Thursday, October 8, 2015
This is the tenth entry in my 2015 project to clean up as many of my unseen best picture winners as I can, one per month.
I spent much of the first half of Tom Jones aghast that this movie won best picture. I was wondering what kind of terrible year 1963 must have been for the movies.
I spent much of the second half thinking, "Well, it's not Tom Jones' fault that it won best picture. The people who made it were probably just as surprised that it won as I was." I feel pretty certainly that the people who made Tom Jones never had anything like the Oscars on their minds.
What Tom Jones has going for it in terms of traditional Oscar credentials is a period piece setting and its status as an adaptation of a work by a major author (Henry Fielding). What it has going against it are many things, most notably a ribald tone and an anachronistic filmmaking style that makes it more resemble an episode of Benny Hill than the staid Merchant-Ivory style that shaped the notion of cinematic period pieces for someone like me, who came of age cinematically in the 1990s.
The poster I've chosen here says all you need to know about how cheeky this movie is -- and I don't just say that because there's a giant lipstick print planted on Tom's cheek. Everything in Tom Jones is broad, much of it very intentionally so. One of the first ways I became familiar with Albert Finney was in his 1980 movie Scrooge, in which he plays the title character. Although I kind of liked that movie as a kid, there was always something garish about it in general, and Finney's performance in particular, that never sat well with me. I now see the roots of that garishness, though I'd say that Finney is hardly the one we should blame for this film's problems.
It's basically the story of an 18th century bastard who is raised among a rich family, falls in love with a rich girl (Susannah York), but can't have her because of his status as a bastard. Ah, if it were only a bit more like Wuthering Heights than that. The girl is of course engaged to a suitor of an equivalent station (David Warner, in his film debut) who has supposed aristocratic virtues, but little in the way of kindness or warmth. The suitor schemes against the bastard and has him sent away, where he encounters numerous adventures on the road to personal redemption and the unveiling of a secret related to his actual parentage.
It all sounds like pretty standard stuff, really, but it plays as anything but. Again bringing in a very modern reference, Tom Jones seems to have more the tone of something like Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story than it does the tone of Howards End. Many if not most of the characters are extreme exaggerations, either overly wicked or overly buffoonish, and sometimes both. Many skirts are chased and much liquor is consumed, and one sequence even involves a sexual seduction executed via slabs of meat eaten at a dinner.
I might have gotten more of the intended sense of fun from this movie if everything didn't look so dreary and grainy. Now granted, I was watching an old version that may have been ripped from a VHS tape for all I know, which was kindly uploaded to the web by a friend of mine and shared to me in her Google Docs. So I was not expecting a pristine copy of the print. But even adjusting for the expected degradation of the image, I could still tell that Tom Jones looked like garbage, especially compared to some of the truly handsome-looking pictures that were honored with Oscars around the same time. At its best it looks like a shoddy version of something made on the BBC; at its worst, far worse than that.
And the filmmaking style of director Tony Richardson is truly puzzling. Richardson made this in between a serious movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and a bit of a bizarre movie, The Loved One. It's not as good as either of those, though it does share a bit of the spirit of the latter. I made that reference to Benny Hill in part because there are, actually, several scenes in which the action plays at double speed to underscore the goofy hijinx of characters running after each other, much like Mr. Hill regularly did on his show. There are also some very fast edits and some very grotesque close-ups of characters, giving the whole production a truly warped sense. I guess the people who like this movie like that about it. I don't, and I didn't.
But I can't say that I hate the movie either, though I was expecting to after 30 minutes. I sort of fell in step with its mood as it went along, but only sort of. I appreciate it as an odd curiosity and something truly different, perhaps something ahead of its time -- to the extent that I appreciate it at all. I suppose I also have to appreciate just how unlikely it was that this movie would even receive positive reviews, let alone be bestowed with a golden statue by a body of voters widely known for being humorless. It very definitely stands as one of the most unusual best picture winners of all time.
One of the strangest things about it, though, is how little it seems to care whether we like its characters or not. Even the characters we're supposed to like are frequently involved in wretched behavior, or are portrayed as dolts. I think we're supposed to like Tom, but he's the one most guilty of skirt chasing in the whole movie, even though his feelings for Susannah York's character are supposed to be pure. No modern movie would have a guy sleep around on his way into the arms of his beloved.
Also: Only after watching for more than an hour did I realize that York played Superman's mother.
Okay, in November, on to something I expect to be a bit more traditional: My Fair Lady.
Sunday, October 4, 2015
I'm adding a new country to my list later this month.
Actually, that's not technically true. I've set foot in New Zealand before, in the sense that I've been in one of its airports. I stopped over in Auckland on my first trip to Australia back in 2007, but I was bleary eyed and sleep deprived and it just looked like the inside of an airport.
But from October 14th to 18th, I'll actually be visiting the country, known to fans worldwide cinematically as the home of Middle Earth.
In fact, its status as the setting for Peter Jackson's six movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings books is the primary reason we're going. We had always intended to visit New Zealand while we're living in Australia, as it's so close by and my wife has a good friend from high school who lives there, but what's actually prompting this visit is the visit of my mother and her boyfriend from the U.S. Her boyfriend is a huge fan of these books and movies, and it was always an unspoken precondition of him making the trip to Australia with her that they would also go to New Zealand. When push came to shove, though, my mom hesitated when she realized it would mean time away from her son, daughter-in-law and two grandsons, which would be particularly precious given that the total duration of their trip was only two weeks. So for a moment it looked like he was going to come all this way, this close to New Zealand, and then not actually get there.
We decided that couldn't happen, so proposed that all six of us spend five days and four nights in our neighboring country to the east. It's only a three-hour plane ride, and we may not get a better opportunity for our own visit, especially if we are planning to return to the U.S. sometime in 2016 or (more likely) 2017.
So on Thursday, October 15th, we will be touring Hobbiton and dreaming ourselves away into the world that Tolkien envisioned and Jackson brought to the screen. (Most of the landscape shots were actually on the south island, the one we won't be visiting, but we're trying not to focus on that part of it.)
I don't think we actually needed any preparation to excite us for this, but I scheduled some anyway in the form of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, my favorite of the six movies. We watched it Friday night.
Forthwith, some thoughts.
Taking it out of the realm of a joke
For a couple years now, I have been using a different one of the Lord of the Rings movies -- The Return of the King -- as a joke that I have long since beaten into the ground.
The joke goes something like this. It's late at night, probably after 10, and the subject comes up of whether my wife and I should try to watch something else or just yield to our palpable exhaustion. I am fond of saying, "Well, we could throw on Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." Which of course is the longest of these movies at 201 minutes. And which we don't actually own anyway.
My wife may have cracked a smile the first time I made the joke. Now I just make it as callback to the other times I've made the joke and as a way of taking the piss out of myself for repeating jokes until they've lost any shred of their original humor value.
So when I emailed my wife suggesting a viewing of The Two Towers, I titled the email "Not a joke this time."
The 179-minute running time -- which turned out to be more like 165 before credits, and 173 after them -- still daunted us. However, I'm pleased to inform you that we made it through the whole thing without any signs of nodding off. That's the power of a good movie, I guess.
When first considering my approach to writing about The Two Towers on my bog, I latched on to the idea of just how good the digital character of Gollum still looks, even 13 years after it was created. (How good Andy Serkis is, making Gollum one of the great movie characters of the 21st century, was another pleasant rediscovery.) So I considered writing a whole post focusing only on older movies whose digital effects still looked top notch.
The one that came instantly to mind was Starship Troopers, whose arachnids continue to seem as realistic and as ferocious as the day they were created, "way back" in 1997. I considered some other options (the Star Wars prequels, for example) before deciding that the arachnids and Gollum were the only ones I'd actually argue for passionately.
But then that got me thinking of some other narrative similarities between these two movies.
They both involve armies of humans fighting armies of mindless drones they can't understand, which are bent only on their destruction, and in fact on the very annihilation of their species. They both feature scenes in which these armies succeed in impregnating a fortress that was previously though to be impregnable, by pouring wave after wave of these drones at the fortress walls. They also both involve an attempt to neutralize the strength of these drone armies by defeating a certain queen or command center -- the "brain bug" in Starship Troopers, and Isengard in The Two Towers.
Only one, however, features the epic line "They sucked his brains out."
How old is John Rhys-Davies?
It had always subconsciously nagged at me that John Rhys-Davies, who played Sallah in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, plays Gimli in these movies. In short -- no pun intended during the discussion of a dwarf -- he would have seemed too old to play the part.
My assumption of Rhys-Davies' elderliness, however, is built on my assumption of how old he was when he played Sallah. I would have guessed that he was in his mid-40s then, which would put him in his mid-60s when playing Gimli. Not so old that he couldn't do it, but old enough that it seems like it would have struck a casting director as an odd choice for the role, especially since Rhys-Davies is not what you would call a star.
It turns out Rhys-Davies was only 37 for his first appearance as Sallah. What makes that especially strange is that he was two years younger than Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones. I had always considered Sallah to have a slightly paternalistic relationship to Indy, but in light of these revelations, that's even more off base than it might otherwise have been.
Twenty years after Raiders, that left Rhys-Davies a much more reasonable 57 when he first played Gimli. He's a relative spring chicken in a series that also features Ian McKellan and Christopher Lee ... and featured them both again in the Hobbit movies a full decade later.
The impact of a little Irish
As much as I think I would have been caught up by the events of The Two Towers regardless of any preconceived notions, those of you who know me or have read me will remember that I didn't particularly care for The Fellowship of the Ring when I first saw it. I have later come to like it much more, especially in the wake of the affection I developed for these movies after The Two Towers, which even continued to me holding two of the three Hobbit movies in high esteem. But The Two Towers presumably had to do a number of things to win my affection after the series took a misstep out of the gate.
After this viewing, I've decided that one of these things was its music.
Although I don't specifically recall Howard Shore's work in The Fellowship of the Ring, I don't remember it being nearly as inflected by Irish tradition as the Two Towers score is.
And because I find Irish music to be inherently melancholic, in a good way, I think that's a big part of why I became so invested in these characters in this installment. I found the long distance romance, carried out in dreams and visions, between Aragorn and Arwen to particularly benefit from this. The first time around, I didn't get why Liv Tyler's character was even in the movie. This time, when she has a smaller and much less essential role, I totally got the significance of it and her bond with Aragorn. In fact, the sequence in which she imagines a future life with a mortal like Aragorn, which ends in his inevitable death, may have been the very scene that erased any lingering doubts I may have had from Fellowship and fully got me on board the LOTR train.
And that sorrowful, lilting Irish score has everything to do with that. I'm a guy who thinks "Oh Danny Boy" is one of the most beautifully mournful songs ever written, so throw anything that's vaguely in that tradition at me and I'm putty in your hands.
I suspect the other thing that drew me right into this movie is its opening. I love that it takes us back into the first movie, the scene where Gandalf fights [the large horned beast, not looking up his name right now], and shows us stuff we didn't see the first time.
That he continues to fight this creature while falling -- and even eventually fights him atop a craggy, snow-covered mountaintop, which we don't discover until later in the film -- was cool enough. But what really gives me the chills, even now as I type this, is that shot where their falling, burning bodies illuminate a whole underground cave filled with water, which might be as big as the state of Delaware. It's a wonderful reminder of the scope -- not only of this world, but of this movie -- to see that they are really just a speck in the distance of this massive underground chamber.
Speaking of falling, and John Rhys-Davies, one of my favorite lines from the movie comes when Gimli reports to Eowyn what he believes is Aragorn's death during the Orc attack on the way to Helm's Deep.
"He fell," he tells Eowyn, his voice choked with emotion.
What I love about this line is that it can be read two ways. I was going to say "The first, most obvious reading," but now I'm not sure if either is more obvious, and that's what makes it so wonderful.
One reading is that he's using the word "fall" as a direct synonym for "die," as one would talk about "fallen soldiers" as the ones who died in battle. It's a more poetic and softer way to announce someone's death.
My preferred reading is that the emotion of the situation has made Gimli overly literal, as in "Aragorn literally fell over the side of a cliff," and you can imagine what happened to him as a result. It's like a child reporting the exact physical circumstances of the situation. "He fell" ... a long, long way to his death.
Fortunately, the movie lets all these characters off the hook for their emotional suffering by having Aragorn show up pretty soon after that. But it undoubtedly contributes to the emotional weight of this film that characters have to experience the deaths of friends, even if those characters are not actually dead. Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas also think for a moment that Merry and Pippin have been killed, and have a moment to consider themselves as failures to their friends. And that may also be a way that I appreciated this movie more than its predecessor, whose ending I thought was weakened significantly by the maudlin display of emotion after the turncoat Boromir is killed. These displays are more restrained ... even when the people who supposedly died are more deserving of our grief.
It's so damn quotable
And speaking of quotes, I was reminded just how many great ones there are in this movie. Which is especially surprising because I feel like the dialogue was one of the primary things people picked at in the new Hobbit movies.
Here's a small survey of the quotes that really resonate with me:
"Look for your friends, but do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands."
"The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Theoden King."
"Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth."
"Open war is upon you whether you would risk it or not."
"Here you will dwell, bound to your grief, under the fading trees until all the world is changed and the long years of your life are utterly spent."
"War will make corpses of us all."
"What can men do against such reckless hate?"
"We come to honor that allegiance."
"There is no curse in Elvish, Entish or the tongues of men for this treachery."
"And all that was once green and good in this world will be gone."
"Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam."
How many of these lines are directly from Tolkien, though, I could not tell you. Well, I don't so much care if I'm getting Jackson and his three fellow scribes or the original author. All that matters to me is that this movie has collected them up and brought them to me.
New Zealand? Yeah, I'm ready.
Thursday, October 1, 2015
Found footage, that is.
Some people may be willing to go with the "once lost, now found" narrative for M. Night Shyamalan's career in terms of The Visit, but I'll only go as far as "found" in terms of found footage.
The Visit is almost certainly Shyamalan's best movie since Signs, but given the string of turkeys on his resume, that's pretty faint praise.
Still, it looks good and is genuinely creepy in parts, which means that it has already surpassed two-thirds of his filmography. (Most of those others looked good, but most of them made us laugh at the times they were supposed to be creeping us out.)
The "looks good" part is one of the causes for concern, though, because this is supposed to be a found footage movie. I mean, it is a found footage movie -- the "supposed to be" part relates to the fact that it's meant to look like it was shot by an amateur. Or two amateurs, in this case a teenage brother and sister. That it does not, and that's part of the problem.
Another problem is that there's something basically depressing about someone like Shyamalan having to try to find his groove in a genre as dessicated as found footage. There have actually been a number of found footage movies I've really liked in the past few years, such as Ti West's The Sacrament and Adam Robitel's The Taking of Deborah Logan, which actually covers thematically similar territory to The Visit. Still, it feels like a desperate refuge for someone like Shyamalan, who made his initial reputation on a tightly controlled type of compositional formalism. Then again, if there was anyone more desperate for something new than Shyamalan, I don't know who it would be.
Only the subgenre of found footage is new, though, really. There's a getting back to his basics element of The Visit that is surely causing those who are praising the movie to praise it. (I am not one of those who praises it, though I do marginally recommend it.)
In fact, it's kind of funny how many of Shyamalan's previous concerns are represented here in one way or another. And I'll be including a couple Visit spoilers here, so if that's a concern for you, you can stop reading now.
One of the most effective moments in The Sixth Sense, the one that still gives me a chill as I'm typing it now, is when that sick girl, the one whose mother is poisoning her, emerges vomiting from under that blanket. Well wouldn't you know it, vomiting factors prominently into the first night the kids detect there's anything wrong with their grandmother. The girl sees her walking straight forward downstairs and spewing up her dinner. The impact is significantly less in this film.
When the boy rises up and attacks his "grandfather" (not really his grandfather) at the end, it's very reminiscent of the "swing away" ending to Signs. Both involve a character who had been stunted in an athletic competition in their past, which had been eating away at them. Both moments involve that character taking action and atoning for their previous inaction, in order to save the day. This moment actually even has a bit of the ending of After Earth in it, as that also involved a boy who had to rise up and conquer his fears in a kill or be killed scenario.
Then there are little things that call back to his other films. The general affect of these grandparents is reminiscent of how the people in The Happening behave before they kill themselves. The stark appearance of the trees and other environment reminds a person a bit of The Village. And that part where the boy magically conjures a wall of ice to defeat an army of soldiers arriving by sea is straight out of The Last Airbender.
Wait, scratch that last one.
But despite the fact that he has made a blatantly unbelievable version of a found footage movie, and also is blatantly ripping off his own filmography, and also is blatantly ripping off other tired horror tropes (some of the way the grandmother is visualized owes a lot to Ringu and other Asian horror in which the hair obscures the character's eyes), The Visit is still quite watchable and has some enjoyable moments.
It also has likely bought Shyamalan, who already seemed to owe the longevity of his career to a deal with the devil, another couple movies.
Perhaps enough time to truly be found.
Tuesday, September 29, 2015
Given how much Alfred Hitchcock has been in my life lately -- seeing two of his movies for the first time this year, and also rewatching Vertigo for a recent podcast discussion -- it seemed like even more of an oversight than it usually does that I'd seen my favorite Hitchcock only once.
So I took steps to correct that about a month ago, renting Rear Window for an overnight at a hotel that was a Father's Day present for me. I didn't watch it at the time, but got to throw it on with my wife this past Sunday night, when the rental was within five days of expiring.
Not only was this my favorite Hitchock movie I'd seen only once, it was also my favorite movie, period, that I'd seen only once. Rear Window currently slots in at #29 on my all-time list on Flickchart, eight slots ahead of Schindler's List, my next highest single viewing.
Now that I've corrected that, I suppose I have to figure out when I'm going to sit down a second time with Steven Spielberg's 1993 best picture winner, a consummate one-timer if ever there was one.
And now that I've corrected that, I may need to do some more correcting. I feel like the very foundation of my feelings about Hitchcock and his movies has been shaken.
It pains me greatly to say this, dear readers, but my second viewing of Rear Window was a slog.
The first sign of trouble occurred when I checked out the film's running time. An exhausting weekend in which I'd stayed up way too late on both nights had left me excited for Rear Window to be about 90 minutes, which is what I fully expected it would be. As it takes place exclusively inside L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries' apartment, I have always thought of this as a lean and tight movie. In fact, its apparent leanness and tightness are two of its attributes I have celebrated most chiefly when discussing the works of Hitchcock.
Nope. Rear Window is 113 minutes. I felt myself start to worry a little bit.
Now before I go any further, let me remind you that I was very tired on Sunday night. Not only had I had two late nights, but also two days out that were various degrees of trying, due largely to my kids being shitheads. Add to that the inevitable biological impact of a stark change in the weather. Just in the past few days it's gotten a whole lot hotter, a possible early promise that this summer will make up for the wimpy one we had last year.
So it will be impossible to purely judge the basis for me liking Rear Window less than I thought I did. Viewing circumstances always factor in to these things, and the circumstances for watching Rear Window were unfavorable to me, to say the least.
But boy, was our viewing of Rear Window a slog.
My wife felt it too. She had not stayed up as late as I did on either Friday or Saturday night, but we did have a whole discussion earlier in the day about how exhausted we both were. This is something you discuss regularly when you are a parent. So she was not at her freshest either, but she wasn't nodding off like I was. Still, she also found that it seemed like a bit of a chore.
"I mean, it's an old movie," she said, acknowledging both the likelihood of a different pace and the need to come in with different expectations.
But Rear Window didn't feel like an old movie when I watched it the first time. It grabbed me by the lapels and demanded my attention. And according to my memory of it, it had me on the edge of my seat. It seemed fast and momentous and bursting with a kind of nervous tension that became the tonal building blocks for the modern thriller.
Where was all of that on Sunday night?
I don't know, but I'm not prepared to say it's lost for good. All I'll say is that I've got to rethink this whole Rear Window adulation. At the very least, it now seems a tad ill-informed. I'd say that I will quickly prioritize a third viewing, to be held at a time when I'm fully awake or at least effectively caffeinated. But another conclusion of that discussion with my wife about our exhaustion was that it was part of our human condition. I posited to her that even if she spent a month alone on an island, sleeping whenever she felt like it and putting only good things into her body, she'd still feel exhausted. This depressed her, but she also realized the potential validity of my theory.
So in short, I may never be significantly more rested and alert to watch Rear Window than I was on Sunday night. Not enough to make the difference, anyway.
As I discussed here, though, a movie that you love should break through your corporeal weaknesses. It should be the very antidote to your exhaustion. So now I must consider the possibility that I don't love Rear Window.
Well, if Rear Window is not my favorite Hitchcock movie, then what is?
Flickchart tells me the answer is North by Northwest. And fortunately, this one stands up to recent scrutiny. I saw North by Northwest for the second time just two years ago, in 2013, and I was enthralled by it. The way I felt about North by Northwest after that viewing was the way I expected to feel about Rear Window after this one.
But am I ready to be the guy whose favorite Hitchcock movie is North by Northwest? I was comfortable with it being my #2, but #1? I don't know, it seems too mainstream or something. As though Rear Window were not already a mainstream answer to that question.
Perhaps the real answer is that I need to rewatch my #3 and #4, which are Rope and Rebecca. I remember loving both of these without hesitation. Then again, that's what I felt about Rear Window as well. What I thought I felt, anyway.
Second viewings can be dangerous. Sometimes, they don't have the effect on you that you think they will, that you hope they will. Might make a person wonder if they're better off just seeing the movie once and living contentedly in the memory of how enjoyable it was to watch that one time -- even if that could be a false memory, or a memory that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
But that's a pretty poor solution. If you suspect a movie might drop significantly on a second viewing, it likely means you know there's something wrong with it. Probably always better to find that out than to go on worshipping false idols. You can't really be sure you love a movie until it has had the same effect on you at least twice. And with movies you love, you should always want to deepen your appreciation of them by experiencing them again and again.
And besides, I never would have suspected Rear Window would be anything other than magnificent on its second viewing. That it wasn't magnificent for me was a total shock, a shock I'm still trying to grapple with.
Before I leave you today, I want to reassure you of something. I still like Rear Window. I still like Rear Window quite a bit. I especially still like the final 20 minutes. I just never expected it to be so hard to wade through the rest of it to get to those final 20 minutes. I never expected there to be so much Window dressing, so to speak.
Lesson learned? Maybe I'll just rest comfortably with my recollections of the brilliance of Schindler's List, after all.
Monday, September 28, 2015
Another Sunday, another movie my son couldn't watch to its completion.
What do you do when thematic material forces your five-year-old son out of the theater because it's too scary? You double down in the opposite direction, taking him to a movie about a dog and a penguin.
Unfortunately, this time we had to leave not because he was too scared, but because he was too bored. And then, later, because he was too scared.
Fortunately, this time "we" did not include me.
My wife got free passes to the Australian children's film Oddball through her work, and planned to take my son sometime this weekend. That sometime ended up being a 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning show. This was a nice change for me, as it allowed me to stay home while my younger son napped. I'm usually the one that takes my older son to the movies, a responsibility I obviously don't mind, but this one didn't pique my interests. And since it would serve my wife to be familiar with Oddball for her work, she was the logical candidate to take him anyway.
Once they were in their seats, she texted me that her fingers were crossed, a reference to the previous week's failed Pan screening that I somehow am now mentioning for the fourth time on this blog.
I thought all was going well, but it turned out I missed a text from my wife about 40 minutes in stating "We're out - hope to lure him back in with a treat." Boredom at too many adults talking for too long of a time, it seems.
She did this successfully, apparently -- but then they had to leave before the movie ended anyway, because my son was agitated about some part involving a girl going to the pound, where her dog was set to be destroyed. Obviously the dog emerged fine, but my son wasn't to know that, which I guess makes him kind of the ideal audience member in terms of creating narrative tension. My wife tried to convince him that the movie was likely to have a happy ending, but he wasn't going for it. The second departure was permanent.
Unfortunately, now it seems that a new factor has been introduced into my son's moviegoing experiences -- video games. He appears to have remembered that I let him play some games when he forced us to leave Paddington early last December, and he tried to pull off the same thing after Pan last week, only I was too annoyed to indulge him. When the Oddball cinema didn't have any games, he whined and grumbled about it to my wife for the next hour.
One problem at a time.
The problem of getting him to sit for a whole movie can be resolved in one of two ways:
1) Just stop going to the movies for a while, until he has clearly passed a new milestone in his maturation that would give us the confidence to try again.
2) Just stop going to live action movies.
It's the live action movies that have consistently been a failure. Starting with Paddington and now the last two, he hasn't made it through one yet. So I guess maybe that's really strike three rather than strike two. Even the ones we've watched at home, like Hop and The Smurfs 2, were movies he gave up on. These tend to lodge in my memory less because in those cases, I ended up finishing the movie even when he didn't.
Conversely, even though a couple animated movies have gotten dodgy for him -- like, he really wanted to leave Big Hero 6, but I coaxed him back from the edge -- we have yet to actually make an early departure. And in a movie like Inside Out, which definitely has a couple scary moments, leaving early was not even put forward as an option by him.
So to try to get us back on track, it looks like our next attempt will be ... Hotel Transylvania 2. We saw a trailer for this in the lobby while waiting for Pan to start, and he was really into it. He likes things that are "spooky," but also if they are more funny than they are spooky. Which pretty much exactly describes the tone of this series ... especially if you consider "funny" to mean "attempting to be funny."
We found the original at the library yesterday, and plan to watch it on Wednesday when we're home and the younger one is napping. If that's a hit, I'll have good confidence that the sequel will be too.
Because they tend not to care too much about Halloween in Australia, Transylvania 2 is not actually coming out until November 26th.
That'll give him a couple months to let the "traumas" of the past week subside in his memory, as well.
Sunday, September 27, 2015
By now we've all seen It Follows, right? So I don't have to give you a spoiler warning, right?
Well, here's one anyway: It Follows spoilers ahead.
Actually, it's unsafe to assume the universal patronage of It Follows because my wife was only seeing it for the first time on Saturday, hence the occasion for me to revisit it.
And though certain parts of what I liked about the movie were reinforced -- the atmosphere, the cinematography, the score -- the second viewing showed me that the movie holds up to scrutiny even less than I initially thought it did.
What follows, so to speak, is a series of goofy things about this movie, whose surprising quantity does not actually make me think this is a bad movie. It's just a seriously flawed one, a sin that is compensated for by it also being chilling and original.
A good place to start is what I teased in the subject line: The part where Greg didn't pass "It" on.
Greg, you may recall, is the neighbor who lives across the street from Jay, the film's main character. We later find out that Greg and Jay had been sexual partners previously, which is why it's not such a big deal when Greg offers to rid Jay of her STD (sexually transmitted demon) and, presumably, pass it on to somebody else.
The "presumably" is the confusing part.
The very next shot after we see Greg mounting Jay in a hospital bed is Greg sitting in that same hospital's cafeteria, chatting up a table of three other women, who by all appearances are strangers to him. The score switches up to what passes for whimsical in this collection of ominous synth. It's a visual joke, and we're meant to kind of laugh at the fact that Greg, a real Casanova, is already working up a plan to move the STD right along. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. He was figuratively a ladykiller before, and now he's sort of actually becoming one.
Except he doesn't pass it on.
See, the next scene is him visiting Jay in the hospital again, telling her it's been three days and nothing has happened.
This is problematic for two reasons, which helps bridge us to our next topic.
1) It means the scene of him chatting to the other women in the hospital is just a red herring. Either he never intended to give the demon to any of them, or he intended to but lost his nerve. If it's the latter, it's worth showing us the scene where he loses his nerve. If it's the former, it's not even worth showing us the shot of him chatting up the women. Since it has no purpose, it just becomes narrative static. And it's not the only time Mitchell is guilty of misleading us like this with no ultimate purpose to it.
2) It's been three days, and nothing has happened.
Let's think about that for a second. Last time we saw "It," it had attacked Jay at the lakefront, and she'd sped off in Greg's car to escape it. However, she didn't get far before she spun out of control into a cornfield, enough of an accident to land her in the hospital. And not some far away hospital, you would assume. Typically when someone's in a car accident, they go to the nearest hospital. When that person is being followed by an "It," the "It" keeps following to that hospital.
Except Jay wakes up some number of hours later, and "It" has not arrived yet, nor does "It" appear to be anywhere nearby. Only then does Greg sleep with Jay to receive the sexually transmitted demon. After which he goes back home, reports back to her three days later to tell her nothing has happened, and then they both go home again to their separate houses.
Some untold amount of time later, even a day or two more, "It" finally makes a play for Greg -- a successful play, as you recall. I mean, that's what happens to you if you're the kind of non-believer Greg is.
What was "It" doing for nearly a week's time, then?
I'd buy the argument that when the person being stalked by "It" changes, a short period of confusion could ensue. Maybe "It" needs to get recallibrated or something. Maybe "It" needs to change its destination on its internal GPS. But if that's the case, why did "It" recallibrate so quickly when Jay was first infected? Jeff, then known has Hugh, knew that if he knocked her out and waited a half-hour or so, "It" would show up -- pursuing her, not him. The explanation for why "It" takes so long to reach Greg is unsatisfactory at best.
And let's talk a little bit about what I want to call "The Chain of It Infection."
Pretty early on we're told about "It"s MO, which is that it stalks you until it kills you, and then it goes back to the person who infected you. Let's forget for a minute how Jeff, then known as Hugh, knows this.
Actually, let's not. Jeff, then known as Hugh, presumably only knows what he knows because the girl before him told him how it all works. Except she didn't, or does not seem to have, because he says he doesn't even know her name. I guess that could be a lie, but we're never given any reason to doubt anything else Hugh, now known as Jeff, says once he comes clean to Jay about passing on the STD, so why should we disbelieve him here?
Yet it's total bullshit that he would not know what her name was, because if this woman had half a brain, she'd want to give him her cell phone number. If she wanted to survive, if anyone in The Chain of It Infection wanted to survive, they'd need to develop a support network of checking in with each other that's so regular, it would put Desmond typing in the numbers on that computer in Lost to shame.
See, as much as you want to cut and run on the person you've infected -- just put miles and miles between yourself and him or her, and between yourself and his or her police precinct -- you can't do that because you depend on that person. You depend on that person answering that phone when you call, because if they don't answer it, they could be dead. And then "It" could be coming for you again.
In fact, the longer The Chain of It Infection gets, the more important it is that everyone in the chain stays in regular contact with each other. Your first instinct is, of course, not only to pass on the sexually transmitted demon, but to have the person you infected also pass it on as soon as possible, and then tell their victim to do the same, and so on. Right? The more layers of removal from you, the greater your sense of comfort. The more your life returns to normal.
But the object of that greater comfort is to steadily give yourself peace of mind, something that's sorely lacking when you know that not only is sleep your enemy -- you're most likely to buy it while succumbing to exhaustion -- but your loved ones could also be your enemy, because "It" could disguise itself as one of them. (A loved one with a vacant look and shambling gait, but I digress.) The thing is, the more peace of mind you get, the lower your defenses. If you passed on the STD a year ago and haven't seen any sign of it, you definitely won't be prepared one day when it waltzes up -- waltzes up in a shambling sort of way -- and bites you on the neck.
The solution? Don't only tell your victim how it works, but get your victim's phone number, and give your victim the phone numbers of everyone else you already have in your phone who have done the same thing before you. At least once a day -- more often as needed -- you need to call the person you infected to make sure they still have a pulse. Because if you don't call them, and they don't have a pulse, your mother knocking on your bedroom door could be there to rape and murder you.
But here's the thing: That's not the only solution. Not nearly.
What other solution is there? Distance.
One infected person could choose to put a stop to all this by simply going bicoastal.
For this one sacrificial soul, who would have to alter their life but would save everybody else, all you have to do is figure out how long it would take a person to walk across the United States, and you'll know how long you can expect to be safe. Since "It" is always walking -- never grabbing the bus, never hopping a plane, never even coming into possession of a pair of rollerskates -- you can figure out mathematically the least amount of time you could possibly have. And then you just start moving back and forth between New York and California, being sure to leave each new location before the amount of time it takes for a human being to walk 3,000 miles expires.
Let's say that's three months. I'm thinking it's probably more than that, but for the sake of argument, let's say three months. Three months is plenty long enough to convince somebody in some small town that you're harmless and that they should hire you to be a busboy at a local restaurant. Yeah, you don't have any resume and you're fairly vague about the experience you have, but you seem nice enough and anyway, they need somebody who doesn't mind working the overnight shift. Oh, it won't be paradise, and you'll probably just be scraping by. But you can do it -- this is your lot in life now. You can probably even have a bit of fun -- just don't sleep with anybody, because it ruins the plan.
When it gets to two months and three weeks, you know you need to get your affairs in order. And then like David Banner on the old Hulk TV show, you just move on to the next town -- or, the town 3,000 miles away, anyway. You can drive, you can fly if you've got the money, you can even hitchhike. Just get back to that other coast and let the process start all over again.
Then of course the question is: What route do you take? I think we can accept it as a given that "It" considers the closest distance between two points to be a straight line. Therefore, if you just retrace your steps back across country using the route you used last time, you will meet up with "It" somewhere along the way. Boy, that would be a humdinger. You think you've taken all the necessary precautions, then you end up meeting "It" at a truck stop in Elko, Nevada, which looks surprisingly familiar because you stopped at this truck stop your last time coming across country. Wait a minute ...
So you don't take the same route. If you're flying, it doesn't matter anyway, because you know it's against the rules for "It" to be on that plane, and anyway, you'd have had to really procrastinate to let "It" get close enough to meet you at the airport and board your plane at the same time. But if you're driving or hitchhiking or even taking the bus, watch out. Go north first before starting back across country. Or go south. If you came across on Interstate 10, go back on Interstate 90. If you came across on Interstate 90, go back on Interstate 10. You get the idea.
But don't leave too soon. That's the other trick. As soon as "It" senses you are on the move, "It" changes direction. You want to make sure that "It" is less than a week away before you jump back to the other coast. If "It" has only made its way to within 1500 miles of you, that's only 1500 miles it has to go back when you fly 27,000 feet over "It"s head. (And I'd like to see that moment when "It" senses you up in the clouds in a 747, cranes its head upward, mutters some kind of profanity and makes a half-hearted leap in your general direction.)
Okay, if you've come this far with me down this rabbit hole, why not stick around for a few basic WTF moments in the film?
1) Remember how I said Mitchell gives us a bunch of red herrings? One of those times is when Jay gets her closest to what is a really good idea. Having slept the night on the hood of her car -- a nice image, but not very realistic -- she goes down to the nearby waterfront to take a quick dip. She sees a couple guys out in a boat, and the logical message we're supposed to take from that is that she realizes that a boat might be her salvation. I mean, "It" can't walk on water. "It" ain't no Jesus Christ.
But she doesn't go on a boat, nor does she even share this idea with any of her friends. If anything, it leads indirectly to the cockamamie scheme to electrocute "It" at a local swimming pool with a series of kitchen and household appliances.
2) And let's ponder that scene for a second. It's okay that we didn't witness the brainstorming session that led to this idiotic idea, but just what did these kids think they were going to accomplish with electrical appliances near a swimming pool except electrocute their own damn friend who's swimming in the pool? That should have won somebody a Darwin Award right then and there.
3) That scene is one of the film's weakest also because it represents one of those times when "It" deviates from its MO. From what we've seen, "It" simply follows you until it gets close enough to pounce, and then it basically destroys you almost immediately. What it doesn't seem like "It" should do is pull your hair, or blow a hole in a door and then wait outside dramatically for 15 seconds before coming in, or angrily throw TVs at you. "It" doesn't even really seem like it should throw a rock to break your living room window. "It" is at its most fully realized when "It" simply lurches forward like a zombie. If there's a door in the way, it seems as though "It" should just keep walking into that door like a windup toy continuing to walk into a wall until its unwound. Wouldn't that kind of make "It" even more chilling?
4) And anyway, when has standing on the roof of a house ever been part of "the closest distance between any two points is a straight line"?
5) And anyway, are hospitals some kind of immunity zone for this thing? Jay is in the hospital like three times in this movie and is never once visited by an orderly wearing only one tube sock and pissing herself. Especially on that first night, when it would stand to reason that she and Jeff (then known as Hugh) were on a date in a town near where she lived. The hospital must have really confused "It" because quite a period of time elapses before "It" finally shows up as that old woman approaching Jay in the quadrangle outside her poetry class.
6) And anyway, what are the rules for when "It" changes appearance? Why is "It" a girl wearing one tube sock and pissing herself when it's downstairs, and a tall man with eyes gouged out when it's upstairs?
7) And anyway, why is "It" sometimes a loved one and sometimes a stranger?
8) And anyway, forget going on a boat, because that's only a temporary solution, assuming the boat has to eventually dock again. What about moving to another continent entirely, one separated from your continent by water? What about moving to Australia? Would "It" be within its rights to wait for one of those big ships carrying shipping containers to pull up to the dock so "It" could walk on and eventually walk off once that ship docked in Australia? Would "It" have to continue walking into the front railing for the entire duration of the voyage, because that's the direction you'd be in? Would "It" be allowed to sit down for a while with a cup of coffee and a newspaper? Does "It" have any podcasts that "It" needs to catch up on?
9) And anyway, what if you went to outer space? What if you somehow bought your way aboard the Russian space station? Would "It" just spend the rest of its days down on Earth, making those same futile jumps at the sky? How long would it do this before it exploded? Or just got sick of it all and skipped you in the chain? Or would it too somehow find its way on board the Russian space station?
10) And anyway, where does that girl who was killed at the beginning fit into The Chain of It Infection? She wasn't given the sexually transmitted demon by Jeff, possibly known to her as Hugh or possibly as some other pseudonym, because Jeff would have told us about his previous attempt to pass on the STD that boomeranged back on him. Remember, we're believing everything Jeff tells us. So the only conclusion, then, is that once this girl was killed, "It" came back to kill the guy who proceeded Jeff in The Chain of It Infection. That guy then gave it to the woman who ultimately gave it to Jeff. That's pretty damn convoluted.
11) And anyway, if Jeff, then known as Hugh, knew that "It" had closed to within only a few hours of him, why would he choose to go on a date to the movies, where his attention would clearly be diverted? Why would he carelessly pass the time in line by indulging in a nice relaxed game of "trade places with someone"?
12) And anyway, that's probably just about enough "and anyways."
If you're still reading, congratulations -- you are one determined SOB.
You know, despite all this, I still think it's a really good movie.
Amazing what some atmosphere and a killer score can do for you.
Remember that part waaaaaay at the beginning of this piece, that part where Greg didn't pass "It" on? I just thought of a third possible explanation. Maybe Greg did pass it on to one of those girls at the hospital, only he didn't tell Jay out of a warped sense of trying not to hurt her feelings. (It wouldn't be warped except under these sexually forthright circumstances.) Also, he didn't properly notify the girl and explain to her how to stave "It" off. That would explain the delay in "It" coming back to him ... and it could also explain the girl who dies at the beginning of the movie. Maybe if I watched It Follows again, I'd recognize that girl as one of the three girls sitting at this table.
Then again, if I watched It Follows again, maybe I'd find enough more plot holes to write an addendum to this post that's even longer than the original post.
Saturday, September 26, 2015
Like Tangerine earlier this week, Sicario is too good a movie to "waste" on talking about a phenomenon completely tangential to it, which has only to do with me and my own viewing anecdotes.
Fortunately, I wrote a review of it that should be linked on the right within a couple days, so please, check back.
Now, on with today's anecdote.
It's been a steady process of training Melbourne's cinema box office staffers to recognize my Australian Film Critics Association card without looking at it quizzically, or at first thinking it entitled me only to a $3 discount. I've never been denied entry into a film I've tried to see with it, but a couple managers have been called, and sometimes with reluctance.
I've been a dozen times now, though, and the last five or six times, it's been a breeze. And sometimes I don't even need to sign the little free ticket voucher, which they probably just stick in a drawer and never look at again anyway.
Like Friday night. Friday night, I decided I was really going to push the bounds of the ticket sellers' good humor.
It was my night to make my second attempt at Pan, the movie I had to leave early (very early) on Sunday when my son found it too scary. I was still expected to review it -- by myself, if not my editor, who would have gladly let it pass without a review -- and I wanted to get to it soon after its Thursday opening, so it wouldn't become too stale. (And more later on further discoveries of why he thought it was scary.)
But I thought it would be a waste of a night out only to see the 6:50 showing. I had been expecting to wait until Tuesday night to watch Sicario, which I was also reviewing (as I told you above). But Sicario also opened on Thursday, and the same logic of trying to get it up on the site as soon as possible applied here. So the perfectly timed 9:15 screening at the same cinema was a great option for me.
The trick was that I had never tried to see two movies in the same cinema in the same night using my AFCA card. I'd watched Trainwreck on the back of One Floor Below at this very cinema about six weeks ago, but One Floor Below was a MIFF movie, for which I'd paid my full $19.50. I thought the wrong kind of ticket seller could become grumpy over such an apparent abuse of the system, and there was no option of waiting until after Pan to buy the second ticket, because I didn't want to risk Sicario selling out on its second night open.
Then there was another complicating factor, which was that the 6:50 showing of Pan was in 3D. Some of the cinema chains participating in AFCA strictly forbid the use of the card for 3D, while others just charge you just the additional fee. Palace Cinemas, of which Cinema Kino on Collins is a member, did not seem to specifically forbid 3D, but it could certainly be a source of confusion or calling of managers if I got a squeamish ticket taker who sensed I was trying to get away with something. And given that I was on a pace to arrive only five minutes before the show started, there wasn't particularly time to wade through red tape.
Fortunately, the woman I got couldn't have had a friendlier smile on her face when she rung up both tickets. I didn't need to tell her what the card was, and we didn't have to wrangle over whether it was free or just a discount. I was just handed two tickets and told to enjoy my night.
There was a bit of confusion, I guess, in that somehow the woman thought I had asked to see consecutive showings of Sicario. I couldn't see any logical reason why a person would need to do this -- and that really would be an abuse of the spirit of the system -- but she was only too happy to produce me two tickets for the same movie. "That'll be in the same theater," she told me.
"Really?" I said, unable to imagine why Pan and Sicario would be sharing the same screening space, but only too happy myself to shrug and go along with it. It was then, of course, that I noticed that both tickets said Sicario on them. "Is that okay?" I asked, thinking she was circumventing best practices even more than she was.
The confusion was quickly sorted out, and she produced me two distinct tickets for two different movies.
And once Pan started, I finally learned why my son thought that a pirate was going to kill everyone, as discussed both here and here. It turns out that in the movie's actual foreword, so to speak -- a short bit of female narration that never repeats itself during the movie -- it says as much. In trying to explain to us that we're seeing a prequel to the events in the Peter Pan timeline that we're familiar with, it talks gently and poetically about "the boy who could fly and the pirate who wanted to kill him" starting out as friends. The tone is so gentle, and the images are a bunch of stars in constellations twinkling and taking on shapes, that the word "kill" went in one of my ears and right out the other. Not my son, I guess. It lodged right in there and colored those crucial ten minutes of the movie that made him want to leave.
Wish I could say that this was Pan's only misstep, but I surely cannot tell you that in good conscience. In fact, this was one of my least favorite movies of the year, as the review (which will also be posted in the next few days) on the right will tell you.
How glad I am that my son didn't end up seeing this junk, I can't even tell you.
Next up in testing my AFCA card: three consecutive movies.
In IMAX 3D.
Friday, September 25, 2015
In my (so far) least enjoyable series of 2015, I'm checking back in with you on my progress through the Fast & Furious movies, this time with the one actually called Fast & Furious.
Way back when the latest, #7, was first released in March or April, I committed to catching up with the series by the end of the year in order to rank that movie with my 2015 movies. It was a glum proposition, though. It took me forever to finally throw on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, and that lackluster viewing experience made me really wary about episode # 4, Fast & Furious.
Fortunately, this even more lackluster viewing experience won't daunt me to watch Fast Five, which is when I understand this series finally gets good. Or better, anyway. (I'm guessing The Rock has something to do with that.)
In fact, it's allowing me to establish a pace.
Now that I've dragged my heels so much on doing this, I know I must watch an average of one of these movies a month if I want to reach my goal. That's doable. I can watch Fast Five in October, The Fast and the Furious 6 in November and Furious 7 in December/January -- before my ranking deadline in mid-January, anyway. It's doable.
The fact that these movies start clocking in at more than two hours gives me some pause, but I'll manage.
As dull as I found Fast & Furious to be -- and I found it pretty dull -- it also has the much-anticipated function of establishing a narrative pace within this series. Now all the main character elements that are in place for the rest of the series are actually back on board, and presumably, everything that happens from here on out has a direct relationship to everything else. This could not be said of the last two movies, only the first of which had Paul Walker and only the second of which had Vin Diesel -- and only in a one-minute cameo at the end. (If he were willing to do a cameo, I wondered at the time I saw it a couple months ago, why didn't he just do the whole damn movie? Wasn't his willingness always the issue? Wasn't it that he thought these movies were beneath him?)
In fact, Tokyo Drift was so different from this series' timeline that it makes me wonder why they bothered to have any connective tissue between the third and fourth installments whatsoever. But indeed, the character of Han (Sung Kang) from Tokyo Drift shows up for the opening heist in Fast & Furious, definitely its best set piece and probably its best section overall. After he hands off the baton, they send him on his way.
What follows is a very ho-hum revenge tale set in the world of drag racing, as Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) is killed (off-screen) and it's up to Dom (Diesel) to avenge her. For the longest time, though, I had difficulty being sure that she was actually the character who died, so little emotion does Diesel show over her death. Maybe Diesel didn't want to repeat his grieving excesses in A Man Apart, but he shows little more than a scowl upon learning that she died and upon dispassionately watching her funeral from afar. Justin Lin's directing is terrible in this way throughout, as Walker's line deliveries felt particularly stilted as well. And Walker is (or was) a pretty good actor, probably better than Diesel, who isn't offering much of an effort these days.
But let's get back to Letty's death for a minute. Having been privy to the advertising campaigns for the subsequent installments of this series, I happen to know that Rodriguez appears in them, so I was expecting her death to be revealed as a hoax by the end of the movie. Nope. So now I'm wondering how this series brings her back, whether it's ultimately revealed that she faked her death, or whether they're going the soap opera route by giving her a twin sister.
For the first time in this series -- both the series of movies, and in my 2015 viewing series -- I actually look forward to finding out.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
This is the ninth in my 2015 series in which I try to catch up with the remaining best picture winners I haven't seen, one per month.
Of the two musicals I've seen so far in this series -- I don't count The Broadway Melody as a musical, though I guess it probably is -- West Side Story was the one with which I already had some familiarity.
The first one, Gigi, was new to me. The songs were one of the only things I appreciated about that movie, and I didn't appreciate them all that much. West Side Story, on the other hand, I've "known" for ages, in the sense that I saw it performed at the high school in my town when I was still in junior high. I was so enthralled by that production, by the melodrama of those songs and the earnestness of their performance, that I think watching West Side Story at the age of 12 or 13 was a big contributing factor in my decision to participate in musicals once I got to high school. An important show in my maturation, to be sure -- especially if you extrapolate from that a love for musicals as a movie genre, which causes me to seek out most new musicals even if I'm not completely versed in the classics.
Classics like West Side Story. It seems logical that I should have picked up the 1961 best picture winner somewhere along the way, but I never did. If either of my parents had been into musicals, they might have exposed me to it, but neither of my parents exposed me to much of anything cinematically, even though they would both probably describe themselves as movie fans. (My mom much more so than my dad.)
Anyway, fast forward to September of 2015 and I am only just now seeing it. But because of my history with the show, it's easily the previously neglected best picture winner I've been looking forward to the most.
And it didn't disappoint. I don't know that I consider West Side Story a masterpiece, but it's almost definitely the best movie I've watched so far in this series ... even if it has not aged particularly well. However, in considering the issue of how it has aged, one has to be mindful of the fact that this was never considered a "realistic" depiction of gang behavior on the upper west side of Manhattan. It was always highly stylized, even at the time it was created -- which may be a rather obvious comment to make about a movie where people "dance fight." It seems worth stating, though, because it would be easy to imagine someone raised on either modern gang movies or modern musicals just to laugh this one off from the start.
If you did that, you'd be missing some really enthusiastic performances of some truly terrific songs. West Side Story is one of those musicals with so many hit songs, each one you hear you say, "Wait, I didn't realize that was from West Side Story." In fact, the only song I retained from my early teen viewing was "Maria," which stuck in my brain because of the impassioned performance of the high school actor who sung it. If pressed, I might have also told you that "America" was from the show. But would I have ever provided "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty," "One Hand, One Heart" or "Somewhere"? Definitely not. I probably would have told you that "I Feel Pretty" was from My Fair Lady (which I'll be watching in November) and that the others were from ... I don't know, other shows I guess. It would have seemed unlikely that a single show could be so overloaded with memorable songs, but West Side Story is that show. Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents were just that talented. In fact, so good are the hits in this show that it tends to draw extra attention to the weaknesses of the "filler" songs. "Cool" struck me as particularly lame, a way to beef up the second half running time.
The stylized dancing and choreography put me a bit in mind of my favorite musical, both in its cinematic form and otherwise, which is Jesus Christ Superstar. Although that movie winks very openly at its audience, this movie kind of does that too, more covertly. In both movies there is the specific notion that we are taking a big, dense text (the Bible and Romeo & Juliet) and treating it in a way that is knowingly modernized, in the hopes of better communicating its core themes to today's audiences. That certainly explains the more stagy aspects of West Side Story, like the fact that few of the extras that would typically clog the New York City streets appear here. Some of the sets are starker and more basic than they would otherwise be, as this is not one of those shows that seeks to paint on a much larger canvas just because it's going up on the big screen. The fire escape set represented so minimally in the poster above is indeed just about that minimal here, which seems to further underscore the epic, timeless love story that is being explored. That it should bear such a resemblance to the stage version is probably no surprise, given that the main visionary behind the stage show (Jerome Robbins) is credited as co-director here -- even though he feuded extensively with fellow co-director Robert Wise, and was actually kicked off the set near the start of filming.
Some of the ways it hasn't aged particularly well, though, are worth commenting on. One of those is that whitebread Natalie Wood was cast as the film's Puerto Rican female lead, Maria. Even though she gives a very committed performance and is as darling as ever (I unashamedly crush on Wood), the mere fact of her playing a role outside her race leaves a person a tad uncomfortable, and makes her reasonably attempted Puerto Rican accent seem racially insensitive. That would not have been how the audience at the time perceived it, but I can't help perceive it that way. Of course, merely the idea of having gangs of two different races fighting it out would make West Side Story a political correctness hot potato if anyone were considering a remake today. Which may be one of the reasons nobody is. (Actually, IMDB does have a West Side Story entry that's listed as "in development," but as it has not a single creative person attached to it, we should be pretty skeptical of its status as anything more than an idea at this point.)
Of the many Oscars that this movie won, a whopping ten, one of the second-tier ones that seems most deserving is Thomas Stanford's win for editing. I don't always notice editing in movies -- in fact, it's usually better if you don't -- but here I specifically noted how tight the transitions were, how expertly the dance scenes were cut together. I was a bit more surprised by the supporting acting wins for Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, both of whom seemed fine but unremarkable.
I'll get a one-month break from musicals next month when I watch Tom Jones, the 1963 winner, thanks to the efforts of my Flickcharter friend Jandy, who has sourced this difficult-to-find movie and is sharing it with me. Then back to musicals with My Fair Lady in November, before finishing off the series in December with -- well, I'll keep that as a surprise for now.
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
I saw Tangerine last night, and due to the miracle of the internet (and having written my review between 12 and 1 a.m. last night), I don't have to tell you what I thought about one of my favorite movies of the year, because my thoughts already appear online. You can read my review here.
So instead, I'll spare a few words on watching a movie in perhaps the smallest commercial screening room I've ever sat in. Which is appropriate for a film shot entirely on the iPhone 5.
Back in its early days -- I won't say "its heyday" because the cinema is still going strong -- Cinema Nova in Carlton was a much more typical arthouse multiplex. It had probably six to eight screens (the interwebs would probably tell me if I did a cursory check), and presumably did quite nicely for itself. However, at some point in the last 15 years, the economics shifted in such a way that it seemed prudent to double the number of screens -- without increasing the footprint. As I understand it, the cinema was shut down for some lengthy period of renovation and emerged with a full 15 screens, the number it still has today.
What I didn't know until yesterday was that the higher the screen number, the smaller the screening room.
I sat for I believe the first time in "Cinema 15" last night, and I'm lucky I didn't bring a few friends because there wouldn't have been enough room for all of us.
In actual fact, I could have brought 21 friends with me, but that's it.
On the occasions I've ever been prompted to count the number of seats in a theater, it has always exceeded 22. That's four rows of four on one side of the aisle, and three rows of two on the other. That's it.
As you can imagine, the screen itself was not a whole lot bigger than an iPhone 5, either.
In order to duplicate the effect of opening and closing the curtains, a little old-fashioned bit of flair this cinema still engages in, the two curtains actually had to be lowered inward like a drawbridge closing. That's how little room there was here.
At first I thought I might be the only audient present for this show, but at the tail end of the trailers, another three people joined me. Which meant that the room was now almost one-fifth full.
At least the seats were really comfy.
For most people, this would still cost them the premium price of $19.50. For me, it was merely a flash of my Australian Film Critics Association membership card, and I was in.
Still, Tangerine was so good that I probably would have spent $39 for a theater with only 11 seats just to see it.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
One recent assumption I made about my five-year-old was that he knew the difference between a movie and reality.
Not so much.
Other than Pan, the movie that has been of most interest in my son's life lately is Everest. This is because my son has early aspirations of becoming a mountain climber. These aspirations express themselves in a little routine he does every day when I pick him up from school. He has to run down this raised dirt area next to the walkway, climb out on a few feet of railing at the end, climb back, then reverse his steps back around the bend. He then walks as though on a balance beam on a brick wall next to the walkway. For the second, inclined portion of this wall, he gets down on his hands and knees and inches up that way. The fall on the outside is only about a foot or two, but on the inside, it's more than six feet. He's done it so many times and he's so careful that I don't really worry about him falling -- but I hover in the area below just in case.
I recently pointed out that his climbing -- not only here, but also on structures at parks -- indicated to me that he might one day want to become a mountain climber. He latched on to that idea right quick. I guess that's probably about the dumbest thing that a parent could suggest to their child, short of recommending they become a shark trainer, motorcycle daredevil or chainsaw juggler. But I want my son to follow his bliss. I'll cross that bridge of him falling off Everest if we come to it.
At another, unrelated time, he saw me looking at the review I'd written of Everest online. Yes, that's me, spending countless hours just sitting there, adoring my own writing. Anyway, this particular instance gave me the opportunity to tell him a little bit about what I do. I told him that I'd seen this movie and that I'd written these words to tell people what I thought about it. It seems that he thought that was pretty cool.
Then Sunday, when we were at Pan, we saw the trailer for Everest playing in the lobby, and he saw some of the things that actually happen in it. A sanitized version of those things, of course -- fortunately, kids are a bit less susceptible to a sustained sense of dread than they are to the physical violence/gore. Anyway, he saw people scrambling around on the snow-covered slopes and fighting for their lives. Although he didn't say anything more about it at the time, those images nestled themselves in his little brain. (Little only compared to an adult brain, of course.)
Then yesterday, when he was involved in his usual routine along the daycare center walkway wall, he asked me, "Daddy, is that movie you saw about the mountain climbers--"
"Everest," I offered.
"Evist. Is that movie real?"
I suddenly understood something about my son that I hadn't understood before.
If he had had the language to express himself this way, what he would have said was, "Daddy, is Everest a documentary or a fiction film?"
Suddenly I found myself in a discussion of terms I was sure he understood, like "actors" and "entertainment." I had always just assumed he knew what an actor was, but it turns out he does not. Or did not. Or may still not.
I tried to explain it in terms that I thought he would understand. I decided he was hung up on the idea that real people might be, you know, real people. It was part of my faulty explanation of the difference between Pan and an animated movie. You know, Pan featured real people. As in, people who were walking around in the daily world, like him.
So what I tried to tell him about was when we went to see The Wizard of Oz performed by the year six through year 12 students at the school next door to our house. "You know that those were just girls at the school playing those parts, right?" He doesn't know what a "part" is. "Playing those characters?" Did he even know what a character was?
"I don't know that," he said. Which sounded a bit like a lawyer using his oratory skills to parse semantics, I noted with a little mental chuckle.
So I guess my son thought he was actually watching a lion, a tin man and a bunch of flying monkeys. In a gymnasium at a school next door to our house.
Hey, stranger things have happ -- no they haven't.
To extend that logic to Pan, when I told him the movie contained "real people," he thought he was about to watch a snuff film in which a murderous pirate would start killing everyone on screen. I would be scared to watch that, too.
The part I can't reconcile is that he thinks we live in a world where this is okay. Where a parent would willingly -- nay, eagerly -- take his child to watch a pirate actually shooting and actually stabbing people. That this would pass for entertainment -- a concept with which he was not familiar, as such, anyway.
So I ended up explaining that Everest featured "actors" who were "reenacting" (yeah, that word was too big) a story (he got that one) for our "entertainment" (think we got that one squared away). I explained it was their job and that they went home to their families each night, just like his mummy and daddy did. I explained that the "actors" were not in any danger as they were filming the movie -- that although the mountain-climbing was "real," in a certain sense, the "actors" couldn't get hurt while doing it. I didn't explain that it was not really Mt. Everest or get into any kind of technical details like that -- I already felt a bit like I was telling him there was no Easter Bunny.
Then I tried to explain that although the stuff that happens in that movie was not anything that was actually happening to those people, it was based on things that had happened to other people at a different time. I don't know if he completely grasped that one, but he didn't ask any follow-up questions.
I told him that almost all movies are this way, but then I said that there were some movies where the people were real, but they were boring grown up movies that he wouldn't watch for a long, long time.
Fifteen minutes after arriving home, he developed a fever and promptly went to sleep. I discovered this only after going to his bedroom to notify him that his fish sticks and carrots were ready. Maybe these revelations were all too much for him after all.
Monday, September 21, 2015
When I'm at a movie with my son, my duties as a parent come in direct conflict with my first instinct as a cinephile. That instinct is: to watch the whole movie at all costs. That means I'll try to keep him in the movie, even when he's scared, through some combination of soothing, cajoling, bargaining and pleading. If he wants to leave, I must convince him that he shouldn't -- or die trying.
It worked in Big Hero 6. It didn't work in Paddington, and we left the movie with less than 15 minutes to go.
The pleading to leave started much earlier in Pan, a family-themed advanced screening of which played Sunday at Jam Factory in South Yarra. In fact, it started less than two minutes into the movie. So even though I was supposed to be reviewing it, I did my reluctant parental duty and escorted my son out of the theater ... and paid for it in a way I never would have expected.
But let's back up a bit to the beginning of the day.
Remembering how a charity run had screwed us over the last time we tried to get to this cinema via tram on a Sunday morning, as described here, we got a nice and early start, allowing ourselves nearly two hours to make what should have been an hour trip max. In fact, we needed less than hour to get there, and arrived 45 minutes before seating was even set to begin. Even better, the digital passes that we might have needed to get in, though probably not, finally arrived at the last minute on my phone while we were in transit. Things were going so swimmingly, in fact, that I allowed us the indulgence of having pancakes and a milkshake at a classic American 50s diner that was down the street from the cinema. (And yeah, that's an indulgence -- that's not what I feed my son every day.)
Although I had explained on the tram ride over that this would be a movie starring "real people," trying to distinguish it from animation, and he seemed okay with that, I was nonetheless worried that this might be too advanced for him. Then we saw the tall pirate ship set into the side of the staircase going up to the cinema, that kind where one strip of the picture appears on each step, creating one complete image if you stand back and look at it. "I want to see that movie!" my son, a renowned pirate fan, said. Imagine my pleasure in getting to tell him that this, indeed, was the movie we were seeing.
It gets better. At the top of the stairs, my son was immediately handed a red balloon in the shape of a pirate sword by a man in full pirate regalia. Moments later he was having a blackbeard moustache and beard and red bandanna painted on to this face. He was ready to watch Pan if ever a kid was ready.
The first sign of possible trouble occurred when we were going in to the theater, and I realized something that had escaped my notice during the cursory scan of our invitation: this screening was in 3D. My son had never been to a 3D movie before. How to properly prepare a child for 3D?
He seemed to enjoy wearing the glasses, though, and I recalled that at the Lego Museum in Boston, we'd watched a short 3D Lego adventure. So the experience would not be entirely unprecedented. I again relaxed into my luxury seat -- the screening was playing in one of the so-called "Gold Class" theaters -- and enjoyed the first kernels of the complimentary popcorn that had been there waiting for us.
The first test was the single trailer that played before the movie, for the Jack Black vehicle Goosebumps, another movie pitched at about the same aged child, with about the same potential scare factor. This trailer featured an abominable snowman, a werewolf, a large bug, and any number of other creepy crawlies. My son didn't bat an eyelash at the content, but as the ad was in 2D, the 3D had yet to be tested.
Then Hugh Jackman came on, introducing us to the movie in a 60-second promotional segment. The seeds of what would end up happening may have been planted here, though I'll get to that in a minute.
The movie started, and I could tell right away that my son was ill at ease. It's one of those movies with a drab color scheme that starts out with London being bombed during World War II. (I say "one of those movies" because The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe starts out almost the exact same way.) He immediately started asking questions about what was going on -- not the kind of questions you ask as a genuine attempt to understand the narrative, but the type of questions you ask to abate a mounting panic. It wasn't two minutes in when a small voice escaped him that said, "I don't want to watch this movie. I want to go home."
I swallowed hard and asked him to stick it out for another few minutes.
The next time this voice escaped him, it was a little bigger and a little more insistent. And this time he added that the movie was scary, which was implied but not previously stated aloud. I advised him to look away or to sit on my lap. He wasn't going for either.
I asked him to give it two more minutes again. He might have given it one more minute.
I soon reconciled myself to the fact that this was a losing battle. In reality, my son was one of the youngest children there, so this may never have been a good bet. And it became clear to me that he'd begin ruining the movie for the other kids if he couldn't get into its groove. At this point, there was little chance of that happening.
So with a big sigh of resignation, I gathered our stuff and directed us toward the exit.
In another sign of what was to come, though, as we had made it down to the front row, he looked up at the screen and asked me about something that was happening. Sensing that he might be getting a second wind on his potential to handle the movie, I asked him again if he wanted to stay. He assured me he did not. This did not prevent him from pulling the same routine as we were actually reached the exit. Again, I asked him if he wanted to stay. Again, he said no.
He had the gall to ask as we were leaving if he could play one of the video games in the lobby. Even if I hadn't already shoved three wasted dollars into a pinball game at the 50s diner, back when everything seemed so promising, I would have said no. I was in no mood. We descended those lovely stairs, the ones with the image of the ship set into them, the ship that had once seemed so hopeful, and he ran over to one of those cars that you sit in and put two dollars in, that move and shake for about 45 seconds before stopping. I denied him this as well. I was officially sulking.
When we left the shopping complex a few minutes later, I asked my son why he had been so scared. The content we'd seen wasn't inherently scary, though it did feature some wicked nuns, who seemed a bit grotesque in the eyes of our protagonists. And yeah, the city was getting bombed, but that kind of thing doesn't usually bother my son. He likes guns and stuff. He's scared of monsters, not violence per se.
He told me that he was scared because there was a pirate who wanted to kill everyone. We had met no such pirate. The only thing I can conclude is that Hugh Jackman, who had made some reference to his character of Blackbeard in the promotional video, had given my son the impression of being a pirate who wanted to kill everyone. As you can see in the poster above, Jackman appears with a gun and a sword -- both things my son likes. How he made the leap that this pirate wanted to kill everyone is beyond me.
And then it happened: My son said he wanted to go back in.
Goddamn you, kid.
I'm not sure if we had missed ten minutes or 15 minutes at this point. It might have even been less than ten minutes. But it was enough that I had been entirely thrown out of the movie, a movie I was meant to be reviewing. In the minutes since we'd left, I'd already mentally decided to go to a nighttime screening later this week (it opens on Thursday here, October 9th in the U.S.), just so I could write the review. I wasn't about to go back in now, which would take another five minutes of getting back up to the screening room, plus a possible explanation of why we had left the building entirely and then come back.
But more than anything, I just didn't want to do it.
There are times when you need to teach your kids about consequences. If you make certain choices in life, you have to live with them. That's okay if you're scared -- I get that. Even if nothing particularly scary has happened yet. But once you've decided to leave -- once your dad has asked you six times if you're sure you want to leave, and you still say you want to leave -- then we leave. And we don't go back.
I thought I was sound in my logic, but in case I wasn't, I also told him that they don't let you back in once you leave. I said that if you have to go to the bathroom, that's okay, but if you leave the building you can't come back in. In reality, of course they'd let us back in, especially in Australia, where people tend to be pretty lackadaisical about strictly adhering to rules in general.
But more than anything, I just didn't want to do it.
Well, either my kid saw through my logic or didn't consider it to be as insurmountable as I did, because he spent the next 20 minutes crying. That's right, 20 minutes. Fifteen of which were on a tram riding back to the city, as I did my best to soothe him while imagining the combination of sympathetic and annoyed looks people were probably directing at us. He was so distraught about the perceived injustice of the situation -- a situation he was solely responsible for, mind you -- that the only way he could think to express it in words other than crying and wailing "Mama" was to tell me that Santa wasn't going to bring me any presents this year.
And yeah, my heart sort of went out to this poor kid, hurting to the core of his being, his tears causing his pirate makeup to run down his face in rivulets. But dang it, we protect our kids too often from the consequences of their actions. The next time we go to the movies -- and I'll be pretty hesitant about that, given the outcome of this experience -- I want him to remember how sad he was this time before he asks us to leave next time.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.
Now that we were done a good two hours earlier than we expected to be -- and than my wife, getting some time at home to herself with my other son napping, expected us to be -- I had to figure out another way to spend some of this beautiful spring day. It was only 11:30, and indeed, it was about the nicest day we've had since winter officially ended at the end of August. (The seasons change on the first of the month here. Let's not get into it.)
So we went to the botanical gardens, a place that seems like a hardship to get to on normal days (but isn't really), but which was much more convenient to us now that we'd gone all the way down to South Yarra. They have a beautiful fenced-in spot called the children's garden, which has some grassy areas, some woodsy areas, some sandy areas and some climbing areas, all bisected and trisected by tributaries of man-made water. My son immediately perked up upon entry. Not only was he eager to play, but he was eager for me to come along with him on his adventures. He still had the balloon sword and he still had the pirate makeup, so he was still going to have some kind of pirate adventure, gosh darn it.
So we went traversing through the various areas of this children's garden, the forest of bamboo shoots and the tree with its hollowed out center, the spot where you can take off your shoes and stomp in the water and the part where you can watch the water trickle out from a fountain, the sandy part with its bridges across little moats of water and the tower in the trees that you reach by a spiral staircase. He was having a grand old time, and my God, was it a beautiful day.
And we stopped for two picnics as well. My son was touched to learn that I'd saved his popcorn from the movie theater and loaded it into my backpack on the way out, as we weren't even there long enough for him to eat any of it. So we had popcorn, "crunchy bars" (granola bars, which are called muesli bars here), apples and drinks -- he a juice box, me a diet lemonade soda. We just enjoyed the surroundings and the weather -- and each other's company, I suppose. That's right, all the previous enmity he had shown toward me, he had now sublimated into love and affection. He probably knew, on some level, that mine was the righteous case and his was the faulty one. But we're men -- we don't admit to things like that.
I took a bunch of good pictures of him, including the one above. A couple of them seem like candidates for this year's Christmas card. And all of this would never have happened if we'd just seen the movie and gone home, as was supposed to happen. Maybe this was nature's way of telling us to get out and enjoy the beautiful day. We also spent time in and around a war memorial, by a fountain, and in a play area outside a shopping center where we needed to pick up some groceries later on. In the end, we were out until 4:15.
But I'm jumping ahead again. By the time his balloon sword popped -- something I had warned him would happen sooner or later, especially if he weren't careful, and especially if he were swinging it in and around tree branches -- it was kind of like the trauma from the morning had all been forgotten. He didn't even get too glum about the loss of his trusty weapon, though he did ask me if I could blow it back up for him. I explained to him for probably the half dozenth time the essentially ephemeral existence of balloons.
Proving he was still a kid, and that the movie hadn't entirely left his thoughts, he did ask, "Daddy, can we go back to the movie and get another balloon?"
Fortunately, he took the gentle rebuffing of this request in stride as well.