Miracles from Heaven

Miracles from Heaven answers one of the most important questions of our time: How little Jesus has to be in a movie for film critics to hate it? And the answer is: Very, very little indeed.

Barely exaggerating.
“Those fence posts form a cross! That’s too religious!”

With a 40-point split on Rotten Tomatoes between critics and audiences (44/83), critics hated this movie more (relatively) than Heaven Is For Real, and yet of all the Christian-themed movies we’ve seen recently (including God’s Not Dead and Risen but not Machine Gun Preacher, which I still maintain is a genuine classic) this is both the least Jesus-y and the most successful dramatically. Like, God’s Not Dead has the form of a series of parables which are, yes, rather ham-handed, but also not meant to be taken literally. Risen has third act problems, as noted in that review. And Heaven is for Real goes wayward in the middle of the second act.

But here’s a movie that has a classic story arc, beautifully staged and masterfully acted, which builds to its third act resolution in a compelling way (despite one knowing, pretty much, how it must end) and the criticisms are the same: ham-handed, preaching to the choir, etc. It’s almost like they’re not actually watching these things.

See...didn't watch it...is what I'm saying.
I got suspicious when one critic wrote “I normally love James Garner, but he’s just not convincing as a mother of three.”

The story is simple enough: Religious family from Texas, successful but over-extended credit-wise as the father opens a giant new veterinary clinic, find themselves in an existential crisis when one of their three daughters presents with a rare and ultimately fatal digestive disorder. The movie primarily focuses on the mother (Jennifer Garner) as she struggles to find a cure for her daughter, draining the family’s resources, and her well of faith.

She’s driven from her church by a small coterie of “well meaning” people who take the (sorta) Jehovah’s Witness line that, if something is wrong, it must be because somebody sinned (like the parents or even the little girl), though she’s ultimately wrestling with that timeless (adolescent) question: Why does God allow bad things to happen?

If I were to describe this movie, I’d almost say it was a “road trip” movie, except that the road is a spiritual one. As Christy (Garner) flies from back and forth from Texas to Boston (where the best doctor is), she’s constantly meeting people who add a little something to the journey. These moments are effectively edited into a montage at the end of the film that says “God works mostly through the actions of all of us, not miracles.”

The Trumps of the Sea, they're called.
Even Beluga Whales, and those guys are jerks.

Yes, there’s a miraculous cure. There’s conversion of an unbeliever. There are a couple of scenes in a church, although one is an example of the worst sort of busybodying that goes on in a church. The sick little girl mentions Jesus as a source of strength, and gives a crucifix to another sick little girl whose parents are not believers. And the miraculous cure, per the girl herself, comes through a vision of heaven similar to what we saw in Heaven is for Real.

The movie gives you an out if you don’t choose to believe it, even. But as I noted in Heaven is for Real, we can’t really talk about these things rationally. Critics react to a crucifix in much the same way vampires do. (Things that make you go “Hmmmm.”) But to get hung up on those things rather than come away with the idea that when we listen to God (or, if you prefer, our consciences, our inner voices, or whatever), we tend to do the right thing—even when it’s not easy, it puts us at jeopardy, and even when nobody in the world would call us on it—and that results in the best sort of miracles.

Eh. Not my best gag.
A film critic attending the premiere of this movie.

Of all the four Jesus-themed movies we’ve seen, this was both the best and the least objectionable, unless you’re allergic to crosses. I had to double-check with The Boy, because the movie is chock-full of really accurate interactions with a nigh-useless medical community with which I am quite familiar and tend to be moved by, and he gave it his most enthusiastic thumbs up as well, particularly singling out Eugenio Derbez (who is playing, I kid you not, Speedy Gonzales in an upcoming film) as the doctor who cares but realizes when things are out of his hands.

It was also amusing to see John Carroll Lynch as a preacher since we had just seen him in a decidedly different role in The Invitation.

Check it out, folks.

I love a happy ending.
The actual Beam family. Isn’t that cool?

The Fallen Idol

In the year prior to filming his magnum opus The Third Man, director Carol Reed took on an interesting little tale of a boy, the son of the French Ambassador in London, who has a sort of hero-worship relationship with the embassy’s English butler, Baines (Ralph Richardson Doctor Zhivago, Time Bandits). The boy, Phillipe (Bobby Henrey, who had only one other role, and just turned 77) is pretty lonely and bored in the embassy with his mother being quite ill for an extended period and his father being away most of the time. Baine’s wife (stage actress Sonia Dresdel, Sorry, Wrong Number) is the worst sort of termagant, prickly to her husband and downright mean to Phillipe.

But what she does to the snake!!
See, I’m so classy I say “termagant” instead of “bitch”.

The movie begins as we learn that Phillipe’s mother is heading home soon, but the embassy is going to be mostly closed for a while: Just he and the Baines and a small support crew are manning the place. The antics between Baines and Phillipe are amusing, and practically set up the film as a family film, until Phillipe (who wanders around in London alone a lot, as small children do in the ’40s) stumbles across Baines in a café, where the butler is having an emotional breakup with his “niece”.

And French!
“Yes, Philippe, nieces ARE hot!”

The theme of the movie is “secrets”.

Well, despite being sworn to secrecy, Phillipe ends up accidentally spilling the beans to Mrs. Baines, who then swears him to another secret (not to tell that she knows), and a plot to humiliate her husband ends up with a dead Mrs. Baines. And suddenly, the movie shifts from cheerful to full-on noir, as Baines is (naturally) suspected of his wife’s murder. It’s a classic noir set of twists: The police, perfectly willing to ascribe her death an accident, stumble across a piece of very incriminating evidence. Phillipe, confused by the numerous secrets he must keep, ends up implicating Baines rather than helping him, as he wants to. (Phillipe is convinced, through Baines idle tall tale telling, that Baines has killed before.)

Not just the tone of the movie changes: The last half is full of long shadows and stark contrasts, like they flipped the “noir” switch and everything changed. There are shots very reminiscent of the (yet to be filmed) Third Man. Ultimately, it has that sort of quirky murder mystery feel, where things are serious right up until they aren’t any more (like with Dial M for Murder or numerous other films of the era where whimsy and murder live side-by-side).

It's on like Orson Welles on frozen peas.
When they start breaking out the dutch angles, it’s on!

Graham Greene (writer of The Third Man) wrote the screenplay based on his own short story.

Amusing bit early on: Baines is telling Phillipe of confronting black tribesmen on one of his African adventures. I forget what term he uses but it’s not the preferred nomenclature today. But when Phillipe asks him why he came back, Baines said tells him it was time to get married. And when Phillipe asks him whether they have women in Africa, Baines says yes, but points out that they’re all the wrong color. Philippe doesn’t comprehend.

It’s a cute exchange, interpretable in a number of ways perfectly acceptable to our exquisite modern sensibilities, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that exchange was partly why I’d never even heard of this great movie. Maybe not. It’s terribly English through-and-through, so perhaps it’s never been well-regarded on this side of the pond. But it’s a must see for fans of The Third Man.

Really! You could do that in 1947!
Also, the seen with the hooker at the police station was cute.

Cash Only

In a desperate moment, a sleazy Albanian landlord crosses the mob and ends up in a mad scramble to beg, borrow, steal or grift thousands of dollars to save the life of his kidnapped daughter. And it all plays out on the mean streets of post-apocalyptic Detroit. Well, it’s not really post-apocalyptic, it’s just Detroit. But just like filmmakers in the ’70s epitomized New York City and Los Angeles as unbroken seas of pornography and sleaze, they can’t resist portraying the ruins of Detroit.

It's practically "Miracle on 34th Street", relatively speaking.
One of the less gritty moments in “Cash Only”.

Writer/star Nickola Shreli, a second-generation Detroit native himself, plays Elvis Martini. When our story opens Elvis is setting his apartment building on fire for the insurance money, not realizing his wife is in it. Flash forward a couple of years, and Elvis is now a single-dad grappling with his guilt and barely hanging on to his (new) building, populated with a motley assortment of people voted Most Likely Not To Pay The Rent. (He also seems to have a house nearby that he rents out to a prolific pot farmer.)

The problems of the landlord are many, and Elvis’ problems are multiplied on top of that. The pot grower uses a lot of electricity, but is unsympathetic to the cost to Elvis, for example. Meanwhile, Elvis is collecting sex as the rent for another unit: The one occupied by his cousin and his cousin’s hot wife. (I was never actually clear on whether the cousin knew this was going on or not.) Another tenant, a non-Albanian woman is gaming the system to stay as long as she can without paying any rent.

Family.
It’s not a great situation, no matter how hot she is.

The last proves to be the biggest problem as Elvis gets into her apartment while she’s gone, boxes up her stuff and kicks her out. He also takes a bundle of money he finds as back rent, never considering the possibility that the money doesn’t really belong to the tenant, but to, say, the tenant’s pimp or (hypothetically) the Albanian mob.

The good work done here is manifold: Shreli and director Malik Bader give us a (highly) flawed but not entirely unsympathetic character. Elvis is far from admirable. He is short-sighted, greedy, violent and god-forsaken. (One of his creditors is the nearby parochial school.) But he’s also tough, resourceful and has a good (if blackened) heart. Elvis’ hard life makes for compelling viewing, even on the shoestring budget. And the climax of the movie is gripping and harrowing, moreso than many other (far more expensive) films. The denouement is sort of phoned in, in a way that reminds me of Roger Corman’s old maxim “monster’s dead, movie’s over. Elvis makes such a mess out of his world, we needed to see the after-effects.

Still, it was darn good, if you’re in the mood for gritty Balkan fun.

Just look at that floor! Covered with grit!
Did I mention it was “gritty”?

The Invitation

We always keep a sharp eye out for the horror movies that actually get positive reviews, because they are rather few and far between. There is a lot of merit even in (some) of the badly reviewed ones, simply because if a horror movie succeeds, it often does so by shock, by making people uncomfortable, and by showing people things they don’t want to see. The latter is particularly problematic given that we’re talking about movies. And, ratings-wise, a movie that doesn’t so much try to shock with gore or continuous streams of violence, is often met with disinterest at the box office.

He looks laid back, doesn't he?
This movie features uncomfortable levels of facial hair, for instance.

And this is the case with this overlooked film by Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Jennifer’s Body), The Invitation, which is the story of a man, Will, invited to a party with all his old pals, whom he hasn’t seen in two years. The kicker is that the party is at the house where he used to live, and the invitation comes from his ex, Eden, who is living there with a new man. Will and Eden had a son, it seems, who died, and the resultant stress broke the two up.

But Eden ran off to parts south and found inner-peace through the teachings of some guru and now wants to reunite with her coterie, which is an almost stereotypically diverse (but not inaccurate) group of Southern Californians. (I mean, you gotcher black, yer asians, yer gay couple, etc.) Will, lacking enlightenment, is still haunted by memories of his son, and he’s frankly none too sure about this new cult Eden has joined. Besides she and her new man, they’ve also brought back the oddly menacing Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch, Fargo, Miracles From Heaven, and one of only three actors I recognized in this) and the seemingly unbalanced Sadie. As the evening wears on, Will becomes increasingly paranoid about Eden and her new pals. And there, in fact, is your movie.

It’s kind of funny: Back in the old days, people were constrained in their behavior by rather exacting rules about, for example, when you could talk to a stranger, whom you could talk to (especially regarding the sexes), and so on. But here, we see that we’re no less constrained, as Will’s growing discomfort about the nature and practices of this cult is something he isn’t really allowed to express. Challenging another’s beliefs, no matter how outré, is Just Not Done in Southern California.

A mortal sin.
“That cake was NOT gluten-free!”

Kusama has cited Rosemary’s Baby as an influence and it really shows here, positively. I knew, of course, that the movie had to end with something really terrible happening, but there are enough head fakes here that you’re not really sure who is going to be the culprit. Are the alarms in Will’s head the product of grief and rage over the loss of his wife and child that could push him over the edge—or is there something sinister (rather than merely kooky) going on?

It’s the sort of movie that couldn’t come out of the ’50s because of course the kooks were sinister (back then).

Faux Pas: Inviting 16 of the same people to your party.
Now, EVERYBODY looks like a kook.

Professional acting all around, from people (as I’ve said) who all looked vaguely familiar but whom I didn’t actually recognize. (TV actors mostly, I think.) Apart from Lynch, I also recognized Toby Huss as the cult leader, which is about as amusing as Norm Gunderson being a source of menace, since I know Huss mostly from his terrific mugging in Bedazzled and his voice work as Kahn and Cotton on “King of the Hill”. Huss was also a major serious character on the too-soon-canceled “Carnivalé”, but like Lynch and a lot of great character actors, it’s the character that sticks in your mind rather than the actor. I couldn’t pin down Mike Doyle (though he had a big role in Jersey Boys) but, as I said, everyone looked sorta familiar—which works really well for this kind of film.

We all liked it quite a bit. I especially appreciated the stinger, as that’s usually as poorly done as it is mandated, if you know what I mean. (“We gotta have a twist ending!” “Nothing we could do would make sense regarding the previous 90 minutes of film!” “Doesn’t matter! Put something in! Make ’em all…cannibals!”) But The Boy and The Flower both felt it kept them on the edge of their seats.

Full disclosure: I’ve been to this party. Obviously not under these exact circumstances, but I’ve been to a house in the Hollywood Hills at the invitation of a would be spiritual guru. It is a kind of otherworldly experience and one where someone (me, even) might take an axe and start chopping people up. So I’m a little bit biased. (I would bet the director has as well.) The kids, however, have not, and didn’t seem to suffer from that lack of personal history.

Anyway, low-budget but not cheap, professionally done top-to-bottom, and an entertaining thriller that might make you uncomfortable but isn’t going to gross you out.

Heh. Tupperware.
The Tupperware “seals in” the freshness.

The Lobster

When your mother tells you “It was the worst movie I’ve ever seen,” you almost have to go see it at that point, don’t you? My mom goes to the movies rather rarely, maybe five or six times a year, usually with some girls who have been her pals for 45 years. They seldom take my input about what to see, of course, because what would I know? One of the ladies wanted to see Puss in Boots because she likes the old nursery rhyme. And Ted because she likes teddy bears.

So I have no pity for them. I would have told them not to go see this, just from the reviews.

You see, when you read a lot of reviews saying “Well, if you’re willing to work for it…” People don’t go to the movies to work at things. And I think it’s not quite an apt way to put it for The Lobster, but the fact is, you’ll have to get around some potentially very uncomfortable things.

It's just not that kind of movie.
Here, for example, is some wallpaper for your desktop that NO ONE WOULD EVER USE.

David (Colin Farrell, In BrugesSaving Mr. Banks) lives in an alternate version of reality where people are not allowed to be single. They’re required to report to an island where they will have 45 days to find a suitable partner. If they fail to find a suitable partner within the allotted time, they are turned into the animal of their choice. Most people, including David’s brother who has already failed at this, will pick a dog or some lovable creature, but David wants to be a lobster.

OK, so, first things first, you have to be willing to accept this sort of oddball Spike Jonez/Michel Gondry type premise. Next, you have to deal with the fact that David isn’t particularly likable. Everyone in this dystopia has a pretty flat affect. They are cold and unsympathetic and completely insane by any real world standard. What’s more, being thrown into this life-or-death situation people don’t even associate particularly with their fellow travellers.

There is a little slipperiness here, narratively speaking: People introduce themselves by pronouncing their most salient identifying feature. And it is on this feature that the two parties must match up. Sorta.

Spoiler alert: SHE'S NOT NICE!
She seems nice.

This works better metaphorically than literally but it makes for some amusing behavior. For example, one guy gives himself nosebleeds because he’s interested in a girl whose salient feature is, you guessed it, nosebleeds. But at a later point, when David is trying desperately to hook up with “short-sighted woman” (Rachel Weisz, The Brothers BloomOz: The Great And Powerful, who narrates), he runs through item after item looking for something—anything at all—that they have in common. Since she’s willing and he’s willing, the requirement must either be placed on them either by external force or an internalization of an idea about love. The latter making more metaphorical sense.

And reminding me of dating sites, which use these quizzes to match people up, something I first ran into in the ’80s, but which probably goes back to video dating and earlier. And every one I have ever seen (granting I have never used such a service to procure a date) was a collection of trivialities that made me think, “There’s no way this wouldn’t result in the most fragile of relationships, except by mere luck.”

And here it is, literalized.

"No, I love it! I just can't make up my mind!"
“Wow! You like NOT being transmogrified into an animal, too?”

One’s time on the island can be extended by hunting down and tranquilizing escapees who decided at the last minute they didn’t want to be animals. And there’s a small resistance of single people out in the forest who turn out to be at least as crazy as everyone else in the world. They’re aggressively single, and to hook up with another person results in the most horrific punishments, even as they try to find ways to fight the system.

It works on so many levels. OK, it only works on one level: the surreal or metaphorical. But it works really well on that level. Initially, David figures he’s going to get out of this mess by hooking up with this complete sociopath—a great analogy to people deciding they’re not going to feel after a breakup, ’cause feeling hurts. Problem is, he’s not a sociopath, and she’s constantly testing him to see if he has any emotions or if he’s just hiding them.

We actually loved it.  But there are distasteful things involved: dead animals, completely emotionless sex, mild mutilation, and so on. So I guess that’s “work”. And in any case, we would really only very cautiously recommend it to others.

The Lord loves a working man.
John C. Reilly, on the other hand, is going to INSIST you watch it. And Wreck-It-Ralph 2. And his Adult Swim show. Seriously, this guy is a maniac.

Deadpool

I had been cool, to say the least, toward the comic comic-book-movie Deadpool. It looked like a crude, choppy mix of cheap humor, sex and violence. The trailers ran the gamut from “maybe that’ll be good” to “oh, that looks terrible.” The Boy concurred with my assessment, although he pointed out that Chris Hastings, author of the amusing (and very similar in tone) “Dr. McNinja” webcomic had signed on to write the Deadpool comic (though no credit on this film).

That said, The Boy took his girlfriend to see it, and enjoyed it. So months later, at the last possible moment, I saw it at the discount theater.

It is, in fact, a crude, choppy mix of heap humor, sex and violence—and that’s okay.

Maybe that's why nobody HAS great power.
We’re not going to be talking about “power” and “responsibility”, okay?

The story is that our anti-hero, Wade (Ryan Reynolds, Green Lantern, Mississippi Grind), is a miserable lout of a human, using his powers of violence to make a fast buck, but finds happiness in a relationship with Vanessa, a hooker-with-a-heart-of-something-or-other (Morena Baccarin, Firefly), only to discover that he has advanced cancer. His prospects are basically “get horrible, debilitating treatment, then die,” and in looking for a way out, he ends up in the clutches of some Mad Scientists.

The Mads agree to fix him up, in exchange for his soul—well, okay, in exchange for him working for them, but they really want to turn him into a mindless super-powered drone, but he thwarts them and escapes. So, the good news is he has super-regenerative powers, a la Wolverine, and can even grow limbs back, as well as the typically never explained super-acrobatic/strength/whatever-the-plot-needs powers that seem to come with it. Oh, and he doesn’t have cancer.

It's not even a real bill, just a picture with $$$$$ all over it.
And his treatment’s not covered by his HMO.

But, his face is messed up, and he’s so shallow, he figures Vanessa will be too. He then embarks on a mission to capture the Mads who did this to him and force them to fix his face. He hides from Vanessa, but she ends up getting captured anyway (’cause that’s what happens in these situations), and he has to have a big confrontation with the baddies at a ship graveyard full of dead aircraft carriers with only a couple of C-list X-Men to help him (Colossus and, I’m not making this up, Negasonic Teenage Warhead).

There’s a lot of meta-humor, with Wade talking to the camera, and demanding that he not be turned into a green glowing superhero (which superhero, I thought he was fine as, frankly, even if the movie was rough), and this works because, well, superhero movies have gotten so serious, it’s nice to see the air taken out of them a bit.

Is that a young Sinead O'Connor?
Pictured from left-to-right…oh, you can figure it out.

But what’s funny, to me, is that the movie works a lot better on an emotional level than most superhero movies these days. It’s a common theme here that the movies have to constantly escalate and escalate, such that on his rebooted outing Superman has to, basically, destroy Metropolis to save the world. There’s nothing to hang on to, to relate to.

Deadpool’s interests are aggressively personal. He wants his girlfriend and his face back, and so the movie plays out in most respects like a straight-up revenge story. Even with the constant breaking the fourth wall—which really ends up feeling more like he’s narrating rather than actually “breaking the fourth wall”—you actually care more about the characters and their struggles here than in in, say, Iron Man 3 or (I’m guessing) Batman vs. Superman.

It’s still a superhero movie, though, so, you know, you gotta be in the mood for that. It has the most graphic sex scenes in the costumed vigilante genre since HBO’s “Spawn” cartoons which are part played for laughs, but most certainly as a kind of Firefly fan-service. And the humor is much like the TV show “Archer”, though nobody’s going to be dropping in an analysis of “Animal Farm” or a reference to Thomas Elphinstone.

Eh, it’ll probably be my favorite superhero movie this year. Have I mentioned that I’m done with this genre, though?

I'd pay $6 to go see that.
This is a cool knife block, though.

Raising Arizona (1987)

Yodeling soundtrack. Big zooms. Hyper-emotional/hyper-stoic Holly Hunter. Nicolas Cage (nee Coppola). Characters setting events into motion they can’t predict. Crime not paying. Honesty not really paying either.

If the Coen Brothers surprised people with their versatility by following up their noir suspense drama Blood Simple with a wacky comedy, in retrospect you can see all the elements of the Coens’ oeuvre in both films, with a slight shift in tone being the difference. People even die pretty routinely in both, although it’s handled somewhat differently in the comic films.

“Why do you say you feel trapped…in a man’s body?”

sigh
30 years later and this joke is now a hate crime.

Is it funny? Gosh, yes. Though, if you’d asked me which of the four films I thought was the funniest between this, The Jerk (1979)Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Zoolander (2001)—all part of the “April Fools” series—I’d have said this one before rewatching it, whereas now I’d have to give it to The Jerk. With the caveat at the one’s mood can play havoc on how one receives humor and my mood may have been a bit off this day. (Although the boy concurred later on as to the comedic merits of the Martin film.)

I loved it back in the day, and I still do, though I don’t think I can rate it above O Brother, Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski as critics have. But what I felt this time watching it was that the zooms which amused me so greatly 20 years ago had lost their novelty. As had the Coens particular style of filming people, which is sort of a self-mocking thing. (You’re close enough to both make fun of the characters and identify with them at some level.)

That baby is probably balding now.
They’re not bad people. Not bright people. But not bad.

Well, of course, it’s not novel any more: Besides the dozen films or so the Coens have made, they’ve also been very influential. So all that’s left is the movie. The loss of novelty, of course, is a big factor in aging comedy (and horror) generally, and that may be why critics tend to rate the Coen brothers’ older films more highly. When the novelty is gone, all that’s left is the movie.

Which, make no mistake, is still very good. H.I. (Cage) and Ed (Hunter) are lovable idiots, driven by their emotions to do dumb things—though with never a real grasp on the possible implications—and, actually, with the exception of Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb, who doesn’t seem to do any acting these days), the characters are mostly pretty decent with the worst of them not really meaning much harm.

The babies are adorable. (All 20 of them.) There’s never been so much cute in a Coen brothers movie, and probably never will be again. Cage may have been difficult to work with, but he does some good physical comedy with the babies crawling around, and there are some good gags recalling the silent movie days when he’s trying to wrangle them all.

So, I don’t know. Even on reflection I like it better but I just didn’t find myself laughing very much. (Again, my incoming mood may have been the factor.) The Boy and The Flower both loved it, though.

Nathan, Jr. That doesn't rhyme.
It’s a lot of cute.

Dheepan

The Boy and I have never seen a Bollywood movie, and despite the very Indian title, Dheepan is actually a French film, not an Indian one, directed by Jacques Audiard (Rust and BoneA Prophet). The eponymous Dheepan is a member of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, who sought to carve a Tamil nation out of eastern Sri Lanka, who were “finally” put down in 2009. This movie begins some unspecified but not too distant time after the end of the war, as Dheepan desperately flees the little island for France, using a woman and little girl who pretend to be his wife and daughter.

Cheap shot but France has it coming.
A dignified life awaits all new immigrants to France.

The “wife”, Yalini, wants to go to England. But refugees can’t be choosers—well, historically, anyway, they can now, apparently—and the end up in the crappiest drug-infested suburb of a French city, which is still about a million times better than Sri Lanka, even if the government isn’t trying to track you down and kill you. Dheepan gets a job as a caretaker of the slum while Yalini ends up cooking and cleaning for a vacant ex-soldier, whose primary purpose seems to be being a sort of front for the local drug kingpin.

It’s not exactly Green Card, but neither is it a cri de coeur about pure and helpless refugees. Audiard gives us a tale of very flawed people, very self-involved, who are not quick to form a family, even for the sake of a ruse, the failure of which could land them back in Sri Lanka. (Well, if France is anything like America, probably not, but they don’t know that.) At the same time, we do understand: Foreigners, who don’t speak the language (Yalini can speak English), and with a “daughter” who is expected to sit down in a French school and learn whatever it is French people learn.

I don't know what French people do with their lives.
“Apparently, the price of ‘fromage’ is up.”

They all have their moments of awfulness. And at times when you might think they’ve formed a bond, well, they might just surprise you by making a bolt for wherever, especially when the slums turn out to be the turf for a drug war. (And isn’t it telling how similar things are to the war torn country they left behind?)

The acting is quite good: All three principles are new to showbiz, as far as IMDB knows, but you wouldn’t know it. One suspects they may have a common culture behind them, too, as they have a certain chemistry which feels reel but almost businesslike, very much “strangers in a strange land”. Vincent Rottiers (Mood Indigo) was also very good as the drug lord.

Ultimately, you care about the characters, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen to them until the very end, which is a pretty gripping bit of action. Some people, in fact, argue that the final scene is a dream sequence, and we don’t really find out what happens (but I think the director has contradicted this). But, of course, if the filmmaker has convinced you that it matters, he’s done his job.

We had pretty much gone in blind, as reviews hadn’t emerged, but we were pleased. The Boy was quite impressed.

No, really!
And just when everything was going so well.

The Wailing

We had to journey out to Pasadena to see this Korean horror flick which has a 100% critical rating on RT and an audience score in the mid-80s, both of which are borderline astonishing for a horror film. And this is a remarkable film in a lot of ways, even though certain aspects of the film are lost to those of us not steeped in Korean culture. (There are clues about what’s going on, for example, to be found in the characters’ underwear, which were naturally missed by The Boy and myself.)

Boo!
Beware the Wedgie of the Undead!

Beyond cultural details, the film’s tone is extraordinary. It starts out with Our Hero, a lazy, incompetent cop, being a (peripheral) part of a horrible crime scene investigation. Peripheral, because he’s just not well-respected, and this seems deserved. He’s even kind of comical, and the movie has that tone of near whimsy which you can see in other “serious” Korean horror/thriller films, like The Host. But as we learn more, the nature of the crime is anything but whimsical: People are getting sick with this mysterious disease, one-by-one, throughout the village, and then hacking their families to death.

People suspect the new neighbor, a Japanese immigrant, in the sort of casual racism we can’t do in this country any more. I mean, it’s pretty much “He’s Japanese. He’s obviously the Devil.” To the point where they’re going to kill him for it. It’s a mistake to view this as one would an American film—like, the film makers are going to lecture us on the evils of racism. The big question actually becomes is he or isn’t he the Devil?

And who is the mysterious woman who shows up throwing rocks at the cops and intoning cryptic clues about the case? Maybe she’s the Devil, even if not Japanese.

It's a clue!
“Let she who is without–OW! Hey, cut it out!”

When the hero’s own daughter becomes infected, and possessed, the tone has completely shifted to serious. An exorcist is called in, and an exorcism performed. The fascinating thing to me was that I knew exactly what a Korean exorcism entails (basically making a lot of noise to irritate the evil spirit into leaving), which was weird. (I think I saw a TV segment years ago on Korean exorcisms, and they’re really memorable.) Anyway, decisions—and mistakes—are made, and the whole thing comes down to a question of religious faith.

This is, in itself, kind of funny, because the hero himself doesn’t see it as a religious test. He sees everything in terms of saving his daughter.

I ain't 'fraid of no—ooh, ribs!
Korean exorcism/BBQ.

Gripping, suspenseful, amusing (at first), and ultimately satisfying in a way horror movies usually aren’t, it’s hands down the best horror movie this year, and probably in a few years. We actually talked about it a lot on the (long) road home, trying to figure out The Big Picture. The protagonist’s weakness and incompetence early on made his subsequent breakdowns, when his daughter was sick/possessed, a lot more natural feeling. No laconic tough guy, here, so he could have a more range as a character than the typical horror hero. I mean, this is the general difficulty of horror: If you have a competent hero, the movie turns from horror into action or thriller. Helplessness is a key element of the genre. But utter helplessness is just boring.

So, this movie does an excellent job there. Another way it excels is in weaving the metaphorical with the literal without hitting you over the head with it. The mysterious woman is allegorical, but her role is not obvious. Although the photography is restrained, there are quite a few excellent shots and some great blocking. Even the title itself is a hint, though it doesn’t cross language barriers.

If you’re in the market for a Korean horror flick, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better.

Kidding! Don't bomb me!
Just because he’s Japanese doesn’t mean he’s—OH MY GOD! THE DEVIL!

Love & Friendship

The works of Jane Austen have been plundered more extensively, perhaps, than any other English language author—although one suspects that Tolkien will have his due before the century is out—and this latest movie is based on a novella she purportedly wrote at the age of nine.

Probably not Jane Austen.
Portrait of the artist as a third grader.

Ain’t nobody gonna do that with my nine-year-old scrawlings, that’s for sure. (Memo to self: Burn all old writings.)

This is the sixth film by Whit Stillman, and the first that I’ve seen, though we were pretty close to seeing Damsels In Distress until the reviews came out. There was a kind of Wes Anderson feel to the dialogue and characters in that film (or at seemed so from the trailer) but the mildly positive critical reviews (76%) couldn’t overcome the audience loathing (40%) and we stayed away.

So, whatever the success of that film, the same tone brought to turn of the 19th century England, seems somehow both very appropriate and very charming. And marking the first time Stillman has broken into the 8-digits of box office, reaching nearly $12 million dollars at the box office, sure to finish in the top 100 for the year.

I don’t know how they pick who gets to make movies.

Probably.
“Then it’s agreed: The first street urchin we run over shall direct our next film!”

That said, this is a very enjoyable film, if you like comedies of manners full of treachery and cutting wit, and aren’t too hung up on the plot. The story is that the recently widowed Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), finding herself without means, is trying to fix up her recalcitrant daughter with a wealthy, but unsuitable man while she slyly (but not so well hidden as she believes) cavorts with a married man.

Lady Susan is beautiful (and Beckinsale is perfect for the role, at 42, easily out glamor-ing the rest of the cast) but not actually charming (presuming you don’t want to sleep with her), and a terrific example of what is really the most destructive element of polite society. She’s so bare-faced in her lies, and so exploitative of others’ politeness, her character would actually make a highly successful politician.

If only.
It’s a telegram from a Mr. Trump about a “vice presidency”?

The movie ends rather abruptly (and happily, in that Austen way) and you can find yourself wondering, “Well, what was the point of all that?” And from a narrative standpoint, the story’s weakness comes from not really having a great protagonist. Our main character is Lady Susan, ultimately, and she’s utterly incapable of change.

Nonetheless, we had a good time. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and was a little bit surprised that The Boy was rather enthusiastic about it. But it was, overall, a clever tale cleverly told, brisk and, at 90 minutes, unlikely to wear out its welcome. Interestingly, while achieving near universal critical acclaim (one negative review on Rotten Tomatoes), the audience score has slowly dropped from the high 80% to a rather tepid 70%.

This may be in part due to the plot and narrative deficiencies, but may also be that the dialogue, which is the key element of the movie, obviously, can be rather hard to parse. It flows fast and is somewhat archaic, and having to parse out humor is never conducive to laughs.

But we managed. What surprised me was that my mother, who’s never been able to get through an Austen book (“boring”) and hates English stuff (because she can’t understand what they’re saying) really enjoyed this film. I think that may be because Lady Susan’s character is so truly awful, and some of us have a particular appreciation for that sort.

She's so cute!
The Monster.

Jimmy Vestvood: American Hero

I’m sure the people who described Maz Jobrani’s comedy Jimmy Vestvood: American Hero thought they were doing it a favor by comparing it to Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, but it was precisely that comparison that convinced me I didn’t want to see it. Personally, I’d compare it more to Peter Sellers—though, I guess people don’t know who he was any more.

No, you can't see it in this shot.
Sellers would SO be doing giant dick jokes today.

But there are some strong similarities between Vestvood and Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau: A bumbling incompetence combined with an inexplicable appeal to the ladies, for example. On the other hand, Jimmy doesn’t have Clouseau’s otherworldly detachment. In fact, his most endearing trait is his love of America, though it often goes awry.

The movie begins with Our Hero discovering that he has won the lottery to come to America and celebrating by dancing in the streets waving an American flag with all his friends. A series of mishaps results in the flag being—well, set on fire, and before you know it the whole footage ends up on Hank Shannity’s KOX News show.

Reminded me of Chaplin's "Modern Times", actually.
Yeah, it’s ham-handed. So is Fox.

The so-thinly-veiled-as-to-not-be-veiled-at-all references to Fox are among the weakest parts of the movie, descending into clapper humor, and missing a good comedic set-up at the end by making Shannity (Matthew Glave) an all-purpose villain rather than a misguided but gung-ho America booster, much like Jimmy.

The main plot involves evil arms manufacturer (John Heard, C.H.U.D.) hiring Jimmy to follow his hot, adulterous wife (an amusingly over-the-top Deanna Russo in a ridiculously over-the-top blond wig) to get pictures of her with her comically well-endowed lover. But this masks a super-secret double-plot involving…uh…drone drones.

Funny, though. And cute.
In a movie full of caricatures, Russo is the caricature-iest.

All this while Jimmy struggles to manage his Iranian-ness in America, fighting off the advances of his 6th or 7th cousin (Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), and his jerk of a boss (Marshall Manesh A Girl Walks Home Alone At NightShirin In Love) who’s constantly hitting on his mother (Vida Ghahremani, The Stoning of Soraya M.)—and isn’t it funny that we know the Persian actors better than the American ones? (Well, the American ones are mostly TV guys and we don’t watch a lot of TV. We’re such hipsters.)

I always ask my Persian friends about these films, and in this case, the one who had seen it was kind of put off by the low budget. It is very low budget, and those seams do show at times. Also, the comedy is very hit-and-miss. But it is very good-natured overall—which perhaps distinguishes it from both Sellers and Cohen, who can be rather mean. And that may have to do with why it has played for months at our local theater when most Persian films are lucky to get a few days play, if any.

Directed by Jonathan Kesselman, who did The Hebrew Hammer a decade back, and has a sequel, The Hebrew Hammer vs. Hitler coming up soon.

Duh.
This is not a subtle film. Did I mention that it’s ham-handed?