Sunday, July 5, 2015

What ever happened to the courtship?


Legendary screenwriter William Goldman talks a lot about the shortcuts a good screenplay must take, which may happen to circumvent a little something called "reality." One example in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?: Why does the character hurrying to the courthouse in time to bust in on a trial always find a parking spot right in front of the courthouse? Because the movie doesn't have time to slow down, to show him circling the block three times to find the one available opening three streets over.

So yeah, I get that there's a certain shorthand at play which, in this case, essentially says "The character arrived at the courthouse without incident." It's a necessary bridging shot to get us to the next piece of action, nothing more.

But I'm starting to wonder if a few too many liberties are being taken in the interest of getting us to the next piece of action ... which is a "piece" of "action" indeed. In movies involving romance, what ever happened to the courtship?

This is a rather too-perfect subject for this post, but I have to explain it for you to understand just how perfect. Hateship Loveship, which we watched on Saturday night largely because of Kristen Wiig, is adapted from Alice Munro's short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. The "courtship" is not only gone from the title, it's gone from the movie itself.

But this is a larger trend of which Hateship Loveship is only the most recent and probably not the most emblematic.

Namely, how often does it seem like characters in the movies go immediately from their first kiss, which one of them usually was not expecting, to having sex? Only the time necessary to roughly remove each other's underwear passes between the first moment in which mutual affection was even established, and the moment of doing the dirty deed.

This happens twice in Hateship Loveship. The first is not actually between Wiig and her romantic interest, played by Guy Pearce, but between two seniors. Nick Nolte is leaving a dinner at the home of Christine Lahti (who at 65 is just looking better with age), ready to part without any amorous demonstrations passing between them whatsoever. Lahti blocks the door, which is Nolte's cue to kiss her. He does so for maybe five seconds before grabbing her around the hips as she straddles him, and carrying her upstairs to her bedroom as she laughs naughtily. How chaste.

Then it's Wiig's and Pearce's turn. Wiig has been staying with Pearce after a catfishing hoax by two teenage girls has prompted her to relocate to his city from another city. At this point in the story, Pearce has acknowledged no romantic intentions toward her, because he's basically an innocent pawn in the catfishing scheme -- completely in the dark about it as well. He's basically letting her stay while she cleans and they try to figure out what should happen next. Then one night she plants a kiss on him. No sooner does this happen then he has her horizontal and they're "going all the way."

I don't know about you, but any relationships I've started by sleeping with the person have not been destined for greatness. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to let the mystery of someone I really like linger for four or five dates before "doing the nasty." Jump in between the sheets too quickly, and that's how quickly the relationship will be over. So says my experience, anyway.

But I'm sure the reverse is also true for some people, where 60-year-marriages were consummated after too many margaritas at the corner Chi Chi's. (Did they have Chi Chi's 60 years ago? Does anyone reading this actually know what Chi Chi's is?) And then of course many movie characters are not really thinking that far ahead -- they are just responding to a moment of passion, and perhaps defined by their short-sightedness anyway.

So it's not like it's unrealistic, per se. I just think that some of these characters might proceed with just a wee bit of trepidation, if they did really like that other person. Which is definitely how Wiig's character feels toward Pearce's. I mean, can you just imagine Wiig's character saying "Whoa, hold on there dude. Yeah, I kissed you, but that doesn't mean I want to have sex with you right now."

Typically when a movie inspires me to write about a "trend," I can't think of the many other examples I've recently seen that would give me cause to label it a "trend" in the first place. In this case, though, I have to go back only three movies. Just last week I watched And So It Goes, where Diane Keaton's and Michael Douglas' characters hop into bed at about the same level of familiarity. (Speaking of seniors getting it on.) I suppose maybe that's a senior thing. Maybe "mystery" isn't so important anymore. Maybe the only "mystery" about a fellow senior is how long they're going to be alive. Zing!

But it does get back to what Goldman was talking about. The point in most movies where characters are drawn to each other -- either as a major or a minor part of the plot -- is something other than how they got together or how long it took to happen. A lot of times the point is to show that they've developed a level of intimacy that warrants or explains subsequent behavior in the story. The consummating of the relationship is what's important, not whether it took one, five or 50 dates to reach that consummation. Why not get there by shorthand?

As usual, when it comes to screenwriting, Goldman isn't someone to doubt.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

When "shit" means "damn"


Yes, I'm about to do this. I'm about to write a post about Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist in which the primary observation I will make has to do with a piece of controversially translated dialogue.

Welcome to The Audient.

So the scene in question is when the handler of our main character, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), comes to Paris to make sure Marcello is not losing his nerve about carrying out his mission. The handler, Manganiello by name (and yes, I was constantly thinking of the guy who strips in Magic Mike), is talking to an unseen Marcello, but a passing Parisian woman thinks he is speaking to the birds. The line she speaks to him, as translated into English for the subtitles, is "He thinks the birds speak Italian! Damn!"

Except the last word she clearly says is "merde," which everyone knows is the French word for "shit."

Do they think we're that dumb?

The answer is no, no they don't. They just think we want the meaning of what she said translated, rather than the words themselves.

In reality, the English "Damn!" is closer to what that "Merde!" is trying to express than the English "Shit!"

"Shit!" is an expression of a surprise change in fortunes, usually negative. Something bad happens, you yell "Shit!"

"Damn!", on the other hand, is an expression of amazement over the audacity of a person's behavior. Someone does something audacious -- like speak to French birds in Italian -- you say "Damn!" Or, if you are a character on an urban sitcom, it's "Daaaa-yommm!"

It reminds me of this post, on translation vs. transliteration. The goal is ultimately to convey meaning, not convey linguistic precision.

Look, I'm sure you don't really give a damn, or give a shit. What you might really want to know is: What did I think of The Conformist?

Yeah, it's pretty much a masterpiece. The only reason I didn't give it a full five stars was that I spent a good deal of the middle portion disoriented within the plot. There were certain things that were occurring live that I thought were flashbacks, and vice versa. It all made sense by the end, but the experience of being uncertain threw me enough and lasted long enough that I ultimately thought it might have been handled a little bit more gracefully. Still, this is tour de force filmmaking with especially remarkable camerawork.

While watching it, a character on an urban sitcom might even say "Daaaa-yommm!"

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Audient Auscars: The Greatest Show on Earth


This is the sixth in my 2015 monthly series catching up with all the best picture Oscar winners that I have yet to see, in chronological order.

You'd think from subject matter alone, The Greatest Show on Earth would be one of the most marginal best picture winners of all time. Either that, or from the fact that people often call the 1952 best picture winner the worst best picture winner of all time.

So you can imagine my surprise when I was, well, surprised by how much I enjoyed it.

In fact, it probably qualifies as the biggest surprise of the six films I've seen so far this year, probably bigger even than Cimarron, because I came in more certain it would be bad than certain that Cimarron would be bad.

You wouldn't think that a movie about the circus would even warrant consideration as best picture. You wouldn't think that a movie that devotes a good quarter of its running time to filler unrelated to the plot would be in line for such accolades, either. But Hollywood has always recognized a good spectacle when it sees one, and The Greatest Show on Earth was as good a spectacle as was around at that time. And that isn't limited only to the circus acts, some of which are dazzling. That also includes a surprise third-act train wreck that tested the limits of what 1952 could depict.

What's more, the movie seems to use the circus as a metaphor for the process of making movies, which is probably as apt a metaphor as any. If that's the case, Charlton Heston is Cecil B. De Mille's stand-in, functioning as director and producer rolled into one -- which De Mille himself actually was on many of his movies, including this one. (He's also the narrator, a fact I didn't realize until I just now looked it up.)

And then there's the fact that this movie also functions as a 150-minute advertisement for The Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, making it one of the most crass intersections of art and commerce ever to have been so lauded.

We should probably get to some plot by this point, shouldn't we?

Heston is indeed the general manager of the very real circus being depicted in this film, which is in fact still going strong to this day. His Brad Braden is the driven, business-oriented force that keeps everything on track, knowing a little (or a lot) about everything that's going on in the three rings, and how best to translate all those disparate elements into the most ticket sales. He's currently in a fight with owners to give his performers a full eight-month season, when the bean counters have observed the changing times and tastes of audiences and advised a mere 10-week season. As he often does, Brad has a trick up his sleeve -- he's contracted the hottest trapeze artist in the business, The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde), who is known as a guaranteed draw. The bosses recognize the coup Brad has scored, but soon realize that Sebastian will only work for a full season's worth of work. He'll also only work in the center ring -- a problem for Brad's girlfriend, Holly (Betty Hutton), who had been expecting to hold down that ring this season. Holly reacts to the news as expected, but finds her perspective toward the new star, an arrogant ladies man, complicated by the undeniable bond they share as trapeze artists, and the playful one-upsmanship during performances that grows both dangerous (they're taking too many risks) and romantic (he's wooing her, and succeeding). Brad also has his hands full with shysters running corrupt carnival games, a jealous elephant trainer (Lyle Bettger) who may be a threat to the elephant performer he loves (Gloria Grahame), and a clown named Buttons (James Stewart), who's on the run from the law.

When I heard that The Greatest Show on Earth featured Jimmy Stewart as a clown named Buttons, I imagined the movie must be some kind of variety hour rather than a real narrative, something George Burns or Milton Berle might have been involved with. When I started to figure out that Buttons wasn't just a jokey cameo, but rather the disguise persona of a doctor on the run for mercy killing his sick wife, I decided the movie was up to something more interesting than I ever would have guessed. It represents one of many of those narratives you always hear about circuses inserted into this movie. "I'll run off and join the circus," people say when their troubles get too great to bear. Buttons did just that, and to maintain his disguise, he is never seen without his makeup. A canny choice by Stewart to cover his very famous face, somewhat akin to the one made years later by Michael Fassbender when he donned the papier mache head in Frank.

In fact, even with scads of time devoted to frivolous circus acts -- to such an extent that this movie sometimes follows Busby Berkeley's notion of giving over the narrative to pure performance for performance's sake -- The Greatest Show on Earth is far more serious than you would initially expect. It takes itself pretty seriously, at any rate, and the most obvious example of this its News on the March-style interstitials throughout the movie. As mentioned earlier, De Mille himself narrates these, and they are full of bromides and platitudes about the day-to-day life of the circus. They are paeans to the raising of the bigtop and its nightly striking, as though there were no nobler or more poetic pursuit than to move a circus in and out of town. You'd be inclined to laugh if De Mille's narration weren't so earnest and crafted with such linguistic love.

So yeah, this movie could have been cut down from 150 to 100 minutes for all the plot it actually contains, but I suppose something would be lost in terms of atmosphere. And the plot it does contain is pretty engaging with a surprising amount of nuance. If you always think you know where it's going to go, you'll be wrong. Take Sebastian, for example. He seems like he should be a stock character -- the egotistical Cassanova who gets his comeuppance, only made all the more loathsome by being French. However, some of the things that happen to him, and how he reacts to them, entirely reframe his character into someone surprisingly sympathetic. If this movie only wanted us to be in awe of the circus and those who put it together, it didn't need to add layers of complexity to what might have been a one-note antagonist.

The Greatest Show on Earth is definitely amateurish at times. Some of the actors yell their lines like they are on a stage instead of in front of a camera. I noticed a couple serious editing gaffes as well. Still, this is far more than I would have ever expected from this movie, and it gets me more interested in some of De Mille's other classics that I haven't yet seen, like The Ten Commandments.

Will I also be surprised by the best picture winner that I have always most associated with The Greatest Show on Earth, in terms of sheer frivolity, which actually beat The Ten Commandments for the 1956 Oscar? We'll find out in July when I watch Around the World in 80 Days.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

When older women look better than older men


The assumption on which society in general, and Hollywood in particular, is based is that men retain their looks into old age while women do not.

As I was watching Rob Reiner's And So It Goes last night, I was pleased to see that's not always the case.

I don't know who Diane Keaton's plastic surgeon is, or if she even uses one, but she's not paying that person enough. Really, though, I can't be sure if she even uses one, and to remain blissfully ignorant on the topic, I'm not even going to google it.

Keaton is only 14 months younger than her And So It Goes co-star, Michael Douglas, yet she looks a decade younger. It almost seems like one of those typical instances of vanity for a male star, where they cast him against someone far younger than him. Keaton only looks far younger.

To be fair, it's not that Douglas looks old for a 70-year-old. This is pretty much what 70-year-olds look like. It's that Keaton looks very young for a 69-year-old. (In the movie she's playing a 65-year-old.)

In fact, she looks so young that it barely seems unusual that the story revolves around her trying to make it as a lounge singer -- trying to make it at what is often considered retirement age. In fact, she doesn't look out of place on that stage, though it must be admitted that Keaton's voice is probably not quite the attraction necessary to bring in the crowds that she brings in.

So while I am focusing on the fact that Keaton hasn't lost an ounce of the bounce and spunk that has always characterized her interactions with the opposite sex at the movies, in Douglas I am focusing on his chicken neck and a sincere hope that he doesn't just keel over there on camera.

To be fair again, it hasn't been an easy decade for Douglas. Just a couple years ago he was at death's door. He had stage IV tongue cancer that necessitated chemotherapy. The pictures of him we saw on tabloid magazine covers, gaunt and frail, figured to be the last ones we saw of him alive.

Somehow, he came back to full strength and won an Emmy for his portrayal of Liberace in Beyond the Candelabra. Still, the illness definitely aged him. He didn't actually make a film in 2004, which would be ten years before And So It Goes, but even in 2006's You, Me and Dupree, he definitely looks more than ten years younger.

What was Diane Keaton doing ten years before And So It Goes?

Funny you should ask.

In 2003 Diane Keaton made basically the same movie as And So It Goes, which was directed by Nancy Meyer and called Something's Gotta Give. In it she plays the same type character -- a "woman of a certain age" living in a beautiful waterfront setting who is prone to crying a lot. And in it she also tussles with an irascible potential suitor with whom she eventually, awkwardly, sleeps. Only there it wasn't Michael Douglas, it was Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is now 78 and doesn't even act anymore.

So while Diane Keaton's male co-stars are slowly getting run out of the business, Keaton herself seems like she could make this same movie again ten years from now.

Talk about a role reversal.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

American heroism vs. American self-interest


There's no doubt San Andreas, this summer's foremost natural disaster movie, wants to position itself as just the latest film to pay its respects to the American heroism of the first responders. This is both an ongoing form of patriotism and a continuing shout out to those who gave their lives on 9/11.

Then why the hell does the hero of this movie, played by Dwayne Johnson, abandon his post during probably the greatest disaster to ever strike his country?

If you really don't want to know more about San Andreas than what I've already told you, you should probably consider this your SPOILER ALERT.

Let me give you a bit of the set up before I bring out the big guns.

Okay, so The Rock (I should really stop calling him that) is a helicopter pilot for the Los Angeles fire department. We know he's really heroic because in the opening scene, he saves a girl from a car that's hanging over a crevice in the San Fernando Valley. This is no ordinary rescue mission, as it's clear he has to endanger himself and his crew just to get the chopper in position to make the rescue. And when there comes a moment when it seems like he should abort, instead he hands the controls over to his co-pilot and descends to save both the girl and one of his fellow rescuers who got himself pinned in his initial rescue attempt.

So it's pretty clear that Johnson's Ray Gaines will go above and beyond the call of duty.

Except, you know, when the entire west coast falls apart.

Gaines is in his chopper bound for the Hoover dam area, which has just been demolished by a massive earthquake where seismologists thought there were no faults. As would logically happen in a situation like this, rescue personnel are called in from distant municipalities to save the unexpectedly crippled region. So Gaines gets the call.

As would not happen, Gaines is alone in his chopper. Apparently, one firefighter per chopper is the ratio favored in a scenario where rescue personnel are flooding in from other areas in whatever numbers the local police and fire can afford.

As would really not happen -- at least, not with the type of hero Gaines is supposed to be -- Gaines doesn't report in with his supervisors or return back from whence he came when the shit starts to hit the fan, and the titular fault erupts in such a way as it will destroy downtown Los Angeles. No, instead of following some kind of emergency protocol that would definitely be in place even if communications were down, he flies to the downtown L.A. highrise where his soon-to-be ex-wife (Carla Gugino) is meeting an inexplicably little-used Kylie Minogue for lunch. Conveniently, he was on the phone with her at the time the quake hit, so he knew where she'd be.

As would really REALLY not happen, once he has improbably rescued his wife (and only his wife, since no one else made it to the roof), the pair of them determine to fly on to San Francisco, where they have learned their daughter might be trapped in a collapsing parking garage. (Because, you know, they have no trouble getting her on the phone when a quake has just ripped California a new asshole.)

We would not blame them for their responses as parents. However, his response as a qualified professional whose job it is to assist during disaster relief, and who is piloting a multi-hundred thousand dollar piece of city-owned equipment, is completely unjustified. When you are a firefighter, you don't have the luxury to pick and choose which people you save (not once, but twice). You save the nearest people who can most readily benefit from your help. Especially when neither of the people you are attempting to save are particularly likely to be saved by your help.

What's all the more absurd about the impromptu trip to save the daughter (Alexandra Daddario) is that the quake that has hit San Francisco is from a Los Angeles epicenter, meaning it hasn't been nearly as disastrous as the L.A. portion of the quake. Local firefighters, who are actually doing their job properly, should be sufficient to help the young Miss Gaines. Or, more to the point, they are the only ones who can help her, since a trapped in a collapsing parking garage situation is not necessarily the type of situation that will hold for the two-plus hours it would take to fly a helicopter from Los Angeles to San Francisco. (It could take longer than that. Does a 747 fly only twice as fast as a helicopter? I doubt it.)

Of course, bigger shit is still in store for San Francisco, but none of the Gaineses could possibly know that. They aren't seismologists, and even if they were, they wouldn't likely know that the highest ever recorded earthquake is about to drop hell on San Francisco.

These concessions to both logic and duty are to support something that the movie spends a great amount of time on, even if it never does it very well. Namely, the Gaines parents lost their other daughter to a drowning on a white water rafting trip -- a drowning Ray thought he should have been able to prevent. Characters in earthquake movies always have back stories like this, and yeah, we want them to get their redemption if it's done right.

But "done right" means an anguished parent putting him or herself in harm's way, going the extra mile to save his or her family member when everyone else thinks there's no chance. More points to that parent if he or she is not a big, strong person whose source of employment gives him or her an increased chance of pulling off the rescue. "Done right" is not when a rescue professional forsakes all the thousands of other people who needs his or her help in order to prioritize the safety of his or her own family member.

I still gave San Andreas 2.5 stars on Letterboxd -- in other words, an almost thumbs up. I attribute this to my policy of not watching trailers anymore, which means that I had not seen a single image of destruction before sitting down Tuesday afternoon.

And hey, at my core, I still like to see shit get blowed up.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Shakes on a plane


I took two iTune rentals with me when my wife and I flew to Port Douglas in north Queensland this past weekend to go snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef with friends who had flown over from Maryland. That experience would probably deserve its own post if this weren't, you know, a movie blog.

Since it is, I'll tell you the movie-relevant aspects of the trip.

One movie I took was Cymbeline, a modern-day adaptation of one of Shakespeare's lesser, later plays. The other was The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, which is my first step in trying to catch myself up in that franchise.

I considered watching Tokyo Drift first, in order to symbolically "rev me up" for the big weekend. But I decided I might be more exhausted on the way home (despite three days without my kids, and theoretically as much sleep as I wanted), so I saved the movie that required less concentration for the flight home. (As it turned out, I couldn't watch it anyway, as we had a partial power outage in the cottage where we were staying, meaning that my fully charged laptop had lost most of its battery life by the time we had to leave for the airport, and I never gained another opportunity to charge it.)

I was right to recognize that I would need to concentrate more on a movie which, while set in the modern day, still uses Shakespearean language. What I failed to properly anticipate, however, was that being on a plane, where it can be harder to hear things on your headphones, might not be an ideal environment for watching a Shakespeare adaptation at all -- especially one I was not previously familiar with.

There's some precedent that indicated possible success. On my way over to Australia when I moved here, I watched Joss Whedon's lovely adaptation, also a modern-day adaptation, of Much Ado About Nothing. And in that case it was in the middle of the night, when I was pausing to sleep for short bits. I ended up loving that one, but that was at least my second time, and possibly my third time, experiencing the play. I'd seen Kenneth Branagh's adaptation (which I didn't like so much), and I think I may have also read it back in school.

Cymbeline, on the other hand, was entirely new to me. As soon as I started I thought "Shit, I could very easily get lost in this and never recover." Which would be a darn shame, because this was from Michael Almereyda, the same director who mounted a modern-day adaptation of Hamlet, also starring Ethan Hawke, which ended up being my favorite movie of 2000. (At the time -- it has since been eclipsed by Almost Famous and possibly others). So my anticipation for this one was pretty high.

And then I realized the best way to watch Shakespeare on a plane -- I'd simply turn on the subtitles.

It turned out to be a great choice. Not only did I easily follow the action, but it allowed me to appreciate language that is probably best encountered on a page to be fully appreciated anyway. (Tell that to the crowds who visited the Globe Theater in the late 16th century/early 17 century.)

As for Cymbeline itself, it's a pretty odd duck as a play. It's like a greatest hits of his most highly regarded plays, coming off as a hybrid of Romeo & Juliet, Othello, Macbeth and even Twelfth Night. The oddest thing about it, though, is that it's not actually a tragedy, even though three of those four plays are tragedies. Despite containing several character deaths and being about a pair of warring armies (represented here as a drug-dealing biker gang and the cops who are trying to stop them), the play has an ending that would be most at home in one of Shakespeare's comedies. An odd duck indeed.

But Almereyda's adaptation of that odd duck was pretty engaging, and contained some strong performances from a pretty established cast. Who doesn't want to see Ed Harris as the leader ("king") of a biker gang? The film also gets typically good work from Hawke and a surprisingly nuanced performance by Dakota Johnson, erstwhile of Fifty Shades of Grey. (Actually, it's not a surprise to me as I liked her in that otherwise forgettable movie and was a huge fan of hers from the short-lived sitcom Ben & Kate.)

It's no Hamlet, but here's hoping it helps give Almereyda a chance to direct another modern-day Shakespeare adaptation sometime before 2030.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

More bad movies by good directors


The second movie I watched in the past week for purely masochistic reasons was The Cobbler.

It was better than Accidental Love. But then again, the director of Accidental Love actually took his name off of it, which can't be said for this one.

I knew from the concept that the movie seemed ridiculous. The Cobbler stars Adam Sandler as a Brooklyn cobbler who discovers an old stitching machine in the basement of his shop, which was owned by his father. When a pair of shoes are stitched up with this machine, the person who wears them can temporarily transform, physically, into the owner of the shoes. So when Sandler for some reason tries on a pair of shoes he just stitched up for a gang banger, he discovers to his surprise that he turns into that gang banger -- appearance-wise -- for the period of time he's actually wearing the shoes.

Got it?

On the surface this sounds like some high concept comedy along the lines of what Sandler has made in the past, such as Click. However, learning who directed it, I realized it was likely to be far more of a misfire.

That's right, this film is directed by Thomas McCarthy, who I guess is now going by Tom McCarthy -- perhaps that's his version of David O. Russell calling himself Stephen Greene for Accidental Love. If that name doesn't ring a bell -- which wouldn't be entirely surprising, as it's a pretty generic name -- McCarthy is the critically acclaimed director of the features The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win. He originally made his name as an actor, appearing in the final season of The Wire among other projects, which also distinguishes him among today's field of working directors.

McCarthy is good at a lot of things -- I love both The Visitor and Win Win -- but I seriously doubted his ability to make a concept like The Cobbler work. Tom Shadyac, Dennis Dugan or Frank Coraci, maybe. McCarthy? No.

Indeed, it doesn't work, and indeed, I kind of knew that going in, as the film was basically dumped with little fanfare and had been greeted with howls by certain parts of the critical establishment. (Its Metascore is only 22.)

What I didn't know, and could never have guessed, was that it would be weirdly racist.

Just from watching it, I got that kind of itchy, icky feeling of racism, but couldn't quite put my finger on it. I was more focused on the truly odd concept, especially when this film has kind of the surface appearance of one of Sandler's recent dramatic turns -- an idea supported by the guy directing the movie, whose funniest movies have still been only seriocomic in tone.

But a viewer on Metacritic who awarded it a zero crystallized that ickiness I felt in his own brief review. So, with compliments to TheRealMcCoy, let me explain how weirdly racist this movie is.

Some spoilers to follow.

Sandler has exactly three black customers bring him shoes.

The first is the aforementioned criminal -- who I'm calling a gang banger in what may be my own possible bit of accidental profiling, but who may just be your garden variety criminal. He's played by Method Man, and though he's got a big smile on his face in this picture, that's a decidedly less typical moment. Machismo and intimidation are his more familiar modes, and it turns out he's into some high-level stuff, as well as some good old spousal abuse. When Sandler is in the guise of this character, Leon Ludlow, he comes across a scene where Leon's cohorts are torturing a guy who ripped them off, and also comes home to the wife or girlfriend who accuses him of beating her. This is not great stuff, but what they do with it is even worse. As Leon, Sandler displays mercy on the tortured turncoat -- who, problematically, is also white -- as well as apologizing to the beaten spouse. The unfortunate suggestion is that only this white cobbler can countermand the criminal and violent instincts of this black thug.

The second is the guy you would cast specifically if you are trying to balance the borderline (or not so borderline) racist portrayal of your primary antagonist. It's this guy, a character actor named Wayne Wilderson, who I have seen plenty before (among other things, he was "the convict" in that great episode of The Office where Michael Scott profiles this clean-cut guy based on the fact that he spent some time in prison). Just to show you how opposite this guy is to Leon Ludlow, the never-named character is listed as "Young Preppy Guy" on IMDB. So what do they actually choose to do with this character? They have him go eat an expensive meal at a restaurant, then go to the bathroom and change out of his shoes, so he emerges as Sandler and can slip right out without paying. That's right, even though they had a half-dozen characters they could have chosen from based on the shoes Sandler had already stitched, most of the others of which are white, they chose this black character to skip out on a check at a restaurant. It's Sandler's character doing it, of course, but he as a character -- and by extension, the movie -- has chosen to reinforce a pernicious stereotype.

The last character is an unambiguously saintly boy, seen here. He's Miles J. Harvey, and he's fat. The character always claims that he's not fat, that he's just big-boned, but nonetheless, our takeaway is that he has bulked up on McDonald's fast food as a result of being unable to control his appetite. And progressiveness wins again.

The only other black characters in the film are Leon's cohorts (though some of them are other races, if I recall correctly).

Taken in combination, it just looks bad. And more than that it looks clueless. It's not like the film is not conscious of potential drawbacks to the way it portrays blacks. Rather, it's conscious of that possibility, but then tries to address it in moronic ways that makes the problem worse.

But really, to get hung up on the fact that The Cobbler is sort of racist overlooks the bigger problem that it's just a bad movie.

Let's hope McCarthy gets himself figured out next time. Sandler, on the other hand, will probably never figure it out.

Monday, June 15, 2015

David O. Russell through a Stephen Greene filter


When a director walks away from a movie mid-production -- in other words, after some of the filming has been completed -- you expect his or her mark to actually appear on the movie.

That makes Accidental Love even more of a head scratcher than it already is.

David O. Russell was making this movie as long ago as 2008, under the title Nailed -- which, let's be honest, was probably never going to last. (The new title, though, is a blatant example of this trend.) He actually co-wrote it with Kristin Gore, Al's daughter. It was a movie those of us who followed Russell's career always knew about, and distantly wondered when or if it would ever materialize.

Then in the past six months or so we learned that it did indeed still exist, but that the production kept on getting stopped because of financial difficulties, and Russell actually left the project years ago. In fact, he has so distanced himself from it that it is being directed by Alan Smithee -- though Alan Smithee happens to be going by the name Stephen Greene in this case. Russell's name does not appear anywhere in the credits, and indeed, Stephen Greene is listed as its director. The movie was completed without him and dumped earlier this year as more or less straight-to-video -- VOD, with a limited theatrical release a month later.

Russell enthusiasts such as myself were undeniably curious about it, though. If it had attracted him in the first place, and if he had worked on it for a while, there had to be interesting things about it, right?

No, there aren't. Not really even one. In fact, I considered giving it the lowest star rating possible on Letterboxd, a half star, before ultimately deciding it wasn't that level of an abomination and generously awarding it one star.

But what's weird about it is how little there is of Russell in it. Not very much in the subject matter, but even less in the production values.

If you aren't familiar with the story, its the tale of a small-town Indiana girl (Jessica Biel) who works as one of those rollerskating waitresses at a diner, and gets a nail from a nail gun embedded in her head. (How is not important, but it's one of the movie's least credible elements.) Because she doesn't have health insurance, surgeons at the local hospital refuse to remove the nail, as it's not considered life-threatening at the moment, and in the short term only figures to scramble her personality a bit. Anyway, Biel's character sees an ad on TV for her local freshman congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in which he extends an open offer to his constituents to come to Washington so he can help them with their problems. Biel does just that, trying to get the congressman to pass health legislation that allows coverage for catastrophic injuries to the uninsured. In the meantime, they fall for each other.

Although it certainly sounds like a bit of a tough sell, it's not outrageous subject matter for a movie. What's outrageous is the tone and the way the actors go so over-the-top in their performances -- an obvious consequence of the lack of a strong directorial hand.

In considering the likelihood of this material as something Russell would be interested in, we have to remember that at the time he started working on it, he was coming off his broadest and most ridiculous film, I Heart Huckabees. Considering Accidental Love as a follow-up to Huckabees, the over-the-top performances and absurdist tone make a bit more sense. And after I so loathed Huckabees, I wouldn't have been surprised at anything Russell did next.

But what's shocking about Accidental Love is how shoddy it looks. I mean, kooky as it was (and not in a good way), Huckabees at least had good production values. This movie, on the other hand, is just awful looking. The lighting is the thing you notice the most. It's terrible in almost every scene. Then you notice the little things, like the fact that the handheld camera is distracting (especially since it isn't being used for any particular purpose) and that it is failing at the most basic level to do things like place its subjects in the middle of the frame. The editing is also terrible, but that's something that obviously would have taken place after Russell was no longer with the project.

I could understand some scenes looking terrible because obviously they were directed by somebody else (or maybe nobody), but what about the scenes Russell did direct? Not having much money cannot alone be an explanation for the film's fundamental inability to look appealing. Yet the film is consistent in its terrible appearance, meaning that even the Russell scenes looked like shit.

It did almost seem like the film was being shown through some kind of terrible filter, a filter that made even Russell's scenes look yellow and washed out, a filter that made every shot look like it was lit by someone holding a desk lamp just above the heads of the actors.

I guess we can at least credit Russell with having the good sense to recognize this as a disaster and do everything within his contractual power to disavow it as the product of his own creative impulses. But the terribleness of Accidental Love can't all be attributed to some other person taking the job he started and finishing it on the cheap. He was the one who set the ball rolling on this path to oblivion, and just because he jumped out if its way doesn't mean he's in the clear.

Just add another episode in the "David O. Russell is difficult" file. At least he's proven his smarter instincts ultimately prevailed in movies like Silver Linings Playbook (big time) and American Hustle (to a lesser extent). And he'll get his next crack at audiences this Christmas with another Jennifer Lawrence starrer, a drama this time, called Joy.

But those awful instincts are still in there, somewhere, and I'm betting we'll get at least one more Accidental Love from Russell before he yells "Cut!" for the last time.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Advanced


Now that it's taken me nearly a week to write this, it doesn't seem quite as exciting, but last Sunday I got to see Pixar's latest, Inside Out, a full 11 days before it hit Australian cinemas. That's 12 days before U.S. (Thursday release vs. Friday release), and 13 if you consider that we're a day ahead.

That makes it probably the coolest advanced screening I've gotten to attend as part of my reviewing gig at ReelGood.

But it was also the best for another reason -- Inside Out is the best movie, period, I've seen in some time.

We're not just talking about Pixar getting back on top of its game. We're talking about Pixar getting back on top of everyone's game.

I won't go on at length about how great Inside Out is -- if you check back soon, I'll have a link posted on the right-hand side to my actual review -- but I do want to discuss one of the most phenomenal and unlikely things about it:

It wasn't the least bit hard for my four-year-old to understand.

You surely know that Inside Out features a cast of anthropomorphized emotions vying for control of a child's brain. It deals with all sorts of heady concepts like Core Memories and Abstract Thought and Islands of Personality. Advanced concepts, to be sure.

And Pixar made it effortlessly accessible to a child.

I must admit I was bracing myself for a barrage of in-movie questions. I wasn't prepared to love it as much as I did, so in my mind I was fully prepared to answer them without being annoyed at the disruption. The worst possible outcome would be that my son was bored and would want to leave, but I had that nipped in the bud. You see, my wife was at the screening with us while my sister-in-law stayed home with my younger son, and I made sure to emphasize that if anyone had to depart early with him to the lobby, it had to be her. After all, the only reason any of us were there in the first place was that I was reviewing the movie -- the whole movie.

Near the start I was concerned that my worst fears might be realized. There were telltale signs that my son would, at the very least, be a distraction, and at worst force my wife to leave early on in the movie. I had clearance to stay, but I'd feel guilty if they had to twiddle their thumbs in the lobby for an hour. What happened was that after the absolutely lovely opening short, called Lava, my son turned to my wife and complained that he was hungry. Normally we would have picked something up at the concession stand with which to ply him, but we wasted our pre-movie time on window shopping outside the cinema. So this plea for food was going to go unanswered, and could certainly metastasize into far worse behavior.

Except once the movie started, there was not a peep from my son. Not a peep.

Actually, he did make one comment during the movie, but it wasn't even a question. I can't remember exactly what it was, but it was some kind of observation. The kind that proved he was engrossed, and would not be a threat to leave.

He also laughed in a lot of the right spots, even if I felt some of it was just social laughing based on the reactions of others. And our audience laughed a ton during this movie.

After we got out, I asked him if he had any questions about what had happened in the movie. He didn't. And to pry further, in order to rule out the fact that he was just pretending he understood because he didn't even know where to start with his questions, I asked a few follow-up questions. He ended up offering a startlingly intelligent analysis of why the movie was called Inside Out. I mean, intelligent for a four-year-old.

Maybe it's my son that's advanced.

But for now, I'm just crediting Pixar on making a firgging awesome movie.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

World of Trevorrow


Or, Trevorrowland, if you prefer.

I'm going to see Jurassic World on Sunday night, and have considered it one of this summer's movies I'm most excited to see. (And I haven't let a highly negative review from two different acquaintances unduly poison my anticipation.)

However, being excited about it has required overcoming, or even forgetting about, some of my initial trepidation regarding the movie.

Namely, that it was being directed by the guy who directed Safety Not Guaranteed.

Both because I didn't like Safety Not Guaranteed, and because even if I had, it wouldn't have seemed like the type of platform to launch a director into the stratosphere of tent-pole, A-list directors.

Indeed, Colin Trevorrow has not made any feature film other than Safety, whose only claim to the arena of big-budget blockbusters is its high concept. If you haven't seen it or don't know, it's the story of a newspaper reporter (Aubrey Plaza) who tracks down a man (Mark Duplass) who has placed a personal ad, trying to find someone to travel through time with him. She intends to write a quirky story about him, but disguises her identity as a journalist and of course ends up falling for him. Hijinks ensue.

Weirdly, the film contains almost no special effects, and is really an indie movie in pretty much every aspect except for the fact that its subject matter does not usually appear in indie movies. Why Universal thought this alone was reason to hand Trevorrow one of its most ripe for rebooting franchises is anyone's guess.

It was one of an inexplicable series of directing announcements around the same time, all involving people who didn't seem to have earned the big shot they were getting. I think also of Josh Trank, director of the shitty found footage movie Chronicle, who was handed the keys to both the Fantastic Four reboot and a standalone Star Wars movie. Word about Fantastic Four has already not been good, which is one of the rumored reasons he was yanked from the Star Wars movie last month. (He says he chose to leave "in order to pursue something original." Because, you know, most people just walk away from a Star Wars movie.) At least Chronicle had some legit special effects and big canvas ideas, even if the acting was shitty and the adherence to the found footage conceit was basically nil.

So "World of Trevorrow" is not just a clever play on words, though it is also that, if I do say so myself. (And I imagine it has already been used plenty of other times on the web, but I came up with it without seeing any of those other usages.) It's also a description of the state of Hollywood right now, where the world is the oyster of people like Trevorrow and Trank, and others whose names do not begin with "Tr." Hollywood execs seem -- or at least, seemed a few years ago -- to be desperately in search of someone hip, someone cutting edge, someone who could "become the next big thing," someone they want to get to before he or she actually becomes the next big thing.

Well, it seems a course correction could be underway, if not already, then after the probable tanking of both Jurassic World and Fantastic Four. There's a reason studio bosses have always entrusted their expensive commodities to proven directors, or at least directors who are more proven than Trevorrow and Trank. There's a lot of money on the line, so having a vision is not enough. Knowing how to manage a crew and relate to actors is also a big part of it, and that only comes with time and experience.

It's the mid-range gambles that have worked better. As much as I was underwhelmed by this movie, another Chris Pratt movie, there's no arguing that Marvel made an excellent decision in hiring James Gunn to direct Guardians of the Galaxy. That was certainly a leap forward for Gunn, and likely a step outside his comfort zone, but at least Gunn had already directed two features in thematically similar genres, in addition to having written a bunch of scripts. Yet more established, but still a fairly unlikely candidate for the job he got, was Joss Whedon on the two Avengers movies. In fact, Marvel is all about this, with the Russo brothers on Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well. For whatever reason -- the guiding hand of the studio in the creative process, perhaps -- these have all worked out.

Since we've already been talking Star Wars, it's worth noting that Star Wars is more or less following this approach. J.J. Abrams directing The Force Awakens was kind of a perfect combination of cutting edge and established -- he's already helmed a number of successful movies (including two in the other biggest sci-fi series, Star Trek), but he doesn't feel like the kind of guy an octogenarian studio boss (theoretical though this octogenarian studio boss might be) would choose to restart the franchise under Disney. Rian Johnson, the director of Episode VIII, is slightly more of a step into unknown territory, though I'd argue that the construction of Looper was so confident that it probably put to rest any nerves the studio had about his fitness for the job.

Because I must be some kind of masochist, I will see my fourth straight Jurassic Park movie -- and probably the third straight I will not like -- in the theater on Sunday night.

For the sake of my own prospective enjoyment, I hope I'm wrong about Colin Trevorrow.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Serious shit


Note: Only after posting this did I realize the death of Christopher Lee, which actually occurred back on June 7th, had just been announced. I mention him as Count Dooku in this piece -- strange coincidence. Anyway, I'm just adding this note and leaving the post as is.

I'm done watching the prequels. It's all downhill from here.

Now it's just Star Wars before the end of August, The Empire Strikes Back before the end of October (maybe a birthday viewing for me on the 20th?), and Return of the Jedi sometime before Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits theaters in December.

And though re-watching the prequels was generally an unpleasant experience, it did end on something of a positive note. I'll explain.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith has represented an unusual movie for me among the prequels. It's the one I always tell people I think is the best, yet it's the only one I hadn't seen more than once. Hell, I think I'd even seen The Phantom Menace three times, meaning I have now seen it four damn times. That's quite the unjust imbalance.

I suppose what happened between 2002 (when I saw Attack of the Clones twice in theaters, having done the same for Phantom Menace in 1999) and 2005 (when I saw Revenge of the Sith only once) was that I turned 30 and officially retired my inner geek. It's not that that inner geek is not still lurking around in there, somewhere, but let's just say that the only movie I've seen twice in theaters since then on the strength of sheer "AWESOME!" was Cloverfield in 2008. And even that was only because my friend wanted to go to the movies five days after I first saw it, and he hadn't seen it yet. By the time Revenge of the Sith came out, my friends were all fully anti-prequel. In fact, one close friend even refused to see Revenge of the Sith altogether, and has kept his promise to this day. (Oh yeah, I did see Gravity twice in theaters on the strength of sheer "AWESOME!" Apparently, I'm not dead yet.)

But Revenge of the Sith really is the best, and this viewing confirmed it. After a muddy first 30 minutes that really left me unsatisfied -- I swear, that opening space battle is about as boring as that much hectic CGI can get -- the movie really gets down to business and keeps its focus on the end game of the series. There aren't any goofy interludes on Naboo where Anakin Skywalker rides on top of some goofy alien horse. There's just the steady descent into madness. And oh yeah, some goofy interlude on Utapau where Obi-Wan Kenobi tracks down General Grievious and rides on top of some goofy alien lizard.

But really, this movie is focused on what I have called in the subject of this post "serious shit."

Watching this movie again reminded me just how dark it actually is. You could accuse George Lucas of populating his movies with cute characters in order to appeal to little kids (Jawas, Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks), but you can't accuse him of soft-pedaling the end of his prequel trilogy to appeal to those same little kids. This movie gets as dark as it can be expected to get, including the severing of Anakin's legs and the subsequent burning to a charcoal crisp of his body.

If that's not enough for you, how about a particularly intense lightning bolt-lightsaber clash that prematurely ages Darth Sidious into a withered prune? And he's the one who gets off easy in that one -- Mace Windu gets tossed over a balcony. Then there's the (mostly off-screen) slaughter of the younglings by Anakin. And let's not forget that the end of those crappy first 30 minutes is a ruthless beheading of Count Dooku.

And though the general quality level of this stuff is still not quite what I would hope, I was surprised at how involved I was in the movie once it becomes entirely plot-focused and ceases the pussyfooting around that engulfed much of rest of the prequels.

This is certainly not to say I have no complaints about Revenge of the Sith. One thing I was analyzing especially closely this time was Anakin's conversion to the dark side, and my feeling toward it is fairly conflicted. I can't decide whether it's paced correctly or ridiculously sudden. I think I have to talk this out.

On the one hand, Lucas includes lots of little moments in this movie that represent rungs on Anakin's descent into pure evil. The first rungs are actually in the previous film, when he slaughters the Sand People. (Do they actually get called Tuscan Raiders at any point in any of these movies, or do we just know them as that from general lore?) The next step down is his merciless execution of Count Dooku, but even then he's still fighting on the right side. I mean, Dooku was responsible for a lot of fucked up shit, so killing him had a certain pragmatic upside to it -- the sooner he was dead, the more certain you'd be that he could not gain the upper hand again. And he follows that action by refusing to leave behind a wounded Obi-Wan no matter what the costs to him and a fleeing Chancellor Palpatine. This is still "our Anakin."

The next rung is Anakin's failure to be promoted to Jedi master, a denial that is delivered somewhat rudely by Windu and his cohorts. (They obviously had good reason not to trust him, but it's a bit of a chicken and egg argument -- if they had promoted him to master, would they ever have occasion to fear him in the first place?) We're meant to believe this is a deep betrayal that he feels more acutely because he has notoriously poor control over his emotions. Okay, that's fine.

What I wonder about are these visions of Padme dying. They are the key rung in Palpatine converting him to the dark side. Are we meant to believe that Palpatine planted those visions there? Or was he just relying on their random occurrence to execute his plan to convert Anakin? That seems too flimsy. Yet we are given no evidence that Palpatine planted the visions. Because Anakin is unable to let go of the things he loves the most, he is undone by his feelings and converted to the dark side. In trying to do good, he does the ultimate evil, epitomized by his mission to slaughter the viceroys and his eventual extinguishing of the younglings.

The problematic moment is when he interferes with Windu killing Palpatine and then immediately starts responding to Palpatine like a drone under his spell. Given how conflicted he has felt at each moment of his descent thus far, it seems like a real misstep to have him falling into "yes, my master" so soon after his decisive move down the dark path. The only thing I can conclude is that Palpatine is actually hypnotizing him in some way, a hypnosis that may have begun in that compelling scene at the "opera" (or whatever it is) where Palpatine tells Anakin the story of Darth Plagueis. Without some explanation like that it feels too abrupt. But considering that most of Anakin's downfall needs to take place in this movie, and a lot of stuff still needs to happen after it occurs, the movie handles it reasonably well.

The fact that I am still compelled to provide this level of analysis of the film ten years later, after every internet troll and his mother has torn the bowels out of these movies, means that they had to be doing certain things right.

A few isolated observations about this movie, which all have to do with bit parts:

I thought it was pretty funny that Peter Mayhew, the actor who plays/played Chewbacca, receives a prominent acknowledgement in the closing credits, even though Chewbacca is barely in the movie and when he is, he is not "our Chewbacca" (in other words, he has no personality). I even thought it might be a digital Chewbacca, though if so, it was probably Mayhew doing the motion capture. I thought it was even funnier, then, that Ahmed Best received a prominent listing in the closing credits, when Jar Jar Binks is in exactly one scene for exactly two seconds, seen marching dejectedly in Padme's funeral procession. He doesn't even speak a line of dialogue. Did they really need Best to don the mocap ping pong balls just to walk as a dejected Jar Jar for two seconds?

Then there's the case of Joel Edgerton appearing as Uncle Owen. I was going to say how funny it was that they cast Edgerton, who already had a career going, just for one two-second scene in which he turns toward the rising suns of Tatooine holding the baby Luke. However, just now I looked it up and realized that he actually appears in the previous episode, a fact I'd forgotten. (You'd think I'd remember, having just seen Attack of the Clones six weeks ago.) So, just strike this most recent paragraph from the record. (Go back and delete it, you say? Never!)

A final thought on the prequels ...

What I've determined is that although this was nobody's idea of a perfect prequel trilogy -- probably not even George Lucas' idea -- what we've tended to forget in the past 15+ years of prequel bashing is just how high the bar was. We seem to believe that it should have been "easy" for Lucas to duplicate the magic of the original trilogy, when we all know how hard it is to maintain a particular level of quality in anything great, be it a movie series, a TV show, a musical act's discography or even a collection of popular novels. Where I disagree with the haters is the extent to which George Lucas failed, and what we had a right to realistically expect from him. They seem to think that anything less than the neighborhood of the quality of the original movies is a massive disappointment, whereas I would argue that the way he went about making these movies was basically reasonable and consistent with the intended spirit of Star Wars. He didn't outrageously miscalculate where to take the story or which actors to cast to play which parts. He just produced results that ended up being sort of flat -- on their own terms for sure, but especially when compared to the original movies.

And look, flat Star Wars is still Star Wars.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Two for the price of none


I'm a bit of a bastard I guess.

Not only did I get to go to a free screening at Cinema Nova last night through my reviewing gig with ReelGood, but I stayed for an extra two hours of free entertainment on the house.

Yep, for the first time ever, I saw two movies in the theater without paying a single admission fee.

I did buy a $7.50 popcorn just to make myself feel a little better.

Well, I've been going easy on Cinema Nova lately. During my first six months in Melbourne I had the free time in my schedule to see a movie every discount Monday, if I wanted to. I regularly stayed for a second movie -- probably at least once a month. However, it's been 18 months since I pulled one of those, and in fact, the last time I saw two movies during the same trip to Nova -- in January of 2014, when I caught Inside Llewyn Davis followed by Her -- I actually paid for both.

In fact, this was my first cinematic double feature of any kind since I saw Into the Woods and Dumb and Dumber To at Hoyts this past January. So I've been going easy on the whole Melbourne theatrical establishment. I was overdue.

The movies I ended up seeing were kind of funny for a free double feature, as it turned out.

The first was the new documentary The Emperor's New Clothes, directed by Michael Winterbottom, which is Russell Brand's attempt to make a Michael Moore movie. He fails -- in part because that format for a movie is pretty played out, but in part because he just doesn't do it very well. However, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on the movie's merits.

Clothes is about the disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor, but that's not why it was a funny choice. I mean, I can hardly characterize myself as "the little guy" in comparison to an indie cinema that still allows people to pay only $6 for a movie as long as they see it before 5 p.m. on a Monday. It's funny because at one point in the movie, Brand hops a turnstile in the London underground, getting the same kind of free ride on the tube that I got when I attended my second movie.

Which was Samba, from the same star and directing team of The Intouchables (which I still need to see). In it Omar Sy plays the title character, a Senegalese national living in Paris, whose attempt to gain legitimate residency ends up getting him ticketed for a deportation to Dakar. He actually lands in an intermediate zone where he's no longer being detained, but also has been issued an OLFT (Obligation to Leave French Territory) letter. He is cautioned by his uncle to be even more careful than he had been before, and among the other things, the uncle advises that Samba "pay for all his metro rides."

Two references to turnstile hopping in one night?

It's like they were on to me.