Friday, July 28, 2017

Cat's Away AND Asian Audient: Train to Busan

This is both the third night of my informal viewing festival while my wife is out of town, and the seventh installment of my monthly Asian-themed viewing series Asian Audient.

Train to Busan was only a name I'd heard of as recently as a month ago, but during the intervening weeks it's taken the shape of one those popular phrases that suddenly starts collectively coming out of people's mouths at the same time. When I heard Ana Lily Amirpour, director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and the new film The Bad Batch, select it as her "random film she loves" in a recent interview on Filmspotting, I decided that its mentions had reached critical mass, and I could ignore them no longer.

And, it was streaming on Netflix.

Making it by far the easiest to get my hands on of the prospective candidates for Asian Audient. My only other Korean film (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) I was able to rent from iTunes with little drama, but that was after striking out on about five other Korean films I wanted to see more.

And going outside of the three nationalities I've watched so far, Chinese, Japanese and Korean? It's been a total failure. I even had a friend try to track down the (probably illegal) digital copy he had of Apichitpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, as he and his mate recently watched all of Weerasethakul's films as part of their own themed viewing series. So far, he hasn't found it, and Thailand remains shut out of the proceedings. (I'd be able to get my hands on Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendor, but I've already seen both of them.)

But not only is this the July entry in Asian Audient, of course it's also my third night of Cat's Away. After going to Ukraine last night I thought I'd keep the international flavor going, a bit to the north and east of there.

It was a relief, also, to finally get a movie under two hours, even if it only missed the two-hour mark by two minutes.

I was led to believe that Yeon Sang-ho's film is more than just a zombie movie, but really, it's just a zombie movie. But that's not a criticism. I guess I had the impression, from what Armipour said, that there was going to be some unexpected dimension to it, or at least a WTF aspect I couldn't have guessed. However, Train to Busan doesn't need that extra dimension or WTF aspect because it does the zombie genre proud. And it's got a high concept element to it -- it's basically Snakes on a Plane, except it's Zombies on a Train.

Unlike the movie I saw last night, though, in which deafness was a weirdly inessential aspect of the story they told, the train setting is incorporated very smartly into this one. It reminded me on more than one occasion, for probably obvious reasons, of another recent Korean-directed, train-set thriller, Snowpiercer. Both films make the train setting an essential component and use it in satisfying ways, with Snowpiercer bordering on the implausible and fantastical in its attempt to deliver social commentary (don't start pulling threads or it all come unraveled), and Train to Busan -- in the genre that almost always involves social commentary -- concentrating more on straight genre thrills that remain basically plausible. Both films do a really good job with the clever strategies for bypassing roadblocks to get from one side of the train to the other, and the ones here are clever enough for me not to spoil them for you.

Interestingly, both of those films have connections to other films I've seen recently -- if we are stretching "recently" back nearly a year to last year's MIFF. One of the films I saw at MIFF last year was also a zombie movie directed by Yeon Sang-ho, that one being a terrific animated film called Seoul Station. I'd say Sang-ho is a one trick pony -- I mean, both of those films have the name of a Korean city and a reference to trains in the title, plus they're both zombie movies -- except that they are made in two entirely different styles, animated and live action. How often do we see the same directors excel in both forms? Yet Yeon does so.

And as for Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho, this very month I have also seen his new film, Okja, a Netflix original. That one's quite different from Snowpiercer in many respects, but is recognizably the same director as it also features Tilda Swinton and has quite an eye for absurdist social commentary.

I won't get too deeply into the details of Train to Busan, largely because it's late (I'm writing this directly after the viewing) and because it's actually fairly conventional in most respects. It just does those conventional things very well. It's got really exciting set pieces and heart at its core.

I will spare one quick paragraph for the zombies themselves, though. They are fast zombies as opposed to the lurching kind, and the way the infection spreads and the way their insatiable hunger dominates them are both pretty familiar. But I did really like the physicality of these zombies, whose broken appendages flail about to the sides while never impeding their momentum. Plus, this film does something really well that World War Z tried to do and didn't quite get: those shots where there's such a teeming tangle of crazed undead that they spill out like water bursting through a dam wall. While the CG was anything but transparent in World War Z, here its much more seamless, and obviously therefore more convincing. And horrifying.

Next up in Cat's Away: It's a surprise, but I will tell you it has a 2017 release date.

Next up in Asian Audient: Enter the Dragon, maybe? If you can believe it, I've never seen a Bruce Lee film.

I may have to give up on Thailand.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Cat's Away: Showing, not telling

This is the second night of Cat's Away, the nightly film festival I'm running while my wife is overseas. Um, I'm running it for myself.

Yesterday I outlined the reasons why Contact made a good opening night film for Cat's Away, so I figured I ought to follow suit with The Tribe on night #2.

There's no particular reason this is well suited as a second night film, particularly since a second night film tends not to have a personality to speak of. But there's a good reason it's a film festival film, which is that my goodness is it challenging. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's film originates in Ukraine -- my wife tells me not to say "the Ukraine" -- but language difficulties are not what make this film difficult. Or, not the way you think. There's no spoken language, and there are no subtitles for the Ukrainian sign language in which the film is told. What's more, it proceeds this way for a full 132 minutes.

So it's kind of doubly foreign, but even more than that, because it would be impossible even for most Ukrainians to understand. In fact, an argument can be made that few films have been made in the history of the medium whose language is understood by fewer people than The Tribe. There may be more Aramaic scholars in the world who can understand Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (without subtitles) than there would be Ukrainians fluent in Ukrainian sign language. In fact, I might not be underestimating if I said that there existed only 5,000 to 10,000 people in the world who would be able to tell exactly what the characters are saying to each other in this movie.

Which is the point, of course. In a medium in which the maxim is to "show, don't tell," The Tribe shows like no other film has before it -- shows without ever a single crutch of occasionally telling. Consequently, we don't even know the character's names (although the wikipedia plot synopsis has somehow managed to learn them), let alone the exact nuances of what they are saying to each other. We can go only on their actions, their expressions, and what they must be saying given the vigor of their gesticulations and the context of those actions.

Although I could mostly follow what was happening, as much as it was necessary to follow it, unfortunately the exercise became increasingly tedious as the story became increasingly nihilistic. The story is set in a Ukrainian school for the deaf, and it's seen through the eyes of a newly enrolled young man who becomes plunged into a gang of reprobates who run the school by robbing, abusing and intimidating their classmates. But mere petty lunch money stealing is small beans for these guys, who also assault members of the public and even prostitute out their women to the men sleeping in their big rig trucks in snowy rest stops.

At first I loved the "gimmick," if we want to call it that. I could indeed glean character dynamics and plot developments from nothing more than what was happening on screen, captured in numerous unbroken takes that sometimes lasted minutes on end, and certainly aided by the fact that sign language resembles the movements of a mime from time to time. Gestures were assigned their meaning in this language because there was something universal and intuitive about them, like the frequently used flicking of the arm that's the international sign for "Get lost." So while there were some moments when I didn't get exactly what was transpiring, or who a newly introduced character was supposed to be, the overall thrust was something I could follow without a problem.

But as gimmicks can do, this one started to become arduous. And I started thinking about the 2015 German film Victoria, directed by Sebastian Schipper, an astonishing technical achievement in that it occurs in a single 138-minute take with incredibly high degrees of difficulty in the choreography. That should have been my favorite film of that year, but instead it ground me down and gave me major gimmick fatigue (as I wrote about here in the context of the similarly conceived Open Windows).

The Tribe started to do the same, not necessarily because I was fighting against the gimmick to extract meaning or understanding from the film, but because I began realizing it was not going to be in service of anything I found enriching. In a quick glance of the reviews of this film on Metacritic -- the fast majority of which were very possible -- I saw a couple mentions of Larry Clark's Kids, which is apt. The Tribe imagines an apocalyptic world in which a sophisticated criminal ecosystem has cropped up at a deaf school, one that knows no limits to its malfeasance and extremity. Yet it seems just to wallow in this sense of anarchy without exploring why the conditions of a deaf school might create this environment, or whether their being deaf even plays a role in it.

And then I started to consider the exercise highly artificial, because although it takes place at a deaf school, the actual details of the school's day-to-day operations -- like the fact that a light strobes when class ends, rather than a bell ringing -- become a red herring. Because the idea is to give us a film in which words play no function whatsoever, it's not just the students and staff of the school who are deaf, but all the characters that these characters come across. When they are signing to truck drivers in rest stops and people they are mugging on the train, the sign language becomes less a diegetic element of the world of the movie and more a linguistic choice. The filmmakers chose to tell this story in Ukrainian sign language in the same way that a French filmmaker would choose to tell his film in French. If that was going to be the case, why even have them go to a school for the deaf in the first place?

Had this film been cranked out in a quick 90 minutes and found a clever and intrinsic way to incorporate the deafness into the story -- instead of just having a guy get run over by a truck because he doesn't hear it backing up -- we might be talking masterpiece. Instead, I admired quite a bit about The Tribe, but I did not like watching it and I will never watch it again.

But this, too, is an experience a person might have at any good film festival.

Back to something lighter and less arduous on Thursday night.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Cat's Away: First Contact

This is the first night in my film festival Cat's Away, as I watch (at least) one movie per night while my wife is overseas for ten nights.

There are any number of reasons why Robert Zemeckis' Contact might have made a good opening night film for Cat's Away, but I originally imagined watching it this Saturday afternoon, after my kids get picked up to go for a sleepover at their aunt's.

I don't know why I thought it would be well suited for an afternoon time slot, except maybe relative to the movies I had planned after that (which shall remain shrouded in secrecy for now).

But I ultimately changed my tune as a result of the overriding philosophy of this festival, which is: Don't plan too rigidly. I keep adding to the custom list of possible titles on Letterboxd -- it's up to 30 films now -- and I do really want my whims to help dictate what I watch. And so I discarded two other opening night films I thought I'd settled on and moved Contact up to the front.

What makes it such a good opening night film?

Well for one, the film is celebrating its 20th anniversary. This very month, in fact. Contact opened in the U.S. on July 11, 1997, and part of the reason I remember this (other than looking it up on the internet) was that I saw it on a date with a girl I'd met on the 4th of July. (It was one of only two dates we had.) There should always be a spot in a film festival for a film celebrating a landmark anniversary, and opening night seems as good as any time to do it.

Then there's the fact that it's also a tribute of sorts to John Hurt, who plays a small but significant role in this film. Twenty years before he actually did die, Hurt played a Richard Branson/Elon Musk-style billionaire visionary dying of cancer, who wants the legacy of his immense fortune to be playing a major role in putting humans in touch with extra terrestrials. It was poignant to see the man we lost this January, whom I belatedly celebrated in the most recent post on this blog, in a role in which his own mortality was a pressing consideration.

But then I just like the expansiveness, the philosophical struggle between science and religion, and the sheer ambition at the core of Contact as a symbolic way to usher in a viewing series. The film prides itself in taking measure of the entire breadth of existence in the universe, a theme it gives us straight off the bat with that terrific opening shot that starts with a satellite's view of the earth, then pulls out by millions of light years until the galaxies fly by as little specks, finishing in the iris of our protagonist as a young girl, dreaming dreams of infinity. In that one shot, the film also takes in the entirety of every other story that has ever been told in the movies.

But enough with all the ways Contact might work as the opening of a real film festival. This is a film festival of one, so I'll shift to my personal takeaways as I watched this movie for probably the third time overall, but possibly only the first time this century.

The MVP bit player of 1997

Contact was my #2 ranked movie of 1997. My fourth ranked film was Starship Troopers.

Only on this viewing -- which falls less than two months after my most recent Starship Troopers viewing -- did I realize that both movies feature the same bit player.

And I'm talking about an itty bitty bit player, a blink and you'll miss him player. This guy, in fact:


His name is Timothy McNeil, and it took a lot of random clicking in IMDB before I finally figured out which one was the right guy. In Troopers, he's probably a bit more memorable despite less screen time than he has here. He plays a talking head expert on a TV show who has the following line: "Frankly, I find the notion of a bug that thinks offensive." Or something to that effect.

In Contact, he's one of the other astronomer geeks who mans the station with Jodie Foster's Ellie Arroway at the beginning of the film. He disappears after that but he's in two or three scenes and has about that many lines of dialogue in each.

Is Timothy McNeil in any way crucial to the success of two of my favorite films of 1997?

Of course not, but it was fun to notice it anyway.

Oh, and in case you're keeping track at home, Starship Troopers has flip-flopped with Contact in my favorite films of 1997 on Flickchart, with Troopers occupying the #2 spot, Contact the #4 and Boogie Nights in between them. As it was in 1997, Titanic is still ranked above them (though I actually think I like Troopers better). Incidentally, my #3 movie when I did my rankings in 1997, or rather early 1998, was Face/Off, which has dropped all the way to #8 -- the exact ranking Boogie Nights had then. So they too have flip-flopped.

Alright alright alright

I was struck by just how young, and how studly, Matthew McCounaghey looks in this first scenes here. This was one of the actor's earliest showcases, in his first ascendant period before he slummed it in romantic comedies for the better part of a decade.

It was interesting to see him occupying kind of the opposite role to the one he played 17 years later in Interstellar, at the height of his second ascendancy. In fact, both characters expend dialogue on the elasticity of time in space, as McConaughey's Palmer Joss talks about how four years in space could be the equivalent of 50 Earth years for the prospective traveler to Vega, the source of the radio transmission that has left everyone aflutter. However, the conclusion is quite different from McConaughey's Cooper in Interstellar, who jumps at the opportunity to fly to impossible distant worlds and possibly never come back to Earth. Palmer Joss looks at the exact same scenario and says "Why would you want to do that?"

So I guess I'm saying he really is multi-talented.

The woman gets to be the careerist

Contact was feminism before Hollywood was really all that worried about it. I really like how Ellie never lets love sway her from her professional goals, and not only because her romance with Palmer Joss is always a bit half-baked, more of a screen contrivance than a genuine emotional component of the film.

In fact, she's the one who runs out on him after a one-night stand, declining to call him. Sadly, that's the role stereotypically ascribed to the man, while the woman, presumably the one more focused on monogamy, is desperate for any scraps of his attention. But yeah, she leaves Palmer cold and pining for her.

He's also kind of the traditional beauty -- the other role usually played by the woman -- while she is of course beautiful, but prized particularly for her brains.

Good on ya, Contact.

Who?

A very minor point here but this is the fourth and last of my notes, despite not being the totality of my impressions, so I thought I'd give it its own subheading anyway.

When Hurt's S.R. Hadden first reaches out to Ellie by hacking into top secret information, sending her little riddles, she types back on her oh-so-dated computer screen: "Who are you?"

I don't know why this occurred to me, but isn't "Who is this?" the more likely phrasing there?

The semantics between the two are similar but one sort of feels more natural. I guess the difference could come down to accusation vs. inquisitiveness.

If someone is prank calling you and you want it to stop, you demand "Who is this?" But when someone is dangling a carrot in front of you and you want to eat that carrot, perhaps you are more likely to say "Who are you?" as the more open means of communicating the same query. "Who is this?" is a stop sign; "Who are you?" is a green for go.

                                                                 **********

In my final estimation of Contact, I don't like it quite as much as I once did, but I also marveled over how well it moves for being a 140-minute movie which goes long stretches without what you would consider as traditional "action." In fact, I suppose you could say there's almost no "action," if you are defining that as set pieces or moments that rely specifically on the physical, to speak of.

Instead, this is a film that exists on the strength of its ideas, and the occasional ways it blows your mind ... whether you are a fan of that ending or no.

Good start here -- nine more nights (and blog posts) to go.

Monday, July 24, 2017

First Hurt, now Heard

I don't know about you, but whenever I heard the names John Heard or John Hurt, I always had to
pause for a moment to remember which was which. One was an American appearing mostly in comedies and one was a Brit appearing mostly in dramas, so we wouldn't have mistaken them for one another based on their bodies of work. But their names, their similar ages and their similar times of coming to prominence (at least with me as a young viewer) made them forever interlinked.

That interlinking may continue in perpetuity, as we have now lost both of them in 2017.

John Heard was found dead in his hotel room in Palo Alto on Friday morning, where he was recovering from what was deemed minor back surgery. John Hurt lost his struggle with cancer back in January.

Although I always liked John Heard, his death may not have risen to the level of post-worthy on my blog if it didn't also give me the chance to pay delayed tribute to John Hurt.

But first, Heard.

John Heard was a staple of my 1980s comedy upbringing, sometimes as a villain (Big) but sometimes as a sympathetic character -- even if a forgetful one (Home Alone). To say he appeared "mostly" in comedies seems a bit inaccurate, as scanning his filmography on IMDB reveals far more dramas and thrillers than I would have guessed. But he became famous in films that tickled our funny bones, so I have come to associate him with that. And though he brought a definite smarm factor, which was why he was cast the way he was in Big, Home Alone also showed his capacity for warmth.

Of note: At the top of his page on wikipedia, it says "Not to be confused with John Hurt."

John Hurt has a bit bigger hit list, with classic features like Alien, The Elephant Man, A Man for All Seasons and Contact to his name, as well as a number of Harry Potter movies. But one of his most important functions for me was providing the narration in a personal favorite, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer -- his distinctly musical tones make it one of those rare examples of narration that seems indispensable. He had a certain craggy wisdom to him even when he was a younger man, and he feels like an extension of that great wing of elder British actors that included the likes of Alec Guiness, Ralph Richardson and Peter O'Toole.

Of note: At the top of his page on wikipedia, it says "Not to be confused with John Heard."

They were both in their 70s -- Heard early, Hurt late -- so their remaining contributions to cinema did not figure to be voluminous. But both were working straight up to their deaths, though Hurt had the luxury/burden of being aware the end was coming, while Heard presumably did not. We'll find out more about how Heard died in the coming days.

Goodbye, John H. and John H. You will be missed, and my memory of each of you will be distinct.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Thou shalt watch movies

I'm not sure if The Ten Commandments will actually be one of the movies I watch in the upcoming personal "film festival" I'm about to tell you about. It would suck up two nights all by itself, which is problematic. And though it was one of the original films up for contention, I now have 25 other films on my custom list on Letterboxd, and only ten nights of available viewing time. (Plus one long stretch on a Saturday afternoon, which may really be the time to do it.)

What is this I'm talking about? Why, I'll tell you.

A delegation from my family will be making a trip to the United States this week, but that delegation will not include me. In fact, it will be composed entirely of my wife. She's coming to a conference in Orlando for her work, and will be out of the country for a total of ten days.

While she's gone, I will watch movies.

Oh, I'll also go to work, do all the shopping, do all the cleaning, be a single dad to my two boys and all that that entails, and sleep.

But when I'm not doing those things, I will watch movies.

I pretty much do that anyway, of course, which is the only way to keep a pace of five to six viewings a week. The difference about the upcoming period is that I can start these movies just after my kids go to bed, not an hour later after my wife and I have watched some appointment TV together. (We're just wrapping up The Handmaid's Tale.) And that means I can tackle longer movies when I'm still fresh enough to watch the whole thing without falling asleep. Maybe not as long as The Ten Commandments -- not in one sitting, anyway -- but a 150-minute movie should be no problem on a given weeknight.

What makes it a "film festival," as such, is that I have been curating the films over recent weeks, in terms of library rentals, iTunes rentals and titles available on our streaming services. I'm not going to program which movie plays on which night in advance -- I'd like to leave it a bit more subject to my own whims and moods -- but I will indeed draw from this available list of titles on Letterboxd. (It's a private list, so don't bother trying to check it out -- as if you would do that.)

And as in a real film festival, there will be no nights off. Each night between this Tuesday night and the following Thursday night will feature at least one movie, with themed double features hoped for on other nights. (Just a taste of that: The Shining paired with Room 237 and Trainspotting paired with T2: Trainspotting, the latter of which I have not seen in both cases.)

The Saturday viewing slot comes courtesy of my sister-in-law. She has agreed to take both my kids on a sleepover at her house the Saturday night my wife is gone, allowing me to remain home and lie around in my own filth for a day. (Not that kind of filth -- just the general mess that I like to leave when I'm home alone, for no other reason than that I can.) As I do when I have mini film festivals on an overnight hotel stay, I will try to fit four movies into Saturday (depending on when she picks them up) and one more Sunday morning before they return.

And yeah, I could use that afternoon slot to swallow The Ten Commandments whole, but who knows if that mood will strike me when I'm actually in that position. I've already got a perfect four other titles lined up for that day -- again, mood pending.

Of course, now I've gotten carried away and short-listed entirely too many movies, leading to inevitable disappointment. But, we shouldn't spend too much time worrying about things that are inevitable.

I will do my best to document all this viewing -- much of which will be revisiting -- on my blog. And because I like catchy titles, I will label these blog posts "Cat's Away," and then whatever title I consider appropriate following the colon. (Either the movie title or a little pithy comment about the viewing experience.)

It's not that I really am a mouse playing while my cat's away, since my cat basically lets me watch whatever I want, as long as I'm infringing on nothing other than my own sleep. But there is indeed a "mouse playing" mentality when you suddenly gain complete dominion over the television for a period of time, and I will undoubtedly watch some things that would require explanation to my wife -- not even necessarily because they involve sordid subject matter (though there will be some of those), but just because any time you watch something, another person in your house might ask "Why are you watching this?" And you feel like you have to give some answer that makes sense.

I also like this festival as a symbolic baton passing between the two distinct halves of my viewing year. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, I like to break my viewing patterns down into six-month chunks. From February to July, I focus on old releases and rewatches, with new releases sprinkled in. From August to January, I focus on films from the current release year, with old releases and rewatches sprinkled in. It's about to become August, so this festival will operate as a last binge of old releases and rewatches, probably with an emphasis on the latter.

Then the baton gets passed to a real film festival, which symbolizes my shift to focusing on new releases. The very day my wife returns, the Melbourne International Film Festival begins, kicking off another viewing orgy devoted to new releases. I'll be going to about nine films during those 17 days, though for the first time this year, that also includes one old release (but more on that when the time rolls around).

Will this intense viewing period over the next month exhaust me? Well, have you met me?

Here's to the start of a bunch of exciting film watching ... whether it involves Charlton Heston and stone tablets or not.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Christopher Nolan bombs, and other Dunkirk thoughts

There are plenty of times I have been out of sync with the Metascore for a movie. That probably goes without saying. I'll come home, go to the site, and think "Huh." Baby Driver is one very recent example, as 86 seems extraordinarily generous for a film that is entertaining but quite flawed. Then again, I knew its Metascore before I even entered the theater.

I can't remember a time feeling as shocked by this disconnect, though, as when I came home from Dunkirk last night.

Dunkirk has a 94 on Metacritic. I think it deserves less than half that.

In fact, the one score of 38 on there -- and I sighed in relief that at least one person agrees with me -- might even be too generous.

I ended up giving the movie two stars on Letterboxd, but I wanted to give it 1.5.

What's wrong with Dunkirk? Where to start. This is one of the most dramatically inert films in recent memory. For all the somber energy invested in meticulously recreating a famous World War II battle -- is it even a battle? -- Nolan couldn't give a whip about character development or even mounting tension. Hans Zimmer's bludgeoning score -- seriously, it's even worse than the one for Interstellar -- tells us that every moment is overloaded with dread, but otherwise we'd have no idea that anything was at stake. Images are disconnected from consequences, things are happening for apparently no reason, and the little character arcs that are meant to occur make no impression whatsoever. Oh, it's not that Nolan disregards the notion of human drama altogether in opting for something more abstract and expressionistic -- it's that the dramas he chooses are utterly uncompelling.

What went so wrong? Nothing, according to most of you. When I went on Letterboxd to log my two-star rating, I saw a five-star rating from a person I trust on the landing page. Of the film's 50 positive reviews on Metacritic, 29 are grades of a perfect 100, including three critics whose opinions I've held dear throughout my career: Joe Morgenstern, Dana Stevens and Richard Roeper, all three of whom I've spoken to, and the last two of whom I've had my picture taken with (including Dana Stevens just in May).

Why did I see such a different movie than most of these people? It's hard to say. When you are in the minority on a film, the inclination is of course to view it as a "you problem." You figure you must lack some essential component of your critical faculties that allows you to appreciate what the film is doing. Or, you demand a film to fit into a certain conventional box, the inability to fit into that box being what makes it great. Maybe that is indeed the case with me and Dunkirk.

But I don't think so. This film is a fucking bore. Christopher Nolan is so impressed with his ability to film fighter planes moving in space -- an undeniable strength of the film -- that he doesn't seem to care whether he gave us any characters to relate to. I don't mind that we don't know their names, as there are some great films out there where we never learn any names. I mind the fact that they don't have names or personalities. They are just pawns in Nolan's desire to mount a moving Life magazine photograph. And that's all he's done.

And that's not enough.

I look forward to engaging with other people on this, figuring out the deficits in my character that led me to have so totally missed the boat, so to speak, on this film. But I can't do that for now. In fact, I can't even read Dunkirk's one mixed review -- thank you, Rex Reed -- or Dunkirk's one negative review -- thank you, Jake Cole -- for now. The reason for this is that I'm recording a podcast about this tomorrow night, and I want my bile to be untainted by the bile a few others have already spewed on the topic.

A very few others.

Drunk-kirk

On this podcast, my fellow podcaster will insist that the reason I didn't like it was that I was drunk when I saw it. And the reason he will say this is that I told him I was drunk in a text message about 20 minutes before the movie started. And the reason I know he liked it, even though we don't usually share our opinions on the films before we meet for the recording, is because he pleaded with me to go the next day to an IMAX screening when I was sober, rather than seeing it on Friday night with four glasses of wine in me, at a theater that has no really big screens.

The four glasses of wine -- and a beer -- were courtesy of a volunteer thank you party for my contributions to the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) earlier this year (though mostly last year, when most of the heavy screening occurred). I had expected this to be a tame little affair that I could quickly skip out of -- it had been held in the organization's tiny office the year before -- and I planned to stay no longer than 30 minutes, leaving in time to watch a 6:40 showing of The Beguiled before my 9:20 Dunkirk.

But this year the party was held in a private room at a pretty cool bar, and when 6:30 rolled around and I was still enjoying myself, I gave Sofia Coppola's film with the middling reviews (at least among my friends) a pass. And got into one of those rambling, animated cinephile discussions with two women about films we love and hate, using the thinnest of connective tissue to jump from one film to the next -- the kind of discussions that are especially well lubricated by wine. I became so engrossed that I nearly didn't leave in time for Dunkirk.

Given my thoughts on the film, I am immensely glad I did not sacrifice that experience for the movie, and also that I did not shift around a Saturday with my family in order to see Dunkirk on IMAX (and pay for it out of my own pocket, something I wasn't having to do on Friday night on the smaller screen).

But the question is, did being "drunk" -- how far along on that spectrum I was is debatable -- impact my enjoyment of the film?

As I am biased here and predisposed to endorse my own decision making, I'm going to say "no." But I guess I can't really say for sure, because I can't see it for the first time sober as a point of comparison.

What I can say is that falling asleep was not a problem as I watched the film, which I always figure to be the biggest danger in a film starting at 9:20, whether you're drunk or not. As I said, I was bored, but it was not because the alcohol was making me distractable. It's because Christopher Nolan made a boring film.

I don't even think IMAX would have helped. I was able to appreciate this film's visual accomplishments just fine on the screen where I saw it, and I honestly don't think this is a case where those accomplishments, given a proper showcase, would have rendered some of the film's shortcomings less important. In fact, even in a state of somewhat compromised perceptions, I was glad to feel clear-headed enough not to be swayed by the sweet persuasions of impressive visuals. A film needs to either have a compelling story to be a success, or if not that, then just be a straight art film with no story whatsoever. Nolan's middle ground in Dunkirk is a bad place to be.

July 20th -- again

Methinks Christopher Nolan needs to concentrate more on making a good movie and less on making sure that movie comes out on July 20th.

And incidentally, how can July 20th fall on a Friday every single year?

July 20th was of course a Thursday this year, but movies get released on Thursdays in Australia, so the 20th was its release date indeed.

It may be a Warner Brothers thing, but Nolan's movies have long been perceived as a late-summer sort of counterprogramming, or maybe just a delayed infusion of prestige to a season that has already included its share of Pirates of the Caribbeans and Transformerses.

The July 20th trend got started in 2008 -- on July 18th. That's when The Dark Knight hit theaters. Its predecessor, Batman Begins, was a June release, but I guess The Dark Knight felt right in late July.

So right, in fact, that they duplicated the release strategy for Inception in 2010. It being two years later and without the benefit of any leap years in between, Inception could not land exactly on July 20th either. So July 16th was the chosen release date.

We finally get to an exact July 20th release date, with the benefit of a leap year, two years later for The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. That date may of course be etched into your memory for being the night of the horrific theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.

Warner Brothers deviated from the strategy with a November 2014 release for Interstellar, but it's back with Dunkirk -- a film whose awards aspirations might have more logically dictated a November release date than Interstellar. Though I suppose some of these things have to do with when a film is actually ready to go to print.

What relationship does the release date have to the quality of the film?

None, of course. And I'm sure my criticisms of Dunkirk don't seem very substantive, since I haven't delved in to why I dislike it so much.

I could. Believe me, I could. But I guess I already feel like enough of a grinch for raining on the parades of readers who may have already bought their tickets for a screening at some point later in the weekend, but happened to do their Friday check-in with my blog before then.

But as a wise friend told me last night when I texted him my initial reactions and then apologized for shitting on a movie he was excited to see, "Maybe I will love it, maybe not. It will have nothing to do with you. When any movie comes out, there will be people who don't like it."

In the case of Dunkirk, just not very many of us.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Saoirse Ronan is a grownup

There's a scene near the start of Brooklyn, which I just saw on Wednesday night, where Saoirse Ronan's Ellis (pronounced Eye-lish) watches a friend walk off with a cute boy at a dance in her small Irish town. Her expression toward her departing comrade, who looks back to smile and giggle, is at first one of supportive encouragement. As the girl recedes into her dance, the expression becomes by degrees more hollow, slackening into disenchantment, then dissatisfaction, then disillusionment, then discomfort, then awareness of discomfort, then a resolve that it's time to walk away and do something else. In this one 20-second shot, Ronan has given us a mini master class on acting.

This is not how a 20-year-old acts. This is how a grownup acts.

In fact, when principal photography on Brooklyn began on the first day of April in 2014, Ronan was not even 20 yet. She was 11 days shy of that birthday.

Actors who show absolute command of the craft at a young age are not total anomalies. One family, the Fannings, even has two such actresses, with Elle possibly being even better than Dokata. But there is something so prepossessed about Saoirse Ronan that it seems to put her in a different category. She was an adult even when she was a child.

I remember my first experience with her in Atonement, which it's hard to believe was nearly ten years ago now. She would have been only 11 or 12 at the time that was filmed, and though she was playing a child making bad decisions -- fatal decisions, in fact -- she was making them in adult ways. Making them with a kind of prepossessed shrewdness, which made them seem calculated rather than careless. There was something old and wise about the look in her eyes, something that indicated she'd be better off tried as an adult than a child in a court of law.

Recognizing the unmistakable presence she brought to her work, Hollywood of course targeted her for a number of familiar type teenage roles in movies aimed squarely at that demographic, things like City of Ember and The Host. But many of her roles were in projects that were a bit more challenging, making a bit more unusual use of a girl in her teenage years, like The Lovely Bones, Hanna, Byzantium and How I Live Now. I haven't seen all of these movies and some I am judging on a vague perception only, but all of them, in their way, seem to require someone with a certain maturity and sophistication. A maturity and sophistication Ronan had long before she had any business having it.

In some of those roles, there is an explicit sense of adulthood to her character. In Hanna, for example, she has been raised as a lethal weapon, a fighter who can incapacitate an adult despite her tender age. In How I Live Now, she's a surrogate mother looking after younger siblings in a post-apocalyptic England. In Byzantium she's, well, a vampire. The oldest of the old -- eventually if not now.

In Brooklyn it feels hard to imagine her as anything other than a fully grown, fully blossomed human being. Ellis the character is no older than Ronan is, but she travels on her own to New York to start up a new life. Both the decision to go and the going by oneself are signs of adulthood, but it's the stolid way she handles everything that comes her way that truly distinguishes her as a grownup. This is not to say she doesn't succumb to the occasional bouts of overwhelming homesickness, which crack her professional facade at her job. But there's nothing childish about her homesickness -- it's the mature pangs of guilt and fondness over a sister and mother she left behind in the old country. When she begins a courtship with a handsome young Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), and begins progressing with him at a rate that might seem impetuous, she's making pragmatic choices here too. Even though she feels swoony, she behaves practically, at one point even telling him that she will commit to two movie dates with him -- "even if the first one goes terribly, I'll give it another go." Sensibility incarnate.

An argument might be made that the best young actors show us what it's truly like to be a child, remaining in close contact with the turbulent emotions of that age. There'll be time enough later for them to show us how grown up they can be. Hailee Steinfeld is an actress who excels at that type of thing.

But an actress like Saoirse Ronan reminds us, refreshingly, that young people are just adults who are not yet fully formed -- or sometimes, are fully formed. The truth in her performance is that she plays characters with a kind of preternatural wisdom -- a wisdom that we believe because it can be just as true to life as characters who are changeable and petulant.

It'll be interesting to see what she's capable of when she really is a grownup.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The temptation to scold Edgar Wright

Rightly or wrongly, a director who leaves a movie before its completion can assume a certain "holier than thou" aspect. Sometimes directors get kicked off movies, which is no fault of their own. However, sometimes they cite the ever-popular "creative differences" and depart a movie on their own terms, and rightly or wrongly, this opens them up to scorn.

Warning: The following argument comes dangerously close to taking the side of The Man. But hear me out.

Certainly, you'd think that if Edgar Wright left Ant-Man, it was because Marvel Studios wanted to control him and fit him into a tiny artistic box that he didn't want to occupy. He had sprawling, rambling ideas that consisted of a type of genius that didn't jibe with their conception of the movie. Fine. Leave the movie, Peyton Reed will finish what you started with something halfway watchable (but pretty bland compared to what you would have done), the movie will be reasonably warmly received and everyone will go their merry way.

But I'd be lying if a small part of me didn't say "What, too good for Ant-Man, Edgar Wright?" Rightly or wrongly.

Because it's a bit inevitable to perceive someone who leaves a movie -- leaves, not gets fired from -- as having a bit of an inflated sense of their own self worth. Some would argue that this is a very reasonable estimation of their own worth, as any person should stand up for themselves and not just accept being the puppet of some studio. But there's a certain element of standing up for yourself that seems like rocking the boat. Movies are made by people who become inextricably linked with one another despite inevitable compromises in how they imagined things going, and if you're a good soldier you just grin and bear it.

Wright wasn't a good solder, and some people would celebrate him for that.

I did, sort of, while also wondering what terrific use of his talents he was saving himself for. What thing would be worth not sullying his name or reputation by having a credit on an imperfect realization of his vision for Ant-Man.

The answer is: He was saving himself for Baby Driver.

Which makes it all the more disappointing.

I don't dislike Baby Driver, but let's say that in just 24 hours since I finished watching it, I have already rounded my 3.5-star rating down to three stars and am thinking of going lower. The movie doesn't stand up to even a little bit of scrutiny, and it's not even all that great when you don't scrutinize it.

But I don't want to litigate the strengths and weaknesses of Baby Driver in this post, though I could go on at length with nits to pick and parts that annoyed me, especially in the last 30 minutes. (And for a guy who prizes his own vision for a film, he felt awfully like he was channeling Quentin Tarantino in this movie, didn't he?)

Instead I'd like to concentrate on how Baby Driver is burdened by being an alternative choice to Ant-Man, though in reality, it likely would have been his next movie with or without the MCU film in his filmography.

If Baby Driver had just followed on the heels of The World's End, the 2013 Wright movie that I like even less than Baby Driver, it might have concerned me as a sign that a once-sharp filmmaker who made at least two bracingly original films (Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) was on a wayward path. But as is, it's what he's offering the world as proof of what he's capable of -- when someone isn't trying to pull his strings. With Baby Driver, Wright says to the world, "My shackles are off. Now watch me fly."

Or maybe, crash land.

In Wright's defense, he has established himself -- through no fault of his own, or to put it another way, "rightly or wrongly" -- as a creative talent from whom a lot is expected. He has a passionate cult of followers who worship his films. There's a lot of pressure on a person like that, a pressure to continually outdo yourself and be greater than you were last time. Even if only two of his now five features have actually earned him that kind of devotion.

So my under-appreciation of Baby Driver could just be a manifestation of my own frustrated expectations for the man's next work.

But I don't think so. I think I have had a love-hate relationship with Edgar Wright that is equally happy to be pushed in either direction. I look forward to his next film either because it will confirm he's great or confirm he's a hack, and I kind of don't care which. I can argue either narrative. (If you're wondering where the one film I haven't mentioned, Hot Fuzz, falls on the love-hate spectrum -- which is really a spectrum of "love" to "don't love that much" -- it's pretty much in the middle. I like it, but not overly.)

And I guess something about the Ant-Man debacle has kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Am I an apologist for a gigantic movie studio like Marvel, or to step out one level greater, like Disney? I don't think I am, but if I generally trust the things a company does -- and that's the case with Disney -- I do extend them a certain loyalty. I do think that someone should think of it sort of as an honor to be entrusted with a Disney product, and if they don't properly appreciate that opportunity, it's a them problem.

But still, had Baby Driver seemed like the inevitable next chapter in the cinematic universe inside Edgar Wright's brain, I would have been happy to argue his genius.

Instead, I'm yielding to that temptation to scold him.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The last scraps of 2016

If you can believe it, there's still one more movie with a 2016 U.S. release date that has yet to come out in Australia. It doesn't even come out until next Thursday, the 27th, actually.

Fortunately, due to the magic of press screenings, you can already read my review here.

I'm not sure why J.A. Bayona's A Monster Calls had such a slow progression to the Australian cinemas, but perhaps they just wanted to wait until it was the dead of winter and the movie could not depress us any further. (It's actually not "depressing" in the pejorative sense that one would usually use if describing a movie; it just happens to be about sad things.)

I do have a bit of mixed emotions about reviewing a movie like this, if only because I've mentally moved on by late July and feel like I want to be spending time on movies that count toward my 2017 list. I see 2016 movies at home, but in the theater it feels a bit weird. (Even the private critics screening room where I saw it.)

Then again, I love hearing myself talk, so if someone wants me to talk about a movie that had even its wide release more than six months ago in the U.S., I'm your man.

And though U.S. readers will have likely had the option to rent this for a good four months, Australian readers are advised to check it out in the cinema. It's worth the big screen.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Not this year's Jupiter Ascending - or so I hope

After Jupiter Ascending came out two years ago, I didn’t know if there would ever be another Jupiter Ascending again.

I mean, I didn’t want another Jupiter Ascending, per se, because that movie was awful. No sequels necessary. But I did want another “Jupiter Ascending.”

The difference indicated by those quotation marks is as follows: I wanted another movie that took the same risks as Jupiter Ascending, in a genre in which only sure bets are usually green lit. I wanted it still to be possible to have movies that fit that small cinematic niche of “big, imaginative science fiction movie with fantasy worlds and no established characters.” I didn’t want studios only to gamble on Star Wars movies, though that’s obviously no gamble at all. I wanted them to gamble on what might become the next Star Wars.

But after several recent major flops in this arena – Ascending, but more catastrophically, John Carter – it seemed less and less likely that we would see many, or even any, more of these. One cautionary tale is enough for most studios – two, and you have serious cinematic leprosy on your hands. No one wants to go anywhere near it.

So I guess the pressure is really, really on Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

When I was at the movies on Wednesday, I watched enough of the trailer for Luc Besson’s new movie to know that I didn’t want to watch any more of it. In a good way. I start avoiding a trailer once I get to that point where I say “Yep, I’m hooked, now leave the rest of it as a surprise.”

“Hooked” may be the wrong word for Valerian, because there are a million ways a movie like this could go wrong and only a scarce quantity of ways to do it right. So just because it looks nice – like really, really nice – doesn’t mean that it’s got anything going for it.

But if it’s great, I want to experience its greatness unspoiled.

And if it’s not great … well, we definitely won’t see another Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Cirque du Soleil: the one ideal incarnation for Avatar

While at the movies Wednesday night I saw an advertisement for Toruk, the upcoming Cirque du Soleil show inspired by Avatar. Whether it fits into the narrative of Avatar, or even has any narrative to speak of, is not certain. What is certain is that the acrobats are dressed up like Na’avi, and they do their leaps, twirls and somersaults through a stage manifestation of the Pandora forest.

What’s also certain is that this is a great way to use the world of Avatar.

In less than five seconds of this ad, I went from rolling my eyes about the concept (which I’d heard of only a few days before) to saying “Hell yeah, what a good idea.” I’d probably see Toruk, and not only because I’m overdue for my first Cirque show since the early 2000s, when I saw two in fairly close succession. One of those was the Las Vegas show called O, which involves a swimming pool built into the stage floor. It left an impression on me, and I still have a soft spot for the troupe despite the persistent suspicion that they might be sort of lame.

What’s also certain is that this is a far better way to use the world of Avatar than to have 11 more sequels coming out by the year 2030.

That’s only a slight exaggeration of how many more Avatar movies are on the horizon. Officially, it’s four. One would certainly hope James Cameron will have said everything he needs to say about this world after four more, but if the fourth still makes good money, who knows how much longer it could go.

And if the fourth still makes good money, I suppose we won’t have a problem. But that’s what I’m considering highly unlikely at this point.

You might logically say that Cameron had said everything that needed to be said after one Avatar movie. Some would argue that everything that needed to be said about Avatar had been said in Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas, calling into question the need for even a single Avatar. Though since the movie became the biggest box office hit of all time and stayed that way for six years (until Star Wars: The Force Awakens), it’s reasonable to conclude that there was a legitimate hunger for Avatar’s offerings, at least at some point.

But as I may have discussed on this blog before – and if not, I’m overdue – Avatar has endured poorly in our popular consciousness. Many of us (including me) only saw it that one time, and even those who loved it at the time do not really go to bat for it these days. You don’t hear anyone with an obsessive ongoing relationship with Avatar, like they have with something like Star Wars, for example. And while that’s an impossible standard for anything, it seems reasonable that a film that had made more money than any other movie, and has four sequels planned, would be one of the most capable of meeting it. In fact, would need to come close to meeting it to justify the expenditure on four more expensive sequels.

Part of the reason no one talks much about Avatar could be that the Na’avi themselves seem like a short-sighted creation. There are a couple reasons for this. One is the unfortunate white savior/exotic savage dynamic that’s intrinsic to their conception, with Cameron trying to cast Jake Sully (or himself) as the outsider who can come in and rescue a bunch of noble natives who are being abused by big corporations/military institutions. Even if it’s the good fight from a liberal perspective, it has bad optics. Then there’s the idea that the Na’avi just seem goofy, with their blue skin and big eyes. Maybe we got into bed with them only because they were part of a mind-blowing, sumptuous 3D experience, and we always would have preferred characters who were a bit less like humanoid lizards with mystical tendencies.

But what makes “us” want to disassociate ourselves with the Na’avi also makes them perfect for Cirque du Soleil. When we go to the circus, or the ballet, or any other art form that celebrates the physical movements of the human body, we want a world that’s a bit mystical and fanciful, where blue skin and lizard-like movements are a help rather than a hindrance. We want to see majesty on display, and we’re a little less beholden to the narrative utility of the majesty we’re seeing. It’s not important that the characters seem adaptable to other environments, as, for example, the Star Wars characters have been repurposed for umpteen other uses that have enabled the ubiquity that supports umpteen sequels.

So while I’m not at all sure the Avatar sequels will make their money back, I feel fairly confident Cirque du Soleil will do just fine. And they may be smart with their timing as well. It’s still a few years before we get Avatar 2, so in one sense this seems to be coming out of nowhere (out of the blue, har har). But it might be better now than after the movies come out, because it’s very possible we’ll become saturated with Avatar and may not respond well to that. There definitely won’t be any hunger for a Cirque du Soleil incarnation of Avatar if we’ve roundly rejected the cinematic version.

I like Avatar enough that I want it to endure as an institution, something that maintains a certain level of cultural cache rather than being consigned to the dustbin of cinematic history. But the way to do this is not by sequeling us to death, by releasing a bunch of merchandise of blue Na’avis who look enough like each other that we can’t really tell the difference between the girl one or the boy one, and our kids don’t want to play with either of them. The best way to do it is through something like Cirque du Soleil, which will encapsulate some of the things we liked about Avatar while excising some of its more problematic elements.

But there aren’t billions of dollars bound up in a traveling circus show, so fat chance of that. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

A return to Spider-Man

Of all the major superhero movies, I've seen the smallest percentage of ones featuring Spider-Man. Until last night, it was just half of the movies that fit that description, and only that many because the character makes an appearance in Captain America: Civil War. If you include only movies with Spider-Man's name in the title, it was only two of the existing five. The number of years since I'd seen a movie devoted to Spider-Man is an even more astonishing figure: 13. That's right, 2004's Spider-Man 2 was the last I'd deigned to see.

To give you some idea how unusual this is, I'm missing no more than one of any other movie featuring any other superhero of any note. In fact, the only significant examples I can really think of are the second Thor movie and the third Iron Man movie, and ten years ago neither of these guys had even one movie to their respective names.

What's more, of the superheroes I have designated as "the big five," I've not missed a single of their movies -- no, not even the Incredible Hulk. The other four being Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman (only very recently a cinematic entity) and, yes, Spider-Man.

So why the Spider-Man drought?

It didn't feel intentional. I'd always expected to see Spider-Man 3, despite liking the first two movies only about 75% as much as most people did. But I heard it was bad and, well, perhaps that was a particularly busy summer for me. Then when The Amazing Spider-Man came around, I'm sure I intended to see that as well. But I passively participated in an unspoken boycott of it, probably because I thought it was too soon to reboot the character (and, well, I heard that one wasn't great either, and maybe I had a busy summer that summer too.) The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Well, if I hadn't seen the first one, why start now?

What finally brought me back was when Spider-Man was brought back home to Marvel -- and not until I was sitting in the theater did it occur to me the secondary meaning of the word "Homecoming" in the title.

Even the generally good taste of Marvel might not have been enough if I hadn't seen him in Civil War, where he combined with another character that I'd come to consider sort of a dubious property (Ant-Man) to comprise possibly the two most fun things about that movie. Civil War showed me Spider-Man could be done right -- even if I hadn't personally witnessed any of the examples of him being done wrong.

And it was a pretty happy homecoming for me, as it turns out. I didn't love Homecoming, but it's got some funny moments and some exciting moments, and it rests comfortably in the upper half of Marvel movies I've seen.

Interestingly, though, the reasons it worked for me were more or less the reasons Ant-Man didn't totally work for me, and that has everything to do with timing.

If you remember this Ant-Man rant, my biggest gripe about that movie was the awkward way it introduced the MCU. If memory serves, little to no mention is made of any other superheroes until about halfway through the movie, when Scott Lang says something along the lines of "The first thing we should do is contact the Avengers."

The who? Suddenly the spell of being in a world where Ant-Man was the center of the superhero universe had been shattered. I wanted that universe to last a bit longer before he was just another face in the MCU crowd. It left a sour taste in my mouth and started spoiling a movie that was only really all that interesting in the parts that Edgar Wright obviously contributed before he left the movie.

Spider-Man: Homecoming doesn't suffer from the same problem. The Avengers are in this movie from the very first moments on screen, when a child's drawing of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Cap et al is rescued from the debris of the battle that mostly leveled New York at the end of The Avengers. Not only do we get a visual reminder of those characters (only some of whom we will actually see in the ensuing movie), but we're immediately reminded of a major plot point from their first movie. This is an Avenger world, and Spider-Man is only part of it.

And that's okay, if you do it right. In fact, it's probably inevitable, and again it's a function of that timing. Timing not only in terms of getting to other parts of the MCU straight away, but timing also because we've already seen Spider-Man in the context of the Avengers. We hadn't seen Ant-Man that way until after his solo movie, and that seems to have made all the difference.

I also dug Michael Keaton as the villain, who gives a fairly direct shout-out to his character in Birdman in terms of wearing a winged creature suit. (In fact, at first I wondered if he was supposed to be Anthony Mackie's Falcon ... until I saw him doing, you know, bad things. Especially since Falcon was the main link to the Avengers in Ant-Man.)

I don't know if I'll need a lot more solo Spider-Man movies, though if they're making a third Thor movie, I'm sure we'll get at least a couple more. I also don't know if I'll be inclined to circle back and catch up with the Spider-Man movies I missed the first time around.

But I'm glad to have Spider-Man back in my life -- back as a presence I'll be making excuses to see, rather than not to see.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

You can't have it both ways, Daniel

News has come out that Daniel Craig is coming back for a fifth Bond movie.

This after his comments about returning can be summarized as "not on your life, you asshole."

It might not have been quite an example of biting the hand that feeds him, but it's pretty darn close. While I'm not looking up particular quotations right now, his perspective on the subject seemed to be that he would sooner play the little orphan in the next remake of Annie than play James Bond again. (Just looked up an actual quotation. He said he'd "rather slit his wrists.")

Well, he's playing James Bond again.

Money would obviously be a motivating factor, though it would seem that Craig has plenty of that. Not only has he made those four Bond movies, but he's made plenty of other movies during the same period, remaining quite active throughout.

Dwindling relevance? I suppose that could be a factor too. Craig turns 50 next March, so no time like the present for a midlife crisis.

I wouldn't ordinarily fault an actor type or other Hollywood type for taking another job after saying he or she definitely, absolutely was not going to. Athletes do it all the time. Are you retiring or aren't you? It's something we live with in every sphere of entertainment. How many bands have promised this is definitely, absolutely, positively their final tour?

But something about Craig's attitude has made him a bit of a different case. It's kind of seemed like Craig has felt that Bond was "holding him back" for some time now, and that even returning two movies ago for Skyfall involved a lot of arm twisting.

Few people have evinced as much desire to leave Bond behind them, saving perhaps only George Lazenby, who made good on his promise and walked away after one movie. Bond has clearly been a stepping stone for Craig -- he'd be a successful actor without the role, but not a household name. Yet he's been eager to push that stepping stone down to the bottom of the pond and never look back on it, or so it has appeared.

Yet with this fifth movie, he will be becoming the longest running Bond behind only Roger Moore and Sean Connery. He's currently tied with Pierce Brosnan's four, so this would be putting him ahead of the erstwhile Remington Steele.

Is that an important consideration for Craig? Probably not.

What is his most salient consideration? Hard to say. The articles don't say anything about it.

All I know is, next time he says he's done, he better be done.

And, it might be nice to display a bit of gratitude toward this franchise that has thrust him into such international prominence.

Personally, I'm a bit disappointed. Only one of Craig's films is one I'm reasonably fond of (Skyfall), and I definitely thought it was time for some new blood. And I definitely though that new blood could be of a different race or even gender. That would have been a Bond film I'd like to see.

Craig's next, and presumably final?

Not so much.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

John Denver is having a moment

Ben Wheatley and Bong Joon-ho were undoubtedly making their respective 2017 releases, Free Fire and Okja, at approximately the same time.

So only a certain random felicitnousness could have led them both to use John Denver's "Annie's Song" in virtually the same context in their movies.

If you don't know the song -- and I didn't before I saw Free Fire -- it's the one that goes:

You fill up my senses
Like a night in a forest
Like the mountains in springtime

etc. etc. etc.

In both movies, this soaringly sentimental ballad is used as an ironic counterpoint to something going on on screen, and kind of a similar thing in both cases.

In Free Fire, it's playing on the 8-track player of a van that's making its way through the impromptu war zone that's popped up in a warehouse where an arms deal went south. If memory serves, the driver may have been shot, leaving the vehicle to roll to a stop of its own accord while the music blares.

In Okja, it plays directly over a scene of chaos, as police try to subdue animal rights activists in an underground convenience store after a super pig has plunged through it, knocking cosmetics and cold medications hither and yon. They shoot tranquilizer darts at the activists and the super pig, and the activists elegantly defend themselves by deploying umbrellas in the direction of the blasts -- which, indeed, are quite effective in stopping this particular form of attack.

The only fundamental difference in the way the song is used in the two movies is that the moment in Free Fire is quiet, by that movie's standards, as the Denver song is the only absurd interruption to a scene where everyone is on tenterhooks to see who will expose himself next or fire the next shot. In Okja, it directly scores an action sequence, similarly absurd for the combatants and some of the details of the scene, and similarly operating as a counterpoint to what's going on on screen. The action being in slow motion and devoid of its diegetic sounds means that it's also sort of "quiet" in the same way that it is in Free Fire.

Now, if a third 2017 movie also uses this song in even a remotely similar context, that will be really weird.

And if a 2018 or beyond movie uses it, that will be a ripoff.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Not the curmudgeon he thinks he is

I've been getting more and more examples over time that my nearly seven-year-old does not hate "baby movies," even though he professes to. But Sunday was the coup de grace.

First a little background.

We recently got The Lion King out from the library, I think at my instigation. However, unlike other recent animated classics I've successfully pushed on my kids, this wasn't one of those where I'd planned to sit down with them and watch it. That's in part because The Lion King has never been a personal favorite. I didn't see it until more than a year after its release, and I've only seen it that one time. (I remember the exact timing of my viewing, October 1995, because I watched it with a girl I was dating at the time.)

My own partisanship or lack thereof was not a decisive factor in it making its way into our DVD player, probably because the younger one (age 3) still loves anything with animals in it. He's as much of a stereotype for his age as the older one is with his love of Pokemon and anything where someone has a gun. But the older one watched and like The Lion King too.

At some point we also acquired The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride from the library, which I have not seen and would have not played a role in selecting, since I've got a bit of a bias against straight-to-video sequels, whatever they may be. It turns out my wife was responsible for this one, not because of any interest or experience with it (she never even saw the original) but probably because my younger one found it in her presence and she added it to the stack. I wasn't even aware it was among our 30 or so library videos (they let you take out 50 at once!) until the younger one said he wanted to see it. "There is no Lion King 2," I even said when he said he wanted to watch it, forgetting for a moment about Simba's Pride and thinking that the fact we didn't have it was sufficient enough to negate its existence entirely. He proved me wrong on both counts.

It didn't get watched the day he originally talked about watching it, but he did select it as "his choose" for Sunday morning TV time. Usually in this scenario, the older one suffers through 20 minutes of the movie (at most) before declaring it now time for "his choose," which is fair enough, as you shouldn't have to suffer through an entire movie you don't want to watch.

But this time it wasn't a problem. This time, in fact, the older one never even took a choose. This time, in fact, the younger one stopped paying attention to Simba's Pride while the older one sat there, rapt, watching it to its completion.

I still would have written this post if that were all that happened. But it gets better.

When Simba's Pride finished, the older one said "I want to watch it again."

With a bit of a laugh, I clicked the back chapter button until he was at the beginning again.

Now normally, I wouldn't really want my children to watch two entire features' worth of screens before we got going on our day. That's a bit too indulgent. But when it comes to movies, I like to encourage their interest, and besides, I was handing over to my wife around 9:30 so a friend could come over to watch baseball with me on his computer. (Yes, I have an Australian friend who not only likes baseball, he even pays for the baseball package.) Consequently, I don't know how much of his second viewing he actually got through, but the fact of it at all was what interested me.

I'm crazy for movies, and I can only think of two definite times I've watched the same movie twice in the same day, and only one of those instances can be described as roughly consecutive. Now, kids are a bit more obsessive in this regard than adults, but it's certainly something he's never done before in a good four years of watching movies.

I still would have written this post if that were all that happened. But it gets better.

This morning, when I was getting ready for work, Simba's Pride came on again. It's school holidays, so we're letting them watch TV on weekday mornings as well. I was escorted out of the house with that pretty beautiful song "He Lives in You" that plays over the opening credits.

I still would have written this post if yada yada yada.

When I got home from work today, the kids were having "quiet time," which is code for "mummy and daddy are exhausted from a full day of entertaining you and now you must watch TV." Again, it's an allowance on a weekday made possible by school holidays.

Guess what was playing?

So this is clearly the most obsessive behavior my son has ever displayed toward a movie. Even the ones he says he loves he probably wouldn't watch more than twice in a week, and not likely on consecutive days in any case.

So now I simply must see this movie myself.

Since we have both the original and the sequel -- at least until our renewals run out -- I talked about making it a double feature one night when my wife is out of town at the end of this month. I planned to do it on my own to further my cinematic education (a refresher on The Lion King is always useful), and to be able to relate to my son on a topic he loves. But when I mentioned I might do that, he said, "Can I watch it with you?"

That might keep him up until 11 o'clock at night, but how can I refuse an offer like that?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

How many directors do you recognize?

I was invited to participate in a Facebook event through my Flickcharters group that involved voting on the films of Frank Capra, and it included a picture of Capra as its artwork. This picture, in fact.

It made me realize how few directors I tend to actually recognize, even the important ones.

It's understandable why I might not recognize Capra, as he died in 1991 and looked much older than this in my 18 years of being alive to that point. A bit more shamefully, I have not sought out any old interviews with him or any documentaries that might look into his earlier years (something like Five Came Back, for example).

But it's not just older directors like Capra. Something came up the day before I saw this that prompted me to look up Tom Tykwer, a favorite of mine for having directed two of my top 50 films of all time: Run Lola Run and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Tom Tykwer looks like this, but I wouldn't have known it:


Seeing the picture of Tykwer made me realize it was not the first time I'd seen a picture of him. But I clearly had not retained an image of him in my mind, as I couldn't produce this appearance when thinking about him. (And may not be able to the next time I try, either.)

But that's a rather fringe example as well, as Tykwer is not exactly a major director despite working regularly and having prominent examples of good films to his name. A more compelling example is that I have a hard time telling you exactly what Joel and Ethan Coen look like. They directed two films in my top ten (Raising Arizona and Fargo) and are some of the most celebrated directors working today. As you probably know, this is what they look like:


I knew they looked sort of like that -- like, I had the rough outlines of their appearance in my mind. But I guarantee you that if I ran into either of them on the street, I would not know it was them. If they were both together, maybe. If they were being followed by a group of people talking to each other in hushed tones and taking pictures, probably. But one by himself and without any fanfare? Highly doubtful.

It extends to others. Just thinking randomly of some of my favorite films by directors actively working, could I conjure a mental image of Alfonso Cuaron? No, no I could not. (I had a vague one, which I checked just now and was off a bit.) Guillermo del Toro? Closer, but not exact. Then again, I've got a perfect image of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (they are kind of the holy triumvirate of contemporary Mexican directors), but that may just be because he's won two directing Oscars in the past three years.

The point is, there's a strange disconnect for me, and for some other cinephiles I'm sure, between the extent that we revere the artistic exploits of these people and the extent that we'd be able to pick them out of a police lineup.

On some level it makes sense. We are not seeing them in front of the camera. And in the instances where we are, it helps tremendously. No one anywhere who knows anything about film could fail to recognize Orson Welles, for example. Or an example from my own recent viewing experience, Roman Polanski. He has that cameo in Chinatown, but he's the star of the Polanski film I just saw last weekend, The Tenant. Or an even more recent mention on this blog, Kevin Smith.

But if you're only behind the camera, you need to court media attention in some way to be recognizable, and I would say that the Coens do not particularly care for that. Someone like Christopher Nolan, however, is a lot more recognizable because you see him showing up to talk about his work pretty regularity.

I guess I'm not saying anything particularly profound here.

But I do wonder if it points to some kind of deficit in myself as a cinephile. It has occurred to me that although I continue to consume films at a ravenous rate, I may not be rounding out my knowledge of film history the way other cinephiles in my position -- or even more importantly, other critics -- would be. I almost never read about cinema in long form, for example. I read articles that I see posted on Facebook and the like, but I don't choose books on cinema for my next book the next time I'm looking for one. I think of this as a conscious form of counter-programming to my busy viewing schedule, but it means I'm not going in depth on the behind the scenes of these films, which I think is also essential to a well-rounded film education. I mean, most books aren't going to give you a better idea of what a director looks like, but they will create the greater all-around awareness of a person that is symbolized by the superficial element of knowing what they look like.

I won't think too deeply on it.

But I do wish that I had looked at that picture of Frank Capra and said "That's a picture of Frank Capra" and not "Who is that guy? Oh, it must be Frank Capra."

And it was interesting to me how Frank Capra did not look like Frank Capra -- or not how I thought Frank Capra would look, anyway. I think of Capra as a kind of reckless optimist, and this man looks too severe to conform to my preconception of him. Then again, Capra also directly The Lost Weekend so he can be just as dour as this photo implies to me.

What's perhaps worst is that I did not even know he was of Italian descent, another thing I discovered in just briefly looking up something about him now. Not that his descent is even particularly noteworthy, just that it challenges another wrong preconception I had about him, which was that he was born in America. A preconception I wouldn't have had if I had read up on this guy at all.

So, this just strengthens my resolve to do something I should have done a while ago: Make every other book I read be a book on film. Or I should say, at least a book that somehow deepens my understanding and appreciation of film. I guess if you are speaking cosmically you might say that every book does that, but in this case I'm clarifying because it will allow me to keep my planned next book on the docket, which is Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock (after I finish Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native). That'll be a worthwhile cinema-related reading experience as it will give me insight on how a film I love was adapted from its source material.

I'll become a better cinephile, dammit, one book and one director's face at a time.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Found footage vs. the aesthetic of found footage

I used to whinge about found footage all the time on this blog, the whingeing that can only be born of loving something and then living long enough to see it become corrupted and sapped of its essential life force. (And "to whinge" is the British/Australian equivalent of "to whine," only used in a more dismissive and crueler fashion.)

But I haven't had a lot of occasion to talk about it lately, as found footage has, without me even really noticing it, seemed to have sort of had its moment and gone away. Surely we are not far removed from the last major found footage film that's been released, but the fact that I can't remember what that would be is certainly telling.

So it seems like a good time for me to be confronted with a movie that does the genre, if you want to call it a genre, correctly. A movie that, in fact, helps clarify my own conflicted opinion on found footage movies.

That movie is Matt Johnson's The Dirties, a movie I thought was connected with Kevin Smith in some way, but I'm having a very hard time determining what that way is. (Wait, just found it -- he helped distribute it.)

Because of the Smith connection, and because I've turned on Smith a bit lately (only since Yoga Hosers, but that was enough), I hadn't really prioritized The Dirties when it came out a few years ago, having heard middling things about it (though I don't remember what exactly). But then I saw it at the library the other day and said "Huh, I was always curious about that."

With good reason. It helped me relocate those positive feelings toward found footage.

It helped me do that because it's a found footage movie in aesthetic only.

If you think about it, found footage has two defining characteristics: 1) A herky jerky, hyper-realistic style that's supposed to come from the fact that it's actually being shot by the real people involved with the story, and 2) The fact that it is meant literally to be footage found from their video camera, in its purest form because the people who shot it are missing, dead or otherwise indisposed.

I like one of these two defining characteristics.

I used to like both, I think. I mean, if you go back to The Blair Witch Project, it was all about the fact that this was actually the footage they had abandoned. I mean, it wasn't, and we knew it wasn't. But it was easy to dream ourselves away into that narrative, and there was just that small smidgen of doubt that it wasn't real.

But over time, I became hyper critical of the way the found footage genre got bastardized. Although pretty much all the footage in a film like Blair Witch could genuinely have been shot by the three intrepid/stupid filmmakers that trundled off into the Maryland woods, that standard quickly evaporated from the genre. Pretty soon found footage movies that wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Blair Witch -- as in, pretend it could have all been really shot with one camera that was recovered after some horrible event -- began playing fast and loose with the rules. How physically someone could have shot something, how it all could have been shot with one camera, how they would have known to have the camera on at some certain particular time, how they would be able to maintain battery life for the duration ... all these practical considerations that were considered in a movie like Blair Witch were tossed out the window. Who cares as long as it looks right.

That's fine. But then just don't pretend it's actually someone's found footage.

That's what I like about The Dirties. It doesn't go out of its way to call attention to the fact that there's a camera following around these two disaffected high school students, who are even aware of the camera and occasionally make reference to it. There's something artificial about the construct, but artificial in the way that any film is artificial -- it's a recreation of life being captured. The Dirties doesn't want us to believe that "this is the last testimony of so and so" or "we caught it all on film when x happened." It just wants to capture a compelling story in the highly realistic style of a found footage movie, a style which itself confers a certain truth and believability on the proceedings.

I should probably give you a little insight into what that compelling story is at this point. The Dirties follows Matt Johnson (also the film's director) and Owen Williams, actors playing high school characters named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams, as they shoot a short film for a class project. In this stylized project they imagine they are badasses coming to rid the school of its criminal element, also played by them, but highly analogous to a real scourge of bullies at their school, who regularly target the two. Matt, the idealogue, is constantly imagining his real life as scenes from movies he either knows or is imagining filming, while Owen, who was once a willing conspirator, has started to drift toward the non-bullied mainstream, through no real fault of anything but his own maturation. As the bullying toward Matt continues, he humorously develops plans to "really" shoot the bullies at the school, though this too he frames as a bit of ironic, self-reflexive text with a big pair of quotation marks around it. But he might not just be being ironic.

The Dirties is found footage in the way that The Office was found footage. The conceit of The Office is, of course, that a documentary crew is capturing the day-to-day happenings at a paper company, and it took pains to maintain that conceit for a while. But the showrunners quickly realized that to remain enslaved to that concept would either severely limit what they could do, or severely limit their ability to remain faithful to it. They smartly realized that they had really good characters that we wanted to watch and get to know better, and that was much more important. The style they had established was part of the aesthetic now, but we liked it because the hyper-real nature of it gave us the impression we were eavesdropping on the lives of real people, not sitcom creations. They still made occasional references to the existence of a camera crew, and the characters continued to give the testimonials that are now a staple of reality television, but they knew that the more often they reminded us of the original conceit, the more we'd be likely to pick away at it. So the original conceit just happily faded into the background.

The Dirties does basically the same thing, as the characters sometimes ask something of the cameraperson or make some other acknowledgement that they are being filmed. But the person doing the filming is not a character in the story, and in fact, is present in situations where he (or she, I suppose) never would be. In found footage as it was originally envisioned, this would be a cardinal sin. But The Dirties is not trying to follow those rules; it doesn't even pretend to. It says "The aesthetic is what we really like about found footage, and that's something we can give you while still telling the story we want to tell in the way we want to tell it."

There are meta elements to The Dirties that kind of confuse the whole thing, but in a good way. As Matt is always imagining his life as a movie -- a specific bone of contention between them as Owen starts to withdraw -- indeed that's kind of what's actually going on here. Matt's life is a movie -- someone is actually filming it. And because the movie also openly questions whether Matt might be a psychopath -- he's actually the one that poses the question -- it could be that only Matt is aware of this camera, and that indeed the whole thing is in his head.

So while we don't believe this movie could be "found footage" in the traditional sense, we do believe it could be real life. We do believe that the found footage conceit could be revealing something true about the fragile psyche of a guy who has been hiding his own pain behind a veil of humor, but is steadily detaching from reality.

This is what I want found footage to do. This is what I want any film to do.

I was concerned it might not have been appreciated, but it turns out, it sort of was. The film has a very respectable 65 on Metacritic, including one score of 100 and three others in the 90s. We won't worry too much about the two 20 Metascores.

And it turns out Matt Johnson has gotten to make another film in presumably the same style, as it also stars him and Owen Williams as guys named Matt Johnson and Owen Williams. This seems a bit more high concept as it involves the possible faking of the moon landing, but after The Dirties I'm giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he pulled it off. It's called Operation Avalanche and it came out in 2016. I'll be on the lookout for it.

When I knew I was solid on that 4.5-star rating was when the film ended, probably five minutes shy of what you would think it's actual conclusion would be, but all the better for that fact. It ends on a perfect note, actually, one that underscores the intermingling of comedy and possible tragedy that underpins the whole movie. The ending is also just ambiguous enough to have several possible interpretations, which is always a good thing. Most importantly of all, it's not heavy handed, allowing us to take in many implied messages while not being suffocated by any direct ones.

I guess because of its title, and because I know the way Kevin Smith's mind works sometimes, I thought this would be a movie with a lot of unsophisticated stoner or bro humor, with possibly a touch of homophobia and a decent amount of scatalogy. This is not to suggest that Smith is homophobic -- I think he's probably just the opposite. However, I also think that his comedy sometimes has an "anything for a laugh" quality to it that clouds his judgments.

But The Dirties has not only redeemed found footage for me, it's reminded me of the sound judgments Smith is also capable of making.

The Dirties is sound, and then some.

Found is sound. Who knew.