we had to cancel some other plans for the day because my kids were both getting sick, I thought we’d finally landed on the right day for Jumanji. My wife seemed to agree, but then eventually realized she’d be better served using those two hours when others were occupied to catch up on some work. Still wanting her to be involved, I told her we’d try to find something else to watch instead – and she accepted that offer.

Disappointed, I listlessly poked through the other streaming options, options we’d already scrubbed pretty well. The kids are at ages where their tastes are pretty divergent. The seven-year-old won’t watch anything that he finds too baby-oriented, and the four-year-old wants things that are more baby-oriented than even I want to watch. There are a lot of classics right in the middle of those two extremes, but we’d either already seen them, or neither of them wanted them.

I couldn’t believe I was trying to sell them on the trailers for a couple movies I hadn’t seen (3 Ninjas and Shark Tale), or one I’d seen and liked, but didn’t look like it held up too well while watching its trailer (Antz). The afternoon seemed doomed.

But then I pulled a bit of a fast one.  

Jumanji is one of about a dozen titles that are writ large at the top of Stan's children's section, movies Stan is trying to push on you as some kind of featured title. You can scroll through many more if you drill down to the smaller rows of more specialized options, but the top of the page splashes the titles and artwork of the featured movies one per page, with a greater than or less than symbol on either side for you to click to get the next one.

I didn't have to actually suggest Jumanji ... but what if we "innocently" scrolled past it while considering our options, and the kids demanded it?

And that's exactly what happened. I "innocently" went and reported this outcome to my wife, who relented on her wish for us to save it -- probably because she knew deep down that the next time a situation like this arose, she'd probably opt out again.

Well, I think I saved her a pretty tedious 100 minutes at the movies. Jumanji was about as bad as I remembered it, and the two-star rating I'd given it (retroactively) on Letterboxd was more than fair.

There are any number of shortcomings I could linger on, but I'll concentrate on just a few:

1) The film has an odd ineptitude at how to raise the stakes. As the four players (two kids and two adults) work their way through an interminably protracted game, the jungle beasts that are becoming real don't actually increase in magnitude as the game moves along. In fact, the oversized mosquitoes that emerge first from the game are, in a way, some of the game's most threatening creatures. A few days later I've already blocked out the sequence that the other threats arrive, but they don't escalate in any obvious way, such that it feels like a bunch of disconnected set pieces strung together only by the characters occasionally returning to the board for someone else to play their turn, breathing deeply and looking at each other ominously. And there are like eight of these episodes, so each time it feels a little less like anything matters.

2) The visual effects. Cruel to dwell on these when obviously they would become dated within a short time, but the effects in this movie are bad. We would expect that of the visual effects, which were cutting edge for 1995, but the thing I might have found most distracting was the practical effects involved in the animatronic lion. I figure there should have been a way to train a real lion to do the fairly minimal things it needed to do, without endangering the actors. This lion looks like shit. Here:

I don't know, maybe you can't tell from that.

3) This one may be on me, but this movie is pretty inappropriate for kids my children's age. The main character, whom Williams plays as an adult, is Allen Parrish, the boy who got sucked into the game back in the 1960s. The effect of him being sucked into the game disturbed me even when I was in my 20s, so I can only imagine how it must have chilled my kids, though they didn't say anything about it. But that isn't really my bone of contention about this. Because no one believes that Allen got sucked into the game, a story develops that his father killed him "and chopped him into little pieces." The possible death of a child is a big enough deal; his dismemberment into hundreds of chunks of human flesh and viscera is quite something else.

4) And then there were just the little details that bothered me. When Allen is beaten up by bullies at the beginning, he emerges from this 30-second skirmish with a full-on black eye. Don't you know, Jumanji, that bruises like that only develop after the initial blows have had the chance to settle in?

One bonus thing that made me a bit uncomfortable: David Alan Grier as the town police officer. His portrayal is not actually "wrong" in any respect you could easily identify if you were trying to provide evidence in a court of law. But there's an awful lot of bugging out of eyes and screaming. Just didn't feel all that racially sensitive to me.

The kids loved it though. Well, liked it anyway.

I guess now I'll be due for my second viewing of The Polar Express, to see which artificially distended version of a beloved Chris Van Allsburg storybook actually fares worse.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Taking new things for spins

It's been a weekend of trying new things on the movie home viewing front.

Originally this post was going to be entitled "Taking our new TV for a spin," but then a second "new" type of experience presented itself, even though it's of a more superficial nature.

But let's start with the big one.

We got a new TV this past week. It was something of a surprise, as in, we didn't even really talk about it. In fact, it was all transacted in a couple emails while I was at work one day.

We've had a pretty modestly sized 30" TV since moving to Australia, even replacing it with the same 30" make and model when the first one died after about two-and-a-half years. The price was right so we hoped it wouldn't have the same mechanical failure this time, and it hasn't so far. But some additional stability in our finances (I got some new security in my job) and end of financial year sales tempted my wife to check out the possibilities for an upgrade. A scant few days later, a 43" TV arrived on our doorstop.

I guess that means it's nearly 50% larger, and the difference is significant.

We originally expected it last Friday, and in fact, my wife made sure she didn't stray far from the house or for very long, in order to be around for their ridiculous 12-hour delivery window. It didn't come that day, meaning I couldn't revisit a visually dynamic favorite movie from my collection last weekend as anticipated. That was the way I wanted to symbolically break the thing in. But it did arrive the following Monday, meaning I ultimately had to make my first movie on it ... High Plains Drifter, which you know I really didn't like if you read this post.

But I knew another weekend, a three-day weekend, was on tap in just a few short days. We celebrate the queen's birthday here in Australia, so no one is working on Monday. Even though the queen's actual birthday is in April. But we have like four other holidays in April and none in June. (In fact, without the queen's birthday celebrated in June, we wouldn't have a single public holiday between the end of April and the middle of September. And that September holiday was just introduced since I've moved here, meaning the drought formerly lasted until November.)

So this past Friday night I planned the real debut of the new TV after its previous "soft open." And that was ... Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Perfume is one of a dozen "new favorites" that I watch every couple years ... "new" being defined as "post 2000" I guess. And since I do watch these movies pretty frequently, I was kind of surprised to see it had been more than three years since my last Perfume viewing. I originally planned to involve my wife in this viewing, since she had stated a desire to watch the movie again herself, having seen it only once. But she was too tired on Friday night, for any movie let alone a 140-minute one. I imagine she saw the disappointment in my eyes, and never wanting to hold up one of my own viewings for her schedule, she urged me to continue with it anyway. (She'll probably be content to wait another two years for her second viewing, at which point I'll be ready for my seventh.)

And yeah, it looked pretty effing great on the new TV.

This is going to be fun.

I should also mention it is, of course, a smart TV, but I couldn't have anticipated the ways in which that intelligence would present itself. Without even pairing them, the TV now has dominion over our BluRay player. That's right, its remote control allows us to control the BluRay player controls. Which is no small thing, because our BluRay remote has been dead for at least two years and we've been using an app on our phones to control it. That app relies on the WiFi, so if we are having internet problems, we can't use it. BluRays or DVDs are a good alternative to Netflix if we are having internet issues ... but not if we can't play them. (There are certain things you can control with buttons on the front, but certain things you can't, and some of those things are insurmountable.) So yeah, this is big, and though I suppose it also relies on the internet in some way, it's possible it does not. Hey, I don't profess to fully understand all this stuff.

The second night of the three-day weekend didn't involve another visual feast on the order of Perfume, but it did feature my second "new" type of viewing experience of the weekend.

Namely, I've got a new supplier for my movie kiosk needs.

Even though the rest of the world has moved away from physical media, I still like going to a kiosk and renting a movie ... even if it usually involves going out of my way on the second day to return it. It's the last vestige of the experience of going to a proper video store, which is now well and truly dead.

Kiosk rentals looked to be dead too, as I have witnessed and written about the steady demise of the Hoyts kiosks I've been using since moving here. They may be entirely gone now; I'm not going to their possibly former website at this moment to find out, as it's too depressing.

But in a sign of some optimism for the delivery method if not for Hoyts in particular, the last Hoyts kiosk I used, at the Woolworth's in Moonee Ponds, has actually been replaced with a different brand of kiosk. In all previous other instances I'd witnessed of a Hoyt kiosk vanishing, it disappeared from the location without a successor. But the Moonee Ponds Woolworth's now has a Video Ezy kiosk where the Hoyts one formerly stood.

Pretty much the same deal, except I think the movies are $4 rather than $3.50. That, of course, is not a deal breaker for me. The time and gas required to get to and from the store probably cost me twice that much.

That's not my closest Woolworth's, but I was going that way Saturday morning anyway because I needed to pick up my bike from the bike shop, where it had undergone some repairs. I had gotten a glimpse of the new Video Ezy kiosk on a previous occasion, and this time I planned to use it.

And fortunately, the first movie that came up when I browsed was one my wife and I both wanted to see: Game Night.

Alas, she ended up skipping out on this viewing too. We were over at a friend's house for dinner last night, and though I thought we might return around 8:30, it was nearly 10 o'clock when we got home. I will of course watch a movie starting after 10, especially a short one like Game Night. Not so with my wife, who was ready to retire to the bedroom with the TV shows that she watches that I don't.

Unfortunately, the drawbacks of the single-night rental experience were underscored by Saturday night's example. If I'd had my druthers, I might have put off my viewing of Game Night for a time when a) my wife could also watch and b) I myself was not so tired. But if $4 won't break the bank for me, $8 might, so I couldn't/wouldn't extend my rental of the movie a second night.

And so I can barely tell you what happened in Game Night, as I slept several times during it. I paused it each time and rewound when I noticed I'd slept through some actual content, but the whole thing is a bit of a mishmash in my memory. I do know that I marginally enjoyed it.

And also that it looked pretty effing great on our new TV.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A word on the age of the Ocean siblings

Spoilers for Ocean’s Eight related to something that is literally revealed in the first minute of the movie. Proceed with caution if you don’t want the first minute of the movie spoiled.

I hate to say this, but I couldn’t help noticing in Sandra Bullock’s first scene of Ocean’s Eight how obvious it is that she’s had plastic surgery. It seems that many if not most actresses do it, so I shouldn’t be surprised. If it prolongs their “prime” – defined here as that period when they can still get cast in roles with big paydays – then it’s a worthwhile investment, I’m sure. But I guess I thought my Sandy would be willing to grow old gracefully.

Anyway, the point of this observation is not to body shame. (And to be fair, I never noticed it again the way I noticed it in her first scene, during her parole hearing.) It’s to note the incongruity between the age Bullock is trying to play, and the age her character must really be.

As you probably know, Bullock plays Debbie Ocean, the sister of Danny Ocean from the original Ocean’s trilogy. (Or, I should say, the trilogy that grew out of the remake of the original original movie, starring the rat pack.) We wouldn’t necessarily know how old Danny Ocean is, or was, if it weren’t for the fact that he is now a “was.” One of the first things we learn in Ocean’s Eight is that Danny Ocean is pushing up the daisies. Or rather, he’s entombed in one of those marble walls in a mausoleum, the dates of his birth and death engraved on the front. Anyway, he’s dead.

I’ll get back to the issue of Danny Ocean being dead later.

His age is the thing that interests me now, and not only because it contains a funny continuity error that was likely the result of reshoots. That continuity error is that his death year is alternately listed as 2017 and 2018 in this early scene in the mausoleum. When we see it in close up, it’s 2018, but there’s at least one background shot where it’s listed as 2017. I suspect maybe at one point this movie was supposed to come out last year, and they didn’t realize they still had the old death year listed in some of the shots. (Side note: Who cares if he died this year or a year ago? Does a 2017 death year make the film seem somehow less of-the-moment?)

What interests me here is the birth year, which was the same in both shots: 1958. Interestingly, this is NOT the birth year of George Clooney, who played Danny Ocean, and is a few years younger than arguably his most famous role, having been born in 1961 himself. Anyway, the 1958 birth year means Danny was anywhere from 58 to 60 when he died, depending on which death year you’re looking at.

So Debbie Ocean is supposed to be …

The movie goes to great pains to suggest she’s still in her 40s, and possibly even her early 40s if you wanted to follow Bullock’s plastic surgery to the logical conclusions of what it is trying to accomplish. Bullock is actually 53, so she’d be only five to seven years younger than her brother if we were going with the actual age of the actress. But this movie wants her to be 47 at the oldest, I imagine, which makes her a full decade younger than her brother, and not the contemporary the film sort of asserts that she is.

This is a really minor point upon which to expend 700 words.

Okay, so let’s get back to Danny Ocean being dead. And now I should probably include a second SPOILER WARNING because I’m going to spoil something that doesn’t come until the very end of the movie, though doesn’t ultimately have a whit to do with this actual story.

Such a big deal is being made of Danny being dead – like, it gets mentioned approximately every seven minutes of screen time – that the only conclusion seems to be that it’s setting us up for the same kind of long con that the movie’s narrative itself is about. You only mention Danny Ocean being dead this often if it turns out he’s not actually dead. Faking his death would be a very Danny Ocean thing to do.

Yet he is actually dead. Or, the movie never tells us he isn’t.

The film’s last scene involves Bullock returning to that mausoleum and pouring a martini to toast Danny’s memory. There was no way that scene was not going to include George Clooney strolling in as a surprise guest. No way for anything but that to happen.

And yet the credits do roll and he does not appear. I stayed around for the entire credits expecting a Marvel-style stinger in which Clooney shows up and winks at us, suggesting the possibility of an Ocean’s Fourteen or at least that he might appear in Ocean’s Nine, assuming this film is successful enough to warrant an Ocean’s Nine. But again I was disappointed.

So why exactly was Danny Ocean dead? What did that do for the story except kind of bum us out?

The only thing I can think of is that George Clooney said “Please, I don’t want any rumors of Steven making another Ocean’s sequel, and to cut those off at the pass, I’d really like you to kill off Danny Ocean.” I can’t really see the logic in it – Hollywood is traditionally about leaving open the possibility of sequels except where it’s absolutely necessary not to – but it’s possible he did it.

Or it’s possible this is just the longest of long cons and that Danny being alive will be the big surprise in Ocean’s Nine.

However, if you take this film only on its own terms, the film decided to kill him off without having any real rationale for doing so, or any payoff. Yet still felt it was necessary to keep mentioning him throughout the narrative, to keep his ghost in the background. One would think that this movie would only need a mention of the character to get it shoved off in the right direction, then could just fly on its own. Why keep coming back to him?

I suspect there’s more to this story and that it will just be some kind of delayed reveal for the sequel, but it definitely gave me pause.