Sunday, November 25, 2018

Personal apocalypse

For whatever reason, in the past couple months I have rewatched two movies where the events can be read as a metaphor for the main character cracking up. Don't worry, I'm fine.

But it does appear I really like a movie like this, in which the events have one literal interpretation, and a second that functions as kind of a personal apocalypse for the main character.

Of course, sometimes those apocalypses are literal as well, and sometimes the main events can't be interpreted in a way that also makes sense literally.

Both Melancholia, which I rewatched on September 28th, and mother!, which I rewatched on Friday night, are excellent artistic distillations of what it looks like for a person losing their marbles and seeing their world come to an end.

It's difficult to do this, mind you, without some very heady concepts and intense imagery, like a planet colliding with Earth or a house being overrun by religious fanatics and exploding in an inferno.

Oops, spoiler alert.

Lars von Trier stays more with the literal interpretations, even though they are fairly fantastic from a scientific perspective. Not that a rogue planet couldn't collide with Earth, just that it wouldn't in the way shown here. There are any number of laws of astrophysics broken here, one of which I suspect is the one that allows the characters to see the planet filling the sky as it comes close to its impact. That's one of the film's many wonderful images, so I'm glad von Trier went with it. And it functions very well as a metaphor for a depressed woman who sees no hope.

Darren Aronofsky is a lot more always in the realm of the imagination, something you get the sense of when you first see the house where all the action is set, which is isolated in a natural setting without anything like a driveway or a road leading away from it. We're in the realm of metaphor pretty much from the start. You could argue it's a metaphor for at least a half-dozen things, but one of these is a woman who no longer recognizes the perfect man and idyllic home she thought she once knew, feeling her world close in on her until it suffocates her.

(Both films, I just realized, are kind of neatly divided into two halves -- an old testament and a new testament in the case of mother!)

I haven't experienced depression very often in my life, but when I have, I can easily understand either of the metaphors presented in these two movies. You feel like you don't recognize your surroundings, or in any case, can find no joy in them. You feel a sense of doom that seems inevitable. You know on a rational level that you will not always feel this way, but when you're in the depths of it, you feel there is no way out.

Art in its purest form should approximate the experience of emotions we cannot otherwise put into words. It should dramatize scenarios that allow us to grapple with feelings we have, and at its best, it should give us a valuable new perspective on those feelings that keep them from dominating us.

Surprisingly, mother! is actually the more bleak of the two films, which is strange considering that a) von Trier is probably considered more the misanthrope than Aronofsky, and b) Melancholia portrays the literal end of the world. But Jennifer Lawrence's title character ends as a used up resource, looking on helplessly in the last charred moments of her life as her husband prepares to go on and start the cycle again with a new muse. Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst's depressed bride is the calming influence as her sister and nephew wait for impact, a slight smile on her face.

If a personal apocalypse is inevitably ahead of us, it's something at least if we can face it with equanimity.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Frederick Wiseman

This is the penultimate installment of Audient Auteurs, my 2018 monthly series in which I watch two movies by a respected filmmaker who was previously unfamiliar to me.

During this series, I have struggled month in and month out to source movies from filmmakers who a) were prominent enough to include in a series like this, and b) didn’t have at least one movie I had already seen. And with some of the candidates I announced at the start of the year, they just proved unsourceable – by legal means, anyway.

I nearly expended the whole series before realizing that one of the original targets on my list had over a dozen movies available for free.

That’s Frederick Wiseman, the acclaimed documentarian whose entire catalogue (or close to it) is available for free on Kanopy. I’m not sure what happened between making and publishing my original list and going out to find my next monthly target each month, but I almost missed out on Wiseman entirely. (Actually, I can tell you what happened – I was working off a list in a saved draft in my email, and for some reason Wiseman wasn’t included on this list, even after making my original shortlist.)

So November was my easiest month of the series once I got around to recognizing my prior omission. In fact, there’s such an embarrassment of Wiseman riches on Kanopy that I considered watching three of his movies, before ultimately deciding that the format of this series should be rigidly respected. (I am my own worst police officer, you see.)

November marks the first time I’ve broken another informal rule of the series, one not very worth respecting, which is a habit of watching the two movies in the order of their release date. No particular reason for that rule except it would help me better appreciate the growth of the filmmaker over the course of his or her career. Though that hardly matters in this case as the films I chose were released one year apart, right at the beginning of a career that is still going today, even as Wiseman has reached the ripe old age of 88. (Wiseman’s Monrovia, Indiana may still be available in theaters, in fact, or may have yet to be released, depending on where you live.)

I knew what my first film was going to be, and expected my second to be one of the movies Wiseman has released later in his career, such as In Jackson Heights or Ex Libris: The New York Public Library. But you know what? Those new movies are each pushing three hours, and with the number of theatrical releases I’m seeing these days that eclipse the two-hour mark (practically all of them), I just needed something that was more of a snack size. So I ran a poll on my Flickcharters group on Facebook, and my second was the only movie that got mentioned. (I guess these people are unfamiliar with Wiseman as well). As it happened, it was the only movie Wiseman released before the movie I’d already locked down as one of my two choices.

But enough on the uninteresting machinations of my own decision making. Wiseman occupies a unique spot on the documentary landscape with his fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking. From the very beginning of his career he has demonstrated an interest in putting American institutions of one type or another under the microscope. But not probing them; rather, letting them speak for themselves. He just turns on his camera and starts filming, with an almost total lack of on-screen titles (one of my films containing one of the few exceptions), and with audiences only able to discern his perspective on what he’s filming if they want to read into his editing choices. This approach has continued to produce profound work that has interested people for 50 years.

Like me, Wiseman is a Boston native. He got into filmmaking comparatively late in life, though he did produce his first film (The Cool World) by age 33. Since his debut as director, he has produced and directed all of his films. He spent time in the military and taught law (after getting a bachelor of laws from Yale) before devoting his life to filmmaking. Wiseman apparently does not do extensive preparations before tackling the institutions in question, learning them on the fly as he films, and getting his “dramatic structure” (though rarely a traditional narrative arc) in the editing. Rarely do his films have traditional climaxes, as climaxes need to be assessed on a scene-by-scene basis to the extent that they exist at all.

Let’s look at a few of those films in particular, shall we?

High School (1968)

High School was the first Wiseman film I ever heard of, as it was referenced on Filmspotting some years ago (probably multiple times). As such it felt like the most essential of his films to see. It also had the mercifully short running time of 75 minutes.

I’m not calling that running time “merciful” because I expected to want to escape the subject matter, a fly-on-the-wall look at a high school in Philadelphia. I use that term in comparison to the length of some of his other films, as well as most films in general these days.

However, as I began watching, I did realize that the unconventionally structured nature of a Wiseman film can make it difficult to sustain longer exposures to it. You aren’t propelled along by a story, so the way you assimilate the information, to the extent you do at all, is random and non-sequential. In fact, you could make the following argument, if you weren’t afraid of people calling you a philistine and ejecting you from respectable cinephile circles: You can step out at any time from a Wiseman movie, say to go to the bathroom, and not really “miss” anything. As it’s all part of an ambient exposure to a particular world, no one part is key to understanding the whole.

It's an interesting approach to making films, and definitely distinctive, but I don’t know that it made much of a rapt audience out of me. As I was still recovering from jet lag from my recent trip to America when I saw High School (and in some ways don’t feel completely over it today, nearly three weeks after getting back), I did actually fall asleep multiple times during the movie, though I did at least pause it. Without characters to follow (you do see some of them multiple times, but you don’t know that the first time you see them) and without stories to follow (there are some themes and repeated actions, but nothing close to a narrative spine), it’s perhaps inevitable that your level of engagement will suffer. Or at least, it was inevitable for me.

Conversely, I completely and easily recognized that this is kind of a brilliant film, and I couldn’t quibble with someone for giving it the highest possible star rating. There’s something revolutionary in its simplicity, in the way Wiseman just sets up his camera and goes. I think part of what makes it revolutionary is that he truly has been able to make himself a fly on the wall. None of his subjects seem aware of the camera, either because it was everpresent so they just came to ignore it, or because he didn’t use any of the footage where they clearly were aware of it. In a project like this, it’s very likely he had 50 hours of unused footage, maybe 100, maybe 200. He’s distilled what’s most useful, which of course gives the impression that it was all like this. Still, it’s a skill to make yourself so unobtrusive that you do get natural behavior from your subjects, and he’s clearly done that.

Even just ten days after I saw it, the individual episodes that I found captivating are already fading from my mind. That’s the nature of an experience like this. Wikipedia is no help in drawing attention to any particular scenes. However, there are a fair number of episodes of teachers and staff disciplining students for things like forgetting their gym clothes, student involved in gym, a number of teachers reading passages of literature to their students, some of it quite topical and moving. As there would be, there are sections of dialogue and their reactions to these everyday events that seem quite profound, though others that are totally banal. Still, the profound far outweighs the banal, simply because this is such an unusual approach to filmmaking and whatever it produces is going to be interesting on some level.

As I was watching I was struck by a similarity to the work of Terrence Malick, but in a sort of negative sense I suppose. As with a Malick movie, there’s almost no defensible explanation for why scenes are shown in the order they are shown. Why does one sequence in the “narrative” follow another? Would the movie “feel” different if they came the other way around? And if so, is that a strength or weakness of the film? With Malick – depending on the movie – it can feel like a sublime skill, as this sequence of events creates this specific experience, and in that sense they could not be sequenced any differently if you find the experience transportive. However, with Malick’s lesser films, the apparent randomness of it all is likely to leave you a lot more annoyed.

Titicut Follies (1967)

My second Wiseman film, his first, is a lot more clearly a political, polemical work. By focusing on Massachusetts' Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, Wiseman a lot more clearly embeds a kind of judgment into his film. Again his approach is the same – or, I should say High School has the same approach as this – where he’s a fly on the wall and he’s just capturing whatever goes on around him. Though what to include and what to omit has a lot more of a weighted quality to it here, as it deals with men spouting hatred and nonsense and conspiracy theories, and sometimes appearing naked on camera.

While privacy seems like it should have been an issue in High School, and surely was (there was supposedly “vague talk of a lawsuit”), nothing that happens there paints anyone in a bad enough light to regret it. No teachers or authority figures seem to abuse their power, and no students say or do anything that will follow them later on. Here, though, it’s totally different. The state of Massachusetts claimed that these patients/inmates were in no position to give informed consent to appear in the film, and Wiseman clearly shielded himself behind what legally defined consent he did manage to extract from them, using that to display things that verge on shocking. The legal limbo left the film unable to be shown publicly for more than two decades, until the point that many if not most of the subjects had died.

What’s so shocking? Well, in addition to the standard spewing of paranoid drivel that any homeless person on a street corner might provide you on any given Thursday, there are a number of instances of patients being treated roughly and inhumanely. There’s more than one instance where these patients are disrobed entirely, and though I didn’t interpret it as such at the time I was watching it, apparently you can also see the guards taunting them. It goes to show how unaccustomed people were to being filmed back then that they would allow such material to be captured by the cameras.

Although there’s the same interchangeable quality to the scenes as there was in High School, a few of the particular “set pieces” do stand out, though that could just be because I’ve seen this movie more recently, only two nights ago. One in particular is worth drawing attention to, in part because it also showcases a type of parallel editing that I never noticed from Wiseman in High School.

It involves the hospital staff inserting a feeding tube down the nasal cavity of a patient, either because he was unable or unwilling to swallow food himself. As might be expected from a patient who is not properly ingesting his food, this man eventually died. Wiseman intercuts the forced feeding scene with footage of his corpse being prepared for burial by an undertaker. It really takes you aback, as it kind of shatters the illusion that “Yeah, these people are all out of their gourd, but at least no one’s dead or anything.” Well, someone’s dead, and whether it’s the result of negligence on the part of the hospital or the natural progression of a disease, Wiseman’s approach never clarifies.

One recurring element that gives the film additional emotional power comes from its title. In one of the film’s happier aspects, a choral leader conducts a singing group of prisoners/patients that performs Broadway type songs on stage. It’s a nice reminder that not everyone has given up on these people and their quality of life is still a consideration. However, when contrasted with how desperate it is for these people most of the time, one is reminded just what type of situation they’re in, and the tragic crimes they have committed to get themselves here.

The film includes a judge-mandated on-screen text at the end (the exception I referred to earlier) stating that "Changes and improvements have taken place at Massachusetts State Correctional Bridgewater since 1966," though Wiseman makes clear he was obligated to include it -- which is about his most definitive statement of opinion in the whole film. I originally thought this was strange since it was only a year later, but then I read up and realized that this was added in 1991, when the film was finally allowed to be shown for a general audience.

Final month next month! Who will I watch? Who knows. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

How did I not know this existed?

In my travels tonight I stumbled across a movie I should definitely have heard of, given its director,
star and subject matter, but had absolutely no idea was a thing.

Woody Harrelson playing Lyndon Baines Johnson in a film directed by Rob Reiner? What's all this?

And with really bad makeup to boot?

I had thought Harrelson with his silly red wig at the end of Venom might be the funniest possible incarnation of the actor, but this could be even better.

I wondered if the reason I hadn't heard of it was that it was new, but no, LBJ came out in 2016.

Dare I use my last Kanopy streaming credit of November on this, or should I hold off until next month?

Sunday, November 18, 2018

United 3

It took me nearly the whole movie to figure out why there was something weirdly inert about Clint Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris, beyond the fact that it was shot and edited poorly, and the script spends a huge amount of time on inconsequential material.

At first I thought it was a result of Eastwood's famously or infamously fast pace of making movies -- I suppose "famously" if you're the studio, "infamously" if you are an audience that thought certain scenes demanded a second take. Eastwood usually yells "Cut!" and moves on, making him the anti-Stanley Kubrick. This would certainly provide an explanation for the lackluster performances of the actors.

It turns out that only explains the lackluster performance of actors like Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, whose small handful of scenes might have all been shot in a single day. There's a different explanation for the three stars of the movie, who were unfamiliar to me, and it took me all movie to figure it out.

They aren't actors. They're the actual characters playing themselves.

It's something I might have known about this movie if it had generated more attention than a mere blip in the cinematic landscape when it came out back in February. But even with the prominent name of Eastwood attached, 15:17 came and went without a second thought for most of us.

I wouldn't have prioritized fitting it in for my 2018 list at all, except that it popped up on Stan, my Australian streaming service. And even though I disagree with his politics, a new Clint Eastwood movie interests me on its own terms. As I said in yesterday's post, I don't let the political views of the filmmakers get in the way of seeing a movie, which is of course the correct approach for a critic. With Eastwood, I'm interested in him partly because of what he's done in the past -- Unforgiven remains in my top 20 films of all time -- and partly because I'm fascinated he can make as many movies as he does, as quickly as he does, and I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. With Eastwood, it has, a number of times.

As an indication of how little I had looked into this movie, I had no idea what it was about. I suppose the title suggested to me some kind of European intrigue movie, as movies on trains often seem to involve spies or murder or some other bit of high concept action in which the train location is central to the appeal.

I had no idea it was a movie about a thwarted terrorist attack that really happened only three years ago. As such, I was really confused when the movie started with a flashback to the childhoods of three American kids. My extreme exhaustion at the time I started watching contributed plenty to this confusion. At 10 o'clock after a busy day, I thought Eastwood's 94-minute film was the only one I had any chance of fitting in before sleep claimed me. (And I didn't succeed, as it required a 30-minute nap in the middle for me to finish.)

The actual subject matter certainly makes more sense for Eastwood at this phase in his career, in which he has already made one film that celebrates the heroism of an ordinary American caught in an unusual situation where he needs to act quickly. In that case, though, Eastwood had the wisdom to cast Tom Hanks as Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger rather the man himself.

The actors weren't really nailing their scenes, though they weren't bad enough for me to identify them as definite novices for most of the movie. I attributed their stilted line readings to Eastwood's process. Only with a few minutes left did I say "Damn, these are the actual guys who thwarted this attack."

I suppose if I had known that going in it would have removed some of the suspense about whether they succeeded in stopping a terrorist from shooting up a train full of people, or at least from shooting up these guys themselves. And by writing this post I suppose I've ruined that suspense for you now. But Eastwood makes this movie in such a workmanlike fashion that it seems like suspense is not even part of the point. He merely wants to celebrate the achievements of these three young men who were traveling in Europe, two of whom were currently in the military. That's honorable, but his approach discards most of the narrative conventions designed to engross a viewer in the story.

As the actual grappling with the terrorist took only a few minutes in real life, and as that's only five percent of the movie even when it plays out in real time, Eastwood unnecessarily shows us long stretches of their childhood getting detentions from teachers and the like. As much time as is frittered away on that is also frittered away on previous legs of their trip, in which they stopped and partied in such cities as Rome and Amsterdam.

Eastwood does make a perfunctory attempt to foreshadow the act of heroism that awaits them on this train, but it's pretty awkward. Jenna Fischer's worst of a couple bad scenes is when she tells her son at the airport that she feels like something big is awaiting him, and verges on the hysterical. Then one of the guys keeps telling his friends that he feels like his life is pointing him toward something big and important. Neither of these actors, the pro or the amateur, sells the lines of dialogue naturally, and Eastwood seems like the amateur in the way he's staged these scenes.

Then there's also this weird anti-French sentiment in the film, which seems there also in a misguided attempt to create some "they should never have been there in the first place" drama. At various points in the film, various characters tell the guys that Paris isn't all that, and they talk on several occasions about skipping Paris. Skipping Paris? Say what you will about the French and the debatable narrative that America has always had to save France in military conflicts in which they've shown ineptitude, you can't just "skip Paris." It's one of the crown jewels of Europe. Get over your distaste for berets and go.

They do go, but even the train scene -- true as it may have been to history -- showcases America saving France's ass again. There's a weird absence of anyone approaching an authority figure on this train, as even after the Americans subdue the terrorist, there's no European security person who swoops in to assist. It's not until they can stop at the next station that the train is boarded by police, who weirdly have their guns all drawn even though someone likely would have been able to tell them that the suspect was already subdued. It's a clear case of too little, too late. The fact that it may have actually gone down this way doesn't do much to excuse it, though the American exceptionalism suggested by the event certainly explains Eastwood's interest in it.

In the final scene, Eastwood seems to honor the French, in a way, by having the French president (not playing himself) give out medals to the three Americans. And though the scene is filmed with a pomp and circumstance (and it's hard to imagine Donald Trump doing the same for three French nationals), it could also be read as another instance of the French supplicating to the Americans. "Thank you for saving us" is the takeaway message from that scene. Or more likely, "Thank you for saving us again."

In the end, the movie that may have provided Eastwood with the most inspiration is United 93. Not only does that movie feature a climactic scene in which ordinary citizens wrestle terrorists who are trying to take over a public transport, but United 93 also features a number of novice actors playing themselves, and therefore living through the events all over again as they make the movie. For obvious reasons it's not the Americans who overwhelmed the terrorists on that doomed flight who play themselves, it's air traffic controllers and other airport staff. That gives the film the sense of verite that is key to its punishing impact on us, while allowing professional actors to sell the tense climactic scene that's so agonizing. Eastwood's attempt at the same type of verite results in non-professionals selling the emotions of the climax, and his gestures toward realism elsewhere involve the inclusion of unimportant details that don't contribute to the narrative.

Advantage: United 93.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Bruce Willis can still make mainstream movies

Bruce Willis' filmography has become so littered with straight-to-video crap over the past few years that one tends to forget there's a movie star hiding in there somewhere.

I didn't expect Eli Roth's Death Wish to be the movie that reminded me of his capabilities as an actor, but it was.

Probably in part because it's shot really well (by Rogier Stoffers), Death Wish has a sheen of mainstream credibility that has been missing from most other Willis films lately -- even though its release was pushed back, and never seemed like a good bet as a remake of some very grim (if successful) subject matter.

Here I guess I'm revealing my own biases, so maybe I should stop to explain.

I have never seen the original Death Wish or any of its sequels in its/their entirety. However, I have a very clear memory of being over at a friend's house and seeing some chunk of it -- maybe 35 minutes -- and being struck by how bleak and amoral it seemed. I was definitely too young to be watching it, and I probably missed the part of the movie in which Charles Bronson was still a nice guy and his family had not yet been killed. All I saw was the carnage he unleashed, with that stoic Bronson look that he'd just as soon shoot lowlifes as read the newspaper. In fact, these 35 minutes seeded in me a bias against Bronson that I haven't fully shaken to this day.

So when I heard that Willis was starring in a remake, it felt like a perfect fit -- which was a bad thing. Willis has developed a reputation for sleepwalking through his roles, which certainly contributes to the choices he's had to make. Just ask Kevin Smith what he thinks of Willis as a cooperative collaborator on set. The sleepiness of this era of his career seemed like a match for that stoic, amoral quality that I did not like in Bronson, and the movie carried just as little promise.

Well, Eli Roth was not interested in trudging through the grim sensibilities of a 1970s exploitation film updated to the 2010s. With a lively use of that camera, an energetic soundtrack (AC/DC makes an appearance) and a definite sense of humor to mingle with his love of gore, Roth makes this movie actually fun. What's more, he devotes enough time to Willis' descent from a law-abiding surgeon, husband and father who shrinks from a confrontation with another parent on the sidelines of a soccer game, to a vigilante who makes no distinction between the thugs who harmed his family and other thugs harming others in society.

But he couldn't do it without Willis. And though this is by no means Willis the joke cracker -- the guy who Moonlighting made famous -- that wouldn't be appropriate for this kind of movie anyway. Neither is it Willis the sleepwalker. Whatever he may do on the sets of other movies, he put effort into this one, taking evident care to get the emotions right. Whether he came to work on time and was nice to the other actors, I may not know, but the results appear on screen.

One wonders if it has something to do with the Roth-Tarantino connection. Quentin Tarantino produced a couple of Roth's movies, Roth made a short in Grindhouse and Roth appeared as an actor in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino also of course cast Willis in Pulp Fiction, which was even sort of a comeback for the actor a full 24 years ago. I can see that being the reason Willis appeared in Death Wish, as a favor to Quentin, and he was therefore also on his best behavior. Whatever it was, it worked.

I should pause here to point out some obvious drawbacks of Death Wish. The film is verging on right-wing propaganda in certain parts with its attitude toward gun ownership and protecting yourself when the cops cannot. I don't think Eli Roth actually believes that, and the stores selling weapons, the people who work there, and the ease of getting those weapons are all treated with light parody here. Still, the movie reaches some pretty uncomplicated conclusions about the ultimate wisdom of arming yourself, and its overall mentality is closer than one would like to "shoot bad guys first, ask questions later." That said, as a critic I try to go with my own instinct of whether I enjoyed a movie or not without evaluating whether I fully agree with its politics, as I think a critic always should. On that score I did enjoy Death Wish, though I mightn't have as much if I thought it were actually Roth's intention to make right-wing propaganda.

If calling on old connections and past collaborators worked for Willis in Death Wish, it does give me hope for his next big role in Glass, a reprisal of his role in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable. Shyamalan directs here as well. If we get Willis wide awake for this one, maybe we'll have a full Willis comeback on our hands.

Then again, that seemed possible back in 2012 with Looper, but it never happened.

I'm rooting for it, though. What I saw in Death Wish was enough to remind me of the movie star I miss, the movie star who's still in there and who is not yet too old to give us plenty more of what he did best.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The specificity of nostalgia

Stranger Things opened the floodgates for delivering us 1980s nostalgia, and as with any kind of nostalgia, the idea is to get the details just right -- a toy you really played with, a poster you really had on the wall, a wardrobe choice you really made.

I was just surprised to see the makers of Summer of '84 focus so specifically on getting the details right for one particular viewer: me.

Overall their film is only a mild success for me, though that success is definitely bolstered by a turn at the end I was not expecting. I mean, I think it's bolstered by that -- I'm still chewing it over.

But in terms of trying to make me relate to the film, well, including my actual name in the film was certainly a step in the right direction.

I'll get to that in a minute.

Let's start with the differences. I wasn't as old as these kids were in the summer of 1984, as they are supposed to be 15 and I was only ten going on 11. I also didn't have a serial killer in my neighborhood, or at least not that I knew of.

The first thing that had me nodding along was the lead character's shelf of Hardy Boy detective books in his bedroom. I had a shelf exactly like that, with the blue spines all lined up together in a bit of aesthetic beauty we never would have noticed at the time, but now seems gloriously emblematic of that era.

Then there's all the standard stuff that Stranger Things introduced, like kids on bikes with flashlights and walkie talkies. I did at least two of those things. For some reason, my friends and I never had walkie talkies.

But a couple other things really got me.

One was that the main kid had a paper route, and there are some scenes of him collecting money from the neighbors on his route. I did that. I was a terrible paper boy, and I think I mostly walked my route rather than doing it on a bike like this guy did, but I had those weird exchanges with neighbors who couldn't pay me when I came to the door, asking me to come back later, as well as the occasional snide remark about why the Sunday morning paper didn't arrive until 9:30 a.m.

Then there was the fact that around 1984, I was messing with neighbors in a way similar to the kids in this movie. I had a weird and inexplicable period in which I vandalized my neighbors' mail and mailboxes, ultimately leading to police intervention, my dad taking me around to apologize to everyone, and me getting grounded and denied the right to go trick-or-treating that year. The lead kid's dad takes him on a kind of neighborhood apology tour in this movie as well.

But the thing that really got me is that the kid had my name.

Not my exact name, but close enough.

I wouldn't have noticed it at all except that his parents get addressed as "Mr. and Mrs. Armstrong" late in the movie. Those are my parents' names.

My first name is Derek, and it so happens that this kid's first name is Davey. Both of us D. Armstrongs.

You could say it's just a coincidence and ... well, you'd be right.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Confirmed: Shea Whigham is in everything

If you've seen a movie and you didn't think Shea Whigham was in it, chances are you weren't looking hard enough.

Avengers: Infinity War? He's one of the Children of Thanos.

Halloween? That's him behind the Michael Myers mask.

A Quiet Place? One of the monsters.

Isle of Dogs? One of the dogs.

Crazy Rich Asians? Yes, he's in that too.

Don't try to disprove the theory because you will fail. Shea Whigham's IMDB page is a complete listing of all the films that have been made since he started working as an actor. And strangely, even some from before he was born.

Beirut, which I saw last night, was just the latest.

Why do you think he never has a lead role? It takes a lot of time to appear in every movie that's in production at any given time. The best way to accomplish it is to have between 12 and 20 lines of dialogue in each. Get you in and out as fast as they can.

Fortunately, I've heard that Whigham can nail all his scenes in one take. His fellow actors are paid an incentive to be at their absolute best in those scenes as well.

Then whooosh! He's gone.

That's part of the reason he plays the same kind of character in every movie. In order to accomplish these incredible feats, Whigham is in permanent method actor mode.

They asked Whigham if he would play Pennywise the Clown in last year's IT movie and he was like "Nope! No can do. Let me play one of the cops." So he did.

"Now Vance," you'll say. "There is an inconsistency in your argument. You just said Whigham always plays the same kind of roles, but above you talked about him playing a monster, an alien and a dog."

That's true, but did you notice how he played those roles with the same gruff, clipped, no nonsense manner that he plays those cops, government bureaucrats and low-level criminals? That one alien in A Quiet Place was, I thought, particularly to the point and decisive in his, you know, murdering of human beings.

When asked in a recent interview how long he thought he could keep this up, Whigham said "How long have you got?"

The reporter then raised the practical consideration that one day Whigham would die, at which point he could no longer appear in every movie every made. Whigham just laughed.

"You think I don't have a plan for that?" he said.

Clones. It's gotta be clones.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Not for everyone

In my continuing trend of watching movies that should have more appropriately been viewed in October …

There’s a common critical phrase I’ve used plenty of times that I’ve just realized I hate:

“Not for everyone.”

The realization that this phrase bothered me came as a result of seeing it used in relation to Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, which I just saw last night. Eager to get a sense of the critical consensus before I wrote my own review – which will be mixed leaning negative – I took a glance at Wikipedia’s “Critical Response” section on the Suspiria page. The Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus reads “Suspiria attacks heady themes with garish vigor, offering a viewing experience that’s daringly confrontational – and definitely not for everyone.”

What I don’t like is that if you don’t like this film, it implies you are part of “everyone.”

I don’t want to be a part of “everyone.”

I’m no snob – in fact, I proudly trumpet my affection for certain low culture. But I suppose I have something else regrettably in common with the MAGA crowd: I don’t want to be told that I’m not sufficiently sophisticated to appreciate someone’s artistic intentions. Put more plainly, I don’t want to be told I’m not smart enough to get something.

The phrase “not for everyone” seems to suggest that. You could expand it to “It’s not for everyone – only the people who like cool things done well.”

Hey, I like cool things done well! I just don’t think Suspiria was done particularly well, for reasons I will try to explain when I do write my review.

“It’s not for everyone” seems always to be said or written by someone who does think it’s for them. If they didn’t think it was for them, they might not think it was for anybody, and they’d just say it was bad. It’s a way for a critic to hedge his or her bets while engaging in the politics of exclusion. “Because I’m smart and savvy, I really love this, but you with your tiny little brain probably won’t.”

Of course, “not for everyone” can also be a useful way of intentionally excluding people based on their tolerance for things like graphic sex, violence or gore. Some of that could apply to Suspiria, as there is plenty of violence, some of which is combined with a kind of grotesque nudity. But that’s not what the “not for everyone” above implies. It implies that not everyone can handle a “daringly confrontational viewing experience.”

There are some out there who willingly acknowledge that they are squeamish or that they like their entertainment to hew closer to the mainstream. Most of us, though, do not. Most of us, especially if we classify ourselves as cinephiles, believe that we can stomach anything, and that any variety of artistic expression is palatable to us. Even if the only movies you have genuinely loved in 2018 are superhero movies – even Venom – you still don’t want to be told that a movie is “not for you.”

The thing is, as critics, we do have to think of “everyone” when we write reviews. “Everyone” is, in fact, our core audience. Joe the Plumber (wow, that’s a dated reference) may not know anything about Suspiria, but he does like those Blumhouse horror movies. He needs to know that, in fact, Suspiria may not be “for him,” and we need to find a way of saying that. “Not for everyone” is a way of saying “don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

So I guess as I grapple with my feelings about “not for everyone,” I need to remember that “not for everyone” is not for me. I’m only a part of “everyone” in that universal sense that all critics should strive for, which means divorcing yourself from your own particular preferences and biases and inserting yourself in the shoes of the person for whom a particular film may be intended.

I can have legitimate critical complaints about Suspiria that can’t be reduced to me not understanding what Luca Guadagnino was trying to do. Or even if it is that I don’t understand what Guadagnino was trying to do, that could be a fault of his as an artist and not of mine as the recipient of his art. It doesn’t have anything to do with my capacity for appreciating his art.

Suspiria was for me. The original is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. But Guadagnino did not deliver it to me, or at least not in the way I wanted.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Late Halloween

I didn't watch a single horror movie in the last nine days leading up to Halloween, an obvious consequence of traveling abroad and the fact that they don't tend to program horror movies as choices for your in-flight entertainment. Apparently, it's not such a good thing if you're a child trying to sleep on a 14-hour flight and you see someone's head getting cut off on the screen next to yours. (I do remember watching the horror movie Lights Out on a flight I took in early 2017. It must have passed some threshold of minimum gore.)

I made up for this with a day-night double feature on Sunday, my third day back, after returning from a family-oriented music festival at which we camped on Saturday night. (Which cannot have helped with my jet lag, now in its fifth glorious day.)

The first was a selection that was reluctantly mutually agreed upon by my kids, to pass the late afternoon as we recovered from the festival. The second was a Sunday night viewing of a movie assigned to me in a movie challenge for the month of November, teasingly missing its target month of October by the narrowest of margins.

Monster House is a movie we own on DVD, but as often happens, it took seeing it as an option on Netflix to promote it to an actual viewing. My older son wanted to watch a movie that for some reason the younger one didn't: Madagascar 2: Back to Africa. I was sort of rooting for this one as I have actually not seen it. The younger one wanted to watch Dinosaur Island, which I am absolutely not going to sit through a second time. I was surprised to see the older one agree to this compromise, because Monster House (or as he used to call it, Spooky House) was something he could never fully sit through because it was too scary for him. Apparently he was willing to give it another shot.

For a time. And then he remembered why Spooky House had disturbed him so much the first time, and promptly relocated to another part of the house. (He had his Minecraft so he didn't really care.)

It turns out the younger one is made of tougher stuff (no offense, older one). He didn't cop to being afraid at any point of the movie, and he asked questions that I thought were useful rather than bizarrely fixated on unimportant details. My baby's all grownsed up!

The older one also returned for the end, and didn't seem too concerned with it at that point either. Then again, their aunt just showed them Jurassic Park the other night, knowing the younger one's love of dinosaurs, so I guess they've had their skin toughened recently.

Trick r' Treat is a movie I had never credited with much more than "anonymous horror movie" status until I started to hear it spoken of in really glowing terms over the past few years. In fact, such is the regard for it that it was eligible to be chosen in this movie challenge I'm doing in my Flickcharters group on Facebook. Each month you are randomly paired with another person in the challenge, and you are assigned the highest ranked movie on their chart that you haven't seen yet. Trick r' Treat was somebody's #31, and that somebody commiserated with me the poor timing of not drawing his name a month earlier.

Although there is a lot to recommend in Trick r' Treat, I suppose I was expecting something a bit more sublime for a movie that was this guy's #31, and highly ranked by others in the group as well. It's reasonably clever in its intertwining of four stories that take place on one Halloween night, each of which has a surprising reveal and each of which kind of involves this guy you see in the poster above. But I find it more of a solid entertainment than something sublime that either clearly rises above its brethren or falls into the category of outlandish camp. I guess solid genre fare is worth celebrating in its own right.

Happy Halloween, even though it is no longer Halloween even in the most far-flung of time zones.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Back from whence I came

I wouldn't ordinarily go two weeks without a post on my blog without telling you why, but this time I had a special reason.

See, last Friday I executed an international, in-person surprise birthday greeting, and in the weeks leading up to it, I was increasingly worried that something, anything, would spoil that surprise.

My blog is an easy "something, anything" that could have done that.

I don't think my Mom actively reads my blog anymore, because her computer is a bit under the weather and has been for the better part of a year, leading her to use it only minimally. But the chance was there, and I just couldn't risk it.

That's right, last Saturday my Mom had a landmark birthday -- for the sake of her vanity I won't reveal which -- and the day before that, her son appeared on her front porch in Bedford, Massachusetts, when he should have been in Australia as far as she knew.

The desired effect was achieved. After looking at me for a few moments with a small amount of confusion -- you don't expect to answer the door and randomly see your son standing there -- she slapped her hands over her mouth and shouted "Oh my goodness!" And much reveling was had by all.

It took a bit to get there. Because it was a surprise, we couldn't actually be sure my Mom would be there when I showed up. My sister, who lives nearby, thought she would be going out for an early birthday lunch, but also that she had a potentially conflicting plan in the morning. My sister thought she was canceling that conflicting plan, so I thought arriving at 10:30 would allow me to catch her getting ready for lunch.

Well, her car was there, but she wasn't. I eventually determined this after calling four times in the space of 20 minutes and getting no answer, which ruled out the possibility of her being in the shower. My plan was to call her, as though I were calling from Australia, and then ask her to hold for a minute, at which point I would appear at her door. Better to put me in her mind so the eventual reveal was not so much of a shock. But she didn't pick up, meaning that even though her car was there, she was not.

Or she was lying hurt on the floor. It was a remote possibility, but I did consider it. So I went and peered in a window, but indeed it was quite dark in there.

To make a long story short, she did not come home for nearly three hours. I walked off to get a bite to eat and back, read my book a bit, and then was going to walk off again. I had just started up the street when I saw her approaching as the passenger in a car. It turned out she had done her morning thing after all and postponed her birthday lunch.

I let her get inside the house before finally knocking on the door and revealing myself.

Anyway, we had a really nice visit and I also saw other friends in the Boston area, other family in Maine (my dad and his wife), and friends in Los Angeles. A whirlwind nine days gone, but really more like a practical week when you factor in all the flying time.

And now I am home and can blog again.

I'm sure I have a lot to tell you about in terms of my movie consumption (I watched 13 movies while I was gone, all but two of which came on various flights), but for now I'll just explain my two-week absence as a means of updating you and getting me back in the swing of things.

Hope you had a good Halloween and watched some movies that scared the dickens out of you. Me, I watched On Chesil Beach, The Death of Stalin and The Insult on Halloween, which gives you a little idea of how topsy turvy everything has been.

Looking forward to stabilizing and resuming my normal routine.