Monday, December 30, 2019

The year of endings

Given that 2019 is the last year of the 2010s, it seems only natural that we’d be thinking about endings.

What doesn’t necessarily follow, though, is that so many popular franchises would have been geared toward a natural 2019 endpoint in their own chronologies.

No popular cultural commodity can be packed away for good, so in many cases, what we’re talking about here is a pause in the action. But it’s a big pause with a big symbolic value, even if it ends up proving to be a short one.

That this should coincide with the end of a decade is, to be certain, a coincidence. It must be. No franchise starts with the idea of wrapping it up by a certain symbolic date, if only because most franchises can’t be sure they will endure long enough to get there. The point it starts is entirely a function of when its perceived viability has reached a critical threshold in order to make it into a film (or a TV show, as we shall see). The point it finishes, then, is usually a function of x number of consecutive production schedules until the entirety of the story has been told.

For whatever reason, that entirety really descended on us in 2019.


Let’s look at the examples:

Star Wars – This is the big one, as a story dating back 42 years, with many of the same actors, finally reached its conclusion in 2019. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is not, of course, the last Star Wars movie we will ever see. In fact, it’s almost certain that 20 years from now, we’ll already have as many more Star Wars movies as we’ve gotten in the last 42. But as the end of the Skywalker saga, or at least the end of the actual Skywalker bloodline, it’s a pretty big deal. Sure, Daisy Ridley may say now that she’s done with Star Wars, but I also read that she went and cried alone in her car after seeing the final cut. Emotionally, she’s susceptible to returning, and she adopted the name Skywalker after all. But there’s no doubt that for now, this is an ending, and it’s a big one.

Avengers – It’s hard to feel like a saga has come to an end when a new movie featuring some of the same characters comes out scarcely two months later. But there’s no arguing that Avengers: Endgame represented a real culmination of 11 years’ worth of movies that had preceded it, and that you definitively draw a line when you halve the total of six original Avengers in one fell swoop. Of course, in the perfect example of pop culture’s perennial self-rejuvenation, one of the deceased Avengers is actually getting her own movie just a couple short months from now, albeit a prequel (or so it would seem). Still, to measure just how much of an effect the MCU has had on us, many of us (myself included?) were sadder to see the end of this story than the end of Star Wars. And walking out of that theater back in April, it sure did feel like an ending.

Game of Thrones – Apologies if I switch to TV on a film blog, but GOT is one of the most cinematic TV shows we’ve ever gotten, and in the past decade, its cultural cachet came to rival the two mentioned above and the likes of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. That too came to an end in 2019, though I’m sure we’ll get The Further Adventures of Tyrion Lannister at some point in the next decade. The final season of Game of Thrones was heavily criticized in certain corners of the internet, as well as off it, as you didn’t have to be a geek to get involved in this epic of swords and dragons, breasts and beheadings. For me, the final season flashed moments of brilliance and moments of great disappointment, though more disappointment in the way our heroes can let us down than the way the writers botched the job of telling their story. And for me, it was another sentimental end to a saga I’d been living with for years.

Breaking Bad – While we're on TV ... Breaking Bad should have ended years ago, but since Vince Gilligan decided we needed a conclusion to the story of Jesse Pinkman, we got a movie that did that in 2019. Although the movie was received well in most circles (though not this circle), I suspect Gilligan won't decide he needs to wrap up any more characters, making this the final chapter in the story of these characters, in any case. Unless he gets the bad idea for Breaking Bad: Alaska, which, I hope not. 

Toy Story – So if Toy Story 3 wasn’t really the end, then Toy Story 4 surely is, isn’t it? Never say never, but for now, it does seem like Pixar is ready to move on from the story of Buzz, Woody, Bo Peep et al, delivering the final installment of their story in 2019. There’s nothing that states this has to be the end, except for the perceived catcalls of Pixar fans who thought a fourth movie was already a bridge too far. But at the very least, it’ll be hard to imagine how Woody will reunite with the legacy of Andy and his family friends, represented most distinctly by the gaggle of toys who do remain together at the end of this one.

X-Men – Not all conclusions had a sentimental quality to them. Given the general response of sheer exhaustion and disinterest by fans, they didn’t want to let the door hit X-Men on the ass on its way out. Dark Phoenix was always envisioned as the end point to this particular iteration of the X-Men franchise, but after the way the last two films were resoundingly rejected, it could be a stake to the heart of the franchise on the whole. If so, it’ll leave a bad taste.

It – Okay, so the first chapter of It was only two years ago. But this is definitely the last chapter, unless someone wants to pull some silly stunt like getting these actors together again in three decades, Before Sunrise style, to have them fight Pennywise as 70-year-olds. I include it here more for the way the poster added to the symbolic trend I’m exploring today. The tagline reads simply: “It ends.”

How to Train Your Dragon – Okay, I didn’t even see The Hidden World, which came out in early January in Australia (I was invited to a preview screening in 2018, as a matter of fact). I guess I tired of seeing these movies before they tired of making them. However, they have now tired of that, as producer Dean DeBlois confirmed they don’t intend to make any more. Right, and Sylvester Stallone didn’t intend to make any more Rocky movies after Rocky IV.

Rambo – Another one I didn’t see, but since the aforementioned Sylvester Stallone is now 73, it’s reasonable to believe the promise implicit in the title Last Blood. And since I didn’t see it, I have no idea if Last Blood puts a definitive ending to the story of John Rambo. But whether it does or not, this is actually a pretty big one, as the character has cinematic origins older than any other character on this list save Luke Skywalker.

And this is to say nothing of the franchises that may have practically ended due to poor box office, whether they intended to or not (Terminator, Charlie’s Angels), and the movies that felt like they were career summations based on the age of the director (The Irishman, Pain and Glory).

So yeah, it seems that 2019 was a year for us to look back on the past and kill it, to quote Rian Johnson’s version of Kylo Ren.

But 2020 is not only the start of a new year, it’s the start of a new decade. It seems likely that we’ll get more recycling of franchises that haven’t yet worn out their welcome. But don’t forget that when the last decade started, most of us hadn’t even heard of Game of Thrones or How to Train Your Dragon, and the MCU was in its comparative infancy at only two years old.

Ten years from now, we might be mourning the endings of things we haven’t yet imagined.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A movie theater on a boat? What'll they think of next!

Because I have yet to experience my personal white whale of a vacation -- a luxury cruise -- I have also yet to go to the movies at sea.

Well, now I can tick that particular item off my bucket list.

On our way back from Tasmania on Sunday, I did what I hadn't done the previous Saturday night on my trip over -- watch The Addams Family aboard the Spirit of Tasmania, one of two ships that does the ten-hour Bass Strait crossing between Victoria and Tasmania for people who want to bring their own cars on holiday in Tassie (or vice versa, I suppose).

It was very hard to skip the 11 p.m. showing last Saturday, because the sheer novelty of it all but propelled me through the door. But because I texted my wife that I was planning to do it, she gently chided me about whether I'd want to watch it again the following weekend when I had my kids in tow.

And I'm glad I waited, for a couple reasons. There was no kid-friendly alternative I hadn't already seen -- in fact, all five other movies on this daytime crossing (Abominable, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Ad Astra, Downton Abbey and Last Christmas) were movies I'd already seen. See, they actually have two movie theaters, if you want to get right down to it.

The second reason? Yeah, I wouldn't have wanted to watch this thing twice.

But first, the theater. The screen was the smallest thing about it, as the actual "auditorium" (if you want to call it that) came equipped with about 30 legitimately theater-style seats. I probably wouldn't have wanted to watch something like Ad Astra in such an environment (though I didn't like that film anyway), but The Addams Family turned out to be just fine.

My only complaint was the timing of the show, as I might have liked the movie to break up the ten hours a bit better. By playing at 9:30, only an hour after we'd set sail (so to speak), and by ending before 11 a.m., it did leave my kids wondering how soon we would be there way too soon after it ended.

But yeah, just doing it at all was really fun, and they liked the movie better than I did, so that was good.

Oh, I guess it was fine in the end. But even though the property it was based on came first, it did remind me rather too much of the Hotel Transylvania series, the first of which I loved, with diminishing returns on each subsequent installment.

Also, I've decided I can make a pretty solid prediction about an animated movie. The more characters appear like caricatures (the rotund really rotund, the tall and skinny really tall and skinny), the less likely the movie is to be any good. And, like, all the tall and skinny characters in this movie had pencil thin legs and arms, which tended to diminish the amount Wednesday Addams was supposed to stand out from them.

Co-director Conrad Vernon is also the veteran of multiple Madagascar movies, so there's that.

The one really unique aspect of the experience was the fact that you could feel the boat rocking from time to time, giving it almost its own natural 4DX experience.

Maybe Ad Astra would have been a good movie to see that way, after all. Don't astronauts sometimes simulate space flight in water?

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Merry Christine to you

We've spent Christmas with Christine Baranski, but it hasn't been all egg nog and good cheer.

After being one of the best parts of The Ref, a movie we really liked, on the 23rd, she was one of the worst parts of A Bad Moms Christmas, our Christmas Eve viewing.

And we hated A Bad Moms Christmas.

Which is a shame, because I was wildly, irresponsibly, on the other side of the spectrum with the first movie, which I gave 4.5 stars and ranked in my top 15 of the year. This one I gave one star and was teetering on the verge of the dreaded half. (And Baranski looks nothing like the actress whose mother she is supposed to play, Mila Kunis.)

The first Bad Moms is probably not as good as I remember it, but this one is that bad.

But since I am writing these words on actual Christmas, I won't linger on the negative.

I did want to quickly mention that this is a funny movie to have watched on the heels of The Ref as it's a second straight Christmas movie that has an identity crisis on how to market itself.

We'd always planned to watch the Bad Moms sequel this Christmas season, and it was there for the streaming on Netflix. But as I could not be sure what kind of internet we'd have in our "holiday house" in Tasmania, I also picked up a DVD copy at the library, just in case.

Funnily enough, it was the DVD copy we couldn't use. The aspect ratio was too squished, and we just couldn't figure out how to correct that. Fortunately, it streamed just fine. (Or maybe unfortunately, as we probably would have enjoyed our Christmas Eve better had we not watched it.)

I noticed the DVD was titled Bad Moms 2, as the film was distributed in Australia, whereas Netflix bore the film's U.S. branding you see in the poster above.

Unlike with the aforementioned The Ref or The Ref's own predecessor in ambiguously branded holiday fare, Die Hard, A Bad Moms Christmas/Bad Moms 2 was not released at some other point of the year. And Australians are, if anything, even more Christmas crazy than Americans, even with the summer Christmas and everything.

Maybe they're wiser than Americans about protecting the sanctity of their favorite holiday. Maybe they didn't want to taint Christmas by affiliating the woebegone Bad Moms sequel with it.

Here's hoping your holiday viewings are untainted by inferior fare, and if you've hung your Baranski by the chimney with care, you get a Ref rather than a Mom. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Qui-Gon Jinn reads The Polar Express

I've had Star Wars on the brain this holiday season, as you can tell from my last x number of posts.

So it was appropriate that none other than Qui-Gon Jinn read us The Polar Express on Christmas Eve.

Chris Van Allsburg's 1985 storybook is a Christmas tradition that I have brought from my own childhood into my children's childhoods. But there are specific rules around this tradition; the story gets read only once each year, that being Christmas Eve.

Except not this year, it appeared.

Despite reminding myself not to forget it when packing for our trip to Tasmania, I did indeed leave behind our weathered copy of the story -- the one from my childhood -- on our bookshelf at home.

I remembered it at dinner on Monday night, and immediately felt dismayed.

Then yesterday I got an idea. What if the internet could read it to us?

Of course the internet could do that. In fact, Liam Neeson could do it.

The first result when I searched "polar express storybook" on YouTube was, indeed, a 16-minute reading of the story by the world's most prominent Irish actor. And though there were some things he said earlier in the year that made me sort of want to cancel him, well, it's Christmastime, a time for forgiveness.

Plus, I'd just heard his voice -- twice now -- in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

So we pulled up to the hearth of my laptop -- my wife, my kids, my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law -- and listened to Neeson's marvelous brogue read my beloved Christmas Eve story, the one that distills the magic of Christmas in a way that never quite extinguishes, no matter how old you get or how many stressors undermine your holiday season.

And even though there was music, which didn't always work, and even though some pages were lingered on longer than it seemed they needed to be, and even though the camera moved across the page rather than giving us a full still image of each glorious page in Van Allsburg's book, it was my traditional fulfilled, and Christmas is all about tradition.

What's more, the looks on the faces of my family seemed to involve genuine joy, both those who knew the story well and those who were hearing it for the first time.

Merry Christmas, and may the force be with you.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Audient Audit: The Ref

This is the final installment in my 2019 monthly series where I've been checking my lists twice to see whether I was naughty by adding films I'd never seen to them. 

So I'm finally getting around to seeing my first Christmas movie of the season (second if you count Last Christmas way back in November, third if you count the 40 minutes of Die Hard I watched last weekend), and thereby writing my first Christmas post of the season, and it's one that doesn't even have a Christmas-related poster.

In a thing it definitely has in common with Die Hard, which came out six years earlier, The Ref appears to have been marketed in such a way as to downplay/entirely disregard its Christmas setting. That would never happen today. If anything, they'd want to play up any little Christmas association they could find. At the very least, you'd have this same picture with a Christmas tree behind Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis.

But no, in 1994, apparently it was considered a bad thing that your movie might feature Christmas. And The Ref apparently was not successful enough to have generated even one alternate poster. When you google "The Ref movie poster," this is all you get.

But the reason there's no Christmas in this poster is the same reason there's no Christmas in the Die Hard posters: The Ref was not released at Christmastime. It was released on March 11, 1994, so putting a Christmas tree on the poster would have been a weird thing indeed. The big change today would be either it wouldn't have Christmas as a backdrop, or it would have been released at Christmastime. Gone are the days when movies that have a significant Christmas theme are released at any other time than mid-November.

The Ref had made it onto my various lists because I had seen at least a few scenes of it. I remembered the scene where Denis Leary tips Spacey and Davis over in their chairs, for example.

As it turns out, though, that was it. I didn't remember most of this film.Which means either my memory is bad, or I didn't see it.

Not remembering it is a good thing, because I came in with the impression that The Ref was a mediocre black comedy, one which others raved about but which hadn't worked for me at the time. I'm glad I'm remembering it wrong, probably from never having seen it at all, because I thought this thing was hysterical.

It's all about comic timing. The three leads are all masters of that, as the lines they spit out really sing because of their skill in this area. Then you've got legit comedy vet Christine Baranski, whose imperious and sarcastic line readings have always been her calling card. But some of the funniest lines come from Baranski's dopey husband, a "that guy" I recognized from numerous previous projects, whose name is Adam Lefevre. He's the straight man to all these sarcastic dynamos, asking in childlike naive surprise "Why?" when his brother and sister-in-law say they're getting a divorce. Despite a movie's worth of their bickering.

When all the performers are good, you have to credit the director. The late Ted Demme (I guess both Demme brothers are now "late," sadly) made a number of really solid films during his career, among them Beautiful Girls and Monument Ave., also with Leary. His career started early enough that he was still only 38 when he died eight years after this movie was released. We might have gotten a lot more great movies from him if a heart attack -- one likely fueled by cocaine use, an irony since his last movie was Blow -- didn't take him from us too early.

The thing that worried me about making this our Christmas Eve Eve viewing on our holiday to Tasmania was that it would be too acid, too dark. I liked the idea of watching something that wasn't soppy with holiday sentiment, but I was worried this would drive us to places we didn't want to go. (And as it happened, it was the second straight movie my wife and I watched involving marital strife, after Marriage Story.)

Well, lucky this film ends up having a lot of heart. Sure, Davis and Spacey bicker their way through the kidnapping/home invasion perpetrated by Leary's cat burglar, but there's no real violence in this film, and comeuppance is only waiting for characters who really deserve it. And, as it turns out, none of our three leads fall into that category. The issues Davis and Spacey argue about are not petty, but seem like real concerns of real married people -- while also managing to tickle our funny bones. And the fact that they both start to sympathize with Spacey, and vice versa, shows that decent people see the decency in each other even in a world that's marred by bitterness and betrayal.

A big win to end the series on.

I'd normally end this series with a kind of wrap-up along the lines of ranking the films from first to worst, but I'm not going to do that this time. Instead, I'll just give you a final count of the movies I saw, and which ones I had legitimately seen before. Here we go:

January - Roxanne (hadn't seen)
February - The Witches of Eastwick (had seen)
March - The Dollars Trilogy (hadn't seen)
April - Speed 2: Cruise Control (hadn't seen)
May - The Pink Panther (hadn't seen)
June - Modern Times (hadn't seen)
July - The Magnificent Seven (hadn't seen)
August - Breathless (hadn't seen)
September - Manon of the Spring (hadn't seen)
October - Heartbeeps (had seen)
November - Ran (had seen)
December - The Ref (hadn't seen)

So a pretty scant three titles I ended up pretty sure I'd seen before. Which makes me a pretty big liar ... but also pretty good at identifying when I might have lied.

I'm still weighing up two different options for my 2020 monthly series, but will decide in time to watch the first in January. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Second Skywalker is the charm

Can I start talking about Star Wars yet?

I'll give you a spoiler warning before I delve into anything really serious in this post, but I've got a few more paragraphs before that time rolls around.

One thing you know for sure, whether you've seen The Rise of Skywalker or not, is that it has been divisive. Some people do love it, but more seem to hate it -- or at least those who hate it have taken command of the narrative around this film.

One thing you may not know, though, is that it's better the second time.

The conventional wisdom should state that a film has its greatest impact on you the first time, as you are being freshly introduced to its winning elements and have the thrill of surprise in your corner as well. With a Star Wars movie, though, it may be a little different. You need one viewing just to comprehend the new information being fed to you, and to wrap your mind around the fact that what you're witnessing is essentially new threads in a sacred text.

But new anything does not always go down well the first time. Sometimes you have to see it a second time for the incorporation to be complete.

I got that chance yesterday morning in Devonport, Tasmania, scarcely an hour after disembarking from the ferry that brought my car and me over to this island from mainland Victoria. I camped out last night and have joined my wife and my sons (who flew down today), as well as my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law, in the southern part of the state on the Tasman Peninsula, where we will spend Christmas.

I knew I wanted to see something, and I thought that thing would be Frozen II at 9:30. (It was an all-night ferry ride.) But in killing some time before the start of the movie, I listened to the Filmspotting guys do their own discussion of The Rise of Skywalker, and that made me realize that I wanted to see it again. Not only that, but now was the time, or never. After Boxing Day, I'll have a half-dozen new releases to consider seeing to add them to my 2019 list. There'll be no time for Star Wars then.

The first showing of Rise of Skywalker of the day was starting just 15 minutes after that, and would leave me all afternoon to do some last-minute shopping before arriving at my campsite.

Upon completion, my 3.5 star rating of the film shot up at least a half-star, and I'm inclined to say it'd be a full star if that didn't seem to disregard some of the film's undeniable weaknesses. Four point five stars was what I gave The Force Awakens, still my favorite in this trilogy, but Rise of Skywalker ends up in the same ballpark of quality for me after that second viewing.

In a way I think this is crazy. My brief summary of this movie, which I gave a couple others who had also seen it, was along the lines of "Although it had basically everything I wanted it to have, my overall impression was that it was slightly 'less than.'" In fact, after initially convincing myself that it fell between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi for me, I started to wonder if Last Jedi weren't the superior film.

So what exactly did that second viewing do for me?

For one, it allowed me to understand the connective tissue between scenes that had seemed way too hurried the first time, when I was failing to follow each movement in the quest narrative. It's not nearly as shoddy or poorly explained as I thought, it's just that each new wrinkle in the quest is quickly explained without being belabored. It's almost a model of narrative efficiency by J.J. Abrams, despite it seeming to some people like indulgence/inefficiency to have all those different scenes and planets in the first place. Those people are wrong, and my second viewing confirmed it for me.

My second viewing also allowed me to become emotional in scenes where I had not the first time. It was not that I didn't experience emotions the first time, but that they were intensified the second time, perhaps a result of knowing where things were going. There were actual tears at least once.

If I hadn't watched this movie again, I was ready to let it become mired in my 50s or 60s on my year-end list. Now I'm glad to say that it will be quite a bit higher than that ... and that I'm kind of plotting, though not very seriously, how I might even squeeze in a third viewing.

So the message to you is: If you love Star Wars, but you didn't love this movie, give yourself another chance to love it.

Well, I didn't get to any spoilers after all, and tomorrow I think I finally have to write my first Christmas post.

But you won't be sick of Star Wars talk yet after Christmas, will you? And then you really will all have seen it, and this tiptoeing around spoilers won't be necessary.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

In the Driver's seat


In fact, I specifically chose a picture from The Last Jedi just so you don't have any photographic spoilers.

I figured it was finally time to write a post about Adam Driver, and I had a pretty good excuse, as the last four films I've watched (new and revisited) all feature Driver.

Three of those were, of course, Star Wars movies, as I revisited The Force Awakens (Saturday night) and The Last Jedi (Sunday night) in the lead-up to my midnight viewing of The Rise of Skywalker on Wednesday. Marriage Story was, as you know from my last two posts, the other film crammed in there on Tuesday night.

The only thing preventing this from being a complete Driver lovefest was hearing that he walked out of an interview with Terry Gross that had scarcely begun because a clip of himself singing from Marriage Story was going to be played as part of the package. Apparently, Adam Driver can't watch or even listen to himself perform, a quirk that sounds like false modesty until you back it up by storming out on one of America's most respected interviewers.

It's too bad, because I love watching and listening to Adam Driver perform.

It wasn't always this way. My first tastes of Driver were decidedly mixed. They were based on short experiences with him in Frances Ha, a film I really liked, though found his character a bit insufferable, and Girls, of which I only watched a handful of episodes. I recognized a kind of magnetism in his abilities, but got the impression of self-involvement, a kid of obnoxious sense of the privilege of the young Greenwich Village intellectual. That was surely the characters he was playing rather than the man himself, but if you play too many of that type of character, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the two.

I'm glad Driver wasn't pigeonholed, because he has gone on to impress me time and again throughout the rest of the decade. It probably all started halfway through the 2010s with The Force Awakens. When I first heard it, his casting struck me as odd, and then infinitely more so when I learned he was set to be The Big Bad. Actually seeing the film immediately convinced me that I had underestimated Driver -- vastly.

This isn't a spoiler for The Rise of Skywalker because you've surely seen enough images to know that he repairs his Kylo Ren mask in this film. J.J. Abrams liked that mask, and I kind of feel like its destruction was one of the "fuck you"s Rian Johnson gave him in The Last Jedi that rankled him the most.

But Johnson knew what he was doing, and I'll just say that Abrams acknowledges it in Rise of Skywalker as well. To have Adam Driver behind a mask is to not see Adam Driver act. And Adam Driver can act at a level few of his peers can achieve.

Even the still photo above contains more acting than certain performers in the prequel trilogy accomplished over the entire trilogy. Last night in talking to a friend, I characterized Driver as "Hayden Christensen, but good." By that I meant that both actors played young, emotionally immature, yet extremely powerful force users who were tempted by the dark side and confused by their negative thoughts. While Christensen received enough backlash for the petulance of his performance to have possibly poisoned the well for that character type in all future Star Wars movies, Driver made it immediately clear how that type of character is supposed to work, and thereby salvaged that character type. (Side note: I actually do think Christensen is frequently effective in those movies.)

Even if the mask is cool and the voice distortion is chilling, you don't get the real Ben Solo/Kylo Ren until he's unencumbered by the mask.

Driver carries the performance through to the finish line in Rise of Skywalker, which is all I'll say.

Then you have Marriage Story, one of two other Driver movies released in the past couple months, along with The Report, which I understand is kind of disappointing. If it is disappointing, I have no doubt it's not Driver's fault.

Driver has already received a Golden Globe nomination for Marriage Story, and an Oscar nomination is surely also forthcoming. In fact, I haven't handicapped the field, but it's possible he's even the favorite to take home the award.

And that's just. I may have some quibbles with the balance of the film between its two main characters, but I can understand Noah Baumbach being seduced by the notion of more screen time for this charismatic actor. (It helps, of course, that Driver is the Baumbach stand-in in the film.) His every instinct in this film is on point. He knows how to play someone who is generous, and he knows how to play someone who is shitty. He presents us with a character who has a continuum of selves, and in certain key emotional moments, he delivers the kind of performance you don't forget, which they use for Oscar clips. That's not a backhanded compliment in this case, because they are not staged as moments of Oscar bait. Driver would probably reject a moment that was staged like that, would find a way to use his peculiarities as a performer to render that moment utterly scaled and believable.

It ended up being a bit of an Adam Driver lovefest anyway.

If walking out on Terry Gross makes Driver a diva, then I guess that's something we can live with. Not everyone can be as ingratiating as Tom Hanks, and also be a really great actor. In fact, history is littered with actors who were absolute shitheads, but held the screen in a way you couldn't take your eyes off.

It's a bit bittersweet to know I (probably) won't be seeing Driver in any more Star Wars movies, but the timing of Marriage Story is a useful reminder that Kylo Ren was merely the breakout role for him.

And now that he's broken out, anything is possible.

Friday, December 20, 2019

What the other goodfella has been up to

Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have been earning a lot of praise this fall leading into winter (leading into summer in Australia), but there’s one goodfella who has been flying a bit under the radar.

Ray Liotta does not appear in The Irishman, but he does appear in Netflix’s other big awards contender released within the past month, Marriage Story. And I’d argue that what he’s doing here may be more interesting than what they’re doing there.

I’m sure if Martin Scorsese had written a part in The Irishman for Liotta (Harvey Keitel’s?), he would have gladly accepted it. A commitment to Marriage Story would not have prevented him. But if not being in The Irishman did, in some way, allow him to be in Noah Baumbach’s film, I’m grateful for it.

See, De Niro and Pesci are doing things they’ve done before. Many times before. That’s kind of the point. And to their credit, they are both playing significantly less hot-headed versions of their prior incarnations of these characters, in a way that particularly surprised me in Pesci's case.

Ray Liotta? I don’t think I’ve ever seen him be a lawyer before.

There are a lot of credits on Liotta’s IMDB page – 116, to be exact – and I can’t possibly know what all those roles were, especially as some of them were in movies that no one saw. But a cursory scan of the titles, coupled with the ones I’ve already seen, tells me it’s very unlikely that he’s ever played an attorney.

And even if he has, it has probably been a shady attorney, one indistinguishable from the mobster rolls that have been his bread and butter ever since Goodfellas made him famous. If not actual mobsters, then criminals, lowlifes and other rapscallions.

But in Marriage Story, he’s the best divorce lawyer money can buy – which I don’t suppose rules out the concept of him being shady. In fact, at $850/hour, maybe he’s even more shady. But he’s clearly respectable, as only people who can afford it pay for him.

And he’s really good in the role. It may have less than ten minutes of screen time in total over only two or possibly three scenes, but Liotta makes that character truly believable, an able sparring partner for superlative Laura Dern on the other side of the aisle. I believe that Liotta could argue for his client like a shark going after chum, and not just because he’s a sleazebag familiar with all the tricks. It’s because he’s an actually competent lawyer playing a kill-or-be-killed game.

Seeing Ray Liotta as a respectable lawyer tells me Liotta is not done reinventing himself as an actor. As for Pesci and De Niro, they are both paying homage to, and possibly suggesting they have nowhere still to go from, the roles that made them famous. Pesci had to come out of actual retirement to play the role, as a matter of fact. 

Now granted, there’s a bit of an age gap here. Liotta is “only” 65, while the other two both turn 77 in 2020. That’s enough of a gap, at that age, that it means the difference between still going strong and starting to wind down.

But when I saw that Scorsese had “rejected” having Liotta in his movie – not that his calculation was probably anything like that – it kind of made me wonder why Liotta didn’t get to take part in the fun.

And I’m happy with the answer “He’s still got too many new surprises left in him.”

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Our Marriage Story

I had my qualms about watching Marriage Story with my wife.

I didn't think it would be an issue, as we rarely watch movies together anymore. She prefers peak TV and I'm still the loyal cinephile. But I still yearn for the opportunity to see things with her, so when she expresses an interest, I go for it.

But why did it have to be Marriage Story?

My wife and I have a good marriage. But even good marriages are vulnerable to strain, to periods of chaos and lack of fulfillment, to vague anxieties about whether the other person is harboring secret desires to leave and not telling you about them. Even in good marriages, you don't want the other person getting any ideas from a movie like Marriage Story.

And it's been a period of a bit of strain this holiday season. My wife had her wisdom teeth removed last Tuesday, the best among a bunch of bad choices in the timing of such a procedure. She would have had them out a month or two ago, but I had to make that surprise trip to the U.S., and then things got busy.

The recovery hasn't been smooth, as she is in a lot of pain. That has nothing to do with me, but when your spouse is shirty with you (to use an Australian term I love), you don't necessarily chalk it up to the fact that he or she is suffering physical pain. On some level you realize it, but on another, you think you might just be a shit spouse, and all your inadequacies are finally too much for the other person to handle.

So if I didn't have to watch Marriage Story with my wife, I secretly thought it would probably be a good thing.

To use a word intentionally chosen for its fraught quality, I gave her an ultimatum about Marriage Story. I needed to watch it either Monday or Tuesday night, as I did not anticipate having any other opportunities before we record our year-end podcast on Friday night. I needed to give it the chance to make my top five, or at least the top five I plan to reveal in that podcast, which will only be a rough draft before my January 13th deadline when I post my complete list on this blog.

She passed on Monday night. I went Christmas shopping that night.

She looked like she was going to pass on Tuesday, and I was going to sit down to watch it. Then at the last minute, she told me she'd start watching while we ate our dinner, expecting to peel away at a certain point, especially since the movie is well in excess of two hours.

She watched the whole thing.

And while there were certainly parts where we undoubtedly both thought "I do that" or "he does that" or "she does that" -- depending on who was doing the thinking -- there weren't any of the really uncomfortable moments, really awkward moments, I was fearing.

Afterward, we delved straight into an engaging discussion about the film's strengths and weaknesses, the kind we used to have when we watched a movie or two together a week. I was glad to see that we both felt the story had not done Scarlett Johansson's character any favors, but that we both quite liked the film anyway. We talked about it as a film for ten minutes, and none of our discussion had to do with who leaves the toilet seat up, the toothpaste cap off, or their partner feeling unsupported. It was just a good old-fashioned sharing of thoughts on a piece of art.

A few minutes later, in the kitchen, she was looking for a cover for a tupperware container. She'd already committed to it by putting the food in, and the last thing you want to do at that point is switch containers because you can't find the lid.

I happened to know that I had used the same-sized container earlier in the evening for a half-finished block of cheese, which didn't require it. I fished that container out of the fridge and passed the top over to her. She smiled.

"See, this is our Marriage Story," she said. "Now we don't need to get divorced."

It was a lovely moment. It tacitly acknowledged how a movie like Marriage Story has "dangerous themes." It also tacitly acknowledged that they are no danger to us.

As long as you keep getting tupperware lids for your partner, metaphorically speaking, that marriage can last.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

My last midnight Star Wars

Tonight, a bunch of things end.

Never say never, but I doubt I’ll be watching the various new Star Wars spinoffs at 12:01 a.m. Australia time, even if it will give me bragging rights over all you who have to wait 24-48 hours beyond that to see the movie.

Because will any new Star Wars movie be as momentous as this one?

This is the end of a saga that began 42 years ago, when more than half the world’s population was not yet alive, when we didn’t know Luke Skywalker from Luke Starkiller, Chewbacca from tobacco and stormtroopers from … well, the Nazi variation thereof.

Sure, what transpires in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will probably bear very little resemblance to the twinkle in George Lucas’ eye back in the mid-1970s. As much as he may say he knew about where the whole saga was going, he hasn’t had much say in its ending, as it turns out.

I’m not finding that to make the experience any less pure. It’s the same actors – those who are still alive, anyway, and some appearing posthumously – plus the return of one we haven’t seen since the early 20th century, and one we haven’t seen since 1983. It may have been George Lucas’ story, but in terms of what’s up there on the screen, it’s their story, and that matters.

In terms of my actual plan, I almost titled this post “A Hoyts for every Star Wars.”

Seeing Star Wars movies at midnight started for me in 2015 with The Force Awakens, the result of my wife buying me a ticket for my birthday. (Yes, Star Wars tickets were already available in late October.) That was at the Hoyts at Melbourne Central.

In 2017 I hit up the Hoyts at Hightpoint Shopping Centre, as that was more convenient for the two guys I was seeing it with. (Plus, I’d gone there to see Rogue One the year before, which I’m not including in the current calculation because it’s not part of this saga, and because I don’t like it very much.)

Now in 2019 I’m seeing The Rise of Skywalker at a Hoyts that didn’t exist for the previous two releases, the Docklands Hoyts, which I only attended for the first time last year to see The Grinch. (And what a memorable viewing experience that was.) This is the closest to my house, and involves only an easy ten-minute bike ride home along a bike path at 3 in the morning.

I’m sure I’ll have follow-up posts with my thoughts on the movie, so I’ll keep this preview post short.

But 24 hours from now, I’ll be groggy at work, wondering how I’m going to get through the day, hopefully still delirious with the joy of a successful conclusion to one of my life’s great adventures.

No pressure, right?

Monday, December 16, 2019

A preference for matte finishes

I love a good matte finish.

It's why I stop and stare at cars with matte paint jobs long enough for them to start feeling uncomfortable. It's why I order my Christmas cards with a matte rather than glossy finish. It's why I make any number of other design choices that I am probably not even conscious of.

Saturday night, I learned about another.

We were invited over to a friend's house for the fourth installment of his monthly movie night, which occurs on the second Saturday of the month. We made the inaugural installment, in which the animated version of Alice in Wonderland was on the docket, back in September, but have had to miss the intervening two. And I say it's "his" movie night, but sharing hosting duties are his wife, his son and his daughter. His son is the salient connection, as he went to daycare with my son before they both went to different primary schools. I met the dad at a birthday party and we hit it off.

Although both my kids and I attended the first time -- I can't remember my wife's conflict -- only my older son and I attended this time. My wife's conflict is a lot easier to remember this time, as she is in the final days of recovering from having wisdom teeth removed on Tuesday. My younger son, meanwhile, has had a bit of a cold, and also had his birthday party scheduled for Sunday. To ensure they would both be in their best possible fighting shape for his party, my wife and he stayed home.

This month was, not surprisingly, a holiday-themed month. The movie was Die Hard, or if you were under a certain age, it was the new Netflix movie Klaus in the other room.

I was excited enough to see Die Hard, one of my top 50 films of all time, but as I only saw it most recently two Christmases ago, it did not feel like an essential catch-up for me. The more exciting aspect was the chance for a Christmas season gathering, as "holiday drinks and desserts" were promised.

As it turned out, I only saw about the first 30 minutes of the movie. The rest of the crowd was later arriving than we were, and we didn't get started on the movie until nearly 8:30. My wife had asked us to leave by 9, which would have been possible if the movie had started around 7, which I imagined it might. No worry -- I preferred the socializing with other film-enthusiastic acquaintances, and my son loved playing ping pong and cricket in the backyard with the other kids.

I watched enough of Die Hard to know that this family's TV was on the wrong setting. Or, "wrong" if you don't like hi-def, which I don't.

Another guy I'd met that night, and talked to the most in the lead-up to the movie, shared that he couldn't get used to the hi-def, an observation he made based on one of the two shorts we watched prior to starting Die Hard. I wouldn't have said such a thing, as I would have thought it seemed critical of the hosts -- a concern he obviously did not share, as he also declared that he hated one of the two shorts. (He seemed to pull it off without offending anybody too much, a balance I don't think I could have struck.)

But once he said it, I allowed myself to go into my own standard talking points about hi-def -- in a kind of one-on-one aside while others were having other conversations. You know, how it makes things look like a bad BBC production from the early 1980s. I believe the word "confronting" was also used. You don't want things to look that realistic.

Then he used a word that brought it all home to me: matte.

He said that movies in our preferred TV mode have a matte finish, while hi-def makes everything too shiny.


There's a literal shininess to hi-def, as oils on people's skin are among the many unflattering realities that are brought to light by the format. Plus the reflections off things tend to be magnified. But there's also a metaphorical shininess that comes from the stark lines of demarcation between the objects in the frame. They stand out and pop in a way that wows on a level of sheer curiosity, but ultimately makes for an unpleasant viewing experience over the course of a whole movie, or even short bursts of a movie.

The traditional way we watch movies -- which includes viewings in nearly every cinema in the world -- is a more matte presentation. It may not be the "top of the line technological advancement," but it sure looks nicer. I'm sure actors and cinematographers the world over agree with this.

Not until Saturday night, though, did I observe the correlation between my preference for matte finishes and my preference for standard def, or as the picture mode is called on my TV, "cinema" or "movie" or something along those lines.

There's a reason the mode is called that, right?

I was just as happy to leave Die Hard at the 30-minute mark. In addition to looking unpleasant, as all hi-def images do, the form has a ghosting or stuttering effect on the movement of the images, especially in older films that never could have anticipated this technology. When John McTiernan made Die Hard in 1988, he never meant for it to be seen this way.

And after 30 minutes, I stopped seeing it that way. I took my son home to bed and watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens in the gloriously matte presentation of my own television.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Elusive Glass

If there's any movie in a given movie year you're most likely to see, it's the first.

If you're me, anyway. Most of you aren't, so just try and imagine.

Not because it's good. Movies released in January often aren't. But you'll still see them, because a) you're desperate for something from the new year after overdosing on the previous year, and b) you have the most opportunity to see them on video, since they're released before any others.

I think I still had left a week or so of watching 2018 movies when M. Night Shyamalan's Glass hit theaters back in January, so I didn't see it in the cinema. My fellow critic on my website had already reviewed it, so there was no incentive in that regard either. I did fully intend to see it, but I passed on seeing it in the theater, a decision made easier by its bad reviews. Video would provide me ample opportunities to correct that.

Or would it?

I've been casually checking numerous resources to watch new video releases throughout 2019, and never once have I seen Glass available.

One such place is the movies I can rent directly through a device I have on my TV called Fetch. The newest movies appear along the top so they're easy to see. I never saw Glass there.

Then there's iTunes. Every Monday I check for new movies that have been made the 99 cent rental for that week. I never saw Glass there.

I even flew on four international flights this year, each time checking to see if Glass was one of my options, figuring that would be an ideal time to watch a movie I knew wouldn't be very good. But I never saw it.

Now that there's only a month left before the Oscar nominations are announced and I have to close off my 2019 list, I'm in danger of not seeing it at all.

Oh, it's on iTunes, but only as a purchase. I ain't spendin' no $19.99 on Glass.

Now, if I still fetched movies from kiosks, maybe I'd have a shot. But that business has pretty much shuttered. There's one or two still out there in places I can get to without too much difficulty, but I've kind of mentally moved on from the tedium of two round-trips on consecutive days to watch a movie and return it without a late fee.

In another way the movie-watching industry continues to change, I haven't even checked Netflix for it because I feel like Netflix no longer does the thing where it makes a movie available at the start of its rental window -- or at any point during its initial year of availability, for that matter. I feel like if I'm trying to find a movie from the current year on Netflix, it has to have debuted on Netflix, which Glass did not.

There was probably a time it was available for rental on iTunes, but I wasn't so fussed about seeing it that I wanted to pay the new release rental cost. And that near-certain 99 cent discount week just never happened.

I also checked the library, but you won't be surprised to learn that that title is not search engine optimized enough to get only a small number of results. When I limited the search to only BluRays and DVDs, though -- nothing.

It's kind of ridiculous because I don't even really want to see this movie that much. Except I think it would be the first Shyamalan movie I haven't seen the year it was released ... more a reflection of my unkillable optimism than the actual quality of those films.

It's not worth worrying about a single film I can't see, so I won't. There are plenty of really good films I'll have to write off because they won't yet be released in Australia by the time I finalize my list.

But I would have thought if there were any one 2019 film I'd be sure would make my list, it would be the first.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Un-lee-shed: Chi-Raq

This is the final installment of my 2019 bi-monthly series watching Spike Lee movies I had not yet seen.

It's nice to finish with a Spike Lee movie where he really "goes for it."

Lee's career has been defined by "going for it," but you can't "go for it" every time out. Perhaps out of necessity or perhaps just out of a sense of pursuing his cooler and more modest interests from time to time, Lee has kind of alternated bold, polemical statements with smaller, moodier pieces. Although I've liked both, the polemics seem to have more value, as they are more likely to be interesting failures at worst. 

It would be hard to say that I've missed only the smaller, moodier pieces in Lee's career, because this series has featured a number of films that announce their themes in a shout rather than a whisper. But Chi-Raq does feel like ending on a note that is appropriately LEE, in capital letters.

The 2015 film is Lee's modern-day update of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a play in which women withhold sex from their men as a punishment for the Peloponnesian War. That play was originally performed in 411 B.C., and I guess it just shows my ignorance that I'm surprised that sex was a textual rather than subtextual topic of a play written 2500 years ago. I need to brush up on my classics.

Of course the setting is Chicago, hence the title. The murder rate in Chicago has been sky high for quite some time now, leading to a nickname that compared it to a war zone, like the one that has hosted two major wars in the last 30 years. I have friends in Chicago and they seem to go about their lives pretty much violence free, but there are, of course, places they never go.

Lee's showing us those places in Chi-Raq, as he introduces us to a handful of key characters. There's the title character, born Demetrius Dupree, a rapper and gangster played by Nick Cannon (which surprised me, as Cannon has primarily taken on lighter fare in the past). There's his chief rival, a gangster nicknamed Cyclops (Wesley Snipes wearing an eye patch). There's Chi-Raq's girlfriend, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris), who starts to wake up to the horrors of what her man and others are doing after she takes refuge in the home of a neighbor following a shooting and case of arson at and outside her house. That neighbor is Helen Worthy (Angela Bassett), a non-violence advocate who plants the seed that flowers into Lysistrata gathering an ever-larger group of women to go on a sex strike, as a desperate attempt to stop the killing. A number of familiar and not-so-familiar faces fill out the cast, including Samuel L. Jackson in what amounts to a narrator role.

What makes Lee's film all the more ambitious is that the majority of it is told in verse. It's a clever and at times potent way to both acknowledge the classical roots of the source material, while marrying that with modern African-American creative forms that already involve rhyming, like rap. It's just one way in which the film joins consummately realistic elements with those that are clearly fanciful.

Lee leaves no doubt about his ambitions from the film's very start, filling the screen with statistics comparing murders in Chicago over a period of the 21st century with American deaths in foreign wars during that period, which also drives home the comparison to Iraq. Before even introducing the characters, he also gives us a solemn dose of the words of a preacher, talking about the terrible human and community costs of black men killing other black men. It's Lee signaling the serious intentions of his film before leavening them a bit with humor and farce.

Given how Lee establishes the stakes as by and about black men, it was a significant surprise that he gives his most lengthy diatribe to a white man. John Cusack plays local pastor Mike Corridan, who I learned after the film is based on a real man in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, whose skin color has no bearing on the extent to which he's loved and respected by his black congregation. One of the victims of the constant warfare is a young girl, and Corridan gives a fiery speech at her funeral decrying the conditions -- both external and self-inflicted -- that have left this community in its current sorry state.

I kept waiting for Lee to undercut Cusack's character in some way, but I guess I underestimated the man. He's never been so simple as "white bad, black good," and in case you're looking for that kind of thing, there is a bad (or at least terminally self-interested) white character played by D.B. Sweeney, the Chicago mayor. And there are any number of other characters with darker skin tones who get their own diatribes. But this centerpiece scene perhaps struck me more a) because it involves a pastor, who has rhetorical tools that exceed those of an average person, and b) because Cusack plays the scene so convincingly. It's not the type of role I'd seen Cusack undertake before, and I had the sense he wasn't really up to it at this stage of his career.

Lee delivers the material with a balance of fun and sobriety, of outrageousness and even sometimes subtlety. There are big choreographed numbers involving oodles of extras, including one where different groups of people in different locations sing and dance along to the Chi-Lites' "Oh Girl." It reminded me a bit of how Lee uses "Too Late to Turn Back Now" -- a song from the same year as "Oh Girl," 1972 -- in BlacKkKlansman. I was loving Chi-Raq for the first half. And then ...

... well, and then I'm not really sure. And then I got tired, I can say that much for sure. I've been solo parenting this week as my wife recovers from oral surgery, and on Wednesday night that had definitely taken something out of me. I might have even slept for some portions of the second half, though it's hard to tell which parts I might have actually missed and which parts are just hazy because I was sleepy.

In all, I gave it 3.5 stars but was wavering on the verge of a 4. It's definitely not an interesting failure, it's an interesting success. But I was prepared for it to be even more of a success than it ended up being, as the film took some steps backward for me in the second half. Whether that's a deserved criticism or just the reality that I was exhausted, I may not know until I see it again.

I can tell you that in a sea of otherwise superlative performances, I was a bit disappointed by the work of the film's one Oscar winner, Jennifer Hudson. She plays the mother of the girl who was caught in the crossfire, and she's also the only one whose reactions to the events of the story don't seem quite correct. I suppose Lee might be heightening her character to go along with his chosen approach of relying on verse, and that any time you are responding to the death of your daughter through the rhythms of archaic poetry rather than the immediacy of sadness and rage, something is going to be lost. But I did expect a little more from Hudson.

There are enough choice nuggets in Chi-Raq that I'm sure to leave any discussion of this film prematurely, but it's the holiday season and I've got a lot of other things to do.

Besides, I have to give you at least a little recap of Un-lee-shed.

Just as a reminder, I started in February with She's Gotta Have It, and from there, every two months, followed with School Daze, Mo' Better Blues, 4 Little Girls, Miracle at St. Anna, and Chi-Raq. Mo' Better Blues was an emergency replacement for Get on the Bus, which I could not source. That remains one of only three Lee films I won't have seen at the end of this series, along with Girl 6 and Clockers.

Considering that Lee has had some real stinkers in his career -- I'm looking at you, She Hate Me -- I was glad to see that I didn't dislike any of the films I watched for this series. The closest to disliking one of them would have to be Miracle at St. Anna, but that film struck me with a particular kind of dilemma. Because I knew it was critically scorned, I felt like I was deducting points from it that maybe it didn't deserve to have deducted. I went with a 2.5 stars for that one, but it easily could have been 3. I liked most of what it was trying to do, and with a few exceptions, it was executed pretty well.

However, neither do I come to the end of this series feeling like I have a number of new and interesting takeaways about the man. The range of star ratings for these six movies was only 2.5 to 4, with 4 Little Girls earning the high and St. Anna the low. I'm unable to comment on the ones that remain unseen, of course, but it looks like I had seen most of the "essential Lee" before I got started, even if I had not seen either of the films he made before Do the Right Thing, at least one of which should probably be thought of as essential.

Still, I'd say I gained an additional context and understanding about some of Lee's work, in some cases how it relates to the work of other black artists, or to black culture on the whole. For one, School Daze helped broaden my understanding of HBCUs, which would be the focal point of Beyonce's Homecoming, which I watched just a few weeks ago. Some of what Beyonce did in that Coachella concert was a specific shout-out to School Daze, although enough time had passed between my two viewings that I failed to identify what.

4 Little Girls gave me a real education on a pocket of black history that I am not as familiar with as I should be. The testimonies of the affected parties were extremely moving, even decades after the events in question, and I was really impressed by the way Lee deemphasized his own idiosyncrasies and showier techniques in the face of that important subject matter.

Two of the films in this series also reminded me of the extreme range of Lee's abilities, and how we can't really pin down the parameters of "a Spike Lee film" -- or "joint," in his parlance -- because he's constantly challenging himself to do new and interesting things. His first film, for example, reminded me of someone like Jim Jarmusch, who had never seemed a tempting point of comparison for Lee in the past. Then I also got to see Lee's version of a war epic, something I would have never guessed interested him until he actually made it.

In short, Spike Lee contains multitudes, and watching six more of his films was a good reminder of that.

I haven't yet decided what my bi-monthly series will be in 2020. I'm tossing up either another deep dive into the unseen films of a major artist, or possibly a themed series that's specific to me and my viewings.

I can assure you, when I decide, you will be the first to know.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Film criticism and the purity of ignorance

That may sound like an alternate subtitle to Birdman, but I'm actually thinking about the ignorance of the viewer, rather than the creator, today.

Spoilers for The Irishman to follow.

I have long assumed that one of the keys to being a good film critic is preparation. That's not to say that I prioritize being prepared, as I have never been someone who particularly thrived on research. But I aspire to being prepared. If there's a prominent adaptation of a literary classic, I at least think about whether my review would be improved if I read that classic first. And at times I've actually done so. Then there's the type of preparation that just comes from being well-watched, meaning you can draw on the influences of similar films in the filmmaker's or others' filmographies.

But watching The Irishman prompted me to wonder whether it's not best just to know nothing.

I only learned that The Irishman was based on a true story maybe last week, when I learned that one of the people involved -- it was either Martin Scorsese or Robert De Niro, but the internet refuses to confirm for me -- had met Frank Sheeran and was "moved" by his story. (Having seen the film I wonder if I'm also misremembering the part about him being moved.)

Suffice it to say that I had no idea that this was the story of how Jimmy Hoffa allegedly died, or that he was even a character in the film.

Now, most critics would know this. They would do their due diligence by gobbling up all the material they could get on the new Scorsese film. And they're not wrong to accord Scorsese that kind of respect.

As it happens, I didn't. So when it only seemed possible that the story was leading toward an actual portrayal of the death of Hoffa -- played in this film by Al Pacino -- I wondered if Scorsese was engaging in Quentin Tarantino's brand of alternate history.

I still figured the film would just leave a hole in the story, at which point Hoffa/Pacino would disappear, with only theories to explain his disappearance. So qualify it as a genuine surprise when I saw De Niro take Pacino into an empty house, in a clear echo of Tommy DeVito's death in Goodfellas, and pop caps in the back of his head.

I think I might have literally sat up and said "What???"

In a quick google, I found that Sheeran confessed to having killed Hoffa shortly before his 2003 death, and the book on which The Irishman is based, I Hear You Paint Houses, is the dramatic portrayal of the story Sheeran told. (An account which is disputed, by the way.)

I might be the only guy who went into the movie not knowing this, but it allowed that scene to give me a true jolt. It was a delightful twist in a movie that had been kind of plodding along, not disagreeably, but not in a way that fully engaged me either.

I might have given the movie a half-star more just as a result of the surprise of that scene. Whereas if you knew going in that Sheeran confessed to Hoffa's murder, the actual staging of this scene might qualify as bit of an anti-climax.

So yeah, maybe sometimes it's better just to know nuthin'.

In terms of film criticism, I think my point is that you are trying to put yourselves in the shoes of a potential viewer, who probably also would not have researched The Irishman and known it was about Jimmy Hoffa. A less engaged viewer, anyway. And I think ideally, it's the less engaged viewer you are trying to reach when you write reviews. Engaged viewers probably don't need your opinion anyway, since they've already used other factors to determine whether they're going to see the movie or not.

(It's an academic argument anyway as I am not actually reviewing The Irishman for my site.)

All five hours of The Irishman

I managed to get through the movie better than I would have thought I would. My concern about the length of this movie was the basis for an entire post, which you can read here.

I talked in that post about coming up with a strategy to watch the three-hour-and-29-minute movie during the daytime. In the end, I just picked a random Thursday night -- and not even one where I'd had a good night's sleep the night before. I did the math between now and Christmas and calculated that this was my best opportunity to watch it before then, an important matter particularly because I'm recording a best of the year podcast next Friday night. (A podcast that will be premature by a few weeks, but I'll discuss my best at that juncture, anyway, and maybe ask you not to listen until I've posted the final list here.)

Anyway, I got started soon after eight ... and didn't finish until 12:47 a.m.

Did I fall asleep? No. Well, yes. Twice. But each time for less than two minutes, and pausing both times.

Did I take long breaks? Again, no. I stopped for two or three minutes a couple times to get something for my wife, who is recovering from having wisdom teeth removed.

What really did me in was that in the last hour of the film, my shitty internet decided to remind me of how shitty it is.

When it comes to its own technology, Neflix is a great streaming service, almost never buffering when all else is equal. All else is not equal, though, when your internet is shit.

The weird thing is, we're talking the hours between 11:30 p.m. and 12:45 a.m. I'd expect the internet to be bad during peak viewing hours, but not after most of my competition had packed it in for the night.

And yet, for the last hour of this movie, it would stop about every two minutes, and the spinning wheel would climb toward 100%, a value it would reach after maybe 45 seconds. No way to watch what is already the longest movie I will watch this year, and probably the only one to cross the three-hour mark. (If Avengers: Endgame crosses it, it's only by a minute or so.)

The point is, the screening is now behind me, at long last. And I'm proud of how I did.

I'm even more proud because the movie did not enthrall me. I ended up coming out positive on it, but only after struggling to find the "there" there. I didn't like the lighting, I thought Thelma Schoonmaker's editing was notably lacking in certain scenes, and I thought the whole thing felt a bit "elderly," for want of a better word. (A notion Scorsese drives home in an admittedly very clever scene at the beginning, where his camera travels through a retirement home in the way it once traveled through the Copacabana.)

So I'm saying Scorsese made better films when he was 49 than he does at age 77? What a shock!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Questions/takeaways from the Golden Globe nominations

As I expected, a pretty weird list, if only because four of the ten movies nominated for either best
drama or best musical/comedy originated on Netflix. (With a theatrical run to qualify them for these awards, of course.)

The cinematic landscape is shifting under our feet, people.


1) Who in their right mind considers The Farewell a comedy? (Awkwafina got nominated for best actress in a musical or comedy.)

2) Who in their right mind considers Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a comedy? It’s got funny parts, but it ends in a bloodbath. (Though I guess that bloodbath is supposed to be funny.)

3) I haven’t seen it, but how is Fred Rogers a supporting character in his own movie? (Tom Hanks was nominated for best supporting actor in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.)

4)  J. Lo is a supporting actress in Hustlers. While Constance Wu’s character is undoubtedly the protagonist, you could make the argument that J. Lo is a co-protagonist, if only because we also see her at work trying to get time off from her boss, etc. In other words, we don’t only see her through Wu’s character’s eyes. But maybe she has a better chance of winning in this category.

5) The assigning of Daniel Craig and Ana de Armas as lead actors for Knives Out makes the assigning of J. Lo as a supporting actress for Hustlers even stranger. Plus, although Craig may be my favorite part of a movie I didn’t like as much as most people, I wouldn’t necessarily call it “good acting.”


1)  Joker is considered best picture material. I can’t grasp this. I know there are people who liked it, but I’m not entirely sure if I trust them. Then again, one of my foundational movie critics as a twentysomething was Owen Gleiberman, then of Entertainment Weekly and now of Variety, and he named it as his #1 movie of the year.

2) Bombshell may be more than just this year’s year-end release about a recent historical event. There’s at least one every year. (Other recent examples: I, Tonya and The Front Runner.)

3)  I only heard about The Two Popes for the first time like five days ago. It’s all over these nominations. And since it’ll be on Netflix starting December 20th, I’ll be able to rank it this year.

4)  I know it got nominations for best director, best screenplay and best foreign language film, but Parasite’s absence from the best drama list is a major failure to recognize the most critically acclaimed film of the year. Actually, best comedy could also have been an appropriate category. I wonder if Oscar will follow suit. 

5) It was not a great year for animation if the top contender for best animated feature is Toy Story 4.

Were some of these questions/observations actually takeaways, and were some of these takeaways actually questions/observations?

In a topsy-turvy year, anything’s possible.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Two guys named Benedict

I don't know how it took me three years after the release of Doctor Strange to realize that it starred two guys named Benedict.

The title character is, of course, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his sidekick, Wong, is played by Benedict Wong.

Which means the casting of Benedict Wong had two funny name benefits: He had the same first name as his co-star, and the same last name as his character.

It'd be even better if Wong was considered the film's true co-star, in which case you'd go on IMDB and see two Benedicts among the top three actors listed in the abbreviated details at the top of the page. But Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor both outrank him. (Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen, though, do not.)

It's not particularly likely that Wong's name had anything to do with his casting, though it couldn't have gone unnoticed. I mean, are there any other Benedicts in Hollywood, or anywhere near Hollywood? It's probably more likely as a last name than a first name.

It's kind of like when Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz starred in Vanilla Sky. Not the reason they were cast, as Cruz appeared in the same role in the movie on which it was based, and Cruise was the major movie star needed to sell the risky project, plus had worked with Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire. It's just a coincidence really.

When Gemma Arterton was cast as the lead in Gemma Bovery? Less of a coincidence, I would say.

I wish I could think of others, but they don't necessarily spring to mind spontaneously.

This all came up because I rewatched Four Lions on Friday night and was surprised to see Benedict Cumberbatch appear in the final scene. That caused me to pop into his IMDB page and make the connection. Suffice it to say I had no idea who he was the first two times I watched Four Lions, in 2010 and 2011.

Benedict Wong, though, I knew at that time, as he appeared in my #1 movie from ten years ago this year, Moon.

Now, if they both appeared in a biopic about Benedict Arnold? I'd start to get suspicious.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Star Wars will end without my kids

I'm pretty excited for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But it's an abstract excitement based on almost no imagery from the movie. I've (mostly) kept up my same strategy as for the last two movies in this saga, where I avoided trailers. I'd have been 100% successful in that effort except that an ad came on while I was watching an on-demand version of Survivor, of all shows, last night, and I did not turn my eyes away from it.

I'll even be preparing for it by re-watching The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in the two nights leading up to it. I'm devoting Monday and Tuesday nights of that week to my fifth (!) viewing of Episode VII and my modest third viewing of Episode VIII, before I am among the first in the world to access Episode IX Wednesday night at midnight.

Unfortunately, I don't really have anyone to share this momentous occasion with, at least not locally.

I did watch The Last Jedi with two "mates," two years ago, but only one of them was really geeked for the midnight showing while the other one went along with a skeptical look in his eye, and ultimately regretted his decision. Barring last-minute plans, I doubt we'll be doing that again.

But I'm not bemoaning the lack of physical companionship in watching this movie, as I only watch maybe one out of every 40 movies I see in the theater with another person. (Adult movies, that is -- my kids join me more frequently for movies aimed at them.) As a film critic as well as a person who can't regularly see movies with his wife because of babysitting considerations, I usually go alone. And don't think twice about it, if I ever did.

No, what's really giving me a mild case of the blues is that I won't have been able to share any part of this Star Wars experience with the people whose excitement would nourish me the most: my kids.

When Star Wars restarted in 2015, it was a few years too early to really be appropriate for my kids. My older son was only five and a couple months then, my younger son almost two. Now granted, I was not even four yet when I saw the original Star Wars in the theater, but those were different times.

I guess I hoped that as they got a little older, my kids would catch up with the Star Wars series and might watch either The Last Jedi or The Rise of Skywalker in the theater with me. Fast forward a few years, and the older is now a couple months past his ninth birthday, the younger one nearly six.

These midnight screenings have become a fun tradition for me, but I'd trade them without a thought if it meant getting to share the experience with my kids, even if we had to wait three days after opening to see it on the weekend. How sweet that period of excitement and anticipation would be, as we all wondered what would become of Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and the rest.

Something went wrong somewhere along the way.

In the same Christmas season that The Last Jedi came out, we watched the original Star Wars with the kids, and they liked it. The plan was to watch one movie each Christmas season, which would have only brought us to Return of the Jedi this year. But I could have stepped up the pace if they were really loving it, and we could have whipped through the prequels (if need be) as well as the last two new movies in order to prepare for Rise of Skywalker.

Instead, the pace went in the other direction. No one seemed to show much enthusiasm for The Empire Strikes Back last year, so it simply never got watched.

That lack of enthusiasm has continued. When I mention Star Wars to the older one, he tells me he's not really sure if he likes it. Even though Star Wars as a worldwide phenomenon is as strong as ever -- just look at how The Mandalorian has dominated social media, without me unfortunately -- it's apparently not something that his friends talk about very much. Which is not to say he would suddenly becomes obsessed if his friends were talking about it, but it sure would help.

If the older one's not interested, I'm not sure if it even helps for me to get the younger one interested. Especially as I secretly still think some of the stuff in these movies would be too intense for him. (I couldn't handle Han Solo getting a lightsaber through the stomach at age 42, so I don't have any idea how he'd react at age 5.)

Funny thing is, when I came home from the library with my rented copies of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi on Thursday (I don't have Disney+ yet, as alluded to above), I squelched an opportunity to pique their interests. I usually place library rentals on a bookshelf near our TV, for all to see. But in this case I stored them in our bedroom, where the kids don't spend very much time.

See, I didn't want them to suddenly get interested in Star Wars and ask to see these two movies before they'd seen the others. In my ideal world, I even want to submit them to the prequels before these movies. Same order as the order I saw them, in an ideal world.

So at this point I am going it alone, even without my wife, who will undoubtedly see this movie in the theater but does not express very much ongoing interest about it.

The good news -- if you want to call it good news -- is that Disney is not nearly done delivering Star Wars to us.

I may not be able to finish the Skywalker storyline with my children, but maybe that's okay, since I didn't start it with them either. Maybe the real goal will be to meet whatever new characters Star Wars gives us next, together, and go on that adventure from start to finish, with the same emotional journey. I can't remember who's responsible for the next installment of Star Wars movies at the moment -- I know both Rian Johnson and the Game of Thrones creators are out -- but whoever it is, there's some hope it will be allowed to be new and fresh, something we can discover simultaneously, without carrying in the baggage of our own personal Star Wars histories or lack thereof, without excessive fan service and baby Yodas.

So having just shed my "mild blues" about things I can no longer undo, maybe now I'm free to just concentrate on the end of my own emotional journey -- a journey that began back in 1977.