Saturday, October 20, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Hong Sang-soo

This is the ninth in my 2018 monthly series acquainting myself with acclaimed directors whose work has thus far eluded me.

In my continuing desire to venture outside Eurocentric directors in this series, I've dipped back into the realm of my 2017 monthly series, the ill-defined and problematic Asian Audient. My consciousness of Hong Sang-soo was not sufficiently forefronted in my brain to watch one of his movies for that series, so I'm making up for it with two of them in this one.

I actually started to watch a Hong movie once, which was 2012's In Another Country when it was on Netflix. But it was a total false start for reasons I don't remember. I watched fewer than two minutes before thinking better of the decision and changing course, or more likely, not watching anything that night at all. It was probably that I started too late in the evening, though it could have also been that it was a Saturday night, and I decided something more pulpy and genre-associated was more up my alley that night.

I wasn't aware of Hong as the director when I started watching that one, but I've heard his name mentioned a number of times on the various film podcasts I've listen to ... enough different times on enough different podcasts that he breached that undefinable barrier that causes a person to be considered for a series like this one. The size of his filmography -- 27 directing credits in 22 years -- clinched his inclusion in Audient Auteurs.

I'm not digging back very far in the Korean director's filmography though, as both fims are from the past three years. Which is less than a third of his output from those years. Yeah, the guy is prolific, which made sense to me once I started watching and saw that he uses many of the same actors, with relatively few sets. I can imagine they shot most of these in under two weeks.

What else do I know about Hong? Well, there's one big thing but I'll discuss it in context as I get into discussing the films. The basic bio stuff is as follows. He was born in 1960 and is a comparatively late bloomer as a director, not having directed his first feature until age 35. He was educated both in South Korea and the U.S., where he attended California College of Arts and Crafts and School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His films have never been commercially successful as they have always dealt realistically with low-key relationships between regular human beings, but they have consistently garnered critical acclaim and awards at film festivals.

Shall we dig in?

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)

This was the film I thought I most needed to see from Hong's filmography, as it got a lot of chatter a few years back -- the chatter was probably in 2016 as we typically get foreign films for our consumption a year after their release in their country of origin. I didn't remember what I'd heard about it at the time, but the title seemed to suggest there might have been something high concept about it.

As it turns out, Right Now, Wrong Then is indeed a high-concept film, but delivered in a low-concept package. I'll explain.

The film documents a chance meeting between a film director and a young woman, who strike up a conversation in a temple of some sort, though one that people visit casually as tourists, not for religious reasons. They decide to get a cup of coffee and end up ambling around and spending the day together, during which they seem like they might be falling in love. He's from out of town, and is present for a screening of his film, at which he will also speak.

The setup might put someone in mind of a film like Lost in Translation, only unlike Sofia Coppola, Hong doesn't do anything to inflate the romanticism of the scenario. In fact, certain proclamations of sentiment strike the viewer as quite sudden, given that the film has not been using the typical filmmaking techniques to indicate growing attraction -- profound exchanges of intimacies, close-ups, an inadvertent touch. No, this is proceeding forward in comparatively mundane ways.

As in Translation, it turns out the man is married, though only the man in this case. As some alcohol enters into the proceedings in the evening at a dinner thrown by some of her friends, things start to go bad, but again in comparatively low-key ways. Like, there's no fight, physical or otherwise, just increasing recriminations over emotional usury and drunken sorrow.

I won't tell you how it turns out because I suppose that's a spoiler, but I will tell you that it's only half the movie. The second half begins where we started the first half, with the director wandering into the temple and spotting the woman. We quickly realize we're about to be subjected to the same series of events again, only with small modifications that change the outcome.

A high-concept setup for a film, you would agree. But what makes the execution low concept is that there's no single moment in their interaction you can point to that causes the day to pivot from one trajectory to another. A Hollywood film of this subject would be obsessed with the idea of a butterfly flapping its wings halfway around the world and the events turning out differently. That Hollywood filmmaker would concentrate on the mechanics of these differences in ways that would be so overt they would hit you over the head. When something went differently, you'd know exactly why it went differently.

That's not Hong. Hong doesn't care why two competing versions of a timeline for a particular random day in history might have gone differently. He recognizes that the difference is largely internal, one of free will. If I watched the two versions side by side, which would be quite a useful exercise if it were feasible, I might actually see a moment where the director chooses one line of inquiry with his companion rather than another, and that subtly changes the effect on her psychology in a way he couldn't have envisioned. But really, these decisions are made in his head, or her head, as maybe she was the one who caused the exchange to go differently. They aren't due to some factor outside their control, like a butterfly in South America.

As much as I sound refreshed by Hong's creative choice in the previous paragraph, initially it kind of annoyed me. There was enough of the narrative traditionalist in me to demand a satisfying explanation for the differences between the two iterations of events. As it went forward, though, I grew to appreciate what he was doing, in part also because it builds toward a very satisfying climax that does restore some of my associations to a film like Lost in Translation. Which is one of my top 50 films of all time.

At this point I need to tell you that thing about Hong I knew before but was waiting to discuss. The lead actress in this film is Kim Min-hee, and only after the film was released did anyone realize how autobiographical the film really was. The fact that it's about a director makes it quite obviously autobiographical on some level, but the fact that it was a director considering an extramarital affair mightn't have been part of that autobiography. Later we would come to realize that not only was that part true also, but the affair Hong had was actually with Kim -- a fact that would be acknowledged during a press conference for the second film I saw, with Kim sitting right next to him.

On the Beach at Night Alone (2017)

So Kim and Hong made the decision to reveal their affair while doing press for On the Beach at Night Alone, which also contextualizes On the Beach at Night Alone, in which she once again appears as a character who had an affair -- past tense this time -- with a prominent director. For a while I thought it might have been the same character, and this was either an actual or functional sequel to Right Now, Wrong Then. But later in the film the director appears, and it's a much older man than the director character in Right Now. The character is not played by Hong himself, but at this point I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been.

It was also at this point that I thought Hong crossed over from curious about his own history and psychology in a way that was aesthetically justifiable to just plain self-indulgent.

Perhaps if he had never admitted his affair with Kim we wouldn't have been so confronted with his obsession with this affair, though if I have my chronologies correct, the first movie was a case of life imitating art, where the second movie was the one engaging with what had actually happened in Hong's real life. I've probably also got a skewed perspective because I am seeing only these two films, which both happen to deal with this, while the other five films he's made during the same period are probably about other things entirely.

Still, I couldn't help having the impression that this guy is openly struggling with his own infidelity and making the rest of us watch it, and adding an extra layer of perversion to it all by making the very actress with whom he had the affair act in a movie that occurred after the end of their affair, about the impact on her character of the end of the affair. And then talking about it with her sitting next to him at the press conference.

I'm not going to do a lot of additional googling to sort out the exact chronology, to what extent Kim was willing participant, and whether they're still in a relationship, which theoretically might make it all less bad (or possibly more, depending on your perspective). I will say that the whole thing strikes me as a wee bit icky. Maybe more than a wee bit.

All of this might not be such a problem if On the Beach at Night Alone were a better film.

I saw it only a few days ago, but I was looking for help from Wikipedia with a plot refresher anyway. Unfortunately, this is all Wikipedia has on the plot:

"Young-hee is a washed up actress who is stressed by a relationship with a married man in Korea. On the beach she wonders: Is he missing me, like I miss him?"

Thanks, that's helpful.

And also, though I'm sure the director had nothing to do with how the plot was characterized on Wikipedia, makes me think even less of Hong's motivations for making the film and his sense of narcissism.

What I can tell you is that the film is divided into two chapters called "1" and "2." Unlike Right Now, Wrong Then, they are of very different lengths (the first about 20 minutes, the second the rest of the running time), and don't seem to have that much to do with each other. In the first one, Kim's character is walking around a city in Europe with another Korean woman. They talk, mentioning the affair with the director, and interact with some Europeans, including buying some books. These scenes were actually in English. In the second chapter, Kim is back in Korea, her traveling companion nowhere to be seen. Here she interacts with other local friends, having meals, and coming into contact with some of the crew for the director's new movie. They in fact discover her lying on the beach in the same town where they are shooting the movie. Ultimately he comes in at the very end.

I just didn't get what the point of the film was, and that's why I wondered if Hong's artistic sensibilities were being hampered by the extent he was staring at his own navel. It kind of lurches around and lurches forward, with Kim spending a fair bit of time staring out at the sea. Most of the conversations with friends are mundane, though she obviously has conflicting feelings about the director, speaking of him in dismissive terms but continuing to kind of pine away for him. (Self-indulgent, I tell you.) The eventual interaction with her ex at dinner near the end of the film does get intense, but not in a satisfying way, since the director had not been previously established as a character. The insertion of him at the end, then the expectation that a useful emotional denouement is going to arise from it, is just more evidence of the way Hong seems deluded about the value of giving us a front row seat to his private life.

I suppose to get a real take on Hong's larger body of work, I need to see a film of his that is not either the direct precursor to or the immediate aftermath of his real-life extramarital affair. Though I must say, I don't feel particularly eager to get to that.

Okay, only two months left of Audient Auteurs. I don't know who I'll finish with, but I've got November all lined up. I haven't seen a single film by the acclaimed documentarian Frederick Wiseman, and Kanopy has just about all his films. So there'll be a bounty of choices that has been largely absent from this series so far -- a Thanksgiving feast worth of choices, you might say.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A strange match of composer and subject

When I learned that there was a musical version of the Richard Linklater movie School of Rock, I thought what I always think when I see there's a stage version of a popular movie: "Of course there is." Melbourne is being hit by a spate of them right now, with musical versions of a couple Aussie classics (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel's Wedding) and some other popular Hollywood stuff (The Bodyguard) having recently played, now playing or soon to be playing the city's premier stage venues. That's in addition to School of Rock.

When I saw who composed the music, I thought something that I do not always think in these situations:


When I think of Andrew Lloyd Webber -- the composer of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Evita, the latter of which is also having a local revival starring Tina Arena -- I think of someone who is gothic, dramatic, operatic in nature. All of those terms quite explicitly describe Phantom of the Opera, which I still think of as the most Webbery of Webber musicals.

They do not describe School of Rock.

The canvas on which he's painted has always been massive, whether it's Bible epics (two of them), a florid Beauty and the Beast story, a fantastic feline flight of fancy or a historical epic about the Argentinian first lady.

That is not the canvas of School of Rock.

If a single person may be the personification of a non-Webberian character, it might be Jack Black, an overgrown boy with his shirt untucked who relates to kids in a comedic manner that is only a few years removed from landing in Dad Joke territory. Sure, Black has an after hours gig as a singer in the band Tenacious D, which is plenty operatic in its own right. But the essential Black seems a bit anathema to Webber.

So how did Webber get on this project?

The internet is not being particularly forthcoming about that. But I will say that if it's a weird project for him to be doing generally, it's an even weirder project for him to be doing in his mid- to late-60s. (The show premiered in 2015, and Webber just turned 70 earlier this year.)

This quote highlights this odd disconnect between Webber and his material, in talking about what he wanted from this stage version of the movie:

"It has to be a bit more rounded. I'd like to know more about the children and their parents."


This is not the Andrew Lloyd Webber I think I know.

The Wikipedia article on School of Rock also includes this funny, sort of obvious quote, in which Webber is apparently answering the question of whether they would just use the soundtrack from the movie:

"You can't do heavy metal for hours and ours in the theater. Everyone would be screaming. So there have to be theatrical songs too."

I would say this falls into the "duh" category. Besides, if you don't have original songs, you don't really need a composer, now do you?

If Webber's involvement in this project is not weird enough, consider also who wrote the stage treatment: Julian Fellowes. Name sound familiar? Yeah, he's the guy who wrote the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park, and probably more famously, Downton Abbey. What the hell is he doing here?

And yet I'm sure the show is good. It did well on Broadway, it did well in the West End, it toured the U.S. and now it's touring Australia, or at least coming to Melbourne.

I'm not going to see it -- I save my $150 theater tickets for genuine new classics like The Book of Mormon -- but I sure am curious about how the hell it all mashes together.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: True Grit

This is the fifth and penultimate installment in my bi-monthly 2018 series revisiting Coen brothers movies I didn’t think were so great the first time I saw them.

True Grit had a distinct disadvantage over the other movies in this series, as it was the first I’ve revisited for this series (though not the last) where I was struggling to stay awake when I first watched it. December 2010 saw the release of two high-profile movies starring Jeff Bridges, and I watched both of them as part of a theatrical double feature (which I discussed here if you’re interested). Tron: Legacy was long (125 minutes) and a bit stultifying, so the 9:30 or whatever show of True Grit was a tough slog for me. I remembered the fight against my drooping eyelids better than any fight in the movie.

So what do I do when I watch it again in 2018?

I’m not saying these were the worst possible circumstances to give it a second shot, but I did start the movie after 9 p.m., after a beer, and after I’d gone out running in the late afternoon, which basically left me for dead once I got home. (I’m not in as bad shape as that suggests, but I usually do my weekly run at night, after the kids are in bed, when nothing else is required of me in the hour or two before I go to sleep myself. When I still had two more hours of children before their bedtime, and they wanted to walk down to the park after dinner, I think that was what nearly did me in.)

The benefit of this second viewing was that if my drooping eyelids won, there was something I could do about it. When you watch something at home, you have access to a pause button, a luxury you don’t enjoy in the theater.

I did have to pause True Grit twice for naps – it’s something I do even during movies that are really good – but I made it through in one night, which I count as a victory.

Why didn’t I save it until I wasn’t so tired? Well, for one, it’s a movie I’ve already seen, so better in a way to watch something you’ve already seen when you’re tired, than something whose details are entirely new to you. Secondly, I’m out of the country for the last week of this month, and I have lots to do before then, so I just need to keep powering through my various viewing appointments before I leave.

And I think True Grit ended up being the most better of any of the three I’ve rewatched previously that I didn’t love the first time. (You may remember I started the series with a movie I have always loved, Miller’s Crossing.) In fact, it’s probably the only one out of O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers and Burn After Reading where I would say there was an appreciable uptick in my feelings toward it. So, in the end, a second sleepy viewing was not a mark against it.

Of the five movies in this series that I didn’t really love (the fifth of which I’ll watch in December), True Grit is probably the one where I’d have the hardest time articulating what it wasn’t I didn’t like about it. (Leading to my theory that sleepiness had a lot to do with it.) Although I liked it better this time, I think this viewing also helped me articulate what I didn’t like about it the first time.

Simply put, this narrative does not proceed forward with what I would consider to be cleverness. The key to a good chase movie – which many westerns are – is that the reason the pursuers stay hot on the trail, or lose the trail, is because of something essential about them: tracking ability, ingenuity, instinct, or on the negative side, maybe a fatal flaw.

Nothing is gained or lost in True Grit because of anything the characters do or don’t do. It all feels pretty random. They are tracking Tom Cheney based on some smartly collected intel, but then they lose him without any real reason – one day two of the three main characters just declare that the trail has gone cold. So without any reason you can point to, the mission has gone from trending toward success to trending toward failure. It’s the end of the second act, the moment of the characters’ greatest crisis, but as no result of anything they did or did not do.

Then when Mattie does spot Tom in the river, it’s just completely random. Through nothing they have intentionally done, they stumble across him, and she even wounds him (though he ultimately drags her off). A few of the other twists and turns at the end revolve around similar dumb luck, almost – dare I say it – deus ex machina, which is a dirty word in narrative storytelling. Confusingly, Rooster Cogburn is kind of part of a different climax with Ned Pepper, that’s occurring alongside the one with Tom Cheney. Cogburn, nominally this story’s hero (it’s really Mattie), does not even participate in the Cheney portion of the climax, though he does help save her from that very unlucky snake bite (deus ex machina again – or maybe devil ex machina in this case?).

If the Coens’ point is that the apparent grandeur of the old west is indeed so illusory, then that would certainly be consistent with other downbeat and cynical endings of theirs (I’m looking at you, No Country For Old Men). Heroes are drunkards, and spend time on trial for the people they killed; villains are basically just dumb hicks who get caught in rivers with their pants down. I get it. It’s just pretty unsatisfying.

Except as I said, it did satisfy me more this time. It may have satisfied me a whole star more. In looking back in Letterboxd, I see that I gave True Grit 2.5 stars the first time around, probably because I felt that much of what was supposed to be distinctive about it was the suspiciously underdeveloped personalities of Cogburn and LaBoeuf (Le Beef as Cogburn says), whose name is only the first way in which his character is played for comedy. Yet if doling out stars for this movie today, I might go as high as 3.5.

As much as I was at a loss to tell you what I didn’t love about it the first time, I’m equally at a loss to tell you now what has dramatically improved. One thing is surely that I have a much greater appreciation for Hailee Steinfeld, who was in her first feature film role here but has since blossomed into one of our most promising young actresses. I actually thought at the time (and still think) that she delivers some of the Coens’ dialogue awkwardly, or maybe that they wrote dialogue that was too awkward for her to deliver naturally – which is interesting because she actually received an Oscar nomination and her performance was one of the film’s most praised elements. But I do like her a lot more in general now, so being reminded of her origins was undoubtedly a positive thing.

I guess I’m also a bit more predisposed to the Coens’ nihilism. If I was bothered that the film is essentially a collection of random stuff that results in a positive outcome, I’m probably a bit less bothered by that now.

I still don’t think the cinematography, from frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins, is one of the greatest examples of his work, either, though he was also Oscar nominated (one of his infamous 13 nominations before he finally won for Blade Runner 2049). There are some good vistas, but I noticed other moments when the lighting seemed blown out, almost like the celluloid was bleached. I don’t think it’s fair to automatically credit a western for its cinematography just because of the landscape in which the photography occurs. I suspect a little of that was going on here.

But like I said, I was more favorably disposed toward this movie than I was the first time, and no longer need to look sideways at people who say they love it. It’s definitely pretty good. I just wish there were a little more there there.

Okay, wrapping up this series in December with the film that is the Coens’ most recent, though won’t be by the time I watch it. I’ll watch Hail, Caesar! for the second time two months from now, and probably before then, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which debuts on Netflix on November 16th. A post on that, but not under the Re-coen-sidering banner, may also be forthcoming.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Getting what you pay for at free outdoor screenings

Coco was my fifth ranked movie of 2017, and the affection has lingered enough for me to consider it a serious contender for my top 25 of the decade, which I will formulate in about 14 months.

So seeing it for the second time for free on one of those inflatable outdoor screens, on a blocked off side street, when my kids couldn't get comfortable and were both making noise about going home, but that was nothing compared to the noise everyone else was making, was probably not the best idea in terms of examining its candidacy.

It was maybe six weeks ago that I first saw the event in a neighboring community advertised, and it immediately put me in mind of the similar scenario in which I saw Zootopia for the second time. My son's school hosted such a screening in their gymnasium in early December of 2016, when I was finalizing that year's rankings and wondering if the movie was deserving of its third slot in my rankings. It was.

Sure, some of the obstacles to an unfettered viewing were still present -- squirmy kids, random noise, obstructed views. But at least having to pay for admission kept out some of the riff raff, and some of the riff raff was indeed to blame for the decidedly fettered viewing of Coco this past Saturday night.

You were allowed to get there as early as 6 p.m. for an expected 8 p.m. start. If this had been last Saturday they could have started it at 7, but we're a week into daylight savings now, meaning the sky is not truly dark enough for a movie until about 8. (As it turned out, they started at about 7:53, which was one of the evening's comparatively few blessings; seven minutes can be a big deal when you're talking about children up after their bedtime.)

The reason to get there early would have been to secure one of the bean bags the council provided, which were not the smaller bean bag chairs you traditionally think of when you think of bean bag chairs. These were the Rolls Royces of bean bag chairs, large and capable of accommodating multiple people, and able to be easily fitted in a particular direction, more like an easy chair than an amorphous blob.

We knew we were not likely candidates for those. Getting there two hours before the movie is all well and good if you're an adult, or have older children. Two hours early with younger children (mine are 8 and 4) and they turn into pumpkins before the movie even starts.

So when we arrived at just after 7, things were looking pretty bleak. Because these Rolls Royce bean bags were so big, they took up a disproportionate amount of the real estate in front of the screen, leaving less room than we needed for our improvised viewing outpost. This was going to consist of pillows, an inflatable beach lounger and a camping chair, if the camping chair would not be blocking anyone's view. But because the bean bags were so big, and claimed by only a single person in many cases, we were left looking for thin landing strips that would seriously encroach on the others who had gotten there earlier enough to stake legitimate claims.

Here we did have a bit of luck. Just as we were planning to stuff ourselves into a space that was about eight feet by three feet in the middle of four other bean bag chairs, and preparing to withstand the dirty looks of our neighbors for the entire night, I found an inexplicably unclaimed plot of land off to the side a few rows back. It was about the same depth but twice the width, and better yet, its positioning on the side allowed the camping chair to be erected in a spot where it would not block anyone's view. Glad I found it when I did, too, because two other groups descended on it just after I got there.

As the sky darkened we went to retrieve dinner from a local food establishment (yummy burgers!) and set up camp. Part of setting up camp involved the inflatable beach lounger. I'm not sure if you've seen this kind of thing before, but it's essentially a large wind sock that gets filled up with air by you running around in a circle while holding it open, and then trapping the air inside. When we first bought it, it took a long time for me to figure out how to do it. However, I've gotten a bit better and I got the air inside it, trapping it by rolling up the opening and clipping it off. It develops kind of the shape of a pair of lips, and you can then plunge a couple people into it as you would a bean bag chair.

The issue turned out to be that it's much different when you use one of these things on the beach and on the asphalt. My four-year-old's first instinct was to play in it like he would at the beach, and of course a bumped head was not long in the offing. It also turned out that in my rush to get ourselves set up, I probably rolled it up before it had as much air in it as would be ideal.

This became a problem over the course of the evening as every combination of the four of us tried to get comfortable in it in a way that also allowed our heads to be properly oriented toward the screen. Ultimately I ended up being in it with my older son for the lion's share of the running time, while my wife, the only one of us who hadn't seen the movie, took up residency in the camping chair with the younger one on her lap. But as the thing steadily deflates over time, by the end we were basically lying directly on the pavement, while I was clutching at the fabric to billow out as much of the air for a pillow as possible.

The problem was that my four-year-old kept going back and forth between this and the camping chair, only he couldn't get himself into the lounger without making a big ruckus. Any shifting causes that rustling noise of the fabric that is also disturbing. Let's just say it was barely controlled chaos for much of the movie.

So I'll be clear that many of our problems were self-inflicted. I can imagine we were quite the disruption to our neighbors, though they didn't show it in the slightest. And though our camping chair was on the curb and was not directly blocking anyone who was positioned on the street, the use of camping chairs was fairly limited overall, and I can imagine we might have been blocking somebody who was trying to take up position outside one of the store fronts, if they hadn't already had to give up the spot because of a total lack of visibility.

All that said, we at least tried to limit our noise, motion and visibility pollution. Others, not so much.

There were any number of others near us talking freely in normal tones of voice. One particular couple with their ten-year-old daughter bothered me to no end. They were completely unsettled, taking up and abandoning a spot in front of us several times during the movie, and at one point recognizing someone from one of the groups next to us. The mother of this family had no problem trying to maintain a conversation with the mother of that family. Not consistently, but enough that it struck me as highly disrespectful to the others around her. Didn't seem to strike her that way at all.

This is to say nothing of the people streaming out of the restaurants. Sure, they had not signed up for a free street screening of Coco, but they seemed to demonstrate no awareness whatsoever of the fact that others had. Instead of curtailing their conversations for the ten seconds they were picking through us on the way to or from their cars, they just continued whatever conversation they were having and didn't seem concerned whatsoever about unleashing bursts of laughter at whatever the other had said.

But the thing that bothered me the most was this woman who happened along during the film's emotional climax. You know, the part where young Miguel plays "Remember Me" to the title character. In this scene Miguel calls her "Mama Coco" a number of times. I didn't see where this woman had come from so I didn't know if she was a person leaving the movie early, or from one of the restaurants, but as she walked by she kept imitating him -- "Mama Coco!" -- and laughing afterwards. Not only was it obnoxious, it was also weirdly racist.

Most of what made the viewing so challenging, though, were things you would expect, inevitable parts of the experience. People getting up. People picking their way through the crowd. People rummaging through bags, and blocking the view as they did so. People having to quiet crying babies. People leaving a stroller or some other obstruction in a way that they didn't realize was blocking someone else's view.

Some of this I tolerated with relative equanimity. But other times it would annoy me to no end, for a reason I can tell you because you are also a movie fan.

There are two types of people in this world. There are those who feel like they should watch a movie start to finish with as much of their attention as they can reasonably muster. This group includes you and me. Then there are those who feel like they can drop in and out of a movie. They don't care if they arrive late or leave early. They don't care if something they choose to do during the movie prevents them from hearing everything or understanding every plot nuance. They think of a movie as, essentially, background, and as much or as little of it as they get, it's all the same to them.

A free outdoor screening is probably tailored to the second group of people, and if I'm going to attend it, I probably need to realize that.

But you know what?

Even with all this -- with my kids needing me to go buy a bottle of water (which I'd forgotten to pack), with my older son needing a chocolate ice cream from a vendor at the back of the seating area, with my older son talking about wanting to go to bed only ten minutes in (he later settled in), with large amounts of light pollution from street lamps, with the lower half of my view of the screen looking more like a city skyline of heads and strollers, with having to exert a huge physical effort to crane my neck in the right direction, with regular noise pollution from trains passing on the tracks above -- I still had tears standing in my eyes at the conclusion. They weren't rolling down my cheeks like they had in the theater, but that's also the difference between any first viewing of an emotional movie and its second viewing. Having tears even standing in my eyes was a major coup.

And my wife, who had to deal with regular shenanigans from the four-year-old more than I did, and whose comprehension of plot details was more crucial because she had never seen the movie, was reaching for her tissues at the end as well. More than anything I wanted her to see it and realize she also loved it, and somehow, she did.

I think a great movie is a great movie is a great movie, and even having some idiot mock it during the climax is not enough to ruin it.

Even when everything else was conspiring against it, Coco's greatness shone through.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Horror schlock extraordinaire

Remember when I said I was looking for October horror options outside of my standard streaming services?

Kanopy to the rescue.

Kanopy, the free streaming service some people can access through their library membership, does not have what you would call a comprehensive collection, nor I suppose would you expect it to. It's free, so any damn thing it has is a bonus, and it does have a lot of useful stuff.

And in this case it blew open the doors of the possibilities of horror for October. In fact, I'm not sure if I'm going to fit in all the ones I want to watch, especially since I'm heading to the U.S. for the last week of the month and I have a lot of viewing priorities unrelated to horror that I also need to squeeze in.

Not only is there some of the good classic horror I've been looking for, such as the 1959 Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill, but they've also got an essential 1980s horror text I have yet to experience from an essential horror director, David Cronenberg's Scanners. Then you've got something that just looks like great exploitation, Abel Ferrera's The Driller Killer. They've also got a couple movies I'd love to revisit this month, including Carnival of Souls and Beyond the Black Rainbow.

And, of course, they have Death Bed: The Bed That Eats.

That one I actually watched on Friday night, and boy.

I must say I spent a lot of the time asking myself how bad this 1977 low budget horror was. There were times that I thought it was Manos: The Hands of Fate bad, then there were other times I convinced myself that it's so bizarre it might be great, and that the various visual concepts were executed to the best of the ability of this minuscule budget. I ultimately went with a 1.5 star rating on Letterboxd as a compromise that erred on the Manos side of things.

Either way, you've got to see this movie.

Essentially it's about a canopy bed in an abandoned mansion that has been possessed by a demon, and this means it can eat people. In my mind I imagined the mattress actually morphing into a kind of mouth and going chomp chomp on its victims, but that kind of thing is hard to do on a small budget without looking ridiculous -- and say what you will about George Barry's film, I don't think he wants it to be ridiculous.

Instead, the bed exudes this kind of foaming acid that causes its victims to sink down into the mattress and be dissolved by the equivalent of its stomach acid. Of course, it's not just human beings that might be eaten. The bed also eats an apple (amusingly, only down to the core), some fried chicken (amusingly, just the skin and meat) and even a full bottle of wine (the bed that drinks).

The fact that the bones are still left creates certain moments that do seem to be intentionally hilarious, and though the following picture constitutes a "spoiler," it may also entice you to see the movie:

To quote Chief Wiggum: "What're you going to use, skeleton powers?"

The acting is so incredibly bad as to defy explanation -- the woman in this picture, despite being in peril throughout, rarely sees her expression change from some small variation on the one you see here. The guy's reaction to having his hands dissolved by the bed is similarly detached.

One of the funniest things about the movie is that it is narrated by a man who has been cursed to live inside a painting on the wall of the room with the bed. We seem him from time to time, sitting in a small enclosed space that is meant to represent the inside of the painting. The funny thing is, this guy is a different actor who does not actually provide the narration himself. I suppose you need to actually see this character to understand that this is what's supposed to be going on, but it just kind of makes it all the more hilarious.

Thanks Kanopy. Now instead of despairing over the paucity of good horror streaming options, I'm licking my chops for Saturday night.

Sunday, October 7, 2018


October is, of course, the month when cinephiles, and even some non-cinephiles, prioritize watching horror movies. The difference is that non-cinephiles might think to watch one or two horror movies leading up to the 31st, while cinephiles pride themselves on watching at least 20, if not one per day.

I'm not going to get to that level this year -- in fact, I've probably never watched more than ten. The horror offerings on my various streaming services are fairly pathetic, and in many cases have not changed significantly year over year, meaning that I've already scrubbed them pretty clean in past Octobers. I think on Stan, our Australian streaming site, there are literally fewer than five movies they've classified as horror that I haven't seen.

I did find one, though, even though it's not the type of "thing that go bump in the night" horror movie that I usually think goes hand-in-hand with Halloween. That was Eli Roth's The Green Inferno, which is about South American cannibals and is mostly set in the daytime, and had been on my radar the year it came out. In perusing my options, I noticed there were also two other Roth horrors available that I'd already seen, those being Hostel and Knock Knock (the latter being more of a home invasion thriller than a horror movie, though you could call it "domestic horror").

So having watched The Green Inferno on Friday night, I decided to make it a Roth weekend by watching Hostel on Saturday night for the first time since I originally saw it (at a screening in which Roth spoke afterward in a Q&A) in 2005. (And in looking this up in my records, I see this screening was only six days before Christmas -- strange timing indeed for such a thing. I ranked it with my 2005 films, but others may have ranked it with 2006 as it was formally released on January 6th of 2006, and likely did not receive an Oscar-qualifying run -- heh heh -- the year before.)

But my real Roth reckoning began a few weeks ago when I saw his latest, The House With a Clock In Its Walls, which is about as different from Green Inferno and Hostel as a movie can be. I haven't read into why Roth would decide to direct a family-friendly haunted house movie starring Jack Black, but suffice it to say it was not a good fit. That's a weird ass movie, but not in a good way. You can read my full review here if you like, to save me going over the failure of that movie a second time. (One thing I'll spoil that wasn't in that review: There's about five minutes of this movie where Jack Black's head is on the body of a baby.)

Roth is someone I generally think of in a positive light -- I like Knock Knock quite a bit -- but Clock was not the first movie of his I hated. In fact, I really did not like his debut, Cabin Fever, which I saw after I'd already seen Hostel. Learning he also made the much-reviled remake of Death Wish earlier this year, which I have not seen but may see just for his involvement (this month, even, to continue the theme?), it started to make me wonder if the "real" Roth is talented or a hack.

Seeing one movie I hadn't seen, and revisiting one movie, seemed like a good way to interrogate that.

Which brings us to Green Inferno. This one worried me right away. The opening credits are in this cheap typeface that could have been made on the same titling machine my friend bought when we made our own 30-minute kung fu movie back in 1990. As they fade in and out they appear to pixelate. The early scenes of the movie are in New York, where the interiors need to be lit. And the lighting is awful. The whole thing looks like bad TV, or possibly even homemade TV.

When they get to South America, lighting is no longer a problem and the actual cinematography improves overall. However, this is when the cultural insensitivity kicks in. The tribe of cannibals are bloodthirsty (literally) and without any measure of pity or remorse. Among all of them there is only one small child who shows enough humanity to try to help the protesters whose plane crashes while returning from a protest to save the rainforest. The rest of the tribe eat them with relish -- eat some of them, anyway.

Someone with whom I discussed this online argued against this charge of cultural insensitivity, and since he has a point I'll give his position a platform here. He argued that everyone here is either an asshole or an idiot, both the natives and the protesters, and there's no doubt he's correct about that. The protesters are so caught up in their own deluded sense of importance, in their ability to change the world, that they appear as guilty of usury, a different kind of usury, as those who would bulldoze these natives' homes. His argument is that the whole thing is a bit of a comedy -- a very grotesque, bloody, dismembery comedy -- and that Roth is in on the joke.

His thoughts allowed me to elevate the film from 1.5 stars to two stars on Letterboxd. But really -- blecch. It's not good.

But I decided to give Roth another shot the next night. It'd either be a chance at redemption or a realization that maybe he'd never really had anything worth celebrating in the first place.

I started out a bit skeptical about the enduring value of Hostel, one of the earliest of the torture porn movies. (I tend to think of that genre as having begun with Saw the year before, though of course there would be earlier examples). I found myself critical of technical elements like lighting and cinematography, and the movie also felt very dated with a lot of douchebaggery and gay panic humor, including the use of the word "faggot."

However, as I kept watching and as we got to the actual hostel, I felt most of my original grisly affection for the movie return. For a film that is indubitably an entry in the torture porn genre, and a seminal one at that, it's lighter on the actual torture part than I would have thought. Each individual scene of torture is relatively short and more discreet than it could have been on graphic detail, as we get more of the before and the after, leaving the rest up to our imaginations.

It's the details within this, however, that require us to give Roth credit. Two moments stand out for me. For one, there's the part when (spoiler alert) Derek Richardson's character is getting his Achilles tendons sliced open. A less imaginative filmmaker would have gone right in on the knife sawing the skin, to show us how effectively they could recreate a man's tendons being sliced. Instead, all we see is Richardson screaming in an unimaginable agony, the exact nature of which we only know when he tries to stand up. It allows us an uncomfortable few moments when our imaginations are indeed more powerful than the visual stimuli being provided to us.

Then there's the moment when Jay Hernandez' character pleads for his life with the German client. One thing I like about this movie is that Hernandez' character speaks German, something our preconceived notions about his ethnicity might prevent us from considering likely. I mean, it's not like a man of Latino descent would never learn German, it's just that this movie is reasonably creative for giving him that unexpected trait. Anyway, we think his impassioned pleading for his life -- which goes untranslated -- is the thing that might actually save him, and gives Hernandez a moment of real dramatic power within a tawdry genre movie. When the German client slaps him and leaves the room, we figure he's been successful. Instead, an attendant enters with a ball gag so he can no longer talk. In another clever reveal, we see that the attendant has been applying something to Hernandez' face, but we don't see it's this ball gag until the camera pulls back.

I do have one question about the ending of the movie, since we're into spoilers anyway, which I think is a plot hole but I can't say for sure. So Hernandez is on the train at the end and hears the client who tortured and killed his friend eating his grotesque meat salad in front of a couple other unwitting travelers. He then disembarks the train to go kill him in the train station toilet. Does he actually know that this man was his friend's torturer? All he really knows for sure is that they were sitting together at the bar, isn't that right? It's one of those cases that I'm sure are fairly common if you look for them, where the screenwriter gets confused about whether his characters know a piece of information, or only the audience knows it.

Some of the shock of Hostel was certainly due to its concept and the comparative infancy of the torture porn genre, and the fact that it "went there" on things we hadn't allowed ourselves to imagine, cinematically. However, its tension and its underlying sense of horror are still effective 13 years later, long after torture porn has become passe. Combine that with the mood setting and mystery of the rest of the scenes in that town, and you've got a portrait of a demonic Eastern European milieu that adds portent to the already exotic endeavor of traveling off the grid far from home.

Come to think of it, the punishment meted out to the American tourists here is similar to that meted out to the American do-gooders in The Green Inferno. In both cases these are kids with an overdeveloped sense of their entitlement to traipse around in places they were never invited, without worries of the consequences of showing less than the proper respect for their surroundings.

There's comedy in both of these movies -- don't forget the part when the girls get run over multiple times by Hernandez in his car -- but Roth varies in his ability to deliver the right tone. He succeeds in Hostel and doesn't in Green Inferno, just as he didn't in Cabin Fever but did in Knock Knock. Perhaps I should have realized this was Roth's MO before now, and perhaps if I watched Green Inferno again and viewed it through this lens from the start, I'd "get it" a bit more.

But there are too many other horror movies to watch this October to worry about that right now.

Well, some, anyway. If I want more, I might have to go beyond my streaming services.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Upgrade downgraded

I had a weird sense of deja vu while watching Venom Thursday night, and it didn't take long for me to figure out why that was.

It's not that it's derivative of other superhero or comic book movies, which of course it is. It's not even that it shares things in common with many other trainwrecks that I've seen, which it does.

It's that there was a far better movie with many of these same elements earlier this year, called Upgrade.

And Upgrade's not even all that great, so if it's far better than Venom, you know how bad Venom must be.

For starters, let's take the stars of the two movies.

Upgrade stars Logan Marshall-Green. Venom stars Tom Hardy.

If you're not familiar with Logan Marshall-Green, you may know him as that guy who looks almost exactly like Tom Hardy.

There are no fewer than 516 side-by-side shots of Hardy and Marshall-Green on the internet, but I find this one probably the most illustrative of their similar appearances:

Bonus points to you if you know which one is Hardy and which one is Marshall-Green.

Then you've got what's happening to their characters in these movies. Both come under the control of a parasite of sorts that bestows them with super powers. For Marshall-Green, it's a computer chip that helps him walk after he's paralyzed in a car accident -- and also run really fast and kick a lot of ass. For Hardy, it's an alien called a "symbiote" that merges with him, causing him to shoot tentacles out of his body to defeat foes, and turn his head into a black mask with rows of sharp teeth.

In both instances the symbiosis is initially played for comedy, as the hapless host looks on in semi-horror as his own body does things that his brain is not telling it to do. Oh, and these parasites both speak inside the heads of their hosts, though only the hosts can hear them.

The conventional wisdom would have been that Venom was the contender and Upgrade the pretender, as Venom has the bigger star, the better known director and the muscle and brand name of Marvel behind it. Yet this movie is shit and Upgrade is actually kind of clever, though ultimately preposterous.

If you haven't seen Upgrade, do it! Why not?

If you haven't seen Venom, you're lucky.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Father's Day custody battle

If you're wondering why September 30th was Father's Day, well, Australia has a different Father's Day than the U.S.

Of course, this wasn't actually Australian Father's Day either.

Australian Father's Day was back on September 2nd, only I couldn't partake in it this year. That's because my son was in the hospital with a broken arm sustained while climbing a tree the day before. It had been rainy, the tree was slippery, and, well, he slipped. He was actually in the hospital for three nights all told, meaning Father's Day was a total wash.

And while it was a very special Father's Day for other reasons -- I got to be there for my son, sleeping beside him on the fold-out bed in the hospital -- my family decided that a day to myself should be restored to me, and Sunday was that day.

We brunched in the beachside community of St. Kilda before they let me free to an afternoon to do with what I pleased. So I relaxed for a couple hours in the St. Kilda Sea Baths, complete with salt water pool, steam room and jacuzzi, before heeding the call of my familiar Father's Day activity: going to the movies.

And that's where the thematically ironic Custody came in.

The French film about a divorced couple fighting over their 11-year-old son wouldn't have been my first choice for an escapist afternoon at the cinema. As a point of comparison, on last year's Father's Day I indulged in some real escapism in the form of Logan Lucky. But of the lighter fare in current release, I was faced with options like Night School and The Predator, and they just didn't seem like quite the way I wanted to spend my 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. time slot.

So after one more beachside hurrah of a beer and prosciutto slices on baguettes, I made my way up to Cinema Nova in Carlton just in time for the 5:10 show.

And it sure did make me appreciate the ways to be a good parent, and not to be one. While I had expected a nuanced look at the problems of shared custody, with a "he said, she said" approach that left a lot of gray areas, this was really more about a monster dad who becomes (is already) a danger to his ex and kids. Note to self: Don't be that kind of dad.

Although Custody wasn't about the ways equally aggrieved parties who both have good cases try to win the affections of their offspring, it was tense as hell, which kept me awake despite the mid-afternoon beer.

Interestingly, we capped the evening with A Quiet Place, the 2018 film I am most surprised I didn't see in the theater (I tried once but it was sold out, and never got another chance). That too is about a dad trying to look out for the best interests of his wife and children, though in a far different way than the menace at the center of Custody. Note to self: Be like this dad.

And now back to our regular schedule of holidays on their correct dates.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

I finally saw: The Green Mile

Here’s your more traditional “I Finally Saw” after the last one was about a movie that had only been out for a month.

The gaps in a person’s viewing history sometimes defy explanation. I have always loved Tom Hanks, I have usually prioritized the viewing of Stephen King adaptations (there was a time, 25 years ago, when I had read everything he’d written), and I've had a special fondness for Frank Darabont’s previous King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption (a fondness I share with many others, so I guess not so special). And in 1999, I was well into the era of ranking the films I saw each year from first to worst, meaning I tried to see most significant releases.

Yet not until last Friday night did I see The Green Mile, the only one of five best picture nominees from that year I didn’t see in the year of its release.

It might have taken me much longer except that the movie came up in this monthly challenge I’m doing through the Flickcharters Facebook group. This challenge involves watching the highest ranked movie you haven’t seen on the Flickchart of another member of the group, chosen randomly each month. So far for this series I’ve seen The Court Jester, Europa Europa, Henry V (1944), Explorers and Naked, and The Green Mile was my sixth random pick. It’s been a pretty good series as Explorers was the only one I didn’t like all that much.

It’s possible that one of the reasons for the delay was that the movie cracks the three-hour mark, though if that were the reason, it had slipped my mind long before now, such that I was surprised when I learned it again. I figured the thing probably clocked in at 2:25 for something, but three hours? It’s listed as 189 minutes, but the credits start at 180. That’s Lord of the Rings territory, not the expected length of a little prison movie about a Magical Negro. (Sorry, not my term -- that phrase refers to an unfortunate trope of which The Green Mile is probably the textbook example.)

The thing that surprised me so much, when I did carve out the time to watch in on Friday, was how little it really is. The movie has no more than two or three sets, and only one that they visit with any regularity, that being the death row building itself. The action only leaves these couple locations on a couple occasions, and not for very long.

Yet three hours pass, and you know what? You don’t really notice it.

I almost got the feeling I was bingeing a miniseries about these characters rather than watching one long movie, both because you know you’re settling in for the long haul, but then also because it goes kind of quickly when you actually get down to it. (Hence the term “bingeing.”) The movie is kind of constructed as a series of relatively short episodes, as well. But it has an undeniable forward momentum and keeps trucking along without ever wearing out its welcome. In fact, I suspect the only reason I did finally take a “nap” at the 2:30 mark was because it was late on a Friday night and I was drinking wine. Otherwise I could have made it to the end no problem. I’ll nap during movies that are less than half that length.

And while I did like it quite a bit, it’s no Shawshank. It did feel kind of like Darabont’s apology for Shawshank, though. Who needs an apology for Shawshank, you might ask? Well, how about prison guards? Assuming such a vocal faction of prison guards that must be placated actually exists, which I’m sure it doesn’t, it seems like this is Darabont’s way of saying “See, not all prison guards are bad.” As a matter of fact, there’s only one bad one this time, whereas the other four are basically saints. In fact, three of those four – Barry Pepper, David Morse and Jeffrey DeMunn – are basically rolled up into one saintly character for how little individual distinction they are given by the script.

Which is another miraculous thing about this movie. How could it go for three hours and basically never really develop the characters?

And yet it doesn’t feel slow, and it does feel satisfying. Maybe I wanted to well up at the end – I had been promised tears – but the eventual fate of Michael Duncan Clarke’s character didn’t get to me, probably because the movie had done such a thorough job preparing us for what was going to happen, and that he was ready for it.

So, solid movie that I obviously should have seen long ago, and probably would have liked even a little bit better if I had.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Representation positivity gone wild

It's useful every once in a while to realize that your enemies are not entirely crazy, and you have the capacity to think like them if you're not careful.

No, this is not some piece about whether Thanos or Eric Killmonger were not entirely wrong in their thinking. It's about those internet trolls who have problems with female Ghostbusters and Asian Star Wars heroines.

If I say an ounce of their thinking has crept into my own, please read on to understand what I mean and how I'm fighting against it.

I don't for a moment think that the straight white male is an endangered species. That's ridiculous. However, I can't help but notice that when something entirely excludes the straight white male from the way it does business, it rankles me a little bit.

One of the podcasts I listen to is the Slate Spoiler Special. This is one of many offshoots of the Slate Culture Gabfest, and I mightn't have gone out of my way to listen to it except that they plop it in the same feed. Besides, I'm interested in hearing people gab about and spoil movies I've seen.

When the show first started -- or, I should say, when it was resurrected maybe a year ago, as it was something they used to do and then stopped -- it was hosted by the Slate film critic, Dana Stevens. Dana was joined by two other Slate staffers, possibly two men, possibly a man and a woman, usually not two other women but probably a couple times. After all, they practiced the typical aspiration of representing both genders on the show, and beyond that, looked for people who were qualified to discuss the material in one way or another.

After maybe six or seven episodes, Dana slowly receded from her hosting duties -- which shouldn't be much of a surprise given that she's writing a book and certainly has plenty of other things to occupy her. The hosting now seems to shift to any number of other people, many of whose names I don't actually know. They're part of the Slate family, whoever they are.

Another thing happened around this time. The show stopped featuring straight white males.


By far the show's most common configuration of three (sometimes four) was three (sometimes four) women. In fact, I think I listened to something like five or six episodes in a row in which not a single male voice was heard. I noted also, because they told me, that some of them were lesbians, and others were of Asian or African-American heritage.

When they let a man back on the show eventually, he was gay. I noted this, because he told me. In fact, as far as I can tell, they have a rotating series of several gay men potentially appearing on the show.

This is fine. Nay, this is good. Way too many podcasts (including my own, for most of its existence) are two or three white men. Representation is a serious problem on these shows and it needs to be addressed.

But I have to admit it rankled me a bit that every straight white male Slate staffer who had appeared or could potentially appear on this show seems to have been permanently disinvited.

Some of these shows certainly warranted their all-female composition, or their homosexual component, based on a perceived relevance of the movie or TV show being discussed to either women or gay men (or gay women). In fact, it kind of seems like they are actually choosing movies to spoil not because they are The Sixth Sense and require that their secrets be kept, but because they are relevant to some kind of representational minority. Much as I love it, is anyone really worried about Crazy Rich Asians being "spoiled"? How many different ways could that movie actually end?

I've joked with some friends that this show should actually be called Slate Plot Synopsis, as the structure of the show usually involves going through the plot, point-by-point, as though describing what happens in the movie is more the ambition of the show than talking about what happens and whether it's good. They have this hilarious enslavement to making sure they remember the correct sequence of scenes, as people will hand each other the baton in continuing through the synopsis, then ask for help from others to remember if they are getting the order correct. They do comment as they're going, but it feels a bit more surface level. Maybe it should be called Slate Movie Live Tweeting. So the actual format of the show is a bit disappointing.

The composition of the hosts shouldn't be. But I have to admit I have gotten to the point where I am almost hate-listening to the show, just so each new time I can note that there is no person like me giving his thoughts.

This is bad. But here I am, telling you about it, so I can attack the tendency in myself to be annoyed by it.

I suppose the difference between me and some internet cretin is not that I have these feelings, but what I do with them. That other guy goes on to a chat about Star Wars and says racist things about Rose Tico. I write what I hope is a thoughtful blog post examining these feelings.

There's no doubt that events of recent years have given straight white men their share of guilt. Even if you personally did not sexually harass women, or deny opportunities to minorities, or march on Charlottesville about hating black people, you feel a certain responsibility that a person superficially like you did. And you feel that other people could think you're capable of doing that.

As a straight white male film critic, I feel like I've had specifically tailored accusations pointed at me and those in my profession. There's a growing conversation about whether white male film critics can really give a fair criticism of films that are not aimed at their demographic, and whether we should actively seek to reduce their input into the film conversation. Of course I agree that minority critics of one gender or race or another should have the same platform, and that they should naturally have to take some of the same spots occupied by white men, seeing as how there are a finite number of those spots. I just don't want it to be me. Also, I don't want to have to say I liked one of these other demographic movies more than I actually did just to prove my subjectivity does not enter into my judgment. I hated that I didn't love Black Panther, believe me. (And it was a huge relief to love Crazy Rich Asians.)

Partially to help with diversity issues on my podcast, and partially just because she's qualified and knows what she's talking about, we introduced a woman onto my own podcast. We were three straight white men, but for a while we had a straight white woman as well. Hey, baby steps. There were never more than three of us on the podcast at a time, with one exception, but one person would take the week off each week in order to accommodate our new four-person size. Unfortunately, she left the country for a year, reducing us back to three straight white males. And since then we've all been so busy, in some cases with our own international travel, that we've only recorded a handful of episodes anyway.

On my own podcast I had conflicting thoughts about this. For one, she was a great addition and I was glad to have her. She's great on film and she helped make our podcast a better representation of the way the world looks. On the other hand, it made me recognize that my own white maleness was part of the problem we were trying to address, and unfortunately, it was something I couldn't do anything about. I was stuck with it.

So I guess listening to the Slate Spoiler Special again raises this problem for me, reminds me of my own podcast. I am the very person that Slate, by taking this stand, has decided it needs to scrub from the process.

What I need to remember is that this is just one of many Slate podcasts. Many if not most others have white males on them. White males are not actually losing ground to anybody, or if they are, it's the right amount of ground. It's the ground they should be ceding because they never should have had it in the first place, if we lived in a better world that had better representation from the start. In fact, good on them for taking this stand on at least one podcast.

Which is why I write a blog post like this. So I can address my thoughts in an attempt to expunge them. So I can get them down in words instead of leaving them stinking up my head. So I can one day permanently banish them.

However ... I wouldn't mind if at some point, any point, in the future history of this podcast, I do hear another non-gay male voice again.

Until then, I'll try just to listen, and not hate listen.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

I finally saw: Crazy Rich Asians

SPOILER WARNING for Crazy Rich Asians.

I usually reserve the “I Finally Saw” label on my blog for movies that are genuine classics, or at least cultural touchstones that have stood the test of time, which I have gone without seeing until this point.

I’m changing the rules this time because it does feel like my viewing of Crazy Rich Asians was a long time in coming, especially with how it's become the center of our cinematic conversation over the past month or so. It's taken me longer than most to join that conversation.

My awareness of it dates back into the mid-summer, when I saw a poster at one of the theaters I regularly attend. If I’d seen this poster in the U.S., I might have done a double take. But in Australia, and in Melbourne in particular, it didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. We have a huge Asian population here, and a couple of the big mainstream theaters tailor some 20 percent of their available screens to the latest imports in Asian cinema. It was easy to think this might be one of those, just looking at it at a glance.

My editor’s posting of his review way back on August 8th didn’t do much to increase its visibility on my radar. I guess I knew that he didn’t usually review the random Asian action movie du jour, so that raised its profile a little bit. But only later did I realize that he was doing something he has a habit of doing, which is posting his review straightaway even if he sees the movie at a preview screening held a month before its release. I’m more of the old school journalist who would hold such a review until the moment of its greatest relevance to readers, but he doesn’t care about any of that. Damn millennials. (Note: He is over 30, and I don’t think that qualifies him as a millennial.) Because I didn't immediate detect this habit of his, I thought the movie was already out but that it was pretty small, which was why I hadn’t noticed it on any of the local marquees. In fact, I came to think I must have already missed it.

It was only about two weeks later when Crazy Rich Asians started to become the topic of thinkpieces and film podcasts, which I imagine coincided with its U.S. release. It was at this point that I started hearing people talk about it being the first major studio release with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which is just about the most astonishing verifiable fact I’ve heard this year.

It was about two weeks after that it got released here, and yet a further two weeks before I finally saw it. So, “finally” does make a bit of sense here.

And … damn.

I loved it.

I blubbered like a baby at the end. Not once, but three times. (Mahjong, airplane, and the final shot of Michelle Yeoh, for anyone scoring at home.)

I was dubious that I would be so moved by it, and not because I’m not Asian or Asian-American and can’t relate to its themes. Even people who said they liked it were quick to describe it as kind of “just another romantic comedy” but with Asians instead of white people in the lead roles, and I figured that was the reason that a couple Asian film critics I heard talk about it say they loved it. Which would make it similar to the African-American critics who admitted loving Black Panther more for what it represented than what it actually was. (I’m going to revisit it, but at this point I find the actual story of Black Panther a bit pedestrian in its execution, unfortunately.)

So as I got increasingly more invested in Crazy Rich Asians, and then blubbery at the end – I was a frigging mess – I thought “Wow, these people really undersold this movie.”

Okay, yeah, sure, it is a “typical romantic comedy” in some respects. But underlying that is a real thematic heft that struggles with identity and family and other issues I found very involving. When I read my editor’s review – he gave it only a 6 out of 10, but that's not actually a bad rating for him – I was shocked to see him use the word “slight.”

This is not a slight movie. Something so ornately designed – that wedding scene! – could never be “slight.” But even more than that, you’ve just got so much unspoken here that’s contributing to the film’s power. It may be wearing the costume of something slight, but there’s real passion here, real grappling with things that are meaningful.

I'm not even sure the order in which to talk about the things I loved about the movie, but let's start with the cast. With all due props to Henry Golding and Constance Wu, I texted a friend afterward that Awkwafina was my favorite character in any movie this year. Of course, Awkwafina is the name of the actress rather than the character, but I didn't think my friend would necessarily get what I meant if I'd written "Peik Lin was my favorite character in any movie this year." Part of that is that Awkwafina had to overcome two preconceived biases of mine, one against people who go by a single moniker (and one named after a bottled water at that), and two that I didn't like her all that much the first time I'd encountered her in Ocean's 8. Here I was on board and then some. I laughed at practically every line delivery, and the character's heart was ultimately the cherry on top of her performance.

Golding I'd already encountered, just last week, in A Simple Favor, where his undeniable charisma (and handsomeness!) rose above the rest of the material. Wu was new to me, and I think this will be the first of many encounters with her as Hollywood finally recognizes the box office power of an Asian-American lead actress (with apologies to Lucy Liu). (Crazy Rich Asians is just about at $150 million in the U.S., which is amazing.) I also wanted to make a mention of Gemma Chan, who I first encountered in Humans playing a robot. Something about her ability to do that allows her to contain an ocean of melancholy in those eyes.

I wish I had a coherent argument in favor of Asians rather than just the bullet point approach I've been presenting so far. But the movie just made me feel good, and sometimes that reduces you to structural disarray in communicating it.

I loved the bachelor party in international waters, thrown by the guy I still don't love all that much who plays Jian-Yang in Silicon Valley (Jimmy O. Yang). I liked that the movie was willing to stray outside the comfort zone of a pleasant romantic comedy by showing us the fish carcass in Rachel's bed. I luxuriated in all the signs of Nick's fancy life (which he prevents from defining him), especially that upstairs area on the plane that I always want to get a better look at on my trips to the U.S. and back.

In mentioning the cast earlier I didn't mention Michelle Yeoh, perhaps because she's the villain of the piece and I was therefore a bit less magnetically attracted to her performance. But I can't deny that her performance allowed me to cry for the third of three times, at the very end, when she gives her little nod of approval to Rachel (after having given her son the ring to give Rachel). If not earlier, in that moment I understood -- as a parent myself -- what it means to let your children go and to allow them to live their own lives.

There's more I could say on Rachel's simple yet powerful disquisition on status during the Mahjong game, or that incredible shot of the bride coming down the aisle with the water streaming under her feet and the plant fronds waving above her, or any other divine moment in this divine movie.

Instead I'll just say if you haven't seen Crazy Rich Asians, like I hadn't until Tuesday night, well -- didn't you heed my earlier spoiler warning? But also: Go.

Because ... damn.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Audient Auteurs: Bahman Ghobadi

This is the latest in my 2018 monthly series watching two movies by a renowned director who was previously unfamiliar to me.

Sometimes, you have to reverse engineer an auteur.

I've talked at length about how few of the works of the directors I originally earmarked for this series have been easily accessible. I'll make it to December without the choices completely drying up, but I'm pulling some naughty tricks, and stretching my definition of what constitutes an auteur.

The way I envisioned this series was to identify a bunch of names I'd heard of but not experienced myself, and watch two of their movies per month. Whether they were auteurs or not, according to some textbook definition of that word, was less important. They were names thrown around by other cinephiles as having been responsible for important bodies of work, in way or another.

In short, I figured I would have at least heard of every director I ended up watching in this series.

But here's where the reverse engineering comes in. I thought, "What if I just scan the shelves of available movies at the library, and if I've heard of a particular title, then see if the director is someone whose body of work is worth studying?"

That's how I got Bahman Ghobadi, director of A Time for Drunken Horses, which was indeed a title I'd heard of. I couldn't tell you where I'd heard of it, nor that it was from an Iranian director. But when I saw that Ghobadi had another film available for streaming on Kanopy, it clinched his spot as September's entrant in this series.

There were two things that helped Ghobadi's apparently dubious candidacy. One was that I've wanted to expand beyond the European and American directors who have been my focus so far. I've already watched the movies of three French men, and that's plenty from that particularly demographic. The second was that I am a big fan of Iranian cinema, and if there's an Iranian master I hadn't experienced previously, what better excuse to get familiar with him?

And so Bahman Ghobadi is the first auteur in this series whose movies I never knew I wanted to see.

Wikipedia does not have a huge amount on Ghobadi, consistent with his "lesser auteur" status. However, I can tell you he was of Kurdish ethnicity, born in Iran, and worked early on as an assistant director on Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. He made 8 mm shorts and a documentary before breaking into feature films. As I assume Wikipedia would have mentioned it otherwise, he has thus far avoided the wrath of an Iranian government that heavily censors its filmmakers, for reasons that I may get into as I discuss the films.

A Time for Drunken Horses (2000)

When I say I'm a big fan of Iranian cinema, I should probably remember to put an asterisk on that. Before I discovered the great films of directors like Asghar Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, I have to remember that I also watched a handful of Iranian films that didn't connect with me quite in that same way. These other films were not films that deconstructed the art of filmmaking, or intensely explored social dynamics spiraling out of control, as these more recent discoveries have done so well. Rather, these were that other kind of Iranian film -- the Iranian film that stars primarily young children.

A Time for Drunken Horses is such a film.

It's not that a movie starring children cannot be good, or even that it can't be dark, because Drunken Horses is dark as hell. It's just that some of these earlier films (I'm thinking of Narrow Alleys and Children of Heaven) felt a lot like what they were -- a director straining to communicate some kind of social message through the strictures of his oppressive government, but being too hamstrung by those strictures to really do so. My understanding is that the films had to star children as part of what the government dictated about who could or could not participate in making films, possibly for religious reasons. If I sound vague it's because I looked it up online but could find nothing that confirmed this. It was something I heard along the way but am only half-remembering.

A Time for Drunken Horses is different in one important way: Part of it takes place across the Iraq border. Okay, that's not much different.

It's a story about a boy, his handicapped brother and his sister, who are orphaned (I think) and are trying to make money along the wintry Iran-Iraq border through a variety of different smuggling endeavors. They smuggle truck tires and other goods of seemingly dubious value, but hey I don't live in that economy so what do I know. The older boy is trying to get money for his brother to have an operation, though it becomes clear early on that the boy isn't going to live that long even if he has the operation. He's got some kind of genetic disease that causes dwarfism, and he has to be carried around and constantly medicated. The sister, meanwhile, has been promised by her uncle in an arranged marriage for purposes involving trade and other financial benefit.

I'm going to sound vague again now as I watched this movie about two weeks ago and it didn't really stick with me. What did stick with me was the unending sense of misery and hopelessness. I'm not against movies where the situation is hopeless, though I do feel like I need something to leaven the scenario, even if it ultimately ends badly for those involved. This was just misery, misery and more misery, and it was the rare time where I felt I really couldn't put myself into this scenario. Of course I can sit here in my ivory tower, eating what I want and never lacking for shelter or warmth, and say I can't put myself into this scenario. But a movie that's succeeding with what it's doing should be able to translate even something intensely foreign to you, so you can empathize with the characters going through it. Ghobadi just doesn't do that here, though of course I recognize that's a very subjective response to the movie and others' mileage may vary.

This is going to sound horrible but one of the things that bothered me most was this severely ill brother. He's a pitiable soul to be sure, made even more so by the fact that the actor himself obviously suffers from this, or at least some, disease, and his own lifespan may not be all that long. But in this world where anybody and everybody is barely surviving, it seemed like there was a disproportionate amount of energy expended on trying to prolong the life of a creature who was obviously destined for an early grave, most likely at some point in the next few weeks you would think. All sorts of plot points surround whether anything they do will be enough to save him, and all sorts of sacrifices are made to try to prolong his life just a little bit. Here's the really bad part, though, the part I feel most awful typing out: It seemed like he didn't even seem grateful about the fact that all these people were trying to do all these things to save him. For some reason I was very put off by the fact that whenever someone would give him his medicine, he cried like a little baby being tortured -- even though I think he's supposed to be like ten years old. If I were one of the people trying to save that kid I'd be like "I'm trying to help you, man. Just lie here in the snow and die for all I care."

See, I told you it was bad. Well, I'm probably not getting that many people reading this far into a blog post on a director most of them haven't heard of, anyway.

Turtles Can Fly (2004)

Which is too bad, because as little as the first film worked for me, that's how much the second film did work. Simply put, I loved my second Ghobadi movie, which totally redeemed my choice to include him in this series.

This was a title that was not familiar to me, whereas the other had been. It's also not nearly as poetic sounding a title. But man is this a much better movie -- which is strange because of how many surface similarities it actually has with A Time for Drunken Horses.

Both films have children filling all the primary roles, with adults sprinkled in to play less consequential characters. Both films involve children taking regular care of a semi-incapacitated child, in this case a blind toddler. Both films involve sub-economies that grow out of the impossible conditions of war, whether it's pre-war, post-war or a war in progress.

There's a small difference in their perspectives, though, which allows for humor and, yes, optimism in the second film. I suppose the symbol of that different perspective is a basic dynamism in the landscape that's absent from the first movie but fully present in the second, and can be traced directly to the decision to shoot outside of the wintry environment that reduces everything to a muddy sameness. The landscape of Turtles Can Fly feels barren in its own ways, but Ghobadi also feels conscious of his surroundings and their potential for visual distinctiveness that may just be a reflection of his own growth as a filmmaker. He sets the camera up in interesting ways and captures a certain jutting beauty in the detritus of a marginal society.

The kids in this movie are also just trying to make it, but this time they are fully within Iraq, a country that has been left in its current state by the government of Saddam Hussein. It's the last days of that government as the 2003 American invasion is just days from beginning. An early teenager nicknamed Satellite has positioned himself at the nexus of most of the ways these people are making money. He dispatches teams of children to help disarm the mines that are nearly everpresent, which they then turn around and sell, and he's also got a quest to help bring television reception to people seeking news of the impending war, shifting his attention from the ineffectual antennae to satellite dishes. His ability to speak/understand English -- or at least his claim that he does -- puts him in high demand as well.

Satellite takes an interest in the case of a mysterious girl who is the brother of a boy who has lost his arms, who is also known for his ability to make predictions about the future that invariably come true. They are both looking after the blind child, and seem to have set themselves apart from the rest of the children. We come to learn that they are not this boy's brother, although they are young enough to be, but that he's the bastard child of the girl, who gave birth to him after being gang-raped by soldiers. Her circumstances have made her suicidal, if she cannot get out of this place, and soon.

The biggest tonal difference I noticed from Ghobadi's previous effort was how more willing he is to play this heavy material for light comedic effect. The story becomes increasingly dour the more that is revealed about it, but it starts out with a certain whimsy, involved as it is in the logistics of Satellite's various commercial enterprises, and his status as something of a huckster. A joyous sense of this local community develops, something that has shades of Italian Neorealism to it.

Again here we see a young actor who is, in real life, profoundly crippled, as the actor who plays the boy who sees visions is actually missing both of his arms. But the things he's capable of even without his arms -- such as disarming a land mine with his teeth -- give us a real sense of the way a person in his shoes comes to assert dominion over his circumstances, rather than succumbing to them. One of the film's other frequent images is of another character, a young boy missing one of his legs, as he moves across the landscape at high speeds. You get the sense that having a crutch instead of a second leg only reduces his speed by maybe ten percent of what it would have otherwise been.

I talked about the expanding scope of Ghobadi's abilities as a filmmaker, and one of the ways this was evident to me was his use of extras. There are any number of shots in this movie that use literally hundreds of extras to convey the local populations as they desperately swarm for information or flee from danger. It was just another way this movie delivers on a big canvas and exceeds many of the real-world limitations that must have informed its creation.

I found the lives of these children endlessly fascinating as they do the work of adults and just try to survive. Ghobadi expertly presents the details of their lives, and unlike in this previous film, he inserts me directly into what these lives were like. I was fully absorbed in their dramas, in the sad ironies and absurdities of their lives, and how they attempted to overcome them -- or failed in that attempt. Turtles Can Fly is something close to a masterpiece, and one of its most potent strengths is the way it deviates from realism through moments of magical realism that deepen the impact of its themes.

My choice for October is someone I'd actually heard of! It's the Korean director Hong Sang-soo, and I'll actually reveal the titles if you want to watch along: two very recent films in Right Now, Wrong Then and On the Beach at Night Alone.