Pirates of Penzance (2015, Mike Leigh)

And he’s hardly ever sick at seaaaaa!

Ha! Fooled you, that’s not a line from Pirates of Penzance but H.M.S. Pinafore, which we all know, of course, from Sideshow Bob singing it in the classic 5th Season “The Simpson’s” episode, “Cape Feare”. Or, you know, from some other source, if you’re the sort of person who’s into 19th century light opera. (Maybe “The Brady Bunch”. Weren’t Carol and Mike Gilbert and Sullivan fans?)

Welp. My music education had a lot of heavy opera in it but no light opera, so this was my first crack at G&S, which is also director Mike Leigh’s (Vera Drake, Mr. Turner and, significantly, Topsy-Turvy) first crack at it, if I’m not mistaken.

There’s a lot good here: The source material, for example. Being 19th century, a lot of its cleverness is hard to pick up on. Rhyming, e.g., “strategy” with “sat a gee” (meaning “rode a horse”, apparently) is the sort of thing you’re not likely to pick up and understand just from hearing it. (Seriously, check out all the footnotes in the Wiki article.)

That’s from the Major General’s classic song, sung by Andrew Shore who sounded like he was struggling with it, honestly. I may be misinterpreting that, since the song is supposed to sound a bit like he’s struggling for rhymes. He sails through the rest of the opera masterfully, though. (Other reviews praise his performance, so I may be wrong. You can hear it here.)

The talent is top notch, which I guess shouldn’t be a surprise, given it’s the English National Opera. It’s not unkind to say that the singing and playing were better than the recent show in L.A., but fair to note that this wasn’t a one-off (i.e., this English crew played a number of shows and have possibly done the material before). At the same time, live music is much different (and better) as an experience, especially live unamplified music.

I particularly liked Rebecca de Pont Davies as the closest thing this good-natured show has to a heel: The conniving 47-year-old Ruth, who attempts to use the poor 21-year-old Frederic’s sense of duty to trap him into marriage, and later to force him back into the pirate crew. Somehow Davies manages to do the whole thing bug-eyed.

But, really, they’re all good. My only complaint is the same one I had at the L.A. opera, namely that operatic singing makes it hard to understand what’s going on, and it’s sometimes just too much for me. I concede that I would probably like the (horrors!) Papp version with Linda Rondstadt and Kevin Kline.

The sets are very spare. Abstract, mostly, even as the costumes are very traditional. I had no problem with that. I also didn’t have any problem with Leigh’s direction, either in terms of how it was staged or in how it was presented filmed. In terms of the former, it was simple and straightforward, without a lot of elaborate dance numbers, e.g., or fancy flourishes.

In terms of the latter, I absolutely hate when the camera guy swooshes and swoops and does extreme close-ups for a performance meant to be seen on stage. You can’t tell what’s going on, and you have no idea what the live audience is meant to be seeing, and they’re the ones the production was largely made for.

So, overall, a good time. And the material definitely stays with you long afterwards.

Testament of Youth

I had sort of relegated Testament of Youth to “last ditch” territory. You know, where you’re hard up for a film to see, and you’ve seen everything else (or ruled everything else out). It’s not that the feature debut of seasoned TV director James Kent (“EastEnders”, “Marchlands”) was poorly received, it’s that it was received with a polite clap, and words like “competent”.

For a period piece about World War I England, that filtered through to me as “boring”.

But it’s not boring at all. It is deeply sad, as World War I movies tend to be. But neither ineffectively nor cheaply so, and both The Boy and I were quite pleasantly surprised at how good it was, and how it managed to create suspense out of foregone conclusions (it’s WWI, which has a death rate that gives George R. R. Martin the shakes), and likable characters from not necessarily likable templates.

Indeed, the story it tells is, from the outset, not one that appeals to me. Our heroine is the real life Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina, A Royal Affair) who observes the fate of her brother, her fianceé, her rebuked-but-oh-so-English-dignified suitor as they are rerouted from their privileged lives at Oxford to decidedly less privileged environs in trenches.

The real-life Brittain (understandably) became a pacifist after her experiences, but the understandability of that doesn’t really deflect from the whole obsession with pacifism that led to the disastrous consequences of World War II.

However, Kent and screenwriter Towhidi (Calendar Girls) stay out of the political, except at the very end, where we can completely understand and empathize with Brittain’s motives, because they’ve given us a chance to experience her story.

Anyway, when we first meet Brittain, she’s a spoiled little brat, in that Upper Middle Class white woman way that seems to produce the majority of feminist leaders. Her angst stems from not being allowed to go to Oxford (or Somerville, which is the female version of Oxford but on the same campus, I think).

Her father allows her to sit for the test, which requires an essay written in Latin, for which she is unprepared. (The implication is that she’s an auto-didact, but perhaps only in Latin.)

She gets in anyway, of course, but her plans are derailed a bit when a minor Archduke is assassinated far, far away.

The first thing she does is bully her parents (Emily Watson, The Book Thief, Anna Karenina) and especially her father (Dominic West, 300, John Carter) into letting her brother (Taron Egerton, Kingsman) go. Dad’s reluctant, not really believing all this “the war will be over in a few months” talk.

Her tune changes, of course, when talking about her beau (Kit Harrington, who actually looks more the age he’s playing here than he does on “Game of Thrones” because he’s so clean-shaven) who also insists on going to war.

What salvages this story is that Brittain herself goes to war, in the only way she can, as a volunteer nurse. First in England, but finally on the French front. Apart from her jealousy when her beau is on leave—realizing that he has a bond with his troop mates she can never share—she becomes a realized human being at this point, and the war stops being about her, and more about the soldiers fighting it. (Though a trip back home to visit her increasingly grief-addled mother shows a characteristic lack of patience for anyone not exactly where she is in her understanding of life, the universe and everything.)

Then it kind of hits you: These people—the real people—they’re all between about 18-23 during the events depicted. And despite being the sort of effete-seeming upper class that was so popular to lampoon in my youth, they had a toughness, a sense of responsibility and a maturity we don’t expect today out of our 30-somethings.

And there’s a whole lot of death they experienced.

It’s very well done. Very human. Interesting. Moving. And overall better than the generally polite accolades it’s being given.


I’m not a big fan of the Fat Man Falls Down genre, as I’ve mentioned over the years. My favorite fat guy actor/comedian was John Candy and I never remember him falling down. I’m sure he must have, but mostly I remember him for his combination of everyman haplessness and everyman decency.

As you might imagine, then, I’ve got an even stronger aversion to Fat Woman Falls Down, even as a concept. Double-standards, sure. But I’ve got room for all kinds of standards, double, triple, quadruple, 50 shades of, whatever.

Spy has a 95% critical rating on RT and an 85% rating from the audience, though, and that’s just rare as hen’s teeth for any kind of comedy. And for spy comedies? I guess they’re not universally bad, but they probably hit less often than horror films.

Still, Paul Feig is a funny dude, and Melissa McCarthy reasonably so, as well as being a charming actress, so off we went, with a certain amount of trepidation.

The short version? It works. They don’t do the fat-schtick slapstick too much and Feig for sure gives his character a sense of dignity-while-suffering-indignities that McCarthy is more than equal to the task of pulling off. And there are a lot of other very good things about it, which largely offset the not-so-good things, at least in terms of a summer popcorn flick.

The premise, which may not be obvious from the trailers, is that support crew person Susan “Coop” Cooper (McCarthy) ends up going into the field when—get this—the security records for CIA’s field agents are all compromised. (Couldn’t ever happen, right? What a larf!) She has to avenge/take over for her field agent (Jude Law) whom, naturally, she’s in love with, but who also degrades her.

So, what works: They don’t, for the most part, make “Coop” (McCarthy) into a magical super-spy. This falls apart at the end of second act where she sees things as though she’s still at her computer. I thought maybe I missed the explanation for this, but if so, so did the kids.

By the way, the idea of having a set of eyes watching the surrounding environment alerting you so that you can do all those super-human spy tricks is the only realistic explanation for the those sorts of heroic antics I’ve ever heard. I rather liked that.

When Coop goes into the field, she’s given remarkably unromantic cover stories (Divorced mom, cat-ady, Beaches fan) and spy “gadgets” (hemorrhoid pads, stool softeners, Beaches watch). It’s hit-and-miss joke time, with all but one of the items never coming back.

The circumstances of the plot force her to be more engaged than she’s supposed to be. That worked well. At one point, she’s in a position to compromise the mission, and she uses her friend instead of trying to go it alone. That also worked well.

There’s a lot of swearing. It sort of works at first. It wore me out halfway through.

The plot twists are pretty standard but not really the point.

Then there’s the action. And, here’s the thing: McCarthy is really fat. (They’ve surrounded her with women who are freakishly thin, too, which I thought might have been…I dunno…some sort of statement.) Now, I’ve talked about “body types wrong for the part” here before, from both angles (ha!) but it’s egregious here.

McCarthy waddles. She’s in several pursuit-on-foot sequences and even though they play a lot of them for laughs, it’s obvious she’s just not suited to the action. The kids didn’t notice, and you might not either, but her stunt double is probably 50 pounds lighter than she is. She did better in The Heat, I thought, though that may have been lower demands and more careful editing.

It’s not just weight, either: She’s 44. You can point to guys like Keanu Reeves or Jason Statham, but: a) They’re guys; b) They make their living staying in shape. Even much older guys, like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, can pull a lot of this stuff off because they’ve worked hard their whole lives at it. (And the guys who don’t, like Harrison Ford, end up looking goofy in action movies as they get older, too.)

The glamor scenes are a bit off, too, in that regard. The makeovers don’t work so well, making me wonder if they should’ve called in Lisa from Lee Lee’s.

It feels a little pander-y to me. And there’s a whole, I dunno, universe continuity problem because, you know, in the real world McCarthy wouldn’t seem extraordinarily large. But this is Hollywood-land where everyone is super lean, and “fat” is, like, America Ferrera or Whitney Thompson.

But these are quibbles with a largely entertaining movie.

Jason Statham is hilarious. Steals the show as a parody of his super-intense persona. Jude Law does a great job as the spy who doesn’t love her. Allison Janney is typically perfect as the boss with no sense of humor. Miranda Hart, as the pal, did not annoy me as much as she doubtless could.

Rose Byrne reprises her role from Bridesmaids as the beautiful-but-bitchy whatever. (That’s some kind of weird chick dynamic right there.) Rounding out the Fieg-chick-cicrle is Jamie Denbo (from The Heat). The Flower was excited to see “Firefly” alumnus Morena Baccarin as the perfect sweet-and-capable girl spy.

Bobby Cannavale does a really fine job with what’s probably the most clichéd character in the film. (I guess stereotyping men is still cool. And Italians.)

Anyway, the kids both liked it, and more than I did. The Boy’s expectations were quite low and this well exceeded them. I got that same sort of feeling I get from a lot of mainstream films: I’m enjoying this now and I’ll forget it as soon as I walk out of the theater.

Love & Mercy

Many years ago, in the early days of the blog, I mentioned one of Bill Maher’s dumbest bits. “I’m not promoting drug use,” he’d say, “but it hasn’t hurt my record collection any.” To which I always wanted to retort, “Yeah, those latest albums from Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious, et al, are just great aren’t they?”

I can’t say Brian Wilson’s psychosis was brought on or got out of control because he took LSD, but I’m guessing a drug that’s actually designed to simulate insanity isn’t the best thing to take for someone who is already inclined that way.

Anyway, it was cool to see this movie so shortly after The Wrecking Crew, since they feature fairly prominently here.

My aversion to musical biopics aside, this is a particularly good and different one. The story is split between the ‘60s, as we watch Brian Wilson’s genius blossom into amazing music and spiral into insanity, and the late ’80s/early ’90s, where the shell of Brian Wilson falls in love with a cadillac salesgirl who ultimately ends up saving his life from a Svengali/Mengele psychiatrist.

The performances are great. Paul Dano (Being Flynn, Looper, 12 Years A Slave) plays younger Brian and actually takes the bold step of putting on some weight, besides seeming to have utterly absorbed Wilson’s personality. John Cusack is his usual slender self, and I felt like he had the easier, if weirder, role as the more burnt-out Wilson. Paul Giamatti is as only Paul Giamatti can be, as the evil Dr. Landy.

The hero of the story, though, perhaps oddly, is Melinda, who finds herself immediately attracted to the romantic oddball who wants to buy a Cadillac, and just so happens to be a titan of ’60s pop music. Elizabeth Banks does a sensitive, wonderful job here.

The Flower loves “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” because it’s so upbeat. I was kind of glad she didn’t come with us to see this, since the story isn’t, overall, a happy one.

But is interesting. The movie gives us little tastes of Wilson’s life, with big chunks missing and implied, which rather adds to the feeling that it’s been a sort of fractured life. Forgoing the usual rags-to-riches clichés, we start with the Beach Boys at their popular height, the cruel pettiness of the Wilsons’ father, the bold experimentation that led to Pet Sounds which, I’m told, is particularly significant in the rock genre. (In The Wrecking Crew, someone mentions that Beatles’ producer George Martin was trying to emulate Pet Sounds on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.)

So you get—sort of refreshingly really—Wilson the artist straining against The Beach Boys as a product, and not really being understood, even as he’s making songs that are iconic today. This is a common struggle in the biopic but it has some authenticity here.

Meanwhile, the “modern” Brian has kids he’s not allowed to see, and a dead brother who still kind of haunts him, and a “doctor” who’s driving him to produce,

Anyway, it is very good, dramatically speaking. I have no confidence that it’s anything like a fair representation of the man’s life, which is my usual problem with musical biopics.

The Boy, who has no knowledge of or interest in the music also liked it a great deal.


I went to see, on the recommendation of the white deer of the Internet, Darcysport, this horror movie based on cyberspace relationships: Unfriended. Horror recommendations are kind of important, because you can’t trust audiences or critics, quite frankly, but specific individuals can give you a good insight. A Darcysport recommendation tells me: It’s not gonna be too gory, and the social-media is probably not social-media beyond my comprehension.

Unfriended has a higher critic rating than audience rating, and I may be wrong but I suspect the movie drops 20 points of popularity overall because of its central conceit.

The story is about five friends, on the anniversary of the suicide of a sixth, who are being haunted, stalked and—no spoilers here—killed. This is one of the standard horror plots to emerge in the ‘80s, along with “kids go to a cabin in the woods” and “kids are stalked by supernatural force”, understanding of course that the Venn diagram of these movies has a lot of overlap. (Exercise for the reader: Name a horror film about kids who go to a cabin in the woods where they are stalked by a supernatural force that is the revenant of a school friend who died.)

But the conceit here is that we’re witnessing the entire proceedings through the laptop of the main character, and the haunting primarily takes the form of making their computers act up.

So, yeah, I thin that’s for 20 points off the top, right there: For people above a certain age, their computers always act up in spooky ways and they just turn them off and wait for their kids or grandkids to fix them.

But, you know, saying “pull the plug” or “take out the battery” isn’t really much different from saying “leave the house” or “take the next plane to Sheboygan”. There’s always a contrivance, like the doors slam shut, or (in this case) the ghost’s assurance that you’ll die if you leave the Skype chat. You either buy in or you don’t—which, by the way, is why aggregate horror movie scores are so unreliable: A substantial number of people think it lessens them to buy in. (Arguably true of me and superhero movies these days, for that matter. But I’m honest about it, I think.)

So, do I want to see a raft of horror movies that consist of people Skyping? No, I do not. Was this a clever trick for a low-budget (6 figures low, perhaps) flick, and is it done reasonably effectively? Yes, it was.

The Boy also liked it. And, for instance, had no technological complaint.

There are a couple of oddities here. At one point, the lead gets the idea of using ChatRoulette to call for help, the boogen having cut off all other avenues. Since Chatroulette is primarily known for guys displaying their genitals, this was kind of a funny moment at an unlikely time.

Actually, the whole movie is an ad for a variety of online services: Gmail, Skype, YouTube, ChatRoulette (sorta), Facebook and so on. That should’ve covered their budget right there. It’s inconceivable to me that considerable discussions weren’t had with Google and Microsoft.

Another oddity is how truly awful everyone involved seems to be. For high school kids, they’ve got a ton of skeletons in their respective closets. But I guess that’s what happens when you’re in your mid- to late-20s and still in high school. (Of course, having adults pushing 30 star as high school kids isn’t the least bit odd, .)

Anyway, the movie gets in, gets out, and doesn’t belabor the point. Worth a look-see.

Furious 7

Around the fifth movie of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, I started hearing what amounted to reluctant praise from the critical set. I can’t remember who, but one critic described it as a series of (if I recall correctly): punching people, car chases, butts, repeat. But at the end of this said, again rather sheepishly, that he found that he enjoyed it.

Well, I can get behind that. If you’re in the mood for fight/chase/butts, then a movie that delivers on that promise is just the ticket and no shame to be had there. Unless, of course, you find it to be beneath you to be in the mood for F/C/B. At which point, you should probably just get over yourself.

I didn’t see any of those movies because I’m just not that into cars. My reluctance carried over into 5 and 6, but the buzz on Furious 7 is just crazy good. 85% from filmgoers on Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t mean too much because you gotta figure the audience is self-selecting, i.e., the people who go see these movies are the sorts of people who generally like these movies.

But 80%+ from critics? That puts it comfortably ahead of Avengers 2 and Kingsman, and within striking distance of arty fare like When Marnie Was There and Far From The Madding Crowd.

We’d been on a tremendous streak, seeing in order: The Wrecking Crew, Fight Club, The Farewell Party, Kingsman and Something Better To Come. Five movies we really liked or loved right in a row, and we were hoping to extend the streak into six.

And. Well. OK. It’s overhyped. In fact, I sort of think that the high score has something to do with the death of Paul Walker. Oh, not a lot. It’s not crazy ahead of Fast 5, which is in the mid-70s. But enough to make it seem like it’s going to cross genre boundaries and win a lot of non-fans over.

It’s not. Not that it’s not good. It reminds me of ‘80s action movies, where plot holes are papered over by action scenes and you just have to go with it. The action is good and there’s a story where our heroes are being chased down by Jason Statham for their actions in F&F6. James Wan (of Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring) has a sure hand at the sort of big-budget CGI set pieces that are all the rage these days, which is perhaps a bit surprising, but bodes well for his upcoming Aquaman picture. Or at least as well as any movie about Aquaman can.

He also manages to punctuate the action scenes with some pretty solid, if fundamentally a little goofy, emotional points. (How goofy? Amnesia goofy!)

Anyway, if you don’t like this sort of thing, the fact that this is a pretty good example of the genre isn’t going to change your mind.

The plot…no, really, the plot….is that in order to find Evil Statham, they need to use a super-duper computer program that hacks into all cameras (a la The Dark Knight), and they can’t do that without rescuing super-cute computer hacker Nathalie Emmanuel (“Game of Thrones”). This basically follows the standard Bond formula, with each clue leading them to new global locations where they wreck up the place with their cars.

You know, you do have to hand them that: Sure we’ve seen James Bond globetrot to fight espionage, but have we ever seen him do it with six of his closest buddies in a variety of tricked out sports cars? Usually he gets just one or two, and then some super skis or a jet pack or maybe a helicopter.

Thing is, everywhere they go on their super-secret missions, Statham shows up (in whatever souped-up car he’s managed to bring with him!) to give them a hard time. Which, I don’t know, made me wonder if maybe they shouldn’t have just used whatever intelligence tools Statham was using.

I actually kind of figured this was going to lead to an “your old pal is a mole” plot but while that would’ve made sense, it would’ve been super-cheesey. Kurt Russell plays the spook who extorts them into capturing Emmanuel and there’s a scene that’s right out of Escape From New York where Snake Pliskin (Russell) pretends to make a hand-off and then betrays The President of the United States.

I was glad they didn’t do that; the movie wasn’t making so much sense that that would’ve helped anyway. (In order to have the mole plot make sense, somebody would have had to notice that Statham was able to pop up wherever they went.)

There’s another WTF-type moment where The Rock, completely out of the loop for most of the movie, drives a car into a flying thing. There’s no justification for how he knew where to be, and even less to explain how he managed to time this, but by that time my cerebellum just assumed I’d been smoking a joint and was in a deep, apathetic groove.

Ronda Rousey is in this, for those of you who are into Ronda Rousey. She fights Michelle Rodriguez, which is cute. Rousey looks odd in a too tight evening gown with too tight underwear on underneath, all of which looks like it was made with sparkly spandex or something. She also looks like she would crush Rodriguez in a real fight. (And Rodriguez is a convincing Hollywood tough chick. Her stunt doubles are considerably more plausible than she is here, though.) At 5’7" and 135 pounds, that gives you a sense of how tiny Hollywood people are.

Speaking of odd-looking, Vin Diesel looks weird when he’s just standing there. You ever notice that? The Rock might too but he’s clever or lucky enough to just be in action scenes, or lying down. But Diesel looks, literally muscle-bound, as in bound by muscles. And I bring this up because the end of the movie is rather emotional, and he has to stand there and let it wash over him while his traps try to rise up and consume his head.

Then there’s the whole Paul Walker issue. He and Diesel were the stars of the first movie all the way back in 2001. But then Diesel’s career took off and he opted to not be in #2. (Paul Walker commented on that in an interesting way, I thought.) And then neither of them were in three (the studio thought Walker too old, if rumors are true), until Diesel convinced Universal to give up the rights to Riddick in exchange for a cameo.

That one kind of killed the franchise, although star Lucas Black appears here, which is nice for him and perhaps also for longtime F&F fans. By 2009, though, both Walker and Diesel had probably gotten a sense that there careers weren’t going to outstrip a successful franchise and the movies came back, less about street racing then action/spy stuff.

But since Walker died halfway through this, the script had to be rewritten and he is a very peripheral character here. And because they recycle both dialogue and shots from the other movies—that is, actually digitally insert him into this—there are some very weird moments, the weirdest being at the end.

Said ending, by the way, really doesn’t work. But to explain, I need to spoil. So if you don’t want spoilers, stop reading.

There’s a happy ending to this. I thought maybe they’d kill Walker’s character, but instead they have him reunited with Jordana Brewster and his kid, and all the other characters are watching them play on the beach.

But it’s seriously melancholy. They don’t act at all like he survived. They act like he’s dead and they’re watching a ghost. It makes no literal sense whatsoever. It’s basically a meta-moment.

I’m not really criticizing. What else are you going to do? Killing him would’ve been kind of cheap, like using a real tragedy to make a fake tragedy. And if they’d all been happy-go-lucky, well that would’ve felt weird, too.

So it’s a no-win. Wan handles it as well as anyone could, I guess. And Brewster, who mostly deals with body doubles. It’s not exactly Aftermath, you know? They managed to salvage the film in a respectful way, but it’s not unharmed.

Something Better To Come

At least you don’t live in a dump outside of Moscow. There, I’ve just given you a riposte for anybody who complains about having it rough.

If you need more details, you can watch Polish director Hanna Polak’s moving documentary Something Better To Come, which is about people who actually do live in Svalka, a landfill less than fifteen miles from the heart of Moscow.

Live. And breed.

Which, I hasten to add is less of a horror-movie CHUD thing and more a Jurassic Park style “life finds a way” thing. Over the course of 14 years (2 years better than that boy movie!) Polak follows the life of Yulia, a 10 year old girl (at first) whose father died, with the resultant effect being that she and her mother lost their apartment.

This, by the way, doesn’t appear to be a “can’t make the rent” thing but more of a “the state viewed the apartment as his, and it would take a while for them to apportion a new kvartira for us.” It seems as though the USSR went from a hellish vision of Communism to a hellish fusion of Socialism and Fascism.

Complete with the “Oh, we mustn’t let the news get out that we have children living in our dumps”. Polak doesn’t spend a lot of time on it, but occasionally she gets rousted by Junkyard Goons who order her to stop filming.

And in this giant wasteland, the residents provide a service: They are essentially recyclers, finding useful bits of electronics, metals, or anything valuable. They are, naturally, prohibited from selling these things—which reminds me of nothing so much as the laws that were enacted here to require trash separation, pitched as a recycling thing but more meant to prevent the indigent from fishing valuable things out of the trash and possibly finding some self-sufficiency.

In Svalka, the residents are paid in Vodka for the efforts, primarily, which is good because there are a lot of alcoholics among the grownups and the kids need to follow in those footsteps, I guess.

Besides scavenging, the Svalkans also demonstrate considerable creativity setting up places to live—places which are periodically knocked down on the apparent order of the Junkyard’s owner.

The movie’s not really political in that sense. We don’t really see much about the whys and wherefores. Yulia’s mom is an alcoholic. A variety of pictures about the dad, positive and negative, are painted over the years which might all have been true, at various points.

We do see amazing amounts of filth, meals cooked from discarded food, lots and lots of drinking, death and despair.

On the three-point-scale:

1. Well, obviously this is an interesting topic: The survival of people at the bottom rung of society that seems pathological invested in keeping them down.

2. The presentation is very much on the phone cam level. It’s good enough to see what’s going on, and overall adequate to the task, but this is a case where something dressy would feel utterly false. You know, like those reality shows where people are trying to “survive”, and you’re thinking “But there’s a camera crew right there! There’s gotta be a craft services table within 15 yards!”

3. Slant? Well, that’s interesting. I can’t say that the director didn’t help Yulia navigate byzantine Russian bureaucracies at any point to try to help her get out of Skalva, and if she did, would that be something to complain about? If there were things Polak saw that she couldn’t record, and still feel human, are we to kvetch?

Honestly, I was just happy, thrilled even, that the movie provides some semblance of hope—not necessarily for the denizens of Svalka, because there’s damn little hope there—but for Yulia herself, even if Polak was the one who had to help provide it. It doesn’t take from the story, but it also doesn’t punish the audience for getting invested, so it can veer in to what they call “poverty porn” these days.

The Boy was also moved. This was the sixth and final film in our streak of “way above average” films.

The Shop On Main Street

Every now and again you get a chance to see something unusual, whether it’s a forgotten old film, or an impossible indie film from out of nowhere, or just a screening of a film with the cast and crew. For reasons I can’t explain, our local theater aired a single showing of the Academy Award winning 1965 Czech flick The Shop On Main Street, replete with a discussion afterwards by Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way, Creator), a Czech director who emigrated to our fair country to ply his trade.

We didn’t stay for that. My schedule rearranging required me to rush off as soon as the end credits started.

The hero of our story is a carpenter named Tono, who’s fallen on lean times because he’s not a party man. And by “party man”, I mean “Nazi”. His brother (or is it brother-in-law? the subtitles have both him and his wife referring to him as brother-in-law) is the head of the local Czech Nazi club, and has not hooked up Tono with any work like, say, building the big ol’ monument to Czech fascism in the town square.

Tono is not especially noble, really. His main objection to fascism is that he’s not a joiner and he doesn’t like being told what to do, and he kind of thinks they’re all jackasses. He’s decent, however, and that’s sort of a serious liability at this point in WWII Czechoslovakia.

Unfortunately, Tono is also what we might call today a “low information voter”, who probably wouldn’t vote, to boot. So, when his wife nags him into reconnecting with brother-in-law, and a drunken night results in him being put in possession of a shop formerly owned by a Jewish widow, he doesn’t really think through the implications.

And there are oh-so-many implications.

The first thing that comes up is that the 78-year-old widow (her husband died in WWI) doesn’t understand why he’s there. She’s sort of deaf (or pretending) and can’t see well enough (or pretending) to read the contract, and she’s also sort of daft (or pretending). So, since he isn’t a bully, he just pretends he’s her helper instead.

And, actually, he is her helper, cleaning and fixing up the place while she orders him around and shoos him from behind the counter. Occasionally he’ll give him a very small amount of money—not nearly enough to satisfy his wife.

Which brings up the second point: Rather than helping him out, his dear brother and fellow party members basically have played him for a chump. Sure, he got a shop for free, but what shop is it? The button shop. A notions store. Something that makes no money.

However, his decency does not go unnoticed by the Jewish community who essentially pays him for not throwing the old widow out of her shop and home. And so, for a moment, the wife is happy.

The remarkable thing about this is, it’s essentially a humorous slice-of-life type picture, only with the spectre of Nazi-ism hanging over it all.

Of course, it stops being funny when the Nazis move to the forefront. Here again we see Tono with no real concept of what he’s dealing with, and worried about the money he might have to forgo, and then further worried that he’s been played for an even bigger chump, by being set up to be a “jew lover"—a fate worse than being an actual Jews, he’s been reassured many times.

There’s a genuineness to it, this willingness of the filmmakers to show the struggle a person might really go through if put into Tono’s position. (I’m guessing the Communists had managed to divorce themselves sufficiently from the Fascists at this point that they didn’t see an anti-Nazi movie as a threat.) It’s at turns harrowing and heartbreaking.

This occasionally turns up on TCM, I think, or you can buy the Criterion discs, but it doesn’t appear to be online anywhere. Well worth watching. (100/94 on RT, with a rather small critic/audience sampling.)

Kingsman: The Secret Service

The children were particularly reluctant to view this film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, so much so that I thought I might have to go alone. (Which, honestly: No problem.) But The Boy had kind of been stung by missing John Wick, and perhaps taking a sort of sympathetic approach, agreed to go with me.

For various reasons, we actually went on his birthday, and The Flower came, too.

The ads had put the both of them off this one, looking like a dumb spy/action caper flick, apparently. I had heard a lot of good things about it, and while the RT for critics is only 74%, for the audience it’s climbed all the way up to the mid-80s, or what you might call Furious 7 territory.

And, as it turns out, it’s a very fine film indeed. In fact, of director Matthew Vaughn’s five films (X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass, Stardust and Layer Cake, all co-written with the rather super-heroine-y Jane Goldman), this is my favorite and, I think, the most memorable.

It’s a standard enough premise: A young man (relative newcomer Taron Egerton) gets invited to be part of a super-elite spy group, on the basis of his father having laid down his life years before for one of said members of the spy group, played by Mr. Colin Firth. (It’s a very Firth-y film, ladies.)

We get a little Hogwart’s/Dr. X’s School stuff at the front and, naturally, a back-end where the action turns more serious. The “serious” plot running through this is that an evil tech genius (a lisping Samuel L. Jackson) has some plan for world domination involving cell phones and centered around solving the Global Warming problem once and for all.

It’s preposterous, but in a knowing, charming way that deliberately pokes at the grim Bond reboot and even the superhero movies. It’s also unabashedly critical of “elites” which, I think, is what turned off some of the critics. But whatever you think of environmentalism, it is probably the best vehicle for a would-be sympathetic super-villain to gain world control.

On top of top-notch action and cloak-and-dagger antics, there are a lot of nice little touches in the film. In the comic book, terrorists start by capturing Mark Hamill, apparently. In the movie, the terrorists capture an environmental scientist, which makes more sense for the plot—but he’s played by Mark Hamill!

Sofia Boutella plays the best heavy I can recall in years, which is kind of a feat, since she probably weighs 110 pounds and is a double amputee (in the film)—with those super-fast blade legs that actually have blades attached. It’s very cool.

At no point do the proceedings take themselves any more seriously than they must, which makes for some nice dramatic twists: There are things that happen that, tonally, you just don’t expect. But we don’t expect them because we don’t see them much anymore: Movies either go super-serious and heavy or completely farcical.

Michael Caine plays the head of Kingsman. Samantha Womack (best known around casa ‘strom as the chick in the 1997 Mars-Needs-Women flick Breeders, which is primarily noteworthy for being worse than the 1986 film of the same title and theme, and for the lurid death of its other female lead) plays mom. Sophie Cookson as Hermione. Edward Holcroft as Malfoy.

One scene here made me uncomfortable, I have to admit. There’s a mass slaughter inside a church. In the comic book, I think it’s a mass wedding, but here it’s a Westboro-baptist-style hate-fest. A good character committing an atrocity is really necessary for the plot and dramatic arc for this to happen, and it has to be fairly intense and graphic to work. (And I saw this before the recent church shooting in Charleston—although this church is so far from that one, it probably wouldn’t resonate that deeply agains that atrocity.)

So, dramatically, you have a problem: If you shoot up a nursery school, for example, the audience isn’t going to like it, regardless of the context. You have to find something the audience can kinda/sorta get behind—almost to the point where it’s like a George Carlin/Dennis Leary stand-up bit about “people who should be killed”. But you’re constrained from candy-coating it, too.

I don’t have a great answer to this, dramatically, except maybe if the massacre had been in a den of plotting terrorists, i.e., people planning right at the moment to do real harm. But as far as I know, the most notorious of groups—The Westboro Baptists—have been as awful as you can be without physically causing harm to others.

As such, I felt like I was being asked to go along with the wholesale slaughter of people who have loathsome ideas, and their children. To find it just a little bit “okay”.

I’m not really good at demonizing groups of people.

That aside, it was a really remarkable and memorable film, that takes a lot of the popular spy/hero tropes and has fun with them in a distinctive fashion. (The fourth out of our six-film-streak.)

The Farewell Party

An elderly tinkerer who struggles to keep his friends fighting for life finds himself building a “death machine” to facilitate euthanasia in Mita Tova, literally “Good Death” but playing here under the much cheerier title “The Farewell Party”. This is one of those movies that could only be Israeli, or perhaps American, of the Harold and Maude vintage.

This is also a rare movie in that the trailer perfectly gives the tone—and sadly a great many of the best jokes, though they still work in a different context in the film.

The story concerns our hero, the tinkerer, who phones a dear friend pretending to be God, and telling her while she’s got a straight ticket into heaven, they’re currently all booked up, so would she please do the chemo and fight a little longer?

Cute, right? But at the same time, he’s got a dear friend in the hospital in utter agony. They can’t or won’t give the friend the pain meds he needs, and he’s begging for death. The sick man’s wife is shaming our hero into killing his friend—but our tinkerer’s wife is the exact opposite, loathe to, as she puts it, murder.

Well, what else can you call it?

He ends up creating a machine in the manner of Kevorkian, though still on the fence. His wife ends up having an episode that puts her in the hospital, and it’s actually the sound of his friend suffering ni the neighboring room that convinces him to do it. This is really where the movie launches: Because everyone knows they did it. And before they know what’s going on, they’re fielding all kinds of requests for other people, some with incentives, and some with threats.

Worse still, it’s apparent that our tinkerer’s wife has a serious form of dementia or Alzheimer’s, and she’s now terrified of him. She doesn’t trust him not to kill her.

It’s funny. Very funny. And also tragic. Very tragic. Poignant. Heartbreaking. And funny. As in the Yiddish tradition, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Really, nobody does this better than the Israelis, and nobody today draws rich characters so easily, even if the directors here are relative newcomers.

We’ve seen many of the actors before, in Gett, in The Band’s Visit, in Spielberg’s Munich, and many others, but they seem “new” here. There’s a great sincerity and depth that plays out without really any background detail given. You just know these are old friends, they’ve been through a lot (as one has been at that age), they’ve been through it together, and that carries some clout, as The Boy likes to say.

It fits with the whole theme, really. Who are they? They’re us. They’re facing the dilemmas we are facing, or will face, or force our loved ones to face. This is a really fine film that raises the big questions without forgetting life is about love and laughter and friendship. (It was also third in our six film streak, with The Wrecking Crew and Fight Club preceding it.)

Fight Club (1999)

The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you DO NOT talk about Fight Club. Third rule of Fight Club: Someone yells stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over. Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight. Fifth rule: one fight at a time, fellas. Sixth rule: no shirts, no shoes. Seventh rule: Fights will go on as long as they have to.

And the eighth and final rule: If this is your first night at Fight Club, you have to fight.

The Flower and The Boy and I went to check out a revival of David Fincher’s greatest film, and even though The Flower had been spoiled (she knows the twist in The Sixth Sense, too, which she’s never seen), we all had a great time.

Fight Club is a fascinating film; to me the novel is of a piece with American Psycho and similar anti-consumer treatises that emerged from the amazing prosperity of the ‘80s and ’90s. As such it does not, in a lot of ways, make much sense. For example, there’s a real limit to how much damage you can do to financial records by blowing up buildings. Even in the ’80s, those things were backed up, to say nothing of 1999.

And, more importantly, the “heroes” of such stories tend to be victims of consumerism. In Fight Club, the narrator constantly talks about what he’s bought, but the closest the movie comes to explaining why he buys all that stuff is just that, well, he does. But conspicuous consumerism is about impressing others and The Narrator seems to have literally no friends or family or girlfriend.

Still, it’s a thing. People buy stuff to buy stuff and it can make them very unhappy even while they do it. The idea that Tyler Durden puts into the Narrator’s head: That he’s the victim of a variety of societal traps is dopey, although preaching to Fight Club that they’d been raised to believe they’d all be rich and famous rock stars or actors or whatever probably has resonance to kids today. (It had, and has none with me.)

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

Fight Club is one of those movies I laugh practically non-stop through. It’s wall-to-wall black comedy of a Swiftian sort, and chock full of quotable lines:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. 

When it hits on truth, it hits on it in a big way.

The things you own end up owning you.

And it proceeds in fashion from a profound and sensible statement like the above to “so let’s blow a lot of stuff up and pee in soup” in a kind of dizzying, insane logic that just fits the whole tone of the movie well.

It also holds up on each viewing, as you see things you missed or didn’t really grasp the first time. Notably, the inserted frames (a frame or 2 at maybe a dozen points) are much more conspicuous now. I’m not sure if that’s because we’re used to quick flashes these days, or because it’s digital and not film, or both.

Interestingly, the CGI, which was always stylized and not meant to be literal (for the most part) is very conspicuous. It’s not horrible or anything, but it’s not far removed from the Star Wars title crawl in terms of seeming antiquated.

I’ve always felt that Fincher’s subsequent film, The Panic Room, was so (unfairly) poorly received because it was just a straight-up thriller with none of the pretensions of Fight Club. But his ’90s streak: Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room is one of my favorite movie streaks in film history. I really don’t think any of his subsequent movies are as entertaining as these, though the first two thirds of Gone Girl measure up.

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.

The Wrecking Crew

“The lesson to take away from this movie, kids,” I said to The Flower and The Boy, “is that Rock ‘n’ Roll is an utter fraud.”

The movie in question is The Wrecking Crew, a documentary about the wildly talented studio musicians who played on a vast number rock music’s greatest hits from the ’50s to the ’70s. The Monkees and The Partridge Family, obviously. Sonny and Cher and Nancy Sinatra, yeah, why not. Also: The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Phil Spector, Herb Alpert and on and on.

But it wasn’t just rock music: They played on everything. They weren’t rock musicians, actually, they were just musicians who didn’t feel it was beneath them to play rock. (And I knew guys who felt it was, and ended up in computers.) And they contributed to whatever they were playing. One of the high points of the movie, musically, is when they have bass players playing the bass line they invented for a song, and then play the song over it and you’re like “Holy cow! That makes that song!”

Carol Kaye, who was one of the few women in the crew, still handles the bass with world class professionalism, does an easy demo of “Let The Sun Shine In”.

When the ’70s gave way to the singer-songwriter and a demand for “authenticity”, the jobs dried up, but for a while, these guys worked day-and-night, day-after-day, for big, big bucks. Even at high prices, the fact they could knock out a perfect track in one take made it economical to use them—and you got a better product—than a bunch of kids struggling for a hundred takes to get something usable out.

Much fun. The kids, who know almost nothing about this enjoyed it.

On the scale:

1. Good subject. If not staggeringly important, interesting and inspiring in its way, and chock full of great stories. I mean, you could probably get enough great stories out of a couple of dozen musicians who’d worked professionally for three decades.

2. Technique. Good, simple, respectful. The editing is reasonably tight, though the whole thing is rather unfocused. If I had to guess, I’d bet there’s just a ton of material here, and this is almost a highlight reel.

3. Slant. The director is Danny Tedesco, son of one of the crew, Tommy Tedesco, who managed to find a balance between work and life, if the stories are to be believed. We get different life stories from different musicians, naturally reflecting a variety of career arcs and outcomes. So, no hard-hitting journalism, and maybe a bit of hagiography, but that doesn’t particularly matter here.

So, yeah, unfocused, as I mentioned, and The Kids (and a bunch of other people I talked to about it) agreed about that, but also that it was fun enough on its own for that not to be too bad a thing. Definitely worth checking out.

Time-wise, it’s interesting to note that some of the interviews here are quite old: I kept saying “Oh, that guy’s dead” and “that guy has Alzheimer’s now” and so on. Apparently, the movie was held in limbo while Tedesco struggled…to get all the rights to the music.

Which is how screwed up copyright is right now: A documentary using tiny snippets of 30-60 year old songs can be held up for a decade.

Fun correlation: The real people here are featured prominently in the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy.

When Marnie Was There

This latest film in the “last of Studio Ghibli” films is from the director of The Secret World of Arriety, the delightful film of a young woman’s encounter with tiny people, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and has much of the same poignancy and subtlety—the kind that you’re almost surprised to encounter in what might be a very pedestrian or even boring story.

Almost surprised, of course, because it’s Ghibli, which means it follows an aesthetic logic that transcends traditional storytelling rules.

The story is about an orphan girl, Anna, who is sent out to the country to live with some friends of her foster mother, because she has asthma and that’s what doctors did to kids with asthma long ago: Sent them other places.

She’s an irritable, moody girl, self-involved and prickly. Not like Spirited Away’s Chihiro, really, who was just kind of a brat, but more feeling like life is kicking her when she’s down—something we might be willing to grant an asthmatic orphan. While unable to make friends at school, or perhaps more accurately, she’s unwilling to make friends and more likely to alienate the ones who try to befriend her, she finds an instant fast friend in the form of Marnie, a beautiful blonde girl who lives in the mansion across the marsh.

Now, I’ve been around the block a few times, cinematically speaking, and I can honestly say, I had pretty much resolved the entire plot in my head within the first 15-20 minutes. And yet despite that the measured plot reveal was just so, enough to genuinely move me by the end of the film. Perhaps because the details, which are really unknowable early on, end up being rich and deep when they’re finally revealed.

It’s based on an English book by Joan Robinson, but if it’s like any of their other adaptations, it probably bears resemblance only in tone and atmosphere, with very broad story points hit. I could see being annoyed if you were a fan of the book, but I actually think I prefer that to “Well, here’s an adaptation that’s only going to screw up the most imporant points.” Or, especially, “Well, this is based on the world the author created, only with more explosions.” (*kaff*Peter Jackson*kaff*)

The Boy really liked it. The Flower loved it, though she wants to see it again dubbed (we saw it subtitled) because she wants to look more at the artistry of it. It’s funny, but to my eye, the Ghibli stuff gets prettier and more sophisticated each time out in terms of background and general movements, while maintaining the traditional half-animation for the characters.

Part ghost story, part love story, part tragedy, Yonnebayashi has done a truly fine job and given Ghibli a good closing note, if this truly is to be their last film.

I’ll See You In My Dreams

I feel like I should post a “trigger warning” up front here for I’ll See You In My Dreams, but I can’t do that without a spoiler so let me just say: As you might expect in any movie involving the retired set, there will be some death. One death you might not be expecting might be especially…traumatic.

Anyway, this is a film about Carol (Blythe Danner), a septuagenarian widow whose husband died 20 years ago, and how she never really recovered from that. She lives her life in a quiet routine, not inactive, exactly, but sort-of routine-as-shield.

Her life starts to change when a rat appearing in her house forces her to sleep outside (which you can do in Studio City, where the movie takes place), and she wakes to a new pool guy, Lloyd, with whom she strikes up a friendship. Lloyd is a youngish man who gave up on his musical dreams in Austin to move back in with his Mom in L.A.

Meanwhile, while shopping for vitamins for the vague purpose of “not wanting to be missing anything”, a tall, handsome stranger tells her she doesn’t need them, since she’s perfect the way she is. Said stranger being none other than The Stranger himself, Sam Elliot.

And, hey, if your heart doesn’t flutter when Sam Elliot tells you you’re perfect, even if you’re a guy, your problem isn’t that you’re not gay, it’s that you’re dead. Seriously, he plays this as a perfect alpha male, charmed and charming, assertive but not obnoxious. It’s not an easy gig. Unless you’re Sam Elliot.

There’s a comical scene when Carol’s cronies (played by Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place) talk her into a nice 40 Year Old Virgin-style speed-dating riff. Some of these actors are going to look familiar (like “Barney Miller”’s Max Gail, who’s been working constantly since then but whom I don’t see often) and a lot of them—not just here, but throughout the movie—seem like maybe they were just natives pulled off the actual location.

And not in a bad way, either. Just a kind of cool, natural-seeming thing.

So, throughout the movie, we get a picture of Carol, from her friends, from her daughter (played by Malin Akerman of Watchmen), and through Bill’s (Elliot) eyes. Elliot just has to be charming, and Danner’s co-stars get to be fun, believable characters (which they do well), but Danner has to be subtly broken in a kind of terrible way while still being relatable and empathetic.

I’d say she did a great job. The other guy who has a similar role is the pool guy, played by Martin Starr (of “Freaks and Geeks” and last seen playing himself in This Is The End). He’s also broken in a not very appealing way, but manages to be empathetic.

It’s not really chock-full of wisdom. I liked the rat, which was pretty obviously a metaphor but not a super ham-handed one, and I like it when writers do something like that can work believably as a real thing.

I enjoyed it. The Boy, on the other hand, was unimpressed. It didn’t grip him, he said, which is fair enough. It’s not really meant to be a gripping film. It was also, you know, about old people, of which he’s not one, and low-key, which when he’s slightly under the weather (as he was) can make him that much harder to grab.

I thought it was particularly poignant, if inside baseball, that the picture on the mantle of Carol in  younger days, with her husband and daughter was actually of her late husband (Bruce Paltrow, d. 2002) and Gwynneth.

Writer/director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch have made a nice little movie/showcase for the perennially lovely Ms. Danner. Worth checking out.

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Flower had been coy about going to see a movie on her birthday. She wondered whether there would be anything good out (apparently Avengers 2 wasn’t going to cut it and Marnie hadn’t opened locally yet). I tentatively suggested Mad Max: Fury Road, about which she was dubious until I dropped the CGI-bomb.

As in, Mad Max’s special effects are not primarily CGI but actual cars and what-not.

I actually didn’t think that would sell it, but it did, in a big way. Then my concern was that the movie wouldn’t live up to the hype in her own head.

But it did. In a big way.

How good is Fury Road? Very, very good. The Boy put it in his top 5 of the year-to-date. (Keep in mind that three of the other four—American Sniper, Mommy and Wild Tales are actually from last year—but he goes by the year he sees them, not the “official” year. For the curious, the fifth and most recent of the top 5 is the deeply romantic 5 to 7, which will probably drop a bit lower as the year wears on.)

Fury Road on the other hand is not just good in comparison to other things, but just plain good. Even if you didn’t like any of the three previous entries in the series, you might like this. There’s less graphic violence, for example. And maybe because he spent the past two decades directing family films like Babe and Happy Feet, director George Miller has a sure hand had creating emotion and drama without a lot of words.

In fact, if this movie has a weak point, it’s the few words that are actually spoken. It’s virtually a silent film—could’ve just about have been, in fact.

The story is that Max is captured by an evil warlord who keeps women for breeding (and milking!) purposes, in attempt to have a son who isn’t a hideous defective mutant. Max spends the first half of the movie providing blood for (anemic?) Nux (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies, X-Men: Days of Future Past), the son of the warlord Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Bearns, who was the villain in the first Mad Max).

I want to point out now, as I feel I always must, that the first Mad Max isn’t post-apocalyptic. It’s just an Australian version of Death Wish, and it’s only apocalyptic in the sense that all those revenge movies of ‘70s gave a sense of apocalyptic doom and civilizational collapse. It’s not until Mad Max 2, known in The States as The Road Warrior, that the collapse has actually occurred. (And then of course, Beyond Thunderdome, where an emergent civilization, Bartertown, begins to take hold.)

Speaking of The Road Warrior, hailed in its time and for years after as the greatest action film ever made, Fury Road may actually be better. But perhaps better for the series as a whole, it’s different.

Anyway, Max (Thomas Hardy, who spent his last movie in a car, too) finds himself with a bunch of the breeding women trying to escape, but in true Max style, he’s not too interested in getting involved. It’s only through the machinations of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) that he ends up going on this road trip.

Now, we can’t really pretend that the Maxian apocalyptic world makes sense. As The Old Man was fond of pointing out, if you were driving cars along in the Australian desert, your problem wouldn’t be gas, it would be tires. But within the confines of its own rules (Apocalypse, but with cars) it all works. And it works because considerable care went into playing within those rules.

For example, the breeding women? They’re near useless. They’re gorgeous, soft, pale, scantily clad, and they can’t do a damn thing. Predictably, at times they debate the wisdom of leaving their comfortable lives for the crazy, wild world outside, where they’ll have to work and scrabble like everyone else. But they do have heart, or at least some do. (This doesn’t make them useful but it makes them likable.)

Furiosa fights Max but she can’t really harm him much unless she grabs some sort of a weapon. This is refreshing given the current nonsense regarding women fighting men, with little sub-100 pound women beating up hulking giants. (Just as a reference, consider that trans-sexual that’s going around smashing up women in MMA in his weight class!)

I suppose I should talk, at least briefly, about the whole Eve Ensler thing. (Because everything must be political, apparently.) George Miller apparently had Ensler, whose sole claim to fame seems to be pedophilia-endorsing “The Vagina Monologues”, consult on the film, and this resulted in—I guess—the Vuvalini, a sort-of Amazonian tribe of motorcycle women.

But, here’s the thing: the name never comes up that we recalled (and I was listening for it). And the whole premise—i.e., that some women might get fed up of the abuse they’d been fed (especially in Road Warrior and here) and form their own group? It’s not that far-fetched. They’re largely older women, too, which would make sense.

And to me, the irony is that it’s in the running for Least Feminist Movie Ever. (Apocalyptic movies almost can’t be feminist if they’re going to make sense. Feminism is a by-product of civilization.) The Vuvalini come off reminiscent of pioneer women, nothing even slightly edgy or radical there. There are traditional male roles, female roles, a couple of classic boy-meets-girl stories woven in, and so on. And it’s a world where a bourgeois lifestyle would be paradise.

So unless the idea is to boycott everything that certain people touch, I’m not getting the point here.

Another common criticism is “The movie isn’t about Max!” Well, none of the movies are about Max, after the first one. The first movie is Max’s character arc. It defines him. The second movie is about a struggle over gas he doesn’t want to get involved in. The third about Tina Turner. So, I don’t find that complaint interesting, especially given how silly most franchises get in trying to make all their movies about one character going through arc after arc, unable to learn from anything, like it’s an episodic sitcom.

Anyway, the action is gripping in a way that I don’t get out of the superhero stuff. The character development is economic but strong. It’s got style coming out its ears. And it confirms a belief I have regarding CGI: It can be a lot more effective if it’s used sparingly, as-needed. The scenes of the Australian Outback are breathtaking (as seen in Tracks, e.g.) and the CGI is used to create just the right amount of sci-fi/fantasy vibe.

The kids really dug all the little touches, like the swamp where the Ravens—a tribe that navigated the toxic marsh on stilts—lurked. The cult. The chrome. The tree. And there are just tons of these little details everywhere. It’s one they’ve both indicated strongly they wish to see again.

And I won’t mind joining them.


My stepfather quipped, when I mentioned we had seen Albert Maysles’ (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) new film, Iris, “I didn’t know you guys were fans of big costume jewelry.”


Iris Apfel is a 93-year-old woman who is known as a fashion icon, and in particular for wearing shall-we-say striking clothing accessorized with copious quantities of large costume jewelry. She, with her now 100-year-old husband, Carl, started an interior design business after The War which emphasized uniqueness. So, where most designers would decorate from the stock at hand, Iris would travel the world finding unique fabrics, tchochkes, and furniture so that your living room wouldn’t look like everyone else’s.

Needless to say, this appeals to a client base that is very wealthy. Iris even did the White House from—I think it was—the Trumans to, I dunno, maybe even the current guy. (There’s a cute scene in the trailer where Carl starts to talk about having trouble with Jackie, and Iris hushes him. She warns that the White House doesn’t like it when you talk about them.)

Needless to say, we aren’t really big fashion folk. (The Flower wasn’t there.) But in my experience, people don’t really make documentaries about ordinary people—if there even is such a thing. And certainly, if Viviane Maier taught us anything, it’s that extraordinary people lurk under ordinary surfaces.

Using the three point system:

1. Subject matter is…well, interesting. Iris is an interesting woman who’s had a long, successful life. She was not an attractive woman, but she had style, and she cultivated it into an amazing career. It’s touching and amazing how she and her husband are after 70 years!

2. The presentation is very straightforward. Veteran director Albert Maysles, who died in March at the age of 88, was certainly capable of of a variety of approaches—he directed the Stones’ classic “Gimme Shelter"—but the choice he made here was to follow Iris around today on a schedule which makes almost everyone else in the world look like a slacker. There’s enough backstory to get a sense of Iris’ past, but it’s oddly—for a movie about a nonagenarian—not about her past at all. It’s about her present! On the one hand, you might wish for more background material, but on the other, as a living human, she’s probably more interesting than just history can capture.

3. Slant? Well, probably. One of the gags (seen in the trailer) is someone suggesting she did the movie because she thought the director was cute. She runs with that, pronouncing him a lady-killer. And that’s kind of a recurring theme: She’s all about fashion, but she’s never mean. And she doesn’t ever come off as pretentious (which I totally would, if I wore feather boas and big bracelets).

So, maybe there’s a slant there, but as I always say, when we’re dealing with biographies, a little hagiography can be okay.

Speaking of things Iris can pull of but I couldn’t, the woman has been shopping for almost 90 years now (she relates her first shopping adventure) and has a impressive "collection” of baubles, bangles and what-not. If I had that much stuff, I’d probably end up on “Hoarders”. But that’s fair. It’s all junk when you get down to it—all of the things of life, really—and what matters is what you make of it.

Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

Things have not improved in the past three years—and by “things” I mean my attitude toward superhero movies—and by the past three years, I mean since the last Avengers movie.

The Boy and The Flower really liked it. And later, when asked, The Flower said “Then Dad spent the whole ride home sandbagging us.”


I did, I confess. I said it was good (and it was) and then spent the ride home pointing out all the things wrong with it. I can’t deny that Joss Whedon manages an ensemble better than most, maybe anyone.

So, quick review: This is pretty much what you’d expect if you saw the first one, though you don’t really need to, if you can jump into the tropes quick enough. The battles are chaotic, and to my eye suffer from fidelity to their comic book origin. (But, I’m old, so factor that in.) In other words, a great comic book panel can (and sometimes must) cram too much action into the plausible time being represented, but I think it just looks like fwaaaaahhshsh on screen.

It’s not as funny as the first one. I think there’s less dialogue which suggests they’re less worried about people following the plot. (A fair assumption this late in the superhero movie game.) It hangs together well, though, and there are some reasonably clever handlings of the predictable “twists”.

You can’t really ask for much more. And, as I said, the kids liked it. I did, too, but there were a few things that put me off a bit.

First, the CGI is just awful. I’m sure it’s state-of-the-art, and I’m sure it wasn’t cheap, but it was so obvious from scene one. I mean, it’s CGI of outrageous things so, I guess it’s always obvious, but the composition—the places where they overlay the live action on to the CGI and vice-versa just leapt out at me.

It got better later on. But it was kind of eye-roll inducing for me.

Second, with the exaggerated superheroics, it becomes increasingly ridiculous to have heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow along for the ride. They would be smashed. At one point Whedon lampshades the issue: "The city is flying! We’re fighting an army of robots! And I have a bow and arrow! None of this makes sense!“

It really doesn’t. Even less sensible is a moment in the movie where one of the characters reveals a secret life with family which he brings the whole team to meet. You know, when the super-powerful-hero-hating villain wants them all dead. I guess this was necessary for dramatic reasons, and isn’t any less logical than the sort of comic book science which treats AI as something that needs to be woken up, and which, once woken up, becomes virtually omnipotent and omniscient.

But again, irked me. These movies are built on the ability to find and attack individuals all over the world. Why would anyone take the risk shown?

The third act cavalry bit was also goofy, but again, provided a dramatic hook. A good one.

So, I don’t know. I’m being churlish. It’s good, it’s just that the tropes are wearing thin on me.

Ultron struck me as a "could be anyone” role, in this case “anyone” is James Spader. Paul Bettany does a good job having a little more to work with as Vision.

Oh, the stuff about sexism is just stupid and wrong. Black Widow gets kidnapped, sure, but from there she alerts the rest of the gang to the Big Bad’s evil plans and thus saves the day by being saved. Also, she’s not paste in the first five minutes, which she (and Hawkeye) would be were any of it real.

There are five females in this movie: Black Widow (who saves the day), the superpowered Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who also saves the day), and the kickass SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders, who is as impossibly composed as Hawkeye and Black Widow under the most impossibly stressful situations, i.e., constantly being faced down by godlike beings.

The other two are Hayley Atwell in a flashback and Linda Cardellini as an impossibly dutiful wife.

So, yeah, dumb to even discuss it.

Good sort of film if you’re interested.

The Connection

The Connection is about the French Connection, done from the French perspective instead of the New York perspective. And the funny thing about it is that the actual title, in French, is La French. Well, you couldn’t call a movie The French here. Wouldn’t mean anything. And you can’t call it The French Connection because, well, you know.

So, The Connection it is. “The French” is the name of the organization providing the drugs to the New York mob and in French, everyone says their name as “The French”. Not “le Français”.

What we have here is a mob story, in French, which means: a) It’s going to be hard to follow, because mob stories are especially hard to follow (at least for me); b) The villains are going to be Italians, all played by French guys, speaking flawless French.

OK, I can’t really support (b) here: I have no idea if that’s true of French mob movies, or if their French is flawless. That said, writer/director Cedric Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan don’t do themselves a lot of favors with the pacing of this film.

One of my oft-noted pet peeves: This movie is very loosely based on real events, at which point—when you’ve already tossed fidelity to the wind—I think you need to juice it up a bit. As The Boy said, it was “too real”. Many outcomes seemed pre-determined and lacking suspense. (And while it’s historical, certainly The Boy wasn’t aware of any of the history.)

Fine acting across the board, good characterizations, big name French stars, tight editing (even if the pacing is somewhat lax), the style is spot on for the late ‘70s, and the music is good without being obnoxious, though at one point the mafia kingpin loses it over Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia”. (No idea what that was about.)

And—I guess this is the French part—at one point, our hero has a breakdown in a phone booth when his wife leaves him, and there’s a big dramatic moment that, you know, you won’t find in The French Connection. The odd part to me was that his family was never at risk. I’ve never seen that in a mob movie. That’s how the mob gets you: Threatens to kill you, and if that doesn’t work, threatens to kill your family.

It’s so weird that this guy tools around Marseille on a scooter while pursuing the most vicious drug dealers of the day. The denouement was also weird. Almost “Crime doesn’t pay. Isn’t that sad?”

So, a lot of missed opportunities, we felt. It’s not bad. It’s just not as good as you want it to be. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as the hero, Celine Salette (Rust and Bone) as his wife, Gilles Lelouche (Point Blank) as the drug lord, Benoit Magimel (For A Woman), Guillaume Gouix (Midnight in Paris), Moussa Maasrki (Point Blank), and Dominic Gould as John Cusack. (Really! Sorta confusing, actually.)

And, of course, I have my standard reaction to these sorts of films: “And drugs were never seen in the land again.” Because the stupidity behind all this stuff is that fighting the laws of economics like fighting the laws of physics. But you know: We get some movies out of it.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out Of Water

The Flower had planned an evening with The Barbarienne where they sat and watched Spirited Away while eating Chinese food (there’s a lot of eating of Chinese-looking food in Spirited Away) but ended up making last minute changes, so I took the Barb out for a consolation movie (with popcorn).

It’s been about 16 years since “Spongebob” first premiered which means a few parents out there could be taking their kids to see something they enjoyed as children. It’s been about ten years since the first movie came out and years since there was a new episode, so you can’t really accuse anyone of milking the franchise, either.

That said, it’s not great. It’s not bad. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of good, nowhere near the best of the series nor does it reach the committed lunacy of the first movie, having only Antonio Banderas instead of David Hasselhoff as its big name star. On the other hand, the first movie had Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Tambor and Alec Baldwin as voices, whereas this movie’s almost a “Who’s Who” of voice actors, so point for the newer one, there.

The plot, heh, is that during a near successful attempt to steal the Krabby Patty formuler, while Plankton and Spongebob fight over control of the bottle containing the recipe, it vanishes. Without the recipe, no more Krabby Patty’s can be made, and Bikini Bottom slips instantly into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Instantly.

“Welcome to the apocalypse, Mr. Squidward. I hope you like leather.”

There are quite a few moments like this, where the sheer absurdity of the situation is both given free reign and still clever enough to get a laugh. There are long stretches of absences of such moments, as well.

There’s a thing that animators do with their successful characters: They put them into other situations. I used to really enjoy that. Chuck Jones did, for example, Nude Duck Descending A Staircase, which I might like better than the original. Of course, “The Simpsons” made a practice out of it, and that was cute for a while.

Now they all do it. No matter how minor the character, it can be mashed into something better for, I guess, a laugh.

Here, one of the (ultimately irrelevant) plotlines has Spongebob and Plankton time-travelling through a whole bunch of groovy psychedelic imagery. I don’t know: For me, the moment where seeing Mr. Squarepants in a variety of different palettes and styles was amusing has long past—if it ever was a thing. (I think the artistic style of the show is adequate, but not particularly striking.)

Does any of this matter? No, it does not. I may feel like the concept and creators long ago ran out of steam, but The Barb cares not. She loved it. At one point she did say “That movie ruined my childhood,” which is an odd thing for a nine-year-old to say. And I think she was just repeating what she hears on the Internet since she couldn’t provide any more details and (as I said) loved it.

So, some chuckles. Not horrible. A little like an extended version of a later episode of the show. Oh, the third act, the characters are CGI, and that’s mostly well done.

The Barb says “Check it out”.