Friday, December 7, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: Hail, Caesar!

This is the final installment of my bi-monthly 2018 series in which I reconsider certain Coen brothers movies I didn’t love (and one I did).

If I’d made a list ranking Coen brothers movies from first to worst before starting this series, the second-to-last spot on that list might have been reserved for the one that was, until November of this year, their most recent.

That’s right, I really didn’t care for Hail, Caesar! when I saw it back in February of 2016.

And sleepiness victimizes yet another movie.

As written about here, I saw it with a friend, which kept me from smuggling in the snacks that are meant to keep me awake during a movie. (The dubious value of which were discussed only yesterday on this blog.) And the result was one of my most epic struggles to stay awake in recent memory.

I had no such trouble for my second viewing of Hail, Caesar! this past Tuesday night. As a result, I have now upgraded it from a non-plussed two-star rating in 2016 to ... “a hoot.”

So I still don’t love this movie, not by a long shot, but now I do think of it as “a hoot.”

I always had an appreciation for the big set pieces in this movie, particularly the “No Dames!” sequence led by Channing Tatum. But that’s just what this movie felt like to me on the whole: a series of disjointed and disconnected set pieces. Neither of the movie’s two real narrative throughlines – the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by communists and the makeover of the image of movie star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) – held much value for me. They were both fatally slight.

Of course, the major narrative throughline is supposed to be the day-to-day struggle of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he keeps the lid on any scandals that may threaten the studio and its stars. He’s also trying to decide if he should jump ship for a cushy job at Lockheed. But his arc didn’t interest me much -- he is, paradoxically, a supporting player in multiple storylines, giving him enough screen time to function as the main character. He doesn’t feel developed enough to be a traditional main character. He’s more like a fast-talking prop, played for humor even though the Coens think he isn’t being played that way. Then again, I can’t tell what the Coens actually think for a lot of the parts of this movie.

I do, however, now find this movie a hoot. Certain individual moments exist as isolated delights, like everything Hobie Doyle does with a lasso, like he and Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) duelling in their deliveries of “Would that it were so simple,” like some of the dialogue between the communists. They just don’t add up to more than the sum of individual hoots.

Given what the Coens have given us in 2018 – the anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I watched a few weeks ago – I now have a bit more context for where they were headed creatively. When they made Hail, Caesar!, they didn’t essentially want to make a single coherent narrative. They wanted to give us flavors of a world through the eyes of different characters. They erred, I think, by not just breaking it up into an anthology as they did with Buster Scruggs. There’s strain in the effort to make the connections between characters in Caesar. Like, what sense does it make that Hobie Doyle goes off in search of Baird Whitlock? I loved what they did in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and think Caesar could have benefitted from turning their creative impulses more explicitly into that kind of finished product.

During this series I’ve come to recognize that I tend to like melancholy Coens (Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis) more than bug-eyed Coens (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading), except when I don’t – Raising Arizona and No Country for Old Men being the exceptions in each category. But Raising Arizona, my favorite movie of all time, is actually bug-eyed Coens undercut by a genuinely moving ending that brings home the film’s underlying sentiment. I suppose that’s my favorite version of the Coens, when they pull it off.

I think they try to pull that off here, but it doesn’t work. The sentiment doesn’t carry much emotional weight, and the jokes in the bug-eyed parts don’t land for me. I’ve noted the exceptions to that latter part. But for example, the scene where Mannix sits at a table full of religious leaders and asks them about the studio’s proposed depiction of Jesus Christ? I can tell that scene is designed to be hilarious, and that the Coens think it is. It just doesn’t land for me.

Still, though, the upgrade in my overall impression of the movie is reasonably significant. My two-star rating is more properly a three, I’d say, which makes this probably the most successful re-coen-sideration of the whole series.

And that finishes the series. In summation, there wasn’t a single film I watched that I actually liked less the second time I saw it. I wonder if that’s a Coens thing, as I just listened to the Filmspotting episode on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and they talked about how Coen movies benefit from repeat viewings, to a greater extent than your average movie. Of course, the results of my series are a bit skewed, as I only watched one movie I already liked. If I had watched exclusively movies I liked instead of mostly movies I didn’t like, I might have seen some of those drop in my estimation.

Still, positive result for the series, though possibly not a profound enough result to really reach any conclusions. The Coens are still some of my favorite filmmakers and I still have issues with some of their films. Two of the most beloved Coen films, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, are movies I didn’t rewatch for this series because I’d already done that on my own time. I still can’t reach others’ level of affection on them.

Most creative talents are going to hit with you sometimes and miss sometimes. That’s just the way it goes. But when the Coens do hit, they hit better than almost anyone else.

I’ve got a bi-monthly series lined up for 2019, and it also concentrates on the work of a well-known director(s). I’ll tell you about that another time.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Sorry to run to you

Sorry to Bother You got a very late release in Australia – just last Thursday. At least that puts it ahead of Eighth Grade and First Reformed, which are still awaiting release dates as far as I can tell.

In fact, the release was so late that I considered just renting it on American iTunes in order to review it, rather than going to the theater. That would mean I could do it any night, while saving my trips to the theater for movies I couldn’t see elsewhere.

But it’s also been one of my most anticipated movies of the year since, I don’t know, March? Meaning it also carried some of the greatest potential to end up near the top of my year-end rankings. If I were indeed to like it that much, I should also do it the honor of watching it on the big screen, to give it that extra boost enjoyed by most of its competitors. (Not since 2012 has my #1 movie been a movie I’ve seen for the first time on video.)

Unfortunately, then I undid all my good intentions by running to the movie.

I wasn’t late; that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m saying it was time for my weekly run, and I ran to the movie theater.

See, I’m training to run a marathon. Not soon, but when I turn 50. That will be in 2023. Have to start now or I’ll never get there.

Right now and since about May, I’ve been running one night a week for 30-35 minutes. I plan to increase that to two nights a week in 2019, as well as increasing the duration of each run. I’ll step it up from there over the course of the next four years, and hopefully be able to tackle the thing by my stated deadline, which I’m advertising to everybody as a means of making myself stick to it.

I really don’t like to skip a week. I’ve skipped only two so far. One was when I pulled a hamstring while playing baseball, though not badly enough to hamper me for more than a week, and one was the week after I returned from the whirlwind trip to the U.S., when jet lag was getting the best of me. Every other week, I’ve run.

Last week was in danger, though. Given how I knew my schedule was going to play out, I really needed to get my run in on Thursday. However, I also needed to see Sorry to Bother You on Thursday night, the night of its release, in order to get the review up on our site as soon as possible. (Joke was on me; I didn’t finish it until Monday, and it went up on Tuesday, which means I could have just as easily gone either Sunday or Monday night.)

So, I did both.

Running to the theater only gets me about half of the amount of time I’d like to run each week, so I was planning to run home as well. But by then it was 11:45 and it felt ridiculous at that point. So it was only a half run, but that was something.

I thought it would work out fine. I ran with a small backpack in order to carry a Coke and some chocolates to give me an energy boost when I needed it. And I’ve been running enough this year that the physical exertion alone does not put me to sleep. It’s rare that I go to bed before midnight, even and perhaps especially on nights I go running.

But as much as I love them, movies have a tranquilizing effect on me. It’s why I always load myself up with caffeine and sweets when I go to the theater. I view those things as my only savior from slumber if my body becomes overwhelmed with the desire to sleep, whether there’s any truth to that or not. (With the Coke, some truth; with the chocolates, very little beyond a psychosomatic effect, and sometimes it’s only the benefit of being engaged in a repetitive motion activity, which in itself is enough to keep you from sleeping.) At home, I could pause it, but not at the theater.

If I’m really enjoying the movie, I won’t worry about eating and drinking up the snacks and drinks near the start. If I have two of one or both, I’m usually in good shape, as gobbling up one early still leaves an emergency supply in reserve. But I don’t really want to eat two separate bags of sweet treats. You know, to avoid turning into a blimp.

If I have only one of one or both, and I’m loving the movie, I just eat them as I feel like. Which usually ends up being in the first 45 minutes.

And I was really loving Sorry to Bother You. At the start, anyway. I was laughing and grooving on it. I thought there was very little chance exhaustion would overpower me.

So I ate my chocolates at about the half-hour mark, and drank the Coke (No Sugar Coke, I should say) around maybe an hour.

And then Sorry to Bother You started to lose me.

And then the run started to catch up with me.

I wouldn’t say that I actually slept for any portion of the second half of the movie, though I was definitely fading in and out in the last 20 minutes, as the movie became increasingly chaotic. It may have been that there was less need to grasp the specifics of the plot at that point anyway. I don’t think there were any holes in my viewing experience, though I can’t say for sure.

But when I left the theater, I was a tad disappointed with Sorry to Bother You. When pondering the grade I planned to give it on my review, I considered only a 6/10. I’d decided on a 7/10 after a little additional consideration, and by the time I wrote about it (you can read the review here), I knew my thoughts were more in line with a 7/10. But I’d expected it to be either an 8 or a 9, so it still qualified as a disappointment.

And then there was the nagging element of how much of my appreciation was lost as I struggled against my body’s impulses in the second half. Where this movie goes in the second half requires you to be on your toes a bit more, I’d say. Let’s just say I was not.

I considered the matter sort of settled. Regrettably settled, but settled nonetheless. Then I listened to them discuss it on The Next Picture Show, one of my handful of film podcasts. I’d been holding this episode since July or whenever, eager not to listen to it before I’d seen the movie. And good that I didn’t, as they had no concerns about spoiling the strange turn the movie takes in its second half.

And though I’ve been a bit down on this podcast lately, finding myself inclined to pick numerous nits with it, their discussion got me retroactively enthused about what I had seen.

I hadn’t exactly forgotten the interesting parts of the movie, but their mentions of them brought them swimming back up from some part of my subconscious. “Oh yeah, that happens in this movie. And that. And that. Wow!” Their discussion reminded me of how many interesting, daring, and batshit crazy things Boots Riley does in this movie. The fact that not every single one of them works is less important than the fact that he did them, and boy isn’t that great, and boy isn’t that refreshing.

That discussion will almost certainly push the movie higher in my rankings, but that’s not enough for me. And given that long delay between the U.S. and Australian release of the film, I may actually have a chance to watch it again before my ranking deadline. I mean, I definitely will, since it’s already available for rental via iTunes, as stated earlier. But they may even make it the 99 cent rental in one of the coming weeks, and that’s probably the excuse I’ll need to prioritize a second viewing.

At home, where I can pause, with a refrigerator full of gastronomic stimulants just a few feet away, and no run, partial or otherwise, on the same night.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Timing The Grinch

I know The Grinch is not going to be great.

If there was ever much doubt, I snuck a peak at its Metacritic score, which is an uninspiring 51. That's only five points higher than Ron Howard's 2000 garish debacle Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. A new holiday classic it will not be. Or, I should say, a new holiday classic it already is not.

But dammit, I at least want to see it before Christmas.

Last night my wife suggested that we hang on to it until we are on our beach holiday on the Mornington Peninsula, which will run December 31st through January 4th. Now, that's not a beach holiday timed to swim in the snow drifts, mind you. That'll be peak summer here in Australia.

Her logic is that we know we want to take the kids to their first drive-in movie down there -- or rather, first since the older one was an infant -- and we don't know if we can rely on another kid appropriate movie playing there.

After Christmas. She wants to watch the movie after Christmas.

I like that she can continue to carry the Christmas spirit with her on into January, but for me, Christmas is dead to me on December 26th. Never happened. On to the next thing.

If you think that's contrary to my ordinary level of sentimentality, don't worry. We leave our tree up until at least January 20th. But that doesn't mean I want to have the pop culture pastimes I imbibe be Christmas-oriented ones after the 25th. Heck, I don't even want to watch a Christmas-oriented TV show or movie on Christmas itself. Christmas Eve is the latest I'll go for that. Without grumbling, anyway, as I am doing now.

Besides, I think her thinking is flawed. The Grinch didn't release here as early as it did in the U.S., where a friend described seeing it way too early (before Thanksgiving), but it did bow within the month of November, on the 29th. There's good reason to believe that drive-in will have already stopped showing it by then, especially if it's not that great, and especially given that we get a cavalcade of new releases on Boxing Day each year.

One of which is always the latest Disney and/or Pixar movie, and this year, is Ralph Breaks the Internet.

Now, there's absolutely no denying that this movie will be playing at that drive-in. They do realize they need something for families, and that'll be it. One hundred percent guarantee. You can't say the same for a movie that'll be a full month old by then, plus no longer have its relevant holiday still awaiting in the future.

I suppose it's an especially long delay given how much later her suggestion is than when I originally planned to see it. Which was this past weekend.

See, I'm the only guy at my website who will review an animated movie. That's not entirely true, as my editor was the one who reviewed Finding Dory. But he spent half the review talking about how it would have made a lot more sense for me to review it. No kidding. That's the kind of reviews he writes. They're hilarious.

The Grinch seems like the kind of movie that deserves a review on our site, especially since I recently reviewed another holiday movie that hardly met that same standard: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. What site reviews a weird Nutcracker movie and not The Grinch?

Yet I've got a thing about reviewing a movie after its moment of greatest freshness. I don't even like the delay of a review of mine not posting until Monday after a Thursday release, which often happens because I don't have time to write it that night after getting home, and Website 101 says you don't post new content on weekends.

My editor doesn't care about this. He'd take a review of The Grinch from me in March. He views the site less as an ongoing news feed of new posts but as a repository that will ultimately be used by future readers to search out our reviews. He'd have more of a point, I think, if the percentage of movies that got reviews weren't so scattershot, leaving the whole thing well short of the type of completism I like. But I'm getting sidetracked.

The critic in me wanted to see The Grinch on opening weekend. But my heart grew three sizes at my wife's suggestion that we see it on the weekend immediately before Christmas itself.

This was a tolerable sacrifice, and maybe something better than that. I don't review the film, but I get to see it at a time of its maximum impact boosting my holiday spirit. That's in theory only, mind you -- chances are the kids will be fighting that day and it will be 100 degrees out, meaning it won't feel much like Christmas anyway.

I was just settling into the idea and had barely 24 hours to do so before my wife floated this idea of grinching possibly as late as 2019.

There's some sweet spot between my friend seeing it before Thanksgiving, me planning a December 2nd viewing, watching it on or around the 23rd and waiting until January. I don't know what it is, but I've got to find it.

That's a lot of emotional energy expended on a movie with "mixed or average reviews."

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Stricken from the record

I'm not the right person to eulogize Filmstruck.

As a resident of Australia, I never even had my chance to sign up for the streaming service, or if I did, then I never realized it. I certainly would have signed up if I'd been able.

And maybe that's all the more reason why my eulogizing it is appropriate in some way. (I must be in a eulogizing mood, as I just wrote a short eulogy to George H.W. Bush on Facebook.)

The streaming service that shuttered on November 30th after two years was a beloved repository for classic films and films from the Criterion collection, though those two things were not mutually exclusive. Well, it was beloved among cinephiles. Your average joe was not subscribing, which certainly had something to do with its perceived lack of sustainability.

I've bemoaned lately -- to myself if no one else -- how difficult it can be to find even really good movies from the decades prior to the 1970s. You can scrounge and scrape and find things through the library and other sources, but it almost always involves some kind of premeditation. You can't just rock up to your TV and start watching, as you can with even the lesser films of the last ten to 15 years due to their heavy presence on your mainstream, non-niche streaming services.

And it's that scarcity that I blame for my dwindling totals of such films in recent years. Clearly that's not the only explanation, as you can shell out a couple bucks and buy a lot of them on iTunes, which is the equivalent of streaming them except for the per-transaction payment. Even then, though, it's difficult to see all your choices in one place, and just browse through them until you find the exact fit for that particular evening.

Filmstruck did that for many, and would have for me if there hadn't been such obstacles to overcome in rolling it out internationally. In fact, it's so bad with being an international customer for most of these services that I just assume they aren't available in Australia without even investigating whether they might be. Anyway, I didn't sign up for it, and I'm pretty sure I never had the chance.

And now I never will.

It's not like other options won't pop up just because this particular business model didn't work. In fact, several have already been announced, from a Criterion streaming channel to a Warner archive service. But I get the impression that none of them will be as comprehensive as Filmstruck was. If they were, well, then that business model would have worked for Filmstruck. Any service they launch going forward is going to have to be compromised toward the lowest common denominator.

I wish I'd had the chance to write about Filmstruck before its demise. I wish I'd been catching a classic a week, or at least every fortnight (might as well use the Australian term), through this great service.

Now I'll just have to hope that whatever takes its place is successful enough to reach me overseas ... rather than just following Filmstruck to the cinematic graveyard.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Personal apocalypse

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

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

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

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

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

Oops, spoiler alert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Frederick Wiseman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High School (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Titicut Follies (1967)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

How did I not know this existed?

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

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

And with really bad makeup to boot?

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

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

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

United 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advantage: United 93.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Bruce Willis can still make mainstream movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The specificity of nostalgia

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

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

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

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

I'll get to that in a minute.

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

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

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

But a couple other things really got me.

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

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

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

Not my exact name, but close enough.

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

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

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

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Confirmed: Shea Whigham is in everything

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

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

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

A Quiet Place? One of the monsters.

Isle of Dogs? One of the dogs.

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

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

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

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

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

Then whooosh! He's gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clones. It's gotta be clones.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Not for everyone

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

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

“Not for everyone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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