Sunday, May 16, 2021

Forsaking our DVD collections

There's something sad about the first time you watch a movie you own on DVD, but you can't be bothered to pull out your actual DVD, so you watch it on streaming instead.

I can't say for sure that my Friday night viewing of Vanilla Sky was actually the first time I did that. In fact, I reckon that if I scoured my post history on The Audient, I might find that not only have I done it before, I've written about it before. But since I can't be bothered to do that either, I'll just write it again. 

It was all the more strange that I did it, because one of the things I was actually looking forward to in my first Vanilla Sky viewing in four years was the DVD menu. 

(As a side note, I can't believe I've only written about this movie once before on this blog, considering that I rewatch it at regular intervals -- 2008, 2010, 2014 and 2017 before Friday night.)

Remember how good DVD menus can be? As you contemplate which of your options to select, you may get a little montage of images from the movie, some good music, even an independently conceived interactive experience that builds on the themes of the movie and incorporates the menu options into it.

With the Vanilla Sky DVD menu, the thing I find so compelling is a little melancholic piece of the score that plays on about a 15-second loop, both preparing me for the viewing and amplifying its themes. Even with that four-year gap since my last viewing, I can still remember that music as I sit here typing this.

But Friday night, I just said "To hell with all that."

I had decided to watch Vanilla Sky after contemplating the "sacrifice" Tom Cruise made earlier in the week when he returned his Golden Globes to the HFPA. He didn't win a globe for Vanilla Sky of course -- the film was generally not well received, though Penelope Cruz did get a globe nomination and Paul McCartney's song of the same name got an Oscar nod. But it got me thinking about the "serious" performances Cruise has given, and Vanilla Sky contains one of my favorites.

But instead of going to the trouble of flipping through my DVD folder to find the disc, then making sure there was currently an HDMI cable connecting my TV and the DVD player, I just went hunting for it on my streaming services. And it took until the third service I checked, but indeed, it was playing on Stan. 

Obviously we'll soon reach the point where most people don't even own a DVD player, and another great chapter in media history will close. But until that point, it would seem worthwhile to enjoy our DVDs while we can. Especially when they have lovely mood-setting DVD menus like Vanilla Sky.

All is not lost, friends.

Also within the past week I have made my first proper return trip to the library since the start of the pandemic. We've been returned to full normalcy for quite a while now here in Australia, but the libraries were one of the last institutions to drop their COVID restrictions. I'd tried to go on a couple previous occasions, but had been greeted by security guards and librarians helpfully yet aggressively querying what my business was. At that point, they would go to the shelf for you to look for the thing you wanted, while you waited in the foyer. Until recently, it wasn't an environment that supporting lingering and browsing in any way, shape or form.

But on my day off last Friday, I walked home and swung by the local branch, where all the restrictions had been lifted and they were as happy to have me browse as to go put my head down on a desk for a nap, if that's what I'd wanted to do. 

I came away with a stack of about ten DVDs. The collection did not feel like it had been recently refreshed -- all the titles seemed to be ones I had considered on my last visit, and none were 2020 movies -- but for the time being, they are still offering these, as well as CDs, to a general public still willing to consume them.

So whether it was for Vanilla Sky or not, my DVD player should get some run in the coming weeks.

I'll also say this: Vanilla Sky did not look "just as good" on streaming. I'm not really sure how these things work, but I suspect that Stan did not get a very good transfer of the movie, either because that would have been more expensive, it wasn't available, or they just didn't care. And since a lot of people don't appreciate this movie the way I do, they probably don't care either. The quality of the version on Stan is not making any new converts, in all likelihood.

DVD/BluRay may continue to have the quality advantage, and I'll remember that the next time I'm faced with one of these scenarios. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Disney princesses as stacks of Legos

I went to a Village Cinemas I'd never been to on Friday, in the city of Knox, about 40 minutes from my house. The reason for choosing this particular theater was it was near the one place in the state of Victoria where there are batting cages, and I visited the cages on my day off with another friend from my baseball team. The movie was Those Who Wish Me Dead. There will be a review linked to the right within a couple days.

Instead of posters for upcoming movies in the hallway between the different screening rooms, there were a lot of abstract interpretations of famous movies, a thing I always like to see. You know, like a big Joker grin hanging out there by itself against a neutral background for The Dark Knight. As is usually the case when they do things like this, I stopped and looked at each one. (In fact, more on that in a minute.)

There was also a series of five other framed pieces of art that I found uniquely compelling -- a series of quiz questions about which Disney princesses were represented by the images in question. I only got two of the five correct, but I liked them so much that I took a picture of each to give you the same opportunity. (Again, more on that in a minute.)

As you are about to see, these were stacks of five colored Lego bricks that were meant as abstract representations of the characters in question. Each asked "Can you name this Disney princess?" The answer appears in small print upside down at the bottom of each piece. 

Interesting right? If a little reductive -- which could also be seen as an issue given that some past Disney princesses have been criticized for their one dimensionality. Don't think that was the intention of the artist, though, and if so, it's never a bad thing for us to be reminded of the less progressive times in Disney's history. 

Anyway, here they are. I'll include answers at the very end of the post.

1.


2. 


3. 


4. 


5. 

As I was wandering up and down the hallway, lingering a bit with these images, an older female theater employee sensed a situation where she needed to intervene. I'm not sure if she were just being a busybody, someone who straddles that line between helping and meddling, or if she legitimately thought I were lost/confused, or if she thought I were trying to sneak into a second movie. 

She asked "Are you a writer?"

Which I thought was a very funny question. I'd had a conversation with the ticket taker about how she thought I must have "the best job in the world" and how it had been her dream to be a movie critic when she were younger. Not sure if she would have shared this interaction with her colleague, or if so, how her colleague would have identified that I'd been the person she'd talked to.

"Yes," I said in a sort of surprised way. 

When it was clear I had misunderstood her question, I sought to clarify: "I thought you asked if I was a writer."

"No, I said 'Are you alright, sir?'" ("A writer"/"alright, sir" do sound very similar.)

I managed to convince her I was not up to any mischief and she allowed me to continue taking my photos. 

Okay, here are those answers:

1. Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
2. Moana (Moana)
3. Elsa (Frozen)
4. Merida (Brave)
5. Rapunzel (Tangled)

Incidentally, it was only the last two that I got correct -- I should hope so on the final one -- without peeking at the answer, though I must admit, I didn't try very hard on the other ones. I hope I would have gotten them all correct if I'd been on a game show or something, and would have won my $5,000.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Soliciting premature evaluations

In case you're wondering about the answer to the question posed by this screen shot of my TV, yes, I was enjoying -- and did enjoy -- Alexandra Aja's new French language film Oxygen. I highly recommend it, though will not tell you too much about it so you go in without any preconceived notions.

But the question itself should never have been asked.

I don't know if you've noticed -- I first noticed within the past couple months -- that when you pause a movie on Netflix, it asks you straight away if you are enjoying what you're watching. Like, even if you pause it one minute in. 

This is just dumb.

Netflix should not be feeding data into its algorithm about user preferences if the user has not fully consumed the content. Yeah sure, maybe most of us aren't rating movies after we finish them, and Netflix is grumpy about that, but rating it during the movie? What if it doesn't get good until the second act?

Either answer could be misleading. What if -- and this is really a more likely scenario -- the movie (or TV show, or comedy special) starts out like gangbusters, but then peters out, or worse, ends on something so patently offensive that you wouldn't recommend the movie (or TV show, or comedy special) to your worst enemy? 

You won't know that until that moment comes, but if Netflix has their way, you'll have already blindly endorsed it based on a few clever sequences and a general sense of optimism.

The truth is, probably most people are eager to say they are enjoying something -- it's a kind of confirmation bias, where you want to convince yourself you made the right selection for your Thursday night viewing.

So what are a bunch of false positives or false negatives doing for Netflix?

It's hard to say. But any meaningful algorithm changes or programming decisions based on partial information are inherently flawed. 

Imagine someone was pitching an idea to you and they wanted some venture capital for it, and you controlled that venture capital. Imagine that the product sounded so great, and answered so many of society's needs, and was so destined to be the Next Big Thing that you greenlit it before the presentation ended? Before the person doing the pitch got a chance to tell you about its horrible environmental effects and the fact that it would cost $10 billion to launch?

You get the idea.

Of course, we'll never actually know how any of this affects the way Netflix does business because Netflix keeps that information closely guarded.

But since I did finish, I can again say: See Oxygen

Let my complete set of data inform your personal algorithm. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

I'm Thinking of Kaufman Things: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

This is my third bi-monthly revisitation of the films of Charlie Kaufman in 2021.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is the Charlie Kaufman film I always forget about. I'm not sure if that's because I didn't think of it as a Kaufman film at the time, though I probably would have not yet fully developed my definition of a "Charlie Kaufman film" in 2002, so I suspect I sort of forget about it in retrospect. And it's easy to do so because I've never felt the desire to revisit it.

After a second viewing, I can say almost certainly that there will never be a third.

I don't dislike this movie, but it doesn't do a lot for me, to be honest. I remember being puzzled, back in 2002, about which parts of it were real and which parts were not. That wouldn't be a problem for me today, as I appreciate a lot more the creative license that might be taken with the lives of real people. I mean, this is a post Inglourious Basterds and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter world. But back then, it stuck in my craw and never dislodged.

I think I knew any material related to Chuck Barris being a spy was not real, as the whole idea for the movie came from Barris' autobiography, in which he claimed he had been a spy. (If he did work for the CIA, I seriously doubt it was in the form of assassinating people.) He later admitted it was made up, but then subsequent comments suggested a caginess about the whole thing, like if he had been a spy of course he would have had to say he hadn't been. Whatever. He wasn't.

But the parts I struggled with -- that's perhaps an exaggerated way to describe it -- were the events depicted on the game shows he was involved with, such as The Dating Game. There's a sequence in this film where contestants on the show give increasingly vulgar answers to questions, those that definitely would have violated censorship laws, and I remember that it troubled me, in 2002, to try to figure out if these things had actually happened. I now understand it as Kaufman's exaggeration of an underlying truth about the show -- that it fed people's more prurient natures -- and I "struggle" with it less now.

I think some of the things I don't love about Confessions are the things George Clooney brings to it as director. Although the period design is generally done well, Clooney tries to augment that with the use of various filters that I just find distracting. I also think the entire existence of Julia Roberts' character (and to a lesser extent, Clooney's own character) places this too much in an Ocean's Eleven world, a world that does not seem to speak particularly to Kaufman's sensibilities. We also know that Clooney has gotten significant influences from Joel and Ethan Coen, and while they have made some of my favorite films of all time, I don't think them particularly to be a match for Kaufman either. (Though it's closer.) I think specifically of the scene where Chuck's CIA compatriot strangles a cross country skier in Europe, and you can see the man's skis flailing about, sticking out of the back seat of the car, as he expires. That's such a Coen moment. 

But to say this film is absent the themes of Kaufman's work would be dead wrong. Again, they are all over the place here.

While Barris himself is not a close match for a typical Kaufman hero -- he's got a lot more confidence, for starters -- the way Sam Rockwell looks at certain points of this movie are Kaufman all over. At certain junctures he sports a kind of Kaufman afro that make him a dead ringer for the writer and future director. And since a lot of Kaufman's work involves fantasizing about being a different, more capable version of himself, Barris fits that description to a T. Barris' whole story is a fantasy that has come from a screenwriter's mind, even if that fantasy was inspired by a fantasy that came from Barris' own mind. (In my notes I also noted that Rockwell looked, at certain parts, a bit like Nicolas Cage -- which is appropriate since Cage plays Kaufman in July's film, Adaptation, which was released contemporaneously with Confessions.) It seems appropriate, though undoubtedly coincidental, that both Barris and Kaufman have the same first name, "Chuck" and "Charlie" both being nicknames for Charles.

Then the actual narrative structure is familiar from Kaufman's work, as it uses two strategies he used in Human Nature: a recurring interview format, as well as narration from at least one of the characters. Clooney chooses to make those interviews in a more explicitly documentary style format than they were in Human Nature, in part to lead us up to an actual "interview" with the real-world Barris at the end. 

Then there are some of the recognizable Kaufman thematic concerns, which are probably almost worth just bullet-pointing:

- There's a line of dialogue about Chuck being raised as a girl. As we saw in Being John Malkovich and will see later in I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Kaufman is interested in characters who cross the gender divide.

- Drew Barrymore's Penny tells Chuck of a dream she had where she was talking to an ape. Again, this seems to be bleeding through from Human Nature.

- Penny also gives Chuck a reason why he likes her, which is that she's "nothing like your mother." Chuck responds angrily to this and wonders where it was coming from. Again we see Kaufman grappling with mother issues. That character otherwise does not appear in the story, so it's out-of-nowhere reference is significant in terms of his obvious preoccupation.

- Then the coup de grace: "I hate myself," Chuck says at one point. "Goddamn do I hate myself."

In July I will watch both of Kaufman's next two films, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which are also his best two films. Since I've seen both at least four times, I figure I'll have less new to say about each, and can cram in them both, in order to keep us on track for Synecdoche, New York in September and Anomalisa in November to close the series. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Tom Cruise is doing things I like

It doesn't feel like that long ago that we all wanted to write off Tom Cruise for his couch jumping and his Scientology and his other personality deficits that made him a creepy weirdo.

Since then, his PR team has been working subtly, quietly, to restore his good name as a fine and upstanding celebrity.

First they re-introduced Cruise's cool factor, reminding us that he does all his own stunts, and reminding us exactly how ridiculous those stunts are in a succession of Mission: Impossible movies. Impossible mission indeed. "Did you hear Tom Cruise held his breath underwater for 13 minutes for the latest Mission: Impossible?" I believe it.

But lately, improbably, Cruise has impressed for something that I never considered much of his makeup as a public figure: his conscience. 

First there was the tirade that was captured on audio against his crew for Mission: Impossible 9, or whatever number we're up to, who were shirking their COVID responsibilities and endangering the production. It was like Christian Bale but for altruistic reasons. 

And yeah, if you want to be cynical, you'd say he didn't care about the health of the people involved, only about the health of the production and how it contributed to his bottom line or his star wattage. (Because he can't make these movies forever, even if the evidence suggests that he might.) But I didn't hear a lot of people saying that. I heard a lot of people saying "Good for him."

But I don't think you can be cynical about the news this week, where Cruise put the physical symbols of his accomplishments as a Real Actor on the line for something he believed in. Unless you just want to be cynical about everything any celebrity does, which I think is a fruitless and unfair exercise. 

That's right, if you haven't read about it yet, Cruise returned the three Golden Globes he's won as a means of protesting the lack of diversity in the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

That's not nothing. Not for Cruise. We may turn our nose up at the Globes for being so much less prestigious than the Oscars, but for a guy who is probably never going to win an Oscar, this may be as good as it gets.

And he threw it back in their faces.

Celebrities often don't have to put their money where their mouth is, but Tom Cruise just did. 

He's probably still a creepy weirdo, but he makes damn entertaining movies, and we now know -- almost for sure -- he really cares about people other than himself. 

That's good enough for me.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

That time Paul Thomas Anderson made a Charlie Kaufman movie

Two thousand two was the rare year where there were two films released featuring the writing of the never-very-prolific Charlie Kaufman. As I am revisiting Kaufman's works for my bi-monthly series I'm Thinking About Kaufman Things, I'm just about to consider both of them. This month I'll be watching Confessions of a Dangerous Mind -- possibly as soon as tonight -- and Adaptation awaits me in July.

On Friday night, I revisited what easily could have been a third.

Paul Thomas Anderson is also not very prolific, sometimes making us wait a Kaufmanian five years between projects, and like Kaufman, he has established his own signature style. While the content of his films changes from outing to outing, he has a proclivity for epics painted on big canvases. These are as likely to have big casts (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) as smaller ones (There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread), but they have been without exception feasts for the eyes with long running times and a distinct sense of the grandiose.

Well, almost without exception.

The 96-minute Punch-Drunk Love, released in the aforementioned 2002, broke the mold Anderson had recently established with Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Or, you could characterize it as a return to the more intimate character drama he started out with, Hard Eight. But Punch-Drunk was quirky enough, especially next to the comparatively straightforward Hard Eight, that it clearly feels like its own distinct thing.

And kind of like a Kaufman thing, which I'm "thinking about" this year.

Adam Sandler's Barry Egan is a Kaufman protagonist if ever there was one. He's socially awkward almost to the point of pathology. He particularly doesn't know how to behave around women, despite growing up with seven sisters -- he doesn't know how to behave around women who are romantic prospects, anyway. In fact, except for the fact that this is a romantic fantasy, his behavior would certainly be interpreted by most women as that of a stalker, as he's flown to Hawaii just to meet up with Emily Watson's Lena Leonard -- even though they both live in the same city. His scheme to exploit the inefficiencies of a Healthy Choice frequent flier miles promotion is just the kind of obsessive task that would occupy a Kaufman protagonist, and most Kaufman protagonists have an anger bubbling beneath the surface, even if they don't act on it the way Barry does.

It's not just the oddball themes and design of Punch-Drunk Love that feel reminiscent of Kaufman, but also the casting choices -- even if only in retrospect. See, Kaufman worked with two of the stars of this movie, even if Anderson got to them first. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Emily Watson would both appear in Synecdoche, New York, still six years on the horizon at this point. Of course, this was already the fourth time Hoffman and Anderson had worked together. So should we say that maybe Kaufman made an Anderson movie with Synecdoche? Probably not, though we can leave these chicken-or-egg debates to the philosophers.

In regards to who imitated who, though, this does remind us of a criticism that dogged Anderson in his early days. Before Anderson's genius paved its way into a style that was not directly indebted to any other auteur, he was thought to be making homages to his favorite directors. It was easy to see Scorsese in Boogie Nights, Altman in Magnolia. PTA's fourth feature had always felt like something wholly original that was not in direct conversation with any other director's work, but now I'm starting to wonder.

However, in making these types of determinations, it is again important to remember the chronology here. When Punch-Drunk Love debuted at Cannes in May of 2002, there were only two Kaufman films in the world: Being John Malkovich and Human Nature. PDL is not a close thematic match to either of those films, so I think we can really only see this as a Kaufman-style film in retrospect. In fact, if PTA had continued in this vein rather than making There Will Be Blood, he and Kaufman might have ended up with equal claim to making "Charlie Kaufman films."

Friday, May 7, 2021

Closing my eyes was enough

I went to see Mortal Kombat today as part of a day off to use up some comp time. It being my first blockbuster in the theater in about six weeks (since Godzilla vs. Kong), I was exposed to a lot of trailers I hadn't seen before. (The movie itself was not terrible, but I was a bit bored by it, despite some enjoyable gore and f-bombs.)

Now, you may remember that I don't like to watch trailers nowadays. They give away too much. It doesn't matter so much if I don't care about the movie, but it's a tricky proposition, because sometimes you'll start watching a trailer without knowing what the movie is, and whether its images are something you'll want to avoid. You have to tread carefully.

It was that scenario that exposed me to a good deal of the Dune trailer in the lobby. I didn't even realize it was the trailer for Dune until I'd been watching it for about 20 seconds and Timothee Chalamet finally came on screen. I averted my eyes before the big final shot of the trailer, most likely the worm bursting out of the ground, as I could hear the way it shattered the earth around it.

Once I was seated, it was decision time again. I could tell straight away that the trailer for the next Fast and the Furious movie was coming on. Since I'm not a devotee of the series (though I've seen them all) and since I was kind of starved for the theatrical trailer experience, I made the decision to watch the whole trailer. By the end, I wished I hadn't.

So when the trailer for A Quiet Place Part II came on, I decided to go for my old standby behavior when I'm trying to block out all the information from a particular trailer: Close my eyes, cover my ears, and even making a loud murmuring sound so I don't hear the dialogue. (Not loud loud, but loud enough so I can't hear anything else myself.) 

It's a tedious endeavor, and I'm sure a ridiculous display to others sitting around me. Fortunately, there are not generally others sitting around me these days. Especially at 12:15 on a Friday, where the 500-seat theater had only about five other people in it. 

In this case, though, closing my eyes was enough. 

I realized straight away that the unique thing about A Quiet Place Part II was that the trailer would be almost entirely visual, because the movie is all about keeping your mouth shut. Oh, there were a couple lines of dialogue in the trailer, but it was almost a sort of zen experience having only my eyes closed and knowing that no further meaningful information would be imparted to me.

It had a funny conclusion though. I suddenly started hearing a lot of laid back voices that sounded like they were really having fun. Because I had no real audio queues to let me know the trailer was ending, I assumed it was still going on. My first thought was "Oh great, now I know our main characters are able to find some kind of safe haven where they can laugh and splash around in a pool." The spoilers had gotten past my defenses after all.

Of course, I opened my eyes and found that I was now watching a mobile phone ad.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Knowing Noir: The Hitch-Hiker

This is the fifth in my 2021 noir series.

There are a number of things I'm learning about film noir as this series goes on, and one of them is that noir encompasses quite a wide range of films -- and in fact, more and more feels like a time period in which a certain type of film was made than a genre unto itself. (Or possibly that people misapply the label.)

I was looking for something short to watch on Monday night after returning from a day trip for work that required driving an hour and 20 minutes in each direction, and again I slept poorly the night before. (If this seems like deja vu, I wrote about these same conditions last week when I talked about this year's Oscars, having done a similar day trip.) So I pulled up the Kanopy app on AppleTV and came across The Hitch-Hiker, which barely cracked 70 minutes.

Of course, the length was not the first thing that drew me to it. Rather, I'd heard it discussed on Filmspotting last year when they were doing an overlooked auteurs marathon focusing on mid-century female directors, Ida Lupino being one of those. They discussed this film, and though I don't remember a word they said about it -- I like to "listen loosely" when a film I haven't seen is being discussed -- I did remember that they liked it.

But the third factor that really helped me choose it for Monday night is that it was listed as a film noir in the brief summary on Kanopy. I have plenty of candidates for this series and was only a few days into the new month, so I could have waited, but a bird in the hand beats two in the bush.

If asked to place The Hitch-Hiker in a genre myself, I probably would have chosen the generic designation "crime film." In fact, so ahead of its time was Lupino's film that I think of it almost as a New Hollywood creation or even an independent film from the 1980s or 1990s, except that of course the look of the actors and certain design details tie it to the year it was made: 1953. But it occurred to me that the terms "film noir" and crime film" could be used interchangeably, as almost every noir would feature the commission of some sort of crime, and the related unsavory characters. I certainly think noir has elements that give it its own distinctive feel, but maybe narrowing the definition to only movies with femme fatales and detectives (or characters who function as detectives, narratively speaking) does the whole term a disservice.

One element I would have previously considered noir-disqualifying is that most of this film takes place during the day. It's the story of two men who are traveling from California to Mexico on a fishing trip, who make the ill-fated decision to pick up a hitchhiker (or "hitch-hiker," as the term was apparently known at the time). The hitchhiker in question happens to be on a killing spree. I wondered if they'd never seen a movie that made them aware of the dangers of picking up strangers by the side of the road, but maybe that wasn't actually a thing back then. Maybe this is the movie other people watched as a cautionary tale.

Another non-noir detail is that there is no femme fatale -- in fact, there's nary a woman in the entire film, if memory serves. That seems especially interesting since the film is directed by a woman, but she is content to step entirely out of her own perspective here -- if only because maybe that was the only way she would have been allowed to make the movie at the time.

The men are played by Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy, and though they seemed familiar to me, I didn't realize until after the film that O'Brien should be quite familiar to me -- as the star of the last movie I watched for this series. That's right, O'Brien was the lead in my April movie, D.O.A., which I didn't like half as much as I liked this. The interesting thing was that as I was watching him, I thought he actually sort of reminded me of the inspiration for this series: Humphrey Bogart. As a measure of how my appreciation for Bogart has yet to grow during this series (having still only watched one of his films in this series, In a Lonely Place), I think I actually prefer O'Brien.

While those two give sort of interchangeable performances -- not in a bad way -- the real standout here is William Talman as the sadistic hitchhiker. He's a real menace, though I appreciated how his character was, generally speaking, not merely nasty for the sake of it. I guess that comment requires some clarifying, as I just called him "sadistic." He can be mean for sure, and mess with people for sport -- there's a scene where he makes one of the two men, who is an excellent shot, shoot a beer can out of the other's hand in a William Tell situation. (That's right, William Talman doing William Tell.) But there are any number of situations where the men try to escape or otherwise contradict his wishes, and he doesn't punish them. That could be because he needs them, or believes he does, on his escape attempt into Mexico. But I also just think it's because he's a human being and he doesn't need to do the worst possible thing in every scenario for us to loathe him. The loathing he earns from us is more human-sized.

There isn't really a lot to the story and the movie itself is quite brief, only 71 minutes. So why did I like it so much? Hard to say. I really respect the filmmaking as Lupino brings quite a sense of distinction and sense of precision to it. As I alluded to earlier, it contains nary a feminine element to it. I mention that not because it is "better" for her to have made a movie that would most likely be mistaken for the work of a man, but just because I find it interesting. According to Wikipedia, she was the first woman ever to direct a film noir. (Which lends a second opinion to this film's correct categorization as noir.) She was also an actress, and you can tell when you see her photo:

Again, judging only the book by its cover, this does not at all conform to my expectations of how a person who makes a gritty crime thriller should look. I don't know, maybe I expected her to look more like this:

The Hitch-Hiker is basically a B movie elevated by its superior elements. Maybe because of its Mexican setting or maybe because of the dynamic between the characters, I was actually sort of reminded of my favorite Bogart film, which is decidedly not noir: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It's a story of what men do when they don't trust each other and are caught in a scenario that exacerbates that distrust. And it's a damn fine one.

Because this is another deviation from the "traditional noir" I had hoped to focus on, I'll get back into more expected territory in June with something like Kiss Me Deadly or Kansas City Confidential

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

First Cow, last Cow, and all the Cows in between

Kelly Reichardt's First Cow has truly spanned the pandemic.

Thirteen months ago, it became the poster boy for sacrificial lambs -- to mix metaphors -- among movies caught betwixt and between by the shutting down of the world economy due to COVID. Its March 6th U.S. release date left barely anyone to see it before people stopped going to the movies. Barely anyone also saw it, of course, because it was only released in four U.S. theaters on that date, part of a staggered release not unusual with independent films, but a release that ultimately became more hobbled than staggered. 

That theatrical run was of course shot, though there was talk of trying to release it theatrically again later in the year. Of course, it's still "later in the year" as many cinemas in the U.S. are only just now trying to return to regular operations.

Here in Australia, it played at MIFF in August -- which was, of course, also a virtual experience. That's where I watched it, or rather, when I watched it. The MIFF screening, which was an opening night screening, was "sold out" -- yeah, they limit availability even with streaming, in order to create urgency I guess. So instead we just rented it from U.S. iTunes, which was possible starting July 21st, 11 days after it premiered on VOD. 

At this point, First Cow seems like ancient history. Although critics fell all over themselves lauding it -- I was more mixed -- it didn't get any Oscar nominations and seems to have been kind of relegated to an unfortunate footnote in pandemic-era cinematic history. (I don't think Oscar nominations would have necessarily been expected, but several of my movie podcasts thought it could be a frontrunner for best picture if the Oscars limited themselves only to what was released theatrically.)

So you can imagine my surprise when I got an email to my ReelGood account this week with the subject "Master filmmaker Kelly Reichardt is back."

My first thought was "Wait, Kelly Reichardt has a new movie already?"

Well, no. I click into the email to find the following: 

"First Cow is in cinemas tomorrow."

Yeah we get movies late in Australia sometimes -- I've blogged about some especially egregious examples -- but this seemed ridiculous. Not because 13 months -- actually, closer to 14 months -- after the U.S. release date would be the longest delay I've ever witnessed between a U.S. and an Australian release, but because it seems impossible that they are still trying to make First Cow happen.

And yet because First Cow did never have that Australian theatrical release, it also isn't available for rental yet here -- something I tend not to pay much attention to because I do most of my renting through the aforementioned U.S. iTunes.

I mean, it's great that people get to see this on the big screen. Reichardt composes her shots thoughtfully and even is fond of using a square aspect ratio, as she's done here. The movie should be seen on a big screen even if she does not use the full rectangular capacity of that screen.

It just seems weird that after all this has been through, it's only still just trying to claw its way into existence here in the Australian film market.

And presumably it will get a fair number of eyeballs in local arthouse cinemas. After a brief boom at the start of March when a handful of high-profile releases came out, things have dried up again, such that it's been two weeks now since I've been to a movie theater. That's extremely rare for me in times when my access to movie theaters is not being limited by a pandemic. In fact, I don't know how far back I'd have to go to find an occurrence of this in "normal" times.

It may not be a cash cow -- ha ha -- but perhaps it will at last find an adoring audience that can actually watch it in a cinema. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

I don't even know where to start

As much as I would like to read everyone else's savage takedown of the Oscars, I have to write my own first so I am not stealing everybody else's thoughts. And even though it's after midnight on a day when I drove three hours and woke up at 4:15 a.m., I have to write this shit now.

What a terrible Oscars.

I really don't know where to start, but let's start with this stupid crap where Frances McDormand was howling like a wolf.

I didn't like Nomadland very much -- I gave it three stars, but I now think that's generous. In the four months since I watched it I have liked it less and less, and watching Frances McDormand win her third Oscar -- actually fourth since she was a producer on Nomadland -- put the cherry on top of this rapidly curdling sundae. 

The main reason I started with it, though, was to explain the picture. Come to think of it, you don't need the picture explained. You saw the show just like I did.

The real place to start is with Chadwick Boseman not winning the posthumous Oscar everyone on the planet knew he was going to win -- if not because he died, then because he deserved it. He acted the shit out of that role. So did Anthony Hopkins, mind you, and he also deserves an Oscar. But not this year. 

So then also: They didn't give out best picture last.

Wot?

That would seem to be the one sacrosanct element of the show. But I guess they really wanted to blow things up. If it's sort of broke, break it a lot worse. 

Presumably Steven Soderbergh and the other producers thought that Boseman was going to win best actor, so they finished with best actor. When Boseman didn't win best actor, and Hopkins didn't give a damn about the award so did not even appear on camera on his couch in England or wherever he might be, the show just ended with an abrupt thud. Joaquin Phoenix seemed to have gotten wind of this, so instead of lauding the other nominees as all the other presenters had been doing all night, he just rushed through the names as quickly as possible.

The whole night was about rushing through, in a sense -- except when they paused at the precipice of completion to give Lil Rel Howery the latitude for an ill-conceived bit that was designed to end with Glenn Close shaking her rump. It was a bit that Questlove signed off on, where he'd play a bit of a song and Howery asked someone in the audience whether it was a nominee, a winner, or neither. The apparent purpose of this, other than the Close rump shaking, was to give Andra Day the chance to show her withering disdain at the racist past of the Oscars for not nominating "Purple Rain" for an Oscar. Good thing Close was game, as she couldn't have been in a great mood after yet again not winning an Oscar. (We won't argue the merits of Hillbilly Elegy, but I think we can agree this was a good opportunity to give a career achievement award to her, instead of honoring an admittedly great performance from Minari by an actress most people have never heard of, even though she's a national treasure in South Korea.)

Moving around as fluidly as I can at 12:20 a.m., marking 20 straight hours of being awake, Youn Yuh-jung's acceptance speech was easily one of my favorite parts of the evening, as she was disarming and self-deprecating and incredibly charming in her quite good attempt at speaking a language she has never had to speak professionally. But the highlights of this evening were few.

Before there were about a dozen terrible shocks in the show's final 15 minutes, I was all set to lead this piece talking about the horrible set. Horrible. Maybe not a bad idea to set the Oscars in Union Station -- I suppose an attempt to be a great equalizer between famous actors and the common man -- but boy did it look ugly. The dark blue curtain behind the stage clashed with just about every outfit, and the blinding sun coming through the windows lent the whole thing the bleary air of a still-drunk partyer on a walk of shame. My wife pointed out that they couldn't even get anyone to shoot the thing with even a small eye toward making it look nice.

The whole evening was disjointed and flat, but maybe the saddest moment was the In Memoriam section. One of the most hallowed Oscars traditions went by at breakneck speed, as most names had less than a second on screen for you to come to grips with who they were before the next name replaced it. It was like the way they used to run the credits really fast when a movie played on TV in order to cram them in before the next show started at the top of the hour. It was an absolute disgrace.

Just because it's tradition I will conclude with some isolated thoughts:

- I didn't mind that they did an opening credits listing the "stars" of this telecast -- a.k.a. the presenters -- at least in concept. But one of the joys of watching an Oscars show is to be surprised by who might come on stage next. This completed ruined that.

- I noticed early on that Questlove was not going to play anyone off stage like the orchestra always does. Some of those people needed to be played off.

- I loved Florian Zeller's wife coming in to kiss his shoulder after he thanked her upon winning best adapted screenplay, in the middle of the night in France. I needed a lot more moments like that.

- The Oscars voiceover person introduced herself. I thought that was sort of funny.

- I noticed I was pouring a glass of wine during Thomas Vinterberg's acceptance speech for Another Round. Very appropriate. That was a win I was happy with. I didn't know his daughter had died while he was making the movie. Sad.

- Lakeith Stanfield looks good with blonde hair.

- I have never before heard Daniel Kaluuya's real speaking voice. Has he ever played a character who is not American? Or Wakandan?

- Chloe Zhao's win for best director represented one of the only times in my history watching the Oscars where I've had an award spoiled before I started watching. I forgot I was avoiding spoilers today at work and happened across that one. I liked her speech and I was surprised to learn that she is basically western, having grown up in England. I thought part of her outsider appeal was that she was living in China until recently. Anyway, I could get behind that win even if I don't care for the movie. The Rider was amazing.

- Pete Docter stepped in it a little, I thought, when he referenced the "cultural consultants" that had helped them make Soul. I wouldn't say it sounded defensive but it seemed like a response to some of the criticism that film has received on its handling of racial issues.

- Marlee Matlin looks way younger than 55.

- I may not love all his movies but I love Tyler Perry. I liked that he said that change comes in the middle. That was actually a really daring thing to say. He was basically suggesting compromise, which is not what most people might have thought he should have said. But he said it with conviction.

- I liked seeing two of "my guys" accepting an award together. You know Trent Reznor is my guy because I've written about him about a half dozen times on this blog. You may not know that Jon Batiste is my guy because I haven't written about The Late Show with Stephen Colbert being one of the things my wife and I watched most consistently in the lead-up to the election. Batiste is Colbert's band leader and he is a constant ray of sunshine. I thought Trent could have at least said "Thanks" but it was certainly the right choice to let Batiste take the lead there. Trent already has an Oscar anyway. (Sorry, Atticus Ross, but I can't quite call you "my guy," even though you've collaborated with Trent for 20 years or more.)

Just because I liked a couple moments does not mean that this show wasn't awful. It was awful.

I guess a lot of people will laud the Academy for being on point with its best picture winner for a second year in a row after Parasite, but not me. Nomadland is overdetermined, has way too many moments overtly saturated with significance, and has a really manipulative score, and I'm tired of Frances McDormand howling like a wolf, figuratively and literally. She now has as many acting Oscars as Daniel Day-Lewis.

On to the next one. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

I was wrong about the first Purge

Not The First Purge. I quite liked that, and I like to think liking it was not wrong.

No, the first Purge that got this all started back in 2013, called The Purge.

Warning: The Purge spoilers to follow. 

I did not like this film. In fact, "hated" may not have been too strong a word. I deemed 1.5 stars to be its appropriate star rating on Letterboxd. That's pretty close to hate.

But then I continued watching these movies, out of sequence, first Election Year, then The First Purge, then Anarchy just six months ago, which is 1-3-4-2 if you are keeping track of the overall sequence. I liked all of them to varying degrees and the first two quite a lot, with Election Year even landing in my top ten of 2016. But I'm going over a lot of the same territory as this post so I should move on to the observation du jour.

Given how I've felt about the subsequent films, I thought it was time to go back to consider the first again ... a little 1-3-4-2-1, if you will. 

You know what? It's pretty good. Maybe even better than that. 

If I had to go back and analyze why I didn't like it the first time, I'd say it's because the first movie should have been the second movie. We were introduced to a world that would bear a lot of fruit over the next decade, including an Amazon Prime TV show that I probably would be a good candidate to watch, where all crimes are legal for a 12-hour overnight period once a year. But we didn't really delve into that world in The Purge. We saw it only through the eyes of one family in what is essentially a home invasion movie.

It's a good home invasion movie, I've decided after my Saturday night revisit, but it still doesn't provide quite the breadth of social commentary that the later films would provide. We do get more than I remembered about the New Founding Fathers, the right-wing group that now dominates the government and created the purge, but we see them only in terms of their effect on brainwashed disciples. Maybe that wasn't the wrong way to approach it, but it obviously didn't land with me back in 2013. I remember clearly thinking "We've got this great concept, and then we see almost none of it."

Maybe it would have been more effective with me if the first movie had been a broader survey of individual groups of characters trying to survive the night, an approach taken by later movies in the series, especially since good home invasion movies were not in short supply at the time The Purge was released. It feels a bit like a "bottle episode" of a TV show, that term describing an intimate episode involving only a few characters in a single location after the larger themes and backdrops of the show have already been established. But who knows, maybe with another approach The Purge would have been one-and-done, instead of creating essentially its own cinematic universe.

Actually director and series auteur James DeMonaco does provide us this broader survey over the opening credits, in a sequence I'd forgotten, which chillingly gives us a whole movie's worth of bone crunching in the streets. It's essentially a montage of security camera footage of people shooting and stomping each other in close quarters. That actually felt like a generous amount of the blood and guts that has come to comprise the series in our minds.

Another thing I'd forgotten is that the film's central family, with Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey as the parents, houses a Black man being hunted by those New Founding Fathers disciples. I didn't think that the series' haves vs. have nots political agenda got going until the later films, but it was there from the start. Without race being explicitly referenced, The Purge makes clear that from its very origins, this night of violence was conceived as a way of exterminating minorities -- an idea that gets explored more fully in The First Purge. The family goes through a believable series of emotional deliberations about whether to deliver this man to the people who are seeking him, in order to save their own skins, or to fight the would-be invaders who are using heavy artillery and battering rams to destroy their security system.

The things that still give me pause about this movie:

1) The motivations of the daughter's boyfriend. The Purge does a really nice job establishing what seems to be a real connection between the teenage daughter, played by Adelaide Kane, and her boyfriend, played by Tony Oller. They even have a little inside joke about how instead of saying "I love you" to each other, they will make a cute little growl, as a way of avoiding cliche. We have no reason to doubt he's a good boyfriend and that he really cares for her, though we know her father, played by Hawke, does not approve. That could just be because he's a conservative dickhead who sells high-end security systems. 

But then when the purge starts, the boyfriend has snuck back into her house and gotten himself locked in behind the security doors. He tells her this is so he'll have time to plead his case that he's a worthy boyfriend to her father, without said father being able to kick him out. Sounds reasonable if a bit bold. But then, instead of talking to Ethan Hawke, he just pulls out a gun and tries to assassinate him. 

The reason you don't kill your girlfriend's father is not because you're worried you'll get arrested and prosecuted for the crime. The reason you don't kill your girlfriend's father is that you supposedly love her, and she supposedly loves him. She won't love you much once you've killed her dad. 

The movie's point could be that she has been dating a psychopath all this time, but if so, this doesn't contribute in any way to the movie's themes. We're not trying to explore the bad relationship choices of the daughter. And since her boyfriend is trying to kill her father at the exact same time as her brother is letting the injured Black man into their house, it doesn't function as its own distinct set piece, its own obstacle to be overcome within the narrative. Because the boyfriend receives a fatal gunshot wound when he and Hawke exchange fire and Hawke is barely grazed, this subplot is basically over before it begins, with little to no long-term effect on the narrative. Meaning it probably should never have been there in the first place. In theory, it functions as an emotional obstacle to be overcome between the father and the daughter, but she can't really blame him for shooting her boyfriend, as it was merely an act of self-defense. 

2) The excessively casual attitude of the home invaders. I think one of the reasons this film felt like a bit of a retread is that it bears many similarities to Bryan Bertino's 2008 home invasion film The Strangers, in which demented mask-wearing psychopaths also try to break into a house. Maybe you have to have a bit of a screw loose when you are purging, but they have an entirely non-tactical approach to invading the home and killing its occupants. There's a lot more laughing and dancing through the hallways -- there's even a scene where a woman rides on a man's back, making them both pretty incapable of defending themselves against unseen combatants with guns. 

They kick into action and show genuine fighting skills when they do confront Hawke or one of his family, but they've already squandered a large portion of their advantage at this point. And then when they do get chances to kill a member of the family -- each member at least once, I think -- they draw it out sadistically, giving another previously unseen member of the family a chance to shoot them. In fact, this same scene plays out about four times, where a masked maniac is about to bring down a machete on somebody's head before someone else pops up and shoots them. 

So yeah, there's some dumb horror movie logic informing this movie, which is what I took away from it the first time I saw it. But it doesn't override the things the movie does well, including some really imaginative and feral fight sequences.

If we're really going to examine why I have a renewed appreciation of The Purge, we should look at a very different series of movies that no one would ever compare to this series.

When I first saw The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring at Christmastime in 2001, I didn't like it very much. I was about the only one who held this opinion, but I could not be swayed from it. There were certain things about it that impressed me a lot, but I was annoyed by all the crying and hand wringing over the death of a man who had been a traitor, Sean Bean's Boromir (oops, spoiler alert for Fellowship), and I felt at loose ends because the movie hasn't much of a definitive ending. At the time, we were unaccustomed to movie's being made with the absolute certainty that their sequels would be made, and that led to an unsatisfying ending that lingered as my primary takeaway.

A year later, I absolutely loved The Two Towers, and today it is still one of my top 50 movies of all time according to Flickchart. I felt similarly, though not as strongly, about the third in the series. Hence, when I eventually went back and watched Fellowship again, I had a whole new ability to appreciate it, embracing it as the first chapter in a story whose second and third chapters I dearly loved.

Now that I have the full context of the Purge series at my disposal, The Purge makes more sense to me. It isn't the failure to dramatize a terrific concept that I believed it to be the first time, or if it is, it's a choice that was redeemed by the fact that DeMonaco got to make more movies and to continue to explore this concept elsewhere. Eight years later, maybe it doesn't matter whether The Purge was the first or the fourth movie in the series. They're all part of a collection whose themes have spoken to me, and in some cases, even moved me.

Now about that TV series ... 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Excessive translation

I've written at least one, and more like a half dozen, posts over the years in which I touch on the issue of which foreign film titles get translated to English and which don't. Other bloggers will know that although you never write the exact same post twice, you tend to return to familiar concerns, and sometimes forget you've written about them before. 

Y Tu Mama Tambien has been my go-to example of a film title you would never translate because the English version of it, And Your Mother Too!, is just so much less elegant looking and so much more silly sounding than the Spanish original.

Well, so much for that.

I happened upon the page for this movie on IMDB today, and, well, you can see the results for yourself above.

I'm quite sure this would have changed on IMDB only recently. I suspect it would have something to do with displaying all titles in the language in which you are viewing the page, and an inability to set exceptions for particular film titles. (Inability/unwillingness -- data maintenance on IMDB is certainly tedious enough as it is.)

But there do continue to be exceptions. Just as one example from the same language, I went to the page for El Mariachi and it does not read The Mariachi. (To quote Chris Farley on SNL, "For those who don't habla Espanol, El Nino is Spanish for ... The Nino.")

I also thought to check L'Avventura to see if they had changed it to the far more pedestrian The Adventure, and thank goodness, no they had not. Pierrot le Fou is not Crazy Pete, though I have actually seen it listed that way on one streaming service, if you can believe it. 

So maybe the logic is, once you approach a sentence in length, it's just too ungainly for someone who doesn't speak the language, even when most of the words in that title are pretty easy to say.

Anyway, I don't like it. But I am reminded that I need to watch this movie again. Only a single viewing in 20 years of what was one of my top ten movies of 2001. Need to rectify that.