Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A deeper Separation than even I knew


I ranked Asghar Farhadi's A Separation my #1 movie of 2011, but because that was before I wrote a little blurb about my top ten films in the year-end post, I've never even had the chance to write about it.

But if I had written about it, I wouldn't have discussed the things I discovered about it on my second viewing, which further deepened my appreciation for it.

At first, though, I was concerned. My viewing looked like it was going to be severely compromised, as it was broken up into three chunks -- or four, depending on how you want to define a "chunk." I started it Monday night about 9:45, but had to stop after ten minutes when my younger son, who is sick, started squealing in the other room. Since our BluRay player's remote control has just recently broken (possibly a topic for a longer post), I couldn't actually pause it -- I had to press stop on the front of the player itself. Fumbling for the buttons in the dark, I accidentally ejected the disc, which means I had to start over from the beginning when it didn't remember my place (and when no option exists on the front panel to choose a chapter manually or even fast forward -- you are really limited if you don't have the remote).

After about 40 minutes I got tired and stopped it -- this time, figuring out what I needed to do to make it resume from the same spot. I resumed from that spot sometime after midnight when I had insomnia, and made it through to about 75 minutes in.

At this point, I was pretty sure A Separation would, through no fault of its own, drop a level or two in my estimation. Sometimes it can be hard to separate (pun intended) the quality of a movie from the circumstances of your most recent viewing, especially if it's the second viewing or less, when your opinion on the movie has not yet been validated by a positive rewatch.

But while my son was napping the next day and I was home from work, I finished the movie, and developed a take on it that I hadn't had previously (though I'm sure others have had). And if you haven't seen A Separation, now is probably the time to bail on this post as I am about to get into spoilers.

At the time, I obviously loved A Separation, but valued it mostly on the surface level of a single family struggling through irreconcilable differences in the parent generation and an unfortunate incident with an in-home care worker that might be criminal. Actually, the film is a struggle for the very soul of Iran.

I'll explain.

On a core level it is a conflict between New Iran and Old Iran, but various people represent various sides at various times. The most complicated figure in that regard is Nader, played by Paymen Mooadi. He's the father of the family, the husband. From the very start he is set up in opposition to his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami). She want to leave Iran, as they had been planning to do, even securing travel visas for the whole family. However, he wants to stay, as he has a responsibility to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's and no longer even recognizes him as his son.

It's significant that this is Nader's father, not his mother. They both represent the patrilineal history of Iran, though there's a clear sense that it's dying. In fact, over the course of the narrative, this character goes from speaking a few words (touchingly, it's his daughter-in-law's name, Simin, we hear the father speak), to becoming mute -- further indicating the diminishing hold Old Iran has on the country. Nader seems stubborn for trying to cling to it, though not in an uncomplicated way, as caring for a sick parent is clearly a noble pursuit. Like everything in this film, shades of gray rule the day.

On the other side of the equation is Simin, a woman, who represents the future of Iran. Unfortunately, the overt meaning here is that the future of Iran is to leave it. That's one of many not-so-subtle comments about the state of Iran included in this film, one of the reasons it seems like such a surprise that the state actually supported this film (while imprisoning filmmakers like Jafar Panahi). However, a more symbolic reading is that the "leaving" that's being done is from the old way of thinking.

There's a different type of New and Old Iran on display here, though, and they may be kind of related to one another, except that Nader is on the other side this time. The conflict is between Religious Iran and Secular Iran. The reason Razieh (Sareh Bayat) makes such a bad carer for his father is that her fundamentalist Islamic views consider it a sin for her to touch a man other than her husband. When Nader's father soils himself, she can't help clean him, though finally does provide some limited assistance after an external confirmation from a religious advisor that she can don gloves and it won't be a sin. Nader is not religious at all, but as a patriarch he is also a representative of Old Iran. Perhaps that's why it seems that although he doesn't agree with her old-fashioned views, he understands them and never directly opposes them because he realizes they are kind of kindred spirits. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and both Nader and Razieh have enemies in the New Iran.

However, complicating issues is that Razieh is a woman, meaning there is a new school aspect to her that aligns her with Simin. In fact, late in the film, she goes and confesses the true circumstances of her miscarriage to Simin, even though Simin is overtly aligned with her enemy, Nader. She tries to get Simin to agree to accept the information in confidence, even though it is directly against Simin's interests to have her husband and daughter continue to be threatened by Razieh's husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). And through this we see Razieh is also in direct conflict with her own husband, who she says "would kill her" if he found out she had made this confession to Simin. She's another woman trying to escape the patriarchy -- even as the patriarchal aspects of Islam are her primary guiding principles.

Complicated, yes?

But there are some other key characters we haven't considered yet. There are two children in this movie, and it seems significant that both of them are girls. Each family has a female child, one 10 years old and one about five. These are unformed characters who still must decide their fate. In fact, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), Nader and Simin's daughter, is being repeatedly asked to choose between her mother and her father, between the Old Iran and the New Iran. (We have less of a sense of the internal life of Razieh and Hodjat's daughter, as she has a smaller role.) The movie ends on a moment of ambiguity, as we don't know who she has chosen in the end. This seems to indicate that Farhadi finds Iran at a crossroads, trying to figure out whether it wants to become an active participant in the western world and western culture, or retreat into its intractable positions of isolation and religious intolerance. Since he doesn't know which way it will go, he doesn't tell us who Termeh chooses. Whatever private idea he has about who the character chooses -- if he has one at all -- indicates whether he is, in his heart of hearts, optimistic about the country's future, or pessimistic.

There's one other young character we haven't considered -- Razieh's unborn child, who is lost in the film's first half. It seems significant that it's revealed this child was male -- a throwaway line after the miscarriage that Farhadi needn't have included if he hadn't had a specific purpose to it. So there are two mute male characters in this film, at opposite sides of the age spectrum -- one is in the generation older than Nader and Simin in their family, and one is in the generation younger than Razier and Hodjat in their family. So the oldest and youngest examples of the possible future of Iran's patriarchy have nothing to say to those making the decisions in the present -- like Simin, Razieh and Termeh. They must choose on their own. However, the death of the unborn child suggests that Iran's future is very much in doubt -- that a new way of thinking may never get a chance to come into existence at all.

Of course, there's a good chance that this is how everyone was interpreting this film from the start, and I'm just late to the party.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Down on docs


A telling thing happened at the library on Friday night.

I was meeting the rest of my family and my mother-in-law, in town from Tasmania, for an early dinner on the main commercial drag of North Melbourne. Instead of coming home first, I met them there after work, but got there a good 30 minutes before they did. So I used the opportunity to browse leisurely through the movies at the library, instead of having to do it quickly while frantically looking over my shoulder to make sure one of my children wasn't destroying something or crawling out the door. (Or, walking out the door, these days.)

I did a bunch of that methodical finger flipping through the boxes -- you know, the kind made famous as a method of browsing used CDs back in the day. But when I came to the documentary section I stopped.

"Nah," I thought. "Not worth it."

As in, there could not possibly be any documentaries I would be interested in borrowing.

It's not something I would have consciously admitted to myself before this incident, but when it happened, it became abundantly clear what kind of fiction phase I'm in right now. In fact, the last documentary I watched was way back at the beginning of February, more than three months ago. But so total has my recent dismissal of documentaries been that I was at first convinced that I hadn't seen one since before I closed my 2014 movie list, when I watched the Nick Cave doc 20,000 Days on Earth on January 14th. Then I found Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father on February 6th, making my drought seem just a tad less staggering.

It's not like I'm down there with your average viewer, who watches fewer than one documentary a year. But considering how I used to program documentaries as part of my regular viewing habits -- probably on the order of at least one per month -- it seems like more than just a scheduling quirk. This is a pattern forming.

It's not like access to docs is hard for me right now or anything. I've got a ton on my Netflix queue that I mean to see -- eventually.

But "eventually" has been a timeframe I've found a hard time reaching lately.

I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I do have some theories. That Netflix queue is part of it. Now that Netflix shows a sprawl of recent documentary arrivals on the home page, and most of them are ones I have never heard of, I'm finding it harder to determine what's considered a "legitimate" documentary. Now that the means of delivery of all movies has changed so radically, that's even more the case with the documentary, which has never been a cinematic stalwart in the best of times. With more documentaries premiering on TV or online, it's hard to distinguish what is a "real documentary" and what might just be a "television program." I try to observe that separation of church and state (TV and movies) on the lists I keep, and a movie that doesn't easily categorize itself questions my sense of order. (Of course, most people would say you should just watch a non-fiction program whose subject matter interests you, and not worry about whether it neatly fits into the taxonomy of programming types.)

But I'm betting that the bigger factor is that I'm into escapism lately. That may be a rather obvious statement to make about a cinephile -- our need for escapism is what causes us to become cinephiles in the first place -- but I'm feeling the truth of it more than usual. Documentaries, by their structure and often their subject matter, can feel like work more than an escape from work.

Or perhaps I'm still reeling from the documentary that felt most like work of any I've seen in ages -- the one that came right before 20,000 Days on Earth. That was Particle Fever, whose poster has the honor -- or in this case dishonor -- of adorning this post. Who would have thought that a movie about something inherently awesome -- the Hadron super collider -- could be so deathly boring? Okay okay ... maybe it was our fault for thinking it wouldn't be.

Well, as I like to do in these pessimistic posts, I'll end with a vow -- a vow to aggressively force some non-fiction filmmaking back on my schedule. Because there are some docs out there that have been tantalizing me for a while -- I just have to let them come to the forefront. I just have to let them get "thrown on." There's the 2013 film The Institute, to name one. I understand I'm supposed to know as little as possible about it going in. Hey, that sounds like a good fiction film!

And maybe next time I'm at the library without any kids, I'll give that good old documentary section a finger flip.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The most quotable line from Poltergeist ... II


One movie reference that has persisted for years in our culture is the notion that something is "baaAAAaack."

That's how I write it whenever I use it, anyway. I've seen it written as either "ba-ack" or just "baaaaack," the latter hoping, I guess, that you will imagine the vowel sound going up in that sing-songy fashion without any visual cues to indicate it.

This is, of course, the ominous pronouncement of one Carol Anne Freeling upon realizing that the Poltergeist ghosts have returned to her television. She announced their original arrival with "They're heeEEEeere."

But the meme that has persisted in our culture is not "They're heeEEEeere." It's "They're baaAAAaack." It is most often used to describe the return of someone or something that we'd thought was, practically speaking, dead. I used it most recently to describe Boston Red Sox hitter Shane Victorino, a former star who has suffered through a panoply of injuries and ineffective play over the past two seasons, who hit a home run and led his team to victory on Thursday. (A friend of mine is obsessed with Victorino.) That was a decent usage, but it's better for (staying in the world of baseball) someone like Alex Rodriguez, who missed all of last season after an infamous steroid suspension but has been playing like gangbusters early on in 2015. It should really be for someone you hoped was gone, but now is back -- like those Poltergeist ghosts.

Of course, it's not actually from Poltergeist. It's from Poltergeist II.

When you think about it, it makes sense. It was the perfect marketing hook for a Poltergeist sequel, playing off the most famous quote from the original movie. What's odd is that it has risen up above the original quote in prominence and frequency of usage, even as the second Poltergeist movie on the whole is justifiably forgotten and dismissed.

For example, did you even remember, without seeing that poster, that Poltergeist II was subtitled The Other Side?

Alright, that one was too easy. Yeah, you remembered.

But it's funny that when we think we're doing "the Poltergeist quote," we're actually doing "the Poltergeist II quote." It's kind of the same as that time I discovered that most of my friends and my favorite quotes from Airplane! were actually from Airplane II -- although not really the same, because Airplane II is also really funny. Whereas Poltergeist II ... well, that old guy at the beginning really scared me, anyway.

I haven't seen any advertising for this summer's Poltergeist reboot, but I imagine that, also, would be a good opportunity for "They're baaAAAaack." Of course, "they" can never really be back in a soulless reboot that is as likely to scare me as it's likely to do my taxes.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Conspiracy thriller meets Irwin Allen meets His Girl Friday


I saw the oddest and most wonderful hybrid movie on Friday night, a movie whose description sounds so unusual that you'd think it must be working on the level of kitsch. Nope, Peter Hyams' 1978 Capricorn One is a genuine, straightforward film with nary a wink to it -- and it's damned entertaining.

What makes it so unusual is that not only is it such a determined and counterintuitive mix of genres, but it also stars an unlikely mix of major celebrities -- the more they sound like they should be a guest star on The Love Boat, the better.

Let's get the high concept plot out of the way:

Three astronauts are being sent on humanity's first mission to Mars. Minutes before they're about to leave aboard the eponymous rocket, a strange man in a suit calls them out of the cockpit and demands that they come with him, but that there's no time to explain. Reluctantly, the astronauts follow, and soon find themselves aboard a private jet to a remote location. Meanwhile, the countdown is still going and the rest of the world believes they are watching three astronauts launch into space. The astronauts arrive in a remote airplane hanger that's decked out to look like the surface of Mars. It turns out their trip is going to be faked. At the 11th hour, tests revealed that the life support systems for the astronauts would fail after only three weeks, so instead of losing face (and losing the funding Congress has threatened to withdraw from NASA) by canceling the expedition, the astronauts will be compelled to cooperate with a hoax. However, when something goes wrong aboard the actual ship ...

I'll leave off with an ellipses right there, since there's much more to be discovered about where this movie goes, which takes it even further afield from the already unusual mash-up of two genres (movies about the space program and conspiracy theory movies). The movie also has a delicious relationship to the real world, because it addresses rather pointedly the theory that the moon landing might have been faked ten years earlier.

But wait, we haven't even gotten to the cast yet.

And to do it justice, we need to list the names like they did in the ads for those Irwin Allen disaster movies, complete with a picture of each actor, preferably turning toward the camera when their name is called and smiling.

"And starring ...

"James Brolin, as the brave captain of Capricorn One!

"Sam Waterston, as fellow astronaut Peter Willis!

"Elliott Gould, as intrepid reporter Robert Caulfield!

"Hal Holbrook, as the shifty NASA operative!

"James Karen, as the vice president!

"With special guest appearances by ...

"Telly Savalas, as the grumpy crop duster pilot!

"And O.J. Simpson, as astronaut John Walker!"

Simpson is actually more a star than a guest star, but as the oddest name on the list -- especially today -- he gets final billing.

Beyond Simpson, many other of these actors probably seem more unusual today than they did at the time. We think of James Brolin as the guy who married Barbra Streisand in 1998, and Sam Waterston as the guy who starred on several hundred seasons of Law and Order. (Savalas had already been Kojak.) Still, this is a rogue's gallery, isn't it?

But I still haven't told you the funniest part.

There's a part of this movie that so clearly resembles His Girl Friday, with the high-speed banter between a journalist and his estranged ex and a journalist and his editor, that not only did I think of it at the time I was watching, but the review I read afterward made reference to its "rapid-fire dialogue worthy of a Howard Hawks comedy."

As one final enticement: This movie contains possibly the two most ominous helicopters in movie history, which behave more like insidious sentient beings than aircraft.

So you've, like, got to see this movie, right?

The answer is yes. Yes you do.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A funny thing that happened that is probably not worth writing about.


I was at a screening of the charming-enough new movie Gemma Bovery earlier this week when one of "those moments" happened. You know, moments that make you stop and wonder what is a coincidence and what is, like, a supernatural event.

Okay, it wasn't that big of a deal, but I still thought it was worth writing about. (Though, probably not.)

The movie is about a case of life imitating art, involving a couple named Gemma and Charles Bovery who start behaving suspiciously like Emma and Charles Bovary from the novel Madame Bovary. It's not just a modern-day Bovary update -- the characters in the movie are aware of the novel -- though I guess it half functions that way.

As my mind wandered for a moment, I started thinking about the fact that I just started making a list of all the books I've ever read in an Excel spreadsheet (!) and that Madame Bovary belonged on it, because I'd listened to an unabridged audio book of it back in the late 1990s. For some reason I then thought of Roald Dah's two "Charlie" books -- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator -- and how I needed to include them too.

Snap back to the movie, and Gemma Arerton's Gemma says to her husband, played by Jason Flemyng, the very next moment, "Charlie, do you have a bucket?" See, rain is coming in through their roof.

Here's the weird part: Charlie Bucket is the main character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

What makes it 10% weirder is that this is already a movie about the mysterious interplay between "reality" and "fiction." Not only is there the characters in the movie resembling the characters in a famous book, both in name and action, but there's the (probably intentional) decision to cast Gemma Arterton, the only working actress of any prominence with the first name Gemma, as a character named Gemma Bovery. (The movie is based on a 1999 graphic novel, so the character wasn't inspired by the actress or anything.) Take it out one layer further -- or at least, sideways on the same layer -- and my interaction with this movie as an audience member also has an unusual and inexplicable moment. And this actually sort of creates a closed loop, in that the movie goes back to having a connection to a novel -- even if it's just a personal moment experienced by no one but me.

Why did I think of Charlie Bucket moments before Arterton was about to say "Charlie" and "bucket" in the same sentence? Why didn't I think of a Stephen King novel instead?

Who knows.

See, I told you it wasn't really worth writing about.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Body horror


You know that feeling you get when you've started to vomit, but haven't totally chucked up your guts? Some people call it a vurp?

Except that a vurp implies a single violent incident, not the steady rising and lowering of a reservoir of vomit in your throat, like a toilet forever on the verge of overflowing.

That's kind of what it's like watching the German film Wetlands.

And if I'm using vulgar terminology about vomit and overflowing toilets, it's only in a desperate attempt to keep pace with this movie.

There are two reasons my description doesn't quite work for Wetlands:

1) It's an exaggeration. I probably only felt that way a dozen times throughout the movie, not all 110 minutes.

2) The movie is actually good, in the end.

But boy is it gross.

It's the story of the woman you see there in the picture -- I'll say "woman," but it's hard to tell exactly how old she is. She could be anywhere from 16 to 25 (the actress was 28 at the time), and her current age computation is complicated by the fact that the story contains numerous flashbacks, only some of which feature a younger actress playing her role. It's further complicated by the fact that she wants her parents to get back together, which makes her seem stunted in adolescence even when she might be in her 20s.

That woman, as the poster tells you, is Helen, who has an almost sexual fascination with germs and bacteria -- and an actual sexual fascination with everything else. In a reckless attempt at self-contamination, she wipes her nether regions all over the tops of dirty toilet seats -- the dirtier, the better. However, in a bit of irony, her immune system doesn't cooperate with her, fighting off her every attempt to infect herself.

She does, however, have hemorrhoids, and gets an anal fissure during a shaving accident, which results in her being hospitalized. Her hospitalization forms most of the movie's present tense.

Still with me?

I could enumerate all the grossness that follows, but I'd rather describe how the overarching grossness imbues things that aren't gross with the queasiness of this movie's fixation with smells and bodily fluids.

All the actual body fluids you can imagine are present in this movie -- shit, piss, semen, menstrual blood -- but what's most insidious is how these infect the movie's regular imagery. Even something as beautiful as rain dropping on a wrought-iron gate comes to remind someone of splashes of errant urine, and something neutral that already looks gross -- say, a bowl of lumpy yogurt -- gives off the nauseating impression of a quivering mass of coagulated yeast infection.

Feeling the vurp now?

The interesting thing about this movie is that it's so beautifully shot. Director David Wnendt has a terrific eye, and this film has a unique knack for playful visuals. Perhaps because it's German, it reminded me at times of Run Lola Run's visual scheme, though Lola does not have the pristine appearance of Wetlands. Wetlands is a movie about gross things that's shot with inimitable artistic delicacy.

But it does have a much more pernicious agenda, which is to repulse us with its fascination with the swampy brackishness of the human body -- specifically, the female body. Helen is constantly sniffing, scratching, shaving, picking and penetrating, and though we don't see all of it, the parts we do see make us imagine the parts we don't. In Nathan Southern's terrific review on Allmovie.com, he compares it to the shower scene in Psycho -- we start to think we're seeing things even when we aren't seeing them.

What I couldn't help wondering while watching this movie is whether it's feminist or anti-feminist. Certainly, Helen's liberation from the hygiene standards expected by society is a type of feminist victory, as she would have been perfectly at home without a bra or a razor at Woodstock. And Carla Juri's fearless performance and willingness to offer up her body as an insidious type of laboratory are a further bit of rebellion from those norms. But I don't know if Wetlands ultimately wants us to be grossed out by the female body, or to love it, (literally) warts and all. The novel on which the film was based was written by a woman, if that helps.

So I'm ultimately recommending Wetlands, but I'll say this:

Prepare to get wet.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

When did Charles Grodin become ancient?


I suppose there's a reason Charles Grodin's rapidly advancing age took me by surprise when I saw While We're Young on Saturday:

The guy has barely been in anything the past 20 years.

Of course, I didn't know that until I looked up his recent work. And I also would have been more prepared for it if I'd been caught up on Louie, but only watched the first two episodes of last season last night (now that it's available on Netflix). In fact, it was seeing him on Louie that pushed this topic up to being blog-worthy.

I thought, "Man, he doesn't look well for a guy who must be around 67 years old."

Nope. Charles Grodin is 80.

It shouldn't be a huge surprise. I mean, Grodin was a contemporary of Robert DeNiro when they were in Midnight Run, and DeNiro is 71. I guess I just didn't know Grodin was nine years older than DeNiro.

Plus, we've gotten used to DeNiro aging as the man has been in approximately 11 films a year for the last 15 years.

Grodin?

The Ex represented an anomaly for him in 2006, and I do remember seeing him in that, come to think of it. (I reviewed that movie and specifically referenced how funny he was.)

Before that? The Clifford movie and the dubious sequel to A Christmas Story, alternately titled It Runs in the Family and My Summer Story. Both were released in 1994.

Wikipedia offers no explanation for his acting hiatus, and I don't feel like digging through the rest of the internet to find it. It does seem odd, however, that a 60-year-old man (the gender distinction is important) appearing in successful movies (the Beethoven movies were coming out around that time as well) would just hang it up. He did host a radio talk show in the late 1990s, but even after that talk show ended, it was another eight years before The Ex. And then another eight years again before While We're Young, with some TV work sprinkled in there as well.

So the answer is, Grodin has been becoming ancient for a while, we just haven't been privy to it.

Well gosh darnit, that's a shame, because this guy is still hilarious. I've only seen one of the apparently four episodes of Louie Grodin appears in, but it's vintage Grodin. He's a physician who basically dismisses the idea that there's anything that can be done about Louie's back pain because the human spine was never meant to accommodate walking. He tells Louie that it will probably hurt him for the next 20,000 years of evolution.

His role in While We're Young is not strictly a comedy role, but he does get to deliver at least one killer line: "I've been sitting here watching a six-and-a-half hour movie that I thought was seven hours too long."

While he's still young enough to bless us with his great comic timing, here's hoping Grodin finds his way into one or two more dynamite roles before he retires for good this time.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

George Miller reborn


I can't believe this is my first time writing about Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that opens tomorrow here in Australia. And I can scarcely believe I will wait until next Tuesday to see it, when ticket prices are cheaper for a night.

There are so many great posters for this movie that you'd figure I would have chosen that excuse alone as a chance to write about it, just to show them off and take vicarious credit for their awesomeness. (Many of them not commissioned by the studio -- I've gone conventional and chosen a studio one here.) Maybe I'll save that for another day.

Simply put, I am more excited for this movie than I have been for any since Gravity.

I broke my 2015 rule of not watching trailers in order to catch the first Fury Road trailer that was released, back in January or whenever it was. I felt I had a pretty good excuse: I wasn't expecting much from this movie, which seems like it was once scheduled for release as long ago as 2013, and a good trailer would have probably been needed to change my mind.

Did it ever. Since then I have been like a salivating dog, just waiting for May to arrive. 

I've left the subsequent trailers untouched. I want the rest of Fury Road to just wash over me next Tuesday, and the early critical indicators are that it will rush so fast and so hard that I'll be gasping for breath.

Seriously. It's got an 87 on Metacritic and a 98 on Rotten Tomatoes. I may be meeting a friend for drinks after work tomorrow, and I'm tempted to just pop straight over to a screening after that.

But I think the thing that's so crazy about how awesome Mad Max looks is that it's directed by the guy who directed the original Mad Max.

Although it may look like the visionary work of some hot shot who's fresh from his latest ground-breaking music video (or whatever today's cinematic proving grounds may be), nope, this is George Miller -- the same George Miller who directed Mad Max in 1979. (The same George Miller who also had a hand in both Babe movies and both Happy Feet movies, oddly enough.)

The same George Miller who is currently 70 years old -- an old dog still learning new tricks.

Just from the throbbing energy and scuzzy magnificence of that one Fury Road trailer I saw, it appears that Miller is not just back to his old form -- it appears that he's actually learning a new cinematic language.

I'd say it's a surprise that "they" "handed Miller the job," but it actually sounds like this is a treatment Miller himself has been working on for more than ten years. If something's been sitting with you that long, it's no surprise that you want to be the one who makes it -- even if you have spent the lion's share of the previous twenty years on children's movies.

A template exists for this type of thing, I suppose: Ridley Scott directing his own new Alien movie in Prometheus. The passage of time between the original Alien and Prometheus and the original Mad Max and Fury Road is very similar as well. The difference is that Scott has been as prolific as ever into his 70s, and continuing to demonstrate his visual ingenuity in each film (even though many of them have been a disappointment beyond the visuals). Miller, meanwhile, gave off the appearance of being retired -- or practically "retired" in the sense that he has not directed a movie for adults since 1992's Lorenzo's Oil.

Will Mad Max: Fury Road be even better than Lorenzo's Oil?

I guess we will just have to wait and see. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sometimes they come back


If you had told me I would need to find an alternate poster for the movie 54, because I was actually going to write about 54 twice on my blog (and have a policy of never using the same poster twice as the lead art on a post), I would have told you you were crazy.

Yet 54 was the lead art on this post back in 2009, and somehow, I find this forgettable movie elbowing its way back on to my blog again in 2015.

Reason: They are re-releasing this dog. In Australia, anyway.

I saw the poster (not this one, the more familiar one) on the wall at Cinema Nova on Saturday. At first I mistook it for vintage decoration, since Nova does have exactly one such poster -- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- hanging among the ones advertising upcoming releases. But nope, emblazoned along the bottom was a June 11th release date.

June 11th, 2015, not June 11th, 1998.

I don't know who saw it fit to restore some never-before-seen footage to this movie and actually try again with it. Aren't there certain movies where you should just walk away?

The write-up advertising it on the Nova website describes it as a "weightier, darker, more drug-addled and above all queerer film than the original." That's the result of restoring 40 minutes of the film that were cut at the producers' behest, and trashing the 25 minutes of reshoots that were demanded to fix the gap of those missing 40 minutes. This version played at this year's Berlin Film Festival in February, apparently to some acclaim, else it likely wouldn't have seen the light of day beyond that.

But other than director Mark Christopher's mother and father, who is clamoring for another go at 54? Exactly no one. At the very most, just release a special edition BluRay and be done with it. Though wikipedia tells me that a special edition BluRay was already released in 2012, containing "several additional and alternate scenes."

It reminds me of the inexplicable existence of something like three or four additional versions of Oliver Stone's Alexander, beyond the one that was released in 2004. I haven't seen any of the versions, but I know the film to be a dud on the order of 54. Yet as recently as last year, versions were still emerging -- and apparently, the most recent one is good enough to have landed on critic Keith Uhlich's highly eccentric top 10 of 2014 (though to contextualize that eccentricity, his list also included several TV shows).

An ordinary rant on this topic would decry the need to meddle with classics like Star Wars and E.T., which have had infamous changes made to the "official" versions of those films. But that's tampering with something sacred, and this ... this is tampering with something irrelevant. With movies that should be lost to the dustbin of cinematic regrets.

I guess if this footage makes 54 a better movie, why not? I just think it's overestimating the public's appetite for it, that's all.

At least it gives Neve Campbell and Ryan Phillippe the chance to say "I have a movie coming out this weekend!"

In Australia, anyway.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The minions are coming


Uh oh. I've really done it this time.

I've opened the door to the minions, and now they are barging through. And this time, they're coming at me where I live.

It's already started, but it doesn't figure to end any time soon, if I know my sister-in-law.

But let's go back to the beginning.

I have already written twice (here and here) about hating minions, the walking yellow globules from the Despicable Me series, so I won't rehash those arguments at length. I will remind you, though: I hate minions. We can allow this post to serve as my inevitable minions rant that would have accompanied this summer's release of Minions, the Despicable Me spinoff.

Because of that spinoff, there are a ton more minion-related products flooding the marketplace than usual ... but I am again getting ahead of myself.

When we were in the U.S. last fall, my older son found a yellow minion winter hat at T.J. Maxx and put it on his head in the store. I immediately balked at it, just because of what it was, but almost as immediately I realized how cute he looked in it. I refer you to Exhibit A:


As Exhibit A amply demonstrates, I caved and bought the hat.

I figured, my son doesn't actually know what minions are. He has been very carefully kept separate from them. To him, it's just a cute yellow hat with eyes. And it made a nice little accoutrement for the rest of our trip in America.

Well, it's been summer since then here in Australia, so we haven't seen a lot of that hat. But the weather has turned, and we are nearly a month-and-a-half into autumn -- a season that actually begins on the first of March, by convention, rather than its 21st. And lo and behold, that hat has found its way out again, like an evil that had been hibernating, waiting for its chance to pounce.

It's still cute, but now it is also portentous.

See, my sister-in-law saw it yesterday for the first time. We were having lunch over at the kids' grandfather's house, and then she was taking them for the afternoon so we could go see a movie (While We're Young). And whenever she takes them, their collection of toys, books or clothes ends up enlarging by more than a few items. (She's about the most generous person I've ever met.)

I was aware of some the items upon first getting home. But it wasn't until clearing out the dish rack this morning that I saw not one, but two of these:


I repeat: Uh oh.

Now just because my sister-in-law brought them one minion item, it doesn't mean that she is going to start hitting the minion meme with the full weight of her purchase power. The kids have plenty of other interests, especially since a specific interest in the minions has not yet been established, as such.

But the encroachment of these guys in our house means that they could gain a foothold, and that's what worries me.

The funny thing is that when the topic of my son's hat came up at lunch yesterday, I made sure to immediately contextualize its purchase. I explained to my sister that I thought the Despicable Me movies were rubbish (I didn't actually say "rubbish," but I'm feeling particularly Australian this morning), but that the hat was cute so we bought it. I didn't want her to confuse me with someone who actually endorses minions, and I wanted to be as clear about that as possible.

The message she took was: "The kids like minions, and it doesn't really matter what dad's thoughts on the subject are."

I'm not blaming my sister-in-law. It was I who opened the door. It was I who stood there at the decisive moment, with my credit card in one hand and a minion hat in the other, and made the purchase.

But if they want to go to see Minions, I'll leave it to her to take them.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

When not being funny is supposed to be funny


All I ever heard after I watched and didn't like Wet Hot American Summer was that I was crazy and that I had missed what was so funny about it.

Okay, Kingdom of Comedy Nerds Who Consider This Movie Your Bible, I'll watch your precious Wet Hot American Summer again.

So I did last night.

Nope. It's just not funny.

I'll go you one further. It's not funny because there are not any jokes.

Wet Hot American Summer expects to slide by on an ongoing undercurrent of absurdity, with nary a peak or valley, or a moment specifically constructed to make a person laugh in any traditional sense. While this may be why some people worship it -- and no, worship is not too strong a word -- it's why I'm hoping there's a silent majority that doesn't "get it."

I also wonder if people think that David Wain, who has since morphed into a much more traditional (and therefore more effective) type of joke-slinger (and therefore won me over), has sold out. I mean, the nerve of the guy, deciding it's time to try to actually make people laugh.

I can see all you Wet Hots (that's what we'll call you guys, like Grateful Dead fans are called Deadheads) champing at the bit to get this post over already so you can get to the comments section and tear me a new one. So, I will steal your argument right from behind your lips and tell you why it doesn't work.

"Vance," -- you're still calling me Vance in this argument -- "it's a parody of an unfunny 1980s camp movie, so the very fact that it's unfunny is kind of the point."

No, parodies of unfunny movies are still funny, as long as the people who are writing them are funny. As long as those people can actually write jokes -- you know, bits of a humor that have a beginning, a build-up and a payoff, or simply zing by in a blur of crackling wit.

The scenes in Wet Hot American Summer are not even constructed to end on a joke. They move on to other scenes when they feel like moving on to other scenes, not once they've released us on a laugh. Because if they were waiting for that, this movie would just be one long scene.

Look, I get what this movie is trying to do, and I respect it. And there are moments that work in an almost performance art type of way. But far too much of the time, the direction seems to have been "Okay, react to what this person says in a way that is exaggerated or wildly inappropriate in context." You know, like the campers guffawing at the terrible Borscht belt comedian, and booing the genuinely good performance of the song from Godspell.

And I suppose that's where this film gets its most defining trait: its inconsistency. If there's any one comic mooring this film should have, it should be to do what it starts out to do, which is to establish Janeane Garofalo's camp director as its straight man. Garofalo should serve as the one person who is above the fray, navigating the last day of camp with a clear focus and a solid head on her shoulders. In short, she should be the audience surrogate, the one who looks aghast at all the daffy shenanigans and tries to sort her way through them.

Instead, her character has at least three epsiodes where she becomes just another braying lunatic. There's the trip into town where the group parties so hard they become heroin addicts. There's the return of Joe Lo Truglio to report that the campers have been abandoned on their rafting trip, when she starts running around like a chicken with her head cut off and in fact wipes all the items off a desk in her directionless panic. Then there's her earnest participation in the goofy science experiment designed to change the path of a falling chunk of space station.

Let's take the first of those three incidents. The idea is great. A group of camp counselors jumps at the opportunity to ride into town, not wanting to miss ... Lord knows what, but it's gonna be great. The movie then has the right idea by having them get involved in all sorts of ludicrous activities (including mugging an old woman), and then revealing that the trip only lasted an hour. Yes, this is funny. What's not funny is the execution. We don't let out surprised laughter when they mug the old woman. We don't let out surprised laughter when they buy a bag of cocaine as big as a football. And we don't let out surprised laughter when they lie around a flophouse with needles sticking out of their arms. Because the actual direction of the scene is flaccid. I told my wife, a newcomer to this movie, that this was the type of montage that Leslie Nielsen could (and regularly did) make funny.

"Oh great, Vance. You are comparing one of the most arch, sublime comedies of the 21st century to a guy who bugged out his eyes and made incredibly broad genre parodies."

But at least Leslie Nielsen knew how to play a scene for a laugh. Did every scene in every Nielsen movie end in a laugh? Of course not. Did his career whimper out into ten years of forgettable garbage? Of course it did. But when Nielsen was on, he was on. And his overall success rate is probably higher than the success rate of the "humor" in Wet Hot American Summer -- even with his years of duds thrown in.

Maybe that's too harsh. I mean, there are certainly moments in this movie I respect. The one that probably works best is when the counselors sit around discussing getting back together in ten years from this day, and spend a dozen lines of dialogue just on whether the meeting time should be 9 or 9:30. And it ends with what I would consider the type of punchline I'd like the whole movie to have. "Because I have something at 11."

Something at 11! On a random day ten years from now, which had only just been nominated for consideration as a reunion date 30 seconds earlier! That's funny!

But it still didn't make me laugh. It made me smile.

There was one single image from Wet Hot American Summer that I carried with me through the nearly 14 years since I first saw it, as the defining image of what didn't work about it. During this viewing, I was kind of waiting for the scene to arrive, to see if it was really as much a thud as I thought it was the first time. I imagined this single scene would be a litmus test to whether I found the whole movie salvageable or not.

And there it came: Ken Marino, driving down the road in that van, singing happily to himself and fully paying attention to where he was driving, but then suddenly hitting a tree, out of nowhere.

"See, it's funny because it's so ridiculous! It's supposed to be contrived! Where did that tree come from??"

But as with everything in Wet Hot American Summer, I feel like I'm looking at this joke sideways. It just doesn't land because the timing, because the delivery, because something is off.

So I'm sorry, Wet Hots, my second viewing of this movie also totaled itself against that tree. Not only will a third not be forthcoming, but I won't be watching the upcoming Netflix show based on it, either.

I'm just glad that David Wain figured out how to make movies like Wanderlust and They Came Together, and no more like this one.

Friday, May 8, 2015

I wasn't going to, but then I did


Hey! You!

The next time it's 9:30 and I know I should be getting to sleep, but throw in a 130-minute movie instead, tell me not to.

What? You're not at my house so you have no way of knowing when this situation would arise?

Excuses, excuses.

Anyway, I've decided I have a bit of a sickness. Each night I am faced with the same dilemma around 9:30, when my wife retreats to the bedroom: Go to sleep, as I probably should do, or stay up and watch something. And I almost always choose #2, which means a) I'm not getting enough sleep in general, and b) I'm not getting nearly as much as I should be out of the movies I do watch.

It worked out okay on Wednesday night. The movie was last year's The Other Woman, and it was "only" 109 minutes -- long for a comedy, but short compared to the other movies I borrowed from the library this week. I watched it straight through without any naps. (And was pleasantly surprised, at least by the first half, before it became more formulaic and uninspired in the second half.)

But then Thursday night, when I had almost definitely resolved to either go to sleep early, apply for a job I don't really want (but to which my wife encouraged me to apply) or watch this week's episode of Survivor, instead I threw in Anna Karenina, which is 130 minutes long and not easy subject matter for that time of night. Just about every other movie I borrowed from the library this week is 130 minutes, so the pickings were slim. (I'm pretty loath to watch movies on Netflix right now, because our internet at home really sucks -- in part due to the strain placed on it by the arrival of Netflix in Australia, we are guessing.)

I watched 55 minutes of it, which included one nap, and I can't tell you what's happened so far in the plot of this movie. I can't tell if that's because it's an incoherent movie, or because of the circumstances under which I'm watching it. In any case, before I finish it tonight, I'll have to read the first half of the wikipedia plot synopsis to try to figure out what the hell is going on.

The problem would be mitigated slightly if a) my wife didn't have about 20 minutes of activities to complete before stealing off to bed, or b) I didn't care that my wife had 20 minutes of activities to complete before stealing off to bed, and just started up my movie even though she was still pottering around and possibly clanging dishes in the kitchen sink. But, neither of these is true.

But I also don't have any other time when I can watch a 130-minute movie. Starting at 8 and watching it with my wife isn't much of an option, either, because she doesn't have the stamina for a 130-minute movie even then, and there are only comparatively few she wants to watch anyway.

I'm giving myself the same challenge tomorrow night when I go to see The Avengers: Age of Ultron. That is also starting at 9:30, and it's even ten minutes longer than Anna Karenina.

But at least it's in the theater, and at least I probably won't have to consult a wikipedia plot synopsis to figure out what's going on.