Ibiza (29th Israel Film Festival)

Our final film of the seven we saw as part of the 29th Israel Film Festival was Ibiza which was…well, it’s basically an ’80s teen sex comedy. It’s about three post-service buddies: the smart, charming surfer dude; the nebbishy one with a hot girlfriend he desperately wants to cheat on; and the fat, gross, nerdy one who pines for the hot chick. (Ibiza itself is sort of a Mediterranean version of Fort Lauderdale in perpetual Spring Break mode, apparently.)

I didn't think so.
I don’t even need to tell you who’s who, do I?

The surfer dude, through his irresponsibility, gets his younger brother hurt in a surfing accident, and the surgery to fix is going to be expensive. He’s sworn off surfing, but goes for a championship on the hopes of winning money for the surgery. (He wins, but the championship offers no money, apparently.)

Because it’s an Israeli flick, he talks to God a lot and asks for signs, and his friends convince him that the site of a major party simultaneously hosting a big surfing competition with a prize of a 4kg gold brick (what?) is a sign from God that they should all go to Ibiza. This is another low budget film but since I’ve never been to Ibiza I have no idea if they actually went there or just used B-roll. Everyone had the same Israeli accents when speaking English, though (which they do a lot in the second half of the movie).

Would've been funnier, too.
He looks like Robert Hays in Airplane! just as Hays looked at the camera and said “Ain’t that a pisser?”

This movie hits on every trope of the ’80s teen sex romp: The disapproving father, the drug-induced hallucination (although this has a Hangover feel to it), the surfing competition against the snooty guy, the run-in with the prostitute, the run-in with the mobsters, the really hot chick (frighteningly thin model Dar Zozovski) who is into the homely fat guy (Maayan Bloom), the doofus ungrateful for the hot rich girlfriend who adores him, the requiem for the conservative father who can’t relax…

The only things that seemed influenced by modern comedies was a sort of What About Mary gross out semen scene, the aforementioned Hangover influenced hallucination scene, and the loser-fat-guy’s-slutty-mom trope. This trope actually does go back to the ’80s, at least, but this movie made it more…graphic.

It’s not unpleasant, or at least not any more so than your average raunchy comedy these days (which is to say: it’s a little unpleasant at times). But it’s positively weird in how all of these tropes are hit, often in rapid fire, often with little to no narrative support. Like, when Zozovski, by way of explaining her attraction to Bloom says, “I feel like I can really be myself around you,” not only have we seen no indication of this, the only interactions the two have had seem downright awkward.

Overall, an odd film. Bordering on “porridge”, perhaps, The Boy and I felt.

Uh huh.
Nerdy guy can’t settle down with her.

Man In the Wall (29th Israel Film Festival)

This was probably my favorite of the seven IFF movies we saw, a paranoid little psychodrama about a woman who wakes up to find her husband is missing. All of his stuff (phone, wallet, keys, etc) is still in the apartment, and she discovers her husband is missing when a neighbor wakes her up from a deep slumber to complain about their (leashed, unattended) dog taking a big poop on the front lawn.

She concludes that he took the dog out for a walk and something happened to him. A logical conclusion.

I was gonna look for my husband, but then I got high.
The only stills I can find for this one are all small and dark. And stoned.

Or is it? The interesting thing about this movie is that it starts as a simple mystery where our “heroine” Shir goes from increasingly sure that her husband is in trouble, to simply falling apart over the whole situation. Within a few minutes, she betrays a friend (and in her betrayal learns the friend lied to her), lies to police, reveals a violent history (her husband’s), hallucinates her dead mom, and on and on.

Also, each “chapter” is done largely in one continuous shot, making the whole thing feel like an updated Repulsion.

This is not a bad thing, and as the movie progressed, I started getting a “Telltale Heart” kind of vibe from it. I suspected the truth early on, and felt confident of it about halfway through the movie, but I think I really would’ve preferred a horror twist to the rather banal ending that we got.

What is up with the striped shirts?
It’s sort of a dark, gritty reboot of “Where’s Waldo?”

The Boy was also sort of dismayed by it. After a great build up with lots of good elements, it just sort of peters out.

This was our second-to-last IFF movie.

Fauda (29th Israel Film Festival)

The Israeli Defense Force has, for years, infiltrated Palestine for counter-terrorism purposes (which should be no surprise at all) with special troops called “Mista’arvim”. These are people who pose as Palestinians and work as what you might call double-agents. Or, in the case of this film, troops who pass for arab just long enough to accomplish some short mission.

This was an interesting “movie”. It was extremely tense: As we’ve seen in many Isareli (and Palestinian!) films, it is tough to beat the sort of paranoia that goes along with being a Jew in Palestine. Being a Palestine in Israel isn’t really an issue, it seems, unless you’re there to cause some sort of chaos.

I’m told “Fauda” is arabic for “chaos”, by the way.

What!? That's how they walk around in the Middle East!
Our hero and his team on their way to a relaxed BBQ party.

Fauda does a good job of humanizing the Palestinians without justifying them. The MacGuffin here is a Palestinian terrorist, The Panther, they all thought the lead had killed, but who has turned up on the eve of his brother’s wedding. The hero takes a team in disguised as pastry chefs, to try to spot this guy, but they’re found out and the whole thing turns ugly.

They don’t try to mitigate this. It’s a joyous occasion that they throw into bloodshed and chaos. But as the chief points out, it’s in the service of getting the Panther, who has murdered scores of Israelis. And every single person at that party regards him as a hero. That doesn’t make it palatable, of course.

Anyway, there’s all this great acting, great action scenes, great setups, drama galore and so on, and you’d think this was going to be the knock-out punch that Suicide was last year.

But when the credits rolled, The Boy and I were kind of “Huh.” We did not know this, but it turns out that “Fauda” is actually a TV series and we saw what are probably the first two episodes. So, great story, enjoyed it a lot, but felt it was missing a clean resolution and character/story arcs—because it was!

This is not actually in the movie, of course.
Also, when they pulled off his mask and it turned out to have been Old Mr. Jenkins, who was just terrorizing Jews so they wouldn’t find the pirate treasure…

So, that’s on the IFF and the theater (which extracted just the description). I do see now that—not in the description, which is all that’s mentioned on the theater websites, but in the category on the IFF site itself—it’s noted as a TV show.

Anyway, our viewing suffered hugely as a result of it not meeting our expectations—after all, jamming together episodes of a good or even great TV show does not a feature make—but if I were a TV watching guy, I’d probably watch this. The lead (Lior Raz) is one of the co-creators, and his partner and he were actual Mista’avrim.

Which is also kind of mind-blowing.

Infiltrating is easy considering how much Israelis and Palestinians look alike.
Here a Palestinian doctor is agreeing to protect the Panther. She’ll become a love interest to the married star later on in the series, unless I miss my guess.

Yona (29th Israeli Film Festival)

We followed up our film about the playwright Aloni with a biopic about an Israel poetess, Yona Wallach. This movie is sort of like an Israeli La Vie en Rose, except that I didn’t hate it.

As I gather it, Yona was a poet/lyricist from the ’60s to her death in the ’80s. Much like Edith Piaf, she seems to have been awful in most regards. Self-indulgent, dishonest, promiscuous, reckless, narcissistic, and possibly diagnosably insane. I felt like Naomi Levov (sometimes “Lvov”) as Yona pulled off what Marion Cotillard didn’t, in that Yona was still somehow not utterly repulsive despite her severe and tragic flaws.

Sexism, man. It's much easier when you can lock the windows.
Here she tries to get into the boys poets’ “No Girls Allowed” treehouse.

It is (as I mentioned with Aloni) impossible to tell whether an artist is any good from a film, and that includes this one. (This is also true of Tim Burton’s classic Ed Wood, and is probably irrelevant in most cases.) But she was a human, with ups and downs which create at least a somewhat interesting story.

There’s familial resistance, of course. And some sexism, at least at first. She may or may not have heard voices; it’s impossible to trust her on the matter of her own history. She lost her father, I think, during the War for Independence, and though she claims to have no memory of him, she’s also clearly lying.

At one point, she checks herself into a funny farm, but it’s not clear if she’s done so because of hearing a voice in her head, or because she wants a quiet place to write, or because she’s heard they’re treating people with this novel miracle drug, LSD, which is said to open your mind, and so on.

But it was worth a shot.
Turns out the spin bin isn’t the best place to contemplate art and life.

It’s also impossible to tell whether she loves the Polish (?) attendant who rescues her from the place, and who wants to marry her and raise children, until it’s clear that she’s going to abort the child she’s carrying.

It’s not really my kind of movie but I found it engaging. The Boy was rather unimpressed, and I think a little down on the festival at this point, given that the previous year had given us four out of four excellent films.

Once Upon A Time There Was A King (29th Israeli Film Festival)

Here’s one I liked a lot more than The Boy. Once Upon A Time There Was A King is a documentary on Nissim Aloni, luminary of the Israeli stage in the ’60s and ’70s. For me, it’s a little like Jodorowsky’s Dune or Ed Wood: It’s a study in obsessive creativity, a striving for something greater than, well, than may actually be possible in this world.

Aloni fought in the War for Independence and went to Paris for a while, catching the absurdist bug, and riding his “been to Paris” cred back in the homeland to try to get some plays put on. This leads him ultimately to start his own theater, which struggles and fails, as the avant-garde plays don’t always connect with the audience.

Playwright? Or Playwrong!
I’m not even sure this is from the movie. Pretty sure it’s Aloni, though, in the ’60s.

Aloni, naturally, is difficult to work with and around. He writes his play, then as the actors run through the lines he feverishly takes notes, and spends all night re-writing the play. And he’ll do this day after day after day, for months on end. This does not please the money people in any country, and Israel is no exception.

Well, actually, he has a big hit early on, then a flop, then another big hit and he ends up occupying at least a sentimental position in the fledgling country. But ultimately he’s destroyed by critics, then by producers.

Art is hard, man.

His big success, if I recall correctly, was a riff on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where the boy who (in the original story) calls out the emperor’s nudity ends up the new emperor, with his own “clothes”. This was followed up by, well, some other ones. I think “The Bride and the Butterfly Hunter” was his next hit but it was too late.

The movie spends some time on one called “Napoleon, Dead or Alive” about an assassin sent to slay Napoleon only to find hundreds of Napoleons. Fat Napoleon. Skinny Napoleon. Girl Napoleon. Whatever.

Sounds like a hoot and a holler. (And more than a little derivative of Ionescu’s Rhinoceros.) But it’s impossible to tell from excerpts whether or not these plays are any good. To say nothing of the language barrier making it impossible quite beyond that.

But, like I said, I’ve known playwrights and other wild dreamers, and I love stories of creativity, even if they don’t come to pass as their originators imagined they would. (Maybe especially then?) So I related to this a lot more than The Boy, who was not “grabbed” by it.

On the Moviegique documentary scale:

  1. Subject Matter: I think it’s important, but obviously the fate of a lowly playwright in a distant land may not seem that way to everyone.
  2. Treatment: The treatment was quite good. Beyond the talking heads and film footage of Aloni, there were occasional animations of excerpts of his work, and I found those enchanting.
  3. Bias: Probably. As I mention, the guy was a sort of cultural hero in Israel, and while this doesn’t lionize him, it’s maybe a little indulgent.

It may have a narrow interest band, but if you’re in that band, I think you’ll enjoy this. Even though The Boy wasn’t crazy about it, he did like Aloni’s categorization of bland, mass-market art: He’s been running around saying “Porridge! I don’t want any porridge!”

So hard to tell...
Some of the sequences are animated in a whimsical fashion. This may be one of them.

Peter The Third (29th Israel Film Festival)

This is the kind of movie we go the festival for: A bunch of old guys hang out in a coffee shop all day, when they learn that the waitress (after a breakup, I think) is sleeping in the restaurant till she gets her act together. One of the old guys, Peter offers to have her come stay with him, and before you know it, the two of them are elbows deep in meddling with each others’ lives.

Srsly.
It’s really hard to get good screenshots from the IFF movies. Don’t expect much.

Peter is an actor, a bit player for 20 or 30 years or more at the same theater, a widower, and estranged from his daughter. Alona, the waitress, works night and day, to what end we are not told till midway through, but she has talent as a writer she is not pursuing. Her love life is a mess, though she’s been pursued by the same guy for 15 years (since 7th grade!) she won’t give the time of day to.

She signs him up for a dating site. He hectors her about not writing. She comes home late, very close to having a drunken tryst in his apartment, which pisses him off, but they both get over it within a few hours. There’s something very Israeli/Jewish about how quickly they adopt a parent/child relationship and how pure that relationship is. (There isn’t the faintest suggestion of the least bit of romance between them—at least a suggestion of romance would probably be mandatory in an American or English film. Imagine it being Colin Firth and Kiera Knightly, you know?)

The story is powered along by an idea that the old guys have, as they’re all scraping by on whatever pensions they have: Peter should run for the Knesset (Israeli parliament) and get all the perks that those guys get! At first, they dismiss the idea because, essentially, it’s too much work. You need to have a platform, and collect signatures, etc.

But before long, they start to take the idea seriously, or at least as seriously as anyone in Israel seems to take politics. (Which, really, should be “very, very seriously indeed”, but you’d never know it from these movies.) The idea they come up with is a widow/widower party where old people should be allowed to go to a widow/widower camp and frolic for a week every year.

Another nice thing about this being an Israeli film is that I don’t have to fulminate on the proper uses of government. Heh. They have a tiny theocracy; things are very different there indeed.

Anyway, the journey is fun and full of colorful characters, and much like Galis, it is utterly benign and genial. There are no great evils here, just people trying (often poorly) to get along in life and deal with its myriad disappointments and struggles. The endings are happy when people rise above their petty squabbles, and not when they don’t. It’s really as simple as that.

The Boy and I enjoyed it.

I wasn't kidding.
I did warn you about it being hard to find good stills.

Galis: The Journey To Astra (29th Israeli Film Festival)

The Boy and I are always happy to see the Israeli Film Festival come to town, which we have attended regularly (and increasingly) for the past seven years. We pretty much have to go in blind, and usually there are one or two movies we miss just because they are sold out. So, possibly, we aren’t even seeing the best of the fest, but I think being sold out is more indicative of PR and awards than it is of quality, in Israel as it is in Los Angeles.

The hallmark of these films is that they are different, that they emphasize different aspects of filmmaking, and that they often feature the best of the Middle East but all on low budgets (by American standards). You don’t see much reliance on CGI or Hollywood tropes, and when you do, it’s disastrous. (Not speaking of the IFF here, but the worst Israeli movie we’ve seen, possibly ever, which was at the L.A. Horror Fest!)

Our first movie up was Galis: The Journey To Astra, which is its own beast. “Galis” is an Israeli TV show for kids about, I believe, a summer camp. From what I can tell, it’s about teenage intrigue: Romance, pranks, clueless camp counsellors and that sort of thing. There are elements of this show that are described in odd ways, like one episode capsule describes a character as “going on a quest to find his real mother”. There is a lot of language of mystery, suspense and fantasy used in describing the “TV Show” which, from the pictures, looks to be very standard summer camp fare.

Yet, Galis: The Journey To Astra, seems to go both fantasy and meta, as the lead character is, if I’m not mistaken, playing an actor who plays on the show and refers to himself as the “chosen one” and the center of the universe and what-not. But shortly after alienating every one of his friends, the Earth comes under a Flash Gordon style Eclipse and Our Hero is transported into a parallel world where everyone actually thinks he is the Chosen One.

(And then a step to the ri-i-i-ight!)
“It’s just a jump to the left…”

And, just his luck, it turns out his alternate/parallel self is an even bigger douche than he is, having run off and left his friends five years ago on a quest to kill the Big Bad, from which he never returns, and everyone thinks he’s a traitor.

Oh, the alternate world (which looks a lot like the deserts around Israel) is a dystopic world of vague time orientation and structure where the good guys are being killed by the bad guys, for no apparent reason and to no apparent end. Well, look, it’s a kiddie show. And the movie is cute and fun, but it don’t hang together like a swiss watch or nothin’. No Fury Road, as The Boy would say, though sort of more like a low budget, less mean Hunger Games.

The characterizations are nice, even if the acting comes off a bit rough at times. There’s a love triangle between the three lead actors, and a sort of frustrated romance between the two comic relief characters. (One of whom, Neveh Tzur, is the only one who’s really been on the series for its whole run. The others have less than a season under their belt, but it was the first season, so perhaps they ran off to make this right away.)

Sometimes she has a teeny-tiny bow, too!
She’s like Katniss, with a teeny-tiny crossbow!

So, yeah, the plotting is less than tight, and the low budget really puts a crimp in the dystopic/post-apocalyptic feel, given that there’s only a few baddies at any time, and only a few shots with more than a dozen actors on the good guy side. Ooh, and there’s the fact that a lot of the drama/tension feels exactly like it would if it were in a series about a summer camp, and not one about rebel fighters trying to save the world. Heh.

But our characters all get their character arcs, and it’s a very genial movie about the dangers of being seduced by fame, by narcissism, by revenge, and so on. That’s not a bad thing. We liked it.

Cool steam-powered guns, tho'.
These four guys got a hell of a workout. They must’ve been killed a dozen times each.

Bridge of Spies

I was trying to recall, coming out of the theater, the last time I saw a Steven Spielberg movie that I could say, “Yeah, I liked that,” without any reservations. I had forgotten Lincoln. I found both War Horse and TinTin rather bizarre. Crystal Skull was forgettable—I always thought the point of the Indiana Jones series was sort of to be stupid so I didn’t get the outrage. (I mean, sure, nuke the fridge and all that, but are we forgetting that in Raiders, Jones rides on top of a submarine as it crosses the Atlantic?)

I didn’t see Munich, because I really don’t care to see equivalences made between  Israel and terrorists. War of the Worlds was okay, I guess, but it doesn’t touch the hem of the original’s skirt. The Terminal was okay, I think, I don’t remember it very well. So I guess Catch Me If You Can and Minority Report, back in 2002, was the last time I just enjoyed a Spielberg film without qualification.

Until today. The Flower, The Boy and I went off to see this, because, well, it was at a reasonable time, and we figured we’d end up seeing it eventually. And we all liked it. So, yeah.

I mean, it’s not great or anything. But it’s solid. And it avoids a lot of the landmines you might expect.

I guess that's progress.
You can see every single drop of rain CLEARLY.

The story concerns Rudolph Abel, a spy caught at the height of the Cold War, and the insurance-lawyer-with-integrity who is plucked out of a hat to defend him, only to find that defending him is not what a frightened America wants. If that were all it were about, it would probably be a big pile of “meh”, but our lawyer-with-integrity manages to squeeze out a life sentence for his client rather than the death penalty, on the pragmatic grounds that an exchange might be necessary at some point in the future.

We already know this is going to happen by this point, and are not kept waiting even a moment before our hero loses his appeal before the Supreme Court and U-2 flyer Gary Powers is shot down over Russia. The rest of the movie concerns our lawyer-with-integrity negotiating an exchange, with the added wrinkle of negotiating not just for Powers but for a hapless grad student caught behind the Berlin Wall as it was going up. (Thanks, JFK!)

Not in THIS country, obviously. Look, it's complicated.
Apparently, walls just happen, with no one to hold accountable for them.

Let us stipulate that this movie excels, technically. We would expect no less from Spielberg and a budget of $40 million. The camera is in the right place. Several shots are brilliantly blocked. The whole thing looks fabulous, from the recreations of late ’50s America, to Berlin. It sounds fabulous, from the standpoint nice “natural” dialogue, sound design, and a restrained but effective score by one of my favorite Hollywood composers, Thomas Newman. It’s long, at about two-and-a-quarter hours, but it doesn’t feel excessively long.

The script was co-written by the Coen brothers, and actually contains a lift from The Big Lebowski (“You fucked it up!”) which is about the only really NSFW in the movie, though there are a lot of “goddamn”s. The acting is solid, with Tom Hanks in the lead, and a particularly sublime performance from Mark Rylance as Abel. I found Amy Ryan appealing as Mrs. Lawyer, but then I seem to find her appealing in every role, regardless of not being able to connect her to previous performances.

Gotta keep the plan simple.
The part where they swap the spy for Walter’s “whites” may not have been historically accurate.

There are a couple of nice Hitchcockian suspense moments, too. And I was glad to see that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are denounced as traitors, not just because they were, but because that would’ve been the prevailing view of that character at that time. I wasn’t super crazy about the handling of the “duck and cover” stuff, because I was raised on the mockery of that—as though no mitigation could ever occur in any nuclear attack, regardless of where one was situated, and as though nihilism was a better option. But it wasn’t horrible, or even implausible the way it plays out.

It’s hard to use the word “glad” when seeing people shot at Checkpoint Charlie, or the imposing, brutalist architecture in the Soviet courts—to say nothing of the starving East Germans—but I was glad that history was not completely forsaken, as happens sometimes. The attempts to make a moral equivalency are weak indeed, as it should be, though there is an attempt to draw an equivalency between the honorable KGB spy and the rather harshly portrayed U-2 pilot—though perhaps not as harshly portrayed as the actual pilot was at the time.

Eh. It makes for a better movie to have Hanks and Rylance develop a kind of friendship, just as making Hanks a hapless lawyer whose name is pulled out of a hat rather than someone who worked with intelligence before makes a better movie, and this does not purport to be a documentary.

Then there’s this beautiful speech Hanks makes about the Constitution. He says “What makes us Americans?  One thing – the Constitution.” It is a thing of beauty, indeed, but also the height of irony coming from a guy consulting with the latest Constitution shredder on preserving and promoting his legacy.

Don’t let that get in your way, though. It is a good film, has a relatively small number of Spielbergian sins, and boasts the best production values in Hollywood on top of a solid plot.

It's fun!
Here Abel practices his twin hobbies of numismatics and cryptography!

The Nightingale

Here’s a lovely family film out of France and China that seems to not have gotten much of a release because, let’s be honest, “subtitles” and “family film” don’t really go together, at least in the U.S.A. But it is lovely, full of picture postcard shots of Chinese landscapes, cities and villages, full of handsome upper-class people and earthy villagers, and hardly a discouraging word to be found on the road from Peking to, well, the middle of nowhere.

Which they sorta rescinded, if too late.
Here we see a man grateful for China’s 1-child policy.

The story concerns Ren, a really bratty, spoiled little girl whose upper-class parents don’t have time for her. And so it comes to pass that the mother is stuck for babysitting and sends her off with her husband’s father, who has been alienated from the family for four years (for a mistake—there are tiger moms and tiger children, quite obviously).

Ren is highly intelligent, and has grand gestures made for her, and this comes out as defiance. This isn’t really her story but she does have a character arc, and what’s nice is that while she becomes increasingly likable when she’s exposed to people who treat her as a human being (rather than a commodity) she remains a kind of pain-in-the-ass throughout, thwarting the adults’ plans to get her own way at every opportunity. It’s just that, by the end of the movie, she uses her powers for good more than evil.

Ha! As if the PRC wouldn't just chop you down with the tree!
Ren protesting logging.

There’s not a lot of subtlety here: There are a number of backstories concerning the grandfather and his son, the grandfather and his wife, the girl’s father and mother , and all are resolved pleasantly enough after a fashion. And I have no objection to simple stories simply told in a pleasant manner. We’re not talking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf here, and that’s a good thing.

Ultimately, we get to like everyone we meet, and when was the last time you saw a movie like that?

The Boy was also very pleased by this film.

Birds is for eating.
Grandfather ponders lunch.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

And would you believe it, o! my brothers and only friends? There was your faithful and humble narrator with two of his best droogs viddying Stanley Kubrick’s classic dystopia, A Clockwork Orange.

The Ludovico techqniue.
This isn’t from the movie, it’s just me watching movies in general. I don’t think you can judge fairly if you miss any part of a film, like by blinking.

As I’ve often said, that period most beloved of critics, the late ’60s/early ’70s, is my most reviled period of cinema. It is a period of aesthetic atrocities, when the future, man, hope and love became unredeemable, and this is reflected in ugly films about ugly people doing ugly things. This is the part where I reveal my hypocrisy and confess my love for A Clockwork Orange, which is definitely an ugly film about ugly people doing things—but it’s a beautiful ugly film about ugly people doing ugly things.

The story, if you don’t know it, is about young Alex—in the book he’s 15, but he’s probably meant to be 17-18 here—who leads his gang on nightly rampages of terror: Gang fights, home invasions, rape, burglary, and so on, until treachery leads to his capture. He sees a chance for freedom in the form of a controversial rehabilitation program which trains him to be physically ill at the thought of violence (and, presumably, violent sex). The treatment “works” after a fashion, but he’s let loose into the same cruel world that he was made in, and he has many, many enemies.

With the vellocet, my droogs.
Moloko: It does a body good.

And here comes the part where I justify my hypocrisy: The thing about A Clockwork Orange is that it doesn’t endorse any aspect of this. It’s fine (and even necessary) to present things that are evil, nihilistic, morally corrupt, etc. However, it’s wrong to endorse those things, which many of the movies of this period do. (This is a similar distinction I make between graphic violence and torture porn: In order to be the latter, it has to present torture as titillation.)

There aren’t a lot of admirable characters in Orange: The most admirable player in the film is Godfrey Quigley’s unnamed prison preacher. He’s the only one that points out that robbing a man of free will—the will to do good or evil—is a greater sin even than traditional methods of incarceration. Nobody can be bothered of course: They need a way to clear out prisons of hardened criminals to make way for the political prisoners they’re expecting. (Mentioned merely as an aside.)

You can look at A Clockwork Orange a number of ways: As a dystopic future, as brutal narrative of rape and violence, as a prurient sex-laden environment (there are many gorgeous women—all abused, as well as pervasive sexual decor), as a near perfect time capsule of 1971 styles and attitudes, or as a cinematic masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said about that last: This film was shot quickly (by Kubrick standards) on cheap equipment (compared to Kubrick’s previous film, 2001), and yet it says so much without saying a word.

All of the sequences are done in these narrow, confined, areas: Everything is skinny and deep. Even when they go outside, they end up in tunnels, or cramped prison yards. Almost as if they’re on rails.

Probably even need to do less today.
Very little overt decoration was done to make the England of 1970 look dystopic.

But the real thing about this movie is that it’s still True. The “therapy” presented is nonsense of course, and aversion therapy has fallen out of fashion these days, though it was the height of so-called technique back then. But really, the only difference today is that we use drugs to make straightjackets—nobody can be bothered with the morality of it. Hell, we drug kids for minor educational issues, much less serious crimes.

The Boy and The Flower were with me. The Boy liked it quite a bit and more as time passed, as he began to reflect on various aspects. The Flower also liked it a lot, though she’s rather chary of that era, aesthetically. She declared it “awesome”, enjoying in particular the epitome of ’71 decor, the colors and the black humor. (What? No, I’m not the least bit worried that she shares much of my taste.)

Duh-duh-duh-DUHHHHH!
Tortured by Beethoven.

The Martian

If you need to cast someone in the role of a hapless chump who must be rescued, look no further than Matt Damon, apparently. Spielberg noted this first for Saving Private Damon, and then Nolan apparently rescued him in a different solar system in InterDamon, and now we have The Mattian, about a guy who says “Read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States” one too many times, so the crew leaves him behind on Mars.

But when NASA catches wind of it, not realizing it’s Matt Damon, they mount a heroic resupply/rescue effort.

Meanwhile, Matt Damon, not realizing he’s Matt Damon, deploys all kinds of science, math, engineering and botany to stay alive.

MATT DAMON!

Actually, he’s quite good in this, as he usually is. But he is fun to poke fun at, and it’s kind of fun that such a left-wing guy is starring in the most conservative movie to come out of Hollywood in 50 years!

It makes me so angry.
Matt Damon also steals the “Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator”, angering the natives.

OK, I can’t really back that up, but this movie is so traditional, so American, and so cis-normatively meritocratic, that Walt Disney himself could have made it (except for some of the salty language). In fact, I thought Walt Disney had made back in the ’60s as Robinson Crusoe on Mars—and check that one out on Netflix, it’s way better than it sounds—but that was actually an independent production.

Not surprisingly, it’s also getting raves from critics as being a great movie from the 77-year-old director Ridley Scott who, 77-or-not, has directed no fewer than three movies in-between this and the last movie of his I saw, 2012’s Prometheus. Which was not great. Interestingly, this is not a movie you’d sit down and say “Hey, Ridley Scott directed this”, so restrained is his approach. I was actually surprised to see he had directed it. (I knew that he had but had forgotten.)

A young Tom Cruise frolics in a glade.
You used to be able to tell a Ridley Scott movie by the amount of crap in the air.

But realism is the watchword for The Martian, and while there’s a real limit to how far you can take that in a movie, it focuses enough on realistic details to buy sufficient suspension of disbelief for the elements that aren’t explained. They even have a decent explanation for him being left behind, where some of the movie capsules I’ve read make it sound like a Home Alone thing: MARRRK!

Anyway, we have here an adventure tale, as people struggle to find solutions to various problems. Unlike most “desert island” stories, they figure out pretty quickly how to communicate and we get some drama not just from the people on Earth, in the spaceship Hermes, and Matt Damon individually, but also between them all as well, with due deference given to the time delay. In the classic mold, we actually don’t learn tons about the characters: One of the characters has young children, one is married, Mark doesn’t have children or a wife, but he has parents, etc.

We’re just given pictures of people in action, and we form our feelings toward them based on that, and based on their collective struggle to save a fellow human being, even as it might risk others. Fancy that.

But they're not in their underwear.
This shot DOES look a lot like the opening scene of “Alien”, though, doesn’t it?

The cast is almost ridiculously A-List, given that there’s precisely one really meaty role, but the Big Name roster helps to give each role a little extra heft. Jeff Daniels plays the head of NASA—fine, practically expected, especially if Bill Pullman was busy—but his assistant is Kristen Wiig, and she’s great in her non-nerd-surrounded-by-nerds part. Michael Pena has a kind of side-kicky role to Matt Damon, okay, business as usual—but Jessica Chastain and Kate Mara do, too, just as Sean Bean is sort of a side-kick to Jeff Daniels.

Scott generally gets good performances, even when he has no right to expect them (*kaff*Prometheus*kaff*), and I get the impression Drew (Cabin in the Woods, Cloverfield) Goddard’s screenplay is fairly respectful of a novel that itself is very respectful of reality. All these combine to make a truly fine film, worthy of the upper half of Scott’s resume.

The rescue plan, by the way, is preposterous, except that it’s very similar to the one actually used for the first moon landing (which I also thought was preposterous). They probably go a bit overboard to get the Big Ending, but I really couldn’t find much fault with that. If there was a serious flaw with the film, I’d say it’s in the fact that we don’t really get a strong sense of Mark’s loneliness, which is kind of the hallmark of this sort of story. There’s just so much going on in the two hours and twenty minutes, there’s no time to feel that.

On the one hand, that contributes to the refreshing nature of the film. On the other, in actuality, no matter how busy you were, most of your hours stranded on Mars for years would be spent in quiet inactivity.

It's 4:20 somewhere on Mars.
And, of course, tending your Martian Marijuana fields.

I had a moderately hard time dragging The Boy to this, but he came out much favorably impressed, probably more so than I. Neither of us mentioned “best film of the year”, though it’s a likely top 10, and may just win a bunch of Oscars depending on what politically correct buttons get punched in the upcoming two-month flood of award-bait flicks.

In any event, it is one of the most remarkable films of the year: Without the language, this could’ve been a G-rated Disney flick. The only thing that separates it from the movies of 60 years ago is “diversity” and a little Chinese ass-kissing (back in the ’70s it would’ve been Russian ass-kissing). And that ain’t too bad.

 

The Visit

It is sometimes hard to drag The Boy to see certain pictures, but sometimes I can wedge one in that he would normally be cool on, if the options appear to be even worse—as in this week, when the best rated new option was How To Change The World, a documentary about Greenpeace. I had been proposing we see this movie for the past month or so, but it was only after other options had been ruled out and he had forgotten that he didn’t want to see The Visit that we finally made it.

M. Night Shyamalan brings to mind a few directors, like David Lynch, who are successful almost entirely by accident. For example, when the country went crazy over “Twin Peaks” and “Who killed Laura Palmer?” I said—never having seen the show, but being somewhat familiar with Lynch’s oeuvre—”If you think the show is a murder mystery, you’re wrong and you will be disappointed.” Sure enough, the second season killed the show, I presume because Lynch went on to tell the story he wanted to tell, not the one the audience wanted to see.

Shyamalan, on the other hand, who has a sure hand at the tiller and a way of getting great performances out of kids (in particular), seems to have been wrecked by The Sixth Sense, and has spent most of his career chasing that killer twist. In suspense terms, sadly, this has translated to “I wonder how MNS is going to screw this one up?”

Even now, you can see a huge focus of the commentary on this movie is based entirely around “the twist”. What will it be? Did you guess it? It was great/bad/whatever.

No, it's not aliens. Or is it?
I’m not saying it was aliens but…

Interestingly, The Boy had been spoiled, figuring he wouldn’t see the film, and he still liked it. I did not see it coming until shortly before the reveal, which is as it should be.

But it’s solid: One of the frustrating things about MNS is that he is a good filmmaker who has made some really, really awful films—again, I suggest that stemmed from him trying to recapture the lightning that was The Sixth Sense, and again, that’s unfortunate. This $5M self-financed movie is his best since Signs, and features two likably precocious kids and two likable but oddball grandparents. (The mom is also likable but not in the movie much.)

The premise is that the kids want to meet their estranged grandparents. The mom doesn’t want to let them go, but (as we learn quickly) the kids are also motivated by getting their mom off on a cruise with her new boyfriend. Their father left five years ago, and since it was the father who caused the estrangement between grandparents and mom, there’s a real emotional backstory. This story breaks through at several times, so it’s not the usual horror-movie-tactic of “make the audience care about the characters before you kill them.” It really matters and resonates at various points throughout.

Well, things get weirder and weirder, and the kids get scared-er and scared-er. The climax is pretty intense, but if I were going to fault it, I’d say the director lacked the ferocity needed to make a really scary movie. There are a few starts, some great creepy moments, and (as noted) a satisfying resolution. But the movie backs off at times—again, I felt because the director also cared about the characters, maybe too much.

Great kitchen, though, amirite?
Nothing strange about insisting your granddaughter climb bodily into the oven to “clean” it.

Meanwhile, Shyamalan uses his (self-financed!) $5M budget expertly: This is a found footage movie, which is common enough in low budget horrors, but the amusing aspect of it here is that it’s an artistic statement, not a financial one.  There are cuts, there is good blocking, there is an overall film quality that belies the little cameras that the kids are carrying around. I’m fine with that. It makes the movie a lot better looking and more interesting.

Also, the audio is clearly overdubbed. And I’m fine with that, too.

There’s also a fair amount of meta-content, as the granddaughter is making a documentary about her mother’s split with the grandparents, and she references movie terms even as the movie is relying on those techniques. “This will be the denouement.” Heh.

Hey, it's the last surviving copy of "Lady in the Water"
Telling your grandson to climb bodily into the WELL to clean it, now that’s just odd.

The acting is wonderful. Olivia DeJonge is heartbreakingly beautiful and sensitive as the granddaughter/future filmmaker, and Ed Oxenbould plays the often snotty, rapping, big-talking younger brother without you wanting to kill him. He actually recalls a young Leo DiCaprio. Veteran character actor Peter MacRobbie plays the sometimes sensitive, sometimes depressive, sometimes menacing “Pop Pop” excellently. And, if I’m not mistaken, and I feel like I must be, the 75-year-old Deanna Dunagan performs with the agility and energy of a much younger woman—though I see no stuntwoman listed. I mean, she did a great job as the nurturing, yet increasingly off grandmother, but I was flabbergasted at how she seemed to be able to crawl around playing hide-and-seek with the kids.

I might note, somewhat sardonically, that the most terrifying moment is where Nana tells a story about aliens and I’m thinking, “Oh, crap, it’s gonna be aliens!” but in truth, I have nothing bad to say about this film. All the ingredients mixed together to make a good, if not great, time.

And I’d much rather see Shyamalan make these kinds of movies than more Airbender and After Earth type stuff.

I may have that wrong.
Don’t come out of your room after 9:30, and don’t feed your grandparents after midnight.

The Diplomat

As the opening frames of this documentary flickered by, The Boy leaned in and whispered, “I may have f***ed this up.”

We were out and about after lunch on a weekday, which is rare, and he said, “Hey, if we keep driving this direction, we could go to the movies.” But literally the only thing playing (that we hadn’t seen) was The Diplomat, about Richard Holbrooke, whom neither of us knew.

Then, in those opening frames, we’re treated to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s effervescence, and that’s when The Boy made his comment.

This is the story of Mr. Holbrooke, from his early days in Vietnam to his final days under Obama and HRC, as told by his son, David, with occasional interviews of David’s brother, mother, and Richard Holbrooke’s second wife as well as one-time girlfriend, Diane Sawyer. (Republicans and conservatives need not apply.)

However, this is not a bad movie. And where the upcoming documentary What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy seems to showcase men who were pretty good fathers, except for the whole Nazi thing, this documentary might be summed up as “Yeah, he stopped some genocide, but he wasn’t a great father.”

Died of a broken heart, literally.
He wanted to be Secretary of State so bad, he’d stop at nothing—not even World Peace—to get there.

I’m joking—somewhat—since David doesn’t harp on his father’s paternal failings for the most part, though clearly they still affect his family, but it was interesting to observe that we’ve seen a lot of hagiographies over the years, and this isn’t one of them.

The ambassador’s big ambition in life was to be Secretary of State. He was appalled, and outspoken, with how the Vietnam war was handled, and when he got his chance in the ’90s to work out a peace between the Bosnians, Croats and the murderous Serb, Slobodan Milosevic, it was clear he grasped the fundamental principle of diplomacy: “Work with us to get everyone something they can live with, or we’ll kill you.”

There’s a telling moment when Holbrooke has his second wife at a dinner with Milosovic and (I think) Izetbegovic, with the mission to get them to talk, and she says in desperation, “How did this war start anyway.”

Milosevic: “I did not think it would last this long.”

Izetbegovic: “I did not think it would last this long, either.”

Ain’t it always the way? Powers get involved in wars they think will be quick and glorious.

Mr. & Mrs Holbrooke
This guy nearly killed himself flying all over southeast Europe trying to negotiate peace. Those who followed him read this as “I get to travel a lot? Cool!”

On the personal front, Holbrooke’s ambition was thwarted in turn by Clinton having Madeline Albright be his SoS, Gore losing the election in 2000, Kerry losing it in 2004, and HRC being Obama’s SoS in 2008. Because, of course, HRC would be the better SoS than Holbrooke. The movie spends no time detailing her horrible disrespect of Holbrooke—David probably didn’t know about the emails at the time of this filming—but it doesn’t hesitate to paint Obama as the narcissitic ideologue he seems to be.

Obviously, 44 isn’t behind the whole “we’ll kill you” aspect of diplomacy. Holbrooke was given the task of handling Afghanistan and Iraq diplomatically, and he wastes no time in bashing the handling of those areas up to that point, but Obama constantly undermined him at every turn, having many different people putting lines into those areas, such that the leaders there did not know who spoke for the government.

There’s a thick wrapping of gauze around the whole thing—not from the fact of a father-son relationship, but from the self-serving nature of virtually everyone else involved. Al Gore gets to tell us how his daughter came to him and goaded him into supporting intervention, for example, because of a photo of a woman who hanged herself after being gang-raped.

Because nothing awful like that was going on anywhere else in the world, right? The Clinton administration saw injustice and had to act!

Hypocrisy, thy name is politics
Dear Bosnia: Eff Yew. Love, Rwanda

I’m sure it wasn’t David’s intention—reasonably sure, anyway—to present this litany of failures eulogizing over his father in such a way that their own failures are thrown into sharp contrast: Besides Gore and HRC, we get Kerry, Samantha Powers, and—here’s a sentence you’re unlikely to read again anytime soon—Ronan Farrow, of all people, comes off looking among the best. All of Holbrooke’s team did, pretty much, because they had a clear goal, a clear plan and a clear desire to accomplish it, which was thwarted by the higher ups. (And might not have worked anyway but couldn’t, as we see at this late date, have made things any worse.)

So if you can get past this, and past the fact that the blithe intermingling of our political “elite” and our media “elite” is so complete that it’s not even worthy of note, this is a nice little “letter to my father” kind of doc.

Oh, right, the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter is interesting. Holbrooke is both interesting as a person and as a historical figure.
  2. The technique is very competent: A mix of people who knew him and footage, along with narration about events keeps the viewer interested.
  3. Bias: Not what you might think. There’s no hagiography, on a personal level for sure, but I also think David avoids deifying his father’s skills. There’s a bias that comes from soaking constantly in the “conventional wisdom” of the Acela corridor, but I think even that isn’t as bad as we’ve seen in other docs.

So, we didn’t feel like we’d effed up, as The Boy first worried, and ultimately I found it to be rather touching. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Son of Dick
I tell people, the most important job you’ll ever have is raising your kids. Don’t believe me? Look at this guy.

TCM Presents: Dracula (1931) & Drácula (1931)

We just discovered the “TCM Presents” series last month, with Psycho, in which we heard about this month’s entry: The 1931 Universal Dracula, followed by the 1931 Universal Dracula, in Spanish! Back in ’31, Universal had Tod Browning shoot the classic with Bela Lugosi, and immediately after they wrapped, a different crew came in and shot the exact same movie in Spanish.

This was a common gag back then, apparently, and if I were to guess, they did it because they could localize the stars. The Spanish language market knew nothing of Lugosi, and maybe wouldn’t warm to him like they would Carlos Villarias, who is one of the few people who actually had a career after these movies. Also, come to think of it, given that sound was new, dubbing might have been an unthinkable complexity.

Anyway, whatever the reason, they did it, and I’ve been hearing for most of my life that the Spanish-language version is better in most respects than the English language one, except for the presence of Lugosi.

My thinking there—borne out by actual viewing—is that a Dracula movie that is superior in every way except for Dracula isn’t going to be superior. And indeed, most of the time Villarias looks like Andy Kaufman about to sing “Mighty Mouse”.

It's cruel, but fair.
“Here I Come To Suck Your Bloooood!”

Tod Browning complained that the Spanish-language crew had the advantage of seeing how he set up the shots and how things played out, so that when they came in, they new what worked well and what didn’t. This seems to be true. There are some really great shots in the Spanish version that the English version could’ve done, too—I mean, there’s no reason for them to not have done it, except that they didn’t realize until after that it would be a good idea.

On the other hand, the Spanish language version was directed by George Melford, who was a veteran of silent movies, and who had done Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik among scores of other films, so maybe there’s a bit of post-production jealousy going on. The Melford version has more natural female characters—and all but one of the comic relief characters in the Browning version are replaced with attractive young women—and a less wimpy boyfriend and father character.

That was kind of interesting. The Browning version has this sort of WASPy deference to the expert (Van Helsing), while the Spanish father and the boyfriend are much more protective of Eva (the Spanish Mina). Also, there’s actual cleavage among the ladies in the Melford version, which isn’t easy given that they were all wearing flapper styles (and one grossly fitting nurse uniform).

I think I see what they mean when they say the Spanish version is "earthier".
On the left, the nipply Latina Mina, on the right, the modest…Dana Perino?

Nonetheless, not only is Bela a better Drac, the English Van Helsing is far better as well, and since most of the dramatic/horror tension comes from them interacting, it’s hard to claim the Spanish language version is “better” in an overall meaningful sense.

This was definitely a movie-lover’s double-feature. The fact is, the ’31 Dracula is terribly dated. The acting is stagey. The bat is ridiculous. It’s so clearly a bat on a string. The Melford version has it swooping more than the Browning one, where it just bobs up and down, and that sometimes works better but other times is just awful. We never see any transition from any form to human in either film, and in the Browning version, we never actually see Lugosi arise from his coffin. (Melford figured out an effect with smoke and lights that was not bad.) The Melford version has a closeup on vampire puncture wounds but that’s as close as we ever get to seeing anything.

Mostly it’s talking in a dramatic way about horrific things.

All the Universal monster movies are pretty badly dated—horror tends to age badly, although I do think the silent era films (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) hold up better. Frankenstein has a lot of charm in its sets and outlandishness. The Mummy—well, I can’t watch that now without rooting for the Mummy, himself. Wolfman is pretty good, but like all of these movies, ends rather abruptly. The Invisible Man also holds up pretty well, though (like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein) it has a lot of comedy in it. (Some people—notably Universal Studios PR flacks—put The Creature From The Black Lagoon in the pantheon, but that was in 1954, over 20 years after Dracula, so no sale here.)

I’d have a hard time recommending most of them to an average moviegoer, quite frankly. On the other hand, The Boy has been waxing enthusiastic about how much he liked this version, especially Lugosi’s presence, and sheer atmosphere of unadulterated evil that’s missing from this era of sparkly, sympathetic vampires.

Reading Is Fundamental
Team Bela studies up before confronting “Team Carlos” in the Dracula Internet Chat Room.

Sicario

Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, who made a big splash a few years back with a brutal film called Incendies, and followed it up with the equally brutal American film Prisoners, has brought us—well, hold on to your hats, here—a brutal film about cartels in America called Sicario. Don’t get me wrong, these are good movies, but brutality is their hallmark, and in particular, brutality at an intimate level.

Which may be why they don’t do boffo box office.

Prisoners featured Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, among a few big names, and grossed about $60M. Sicario has Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin and probably won’t make quite that much.

By the way, I have the same reaction to Emily Blunt as I always do when I see she’s in a movie. It goes something like “I’m not going to like you in this role. You’re really not suited to be this character….Damn, that’s actually pretty good…”

Heh. I don’t know what that is. She looks so frail, physically, and while her features are not, say, Nicole-Kidman-delicate she looks like she could be feisty at most.  This particular role is more like Edge of Tomorrow’s veteran soldier, in that she plays a hard-bitten DEA officer who personally goes on raids with her team, only to find increasing levels of brutality.

See, he's going to eat her. Big Bad Wolf style.
Here we see Ms. Blunt misinterpreting del Toro when he says “We should stop for lunch.”

It is with this in mind that she’s drafted/volunteers/deceived into Josh Brolin’s DHS special task force which conducts missions on and over the border. Who Brolin is isn’t clear, and even less clear is the role that Benicio del Toro plays, except that they’re not exactly “by the book”. But they will stop at nothing to get the cartels under control, that is clear.

Well, nothing except for decriminalizing drugs and thereby dropping the price of them while simultaneously increasing availability, thus drying up the gangster’s resources. I mean, that couldn’t possibly work.

The face of a tax evader.
Al Capone says “Prohibition: It’s for the kiddies, see?”

Sorry, civil libertarianism aside: This movie raises the question of “How much are you really willing to do to stop the cartels?” Because the cartels themselves have literally no limits whatsoever. At the same time, Villeneuve does not present Brolin and del Toro (especially) as heroes. They are willing to do anything to get the cartels under control, including murder, foe or friend.

It’s very tense. There’s a point in the second act where it feels like the movie’s going off the rails and getting into details of Blunt’s character that don’t have any place in this action-oriented suspense film. Suffice to say: Nope, it all fits in, and not in any sort of subtle way. The level of paranoia, suspense, conspiracy, etc., just goes through the roof. And Blunt is really excellent.

I’m not sure how I feel about the end. It made sense, from Blunt’s character’s standpoint but maybe not so much for del Toro’s. The original one was much more brutal, and I suspect it was rejected because its perhaps more logical resolution did not resonate well with audiences.

Things are looking UP in Mexico!
The Mayor of Juarez objected that his city hadn’t looked like this since early September.

Anyway, I was sort of laughing because all three of the principles have worked together on different projects. Brolin and del Toro were rivals in No Country For Old Men, while Blunt and del Toro were sort-of love interests in The Wolf Man.

Another connection: The Coen brothers’ cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who also worked on No Country (and O! Brother, A Serious Man, Fargo, etc.) did the cinematography here, and it’s breathtaking. We saw this right after Wildlike, and I kept thinking: “This! This is how you shoot a movie!” But, of course, it’s hardly significant to point out that your little indie flick doesn’t compare to the work of a man who is possibly the greatest living cinematographer.

Anyway, it’s gorgeous, on top of being a supremely suspenseful film. The Boy and I both liked it, although The Boy thought the climactic action sequence with del Toro was too Hollywood, and that the movie had seemed like it was trying to be a more gritty, realistic affair. I don’t think I’d disagree: It was very Hollywood. Also very brutal.

As the movie notes up front, the Sicarii were Jewish terrorists who would stab Romans and Roman sympathizers with their daggers (sicae), and then fade away into the crowd. Which is kind of brutal.

Get the idea?

All she needs now is for an alien to jump out.
This looks so pleasant, I think I’ll take my next vacation in one of these cross-border tunnels.