Thursday, November 28, 2013

Famous Turkeys: The Lone Ranger

This is the latest in a series I usually call Famous Flops, which has gotten a little Thanksgiving tweak this month. In this series I watch one movie per month that I know to be a critical or commercial failure, then discuss in gory detail. 

What better day than Thanksgiving to write about a movie that's supposedly the greatest insult to Native Americans since the Trail of Tears?

As it always is, the timing is a bit complicated, as it's not yet Thursday in the U.S. and it will never be Thanksgiving in Australia. (Though I am making turkey, mashed potatoes and green beans tonight for dinner -- shh, don't tell my wife, it's a surprise.) However, Thanksgiving is in the air, even if it's in the virtual air. Ah, if I were back in the U.S., I'd be plotting which movie to take in during my early release from work today. Maybe Oldboy.

But back to the issue at hand.

The Lone Ranger was of course the flop of 2013, and would seem like an even bigger catastrophe for Disney if John Carter hadn't flopped for them on a similar scale last year. (The cumulative disaster of the two is, of course, worse; it just means that The Lone Ranger isn't a singular phenomenon for them.) The difference is that I saw plenty of redeeming value in the fairly messy Carter. I had to dig much deeper to ferret out goodness in Ranger.

This is not to say, however, that the movie is terrible. More than anything I just founded it tedious and elongated and more violent than it had any right to be.

Let's start with that violence. It being Disney, there is of course almost a total absence of blood. That's not to say there isn't a ridiculously high body count, which you might expect in movie that chooses to depict ... an epic slaughter of indians. (Let's call them "indians," because this is one of the original contexts in which the phrase "cowboys and indians" was popularized. And since we're lower-casing "cowboys," let's do the same to "indians." Upper-case it and I think you are actually getting a tad more insensitive, like this is a title that legitimately belongs to Native Americans.)

The reason The Lone Ranger is kind of a disaster is that someone thought it was a good idea for this movie to include an epic slaughter of indians. I should clarify my terms a little here, I suppose. I'm not talking about a situation where a bunch of white men coldly kill a bunch of captive indians in the attempt to wipe them off the face of the earth. That would definitely be worse. But there is a skirmish between the cavalry and the indians that leaves many dead on both sides. What's worse than a bunch of dead bodies in an allegedly family-friendly movie is a bunch of dead bodies from a community of historically oppressed people. Not great.

There are lots of bodies falling here and there, as well as a lot of people you assume are dead based on falling off trains and the like, but the specific acts of violence are the ones that are more suspect. What about the scene where Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner) cuts out a man's heart and eats it? Certainly, most of this is off-screen, but the fact that it exists at all is a serious lapse in judgment on someone's part.

Now let's get to the part that offended most people: Johnny Depp as Tonto.

I want to start out on something other than his actual portrayal, which of course involves a white man impersonating a Native American. The movie uses as its framing device -- a very questionable framing device at that -- a big fair in San Francisco in 1933, in which a young boy wearing a Lone Ranger mask is wandering through a series of dioramas with taxidermy animals in their natural habitat. He comes to one which shows us "the savage" in his natural habitat, and it's a very old indian that one would assume was a statue. Except it's not a statue -- it's Tonto, who I guess is supposed to be an early incarnation of one of those street performers who douses himself in silver paint and sits still for hours on end.

Let's ponder the problems with this for a moment:

1) Knowing that Tonto lived into his old age not only destroys any suspense about this movie, it destroys the suspense about any future Lone Ranger sequels they might make. Most of this movie plays like they're setting up for a sequel -- like, for example, the Lone Ranger only naming his horse Silver in the final scene -- but the framing device pushes things in the opposite direction. It's just another sign of poor decision-making, and I wonder if the framing device was added after the fact, when production delays and threats of potentially canceling the movie made them get realistic about its future as a franchise.

2) What the hell fair is employing Tonto as a man who sits still for 12 hours a day as a living relic of his culture? And if we like Tonto at all, which the movie clearly wants us to, aren't we a bit sad that this is what he's doing in his old age? And isn't this kind of the single most oppressive treatment of Native Americans in the entire film? Of "indians"?

I must admit, I was not hugely distracted by Depp's actual performance, even though it does involve dropping most inessential words in a sentence, as is the traditional portrayal of "indians" on screen. (I said I would use that word, and gave my reasons, yet am still finding it objectionable enough that I need to supply quotation marks when I write it.) It helps that Tonto is always the smartest person on screen, constantly involved in clever plans and acrobatic feats. His dynamic with Armie Hammer's The Lone Ranger is pretty much that of Penny and Inspector Gadget or Gromit and Wallace -- he's the second-in-command who's the real brains of the operation, shackled (sometimes literally) to a stuffed shirt who would probably quickly expire if left to his own devices.

So I won't really accuse Disney of grand insensitivity in casting Depp to play this role. It's certainly in the tradition of other Depp roles; he is, in fact, the most obvious choice among today's working movie stars. It would be great if there were a prominent Native American actor who had the star power to bring in the type of dollars this movie needed in order to be a success, but that's just not realistic. Once you decide to make a Lone Ranger movie and know that Tonto is one of the most important two characters, you've got to cast some white actor to play the role, and Depp is as good as any. Perhaps an ambiguously ethnic actor -- a Dwayne Johnson, though probably not him specifically -- would have attracted slightly less controversy. But I think it's kind of splitting hairs.

The question about The Lone Ranger really is: Is it good? Is it entertaining?

It's not good, but it is sporadically entertaining. Some of the set pieces really crackle. An otherwise illogical climactic scene involving trains on parallel tracks, which keep getting separated from each other until there are eight to ten individual train units, has some very fun choreography, with Tonto performing some of those acrobatic feats on a ladder extending between the trains. During these moments, The Lone Ranger finds the attitude that it should have for its entire running time: It's light and fluffy and, yes, fun.

It's just too bad someone thought that running time should be 149 minutes, and that 100 of those minutes should be weighed down by death, slaughter and other ponderous bummers.

Okay, up next: the last month of Famous Flops. In the end, I haven't found this series quite as fulfilling as I'd hoped, and moving to Australia (where I don't have Netflix disc-by-mail) has made getting my hands on flop candidates even more challenging that it was in the United States (where I couldn't even get the movie that I hoped to start the series back in February, Ishtar.) So perhaps the series was a little doomed from the start -- an outcome I may have invited by calling 2013 "an unlucky year for famous flops." Number 13, you've done it again.

I'll kill two birds with one stone and make my December movie one I was going to watch for my 2013 list anyway: the summer's second biggest disaster, M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth. Then we'll start 2014 with a new series I'll tell you about later on. It should be an interesting one.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Horror: The only genre where originality doesn't matter

The most successful horror movie this year, and one of the most successful box office stories of the year, period, is James Wan's The Conjuring.

Which doesn't have an original bone in its body.

Which, as it turns out, is okay.

I saw The Conjuring last night, and had chills going down my spine for a good number of its 107 minutes. This despite the fact that there literally was not a single thing in the movie I hadn't already seen in another movie. Even star Patrick Wilson was in Wan's own Insidious -- another very enjoyable, very unoriginal horror movie, which in fact shares many thematic elements in common with The Conjuring.

It made me realize that horror is not a what genre, it's a how genre.

What happens in a horror movie is not nearly as important as how it happens. Why else could we sit through yet another movie where an evil spirit is haunting either a house or a person (the person angle answers the question "Why don't they just move?")? Yet another movie where you can see reflections of figures in mirrors who aren't really there? Yet another movie where an unseen force drags a character around a room?

I could name you ten films with these essential elements in them, and I wouldn't even have to go back three years. The entire Paranormal Activity series is basically this exact premise, served up somewhat fresh because it's done in the found footage genre.

See, found footage is a how, not a what.

However, a horror movie needn't even have a high concept how to set it apart. The Conjuring doesn't have a high concept how. If you were stretching, you'd say that it was based on a true story (the characters played by Wilson and Vera Farmiga were real people), or that it was set in the 1970s, which is a bit different. But it's really just the same stuff we're seeing in half the horror movies that get made these days.

So then why is The Conjuring, like, actually good?

Well, you can't deny the biological reality of your own goosebumps. And while watching The Conjuring, I had 'em. It's as simple as that. Something Wan and company were doing was just right to give me those goosebumps, and that meant I was scared.

There's some good camera work in The Conjuring, but beyond that, there aren't even really any new techniques on display here. It's just the right proportions of all the familiar horror tropes, used in the right combination with each other. A little creepy music here, a little quiet there. A drawn-out sense of anticipation of what's going to fill the screen here, a startle scare there. None of it -- and I mean none of it -- is new. But it still works.

The thing I think is funny is that it makes a person wonder why the studio would have even greenlit the movie in the first place. On the one hand, it's easy to understand why a risk-averse studio would give something the go-ahead if it resembles other films that have been hits for that studio or other studios before. But on the other, conventional wisdom is that an idea for a movie needs to have some hook, some bit of originality that makes the pitched executive sit up in his or her seat a little bit.

Can you just imagine Wan pitching the idea? "It's about this family who moves into this old house, and strange things start happening to them. At first they dismiss the events as acts of nature or tricks on their mind, but before long they can no longer ignore the truth of their senses. They bring in a team of paranormal investigators, and things just get crazier from there. Oh, and it turns out that someone once killed themselves in this house, and then all the subsequent owners have suffered tragedies of one kind or another."

That is about the least distinctive idea you have ever heard in the history of Hollywood, yet that's The Conjuring, and it was a huge hit.

I'd blame dumb American audiences (or dumb Australian audiences, or dumb French audiences, etc.), except that I watched the movie and I liked it too. Even though one of the things I specifically ask for from movies is to show me something I haven't seen before.

The Conjuring shows me things I've seen before, lots of times before, in almost this exact combination. Yet it still works.

This wouldn't fly in a comedy. When was the last time you laughed hard at the exact same joke you'd seen in a different movie? This wouldn't fly in an action movie. When was the last time you oohed and ahhed at a set piece ripped straight from an older action movie?

The difference, I suppose, is that horror movies are all about creating a mood. And that mood makes us feel a certain way -- it gives us goosebumps, for example. And you can't deny the biological reality of your own goosebumps.

Yet the ability to do this is so tricky that horror remains pretty much the least successful of any genre. Oh, I'm not talking about financial success, as most horror movies can achieve that without too much of a problem. I'm talking about really creating that mood, about really scaring its audience. I have so little faith in a horror movie's ability to do that, that I don't even watch many of them, even though being scared is one of the most exhilarating sensations I seek out from movies.

That how isn't there in the script. It's intangible. So maybe a studio just looks at someone like James Wan and says "You've done the how before. I've seen you do the how. So, I don't even care what your movie is about. Just get that how right and we'll be all set."

And in The Conjuring, by golly, Wan shows us how it's done.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

That's three I won't be ranking this year

I haven't been worrying myself too much about Australia's new release latency. You know, that delay, sometimes lasting as long as three to five months, for some movies to open here. Until now, it hasn't had much practical impact on me, except forcing me to practice something I hate: being patient.

Until -- sob -- now.

Yesterday I discovered the third high-profile autumn release that I won't be seeing before my list closes on January 16th, with many, many more to come. If I'd been poking around more on the late-December release scheduled in the U.S., I'd probably already be aware of a number of other titles that will be denied me.

I was going to see Enough Said -- whose November 14th release date was delayed a modest two months from the U.S. -- when I saw an advertisement for Alexander Payne's new film Nebraska.

Then the release date:

February 20, 2014.


February 20th is more than a month after I close my rankings for 2013, which will be on January 16th this year. That's the morning the Oscar nominations are announced, which is my traditional deadline for finalizing the previous year's rankings.

Other victims of me being in Australia: 12 Years a Slave, which releases on something like January 30th, and Spike Jonze's new movie Her, which doesn't even get its U.S. wide release until mid-January. If I were in L.A., though, I would have been able to find Her open for a week for awards considerations, I'm sure of it.

This is significant, as Spike Jonze's most recent two films -- Where the Wild Things Are and Adaptation -- were my #2 of 2009 and my #1 of 2002. Let's just say I like the guy.

I knew there would be plenty of changes to accept by moving to Australia, many of which would relate to movies. But now that it's coming to brass tacks, I'm finding it very hard to accept that my 2013 film rankings won't be a thorough representation of the films released in the United States in 2013. And it won't get better in 2014, unless industry conditions suddenly take a major turn that causes the collapse of this three-month delay. Not anytime soon, I'm betting.

At least my whole holiday prestige picture season isn't going to be killed. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and August, Osage County are three counterexamples of films that will be released here within a week of their American release.

They'll be competing with Joe Swanberg's Drinking Buddies, which was released in the U.S. on August 23rd. Here? December 26th.

Australia ... it's a mixed bag. One I'm committed to at least until sometime in 2015. 

The challenge, then, is just to not worry about it. If I want to change my list so that it incorporates films released where I am in 2014, I can rank Nebraska or 12 Years a Slave or Her next year. Can't I? Can't I?

I can. Do I want to? No. May I someday want to? Maybe.

I want to do apples to apples comparisons with other friends and critics ranking this same year, and I'm not likely to want to give that up very soon. Maybe if I read some Australian critics I'd feel differently, but so far, I don't.

I still remember, at the end of 1995, talking with a friend's girlfriend about her favorite films of the previous year. She listed Pulp Fiction as her favorite film of that year, because she'd seen it in 1995 after its October 1994 release. I vowed never to subject myself to such imprecise and arbitrary criteria for making year-end lists.

Even the Australians got Pulp Fiction by November 24th of '94. So I guess there's some hope looking forward that more of the movies I want to see will be The Secret Life of Walter Mitty than Nebraska.

For now, though, I mourn Nebraska and its brethren ... who will just increase in number the deeper we get into the end of this year.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Three-star animation

I've seen two objectively subpar animated movies in the past ten days - Alpha and Omega and Escape from Planet Earth - and given them both three stars on Letterboxd.

My son saw the Netflix ad for a third objectively subpar animated movie - Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil - pop up after Planet Earth, so he's in there watching it now. I'm in here, typing this, to prevent myself from giving the supposedly terrible Hoodwinked sequel three stars as well.

Something seems clear: I have a harder time recognizing mediocrity in an animated movie than elsewhere.

It's three out of five, not three out of four, but the fact remains that I am giving a passing grade to movies that should probably flunk the test of being worth my time.

I'm entirely too comfortable with rewarding an animated movie for being a "good try." I know that Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks represent really daunting standards to live up to, both in quality of writing and quality of animation, so I'm acknowledging the handicaps that other movies start out with. But that doesn't mean that all other movies deserve the star rating that translates as a modest recommendation.

There are a handful of reasons I think I'm as easy as I am on these movies:

1) The animation, especially these days, is good enough to contain some "wow" moments. Plus, I know how hard they worked on every little detail. Most animated movies are a labor of somebody's love. It's much easier to mail in a live action film.

2) Animated movies tend to get top-flight vocal talent, mostly because it's an easy paycheck and does not carry any particular stigma. Studios will be glad to learn that their money is well spent, as I do tend to be impressed by the fact that William Shatner (who, let's be honest, will do anything these days) voices the villain in Planet Earth.

3) Animated movies are usually smart enough (i.e. safe enough) to stick to conventional plotting with familiar character types. With the amount of money invested in the polished final product, it does not pay to take risks on the story, nor is it possible to slide any remotely objectionable content through.

Vanilla, though, should not be worth three stars. It should max out at 2.5, even if it's pretty well-made vanilla.

However, as I've written before (though never specifically about animated films), I feel like giving something 2.5 or less means it's a thumbs down, an entirely too grumpy dismissal of a movie that's okay to pretty good.

In fact, the last animated movie I remember really slamming was one that did take an apparent risk with its plot -- an impulse I probably should have rewarded, except I thought it was just too wrong-headed of a narrative choice. That movie was Brave, which offered us some cockamamie plot about people turning into bears. I gave it 2.5 stars, but these days tend to think of it as a two-star movie.

So am I saying I like the generic underdog hero story and panoply of colorful sidekicks better in Alpha and Omega, Escape From Planet Earth and (let's throw in one more I saw earlier this year that fits the description) Planet 51? Are they better just because they don't make any egregious errors? Are they better just because the plot was deemed safe enough by every interested financial backer?

I'm a slow learner, apparently, because this is not the first time I've tried to get tougher with my star ratings. It's not even the first time this year. You may recall that back in April, I wrote this post after seeing Trance, frustrated by the instinct that made me want to award it three stars. And I still haven't figured out how to award lower when movies deserve it -- at least not consistently, and especially not with animation.

Maybe this time, I'll do as I write. "It didn't offend me" should no longer be the standard for what gets three stars.

The generosity ends ... now. Again. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The cutest meet, and other About Time thoughts

About Time has one of the more clever titles of the year, in terms of double meanings.

Not only are you getting a colloquial phrase, which is always useful when coming up with a title -- as in "It's about time you got here!" -- but it also works on a very literal level, in the sense that the movie is about the concept of time.

Having seen the movie, I also think the title is a sad sort of admission about the film's aimlessness. The fact that it's "about time" is about all it can be sure of. Writer-director Richard Curtis might have said "I'm going to make a movie that's about time," and then decided he was going to throw in every loose thread of an idea he could think of that was related to that topic. That's the way this movie plays, anyway: all over the place.

Which isn't to say it doesn't have some nice moments, one of which I want to tell you about here, before proceeding to some other thoughts on the film.

You know about the concept of a "meet cute," right? Of course you do -- you weren't born yesterday. But on the off chance that this is just your second day of life on this planet, a "meet cute" is the way a film's two romantic leads are first introduced to each other, executed with maximum possible cuteness so we are invested in them from the start. A meet cute usually involves a spilled drink or a dropped stack of papers or two people trying to squeeze through the same closing elevator doors at the same time.

In short, it's as tired as anything else you usually see in your typical romantic comedy.

Except not in About Time, which has its romantic leads meet in a scene of total darkness that runs for about three minutes.

What happens is that the male lead, whose story we are following and who is played by some chap named Domhnall Gleeson (Brendan's son), and his friend go to dinner in one of those restaurants where it's pitch black. You know, where a blind waiter leads you to your table (because why not, in a pitch-black restaurant) and you wear the clothes you are least worried about staining with errant food.

This is where he meets Rachel McAdams, who is then only known through her voice. He (Tim by name) and she (Mary by name) strike up a conversation because, well, who wouldn't want to overcompensate for being blind by talking giddily with your neighbor about the absurd circumstances you currently find yourself in?

They hit it off, of course -- I don't say "of course" out of exasperation, but only because if they didn't, there would be no movie.

What I really like about this scene is that a) Curtis sticks with it for an impressively long time, just total blackness with only a few little glints of light to give us the indication that glasses and silverware are moving around, and b) it allows the characters to get to know each others' personalities, without their faces causing an undue bias one way or another.

Few romantic comedies, then, can compellingly argue that the characters have truly made a soul connection, one that isn't informed by sexual attraction. It's a smart move, especially since Tim has spent the first 15 minutes of the movie obsessed with a blond beauty who may not have offered a lot more than her looks.

Also, I just know I'd want to pass a 90-minute dinner in total darkness with a fellow equally bemused traveler ... especially if her voice sounded cute.

But ...

From another time

... I couldn't help feeling that most of this movie was stuck in another time. One of the strangest examples was in this initial conversation in the dark, where Mary reveals that she is a huge fan of Kate Moss.

You're saying it to yourself right now, aren't you? "Kate Moss, the fashion model? The one at least partly responsible for the term 'heroin chic'?"

Yes, that one.

Another common crutch in romantic comedies is that one of the characters has a thing he or she is obsessed with that he or she keeps on talking about. For example, for some reason I can remember that John Cusack's character in the otherwise forgettable Must Love Dogs is always talking about Dr. Zhivago. That is about the oddest thing for even a steel-trap movie brain like mine to remember.

Well, the function of this obsession is both to give the character depth and soul, and to ground them in our real world.

And to love Kate Moss does either of these things how, exactly?

If the idea is that Mary loves fashion, which I'm not sure it is, then why not have her be obsessed with a designer, rather than a model? That would at least indicate that she admires an overtly creative person, rather than someone who poses in front of a camera. Sure, being a model is a kind of creativity ... just not the type of creativity a self-actualized character like Mary is supposed to value. I mean, we're not talking about an icon like Marilyn Monroe here ... we're talking about a woman who is the poster child for eating disorders.

Even more problematic than the type of person Mary admires is the era from which she comes. Kate Moss is nearly 40 today, and nobody is talking about her anymore. Sure, some number of years pass over the course of About Time, so it's reasonable to assume that the pitch-black dinner scene takes place at a time when Moss was slightly more relevant. Still, it seems more like the script was written at a time when Moss was more relevant, not that Curtis intentionally tried to find something that would have, I don't know, 2004 relevance. And if he were specifically doing that, why Moss?

I also thought it was strange that the movie features The Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" (1992), but soundtracks get a little more leeway.

The strangest sort of typecasting

About halfway through I realized that this makes the second movie in which Rachel McAdams has played the romantic interest of a man who secretly time travels within his own life.

The other is, of course, The Time Traveler's Wife, another sort-of failure of a movie that's starting to look a bit better the more I think about About Time.

The question, then, is did McAdams seek out more work as the befuddled partner of a man who has trouble explaining his whereabouts because she liked it so much, or did Curtis and his team seek out McAdams because of her work in TTTW?

Yeah, I don't know, but it's gotta be more than just a coincidence.

The type of expatriate American I want to be

As I was watching the film, which is set in England, I marveled at how little of a deal they made over the fact that McAdams is the only American in the movie. (Other than her parents, who make a single stiff appearance in an odd and pointless scene.)

In fact, the only mention of her nationality whatsoever is when said parents are about to make a surprise visit, and nervous Tim, who has just been told her parents don't know he exists, stammers, "Parents? American parents?"

Lord knows this movie is dealing with enough other issues that it needn't linger on why McAdams doesn't talk like everybody else. (The fact that they just as easily could have cast her role with a British actress lends more credence to the notion that McAdams is getting typecast.) Still, I thought it was strange that they just completely ignored what was almost an elephant in the room.

Strange, and wonderful.

See, now that I'm the different one living here in Australia, I'm looking for whatever ways I can to deemphasize how very American I must seem to the locals. I'm conscious of the fact that I can't fake an Australian accent, although one day I hope to be able to do so convincingly, just for general purposes. So I'm acutely aware that every time I open my mouth, the other person will take at least a moment to have the following truth pass through his/her frontal lobe: "The person I'm speaking to is American." And whatever associations they have with that truth will also take a moment to pass through.

I'm hoping that the longer I live here, the less I will care about my inescapable American origins, and that the longer America continues to progress down the correct path politically, the less it will matter that I'm American.

Those are both good things to root for.

The other elephant in this post ...

... is the fact that I've written an ungodly number of words on a romantic comedy that's too ambitious for its own good without even really mentioning the thing that sets it apart, genre-wise: the time travel.

The less said, the better.

The fact that there are conundrums is, of course, a given. The fact that some new rules are going to pop up along the way is a matter of course.

The fact that so little truly interesting happens with the time travel is what's problematic.

Curtis seems far more interested in dramatizing examples of his time travel gimmick -- utterly pointless examples on occasion -- than using them to serve the greater good of his dramatic conflict. That could be because there are a few scattered dramatic conflicts, but no main one that thrusts through the whole narrative. That's what gives the film its palpable sense of flying off in all directions at once.

Because he's wanking around with all these time travel tricks, it creates the film's biggest problem, which is that the romantic female lead, Mary, is inessential to the dramatic thrust of the movie. The third act crisis -- such as there is one -- does not involve her. In fact, after wrapping her up pretty early, the movie effectively sidelines her.

We were talking earlier about tired romantic comedy tropes, but they became tropes for a reason. For example, by the end of the second act, the duped romantic lead -- because most movie romances have been going along on some sort of false pretenses -- must discover the way in which he or she has been duped. Because the guy (or girl) doing the duping is a good person, he or she definitely made an attempt to come clean earlier, but was conveniently interrupted mid-confession and never got back to it. That one is an age-old trick as well. He/she doesn't get back to it in time, then must scramble to win back his/her love after his/her betrayal has been revealed in all its ugly glory.

Except not in About Time.

In fact, Mary never finds out that Tim is a time traveler. She never finds out that Tim seriously manipulated her, Groundhog Day-style, into loving him, using her controversial love of Kate Moss as an in to get to know her better. (See, he has to meet her again after inadvertently wiping out the pitch-black dinner through time meddling.) So he gets away with being kind of creepy, which is pretty darn unsatisfying for the viewer.

I gave About Time 3.5 stars yesterday on Letterboxd, but having written this post, I'm wondering if the whole movie isn't this unsatisfying.

Good thing I don't have to time travel to change my star rating.

Monday, November 18, 2013

On lyricism and the poetic simpleton

A friend of mine who shall remain nameless (he'll probably call himself out in the comments section anyway) gave me a sort of challenge when he learned that I was finally going to see Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which he'd recommended to me several months ago.

(In my defense, the movie only came out in Australia this past Thursday.)

"So tomorrow we find out if it's lyrical filmmaking or Malick you object to," he wrote in an email to me.

He actually wrote "languid filmmaking" rather than "lyrical filmmaking," but I remembered it as "lyrical" in my head as I was watching the movie.

He's right to characterize my tastes that way, but I guess I took some umbrage at the fairly neutral and thoroughly accurate comment. I have objected to some of Terrence Malick's films, in some cases vociferously (The Thin Red Line) and in some cases bemusedly with moderate affection (The Tree of Life). I'm not a Malick champion, that's for sure.

Yet I do feel like it's not just a personal preference thing, like there's something lacking in me that makes me like Malickian movies less than most people -- most discerning people, who are the only ones I really care about when comparing my movie tastes to theirs. Why don't I like Malick's brand of visual poetry a little more than I do?

Ain't Them Bodies Saints was possibly going to provide some kind of answer to this, though I didn't even know that it warranted the comparison to Malick until my friend wrote the email in question.

Of course, I should have known. The title is like something William Faulkner might have come up with, establishing it pretty well as Southern Gothic. And most Southern Gothic is lyrical or languid or whatever term you might use.

Then there's the fact that Casey Affleck spends the trailer talking just above a whisper about his vows to find his love (Rooney Mara) again. It's actually his regular speaking voice, but the "just above a whisper" comment is meant to make the comparison to the work of Malick, whose everpresent voiceovers are marked by their whispery quality.

It's Affleck's work that made me realize what it is I don't really care for in movies like this:

Uneducated low-level criminals from the South who speak in a string of childlike platitudes about love and destiny, whose simplistic construction gives them a wisdom and authenticity that could never be managed by a skilled wordsmith.

Since you might guess from the previous sentence that I am, or consider myself to be, such a wordsmith, you might not be surprised that I find myself in opposition to such characters.

So it's not the lyrical, languid world of a Terrence Malick film that really bothers me. It's the characters who populate it.

Since some plot description of David Lowery's acclaimed new(ish) film is probably now warranted, I'll tell you that it's set a bit in the Bonnie & Clyde world of Malick's masterpiece Badlands. (See, I do think some Malick films are masterpieces.) Affleck and Mara are young lovers or spouses (it's not quite clear) who have just discovered they're expecting a child. They're trying to make a life for themselves and their child through armed robbery, but that career is cut abruptly short during a shootout with police where their accomplice is killed and an officer is wounded. Although Mara's Ruth took the shot that wounded the officer, Affleck's Bob claims responsibility and is sent away for a long prison sentence. It's at this point when he starts doing VO of the letters he writes to Ruth, promising such things as "Each day I will awaken thinking it's the day I will see you again, and one day that will be true."


Okay, it's a nice thought. I wish I'd come up with it. But the thing is, I can't come up with a thought like that because I'm an Ivy League graduate who would write it and re-write it until all its enviable sense of spontaneity was gone. I'd obsess over it until I killed it.

Not Bob Muldoon. Because Bob is an uneducated low-level criminal from the South (Texas in this case), his emotions are simple and pure and vivid. When adults try to draw children's drawings, they can't make it look right. But Bob's heart and his words of love for Ruth are a child's drawing that comes naturally to him, because he's at that state of emotional evolution.

I'm not picking on Ain't Them Bodies Saints in particular. I'm only picking on it because we've seen this so many times before. The first few times, it felt sort of fresh. This tragic fellow has a quick temper and he hurts people accidentally and he does the wrong things, but his quivering words of love are as pure as a baby's tears. He loves his girl and would do anything to be with her, and that's all there is to that. But by time number, I don't know, 47, I felt I'd seen this story before.

I could never be such a romantic hero in such a Faulknerian, Malickian story. As me, Vance, I'd be overthinking everything, so I'd never have the quick temper, nor hurt people accidentally, nor do the wrong things to begin with. (Oh, I'd do wrong things, but it'd be like plagiarizing a paper in school, not robbing a liquor store.) The romance of the situation is dependent on how little is calculated and calibrated about the thoughts and speech. Everything is "from the heart," not "from the brain."

It occurs to me that these sentiments are similar to some I expressed when I was struggling with why I didn't connect with Drive the way some people do/did. Here's a link to that piece if you want to read it. In that case it was more the strong silent type than the child-poet, but in both cases, it's characters who are essentially different than I am.

I wonder why we, as an audience, get so much more out of love stories between simple folk than love stories between university professors. At this point, we don't even get the opportunity to see love stories between university professors, so uninteresting is their love. Those eggheads aren't spontaneous or reckless or dangerous. Therefore, they're not romantic.

There must also be some kind of sense of superiority going on here. I think we need to look down on Bob and Ruth as children, of a sort -- our intellectual inferiors. We can examine their love as though it were the love of two lemurs in a zoo. There's something feral and elemental and basic about it. Advanced love is too hard for us to process in a pastime designed as escapism, since most likely we're dealing with some fucked up version of advanced love in our own lives, where people give each other the silent treatment for reasons they don't even remember, and no one gets involved in shootouts.

But back to this issue of the lyrical or languid style of filmmaking that Malick and David Lowery have in common. (You'd say Lowery is ripping Malick off, except that it's too well-made to really deliver that kind of indictment.) Another 2013 film disabused me of the notion that I couldn't wholeheartedly endorse the style of filmmaking Malick has made his calling card at least since The Thin Red Line. It has the photographic beauty of a Malick film, and if anything, it makes even less sense.

That film is Upstream Color, and I've already seen it twice.

I wasn't a fan of Shane Carruth's debut feature, Primer, but I ate up his sophomore film with a big spoon. Even though most of the time I had to rely on flimsy half theories of what was even going on.

Could it be a coincidence that these characters are modern, intellectual northerners?

I mean, we're not talking about brainiacs or anything, but Kris and Jeff are both denizens of a large, bustling city. No one talks about how close they are to seeing or touching each other. If they talk about anything at all, it's weird conspiracy theory shit that doesn't even make sense to them.

And I discovered while watching Upstream Color that I didn't need to know what was going on at all, as long as I felt like I dug how it was going on. In fact, I simply luxuriated in being immersed in an experience that was unlike any I had ever had.

Unlike in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a tale as old as William Faulkner.

I can't leave this topic behind without acknowledging a certain hypocrisy in what I've just written. I say that these characters ring a little false to me, but the fact of the matter is, one of my very favorite movies of all time features a tragic relationship between two poetic simpletons. That movie is Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage's voiceover is just about the shining example of everything I'm railing against here.

But that just adds strength to my claim that it's all about the timing. That was 1987, when I hadn't already seen these characters so many times before. And, that was a comedy, in addition to the tragic romance. There was barely any languidness or lyricism to be seen.

So I can answer my friend as follows: It's not languid filmmaking, nor lyrical filmmaking, nor Terrence Malick I object to.

I object to these characters who can't find the words, who always find the perfect words. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

In case I were watching in Suomi

You know how you're supposed to stay until the end of the credits for a Hangover movie, to see all the still photos of the crazy shit that happened to them that they can't otherwise remember because they were roofied?

Well, if you watch The Hangover Part III in Australia on DVD, you should also stay until the very end of the DVD, for another special treat.

Namely, a copyright warning in, oh, 34 different languages.

I suppose the explanation is that this is an international copy of the DVD -- I had to choose United Kingdom as my country when I inserted the DVD, since Australia wasn't clearly visible as an option -- but the result is that after the end of the credits, you are warned against improper screening of this video in 34 separate messages, corresponding to different countries and/or languages.

I kept watching, and they just kept going ... and going ... and going.

First it was, of course, a regular English warning. This was followed by another warning for the residents of South Africa, also in English. Then a screen for France, Luxembourg et Belgique. This time in French.

This was nothing unusual, since American DVDs usually have a warning at the beginning in French. Perhaps it's a North American DVD and is trying to cover the French Canadians.

Then I sat up in my seat because it started to get interesting.

Suisse followed, also in French. Then it was Deutschland/Ostteriech/Luxembourg. I guess this was for the residents of Germany and German-speaking residents of Osterriech (Austria) and Luxembourg.

Oh, but they were just getting started.

Next was Schweiz. For German-speaking Swiss. Then Espana. For Spanish-speaking Spaniards.

At this point I feel as though I should just list them -- where I can, anyway. Pretty soon other alphabets started to get involved, and I don't have the right keyboard.

Nederland en Belgie
[Other alphabet, can't translate]
[Something in Arabic]
Suomi - Finnish for Finland. Who knew?
[Something in Hebrew, presumably for Israel]
Ostrzezenie - I can't figure out what this translates to. Every time I have Google translate pages for its own search of "Ostrzezenie," it's something religious.
Ceska Republika Upozorneni - I get the Czech Republic part, but not the Upozorneni part.
Magyarorszag Figyelmetztetes - The interwebs tell me this is Hungary.
Island Vidvorun - Iceland. Who knew?
Hrvatska - Croatia. Really.
Svizzera - Italian Swiss.
Shqiperia - Albania. Shouldn't their word at least sort of resemble our word? I guess I should ask Suomi about that.
Hoiatus - The word "warning" in Estonian.
Bridinajums - The word "warning" in Latvian.
Ispejimas - The word "warning" in Lithuanian.
[Other alphabet, can't translate]
Upozorenje - Similar to what I saw with Ceska Republika. Now I get that this is the word "warning" also.

So yeah, that happened. And it took a good 5-6 minutes to get through.

I guess I just think it's funny that this is an all-purpose DVD, not just one for Australians. (Especially since Australians are not even singled out for a warning, unlike South Africans.)

The surplus of copyright warnings doesn't have to do with the DVD region code, either. Australia shares a region with countries in Central and South America, as well as obvious partners like New Zealand. That's region 4. But neither is this a region 2 DVD, which covers most of Europe, because a) that region also includes Japan, and there was no Japanese warning, and more importantly, b) then it wouldn't play here. (Except on my region-free DVD player, but they obviously make the rentals for the widest possible consumer consumption.)

To get a full appreciation of what else this DVD has in it, I decided to go back to the beginning and choose one of the other countries. It's funny, the main screen gives only 13 choices here, and then one that says All Other Countries. (So, hope you can understand one of those 13 languages, or else you're fucked.) Since we've been talking about it, I figured, how about Suomi?

I started playing the Finnish version of The Hangover Part III. Nothing was different -- no automatic dubbing or subtitling. So I checked on the languages. Indeed, I could choose "Cesky," which you and I know as Czech. But why Cesky in the Finnish version? They don't speak Czech in Finland, do they?

So I went back and chose something simpler: Espana.

Same language choices.

I don't know.

I do know this, though:

The Hangover Part III?

It's shit -- in any language.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Blink and you'll miss Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox is not, like, a huge movie star or anything.

However, he is someone who seems like he should be in a movie like World War Z for longer than about two-and-a-half minutes, during which he has no lines of dialogue, and you can really only tell it's him because you can see his eyes peering out through his heavy military garb. (He's a soldier who gets off a chopper and shoots some undead in helping Brad Pitt and his family take off from the roof of an overrun building.)

Sometimes you can't tell the way a movie's been reshot; other times, you really can.

I just finished watching World War Z -- it's rainy as hell on this Tuesday afternoon, so I don't feel guilty being holed up at home -- and only because I have the keen eyes of a guy who's constantly trying to pick out actors he recognizes that I even determined it was Fox.

There's been a fair amount written about how Fox's character was originally more developed, as part of a possible trilogy of movies. However, I hadn't heard about any of that before watching the movie. Only now, trying to get an explanation of what happened, did I even google it.

While watching, when Fox didn't show up again, I just assumed "Nah, that wasn't him -- it was just someone with similar eyes."

Lo and behold, there he was in the credits -- he was actually listed sixth overall, even though there are at least 20 actors who have more to do in the movie than he does. I guess that's the consolation prize when you're the star of the box office juggernaut Alex Cross and you get cut out of World War Z.

Overall, I guess the changes Fox's Lost collaborators Damon Lindelof and Drew Goddard made were pretty successful, as I enjoyed the movie. Because I stopped reading the book -- I just couldn't get into it -- I don't know how it differs. I will say that they certainly weren't kidding around about getting the "world" part into it. Who ever heard of a zombie movie in which one character trots his way around the entire globe?

That's World War Z for you, the James Bond movie of zombie movies. If you can't find Brad Pitt in South Korea, check for him in Israel or Wales. If he's not there he might be in Philadelphia or Nova Scotia.

If you're looking for Matthew Fox, well ... he's on the cutting room floor.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The End.

Every time Blockbuster has undergone a downgrade in its fortunes/business model, I have written something about it on The Audient.

Might as well continue the tradition now that the news has broken: Blockbuster is closing all its remaining retail stores in the U.S.

Disc-by-mail? That's going bye bye too.

Only their most recent venture, a streaming-only service, will stay intact.

And the retail outlets that still exist in other countries are threatened as well.

It's another one of those bittersweet moments. I don't live in the U.S. anymore, and Australia is one of the countries that still has stores, if is to be believed. Without calling the numbers listed there, however, I can't be sure that I'm not just looking at the ghost of a website that was never taken down.

Still, it's really "The End," isn't it? My subject isn't overstating things, is it?

I've given previous posts about the demise of Blockbuster the following titles: "Last call," "End of the road" and "To end at the beginning." However, now it's finally time to go all the way.

Or, I could wait until January of 2014, when the last U.S. retail store is set to shutter. Heck, I'll probably write something then, too. Maybe I will write it in all caps: "THE END." Or the French "Fin."

This inevitable death throe is as much a commentary on the state of physical media as on Blockbuster itself, and it comes along at a funny time for me personally -- a time when I have relied on physical media more than ever. Australia doesn't have Netflix yet -- though it may be coming soon. Although we still have our streaming service and access it through a site that unblocks the URL, we can't watch it with ease through our BluRay player like we used to do. We have to hook up the computer itself, and that makes it difficult to pause, etc.

So I've been getting physical DVDs like crazy. From the library. From kiosks. And yes indeed, from a good old brick-and-mortar video store, Video Ezy in nearby Flemington.

Physical media is alive and well in Australia.

I take comfort that until Netflix or some other streaming service takes control in Australia, I can still visit an actual brick-and-mortar Blockbuster, as long as I'm willing to go to Brunswick or Port Melbourne or Yarraville or North Essendon. It's really not having a car that's preventing me from getting to those places more than anything else.

They'll be gone too, someday not too long for now, at which point I'll need to find a uniquely Australian way of saying "The End" once again. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A good day to rent Die Hard

Everything is more expensive in Australia than in the U.S.

Except when it isn't.

First it was miraculous $6 Mondays at Cinema Nova in Carlton. It's such a cheap rate that I've missed seeing a movie there only two Mondays since I moved here (both times due to conflicts with baseball playoff games I simply had to watch).

Now, Hoyt's kiosks -- which I first discussed here -- are undercutting even the low low price of Redbox in the United States.

Having rented from the green box near the exit of the Woolworth's in Carlton twice now, I received an email from Hoyt's a couple days ago talking about a new price structure, one I couldn't quite believe. It discussed that new releases will still be $3.50/night, but that slightly older releases -- dubbed "recent releases" -- would now be available for just $1.

I figured their definition of "slightly older releases" would be the five to ten oldest titles in the box, which may have been kicking around in there for a year. It would be a pretty easy advertising trick that would accomplish the goal of getting people to stop at the kiosk in the first place.

But when my first choice of a movie for Sunday night was out, I checked on A Good Day to Die Hard, which would have only hit video maybe six months ago. Indeed, I was pleased to see I could pick it up for only $1 -- which will be helpful as I round out my list of 2013 viewings in the interest of finalizing my rankings in early January.

Mind you, that's 30 cents cheaper even than Redbox right now. Granted, it doesn't apply to the whole stock in the box, but it still qualifies as unbelievably inexpensive, by Australian standards.

Good thing, too, as the fifth Die Hard was barely worth a buck.

Things are feeling a bit more American all the time here. Cheaper movies? Check. Halloween? Check. It was almost not celebrated at all when my wife was young, but my son trick-or-treated for the first time in his young life this past Thursday. Baseball? Check. Australia must be baseball mad, considering that Sunday represented my second failed attempt to rent 42 from that Hoyt's kiosk. I wonder if the Aussies are already preparing to host the first two games of the regular season next March in Sydney, between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks. My wife and I will be in attendance for at least one of those games.

I suppose A Good Day to Die Hard was an appropriate movie to watch if I'm pondering an American cultural invasion. John McClane and his son end up shooting up a large quarter of Russia, God bless 'em.

Maybe they were trying to make the movies cheaper in all the Moscow movie kiosks.

Saturday, November 2, 2013




SO YOU CAN IMAGINE MY FRUSTRATION WHEN -- sorry -- you can imagine my frustration when I turned on The ABCs of Death last night (drawing out Halloween by one extra day) and found that all the subtitles were written in capital letters.

And since this is a compilation of short films by most non-English speakers -- like, a surprisingly international cross-section of non-English speakers -- there were quite a lot of subtitles.


I will spare you that frustration for the rest of this post. Even though The ABCs of Death didn't spare me over 129 minutes.

The digestible chapter approach

I was going to call them 129 long minutes, but in truth, they were not that long. This despite the fact that some of the segments -- many of them, in fact -- were just a waste of my time. 

I guess that's the benefit of an anthology, where many shorter films are collected into one whole. Your brain doesn't have the chance to get bored, because there's always something new. None of the shorts seemed to last longer than about six minutes, which is perfect for the Youtube generation. (Of which I am a part, I guess.)

I started The ABCs of Death at 10:30 p.m. on a Friday that saw me walk a good four miles. Any other film and I might have been asleep in the first 15 minutes, even with a Diet Coke and a bag of Jaffas to keep me awake. But I made it all the way to W before saving the final three letters for the next day.

I have to credit the short film format. I was led to believe this movie really drags, because there are so many films to get through. Truth was, the 26 films went by rather quickly because we were always moving on to something new. And even if most of them weren't very good, I knew that some of them had merit, so the Saturday Night Live effect kind of kicked in -- "Well, that sketch sucked, but maybe the next one will be good."

The guessing game

One thing that helped move things along was that I played the game that many viewers probably played as they watched it: I tried to guess the title of the movie as it was playing, since the title of each short wasn't revealed until it ended. Knowing that each short began with a particular letter in the alphabet, and that they were doing the alphabet in order (duh), gave me some chance at this game.

I still didn't do very well. Not well at all, in fact.

Miserably, in fact. I got only four right. That was four of 25, since I wasn't playing yet on letter A.

I'm not sure if I should blame myself for bad guesses, or the filmmakers for really stretching the meaning of the word they chose in the context of their film.

Stop reading now if you don't want to know the titles of any of the ABCs of Death shorts.

The first one I guessed correctly was D is for Dogfight, a rather easy one since the movie was about a dogfight. Pretty slick there, Vance.

Then I got shut out for about half the alphabet. I would have guessed F if I had gone for the most obvious F-word in the context of what I was seeing, which would have been F is for Fart. Yes, this short is about a fatal fart. (And some Japanese schoolgirl crush lesbian action, but not as hot as that sounds.) However, I went all highfalutin and guessed F is for Flatulence, which was of course incorrect.

The one I was most proud of guessing was the one that broke my losing streak, when I guessed O is for Orgasm. What made me proud wasn't that I figured out that the movie was about an orgasm, since that was pretty obvious even though the idea is presented abstractly through sounds and suggestive imagery. No, it was that I knew that the French have a euphemism for orgasms, calling them "le petit mort" -- or, "the little death." Sure enough, one of the filmmakers (Helene Cattet) is French.

I got Q is for Quack because it's about the filmmakers' attempts to assassinate a real duck on camera.

My final correct guess was T is for Toilet, which again is a very on-the-nose guess considering the piece. I should give myself partial credit on X is for XXL, because my guess was X is for Xtra Large, which is close enough.

Ranking the shorts

It's pretty stupid to try to rank 26 short films, but I'm all for stupid. That'll also help you determine whether you agree or disagree with my assessment of what we both saw -- assuming you saw it.

If you haven't seen The ABCs of Death and want to be surprised, don't read this section. 

1) L is for Libido (dir. Timo Tjahjanto) - A number of the shorts try to do little more than disturb, and this could well be one of them. But it was the right kind of disturbing. Captives are chained to chairs and forced to masturbate to increasingly less sexy images over a number of rounds. Whoever is the slowest to ejaculate meets a painful death. Eventually they are invited to masturbate over such gruesome things as an amputee pleasuring herself with her fake leg and an act of pedophilia being committed in front of them. So wrong, but so perfectly executed.

2) T is for Toilet (dir. Lee Hardcastle) - A stop motion bit about a toilet that comes to life and wreaks bloody havoc on a family. It probably connected with me because I have a son right now who is afraid of going poopy on the potty. And it was kind of hilariously gruesome.

3) O is for Orgasm (dir. Bruno Forzani & Helene Cattet) - Pretty and artful and about the only piece in the whole movie that wasn't trying to be gruesome. A pleasure.

4) U is for Unearthed (dir. Ben Wheatley) - An undead creature (probably a vampire) being killed and beheaded, from his/her perspective. Clever. I guessed U is for Undead, which I thought was a decent guess.

5) A is for Apocalypse (dir. Nacho Vigalondo) - A bit of a sick joke as a woman brutally murders a man (not quite -- he's still alive for his few dying minutes) right before the apocalypse. This last bit isn't revealed until right before the end. I really love Vigalondo's feature Timecrimes.

6) D is for Dogfight (dir. Marcel Sarmiento) - A vicious dog and an older man with boxing gloves, pitted against each other in an illegal dogfight, turn the tables on the fight promoter. I'd call it on the nose except that the dog and the man fighting each other were an odd and cool touch.

7) Q is for Quack (dir. Adam Wingard & Simon Barrett) - Predictable resolution to the two directors' outside-the-box "What do we do with the letter Q?" short, but it was funny enough.

8) R is for Removed (dir. Srdjan Spasojevic) - Some gleeful grossness about skin being ungrafted off a body to serve as film celluloid, and some vengeful kills by the patient.

9) V is for Vagitus (dir. Kaare Andrews) - I didn't entirely get what was going on in this sci fi short about a future dystopia, but I liked the mood they created.

10) E is for Exterminate (dir. Angela Bettis) - The short that arachnaphobes will hate. Had a pretty good (if unsurprising) payoff.

11) C is for Cycle (dir. Ernesto Diaz Espinoza) - This is the one that I thought Nacho Vigalondo would have directed, considering Timecrimes. Involves a time loop and the repeated death of the main character. Not as clever as it seems like it should be.

12) X is for XXL (dir. Xavier Gens) - Perhaps the most depressing piece has a fat woman cutting off chunks of her body to try to be thin. I must admit it was effective, even it as it disturbed me in some ways I didn't particularly like.

13) N is for Nuptials (dir. Banjong Pisanthanakun) - Fairly obvious bit about a parrot repeating back things that a woman shouldn't hear in front of her cheating boyfriend. 

14) W is for WTF (dir. Jon Schnepp) - As this deals with a flurry of ideas about what the director should do for his film (breaking the fourth wall like Q is for Quack), I thought a better title would have been W is for Writer's Block. But I guess that's two words.

15) B is for Bigfoot (dir. Adrian Garcia Bogliano) - Fairly obvious bit about a horny couple (one of whom is babysitting a young girl) making up a story about a boogeyman to get her not to bother them, then actually being killed by a boogeyman while having sex. The killer was pretty creepy looking, I guess. Still, there was so much boogeyman talk that I thought it should have been B is for Boogeyman.

16) P is for Pressure (dir. Simon Rumley) - A woman crushes a kitten's skull for money. At least the skull crushing is off camera.

17) Y is for Youngbuck (dir. Jason Eisener) - A young boy takes revenge against the pedophile janitor who raped him. I don't know why I would have expected anything else from the director of Hobo With a Shotgun.

18) F is for Fart (dir. Noboru Iguchi) - Two women achieve bliss through smelling each others' flatulence while the rest of the world is destroyed by a poisonous gas released by an earthquake. The Japanese are weird sometimes.

19) K is for Klutz (dir. Anders Morgenthaler) - More odd toilet humor in cartoon form. A woman is killed when her own poop refuses to be flushed and violently reinserts itself into her rectum and back out her mouth.

20) G is for Gravity (dir. Andrew Traucki) - Another first person short involving a surfer who drowns. I didn't get what happened here until the movie's wikipedia page told me that the surfer brought bricks in a bag, and it may have been an intentional drowning. Went over my head when I saw it.

21) J is for Jidai-geki (dir. Yudai Yamaguchi) - A frivolous short in which a Japanese executioner watches as the face of the man set to be executed contorts into a number of weird expressions. I should probably rank this one higher, but it just didn't do all that much for me.

22) H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion (dir. Thomas Malling) - Some nonsense about a dog dressed as a soldier and a Nazi fox.

23) I is for Ingrown (dir. Jorge Michel Grau) - A woman in a bathtub gets injected and scratches herself to death. Sounds better than it is.

24) S is for Speed (dir. Jake West) - Something about heroine addicts, but I don't really remember. May have slept through this one a bit.

25) Z is for Zetsumetsu (dir. Yoshihiro Nishimura) - A weird conglomeration of images about women fighting with large strap-on dildos and a man playing Dr. Strangelove. Sounds like it should be awesome. Isn't.

26) M is for Miscarriage (dir. Ti West) - A woman goes to get a plunger when her miscarriage won't flush down the toilet. Eww. Ti West, I expected better.

Yes, I just did that. So now, please, you must provide me your thoughts on whether you agree or disagree with my assessments.

Up next

There will be an ABCs of Death 2 coming out in 2014. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. However, I like the concept enough that I'm hoping for better execution this time out. I really only genuinely liked less than a third of the movies, so they need to do better for sure.

I really hope this is one of them. It's a short by my friend Travis Betz in his trademark construction paper style. Like it to help it make the final cut.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Last-minute Halloween recommendation

It's November 1st where I am, but Halloween still has anywhere from seven to ten hours remaining where you are.

If that doesn't allow you the time to find something on cable, on pay per view, on VOD, on Hulu, on iTunes, on Netflix, on Vudu, on DVD, on BluRay or at the theater, I've got a suggestion that is easily available to you on Youtube.

It's the 1962 cult horror B-movie Carnival of Souls, directed by Herk Harvey, which I watched last night on my Halloween. There are a number of copies of the full movie available on Youtube, but I'd go for one of the ones that runs 83 minutes.

I won't tell you too much about it, but to whet your appetite ... it's about a woman whose car goes over the side of a bridge when the driver of the car foolishly accepts a challenge to a drag race. The woman emerges from the crash that's fatal to the rest of the passengers, and starts seeing strange images ... most notably, that of a mysterious man who first appears as a reflection in the passenger side window of her car.

Carnival of Souls is one of those movies that reminds you that the greatest scares can come from the cheapest productions. This movie was made for only $33,000, which you can see in every shot, as well as most of the post-dub vocal work. But you can also feel the $33,000 in the chills that creep up your spine. People who love so-called practical effects understand this, and so did the makers of Carnival of Souls.

November 1st realities -- such as a son who insists on watching something on this computer -- are tugging at me. But you? Halloween is just starting for you.

And Carnival of Souls is just a few mouse clicks away.