Monday, December 22, 2014

The indefinite article


I did not like Le Week-End. Let's get that out of the way at the start.

But instead of bagging on it from the get-go, today I'm coming back to struggling with something that I don't think I've actually written about previously, even though it bothers me from time to time:

How to alphabetize movies with foreign titles?

I struggled with this most recently when I watched L'Atalante, not knowing whether I should put it under L or under A. Translated to English, the title is The Atalante (it's the name of a boat), which would always be alphabetized under A.

However, I was uncertain enough with that decision that I put it to the Flickcharters group on Facebook. One guy came back with what I thought was a convincing argument. He said that libraries alphabetize foreign titles by the first letter that appears, even if it is an article, because they don't assume their English-speaking customers understand any language other than English. If you had no idea how French worked as a language, you would certainly look for L'Atalante under L, not A.

I bought that. But then I watched Le Week-End and I doubted it again.

The title is The Week-End. Then why am I alphabetizing it under L? I wouldn't alphabetize it under T if it were in English. And complicating matters further, it's not even a foreign film. It's an English language film that takes place in Paris.

The uncertainty goes way back. I watched El Mariachi sometime in the mid-1990s, and always alphabetized it under E. I knew that El meant The, of course, but my argument was that there was something essentially iconic about the title: EL MARIACHI. Like, if there were some lesser-known Spanish language film called El Orso (The Bear), I wouldn't consider it an iconic title and therefore would just file it under O.

But then El Mariachi's alphabetization got directly challenged by El Topo, which I saw a couple years ago. (And yes, you'd really think I would have seen a movie whose title started with El sometime between the mid-1990s and a couple years ago, but I don't recall having this debate with myself once in the interim.) El Topo is a probably more iconic title than El Mariachi, but I was less familiar with it, having never been around to watch midnight movies in New York in the late 1970s. This one seemed like a clear-cut case of needing to be alphabetized under T.

As I sit here and type this, I am not actually sure what I'm doing with these two movies right now. Let me go and check and I'll be right back.

I guess the grandfather clause applies, because I added El Topo as Topo, El but left El Mariachi as El Mariachi.

French titles have all followed the El Topo model ... with the exception of L'Atalante. For example, La Boum was once filed under L, but the last time I revisited this question, I recategorized it under B.

The question then becomes: Why do we translate some titles and not others? I might as well call La Boum The Party in my records, but I don't. That's because it was introduced to me (in French class, no less) as La Boum. I have thought of it as such since. (For a fuller discussion of this topic, see here.)

I think I would be okay with either methodology if I could just pick one and stick to it. But apparently I can't, which is the most frustrating part for an anal-retentive listmaker by myself. I just can't categorize L'Atalante under A and I just can't categorize Le Week-End under L. Is it just the fact that the L has an apostrophe, and it looks too funny to write Atalante, L' ? (It's so funny that I had to leave a space after the apostrophe just so I could distinguish it from the question mark at the end of that last sentence.)

One thing is certain: Le Week-End is no good under any taxonomy. It's Le Merde.

Truth in advertising, though: It took me almost a whole weekend to watch it. I started watching it admittedly too late on Thursday night, and internet problems prevented me from making the progress toward finishing it I needed to make. I had only 40 minutes or so left to watch on Friday night, but caught only 20 more before I was done in. I managed to finally finish it after midnight on Saturday.

I suppose I should tell you what I found so objectionable about it: the incredibly mercurial nature of Lindsay Duncan's wife character. You get that Jim Broadbent may not have been a perfect husband to her, but also that he always tried, and is probably guilty of being an eccentric old goof more than any actual sin. Yet her behavior toward him is consistently inconsistent. One minute she's looking at him with absolute disdain, the next she's laughing and flirting, and the next she's talking about divorce. It's maddening, and the film's lack of any forward momentum in other respects just makes it feel incredibly tedious. By the time Jeff Goldblum shows up as an annoying third wheel of sorts, the whole thing has become Une Catastrophe.

But would I file that catastrophe under U, or C?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Under the Skin under the stars

The Rooftop Cinema in Melbourne is something I've been hearing about for years -- long before I lived here, in fact. My wife made a reference to it as long ago as our 2009 visit -- or was it our 2007 visit? -- but once we moved here, I managed to forget I ever knew it existed.

So it was with great pleasure on my part that she revived it as a date night option when discussing what we'd do when her sister babysat our kids on Saturday night. Lately she hasn't wanted to spend precious date nights on going to the movies, thinking them a poor use of our adult time, so that was a plus as well.

Our other option would have also been interesting, and will surely be the topic of an upcoming post: the Moonlight Cinema, which is in the botanical gardens and is more like the cemetery screenings we used to attend in Los Angeles. They were playing Big Hero 6 -- a preview of Big Hero 6, which doesn't open here until Boxing Day -- on the same night.

But the seductive pull of the Rooftop Cinema, with its chance to fulfill long unfulfilled (and long-forgotten) yearnings, was too much for me, even though I had already seen Under the Skin, and I usually use this time of year to focus on new viewings. She hadn't seen it, and I'm glad to say Under the Skin is a movie I want to share with people I love. (I also made a fairly convincing argument that if she envisions a date night as a time to be away from children, she hardly wants to go to a screening of Big Hero 6, which will be packed with them.)

Late-year rewatches also help me settle on a final resting place in my rankings for movies I really like, and I was keen to determine whether I just really like, or actually love, Under the Skin.

We started off with dinner across the street at a dumpling place -- mmmm -- and arrived at the top of the Curtin Building on Swanston street about a half-hour before the 9:30 start. (And remember, it's summer here, so 9:30 is about as early as you can be certain there won't be too much light in the sky.)

I thought I'd top this post with the only picture I took there -- the view from our seats -- but this one from their website gives you a much better idea what the whole venue looks like:


As soon as we got there, I realized my wife had been the smart one when she brought a jacket with a furry hood. I'd scoffed at this outerwear when we were leaving, paying more attention to the season than the actual temperatures (and the actual expected temperatures at night on a seventh-floor rooftop). I did have a lighter jacket with me, but suffice it to say we did indeed "hire" a blanket for $5. (In the interview, the blanket did a convincing job describing how it had warmed other people in the past, so it got the job).

By the time we took our seats, we could scarcely stay in them, filled as we were with that "kid in a candy store" mentality of what we would eat/drink first. Really, it was the drinks that had us in a minor tizzy, because we quickly determined that the burger and fry place below and to the left of the screen would be serving us up some french fries. (We had envisioned getting a dessert, but the lack of those options and the need for something warm quickly converted us to a dose of fried food to bolster our regrettably small number of dumplings.)

Off to the lower left of the picture you see above, there's a bar, with all manner of beer and cocktails. Having passed an up-scale Mexican restaurant as we ascended to the roof, I had margaritas on the brain, but my wife had sussed out a pale ale when she concluded that margaritas were too dear at $17 a pop. I agreed, but then disagreed with her assessment of the price. She must have viewed the second digit incorrectly, because margaritas were only $12, which we both deemed viable. When I came back with the two drinks and the blanket a few minutes later, she had our fries. I experienced a moment's regret when it seemed certain we would finish the fries well before the start of the movie, but in fact, the last scraps sustained us until about the movie's ten-minute mark.

As for Under the Skin itself, I felt about the same toward it, and perhaps a smidge less enthused if anything. After it was over, I told my wife that it was probably the movie I admired the most this year without actually loving it, and the second viewing confirmed that. That still puts it pretty high up on my list (actual spot to be revealed in about three weeks). My wife ... well, she's a mother who started the night with a margarita, so she admitted to struggling to stay awake and feeling like the movie had kept her at arm's length. Also a very valid reaction to Under the Skin. She did have lots of very complimentary things to say about it, though.

And as suggested in the title of this post, the stars did soon assert themselves against the darkening sky, and the effect was pretty damn magical. Perhaps even more magical, though, was something that was also really ghastly to think about ...

Okay, go back to the picture above ... see the lighted spire protruding from the top of that building about 2/3 over to the right, the one immediately to the right of the tallest building? About halfway in I noted that there were several hundred creatures flying in the air above that light, bathing in its warmth like moths. At first I thought they were moths, except that if they were, we would never have been able to see them from so far away.

Know what they were?

Bats.

If anyone ever told you bats could not be beautiful, they apparently weren't sitting on top of a roof in downtown Melbourne on December 20th of 2014.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Deleting the internet


Men, Women & Children spoilers to follow. 

During the first half of Men, Women & Children, I was already mentally composing a post in my Facebook film discussion group which would read "Most unfairly maligned movie of the year: Men, Women & Children."

Then the movie went on a half-hour too long, and culminated in three instances of parents "deleting their children's internet" within about ten minutes of screen time.

Now, the biggest obstacle faced by movies with interweaving narratives is how to reach a satisfying climax that does not rely on a tragic or overwrought resolution to each story. Last year's movie Disconnect, which explores similar issues of "how we live in the internet age," was a particularly egregious offender in this regard, as there was literally a montage of three simultaneous instances of violence at the climax of the three main storylines.

Men, Women & Children does not go that far ... it seems to have consciously styled itself as a more life-sized entity. However, it does reveal itself as somewhat absurd when, consecutively, the following three things happen:

- Security fascist Jennifer Garner discovers that her daughter has been hiding a Tumblr account from her in which she wears wigs and says things without her mother censoring her, and she subsequently deletes everything on her daughter's desktop and changes all of her passwords.

- Divorced dad Dean Norris reads comments posted by his son's internet acquaintances on a World of Warcraft type game, about having sex with the mother who abandoned them, and promptly deletes his son's player account.

- Misguided mom Judy Greer learns that her teenage daughter didn't get accepted into a reality show competition because the website containing pictures of her daughter strays too close to child pornography, and she takes down the website. (A website where the mom herself was the primary photographer, mind you.)

Um, gee, Jason Reitman -- do you think the solution to all the world's problems is parents getting more involved in their children's internet use?

It's not quite as black-and-white as that, because the first two of these actions are ultimately portrayed as the wrong move to have made (Garner learns she isn't letting her daughter just be a teenager, and Norris' son tries to commit suicide). But the message that the internet has compromised our collective humanity rings loudly indeed.

And I suppose that's why this movie has been maligned. The similarity of the resolution of these stories stuck in the craw of even someone like me, the rare person who has positive things to say about the movie as well.

So, let's devote a paragraph to some of those positives. For starters, this movie is not nearly as overwrought as I thought it would be. Reitman seems to have heeded certain lessons about previous films that delved into this type of subject matter, but failed to heed others. However, the lessons he did heed result in this movie having a lot more nuance than you might think, both in its view of the world (there are almost no purely villainous characters) and in its execution of the drama (the actors and the dialogue are both better than they might need to be). The movie also has one of my favorite soundtracks of 2014.

It was looking up the soundtrack on iTunes afterward, though, that made me realize an irony about Men, Women & Children -- I didn't actually need to go to the theater to see this movie, as it was already available, you guessed it, on the internet. In fact, it didn't even bear the typical iTunes new release rental price of $5.99 or $6.99. I could have rented this movie for a mere $3.99 in standard definition.

I think this says something about just how much this movie came and went. Having seen the trailer months ago, I had this movie on my radar for plenty of time. Yet I didn't hear anyone talking about it in the U.S. when it was released -- the substantial negative buzz originated from its screening in Toronto in September. I thought it wasn't due in theaters until Christmastime, and then one day I realized it had already come and gone (making fewer than $1 million in the U.S.) and was playing here in Australia without much fanfare.

The reason I chose it on Tuesday, for discount movie night at the Sun Theatre in Yarraville, was because it was the movie I most wanted to see that was not already available from iTunes (or so I thought). You see, we find ourselves in a weird time of the year in Australia, where the holiday releases are just out of reach, and some of the stuff that's hitting theaters now is also debuting on video in the U.S. Other contenders for a discount night movie included things like The Captive and The Congress, but I knew those could be gotten for half of even the discount price via Apple. I thought I was being smart by grabbing something that wouldn't otherwise be available to me until after my ranking deadline in January, but alas, no.

Well, at least I got one half of a good movie out of it ... and a movie that is, indeed, probably more maligned than it truly deserves to be.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Trapped in a room with Roman Polanski


Roman Polanski used to paint on big canvases.

A sprawling noir that penetrates every seedy corner of Los Angeles (Chinatown). A kidnapping thriller that meanders through modern-day Paris (Frantic). A holocaust drama about a preternaturally talented musician (The Pianist). An adaptation of one of the most beloved pieces of British literature (Oliver Twist). Actually, make that two (Tess).

Even when his settings were confined to comparatively small spaces, they dealt with heady, big-canvas issues (witchcraft/devil possession in Rosemary's Baby).

Lately, though, the walls have been closing in on the now-octogenarian.

The French language Venus in Fur marks Polanski's second straight film where his characters are like birds stuck in houses, flapping desperately at skylights, trying to get out of their prisons.

The first of these films, 2011's Carnage, is claustrophobia incarnate. With the exception of a brief scene at the beginning and a brief scene at the end (if memory serves), the entire story takes place inside one New York apartment, between two warring sets of parents. The movie runs a mere 80 minutes, but I felt every one of those minutes passing by.

Then Venus in Fur takes place entirely inside a theater between just two characters, as an audition by an actress morphs into an increasingly bizarre and in-depth reading of the play with the writer-director. This one runs 96 far-more-tolerable minutes.

I like Venus in Fur a lot better -- in fact, I like it a lot. But after finishing, I couldn't fail to notice that I had shifted viewing spots six times in those 96 minutes.

I started out sitting at the kitchen table. Then I moved out to the couch. Then, when I was getting too sleepy on the couch, I moved into the backyard for a little cool air. I repeated these same three hops before finally finishing the movie where I started: at the kitchen table. My laptop charged up a little of its battery on each pit stop through the kitchen table.

Feels a bit like I was that bird flapping at that skylight.

Like I said, though, at least all this claustrophobia is in service of a far worthier cause in Venus in Fur. Carnage I thought was just stagy and tedious. It did not seem like a remotely useful match between director and subject matter, and I wanted to punch all four of the actors by the time it was over -- actors I have liked, nay, loved in other contexts.

It was seeing one of Carnage's greatest flaws in Venus in Fur that brought the comparison to mind, though. One of the most annoying, overused devices in Carnage was characters almost leaving, but not actually doing so. It's the apartment belonging to one couple (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), so the other couple (Kate Winslet and Christophe Waltz) is always on the verge of beating feet. Except in the audience we know that they are never actually going to leave, because we've heard enough about the movie's format to know it all takes place in this one setting. So each time someone makes a move for the door but then calls an audible, it's incredibly frustrating because you can see right through the ruse.

Unfortunately, Polanski went back to this well in Venus in Fur, but not as outrageously. Not so that I felt a vein in my forehead start to pulse every time a character gestured toward an exit, anyway. But the math is a bit striking: There are no less than four separate occasions when the actress -- played by Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner -- fakes an exit and has to be coaxed back by the director (Mathieu Amalric). "Methinks she doth exit too much."

There's a funny literal meaning to the title of this post, as Amalric has basically been asked to do an impersonation of his director. Since I'm not familiar with the day-to-day Polanski, I can only be sure of Amalric's physical similarity, a surely intentional one. Amalric has the same hairstyle that Polanski wore in his younger years, and he looks enough like him in other ways that I almost have to wonder if this was one of the primary reasons he was cast. (Other than Amalric being one of France's most prized acting talents.) The fact that this is clearly a portrait of himself -- there's a running discussion of how much an artist appears in his own characters -- makes Polanski's project all the more interesting. Especially as it gets into the character's psychosexual proclivities.

What I wonder is why Polanski has chosen to shrink his scale lately. Sure, he has dabbled in claustrophobia before (Repulsion is a prime example), but before now he had plenty of open spaces in his films. I'd say that he's winding down now that he's in his 80s, but that hasn't stopped the likes of Clint Eastwood (84), Woody Allen (79) and Ridley Scott (77). (Yes, I get that only one of those guys is actually in his 80s. Leave me alone.)

At least the theater is used more dynamically than the apartment in Carnage. Not like the theater is used in Birdman, of course, but enough that it could generously be considered a character of its own. Even though that is a pretty hackneyed thing to say about a setting.

The real difference from Carnage is that Polanski seems to have something to say, and interesting actors giving dedicated performances with which to say it. This is an acting clinic by Seigner and Amalric, who explore the provocative themes from David Ives' play: gender roles and power dynamics, sado-masochism, the relationship between an artist and his/her subject matter, and so forth. It kept my attention, even if it didn't keep me in one seat.

One thing did bother me, though, so I'll just awkwardly squeeze it in at the end of the post, even if it doesn't really relate to the rest of what I'm talking about. Venus in Fur relies heavily on the two actors slipping in and out of "performing" -- they perform both real and improvised lines from the play, in character, and they also carry on a dialogue as actor and director. They can alternate between these two layers of reality with only imperceptible changes, and sometimes, we're meant not to know which lines of dialogue are spoken by the actor and the director, and which spoken by the characters they're playing.

Except we do know, thanks to a decision made in the subtitling phase. It was decided that the subtitles could be used to help differentiate between Seigner the actor and Seigner the character, and Amalric the director and Amalric the character. When the "real" version of each actor is speaking, the text appears in standard font. When they are playing the character in the play, though, the font switches to italics.

While this is superficially useful, it also spoon-feeds us something that a French audience wouldn't have. A French audience is left to detect whether it's the actor or the character speaking based on changes in inflection, tone and vocabulary. My argument, though, is that this is something you can figure out even if you don't speak the language. And I'd have preferred to figure it out myself, because these characters are supposed to be blending and blurring and crossing lines between reality and fantasy. There are moments we aren't supposed to know which is real and which is a performance, and that's kind of the point. Once I began fixating on the changes to the subtitle font, though, it left no doubt about how the director -- or somebody, anyway -- thought we were supposed to interpret the action currently on screen. I like being able to decide myself what any given moment means, and what degree of blurring these characters currently find themselves in.

Still, that's a tangential artistic decision and does not really have to do with the actual text of the film. Good job, Roman Polanski. You may still have some useful films in you after all.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Scarlett Johansson can't relate to human beings


I'm sure I'm not the first person to have written a story along these lines ... but I didn't steal the idea from anyone else either.

The idea being that Scarlett Johansson has become typecast as an alien.

Oh, not always a literal alien, but sometimes that too (Under the Skin). In her other two most recent roles -- if you ignore Captain America: The Winter Soldier, that is -- she plays someone (or something) alienated from humanity. (If I am not counting Captain America, I'm definitely not counting her bit part in Chef.)

Having finally caught up with Lucy on Sunday night, I see with clarity the nature of her recent trajectory as an actress. There's a line of dialogue in the movie about how the title character -- having overdosed on a new synthetic drug surgically implanted in her stomach, mule-style, which ruptures through its protective bag after a few swift kicks to the gut -- can no longer empathize with human beings. This is what happens, quite logically, when you are using in excess of 40% of your brain's capacity. (And counting.)

In Her, as a self-aware operating system, she's also involved in an evolution of her being that eventually leaves little old human being Theodore Twombley no real competition for her attentions. Not when there are thousands of other self-aware operating systems with whom she can commune, at a pace Theodore can't manage.

This observation is rather obvious, so let's take it to a place that's not so obvious: In a way, she is having the career that Angelina Jolie should be having.

I don't mean that Jolie deserves Johansson's career. I mean that it would be a much more symbolic career for her than it is for Johansson.

See, Jolie -- as a person, not an actress -- truly has evolved to the point where she seems like an alien. One might argue that this is the logical endpoint for any celebrity who is so unfathomably beautiful that she has entirely lost touch with the quotidian. She has been pedestalized within an inch of her own humanity. This bleeds over into her abilities as an actress, which are not insignificant. The upshot is that I can no longer believe her in any role she plays.

The same threat exists for ScarJo, as she is as worshipped by men as Jolie at her height, if not more so. Except Johansson is "keeping it real." She still seems like a regular person, almost consciously lampooning her own potential disconnect from the human race -- which is precisely the evidence that she remains a grounded human being.

Jolie could not do this. She labors under the misapprehension that she is still a "regular person," when indeed she is not. The role of Maleficent in this summer's eponymous movie is about as close as she has come to admitting there is something otherworldly about her. However, crucially, the movie that bears her character's name is so entirely fixated on humanizing the character, that instead of seeming like a knowing nod to her own public persona, it reveals the depth of her own failure to understand herself.

Johansson, on the other hand, has been actively inviting these roles of "other," these roles where she is so alienated from her origins that she is either robotic, or actually a robot. But, it's not fooling us. In each of the three films we're mentioning here, Johansson's characters' removal from the flesh is offset by at least one scene where we feel her humanity in excessive quantities. In Lucy, it's the opening, where she makes her fear of being killed by Chinese gangsters a physical force. I don't know that I've seen someone as afraid in a movie in 2014 as Johansson in the opening scenes of Lucy. In Under the Skin, it's an almost unbearable confusion and sadness when she starts to empathize with these humans she's come to dispassionately study. There's a fragility there that is also unequaled in 2014 films. And then of course Her, where Johansson actually won an award at the Venice Film Festival for breathing unmistakable life into artificial intelligence -- and just doing it with her voice.

I've already spent some time praising Johansson this year (see here), and at this point you may think I'm in danger of crossing over into idolatry of a woman who has never been praised for her actual talent until just the past year or two. But it's warranted. And that's the beauty of a blog -- when you've got something to say, just say it.

As for Angelina Jolie, well ... let's see if making a movie about an Olympic athlete who survives a World War II plane crash and Japanese POW camps can give us a glimpse of her elusive cinematic humanity.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Fighting gun violence with gun violence


We've just passed two years since Sandy Hook, and I've just seen Odd Thomas, and unfortunately, the two are related.

Based on a popular series of books by Dean Koontz, Odd Thomas is aiming at that ever-desirable YA audience, using the approach of a show on the CW network. It's about a guy who can see dead people and other ghoulish harbingers of death (see poster to your right), but these days, that kind of thing is perfectly fine for the teen set. Once a book/movie series about teenagers fighting each other to the death became all the rage, the sanitization of teen subject matter was permanently put to rest.

It's not a very good movie -- if it were slightly less polished and had a less famous cast, it could easily be Vampire Academy. And if this were a pilot to a TV show, which it often feels like, I probably wouldn't tune in for the second episode.

But the biggest problem with Odd Thomas is not its quality (which is sometimes good enough) or its cast (I'm an Anton Yelchin fan), or even the fact that it relies on the title character's narration/voiceover to explain just about everything that's happening (which is a lot more than probably should be happening). Its problem is the probably accidental callousness with which it handles gun violence.

And if you don't want to know any more about Odd Thomas, heed this SPOILER WARNING before continuing.

Sure, The Hunger Games is pretty inflammatory subject matter in an age when people are excessively concerned about youth-on-youth violence. But at least in The Hunger Games, only the bad guys use guns. The good guys never do.

Not so with Odd Thomas.

At this point I should tell you about the actual plot of the movie. The title character -- whose first name is, in fact, Odd -- has been having strange visions/dreams about a gun massacre he believes is going to occur at a bowling alley. In this vision he can see victims wearing bowling jackets riddled with bullet holes. As it turns out, the site of the gun massacre is really a local shopping mall, and the bullet-riddled victims happen to be the staff of the bowling alley, who are eating there in the food court. (Now, why a bowling alley staff would all go to eat together at the same time, I couldn't tell you.)

Odd's main quest is to piece together his supernatural perceptions and figure out who the shooter or shooters will be. Once he does this, it's naturally a race against time to prevent it from happening.

Which he doesn't, quite, except that he gets there early enough to apparently stop the shooters from claiming any victims (* there's an asterisk on that one for those who've seen the film), despite spraying the mall with machine gun fire. In addition to fighting the shooters, Odd is also fighting a major onslaught of those ghoulie goblins you see in the poster above, but he breaks free from them just enough to run up and deliver a point-blank pistol blast to the middle of one shooter's forehead.

Hmm. Something not quite right about this.

That made me flash back to a scene earlier in the movie, when Odd's girlfriend (Addison Timlin) is randomly packing heat to protect herself.

Whether it means to or not, Odd Thomas is delivering a variation on that sickening rationalization by the NRA when it comes to how to stop school shootings and the like: "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Really, Odd Thomas? Is that really what you want to be telling us?

Now if this were just some regular-old action movie with clearly adult characters, it wouldn't raise my eyebrows so much. Good guys with guns have been stopping bad guys with guns for time immemorial.

But Odd Thomas is quite clearly not a product intended for adults. It is aimed at all the same targets -- so to speak -- as these other YA properties, yet it displays an irresponsible casualness about mass shootings that is alarming.

Oh, it's not that Odd Thomas doesn't get that it's a movie with a topical subject matter, and that "shootings are bad." It's that it is completely tone deaf about the solution applied to solve the problem. The solution is, basically, to have more guns.

And it shouldn't be lost on any of us just how young Yelchin looks. He's 25, but he could still be getting cast as high school students if he wanted. (While also playing Chekov in the new Star Trek movies -- a strange dichotomy indeed.) Timlin, who plays his gun-packing girlfriend, is only 23. Simply put, these kids look young because they basically are kids.

At least the shooters aren't kids. In fact, the identity of the shooters reveals another weird topicality in the movie: they are cops. That's right, bad cops with guns are on a rampage, just as cops with guns seem to be on a rampage against America's disadvantaged and disenfranchised in 2014. I don't know that this adds anything to the argument -- it's just an odd coincidence.

I'm not going to get up on any soapbox about depictions of violence in the media (though I did have an interesting conversation with a co-worker last week about gun violence in video games). I generally believe that freedom of speech means creating entertainment that depicts whatever you want it to depict.

I guess I just think it's foolish for the filmmaker (Stephen Sommers of The Mummy, oddly enough) not to recognize the heightened climate of awareness about gun violence and the ways it can be dealt with that read as sensitive. Perhaps that's how Koontz wrote the book -- I don't know, I haven't read it -- but it seems like that shooter could have been taken out in a way that didn't involve such a literal, and such an up-close-and-personal, taste of his own medicine.

At least the mall these cops are attacking is populated mostly by white people.

Friday, December 12, 2014

... and eat it too


Absorbing the Golden Globe nominations this morning, I noted a number of surprises (I've barely even heard of the movie Selma, which got three nominations, including best director), but the biggest was that Jennifer Aniston was getting a nomination for the movie Cake.

It's not that she's bad in Cake -- how would I know, as it won't be available even to most American audiences until late January. That means we won't get it here in Australia until April.

Rather, it's that Cake had its origins in a screenwriting organization where my wife used to work -- and she was there at the time it came through. So I'm feeling a little rush of pride for her right now. (Pride also being a movie represented among the 2014 Golden Globe nominations.)

The surprising thing is not that Aniston got a nomination, because one of the ways my wife mentioned Cake to me was in the context of learning it had garnered the actress some Oscar buzz. It's that at the time, I thought this movie was still off in the distance somewhere, and that the aforementioned buzz was speculative Oscar buzz for 2015. I didn't realize that Cake was descending so soon and was actually making Aniston a contender for this year's Oscars, since this was October or thereabouts and I hadn't heard of the movie other than from my wife.

But I happened to just watch the trailer last night, and indeed it does seem like an Oscar-buzzy type of performance, one where she fully eschews her former tightly controlled vanity. And as this year is not considered an astonishing year for women -- I suppose Reese Witherspoon and Julianne Moore are her primary competition, Moore for two different roles -- it's conceivable that Aniston could actually win.

I'm finding a little bit of personal validation in this nomination as well, as it's proving me to be a bit of a prognosticator.

When Sandra Bullock won her Oscar for The Blind Side back in 2009, I was suddenly possessed of the certainty that Jennifer Aniston had a post-prime Oscar win in her future as well. I don't know why I knew -- I don't even know why it occurred to me to link together these two events, one that might never happen with one that just had. Except that Aniston shared some things in common with Bullock. Both were America's sweetheart types who had legit acting chops, but both seemed mired in B-movie romantic comedy careers that threatened to consume them, and seemed to preclude any possibility of eventual award accolades. Simply put, they were both in ruts and had no clear way out.

But I knew as she got further into her 40s (she's closer now to 50, poor girl!), Jen would figure out how to leave behind the likes of The Bounty Hunter and Just Go With It and make something that gave her a shot at that little bald, golden man. And it looks like she's done it.

Funny -- Bullock was 45 (for a few more months) when she accepted her Oscar for The Blind Side, and Aniston will have just turned 46 if she accepts hers this March.

But now I'm getting waaaaay ahead of myself. I mean, I only just heard of Cake a few months ago, and now we're talking Oscars?

So today, I think I will just concentrate on being proud of my wife.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The long wait for Tim's Vermeer


Tim's Vermeer has been on my Letterboxd watchlist for longer than all but a couple of 2014 movies.

I use my watchlist as a means of keeping track of which movies from the current release year I'm trying to watch prior to my ranking deadline, which arrives on January 15th (as I have started mentioning in just about every post). I keep adding to that list as I hear of new titles that interest me, so I basically never make a dent in it. It's at 85 films right now, and that's probably about where it's been since April or May.

Tim's Vermeer is sixth from the bottom, meaning that it's been on there since January or February ... and I have yet to get my hands on it.

The reason this surprises me is that I've developed an assumption about which movies will be available for streaming on Netflix sooner than later. Tim's Vermeer seems like exactly the type of title I should have been able to find shortly after its video release.

Yet like its writer-producer-directors, Penn & Teller, Tim's Vermeer remains elusive, the star of its own disappearing act. Or, never-appearing-in-the-first-place act.

I suppose what I really want to talk about is not the rather banal topic of a particular movie not being available for streaming on Netflix, but rather, the underlying assumption of which movies you expect to be available. Which is only slightly less banal, but hey, not every post can be earth-shattering.

I consume probably 90 percent of my documentaries by streaming them on Netflix. Then I probably see five percent in the theater and watch another five percent through some other a la carte rental option.

In fact, Netflix is so good at making the documentaries I want to see available that it's enough to prompt a post like this one, expressing surprise when a particular title does not eventually rear its head.

Since early on in the year I've been periodically checking Netflix for this title, considering it exactly the sort of movie that Netflix has excelled at making available. I have now probably checked a dozen times, and still, it's nowhere to be found. I am starting to think I might have to actually (gasp) pay to rent the movie if I want to see it before January 15th.

Which dovetails well with a discussion of just how much we're willing to spend on particular types of movies ... perhaps the worthiest discussion topic this post will yield.

Call me a philistine, but I don't tend to think of documentaries as the type of movie I want to spend much money on. It's rare that I will go to the theater to see one, though it certainly does happen. Two that I saw in the theater in 2013, though -- Blackfish and 20 Feet From Stardom -- were movies I snuck into as the second half of a double feature. If the doco promises to be a little more distinctive -- say, Stories We Tell or The Act of Killing -- I will pay for it as a single theatrical admission. Let it be noted, though, that I spent only $6 apiece on Stories and Act, since I saw them before 5 p.m. on discount Mondays at Cinema Nova.

It's also worth noting that without my matinee Mondays available to me in 2014, when I've been working nearly the whole year, I haven't seen a single documentary in the theater this year.

Earlier this year I did spend a full iTunes rental price on Mistaken for Strangers, and more recently, Life Itself. But that's rare. And that was in part to make up for the documentaries I'm not seeing in the theater this year, while still trying to see around my usual quotient of non-fiction films.

The weird thing is that documentaries are a much safer bet in terms of quality than fiction films, yet we are much more willing to gamble our money on the latter. Fiction films have higher highs and lower lows, and are also much more likely to benefit from being seen on a big screen. Documentaries, to us, feel barely more cinematic than television. So even if they're good -- which most of the ones we see are -- they don't have that certain oomph that makes us prioritize a theatrical viewing.

So although I'm incredibly eager to learn how an untrained artist can use science to produce a nearly perfect, nearly indistinguishable version of a Johannes Vermeer painting -- so eager that I've specifically sought it out a dozen times -- I'm too cheap to just go purchase the thing from one of the sites where it's available for rental.

I'll give Netflix a couple more weeks to comply. If my hand is forced, we'll see whether I drop the coin on Tim's Vermeer ... or just let it be lost to history, like all the other films I'll never see.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Australian Audient: Gallipoli


This is the final installment of my 2014 series, Australian Audient.

By watching Gallipoli, I'm not only trying to end this series on a distinctive note, but also trying to correct a decades-old mistake in my movie lists.

You see, I have been giving myself credit for having watched the movie version of Australia's most tragic military engagement, when in fact I only saw about the last 20 minutes of it. And unlike other movies where I can't remember how much of it I saw, I knew full well that I had not watched the whole thing when I was over at my friend's house that time sometime around 1990, when his dad was watching it. Nonetheless, I credited myself with a full watch and have never gone back to set the record straight.

I can now do that. And to make the occasion more ceremonious, I actually watched the movie about Australia's darkest military moment on the 73rd anniversary of America's darkest military moment -- December 7th, otherwise known as the day Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

Gallipoli (1981), Peter Weir's sixth film, commemorates the tragic World War I battle in which a volunteer army of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand were offered up as cannon fodder to the Turkish army, to distract them from a surprise attack by British soldiers on another front -- an attack that itself was totally bungled. Archy (Mark Lee) and Frank (Mel Gibson) are promising young runners who both hail from Western Australia. Initially rivals, the two become friends, but develop opposite perspectives on the efforts of British recruitment contingents trying to get Australian young men to sign up for the war effort in Europe. Mark is eager to serve queen and country, going so far as to lie about his age in order to be accepted into active combat. Frank wants nothing to do with a war that doesn't involve him. However, shortly after Archy ships out, Frank decides to enlist with another small group of mates who are heading to training grounds in Cairo. There Frank and Archy are reunited, continuing to test each other's speed while preparing to fight the enemy. Little do they know that they are part of a regiment that is being sent to fight a futile campaign on a peninsula in the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey), where mismanagement and deliberate bad will led to numerous soldiers losing their lives while others (particularly British) were nearby brewing tea on the beach.

Gallipoli is, no doubt, a powerful film, especially those final 20 minutes or so that I saw when I was a late teenager. However, the lead-up to that unforgettable ending is where the film is slightly problematic. It's the task of any film that depicts a famous historical event, but only for a small portion of its running time, to fill the rest of the running time with an engaging and relevant story. Gallipoli is not totally masterful in this regard. Although the bonds between Archy and Frank are effectively established and the two actors have a very winning rapport, the film gives off the sense of having to pursue a number of lengthy episodes that don't really point toward that famous climax. They begin to feel a bit like filler, particularly the scene where Archy must race a jerk on horseback who challenges him to run a great distance in his bare feet, and the scene where Archy and Frank must walk 50 miles through the desert to reach Perth in order to enlist. While both scenes are reasonably effective in and of themselves, they don't contribute much to the overall thrust of the film. In the first scene, for example, Archy emerges from the test of his machismo with feet that are nearly ruined. It seems like this should have consequences for either his running career or his ability to enlist in the war, but in fact, it has no consequences whatsoever. When the movie was already an hour and 20 minutes old, I turned to my wife and told her it felt like it was still in its first act.

Still, I did say that these guys have a good rapport, and they certainly do. I should probably spend a moment on the charisma of the young Mel Gibson, who already has that whip-smart, sly-devil attitude that would soon make him an international star. You can allow yourself to forget, for a moment, that the man is currently laden with personal baggage, and just enjoy what the young and comparatively innocent version of Gibson had to offer. Lee is his more baby-faced foil, and the two give you an awful lot to care about when it's clear that their lives will be ruthlessly dangled for slaughter by an uncaring British military establishment.

Whatever treading of water the movie has to do to deliver you that final act, it's worth it, since the madness of military intelligence is so effectively communicated by the film's ending. Although I would normally not like to tell you how a movie ends, this one is historical fact, and you probably already know that wave after wave of soldiers were sent up over a ridge -- sometimes without even loaded weapons -- to run at an entrenched line of Turkish machine gunners that just mowed them down. They had exactly zero chance of surviving ... and yet they ran out there anyway. It's a moving testament to their sense of patriotism, and one can understand why this battle represented an awakening of the Australian consciousness vis-a-vis how the country's citizens were used and abused by the British (a theme that was also explored in Breaker Morant, a film I watched back in May). The callousness of the military commanders as they stick to their woefully failing strategies is shocking and angering, and represents the worst in how human beings can be sacrificed like chess pieces in order to win a battle.

Although I spoke ill of the film's first hour-plus and how it seems to merely amiably pass the time, I would like to highlight one moment, especially since it works as a funny kind of wrap-up moment in this series, and speaks to something essential about the jovial self-disparagement of the Australian character. As Archy and Frank are on their way through the desert to Perth, they encounter some kind of wayfarer/drifter who doesn't even know about the war. As the three of them offer uninformed theories about why we're fighting, one of the two younger fellows proposes that the Germans want to take over Australia. What follows is the absolute perfect line delivery by the drifter, who casts his eyes over the barren desert before him and sardonically mumbles "And they're welcome to it."

I said this was a wrap-up moment, but later in this month I'm going to return for one final wrap-up piece on the Australian Audient series, which will include a preview to my monthly series in 2015.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Really going for it


I want to make my 2014 rankings as complete as possible.

And so last night I saw the Palme d'Or winner -- all three hours and 16 minutes of it -- in the theater.

The latest magnum opus by Turkish director Nuri Bigle Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia) is playing at a theater near me, having released a whole six weeks before you'll get it in the U.S., so I mustered all my courage and all my sugar-filled snacks, and went.

As Winter Sleep contains only the thinnest of actual plots, and barely even any scenery changes, the whole experience feels like a messy blur of pineapple M&M's.

That's right, a big bag of this surprisingly effective new flavor of M&M's was the fuel I used to get me through the 8:25 showing, along with two Diet Cokes, a bag of store-bought popcorn and a handful of gummy worms. It still didn't quite work, as I nodded off for never more than 30 seconds or so, but regularly enough that the whole thing felt kind of like an out-of-body fever dream, only snippets of which were easily accessible to me after the movie.

Did I like the movie? Yes, quite a bit. Did it need to be nearly 200 minutes long? I don't think so, no.

In fact, Winter Sleep may be the second longest movie I have ever seen in the theater -- and one of the longest I've ever seen, period. Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Seven Samurai, Gettysburg, and a number of others are longer, but I haven't seen any of them in a traditional theatrical setting. Off the top of my head, the only one I'm sure was longer was The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and its numerous false endings.

It didn't feel like something that should be just a random undertaking for a random Monday night.

And I did plan out the food. But did I mentally prepare myself for Winter Sleep? Not really.

Still, I think I could have weathered it perfectly effectively had it just had a modicum of plot to follow. It starts out somewhat plot-heavy, at least by the standards of independent/foreign film. A boy throws a rock at a passing car, smashing its window, and we need to learn what prompted him to resort to this type of behavior.

But after 30 or 45 minutes, the movie really settles into a series of conversations in and around the hotel depicted in the poster above, which looks a bit like an overgrown Hobbit house and is consistently fantastic to behold. I never knew Turkey had people living in real-world hillside Hobbit holes, and now I really want to go there.

The conversations are rich and deep and always interesting. But the fact remains that they have a sprawling quality and a philosophical nature that tends to bleed them into one another. The result is that Winter Sleep feels like a river of ideas and character traits that flows over you, rather than an actual narrative film, and the effect is only exacerbated when one is in a fugue state composed of micronaps and subtitles.

I did wonder if I missed the key line of dialogue somewhere along the way that everyone would point to afterwards as the film's defining moment, but in reality, films like Winter Sleep do not have single defining moments. They achieve a cumulative impact merely by being observant and honest and ultimately heartbreaking in the truths they explore. That may not work as well for me as a more tightly structured story with more clear moments of agony and ecstasy, but I'm also very glad I saw it.

I'd like to say I wish I had set aside a better scenario for watching Winter Sleep, but really, I don't know what that would have been. The only time I have more than four hours to myself -- including transportation time -- is at night, when my stamina is bound to be challenged by the material. And I'm not going to take off a day of work to sit there and watch Winter Sleep on a Tuesday afternoon. I am perennially tired enough that even if I went to bed early four or five nights in a row to prepare for a viewing like this, I'd probably manage the reverse and become tired from getting too much sleep. When you are an adult with kids, you can never find that sweet spot of being fully rested. It may, in fact, not exist.

So I got a little sleep during Winter Sleep. Less than I could have, at least. And even if I'd had my eyes held open Clockwork Orange-style, it probably still wouldn't have been my favorite movie of the year -- and not only because I'd be in the middle of being tortured.

I will say that if anyone wants to doubt the credibility of my 2014 list and its many X-Men and Hunger Games sequels, they need only note that spot on the list where Winter Sleep ends up, and they'll know I'm serious about this shit.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Signs of the apocalypse: Colin Firth kicking butt


I suppose it was hard to imagine most people as action heroes until the first time they played one.

Remember when that was not at all the type of role you expected Nicolas Cage or Liam Neeson to play? Now it seems like neither guy can do anything but.

Still, it strikes me as especially strange that British thespian and Oscar winner Colin Firth is going to have an arsenal of badass fight moves in his upcoming movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, whose trailer I saw for the first time Friday night.

The trailer opens with Firth in a closed pub with his nephew (?) and a bunch of young British thugs who want to beat the piss out of them both. As it became clear what was going to happen, I thought "No ... not Colin Firth." I literally didn't think the guy's body could move that way.

But sure enough, a sped-up montage of him laying waste to the room followed. There was some stunt work and trickery and a lot of not-Colin Firth in that scene, I'm sure, but somehow, it came off kind of credibly.

I suppose I should no longer be surprised about anyone who turns up in a role like this after the likes of John Malkovich and Helen Mirren were seen kicking butt in RED, but nonetheless, it does certainly seem strange. Firth just seems too stiff, too mannered. Maybe it was to fight that perception that he wanted to take this role in the first place. And hey, if there's someone I trust to pull this off, it's certainly Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn.

Nonetheless, I thought this might be a good opportunity to list five other actors who don't seem like they will ever be action heroes:

5. Daniel Day-Lewis. Since he's a method actor, he'd have to entrench with a black ops team for six months before filming could start.

4. Neil Patrick Harris. No, it's not that he's gay, so he can't be an action star. It's that he's Neil Patrick Harris, so he can't be an action star.

3. Seth Rogen. But it will totally happen. Jonah Hill has already paved the way by appearing in the Jump Street movies.

2. Peter Dinklage. Sorry, this is in fairly poor taste. Can I offset that by saying how awesome Dinklage is?

1. Jason Statham. Never happen, right?

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Law of averages


I've talked before about how 2014 has been a very good year for movies. I think it's revealing itself more as a very good year than the great year I once thought it might be, but it's still a standout in terms of quality.

It's not only that the good movies are quite good, it's that the bad movies are also comparatively good.

I have still only seen one movie in 2014 that I out-and-out hated. I won't tell you what that is right now, because I'm saving some surprises for the revealing of my rankings a month from now. The other movies gathering around the bottom of my list have been either serious misfires or movies that weren't aimed at me in the first place. "Hate," though? No.

In fact, I've been starting to get a little desperate about not having five or so movies I truly hate at the bottom of my list this year. Those movies are almost as much fun to talk about as the five (or hopefully more) movies you out-and-out love.

That is, I was starting to get desperate -- until Jude Law helped out with the law of averages.

See, the key is not to make the task easier for yourself by watching movies you know will be bad, just to flesh out the bottom of the list. The key is to watch movies you think you'll like, and end up hating them. In most years, that hasn't been a problem, but that's why 2014 has been a good year -- the movies I thought I'd like have mostly lived up to my expectations.

However, the law of averages dictated that Dom Hemingway would come along, and eventually, it did.

Dom Hemingway was firmly ensconced in the "movies I should like" category. It's written and directed by Richard Shepard, whose The Matador is a hidden gem I consistently recommend to fellow film fans (and has a great poster, as discussed here). And though I don't love Jude Law, I have definitely settled into a late-career respect for what he might bring to the table.

But my oh my, did I not like this movie. Yeah, "hate" is a good word for it.

Dom Hemingway begins about as inauspiciously as a movie can begin. The opening shot is of a naked Law from the waist up, his lower body clearly gyrating in the throes of some passion. Both hands grip the piping that's running at shoulder height, to brace himself against the unpredictability of said passion. The setting seems clearly to be a prison cell, and the activity seems clearly to be that he is being fellated by a fellow inmate. This would be okay in and of itself, but the title character is also giving a long, self-indulgent oration about the legendary qualities of his own penis. The word "cock" is used about 30 times in a three-minute speech.

Before this unendurable speech was even over, I turned to my wife and said "Okay, what else do you want to watch?"

See, even though I was looking to add a bad movie to my own 2014 list, I did not have the same agenda for my wife. We've watched enough middling to poor movies recently that she has started to despair about whether it's even worth spending her time on movies. As my own movie-watching strategy relies on having her as a partner at least a third of the time, it's in my interest not to expose my wife to movies like Dom Hemingway. Especially on days that have been challenging in other respects (a flat tire on the car we're borrowing from her dad being one of them).

I gave her two more opportunities to bail in the first ten minutes. When the movie had made no positive strides forward by the 23-minute mark, we did indeed bail in order to watch the first episode of the Fargo TV show.

Masochist that I am, I finished Dom Hemingway after she went to bed.

As the movie may have gotten marginally better after those 23 minutes -- and as I live by a code of not spoiling even bad movies for my readers -- allow me to tell you about the other objectionable things Dom Hemingway does in those first 23 minutes:

1) He beats an auto mechanic within an inch of his life for having slept with his ex-wife while he was in prison. Not his wife, mind you. His ex-wife.

2) He guzzles from any bottle of booze within arm's reach.

3) He screams out "I am Dom Hemingway!" on at least two occasions. I believe one of them was actually "I am Dom Fucking Hemingway!"

4) He delivers a ferocious rant about getting his just desserts for having stayed quiet during a 12-year prison sentence, the target of his rage being a man described as "the most dangerous gangster in Europe." He delivers this rant to this man's face.

5) He freely dabbles in the C-word and says things like "My face looks like an abortion."

I guess there must be some kind of audience that sits back and chortles at the reprehensible behavior of this character, but if so, my wife and I are not acquainted with them.

My wife is very good at cutting to the essence of the problem: "And why are we supposed to care about this man?"

The problem is not that he is off-putting on some surface level that is unpleasant to watch. It's that there seems no possibility of redeeming him, even when the movie inevitably does go down that path. What we've seen of him in this disagreeable introduction is enough to permanently sour us to him. My wife is great on structure (better even than Charlie Kaufman's mom, ha ha), and she recognizes what I sometimes don't: You need to start liking a character, or at least some aspect of that character, within moments of meeting him or her. If there's a redemption on the horizon, the seeds of it need to be in place from the start, even if you may not be able to pinpoint them at the time.

When a character starts a movie by delivering a three-minute soliloquy about the epic qualities of his member, he's got a lot of ground to make up.

The problem with most bad movies, which temporarily convinces you they might not be bad, is that they do succeed in redeeming the character. Most movies are afraid to make a character too unlikable, so they play it really safe on the redemption part and make it absolutely clear that this is someone to root for. Tammy is a good recent example of this. Melissa McCarthy doesn't only start that movie as a basketcase, but as an actual gross human being. When it comes time for her inevitable rebirth as a swan, they swing the character 180 degrees, so it's like the original character never even existed. And though I can recognize that as a false and pernicious device, I'll be damned if my takeaway wasn't that the second half of Tammy had a fair amount of heart.

Dom Hemingway made it much easier on me. Although there's a moment near the climax when the character strips away all his bluster for a scene of genuine emotion and regret, the movie finishes with a tone-deaf episode that reinforces all his worst traits. While that does represent a certain kind of courage on the filmmakers' part, an unwillingness to conform to conventional Hollywood morality, it also reminds me why I hated this character at precisely the point when that should stop being one of the film's goals.

But as I said, I'm thankful to Dom Hemingway. In the strong year of 2014, I really needed a character -- and a movie -- to just purely and unambiguously hate.