Thursday, March 4, 2021

March roars in

Remember last year when I wrote a post called "The worst March," which commiserated all the dampers already being put on my regular routines, only a month into the pandemic? (The post was largely focused on the loss of March Madness and the delay to the start of the baseball season, but this being a film blog, I made sure to include film-related deprivations as well.)

Well, this year's March is starting off a lot differently.

Not only are both of the aforementioned athletic diversions scheduled to go forward as planned, but there's a strange vitality returning to the cinematic landscape, as if someone was just waiting for the calendar to flip over to the new month.

And who knows, maybe they were. After all, it's finally really 2021, now that the deadline for 2020 Oscar consideration has finally passed. (We've already had the Golden Globes, too, where films that seem like genuine 2021 releases -- I Care a Lot and The United States vs. Billie Holiday -- have already taken home statues.)

But I'm not here to relitigate the choices (mistakes) made by various awards bodies in the past. I'm here to celebrate the symbolic turning of a fresh new page. 

For some reason, there are a bunch of big new movies coming out this weekend. Movies that seem like actual Theatrical Releases from the Before Times.

Tonight I will be going to Chaos Walking, the new Doug Liman film that opens in Australia today. I haven't read too much about it, but the little I've sampled tells me this is high-concept sci-fi with big stars. Can you get bigger than Spider-Man and Rey? (That's Rey from Star Wars. Kind of annoying the character's name is generic enough that you need to qualify it, but I'm not going to refer to her as Rey Palpatine to make things easier.)

Also today a new Disney animated movie opens, that being Raya and the Last Dragon. It's coming to Disney+ for that premium rental fee, but at least here in Australia, you can see it in cinemas as well. Which is exactly what my family and I plan to do on Saturday night when we'll go to the drive-in, the perfect activity for a three-day holiday weekend. (It's Labour Day here on Monday.)

Also opening, but we'll have to wait until tomorrow, is Coming 2 America, the sequel to Coming to America, whose title will sound exactly the same if spoken aloud. That does not actually seem to be playing cinemas here, but I've got Amazon Prime, so I'll be watching it this weekend as well, probably Sunday, after a planned re-watch of the original on Friday night.

I'm guessing this is just a coincidental confluence of dates, but I'm overlooking that and just allowing it to put a little spring in my step, no questions asked. 

I think the change is most noticeable to me from a reviewing standpoint. So far in 2021 there has been a lot of scrounging. Even Netflix has had a period where most of its new films have been foreign language niche movies. There's been a lot of reviewing of anonymous crap sent to us with streaming links by publicists. There have been a couple weeks when I think I only reviewed one new movie.

Now, though, I'm trying to figure out when I'll fit it all in. Netflix also debuted Amy Poehler's new directorial effort, Moxie, yesterday, and my review of that is going up tomorrow. That means the three other movies I've mentioned in this post will fight for a limited number of slots next week, which will be even more limited given that Monday is a holiday, and the conventional wisdom is not to post things you hope people will look at on days when they aren't trapped in front of their computer all day.

It's a good problem to have, and quite a different problem than the problem we've had for a year now.

So maybe a better March is a symbol of a return to normalcy, globally. I'll take, and optimistically interpret, any symbol I can get right now. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

A Python fan with questionable bonafides

If you asked me to cite some of my most foundational comedic influences, they way predate The Simpsons and Seinfeld, or other touchstones that drove the senses of humor of Gen-Xers. 

I should probably mention individual movies, since this is a movie blog, but it seems a single movie probably can't have as much influence over a whole worldview of comedy as can a TV series -- or a comedy troupe.

Both would be encompassed by something like Saturday Night Live, but with that ever-changing cast and group of writers, Saturday Night Live has been very inconsistent in quality over the years. And besides, I wasn't really watching it before I watched The Simpsons, anyway.

Also encompassing both a TV show and a comedy troupe is the real answer to this question, which is Monty Python. 

About when I turned 13 I became obsessed with the famed six-person British comedy troupe that also let in one American, particularly their comedy albums, which I listened to on repeat on audio tape. In fact, I wore them out so much that I eventually memorized the entirety of the "constitutional peasant" scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which I first encountered as a bit on one of these tapes, excerpted from the movie, before I even saw the movie. Around 1987 or 1988 I performed all three speaking parts by myself on stage for a talent show at our summer vacation spot, and I can still recite the entire scene from memory 34 years later. 

Needless to say, when I finally saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail, probably around 1989, I laughed until my sides split. I still think of the scene where Arthur (Graham Chapman) lops the limbs from the determined knight, one by one, leaving the hobbled amputee no less feisty, it was the hardest I have ever laughed in my life.

But there has been a strange asterisk to my Python fandom that I have only started to rectify this weekend. Of the three feature films they made that were not repackaged live shows or other collections of ephemera -- well, one of these is sort of a collection of ephemera -- I have only seen one of them more than once.

You can probably guess which one that is, as I've already mentioned it. I would say I've seen Holy Grail six or seven times in total, always hoping I might laugh that hard again during the armless and legless knight scene, knowing in my heart of hearts that a single stimulus can only make you laugh that hard the first time you experience it.

Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life? Only once apiece.

I tried to watch The Meaning of Life a second time a couple years ago on one of my hotel movie marathons, but it was when my old computer's DVD player was crapping out and I couldn't properly play the disc. I haven't gotten back to it.

Friday night, I finally did complete a second viewing of Life of Brian. Actually, it took until Saturday morning, as my exhaustion after a seven-mile run prevented me from staying awake for the entire 93 minutes on my first attempt. (Only about half of that, actually.) 

My wife was shocked to learn that I'd only watched it once. "Really?" she asked in disbelief. She didn't think I was lying to her, but she knows that I'm a huge Python fan. Her tone seemed to suggest that even people who did not consider themselves huge Python fans would have seen this more than once.

So why haven't I?

Well for starters, I didn't see Life of Brian for an additional ten years or more after I first saw Holy Grail. I can't say whether it was being 25 when I first saw it rather than 15 that made the difference. Does Monty Python appeal more to a 15-year-old than a 25-year-old? I wouldn't think so, though with some of the language in Brian, it's probably good I didn't see it when I was 15. 

Maybe I was expecting a scene that killed me like the knight scene in Holy Grail, and just didn't get it. There are some really fun sequences in Brian -- like the scene where Eric Idle forces Brian to haggle over a fake beard, prompting him to lose money from the full price Brian was willing to pay -- but nothing that left me out of breath from the sheer absurdity of it. In fact -- and this could just be my worsening retention of content I've seen in movies -- I am already having trouble, just 24 hours after finishing it, remembering some of the scenes that gave me the biggest smiles.

And that's really what it is -- a lot of big smiles in Life of Brian, very few hearty guffaws. I always knew that I had liked The Life of Brian, but I was never driven to revisit it for the sheer pleasure of marinating in its comedic brilliance a second time. 

The same was true of The Meaning of Life, only to a slightly lesser degree. Bits of that movie may be more memorable to me overall -- like the man who explodes upon eating the "wafer thin mint," which is actually something I refer to at least once a year in my regular life -- but it doesn't have the overall consistency of Brian. Still, I would have rewatched it before I rewatched Brian if my DVD player hadn't crapped out on me a couple years back.

I actually tried to make it a Python weekend by checking out The Meaning of Life on Saturday night, and then writing the post I'm writing now. However, it didn't join Brian in being available on Netflix (despite nearly every other Python project being available, including a live show from the past decade), so I just watched Happy Death Day 2U instead. (It might have been on one of our other services but I guess I just wasn't in a scouring mood.)

I can't leave a discussion of Monty Python's The Life of Brian without making a few more comments on things it does well. I haven't discussed the content almost at all, which is probably fine given that you yourself have probably seen the movie multiple times -- even if you're not a big Python fan. 

The big win here is the consistency of its approach. This is a real narrative, something that the episodic Holy Grail doesn't totally land, even using the same characters throughout. There are plenty of good callbacks, and Python's strength at underscoring the absurdity of institutions is in full bloom here. In fact, it's such a moment in Holy Grail -- the aforementioned memorized constitutional peasant scene -- that helped establish the troupe as comedic icons for me. Zealots and the Bible are great fodder for that comedic worldview, and they tease them mercilessly.

Another thing Brian does better than Grail is its ending. Namely, it actually has one. "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" is a much better way to end a movie than to have the main characters get taken away by anachronistic modern-day bobbies as the film itself breaks. The ending of Holy Grail still fills me with disappointment to this day. 

I expected to be mildly annoyed during this scene after my experience reading Eric Idle's autobiography, which shares the title of the song, last year. I thought Idle came off as a bit full of himself in that book, despite all of his attempts not to and to be self-deprecating -- it came across in all of his name dropping, as the guy appears to have been best friends with everyone from George Harrison to David Bowie to Robin Williams. Ultimately I became a little annoyed by how evidently proud he was of having written the song, and even in a relatively short book I felt that there was a little too much discussion of himself that was modest in name only. But in the end, the scene worked for me just like it had the first time.

Now that I've done this, a second reckoning with The Meaning of Life is definitely in the offing. Maybe then I will finally have the authority to fully own the Python fandom I've claimed for some 35 years. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

My first Slamdance, and reconsidering feature length

The virtual Slamdance is wrapping up today, and I've "attended" for the first time this year.

Unlike some film festivals that have limited their audiences to the region (MIFF being one), Slamdance 2021 was available for anyone who wanted to subscribe. My wife did so for her work, and I reaped the benefits.

The reaping was fairly limited, though. I only watched two proper feature length films, Darragh Carey and Bertrand Desrochers' A Brixton Tale, which had some promise but ultimately did not fully come together, and Agnieszka Polska's Hurrah, We Are Still Alive!, in which I never really got my bearings. I don't have anything further to say about either at the moment.

I do have thoughts on something I watched that was not proper feature length, but is making me reconsider how exactly I define that. 

Background: I am a strict adherer to perceived rules -- when it comes to how I define and classify cinema, anyway. I've written about it before and I suspect you are at least somewhat familiar with my stance on the subject.

My most recent writings about it related to Steve McQueen's Small Axe film series last year, which won huge amounts of critical praise, but bent a lot of us out of shape in determining how to categorize to it. For one, it was made for television, which typically disqualifies a series of "movies" from discussions about the year's best "films." The more salient trait for today's post, though, is that most of those "films" are barely over 60 minutes, making them dubious candidates as feature films on length alone. I ultimately didn't watch them in time for last year's rankings, and am sorry to say I still have not.

But the issue has come up for me more recently than that. A few weeks ago I got contacted to review a documentary called The Astrology of Pandemics, whose title really piqued my interests. I was all set to request a screener link when I saw the movie is only 42 minutes long. Recoiling at this oddball length, I had to tell the publicist, "I'm not sure how to say this without sounding snooty or arbitrary, but we usually stick to feature length films for reviews."

So that brings us to Slamdance. A couple nights ago my wife told me about a film called Taipei Suicide Story, directed by someone with the single moniker KEFF, that she'd watched and loved while out of town. She texted me "You probably have a million things to watch right now [for once that's not true] but I just watched Taipei Suicide Story and it's great -- only 46 minutes."

Only? 

That's not a selling point actually. It's a point of great consternation for a slave to categorization like me.

A point of consternation that wouldn't have mattered to me if I hadn't actually watched it.

I hadn't been planning to. But when the kids and I joined my wife out of town on Wednesday night, I needed something shortish to watch after feeling exhausted from a long and busy day of packing, working, and driving 90 minutes to meet her down in a coastal area on the Mornington Peninsula.

My first choice would have been just an episode of TV, something like Snowpiercer, the first season of which I am still slogging my way through, and the only show I'm watching that she isn't. But she reminded me of Taipei Suicide Story and its 46-minute run timeand I decided "Fuck it. Categorization be damned."

Now, this was not a snap reconsideration of my ideas of what qualifies a movie for inclusion on my lists. Rather, it was a snap decision not to worry about if I watched something without being able to add it to those lists. 

This is a surprisingly strong motivator for me. I have enough of a collector mentality that I shy away from things that I can't "collect" via inclusion on my lists. This doesn't apply to TV, obviously -- I don't have a list of the TV shows I've watched (yet, though I am thinking about starting one). But with movies, it does, and it's been a big factor in why I have not watched many short films over the years. The lack of access to them combined with their incompatibility with my lists has made it easy for me just to give them a miss, to use the Australian lingo. 

Taipei Suicide Story is not a short film. I think we would agree that 46 minutes is too long for a short -- though I note that IMDB lists The Astrology of Pandemics as a short at 42 minutes. IMDB does not give TSS that same designation, but that could just be inconsistency in their approach.

However, there could be something to that 45-minute line of demarcation. When once struggling with the length of the Buster Keaton classic Sherlock Jr., I decided that as long as a silent film was at least 45 minutes it could earn inclusion on my lists. Length standards were different back then, and I didn't want to categorically dismiss films made before 1930. The new freedom enabled me to add Sherlock Jr. to my lists and to give it the full five stars it so richly deserves.

There is a similar potential motivating factor behind Taipei Suicide Story. See, it is by far the best thing I've seen so far in 2021. 

Just to give you a little plot, it has to do with a clerk who works at a Taipei suicide hotel, where guests check in and they never check out. Or sometimes they do check out, if staring into the void causes them to reconsider their course of action. But each morning cleaning teams move from room to room, hauling out bodies and wiping down blood spatters, wearing full PPE. Except in one room where a woman has been in a state of uncertainty all week, having hung a maintenance sign on her door to dry to draw out her limbo until she can make a decision either way.

As my wife pointed out, upon my grumbling about the category confusion, it doesn't need to be any longer than it is, for what it is. And she's absolutely right. It tells the story it needs to tell in the exact amount of time it needs to tell it, which allows it to invest us in the characters, and all other things a good feature film does well. If it had stayed another 25 minutes to push it into clear feature length territory, maybe it wouldn't seem like such a tight little bit of melancholy loveliness. 

So if I were ranking Taipei Suicide Story, it would go straight to the top of the list of 12 titles I've seen so far this year. It would be an easy call.

Now, to decide whether I should actually do that.

Having so recently argued against Small Axe -- more passionately on the grounds of it being TV than it being too short -- I find myself flirting with hypocrisy by talking about Taipei Suicide Story (which is shorter than all the Small Axe movies by 15 minutes) as a movie I want to rank for 2021. The difference, of course, is that I was making that Small Axe argument in the abstract, not having seen those movies, while the more tangible nature of my current situation allows me to make the opposite argument. The same thing probably would have happened with Small Axe. No one who watched them decided not to make them eligible for ten best lists, and fearing I would do the same, I just decided not to watch them in time.

But with my wife's urgings and my own need for something short on Wednesday night, not to mention a closing window of opportunity to watch it before the Slamdance movies went offline, I have indeed seen this movie, and now I've got a Big Question on my hands.

I can tell you that in the short run, I have not added it to any lists. Then again, I have not updated my lists since about Tuesday, meaning they do not yet show my earlier viewing of The Lady from Shanghai (speaking of things with references to China in the title) either. Until I have actually omitted TSS from a running list that includes movies I saw after it, I haven't really made up my mind, I guess.

Not to say that doing that will make up my mind either. I can go back and add it later. But will I?

If I'm trying to rationalize in favor of adding the movie to my lists, including my 2021 running rankings, I could say the following: "A film has to be one of two things: a short or a feature film. If it's not one, it has to be the other." And there's a certain logic to that. We don't have a third way of categorizing films, and I think we've agreed that a 46-minute film ceases to be a short. So in this scenario it would have to be a feature.

But maybe Taipei Suicide Story just breaks the mold, and forces us to consider whether a third category is necessary -- and whether these categories will even mean anything ten years from now when fewer and fewer films appear in the theater. That's the big argument in the other direction, which is that this movie has no good venue for playing to the public. Forty-six-minute films just don't play in cinemas, at least not unless they are packaged with another 46-minute film, though the odds that two such odd ducks would be thematically compatible with one another are pretty slim. Simply put, people don't make 46-minute films because they want to have some prospect for recouping their investment. When a theatrical screening is not an option for that, it means you may have a highly unprofitable film. 

But as all movies go increasingly to streaming venues, it may start to matter less how long they are, just how good they are. How many features have you seen, even shorter features, that had 20 minutes more content than they needed to reach their maximum potential impact? Instead of padding itself out with B plots or drawing out interactions to a point where they become banal rather than poignant, Taipei Suicide Story just embraces the shorter running time. Should we punish it for that?

Maybe KEFF, whoever he or she is, just has a more enlightened view on all of this than the rest of us do. And as I was looking at KEFF's credits on IMDB, I noticed one other directing credit: 2019's Secret Lives of Asians at Night. Which is listed as a short, whereas TSS is not.

If it's good enough for IMDB, maybe it's good enough for me? Maybe?

I suspect I will continue thinking about this for a while.

Hey, at least it's not TV. *shudder*

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

All's Well That Ends Welles: The Lady from Shanghai

Well that series title is a bit of a mouthful, isn't it?

That's the first chance I've gotten to see it in print, and especially when the title of the film in question is pretty long itself, it's a bit awkward. But I can't rightly change it up now, because ... well, I don't know, I just can't. 

This is indeed the first in a bi-monthly series devoted to watching the rest of Orson Welles' films that I have not yet seen, which is more than six so at some point we'll have to double up. But not in this first month, as I watch Welles' fourth feature overall, and the oldest I haven't yet seen.

But here's two little bits of information that will give you some idea how difficult this series will be. On IMDB Welles has 62 directing credits. Now clearly, some of those are shorts and some of them are TV, and some are probably something else entirely. But they also include "uncredited" directing credits, of which The Lady from Shanghai is one. If I remember correctly, his credit is something like "production by Orson Welles," and there is no director credit at all.

To be sure, I'm trying to focus on features Welles directed in this series, but how I will draw the line and what I will consider to qualify will be something of a crapshoot. For example, in poring over those self-same credits, I noticed that he actually has another "uncredited" directing credit before this, the movie Journey Into Fear from 1943. Why is this film not on my radar, and why didn't I start this series watching it? Well because it is not listed in Welles' filmography as director on Wikipedia, and that's the first resource I used to determine which of Welles movies I had not yet seen. (Easier than sifting through 62 directing credits, I can tell you that.) Or rather, Wikipedia does list it but lists only that one as uncredited, not Shanghai, which is why I thought I should include one but safely exclude the other.

Am I ever going to get to talking about The Lady from Shanghai? Soon. Soon. Patience.

The first thing I noticed about The Lady from Shanghai was that it probably also could have qualified for my noir series. Although a lot of the action takes place during the day, on a boat at sea, that self-same Wikipedia lists it as a noir right there in the opening paragraph. It's really the character dynamics and the femme fatale that make it a noir, though there are some other things I'd point out if I were doing this for the noir series (like the slats of one of those revolving doors throwing shadows across Welles' face in one of the film's final scenes). If I hadn't already watched Gun Crazy this month for Knowing Noir, I suppose I could have cheated and just done a two-fer.

Another thing that makes the film recognizably noir is its serpentine plot, which I probably would have had trouble following anyway, even with the unwise decision to have a whiskey with the movie. Given that I had been waking up extra early the few days beforehand -- excessive concern over being the only one to get my kids ready for school with my wife out of town -- any kind of alcohol was a questionable choice, and whiskey likely especially so. But I think I would have been a bit lost even without the need for a couple impromptu five-minute naps during the movie.

The basic story is that Welles plays Irish-born sailor Michael O'Hara, pulling off the accent with only occasional lapses, who is lured by the femme fatale into crewing on a ship owned by her older husband, a powerful attorney who walks with the assistance of two canes. She's Rita Hayworth, and he's Everett Sloane, who I recognized as one of Kane's closest confidants in Citizen Kane. (He worked at the newspaper, and reluctantly says "That one" when pointing to the headline that involves Kane's election loss being a fix job.) If you can believe it, I think this is the first time I have ever seen Rita Hayworth in a film, knowing her primarily from the plot function she plays in The Shawshank Redemption. Alas, she did not strike me as particularly charismatic. 

Anyway, it's a long journey from the east coast of the U.S. to the west coast, through the Panama Canal. Along the way the two fall for each other, but O'Hara also receives a proposition from the attorney's business partner, played by Glenn Anders, who offers O'Hara $5,000 to pretend to kill him. The man has designs on faking his own death and getting away to some island paradise, with the "proof" of his death being that O'Hara has signed a confession saying he did it. Only thing is, legally they cannot charge O'Hara because the man's corpse will never be found, but the confession will be proof enough in the eyes of the law that he's dead. Sounds fishy, but O'Hara agrees to go along with it.

From there it gets far more complicated in ways that I shouldn't spoil, but probably couldn't anyway, as I had to read the plot synopsis afterward to make sure I'd gotten everything. It's one of those plots where even if you read it afterward to confirm what happened, you still aren't sure if it really hangs together, as it involves double crosses that don't totally seem to make sense, and characters acting naively in a way that counteracts their best interests.

If I'm looking for the Welles of Citizen Kane in this film, I'm not really finding him, despite a few touches here and there that recall some of the director's interests from that film. For example, there's a climactic scene involving funhouse mirrors that reminded me of that shot at the end of Kane where we see Kane's image reflecting over and over again, the perfect distillation of the character's loneliness and isolation at that point in his downfall. 

But not seeing that great ambition at work here was probably also a function of the turn Welles' career took after his follow-up to Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, was botched and rendered unrecognizable from Welles' original vision after he lost final cut. It's easy to see why he would, or why he had to, go in another direction after that, turning a buck on smaller genre projects. I suppose the film is ambitious in terms of its plotting, though I found the filmmaking itself pretty workmanlike.

I did enjoy The Lady from Shanghai enough to narrowly recommend it. There are some pretty lively sequences, particularly one where Sloane's character ends up both the defense attorney and a material witness in O'Hara's eventual trial. This leads to him being in the unusual position of cross-examining himself, including both his questions to himself and his answers to those questions. This has the jury in stitches, and would have had me in the same condition if I hadn't been so tired.

Overall, though, I fear this is a harbinger of things to come, as there's a reason that many of Welles' later films did not get the same recognition as Kane did, and that his career is often thought of as a missed opportunity. Fortunately, he had films after this that I really liked -- such as Othello and Touch of Evil -- so there's at least a decent chance things will get better from here.

If I continue to go chronologically, and I don't see why I wouldn't, next up in April will be another Shakespeare adaptation, his 1948 version of Macbeth. Given that this is not one of my favorite Shakespeare tragedies, there could be more disappointment on the horizon. 

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Stanley Tucci makes me a Negroni

We've gone away for my wife's birthday, a landmark birthday, though it was by the skin of our teeth. We were actually supposed to go to an island off the coast of Queensland (remember: landmark birthday), but we scuttled those plans just in time not to get charged for various things, a week out of when we were supposed to leave. Turns out that was smart, because a few days later, not only could we not leave the state, we couldn't leave a five-kilometer radius around our house. That's right, about a dozen cases from a hotel quarantine breach had forced the state premier to announce a five-day lockdown, set to end the day after we had been scheduled to leave for Queensland.

But that was still a day before my wife's birthday. Whether it would end or not, we weren't sure, but we did manage, in the meantime, to make reservations at a winery about 90 minutes outside of Melbourne, which has a fancy hotel, pool, restaurant, spa, and the place we're staying, a series of five newly outfitted Airstream trailers that also have access to all of the above. We're not staying in all five of them; one is enough (just barely). (They're amazing but oh so small!) 

So yeah, spoiler alert, the lockdown did end as only an additional few stray cases directly related to that localized outbreak came through over the remainder of the five days. (And there was probably also pressure to get fans back in the stands for the Australian Open.) My wife had said she wanted to be anywhere on her birthday other than the house where she'd been cooped up most of the past year, and thankfully, that did work out. Whew.

One of the things our fancy Airstream came stocked with was this:

Not for free, mind you, but holidays like this are meant for a little indulgence, and I decided it was worth the $20 to find out about it. 

Now, I'm not part of the gin craze so I hadn't actually heard of this, nor did I realize it was even gin-based. But I do have a couple bottles of gin at home acquired as gifts and once to make a martini, so going through this gin a bit faster than we are (which is, not at all) had a benefit to me as well. 

I didn't drink it our first night because we hadn't yet made ice. The tray was there but it was empty.

The second night, my wife's actual birthday, we were talking about it over her birthday dinner (steak and yummy vegetables) and she mentioned that Stanley Tucci had become a bit of a sensation (outside of the things that already make him a sensation) early in the pandemic with his viral video of how to make a Negroni. Now it was all circling back in my memory, though I'd never watched the video myself. 

It was enough time later, back at the Airstream, that this conversation was no longer at the forefront of my mind. I chucked my Negroni in the freezer for 15 minutes (as the bottle recommends), plucked some ice out of the ice trays and poured. Then it was time to find my movie for the night.

I had decided on two criteria for my movie: Netflix (because you have to choose a streaming service, even if you are just randomly choosing) and horror (because I like watching horror movies when I'm in a camper or other semi-exposed sleeping arrangement). As it was 10:45 already, I imposed a third criterion that it had to be 90 minutes, or only a few minutes over. 

The movie that met all three criteria was the exactly 90-minute The Silence, which I remembered hearing about a couple years ago when it first came out. I remembered it was supposed to be some kind of ripoff of Bird Box, and not very good. But who said a horror movie had to be very good in order to watch it?

As I started watching, I remembered that the movie it was supposed to be ripping off was not Bird Box, but A Quiet Place, as the premise is almost exactly the same. I actually liked some things about this better than A Quiet Place, though I suppose ultimately it's the lesser movie. 

The next thing I noticed after I started watching?

It stars Stanley Tucci.

You could say something stuck in the back of my brain from our earlier conversation and my impending Negroni, but I don't really think that's true. After all, the movie had to meet three other criteria before whether Stanley Tucci was in it or not could even be a factor in my decision-making. 

I ended up enjoying both my Negroni and my movie. As gin is one of only three alcohols in a Negroni -- the others being campari and sweet red vermouth -- the gin taste didn't dominate, and the drink overall had a sort of summery freshness to it. It actually being summer here, that was quite welcome. 

And I was surprisingly involved in the movie. I guess it's kind of an addictive premise, even if A Quiet Place already did it a year earlier, but I'm sure A Quiet Place was not the first horror movie in which silence is the only way to prevent your imminent death. (In fact, hiding from serial killers involves silence, meaning the concept goes pretty much back to the beginnings of horror.) One thing I actually liked about it relative to A Quiet Place is that Tucci feels more like a regular guy going through this scenario, a square dad type, rather than man-of-action John Krasinski with his mountain man beard. I'm also a big Kiernan Shipka fan after her work in The Blackcoat's Daughter -- another movie I watched in a camper-type setting that scared me half to death -- and she did not disappoint. (The Silence did not scare me half to death, I should clarify, but the swooping bat-things that are destroying society were creepy and effectively designed, and had me looking over my shoulder at apparent noises, not to mention brushing moths away from my face with extra urgency and vigor.) 

In fact the only thing that was a little bit disappointing about the experience was Tucci's Negroni video, which I watched after I finished the movie. I was first of all surprised to see it had only 89,000 and change views on YouTube, a lot less than I was expecting for an apparent phenomenon, though I guess most people watched it on a platform other than YouTube. And though I found the three-minute video charming enough, it isn't the kind of thing that I thought would make headlines, except that it was April of last year, and peering through the windows into celebrities' pandemic homes was very novel right at the start. 

I may come back to the video, though, as I liked my Negroni enough to consider making it from scratch for myself in the future. And if they replenish the Negroni I consumed when they bring our eggs and bacon for tomorrow's breakfast, it's entirely possible there will be another one in my future tonight. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

I'm tired of hearing about Zack Snyder's Justice League

This new Justice League better be good.

I suppose there's a lot riding on it. I suppose it's not just a lark. I suppose it could change the whole direction of a studio's most profitable revenue stream, the superhero movie, for Warner Brothers.

But boy am I tired of hearing about it. 

Here's a quick survey of headlines just from emails I receive from MovieWeb, which is not my only source of movie-related news, meaning this is only a slice of the news I've been exposed to. (I don't delete any of these because I'm hoarder, making this search a lot easier.) To be clear, I didn't actually click on the link to read more than one or two of these:

"Darkseid Officially Revealed in Justice League Snyder Cut" - 6/20/19 - This was before anyone was talking about re-releasing the movie, just more scraps of non-news from this site based on things like a director showing a piece of cutting floor footage.

"Zack Snyder Proves Snyder Cut Exists with New Evidence and Official Runtime?" - 12/7/19 - Starting to sound more official? No, this is still just MovieWeb blowing smoke. But hang on, we're getting there.

"Zack Snyder Cut of Justice League Officially Being Released in 2021" - 5/23/20 - Okay, finally some real news. And the six-month intervals so far are certainly acceptable. But wait, it starts to get more ridiculous. Just a few days later:

"Martian Manhunter Teased in New Synder Cut Justice League Photo" - 5/28/20 - Yeah, this is the bread and butter of this geek-focused entertainment news outlet. Whole articles about deep cut comic book characters most people have never heard of.

"Darkseid Arrives in Zack Snyder's Justice League First Look" - 5/30/20 - Just two days later, we're on Darkseid again. This email blast also included two separate stories about Henry Cavill that also had Justice League tie-ins.

"Zack Snyder's Justice League Cut is Making One Big VFX Change" - 6/10/20 - Oh, they waited ten days this time.

"First Darkseid Footage Revealed in Zack Snyder's Justice League Teaser" - 6/20/20 - WHAT IS IT WITH DARKSEID? Ten days again. That's five stories in less than a month.

"Zack Snyder's Justice League Transforms Superman into the DCEU's Greatest Hero" - 7/23/20 - Better than Wonder Woman? I doubt it. They gave me a month to breathe this time.

"Zack Snyder is Happy to Finish His Justice League Cut for Free" - 7/30/20 - At least this non-news is a story of a human being being decent.

"New Snyder Cut Footage Arrives, Full Justice League Trailer Drop this Saturday" - 8/22/20 - I suppose the release of a trailer qualifies as actual news.

"Zack Snyder Loves the Violent Vigilant Beatdown in The Batman Trailer" - 8/29/20 - Technically not about Justice League, but I'm including it because I like to shake my head about the stories that boil down to "People say stuff about other stuff." I've complained about this before. 

"Zack Snyder Wanted Carla Gugino as Catwoman in the DCEU: - 11/14/20 - Ditto. (You can tell my search word was "snyder" rather than "justice," which would have brought up a million social justice emails.) But hey, they somehow took a three-month break here. My only conclusion is that I deleted those emails.

"Zack Snyder's Justice League Will Be Released in Early 2021, According to Warner Brothers" - 12/5/20 - Now we're back on track. But this is only a slight variation on the earlier release story.

"Zack Syder's Justice League May Get an R-Rated Theatrical Release" - 12/17/20 - Interesting enough. But you an see how this accumulation of headlines is starting to burrow into the annoyance center in my brain, can't you?

"Zack Snyder's Justice League is Officially R-Rated for Violence and Batman F-Bombs" - 2/6/21 - Again, interesting enough, but I'm done with this. 

"Jared Leto Returns as Joker in Zack Snyder's Justice League First Photos" - 2/11/21 - Oh no, now a concrete reason not to look forward to it. 

Fortunately, that was six days ago and there has not been another. Yet. (Though I did spare you a couple other "what Zack Snyder said, what he would like to say or do, what movie he would like to make" stories along the way.)

The movie comes out on March 18th, which likely means the stories will just intensify from here.

It's possible I could do this same kind of analysis for any big superhero or other geek-focused movie coming out. MovieWeb does not need an excuse to write about something, and might create their own news related to an upcoming movie if they thought it suited them. I could see them writing a story called "Fans Say They Would Like to See Zack Snyder's Justice League Cut Released" after themselves creating a poll asking this question.

But it sure is a lot of oxygen for a movie that stunk the first time and that I can't imagine people are all that excited about revisiting, except for the hype surrounding it.

Snyder got to make his own unfettered version of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and it was scarcely better liked than Justice League, if at all. Actually, it was not better liked, as the former received a mere 28% on Rotten Tomatoes' to the latter's 40%.

Still, I suspect the hype has worked and that fans will want to see this, if not in the theater (as it will surely be released here in Australia) then on HBOMax, where it will be very easy for them to pause as much as they want over the course of the (gasp) 240-minute running time.

I guess if there's a real reason to cheer this, it's not Snyder trying to correct the record on the movie Joss Whedon tried to salvage but probably ended up making worse. It's that the reason Snyder had to quit the movie before post-production was finished was because his daughter committed suicide. That's an awful thing that you would not wish on anyone, and definitely not on a person who is guilty of nothing more than being a glorified hack. (Though I do love Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen.) 

If releasing a new cut of Justice League helps Snyder get over his grief, perhaps even providing closure on the darkest period of his life, then more power to him.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Still too Shebulba

Eleven years ago on this blog I wrote a piece called "Too Shebulba," which was inspired by Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. It was about movies, like The Fountain, that span generations if not centuries, and feature mystical/sci-fi concepts that are presented as is, without much attempt to explicate them -- leading to expressionistic narratives that are better appreciated emotionally than cognitively, if it they're appreciated at all.

Of course, the concept of "Shebulba" was my mishearing of the actual word from the movie, Xibalba, the name for the Mayan underworld. It's also the name of a nebula with a dying star in the movie, though that's not a real thing. Having said in that piece that the movie never tells you what "Shebulba" means clearly shows how little I was paying attention to Aronofsky's film, or that I checked out earlier than I thought I had. There's a minute's worth of dialogue about it and then a couple other references over the course of the narrative. Given the movie, you can't really blame me for checking out. 

The correct spelling "Xibalba" was pointed out to me, very helpfully, in the comments section of that post. There were four unique commenters on that post, as a matter of fact. In a development befitting of a movie like The Fountain, those commenters have all disappeared into the ether over the decade since then, either gone on to other things (most likely) or possibly gone on to meet their maker (less likely but technically possible). Blogging has become almost an archaic form of mass communication, so it's placing me in a very Shebulba frame of mind this morning as I think wistfully about times past. (I should say, one of the commenters is actually one of my best friends and he is alive and well.)

Even though I know now the word is "Xibalba," "Shebulba" remains a useful way of talking about the thing I was talking about 11 years ago -- movies with their heads so far up their own asses that even superlative filmmaking technique or performances cannot really redeem them.

And I'm sorry to say, The Fountain is still an example of that type of movie.

Saturday night, I watched Aronofsky's third feature for the first time since I originally watched it on video back in the summer of 2007. It seems hard to believe that I would not have prioritized seeing this in the theater -- however Shebulba it looked, it was still from the guy who directed Requiem for a Dream, and deserved to be reckoned with. My viewing mentality has become much more completist in the 14 years since.

It also seems hard to believe this was only Aronofsky's third feature. He released Requiem in 2000, and though it was polarizing to say the least, it should have earned him a follow-up movie pretty quickly, given the evident talent on display. Instead, it was six more years before The Fountain came out, likely because that's just the type of movie it is -- it's hard to direct a movie quickly while your head is up your ass.

Given that the majority of Aronofsky's four subsequent films have been big hits with me, including a #1 movie of the year (The Wrestler) and two top 20 finishers (Black Swan and mother!), I thought it was definitely worth going back and watching The Fountain through the lens of the career that would follow. Actually, both Noah and mother! have been a bit Shebulba to varying degrees, the former an occasional success for me and the latter an unqualified one. In the context of the career Aronofsky would go on to have, The Fountain might seem less like a square peg.

Yeah nah.

This was pretty much just as difficult to sit through the second time as it was the first. I may have been a bit more engaged, as I did notice the Xibalba references this time (probably because I was looking for them), but I simply could not extract any additional emotional resonance from the film. Aronofsky clearly thinks of this as a centuries-spanning love story, but that just doesn't land with me.

And it should, because I am susceptible to that type of project. I've just reminded you on Friday, in my post about the new movie Long Story Short, that I love stories that deal with the uncontrollable slippage of time, particularly those where characters age at different rates from each other, leading to exquisite melancholy. As Hugh Jackman's character is immortal here, and may have witnessed everything from the death of his love to the death of the entire planet earth, he fits this description to a T, as does the movie.

Even though I definitely see what Aronofsky is doing more this time, the execution of it is just too scrambled, only fitfully successful, for me to really improve my perception of the movie. I still end up asking myself if the two characters played by Rachel Weisz actually bear any relationship to one another, or if one just reminds him of the other physically, which is why he fell for her. I still have more questions than answers about how he lived his life for hundreds of years (if not thousands, we can't tell how far in the future the version of himself enclosed in the bubble floating in space is actually living) as essentially an undead vampire, such that he'd become a respected medical doctor without any record of him having attended medical school, or even graduated high school.

I guess you are not supposed to think about these things in The Fountain if it is working for you. That's the expressionistic part over the cognitive part. And the key is believing the love between the two characters, without which you don't really get the sense that they have a centuries-spanning connection that defies logic. I didn't, so the movie falls flat for me.

Since we are talking about matters of eternal life and lack thereof, I guess this will probably be the last time in my life I watch The Fountain. Saying you will probably never watch a movie again shouldn't, but does, seem fatalistic somehow. I mean, realistically, you will never again see 75% of the movies you have seen, if not more. 

But maybe in this case I have the nagging feeling there's a nut in The Fountain I still haven't cracked, meaning the potential still exists for me to do so at some point. After all, one of the commenters in my 2010 post said he thought it was this generation's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it took until my third viewing of that one for me to really appreciate it. Now it's in my top 20 of all time.

Maybe on my own death bed, when my life is slipping through my fingers, and these themes have a maximum possible resonance for me as I stare eternity in the face, I will watch The Fountain a third time, and it will finally not be too Shebulba. 

Monday, February 15, 2021

No Valentine's movies for anyone

It's Valentine's Day, but is it really?

Actually, it isn't really in Australia -- that was yesterday. But for North Americans and Europeans reading this, it still is, or might still be, if you are reading this soon after I post it. 

Or sort of is not.

COVID is still running rampant many places around the world, and the timing is such that even a place where it hasn't been lately -- Victoria, the state that houses such metropolitan areas as Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo, and the state where I currently live -- is about halfway through a five-day lockdown caused by a breach at one of our quarantine hotels.

So even here people aren't feeling very Valentines-y this year. 

When I asked my wife if she wanted to watch "something special" on Sunday night, she said, "You mean you want to watch a romantic comedy?"

"Yeah, I guess no," I said.

And I really didn't want to. I wasn't feeling it. 

Valentine's Day is not a big deal in our household anyway, as my wife's birthday is just five days later. We usually at least mark it with cards, sometimes the occasional chocolate or two and probably a yummy dinner, cooked on our own stove. This year, we ordered takeout from a local Mexican restaurant. It's yummy Mexican and was, indeed, our one gesture toward Valentine's Day this year. Oh, and I wore a red shirt, which is my custom. 

The other gesture we usually make is to watch a romantic comedy. Last year, for example, was a real win with my second and her first viewing of Always Be My Maybe

This year?  

At least we went for something that would put a smile on our faces: the third-to-last episode of Schitt's Creek, the end of which we are drawing out as long as possible. As two of the main characters are preparing for their wedding, it at least had a chance to be romantic, though this particular episode was not.

Later, I watched the sci-fi movie Synchronic, which was not romantic either.

Onward and upward.

If you're enjoying a traditional Valentine's Day, more power to you. Let's all get vaccinated and meet back here this time next year to watch Sleepless in Seattle

Sunday, February 14, 2021

How I knew I might be mistaken about Soul

No film in my top ten of 2020 has taken more of a beating since I anointed it than Soul.

Some films took a beating before then -- like my #1, I'm Thinking of Ending Things -- but only since I closed off my list a month ago have I become fully cognizant of the mixed response to Pixar's latest.

I'll get into the nature of that response later, though you are surely aware of it. Suffice it to say that I read none of the think pieces or heard none of the podcasts devoted to those concerns until after I'd already cemented for all time its place in my personal record books. This is not to suggest a person has to be swayed by think pieces or podcasts, but to disregard opposing viewpoints in one's analysis of a film is also pretty obtuse, and means you aren't really giving a favorite film the chance to weather the storm of reasonable criticism. 

There were signs I should have seen, however, that I might myself have been more mixed on Soul than I thought I was, and definitely not as confident in it as a #4 year-end ranking might suggest. And it has to do with the ways I've written about it.

Specifically, I wrote more than a thousand words on Soul when I reviewed it for ReelGood, and don't feel at any point that I successfully described what I liked about it. 

Any review that starts off this way is in trouble:

"When Disney lost the theatrical release of its 2020 tentpole Mulan to the pandemic, it scrambled to recoup losses by premiering the movie on Disney+ – but for a $30 rental price, even for the streaming service’s current subscribers. Less than three months after Mulan’s 27 March expected theatrical release, Pixar’s latest, Soul, had also been scheduled to debut. Instead of charging an arm and a leg to rent this one, Disney released it for free to subscribers on Christmas Day."

That's not a bad paragraph in and of itself, but it's not really talking about the movie, now is it? 

And then I make matters worse by expending another hundred words (actually, 66) comparing a movie I'm not talking about with the movie I am, for little other reason than I had to continue the review as I'd already started it. 

The change in strategy may have been learning the new pandemic landscape, or it may just have been a gross miscalculation of the respective quality of the two films. Though we’re certainly glad we didn’t have to pay $30 to watch the latest absolute gem from Pixar, it would have been worth $60 when measured against yet another perfunctory live-action remake of the studio’s animated IP.

The fact that I didn't start talking about Soul proper until the third paragraph suggests I was stalling, doesn't it? It may not have seemed that way at the time to me, but if a writer feels hesitantly about the thing they are writing about, it comes through. That's not the same as feeling mixed on it. You can write confidently while both liking and disliking things about a movie. No, I think this kind of dilly-dallying comes from being not sure, at a deeper level, whether the opinion you're about to espouse is actually correct. 

I won't keep excperting from the review, but I will tell you that there's a fair bit of plot synopsis, comments on what you might call "surface elements" (the appearance, the voice acting, the score), and not very much about what the movie is about. I think Soul is about a lot, some of it very good, some of it a bit muddled. But when you don't really talk about those things in a review, it's a problem.

The whole review is here if you want to see for yourself.

I don't look back proudly on every review I write, of course, but I do generally like the reviews I write about movies I love. Great movies almost always inspire me to at least one of elegant turn of phrase, some expression of my enthusiasm that is exactly what I mean to say. That never happened in my Soul review, perhaps because deep down, I was papering over flaws that I did not want to see.

I had another chance to write about Soul in my year-end post, in which I spend about 250 words blurbing on each of my top ten movies. Again I whiffed on Soul. I spent time talking about trivial, statistics-minded observations like this being Pete Docter's second time making my top ten after Inside Out, and Pixar landing two movies in my top ten. In fact, the number of times I've compared Soul to Inside Out should have revealed to me my reservations about it as a unique creative triumph for Pixar.

It's easy to see why my judgment was a bit clouded on Soul. I've mentioned it a couple times before. We watched it on New Year's Day, my son's seventh birthday, projected on the wall of the hotel where we were staying, with both his aunt and his grandmother in attendance. It was a triumphant execution of a perfectly conceived birthday surprise, and my son told me it was his favorite part of the trip. I was in a "good dad glow" as I watched it, and those enthralling surface elements -- like the appearance and the score -- made it easy to maintain that high.

But people have had a lot of legitimate complaints about Soul, and it's not just the racial ones. Though those are probably the most damning. Although the ways Soul is tone deaf are not, I think, as bad as the movie's most strident critics have portrayed them to be, you can't escape the fact there's something a little off about the way the movie's racial politics play. I do see a few of the blackface criticisms in the body swapping plot, and it doesn't matter if you can explain them away with unassailable talking points. (Like the fact that Kemp Powers was brought in to rework the script and gets a co-director credit.) What matters is the feel it has, and I agree, it is not always exactly the right feel.

I won't get deeper into the ways some Black audiences are put off by the movie, because there are plenty of places you can find whole pieces on that. I will say that none of these points sounded off base to me, and they have no doubt contributed to a shift in my perspective on the film.

But then there are more basic issues about the world, its rules, the way the story is structured, the ultimate message, and even the appearance of the film -- the part that shouldn't prompt any complaints from the world's most accomplished purveyor of computer animation -- that have been put out there. I heard one person say the ways the Great Before and the Great Beyond were envisioned were not particularly surprising, outside of the Picasso-like creatures that run the place, whom everyone seems to love. There are questions as to whose story this is, and whether the movie gets taken away from Pixar's first Black protagonist by a white woman (well, the voice of one anyway). Oops, I guess I said I wouldn't delve too much more into the racial stuff.

I think I really started to question by own enthusiasm -- don't forget, I gave the film a near-perfect 9/10, which translates to 4.5 stars out of 5 -- not because of the podcasters or think pieces, but when a friend of mine said: "Even if I saw only ten films this year, Soul wouldn't be in my top ten."

That comment really struck me because this guy is a huge Pixar fan, and fan of animation in general. His comment was a response to my placement of Soul within my top ten, so that was the inspiration for this particular phrasing, but he wouldn't have said it unless he really wanted to indicate how much the movie had failed him. 

What this all means is not that I don't like Soul anymore, or even that I don't love it. I might still love it. And that's where a second viewing will come in.

Not now, maybe not even soon. But sometime, when I'm not being biased by the look of exquisite joy on my son's face, I will need to wrestle with this movie again, given all I know about how other people feel about it.

I guess with Pixar, I get this feeling that if they are really going for something and mostly succeeding, it's a home run. Pixar usually has ambition on its side, and ambitious projects have served the studio well in the past. Even if it's a near miss, a Pixar near miss is another studio's home run. I feel like I'm more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt than I would be for others, because I'm so in the bag for the majority of their work. 

A #4 year-end ranking is elevated enough for a film to warrant consideration among the best of the decade. Fortunately, we're a long ways off from that. I'll have ample time in the next nine years to figure out how good Soul really is. Maybe if I do confirm my initial feelings, at last I'll be able to write something profound about it. 

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Knowing Noir: Gun Crazy

This is month two of Knowing Noir, my 2021 series devoted to classic film noirs.

No, this is not a series devoted entirely to films from 1950 -- I am now singing King Princess' "1950" in my head -- but you wouldn't know it from the first two choices. Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy is the second Knowing Noir entrant from that year after we started last month with In a Lonely Place. ("I love it when we play 1950 ...")

Before I started watching, I had my doubts that this was, in fact, a good entrant for this series, as I thought it had more of a Bonnie & Clyde vibe than an In a Lonely Place vibe. (The former being just a twinkle in someone's eye at that point.)

Then the opening shot of Gun Crazy is a lonely street corner caught in a downpour of rain, and I thought, "All good."

The story does proceed along Bonnie & Clyde lines, but it makes sure to continue employeeing noir tropes so we don't ever forget what kind of film we're watching. 

The story involves a man (John Dall) who has been obsessed with guns since he was a kid. (He's played by Russ Tamblyn, Amber's father, as a 14-year-old.) As the title would imply, the obsession is sort of a mania, as we open on him breaking a store window on that rainy night in order to steal a gun on display. He's caught when he stumbles in the rain, and the gun slides over the wet pavement to the foot of a police officer. In court, we see his sister defend him and various flashbacks that establish his initial interest in shooting, and his abhorrence over the idea of killing after he shoots a baby chicken. 

Bart Tate wants to make a living involving shooting and becomes interested in a traveling show in which novelty shooting is one of the main attractions. That's also where he meets Laurie (Peggy Cummings), one of the performers, who can shoot cigarettes out of people's mouths and other daring stunts. They have a shoot-off that establishes their mutual love for marksmanship and paves the way for them to become romantically involved, though I had to laugh over the idea of someone coming out of the crowd and being entrusted with a live gun. Even if you could be certain that they would not turn on the audience and start shooting random people, you'd have to then trust that they would be accurate enough not to kill whatever hapless person was on the receiving end of the stunt.

Anyway, it's clear they share an obsession with guns, but Laurie's may not be as comparatively innocent as Bart's. She might not have a problem with killing. In fact, she might sort of like it.

I won't go into specifics on where the story goes, but in order to talk about Laurie's influence on Bart, I'll make suggestions that you could probably infer from your assumptions of how a felt like might play out. 

The thing that makes Gun Crazy most resemble a film noir (that opening rainy street corner notwithstanding) is Laurie's classic role as a femme fatale. Bart is not a detective, but he is a guy handy with a gun who has some of the classic character flaws that define a noir protagonist (he has a kind of sweaty addiction to guns, one that makes him hyperventilate a bit) while also having a generally unpoisoned moral compass (he won't kill, even animals). She's established as a bad influence on him right from the start -- not someone with a bad agenda, necessarily, but someone who will enable him in ways he shouldn't be enabled. And her own gun mania is far worse than his, as it turns out.

There were a couple key moments I noticed that seemed like classic femme fatale behavior. When the pair inevitably turn toward crime, as you might have already guessed from my Bonnie & Clyde comparison, it's because they don't have any money, and Laurie tells Bart she can't live on the $40/week he might be able to earn from a legitimate job with his skill set. At one point she also tells him she'll "try to be good," which stood out to me as a confession of her destructive nature. 

At the time it was made, Gun Crazy could have probably gotten away with having Laurie solely responsible for Bart's downfall, as we were not as enlightened on gender politics back then as we are today, to say the least. But to the script's credit -- and I just noticed this was written by Dalton Trumbo -- she's a more complicated character than that, mostly supportive and less Lady MacBeth-ish than she could have been. She certainly does steer Bart in wrong directions, but Bart might have been headed in those directions without her help, from what we've seen of him earlier in the movie. He's presented as an addict, and an addict doesn't need much to veer off the course toward recovery.

So this is another way Gun Crazy works really well. The movie happens to be about guns, but it could be about any kind of addiction. Addiction to alcohol was not widely dramatized at the time, which is probably why the best picture winner The Lost Weekend was such a revelation to audiences a few years before this, despite being painfully on-the-nose by today's standards. Gun Crazy much more effectively depicts addiction through an intermediary, guns, an addiction which afflicts far fewer people. Substance addiction is more effectively explored metaphorically than literally. 

I ended up surprised at the ways this movie is subtle, given its pulpy presentation. That poster sells it almost as a piece of exploitation, with a title that, while accurate, is very sensationalist in nature. But this is quality filmmaking, not some pre-code B movie as it appears to be. I was particularly impressed by some of the unbroken takes, which involve characters moving from the sidewalk into a vehicle, and the camera following in the back seat of the car as it makes its way down the street, without any edits. (I also like the low angle shot through the steering wheel as they're driving, which seems to underscore their mounting panic -- something The Lost Weekend also would have done a lot more ham-fistedly.) 

If we're looking for a final noir touch, which I thought was surely intentional, the movie climaxes in a swampy environment where the characters are hiding. There's a shot where thin fern leaves cast a shadow on their faces, very similar to the width and general appearance of the classic shadow cast on the faces of noir characters by venetian blinds. 

Looks like I'm back on track with noir. Since I chose this month's movie when I wrote last month's post, might as well keep that going and commit myself to my March movie now. And that may be the one I'm most in most need of seeing in the whole series, In a Lonely Place notwithstanding. That's 1944's Gaslight, the film that contributed an entire concept to our lexicon, a concept we're all the more familiar with nowadays as we rid ourselves of the stench of Donald Trump, and particularly as we watch him on trial for impeachment.

See you then.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Night of Noni

It's been a busy week I guess, as I have uncharacteristically gone nearly a week without a post. 

Usually I write only when genuinely inspired -- even if that "inspiration" is over something trivial -- and that usually happens a bit more often than it has this week. But even though "inspired" does not really describe me as of this moment, I do have a little something, even if only to reassure you I did not die in an epic waterslide accident last weekend.

On Monday I attended my second critics screening of the COVID era, the first having come a few weeks earlier with Penguin Bloom. The movie this time was Long Story Short, as the corresponding poster may have indicated to you. It was a gloomy affair, which did not have anything to do with the premiere itself. 

It was my first time at the shopping complex in South Yarra housed in a former jam factory, known (appropriately) as Jam Factory, and the place was desolate. There's a food court area with about seven restaurants and only one of them was open. I think I saw an actual tumbleweed blow lazily through the place. More of them might have been open if it had not been a Monday, but some of them look likely never to open again. 

The phenomenon continued down Chapel Street, where every second shop had a for rent sign. This is not a particularly uncommon thing in the world at large right now, I suppose, but Melbourne, or at least the parts of it I frequent, seems to have weathered the worst of the storm. South Yarra appears to be the exception.

But the cinema was open, so I settled down for what was a very charming and escapist romantic comedy with a high-concept twist to it. Long Story Short is about a guy (Rafe Spall) who hesitates to commit to anything good in his life, and when he finally gets married, a mysterious woman curses him to begin moving forward a year at a time to his next anniversary, without any memory of what's happened in between.

I was reminded particularly of the Adam Sandler movie Click, which has not really endured anywhere except in my own mind. That's the one where he has a magical remote control that will allow him to pause and fast-forward his life (though if I remember correctly, the rewind button is broken). It's one of those movies that considers what I call "the uncontrollable slippage of time," which I wrote about here, and these movies are pretty much always a win with me, even when they are not that great (some examples included in the aforementioned post).

This one was pretty great -- 8/10, as you can see here -- but neither the decimated South Yarra shopping district nor the uncontrollable slippage of time is what I actually came here to write you about today.

In fact, I came here to write about actress Noni Hazlehurst.

Who?

Exactly. 

Here she is:

She's an Australian actress in her 60s, and considering that she's been working since the 1970s, I feel like I should have heard of her before now. I've only been in Australia for seven-and-a-half years myself, but in that time I've seen a fair bit of Australian cinema and TV. Nothing with her in it, though.

So when the trailer for June Again came on before Long Story Short -- a movie where she's an Alzheimer's patient who has a temporary bout of clarity -- I got kind of a quizzical look on my face when her name appeared in the credits. These are the types of Australian films that usually feature a Jacki Weaver or a Robyn Nevin (Relic), but here was someone I'd never heard of. And with an eccentric name like that, I should have.

I thought nothing of it until Long Story Short started, and the final credit in the acting section at the beginning was "and Noni Hazlehurst."

She has a small role in the movie and I thought she was good. I don't know if that means I'm going to rush out and see June Again, but at least I know who she is now.

It's just funny that I should have never heard of this woman and then her name appears in front of my eyeballs twice in about ten minutes. I guess that's how things go in life. Besides, often a trailer for a movie, especially at an advanced screening, bears a connection to the movie it's playing before. Maybe it was chosen because of the Noni connection.

Was this the most interesting of the three topics I touched on in this post to give the post's title? Maybe not. But hey, I wasn't supposed to really be writing a post today anyway. At least now you know I'm still alive.

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Our weekend began with a bit of a splash

A few months ago our younger son, who has since turned seven, landed on a storytelling device that was as cute in its delightful misuse of the language as it was clever in its attempted application of it.

As with most cute things kids do, it lasted only a week or two. Once we couldn't help but draw attention to it, so smitten were we with it, he dropped it like a bad habit.

He would start telling a story about something that had happened in his life and would begin with the phrase "Well my day began with a bit of a splash." He'd then proceed to tell us about some very minor mishap that had started his day, the very innocuousness of the mishap making it all the cuter.

I'm not sure exactly how he thought to use "splash" this way. I've been trying to think of an obvious single word that he meant instead of "splash," as he was clearly trying to mimic something he'd heard, probably something my wife or I said. "Things got off to a rocky start" or "We started with a bit of a misstep" is the closest I can come to it as I sit here and write this. When my wife and I were discussing the delightfulness of the malapropism, I think we had a more exact replacement at the time, but it has since escaped me.

Well, this weekend literally did begin with a bit of a splash, as in, Ron Howard's Splash.

I'm away in the town of Warragul, about 115 kilometers from our house in North Melbourne, getting ready to take my kids to a water park called Gumbuya World a couple hours from now. (Remember, it's summer here, and we are also doing well with COVID.) It'll be their first water park, and I'm a little worried about their level of confidence on the waterslides, especially the seven-year-old. But in the upper end of the range of possible outcomes, it could be an absolute blast.

The place isn't really far enough to warrant two nights out of town. In fact, most people would just do it as a day trip. But my wife and I make efforts to give each other time alone without our kids, as you would know from my previous posts about my motel movie marathons on our projector. She hasn't been off to a hotel herself in quite a while, so I think the last time I managed this for her was when I took the kids for a snow weekend back in July of 2019. (Again, remember the reverse seasons.)

So we're staying at a cute little motor inn here, minimal but decorated nicely enough, and after our pizza dinner last night we returned for another hour or so of gaming before bed. I was planning just to be on my computer, but instead flicked on the TV as I sometimes like to watch random TV when I'm in a hotel. 

I was enjoying a few minutes of a women's soccer match, but decided to hop around just to see what else was on. Which was when I landed on Splash, near its beginning, in the scene when a hungover, tuxedoed Allen Bauer is first trying to locate someone with a boat, who turns out to be Mr. Fat Jack. 

Now, I've written before on this blog how I don't like coming in to a movie partway through, due to the resulting confusion about whether to add the movie as an "official viewing" or "official rewatch" on my various lists. You can see my ruminations on that subject way back in 2009, which, as it turns out, was within a month of the last time I watched Splash

But I like to think there's room for growth in any person, and in fact, it was a similar scenario around this time last year -- when my wife and I turned on and watched (and enjoyed watching) part of Bridesmaids on a trip out of town -- that encouraged me to leave Splash on. After all, it was a childhood favorite of mine, and I could instantly feel it filling me up like the best comfort food does.

The kids were fully involved in their own screens, so I expected Splash -- which is pretty innocent outside of a couple bare butts and a lot of sexual innuendo -- to just go in one ear and out the other. (Speaking of bare butts, the initial reason I determined to keep it on was that I wanted to see if this random Melbourne TV station was using the original version of Splash, or the stupid Disney one that made headlines last year for editing digital fur on to Daryl Hannah's backside. Thankfully, it was the former.)

For my older son, it did go in one ear and out the other -- or rather, didn't even have the chance to do that, because his headphones left no ears exposed to it. The younger one, though, started getting distracted from his game pretty early on, and after I'd had it on for about 15 minutes, was basically fully committed to the movie.

Another 30 minutes after that, he told me it was his favorite movie ever. I think that was a joke. But the point was, even having not seen the beginning and having not paid much attention at the point we did start watching, its obvious charm had made an immediate connection with him. I didn't ask him what the source of his attraction to the movie was, but I suspect it had to do with the infinite benevolence of Hannah's character, and the fact that she was also a mythological creature.

During commercial breaks -- of which there were many, unfortunately -- I hustled them into pajamas and got teeth brushed. I was a little surprised they endured so successfully given how late it was getting. My ten-year-old could probably play Brawl Stars all night if I let him, but the seven-year-old is usually asleep by 9. That was about when we started watching the movie. It looks like they were fitting this 111-minute movie into a 150-minute time slot -- I might have even thought the time slot was three hours, except not enough of the movie had elapsed for it to have been going on for a full hour when we started watching, even with commercial breaks that sometimes felt like they were four minutes long.

Anyway, it was probably a pretty bad dad move to keep the kids up to 11 on the night before we were supposed to spend all day at a water park, but I didn't want to deny the seven-year-old the pleasures of a movie he was really enjoying, which I had loved at about the same age his older brother is now. And of course, if I finished watching it, I'd get to count it as an "official rewatch," even having missed the first 15 minutes. That wasn't something I did with Bridesmaids, as we watched only a chunk in the middle. But even my strict rules aren't so strict as to disallow an "official rewatch" of a film I've seen ten times before, just because I missed its opening three or four scenes.

Fortunately, they both got to sleep almost immediately, which was a good thing, as the older one had just lost a tooth (yes, he's still losing teeth at age ten) and I had to put money under his pillow before I went to sleep myself. He doesn't believe in the tooth fairy anymore, but we have to keep the myth going for his younger brother, who may believe in both tooth fairies and mermaids.

As I was writing up this post, it occurred to me that I don't already have a label for Splash, meaning I haven't yet written about it in the 12-year history of this blog. That seems quite the oversight, as this was one of a dozen or so movies I had on VHS that I watched regularly in the mid- to late-1980s. There's a reason I haven't written about it, which I'm glad to say that this most recent viewing has set right.

When I last watched Splash in 2009, before either of my kids were born, it was to expose my wife to it. She grew up skeptical of Tom Hanks, but when her opinion on that changed, it changed in a big way. Or, I should say, a Big way. Big had been a particular hit with her, and I'm pretty sure we watched a few others in the first few years of our courtship. (Big also does not have a label on this blog, and it's in my top 30 on Flickchart, so I guess there's no accounting for what I write about and what I don't.) 

Splash was not a hit with her. I can't even remember why at this point. But I didn't like Splash as much as I had on previous viewings when I watched it in 2009 either. I don't think her perspective of it biased me. It was just a bad viewing, which can happen with our favorite movies. Empire Strikes Back recently spent five years in my doghouse after a bad viewing, as you may remember from this post

Well I'm glad to say that Splash is fully back in my good graces. I was steadily warmed by it throughout the viewing, remembering more than half the dialogue ("Mr. Mango on my shoulder ...") and also living vicariously through my son's first viewing. In Splash's 12 years in my personal doghouse, it dropped from in the 200s on my Flickchart to where it sits now at #528. Something tells me it will be rising again soon. 

Unfortunately, I'm not sure if the older one will get to have the same experience with Splash as his younger brother. Emerging from his headphones during the climactic scene, he suddenly became interested in it, and after we turned the lights out, harassed me into giving him a full plot synopsis of the movie. I rushed one out in about 20 seconds and we all went to bed.

At which point, there was a bit of a splash. 

I'm not sure if it was awakening to an alarm at 11:30 to place four dollars under my son's pillow, because I was able to get back to sleep after that, but something disrupted my sleep and left me wide awake at about 1 a.m. I stayed in this condition until about 3 a.m. I never sleep well in hotels, and in this instance I was sleeping in a single bed while my kids shared a queen, probably making it worse.

Part of the problem, I think, was that I'd burned the roof of my mouth on the pizza we had for dinner and it was still bothering me. I don't think a burnt roof alone can keep you awake at night, but if you are trying to get back to sleep it certainly provides a distraction.

It got so bad that I even moved to a little half couch that would only fit half of my body, to see if changing up my circumstances would lead to the much desired sleep. This also cooled me off a bit as it put me directly under the air conditioner, though the temperature wouldn't fairly be described as a reason for my insomnia either. I didn't get to sleep there, but the experience did make me a bit sleepier so that I gave the bed another shot, and finally attained oblivion.

Now, off to have a real splash at the water park. I just hope my poor sleep doesn't start off our splash with a bit of a splash.