Sunday, September 30, 2018

Father's Day custody battle

If you're wondering why September 30th was Father's Day, well, Australia has a different Father's Day than the U.S.

Of course, this wasn't actually Australian Father's Day either.

Australian Father's Day was back on September 2nd, only I couldn't partake in it this year. That's because my son was in the hospital with a broken arm sustained while climbing a tree the day before. It had been rainy, the tree was slippery, and, well, he slipped. He was actually in the hospital for three nights all told, meaning Father's Day was a total wash.

And while it was a very special Father's Day for other reasons -- I got to be there for my son, sleeping beside him on the fold-out bed in the hospital -- my family decided that a day to myself should be restored to me, and Sunday was that day.

We brunched in the beachside community of St. Kilda before they let me free to an afternoon to do with what I pleased. So I relaxed for a couple hours in the St. Kilda Sea Baths, complete with salt water pool, steam room and jacuzzi, before heeding the call of my familiar Father's Day activity: going to the movies.

And that's where the thematically ironic Custody came in.

The French film about a divorced couple fighting over their 11-year-old son wouldn't have been my first choice for an escapist afternoon at the cinema. As a point of comparison, on last year's Father's Day I indulged in some real escapism in the form of Logan Lucky. But of the lighter fare in current release, I was faced with options like Night School and The Predator, and they just didn't seem like quite the way I wanted to spend my 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. time slot.

So after one more beachside hurrah of a beer and prosciutto slices on baguettes, I made my way up to Cinema Nova in Carlton just in time for the 5:10 show.

And it sure did make me appreciate the ways to be a good parent, and not to be one. While I had expected a nuanced look at the problems of shared custody, with a "he said, she said" approach that left a lot of gray areas, this was really more about a monster dad who becomes (is already) a danger to his ex and kids. Note to self: Don't be that kind of dad.

Although Custody wasn't about the ways equally aggrieved parties who both have good cases try to win the affections of their offspring, it was tense as hell, which kept me awake despite the mid-afternoon beer.

Interestingly, we capped the evening with A Quiet Place, the 2018 film I am most surprised I didn't see in the theater (I tried once but it was sold out, and never got another chance). That too is about a dad trying to look out for the best interests of his wife and children, though in a far different way than the menace at the center of Custody. Note to self: Be like this dad.

And now back to our regular schedule of holidays on their correct dates.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I finally saw: The Green Mile

Here’s your more traditional “I Finally Saw” after the last one was about a movie that had only been out for a month.

The gaps in a person’s viewing history sometimes defy explanation. I have always loved Tom Hanks, I have usually prioritized the viewing of Stephen King adaptations (there was a time, 25 years ago, when I had read everything he’d written), and I've had a special fondness for Frank Darabont’s previous King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption (a fondness I share with many others, so I guess not so special). And in 1999, I was well into the era of ranking the films I saw each year from first to worst, meaning I tried to see most significant releases.

Yet not until last Friday night did I see The Green Mile, the only one of five best picture nominees from that year I didn’t see in the year of its release.

It might have taken me much longer except that the movie came up in this monthly challenge I’m doing through the Flickcharters Facebook group. This challenge involves watching the highest ranked movie you haven’t seen on the Flickchart of another member of the group, chosen randomly each month. So far for this series I’ve seen The Court Jester, Europa Europa, Henry V (1944), Explorers and Naked, and The Green Mile was my sixth random pick. It’s been a pretty good series as Explorers was the only one I didn’t like all that much.

It’s possible that one of the reasons for the delay was that the movie cracks the three-hour mark, though if that were the reason, it had slipped my mind long before now, such that I was surprised when I learned it again. I figured the thing probably clocked in at 2:25 for something, but three hours? It’s listed as 189 minutes, but the credits start at 180. That’s Lord of the Rings territory, not the expected length of a little prison movie about a Magical Negro. (Sorry, not my term -- that phrase refers to an unfortunate trope of which The Green Mile is probably the textbook example.)

The thing that surprised me so much, when I did carve out the time to watch in on Friday, was how little it really is. The movie has no more than two or three sets, and only one that they visit with any regularity, that being the death row building itself. The action only leaves these couple locations on a couple occasions, and not for very long.

Yet three hours pass, and you know what? You don’t really notice it.

I almost got the feeling I was bingeing a miniseries about these characters rather than watching one long movie, both because you know you’re settling in for the long haul, but then also because it goes kind of quickly when you actually get down to it. (Hence the term “bingeing.”) The movie is kind of constructed as a series of relatively short episodes, as well. But it has an undeniable forward momentum and keeps trucking along without ever wearing out its welcome. In fact, I suspect the only reason I did finally take a “nap” at the 2:30 mark was because it was late on a Friday night and I was drinking wine. Otherwise I could have made it to the end no problem. I’ll nap during movies that are less than half that length.

And while I did like it quite a bit, it’s no Shawshank. It did feel kind of like Darabont’s apology for Shawshank, though. Who needs an apology for Shawshank, you might ask? Well, how about prison guards? Assuming such a vocal faction of prison guards that must be placated actually exists, which I’m sure it doesn’t, it seems like this is Darabont’s way of saying “See, not all prison guards are bad.” As a matter of fact, there’s only one bad one this time, whereas the other four are basically saints. In fact, three of those four – Barry Pepper, David Morse and Jeffrey DeMunn – are basically rolled up into one saintly character for how little individual distinction they are given by the script.

Which is another miraculous thing about this movie. How could it go for three hours and basically never really develop the characters?

And yet it doesn’t feel slow, and it does feel satisfying. Maybe I wanted to well up at the end – I had been promised tears – but the eventual fate of Michael Duncan Clarke’s character didn’t get to me, probably because the movie had done such a thorough job preparing us for what was going to happen, and that he was ready for it.

So, solid movie that I obviously should have seen long ago, and probably would have liked even a little bit better if I had.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Representation positivity gone wild

It's useful every once in a while to realize that your enemies are not entirely crazy, and you have the capacity to think like them if you're not careful.

No, this is not some piece about whether Thanos or Eric Killmonger were not entirely wrong in their thinking. It's about those internet trolls who have problems with female Ghostbusters and Asian Star Wars heroines.

If I say an ounce of their thinking has crept into my own, please read on to understand what I mean and how I'm fighting against it.

I don't for a moment think that the straight white male is an endangered species. That's ridiculous. However, I can't help but notice that when something entirely excludes the straight white male from the way it does business, it rankles me a little bit.

One of the podcasts I listen to is the Slate Spoiler Special. This is one of many offshoots of the Slate Culture Gabfest, and I mightn't have gone out of my way to listen to it except that they plop it in the same feed. Besides, I'm interested in hearing people gab about and spoil movies I've seen.

When the show first started -- or, I should say, when it was resurrected maybe a year ago, as it was something they used to do and then stopped -- it was hosted by the Slate film critic, Dana Stevens. Dana was joined by two other Slate staffers, possibly two men, possibly a man and a woman, usually not two other women but probably a couple times. After all, they practiced the typical aspiration of representing both genders on the show, and beyond that, looked for people who were qualified to discuss the material in one way or another.

After maybe six or seven episodes, Dana slowly receded from her hosting duties -- which shouldn't be much of a surprise given that she's writing a book and certainly has plenty of other things to occupy her. The hosting now seems to shift to any number of other people, many of whose names I don't actually know. They're part of the Slate family, whoever they are.

Another thing happened around this time. The show stopped featuring straight white males.


By far the show's most common configuration of three (sometimes four) was three (sometimes four) women. In fact, I think I listened to something like five or six episodes in a row in which not a single male voice was heard. I noted also, because they told me, that some of them were lesbians, and others were of Asian or African-American heritage.

When they let a man back on the show eventually, he was gay. I noted this, because he told me. In fact, as far as I can tell, they have a rotating series of several gay men potentially appearing on the show.

This is fine. Nay, this is good. Way too many podcasts (including my own, for most of its existence) are two or three white men. Representation is a serious problem on these shows and it needs to be addressed.

But I have to admit it rankled me a bit that every straight white male Slate staffer who had appeared or could potentially appear on this show seems to have been permanently disinvited.

Some of these shows certainly warranted their all-female composition, or their homosexual component, based on a perceived relevance of the movie or TV show being discussed to either women or gay men (or gay women). In fact, it kind of seems like they are actually choosing movies to spoil not because they are The Sixth Sense and require that their secrets be kept, but because they are relevant to some kind of representational minority. Much as I love it, is anyone really worried about Crazy Rich Asians being "spoiled"? How many different ways could that movie actually end?

I've joked with some friends that this show should actually be called Slate Plot Synopsis, as the structure of the show usually involves going through the plot, point-by-point, as though describing what happens in the movie is more the ambition of the show than talking about what happens and whether it's good. They have this hilarious enslavement to making sure they remember the correct sequence of scenes, as people will hand each other the baton in continuing through the synopsis, then ask for help from others to remember if they are getting the order correct. They do comment as they're going, but it feels a bit more surface level. Maybe it should be called Slate Movie Live Tweeting. So the actual format of the show is a bit disappointing.

The composition of the hosts shouldn't be. But I have to admit I have gotten to the point where I am almost hate-listening to the show, just so each new time I can note that there is no person like me giving his thoughts.

This is bad. But here I am, telling you about it, so I can attack the tendency in myself to be annoyed by it.

I suppose the difference between me and some internet cretin is not that I have these feelings, but what I do with them. That other guy goes on to a chat about Star Wars and says racist things about Rose Tico. I write what I hope is a thoughtful blog post examining these feelings.

There's no doubt that events of recent years have given straight white men their share of guilt. Even if you personally did not sexually harass women, or deny opportunities to minorities, or march on Charlottesville about hating black people, you feel a certain responsibility that a person superficially like you did. And you feel that other people could think you're capable of doing that.

As a straight white male film critic, I feel like I've had specifically tailored accusations pointed at me and those in my profession. There's a growing conversation about whether white male film critics can really give a fair criticism of films that are not aimed at their demographic, and whether we should actively seek to reduce their input into the film conversation. Of course I agree that minority critics of one gender or race or another should have the same platform, and that they should naturally have to take some of the same spots occupied by white men, seeing as how there are a finite number of those spots. I just don't want it to be me. Also, I don't want to have to say I liked one of these other demographic movies more than I actually did just to prove my subjectivity does not enter into my judgment. I hated that I didn't love Black Panther, believe me. (And it was a huge relief to love Crazy Rich Asians.)

Partially to help with diversity issues on my podcast, and partially just because she's qualified and knows what she's talking about, we introduced a woman onto my own podcast. We were three straight white men, but for a while we had a straight white woman as well. Hey, baby steps. There were never more than three of us on the podcast at a time, with one exception, but one person would take the week off each week in order to accommodate our new four-person size. Unfortunately, she left the country for a year, reducing us back to three straight white males. And since then we've all been so busy, in some cases with our own international travel, that we've only recorded a handful of episodes anyway.

On my own podcast I had conflicting thoughts about this. For one, she was a great addition and I was glad to have her. She's great on film and she helped make our podcast a better representation of the way the world looks. On the other hand, it made me recognize that my own white maleness was part of the problem we were trying to address, and unfortunately, it was something I couldn't do anything about. I was stuck with it.

So I guess listening to the Slate Spoiler Special again raises this problem for me, reminds me of my own podcast. I am the very person that Slate, by taking this stand, has decided it needs to scrub from the process.

What I need to remember is that this is just one of many Slate podcasts. Many if not most others have white males on them. White males are not actually losing ground to anybody, or if they are, it's the right amount of ground. It's the ground they should be ceding because they never should have had it in the first place, if we lived in a better world that had better representation from the start. In fact, good on them for taking this stand on at least one podcast.

Which is why I write a blog post like this. So I can address my thoughts in an attempt to expunge them. So I can get them down in words instead of leaving them stinking up my head. So I can one day permanently banish them.

However ... I wouldn't mind if at some point, any point, in the future history of this podcast, I do hear another non-gay male voice again.

Until then, I'll try just to listen, and not hate listen.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

I finally saw: Crazy Rich Asians

SPOILER WARNING for Crazy Rich Asians.

I usually reserve the “I Finally Saw” label on my blog for movies that are genuine classics, or at least cultural touchstones that have stood the test of time, which I have gone without seeing until this point.

I’m changing the rules this time because it does feel like my viewing of Crazy Rich Asians was a long time in coming, especially with how it's become the center of our cinematic conversation over the past month or so. It's taken me longer than most to join that conversation.

My awareness of it dates back into the mid-summer, when I saw a poster at one of the theaters I regularly attend. If I’d seen this poster in the U.S., I might have done a double take. But in Australia, and in Melbourne in particular, it didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. We have a huge Asian population here, and a couple of the big mainstream theaters tailor some 20 percent of their available screens to the latest imports in Asian cinema. It was easy to think this might be one of those, just looking at it at a glance.

My editor’s posting of his review way back on August 8th didn’t do much to increase its visibility on my radar. I guess I knew that he didn’t usually review the random Asian action movie du jour, so that raised its profile a little bit. But only later did I realize that he was doing something he has a habit of doing, which is posting his review straightaway even if he sees the movie at a preview screening held a month before its release. I’m more of the old school journalist who would hold such a review until the moment of its greatest relevance to readers, but he doesn’t care about any of that. Damn millennials. (Note: He is over 30, and I don’t think that qualifies him as a millennial.) Because I didn't immediate detect this habit of his, I thought the movie was already out but that it was pretty small, which was why I hadn’t noticed it on any of the local marquees. In fact, I came to think I must have already missed it.

It was only about two weeks later when Crazy Rich Asians started to become the topic of thinkpieces and film podcasts, which I imagine coincided with its U.S. release. It was at this point that I started hearing people talk about it being the first major studio release with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which is just about the most astonishing verifiable fact I’ve heard this year.

It was about two weeks after that it got released here, and yet a further two weeks before I finally saw it. So, “finally” does make a bit of sense here.

And … damn.

I loved it.

I blubbered like a baby at the end. Not once, but three times. (Mahjong, airplane, and the final shot of Michelle Yeoh, for anyone scoring at home.)

I was dubious that I would be so moved by it, and not because I’m not Asian or Asian-American and can’t relate to its themes. Even people who said they liked it were quick to describe it as kind of “just another romantic comedy” but with Asians instead of white people in the lead roles, and I figured that was the reason that a couple Asian film critics I heard talk about it say they loved it. Which would make it similar to the African-American critics who admitted loving Black Panther more for what it represented than what it actually was. (I’m going to revisit it, but at this point I find the actual story of Black Panther a bit pedestrian in its execution, unfortunately.)

So as I got increasingly more invested in Crazy Rich Asians, and then blubbery at the end – I was a frigging mess – I thought “Wow, these people really undersold this movie.”

Okay, yeah, sure, it is a “typical romantic comedy” in some respects. But underlying that is a real thematic heft that struggles with identity and family and other issues I found very involving. When I read my editor’s review – he gave it only a 6 out of 10, but that's not actually a bad rating for him – I was shocked to see him use the word “slight.”

This is not a slight movie. Something so ornately designed – that wedding scene! – could never be “slight.” But even more than that, you’ve just got so much unspoken here that’s contributing to the film’s power. It may be wearing the costume of something slight, but there’s real passion here, real grappling with things that are meaningful.

I'm not even sure the order in which to talk about the things I loved about the movie, but let's start with the cast. With all due props to Henry Golding and Constance Wu, I texted a friend afterward that Awkwafina was my favorite character in any movie this year. Of course, Awkwafina is the name of the actress rather than the character, but I didn't think my friend would necessarily get what I meant if I'd written "Peik Lin was my favorite character in any movie this year." Part of that is that Awkwafina had to overcome two preconceived biases of mine, one against people who go by a single moniker (and one named after a bottled water at that), and two that I didn't like her all that much the first time I'd encountered her in Ocean's 8. Here I was on board and then some. I laughed at practically every line delivery, and the character's heart was ultimately the cherry on top of her performance.

Golding I'd already encountered, just last week, in A Simple Favor, where his undeniable charisma (and handsomeness!) rose above the rest of the material. Wu was new to me, and I think this will be the first of many encounters with her as Hollywood finally recognizes the box office power of an Asian-American lead actress (with apologies to Lucy Liu). (Crazy Rich Asians is just about at $150 million in the U.S., which is amazing.) I also wanted to make a mention of Gemma Chan, who I first encountered in Humans playing a robot. Something about her ability to do that allows her to contain an ocean of melancholy in those eyes.

I wish I had a coherent argument in favor of Asians rather than just the bullet point approach I've been presenting so far. But the movie just made me feel good, and sometimes that reduces you to structural disarray in communicating it.

I loved the bachelor party in international waters, thrown by the guy I still don't love all that much who plays Jian-Yang in Silicon Valley (Jimmy O. Yang). I liked that the movie was willing to stray outside the comfort zone of a pleasant romantic comedy by showing us the fish carcass in Rachel's bed. I luxuriated in all the signs of Nick's fancy life (which he prevents from defining him), especially that upstairs area on the plane that I always want to get a better look at on my trips to the U.S. and back.

In mentioning the cast earlier I didn't mention Michelle Yeoh, perhaps because she's the villain of the piece and I was therefore a bit less magnetically attracted to her performance. But I can't deny that her performance allowed me to cry for the third of three times, at the very end, when she gives her little nod of approval to Rachel (after having given her son the ring to give Rachel). If not earlier, in that moment I understood -- as a parent myself -- what it means to let your children go and to allow them to live their own lives.

There's more I could say on Rachel's simple yet powerful disquisition on status during the Mahjong game, or that incredible shot of the bride coming down the aisle with the water streaming under her feet and the plant fronds waving above her, or any other divine moment in this divine movie.

Instead I'll just say if you haven't seen Crazy Rich Asians, like I hadn't until Tuesday night, well -- didn't you heed my earlier spoiler warning? But also: Go.

Because ... damn.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Bahman Ghobadi

This is the latest in my 2018 monthly series watching two movies by a renowned director who was previously unfamiliar to me.

Sometimes, you have to reverse engineer an auteur.

I've talked at length about how few of the works of the directors I originally earmarked for this series have been easily accessible. I'll make it to December without the choices completely drying up, but I'm pulling some naughty tricks, and stretching my definition of what constitutes an auteur.

The way I envisioned this series was to identify a bunch of names I'd heard of but not experienced myself, and watch two of their movies per month. Whether they were auteurs or not, according to some textbook definition of that word, was less important. They were names thrown around by other cinephiles as having been responsible for important bodies of work, in way or another.

In short, I figured I would have at least heard of every director I ended up watching in this series.

But here's where the reverse engineering comes in. I thought, "What if I just scan the shelves of available movies at the library, and if I've heard of a particular title, then see if the director is someone whose body of work is worth studying?"

That's how I got Bahman Ghobadi, director of A Time for Drunken Horses, which was indeed a title I'd heard of. I couldn't tell you where I'd heard of it, nor that it was from an Iranian director. But when I saw that Ghobadi had another film available for streaming on Kanopy, it clinched his spot as September's entrant in this series.

There were two things that helped Ghobadi's apparently dubious candidacy. One was that I've wanted to expand beyond the European and American directors who have been my focus so far. I've already watched the movies of three French men, and that's plenty from that particularly demographic. The second was that I am a big fan of Iranian cinema, and if there's an Iranian master I hadn't experienced previously, what better excuse to get familiar with him?

And so Bahman Ghobadi is the first auteur in this series whose movies I never knew I wanted to see.

Wikipedia does not have a huge amount on Ghobadi, consistent with his "lesser auteur" status. However, I can tell you he was of Kurdish ethnicity, born in Iran, and worked early on as an assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. He made 8 mm shorts and a documentary before breaking into feature films. As I assume Wikipedia would have mentioned it otherwise, he has thus far avoided the wrath of an Iranian government that heavily censors its filmmakers, for reasons that I may get into as I discuss the films.

A Time for Drunken Horses (2000)

When I say I'm a big fan of Iranian cinema, I should probably remember to put an asterisk on that. Before I discovered the great films of directors like Asghar Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, I have to remember that I also watched a handful of Iranian films that didn't connect with me quite in that same way. These other films were not films that deconstructed the art of filmmaking, or intensely explored social dynamics spiraling out of control, as these more recent discoveries have done so well. Rather, these were that other kind of Iranian film -- the Iranian film that stars primarily young children.

A Time for Drunken Horses is such a film.

It's not that a movie starring children cannot be good, or even that it can't be dark, because Drunken Horses is dark as hell. It's just that some of these earlier films (I'm thinking of Narrow Alleys and Children of Heaven) felt a lot like what they were -- a director straining to communicate some kind of social message through the strictures of his oppressive government, but being too hamstrung by those strictures to really do so. My understanding is that the films had to star children as part of what the government dictated about who could or could not participate in making films, possibly for religious reasons. If I sound vague it's because I looked it up online but could find nothing that confirmed this. It was something I heard along the way but am only half-remembering.

A Time for Drunken Horses is different in one important way: Part of it takes place across the Iraq border. Okay, that's not much different.

It's a story about a boy, his handicapped brother and his sister, who are orphaned (I think) and are trying to make money along the wintry Iran-Iraq border through a variety of different smuggling endeavors. They smuggle truck tires and other goods of seemingly dubious value, but hey I don't live in that economy so what do I know. The older boy is trying to get money for his brother to have an operation, though it becomes clear early on that the boy isn't going to live that long even if he has the operation. He's got some kind of genetic disease that causes dwarfism, and he has to be carried around and constantly medicated. The sister, meanwhile, has been promised by her uncle in an arranged marriage for purposes involving trade and other financial benefit.

I'm going to sound vague again now as I watched this movie about two weeks ago and it didn't really stick with me. What did stick with me was the unending sense of misery and hopelessness. I'm not against movies where the situation is hopeless, though I do feel like I need something to leaven the scenario, even if it ultimately ends badly for those involved. This was just misery, misery and more misery, and it was the rare time where I felt I really couldn't put myself into this scenario. Of course I can sit here in my ivory tower, eating what I want and never lacking for shelter or warmth, and say I can't put myself into this scenario. But a movie that's succeeding with what it's doing should be able to translate even something intensely foreign to you, so you can empathize with the characters going through it. Ghobadi just doesn't do that here, though of course I recognize that's a very subjective response to the movie and others' mileage may vary.

This is going to sound horrible but one of the things that bothered me most was this severely ill brother. He's a pitiable soul to be sure, made even more so by the fact that the actor himself obviously suffers from this, or at least some, disease, and his own lifespan may not be all that long. But in this world where anybody and everybody is barely surviving, it seemed like there was a disproportionate amount of energy expended on trying to prolong the life of a creature who was obviously destined for an early grave, most likely at some point in the next few weeks you would think. All sorts of plot points surround whether anything they do will be enough to save him, and all sorts of sacrifices are made to try to prolong his life just a little bit. Here's the really bad part, though, the part I feel most awful typing out: It seemed like he didn't even seem grateful about the fact that all these people were trying to do all these things to save him. For some reason I was very put off by the fact that whenever someone would give him his medicine, he cried like a little baby being tortured -- even though I think he's supposed to be like ten years old. If I were one of the people trying to save that kid I'd be like "I'm trying to help you, man. Just lie here in the snow and die for all I care."

See, I told you it was bad. Well, I'm probably not getting that many people reading this far into a blog post on a director most of them haven't heard of, anyway.

Turtles Can Fly (2004)

Which is too bad, because as little as the first film worked for me, that's how much the second film did work. Simply put, I loved my second Ghobadi movie, which totally redeemed my choice to include him in this series.

This was a title that was not familiar to me, whereas the other had been. It's also not nearly as poetic sounding a title. But man is this a much better movie -- which is strange because of how many surface similarities it actually has with A Time for Drunken Horses.

Both films have children filling all the primary roles, with adults sprinkled in to play less consequential characters. Both films involve children taking regular care of a semi-incapacitated child, in this case a blind toddler. Both films involve sub-economies that grow out of the impossible conditions of war, whether it's pre-war, post-war or a war in progress.

There's a small difference in their perspectives, though, which allows for humor and, yes, optimism in the second film. I suppose the symbol of that different perspective is a basic dynamism in the landscape that's absent from the first movie but fully present in the second, and can be traced directly to the decision to shoot outside of the wintry environment that reduces everything to a muddy sameness. The landscape of Turtles Can Fly feels barren in its own ways, but Ghobadi also feels conscious of his surroundings and their potential for visual distinctiveness that may just be a reflection of his own growth as a filmmaker. He sets the camera up in interesting ways and captures a certain jutting beauty in the detritus of a marginal society.

The kids in this movie are also just trying to make it, but this time they are fully within Iraq, a country that has been left in its current state by the government of Saddam Hussein. It's the last days of that government as the 2003 American invasion is just days from beginning. An early teenager nicknamed Satellite has positioned himself at the nexus of most of the ways these people are making money. He dispatches teams of children to help disarm the mines that are nearly everpresent, which they then turn around and sell, and he's also got a quest to help bring television reception to people seeking news of the impending war, shifting his attention from the ineffectual antennae to satellite dishes. His ability to speak/understand English -- or at least his claim that he does -- puts him in high demand as well.

Satellite takes an interest in the case of a mysterious girl who is the brother of a boy who has lost his arms, who is also known for his ability to make predictions about the future that invariably come true. They are both looking after the blind child, and seem to have set themselves apart from the rest of the children. We come to learn that they are not this boy's brother, although they are young enough to be, but that he's the bastard child of the girl, who gave birth to him after being gang-raped by soldiers. Her circumstances have made her suicidal, if she cannot get out of this place, and soon.

The biggest tonal difference I noticed from Ghobadi's previous effort was how more willing he is to play this heavy material for light comedic effect. The story becomes increasingly dour the more that is revealed about it, but it starts out with a certain whimsy, involved as it is in the logistics of Satellite's various commercial enterprises, and his status as something of a huckster. A joyous sense of this local community develops, something that has shades of Italian Neorealism to it.

Again here we see a young actor who is, in real life, profoundly crippled, as the actor who plays the boy who sees visions is actually missing both of his arms. But the things he's capable of even without his arms -- such as disarming a land mine with his teeth -- give us a real sense of the way a person in his shoes comes to assert dominion over his circumstances, rather than succumbing to them. One of the film's other frequent images is of another character, a young boy missing one of his legs, as he moves across the landscape at high speeds. You get the sense that having a crutch instead of a second leg only reduces his speed by maybe ten percent of what it would have otherwise been.

I talked about the expanding scope of Ghobadi's abilities as a filmmaker, and one of the ways this was evident to me was his use of extras. There are any number of shots in this movie that use literally hundreds of extras to convey the local populations as they desperately swarm for information or flee from danger. It was just another way this movie delivers on a big canvas and exceeds many of the real-world limitations that must have informed its creation.

I found the lives of these children endlessly fascinating as they do the work of adults and just try to survive. Ghobadi expertly presents the details of their lives, and unlike in this previous film, he inserts me directly into what these lives were like. I was fully absorbed in their dramas, in the sad ironies and absurdities of their lives, and how they attempted to overcome them -- or failed in that attempt. Turtles Can Fly is something close to a masterpiece, and one of its most potent strengths is the way it deviates from realism through moments of magical realism that deepen the impact of its themes.

My choice for October is someone I'd actually heard of! It's the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, and I'll actually reveal the titles if you want to watch along: two very recent films in Right Now, Wrong Then and On the Beach at Night Alone.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Burt Reynolds appreciation, and Smokey's surprising modern relevance

When Burt Reynolds died, I felt the inclination to write something about it on my blog. But then I wondered, what would I write?

Reynolds was much more of a tangential figure in my childhood, not a central character. I felt a kind of mythic awareness of him from the movie posters I saw, and vague ideas of the racy material of the movies he starred in, which I couldn't see.

But my first-hand experience with him was still, to this day, more to do with his later work, like Boogie Nights, than the period when he was one of Hollywood's biggest box office draws. The first movie I think of when I think of Reynolds is probably Cannonball Run, and I still haven't seen it.

I managed to correct that on one of his other iconic roles on Saturday night -- in fact, it was the iconic role that certainly led directly to his casting in Cannonball Run. On Saturday night, I finally saw Smokey and the Bandit, thereby also getting to engage in a little belated appreciation of the recently deceased icon.

It wasn't premeditated. I was flipping through the Recently Added section on Netflix, and saw Smokey pop up. That surely wasn't a coincidence, though I didn't know for certain until then that Netflix goes out and gets titles just because they might be a little more popular following the death of one of the stars. I suppose it's also possible they had Smokey buried somewhere, but promoted it to the Recently Added section in order to give it the higher profile necessary for it to get watched. I mean, if Netflix doesn't hold itself accountable to providing us any viewing numbers, they hardly would bat an eyelash at calling something "recently added" even if it wasn't. (It wouldn't be the first time I'd seen something in that section that I happened to know had been on the site for at least a couple years, most notably one of their original programs.)

Anyway, I chose this over another movie that would have given me a chance to honor a star who died not quite so recently. The death of Whitney Houston only feels a bit more recent because I recently saw the documentary devoted to her life (and death). That gave me a little more curiosity about The Bodyguard, which I've never seen, but the damn thing is over two hours long, and Smokey's 95-minute running time seemed a lot more palatable ... especially while I was drinking whiskey and likely to succumb to sleep sooner rather than later.

Speaking of succumbing to the desire to sleep ... I did spend the first half of Smokey and the Bandit wondering about the curious division of labor between Reynolds and Jerry Reed, who also sings the hilariously specific theme song, which basically describes the plot of the movie over and over again. Reed is driving the 18-wheeler full of illicit Coors beer (more on that in a moment) and Reynolds the Trans Am that goes on ahead of it. I kept thinking "If this is a two-man job, and they need to get the 400 cases of Coors back from Texarkana within 28 hours, wouldn't it be better to both ride in the truck, and let one guy drive while the other guy sleeps?"

Eventually I came to understand that Reynolds' Trans Am is the so-called "blocker," which breaks speed limits and draws the attention of podunk cops who might otherwise be interested in the contraband in the back of the truck. (It's contraband because it was once illegal to sell Coors east of the Mississippi. Funny, right? Still more on Coors in a moment.) While the logic makes sense, I have to imagine that leads to two very sleepy drivers, one of whom has a fortune in beer that won't be much good to anyone if it ends up in a ditch by the side of the road. Then again, if you're a big rig driver, I guess you know how to drive safely on little sleep.

It was indeed nice to get to appreciate Reynolds in his prime. Looking back at his filmography, I realize the only Reynolds films I've even seen that came out before Boogie Nights were Deliverance (1972), Silent Movie (cameo only) (1976), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), All Dogs Go to Heaven (voice only) (1989), The Player (as himself) (1992), Citizen Ruth (1996) and Striptease (1996). He had no less than 72 other movies fit in there somewhere. So really, this was not a Reynolds I knew all that well, and I found him pretty charming. I didn't know if that would be the case because I found the later career Reynolds a bit douchey and disengaged.

I also loved seeing a young Sally Field at the height of her charms. There are a lot of gems from early in Field's career I haven't discovered either. Man was she spunky.

Then of course you have the great Jackie Gleason approaching the end of his career. If a lot of this movie feels like a template for Dukes of Hazzard, which it probably was, then Gleason is a great template for the kind of frustrated, humiliated, power-hungry red neck cop Boss Hogg was in Dukes. Any time someone would say the word "germane," a friend of mine in college used to say "The goddamn Germans got nothing to do with it!" I never knew that was Gleason's Buford T. Justice he was quoting until last night. It's a perfect match of a delicious role that the actor plays deliciously. He's wonderfully detestable.

In short, I had a blast watching this movie.

Back to Coors. One reason the contraband nature of Coors interested me particularly is that my uncle was an executive at Coors for something like 30 years. I've never liked the beer all that much myself, but Smokey in the Bandit clued me in to the fact that this was once considered one of the finest beers in America, and Big Beer (i.e. Anheuser-Busch) wanted to keep the Colorado product out of their neck of the woods to avoid competition. I never knew any of that. I'll have to email my uncle. (And just so you don't think I'm totally dismissive of my uncle's employer of three decades, the beer I often consider my favorite of all time, Killian's Irish Red, is also a Coors product.)

The last thing I wanted to talk about today is the strange modern significance of Smokey and the Bandit. No, Coors is not illegal east of the Mississippi. No, cop cars are not brown anywhere anymore, as far as I know. No, the Trans Am is not considered the height of flashy automobiles. And no, cowboy hats are not really cool. But there is something interestingly current about the film, and I'll tell you about it after a dramatic paragraph break.

It's the CB radios. It's not the radios themselves I find modern, though I'm sure they are still widely used. It's what they represent. In their attempt to set this record, Bandit and Snowman are assisted by a range of other truckers and CB radio users who have heard about their exploits in progress. Their exploits have "gone viral" over these CB channels, in a way very much like the way strangers follow each other in real time on the internet. The internet is a place of supreme anonymity just like these CB channels, where you can talk directly to someone you've never met, whose identity and exact location you don't really know. Yet a community in which people genuinely care about each other can develop from such things, as it does here. (The angrier, trolling side of the internet can be said to exist between Bandit and Sheriff Justice.) And just as people on the internet often go by names that are not their own, so do all these truckers and other CB radio users. In fact, the term "handle," which now applies to things like Twitter, had its origins in CB radio use.

Now to see if I need to follow these same principal characters in Smokey in the Bandit II, though I hear that this involves transporting an elephant to the GOP convention, not the double-or-nothing trip to Boston to pick up clam chowder that ends this film.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Netflix devours the upper echelon of great directors

When it was announced -- ages ago, it now feels like -- that Martin Scorsese's next film was going to call Netflix home, it seemed like kind of a one-off. It probably shouldn't have, as things like this often indicate trends. But at the time I thought "Why would someone like Scorsese cede the biggest cinematic stage in order to tell his larger-than-life stories? Surely others won't follow suit."

Well, they're following suit.

Steadily since then we've seen films debut on Netflix by other highly acclaimed directors, such as Noah Baumbach and Joon Bong-ho. The list starts but certainly does not end there.

However, the extent to which this is indeed a trend -- an alarming trend -- did not occur to me until this past week, when I learned for the first time about the Netflix debut of Alfonso Cuaron's new film, and about the very existence and Netflix debut of Joel & Ethan Coen's new film.

When two directors (or directing units) have directed a film you've named your #1 film of the year, and you learn in the same week that their next project is on Netflix, it tends to capture your attention.

Technically speaking, the Coens have never directed a #1 movie of the year for me since I've begun keeping track of such things back in 1996. But they've directed my #1 movie of all time (Raising Arizona), so yeah, I think I can just barely justify squeezing them into this conversation.

I knew that Cuaron -- director of my #1 film of 2006, Children of Men -- had made his long-anticipated follow-up to Gravity, Roma, and that it had done well at Venice. I didn't know about its Netflix associations until just reading an article on this year's Oscar hopefuls. The writer wasn't sure if the Academy would be willing to honor Netflix with its first best picture nomination.

The case of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a bit more alarming in the sense that I didn't even know the Coens had a new movie coming out. So I learned about the existence of the movie, and the fact that it's debuting on Netflix in November (with the same nominal theatrical release Roma is getting, of course), in one fell swoop.

It could be argued that Netflix is an appropriate platform, in some respects, for these films, or at least less inappropriate than some of their other films would have been. Roma is a semi-autobiographical black-and-white film about a year in the life of a Mexican family in the 1970s, so it's not like it requires the same type of platform as Gravity. It's the first Cuaron film since Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban not to be shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (Cuaron himself is the DP), so that's another reason it could possibly more easily slide onto the small screen. As for Buster Scruggs, about which I know less, any Coen movie is visually dynamic and would best be seen on a big screen, but it's not like they're making movies about astronauts floating around in space. It's not like this is a Christopher Nolan film debuting on Netflix (that'll never happen, even if both Nolan and Netflix live to 100).

But then there's the more dominant argument, which is that any film, regardless of its scope or ambition, should be seen on the big screen. And those who are best at making films are therefore all the more likely to demand a big screen viewing of their films.

I haven't looked into the finances behind these, whether Netflix cut a several-movie deal with these directors (God I hope not) or whether their financing was the only thing that allowed the directors to make the films they wanted, the way they wanted (a lot more likely, especially in Cuaron's case, with a film less likely to find a big commercial audience). If I were being a journalist I would have to do that. But for now, I'm wearing my internet curmudgeon hat, so I'm not doing it.

Besides, the details of these agreements are not the point. The point is that Netflix is increasingly likely to entice the very best at what they do into marginalizing their own products on the small screen. You can say that the films wouldn't even be made if not by Netflix (which is a shame and I hope not true). You can say that these films will have a moment on the big screen, for people who seek them out. But the reality is that most people (including me) will probably see them on a TV, and that's a disappointing outcome for cinema's best.

There is one clear advantage I can see, and it relates to those #1 films I was talking about earlier. Both directors will indeed qualify for my #1 movie of 2018, as their movies' availability on Netflix guarantees I will be able to see them before my ranking deadline in late January. I've never missed the chance to rank a film by either of these directors, but I had to see Inside Llewyn Davis on the very last day before my list closed (which was the day it opened here in Australia), and Roma seems like just the type of film that would have a limited Christmas release in LA and New York and not open in Australia until late February.

But if I'm seeing the films on the small screen, what realistic chance will they have to be my #1 movie anyway? In my entire history of naming my favorite movie of the year, only three of them have come from movies I first saw on the small screen. Only three.

That could just be due to my diligence in seeking out the movies I'm most likely to love on the big screen.

Or, it could be that the big screen really contributes in some meaningful way to a film's power to envelope you in its world.

Friday, September 14, 2018

That note Lady Gaga sings

I've heard fellow cinephiles say that if they never hear anything else about Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born, it will be too soon. But not me.

I've seen the trailer two times? three times? and each time I think I'm annoyed when I see it starting. There's that part of me that looks sideways at yet another remake of this story and wonders about the dubious legitimacy of Lady Gaga's stardom.

And then I remember: "Wait, this is a really good trailer."

"And it has that note."

I'm getting chills even now as I type it.

Since I have to think you've seen this trailer also, you know what I'm talking about.

It's when Bradley Cooper's super-cool, cowboy-hat-wearing rock n' roll legend convinces Gaga to come up on stage and "sing that song I love." She's shy and nervous and people have told her she's ugly. But she finally decides to trust him, as he asks her to do, and ...

"Ohhhhh oh oh. Oh oh! Ohhh oh ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"

Yeah, I can't do it justice like Gaga can.

Is that a note? A series of notes? Anyway.

Now I'm hearing that this might not just be a B-grade crowd pleaser, but an actual Oscar contender.

Suddenly, I'm really looking forward to October 18th.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The best cry

If you swallowed all your machismo (assuming you're a man) and admitted to someone you cried during a movie, you might expect this as a follow-up question:

"Oh, which part?"

But they might not expect your answer:

"The closing credits."

That is in fact what happened to me Monday night when I saw Hearts Beat Loud, a movie I'd heard buzzed about as "this year's Sing Street." Despite this description, I went anyway. I'm a huge fan of John Carney's Once, and I even quite like his follow-up, Begin Again. I wasn't really on board for Sing Street. Don't know why.

And Hearts Beat Loud didn't take off for me at the start. It took me a while to decide whether I was watching a good movie or not. (A while = 15 minutes.) Once I started nodding my head at all the things the movie was doing right, which was everything, I knew I was loving it. I even really enjoyed the contributions of former amateur Sasha Lane, who bothered me in American Honey and a movie I saw a few weeks ago, The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

As the emotional resonance of the movie, particularly its relationship between a father and his daughter, continue to build toward a crescendo, I sat there in that kind of happy fugue you slip into when you are in the grasp of a movie that is working on you on all levels.

And when the last image faded to black, I engaged in a brief but unmistakeable bout of those small convulsions we call tears.

This also happened with my #1 movie of 2017, A Ghost Story. Hearts Beat Loud is not a contender for my top spot this year, but it does so many things right, and works on you so gradually, that the end result when the bow was tied on the movie was the same kind of small emotional outpouring.

Like applause, only wetter.

And there's something so pure about crying when a movie's credits roll. It can't be cheapened by chalking the tears up to a superior instance of emotional manipulation. If a director and a cast get it just right, they can do things even in bad movies that will make you well up. You may resent it afterward, but in that moment it works like gangbusters.

A credits cry is something different. It's usually a response to the entire movie, not just one superior moment.

It's the very rare instance that the very last moment of a movie is its emotional climax, at least in the way we usually think of such things -- a tear-jerking speech, a sad farewell, that kind of thing. Usually you get that moment somewhere in the last 15 minutes, but not at the very, very end.

So crying when you see the director's name come up on the screen is the equivalent of saying "Nailed it." Even great movies can stumble a bit with their last shot, can wrap up in ways that we don't find to be 100% perfect. There are egregious examples, like the rat running along the railing in The Departed, but there are hundreds of lesser examples of movies not knowing what their last shot should be or how to execute it.

The credits cry is kind of like saying "Yes, and that last shot was perfect. Bravo. You did it."

Don't need to belabor this probably.

If you haven't done so, see Hearts Beat Loud. Your mileage may vary on the credits tears. Though probably not if you're a dad like I am.

You can consider it this year's Sing Street if you like Sing Street and that helps you. I consider it exactly what its poster claims it to be: "The feel good movie we need right now."

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The anti-Trumpian Oscars

If there's something I admire more than the Oscars being willing to reconsider core elements of their delivery system, it's the Oscars admitting when they were wrong -- and doing something about it.

This week it came out that the new category of "best popular film," which had only been announced a month earlier, has been shitcanned.

That's my term. Theirs was "in need of further discussion."

Officially, the idea was that the announcement of the award well into the release season of the first films to qualify for it would handicap those films.

That's transparently bullshit, but I don't mind it as a face-saving move. I mean, it indicates that films would be made differently if they knew they were aspiring for this Oscar. Which is nonsense.

The point isn't what they give as a reason. The point is that they heard the massive volume of backlash and they're doing something about it. And that they obviously admit the idea was a bad idea.

It's something Donald Trump would never do.

Trump has flip-flopped on his positions on things, sure. But he's fundamentally unwilling or unable to acknowledge that those flip flops constitute a change of his original position, or even that they are flip flops. You can't confront Trump with logic or evidence. Don't even try.

Trump believes if you admit you were wrong about something it weakens you. In fact, it has recently come out that he privately fumes over the fact that he had to condemn the hate groups from Charlottesville after initially being unwilling to do so. Even that he viewed as an admission of incorrectness. Boy, what a stand-up guy we have as a president.

Anyway, this post does not exist to dump on Trump. It exists to praise the Oscars.

It had to have been a hard decision to reverse course on an announcement that isn't even as old as some of the perishables in your refrigerator. Given that this institution is approaching a century in age itself, you know a ton of research and debate went into this. You don't make an announcement of a new Oscar category on a lark. You probably even market test it among what you think of as a representative sample of the type of responses you are going to get on Twitter, though I don't know what body that would be.

But it was a colossal misjudgment. Instead of riding this misjudgment into oblivion, as someone like Trump would do, they just said "We were wrong." And poof! It's not something we have to worry about anymore. At least, not in 2019.

If only more of our leaders could be like the Oscars.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The pendulum swings back on The Last Jedi

You'd think that everything that could be said in video form about Star Wars: The Last Jedi would
have hit the internet by about March, if only to capitalize on it still being at the forefront of our conversations. Late August, after the release of the next Star Wars movie, seems like an odd time to still be contributing to that conversation.

But apparently, that's how long it takes to craft an epic takedown like the one crafted by the guys at Red Letter Media, through the voice of their cranky old man character, Mr. Plinkett.

August 28th was when this video dropped. I urge you to watch it as soon as possible, even though it's 58 minutes long.

Not only is it hilarious, but man is it filled with salient points.

I won't enumerate them here because you really should watch the video. But I'll give you a taste. There's a whole brilliant section on the pointlessness and bullheadedness of Admiral Holdo withholding her master plan from Poe. Plinkett contrasts this with footage of the crew of Star Trek: The Next Generation discussing in an open forum, in which Captain Picard is just one of ten participants, all the options for a particular course of action. Picard nods and continually solicits more input from other people. There might be a full two minutes of this footage (which is one of the reasons the video is 58 minutes long). But it makes its point admirably. It's logical to seek input from other qualified military experts when coming to a decision. It's not logical to say "Do as your told." In fact, it's First Order-like.

I agree with almost everything Mr. Plinkett says, and I only say "almost" because "everything" feels too absolutist. I don't remember disagreeing with anything, I'll say that.

Which is a surprise to me, as my appreciation of The Last Jedi had been on the upswing.

You may remember in this post I told you, very briefly, about watching the film for the second time on the plane, of all places, and developing a new appreciation of it. (It was one sentence, so don't bother to go to the link. I'm not even sure why I linked it.) I believe I went into that viewing with the burden of "it must be me," like I was too conventional in my needs from a Star Wars movie and I failed to appreciate all the subversive things Rian Johnson was doing. Whatever my mindset was, I did indeed boost my assessment of its qualities a notch or two.

But Mr. Plinkett reminded me of all the problems I had the first time, which I may not have even been able to articulate without him articulating them for me. Twice in this video he says "You may not have noticed it, but your brain did." Exactly. There are so many things wrong with that movie structurally, tonally and logically that you can't put you're finger on all of them unless someone breaks it down over the course of an irreverent hour of commentary/comedy. Just because it's funny doesn't mean it's not so, so true.

So go watch it. And let's appreciate that Mr. Plinkett waited until he had full, easy video access, had collected all his thoughts and other video clips, and was ready to drop the mic on us as he's done here.

I'm not going into the "I hate The Last Jedi" camp. I'm not one of those cretins who trolled Kellie Marie Tran into disappearing from social media. But I do think this movie has a ton of problems that are clear as day when someone like Mr. Plinkett shows them to us.

And I'm not sure if this Last Jedi pendulum is going to swing back in the other direction anytime soon.