Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Where is my sports movie screenwriter when I need him most?

Or her. Sorry, that just made the subject of this post too long.

I've made mention recently of the fact that I don't like sports movies all that much because I don't believe the amazing comeback a screenwriter would write for a team at its lowest moment. I like to leave that up to what really happens in the real world, and just be amazed by real comebacks.

On Memorial Day, I could have used something written by a screenwriter.

My beloved Boston Celtics -- the first sports team I ever loved back in the early 1980s -- were on the verge of making history. 

In woeful and sometimes pitiful fashion, they had fallen behind 0-3 to the Miami Heat, who came into the playoffs as the 8th seed while the Celtics were a mighty #2 seed. They were well aware that no team has ever come back from that sort of deficit in the NBA playoffs, and only three had even made it to a Game 7. Those three were 0-3 and the other teams that tried to make it all the way back were 0-147, losing in a sweep more than 60% of the time.

Well, the Celtics defied the odds. They won Game 4 and they won Game 5, both in rather convincing fashion. They won Game 6 by the skin of their teeth, on an improbable put-back as time was expiring by Derrick White. Literally the shot left his hand with 0.1 of a second remaining on the clock.

If a screenwriter had written this, I wouldn't have believed it.

Game 7 was on their home floor, where they not only always win Game 7s, but where they usually win them in a blowout. All signs pointed to this being another case of that. After all, Miami felt the pressure after missing three opportunities to close out the series, or so you would think.

Then on the first play of the game, the image you see above: Celtics star Jayson Tatum grasping his ankle after he rolled it while coming down from a shot on another player's foot. 

He played the rest of the game, wincing, but his impact was minimal, and the rest of the team could not rise to the occasion. They lost by 19 points.

If a screenwriter had had anything to say about it, it wouldn't have gone this way.

Oh, screenwriters like underdogs, sure, I get that. But Miami is not your typical underdog. They were a #8 seed and they had a fair number of injuries, but last year they were a #1 seed, and they went to the finals in 2020. 

Even if a screenwriter did fancy the Heat the heroes of this story, you don't make a good underdog story by having the underdog win the first three games and then barely avoid calamity/make history for all the wrong reasons.

So the Celtics were the hero of this story, right? They were the underdogs within this series, fighting back from accusations that they quit in Game 3, storming all the way back and taking Game 6 on enemy court via one of the most miraculous season-saving shots in NBA history.

Well that shot is now just a historical footnote, and my Celtics are not going to be NBA championships this year.

What I realize now is that it's not that I want a sports movie to resemble real sports, it's that I want real sports to resemble a sports movie. I want that historic comeback. I want that impossible dream. I want a team erasing a deficit they never should erase and coming together as a group to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Kind of like the Boston Red Sox did in 2004, when they came back from 0-3 down against the Yankees to win the American League Championship series, the first baseball team ever to accomplish a feat that no basketball team has ever accomplished.

But maybe a sports fan base only gets one of these, ever, and we had ours 19 years ago.

And now, like 27 other teams before them in 2023, the Celtics will have to think ahead to what might be possible next year. They'll have to make whatever roster decisions are necessary not to blow games they are leading comfortably, to play basketball consistently for 48 minutes, not to turn over the ball ... all the things that we hoped they had finally learned, long enough to outlast the Miami Heat and then maybe even the Denver Nuggets after them. 

You don't get many chances at championships, and even fewer at history. And it's hard to know when the Celtics will get their next of either.

Oh I can cry myself to sleep on the banners of 17 previous championships, knowing the Celtics are tied with the Lakers for the most of all time. And at least the Lakers won't be adding one this year either.

But that's why it's so hard to be a sports fan. You can only think in the now, and it takes so long before another opportunity will arise ... even next June feels like ages away, and in the worst case scenario, it might be decades.

At least with a movie that's disappointing, you just move on to the next one. 

Monday, May 29, 2023

How to make (and not make) a 1951 alien invasion movie

I was looking for something short to watch on Sunday night*, and was reminded of this post, in which I came to the realization that the end of the month is a good time to use or lose your five monthly Kanopy credits.

(*I'm starting to wonder if this goes without saying. When have you ever heard me saying I was looking for something long to watch?)

I recently added a bunch of black and white movies to my Kanopy watchlist, and a lot of them are super short.

Take the 76-minute The Thing From Another World, which seems like required viewing for anyone who likes John Carpenter's The Thing. And since most people don't like Carpenter's film, they love it, it seems like required viewing for everyone.

Well, The Thing From Another World may have value for providing us the raw materials for Carpenter's movie. But I'm not sure if it has any other value.

There are a lot of angles of attack on this film, but I'll start with this one:

I'm not sure I would have thrown this movie on if I'd seen this poster first. 

Now I get it, this is 1951. They didn't have the great practical effects or the not-so-great CGI effects to make an alien creature look really good. In a minute I'm going to talk about a movie where the alien creature is biologically indistinguishable from a human being.

But in what exact way is this a thing?

Don't you describe something as a "thing" when it so deviates from your ordinary vocabulary that the only word you can think of to describe it is a word that contains no descriptive qualities whatsoever? Example: "What is this ... this ... this ... THING?"

When the "thing" in questions has two arms, two legs, a head, a torso, and is only a little bit taller than a regular man, it's more of a "man" than a "thing." But The Man from Another World just doesn't sound quite as ... repulsive.

I will say that I got a small chill from the creature the first time it was introduced to me in its two primary forms: once in a frozen block of ice, and once awake and creating havoc. 

Any other time it was on the screen, it was just silly.

And oh so not menacing. The thing basically goes "grrrr!" and then just stands there blinking for long periods of time so that way too many characters can engage in way too lengthy discussions about how to stop it. 

Let's get to the "way too many characters" part, and of course I have to use Carpenter's film as a point of contrast. In 1982's The Thing, if memory serves, there are maybe eight to ten characters in total, fewer and fewer as they get picked off and/or assimilated by the creature. In this film, there are no less than 27 people walking around in large groups within the Arctic station where they're all headquartered. Among them, absurdly, is a newspaper reporter, who dresses in a suit and tie even though he's in one of the most extreme environments on the face of the planet.

These 27 people shuffle around and argue about whether to kill the creature or study it for science, and there was a whole digression that I didn't quite follow about how the creature's blood could make flowers grow more quickly. I may not have been fully paying attention at that point because I had already sort of written the movie off, waiting for "the good stuff" -- which was sorely disappointing as well.

And let's get to the direction by Christian Nyby because that factors into the failure of this movie. Not only are these performances wooden -- it's just one actor after another waiting for their turn to talk -- but the scenes are directed with a discordant approach that involves characters talking over each other and cutting each other off. I'm not talking about the good kind of talking over, favored by someone like Robert Altman. This is actors stepping on each other's dialogue and no one knowing that they should do another take rather stick with the garbled mess they just filmed.

You might be able to guess that the military man and the scientist butt heads, the military man wanting to kill the alien and the scientist wanting to communicate with it. The scientist is right, right? Not in this film, where the scientist is made out to be a megalomaniac who is needlessly putting innocent people in harm's way while twirling his moustache (he actually does have a moustache). The events of the film prove that the military was right and that we need to "Watch the skies!" 

It was 1951, but even in 1951 it didn't have to be this way.

That year also saw the release of what was my dad's favorite when he was a kid, Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Not only was that the same year, but it had the same style pulpy title that could have appeared on the cover of a magazine called Tales of Interest! if it were The Simpsons. (Actually, googling it now I see I don't have that quite right -- it was Anthology of Interest on Futurama. But I think you get the idea.) 

But Day returns quite a different verdict about its human-looking alien visitor named Klaatu, and his ominous robot Gort. Sure, Klaatu and Gort have the technology and the ability to turn Earth into a barren wasteland, but they don't have the will. That's not why they are there. In fact, they are there to quell Earth's own violent tendencies -- as exemplified by people like the military man in The Thing From Another World.

I suppose The Day the Earth Stood Still is a bit quaint by modern standards, as it barely has anything resembling an action scene. There's a lot of talking and there's a middle passage of the film where Klaatu is visiting sites around Washington D.C. with a little boy, which could be mistaken for the corniness of someone like Frank Capra at his most Capra-esque. 

But by being thoughtful and well made, and having a message that genuinely tries to promote understanding and to squelch aggression, my goodness is it a more useful piece of art. I suppose they were wise (ha ha) to select Wise to direct the original Star Trek movie, since this film has the same non-interventionist politics of the Starship Enterprise.

The Thing From Another World has a screaming creature and bullets and guns and torn alien limbs and attempts to both burn and electrocute the alien, and it doesn't have a single bit of nuance on its mind.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

The sad defeat of admitting you can't understand English

I had to turn on the captions Friday night while watching Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria

Not the subtitles. The captions. 

Which is especially embarrassing because there is not a heck of a lot of dialogue in this movie, as you would expect from a movie by the man who goes by "Joe" as a nickname. The other of his films I've seen, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and Cemetery of Splendor, are similarly lacking in spoken words.

But what got me about this film was a scene in a hospital between Tilda Swinton and the woman playing her character's sister, Agnes Brekke, while the sister is laid up in bed with a chronic illness. 

The two actresses are speaking in such hushed tones, and have such thick accents, that my brain just couldn't form the usual function of hearing most of the words and figuring out the unheard words from context clues. Nope, I just couldn't understand any of the words.

Reluctantly, and with a sense of shame, I turned on the captions.

When I watched the scene again with the captions, I felt, "Well of course that's what they were saying." But I was only able to obtain this sort of clarity because I was seeing the words that started the sentence, meaning I could now hear which words finished it. 

Well I was glad I did it, I suppose, because Swinton also has dialogue in English with the man playing her sister's husband, Daniel Gimenez Cacho, whose English is Spanish-accented and also hard to understand.

Funnily enough, though, I had to turn them off again when the film became Spanish language pretty much for the rest of its running time (it's set in Colombia), because now the captions were actively hindering my understanding of what was being said.

See, in order to try to create the full experience for a person who can't hear any of the dialogue, the captions insisted on informing us "Jessica speaks in a foreign language" -- a note that actually partially obscured the film's embedded subtitles for the Spanish. So I found myself in the absurd position of trying to read through the captions in order to see what was being said. Once I had made the assessment that English was not going to be this film's default language, I turned them off again and had a better time from there. (I guess the default language of English was chosen because Swinton is British and the film's first dialogue was in English?)

(And by the way, are the captions really so unacquainted with what language this might be? You can't just say that Jessica is speaking Spanish?)

So why is it so embarrassing not to be able to understand English with a heavy accent?

I think it speaks to a person's sense of their own worldliness. Like, if I think of myself as a cultured man who watches plenty of British content -- just as an example -- I should be able to make out the different sounds of the words just from experience. Heck, I live in a country where everybody speaks with an accent, relative to what I'm used to. If you can't understand it, it's like you're some rube who falls outside his comfort zone as soon as they stop speaking American English.

But this is not some matter of pride. Sure you could fight through a whole movie this way, and you might do that in a setting where you don't want to reveal the struggle you're having to others watching it with you. But if you're sitting there by yourself, failing to comprehend things that may be important for your understanding of the meaning of the film, there's not a lot you can do about it. It's not like understanding language is just a matter of trying harder. If your brain can't do the work, your brain can't do the work, and the pace of most dialogue means you'll fall behind fatally in no time. 

One thing I did/do find interesting about captions, or in this case subtitles, is that they allow you to clearly understand something that might be getting said very quietly. It might be the filmmaker's desire -- especially in the case of someone like "Joe" -- to make it intentionally difficult to hear something that's very quiet. The decision is made, then, that if any person can hear it, it should be captioned and/or subtitled. I guess it's just one of those things we must live with if we are going to watch movies made in languages that we don't speak.

I'd say Memoria is easily my favorite "Joe" movie, and it was cruising toward a 4.5 stars on Letterboxd until I felt a little unsatisfied with how it resolves (or doesn't resolve, as the case may be with Weerasethakul). However, I've got to stop watching movies like Memoria in the evening of a night where I've gone for a run in the morning. I ultimately had to finish it Saturday night after a nap during the movie on Friday didn't end until 2:40 a.m. 

Friday, May 26, 2023

This movie is delayed

When was the last time you went to a movie theater and the movie you were seeing didn't start on time?

I'm sure it's happened to me before, but I can't remember a single instance.

Until last night, when I went to the Sun in Yarraville to see a 9:10 showing of Renfield on its opening night.

As usual, I was racing to get there on time, leaving little enough time that I was starting to stress out when three indecisive guys in front of me were taking forever to select their snacks and then had to pay separately even though they were together in one group. (I mean, I guess I get that part. I don't usually treat my companions to snacks at the movies, but then again, I almost never go to the movies with anyone anymore.)

When I got up to bat and it was about 9:12 -- and the Sun never plays many ads or trailers -- I knew I probably wouldn't miss anything but wanted the transaction to go through pretty quickly nonetheless.

It was then that the woman told me that the movie was going to be starting late.

The words almost didn't make sense in my head. Movie? Starting late? What does that even mean?

Trains leave late, airplanes leave late, but movies? Movies don't leave late.

I asked why of course, assuming a power outage -- the screen behind the concession area that shows the movie start times was blank, with a note apologizing for the inconvenience. It had been wet earlier in the day and maybe something had gone on the fritz. 

She didn't exactly explain it, but there was a cascading effect as a result of a problem several movies earlier on the same screen. She said it would be starting in about 20 minutes.

Not wanting to hang around in the lobby that whole time, I went to run an errand, but made certain I could rely on the start time she had quoted of 9:30. She said I could.

I got back around 9:22 and she said "Okay you can go into your movie now." It's good I didn't get back any later, because selecting my seat was immediately followed by a second unprecedented thing: not a single ad or trailer, just the production company logo and the start of the movie. Guess they thought they'd already given us enough of the runaround, no need to add insult to injury by advertising to us. 

Apparently I couldn't rely on that 9:30 after all.

How annoying would it have been to be apparently 20 minutes early for a movie that was starting late, only to find out you ended up ten minutes late anyway?

Actually what I suspect happened was that they knew how many tickets they'd sold and they knew all of us (there were maybe seven) had already reported to our seats. Given this and given that the original start time had already been missed, meaning no late-comers expected, they just started the movie as soon as they knew that all the passengers had found their seats. 

And the movie? It was a hoot. It's not perfect but I enjoyed the hell out of it. No one told me Awkwafina was in it, which is an added bonus to any movie. 

Oh, and it was only 93 minutes long, according to IMDB, so starting late didn't even have an impact on arriving home at a reasonable hour. I'd say it was 93 minutes soaking wet, as it felt a lot more like 87 to me.

The thing that did impact my arrival home was that the train I was relying on wasn't running, so I had to wait for a replacement bus. But I was still home and tucked in and dreaming of vampires tearing people's arms off by midnight. 

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Audient Classics: The Women

This is the fifth in my monthly 2023 series rewatching movies from before I was born that I love, but that I've seen only once.

How can a movie that doesn't feature a single man in its cast fail to pass the Bechdel Test?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you The Women.

If you need to brush up on your Bechdel Test, here's a reminder of it boiled down to its basics on Wikipedia:

"The test asks whether a work features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man."

As you can see in the tagline on the poster itself, "It's all about men!"

Yes, that was certainly a 1939 bet hedge by MGM, who surely didn't want to limit the film's audience to only the fairer sex. But it's actually true.

This movie features about 20 women in speaking roles, and probably about six main characters -- but never are they not speaking about the men in their lives.

I had remembered that George Cukor's film was essentially an ensemble piece, and I thought for sure that among the characters an array of different story arcs were featured. One would be dealing with infidelity, to be sure, but another was trying to push her career forward, one was struggling with motherhood, etc. That's how they'd make it today. (And I'm sure how they did make it when the movie was remade in 2008, though I don't remember the details of that particular film.)

Nope. It's all just about men, how they tend to be unfaithful to their wives, and whether it is a good idea to forgive them and take them back, or keep your pride by pushing for a divorce. 

And in the process, what presents on the surface like it could be a sort of proto feminism is actually pitting the women against each other for much of the time -- even to the point of showcasing the members of the animal kingdom they most closely resemble in a memorable opening credits in which the characters are first introduced.

That's the harsh view of The Women. The more generous view -- and the one I certainly adopted when I saw it for the first time more than 20 years ago, the date of that viewing falling prior to when I started keep track of viewings in early 2002 -- is that it's a very clever, often very funny movie that is about as progressive as a movie made in 1939 was capable of being.

That these women -- primarily the lead character Mary Haines, played by Norma Shearer -- would even consider divorce was probably a big deal at that time. I see that The Gay Divorcee predates this by five years, but I generally think of this as being a more conservative time when women were encouraged to accept their lot in life. Of course, that isn't a true portrait of that era, particularly that era on film -- the Hays Code was brought in in 1934 precisely because movies were getting too racy -- but perhaps it's a true portrait of what a certain segment of powerful people thought reality should be, at least as reflected by our popular entertainment.

And women who are characterized as cats and display incredibly catty behavior throughout? Embodied by the film's two other biggest stars, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, the latter of whom is more gossipy and thoughtless while the former is truly pernicious? Well, if you don't have any men in your film, someone's gotta fulfill the role of antagonist, doesn't she?

Let's talk about that gimmick. Not only is a male character never visible on screen, but neither is there a male voice even heard. I thought I had remembered that some male children were seen at one point, but that wasn't the case either. No, Cukor et al stick to their concept throughout, and it's a fun one indeed. While it is not strictly speaking "realistic," it does uncover a truth about well-to-do society in New York at the time, and likely society in general: the genders operated in very different spheres, with the men working in male-dominated worlds and the women moving through female-dominated spheres like the spa and the high-end fashion shop. Women could move from a high tea to an early sort of calisthenics back to the apartment almost without encountering a man, who were slaving behind their desks -- and stepping out on their wives with other women who sometimes moved through these same female spheres.

You do have to adjust your expectations when watching The Women. If you want it to stand up to a 21st century version of women's rights and Hollywood morals, it won't. Without spoiling too much, I'll just say that the possibility of a woman getting back together with her philandering husband, after he regrets his philandering, is treated as a hypothetical happy ending (remembering I'm trying not to spoil too much). Today, that man is kicked to the curb, no two ways about it.

But there is a lot to like here, a lot I really did like in probably 2001 or so when I saw first saw it, and a lot I liked only a bit less now. For one it's the performance of Shearer in the central role, her heartbreaking work as she learns about her husband's affair through salacious gossip and is forced to occupy the same social settings as the very woman with whom he's cheating, not even knowing which one she is, even though all her catty friends know it. There's a very complicated version of female loyalties painted here, with some characters appearing loyal to Mary but then engaging in their own awful behavior, and others considering loyalty a possibility, but not if it gets in the way of a good gossip session. Some of this, of course, is a pretty dated and uncharitable view of female interpersonal dynamics, but other bits of it have aged reasonably well. 

I became a little less interested when the film takes a detour to Reno, where people can get a quickie divorce. (I suppose Vegas would have also worked, it being within the state of Nevada.) Some of the film's more slapstick moments occur here, and there are rather too many coincidences. However, this is when Mary meets some of her most loyal friends, who seem especially so contrasted with some of those who purport to be her friends in New York, but are really just opportunistic bottom-feeding gossips. 

I did also enjoy Crawford's performance as Crystal Allen, this I suppose being one of the films that helped establish her reputation as a bad girl. (Or maybe that reputation grew due to her later life exploits, captured in Mommie Dearest.) It's a bit over the top at points, but The Women never said it was going for subtlety. 

As for Russell, who I have seen plenty of times but about whom I don't have a fixed notion of her personality, she reminded me a lot of Lucille Ball, in a good way. I would have said Russell came first, but they were more or less contemporaneous, with Russell only four years older than Ball. In fact, two years earlier Ball was in a film that on the surface seems somewhat similar to The Women, 1937's Stage Door, which I saw earlier this year but actually didn't like all that much. 

Overall the two hours and 15 minutes of The Women passed faster than it might have. I'm not smitten with the film like I was when I awarded it five stars on Letterboxd -- after the fact, of course, since Letterboxd wasn't around in 2001 -- but it still makes for a fitting entry in this series.

Which will continue in June.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Life hacks learned at the movies

Every time I change a doona cover from now on, I will think of Barbarian.

(In fact, I did this about an hour ago, which is how I know it's true.)

You might call it a duvet. I used to call it a comforter. In Australia it's a doona, so that's the term we tend to use most.

If you saw Barbarian, you probably remember the scene where Bill Skarsgard's character shows Georgina Campbell's character the foolproof method for putting on one of these covers without having to spend all this time stuffing material into elusive corners and generally sacrificing about 13 minutes of your day.

If not, I'll explain:

1) Turn the cover inside out.

2) Put your body inside the hole where the doona goes.

3) Stand up with the cover almost entirely covering your body and hold the inside top two corners one with each hand, kind of like you're a ghost right after an old timey hold-up guy yelled "Stick 'em up!!"

4) Have another person place two of the doona corners into your stuck-up hands.

5) Still grabbing both the cover and the corners, flip the cover up over your head and wriggle it down until the cover is fully covering the doona.

Some life hacks you see in a movie and forget, but not this. I don't know how many doona covers I've changed since I saw Barbarian about seven months ago, but I've never not done this. It works great. 

The other thing is that my kids love it. My younger son is especially tickled by it. The older one, who will be 13 in about three months, doesn't like to show you he thinks anything is all that interesting, but I could tell even he was taken aback by the comic efficiency of it. Suddenly changing his bed linens, which we try to have them do every Sunday night, didn't seem like such a chore.

I've got a second one, but it sort of breaks the theme because it's actually from a TV show.

In the final season of Better Call Saul, there's a throwaway moment involving Patrick Fabian's Howard Hamlin. I don't even remember what the context of it was. But I remember the life hack.

In the scene, a can of soda has gotten shaken up, leading the prospective drinker to moan about how long he or she will have to wait before consuming it. Howard says that's nonsense. He demonstrates that if you just stand the can up on a countertop and rotate it a few times to the left (or right I suppose), it entirely defuses the agitated bubbles within. Only five seconds of can rotations later, you're opening a perfectly calm soda.

I try to live my life without regularly allowing cans of soda to become shaken, but I did try this once too, and lo and behold, it works.

Are there others? Most certainly, but I can't recall them right now. If you can, add them in the comments.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

The Amazon day/night Air/Plane double feature

As soon as I saw that Amazon was carrying both Air and Plane, and in fact advertising them right next to each other on their home page, two words came to mind:

"Double feature."

Now, I'm too sleepy these days to pull off a classic double feature, where you watch the movies more or less consecutively, with 20 minutes or less between them. I usually fall asleep at some point during even one movie that I watch after dinner. (Thursday night was the extreme example: I fell asleep in the middle of Ridley Scott's 94-minute Legend (1985) for such a long time that I actually had to finish it on Friday night. That was no commentary on the movie, which I found even more enthralling on my second viewing than my first.)

It being a Saturday, though, I could watch one movie during "quiet time" (the pre-dinner screen time for my kids) and one in the post-dinner time slot. And because my younger son has unofficial domain over the living room during quiet time, the garage on the projector was my chosen viewing location.

Movies about sports are better than sports movies

It may not surprise you to learn that Ben Affleck's Air feels reminiscent of Bennett Miller's Moneyball, considering that both are more about the business of sports than a sport itself. Both feature off-field dealings between eccentric characters who are happy enough to berate each other with foul language if it will help sell their point. 

And both, it turns out, are really terrific.

Air doesn't rise to the level of Moneyball, to be sure, and it's also considerably less of a sports movie, seeing as how its only game images are real archival footage of Michael Jordan. But boy was it a joy to watch. It's got a great cast, exceptional dialogue and enviable economy of storytelling. And it's just plain fun.

Unlike most sports movies.

That's right, I said it: Movies about sports are better than sports movies.

I love being in the world of sports, but I really don't care that much for a sporting event, or a series of sporting events, to be carried out on screen in front of me. Oh, there are certainly the exceptions -- Major League, for example, is one of the movies it would offend me least to watch once a week for the rest of my life. Generally speaking, though, give me a movie in the world of sports rather than a sports movie any day of the week.

The reasons are pretty clear, and I've gone through them before. For movies that are fiction, I simply don't believe that the crazy comeback that screenwriter concocted would actually happen. Real sports comebacks are amazing precisely because they did happen. For non-fiction films, sometimes that recreation can be cool to watch, but I'd usually just rather watch a tape of the actual game.

But I can rub elbows with sports in a movie like Air or Moneyball without having to suspend disbelief and judge a screenwriter's success at writing some buzzer beater that I don't believe really happened. 

And what a bunch of fun sports adjacent characters to rub elbows with. Affleck as Phil Knight, Matt Damon as Sonny Vaccaro, Jason Bateman as the lesser known marketing guy, Chris Tucker as another guy at the company -- no I really don't think it's relevant for me to look up their names or titles right now -- they were just a great bunch to spend two hours with. To say nothing of Viola Davis as Jordan's mother Deloris.

What I thought was really impressive is that they got such good dialogue and such a good script without having to have an Aaron Sorkin in their corner. Air was written by a guy named Alex Convery, and this is his very first credit.

Gerard Butler can be in good movies, too

I was all ready to throw Plane on the pile of terrible Gerard Butler misfires, of which there are so many that it becomes impossible even to count them. I mean, the title alone suggests some sort of surrender by the studio and/or screenwriters.

But then I kind of enjoyed the hell out of it.

Things I really liked:

1) The plane losing altitude (not a spoiler, because come on) and trying to land was harrowing. I'm sure I've seen 200 plane crashes in movies, but this one put me into the moment better than most. Kudos, Jean-Francois Richet -- an actual good director, I am reminded as I now see that he directed Blood Father, which I really liked. 

2) Butler behaves like a pilot, not an action hero. If you've seen the trailer you know Butler et al mix it up with some bad men in this movie, and yes, Butler carries multiple guns at different points. But the movie remembers that this is an airline pilot, not a commando. He does have an intense physical struggle, but I'm willing to believe a fit 50-year-old man could indeed prevail in such a situation. I don't believe he could pick up a gun for the first time and start picking off foes with it, and to its credit, this movie avoids him having to do that -- almost entirely I think.

3) I actually believed from moment to moment where the story went. It's a wild story to be sure, but I never doubted that the latest twist would/could happen. 

Given that Butler is coming off truly terrible movies like Geostorm and Last Seen Alive, and I was not the fan of Greenland that some people were, this has to be seen as a real mini-comeback for him.

Air was an easy four-star rating for me on Letterboxd, as it has again jumped to the front of the line of the films I've seen in the weak-so-far year of 2023. My initial instinct was to give Plane the same -- I know, I know. But in fact, the "I know, I know" is my guilt talking, my idea that Butler is irredeemably terrible and if I really liked one of his films, it must be a mistake on my part. 

Who wants guilt to be a factor in the experience you had watching a movie? So instead of 3.5 stars, I gave this one four stars as well.

And that's a pretty damn good double feature. 

Friday, May 19, 2023

Are movies for people with commitment issues?

Last night I had a familiar experience, and today I am documenting it for the first time.

I turned on my AppleTV to get to our Amazon app -- I have this habit lately, on nights when I don't know what to watch, of choosing a streaming service and just deciding I will watch something on this particular service on this particular night. I don't know, maybe that's what everyone does. Then I rotate them. It was Amazon's turn.

On the AppleTV home screen, I'm exposed to whatever thing AppleTV+ is advertising as its latest release.

Last night it was High Desert, starring Patricia Arquette. Curious, I allowed it to play me the trailer.

Now, I didn't know whether High Desert was a TV show or a movie, but as I was watching the footage and feeling interested enough by it, I started to get a familiar chant: "Movie. Movie. Movie."

I wanted this to be a movie so I could watch it once and be done with it. But as the trailer continued and there seemed to be too many distinct images from too many distinct locations for it to fit in one 100-minute package, I decided it was probably a TV show. And that ended up being correct.

See, I'll watch 100 minutes of anything. I'm a lot more particular about how I spend six to ten hours, and that's just the first season.

Simply put: I might have commitment issues.

I wonder if people who love TV shows are sort of "serial monogamists," to quote Hugh Grant from Four Weddings and a Funeral. They are happy to get into a relationship with a particular source material and stick with it for a long time -- maybe forever if that show happens to be The Simpsons.

Those of us who love movies? We're sluts who want some strange every night.

Of course, it's an imperfect comparison. To be a serial monogamist, it suggests you are faithful to just one show for however long it lasts, and when that relationship inevitably ends -- hence the "serial" part -- you move on to exactly one other new show.

We all know that's not how television works. Most people are watching at least two and more likely three shows at a time -- heck, some people could be watching two or three times that depending on their commitment to it and what their schedule allows. So really, they're serial polygamists, remaining devoted to several relationships simultaneously. Fortunately, unlike real relationships, this is possible because of the relatively small time commitment required by each relationship.

But with people who like movies, there's no relationship at all. It's all one-night stands, one after another, until the end of time.

Fortunately, I do also like TV shows, and as we've said, this metaphor breaks down if you try to pick at it too much.

I do think, though, that it's an interesting lens with which to view particular brain types vis-a-vis their preferred entertainment types. I do think that some people don't see the appeal of movies because they don't understand how you can build an emotional investment in something when you are done with the characters inside of two hours. I have no doubt that the reason everyone is raving about the current season of Succession -- a show I still have not watched one minute of, by the way -- is because they've developed that investment over time.

I do like those sorts of experiences as well. But I also think the profound thing about a good movie -- a well written movie -- is that you can also become incredibly entwined in a character's life just from what a screenwriter gives you over an economically few number of script pages. In a way, there's something more profound about it because you are transported to this state so quickly. With a movie, there's none of the peak TV joke that goes something like "The first season is a bit slow, but if you can get through seasons two and three, it becomes amazing by season four." Nope, the screenwriter can't afford to be slow for even five minutes, and in those five minutes, can do a modified but no less powerful version of what it takes a television show a season to do.

I guess I like reaching the end of these emotional arcs within a limited period of time, and then I'm ready for the next one. And I won't try to extrapolate that onto a romantic relationship metaphor, in part because it doesn't really work for me. I've never been a one night stand sort of guy. That's not to say I've never had one night stands, just that I am far more likely to become attached to someone who doesn't want me attached to them than I am to walk away from a relationship prematurely.

And that's about enough soul searching for today I think.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

A dinner sandwich with movie bread

Of all the post-work double features I've conducted over the years, I don't remember exactly this one:

1) Go to a movie.
2) Meet a friend for dinner.
3) Go to another movie.

It's not actually all that revolutionary of an idea, but I don't ever remember it happening.

The first slice of the dinner sandwich was Mafia Mamma, for which I snuck out of work just a few minutes early in order to catch its 4:20 start time downstairs from my office. Actually, I thought it was going to be downstairs, but it turns out Cinema Kino has opened another screening auditorium -- the largest that it has -- away from all the others, across the food court courtyard and up a couple levels. In fact, I was worried I was going to miss the start of the movie due to the extra time it took to cross the courtyard and catch a lift up to the second floor. (Elevator, I know.)

(Side note: I keep wanting to write the title of this movie as Mafia Mamma! because it reminds me of Mamma Mia!)

The movie was not very good. I started out liking it, and who wouldn't, since Toni Collette is the star. But the movie made me a bit suspicious in the guy it cast as her husband -- a sort of Dean Winters type, yet scruffier and trashier -- and the decisions just got worse from there. In the end, it was what you could have guessed from the trailer: A broad comedy with one too many stereotypes and one too few laughs.

That got me out about 6:15, which should have left the perfect amount of time to walk up to North Melbourne to meet my friend David at a pub for dinner by 7. I either walked slow or miscalculated because I ended up needing to catch a tram for the last bit in order not to arrive late.

David and I parted ways after a very nice get-together at about 8:45, so I hopped that same tram back down to the Yarra River where I could check out my second movie starting in the 9:45 range at the Village Cinemas at Crown Casino. I wasn't sure whether that was going to be Hypnotic or Evil Dead Rises, but I ended up going with the former.

And probably shouldn't have. The Ben Affleck vehicle, which crashed out at the U.S. box office last weekend, starts out like a bad 1990s detective thriller, and then when the high concept kicks in, it's convoluted as hell. Plus, I didn't like anyone in the movie.

It's no wonder after these two slices of movie bread that I was feeling a little bloated on my way home. (Actual explanation: a yummy bag of chocolate peanut clusters I ate between the two movies, which was too much when combined with dinner and the ice cream David bought me afterward.)

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Taking a stand on Still

When a movie title appears differently in different places, I always think a good rule of thumb in determining what is "correct" is: How does it actually appear on screen in the movie?

There's little doubt, by that standard, that Davis Guggenheim's new film about Michael J. Fox is called Still. The title appears during the opening and closing credits, possibly twice in the closing credits, and in each instance appears as exactly that one five-letter word.

However, AppleTV+ wants to call the movie Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie. And IMDB and Letterbox'd have followed suit, Letterbox'd even capitalizing all the letters in STILL for some unknown reason. (See this post.)

Way to take a profound and thought-provoking title and render it clumsy, busy and needlessly explanatory.

See, Still doesn't just refer to the condition for which Fox is always striving, to keep the tremors of his Parkinson's at bay. It has a secondary meaning of him "still" being here, a reminder that he's alive, and sort of well, and with a loving family, even after being mostly out of the public eye for the past 25 years.

With the subtitle, it's just a display of marketing insecurity. Will people know this is a movie about Michael J. Fox if we don't put it in the title?

Yeah, if you include his picture with all the promotional materials, they will. 

In this case -- at least for now -- I'm going with the shorter and more poetic Still. I'm sure it's what Davis Guggenheim and Michael J. Fox wanted the movie to be called. Just look at the way they listed the title in their finished film.

Which is a really good one. It's not so different from the similar Val Kilmer film Val a few years ago, but I think I might like Guggenheim's choices even more here, telling the story of Fox's life using relevant bits of footage from his films and TV shows. It makes for a really lively document, one with a lot of forward momentum. Plus there's the fact that Fox plays a larger role in my personal cinematic history than Kilmer does, starring as he does in my second favorite film of all time, Back to the Future.

If the condition of stillness is elusive for Fox, the least we can do is allow him to achieve it in the title of the film about him. 

Sunday, May 14, 2023

Campion Champion & Bigelow Pro: Near Dark

This is the third in my 2023 bi-monthly series in which I finish the final three films I haven't yet seen by both Kathryn Bigelow and Jane Campion.

How much mood-setting work is a score by Tangerine Dream doing? I guess that's like asking what came first, the chicken or the egg. 

One thing about Near Dark is clear, though: In the six years since her directing debut in The Loveless, Kathryn Bigelow has taken major steps forward as a filmmaker.

I should probably clarify that. I didn't have a problem with the filmmaking in The Loveless, I just didn't care for the story (what story?) or the characters.

What I really mean is, in Near Dark, Bigelow has started to show us who she is as a filmmaker, and what sorts of themes and ideas will come to characterize her best work.

I suppose the characters in this movie are not so different from the central characters in The Loveless, a bunch of motorcycle greasers there, and a group of miscreants who similarly disrupt social norms here, though there's nary a motorcycle in sight. Here, though, they are vampires, and it's that little step into genre filmmaking that seems to really set Bigelow free.

The main character wasn't a vampire when this all started. That's Adrian Pasdar's Caleb, a nice enough young man who wears a cowboy hat and looks for potential romantic interest at the local watering hole in his small Oklahoma town. Unfortunately, the one with whom he strikes up a connection on this particular night is Mae (Jenny Wright), whose cryptic comments about planning to still be here when the light from a star takes a billion years to get here don't faze him one bit. Before dawn he's got a bite on his neck, his skin is starting to smoke in the rising sun, and Mae's group of nomadic fellow vampires have to decide if Caleb is worthy of taking up with them, though Caleb refuses to kill to feed his appetites and pass their litmus test for his worthiness. Meanwhile, Caleb's father and younger sister set out looking for him.

I mentioned the Tangerine Dream score earlier, and though a score like that is incomparably effective in the right situation, it takes a director to create that situation. Bigelow really sets the stage with all her shots of the wide open Oklahoma plains at near dusk and near dawn, establishing a southern gothic tone that just deepens as the movie progresses. There's something apocalyptic about the way the sun bleeds into the sky and suffuses everything with a slightly surreal feeling. Tonally, there's nothing remotely like this in her first work.

The next thing I want to focus on is the cast, and specifically, how much of it is part of the greater Kathryn Bigelow-James Cameron universe. I checked just now and it appears those two did not get together until the following year, but in Near Dark Bigelow used three actors who were in Cameron's Aliens the year before, all part of the vampire group. Lance Henriksen and Bill Paxton obviously stand out from the Aliens cast, but Jenette Goldstein -- whose name I did not know -- was more recognizable to me from her role in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where she plays John Connor's foster mother. (You know, the one the T-1000 impersonates, ultimately driving an arm turned into a sword through the face and milk carton of John's foster father.)

Speaking of chickens and eggs, I'm not going to spend a lot of time researching the way Cameron and Bigelow came into each other's orbits, but it does indeed seem that Bigelow was offering up the sincerest form of flattery with these casting choices. From a distance of more than 30 years, it surely places a viewer within a certain sort of cinematic universe that has included some of the most memorable genre films of the past four decades.

I should say the cast sharing actually goes one step further than that. There's a small character actor who appears here that I recognized, that maybe not everyone would, name of Robert Winley. You know the biker Arnold Schwarzenegger beats up to get his clothes in T2? "Take it! Take it!" he says, throwing Arnie the keys to his motorcycle. He actually appears here, in a similar sort of seedy biker bar, serving a very similar purpose. So maybe the sincerity and flattery goes both ways.

Also on the topic of the cast, it caused me to wonder why Adrian Pasdar hasn't gotten more work over the years. He has a good look and is a charismatic presence in the lead (as is Jenny Wright as Mae, another actress who should have gotten more work based on her distinct appearance and presence). It's hard to believe that the only really significant thing Pasdar has done in the last 20 years was appearing on Heroes, a gig that did not end up getting him additional work, though it did for much of the cast. (Actually, it appears he's been working a lot on TV, just in shows I don't watch -- but it doesn't mean I can't still miss seeing his face on the big screen.)

Anyway, this movie has cult horror written all over it, but I think it's actually better than that. In addition to the terrific performances by Paxton, Henriksen et al, this movie gives us some really good vampire world-building, and plenty of excellent violence. It's a mood, but it's got its heart in the right place too, ultimately reminding us that these charismatic characters are not the ones we should be rooting for. In its mixture of small-town innocence and murderous darkness, there's even something about it that reminds me a little bit of Blue Velvet.

I should mention that I had significant technical challenges watching this movie, which started with finding it available at all. I ultimately had to order it on Region 1 DVD from the U.S., which means I had to play it on my old laptop that I've reprogrammed to play DVDs from that DVD region. That part went fine, but this laptop is not in great shape, and when I paused the movie at one point, it didn't recover well from coming unpaused. For the next five minutes the dialogue played uninterrupted, but the images froze and then caught up in superspeed. I was actually kind of digging on the frozen images, which were coming fast enough that it almost seemed like a collection of iconic snapshots -- like something you'd seen in a pre-sound film where a reel has been lost, so they supplement it with stills.

But when it became clear that the normal playing of the film was never going to recover on its own, I had to try to exit the video player, and when that wasn't working I had to restart the computer altogether. And then all of the sudden it was running Windows updates and I ultimately couldn't resume the film for another 45 minutes.

Worried about pausing again, I instead fought through sleep on the couch for a significant portion of the film's final 30 minutes. I didn't always succeed, but I was never asleep for more than about a minute and always retained a hazy understanding of what was going on -- which was also kind of a cool way to take in a film with such themes. I reviewed on Wikipedia and it turns out I didn't really miss anything in terms of the plot. And hey, now I own this so I can watch it again whenever the mood strikes me -- and whenever I'm willing to deal with the shortcomings of my old laptop.

So glad to have loved Bigelow's second film for this series after not liking her first. In July we'll turn to Jane Campion's second film I haven't seen, Holy Smoke! 

Friday, May 12, 2023

They didn't have movie credits in 2006?

My "what should I watch tonight?" browsing landed on Clerks II last night. It's relatively rare that I opt for an aged sequel in one of these scenarios, especially when the series has gone on to have additional movies. If I had really cared about that series, I would have sought out the additional movies before now. 

The Clerks series is a bit of a different story. I had always liked the original, and I generally give Kevin Smith the benefit of the doubt, given my passionate enthusiasm for some of his films. (You may remember that I am about the world's biggest supporter of Red State.) In fact, Clerks II is the only feature length film Smith has directed that I haven't seen -- other than Clerks III. (Actually no, it looks like I didn't catch Jay and Silent Bob Reboot either -- though that's part of the same deficit of not yet having seen Clerks II.)

And Clerks III was actually the clincher. I've seen that new film, released only last year, pop up on streaming services lately and thought "I should really see that," and then immediately thought "Wait a minute ..."

So why hadn't I seen Clerks II before now? Simple: Someone told me it was awful. I don't remember who, and I don't remember whether I should trust that person or not. But the feeling stuck.

But I didn't go in last night expecting to see an awful movie, because I also remember subsequently learning that this was not the predominant impression of Clerks II. I just hadn't yet had the chance to finally give it a chance. 

Initially -- as in very initially -- I regretted it, and that finally gets us to the subject of this post.

I had twin negative first impressions of Clerks II, and they both related to what seemed like a microscopic budget.

At the very opening of the film, Dante (Bryan O'Halloran) arrives to his place of business, the convenience store from the original film, only to find it on fire. (His kuncklehead friend Randal, played by Jeff Anderson, left the coffee pot on again.) He opens the rolling metal gate to see the flames, and it is immediately obvious that the flames are not part of this actual environment, but rather, playing on a video screen.

Then the credits -- oh the credits!

Just look at the size of this typeface:

That's like something you would see on Hill Street Blues in 1982, not a major theatrical motion picture in 2006. (Or at least, a minor theatrical motion picture.)

I know we often don't notice the way things seem different in a particular era until we have moved on from that era, and maybe these credits wouldn't have struck me as incredibly cheap and uninspired 17 years ago. But I don't know. They're pretty shitty. 

As the movie went on, I chalked it up to Smith's working class lack of flash. He likely saw these credits as a practical way to acknowledge the cast and crew, nothing more, and let his funny dialogue and set pieces do the talking for him.

So yes, that's right -- I found Clerks II funny. And clever. And sentimental. And sort of touching.

The credits may not have aged well, but the comedy surprisingly did. Oh, make no mistake -- they could never get away with most of this today. But the jokes involving racism and homophobia, including the use of words you basically just don't hear on screen anymore, both seem to come from the spirit Smith always brings to his work: pushing the envelope for the purpose of promoting an overall liberal mindset, where it's the characters that have shortcomings rather than the filmmaker. I took these jokes in the spirit with which they were intended, and my awareness that they would be completely taboo in 2023 didn't diminish them. In fact, if anything, Smith in 2006 was speaking to us in 2023, asking why words themselves are so off limits -- suggesting that it was the thoughts behind the words that mattered most. (I suppose the problem is, not all viewers are equipped to make this distinction.)

It was also clear from the music choices that the lame opening credits were not budgetary in nature. I was surprised by the number of song clearances this movie paid for, from the Jackson Five to Alanis Morissette to Smashing Pumpkins to Soul Asylum to the Talking Heads to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" -- and of course the song "Goodbye Horses" from The Silence of the Lambs, to which Jason Mewes' Jay dances on at least three occasions. (And I suppose even though there's a sort of homophobia built into that whole bit, as there was in The Silence of the Lambs, I laughed each time, and I think it came from a loving and tolerant place.)

There's one other thing I wanted to tell you about, and it also has to do with credits. 

I recently read a piece (can't remember where) about the importance of watching the end credits, because there's always something interesting to be learned. I learned two things from the end credits of Clerks II:

1) The little girl who looks out the restaurant window at Dante as he's having a drive around the city (to "1979" by the aforementioned Pumpkins), considering his future, is Smith's daughter Harley Quinn, future star of his misbegotten film Yoga Hosers.

2) There is a person named September Death who worked on this film. In fact, September Death has 35 credits on IMDB. In this one, he or she was the second second assistant director. (That job title alone is funny.)

Okay, now I'm definitely curious to see how the comedy of Clerks has moved on into our current woke age. I'll probably watch Clerks III before the month is out.