Brooklyn

A young Irish lass, finding no prospects in her native Wexford, is encouraged by her older sister to travel to America and make her way to the New World, where she finds loneliness and homesickness, but also opportunity and love. Wow, how classic a premise. And how traditionally forged is John (Is Anybody There?) Crowley’s love song to America, to Ireland, and to people in general. Not a hint of modern political sensibility to be found, and the film is so much the greater for it.

Saorsie Ronan (How I Live Now, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hanna, The Secret World of Arrietty) turns in another wonderful performance as Eilis, the girl who’s sort of a cultural “middle child”. She’s pretty, but not pretty enough to land one of the rugby players which pass for the upper-crust of men in Wexford (and she’s not impressed by them anyway, it seems). She’s smart, but her older sister seems to have the only job for smart women in the county.

Though she's touched up a bit by this point.
Pictured: Hollywood’s idea of “not quite pretty enough”.

She works in a grocery store for a wicked woman who dishes out abuse, and makes sure to make her feel bad for leaving her sister to take care of her mother for the rest of her life, as she says.

But of course, it’s 1952, and the very journey to Ellis Island is rough, to say nothing of navigating the megalopolis that is NYC, though Eilis is pretty much confined to her boarding house, her department store job—where she is being reprimanded for her lack of personability as she fights off homesickness—and the Saturday night dance, where Tony shows up and takes an interest in her.

The sharp reader may note that “Tony” is not a classically Irish name, but common to another ethnicity Brooklyn is famous for. The sharp moviegoer may also note that Tony is played by Emory Cohen, which is not a classically Italian name. (But white people are allowed to cross ethnicity to other white people, I guess.)

And it’s very refreshing to note that virtually nothing is made of the whole Irish/Italian thing. That’s not exactly right: There’s some ethnic humor, for example. “We don’t like Irish people”, Tony’s young brother says at the dinner where Eilis first meets his family. But it’s clear that everyone is just looking out for their own: Tony’s parents approve of this serious young lady, while the boarding house lady (Julie Walters, being perfect of course) approves of Tony’s gentlemanly ways.

Even if the Italian is actually Jewish.
An Eytie and a Mick! How much more American can a love story be?

Making for some sort of familial conflict would’ve, I think, been both cheap and (Lord knows) it’s been played to death over the past 50 years. Other refreshing aspects of this film: a helpful priest who molests nary a soul, a wise traveller who assists Eilis on her journey over, the “mean girls” who are less mean than unserious (played by Eve Macklin and Emily Bett Rickards, the latter doubtless being best known as Felicity on the comic-book show “Arrow”), and basically an overall lack of misanthropy.

Most of the conflict in the film is not derived from people being crappy, shockingly, and the near polar opposite of that other film that takes place in the same place and time. Instead, the tension comes from people who different goals and ideals for young Eilis, and the general pull that “home” has on a new immigrant.

But we're keeping an eye on him anyway.
Molests no one, as far as we know.

It maintains interest by having you care, increasingly, about the characters. And, The Boy noted, there was a great deal of tension in the second act—more than you get from your average action film these days. This is very true, and it comes from wondering who, and under what circumstances, Eilis is going to hurt people she loves. Quite a touching story, really.

We loved it. The Boy said it was dangerous close to his top [whatever] list, except he felt that it lost a bit of urgency toward the end of the second act, which is exactly how I saw it, though I’d still probably put it in my top [whatever].

Screenplay by Nick Hornby based on Colm Toibin’s book. Lovely score by Michael Brook (Perks of Being a Wallflower, An Inconvenient Truth). I’m gonna guess this will be my favorite of Oscar nominated films, with Saorsie fighting it out (in my heard) with Brie Larson (Room) for best actress.

I sometimes feel with today’s young actors playing people from WWII era, that they’re like kids playing dress up. They’ll tend to look like they’re not used to wearing grownup clothes, and that they have no idea of the level of responsibility that people their age used to have—like a 21-year-old couple with two kids and a “career-path” they established five years previously—so they’re just reciting lines. The acting here, I’ve noted, is good, but I’d give a big nod to the writer and director, and the source material for really bringing an understanding of the time period forward.

Check it out!

We used to have standards.
Whatever you do, though, don’t cough going through Ellis Island.

Carol

We wanted to go see Brooklyn, but the showing we wanted to go was pre-empted for a showing of Trumbo.

Couldn’t pay me.

Carol wasn’t on my list of movies to see because Todd Haynes strikes me as creepy (as a director, I mean, I have no idea what the guy looks like) and because I mix him up with Todd Solondz, who also strikes as creepy (ibid). The Boy was seduced by the very high (90s) RT score, though and, well, there we were.

Carol is the story of a middle-aged lesbian in 1952-1953 who preys on a young, confused girl while using her former lover to run interference on her husband, who reacts by isolating her from her young daughter.

Cate Blanchett gets a pass, of course.
Nothing creepy here, amirite? Just two gals talkin’.

I mean, we can do this the way the movie sets it up: Carol sees Therese in a department store, falls in love, and is thwarted from pursuing her happiness by uptight ’50s morays, but factually, Carol is a terrible, terrible person who has no qualms destroying a lot of people’s lives, apparently.

I was reminded of High Noon, which is a movie I’ve referred to on many occasions. In High Noon, you know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is because the good guy wears a white hat and is Gary Cooper, while the bad guy wears a black hat and Jack Palance. To this day, I don’t know what it is that the Bad Guys were gonna do if Gary Cooper just, you know, left the town where nobody could be arsed enough to defend themselves from, well, whatever it was the Bad Guys were gonna do.

Palance won an Oscar for "City Slickers", tho'.
“First, we’re going to open a FABULOUS haberdashery that sells the BEST gloves!”

(And yes, Jack Palance was in Shane not High Noon, but my point stands, dammit!)

So, in this movie, we know the good guys because they’re the lesbians. And we know the bad guys, because they’re men. So this is a beautiful romance between two women that, I’m sure, we’re supposed to believe had a happily ever after waiting for them, if only society would just let people be who they were born to be, goshdarnit.

But, factually, again, what we know about Carol is that she married a guy late in life, she had an affair with a woman (whom she knew? groomed? from the age of 10), and then had a child with her husband, broke it off with lover #1, and then broke it off with her husband, while picking up on a woman maybe young enough to be her daughter. Whom she couldn’t restrain preying on for a week, say, while her husband is particularly pissed off at her and in custody of their daughter.

Choose any other combination of genders and orientations where this wouldn’t be regarded as completely sleazy. I defy you.

Alright, alright, alright!
Even when the age difference is MUCH smaller.

Apart from that, th0ugh, to paraphrase Mary Todd Lincoln, it was a great show.

I’m not kidding. The camerawork, the costumes, the hair, the recreation of 1952 New York City—meticulously done, beautifully shot, though without any really great blocking or visual tableaus that I can recall. It’s a sort of porn for a particular demographic that doesn’t include me. Carter Burwell’s score is wonderful. Honestly, I enjoyed the technique of the movie so much that it was only the jarring nature of the narrative that ruined it for me. It could’ve been pleasant enough fluff if it wasn’t constantly daring us to overlook Carol’s flaws.

But it’s Cate Blanchett, for whom seduction of men, women and hobbits is all very easy. Reminds me a bit of Kate Winslet, who has a penchant for playing awful, awful, awful women in Oscar bait movies.

It's quite a talent.
Cate easily out-acts her own physical beauty.

Sarah Paulson plays the discarded lover. Rooney Mara is the gal toy. There were some men, but who cares about them, really?

I guess it’s made $8M worldwide on a budget of $11-12M, but it’s hard for me to see how they put this together with just $12M, unless a lot of folks working for scale. (Compare it to Brooklyn, for example, which allegedly has the same budget, no really big names, fewer sets—and has made $20M so far.)

The Boy likened it to “clap humor”. It’s not actually a good narrative, but it’s a “correct” one. It will probably trounce Brooklyn, awards-wise.

Krampus

Hand to God, last Christmas season, I said to my kids, “I can’t believe nobody’s made a movie about the Krampus”. This actually isn’t true: There have been many films about the Krampus, including a Danish one made in the last decade that’s been on Shudder recently, whose name I forget, and a Finnish one called “Rare Exports”. But, you know, here in the real world, America, home of the Silent Night, Bloody Night franchise (!) and Christmas Evil, nobody had made a movie about Krampus.

Ho. Ho. Ho.
It probably goes without saying that these are NOT good movies.

Until now.

What’s the Krampus? Well, you know how, in America, if you’re a bad child, you get coal in your stocking from St. Nick? That was not sufficiently punishing for our Germanic and Austrian brethren, who thought Christmas would be enhanced by an actual demon that came around and punished children on a one-on-one basis.

Der Krampus, in other words.

The Boy and I almost had to go see this, especially given a ca. 60% RT, which is typically a good sign for a horror movie.

The premise is this: Young Max (about 10, I think) still believes in Santa Claus and is encouraged by his Austrian grandmother to write a letter to him. Meanwhile his alienated parents and too-hip sister go through holiday motions without any real cheer. They are descended upon by mom’s sister and her brood, a grotesquerie of rural caricatures, that set up a pretty fine metaphor for red-state/blue-state antagonism, all under one holiday roof. Anyway, Max’s letter is exposed, and in a fit of pique, he tears it up and casts it to the wind, where it spirals upward like an ad for a particularly ominous nanny.

Mary Poppins, you see?
“Never be cross or cruel. Never give us castor oil or gruel.”

Then the fun begins, ten little Indian style, as our Christmas movie takes on Night of the Living Dead proportions with the newly united family defending itself from demonic toys, CGI gingerbread men of a most offensive sort, creepy elves and of course the eponymous Krampus.

This could go wrong in so many ways. So, so many ways. And there are so few ways that it could’ve gone right, most of which would result in a much lesser movie than we ended up with.

The biggest surprise, and the thing that had us walking out of the theater smiling about, was that while being set up as a kind of malignant black comedy, it’s actually surprisingly benign. The upper-middle-class Engels and their lower-class in-laws rather quickly resolve their superficial differences and come together to form a united front.

Love the sweater!
And then you understand what a REAL enemy is.

Honestly, when the rednecks came in, they were so awful, we were kind of looking forward to them getting killed. But the dysfunction on the other side really wasn’t much better. It was quieter. It was surrounded by nicer stuff. But it was still there. So it was practically shocking to be rooting for the humans. (The movie even opens with a horrid massive shopping brawl, setting us up for something more misanthropic.)

So, what else was so great about this?

  • It wasn’t gory. I’ve got nothing against gore, of course, and it would’ve been appropriate for the misanthropic film we were expecting. Tonally, though, the suffering was kept to a minimum, which kept things fun and scary, rather than grim and nauseating.
  • There’s a heavy reliance on practical effects, like puppets and props. The gingerbread men—which you really couldn’t do any other way—were probably the weakest part because they were CGI, but mostly it was masks and props and so on.
  • The expository flashback was done stop-motion animation style, like Coraline or Corpse Bride. Again, a great and unexpected tonal choice.
  • Actual character arcs! For lots of characters! In a horror movie!
  • They didn’t screw up the ending. I thought they had written themselves into a hole by the end, and then there’s a fake-out, and then another fake-out. It was shocking how well this worked, again, tonally and narratively, they didn’t give up on the horror part, but there’s a non-nihilistic feel to it that’s almost optimistic.
You know, the guys who did all those stop-motion animation TV shows?
Eat your heart out Rankin-Bass!

Technically, of course, it’s competent. You’d expect that. But it’s very highly so: Adam Scott and Toni Collette are the stressed out Engel mom and dad, and presumably the big names, but the supporting cast is great character actors: David Koechner, Allison Tolman as the in-law parents, with the great Conchata Ferrell as obnoxious Aunt Dorothy. Emjay Anthony as Max and Krista Stadler as Omi (grandma) had some nice chemistry that gives the movie its warmth—which is kind of an odd thing to get in a horror movie but there it is.

Composer Douglas Pipes puts an evil spin on “Carol of the Bells” and “Silent Night” for his score.

The Boy really, really loved this film. We’re so used to seeing: bad horror movies, tonally bad movies (not just horror, but kid flicks, too), and movies with bad endings, it was so refreshing to see a movie that threaded a difficult path so expertly.

A very pleasant surprise, and while I will doubtless be shouted down for this, it earns a place alongside of Die Hard and Gremlins in the canon of holiday flicks.

You're a foul one, Mr. Grinch.
Merry Christmas…or else!

The Big Short

I was dubious, despite the positive reviews about this movie, The Big Short, which weaves a narrative about the guys who were smart enough to see the housing boom and profit from it. First, director Adam McKay (who co-wrote with Charles Randolph, The Life of David Gale) is best known for his work with Will Ferrell—Anchorman, Step Brothers, The Other Guys, and so on. No, wait, let’s kick it back—Zeroth: This is a movie coming from Hollywood which has made a dark magic of economics both in front of and behind the camera. The much lauded Margin Call, for example, is both murky and clumsy in attempt to moralize about something nobody involved seemed to understand.

You'd invest with Demi, wouldn't you?
Demi Moore sez, “And what was up with that dog business?”

Second (or, wait, third? no, second, we’re numbering from 0!), I saw the housing bubble as it was happening, and I’m no somebody-who-knows-about-economic-trickeries. I don’t even know who I should put in place of that somebody-who-knows-about-economic-trickeries.

I saw the dot-com bubble, too. I think it really hit home when AOL bought Warner Bros. My dad and I were working on the lot at the time, and we both said, upon hearing the news, “Surely you mean Time-Warner bought AOL, right?” Well, we had a good laugh when it turned out that AOL had, in fact, made the purchase. Keep in mind, this was in the late ’90s when it was announced, and Netscape—the killer of the private online service—had been invented in 1994.

But that required at least some marginal knowledge of things, I suppose. For the housing boom, my “keen insight” was derived from the fact that my house nearly quadrupled in value in 5-10 years, and the houses in my (modest) neighborhood were still being “bought” by people of modest means. Even while having purchased conservatively, I got to the point where I really couldn’t afford my own house. Obviously this couldn’t last.

In an unfashionable part of town.
This house went for a MILLION dollars in 2005.

But this was not obvious, apparently, on Wall Street in 2006. Or, maybe it was: This movie takes the tack that it wasn’t, and its protagonists are people trying to bet against the “sure thing”. Some might argue that it was well known, but not acknowledged, sort of like Wile E. Coyote being fine after running off the cliff until he looks down.

We’ll just leave the truth as an exercise for the reader.

Our main players are: Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a guy who’s made lots of money figuring out what everyone else isn’t seeing, and who spearheads the creation of credit default swaps against mortgage failures, which everyone on Wall Street is thrilled to sell him; Mark Baum (Steve Carell), a man haunted by the suicide of his brother and angered by the injustices in the world; and two “kids” Collins and Shipley (Finn Wittrock and Hamish Linklater) who goad survivalist ex-financier Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) into helping them get in on the action. All narrated by Ryan Gosling as some sort of douchebag.

And only once does he say "I'm Batman!"
Obvious aesthetic differences aside, Bale really nails Burry.

These guys all get the idea to short the housing market when Wall Street is all gung ho, “real estate will  NEVER go down”, and they all put their butts on the line to get in, for various reasons. They all get a degree of validation, and no small sum of money, of course. But there’s more at play here: The premise that they all somehow believed in was that, if they were smart enough and managed to get through all the obstacles set up by the various cronies on Wall Street and government, they, too, could profit by winning at the game.

This was so painfully naive to me, I have to ask myself (a few days later): What’s wrong with me that I’m more cynical than big money financiers? I mean, there are two obvious issues: First is the cynical observation that these barriers exists precisely so we don’t all get to play; second is the more practical observation that, if all the finance companies are up to their ears in bad loans, how are they going to pay out when those loans go bad?

I honestly still don’t know, except it has something to do with lots and lots of taxpayer money.

Ahead of the curve! Woo!
Steve Carrell as Mark Baum, learning to be as cynical as I am.

It’s a fun movie, setting aside the awful corruption it reveals. Actually, not setting that aside for a moment: It likes to aim its righteous anger at Wall Street, but it does show—almost literally—a government watchdog getting into bed with a bankster. Am I being too subtle? A girl working in a Federal Watchdog Agency has sex with someone at a big bank (Chase Morgan?) she’s also trying to get a job from.

This does not stop the movie from suggesting MOAR REGULATION! Of course. We have only one solution to anything. Interestingly enough, the real Mark Burry suggests personal responsibility is a better route. Nutty right-winger.

Anyway, it is a fun movie, having all the necessary elements for suspense, character development, plot twists, a healthy dose of rage-inducing muckraking, and all the actors are just living their roles beautifully. Carrel has the most relatable character, being angry and disappointed and generally doing his Everyman schtick beautifully. There’s also a particular melancholy in Bale’s semi-asperger-y character which is well communicated. And Pitt, while not in a big role, is perfect as the spooky guru who sees the End Times nearer than any of us can be comfortable with.

"Fight Club" reference.
“What did I tell you about the things you own ending up owning you?”

Gosling breaks out of his laconic tough-guy roles to present the perfect picture of smarm. (Perhaps better, even, than Bale’s own turn in American Psycho.) I actually didn’t recognize him without his serious, sorta-crosseyed look he has. He could give Ryan Reynolds a run for his money.

McKay also doesn’t spare the audience: Important financial concepts are explained by Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain at the blackjack table and Margot Robbie in a bathtub.

Get it? You weren’t paying attention before. You find this stuff boring. Here’s some glitz to make it go down easier.

The Boy and I were pleasantly surprised. It is one of the few movies of the award season that isn’t, as @JulesLaLaLand puts it, dour.

She's not bad looking.
In closing, Margot Robbie in a bathtub because maybe I share the same opinion as Adam Mackay.

Youth

Speaking of movies I went into some trepidation, after the morning viewing of Hotel Transylvania 2, I went to an evening show with The Boy to see Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth. We had both loved The Great Beauty, the last film of his to reach our shores, but the critics were much cooler on this.

No, Really: Caine is going to read about a sale on ham!
The Big Action Sequence

Once again, we both loved it, though as The Boy commented rather pointedly, “I loved it; I wouldn’t recommend it to many people.” And sure enough, the Stepdad saw it:

“It was full of great technique.”

“Didn’t like it, huh.”

“No.”

It is, like Beauty, a poetic film. There is a story arc, but it’s almost pointillism, with little vignettes strung together to make a statement about life, or in this case, perhaps about youth. Michael Caine plays the lead, a great conductor named Fred Ballinger who is plagued by the fame of a work that sort of embarrasses him, struggling with late life apathy. When the Queen of England requests him to come conduct this work, Simple Songs, he refuses, though we don’t immediately learn why.

He’s staying at a Swiss spa for his annual meetup with an old friend, an aged, failing auteur, Mick Boyle (played by Harvey Keitel in the least aggressively sleazy role I can ever recall him in), who is there with a bunch of kid screenwriters working on his “testament”: The great film that will be his final, profound observations on life. Commiserating with Caine at the spa is a young Johnny Depp-ish actor Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy, Prisoners), a serious actor whose greatest fame came from playing a robot.

As one does.
This guy plays the most famous guy in the film. He has a giant tattoo of Karl Marx on his back.

So, there’s a kinship between Tree and Ballinger, and the movie is in part how they deal with this issue of being artists who are known for things they can no longer stand, for various reasons. (Hello, Ravel! Hello, Anthony Burgess! Hello, Loudon Wainwright! Etc.) Boyle, on the other hand, has come to the end of the life thinking everything he’s done is crap, and this is his chance to really make some art.

Ballinger’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz) is there with him, and we learn (in a rather unpleasant way) that she is married to Boyle’s son. And we learn, in bits and pieces, how Boyle and Ballinger were neither particularly good fathers nor good men.

Not used to this from Keitel.
But Keitel’s character has a touching, almost paternal relationship with his writers.

The story is advanced through directly expository or dramatic scenes, or occasional bits of whimsy which you might find pretentious. Hell, you might find the whole thing pretentious. These sorts of things work for you or they don’t, when at their best.

We felt the aesthetic sense of things, the character arcs did actually arc, and the acting is, of course, the best. (Rachel Weisz, always a fine actress, looks better than I can remember her ever looking, too.) Caine seems to be able to exploit his age without it consuming him, like it did Peter O’Toole in his final years. (Eastwood’s another one who seems to be able to pull this off.) Best role I’ve seen Keitel in ever. Relative youngster Dano holds his own with these heavyweights. Madalina Diana Ghenea has a Bo-Derek-In-10 kind of role as a naked Miss Universe that will probably land her a bunch more work.

And that's with her clothes on.
Real beauty pageant winners are never this overtly sexy, are they?

So, yeah, we liked it a lot, even loved it, but would recommend only cautiously.

Hotel Transylvania 2

As a parent, there are certain things one must do, one of which is see the sorts of movies one would rather not see, without squashing the enthusiasm of the young ‘uns who want to see them. Without much enthusiasm for the original Hotel Transylvania, it came to pass that a sequel was made (of course) and the Barbarienne was all abuzz to see it.

Like wacky kid. And hairy businessman.
Featuring all the characters you kinda-sorta remember from the first one.

It’s not great. It’s a stretch to even call it good, much like the original—but it actually won me over fairly quickly and I ended up liking to more than the original. The RT critics also liked it more, and the initial audience score was a whopping 88%—now down to a more plausible 69%, suggesting to me (for the umpteenth time) that studios buy blocks of positive movie reviews on all the review sites.

The plot this time is that Mavis and Johnny have a baby, which is handled with more sensitivity than you might expect, and Drac is excited at the prospect of baby Dennis going full-fledged vampire. Problem is, Dennis is a “slow fanger” and is reaching his fifth birthday, beyond which point, apparently, if he doesn’t have fangs, he’ll never have them and end up being a miserable, stinking human for the rest of his mortal life.

Maybe a little.
And he looks nothing like the boys in “Brave”, either.

This leads to a series of gag setups that ultimately bemoan the coddling of the modern child, which can only be considered scathingly ironic given the benign state of the monsters in the film.

That aside, a lot of the gags work, at least to some degree. There’s a lot less frantic talking and some nice montages (which I largely attribute to director Tartakovsky), and the material is much less gross than you might think. There might have been a stinky diaper bit in there somewhere, e.g., but I don’t recall it. At the end, I marveled at the absence of fart jokes.

None of it makes a lick of sense, of course. If you imagine the story teams at Pixar, Disney, Dreamworks and Laika slaving over the storyboards for years tackling logical problems, consistent character development, coherent story arcs—well, it takes a lot bigger imagination to do that here.

The ending seems to fly in the face of the entire rest of the film to that point, opting for a big action scene instead of a big emotional one. Probably a smart move, but not a very cohesive one. I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would, but it was more of a sort of shrugging “oh, well” rather than an artistic argument being won.

Well, look, my expectations were quite low going in and they were exceeded. Good enough. The voice crew is largely the same bunch of SNL veterans as the last one, with Keegan Michael-Key replacing Cee Lo Green as the Mummy (who cares, really?), Jon Lovitz playing the Phantom rather than the Hunchback, and Dana Carvey joining in as Dana, the camp counselor. They’ve got some good lines but there’s not really enough room in this film for anyone to breathe and create a character.

It’s mostly just Sandler, Samberg, and Gomez playing off each other in a very traditional family comedy sort of way. Mel Brooks turns up as a Nosferatu-ish grandfather in a nice turn that doesn’t really go anywhere. And Sandler’s got his kids in voice roles, so they’ve got that going for them.

Blah-blah-blah!
Mel Brooks in the 2,000 Year Old Schtick

I think I saw it in the perfect mindset: With a really eager kid and very low expectations, and I can recommend it under the same circumstances for others. The Barbarienne loved it, natch.

Rifftrax Presents: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny

This was the last entry in Rifftrax’s 2015 series (dubbed The Crappening) and by far the most bizarre. The actual “film” Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny appears to have been a video advertisement for a local Miami theme park, the plot of which is: Santa Claus’ sleigh breaks down on a Miami Beach. The reindeer abandon him because it’s too hot, and they’re faithless bitches, and poor old, sweaty, dirty-pantsed, shirtless Santa has to find another means off the beach. “The kids” come to try to help him; they all fail.

Y'know. As one does.
Santa airs out the ol’ pits.

It’s kind of a thin plot, so it’s actually used as a bookend for another story: In an earlier known version of the film, Santa tells the kids the story of “Thumbelina” while they sweat together on the beach trying to figure out how, oh, how to get him back to the North Pole in time. Mike, Kevin and Bill have riffed this previously. They found another version of this film where the inner story is that of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. I can’t imagine how “Thumbelina” must’ve gone but the “Jack and the Beanstalk” story is an amazing thing: The lowest budget production imaginable combined with a fashion sense that only the early ’70s could provide. (Apparently, all three and something called “Musical Mutiny” were filmed at the same park, Pirate’s World.)

The whole thing does not even rise to the level of “bad”. It’s just sort of astounding. I felt kind of bad for the kid playing Jack, since he was very gamely giving it his all: I would go so far as to say he was a good performer, given the constraints. The constraints are terminal, alas.

What?
This is the giant from the beanstalk. You can tell he’s giant because he’s sitting in a giant chair. A chair so giant, it dwarfs him.

Before the main feature, there were no fewer than three shorts, and these were just as bizarre in their own way. The first one was a very early short featuring two kids who come out on Christmas Eve to discover Santa doing his biz in the living room. Santa then proceeds to tell them a story (yes, it’s another story-within-a-story deal) about chimpanzees. And the message of this is that these chimpanzees (all of whom have been outfitted by humans and made to do human-like things) are just like us. Santa actually says something to the effect that the only difference between them and you is that they know they’re monkeys. Which, apart from being wrong on so many levels, raises the question of what sort of propaganda was this intended to be? Pro-Darwin? (It wouldn’t have been long after Scopes, so maybe?)

The next short was probably the most amateurish thing in a night of amateurish things: A telling of Ogden Nash’s “Custard The Dragon” with kids kinda-sorta acting the characters in the poem. Literally, your grandparents might have acted this out with your great-grandparents filming it, 80 years ago. I mean, it might be someone’s home movie. It’s a fine child’s poem, I suppose, but this is just a giant—who? why? how could they?—well, look you don’t even have to take my word for it. You can probably find it on YouTube (unriffed).

The third short was actually in the same vein as Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny: Essentially a commercial for Santa’s Village (a very modest franchised “theme park”), it at least tells a story. In this one, Santa’s shop foreman is running around the park trying to get his elves from wasting the day doing all the fun things at the park rather than working. And when I say “fun things”, I mean there was a puppet show, and they’re watching that. It was a very modest park.

Of the four movies that were part of The Crappening, I (by far) preferred Miami Connection, but I have to say that, by the end of this one, when the Ice Cream Bunny shows up, there were moments I was having trouble breathing from laughing so hard.

High Octane Nightmare Fuel
“Spawn of Hell! You Shall Not Pass!”

I invested in bringing back MST3K, and I think it would be great to see Bill, Kevin and Mike back on that show for guest appearances, Rifftrax is its own thing and I’m confident that the world is plenty big for two great riffing ventures. So support ’em all, I say!

Macbeth

So, true confession time: I loved this movie, but didn’t understand a word of it. Well, okay, maybe half the words. Or a third.

Macbeth is, of course, one of The Bard’s great plays, though one I’m hardly familiar with, which hasn’t always been a burden, and isn’t actually a burden here. Typically, it takes me about 20-30 minutes to get my “Elizabethan Ears”, and I’m enjoying the rhythms and humor of his writing just like a drunk peasant in the cheap seats 400 years ago. It took a lot longer here, for sure: The style of acting (delivering dialogue) is very modern, with everything done in a murmur (into a microphone post-production). Compounding this is the aggressively Scottish accents, almost at needs-subtitle levels (as seen in Angel’s Share).

Jump! For my sword!
Here he’s saying “eetfookinshiitewanka” or something.

It’s a very simple plot, though: Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a great Scottish warrior who is goaded into killing the King by his hot wife (Marion Cotillard), after which he gains the kingdom but quickly becomes undone by—well, whatever mechanism that causes humans to go off the rails after they commit egregious ethical breaches. (Shakespeare had a good grasp of it, whatever it is, eh what?) And since, I suspect, that’s the point of the thing, I won’t fault it for leaving so much out.

Sure, piss of Jesus. See how that works out for you.
Prelude to Hot Murder Sex In A Church. Possibly not a great way to start a reign.

But, man, it leaves a lot out, so be prepared. It’s under 2 hours and director Justin Kurzel uses a lot of that time for acting—er, emoting? Whatever they call it when they’re not talking. Lots of nice visuals. A story that makes George R. R. Martin look like the hack he is. (I keed! Probably!)

Martin's a hack!
Burn the whole family? Kids and all? Just a BIT over the line.

Fassbender (Frank, the young X-Men movies) is great. I always hold a grudge with Cotillard for that Edith Piaf mess, but she always wins me over anyway, dammit. She’s quite good here. Paddy Considine (Child 44, World’s End) is Banquo. David Thewlis (Harry Potter, War Horse) is Duncan. Sean Davis (Serena, Prometheus) is MacDuff. Lotta famous good actors.

Still, I gotta warn you again, there’s a LOT missing. I don’t even know the play and yet I was disappointed by the lack of “by the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. The handling of the ghosts and witches was kind of interesting: The witches are relatively minor players and seem quite corporeal other than their tendency to appear and disappear as the moment calls for it. The ghosts seem to be a manifestation of Macbeth’s conscience, except sometimes I think other characters can see them, too.

The Boy, who understood fewer words than I did, also liked it. I’m not sure what that says, except that a lot of art is communicated on a non-verbal level, even in Shakespeare.

By the pricking of my thumbs...
Needs moar witches, tho’.

The Girl In The Book

I had grave reservations (grave! I tells ya) about going to see Marya Cohen’s auteurial debut, The Girl In The Book: The trailers made it seem like one of these neo-Victorian cautionary tales (cf. An Education) where a woman’s life is ruined by some particularly compelling older man exploiting her youth and desire for attention from a sophisticated adult.  It happens, of course. It happens frequently enough that this used to be a staple of cautionary literature aimed at girls, and also, em, less cautionary material. But it’s icky on a lot of levels.

Critics rate it very highly, and audiences find it passable, to boot. A lot of bad signs.

This is one of those times when a reviewer takes their taste about a movie and then seeks to justify it retroactively. Having established this is not my kind of movie, I (and the Boy!) both ended up liking it. I’ll try to explain why, but you should take my explanations with a grain of salt.

Icky, right?
The downcast eyes: Sign of easy prey.

The story is split between Young Alice (Ana Mulvoy-Ten), latchkey child of privilege, who is being seduced by famous (foreign!) writer Milan (Michael Nyqvist), and adult Alice (Emily Van Camp), whose life is a shamble of overbearing older males and one-night-stands. Though, Amy Schumer notwithstanding, she doesn’t actually find this lifestyle enjoyable. It’s more a compulsion. And, of course, Alice draws a pretty straight line between her experiences with Milan and her dysfunction, though her already neglectful parents drive the nail into her emotional coffin at the climax of the film.

Her rape—and I believe that’s the correct word, even though her sexual abuse is apparently a single, “minor” incident—is not limited to the physical. The (apparent) hack Milan steals her emotional life for his book, then dissembles about the origin. Years later, old Alice and Milan are actually both living in its shadow. (But honestly, who gives a crap about Milan? Creep.)

Alice’s story follows the basic arc it must (from a narrative sense) of her life having an equilibrium (awful as it is), to being upset by an arrival (in this case, a special edition of the book that is essentially about her), to having her achievements validated and invalidated, until she hits rock-bottom and really screws up her life. The denouement has been criticized for being “pat”, and there’s truth in that, but considering the alternatives (drawing the movie out, making it ambiguous, or making it darker than it needed to be), I preferred Cohen’s choice to any I could think of.

Grown-up Alice.
Doesn’t she look “well-adjusted”?

So, why does it work? The acting is quite good, though I’m such a dunce that I was marveling out how well Van Camp was playing a 14-year-old along with her 30-year-old self. (I could not find a picture of them together, though!) So, Mulvoy-Ten is actually about the age of her character—which makes Nyqvist’s groping even creepier, I suppose—but manages to play the role with an unselfconscious innocence that has the bravado of the teen and a heart-breaking vulnerability. But Van Camp has the tougher role: It’s 15 years later and she hasn’t really come to grips with this event she feels dictates her life. There’s a serious risk of her coming off as, well, whiny.

And Van Camp does not. This is partly a testament to her acting—because her character is highly flawed in certain very unappealing ways—and partly a testament to Cohen’s tight writing. In a genre that tends to emphasize feelings, her script manages to make space for characters to express emotions without letting them use them as an excuse.

That’s going to be my justification for why I liked this: Alice ends up being someone you root for, and her various antagonists are not cartoonish, even when they kind of are (Michael Cristofer, as dad, is so overbearingly awful, you’d be tempted to disbelieve him if you didn’t know people like that). Van Camp/Mulvoy-Ten are ably supported by Cristofer, Talia Balsam (Martin’s daughter with Van Patten!) as mom, David Call as the boyfriend, Emmett, and especially Ali Ahn as Alice’s bestie, Sadie.

Not gonna happen here, tho'.
Rooting for normalcy.

Alice and Sadie’s relationship is really strong, in terms of its own arc, and it adds a lot to the film. Alice and Emmett’s relationship feels more like a MacGuffin than a real thing, but it kind of has to be: This is Alice’s journey and whether or not she can have a real relationship is a big part of the journey.

I didn’t know who any of these people were, except Nyqvist (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and Call, who by sheer coincidence was in James White. I think that cast is TV people, mostly, but they were all very good.

It comes in at a brisk 80+ minutes, too, which we appreciated. Part of what makes these difficult-to-watch movies impossible-to-watch is wallowing in their own crapulence.  (“Crapulence” isn’t the best word for it, but how often do you get to write “Wallowing in their own crapulence”?) It can be almost torture porn when these things luxuriate over abuse or in the fallout thereof.

So, yeah, we liked it. It’s not an unqualified recommendation to hand out to strangers on the street, though I wouldn’t object to The Flower (or any girl young Alice’s age) seeing it. Forewarned and all that.

Unlike the awful one in "Learning to Drive".
One of the year’s best screen friendships.

Rock in the Red Zone

A documentarian goes to Sderot to examine the city’s odd role as a locus of contemporary Israeli music and discovers a rich cultural history not much explored in mainstream Israeli art, as well as a more recent tradition of constantly being bombed by Palestine. Directed by Laura Bialik, who hasn’t filmed much since Refusenik, about the Soviet mistreatment of Jews who wished to go to Israel, this film sort of explains her absence, and transforms the documentary into something more meaningful.

After a short visit in Sderot where she gets to know the local music scene, she returns home to Los Angeles, and yet finds herself drawn back to the Holy Land (as often happens). Part of the attraction may be the presence of famous local musician Avi Vaknan, of course, as when she decides to stay in Sderot, they share a rental. Ultimately the two get married. (The movie is somewhat coy about the progress of their relationship but it seems as though Avi and Laura initially could barely understand each other, and she shocked the traditional Avi by suggesting they share the place.)

And so, we get a personal element into what would’ve been a nice documentary about how small town musicians (almost an Israeli Muscle Shoals) make good. Which would have made a nice story even nicer. But for the Qassams.

People live here.
One of a multitude of shelters in Sderot.

Qassams are the rockets that Palestinians launch into Israel, primarily to kill civilians. (Even Palestine leaders admit and “condemn” this, though apparently do nothing to stop it.) These started in earnest after Ariel Sharon evacuated the Gaza strip in a bid for peace which, of course, only emboldened the Palestinians into greater evil. They just launch these little artisanal rockets at Sderot and the surrounding areas because, well, why the Hell wouldn’t you? You’re only going to kill Jews or people who live near Jews. Win-win.

Seriously, this stuff is so obviously evil, it could only be ignored by the UN.

Anyway, Sderot’s people are largely Sephardim, the Mediterranean Jews, who have different traditions from the Mizrahim (Jews local to the Middle East) and of course different from the Ashkenazi, who were from Europe. The Ashkenazi have generally dominated the government (and, it seems to me, the media as well), and the Sephardim can feel like second-class citizens, particularly in the poor town of Sderot which the Israeli government allows to be bombed year after year.

Life in Sderot consists of trying to go about your daily duties, but never farther than 15 seconds away from one of the many bomb shelters all over the city. This is a sort of surreal existence, as there’s a strange combination of pride, of poverty, of fear, of stubbornness, all mixed together to keep the population of Sderot in its home town. In fact, Avi Vaknan is shown as being very standoffish early on in the film, because he’s used to media people (like Laura) coming in and showing the empty hull of a Qassam alongside of the damage, and he believes (or wants to believe) Sderot is more than that.

Vaknan’s studio/school, Sderock is located in an underground bunker, and the movie treats us to the various musicians being groomed to take their place on the Israeli national stage. This was probably the original film: These kids coming from a place of poverty and frequent actual physical explosions, going along making their music, and making a splash in the world.

Again, people live here.
The entrance to Sderock.

That’s a good story, and there’s a lot of truth to it. One of the students was a little black girl—perhaps Beta Israel (Ethiopian) or Bilad el-Sudan—with a heartbreakingly beautiful voice who actually does go on to win a national competition. And there’s no doubt that the music that comes out of Sderot is an interesting mix of Middle Eastern, Sephardic and Western traditions.

Then you step back and realize that 3/4s of the population of Sderot has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Thousands of rockets fall every year. The number of casualties is relatively small, and the ruling elite decrees this as not a serious threat, in the same manner that you’ll see all over the Western world. (Your chances of being struck by lightning are greater than being killed by a terrorist, they proclaim smugly, and it’s true, as long as you’re not in the World Trade Center on 9/11.)

So, the movie, rather than being a few week or month review of a musical culture in an unlikely place, becomes a multi-year adventure: The story of Laura and Avi in Sderot, as they struggle with a culture that happens to include ubiquitous rocket attacks. Add to that that as a musician, Vaknan would be far better off in Tel Aviv, and at some level you suspect it’s sheer defiance—unwillingness to surrender—that keeps him in Sderot.

At the end of the movie, we learn that Qassams have increasing range, and as the range increases to more important places, people start to get upset. Finally, now, the rockets can actually reach Tel Aviv. I actually don’t think this is classism or racism per se: I think it’s that we learn to accept that bad things happen in Other Places—much like the world does with Israel generally—and we don’t wake up until the threat starts to get a little closer to home.

Yeah. No words.
Suburbs in Sderot

As the various murderous jihadis spread through Europe and America, more people begin to find their behavior—which has been standard operating procedure for jihadis in Israel for decades—less acceptable. Not the ruling elite, of course. The ruling elite will ignore it to the very end.

That’s actually more of a political statement than the movie, itself very fact driven despite its very personal story, makes. On the three point scale:

1) Subject matter: Interesting and important.

2) Presentation: Bialis has a nice flair for stepping back and not making the documentary about her, even when it kinda-sorta is.

2) Bias: A lot less than there should be, I think. There’s so little rancor shown—I mean, even people in Sderot are sympathetic to Palestinians! They actually debate the morality of the situation in their bunker. That seems more accommodating of evil than I care for.

Anyway, it’s a good and eye-opening documentary.

On Poppy Hill
Laura and Avik with their daughter.

Theeb

This is another movie that the critics were gaga about—97% on Rotten Tomatoes—while audiences were rather cooler (79%), and we sort of went in hoping we’d side with the critics on this one, as does occasionally happen. The good news is we did like it. The less good news is that we were more inclined toward the audience’s score than the critics’.

It’s also an arab movie. We don’t get a lot of arab movies except (perhaps ironically) at the Israel Film Fest.

The story is this: Young Theeb (means “wolf”) stows away on a journey with his older brother, acting as a guide for an Englishman and another arab on a mysterious mission during WWI. The beauty of filming in the desert of course being that one is never in danger of anything modern coming into frame. It’s all camels, wells and bedsheets, Lawrence of Arabia style—and Lord knows, I felt the absence of the amazing camerawork of that film here. You know that thing where Tarantino (et al) are trying to get filmmakers to use film again? This is a good example of why that’s not as frou-frou as it sounds. (Similar to Wildlike in that regard, though not as severely low budget.)

That said there is a massive special effects crew credited on this film, so what do I know?

It's dry.
This is not CGI. The desert actually sucks this much.

Anyway, this is really a “coming of age” story for Theeb as he learns that life in the desert is hard. I mean, he already knew that, I’m sure, but a lot of the thematic points are centered around killing: How to fire a rifle, how to kill a goat, how to survive a raid in the desert, and so on. In other words, this journey is a lot more than he bargains for.

It’s very good, very engaging, with convincing acting all around, and suitably harsh looking scenery. Early on the desert out there looks just like the desert we have here—ugly “low” desert rather than “high”, I guess—but there are some wonderful shots of narrow canyons and cracked earth, all sadly muted by digital “film” or maybe dulled in post-processing.

Well, maybe the English guy's uniform.
Also not CGI.

Anyway, besides being a nice coming-of-age film, it has the hallmarks of an old-time adventure film. There are camels, shootouts, bandits, desperados, a train, some Turks, a fistful of silver and so on, all in what is actually a rather leisurely paced 1:40. But it’s engaging. The actions reveal the characters quite nicely, even when their words aren’t necessarily to be trusted. And you learn that, out in the desert, loyalties shift with the sands.

And by desert, I mean Palm Springs. Heh.

So, we liked it, but not to the wild extreme of the critics. It’s another in our recent streak of “different” fare, to the point where we’re probably about ready to seem something more usual again.

Just like a kegger, but with goat and no beer.
Ready for some “normal”. Like a Bedouin kegger.

James White

Here is the latest effort from Martha Marcy May Marlene producer Josh Mond, who writes and directs this tale of the eponymous millennial man-child (played by Christopher Abbot of Martha and “Girls”) who is struggling to come to grips with life and reality while he cares for the mother who was the only parent he really knew.

This is a really engaging low-budget effort, on a par with Victoria, except more disciplined because, you know, not just one take. Our opening sequence is all done in a very tight shot of James’ face and while that opens up a bit later, it stays pretty intimate for the most part, throughout.

It's like a disease with Hollywood: Christmas must be depressing!
Another feel good holiday film!

And while we’ve seen plenty of movies about listless millennials, dissolutely going through their lives with no purpose, casual in their responsibilities as they are in sex, drug and alcohol use, this one is different: it shows a fine character underneath the poor grasp of life and other real-world situations.

When the movie opens (past the initial sequence) we find James at a gathering in his mother’s apartment, being scolded by her for being late, and we learn that it’s a sort of wake (or shiva, even though they’re not Jewish) for James’ father. This is his first time meeting his father’s other family: an asian woman and his young teen half-sister. I wasn’t clear on this but it almost seemed like he had only recently learned who his father was. In any event: “some guy who wasn’t around”.

He does some awkward things, socially, though protective of his mother who is letting this other family just run the occasion, and we see her not much later accusing him of using her illness (she beat cancer) to not get his act together. He moved back to take care of her four years ago, he says. She says two, which one hopes is correct, since James is supposed to be 21, and for him to have moved back when he was 17 seems a bit extreme. At the same time, we are definitely given reason to believe him over her later on. So, who knows?

Mother is played by Cynthia Nixon in a probably award-garnering turn which I hope doesn’t take away from Abbot’s movie-carrying performance. The two of them are the focus of the film, though rapper Scott Mescudi plays true-blue pal Nick very convincingly. Ron Livingston plays an editor who is a friend of, and apparently far more connected to, James’ father who tries to give James a job.

I really should stop making these terrible jokes.
It’s like “Sex and the City 3”! Only funnier.

Angel-faced Makenzie Leigh (“Gotham”, “The Slap”, a model previously known as Mak Weinman) plays Jayne, a girl James picks up in Mexico who ends up being more patient and dedicated than the circumstances of their meeting might suggest.

And yes, her hand is where you think it would be.
For some reason, this is the only still of her I can find from the film.

If there’s a narrative flaw here, it’s that we can’t really be sure how James is going to turn out, nor how the Jayne/James storyline is going to resolve. The film, which definitely has a loose, unscripted feel to it—though not a sloppy feel—does a really fine job in tying things up enough at the end that we don’t feel cheated. I just would’ve liked a little more something at the end. A little more Jayne could’ve given the audience a stronger signal.

Nonetheless, we did enjoy this, despite the rather intense material. There is a kind of “disease porn” out there, where movies, in an attempt to achieve “realism”, wallow in the various ungraceful or humiliating aspects of a disease, and I thought this avoided that well. There is some awful stuff, of course, but it all seems to feed into the narrative. Certainly a nod must go to editor Matthew Hannam (who has a ton of credits, none of which I recognize, probably because he’s Canadian) for keeping things moving at an interesting pace.

Anyway, good work all around, and if you’re not looking for escapist fun but rather intense drama, this is a good pick.

Room

A five-year-old lives in a small enclosed room with only a skylight to see into the world and has been told by his mother that room is the entire world, except for some vaguely defined outer space from which a man known only as “Old Nick” comes in periodically to bring them food and rape the mom while the child hides in the closet.

Yeah. No.
So, it’s a feel-good holiday film.

By the way, while I won’t say anything here that’s not in the trailer, we went into this mostly blind and it may be more enjoyable that way. So apart from “good film, highly emotionally charged, very tough to watch in spots” you might want to stop here if you prefer not knowing how things will turn. If you’ve seen the trailer or you’re worried about whether this might be a, um, triggering experience, read on.

Except for this stuff actually happening from time to time, there’s a pretty good movie hook, and one we’ve seen, at least in horror movies from the woman’s perspective—or the villain’s. This is the first time I can recall it being done from the perspective of a boy actually “born in captivity”, as it were.

The first half of this movie is definitely in the thriller/horror mold, as Ma (Brie Larson, Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now) tries to manage her sanity, keep Jack (Jacob Tremblay, Smurfs 2) safe, and ultimately plans an escape from Old Nick (Sean Bridgers, “Deadwood”, Jug Face). As the trailer makes clear, the escape does occur, and it’s quite a gripping scene as it is the child who ends up having to carry out the plan. This is where most such movies would end.

Life is complicated.
And it would be a HAPPY ending, even if your parents are Joan Allen and William Macy.

The second half of Room is the subsequent adaptation to life outside the room for mother, child and mother’s family. This is, I think, a less well-mined subject than the trapped-in-a-room scenario, and certainly it’s different in tone from the first half of the film. This gives the film an unusual rhythm, which the Boy and I both approved considering how the “beats” in a lot of films these days (mainstream or not) can be almost mechanical in their precision. That is, you know exactly when something is going to happen (and even what’s going to happen) before it happens.

So, in a way, you end up with two arcs: The more thriller-oriented arc followed by a heavy drama arc which doesn’t, thankfully, try to bring Old Nick back to stay on the horror track—though if that hasn’t been done, I suppose it will be shortly.

Great, great acting all around. Truly. Brie Larson continues to quietly tear up the screen whenever she’s on it. The young Trembly does an amazing job, for which some credit must certainly go to director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) and doubtless screenwriter/novelist Emma Donaghue.

That's probably in poorer taste than usual.
“So you’re going to throw me up really hard and I’ll smash through the ceiling?”

The choice of Bridgers for Old Nick was also an excellent one, I think, because he’s not a big man, maybe 5’10” and quite slender of build, but (as an adult male) he could be seen as one who might overpower, intimidate and abuse a 17-year-old girl even if she’s not much shorter. Horror movies always go for the deformed hulking brutes with big frames, like Kathy Bates. (I kid!)

William Macy has a too short role as the alienated father while Joan Allen looks good, if a little odd, as the mom-who-never-gave-up-hope. You kind of expect great performances out of these two, and they get the publicity going and probably sell a few tickets, but I also really liked Canadian Tom McCamus as stepdad Leo, both in terms of his acting and the role the character played. As someone who wasn’t immediately affected by the kidnapping and subsequent trauma, he’s in a good position to make a connection with Jack, and he’s quite believable in this role. Wendy Crewson (The Santa Clause) has a tiny role as a TV talk-show host who…well, let’s just say her role is pivotal.

Stephen Rennicks supplies a great score that reminds at times of Thomas Newman and (other times) Danny Elfman.

There was a lot of sniffling in the theater during quite a few scenes of this film and not entirely (or even mostly) from delicate, feminine noses. It’s gut-wrenching, heart-wrenching, highly emotional stuff all around. The Boy and I liked it, quite a bit.

I went there.
Especially the shock twist where “Old Nick” turns out to be Tommy Wiseau.