Saturday, June 22, 2024

Pain Watch: Ember Days (2013)

Watched:  06/21/2024
Format:  Amazon Prime
Viewing:  First
Director:  Sean-Michael Argo

Where to start?

Since high school, intentionally watching bad movies has been a routine part of my film viewing.  I couldn't count how many bad movies I've watched with the aid of MST3K, RiffTrax, Dug, etc... or just putting a bad movie on myself and giving it a go with no professional support.  But the number of these films watched has been... astronomical.  And, in fact, my guilt regarding watching so many bad movies is part of why I've recently taken on my homework task of watching movies by the big name directors I've previously avoided.

And so it is that, thanks to Dug, I've now seen a movie that was not just bad for many of the reasons a movie doesn't work out (flat acting, a wandering script, horrendous editing...), but Ember Days (2013) pioneered new and innovative ways in how it chose to be a very bad movie.  It's one of those movies where you'd love a whole other movie to cover what went into this movie, what the filmmakers were thinking, and how they think of their product now.  

I do not say this lightly:  this is possibly one of the worst movies I've ever seen.  That's a spot which is, honestly, pretty hard to reach (and I'm pretty sure is usually occupied by Monster-a-Go-Go).  And I say this in the same year I watched Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven.  

If I have any sympathy for the film, it is most certainly due to the zero-budget nature of the production.  And, yes, I appreciate that a bunch of people outside of Hollywood decided to make a movie, and you shouldn't bag on people trying.  

But I watched it, and I'm here to tell the tale.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Robo Watch: M3GAN (2022)

Watched:  06/21/2024
Format:  Peacock
Viewing:  First
Director:  Gerard Johnstone

I don't jump on too many new horror movies.  If they're still in the zeitgeist a couple years out, sure.  

M3GAN (2022) did a very respectable box office of $180 million, bringing in a younger crowd with a PG-13 rating and a premise I think would appeal to a wide age range.  As pal Michael would point out, not bad for a movie that cost about $12 million before marketing.

If I had any spark of interest, it was to see how the performer(s) handled M3GAN as a character, and how they'd think about robots, AI, logic leading to mayhem, etc...  Things handled pretty well in Ex Machina and Westworld in recent memory.  As a product of Blumhouse,* this was going to need to fit a certain mold, so we know where it's headed to a degree before we even flip the movie on.

I'll start at the end - and that's to say, this movie's last third is exactly what you expect.  The AI goes crazy, gets quippy, and mayhem ensues.  For your kid's first horror movie, it's good stuff.  For everyone else, it's a bit of a letdown, even if it's well executed.  But we've also seen it before.  And that's a bummer because the first half or more of this movie is really pretty interesting.  


Fellini Watch: 8 1/2 (1963)

Watched:  06/20/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Federico Fellini

I was unable to find La Dolce Vita streaming, so I had to skip ahead to 8 1/2 (1963) as I continue on my "finally watch a handful of movies from name directors" homework that I've assigned myself.  Obviously I'm checking out Fellini at the moment.  Commenting on my post for La Strada, StevenGH effused a bit about this film, so I didn't mind jumping into the deep end.  

This screening was not taken on due to the passing this week of co-star Anouk Aimée, but the cosmos aligned, and so it's with a farewell salute to the actor that we dove into this movie for the first time.  

Prior to watching this movie, I didn't, honestly, know anything about it other than that it had Mastroianni in the role for which he's best known in America.  So, despite knowing this was a "Top 50 Movies by Critical Consensus" type of film, no one had brought it up with me other than asking if I had seen it - maybe once every few years - and then moving on upon learning I hadn't seen it.

For me, what you may have heard about the reputation of 8 1/2 bore out.  It's both incredibly simple and so complex it's worthy of the endless conversation 60 years of this film existing in critical circles will tell you.  It is about what it is about, while also being the thing that can't be made by the characters in the film.  I'm getting now why a thousand bad films have been made by filmmakers who tried to recapture the lightning in a bottle.  

I don't know if I've ever seen a film this *honest*, where - knowing Fellini was writer, director and ring master of the film - there's no doubt that what we're watching in the screen is a transposition of the real onto celluloid.  Past, present and fantasy mix within the film, and the film seems to play all of these parts for Fellini - down to recasting himself as Marcello Mastroianni (no doubt one of the best male faces to cross the screen) as a true fantasy.  And, look, I don't know how much of this is true - I don't assume this is a 1:1 to Fellini's life, but I do think it taps into something that manages to show a portrait of a character and his challenges and inner-life in a way that is both unique and comes from a place both specific and universal-ish.   

I won't get too much into the cast, but it also includes British actor Barbara Steele, which surprised me when she walked across the screen.  Claudia Cardinale plays more of an idea than a character, and who better to play a concept, really?  The forementioned Anouk Aimée is stunning as the long-suffering wife of Mastroianni, her rage turned into a steely armor.  And dozens of others, none of whom I know as they're Italian actors from 60 years ago.  And I am not here to talk about performances on this one, but there weren't any wrong notes, which I think likely goes without saying.

To be honest, most of the time, it's my feeling that when writers and directors think they should delve into their libido, their strings of romantic and sexual partners and be honest about it, the results are cringe-worthy.  If this movie has a knock against it, it's only that others think they can pull this off and remain interesting and/ or sympathetic.  There are a few that do work (All That Jazz is really something), but a lot more that don't.  Why this works in 8 1/2 is an alchemy of execution of story beats, the use of his past, present and fantasy structure, and that Fellini is clear-eyed about his fictional director.  He sees how people hurt each other, recognizing humiliation for what it is rather than as a comedic crutch.

Like a lot of the films I'll wind up discussing in my Movie Homework Series here on the blog, I don't think I'll have anything new to say.  We're going to be touching some of the most famous, well-regarded cinema on planet Earth, and that means it's been written about in magazines, reviews and academic treatises when it hasn't been the subject of interviews, both primary and secondary.  

What I don't want to do is give these movies short shrift, nor cover well-trod territory, especially when other folks know these movies well.  And, certainly, I'll be returning to this movie, which I'm sure will have deeper impact in new ways when I know where this is going.  But I do appreciate coming in cold, and just sorting out what I was watching as a somewhat pristine experience.

I'll save further commentary on the imitators for another day, for a future re-watch.  There's plenty to discuss in structure, camera work, style, religion on film, libido on film and Claudia Cardinale.  So, perhaps in the future we can return to this movie again.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Donald Sutherland Merges With The Infinite

I remember becoming aware of Donald Sutherland via the 1985 film Heaven Help Us, although it's likely his ubiquity in movies meant I'd seen him in something prior (I'd seen Max Dugan Returns at the movie theater, so there, certainly).  And, a quick glance at his IMDB page tells you what you already know:  the man was constantly working.  200 acting credits to his name.  

I don't know if I have a favorite Sutherland performance, but Kelly's Heroes often pops to mind.  I only recently watched Klute, and he's clearly great there.  But you can say that about Sutherland in movies I liked far less.  And, of course, he was doing good work well after the era in which he played younger men.

Here's to Donald Sutherland, who always brought something extra to his roles, and who managed to seem cool as hell off and on the screen.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Sci-Fi Watch: "The Expanse" ReWatch, Season 5

One of the most insane things you can do is recommend someone watch multiple seasons of TV more than once.  But here we are.

The first time I watched The Expanse, I watched it entirely by myself* as a binge-watch.  I think I made it through the first five seasons in about three weeks (the sixth had not started yet), which is simply not a thing I do.  

Spoiler - my least favorite season of the show was the fourth season, which I still liked, but felt like the one season where I felt I'd seen this same sort of thing elsewhere.  On a rewatch, I better appreciate how the Western-like settlement and tensions between moneyed and non-moneyed pioneers informs the overall arc of the show.  

The Fifth Season, which brings the character, political and story arc threads of the show to a head, while simultaneously splintering our Rocinante-based space-fam, was one I'd quite liked the first go-thru.  On a second viewing, I liked it even more.  

The issues our characters brought into the series at its start finally have time to get some spotlight, all against a backdrop of the inevitable consequences of the centuries of exploitation of the Belt (for whom you can apply a dozen real-world analogies) coming to bear.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Willie Mays Merges With The Infinite

American legend and baseball player, Willie Mays, has passed at the age of 93.

Mays was, statistically, one of the best to ever pick up a bat and put on a glove.  His career started prior to the advent of the Golden Glove, and he still won 12 of them, consecutively.  He had 660 career home runs and a .302 career batting average.  And, frankly, it's exhausting to think about telling you people about every single one of his records and achievements.  Here's Wikipedia.  

I'm not sure we'll see his like again as a player.  Most baseball folk have him in company with Babe Ruth.  But, if the MLB can learn anything from Hays, I'd tell them:  let your players love the game the way Hays did.  Before I'd read about what kind of player he was - heck, before I knew about baseball - I knew him as a larger-than-life personality who took joy in people and his sport.  The game needs that, and is at its best when you've got those players.

We're sorry to see him go, but as long as people talk about baseball, folks are going to talk about The Say Hey Kid.  

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Fellini Watch: La Strada (1954)

Watched:  06/16/2024
Format:  Criterion
Viewing:  First
Director:  Federico Fellini

Back in the 1990's, I managed to escape film school without much in the way of a "film studies" background.  I was a "production" guy, so I was taking classes that required hauling around equipment and working with fellow students to try and get shorts made - and there weren't credit hours or time for me to also take the classes offered on Fellini and others.*  

At the mercy of the syllabus for the classes I did take, I saw a wide variety of film, but we weren't shown some of the giants, which I now find... odd.  Because in the mid-90's, people still cared about European film and the work of folks like Bergman, Fellini, Godard and others, both inside and outside of academia.  It would be like securing an English degree, but they assume you're reading Shakespeare on your own.

As a result, some of this became so monumental in my head as "challenging viewing", I just never took the Pepsi Challenge.  

But...  then, I realized as I turned 49 -  why not?  So.

Anyway, I am currently on a quest to make the most of my Criterion subscription by checking out a few movies from name directors, especially non-American directors.  You may have noted my recent four movie sprint through some Akira Kurosawa.

Mentioning Fellini on facebook, our own NathanC, who tends to dip into these kinds of film better than many, recommended I start with La Strada (1954).  My only prior exposure to Fellini had been randomly watching Roma back in college.**  So, La Strada it was.  

I have zero complaints about this movie.  I get it.  I know that's not much of a review, but this is what had been advertised to me about Fellini since college, complete with circuses, clowns and sadness.  This is not a complaint.  It's like hearing "well, Dr. Seuss features a lot of Loraxes" and there you are, spotting a Lorax.  

To me, the remarkable thing about the film was that La Strada is the art that a post-WWII Italy was producing.  While certainly not directly commenting on the war, I can only imagine the mood of the post-Mussolini Italians climbing out of the rubble after the Allies bombed and shot their way across the country.  Of *course* the need to tell stories about the people living on the edge of society, the misfits, and making the cruelty casual no matter what love you throw at it came from this era and this place. 

I also understand how folks trying to imitate what is on screen here could go very, very badly indeed.

I was confused and delighted that this movie starred Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart, both Americans, and my eyes about fell out of my head that Dino De Laurentiis was a producer.  

Anyway, the movie is one of the most written about in cinema, and I don't think anyone will gain much from my scribblings, so I'll cut it short here.  But thanks to Nathan for the suggestion!  I'll be seeking out La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Amarcord soon (with a possible check in with Nights of Cabria).  

*I'll talk about the abortive Bergman class I took, soon
**which I need to rewatch as I think Cassandra "Elvira" Peterson is in it as a young woman after reading her memoir

Neo-Noir-Comedy Watch: Hit Man (2023)

Watched:  06/15/2024
Format:  Netflix
Viewing:  First
Director:  Richard Linklater

As a good Austinite, I feel extra pressure to watch Richard Linklater movies, and still miss half of them.  But this one took literally no effort to watch as I have Netflix thanks to my T-Mobile service.  

Reviews were initially pretty good for Hit Man (2023/24?), as near as I can tell.  But I think the wider audience response has been more mixed.  And I get it.  The movie feels like it has a bit of a genre pivot or thematic pivot half-way through, and that's a pretty good way to lose people.  Arguably, it goes from a sort of goofy comedy to a dark-comedy neo-noir.  And that turn in the middle is some YMMV territory.

The basic set up is that we have our public college prof (people keep saying Community College, but he seems more adjunct at a full university.  TERMS MEAN THINGS.), teaching philosophy and psychology.  But - He moonlights for the New Orleans PD making surveillance equipment for catching people who are trying to hire a hit man,  So, when the NOPD gets a tip someone is looking for a contract killer, they send in an undercover cop posing as a hit man.  

One day, the main undercover cop can't do his thing, so they (Retta!) send in the tech, Gary Johnson (Glen Powell).  Turns out he has a real knack for sliding into the role, and as he tries again and again, finds he can be the hit man to meet the profile of the contractee.