The Wave (Bølgen)

If you interview the people of Pompeii about whether they’re concerned re the volcano that blew up there a couple of thousand years ago, killing everyone, they tend to respond with “Well, the weather is really nice here.” Or so documentaries on Pompeii would have me believe. The people of the city of Geiranger, Norway, don’t really have that excuse, although it cannot be denied that this little fjord is absolutely gorgeous.

This is a real place, and the threat to it is real. In 1905—and again in 1936—a chunk of a nearby mountain fell into the ocean, creating a tsunami. Unlike earthquake caused tsunamis that travel across the sea for hours, these tsunamis take about 10 minutes—and the movie rather dramatically makes this a precise ten minutes which is a little unlikely—to hit the shore, and are big enough to wipe the town off the map.

Glub.
“Let’s go play by the shore, son. What could go wrong?”

As such, they have a warning system, sort of.

In classic disaster-movie fashion, our hero Kristian—one day away from moving to the big city for an oil job—spots an anomaly in the measuring devices used on the mountain, and goes from being obsessed (his usual mode) to panicky, getting him in hot water with his ridiculously beautiful wife Idun and his diffident teen son, Sondre. Fortunately, his little girl still loves him, and he ends up crashing with her in his empty old house while Idun and Sondre stay at local hotel (sea level: 1m, the captions ominously inform us).

Norwegian women. Why did the Vikings ever leave home?
I think we know who has the upper hand, aesthetically, in this relationship.

Well, it turns out he’s completely wrong and he moves to the big city the next day.

Ha! As if.

Naturally, that night—his warnings have at least encouraged his old team to take serious enough to do a round-the-clock-watch—the mountain collapses and the entire town of Gerainger must find its way up to 85m or higher, if they want to survive. In the next ten minutes. (Which, really, isn’t nearly enough time. A good disaster movie needs a little more lead. But, in this case, factual.)

What follows is a suspenseful (and occasionally horrific) set of events that test the various characters’ mettle. In true disaster/horror movie style, anyone can die at any time, and surviving the event doesn’t mean you’ll survive the aftermath. That said, this isn’t a “classic” disaster movie in the mold of Irwin Allen, where a large group of diverse characters are thrust together and learn to survive while learning that our differences are not so great. First of all, the diversity consists of a couple of Danes. (Everyone else is Norwegian, duh.) 

It works!
Norwegian CGI.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The movie comes in at a tight 100 minutes, with none of it wasted. The characters are well established, briefly, with tiny vignettes and incidents giving us something to hang our hats on. Idun, for example, establishes she’s a resourceful character early on while resolving a plumbing incident. Sondre stays at the hotel partly because he’s pissed at his dad, but also at least partly there’s a cute girl working the desk next his mom. There’s an implication that Kristian is materialistic and Idun is spiritualistic, though not gone into much. We get neighbors who like the family, and co-workers who like Kristian but find him a bit of a pain in the ass.

Just little bits here-and-there that make it possible for the viewer to hang his hat on. Similarly, choices are made, as they must be in this sort of film, and a decision to act heroically over here may result in a lot of deaths over there. The movie doesn’t hammer these home, staying focused on Kristian’s family for the most part, but their presence in the background fleshes things out in a way that suggests the filmmakers cared.

Fine performances from Kristofer Joner (who was the lead in that After Dark horror movie, Hidden!) and Ane Dahl Torp (Dead Snow) as Kristian and Idun, respectively, as well as for the two kids. Effective score by Magnus Beite (Escape, Ragnarok).

Overall, it’s a fine film. A nail-biter. You really don’t know who’s going to live or die. There’s a kind of shocking murder right in the heat of action. Perfectly understandable but shocking nonetheless.

The Boy and I both liked it, and are at a loss to explain the low audience rating (currently at 65% and falling!) for this. The critics rating is falling, too, but it’s currently at 80% which is closer to where we’d put it.

Honestly, the scenery alone makes it worth checking out.

Cold, but nice.
I don’t know if this is actually from the movie or just a shot of Gerainger, but it’s nice, isn’t it?

10 Cloverfield Lane

The Boy saw an ad for this movie a month or so ago and said, very animatedly, “There’s this new movie coming out with John Goodman trapped in a fallout shelter with two other people, who I can only assume he eats!” We’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since, even though the subsequent trailers made him a little leerier. (Less is more sometimes, trailer people!)

And so it came to pass that 10 Cloverfield Lane was “the movie where John Goodman eats people” with us and the Flower taking bets on how many people he would eat, and what manner their consumption would take place.

'cause he's like that.
If it were a Harlan Ellison story, they’d both end up eating her.

It’s not really a fat joke, though in the Goodman cycle of weight-gain and loss, he does seem to be on the heavier end of a cycle here, it’s that (around here) he’s a beloved actor of many big roles. Of course, Walter Sobchak, but also in Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis, O Brother Where Art Thou? and Raising Arizona, Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, The Artist, The Emperor’s New Groove, Death Sentence, not to mention Serpunt from a “King of the Hill” episode and Robot Santa on “Futurama”. Hell, we’ll even throw in Revenge of the Nerds. (My kids are barely aware that “Roseanne” was a thing.)

The thing about Mr. Goodman is that he is both instantly recognizable (visually and aurally) and amazingly versatile as an actor. He can be lovable hardworking dude (Sully in Monsters, Inc.) or an utter maniac (the Cyclops in O Brother!), or he can switch between (Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink). And even when the maniac switch is toggled, there’s a lot of nuance there, like the brainless Coach Harris (Revenge of the Nerds) versus the cold-blooded killer of Death Sentence.

And this is a very, very important aspect of 10 Cloverfield Lane. The story—and I’m going to be vague here to avoid any sort of spoilers—is that Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, A Good Day To Die Hard, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) wakes up in a bomb shelter owned and operated by Howard (Goodman). She doesn’t know quite how she got there, but she knows that Howard’s story doesn’t add up, and she’s dubious about his very sketchy end-of-the-world story.

As if that would make it LESS creepy!
“I thought you said Quentin Tarantino was gonna be here.”

Howard is not quite right, we can all see. For one thing, he built this extensive bomb shelter. And mightn’t someone that obsessed with the end of the world delude themselves into thinking it happened? His only backup for this story is the non-too-bright Emmet (John Gallagher Jr., Short Term 12, Pieces of April) who doesn’t seem to be someone who’s word you’d prefer to trust on such a big topic.

So, here we are. Two guys and a gal trapped in a small area at the end of the world. Sure, we’ve seen it a million times before, but we’ve never seen it with John Goodman.

There’s only a few ways a story like this can go. But what this movie does well is keep you off-balance. Certain things confirm Howard’s story. But even being right doesn’t mean you’re not crazy. So Michelle has to keep on her guard while not getting killed whether by Howard or the threats that may or may not be outdoors. It’s particularly refreshing to have a female lead in this situation whose actions are smart, resourceful and largely believable.

Die-Hard reference. But you knew that.
“Come out to the coast! We’ll get together! Have a few laughs!”

There’s a third act tonal shift that surprised the crap out of us. This is not the end, but imagine if Michelle found out Howard was lying about the end of the world, but that he did it because he loved her from afar, and the movie shifted into a romantic montage of them walking on the beach, playing at amusement parks, and getting married with Emmett as the best man.

That would be slightly more extreme than the tonal shift the movie actually takes.

It’s a little goofy. But as The Boy pointed out, if you don’t want to see the same things over and over again, you have to broaden your horizons about what’s acceptable. You have to be able to switch gears. I liked it, myself, but it was shocking.

Anyway, a very tight film overall. Really great performances from the three principles. Good directorial debut for Dan Trachtenberg. Nice score from Bear McCreary (“The Walking Dead”, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”). Definitely worth watching: The Boy and The Flower both gave it a thumbs up.

Looks like he lost some of the weight!
The wedding photos!

The 10 Commandments (1956)

You may not know this about me, but even as a child, I would avoid watching things on TV so that I would see them for the first time on the big screen. And so it came to pass that when TCM Presents featured The 10 Commandments, I told my children that I was going to see this for the first time, and they were welcome to come (or not) as they pleased. Because while it is a classic film, it’s also a four-hour experience! The movie itself is three hours and 39 minutes long—per Cecile B. DeMille’s wonderful “step out in front of the curtain to introduce the film” bit at the front—but with Ben Mankiewicz’ (mercifully brief) intro, the intermission, and outro, you’re splitting hairs.

It's long, is what I'm saying.
“Let my people go…to the bathroom!”

The Boy hesitated, if only briefly due to his experience with Laurence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. The Flower hesitated, then declined. The Boy had no regrets. The Flower, after I told her she would have loved this and that about the film, said she was sure she would have—she just didn’t know if she would’ve loved them four hours worth.

Fair enough.

I did, though. As did The Boy, though he didn’t find it quite as good as Zhivago or Laurence.

Remember those? They were a thing before CGI. And the '70s.
But those films lacked a literal “cast of thousands”.

Also, fair enough. If nothing else because DeMille was a creature of the silent era epic. Bogdanovich notes in Who The Devil Made It? that all of the directors he interviewed—the greatest in movie history—were of the silent era. But they were all journeymen of that era while DeMille was a master and a master of epics. What that means to the modern viewer is that the techniques used are rather stagey, relying on what are now called “practical effects”, as well as a cast of thousands where “thousands” means, literally, thousands of actual people rather than images rendered in post.

I have often said I do not find the “naturalism” of modern movie-making particularly noble or immersive: There is nothing “natural” about a movie (or play) and sometimes I think the conceit of naturalism belies an insecurity about being unable to reach the heights that older, better artists reached before you. (Similarly, I think that fear powers a lot of “abstract” art schools. I also note that the baroque era in music died with Bach, and suspect that is also because no one else could reach that level.)

Anyway, this is a delightful film. The most astounding thing to me is that this was a mainstream film, so acceptable and entrenched in culture that not only is it #6 on the all-time box office list, it has played every year on television since 1973. (My guess is that prior to 1973, Paramount figured there was more money in re-releasing in theaters it than in letting it play on TV.) I assume that it’s been grandfathered in at this point, or it would be considered too culturally insensitive to Egyptians.

Brynner? Russian. Hardwicke? English, of course. Heston? Illinois, back when that was part of the USA.
Which is silly, because there isn’t an Egyptian to be seen.

The story, largely non-Biblical, concerns Moses’ life in-between his babyhood and 30s—and what is it with Biblical characters having origin stories then not appearing for decades after? Who do they think they are? Superman? The contrivance, also featured in Spielberg’s Prince of Egypt (actually an uncredited remake of this), is that Moses was picked up by Pharaoh’s sister and raised as her own, alongside the legitimate Prince, Rameses.

This creates some tension when Moses turns out to be preferable in every way to Rameses and threatens to actually become Pharaoh himself over his snotty but damned good looking rival. This suits the vampy Nefertiri just fine since she prefers Moses, but her murderous actions set off the chain of events that lead to Moses finding out he’s not really Egyptian, to that whole series of plagues which ends with the firstborn of every house being killed.

As they say: that escalated quickly.

CB knew what was what.
So beautiful. So evil. So makes you think if you stare hard enough you can see through her top.

Funny—because it is straight text Bible that it was God His Own Self who hardens the Pharaoh’s heart but it’s hard to pass up a good femme fatale in favor of a faceless, enigmatic deity. It’s also great melodrama to have the Pharaoh and his reluctant queen chew the scenery and evil-up-the-joint, rather than deal with the devout, faithful Moses and his family.

The acting is wonderful. Yul Brynner kicks ass all up and down the screen. I’ve started putting my hands on my hips like he does on a daily basis just to try to get some of that awesomeness going. Anne Baxter is so wicked as the Queen, I was sure it was Yvonne DeCarlo. Because, of course, I have an image of DeCarlo as a “vamp”, get it? But DeCarlo played the faithful and much neglected Sephora, a modest beauty whose reluctance to play desert-girl games wins Moses’ heart.

Wow!
Wow. I wonder if she’s dreaming of landing a dopey monster-based sitcom?

A pre-Horror-icon-ification Vincent Price plays the Master Builder, and a mid-heroin-addiction John Carradine plays Moses’ right-hand-man and staff-wrangler, Aaron. John Derek, known to me primarily as the creepy old guy who married Bo, plays the dedicated Joshua, pining for the all-too-lovely Lillia. Lillia was played by Debra Paget, who would team up with Price on the Corman/Poe flicks Tales of Terror and The Haunted Palace before retiring from the increasingly vulgar movie-making world.

I’ve mentioned that I have not seen this movie, in all the opportunities available to me growing up, but I have seen it and heard it mocked in all that time. As such, I was especially pleased by Charlton Heston’s performance as Moses. His physical countenance, especially his very strong nose, doesn’t seem as out of place as one might think, and his acting is inspired. I think a lot of the negativity toward him came from his anti-Communist values, frankly. (I mean, he couldn’t touch the hem of Paul Scofield’s skirt when he did The Man For All Seasons but the role of Messiah is a different challenge.)

Heston could pitch a covenant!
Plus, you need a strong right arm if you’re gonna crush the calf with those tablets.

The other thing I’m familiar with was Billy Crystal’s mocking of Edward G. Robinson’s Dathan, which was pretty much perfect in every regard. I think Crystal was just playing on Robinson’s gangster persona, much like James Cagney got ribbed for his spectacular performance as George M. Cohan. But I was surprised at how good—and how evil—he was. And he not once says “Where’s your Messiah now?” in his best Capone sneer. Which, maybe that was a little disappointing.

Music by Elmer Bernstein. ’nuff said.

Gorgeous sets, mattes, design, and mostly great special effects. Some of the composite shots were weak, but that was always the case with composite shots. I found the staff-to-snake trick disappointing in its animation.

So many sexy colorful costumes filled with sexy dancing girls that cannot be even remotely close to actual textile/ethnic availabilities in Egypt in the 14th century BC. Just great.

Improbably, I couldn’t find a shot of the dancing girls, so enjoy Debra Paget (Lilia) as a dancing girl in “Indian Tomb” (1959).

Nominated for a bunch of Oscars which it lost, primarily to—I’m not making this up—Around The World in 80 Days, which is another film I’ve avoided seeing. But a record-breaking film in a lot of ways, and a damn fine way to end your movie career. The movie cost a whopping $13 million and DeMille took four years to make it, including shooting in Egypt. (Try that today, Mr. Jewish Hollywood guy.)

Definitely worth the four hours.

The Boy and The Beast

Our local theater chain, the Laemmle, which we adore for a variety of reasons (great bulk discounts, cheap but excellent popcorn, great staff) has one particular attribute with which we are not enthralled. To wit:

I drew The Flower’s attention to Only Yesterday on the (now Blade Runner-style video) ad boards in January, so we’ve been watching for its release. We were also watching for The Boy and The Beast, which was to be released at the same time. The Laemmle deals generally in subtitled films—they have shirts that say “Not afraid of subtitles”— but for these movies they had some dubbed showings in the day.

The Flower likes the dubbed versions. As an artist she likes to focus on the artistry, and she can’t do that if she’s reading subtitles. The listings indicated that Only Yesterday was only going to show for one week, while The Beast and The Boy was due for a longer run, so we went to see Only Yesterday first, figuring to hit Beast next weekend. But we then discovered that The Beast and The Boy was actually exiting that week as well—and it had a much abbreviated run in the theaters it was playing, so we ended up making a drive to Pasadena just to see it at all.

And it was good. Very good.

The animation version of a "still".
Pictured: A shot not from the movie.

Director Momoru Hosoda is definitely more something than Studio Ghibli. I don’t want to say “Japanese” because obviously Studio Ghibli is very (entirely!) Japanese—but let’s say that Hosoda’s tropes are more familiar as Japanese anime tropes than Miyazaki’s or Takahata’s. Maybe that’s because Ghibli has a far more feminine bent (as I discussed in my Only Yesterday review) and I am perhaps more familiar with male-oriented animé (although honestly not very familiar with it at all).

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Nobody will replace Ghibli, and I’m not sure that Hosoda can have the kind of impact on mainstream America that Hayazaki has had. But even Hayazaki has never crossed the $20M mark in America (while globally his films make hundreds of millions) which is perhaps due to American companies choking distribution or may be just due to their foreignness. The Boy and the Beast looks to make about $500K here, which puts it between Only Yesterday and Marnie.

The beasts call them "monkey points".
Here, Kyuta realizes the cruel hoax which is “net points.”

The cool thing here is that, much like Summer Wars, Momoru teases the idea of a very traditional animé-type story—one that you might roll your eyes at, like I wanted to with Summer Wars (before seeing it)—and then flips it on its head. The idea is that freshly orphaned Kyuta sees a life with a bunch of cold, grubby relatives, and runs away to live on the streets rather than with them, but finds himself quickly accosted by a foul-tempered bear-man named Kumatetsu.

It seems that beasts, unlike humans, can arise to godhood. And the beasts are ruled by a single leader—a wise and comical rabbit-man, in this case—until it’s time for this king to take its place among the gods. Before ascending, the rabbit-thing must pick his successor, who will be either Kumatetsu or a boar-man Iozen. Iozen is considered a great teacher, a wise and well-liked figure with a mild temper, while Kumatetsu has never been able to retain a student long enough to actually learn how to teach (a task which doesn’t much seem to interest him).

Obviously Kyuta is going to train with Kumatetsu and this is going to factor in, somehow, to the current king’s decision on who should be his successor. And, with this setup, you sort of figure the climax of the movie will be the battle between the Iozen and Kumatetsu, with Kyuta again being somehow a factor (perhaps by having taught the teacher, or somesuch).

Ha! As if!
Or perhaps they will just learn to use cutlery.

But the movie, besides being a charming and well-done example of this kind of traditional story, switches things up. For example, it’s most common to have the student beg to be taught by a reluctant master. In this case, the master is desperate and the student is ready to blow at any moment. Further, Kumatetsu is a terrible teacher, without the faintest idea of how to teach anything. Kyuta sort of has to trick Kumatetsu into learning things from him.

And Kumatetsu doesn’t really learn much from any of this, as far as I can tell. We don’t have any reason to believe that, despite Kyuta’s tremendous success, and the subsequent popularity of the bear-man, Kumatetsu will ever be able to teach well. What the two seem to learn is more emotional than that, but I shan’t spoil it. Also, as we learn early on, humans are not able to ascend because they have a darkness within them. In fact, much resistance is made in the beast world to Kyuta being taught at all. The third act is kind of a surprising twist based on this that I did not see coming.

I will go so far as to say the ending was so Japanese that it kind of lost me. It made a poetic and emotional sense but I’m stuck in a lot of Western narrative tropes about things making a more literal kind of sense, or at least being prepared for certain types of resolutions. The Boy and The Flower did not have this problem, naturally, and I will chalk it up to personal fault rather than movie fault.

They both liked it. I think we all agreed that Wolf Children was best of the three, but the kids may have preferred this to Summer Wars. Either way, it’s a very solid flick, and well worth the drive—even to Pasadena.

I dunno. That boar just looks so much like Liam Neeson.
Liam Neeson calms Ewan McGregor on the set of The Phantom Menace.

Colliding Dreams

When first released, this Israeli historical documentary had quite poor reviews, in the 50% range. However, having realized the anti-semitism bias that often turns up on Rotten Tomatoes (and other review sites), The Boy and I endeavored to see it anyway. Currently, the documentary is in the 90s for both critics and audiences which is, I suspect, due to its attempt to balanced.

Now, when it comes to “balance” and Israel, I tend to be suspicious. Because there is no balance there: The Israelis struggle with trying to find a way to co-exist with the Palestinians, who are dedicated to destroying them. This is definitionally impossible.

So, a “balanced” movie is going to be horribly imbalanced in terms of, you know, actual truth.

Nobody wants the Palestinians, least of all the other arabs.
Pictured: Balance

This movie makes for a pretty good history, for those who don’t know it. It covers the 19th and early 20th century questions of “Zionism” and the “Jewish Problem”, as we saw in It Is No Dream. It also covers the revolution and the Jewish takeover of Israel, if somewhat apologetically. It says the Jews had no choice, even if much of what they did—in particular, evicting the Palestinians—was suboptimal.

It’s enlightening to note that, prior to the revolution, Jews had been buying up land in Palestine (this is back when Jews were called Palestinians, and the people calling themselves Palestinians today were just called “arabs”, though the movie doesn’t mention that) and the arabs who were, essentially, serfs on the land didn’t care for this more peaceful form of settling. The Jews would modernize and thus displace the arabs, who naturally wanted to live their medieval lives forever. (Not to imply that is limited to arabs. Luddism was named in England, and flourished in Europe throughout the second millennium.)

It’s also interesting to note that this land was “originally” owned by the Turks, and by “originally,” I mean that they had more-or-less recently conquered it and were constantly squabbling over it. So the whole “you stole our land!” cry has a false echo to it. The movie doesn’t detail that, either, nor the treatment of Jews under the Sultan.

I'm also struggling for pithy commentary, obviously.
I’m struggling for screenshots. Can you tell?

It’s also a little light on the history of Israel’s existence after the War, in terms of various arab nations attempts to crush Israel. And, of course it never mentions that there are many religions in Israel, but only one in Palestine. We saw the war stuff covered much better in Above and Beyond, and the second Prime Minsters movie. (Waltz With Bashir was devoted to the Lebanon adventure; it is not without merit even featuring as it does the existential angst of post-War western European-based cultures.)

We’ve also seen a lot more depth in covering the various ethnicities of Israel, most recently in Rock in the Red Zone, but going back to Live and Become!

We see a lot of Jewish/Israeli stuff, is what I’m saying.

It’s not a bad overview, although heavy on the Rabin and light on the Begin. (The docudrama Rabin: The Last Day was playing at the same time this was, but again, I think Rabin is seriously overestimated.) And history stops with the ’90s, leaving the filmmakers free to ignore the upshot of the retreat from the “settlements” and the subsequent attacks (as featured in Red Zone).

This is how “balance” was mostly provided then: By almost completely eliding the crimes of the Palestinians and Muslims in Israel, most especially their devotion to destroying Israel and all the Jews therein. But, if you know that going in (and the high 90s critic review tips it), it works as a nice introduction to the history of Israel.

Heh.
“Now that we have our own country, all our troubles are over!”

Only Yesterday (1991)

About 25-30 years ago, Studio Ghibli, which I can only assume was created so that the animators could make the movies they wanted to make, started to create things that were outside the traditional material for animated films. What Bakshi did by animating his unique brand of anarchy and raunch, Ghibli did by animating deeply emotional and literal stories—i.e., stories that could’ve been just as well shot as live action.

And usually featuring women or girls in the main roles, which is something I realized watching this. Of Ghibli’s 21 films, 14* feature female leads. Three (Porco RossoPom Poco and The Cat Returns) feature animals as the main characters. Of the remaining four, one features a vignettes of a family (My Neighbors the Yamadas), and the remaining three (the aberrative Tales from Earthsea, the historical The Wind Rises, and the brother-sister team of Grave of the Fireflies) feature male leads.

But you don’t hear me whining that Ghibli is sexist. Because I have a real job.

Anyway, what we have here is a movie made over 25 years ago that never got released in the USA. And as I’m watching it, I’m thinking, “I can see why this never got released.”

Not that it’s not good. It’s very good.

I mean, they love to watch it. Not do it. It's nasty on the fingers.
Kids love safflower harvesting.

It’s a sweet, romantic memoir of a 27-year-old Japanese unmarried woman (an “old maid” in the parlance of the day) who goes out to visit the farm of her in-laws (by sister’s marriage) every year as an escape from her boring city life. And as she does her farm work, she reflects on her childhood, in particular when she turned eleven and all the things that occurred that year that have stayed with her her whole life. We basically get these vignettes of the past as she tells them to us (and others) as she contemplates the ennui of her current life.

The movie is a reflection of the ’60s as told from the ’80s (the source manga is about ten years older than the movie), and that means there’s a lot of stuff in there you don’t see in modern kidflicks. Like corporal punishment and smoking. So much smoking. OK, there’s actually not a lot of this kind of stuff. But it’s not really a kidflick, either.

Banana is still the king of fruits.
Can your heart stand the disappointment of subpar pineapple?

One of the vignettes is entirely about the onset of menses. This is a great vignette, and really appropriate for pretty young kids—I mean, it’s Judy Blume stuff, if Judy Blume weren’t icky—but you just don’t see this sort of thing in American cartoons. Or cartoons from anywhere but Japan, as far as I know. It’s kind of astounding that it got a release at all. But I guess if you’re John Lasseter and you’ve given Disney Frozen and Zootopia, you can do whatever you want.

The dub is amazing. I mean, at points, it looks like the characters were animated to speak in English originally. The lead is done by Daisy Ridley (of The Force Awakens), and the recently very hot Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) provides the love interest. Voice greats Grey Griffin and Tara Strong have parts, too, so that’s cool.

You're welcome.
NOT part of the menses vignette.

In sum, we have a low-key, mature, contemplative film of the sort you don’t get from any other studio but Ghibli. Maybe don’t take your five-year-old to see it (though there were some young kids in our showing who seemed to like it okay) but go see it yourself. You can even take a date!

*Though, in fairness, Princess Mononoke arguably isn’t the lead character in the movie of that name.

Summer Wars (2010)

The success of Mamoru Hosoda’s last animated feature, Wolf Children, though completely unremarked on by BoxOfficeMojo, seems to have been enough to give him something of a foothold in America, with his latest feature, The Boy and the Beast having been released last Friday (4 March). OK, it’s a limited release, which means not a lot of theaters—though, one hopes, more than the dribs and drabs for Wolf Children.

The other thing this has done, however, is make it possible to see theatrical presentations of his previous films, in this case Sama Wozu, or Summer Wars. Now, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Japanese word for “summer” isn’t “sama”, nor the Japanese word for “wars”, “wozu”, but I have noticed that Japanese titles coming over here seem to be written like you’d imagine John Belushi’s “Samurai Film Producer” saying them.

It will kill you.
Cocaine’s a hell of a drug.

The kids were so enamored of Wolf Children, it seems possible that Hosoda could be the heir to Miyazaki Studio Ghibli has long been looking for. And rumor has it he was originally attached to direct Miayazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle, so some consideration has been given by those worthies. And, if true, the fact that he didn’t direct Howl suggests artistic differences of the sort you’d expect when putting two strong creative visions together.

Anyway, the movie was only playing at 10PM, on a Thursday night—and downtown. The Flower has been trying to achieve more regular sleeping hours. (The kids, being homeschooled, all go through a period where they think it’s the most awesome thing in the world to stay up till 3AM, and then gradually learn that it’s generally not a good trade. The Flower has just come through that.) I used to take The Boy out to 10PM—or even midnight—shows occasionally on weekdays, but he didn’t have a job back then.

At the same time, well, he really loves going to the movies. And if it’s the promise of a good movie, that’s very likely going to win out over ordinary tiredness. So it came to pass that we drove down to the Wilshire district late on Thursday night to see this film.

And, lo, it is good.

Which was odd.
And fun for the whole family. Though there is some swearing.

Not as good as Wolf Children, which was occasionally sublime in the beauty of its narrative and artistry. But still, very, very good indeed.

I was a bit concerned, since part of the story takes place in a virtual reality, and the trailers sort of play that up. Hosoda got his start with Digimon, which is sets the cine-sense tingling, but as it turns out, very little of the story takes place there. It is somewhat alienating, I found, but Hosoda typically sets one important sequence there, then hurries back to the real world—often cutting back to it so we can see the impact on the characters.

The story is this: Super cute and popular girl Natsuki tricks super nerdy Kenji to coming with her to her family’s estate in the country to help out with her (great-?) grandmother’s 90th birthday. It’s a very old and large family, but the patriarch (great-grandfather, we can reasonably guess born around WWI) squandered the inheritance, leaving only the estate. (Though the children and grand-children seem to be reasonably prosperous businessmen.)

The tentacle thing is an honest-to-god Japanese tradition.
Is there a bigger cliché in animé? If so, it probably involves tentacles.

Of course, nerdy guy jumps at the chance, only to find out that Natsuki has an ulterior motive, and that he’s thrust into the family life of this boisterous, opinionated, matriarchy whose non-distaff side passes the time regaling each other with stories of 16th century battles.

Which, frankly, could be movie enough. However, Kenji’s arrival is marked by a crisis in OZ, a virtual reality that is Second Life, Facebook, Twitter, your phone service, GPS, municipal service systems, banking services, email, online gaming and just about everything else you can think of rolled into one. It is the sort of thing that various would-be moguls have tried (and so far failed) to create.

What happens is that an AI of unknown origin has somehow been released into OZ and begins stealing accounts. And on stealing accounts, it gains the powers granted to those accounts. Because administration itself is done via OZ and the first thing “Love Machine” (heh) does is lock out the admin accounts, it cannot be stopped unless defeated in combat—a feat which becomes increasingly difficult as it accrues power, but which may be within the realm of possibility for the mysterious King Kazma, an anthropomorphized rabbit avatar that regularly wins OZ’s combat games.

Those teeth, tho'.
o/~I’m just a love machine. And I won’t for nobody at all…~\o

Of course, this is dumb on every conceivable level, technologically speaking, but it’s actually not much worse than any other AI based film, and it basically works because the movie spends about zero time trying to sell it. Like John Belushi talking about the Nazis bombing Pearl Harbor, they’re on a roll, and the audience just goes with it. (Wow, two Belushi references in one review! What are the odds?) It also works because the movie doesn’t bury itself in the virtual stuff, as mentioned previously.

When things start to go wrong, the matriarch of the clan uses her real world powers—basically, the massive networking capabilities of an old lady from a very distinguished family—to help. Ultimately, everyone (except for that one guy, you know the one) in the family comes together to use their skills to defeat the threat which takes a decidedly physically menacing turn.

It’s just a very nice film. It doesn’t have the mysterious beauty of Wolf Children, which relied more on traditional magic than techno-magic, as the computer based films do, but even with OZ, it’s the sort of film you could take your grandma to see. The Boy and I were very pleased, and didn’t even regret it the next day when we had to go to work.

The Flower also claims not to have regretted her choice to stay home. And she did watch and enjoy the film dubbed later. So there’s that.

This is another Japanese tradition.
Here we see the film’s hero with the brother of his ersatz girlfriend, whom The Boy and I both thought was a girl until about halfway through.

13 Hours

I am not exactly a Michael Bay fan. I love the Team America: World Police song (even though I’d never even considered going to see Pearl Harbor). I liked Armageddon‘s over-the-top comic-book-ness, and (as if often noted) The Rock is actually a pretty good movie. Granted, The Island was a trial to sit through, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to see Pain and Gain.

What 13 Hours does, from a moviegoer’s perspective, is remind us that Bay probably just makes the kinds of films he wants to make, even if that’s not the sort of film that’s likely to garner awards or critical praise—which, on the flip side means he’s kind of immune to them trashing him for political reasons, as with this film, which has a 51/87 Rotten Tomatoes split—worthy of a Christian film! (Risen, right now, has a 52/78 split, and the newly released Miracles From Heaven has a 54/84 split. Man, critics hate Jesus, don’t they? Jesus and soldiers.)

I was going to say "And Jesus isn't crazy about them, either" but, you know.
Seen here: Kenneth Turan and a soldier.

Despite the audience approval, however, this wasn’t a big hit, which is interesting. It’s easily his best film. It’s as apolitical as it can be, which perhaps isn’t very apolitical, given the election year. But no names are named, other than the victims. If this had occurred under a Republican President, I would have expected to see clips at the end of the President and Secretary of State lying about this being about a video, and using that lie to get the President re-elected. The closest we come to that is characters commenting that the news reports (about protests and a video) are wrong.

Which is fine.

Part of being a soldier, even a mercenary—which topic I’ll come back to—means not just that you are laying down your life in a good cause but that you are laying down your life in the hands of people who may capriciously dispose of it. Soldiers, I think, generally know this. As a society becomes more decadent, this calculus must become increasingly challenging, leading either to an enervated armed force (as under Carter) or a military coup.

Some religious nuts/slavers riddled with disease show up.
And then this happens.

Which brings us to the events of September 11, 2012, as portrayed in this film. And, scanning the published reviews of this film, I see no one objecting to the accuracy of the portrayal, which includes dialogue and action that was recorded. (The whole thing was being watched from a distance, I think from Tripoli.) Mostly the complaints are “the wrong sorts of people will enjoy this” and “not enough emphasis on the US sucking.” And, of course, the people cavilling over whether or not a “stand down” order was given are morons: Of course a “stand down” was given—you couldn’t otherwise expect these guys to not help.

And by “these guys” I mean, “the men and women of the armed forces”. Because that’s the ethos. And it remains even when you’re retired and “mercenary” as shown here.

This is, as I’ve mentioned, a good movie, and easily Bay’s best. As you’d expect, the action sequences are top-notch. They are occasionally confusing, but this is deliberate: Half the time our protagonists don’t know what’s going on, particularly when natives are involved. Some are friendly, some are not. How can you tell the difference? Well, you have to ask. (I’ve forgotten what they said, but they said it a lot: Something like “17 Feb?“, to which the natives would reply “17 Feb!“)

Wouldn't it have to?
I’m assuming the answer varied based on who was asking.

It’s surreal, on the one hand, to ask your enemies if they’re your enemies, sure. It’s even more surreal that it apparently works to some degree. It’s even more surreal when your friendlies can call your enemies on the phone. Says the guy making the call to an on-edge soldier, “I’m a good guy. But I know the bad guys.” This surreal aspect gives the action a kind of Apocalypse Now feel at points.

One complaint: On a couple of occasions, some folks are shot and fly backwards through the air. That was weird in a movie that’s otherwise very true-to-life. (In case you’re unaware: That doesn’t happen. It can’t happen. If bullets had that kind of force, the person shooting them would also have to fly back through the air. Newton’s 3rd Law.)

Beyond the action scenes, we get genuine character development. Not so much for the late Chris Stevens and Sean Smith because they’re in this completely unsafe embassy—excuse me, “embassy outpost”—and not part of the main crew. Their two bodyguards (two!) get more time and development, because they at least make it back to the super-secret CIA installation, that’s surrounded by high walls and guards, and from which caucasian men and women occasionally emerge to roam around the city. (That’s good spying!)

The actual victims.
Left-to-right: Chris Stevens, Tyrone Woods, Sean Smith and Glenn Doherty.

Again, I’ve seen some complaints that there’s no character development here, but it looks like most of the complaints are “I don’t know anyone like this” and “These aren’t the sort of people I’d associate with” and “These guys are nothing like Woody Allen!” But just because they’re not neurotic doesn’t mean they don’t struggle. They struggle because they’re far away from home—and voluntarily, in the sense they’re no longer in the military, though finances are significant here. They struggle because they have instincts that are countermanded by their bosses. (One has to conclude that Stevens and Smith—the latter being an IT guy/EVE Online guru just there to install a network!—might have been saved if not for the orders of the CIA base chief.)

But this movie underscores the sort of character we saw in American Sniper: They have families, lives, interests, who are smart and often funny, but for all their individuality, they react to danger with heroics rather than self-preservation. I’m not great at placing names with faces, so I had some real tension about which were going to live or die.

I’ve heard Michael Bay felt he was the right guy to do this movie, because in using so many military consultants on his movies, he’s grown to have an understanding of the military mindset, and a genuine empathy for the soldiers. I believe that’s true, and the movie reflects this. And one of the ways it reflects (and respects) this mindset is by not wallowing in grief or despair over tragic events. Heroes keep going.

13 Hours does not rise to the level of Blackhawk Down or even American Sniper but it’s fine storytelling, while hewing pretty closely to the truth. The Boy and I were both misty-eyed by the end, as we sometimes are in these military films.

What?! I had to take ONE shot, didn't I?
Meanwhile, at the “Hillary for President” Headquarters

Miller’s Crossing (1990)

I’m praying to ya! Look in your haaaaaaaht!

It’s amazing how fast the Coen brothers shot out of the gate, when you think about it. From Blood Simple to Raising Arizona, a noir black comedy to, well, whatever you’d call Arizona—a zany crime caper, maybe?—their third film is one of the great gangster films. Some say it’s their best film, but I think it’s fair to say you can find someone (and probably a lot of someones) who would say that about each of their films.

Me? I say “Hats”.

Nothin' up mah sleeve! Presto!
Especially when Gabriel Byrne pulls a rabbit outta his.

This movie has a lot of hats. They’re constantly being put on, taken off, blown away, misplaced, left behind as evidence, and (if we stretch the definition of “hats” to include “toupees”) capriciously stolen. At one point, there’s this exchange:

Verna: What’re you chewin’ over?
Tom Reagan: Dream I had once. I was walkin’ in the woods, I don’t know why. Wind came up and blew me hat off.
Verna: And you chased it, right? You ran and ran, finally caught up to it and you picked it up. But it wasn’t a hat anymore and it changed into something else, something wonderful.
Tom Reagan: Nah, it stayed a hat and no, I didn’t chase it. Nothing more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat.

To say nothing of a mob boss’s favorite expression of pique: “Don’t give me the high hat.”

The Coens are basically daring us to make something out of the hats. Sort of like they’re daring us to believe we understand what’s really going on (cf. A Serious Man). Crossing is kind of a classic noir in that while the shape of the story itself is very clear, the catalyst is a mystery. And, as we discover in the third act, the motivations of the characters are perhaps not what we thought they were either.

Those Crazy Coens!
Leo thinks he’s figured it out. But Tom, who did everything, looks confused.

In fact, it is not possible to know what Tom Reagan really intended at any point during the proceedings after his split with Leo. My feeling is that even Tom didn’t know what was going on. Was it all a mastermind scheme? Well, nothing’s more foolish than a man chasin’ his hat, right? We could speculate based on a reading of Dashiell Hammet’s The Glass Key, which this is strongly influenced by, but it would be only hat chasin’: “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.”

The other thing this movie is about? Ethics. The opening speech where Italian capo Johnny Caspar complains to Leo about not being able to make an honest life out of fixing fights anymore is, of course, funny to an audience, but it’s the whole woop and warf of the movie. Leo wants to start a gang war over his no-good girlfriend’s no-good brother, and Tom balks, because “you do things for a reason”.

The reasons for doing things, and for believing that doing those things will have the desired effect is big here. Everyone’s talking about reasons, or not caring what other people’s reasons are, or misunderstanding reasons. The whole shebang is kicked into high gear because Leo things Caspar killed one of his men as a prelude to defying Leo’s power. Meanwhile, Caspar’s sanity is based on being able to know and trust his men, knowing that they have “character” and “ethics”. And this tragic weakness turns out to be very easy to disrupt.

It's quite the ethical conundrum.
You start double-crossing, and where does it end?

The most straightforward gang in the movie is run by a guy named Lazarre. He’s a bookmaker, and Tom’s got a bit of a gambling problem. Tom repeatedly rejects any attempts by Leo (or anyone else) to pay off the debt he owes Lazarre, to the point of getting the crap beaten out of him by a couple of toughs. But Tom respects this: He knows the rules of the game, and it’s only fair he should pay the cost. In one of the great exchanges, after being beaten:

Tom: Tell Lazarre: No hard feelings.

Thug: Jesus, Tom. He knows.

The best performances throughout. Your first thought is “They’re all so young”, but they’re not really. They were all in their 30s by this point. It’s just that they’ve gotten older in the past quarter-century, as have we all. Gabriel Byrne plays Tom, and his lazy-eyed, low-key performances makes him the perfect straight man to a bunch of classic Coen characters. Albert Finney is Leo, the lovable murderous Irish gangsters, for whom one scene with a Thompson would’ve been reason enough to take the role. Steve Buscemi has a small role as the weaselly gay lover of the toughest guy in the movie, the Dane (played by the late J.E. Freeman). Marcia Gay Harden (her first major feature role) is lovely as the moll, the only female in the movie (with the exception of a brief, fun cameo from Frances McDormand) and the source of all the trouble.

Nor did Scrooge, or he would've handled those damnable ghosts!
Tom Jones never got to fire a Thompson.

Probably the two standout performances are by John Turturro and Jon Polito. Turturro is the brother of Verna (Harden), and he is, really, the Evil Guy. It’s his machinations that lead to the confrontation between Leo and Caspar, and only his sister—about whom he viciously gossips—keeps him alive. Yet, he’s so craven and pathetic, you can see why Tom has trouble killing him. Even though, scorpion-like, he immediately repays the kindness with a vicious stinging.

Jon Polito is Johnny Caspar who, despite being only in his late 30s, looks like he could possibly be a peer and threat to Leo. The role was originally meant to go to someone closer to Finney’s age, but Caspar looks a bit older than his years, and has the chops to be both a comic figure and a brutal murderer. It’s really a tour-de-force performance, and Polito’s roles with the Coens have been so great and memorable, I was surprised he didn’t turn up in Hail, Caesar! (Robert Trebor—who does a fine job in the role—plays the producer of the Jesus picture, and when he walked in I thought “Hey, that should be Jon Polito!”)

But I don’t claim to understand the Coens or their relationships with actors. Buscemi hasn’t been in a Coen movie since Lebowski, and Turturro since O Brother. Even Mrs. Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, has had just one major role since O Brother (in Burn After Reading), as well as a minor bit in Hail Caesar! So, yeah, I dunno. Maybe it’s a concern about getting stale.

Well, at least they’re still working with Carter Burwell, whose work here is fabulous. This is pre-Roger Deakins, however, so we get Barry Sonnenfeld as the cinematographer. Which reminds us that Sonnenfeld might have made a much bigger mark on movies if he’d stayed shooting rather than going into directing and producing. (But, hey, maybe Men In Black 3 will really hit it out of the park. Wait, it came out four years ago?)

This is one of those movies, because it’s a gangster movie, recommendation engines will say “If you like this, you’ll also enjoy Goodfellas and Scarface.” Don’t be fooled. This is a Coen Brothers movie, and your feeling toward them will determine your feeling toward this. I believe the Boy nominated this as his favorite gangster movie, supplanting The Untouchables, which he said had somewhat diminished on repeated viewings.

What?
Marcia Gay Harden at her hardeningist.

Creed

A new Rocky movie. I checked out of the Rocky series about the time Mr. T checked in. (Not that I didn’t enjoy Rocky III, but I felt the character was veering in a cartoonish direction.) And the thing about the latter day Rockys (V and Balboa) is that they felt a little desperate to me. I mean, from the trailers.

Carl Weathers carried the '70s well into the '80s.
Granted, Apollo had a kind of comic book thing going the whole time.

At the same time, I think Stallone got a raw deal in a lot of ways. While he went for the commercial stuff (and back then, it was pretty much go for the big BO or be declared washed up—we forget, sometimes, how truly edgy Johnny Depp’s career path was), I think he was largely shut out because of his politics (or perceived politics), like Charlton Heston or John Milius. That is, once the big box office fell off, it was easy to ostracize him. (But what do I know?) I’ll never forget watching some talk show where critic/evil person Jeffrey Lyons mocked Stallone because his pet project was to play Edgar Allan Poe. I think he could’ve done it, frankly, and well, and it’s not like there’s a glut of movies about Poe.

That water under the ’80s bridge, the thing about Creed is that it doesn’t feel desperate. Stallone is Rocky, now 40 years later, being approached by the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed, Adonis. Doni, as he’s called, can’t get trained back in L.A. but figures he can sort of guilt Rocky into doing it. So, off to Philadelphia we go, where widowed, orphan, last survivor Rocky runs a restaurant (called “Adrian’s”) and hobbles along in his 70 year old body.

Stallone is actually quite fit—I don’t think he ever let himself go like Arnie—but he does a convincing not-quite-healthy-but-doesn’t-want-to-admit it.

Gonna...coast...now....
Walking up the stairs this time.

The movie itself is basically an urban update of the original. Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle, Johnny Storm in the recent, tragic Fantastic 4 reboot) has teamed up with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler to tell the (once again) improbable story of a 30-year-old fighter who gets a shot at the belt because the champ’s manager thinks he’ll be easy pickings. (Remember the difference in your fighting venues: Boxing is rigged, wrestling is staged, movies are fake.) But Doni’s willing to sacrifice and train his heart out to win, while wooing his increasingly deaf musician girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and teaching Rocky how to live—and love—again.

It’s not as good as the original, of course, but it is remarkably good in its own right, and worthy of respect for the balance it achieves. The training montages don’t rouse the blood like the original, although the occasional callback to Conti’s score are a definite thrill for the old timers. The boxing captures a lot of the feel of Stallone’s boxing sequences: They make you feel the hits, so that you don’t mind the slowness. (Well, okay, maybe most people don’t notice it, but everything is considerably slowed down so that the audience can actually see it. Real boxers are fast, except maybe George Foreman in his 40s.) Interestingly, they went for “light heavyweight” rather than Rocky’s heavyweight category: Maybe the muscle-bound figures of yore are passé.

Still, he's no Carl Weathers in the looks department, much less BIlly Dee.
Cute couple.

The love story is nice. The backstory with a tender but, shall-we-say conflicted Mrs. Creed (Phylicia Rashad!) gives us a good launching point, even if it mostly drops away. And ol’ Rocky himself has his own struggle and character arc. There’s a lot going on. It all feels well-rounded, which may be why it doesn’t have, say, quite the intensity of the original. But again, that’s kind of a nitpick. It’s a good movie, and a very nice conclusion (if it is!) to the series—which, cartoonish-ness and all, still stands as one of the better movie series, taken in toto.

The Boy was very pleased with it (he has yet to see the original) and felt Stallone was certainly Oscar-worthy, even when compared to the not-nominated Tom Hardy as Mad Max.

Worth checking out, if you like boxing pix.

'cause it's fake.
Lots fewer injuries in movie fights.

 

The Witch

We always like to go see the horror movies that create a critical buzz, because that’s a fairly rare event. So we were eager to see Robert Eggers’ debut feature, The Witch: A New England Folk-Tale. There’s a huge split on the Tomatometer, with critics giving it around 90% and audiences rating it in the 50s, but this is no deterrent: While it’s generally wrong to blame the audience for not liking movies, it’s a pretty good idea in the horror genre, where the audiences are, by-and-large, stupid.

Heh.

I’m only sort-of kidding, though. It may well be a localized stupidity, restricted to that showing in the theater, but a big part of the horror crowd is just there to be scared or, often enough, not to be scared, and to announce this to the audience. In other words, there’s a fair amount of social positioning in a horror movie.

It’s hard to imagine much dumber.

No joke.
Please, Jesus, don’t let Loud-Scoffing-Guy be in this showing.

Anyway, this movie is not designed for the horror crowd, so I suppose a lot of the blame should go to the marketing department, since they’ll pitch it to dumb teenagers, and it’s more of an arty, spooky kind of film than a shock-fest, which is all the audience wants. Though, interestingly perhaps, this genre of film used to be quite common back in the ’60s and ’70s: Lots of movies about witches, witch hunters, inquisitors, and general supernatural creepiness that more atmospheric than shock-schlock, and really more history-with-horror-overtones than outright horror. (I think the costumes and settings must’ve been very cheap and accessible in England and Europe back then.)

And so we come to The Witch, a lovingly crafted low-budget entry into the “Oh, crap, Satan is amongst us (or is he?)” genre that gets a lot of its steam from giving us a taste of the tenuous hold early settlers had on New England.

The story concerns a family whose patriarch (Ralph Ineson, “Game of the Thrones”, UK’s ” The Office”) has a religious quarrel with the town elders, insisting quite earnestly that they’ve all got the Bible wrong (he seems to have Calvinist-like views), and being thrown out by said elders. This is, more or less, how we got Rhode Island. One kind of fun thing about this movie is how much the various incidents hew to various historical incidents: Obviously, we’re not talking about Rhode Island in this movie, and I don’t think it’s derived from any single incident, but if you know anything about witch scares, you’ll find that Eggers has drawn heavily from known incidents to build his film.

Out of the frying pan.
Escaped from Westeros into Rhode Island.

And the reason it works—if you let it, because (like all horror) you do have to buy in—is that you can see how things that might be minor or even laughable today are a much bigger deal when you can’t just drive down to the Wal-Mart (or Whole Foods, if you prefer). Curdled milk nothing to get hysterical over? Well, that curdling means nobody gets milk that day. Mutant egg? Sort of funny and freaky when a dozen cost 69 cents, but not so much when it means a potential problem with the chickens.

We won’t even go into the whole “Your nubile daughter is being eyed by your pubescent son because, honestly, who else can he look at?” Times was hard. They were even harder if your religious principles required you to piss everyone else off.

Needless to say, our family does not fare well on their own. Besides a bunch of agricultural mishaps, nobody much wants to trade with them. So they can perhaps be forgiven when a sudden tragedy makes them look askance at their big, black, foul-tempered billy goat. As you might imagine, things escalate from there, with accusations being cast to and fro, and strange occurrences multiplying.

Location.
And the Lord saith: Location, location, location.

Two very positive things for me in this movie were: First, the occult incidents only ever happened when one person (or the twins) were around, giving the film two possible major ways to go, i.e., there’s a witch/it’s all hysteria; Second, the ending resolves the question unambiguously, rather than try for a dumb mysterious “or was it?” The ending itself felt very old school, almost hokey, but again, I liked it, and it was straight out of historical recordings.

I may have enjoyed the movie a bit more because I recently finished reading Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds which had a big section on witch scares, but The Boy enjoyed it, I think, at least as much. But it’s not gory, not shocky, not flashy—it’s really a spooky, atmospheric historical flick with some horror effects. (The third act and denouement are rather intense, though.)

We felt a lot of love went into this: For example, the characters all had English accents and spoke in a way that sounded appropriate. In fact, I was sure some of the dialog had been lifted from genuine testimony (Arthur Miller did that in spades for “The Crucible”, lifting entire trial scenes). In fact, I was so sure some of the dialogue had been lifted, I suspected that it probably wasn’t quite true to the time and place, but more likely collected from disparate places and times, enough to where a real specialist in the period would scoff. Obviously not going to be a problem for the average moviegoer—much less than just understanding what’s being said. But I’ll take missing words here and there over a casual modern patter, dude. (I did spot a set of breast implants, though! I’ll leave it as an exercise to the viewer as to where.)

Maybe don't look so satanic, goats!
Not on this perfectly innocent goat, of course.

The camerawork is very nice, too, and the lighting, which I understand was mostly natural. That doesn’t always work, in my opinion, but I liked it here. (I suspect some post-processing was done to color correct, of course.)

The acting is spot on, with Inerson being both the stern patriarch, loving father and concerned Christian. Kate Dickie (crazy eagle-lady from “Game of Thrones”, Prometheus) also does wonderfully as she tries to hang on to her sanity while her family (and life) falls apart. Harvey Scrimshaw was good as the elder son. And the twins were convincingly annoying. The angelic newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy (a model, I think) is perfectly cast as the girl trying to convince everyone she loves Jesus and isn’t a witch.

I guess that’s a big part of the “feeling the love”: When modern movies are made about deeply religious folk, especially pigheaded ones like the patriarch here, we’re invited to laugh and mock. But here you get the impression that Eggers has a vast amount of sympathy for his characters. He gets how hard life was and how fragile the systems to support it were. As a result, the audience feels for them, too, and really gets the sense of what it is to be in their shoes.

And that, my friends, is what going to the movies is about.

Black Philip made me do it!
This lovely silhouette, suitable for clickbait, is from the poster, not the movie.

Hail, Caesar!

On Oscar night, I took the kids to the movies because, really, who can watch that thing any more? I guess the lady-folk like the dresses, but even then, I’m thinking it’s an older generation (like my mom hangs out all day in an Oscar-stupor, while having seen exactly one of the movies nominated, Creed). I don’t recall, early in my youth, it being such a fiasco but that may have been because there were so many fewer options back then: Fewer movies, fewer awards to hand out, fewer alternatives for entertainment. Hard to believe it wasn’t just as ridiculous when Brando had the Indian-for-Hire accept his award.

Though, there was a time—right around the same time as the Littlefeather nonsense—when Oscar had to worry about a culture less dignified than itself (though a culture it helped create). I’m speaking of the streaker that ran behind David Niven in the mid-’70s, when streaking was (yes!) a national hobby, of sorts. Niven, after being a bit flustered, delivers the joke that I’m sure was prepared well in advance. (That’s how inevitable a streaker would be.)

A propos of this is the latest Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! which gleefully points out that, in truth, Hollywood’s always been goofy, dysfunctional and, quite frankly, none too bright.

Best part of the movie.
Not that I’m naming names.

This is the a rare Coen brothers movie in that the protagonist is a genuine hero. In most of the Coens’ movies, the main characters are varying degrees of likable, and highly varying degrees of competence. Like we could consider The Dude a hero—I won’t say “hero”, ’cause what’s a hero?—but he’s mostly tossed along by the story. He doesn’t act, he reacts. There’s Raising Arizona, where H.I. acts to get his wife a baby, but of course, that’s a criminal act that leads all sorts of mayhem. Llewellyn, of No Country for Old Men, is certainly bold, but he, too, is carried along by events in he doesn’t really understand (after his initial critical act). The only other movie I can think of that really matches is Miller’s Crossing, but I’m not convinced Tom knows what’s going on, and his ending dialogue with his boss (Albert Finney) sort of suggests he was winging it.

In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion in recent years, the Coens’ oeuvre could be summed up with the old Yiddish proverb: “We plan, God laughs.” From Larry Gopnick (A Serious Man) to Abby (Blood Simple), good guys and bad, nobody really knows what’s going on. Maybe it’s because, as Charlie says to Barton (Barton Fink), we just don’t listen! But whatever the cause, the only exceptions to this rule I can think of is the heroic (but still rather clueless) Marge Gunderson (Fargo), the disreputable Rooster Cogburn (in that most un-Coen of movies, True Grit), and now Eddie Mannix.

Josh Brolin (No Country For Old Men) plays Eddie (based on real-life Hollywood “fixer” Edgar Mannix) running Capitol Pictures (which hired egghead playwright Barton Fink to do some “wrestling pictures” with Wallace Beery) whose days are filled with trying to preserve the “good girl” image of the dissolute DeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johannson, The Man Who Wasn’t There, channelling Esther Williams and Loretta Young), trying to find a lead for respectable filmmaker Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes, who looks like he hasn’t changed clothes since The Grand Budapest Hotel) said to be channelling Vicente Minnelli, but with some sort of Noel Coward-esque thing going on, being forced to fill that role with a singing cowboy who does rope tricks and stunt riding  (Alden Ehrenreich, who does a great job in a mashup of All The Singing Cowboys), while managing the religious sensitivities surrounding his latest Jesus picture, the titular Hail, Caesar! (Asked to comment on the theological content, one of the holy men says he doesn’t see how the star could leap from one chariot to the next like he does, suggesting a little Ben Hur homage.) Meanwhile, he’s dodging bitchy gossip column twins Thora and Thessaly Thacker, both played by Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading), who appear to be “if Hedda Hopper had a twin sister relationship like Dear Abby and Ann Landers.” Or, “If Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons were twins,” if you prefer to keep it strictly Hollywood.

And a purple tux, but don't pester me with details.
I guess he wore a bowtie in “Budapest”, not a cravat.

As chaotic as things are, the stuff hits the fan when the lead of Hail, Caesar! Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, O Brother! Where Art Thou, Burn After Reading, Intolerable Cruelty)—who seems to be channelling a bit of Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas, and frankly, a lot of George Clooney—is kidnapped. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s fine with me if Mr. Clooney works exclusively with the Coens for the rest of his career. And I’m not just saying that because Brolin slaps the crap out of him.

Eddie’s job is to handle all these threads, while retrieving Baird, not letting the Thackers find out, and doing it before the final scene of Hail, Caesar! has to be shot. Meanwhile, he’s fielding a serious offer from Lockheed to run their Burbank installation—a job that would pay better and have regular hours, as well as be much easier and less stressful. And it would allow him to retire in ten years. (In this movie, Mannix is portrayed as a squarely middle-class patriarch who doesn’t spend enough time at home with his wife and kids, and goes to confession every morning to tell his priest that.)

Now, much like O Brother! was an excuse to showcase old timey music, Hail is an excuse to revive some old Hollywood stories and set pieces. And this by itself is just a lot of fun. Channing Tatum doing an On The Town-style dance number a la Gene Kelly? Adorable Veronica Osorio  as a Carmen Miranda-esque counterpart to the singing cowboy, as two of the most straightforward people in town. Frances McDormand channelling Margaret Booth and nearly being strangled by her Moviola.

Light in the loafers?
A little more frou-frou than Kelly ever seemed.

Everything seems so familiar, just slightly off. The gates of Capitol Pictures remind of the Paramount gates, but when the actors are walking in, they turn left, and all of a sudden, the studio looks like Warner Bros., with rows and rows of sound stages backed by the Santa Monica Mountains. The cowboy picture looks like it’s shot where all the cowboy pictures were shot (Vasquez Rocks?). The Carmen Miranda homage was named Carlotta Valdez—not an actress, not even a real character, just a sort of MacGuffin from Vertigo. Even the opening scene, where Mannix saves a young starlet from ruining her career by letting a guy take cheesecake pix of her, rings enough bells to send out the whole fire brigade. It’s even shot on actual 35MM film, though there’s some obvious CGI with the overhead shots of the studio, shrouded in smog.

Anyway, as you can imagine, there was nothing about this I didn’t like. But The Boy and The Flower laughed to beat the band, too. So I don’t get the rancor that some seem to have about this film. Critics on RT have given this a quite respectable 83%, but audiences have it below 50%! The only criticism of it that strikes home to me is that today’s stars are really shabby compared to yesterday’s. That is, Channing Tatum is athletic and game, but he’s no Gene Kelly. Scarlett Johansson is pretty enough (though she looks a little ragged here) but the charm of those old Busby Berkeley numbers is that the smiles—somehow—looked genuine.

Might've been right after the baby.
Of course, even kinda ragged, ScarJo looks pretty good.

I was happy that they seemed decent people, if not particularly bright, and I thought this was deliberate, since we’re essentially going behind-the-scenes at the sausage factory. Really only Toby, Carlotta and Laurentz came off with real glamour. The former two may be because they’re young and relatively unknown. (The latter because, well, it’s Ralph Fiennes. And also perhaps because he’s not emulating an icon.)

But I think to complain about this is to complain about the state of the world. And whose fault is that, you blogging, tweeting, slacktivist Adam-Sandler-movie-watching MoFos?

Now I’m going into overtime to discuss one other aspect of the film that’s slightly spoiler-y, so if you want to avoid even the mildest of spoilers, now’s your chance.

This is, I believe, her 9th Coen appearance.
Frances McDormand is watching.

OK, the kidnappers, our villains, were screenwriting communists. A buddy of mine, on seeing the film, felt the Coen’s chickened out by not making them specifically the actual blacklisted screenwriters, but I disagree. Here is a group of people who are doing exactly what it was said they were doing by the Left’s favorite ’50s American bete noir, McCarthy, and what’s shown is that: a) They’re not very bright; b) The actors who tend to parrot what they say are even dumber (Baird); c) A healthy amount of self-interest is involved in the venture. (Writers want more money, and they always, always, always want more credit.)

Not that this is a political statement per se. But, as I said earlier, the most prevalent thread running through the Coens’ movies is a complete and utter failure of the principals to understand what is going on. Not just events they’re thrust into, as with The Dude, but the events that they cause or think they’re causing, as with Llewyn Davis’ reckless sexuality. It’s a little hard to see them endorsing a central planning form of government, but maybe they’ve never thought of it in those terms.

And really, who cares? This is a good, fun movie, that is extra-entertaining for lovers of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

I have no opinion.
Eddie has been good to you. Be good to Eddie.

Embrace of the Serpent

It’s so odd: Almost every year, foreign language films are among the best we see. But usually, we’re seeing films from the previous calendar year or even earlier—like the remarkable Mommy, which finished in The Boy’s top films for 2015, even though it was a 2014 film because, as he says, “I saw it in [expletive deleted] 2015, so it’s a 2015 film.”

He has a point.

But this year, we saw every single foreign film nominee prior to the ceremony (which we don’t watch, because we’re at the movies, duh), and with the exception of Mustang, they were most noteworthy in the level of disappointment they produced. Embrace of the Serpent continued that trend, meaning four out of the five nominees didn’t even make our “good” list—although The Boy is conflicted about Son of Saul, because he admires so much of the technique.

Mostly it looks muddy.
The actual movie never looks this good.

A Colombian film, Serpent aspires to, but doesn’t attain the level of Son of Saul. It’s shot in black-and-white—which was a smart choice, because the expense and expertise to do the Amazon justice in color would be staggering—but the lighting is poor, perhaps “natural”, so we don’t get the great composition out of this we might hope for. Often you can’t see one of the characters, and not in a cool way, but just in a “couldn’t-afford/didn’t-care-enough to light it properly” way.

The story runs on two parallel tracks: In the Amazon, a German explorer who has some sort of terminal disease is brought to a virulently racist native, Karamakate who angrily agrees to help him find a magic plant that will cure him. About 30 years later, another western explorer following the first one’s diary, finds the much older, possibly senile, but still racist Karamakate who (once again) agrees to help him find the magic plant.

I guess.
Racist, but the good kind of racist.

It’s like a racist, low-key Medicine Man.

This is a popular Green conceit of course: The Brazilian forest contains infinite treasures and solutions to all our problems, so we must never go anywhere near it.

The other big element here is the rubber barons—yes, rubber—who enslaved Colombians to get at those sweet, sweet rubber tree plants, which at least is a kind of exploitation we don’t see much of in the U.S.A. In the first story, our three protagonists travel through the jungle to find Karamakate’s lost tribe (he thought they were all dead, but they apparently just moved and didn’t leave a forwarding address) and along the way meet a variety of horrible situations which they invariably make worse. Often horribly, horribly worse. Like lots of dead kids worse. (The more modern duo doesn’t fare much better.) This means that the story, while having various points of interest, tends to lose said interest as our trio bumbles through those storylines.

Not mine.
Lotta crotch shots, too, if that’s your thing.

Now, besides being a miracle drug, the magic plant is also a rubber-plant enhancer, and also one of those mind-expanding hallucinogens the artistic community loves so well.

See if you can figure out what the problem with this is going to be, in terms of third acts. Think of every hallucinogen-oriented movie you’ve ever seen, and also 2001.

Figured it out? The end of the movie almost has to be an acid trip. Because what else justifies the labors of the Hero except spiritual enlightenment? You can’t have the plant used for purifying the Devil Rubber, and you can’t have it curing cancer, because that would help Whitey. And the problem with cinematic acid trips—much like real acid trips—is that they’re stupid. And boring to watch, to boot. Whatever chemical deception hallucinogens play on those who take them, they don’t really work on a (sober) movie audience, and so even if you’ve built up a good movie, the end is gonna be, well, stupid.

They all look alike.
It might have looked something like this.

If this movie had any slack to by the end, the hero kills it by making it his mission to deny the rest of the world access to The Magic Plant. He’s not even internally consistent: Early on, when the German explorer tries to fetch back a compass so that the tribe who stole it won’t lose their native ways of navigation, Karamakate chides him for trying to control the tribe’s access to information. But I guess that’s only bad if you’re not Karamakate, who will decide for the whole world who gets what.

The vignette-ish nature of the film is such that, if you’re game (and we were), you try at each plot point to give the movie a chance, and this movie disappoints at almost every turn. You could argue that the filmmakers weren’t siding with Karamakate, of course, just revealing a mindset, but I don’t think that’s easy to support. At the point when you might think that Karamakate is the main character, and his character arc is learning to be generous toward his fellow man, the movie sorta flips and suggests it’s really about the westerner in both time periods, who may be meant to the literal reincarnation of the same person.

Disappointing year for foreign films, frankly.

A War

Kathryn Bigelow’s multiple-Academy Award winning 2008 film The Hurt Locker has been very influential on the modern war film. Focusing less on action, but also keeping the characters human (instead of, say, caricatured, as in the modern anti-war film), Hurt Locker showed possible to tell a compelling story and make it more compelling for its human aspect. But it also highlighted some of the challenges with doing so, as Locker’s foundering third act tended to lose the audience.

Which brings us to the Danish film A War, an entry in this year’s foreign language Oscar category.

I kid the Danes.
Here, a group of Danes convene to try to remember which war they were in.

One hates to repeat one’s self but, like many of this year’s contenders, this movie is good—and a slog. Writer/director Tobias Lindhome has two other credits we’ve seen recently: The Hunt (which he wrote) and A Hijacking (which he wrote and directed). Not surprisingly, this movie is a lot more like A Hijacking than The Hunt. (Thomas Vinterberg, who directed The Hunt directed the largely neglected Far From The Madding Crowd this year.)

Not surprisingly, but unfortunately.

There seems to be a trend among some filmmakers lately whereby they indicate lengthiness and slow-paced-ness but actually having long scenes of nothing happening. It’s not totally ineffective, mind you, but there’s a limit to how much nothing I want to watch. Toward the end of this movie, for example, there’s a one or two minute shot of seagulls flying away. That’s almost Birdemic territory right there.

It works for a while here, but then starts to work against things, as the proceedings get more suspenseful, the actual filming stays at the same pace as it was at the beginning.

The story concerns a Danish commander in Afghanistan who  ends up breaking the rules of engagement in order to save one of his men. The arc of the movie concerns his hands-on approach in Iraq, his family back home, and his response to the challenges that arise as a result of his dubious call.

Always getting in the way of bombs.
Natives! Amirite?

Good stuff, right? Plenty of room for suspense, for characters you care about, even for some action one the one side, and moral dilemmas on the other. And the movie does, indeed, deliver all that.

And yet.

In order to invest, to fully invest, the audience needs to know what’s what. And that’s where the movie falls short. In an attempt to (I suspect) keep the focus on the personal drama, we’re not given enough information to know what the role of this Danish group is, what role the commander has, the extent to which he actually succeeds in that role, and so on. The Boy is particularly sensitive to this, as he is interested in martial matters, but I think even hoplophobes are going to find certain questions gone begging.

I'd say "cheap things" but the movie does earn it.
Of course, certain things just work, emotionally.

The setup is that the Danes go out and mingle with the natives. Pedersen (our protagonist) is the commander of the base, but he goes out anyway, and in particular, he goes out so that one of his shell-shocked troops doesn’t have to. (No Patton here.) This becomes an issue later on when his second-in-command suggests that the base itself was suffering because he was playing soldier when they really needed coordination and intel.

A situation which may well be true and is in fact entirely concordant with the fateful event that provides the story its impetus, but which we also are given no information about.

There’s another weird thing: The squad is “forced” by a local to help his daughter, who’s been badly burned. Later, said family shows up at the base saying “Hey, the bad guys heard you helped us and now insist that dad go fight with them or they’ll kill us all.” The Danish crew assures them that they’ll take care of the bad guys (the Taliban, actually). The family says “The Taliban come at night. You come in the day. They’re going to come tonight and kill us.” The Danes say “You can’t stay here. Go home and get killed and we’ll avenge your deaths tomorrow.”

Not really on that last one, but they might have well as done. Nobody argues that the Taliban isn’t coming at night. There’s no reason to believe this family won’t be killed. OK, maybe rules prohibit you from letting them stay on the base (we’re never told, we’re just told “we can’t”, even though this guy is the CO), but maybe they could set up a little camp a short distance away. Or—and this is a wild idea—maybe you set up an ambush for the baddies that night, and kill them rather than letting them terrorize the people you’re supposed to protect.

I’m sure—well, I’m not sure, but I could be convinced that there were reasons for all of this. The movie doesn’t give us reasons. War is hard. There are rules of engagement, and…yeah. Those are things.

The actual crux of the movie is rules of engagement, and not whether or not Pedersen violated them (because he did), but from the audience’s perspective, whether that violation was warranted. We know he does it to save a soldier’s life, but we also know—or are led to believe by the immediate cessation of attack after Pedersen makes the call—that it was the right call. But the movie never gives us that. It only gives us a big pile of evidence against our protagonist, and virtually none about whether he’s really just a living example of the Peter Principle or whether Dane ROEs are as dumb as America’s can be.

Stringent RoE
“Ask them again to stop killing us, and this time say PLEASE!”

I think it’s important because art, in order to be art, has to allow for contributions from the audience, and when the audience has so little data—I mean, we know Pedersen’s not a bad guy, in any traditional sense of the word, but we don’t know if he’s competent—it becomes very hard to contribute much. Especially given the moral ambiguity of “Should I lie and get off scott-free even though it goes against every fiber of my being?”

Obviously, people have different notions here but The Boy and I needed to know, because otherwise the soldiers become just victims of circumstance. I’d hate—but wouldn’t be surprised—to think that was the director’s aim.

This was the penultimate entry in the “shockingly disappointing foreign language Oscar” category, following Theeb and Son of Saul and preceding Embrace of the Serpent. (And excluding the excellent Mustang.)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

Love Lorre's Perm.
And when I grab your waist, you’ll dance.

Aw, man. Bogie beatin’ on poor little Peter Lorre. Worth the price of admission alone.

And, once I get past the disappointment I feel every time Mary Astor walks into the room to meet Bogie for the first time—there’s just not enough femme in that fatale—I find myself loving the heck out of this proto-noir. Bogie, Astor, Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet in his Oscar-nominated film debut. John Huston’s directorial debut. And I loved the book.

Also, it’s one of Bogey’s best performances. He’s positively sadistic at times—but then you realize virtually everyone is lying to him, except the cops, and they’re harassing him.

Meanwhile—and The Flower was quick to point this out—Astor’s performance, looks aside, is pitch perfect in a rather challenging role. Yeah, I would’ve liked to see Veronica Lake walk into that office, but could she have pulled off the near sociopathic melodramatics Astor did? Maybe not.

Mmmm. Veronica Lake.

Who noticed?
Pictured: Not Mary Astor. But could she act?

Interestingly enough, circumstances necessitated that The Boy see it on a different day from The Flower and I (he took his girl), and the convoluted proto-noir plot lost him at a couple of points. Particularly when Captain Jacoby shows up with the Falcon moments before his death. Who is he? Why did he show up at Spade’s place? Etc.

Well, we just don’t know, dude. That’s actually not resolved until the final act, which is only a about 10-15 minutes off, but it is a kind of WTF moment. Such moments ended up being fundamental to noir, as in The Big Sleep where Hawks removes all the explanation and there’s one guy nobody (even Raymond Chandler) could figure out who killed (although I hear the original release, shown only overseas, had an explanation for that).

The story, if you don’t know it, is that a woman shows up at the Spade and Archer detective agency looking for her lost sister. Archer goes on a stakeout and winds up dead. Then it’s discovered that the woman was lying, and she and several others are actually in pursuit of a 17th century gold statuette (Hello, Oscar!) that the woman has (tenuous) possession of. Spade embarks on a quest to find the dingus (as he calls it) and discover what happened to his partner.

Guess we'll never know.
Wonder how that window would look if it just said “Samuel Spade” on it.

The Flower actually objected to Ben Mankiewicz’ reveal—i.e., that The Maltese Falcon is about, y’know, the Maltese Falcon and not a wandering daughter case—but, that seems a mite precious. I dunno.

The third filmed version of this book in the decade after it was written (in 1929) in case you thought Hollywood hashing over the same ideas again and again was a new thing. Sydney Greenstreet’s first role, and (obviously therefore) the first teaming up of Bogie, Greenstreet and Lorre. (The next team-up would be Casablanca.)

Frequently listed in “Top N Film” lists, as the book (sort of surprisingly, given how pulpy it is) is in “Top 20th Century Novel” lists.

Some things never change.
And I love how the cops look more like thugs than the thugs do.