Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Why I might miss this year's Oscars

Five days before the ceremony, it has occurred to me that I may miss the Oscars this year for the first
time since the 1980s.

And it won’t be a boycott or the result of frustration with all their tinkering to attract more viewers. It’ll simply be a technical issue.

I’d say it’s a technical issue exacerbated by a time zone issue, but I wouldn’t be able to watch the Oscars – at my house, anyway – even if I skipped work on Monday.

You see, my TV antenna is broken. And despite the photo I've included with this post, I'm talking about the one up on my roof, not a pair of rabbit ears.

Given that we no longer watch any shows when they’re actually airing, this is almost never a problem. We have a service called Fetch that delivers certain shows to stream digitally later on at a moment of our choosing, and most other shows we watch are on Netflix or another streaming service.

But a few times per year, there’s a live event that we want to watch, or more accurately, record and then watch later on when it’s actually the evening where we live.

The most recent such instance was the Super Bowl, which for the third year running (and fourth of the last five) featured my football team, the New England Patriots. I fiddled and tinkered with the various connections related to my antenna on and off all weekend. I was about ready to give up and follow the scores live online while at work, when I realized that I could subscribe to ESPN – which has rights to air the Super Bowl in Australia – from Fetch for only $6/month. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

However, I don’t believe a similar option exists with the Oscars. Like the Super Bowl, there’s a free-to-air option, but that seems to be the only one. I just checked online for alternatives, to no avail. And if I don’t have an antenna, I can’t air anything.

Hmm.

For more than ten years now, and possibly closer to 20, the Oscars have interested me more in terms of who will be nominated than who will actually win. That’s not even a protest against any changes they’ve made, or announced they were making and then not made, though I do think the dilution of the best picture category from five films to as many as ten could have played a role in everything seeming a bit less exclusive. In truth, it’s probably more a change in myself than anything. I used to get more excited about it than I do now, and I think that has more to do with the natural retirement of the wide-eyed, youthful version of myself who used to find this stuff more significant.

I still watch faithfully and I still fill out an Oscar ballot, though lately I have no one to compete against, because my wife has given it up (along with watching) in the past two to three years. And I obviously do find it interesting, as I continue to keep a running list of best picture winners, including the date on which I first saw them.

Given my decreasing interest, though, you could say missing the show would not be a big deal to me. Actually confronted with the reality, I find myself a bit concerned about the prospect. I find that my streak of something like 32 straight Oscars watched is something I consider worth preserving. There are very few things I’ve done in this life 32 consecutive times without missing a single one. (Duh, that’s what “consecutive” means.)

I’ll have to put my thinking cap on. I’ve got t-minus 119 hours and counting.  

Monday, February 18, 2019

Critics limited by squeamishness

On a run yesterday morning, I listened to a podcast from 2007 that reminded me of a phenomenon that's been bugging me for a while, that I want to finally write about.

I'm slowly going through the archives of Filmspotting prior to when I became a regular listener in 2011, and I'm now more than two years in from the show's spring 2005 beginnings. On this particular episode, Adam and guest host Scott Tobias were discussing Knocked Up and Bug. But it was brief mentions of an upcoming new release, and feedback on a past top five, that spurred me to write.

I want to start by saying that Adam Kempenaar is basically my personal podcasting godfather. He remains the host of the first podcast I ever listened to, that I've been listening to for nearly eight years, though the man sitting next to him has changed in that time. I don't always agree with his movie opinions, though those opinions are always exceptionally well argued. His voice has been in my ear buds for nearly a decade and I can't imagine my analysis of the world of film without him.

But Adam's got a limitation that really bothers me, and it was on particular display in Filmspotting #163.

First Adam and Scott discussed the fact that Hostel: Part II was opening that weekend. I knew Scott wouldn't have a problem with this movie, because on his own podcast (The Next Picture Show) Scott likes to refer to intense content as "my beloved violence." It also didn't surprise me to hear Adam talk about how he hadn't been able to watch the original Hostel because he's too squeamish to watch torture porn and its brethren.

If this is where it had ended, I probably wouldn't be writing this post. But only a few minutes later, the two were reading listener feedback from a recent episode in which Adam and regular host Sam Van Halgren had talked about their top five movies set on water. The listener had incredulously questioned why Das Boot was missing from their lists, and Adam said he was too claustrophobic to watch a movie set entirely in a submarine, as well as the spelunking horror film The Descent, which he brought into the conversation out of nowhere.

Come on.

I understand that there are viewers genuinely triggered by real events in their lives that make them unable to watch certain types of movies. If you'd ever been kidnapped, I suspect you'd have a hard time watching a movie about kidnapping. But the way Adam always says this with a chuckle just makes it seem like a self-stylized quirk that has no genuine driver behind it. Are you really afraid of something ridiculous like torture porn, or are you using it as an excuse to avoid something you think will suck?

I'm picking on Adam, but among the podcasts I listen to, he's not even the podcaster who's most emblematic of this. The aforementioned The Next Picture Show is usually a foursome, but often one of the four hosts is at a film festival or on vacation and they go with just three. However, they also go with just three when Genevieve Koski -- who, granted, has the additional work of serving as the show's producer -- opts out because a particular subject matter gives her the creeps. She says this with that same kind of nervous giggle that suggests she could get past it if she just toughened up.

Could Adam and Genevieve genuinely be triggered by something that prevents them from watching these films? That's possible, but I suspect if that were the case, they just wouldn't mention it all. They wouldn't mention why they're not watching You Were Never Really Here (I believe this was a real example with Genevieve, though Adam did review it). They would just be "on vacation" or "at a film festival."

I guess I think that if you sign up to be a movie critic, it means you watch all the movies. Film criticism contains a multitude. Sure, there are genres I gravitate toward, and ones I like less. But I make a point of watching films from all genres, aimed at all demographics. It's what we do.

If someone isn't doing that, they're not doing the whole job. Sure, teen vampire movies may not be my favorite movies to watch. But if I'm not watching any of them, I'm doing my audience a disservice. Because even among teen vampire movies, there are some that are good and worth recommending to my audience.

It may seem easier to forgive Adam and Genevieve for not wanting to watch someone being hung off a hook and whipped with a cat o' nine tails. But there are actually a reasonable number of movies where this or something like it happens, and some of them are good. Some of them are worth your time, and the time of your readers. Or in this case, listeners.

I just don't look at you with much credibility if your excuse for not watching certain movies is that nervous giggle. The self-deprecation of calling yourself a wimp is not as cute as you think. Just get over it and watch the damn movie.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Two hundred movies for $330

Another milestone coming at ya.

Friday night I saw If Beale Street Could Talk, which only just opened on Thursday, and which I expect to review in the next day or so. Spoiler alert: I loved it. 9/10.

That marked the 200th movie I've seen for "free" with my critics card from the Australian Film Critics Association, which I acquired in July of 2015. I know this because I keep a running list. (Of course I do.)

The card is not entirely free, as you pay an annual $75 membership that comes due at the end of January each year. Because of some crazy math, in the first year I paid only a pro-rated $30 even though I got my card less than six months after that deadline.

I have since renewed the card four times, each year holding my breath because it seemed too good to be true. I mean, I'm a working critic and this card is designed to provide us relief on the cost of ticket prices, so it's not like I'm getting away with some scam. But it still does feel like an unsustainable scenario, and one major theater chain (Hoyts) has actually pulled out of the deal in the time since I've gotten the card.

But each year a new card arrived in the mail, promptly some years (like this year) and on the eve of the old card expiring other years (like last year).

And I have now seen exactly 200 movies for those $330 since that first screening of Terminator: Genisys way back at the start. That's only $1.65 per theatrical viewing, but even that is misleadingly high. As I only paid the most recent $75 at the end of December, it was at one recent point like 190 movies for $255, which is only $1.34 per movie.

And I rarely go more than once per week, so I could be reaping even more value from this.

Only after I started writing this post did I remember I wrote this other one, celebrating the first 100. (Of course I did.)

On to the next 100.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Liking with blinkers on

Sometimes you don't really want to know how the sausage is made.

I saw the Netflix documentary Fyre this week, and it immediately became my #1 movie of the year. That's a bit of a joke, as I've only seen three movies this year. But I did really like it, and "love" would not be too strong a word.

Of course, it was then that I remembered the controversy I hadn't quite heard about, but did have delivered to me in secondhand form when the film was recently discussed on the Slate Culture Gabfest.

You see, both this film and its less distinguished cousin, Hulu's Fyre Fraud, have been made with the intimate participation of some of the very people responsible for the dumpster fyre that was the stillborn April 2017 island music festival, Fyre Festival.

While Fyre Fraud features the Svengali at the heart of this scam, Billy McFarland, as a core interview subject -- for which he was allegedly paid $250,000 -- Fyre lists as a producing partner Jerry Media, the outfit responsible for publicizing the event, who are considered complicit in its failure as they likely knew festival goers wouldn't be getting anything close to what they paid for, and did nothing about it.

I'm told I should hold these things against these movies, but I don't know. I really, really enjoyed Fyre, even if it doesn't in the least point the finger at Jerry Media. As I'm not a subscriber to Hulu, I have not seen Fyre Fraud, and won't prioritize it as people I trust say it's not in the same league as Chris Smith's film. (Yes, that Chris Smith, who made the classic documentary American Movie.)

If I'm only using half the available information to analyze it, though, it seems to me that Fyre's sin is a lot less dire. I don't think there's any way to say that Jerry Media is equally responsible for the disaster as McFarland, and sometimes, documentaries make strange bedfellows. You'd likely want to make a documentary about the Fyre Festival without any of those responsible allowing themselves to look innocent or directly profit from it, but how else would Smith have gotten all the priceless footage Jerry Media was able to provide? That includes behind-the-scenes of the shoot for the initial promotional video with its bevy of models frolicking on the beach. That's a necessary part of this story.

And Fyre is nothing if not great storytelling. It's tight yet feels complete, and it unspools the story in terrific fashion, holding back choice nuggets of information for the exact moment of their greatest impact. I don't know how it's possible not to be completely rapt while watching this movie. It's also got a number of great interviews with people around the margins of McFarland's empire, not to mention that now-famous scene featuring Andy King. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, watch the movie -- it's worth getting the surprise, as I did.)

Plus, Fyre Fraud gave $250,000 to a man who knowingly defrauded lots of good, hard-working Bahamians and lots of maybe not-as-good, but still generally innocent millennial concertgoers.

Although you'd wish documentaries could be made with the full measure of their journalistic integrity intact, these two movies provide good examples of how that's not always possible. Methinks Fyre Fraud (sight unseen) crossed a line but Fyre didn't. You can only sell your soul up to a point. Though maybe I'd watch Fyre Fraud and think it was a useful document too.

As long as a movie has the ring of truth and entertains the hell out of me, I'll keep those blinkers on.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Valentine's Day not quite cancelled

We were going to cancel it outright.

It was no reflection of anything that was going on between my wife and me, or in our lives in general. It's just that my wife has never cared all that much for Valentine's Day, in part because she tends not to be very sentimental, and in part because her birthday is just five days later. (There's also the fact that she likes chocolate-flavored things, but not actual chocolates very much.)

Me, I wore a red shirt as I always do, and would have been fine to celebrate February 14th as we mostly always have because my wife is very nice about humoring me.

But to be honest, I'm about as tired as she is with a busy start to the school year and just feeling run-down in general. Not finding a card, a gift to satisfy the sweet tooth, and a special themed dinner was fine with me.

But when she suggested watching Coherence on Valentine's Day, I drew the line.

Coherence, a film I have out from the library, is a movie I very much want to see. But it's not a Valentine's Day movie. It has something to do with weird phenomena caused by Halley's Comet, or some other comet, flying overhead. I want to know what that weird phenomena is, but not on Valentine's Day.

We could let all the other traditional means of marking the day fall by the wayside, but not the Valentine's-themed movie.

So I went through our streaming services and came up with a list of ten options, which I later augmented to about 13 when I got an email from Kanopy specifically highlighting some of their options. Because why not, here's the email containing those ten items I sent to my wife, verbatim:

1) Hello My Name is Doris - Streaming on Netflix. If I remember correctly you might not have seen this. It's from the same director as that movie The Baxter that I think you really liked. It finished just outside my top ten a couple years ago. Stars Sally Field.

2) Forgetting Sarah Marshall - How about a classic? I saw that it was streaming on Netflix but of course we own it also.

3) The Feels - Streaming on Netflix. Care to be progressive by watching a lesbian romantic comedy?

4) Something Borrowed - Streaming on Netflix. (Probably bad) mainstream rom-com but I've never seen it.

5) How Do You Know - Streaming on Netflix. Copy the description from #4.

6) Hitch - Streaming on Stan. It's Will Smith so maybe it could be fun?

7) Eat Pray Love - Streaming on Stan. It's got Bali in it. 

8) Begin Again - Streaming on Stan. John Carney's follow-up to Once. I don't think you saw it but I could be wrong.

9) She's All That - Streaming on Stan. "Classic" romantic comedy that I've never seen.

10) Ali's Wedding - Streaming on Kanopy. This is Australian right?

11) None of the above.


I hoped she wouldn't choose #11, but I didn't want to be a movie-pushing tyrant so I did leave that option open to her.

She didn't choose #11, but she got close to it with #10, the only of the initial Kanopy options I'd listed. So the Australian movie won out. Not only Australian, but actually set in Melbourne, where I live.

And though we hadn't thought it likely to plan a special dinner, we did order take-in from a local Mexican place. I ate too much and got sleepy on a margarita and a beer.

Which didn't prevent me from really enjoying Ali's Wedding, which may be available on your own iteration of Kanopy if you're looking for something to watch tonight. (Though offerings do differ depending on your local library.)

I was worried this might be another version of something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, only with Iraqi immigrants in Australia rather than Greek immigrants in America. Not having been a fan of that movie, I was more generally not looking forward to a quirky comedy that focuses on, and makes all the usual jokes about, a big, lavish wedding.

That's not this movie. In fact, the title is a bit misleading. There is indeed a wedding that ultimately plays an important role in the film, of sorts, but this is more the story of a kid who lies about his score on the entrance exam to go to university to become a doctor, in order to please his father, and all the repercussions of that choice. One of those is meeting and falling for an Australian-born girl of Lebanese descent. I won't even tell you if that's his future bride at the wedding.

It's a really sweet, and I presume somewhat realistic (it's based on a true story), look at life in a community of Muslim immigrants in Melbourne, who are fixed in their ways but ultimately show more humanity than we might initially have expected of them. Yeah, they've got set ideas about gender roles -- the Australian Lebanese girl has similar aspirations to become a doctor that her father is trying to squash -- but they're capable of surprising us, and being counterintuitively progressive members of the community at large. (Ali's father, a cleric, has also written a musical about Saddam Hussein.)

Overall it was just a really sweet experience and a better way to spend Valentine's Day, I'm betting, than Something Borrowed.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Un-lee-shed: She's Gotta Have It

This is the first in my bi-monthly 2019 viewing series devoted to six Spike Lee features I haven't yet seen.

I'm off and running on my new Spike Lee series. This despite wondering if my very first target, She's Gotta Have It, would actually be available in an easily accessible way.

I had no real reason to suspect it wouldn't be, except for the general sense of Murphy's Law pessimism that states that as soon as you announce plans to watch certain movies, they become unavailable if they weren't already. In the end, though, She's Gotta Have It ended up being as easy to find as flicking over to Netflix. Which makes sense, I guess, given that Netflix has a TV show version of the movie that got released a couple years ago.

Despite having heard a discussion of that show on The Slate Culture Gabfest, I didn't really know a thing about the movie before I started watching. I didn't even know that the title was a reference to a woman's insatiable sexual appetite, though once I did figure that out, I could easily retrofit the title to some of the discussion of the show on the podcast. (Since I hadn't watched the show I had been sort of "listening loosely," as I call it, to that particular discussion.)

Even in his first feature film, Spike Lee came in with a style that was easily recognizeable as the progenitor to all this future creative choices. Early on there are still images of his beloved Brooklyn scored to forlorn jazz music. If it hadn't been set in Colorado, we could very well have seen that same approach in BlacKkKlansman, it is so trademark Lee.

The film's black-and-white aesthetic, though, put me in mind of a different one of Lee's independent film contemporaries, that being Jim Jarmusch. Unfortunately, that's not a compliment in this case. Although only one of these was actually black-and-white, She's Gotta Have It put me in mind of Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise and Permanent Vacation, two Jarmusch films for which I have very little affection. That is to say, She's Gotta Have It felt aimless and cerebral, at times more fartsy than artsy, and not going anywhere fast.

Fortunately, that's when I fell asleep.

When I resumed the movie at the 38-minute mark the next night, Monday night, it really picked up and took shape for me. You could just say I was too tired to get in its groove on Sunday night, but I do think this is a movie that kind of ambles out of the gate and finds its stride as it goes. Not until just after that 38-minute mark did I get the film's central conceit, or that it even had one. It was then that I figured out that this was a movie about a woman with multiple partners, three in particular: Tommy Hicks' Jamie, John Canada Terrell's Greer and Lee's own most famous creation, Mars Blackmon. (More famous than Mookie? I guess we could debate that, though Mookie did not appear in a bunch of Nike commercials.) The dynamics that flow from that scenario are pretty rich.

Let's talk about that woman. Her name is Nola Darling, and she's played by Tracy Camilla Johns. For all that Nola Darling attains a certain kind of iconic status in this film, enough to make a new series about her 30 years later, Johns did not benefit from it. Perhaps we should credit whatever endured about Nola to Lee's writing rather than Johns' charisma, because she hasn't had much of a career since this movie put her on the map. And indeed she does strike a few false notes over the course of the film, so maybe she just wasn't cut out for acting.

The character, though, is certainly an interesting one. There's a temptation in watching She's Gotta Have It to label it as a prime example of Lee's problems with writing female characters, or perhaps to chastise Lee for a love of the naked female body, as some of the shots of Johns' breasts in this film preview those of Rosie Perez' in Do the Right Thing. (I should add, though, that random nudity was not considered as gratuitous then as it is now.) And this is, after all, the story of a woman whose sex drive leads her to constantly search for new ways of gratifying herself. In short, a slut, before slut shaming was a thing.

But there's something undeniably sex positive about the portrayal of Nola as well. She likes dick, sure, but she likes it in a way that is unapologetic. Neither does this make her a bitch or unfeeling. She genuinely cares about her three suitors, though if forced to pick she can figure out which one she likes best. As she is completely up front with them about their competition, both that they have it and and what the strengths and weaknesses of that competition is, she's engaged in a kind of radical honesty with both them and with herself. She knows who she is and she knows what she wants, and no man is going to tell her differently.

There is a scene that got mentioned on the podcast that is somewhat problematic, which the podcasters described as a rape scene, but one that I would be more likely to characterize as rough sex. When Jamie, whose affections for her are the purest, gets fed up with the way she's keeping him like a yo yo on a string, he accuses her of only wanting him to fuck her, not to make love to her. To demonstrate his point, he kind of throws her onto the bed and penetrates her from behind.

The thing is, it's part of the sex positivity that defines Nola that she actually kind of does want that and that this scenario is not entirely unwelcome to her. That's very close to saying "she's asking for it" or "she likes it" in a way some kind of Brett Kavanaugh douchebag would say it, but I think in this scenario you really do have to consider the person it's happening to. Nola is so perfectly in control of when she has sex and what kind of sex she has that it's kind of an insult to her to suggest that she'd let anything happen to her in the bedroom that she didn't want to happen. It's not that she couldn't be overpowered by someone, but that that she's such a strong woman that it's pretty unlikely to happen. She's also so good at seducing the men in her life that any kind of petulant sexual aggression they display is really an expression of the kind of puppy dog love they feel for her.

I can't say the portrayal of Nola's sexuality is entirely unproblematic, but there is definitely something progressive about Lee's choice to make this material the subject of his first movie. Nola really does come off well, and fully in control of her own destiny, while the men seem, well, petulant.

I enjoyed the odd kind of camaraderie between the men, as well. Nola has already told them about each other, and I think they know each other as well, but she forces the issue even further by inviting them all to a Thanksgiving dinner together. By the very polygamous conditions Nola has established, they are stripped of their natural male instinct to fight and hurt one another in the attempt to mark their territory. Simply put, she's never given them any illusions that they possess her. So they resort to passive aggressive tactics to get a leg up, and these morph into a type of bond informed by gallows humor and a sense of being all in this together.

I also really enjoyed a little touch Lee throws in over the credits. He gives each of his primary speaking roles a clapperboard with their name on it, and a chance to bring down the clapper while saying their names and throwing in a few humorous improvised comments. It gives the sense that this was a little family making this movie and they all had a lot of fun making it.

As for Lee himself? I enjoyed his Mars, but I'm still partial to Mookie.

In April I'll move on to School Daze.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Breaking the Oscars some more

I'm still kind of reeling from the announcement that the Oscars would have no host this year. Heck, I'd even take Kevin Hart at this point.

I hadn't had the chance to write about it, though.

Well, the not writing about why this year's Oscars are stupid stops now.

Today I learned (as did we all, I guess) that four of the evening's awards would be presented during commercial breaks on television. Or maybe we knew that already, at least those of you who are following this a bit more closely than I am. But today we learned which awards those would be.

Logically, you'd think they'd choose the categories that nobody knows the answers to on their Oscar ballots, and just picks them randomly, hoping against hope that they've stumbled upon the answer that wins them their pool. You know, your documentary short subjects, your animated shorts, what have you.

Well, credit the academy for not stepping on the little guy, I guess. Those awards will have their moment in the sun.

The ones that won't?

Best cinematography, best editing, best live action short, and best hair and makeup.

Wut.

Okay, so one of the random guess categories is indeed in there. As for the others, at least two of them are ones cinephiles consider to be among the most important to the creation of a good film, as summarized by Guillermo del Toro in a reaction tweet: "I would not presume to suggest what categories to cut during the Oscars show but -- cinematography and editing are at the very heart of our craft. They are not inherited from a theatrical tradition or a literary tradition: they are cinema itself."

Like, duh.

I had a revelation of sorts not long after hearing this:

Are the Oscars even broken?

All the recent tweaks reek of trying too hard to fix a problem that maybe isn't there.

Okay, we can all acknowledge the viewing numbers are dropping. But isn't it reasonable to assume this has more to do with natural demographic shifts between generations and between media habits? I reckon that today's younger kids are not growing up thinking that awards shows are cool, and it's not because they're too long -- or they might be too long but that's entirely not the point. If they're not interested in it, 15 minutes would be too long for an Oscars telecast. If they're interested in it, as I argued in Sunday's post about three-hour movies, they'll watch something even longer than the current telecast.

Some recent changes the Academy has been making are undoubtedly positive, like diversifying its membership by age, gender and race. That's far more likely to entice younger viewers, and we're already seeing the results with best picture nominations going to younger skewing movies like Black Panther and A Star is Born.

But all this obsession with the show's length makes the Academy seem like it's being held hostage by all those people out there who can't stop joking about how long the show is.

You know what? That is about the hackiest joke out there. Everyone knows that everyone thinks the Oscars are too long. For Christ's sake just give it a rest and stop using it as your lazy crutch when you can't think of something actually funny to say. I'm looking at you, Bruce Vilanch. (Does Bruce Vilanch still write the Oscars? Who knows.)

I'm sure they are going on some kind of statistics here to support the notion that a show that's 4% shorter will have 7% higher ratings, or something along those lines, but that really seems like a ridiculous conclusion. Each new proposed change (best popular film??) just subjects the Academy to further ridicule.

Again I could probably find the answer to this if I scrounged around online, but why the hell does it matter so much if the Oscars are becoming more niche? Is selling the advertising spots really that important? Why can't they just tailor the show to the people who do still care about its traditions, and if they joke about the length, they do it ironically, within the company of the other people dropping snark at their viewing party who all know how much they all love all this stuff?

I didn't love Roma but I loved its cinematography, and when Alfonso Cuaron very likely wins that award I think it will be worth seeing it live. I mean, this is the damn director who might have been lost without his long-time DP Emmanuel Lubezki. Instead, he went out and filmed the damn thing himself and now he's going to win an Oscar. Isn't that something?

The Academy doesn't think so. They're going to show us his speech at some time later in the show, like he won one of the technical awards at that ceremony three weeks before the show hosted by Courteney Cox.

We all deserve better.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The fear of three hours

I've heard a lot of hand wringing in the past few days about the fact that Avengers: Endgame is likely to clock in at three hours. ("Likely" because it's possible Joe and Anthony Russo are still tweaking it.)

Not just among snarky people on the internet, who use the announced length of this movie as further fuel for their arguments about the bloat of the MCU in general. But also among industry prognosticators who suspect the studio must be worried about audiences' capacity to sit through a movie of this length without an intermission.

Give us some credit.

The three-hour movie is nothing new, and I would argue that we are more conditioned than ever to watch it.

It's true that a mainstream movie of this length has not come out in a while. But they used to be par for the course. The Lord of the Rings movies are a prime example, and though their length was legendary, I don't remember the studio worrying too much about that. When I finally saw The Green Mile last year, which is pretty much three hours on the dot, I marveled at the fact that I don't even remember the film's length being a subject of discussion back in 1999.

There seemed to be more variability in the length of movies back then too. Ninety-minute movies were far more common then than now as well.

But that's what might make us better conditioned for a three-hour Avengers: Endgame in 2019. Fans aren't really expecting a 90-minute experience at the movies, as even comedies frequently approach or even breach the two-hour mark thanks to people like Judd Apatow. And no blockbuster movie of any kind is under two hours and 20 minutes. What's an extra 40 minutes on top of that?

Sure, it will be useful to go to the toilet before the movie starts. But you can say that about any movie.

As for the prospect of bloat, Avengers: Endgame seems like as good a candidate to be three hours as any movie in history. You can quibble with 11 years' worth of narrative choices that got us to this point, but now that we're here, I don't think it would be fair to say that this movie will be three hours because the Russos couldn't kill their darlings. It will be three hours because the movie has 47 main characters, half of whom, granted, are "dead."

If all the ticket sales for Marvel movies are any indication, no fan who sees Avengers: Endgame is going to be grousing about too much movie. They'd probably watch a four-hour Avengers: Endgame if you gave it to them.

And if you're one of those snarky internet types, or a critic who resents having had to watch these last 22 movies, then I guess you aren't really a "fan," are you?

Look, I can be that snarky guy too. And I certainly haven't been on board with the MCU for its entire history. There were some really fallow years in there.

But I'm on board now.

A three-hour Avengers: Endgame?

I'll lap up every minute of it.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

The importance of being Albert

I woke up this morning -- just 15 minutes ago, in fact -- to the news that Albert Finney had died.

I wouldn't ordinarily have been prompted to eulogize most other British thespians of Finney's generation, which is to say, great Brits that we would still think of as "thespians." But I feel like Finney had a special place in my heart in a couple ways. I don't even really know what I'm going to say here, but I'll just start typing, and whatever comes out will suffice.

I first knew Finney from what would probably come to be my least favorite of his film roles. When I was very young, I became acquainted with the actor as the title character in Scrooge (1970). Although he plays a cantankerous old man, Finney was only 33 at the time he made it, which now seems like a miraculous transformation indeed. He was also only ten years into his career; that a casting director would think of such a relative newcomer and spring chicken for such a role seems to be a testament to his abilities.

This was also my first introduction to Dickens' A Christmas Carol and was my staple for a handful of years as they played it on TV every year at Christmastime. As soon as I had another option -- 1984's superlative adaptation of same starring a more age appropriate George C. Scott -- I recognized the shortcomings of Ronald Neame's film. It's a tonal odd duck as it's a musical (though not a very good one) and Finney does a fair bit of what I would call mugging. Less generous would be to say that he often seems like he's touched in the head, his face contorting in ways I now think of as the mannerisms of a stroke victim.

Hey, just because this is a eulogy doesn't mean I have to praise every element of the man's career. But don't worry, everything's rosy from here onward.

Over the years I saw and really loved Finney in a number of other roles. The mobster Leo O'Bannon in Miller's Crossing, who holds his own against the would-be assassins who breach the sanctity of his home. Ed Masry, the crusty yet paternalistic attorney who serves as a reluctant crusader alongside Erin Brockovich. Edward Bloom Sr. in Big Fish, my favorite Tim Burton film of the last 20 years, whose recollections of his life made my tear up in that finale at the lake.

But the role for which I cherish Finney is one most people have probably not seen, and cannot currently see.

In 1995, in my final year at college in Maine, I had what I have come to think of as kind of a seminal experience in the fine-tuning of my development as a cinephile. I had a car on campus for the first time as I lived a 20-minute drive away in an idyllic but remote house with its own little stretch of beach outside. The car also enabled me to really discover Portland, also about a 20-minute drive away, which hadn't much called out to me without the car, when I had basically everything I needed on campus.

Portland had what I think of as the first arthouse cinema I ever frequented. In digging on the internet I now find it was called The Movies on Exchange Street, though that doesn't seem quite right. (It was definitely on Exchange Street so I guess that has to be it.) It appears to have closed in 2010. In any case, it was directly across from what I think of as the first upscale coffee shop I was ever aware of, which I would visit after seeing movies there. I guess 1995 was a pretty formative year for me.

In my memory I visited this theater at least a half-dozen times, but a college senior is a busy guy and it was probably only twice or thrice. And the only film I remember I remember having seen there was A Man of No Importance, starring Finney. (The film was actually released in the UK in 1994, but it didn't make it to Maine until 1995.)

It's a story set in 1963, about a gay Dublin bus conductor played by Finney. He's closeted of course. His real passion is community theater, where he oversees the mounting of Oscar Wilde plays (hence the title, a play on The Importance of Being Earnest). He's got a meddling sister (Brenda Fricker), a young woman at risk in the cast of the play (my crush on Tara Fitzgerald was born here), and a young customer on the bus (the dashing Rufus Sewell, also first met here) on whom he's got a secret crush.

The story proceeds in small gestures and is about how this man hides and fails to hide his "love that dare not speak its name," featuring great cruelty as well as great kindness in among the rest of the cast. It's a beautiful little portrait of imperfect little people who mean to put good into the world, for the most part.

And Finney is absolutely key to its sizeable emotional impact. He's kind and gentle, but also with a fair bit of reckless spirit that throws itself into a world that isn't ready for it and won't always return that kindness. It was here that I think I truly learned the kind of performer we had in Finney, and what he could bring to the movies he appeared in.

Like Finney himself now, it's pretty much impossible to see A Man of No Importance, as far as I can tell. I'm not doing a current check of its availability, but I've checked numerous times over the years, and it's not available in any format that is remotely accessible. I think at one point it might have been available for like $100 in the wrong region. I have a region-free DVD player now, so maybe I should check again because that price has probably come down ... if it's possible to find it at all.

I said I didn't know where I'd go with my eulogy to Albert Finney, and indeed I went on an eight-paragraph tangent praising one small movie that no one has seen. My point in doing that, I think, was to give you a picture of the kind of experience I had when I first really came to appreciate this great actor. It was at my first arthouse theater followed by my first designer coffee. A Man of Importance, in a very real sense, was the progenitor for my appreciation of independent film, which could be the reason I remember so many of its details even though I haven't seen it since the mid-1990s. (I did get my hands on a copy of it at some point for a second viewing, but that was on VHS.)

The man who we lost yesterday was at the center of that, and he will always hold a fond place in my heart.

R.I.P., Albert.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

My own personal Liam Neeson boycott

I read with no small amount of shock the comments Liam Neeson has made about his desire to commit race-based revenge some years back.

At the time I read it, I was tossing up whether to make his latest thriller, Cold Pursuit, my first theatrical movie of 2019, or to select the other movie released today, Escape Room. I’ll be reviewing whichever film I see. And I was only nine hours away from having to make the decision at the time I read it.

I had been leaning toward Cold Pursuit, but Neeson’s comments made my decision easy.

If you aren’t familiar with what he said, unprompted, to an interviewer, it was that a friend of his had been sexually assaulted while he was abroad. When he returned home, he asked about the skin color of her unknown assailant and learned he was black. He then went around – for a whole week, by his own admission, with concealed weapon in hand – hoping a black guy would start something with him on the street so he could commit a kind of vengeance by proxy.

Wow.

The problems with this are so many that I don’t know where to start, but let’s be generous and start with something in Neeson’s favor. Although it was, or could be, a kind of career suicide to have done so, Neeson deserves some credit for coming forward with this story, though you wouldn’t think it would be necessary purely for selling the movie. He’s made about 22 revenge thrillers before this, and never before now did he feel it was necessary to haul out this story, to try to scare up a few additional bucks by suggesting the ways he identifies with the character he’s playing. His movies do pretty well for movies that are almost always released very early in the year. But still, I do appreciate his attempts at being forthright, on some level.

What’s completely short-sighted about the whole thing is that he thought was confessing to one thing and was really confessing to another. It’s almost what a #metoo accused would do, trying to get ahead of negative press by confessing something lesser, though in this case nobody would have ever found out about it had Neeson not felt compelled to reveal it to us completely out of nowhere. Neeson thought he was confessing to the shame of having murderous, revenge-driven thoughts. Instead, he was confessing to the worst kind of racial profiling, one where it doesn’t even matter to you if you’re enacting your vengeance against the correct person, as long as he has the same skin color as that person.

Why in his story did Neeson even need to ask his friend what her attacker’s skin color was? Was that going to make it more likely for him to find the correct person? Or was he doing it for the same reason that we all look over at the person who was driving like an idiot once we’ve passed them, to see if that driver conforms to some kind of deep-seated prejudice about the types of people we think are more likely to be bad drivers? Did Neeson want to know if it was a “black bastard” (using his own words from the interview, which he presented with air quotes) because he assumed only someone like that could commit a crime like this? More likely was that the characteristics of her assailant came up more organically in the discussion of what happened, but Neeson himself presented the story as him having asked for that detail. Dumb.

So yeah, I’m seeing Escape Room tonight.

The temptation would be that this would actually prompt me to see Cold Pursuit, so I could write a review slamming Neeson. I could take this opportunity to use my own particular soap box to pile on to the cavalcade already flowing in Neeson’s direction. (And I suppose I’m actually doing that now, through this particular soap box.)

But you probably know I believe in separating the art from the artist as much as possible. It’s the philosophical approach to film criticism that I’ve chosen and I hope to keep sticking to it as long as I find it tenable.

But I don’t want there to be the chance that I’ll like Cold Pursuit and write a positive review of it in the days immediately following Neeson’s completely obtuse revelation of his own deep-seated prejudices.

Not reviewing it at all is the least I can do.

Neeson was already likely approaching the end of his revenge thriller days at age 66. This will escalate that. And apparently, he's going senile in addition to being racist. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Correcting 2018 oversights, one outdoor screening at a time

One of the most unlikely movies for me not to have watched before my 2018 ranking deadline was Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

I don't make sure I see every big budget franchise film, but when I really liked the first movie -- as I did with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them -- I am almost certain to give the follow-up a chance. And I did mean to with Grindelwald. In fact, I was all set to go one night in November after recording a podcast, but I chatted movies afterward with my fellow podcasters and our one audience member, one glass of wine led to another, and Grindelwald slipped through my fingers.

Knowing that the reviews were awful, I didn't regret missing the movie -- what's another disappointing title somewhere in the 120s in my rankings? However, I was slightly more intrigued about the possibility of correcting the oversight when a friend of mine contacted me with an extra ticket to an outdoor screening of it this past Sunday night. And that intrigue was enough to overcome my inertia and propel me out the door after a day that featured about four hours at the beach.

It was a week to the day after I'd done a similar thing with Aquaman, which I purposefully missed before my deadline because my wife bought me tickets to a similar outdoor screening for Christmas. While that one was at the Melbourne Botanical Gardens, this one was on the grounds of the Rippon Lea Estate, an old mansion whose grounds and insides can be visited and toured. It's part of a three-location summer series called Barefoot Cinema, this being the final of the three locations if I'm not mistaken.

More or less the same setup as the week before, only my friend and I did not partake in the VIP bean bags this time. Though I did bring my own bean bag chair and had an equally good perspective on the screen, so the couple bucks saved was probably worth it. (In fact, saving bucks did not enter into it for me -- my friend was only too happy to "shout me" (to use the Australian term) the ticket, as it would have gone to waste had I not stepped up in place of his wife, who could not go at the last minute. I did buy him a beer.)

Since I provided you a picture last week, here's another to give you a sense of the place:


If you can see those distant Christmas lights and food trucks, that's where they had a little truck devoted to BBQ. I enjoyed my pulled pork sandwich with my aforementioned IPA. I'd also brought in some caffeine and gummy worms to get me through the movie.

They weren't enough. If Aquaman was goofy and ultimately a bit ill-conceived, Fantastic Beasts was just exhausting. My three biggest complaints:

1) They just kept adding characters. Just. Kept. Adding them.

2) In the wizarding world of Harry Potter, is it basically possible for anyone to do anything whenever they want to? Why don't they just always do that?

3) I really didn't know what was going on. And I'm no dummy. Though, a day at the beach did leave me in a compromised state. Did I mention that I swam out to the buoy a hundred yards off shore?

I can pretty much guarantee you I won't be going to a third straight outdoor screening this Sunday, though I should acknowledge the possibility. After all, I haven't seen Bumblebee yet ...

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Netflix: Getting you on the board in the new year since 2018

Used to be that I wouldn't see my first movie of the new ranking year until mid- to late-February, as that was finally the time I deemed some theatrical release worthy of my ten bucks. (It was only ten bucks at that time, anyway.)

That's changed with my acquisition of a critics card back in 2015, making me less selective on the first theatrical release that's worth my time, because it don't cost nothing. And it's changed again with the advent of Netflix, which serves legitimate new movies up on a platter, at any time of the calendar year.

Last year for the first time, my first movie of the new ranking year was a Netflix movie, The Open House. This was only on the fringes of legitimacy -- it ended up being terrible -- but by having a few recognizable stars and otherwise walking and talking like a movie that the studios traditionally dump in January, it made the cut.

This year it's something far more prominent on the legitimacy scale, a movie that had its Sundance debut only five days ago, somehow. That's Dan Gilroy's Velvet Buzzsaw, his follow-up to the 2014 film Nightcrawler. It bowed on Netflix on February 1st, which is yesterday Australia time, still today when some of you are reading this. So, I saw it slightly before some of you had the chance to.

I wasn't a big fan of Nightcrawler, partially a byproduct of the hype that preceded it I'm sure. But given the pedigree of that film, and the preponderance of stars in this one (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Colette, John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs), it seemed like a good way to kick off 2019. Especially since M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, a logical starting point (like Split was a few years back), got lost in the shuffle of bad reviews and finishing up my 2018 viewing.

Well I like Velvet Buzzsaw more than Nightcrawler, but it didn't start out that way. This is the rare example of a film that gains its footing as it goes along. I really didn't care for about the opening 30 minutes of this film. As I got to better appreciate what its central narrative conceit would be, though, I felt it really started to hit its stride. (Gain its footing? Hit its stride? There are a lot of feet-related metaphors to describe something getting better, aren't there?)

I will say that Gyllenhaal likes playing outsized characters in movies released by Netflix. His Morf Vandewalt (the name alone) reminded me of how he went big in 2017's Okja, to the ultimate detriment of what was otherwise one of my favorite films of that year. I like Jake, but poor guy, he can't really win with me. When he plays a character who is clearly only a variation of himself, I think of him as having little to no range. When he plays a character with a capital C, he seems like he's trying too hard.

Anyway, I think you'll like this movie. Just stick with it.

And later this week, getting started on 2019 in the traditional theatrical sense with either Escape Room or Cold Pursuit. Thank goodness for that critics card.