Saturday, November 28, 2015

The year of the fembot

Spoiler alert: If you don't want to know which 2015 movies might have female characters who are robots and which may not, you may want to stop reading now. However, to list actual movie titles is kind of the spoiler itself. I'll include the one that's the most spoilery toward the bottom. I've already spoiled Turbo Kid, I suppose ... if you care about that, which I argue you should not.

I suppose 1997 is the actual year of the fembot, as that's the year that Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery hit theaters. However, 2015 is shaping up as a close second.

I just saw my fourth 2015 movie last night in which a female character either becomes, or is revealed to be, a robot. And in three of those, one of the characters is in love with that female robot. (In the fourth and the last one I will reveal, the love is also there, but it's maternal.)

Turbo Kid (dir. Francois Simar, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell)

The most recent robot on my viewing schedule appears in the post-apocalyptic 80s throwback/ exploitation movie Turbo Kid, which sounds as awesome as it ended up being not awesome. The character is Apple, a girl the title character finds in "the wasteland" and ends up reluctantly befriending/loving. The fact that she's a robot is not immediately revealed, but once it is, they play it up for about half a dozen false deaths. It grew very tiresome, just like this movie. I did think actress Laurence LeBoeuf (wait, that's a woman's name?) was probably the best part of the movie, though it took me a while to warm up to her character.

Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

The female robot most central to the plot of the movie is, of course, in Ex Machina -- and it's really one of a handful of female robots. But none of them hold a candle to Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, who easily seduces (emotionally, if not physically) the young programmer summoned to the remote technical fortress of an internet billionaire/genius. Even knowing the character is an example of artificial intelligence, Caleb (Domhnall Glesson) still falls for her. I guess maybe I would too. The movie is chilling and excellently explores the host of existential issues related to such a character.

Tomorrowland (dir. Brad Bird)

One of the weirdest aspect of the total misfire Tomorrowland is not that the most compelling character is, again, a robot. It's not that a childhood version of the male character falls in love with her anyway. It's not even that some 50 years later, when that character is now played by George Clooney, he's still in love with her, though that is pretty weird. No, the weirdest thing is that he somehow still feels betrayed by her -- a robot who failed to be a compatible love interest for him -- and that she still has the appearance of a child, making his romantic feelings an example of thankfully unconsummated pedophilia. Yeah, someone didn't think this movie through, though this is hardly the only evidence of that fact. Still, as with Turbo Kid, the actress Raffey Cassidy as Athena is the most compelling reason to watch the movie.

Final spoiler warning.

Chappie (dir. Neill Blomkamp)

This is the one outlier on the list in the following two ways: It's both the one instance of maternal robot love, and the one instance where a character is actually turned into a robot. (Three ways, actually, if you consider that the initial relationship involves a human woman and a male robot.) How do you actually turn a flesh and blood creature into a robot? Chappie has the answer, of course: You download a character's consciousness and install it in a robot body once its human body has failed. That's what happens to Yolandi, a mother figure to the title character, at the very end of the movie after she's gunned down in the climactic battle. And even though Chappie has possibly the most far-fetched usage of fembot technology, it's almost my favorite -- Chappie and Ex Machina are currently very closely situated in my 2015 rankings.

Honorable mentions:

There are actually two 2015 movies that also feature what I would call "enhanced" female characters. Though they are definitely not robots, they each have bionic components that make them all the more lethal. The first is Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road, who has a robotic hand replacing the half arm she has lost. Then there's Sophia Boutella as Gazelle in Kingsman: The Secret Service, whose blade legs not only help her run, they also help her slice and dice flesh. I suppose if you want to get technical, Gazelle should be "first" because Kingsman came out before Mad Max.

So is 2016 the year that fembots actually overthrow our society, perhaps led by Ava as implied at the end of Ex Machina?

I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cinematic land mines

It's American Thanksgiving day as I write this, so I thought it was finally time to tell you about Creed.

"Finally" tell you about a movie I saw only four days ago, but which has been quivering around inside my body ever since then.

And this Thanksgiving -- which we celebrated last night with a modest plate of traditional Thanksgiving foods -- I want to give thanks for being reminded earlier in the week of cinematic land mines.

What, exactly, is a cinematic land mine? Well, like a real land mine, it's something you encounter without any foreknowledge that something is about to happen to you. And when it explodes, it may just blow your mind.

Creed was such a film. Until a week or two earlier, when I was invited to attend an advanced critic screening this past Monday night, I hadn't even been consciously aware that Rocky VII, as you could dismissively refer to it, was on this fall's release schedule. I've seen every Rocky movie except Rocky II, which can be explained by the fact that I started with Rocky III and only just saw the original two years ago, so this was likely something I was going to see eventually. But without the critic screening, I don't know that I even would have prioritized seeing it in the theater.

It wasn't until I actually got to the screening that I realized that Ryan Coogler, the director of Fruitvale Station, was reunited with his Fruitvale Station star (Michael B. Jordan) for this movie. I mean, I knew Jordan was the star, but I didn't know Coogler was the director. Fruitvale Station was my #11 movie of 2013, so my anticipation level went up a tick at that point.

But I couldn't have guessed how this movie would proceed to blow the roof off.

I'm not going to give you an itemized breakdown of what is so great about Creed, but I will direct you to my review, linked on the right, if you want to read my thoughts. I'll also say that even as the longest review I have yet written for ReelGood, it was only half of what I might want to say about this remarkable movie. It's so jam-packed with discussion-worthy topics that I felt like I needed to write a sequel to my review.

So today, I'll just be thankful of one of the things I love so much about watching movies: the element of surprise. Sometimes you literally have no idea what movie may just knock your socks off. Did I ever guess, in a million years, that Ruby Sparks would be my favorite movie of 2012? No I did not. Did that make me love it all the more? Yeah, I think it did.

No talk yet about whether Creed is my favorite this year, but I'll tell you that it's certainly in the discussion. And that's something I would have never been able to tell you when I walked innocently into that screening on Monday night.

When the movie was over, I applauded. That's right, I stood up and applauded, with tears glistening in my eyes.

So yes indeed, this Thanksgiving, I'm giving thanks that Creed blew my legs clean off my body. And the reminder that any movie can do that, at any time. As film fans, we live one day to the next, never knowing the next thing that is going to rock our worlds.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Audient Auscars: My Fair Lady

This is the 11th in my 2015 series in which I'm watching all the best picture winners I have yet to see. 

My Fair Lady represents a first in my Audient Auscars series in the following two ways:

1) It was the first movie I had to watch over two sittings that were separated by a very large chunk of time. Due to an insanely busy schedule, I watched the first half of the 1964 best picture winner on Tuesday the 17th, and the second half on Tuesday the 24th.

2) It was not the first movie in this series I thought could have been an hour shorter, but it was the first I thought could have been an hour shorter that I liked quite well even with an hour's worth of flab.

There's so little actual story in My Fair Lady that a 2015 version might require only 90 minutes -- even with the songs -- as opposed to the two hours and 52 minutes of the 1964 version. Different eras, different general levels of appreciation for the musical genre, different standards for faithfully including every last little moment of a stage production.

But if you did extract an hour from My Fair Lady, some of what's so lovely about it would be lost -- the in-between moments, the funny asides, the details that give it personality and texture. Suffice it to say that I would not have felt the weight of its formidable length had my schedule just not been so jam-packed.

This is probably the movie I've seen this year that least requires a plot synopsis. Almost everyone is familiar with the story of Henry Higgins and his outre speech pupil Eliza Doolittle, whom he refers to dismissively as a "gutter snipe" more times than I care to count. (Was that a term of harmless fun back in the 1960s, or is this movie just that misogynistic?) Possible sexism and definite classism aside, there's something sort of wonderful about the relationship between Henry and Eliza, in part because it is never really characterized as a romance, nor does it ever actually become one. His position of power over her would be all the more problematic if he had romantic designs on her, but refreshingly, he does not. More than anything he really just wants to win a bet with his equally effete academic friend, that he can polish this street person with a Cockney accent into the belle of the ball. (Which I suppose makes the movie not unlike Around the World in 80 Days, which also centers on a bet, but is in all other ways completely unlike this movie. That's one of the aforementioned movies that should have been an hour shorter, really.)

Audrey Hepburn is -- surprise surprise -- simply wonderful. There's a reason she's considered one of the most charismatic icons in cinematic history. Not that she was ever just a pretty face, but no role I've seen her in challenges her range more than this one. This consummately elegant person is actually completely believable as an unrefined flower girl. Unlike the "ugly" girls made "pretty" in movies in decades to come (She's All That and its ilk), Hepburn really does convince us she may be totally common. Of course, she's just as charming in her pre-makeover days as she is after (some would argue more so, which is ultimately kind of the point), and I continued to marvel over how much she threw herself into this role.

One thing I will say is that her transformation is a bit sudden, and feels all the more abrupt by virtue of the fact that she makes almost no progress during what seems like weeks of speech training. She demonstrates, in fact, almost zero ability to mimic a sound that someone else is making to her. When asked repeatedly to pronounce an A in the proper way, she just says "Oy" over and over again, as though her ears are broken in addition to her mouth. Most humans have an inborn ability to imitate other people's accents or voices, at least a little bit; Eliza Doolittle apparently does not. However, it certainly is fun to watch her involved in all manner of goofy speech therapies involving marbles in her mouth and a contraption that stokes a flame every time she successfully expels a properly pronounced H.

Then one day -- from one moment to the next, actually -- she can pronounce "The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plain" as though she'd been born with a silver spoon in her mouth. That's the moment of no turning back, and only her instincts for social grace need a polish after that point. I suppose it's a narrative convenience to have that breakthrough moment, and of course it allows the singing of the wonderful corresponding song. But it is sort of funny that a movie of such seemingly unnecessarily length can't spare the time to have her improve gradually over time. That would be no fun, I guess.

The songs are of course great, if falling a bit short of the embarrassment of classics in my most recent best picture-winning musical, West Side Story. There are no duds here, and most of the songs are a lot of fun. I can tell you that some of them completely lift out, however, which would be the easiest way to shorten this film's running time. "Get Me to the Church on Time," for example, is pretty much entirely superfluous, as it makes for the last appearance of Eliza's ne'er do well father, trying for once to do well by marrying his common law wife. Although Stanley Holloway is terrific as the loveable scoundrel Alfred Doolittle, we don't even see him again after this -- we don't even know if he actually got to the church on time. In fact, a modern version of this movie would probably do away with his character entirely, as he exists mostly for comic relief -- though we do get to see exactly what Eliza has been up against in trying to achieve respectability in her life, something she never even realized she probably wanted.

Oh, and I liked Rex Harrison a lot, too. He probably deserves more eloquent praise than that, especially since his business is eloquence, but I'll just toss him in here at the end.

Join me in December when I conclude (?) Audient Auscars with Patton, the 1970 best picture winner. (Conclude? I guess we'll see about that ...)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Dream sequences that weren't

The best way to summarize the massive disappointment that is the final Hunger Games movie, especially in its final 40 minutes, is that I thought that 40-minute sequence was a dream sequence, but it wasn't.

Rarely has such a series of improbable, and improbably cruel, events followed from another series of events in what I assumed was a conventional movie, that my only choice was to believe that they constituted a dream. But they did not.

Mockingjay Part 2 spoilers to follow.

It's a logical enough assumption, given that the sequence of events starts with Katniss Everdeen getting knocked unconscious and awakening in a hospital bed for the umpteenth time in the movie. Literally, this happens to her umpteen times in this movie, to the point that you start to laugh about it. (Joining your laughter over the cheesy love triangle dialogue between Katniss, Peeta and Gale.) And since we just saw her knocked to the ground with her clothing burning ever so placidly, the whole thing kind of has an air of artificiality to start with.

So she was knocked down in the middle of what we now understand was a climactic sequence in the rebellion against the Capitol, though at the time it certainly didn't feel like that. We learn that the fighting is now over and that the Capitol has already fallen. (Too bad, that would have been nice to see.) We also now learn that Snow is in captivity and scheduled for execution, and we know this because Snow himself has told her, walking up to her in some kind of rose garden with a still vital brand of the mustache-twirling confidence that has characterized his behavior throughout the entire saga, explaining it all -- including the true nature of what happened in that final attack.

Dream sequence, right?

It isn't. Katniss' sister Primrose is really dead, something we thought we saw just before Katniss received her eleventieth concussion in this movie, and the rebellion leaders are really, unclimactically, sitting around Snow's ceremonial circular table where he plans evil deeds. Or used to until he was caught and tapped for execution.

So let's go back to that first thing.

Primrose Everdeen is dead. That's the most disappointing cinematic death of a young person since Newt bought it in the crash of Ripley's ship that starts out Alien 3. What was so disappointing about Newt's death was that it invalidated everything Ripley had fought for in Aliens, and so does Prim's death invalidate Katniss' selfless act of volunteering to take her sister's place at the initial reaping some three movies ago. You know, the thing that started it all. Okay, it's "realistic," and Prim never felt like a fully realized character anyway. But is it satisfying? HELL no.

Ultimately, we as an audience want -- nay, we demand -- to be satisfied at the movies. Satisfaction can come in the form of sorrow or tragedy, and in fact if every Hunger Games character made it to the finish line that would probably be quite unsatisfying. But kill off one of those superfluous love interests, especially Peeta, whose character arc had become increasingly irritating with this whole Capitol brainwashing subplot. Or especially Gale, who felt like he was sitting around like a hunk of wood for the whole series. Or especially Haymitch or Effie Trinket, who sit around doing absolutely nothing -- ABSOLUTELY NOTHING -- in this movie. Or the digital apparition of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie's final scenes. Don't kill off the thing that started the rebellion in the first place, the symbolic small-scale goal that needed to be achieved within the context of the much larger one. I suppose that could have been Suzanne Collins' whole point, but if so, come on.

But even if you accept Primrose as a necessary sacrifice to Collins' artistic points, how much of an anticlimactic bummer is this ending? Katniss essentially gets no heroic moment (not that she hasn't already had many) and is essentially a bystander to the completion of events that she set in motion, which are then portrayed off screen. But let's not pretend she does not still have an important role to play, because that would be forgetting the actual ending, when she is meant to execute Snow (that's rather sick, for a hero) and instead executes the demagogue who rose up in Snow's place, President Coin, who we only just recently stopped thinking of as a hero herself. Yes, it seems clear that Coin sacrificed Prim and other children in order to win the battle against Snow, and yes, she's just as malicious as her very immediate predecessor in very real ways. But Katniss executing anybody is pretty shitty, when you are trying to impart lessons to impressionable girls, and then having the crowd tear Snow to pieces, Mussolini style, while he laughs like a crazy person? Well it's all just a bit much. What makes the scene even more dramatically inert is its supposedly surprise ending, which is that Katniss kills a foolish and openly vulnerable Coin instead of Snow, which in that moment is as predictable as it is supposed to be unpredictable.

And then about 15 more boring minutes of how everyone's lives start to settle toward a happy ending -- and Katniss screaming angrily and throwing objects at a cat.

Yes, the most unintentionally funny part of a movie full of unintentional humor is Katniss' scenes of reckoning with her sister's death, which play themselves out with Katniss hurling household items at the cat that once belonged to her sister. I understand the cat is being used as an inappropriate symbol upon which to project her sorrow over failing to save Prim, but the way Francis Lawrence directs this scene (and Jennifer Lawrence acts it) turns it into an episode of high absurdity. Titters were rippling through my audience in what was supposed to be the movie's emotional climax, but it botched both the narrative and the emotional climax so fully that people were laughing through both.

At some point during all this nonsense, I stopped wondering if the characters were dreaming. But then I started wondering again when I got out of the theater and realized that this movie has a 65 on Metacritic. They'd have to be dreaming for some critics to have really liked this as much as they did. One critic even gave it the maximum score of 100, with the overall prognosis being "generally favorable reviews."

My only conclusion is:

My whole experience of watching The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2 must have been a dream.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Bring on Rocky VII

We haven't quite reached as many Rockys as are in this poster from the movie Airplane II: The Sequel, but we're starting to get to the point that Sylvester Stallone would actually look like this if he donned the gloves again.

Whether he'd be Asian or not, I can't say.

I'm seeing Creed -- the seventh Rocky movie -- at a critics screening tonight, and I won't be half surprised if Stallone does actually get in the ring.

After all, he did a boxing movie, as a fighter, as recently as 2013 with the movie Grudge Match. He's going to be 70 next July, but why not one more?

I'm guessing Stallone finally has enough sense not to go that route with this one, especially since 2006's Rocky Balboa -- which I quite liked -- was a return to a greater sense of realism in the series. Oh, the terrible Rocky V -- you know, the one where he fought that guy Tommy Morrison in a street fight -- was meant to be that return, but gritty did not necessarily translate to "realistic" in that case. In Rocky Balboa, it did, and Rocky Balboa is what gives me cautious optimism about tonight's film.

Another thing giving me optimism: Someone told me there's talk of Stallone garnering an Oscar nomination for his role as the coach of Apollo Creed's son, Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), who is following in his father's footsteps. (Let's hope he also doesn't get fatally pummelled by a massive Russian who says things like "I must break you.")

That seems a bit farfetched, but the source is one I trust, so we'll see.

Sylvester Stallone may never get to 38 Rockys, but at this point, it would be unwise to bet against him reaching double digits.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A first look at Look

If you live in Melbourne, or within an easy drive of it, and don't know what you're doing next Wednesday night, now you've got plans:

Go to Cinema Nova in Carlton to catch a first glimpse of Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence, his "sequel"/ companion piece to the unforgettable The Act of Killing. The show starts at 7 p.m.

Of course, if you're in the U.S., this has been out for months and you likely can't get to Melbourne anyway.

But for Melburnians it will indeed be a first look, as the movie doesn't open until the next day.

It's a screening to benefit HRAFF, which is the Human Rights and Arts Film Festival, which is playing in Melbourne next May. And since I know some people involved in HRAFF, I told them I'd help spread the word on my blog.

I haven't seen the film myself, of course -- not yet sure if I can make next Wednesday's screening, but I hope to. But after The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer has established himself as a director whose work always promises to be interesting. Of course, he's also a bit like the Sacha Baron Cohen of the documentary world, and if that sounds like it makes absolutely no sense, let me explain.

After Borat and Bruno, Cohen will never be able to make another movie in that mold because the ignorant rubes those movies relied on will be on the lookout for him. The same is sort of true of Oppenheimer, who more or less duped many of his subjects into freely discussing and confessing shocking crimes and rights violations on a pretense of making a different kind of movie than he actually was. You can debate the morality of that as much as you want, but you can't debate the sheer bizarro intrigue and profundity of the results of that approach in The Act of Killing. Now, no one will ever dare let down their guard around him again, short of him working under an assumed name (and cue another debate about filmmaker ethics).

Fortunately, Killing and Silence were made at the same time, so the same kind of unguarded frankness should be on display here. But get in while the getting's good, because the next thing we see from Oppenheimer will probably be a lot more of a "standard" documentary.

Here is the link to the event on Facebook:

And here is the direct link to book:

Tickets are $25 each.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Fast and furious women

Now that I'm on the fourth of an eventual five movies needed to completely catch me up with the Fast & Furious series, and you'll recall some of my thoughts on the progress of the series from this post, this post and this post, I thought I'd do something a little different than just tell you how Fast & Furious 6 was for me.

I'll tell you that also, right off the bat: It was a reasonably entertaining popcorn movie that is probably either the second or third best in the series, if ever more preposterous by leaps and bounds as the series goes on. (An argument could be made that this is actually a degree less preposterous than Fast Five, but I'm not going to spend any time on either argument right now.)

No, this time I want to focus on something that hasn't escaped my notice as I've been watching these movies. Namely, that even though there is a wide diversity in the appearance of the men in these movies, be it by skin color, hair color or ethnic background, the women seem to have a certain sameness to how they look. I'd like to explore that here and see if you think I've got a full tank or am running on fumes.

It all started with the original movie, which of course featured Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. Because after that they didn't reappear until the fourth movie, by that time I'd forgotten which one was supposed to be Vin Diesel's sister and which one was supposed to be his girlfriend. As Diesel himself is a bit ethnically ambiguous, I thought it was definitely possible that he had a Latina sister and a white girlfriend. Though in reality, consistent with the positive worldview of the whole series, all three are meant to be a bit ethnically ambiguous. For the record, Rodriguez was/is his girlfriend and Brewster was/is his sister. (And Brewster is actually part Latina, as I later discovered.)

But something of a similarity in their appearances was also to blame. I mean, they don't look identical by any stretch, but there's some similarity about them, even if it's only the length and color of their hair. As seen here:

Of course, that's more smiling than either of them does in the entirety of the series -- or than perhaps Rodriguez has done in the entirety of her career.

So then they added a third woman in the fourth movie, Gal Gadot's Gisele. Not only because the character shares the same name as Tom Brady's model wife are you put in the mind of the world of modeling when looking at Gadot -- the actress was/is a model herself. As Rodriguez is probably the "paunchier" of her and Brewster -- a sad commentary to make on what qualifies as "paunchy" in Hollywood -- it's most useful to compare Gadot to Brewster on the female appearance continuum. And as you would expect from a model, she's like the slightly more emaciated version of Brewster, as illustrated in this photo (with an assist from Tyrese Gibson):

Where things get really confusing is in Fast Five, when Elsa Pataky gets added to the proceedings. She looks, like, almost exactly like Gadot. And given that she's paired up with Diesel and that both women look quite a bit like Brewster, one starts to wonder if Diesel was also confused about which of Rodriguez and Brewster he should love like a brother and which he should love like a lover. ("So that's how it is in their family.") Check out Gadot and Pataky here:

Would have liked a picture of them standing next to each other, but then you'd get distracted by the difference in their heights. Gadot towers over Pataky. And though this picture of Pataky does not look that much like she looks in Fast Five, the way she actually looks is nearly a dead ringer for Gadot, so much so that every time either of them came on screen, I relied on the context to determine which was which.

Finally we get to Fast & Furious 6, in which all four of these women are still present (with Rodriguez returning after nearly a two-movie absence), and a fifth one is added. (Actually, a sixth as well, but the sixth doesn't even have any speaking lines, so we won't bother with her for the purposes of this discussion.) And if you want to look at this as progress, there's a move back toward the more paunchy with Gina Carano, the MMA fighter who made her acting debut in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire. Carano can be thought of as a little like Pataky if you strung her up to a bicycle pump and pumped in a bit more air. (Her character also serves the same function in the story, operating as a law enforcement sidekick to Dwayne Johnson.) But because I couldn't find a picture of the two of them together, let's show her alongside Rodriguez and complete the appearance loop.

Yeah, they've got the same facial expression in this picture, which is fortuitous. But it goes deeper than that.

Obviously plenty of red carpet photographers got the idea to photograph these five fast and furious women in the promotional lead-up to Fast & Furious 6. That photo is here:

Pataky had to go and cut her hair to throw everything off.

I don't know, maybe I'm off base. But there does seem to be a certain sameness to these women that is not reflected in their men, who are black, Latino, Asian and white. However, when you dig a layer deeper, you'll see that these women also reflect the series' international bent. Rodriguez is a Texan born of Dominican and Puerto Rican parents. Carano is a Texan of Italian heritage. Brewster was actually born in Panama, the daughter of a Brazilian and an American. Pataky is from Spain. Gadot is actually the farthest outlier as she was born and raised in Israel.

Still, if I were trying to read something deeper where I probably shouldn't bother, I'd say that this somehow exemplifies the long-standing notion that attractiveness among men can be broad, varying and often irrelevant, while female beauty remains very narrowly defined -- and entirely essential to castability. While men can come in different shapes and forms, and possibly not be attractive at all (though Diesel is probably the only one in the series who can really be defined as potentially funny looking), women must continue to aspire to an ideal body type and skin color. It seems strange indeed that a series that has been unusually good at color-blind casting, with four of the main actors thought to have readily identifiable black heritage (Diesel never knew his father and is coy about what race he may have been), there has never been a single black woman given anything meaningful to do in these movies.

And in this we see kind of a skittishness about the romantic exploits of black men in general. Neither of the two fully black cast members (Gibson and Chris Bridges) have been given romantic story lines, in part because they both kind of function as comic relief, and Johnson, who is half-black and half Samoan, hasn't had a love interest either. Only Diesel has been given romantic entanglements -- several during the series -- and he is the least readily identifiable as black.

Oh well. I guess we have to take progress where we can get it. The fact that a series of action movies should be given credit for any kind of color- or gender-blind equality at all, beyond mere tokenism, is something of an anomaly in the first place, and worth celebrating.

All I have left is Furious 7, which I will watch sometime between now and January 14th.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

I did the right thing

There's been a big upheaval in my Flickchart top 20.

Not even my top 20, but my top ten.

Not even my top ten, but my top five.

Just to give you a little perspective, not a single title in my top ten has changed, or even changed relative positions, since I finalized my re-rankings of my movies on Flickchart some four years ago. That's how solid I considered it and that's how inflexible I became in terms of how I viewed these movies and assessed their value to me.

But then, as you recall, I had a somewhat underwhelming viewing of The Empire Strikes Back, heretofore my #5 movie on Flickchart, a couple weeks ago. Now, everything has changed.

Get ready for chaos.

What happened was I was catching up on some long overdue Flickchart ranking on Friday night. I haven't been ranking much on the site lately, in part because the site is blocked at my work, and I have too much else to occupy me when I'm at home. But I did have a little window of available ranking time on Friday night, so I decided to make up for lost time.

After I'd been at it for about 20 minutes, I got the following match-up: Do the Right Thing vs. The Empire Strikes Back. My #41 vs. my #5.

Even knowing the massive implications of the decision I was about to make, I didn't think about it very long before clicking the poster on the left. I did the right thing and selected Do the Right Thing.

Which means that Do the Right Thing is now my #5 movie of all time.

But it likely won't stay there for very long. Since it was only #41 before this, that means there are 40 other movies I (think I) like better than Do the Right Thing, only four of which are currently ahead of it in my rankings. And when it comes up against any of those other 36 in a duel, any of them could jump ahead of it and become my new #5.

In order to prevent his kind of all-out anarchy, what you're supposed to do when reassessing the value of a favorite movie is re-rank just that movie. What many people would have done is just sent The Empire Strikes Back through a gauntlet of ten films in order to arrive it at its new spot in the rankings. That prevents the need to move an undeserving movie way too high, which can have a domino effect and throw a lot of other rankings out of whack for weeks, months or even years to come.

But for some reason, I don't re-rank movies after rewatching them, even though I believe philosophically that it's an approach that makes sense. I guess I'm too worried about being reminded how much I love a movie and having my fresh sense of affection for it artificially inflate its position. It's a variation on my rationale for waiting a month before ranking a new movie, to give me time to reflect on it and not let the freshness of my feelings toward it give it an unnaturally high or low position.

And so I didn't re-rank The Empire Strikes Back, in part because I wasn't sure I even trusted my new sense of doubt about its quality. But that did leave it vulnerable in the open arena of Flickchart dueling, when you never know what decision you're going to be forced to make next, and that vulnerability was exploited on Friday night.

Now if I were really concerned about this, I'd have an option open to me. I could re-rank Do the Right Thing, allowing it to fight those ten or so movies and arrive again at approximately the same spot it held before. I could do that same thing for Empire as well, which is what many people would have done in the first place, as soon as they recognized it had lost some of its value to them, and that this would have implications on all its future duels. I have a unique window of opportunity in which Do the Right Thing's jump in the ranking has not yet had any additional repercussions.

But I kind of like the idea of throwing a wrench into the works for a bit, to shake up some of the bedrock convictions that have become unhealthily fixed for me. The underlying theory about Flickchart is that over time, any kinks will work themselves out through the natural dueling process. Maybe it'll be interesting to see some new blood in my top 20 for a while, to force me to really consider the movies I love and how much I love them, rather than just making robotic choices in duels as a result of knowing by heart which movie has the higher ranking and therefore, which one I like better.

Chaos? Bring it on.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Ranking knights, lobsters and witches

I'm much more likely to complain about the delayed Australian release schedule of certain films than celebrate the early jump we get on other ones, but 2015 has been an unusually good year in the latter regard.

Which makes it an unusually bad year in terms of some of my classic, and largely academic, list-maker dilemmas.

Interestingly enough, two of the movies currently giving me fits are indebted to Terrence Malick, one by virtue of actually being directed by Malick. 

Both Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster and Malick's Knight of Cups have already gotten releases in Australia, well ahead of expected 2016 U.S. release dates. Knight of Cups just came out Thursday, and since I'm reviewing it, I've already seen it. The Lobster came out two weeks ago, but I saw it back during the Melbourne International Film Festival in August, which is also when I saw the third film I want to discuss: Robert Eggers' The Witch, which doesn't come out in either country until 2016. This is the one indebted to Malick in some of its cinematography of nature in particular.

Since none of these movies will come out in the U.S. until 2016 -- and the U.S. release date is usually the yardstick by which I measure what qualifies to be ranked in what year -- I've been at a loss on whether to include these 2015 viewings in my 2015 rankings, or hold them back until next year.

Fortunately, I have good friends like Don Handsome to shake me out of my tendency to over-think such things.

In an email to me this week, Don wrote:

"It's a matter of truthfulness in list making. How can you see a movie now and rank it later? You must rank it now to know how it really fits in with this year's list. Next year doesn't make sense because you'll be comparing apples and oranges. Sure the movie won't be the same, but the circumstances of seeing it won't either. You'd be trying to recreate in your mind your thoughts upon seeing it, and then compare something that's inevitably gone stale for you with fresh films. It's not fair."

"I'm almost more in favor of ranking twice than not ranking in the year you saw it."

Except for the prospect of ranking twice, which is utter madness, Don's got a very good point.

I had already taken a split approach to the two festival films. I had inserted The Lobster in my 2015 rankings because I knew it was getting a 2015 release in Australia. That was the same logic I used in ranking What We Do in the Shadows last year, even though my American counterparts (theoretical though many of them may be) will be ranking it this year. (And it's something I sort of regretted, as you will remember if you read this post.) The Witch, on the other hand, seemed very clearly to be a movie that belonged with the year 2016, as no one (outside of film festival crowds) will see it until that year. That's an especially strange assessment to have to make about this movie in particular, because the first festival crowds saw it way back in January, meaning that it was actually finished and ready to screen in late 2014. The fact that it's not making it to theaters for more than a year after that Sundance screening is a mystery to me, especially since it was received so positively, but it also gave me the reasoning I needed to start my 2016 list early and place The Witch right there at #1 to start things off.

But Don is right. What chance does The Witch have in 2016, when I'll be finalizing my rankings (in January of 2017) about 18 months after I first saw this film? The same logic about the short memories of Oscar voters applies here, except even more so. If it's hard for a movie to get nominated for best picture if it came out in March or April, imagine how much more difficult it would be if it came out the previous August?

And yet it still pains me that my list can't be "conversant" with other lists in terms of our comparative rankings of The Witch. Of course, there's one list it will be conversant with: Don's. He was here in August and he saw The Witch with me.

The arrival of Knight of Cups was what brought the whole issue to a head. When I was reminded earlier this week that it was due to open on Thursday, my first question was whether I should just delay and see it on video next year so my ranking decision could be blissfully uncomplicated. (Which is what I did a year ago when I passed up David Cronenberg's thematically similar Maps to the Stars, which had a similar early Australian release date, ultimately watching it this past March.) But then I thought about how Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography would look nice enough that it really deserved to be seen on the big screen, and within a few minutes I'd become so certain I planned to see it in the theater that I actually got approval to review it, thereby putting it on this week's viewing schedule.

But because it is Malick and because Malick's 2011 film topped many year-end lists, I worried I'd be seeing an actual contender for my top spot and possibly ranking it as the #1 movie in a different year than other people ranked it as their #1 movie. It would be like if you had early access to Boyhood in 2013 and Boyhood became your #1 movie of 2013 rather than 2014.

Of course, I should remember that The Tree of Life was only my 44th favorite film that I saw in 2011, so what were the chances I was going to like Knight of Cups that much more than that? (And, of course, I didn't -- if you want to read my thoughts on Knight of Cups, my review should be up within a day or two and hyperlinked on the right.)

It's been a very "of"-centric week for me, as I saw Bridge of Spies and Quantum of Solace in addition to Knight of Cups. It's been a very "of"-centric career for Terrence Malick, who also directed Days of Heaven in addition to The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups.

But with his email that helped me sort out a problematic ranking dilemma, Don gave me a different kind of "of": peace of mind. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

I finally saw: Quantum of Solace

Considering that I don't think of myself as a huge James Bond fan, I shouldn't be so surprised that I've never made time for Quantum of Solace.

However, you can't argue with facts: Solace had been the only James Bond movie I hadn't seen since 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me. (And it's funny -- even though I consider Roger Moore to be my James Bond, I've only seen four of the seven films he appeared in.)

I would have probably let Quantum of Solace sit on the scrap heap for a while longer except that a) Spectre comes out today in Australia, and b) we're planning to discuss Spectre -- and presumably, Daniel Craig's entire stint as James Bond -- on the next episode of the ReelGood podcast. (Well, the next episode after the one we record tonight, which will be about The Lobster.) Only b actually plays a role in my decision, as mere storyline continuity did not require I see Quantum before watching Skyfall three years ago.

In fact, storyline continuity may have been what turned me off from prioritizing Quantum of Solace in the first place. (That and hearing that it wasn't much good.) I wasn't a big fan of Casino Royale, particularly the ending, in which Bond is all weepy over this woman Vesper who just betrayed him. Given the way Bond has traditionally disposed of women -- most shockingly later on in Skyfall, where he is a disinterested party to the disposal of a woman, if not actually the cause of her disposal -- it struck me as unusual that he would get so bent out of shape over the death of one who actively betrayed him. (It was for a similar reason that the maudlin display of emotion over the death of the traitor Boromir initially did not sit well with me at the end of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.)

Anyway, upon learning that Quantum of Solace was a continuation of the events of Casino Royale, and that it was not very good, it seemed like an easy one to skip.

It was interesting trying to watch it last night without having Casino Royale clear in my memory, because the movie does intimately rely on a knowledge of events and characters from that movie, without giving any kind of flashback to those events or containing any overt exposition in the dialogue. So in one respect, Solace worked even less well for me than it probably would have had I seen it when it came out.

In another respect, however, it probably worked better for me since I hadn't placed the weight of all my expectations on its shoulders. After Casino Royale, I really had no expectations -- no positive ones, anyway. So if I look at Quantum of Solace just as a series of kinetic action set pieces -- and the criticism is that this is all it is -- it sort of works for me on that level. While Marc Forster's handling of the action scenes is one of the things people didn't like about this movie, I found that a couple of them really got my adrenaline going, particularly that one in that half-finished building where Bond and his assailant are fighting each other while riding up and down on pulleys. The camera is moving in an alive and alert way, even if the end result is fairly banal in terms of the narrative.

And I guess the big problem is that I really couldn't follow the narrative, and not only because I didn't remember the function of certain characters or what they had done in Casino Royale. But maybe no one could really follow it because it jumps forwards in fits and starts, with a truly absurd number of locations, with fight scenes breaking out seemingly at random, and with Bond ending them in unusually cruel and usually fatal abruptness. Because right, this guy is mad after Vesper drowned.

What seems clear -- and what they kind of figured out with Skyfall -- is that even if Bond has a kind of overall brooding character arc that may be informed by the various things that have happened to him, each new installment needs to stand on its own, without strong connective tissue to the other movies -- especially when it doesn't care to remind us what happened in those other movies. And that not only that, but that Bond should stay jovial even when he's getting down in the muck and knocking heads.

It's a tricky balance, though. In Skyfall, he got so jovial that he cracked a joke after the villain callously blew away the girl he'd slept with the night before.

What I think of Spectre remains to be seen, but I think I'm ready to turn the page on Daniel Craig as Bond. Fortunately, he is too. Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace were disappointments, and even though Skyfall was not, my lingering impression of it is its misogynistic treatment of a truly unfortunate Bond girl.

Maybe Spectre will send him out in style ... or just leave me rolling my eyes over another at least partially missed opportunity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Missing in action: Missing in Action

Remember how I knew I'd seen a Chuck Norris movie before, but if you asked me which one I would have had trouble telling you?

No? Is that because I've never actually articulated that thought before?

Well, to paraphrase the tagline on this poster, my movie list isn't over until the last movie comes home.

It's not all that often that I retroactively add a forgotten movie to my movie list. In fact, it happens less than once every two years. But it happened yesterday when I updated my movie list spreadsheet, my movie list Word document, my list of movies seen from 1984, Flickchart and Letterboxd.

That's right, I've actually seen Missing in Action -- as far as I can tell, my one and only Chuck Norris movie.

Scanning his filmography now on IMDB, I realize there's some chance that I've seen The Delta Force. But before considering adding that, I'll wait for the kind of inciting incident that led Missing in Action to finally be brought home to see its family and to eat a nice juicy hamburger and fries.

That incident was recently watching a movie called Chuck Norris vs. Communism, which I guess might be my second Chuck Norris movie, except that only footage of Norris in Missing in Action actually appears in it.

Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a documentary about Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu, where black market video tapes helped Romanians connect with the west in a way that was not otherwise possible under Ceausescu's communist rule. Thanks in part to the heroic efforts of a translator named Ilina Nistor, who recorded translations for hundreds if not thousands of Hollywood films, people were able to engage in a kind of thought uprising against the prevailing rule of law. The doco contains interviews with Romanians today looking back on those times, as well as recreations from the time. It's done pretty well even if it actually drags in spots.

So one of these interviewees, who is probably about my age (as well as the same age I would have been when I saw Missing in Action), talks about a memorable scene from this one Norris movie involving POWs in Vietnam. It is, most definitely, the most memorable scene from the movie. "The gooks" (term always used for Vietnamese in these movies) still have Norris kept in some kind of pit in the ground, years after the end of the war, and seeking to torture him at one point, they hanging him upside down with a bag over his head. That might have been torture enough, but the bag also contains an angry, hungry, possibly rabid rat. The camera watches as all kinds of grunting, screaming and mayhem occurs inside the bag, and Norris' body thrashes back and forth. Finally he's still, and the assumption is that the rat has killed him. But when "the gooks" remove the bag, we see the dead rat clenched between Norris' teeth.

If not for this one scene having been described in detail in Chuck Norris vs. Communism -- the only scene so focused on, out of a bunch of different popular movies from the 1980s that get mentioned in one way or another -- who knows how much longer it would have been before I realized I'd seen Missing in Action.

My mission is not over, of course. Even though my list has stood the test of time and receives a retroactive addition only ever couple years -- but really, less often than even that -- I wouldn't be surprised if there were as many as 20 others out there, still missing in action, still waiting to be remembered by a grateful nation back home.

We'll just have to wait and see what the next inciting incident will be.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Dental Bridge

Or, "Good enough to pay for?"

Yes, I paid for a movie in the theaters yesterday for the first time since July, when I got my Australian Film Critics Association card.

Bad timing, too, since I'd just unexpectedly spent more than $300 at the dentist after reaching my insurance plan's yearly limit on dental coverage. (It's been a bad couple months for my mouth.)

But I thought 11 a.m. was a good time of day to watch a two-hour and twenty minute movie, especially since I wouldn't be of much use at home with a mouth full of novocaine anyway.

The timing between the appointment and the show time was actually just perfect. They released me from a 10 a.m. appointment at about 10:55, and the theater is about a two-minute walk from the dentist's office in the same building. (The dentist's office, not the theater, is the funny thing to find in that building, which is a downtown shopping complex called Melbourne Central -- which may also explain why the dentist has Sunday hours.)

The only problem was that my AFCA card is not valid at the Hoyts chain at any time on the weekend. Hoyts is the most restrictive of the chains that accept this card, as there are only two nights during the week (Monday and Wednesday) when you are even allowed to use the card after 5 p.m. The total restriction on weekends was something I knew about, but I thought it was worth trying anyway. Often times the ticket takers are so befuddled by this card that without being sure how to proceed, they just wave me through. However, this particular guy followed protocol and determined that, indeed, I was not eligible for a complimentary screening. Which I immediately copped to, as though I'd forgotten the restriction rather than knowingly tried to dupe him.

So I had to pay $18 for Bridge of Spies instead of the $0 that my last 20 or so theatrical screenings have cost me. Given how much of a savings I'm getting from this great card, $18 here and there is a small price to pay. Then again, it did also make me feel like Steven Spielberg's latest really needed to rise to the level of something I was willing to pay for.

Did it?

For the most part, yes, though that does translate to "only" a 3.5-star rating for me. I flirted with four stars, but Bridge of Spies is not even a movie that's really designed to have much oomph to it. There are parts that are suspenseful and there are parts that are gripping, but overall it's pretty mild. It's a solid production with good performances and it generally leaves a person satisfied, but it is pretty definitely "minor Spielberg." However, I guess Spielberg's sheer confidence with this type of movie is something interesting to behold, since it continues a sort of late-career interest in realistic historical movies that don't have a lot of the escapism or wish fulfilment that characterized the early phases of his career.

It made a particularly interesting viewing on the heels of watching Tomorrowland, whose debt to Spielberg is conspicuous, the previous night. It was interesting to watch someone else (in this case, Brad Bird) imitate Spielberg, and then to watch Spielberg himself imitate, I don't know, Tomas Alfredsson? I say that only because in its spy milieu and its varying shades of beautiful-looking gray, Spies probably most reminded me of Alfredson's Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy, but with a much clearer plot. Then again, it's not like Spielberg hasn't already made his own film that feels similar to this, although perhaps not overtly: 2005's Munich.

The difference between Bird and Spielberg, though, is that in this case Bird very poorly impersonates an obvious source of inspiration -- though one might more fairly blame screenwriter Damon Lindelof for the failure of Tomorrowland -- while Spielberg always seems to make a very capable version of whatever he's trying to impersonate. And even though we have the informal adjective "Spielbergian" in our lexicon and most people have a good sense of what is implied by that, we can't forget that some of Spielberg's best films are not particularly "Spielbergian," including Schindler's List, Lincoln and the aforementioned Munich. Just reminds us what a diverse filmmaker he really is -- diverse and prolific, especially given the size and scope of the projects he's shepherded.

As for Tomorrowland, that disaster really deserves an entire post devoted to all the things that went wrong in it. But to be honest, I don't have the energy for that kind of thing today -- and wouldn't even know where to start if I did.