Tuesday, July 31, 2018

MoviePast

If I were living in the United States, I'm sure I would have written a ton about MoviePass by now. Since I live in Australia, I've written ... let's see ... nothing. Nope, not a single blog label for "moviepass" until the one I'm creating now.

So I'm just in time to comment on the company's death throes.

The "valid thru" date on that card above says 2/18, as an example. But it should say 7/18, because at this point, MoviePass is not likely to make it until August.

I won't recount all the sad, gory details, but the thing that almost all observers expected to happen has happened: MoviePass has run out of money. That's the only thing you can imagine happening when you have to pay movie theater chains $100 to $200 a month for the full price of movie tickets for a customer, and in exchange get only a mere $9.95 from that customer. (Or was it $6.95? The prices changed with some frequency.)

There was some crazy kind of bulk economic theory that this would eventually be a goldmine for them, since the average customer would only go to the movies once a month, or so they thought. As it turns out, when people sign up for a service that will allow them to go to potentially as many as 31 movies a month for less than ten bucks, they want to use it more than once per month.

I don't know if there was some sound logic behind it or if it was always just foolishness, but this company has hours left to live, it seems. The site is down on phones through the U.S., after all showings of the new Mission: Impossible movie had already been blocked.

There's probably a little bit of schadenfreude here, I'm reluctant to admit. See, I have my own "MoviePass" here in Australia, which is my critics card. For $75 a year, I can see movies with the same frequency as American MoviePass customers, with certain restrictions (some theaters don't accept my card, and you can't go on a Saturday night at pretty much any of them). But unlike MoviePass, you could see the same movie a dozen times, theoretically, since each theater only looks at your card and makes you sign a little piece of paper, which they then just file away in some drawer. There's no sharing of information between theaters, as the transaction ends at the point of contact.

So when MoviePass became available at such a low price, I felt like something special about my critics card had been lost. That's ridiculous because they're two different countries and two different sets of circumstances, but I do enjoy telling American friends that I have a kind of payment for my critic work in the form of seeing movies for free. That didn't seem as impressive when MoviePass got them the same thing for only a little more than my $75 per year.

But as we always expected it would, MoviePass ceased to be viable, and now -- or very soon, anyway -- I'm alone in my specialness. Now that it's actually happening, I don't feel any great joy in it, despite those small feelings of schadenfreude I mentioned above. The sense of sorrow that friends of mine have lost something great is the more dominant emotion.

R.I.P., MoviePass. You tried.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

I finally saw: Vechoes

I've used my periodic "I Finally Saw" series to discuss finally catching up with broadly defined classics or other films of cultural significance I had not seen before now.

Well, there are exceptions to every rule.

Stir of Echoes was, as I recall, the first prominent horror movie to be released after The Sixth Sense had kind of retooled our expectations of what a horror movie can deliver. In other words, quality, not just schlock.

Stir or Echoes, of course, was not influenced by The Sixth Sense, in any other way than possibly its marketing. It was in the can before anyone knew Sixth Sense would be a hit.

And so, unsurprisingly, it's pretty much schlock. It's decent schlock, as it turns out, but nothing more than that. Nothing memorable.

So the reason I'm choosing to write about it here is because it's just the type of movie I should never have seen after a certain point. If I didn't see this by 2002, it should have gotten lost among the large quantity of Forgettable Genre Films I Will Never See.

And yet I did see it, as I randomly spotted it on the shelf at the library and thought "Huh, I did always expect that I would eventually see that." Eventually turned out to be 19 years later. And only because we ended up postponing our trip to the library, to return it and about 30 others, until Sunday, rather than Saturday, leaving me with it as a potential selection for Saturday night.

I also wanted to write something about it because it was one of a relatively small quantity of films for which some friends and I had a nickname. Not that we talked about it a lot, but when it did come up in conversation, we had a tendency to refer to it as "Vechoes."

The reason for this is probably evident, but I'll spell it out anyway. When you say this title quickly, the words kind of slur together, making the "of" less distinctive and allowing one of each of its letters to attach to the word next to it. So we felt ourselves kind of saying "Stirra Vechoes," which eventually just became "Vechoes."

So yeah, Vechoes was definitely decent. If I didn't admit I got chills a number of times I'd be lying. By the end, you don't feel a great payoff for the chilling moments, making them seem a bit weaker in retrospect, but I certainly can't deny their biological reality at the time they happened.

One thing I thought was interesting to note was that the film is largely devoid of any of the digital effects that would soon take over horror filmmaking. I think of a movie like the American remake of The Ring as being one of the real progenitors in (soon to be interchangeable) digital horror movies, and that was still three years off at that point. It was curious to feel myself waiting for something digitally grisly or spooky to happen, and it never happening. Maybe that's why the chills felt a bit chillier here -- they were refreshingly of the practical variety.

And now it is only practical that I cease discussing this forgettable movie.

Friday, July 27, 2018

How many Ks, and how many of them capitalized?

I enjoy the stylization of the title of Spike Lee’s new film. I really do.

But it looks much better on the poster than when you type it out:

BlacKkKlansman.”

It sets off all kinds of red underlines on any Microsoft product with spell check built in, and just does not read as a proper word, or any proper thing to try to say. (And not just because it contains the ultimate oxymoron.)

It’s certainly consistent with a career’s worth of challenging spelling and grammar norms by Lee, as the spelling (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), grammar (She Hate Me) and sometimes both (Mo’ Better Blues) in the titles of his films have all been designed to identify and occasionally explode the stereotypes behind the linguistic stylings of African-Americans, which some have called Ebonics and Lee himself calls “jive talk” in this latest film, set as it is in the early 1970s.

BlacKkKlansman is distinct from those in the sense that it’s not approximating something someone would say, but rather, being typographically clever on purely a visual level, getting in that third K -- or k, I guess, since the extra one is the only one that isn’t capitalized.

I might prefer it if the small k were just for the poster and not for talking about the movie in casual conversation. I might prefer Black Klansman for that. The sound of the Ks still have a good kick to them and it still looks good. 

One of the reasons the typographical strangeness of the title bothers me is that I expect to be looking at it quite a bit every time I open my Word document devoted to the year's best movies. That's right, I saw it at an advanced critics screening on Wednesday night. It's only July so it's too early to project where it will finish the year, but for now, Lee's latest has jumped straight to the top of my chart.

I won't tell you too much for now because a) I'm going to write a review and am still thinking about what I'm going to say, and b) once I write that review I'll link to it, and c) though I have not been specifically muzzled by an embargo on the film, I do think it's weird to go on at length about a film that's not getting its proper release for two weeks or more (though it already has a bunch of reviews out there from festival screenings).

Suffice it to say that Lee is back, if he ever left (my friend and I debated briefly about that), as this is an easy contender for his best film of the 20th century. Which is not a small list of films, as Lee has waned in and out of prominence but has never gone on an actual hiatus from directing, leaving him with ten proper features since the clock struck 2000. 

So however hard it is to write and however weird it looks on the page, I'm overjoyed for its existence. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The youngening of Denzel

There's a sort-of-racist, ultimately-complimentary, rhyming phrase that encapsulates the disinclination of African-Americans to show their age. That phrase is "black don't crack," and it's meant to indicate that their skin stays youthful looking for longer. (I'm not sure how comfortable I am using it, but it seems applicable here.)

Even so, there's no way this is a legitimate picture of Denzel Washington at age 63.

The guy looks great for his age anyway. Why mess around so much with the airbrush?

They've done something to the basic structure of his face, almost like his facial features are too big for the rest of his head. It does make him look younger, if that was the goal, but it also makes him look a little alien.

Not that touching people up in move posters would be exclusively a thing for black actors, not by any stretch (and not logically given that opening phrase). However, it did make me think of this poster:


Will Smith was 40 when this film came out, not 12.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Remembering the affair, or the night?

I’ve long known there were movies called An Affair to Remember and A Night to Remember, though I’d seen neither of them. I’ve also known one of them is about the sinking of the Titanic and the other involves a meeting at the Empire State Building and gets referenced in Sleepless in Seattle.

I just haven’t known which is which.

Or thought I did, until I actually watched An Affair to Remember on Monday night.

I was quite sure this was the movie with the fated non-meeting at the top of the Empire State, which makes Seattle’s Rita Wilson cry in describing its ending (whose details I started to remember as I was watching it). But then Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr board a cruiseliner and spend the next hour of screen time on it, and I started to doubt myself.

I knew in the back of my mind that it was the actual Titianic that sinks in one of these movies, not some boat bopping about from port to port on the Mediterranean. But the sheer amount of time spent on this boat – it’s over half the movie – started to make me question everything. It was just when Kerr started to reference there being rocky waters ahead, and a bit of a dramatic swell on the score, that I started to think I was watching the Titanic movie. I guess this boat was about to transform into the Titanic and jump back nearly a half century.

Just as I was finally looking it up online, the boat docks in New York and you see the Empire State Building in the background. Then they reference it in the next line of dialogue. Okay then.

I just think it’s funny that the movies have such similar titles and spend so much time on a large boat. Furthering the confusion is that A Night to Remember (July 3, 1958) was released a little less than a year after An Affair to Remember (July 19, 1957).

Anyway, I think I’ll remember now.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Another shot for Shortland

We’re supposed to celebrate the news of a woman or minority being picked to helm a big studio project with big expectations at the box office. Instead, such news disturbed me this past week.

After first being shocked that Cate Shortland was even a candidate to direct Marvel’s first solo Black Widow movie, I was then even more shocked, and also dismayed, to learn she’d actually landed the job.

What’s wrong with Cate Shortland, Vance? And given that she’s an Australian director, shouldn’t you support her candidacy all the more?

I would if Shortland had not made one of the most reprehensible films I saw in 2017, Berlin Syndrome. I was sure it would be my lowest ranked film of the year until I saw the Sean Penn abomination The Last Face.

Berlin Syndrome is the type of movie that’s so misogynistic it could have only been directed by a man. And yet it was directed by a woman.

What makes it so disturbing is that it’s the story of an Australian woman (Teresa Palmer) who is traveling in Berlin when she goes home with a man she meets (Max Riemalt), and he proceeds to take her captive. That’s not the disturbing part. The disturbing part is that the woman demonstrates an inexcusably pathetic level of agency, failing to take numerous obvious opportunities to escape, even though it’s very clear from her hysterical emotional state that this is what she wants. In this state of captivity she then dresses up in lingerie and takes photos of herself in poses that are both tortured and seductive, from what I remember (though I’ve blocked some of it out).

That’s half of what’s disturbing. The other half is that the film does not take a negative stance toward her captor. If keeping her captive were not bad enough, he does some other things that are disgusting enough to forfeit all audience sympathy, including a scene where he slams her hand in a door, smashing her fingers and causing her to faint (at which point he carries her back inside, like a groom carrying a bride across the threshold). That scene is plenty sickening by itself. But then Shortland, for some reason, wants us to care about this man and his motivations in the world. She follows him during his daily life at work and interactions with co-workers, and even to go visit his father, who is dying of cancer. The camera stays with him as he processes the sadness of his father dying.

This “creeps are people too” perspective is bizarre and, I would argue, irresponsible. Shortland is not even trying to suggest that something fundamental about his past has turned him into a person who abuses and kidnaps women. That would at least be something. Instead, this guy appears to have a loving father who is dying of cancer, not some bastard who beat him and passed on his violent tendencies in the cycle of abuse. Just some normal good dad whose grieving son happens to be a deviant and practitioner of sexual violence.

The thing that left me aghast about the film is that it was received positively. Berlin Syndrome holds a thoroughly inexplicable 73 on Rotten Tomatoes and 70 on Metacritic. Could that many critics have been blinded by the good cinematography?

It would have been easy to write Cate Shortland off from this one bad movie. It’s the kind of bad movie that makes you doubt all the artist’s judgments, and feel comfortable making blanket statements that their artistic output is of little value.

But then the news broke that Shortland was being considered for the Black Widow gig, along with a few other women who seemed like eminently preferable options. One of these was Amma Assante (Belle, A United Kingdom), who would have been a great choice. Not because her films were more like a potential Black Widow movie than Shortland’s were, because they aren’t – though you could say the same for Patty Jenkins before she made Wonder Woman. It was simply because both movies she’d made that I’d seen were actually good, whereas Shortland’s wasn’t.

But Shortland had a disadvantage to Assante in this discussion. I was basing my assessment of her usefulness on only one film, rather than two. I thought I should see at least one other before delivering a final dismissal. Maybe that would show me what others saw in her.

So the other Shortland film that seems to be a calling card for her is called Lore, and it was available from the library. In fact, I didn’t even have to reserve it; I stumbled across it a few weeks back. So I guess I’m telling things slightly out of sequence. I picked up Lore out of a general interest in giving Shortland a second chance, and her appointment as director of Black Widow ensured that I’d watch it before it was due back. Which I did on Sunday night.

I wish I could say my opinion of Cate Shortland improved radically. It improved only slightly.

Lore at least does not have the same kind of female character agency issues as Berlin Syndrome. The title is the nickname of the film’s main character, Hannalore (Saskia Rosendahl), who is the oldest of five siblings essentially left orphaned when their Nazi parents are taken into custody after the death of Hitler. She has to lead her twin brothers, sister and infant brother on a journey throughout Allied occupied Germany to get to her grandmother’s house. And she does indeed take a lot on her shoulders, and takes it well enough. I mean, you can’t accuse her of shrinking from her responsibility or collapsing in hysterics and failing to escape from the man who holds her captive, anyway.

But this film is permeated with the strange sense of watching people you don’t like, not because they’re bad people in general but because they’re … well, they’re Nazis. Now granted, Lore is only 14 and she’s the oldest, so you can’t really say she or her siblings have adopted the values of the Third Reich in any meaningful way. But surprisingly few of the people we encounter in this movie, including her and her siblings, seem to regret their complicity with the philosophies of Adolf Hitler, and again it doesn’t seem to matter that much to Shortland. It’s her showing a violent kidnapper/rapist touchingly visit his cancer-stricken father all over again. Of course, Lore comes first in the chronology, so I guess it informs Berlin Syndrome.

I didn’t mind that the film was hard to watch in a metaphorical sense, as it includes things like ant-infested corpses and men slumped in chairs after they blew their own brains out. I did mind that the film was hard to watch in a literal, physical sense. It uses this oversaturated film stock in which the reds and greens stand out in a really woozy way. I won’t actually say I felt nauseous while watching it, because I have a strong stomach and I’m proud of that. But I think the colors in this film could make a person nauseous. If I thought that was Shortland’s intent, rather than a demonstration of her misguided aesthetic sensibility, I might applaud it. Instead, another demerit.

I don’t know what I expected from this movie, as any movie set in the closing days of World War II, from the perspective of the Germans, is going to be pretty bleak. But a good point of contrast is Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, which actually goes inside Hitler’s bunkers, and provides us with a snapshot of a bunch of different personality types and their perspectives on what they have been involved in. That film offers the shades of gray that this one does not. This one only involves shades of puky green and red.

What I just don’t, can’t understand is why Kevin Feige would have looked at these two films and thought “Here is our Black Widow director.” Shortland’s aesthetic choices are nothing like the ones she will be expected to adhere to in the MCU, with a lot of the camera lolling around at close range to its subjects in these overstylized compositions. And if you’re making a movie about a badass woman, it hardly seems right to have made a film in which the female character shows a curious lack of ingenuity and fritters away all her advantages. The title character of Lore is better than that, but she doesn’t feel like a powerful woman – she feels like a woman who does what she has to and doesn’t sufficiently divorce herself from a hateful ideology.

It did occur to me whether Shortland’s obvious affinity for all things German – both of these films are set in Germany, and Lore is entirely in German – played some role. Not that Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, is German, mind you. Clearly, she’s of Russian heritage (which gets generally downplayed in these movies). But I can see it being somebody’s myopic idea of an equivalency. “Russian? German? Both enemies of the United States at one point. It’s all the same!”

The thing is, this is a win-win for Shortland. Because she will not be the primary auteur behind the film – that’s Feige if it’s anyone – she will inevitably take the credit for sitting in the director’s chair when the movie inevitably plays well. All she has to do is not screw it up and she’ll reap the benefits. And Feige and Disney don’t really allow you to screw it up – they axe you long before then. I guess her getting axed is the most I can hope for.

And why do I want Cate Shortland to get axed from the job she’s only just gotten?

Because I don’t think a person should get rewarded for putting a film like Berlin Syndrome into the world. I’ll forgive directors for making bad movies, but I’m slower to forgive them for making wrong ones.

Monday, July 23, 2018

A comfort of swearing between father and son

I really meant to see Brad's Status last year in time to rank it, but it just lost out in a numbers game. My enthusiasm for it was somewhat dampened when one of my film podcasters (now former film podcasters; R.I.P. Filmspotting SVU) revealed that he absolutely hates it. But when I saw it as a 99 cent rental on iTunes it was an easy pickup. Mike White as the director, Ben Stiller as the star, and social media as the possible central issue were all selling points for me.

I guess with Mike White as the director, I expected there to be something outre about it, something that provoked in overly cheeky ways, that had turned off that podcaster. In fact, Brad's Status is earnest almost to a fault, and it doesn't rely on cringe-worthiness or awkwardness nearly to the degree I had been led to believe. Neither is it as topically obsessed with Facebook as I would have guessed, though the envy of others' perceived great lives, as extrapolated from their social media posts, is indeed a running theme. In short, I liked it quite a bit.

But one of the things I, as a father of two sons, took away from it most was the central relationship between Stiller's Brad and his 17-year-old son, Austin Abrams' Troy.

Abrams was familiar to me, but I couldn't place him -- looking into it now, I realize he was on The Walking Dead. But the actor he reminded me of most was Miles Teller. Since I could imagine Teller playing this role as snarky and sneering, even though those aren't particularly trademarks of his acting style, I expected the same to inform Abrams' portrayal.

Yet father and son don't have that contentious relationship in this movie. If anything, Troy is overly forgiving of things Brad does, far less extreme versions of which would cause most movie teenagers (and probably real-world teenagers) to roll their eyes. There's nary an eye roll in this movie. Again, it surprised me that a director like White would lean toward a more idealized version of this relationship rather than a less idealized one, though it was nice to see in these cynical times.

Anyway, one of the casually introduced aspects of their relationship is that Troy periodically says "fuck" in conversation with his father and his father doesn't bat an eyelash. He doesn't pepper his speech with the word; after all, this is a kid applying for Harvard who might actually get in. But as an occasional punctuating adjective, some variation of the word escapes his lips about three or four times during the movie. His father doesn't even react. If he was dropping the f-bomb every other word, Brad'd be obliged to say something. But as just an occasional flourish in his linguistic palette, it's fine. (Incidentally, Brad is a good dad and does not reciprocate.)

Part of the reason this interested me is because it has an echo in my own relationship with my own older son ... who is a lot younger than Troy.

My son will turn eight in about a month's time, and though he has never said the word "fuck" in my presence -- good boy -- his general curiosity about the word has meant that his awareness of it has come up as a topic in conversation. Unfortunately, he's heard both my wife and me say it on occasion, though the only time I can remember doing that myself was when a car almost ran us down on our bikes after the driver, either drunkenly or otherwise, drove onto the bike path. The familiarity he has with it is more likely a result of the playground than anything he's getting in his home environment.

Anyway, we know he knows it and we have started making more and more mutual reference to the fact that he knows it. That moment might not have arrived with my own parents until four or more years later, if it ever did. But what can I say, these are different times.

One funny example came this past Wednesday, when I left work early to pick him up from school because my wife had an all-day conflict. We turned on the radio in the car to Triple-J, an Australia-wide station that doesn't blush about playing songs with bad language. They play the songs, but at least during the day, they oblige themselves to say "Language warning" right before the song begins. The tone of voice of the woman who records this message suggests that she find it a silly rule to have to obey, and she's adhering to it only cheekily.

Anyway, after his particular language warning, the song commenced and included the word "motherfucker" about 1.5 seconds in. The purpose of the language warning is to allow you to silence the radio or at least change the station if young ears are within earshot. In order to prevent this particular f-bomb from being heard, though, I would have already had to have been hovering my finger by the radio dial in anticipation of possible action.

My son and I laughed about it. It had been a moment that had occurred and there was nothing I could have done to stop it -- other than, I guess, not listening to this station in the first place. We've made several references to that moment in the days since, and laughed about it each time.

Then on the very night I watched Brad's Status, we had another episode involving the word, where I could have done more to stop it, and in fact drew extra attention to it. I guess the previous incident had emboldened me.

I was reading him a story on the couch, or rather, he read me a story as part of a reading challenge he's doing. Usually after this he would have me read him something, but on this particular occasion he didn't seem to care about that. Instead, we (I can't remember who initiated it) started pulling books out of the adjacent book shelf, joking that I should read to him from one of our boring adult books.

I pulled one in particular called How Late It Was, How Late because I knew it would be an extreme example. This book is inscrutable even to my wife and me. It's written by a Scot named James Kelman, and it's written with a thick Scottish dialect that recalls Trainspotting, or something James Joyce would have written with the equivalent Irish dialect. I know it's inscrutable from having perused a couple sentences previously; my wife actually tried to read it, and either suffered through to the end or let it defeat her, but in either case, was the worse for it.

My son, who is willing to ride a comedy bit to its logical conclusion (a man after my own heart), encouraged me to continue after reading the opening page. I declined, not only because it's physically difficult to read aloud with all the abbreviated and purposefully misspelled words, but because I knew it wouldn't be long before I stumbled across some profanity. My son must have known that was part of the reason I stopped because he asked if it had bad words in it.

Instead of just saying yes, I scanned forward in the text until I actually found one, and told him I'd found it. I was going to leave it at that, but he pressed further, wanting to know what word it was. And here was the moment when I took my bold step forward. I found the page with the word "fucking" on it and stuck my finger right up to it so he could see.

"You could have just said it was the f-word rather than showing me," he said, a bit of delighted incredulity in his eyes.

Why yes I could have. But I guess I feel like it's time to start developing that comfort that the father and son in Brad's Status share, where they can begin to meet on the level of equals rather than always a parent and a child.

But if he starts dropping f-bombs in my presence, I'm going to have to do something about that.

At least not until after his eighth birthday.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

2 many

While there are a lot of movie franchises out there, there's also the perception that there are relatively few properties on which audiences will reliably spend their money, which is why Hollywood vastly prefers continuing with existing franchises than trying to create new ones.

The logical conclusion from that, then -- and what I think every time summer rolls around -- is that this will finally be the summer that catches these relatively few franchises at exactly the wrong point, the summer when there will finally be no new tentpoles to support the movie season.

That's always wrong, of course, as we are now getting more and more fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth movies in series. That used to be just the territory of Friday the 13th. Now, respectable franchises will go on and on into cinematic oblivion without batting an eyelash.

What does seem to be the case, though, is that we would expect each summer movie season to be propped up exclusively by films that have reached that far end of the sequel spectrum. Which is why it's all the more surprising how many movies I've seen in 2018 that are only the modest second in their respective series.

Nights like Friday night tend to accentuate that, as I watched a double feature of the second Paddington movie and the second Pacific Rim movie. Both new franchises, obviously, but based on known properties (a beloved children's book) or types of movies that have historically been successful (giant creatures fighting each other in urban landscapes).

Both were movies I meant to watch last weekend, both rentals from our Fetch box (kind of like OnDemand). But Pacific Rim was going to take too long to download, so I couldn't watch it Saturday night like I'd planned (I scratched that itch, so to speak, with the regrettable Battleship), and Paddington was rejected by my kids on Sunday night, though they ultimately did watch it Friday night, sort of because I forced them to -- it was going to expire if I didn't. They liked it okay. (I liked it much better, though not at the "freshest tomato on Rotten Tomatoes" level.)

But these were far from my only second movies in 2018. I'd noticed the trend long before Friday night. In 2018 I have also seen:

Super Troopers 2
Deadpool 2
Incredibles 2
Ant-Man and the Wasp
Sicario: Day of the Soldado
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

You could, of course, argue that Fallen Kingdom is the fifth Jurassic Park movie rather than the second Jurassic World movie, but the rebranding makes the opposite argument easier to make.

Perhaps one of the reasons it's been easier for me to notice, especially as I've scanned my in-progress movie rankings, is that a surprising number of these movies have actually used the number 2 in their titles. That's something studios have been dropping -- see Sicario, Jurassic World and Pacific Rim -- as they've thought it's been in their interest to deemphasize the idea that it's a sequel, preferring to make it "just another adventure in this world." So they want us to know we're consuming the next installment in these franchises, but not that it's that icky word "sequel." Quite a complicated mental game they are playing with us.

But Super Troopers, Incredibles, Paddington and Deadpool have all pushed back against that trend, sometimes for reasons of self-deprecation (Deadpool) but mostly just for simplicity of marketing. As Paddington 2 is a consummately uncynical movie, it stands to reason that it would also not try to trick us with a title like Paddington: Resurgence. Which also functions as a bit of a compliment of our intelligence.

Of course, I have to mention the exceptions. This year I've also seen the third Hotel Transylvania movie, the third Avengers movie (do we even think of it as the third in that series anymore?), the third Cloverfield movie (loosely connected) and the fourth Ocean's movie. I guess I've just seen almost every sequel this year, whether it was the first, second or third. I did pass on the third Fifty Shades movie, having also passed on the second.

Two more #2s are also being released this week, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and The Equalizer 2. I'm out on the second Equalizer as I haven't seen the first, and actively passed up Mamma Mia! on Thursday night in favor of The Gospel According to Andre. I did have a moment when I was watching this humorous Onion review of Here We Go Again when they said it was a sequel to the 2008 movie. There's no way it feels like ten years since Mamma Mia!, though I did review it for my old site and I stopped writing for that site in 2011, so I guess it makes sense.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the bunch of second movies I'm seeing this year is how good they are. Not only do I like the second Deadpool, Paddington, Ant-Man and Incredibles movies better than the first in those series (a marginal preference with Incredibles), but all those movies are currently in my top 11 for the year. (Paddington, the most beloved of those, currently sits at #11).

When you come right down to it, though, my experience with sequels this year is probably only notable because I happened to notice it. Probably, I could write some version of this post every year. That's the thing about Hollywood. Even when we look at what's coming out and see it as just more of the same, Hollywood has figured out how to surreptitiously insert new properties that we quickly forget haven't been around forever.

Which I guess is a good thing, sort of?

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Hoisted on his own pitard

Live by the tweet, die by the tweet.

One of my most consistent hobby horses over the past couple years on this blog is how annoying I find James Gunn's Twitter personality. Now, he may no longer have one.

The news of the day when I woke up this morning was that Gunn had been fired as the director of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 after his tweets joking about rape and pedophilia surfaced from ten years ago.

While I don't relish the news in the sense that it's a conservative hit job -- Gunn has been an outspoken Trump critic -- I do take a certain pleasure in the fact that James Gunn will finally have to shut up.

I would have no problem with the guy personally, and I like most of his movies, and I understand the joking spirit in which he made those tweets about "the time Uncle Bernie fisted me" and all that stuff. But he turned me from a supporter into a critic when he let the success of Guardians of the Galaxy go to his head and had to show up every other day on Twitter sending out some kind of non-news that drew attention to his own brand. Some examples of that were when he sent out the video of how Baby Groot's dance moves were based on his own dance moves, or revealed to us "what Groot was actually saying" every time he said "I am Groot," most annoyingly at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Whether all these things were proof of his naked love of the spotlight or not, they came with such frequency that I began to think he needed to have his phone taken out of his hands almost as much as Trump needs to.

Now, it remains to be seen if he'll ever want to tweet anything about himself again.

It's been that kind of week on Twitter. Major league baseball pitcher Josh Hader also had his former tweets come back to haunt him. He tweeted out racist and homophobic remarks back in 2011 and 2012 when he was a teenager. Neither baseball nor his team has decided to punish him, rightly realizing that his own status as a pariah will be punishment enough.

Disney doesn't have the option not to punish Gunn. He had to go.

It does seem like too much of a punishment, at least in terms of what I wanted. I didn't want him to be professionally blacklisted, and of course wouldn't have dreamed of a scenario where he would be. I just wanted some humility. Having one of the Guardians movies tank at the box office probably would have been humbling enough.

But I do feel a bit of schadenfreude this morning as I type these words. James Gunn found a social media platform he liked, became addicted to it and to the attention it brought him, and flew too close to the sun. If he had liked Twitter a little less, maybe he wouldn't have put himself in the position to draw the ire of the conservatives who ultimately brought about the possible end of his career.

Maybe they should hire Joe and Anthony Russo to direct the third Guardians movie. Ironically, it was in the Russo-directed Infinity War that I liked the Guardians the most.

As for Gunn ... well, maybe following a period of much-needed humility he'll get to have a career again.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Documentaries return to the theater

I've written more times than I can count about the change in the documentary landscape. If you want to count, a good place to start would be with my number of posts tagged with the "documentaries" label, which is 18. Probably not all of those posts are about the waxing and waning -- mostly waning -- in the prominence of documentaries, and to a lesser extent, my interest in them. (I'll get into that latter in a moment.) But a good chunk have been.

Even so, it took something like Thursday night to put into perspective how much things have really changed.

When I went to see The Gospel According to Andre at Cinema Nova, it was the first documentary I'd seen in the theater in 27 months.

That's two years and three months, people. The date of that last viewing was April 4, 2016, and the movie was the Mt. Everest documentary Sherpa.

And though I didn't love that movie, it was not that movie that drove me away from seeing documentaries in the theater. In fact, it was documentaries on the whole, and how so few of them were feeling like essential viewings that penetrated the zeitgeist.

I'm not going to rehash all of my thoughts on this. I will say that a complicating factor was likely my participation in the selection of films for two straight years of the Human Rights & Arts Film Festival (HRAFF), which oversaturated my viewing schedule with documentaries for a period of about five months over two consecutive years. I vetted my last such film 18 months ago and in ways I'm still recovering.

But documentary oversaturation or not, I'm still the type of viewer, the type of critic, who likes to see the movies people are talking about in the theater. And there just aren't as many documentaries that people, or at least the cinephiles I listen to on podcasts, have been talking about the last few years.

I'm wondering if the market is now correcting itself, however. Andre is kicking off an informal flurry of biographical type documentaries that are opening at Cinema Nova in the next few weeks, starting with RGB a week from now, followed quickly thereafter by Whitney and McQueen. I suppose at some point they'll also release the most acclaimed documentary of the year to this point, Won't You Be My Neighbor? Though they'll have to spell it "Neighbour."

I certainly won't be catching all of those on the "big" screen -- "big" being a relative term when you consider the postage stamp on which they screened Andre -- but RGB is a certainty, meaning there's no chance of another 27-month layoff between big-screen documentaries.

Alas, The Gospel According to Andre may have proven why I don't prioritize documentaries on the big screen like I once did. I do still think their general absence from the zeitgeist, the Mr. Rogers movie notwithstanding, has had more to do with it. But the fact that so many documentaries follow such a familiar structure, showcasing an interesting but inessential person or pastime, is the really limiting factor in their appeal to me. Even the ones that do break through to the zeitgeist are usually hewing to these age-old styles and formats.

But as I've also spoken about before, almost every documentary someone has seen it fit to curate for you to see has real merit. The floor for their quality tends to be high. And Andre conforms to that pattern as well. It was definitely well worth my time ... especially compared to that underwhelming sherpa documentary, anyway.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

The feathered dinosaur movement has a kids movie

I watched this awful movie with my kids on Monday night. It was a moment of growth for me.

Long story short: I tried to watch something legitimate, I really did. We didn't watch Paddington 2 because I thought my wife wanted to watch it with us, and she was in Sydney (turns out she didn't care), and we didn't watch Captain Underpants because it turned out Netflix had only an original TV series, not the movie from last year.

In scrolling through the other Netflix options, my younger son, who is in a bit of a dinosaur phase, saw a movie called Dinosaur Island that he wanted to watch. I surprised myself by agreeing to the choice.

Normally I'm a bit of a dictator in these scenarios. If I'm going to watch a movie with them before bed, I want it to be something I want to watch, figuring that they'd be forced to accept my choice if the alternative is to, you know, go to sleep. Now, I'm not talking about something age inappropriate or legitimately boring to them; I'm talking whatever theatrically released animated movie we can find that I happened not to have caught, or even one I did catch but am glad to revisit. Not some straight-to-video Pokemon movie or whatever other crap might catch their fancy.

On this particular night, I surprised myself by accepting whatever other crap.

And Dinosaur Island certainly was crap. I guess I don't see a lot of truly awful children's movies, but this was one. It was an easy choice to give it only a single star on Letterboxd. The production values were bad, the acting was bad, the story was bad. Just bad all around.

But there was one really interesting thing about it: The dinosaurs have feathers.

First, a little plot.

This kid from present day Australia (I had no idea the movie was set in Australia or made by Australians when my son chose it) is on a plane to America (reasons unimportant) when it gets caught in some kind of electrical storm and crash lands on an island. Thinking Lost? Yes, this movie is a lot like Lost, if Lost had a cast comprised only of two bland children, a bunch of poorly represented native people, and dinosaurs. The kid is, inexplicably, the only person from his plane who seems to be anywhere, and the actual plane is nowhere near where he wakes up on the beach. But there is another person there, a girl, who arrived under similar circumstances, only from the year 1955. It sounds cooler than it actually is.

Also on this island, there are dinosaurs. And they have feathers.

Now, the feathers alone are not crazy. In fact, as I learned for the first time only about three years ago, scientists now believe that most dinosaurs had feathers. Dinosaurs and birds have a lot in common, so why wouldn't dinosaurs have feathers? In fact, I think it's taken as kind of an undisputed fact nowadays.

A fact that Hollywood has been slow to adopt. So fixed is our idea of what a dinosaur is supposed to look like that nary a movie I have seen has incorporated feathers into its depiction of dinosaurs. In fact, this very summer we have had a massive dinosaur movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, where feathers remain conspicuously absent from the leathery hides of the dinosaurs on screen.

So the crazy thing is that this little throwaway kids movie, made for a buck fifty, about time travel, decided to get all realistic up in this bitch.

The name of the director, Matt Drummond, is all over the credits. It's definitely a Matt Drummond Joint. I guess it's hard not to have your name all over the credits when you not only wrote and directed the movie, but you also shot and edited it. He's also the VFX supervisor and, of course, the producer. It's definitely a Matt Drummond Joint.

So I can see Matt Drummond taking this movie ten times more seriously than anyone else involved in it, especially the financiers, who just want to make a quick buck on it and have done the cost-benefit analysis on the profit margin for a children's movie with a minuscule budget. And I can see Matt Drummond, with a worrisome and slightly insane smile in his eyes, making the aspect ratio of a camera with the thumb and forefinger of his hands, and then spreading his arms wide in a magician's "presto" gesture that is the international symbol for something visionary. And I can see Matt Drummond saying "Picture this ... the dinosaurs have feathers."

And then the financiers groaning.

If you are trying to make a quick buck on a children's movie with a minuscule budget, you don't want some guy who takes himself entirely too seriously getting the idea that the dinosaurs should be as realistic as possible. The dinosaurs do look okay, considering. But all the movie needed them to do was look like a credible facsimile of the dinosaurs we are accustomed to seeing not in Jurassic Park, but at least in its many knockoffs. It didn't need them to have feathers.

Yet feathers they have.

And I have to say, it really bothered me. Perhaps because the idea of dinosaurs with feathers bothers me. It's kind of like telling me Pluto isn't a planet anymore. "I've grown up with dinosaurs who have scaly, reptilian skin, and now you're telling me dinosaurs looked like drag queens at Mardi Gras wearing feather boas?"

I don't have anything against drag queens, mind you. I just don't want them sharing their feather boas with a T-Rex.

So this movie that was bad anyway became worse because of one man's silly and misplaced insistence in presenting "realistic" dinosaurs. And his reasons for doing it, or at least what I imagine them to be: that this is going to be the movie's calling card. That this is going to distinguish his dinosaur movie from all those other dinosaur movies.

Well, it does do that I guess.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Stanley Kubrick's first, best and last

I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey for its 50th anniversary re-release last Wednesday night, and I’ve been dying to tell you about it. But I’ve held off until today for reasons I’ll explain presently.

See, I’ve ended up focusing on the films of another auteur in the month of July, in addition to Agnes Varda, who I wrote up here as part of my Audient Auteurs series. It was totally unplanned, but once it started to take on momentum I decided to make a thing of it.

That’s right, I’ve just watched my third Stanley Kubrick film of July, and as it happens, I’ve got differing levels of familiarity with all three. The first I had never seen. The second I had seen three times before. The third, once before.

I don’t think I’m going to try to tell you how they all relate to each other or to Kubrick’s career, but let’s see how we go. At the very least, they make a logical series to discuss, as they happened to have been his first film, his last film, and the one I now believe is his best.

I watched them chronologically, so let’s take them in that order here as well.

Fear and Desire (1953)

If I said I wouldn’t explore Kubrickian themes and how these movies relate to his body of work on the whole, well, I lied a little bit. It’s almost impossible not to see Fear and Desire as a rough draft for Paths of Glory (only four years later), and it wrestles with a subject that was still with him even 34 years later for Full Metal Jacket (1987). But I didn’t know that going in. I only knew the title, and was familiar with it only as one of the early works of Stanley Kubrick that I hadn’t seen (which also include The Killing and Killer’s Kiss, now his only remaining feature-length films I haven’t seen).

I say “feature length,” but in fact the running time was what made it stand out from literally about 30 movies I had out from the library. It’s only 62 minutes long, so short that it almost made me wonder whether I should disqualify it from the various lists I keep of feature films I’ve seen. Informally I think of a modern feature as running at least 70 minutes. I make exceptions for silent movie greats, some of which are only 45 minutes (such as Sherlock Jr.). But Kubrick’s feature debut was long into the sound era, so I did hem and haw about it a bit. Ultimately I allowed it, and besides, it let me watch a movie on a night when I was otherwise too tired.

I liked the movie fine, I guess, but I was glad enough to only be in its presence for 60 minutes. Its action is purposely symbolic, as a narrator at the beginning advises us:

"There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind."

Linguistically elegant stuff, but it did put me on warning that it would seem more like an exercise in philosophy than a movie. That's kind of the case. The soldiers grapple with various ethical and logistical dilemmas related to being downed behind enemy lines, which include how and whether to attack the enemy (they do) and how to handle the civilians (not very well). Some of it is probably better than I give it credit for, but it's fairly raw, and I was distracted by the really noticeable ADR. I did find it interesting that the film features a very young Paul Mazursky, but he is the most bizarre character in that he kind of goes crazy (without any real antecedent to that insanity) and takes it out via perverse behavior directed toward a local girl they capture. 

I gave it three stars, but more on the strength of its historical significance as the place Kubrick got his start than any real affection I feel for the movie.

Affection was not a problem with my second movie though ...

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

I've recounted previously my history with this movie, which dates back to when I was a young child and saw it in the theater on a re-release (and hated it). So I won't go into that here. I will say that while most people greeted this 50th anniversary re-release as an opportunity to "finally" see 2001 on a big screen, for me, it was my third such viewing.

But it was my first on the big screen since I started to love the movie. Ironically, my love for the movie started to click on my first small-screen viewing. My increasing maturity likely had a lot more to do with my feelings toward it than the size of the screen. In 2013, two days after my 40th birthday, I finally "got" 2001, and came around to the consensus that it's a masterpiece.

It took this viewing for me to decide it's one of my top 20 of all time.

My Flickchart rankings don't reflect that yet, so don't scan my top 20 to the right of this page. I'm not in the habit of re-ranking movies after my most recent viewing. (Recency bias and all that.) But when 2001 comes up naturally, it stands a very good chance of defeating movies that are very, very high on my chart.

What changed this time?

I don't necessarily think it was the "blacker blacks" of Christopher Nolan's restored 70 mm print, nor the great venue (the Sun in Yarraville), which included a welcome from the projectionist, and a pre-movie featurette on how the theater outfitted itself for 70 mm to play The Hateful Eight (a movie it still plays on the 8th of every month at 8 p.m.). Those things helped. But actually, my first impression of the restored print was that I didn't get what the fuss was about. I suppose I'd need a side-by-side comparison with my other viewings to really see the difference, which of course is impossible. But one of those was on a massive screen in Champaign, IL for the 2001 Ebertfest, so this might not even been my most glorious exposure to the film.

What I did get was, well, everything else. What amazed me was how much I'd forgotten about the film in only five years since I last saw it. I forgot, for example, that David Bowman makes a trip out in space to pick up the corpse of Frank Poole, in the ultimate sign of the irrational humanity that separates man from a machine like H.A.L., and that Bowman has to blow himself through the airlock to get back inside the ship. I figured blowing through airlocks was strictly the stuff of Alien movies.

But my really miraculous revelation on this viewing was how tight the movie is, in terms of its actual plotting. Sure, the film is sprinkled with five- to seven-minute essays on things like the spinning of spaceships, the ins and outs of eating and customer service in space, monkeys learning how to murder and men losing their minds while caught in colorful wormholes. But the actual story moves very fast when the screen time is actually devoted to plot. For example, you barely have time to get to know Frank, Dave and H.A.L. before their relationship reaches a crisis point, and it pretty much bowls forward at a breakneck pace from there.

And what I got big time in this viewing was how much this movie puts you in the shoes of its characters. It's not just Heywood Floyd as a rookie space traveler or Frank and Dave trapped by a psychopathic computer. One of the film's most visceral moments was the literally deafening shriek of the signal sent out from the monolith on the moon toward Jupiter that ends Floyd's sequence. It was physically uncomfortable to listen to it for those 15 or 20 seconds, which felt like an eternity. I can't imagine the sound didn't disturb patrons in adjoining theaters.

Anyway, I sat there, shivering with exaltation as I watched it. I have more to say, but I may be discussing this in a podcast next week and will leave it until then.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Kubrick didn't make it to 2001 himself -- he died in 1999, just after Eyes Wide Shut was completed. In fact, the final project he was working on -- A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which I am also due to rewatch -- did make it to 2001, in the hands of Steven Spielberg. But Shut was Kubrick's last official gig as director, so it's kind of a shame it wasn't better.

That's what 1999 me thought, anyway. I remember seeing it at the theater that was a block from my apartment in New York, which is also where the film is set. And there was a lot of shrugging and "so what?"ing going on. It was supposed to be this scandalous movie about infidelity and bizarre sexual rituals enacted by rich men, but I found the sex kind of the opposite of titillating (which was probably Kubrick's point).

The movie I rented from the library this time, and watched Sunday night, seemed to have been without one of the things that left mouths flapping at the time the movie was released. In order to tone it down and get an R rating, additional cloaked figures were digitally inserted over the people as they were having sex, to prevent us from seeing quite so much thrusting and convulsing. It doesn't surprise me that a BluRay release would not have those, as no one cares about ratings anymore once a movie is on video. But instead of feeling like I got to look behind a curtain that had not previously been accessible to me, I kind of shrugged and ho-hummed again.

I was not distracted by another criticism I heard at the time that stuck with me, unaccountably, which was that you couldn't believe that these were real New York City streets because of how sparsely populated they were. In fact, I was struck by what a dumb observation that was by whichever critic groused about it. If this was a set, which I seem to remember it might have been, all the better. If Stanley Kubrick wants to stylize New York City for his own thematic reasons, that's well within his rights, and more power to him.

It's just that the thematic reasons didn't strike me as much. I didn't feel the paranoia you're supposed to feel in this movie, nor did I feel that Tom Cruise's character was guilty of some big betrayal of his wife that causes him to break down in tears at the end. When he goes to the Fidelio party, it's not to have sex with someone, as far as I can tell -- it's just perverse curiosity. And sure he also does have an unconsummated dalliance with a prostitute, but again, it's unconsummated. I almost feel like she's more guilty for practically fucking that guy on the dance floor (that scene was charged with erotic tension like no other scene in the film, and kind of reminded me of Naomi Watts' audition in Mulholland Drive, though that would not come for two more years). She admits thinking about having sex with that sailor as well. I don't want you to think I'm taking the man's side, but I just don't understand what all the fuss is about as neither of them is really guilty of anything.

Eyes Wide Shut shares an approximate running time and languid pacing with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the similarities end there. While the latter has excellent justification for all its, shall we say, flights of fancy, Eyes Wide Shut is legitimately slow, and it expends whole chunks of its narrative on diversions that are useless. For example, the whole bit involving Bill Harford's rental of his costume from the costume shop could lift right out and nothing would be lost. There are two scenes, in fact, involving Rade Serbedzija and Leelee Sobieski, and I am at a loss to explain the value or significance of either of them. Slowing things down significantly is the weird speed of Nicole Kidman's line deliveries, which bothered me then and still does now.

I did notice, perhaps for the first time, an interesting detail about this period of Tom Cruise's career. In the space of two years he starred in both the movie Eyes Wide Shut, and a remake of the movie Abre Los Ojos, which translates to Open Your Eyes. That of course is Vanilla Sky, a personal favorite.

As I said before, I don't have an overarching theory about these movies or their relationships to Kubrick's career -- as far as I can tell, his interest in space and his interest in sexual perversion both do not have a corollary elsewhere in his career. And while I enjoyed two of these movies less than I was hoping to, well, 2001 has now eclipsed A Clockwork Orange as my favorite Kubrick film. I think when I rewatch Paths of Glory one of these days it may jump up there too.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Are the Duplass brothers the Wilson brothers?

Lynn Shelton is back.

That's not what this post is about, but I'm going to lead with it.

Shelton made two of my favorite independent (comedic?) dramas of the 21st century in Humpday and Your Sister's Sister, but then she followed those up with the disappointing duo of Touchy Feely and Laggies. I lost confidence in her, and even wrote about that in this post.

Her follow-up to Laggies, Outside In, went pretty much straight to Netflix, as far as I can tell. (IMDB touts a limited release back in March, but Netflix also calls this an original film, so I don't know). That's not the indictment of a film it may have been two years ago, more a reality of where small films by people like Lynn Shelton sit in today's cinematic landscape.

But boy am I glad it was made available for me to get so easily, because given her recent track record, I might not have taken pains to seek it out. And I loved it. It's immediately near the top of my rankings for this year, 40 movies in to my 2018 viewings.

I won't go on too long about Outside In in particular, since I told you I'm here for a different reason today. But I did want to say that Shelton has gotten back the touch that eluded her (ironically, in a movie called Touchy Feely) and then some, and that Edie Falco would be worthy of award consideration if this movie had any chance of breaking through to the general consciousness. She's incredible.

It's not Falco I want to talk about today, but her co-star. And then his brother.

I don't think of myself as liking Jay Duplass very much, in general but especially as an alternative to his brother Mark. Jay has been much more likely to appear on screen than Mark lately, though it used to be the reverse. I've thought of this as a change for the worse. Part of that has to do with the roles he's chosen; my introduction to him was, I believe, Transparent, where I didn't like any of the three children of Jeffrey Tambor's transgender parent. (Not knowing, at the time, that Tambor as a person was the one I should not like.) He's been mostly fine in the subsequent films I've seen him in, but he was never the best part of the movie, and I was alternately fond (Beatriz at Dinner) and not as fond (Manson Family Vacation) of those movies.

Outside In is the type of movie that can turn you around on an actor, and I believe it's actually turning me around on two of them: not only Duplass, but Kaitlyn Dever, whom I did not like in Short Term 12 and have never really come around on. (Falco, in case you're wondering, I always liked.) Duplass gives a very good performance in and of itself, but that isn't necessarily the reason I realized I should be inclined to like him. That reason is that he's got a bit of a Luke Wilson thing going on, and I really like Luke Wilson.

Can you see it? Here, why I don't I offer you some photographic evidence.


They're not twins, but I defy you to tell me you don't see the similarity. But it isn't a physical similarity that really made me decide they resembled one another. Duplass delivers a couple lines in this movie in a way that I can exactly see Wilson delivering them. It's also a bit of a Wilson role, as Wilson has tended to take more roles in independent films than his own more famous brother, who we'll get to in a minute. This is very much a Henry Pool is Here type role, if not in terms of the similarity of the actual characters (an ex-con who was falsely imprisoned re-integrating with society, vs. a man living out his remaining days before a terminal illness claims him) then in terms of the movies and their aims. Both involve a man who had written himself off trying to learn to live again.

They're also more contemporaries than you might think -- it just took Duplass longer to become famous. You'd think Duplass would be significantly younger than Wilson, but the age difference is only 18 months. In terms of their own dynamics with their brothers, they are both the more traditionally handsome of the pair, and both took longer to break out after their brothers were kind of instant successes. Though I was surprised to learn that Jay is actually the older Duplass, while knowing that Luke was the younger Wilson.

So let's get to those brothers, then. The similarity does not end with Jay and Luke.


Mark and Owen are both the more openly charismatic brother, who both have more distinctive noses, and who both were a more obvious immediate fit as movie stars, though that would probably be a term that would rankle Mark. They are also more likely than their brothers to have messy cowlicks and shaggy, shoulder length hair. They are less like twins than Jay and Luke, but they too have interesting physical similarities, making it more genuinely legitimate to compare the two sets of brothers than a huge stretch.

I'd say Mark and Owen's acting styles are less similar than those of Jay and Luke, as Owen is much more willing to go big and Mark tends to be a consummately realistic actor. (Though it should be noted he does play a serial killer in the Creep movies.) Still, both had their origins in smaller, more eccentric movies. Don't forget that the first time you saw Wilson -- or at least the first time I saw Wilson, though you might be more likely to forget that -- was in Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket. (Actually, that might have been my first time for both Wilsons.)

I suppose there might be a grand unifying theory of successful brothers somewhere in here. If you are brothers gaining fame concurrently, it likely helps to offer something distinctly different to one another. I could try to think of other examples of brothers who attempted to become famous, but were just too similar, and of course that's difficult to do since it's much harder to demonstrate something's absence than its presence. But just as an extreme example of that, how many identical twins are famous actors in Hollywood? Not many, possibly not any. They'd be more likely to work in niche situations where you needed characters who were identical twins than to break out as distinctive actors with their own careers. And you don't really need that anymore, either, when you can make digital twins out of anyone.

The next step would be to look at other sets of brothers and see if they also conform to the Duplass-Wilson model, but, not today.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Agnes Varda

This is the sixth in my 2018 monthly series concentrating on cinematic auteurs whose work I haven’t seen before. Two films per month.

Getting this in a bit early this month, just a bit more than ten days after the June Audient Auteurs, for two reasons: 1) It’s not fun to leave it until the last minute every month, inducing stress to meet a deadline that no one cares about but you; 2) Agnes Varda was once going to be my June subject, and her movie I rented from iTunes was expiring in the first half of the month. So, you Audient Auteurs junkies will get an early fix this month. (Note: There is no such thing as an "Audient Auteur junkie." I don’t believe I’ve gotten a comment on a single one of these.)

Varda has indeed been hovering around this project since its beginnings, when I considered seeing Faces Places in the theater in February and watching one of her other movies that same month, which was the first of the series. But the same roadblock I hit then has finally beaten me now. I felt beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wanted Cleo from 5 to 7 to be one of my two Varda films, but in six months of looking, I have just not found it available outside of piracy. I’ve only torrented one film one time in my entire film-watching history, and in that case it because I was scheduled to talk about it on a podcast, and not watching it simply wasn’t an option. My desire to fit Cleo into this project was not enough for it to become #2.

So I’ve reluctantly had to usher Varda into the series not only without Clea from 5 to 7, but without a fiction film at all. I unexpectedly ended up watching two Varda documentaries, which should not be all that surprising as she did seem to direct more documentaries than fiction films. I would have ideally had one of each, but in this day and age of difficulty sourcing movies, you take what you can get.

As with a number of those I’ve looked at in this series so far, Varda did a little bit of everything. Still does, I should say, as she has just turned 90 and in some respects is still going strong. (As a proof either that women live longer than men, or that women did not get the opportunities men got until recently, both of the women I’ve watched in this series are still alive, while all of the men have been dead.) She works in film, photography and art installations, and usually grapples with issues related to realism, feminist issues and social commentary in an experimental style, per Wikipedia. She was also married to French filmmaker Jacques Tati, and had a close friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, as we learn in Faces Places if we did not already know.

I just made the rather obvious statement that women have not historically gotten the same opportunities in film as men, and Varda would have been considered a trailblazer in overcoming that divide. She made a movie when she was only 25, nearly 65 years ago, with 1954’s Le Pointe Courte. Fiction films seemed to interest her in the beginning of her career (Cleo from 5 to 7 followed in 1961), but at some point she shifted over to documentaries and has more or less stayed there. In fact, for someone with such a long career, it seems strange that both of her films I watched would be in the 21st century. Varda was also considered a pioneer in the French New Wave, another claim to fame she shares with the also still-living Godard.

The Gleaners and I (2000)

The reason I got to do Varda at all was that this movie, which was also part of a recent Filmspotting marathon on Varda, was available through Kanopy. However, that also made it a bit of a challenge, as watching the movie reminded me of my only complaint with Kanopy so far. Namely, I’d tried to watch Mia Hansen-Love’s Things to Come a couple months ago, but I had to stop less than ten minutes in because the resolution was going in and out. If it were only the image affected, I wouldn’t have cared, but when the film is in a foreign language, you need to see those subtitles clearly to understand what’s going on. I couldn’t, so I had to stop. (Lovely people that they are, Kanopy refunded me my credit when I reported the issue to them. You don’t pay for the service, but you only get five viewing credits per month.)

The same issue was present, to a lesser extent, in The Gleaners and I. And like Things to Come, The Gleaners and I is in French. This time I could not adhere to a desire to stop the movie, though. After she’d been given the miss at least twice before, Varda was going to be my auteur for July, come hell or high water. Fortunately, French is the foreign language I speak best, and I can understand it a lot better than I can speak it. So I got the gist of it even when I could not read the subtitles as clearly as I would have liked.

Gleaners is just the type of documentary I love, because it reminded me kind of an academic paper. I’ll explain. My favorite papers that I wrote back in the day were the ones that sallied forth with a central theme, then found examples to support that theme, far-flung though they may be. Gleaners is like that. It involves Varda traveling around France and meeting all variety of “gleaners,” who are characterized as people who glean the value of things that other people don’t. Whether it’s reaping the parts of crops the other people don’t care about, or finding useful bits among refuse, or making art of recycled material, or even just capturing the material in people’s stories that might otherwise go unnoticed (Varda’s own personal form of gleaning), it’s a very useful central idea that’s easily graspable and allows Varda to document a lot of disparate people and circumstances.

As is common for Varda, she is a subject in the film herself. One of the film’s defining images (which actually appears later in Faces Places) is her driving on French highways and capturing the images of 18-wheel trucks that go by. The way she chooses to visualize this capturing is by curling her hand around the image of the moving vehicle, her fingers making a C that joins together into an O. Her hand, then, is in the foreground of the shot, with the truck “captured” behind it. It hearkens back to something she used to do as a kid, her formative gleaning period, and serves as a wonderful metaphor for the ways filmmakers capture the world around them. I also loved it because it was the moment I realized Varda does not take herself too seriously. She may have her origins in the occasionally humourless trappings of the French New Wave, but she’s a whimsical, sprightly type who can’t be pinned down.

The Gleaners and I reminded me of the type of film Werner Herzog might make, with its jumping off of a central theme to places you would not expect, as Varda also interviews a restaurant owner who was the descendent of gleaners, and even, unexpectedly, a psychoanalyst. The difference between Varda and Herzog was that there was never a moment in this when I doubted whether it all held together. I think specifically of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World, which spun apart as it tried to unite very disparate perspectives on the internet and modern means of connection. Varda may seem to meander from time to time, but she has an ineffable way of bringing things back to the central theme, an unidentifiable grace that delights you rather than frustrating you. I kind of adored the movie.

I think one of the reasons it resonated with me is that I consider myself kind of a gleaner. I am always finding useful things on the ground, be it money, someone else's lost valuable, or even just some widget that I can put to practical use. My wife has to stop me from poring over desks and chairs left by the side of the road. Maybe it's the hoarder in me, but I like to think it's something more valuable than that. Anyway, Varda and I are likeminded in this area I think. She may share some of my sentimentality as well.

Faces Places (2017)

Things only got better with Faces Places, on which she shares the directing credit with the artist JR, and which makes an excellent companion to The Gleaners and I. I selected them based on opportunity rather than thematic cohesion, and I never could have guessed how much they would complement one another – except of course that they are made by the same person, and the similarity is kind of what we would expect if we subscribe to the auteur theory.

Faces Places also entails a journey around France to capture, in a rather literal way, ordinary French people, the more ordinary the better. The means of capturing is not by gleaning this time, or by Varda encircling them with her hand. Rather, they drive around in a mobile photo booth that is JR’s calling card. See, JR is a photographer and muralist who specializes in oversized photos that he prints right out of the side of his truck, a bit like a Polaroid camera spitting out its finished product. He then pastes up these oversized images on walls. It may sound gimmicky but it’s profound.

So Varda and JR, recognizing a kinship in their approaches and being huge fans of each other’s work, team up to travel in this truck and to film people as they see supersized imagines of themselves pasted to walls in their towns. Before you go wondering how they got the permission to “deface” all these walls, it should be pointed out that JR’s art is ephemeral, as it washes away with the rain, or the wind, or whatever the first thing is to challenge its paste backing. One profound example of this comes when he pastes a photo on a rock in the ocean, and it’s already gone a short time later with the rising of the tide.

So many things about this movie are lovely that I don’t even know where to start. The relationship between the two directors is one. While some of their scenes feel a bit “written,” that’s okay, as Varda has never been the type of documentarian who thinks of herself as a fly on the wall, watching life go on unmolested. She inserts herself into her art and her art is specifically about the influence of the artist on the art and the crafting of the accompanying story. Besides, there’s a genuine affection between them that just cannot be faked. It’s wonderful to watch them drive around in this goofy truck designed to look like a camera. JR meets the traditional definition of cool, but Varda, no longer meeting that definition, is cool in her own distinct ways. She has of course a very credible history, but now she’s cool in the way of a late 80-something who is still connected and still has ideas how to make vital cinema, but is otherwise not precious about her own self-image. One testament to that is her oddly two-toned hair, which is probably the result of failing to color her hair recently, leaving the roots white and the rest red. She calls it an intentional choice, the result of her liking color, and it doesn’t seem to matter one whit to her that it makes her look kind of like a monk.

The film's other big delight is the subjects' moving responses to seeing themselves larger than life on the side of a building. Yeah, there's one woman with an umbrella who seems embarrassed and a little bit annoyed by all the attention, but she's the exception among a series of other reactions that also just cannot be faked. While these are ordinary citizens in most respects, some had extraordinary histories, involvements in important social and labor movements. In almost all cases they are people who have not been sufficiently appreciated for things they've done, or maybe they were years ago but now they are well on in years. You can see the emotions in their eyes as they are given a kind of grandiose stage, in part because it is not in their nature to seek out such a thing themselves -- which is not to say they don't want or need it.

Okay, August is wide open for the moment. I have leads on a couple people where I can source at least one movie. But as we are getting toward the back end of this series and I've picked a lot of the low-hanging fruit already, things figure to get tougher and tougher. Then again, there are a lot of filmmakers whose work I haven't seen -- as long as I am willing to bend my definition of "auteur" a little. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The delights of early digital

My older son and I are moving along in the Harry Potter series, both in terms of reading the books together and in terms of watching the corresponding movies. He got the fully illustrated, hardcover storybook of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for Christmas, but he had to take a break from it when he got a bit scared off by the disembodied voice telling Harry to "rip, tear, kill." That break lasted a good four months, but then we resumed and finished the book a few weeks ago. It wasn't long after that we picked up a used copy of the movie, and we watched it on Saturday.

The second Harry Potter was always a movie I didn't like very much. It didn't have the benefit of introducing us to this wizarding world on film, as the first one did, and so the lackluster contributions of Chris Columbus were more problematic this time out. Plus, the events of the story always struck me as kind of inessential.

Now that I've read the book, which I had not done previously, I have more fondness for the value of these particular plot points in the overall arc of Harry's story. This is, after all, the book that introduces us to Tom Riddle, something I think I'd forgotten about the movie. That shouldn't surprise me, given that it was more than 15 years ago that I saw it, and there had been six other movies since.

So I think I liked the movie better this time, both because I had the perspective of reading the book, and because I was seeing it through my son's eyes. It was also lovely that instead of cozying up with me on the couch, he was cozying up on a bean bag with his little brother, telling him not to worry during the scary parts. Awww.

One of the reasons I liked the movie more, though, was that it made me nostalgic for early digital.

Nowadays, we are so skeptical over the value of digital creations, any digital creations, that you'd think our recently adopted perspective would poison all previous instances of digital effects in film. But that's simply not the case. In fact, it seems that the more convincing digital effects have become, the less we like them. The older ones feel like they have a DIY quality that gives them a kinship with practical effects. Or maybe it's just nostalgia, I don't know.

But as I was watching Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets for the second time, I was overcome with delight over what they were capable of doing at that time, and how those capabilities made me feel.

It would be tempting to say that the digital effects looked really bad, but they don't. While 2002 seems like a long time ago, we must remember that was the same year we were introduced to Gollum, a digital creation who still looks great even 16 years later. It was five years before that that we got the still-awesome-looking creatures in Starship Troopers, and six years before that that we got the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When you consider that history, 2002 is actual a moment of comparative sophistication in the evolution of CG.

But you can still see the seams sometimes, and that's what I found I really enjoyed.

Our first real introduction to CG in the movie is Dobby, the house elf who makes mischief for Harry for reasons we don't fully understand until later in the movie. I guess I was a bit surprised by how good I thought he looked, convinced for a moment by my own ill-conceived narrative, which was that 2002 represented the dark ages for digital effects. Dobby moved and looked quite accomplished, I thought, but I also noticed a slight -- shimmer? -- around him that set him off from his background.

It was actually this that I enjoyed. People complain that digital effects prevent us from believing that a creation is sharing the same space as the actors around it, but they're usually talking about the nearly immaculate effects we have today. When there is an actual limitation in the technology that creates the disconnect, it triggers a certain fondness in the viewer, reminding us of a time when they were still trying to work out all the kinks. It's kind of like when you see things set against obvious blue screens 20 years before Chamber of Secrets. There's a part of you that's repelled by the obvious falsity of it, but there's another part that appreciates the role that film played in the pioneering of new type of optical illusion and visual magic.

I didn't notice that "shimmer" around the cornish pixies, who may have been the thing that really planted the seed for writing this piece. Those are the little blue flying creatures that look sort of like gremlins, and they struck me as quite convincing, especially in terms of interacting with their environment. When they have a tug-o-war over a painting or carry Neville Longbottom up to the ceiling, it all looks quite feasible. You aren't cursing the limited abilities of the animators. You're feeling the joy you remember feeling when you first saw this, when you didn't take for granted that computers could make anything imaginable happen in a movie.

I think that's the nostalgia I was really feeling. Not for a movie that was part of my childhood, as I was 29 when I saw Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Rather, nostalgia for a feeling of awe over seeing things I had previously thought impossible to depict.

This movie is by no means the shining example of that, of course. It's just the movie I happened to be watching when these thoughts occurred to me. But I suspect the point is kind of that any digital effects in 2002 had the power to wow us, because they were not then so ubiquitous that we had grown weary of them. It cost money and involved real talent to do these things back then. Not to say neither of those things is still true today, but the sheer quantity of projects that are able to include effects like these have numbed us to their fundamental specialness.

The last effect in the movie I wanted to mention was the basilisk, which slithers out of the pipes in the climax of the movie. Some of it I could tell was done practically, especially in scenes where it was up close next to Harry. But the longer shots where you see its full body are obviously digital, and they still look good. My wife hadn't been watching with us, but she stopped in during this scene and said she'd been thinking the same thing.

As it turns out, 2002 was not the dark ages of special effects. It was the golden age. It was the time when we could still be amazed at what they could do, and they did it well enough that it still looks pretty good today.

The technical gains we've made in the intervening years are really quite small, when you think about it, in terms of improving how convinced we are that a thing is real. And you could argue they have not been worth it, when we simply no longer feel amazed.