The Prime Ministers 2: The Warriors and Peacemakers

We did not see the first in these documentaries based on Yehuda Avner’s book The Prime Ministers, and I am to blame for that. I am always on the lookout for critical bias, so I can spot when a movie is given a low ratings because of its overt Christianity, patriotism, and insufficiently leftist bias. And on the audience side, I can spot when a movie is given high ratings because, well, people like giant robots, superheroes and car chases more than I do, to say nothing of familiarity and predictability.

What I don’t always adjust for is anti-semitism.

I’m not sure when anti-semitism became such a factor in the critical world. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that Jews enjoyed a protected status on the basis of a collective guilt over the Holocaust, but upon reflection, that was perhaps all bullshit, too. For the entirety of its existence, Israelis have had to justify Israel, when any objective analysis shows a strong interest in peace, a tolerance unparalleled in the Middle East, and a general productivity—one not based on having foreigners come and pay you billions to take your oil.

Nonetheless, the critics aren’t crazy about these films, where they couldn’t get enough of the morally ambiguous Shin Bet documentary The Gatekeepers. Sure enough, you’ll see criticisms of “one-sidedness”, “imbalance”, and generally not enough deference to the murderous regimes that have Israel’s destruction on the top of their to-do list, even if they’re too feckless to pull it off.

But also, because documentaries aren’t seen by a lot of people, and these documentaries in particular are not, it’s easy for a dozen people to come and drag a movie score down.

Ironically, perhaps, The Boy expressed enthusiasm because it wasn’t a very political movie. And this is true, at least as far as US politics go. The time covered is about from the Nixon resignation to the Clinton peace accords, or from the first term of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in ’74 to his assassination in ’95.

Yitzhak and Menachem in happier times.
“Muslims hate you? Muslims hate ME! We should hang out!”

Rabin was a solid leftist, tempered (as most Israeli PMs must be) with the understanding that a full embrace of that philosophy would result in their immediate destruction. But the Labor party loses big in ’77 to Menachem Begin’s more right-leaning Likud, which (even back then) the press liked to label as terrorists. (There’s really only one playbook, the world over, for communists.) But Begin kept Avner on, since Avner had the experience dealing with the United States and there was a common goal: Peace.

Avner doesn’t talk about political differences, then, but of the common goal and desire for peace.

Anyway, like most Israeli documentaries that are focused on particular moments in history, it’s pretty gripping. We get the Israeli-eye view of Nixon, the hapless Ford, the well-meaning but largely irrelevant Carter, and Reagan’s hand in the resolving Lebanese war and tempered support of Israel over their bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility. (Clinton gets a mention with his Arafat talks but I don’t think GHW Bush came up at all.)

The Carter portion was interesting to me, because I remember the narrative at the time. Carter, hot off of brokering peace in the Middle East, was going to get the Beatles back together. But what seems to have actually happened is that Rabin seriously distrusted Carter, and when Begin went to negotiate peace, Carter wanted to roll back the Israeli borders to their pre-1967 locations. What this would mean is that Israel would be 12 miles wide at one point (from the border to the sea) and could be cut in half by an enemy in a matter of hours. Begin, a survivor of concentration camp and gulag both, would have none of it.

Where this gets interesting is that Sadat was genuinely interested in peace, though clearly beholden to the more belligerent aspects of his constituency, and the two of them (Begin and Sadat) met all over the surrounding areas (including Romania and Iran!) to try to work something out.

Wait till he finds out ribs are pork.
“What say we ditch the Jew and go get some ribs?”

The White House finally gets wind of the slow-moving talks and invites them up to Camp David, where Carter clearly favors Sadat over Begin, on a personal level if nothing else, and most of the famed accords amounted to nothing. Most, but not all. And just when it looked like they might reach an agreement Sadat was assassinated.

Another interesting moment is the war with Lebanon, in which Begin aimed for a 40km buffer zone—the Lebanese were letting the PLO shell their border towns—and ended up in Beirut.

I don’t know: it’s really all interesting. But for some reason our culture isn’t too interested in existential struggles of a small group of people who share many of our values, whether Israeli, Kurd, or whatever.

Rabin disbelieves Kissinger.
“There can never be trust between us as long as you insist I believe you’re hittin’ Jill St. John.”

Aram, Aram

It’s been almost a year since the last time I started a movie review with “Wow” and that was Whiplash, which walked away with three Oscars. I said it again after Aram Aram, though it will not get the attention as Whiplash, and perhaps isn’t as good, but is still both a really good example of filmmaking and an exceptional example of low-budget filmmaking overcoming its limitations.

It’s practically a hobby of mine, spotting the low budget techniques used in films, which I think started back with Sinister, when I noticed Fred Thompson in a role that probably took two hours to shoot, and Vincent D’Onofrio literally phoning (or Skype-ing) in his performance. Low budget productions can take a couple of routes:

They can get the big names for one-day shoots, and though that’s draining the presence of even a minor celebrity for even a small amount of time moves product.

They can lie. The celebrity thing is sort of a lie, because the big name goes on the box even if their role is minor. But back in the ’50s and ’60s, the Big Lie in horror was the promise of some truly horrific monster, which was sometimes just a still picture. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Big Lie was titillation: sex and gore suggested but seldom delivered.

That's Equinox (1970).
You can hire cheap labor from Gigantia rather than use expensive, large American actors.

They can let their budget dictate the shape of their movie. Now, there are two ways of coming at this: The bad way, which was highlighted on “Project: Greenlight” a few years back, when they were directing a horror movie, and someone decided they needed to make it a creature feature. But the consensus from those in the know, including Wes Craven, was that they didn’t have the budget for a creature feature. (Creatures are expensive or they look like crap, which is why you got the occasional still picture or crickets climbing on postcards.) But it can be done in a good way, too: You make the movie for the budget you have, rather than trying to shoehorn any given screenplay into a budget.

The latter is important, because it leads to the rarest and most gutsy approach to independent film making: Dare the audience to care about the size of the budget. And that brings us to Aram Aram, a low budget movie that was probably made entirely by people fetching coffee and pulling cable on big budget productions, and which is probably better than most of those.

This may not have been shot in Beirut.
“What could possibly go wrong? We live in the Middle East!”

The story involves Aram, an Armenian 12-year-old boy who is brought to Los Angeles after his parents are killed in Beirut, and who must live with his grandfather, a humble shoe repairman. The boy is doing pretty well, all things considered, learning some English and (of course) some Spanish, but he’s courted by a local thug who is rabidly pro-Armenian-identity and who appears to be running a protection scam on the local Armenian businesses.

It’s an old story, of course. But we kept finding ourselves impressed by the execution. For example, it would be cliché for the grandfather to have been a crusty, angry old disciplinarian, but he’s actually pretty nice. He has his moments, of course—he just lost his daughter, after all—but most of the conflict between him and Aram seem to stem from him not really knowing what to do with a 12-year-old kid, and not really seeing the appeal of the thug life—and also finding the racism inherent in tribal agitation appalling.

This is supposed to be Little Armenia.
When everyone dresses like this, it’s hard to tell who the bad guys are.

I particularly liked how the camerawork changed from sequence to sequence: It’s not shaky-cam, except in the movie’s climactic chase scene; it’s occasionally static, though not in a “don’t know what to do/can’t afford to move it” kind of way; but mostly it’s given modest movements and location appropriate to the action and dialogue. Granted, this is mostly intimate, closer shots—which itself can belie a low budget, but it befits the story.

There’s a good use of soundtrack, both Armenian rap (I think) and a simple, but effective score by Katy Jarzebowski.

There’s a bit of deus ex machina at the end, perhaps. But it was not implausible, and it serves to give the story a reasonable, clean ending, rather than leaving things up in the air.

Mostly, though, the story gives us good, likable (or not) characters to root for. John Roohinian as Aram, and Levon Sharafyan as the grandfather, with Sevak Hakoyan as the thug turn in polished, pro-performances—and are not left hanging by the sort of sloppy editing that also is a hallmark of low-budget films.

The Boy and I came out really positive, thumbs up, after being somewhat reticent to see it in the first place. We were glad we did.

No, but it's good.
And we learned a valuable lesson about not being seduced by the high-speed world of shoe repair.

Victoria

A word that is often used derogatorily for movies is “gimmicky”, suggesting that some technique used by the artists in creating the film lacks legitimacy in one way or another, and that the film is lesser than it might be because of this crass attempt to fool the audience. In truth, however, the term typically reveals disdain for the execution, or (as I often maintain) is just being used as a rationalization for why a movie is “bad”. (Remember, movie critics are, by-and-large, regular moviegoers who get paid to justify things that are matters of taste.)

I mention this because all tricks of art are “gimmicks” when they’re new or unusual. The CGI in (the original) Tron is a gimmick, for example, but CGI today really doesn’t count as much of a gimmick. Sound in cinema was called a gimmick back in the day, but say what you will about The Jazz Singer, it barely exists without sound.

Mammy!
Blackface was also a gimmick, but by 1927 it was at the end of its life.

Last year had some gimmicky movies, too: For example, did you know Boyhood took 12 years to make? That was kind of a running gag around here for a while since the producers wanted everyone to know Boyhood took 12 years to make, so we all knew that. Maybe that’s part of why Patricia Arquette won an Oscar.

Another gimmicky flick last year was Birdman, which was one of my favorites. The gimmick wasn’t the magical realism (though you could argue that was a gimmick) but the fact that, apart from the bookends, the entire film was done in a continuous-seeming shot, a la Hitchcock’s Rope, another film panned by critics for its gimmicky nature.

And that brings us to Victoria, an East German flick that was genuinely shot in one continuous take over a period of about 2 hours and 15 minutes.

Kind of a generic title, though.
The gimmick’s right there on the label.

I had some reservations going in. And those actually seemed to be borne out, because the first really dramatic point moment happens about 40 minutes into the film. (We learn something about Victoria’s back story that is critical to the rest of the film.) Up until then, what we have is Victoria (a young Spanish girl) dancing in a club, then on the way out, hooking up with four slightly thuggish guys, and hanging out on a roof drinking and smoking. She has to go open a café, so the guy goes with her, and we have a kind of nice, if odd, love story.

I was sweating bullets by this point because sometimes filmmakers, and critics who love this kind of crap, will do something like set a camera down in front of the Empire State Building for 8 hours and call it “art“.

But, in fact, the movie goes in an entirely different direction at that point, becoming (of all things) a heist picture.

This is actually a real movie. And it’s a good movie. But I think it’s safe to say that the one-take thing is a gimmick. I didn’t mention the other, perhaps obvious reason for a gimmick: To get attention. And I think it’s safe to say that the one-take gimmick got director Sebastian Schipper the attention he wanted, as he will be making a movie in the US next year.

This is where my hypocrisy comes out because while I won’t criticize him for doing something that was obviously successful, I do think the problem with “one take” is that you’re robbing yourself of many of the most important tools of moviemaking. And Victoria is successful due to the (admittedly impressive) ways Schipper (an actor in Run Lola Run, which may have had an influence) worked around those limitations. But not without cost.

You don't expect to see so many pores in a movie.
Costs like: No makeup retouching.

Remember the 40 minute opener? Well, that was really necessary because he couldn’t use editing or montage to establish a relationship between Victoria and Sonne, her potential boyfriend. And Schipper really needed to establish Victoria’s character in order to explain her subsequent reactions to the heist. The 40 minutes is not unpleasant or anything, but it’s not exactly dense, either. How could it be? We’re listening to four guys talk over each other in slurry German and broken English—we may have had an easier time of it than actual Germans, who probably didn’t get subtitles. The dialogue is noticeably improvised, not for being unnatural but for being too natural, i.e., banal.

On the flipside, much like Boyhood, which manages to use the weight of the actual change of the actors over 12 years to add to its dramatic punch, after that initial calm, the next hour-and-a-half of screen time is intense and by the end, you really feel like you’ve gone through something. It’s more of a evolved dramatic experience than, say, Clerks, which sort of looks like it could’ve been filmed in 100 minutes. (And I’m not knocking Clerks, 20 years of camera technology have had an impact on the low budget film.)

Where the director had traditional movie facilities available to him, he used them to their fullest. In particular, the soundtrack is very effective. While there’s no time-compressing montage, he fades out the dialogue in places to a similar effect. He manages a half-dozen really excellent shots, which had to be challenging under the circumstances. I’d say the guy’s got some chops.

The acting is quite good. You sort of get the sense that he picked up these guys in Berlin and filmed them, though the movie is too well choreographed for that. We like the characters Sonne and Victoria (Frederick Lau and Laia Costa, respectively) as well as Sonne’s mates, Boxer, Blinker and Fuß. (That’s “Fuss”.)

The Boy and I both liked, we both found it interesting, and we both admired the technique in making it. We didn’t, however, think it was a great film, and further we feel that any film needs to stand on its own merits, not its technical impressiveness…or gimmickry.

Victoria in Berlin. No angels to be found.
Victoria shown here having some doubts about he she spent the last two hours.

Shaun The Sheep

It’s easy to overlook, when viewing Rotten Tomatoes scores, that the percentage rating is based on the number of critics (or audience members) who gave a “fresh” rating. It’s possible, then, at least theoretically, for a movie to have a 100% rating but be rated, say, as a 7/10. I don’t know if that happens, but it does produce some oddities. They’ve proclaimed Shaun The Sheep the best reviewed movie of the summer with a 99% rating, but it’s aggregate rating is 8.2/10, which means in their “top movies” list, it appears below Fury Road, Inside Out and Selma.

The thing about Shaun The Sheep, though, is that it’s utterly unobjectionable. Much like the more popular (but still underrated) Paddington, here is a cute, fun family movie that you’d have to have a heart of stone to grump at. So maybe it doesn’t redefine your concept of what going to the movies means, but it’s a very good time indeed.

This is the story of a man and his dog and his sheep who start out in life full of enthusiasm (for sheep-related activities like growing and shearing wool, apparently) but over time get worn down by the routine grind of it all. And so, as our movie opens, the sheep decide they’d like a day off. A miscalculation leads to their benign holiday turning into an adventure, as the man (who doesn’t have a name, but is just known as The Farmer, for this is a sheep’s-eye movie) ends up in the big city with no clue who he is and a surprising new fancy, hip career.

The Baby Sheep is still a baby, too.
Sheep only live about ten years, but The Farmer looks like he’s from the ’80s. Cartoon time strikes again!

This is a silent picture. Not that there aren’t plenty of sound effects but there is no dialogue as such, only utterances akin to Simglish or Peanuts Grownup Language. More than that, though, this takes the silent movie’s approach to plot, to characterization, to action and reminds us that, behind all the words, our experiences tend to be universal and very basic and simple after all.

It’s one of those movies that, despite it of necessity having to have a happy ending, you are concerned for the fates of its characters, both in terms of their physical safety and their emotional conflicts.

Sheep are immortal!
It’s like The Farmer and The Dog are the only ones who really got old.

The Boy, upon seeing this, noted that he was not a fan of slapstick, but that, nonetheless, he really enjoyed this. (We had to take special steps to see it, so poorly was it distributed and received in America.) I tend to be like-minded, in the sense that I do not care for the sort of slapstick that is—well, you might call it torture porn, heh. That is, where the characters are made to suffer physical pain which the audience is encouraged and expected to enjoy.

Of course, The Barbarienne loved it, and I’m sure The Flower would have as well, but she’s been so busy sewing these days that she opted to stay home and finish a project she was on rather than come with us.

As always, with Aardman pictures, I want to grab Americans, shake them and ask what is wrong with them: the movie registered a paltry $20M at the box office, placing it below Minions, Home, the latest Spongebob, Hotel Transylvania 2, Pixels—honestly, people, if you keep encouraging Adam Sandler, he’s just going to keep going no matter how disappointed you are in his flicks—all of which have mediocre-to-bad reception from audiences and critics alike.

Maybe they need to break down and have Bradley Cooper baa-ing for them next time. I don’t know. I do know that you’ll like this movie if you see it, though.

Don't be this guy.
Unless you’re this guy.

Labyrinth of Lies

Apparently—and this may be news to some of you—there was some trouble in Germany back in the middle of the 20th century. As The Boy likes to joke, “But then this guy called Hitler straightened everything out.”

Heh.

We see a lot of WWII and Holocaust themed movies. A lot.

This year had been light so far, with only four: Unbroken, Above and Beyond, The Shop On Main Street revival and Phoenix. (Rosenwald was noteworthy for being a story about a Jewish philanthropist that barely mentioned those “German troubles”.) Even so, there’s always a new angle: The war and the Holocaust contained all of human nature, good and bad, so the stories are virtually infinite, and a cabal of Jewish financiers are making sure they continue to be told.

That sounds sort of sinister, and I’m sure it’s viewed that way amongst the anti-semitic crowd, but I think it’s a good and smart thing to do: To the limits of your power, make sure the world never forgets. (Sadly, from headlines, it seems as though the world is absolutely determined to do just that.)

Which dovetails quite neatly with this film, Labyrinth of Lies. I had not been aware that in Germany by 1958, the whole Holocaust thing had been swept under the rug. I have heard that the Japanese walk around wondering why the Chinese hate them and why America unleashed Godzilla upon them completely unprovoked, but I did not know that Germany was following the same path when a lawyer launched a trial against Germans who had worked in the camps.

The German version of The Watchtower is not a big mover.
“A. Hitler? Never heard of him.”

That lawyer was, if I’m not mistaken, a crusty old lawyer named Fritz Bauer. He’s not in this film.

Instead, we have the tale of the young, idealistic (and entirely fictional) Johann Radmann whose righteous commitment to the law and justice leads him down a rabbit hole whereupon he realizes that virtually everyone older than he is was a Nazi.

This is good, taut thriller material. Radmann is a great metaphor for the collective consciousness of young postwar Germany, and by making the story fictional, they can put in all kinds of spills and thrills, and love stories, and stories of betrayal and corruption, that wouldn’t really exist in such a neat narrative form in real life.

Alexander Fehling (Erased, Inglorius Basterds) plays the lead convincingly with the lovely Friederike Becht (The Reader, Hannah Arendt) providing him a much needed anchor to sanity. The rest of the cast does admirably well, too, from Radmann’s secretary to his reluctant companion and crusty truth-seeking journalist pal, though I do not see enough German movies to have recognized them.

The electricity just crackles.
This constitutes foreplay in Germany.

Truly fine score, editing, direction. Solid work all around. The Boy liked it, though not as much as I did. I’m always impressed by the ability some directors have to make a legal procedural exciting. Also, I favor stories about obsession.

I do wonder, though, just because it seems so surreal. At one point, Radmann is grilling random people if they know what Auschwitz is. They do not. Or they say “It’s a camp. The Russians, the Americans, the French, they all had them…” If it’s true, that Germany was on the verge of forgetting what had happened, than the actual heroism this movie fictionalizes is nothing short of astounding.

This film will probably end up in my top ten for the year.

Must. Get. To. Bathroom.
I do question the historical accuracy of the Mengele chase scene, however.

Jafar Panahi’s Taxi

Back in 2010, a Persian filmmaker named Jafar Panahi was sentenced to 6 years in prison and banned from making movies for 20 years. (Panahi was 50, so it wasn’t quite a lifetime ban.) Subsequently, and possibly due to international outcry, his sentence was commuted to house arrest, and then a sort of freedom—as long as he didn’t leave the country.

Since then, he has made three films: This Is Not A FilmClosed Curtains and, most recently, Taxi. The first is a documentary about his life under the restrictions placed on him by the Iranian “republic”. The second is the story of a screenwriter who has shut himself off from the world.

Here’s the thing about this kind of rebelliousness: As unsympathetic as I am toward those who are fighting against various nebulous oppressions in the free world, I am equally inspired by those like Panahi (and China’s Ai Weiwei) who ply their art against actual dictatorships. For all the caterwauling under the Bush administration about oppression, no artist was actually jailed, nor their families rousted. It happened once under the Obama administration, of course, to silence from who howled at Bush for eight years, but even this was a nakedly political move, and less about a threat to the country than a threat to 2012’s electoral results.

So, you gotta start by giving props: There are artists out there who genuinely put their lives on the line—and the lives of their families!—to fight genuine injustice.

Tehran, apparently, has no stoplights, FYI.
I mean, it’s not like anyone would be thrown into jail for making a movie Muslims objected to in THIS country.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a good movie, of course: Art doesn’t flourish under extreme oppression.

That said, The Boy and I really enjoyed Taxi. The premise is that Jafar Panahi, banned from movie making, now drives a taxi. But he has a dashcam—and anti-theft device, ostensibly—so that when he drives around Tehran picking people up, he can film them telling him their stories.

But there’s a bold tweaking of long Mullah noses here, since he immediately lampshades what he’s doing. The first two people he picks up have a fierce debate about the severity of punishments. (Tehranians apparently share cabs routinely, so there are often strangers in the car together. We saw this in Tales, too.) But the third person he picks up knows him, overhears the debate and says something like, “You didn’t think I’d recognize you, but I do. And I know you’re making a movie because those two people had the same argument you made in Crimson Gold!”

This guy is an odd little fellow who makes his living delivering bootleg video to people. In a cute turn, his first customer is a guy who’s ordered all kinds of trash cinema, but upon recognizing Panahi asks for help with getting the classics. Much to his chagrin, our video bootlegger says as his closing line “I’ll have season 5 of “The Big Bang Theory” next week.”

Heh

That's hardcore.
Hustling “Big Bang Theory” on the Streets of Iran.

.Sort of like Tales, we get a series of vignettes reflecting on Iranian life in general, but we also get a sense of what it’s like to be singled out by the regime. Some of this was shown, animated, in The Green Wave but it’s interesting to hear people talk about their “interrogators”. The last part of the movie concerns Panahi’s niece, a cute (if somewhat spoiled) aspiring filmmaker. She accompanies him as he tries to return a purse to some old ladies who have gone to a sacred spring because if they don’t drop these fish in the spring at exactly noon, they’ll die before the year is up.

She won some awards for this.
Walking that fine line between cute, precocious and obnoxious.

In the end, he’s targeted by what looked to me to be kin of the motorcycle thugs of The Green Wave, pretending to rob him. But they mention not being able to find the flash drive, which would be the thing that actually contained the film we were watching. Doubtless staged but still rather effective.

What’s interesting about this is how cheerful Panahi seems to be. He seems to have nothing but warmth for his characters—admittedly easier when those characters are essentially your creation—even when they are rather presumptuous or obnoxious. And while he’s presenting a critique of current Iranian culture, it’s a fairly mild one. Not that he’s not pointing out serious things, just that he’s doing it in a gentle way.

But tyrants can’t stand criticism, so guys like Panahi have to be silenced. It’s cheering when they refuse to be.

It’s not a great movie, but it is a very good one, and quite entertaining given the constraints (entirely filmed from 2-3 cameras in the car). I hope it all works out for Mr. Panahi and the Iranians.

For all of us.
I have my doubts, though.

Coming Home

In the late ’80s and early ’90s, director Zhang Yimou and actress Li Gong brought “serious” Chinese cinema to the forefront of international awareness with such films as Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern. I think this was taken by some as a sort of rebuttal to the chop-socky action flicks that came out Hong Kong and essentially defined Chinese film as the world had known it throughout the ’70s and ’80s. This is one reason why the later Zhang Yimou films with Zhang Ziyi (no relation) like Hero and House of Flying Daggers are so delightful: They embrace the martial arts mythos of studios like the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest.

The Western equivalent is almost like the distinction between the Batman serials of the ’40s and the campy TV show, and Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, except that there was often truly great (if highly stylized) art in those chop-socky films.

But Zhang and Li are together again, nearly 25 years after Lantern with a serious story and one that, surprisingly, reflects rather poorly on the Cultural Revolution so beloved at the time by intellectuals. I guess the Party decided that the Revolution was bad after Mao’s death, so it’s okay to trash—but don’t expect any reflection on the creation and authorization of social and government structures that make things like mass imprisonment and slaughter possible. (It’s never the power that’s the problem, only that the right people have it, amirite?)

The story is this: Lu (Chen Daoming of Hero) has been imprisoned in a reeducation camp for a really long time (we’re not given a precise timeline, and his imprisonment seems to have been only part of his punishment) when he suddenly escapes. Various representatives of the Party scrutinize his wife, Feng (Li), letting her know to contact or aid him in any way would mean dire things. Meanwhile, their daughter Dan Dan (newcomer Zhang Huiwen, no relation,) is up for a big role in a Communist ballet. 

Not as catchy, right?
Springtime for Mao.

Dan Dan is angry at her father, whom she does not remember, so long has he been gone, and whom she only knows as an Enemy of the State, because his antics jeopardize her shot at the lead in this (truly horrifying looking) ballet. But Feng is so passionately in love with Lu, even after so many years apart, she prepares to meet him, to bring him food and to help him evade capture. Dan Dan is lured into betraying her parents on the promise of getting that lead role, and in the ensuing scuffle, not only is Lu recaptured, but Feng is injured trying to reach him. (And Dan Dan doesn’t get the part. Rotten commies.)

This is all prologue to the main act, which is Lu’s subsequent return from imprisonment four years later—the “coming home” of the title. Because when he returns home, he discovers his beloved Feng has a sort of amnesia and doesn’t even recognize him.

Heartbreaking.

The movie is really about Lu’s struggle to reunite his family.

The performances are tremendous, as you might expect. The camera work is—well, it’s subdued if you’re coming from the opulent Hero and House of Flying Daggers—but it is subtly effective. The music is marvellous with a traditional (Western) score.

That's racist, isn't it?
Then they discover a box of verbose fortune cookies.

Not to tell tales out of school, but The Boy, typically stone-faced, was sniffling a bit at the end of this one. That gives you a sense of how effective it is as a drama.

Usually, when we see a film, we know right away whether or not it is going to make our list of great movies. (Sometimes movies kind of grow on you or sneak up on you.) And while we have seen many fine films this year, the list of truly great ones has been very short. The Boy’s list, for example, includes American SniperMommy, I think Wild Tales is on there. You might note that these are all 2014 movies, but he says “I saw them in 2015, so that’s the list they go on.”

His list of best films actually from this year is very short: Fury Road, Meet The Patels, 5 to 7, and now Coming Home. I can’t disagree. It’s a shame it only got a highly limited release: We barely managed to see it before it closed.

This will definitely claim some Oscar nominations.

Gong Li and Zhang Huiwen at a premiere for "Coming Home"
But they’ll look like this, not the impoverished Chinese peasants of the movie.

This Is Happening

Cloris Leachman, whom Betty White refers to as “young lady”, actually showed up at the theater for the premiere of this low budget road-trip comedy about a slackadaisical millennial and his good-for-nothing sister who end up chasing grandma up to Seattle as she struggles to return her stuffed dog to a golf course, in honor of the last promise she made it.

Or something.

We didn’t go to this showing, and if we had, we would’ve taken a powder before the Q&A. We’re about the movies, man, not the machine!

It’s always different watching a movie when the people involved in making it are sitting there with you. For every fun movie with low expectations, like Expecting Amish, where the crew being there enhances things, you’ll get five The Graves, where you’re squirming in your seat because, wow, how could anyone have thought this idea was one they wanted to immortalize on film?

I can imagine worse fates.
It’s not as awkward as this (deliberately) awkward sex scene, probably.

I don’t like seeing bad movies. I hate having to say “Wow, this was a bad movie.” I don’t mind saying “I didn’t like that”—and there’s a huge gulf between “Well, I recognize Scorcese’s genius, but it doesn’t appeal to me” and “That’s just bad and I question the taste and sanity of those who thought otherwise.” Having that kind of reaction in a theater where actual human beings who made actual creative decisions you can’t fathom? It’s not pleasant.

This happened, too.
Unless, I guess, you’re ripping Chevy Chase on Carson.

Fortunately, This is Happening is not squirm-inducing bad. It’s watchable enough and has a few (if forced) laughs—and as a freshman effort from writer/director Ryan Jaffe, I wouldn’t say “ban this man from filmmaking!”—but it’s not what you would call tight. It wants so hard to get to its zany emotional breakthrough, it cuts a lot of corners.

The premise is that loser Philip is roped by his loser father into going to Palm Springs to bully his loser grandmother into a loser old-folks home. Loser sister tags along for the ride because she’s got it in her head to pull off a drug deal to turn her life around. After getting grandma high, sister lets slip Phil’s real reason for being there, and rather than Grandma just telling him to go pound sand—when she has no compunction doing that generally to everyone—she flees with her car and stuffed dog to Seattle.

Sure it is. And it's Palm Springs, too.
It’s medicinal.

Along the way, they bond to various degrees and we get a little bit of backstory to explain their loserness.

This is low budget film, Ms. Leachman notwithstanding. Judd Nelson and Rene Aburjonois do the classic “Shoot for a day close to where I live” thing that puts names on a video box (or these days, an “on demand” capsule). I suppose that’s necessary commercially but the movie would’ve been better without wasting precious minutes on superfluous characters.

They’re supposedly going to Seattle, though that’s apparently much closer to Travel Town and the L.A. Zoo than I thought. (Heh.) I don’t mind that sort of thing—I presume most people won’t notice or care—but at points it go to be surreal. In fact, the way the brother and sister kept crossing paths with grandma, The Boy and I were trying to work out if there was something mystical going on. There’s 1,200 miles of The Grapevine between Palm Springs and Seattle and this almost plays out like an extended chase scene.

All this is trivial stuff, though. Ultimately a movie like this rises and falls on its character development and dialogue, and we just didn’t buy it. Swearing grannies is kind of old hat and doesn’t have the shock value it might have 20 years ago. Meanwhile, there’s an awful lot of shenanigans knocking the wind out of the dramatic sails.

At the end of the second act, Rene and Judd have a little talk about trees dying, then Judd says something like “That’s a metaphor, right? I hate metaphors.” And Rene says “I was just talking about trees.” And I thought: “That’s this movie: It’s trying to do something very obvious but also trying to signal that it knows how obvious it is.”

Not Palm Springs.
This is probably Judd’s house. Or maybe Rene’s.

Occasionally, though, there are flashes of really fine filmmaking. A good number of scenes take place inside this tiny bedroom where the brother and sister spent time as children. The blocking in those shots is really quite good: It feels claustrophobic, and regressive (in the sense of regressing to childhood).

The principals do well: I don’t know James Wolk, and I didn’t recognize Mickey Sumner (from Frances Ha). Wolk and Sumner pretty much carry the film, though obviously with some assists from Leachman.

It was just a bit disappointing overall: It never gelled in the sort of powerful way it might have.

Rifftrax: The Miami Connection

Unlike its spiritual predecessor, Mystery Science Theater 300, Rifftrax does its comedic riffing against a number of big budget franchises, like Transformers, Harry Potter, Avengers, etc. Now, without looking too deeply into it, I suspect that their theatrical performances, when they go into big (or at least bigger) budget territory, it’s for movies that flopped—and that they can get the rights to without eating up all potential profits. Last year’s Godzilla and Anaconda, for example.

What I note about these, however, is that I don’t like them nearly as much as when the thing being lampooned was a sincerely meant effort to achieve something other than filling a slot on SyFy. So, after Sharknado 2, it was great to see The Miami Connection: An ’80s era martial-arts rock-band drug-war movie full of heart and ridiculousness.

Love the pink.
It may be the most ’80s thing to make it off VHS.

Now, we should note that these theatrical shows start with an educational film, and these are usually the highlight of the evening. Educational stuff is just so ripe for riffing, and Measurement Man is just a wonder of awkward filmmaking clearly geared toward giving apathetic teachers a smoke break. You see fewer crotch shots in porn, frankly.

But Miami Connection is marvellous in its lack of awareness. The toughs seem to stand around yelling a lot without actually doing anything. They patiently wait their turn to attack the good guys. And the battles all look like not well-rehearsed martial arts demonstrations. (Because that’s what they are: The star, writer, and re-shoot director was a well-known Tae Kwon Do teacher in the area.)

As a black belt in that particular time period, I kept thinking, “Oh, my God. Is that what we looked like?” Then I remembered that, no, we moved a lot faster and actually hit each other. (Also, we didn’t do the goofy Tae Kwon Do thing where you stand on one leg and just keep kicking over and over again.)

Anti-Ninja Propaganda
This IS how our band looked, though.

Our heroes sing songs about being anti-ninja. They all live together in a tiny apartment and seldom wear shirts. One has a backstory about a missing dad. There’s probably an anti-drug message in there somewhere, but to be honest, that whole thread disappears after the opening scene, along with all the guns.

For a low budget movie, it has a huge cast, with dozens of locals filling in as various gangs. The sounds is badly overdubbed—but clearly and loudly overdubbed, which is way better than what you often get in these films.

It’s just the perfect level of lunacy for a riffing. We loved it.

It's amazing.
I could post shots from this movie all day.

Meet The Patels

As I’ve often observed, sometimes the best movies out are documentaries. Sometimes that’s because the fictional movies that are out are trash, but other times it’s just because the documentaries tell the more compelling stories, have a deeper resonance, or have a humanity that is missing from the slicker Hollywood glitzathons that crowd the summer and winter marquees. Sometimes they’re just plain funnier, too.

But it’s rare to find a documentary that does all of the above: Deal with a serious issue in a serious way that resonates deeply and keeps you laughing the whole time. Meet The Patels is such a rara avis.

A documentary with cartoon parts. Why not?
“Rara avis” means “check out the beak on THIS guy”.

It is the story of Ravi Patel and his sister Geeta, who live together in L.A. trying to make their way in showbiz. You’ve probably seen Ravi as “generic Indian Dr. #2” in something or other, and his sister has worked behind the scenes on numerous projects as well. Ravi is nearly 30, however, and he is unmarried.

At the beginning of the film, we learn he has just broken up with his girlfriend of two years because she’s not an Indian. He’s been secretly dating her because he knows his parents wouldn’t approve. And more than just not an Indian, she’s not a Patel. And what we learn is that “Patel” is a very large group of people from a part of Indian, themselves divided and stratified into different levels of Patel, and his ideal mate should come from a particular strata of Patel.

The happy couple.
There is no “ginger” strata for the Patels, though.

Ravi and his sister are quintessentially American but like many first-generation Americans, their roots exert a strong pull over them. (It reminded me of 2006’s The Namesake in that regard.) Ravi wants his children to have the Patel experiences he had, of going to India, or of travelling in America and meeting other Patels on the road.

In the course of the movie, which takes place in the year 2008, we see him try to let the Patel network—and there is an extensive Patel network in North America, apparently—fix him up through “biodata sheets”. He tries online Indian dating. There’s even a Patel convention, where Patels all over North America congregate for the purpose of matrimony.

Meet & Greet & Marry
Apparently, marrying someone with the same last name has different connotations for Indians.

But he also misses his ex-girlfriend like crazy.

It’s really a very serious subject, on a number of levels. On one level, immigrants to the New World always want to preserve the Old. (This is generally a lost battle but every new group fights it.) On another level, Ravi and Geeta’s parents were an arranged marriage, of sorts, with women lining up to meet Mr. Patel on a trip from India, and Mrs. Patel (12th in line) being the one who caught his eye.

They’ve been married for 35 years at the time of the movie and are happy. Meanwhile Ravi and Geeta aren’t even married. And the lack of grandchildren seems to be the one thing missing from the elder Patels’ life.

Arranged marriages were unthinkable in my youth, and it still is common practice to mock the grandparent who desperately wants grandchildren—but we are talking about survival of a genetic line, something that’s becoming a more and more serious problem in the developed world. So perhaps it’s not so unusual to see other points-of-view being treated with a bit more respect (see also Learning To Drive).

As American as the Patel children are, there’s a deep respect and humility in the way they approach the topic. They come off as very likable and sympathetic. You want them to be happy; you want their parents to be happy.

But with all the seriousness of the subject, the movie is almost non-stop laughs. The Patel kids are funny. The Patel parents are funny, often unintentionally, as parents are—with their quaint notions of frugality and what is important in life. Things like having a family, or marrying someone with light skin. (This is a big deal in India: Dark skin is grossly unfashionable.)

The Tanning Booth
Indian mothers have nightmares about this.

It’s hard for me to think of a film I enjoyed more this year, and The Boy concurred that it was one of the best. At a breezy 88 minutes, it doesn’t drag on, and there are even some stingers in the credits that are funny (such as Ravi’s chance to turn the camera on Geeta after she comes home from a date).

Strongly recommended!

Wildlike

Young Mackenzie’s father dies so her basket-case of a mother sends her up to Alaska to live with her uncle. When that turns out to be the sort of wise decision you’d expect from a drug addict mother, Mackenzie ends up running away. Sure, you’ve seen it a million times before, but this time it’s Alaska!

And that matters.

The film quality overall isn't as good as this still.
Life on the mean streets of Alaska.

In this case, Mackenzie ends up encountering and re-encountering Rene Bartlett, a lone hiker who finds he has a problem when this unruly teenager latches on to him. So what we have here, in a manner of speaking, is a road picture. But with bears.

Written and directed by Frank Hall Green (in his sophomore feature, assuming 2009’s Once a Child of God is a real thing), Wildlike is a nice little film that touches on some serious subjects without going very deeply into any of them.

I have mixed feelings about the ending. The movie sets up a…something…but then delivers…nothing. But without straying into lurid pulp resolutions—and this movie tries hard to be realistic—it’s hard to know what the something really could’ve been, given the characters as we’ve come to know them over the past 90 minutes.

Fine acting from veteran Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek Into Darkness, Flight, The Place Beyond The Pines) as the guy Mackenzie latches onto in desperation, Brian Geraghty  (also from Flight) as creepy Uncle Uncle, and relative newcomer Ella Purnell, who previously has played younger versions of older people like Teen Maleficent (in Maleficent) and Young Ruth in Never Let Me Go. Greenwood and Purnell basically have to carry the movie and they do well.

This is more representative of the actual film quality.
“I’m just gonna go get some cigarettes. Be back in three months.”

The writing is pretty good, too: Green clearly knows how pedophiles work and the interaction between Mackenzie and Uncle have a disturbing verisimilitude to them.

One thing that killed me, though, was the photography. Alaska is arguably the most beautiful state in the country, and there is occasionally a well-framed shot with some nice color. More than occasionally, the set up is there: Some natural beauty just waiting to be put on screen. But the quality is just crap. It’s blurry if there’s any motion, the colors are almost always washed out, the depth isn’t there. I actually began to wince about 2/3rds into the film.

The Boy didn’t really notice, though. And we both liked it. It’s worth checking out.

Goodnight Mommy

While we do enjoy foreign films—sometimes they’re the best things out, and there will usually be a couple of them in our yearly top tens—there is the fact that, not being part of the culture, you miss out on some references, and on the zeitgeist, if you will, that a particular movie is released into. The flipside of that is, occasionally, you may be reading something into a scene that wasn’t intended by the auteurs.

For example, in the Austrian psychodrama/horror Goodnight, Mommy, there is this exchange, after the titular “Mommy” finds a lighter tucked away in the top bunk of her sons’ bed.

Mommy: Why is there a lighter up here?

Son: I wanted to burn some books.

It got a big laugh. At least from and, I think, some others in the theater. Something about Austrians who like to burn books. But I really don’t know if they meant for there to be a laugh there or not. It’s sort of odd to think that it was deliberate, but hard to figure out any way that wasn’t meant sort of sarcastically.

Heh. Nazi humor.
Just getting in some practice before the weekend rally!

Apart from that, and an opener featuring archive footage of the Von Trapp singing a lullaby, there wasn’t anything overt I noticed about Goodnight, Mommy, which is the story of twins who are spooked when their mother comes home from the hospital, with her face wrapped in bandages (cosmetic surgery) and who seems to be an alien bent on sucking their souls from their bodies.

Or not. It’s hard to say, really.

She’s certainly acting odd, though. The Boys devise various schemes to uncover her true identity and locate their real mom, which take on increasingly more intrusive and even shocking tactics.

A perfectly normal game of Austrian hide-and-seek.
Odd, you say? Odd how?

Familial horror can go wrong in so many ways. We’ve seen good ones in recent years, like Mama and The Orphan, and some disasters, like Come and Play. But this film steers well clear of the more exploitative approaches to give a kind of mystery that’s mostly satisfactorily resolved. Things like: Why the surgery? Why live in such an isolated place? Why does the mother have such a harsh relationship with one of the boys? And so on.

The Boy really liked it. I figured it out in the first act, so I was less impressed by the climax. We both agreed that what was nice about it is that the movie didn’t cheat. If it’s going to spring a twist and/or turn on you, it needs to be able to back it up, not just randomly say, “Aha! It was a dream all along!” (Not the case here, by the way.) That drives both of us nuts. The down side, of course, is that occasionally some member of your audience is going to figure it out from the clues.

But it’s better to be self-spoiled than to feel cheated. We both rated the film positively. There’s not much violence, though what there has a very real and shocking feel to it. A solid horror.

Let's start a real flame war.
“Moviegique? Obviously an impostor. The real Moviegique was much funnier.”

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

When, you might, ask did the Mission Impossible franchise get to be so good? The first movie was, essentially, “Let’s take this spy property we have and put a star in it and get in on that crazy Bond money!” at a time when Bond was seen to be sagging. (And really, we got a bunch of these, like Bourne and XXX.) Brian De Palma directed the first one, and it is the least De Palma of all the De Palmas. Not a bad movie, but not really capturing the “Mission Impossible” TV show spirit. (Or so I’m told. I’ve never seen it.)

Then there was the Woo film. Unlike De Palma, you’d never mistake MI:2 for being directed by anyone else. What with the doves and all.

It's Mission Impossible 2
Sure, it’s a John Woo movie, but WHICH John Woo movie? Face/Off? Broken Arrow?

Then J.J. Abrams did one, turning out something as typically fun and forgettable as he has since then with his big budget Star Trek movies and, doubtless, the upcoming Star Wars Disney film. But Abrams brought back the ensemble feel of the original series, which was sorely lacking, by adding in Simon Pegg as Benji. (Ving Rhames, the world’s least likely computer hacker, has been in all five flicks.)  Then Brad Bird took the franchise and made a genuinely good film with Ghost Protocol, bringing in Jeremy Renner as the—well, I’m not really sure what he is. The suit, I guess? He’s the guy who has some sort of rules he has to follow, unlike the rest of them.

Nothing says entertainment like “rogue government agency”, amirite?

Anyway, in this chapter, the team is fighting an evil super-genius named Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, ’71, Serena, Prometheus) who uses terrorist tactics to cause world crises, enrich himself and usher in a potentially worse world order than the one we have. Which I think we’re all pretty much against. Solomon’s weak link is sexy super-double-agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, from one of the recent Hercules movies, apparently) who seems to fall in love with Our Hero at first sight. (That’s not really what happens, fret not.)

STOP TESTING OUR LOVE!
Ilsa Faust tests her newfound relationship with Ethan by playfully peppering him with bullets.

This movie still follows most of the Bond formula—travel to some part of the world, do some stunts, do some chicks, lather, rinse, repeat—minus the chicks, plus some teamwork. Success or failure hinges on the quality of the stunts and cinematography, and the chemistry between the players. All of these are quite good here. Sort of amusingly, the McGuffin is basically 9 billion dollars that Solomon can use for his terrorist activities.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, the President gives Iran 150 billion. It’s tough to beat reality.

Iran's gonna have nukes. That doesn't worry me because I've seen enough post-apocalyptic movies to find my way around.
“What do you mean I could’ve just called 202-456-1111?”

That aside, Cruise is starting to show his age, but it’s actually a good thing. He had a tendency to be too pretty but now, in his early ’50s, he’s starting to look just a little weathered. He seems to be in great shape and he doesn’t do the run-duck thing that looks like a geriatric hunch on older stars like Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. He’s still swimming and running and sliding and all that stuff, and he seems to be bringing some more depth and warmth to even these action-heavy roles lately.

Ferguson is a standout. Rumor is she’s going to be entering the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the future perhaps as the occasionally female Captain Marvel. Whatever they get her for is going to work for them, because she kills at the toughest job in the movie: Keeping it from being emotionally flat. Her backstory is the most strained aspect of the film and she makes it looks easy. They don’t overplay the romantic angle, which is also good.

It's Tough Love, Is What I'm Saying.
Here, Ilsa tests Ethan’s love for her by drowning him.

Pegg is always good sidekick material. (He’s good as a lead, too. He’s just good.) Renner plays his part well and Alec Baldwin (as head of the CIA) seems likely to keep parlaying his “officious political weasel” type into fun parts. Ving Rhames is sullen. I don’t mean his character; a buddy of mine just had an encounter with him. He’s apparently playing to type.

Ving Rhames Screen Test for Jerry Maguire 2: You had me at goodbye.
Wait, I can do this! I can do this! “Let me show you the money!” Aw, damn.

The Boy, who had been up all night (it was the night after Knott’s, and he never sleeps after the Haunt), was really pleasantly surprised by this, as was I. We’re probably harder on action flicks than most, and were wiped out, and this kept us interested the whole way through.

Black Mass

If you’re of a certain age, you remember having this kind of epiphany seeing Johnny Depp in the early ’90s, maybe watching Edward ScissorhandsBenny & JoonWhat’s Eating Gilbert Grape? or Ed Wood, and thinking, “Hey, this guy can act!” Then, when The Pirates of the Caribbean came out, it was “Ha! Ha! He’s doing Keith Richards!” And it worked in a quirky way, enough to make Keith Richards appearance in a later sequel amusing, even as the schtick began to wear a bit thin. Then maybe you saw the “Wonka” movie and it was…”Oh, he’s doing Carol Channing. Huh.”

Then we were in this situation where a guy who had basically made his name in indie films while avoiding the easy bucks as a teen heartthrob seemed to be drifting along for ten years in big budget films of varying levels of mediocrity. And all through it, you still sort of like Depp because he gives less an impression of coasting so much as misfiring. He’s at least trying new things, and seems to be aware of the dangers of becoming a parody of himself.

Actual haircut as seen on actual male, ca 1984.
And who could forget when he filled in for Nancy McKeon in the controversial 10th season of “Facts of Life”?

So, for those who care about such things, Black Mass is a breath of fresh air, not only the strongest entry yet from actor-turned-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), but a reminder that Depp really can act. The first thing you may wonder is “Who’s he doing this time?” And the good news is: nobody. You could say his performance is informed by Jack Nicholson, who played a character based on Bulger in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, but it’s mostly pure Depp playing the sort of complicated guy who killed without compunction but was finally arrested in Santa Monica living with a woman who loved cat calendars. (Not depicted in the film.)

Our story begins in the ’70s, with Whitey is a low-level thug but Southie neighborhood hero, who has a fan in the FBI, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, Animal Kingdom, and who recently wrote and directed the psychodrama, The Gift). Connolly has this idea that Whitey can bring down the mafia, and all the mafia has to do is look the other way when he’s, you know, extorting, racketeering and murdering. The FBI head (Kevin Bacon, Death Warrant, Friday the 13th) draws a line at the murdering part, though, which is how hapless Brian Halloran (played by Peter Sarsgaard, The Orphan, An Education, Green Lantern, Robot and Frank) gets sucked into the scheme—covering for Bulger when revealing him would mean jeopardizing legitimate arrests.

Well, it all ends in tears, of course, as these lives of crime do. Tears and bullets to the back of the head. And in the end, you’ve learned precisely nothing about anything, except that some men are so close to evil as to make no nevermind, and that all men are ultimately corruptible, except possibly Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Bulger’s brother, a highly successful politician and university dean, who seems to have kept his nose clean despite considerable pressure to help his brother out.

Cumberbatch and Depp, together again for the first time!
And you thought YOUR thanksgivings were awkward.

So, first of all, this is a gangster flick. If you don’t like gangster flicks, you won’t like this: It’s violent, often brutally so; There aren’t a lot of sympathetic characters. There’s no Elliot Ness, for example. The characters themselves are not drawn in sharp detail. Whitey is shown having certain feelings and reactions to events, but you get no explanations or excuses. Same for the FBI agents who supported him (except  Halloran whose participation was the result of peer pressure).

On the bright side, this means you get a minimum of BS. The moviemakers aren’t trying to spell things out for you. There’s a lot here you can fill in. For whatever reason, South Boston is a hotbed of white, Irish, funny-talking crime.

On the other hand, it means the movie can’t really reach greatness because there is no character arc, no moment of understanding, no element of human drama that we can all relate to. Like all gangsters, White continued his crime spree until it became impossible for him to do so any more.

Depp pauses to remember when he had scissors for hands.
It’s a metaphor for Depp’s career, maybe?

Nonetheless, it makes for a good show.

Solid direction. Good performances all around. Not a lot of women but they do what they can with the limited roles: Dakota Johnson (of the Hollywood Griffith/Johnsons, also 50 Shades of whatever, and—perhaps coincidentally—21 Jump Street) plays baby-mama to Bulger’s son, and has a tense moment of domestic strife that might lead to tears, or a bullet to the back of the head; Julianne Nicholson (“Ally McBeal”, “Law and Order: Criminal Intent”) plays the smarter-than-her-husband John Connolly who also has a tense moment of domestic strife that certainly leads to tears but might also lead to a bullet to the back of the head; and Juno Temple (Horns, Killer Joe) who has a tense moment of domestic strife that—well, she probably wishes she got a bullet to the back of the head.

After seeing The Untouchables, The Boy once opined that he liked gangster movies. After The Departed, Goodfellas and the Godfather movies, he modified that to saying he had a theoretical liking of gangster movies. I’m not a fan of gangster movies at all (though I too like The Untouchables). But we both liked this.

I really wondered if Damon had put on a few pounds to take a minor role in this film. I'm a dork.
This is Jesse Plemons, not “Fat Matt Damon Who Can Actually Act” as some (me) have suggested.

The Gift

We just saw Joel Edgerton as the none-too-bright FBI agent in Black Mass, and here he is all grown up and writing/directing features of his own! In this case, the creepy psychodrama, The Gift, about Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), a married couple who find themselves terrorized by the husband’s not-quite-right high school friend, Gordo (Edgerton).

Shop-stalking. Or is it stalk-shopping?
What about this DOESN’T scream “well-adjusted individual”?

Every year when The Flower, The Boy and I go to Knott’s Halloween Haunt, we leave a few hours early and catch a movie first. This way we don’t have to stress the traffic, which is increasingly bad here in Southern California. And, if we can, we see a horror flick or something horror-themed, to prime the pumps as it were. On the other hand, Shaun the Sheep was playing, and it was the best reviewed movie of the summer! But we hadn’t even heard of The Gift, and it had a whopping 93% critical score on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as an intriguing 79% audience score. So, in we went.

Critic/audience splits are an interest of mine. In the most obvious and boring cases, they’re due the banal political tendencies of the critical class. You don’t have to guess that the split on Obvious Child is due to a pro-abortion spin, or that the split for Heaven is for Real is due to the Christian subject matter. When the critical class is cool on American Sniper and Gran Torino, but right up there with the audience for Million Dollar Baby, it’s not hard to figure out where the discrepancies lie.

But the more interesting ones come from other artifacts of being really into movies. Like the masses aren’t going to share the passion for movie history, like in Hugo. And in some cases, you’ll see critics praising something because it’s different. Because when you go to a ton of movies, it’s nice to see something that isn’t the same as everything else.

"Two tickets seee--voooo-playyyyy!"
Sing to the tune of Alouette: “I like French films, pretentious, boring French films…”

Which brings us to The Gift. On the surface, it looks like a standard issue stalker-terrorizes-happy-couple film, which isn’t my favorite, frankly, but if you’re going in expecting that, you could be easily disappointed by this movie. While our “happy couple” Simon and Robyn have the kind of life and lifestyle that adorns magazine covers, they’re having trouble conceiving, and Robyn is depressed, in a way that goes deeper than conception difficulties. Meanwhile, Simon is, for lack of a better word, an asshole.

He’s not awful, at least not all the time. But he certainly has some tendencies.  Most of the time he’s able to keep those tendencies in check, but they slip out, particularly when Robyn’s issues come to the forefront. That is, he’s okay with run-of-the-mill emotional chick stuff, but he loses it pretty fast when things get heavy, like the perfect life they’re aspiring to demands that they be perfect in all respects, and her lack of perfection endangers that.

That's from Cuckoo's Nest but Bateman doesn't have any of Nicholson's menace, which is fine for this film.
You’re not gonna pull that crap today, are ya? Not today!

First time I recall seeing Jason Bateman was in a short-lived, ahead of its time sitcom called It’s Your Move, in which he played a sociopathic teenager named Matt whose manipulations of his mother were threatened by her new love interest. When Robyn begins to look at why Gordo has chosen to terrorize them, and finds a dark history where her dream husband wasn’t so dreamy, I had this sudden flash of I guess this is how Matt turned out. Heh. Bateman generally plays likeable everyman types, so I wasn’t sure if he was just a well-hidden sociopath or just a rather messed up overly ambitious guy.

But there’s nothing really simple about this movie. It eschews slashing for psychological scarring. There’s some messy sort of justice, perhaps, here, but nothing very neat. You keep guessing all the way to the end, and even then you’re not 100% sure. There’s a lot of debate over what really went down, which is kind of cool on the one hand, but if you were going in for some bunny boiling, you’d be disappointed.

Ultimately, this is a solid, but low-key, suspense/mystery. Fine acting from the three principles and the supporting cast, especially Alison Tolman and Adam Lazarre-White as the neighbors. And it’s worth noting that there’s some really fine directing here, too, from Edgerton. The Boy and The Flower both approved.

Heh.
“You know, I just have a good feeling about how this is all going to turn out!”

Psycho (TCM Presents)

“So, anything good playing tonight?”
“Psycho.”
“I’m in.”

It seems as though TCM has learned that there’s some cash in replaying old films under their brand. I didn’t hear about it until recently (I have a cable box but it’s not plugged in) or I would have gone to see Double Indemnity, and I might have gone to see the Jaws 40th. But Psycho (on the really big screen) was not to be missed, and so The Boy, The Flower didn’t. The Flower shares my (and Alfred Hitchcock’s) opinion that Psycho is a comedy. And as Beetlejuice said, “It keeps getting funnier every single time I see it!

Michael Keaton at the height of his powers.
Of course, he was talking about The Exorcist, which isn’t really very funny at all.

The thing about Psycho is that it’s not Hitch’s most watchable film, but imagine for a moment, if you will, being a moviegoer in 1960 and knowing nothing about this film going in. You’re expecting a suspense thriller, in the vein of Dial M for Murder or Strangers on a Train. And there’s Janet Leigh doing a little impromptu embezzlement (or is it just outright theft?) and you’re sure that the bag of money is going to be the McGuffin. You’re pretty sure what’s going on.

Then, bam! First act closer and you no longer have any idea what’s going on. But you’re pretty sure you saw gallons of blood and possibly a nipple. And you were already reeling from seeing a toilet literally being flushed ON SCREEN.

Of course, the most shocking thing in Psycho was the presence of a toilet that was actually flushed. Another Hitchcock first!
That’s the contract of the guy who negotiated for the studio: “We think this pic’s gonna bomb, so forgo your salary and you can have a share of the profits.”

Hitch completely subverted the expectations and made probably the only big box office a slasher has ever made. There are other horror films that rank high on the all-time box office, including Jaws and The Exorcist which are in the top 10, but the slasher films that followed, like Wait Until Dark (which is not strictly a slasher, but both followed and set up quite a few of the conventions), Halloween, and every other film produced between 1979 and 1989, when they made money, made not due to boffo box office, but more due to very low budgets and greater than zero box office.

It’s nigh impossible not to be spoiled, so quickly and firmly did Psycho take hold of the imagination. It’s a shame, since it would be so much better if you went in blind. But since Psycho relies heavily on shock for its greatness, it also loses something on repeated viewings. At the same time, the kids and I were pointing out all kinds of stuff we hadn’t noticed before. When Marion steps up to the Bates Motel office and looks up at the house, you can really see Mother Bates walk past the window, very clearly. As The Boy pointed out: Hitchcock didn’t cheat. (Actually, he did cheat, because he was deathly afraid people would figure it out, but it’s hard to see, at least in retrospect.)

The awkward supper shared between Norman and Marion in the room full of stuffed birds just doesn’t come across on TV like it does in a theater. On TV, it looks weird. On the big screen, it’s menacing.

We all go a little mad sometimes.
I wonder what Hitch’s NEXT movie will be about?

And the scene where Detective Arbogast climbs the stairs and meets Mother is done in one amazing shot that it’s hard to figure out how they pulled it off. Now, you can see this clip online—hell, you can see the whole move as well as all the iconic clips online—but the murder shown isn’t the one we saw. The one online is not a single shot, and it cuts from straight on to overhead when Mother appears, but in the presentation we saw in the theater, the camera actually swoops backward up the stairs and overhead, no cuts. We all kind of gasped at that, but maybe it was because something had been restored or re-edited for this anniversary. (Or perhaps the 50th anniversary, although I’m pretty sure that’s the last one we saw, in preparation for The Flower seeing Hitchcock with us.)

Of course, the famous Psycho murder music by Bernard Hermann overshadows the fact that the whole score is awesome. It gives you suspense, like you’d expect, but then shifts seamlessly into horror. There’s also a remarkable sympathy to the film, in between all the stabby notes. It’s generally agreed that Hitch wanted to have the shower scene be music-free, though according to some legends (perhaps started by musicians), the scene without music tested and got laughs instead of shrieks. The more likely truth is that he heard the score Hermann prepared and realized he had a better movie on his hands with it.

This is one of those movies you can go over and over and see something new. If you’re a movie lover, it’s a must-see. And if you’ve never seen it, somehow, what’s wrong with you?

It's true: For years, if you Googled "Pointy Breasts" my blog came up.
Fun fact: By far the biggest hit on my original blog was a picture of Janet Leigh in a bra.

 

Tales

Our favorite theater shut down again though at least this time it is only a temporary remodeling thing, and on the last night we went in to see Tales, another Persian film from our friends at Daricheh Cinema. And by “friends”, I mean, “People whom we’ve never met and who probably wouldn’t like us, but who seem like they might be in the audience at any given showing.” Daricheh doesn’t do politics as far as I can tell—probably wise—but each film (well, okay, not City of Mice 2, which felt sort of subversive to me) tends to remind that me Iran and Afghanistan are possibly the only countries in the world that actually looked better in the ’70s.

I'm joking of course. The Miss Iran pageant ended in 1978.
Miss Iran lineup 1978 (left) vs. Miss Iran lineup 2015 (right). Fun fact: It’s actually the SAME women.

But more depressingly, Iranian movies tend to remind me that the face of totalitarianism is always and everywhere the same: An uncaring bureaucrat ignoring your plea for justice, sanity or anything that might keep him in his office an extra ten minutes. It’s the sort of thing that reminds you that even if the Green Revolution had succeeded, there’d still be some horrible bureaucracy grinding people down.)

Tales is set up by having a filmmaker go through Tehran with his video camera recording various people’s stories. The problem with vignette movies, though, is that they tend to lack punch. Last year’s Wild Tales is a notable exception, and Tales manages to achieve a sense of momentum that eluded The Place Beyond The Pines, but the mind wants a connection between the stories—and that largely isn’t there.

This is still a very watchable film, because the vignettes are intriguing, and care went into the acting and filming, despite the whole cinema verité veneer. We start with a taxicab driver who picks up a filmmaker. This is interesting because you’re sort of expecting the movie to follow the filmmaker, but instead it follows the cab driver, who next picks up a woman with a sick child who tries to solicit herself to him. He’s appalled, but increasingly so as it becomes apparent the two know each other.

Desperate woman, sick child.
You might think an upside of theocracy would be women not having to debase themselves in desperation. Nope.

We then follow the cabbie to his home: His mother is somewhat sickly and his brother is in jail (we don’t know for what). But from there, I think, we end up following the mother to some bureau of something or other, where she’s trying to get the brother released. They’ve given her the old “Fill out form 1234.5” but once she’s done it, they say, “No, fill out ABCDE.F”. A man who is apparently familiar with the bureaucracy offers to help her—

But then we follow him in to the head manager’s office. Turns out old guy is a lifelong public servant who’s recently been ripped off due to being transferred out of network for an emergency surgery—the Persian and American health systems apparently being based off each other—and in order to get his money back, he’ll have to literally drop trou and submit to a most invasive medical examination in the presence of yet more bureaucrats. Meanwhile the head bureaucrat is juggling golf dates and his mistress and his wife and really has no interest, leaving the old guy to take the subway home, where he overhears what sounds like depraved sexual talk from a couple—

Who turn out to be brother and sister, working out a scheme to pretend she’s been kidnapped to get money out of their parents…

And so it goes.

Woman In A Van In Tehran (Tales)
Then there’s this young lady, who helps wayward women, and has one of the weirder flirting sessions I’ve seen. A half-conscious girl mumbles in the seat behind her.

You can’t say the movie isn’t exactly what it says in the title. It’s a bunch of different tales. The filmmaker comes back in the middle, during a labor protest, and at the end, but he’s actually not a big part of it. At the same time, there is a powerful statement there: A guy making a movie about real people in Tehran has to work in secret, and has to accept that his work may be buried, and he may in fact be captured or killed for daring to show things that are not approved of.

As I said, quite watchable, but not packing the dramatic heat of a single story film, and the thread that ties things together is more coincidental than strongly thematic or dramatic—that is, this isn’t a story of how women fare, or the evils of theocracy, or something like that, and it’s also not a story of people whose stories all converge on a common point. (Or if it is about any of those things, I missed it, which is always possible, especially when dealing with foreign films.)

The (largely Persian) audience applauded appreciatively, and I liked it more than The Boy, who was also looking for some common theme.