Saturday, August 17, 2019

MIFF leaves town, and so do I

As I type this, the last full day of MIFF is beginning, at least strictly speaking according to the clock, which has just passed midnight. There are some movies on Sunday, but things peter out by the mid-afternoon.

However, that won't involve me as I am getting on a plane to America in about eight hours.

Even though I still have about four other things to do on my checklist before going to bed, I thought I'd tie up the "loose end" of giving you one last MIFF post. I mean, I did see two movies on Thursday.

One of those was the French animated film I Lost My Body. The other was the American/British horror movie The Lodge.

One of them was good, and one of them not so good. In that order.

I Lost My Body is the real keeper here, possibly the second best of the 13 films I saw this festival. Each year I try to see one movie I deem as "outsider animation," and this year, this was the one. I was only a little disheartened to see it was presented by Netflix, the first such a film I've ever seen at MIFF. But then again, these days, who isn't?

It's the dual story of a severed hand crawling around Paris, crab-like, trying to find its owner, and the story of that owner. And although that may sound funny (and it is in spots), this is profound and melancholy like only the French can do it. Bravo Jeremy Clapin, director.

The Lodge was ... not so great.

One problem was that it started very late, 9:45, probably because of the private function downstairs at the Forum that kept my friend and me from eating our dinner there. Damn private functions. They seem to get me every time.

My friend and I had Indian instead, and two drinks, and I drank the Pepsi that was meant to keep me awake during The Lodge too quickly. It was a struggle.

This was made by the same people who made Goodnight Mommy, which I liked quite a bit, but it resembled a story Ari Aster left on the cutting room floor, and the presence of new favorite Riley Keough did not help it enough to make it really worth my time. Also, Jaeden Lieberher (Bill Denbrough from It) is in it, but now he goes by Jaeden Martell. I was confused.

I probably owe both of these movies more time, but I've got to get to those four other things and then get to sleep.

So yeah, I'm off to America for three weeks. It probably doesn't mean I'm taking a three-week break from the blog, because I'll probably have ample internet access and writing time. But if I decide to take a couple days or a week or even two weeks off, don't be surprised. I'll report in soon enough.

Until then ... farewell MIFF and so long to you all for a lot less time than that.

Friday, August 16, 2019

The masterpiece tease

Ari Aster is a tease.

In parts of Hereditary (which I’ve seen twice) and Midsommar (which I just saw for the first time on Wednesday), he announces himself as a new master of horror, a stylist capable of a true masterpiece.

But it’s all just a tease. In fact, Aster’s in danger of becoming a one trick pony, a horror Guy Ritchie, because his two films contain almost the exact same strengths and weaknesses, echoing each other in both plot and structure.

The strengths are magnificent. Like, truly jaw-dropping.

But the weaknesses …

First let me say that the first half of Midsommar is my favorite movie of the year. I won’t spoil anything substantive, even the thing that happens so early that most people are probably including it when they write plot synopses. (I’m not reviewing it so I don’t have to struggle with that particular dilemma.) The way that opening thing is handled is brilliant and haunting, and the movie’s greatness continues pretty much through to [that scene where those two people do that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the 72-year-olds]. The shot over the car that goes upside down is probably my favorite single cinematic moment so far this year.

But then …

Aster doesn’t know how to provide a satisfying ending to his movies, but it’s not because they are not endings. They don’t just stop in the middle of a scene, the kind of thing we saw in Martha Marcy May Marlene. They have a certain completeness to them, and yet they are not satisfying.

Part of the problem is that he goes on too long. Both of these movies are probably 20 minutes longer than they should be, than they need to be. And those 20 minutes are crucial in losing what has made the previous 90+ minutes so distinct and so disturbing, turning them instead into something unintentionally comic. And I do really believe it’s unintentional, though whether that’s better or worse I don’t know.

The thing Aster truly has mastery of is grief. In both films he captures the absolute soul-wrenching horror of trauma through the performances of his female leads, Toni Collette and Frances Pugh. (Pugh, by the way, is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses … she has a kind of empathy that’s disarming, and is appropriate for the themes of this film.) The traumas portrayed truly are awful, and the reactions to them are pitch perfect. Aster somehow makes you scared at the intensity of a person’s grief. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that in a movie before, and yet I’ve seen it in both of Aster’s movies.

He explores the byproducts of that grief expertly. The schisms in a family. The recriminations. The depression. The way guilt and depression actually make you apologetic to the people who should be apologizing to you. The fragility of not knowing what you might lose next, who might leave you next. It’s all in there and it’s all true.

Aster (correctly) realizes he needs to include actually genre horror elements in the films as well, blood and guts and jump scares (a few) and moments of slow dread. They are horror movies, after all. But he gets everything just right in those until he opens the bag of tricks too far and too many thing spill out. Most of those extra things spill out in the last 20 minutes of the film that should never have been.

When I reviewed Hereditary I concluded by saying “[Aster] should be delivering plenty of other films that stick in our consciousness as he blossoms and matures.” I guess one year is too soon to say he’s done that yet. But I kind of wish he could have made Midsommar when he’d already gotten there. So much of Midsommar speaks to a particular part of my cinephile lizard brain that it leaves me with an inevitable sense of what it could have truly been, and therefore, a sense of disappointment. A four-star disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless.

Ari Aster will stop teasing us, one day, I think. I just hope he hasn’t used up all his best ideas before he gets there.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

I'd say Cinema Nova is excited for the new QT

This wall of posters at Cinema Nova, my local arthouse theater, usually advertises all of the movies coming out in the next couple months, ordered by their release date. It's a good way to get excited about what tempting cinematic treats you have to look forward to.

On Wednesday night, they only wanted me to look forward to one thing.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actually opens today, but I don't know when I'm actually going to see it. Tonight I finish up MIFF, and I can't go tomorrow night because, well, I'll be packing. See, we're leaving for the U.S. on Saturday.

It'll of course be playing there, has been for several weeks. But time will again be the issue there, as there are people we need to see and things we need to do.

Of course, some of the people I need to see are Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCpario and Margot Robbie, so you better bet I'll make it happen, if at all possible, somehow.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Audient Audit Bonus: Jean de Florette

This is a bonus installment of my monthly series Audient Audit.

I certainly didn’t intend to write more than the 12 monthly installments I had planned for Audient Audit, but a circumstance came along that screamed out for a bonus. Unlike all the other movies in the series, it has to do with a movie I actually did see, though it wasn’t on any of my lists. And that’s a big deal, because realizing I’ve seen a movie that I didn’t have on my lists is something that only happens every couple years these days.

First I’ll tell you how it happened.

I’m in a movie group on Facebook called Flickchart Friends’ Favorites Fiesta, which is an offshoot of the discussion group related to the Flickchart website. I don’t actually participate all that much in the original discussion group these days – something having to do with no longer getting the proper notifications to see the new posts – but I’m a loyal participant in this second group. The premise in the group is that each month, you are randomly assigned the highest ranked movie you haven’t yet seen from somebody else’s chart. They get your highest ranked, or more likely, someone else does. (I’ve only been randomly matched up with the same person in the same month once.) You’d think it might be easier from a "drawing names from a hat" standpoint if they had people get each other, but I’m not the organizer.

Anyway, in August I got given Jean de Florette, which is the #1 movie on the chart of one of the other participants. As soon as I saw the title that had been assigned to me, I wondered why the hell this movie is not on my various lists.

As you know if you’ve been following this series, I tend to err on the side of adding a film rather than excluding it. If I have a vague memory of seeing certain random extractions from a film, I usually say I’ve seen it, though this series has proven that actually to be the case only one time out of eight total films. It’s not very common, obviously, for me to have seen most of or an entire film and decide that I probably didn’t see it.

Jean de Florette is a particularly strange case, because if you walked up to me and asked me if I’d seen it, I’d say “Of course.” In fact, I believe I watched it in French class when I was in high school. I may have also watched the sequel, Manon of the Spring, or Manon du Source, in the same setting. (I now see it listed as Manons des Sources, which sounds like some Bicycle Thieves shit if I’ve ever seen it.)

But neither Jean nor Manon is on any of my film lists, and I wonder if this points to a flaw in the original making of the list. My original film list was composed of films from a video rental catalogue around 1990, and only because that catalogue was so comprehensive did I consider it a good source (if you will) for a list that I’m still updating nearly 30 years later. I’ve of course filled in missing titles over the years, which is an inexact science. But rarely – as I said, only once every couple years – do I still think of titles that I’ve been missing. I guess it’s possible Jean de Florette did not appear in this original video catalogue, maybe because it wasn’t available for some reason, and that it simply never got corrected.

Anyway, it’s a pretty great film. Here’s what I wrote about it when I reported back on my viewing in the Flickchart group:

The story is surprisingly simple. It involves a tract of land near Provence, France, where grapes are cultivated for wine and other farming occurs. However, the area is tricky as the sources of water are few, meaning prospective growers rely on the rain to slake the thirst of their plants, and in the case of the title character, allow the plants to grow that will feed his rabbits. He’s inherited the land from his uncle, who died during a scuffle when his neighbors approached him to buy his land for their enterprise growing carnations. They wanted to buy the land because they know of a spring that can provide the water to make the land suitably verdant, but they’re not going to tell Jean, his wife and his young daughter about that. They want to see him fail spectacularly so they can buy the land for cheap.

I am sometimes amazed by how much fascinating content can spring, so to speak, from a story that is so straightforward and uncomplicated. Jean de Florette is just short of two hours long (and is in fact the first in a two-part series that ends with Manon of the Spring), but the performances and the small details in Jean’s struggle to breed his rabbits keep a viewer glued the whole time. Three French acting treasures shine in this film, from Gerard Depardieu as the title character to the mercenary neighbors, played by Daniel Autieul and the great Yves Montand. I enjoyed being in their company for two hours even as I balled my fists at the callousness of the last two. Depardieu’s dogged optimism helped balance that out. Jean is also a hunchback, which complicates the way the townspeople view him and support (or don’t support) his claim to the land.

There was a preamble and a little bit after that, but I’ve already included those thoughts elsewhere in this post.

The two-disk set I got from the library also includes Manon of the Spring, and even though I’m leaving on a three-week trip to America on Saturday, I may renew the rental and take it with me. In fact, it may work out that this is my regular monthly post for September, although I’ll have to see if I can justify it to myself. After all, the audits in this series are supposed to be movies I’m not sure if I’ve seen but are on my lists.

Maybe I’ll just watch it, you know, just to watch it.  

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Un-lee-shed: 4 Little Girls

This is the fourth in my 2019 bi-monthly series watching Spike Lee’s films that I haven’t yet seen.

4 Little Girls was one of the movies in this series I was looking forward to most, though I’m not sure you can make such a statement without providing an asterisk. You don’t look forward to spending any time with the type of tragedy documented in this movie. I do, however, look forward to watching examples of powerful, emotional filmmaking, and 4 Little Girls was certainly one such example.

It was on my radar at the time it was released in 1997, but I didn’t have the vacuum cleaner mentality I have today about sucking up all the cinematic content worth seeing in a given year. In fact, I might have dinged Spike Lee’s first documentary a little bit for not being a film that was released theatrically, as 4 Little Girls was produced by HBO. I might still arbitrarily ding it for that reason, except it’s not really true. The original plan was to debut it on HBO, but all involved realized it was important enough to get a theatrical run before its cable TV premiere. It ran in four theaters in the summer of 1997 and was eventually nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.

The film of course examines the loss of four young black girls in Birmingham, Alabama as a result of a September 1963 church bombing. Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair were those girls, and they were all in the 12 to 14 age range. It was an act of contemptible racism carried out by a true miscreant whose name I will not even mention here. I don’t think he knew the children were going to be killed in the bombing but that hardly changes anything. He reacted smugly and all the footage of him shows him with this big shit-eating grin.

The film goes into the details of the case as well as giving portraits of these four girls from their surviving relatives, who are still clearly shaken from their deaths even three-and-a-half decades later. It’s potent, moving stuff. It’s also shocking. One of the most controversial elements of the film – though I can’t tell if it actually created a controversy or just made it hard to watch – is that there are brief flashes of post-mortem photographs of the children. Lee didn’t want to give just a sentimental celebration of four young girls whose lives were cut tragically short. He wanted to confront us with the reality of what it looks like when victims are pulled out of the rubble of a bombing. You breathe a sigh of thanks that they are only brief flashes, because it means you can’t fully make out what parts of the body might be missing or altered. I didn’t go back to pause it to find out.

Of course, 4 Little Girls didn’t interest me only on the face value of its content. Especially in the context of this series, I wanted to see what aspects of it reminded me most of Spike Lee. There were principally three, though at least one of those three is only superficial.

The first and most obvious is the montage opening, which gives us a bunch of imagery related to the topic set to the song “Birmingham Sunday” sung by Joan Baez, whose lyrics relate directly to this bombing. Although the use of the song makes for a rather obvious creative decision, I was interested and a bit surprised to see that Lee would choose a white artist from a very white type of music (folk music) to introduce this film, though it works beautifully. Many other Lee films start out similarly.

A slightly more Lee use of music was the undercurrent of jazz that plays under a lot of the interview subjects. It’s something he shares in common, aesthetically, with Woody Allen. Maybe it’s a New York thing.

The really superficial Lee trademark was that he interviews frequent collaborator Ossie Davis. That’s not just a random selection based on their friendship, as Davis and wife Ruby Dee were big civil rights activists and participated in Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom a mere two weeks before the bombings. But if I were looking for the ways Lee put himself into the film, that felt like an obvious one.

But he didn’t do too much else in that regard, I suspect because it would have distracted from the very sober story he was telling. 4 Little Girls is not about Lee demonstrating his skills as a filmmaker. It’s about wrestling with a period of great racial discord in American history, from the perspective of a time that is only slightly less discordant. Bill Clinton was president when Lee made this film, and though he is often described (mostly by black people) as “America’s first black president” – or at least was before there was an actual black president – it’s clear that the improvement in American society from 1963 to 1997 was comparatively small. Sadly, it probably still is.

When I return to this series in October it will be with the only true flop I am watching, Miracle at St. Anna (2008), which I’m sure has some good parts despite its turkey reputation.

Monday, August 12, 2019

MIFF: Baby with my baby, and a free coconut popcorn

For starters, please let me say that I do not call, and have never called, my wife or any person with whom I have been romantically linked “my baby.” But for the purposes of this post, let’s pretend I do.

However, even allowing that concession, there was some uncertainty whether I’d call this post “Baby with my baby” or “Baby without my baby.”

You see, once my children were packed away to their aunt’s house for the second straight Saturday of MIFF – thanks for the consecutive sleepovers, AL! – my wife decided to come along with me to my 1:30 screening of the Chinese film Baby at Hoyts Melbourne Central. (And I’ll say that before I decided to call my last MIFF post “Mid-week at Hoyts,” I should have looked ahead to recognize that my two Saturday screenings were also here.) She’s still trying to burn through the extra tickets of the second minipass she was given.

The only thing is, the sleepover didn’t start quite as early as we’d hoped. My sister-in-law was a little later than she said she’d be in picking them up, a fact I mention only in the context of this story, and not to make her feel bad about it, even though she will likely never read this. Our gratitude knows no bounds. And because we were indeed getting a second straight Saturday night/Sunday morning to ourselves, it did not seem very sporting to hurry her along to pick up the kids.

So the time to leave for Baby came, and my sister-in-law was not yet there. I offered to stay back with my wife, but she insisted that we should not both miss the movie. As I had had this on my schedule from the start, and she was a late add, I guess she thought that was sufficiently convincing logic that I should go ahead while she stayed back.

There was still the chance she’d make it on time, but when I disembarked the tram in front of Melbourne Central, she reported via text that her sister had not yet arrived. I considered it a lost cause and made my way up to the movie, leaving no open seat for her next to me.

Imagine my surprise when I turned on my phone after the movie and there were texts from her saying “I’m almost there! Hopefully won’t miss too much” and “I’m here.” The funny thing is, I should have seen her walking in as she couldn’t have crossed my line of vision without me noticing her, but apparently she did. So while we both saw the movie, I didn’t actually see it “with” her, per se.

Unfortunately, when I saw these texts, I had been all ready to text her saying “Consider yourself lucky. That movie sucked.” Maybe the key to liking it was the difference between watching it from the start and arriving 15 minutes late, because she said she did like it. I got off on the wrong foot with it and never recovered.

The movie is about an 18-year-old orphan who has reached the age of maturity where she must move on from her foster parent. She had congenital defects that required multiple surgeries but has come out the other end mostly intact, though she can’t have her own children. She’s working at a hospital and she sees another baby with similar medical problems to hers, where the parents have decided not to give the child potentially life-saving surgery because her life will be so hard. This angers the main character and she plots to change their mind or kidnap the baby.

That plot summary makes the movie sound good, but I found it pretty amateurishly acted and made. The dialogue is extremely on the nose and the whole thing is procedure and exposition, with no subtle character moments or moments of grace. As I said previously, director Jie Liu et al bungled laying the groundwork, such that I had some basic assumptions about the setup that ended up being wrong. I didn’t buy a number of the things that happened, including the parents deciding to let their daughter die. It’s not that this might not be a true choice people in their position would make, but the film didn’t convince me of it, and struggled to convince me of a number of other things. It just didn’t work for me. In fact, I probably would have given it less than the two stars I ultimately awarded it, except that my wife’s moderate affection for it made me reconsider whether I was being too hard on it.

I went home for a nap – ah, the luxury of having the children out of the house! – and then the two of us both returned that night for a second movie, only this time not the same one. The thing is, I think my wife would have also accompanied me on this one if she’d properly realized what I was seeing. That second movie was an Irish paranormal film called Extra Ordinary, and it features American comic actor Will Forte, whom we both love. I think at the time I recommended it to her, she was too busy with other things and the recommendation went over her head. By the time the date actually rolled around, she had picked another movie, also at Hoyts starting at the same time, so we could arrive and leave together. (Before that we had drinks at a cool laneway bar and a chicken sandwich at a not-cool restaurant in the food court.)

According to my original schedule, Extra Ordinary was going to be my 2019 MIFF midnight movie. See, on Friday and Saturday nights, MIFF has a show that starts at 11:30, and I’ve gone to two of those in the past: Baskin in 2016 and The Night Eats the World last year. I had to exchange my ticket for last Friday’s 11:30 showing of Extra Ordinary when my wife had a conflict, but ended up seeing it this Saturday instead. (And that exchange warrants a word or two, as a MIFF customer service rep had to help put it through when the website thought my minipass was full. But she was a credit to MIFF as she got it processed for me straight away, no fuss no muss.)

Anyway, this was a fun and cute movie. It involves an Irish woman who is the daughter of a TV medium who can talk to ghosts, a talent he passed on to her. She doesn’t do that anymore, though, and makes her living at the moment as a driving instructor. Of course, she gets pulled back into the game when an American one-hit wonder (Forte) makes a deal with the devil to get his music career back on track, and that involves the sacrificing of a virgin, the daughter of a local townsperson who seeks out her services to help. I laughed a fair amount and the movie is pretty clever, but I’d be lying if I said that Forte’s brand of humor blended perfectly with the core Irish humor of the rest of the characters. It did also have Claudia O’Doherty, the Australian comedienne late of Netflix’s Love, so that was a bonus.

Oh! The popcorn.

My wife wanted to get a “choctop” – a prepackaged ice cream cone that has a hard chocolate shell holding the ice cream in – so I also decided to pick up a box of nacho flavored popcorn. The funny thing is, my popcorn came with a free popcorn. I guess the coconut flavor was not selling, so now they were just giving it away. I didn’t need two popcorns, but you can bet I ended up eating both of them. And I pity those who have turned their noses up at the coconut flavor. It’s only a hint of coconut, and really, the thing just tastes like kettle corn, which is a flavor I like quite a bit.

After a fairly intense first ten days of MIFF, I’ve now got a huge break. I don’t go back until Thursday, when I will see my final two movies of 2019. Assuming no cancellations (or additions), it’ll be a personal record 13 MIFF movies this year. Hallelujah.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Audient Audit: Breathless

This is the eighth in my 2019 series Audient Audit, in which I'm checking the accuracy of my own records on films I say I've seen.

The first clue that I had not, in fact, seen Jean-Luc Godard's classic film Breathless (1960) was that I had no idea it was a film noir. It may not be a conventional noir, but it fits loosely into that category. If you asked me to summarize Breathless, I probably wouldn't have been able to, but I would have considered it a lot closer to something like Jules and Jim than to, I don't know, The Big Sleep. So it didn't take long for me to determine that I had added this to my lists of films seen in error.

So why did I think I'd seen Breathless?

There's a good chance I saw at least one scene from it, once. I remember a tangible sense of frustration related to this movie, because at the time I saw whatever percentage I saw of it, I wouldn't have been able to appreciate what it was doing. In truth, I still don't appreciate Godard all that much, though I'll get to the exceptions to that in a minute. But I'm guessing that if I did see a scene in it, I saw the extended scene where the two leads are rolling around in bed and talking about life and love. I liked those scenes okay now, but at the time I would have once seen them, at least 20 and probably more like 25 years ago, I wouldn't have liked them at all.

The funny thing is that I have a very specific image of a scene I associate with Breathless, and it is simply not in the movie. I don't know, maybe it's in the Richard Gere remake, though I'm quite certain I haven't seen much or likely any of that. I have this image in my mind of Jean-Paul Belmondo's character seducing Jean Seberg's character while she's lying on a diving board next to a pool. Nope. Not in the movie.

The thing that's so surprising about this story being fairly plot heavy, relative to what I was expecting, is that its lack of plot would have been one of my chief complaints about it ... and therefore has been, all this time, an imaginary chief complaint. In fact, I had no idea that Belmondo's Michel is wanted for murder, a murder he actually committed by shooting a police officer. I "remembered" the cigarettes he smokes incessantly, an affectation that still kind of bothers me, not because I'm some prude, but just because I think it's a pretty artificial attempt at seeming "cool." I didn't remember that he's a wanted criminal, and that's because, well, I never actually saw the movie.

Michel models his own persona on that of Humphrey Bogart, so I'm wondering if what percentage of this movie I did see also contributes to why I don't like Bogart that much. Kind of working this out as I type this, but French opinions of what's cool and what isn't cool don't align that much with my own. They worship Bogart, and I don't care much for him. They think womanizing is fab, and that's just not my style. And maybe I think Godard embodies this just as much as Belmondo does.

That said, there were enough things that I liked about the film that I can mostly co-sign its reputation. One of those is Jean Seberg, a personality who is kind of unknown to me. Reading up on her, I can see that this film helped make her an icon, and perhaps contributed to her early demise (suicide) at age 40. Although I was a bit distracted by her American accent while speaking French -- I don't like the French, but I also don't like when people who aren't French attempt to be French? -- I do find that she has a star presence and an iconic look, one that reminded me a bit of Mia Farrow before Mia Farrow.

I also enjoy the ways Godard is playing with editing here, particularly in shots of Seberg riding in Belmondo's convertible. We get one line of dialogue being delivered in little bursts, and with each burst Seberg's background changes. It's a cool effect and was probably pretty groundbreaking at the time. As this is a far more linear film than some Godard would go on to make, I appreciate it for its comparative restraint. He was probably a better filmmaker (in my opinion) before he figured out quite all the tricks he could do. Then again, I have to say I have only seen a handful of his films. Until I've seen more, I should probably keep my opinions to myself.

I'm uncomfortable with what I said about not liking the French. It's not true. However, I do think there are elements of the French New Wave that have bothered me when they have made it into other films later on, maybe some of the earliest films of Jim Jarmusch. To put it kind of broadly, I don't love films where men sit around apartments in wife beaters smoking cigarettes and exorcising their love-hate relationships with women. I feel like Godard is kind of responsible for birthing this. So while I don't like some of what Godard wrought, I can appreciate this early example of it for what it is.

I bet I'd find the Gere remake really annoying though.

September brings another movie. "Really Vance? You don't say."

Friday, August 9, 2019

MIFF: Mid-week at Hoyts

Hoyts is a massive theater chain, not the type of venue you associate with MIFF. But for the entire time I’ve been going to MIFF, Hoyts has been involved, unlike its largest competitor, Village Cinemas. I’m a bit down on Hoyts for an additional reason than being a massive theater chain, which is that they recently stopped accepting our critics card. Even in the best of times they only allowed us to see free movies two nights a week and during the day on weekdays. But they withdrew altogether last year. Screw them.

MIFF, however, apparently remains a profitable endeavor for them. So the Hoyts at Melbourne Central is where I spent three straight screenings on Wednesday and Thursday nights, which I will tell you about now.

The first was the Sundance Audience Award winner from this year, Brittany Runs a Marathon. It’s also the second MIFF film I’ve reviewed, if you want to check that out here. It stars Jillian Bell, who I think of as appearing in a lot of Seth Rogen films, though it’s actually only one (The Night Before, which is where she came on my radar). She plays an overweight 28-year-old whose life is going down the tubes, but she tries to turn that around by first jogging, then training to run a marathon.

It’s been an unusual MIFF in terms of high-profile releases, as the Cannes Palme d’Or winner, which usually is one of the most sought-after tickets at MIFF, already opened here theatrically. That was Parasite, and it was great, and I surely would have seen it at MIFF had it been playing. Desperate for something else with awards buzz, I slotted Brittany in straight away as a must-see. The type of movie that wins at Cannes is pretty different from the type of movie that wins at Sundance, though, and this was a pretty typical Sundance winner. Which is to say, I liked it quite a bit but forced myself to be honest about its limitations, which means I knocked a potential 8 out of 10 down to a 7 out of 10 in the above review. Who knows, maybe it’s an 8. It’s good. I liked it.

I had enough time between the two ends of my double feature to go downstairs and get a pastry called a coffee pan from an Asian bakery chain I like called Pafu. That was supposed to be where I met a friend of mine, the same who attended In Fabric with me on Saturday (and will be seeing a double feature with me next Thursday). However, somehow he ended up at somewhere called Pafu on the second floor of Melbourne Central, though I’m still not sure the explanation for that and thought it best not to dig too deeply. Anyway, I bought him a coffee pan and met him in time to go into Berberian Sound Studio.

This is only the third film I’ve ever seen at MIFF that I had already seen before, and only the second that wasn’t a special screening. In 2017 I saw both of my previous instances, a performance of Fantastic Planet with a live score (which was great) and my first time seeing Strange Days on the big screen. I might’nt have prioritized Berberian, which I have already seen twice before, except that my friend is interested in giallo and this is also a film I’ve never seen before on the big screen. Besides, I’m currently mulling what will be my favorite films of the decade, and a film I’d already seen twice is certainly a candidate.

Unfortunately, on this third viewing I found myself a bit impatient with the film’s pacing, which had never been a problem for me on previous viewings. Part of that was that there were certain parts I was looking forward to, but couldn’t really remember how soon they might be coming. Part of it was also that by recommending it to my friend, I felt the urgency for the film to deliver its good bits with a certain regularity, to justify my praise of it. Fortunately, this is not an impatient viewer, and he said he really liked the film – a big improvement on our mutual impression of Peter Strickland’s new film, the aforementioned In Fabric.

This was also my second time at MIFF seeing Strickland himself. He came out beforehand at In Fabric and also did so here, as MIFF is doing a retrospective on his films this year (which is why the seven-year-old Berberian is playing). This time he stayed for a Q&A afterward, and so did I. I actually asked him a question, which was how they created that perfect scream that the character Silvia (Fatma Mohamed) delivers near the end of the film, as the image of her diminishes in the frame to just a speck. (Which was one of the moments I was impatiently awaiting.) Alas, here was a mild bit of disappointment as well – as Strickland himself said it would be before he gave his answer. It wasn’t some clever bit of sound design, it was just an extracted moment from the song “Glory Hole” by Nurse With Wound. I’ve just listened to that on YouTube and confirmed it. Oh well.

Thursday night summoned me back to Hoyts for the premiere of my wife’s film A Family, which as I said yesterday, I will not discuss in any detail in terms of its quality. Nothing at all should be read into that in terms of whether I liked it or not. Just take that at face value: I said I wouldn’t discuss whether I liked the film or not, and I still won’t.

I will say that it was fun to be involved in a world premiere, as there was a similar place where you could take pictures in front of a MIFF background as there had been at opening night of the festival, only this time it was just for her film in particular. It was also lovely to see all sorts of familiar faces from our life here in Melbourne turn out for my wife’s big night. I sat in a seat that had a “reserved” sign on it for I think the first time ever. And then stayed for the Q&A afterward, which also featured my wife and a lot of questions from people who had obviously enjoyed the movie.

Which felt really, really nice.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

My first conflict of interest

It’s not often in my career that I’ve had to deal with conflicts of interest. I do know one Australian director, the husband of one of my wife’s school friends, but I’ve never reviewed any of his films. I have, however, given them star ratings on Letterboxd, ranked them on Flickchart and included them on my year-end lists.

But now I’ve got a real conflict of interest, and I’m not going to do any of those things.

Tonight I am seeing the world premiere of A Family, a deadpan comedy that I’m told has a sense of humor similar to that of Yorgos Lanthimos. It was directed by Jayden Stevens, who shot it in Ukraine with his director of photography, Tom Swinburn.

This film is also produced by my wife.

She didn’t go to Ukraine, but she’s handled all the producer duties for post back in Australia, and it’s eaten up a good amount of her attention over the past year. I’m not going to name my wife, though you could probably look it up if you were interested. It’ll be in keeping with my policy of not naming either my wife or my children by anything other than their titles (“my wife,” “my younger son,” “my older son”), a policy that dates back to the very beginning of this blog.

The film got into MIFF and in fact received some funding from MIFF as part of MIFF’s Premiere Fund, which helped them complete the film. Interest has been high, and not only among Jayden’s friends. I know tonight is sold out, at least, and I believe Tuesday night is as well. It was popular enough that they added a third screening of it next Thursday in the afternoon.

I will likely spend the entire movie figuring out what to say about it to the interested parties after the movie ends. But I will say it to them and to them only.

I think it’s probably obvious that I won’t review the film, but I’ve also decided not to give it a star rating on Letterboxd, not to rank it on Flickchart, and definitely not to include it in my year-end list of rankings. It will appear only on lists that bear no assessment of its quality, like the alphabetical list of all the movies I’ve ever seen, or a similar list of movies released in 2019. I may include it in Letterboxd so it can take up its place in the chronological continuum of films I’ve seen, but it will have no star rating.

It seems only right. No, this is not my wife’s brainchild per se, though she did provide notes on the script, a role that led to her involvement as producer. And I know Jayden and Tom a lot less well than I know my wife’s school friend’s husband, whose films I did star-rate and list.

But I think this is how it needs to be. I can’t watch this thing that my wife has spent so much time on and reduce it to a numerical value. I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and if I were to agree with that and just slap a “3.5 stars” on it (which is probably as low as I would allow myself to go), it just wouldn’t feel right.

So I’m breaking from traditions that are more than 20 years ingrained in me, and leaving A Family utterly undiscussed, unranked, and unclassified -- in any public forum, anyway.

But before I’ve seen it, I feel like I can say this: Remember this title, and seek it out when it hits a theater near you, or more likely a streaming service, or possibly nowhere, but I hope not.

Because I can’t pretend I’m not invested in my wife’s career, and damn, I hope it’s good.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

MIFF: The Day Shall Come ... when I see only one film

At least, only one MIFF film.

The second film slot on Tuesday night went to the important task of keeping up with new releases that might otherwise fall by the wayside during the festival. Unfortunately, Midsommar and Late Night were still two days away from coming out, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood still nine days, so I had to choose between Hobbes & Shaw and Ophelia, a new taken on Hamlet from the perspective of Daisy Ridley’s title character. I can’t say that I’m disappointed that I chose Ophelia because I don’t know if I would have liked Hobbes & Shaw less, but I can tell you that I liked Ophelia less than I was hoping I would like it. (Shakespeare purists need not prioritize this one. Full review here if you’re interested.)

The night’s only MIFF film was again at The Capitol, and to give you some sense of the beauty of this place, here, I’ve taken a picture:

That’s the ceiling, and the colors change from blue to pink to green to yellow. Especially when they are blue, they look kind of like a giant alien spacecraft landing on your head. It’s neat.

The Day Shall Come is Chris Morris’ follow-up to 2010’s Four Lions, the comedy about hapless jihadists trying to pull off a terror attack, which actually has a surprising amount of heart. I liked that movie a lot, making it all the more perplexing that it’s taken him nearly a decade to make his next film. Who knows, maybe he was doing other things. Interestingly, there’s no poster yet online, so I've gone with a still image instead.

This one is very much within the spirit of Four Lions, but I think the switch away from England to the U.S. does something to the sense of humor I appreciated so much in that one. Then there’s the fact that this movie goes into the well-worn territory of mining humor from bureaucracy, the calling card of a guy like Armando Iannucci. I was even reminded of the Coens’ Burn After Reading here, which is never a good thing.

The hapless terrorists in this case are a would-be black militia in Florida. The “would be” has to do with the fact that there are only four of them, and their leader believes he’s getting messages from God. They’re political, but more than anything, they just want to run their farm and burgeoning (or so they think) collective. But they’re also broke and facing eviction, so they get embroiled in a plan involving more undercover agents than you can shake a stick at, and the possible purchase/sale/donation of weapons ranging from guns to nuclear. All they really want to do is pay the rent, but things escalate quickly.

This was a film I resisted at first that ultimately really won me over, though my initial resistance lingered enough that I ended up on 3.5 stars on it. The others in my crowd were laughing hysterically, but I was a bit more reserved in my enthusiasm. Although this film also has a lot of heart and the militia is very sympathetic, I did have a bit of trouble seeing them as figures of fun, which could be my heightened sensitivity to the pitfalls of race-based humor. I don’t think any of the humor here is actually negative in any true racial sense, but it just made me a bit uncomfortable that the leader was so delusional. Maybe it’s a variation on what Denis O’Hare’s FBI agent says, which is that it’s okay to pin a terrorist plot on brown-skilled people, but the optics are off if you try to do it with African Americans.

Okay, I’ll end this post there as I need to save up my typing fingers for tonight’s two-movie night

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

MIFF: Eisenberg's new girlfriend and Dolan's new boyfriend

It used to be that Kristen Stewart was Jessie Eisenberg’s girlfriend. They have appeared in possibly as many as four and no fewer than three films together, despite no romantic entanglements off screen that I’m aware of. Maybe they just have good chemistry. In another industry he might have called her his “work wife.” (And let’s not be sexist; she might have called him her “work husband.")

Well, that pairing hasn’t happened since Woody Allen’s Café Society in 2016, so maybe it’s over. Or maybe they’re just seeing other people. In any case, Eisenberg seems to be a “serial monogamist” (to quote Four Weddings and a Funeral) as he has now taken up with Imogen Poots.

It seems to be only two movies together so far, but they are both playing at this year’s MIFF, so you tend to notice it.

It was while waiting for Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium to start Sunday night at Hoyts Melbourne Central that I made the connection. I knew Eisenberg and Poots were the stars of Vivarium, but I didn’t realize Poots was also in Eisenberg’s The Art of Self-Defence from director Riley Stearns. A tweet changed that. MIFF likes to post tweets of people who tagged MIFF with their thoughts on a movie they saw, and by “post” I mean use as a screen saver before the film starts, such that the tweets fill up the screen and occasionally change their relative orientation, as new ones pop up and old ones expire. (It’s not real time – they are curated for acceptable content.) In fact, I almost want to start tweeting again just to see my own tweet up there, though the odds are against me actually attending the session where they posted my tweet, if they posted it at all. And if I can’t see it, did it really happen?

Anyway, one person tweeted the reasons she was sold on Art of Self-Defence, and one of them was Imogen Poots.

That was a lot of time to spend on the fact that two actors happened to appear together in two movies in the same year.

I should be spending my time on Vivarium, a film I was going to see, and then wasn’t going to see, and then saw. Knowing it was some kind of post-apocalyptic film starring two actors I liked (the aforementioned couple), I put it on my original shortlist for its first screening on Friday night. However, my wife had to put the kibosh on that when it was revealed it would probably interfere with her own schedule that day, as she was attending meetings with sales agents for her own film that’s in the festival. But she was also interested in Vivarium so she bought a ticket for herself for Sunday night. (Which sounds underhanded, but believe me, it’s not – I make out far better on the whole MIFF situation as I can only go to movies at night, leaving her with a surplus of solo child caring, while she fits as many as she can into daytime sessions.) But then staying out after a long day of meeting with sales agents (and also squeezing in two daytime sessions) just did not seem very palatable to her, so she handed over the ticket to me.

After getting out I texted her the following: “I cannot thank you enough for getting tickets to that movie.”

Indeed, I am happy to say that Vivarium is now the top of the heap of the 50 or so films I’ve seen this year. It’s not post-apocalyptic the way I was expecting it to be. I won’t tell you too much about the story, because I didn’t know anything about the story and that was great. What I will say is it involves Poots and Eisenberg as a couple who go looking at a new home in a planned community – you know, one of those places where all the houses look the same. The sales agent takes them for this tour and then … well, that’s all I want to tell you. I’ll just tell you that it isn’t the kind of “zombies walking the earth” post-apocalyptic movie you might be thinking of, though “post-apocalyptic” is an apt enough description from a certain point of view. It’s a mind bender, and it’s just … so … good. I am currently debating whether to review it or not, but I’m not sure I could without telling a lot more about it than I want to tell.

In fact, it was so good that I made an extremely difficult decision not to stay for the Q&A with the director, who was present to introduce it. I hope some people stayed because Lorcan Finnegan deserves to be showered with adoration and intellectual inquisitiveness related to this film. But the fact of the matter is, the MIFF sessions don’t give you a huge amount of downtime between them, and I needed to get some dinner before my second movie of the night, so I made the rough choice of peeling away. (I probably didn’t need to get dumplings from my favorite dumpling place, but that’s what I had my heart set on.)

Once Vivarium got me out of the house I thought it made sense to kill two birds with one evening. And given my wife’s large quantity of extra, unused tickets, I had her get me a ticket for a film that hadn’t made my shortlist, but had made my longlist – that original list consisting of about 40 titles. It was at the Plenary again, the most remote MIFF location, but I’d brought my bike, so I ate my dumplings and zig-zagged through the streets with only a minute or two to spare before it started.

The film was the French language Matthias & Maxime, and it made it on to my longlist by virtue of being directed by Canadian Xavier Dolan, though I’d also like to think I support LBGTQ content. Dolan directed two films I like a lot, I Killed My Mother and Mommy, and yes, his mother fixation does factor into a subplot here. The film is only dipping its toe into LGBTQ, I suppose, as the two title characters are apparently heterosexual lifelong friends, who realize they may feel something more toward each other when one of them is on the verge of leaving Montreal for Australia for two years. (And if I were a slightly more shameless mentioner of coincidences, I’d have probably spent a whole post on how both of my two Sunday night movies had at least one mention of Australia.)

The actual inciting incident, though, is that they agree to substitute for two actors who flaked on a student film being shot by the annoying younger sister of one of their friends. Actually, Maxime agrees, and Matthias loses a bet. It’s part of a weekend at a lakehouse where their friends are partying and she’s making the movie. The only thing is, not until they’ve agreed to be in it does she explain the scene, which involves the two of them kissing. Perhaps realizing they have unacknowledged feelings toward each other, they’re quite resistant, but ultimately agree. And that’s when the problems start. (Dolan plays Maxime, which allowed for the “clever” mirroring in the title of this post.)

As with both of the other Dolan films I’ve seen, he’s true to the complicated dynamics and emotions between human beings, and it’s an interestingly explored subject. It didn’t hit for me emotionally, though, and I hope that’s not because I have trouble relating to a same-sex sexual attraction. Every time I see a movie featuring two men or two women in love with each other, and it doesn’t hit for me as resoundingly as I think it might, I wonder whether it’s just this particular story that didn’t land for me, or if I have trouble becoming emotional or sentimental about romantic love that is a different type of romantic love than the type I experience. Movies are complicated as they are supposed to be an empathy machine for people different from you (to quote Roger Ebert), but you are also supposed to see yourself in the characters, and it’s somewhere in the murky gray middle where I struggle to reconcile it. Anyway, that’s way too big of a matzo ball so let’s just leave it at “I thought this movie was good but not great.” (God, did I just write a whole paragraph that makes me sound homophobic? I hope not, because I’m not. I mean, I chose this movie, didn’t I? Ugh, it’s getting worse. I better just stop writing now.)

I’ve got a little MIFF break now until … well, tonight. Ha. My actual break was Monday, but I didn’t write this post until today, so … back at it on Tuesday night!

Monday, August 5, 2019

The damage wrought by La La Land

I'm not sure if you've seen the new Apple AirPods ad, which I've screen captured to the right. (Actually, I just Google Image'd someone else's screen cap.)

It features a guy listening to music on his AirPods (wireless ear buds) and bouncing along on the sidewalk, ultimately ascending aloft into the position you see in this picture. The song is, appropriately, "Bounce" by Tessellated.

It's the lyrics of the song that interest me, combined with the music itself.

"I just heard some jazz today (yes it's true)
I just learnt some jazz today."

I'm not really sure the placement of the various "heard"s and "learnt"s. What I am sure of is that every time I hear this song, I think it must suck.

Not that it does suck, but that it must suck, because La La Land told me that it sucks.

You may remember that one of the more unfortunate elements of La La Land is that singer John Legend plays the closest thing the film has to an antagonist. See, he's the guy who wants Seb (Ryan Gosling) to sell out his pure version of jazz for this poppy, compromised version that he's managed to popularize. It only adds to the film's already problematic racial politics.

The music Legend's character plays sounds exactly like "Bounce" by Tessellated, and the unfortunate lyric "I just heard/learnt some jazz today" only underscores that fact.

If I had heard this song in a vacuum, I probably wouldn't have gravitated toward it, but I would have found it harmless enough. In fact, I find it harmless enough now.

But the harm is in the fact that every time I see this ad, I think "Seb from La La Land told me that this type of music is bullshit, and therefore, anyone who enjoys listening to it while bouncing along the sidewalk has got to be bullshit too."

Apple should not have to change the song it wants to use on this ad just because a very popular movie undercutted its essential value. But I'd argue that by not considering the potential influence of that movie, they haven't considered the damage that movie did, and how it might damage their own product sales.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

MIFF: Which Fabric? Deerskin!

You couldn't have orchestrated a funnier or more appropriate double feature from the hundreds of films playing this year's Melbourne International Film Festival than the one I saw on Saturday.

And of course, as with all the viewing coincidences I tirelessly tell you about, this one was completely unplanned.

How's this for a theme? Both of the films I saw involved a garment as the film's central character. A garment which is either actually alive in some supernatural sense, or is bestowed life as a result of the crazy person who beholds it.

Of course, the genre for one film is horror and for the other is comedy, though the horror had some very comedic elements in it, and the comedy some very horrifying ones.

The films were Peter Strickland's In Fabric and Quentin Dupieux's Deerskin, and from here I'll address them separately.

Strickland's film was one of the first I locked in when I perused this year's MIFF program, as it filled my annual MIFF niche of "latest release from a director I love." Strickland easily clears that bar as both Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy appeared among my top ten films of the years I saw them. In Fabric promised more of the same giallo-inflected deliciousness.

This was scheduled for 5:30 on Sunday afternoon at the same venue I visited for opening night, The Plenary at the Melbourne Convention Centre. I was also joined by two "mates," to use the Australian term, although one was my mate and one was his mate he brought along (though I hope I'll soon be justified in calling him my mate, directly). Both of these guys are admitted giallo fans, which is an unusual trait to find any two cinephiles sharing in common. Although I started to ponder the limitations of this extremely large venue when you're not doing something like opening night, this session was special too in that Strickland himself introduced it. See, he's being featured (along with Agnieszka Holland and Penelope Spheeris) for this year's director retrospective, meaning all of his films are screening at one point or another (and I'm actually seeing Berberian on the big screen for the first time on Wednesday).

In Fabric was preceded by a short Strickland directed, which used his distinct cinematic style in the service of a Hungarian fairytale about shoemakers and an enchanted lake. I liked this, but felt myself impatient to get to the feature. Alas, that impatience was ultimately misplaced.

Anyone who has seen Berberian or Duke will find themselves in the same capable hands with In Fabric, at least aesthetically speaking. There's a kind of montage approach to eerie imagery that fetishizes some of the giallo touchstones, which include blood, the color red, and sexual/bondage imagery. The concept seems very Strickland, as well, as the story involves an entrancing red dress with a black brooch that kind of hypnotizes prospective owners. The dress is possessed in some way and first brings rashes to those who wear it, and then much, much worse. There's also a creepy department store with this terrific TV ad campaign that recalls the early 1980s VHS phantasmagoria favored by a director like Panos Cosmatos. Strickland's regular collaborator Fatma Mohamed, who appears in both of the films I've mentioned previously, is also on hand as the store's satanic emissary.

Unfortunately, Strickland makes a bold structural choice in the narrative that just does not pay dividends. Without saying too much about what happens or why, I'll just say that the movie resets itself about halfway through, so that we're following different and, it should be said, far less interesting characters for the second half of the movie. This idea can work but it does not here, and this major violation of conventional structure left me very frustrated as it robbed me of my ability to tell where I was within the course of the narrative. In a 118-minute film that can be very difficult indeed.

I changed viewing companions and met my wife for dinner before the 9:45 showing of Deerskin. Neither of us had planned to see a movie on Saturday night, for a couple important reasons: 1) We'd happened to allocate our limited number of tickets elsewhere, and 2) We expected to have our children to look after. But they ended up going for a sleepover at their aunt's house, and my wife came into a possession of a whole second minipass -- which means ten more tickets. How many of these we will end up being able to use remains to be seen.

So a few burgers later we reported to the Capitol Theatre on Swanston Street. And here was where my eyes lit up with delight, and not just because of the movie.

The Capitol Theatre is one of my favorite MIFF venues, but it's been a long time since I've been there. That's because they stopped using it for MIFF in 2014. I'm not sure why they stopped initially, but lately, it's been unavailable because it was being refurbished. That's done now, and it's being reintroduced at this year's festival, with a brand spanking new lobby (gorgeous) and probably new seats in the theater proper, though that wasn't specifically something I was looking for. All I really wanted to know was that the great interior -- which I described in this post as having "walls and ceiling composed of these jutting features that are somewhere between regal, art deco-inspired protrusions and concrete monstrosities" -- was intact. (And if that descriptions sounds tepid, let's just say I wasn't sure what to make of the interior at first, and then grew both aesthetically and sentimentally attached to it.) Indeed that ceiling is the venue's crown jewel, and indeed it was still there in all its glory.

Quentin Dupieux directed one of my favorite oddball films of the last decade, Rubber, as well as a film with a similar tone that I didn't really get, Wrong. If you don't remember, Rubber is the one about the killer tire. If I'd been scanning MIFF's options a bit better when the program was released, I probably would have noticed Deerskin was directed by Dupieux and immediately added it to my schedule, for similar reasons to why I added In Fabric. Instead, I had to come by it Saturday afternoon, after learning my kids would be elsewhere that night, and seeing if I wanted to take advantage of my wife's newly acquired tickets.

After another short film to kick it off, the Polish film Rain which I won't describe but implore you to seek out, Deerskin was just the gas I hoped it would be. It stars The Artist's Jean Dujardin as a man who becomes separated from his wife, and then from his grasp on his own sanity. He becomes obsessed with a used deerskin jacket someone sells him online for an outrageous number of Euros, and because he's spent so much, the guy throws in a video camera. The man starts fancying himself a filmmaker, and soon starts talking to the jacket, whom he believes wants to be the only jacket in existence.

I won't tell you any more. Just see the movie.

Next up could be a surprise screening on Sunday night, but if it isn't, it'll be Chris Morris' The Day Shall Come on Tuesday.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

My first MIFF opening night

Last year I saw the film that played on opening night of the Melbourne International Film Festival -- just not on opening night.

This year I did that one better by actually, for the first time, attending Thursday night's opening night gala.

It's not something I would have done of my own volition, as the tickets are like $150. My wife wouldn't have done it of her own volition either. But she would have done it of somebody else's volition, if that makes sense. And when that somebody else already had a ticket, there was a ticket for me.

I'll explain.

My wife has a film premiering at MIFF this year. She's the producer, and it was directed by a pair of young Australians (they are probably 30). When I say they both directed it, I really mean one directed it and one shot it. I'll talk more about that next week when the film debuts.

Anyway, as the producer, she wanted to make sure that both guys had tickets to opening night. She was given one ticket for herself for free, and the director also got one. She then bought a third ticket so the DP could attend. As it turns out, the director was given a plus-one while the producer was not. He made his plus-one the DP, so she had the extra ticket.

That's where I come in.

I was excited in the abstract, as I like attending fancy affairs where you grab glasses of wine and small crackers with pate on them off the trays of passing waiters. But I learned about my own attendance only 24 hours beforehand, and I was immediately beset by paranoia about what I would wear. I generally don't attend any events where I have to look like, well, anything in particular these days.

Fortunately, my wife knows that, and the short time frame got me off the hook for having tried and whiffed on coming up with something presentable. She rejected my most formal option, which would have been a sport jacket and tie, telling me it would have made me look like somebody's uncle. I think she was right about that. I ended up looking quite consistent with the general level of attire by wearing a brown sweater (they call them "jumpers" here) with a red checkered shirt underneath and poking out at the top. The coup de grace was wearing my scarf as an accent (it's winter here, remember) and a black jacket. It worked.

No one was taking pictures of me anyway. There was some thought that maybe someone would, as there were a couple places here where you could stand and be photographed, which I guess was this event's version of the red carpet. We did stand there and were photographed -- by each other. And she liked how I looked, so all good.

I had a glass of red wine as myself and two thousand others milled about outside the Plenary Theatre at the Melbourne Convention Centre, which is right across from the casino where I see about a third of my movies. I then endured the speeches of no fewer than eight different people, for no fewer than 30 minutes, before the movie finally started.

But it was well worth the wait.

The Australian Dream is a documentary on the retired Aussie rules football player Adam Goodes. As you can probably tell from the poster above, Goodes is Aboriginal, though I'm using that word primarily for readers who don't live here and may be more familiar with it. The word we use nowadays is "indigenous," which I think is better, even if Aboriginal is not technically wrong or even offensive in and of itself. The offense is derived from the way the term has been used historically in a demeaning manner and an abbreviated manner in order to hurt people, and that's really what this film is about.

See, Goodes was forced to retire early from the AFL because the fans objected to him displaying any kind of pride about his indigenous heritage. If that just sounds bizarre to you, well, welcome to Australia. That's of course an oversimplification and I don't mean to suggest that Australians are inherently racist, because they are not. However, there is indeed a complicated history, to say the least, between the white Australians who have been here for 225 years and the black Australians who have been here for, oh, 60,000.

The inciting incident of the Goodes affair was when a 13-year-old girl in the stands called him an ape. Goodes heard it, and was so shocked and hurt that he immediately found an usher and asked that the fan be escorted out of the stadium. If that had been the end of it, it might have just gone away, but further racist taunts and insensitive remarks by footy commentators drew the battle lines, and Goodes began demonstrating more pride in his heritage, including some small tribal victory dances after he would score a goal.

The worst elements of Australian society and footy fandom took exception to all this and started booing Goodes every time he touched the ball. Even though he was a two-time MVP and two-time champion, and only in his mid-30s, Goodes decided he had to step away from the game.

My full review is here, but for now let's just say I loved it. It's not often that a documentary brings tears to my eyes, but this one did.

Goodes himself was the only celebrity I saw all evening, and this from a great distance. I had hoped to catch a random Hugo Weaving or even a Sullivan Stapleton (look him up), but no such Weaving or Stapleton presented himself.

However, I saw a damn good movie and there was wine and pate on crackers, so it was a good night.

And now, my sixth MIFF enters full swing mode, with movies on Saturday (that's today), Tuesday, Wednesday (two), Thursday, Saturday again (two), and two on the final Thursday. At least, I think that's all of them.

Stay tuned for full coverage of all these movies, as always.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Thursday, August 1, 2019

An actress is a person, an actor is an aspiration

I have never been a big fan of female-specific variations on common words. One of the dumbest words in the English language has got to be aviatrix, which is a female aviator. No. Just no.

But there are some I don’t mind, some where the gendering of the word gives an additional qualitative meaning to it. For some reason, I think of “actress” as one of those words.

It’s not that there’s a huge difference in the day-to-day job description for men and women who make their living acting. There’s usually a gender performative aspect to their job, but not always, as men sometimes play women, women sometimes play men, and both sometimes play transgender people. But I do think there is something of historical interest in the term “actress,” as I assume it was once created to immediately clarify that it’s a woman doing the job rather than a man, which had historically been the case regardless of the gender of the character being portrayed.

“What makes that different than aviatrix, Vance?”

I don’t know. Just shut up.

It could just be that the history of giving awards to people who act has made the term useful. It’s much easier to say that Meryl Streep was nominated for “best actress,” for example, than “best female actor.” Whether all actors should be judged in a single category is a discussion for another time.

Anyway, I find myself bristling a little whenever someone is too particular about calling an actress an actor. I don’t have a problem with calling a woman an actor, but I have a problem with the viewpoint that it is in some way demeaning to use the term “actress.” It’s so nothing like aviatrix, which is a blatantly complicated change to make. Actress flows naturally and nicely. It is entrenched via common usage.

I’m to my point now.

I know I’ve been picking on Slate podcaster Dana Stevens a bit lately, which is not my intent, as I’m a big fan and actually got my picture taken with her when The Slate Culture Gabfest toured Australia. And in this case, it’s something anyone could have said, and seems to be illustrative of a larger point.

I was listening to an episode of the Culture Gabfest yesterday that actually posted back in February. I dug it back out because I had skipped their spoiler-filled discussion of Abducted in Plain Sight, which I obviously have now seen as I wrote about it yesterday on this blog. I figured, having aired some fairly strong opinions about the movie, I thought I’d see how their opinions matched up with mine.

In the segment at the end of the show where they endorse something they are enjoying in the pop culture world, Dana endorsed a YouTube series in which a woman who functions as a speech coach critiques acting performances for how well they nailed the accents. In the course of this endorsement, Dana said something like this: “The series is run by this actress who gets a lot of work, and it interested me because my daughter aspires to be an actor.”

As you can see, Dana used both the terms “actress” and “actor” in the very same breath, and both when referring to a woman: this professional running this series, and her daughter. It was likely just a slip of the tongue and not something she intended, but that may make it all the more telling.

If we are to parse what Dana said, it suggests that “actress” is what you call a woman when she already has a job, and that job is acting. However, it’s not something you aspire to. You aspire to be an actor.

If these are the subconscious meanings some people are carrying around with them, I can see why female thespians find it a bit demeaning to be referred to as an actress, whether they “should” or not.

It could also be that Dana recognized she used a term she didn’t intend to use and corrected herself mid-thought, something she is particularly good at doing, as her thoughts on the podcast tend to be extremely well articulated yet also seem spontaneous. If I asked Dana whether she preferred the term actor or actress, she’d probably say the former. Or it could be that she unconsciously observes a distinction between someone she doesn’t know, who can get the more “dismissive” term actress, and her own daughter, who deserves to complete equally in the world by virtue of a non-gender-specific term.

But I think it’s also incorrect to assume that “actor” is most commonly perceived as non-gender-specific. Most people, I would argue, think of an actor as a man. Instead of striving for a certain gender equality, then, the opposite result might be achieved in using the word “actor” for a woman. It might make it look like that woman wants to be recognized via a bit of male terminology, which makes it seem like she wants to be like a man, rather than just being like herself.

I don’t know what any of this means, nor is it very likely to change how I use the word. If I had a daughter and she was into acting, I’d probably say she wants to be an actress.

However, if Dana Stevens’ daughter wants to be an actor, more power to her.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Uncredible witnesses to their own lives

The Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight is proof positive that an interesting story does not always make a good documentary.

I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that even the world’s best documentarian can make a good movie out of boring material, although it would probably be a watchable one. You’d think the reverse would be more likely to be true, and in case I’m confusing things too much, I mean that it seems more likely that even a bad filmmaker could make a good documentary out of a story that’s interesting. Abducted in Plain Sight returns the opposite verdict.

I’m not going to say Skye Borgman is a bad filmmaker, but, well …

One of the biggest problems about it was that I did not believe that the interview subjects were credible witnesses to their own lives.

I’ll stop here to issue a SPOILER ALERT, because what’s good about the movie is totally a function of its surprises. If filmmaking itself were something that could be spoiled, I wouldn’t hesitate to spoil it in this case.

The movie is about a young girl, Jan Broberg, who made headlines in the mid-1970s for twice being kidnapped by her neighbor, Bob Berchtold, a family friend who was also in love with her. She was 12 when it started, but it went on for a good five years, somehow, with all sorts of weird bits mixed in. The weird bits include that this neighbor also had sexual relationships with both her mother and her father, though I can’t tell if the relationship with the father ever extended beyond a single hand job in a car. Then there’s also the bit about the neighbor telling the girl that aliens were speaking to her through an intercom and that the two of them needed to have a baby that would save the world from destruction. That’s pretty weird.

The weirdest bit, though, is almost certainly the fact that the girl’s parents did almost nothing to stop it, and in fact, in some cases, had their own sexual relationships with the man after he had already been accused of abducting their daughter. Their own voluntary sexual relationships.

This is just one of many things that make them unreliable narrators, as it were.

I suppose if things had gone in a more expected direction for this type of situation, it would not be the interesting story that it is. It’s interesting because the parents were so totally duped by this guy (who they confusingly just call “Berchtold”) that they seem to abdicate all of their responsibilities as parents and adults. The film argues that this is just how charming “Berchtold” was, but it doesn’t back it up with enough evidence. They just seem like weirdos who do inexplicable things for reasons you, and quite likely they, can’t quite fathom.

It’s truly odd to watch interviews with her parents and have them confess to certain behaviors without really trying to explain why they did what they did. What’s more, we hear audio tapes from the time where they are speaking to their daughter – presumed missing at this point, and only about 15 years old – where they ask her questions about whether “Berchtold” still wants to marry her and whether she still wants to marry him. Almost like they were disinterested work acquaintances rather than, you know, her parents.

The other strange thing about the film is that it unceremoniously introduces the adult Jan Broberg as one of the interview subjects from the very beginning of the film. She looks quite composed and well-adjusted, if perhaps maintaining a little of the apparent naivete she would have had back then. But the fact that she’s smiling and looks nicely put together immediately defuses the idea, at least on a surface level, that she might have been scarred by being abducted and raped by her neighbor, in addition to removing any doubt as to whether she actually survived the events in question, which might have been kept vague by a more shrewd filmmaker.

The whole film has the feeling of starting in the middle of a sentence, like it doesn’t fully introduce us to the characters or lay the groundwork about why their story is worth telling. Of course, the argument could be made that any story of a child twice abducted by the same person is worth telling, but because we don’t know the details at the start, it feels like some kind of introductory voice was required to prepare us for why we are meeting these people and learning their story. Borgman heaps too much of the responsibility for bringing us up to speed on the Broberg family themselves, five of whom are interviewed, all of whom are too close to the material to give us something like the omniscient overview we need before getting into the story.

The other decision the film makes is to rely heavily on recreations. It’s not that the quality of the recreations is bad – it’s actually pretty good. But it’s such a consistent part of the storytelling approach that it tends to remind us of its artificiality and of what creative leeway we are allowing Borgman.

I suspect that some of my perspective is problematic, because these are ordinary human beings who went through extraordinary events, so it’s not a huge surprise their testimony seems to be filled with holes. The human memory is fallible, and it seems all the more fallible when it’s not supported by what we would consider logical human behavior.

But I also have to say that if you are watching a movie, and listening to people speak, and feeling like you want to shake them because they did so many things that defied explanation, it does affect your ability to enjoy the movie. You are taken out of it because you don’t believe them. You don’t believe anyone could act this way and then offer only the lame explanations they are offering today.

I often say that I prefer true sports stories to made-up sports stories, because the incredible feats depicted in them have an air of believability as a result of having really happened. If a screenwriter dreamed up that unlikely comeback, I would never have believed it, but if it really happened I’ve got no choice. You could say the same thing about documentaries of real people whom you couldn’t believe if they were fictitious characters. But what if you don’t believe them even when they’re real?