What did I do deserve this? (A review of Atonement.)

When I first saw Joe Wright’s take on that old Austen warhorse, Pride and Prejudice, I thought it was a fun angle on something that had been done the same way for many decades. Over time, and re-watchings, I began to appreciate the tight piece of machinery it is, with every scene leading into the next logically and with tremendous urgency. Emma Thompson’s punch-ups captured much of the spirit of Austen (for a modern audience) while condensing the experience. It is the most viscerally exciting interpretation of an any Austen story ever. And, he knows how to shoot Keira Knightly.

So, I was looking forward to Atonement, though I didn’t expect it to be as good, despite the critical praise heaped on it, just because the source material was unlikely to be of the same caliber.

And as I’m watching, I’m seeing the same sort of artistry: Gorgeous cinematography, with composition that reminds of the great James Wong Howe, fine acting, music that cleverly incorporates the typewriter clacks as a sort of sinister percussion. Excellent choice of matching children with their older versions–though I guess, since Juno Temple played herself at both ages, they only had to match up the 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan with Romola Garai (of Amazing Grace).

So, I ask myself, “Why am I not enjoying this?” And my answer is the terribly unprofessional, “It’s just not very good.” The story, I mean, and as it’s portrayed in this filming. This is really the story of Briony Tallis (Ronan and Garai) who tells a lie that ruins two people’s lives, and comes to regret it later.

I mean, that’s it. Confused girl tells lie. Bad things happen. Girl grows up and regrets telling lie.

Of the bad things that happen, the movie focuses on what happens to James McAvoy at Dunkirk, where he’s forced to go (else stay in jail). This is some stunning set design and photography and 20-30 minutes of irrelevance. There’s some resonance added by the end scene, but it really doesn’t excuse the fact that, if the movie is going to be about bad things happening, we really need to see the main character’s reaction to those things.

And we do, a bit, but the bad things she experiences are only after the fact of her regret. In other words, we see her before her change, we see her after her change, but it’s only getting older (and gaining understanding of sex) that causes the change, and we don’t see that.

Clearly Briony has a crush on Robbie, so is her lie an act of jealousy? Doesn’t seem to be. Her character has a longing for Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship, without any of the hatefulness. Basically, her motives for telling the lie come down to not understanding what she sees, therefore her realization of her error comes down to a big “Whoops!”.

And we’re left with a main character (who doesn’t get much screen time, perhaps because she’s not a big box office draw) who is a coward.

Period.

The boy was pissed. He ranks it with Skydivers as the worst movie he’s ever seen.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

Me: I thought “Apocalypse” was pretty good for a “Resident Evil” movie.

The Boy: Yeah. A bit silly though. Wouldn’t corporations be the best chance of survival in a zombie-ridden world?

Me: Well, them and hot chicks running around in shorty-shorts.

The Boy: True.

Me: Which, if you can accept the premise that fighting zombies is best done in skimpy clothing, it’s all downhill from there, silliness-wise.

EDIT: This should’ve been RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION. I couldn’t stay awake through Apocalypse, shorty-shorts or no.

A Paean To Sexual Harrassment: Charlie Wilson’s War

Just got back from Charlie Wilson’s War. (And hang tight, there are about eight movies out on my “to see” list–after weeks of scratching to find one worth watching.)

I had read Extreme Mortman’s review (via Instapundit) and figured I could risk this politically themed movie, as the subject–America’s contribution to the Soviet-Afghanistan war–was of some interest. (EDIT: Actually Karl’s review at Protein Wisdom, which looks at some of the more political reactions, was probably more influential.)

What I was immediately struck by was that the movie positively glorified what we now call “sexual harassment”. Wilson is introduced to us–after the left end of a bookend scene with a medal ceremony assuring us that the Cold War never would have been won without him–at an ‘80s strippers ‘n’ coke party and he staffs his office with gorgeous chicks. Much of the negotiation the Congressmen does involves having sex with women. These things are obliquely referred to however, since the actual act of–well, the actual acts might take some of the sheen off of even Tom Hanks (last seen lending his credibility to The Simpson’s Movie’s dubious US government).

This part of the movie is fun. Hanks gets to pour on some of the southern charm he marvelously overplayed in the Coen brothers’ Ladykillers. The movie picks up real speed when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as an offbeat CIA agent, and is humming along nicely when Julia Roberts does her turn as the aging Texan ex-beauty queen who pressures the Congressmen into acting to giving the Afghans armaments. (And unlike the Mortman, I had no trouble hearing either Hanks or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it’ll probably be inaudible in the TV mix.)

For a based-on-a-true-story, this is a rather odd film. The movie wisely avoids partisan politics for the most part, concentrating on the dysfunction of the process–with only a few scenes that (fairly, I’d say) show how the idiosyncrasies of a particular party. For example, Dems are shown backing the aid to Afghanistan for the “tough” street cred. (The CIA takes another huge black eye, though, both for missing the invasion and not backing the resistance.)

It seems, though, that this was partly accomplished by ignoring huge chunks of history. Reagan was referred to once in the movie–and only as “a Republican President”. Democrats and media types who were (and still are) sympathetic to communism are completely ignored. The Afghanis themselves are practically props in the acts of heroism of a guy who, when you get down to it, is gonna be okay no matter how things turn out.

The Boy once again encapsulates this in his laconic style: “It was pretty good but it could have grabbed me more.”

This complete disconnect from historically significant events means the movie sort of drifts in its second half, devolving into a sort of money/body count (for hardware). And the end veers way to the left, implicating America in the subsequent rise of fanatic Islam. It’s almost like–or maybe exactly like–the writer can’t stand for America to have done something unequivocally good.

There are a number of things worth bitching about as far as the historical events that actually are portrayed as well. It’s really quite challenging to imagine large swaths of the Democratic Left talking about killing Russians with the sort of vigor that is portrayed in this film. At the time, Reagan was soundly mocked for viewing the world in such a simplistic manner.

It’s also weird to see the hero engaging in all sorts of sexist activities. Or activities that would be regarded as such today. At least if a Republican did them. This movie sort of makes you wonder why we have all those laws, all that grab-ass looks like fun for all involved.

Anyway, I give points to the film for showing that grassroots Reps were involved and concerned, and for showing that the Communists fielded a vicious army that routinely and deliberately engaged in the sorts of atrocities that a few outliers in the US Army commit (and are punished for).

It shouldn’t be noteworthy but it is. I can’t think of the last American film that portrayed the Soviets (and their satellite governments) as the horrors they were. Or any American film, come to think of it. (Das Leben Der Anderen should be required viewing for anyone who wants to push centralized economic planning. And even it’s mild.)

Overall a flawed but fairly entertaining movie, especially if you’re not too wrapped up in historical accuracy. Sort of a left wing Red Dawn. Top-notch acting. (I’m not a big Julia Roberts fan; this was probably my favorite of her work. Also, while I love Hoffman, he can veer toward the precious, and this was a nice switch from Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. ) Mike Nichols doesn’t dawdle or have characters engage in lengthy speeches: Evil is shown and we’re expected to recognize it as such.

It may not do well, of course. People are already sick of politics as we enter this election year, or so it seems. But in this year of highly political bombs, you could do worse.

Speaking of Good Looking Old Folks….

I managed to catch Away From Her as it began it’s pre-awards rounds this week. (These things seem to go in curious streaks, don’t they? There was an ad for a documentary about a young guy who checks into an old folks home to see how they live.)

I had put off seeing this previously because I had been scarred by The Notebook a few years earlier. (I’ll probably do a review of that film later on, because it ranks as one of the three worst films I’ve seen in a decade, and a good example of how you can love everyone involved in the making of a movie and hate the movie itself. But I digress.)

The incredibly talented Sarah Polley wrote for the screen and directed this film. Polley, first known to me as the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, has emerged as an adult with a formidable acting–and now writing and directing–talent.

Grant Anderson (played by Gordon Pinsent of Saint Ralph and The Good Shepherd) is married to Fiona (played by the still radiant Julie Christie) who has Alzheimer’s. She forces him to put her in a home where, after an enforced 30-day absence, he returns to find she has fallen in love with another man, and regards him as a troubling confusion.

The movie reveals, in bits and pieces, their history together, the progression of her disease, the relaationship of her beau with his wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and ultimately the relationship that Grant forms with Marian. It succeeds in making us care, while not hesitating to show the warts of the various characters.

Ultimately, I found it to be upbeat, as there is honesty and love on display, with difficult choices being made.

Julie Christie–who at 66, is often pointed out as being “young” to have Alzheimer’s so severely–actually makes a particularly poignant victim. With a little acting judo, she turns her youthful looks into tragedy. I found her more appealing in this film than in Heaven Can Wait or any of the other flicks she did in the ‘60s and ’70s.

But she’s not shouldering the burden alone: Even Michael Murphy, who plays the non-verbal Aubrey, object of Fiona’s newfound affections does a smashing job conveying an age which (one can only presume) none of these remarkably well-preserved old folks actually feel. (At least not to the oppressive degrees their characters do.)

The music, as I noticed it, was an excellent mix of classical (I noticed Bach’s cantate no. 147) played in a jazz guitar style.

The whole thing was so good, and so polished, the director’s insertion of a political statement stands out like a sore thumb. It’s brief, fortunately, but it’s the archetype of how “messages” can ruin films, it’s so out of character with the rest of the movie.

Statuette Hunting

It’s that time of the year when all the movies designed for Oscar glory are released on to not the unsuspecting masses (who often have to wait months or weeks for a wide release) but the suspecting elite.

A lot of this annual burst of energy seems to have been absorbed or deflected by anti-war films. It’s still possible these films will carry home Oscars, but I think Hollywood likes to be popular as well as right, and with the way the war seems to be going these days, rewarding anti-war films may prove to be neither.

And so we have a strange little low-budget film, The Man In The Chair, from Michael Schroeder, a man probably best known for introducing the world to a (occasionally topless) 17-year-old Angelina Jolie in the even lower budget Cyborg 2. (I have to admit I find that film watchable but that may have more to do with comparing the Jolie of then–awkward but still with a sort of presence–to the Jolie of now than any other quality of the film.)

Christopher Plummer plays lighting man “Flash Madden” who wanders around L.A. reading, drinking, smoking cuban cigars, and yelling at the screen at the Beverly, much to the amusement of juvenile delinquent Cameron Kincaid (played by Michael Angara) who spends his time in-between school and getting tossed in jail dreaming of making a movie.

This is to Christopher Plummer what last year’s Venus was for Peter O’Toole. A film that no one is going to see, but which shows the old man’s chops and gives him a shot at the little gold statue. ‘course, O’Toole missed out on his because the Academy had given him a “get this guy an Oscar before he croaks” award in the previous years.

Plummer is not the icon O’Toole was, but his age shows far less on his face. A lot of the wide-open expressions O’Toole has used his whole career look overly broad now, with age pulling his long face down even longer. Plummer (who is three years older) seems young by comparison.

And he is good, as you might imagine. As is M. Emmet Walsh, letting himself be filmed in a most unflattering way. Robert Wagner joins the crew as the still rakishly good looking and rich arch-rival. (Also with a small role is one of my favorite character actors, George Murdock.) Another remarkably well-preserved specimen in the cast is the very lovely 65-year-old Margaret Blye

Am I obsessing on age here? Well, yeah, because the movie’s about aging and what we do with the aged. Also, the cast is ten years too young. Flash was a young gaffer on Citizen Kane…but I kept thinking, “okay, he had to be born in 1920, making him 87…no way is Plummer 87.” (He’s 78.)

If I had to describe this movie in ten words or less, I’d call it “an afterschool special on steroids”. It’s very well done with a top-notch cast, tightly directed and edited (though with a gratuitous shaky-blurry-cam scene transition effect, in a style most commonly used by zombie horror flicks).

The story is kind of pat, a little clichéd, a bit run-of-the-mill. Old people teaching younger people, and aren’t we horrible for not taking better care of, and respecting our senior citizens? Flash, through his horrible life mistakes, has learned that he might be better off now, if only he hadn’t treated people so badly through the rest of his life.

Except, well, we’re never sure about Mickey Hopkins (Walsh’s character) who seems to have been abandoned by his daughter. He seems like a very nice fellow but he can’t get his daughter to talk to him for five minutes.

I actually felt a sort of blowback after seeing this film. Are we supposed to generically care about old people? And take care of them? Even when they had an entire life to cultivate friends and family and did none of that? Do we feel sorry or empathize when they reach the end of that life alone?

Well, yeah, we do. But maybe somewhat begrudgingly.

Another thing that sort of annoyed me: One of the old characters dies in this film. I won’t say who it is so as not to spoil anything but I will say I both saw it coming and hoped it wouldn’t as soon as I realized what the movie was about. OK, if you’re watching a movie about old people, it’s natural some might die, especially if the movie spans the course of a year or longer.

This movie takes place over three weeks.

And the character just…dies. Rather conveniently, too. But unnecessarily, except maybe to give the whole thing a little more gravitas (and hopeful Oscar contenders a meaty scene).

What I liked about this film was the idea that, in the retirement homes of the San Fernando Valley, you could find a top-level crew still capable of making a high quality movie. A highly romantic notion, to be sure, and one that would’ve been better served by the whole crew getting together for ANOTHER movie after shooting the first one.

Nonetheless, it’s a good film, with Oscar-worthy performances.

Gore-illas In “The Mist”

OK, lame title. “The Mist” isn’t all that gory. And what’s an “illa” anyway?

That aside, I have to wonder if it’s hard being Frank Darabont. Since Shawshank Redemption, Darabont directed The Green Mile and The Majestic, all based on Stephen King novels. None horror.

When he makes a movie, expectations are high. (Part of the relatively cool reception of The Majestic was doubtless the phenomenal quality of Shawshank and Mile.) And Stephen King’s horror novels have made mincemeat out of some otherwise competent directors.

It’s no coincidence that the movie isn’t being advertised as “Stephen King’s The Mist”.

Anyway, I think Darabont could probably remake Maximum Overdrive into a quality film. The guy’s got the chops. He does the atmosphere right and gets great performances, including from a lot of Darabont regulars, like the great William Sadler, Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn.

And it’s a good thing, because the story is pretty threadbare. It’s your basic barricaded-in-a-house movie, only it’s a grocery store. This allows for some community dynamics that are not really much different then barricaded-in-a-house movies, though you got a bigger cast to work with.

In this case, the tension occurs between regular guy David Drayton (excellently played by Thomas Jane) and his group, versus crazy religious freak Mrs. Carmody (whom Marcia Gay Harden is a little too sexy to play but pulls it off anyway). I’d call her a “Jesus freak” but she’s entirely Old Testament. I don’t she ever invokes the J-Man.

And here we have precisely why King novels don’t often translate well into movies. We have a pretty standard scenario (at least since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) which is larded with a bunch of clichés: Where did the monsters come from? The nearby military base no doubt. Who causes trouble? The crazy religious person. In a store with grocery clerks, a judge, some blue collar workers, some soldiers and a painter (art, not house), who naturally leaps into the lead? The artist. The soldiers, completely unarmed, are mostly a zero or negative asset.

The artist writes the story, the artist gets to pick the hero, right? Fair’s fair.

And the underlying message, of course, is that an unknown fear results will turn people quickly toward superstition and barbarism. A message underscored by Mrs. Carmody’s increasing power as the ordeal wears on. We get to see denial in many forms (horror movies almost universally have an element of denial).

Darabont’s so good that you don’t mind that the premise is actually pretty badly botched. Monsters show up. These Lovecraftian beasties are quickly shown to be mortal, however scary. Granted, the people in the store don’t know the extent of the mist, whether it’s local or global, but they have a piece of it well understood enough.

Wacky cults tend to spring up when the danger is less immediate and has no clear source. Think volcanos, droughts, natural disasters.

I didn’t find that part of the premise particularly believable. (Read my rant on Tooth and Nail for another lengthy ripping of the barricaded-in-a-building genre.)

What’s more, we’re treated to the sort of illogic that King ought to be famous for. In this movie there are, uh, space-spiders that shoot their acidic space-web (hellloooo, xenomorph!) all over people for some nasty thrills. And this stuff is seriously nasty: One person is nearly instantly bisected by it.

At the same time, it’s all over everything. Shelves, walls, doors, buildings, and even people are completely bound in this horrifyingly acidic web crap. But it only burns as needed for the scares.

Not too important, I suppose. Even less important is the whole premise that there’s an entire other plane of existence out there that’s just waiting for us to let them so they can use us as the base of their elaborate ecosystem. Despite being completely alien in every way to them, we’re still a tasty and nutritious snack, suitable for laying eggs in (did I mention Alien? Well, I’m mentioning it again).

This is horror, people, not sci-fi. If you want a more scientifically realistic treatment of how an alien invasion might work, you might try my old friend David Gerrold’s War Against The Chtorr series.

Anyway, The Boy put it best in his review: “It’s a good movie but the ending was a little too ironic for my taste.”

Endings are tricky. There are only a few ways to end the barricaded-in-a-building story. The threat can be removed or escaped, it can turn out to be a global, persistent problem doomed to chase mankind through a series of sequels, or…both (think Night of the Living Dead).

I’ll give Darabont credit: I didn’t see the ending coming till the last shot was fired (about a minute before the actual reveal). But while The Boy called it “ironic”, I’m more inclined to call it “mean”. It isn’t really sold well, either. (There will be plenty who love the movie and hate the ending.) I didn’t hate it. You know, it wasn’t the Lincoln Monument with an Ape’s Head on it. But it was the meanest thing I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

Two Hours In The Uncanny Valley

At the behest of my partner-in-crime, Loaded Questions Kelly, I went to see Beowulf.

There’s a theory called The Uncanny Valley that is applicable here. I quote from Wikipedia:

as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion

In other words, when something is very humanlike, but not quite there, we tend to reject it. One can think of many reasons why a corpse is creepy, but why mannequins? How about a Real Doll? Well, okay, lotta reasons that’s creepy.

Beowulf is two hours in the Uncanny Valley. Better than Final Fantasy, in some ways, and presumably better than director Zemeckis’ earlier work, The Polar Express, which I could not bring myself to watch, Beowulf still had me thinking thoughts like, “Hey, that almost looks like Anthony Hopkins!”

They spent millions creating animated models of Hopkins, Robin Wright (Princess Bride) Penn and of course, Ray Winstone, but they clearly devoted a huge amount of time and energy to the Jolie model. In some shots, from some angles, it’s very impressive. Because the “hits” are so good, the “misses” are terribly jarring, reminding you that, in fact, it’s not Jolie but an amazing simulation.

With Hopkins, you sorta think, “Hey, that kinda looks like Sir Anthony,” but actually, with both him and Jolie, you miss their subtler facial twitches and tics. Maybe Hopkins over-acts in general, but whatever the reason, his model seems flat. Some of the biggest misfires with Jolie’s model is a failure to capture her seductiveness. (Though, in fairness to her animators, I can’t recall a time she’s been a truly evil character, as she is here.)

Winstone and Penn hardly look like themselves, or realistic at all, but that sort of works in their favor. I don’t know Winstone enough by look. And, to be honest, I have a strange sort of uncanny valley feeling whenever I see Penn, especially in Princess Bride. I have some sort of disconnect between my brain being told she’s a beautiful princess and what my eyes are seeing. (Not that she’s ugly or anything, it’s just an odd feeling I get when I see her, which the movie actually recreated pretty well.)

Obviously, I’m rambling about the animation here but that’s because it was always on my mind. As with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Final Fantasy, I’m constantly thinking about the technique while I’m watching it. It’s very tiring. Even the more adventurous animé techniques (like those in Appleseed) usually vanish as the movie progresses.

Not for me. Not with this sort of CGI. (Pixar, no problem.)

I didn’t see the 3D version. This will be the first iteration of a new 3D technique I’ve missed in my lifetime. It usually barely works for me and almost always gives me a headache. Plus, the movies are almost always pure crap. (Exceptions being the original versions of The House of Wax and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Back in my day, they didn’t even try.)

Anyhoo.

This movie takes the thinly plotted Old English poem Beowulf and, uh, oh, hell, does it matter? OK, basically, the movie takes a straightforward story of a guy who beats the crap out of two evil monsters, and then a third evil monster when he’s old, and turns it into a story about a guy who beats the crap out of one evil monster, has sex with the second, and thereby spawns the third, which then kill each other.

And, yes, if you’re keeping score at home, monster #2 (Ms. Jolie) lives on to, presumably, inspire a sequel.

The whole sex angle is…different. And I guess it adds some depth to an otherwise straightforward story. Though since he ends up dying as a result of his own earlier sin, it takes some of the shine off the story. The story’s Beowulf was not a man with any sort of weaknesses (as pointed out by this review by Dan at Gay Patriot). They foreshadow Beowulf’s fall from grace by showing him losing a swimming contest because he stopped to kill some sea serpents and canoodle with some mermaids.

Of course, when you combine that with Hrothgar’s (Hopkins) previous dalliance with Grendel’s mother, it’s obvious what’s going to happen.

Stupid though it may seem, Walthow’s (Penn) icy perfection made Beowulf’s tryst seem somewhat understandable (even if she and Beowulf weren’t yet involved). Even as an evil water demon, Jolie seemed a lot more inviting than Penn.

Of course, I don’t remember any women in the poem.
I do remember a naked fight.
I would have also sworn that Beowulf wins his last fight through the power of Jesus.

The mind, it plays tricks.

Well, overall, it wasn’t horrible. Mostly not boring. The Boy sez, “It was stupid.”

Look for Crispin Glover as GRENDEL! in an upcoming musical version.