Monday, February 19, 2018

People used to get older younger

I’m turning 45 years old this year.

It’s not until October, but it’s hanging out there with an air of inevitability. It will no longer be possible to finesse the semantics in my favor and say that I’m in my “early 40s.” “Mid-40s” will now be the only accurate term for me, and soon enough, the semantics will easily be finessed in the opposite direction to characterize me as “in my late 40s.”

While this is dispiriting in some respects, watching Road House makes it feel a little less so.

There are two actors in Road House, which I saw for the first time last night, who also turned 45 in the year the movie was released, 1989. In fact, Sam Elliott is only four days older than Kevin Tighe, born on August 9th and August 13th, respectively, in 1944. They are both still going strong today at age 73. They were 44 at the time the movie was released on May 19, 1989, but they officially hit their mid-40s three months later.

And my God do I look younger than they do.

These guys were old versions of 45. Actually, they were old versions of 44 at the time the film was made, or maybe even 43, but probably not. Just check out the pictures below:

Those guys do not look the same age as I do.

I’m not going to share a picture of me so you can judge for yourself. Switching from an anonymous blogger handle to my own name a few years back was a big enough deal for me, and I still don’t mention the names of my wife or my kids on this blog. Some things need to remain private.

But trust me, I look a lot younger than these guys. Granted, people do say I have a baby face. But these guys look like they could be at least ten years older than I am, maybe more.

And there’s no judgment in that. I would switch faces with Sam Elliott any day of the week. (Kevin Tighe, maybe not so much.) It’s not that I think they look decrepit, because Elliott is downright hunky in this movie. Just look at the way he runs his hands through that mane of salt and pepper hair. But it’s the sexiness of an older man, not a spring chicken like myself.

I might not have noticed it as much if the movie didn’t go on and on about how old Elliott is supposed to be. He’s the mentor to Patrick Swayze’s character, Dalton, the guy with the first name that’s begging for a great last name but never gets one. Swayze himself is no baby in this movie at age 36 going on 37, but you don’t get the sense he’s only eight years younger than Elliott. That’s just crazy.

Anyway, there are a number of lines of dialogue about how Elliott’s character, Wade Garrett (who does get a last name), is getting to be past his prime in the “cooler” business. (A “cooler,” I guess, is like the supervisor of the bouncers, the guy who is in charge of cooling heads and escorting people off the premises with a minimum of ego and violence.) THE FOLLOWING SENTENCE CONTAINS SPOILERS. Later on, the character played by Ben Gazzarra, after dispatching Wade Garrett through one of his minions, talks about “putting an old man out of his misery.” (And Gazzarra was one to talk, pushing 60 in this movie – though to be fair, he does not look significantly older than either Elliott or Tighe.)

It makes me think about that thing where Tom Cruise was the same age in one of his recent Mission: Impossible movies as Wilford Brimley was at the time he appeared as a grandfather in Cocoon, and how there was a world of physical difference between the athletic, health-conscious Cruise and the more normal, portly gentleman with the walrus moustache. Now I’m not saying I’m Cruise to Sam Elliott’s Wilford Brimley – I’d not only take his face, but also his physique and that hair, to say nothing of his voice. But I do think I look like a boy in comparison to him.

Good, I guess? Yay, I’m not the oldest looking nearly 45-year-old out there. And despite my baby face, I’m doing the best to make myself look grizzled, as my sideburns are almost completely white, yet I keep them around.

I guess I’m probably somewhere between Tom Cruise and Wilford Brimley, which is probably the best I can hope for.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Actresses who give me the Krieps

As I still try to wrap my head around Phantom Thread, I'm also still trying to wrap my head around Luxembourgian actress Vicky Krieps.

Deciding how I feel about her may be key to deciding how I feel about the movie.

I don't have any doubt that Krieps gives a good performance in this movie. But there's something about her that gives me the creeps, and I'd say that even if her last name didn't make it a play on words. (I was going to say "clever play on words," but I don't know how clever it is.)

Being given the creeps by someone is usually a good thing in a movie. It means they are burrowing into some core part of your subconscious that produces a reaction of revulsion in you. It may not seem like it, but that's usually something you want. The unsuccessful actor is the one that makes you feel nothing.

But I don't know with Krieps. I find it kind of hard to look at her. I don't mean that she's ugly; she is probably quite pretty, though this movie takes pains to make her seem very plain at times, and it's to her credit that she allows the camera to see her this way. It's a performance lacking in vanity, which is another thing we usually want, or should want anyway.

No, the thing I find hard to look at is encapsulated pretty well in the above picture, which is why I searched until I found it. Yes, that's a pleasant expression, for sure. A warm, welcoming expression. But there's also something alien about it that I can't quite put my finger on. It's the eyes, or maybe the smile looking just a little forced. I find it discomfiting.

But what I really find discomfiting is the emotions that are behind it. Krieps looks at Daniel Day-Lewis in this movie with an almost confronting level of need. She yearns in a way that is off-putting. But it's not the desperate need that expresses itself by clinging to someone's leg as they try to shake you off, staring at them with haunted, pleading eyes. That might have almost been better. Krieps expresses a kind of psychopathic unwillingness to disguise the nakedness of her need. When Day-Lewis shows her some attention in that restaurant over his breakfast order, she looks at him with these eyes that seem to say "You have just signed an unwritten contract with me, and it is a lifetime contract, and I am so certain of its successful fulfillment that I am not even being demure or coquettish. I am diving in headlong, and I lack the self-awareness to realize I need to cloak my intentions through the traditional techniques of flirtation and seduction. I am scooping an overflowing helping of my need onto your plate and making you eat it." Of course, the food metaphor becomes a lot less metaphorical later on.

Can all that be gotten from one expression? Well, then Vicky Krieps is a good actress indeed.

Certainly we would say that should become part of her perspective as the movie goes on and she grapples with her jealousy and desire to shift his attentions back to her. But it's this opening scene where this gawky girl exudes a sort of resplendent, vampiric emotional dependency that throws me. Maybe it throws me in the right way, maybe it doesn't. I'm still deciding.

Vicky Krieps isn't the first one to unsettle me in this way. Here is another actress who I find it hard to look at, because her expressions are so needy and confronting:

Although I'm a huge fan of her sister Rooney, I have just never been able to fully come around on Kate Mara. She also gives me the creeps. I think it dates back to how she was used in American Horror Story in the only season of that show I watched. She constantly had this look in her eyes that was equal parts needy and accusatory. I felt like her eyes were boring through the screen into me, and I wanted to squirm right out of my seat.

There's going to be something vaguely unsavory to the fact that the three people I feature in this piece are all women, but at least with the third we are going to end on a positive note. I used to get a creepy vibe also from her:

That still is from Wicker Park, and it was my first exposure to Rose Byrne. I suppose she would have something in common with Mara's character from American Horror Story, to the extent that I remember the plots from either of those films/TV shows -- an "other woman" spurned, trying to make hell for some man, but only because she's so desperately in love with him that her rage and passion have gotten all twisted up. (You'd think I had a woman like this in my own life, but I haven't.) There was something about the look in Byrne's eyes in that movie that made my skin crawl.

The good news is that Byrne has come back from that to become one of my favorite working actresses, in part because she did something seemingly counterintuitive with her career -- she became one of the most deft comediennes going. As just one example, she absolutely kills it in Spy, particularly this line reading: "When I was a little girl growing up in Bulgaria, which is the worst by the way. Poor people everywhere and cabbages constantly cooking. There was this woman who was kicked out of her house and she lost all her money. She couldn't even sell her body. So she became a clown on the streets. She would perform all her tricks standing in mud, and just cry and cry. You remind me of this woman." And later: "You're funny. It's the Bulgarian clown in you."

Where was I?

Oh yeah, so there's hope for Krieps and Mara.

And no, I don't really live in fear of women needing me and wanting to kill me in equal measure. Why do you ask?

Friday, February 16, 2018

White bird, black panther

Yesterday, February 15th, was an important day on the Australian cinematic calendar. The best movie of 2017 and the best movie of 2018 both opened -- on the same day. (Well, I suppose either of them could be challenged for their respective honors by Paddington 2, depending on what hemisphere you live in, as the movie was released in a different year here than it was in the States.)

That's right, a mere 104 days after the date of its first limited release in the U.S., best picture nominee (frontrunner?) Lady Bird finally graced our shores. A day before its U.S. release, so did Black Panther.

And yes, they both have ridiculously high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. The once unblemished Lady Bird still stands tall at 99%, while Black Panther sits a mere percentage point behind it at 98%. (Glad my editor at ReelGood does not get tabulated on RT, as he gave it a mere 5 out of 10.) Humorously, both movies still do trail Paddington 2, which remains at 100%.

Their release dates and high RT scores is where the comparison between these two movies seems to end.

Though they could be flip sides of the same coin.

Although it has not suffered for this in any significant way, Lady Bird may be one of the last of a dying breed -- a movie craving widespread mainstream acceptance that does not have any characters of color in significant roles. In scanning the credits list on IMDB, it appears that there is a Latino guy and a woman who seems to be of mixed race, though without having seen the movie, I can't comment on the size of their roles. I can say they are 10th and 11th on the cast list, though.

Black Panther is kind of the opposite, though this, paradoxically, does not seem to be as much of a problem in today's climate. (Which, unmistakably, seems like a good thing to me.) Instead of token minorities, it has token whites, as Andy Serkis is the 12th ranked member of the cast, followed by David S. Lee three spots later.

As I said, this is a good thing. Until I came up with the current take on its release, I was going to write a post heralding the opening of Black Panther with a title along the lines of "Marvel makes a movie with a bunch of black people in it." You know, summarizing a very exciting development -- a Wonder Woman-style development in terms of its social significance -- in a provocative manner that would certainly turn your head if you weren't expecting it.

But we also know Marvel only does things that it thinks are in its best financial interest, which is the truly encouraging thing about Black Panther. The movie has proven Marvel right, shattering ticket presale records, because there is a collective hunger for this type of movie, obviously among black audiences, but among white audiences who find themselves poised to embrace the type of movie that might have made them feel alienated just five years ago. White audiences -- thinking white audiences, anyway, which may only be a small percentage of them -- want this. Not as much as black audiences do, but they want it too. And that's fantastic.

You know that thing where you walk into a movie that isn't aimed at you, and you find yourself in kind of a demographic Twilight Zone? "Oh, this is what it feels like to be ... a three-year-old kid, or an old person, or yes, a black person." Well congratulations on this "unique" experience. This is how black audiences felt for years, when only a handful of films each year truly felt like a reflection of their lives and experiences. And since those movies weren't made with big budgets by big studios, they often didn't attract the most talented filmmakers, or actors.

Well, that may be changing. Slowly, but then sometimes dramatically. Black Panther still could have continued taking baby steps by making a movie that was, maybe, two-thirds black. Five years ago, it might not have dared to be any more than 51% black in the cast. And it almost definitely wouldn't have been directed by a black man, though Ryan Coogler is one of the best talents we have going of any race.

But this is 2018, and something has happened -- something in our culture that has allowed this to happen. At a time when things seem their worst under Trump, something is still bubbling underneath, more like a majority than a minority, that celebrates the diversity that seemed to be repudiated by the last election.

And hallelujah, amen.

So where does that leave Lady Bird? I guess the answer is, Lady Bird will be fine. Lady Bird has always been fine, and it will continue to have a place in the cinematic landscape. You can't really make a movie with no black characters anymore, anyway, though some people still try. Lady Bird is close, but not totally there. And it's directed by a woman, so at least that's something. And I still look forward to trying to see it over the next week ... though I will see Black Panther first.

I do think there's an important shift that's occurring, that makes Lady Bird seem like the movie that's a bit tone deaf, a bit antique, a bit in its own hermetically sealed universe in which not only the people are white, but the problems are also white, no matter how many characters who are not quite white it may have in it. I think we are moving closer to a Black Panther world, and that's a world I want to live in.

And hallelujah, amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A hard eight: Ranking Paul Thomas Anderson

Twenty-two years ago Paul Thomas Anderson began his feature-directing career with a movie called Hard Eight, or known by its original title, Sydney. (Not the city with the opera house; a man's name.)

Many other directors would have made a lot more than seven feature films since then. Heck, Woody Allen has made 22. But Anderson is no ordinary director. He's a craftsman with a vision, and he takes time to make his films. He has two separate gaps of five years without a film during that period, bookended by Punch-Drunk Love in 2002 and The Master in 2012. When he makes a movie, it's an event, and whatever it is, or however much you end up liking it, you need to see it.

That's why I did in fact go see Phantom Thread in the theater on Tuesday night, even though I've moved on from 2017. (I may still see Lady Bird, which finally opens today.) I've seen every Anderson film on the big screen except Hard Eight, because I didn't know who he was at the time, and Inherent Vice, which I skipped on the big screen because I had moved on from 2014 at the time it was released.

It's an event. You can't not.

And though I haven't done a post like this in a long time, ranking the career of a prominent director, I figured I couldn't wait for Anderson to get to ten feature films, because that could take another ten years. Besides, the symmetry with eight films and Hard Eight was too good to pass up.

So, without any further ado, my rankings of the the top eight films of one of our great contemporary masters, Paul Thomas Anderson. Interestingly, I noted that each of his films, including Phantom Thread, already has a label on my blog, meaning it's been discussed by me at least once before. Definitely worthy of a career retrospective, I'd say.

And sorry for the lack of drama, but when I've done these in the past -- with Danny Boyle, David Fincher, Wes Anderson, the Coen Brothers and Pixar, all of whose films I had also seen at the time -- I've gone from the best to the worst.

1. There Will Be Blood (2007) - It probably comes as no surprise that my #1 movie of 2007 is also my #1 Anderson movie, though I suppose you can't take that for granted, as one ranking year is different from another. Though in this case it does hold true. It was not only my best of the year, it was my eighth best of the decade. It's also the Anderson movie I'm most due to rewatch, as I saw it twice in the theater and then not again since then. (If you are this convinced of the quality of a film, you don't need to revisit it to decide its worth on a best-of-the-decade list.) What can a person say about There Will Be Blood that has not already been said? Well, I don't know that this exact phrase has been used: it's a capitalism horror movie, with a frightening monster at its core in Daniel Day-Lewis' Daniel Plainview. I can't remember another instance of this film's era being recreated with such epic grandiosity, one strangely unbound by the Hollywood traditions with which it rubs elbows. This is a movie that opens with the entrancing, moldering noise of Johnny Greenwood's score, then moves into 20 minutes without dialogue as a man digs desperately for gold in the bottom of a well. Ultimately, though, the dialogue belonging to Plainview -- and its delivery by Day-Lewis -- is one of the most indelible, indisposable elements of the film. "Bastard in a basket" and "I drink your milkshake!" both came from a film that didn't need a single word to put us in its spell and keep us there.

2. Boogie Nights (1997) - It's the greatest Martin Scorsese movie that Martin Scorsese never made -- but so what. Anderson has good taste, and a skill set to honor that taste. It's interesting that Anderson was once considered a very successful mimic of other great directors (including Robert Altman in Magnolia), because as he has honed his voice, he's given us films that are truly like no one else's. Which doesn't mean that the voices he channeled didn't represent some of his best work. This sprawling epic through the porn industry is a tour de force of set design and cinematography, and it felt like a first with its frank look at the inner workings of that industry. (A topic that has since been revisited umpteen times in lesser films by less talented filmmakers.) In addition to breaking Mark Wahlberg as a star who would become one of Hollywood's most in demand, it also revived Burt Reynolds (briefly), and gave great showcases to the likes of Julianne Moore, Heather Graham, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle and William H. Macy. (And let's not forget Alfred Molina's one scene, a total mindfuck of gonzo tension.) Boogie Nights is a director's movie, it's an actor's movie, it's just a damn rollicking specimen of the craft, and it still holds up today like nobody's business.

3. Hard Eight (1996) - Anderson's least Andersonian film -- at least in terms of the size of the canvas on which he would come to paint -- is also my third favorite. I may have trouble articulating why this film works so well for me, but it probably gains from being seen within the perspective of the rest of Anderson's career, since it is so small in scale, making it feel like an example of Anderson's range rather than just the film on which he cut his teeth. Its intimacy it its most winning element, as every scene feels small and compressed, but only because the lives these people live are so small and compressed. They operate in very small circles, circling around craps tables and anonymous motel rooms, ultimately finding themselves in the position to express their deepest yearnings and fears to one another. Philip Baker Hall puts on a master class as Sydney, the man whom the movie was initially named after, and it reminds us that it's a shame he was not given more starring roles. (He's not dead yet, but being 86 years old tends to limit some of the prospect of that ever happening.) Sydney's dialogue is probably one of the clearest examples you'll see of a writer-director directly delivering his own ruminations about the way the world works, but Sydney and Anderson are both wise people from whom I am ready to receive such ruminations.

4. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) - This is the highest Anderson film on my list that I've seen only once, and I do think it benefits some from the words of rhapsody directed toward it that I have absorbed in the ensuing years. This is the first time I found Anderson really burrowing down into something truly eccentric, and I admit that it left me off balance for much of the movie, in a way I was not always sure of. But just recalling some of the scenes and images from that film that still stick with me -- like the piano being dumped off the back of that truck, or Adam Sandler pacing around the room on the phone while the walls and score seem to close in on him -- remind me of the power of Anderson's tools as a filmmaker. Punch-Drunk Love is often thought of as a line of demarcation between when Anderson was doing things that were sort of conventional and when he stopped doing that -- the moment of him finding his voice. (The plague of frogs at the end of Magnolia could also be considered such a moment.) The filmmaker that has excited us with the sense of not knowing what he will do next, that has characterized all his subsequent films, was born here. The fact that some of that has resulted in diminishing returns for me is something I hope to grapple with on second viewings of some of the films lower on this list. Punch-Drunk Love was the beginning of Anderson not giving a fuck what we thought of his films, and that in itself is exciting.

5. Magnolia (1999) - And here is my highest ranked Anderson film where I find significant portions of the film problematic. I previously mentioned that this felt like an homage to Robert Altman, and it was earlier in the 1990s that I fell in love with that director, first with The Player, then with Short Cuts. Magnolia feels a bit like Anderson's Short Cuts ... with a downpour of frogs at the end. Even back then, when I was less jaded and more open to any way a director wanted to try to blow my mind, I found parts of this movie too clever by half, like the story about the person who was committing suicide but shot halfway through the leap from atop the building, transforming the death from a suicide into a murder. I don't even remember what the point of that little interlude was, and that's emblematic of Magnolia, in which Anderson seems to be working out some of his sophomoric musings, the possible ramblings of a stoner. I also consider it to be one of the most emotionally overwrought films I've ever seen. That said, bits of this movie stick with me like few other movies do, and some of Anderson's big gestures truly hit, particularly all the characters breaking the fourth wall to sing along to Aimee Mann's "Wise Up." It's probably a film I will always struggle with and love in equal measure.

6. Phantom Thread (2017) - Over time and with another viewing, I could see this flip-flopping with Magnolia, or even climbing higher than that on this chart. But one thing I've heard most people say about Phantom Thread, even those who love it, is that they didn't know quite what to make of it on first viewing. Some found that a thrilling, exhilarating experience; others, alienating. I probably land closer to the second camp than the first, but a second viewing could push me closer to the first. It's been only 48 hours since I saw this, so it's fair to say that the processing phase is still going on. It's always a joy to watch Daniel-Day Lewis, and Lesley Manville deserves the praise that has been lavished on her. The person I'm not sure about -- who could be key to my affection for the movie going one way or another -- is Vicky Krieps, about whom I'd like to devote her own blog post (and may still). I find it difficult to look at her, as her performance conveys quantities of vulnerability and yearning that leave me feeling discomfited. Being discomfited in an Anderson film is often a good thing, but after the movie I described it in a text to a friend this way: "It's a handsome puzzle box that I am not all that interested in prying open." But maybe one day I will pry it.

7. The Master (2012) - After waiting patiently for five years after There Will Be Blood for another PTA film to hit theaters, it was probably inevitable I would be a little disappointed by The Master. And yet I can easily recognize this as a kind of masterwork, so to speak, as it may be Anderson's greatest technical achievement, even including There Will Be Blood. Although I think he's too modest for this, Anderson could be describing himself with this movie's title, as the film feels like kind of an arrival at an otherworldly level of cinematic mastery. And yet the film leaves me so very cold, never able to relate to either Joaquin Phoenix's Freddy Quell or Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, both of whom are performed expertly but feel kind of like empty vessels. It's easy enough to watch this film merely for surface pleasures, if that's all you can get from it, and I'm kind of afraid to say that may have been all I did get from it. I think the parasitic relationship between a shepherd and his sheep is explored in a fascinating way, but toward what purpose, I'm not quite sure. I do think I would benefit greatly from a second viewing, but then I've said that about almost every film on this list.

8. Inherent Vice (2014) - Some people say there's a great film buried somewhere within Inherent Vice, but I could not dig it out. This is the only Anderson film that gets lower than a passing grade on the star scale, as I gave it only 2.5 stars -- I was inclined to go even lower, but granted it the extra half star on account of me failing to get this movie certainly being a "me problem" on some level. My problem is I'm a bit biased against the detective movie in which the plot cannot be easily discerned, or discerned at all, Exhibit A being The Big Sleep, which I kind of can't stand. I was hoping this would strike me more like Altman's The Long Goodbye, which I do love, but I just couldn't get there. I also love Joaquin Phoenix, but he happens to appear in my two least favorite PTA movies. What are you going to do. This is the only movie on this list that I expect never to watch again, though I may be wrong about that. Certain moments do really stick with me, though, moments in which I can almost see my way through to his vision. I don't know why, but I remember this scene where Phoenix and -- Katherine Waterston, is it? -- go running through the rain to find a store that isn't there anymore. Why does that moment stick with me? I don't know, but it's got to be further evidence of Anderson's greatness as a filmmaker.

And that greatness is downright indisputable. It does sadden me that I'm writing this post in what must described as a downward trajectory in my own feelings toward Anderson, as his last three films make up the bottom three on this chart. From that you must conclude that I think Anderson is getting worse, not better.

But those films are full of daring and a total lack of convention, making Anderson feel less like a cinematic imitator and more like a maverick. We need mavericks like him around.

If anything, I think of Anderson as like Samantha in another Phoenix movie, Her. He has evolved to the point that he has progressed beyond my mere human capability of understanding him.

Which I think means he should keep right on doing exactly what he's doing, and one day, if I'm lucky, I'll catch up.

Here's to his 2020 release being my #1 of that year.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

More than just your Valentine's Day Plan B

So Valentine's Day was likely to go by the boards in our house without much celebration whatsoever. It's already been a busy week for me (I was out both Monday night and Tuesday nights), and for my wife, it's been a busy past six months, perhaps none more so than now, when she's preparing for the first of three three-day workshops for screenwriters that she's organized, which is starting tomorrow. We'd already waved our hand at the idea of celebrating it in any major way, in part because her birthday is on the 19th, so we always kind of give February 14th the short shrift.

We do usually watch a romance-themed movie on Valentine's Day, though in scanning the history of our February 14th viewings together, I saw that we've also watched The Band's Visit, Happy Feet and The Woman in Black, none of which is particularly romantic in nature. Well, we almost always watch a movie, anyway.

This year figured to be an exception, as my wife needed to plan for the aforementioned workshop on the eve of its commencement. But we needed to watch something during dinner, which was a homemade pizza that featured red peppers cut into the shape of hearts, along with chicken an onions. We bandied about ideas like romance-themed short films, but ultimately rejected that idea as too risky of committing ourselves to a dud. I even specifically googled streaming TV shows with a romantic comedy theme, but the ones offered to us on Netflix were ones we'd already watched.

So we decided to commit ourselves to a longer dud, the new Netflix movie When We First Met. Just the beginning of it, after which she would peel off to do the rest of her work, and I would decide if the rest was worth watching. (Of course, the answer would be yes -- I can't intentionally leave a film unfinished.)

Except it wasn't a dud. And she didn't peel off to do the rest of her work -- the rest of her urgent, can't-put-it-off-another-day work -- until after the credits had rolled. (Well, the start of the credits, anyway -- we never seem to be able to click the right buttons to prevent the next trailer from starting.)

It was easy to assume that this movie would not be good. I've started 2018 with two real stinkers among Netflix original films, The Open House and The Cloverfield Paradox, and it isn't much of a leap to think that most of the things that Netflix buys up and dumps on the platform are just more spaghetti thrown against the wall. "Here, this is a movie -- whadaya think? Answer: I don't care what you think! Next!"

Besides, although I really like Adam Devine from his days on Modern Family (are those days still in progress? we don't watch the show anymore), the stink of his movie Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates was still fresh with me. The failure of that movie was undoubtedly in the writing and not in Devine's performance, but it was all too easy for me to imagine a narrative for his career where he's perennially unable to translate his small screen charm to the big screen. (Er, in this case, translate his small screen charm to ... the small screen.)

Then there's Alexandra Daddario, an appealing presence who I worried might just be a pretty face and a gargantuan chest. (Seriously; I don't like to get into describing women's bodies too much on this blog, but there's a scene in this movie where she's jogging, and I wondered what type of heavy duty support was necessary to keep her ... contained.)

Well, we laughed twice in the first five minutes, and then at least that much in every five-minute interval that followed. John Whittingham wrote this script, and checking IMDB now, I see he was a writer on both of last year's Lego movies. Sure, he might lose some points for the Ninjago movie, but the Batman movie is a first-rate example of comedy writing. A good deal of that was present here.

I also really loved an actress who was new to me in this film, Shelly Hennig, as "the friend." I guess she isn't totally new to me, as she was one of the faces on the computer in Unfriended, which I liked quite a bit. But I didn't remember her from that. I don't think I'll have trouble remembering her going forward, though. She's got personality and can deliver a line.

Perhaps the most surprising thing that appeared to be going against this movie, but didn't, was its Groundhog Day narrative structure. I don't know if I've railed against it to you here, but last year I saw two very similar movies involving young people in repeated day structures, Before I Fall and Happy Death Day. I hated both of those movies, and decided that Groundhog Day -- still a fresh idea for a movie as recently as Edge of Tomorrow in 2014 -- had completely wore out its welcome as a template for cheap imitators.

That's not this though. Yes, Devine's character does discover a magical photo booth -- you know, the kind that spits out a sheet of four wacky photos of you -- that allows him to go back in time three years to repeatedly try to seduce his soul mate so she ends up with him instead of meeting her future husband the very next day. When I read the premise, my eyes rolled. But when I watched the movie, I marveled at the way the film deviated from what I expected. Sure, some of the elements are repeated in each timeline, but it doesn't have to wear us out by heaving 12 to 17 elements repeat themselves on each iteration, simultaneously calling our attention to the gimmick and revealing exactly how annoying it is. Whittingham's script takes a few detours as a result of the character making major, rather than minor, changes each time. It was different enough to feel fresh.

And Devine and Daddario both maximize what they do well. In the case of Daddario, I'm glad to report that isn't just accentuating her body, as a very blatant and otherwise unnecessary bikini scene in San Andreas did. She's got the comic chops and she shows them. And this movie made me believe that Devine is headed for really good things in the comedy world, not just serving as Zac Efron's sidekick in woefully inferior gross-out comedies. He's got all the charisma and heart to be a leading man, and Jim Carrey's commitment to the more physical side of his shtick.

So if you're in North America and looking for a late Valentine's Day recommendation -- and I'm posting this before I go to sleep on Valentine's Day in the hopes that you are -- you could do a lot worse than When We First Met. And hey, it's already in your collection, assuming you have a Netflix subscription. No muss no fuss.

Forget about whatever your Plan A was. This is good enough to be your Plan A-, at the very least.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Netflix's ongoing impersonation of everybody

First Netflix wanted to be that distributor that released small indie movies that you wouldn't care about missing on the big screen, but were worth watching (I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore).

Then Netlfix got into the business of high-profile (partially) foreign language films by acclaimed foreign language directors, which probably should be seen on the big screen, but oh well (Okja).

Then Netflix thought they can/should be in the business of delivering big-budget blockbuster entertainment with major stars (Bright).

Now, they want to be that distributor that drops a movie by surprise, to capitalize on the type of buzzy viral phenomenon that was sort of launched by The Blair Witch Project and has become the bread and butter of the Cloverfield series (The Cloverfield Paradox).

Pick an identity and stick to it, Netflix.

Then again, Netflix flying out in all directions is nothing new, and has been discussed much before, both on this blog and by everybody else.

Netflix is operating under the -- well, I'm not going to say "misconception," because it may not be -- that any type of cinematic experience you could imagine yourself having can be recreated on the small screen. And if so, they should be the ones to do it.

At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if Netflix tried to make itself the exclusive home of one of the next Star Wars spinoffs, though I suppose Disney is actually ending its arrangement with Netflix in order to have their own streaming service, not considering deepening that relationship.

I don't have a lot more to say about this, but I did think it was worth noting. I also thought it was worth noting that the last two of these in particular, Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox, have felt a lot like failures in what they were trying to do. Then again, the business model of Netflix has always allowed the company to absorb failures. Any particular investment is such a small percentage of their overall portfolio that they'll hit with some other thing if this particular thing fails.

We finally saw The Cloverfield Project last night, and I say "finally" because it really does seem like pretty much everyone saw the movie at an earlier point of its first week of availability. I suppose this fact alone suggests that Netflix was successful in creating the type of event buzz that they wanted from this movie. I had to actively dodge discussion of the movie's qualities in various locations on social media, and ultimately couldn't, knowing the movie was supposed to be bad. So I carried in that preconception ... and had it resoundingly confirmed.

This movie is not good. In fact, it earned my first one-star rating of the young year on Letterboxd. It's poorly conceived and tonally scattershot, and what's more, it just doesn't look like a movie. It felt incredibly TV in its design and camerawork. (I was truly distracted by the handheld cinematography of Dan Mindel, with its little infinitesimal movements that were small enough for me to feel like they were not intentional, but large enough to make me feel subtly nauseous.) It's too bad too because some actors I really like are in this movie, particularly Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Elizabeth Debecki and Chris O'Dowd, the latter of home is perhaps the embodiment of the movie's tonal confusion.

If you are one of those who hasn't seen it yet, I won't pick apart plot points here, because I don't necessarily expect a Cloverfield movie to stand up to heavy scrutiny. I will say that director Julius Onah has made such an inferior entry in the series that it feels like a step down from Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane by orders of magnitude. While those two are an all-time great in the found footage genre and a very clever thriller that is defined by its success at withholding information from us, Paradox feels kind of like a vomit of exposition, but bad exposition. The movie ends up withholding information from us out of clumsiness in the script rather than actual intent.

Two final, unrelated comments about the movie and/or Netflix before I close out.

We had a paradox of a different sort on our hands last night even trying to watch the movie. As you know if you've done many searches on Netflix, it has an uncanny ability to produce the movie you're looking for just by typing a single letter or two, probably because you're trying to watch one of their buzzed about products and the search algorithm is weighted toward those results. But this did not happen when we searched The Cloverfield Paradox. The original Cloverfield came up, but not its second sequel.

My first instinct was to curse Australia for somehow failing to negotiate the rights to one of Netflix's own bits of original content. I complain about how a lot of things in Australia seem to be done in this inscrutable, backwards way that defies logic, and Australian Netflix not carrying The Cloverfield Paradox would have been a perfect example of that.

I had just sent my wife, who had a computer nearby, to search whether the movie is not available in Australia when I had an idea about a different search to do. I started typing in "God Particle," the original title of the movie, and sure enough, when I got those first two letters in, The Cloverfield Paradox came up. Not God Particle, mind you -- The Cloverfield Paradox. We selected it and started watching straightaway.

I looked online to see if this was one of the "gimmicks" about a movie with a viral release strategy, that it was "hidden" and you had to know to search it under this secret other title in order to find it. But no, that did not seem to be the case, according to my friends in my Flickcharters Facebook group, who checked on the American Netflix just to be sure. It seems as though somebody in the Australian Netflix just failed to update the search algorithm when the title was changed -- and that would be the perfect example of Australian backwardness -- though it surprises me that something like that is even customized at the local level.

The other thing is that I noticed that Netflix has made a subtle change to how they bill some of their original content, specifically their movies -- in response to this post, I would like to think. In the trailer that gets thrust upon you just from landing on the home page, which in this case was for When We First Met, I noticed that they call it "A Netflix Film" rather than "A Netflix Original Film." The omission of that single word is significant -- perhaps an admission that this was not something that originated with them and should sully them by association, but rather, something that they picked up off the scrap heap in their ongoing content dump?

Netflix distancing themselves proactively from their own potential failures. Now they really do resemble every other distributor.

Friday, February 9, 2018

5K with Dr. Seuss: A finger per film

Sometimes a milestone is just another movie.

For a few weeks now I have been imprisoned by my ticking movie clock, which has been steadily counting down toward one of the most epic milestones I have ever crossed. It wasn't just another increment of a thousand movies; it was the fifth increment. You would certainly agree that 5,000 movies is more epic than 4,000 was, or than 6,000 will be. In fact, this is probably the most epic milestone I will have until I get to 10,000, if I ever do. (I will also want to watch a really scary horror movie for 6,666.)

But sometimes you just can't find the perfect way to recognize it, no matter what you do. Sometimes, you just need to watch a movie.

Oh, I still recognized it, but that perfect movie that felt equal to the occasion just never materialized. You could say I've spent the past 5,000 viewings making sure that there was no egregious classic oversight that was just waiting to be corrected when the time came. These days, I don't even have an immediate title in mind if asked what movie I am most embarrassed never to have seen. Sure, there are great movies, classic movies, I've never seen. But one important enough to enshrine it with #5,000? It just never presented itself.

And as I was dicking around, worrying about what I would watch, I wasn't moving forward with the regular day-to-day business of watching other movies. As I said, I was imprisoned.

So I went with the thematically appropriate choice, not to mention the one that was available for rental on iTunes.

That's how, on February 8th, 2018, at approximately 9:29 p.m., I came to watch Roy Rowland's 1953 children's musical written by Dr. Seuss, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, as my 5,000th lifetime viewing.

It felt like an admission of defeat on some level. After all, for my 4,000th movie, I had made that definitive choice on a classic that I had not yet seen: F.W. Murnau's Sunrise. Whether that was truly worth of a thousandth viewing, I don't know, but it felt right and I never doubted it.

I was consumed with doubt this time around. And there were some classics I considered. I don't mind telling you now which ones didn't make the cut. Two in particular I considered very seriously.

The first was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. A few years ago I saw both Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America in the same year, making me realize how much I had been neglecting the brilliant work of Sergio Leone. If you can believe it, I haven't seen any of the Dollars trilogy, but my father-in-law's girlfriend gifted them to me for Christmas, so now I own them on BluRay. The timing seemed provident.

I ultimately didn't go with that choice because it's the third of those movies, and I felt I needed to watch the other two first. A friend almost convinced me that I didn't, as TGTBATU is actually the earliest in the chronology. But just as I would never tell a Star Wars neophyte to start with the prequels, I think it's important to watch the movies in the order they were released. And after finishing a long and regimented period of watching 2017 films, I didn't feel like using three of my available five titles before 5,000 on those movies.

Then the other contender was Robert Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, a good choice also because Bresson is one of the filmmakers I will watch as part of this year's Audient Auteurs series. It was #16 on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll and it's the second highest film on that list I haven't seen. (I guess I could have also considered the highest on that list I haven't seen, Man with a Movie Camera.) Furthermore, it's available for rental on iTunes.

Which is also a reason I didn't go with it. It's not available on the Australian iTunes, only the American. And while I have access to both, I'm running through two gifts cards that only work on the Australian store, so it felt silly to spend my hard-earned money at the American store when I have $80 in Australian credit. (Besides, the same friend who suggested I could watch TGTBATU first also said that Balthazar would make a very depressing 5,000th movie.)

Dr. T was indeed available from Australian iTunes, and it had been hanging around in the background ever since I jokingly suggested it to close out this post. So the joke turned into reality and that was the choice.

A choice I remain not entirely happy with, as I've said. But there are a couple good things about this choice, as I am in a rationalizing mood, and it's over now so I can't do anything about it anyway.

For one, this may be my last opportunity to celebrate a milestone like this with a themed viewing. When I hit 3,000, I watched Mr. 3000 -- easiest decision I ever made. Five thousand actually had a number of choices beyond this one, not all of which were readily available, but I probably could have pirated them if I were really desperate. But 6,000? Seven thousand? Eight thousand? I can't readily think of any movies with those numbers in their titles. If I didn't select the thematically appropriate option this time, I might never get the chance again.

Plus there's the fact that this allowed me to see a movie I absolutely, positively never would have sought out otherwise. Not because it's completely outside my interests -- in fact, quite the opposite, as having Dr. Seuss as a writer gave me a natural curiosity about it. Rather, I'd just never heard of it, and it's hard to seek out something you've never heard of.

Ultimately, I determined there's a reason this isn't a more prominently discussed part of Theodore Geisel's illustrious history. The story, screenplay and lyrics were all written by Dr. Seuss, but they catch him in a really raw and unfocused place. It's the story of a young boy (Tommy Rettig) who has an extended fantasy about being trapped in the castle of his evil piano teacher, the titular Dr. Terwilliker, played by Hans Conried. His mother (Mary Healy) and a kindly plumber who becomes his mother's love interest (Peter Lind Hayes) also factor in.

To be clear, it's got Seuss coming out the wazoo. There are fantabulous musical instruments, including a piano that wraps and curves around a whole room (at which the 500 boys and their 5,000 fingers are eventually meant to sit). There are a pair of men on roller stakes joined in the middle by their interconnecting gray beards. There are ladders to nowhere set against instantly recognizable Seussian buildings and other backdrops. There are holes in floors leading to hidden staircases and dungeons into which all other players of all other types of instruments have been banished. It's enriching in a very real way to see Seuss' concepts in a live action film, years and years before the abominable live action Grinch and Cat in the Hat movies. In fact, in many ways this serves as a preview of where Seuss would go in the future, rather than a rehashing of ideas already debuted in his books. Nearly all of his classics came after Dr. T; in fact, the only one of the dozen or so Seuss books we own that was written before this is Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. 

Still, even with a great like Seuss involved and working out some of the best sides of his fruitful imagination, this is a pretty difficult sit. Although I'm sure these actors were doing other things and had successful careers, I didn't get an ounce of charisma between the four of them. The story lurches along with very little forward momentum; the young Bart Collins' goal is to try to prevent Dr. T's musical academy, where he's imprisoned, from opening, but it's unclear why Dr. T's plan to have 500 boys play piano simultaneously is inherently evil and must be stopped. (His plan to execute the plumber is a bit more sinister, and reflects just one of the ways this movie is a bit more explicitly about the potential death of major characters than a movie aimed at this age child would be today.)

As a musical, it's pretty much a total failure. The first song does not come until the movie is nearly 30 minutes old, feeling especially abrupt as the staging of the first number involves the plumber and the boy sitting in a chair together. Then there's a weird dance where the plumber and Dr. T are pantomiming cursing each other. There's one truly inspired number with a whole bunch of dancers in the dungeon, which also features the Seussian instruments and a man on a swing ring a bell at the apex of his arc. But to give you some idea of its structural failings as a musical, the final number is a song called "Dressing Song," in which the villain whimsically orders his minions to dress him for his big performance. In most musicals, a song like this would be third or fourth and would serve as a kind of introduction to the villain. It would not be the final song in the whole movie. I was put in mind of another disastrous Dr. Seuss-related musical I haven't seen, Seussical. That was not received particularly well. Maybe Seuss just isn't meant to be set to music.

Anyway. I'm glad I will saw it. It's completely inconsequential and I will never watch it again.

But sometimes, milestones are just another movie.

Monday, February 5, 2018

That time I chose the Australian movie over the best picture nominee

I'm not sure if it's my commitment to writing reviews, my sense of duty as a critic for an Australian publication, or just my exaggerated tendency to write off a cinematic year once my year-end list is published, but on Thursday, I watched a new Australian movie rather than the best picture nominee that had just been released.

The best picture nominee directed by a man who had once directed my #1 movie of the year, if we want to tie that in.

Yes indeed, on Thursday night, for my first trip to the movies since I closed that much-discussed year-end list, I opted for Warwick Thornton's Sweet Country over Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread.

Not something I could have imagined myself doing five years ago.

Now, there's a logistical aspect of this that must be considered as well. Sweet Country had been out for a full week already, whereas Phantom Thread was debuting that night. If I still wanted to review Sweet Country, I needed to see it now or else forfeit the opportunity. Given the way movies tend to hang around at Cinema Nova, Phantom Thread will still be playing in early April -- though Sweet Country could be too. (That doesn't help me in terms of reviewing it, though. And Nova is only supposed to let us see it with our critics card within the first two weeks of its release.)

Anyway, if I had been thinking purely as a cinephile with a bias toward cinema with the most prominence on the world stage, I would have clearly opted for Phantom Thread. I'm sure that movie benefits from being seen on the big screen, as any movie with a strong visual sense obviously does (or any movie in general does -- discuss). Anderson makes epics that need to wash over us, or should, anyway.

But in this case I was thinking as a critic who believes that potentially one of the most important Australian films in a decade needs to be reviewed on our site, and my editor is out of town (has been for a month), so he's certainly not in a position to do it.

(Of course, I was also thinking as the same list obsessive, who could add Sweet Country as my second viewing of 2018.)

Even without having seen Phantom Thread yet, I can share with you how little I am disappointed with my decision. Sweet Country is a masterpiece, one that grapples with the soul of a country that has abused its native population in a way very similar to what the U.S. has done, and has an ongoing debate about whether we should get the day off work for Australia Day, which commemorates the arrival of Europeans in Australia. Not only is it an absolute triumph in terms of filmmaking, with terrific acting, cinematography and even arthouse editing, but it's something every Australian should see.

And I hope people other than Australians will see it, giving it the relevance on the world stage that theoretically gave Phantom Thread an advantage over it. It's just finished playing at Sundance, which means American audiences are likely to eventually see it, as well they should. As well they will want to. In addition to everything else, it makes for a great western.

As for Phantom Thread ... I may still see it in the theater, I may not. I have not loved an Anderson film since my beloved There Will Be Blood, my #1 movie of 2007. With the two I've seen since then and not loved, The Master and Inherent Vice, I saw one on the big screen and one on the small. Seeing it writ large may have made me like The Master more than I would have otherwise, but I didn't like either of those movies a huge amount, so I don't know if I owe Anderson anything in terms of this one. He may need to win me back, in a way. (I did like The Master, and probably owe it a second viewing; with Inherent Vice, I think I'm done after one.)

My Sweet County review should be up on the site and linked in a couple days. Read up on it, and look for it coming to a theater near you.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Cat in the Hat progression of time

It's unusual that you'd watch a movie for the seventh? maybe? time, and still have significant new takeaways.

In the case of Run Lola Run, my 12th favorite film of all time according to Flickchart, I actually have two.

We watched it Saturday night as research for a project my wife is working on, though this is at least her third time seeing it, probably her fourth. As I like only 11 films better than this, and had not seen it since 2014, I was more than game.

And I realized while watching it that my love for it is as high as it is despite something that nags me every time while watching it, this time being no exception:

Those 20 minutes would never take 20 minutes.

Forty, maybe. Not 20.

It's something I've felt about the film ever since I named it my #1 movie of 1999 (it was released in Germany in 1998, but didn't get to us until the following year). And while I'm obviously able to suspend disbelief in this case, still: Those 20 minutes would never take 20 minutes.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, then shame on you -- go watch Run Lola Run right now. But in case you'd rather finish this post before doing so, well, I should tell you that there are spoilers about Run Lola Run ahead. But if you're not worried about that and still require an explanation, Franka Potente plays the title character, the girlfriend of a low-level criminal who accidentally abandons a bag containing 100,000 marks on the subway on his way to giving it to his boss. He was only on that subway in the first place because she could not meet him at the designated spot due to her moped being stolen. When he calls her in desperation, it's up to her to try to find the money in the next 20 minutes before noon -- or else his boss will rub him out. Or really, or else he'll rob the grocery store across the street, making him a wanted criminal and putting their lives on a significantly different trajectory.

So Lola runs, of course.

The thing is, it takes her fully half the available time to actually arrive at the bank where her father works, leaving only ten more minutes to hastily extract the money from him with enough finesse that he'd actually agree to do it, then get to the meeting spot with Manni before he pulls a gun on the grocery clerks.

Never happen.

I mean, even if she ran into her dad on the front steps of the bank, he had the 100,000 marks in his pocket, and he forked it over to her within 30 seconds of her arrival, she wouldn't seem to have the time to get to Manni. And of course it doesn't go like that on any of the three attempts as the movie restarts the crucial 20-minute period twice. There are logistical problems each of the times, not to mention time lost on learning things like the fact that her dad is cheating on her mom and that he's not actually her biological father.

Yet each time she actually does show up by noon, not always with any money in her hands, but with the possibility of having money if everything had gone right.

I call bullshit.

Except I don't care. Just as I don't really care that the kids in The Cat in the Hat could not possibly accomplish as much as they accomplish in the time it takes for the fish to see their mother approaching on the sidewalk outside, and when she actually reaches the front door.

I read this Dr. Seuss classic for the umpteenth time Thursday night to my younger son -- well, third or fourth to him, with the remaining part of the umpteen having been expended on his older brother. It's not my favorite Dr. Seuss by any stretch of the imagination, but I do like it quite a bit, and have distinct voices for the titular cat, the aforementioned fish, the boy, and even the one line of dialogue belonging to his mother, after she finally arrives home.

But every time I read The Cat in the Hat I can't help but think "Damn! Why does it take so long for the mum to reach the front door?" (See, I live in Australia now, and sometimes I think the word "mum" rather than "mom.")

If you need a fuller explanation of this, I will give one, this time without the spoiler warning. The goldfish, who is basically the house's resident narc, has spent the entire book in an apoplexy of anxiety, worried that the titular cat, his two Things and the two children should not be destroying the house while Mom is out. His fears are finally vindicated when he spies the approaching leg of the mom, as indicated in the picture above.

The problem is, the house is a total mess. It's not only a mess, but there are two Things running loose creating havoc, not to mention a giant cat in a ridiculous hat kicking his feet up and having a grand old time with all the chaos. In reality, the fish probably wouldn't even have the time to read them the full riot act before the mom reached the front door. But in this book, the boy then has to go get his net, has to have luck enough to catch both Things in his net on the first attempt, return the Things to their box, watch the cat leave in a huff, watch the cat return with a crazy device that will clean up "the cake and the rake and the gown" and everything else that's on the floor, and then leave again.


The timing of watching Lola again was fortuitous as I had actually just posted the following on Facebook shortly after reading: "One of the world's great mysteries: Why does it take the mom in Cat in the Hat so long to walk from the sidewalk outside her house to the front door of her house?" I got 17 likes and five comments. People other than me have thought about this.

I think the unrealistically productive 30 seconds in Cat in the Hat bothers me more than the unrealistically productive 20 minutes in Lola, but in both cases I accept it because the work of art in question is doing so much else right. I do think there's an important difference between the two, though. While both rely on a sense of urgency and a need to act immediately, I think Theodore Geisel could have figured out a way to herald the approach of the mother without the fish looking out the window and seeing her approaching footfall. I mean, the way that's drawn, that means she's going to be at the door in like ten seconds, let alone 30, let alone the 20 minutes it might take to do everything they need to do indoors to get the house ready. Pivoting on that 20 minutes, I don't think Tom Tykwer could have stretched that out to 30 or 40, because although that's still an incredibly small amount of time in which to acquire 100,000 marks, it would stretch out the available time period enough to damage the sense of immediacy.

And as I said, I'm happy to suspend disbelief. If I'm going to start quibbling with how much (or really, how little) time it takes Lola to run to far-flung corners of Berlin, there are also a number of movies I'll need to reckon with involving ticking time bombs and people holding their breath underwater.

Oh, I said I had a second takeaway. And it has to do with who has free will in this universe and who determines the course of the action on each of the film's three attempts at getting the money.

If you answer "Lola" to that question, you're wrong.

It's the guy on the stairs.

You know how the movie becomes momentarily animated as Lola drops the phone and bolts her apartment? This is the key sequence of the whole movie, as there is a punk with a dog on one of the lower landings of the stairwell she sprints down.

On the first time through, Lola notes the guy and his dog, but just passes them and they have no impact on her. In fact, they are really nothing more than scenery.

Not true on the second time through, though. The second time, the guy has an otherwise unexplained injection of free will, and decides to stick out a leg to trip Lola. As she falls down the stairs, it's a great start to the second iteration of the film's narrative, as we already know this is destined to be a failure right from the start.

Improbably, this only slows her down a small amount, even though she suffers a nasty spill and has to limp her way out of the apartment building. I guess she gets back up to speed pretty quickly or maybe makes up the time somewhere else, because when she proceeds through the other series of events and people in her path, she's only a few seconds off the pace of the first iteration, when she went down the stairwell unmolested.

Interestingly, no one else in the narrative makes a free choice of any kind. They end up doing slightly different things as a result of her slightly different arrival times, but only the change in her arrival time dictates these differences. They don't decide to do something different one time to the next, which, granted, could be because the guy on the stairs has taken the decision out of their hands. You could say that once he has made his choice, the rest of them are just pawns destined to act out the proscribed series of involuntary responses that result from the particular compositions of the chemistries in their brains.

So why does the guy on the stairs get to be different? Is he the god of this universe? If he had not made a different choice, would someone else have?

It's interesting to note that in the third iteration, he again decides to be a passive observer, not an active participant in this nascent journey which he couldn't possibly know anything about it. But the interaction is slightly different. The dog growls, but instead of shrinking from it in an instinct of self-preservation, Lola jumps over it and growls back at it.

It's meant to indicate that these experiences have not occurred in a vacuum for Lola. She has learned something from having lived each of the previous ones already. She still makes a very poor initial choice, to get the money from her father, each time. But she's clearly carrying something with her, as by the third attempt she has gained enough confidence, enough of an edge on the situation, to growl back at the dog rather than shrinking from it.

However, only Lola and the guy on the stairs seem to be accumulating any knowledge over the course of the three iterations. No one else seems to behave differently as a result of a vague sense of deja vu. This guy clearly does, as he actively decides to throw a wrench in her second attempt by doing something he didn't do the first time, and you can't argue that his decision was the result of something she did differently, because she hasn't done anything differently in the albeit very short amount of those 20 minutes that have elapsed. She clearly did retain some knowledge from the first to the second -- in the second, for example, we see her removing the safety on the gun, something she learned to do the first time through, in a different context involving a gun -- but it doesn't seem as though she's used any of her retained knowledge to alter anything prior to the interaction with the man on the stairs.

So is he the god of this universe? Or possibly the devil?

I guess I'll leave that one to my eighth viewing.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Communicating with aliens in palindromes and pictographs

Usually I bring you two movies in a row I watched that had something surprising in common. This time it's a movie and a TV show, and on the surface, they do not seem like they should be related one iota.

My wife and I have been watching the second season of Fargo, and came into Friday night with only the season finale remaining. After that, I knew I was going to sit down for my second viewing of Arrival.

Spoilers for both to follow, so tread carefully.

As I always tell you in these situations, the decision to watch one had nothing to do with the decision to watch the other. I've had Arrival out from the library through one renewal cycle, and it's due back this weekend. And we've been watching Fargo since December, having taken a short break on this addictive masterpiece and then run through the second half of the season within the past week.

The second season of Fargo is, on the surface, very realistic. I mean, you could quibble with the alleged realism of its incredibly high body count, but beyond that, it takes pains to portray reality accurately. It doesn't even rely on common contrivances like coincidence or deus ex machina. Characters get what they deserve, except when they don't. It truly is among my favorite seasons of television I've seen in recent years.

However, there's one thing that is completely out there about this particular season of Fargo. Twice -- in the first episode, and in the penultimate episode -- a UFO is seen. Actually, it's more of an IFO. It comes down close to the characters, shines down those familiar beams of light, the kind it would then use to suck them up into the craft (though does not in this case). If it's not an alien spacecraft, it is a collective delusion of the characters, which is actually more problematic on a story level. In true Fargo form, it comes, is barely talked about, and has no narrative payoff. It's just an unexplained part of this show. (It might pay off in season 3, and if so, please don't tell me. We'll start that soon.)

Cut to the end of the final episode, when the characters we care about are safe at home -- even Patrick Wilson's cancer-ridden wife (Cristin Milioti), who did not get the sugar pills and potentially could be on the road to recovery. Wilson's father-in-law, a fellow law enforcement officer played by Ted Danson, has survived the gunshot wound he received in the scene where the spacecraft descended on the motel. (I'm not going to bother with character names here -- I'll just refer to everyone by the actor's names.)

In another kind of unexplained bit, Danson admits to something Milioti confronts him with -- that she went into his office and saw the project he was working on. Danson explains it is a universal language based on pictures rather than words, which would help people of different cultures communicate with each other better. As far as I recall, we have not heard anything about this previously, and though it is a good indication of the character's deep soul and good intentions, it is again a rather random inclusion in a show that has really not had anything to do with that.

Please also note that the name of this episode is "Palindrome." I don't think there is any direct and obvious way to read this episode as a palindrome, or even that the episode itself makes the season a kind of palindrome. For that to be the case, I'd figure it would indicate that the middle of the season is a type of climax and the final episode has brought us back to where we started, but that's not a reading I take from this episode or this season. Then there's Milioti's dream sequence, which borrows heavily from the end of Raising Arizona and includes characters from the first season of Fargo, which are revealed to be her husband at an older age and her daughter grown up. (I guess an observant viewer would have noted that Wilson's character has the same name as Keith Carradine's character in the first season, but I was not such an observant viewer.) Anyway, don't worry so much about the meaning of the title in this context, just stick a pin in this for now.

Cut to 30 minutes later, with me starting Arrival.

Arrival of course is also about aliens coming down to Earth (aliens who also don't quite land, if you want to take it a step further, as the crafts in Arrival hover about 30 feet off the ground). It is also about the attempt to share a universal language, and determine the meaning behind pictographs. Not only a shared language with the aliens, but a shared language among people on Earth, whose disagreements about how to approach the "invasion" are the closest we come to the movie ending in tragedy. On a thematic level, the movie is about how we humans communicate with each other -- the only practical lesson we can apply (since we are not currently engaged in a potential dialogue with aliens, at least as far as you and I know). So, that's also what Danson's Hank Larsson (there's a character name) is interested in -- one has to imagine as a result of serving in World War II and having to kill another man.

Both Arrival and this season of Fargo involve a consideration of time as well. As you start to learn about halfway through Arrival (if you're observant) or closer to the end (if you're not, like me, or if you're sleep deprived the night after Donald Trump was elected president, which was the circumstances of my first viewing), Amy Adams' character is beginning to see flash forwards to events in her life that have not yet occurred. Of course, since the narrative of this film is tricking us, we are meant to perceive them as flashbacks -- because we as audience members, like the characters in the film, are trained to perceive time as linear. We don't even consider the possibility that Adams could be seeing memories that have not yet occurred, though this is indeed the unique perspective the heptapods possess -- it's their very language.

So too does Milioti's character see things that have not yet occurred in her dream sequence. While it's certainly possible to see into your own future, or at least your own imagined future, in your dream, we as viewers get the sense that this is actually a real vision of the future, as Milioti's grown up daughter actually looks like Allison Loman, and her aged husband actually looks like Keith Carradine. You could say that's just a cheeky trick designed to make us slap our foreheads and get that something we didn't think was connected was actually connected, which, as I said, others would realize if they knew that Carradine and Wilson had the same character names. I, however, subscribe to the idea that the show is actually considering some kind of non-linear view of time, similar to the aliens in Arrival. Even though their ships look vastly different, could these be the same aliens?

If you want to take this part a step further in my recent viewings, I weirdly also saw a terrific Australian movie on Thursday night called Sweet Country, in which the audience gets to see little snippets of characters' futures briefly interspersed into the present tense action. Is it me, as a person, who is learning the alien language and starting to view the future and the past as all the same type of perceptions of memory?

Oh, one last thing. Remember when I told you to stick a pin in the title for the final episode of the season of Fargo, "Palindrome"? Well, palindromes are important in Arrival too. One of Adams' core realizations about the alien pictographs, which helps her identify something about their cyclical perception of time, is that the thoughts expressed do not have a beginning or an end. The pictographs are circular, which means, essentially, all words in the "sentence" expressed simultaneously. And while a palindrome is not technically circular, it does have a beginning that looks the same as its end. Inspired by this, Adams even names her daughter Hannah and has a scene where she explains to the girl that her name is a palindrome.

Again, this is just one man's viewing and so obviously it does not "mean" anything. Nor do I think one piece of popular art influenced the other -- season 2 of Fargo did debut a year before the release of Arrival, October 2015 to November 2016, though the final episode of the season didn't drop until ten days before Christmas.

I just think it's interesting to consider. So, I hope you have enjoyed considering it.

So you already know I loved season 2 of Fargo, but you may not remember my thoughts on Arrival. In part, I'm sure, because of that post-Trump haze, my mind was a bit mushy and I didn't know if the movie had truly earned its time-related conundrums. Ultimately, there was just something slightly unconvincing about it for me, and though I definitely liked it, it was not nearly in the same league as Denis Villeneuve's two previous films, which had both made my top ten of their respective years.

I do like it better after the second viewing, and in one area where I had some of my greatest doubts the first time around, I now feel convinced. One of the biggest cheats I perceived the first time is that the movie shows us the death of Adams' daughter before it shows us any of her present-day life, which we are initially meant to assume occurs after her daughter's death. That's not the cheat itself. The cheat was, I thought, that she is moping her way through life when we see her show up for the sparsely attended class at her university on the day the aliens arrive. If her daughter was not yet dead, that moping is intentionally misleading, manipulative, and unearned.

Well, this movie Kuleshov effected me. If you don't know what the Kuleshov Effect is, it's that cinematic experiment done a century or so ago where it was determined that viewers perceived different emotions in an emotionless face depending on what image was shown immediately before seeing the emotionless face. If it was a picture of a killer, the emotionless face looked scared. If it was a picture of a hamburger, the emotionless face looked hungry. And so on.

So, in a clever use of the devices of cinema, Villeneuve presented me with a sequence showing the death of Adams' daughter, and then Adams having an essentially emotionless face. This time through, I properly recognized that emotionless face as "Tuesday morning" rather than "I'm sad because my daughter is dead." In fact, if anything, she might even be a bit chirpy as she tries to introduce the day's discussion topics in a lecture that will never occur.

Damn that Kuleshov Effect, and kudos to Villeneuve for getting me with it.

I still seem destined not to watch this movie with the proper amount of sleep/attentiveness, however. Not only did I start it around 9:30, but halfway through I went down an internet rabbit hole that prompted me to stop the movie for a good 40 minutes. It shouldn't have been a surprise that I was fighting sleep for the whole second half, and actually gave in a couple times for ten-minute naps.

Maybe this is just destined to be my non-linear perception of this non-linear movie, and maybe that's as it should be.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

2018 is Open for business

As I pick and choose my movies very carefully in the leadup to the 5,000-movie milestone, one thing I didn't expect to be doing was starting my 2018 list.

Not this way, anyway.

After last night's viewing, I am currently at 4,997 total movies. That means that if I choose one particular movie I've got in mind for my 5,000th, which necessitates watching two others first, I can watch no new movies other than those. And I'm still trying to fit two Audient Auteurs movies into January, though I'm rapidly realizing I may need to push the start of that series to February.

Of course, I can watch as many movies I've already seen as I want, and that was to be my plan last night. It being a three-day holiday weekend (Australia Day was on Friday), I was circling around a genre movie, and had two well-regarded movies from the last few years that I've seen only once -- Mad Max: Fury Road and Arrival -- in my sights. I've borrowed both from the library.

My wife had different sights. She told me she'd started a horror movie on Netflix the other night while sitting out in our garage, and in part due to the setting, isolated from our house, she got wigged out enough that she had to stop after 30 minutes. It looked promising so she sold me on continuing it with her. (I think we're both chasing the high of The Blackcoat's Daughter, which I showed her a few weeks back on my second viewing and which she loved.)

I guessed The Open House would likely be some 2017 Netflix release that I'd ideally try to avoid simply because I try to take a break from movies from the previous year right after I've finished my list. But nope, when I pulled it up on Netflix, planning to start it on my own before my wife joined me for the part she hadn't seen, I saw the 2018 release date.

So here I am, already off and running on a new list. No time like the present.

I had been thinking of getting the new list started as early as tonight anyway. A friend of mine and I are trying to go see Sweet Country, an Australian movie that's hitting theaters here now at the same time that it's playing Sundance in the U.S. The Sundance gig means it's likely to get a U.S. theatrical release, or at least that that's possible. So it exceeds one minimum threshold for inclusion on my 2018 year-end list (an Australian theatrical release) and might hit a much more satisfying one (a U.S. theatrical release, meaning other critics with whom I compare my lists will also be ranking it).

But Sweet Country ran into a bunch of logistical hurdles, as I first realized that we're planning to watch the final night of the Australian Open tonight (we've been watching some every night this week), and that tomorrow night I also have a commitment. My friend is busy the next three nights, and it turns out the following Sunday, when we thought we might to do it as a second backup plan, he's also tied up. So instead of being my first movie of 2018, Sweet Country could end up being my 60th or 70th -- or maybe I won't catch it at all. Sometimes that's how these things work.

As for my actual first movie of 2018 ... well, if it weren't the first, it would be even more forgettable. A true horror non-starter filled with red herrings, but not the good kind of red herrings that feel like they exist for a purpose. These are the type of red herrings that result from forgetting that there's a part of the script you wrote and never paid off. It's that kind of movie throughout.

I do have one observation about it worth sharing, though. The Open House stars -- or, I thought it starred -- Logan Lerman, playing a character named Logan. Which I thought was sort of funny.

Of course, when the credits rolled, I realized once again that it's not Logan Lerman, but Dylan Minnette, who is mistaken enough for Lerman that someone already got this side-by-side image (and about a dozen others) posted on the internet:

I'm not sure it's so much that they look exactly alike, but rather, that they are about the same age, appear in similar films, and have a similar function in those films.

Actually, Lerman has been around a lot longer and is five years older than Minnette, which is a significant age difference when the ages you're talking about are 21 and 26. I suppose it's obvious that Lerman has been around longer, otherwise I'd mistake Lerman for Minnette rather than Minnette for Lerman. Don't Breathe was the first time I mistook Minnette for Lerman, with last night being the second (though probably not the last). Hey, they were trying to get me to confuse them by calling the character Logan -- an inside joke if ever there was one. (Either that, or trying to subliminally capitalize on one of the most popular names at the movies in 2017. I wouldn't put subliminally capitalizing on something past Netflix with all its algorithms, especially not riding the coattails of Wolverine.)

And now that I'm poring around Wikipedia for some of these details, I'm questioning the status of The Open House as my first movie of 2018. In my ongoing struggle with how to incorporate Netflix into these year-end lists, even a nascent one like this one, I've said I try to see only the movies that I thought would definitely get a theatrical release in another era. Well, despite featuring Minnette, whose career is steadily gaining heat (he's also in the show 13 Reasons Why), the table on his Wikipedia page devoted to his career includes the following descriptor in the notes section for The Open House: "Direct-to-video film."


I suppose that's how we technically classify Netflix movies that were not given a theatrical release, which is most of them, but still -- do you have to remind me of it?

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Which backs get lashed

Having kept my love for A Ghost Story entirely out of print -- though if you had listened to this podcast, you would have heard me rave about it -- I was somewhat taken aback when the first comment to greet my year-end list on Facebook was the following:

"Casey Affleck should BE a ghost. Fade into nothing. Scare people when he pops up so they run away."

As this comment came within five minutes of posting, when I was still in that delirious high of publishing the end result of "my year's work," I immediately felt a pit in my stomach.

Was I wrong to look past the involvement of Casey Affleck in this movie in giving it my highest honor for the year?

I knew this person was not trying to be funny, either, despite her at least somewhat playful use of the extended ghost metaphor. This is a woman I have consistently seen post about #MeToo, who does not consider this a laughing matter. (I mean, I'd hope no one would consider it a laughing matter, but this woman most certainly does not.)

So I had a momentary crisis about whether I had failed in my responsibility to an important social cause in completely disregarding Affleck's participation in the movie as a relevant factor in assessing it. Should I so actively promote something that has a genuine creep on screen for much of its running time, even if he is behind a sheet for most of it?

I've written a number of times in the past about my general philosophy -- I'm sure there are exceptions -- of separating the art from the artist. I mean, I've seen Woody Allen's films every year for five years running now, which is almost certainly my longest such streak in the man's entire career. I believe if a movie has something useful to add to the conversation, or may be doing something interesting, I should see it and grapple with it, even if the person who made it is not a very good person. There are a lot of not very good people making movies.

But I must admit I did not even have this internal debate when it came to Affleck and A Ghost Story. I know Affleck was guilty of some shady things, some awful things, on the set of I'm Still Here. Women are right to be skeeved out by him, and men should be sure he does not go near their daughters. Still, and maybe this is just because I did not pore over the details of the accusations against him, I didn't realize he was quite as worthy of being loathed as the level he is loathed. Especially as more and more names have come out of more and more people doing terrible things -- in many cases, worse things -- the accusations against Affleck have further receded in terms of how shocked I feel I should be by them.

And yet this woman came forward with an implicit scolding of me for supporting an Affleck project, reminding me just how angry people are at Affleck -- at how they have pulled him out of what has increasingly become an indistinguishable noise about sexual harassment, and targeted him specifically for their hatred and scorn.

I guess part of the disconnect for me is that he just won an Oscar last year, and I kind of feel like people already knew these things about him when Manchester by the Sea came out, though perhaps I am off on my chronology there. I feel like last year would have been the time to punish him, yet "we" did not. "We" awarded him with the year's highest acting honor, because he was just so damn good. (A textbook example of separating the art and the artist.)

In fact, I find myself wondering if Affleck will be allowed to hand out the best actress Oscar this year. I'm kind of suspecting no. Though maybe it would actually be a better punishment for him to throw him out there and see what kind of reception he gets than to keep him out of the show entirely.

So it seems especially strange to me that A Ghost Story should now be bearing the brunt of a delayed disgust with Affleck. Is it because people felt like they could dismiss A Ghost Story as a twee exercise, not a serious film, whereas Manchester by the Sea was something they should more obviously reckon with?

But I also know that this is not an unreasonable viewpoint, or one held by only a few people. My wife has so far boycotted A Ghost Story because of Affleck's involvement (though I hold out hope that I'll eventually get to show it to her). Another person said to me, regarding Ghost Story, "I also struggled with Casey Affleck in it in a way I wouldn't have if I'd liked the movie."

So I guess Affleck can set you off on the wrong foot with the movie, or, if you aren't liking it, become "the lightning rod," to quote that friend again.

What I guess I wonder is why we're not hearing people go on rants about Baby Driver because Kevin Spacey was in it or rants about The Disaster Artist because James Franco was in it. Some of that may be out there, but I haven't seen it.

Granted, a lot of that has to do with the timing. Most people saw and formed their opinions of those movies before the person in question was revealed to be a creep, though I can't imagine people didn't have suspicions about Franco. Maybe the backlash for things can't come retroactively, any more than you can say "Ugh, you like American Beauty? How dare you, Kevin Spacey is in that." Though it does seem to be the case that the timing of the accusations against Franco played a role in why he was nominated for a Golden Globe but not an Oscar. (Not that nominations are actually done like this, but I like to imagine the Academy hastily switching in Denzel Washington, for his performance in a movie nobody saw and which is supposed to be bad, in place of Franco.)

Of course, I'm not the only one supporting A Ghost Story, so I have company in my failure to punish the movie for Affleck's transgressions. Two critics I like very much and listen to on podcasts regularly, Michael Phillips and Matt Singer, had it in their top three for the year, and in glancing at one of those websites that compiles best-of lists from around the world, I saw at least one other where it was at the tippy top, like it was for me. I suspect there are more.

Still, I can't imagine I can go into a new ranking year with the same blase attitude about whether the people I'm watching on screen are shitheads or not. #MeToo is too important to not pay it some heed. So maybe I'll just skip Woody Allen's movie this year. I'm sure I won't miss much.

More than anything, I hope this is no long-term blight on David Lowery's beautiful film, in which Rooney Mara is also a blameless participant deserving of much praise. A Ghost Story deserves to be a film for the ages, and I hope that the incidental toxicity Affleck brought to the project does not keep it from being one.

And I also hope one day I can show it to my wife.