Saturday, September 20, 2014

Serious threats to my viable use of Netflix


Dear readers, a frustrating thing is happening with my computer, and it has risen to the level of annoyance that I now need to tell you about it.

My damn wifi keeps dropping.

In an age when we require an uninterrupted internet connection to properly stream movies, this really sucks.

I don't know if it's my computer (age: 3 1/2 years) that's at fault, or the weaker internet in Australia (quote from my wife's colleague: "We don't do internet well here"), or simply that my favorite viewing locations are dead spots in our house (the kitchen table and the living room couch). But the symptoms are far more consistent than the access. And they are these:

The first time the internet drops, I get a red X over the wifi icon down in the system tray. This is what's considered a "good" problem, relatively speaking. I can just close the laptop, open it again, and the internet will restore.

The second time the internet drops, it's not a red X but a yellow exclamation point. When you get the yellow exclamation point, you have no choice but to reboot the whole computer, a process that takes three to five minutes.

On rare occasions you will get multiple red X's before the yellow exclamation point, but usually not.

This, my friends, is no way to watch a movie -- especially when the cycle occurs three times in the space of five minutes of the movie's running time.

That's what happened when I tried to watch Berberian Sound Studio last night. I came home from five beers out with co-workers after work, a rollicking time indeed, and was in perfect shape to do something that I endorsed earlier this week: watch a movie you've already seen (and love) when you're in a state of unreliable concentration and diminished stamina.

I got through about 20 minutes of Berberian without a problem, but once the internet dropped once, it was just off duty for the evening. My wifi, that cantankerous bastard, went through the full cycle a second time before I'd even gotten to resume the movie from the first reboot cycle. The news seemed a little better after the second reboot, as I got to watch about three more minutes of the movie. But on the third strike, I was out.

I've tried all sorts of things to reduce the likelihood of this occurrence, like close all other tabs on my browser and watch movies in SD rather than HD. But any fixes are only ephemeral, if not illusory.

The funny thing is that an attempt to watch Berberian Sound Studio was also thwarted the previous Friday night. This time, however, it was my VPN's inability to trick Netflix into thinking I was in the U.S. The Hola plug-in has been a godsend, single-handedly allowing us to remain subscribed to our Netflix streaming plan, but it sometimes involves a little tweaking, a little turning off and turning back on. Only rarely, like last Friday night, can it just not find an available VPN server at all. I worry that this is going to be a more regular trend.

I also worry about this: http://gizmodo.com/netflix-under-pressure-to-close-down-the-vpn-loophole-1636210923

Yes indeed, we learned this week that Australia, of all countries, is putting pressure on Netflix to prevent the some 200,000 people who watch Netflix "illegally" in Australia from being able to do so. But this wouldn't just be an Australia-wide ban -- it would force Netflix to block all VPNs. So our stupid corrupt television broadcasting companies (who are in such brutal competition with each other that they often fail to tell viewers when programs are airing until just before the air date, in order to theoretically keep you glued to that network) could be screwing over the whole world.

This would be cause for much doom and gloom except for two considerations: 1) Netflix might tell Australia to go fuck itself, and 2) Netflix is actually supposed to be coming to Australia "soon" (though we've been hearing that for about a year). It'd be great to have Netflix here, but it would both be significantly more expensive than in the U.S., and have a significantly poorer selection. Like everything in Australia, they price it right to the brink of it not being worth it.

I suppose it's no coincidence that these two turns of events coincide with an uptick in my rentals from iTunes. The beautiful thing about an iTunes rental is that once it's on your computer, it's there -- it doesn't require an ongoing internet connection. Apple is also offering an attractive slate of 99 cent rental options, highlighting one a week. In the past two weeks alone, I've downloaded both Joe and The Lunchbox for 99 cents apiece, and can start watching them any time over the next 30 days -- with full knowledge that it will be an uninterrupted viewing. I've also downloaded A Cry in the Dark for $2.99, having ironically been unable to source my September selection for Australian Audient anywhere locally.

"Downloaded" may be a bit of an optimistic term, though. And here's where my frigging internet connection comes in to play again. Even though Joe appears in my iTunes rentals as available to view, every time I open iTunes it attempts to download it, projecting three or four hours of remaining download time. And it never completes those three or four hours, because -- guess what -- the internet drops before it has the chance. I fully expect to sit down to watch Joe and then realize that only 20 minutes of it are actually on my computer.

In case you were wondering, I'm just not buying a new computer. Not right now, anyway. I waited two-and-a-half months to have this one fixed around this time last year (did I tell you about that? Jesus Christ.), and while this one still has breath in it, I will continue to use it. My wife and I have talked about a device to boost our internet signal, but I can only imagine what that will cost in Australia.

In the meantime, I plan to finish my second viewing of Berberian Sound Studio sometime in October.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Penis Week on The Audient


When you watch a documentary about penises on Netflix on a Tuesday night, and you know you have exactly one other documentary about penises remaining on Netflix, might as well watch it on Wednesday night and just get the two-night double feature out of the way.

So went the thinking that resulted in consecutive-night viewings of The Final Member and Unhung Hero -- both of which I liked quite a bit.

Both films, in very different ways, get at an obsession that is universal among men: size. You could say that almost all men are fixated on the size of their penis, or at least have been at one point or another. Unless you've been told you have a gargantuan member, there's likely a part of every man that wonders if he measures up, literally and figuratively. But even if you are grotesquely well-endowed, that might also create an obsession of sorts (as we shall see in the discussion of one of these two films).

Because it's also kind of embarrassing to be concerned about your own size, I had avoided watching the one I knew was more directly related to that -- even though Unhung Hero had been on my radar for almost a year. I just didn't really want it to show up among the recently viewed titles in the Netflix account I share with my wife. However, when I watched The Final Member the same day I added it to our queue (having heard about its existence on a podcast a few months ago), I figured the opportunity for a corresponding blog post was too good to pass up, and hit play on Unhung the next night.

The title The Final Member relates to the last necessary donation to complete a unique museum in Iceland: one devoted entirely to the penis. It's the brainchild of Sigurdur "Siggi" Hjartarson, who has turned his eccentric hobby of collecting samples of animal penises into a full-fledged tourist attraction. Although he's got specimens of nearly ever mammal known to mankind, the elephant in the room is that there's no human genitals to complete the collection. This becomes an obsession for Siggi, and the movie explores how he plans to get a willing donor -- perhaps one who will even part with his junk while still alive.

An odd conceit for a movie goes from strange to stranger when we learn that an American named Tom Mitchell is so proud of his unit -- which he has nicknamed Elmo -- that not only does he want the whole world to see it, he wants to see the whole world see it. Mitchell is that volunteer for the prehumous contribution to the museum, so enamored with what God gave him that he is willing to give it up entirely just so everyone can know how great he ... was. Especially if it will make him the first donor to the museum, getting ahead of a nonagenarian Icelandic celebrity known for numerous exploits, particularly having slept with around 300 women.

I shouldn't tell you too much more about the movie, except that it is a fascinating study of truly exotic forms of obsession that stem from the very mundane obsession we all experience. There's discussion in this film not only of the greatness of particular specimens, namely that put forth by Tom Mitchell, but the potential disappointments of others, like the increasingly shriveling sample offered by the 90-something Icelander whose impending death gives the film its strangely significant sense of stakes. There's even discussion of what qualifies as the historical definition of a "legal length" -- and whether the elderly man's penis will a) make the cut, and b) be something he remains interested in sharing with the world if it doesn't.

That probably makes for a good transition to Unhung Hero, which concerns a gentleman (the Mark Duplass lookalike you see in the poster above) who has already been told that his size doesn't measure up. Patrick Moote got the wrong answer on a Jumbotron marriage proposal, and his soon-to-be-ex callously gives the following explanation for her rejection: His penis is too small for a lifetime commitment. Reeling from his public humiliation (which quickly went viral on Youtube) and the private humiliation of being considered an inadequate lover, Patrick goes about making this latter humiliation extremely public as well, agreeing to explore the question "Does size matter?" in documentary format, with himself as the prime subject. In a bit of a paradox, Patrick embarks on a sequence of events that only someone with a lot more confidence and a lot less shame than he thinks he has would ever undertake: He seeks out exes to see if they considered him small, he consults experts to determine if he is small, and then he ventures out to find ways to make himself bigger -- from scientifically valid procedures to the suspect practices of witch doctors.

I certainly enjoyed this movie's playful presentation, which might remind a viewer of the films of Morgan Spurlock (without the knack for polemics that tends to divide people on Spurlock). Director Brian Spitz gets the tone of the graphics and the cutaways ("I was in the pool! I was in the pool!") down perfectly. But what kind of floored me about it was the courage displayed by Moote, who as far as I know is the only person in history who has told the entire world that he has a small penis. Oh, I'm sure Jerry Springer had a guest who said something like that once, but the audience for this documentary -- the prospective if not the actual audience -- is theoretically much greater. A television talk show is ephemeral, watched once and then discarded, but Patrick Moote has gone on record for all time as being "the guy with the small penis." Bravo for him.

This courage forgave some of the parts of the film that I thought seemed too convenient -- i.e., possibly staged. You have to wonder in a film like this if everything is perfectly legitimate, particularly one aspect of the plot that comes home in the final act (which I won't spoil, but which is kind of already spoiled by Netflix using it as the promotional still that hangs on the screen while the movie is loading). When you've got a guy willing to risk a lifetime of public ridicule and humiliation like this, I kind of don't care if a little bit of it is scripted. The fact that this guy actually has a small penis is something that I know is real, and the bravery of this kind of naked (pun intended) exhibition of our most fundamental masculine insecurities makes him, indeed, the very hero mentioned in the title.

I will admit that after this movie I went into the bathroom and looked at "myself" in the mirror. There was a part of me that hoped that we would have actually gotten to see Patrick Moote's offerings, so those of us who, you know, wondered a bit could compare and contrast ourselves.

But in the end I'm glad that it didn't, because what both of these movies really want a viewer to do is to love his penis -- no matter what shape, or size, or attachment to his body it may have.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A favorite's ability to rivet


Exhaustion is not absolute.

You'd be tempted to think that it was. You'd be tempted to think that once you reach a certain point of the evening, no matter what someone puts on the television, your eyelids will be just as heavy, will close just as involuntarily.

Uh uh.

Take Saturday night. It had been a bit of a trying day, with our older son working on everyone's last nerve, so thank goodness that my old friend Mr. Fermented Grape was there to help me unwind. However, a couple glasses of vino also made it next to impossible for me to concentrate on the first episode of True Detective, which we'd downloaded from iTunes. It's a very deliberate, gradually paced show. I was waging a desperate battle against sleep, and losing.

You might guess that I crawled right into bed as soon as it was over, but it turns out I still had a 107-minute movie -- and several more glasses of wine -- in me.

What True Detective did for me more than anything else was put me in the mood to watch The Cell again. A girl is murdered in ritualistic fashion at the start of the show, and that sure as hell sounded like The Cell to me. Her body had that bleached-white appearance of the victims in The Cell as well.

As my last viewing of The Cell was barely 18 months ago, it is now becoming clear that this is one of my go-to movies. Since I've gotten so familiar with it -- this was probably my sixth viewing overall -- I figured, the worst that would happen was that I'd fall asleep on the couch 20 minutes in.

Nope. I was awake the whole time, reliving old pleasures, discovering new ones.

Riveted.

There's a good chance that The Cell's winning combination of engrossing police procedural and hallucinatory world building is just the perfect thing to keep a person's attention, but it may just be that being familiar with a movie makes you less likely to fall asleep than more likely. You'd think your mind would let go, free from the worry of missing a crucial plot detail, and happily succumb to sleep in that mentally restful state. Instead, I'd argue that the tension involved in assimilating an unfamiliar plot, especially while fighting sleep, serves only to further exhaust you. It compounds a difficult situation, rather than improving it.

I don't really have anything more profound to say on this topic, but I think it's worth writing about for this conclusion: The next time you aren't quite ready to wind down for the night but don't know if you can take on a whole movie, don't try something new -- just pop in something you know and love. More likely than not, you'll make it to the end -- and feel so enthralled by the experience that you might just be ready to cue up another one when you're done.

Monday, September 15, 2014

My Renton moment


Tough times will show you what a man is truly made of, how far a man will truly go.

For me, that was fishing a $2 coin out of the toilet on Saturday afternoon. A $2 coin that wasn't even mine.

Yes indeed, I was reminded a bit of Trainspotting this past weekend when I took my son to the potty at a cafe called Grub, on a beautiful spring afternoon in Melbourne. We selected a stall out of about four options, and lo and behold, shining brightly at the bottom of this particular toilet, was this:



Yes indeed, that coin is worth two whole dollars here in Australia. It's the smaller of two gold-colored coins, the other being the $1 coin, and it is in fact the most valuable of all Australian coins, there being none with greater street value.

I figured, "What's a little toilet water to keep that coin from being in my back pocket?"

So a quick splash of the hand later, it was.

You may recall that in Danny Boyle's seminal Trainspotting, the character Renton (Ewan McGregor) does his own toilet dive -- literally -- for a lost valuable, in this case a couple opium suppositories that get accidentally evacuated while he's doing his business. Of course, this is what Renton's so-called "worst toilet in Scotland" looks like:


While the porcelain monster I was staring down on Saturday was more like this:


Nonetheless, most people would be shocked by what I did. I know my wife was. Still, I probably would have done it even for the $1 coin.

It's not that we are really mired in "tough times," per se, as I teased in my opening line. But I feel like even a year into our Australian adventure, we are still financially recovering from the transition, a reality of the fact that we're only getting 60% of my wife's salary until January (when she goes back full time) and we're now paying for two children to attend daycare (one four days a week, one three). My own salary is lower than in the States (and I didn't start earning it until midway through March) and we had to buy a bunch of things over again here (though were fortunate to have a number of others gifted to us). We'd actually finally be back in positive territory, more or less, except we're likely to drop close to ten grand on a trip to the U.S. in November, which will plunge us right back into debt.

So yeah, I'm going to do an easy, painless, clean-water toilet dive for a $2 coin.

You could argue that it's hardly the most absurd thing I've ever done for a coin, especially since it took all of two seconds. There was the time earlier this year when I walked all over a mall to find the location of the Woolworth's grocery store, just so I could return the shopping cart I'd found that had a dollar coin stuck in it. (You rent your shopping cart at a lot of grocery stores here, by sticking in a $1 or $2 coin that releases the cart from the cart in front of it. If you never return the cart to its home, you forfeit the coin.)

My wife prefers the story back in the U.S., when I was crossing the street and went back into the middle to pick up a penny I'd passed, when there was a car coming. I wasn't close to being hit by the car, but for my wife, it was closer than a penny should have warranted. I have no choice but to agree with that.

But a penny saved is a penny earned, and so too is a $2 coin fished from a public toilet. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

As easy as ABC -- er, AAA


I was fascinated, though completely not surprised, by the revelations in this article at Flavorwire.

Because I know you'd much rather have me summarize the article than read it yourself, it discusses why a particular film coming out this fall was retitled Are You Here from the more definitive You Are Here.

The reason is simple: Alphabetization.

A is a lot closer to the beginning of the alphabet than Y, so when OnDemand providers list films alphabetically, you're much likelier to get to Are You Here than to wade all the way through to You Are Here before making your selection

I mean, the least they could have done is given it a question mark at the end.

The article discusses this phenomenon in relation to a number of other recent movies, many of which had the word American grafted on to the front to increase the movie's alphabetical visibility. The one I found most personally relevant was the film I'd actually seen, called Adore -- which, strangely enough, had a different changed title in its country of origin, Australia. When I saw the movie last fall in Australian theaters it was called Adoration. When it played at festivals, however, it was called Two Mothers. Not alphabetically opportune at all, so they changed it.

There are lot of other forms of cinematic chicanery that are probably more insidious, but for some reason, this one bothers me more than some of those others. Movie titles get changed for plenty of reasons, but most of them are about making a film more accessible in an entirely different definition of that word. In those title changes, we take "more accessible" to mean "more easily understandable and translatable." The trend discussed above is a more literal way of increasing a viewer's access to the movie, by physically positioning it more prominently in their list of options.

The big irony of this, for me personally, is that I have seen 41 movies released in 2014 -- and have yet to see one whose title begins with an A.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Liking Donald Rumsfeld


I'm a good liberal. Let's get that out of the way right at the start.

And let's also draw a distinction between liberal with a lower-case L and Liberal, which is the name of a political party in Australia -- a political party that is, paradoxically, conservative in nature. If you want the liberal (lower-case L) belief system in Australia, your party is called Labor.

So I'm a liberal and a Labor and yet I still found myself drawn in by the version of Donald Rumsfeld I saw in Errol Morris' The Unknown Known.

I kind of think Morris did too.

Rumsfeld is supposed to be the epitome of the Republican boogeyman, the insidious heart of George W. Bush's administration, sharing blame pretty much evenly with Dick Cheney for a bunch of nasty acts committed under the name of American patriotism.

And darn it if I didn't really like watching him in this documentary.

I guess Rumsfeld was initially known as a bit of a media sensation, a guy who had a knack for memorable, if frequently illogical and self-deceptive, quotations. I guess I wasn't following press conferences too closely in 2003 and 2004, because my impression of the man was of a buffoon who had blundered his way out of office. He may have been that, too, but seeing him in this movie, I was fascinated by how intelligent the man seems -- specifically, what a gift he has with language.

The title The Unknown Known is supposed to be a bit of mockery of a famous speech Rumsfeld gave that, I think, was supposed to illustrate his buffoonery. It did the opposite for me here. There's something very pleasurable about the semantic reasoning in the following four phrases:

Known knowns = things you know you know

Known unknowns = things you know you don't know

Unknown unknowns = things you don't know that you don't know

Unknown knowns = things you thought you knew, that it turns out you did not know

I kind of love this.

And as we see a flurry of memoranda from Rumsfeld in this movie -- which he called "snowflakes," and many of which he reads aloud -- we also see a number of other ways the man was interested in linguistics. We see him frequently asking his staff to get him dictionary definitions of various words, which was his attempt to spin doctor himself out of some recent or would-be blunder. It kind of reminds me of Bill Clinton's classic "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

Clearly, it's the height of insidiousness to try to talk your way out of legitimately poor decisions or actions taken in bad faith, by throwing the literal meanings of words back at people. But then there's a part of me, a part I'm not necessarily proud of, that devotes a certain percentage of listening to what anyone's saying to me to picking out double entendres and making jokes. That part of me kind of loves Donald Rumsfeld's gleeful relationship with the English language.

There's also something undeniably cuddly about the retired Republican politician. We've seen it before. You didn't like Bob Dole when he was running against Bill Clinton, but the retired Bob Dole? Who doesn't love that guy? I even think W himself seems like a harmless old coot these days, even though he's probably not that old. Once I thought he was the devil.

I doubt Dick Cheney would do that for me, but Donald Rumsfeld? Why not?

There's something about him that seems sincere. He seems like he believed what he was trying to do for this country, and has the reasoning to back it up. But really, it's just that he's that good of a politician. (Did you know he was considered a strong vice presidential candidate when Reagan ran for office? That was an unknown unknown for me.) The leer we see in the poster above is supposed to be Morris reminding us who this guy is -- even though he comes off very well in this movie, and Morris himself seems to have been seduced by him.

And let's get to that part now. Morris is also a liberal, and would call himself a Labor party member if he lived in Australia. So why did he even want to make a movie about Donald Rumsfeld, one in which the intimate participation of Rumsfeld himself would virtually guarantee it being a whitewash job on some level?

I think he too was a bit seduced by how interesting Rumsfeld is as an interview candidate -- that same quality that seduced the media back in the early days of the Bush administration. I certainly wouldn't say he lets Rumsfeld off the hook, as he includes newspaper clippings and news footage that directly contradict some of the things Rumsfeld is saying now. However, if he wanted simply to "get" Rumsfeld, he wouldn't have agreed to a format in which Rumsfeld's interview is basically the spine of the whole movie, knowing that Rumsfeld was shrewd enough to come across well even in the face of pointed and uncomfortable questions.

The irony of the fact that I'm writing this on September 11th -- September 11th in Australia, anyway -- hasn't escaped me. That was the event that pretty much gave birth to the Rumsfeld that we now know -- that gave him a reason for being, a reason for asserting his influence on American foreign policy, and ultimately, a reason for his downfall.

The difference in my perspective on Rumsfeld before seeing this movie, and now, is that I think he may have had genuine care in his heart when he made even some of his worst decisions. And I think that's the problem most liberals have with this movie, if they have one -- they don't think Rumsfeld is a person who deserves to get humanized. He shouldn't get to "win" in any way, shape or form.

Morris' last question of the film -- and you can consider this a spoiler alert if you want -- is "Why are you even talking to me right now?"

Some might ask that same question of Morris, but those are not necessarily the liberals I want to associate with. Morris may have a political agenda on some level, but first and foremost he wants to make an interesting, entertaining film. And he has done that.

And if Donald Rumsfeld had the skills to humanize himself, and the shrewdness to get Morris to give him the opportunity to do that, then more power to him and his ability to cleverly manipulate the semantics of our world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The narrative conventionality backlash


If you had to choose one thing that the most number of people would say is wrong with the movies today, you'd get a lot of solid contenders. There are too many reboots and remakes. I'm sick of all the digital effects/3D. The tickets are too expensive.

But I think one almost everyone can agree on is:

Movies are too predictable.

Even the movies that are big successes -- say, the Marvel Universe movies -- have gotten complaints about how easy it is to telegraph the 20-minute battle sequence that will inevitably close the movie. Literally, almost every single one of them has that sequence -- the more characters involved, the better.

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons movies follow a conventional structure. Stories are more fundamentally satisfying to us if they contain a clear protagonist with a clear mission, joined by a clear set of cohorts and romantic interests, opposed by a clear antagonist. There's some flexibility about where these stories can go in the middle, but not so much about where they need to end up. It's the details, as well as a few allowable surprises, that separate the interesting movies from the soulless clones.

Well, this past weekend I saw three movies that defy some of this narrative conventionality we've come to expect. As it happens, one was great, one was middle-of-the-road, and one was a dud.

Is that enough to posit a genuine backlash against predictable movies? I'm not sure, but the concentration of those movies in one viewing weekend -- all intended as crowd-pleasers in their own way -- certainly gave me food for thought.

I'll go in neither the order I saw them nor the order of their quality.

First up chronologically was Cuban Fury, which I watched on Friday night. And SPOILERS lay in wait, so proceed with caution.

Cuban Fury is Nick Frost's big attempt (or, perhaps, small attempt) to branch out on his own, free from Simon Pegg or Edgar Wright. It's the story of a teen salsa-dancing sensation who loses his enthusiasm for his gift when a bunch of bullies beat him up and shove the sequins from his shirt down his throat. Deciding that salsa is for pussies, he slowly turns into a middle-aged schlub with nothing much to show for himself.

Learning that his pretty new American boss (Rashida Jones) is also into salsa dancing, the former prodigy (Bruce by name) determines to get himself back into shape and win her heart by showing off his once legendary moves. Opposing him in this effort is a jerk from his office, played by Chris O'Dowd, whose hobby of belittling Bruce only intensifies when O'Dowd realizes he also wants to make a play -- a more lascivious, misogynistic play -- for the new boss.

Cuban Fury seems pretty comfortable with most romantic comedy tropes, as it goes crazy introducing confidants for Bruce (I almost wrote a separate post about it) and includes a big dance competition as its finale. Where it deviates from the expected is this finale. In most movies, Bruce's rival for the girl would also be his rival on the dance floor. We'd know the girl preferred Bruce, but he'd have to symbolically win her by winning the final competition against his favored rival.

But in Cuban Fury, O'Dowd is a casual dancer only. He and Bruce do have a funny dance-off earlier, but it's a private, one-on-one affair (in a parking garage, no less), not the type of public shaming that would definitively declare Bruce his better. In fact, O'Dowd (Drew by name) is jettisoned from the plot, with prejudice, before this final dance number, when he makes an unwanted (and frankly, completely illogical) romantic pass at Jones (Julia by name). Bruce does win the dance competition (against unknown competition), but his partner is his sister (one of his many confidants), and what's even stranger is that Julia is not actually there at the time he wins. Cuban Fury wants to have its big finale, sort of, but it intends to tell us that even though Bruce was motivated to return to dancing by romantic love, he's really doing it for himself, not for a girl. She does show up afterward, but the fact that she's not there applauding with a sparkle in her eye is telling. This is Bruce's Bruce moment.

The result is that the movie feels a bit slight, but still quite enjoyable. I guess I'd say it works for the movie to end this way, but it definitely left me with a feeling like something was missing.

The movie that really doesn't work with its unconventional narrative is Chef, which I saw on Sunday night. And I'm going to SPOIL this one as well, like food left out overnight.

If Cuban Fury was about a man who's eaten a lot of sandwiches rediscovering his old self, Chef is about a furious man reinventing himself through Cuban sandwiches. Writer-director Jon Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-hot celebrity chef who has gotten lambasted by an influential food blogger after being compelled to serve his "greatest hits" to the critic rather than the more adventuresome menu he had planned. Carl is shown how to join Twitter but not how to use it, and gets himself involved in a flame war that ends up blowing up on him in a very public and embarrassing way. Before you know it, Carl is out of a job.

The key to his salvation is to start a food truck. Let there be no doubt that this is a very good idea for a movie. It's the execution that's wanting.

In a conventional movie, the idea to start the food truck would be Carl's. He would sit up in bed at night, struck by inspiration. Or he'd be at his lowest moment and see a food truck across the street, and get that look in his eyes that Gregory House always got when he'd landed on the correct diagnosis -- the moment I always marked by saying "Wait a moment!" in a Holmesian British accent. Then he would begin this momentous uphill battle to establishing himself in the increasingly competitive food truck industry.

In Chef, though, the first mention of the food truck is some offhand reference to it as an idea that had already been considered and discarded. Something like "Don't bring up the food truck idea again." It's this lack of dramatic intensity that characterizes the whole movie.

So Carl flies from Los Angeles to Miami with his son (their relationship is another frustrating example of conventionality discarded) in order to take possession of some ramshackle old food truck, in a scene involving a truly puzzling cameo from Robert Downey Jr. They whip the food truck into shape and are almost immediately a hit. With Twitter working in his favor this time, the food truck is swamped by customers wherever it stops on its trip back to Los Angeles, as people throw wads of cash at them for Cuban sandwiches. Then, basically, the end.

Where is the conflict?

Favreau made this movie as a very thinly-veiled attempt to get back at the critics who have trashed some of his recent movies, most notably Cowboys & Aliens (which richly deserved that scorn). It's an intentional return to a more indie sensibility, but it casts him as a pretty unlikable creative talent (playing a version of himself, no doubt) whose only real misstep is that he did not understand the dangers of publicly tussling with a critic in the age of social media. His food is universally praised -- well, by everyone except that critic -- and never for a moment does he makes a misstep in the kitchen. It's basically a very self-indulgent project designed to show that Jon Favreau the person was hurt by criticisms that have been directed toward him, but at his core he's an exceptionally talented person whom everyone loves.

Blah.

The third movie -- the great one -- is the one that had no choice but to discard narrative conventionality. That movie is, of course, Boyhood, and I already wrote about it a little bit earlier this week. But this is a movie I suspect I will keep writing about, keep coming back to. I already like it significantly better than when I first got out of the theater, and I expect it will only continue to move upward from here.

There will be some small spoilers, but mostly related to structure.

Due to its design, Boyhood basically had no choice but to be structured as it was -- purely chronologically, without the beats that mark a traditional narrative. Or so we might be tempted to think.

See, just because Richard Linklater culled his footage from a dozen different years does not mean he was compelled to edit them together in that order. He could have included flashbacks. He could have shown the scenes non-sequentially for other artistic reasons. In short, he could have forced his raw materials into a more conventional package if he wanted to.

But Linklater realized that one of the keys to the power of his movie would be our sense of growing alongside the characters -- our sense of surprise as they abruptly age (and it is very abrupt at times), and our paradoxically contradictory sense of having been there with them every step of the way. If we got to see what Mason looked like at age 18 in the first 20 minutes, it's a very different movie. That movie might be interesting in its own right, but I don't think I want to see it.

When I first emerged from Boyhood, I loved it, but I was dragged down by the "yeah but"s. "Yeah, but because of the type of project it is, it doesn't have the necessary structure to pay off in as satisfying a way as it should." Was I really saying this? Am I really such a slave to structure to think that?

Again I return to the idea that narrative structure exists, and is slavishly adhered to, for good reasons -- reasons that don't make a filmmaker uninspired for following them. They go back to the very beginning of oral storytelling traditions with the early humans. They should not be discarded, entirely or even partially, without good reason.

But my initial instinct about Boyhood was wrong. The movie reaches a transcendent new level by employing structure in a way we've never seen before. Actually, we've seen it, I suppose -- we've seen it in biopics, which also tend to go chronologically without a traditional three acts. But we've never seen it with the same actors playing the characters at a wide variety of ages, and that effect itself is what delivers the movie's immense levels of satisfaction.

Because that's all we really want as viewers: satisfaction. Satisfaction and truth.

Whatever structure gets you there is the one to use.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Father's Days with Richard Linklater


Yesterday was Father's Day in Australia.

Yep, fathers gotta be different over here. Mothers don't; they celebrate Mother's Day on the exact same date as in the U.S. (They just get to that date some 15 hours earlier.) I figure the reason behind moving Father's Day to September ("moving," because I assume the holiday was invented in the U.S. and then applied elsewhere) is to avoid having it fall in winter. Seasons technically begin on the 1st of the month here (rather than the 21st as in the northern hemisphere), so come June 1st, it's technically winter. This means that September 1st is technically spring, and September 7th is the first Sunday after September 1st.

I was in Australia last Australian Father's Day -- had been for about two weeks -- but I didn't celebrate it because I'd already celebrated American Father's Day in 2013. My wife gave me the option of which one I wanted to celebrate this year, and I went for the September date. I mean, who wants to celebrate Father's Day in winter?

A movie was obviously going to be involved in some capacity, and here's where I inadvertently established a Father's Day viewing pattern. You see, in 2012, I claimed a couple hours at home by myself as a Father's Day present, and used that time to watch Richard Linklater's Slacker (see post here). Two years later -- er, two years and three months later -- I again spent the time with Mr. Linklater by watching Boyhood, which only just (finally) opened here on Thursday.

I'm not sure if Dick Link will have another movie out by either Father's Day in 2015, so maybe I can watch, I don't know, The Newton Boys.

In all seriousness, though, there's something kind of appropriate about Mr. Linklater on a day in which you're considering family bonds between the generations, and deeply contemplating in general. Slacker gets the "deeply contemplating in general" part down, but I probably only had some vague sense going in how much Boyhood would be about the relationship between this boy and, well, both his parents, really.

Ellar Coltrane's Mason has three father figures in Boyhood, actually -- his biological father, Mason Sr. (played by Ethan Hawke), and his mother's two attempts to replace him (Bill, played by Marco Parella, and Jim, played by Brad Hawkins). In many respects, it's a story about how Mason is failed by all three of these men -- fortunately, to a lesser extent by his father than by the two surrogates, but in some ways to a greater extent, because this was the man who was originally assigned the role and whose failure necessitated the existence of the two inferior facsimiles.

But what I really appreciated this Father's Day was a reminder of just how much a mother does -- and never gets credit for. There's been some discussion about why the scenes in Boyhood were the specific scenes chosen for inclusion -- and I'm not simply talking about the most basic logical argument that "those are the scenes Linklater shot with his cast for the short time he had them available to him each year." Let's for a moment treat Boyhood as though it were a conventional film and that Linklater had a perfect idea of which scenes he planned to shoot, and why, way back when he started in 2002. Who knows, he may have.

One idea is that the scenes are the ones Mason himself considers important either as he looks back on the past dozen years of his life, or as he's going through them in real time. If this is the case, it becomes even more useful to look at the ways he values the scenes with Hawke, an absent father he kind of idolizes, and those with Patricia Arquette, a present mother who is taken for granted. Mason "remembers," as it were, going bowling with his dad, or going to a Houston Astros game, or going camping. With his mother, he only "remembers" boring, mundane, around-the-house stuff that is mired in "have to" rather than "want to." By flaking out, going off to Alaska to try to find himself, and even starting a new family, Hawke earned a kind of mythical status with his young son. By making sacrifices in her life to give him a healthy and stable childhood -- or trying her best to do so, anyway -- Arquette is remembered only as some kind of functional provider, one who never represented anything like fun to her son.

I suspect this is a role a mother has to play all too often. Even when fathers are physically present, like I am to my children, there's an essentially lazy part of us that tries to do "the easy work" -- goofing around with the kids, doing silly voices, etc. The true, hard work of parenting is something only the mother has the maturity to undertake, knowing she will never be rewarded for it -- knowing that if she doesn't do it, no one will.

So on (the day after) this Father's Day, I would like to thank Richard Linklater for reminding me of the ways I can truly earn a day in my own honor -- which is by doing the hard parts of parenting, in addition to the easy ones.

By, in essence, being more like a mother.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The correct verb tense for acting performances


My wife was going to Sydney for the night on Friday night, so for a cinephile like me, that meant one thing: a Friday night double feature. (It also meant taking care of my children by myself for nearly 24 hours. Details.)

As I was perusing the films on the Hoyts kiosk rental site, I came across this poster for a film I'd heard praised by a person whose opinion I do not necessarily trust: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. A title like that caused me to question whether I should truly dismiss it just because he liked it, so I lingered on the poster long enough to notice this critical rave:

"Jennifer Hudson was fantastic!"

See if you can tell me what's wrong with that quotation.

A movie performance, I would argue, is not a thing of the past, as implied by the word "was." It is not something that occurred at that one moment, when the DP was shooting the actor and the director was yelling "Action!" and "Cut!" As movies are an ongoing art form that can be accessed and experienced from now until all existing copies of the movie are destroyed, a movie performance is forever in the present tense.

So to say that Hudson was fantastic just seems incorrect. That's the kind of terminology you reserve for a play, a concert. Those performances occur once and are over. I suppose if Hudson were appearing in a show on Broadway that goes on for several months or years, you might say she "is" fantastic in the show, since it's still going on. You'd be less likely to use that term for a band on tour, since bands are more susceptible to having a bad night, whereas actors tend to achieve a certain consistency to their performance that's easier to repeat.

However, I now wonder if movies don't, in fact, age out of the appropriateness of the term "is" to describe a performance. If you're talking about Broken Blossoms, which was released in 1919, do you really say that Lillian Gish "is" great in it? Or do you say "was"? Does it have to do with whether the actor is alive or not?

I don't know. I'm just throwing it all out there.

For the record, I settled on Cuban Fury and Vampire Academy. No one was or is fantastic in either film, though I did like Cuban Fury quite a bit. Vampire Academy? For some reason I thought it was going to be a pointed satire of vampire movies that also functioned as a teen coming-of-age story. Instead, it was the bastard child of Twilight and Harry Potter, but, like, a really dumb bastard child.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Five Wire characters whose names I never learned


Warning: Some very minor Wire spoilers ahead. This post will likely only be truly appreciated by people who watched the whole series, anyway.

So my wife and I finally finished The Wire this week, some six-and-a-half years after the final episode. That's not a total delay on our part, as we didn't watch the first season until after the whole show had aired. But it did take us a while to get hooked, and after watching season one in 2009 or 2010, we waited more than a year before watching the second -- and then two more years to watch the third, even though we liked the second season better than the first. We finally got our momentum going and rattled off the last three seasons in the past year -- in no small part thanks to my mother-in-law, who knew we needed some encouragement and gifted us seasons three through five on DVD.

We loved it by the end, but it was a struggle at times. What thrilled some people about the show is what sometimes frustrated us -- namely, exactly how little it insulted our intelligence. Entire plots remained murky to us because no one ever spelled them out with the type of exposition we sometimes desperately needed. Ironically, only in the fifth season did we well and truly fall in love -- and then it was over.

To honor the end of the series -- the end of the series in our house, anyway -- I thought I would tease its serpentine and sometimes inscrutable nature by listing five characters whose names I never learned during the entire course of the series. I will of course learn their names now, in order to post their pictures, and in truth, once I got the idea for this post a week or so back, I unconsciously started paying more attention and may have actually picked up a name or two. However, it's still a good idea for a post, so I'm writing it -- even though it has nothing to do with movies.

Without any further ado:

1. This guy


Actual name: Jay Landsman
Played by: Delaney Williams
How I knew him: That asshole who was either always in a bad mood or always pranking someone, who didn't seem to deserve his position of seniority over the detectives we actually like.
Did I really not know his name? I didn't, and I wouldn't have learned it at all if McNulty hadn't called him by his first name about five times in the last episode. I had no idea what his last name was until I looked it up just now.

2. This woman


Actual name: Rhonda Pearlman
Played by: Deirdre Lovejoy
How I knew her: That woman who seemed like she was always smirking, who once hooked up with McNulty and was always mad at him forever after that, who is now dating Daniels.
Did I really not know her name? I think I must have learned it and then forgotten it, because when her name too began coming up pretty regularly in the last couple episodes, I admitted it sounded familiar. But two or three episodes ago, I asked myself to produce her name on the spot, and I couldn't do it.

3. This guy


Actual name: Leander Sydnor
Played by: Corey Parker Robinson
How I knew him: Lester Freamon's right hand man, for all intents and purposes.
Did I really not know his name? I did not get a whiff of the character's name until I just looked it up now. Completely went over my head.

4. This guy


Actual name: Dennis "Cutty" Wise
Played by: Chad L. Coleman
How I knew him: The reformed criminal who opened that boxing school.
Did I really not know his name? I didn't, but I forgot that I didn't know it because I know Coleman from The Walking Dead, and could always refer to him that way when I needed to mention him to my wife.

5. This guy


Actual name: Butchie
Played by: S. Robert Morgan
How I knew him: "The blind guy"; Omar's friend.
Did I really not know his name? Had to look it up just now.

Honoroble mentions: Amy Ryan's character (but she wasn't in it very often after the second season), the corrupt drug attorney (they called him by his name, Maurice Levy, a bunch of times in the last few episodes), Domenick Lombardozzi's character (I learned his nickname "Herc" early, but then forgot it, and never knew his first name), the character who commits the final drug kill to avenge a previous kill (no spoilers) in the final episode (Slim Charles, played by Anwan Glover)

Favorite character:


Was there ever any doubt? Lester was the man.

Honorable mention: Omar. Also the man.

Least favorite character:


My wife and I referred to him as "the charisma vacuum." Was there ever any worse casting choice in the whole series than making Wood Harris the leader of the Barksdale gang and leaving Idris Elba as the lieutenant?

Dishonorable mention: Jay Landsman. He was a jerk. 

Thanks, The Wire, for being a terrific show -- eventually. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Whole Lotta Bergman: The Silence


As we get closer, chronologically, to Persona -- the movie that started this series, but came later in Ingmar Bergman's career than the ones I've watched -- I'm starting to see a thematic shift toward the type of preoccupations on display in that 1966 film.

The Silence is a good example of that.

It's the third of three movies that came to constitute an informal trilogy on faith, at least in terms of how Bergman thought about them in retrospect. But it is far less overtly about faith than either of the previous two, Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light. In fact, The Silence dives headlong into a sexuality that would also make a significant appearance in Persona, but had only been hinted at in Glass and Winter.

Never one to be particularly heavy on plot, Bergman here offers up perhaps the flimsiest narrative of any of his films I've seen -- which is not a complaint in this case. The story is basically this: Three people -- two adult sisters and their pre-teen son/nephew -- are returning to their home via train from a trip to an unnamed foreign country. They get waylaid in a different unnamed foreign country because the boy's aunt is sick and can no longer continue travelling. While waiting for her to convalesce, the boy and his mother explore the hotel, and some small amount of the city it resides in. Gradually it is revealed that the relationship between the two sisters is toxic, and neither of them may have what you would consider a healthy relationship with the boy.

I understand that to Bergman, the title The Silence represents God's silence, and though that's definitely one available interpretation, it's not the one I find most compelling. Silence takes on many forms in this movie, not the least of which is that the soundtrack itself goes through whole patches where there is almost no noise. There is of course no music, which is not at all a surprise with Bergman, but sometimes there is such an absence of other noise in this movie that it becomes deafening, to use the old cliche.

Clearly, one other form of silence is the silence of the confessional. If I didn't know Bergman was viewing this from a faith standpoint, I mightn't have reached that conclusion on my own, but both of the women in this movie have characters who function as priests taking their confessions. As they are stuck in a country where they do not speak the language, they can barely communicate to the two other key characters in the film -- a footman who waits on the sickly sister and gets her various balms (medicinal or otherwise), and a lover the healthy sister takes. Neither character is actually mute, but they barely speak at all, and because they don't understand what the sisters are saying anyway, the sisters can confess all kinds of psychological and emotional madness to them without any repercussions.

And what a bunch of dysfunctional crap these sisters have between them. The one at death's door is a more bookish type, a translator of literature, who appears envious of what her sister has (a son, the attention of men). The healthy sister is a voluptuous type who effortlessly ensnares members of the opposite sex, who hates her sister for her sister's resentment, etc. We eventually learn that they both seem to want the other dead, and they both are oddly affectionate with the young boy, standing too close to him and petting him in ways that verge on the unseemly.

The boy is another story. He has clearly become confused by the unusual attentions of these two women, and has a kind of curiosity that cannot be sated. Much of his time is spent scampering around the hotel, seeing things he shouldn't be seeing and having little mini-adventures (like when he comes across a troupe of performing midgets). Bergman's camera in these scenes is that of a formalist, which hasn't been as evident in some of his previous work. There's a certain spookiness to these scenes that makes a person wonder if Stanley Kubrick received some inspiration for The Shining from the hotel in The Silence.

And this boy -- he's an odd duck. I think I came in with a preconceived notion of his weirdness, as Bergman uses the same actor -- Jorgen Lindstrom -- for the unshakable opening to Persona three years later.

I mentioned sex earlier. Bergman includes several scenes of highly eroticized female bodies, including two people having sex in a public cabaret and the main character Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) beating the summer heat by washing her large breasts in a sink. Anna also recounts a fictitious story of a sexual account with a man, which we will again see (to great erotic effect) in Persona. I'm not sure why I call specific attention to this, except that it kind of flies in the face of my understanding of social morays at the time, that nudity and sex were to be seen at all in a film from the early 1960s. They also seems like an odd outcome from the guy who made The Seventh Seal. However, this film (along with Persona) leaves no doubt about the modernist sensibilities of Bergman as a director.

What I love most about this film (and you can probably tell that I loved it) is just how weird it is, and how little it involves the excessive telling of characters' thoughts. Not that I viewed the tell-don't-show approach of the previous two films in the trilogy as necessarily a weakness, but I now realize I considered the dialogue in those films somewhat didactic. The Silence, perhaps appropriately given its title, is far more reliant on nuance and viewer interpretation of events, and has the courage to resemble a nightmare at numerous moments throughout. Bergman's camera focuses in on details that speak volumes, including, quite memorably, the various gnarled parts of the sister Ester's aspect while she's in the deepest throes of her sickness.

Okay, just one Bergman film left from the five I borrowed. I'll finish off this little series of mine in another couple weeks by jumping forward nine years (and finally past Persona in the chronology) to 1972's Cries and Whispers.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Coming approximately sometime soon


When I went to the movies last night, The Maze Runner was just one of a couple trailers that had no idea when its movie was coming out.

Instead of something definitive like "this September" (which would have been accurate) or "this spring" (which would have also been accurate in the southern hemisphere), the movie only advertises that it is coming out "this year."

The same could be said for Dracula Untold, which is coming out here in October.

Your first assumption would be that this trailer was made for international release, and is trying to be as flexible as possible for a wide array of release dates. And I'm sure that's what the explanation is.

But we're not even talking about any voiceover that needs to be re-recorded -- almost no trailers have voiceover these days. We're only talking about title cards that can easily be switched out. And in fact, have already been switched out to become more generic than the U.S. trailers for the same movies.

What's even worse than "this year" is what I've seen on a couple other occasions: "this season." That draws even more attention to the differences in the seasons between here and the northern hemisphere, which this tactic is supposed to be de-emphasizing. I appreciate what they're going for, trying to be a bit more definitive about the soonness with which this is coming, but it just ends up seeming all the more absurd.

However, it is consistent with a ridiculous sort of advertising inexactness that we've noted on Australian television. My wife and I joke over the fact that ads for new shows won't actually tell you when they are debuting until, like, three days before the debut. Before that, the ads simply say "coming soon" or "this April" or the like. The advertising psychology is supposed to have something to do with keeping you committed to the station, so you have to keep checking back for updates and can't waste any valuable time on competing networks. But it was comical how difficult a time we had determining when the most recent season of Downtown Abbey was supposed to start. We couldn't even find out the information online.

Well, there was at least one movie I saw advertised last night that had a true sense of self. Interstellar boldly and somewhat surprisingly committed to a release date of NOVEMBER. Of course, that's only because Christopher Nolan's latest is big enough that it has essentially the same release date everywhere on the planet.

As for The Maze Runner, I'll be looking for it -- or not, as the case may be -- any time between now and December 31st.