CategoryMovies

January Movie Roundup

January Film Roundup is the intellectual property of Leonard Richardson and Nowhere Standard Inc. Any resemblance to actual film roundups living or dead is purely incidental.

A thing I did in 2017 that I’ve never actually recorded here was buy a house in Southeast Portland. More about that some other time. An important thing about this house, to me, is that it’s within walking distance of Movie Madness, the best place to rent movies in the world. Later in 2019 I’m going to leave Portland after eleven years and move to Chicago. More about that also some other time. Until then, I want to take great advantage of my proximity to the little cinder block building that just has… every… movie… in it. These are the ones I watched last month.

  • My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997): Kat’s favorite. I used to watch and basically believe in romantic comedies, a fact which may shed light on some of my permanent emotional scarring. I stopped watching in the early oughts, when the movies stopped being good, but I think I did see almost all of the nineties classics except this one. I liked it but I’m glad I didn’t see it at the time; I would not have appreciated it.

    Having read nothing about its production, here’s my imaginary series of events: Ron Bass sees Mr. Wrong and The Truth About Cats And Dogs in 1996, then writes a combination of the two as a vehicle for Janeane Garofalo or someone Janeane Garofalesque. A studio buyer says “Ron, I love it, but why don’t we see if we can shoot for someone more… Julia Robertsesque.” Then the actual Julia Roberts, tired of being pitched on romantic comedies because it’s 1997, reads it and says “I would enjoy taking my own subversive turn at playing a sociopath,” and what you end up with is this strange world where Dermot Mulroney plays a human tree stump who’s marrying 20-year-old Cameron Diaz yet who has never in his life considered any attraction to Julia Roberts (who is in turn willing to ruin his life to have him).

    I grant you that this is the same disbelief you are asked to suspend when The Truth About Cats And Dogs sets up its false dichotomy, but at least that is predictable Hollywood logic at work. Roberts gets her teeth into this anyway and has a great time, which is fun to watch, and so does Rupert Everett, who you already know is the best part of the movie even if you’ve never seen it.

  • Night of the Living Dead (1968): I think I saw this nineteen or twenty years ago and my recall of it was more accurate than I expected. I like it, but I would not have felt a specific need to rent it except for one thing: I seem to be among few Every Frame a Painting superfans to have discovered that last year’s Criterion reissue has a hidden Every Frame a Painting on the bonus disc.

    To say that Every Frame a Painting meant a great deal to me is to understate. It turns out I am still grieving it, and—as is obvious to the point of pain—grieving the world I thought I was living in when its last video was posted to Youtube in September of 2016. Grief leads me to magical thinking, and so, of late, my brain has tried to conjure the past via whatever ancillary frames I can find. There are at least a couple more essays they produced for Filmstruck, a service which decided to shut down just as this bout of grief made itself known, that I haven’t found yet. But I have found three others (on The Breaking Point, His Girl Friday and Tampopo) in physical format at Movie Madness.

  • A Taxing Woman (1987): I enjoyed Tampopo so goddamn much that my friend Theron recommended I try to track this one down, the movie Juzo Itami made after it with the same leads. Even Theron had only ever seen this on VHS, but Movie Madness had it on DVD, because they have… every… movie. Tampopo is somehow a Western about cooking noodles, so of course this one is a gumshoe tax fraud noir in a world where everyone is constantly trying to cheat on their taxes. The genre twist I liked is that this time the detective character is on the offense: she’s the one who barges into other people’s offices, smelling like trouble. It’s fun just to see Nobuko Miyamoto and Tsutomu Yamazaki stretch their rapport into something wary and oppositional instead of bittersweetly pedagogical.

  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960): Three out of four of this month’s movies are directly derived from Every Frame a Painting, a trend which I expect will continue. This one got its own mini-episode about one scene—actually, about one shot—and I successfully used that to walk myself backwards into watching my first Kurosawa movie in decades. I enjoyed it.

    I used to get bored very quickly by any movie I perceived as “old.” The only way I knew how to interpret film was through plots, which I tended to find either obvious or incomprehensible in the classics, their dialogue, which I found unrelatable, and their set pieces or action scenes, which I mostly found cheesy. Yes, this is callow, but I don’t think it’s uncommon! I could write at length about how standard liberal arts curricula can fail people, but fundamentally, putting complex art in front of someone and declaring that it’s valuable by fiat doesn’t work. I have seen so many movies without knowing how to see them. Modernist artistic complexity is a locked door with treasure behind it, but if the keys you have for the door don’t open it, the fault is not with you.

    Every Frame a Painting showed me doors I didn’t know about, and nudged them open for me. I notice when my eyes are active in the frame now! I can identify different kinds of cuts between shots, and I notice when the camera directs my attention amid complex blocking. I can appreciate it when action and reaction are both in the same shot, or when one shot just set me up for its successor. I haven’t quite managed to catch compositional sectioning in action yet, but at least I know it’s out there to be recognized.

    Each of the previous Kurosawa movies I’d seen (Ran, Throne of Blood, Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai) were things I found nebulously cool and even striking, but like Michael Bay, I couldn’t have articulated why. With The Bad Sleep Well, I can tell you this much: I like it because it doesn’t matter whether I speak Japanese or whether I speak cinematic shorthand (or whether I know Hamlet). I like it because it told me a harmonic story with its acting, its writing, its music, its composition, its costuming—in monochrome!—and its editing all at the same time. It uses its bandwidth well in concert, and a broader band means richer media.

    I also liked it because Toshiro Mifune is very cool.

It took me a while to hash that last point out with myself, so now it’s February 5th and I’ve already seen three more movies and rented a fourth. I guess we’ll see how long this keeps going, and also how many choices of movie I can tie back to Every Frame a Painting somehow. Maybe Leonard will forgive this format infringement if I tell him that I am about to finally get around to watching The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Late last summer,

I watched Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a documentary about Studio Ghibli. It was filmed there in 2012 and 2013 while Hayao Miyazaki made his final feature film, and it had an extraordinary impact on me.

"Not just the government, even the private sector."
"Pushing us back to the far right."
I haven’t stopped thinking about the documentary, or about that specific exchange, ever since. Tonight I finally watched the feature film itself.

"The wind rises, and we must try to live."

Dual Reflections on Cruel Intentions

It’s time once again for Reel 90s Kids, the podcast you have forgotten that we did one time! We have now done it again. Here is the audio click button thing that tells you the wrong file duration, and below it are the show notes.

0:00 – Thanks to Oliver Schories for this episode’s intro song, which I think has a 40% chance of deeply irritating my cohost.

5:23 – I could put links to the Wikipedia articles for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Dangerous Liaisons here, but you can type names into Wikipedia as well as I can.

8:37 – A 1954 Jaguar Roadster.

10:48 – Sorry, Mr. Lester.

12:41 – Shooter the 2007 movie; Shooter the 2016 TV series. Since we recorded this episode, USA has apparently decided we’ve had a long enough gap between mass shootings to actually premiere and air it! Yaaaay

17:03 – Judge for yourself.

19:03 – I cannot put anything about the confluence of Bittersweet Symphony and Shakespeare in Love in the show notes, because my brain completely manufactured it. Why did I think this was a thing?! If you have a clue, please call our toll-free line.

20:13 – Audio taken from this Fusion interview.

22:48 – Movie studios were forced to stop running their own theaters by United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc, in 1948.

24:36 –

28:44 – The eclectic production history of Cruel Intentions 2, a “2000 American comedy-drama prequel.”

31:13 – I neglected to congratulate her, but Anne batted a thousand on these!

35:55 – The Deadline story in question. Alas, Cruel Intentions was not picked up to series after all.

37:35 – See you back here for the Drive Me Crazy episode in June 2019!

38:11 – And thanks to Jade Berlin and her terrifying accompanist for our outro music:

A Timely Varsity Blues Podcast

Kids dressed up like the characters from Varsity Blues. It's cute

Apparently the thing I do here now is, once a year, post a podcast I made with friends about a movie that already came out. This time I made one with my friend Anne! It’s about the non-classic 90s Teen Film Varsity Blues, for no clear reason that either of us could recall. Despite our claims at the beginning, we DID think of a belated title for it: Reel 90s Kids.

Because we remember.

I’m not going to link to the site we discuss for the latter half of the podcast because I don’t want to make anyone’s life sadder, including yours. I have faith in your ability to find it if you want to. Please don’t. Special thanks to small genius Aidan James for our outro music!

A Timely Captain America Podcast

I really love Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but my fondness is as nothing compared to that of my friend Rachel, even though she’s actually more a fan of a work derived from—well, we’ll get to that. Sometimes we exhort each other about it on twitter. Our mutual friend Sumana (star of many recent entries here) has found this charming, and a while back she urged us to record some kind of longer discussion and put it on the Internet; we did so, but not without making her complicit.

This is a podcast! It’s about 53 minutes long and covers a broad range of topics, which I have tried to annotate below. It is centered around the reasoning behind our affection for the movie, and especially the treatment of sexuality, gender and kyriarchy therein. I have been lax in my duty as its producer and am posting it months late, but fortunately it is now in time for Chris Evans and his portrayal of Steve Rogers to reënter our consciousness in Avengers: Age of Innocence. I found this conversation valuable and was grateful to be a part of it; I hope you like it too.

2:30 – The fanfic in question, the object of Rachel’s true fandom, is “Your Blue-Eyed Boy” by Feather.

3:40 – Steve has wood.

4:00 – Sumana’s reference to difficulty reading about torture “today” refers to when we recorded the podcast, in early December of 2014.

7:10 – Rachel and Sumana both knew the origin of the term “Winter Soldier” (it was news to me! I am a failed American).

10:30 – “Mothering versus Contract” by Virginia Held is an amazing piece of work, which came to me by way of my friend Monica; it first appeared in Beyond Self-Interest in 1990, and you can read some of it via Google Books.

17:30 – Robert Redford and Chris Evans in Helmets

20:25 – Specifically, Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1940. The joke about the title of this post is that they created him for a publisher known, at the time, as Timely Comics.

28:15 – The issue I am fumbling to recall was Captain America #292, from 1984, and the character was not a raven but Black Crow.

36:00 – Chris Evans is very angry with a punching bag.

37:40 – Rachel here references Ursula K Le Guin’s classic short story (PDF): “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe
one more thing.

39:00 – The Strong Female Characters are a joint creation of Kate Beaton, Meredith Gran and Carly Monardo.

40:15 – I couldn’t find an easily viewable version of the full pilot, but here’s a few minutes of footage from Global Frequency.

42:55 – Sumana is a graduate of Hacker School, now the Recurse Center, in Manhattan.

44:15 – I left this bit in because it has good comic timing.

46:05 – Sexy Murder Walk owes its name at least in part to Charlize Theron.

46:50 – The actress Rachel mentions, playing Bucky’s date and later starring in Doctor Who, is Jenna Coleman.

47:30 – Much of the inspiration for this podcast came from Sumana Meets Doctor Who!

52:35 – As requested. Picard and Riker use phasers to explode whatshisface's head.

A year ago today I threatened to write a 20-page explicitly homoerotic fanfic prequel that would explain all the interesting parts of Inception, a movie whose plot you likely only somewhat recalled even as you left the theater.

I wasn’t fucking joking.

THE WARSAW JOB

Straight By Fiat

I have this old favorite joke that almost no one else knows or gets, but I can’t stop thinking it’s funny, so I’m going to do my best to rid myself of it by the only method guaranteed to destroy humor: dissection.

Like many things stupid but great, and most things Devon Sawa, I would never have seen the 2002 comedy Slackers if not for its champion, my brother Ian. It’s a pretty slight movie and as teen comedies go it is not exactly shifting any paradigms, though it does feature some ringers in the cast, all of whom appear in the above clip. Yes, that’s Michael C. Maronna, Big Pete from Pete & Pete, playing a character (Jeff) whose sexuality is part of a slow-burning running gag throughout the movie. Here’s what makes it interesting: none of the jokes are homophobic. His friends know he’s gay and they’re fine with it. The target of the joke is repression, not sexual orientation, and it benefits greatly for that. (Note that this movie predates the genesis of Tobias Fünke by two years!)

Besides less-obvious targets, here are some things that I will always think are funny:

I don’t think the clip needs much context, but here it is just in case. Maronna, Sawa and Jason Segel are the scheming heroes, who have been milking the creepy Jason Schwartzman for money. Schwartzman comes to Maronna and Segel with evidence that Sawa has betrayed their confidence to his love interest (Jaime King). Upon seeing it, the guys are infuriated, and in a three-camera sitcom we would already know where this goes: they turn on Sawa together, then eventually they realize that Schwartzman is the real problem, kick him out and reunite. In fact, you can already see this playing out in Schwartzman’s head! Just before the clip begins, he sputters “he betrayed you! He stole my girl! He’s not our friend!” He’s transparency-oblivious character one.

Then Maronna starts his monologue, and it follows that scenario… for exactly five seconds, before veering off into his desperate fantasy of male bonding. He has rehearsed this speech, he has seen an opportunity, and now he siezes the moment to execute his pitch. He knows they will object–this sounds pretty gay!–but he has anticipated that, and before they can get a word in, addends that it is in fact not gay. Triumph. There is no way they can resist now.

In thirty seconds, Maronna covers all four of the humor angles listed above. The first three points are all basically about the tension between expectation and reality, which is also the root of all suffering, which in turn goes back to the old axiom that comedy is pain happening someone else. The magic of point four, commitment, is that he makes the other three completely implicit. Nobody hands him a straight line to set up the zinger. Nobody winks at the camera.* There’s a lot of trust in the audience here, and for me, at least, it pays off in a way that I’m still giggling at ten years later.

Okay, I think the frog is dead now. Mike Maronna is very talented and should get more work. This is all to explain why, whenever I express adulation bordering on the ecstatic for a male role model, I will make a sly face and add “but it’s not gay” after describing how I want to suck his cock.

* For a perfect example of how literally winking at the camera can undercut flawless commitment, see the last forty years of Dwight-and-Jim gags in The Office.

The Social Network and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

They’re both stories about white guys sitting down and quietly talking. They also both made a tremendous impact on me: one by reminding me that I must yet reckon with Sorkin, the other by making me aware that le Carré is not just another popular novelist from before my time but an outright craftmaster.

There are other similarities. Everyone is glib, but in Sorkinland people use their flip lines to express their deepest feelings, whereas in le Carré glibness is a rigid fencing match of protocol that may mean nothing or everything. They’re also both stories about a dangerous little man who doesn’t understand women, and about betrayal. But now I’m stretching the parallels out for no particular reason. Le Carré doesn’t sound like Sorkin, he sounds like (he must have been an influence on) my favorite prose stylist, William Gibson.

I didn’t realize until I went back and read the foreword that much of the trade jargon in Tinker Tailor is pure invention, or at least pure extrapolation–a sort of nadsat projected into the past. Now, because language devours itself, some of it has become real jargon. Did you know that the OED can’t find any use of the word “mole” to describe an embedded double agent before le Carré? He doesn’t think he made it up, but then Gibson didn’t really invent “cyberspace” either.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a very good book and you should read it. Then we should go see the movie together.

Technoir

Matthew is running a cyberpunk story game called Technoir for Harry, Alex and myself. It’s very good, and I’m not just saying that because it cites Brick in its inspirations. Here’s part of the mechanic for healing damage: when your character has been tagged with something that describes permanent physical, emotional or social harm to them, you have to get surgery to implant a piece of cybertech that “replaces what has been lost.”

Left implied is that of course it fucking doesn’t, nothing does, that’s not how loss works. But it is how cyberpunk works, in one elegant sentence that happens to be a functional rule. That is brilliant game design. Well done, Jeremy Keller.

The lower-case I is symbolic

There was a time when I liked romantic comedy films. Yes, it’s true! Despite my status as a burly exemplar of stoic masculinity, I once enjoyed the mixture of clever dialogue and bittersweet tension one might see employed by an early-period Bullock, Roberts or Ryan. Then, in the late nineties, my testicles descended, and also romantic comedy went right down the shitter. In a mere five years, we went from While You were Sleeping and The Truth About Cats and Dogs to Legally Blonde and Kate and Leopold. Kate and Leopold, Liz Lemon.

Things have not improved since. The men are shrill, the women are boorish, the scripts are assembled from plot coupons and the banter is a nonsense collection of zero-liners. I saw The Proposal on an airplane a year and a half ago and I’m still angry about it. I’m not going to compare it to genocide except to say that it was worse than genocide, and dumber.

But hey! Around the same time that came out, a lady named Jac Schaeffer triple-threatened an indie movie called (unfortunately) TiMER. It has the one girl from Buffy in it, it got a tiny distribution deal, nobody saw it and it holds a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in over a decade. Kara found it streaming on Netflix, and I offer the following three reasons to watch it if you like this kind of thing:

  • It passes Bechdel
  • If stuck in an elevator with the characters, I would not murder all of them inside five minutes
  • It posits a semi-science-fictional plot mechanic and actually explores some of its ramifications

I realize those bars are low enough to skate over, but I am not trying to damn with faint praise: it’s a fun movie and I was still thinking about it two days later. Its premise is that you can get a timer implanted in your arm. If your One True Love also has a timer, the two will automagically calculate the day you meet and start counting down to it. This is a big honking metaphor for a dominant cultural narrative applied to women, but the movie has the grace to hang a lampshade on that and then pull the Asimov trick and wonder how this can go wrong: one character has a blank timer and is on a crusade to get other people implanted, one has twenty years of waiting to look forward to, one has a timer go off way too soon, one gets a fake timer on the Internet, one has it painfully removed. And the ending isn’t as easy as you’re thinking!

Basically, this is a movie with smart jokes and kissing and it does a better job of exploring the conflict between free will and predestination than the Wachowskis did. My only improvement would be to put more than one nonwhite character in it, and also feed everyone involved a damn sandwich. (And not have the main character be named Oona. Hey, maybe Jac Schaeffer is a Wachowski.) Doubly recommended if you’re one of the nerds who liked Machine of Death.

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