Wednesday, August 15, 2018

MIFF: Surprise double, and master of the inciting incident

We've exchanged out so many tickets for other tickets in this year's MIFF that I'm starting to lose track.

Tuesday night was originally envisioned as a double feature of Everybody Knows and a film called Arctic, but I traded in my Arctic ticket when the editor of my website needed a ticket for a film made by a friend of his. He's not the MIFF lover that I am so he usually gives me all the tickets on our pass, and was willing to just buy one. That didn't seem fair, so I gladly shaved off the ticket of mine that seemed most superfluous, and was set to just go to Asghar Farhadi's latest that night.

But then my wife traded in one of her daytime tickets for one of my daytime tickets, freeing up another ticket. If that sentence doesn't make sense, I'll explain. With a MIFF minipass you get three free weekday daytime sessions, as those sessions are always undersold since they can only be attended by people with flexible working schedules. That describes my wife, so she's going to a good number of daytime sessions this year. So many, in fact, that she used one of her ten regular sessions on a daytime session, when she could have just used one of the unused daytime sessions on my pass and saved one regular ticket for a nighttime session. Got all that?

As she's got a full slate anyway, she turned the newly converted nighttime ticket over to me. I was going to turn it into Arctic, but Arctic was sold out now. so instead I focused on another movie that had originally been on my shortlist, Timur Bekmambetov's Profile, picking that narrowly over Joel Potrykus' Relaxer.

I'm sure all these ins and outs were so interesting for you to spend the last minute of your life reading.

Anyway, that left me with an unexpected Tuesday night double feature, kicked off by the dumpling dinner I didn't have last week, with a snack of fries and dipping sauce between the two movies. I made all the sessions on time and nothing else interesting happened, so let's just get to the movies.

Given that I was relatively disappointed by Farhadi's last movie I saw at MIFF, The Salesman -- and then more so when it snagged the best foreign film Oscar away from Toni Erdmann, my #1 movie of that year -- I'd say my expectations were a bit muted for Everybody Knows. That's strange given that The Salesman was the only one of four Farhadi movies I've seen that I awarded fewer than 4.5 stars on Letterboxd. Nonetheless, I must have thought he was headed in the wrong direction, so even the promise of him transplanting the usual thing he does to Spain and to international stars (Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem) only left me intrigued enough to secure the ticket, not to actually look forward to it with great anticipation.

Boy was that dumb.

But first, what "usual thing he does?" For as great as he is, Farhadi is notable for being somewhat predictable in terms of the general composition of his films. In the review I just wrote that has not yet posted as of this writing (but may have by the time you read this), I said "Iranian director Asghar Farhadi has become the face of a subgenre that might be labeled 'social intrigue,' as his films address the miscommunications, misunderstandings and recriminations that lead to low-level tragedies among ordinary people." That's Farhadi in a nutshell. I'm sure he's made a film that couldn't be summarized in these terms, but I have yet to see it.

So I was watching this film just waiting to see what its "inciting incident" would be. That's a screenwriting term for the thing that occurs sometime in the first act that sets the rest of the plot in motion. Farhadi is master of the inciting incident as this is the thing around which all the rest of the confusion swirls, resulting in Rashomon-like competing interpretations of the same event. It was funny to watch the film consciously looking for what that would be.

Oddly enough for Farhadi, who normally deals in occurrences that are comparatively mundane, the inciting incident in this case is a kidnapping. Just when my alarms started to go off that he was selling out and becoming some kind of genre filmmaker, I was reminded that this is Asghar Farhadi we are talking about, and he possesses a keen insight on human nature. Of course this movie is not really going to be about a kidnapping. That's just the excuse to turn people against each other, even loved ones, and see what happens.

And damned if this isn't just about the best and most engrossing movie I've seen all year.

Read my review if you want to know more, but it's kind of best if you don't know too much. Hopefully you won't have to wait too long to see another Farhadi masterpiece.

Everybody Knows (and yes, I was singing Leonard Cohen in my head all night) was a tough act to follow for Profile, but it did so fairly admirably. That seemed especially unlikely given the film's central gimmick.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, this is another one of those movie that takes place entirely on the screen of a laptop.

Movies like that can be good (Unfriended) or highly unfortunate (Open Windows), but even when they're good they remind you of certain cinematic trends that are starting to feel played out. At their core they are basically found footage movies, as the events take place in real time and strain credulity to the breaking point.

The film's conceit is that a British reporter is trying to write a story about the way ISIS recruits western women into becoming revolutionaries, and in some cases, unwitting sex slaves. As she sets up a fake profile on Facebook in order to catfish one of these terrorists and learn the secrets of his operation, we see a series of Skype calls between her and her editor, her and her boyfriend, her and her BFF (who seems like a bit of a lush), her and the IT guy, and her and the ISIS member himself. Things get complicated when the ISIS guy is a lot more charming than he should be, and she wonders if she herself is genuinely being seduced.

Bekmambetov, a director known for his visual panache (see: Night Watch), does not seem to have an immediate outlet for that here, as a movie that plays out on a laptop screen is a trick that's been pulled off by the guys at Blumhouse. It doesn't necessarily require a master of the form. Refreshingly, Bekmambetov accomplishes a nifty trick that has everything to do with how the movie does not actually play out in real time. The events on the screen have a seeming continuity, but we can tell from time stamps in various chats and the progression of scenes that these conversations are actually taking place over a period of weeks. That they all seem like "one shot," as it were, is a testament to how Bekmambetov can continue to impress visually, even within these apparent constraints.

I would have liked to have provided you a poster of Profile to go along with the one for Everybody Knows, but in a search of the interwebs, I could not find one. Letterboxd only has the title over a blank poster as a placeholder for the poster that does not yet exist. A deep cut, to be sure -- which is why we go to film festivals, when you come right down to it.

Tomorrow's post will wrap MIFF for 2018 ... if I don't write a proper wrap-up post, which I might, and if I don't get any more free tickets, which given the recent history seems like a distinct possibility.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

MIFF: Cold War, hot war

I'll be brief as it is after midnight and I am falling behind on my blogging.

I saw a double feature on my MIFF Sunday night, but only one was actually a MIFF movie. The other was "the greatest action movie of the 21st century," or so some people are saying.

One had the implied threat of the use of nuclear weapons hanging over it, one had the very real threat of very real nuclear weapons suffusing it. Hence my clever title.

But I really only want to tell you about Cold War, as others have told you about Mission: Impossible - Fallout, if you have not seen it for yourself.

Cold War continues a personal MIFF tradition of seeing the follow-up movie to recent movies by acclaimed international directors that I ranked very highly on my year-end lists. Past examples have included Graduation in 2016 from Cristian Mungiu (his previous two features had ranked #1 and #2 in their respective years), The Salesman from Asghar Farhadi in 2016 (A Separation was my #1 of 2011) and After the Storm from Hirokazu Kore-eda in 2016 (Like Father, Like Son was my #2 of 2014). Kore-eda and Farhadi each also have films I'm seeing in this year's MIFF, as I saw Kore-eda's Shoplifters last Friday night and have Farhadi's Everybody Knows due up on Tuesday. I suspect MIFF 2019 will be the perfect time for Maren Ade's follow-up to my #1 of 2016, Toni Erdmann.

But I'm straying, and I said I'd be brief.

Polish director Pawel Powlikowski directed my #3 movie of 2014, Ida, which is a masterpiece. Cold War is similarly shot in black and white and similarly deals with Poland in the decades following World War II, when it's struggling with the legacy of the war and the control of Communist forces.

My full review is to the right, but let's just say it's no Ida. However, I do also suspect that this one will grow on me the more I think about it. It's not entirely unexpected, either, as both Graduation and The Salesman felt like letdowns compared to the movies that preceded them. (After the Storm did too, a bit, but at least that one got four stars from me.)

Mission: Impossible?

I quite enjoyed it, but it's not the best action movie of the 21st century. In fact, it's not even the best action in a 21st century Mission: Impossible movie. That honor goes to Ghost Protocol and its exhilarating Burj Khalifa sequence. The Burj Khalifa always trumps.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

MIFF Asian double feature: Cannes winner and first doco

It's been a MIFF of a number of firsts already, and Friday represented one more: my first MIFF documentary.

But first, the winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes.

Together, they represented a double feature of Asian movies, one from Japan and one from China.

Let's start with dinner.

I had wanted to go to my favorite dumpling place after leaving work on Friday and walking down toward Elizabeth Street, where the dumpling place is. I call it my favorite dumpling place, but actually, it's the only dumpling place I've been to. I enjoyed my first visit well enough that I saw no reason not to just return to this place every time I needed dumplings. I don't want to sell dumpling places short, but I figured they were more or less of a piece.

Anyway, it seemed like the right way to kick off an Asian double feature.

But I'd been craving a cheeseburger for like a week. On previous occasions where I might have scratched that itch, I was not in range of a place that could deliver me a really good one. But on my walk from Collins Place to Elizabeth Street, I realized I was heading straight for Betty's Burgers, a place my wife and I had discovered within the past 18 months and already been to a couple times -- which is unusual as we don't have that many opportunities to eat out together. Thinking of a Betty's burger and a shake, my eyes actually widened. You usually say that metaphorically, but nope -- I felt them widening. Dumplings would need to wait for another day.

Although it's a popular place, I finished my business at Betty's (fully satisfied) early enough to arrive early at the Comedy Theatre. I don't usually like arriving early at movies -- I'll usually make up reasons to kill time -- but I knew the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Shoplifters, from director Hirokazu Kore-eda, was sold out. I also knew you don't want to arrive at the Comedy Theatre too late if you want a shot at a comfortable seat. And by "comfortable seat," I don't mean any of them are actually comfortable, but their discomfort is minimized if you can sit in a front row, where that discomfort is not exacerbated by a lack of legroom. So in this instance I didn't dilly dally.

Glad I didn't. The line was already wrapped around the corner even at like 6:05 for a 6:30 start. But it's a big theater, so a line wrapped around the corner is not ever as dispiriting as it seems to be. When it's wrapped around the corner and stretched all the way up the block, that's bad, but just wrapped around the corner is manageable.

And indeed I did get a front row seat, off to the left rather than off to the right as I'd been trying to do ever since I discovered the idea watching The Killing of a Sacred Deer in 2017. Most people have not discovered this Comedy Theatre life hack, thinking of the first row as a bad seat no matter where it is. But in this instance, two of the three front row seats were actually marked as reserved, while the other was occupied. I increased my gait a little and got to the equivalent seats on the other side, where two of three were occupied while the one other one was vacant. That seat had my name on it.

Glad I wasn't forced to contort myself into a seat with a seat in front of me, because this was a two-hour movie and I wanted every opportunity not to become distracted like I was last year at this theater watching the way-too-long The Square. I knew Shoplifters had a chance to be a real contender, as Kore-eda directed by #2 movie of 2014, Like Father, Like Son. I also saw and really liked his After the Storm at MIFF 2016.

Shoplifters is in between those two movies in terms of quality, but it's closer to the former than the latter. In other words, it's pretty flipping great. I really have to go back and see the other Kore-eda films I haven't seen, as this guy is a born filmmaker with a generous sense of humanism. I'm not going to include a mini-review here because I've written a full review that will be linked on the right of this page, depending on when you read this. But damn, this guy is good.

I had about 45 minutes to kill between my two movies, and killed almost all of it waiting for one of those inscrutable Chinese smoothies from one of the Chinese smoothie shops that dot the Melbourne downtown. This was my thematic makeup for not going for dumplings, and a way to fill a small hole in my stomach. Unfortunately, I'm a rookie when it comes to these smoothies, so I ordered kind of randomly and wasn't prepared for how long the wait would be in a shop that was brimming with people. By the end I was pacing around nervously, with serious doubts about whether I'd miss the opening of the second movie. As it happens I didn't, but I couldn't finish the entire smoothie before getting to the theater and had to smuggle it in in the inner pocket of my winter jacket.

People's Republic of Desire was the 37th film I've seen at MIFF over the past five years -- and the first documentary, if you can believe it. And that hasn't been for lack of choice; it's just demonstrated a bias in the type of film I seek out at a film festival. But for some reason this film caught my eye and I decided to make it one of my randoms this year -- in other words, one of my comparatively small number of films that were not either from directors I knew or whose buzz had preceded them. (My other two this year were The Night Eats the World and Euthanizer, both of which I've already written about.)

The reason this movie caught my attention was -- well, I suppose because the titillating title prompted me to read the description. Sex is not actually what this movie is about, and if it were I probably wouldn't have done more than read the description. (My wife knows everything I'm seeing and I would feel sheepish about going both to a movie called Climax and this, were it actually about sex.) The actual description interested me enough to put it on my schedule, as the movie is about the booming online streaming industry in China, in which hosts are sponsored by big talent agencies, compete in big competitions, and pull down huge salaries each month from fans throwing money at them in terms of virtual gifts costing real money. And all of this without, in many cases, having discernible talent, or even in some cases having a lot of charisma.

I found the inner workings fascinating in this world we westerners know little about. I suppose the mania over this is in some ways similar to something like American Idol at its peak, except even more people seem to be invested in it, and they're not just paying in the form of the price of an SMS to vote for a particular person. The status of fans with each other has to do with how much they spend on the hosts, and some are proud to boast that they've dropped hundreds of thousands of American dollars in a single month. Director Hao Wu also visualizes this world in an absorbing manner via three-dimensional planes, in which the host is in the background while all sorts of avatars and online gifts dance around in the foreground in an orgy of consumerism, pseudo celebrity and reflected glow.

I'm done with the double features in 2018, although there is a day-night double header, to use a baseball term, coming up on Wednesday. Next up is my Sunday night viewing, Pawel Pawlikowski's Cold War.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Re-coen-sidering: Burn After Reading

This is the fourth in my 2018 bi-monthly series in which I’m re-examining the films of Joel and Ethan Coen that didn’t work so well for me the first time. This particular installment will contain SPOILERS.

When I held the box of Burn After Reading, which I’d borrowed from the library only that afternoon, in my hand on Thursday night, I looked at it and couldn’t help thinking: “God I hate this fucking movie.”

That gives you a little idea what this 2008 film was up against, even still, nearly ten years after I first saw it.

It had not only been my least favorite Coen movie, it was my least favorite by a significant margin, and the only film of theirs that was firmly in thumbs down territory. I might have gone as low as 2.5 stars on one of their other films, but even that is only mildly negative -- as close to a marginal recommendation as you can get, and the kind of thing that might be overturned to three stars in a series like this.

That’s not what we’re talking about with Burn After ReadingBurn After Reading was in possession of only a single star on Letterboxd, and I did not think there was much chance it would go up.

Well, that’s why I do series like this.

Burn After Reading will still be my least favorite Coen brothers movie, unless the last two movies I watch this year take a significant turn downward on second viewing. But it might be worthy of as much as twice the original star rating I gave it.

The first time I watched this movie, I just could not abide by its cynicism. I didn’t like the misanthropy inherent in the Coens killing off the two most likeable characters (played by Brad Pitt and Richard E. Jenkins), while the rest of the characters were blowhard assholes, blithe philanderers, narcissistic ditzes or self-satisfied masochists. (The latter is the best way I could think to quickly describe the CIA guys played by David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, who just want an expedient solution to everything regardless of who gets squashed in the process.) Some of those people do come to bad ends, but not all. I don’t expect the Coens to be paragons of humanism, because they’ve never been that, but I do expect a little bit of heart, of which I get none in this movie.

Ten years later, I guess I must be more cynical myself, as this did not bother me as much this time around. There are sacrificial lambs in the real world, and there are monsters who profit from them. Having a wicked sense of humor about those things is not inherently bad. And, I felt the plot worked a little better for me this time, the interconnections seeming a little more clever, even if the cast is going round and round in circles regarding imaginary intelligence and threats that only exist in their own head. That central absurdity felt a bit more useful to me this time as well.

I still don’t really like spending time with these characters, and maybe that’s the more germane similarity between the perspectives of the 44-year-old me and the 35-year-old me. Not only are most of the characters unlikable, but they are pitched at different levels. Frances McDormand, for one, is going over-the-top in a way that feels more consistent with something like O Brother Where Art Thou?, which is more of a fable than a realistic presentation of real people. Brad Pitt and George Clooney are a bit like that as well. Then you have John Malkovich, who is an incredible asshole but is not going over-the-top in the sense that his performance doesn’t have quotation marks around it. He’s giving us a realistic depiction of his fury, rather than a cartoon one. So performers like Malkovich, Jenkins and Tilda Swinton feel like they’re in one movie while McDormand, Pitt and Clooney feel like they’re in another. Either could work, but combined, it creates tonal awkwardness.

Now that this series has reacquainted me with two collaborations between the Coens and George Clooney, and one more still to come, I can’t help but reach the conclusion that these two creative perspectives are not a good match. Or at least, not the way the brothers typically deploy Clooney. Clooney could/should play roles like Gabriel Byrne plays in Miller’s Crossing, not roles where he bugs out his eyes and has lots of tics. He’s misused by the Coens in a way similar to how Tom Hanks was misused in June’s movie, The Ladykillers. I have an incredible amount of fondness for George Clooney, but I think I want him to play GEORGE CLOONEY, or someone with only a small or superficial variation on that. Three of his four collaborations with the Coens are misses for me, though we’ll revisit the third one of those in December, so I’ll withhold a final ruling on that until then. The one movie he’s made with them that I like better, Intolerable Cruelty, is one that most other people don’t like – and that I liked a bit less on my second viewing a few years back.  

But before we get to that heretofore unnamed December movie – which people with a knowledge of the Coens and the chronological nature of my project will have already guessed – I will tackle True Grit in October.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

MIFF: The euthanasia that almost wasn't

My first solo feature at MIFF 2018 was a Finnish film called Euthanizer, but it almost wasn't, or mightn't have been. By "solo" I mean it wasn't paired with another movie in a double feature, and by "almost wasn't" I mean I realized only about 30 hours before showtime that I wasn't in possession of a valid ticket.

See, this is one of two movies this year that both my wife and I are seeing, the other being the previously discussed disappointment Wildlife. Because we are too cheap for the going rates of babysitters, and because it's our Melbourne International Film Festival tradition, we were seeing the film separately. (We both saw The Witch separately in 2015, and I'm sure there have been other examples.)

But when she printed out her little MIFF calendar from the website, which plugs in all the sessions you've purchased on that account, only her instance of Euthanizer (which MIFF calls "The Euthanizer") appeared.

We both thought this was because of shenanigans.

See, she's got two MIFF minipasses attached in some way to her account -- one that she purchased, and the other that I got as my credentials through ReelGood. The reason they were both on her account is that when I went to buy my tickets at work, my computer remembered my wife's login, so I just logged in that way and ordered the tickets.

Which is actually fine to do. The site lets you choose either a minipass you have registered on the account, or to plug in a minipass # a la carte. I can imagine numerous instances where a thing like that might be necessary, like an executive assistant at some distributor managing multiple minipasses through one login.

Nonetheless my wife was not pleased. She thought this would somehow run afoul of MIFF and that some of the passes we had reserved and were rightly entitled to might be invalidated. I didn't know if I believed that logic, but anything that carries the threat of invalidating something you are counting on triggers that little superstitious part of you. What if it was against the rules to use two separate minipasses on one account?

The potential evidence of this appeared to be in that calendar, which showed only her Monday, August 13th session of Euthanizer, and not my Wednesday, August 8th one. Was it possible some kind of internal audit had occurred, and the system choked on the idea that there could be two Euthanizers booked on this account when only one was kosher according to the rules?

Yet we had two different tickets for Euthanizer, I was sure of it. They had been forwarded to me as two separate PDFs. But wait ... they both said Monday, August 13th. Only with different reference numbers.

So in the end the explanation was a simple one: I'd booked the wrong session.

Fortunately, one thing the MIFF website does really well is allow you to exchange tickets, as I've written about in the past. If you can't go to a session for some reason, or decide you'd prefer one over another as the use of your finite number of tickets, or any other reason you can think of, you can return the ticket you've purchased into the pool of available seats and exchange it for a different one. And it costs you only a $1 processing fee.

I realized my mistake midway through the day on Tuesday, and three minutes later I had a ticket for the correct session.

All that trouble and mystery were worth it, as this is a very enjoyable film. I'll give you the quick premise: A man who has a side business euthanizing pets tangles with a bunch of Neo Nazis. Let the good times roll.

It was actually not quite what I was expecting, which was probably more like a Finnish Green Room. In fact, the tangling with the Neo Nazis comes only near the end, as it's preceded by the title character (played by Matti Onnismaa) teaching neglectful pet owners lessons about their poor treatment of animals, and his spontaneous affair with a much younger woman who likes to be choked while they're having sex -- she's one of the nurses in the hospital where his father is approaching the end of his life. I guess I imagined a lot of set pieces where Veijo (that's his name) repurposes various implements used in euthanasia for dispatching the white supremacists. That's not really what it is.

Still, there's a lot to enjoy and a lot of black humor in both the premise and its execution, though ultimately it's more contemplative than funny. Not currently scheduled for release in any English-speaking countries as far as I can see, but keep an eye open for it.

One thing that was nice about the experience of watching Euthanizer was that it was preceded by a short film, which is something they used to do all the time at MIFF but which I hadn't seen personally since 2015. And as they did in 2015, when they matched a short and a feature that both involved people witnessing heinous crimes via eavesdropping in apartment buildings with thin walls, the programmers got a good match for Euthanizer as well. That was a short called Tungrus, which was about an Indian family and their adopted pet rooster, and about how having a pet rooster in a small apartment is an incredible hassle. I probably could have done with seven minutes of Tungrus rather than a full 14, but it had a lot of heart and laughs, and where it goes at the end ... well, I won't spoil anything, but let's just say it's a good match for Euthanizer.

Okay, back to work on Friday with my third and final double feature of this year's festival.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

MIFF: Opening night not on opening night, and Oh Noe you didn't

It's my fifth MIFF but I'm still experiencing firsts.

Never previously had I seen the opening night film at the Melbourne International Film Festival. This year, I did.

I just didn't see it on opening night.

An encore screening of Paul Dano's Wildlife, which kicked off the festival on Thursday night and which my wife saw that night, was my opening film of a Saturday night double feature. I followed it with the latest gasp-worthy film from Gaspar Noe, Climax.

Wildlife actually represented a second first for me, as it was closed captioned for the hearing impaired. I haven't seen a film presented that way at the festival before -- I don't think I've ever seen a film presented that way, period. I'm not sure how many different films they give this treatment during MIFF, but it makes sense that the opening night film would be one of them. It was a bit distracting, of course -- your eye is trained to flick down to the bottom of the screen to glean information from the subtitles, even if you don't need that information -- but I got used to it eventually. I don't think it impacted my enjoyment of the film. Other things impacted my enjoyment of the film -- like, the quality of the film -- but more on that in a minute.

I'm not entirely clear on why this was selected for the hallowed position of festival opener, it being directed by an American and starring two other Americans (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan). It does, however, also star Ed Oxenbould, a teenage actor who is indeed Australian. Wouldn't necessarily seem like enough to earn this plum status in the festival, but okay.

Oxenbould actually introduced the film, which was kind of cool, and gave me a little sense of that opening night razzmatazz. He was sticking around for a Q&A after the session.

I usually stay for the Q&A, if I have time and I like the film. But I had only 50 minutes between my two screenings, during which I had to grab some dinner. And, I did not like the film.

I do plan to review this, so I'll just say for now that Dano was fighting an uphill battle making a period piece set in 1960 about a family living in Montana. In order to make it distinctive, Dano needed to really do something unusual with that essentially bland material. Uh uh. It's a story of a kid (Oxenbould) trying to navigate the growing estrangement of his parents, but it makes the fatal mistake of focusing almost none of its energies on the kid himself. We know nothing about him. All we know is that he's really concerned about his parents separating and devotes almost all of his available bandwidth to fretting about them. Oh, and to being very nice. Among many unbelievable things in the film, it's hard to imagine why such a nice boy would have been the offspring of two assholes.

It's especially a shame as I love Dano as an actor, as written about at length here. His choices as an actor are much more interesting than his first choice as a director.

I cleansed my palette with some McDonald's (hope my wife isn't reading this) and then it was off to hope I could keep it down in a Gaspar Noe film.

Oh my.

Some context: I love two of the three Noe films I've seen, those being Irreversible and Enter the Void. I have not seen I Stand Alone and I think Love is just meh. Which is especially surprising given that "meh" is not the reaction you expect a Noe film to elicit. (Look, it has real sex and a part where a penis ejaculates at the camera, which was in 3D when people saw it in the theater. So it's still Noe. I still found it meh.)

Climax is in the same ballpark as Irreversible and Enter the Void in terms of quality.

I don't want to say too much about it. I will probably also review this because I just have to write about it. I've got a lot to say. But for those of you just innocently reading my blog who did not want a Climax review, I think it's best to advise you to go in cold.

I will say that the film contains some absolutely incredible dancing, as it is about a bunch of dancers. And by dancers I don't mean ballet or ballroom dancers, but breakdancers? hip hop dancers? I'm not sure the best way to refer to them. Anyway, they are genetic freaks, some of whom can contort their bodies and do crazy things with their arms, as though shoulders are just a suggestion rather than a limiting factor in their movement. And needless to say, probably, since it's Noe, much of this stuff is shot in one take and from a crazy angle.

I will also say that if you don't like Irreversible and Enter the Void, I don't think this is going to be the one to win you over.

Okay. With 40% of my MIFF viewing completed in just over 24 hours, I'm now off until Wednesday.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Time to MIFF the ground running

My fifth Melbourne International Film Festival is underway.

That also means it's almost my five-year anniversary in Australia. I arrived just days after the end of the 2013 MIFF, and have attended each one since, with ever greater vigor.

And there may be no better example of that vigor than 2018, when I am seeing four movies within a space of 26 hours to start things off.

In past years I would usually start with the cinematic equivalent of an amuse bouche, either a foreign film that piqued my interest (White God, 2014), a new film from an acclaimed director (The Lobster, 2015 and The Salesman, 2016) or an independent comedy (Ingrid Goes West, 2017). At the very least, just a single film to start me off -- a soft open, if you will.

Not this year.

In 2018 I went straight for a cult movie, and then topped that off with a second genre movie playing as a midnight movie. (Well, 11:30 p.m.) So, a double feature straight off the bat -- a double feature starting at 9 p.m. with a two-hour movie, at that. Traditionally, that's strictly mid-festival stuff. 

Those two movies were the highly anticipated Nicolas Cage film Mandy, and the French zombie movie The Night Eats the World.

Having watched them, it would have made a lot more sense to stick the hallucinatory Mandy in the midnight spot and program the more conventional zombie movie at 9 p.m. But because Mandy was so anticipated -- if not only for Cage, than as the follow-up to Beyond the Black Rainbow by Panos Cosmatos -- they couldn't throw away a screening on a sparsely attended 11:30 showing. (In fact, the film is kicking off a seven-movie Cage marathon next Friday night at The Astor in St. Kilda, which also includes Raising Arizona, Red Rock West, Vampire's Kiss, The Wicker Man, Drive Angry and Con Air.) Of course, it wasn't an either-or, as these were just two of many films that screened Friday night and their programming had nothing to do with each other.

It was a good genre double feature, though, and a great way to kick off the festival. I was especially worried about seeing a film at 11:30 because I'd inadvertently stayed up too late Thursday night while trying to finish a movie that was too long. But I stocked up on chocolate and caffeine and I made it with much less difficulty than the only other time I've seen an 11:30 movie at MIFF, which was when I saw the grisly horror Baskin two years ago. Interestingly, Mandy was kind of the movie I hoped Baskin would be.

I've got a review of Mandy posting in a few days, and I'll link to it, so I won't go into any detail on that here. I'll just say ... wow. Bonkers.

As for The Night Eats the World, it starts off seeming like it will be a French version of 28 Days Later, and therefore, not very inspired by comparison. It becomes more interesting as it goes along as it tends to be more interior and less about zombie set pieces ... which is all the more reason it didn't seem quite the right fit for a midnight movie. All in all well worth it, though.

Okay, on to my second MIFF double feature tonight, which I will tell you about tomorrow.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Doco double

Ten days ago I'm telling you that it's been more than two years since I've seen a documentary in the movie theater.

Today, I'm telling you about seeing two in the same night.

And even as I've just crossed 5,100 movies seen in my life, I'm still experiencing some firsts.

Never can I remember seeing back-to-back documentaries in the theater. That's not to say it hasn't happened, just I don't remember it. These were not only in the same theater, they were in the exact same screening space. The Sun in Yarraville has about 20 movies playing at any given time on maybe a dozen screens, so there's a lot of space sharing going on. In retrospect it's no surprise they were in there cleaning long before the credits of the first movie were over, as they needed to let the crowd for the second movie -- which included me, though I wasn't aware of it at the time -- file on in.

So yes indeed, I followed up a viewing of Betsy West & Julie Cohen's RBG with a viewing of Kevin Macdonald's Whitney. And the films have more in common than you might think -- more than the women had, anyway.

For example:

1) Both films are named after the person they depict.

2) Both films feature women who had significant events in their lives occur in 1992; for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it was the election of the president who would nominate her to the Supreme Court the following year, and for Whitney Houston, it was the release of her film The Bodyguard, which the film argues sent her off into the pop culture stratosphere.

3) Both films show footage of the subject being parodied on Saturday Night Live.

4) Both films address how the husbands of these powerful women addressed playing second banana in their relationships.

5) The posters of both movies even use a yellow trim.

There might be more in common if I wanted to sit here and dig. But they also shared in common a star rating from me: 4 out of 5 stars. Which makes them both very good, if not quite great. (Though both women were certainly great, at least for a time.)

Although I figured Whitney would have a tough time topping RBG, if only because the subject of the first film is so much more upstanding and easier to praise than the second, I do think I liked Whitney better as a film. Veteran documentarian Kevin Macdonald has a real instinct how to use the form to make us feel, as he relies on kaleidoscopic montages of music and the moving image to conjure both the joy and the reckless horror that was Whitney Houston. West and Cohen don't have quite the track record and hence rely more on the natural wonders of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to sell their material.

Still, a great night of non-fiction at the movies.

I did want to say one thing about RBG, which is that it's almost impossible to talk about it without calling it "RGB" at least once. The reason for that is probably obvious and rooted in science. There's an instinct to think "Roy G Biv" when you are saying it, ROYGBIV of course being the acronym to represent all the colors in the rainbow. Anyway, it isn't only me as I noticed that they also spelled it as "RGB" on the theater's marquee. I thought of notifying someone inside, but decided against being labeled as "that guy."

Besides, they also had it spelled as "Miission Impossible" with consecutive I's in the first word, so maybe the marquee guy was just drunk that night.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

MoviePast

If I were living in the United States, I'm sure I would have written a ton about MoviePass by now. Since I live in Australia, I've written ... let's see ... nothing. Nope, not a single blog label for "moviepass" until the one I'm creating now.

So I'm just in time to comment on the company's death throes.

The "valid thru" date on that card above says 2/18, as an example. But it should say 7/18, because at this point, MoviePass is not likely to make it until August.

I won't recount all the sad, gory details, but the thing that almost all observers expected to happen has happened: MoviePass has run out of money. That's the only thing you can imagine happening when you have to pay movie theater chains $100 to $200 a month for the full price of movie tickets for a customer, and in exchange get only a mere $9.95 from that customer. (Or was it $6.95? The prices changed with some frequency.)

There was some crazy kind of bulk economic theory that this would eventually be a goldmine for them, since the average customer would only go to the movies once a month, or so they thought. As it turns out, when people sign up for a service that will allow them to go to potentially as many as 31 movies a month for less than ten bucks, they want to use it more than once per month.

I don't know if there was some sound logic behind it or if it was always just foolishness, but this company has hours left to live, it seems. The site is down on phones through the U.S., after all showings of the new Mission: Impossible movie had already been blocked.

There's probably a little bit of schadenfreude here, I'm reluctant to admit. See, I have my own "MoviePass" here in Australia, which is my critics card. For $75 a year, I can see movies with the same frequency as American MoviePass customers, with certain restrictions (some theaters don't accept my card, and you can't go on a Saturday night at pretty much any of them). But unlike MoviePass, you could see the same movie a dozen times, theoretically, since each theater only looks at your card and makes you sign a little piece of paper, which they then just file away in some drawer. There's no sharing of information between theaters, as the transaction ends at the point of contact.

So when MoviePass became available at such a low price, I felt like something special about my critics card had been lost. That's ridiculous because they're two different countries and two different sets of circumstances, but I do enjoy telling American friends that I have a kind of payment for my critic work in the form of seeing movies for free. That didn't seem as impressive when MoviePass got them the same thing for only a little more than my $75 per year.

But as we always expected it would, MoviePass ceased to be viable, and now -- or very soon, anyway -- I'm alone in my specialness. Now that it's actually happening, I don't feel any great joy in it, despite those small feelings of schadenfreude I mentioned above. The sense of sorrow that friends of mine have lost something great is the more dominant emotion.

R.I.P., MoviePass. You tried.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

I finally saw: Vechoes

I've used my periodic "I Finally Saw" series to discuss finally catching up with broadly defined classics or other films of cultural significance I had not seen before now.

Well, there are exceptions to every rule.

Stir of Echoes was, as I recall, the first prominent horror movie to be released after The Sixth Sense had kind of retooled our expectations of what a horror movie can deliver. In other words, quality, not just schlock.

Stir or Echoes, of course, was not influenced by The Sixth Sense, in any other way than possibly its marketing. It was in the can before anyone knew Sixth Sense would be a hit.

And so, unsurprisingly, it's pretty much schlock. It's decent schlock, as it turns out, but nothing more than that. Nothing memorable.

So the reason I'm choosing to write about it here is because it's just the type of movie I should never have seen after a certain point. If I didn't see this by 2002, it should have gotten lost among the large quantity of Forgettable Genre Films I Will Never See.

And yet I did see it, as I randomly spotted it on the shelf at the library and thought "Huh, I did always expect that I would eventually see that." Eventually turned out to be 19 years later. And only because we ended up postponing our trip to the library, to return it and about 30 others, until Sunday, rather than Saturday, leaving me with it as a potential selection for Saturday night.

I also wanted to write something about it because it was one of a relatively small quantity of films for which some friends and I had a nickname. Not that we talked about it a lot, but when it did come up in conversation, we had a tendency to refer to it as "Vechoes."

The reason for this is probably evident, but I'll spell it out anyway. When you say this title quickly, the words kind of slur together, making the "of" less distinctive and allowing one of each of its letters to attach to the word next to it. So we felt ourselves kind of saying "Stirra Vechoes," which eventually just became "Vechoes."

So yeah, Vechoes was definitely decent. If I didn't admit I got chills a number of times I'd be lying. By the end, you don't feel a great payoff for the chilling moments, making them seem a bit weaker in retrospect, but I certainly can't deny their biological reality at the time they happened.

One thing I thought was interesting to note was that the film is largely devoid of any of the digital effects that would soon take over horror filmmaking. I think of a movie like the American remake of The Ring as being one of the real progenitors in (soon to be interchangeable) digital horror movies, and that was still three years off at that point. It was curious to feel myself waiting for something digitally grisly or spooky to happen, and it never happening. Maybe that's why the chills felt a bit chillier here -- they were refreshingly of the practical variety.

And now it is only practical that I cease discussing this forgettable movie.

Friday, July 27, 2018

How many Ks, and how many of them capitalized?

I enjoy the stylization of the title of Spike Lee’s new film. I really do.

But it looks much better on the poster than when you type it out:

BlacKkKlansman.”

It sets off all kinds of red underlines on any Microsoft product with spell check built in, and just does not read as a proper word, or any proper thing to try to say. (And not just because it contains the ultimate oxymoron.)

It’s certainly consistent with a career’s worth of challenging spelling and grammar norms by Lee, as the spelling (Da Sweet Blood of Jesus), grammar (She Hate Me) and sometimes both (Mo’ Better Blues) in the titles of his films have all been designed to identify and occasionally explode the stereotypes behind the linguistic stylings of African-Americans, which some have called Ebonics and Lee himself calls “jive talk” in this latest film, set as it is in the early 1970s.

BlacKkKlansman is distinct from those in the sense that it’s not approximating something someone would say, but rather, being typographically clever on purely a visual level, getting in that third K -- or k, I guess, since the extra one is the only one that isn’t capitalized.

I might prefer it if the small k were just for the poster and not for talking about the movie in casual conversation. I might prefer Black Klansman for that. The sound of the Ks still have a good kick to them and it still looks good. 

One of the reasons the typographical strangeness of the title bothers me is that I expect to be looking at it quite a bit every time I open my Word document devoted to the year's best movies. That's right, I saw it at an advanced critics screening on Wednesday night. It's only July so it's too early to project where it will finish the year, but for now, Lee's latest has jumped straight to the top of my chart.

I won't tell you too much for now because a) I'm going to write a review and am still thinking about what I'm going to say, and b) once I write that review I'll link to it, and c) though I have not been specifically muzzled by an embargo on the film, I do think it's weird to go on at length about a film that's not getting its proper release for two weeks or more (though it already has a bunch of reviews out there from festival screenings).

Suffice it to say that Lee is back, if he ever left (my friend and I debated briefly about that), as this is an easy contender for his best film of the 20th century. Which is not a small list of films, as Lee has waned in and out of prominence but has never gone on an actual hiatus from directing, leaving him with ten proper features since the clock struck 2000. 

So however hard it is to write and however weird it looks on the page, I'm overjoyed for its existence. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The youngening of Denzel

There's a sort-of-racist, ultimately-complimentary, rhyming phrase that encapsulates the disinclination of African-Americans to show their age. That phrase is "black don't crack," and it's meant to indicate that their skin stays youthful looking for longer. (I'm not sure how comfortable I am using it, but it seems applicable here.)

Even so, there's no way this is a legitimate picture of Denzel Washington at age 63.

The guy looks great for his age anyway. Why mess around so much with the airbrush?

They've done something to the basic structure of his face, almost like his facial features are too big for the rest of his head. It does make him look younger, if that was the goal, but it also makes him look a little alien.

Not that touching people up in move posters would be exclusively a thing for black actors, not by any stretch (and not logically given that opening phrase). However, it did make me think of this poster:


Will Smith was 40 when this film came out, not 12.