Saturday, April 25, 2015

Standard epic movie length


Two hours and 20 minutes.

That seems to be exactly the perfect length for an epic movie. It's long enough to prove how massive and important it is, but short enough that it doesn't send squirmy moviegoers running for the exits.

I hadn't really considered the utility of this running time until this week, when I came across it four times.

The first was when I saw Hook on Tuesday night, and nearly fainted when I realized it was going to go on for 142 minutes. So in that case, it definitely was too long, but only because the movie is so bad.

Then I was at the library on Wednesday, picking up my reserved copy of the Star Wars prequels, in preparation to watch Attack of the Clones with my wife this weekend. While having a coffee in the library cafe with my kids, I was looking over the package and noted the running times of the three movies: 133 minutes, 142 minutes and 140 minutes.

I guess we should count it as a blessing that The Phantom Menace falls seven minutes short of that 140-minute mark.

I suppose these are just four random examples, and the rule is violated by popular movies as often as it is adhered to. Even when splitting the 300-page Hobbit book into three movies, for example, Peter Jackon still managed to get only the final one to come in at this length, its 144 minutes paling in comparison to the 160+ for the first two movies. But it does otherwise seem like a pretty good benchmark. Here are some other examples:

Terminator 2: Judgment Day - 136 minutes
The Matrix - 136 minutes
The Matrix Reloaded - 138 minutes
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - 132 minutes
John Carter - 132 minutes
The Lone Ranger - 149 minutes

Since I have just realized there is nothing very profound about listing a bunch of movies that run between two hours and ten minutes and two hours and 30 minutes, I think I'll stop right there and call it a post.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Laughing at old movies


I made some rather controversial remarks in one of my film discussion forums recently.

They aren't the kind of controversial remarks that might get me in trouble. They're the kind of controversial remarks that might make me look stupid.

The gist of these remarks is: Old movies aren't funny.

Okay, there's a little more nuance in what I said than that. What I really said was something along the lines of "Seeing a movie during the era of its release gives you the best chance of finding that movie really funny."

The remarks were well-intentioned, made in response to the fact that someone in the forum had just seen Planes, Trains and Automobiles and not found it funny. I sympathized with him, as my own recent viewing of this movie made me realize that it had not held up particularly well and was in fact not quite as great as I had always thought it was.

However, whatever its objective merits, a movie can both be funny and remain funny to you, building off those initial positive feelings, if you saw it when it was new. Conversely, finally seeing a movie that everyone has been raving about for the last 25 years of your life carries a pretty high risk of letdown.

I believe the same topic arose some weeks earlier in the discussion of a different Steve Martin film, The Jerk, which he also didn't like and which I hadn't much liked either. The difference for me between Planes, Trains and Automobiles and The Jerk is that I saw the former when it first came out, and the latter in the past ten to 15 years. So, I definitely felt the truth of my own observation as it related to these two movies.

Of course, my comments were met with varying degrees of justified incredulity. One commenter in particular retorted that she always made sure to jump in her time machine before watching Chaplin and Keaton movies.

Touche. If you extended the logic of my argument, it means we're unlikely to find anything funny that wasn't made within our own lifetimes.

Although the actual wording of my observation may have been inelegant, I still believe the logic behind it. Another commenter who came to my defense, in a manner of speaking, observed that the biggest problem with older comedies has nothing to do with those movies themselves. It has to do with the fact that what was funny in them had probably been repeated ad infinitum by ensuing inferior comedies, which nonetheless got to bask in the borrowed glow because they got there first -- for most of us who had normal cinematic upbringings, we watched those new comedies before the older ones they're indebted to. Laughing relies on being surprised, and if the essential humor of a bit has been repeated, adjusted and deconstructed dozens of times since it first appeared, you just aren't as likely to laugh when you do eventually see the first appearance.

What this all brings us to is the wonderful and excellently timed exception to my rule.

You'd think borrowing The Great Dictator from the library might have been a direct response to the commenter who chided me about Keaton and Chaplin, but it was really just a coincidence. I'd been wanting to see Chaplin's first talkie for ages, understanding it to be a trenchant and biting satire of the Nazi regime in particular and dictatorships in general. I figured that if it were funny, it would be the kind of humor that produced knowing smiles rather than busted guts.

Well, I said surprise was a key to humor, and boy was I surprised by The Great Dictator.

I was laughing nearly from the first minute. The movie starts out in the first World War, with the character played by Chaplin (one of two) on a battlefield, engaged in all kinds of physical shenanigans involving canons, grenades, and finding himself marching on the wrong side of the battlefield after getting lost in the fog. And this stuff was driving me to hysterics, even though it has probably been copied more times than we can count in the 75 years since the movie's release. I practically couldn't contain myself when Chaplin is forced to help an injured pilot guide his plane home. The physical gags were funny, of course, but the thing that made me laugh the hardest was this exchange:

Schutz: "Can you fly a plane?"
Jewish barber: "I can certainly try!"

As though flying a plane were an activity that can be undertaken by any person with a plucky, can-do spirit.

Then Chaplin's second character -- the dictator, Hynkel -- appears, and gives a Hitler-like speech that's full of made-up German fricatives. It's something straight out of Mel Brooks, most of whose movies I've seen, meaning that in this case I could actually identify where I had seen homage paid to this film. And though I'm sure I found those moments funny in Brooks' films, it was nothing like watching Chaplin do it. I even felt myself feeling happy for Charlie Chaplin -- who has been dead for nearly 40 years and needs nothing from me -- because I knew that he had moved into the sound era with some reluctance, and it was cool to see that he was so much better at vocal performance than he probably thought he'd be.

I could go on about The Great Dictator, but I'll mention only two more moments that I found sublime: 1) Hynkel's dance with the inflated globe, which has laugh-out-loud moments but actually kind of humanizes the character in terms of his uncertainty about the very power he desires, and 2) the stirring final speech of the Jewish barber, which demands a better world in terms that entirely drop the film's previous commitment to tickling our funny bone.

Can't find any older movie funny? I knew I didn't really think that, but I'm glad The Great Dictator came along to remind me.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Not the ideal setting for a first-time viewing


You know how I like to tell you about my experiences watching movies in new and different environments, right?

Well, new and different is not always good.

Actually, there was everything to like about the setting itself of what was surprisingly my first viewing of Steven Spielberg's 1991 film Hook. A few months ago I met my co-worker out at a bar in Brunswick called The Penny Black, and noted that Tuesday nights are free movie night at The Penny Black. If it's warm, they have the movie out in the courtyard. If it's not so warm -- as it was on Tuesday night -- they have it inside in the main bar area. A half-dozen couches point toward the screen, and there are big pillows and bean bag chairs in front of them.

Good setup, right?

Yes and no. My friend got there early enough to stake out one of the couches. I ordered myself a pint and a $4 pizza -- a pretty great price for the little personal pizzas they make. I had one more of each still ahead in my future, and because I was ordering at a bar directly behind the couch where I was sitting, I didn't even have to miss any of the movie to place my second order.

The problem, however, is that this is still a bar. Even if a majority of the 80 people in that room are watching the movie, there's still the constant clinking of glasses and plates, still a general murmur among even the people watching the movie, and still those who aren't watching the movie, who are all "I'm at a bar enjoying myself. I will talk as loudly as I want. It's a fucking bar."

Thank goodness Hook was not actually a movie I really wanted to see, or one that was any good.

This friend and I had been trying to fix on a first movie to see together at The Penny Black since we first met there in mid February. When the March schedule was released, it didn't have much of interest. Everything was either something I had seen but wasn't dying to see again, something I loved but had re-watched recently, or something I had no interest in. The April schedule was more or less the same, but I proposed Hook because, well, it's a Stevie Spielberg joint and I figured it was something I should eventually see. He'd already seen it but liked it enough to want to see it again, so it was a plan.

Unfortunately, as I was drinking my first beer in the hour before the movie started, and starting to really feel the accumulated fatigue of having been up past midnight for each of the two previous nights, I checked my phone to find out the running time of Hook.

One hundred and frigging 42 minutes. It was daunting even before I knew how bad the movie would be.

Somehow I made it through. I had to engage in more than what I would normally deem appropriate of conversing with my friend to stay awake, but as I said, it was a bar and absolute quiet was never going to happen. My friend told me that I had never been asleep for lengthy periods of time, so I must have gotten away with no more than those little three-second naps -- albeit probably three dozen of them.

Still, the combination of my exhaustion and the general hubbub of the room drowning out the quieter dialogue left me with only a vague sense of how bad Hook was, and not a more specific idea of exactly what was happening at every given moment. I read the synopsis on wikipedia when I got home, and realized that I had pretty much followed everything that happened.

First of all, I think it's a pretty dumb idea for a movie to have a grown up Peter Pan living in the real world as a lawyer who doesn't pay enough attention to his kids and family (which is just about the most tired character type in movies from the 1980s and 1990s). When I saw that the movie started in the real world, I figured the portion that takes place in Neverland was going to be something in Robin Williams' character's imagination, perhaps a dream when he was out cold. I didn't think he was actually supposed to be Peter Pan.

Then when you get to Neverland, who would have thought that the entire rest of the movie would take place in and around this one chintzy set that looks like it was built on the Universal backlot on a budget? When you are dealing with a story like the Peter Pan story, the last thing you want to feel is claustrophobic.

Anyway, it's shit.

So I think the next movie I see at The Penny Black will be one I'm seeing for at least the second time. Then the clinking of glasses and random expulsions of drunk people won't affect my ability to enjoy/follow the movie.

Plus, I can nod off for more three seconds if the beer in my system inspires me to do so.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

It's Nova season again


For most Australian cinemas, the new movie year begins in late January or early February. That factors in the couple-week time shift of the shitty movies released on the first U.S. release date of the year.

For an independent cinema like Cinema Nova in Carlton, it's more like mid-April.

I can't tell you how many times I've checked the "Now Playing" section on the Nova website in the last month or two and found only the late-arriving 2014 awards movies still clogging up the roster. Even now the following 2014 movies are still playing: Big Eyes, Birdman, Boyhood (re-release, I think), Citizenfour, Infinitely Polar Bear, Inherent Vice, Leviathan, Love is Strange, Mommy, Selma, Still Alice, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash and Wild. (They have a lot of screens.)

But as of last Thursday, two new movies have opened, signifying a return to the days when I will reliably visit Nova every second Monday night or so to consume an actual new independent release.

One of them -- It Follows -- I caught this past Monday night. Noah Baumbach's latest, While We're Young, is my next target.

Happy days are here again.

(Sorry if you came here for a discussion of It Follows. There is plenty I could say about this movie, which I found quite captivating if flawed, but I'll save that for another day.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

The anime language test


Most true cinephiles would never watch a movie that had been dubbed. There just wouldn't be any question of it. If they somehow stumbled over a dubbed version, they'd shut off the TV the moment they realized the mistake. They'd walk out of the theater if there existed any reputable theater that would actually show a dubbed film.

Interestingly, though, this anti-dubbing absolutism does not apply to anime.

It may just be me that observes this distinction, but I don't think so. Dubbing in the animated form should be just as off-putting as live action dubbing, especially since most animated content takes great pains to match the mouths up to the words. Japanese animation, however, is a slight exception to the rule. Although the mouths are generally designed to fit the words, the movements are (probably deliberately) left more ambiguous in order to better accommodate foreign audiences.

I personally have always watched anime with English dialogue, in part because it can be harder to focus on the lush imagery if you are constantly reading subtitles. But lately I've started to wonder if watching the movies dubbed has been a factor in why I don't love anime the way some people do, or the way I love other forms of cinematic animation.

So when I started the anime classic Ghost in the Shell on Friday night, and heard the dialogue start in English, I impulsively changed the language option to Japanese with English subtitles.

And loved the movie.

Now, there's no way to tell exactly how I would have felt about it if I'd watched it in English first. You can't watch something for the first time twice.

But given that the movie is barely 75 minutes, I decided that I could watch it in English a second time, and record my observations. The movie isn't due back at the library until Tuesday.

That might not complete the impossible task of replicating what it was like to watch a movie for the first time, but I was pretty sure the results would seem useful. I also hoped that without having to concentrate so much on the plot and the dialogue, I could soak in the images a bit better. So I threw it on again Sunday night.

And definitely liked it less in English.

But did I like it less because of the spoken language, because I had perhaps overrated it to begin with, or simply because the first viewing of any movie has an advantage over all subsequent viewings in terms of offering surprises, unknowns and discoveries?

Who knows.

I did reach a conclusion of sorts. What I appreciated so much about Ghost in the Shell on first viewing was not its plot (it's complicated and could benefit from an additional 30 minutes of world building, which will surely come in the 2017 live action version starring Scarlett Johansson) nor the strength of its animation (it's neither the best-looking nor the worst-looking anime I've seen). Rather, it's the atmosphere this movie creates. Ghost in the Shell establishes a melancholy, dreamy world in which androids consider how human they are -- making it a bit of a spiritual cousin (or, ripoff) of Blade Runner.

But that world has only a fraction of the impact when the characters are speaking English. This is an essentially Japanese world, with Japanese cityscapes and a fundamentally Japanese aura. My favorite sequence of the film is a transitional interlude in which the terrific (very Japanese) score is playing over a bunch of what you would consider B-roll of this world. It made me realize that it is this world in particular, and the exotic quality it has for a viewer in my position, that entranced me so.

Add a bunch of people speaking English, and it just creates an abrupt disconnect. As is the problem with any instance of dubbing, these voices coming out of these mouths just sound funny. And it's not because the characters are very clearly Japanese and the speakers are very clearly not -- in fact, many of the characters sort of seem white. It's because the dialogue is not native to the movie, and something about that will always be off.

Who knows, maybe it is those subtle differences between the movement of the mouths and the words that are coming out.

I have to pause to acknowledge another relevant factor: the talent of the voiceover artists. If Ghost in the Shell were being released in 2015 instead of 1995, its English voice cast would certainly feature known Hollywood actors with mellifluous voices bringing tons of baggage about our previous associations with them. That could be good or bad, but at the very least it would most likely be skillful. The English voice cast here is comprised of working professionals, anonymous folks who are probably not being careful directed, but doing more or less their own interpretation of the vocal inflections required by the dialogue. They responded to a need, rather than really contributing to the film's artistic thrust.

The benefit of having a Japanese vocal cast, then, is that I am much more poorly equipped to determine whether they are delivering the lines successfully or not. Those Japanese voice actors might have been terrible, but I'd never know it because I don't speak Japanese. Their deliveries sound good to an untrained ear like mine, and they do the ever-important work of making the movie feel how it was originally designed to feel.

Armed with this knowledge, that I want an authentic experience more than an easy one, I look forward to seeking out more anime in the future. I can't watch the ones I've already seen and not loved again for the first time, but I can dig deeper into some underexplored back catalogues, such as Studio Ghibli. Rather unbelievably, I've seen only three movies produced by Studio Ghibli, which is pretty scandalous for someone who calls himself a cinephile. And that includes only one movie directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki (that would be Spirited Away).

It does make me wonder about my favorite anime film of all time, Grave of the Fireflies (one of the two other Ghibli movies I've seen). I feel quite certain that I saw that in English, yet it impacted me profoundly. Perhaps they got a better English voice cast than Ghost in the Shell got, or perhaps the movie is just so damn good that I could have watched it in Greek without subtitles and still been blown away.

If you ever figure out the perfect formula for determining why we love the films we love, let me know.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Don't go changin'


You never know what you're going to get out of a second viewing of a film. It's sort of a dangerous proposition, because you could lose love for a movie you once loved. (That's happened to me recently -- twice in the past month, in fact -- but I won't elaborate on which films.) You could also, however, discover that you love a movie you thought you only liked.

When I rewatched Boyhood on Saturday night with my wife (her first time), I figured the needle wasn't likely to move a lot. I expected to like it a little bit more or a little bit less, but nothing radical.

What I didn't expect was that I would come out thinking it should have been longer.

See, although I was enjoying myself quite a bit when I saw Boyhood in theaters, I definitely felt a fatigue setting in around age 15 or 16. I attributed my less-than-perfect rating for Boyhood (I gave it "only" 4.5 stars on Letterboxd) to the inescapable awareness of that fatigue. (I had also had a beer with lunch beforehand, which could have been a contributor.)

Having watched all two hours and 45 minutes of Boyhood a second time, I realize there was an additional component that was discomfiting me during that first viewing:

Stress.

See, I felt an actual sense of anxiety as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) would go from one age to the next. I thought "No! Wait! I want more time with that Mason! I WANT MORE TIME!"

Certainly I am not the first one to make this counterintuitive observation -- that a 165-minute movie might need to be longer -- but it's hitting me as kind of a revelation, since I originally considered its length a mild deterrent to the overall effectiveness of the film.

Instead, it's that each version of Mason is so appealing that I wanted five or ten minutes more with each one.

Of course, I don't really think that the movie should be, or even could be, longer. If it had crossed the three-hour mark, it would have also crossed that imaginary line that separates Richard Linklater from his own self-indulgence. At the length that it is, you can argue that Boyhood is basically free from self-indulgence. If it had gone too much longer, those worries might start to creep in.

Strangely, Linklater actually takes a less-is-more approach to this film. It can sometime be hard to believe that Mason's ages will evenly space out to fill a whole movie, given that some of them seem to have fewer than five minutes of screen time. I'm sure none of them actually do -- just as I'm sure someone out there has taken the time to break down Mason's screen minutes by age, and if I did a web search I'd find it -- but each Mason does seem to come and go so quickly within the overall scope of the film.

That's a testament to Linklater's smart pacing, but also to the overall effectiveness of what he's trying to do. Of course each age is supposed to seem fleeting, because that's supposed to be our overall takeaway from the film -- that life moves by in a flash, and the next time you look up, your child is a year older. Then three years older. Then ten.

Having been able to acknowledge this phenomenon more concretely this time around, I'm inclined to wonder whether the feeling has a basis in my own life. Oddly, it doesn't, really. My own children grow, and it's natural to make such remarks as "Can you believe only six months ago ..." But then there's the part of me that feels like I have been a parent for an eternity. It's hard to imagine that my older son is only four-and-a-half years old, because I feel like I've been his father much longer than that.

And yet I suspect that on my next Boyhood viewing -- which this viewing has assured me will definitely be forthcoming -- I will probably feel this stress even more acutely. I will be more desperate for Mason not to change, because I will feel myself approaching my own "I thought there would be more" moment when my own kids are out the door.

Kramer

Speaking of that, one thing my wife and I did conclude -- and I think I felt it more strongly this time myself -- is that there's an unfortunate imbalance between Mason's parents in this film.

Although clearly both are culpable for the way their lives turned out, and Mason Sr. is sometimes taken to task for being absent, I recognized more clearly this time that Boyhood really wants to forgive Mason Sr. his shortcomings, and not so much Olivia.

The straight reading is that the parent who stays has the thankless job. Olivia is the legal guardian of her two children, so it's she who does the hard miles, makes the tough choices and lives with the consequences. Mason Sr. just parachutes in whenever he feels like it (or really, whenever their custodial arrangement dictates it). Because Olivia is doing the harder job, it seems like there should be some rewards built in for her.

But there aren't. Not only do her kids never really appreciate her -- she has to have a Mexican immigrant give her the thanks her kids should be offering -- but they do seem to appreciate their father. At the very least, Mason Sr. gets a series of "fun" scenes with his kids, whereas Olivia's are all business. And it's telling that Mason Sr.'s final moment with his son is one of sharing and introspection that seems satisfying for them both, while Olivia's final moment leaves her in tears.

The thing I really noted this time is that the film rather unambiguously relates these two scenes and concludes that Olivia is to blame for breaking up with Mason Sr. In that final scene with his son, when he says that things might have turned out differently if only Olivia had been more patient with him, Mason Jr. then offers that he could have been spared the succession of drunken assholes. Mason Sr. seals up his lips and throws away the key: "I didn't say it, you did."

But it is the movie that's saying it, through Mason Jr. The movie is saying that Olivia kind of "deserves" to be unhappy because she never gave this loveable, directonless rascal a chance to be a better partner and father. Because I love Olivia's character and I'd like to think things turn out well for her in the end, I'm optimistic that her tears are just an isolated moment, and once she's freed from the burdens of children her life will develop the sense of purpose it may not have had before that. We should also note that her career is an unambiguous success, and that Mason Sr. thanks her for doing such a great job with their children. Olivia is, in most regards, a success.

But because the movie chooses to leave her with her head in her hands, we must conclude that that is the only reality we can trust. Anything else is just a flight of fancy, wish fulfillment on our part.

I voiced to my wife that the movie put me in mind of Kramer vs. Kramer, the 1979 best picture winner about a divorce between a young boy's mother and father. I often quip that the movie should have just been called Kramer, because Dustin Hoffman's Ted Kramer gets the vast majority of screen time, and his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) is the one who walked out on the family. The movie's title posits a balance between the two warring parties, but the movie itself does not give us one. It's so unambiguously in Ted's corner that it's simply not a fair fight.

Boyhood, which did not quite win best picture, is not in that same category of imbalance. But it's in the same conversation. I do wonder if Richard Linklater's personal affection for the type of character played by Ethan Hawke -- which Hawke has actually played for him on numerous occasions -- interfered with his ability to give the movie better balance. Or whether it was consciously imbalanced against Olivia, and if so, what that says about his own biases. Interestingly, it's the woman who is punished in both films -- even though she's the one who leaves to find herself in Kramer vs. Kramer, and she's the one who stays in Boyhood.

Still, one of the great things about Boyhood is that this is one particular family, and it is very explicitly constructed as that. It's not meant to be the perfect encapsulation of any person's childhood -- it's this one particular character's childhood, and this is how it played out. I am more than okay with that.

So even with these mild concerns about the imbalance, I'm glad to say that the needle did movie somewhat radically when I saw Boyhood a second time.

Having worried that I'd be stuck in "really like" with Boyhood, I can now say with certainty:

I love it.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Perfume for rats


Ratatouille wasn't what I had hoped to come home with from the library on Tuesday. I had a different Pixar in mind to watch with my four-year-old, who still hasn't seen The Incredibles despite his love of superheroes. Getting a plate and bowl set emblazoned with Mr. Incredible and family seemed like just the nudge I needed to go track down a copy.

Although you can usually find plenty of Pixar on the library shelves, The Incredibles was nowhere to be seen. So I grabbed Ratatouille, Frozen and The Jungle Book, figuring that we'd get to watch either a movie I wanted to rewatch, a movie I probably needed to rewatch, or one I'd never seen, respectively, during my younger son's nap on Wednesday morning.

Suspecting he'd choose his fourth viewing of Frozen if given the chance -- and that my feelings toward it probably wouldn't improve significantly on a second viewing -- I ended up leaving that out of the options. He picked Ratatouille over The Jungle Book.

Given that Ratatouille is not "kid-friendly Pixar" -- a strange statement to make, but I think you get what I mean -- I immediately had my doubts about his ability to watch the whole thing. Its length was one of the (minor) complaints I had about this movie back when I saw it in 2007, so it surprised me that it turned out to be less than 100 minutes before the credits rolled (with a total running time of 111, including credits). It also surprised me that he actually mostly paid attention, only becoming distracted by his toys a couple times, but then snapping back to attention when something unexpected or startling happened. If he'd been paying full attention he might have had fewer follow-up questions, but then again, he's at an inquisitive age. There are enough things going on in this movie that would go over the head of a child that I'm kind of surprised he didn't ask more.

Of course, at his young age, I'm not quite as interested by what my son might get out of it as I am about my own takeaways. And I had a rather funny one with my second viewing of Ratatouille: It bears a rather striking resemblance to one of my favorite movies of 2006, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Consider:

1) Both films have to do with a character known for his freakish sense of smell. Remy, however, is recognized as a prodigy (he can save his rat brethren from eating poisoned food) while Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is just an unnerving outcast.

2) Both characters aspire to greatness. Remy wants to be an outstanding chef, while Jean-Baptiste wants to become a great perfumier.

3) Both characters lack the means to demonstrate their greatness, so they do it through an intermediary. Remy uses his skills to make Linguini seem like Paris' greatest new chef, while Jean-Baptiste props up the sagging perfume business of Giuseppe Baldini by becoming his behind-the-scenes new talent.

4) Both characters are animals, in a way. Remy is, of course, a rat, and Jean-Baptiste's last name is the French word for "frog" -- though this is more likely a reference to him being a "frog," as in a Frenchman. (The character is supposed to be sort of a cypher, and so his name is essentially John the Baptist Frenchman -- which gets the religious allegory in there as well.)

5) Both characters are constantly being hunted. Every human Remy comes across wants to kill him, while the authorities of Grasse are desperately seeking a serial-killing Grenouille -- though they don't know he is the one they're looking for until very near the end.

6) Both characters murder young girls in order to distill their scents. Okay, wait, Remy doesn't do that.

7) Both movies spend a good chunk of time in Paris.

Not quite as profound as my comparison of Whiplash and Birdman, but enough for a blog post, anyway.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Audient Auscars: The Life of Emile Zola


This is the fourth in my 2015 series in which I'm catching up with the best picture winners I haven't seen, in chronological order.

The Life of Emile Zola almost broke me.

When I was less than halfway through -- but had already fallen asleep six times -- I got on Facebook and loudly complained to my Flickcharters discussion group that it was the most boring movie I'd ever seen, and that it also "looked like crud."

Both of these were exaggerations, of course, and the 1937 best picture winner actually got a little better from there, managing to raise itself into a 2.5-star rating on Letterboxd before all was said and done.

Old-fashioned in many respects, The Life of Emile Zola is actually rather modern in one key area. That area does make a liar of its title, however.

Yes, I think I was looking forward so little to this movie not only because its reputation for being boring preceded it, but because Emile Zola, a 19th century French writer, seemed like a strange person to be the focus of one of only 88 movies that have won best picture. I had never heard of him outside of the context of this movie, so how important could he really be?

The answer is, somewhat, and the movie actually does something that would become a bit of a hallmark of future Oscar winners: It is probably the most socially liberal movie to have come down the chute to that point. Many subsequent best picture winners have championed causes, but this was one of the first -- even if that cause was just the innocence of an accused traitor.

And that's the way I first described this movie as being somewhat modern. Modern biopics -- Lincoln and Selma being two recent examples -- tend to recognize the wisdom of focusing on a single important section of the person's life, not a cradle-to-grave recitation of his or her greatest hits. When The Life of Emile Zola gets good -- and that may be a slightly inflated way to describe its eventual quality -- it's because it starts to focus exclusively on Zola's impassioned written defense of Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused of treason. What was most pernicious about his resulting false imprisonment is that many of the military leaders who put him there knew he was innocent -- but scapegoated him in order to save face, for the good of the military and the good of France.

So it's not really "the life" of Emile Zola. It's 45 frustrating minutes of some of Zola's greatest hits, followed by a slightly less frustrating hour-and-fifteen minutes of Zola's sometimes peripheral involvement in this sensational treason case.

The movie does look sort of like crud, though. Given some of the films I've already seen in this series alone, all of which predated Zola, I had a hard time believing a film that looked so scruffy and so small in scope could muscle out the other nominees. But then I looked at the rest of the field. Of the nine other films that were nominated in 1937, the only other I'd seen is A Star is Born, and that one looks pretty cruddy as well. Maybe 1937 just was not a great year for movies.

Although the film does get on track in its second half and features a justified Oscar-winning performance from supporting actor Joseph Schildkraut (as Dreyfus), it starts out inauspiciously indeed. The opening scene features a younger version of Zola and a character that I learn in retrospect was supposed to be Paul Cezanne, but the dialogue is so poorly recorded and the scene so poorly introduced that I felt like I'd just been thrown into the middle of the proceedings. Meanwhile, both characters spend most of the scene in beds in some kind of loft, making them seem a bit like invalids.

The ensuing scenes, which in my memory are just a succession of book titles coming off presses as a lame means of showing his career blossom, were when I fell asleep repeatedly. I don't think I actually missed any of the movie, as I am very good about pausing, but all the eyelid drooping certainly made my brain a little squishy, and unable to grab on to anything in a dull movie indeed.

Even when the movie does start to become about Dreyfus, it takes a while before Zola actually gets involved, and some hero he is -- his first instinct is to say "I'm old and can't fight the good fight anymore." Of course, he does eventually get involved, and for the second hour, the movie successfully functions as a series of courtroom scenes in which Zola is being accused of libel for his newspaper article shining a spotlight on the real traitor. I was reminded a little bit of some movies I've seen in the past few years and loved, involving men accused of wrongdoing by the military -- I'm thinking specifically of Breaker Morant and Paths of Glory. Unfortunately, Zola reminds me of those movies only in terms of its approach, not its quality.

I did find that out that this was not necessarily a movie that set out with its sights on best picture. Paul Muni, who is fine as Zola, also starred in a movie called The Story of Louis Pasteur the year before, for which he won the best actor award. Although I haven't seen that film, these movies taken together strike me more as workmanlike serials than works of art. Hey, you can't blame The Life of Emile Zola if a bunch of Oscar voters told it it was better than it really was.

Okay, enough of that.

As it turns out, I've been pretty good at watching best picture winners from the 1940s. To get the next movie on the schedule we have to go all the way forward to 1949. So in May I will be watching All the King's Men.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The benefits of excess exposition


I was nearly late to another screening last week. Or, I should say, I was actually late, and nearly late enough that I might have been better off skipping it altogether if I hadn't made it just when I did.

Instead of writing an entire post about it, as I did with Agora (years ago) and Shaun the Sheep Movie (last month), I figured instead I would sing the praises of the movie in question for something that would ordinarily not seem praise-worthy.

After deciding to walk to a studio screening room I'd never been to (instead of taking the tram), then thinking I knew where I was going (instead of consulting the directions I'd printed out), I ended up overshooting the place and having to reverse my steps through back streets with only a vague sense of where I was going, running as long as I could stand to run before allowing myself the occasional walking breather. After eventually getting help from a police officer, who required the GPS on her phone to help me locate the place, I finally arrived around 6:04. At which point I discovered that The Age of Adaline had started promptly at 6, perhaps even a minute or two earlier than that.

The discomfiting thing about coming in late on a movie is that you have no idea how much of it you've missed, beyond the general sense of when it was likely to have started, nor whether anything crucially important to the plot has already transpired. The Age of Adaline was in the middle of a scene that didn't necessarily strike me as the first scene in the movie.

I was hoping for some delayed opening credits to reassure me that I hadn't missed much, but I got something even better than that: a complete and on-the-nose back story for the title character, delivered squarely and without a hint of irony by the narrator.

Ordinarily, the deluge of exposition that came about five minutes after I'd sat down (hoping my sweat-soaked shirt wasn't offending my neighbor) would constitute a cardinal cinematic sin. In a show-don't-tell medium like the movies, you should use a narrator sparingly if at all. In the rare case -- say, Goodfellas -- a narrator ends up feeling like an indispensable ingredient. Suffice it to say, The Age of Adaline is no Goodfellas. I could hear the errant titter from our audience as the rather extraordinary events that befall Adaline were laid out in no uncertain terms.

I was smiling, but I wasn't laughing. No, I was just resting comfortably in the certainty that I could review this with confidence, knowing that I'd been properly oriented on the story all along.

Because so much relies on an understanding of Adaline's past, though, I'd have been completely at sea if I had arrived just after these nearly ten minutes of exposition, rather than just before.

Thank goodness I can run quite effectively with untied shoelaces, and that one of Melbourne's finest was around to lend a helping hand.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Netflix spoiler stills


I'm sure you've noticed that when a movie is loading on Netflix, a still from that movie accompanies the red progress circle spinning in the middle of the screen. It's a snapshot chosen, one would assume, to encapsulate what this movie is about and get you in the right frame of mind for watching it.

They are almost never a typical production still, the kind you'd get with a press packet. No, they seem to be a bit more random and quirky than that.

Someone is choosing these stills. Whoever it is, I want that job, because he or she sucks at it.

Twice now I have watched a movie on Netflix that had some key part of the plot spoiled by the still they chose to represent the movie. Twice is enough to write something about it here.

I think you'd agree that a still like this should be chosen carefully, so as not to give away anything crucial. At the very least it should follow the logic of those DVD menu screens that run through a looping ten-second montage of events from the movie, which usually don't tell you anything you wouldn't otherwise want to know. (Usually.)

Re-Animator was the offender the other night. When Re-Animator is loading up, Netflix shows you this (SPOILER ALERT):


Very strong on giving you a sense of what the movie is about. Not so strong on keeping elements of the plot a secret.

This still is from the last 20 or 30 minutes of the film. Without it, you might not know that this particular character gets decapitated during the course of the film's events. You might not care that you know, but you know, and Netflix didn't give you the chance to opt out of that knowledge.

Now, even though this is the occurrence that inspired me to write this post, it may be a particularly poor example in the sense that the poster above actually gives away this information. It's a drawing of the character and not a picture, so you might not put two and two together like a picture would help you do, but still, the poster is making no effort to keep the fate of this character a secret. So be it.

This, then, is a better example, and I suppose in the spirit of the very thing I am talking about here, it requires a SPOILER WARNING as well. So, read no further if you want nothing spoiled about the documentary Unhung Hero.

Here is what Netflix offers you while Unhung Hero is spinning up:


This is almost literally the last shot of the movie. It shows our protagonist, Patrick Moote, with his arm draped around the shoulder of a woman he met earlier in a shop selling sex toys. On a side note, him having a date with this girl is one of several parts of this movie I suspect might have been staged, to give it a serendipitously positive ending. But the movie worked quite well for me overall, so I'm forgiving it those (potential) sins.

The reasons why this is a poor still to choose from Unhung Hero are twofold:

1) It doesn't indicate anything meaningful about a guy grappling with the fact that he may have a smaller than average penis;

2) It reveals that things work out okay for him, even though the whole movie is about an emotional journey kicked off when his girlfriend publicly rejected his marriage proposal on a sporting event jumbotron -- blaming his small penis for why she didn't want to marry him.

The fact that my internet kept dropping when I watched Unhung Hero, meaning I had to load it up at multiple junctures of the movie, made the still even more problematic. We meet the girl pictured here early on in the movie, when Patrick surreptitiously tries to record his conversation with her at the sex toy shop, something her boss isn't having any of. At the time, we have no idea that she's going to re-enter the narrative, and in fact, she ends up pissed off at him because he gets her in trouble.

So reluanching this movie and seeing this still multiple times tells us in no uncertain terms that she will reappear, that she will become a potential romantic partner for him, and that if someone with her button-nosed cuteness is into him, then the size of his penis must not matter after all. The look of unambiguous contentment on Moote's face leaves no doubt about his triumph over his own fears of inadequacy. And the movie does derive much of its drama from the question of how things will turn out for Patrick, so this is problematic indeed.

My conclusion is that whoever does actually do this at Netflix does not take the task very seriously. That's a shame, because I think it would be a super fun endeavor for any true cinephile to undertake -- to review the movie for that one perfect image that captures its themes, tone and content, without spoiling anything.

Just give me that chance, Netflix. You don't even have to pay me if you don't want to. Just knowing I'm doing a service for other unsuspecting cinephiles would be payment enough.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

America is furious. Australia is also fast.


For some strange reason, Australia has decided not to go with the American title Furious 7 for the latest installment in the improbably long-lived drag racing/heist series. The movie is called the far more conventional Fast & Furious 7 here.

Why?

I don't know.

Mostly, I just wanted an excuse to publish this poster, which I love.

However, I do think it's time for me to finally catch up with this series. I am still stuck on trying to get my hands on The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Although "trying" is a strong word for it.

Still, I think it's time to put more effort in, and see if I can finally pull up alongside (so to speak) these movies that just keep going and going and going. And somehow seem to keep on getting better.

It won't be in time to see this newest in the theater, but maybe I can watch it on video in time to rank it with my other 2015 movies. That gives me a good nine months.

On my mark, get set, go.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Bad guys who fight fair


As I was watching The Raid: Redemption (or just The Raid) last night, I found myself disappointed as the inevitable moment approached when one of the villain's key henchmen was about to be dispatched.

That's because until this point, the guy had been just about the most gentlemanly combatant you could hope for.

And although it's not much of a spoiler to let you know that a villain's key henchman will be dispatched in an action movie, let this be your SPOILER WARNING about The Raid, Redemption or otherwise.

This Indonesian action flick is about a police raid on a tenement run by Tama (Ray Sahetapy), a vicious drug lord, and it has the satisfying narrative momentum of moving up through the floors to the boss on the top level. Tama, meanwhile, sends his people down toward the invading cops, whose raid is off the books, meaning they can't call for backup. One such "people" is Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian), whose long hair reminded me a little of 1980s henchman actor Al Leong. Seeming almost like a Zelig, appearing in every action movie you could imagine, Leong become sort of a cult figure among my high school friends.

Mad Dog may be mad -- as in he's got mad skills -- but he's not the type of shameless psycho who would normally be his boss' #2. In most movies, not only is that character physically gifted, as Mad Dog is, but he's willing to use whatever sinister leverage he can to defeat the hero. If there's an opportunity to "cheat" in any way -- to the extent that cheating is possible in their particular scenario -- he will take advantage of that opportunity and then some. See, the hero needs to overcome not only being overmatched physically, but also the dirty tricks of someone who will stop at nothing to kill him.

Not Mad Dog. Mad Dog is all about giving you second chances, and then even third chances.

The first time we see Mad Dog in combat, he gets the drop on the lieutenant, Jaka (Joe Taslim). They're involved in hand-to-hand combat in a hallway, and Mad Dog pulls out a gun. Typical villain behavior, right?

Nope. Mad Dog motions the barrel of the gun in the direction he wants Jaka to walk. They end up inside one of the apartments, where Mad Dog puts down his gun and explains to Jaka that "pulling a trigger is like ordering takeout." If he's going to defeat an enemy, he wants it to be through fair, hand-to-hand combat. Apparently, he just wants some privacy so the purity of their fight will not be diluted.

Because Mad Dog is awesome, he eventually does defeat Jaka in this fashion, after a spectacular couple minutes of fisticuffs and, uh, legicuffs. When he finally snaps Jaka's neck, he seems to almost regret having the fight come to an end. It's the sorrow of having to put an end to a worthy opponent.

Later, he's engaging in typical henchman behavior by torturing a traitor from among his boss' men, Andi (Donny Alamsyah). This is the brother of the hero, Rama (Iko Uwais), who has been working closely with Tama unbeknownst to his law-abiding brother. When Tama discovers the relationship between the two and that Andi missed an opportunity to either kill or capture his brother, he turns him over to Mad Dog for a beatdown. Mad Dog strings him up like a side of beef and administers a series of punches and kicks to his midsection. Rama comes upon this scene and attempts to save his brother from it.

Mad Dog should just leave Andi strung up and fight Rama one on one. That would be more than fair and more than fulfill his obligation to his own personal code. No one could ask any more of him.

Instead, Mad Dog allows Rama to free his brother so that they can both fight Mad Dog. You wouldn't think either of them would be up to the task after the events of the day -- Rama having been beaten and bloodied by a dozen other assailants, and Andi getting beaten repeatedly by Mad Dog just now -- but both seem to be at or near 100%. (Hey, it's an action movie, what do you want.) And they proceed to take on Mad Dog, their two barely being an equivalent to his one.

And in fact, they really aren't his equal. Mad Dog leaves one brother bloodied and panting and is about to snap the neck of the other, as he did to Jaka. But the free brother manages to grab a length of broken fluorescent light bulb and shove it into Mad Dog's neck.

Because Mad Dog is awesome, this only slows him down a little bit. He still fights the brothers for another minute or so before they finally get him down and use the length of bulb jutting out of his neck to slit his throat.

The movie invites us to celebrate this as a victory for our heroes, and I guess it's a credit to the way the movie has established the characters that we do see it that way. Rama is very likeable and is about to become a father, and his brother is someone who presumably went wayward and can still be redeemed (is that the meaning of the title?). But it's kind of sad that it has to come at the expense of Mad Dog, whose combat chivalry knew no bounds. If he just wanted to clean up a mess and be done with it, he might still be henching to this day.

I had originally intended this post to be a discussion of a number of other villains who fight fair, but in truth, the movie villain as an archetype is usually such a dirty fighter that examples did not immediately spring to mind. If the villain or the villain's henchman does sacrifice an advantage over the hero, it's because of pride -- because he wants to taunt the hero or unveil his whole master plan. It has nothing to do with creating the conditions for a fair fight.

So rest in peace, Mad Dog. You were too good for this world ... even if you were the muscle for a cruel Indonesian drug lord.