Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Justice League bad; Wonder Woman untainted

It was impossible to be sure how I would feel about Justice League. Despite sharing the same general negativity of most discriminating fans toward the DCEU, the DCEU had redeemed itself with Wonder Woman. It's been a good year for DC in general, to the extent that you can credit DC with the success of The Lego Batman Movie.

Justice League came with some advanced bad press, but if you can believe it, so did Wonder Woman. I can't remember what source this was so I can stop trusting it, but the first buzz I heard about Wonder Woman was that it was just as guilty as the other DC movies of unforgivable excess and general lack of quality. Of course, that turned out to be wrong.

One thing I felt sure about, or at least scared about, was that if Justice League was bad, it would directly taint my fond memories of Wonder Woman. It made me not want to see Justice League at all. There are other big 2017 movies I've been skipping for far less legitimate reasons, such as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, because I am only lukewarm on the original.

Then again, for the hope that Gal Gadot's already iconic hero could elevate poor material rather than be dragged down by it, I went anyway.

Well, Justice League is, in fact, bad. But so far, it doesn't have any impact on my love for Wonder Woman.

"So far" = 12 hours since I've seen it, so we'll have to wait and see, and the true test is when I watch Wonder Woman a second time, probably in December. But so far so good.

What's on screen in Justice League is not good. What's off screen may be worse. The film feels unfinished, especially in its visual effects, which I suppose is not something we can blame only on bad filmmaking. Zack Snyder had to leave the project in order to be with his family after his adopted daughter committed suicide, and that's not a thing anyone should make light of. Snyder should probably just get a pass on this movie altogether.

And in truth, the vintage Zack Snyder sequences in this film really work. There's an opening credits montage in which we get a glimpse of society in the wake of Superman's death, and it's scored to a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" performed by the singer Sigrid. It reminded me of my favorite sequence of Snyder filmmaking, the opening of Watchmen to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin.'" (And Snyder also used Cohen's "Hallelujah" in Watchmen.)

But so little of everything else feels coherent. That's despite me generally liking each of the three new heroes we're introduced to, particularly Jason Momoa's Aquaman, who I expected not to like. It was Ben Affleck and (heh, "spoiler" alert) Henry Cavill who I really didn't like.

So what about Diana Prince, the erstwhile Wonder Woman?

I suppose Gadot's magnetism and heroism are still there, but she's definitely someone who benefits from good direction and is limited by bad. I suppose any actor is that way, but it's clear how much more comfortable Gadot felt in the hands of Patty Jenkins. Of course, being the main character in your own movie puts you in a different head space as a performer. Even though Wonder Woman has as much to do here as anyone does, her character arc is definitely squeezed in, and it feels like that. What's worse, the story suggests that she's basically been in hiding for the full century (!) since the events of her movie. Although Wonder Woman 2 (and 3, and 4) will certainly give lie to that, it's pretty damn disappointing to learn that Diana is ashamed of her own filling or failure to fill the role of a hero for a hundred years.

And yet I don't think this has any practical impact on my feelings toward Wonder Woman, though as I said I can't be sure until I watch it again. The same logic applies as for inferior sequels. You don't now hate The Matrix just because the two sequels are sub-par. (Or maybe you do, I don't know.) I'm seeing Wonder Woman and Justice League the same way.

The only thing I wish is that Justice League had not been in the same calendar year as Wonder Woman, as it does potentially complicate my year-end ranking of the latter film. I don't mind telling you that Wonder Woman is currently entrenched in my top five of the year, out of nearly 100 movies I've seen. I'd rather have gotten its ranking out the door and into the official record books before I had to even contend with Justice League, but short of skipping that movie, I wasn't given the choice. I suppose one of these years Marvel or DC might even manage to squeeze the same character into three different movies released in the same year.

And there's a chance Wonder Woman, at least this Wonder Woman, won't have to undergo any further tainting. Gadot has said she won't play Wonder Woman again if Brett Ratner stands to profit from it in any way. This is in the wake of allegations of sexual misconduct against everybody's favorite hack punching bag.

That's the Diana I know and love.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Five sexual assault allegations that would crush me

As the other shoe drops – and drops and drops and drops – in the draining of the Hollywood swamp of sexual predators, I keep thinking that the next one is going to truly devastate me. I mean, I was a bit devastated by the Louis CK revelations, as discussed in this post, but if I’m being honest, CK has only been a part of my life for about the past decade. There are pop culture personalities that would leave me far more devastated.

The following should not be thought of as a list of my five favorite Hollywood personalities, just the five who would most sadden me if they were revealed to be letches. I should say, the five who would most sadden me after thinking about it for about eight minutes.

For obvious reasons, they are all men. I suppose one day we may actually hear about a powerful woman harassing a man … and won’t that be a good day for our society, as it will mean that things aren’t as white male-dominated as they seem today.

They are:

5) George Clooney – Possibly the man I’d most like to be in Hollywood. Not only is he handsome and debonair and funny, but he seems incredibly nice, and doesn’t seem likely to ever treat women as pieces of meat. Clooney doesn’t make any of my lists of favorite actors, but he’s clearly a favorite personality of mine, a source of joy we could ill afford to lose from the Hollywood landscape.

4) Morgan Freeman – Maybe he’s inherited the grandfatherly black gentleman mantle I had once entrusted to Bill Cosby. Freeman is a treasure, and if I heard he was a skirt chaser, who would be the voice of God in my head?

3) Steven Spielberg – I’m not sure why I’m including Spielberg except that I felt a person with real power – the power that goes beyond being an influential actor – should appear here. I can’t imagine a filmography like his being something that becomes tainted, that we would have to distance ourselves from.

2) Tom Hanks – I had a moment of horror a week or two ago when a humor website posted the following headline: “Another Actress Steps Forward Accusing Tom Hanks of Being Nice.” The only parts of the sentence I initially took in were “another actress” and “Tom Hanks.” Sigh of relief upon comprehending the entire sentence. What can I say about Hanks that hasn’t already been said?

1) Barack Obama – Okay, Obama is not an actor, a director, a producer, or really, anything to do with Hollywood. But with other presidents very much connected to this wave of victims coming forward, particularly George H.W. Bush (to go along with what we already know about Clinton and Trump), I just thought about how it would literally kill me if something came out about my hero Barack Obama.

And to the hundred others whose tainting would drive a stake through my heart, but who I’m not thinking of right at this moment … well, you be good too. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

My top five gay romances in film

It was a good day in Australia yesterday.

Although marriage equality was not passed, the results of a non-binding postal vote were indeed read. And that vote told the politicians, who would actually have the power to legalize gay marriage in Australia, that the citizens themselves are not opposed to the idea.

Sixty-one percent of those who responded to the vote, in fact, felt this way. After Brexit and Trump, someone finally stuck it to the right wing.

Having missed various landmark moments in the U.S. fight to legalize gay marriage, I've decided to use this symbolic moment instead to post my top five gay romances in film.

Unfortunately, given the traditionally straight-leaning tendencies of cinematic history and my own viewing patterns -- there's plenty of queer cinema out there, but I only actively seek out the most prominent examples -- some of my choices may seem like fairly flimsy examples of compelling gay relationships. Either they are not central to the movie, or they are not the first thing you notice about that particular movie. And there may be some obvious examples I am excluding, either because I thought they were too obvious or because they just don't happen to hit my personal sweet spot. (Much as I like it, Brokeback Mountain is kind of an example of both.)

But this is what I've chosen, and I hope some of these qualify as personal sweet spots for you as well.

Listed alphabetically by title of the movie:

1) But I'm a Cheerleader (2000, Jamie Babbitt) - Megan & Graham

I had occasion to praise this film only a few weeks back on this blog when I revisited it for the first time in a decade. It was my most obvious candidate for this list, as it tells the story of lesbian-in-denial Megan (Natasha Lyonne) and lesbian-in-full-flower Graham (Clea Duvall), who discover their love for each other at a camp intended to cure them of their homosexuality. Not only is the development of their relationships sweet and disarmingly free from cynicism, but it culminates (spoiler alert!) in my favorite homosexual variation on that scene at the end of most romances where the guy completes a grand gesture in order to win the girl back. As it turns out, a girl and a girl can do this too.

2) Confetti (2006, Debbie Isitt) - Archie & Gregory

This mockumentary about a reality show in which people compete to stage the most original themed wedding would seem to focus on the three heterosexual couples competing on the show. But at the true center of the film is the two men helping plan all three weddings, who are also romantic partners. Vincent Franklin and Jason Watkins each play the character Christopher Guest would have played if he'd made this movie, but roles that seem to have been written as comic relief take on real heft as the film becomes sneakily emotional. As the two wedding planners succumb to stress and the emotional toll of the task they're involved in, the strength of their own relationship is emphasized amid the revelation that the others in question don't have nearly their solid foundation.

3) Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994, Mike Newell) - Gareth & Matthew

My second straight choice in which the gay couple is tellingly looking in from the outside on multiple weddings. Only after Gareth (Simon Callow) has died at one of these weddings do the characters in his social group, who had previously thought themselves all hopelessly single, acknowledge that Gareth and Matthew (John Hannah) were for all intents and purposes married. They modestly yield the spotlight to others, but when it's time to honor his passed partner, Matthew takes the moment and delivers one of the most heartfelt and memorable poetic eulogies in film. It's because I love this movie so much that I can nearly recite W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues."

4) Love is Strange (2014, Ira Sachs) - Ben & George

Ben (Alfred Molina) and George (John Lithgow) are the one couple on my list who do get to marry -- and it ruins them. The pictures of his wedding on social media cause Ben to lose his teaching job at an uptight private school, which had been keeping the couple afloat in their expensive New York apartment. Once they must sell and look for other arrangements, they are forced apart by the prejudices of society and the realities of finance, though their love and affection for one another never wavers. Theirs is a mature love that insists on focusing on the positive and proceeding forward without regret, as these two old souls seem to exchange glances that say, unmistakably, "This is the way the world goes."

5) Philadelphia (1993, Jonathan Demme) - Andy & Miguel

We don't get to see Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) and his lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas) together all that often in this movie, as the focus of the movie is (rightly) Andy's legal battle to retain his job and his relationship with the lawyer (Denzel Washington) he hires to represent him. But their few scenes together are powerhouses, demonstrating the type of unconditional love of which most straight couples could only dream. Even though it was Andy cheating on Miguel that infected him with AIDS, and that that infidelity could have even infected Miguel with the virus, Miguel is fiercely loyal toward his lover and at his bedside, literally and figuratively, during every stage of his decline. If they don't have the "in sickness and in health" part of marriage down, I don't know who does.

Honorable mentions:

1) Kissing Jessica Stein (2002, Charles Herman-Wurmfeld) - Jessica & Helen

I felt bad having only one female couple on here, but Jessica couldn't quite crack my top five for the slight problem that its title character is really a heterosexual experimenting with homosexuality. But I love this movie and the relationship between these characters is sweet and honest.

2) Flirting With Disaster (1996, David O. Russell) - Paul & Tony

Got to get a straight (to use the word loosely) comedy on here. You wouldn't at first think this movie contains the most forward portrayal of a gay relationship, but there's something so easy and comfortable about the relationship of the two buttoned-up ATF agents who join the wacky road trip at the center of this movie.

As gay marriage moves closer to being the law of the land everywhere in the world -- though it may take some countries another century to get there -- I hope that searching my list of favorite films won't produce so relatively few contenders for a list like this. But it stands to reason that the more it's accepted, the more we'll see more movies featuring both central and side gay relationships ... as many as possible of which will end in marriage.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The original use of original

I have watched a lot of movies on Netflix recently, but none of the type I used to. Before Netflix spent ten gazillion dollars on content and began releasing three new movies per week, I primarily used it as a way to watch older titles, and as one of a couple alternatives for receiving a steady flow of new releases, particularly independent films. It was fun to go on the site and never know what new movie I’d heard of discussed on film podcasts a couple months ago might suddenly be available. It was especially handy as the clock on the calendar was winding down to December and January, and my year-end rankings were due in only a few weeks.

But lately, all the movies I’ve watched have been the ones that are available only on Netflix. In 2017 alone that list includes (in alphabetical order) The Babysitter, The Discovery, Gerald’s Game, Girlfriend’s Day, I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Collected), Okja, Tramps and War Machine. There may be one or two others. There was a time when I could count on one hand the number of Netflix originals I let onto my year-end list; this year, it will take three hands or more. And to show you how quickly this whole thing has moved – as everything does with Netflix – last year was only the first year I had any movies on my list that existed only on Netflix. (I even remember the first: Hush.)

This past weekend I thought I finally had a movie that represented the way I always used to use the service, for recently released theatrical independents debuting on streaming: The Bad Batch. Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (which would make a good companion piece to I Don’t Feel at Home in This World anymore in terms of lengthy titles) played theaters – I knew that for sure. I figured that then, in an unrelated deal, Netflix secured rights to show it on the service, rights that might have simultaneously gone to the likes of Hulu, Amazon, or Stan here in Australia.

But nope. As I started watching the movie, there was that banner “A Netflix original film” right at the start.

Netflix kind of seems to have forgotten the original usage of the word “original.”

What happened in the case of The Bad Batch is only slightly different than most of Netflix' more traditional scenarios, which is either to commission a film entirely from scratch or to acquire it at a festival before it has any other affiliations or distributors. It appears that Netflix only bought the SVOD (Subscription Video on Demand) rights to the film, while theatrical went to first Screen Media Films, but then ultimately into Neon. (I won’t even get into that part of it, the exchange of distribution rights from one company to the other, but I have to figure that’s something that happens from time to time.)

I guess having the sole right to stream the movie also confers the right to put your name in the credits?

I have to figure that Netflix, bent on world domination as it is, makes the ability to slap its name all over a movie a precondition to becoming involved with it at all.

I suppose there are still a few comparatively new releases that Netflix cannot claim any creative involvement in, such as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. However, I almost wouldn’t be surprised if I cued that up one night -- and I’m tempted to even if I didn’t like it, just to see if I missed something – and found that Netflix had wormed its way into the opening credits on that one too. “Disney, Lucasfilm and most importantly, Netflix presents … A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away …”

Stop blurring the lines, Netflix. I like my lines clear and with defined edges.

Oh, and The Bad Batch? Damn, that sure is a vapid and pointless film for something that looks so good. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Say it ain't so, Lou

I’ve wanted to write something about the recent spate of celebrities laid low by accusations of sexual misconduct, but just couldn’t find an angle of entry on the subject that I found useful. Rehashing all the standard admonishments was a bit uninspired, and anyway, I can’t write a blog post just because I feel like there’s an issue out there that needs to be acknowledged on my blog. I need to have my talking points come rushing out of me, with their only escape being my fingers on a keyboard.

That moment has finally arrived.

Before the arrival of that moment, I had considered writing about the fact that I’d seen Harvey Weinstein not once, but twice in my one weekend at Sundance in 2007. However, the connection between having seen him personally and him being a sexual criminal couldn’t be fleshed out in a way that made any sense. It threatened to verge on the wistful, as it incorporated my romanticized notions of Sundance. “Wistful” is not what Harvey Weinstein deserves.

Then when the Kevin Spacey news hit, I didn’t know what to do with that because I was initially on the wrong side of it. Before I knew that it was just the tip of the iceberg, I condemned the idea that the advance was toward a minor, as anyone would/should, but couldn’t see how it was all that similar to the Harvey Weinstein episodes. My initial public comments about it – “public” as in “on Facebook discussion threads” – were that I condemned it but didn’t see how the Weinstein allegations were what prompted Anthony Rapp to come forward, as there seem to be a false equivalency in the abuses of power. I’ve abandoned that line of thinking, you’ll be glad to know.

But now … now.

Now Louis CK is an exhibitionist and serial masturbator. It would be bad enough if it were toward strangers, but making it all the more Weinsteinian is that it involved situations with fellow female comedians who were either asked into his office/dressing room, or he went to theirs, or it was over the phone. Although I’ve been loath to read all the details, there may have been an implied it not outright stated promise to help, or threat to hurt, their careers.

The era we find ourselves in forces us to turn on a dime with our affections toward these people. Usually when the news comes out, it’s well past the stage of “innocent until proven guilty” – if there is not already an abundance of accusers when the news breaks, they proliferate soon afterward. So we don’t even get to delude ourselves into “Well, maybe he didn’t do it” and take a wait-and-see approach. He did it, and now, without even pausing to catch our breath, we must hate the man.

How can I hate Louis CK? He is been the center of some of the most brilliant comedy of the last ten years, both in his stand-up and his TV show. He hadn’t made a huge splash in the movies just yet, but his film I Love You, Daddy was about to premiere – with frighteningly relevant subject matter for the accusations against him, I’ve heard. Now it may be his The Day the Clown Cried. Will we ever see it?

To make matters worse, he’s a fellow Bostonian.

The thing that’s so difficult about this one is that he seemed so likable. Something about his face and his manner just radiated benevolence. He was a sad sack, or at least represented himself that way, but he was a loveable sad sack whose heart was in the right place. While Weinstein was always a bully and a blowhard, and Spacey always had that cold sociopath quality to him, Louis CK seemed like a genuine, regular guy, one whose overwhelming success of late felt like it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.

Well, there are a lot nicer people out there.

And I realized, two paragraphs ago, that I am referring to CK in the past tense, as though he’s dead. Which, for all intents and purposes, he might as well be.

The best parallel is to Bill Cosby. The warmth I feel toward CK is similar to the warmth I felt toward Cosby before Cosby was unveiled as a serial rapist of historic proportions. I still sometimes “forget,” only for a moment, that all this stuff happened with Cosby. It’s like my affection for him was so deeply ingrained that I can’t imagine not loving him. Yet that love was ripped away from me, and it can never come back.

Masturbating in front of people against their will is not the same as drugging them and having sex with them. But it seems difficult to imagine that CK can be reclaimed. He will fall hard off that pinnacle of comedy success and will probably never make inroads to getting back there. How can you joke about sex, a major part of his routine, when you yourself are a sex criminal? How can you joke about anything?

I need to try to get myself to a place of not wanting Louis CK back. But only hours after I first learned about his transgressions, I’m obviously not there yet.

The thing I do wonder is if this wave of victims coming forward against these Hollywood types will eventually be so widespread that Louis CK, that Kevin Spacey, even that Harvey Weinstein will be just small players in the grand scheme. It’s probably a bad analogy, but I wonder if this will be like the steroid era in baseball. Numerous names were tainted by steroid allegations or actual positive tests, but the lingering memory of those accusations/positive tests has only clung to a few key figures, like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro. “Lesser” figures have largely escaped the taint, including some (Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz) who are still playing, with fans already kind of forgetting about their suspensions and lame apologies.

Will Louis CK be a Barry Bonds or a Nelson Cruz? If enough others are implicated as sexual deviants/predators, will he come to seem like a “lesser” deviant/predator? Will he get another chance in five years, ten years? Do we even want that for him?

I suppose how and whether you apologize has something to do with that. But sexual assault, even if it is not physical, seems harder to come back from than the controversies that have surrounded Mel Gibson over the years, for example. Mel Gibson must be thinking “Not so bad now, am I?” And if you want to know whether a tainted celebrity can ever come back to be funny, well, Mel Gibson is appearing in a comedy, Daddy’s Home 2, next month.

If I were a little more enlightened maybe I would just get on my blog to call Louis CK scum and recommend his immediate imprisonment. Today’s social media climate makes it so that anything less than a full denouncement of the person in question is an indication that you are condoning and even contributing to the problem. If you want to be a truly good liberal, you can’t cling to warm feelings you had just hours ago. You can barely even acknowledge having had them. You must deliver upon that person the full weight of your unambiguous scorn.

But I’m a human, a human who loves comedy, a human loves drama, a human who loves the complex interplay of the two in our everyday interactions and struggles in the world.

This was something Louis CK specialized in, and now, he won’t be giving us any more of it for a long, long time. If ever.

So today, I’m just mourning that.

I’ll try to give you my full scorn some other day.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Wondrous

There are so many movies with the word "wonder" in their title that have been or will be released in 2017, they make up an actual measurable percentage of the total number of films. (That measurable percentage would be less than 1%, but it would be a lot more measurable than the films that have, say, "Ragnarok" in their title.)

Getting us started back in June, and really deserving to have this all to herself, was Wonder Woman – a trailblazing comic book film in many respects, and now in title as well.

It’s not the only Wonder Woman-related film of the year, though – not even close. One of them (Justice League) does not have the word “wonder” in the title, though I sure be the studio wishes they could fit it in there somewhere. (Wonder Woman and the Justice League? Wonder Woman and Her Glowering Male Counterparts?) The other does, though – it’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, which we haven't gotten here yet, but will soon. It's a story about the creator of Wonder Woman and appears to get into some of the themes of bondage that were initially present in that character and those comics.

The conglomeration of these films can be explained by Wonder Woman having a moment, I suppose. But these other three figure to only be coincidences:


This one comes out next week in the U.S. and stars no less than Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. It's directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose Perks of Being a Wallflower was a favorite of mine.

Then there's:


Todd Haynes' new film. Already out in the U.S. Not here yet. (A predictable pattern.)

And finally there's:


Woody Allen's new film. We get one a year, and he had to put "wonder" in the title of the one that came out in the same year as four other "wonder" films (or five if you count Justice League).

I wonder which one will be the best?

All I know is that the four (or five) others have a tough act to follow after my beloved Wonder Woman.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A critic out of sync

If being more and more out of sync with how others view the core aspects of your industry is a sign that you are slipping at your job, then I may be slipping as a film critic.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) is just the latest example of how I am at odds with nearly the entire critical community on a prominent film.

Simply put, I thought this movie was shit. Noah Baumbach has been on a steady but increasingly steep decline since While We're Young, which has some very strong elements but a wrap-up that I thought was beneath him, and disturbingly conventional in its plotting and execution. I thought Mistress America was a misfire from start to finish, but has a couple moments that keep me from out-and-out hating it. And now we've landed on The Meyerowitz Stories, which I pretty much hated. But just as a favor to Mr. Baumbach, who has made many films I've loved, I refrained from giving it only a single star on Letterboxd. I went with 1.5.

If you look at Metacritic, though, this movie has a 79, which includes 38 positive reviews and only one mixed review.

How can other people see such a different movie to what I see when they watch this?

The dialogue is shamefully expository and stilted. The movie never starts with any kind of thesis what it's about, so when my wife and I had to pause it at the 13-minute mark to deal with our children, we asked ourselves before resuming "What's even going on here?" The directing is some of the worst I've seen lately, which is even stranger as people have been talking about how Adam Sandler deserves an Oscar nomination for this film (if he's eligible, which goes back to yesterday's post on whether Netflix films get theatrical releases). Sandler did not commit any obvious gaffes, but award-worthy? Come on. Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller and Emma Thompson are more obvious victims of the bad directing, and what was the point of putting Adam Driver in exactly one scene playing a character whose function was indeterminable? There are absurd set pieces that go nowhere and relate to nothing, and Baumbach also employs this technique where he cuts in the middle of a line of dialogue, apparently just to jar us and make us think he's doing something interesting. In short, this is a poorly constructed film with very few merits.

But, 38 positive reviews and one mixed review.

When digging into the distribution of star ratings on Letterboxd, I found that it has 327 five star ratings, 1,042 4.5 star ratings, 3,161 four star ratings, 2,116 3.5 star ratings and 1,116 three star ratings. In short, 92% of its ratings could be construed as positive. It drops way off from there. I'm one of only 44 people who gave it 1.5 stars, and I was almost one of only 37 people to give it one star. (I guess I would have been one of 38 in that case.)

So, I'm out of sync with the rank and file cinephiles as well.

This wouldn't concern me quite as much if this had not also happened two other times within the past two weeks. And they weren't both instances of films I hated. One was one I really liked (dare I say loved?), that others hated.

The other one I hated came last Sunday, when I also issued 1.5 stars to Brigsby Bear, a precious bit of fakery that didn't make me laugh or feel anything. The distribution of positivity for this movie on Metacritic is strikingly similar. This one musters only a 68 to Meyerowitz' 79, but it has 25 reviews marked as positive, eight as mixed, and none negative. So if I were someone whose critical opinions were measured on Metacritic, I would be the only negative review for both of these movies.

Then there's the movie I really liked, which I am daring to tell you about a second time on this blog if you missed the first time: The Emoji Movie. You can just about flip the distribution of star ratings for this movie as for Meyerowitz. My rating of four stars (!) marks me as one of only 40 who gave the movie that star rating. That's compared to the 1,170 who gave it a half star.

Maybe The Emoji Movie isn't the best example. You have to expect a critic to be an outlier on certain movies. But taken in accumulation with some of my other recent judgments, it worries me.

I guess it goes back to how differently I felt about Dunkirk than most people. At least I had the good sense to cross the two-star threshold with Dunkirk. I gave it two stars. And I may watch it again before the end of the year to see how I was wrong. Watch this space.

Perhaps the most alarming thing is that I keep on having to write this post. I don't have a good way to search how many times I've written on this topic over the years, but when I came up with the title for this post, I noticed it was similar to one I'd written back in February of 2010. I called that post "A year out of sync," and commented on how much I felt I'd differed from others on the films of 2009. Was this starting way back then?

The fact that I've now divorced it from a specific slate of films, and broadened the indictment to focus on myself, is perhaps even more alarming than the thing I just called "the most alarming."

But buck up, young Vance. Just three years ago your #1 film was the film that won best picture, and two years ago your #1 film was the one that won best animated feature. Last year your #1 was the film that seemed like a shoe-in to win best foreign language film, until it didn't. You've also had times when you've worried your choices were too conventional.

I suppose every critic has these times of feeling out of sync, and they are both good and bad things depending on the circumstances. You don't want to lose your credibility by recommending things people hate and shunning things people love, but if you're always predictable and fall in line, then that's no fun either. Really, you just have to be you and give your honest opinions, and hope people value them.

I'm sure by the end of the year I will have a top ten list that looks kind of like they always do -- six or seven that are widely beloved, and three or four "weird" choices that speak more to my personal tastes, or what happens to have struck me as particularly distinctive in a given year.

The Emoji Movie won't be making that cut, at least.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Awards eligible

A simple two-word phrase clarified a bunch of things I've been thinking about related to the new streaming era we find ourselves in, and what "counts" as a legitimate movie.

That phrase is "awards eligible."

My wife was listening to the KCRW app -- or is it the All Things Considered app? -- anyway, some app. There was an "ad" on, or what passes for an ad on public radio, which is kind of like when hosts of podcasts read testimonials about their experiences with the products of sponsors. Anyway, it was for the documentary One of Us on Netflix, about Hasidic Jews who left the orthodox life.

It's something I'd seen advertised on Netflix, or perhaps even had the trailer start for me at the end of something else I'd watched (Netflix does that nowadays, curse them). I considered it and I thought "Nah. I can't be sure it's a 'real' documentary."

I've discussed this before so I won't get into it at length here, but let's just say that documentaries have been the most difficult to pin down in the streaming era, leaving me the least certain whether they would have had a theatrical release even two years ago. The probability of being released theatrically, either because they were released theatrically or because I can imagine they would have been when that was more common, has been my informal litmus test for whether I'll watch something to include it on my year-end list.

As I was listening to the sponsor segment on One of Us, the segment told me that it was from the directors of Jesus Camp, a "real" documentary from about ten years ago that I'd thought very highly of. That inched it closer to consideration for something I'd prioritize before the end of the year.

What clinched that, though, was the two-word phrase that came in at the end, almost like a legal disclaimer: "Awards eligible."

And it struck me: that's what I want to know about a film. Is it eligible for awards?

Because in order for something to be eligible for awards, it usually needs to have been released in the theater. Whether Netflix has it now or not doesn't necessarily matter to me. What matters is if it was ever, at any point, released theatrically somewhere. Presumably, this was.

I wondered why they bothered to include that at all, as that phrase was certainly not included in the ad copy just to legitimize the film in my eyes. No, I figure that KCRW being a Los Angeles station, its listeners might actually be in the position to include the movie on their Oscar ballot. While studios usually have to take out an ad in the trades to give their movie an Oscar push, I guess Netflix can accomplish the same thing by sponsoring KCRW.

Interestingly, wikipedia says nothing about a theatrical release for One of Us. It premiered at TIFF and then was available October 20th (my birthday) on Netflix worldwide. Don't see how that meets the theatrical criterion for awards eligibility.

In fact, I get this directly from the wikipedia page on the Academy Awards:

"The Best Documentary Feature award requires week-long releases in both Los Angeles County and New York City during the previous calendar year."

I suppose the wikipedia page could be out of date, but this gives lie to that:

"Effective with the 90th Academy Awards, to be presented in 2018, multi-part and limited series will be ineligible for the Best Documentary Feature award."

Well, no clarity here. We do know that OJ: Made in America can't win again, though.

Clarity or no, I'll be only too eager to add One of Us to my official Letterboxd watchlist (done so already, in fact). With the dearth of documentaries I've seen this year or can even be sure are "real" documentaries, I need any excuse I can get to promote one to full legitimacy.

Even if you can't back it up, just tell me it's "awards eligible" and I'll be good.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The horror ... the horror

Just a few thoughts and a not very clever post title related to our Halloween night viewing ... though when I say "our," I am stretching the definition of that. (More on that in a moment.) I'm falling asleep on the night after Halloween as I write this, but I can't let Halloween completely leave us without telling you what we watched. (Again, "we" is not entirely accurate.)

The movie scheduled was The Amityville Horror, and it was the comparatively rare instance of a movie my wife had seen and I hadn't. It was playing on Stan, and she selected that over a contender that I had seen but she hadn't, Berberian Sound Studio.

The viewing got off to an inauspicious start when our children repeatedly interrupted our first 20 minutes, that crucial period when the mood of a movie is set, by running up and down the hallway and shrieking at the tops of their lungs. This was at least slightly better than the other thing they did, which was the older one getting up to some unspecified naughtiness, which would later be explained to us by the younger one, semi-unintelligibly, through tears. It wasn't the naughtiness that was the big distraction; it was the tears. And though in these troubled times you never want to blame the victim, I couldn't help thinking that if the younger one would just shut up we could watch this damn movie. I suppose we couldn't fully blame them, as Halloween does tend to be an exciting time, and the sugar they'd consumed excited their blood even more.

Well, all the pausing makes Stan a little cantankerous, and whether the pausing itself was to blame in this particular instance, we started having streaming issues on our TV. A number of resets of the device that manages the streaming later, it still had not significantly improved, and my wife, who was far more sleepy and far more reclined on the couch than I was, finally gave up on it, especially considered that it was now 9:30 and we had at least 90 minutes left in the movie.

I could have done the same, but could not tolerate the idea of not completing a viewing of a horror movie on Halloween. So I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was the device connected to the TV, and not our internet itself, that was to blame for the performance issues by connecting up my laptop with an HDMI cable and playing it through there. At which point it played fine for the rest of the movie. (My wife was only a few minutes removed from having given up, but she could not be drawn back in at this point, already mentally checked into bed.)

The first substantive comment I want to make about this movie is how much of a debt The Shining owed to it a year later. Now, the actual novels on which the two films were based were both written in 1977, but Amityville made it to the screen sooner than the King novel, so the influence of one film on the other film is something that can reasonably be posited, though just barely. Both are films about families taking up residence in a building that had been the site of numerous previous murders at intervals throughout their histories. Both involve a dad slowly and surely going insane and threatening the safety of the rest of his family. And both dads even wield an axe to give themselves additional menace, even both using it on a door to the horror of the family member on the other side. Superficial similarities they may be in some way, but I couldn't help noticing them. (There's even a helpful outsider coming to bad ends in both films, played by Rod Stieger in Amityville and Scatman Crothers in The Shining.) The endings of the films diverge from one another in a fairly significant way, though that's all I'll say for those who may not have seen one or the other or both.

The other comment I wanted to make was how damn much James Brolin reminded me of Christian Bale in this movie. It was uncanny. The internet is of course well aware of this, so here, I've included one of literally dozens of side-by-side pictures of the two that someone else has gone to the trouble of constructing, even though this is not how Brolin looks in this movie:


Was that a "substantive" comment? I doubt it.

Okay, then I'll give you a few quick more.

How much of a knockout is Margot Kidder in this movie? I guess I always thought of her as attractive when she played Lois Lane, but I had never previously felt personally attracted to her before this film. There are some rather sultry still images of her available from this movie, but let's just keep it on the low end of the sleaziness scale by posting a picture where she's just plain darn cute:


Lastly, I should probably tell you how much or little this movie scared me. Well, I'm glad to say: much. I got the chills repeatedly watching this movie, from the opening shots of the famous house with its eye-like windows (and the gun shots ringing out during that stormy night), to the accumulation of flies nauseating the true believers, to the isolated strange noises and voices, to that flash of sinister red eyes by the window in that one scene (reminded me a bit of Suspiria).

This is one of the true granddaddies of horror, and it did not disappoint me, even though I too was succumbing to sleep near the end because of the aforementioned streaming delays and a couple of late nights in a row carving jack-o-lanterns and sewing Halloween costumes.

I'm glad to have finally seen it, and to have ended the month traditionally devoted to horror viewing on a good note.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Dawn of the Dead, post zombie saturation and post Snyder

By bad-mouthing cinephiles who set out on horror-themed viewing projects in October, in this post, I've cursed myself to a pretty lackluster month of horror viewing. I've tried, but all I've summoned forth is mindless slasher movies (Most Likely to Die), or mindless remakes of slasher movies (A Nightmare on Elm Street).

With two days remaining in October, I hoped it wasn't too late to turn things around.

The problem was, Monday night wasn't a very good night for a horror movie, as it was the night I'd set aside to carve this year's jack-o-lantern. Of course, that doesn't mean I wasn't going to watch a horror movie while carving it -- I definitely was. But because I wasn't even going to be turning out the lights -- you can't carve a jack-o-lantern in the dark -- it needed to be something I either didn't care about or had already seen, and I've already seen enough horror movies I don't care about this October. But even with something I'd already seen, I wanted it to be something that didn't too much depend on mood, so I'd be going for something without much in the way of startle scares or atmosphere.

Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead fit the bill perfectly. That movies takes place mostly during daylight hours, and (if memory served) it's more awesomely gruesome than scary. And I'd seen it only once, this despite ranking it in my top 20 of 2004 (#19).

There was another reason I was interested in watching this movie, though. Two reasons, actually. Two of the film's defining characteristics -- being about zombies and having been directed by Snyder -- have taken on new meaning in the 13 years since this movie came out. I wanted to see if it held up, despite being directed by a guy who's now a bit of a critical whipping boy, and despite featuring subject matter that has been done to death (or maybe undeath) in the 13 intervening years.

Dawn of the Dead was a bit of a trailblazer in the zombie movie comeback of the last decade-plus, following closely on the heels of 28 Days Later as some of the first films to capitalize on that trend, and the first real Hollywood movie. But would it still feel ahead of its time, or would it seem kind of old hat?

The answer is, both. While I still remember the ways Dead felt very fresh in 2004, and was reminded of them as those moments arose on this viewing, I did catch myself thinking things like "The Walking Dead does that a lot better now." I also remembered the movie being more fun than it felt this time. I suppose it's not intended as horror comedy, but it seems unlikely that Snyder et al didn't want it to be at least a bit funny, as it features an ironic lounge lizard version of Disturbed's "The Sickness," sung by Weird Al heir apparent Richard Cheese.

Far and away the most interesting aspects of this film are its human elements. The zombie kills are truly been there and done that, even if these things hadn't particularly been done in 2004. But I don't recall anything in subsequent zombie projects that I found quite as endearing as the relationship between Ving Rhames' Kenneth and Bruce Bohne's Andy. The relationship exists entirely at a remove of two parking lots away from each other, as the two men hold up signs to communicate between the rooftops of a mall and a gun shop, respectively. Even when words are necessarily few and can only be viewed with the assistance of high-powered binoculars, they develop a joking rapport, and can even play an entire game of chess with each other. It's any port in a storm in a zombie apocalypse, but even though Kenneth has a dozen possible friends to choose from over at the mall, his really simpatico kindred spirit is stuck on that other roof.

I was also curious to see how much Zack Snyder would be ZACK SNYDER in his directorial debut. In some circles nowadays he's thought of as little better than a slightly more talented Michael Bay, but in 2004 he was just a hot shit up and comer who was giving us something we wanted (albeit already at the advanced age of 38 years old). Some great visual touches signal him as a person worth paying attention to, and there is a little bit of the slow motion that would later become his trademark. But nothing like in 300, which may still be Zack Snyder's most Snyderian film. I wasn't a huge fan of 300, but Snyder did have at least one more great accomplishment in him (Watchmen) before things started to take a turn he hasn't yet recovered from. Still, he's not so bad these days that I would say my current impression played much of a role as I watched Dawn of the Dead.

I'm starting to lose a bit of focus here -- it's just after midnight now (Happy Halloween), and I still have one little thing left to do on my son's costume. Yes, kids do trick-or-treat in Australia, but we must have brought it with us, as we've noticed a big uptick in participation in just the four years we've been living here. So, I must sign off for now, even though I'm sure I have a few more profound thoughts about zombies and bombastic directors rattling around inside my brain.

But oh yeah, I'll leave off with the fruits of my labors. Here's this year's jack-o-lantern, with a bit of Australian flavor to it.
\

Friday, October 27, 2017

How to keep your voice in a Marvel movie

After the infamous episode with Edgar Wright and Ant-Man, fans, critics and other related observers rightly wondered if any director of any Marvel movie would ever be able to let his (or her) freak flag fly, or whether they would all just be neutered down to some version of whatever the studio wanted.

Well, Taika Waititi has kept his voice in Thor: Ragnarok alright -- in part by doing that literally.

Waititi voices a rock-like creature called Korg in one of the funniest aspects of an incredibly funny movie, which had me not only snickering, but bursting out in gales of joyous laughter. In this one character, Waititi has encapsulated everything you could want to encapsulate about the clipped and humorous line deliveries that are unique to people from New Zealand, as well as everything that illustrates his own perspective as a director.

Say "Hi," Korg.


Waititi has done it with Thor: Ragnarok, however you want to define "it." He has made the best comic book movie set in space. He has given a jolt of life to probably the most disappointing Marvel franchise. And most of all, he has let his freak flag fly up, down, and all over this movie.

Eccentricity oozes from every pore of Thor: Ragnarok, all within the recognizable parameters of a Marvel movie. The idea behind hiring someone like Waititi is to do exactly what's been done in this movie. You want a director to freshen up material that has inevitably started to bear a resemblance to earlier incarnations of itself, and Waititi has done that and then some. In certain very real ways, and without more than a small amount of hyperbole, this movie doesn't resemble anything that has come before it.

Simply put, I loved it. It's wild and woolly and shaggy and hilarious and joyous. It doesn't play by the rules. Of course, that sometimes means it's all over the place, and there are certain things we just didn't need (Dr. Strange, anyone?). But the amount we need the totality of Thor: Ragnarok overrides any of the smaller aspects we don't need.

It's not just funny. It's also an awesome spectacle, a triumph of special effects, a dazzling display of filmmaking techniques and imagination, and a damn fine usage of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" -- not once but twice.

The purpose of this post should not and will not be to enumerate the film's wonderful surprises, dear American reader, if that's who you are. When I saw it Thursday night, I knew I had at least a day on you -- turns out I've got more than a week. You won't get to see it until next Friday, and you deserve to be surprised by whatever parts of this film you haven't seen in the trailers.

Just know: It's a helluva good time.

And the way Waititi brings it home, with a good share (if not all) of his personal directorial style intact, will hopefully be a model for future such weird variations on our all-too-familiar blockbusters.

All hail Thor, and all hail Waititi.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Reviewing an idea, and following a herd

The Emoji Movie has a 12 on Metacritic.

I'll let that sink in a moment.

12.

Twelve.

T-W-E-L-V-E.

That's not just bad. That's historically bad. That's "only the most brainless horror movies and tone-deaf Christian movies" bad. That bad.

The thing is, The Emoji Movie is not actually bad.

I was as surprised as anyone to discover this. I finally saw it yesterday at a 10 a.m. showing at Hoyts Highpoint. Why was I able to see a 10 a.m. showing on a Wednesday morning? Well, because yesterday was my wife's final day out of town on her most recent (but much shorter) work-related trip, and we (uh, she) decided that our youngest needed a day at home to break up five straight days in daycare. When asked to take off work for this reason, I usually put up a token opposition on the grounds of lost money/the hassle of requesting time off from my boss ... but then I remember that a day off from work can be a fun thing if done right. And "done right" can include going to the movies. I can use my critics card at Hoyts any weekday before 5, and I figured another $10 for my three-year-old would make it a pretty good morning excursion. It was actually $16 -- for a three-year-old -- but I will rant about that another time.

He chose The Emoji Movie over Captain Underpants, an outcome I was secretly glad about and subtly pushed for. I didn't think either movie would be good, but I deemed The Emoji Movie the more "culturally significant" of the two of them -- "significant" as in "everyone is talking about how horrible it is," and I wanted to join the conversation.

But it's not horrible. Far from it. I was on board from the first moments through the final. In fact, I pulled out my balls and put my reputation on the line and have given this film FOUR STARS on Letterboxd.

I'm as shocked as you are. But I can't lie to myself. The Emoji Movie combines elements of Inside Out and Wreck-It Ralph to give us something inventive that stays consistent with the logic of its own world, is fun, and has a surprising amount of heart.

Of course, if you are taking the negative angle on it you'd call it a rip-off of those movies, but I don't know why that has to be the case. It borrows some of the logic behind those movies, but it executes it differently enough to exist plenty fine as its own distinct entity.

So why the 12?

I've got some thoughts on that.

This was one of those movies that most critics pre-judged. I told you last week that I wrote my first paragraph of my Geostorm review before having seen it, since that first paragraph wasn't a substantive comment on the film itself, but rather a consideration of the recent career of its director (who turned out not to be its director, necessitating a rewrite). Well, I can see how a number of critics might have written the first paragraph of their Emoji Movie review, at least in their heads, before walking into the theater, based not substantively on the movie itself, but on the industry that allowed it to exist in the first place. They were predisposed to the movie being terrible -- and let what they saw complete the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because just on a basic idea level, The Emoji Movie feels like a major insult to our intelligence. It's the type of movie whose very existence prompted these exact words in 73% of people upon hearing about it: "Has Hollywood sunk so low that they are now making a movie about emojis?" The answer is, of course, "Duh." If Hollywood has not sunk lower, it's only because Hollywood hasn't thought of a way to do that yet.

But you don't review ideas. You review films. So what if Hollywood sunk so low as to make a movie about emojis. Now that the movie exists, review that movie -- don't review the system that birthed it into existence.

And if you review The Emoji Movie, you will find a somewhat formulaic movie -- The Lego Movie is another inspiration -- that nonetheless manages to tweak the formulas enough to make it distinctive. Or distinctive enough, anyway. And so what if it is a lesser facsimile of other movies I've loved. Some people go to the movies simply to see the same movie over and over again, when you boil down their instincts to the most basic level. Anytime you've told someone "If you liked Movie A, you will probably like Movie B," you've basically accused them of craving similar things when they go to the movies. If you liked (or loved, as I did) Inside Out or Wreck-It Ralph or The Lego Movie, why wouldn't you crave something similar?

Now of course, the x factor in any discussion like this is the quality of the execution. But The Emoji Movie passes most if not all of the bars here as well. The vocal cast is enjoyable and engaging, with the likable T.J. Miller playing Gene, the "meh" emojji, and Steven Wright perfectly cast as his dad. Was there ever anyone whose delivery has more perfectly encapsulated the emotion of "meh"? Jennifer Coolidge plays his wife, not such an obvious casting as Wright, but an effective one, as it turns out. James Corden gives it his all as a high five emoji, and less recognizable but still useful is Anna Faris as a hacker. In a great bit of stunt casting, you also have Patrick Stewart as the poop emoji. See, the people who graded this idea rather than this movie objected to Patrick Stewart lowering himself to play a poop emoji, in principle. They didn't wait to see if it worked.

I wouldn't call the writing a laugh a minute, but I did laugh -- a number of times. And the animation is perfectly in keeping with industry standard. It looks good. In fact, I like how it looks a lot better than many of Dreamworks' recent efforts.

I don't want to go completely in the bag for The Emoji Movie, but maybe I should. I should own that four stars rather than trying to retract some of my enthusiasm and whittle it down to a 3.5. Maybe the world needs a few positive voices on The Emoji Movie, and if I have to shout louder and more stridently to make the impact of my opinion felt, maybe I should do that.

Because no one else is. I mean, no one. I am very much of the opinion that a few stinking turds (voiced by Patrick Stewart, perhaps) were dropped by the first critics who saw this, and a wave of subsequent reviewers came in poisoned and ready to add to the flow of vitriol. I mean, who wants to be the one critic who likes this abomination? Leave that to some other fool.

Some fool like me.

I think some people are capable of saying a movie is bad simply because it is derivative. I won't notice a movie is "bad," by their definition, if it produces enjoyment in me. I think some people actively shun their feelings of enjoyment because they are opposed philosophically to what a movie is doing or how it is doing it. For me, enjoyment is enjoyment and it's as simple as that.

Maybe my credibility with you will suffer. I don't care. I call a spade a spade and a poop emoji a poop emoji, and The Emoji Movie is not a poop emoji.

I challenge you to watch it -- fresh, unpoisoned, giving a full share of your open mind.

And then tell me if you think -- you really, really think -- it's down there with brainless horror movies and tone-deaf Christian movies.

And if you do ... well, poop to you.