Sunday, December 8, 2019

Two guys named Benedict

I don't know how it took me three years after the release of Doctor Strange to realize that it starred two guys named Benedict.

The title character is, of course, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his sidekick, Wong, is played by Benedict Wong.

Which means the casting of Benedict Wong had two funny name benefits: He had the same first name as his co-star, and the same last name as his character.

It'd be even better if Wong was considered the film's true co-star, in which case you'd go on IMDB and see two Benedicts among the top three actors listed in the abbreviated details at the top of the page. But Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor both outrank him. (Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen, though, do not.)

It's not particularly likely that Wong's name had anything to do with his casting, though it couldn't have gone unnoticed. I mean, are there any other Benedicts in Hollywood, or anywhere near Hollywood? It's probably more likely as a last name than a first name.

It's kind of like when Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz starred in Vanilla Sky. Not the reason they were cast, as Cruz appeared in the same role in the movie on which it was based, and Cruise was the major movie star needed to sell the risky project, plus had worked with Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire. It's just a coincidence really.

When Gemma Arterton was cast as the lead in Gemma Bovery? Less of a coincidence, I would say.

I wish I could think of others, but they don't necessarily spring to mind spontaneously.

This all came up because I rewatched Four Lions on Friday night and was surprised to see Benedict Cumberbatch appear in the final scene. That caused me to pop into his IMDB page and make the connection. Suffice it to say I had no idea who he was the first two times I watched Four Lions, in 2010 and 2011.

Benedict Wong, though, I knew at that time, as he appeared in my #1 movie from ten years ago this year, Moon.

Now, if they both appeared in a biopic about Benedict Arnold? I'd start to get suspicious.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Star Wars will end without my kids

I'm pretty excited for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. But it's an abstract excitement based on almost no imagery from the movie. I've (mostly) kept up my same strategy as for the last two movies in this saga, where I avoided trailers. I'd have been 100% successful in that effort except that an ad came on while I was watching an on-demand version of Survivor, of all shows, last night, and I did not turn my eyes away from it.

I'll even be preparing for it by re-watching The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in the two nights leading up to it. I'm devoting Monday and Tuesday nights of that week to my fifth (!) viewing of Episode VII and my modest third viewing of Episode VIII, before I am among the first in the world to access Episode IX Wednesday night at midnight.

Unfortunately, I don't really have anyone to share this momentous occasion with, at least not locally.

I did watch The Last Jedi with two "mates," two years ago, but only one of them was really geeked for the midnight showing while the other one went along with a skeptical look in his eye, and ultimately regretted his decision. Barring last-minute plans, I doubt we'll be doing that again.

But I'm not bemoaning the lack of physical companionship in watching this movie, as I only watch maybe one out of every 40 movies I see in the theater with another person. (Adult movies, that is -- my kids join me more frequently for movies aimed at them.) As a film critic as well as a person who can't regularly see movies with his wife because of babysitting considerations, I usually go alone. And don't think twice about it, if I ever did.

No, what's really giving me a mild case of the blues is that I won't have been able to share any part of this Star Wars experience with the people whose excitement would nourish me the most: my kids.

When Star Wars restarted in 2015, it was a few years too early to really be appropriate for my kids. My older son was only five and a couple months then, my younger son almost two. Now granted, I was not even four yet when I saw the original Star Wars in the theater, but those were different times.

I guess I hoped that as they got a little older, my kids would catch up with the Star Wars series and might watch either The Last Jedi or The Rise of Skywalker in the theater with me. Fast forward a few years, and the older is now a couple months past his ninth birthday, the younger one nearly six.

These midnight screenings have become a fun tradition for me, but I'd trade them without a thought if it meant getting to share the experience with my kids, even if we had to wait three days after opening to see it on the weekend. How sweet that period of excitement and anticipation would be, as we all wondered what would become of Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren and the rest.

Something went wrong somewhere along the way.

In the same Christmas season that The Last Jedi came out, we watched the original Star Wars with the kids, and they liked it. The plan was to watch one movie each Christmas season, which would have only brought us to Return of the Jedi this year. But I could have stepped up the pace if they were really loving it, and we could have whipped through the prequels (if need be) as well as the last two new movies in order to prepare for Rise of Skywalker.

Instead, the pace went in the other direction. No one seemed to show much enthusiasm for The Empire Strikes Back last year, so it simply never got watched.

That lack of enthusiasm has continued. When I mention Star Wars to the older one, he tells me he's not really sure if he likes it. Even though Star Wars as a worldwide phenomenon is as strong as ever -- just look at how The Mandalorian has dominated social media, without me unfortunately -- it's apparently not something that his friends talk about very much. Which is not to say he would suddenly becomes obsessed if his friends were talking about it, but it sure would help.

If the older one's not interested, I'm not sure if it even helps for me to get the younger one interested. Especially as I secretly still think some of the stuff in these movies would be too intense for him. (I couldn't handle Han Solo getting a lightsaber through the stomach at age 42, so I don't have any idea how he'd react at age 5.)

Funny thing is, when I came home from the library with my rented copies of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi on Thursday (I don't have Disney+ yet, as alluded to above), I squelched an opportunity to pique their interests. I usually place library rentals on a bookshelf near our TV, for all to see. But in this case I stored them in our bedroom, where the kids don't spend very much time.

See, I didn't want them to suddenly get interested in Star Wars and ask to see these two movies before they'd seen the others. In my ideal world, I even want to submit them to the prequels before these movies. Same order as the order I saw them, in an ideal world.

So at this point I am going it alone, even without my wife, who will undoubtedly see this movie in the theater but does not express very much ongoing interest about it.

The good news -- if you want to call it good news -- is that Disney is not nearly done delivering Star Wars to us.

I may not be able to finish the Skywalker storyline with my children, but maybe that's okay, since I didn't start it with them either. Maybe the real goal will be to meet whatever new characters Star Wars gives us next, together, and go on that adventure from start to finish, with the same emotional journey. I can't remember who's responsible for the next installment of Star Wars movies at the moment -- I know both Rian Johnson and the Game of Thrones creators are out -- but whoever it is, there's some hope it will be allowed to be new and fresh, something we can discover simultaneously, without carrying in the baggage of our own personal Star Wars histories or lack thereof, without excessive fan service and baby Yodas.

So having just shed my "mild blues" about things I can no longer undo, maybe now I'm free to just concentrate on the end of my own emotional journey -- a journey that began back in 1977.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Spectrum of Bale

I didn’t plan it, but I almost watched two Christian Bale movies that came out 27 years apart from each other on consecutive nights this week.

It was only “almost” because I had to bail (pun not intended, and only noticed when proofreading) on my screening of Newsies on Tuesday night, as it succumbed to the same kind of erratic playback I described in this post. No more streaming rented movies through iTunes for me. At least not on this four-year-old computer.

But I completed the Newsies watch on Wednesday night, having inserted Knock Down the House as an unexpected buffer between it and Ford v. Ferrari.

Why the hell was I watching Newsies, you ask? Simple: It was randomly drawn for me in Flickchart Fiends Favorites Fiesta, a series where you draw the highest ranked movie you haven’t from another member’s chart every month. And yes, Newsies was somebody’s #3 movie. No judgment.

As for Ford v. Ferrari, I finally watched it and was super glad I did, because it’s awesome.

It was really interesting to see Bale in two very different roles nearly three decades apart from each other. Which is even more of a significant period of time when you consider that those 27 years spanned ages 18 through 45 (sounds like a demographic) for him.

I had a similar experience last year when I saw one of Ethan Hawke’s earliest films, Explorers, for this same series. Then as now, I found myself charmed by the realization that this is the same person, so of course, the various tics and twitches and core acting instincts are all the same, even when there’s a separation of, in that case, 33 years. The Bale I saw in Newsies was the same Bale I saw in Ford v. Ferrari, only with the mannerisms honed and perfected over the years.

I wish I had more profound insight into specific things that I was surprised had not changed, or maybe that had changed, but I guess I don’t have anything further on that topic.

What, you thought you came to this blog to be enlightened?

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Instinctively avoiding Keira Knightley

I don’t have a problem with Keira Knightley. In fact, if you asked me whether I liked Keira Knightley or didn’t like her, I’d say I liked her. In fact, sometimes she is brilliant.

Keira Knightley movies? Not so much. Not lately, anyway.

Though I wouldn’t actually know, because I’ve stopped seeing them.

Official Secrets is playing at the cinema downstairs from me and others around Australia, and it’s the umpteenth straight Keira Knightley movie I will be consciously skipping. (Fact check: “Umpteenth” actually equals “third.”)

It started with Colette, a period piece about the eponymous 19th century French novelist. It continued with The Aftermath, a period piece set in Germany after World War II. Now there’s Official Secrets, a period piece about an early 21st century whistleblower.

The periods have gotten progressively closer to modern day, but they are still, one could argue, period pieces.

And for the purposes of this argument, I’m making that the salient characteristic that troubles me. I hadn’t consciously realized it until I turned my nose up at Official Secrets yesterday as I was doing some Christmas shopping near the theater downstairs from me, but that moment caused me to acknowledge and reckon with why I am snubbing Knightley. And I’ve decided that I’m not that interested in actors who appear exclusively in period pieces.

This probably requires some clarification.

For one, Knightley does not appear exclusively in period pieces. She actually had another 2018 film that I conveniently skipped in my above chronology, though I do think it came out in Australia before Colette did. That was The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a fantasy movie (in which she was quite delightful as the villain). This past decade alone you’ve also got, in no particular order, Begin Again, Last Night, Collateral Beauty, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Laggies and Everest, none of which can really be described as period pieces (though the last one does not take place in present day, so you could make the argument).

The other necessary clarification is that period pieces are not bad. If I were to make such a statement, I’d be dismissing probably a quarter of all cinematic output. I’ve loved many a period piece and will continue to do so, it probably goes without saying.

But Knightley and period pieces together … I guess they’ve reached some kind of combined critical mass that I only became aware of yesterday. Together, they turn me off.

Knightley has flourished in these roles in the past, of course. She’s always been a bit of a classic thespian in that sense, as she’s appeared in adaptations of Tolstoy, Dickens and Austen. (The fact that she doesn’t have a single Shakespeare adaptation to her name is, quite frankly, a surprise.) So it’s not a new thing and it never bothered me before.

But I must admit my patience for your everyday, run-of-the-mill period piece has worn a bit thin in recent years, and that just so happens to coincide with Knightley appearing in a run of them, even if one of them is from the early 21st century. The terms “period piece” and “recreation of recent historical event” are getting kind of intermingled there, as both types of film are wearing a bit thin for me.

It’s not really a rational thing, though, and the fact that I haven’t seen any of these films I’m judging seems particularly uncharitable. I’m really just trying to put my finger on a certain otherwise inexplicable reaction I am having to seeing Keira Knightley’s face on a movie poster.

Two potential bits of good news.

For one, Knightley had another movie in 2019 that I also conveniently skipped in the chronology, because I was not even aware of it until I hit up IMDB. That’s Berlin, I Love You, the latest in a series of love letters to various international cities that consist of a series of short films by different directors. If I’m using Paris, Je T’aime as my model, those short films will have all been set in modern day and will not have anything to do with recent historical events.

Then there’s her next project, 2020’s Misbehavior. Yes, this is a period piece, but here’s what the description on IMDB states: “A group of women hatch a plan to disrupt the 1970 Miss World beauty competition in London.” So, not the kind of “stuffy period piece” that I have not, until now, explained that I associate with Knightley.

What I should really probably do is see either The Aftermath or Official Secrets in the closing weeks of 2019 before my rankings deadline, so I know if my preconceived notions about these films and their ability to distinguish themselves from the crowd are warranted. December is light on new releases in Australia, so I could probably even catch Official Secrets in the theater. Hey, it’s right downstairs.

I’ll consider it. In the meantime: No offense, Keira. Just make sure you continue to consider all your career options, and we’ll be fine.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

My strategy for tackling The Irishman

Martin Scorsese's latest isn't a film you watch. It's a film you tackle.

And it's not a quarterback or running back rushing over the line of scrimmage. Those guys can be lighter as they tend to be fleeter of foot. No, it's a defensive linesman rushing at your own quarterback, all 300 pounds of him, that you have to tackle.

If you haven't heard, The Irishman is three hours and 29 minutes long. That gets it over the Everest-like 200 minute mark, at 209 minutes.

I hadn't heard, at least not until this week when I actually looked into it. I mean, I figured it would be over two hours, as nearly every Scorsese movie is, even those that shouldn't be (like Hugo).

But three hours and 29 minutes? That's longer than damn Seven Samurai.

If I'd seen it in the theater, as I'd dabbled with doing, I surely would have discovered the running time before sitting down. It's rare that I don't check out the running time in that scenario, if only so I can be sure how many snacks or drinks I need to bring to stimulate me in an environment where I can't pause.

Well, I can pause at home, now that the movie is on Netflix, but pausing only makes the problem more difficult.

And that problem is: How to get through this movie in one night?

You can always split up the viewing of a movie, if you have to. When I finally watched Ben-Hur a number of years back, which bests The Irishman by only three minutes, I watched it over four nights -- a premeditated choice. I could certainly have done it in two, but I decided to make it like a miniseries, a week-long event.

But I don't think that's a good approach for The Irishman, mostly because a friend who saw it in the theater told me it isn't. When I asked him if I should "try very hard to watch it in one sitting," he responded, "Yep. It's a Scorsese flick."

Nuff said.

Now, the math is not impossible to watch it one night. You start at eight, you finish before midnight, or realistically, around midnight, as you're going to have to pause it a couple times for one reason or another. And there are certainly plenty of nights when the combination of things I watch totals more than three hours and 29 minutes.

But having natural break points, and continuing only because you've decided you have the stamina to do so, factors into being able to consume that much content in one evening. You can plan a double feature and then bail on the second movie if you're too tired. But if you've started a movie you've decided you must watch all in one sitting, you're pot committed, and the knowledge of the number of minutes you have remaining weighs on you like the rocks piled on the back of an accused witch. (Random reference. I will leave it in.) It also weighs on your eyelids.

So, afternoon?

That's the best strategy I can think of, though it's not something I can accomplish without outside help. I can only watch a movie in the afternoon on a weekend, and I can only watch a weekend afternoon movie if my kids are otherwise occupied. That scenario does arise when they go for a sleepover at my sister-in-law's house. That would also potentially allow my wife to watch it with me, as she's said she wants to.

But I've done the math there as well, and there are just not enough weekends, or not the right weekends, before my ranking deadline to accomplish this. The next two after this one have conflicts that would prevent that kind of thing, and then the following weekend leads right into Christmas, when we are seeing her as well as my kids' grandmother in Tasmania. It's possible some weekend after that could work out, but that's leaving it too late. And besides, all this hinges on my sister-in-law actually getting the idea to invite them over. That's not something we ever suggest on our own, because come on, they're a real handful.

There's one golden opportunity that sits out there, but I don't know about the practicalities of it, and I don't know again if I want to wait that long to watch The Irishman.

Although my wife and kids are flying to Tasmania for Christmas, I am not. I am doing something I've wanted to do for quite some time, though some people think it's a horrible experience. I am taking a ferry with our car. It's a trip that takes like ten hours. I guess if you're not good at sea, it could be miserable, but I'm pretty good at sea. I may be overly romanticizing it, but to me it's a bit like taking an overnight train somewhere -- a fun adventure that is increasingly old-fashioned and difficult to experience in our modern age.

The ferry ride there will be overnight, starting at 10:30. I'll surely watch something on that trip, but I'll want it to be no longer than 90 minutes and probably over by 1 a.m. so I can try to get some sleep.

The ferry ride back is when my opportunity could arise. I leave in the morning on that trip and ride for the better part of the day. An easy opportunity to see a 209-minute movie, right?

Yes and no. For one, it'll mean having to watch it on my laptop screen. If I missed this in the theater, the least I'll want to do is it see it on my smart TV.

Then there's the issue of whether the boat has WiFi, and if it doesn't, whether I can download it or not. On a device where I can get Netflix as an app, like my phone, the answer is yes. On my laptop, I believe the answer is still no. And if I don't want to watch it on my laptop, I certainly don't want to watch it on my phone.

So I guess the answer is, I still don't have a strategy for tackling The Irishman, one that I'm sure will serve the movie the best. I think I will have to take a wait and see approach. Who knows, maybe I will have to stay home sick from work at some point in the next couple weeks. Which, again, is not an ideal viewing scenario.

The good news is, I have already seen one three-hour movie in 2019 and it was a breeze.

When I watched Avengers: Endgame, it went by much more quickly than its 181 minutes. Which is a reminder that the content of a movie plays a role in how easy it is to sit through it. If it's action-packed and breezes along like an Avengers movie -- and I recognize the irony of comparing Martin Scorsese to the MCU given his comments on it -- then The Irishman may overcome my concerns and be easily digestible in a single night, even if I don't start it at 8 p.m. If it involves a lot of extended talking scenes like the other recent behemoth I thought of in this context -- Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 196-minute Winter Sleep -- then it's going to defeat me. (For the record, I stayed awake during my theatrical viewing of Winter Sleep, to the best of my knowledge, but I was in a kind of fugue state that made it difficult to distinguish sleeping from waking.) Even if it is like that, at least The Irishman will be in English.

Watch this space.

Friday, November 29, 2019

TIL: Trent Reznor is scoring a Pixar film

When a person gets his life together, funny things can happen.

Trent Reznor, the primary and sometimes only creative force behind the band Nine Inch Nails, spent many years languishing in addiction and suicidal thoughts. He made only about one album every five years. They were brilliant, but they took him ages because he had so much personal baggage on his plate. (Can you have baggage on a plate? I like mixing metaphors.)

Ten years ago he married another musician, Mariqueen Maandig, and started churning out children, four to date. Instead of sapping his time, fatherhood has made him more productive, as he has made several new Nine Inch Nails album as well as scores to approximately 73 films, working closely with sometimes NIN band member Atticus Ross.

I never thought I would say it, but the man who penned the lyrics “I want to fuck you like an animal” is now scoring a Pixar movie. A Pixar movie about jazz, at that – a genre in which he expects to be working on the score. (And may already have been for the new Watchmen series?)

That movie is called Soul, and it’s coming out next June.

Although I miss the tortured heyday of Nine Inch Nails, it does my heart good that Reznor, at age 54, is feeling so much better now.

The last decade of his career has been a lot more about movie scores than Nine Inch Nails, and there’s almost a perfect line of demarcation with the start of the decade. Two thousand ten was when he submitted his first (and still best) score for The Social Network. He had supervised soundtracks before, such as Lost Highway and Natural Born Killers, but never had he previously scored an entire film. He’s obviously loved it as I can barely count the scores since then, which have included several more Fincher films, Patriots Day, Birdbox, Mid 90s, and so on.

But this latest development of scoring a children’s movie is another watershed moment for him. It feels kind of similar to Ice Cube going from “fuck tha police” to starring in kids movies about long and arduous road trips. But I was also happy for Cube when he entered his “Uncle Ice Cube” phase. It feels like a fair tradeoff in artistic credibility if it means you are also a happier person.

Although I always liked Reznor’s lyrics – they can be fun to scream at full volume, even if you are only pretending you are as anguished as he is – I would never have counted Nine Inch Nails as my favorite band if it weren’t for Reznor’s sonic inventiveness. Granted, many of those sounds were dark and industrial, as you can’t have angry lyrics over music that doesn’t sound angry. But even in the midst of his darkest periods, he wrote songs like “A Warm Place” from The Downward Spiral, which had a lot more optimism embedded in them.

Soul seems like a particularly warm place, even if it involves souls separated from their bodies in a kind of afterlife – think a high concept similar to Inside Out. And clearly he’s not worried what fans who fell for his aggressive despair will think. I mean, if he’s not feeling it, he can’t really make it.

If things hadn’t started going right for him, though, he might not still be here. Again, I’ll take it, and on Thanksgiving, I’ll give thanks for it.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Knives Out will not save us

This year has been kind of ho-humming along, hasn’t it?

We’re just about two weeks from learning the Golden Globe nominations for 2019, and really, I have no idea what’s going to be nominated. There have been a dearth of 2019 films that have really moved the needle, critically, which may be one of the reasons Parasite has been so overwhelmingly embraced. (Another: It’s really fucking good.)

However, Thanksgiving creates another new opportunity for a wave of prestige pictures to inject some life into the pre-awards seasons buzz.

Alas, I don’t think Knives Out will be one of them.

I got in a surprise viewing of Rian Johnson’s new film Sunday night. In my first excursion to the cinema in nine days, I had expected to have to settle for Ford v. Ferrari, which I do want to see despite now missing my second or third opportunity to see it, depending on how you count those opportunities. But then I noticed that there were random preview screening of Knives Out playing at Cinema Nova, a few days before it is officially released on Thursday. Why wait until Thursday for something I can have tonight?

It’s … fine.

It might be better than that. But it’s not what I would have expected from a “disruptor” like Johnson, who may have cemented that reputation via Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but has been kind of doing that his whole career. In my review (which you can read here), I called that “cleverness.”

Perhaps my disappointment stemmed from realizing I had placed a lot of hopes in this movie to prop up what feels like kind of a sagging movie year. I didn’t think it was going to be a best picture nominee or anything (or that this would even be an expectation for a film like this), but I did hope it would add something kind of incisive and game-changing into the movie year.

Alas, no.

My current top ten has plenty of movies I really like, and some of those peeking in from the outside would be movies I’d be happy to anoint in that hallowed group. But with little more than six weeks until I close my 2019 rankings, I’m not seeing a lot of really tough challengers to those films currently holding those spots.

Will it be Netflix, maybe, that saves us?

There are two big Netflix releases in the next two weeks that have the potential to really shake things up. In fact, I considered seeing both The Irishman and Marriage Story during the aforementioned nine-day theatrical drought, in their limited theatrical runs. Somehow I ended up seeing nothing instead, and will now wait for both to debut on the streaming service.

And while I do have high hopes for both films, I haven’t really loved a Scorsese film since The Departed, and Noah Baumbach is in the midst of a particular string of failures for me. While most people seemed to find him in peak form for The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), I really disliked that film.

So, maybe my current top ten is close to what it will end up being.

The good news is that before the Oscar nominations are announced on January 13th, which is when I will close my list, I do expect to see 30+ more 2019 films from various pockets of the cinematic landscape. The final viewing push often yields a few surprise entries into my top ten, movies I had no idea I would love, or in some cases, movies I didn’t even know existed for very long before I saw them.

The good news for the rest of you is that most people seem to love Knives Out. It’s got an 85 on Metacritic, with only one mixed review and no negative ones.

Maybe they weren’t looking for Knives Out to save us, I like I was. So maybe if you go in with that mindset, it’ll save you.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Audient Audit: Ran

This is the second-to-last monthly installment of Audient Audit, where I'm checking my lists twice to see if I was naughty by adding to them a movie I hadn't seen. (Should have saved this description for Christmas, probably.)

My November viewing of Ran marks Akira Kurosawa's second appearance in this series, in a manner of speaking. I haven't watched a Kurosawa film as one of my main 12 monthly installments of Audient Audit, but I did watch a film whose details seemed familiar to me because they were inspired by a Kurosawa film. The fact that John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven was based on Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, one of my all-time favorites, delayed how long it took for me to determine that I had, in fact, not seen it.

Interestingly, there's a similar thing at play with Ran, because Ran is inspired by something I'm familiar with. Kurosawa loved his Shakespeare -- Throne of Blood is based on Macbeth -- and his final Shakespeare adaptation was this 1985 film, his second-to-last overall, which is based on King Lear. So as I was watching, I wasn't sure if I was remembering the details of this film, or the details of the Bard's play about a mad king distributing his land among his three daughters. (Who are sons here.)

The reason I wasn't sure if I watched it in the first place, though, is that the thing I remember most about Ran was seeing it discussed by Siskel & Ebert. I don't think this discussion came in conjunction with the actual release of the movie, because in 1985 I would have been just a bit too young to have started watching the two critics who became my personal heroes for my own critical aspirations. But I clearly remember some kind of retrospective discussion of it, perhaps as part of a theme, maybe a best of the decade list, maybe even an appreciation of Kurosawa at the time he died. (I found their review of Ran on YouTube, but I do suspect it was a decade retrospective as Ebert ranked the film the 7th best of the 1980s.)

Whatever the case was, I clearly remember their video package containing a shot of horses carrying men in red armor as they flowed down the side of a hill. Why this image has lingered for me for something like 30 years is unclear to me. The brain is a mysterious organ.

But because that scene lingered as much as it did, over time I've wondered if I said I saw Ran just because I remember that scene that was part of the Siskel & Ebert video package. But what strange logic that would be, if indeed I did use it. That would have meant that at some point, when fine-tuning my lists or adding stray movies that had been missing, I would have consciously remembered the Siskel & Ebert bit but temporarily disregarded the origins of whatever familiarity I thought I had with Ran.

Fortunately, it does not appear that I used that logic. Over the course of this viewing I became convinced that it was, indeed, my second.

Perhaps the best bit of evidence is that I remembered the performance of Tatsuya Nakadai in the central role, which is also why I chose a Ran poster that features him prominently. He's a memorably distraught image, an old man with flowing white hair, with what seems almost like mascara to accentuate the wildness of his eyes. There's a scene where he's trapped inside a burning castle, staring straight ahead as he contemplates all his mistakes, as arrows fly by and miraculously miss him. I've seen similar scenes in other films involving samurai or the Chinese equivalent thereof (I believe there's one in Zhang's Hero, which I mentioned earlier this week), but as I was watching I felt quite sure I'd seen this scene in particular.

There are two other characters I distinctly remembered, the king's fool, played by Shinnosuke Ikehata, and the king's daughter-in-law of his eldest son, played by Mieko Harada. As is often the case in Shakespeare, the fool is the bearer of a deceptive amount of wisdom; in this case he's both openly challenging of the king's foolish gestures and blindly loyal toward him. Though what struck me as most memorable is this song he performs about the new king (the eldest son) swaying like a branch in the wind, an encapsulation of his weakness as a ruler. The sing songy quality of it definitely penetrated back into the deep recesses of my viewing brain.

Then there's the daughter-in-law, the equivalent of Edmund in King Lear, who is frightening in her capacity for deceit and violence -- though it should be said, she's seeking revenge for the king's killing of her family in the past. She has a huge amount of agency. I think there's also something unnerving about the makeup choice used for her, which I think is probably a traditional choice in feudal Japan, where she has what almost seems like a second set of eyes painted high up on her forehead. Since I don't know if I can convey what I'm talking about with mere words, here's an image for you:


Those may just be the equivalent of our modern painted eyebrows, but there's something not of this earth about them.

The film is, it probably goes without saying, incredibly impressive, as it has these majestic battle sequences involving an unfathomable amount of extras. The use of color is also distinctive, and as an interesting side note, the look of the film was something Kurosawa had to have translated from his personal sketches, as he was going blind and could not actually play the same oversight role he'd played in the past.

Kurosawa has always been strong with keeping the narrative easy to follow, and having Lear as its spine certainly helps with that. Still, there were plenty of narrative surprises, as my relationship to Lear is a bit rusty -- I read it back in college and don't know that I've seen another adaptation of it since then, other than this (though I probably would have seen this movie around the same time I read the play). For example, certain characters died at different times than I was expecting them to -- though those could also be Kurosawa's deviations from the play.

Okay, I've got just one more Audient Audit to go, and assuming I can source it, I plan to wind down the series with a Christmas movie, Ted Demme's The Ref. (Yes, I know it's got Kevin Spacey in it.)

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Bequeathing viewing diversity to your kids

The movies that are sitting in my iTunes rental area at any given time are, by their very nature, a random collection. They typically represent a mixture of movies made available for 99 cents and those I've selected as part of some ongoing viewing project, plus maybe a title or two that I just want to see for my own reasons.

They do not, it goes without saying, reflect some kind of political agenda on my part, but I sure am glad when a positive political message arises from them.

This week I couldn't help notice my older son looking over my shoulder in iTunes as I was on my rental page. He didn't say anything, but his gaze seemed to linger on the titles in a moment of processing and acknowledgment. Those titles were Ran, The Third Wife, If Beale Street Could Talk, Chi-Raq and Shadow.

If you're scoring at home, those are three titles from Asia -- one each from Japan, Vietnam and China -- and two titles featuring predominantly African-American casts. The posters for Ran and Shadow were abstract enough that he wouldn't have known the difference, but the faces on the other three posters, and the color and look of those faces, were easy to see.

It's great to be able to tell your kids about diversity and champion it in the abstract, but it's even better to lead by example.

It was actually only the day before that he'd seen Dolemite is My Name paused on my computer, and asked about it. I explained that it was about the origins of raunchy comedy focused at an African-American audience. And though I think my son was a bit taken aback by the notion of raunchy comedy, he could see that it was something I valued. What's more, he could see I was watching this movie in the first place, of my own accord and own volition.

I would hope as time goes on, we are raising children who are inherently less racist than we were when we were that age, but it never hurts to buttress this with teachable moments. This week we also watched the (hilarious) video for Lil Nas X' "Old Town Road," at my son's behest, which was a good start. We explained a bit about why this video is so "important," because it is -- not only does it feature a black person using his music to try to promote understanding between traditionally divergent music fan bases, but that black person is also gay. Lil Nas X is like a walking, talking teachable moment. (We also praised the genius of Chris Rock, who appears in the video, and who is one of those comedians who benefited from the legacy of Dolemite's Rudy Ray Moore.)

But words pale in comparison to actions, and I love the fact that my son got to see that six of my upcoming viewings -- including Dolemite -- were movies by and about people of color.

I didn't put too fine a point on it, which was the key. If I'd said "Look, son, at how enlightened I am, watching all these movies about people who are different from me," it wouldn't have been nearly as effective.

Besides, the important part is how they are not, in essence, different from me. All film is about the human experience of life, and all humans experience life in ways that are relatably similar, even if those perspectives may seem different on the surface.

I think, or at least hope, that's what my son took away from my iTunes rental queue.

Friday, November 22, 2019

My kingdom for three devices

I wrote yesterday about how I had luxuriously switched between three different devices during the course of viewing one movie, each of which satisfactorily delivered me Dolemite Is My Name, picking up where the other left off in a perfect handoff of responsibility.

That luxury was punished the next day by a viewing experience that was as arduous as that one was easy.

I don’t know if it was the one device that could play this movie, or could play it without additional downloading and setup, that was at fault, or my lame internet, or unspecified gremlins at an unspecified part of the process, but I nearly had to give up on watching Zhang Yimou’s Shadow. Which would have been a permanent abandonment as the rental period was about to expire.

It wasn’t the movie I had intended to watch last night in the first place. I was going to go out to the theater to see Ford v. Ferrari, a movie a friend of mine told me I shouldn’t just brush off as a bland late-year prestige picture. But while on iTunes I noticed that my rental of Shadow was going to expire in 22 hours. And though I paid only 99 cents for it, I don’t like to let a purchase of any price go to waste, if I can help it. Besides, Zhang is a splendid visual stylist who has made some movies over the years that I really cherish, most notably Hero.

The first problem came before I even knew there would be a delivery issue, and turned out not to be a “problem” at all, but it set things off on the wrong foot. As I said in the previous paragraph, Zhang is known for his visual flourishes and particularly his use of color, so when the movie started with a bunch of shades of gray and only a few pallid hints of red and green, I thought I had a display issue. See, the video card on my PC is going, but only on particular apps. Sometimes when I play videos from my own camera in the video app, they display only certain colors, and I’ve also seen that happen when watching movies on Kanopy (though not on Netflix, even using the same browser – must have to do with how the site chooses the local video app). Hints of red and green and yellow are what typically come through when this occurs. There was no point in even watching a Zhang movie if the color was going to be washed out.

Except the washed out color was part of the film’s color palette, I finally discovered by googling. I’m not sure if I agree with that decision, but once I knew it was intentional, at least I knew I wasn’t watching a compromised version of his vision.

Oh no, the compromise was coming elsewhere.

Simply put, this movie would not play for more than three minutes at a time without dropping out. And I don’t mean pausing for 30 seconds, then catching up. I mean dropping out entirely, so I had to exit the video and enter it again. At which point it would start up again sometimes within ten seconds, sometimes in a minute or two, and sometimes not at all, meaning I had to exit out of it and go back in a second (or third) time.

There were reboots of the iTunes. There were reboots of the computer. There was running the movie off the better internet on my phone, even if it was dragging down my monthly data allotment, and then switching back to the normal internet when I decided it was not making a big enough difference.

These shenanigans occupied me from around 9 p.m. to nearly 1 a.m. when I finally finished the 115-minute movie.

Now, I’ve said my computer is old, and my version of iTunes is also old, and my internet also sucks, so I’m sure all of these things were contributing. But the problem surely would not have been nearly as profound if I had been able to download the movie in the first place. You’re not supposed to have to do that with iTunes movies anymore – you can just stream them. But I did do that with some movies on iTunes on my recent trip, not knowing if I would watch them at a time when I had a live internet connection. They played great, so I know it’s not my computer or iTunes alone that was at fault. But from the time I discovered I had only 22 hours remaining on the rental, most of which would be spend sleeping and at work, it was already too late to download the movie. Movies take a good three to five hours to download with my lame internet, so if you’re going to do that, it has to be premeditated.

That said, the internet alone was not at fault. The phenomenon occurred almost equally when I was connected through WiFi and when I was using my phone as a hotspot. Plus, Netflix and other streaming services work fine when I regularly use them on the computer – including with the previous day’s viewing of Dolemite.

So what the hell was happening?

I don’t know. But the end result was that I didn’t get to watch it on the big screen of my TV through an HDMI cable, as I usually do with iTunes rentals, because there was just too much constant maintenance of the viewing for me to be getting up and down all that time. (I was on a beanbag on the floor, my preferred viewing spot, which is a step more difficult than the couch in terms of the effort required to get up.) So I watched this supposedly sumptuous visual experience on my laptop screen, sometimes waiting long enough to see if the movie would unpause on its own that I actually fell asleep, to be jerked awake by the sound of the resumption, or more likely, to sleep for ten minutes before realizing it still hadn’t resumed. Oh, and then there was the one time when the movie lost its place and started again from the beginning, so I had to sift through and remember where I was.

What’s a boy to do?

Upgrades to my laptop, to iTunes and to the internet would all be helpful. The superior NBN – Nationwide Broadband Network – is coming to my neighborhood in just a couple months, and in fact, the infrastructure work is going on right outside my house. And my laptop is just six months from the age my last laptop was when I had to replace it.

But I’m starting to wonder if the real ticket would be Apple TV, something I had a little exposure to while were staying at Air BnB’s in the US on our last family trip. Presumably the integration of several of these elements into one application would at least allow them to talk to each other and limit the chance of rogue defections. Then you’ve got the convenience of taking the HDMI cable out of the equation. That said, I’m not sure if it would be as easy to stay connected to my U.S. iTunes account, which I absolutely rely on, especially at the end of the year to catch movies that have been released in the U.S. but maybe not in Australia yet.

So how did my impression of Shadow suffer from all this?

I’m giving it a 3.5/5, but maybe it could have been higher. There seem to have been some imperfect storytelling decisions near the beginning that left me somewhat adrift in the plot, but it’s impossible to tell at this point whether I would have been oriented better had I not been suffering through a constant string of disruptions. I think one of the problems is that there’s a character in the film who’s supposed to be a doppelganger for another character – a “shadow,” in the parlance of the title – but I really didn’t think they looked very similar, so I wasn’t sure if I understood their relationship correctly.

Visually, though, there’s some great stuff here, even in monochrome (the use of which is another nod to the title, I think). Zhang makes regular use of this weapon that’s basically an umbrella made of detachable swords, which can be “flung” at an opponent. (Not sure the logistics of when to fling them and when to keep them in their normal umbrella configuration, though maybe there’s some kind of trigger in the handle.) Not only were these excellent additions to the wuxia fights of a typical Zhang movie, but they were also used in a cool invasion scene in which the invaders protect themselves from archers by kind of cocooning themselves inside the umbrella and sliding through the city streets. It makes more sense visually than me describing it here.

Seeing it on the big screen would have probably been the best, but considering that I’d never even heard of it until it popped up as the 99 cent rental on iTunes, that was probably never going to happen.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Dolemite is my name, shuffling devices is my game

Informal record time: Yesterday may be the most number of different devices on which I have ever watched the same movie.

I started Dolemite is My Name after getting home from work early, following a procedure on my frozen left shoulder designed to restore my full range of mobility. The procedure, called a hydrodilatation, was spoken about by my physiotherapist in hushed tones, always describing how painful it would be, which is probably why we hadn’t done it sooner. In truth, that was overblown. It hurt while they were injecting the anaesthetic, it hurt intensely for less than 30 seconds while they were expanding the shoulder joint with an injection of saline solution, but then I felt an incredible release in the joint and all the paint stopped. And the procedure was over. I had prepared myself for the possibility of the period of intense pain lasting for somewhere around 15 minutes. This was nothing like that.

Anyway, it’d be more than hour before the kids and their mother returned from swimming, so I holed myself up in the darkened bedroom by the fan and began watching this movie on my laptop.

When they got home, I had hoped to continue “being the patient,” but sprung into action when I could tell my wife was stressed from her day. Fact of the matter is, I’d already been preheating the oven for lasagna and then cooking said lasagna, so I was not in full “patient mode” anyway.

I entertained the kids with Mad Libs after dinner, giving my wife a break, before she kicked in with bedtime routines. A little tired after all, I slumped on the couch with my phone, away from the wing of the house where they were doing their thing. At first I thought I’d just check Facebook and email, but then remembered I have a Netflix app on my phone. So I fired up Dolemite again. That seeming easier than getting up and fetching my laptop from the other room. 

After about 15 minutes of holding a phone up in front of my face – and actually balancing it on the top of an empty can of kombucha I was holding, to make things slightly easier – I realized there was an easier option still. Namely, the TV that was sitting about eight feet to my left. So that’s where I resumed and finished this movie.

I write this post not so much because it’s such a post-worthy occurrence to watch a movie on three different devices, but largely to have an excuse to write about My Name is Dolemite. Easily Craig Brewer’s best film since Hustle & Flow, this movie is simply a delight – a paradoxical assessment, perhaps, because of how raunchy it can be. But this movie has heart oozing out of its every pore, and gets great performances from its cast of familiar, beloved faces, most notably Eddie Murphy. I think Murphy is always pretty good, but how nice to see Wesley Snipes back from the dead to deliver a really comedic performance as the movie star conscripted by Murphy’s Rudy Ray Moore to star in and direct Moore’s debut feature. You’ve also got Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Keegan Michael-Key, Ron Cephas Jones, Titus Burgess and any number of other compelling performers – I didn’t even mind a truly gangly Kodi Smit-McPhee in those awkward years between being a child and becoming an adult. The revelation, though, was Da’Vine Joy Randolph, the only significant female performer, who really impressed me with her blend of a larger than life persona and real vulnerability.

What was Eddie Murphy doing away from R-rated films for so long? He hadn’t made an R-rated film since 1999’s Life, and I forgot how much I missed hearing him say the word “motherfucker,” as in a scene where a broke Moore chastizes Epps’ character for ordering dessert on his dime. “You strawberry shortcake-eating motherfucker,” he shames Epps.

Dolemite is My Name can be broadly described as a biopic, but those parts are relatively limited in scope, and soon give over to a “making of” movie on his 1975 blaxploitation breakthrough, Dolemite. In that respect the movie is most similar to something like The Disaster Artist, but I found it even funnier and more satisfying. It’s the type of movie that puts good things into the world, and for that reason it brought me to the brink of becoming emotional more than once.

One of its funniest scenes was also one of its most poignant in a way. Celebrating a success related to Moore’s raunchy comedy albums, Moore and his entourage decide to take in a movie, hearing that the Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau version of The Front Page is supposed to be hilarious. They sit their stone-faced as an audience full of white faces laugh it up.

There are a couple things that made me really appreciate this scene. For one, I had just recently watched the original version of The Front Page, and found myself similarly stone-faced about its charms. So I was laughing in this scene before the characters even did anything funny. The second thing is the expressions on the characters’ faces as they are genuinely puzzled about what these white people find so funny. There’s subtlety in their confusion, which occasionally releases itself through bigger reactions, timed perfectly. The really poignant part, though, is that there is a realization among the characters that the things they find funny are just not represented in mainstream movies. It’s not so much that these other white people in the audience are to blame; they’re just laughing at what mainstream entertainment has conditioned them to find funny. It’s that no one at a higher level has made an effort to truly reach out to an ever-more-sizeable percentage of their moviegoing public.

That Rudy Ray Moore challenged and ultimately helped correct that imbalance? It made Dolemite is My Name an inspiring viewing experience indeed.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Where'd you go, Vance?

Two weeks could be the longest hiatus I've ever taken from this blog, though I'd have to go back and check on that. It's certainly the longest unexplained hiatus; I think there was a Christmas trip to the U.S. a couple years back that might have left you without a new post for longer than that, but at least I told you about it in advance. (I chuckle a little saying "left you without a post," as if I take any more than marginal measures to ensure my ramblings are for you, the reader, rather than just myself.)

I didn't die, you'll be glad to know.

I didn't go to Antarctica either, like the title character in the poster above (that's not a spoiler as they show it in the first few minutes of the movie, which was one of 15 I saw while I was gone, mostly on various flights). But as with that other long hiatus referenced above, I did go to the U.S., somewhat unexpectedly. I won't get into why. Just know that it was a family issue, but that everybody's okay. Something inevitable has arrived faster than we were expecting it to, but even within that context, everyone is okay, and better yet, happy.

I left the morning after my last post, which was exactly two weeks ago, and arrived back on Thursday, jet-lagged after three consecutive flights over a 24-hour period. I'm still fighting the jet lag, though last night's sleep was mostly a normal one.

I actually thought I might keep this blog updated while I was gone, as I began composing a post based on movies I watched on my first flight, in Microsoft Word on the plane since I had no internet access. If I'd finished that post, I suppose I would have posted it and possibly written others. But once I hit the ground, I had a lot to do, and typing up my free associations about movies did not seem like the most urgent use of my time. Plus, I didn't actually tell anyone on social media I was going on this trip, since it made sense to use all my available time for the purpose of my trip rather than seeing friends. Posting to my blog would have defeated that purpose, or at least given me excess guilt.

Instead of landing back here with a regular post, though, I figured I would give you a little grab bag of some of those thoughts I had while I was gone, in little chapter subheadings. I'll get back into the flow of regular writing over the coming week.

So without any further you know what ...

Having the time to take the time

On my August trip to Los Angeles, I saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, cramming it into a busy schedule and starting it too late at night to fully appreciate it. After that viewing I placed myself squarely in the "I do not like Tarantino's latest" camp, defending that stance with scattered thoughts about there being a lack of "Tarantino scenes" (clever set pieces with surprising payoffs) and about the film ending with an explosion of violence that could be interpreted as misogynistic.

But I suspected I hadn't really given the movie its best chance to succeed, and over time, these arguments lost some of their vigor. Seeing the movie among my first flight's options, I decided I'd spend the proper time with it this time. Not only did I like it much better, I understood the connections between certain scenes that had evaded me when I watched it too late that one night. Just as one example, the scene with Brad Pitt's character and Bruce Lee was an extended flashback, something I hadn't properly understood when I first saw it, which therefore threw off my understanding of the continuity of the scenes. As I said, I was too tired to watch this movie back in August.

I could probably go into detail, but as this post is a collection of multiple thoughts, I'll just report that I doubled my original two-star rating to four. And am looking forward to my eventual third viewing.

Los Angeles plays itself

I didn't actually start the flight with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but rather, an episode of the Bill Hader-led HBO show Barry, which is also set in, and establishes a satirical perspective toward, Los Angeles. But it wasn't until my second movie, Stuber, was also set in LA -- and also tried to poke fun at the city's most risible traits -- that I realized I had a theme going. (I say "tried" because Stuber was awful, hands down the worst of the 15 I saw while I was gone.)

So to keep it going, I continued buttressing my various viewings with episodes of Barry (which had been my plan anyway) and made a hopeful choice of a third film on the docket, Yesterday. That's Danny Boyle's latest about a young musician who awakens from a head trauma in a world without the Beatles, and becomes famous by "writing" their songs into existence. (I never expected to be watching this movie on the plane, by the way; I missed it in the theater due to a busy viewing schedule at that time, but also because I thought it would be a good candidate to watch on video with my wife. When she turned her nose up at the suggestion a couple weeks back, I knew I was in the clear to watch it on my own.)

Sure enough, the largely British-set film does contain scenes in Los Angeles, and what's more, includes quite the parody of a Los Angeles type, in this case a record label executive played by Kate McKinnon, who lives in a fantastic beach house.

As I specifically allowed this flight to breathe -- doing some reading and other activities as well -- I didn't cram in a fourth viewing, so the entire flight consisted of LA-themed viewings. Which I thought was fun, even though this was my first trip to the U.S. where I didn't so much as leave the airport in Los Angeles on my way to the east coast.

A good get, gotten easily

Even though this trip was all business, I have to admit I had an eye toward catching a movie that had already been released in the U.S. but wouldn't be so before the end of the year in Australia, meaning I'd miss it for my year-end list. Could this time have been spent seeing friends? Shut up.

At least I reduced my guilt by catching this movie on my first full day in Boston, when my sleep was all screwed up and I would not have been a presentable social animal. And at least it was available at the movie theater in Burlington, the town right next to the one where I was staying, at the multiplex. Meaning I didn't have to drive in to an arthouse theater in Boston, and therefore take up an unjustifiable amount of my precious time in town, to see it.

What The Lighthouse -- which still does not have a release date in Australia that I can see -- was doing at the multiplexes is beyond me. I suppose Robert Eggers' previous film, The Witch, was enough of a crossover hit to have earned buzz and convinced some distributors of the commercial viability of its follow-up. But even that was a movie where much of the dialogue was hard to understand (I used the subtitles on my second viewing), so a follow-up about two lighthouse keepers, in black and white, with dialogue that's only marginally more intelligible, didn't seem like an automatic win. Who knows, maybe they just saw that it starred the former Edward Cullen and just rolled the dice. There were a decent number of people in my Tuesday night screening, in any case.

The movie has similar strengths and weaknesses to The Witch, ending in a similarly unsatisfying place for me. But I'm really glad I did indeed get it in before the end of the year.

How to watch a 135-minute movie on a one-hour flight

One of my top contenders on the aforementioned year-end list is Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, and to shore up exactly how much I liked it, I thought a second viewing was in order before the end of the year. Only problem is, it may not get released to U.S. iTunes before then, so I didn't know the likeliest way for me to get my hands on it, even with an Australian release date back in June.

Qantas took care of that problem for me by having it among its list of movies. But in part because I was following that LA movie theme, I decided to hold my second Parasite viewing for my return trip.

Only problem? My return flight was only a Qantas code share, meaning I took the domestic cross country flight and subsequent LA to Sydney leg on American Airlines. Which had quite the good movie selection, just not Parasite.

I did have one more Qantas flight, though, which was the hour-long Sydney to Melbourne final leg of my trip. It seemed foolish to start this viewing, knowing there was almost zero chance I could finish it, but already on this return trip I had spent an unexpected hour on the ground before leaving Boston (which fortunately did not cause me to miss my transfer in LA). With a handful of well-placed little delays that are part and parcel to the airline industry, I might get in close to an entire viewing.

Which is exactly what happened. I started Parasite the moment I got to my seat, and since I was one of the first groups to board, this was nearly a half-hour before the flight actually took off. With another hour in the air and delays on the ground in Melbourne due to needing to be towed to align with the air bridge, plus with me seated near the back of the plane anyway, I saw the entirety of the film's climactic scene, leaving only the postscript portion of the film unwatched. It was enough to confirm that indeed, with two months to go before my ranking deadline, Parasite will factor in very seriously to the top of my year-end rankings.

                                                               * * * * * * * *

Okay, there's a couple thousand words for my "starving" blog audience (ha). Back this week with shorter and more regular posts.