I Just Driiiiiiiiive!

In Drive, the 14th (of 29) Ryan Gosling films due out this year, Mr. Gosling plays—wait for it—a driver! Actually, I like the guy, which is a good thing, since he’s in, like, everything.

In this flick, he plays a guy with three jobs: Mechanic, stunt driver for the movies, and wheel man. The story begins when he gets involved with his cute neighbor Irene (the adorable Carey Mulligan) and her cute son.

When I say “involved,” I mean sort of minimally involved. They pass in the hallway. He helps her with her car. He smiles at her kid. It’s a testament to Gosling’s acting that his emotionless, possibly sociopathic, affect is humanized so easily with a few reticent smiles. You do end up liking the guy, especially when Mulligan’s jailbird husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, of the recent Robin Hood) comes back.

As it turns out, Standard is a pretty good guy. And Gosling’s (nameless) character wins us over by helping him out, despite his obvious attraction to Irene. But there’s something not quite, let’s say, well-adjusted about him.

I don’t want to spoil the story, but let me warn you: This movie turns suddenly and shockingly violent about at the mid-point. You might think you’re going to see a fun caper flick, but no: This movie decides that not only does it need violence, it can’t be the fun, semi-campy violence of an action flick. It needs graphic violence and extreme brutality.

I’m not knocking this, I’m just pointing it out for those who don’t like that sort of thing.

The Boy and I liked it, though The Boy felt that the violence represented a somewhat unsuccessful tonal shift, and that the movie had a couple more shifts toward the end that didn’t work. That didn’t bug me, particularly, because this movie was basically a homage to the ‘80s, where it was common to put some grittily “realistic” aspect into your heretofore semi-dopey genre flick.

Call it “Miami Vice Syndrome”. Or “Michael Mann Syndrome” if you’re film-literate.

The movie imitates (and improves in a lot of ways) on the ’80s crime drama, which a Moog-y synth pop track, slow-mo moments, inappropriately beautiful music over violence, and even hot pink opening credits! (The Flower noticed the hot pink “Drive” written on the movie poster and asked why it was pink. ’80s, baby!)

There is a lot of fun stuff in this movie: Bryan Cranston plays Gosling’s loser boss who’s trying to get money so Gosling can do stock car racing. Albert Brooks as the mob-ish boss he’s trying to get the money from. And Ron Perlman as his brutish Jewish mob-ish friend (that’s a lot of –ish, but how these guys are syndicated isn’t really explained). It’s nice to see Perlman not only get to play without heavy makeup (Hellboy, “Beauty and the Beast”, Quest for Fire) but also play a Jew!

Also, if you’re a native, the movie is full of street and overhead shots of the City of Angels, which is kind of neat. Though at one point, Irene takes her beater from Echo Park to Cranston and Gosling’s garage in Reseda, which strikes me as as improbable as Gosling living in Echo Park and commuting to Reseda. But these are of course just fun details.

Talented crew. Confident direction. Artsy, bordering dangerously close to pretentious. The ending doesn’t really make sense, and is a little murky to the actual details.

The Boy and I approved. I more than he, as he didn’t really get the ’80s homage and hasn’t driven the streets as much.

I would reservedly recommend for crime drama fans, for ’80s crime drama fans especially, but not for the squeamish.

Contagion: Sickos?

The thing about disease movies is that they’re almost always dumb action flicks. Sometimes they’re dumb horror flicks, but not usually the big name ones. Nope. Usually, you got some horrible, fatal disease that will kill the world, and the action revolves around people chasing a vial of either the disease or the cure. And it usually flies up in the air at some point, with people scrambling to catch it.

Steven Soderbergh’s latest, Contagion, isn’t any of that.

It’s basically a straight-on look at what would happen if a midwestern floozy (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracted a horrible new disease in China and brought it through a bunch of airports on her way home. There are biologists having trouble isolating the disease, a CDC dealing with political issues, crazy internet theories, riots, crime, murder, people who were prepared and people who weren’t, and so on. It’s never suggested that everyone in the world will die from the disease, but 1% or 2% dying seems horrible enough—and at one point, it’s suggested that maybe 20% will die.

It’s basically a hyper-realistic look at things. Which is to say, a lot of the usual dramatic conventions are not used. There is music, but there are long stretches with out it. There isn’t a single character whose journey we follow, but many characters, many of whom die. There is no hero, but there are isolated actions of heroism. There is criminality but far more human frailty.

It reminds a lot of Soderbergh’s earlier work, Traffic.

Dramatically, the aversion to certain sensational conventions has made Contagion somewhat muted, emotionally. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily: The film engages on a lot of levels, but not necessarily the ones that cause people to marvel at the film making.

I kind of did. You don’t see a lot of restraint these days. At the same time, as The Boy said, you didn’t know who was going to live or die, and you cared, but not necessarily very much. The aversion to mawkishness led to a certain distance.

Nonetheless, this may be the best movie about a disease ever, and it’s certainly the least stupid.

Cars 2: This Time, It’s Impersonal

There is a great moment in the short that Pixar assembled describing the process of making The Incredibles. In (creator) Brad Bird’s original vision, Elastigirl had a sidekick who managed her hardware—the supersonic jet and what-not. In fact, in the scene after said jet is shot down, there’s a moment where she looks down at the wreckage that seems a little out of place.

The great moment is Brad Bird explaining how important this character was to his concept of the story and how badly he wanted him in, then cutting to John Lasseter explaining that the movie was already too long, and there were too many characters, and so on. And the two of them go back and forth, with Lasseter saying he had to let Bird do what he felt was right, no matter how wrong.

Bird finally realized that Lasseter was right, and he removed the sidekick. That out-of-place wreckage scene is the only remaining vestige: It’s there because Elastigirl is basically watching her friend sink into the deeps—but since he’s been completely removed from the movie, it’s just a momentary oddness.

I’ve always imagined Pixar to be that sort of place, where artists battled over ideas, and the ideal battled with the practical.

That’s why it’s tragic to see Cars 2, supposedly directed by Lasster, now head of all Disney animation, forget such basic rules and become the first not-very-good Pixar film.

There’s so much right about this film. It’s chock-full of Pixar’s attention to detail. There are stunning visual moments. The movie is centered around Mater, the lovable tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, so that it avoids being a rehash of the original Cars.

But it’s waaaay too complicated. Not just for kids, but for drama. A lot of people accused Cars of being an animated version of Doc Hollywood, to which I say “so what”? You got to know the characters—a whole town full of characters, so that it mattered whether or not Lightning stayed or went. It was squarely in the Pixar model of movies about service to community (cf. Disney films which are almost entirely about being yourself), so you had a struggle over what one wanted as an individual and what was right.

This movie almost sets it up that way. Mater is a rube, of course. And he embarrasses his friends. And he gets almost to the point of recognizing that he does and changing his ways, when everyone says he should be himself and the rest of the world needs to adapt to him. (Really? You shouldn’t maybe hold that flatulence in until after you’ve met the Queen?)

That wouldn’t necessarily be bad by itself, except that the whole thing is tied up in an Evil Big Oil plot. The Big Oil thing is neither here-nor-there, but the plot requires the introduction of a whole fleet of new characters. Notably, Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer play Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, straight out of a 007 film.

But then there’s the chief villain, half-a-dozen or more mook cars, Guido and Luigi’s family in Italy, a new, snotty competitor for McQueen (voiced by John Turturro, who actually does a quite memorable turn), and there’s just not really any room for much in the way of real dramatic storytelling.

The second major issue has to do with action.

The whole concept of Cars is fraught with all kinds of weird imponderables. When Tex Avery did his car and plane-based cartoons in the ‘50s, the anthropomorphosization of which was just like Cars, the implication was that cars were sort of biological creatures, having children and parental issues and what-not. Cars just sort of ignores the issue, but it’s actually pretty central to the plot and concept of the “lemon”.

What does this have to do with the action? Well, in order for Finn to impress us all these incredible spy things, we have to have a concept of what it is a car can do in the first place—what its limitations are, in other words, so that we can marvel at the extraordinary actions. Almost immediately, for example, a car falls off a high point into the water, and the fall kills him. Then Finn jumps into the water later and is not only fine, but able to turn into a (very Bond-esque) submarine.

Well, okay. Why not? There’s a difference between falling and diving, and he’s a spy and all that. But it kind of lampshades the whole problem: If there’s going to be suspense that the audience can relate to, doesn’t there need to be a way to grasp the limitations of the characters. (This is a really common action movie issue these days, at least for me, but they keep doing it.)

This ties into the third major issue, which has to do with mass. In the early days of animation, animators simply exploited their animated-ness: They’d have the characters use their own thought bubbles for rope, or climb up walls, or whatever. I’m sure it was entertaining for a while, but ultimately they had to come up with a kind of physics or they’d never have passed the phase of “Gee! Look! Animation!”

CGI, similarly, doesn’t weigh anything. It’s particularly conspicuous in action movies where the character is throwing something supposedly heavy around and it doesn’t look real. And in low-rent CGI, you get a lot of gags like you’d see in primitive animation. Pixar has always been exquisitely careful about the physics of their films.

By the end of Cars 2, crap is flying around so fast it’s just hard to invest in any of it. It’s almost like the standard, crap summer action flick has infected Pixar.

Now, it’s really not that bad. It’s a little boring because of the points I’ve mentioned. And hugely disappointing after what must be the longest unbroken streak of great films in any movie studio’s history. But this makes a modest stumble seem like a huge fall. It’s not, of itself.

The Boy and The Flower declined to partake, but the Barb liked it. She wanted to see the original one right after, of course, but she didn’t complain.

The Debt

The Israelis make some good movies, though much like us and the French, they tend to flagellate themselves rather a lot. Back in 2007, they made a film called The Debt, which never got released to theaters here but which captured the eye of someone here enough to encourage an English-language remake.

This was the last film made under the Miramax banner before its acquisition by Disney and with delays and (probably) dubious marketability, it’s only now coming out, in the last gasp of summer. But, hey, Helen Mirren got spend a couple of years getting into character.

Which pays off.

The story is—and you can see this all in the trailer, no spoilers here—back in the ‘60s, Rachel, Stephan and David are sent behind the iron curtain in order to extract the Mengele-like character Dieter Vogel, who escaped capture after the war to set up a practice. The mission goes awry and the three are stuck behind enemy lines with no way out, and a hostile hostage to transport.

Now, since the movie is told in flashbacks 30 years later, we know they survive. But something else happened when they were out in the field, and it’s something nobody knows about.

The Boy said, afterwards, that this was a remarkably suspenseful film considering you already knew that they lived through the adventure. This is true and a good storytelling trick: To create suspense even though the audience knows how it turns out.

Because we don’t know exactly how it turned out. And the Devil is in the details, as it turns out. The ’60s-era stuff is high tension, interesting and also creepy. There’s a brief part that takes place in 1970 that is necessary but kind of unpleasant and sad. Then the rest takes place in ’97, when the three character reunite as a book about their adventures has been written.

This leads to a rather improbable but satisfying close that works dramatically and on an action-movie level.

Simon and Chetwynd (of Poliwood) loved this movie and have gone so far to say that our movie critics are somewhat dense for not liking it. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars apparently because he had trouble distinguishing between David and Stephan, which he says is vital in a thriller. We (The Boy and I) suck at that, and I was confused initially, too, except that it didn’t really matter from a thriller standpoint. You had plenty of time to straighten out the young actors from the old actors during the dramatic closing parts, when it mattered.

So, yeah, I’m going with “not too bright”, too. Also, anti-semitic. Just to be safe.

That said, I think they’ve over-rated it a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s well above average. It marries espionage thriller with some pretty heavy drama, against which some interesting social questions are asked. But somewhat like Sarah’s Key, the issues of the modern world against the backdrop of the Cold War and Nazi-ism tend to feel sort of trivial. Though here the modern issues are considerably bigger, at least, than Sarah’s Key.

A helpful guide for the Ebert-esque:

Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren.
Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson.
Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds.

Sort of amusingly, to me, Helen Mirren is the oldest of the old actors, but looked far-and-away the best. She’s also the closest in age now to how old her character would be now but since the movie takes place nearly 15 years ago, she’s actually playing someone ten years younger. It works ’cause, you know, Helen Mirren.

Csokas and Wilkinson look similar enough to where you can see the former aging into the latter. Ciaran Hinds, on the other hand, looks like death warmed over, and I can only assume this was deliberate, if heart-breaking to the ladies in the audience.

Needless to say, the acting is top-notch, not the least of which is done by Jesper Christensen (Quantum of Solace) as the Nazi doctor. It recalls Bruno Ganz in Downfall, as he transitions smoothly from a doctor-like patter of sympathy and concern to explaining exactly why the Jews deserved to die.


And you know how I am about the whole Nazi thing. If you’re going to do a Nazi story, you better be giving me something other than “Nazis are bad.” The strongest dramatic parts of the movie occur between Jessica Chastain and Christensen, both in the doctor’s office and later on. It works so well that when Helen Mirren confronts him later, the character continuity is seamless.

Messr. Ebert notwithstanding.

Solid flick, and above-average in a summer sea of average and sub-par crud.

A propos of what I was ranting on in my review of The Guard, this movie strives and achieves a verisimilitude without worrying about authenticity. I don’t think a lot of Nazi war criminals escaped behind the iron curtain, for example, and I don’t think Mossad performed any extractions (although I believe they helped the Refuseniks to some degree). But it all has a plausible feel, to where you start to wonder if they did do something like that, or could have.

Definitely recommend.

Our Idiot Brother

My mother gave me the scowl when I mentioned The Boy and I were going to see Our Idiot Brother. Momma has a very limited range of comedy she approves of which completely excludes anything involving Stooges, Marx Brothers, Abbot and/or Costello, Lewis (and possibly Martin), Mel Brooks, Woody Allen (though she liked the Paris thing), anyone who was ever on Saturday Night Live (except for Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin), or anyone who looks like they might have been on SNL.

She particular hates “stupid” comedy. So Will Ferrell is right out.

I mention this because the trailers for Our Idiot Brother apparently play it as a dumb Ferrell-style comedy which it most assuredly is not. Not really a mystery: Those dumb comedies draw in the teens and make a lot of money, and this sort of gentle, realist kind of comedy aimed at an older audience does not.

This movie is more in the mold of, say, a Simon or a Being There. (I don’t know why I decided to pull two 1980 movies out for comparison but there it is.) That is, it’s a fish-out-of-water story (like Thor or, as a character coyly comments, The Guard). But it’s a particular genre of FooW story, where the character is an innocent, trusting, pure soul in a dark, cynical world. In Simon and Being There, the innocent takes on messianic qualities, but Paul Rudd’s Ned is nothing so grandiose, which makes this movie very watchable.

The innocent in these movies tends to cut a wide swath through the other characters’ lives, as his goodness tends to reveal the corruption they wade in, having a tendency to then blow those fragile lives apart, and in this case, it’s Ned’s poor sisters who are this victims.

Our movie opens with Ned selling pot to a uniformed cop. Not really selling. The cop begs him for it, playing for Ned’s sympathy and Ned freely gives. The cop then insists on giving him money which Ned reluctantly takes. Next thing you know, Ned’s in jail. Theme song, title, credits. (Actually, I don’t remember if they did that there, but the could’ve.)

This shows up a bit of a problem, of course: How does Ned get to be 42 and not have had this happen so much that he doesn’t get cynical, or at least aware enough to not fall for tricks like this?

But it’s Rudd who’s 42, maybe Ned’s only supposed to be in his 30s. And lucky. And…look, just roll with it.

After eight months of prison (model prisoner, inmate-of-the-month) Ned tries to return home to his girlfriend and his organic farm, but she’s moved on. Which is to say, she’s taken his farm and gotten a new boyfriend (TJ Miller of Cloverfield and How To Train Your Dragon in an amusing turn). Also, she won’t give him his dog, Willie Nelson, back.

And so, this is really a story of a man trying to get his dog back. Which is the sort of story my mom would like, if she’d ever go see it.

Ned visits his sisters in the manner of a Big Bad Wolf, except that all three have built their lives of straw. Settled-down Cindy (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island) is married to insufferable sleazeball documentary director (Steve Coogan), and both are working hard to insulate their older child from anything fun or boy-like, forcing him to do ballet while he really wants to do karate.

It doesn’t take long for Ned to be a bad influence on the boy or uncover the sleaze, leading to a short stay with sister number two, Miranda, played by a brunette Elizabeth Banks (who was Paul Rudd’s love interest in Role Models). Miranda is struggling at Vanity Fair after landing an interview with a hot celebrity who doesn’t want to dish about her personal life. Meanwhile, she and neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott of The Great Buck Howard) have the hots for each other, which remains unexpressed since she’s a bitch.

I mean, not to put too fine a gloss on it.

Miranda is particularly unlikable, but Banks does a good job with this somehow. You should despise her for a lot of reasons, but somehow there’s something at her core that seems redeemable.

After her, Ned ends up staying with the sexually chaotic Natalie (Zooey Deschanel, who played Rudd’s wife in the short “House Hunting”), who is hooked up with Cindy (played by Rashida Jones, who played Rudd’s wife in I Love You, Man). She thinks it’s love but she’s, well, a slut. A recovering slut, anyway. By the time Ned’s actually staying with her, he’s managed to potentially ruin and save her life as it is.

Normally, I really find Deschanel appealing but not here. She plays an unfunny, foul-mouthed comic.

Honestly, though, none of the three sisters are particularly attractive, which is the point. They tend to take out their self-made frustrations on Ned, who rolls with it mostly, but suffers because he doesn’t know all the rules about lying to get what you want or to not rock the boat.

An enjoyable, surprisingly mature flick that will not do very well precisely because it’s not a slapstick fest and also (significantly) because it’s been marketed that way, apparently. It is a little sleazy, of course, but at least it appears to suggest that people shouldn’t be that way.

It works, at least for me and The Boy, precisely because Ned isn’t cruelly mocked in a way that the audience is encouraged to join in on. We could all be a little more Ned-like. Also, the ending is satisfying in an unexpected way, with a nice little closing to the story.

Not sure if mom would have liked it, though.

The Guard

“I’m Oirish! Racism’s part of me culture!”

That line alone was enough to make The Flower want to see the new Don Cheadle/Brendan Gleason collaboration The Guard, in which a murder in a Gleaon’s sleepy Irish county draws the attention of CIA Agent Cheadle.

Gleason is sort of a Bob Beckel character, happily getting stoned and whoring around while sort-of doing the occasional bit of police work. Besides a complete lack of political correctness, he apparently has complete contempt for the service.

I don’t know what a “Guard” is, actually. I Wikapedia-ed and everything. In the movie, they seem like sheriffs—and the movie draws a strong parallel with the western genre, though almost a “piss take” as the Brits say—but they’re apparently some sorta military outfit.

Not really important: Gleason is playing an Irish Clint Eastwood. So take a kind of edgy, hard-boiled, mysterious man who’s not afraid to do violence, make him fat and drunk, not really keen on the violence part and really not all the mysterious—you know, maybe this comparison isn’t working out.

Let’s try this: The writer and director of 2008’s sleeper hit In Bruges, Martin McDonagh is the executive producer of this film, and it has a very similar feel to it. It’s not as dark, but it is a kind of buddy picture/tale of honor and redemption.

Actually, it’s sort of High Noon-ish, as it turns out that Gleeson is the only honest Guard in Ireland. And after the rest have been bought off (with advances secured through the trafficking of over half a billion dollars in drugs, a financial estimation of considerable consternation throughout the movie) he has to face them down alone.

Well, alone with Cheadle, of course.

Also similar to In Bruges, our three villains are philosophical sorts. Less believable as actual criminals than as meta-criminals who commit atrocities while examining their own motivations and character flaws while they do it. That may sound like a dig but I find it appealing, personally.

I mean, having grown up in a time where “natural” was de rigueur, I’m distrustful of all these highly artificial things that seem less focused on verisimilitude and more on a putative authenticity. It’s all fake; sell it enough to make it work, not so much—a la reality shows—that people walk around believing they’ve seen something real.

But I digress. The point is, you get villains that are the sort of villains you love-to-hate. Liam Cunningham is the evil mastermind, Mark Strong (whose career will survive his turn as Sinestro in The Green Lantern) is his smart muscle, and David Wilmot is the psychopath—or, wait, no, he’s a sociopath, if I recall correctly. (The issue of “psycho” versus “socio” being a debate from the movie.)

Fionnula Flanagan plays Gleeson’s dying mother, whom the Guard smuggles booze (and the occasional joint) to in her hospice care. She shares her son’s irreverence, and the scenes between them are really quite touching without even the barest hint of mawkishness.

All-in-all, a lively mashup of police procedural, western, comedy, drama—something that defies easy categorization. The Flower enjoyed it quite a bit, except for the end. The ending is not spelled out, and she took it to mean one thing when the closing song (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”) really leaves no room for doubt as to what happens.

Of course, it was no Gran Torino—pretty much her reaction to every film these days.

The Boy and I also enjoyed it greatly, no comparisons to Gran Torino required.

The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)

Ze Frenchies, zey are everywhere this year!

Well, what can I say? If you can’t find a decent movie in English, you have to turn somewhere. Last year, it was Sweden. This year, France.

The Hedgehog is a neat little French film about a building full of rich people that is managed by a grumpy, frumpy concierge. Well, really, it’s about the 11-year-old daughter of one of the rich families, and her countdown to killing herself on her twelfth birthday.

I know, French, right?

It’s dark, obviously, but—how to put this?—childishly so. I don’t mean that as an insult: Paloma is a child, maybe a future “goth” or “emo” or whatever, but her grasp of the significance of things is distinctly childish. The upshot is that you have this dichotomy of knowing that she’s perfectly capable of killing herself and intent on doing it, and at the same time being amused by her thought processes. Bemusement, to use the word correctly.

The story begins with her making this decision, but the catalyst for the subsequent adventures begin with the death of one of the tenants in her building, and the appearance of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. This elderly Japanese fellow clearly likes Paloma, but more importantly to the story, he has an eye for the apartment’s concierge.

It’s helpful to realize that, apparently, the concierge of a wealthy building is rather low on the totem pole. At one point she exclaims that she’s the janitor (or so the translation has it). Point is, she’s way down on the social scale, expected to be a coarse woman who watches soaps all day long and to be generally unnoticed by the upper crust clientele.

Our movie concierge is a frowsy, frumpy, crotchety old woman, immediately off-putting to all who meet her, except for one little thing. When Kakuro asks about the family that lived there before and the agent (that’s probably not who she is, but that’s who would do that here) says they were a happy family, Renée (the concierge) says “Happy families are all alike.”

To which Kakuro, naturally adds, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.”

OK, I’m not going to pretend I’ve read Anna Karenina, but I recognized the quote. If they’d quoted from Crime and Punishment, I’d’ve been all over that.

And so the movie is basically about how the two of them form an unlikely bond through a love of Russian literature. Also, how Paloma’s ennui is lifted, sort of, by watching this. (She actually curses her luck of finally having something interesting happen just as she’s about to end it all.)

The three principals are incredibly appealing which contributes greatly to this movie’s watchability. The characters are strongly written and the acting has a certain je ne sais qua. (That’s French for “I’m too lazy to come up with a better joke”.) Togo Igawa projects a quiet dignity as the charming widower, and Garance Le Guillermic does the angsty pre-teen with a subtle depth that makes her likable throughout.

I mean, that’s a real potential landmine: Though she’s young, Paloma is much in the mold of the rebellious teenager, and lord knows they can be insufferable to watch—even when you’re one yourself. My father thought The Breakfast Clubbers were a little whiny. I couldn’t figure out why James Dean was pissed off all the time. It’s not that they don’t make good observations, it’s that the observations tend to be incomplete or shallow, which makes the subsequent arrogance (to repeat myself) insufferable.

Paloma is still a child, and her mother has spent her whole life indulging her neuroses. Her older sister is monstrously self-important and self-involved. Dad is feeble and placating without being engaged. The audience’s heart goes out to her, naturally, but they manage to keep empathy even when Paloma seems a little cruel.

Which happens.

Josiane Balasko, as the concierge (and the titular hedgehog), is the key to making it all work. She really makes herself unattractive. Not in that Hollywood, slap-a-pair-of-glasses-onto-Kathy-Ireland way, either. And it’s not just skin deep: There’s an unhappiness, a little bitterness, prickliness to it all.

Her transformation is amazing. Not her physical transformation. She does get a makeover, and it helps, but it’s very understated. But when you first catch a glimpse of happiness, or warmth, or even joy on her face, it’s a moving experience.

Balasko has been playing homely middle-aged women for 20 years at least, since she played Gerard Depardiu’s lover in Too Beautiful For You. But some time before that, I’m pretty sure she was a French hottie, romantic-lead-with-occasional-nude-scene type.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. One, I often wax poetic on these pages about the way the French let their women age, and how I think it’s far more attractive than the botoxed/tightened/implanted look of the American never-get-old style. This is a weird case of that, in that Balasko isn’t an Isabelle Huppert or an Isabelle Adjani (who are peers), yet there is a respect afforded her that I can almost not imagine in an American film.

The other thing is that I can’t imagine—can’t think of a single American hottie in a similar career path: Used to be hot, now plays homely. Mostly they’ll do anything to stave off aging. Like, say, Morgan Fairchild or Victoria Principal. I could see Nancy Allen maybe doing it, except she’s aged more gracefully than either of the aforementioned.

Maybe a propos of nothing. It’s a remarkable performance on its own, but seems amazing given the context.

Anyway, The Boy was once again able to overcome his loathing of all things French to enjoy this film. His main comment was something like “it got French at the end, but it didn’t go full French”. And this is true.

Worth seeing.

The Help

Spunky young wannabe journalist “Skeeter” (Emma Stone) returns to her small town in Alabama looking for some kind of entreé into the world of writershipitude, and ends up discovering a rich vein of stories by the colored help of the town’s middle class families.

You know who should be crying over this?

Lindsay Lohan.

I mean, seriously: Crazy Stupid Love, Friends With Benefits, Easy A, Zombieland, this movie—a share of those probably should have gone to the Lohan, but for the whole life-is-a-trainwreck thing. She’s sort of the unwritten meta-tragedy here.

And completely off-topic. The mind, it plays tricks.

This movie is, dare I say, a chick flick. And, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s long. It’s also dangerously “socially relevant” and Baby Boomer pander-y, taking place in the early ‘60s.

Nigh miraculously, it all works. It wasn’t till the end of the film that I realized how long it was getting and both the Boy and the Flower sat through it without complaint. The acting is all solid, the music has the right mix, and the pacing is lively.

This is one of those reviews where I don’t say much about the actual events that unfold in the movie, even though you could probably take ten minutes to guess them all from a light outline. Well, most of them; there are probably a few surprises in there.

The movie does a very good job of drawing the characters and granting them their frailties. There are no “magic negros” and it’s not really (as it might first seem) about the white (wo)man coming to set them free. It’s also not about how bad white folk are, though there’s plenty of bad behavior from them. The black women seem to less ill-behaved, but one could see this clearly as a function of not having much free time.

What I’m getting at is that it navigates the historical minefield of race relations—and more importantly, for the sake of the moviegoing audience, the cinematic minefield of portrayal of race.

If there’s one perhaps politically correct oddity, it’s a near complete absence of black men. Though the only white men of significance are those who interact with our intrepid journalist.

It’s a chick flick. If Bridesmaids is the chick-flick-as-comedy, The Help is chick-flick-as-historical fiction.

It’s actually kind of reassuring. There need to be good chick flicks.

There’s Oscar scuttlebutt—fairly—and lots of talk about how the movie is racist—predictably. I’ve heard a lot of research went into the source book, and I tend to believe that, but there is a fair amount of wish fulfillment here, too. There wasn’t such a book, as far as I know, and the movie can feel a little pat in its resolution.

But there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not as extreme as, say, La Vita E Bella or Dances with Wolves, and it’s a grand Hollywood tradition to give the audience an upbeat, if not exactly happy, ending. Writer/director Tate Taylor has achieved something well above par here, something worthy of recognition.

And Lindsay Lohan should be dying, watching Emma Stone take a swing at a pitch she could have had, and knock it out of the park.


I couldn’t get the Flower to go see Rio with me, but after it had been playing for four months, the Barb realized she hadn’t had any popcorn lately and when she pressured me into taking her to see something, Rio was still playing.

For a movie that’s been playing for four months, I expected better.

It’s not bad. It’s even good. Just not very good. Not very anything, even. The animation is good, of course, but nothing spectacular. Actually, the animation is probably the strongest part: It has a nice subtlety to it (except for an early scene where the girl’s hair is blowing in the wind the way nobody’s hair blows except in cartoons).

The story is pretty strong, too. A cerulean macaw is transported to Minnesota where its found by a nebbishy young girl who raises it for the next fifteen years. As an adult, a Brazilian ornithologist comes to her bookstore and says that Blu (the macaw) is almost the last of his kind, and that he needs to mate with the last female to keep the species going.

Linda, the bookish girl (Leslie Mann), is not thrilled with this idea, and neither is Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), who is just as nebbishy and domesticated as his owner. They’re even less thrilled when the female macaw Jewel (Anne Hathaway) is a feral, unfriendly creature focused on escape.

The birds are immediately captured by smugglers and this leads to a kind of buddy picture with Blu and Jewel trying to find their way to freedom.

So. Cute.

But not that cute. Not in the sense of, say, Despicable Me, which was in danger of being too cute (but pulled back). It’s also not that clever like, say, a Ratatouille. It has a passel of animal characters voiced by celebrities that are instantly forgettable. Even now, I know there was a fat bird and a skinny bird and a toucan, but I couldn’t tell one from the other.

This movie takes stunt casting to the extreme. Eisenberg and Hathaway could’ve been Cera and Bynes or Mintz-Plasse and Gomez. In fact, I kind of think maybe they wanted Cera, because Eisenberg sounds like he’s doing a nicer, wimpier version of the character he usually plays. Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes are in here as a couple of geese–for one 30 second scene.

It’s, like, why?

The one truly standout voice is done by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.

Amidst the passel of forgettable characters are a few desultory musical numbers. I don’t even remember how many. You’re not going to be whistling tunes from this after leaving the theater. I was actually forgetting the songs as they were being sung. Which was sort of disturbing in a Memento way.

At one point, Blu has a tantrum and says he hates samba because it all sounds alike. Yeah. Well, at least in this movie?

The score by John Powell overall is actually good, though, as is the song he co-wrote with Powell and performed as the movie’s villain. But it’s an expository character piece that is never again referenced in the rest of the film.

You can do this sort of thing and still be very successful if you pull it out in some other fashion: Being very funny for example (nope) or having a lot of thrilling, suspenseful moments (better).

One of the things I’ve noticed lately is that animators will take an idea from a Pixar flick and run with it in such a way that it works on a new level. For example, the minions of Despicable Me are very reminiscent of the green alien dudes of the Toy Story series. (Their intonations, their tendency to do things en masse, etc.) But Despicable Me takes it to a higher level, imbuing the minions with individual personalities and basically providing fodder for humor whenever things threaten to get too slow or serious.

The penguins from Madagascar are—well, I can’t remember where they’re derived from, but I remember thinking how cliché they were at the time, but they also provide a lot of interest for an otherwise plain movie. (Though the rather original King Julian and his entourage are significant.)

This movie has a monkey crew reminiscent of the penguins, but they’re bad guys. So they’re not very funny and they’re kind of creepy, and they don’t have any personality.

There are other weird things, too. George Lopez plays a family-man toucan (I think) who uses the macaw’s predicament to get out of the metaphorical house, but later on lectures to Blu on how he’s going back to his family rather than enjoying Carnival.

Why? Was that something Blu needed to learn? Was Blu in danger of turning to a life of fleeting carnal pleasures? Blu can’t even make it with the last female (cerulean macaw) on earth!

You put enough of these things together and it comes out like mush.

But again, the core parts (story, animation, voice acting) are all solid, just never really taking flight (ironically, wah-wah).

When I asked the Barb if she liked it, she said “Of course!” (And aren’t you a moron for asking?)

“So, it was good?”
No dignifying that with a response.
“Did you have a favorite part?”

“Well, what was it?”
“When Blu was a baby.”

OK, so she liked the first 3 minutes. And the popcorn. I dunno. You figure it out. Can’t wait till she’s a teenager.

Point Blank (À bout portant)

The Boy and I love suspense/thrillers. Hitchcock fans to the bitter end. And, let’s face it: If a movie is a thriller, the one thing you know is that it’s not going to be boring. Right? Except, of course, when it’s mis-labeled melodrama. Which it often is. Especially if it’s a foreign film. Especially French.

But the French can make some good potboilers and, happy to say, this movie, Point Blank, is one of them. It’s a simple (Hitchcockian) premise: A nurse on duty (male nurse, it’s France, remember) saves a man from an assassination attempt, and ends up being a pawn in a game of dirty cops and robbers.

The action is breakneck. The twists are twisty but not overblown. We get some character development as our hero Sam (Gilles Lelouche) must transform from a mild-mannered good guy nurse into a something a little grittier. This actually is worth a pause: He doesn’t become, Police Academy-style, a complete caricature of an action hero. He barely qualifies at all, really: He just gets more desperate and it’s more like we see the quality of his character (showcased early on in a normal situation, that’s foreshadowing, people)  proven over the course of the adventure.

And it doesn’t really let up till the end, which involves a chaotic brawl inside a police station.


A couple of points right at the end made me wonder if they were going to get all dark and French and stuff, but they avoided that for a nice climax and satisfying denouement.

Good stuff. Not weighty or serious, but the fast, fun, quick movies (this clocks in at 84 minutes, including credits) aren’t as easy to do as people think, clearly.

The Boy and I liked it. The Boy even mentioned it a couple days later as being good. And he hates the French.

Sarah’s Key (Elle s’appelait Sarah)

Gendarmes pound on the door of a French apartment in WWII to collect the Jews who live there, and a little girl thinks to save her brother’s life by locking him in a closet. The rest of the family is taken away and the little girl desperately tries to get back, or to send someone, to fetch him.

So begins the French film, Sarah’s Key, which is this story and also the story of a journalist (Kristin Scott-Thomas) who moves into that apartment with her family 60 years later, who happens to be researching the story for a magazine article.

The coincidence bugged me a bit, but then it occurred to me that with tens of thousands of Jews having been rounded up in France, it’s not as huge a stretch as it first seems that there’d be a connection, even an intimate one.

Mélusine Mayance plays the eponymous Sarah, and her struggle to free her brother from the closet is suspenseful, moving, riveting and heart-breaking as Sarah’s story crosses those of other children.

Julia Jarmond’s story is necessarily far more low-key. She’s obsessed by the story, moving into her husband’s family apartment in Paris, and newly (surprisingly) pregnant with a child her husband doesn’t want.

The Boy and I deconstructed it immediately: The climax is a little past the middle of the film. We find out what happens to Sarah as a child, and follow Julia as she tries to find out her fate as an adult. This doesn’t have the drive of the first part of the film, and—well, it’s all sort of denouement.

As I’ve noted, when the French aren’t beating up America, they’re beating up themselves, and there’s a little of that here, though not as much as you might think. (Not like, say, the moving Indigenes.) But there’s an undeniable triviality of modern life compared to World War II and the Holocaust. The Boy said at the end he was reminded of that scene in Crazy, Stupid Love (the giddy “It’s just a divorce!” celebration).

And yet. For both of us, the movie seemed to get better and better in the ensuing hours. It’s a tricky (some would say dangerous) juxtaposition, and the reviews for this movie indicate that the critics were less likely to accept it than the general audience. Maybe this is because Julia is an American and she (rightly) has a certain moral concern over the possibility her French in-laws may have acquired property from Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and American moral superiority isn’t big among our elite these days.

But maybe it worked for us because we’re humbled by the experience. The events of our lives are happily trivial compared to those of who came before us, thanks to their efforts. And maybe we could relate to Julia and her peers trying to find some meaning at the peril of re-prioritizing things in favor of what’s important rather than what’s convenient.

Excellently acted throughout, of course. Beautifully rendered in two different styles (for the flashback and the modern times). Effective, understated music. If I am jaded about Holocaust movies occasionally, this one had a different, challenging aspect to it that made it worthy of viewing.

Cowboys and Aliens

The inestimable @Darcysport, who’s sort of become my conservative conscience as far as movie-going goes, goaded me a little bit about last week’s Cowboys and Aliens comment, pointing out that Ed Morrissey liked it.

I retorted that I knew that, but I thought his whole equating the holocaust with KFC rendered his judgment questionable.

I can be obtuse that way.

Anyway, I knew Morrissey had liked it, and I don’t know much about his taste in movies, but it got me thinking: What if some of the negative reviews had not been based on the actual quality of the movie per se (that’s Latin for “I’m a pretentious dork”) but on themes that might be regarded as right-wing, and therefore not worthy of any praise?

We have a winnah!

OK, let’s say it up front. This movie is what it says on the label: Cowboys (check) and aliens (check). A mysterious stranger wanders into a town on its way to being a ghost town, and runs afoul of the cattle baron with a maniac kid, when the western clichés are interrupted by an alien attack.

And it works.

There’s some stupid here, necessarily. But way less stupid than you might expect. Way less than (say) Independence Day. Allowing for the fact that any alien invasion movie is going to have to have some stupid in order for earthlings to have a chance at fighting back, this movie does a good job of setting up the seeds of the aliens’ potential failure.

Director Jon Favreau does what he does best, I think: Deliver more than you expect from some thin material (see Elf). And how does he do this?

Primarily, he refuses to pad things out. Especially with summer blockbusters, you get lots of padding. Movies tend to be padding between special effects, and then the special effects are padded! (Think the Star Wars prequels.) Every scene here has a purpose: characterization, plot development and even the occasional special effect.

The effects are light in general. Favreau seems to have opted for filming real places instead of a bunch of people on a green screen, and the plot is pretty straightforward, too. So what you get is a lot of characterization.

I don’t get why action directors don’t figure this out: Action sequences (and special effects) are nothing if you don’t care about the characters. Super 8 knew this, but it lampshaded it to the point where the characterization felt forced.

Here you have The Mysterious Badass, The Upright Sheriff and his Ward, The Evil Cattle Baron, The Preacher, The Nebbishy Saloon Owner and his Hot Wife, The Indians—pretty much stock genre characters. But each one is imbued with a certain, unique life by their time onscreen, no matter how short.

The Outlaws and The Indians, e.g., have very little screen time between them, but you can tell ‘em apart with the short time they have. Favreau did the same thing with Ironman, you may recall: If there’s a character on-screen, they’re not just filling in a plot point or being sucked into a special effect. The characterization is positively thick, with The Hero being layered in a Jason Bourne kind of style and The Evil Cattle Baron being by turns merciless, racist, ruthless but also with a toughness that seems to come from an almost sentimental place.

In other words, there’s something to hang your hat on.

It doesn’t hurt that the lead is played by Daniel Craig, who lacks the bulk of a John Wayne, but is damned convincing as a wiry, tough bastard. There is one shot that reminds me so strongly of a comic book image—I don’t read a lot of comic books but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it—that I completely overlooked how impossibly well his clothes fit him.

While Craig does excellently, Harrison Ford almost steals the show as the Evil Cattle Baron. It’s a little weird to see him as a bad guy, but he’s more complicated. You could argue, even, that he’s the main character, since his story has the most clearly defined arc. (Craig’s arc is there, but it’s subtler.)

Olivia Wilde is about a million times more appealing than she was in Tron. Her role is a bit odd and she manages to bring a real warmth to it completely missing from Legacy. Sam Rockwell plays the nebbishy bartender while Paul Dano is the snotty son of the cattle baron—a role that probably would have gone to Rockwell ten years ago.

Clancy Brown plays the preacher man, once again. Seems like he’s a preacher a lot, though the only thing I can swear to offhand is his role as the evil radio preacher in “Carnivalé”.

It’s his character that really gets up and slaps you in the face with the movie’s right-wingedness.

It’s not really a right-wing movie, though, any more than Iron Man was. It’s just that, working in a genre where traditional American values are celebrated, it’s just going to come off that way. And I think that’s why it rubs some folks the wrong way.

And being rubbed the wrong way, they come up with stupid other reasons for not liking it, like “What do the aliens want with gold?” Really? That’s your idea of a plot hole. We’re told early on that gold is as rare on their world as on ours. What more do you need? A giant gold space laser?


This confirms my thesis that most people (including, say, Roger Ebert) react to movies on a gut level, then just sort of backfill the reasons why they hate something or like something to make it seem logical.

That’s why I try to let you know my biases and tastes.

Anyway, this movie is full of western tropes that seem remarkably right-wing now. The Preacher is a decent, tough man who tries to help out the bartender. The Indians are savages (though we do get a little Indian medicine magic). The gun is celebrated, whether six-shooter, Winchester rifle or alien laser doo-hickey.

The Cattle Baron is a racist, but he has a good heart.

I don’t know why that last should be “right-wing” except that political correctness seems to require certain things be signifiers of pure evil. Things like racism, or smoking.

There’s some smoking, too. The hero smokes! Primarily to look cool to his friends!

So, yeah, I’m willing to guess that this stuff shaved a few points of the ratings.

We all liked it. Me, The Boy, The Flower. We weren’t really blown away, but we agreed it was fun and under-rated.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Cowboys and Aliens wasn’t really getting the top notch reviews, and The Boy is a hard sell on “high concept” movies anyway, so I took him and The Flower to see the new Steve Carell flick Crazy, Stupid, Love. And that punctuation (including the period) is part of the title.

It’s a simple premise: Middle-aged, nerdy Cal and his wife Emily are splitting up, and Cal ends up under the tutelage of Jacob, a top-notch player who shows him how to score women. Meanwhile, Jacob has his eye on the sexually modest Hanna, and 17-year-old babysitter Jessica has a crush on Cal while fending off the advances of Cal’s 13-year-old son Robbie.

So, of course, it’s not the plot but the execution.

This is a fairly light movie. Carell is pleasant, of course, and likable even in his wimpy mode, and he’s supported by Julianne Moore, who seems pleasingly vulnerable in this role. Ryan Gosling plays Jacob, managing to be charming and strong without seeming sleazy, sort of doing the opposite of his Lars and the Real Girl role. Analeigh Tipton (Jessica) and Jonah Bobo (Robbie) are both very appealing, as well, and the supporting cast includes Kevin Bacon, Beth Littleford and John Carroll Lynch. Oh, and Emma Stone as “good girl” Hannah and Liza Lapira as her slutty friend are a delight.

The comedy moves pretty quickly and consistently, too, with no serious lags or lulls. It’s not entirely fluff, as we do see some of the consequences of (multiple, frequent) casual sex, but obviously not the worst ones (or it would cease to be a comedy, most likely). It highlights some of the crazy, stupid aspects—but not really of love so much as sex and infatuation.

There are some technical issues. One of the plot points involves Jacob’s strategy of always buying a girl a drink, for example, when everyone knows you don’t buy a girl a drink. This sets up a nice awkward moment for Carell to riff on, though, so we can overlook it, along with some of the other aspects of Jacob’s “game” that seem improbable.

A more serious issue, to my mind, is the ease with which Carell’s character, Cal, falls into his new lifestyle. Given the sort of person he is portrayed as being, his history as we learn it, and his reaction to  circumstances later on, I don’t know if I really buy that. I also don’t know if the movie’s resolution makes sense, given all that.

There’s another, less obvious issue that raises its head twice in this movie, with regard to male/female relationships. In both situations (involving different characters), a female becomes unhinged because her relationship with a male didn’t work out the way she thought it would.

Now, obviously, this is true to life enough.

In one case, though, we’re more inclined to believe that the character is a little unstable, while in the other case, the character is meant to be admirable. But from what we’re shown, both cases involve the woman making assumptions that are never stated anywhere, and in both cases we’re invited to blame the males for this.

In one case, a one-night stand, this is ridiculous. The other case involves a long-term relationship—but one in which we’re given no reason to even understand the woman’s attraction to the man, except as a demonstration of her superior character, much less why she would have the expectations of him she does—except, again as a demonstration of her relative superior value.

Not to say I haven’t known hot chicks who went for less-than-hot guys because they valued kindness, stability and all the other things that aren’t supposed to turn women on, and who didn’t end up being just as badly used by them as they would have been by bad boys. But just that the movie doesn’t show us any depth, so it sort of looks like women have no responsibility for relationships, men are just supposed to meet their needs (however unspoken), and it’s men’s fault for not doing so.

Come to think of it, that might have been the over-arching message of the film.

Can’t say I approve of that.

But I’m over-analyzing things, I suppose. It’s a cute movie, with plenty of laughs. You’ll probably enjoy it. Both The Boy and The Flower did, as did I.

There was a distinct shortage of both cowboys and aliens, however.

A Better Life

So, this movie about an illegal immigrant gardener living in East L.A. has been hanging around the theaters lately and I really wasn’t going to go see it. These things almost always work out the same way, with the good-hearted Latinos being oppressed by the evil gringos or, say, the immigrants teach the repressed white man how to really live.


Then @Darcysport mentioned that it was written by Pajamas Media founder Roger Simon.


I actually don’t know much about Roger Simon. I remember Althouse mocking him mercilessly when he was recruiting bloggers for PJ Media. That was almost six freaking years ago. So, I guess her estimation that they would flounder didn’t pan out.

Anyway, I think Simon’s shtick is that he’s a Hollywood outsider by choice, due to his political conservatism, which in this town sounds like “no one will hire me”. Not that I have any insight into his career that IMDB doesn’t give.

What I’m getting at is that I wasn’t all that enthusiastic going into this thing, with a story by Simon, directed by Chris Weitz (About A Boy) and screenwriter Eric Eason, and a cast of people you maybe have seen around…places…maybe on street corners…


It’s a solid movie. It’s the sort of movie that people say “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?” only to have you point out that they do, and that they just watched it, you moron!

Though it has been a while.

Carlos is an illegal, living in L.A. for about 15 years, raising his son, Luis, on his own. He wakes up early, gets driven around in a truck by his boss, and does gardening all over the fair City of Angels. He works hard, lives in a mean little hovel in East L.A. where he tends his own mini-garden. He’s not relating well to his teenage son, who skips school and runs with a bad crowd.

Pretty standard stuff, right?

Carlos’ boss is going to sell the truck and equipment to the highest bidder and take his money to go buy a farm back in Mexico—something he refers to, without irony, as “the American dream”. This puts the pressure on Carlos, since he doesn’t have the money to buy the truck, and doesn’t have the necessary papers to hold on to the truck if he could buy it. (That is, he has no driver’s license and if he gets caught, he’ll get shipped back to Mexico.) If he doesn’t buy it, on the other hand, he’s back out on the curb with the other day laborers. (An interesting and accurate depiction of the various strata of illegal society here.)

Meanwhile, Luis is a snotty, spoiled teenaged brat who disdains his father, disdains the day laborers, hates his own poverty and really has no sense of how bad it could be. He is, at least, smart enough to be running with the gangs, but there’s an attraction, and it doesn’t help that his girlfriend is part of the baddest crime gang in the neighborhood.

Once again, pretty standard stuff, right?

Ah, but it’s character, plot, tension, story arc—all the basics covered here.

And it works. Well.

Why? Because it’s a depiction of a good man, working hard to get ahead—to the live the American Dream—and the forces arrayed against him are formidable but not insurmountable. Demian Bichir plays Carlos, and he’s an excellent everyman.

The whole cast is convincing and authentic feeling, and the (presumably) low budget doesn’t work against it.

You care, but more than that, the movie is always engaging you with narrative “effects” a lot of dramatists avoid: Just because this is a serious drama (some say melodrama) doesn’t mean it can’t have moments of suspense, mystery, action, etc. These enhance the drama, just as drama can enhance those sorts of scenes.

What I’m getting at is that the movie doesn’t take your caring for granted, constantly giving you moments to make you care a little bit more. For Luis’s character, this is critical, because he’s such a tool you feel like slapping him at first. But he gets to have his highs and lows, his moments of glory and, well, inglory, and he evolves as a character.

Given my bent, I’d like to say “This movie shows that socialism (and other forms of big government) ruins everything.” Because to my way of thinking, the Carlos’ of the world are never an immigration problem. If it weren’t for the government offering freebies to illegals and regulating the jobs market so much that they price the native poor out of the jobs immigrants do, I think we’d have a lot less of an issue.

But as much as I’d like to say that’s the message of the movie, I can’t any more than I could say “The problem with immigration, according to the movie, is the gringos oppressing and exploiting the brown peoples.” (Racism, and white people in general, barely make an appearance in the film.)

The point being, the movie is basically politics-free. You can say “Well, that sure is stupid” at various points of the film, but that’s just honest observation. Politics gets into the why (like my preferred “why” mentioned above) and the how to fix, and who’s to blame, which would make for an insufferable film.

The Flower had a little trouble following it with all the subtitles (the movie slips in and out of Spanish frequently) but she liked it. The Boy really liked it. And I did, too. I was glad we went and glad that a movie like this—on many levels—could be made.

Harry Potter And The Last Goddamn Movie

It’s over! Hallelujah! After ten years, 19-and-a-half hours and eight movies, There are no more Harry Potter movies to sit through! 

Thank God.

Actually, all things considered? This is a very solid series of movies. Especially after the first couple of cutesy-poo Chris Columbus flicks (Sorceror’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets). The uneven third flick had some edge and real heart, with Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) at the helm, and Mike Newell (Prince of Persia) made the silly plot of The Goblet of Fire overlookable.

The last four films (Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, Deathly Hallows I and II) were all done by David Yates who has done a fine job, st least as far as creating watchable movies, I can’t speak to faithfulness to the source material.

So, what to say about this one? Well, Ace of Spades lamented, when he heard the last book had been split in to two movies, that there wasn’t enough material.

Not a problem. Part 1 moved along briskly, and Part 2 is actually pretty breakneck. There’s a lot to wrap up here, and the Big Reveal to be revealed, and what-not.

The Big Reveal isn’t going to surprise anyone, I don’t think. My kids saw it coming around the fifth movie—well, The Boy did. The Flower was born the year the first one came out so she wasn’t even prepared to be surprised by the twist.

Well, that’s one reveal. The other reveal—well, that seemed obvious to me from the get-go.

This is not a bad thing, mind you. If they had really been shocking at this point, halfway through the last half of the last book, it would have felt like a cheat. (Though this theory about Neville would’ve been fun.) Really, for a movie series that’s based on a fair amount of slapdashery, the final chapter hangs together and brings things together.

The movie could actually be stitched two the first half to make a seamless four-and-a-half-hour movie (yow!) beginning as it does at the point where Valdemort robs the Elder Wand from the grave. Meanwhile, Harry, Ron and Hermione are off to destroy the horcruxes (the vessels that hold Valdemort’s soul and preserve his immortality).

This leads to a bank heist (with shootout!) and then takes them back to a thoroughly occupied Hogwart’s (apparently Valdemort thought it would be a good idea to keep two horcruxes in the same place). And thus begins the last stand.

There’s not much to say really. At this point, you know whether you’re going to see it or not. Are you really going to see 6 ½ chapters of a story without seeing the last? Although, in fairness, I know a guy who has only seen the last three or four films and enjoyed them.

To the film’s, and the series’, credit, this isn’t the Star Wars prequels or Lord of the Rings, where I really did just see the last ones because I’d seen the first two. The Boy shares my opinion here: While far from a fan, he’s been liking these later movies more.

The Flower, on the other hand, hates them. Not that she thinks they’re bad, necessarily, but she’s sort of picked up on the fact that Rowling basically dumps on Harry. He can’t get a break. The Flower doesn’t care for that sort of thing. (She hates Charlie Brown, too, for stuff like the ever-escaping football. “The most depressing series ever.”)

Her opinion? “It’s no Gran Torino, but it wasn’t bad!”

High praise, indeed. (Gran Torino is one of her favorite movies and the funniest she’s ever seen, she says.)

The movie suffers a bit from a few things. For one thing, if you primarily watch the movies when they come out, you’re basically seeing the second half a movie after you got interrupted 6-8 months ago. It takes a while to catch up.

For another thing, you’re wrapping up this near 20 hour story. If you’ve come to care about any of the characters, there’s a good chance you won’t find out what happened to them. A lot of creatures drifted through the stories over the years and are left to drift.

Also, a lot of the characters die. Now, it’s a war, so you expect that. But you just see them stretched or crumpled over and you don’t really get a chance to—well, hell, you’re wondering who it is when they flash by and by the time you think you’ve puzzled it through, a bunch of other characters end up dead.

And when it’s over, it’s over. They very wisely did not do the LOTR thing with the four hundred different endings, but the price of that is a sort of anticlimactic denouement, if that’s even possible. It’s almost a “monster’s dead, movie’s over” situation, though there is a nice (short) epilogue.

So, yeah, good ending to the series.

The Chameleon

The movie well is pretty dry, as it tends to be mid-summer, if you’re not into loud, obnoxious and dumb. And I’m actually into any two of those, but all three at once sort of turns me off. Anyway, the upshot is that we ended up seeing a movie called The Chameleon which has two cuts: One which is apparently crap, and one which is apparently good.

We, of course, didn’t know which cut it was. But I hope it was the bad one.

The premise is intriguing, and based (very loosely) on a real events: A missing Louisiana child turns up four years later. Only looking a lot more than four years older. And having a (Continental) French accent. And just generally not seeming much like the missing child.

The family with the missing child is apartment and trailer dwellers, so there’s no monetary motivation for him to lie. They’re also seriously dysfunctional, with a con half-brother and a half-in-the-bag mother (played by a very anti-glammed Ellen Barkin). On the other side, you have to wonder why any family would pretend that an impostor was their missing son.

So, you have a mystery. And one that’s irritating the crap out of an FBI agent (Famke Janssen), who pursues the situation when no one else cares to.

The con half-bother (Nick Stahl) also seems to be constantly on the verge of killing the kid (Marc-André Grondin) which gives the movie a kind of a thriller aspect to it.

In fact, it was the mystery/thriller aspect that inclined me to take a shot at this flick, but it really fails at both. (Or the cut I saw did, and frankly, I don’t know enough about French director Jean-Paul Salomé to vouch for him.) The problem is, the mystery comes from murky motivations. What happens doesn’t entirely make sense from any point of view apart from a sort of surreal, highly emotional one.

The Boy and I were trying to figure out who the main character was, with no success. The only real possibilities are the kid, the mother or the FBI agent. The kid and the mother form a bond, and the former has a sort of character arc, but it’s a very strange and muted one. The FBI agent doesn’t really have a character arc. 

It’s one of those movies that seems more like a series of events than a focused narrative. That makes it sort of listless, despite the rather interesting subject matter. It comes off sort of like an episode of “The Closer”, except “The Closer” is a pretty tight show with better production values. And less on-screen drug use, I guess.

The most compelling drama is between the kid and the mother, but their moments seem sort of stilted. Janssen’s character has some real depth, and since she’s in less awkward situations, her character is revealed in ways that seem more natural. They also tried de-glamming her, but it didn’t really take. 

I think, sometimes, if you’re doing a “ripped from the headlines” type story, you have some obligation to the truth, and that can tie your hands, dramatically speaking. But that presumes you’re trying to stay true to life, which I think was pretty secondary here. 

If you’re not, you should go to town and do whatever it takes to make an artistically satisfying film, facts be damned. I think this movie wasn’t concerned with the actuality, at least as production wore on (if ever), but they didn’t cut loose and give us either a good mystery or a good thriller. And in the long run, aspersions were cast. Cast, slung and sprayed all over the damn place.

The Boy and I were not impressed, and we couldn’t recommend what we saw. I’m suspicious how much better another cut could be, though. The flaws seemed to be structural. Thinking about it, while the audience does not know what’s going on, the film’s characters pretty much all have to. The exception is the FBI agent, of course, and if the movie had gone from her perspective the whole time, you might have had something.

As it is, it’s just us trying to figure out what’s going on and the movie basically refusing to tell us. There is a scenario strongly suggested throughout most of the movie, which then seems to be potentially refuted by the last scenes. And without any particular suspense, really.

So, view at your own peril (as always).

The Names of Love (Le nom de gens)

Holy cow. A French movie about a coupla French socialists. How the Hell do I sell this to The Boy?

Popcorn. Lots of popcorn.

The Names of Love is one of those quirky movies that only the French can make and—unlike so many things they do—can make completely unselfconsciously. It’s so backward from an American point-of-view you can’t help but be a little charmed and a little, like, “Hey! I thought these guys were sophisticates!”

Here’s the story: Buttoned-up Arthur Martin, Parisian dead fowl investigator, is chided by “liberated” (read slutty) Baya Benmahmoud during a radio show where he’s warning against bird flu. She says, astutely, “You’re making us all crazy with your panicky talk” or something of that sort. Arthur, for his part, says stuff like “We must be constantly vigilant, but not too alarmed” and other very official, meaningless things.

After rejecting Baya’s offer of sex (she only sleeps with men on the first date) the two part ways, only to meet up again on another occasion. This time Arthur takes her up on her offer, but they split for a minute, which is long enough for Baya to become completely disoriented, caught up in three other obligations, and wandering the street naked.

Arthur rescues her and they become a sort of item. We learn that Baya is a committed socialist who targets right wingers and converts them from their wicked ways by having sex with them.

I know, right? French!

Arthur is different, of course, or we wouldn’t have a movie. Arthur is already a committed socialist and the two share a love of Lionel Jospin, the socialist candidate beaten in 2002 by (right wing) Jacques Chirac. (“Right wing” in France means “not completely committed to the total control of the economy in all its facets by the government”, I gather.)

Actually, in some ways, this movie is thematically a lot like the last movie we saw, Beginners. Arthur and Baya are sorta messed up in their own ways that go back to their parents. But in this case, the problems seem to be cultural. Baya is the daughter of an Algerian solder and a hippie mother, while Arthur’s Jewish mother escaped concentration camps in WWII.  Arthur’s paternal grandparents, on the other hand, were actually deported from France back to Greece.

Given the Martins’ policy of never talking about anything, we don’t learn anything else about the Greek grandparents.

At one point, Arthur realizes he can attract the girls with stories of his grandparents’ persecution, but it makes him feel unclean to do so, and he simply stops talking about it at all. Baya, on the other hand, regrets that she hasn’t experienced the persecution that is her due, as a half-Algerian.

At this point, it’s hard to regard the French as anything but a sort of naive, muddled provincials. I mean, seriously, Arthur and Baya are riddled with angst over questions of birth that would register a shrug in the United States! Can you imagine an entire modern American movie based around a mixed couple? Didn’t we do all those in the ‘70s?

But I digress. It’s still an issue for the French, apparently.

One of the cutest moments is when Arthur confesses to Baya that he thinks, right or left, political parties tend to do bad things. Baya cannot absorb it. If it’s true, she reasons, nothing makes any sense at all. The left is good, the right is bad, she asserts existentially. (I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it should be.)

The murkiness doesn’t end with politics and race, though. Sex is an issue, too, of course. Baya is “liberated”, in Martin’s words. Maybe even “too liberated”. Of course, she’s not “liberated” at all: She’s a slut. And nuts. She was molested as a child—French comedy, remember—which would seem to cast doubt on the whole sexual free spirit stuff.

And maybe this kind of muddled messaging is why the whole movie works. Director Michel Leclerc doesn’t try to assert the rightness of any of it. A lot of it is played for laughs, thought always with a gentle touch and empathy for the characters. The movie suggests that, somehow, the characters will survive the success of such right-wing heavies as Chirac and (gasp!) Sarkozy.

And maybe, just maybe, a whole lot of fuss is being made about politics and race and freeing crabs (you’ll understand when you see it) that pales next to the business of actually living and loving.

Which also seems very French.

Leclerc co-wrote the script with Baya Kasmi whose name and appearance evokes that of the Baya Benmahmoud of the movie, suggesting some autobiography here.

The cast is excellent, but unless you’re an afficianado of French film you probably don’t know these guys. I see more French flicks than most, but I couldn’t place Jacques Gamblin (who plays Arthur) and Sarah Forestier looked really familiar but I think the only movie I’ve seen her in is the unusual Perfume: The Story of a Murder. Zinedine Soualem, who plays Baya’s dad, was in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Michele Moretti (Martin’s mom) played a role in the enjoyable Apres Vous.

But that probably doesn’t mean much to you. There are typically 2-3 French films a year I get to, so unless someone’s having a very good year, I’m probably not going to see them enough to be able to recognize them. And all the hot stars from 5 or so years ago aren’t getting into movies that make it out here very much.

C’est la vie, eh?

Anyway, worked for me. Worked for the Boy, even with the odds stacked against it. Pretty good recommendation, overall.


Longtime readers know how I feel about teh gay, at least as it appertains to indie cinema, and I didn’t exactly stampede to see Beginners, the new(ish) movie with Christopher Plummer and—uh, what’s his name. That guy who did the kick-ass Alec Guiness impression in the Star Wars prequels. Not Ethan Hawke…Ewan MacGregor! That’s the guy.

Sorry. I’m getting older. The names aren’t coming as fast as they used to.

Anyway, the story is about Oliver (MacGregor), a wan sort of graphic artist, whose mom has just died. His 76-year-old father, Hal (Plummer) has since come out of the closet and devoted his last years to pursuing his sexuality. Also, Hal has terminal cancer.

The story takes place along three timelines: One in the late ‘50s, where we meet Hal’s mom, Georgia (played by the lovely Mary Page Keller, best known to me as the star of the early Fox sitcom “Duet”, who’s actually a little too old to be playing a mom in the ’50s, but I didn’t mind), one from 2003 showcasing Hal’s life after Georgia dies, and one from 2006 where Oliver tries to sort out his head after Hal dies, and make a relationship with the beautiful Anna (Mélanie Laurent, of last years fun Franco-Russo flick The Concert).

Wow, does that read as awful as I think it does?

It’s really not. It’s actually a very enjoyable movie.

Yeah, Oliver’s a mope, but he’s sort of a whimsical mope. He loves his dad, and is supportive of him. A central player in this drama is Hal’s dog, who has occasional subtitles, which works better than you might think it would. 

I guess what it comes down to is, none of the characters are bad guys, they’re just sort of befuddled. Hal is as unapologetic about his relationship with Georgia (who entered the relationship knowingly, if deluded) as he is about his 11th hour aggressive pursuit of homosexuality. Oliver and Anna struggle along, being sort of weird, hurting each other by sheer emotional awkwardness.

It wasn’t boring. You’re rooting for everyone. 

The movie largely stays away from being glib or simplistic, although I had a little trouble with the central premise, which I took to be “I’m screwed up because my dad was gay and married to my mom." 

But what do I know?

The key may be that The Boy enjoyed it, and that says something about a movie that features a fair amount of dudes kissing. 

Anyway, if you up for a low key drama that’s not too heavy, and you’re not, you know, adverse to the dudes kissing thing, it’s a good bet. 

(Also, if you’re a Christopher Plummer fan, check out The Man In The Chair.)

Super 8

What if  a bunch of kids in 1979 were making a movie and they saw a massive train wreck? And what if the train were carrying some kind of mysterious menace? And what if the kids embarked on an adventure to discovery the mysterious menace, while being further menaced by menacing military madmen?

Now, what if Steven Spielberg happened to catch all this on film?

Or, okay, J. J. Abrams filmed it, which is sort of like Spielberg-plus-lens-flare.

Well, then you’d have something like Super 8, the modern day Goonies flick which seems to have registered a collective “meh”, given its pedigree. The Boy and The Flower both failed to register any enthusiasm for it, though they didn’t really complain, either. They didn’t have high expectations going in, and they weren’t disappointed or surprised.

The story is about a group of kids making a movie in 1979 on the titular film. Said film stock, by the way, is never referenced by name, so I imagined a substantial percentage of the audience saying, “Huh?” That is, if they paused to ask themselves what “Super 8” meant.

Anyway, the kids are shooting their film when there’s a train wreck right before their eyes (and camera). Throw in a mysterious, incoherent teacher injured in the wreck, strange noises, and menacing G-Men, and you got yourself a picture.

It’s well shot, of course, moves briskly, has some laughs, and the kids all carry off their acting duties. Special effects are good, too.

So why isn’t it boffo?

I have some theories, as you might expect.

First of all, in one of the early scenes, the fat director kid is explaining to the main character that he’s rewritten the script to have the cute chick in it because adding the character development will make the audience care what happens to the hero when he’s eaten by zombies.

So, we have this sub-plot where the main character’s mom dies and this is kinda-sorta the fault of the cute chick’s alcoholic dad, and the main character’s dad is a hardass, and there’s a love triangle, sorta, between the main character, the fat kid and the cute chick and…

Well, it all feels like they lampshaded it in that early scene. “Look, now we’re making you care about the characters!”

Strangely inartful.

Sorta like the very first scene where the camera pans down (with dolorous music a-playing) to a factory, then cuts to the inside where a worker is solemnly taking down the counter from a “days since last accident” sign, to replace with a “1”. (At least, I hope it wasn’t a zero. That would be too much.)

Feels like an exercise from a screenplay writing handbook. Also, it conjures up a whole lot of humor. I think “Family Guy” and “The Simpson’s” both have done a gag like that. Pretty sure I’ve seen it in a “Far Side” cartoon. As a joke, I expect it goes back to WWII, or to whenever those signs were invented.

Little risky using that for your “telling the audience someone has died” serious moment.

The drama comes off as a by-the-numbers exercise.

It doesn’t help that the big dramatic connection between cute girl’s dad and hero’s mom’s death is really tenuous. I mean, when the big reveal came, I just kind of thought everyone was sort of stupid. I guess that’s not entirely unrealistic, but it wasn’t very involving.

The whole thing kind of comes off that way. A lot of near misses that sort of remind you of more successful endeavors. People are disappearing right and left, but the why of that isn’t really clear, for example.

Another thing: The climactic scene isn’t, very. And I can’t for the life of me figure out why they left a perfectly good opportunity for a suspenseful conclusion on the table. The kids are really barely involved with the final resolution of the story.

Which is just sort of weird.

There’s also no real resolution about the nature of the mysterious menace, in a moral sense. It also feels like a plug-in menace right out of a ‘50s sci-fi movie. You’re just supposed to fill-in-the-blanks, apparently.

Now, they nailed 1979. This was of little interest to the kids. But the lingo, hairstyles, clothing and technology was all pretty dead on. (There was a “bogus” and a “totally” which struck me as more ’80s, but that’s kind of splitting hairs.)

Like I said, it’s not bad. And if you’re not expecting the return of—I dunno, whatever, 1980s-era kiddie movie floats your boat (I pretty much hated all of them)—it’s a not unpleasant way to pass a couple of hours. Bonus points if you’ve got any 1979 nostalgia. (But if you do? You should be ashamed of yourself.)

Anyway, all three of us were, like, totally, “Yeah. OK. Not bad.”

So there ya have it.

Midnight In Paris

If I were going to write the executive summary for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, it would probably be: “This is The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen for nebbishy dweebs who think they’re too good for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”

Screenwriter Owen Wilson takes a trip to Paris with fianceé Rachel MacAdams and her parents Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy, when they run into friends Michael Sheen and Nina Arianda. As taken as his fianceé is with the male half of this duo, Wilson himself is put off and takes to wandering around Paris rather than going out with them. When he gets lost, and the clock strikes midnight, a car shows up and takes him to 1920s Paris where he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemmingway. Then Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Salvador Dali, Matisse, Bunuel, and on and on.


I don’t like Woody Allen. This goes back to when I was a kid, knowing nothing about him. His movies occasionally made me laugh, but I also always felt a little icky and hollow after watching one. The last movie of his I saw (prior to this) was Match Point, which I saw without knowing it was him. I sat through it thinking, “Well, this is well done, but it seems to reek of a kind of malignant narcissism,” and then, roll credits, “Written and Directed by Woody Allen”.


So, my first gripe with this film is the League thing: If you’re going to represent yourself as worthy of writing for the giants of literature, you better write some damn good stuff. Similarly, if Woody Allen wants to put words in the mouths of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, etc., etc., he better bring it.

By the way, if you like Woody Allen, you might find his representations cute and charming.

My next gripe is that, if one were picking a time in history to idealize, and one were a Jew, one might think 1929 Paris wouldn’t be first choice. France hated her Jews by the ‘30s, and one presumes that it didn’t spring suddenly out of whole cloth from a totally egalitarian ’20s, but you could rationalize this by presuming the time would never change and would always stay in that ideal moment (I guess). Or maybe by arguing that Owen Wilson wasn’t a Jew, but I’m not sure that the responsibility can be sloughed off in that way.

My gripe after the last gripe is that if you had gone back in time, maybe your first instinct shouldn’t be to get laid. In fact, unsurprisingly, the movie has an appalling sexuality to it. Our “hero” is engaged to a woman the script makes only the frailest attempt to demonstrate an attraction to—making the relationship resolution a foregone conclusion from scene one—but he’s immediately hitting on a different woman in his time travelling. And on museum tours. And just walking the streets.

Meanwhile, his fianceé is fawning over a pedantic fop whose main service to the film is to be more insufferable than the lead. Actually, that’s about every “real” main character’s role: To be awful in comparison to the poetic hero. The Boy, who’s never seen a Woody Allen flick before, leaned in at about 5 minutes and said “Everyone in this movie is a dick.”

Astute, that.

He exempted the hero’s in-laws, because they didn’t have many lines (at least at first). Early on, though, we learn they’re horrible because they’re Republicans. Easy-peasey. No need for character development, huh, Woody?

My mother, who sees very few movies in a year, was going to see this because of the various raves she’d heard about it. But they were all from people with radically different tastes from her—Mommah likes her some action flicks—and she hates Woody Allen. (The Old Man hated him, too, while admiring his prowess as a cinematographer, so maybe it runs in the family.)

I told her to go see Win-Win. She loves sports movies. She loves Paul Giamatti. She hates Woody Allen.

And if you hate Woody Allen, this movie isn’t going to change your mind. On the other hand, if you like Woody Allen, you’re going to like this in all likelihood. Even I would say it’s fairly entertaining, if you can stand it. I found myself constantly irritated by—well, call it Woody-Allen-ness.

The Boy said it just made him want to take a nap. He realized early on he wasn’t going to care about the characters, the historical references are largely lost on him—and I tend to think that the giants of Woody Allen’s literary mind are not necessarily going to be remembered long past what’s very possibly undeserved late 20th century renown—so the gratification of the character’s ego on this fantasy altar was not just narcissistic to him, but largely meaningless.

Good cinematography, of course. And music. And women. (Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard and Lea Seydoux are his love interests.)

Excuse me while I go shower.


If you’ve seen the trailer or poster for the Brit flick Submarine, you’re probably thought “Wow, they discovered a rejuvenation serum and wasted it on Bud Cort.”

Well, okay, that made me chuckle, but unless you remember Hal Ashby’s cult classic Harold and Maude—ok, look, I’m not gonna apologize. You know what kind of blog this is. Deal with it.

Anyway, eerie resemblances notwithstanding, Submarine is the story of a nebbishy, pale kid named Oliver who manages to score a girl he’s been longing for and figures he’s got something of a chance with because she’s also kind of pale and nebbishy.

Oliver’s an oddball who monitors his parents’ sexual activity (by checking the dimmer switch, you pervs) and suffers considerable anxiety that they’ll split, which is only compounded when a smarmy aura-reading motivational speaker moves in next door and puts the moves on mom.

So, we watch as Oliver manages his first adult relationship with Jordana (who is complex and has worse problems than his) and struggle to keep his parents together. This is occasionally funny, and warmer than the rather sterile trailer suggests, but it’s pretty heavy overall. It’s a little over an hour-and-a-half, but just slightly too long, with the denouement dragging out a hair.

The acting is superb, of course. It’s British, after all. Craig Roberts (late of Jane Eyre) and Jasmin Page are more than credible as the—well, they don’t drive, and they could convincingly be middle schoolers, but I think they’re meant to be 15 or so. (In real life, they were both 19.) Noah Taylor (who played Mr. Bucket in the Burton Wonka) and the very English-y cute Sally Hawkins (also of Jane Eyre and Never Let Me Go) are odd without being ostentatious. Paddy Considine is great as the smarmy motivational speaker.

This movie is conspicuous in its a-temporality. It never says what the year is. While this is a deliberate choice, it sort of draws attention to itself: There are no cell phones, computers, CDs, and the music is original so that you can’t pin it to any specific time (other than, well, 2010, because that’s the year the movie was made); but there are video tapes, and Considine has a distinctly late ‘70s/early ’80s vibe, with his disco van and track suit. Noah Taylor, who slumps through the movie with a wild mop and beard, which would fit that period.

Meanwhile, Crocodile Dundee is in the theaters (1986/1987) and the book the movie is based on is set in 1997/1998, I think.

So. The director (Richard Ayoade, best known here for, I guess, “The Mighty Boosh” series on Adult Swim?) didn’t want a time and ends up making the whole thing feel old.

The Boy and I liked it, though neither of us were overwhelmed. This is in that broad “slice of life” category which suffers a bit from being, maybe, too real. High drama is eschewed for the prosaic, the banal, the ever day. Oliver is, by turns, amusing, jerky, shallow, noble (in spirit), cowardly, possessive. Sympathetic, often, but not always likable.

I’m still a sucker for “flawed character overcomes all to make heroic stand”-type movies, but I can’t fault this movie for not being that, since it never presents itself that way. Oliver is just a very human character, with features and flaws like any other. There is, at least, some dramatic arc if no particularly heroic one.

Which is, like, cool, man. If that sort of thing is your bag. If not, well, it’s also relatively short.

The Trip

So, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden take a trip and they make a movie out of it.

Wait, who and who do what and why?

If you’re like me (and I know I am), you barely know who Steve Coogan is and have no clue at all about Bryden. Well, if you’re like me five years ago, anyway, when Steve Coogan teamed up with Michael Winterbottom to make Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. And, really, if you’ve seen that movie, you’ve practically seen this one, too, even though the stories are completely different.

I liked Shandy, but I wouldn’t recommend it for most Americans. It’s extremely British and extremely focused on the art and business of cinema. On top of that, it’s roughly based on the very fractured narrative of Tristram Shandy, upon which they laid the narrative of Coogan—a vain, self-important actor who feels the world hasn’t rewarded his talent appropriately. (Who manages, both because and despite, to be endearing in his frailties.)

I had a hard time interesting my British somewhat successful actress friend in it, you know?

The Trip is a similar movie, smaller scale, primarily involving Coogan and Bryden travelling into northern England doing restaurant reviews for a British magazine. The set-up is that Coogan arranged the jaunt to get cozier with his American girlfriend (Margo Stilley) but she bails on him beforehand and Bryden is at the bottom of a long list of people who refused to go with him.

So, we have a buddy/road movie, where the buddies aren’t very buddy-buddy, and since it’s England, there’s actually not all that much road.

Bryden and Coogan have a tension: Coogan wants to be appreciated for his greatness, and he’s genuinely unhappy for not receiving this appreciation. Bryden, on the other hand, is quite happy with his modest success which is vaguely galling for Coogan—but worse, seems to be able to compete (and beat) Coogan in the little competitions they have.

The comedy largely comes from the form these competitions take: primarily impressions of Michael Caine,  Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro—and mostly Michael Caine. Also, while Bryden pines over his wife (they have goofy phone sex), Coogan beds a series of different women while trying to win back his girlfriend and connect with his son.

The dramatic tension, in a big way, comes from the fact that Coogan is 45. He had a huge success in his late 20s that never materialized into the kind of success he wanted as a serious actor (he’s jealous of Michael Sheen), he’s divorced and his girlfriend has moved back to America, and he’s being offered a 7-year gig in California for an HBO show—possibly the “big break” he’s always wanted.

The characterization is developed through little vignettes, such as Bryden asking whether Coogan would trade his children’s health for his own success. Of course not, right? But then, Bryden phrases it more as, “Would you, for a best actor Oscar, allow your child to suffer a minor, temporary illness?” As the old saw goes, “Now, we’re just haggling on price.”

Of course, for all his flaws, Coogan comes off rather endearing. He has a self-awareness that makes the movie possible, and at the same time isn’t used to mitigate or flinch from said flaws.

Once again, I liked it. But I wouldn’t recommend it to many people. The Boy enjoyed parts but felt it went on too long—at the same time he missed bunches of the references and has little awareness of British culture. There is a dramatic arc to the film, but it’s very low key.

Also, this is a middle-aged man movie made by middle-aged men. So, you know. Not exactly the target audience.

Acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom reminds of a sort of British Christopher Guest, in the sense that this feels a bit like a mockumentary in the vein of A Mighty Wind or Best In Show, with lots and lots of improvised footage being shot and then edited. Except Winterbottom is way more serious, doesn’t cut nearly as much away, and got his start with the pornographic 9 Songs (featuring the same Ms. Stilley).

You probably know, sight-unseen, whether this is your sort of movie. But if you’re a bit of an anglophile, a bit of a cinema geek, and not looking for an adrenaline-fueled high-octane rush, you might enjoy this for an hour-and-a-half.

X-Men: First Class

We just can’t get enough of the superhero movie thing, can we? Well, yeah, I guess we can. I’m getting spandex fatigue, I swear, which is bad for even good superhero movies, like this one.

X-Men: First Class is the story of how Professor X comes to set up his school for exceptional children and Magneto becomes an anti-human villain. The movie starts with a fleshed out version of the scene shown in the first X-Men movie (from eleven years ago) with the future Magneto being torn away from his parents at a Nazi concentration camp. Then it flips to, I dunno, Westchester County or someplace in New York, I think, where Professor X finds a naked, underage Mystique in his kitchen.

The Boy and The Flower had trouble with telling young Magneto and Prof X apart, which caused some confusion early on. I would have, too, actually, but I had a clearer view of the narrative going in.

Professor X grows up to be James McAvoy and Magneto grows up to be Michael Fassbender, so there’s no shortage of acting in this movie. Naked child Mystique grows up to be Jennifer Lawrence, who is mostly clothed throughout the rest of the movie—unlike previous Mystique, Rebecca Romijn, who remains the only actress in modern movie history who actually looks sexier than the comic book character she’s based on.

Also, unlike Rebecca Romijn, Lawrence’s features don’t seem to translate all that well to being blue. Which is actually nothing compared to January Jones’ Emma Frost, who looks positively homely somehow. Maybe it’s just me, though. People seem to like her on that Angry Man show. Er, “Mad Men”.

But this is getting lost in the weeds. Lawrence is a fine actress who does a fine job.

Also doing a typically fine job is Kevin Bacon, as the Nazi torturer/mutating mad scientist bent on destruction of the non-mutant world.

The backdrop is the Cuban Missile Crisis, as X and Mag rush to create a group of mutants to defeat Bacon’s mutants and prevent the world from being destroyed by World War III. (Memo to self: Tell kids that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved without mutant help, most likely.)

This allows the costume department to dress up the girls in cute mod outfits, and for McAvoy to say “Mutations are groovy, baby” (or something similar) when trying to pick up chicks. It also caused a twinge for me, as the film featured Citroëns like the kind my dad had when I was a kid. (He actually offered me one of them when I hit sixteen but they were really old and my mom nixed that idea.)

Good acting all around, even in the smaller parts (including Rose Byrne of Bridesmaids and Insidious) and even bit parts, which feature Oliver Platt, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, James Remar—just tough to complain.

The actual action is occasionally muddled, especially in the two big fight scenes, which really didn’t grab me much. Director Matthew Vaughn did better with the more mundane fighting his last effort Kick Ass. Though it’s only decent to point out Vaughn’s 4-for-4, with his other two movies being the entertaining and very different Layer Cake and Stardust.

It didn’t really thrill me, though. All of us walked out with the same approximate attitude: Fun, entertaining, but a little long, and not really knock-your-socks-off great. Which, come to think of it, is how I felt after Vaughn’s other three films: Pleased. Warm, even. But not excited.

Might be the director or might just be comic book fatigue, as mentioned earlier.

In any case, I would recommend it if you’re not adverse to comic book movies, or not feeling over-saturated with them.


What do you get when you mix Paranormal Activity with Saw? A subtle, spooky ghost story where everyone falls into a wood chipper at the end!

No, actually, you get Insidious, which The Boy pronounces “a really good horror movie” after pointing out that most horror movies suck. I reminded him of Sturgeon’s Law but I think he figures horror movies beat the average for suckiness. (I can’t argue, and they were way worse when I was his age.)

This is a marvel of a film, really. It combines the chills and tension of the Paranormal movies with the grit and suspense of Saw—and it’s PG-13. It’s also gore-free, which tells you something about the PG-13. The Boy has a bit of an aversion to PG-13 as a rating (but I don’t really check).

I’m not going to talk about the story because there are some nice twists you don’t usually see.

Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) plays the feckless dad, Rose Byrne the mom. (We’ve seen Byrne three times in the past two weeks, with the other two being Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class.) Barbara Hershey, who’s had her own problems with the supernatural in the past (i.e., repeatedly raped by a ghost in The Entity) looks both remarkably well-preserved and slightly odd in a way that to me detracted from her actual acting.

Fundamentally, this is an “old, dark house” movie, a lower-budget and much lower key Poltergeist. The effects (not special effects, just horror effects) build quickly and keep coming, with only a few clunky points. A few conventions are subverted and the audience—a typical summer horror movie audience full of obnoxious teens—was a little more shrieky and even subdued at (a few) moments than with your average horror.

Where the movie is weakest is in the dialog about what exactly is going on. As cheesy as Poltergeist was, it dealt in familiar terms of lost souls and the afterlife—though it did substitute cheesy pseudo-science for religion (as does Insidious). This movie deals in terms of astral projection, which is okay, but refuses to say “Hell” when it clearly means Hell.

The actual main boogen is weak, too, though it’s really only on screen for a few frames, it bears a remarkable resemblance to a villain in a late vintage science-fiction franchise.

Overall, a very successful outing made for a paltry $1.5M, which says something about something.

This hits the sweet spot for audience appeal, too, I’d say: If you like the Paranormal and Saw franchises, you’ll like this. If you liked Saw but not Paranormal, you’ll probably like this (unless you were just there for the torture). If you like Paranormal but not Saw, I’d say it’s almost certain you’ll like this.

Everybody Was Kung-Fu Panda 2 Fighting

The Boy and I spend his birthday together every year (since he was two, in fact), and that traditionally involves seeing a movie. There wasn’t much out—he’s tepid on the PG-13 action flicks, meaning X-Men: First Class was out of the question—but we hadn’t seen Kung Fu Panda 2 and, hey, popcorn is popcorn so off we went.

It sort of reminds me of The Hangover 2, in the sense that it’s virtually a remake rather than a sequel. Po, the titular panda, starts out with some skills and gets to go crime-fighting with his buddies, but once again he must face a challenge that requires a new level of Kung Fu. So, now he’s struggling less with basic competency and more with hyper-competency mixed with the sort of basic competency that allows him still to be a comical character.

And ya know what? The inevitable sequel will be exactly the same.

They set up Kung Fu Panda 3. It’s an inevitability. I mean, they’ve done this since Back to the Future. A movie’s a big success, so they shoot two sequels back-to-back. Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek—though, with Shrek they swore their story arc would require five movies, I think they still only planned the first two sequels after the first was a hit—and on and on. Doing two movies together reduces production costs, too, I believe, which offsets the diminishing box office for the third sequel (which is almost, but not always, certain).

Anyway, it pissed The Flower off. She likes her movies to end, dammit.

So, you probably want to know a little bit more about the actual movie. This film revolves around Po’s struggle to find his real origin. Kind of a bummer, actually, since one of my favorite parts of the first was that the obvious silliness of a panda having a goose for a father—a joke lampshaded when his father reveals the deep, dark secret of the noodle sauce.

But I suppose they couldn’t leave it like that. (Although, I swear, it wasn’t that uncommon when I was a kid for a cartoon to mix animal type families with utter disregard for genetics. I mean, it’s not that big a deal when you start by having talking, anthropomorphized animals, right? These days, only Spongebob Squarepants does it, that I know of, and Mr. Krabs’ great whale daughter’s mother is unknown.)

Anyway, the origin issue provides Po with the distraction he needs to be unable to defeat the villain, voiced this time by the incomparable Gary Oldman, who is a less bombastic villain than the first, though his plot is maybe more convincing.

The cast, by the way, is otherwise identical, except for stunt-casting Jean Claude Van Damme, Michelle Yeoh and a couple other dudes as kung fu masters. There seems to be a lot less of everyone, though. Not sure if it’s because there are so many people on-screen or the demand for action crowded out a lot of dialogue but character development is light. (There’s a little more depth to Angelina Jolie’s tiger, though.)

Ultimately, it all works, if not as well as the first one, nearly as well. It moves quickly—a little too quickly in some cases, with the first action scene being a little, eh, chop suey—has plenty of laughs, and it’s almost too beautiful to look at.

The Boy and The Flower (who had already seen it) both liked it, but neither was particularly blown away.

Bridesmaids: A Non-Tragic Chick Flick

Ace of Spades has one of his shorter mega-reviews up for this comedy Bridesmaids in which his first argument is that it’s not a chick-flick, but is deceptively marketed as one. I’m going to disagree, but using the official Bit Malestrom definition of a chick flick:

A chick flick is a movie about women who treat each other badly, until one gets fatally ill and they all rally around her in her final days.

Don’t talk to me about Romantic Comedies. Those are not traditionally chick flicks, and eventually they’re gonna stop letting Nora Ephron make them, and the general audiences can claim them back.

The thing is, in recent years, most chick flicks seem to be tragedies, hence the getting sick and dying part. But it doesn’t have to be that way. A Chick Flick can be a comedy, as this one is, we just don’t see them very often. And, as this movie proves, Chick Flicks can be enjoyed by men, too. (And I know a lot of guys who will admit—in private—that they loved Steel Magnolias.)

But this movie is very chicky. Ace is definitely right, though, that it’s not a genial slice-of-life movie about wacky things that happen leading up to a wedding. Rather it’s a comedy about how two women who view themselves as rivals for the affection of another (woman) savage each other while smiling the whole time.

So, you know: true life.

The story begins with Wiig being really down. Her business went bankrupt, taking all her money with it. Her boyfriend checked out at the same time. She lives a with a creepy set of Brit siblings in a small apartment. She drives her crappy car to her crappy job at a jewelry store, which she does crappily because she’s bitter about love and life. She doesn’t have a boyfriend, just a guy who uses her for (apparently bad) sex that she tries really hard to impress and wheedle her way to real girlfriend status with.

Then her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged.

She gets engaged to a rich guy whose boss is really rich, and his gorgeous socialite wife, Jessica St. ClairRose Byrne, latches on to Rudolph like a leech. This movie is basically Wiig crashing on the rocks of her feelings of inadequacy and actual inadequacy compared to St. ClairByrne.

Rounding out the cast are “Reno 911”’s Wendy McLendon-Covey as the disenchanted married-with-boys one, “The Office”’s Ellie Kemper as the bubbly newlywed-virgin one and “Mike and Molly”’s Melissa McCarthy as the butch might-be-lesbian-except-she’s-also?-after-the-guys one.

What you might notice, first, is that there’s no hot one. Particularly, the lead isn’t being played by Jessica Alba or Jessica Biel or Jessica LangeChastain. Jessica St. ClairrRose Byrne is good-looking but she’s more the sort of beauty that women are jealous of than men lust after, I think.

The next thing you might notice is that, with the exception of McCarthy, these are all comediennes. McCarthy is hilarious in this and a great actress, but I don’t think she has the sketch comedy background the others have. (And she does a cute bit with her real life husband, whom she’s convinced is an Air Marshall in the movie.)

What I’m getting at was that it felt like there was no stunt casting. No casting because someone said “We gotta get the 18-25 male demo.” Some material apparently came from the cast hanging out and doing improv, which gave a more natural feel to things.

These ladies set out to make a funny movie, their femininity presumably essential to their characters, but not going to stand in the way of a good laugh. And there are some good laughs. I think one essential element of this movies’ femininity was the closer attention to character development than you might get in a similar guy flick (like I Love You, Man) while avoiding the trap (for a comedy) of letting sentimentality overpower humor.

There’s a scene involving a cake and a raccoon which exemplifies this.

The men are virtually incidental. We don’t see the fiancée hardly at all. Wiig’s F-Buddy is generic. Even her love interest, Chris O’Dowd (remember Pirate Radio?) is virtually a prop around which Wiig’s character has to evolve.

In other words, the men in this movie are like the women in more male-oriented buddy flicks.

We laughed all the way through, with The Boy approving strongly. He feels comedies tend to spread the laughs too thin in the late second act.

My main concern going in was, as much as I enjoy Wiig, I was concerned I was going to be seeing two full hours of social awkwardness. Sort of like a female Larry David. (I have a hard time sitting through “Curb Your Enthusiasm”.) But Wiig has a very winning way about her; she doesn’t alienate you. Even though she’s bound to lose throughout most of the movie, she does have her moments; It doesn’t feel like the writers are being gratuitously cruel.

So, generally recommended.

Also featuring Jill Clayburgh in her last film role.

WARNING: There is a hardcore gross-out scene as bad as any you’ve seen in a guy movie. So beware.

Finally! Mel Gibson in Jodie Foster’s Beaver!

Now with the obvious joke out the way, we can take a serious look at a movie about a man who is down on his luck, and is subsequently rescued by a hand puppet of a Beaver.

No, really, it’s a serious movie. Damn serious.

Mel Gibson is a man in a serious funk. He sleepwalks through his work day at the toy company his father left him (which is tanking). He’s uninterested in his wife, Jodie Foster (stop snarking). His teen son (Anton Yelchin of Star Trek) keeps a record of the ways in which he’s like his father, so that he can stop being that way. He can’t even muster a smile for his younger son.

Out of desperation, his wife kicks him out of the house, and he picks up a whole bunch of booze—and the eponymous beaver, fished out of a dumpster—and crashes in a hotel where he drinks himself silly, then tries to kill himself and fails. Only to be woken by the beaver puppet, who starts ordering him around.

The Beaver narrates, by the way.

This works better than one might think. Foster (directing) keeps a light touch for as long as she possibly can, given the heaviness of the subject, and she’s very careful about juxtaposing the puppet and Gibson during the dialogue.

She’s probably not going to get the credit she deserves, really. The audience laughs at the right parts and not at the wrong ones, and stays away from any kind of heavy-handed approach, really just focusing on how crazy folks cope.

Do I need to say the acting is good? It’s arguably the best stuff Gibson’s ever done. He and Foster have a genuine chemistry, that your heart goes out to her as she’s trying to figure out how to save the man she loves. Yelchin is very good, too, being in that Jesse Eisenberg/Michael Cera mold without the wimpiness of the latter and the bitterness of the former. The little brother (Riley Thomas Stewart) also did a fine job.

Jennifer Lawrence shows up as Yelchin’s girlfriend, who has troubles of her own. You may remember her from Winter’s Bone, and as my pic for last year’s Best Actress Oscar. I liked her but it seemed like her scenes with Yelchin detracted from the film’s intensity.

This was probably deliberate. This movie isn’t trying to be allegorical. At one point, it looks like Gibson and his crazy puppet are going to become media sensations, offering an almost What About Bob? approach to life.

But besides not being a comedy, the movie doesn’t try to be neat. There is fallout from the crazy—serious fallout. And we see the crazy hurting lots of people in lots of different ways: If they had tied everything up in a neat bow, turned Gibson into a kind of crazy savant, it would have cheapened the whole story.

At the same time, it’s not quite great. Solid. Memorable. Great performances. Respectful.

And short. Foster doesn’t wallow in it. She tells her story—in 90 minutes—and gets out. The movie is much the better for it.

Obviously not for everyone. The Boy enjoyed it, but he classed it as one of those movies that looks like it might be really funny, but is really serious instead. (Longtime readers may recall we had a spate of those throughout 2009.)

Me, I was sort of expecting a supernatural overtone, as movies about puppets are wont to speculate on the liveness thereof. There’s never even a hint of that, so when the puppet does seem to defy Gibson’s will, it’s incredibly chilling. Also, it sounds a lot like Michael Caine to me. And that’s sorta scary (since it is of course Gibson).

Not a joke of a movie.

The Incendies Conundrum

The thing about the Oscar-nominated French film Incendies is that I can’t use the adjective that best describes it without giving it away totally.

Taking place in an unspecified place and time where Christian Nationalists are warring with Islamic groups, and evoking a whole lot the mid-‘70s Lebanese civil war, this is the story of a woman named Nawal who dies and who leaves behind a will instructing her children to find their father and their brother, and to not give her a proper burial and headstone till they’ve delivered letters to them both.

Thing is, bro and sis knew of no brother and thought their father to be dead. Also, Nawal was apparently a kind of crappy mom, so bro isn’t really interested in the mission.

The rest of the movie is a segment of Nawal woven in with a segment of her children trying to discover the truth.

Along the way, we see the sorts of atrocities that might make a woman off and that generally remind us, while war is Hell, war in the Middle East is a special kind of Hell. This is a brutal movie, and the brutality is as senseless as it is horrifying; You can probably tell from this whether this is the sort of movie you find worth seeing.

A lot of people who do will also find it moving. If you don’t, and you see it anyway, you might just be disgusted.

For myself, I thought it was good-ish. I’d watch it and remember some good performances and not think too much more of it, but it insists on itself, as the kids are saying these days. It wants you to think about it, and it doesn’t really hold up to a lot of sustained thought.

It is ridiculously contrived, which is necessary in order to get to its desired shock ending. That’s not really the sort of thing that bugs me, really, but with no factual basis, it also means they worked very hard to put all this brutality on to film. It was supposed to have meaning.

Was it warranted? Well, the point of the movie is to show the horror of war and how it shapes Nawal, with the problem being that we only see the horror and not the shaping. She has a character arc but the movie doesn’t really tie it to what she’s experienced. She’s like a little piece of flotsam floating upon the tides.

And then they choose not to show certain violence that would seem to be central to her character development. I mean, they put us through some crap early on, and it’s almost like they ran out of heart in the third act. We also don’t ever see the direct after-effect, so Nawal jumps from situation to situation in what (to the viewer) seems almost random.

Like I said, I thought it was good, but I don’t think it warrants thinking on too hard. It feels like there was an agenda overpowering the story. I liked the Oscar-winner much better, where the story seemed to complicate any attempt at simple messaging.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Familiar Tides

The latest installment of the greatest movie series ever to be based on an amusement park ride has recently launched to tepid-to-negative reviews.

It’s like these people haven’t seen any of the earlier Pirates movies.

I have, fortunately, so when The Flower said she wanted to see it, I was not especially surprised at all by the content found therein. I was largely pleased, in fact, that they’d dialed it back a few notches from the previous two movies excesses.

I love Gore Verbinski’s way of making a lot of movie out of a little material, but he also can make way too much movie, flogging the crap out of the material. Rob Marshall helms this entry, somewhat inexplicably, but he does a good job at keeping the proceedings moving and fairly well grounded

The plot—does it matter?—is a race to the Fountain of Youth. The English (with Geoffrey Rush as a pseudo-reformed Barbossa, having nicely recovered from his death in the first move), the Pirates (with Ian McShane as Blackbeard himself, and Penelope Cruz as his comely daughter) and the Spanish (who act largely as a convenience for plot points and a sort of deus ex machina).

Johnny Depp, of course, is back as the mascara wearing, mincing trickster, Jack Sparrow, along with his First Mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) being the only original cast member I could spot reprising his role from the original trilogy.

You got all the expected stuff: Ships a-sail (though no ship-to-ship combat), sword fights (Sparrow has become a good swordfighter, it seems, inexplicably), swashbuckling, and general shenanigans. These are competently done and fun enough.

Good stuff you might not have expected: Depp and McNally have a sort of buddy movie thing going on. This actually works well. Gibbs is loyal without being naive, and Sparrow seems to earn the loyalty plausibly enough. (A far cry from the original’s refrain of “pirate!” to excuse any and all bad behavior.)

Depp and Cruz have a pleasant sort of chemistry, which I wasn’t really expecting. Cruz is sort of a mystery, part jilted lover, part schemer, part pirate—and I say this as someone who has gone through much of the past years saying “I don’t get it” whenever anyone brought up Ms. Cruz. You never really get a good sense of her real backstory, because she’s so willing to lie to get what she wants, in which wise she makes a perfect companion to the scurrilous Sparrow.

Bad stuff: The main criticism I’ve seen leveled at this is that none of it mattered. That events sort of move one to the next without any real flow. And, honestly? The Flower had insisted on eating at Denny’s for breakfast which is punishing on my digestive tract. The significance of this being I missed about five to ten minutes in the middle of the movie.

And it didn’t really matter.

I don’t know if that’s a bug so much as a feature for a summer flick. I mean, you could miss huge hunks of Star Wars and it wouldn’t really matter, just for example. We don’t go to these things for the tightly constructed plots—and, really, the plot in this is quite good (stolen from an unrelated pirate book, I believe). It just doesn’t matter that much.

These movies are really about big name actors chewing scenery in between special effects. Nothin’ wrong with that. The actors are really good and the effects are better for the restraint lacking in the previous two films.

So, I liked it. Met my expectations, even slightly exceeded them. The Flower liked it, though she wished more of the original cast had been in it. The Boy—who can be quite savage of this sort of thing—was also not displeased. None heaped praise. None heaped scorn.

In A Better World (Hævnen)

Despite the dearth of worthwhile movies at the beginning of the year, the local theaters weren’t using the space to let in the foreign films, and it had been a while since anything non-English had come through until the year’s Oscar winner showed up in the form of the Danish flick In A Better World (Hævnen).

Of course, in recent years a lot of foreign films have followed the Hollywood potboiler format (and quite successfully) but In A Better World is Scandinavian to the core. Well, neo-Scandinavian—it’s hard to imagine the Vikings of yore signing on to this sort of thing.

The story is about two pre-pubescent boys, Christian and Elias, their fathers and, well, conflict resolution. Elias is a nerdy little kid who gets bullied in school until Christian comes along. Elias’ father is a doctor who splits his time between an African refugee camp and his quaint little Danish town, and also has apparently at some point split his attention between his wife and another woman, such that his wife has separated from him.

Christian’s mother has just died, and his father has relocated him from London to wherever the hell they are in Denmark, either because his grandmother is around or perhaps because he has a lover there (Christian accuses him of moving for the latter reason).

Christian sees Elias being bullied and he doesn’t like it. We learn right away that he has a strong sense of justice. We then quickly learn he has an even stronger sense of revenge and a lot of pent up rage. Elias finds himself navigating a tricky friendship that tests his own sense of right and wrong. This is the movie’s strength.

The boys’ struggle is thrown into contrast by Anton’s (Elias’ dad) African adventures. Anton is struggling to teach the boys that violence is not the answer, but life isn’t making this lesson easy to transmit. Home in Denmark, he faces a bully of his own, and demonstrates tremendous courage in front of the boys facing him down. Meanwhile, in Africa, he’s constantly patching up victims of a warlord whose betting on the sex of unborn children, and then splitting their mothers open in order to resolve the bet.

The movie feels a little unfocused when it spends time on Anton and Claus (Christian’s dad) without the boys; it’s a little like the message was more important than the story.

That said, the message is not a simple one. We see violence as cathartic, helpful, pointless, savage, chaotic—but the director and writer don’t take the easy way out. Ultimately, it’s this nuance that makes the whole thing work.

Solid performances from all the actors, whose names you do not know. Good writing, direction, cinematography. All around solid production, and done on the cheap (by American standards) which is a good reminder that you can actually make a good movie without a lot of CGI.

I also learned from this movie that Danes hate Swedes, which is just adorable.

The Boy approved highly.

Everything Must Go

A lot of Will Ferrell’s recent political stuff has pissed me of, I confess, and I wasn’t expecting fireworks out of Everything Must Go, his latest movie which is about a man who comes home from work after being fired only to find all his stuff out on his lawn.

I figured this would be a semi-serious screwed-up-guy-gets-a-chance-to-redeem-himself movie, but about five minutes in we discover that Ferrell’s drinking binge is what cost him his job and his wife, which puts this squarely into the “alcoholic” genre.

Now, alcoholic movies can really only go one of two ways. The guy either reforms or he drinks himself to death, and nobody makes a comedy out of a guy drinking himself to death (which isn’t to say some people don’t laugh uproariously all the way through Leaving Las Vegas). You also know that the 2nd act climax has gotta be a drinking binge or something really close to that.

So, right away, you know the shape of the movie.

Which, of course, isn’t the point at all.

Do you like Will Ferrell, is the question? This is an hour-and-a-half of Will Ferrell. Not Anchorman Will Ferrell, though, more like Stranger Than Fiction Will Ferrell. He’s funny, but not in a way that undermines the drama. He’s likable but he has an arrogant streak. It’s a tough balance, but he pulls it off.

Ferrell’s main companion during his journey is a chubby black boy whose mother (we never see) is a hospice care worker that leaves him to ride his bike around the neighborhood while she works. The actor (Christopher Jordan Wallace) does a good job here, playing off Ferrell without being cloying or sassy, and generally avoiding the worst of the clichés.

Rebecca Hall plays the pregnant across-the-street neighbor who watches Ferrell’s meltdown, and Michael Pena is his sponsor/police detective friend who buys him a few more days on the lawn while his uptight neighbors (including character great Stephen Root) want to roust him.

Ultimately this worked for me because I like Will Ferrell (dammit!). He manages to be likable even when he’s being a jerk, and he always looks like he regrets it. It’s hard not to root for the guy, which is critical for this kind of movie.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. Ferrell’s constantly got a beer in his hand, which hangs a constant heaviness over the proceedings, such that the funny parts can never get too funny. (By contrast, see Blake Edwards’ Skin Deep, where John Ritter does pratfalls and penis jokes. Blake Edwards was the master of tackling difficult subjects with slapstick without cheapening the subjects. And also, as with S.O.B., of injecting dark humor suddenly into a light subject.)

Another element is that the premise of the movie itself—that Ferrell must shed himself of worldly goods to achieve enlightenment—is not really substantiated. You could argue that Ferrell was using his possessions to not not confront his alcoholism, but it’s not a position the movie makes very well. You could say they were representative, say of his emotional baggage, but that’s sort of heavy-handed (all the more because the movie makes the connection at times).

But it does manage to be serious without being depressing and completely without humor.

The Boy approved, though he also thought it would be a little less serious.

Atlas Giggled

So we went to see this film Atlas Shrugged, Part 1. You may have heard of it. It’s based on a book or something.

Can you tell this is going to be impossible for me to write without snark?

Let me get this out of the way: The Boy liked this movie. He said, “At first it was too much qq and not enough pew-pew,” which I gather means something like “it started slowly, evoking concern in the viewer that it would never get off the ground, but when it finally got moving, it was interesting.”

I always like to get The Boy’s opinion first so mine doesn’t influence him. In this case, I really had to bite my tongue. I’ve heard a lot about the book, and of course, you can’t ever believe what you hear, because this movie has a MESSAGE, and it’s a message book-reviewing commies have never liked. So they trash the book. And the movie could expect (and received) similar treatment.

Still, two words: Hot mess.

Wait, one word: Rifftrax.

Or two words: Cinematic Titanic.

Or a portmanteau: Fanfic.

I had this feeling when I was watching this movie that I was reading fan fiction. I realize it’s an original story but the protagonist, Dagny Taggert, comes off as a Mary Sue. Seriously, you know who’s good and who’s bad based on how they feel about Dagny. And her dialog is stilted, to say the least, especially in the opening scenes.

It actually gets worse when Henry Rearden shows up, with his super-steel that’s poised to save Dagny’s railroad. This culminates in the most awkward sex scene since Watchmen.

I’m not inclined to blame the actors here. The dialog is awful. I mean, let’s say I was trying to make a point about hating coffee, and wrote a dialogue where character A says “Yeah, it all went to hell when people started liking coffee!” and character B responds with “Why are people so crazy about coffee these days?” (Don’t hurt me, Darcysport! It’s just an example! Coffee is wonderful!)

Point is, Taylor Schilling and Grant Bowler (Taggert and Rearden respectively) aren’t looking good here. Some of the supporting actors do okay, I think largely because they have fewer actual words to speak. Patrick Fischler as Taggert’s assistant does well, and the great Michael Lerner manages to power through as the villainous Wesley Mouch, while Armin Shimerman is compelling as the weaselly state scientist.

The frustrating thing is, there is a good story here and there are so many echoes with modern life. Basically, Dagny is trying to save her family railroad from the mismanagement of her brother, while Taggert has invented a new steel that can quadruple the load capacity for high speed transport. Dagny and Henry are constantly being flanked by their competitors who prefer to go to the government rather than compete fairly.

And all the while good, competent men are vanishing, leaving behind only the mysterious phrase “Who is John Galt?”

And the movie does get better when the train stuff starts. So, what holds this movie back?

  • Dialog, as noted.
  • Characterization. Dagny and Henry are off-putting. I assume this is according to the tenets of Objectivism. They not only are against altruism, they seem to have no comprehension of it. Besides ringing false, the two of them come off as almost Asperger’s. 
  • Worldview. There seems to be the view not just that the big players are titans, but also that everyone else utterly depends on them. I don’t doubt there are titans in the world, but if the last 15 years have shown us anything, it’s that the economy is powered best by lots and lots of little players. Which brings us to…
  • Archaicness. Railroads? Steel? Really? Good lord, the government’s machinations are so unConstitutional that—well, they look a lot like a health care mandate, only not quite as bad as that—and yet the whole focus on rails and steel and ore comes off as a little silly. 
  • Music. I’m not sure I blame the composer, but the music actually competes with the dialog for clunkiness, the way it’s used to create emotion that really doesn’t seem to be there. (Fun fact: Composer Elia Cmiral scored After Dark Horror Fest flicks Tooth and Nail and The Deaths of Ian Stone.)
Elia Cmiral also scored Battlefield Earth, which this movie reminds me of. It, too, was made over the course of many years, and it, too, was a hot mess worthy of Rifftrax. 
Ace of Spades was planning to do a review of this film, and chided his readers for not seeing it when it first came out, arguing that if conservatives want conservative movies, they need to support conservative movies.
This isn’t a conservative movie, though. It’s a movie about the perils of unlimited government and populism which, while I can get behind that and push with both hands, actually undermines its own case by making its leads be amoral.
I mean, I can’t swear Dagny’s had an abortion, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
It seems to me that the stronger argument for limited government is that people do the right thing when left alone by the government, not people are as shallow as you think but that’s no excuse for limiting freedom. I agree with the latter point, but it makes a crappy movie.
That said, the left-wing attacks on it that take it on from a philosophical POV have been largely absurd. The enemy in this film is the collusion of government with business. In no way are businesses in general the good guys here, just a few good guys fighting the world. 
I’ll go see part 2 if they make it, but I can’t really recommend it, except as a curiosity. It was really hard for me to sit through, actually, and I laughed out loud inappropriately at several points.
But I’m used to being the only guy laughing and, as I said, the Boy liked it.

UPDATE: Ace of Spades’ review here.

The Conspirator

I had to explain to The Boy who Robert Redford was (he’s seen The Castle), that he was a director of some merit, and also that he was pretty far left wing, just to prepare him to see The Conspirator, Redford’s movie about the trial of Anna Surratt, who was accused of conspiring to kill President Lincoln.

So what we have is a pretty good movie that is (I understand) fairly reasonable in its historical accuracy, but which also brings the Big Clown Hammer down on the audience about the naughtiness of trying American citizens in military court. (And I must confess, I don’t think we’re actually doing that.)

The good parts are James McAvoy’s portrayal of Union war hero Frederick Aiken, Robin Wright and Evan Rachel Wood as women caught up in public sentiment after being on the losing side of a war (and being Catholic), Kevin Kline as Dick Cheney Secretary of War, Andrew Stanton, and a bunch of always welcome character actors, like Stephen Root and Colm Meaney.

McAvoy’s character development as the lawyer who learns to have a kind of sympathy for a client he does not sympathize with is good. The military tribunal is a kangaroo court, and we’re invited to share in the outrage that the system is being perverted for political ends, which is easy to do. The social toll it takes on him to vigorously defend his client (as he must!) is interesting, if not well followed through on.

It’s also good that the message is a truly liberal one, not a modern “progressive” one. That is, the message of the movie is that the power of the state should not be used unjustly against an individual, and we should all be able to get behind that. (But see the spoilers below for why this movie doesn’t work at that level.)

Less good is Stanton’s almost uncompromising evil. Redford specifically allows him some chances to defend himself so that Redford himself can defend himself from charges that he’s got a one-sided view of things. But it’s weak tea. Maybe it’s not historically accurate, but Stanton had to have some reason for thinking it be necessary to hang the (possible) traitors—and whatever the reason is, it goes a lot further than just Stanton.

A better movie would have given us some reason (beyond the character’s words) to believe there was some merit to their concerns.

I’ve never been a huge Robin Wright, either looks or acting—nothing against either, she just never really made an impression on me—but here the former Princess Buttercup looks harsh, hard and ragged. This was deliberate, of course, but: Mixed feelings!

The Boy and I did like it.

But to tell you the bad parts, I have to spoil the movie, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled (and you don’t know the history, in which case, the movie is already spoiled), then don’t read on.


The movie is about a kangaroo court. This removes a whole lot of possibilities for tension. The Secretary of War wants Surratt dead; you can be pretty sure she’s going to die.

The biggest problem (for me, anyway) comes at the end of the first act, when Surratt confesses to a skeptical Aiken that she didn’t know about the conspiracy to kill Lincoln—only about the conspiracy to kidnap Lincoln, which was an entirely different conspiracy altogether.

In other words, she was guilty.

Yes, it was a kangaroo court, and kangaroo courts are bad. Yes, witnesses gave false testimony against her. No, they didn’t have enough evidence to convict her.

But she was guilty! We’re splitting hairs. How would a plot to kidnap the President actually be better? Is that really an ameliorating factor? “Yes, your honor, I knew there was a plot to kidnap the scumsucking tyrant who killed all our young men, but we wouldn’t dare have harmed him!”

Even worse? She was really just sort of hanging around the conspirators, and covering for her son who doesn’t show up in time to save her from her fate—but when the son shows up after the Supreme Court demands that civilians be given civilian trials, he gets off!

And he was REALLY guilty! He’s out there on the road waiting to intercept Lincoln’s carriage but Lincoln ends up changing his plans and accidentally thwarting the scheme.

So you have to really be into the process to have this movie resonate with you, I think. It seems to me that the question is far messier than the movie would like to be, to the movie’s detriment.

But, hey, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

The Lincoln Lawyer

I didn’t really have any plans to see The Lincoln Lawyer. A Matthew McConaughey where he doesn’t take off his shirt? What’s the point? But the Old Man wanted to see it, and I was eager to get him to the movies whenever he was up to it. Every time I asked, though, he was too tired.

Then he died.

That night, I drove his convertible with The Boy riding shotgun and The Flower in the back to see it in his honor. Although I had cultivated my love of movies independently, over the years the Old Man and I had seen a movie a week (or more). Literally, hundreds of films together—much of it during the ‘80s, when it was a challenge to see a movie a week, even in Los Angeles. Everything from schlocky crap like The Forbidden World and high budget actioners like The Road Warrior, to foreign films like The Tin Drum and classics—we saw The General together at a revival theater.

He would’ve been pleased by The Lincoln Lawyer, I think. This is (fittingly enough) a very ’70s-style mystery/action thriller with McConaughey as a mercenary lawyer who nevertheless has a pretty strong ethical code.

The plot revolves around Haller (McConaughey) taking on a case where a very rich client (Ryan Philippe) is accused of raping a hooker. When his mother (Frances Fisher) accedes to all of Haller’s financial demands, Haller takes the case.

From here, the plot hits a couple of really common tropes (like—and I hope this doesn’t ruin the movie for anyone—everyone’s lying) but it hits them fast, and then sort of inverts, changing the focus of the movie. It does this kind of zigzag several times, keeping the straightforward premise from getting stale. Make no mistake, though: this movie covers a lot of familiar territory.

It’s kind of like the titular Lincoln. Very ’70s feeling in a lot of ways, but classic.

Also ’70s-feeling was the subplot with Marisa Tomei as Haller’s divorced wife, who snarls at Haller when they’re not having sex, or he’s not being the World’s Best Dad, and William H. Macy as the private dick who uncovers a shocking clue!

No car chases, though. The Old Man would’ve wanted some chase scenes.

The Boy liked it, and all he knows about McConaughey is the shirt thing.

The Flower thought it was funny—I think she had a hard time following the plot—but not as funny as Gran Torino (which she regards as one of the funniest movies ever).

I liked it, too. But I missed talking with him about it afterward.


If you could take a pill that would make you so smart and prescient that you could predict and plan complex events far into the future, would you take it?

Of course you would. What are you, An idiot?

Limitless is the latest entry in the underserved human-given-super-intellect genre of films and it breaks from the tradition in some refreshing ways. The basic premise is that Eddie (Bradley Cooper of The Hangover and Case 39) a sort of a loser in life, due to his inability to focus on anything—unrealistically, he’s not being distracted by the Internetwhen he runs into his ex-brother-in-law, a shifty “pharmaceutical salesman” and his magic pills. He slips our hero a free sample of a pill which he claims will turn things around for our hero.  

It’s not too long before Eddie’s hit the skids, and takes the pill out of desperation. Lo and behold, the pill works as advertised. Suddenly Eddie can write his long languishing novel, figure out his landlady and come up with some money-making schemes. Obviously, it’s very addictive. 

Predictably, there are side-effects.

What sets this film apart from others in the genre is that most such films dwell heavily on the amazing-ness of super-intellect (Charley, Phenomenon) and what it means for humanity, for being human, Limitless is a thriller, and mostly centers around the magic pills as a MacGuffin. 

This leads to some huge cheats and paradoxes, but the resultant soup is fun and sometimes clever. 

I enjoyed it; it’s a good summer flick in … what month was it? February? March? 

The Boy said he completely disengaged his brain and had a good time, though he literally could remember nothing from the film subsequently. I was poking over pot-holes, and he was sort of acting like he hadn’t seen any of the scenes I had talked to. He really disengaged his brain.

But he didn’t seem too unhappy about it.

Win Win

Thomas McCarthy is an odd duck. A moderately successful character actor—one of those guys you say “Hey, he was in Law and Order or something, wasn’t he?"—he’s also directed three very successful little indie films.

What’s truly odd about it, though, is that if you had to describe his movies, you’d be inclined to use words like "benign”, “good-hearted”, and even “moral”. His debut was the unique slice-of-life film The Station Agent, and his follow-up was the widely acclaimed The Visitor.

Now we have Win Win, the story of a struggling lawyer/wrestling coach whose life is changed when the teenage grandson of his ward wanders into his life.

When this movie was first promoted, I was saying “I wonder if Paul Giamatti will be John Adams cranky, Harvey Pekar cranky or Miles Raymond cranky?”

Probably the biggest shock of this movie is that Giamatti isn’t cranky at all. He’s genial. Amiable, even. He’s a hugely decent New Jersey lawyer (!) named Mike Flaherty who specializes in helping old folks out. After regular hours, he coaches the local high school’s awful wrestling club. And he’s in some financial trouble.

Relief, of a sort, comes in the shape of Burt Young (who, at 70, looks healthier to me than he did in his 30s). Burt Young plays Leo Poplar, a rich old man whose early onset dementia requires a guardianship that can bring in a small amount of needed cash.

Mike is a really decent guy, so you’re a bit taken aback—disappointed even—when he commits his sin. He maintains his decency in almost every regard (though he is forced to do some lying to cover it up, of course) and so you’re almost inclined to give him a pass.

This feeling is reinforced when Kyle shows up. Kyle is the 16-year-old grandson of Leo, who’s run away from home (sort of). His mother is in rehab and his mother’s live-in boyfriend is an abusive jerk, so Kyle decided to come see his grandfather (whom he has never met).

Kyle ends up staying with Leo and his hard-bitten wife (Amy Ryan) and their two daughters, where he blossoms in a normal, healthy household environment. With Mike’s sin sitting there in the background waiting to blow the whole thing to bits.

The first two thirds of the story has Kyle, who happens to have been an excellent wrestler back in Ohio, re-entering wrestling on Mike’s team, and rediscovering his talents. Mike coaches the team with his law partner/office roommate (played by the inestimable Jeffrey Tambor) and brings on his rich high school pal (played by Bobby Cannavale, also of The Station Agent).

The wrestling stuff is both entertaining and inspirational, as the team gets better and better with Kyle’s leadership.

Cannavale’s character’s Terry is an interesting counterpoint to the humble Leo. He’s a wealthy guy; his wife has left him for a handyman, although not actually left so much as kicked him out of his massive house. He’s got himself a condo which he’s already fully stocked with furniture, a big TV and a Wii. But he’s miserable. He was a terrible wrestler in high school, but comes to see coaching as the only way to take his mind off his troubles.

The contrast is wonderful, as both are completely oblivious. Mike’s never even seen a Wii (the cheapest of gaming consoles). Yet you never get a sense of jealousy or bitterness from him. It never occurs to him to ask for help from Terry—the opposite, really, as Terry frequently finds himself envious of Mike.

The final piece of the puzzle emerges when Kyle’s mother shows up. I found myself thinking, “Hey, this is the best acting I’ve ever seen Drew Barrymore do! But that’s not Drew Barrymore.” It was, in fact, Melanie Lynskey, an actress like Thomas McCarthy, in that you’ve seen her a lot but probably don’t know her name.

Good acting all around, although I’ve seen some criticisms of young Alex Shaffer’s performance as Kyle. I can only assume those criticisms come from people who have never known teenage boys, particularly those who have had traumatic backgrounds. I found his flat affect very recognizable.

The Boy and I both enjoyed this immensely. Interesting, deep characters involved in serious moral conflicts. Easy contender for best film of the year to date.

Cedar Rapids

Ed Helms, fresh off his portrayal as an uptight dentist who cuts loose in Vegas in The Hangover, plays an uptight insurance agent who cuts loose in Cedar Rapids in the indie comedy Cedar Rapids.

Heh. I just realized that connection as I was typing this.
This is an odd little comedy featuring Helms as a stunted insurance agent named Tim Lippe who looks up to the “high powered” agent in his little town of Brown River, Wisconsin, and who pines to marry his once-a-week lover—his former sixth grade teacher who treats him like a child when she’s not using him for no-strings-attached sex.
The catalyst for the story is that the high-powered agent is found dead (in his bathroom, a victim of auto-erotic asphyxiation) and Tim has to represent his company at the Two Diamonds award ceremony in the big city—Cedar Rapids. Before he leaves, his boss (Stephen Root) warns him away from insurance pariah Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly) who’s already set about poaching clients from the asphyxiated agent.
When he gets to Cedar Rapids, he meets his roommate—also his first black person, apparently—mild mannered Ronald Wilkes (Isaiah Whitlock Jr., of “The Wire”, which is a running gag), and gets to experience his upgraded suite at the low cost of having to share the room with another roommate.
Well, you see where this is going: It’s none other than Dean Ziegler, a crude, foul sumbitch, who seems intent on offending the conservative Christian promoter (Kurtwood Smith) and groping anything remotely female. Anne Heche rounds out the crew as the oddly sexy agent from whom Cedar Rapids represents her one chance a year to cut loose.
The movie proceeds in this fashion from a sort of Woody Allen-esque awkwardness to a wild not-quite-Hangover-esque bacchanalia to something sort of like a caper film. It’s a genial (if not rollicking) trip, made pleasant by the general good-nature of the main characters and the clear delineation of the film’s few villains.
Particularly touching is Tim Lippe’s recounting of how he came to want to be an agent. Where the others seem to have fallen in to it, or done it after failing at other things, Lippe sees agents as heroic—a view of agents we do not get much these days, but one which is far more valid than that of the agent as rapacious pirate of others’ misfortunes.
Also satisfying is Lippe’s growth from idealistic, naive child to real man with real ambitions—becoming more aware without becoming cynical or losing his ideals.
I liked it and The Boy was also not displeased.


Johnny Depp is! some kind of gecko-y lizard-y thing in the new hot mess from Gore Verbinski, the guy who brought us Mouse Hunt, The Ring, and a crapload of pirate movies.

Depp is a Hollywood-type (actually wears his shirt from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or maybe it’s Benicio Del Toro’s shirt) who takes the advice of an armadillo (Alfred Molina) to go wandering out in the desert, whereon he has a vision of Clint Eastwood (Timothy Olyphant) and runs into a female reptile, Beans (Isla Fisher) who takes him to her town, a place called Dirt.

Through a series of wacky mishaps, our hero becomes “Rango”, sheriff of Dirt, whereupon he immediately unwittingly facilitates the robbery of the last of the parched town’s water from the bank. (Well, almost the last: The town’s mayor (Ned Beatty) seems to be pretty flush.)

A posse is formed. Rango’s thespian skills come in handy. A chase ensues. Bats explode into flames. The plot twists. Truths are revealed. The hero faces his demons. Clint Eastwood appears in a golf cart. Englihtenment is achieved. A villain appears. Another villain is revealed. The Heimlich maneuver. A bullet. Hans Zimmer scores.

Mariachi owls narrate.

This is the Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest of animated films. It’s wild, hallucinogenic, dense, willing to sacrifice nearly anything for a gag or a cheap effect but, unlike Dead Man’s Chest, Verbinski’s frantic style actually harmonizes well with the animation. (The Pirates movies are cartoonish, but not actually cartoons.)

Besides The Flower and The Barb, I also had their friends with me, and a good time was had by all, though none of them came out saying this was the Best Movie Ever!

As I said, this movie is dense. It’s kind of fun, as a movie geek, to spot all the movie references. I would expect the younger kids to just sort of laugh at the sight gags and otherwise think “huh?” at a lot of it.

Primarily, it’s a spaghetti western, which at times reminded me of The Professionals, The Good The Bad and the Ugly—the title evokes Django, but I’ve never seen that. The plot is Chinatown. The chase scene is Road Warrior. I’ve mentioned the Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas connection. Bill Nighy appears as a ferocious rattlesnake at one point, evoking the pirate movies themselves in his confrontation with Depp.

It’s all amiable enough. At points it seems to lose touch with its already tenuous grip on sanity and reason. It sacrifices a lot of potential for heart in the service of heavy stream of gags—which is a perfectly acceptable approach to fun kids movie, but don’t expect a Toy Story or a Despicable Me.

All in all, I liked it, and I can’t give it a full critique as I was wrangling four kids with heavy popcorn (and some potty) demands, but I won’t mind seeing it again and trying to catch what I missed.

TRON: Legacy

I can sum up the Tron sequel in two words: Profoundly stupid.

That’s neither here nor there, necessarily, as a recommendation for whether or not you should see it. I mean, I didn’t hate it. If you don’t like stupid movies, it’s out for sure. But you probably don’t go to the movies much at all, if that’s the case.
OK, I’m being snarky but a lot of dumb movies are fun. They’re kind of like what I imagine marijuana is like. They put you in a haze and your brain shuts off, and you just enjoy the experience.
This movie is like what I imagine smoking a big fat blunt is like, while someone is sitting behind you jabbing a pin into you at random intervals.
The premise of Tron: Legacy is that, after nearly 30 years, the original Tron has evolved enough of a cult following that a sequel was almost guaranteed to be profitable, so they made it.
Wow, I’m having trouble here, huh? Dial back the snark a bit, Bit…
That last jab isn’t even fair. They tried. They really did.
I saw the original when it came out. It was fairly dull, but it had some cute moments. My favorite part (okay, the only part I remember) was the character “Bit”. The only joke in the entire movie, I think, is when they first meet the Bit, and ask it questions, but it only responds with “Yes”.
Then they ask if it can only say “Yes” and it says “No”.
Nerd humor. (See, a bit can only be zero or one.) Now, that’s not a big deal these days—nerd humor abounds. But for Disney to make a major motion picture with a big special effects budget in 1982, as a vehicle for nerd humor? Dabbling in PG at the same time? Pretty risqué.
In fact, there was an idea that Tron doomed Disney financially that may still be floating around. (There’s an episode of “Freakazoid”, I think, where the ultra-nerdy character launches a huge harangue about how it wasn’t Tron but Disney’s other PG movie from that year, The Black Hole, that killed Disney. I strive not to be That Guy.)
The nerdiness of the original permeates many levels and decades of popular culture.
Oh, let’s be honest: The original Tron was okay, just completely forgettable if not for the groundbreaking animation. Do I remember the story? Vaguely: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan are transmitted (through the power of utter preposterousness) into a virtual reality where they’re menaced by David Warner.
I love David Warner. Every time I see Alan Rickman in a movie I wonder if David Warner is somewhere spitting at the screen. (There’s only five years between them but Warner has only gotten old-guy roles since Die Hard.)
Anyway, there’s some kind of power struggle going on that involves programs and users and the master control program. It was pretty incomprehensible at the time, because, you know, all the talk about users and programs and so forth was only barely grasped by audiences. This was okay because it didn’t make a lick of sense.
So one of the most astounding things about this sequel is that it manages to be even less technically literate than the first one. The first one didn’t have to be literate. Really, any kind of nod to technical literacy (like the bit joke) had to be considered gravy if it wasn’t, in fact, a serious liability.
But, you know, stuff has changed in the past 30 years. Like, oh, I don’t know: The Damned Internet? World of Warcraft has over ten million subscribers. People actually live on-line now. In the world of Tron: Legacy, it’s like none of this exists.
Let me try to peel back some of the layers of stupid here. Jeff Bridges’ son (not a pasty-faced, fat-thumbed, video-game playing 30-something, but a tan, daredevil, motorcycle-riding 27 year old) starts by breaking into his own company in order to steal their OS and publish it on the ‘net. As if:
  • every version of every OS doesn’t get leaked to the ‘net already.
  • the OS would be on a removable, single physical medium—well, I can’t even address all the stupid in having this guy break in to steal a DVD
  • a hacker wouldn’t prefer to, you know, hack his way into the system
We touch all the typical corporation-as-seen-by-Hollywood buttons here, with the old software company being made into an evil ConGlomCo, etc. etc. Just stupid stuff. Didn’t have to be, but okay, it’s not really the focus. (And I will give them some credit for trying to touch on the conflicting business urges that one finds in the computer world.)
But really, it just gets dumber from there. Once in the machine, the world of Tron is populated by programs that have cast off their users. Well, wait a second: What users? The original’s (too cute by half) premise was based on a multi-user mainframe system, where there was at least the possibility of someone using programs. Nobody knows this incarnation of The Grid exists. What users are they supposed to be serving?
It didn’t make a whole lot of sense in the original for a program to “die” in the dramatic sense, but it added some (very little) tension, and you could get away with it because who knew anything? Today? Anyone who’s ever played an online game understands the concept of “respawning”.
But if it makes no sense for a program to “die”, it makes even less sense for it to be injured. (Or to eat and drink and have sex, but we’ll get to that in a second.)
We’re not given a lot of time to ponder it, because when Garrett Hedlund enters the grid, he’s immediately sent to the games. The movie’s action sequences are pretty good, except you don’t really get involved.
First, there are all the dramatic problems: The competitors are all faceless. There’s no reason to care about them, and absolutely no reason to fear for Hedlund’s safety. Second, see previous note on respawning. Third—and this may just be me—advances in computer technology have pursued the concept of organic curves and natural movements, so the extremely abrupt, highly artificial 90-degree turns of the original movie’s light cycles have been replaced by graceful swoops that ironically just don’t pack the same thrill.
Hedlund’s character escapes and manages to locate his father, which brings us to Jeff Bridges. With his unkempt, ragged charisma, he manages to breathe a little life into the movie. The scene where he meets his long-lost son is genuinely touching before it’s strangely and inexplicably aborted as Bridges wanders away in a daze.
This ultimately leads to the Great Exposition, which is a gawdawful mishmash of The Bible and The Matrix.
Jeff Bridges’ character is God, and the programs are his angels. They even rebel, with his in-world avatar Clu, being his Satan. What happens is the well-designed grid ends up giving birth to real human-like life that the programs immediately exterminate.
And now Bridges lives the life of a hermit (in a really nice virtual house) where, somehow, he eludes capture by Clu and his minions, hangin’ with his hottie program, played by Olivia Wilde. The director kept cutting to Olivia Wilde stretched out on a couch as Bridges spoke, suggesting to me he didn’t have a lot of faith in the story either.
Tragically, Wilde is completely de-sexed by the makeup and costume. What’s a guy to do?
Well, I left half-way through the exposition. Went to the bathroom. Washed up thoroughly. Got a refill of my popcorn and soda. Chatted with the concession girl. Went back and the damned exposition was still going.
Maybe that’s why the rest of the movie didn’t make any sense. But I doubt it.
From there, the hacker and the hottie go off to the (obligatory) Star Wars-style bar where Michael Sheen does an impression of Malcolm MacDowell from Clockwork Orange (WHY?!?!?! How would that even happen?!?!), as various programs eat, drink and canoodle.
Where are the baby programs is what I wanna know. There’s no indication that there’s any form of reproduction, yet we know for a fact that programs “die”, so how does this whole thing hold together?
This assault on logic and reason is interrupted by some more action.
Then there’s some travelling because, you know, in virtual space, nobody’s ever heard of teleportation.
But this should give you a sense of the rhythm of the movie: stupid followed by suspension of disbelief followed by a decent action sequence and back to stupid.
The ending is a combination of The Matrix and Star Trek V. Wish I were kidding.
I really didn’t hate it. Really! But it irritated me that every time I tried to just enjoy the ride, there was something profoundly stupid to jar me out of it.
Maybe I’m just too uptight—though I managed to enjoy The Transformers.
I mean, is it just me? The plot requires the movement of a large quantity of Tron-world items into the real world. Is it too nerdy to wonder where the mass would’ve come from? I mean, we’re talking about E equalling MC2—and that’s a whole lot of E.
The Tron world could’ve invaded the ‘net. That’d be devastating and plausible, right? A world full of hostile AI that controlled all the information? You know? It’s not like there weren’t lots of other non-stupid options.
The effects are good, at least. And a lot of people loved the score. Jeff Bridges does a game job as Neo-Meets-The-Dude—again, wish I were kidding. The other actors do well when Bridges is around.
Bridges plays Clu, too, which is himself 30 years ago. It’s completely uncanny valley stuff. Every time “young” Bridges is on, it looks wrong. That could work, though, since it is sort of wrong. (It increasingly irritated me, though.)
I didn’t hate it. Really. (Did I say that twice already?) But I couldn’t get anyone to go see it with me, and they all gloated when I came back.
And they didn’t have the bits in this movie, either.


Well, Liam Neeson’s at it again, alternating between his roles as The Magic Caucasian (Narnia, Ponyo, Clash of the Titans) and bad-ass action hero like 2009’s Taken and now, Unknown.

Who knew an actor’s mid-50s was a good time to start being an action hero?
In this movie (sort of a reverse Fugitive), he travels to Berlin with his wife in order to speak at a agri-bio conference where some rich good guys (including himself and a prince) are going to make a special kind of corn available for free to the world. Yay! (Except it’ll probably lead to High Fructose Corn Syrup.)
Anyway, right upon arriving, he realizes he’s left his briefcase at the airport and rushes back to get it. On the way to the airport, he ends up in a car accident, a coma, and awake four days later in a hospital with a fractured memory and no one who knows who he is. Not only does no one know who he is, when he tries to prove who he is, he can’t.
And thus is the mystery of Unknown.
The next couple hours are spent unraveling the riddle of his identity. This involves some pretty good car chases, some fisticuffs, and some intrigue hearkening back to the cold war.
Sure, we’ve seen it a thousand times before. But never with Liam Neeson! Erm, in Berlin. With January Jones. And, this doesn’t suck.
That is to say, the riddle of the story is resolved in about the only plausible way, after presenting a few awful alternatives that have been used in other movies.
It’s not great. It’s a fun little potboiler along the lines of Taken but less gripping somehow. Good supporting cast including Bruno “Hitler” Ganz, Frank “Nixon” Langella and January “Betty Draper” Jones.
The Boy liked it though he was instructed by one of his friends that if anyone should say it’s better than Taken he was to kick them in the crotch. Anyway, not for Mr. Neeson’s high-brow fans, who would probably be watching, I dunno, Next of Kin or The Dead Pool.

Last Minute Oscar Pics

It was a fairly meh year, and I’m about 30 movie reviews behind. And I have no sense of what the Academy is up to. But I’ll take a wild shot at this year’s pix.

The “Best Picture” field has been expanded to ten films, nine of which I’ve seen. I didn’t go see The Kids Are All Right because the buzz on it was too…perfect. Gay-themed movies with A-List stars always get overpraised. But I will eventually see it, on Jason The Commeter’s recommendation.
Anyhoo, even without that, I can say the best movie of 2010 was Toy Story 3. But the Academy can’t give the Oscar to an animated flick. Can’t. Be. Done. I’d say they’d vote for the fairly banal Social Network but didn’t they just give Fincher an award for the nearly as banal Benjamin Button? No? Hmmm.
No, I think it’s gonna go to The King’s Speech. This is a very enjoyable historical drama, stuffed to the gills with acting and meaning—reflecting on the importance of presentation. The Social Network is about the Internet after all, and there’s no shortage of hostility to the Internet in Hollywood.
If it can’t go to Toy Story 3, it probably should go to Winter’s Bone, but King’s Speech is a grand film in the Hollywood tradition.
Likewise, I think Colin Firth will win because Jesse Eisenberg is a punk, Bridges won last year, Franco was really good—but 127 Hours just isn’t Oscar material, however good—and Bardem is a Spaniard (who already has an Oscar).
For best actress, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Jennifer Lawrence will win. To my mind, the acting awards are always the toughest. There’s almost always a good crowd. The supporting actor/actress award is usually the one where the less conservative pics are, and yet I think Lawrence was the big standout this year.
Best supporting actor? Christian Bale. Why? He needs one. They can’t give him one for being Batman, but they can give him one for losing a bunch of weight and playing a crack addict.
The supporting actress category is even tougher. As tempted as I am to say that it’ll be Hailee Steinfeld—and that’s a way more likely bet than Jennifer Lawrence—I’m gonna guess Melissa Leo gets it. Seems like she’s due.
Best Director: Tom Hooper. Well, look The King’s Speech wins best pic, it almost has to be the Best Director, too, right? Not really, but I’m gonna say the other guys all have the contempt that comes from familiarity.
Inception for best screenplay. That way they can give Chris Nolan an award that doesn’t really matter.
Aaron Sorkin for the other best screenplay. ‘cause they love him.
Toy Story 3 for best animated. If they give it to The Illusionist out of spite, they deserve to finish their careers out as voice actors for French funded films.
Biutiful for best foreign. Why? It’s the only one I’ve even heard of, and I see more movies than most of the Academy.
Cinematography is a tough one. The real contenders are True Grit, Black Swan and Inception. But King’s Speech could win ’cause it’s on a roll. (I’m not sure how any picture can have “momentum” in this kind of voting scheme but they always talk like it does.) True Grit has the best classical cinematography—lots of great landscapes and natural lighting—while Black Swan’s cinematography contributed heavily to its sense of a claustrophobia and paranoia.
I’m gonna guess Inception, just on the basis of it being incredibly complex.
Somehow, Inception isn’t even up for editing which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But 127 Hours is. Editing is almost always good in an big budget movies. I remember a few years ago (maybe 10-15, actually) where the editing was really bad and just being shocked. They’re highly skilled guys as far as I can tell.
So my guess is between King’s Speech (see previous discussion of “momentum”) or Black Swan. I’m going to guess the latter.
Those are my guesses.
Let’s watch and see how I fare.
(I’m kidding. Last time I watched the Oscars was…I think when the Enigma was too young to complain.)

The Eagle

Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman Ninth Legion vanished. Well, to be more accurate, the history of the Ninth Legion suddenly stops. Flash forward a couple of milennia, best guesses of the are that the Legion was defeated in the north of Britain, and the Romans (who were perhaps even more fond of historical revisionism than we are today) did a little damnatio memoriae and *poof*, the troop vanished.

Enter 1950s era children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff, putting together a museum exhibit with aforementioned theory, along with the urge to write an adventure story to appeal to boys and voila, The Eagle of the Ninth is born.
How we get from a 1954 young adult novel to a 2011 movie, after the central theory has long fallen into disrepute, I don’t know. But “historians” have been kind enough to resurrect the theory for a Discovery/Nat Geo/History/Whatever Channel tie-in.
The story goes that young Marcus Aquila is put in charge of an outpost in Britain (the armpit of the Roman empire) where he must prove his mettle to a cynical group of old hands. Turns out his father was in charge of the Legio IX when it was lost and also managed to the lose the legion’s Eagle, bringing great dishonor to the family and the empire.
Aquila is there to set things right, lead the group in defending the empire where his father failed. He’s torn between loving memories of his father and concerns about how his father might have acted in those final moments.
After an early incident both establishes his character and acuity, and ruins his plans, he finds himself in possession of a Briton slave, Esca, and a story of the Eagle being seen in the far north of the country.
He decides to enlist the help of the slave in finding and retrieving the Eagle.
Road trip!
OK, so this is a buddy movie, between the Roman legionary and the Pict (?) slave, as they travel to the north end of the island and (with luck) back on their wacky quest.
This movie has the unfortunate position of last in director Kevin Macdonald’s (Touching The Void, Last King of Scotland) film canon (on IMDB) and it’s struggling to make back its meager $25M budget, but I’m not sure why it’s so reviled.
It moves pretty well, with the exception of two spots (the part leading up to his first encounter with Esca, and the part where he and Esca are in the Pict village), with some very good action sequences (including a very good hostage rescue scene), and the leads (GI Joe’s Channing Tatum and Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) are likable enough, if not outstanding. Donald Sutherland oozes character as Aquila’s uncle.
Weaknesses? Well, the slow parts tend to make the movie seem a little rudderless, some of the action sequences aren’t very good (in the modern tradition of having the camera be so close as to obscure the action), and it has a juvenile (in the sense of a “juvenile novel”) feel to it which is either due to being faithful to the book or completely disregarding the character of the book, depending on whom you ask.
It also suffers in comparison with the two big Roman juggernauts of the past decade, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and the HBO/BBC series Rome. The ending reminds me a lot of Knight’s Tale, in terms of plausibility, fidelity to time, and just general goofiness. But I didn’t mind.
But you could take your 10-year-old son to see it. There are virtually no women to be found anywhere in the movie, except seen briefly about an hour or so into the movie.
And—this may be the pivotal thing—the whole movie is extremely earnest. The plot hinges entirely questions of honor and duty, and whether a man has to put his word above his duty to his people.
It might be that there’s not enough there for a contemporary audience to grasp; the movie is very light on providing support for certain characters’ actions. A minor issue 50, 60 or 70 years ago in (say) a cowboy movie, but maybe a sticky point for a modern audience.
The Boy, a self-confessed Romanophile, enjoyed the movie very much.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I’ve always gotten the impression that the Narnia movies are somewhat fraught with production difficulties. The latest movie doesn’t dispel that impression. After the disappointing box office of the last movie, Disney dropped out and left Fox to write the checks. (Whether or not it pays off is a matter of opinion, I guess: This film did worse box office than Prince Caspian, but it still grossed over $400M world-wide on a $220M budget. And it’s Fox’s first $100M hit in over a year.)

It’s not the little background news items that make it seem that way, though; usually the movies feel a little conflicted to me somehow. The special effects are always a bit uneven. Sometimes the pacing feels slightly off.
Voyage of the Dawn Treader is like that, only moreso. It has the lowest budget of any of the films; on the positive side, this seems to have encouraged the filmmakers to use CGI more sparingly. I particularly like the minotaurs, which I think are just big guys in bull suits, but with a little CGI to keep them from looking lifeless. Reepacheep returns and, except for a few scenes, looks good.
At the other end, the big effects (a dragon and a sea serpent) are a bit, well, conspicuous. Not awful, just noticeable.
The pacing is brisk, almost breakneck. This may be because they wanted to keep the movie at the two hour mark (which makes marketing easier and allows more showings in a day). This largely works, too, except for the occasional abruptness.
The story has Lucy and Edmund returning to Narnia along with their incredibly irritating cousin Eustace Scruggs. Eustace is one of the great characters in literature, embodying something akin to a literary critic mixed with Richard Dawkins.
Shrill, condescending, unimaginative, rigid—as he’s on the Dawn Treader with its minotaurs and satyrs, he’s deriding everyone as insane for believing in such fairy tale nonsense—and, on top of it all, worthless, Eustace passes his time complaining and avoiding helping.
But of course, this is Narnia, where one may be redeemed, no matter how awful.
Overall, I found this the most moving of the Narnia movies, probably because of Eustace’s transformation, but I was annoyed by the filmmakers’ insistence on bringing the White Witch back to torment Edward (also done in Caspian).
The kid’s been saved. The Witch never bothers him after the first book, that’s sort of the point.
I don’t remember the book that well, but it didn’t seem like the movie stayed that true to it. But as I recall the books seemed to get less tight, narratively speaking, as they went on.
The acting is, of course, good as one would expect. The kid who plays Eustace manages to be convincing as a twit and endearing as a reformed twit. And the actor who plays Edmund did a fine job as the frustrated teenager, who feels his responsibilities acutely and often is stymied in trying to execute them well.
Lucy is maturing into a fine young actress (though, again, the English seem to have some kind of Manhattan Project for child actors, so it’s not unexpected). The older kids are missing from this movie, though Susan shows up in archival footage as an object of Lucy’s envy. (I remember a vague hint in the book, nothing to the extent of what shows up in the movie. But then the book didn’t have Anna Popplewell.)
Liam Neeson returns as Aslan and, honestly, it doesn’t get old to me. You always have the issue of a (literal) deus ex machina in these stories, but the movies have done a good job of making it feel like Aslan’s appearance is tied to necessary changes in the characters, rather than to service the plot.
And there’s something archetypally pleasing about a big rumbling lion deity who’s both protective and powerful.
I enjoyed it overall, as did The Flower, though her favorite is still the first movie.
And I hope they get to do the other four books.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

This is the story of an architect—which I suppose requires me to reference Martin Mull’s quote, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

No, it’s not really relevant, since there’s no dancing in this movie, but I bet you didn’t know Martin Mull said that.
So, Norman Foster is the guy who builds these sorts of buildings: Click. Swoopy, glassy, bright, sci-fi-ish looking buildings. Recently, for example, he built the Peking airport for the Olympics.
This is a nice, short movie, that mostly curbs the documentarian’s urge to use as much of the dozens of hours of footage he shoots as he can.
The movie veers briefly into politics. Not in a polemic way, but more of a reflective look at Mr. Foster’s world view. Which is surprisingly fascist. Communist. Whatever word the kids are using these days to describe a totalitarian world view.
I shouldn’t say that: It wasn’t all that surprising, on reflection, nor is it necessarily all that statist. Architects basically do with people what computer programmers do with bits, but people are very unruly. And freedom is often ugly and inefficient. So Foster’s pining about certain kinds of control is predictably about aesthetics.
I think architects are all trying to play SimCity.
Anyway, fun movie. Perhaps not as interesting as Sydney Pollack’s Gehry, but maybe Foster’s buildings don’t leak as much.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

This is the second in the “The Girl…” trilogy, the Swedish series that’s become a sensation of sorts over here in America, taking up where The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo left off.

It feels like a lot of “second” movies, in that the first one actually resolved very well, and didn’t feel open ended—you know, when they probably weren’t sure there were going to be second and third movies?—whereas this one demands the third movie in the trilogy.
That said, the books were a trilogy (with a fourth one being written when the author Stieg Larsson died) so there are a lot of unresolved questions that reveal a lot more of the history of the titular girl.
And there’s a lot of history to be learned. How did Lisbeth end up in state care? What’s up with her mother? Where’s her father? Who’s the giant albino who seems to be chasing her? And why?
This movie is generally less well reviewed than the first, and it’s certainly less shocking and seamy, but in a lot of ways I liked it better. Lisbeth seems to have more depth to her character.
You may recall that I called the first movie very Swedish? Well, this movie is possibly even more so. Where Lisbeth seems to have more depth and history both ancient and recent, Mikael, our crusading reporter, is a supporting character. And barely supporting at that.
Lisbeth pretty much has to handle everything on her own here, as Mikael frets and broods from a safe distance. He’s the epitome of a “beta” in a lot ways. But it really is Lisbeth’s story.
I enjoyed this movie, as I said, but I tend to think these movies are being over-estimated. They’re really just lurid crime dramas, and while they’re well done, they’re not that remarkable.
Still we liked it, and—well, the final movie in the trilogy is more legal wrangling than crime drama.


“I know! Let’s make a movie about a couple of ugly, doughy dudes.”

“John C. Reilly!”
“Yeah, and that Jonah Hill kid.”
“That’s pushing the definition of doughy.”
“Roll with it. OK, how do we get people to go see it, then?”
“We need some hot, to counteract the doughy.”
And so it came to pass that Marisa Tomei co-starred in Cyrus, a movie about a broken-hearted man who finds the woman of his dreams, and her goofy, manipulative, adult son. Or so I like to imagine it, anyway.
Cyrus is a low-key, low-budget movie, which has some of the uncomfortable intimacy of a Woody Allen movie, some (but not much) of the zaniness of a Will Ferrell movie, and moments that are occasionally dark and are-we-supposed-to-be-laughing-at-this type stuff.
I didn’t put it together, but this film is by the Duplass brothers, whose last feature, Baghead, I reviewed a couple of years ago. My reaction to this film is much the same: It’s good in parts, well-worn in others, awkward in other parts, a little slow at times, but short and ultimately pleasing.
The Boy and the Old Man both liked it, the latter more than the former, I think, as he felt the resolution was reasonably just.


Of course, the problem with lagging so far behind in my reviews is that, by now, you’ve heard everything about the big movies like Inception and probably seen them parodied by now. (See “South Park” and Mary Katherine Ham on the “Rally For Whatever”.)

Well, that’s one problem. Another problem is remembering the movies.
Inception answers the question, “What if one of our greatest younger directors, Christopher Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight) remade that cheesy 1984 Dennis Quaid movie Dreamscape?”
And the crowd goes wild! (Raaaaaah!) But they always do with Nolan. Your mission is figuring out whether or not it’s a good movie regardless of the hype surrounding it.
Well, it’s…okay. Good, even. The cheesy 1984 movie was a fun, dopey popcorn flick. This is neither cheesy nor dopey, but it’s also not as much fun. It’s loud and serious; kind of grim, even.
The premise is that a team of people operate in the dream-sphere, influencing important people through their unconscious minds. (Not, like with the original, killing them.) What makes this particular mission special is that instead of influencing the person, the team is going to plant an idea. Hence, Inception.
The rules are as follows: Time in the dream world moves an order of magnitude slower than in real life. To wake someone up, you just need to push them so that they fall backwards—that triggers a reflex.
Also, it’s recursive: You can dream up a dream-within-a-dream. And the dream-within-a-dream will be another order of magnitude slower. You can, in the logic of the movie, go down about four layers before hitting “limbo”, a place where time moves so slowly that you can live a lifetime in seconds.
So, with our rules set up neatly and well in advance—okay, we’ve lost about a third of the audience, but 2/3rds of us ready for a good time! Sort of like Memento.
I actually didn’t find the rules difficult to understand. But I didn’t feel like the filmmaker was following the rules. And I found myself irritated by that. One of the best examples comes from one of the more famous scenes: A fight scene where because of a car accident on a higher level, the lower level is being made to go all topsy-turvey and the fight takes place on the walls and ceilings and so on.
But at the same time, there’s a level under that which is completely unaffected by the tumbling around. Huh? Now, that’s something that I’m pretty sure they didn’t qualify, and even if it had, I’d probably have found it asking a bit much.
And this movie does ask a lot of you in the suspension of disbelief department. Falling backwards is the magic that pulls you out of one dream level back up to the previous one, but tumbling every which way doesn’t?
I blame Leo DiCaprio. Heh.
I actually don’t think I’m kidding. The real problem with this movie for me isn’t the rules, it’s that it just never engaged me emotionally enough to where I fully set aside my attention to those rules.
Now, I didn’t have this problem with Memento. I didn’t have it with Insomnia (which a lot of people viewed as a let-down after Memento). I had a little bit of this kind of detachment for the Batman movies. But here it’s in spades.
And I think it’s because I just don’t care what happens to DiCaprio. It doesn’t matter what movie it is. I didn’t care if he was insane in Shutter Island. I didn’t care if he lived or died in The Departed. I didn’t care what was eating him as Gilbert Grape. The Titanic? Glad to see him go. (And the scenes in the staterooms with the poor people drowning makes me tear up every time, so it’s not about the movie.)
It’s not a personal thing, either. I’ve defended his performances; I don’t think he’s trading on his looks. (He actually looks kind of rough these days, I think.) But it happens that sometimes you just don’t connect with an artist, an actor, a director, whatever. And it’s pointless to try to describe why in the same way it’s pointless to try to describe why you don’t like brussels sprouts.
But where I felt for Al Pacino’s weary, compromised cop (Insomnia) and Guy Pearce’s complex amnesiac, I just don’t connect with DiCaprio at all. And, while we’re on it, all the characters are thinly drawn. As is the motivation for all these shenanigans.
Anyway, I’m overcompensating here. It’s a good movie. There’s a lot to admire. The score. The use of special effects, which is actually very restrained. (cf. the cheesy excesses of Dreamscape) The occasional moment of “Oh, wow, that’s right, we’re in a dream.”
I’d probably write a lot more positive review if people weren’t gushing over it like it was the next coming of Blade Runner. It’s good. But I don’t think it’s the sixth greatest movie of all time, as IMDB voters would have it.
The Boy liked it quite a bit. The Old Man enjoyed it, though not without observing more plot flaws than I did. My advice, though, at this point is: If you haven’t seen it, scale down your expectations a bit. Worst case is you end up being pleasantly surprised.

Despicable Me

Evil genius adopts three orphans to aid him in his battle against another evil genius. In the course of his travails he finds himself changing to accommodate his newest minions.

Sounds cute, eh?
Well, it is. Very cute. In fact, going in, my big concern in going to see Despicable Me was that it would be overly cute. I mean, kiddie movie, right? Not everyone can be Pixar. The traditional mistake is to go overboard on the sweetness and cute for kiddie fare—you may recall how “edgy” Nickelodeon was by having kid game shows involving a lot of goo—though Dreamworks often goes the other way.
Despicable me does a delicate balancing act, being at times sweet, silly, and also lightly dark and edgy with some nice grown up humor.
The cast is wall-to-wall celebrity, with Steve Carrell playing the lead “villain”, Gru, with a Eastern European-ish accent, Jason Segel as Vector, his Bill Gates-ish nemesis, Russell Brand as Gru’s assistant and Julie Andrews as his mom.
But they’re actually voice acting, so you don’t necessarily hear them, which is kind of nice. I mean, if celebrities are going to take jobs from real voice actors, they could at least, you know, do some real voice acting!
We had a full contingent for this one, with The Old Man, The Boy, The Flower and The Barbarienne all giving thumbs up. And me, too.

A Solitary Man

Ben Kalmen is a hard-driven, successful middle-aged (okay, that’s a bit of a stretch given Michael Douglas is 65) family man/car dealership owner having his yearly physical when the doctor gives him some news. What news? Well, maybe nothing, but the doctor wants to run some more tests.

Flash forward a few years. Kalmen’s life is in ruins. He’s lost all his car dealerships due to ethics issues. He’s split from his wife. He’s using his considerable charms to bed every hot chick he runs into. He’s trying to stage a comeback, but—well, see the thing about bedding hot chicks, even when it compromises his ability to function otherwise.
This is the kind of movie that rests heavily on the performance of its lead, and Michael Douglas pulls it off amazingly. In real life, guys like this are pretty creepy. Kalmen is pretty creepy but Douglas’ charisma and acting chops make him a palatable character somehow, even as he’s trying to seduce women who are involved with his fractured family, women who are involved with guys he’s supposed to be friends with, women who are the daughters of women he’s bedded before…
He descends further and further, burning bridges, until he’s down to working in a diner with stable, nice-guy college buddy Danny De Vito. Even there he can’t escape his inclinations or the ramifications of his past acts.
The movie avoids pat answers and neat conclusions, threatening to tie the ending into the beginning, and leaving us to wonder whether Ben will get his act together or whether he’ll just keep spiraling downward. The effectiveness of the movie is in that it feels very satisfying without doing these things.
Susan Sarandon provides solid backup as Kalmen’s baffled wife, Mary-Louise Parker, Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Jenna Fischer and Richard Schiff round out the cast. Brian Kopelman directs his (with David Levien) script but this 2009 film never gained any traction last year.
Which is interesting. It has a truer ring and is a lot more intelligently written than most of what gets made, and Douglas’ acting is stronger than ever. The Boy and The Old Man both approved, as did I—but its current IMDB rating is just 6.6.

The A-Team

In 1983, a motley assortment of actors were assembled by a team of crack TV writers and sent to a TV series that was a successful as it was goofy. Today, these men are mostly forgotten but the characters they created live on. If you need a mindless way to blow a couple of hours, and if it’s playing at your cineplex—maybe you can go see The A-Team.

I never saw the original TV series, though something of a fan of Stephen Cannell’s work on “Maverick”“Rockford Files” and an admitted fan of the short-lived, never quite realized “Greatest American Hero”. (Actually, by 1983, I had already given up on the prime-time TV thing.)
I don’t have a whole lot to go on, therefore, as concerns the original compared to the movie version. There’s some corny patriotism, some absurd action, some silly character development—I think that all fits in with the original series.
As a summer movie, it’s not—well, it’s not boring. You can follow the plot and the action, and most of the action is pretty well laid out. It never really engages beyond an almost aggressively superficial level which makes one aspect of the movie very jarring to me.
In what is basically a comic book world of ridiculous stunts, tone is usually kept by minimizing any real sense of consequences for violence. (This is parodied in this “Family Guy” clip at about 2:25.) While that’s mostly done here, there is a plot point involving a character killing, and the killing is shown.
It’s rather seriously done and struck me as gratuitously brutal.
Anyway, the Boy was not displeased (which counts as fair prize from him for this type of movie), though the Old Man seemed a little grumpy. He thought it was corny, but in the same breath said it was like the old show in that regard—and he was a huge fan of the old show. So I think he liked it but something rubbed him the wrong way. (Maybe the passage of the past 30 years.)

Brain–er, Breathless, 50th Anniversary

The 50th Anniversary of Breathless is this year and, this being a seminal film, it was given a limited re-release so that we could all enjoy its, uh, seminal-ness.

And it surely is seminally. It’s black-and-white, hand-held camera, minimal sets and cast. There hasn’t been a movie this seminal since Blair Witch Project. Which of course was 40 years later. But still.
OK, here’s the thing: You absolutely can see in this 1960 movie the future of the ambitious art film, a style which persists to this day, but dominated cinema more and more till the late ‘60s and early ’70s. A lot of movie critics mourn the passing of this era, which was pretty much done in by Jaws and Star Wars.
Thing is I hate this era of cinema. Hate hate hate it!
But let me explain what this movie is about: Sociopath Michel steals a car then kills a cop who pulls him over. The editing is awfulexcuse me, seminal—to where it’s really unclear what happens in this and the other semi-action scene. He then sort of sulks around, bedding some women and stealing their money, while setting his cap for Patricia, who’s apparently taken by his psychotic ways.
In between ducking cops (in the least suspenseful running-from-the-cops scenes ever), Michel and Patricia have long, meaningless conversations in bed about—well, who really cares. They’re not likable people. They’re not even interesting.
So, I guess there’s the low budget aspect of it. The handheld camera. People praise the acting, but it’s as stilted as Metropolis without any of the charm, scope or aesthetic.
The Boy was meh, but then he was shocked to find out it was only 90 minutes long. “Seemed a lot longer,” quoth he, and I agree. The Old Man and I enjoyed looking at the Citroens. (The Old Man had a couple when I was growing up. Great, unusual cars.)
You know, I’m not the audience for these kinds of movies. This is a movie I think, I dunno, maybe Althouse would like.
It reminded me of music school, where the professors wrote really “inaccessible” music, because if you wrote anything else, people could listen to it and compare it to what’s colloquially referred to as “good music”.
Worse than that, because these guys—and I’m including Jean-Luc Goddard, who directed this film—are so aware of the great art, they’re paralyzed by it. In this movie, Michel idolized Humphrey Bogart, who of course starred in many noir films, which this movie weakly invokes, like a 30-year tenured professor trying to write an atonal fugue in the style of Bach.
Now, it probably is, besides first, best of breed. But unless the self-absorbed, self-indulgent, ultimately nihilistic point-of-view appeals to you, you probably would do well to avoid the subsequent decade-and-a-half of “ambitious art movies”.
But, hey, that’s my opinion. I could be wrong. (With apologies to Dennis Miller.)

How To Train Your Dragon

Back when I was trying to sell kids’ books to publishers, waaaaay back in the ‘80s, the various publishers would send out rules of what not to bother sending. Tops on most of their lists? “DON’T SEND ANYTHING WITH DRAGONS.”

Apparently there was a glut.
I didn’t have anything with dragons but I sort of thought it was dickish.
Relevance to the movie How To Train Your Dragon? None, really, except that given this is based on a series of books released in the past decade, I guess the ban is up.
Which brings us to the latest venture from the team that brought you Lilo and Stitch. L&S is an underrated Disney film which managed to unselfconsciously break out of the mold of “young person doesn’t meet societal/parental expectations and successfully forges own way in world” that dominated their ‘toons since The Little Mermaid. It also used a lot of Elvis unironically.
This is the story of young Hiccup, a Norseman of some sort, who lives on an average Norseman island except for being plagued by dragons. Swarmed, even. So, the young of the village train to become dragonslayers.
Naturally, Hiccup’s not really up for that. (We wouldn’t have a children’s story if he embraced the slaughter of dragon’s wholeheartedly and was good at it, would we? Not these days!) He’s more of an inventor; and he invents, essentially, a ballista. He manages to hit a dragon—the particular type of dragon so fast and destructive that no one has ever even seen one—and no one believes him.
He stumbles upon the injured beast, though, and discovers something other than the completely unrepentant destroyer of Norse villages he’s been taught to believe. The subsequent relationship is…problematic.
This is a fast-paced, sometimes funny, nice-looking film. It walks the line between too cute, too much Kumbaya, and brutal fairly facilely. In that sense, much like Lilo & Stitch, where Stitch was both cute and a destructive monster, but far less cute. (There is a real villain in the peace, and it’s fairly unapologetic in its scariness.)
Jay Baruchel (best known to me as the skinny kid in Million Dollar Baby) plays the skinny Hiccup while America Ferrara plays his jealous peer, Astrid. Astrid is one of those now clichéd overachieving girls who just wants to kill some dragons and is increasingly pissed off by Hiccup’s strange increasing facility with them.
Supporting characters include Gerard Butler, as Hiccup’s predictably not-understanding father (speaking of clichés, didn’t we just see James Caan do this in Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs?); Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Jonah Hill (kinda sorta doing Jack Black) as the skinny and fat kid vikings—though at least they made Jonah Hill the skinny(-er) one and Mintz-Plasse the fat one; Kirsten Wiig as the twin of—
Wait. Do you care? Does anyone? Why do they keep putting celebrities in animated films when a professional voice actor is probably going to be better (and way cheaper)?
Are you people actually lining up to see How To Train Your Dragon because Gerard Butler was so hot in 300? What the hell is wrong with you?
Or is it just some Hollywood trend?
I hope it’s the latter. I get why actors like the voice gigs. No makeup, no costume, just hamming it up in front of a bunch of A/V geeks who are probably all starstruck.
Anyway, the movie was a hit with everyone, from the Old Man, to The Boy—who didn’t expect to like it—to both the Flower and the Barbarienne. And me. It’s a solid piece of work. Rewatchable. The Old Man objected to the cuteness of the main dragon, and I could see his point. The dragons were all a hair too cute for me.
Curiously, he preferred Shrek 4, but he’s a definite outlier in that regard.
Interesting side-note: We saw this back in mid-June at the bargain theater and it’s still playing there. That’s a good sign.

Shrek 4: It’s A Wonderful Strife

It’s always good to remember that It’s A Wonderful Life isn’t a comedy. It’s got a lot of funny parts to it—laugh out loud funny, even—but it’s essentially a dark, existential drama by its very nature: A man so overwhelmed that he considers his existence to be a negative to the world. The brooding darkness is essential to the plot.

OK, most of us don’t have to worry about this much. But those of us making kiddie movies based on It’s A Wonderful Life would do well to keep it in mind.
Which brings us to Shrek 4: The Final (Thank, God!) Chapter.
This time around, Shrek signs a deal with Rumplestiltskin (filling in for the Devil) to get one day away from his shrieking brood (triplets). The catch is, he has to give up one day to get it.

That day (unwittingly) being the day of his birth. (This is sort of awkward if you think about it, since Shrek has no parents even worth referencing once in the previous three movies.) And so, Shrek finds himself in Pottersville, in the form of Rumplestiltskin’s witch-laden kingdom, where there’s an ongoing war between the trolls (led by Fiona) and said witches.

It’s not bad. The Barb liked it. The Flower thought it was okay, as did the Boy. The Old Man liked it quite a bit (more than he would How To Train Your Dragon). But it is dark.

I mean, literally. For all the advanced CGI and what-not, the bulk of the movie seems to take place at night. And some place full of ogres.

Yeah, that’s one place where the movie really falls down: It’s A Wonderful Life shows us Bedford Falls, all the places and people who later change due to no George Baily, and despite having three movies behind it, the Far, Far Away of this movie doesn’t manage to invoke any fraction of that kind of resonance.

Which is kind of a shame, since you could have seen Lord Farquat and the evil Fairy Godmother and Prince Charming, and all the other baddies vanquished in the previous films. The setting was always a gag throwaway, but it seems like they could have made some callbacks.

Then again, maybe they did, and I just missed them.

Anyway, this is one of those movies where I’m probably the only one who cares one way or another about stuff like that. The kids liked it, forgot it quickly, and we moved on to the next summer film.

The Complete-ish Metropolis

They do this. They find long destroyed scenes or a missing print and say, “Hey! This is the COMPLETE version of this movie.” But it’s not.

Case in point, The Complete Metropolis. It’s complete-er. To say it’s complete-ish, even, suggests that the missing hour doesn’t add anything to the movie. Yeah, that’s right. The original Metropolis ran 3 hours and 30 minutes, and I think it was a complete flop at the time.
This version is 2 ½ hours long, and at one point, a critical scene is filled in with title cards. It’s got about a half-hour of deleted stuff, big chunks of which assist the movie in its struggle to make sense, but lots of little snippets here-and-there were probably pretty wisely edited out.
Keep in mind: I love this movie.
It’s a towering work of cinema with a cast of tens of thousands, a seminal work of science-fiction that blends heart-stopping imagery with clunky social messages, the very essence of retro-sci-fi with an art deco style that’s never matched—never will be matched.
You ever notice how sci-fi always is steeped in the time it’s created? And the more far out it tries to get, the more inexorably linked to its time it becomes (because it’s really just exaggerating the modes of the day where, in reality, those modes get changed.) Think Star Wars’ braless princess Leia, alien chicks with bouffants in ‘50s sci-fi or, heh, the way the latest incarnation of Star Trek looked like the iEnterprise.
This movie is so dated, it laps around to looking futuristic again.
Like all great movie dystopias, Metropolis creates a completely nonsensical future and its travails as a metaphor for current issues, and then resolves those issues in a happy ending that’s actually pretty horrifying if you look at it too closely. Thing is, Metropolis did it first. Or at least I think it did.
The story of Metropolis is that of the city itself, with the elite living above ground in this worldly paradise of barely clothed flappers (’20s-era German nipples!) and the workers living below ground in hellish (but very stagey) servitude to machines, like a cross-between assembly line workers and Solid Gold Dancers.
Our hero, Freder Frederson has his cavorting interrupted one day. And when I say “cavorting”, I mean that literally: He’s running around with a bunch of his mates and scantily clad girls. The interruption is by a schoolteacher from the underground, who’s brought her charges up to see the good life.
Security is lax in utopia.
And while this creates a sort-of micro-scandal, Freder has enough time to see, and fall in love with, the young schoolteacher, Maria.
So, like any other red-blooded, if slightly effete, male he chases her back down to the underground where he sees The Machine! And the men are working on the machine, doing—well, nothing that makes any sense, really. But if the levers aren’t pulled in time, and the wheels spun, and the clock-hands moved (I didn’t get that one either, but some of the workers had to move the hands of a clock-like thing to hit certain lights as they lit) the whole machine goes kablooey.
Freder swoons (literally) on seeing the machine, instead seeing the face of Moloch, the ancient Babylonian god that demanded human sacrifices.
You know this is going to come to no good, right then.
Setting aside the silliness of this hyper-powered Metropolis (with flying cars!) being driven by manual labor, where the workers do 16-hour shifts, and when they collapse with exhaustion, the whole machine goes kaboom, it’s a visually stunning scene.
The first half of the movie is powered by similarly amazing visuals.
Freder’s dad is the architect of the city, and he finds the under-dwellers sort of troublesome, so he’s not all that interested in Freder’s newfound understanding of How Things Are. He’s too busy spying on the leader of the underworld’s religious labor movement—who just happens to be Maria.
Y’see, Pa Frederson feels that the workers are getting all riled up, and he wants to encourage that. This will justify the excessive use of force it will take to crush any rebelliousness they have. Lacking any great ideas, he turns to his old pal, his partner in the development of Metropolis, “C.A. Rotwang, the inventor” as he is credited.
But if you steal a guy’s girl, you probably shouldn’t go to him for help. If you think, well, it’s been 20 years, he’s over it, there are some clues that should tip you otherwise:
1. He talks about it immediately and incessantly upon seeing you.
2. He has a giant—like 20 ft. diameter—likesness of her head in his otherwise empty living room.
3. He’s built a robot he plans to make look and act just like her.
Frederson, Sr., is not so bright about this, however, and commands Rotwang to make the robot look like Maria so that he can get the results he wants. Rotwang, seeing this as an opportunity to destroy young Freder eagerly agrees.
4. He agrees to scuttle his lovebot plans to advance your agenda even after swearing revenge to your face.
Anyway, the robot is brought to life as Maria’s doppleganger, and Freder is naturally devastated. Rotwang has programmed her to be a rabble-rouser by day, and a slut by night. Or at least a serious tease. It’s a little hard to tell whether or not the ‘bot is putting out.
She does have some serious charisma, however. The entirety of the aboveground male population of Metropolis is just as under her spell as the increasingly agitated workers.
Disaster ensues.
Lang didn’t care much for mobs, regardless of their station in society, and the rest of the movie is basically an exercise in mob madness, with a great literally clashing of workers and society folk.
The movie’s happy message? Communists and Fascists need to work together to form a better world.
Well, come on, it was 1927. Germany. What other options were there?
Religion’s in there, too. Sort of a heart, brain, body combo.
Apart from some highly affected acting which lost its potency with the advent of sound, the movie itself holds up really well. Yeah, the message is stupid, but no stupider than “Demolition Man” or the “Star Wars” hexology or “Soylent Green” or any other utopian/dystopian flick.
I love it more than ever now, as just a ballsy act of creation if nothing else. But the visuals are still stunning. Even at 2:30, the movie doesn’t really drag. There’s some great action at the end that was restored. Despite the message about fascism and communism, and a low opinion of group mentality, it’s an optimistic film that celebrates heroism and decency.
The Boy pronounced it “different” in a not displeased manner.
The Old Man likes the silents, and liked it almost as much as I did.
Me? I could watch it again right now.

Harry Brown

Once upon a time, in a magical land called “the ‘80s”, it was required by law for Michael Caine to be in every movie made. Or so jested Dennis Miller before he became a pundit. (Caine was in 22 feature films between 1980 and 1989, usually as the lead.) Two Oscars and countless other accolades later, he still manages to maintain his vigor, even as he gets more and more of the “checking out” roles.

And so, Caine—or as The Boy refers to him, “Alfred, from Batman” (hey, I can’t knock it, I thought of Shirley Jones as the mother from “The Partridge Family” for years) plays a widowed pensioner marking time with his shrinking pool of friends till the inevitable comes.
The generically named “Harry Brown” (I think I voted for him once) lives in crappy public housing and walks to the hospital to see his comatose wife, and visits the pub to play chess with his friend, while the city falls down around his ears.
The decay is most noticeable by the thugs that have made their home the pedestrian tunnel by the projects (or whatever it is the Brits call their public housing). Poor old Harry has to walk the long way to see his dying wife. Selfsame thugs delight in torturing Leonard, his chess friend (David Bradley, best known as the repulsive Argus Filch from Harry Potter).
Ah, but Harry? Used to be Special Forces. He doesn’t talk about it much. But Leonard knows and is eager to encourage Harry to strike back against the thugs. Whereas Harry prefers to avoid, to live-and-let-live, not because he’s afraid, of course, but because he knows how awful he can be.
And by awful, I mean murderously kick-ass.
So, yeah, a late British entry into the “Death Wish” genre, a kind of English Gran Torino, though curiously defused of a lot of the clichés, and really kind of brutal about the wages of socialism, however unintentionally. Actually, pretty brutal about London in general. Incompetent cops—including Emily Blunt, recently seen in City Island—invisible care at his wife’s facility, drug dealers galore.
Curiously enough, though, no Muslims. In fact, all the youths in the movie are typically pasty.
Well, I suppose it’s a minor miracle a film like this (where a citizen vigilante is portrayed as hero) made it out of England at all.
The whole thing feels sort of awkward actually. I really don’t like Death Wish, but it knows what it is. Michael Winner (also a Brit!) had his hand in exploitation flicks for years before unleashing Bronson in that movie (their collaboration on The Mechanic and Chato’s Land probably being the highlights of both their careers).
Newcomer director Daniel Barber, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want to dive into the muck even though, really, vigilante pix almost by definition require it.
There are some very “nice” aspects of it, however. First of all, as noted, Caine is as strong as ever (and actually did serve in Korea). Second of all, Caine’s transition into vigilante hinges on one scene that is beautifully done and, I think, very true to life.
After that the film sort of loses focus, which might be true to life but tends to defuse some of the tenseness. And it sort of does that throughout: Bring us a very sharp scene, then sort of back away timidly.
It may be the cops that are most responsible for this. You might notice that in most vigilante movies, cops are non-existent (or with the bad guys). That’s because the whole point of the vigilante premise requires them to be antagonistic or ineffective.
So we keep cutting back to the hapless Emily Mortimer (who’s only slightly less daft here than she was in her goofy City Island character) and her even more hapless partner (Charlie Creed-Miles, who played the hapless younger priest in The Fifth Element), and their struggles with the chief, who is actually not hapless but actively aggravating and riot-fomenting.
Damning stuff. But not real interesting, at least not for us yanks.
I did like it. The Old Man, too, maybe a bit more. The Boy less so.

Best British movie of the year? I don’t know. Maybe. I suspect it resonates more strongly with Brits. Whatever else you might say about it, it strongly rests on Caine’s acting abilities. Which, when you think about it, is not a bad place to rest things.

Iron Man 2

The reviews of the Iron Man sequel are pretty much dead on: Good, probably not as good as the first one. Though there were things about this one that were better than the last, I think.

Rather than review the movie (what’s the point, really?) I’ll just make a few random observations.
Robert Downey, Jr., is still a great actor, even when doing a phone-it-in kind of role like this. (Seriously, didn’t he play this character in Less Than Zero? No, wait..Weird Science? I dunno. Looks familiar—but it works.)
While I like these movies, it seems like they might, with a little more script effort, be able to reach some of the greatness of some of the greatest superhero movies: Donner’s Superman, Singer’s X-Men, Nolan’s Batman, Raimi’s Spiderman. There’s something almost casual feeling about these films, something afraid to go near the greatest heroic themes.
Terence Howard sure looks a lot like Don Cheadle in this movie. Waitaminute. They actually replaced Terence Howard with Don Cheadle!
What the hell did Gwyneth Paltrow do to her face? Is it just me? I’m seeing botox and plastic surgery everywhere! She’s looking kinda scary-thin, too. And she was so cute in Shallow Hal!
I know Blythe Danner’s my mom’s age but is it wrong I think she’s hotter than Gwyneth?
Actually, Paltrow does a good job, acting-wise, with a much meatier part. It’s a bit scoldy, which seems to be the fallback for women these days, but she has a certain warmth, too. She was just a decoration in the last flick.
Heheheh. MSNBC is anti-Iron Man. And O’Reilly is anti-Pepper Potts. Anyone doubt that it would play out that way in real life?
The Old Man doesn’t like Sam Rockwell’s performance. Too goofy. We’re pretty big fans of the Rockwell here at the ‘strom, generally speaking, and I wonder if there isn’t a generational gap. He would’ve liked Jeff Bridges in the first one better, I think. Rockwell’s more patterned after a Steve Jobs.
Speaking of Bridges, a lot of the dramatic heavy lifting in this movie comes from Mickey Rourke as the…uh…Russian dude. It’s not his fault that he’s not exactly playing an iconic villain who’s much different from the iconic villain in the last film.
I wonder if the film’s impact isn’t somewhat diluted by the need to pervade it with threads to pick up in all the various spin-offs they’re planning.
Case in point: Scarlett Johansson as Molotov CockteaseNatasha Romanov. OK, she looks great in the catsuit. (Though, I dunno, to my eye she doesn’t act sexy so much as sort of stand there being young, pouty and curvy.) But talk about an extraneous character, not really developed, and not really all that interesting.
Nice. (Director) Jon Favreau gives himself the scene with Johansson. Funny, too.
The whole super-bad-ass chick has been done to death by now, hasn’t it? I mean, that’s why the aforementioned Molotov (from “The Venture Bros”) is so funny. Is it just me that’s finding it less-and-less plausible? I mean, first of all, in any serious fight, she’d be hard pressed to maintain consciousness, considering the diet she had to undergo to fit in that suit….
You know who actually could do that kind of zillions of characters thing well? George Lucas. The original Star Wars movie really did kind of give you a sense of depth even on characters just passing through. (Shame about when he actually fleshed them out, of course.)
Samuel L. Jackson is back as Nick Fury, looking more like Nick Irritated or Nick Yer-Startin’-To-Piss-Me-Off. C.O.N.T.R.O.L. or S.H.I.E.L.D. or whoever it is he represents has bigger fish to fry than what’s going on in this movie.
That’s nice. Tell the audience they’re idiots for going to see the lesser of two movies, when the better one hasn’t even come out yet.
Wow. Nice blocking in the big fight. Glad to see Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack, Clone Wars) getting some work. They are dodging the whole devastation-everywhere-but-no-one-gets-hurt thing a little wildly. That worked better on “The Powerpuff Girls”.
Wait. That’s it? Huh. Reminds me a lot of the first one. Is Jon Favreau suffering from premature climaxing? Must’ve been that scene with Scarlett.
Stinger! Oh. Uh. I have a bad feeling about this. Ooh! Kenneth Branagh directs!
The Boy and The Old Man liked this one.

City Island

The dysfunctional family movie is kind of an icky genre overall. I tend to blame Robert Redford’s Oscar-winning Ordinary People (not a link to that movie but to the last dysfunctional family film I can recall seeing) but The Lion In Winter pre-dates it and is really pretty much the same formula. And, frankly, the melodramas of the ‘30s are pretty much the same beast, though due to the conventions of the day, less explicitly icky.

This is often true whether the movies are meant to be super-dramatic, like People was, or comedies, which can sometimes be ickier as they invite you to take some truly horrible things lightly.
So, City Island is a refreshing entry into the field, with the dysfunction being really a sort of cultural artifact of this little spot in New York called City Island. (Not that this is the only place in the world where people’s expectations and roles are so ossified they’re afraid to talk about what they want.)
And it’s funny! They’re good people with some problems that seem like they could be mostly easily resolved, which makes it a lot less icky to be laughing at those problems.
The story is this: Vince, Joyce and Vivian live in their little house on City Island, as they have for over 20 years. Vince (Andy Garcia) is a corrections officer. Joyce (Julianna Marguiles) is a housewife. Vivian (Garcia’s real-life daughter Dominik Garcia-Lorido) is a college student. Vince, Jr. (Ezra Miller) is in high school having trouble with girls. They’re the yell-y sort of family you’d expect from, I dunno, what’s the stereotype? Queens, I guess? Not quite New Jersey loud, but a far cry from the repressed, button-down personae that typically populate these sorts of films.
I’m not sure if the outwardness of it all isn’t part of what makes it work. You always know where these guys stand, and you sort of expect that part of wearing things on their sleeves means that they don’t bury a lot of heavy sins.
In this case, the catalyst of change comes in the form of a Tony Nardella (Steven Strait), who gets incarcerated in Vince’s facility. Vince decides to get Nardella released to him, and puts him up in the (unfinished) boat shed (Vince has been working on for years) on the condition that he help finish it.
And through Tony, we see all the family’s secrets. This is essentially the movie-opening, by the way, I’m not really giving anything away. For example, they all smoke. They all go through great pains to hide that from each other. Vince? He wants to be Robert De Niro. Vivian? She’s having trouble in college. Vince, Jr.? Well, the troubles he’s having with girls are not the usual troubles, exactly.
Tony, of course, thinks they’re all crazy. And, as you might expect, he’s the source of a number of other mysteries.
Ultimately, there’s a strong current of family togetherness running through the whole thing, so the ickiness is relatively subdued.
Garcia’s performance is particularly wonderful, as the cop(ish) wanting to be an actor. He gets to do a really stiff De Niro imitation that’s so good, you forget when he goes back to being Vince, that’s not really him (the actor) either.
His daughter seems to be a natural. Marguiles is always good, fitting as naturally in as a hard-ass housewife as she has in her more sensitive roles. Other standouts include Emily Mortimer as a wacky acting partner of Garcia, and Alan Arkin in a small (but great) role as their drama coach.
Kudos to writer-director Raymond De Felitta (The Thing About My Folks) for, uh, putting the fun back into family dysfunctional flicks.
Thumbs up from The Boy and the Old Man, too.

The Secret In Their Eyes

A newly retired Argentinian justice agent decides to write a novel and picks for his topic the one case he couldn’t solve. Or perhaps more accurately, a reluctantly retired justice agent decides to use writing a novel as a pretext for trying to resolve a lot of loose ends in his life.

Such is the premise of Juan Jose Campanella’s El Secreto De Sus Ojos—The Secret in Their Eyes—which takes place in 1999, but flashes back a lot to the ‘70s when the murder and first investigation took place. In a rather odd, old-fashioned choice, we’re mostly supposed to just accept the actors as being young, not a lot is done in terms of makeup or CGI (a la Benjamin Button).
In fact, there are a number of places in this movie where things seem rather low budget. The film quality itself reminds of ’70s Kodachrome, there’s no THX (it might as well have been mono, and the camera doesn’t do the swoops and twirls that are lingua franca today.
But the movie works. Well.
Well enough to win the foreign-language Oscar.
And well enough to stay with you, if you’re the sort of person to pick at the loose threads that are often subtly resolved. Also, subtitles and a non-spanish-phobia are helpful. For example, a key element of the film involves a rickety typewriter and the difference between “TEMO” (I’m afraid) and “TE AMO” (I love you).

The Boy had a difficult time with it. He liked it, but he didn’t entirely get it. The Old Man loved it. I, too, was won over by this strangely awkward and sincere film.
Our hero, Benjamin, is a crusty middle-aged middle-class detective working on a rape/murder case (he tries to palm off) when our heroine, the fiery Irene, a vibrant young upper-class lawyer joins the department. (The actual actors, Ricardo Darin, 52, and Soledad Villamil, 40, rely heavily on something called acting to convince you they’re closer to early 40s and late 20s, respectively.)
Benjamin is immediately smitten, but he’s too old and too low class for Irene.
This isn’t a plot thread you see much in America since about the ’30s, and why all those remakes of the old melodramas never work. (After all, when the upper class is making porn tapes, the whole concept of “high class” is a wee bit strained.)
Rounding out the main cast is Guillermo Francella, the brilliant Argentinian comic, as the low class drunkard Pablo. This guy is golden-age material: He manages to be both funny and deeply sympathetic, without being maudlin or pathetic, which is not something you see well done any more.
He’s the one reminding Benjamin that Irene is out of his league in so many ways. This is very helpful for people like me, in the American audience, who would probably not get it without the exposition.
Between the three of them, including a very gutsy move by Irene, they manage to catch the killer and send him to prison.
But, wait! If that were all, then whence the unresolved issues that power the movie?
Well, as it turns out, a few years later, Argentina has one of its periodic revolutions. The murdering raping psychopath is found to be useful to the new regime and thus ends up getting out of jail and into the secret service. (Once again, a weird concept to an American, though perhaps strangely like peering into America’s future.)
Some very awful things follow.
I can’t really talk about how things proceed without being spoily but suffice to say, I did not see the ending coming till about 2 minutes before it came. And the Benjamin/Irene romance resolution isn’t what I was expecting either.
But this is one of those rare movies that manages to keep one foot squarely in the mystery/thriller camp, and one squarely in the romance camp. Themes cross-pollinate without being creepy. The very title The Secret In Their Eyes refers both to the criminal element and, as we see at various points, the tells of a smitten, unrequited lover.
Good stuff, and I liked it more the more time has passed. Even if it isn’t very American.

Cop-Out: The Smith Kid Strikes Back

Kevin Smith is famous (inasumuch as he is) for his idiosyncrasies. You always know “who the Devil made it,” to borrow Welles’ quote to Peter Bogdonavich when asked about which directors he preferred. His movies are vulgar and thoughtful and juvenile (sometimes all at once). Also, they take place in New Jersey.

He got his start when some incredible luck drew attention to his funny, quirky, $60,000 shot-on-video debut, Clerks. Since then, he’s made about six or seven other movies, all set in the same universe, all set in Jersey and, since his fourth film, Dogma, all making about $30M at the box office.
But the Smith kid, for all his laid back attitude, is ambitious. All of his movies have progressed, one to the next, showing increasing competence, vision and scope, on a technical (if not artistic) level. Though I doubt he’s done making his idiosyncratic movies, it’s clear that he yearns for greater success. (And like all good men, he knows his limitations, having turned down a superhero flick years ago, despite being a huge comic book fan, simply because he knew he wasn’t ready.)
His breakthrough film should have been Zack and Miri Make A Porno. A sort of Judd Apatow-esque movie (and some say Apatow is the spiritual heir of Smith) with the currently hot Seth Rogan?
It made about $30M.
A huge disappointment. And whether that was because of the balky ad campaign hampered by the word “porno” in the title, overexposure of same Mr. Rogan, or because of some quality of the movie itself is a topic for another time.
But for reasons he’s detailed on Twitter (and elsewhere, honestly, the guy never shuts up), he opted to make his next film one that someone else wrote; he would serve only as director. A lot of the fans were crushed. The critics were brutal; doubly so when the movie turned out to be a Bruce Willis/Tracy Morgan vehicle that is basically a throwback to the ‘80s buddy cop movie.
That film, with the Smith-y working title of A Couple Of Dicks ended up being released as Cop Out.
But Throwback would’ve been a good title. Willis and Morgan are cops who don’t play by the book and end up in trouble with the chief, who suspends them, so they’re forced to pursue the case independently, all while their rival detectives at the precinct are making fun of the–
I don’t really have to go on, do I?
I mean, we’ve seen this movie before. We’ve seen it with Bruce Willis before!
More than that, a few cues in the opening scenes tell you that this movie is an homage bordering on parody. It’s too ’80s, for a movie taking place in 2010. I mean, they didn’t open with “The Heat Is On” on the soundtrack, but pretty damn close.
Worst-case scenario for a movie like this, of course, is to be boring. And Cop Out isn’t boring. It is a little frenetic, however. It’s paced like a zany comedy while the script feels more like it can’t decide whether to go for laughs or action, and thinks it can do both better than the ’80s flicks could.
It can’t, of course: The action/comedy flick was what the ’80s did best. Tracy Morgan’s a little too Chris Tucker and not enough Danny Glover/Billy Dee Williams/Eddie Murphy. Bruce Willis is a little too much wizened 2010 Willis and not enough smart-ass 1985 Willis. (Remember that? Till Die Hard, Willis was the wise-cracking, glib goof-off who co-starred with Cybill Shepard on “Moonlighting”.)
But somebody had to be the straight man and Willis is one of the best. (Also, for a star of his magnitude, you never see him crowding anyone out for screen time. Also, what’s he doing in this $30M budget film?)
There are a few twists, a few turns, a climactic shootout scene that isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. Sean William Scott steals the show in the Joe Pesci role; he plays a goofy cat burglar who delights in tormenting the tortured Morgan (who is wracked with anxiety over his wife’s fidelity).
Ultimately, it’s a sort of an odd film. It aims low and hits about two-thirds of the time. I think it would’ve been better had it been played stronger one way or the other: either as a serious attempt to do an ’80s cop movie today; or as a subtle but definite parody.
Instead, we’re left with a sort of uneven mess that wants us to laugh while showering us with violence.
Which, to be fair, is what a lot of those ’80s cop movies were like.
Oh, and I should add: Cop Out made $44M, about 50% more than what it cost to make, and a personal best for Smith. So, far from a complete flop.


It’s hard to believe that prior to Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man(2002) superhero movies (as such) were rather rare. Superheroes were kiddie stuff throughout the ‘40s and ’50s, and the campy “Batman” TV series would have seemed to be the gravestone on any non-goofy interpretation of superheroes—which may have been the reason that the Salkinds struggled so mightly with Richard Donner over the classic ’70s Superman movies, with Donner wanting to play it straight and the Salkinds going for slapstick.

But the Salkind’s Superman movies didn’t translate into a lot of other superhero movies any more than Tim Burton’s Batman did. Burton’s aesthetic translated marvelously to Gotham City and rescued an otherwise shoddy interpretation. (Burton doesn’t get comic books at all, as was disastrously apparent in his sequel.)
But with CGI, and the fortuitous application of some of our greatest younger directors, like Singer and Raimi, the box office bonanzas of the early part of the millennium have meant superhero movies galore.
Not only do we get a bushel of ’em every year, we also get parodies, deconstructions, and movies that pretend not to be superhero movies, but really are.
Which brings us to this year’s Kick-Ass. In this movie, a nerdy, bullied high-school kid decides to get himself a ski suit, some clobberin’ sticks, and fight crime.
Now, you never know which route a story like this is going to go. Does he succeed, empowered by his…uh…ski suit? Er, training. Yeah, like Batman? Or, does he end up getting super-powers through some unforeseen random chance? Or does he just plain get the crap kicked out of him?
I don’t want to spoil anything; in one of the nicer surprises I’ve seen in movies lately, the answer to the above is more complex than I’ve laid it out. Now, if you actually know anything about fighting and/or the human body, you realize that it’s kind of stupid, too, but a little suspension of disbelief goes a long way.
In his adventures, our hero, who clumsily dubs himself “Kick-Ass”, meets the equally clunky-named “Hit-Girl”, an eleven-year-old girl who has been trained from a baby to be a killing machine. Her father, who goes by the moniker “Big Daddy”, and dresses just like the campy Batman of the ’60s, has raised her up to help him take revenge on the drug lord who ruined his career, and on whom he blames the death of his wife and her mother.
So, in other words, we have a full-on genuine comic book storyline and characters in the middle of our parody. Filmmakers do this from time-to-time, with a sort of ironic detachment (I’m better than this, so it’s cool when I do it), and it can be disastrous.
It’s not here, at least I didn’t think so, until the climactic scene, when it’s very clear we’ve completely embraced the comic-heroic logic and dispensed with the parody. The end is actually a bit campy, unfortunately.
Entertaining film. IMDB currently has it as #150 on their all-time greatest, right next to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Bourne Ultimatum. I can’t imagine it being in the same class as the former but I suppose it’s up there with the latter.
As I said, entertaining, but also rather uneven as a consequence of trying to straddle two different sorts of realities.
Some people (notably Ebert) had a problem with the language that came out of young Chloe Moretz’s mouth, to say nothing of the violence she was subjected to and visited upon others. I tend to think that’s taking it too seriously, as the whole thing was patently absurd.
What else is notable about this film?
Let’s see: Nic Cage, as Big Daddy, does a dead-on Adam West impersonation, which is fun, but really makes it impossible for anyone familiar with the old “Batman” series to take seriously. The movie is trying to go for gritty realism and shock value with that stuff; it just seemed cheesy to me. (You don’t get any “realism” points in my book for adding violence or death or downbeat endings.)
The music is awful. It’s largely pop-songs and musical strains you’ve heard in other movies, but better in those other movies. Like Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation which was used rather more effectively in the original Shrek (when he beats up all the knights).
The one that drove me nuts was the use of In The House, In A Heartbeat, from the Danny Boyle Zombie flick 28 Days Later. (You can hear it on YouTube; about a minute in is the four note pattern that Kick-Ass uses.)
And none of the music rises (or lowers) to the level of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, as used in the blue penis movie.
So it’s got that going for it. Which is nice.
Anyway, The Boy said “It didn’t piss me off.” Which is high praise, because he thought it would. He rather liked it, though not so wildly as to put it at #150 of all-time movies.
It didn’t piss me off either.

The Secret of the What?

In a remote Irish village under siege by Vikings, young Brendan is being schooled in the art of illumination by an old monk, while his uncle, the abbot in charge of protecting all the people grows increasingly impatient with his tomfoolery.

But there’s more afoot in The Secret of the Kells than meets the eye. The illumination of the book has some sort of mystical power, and when Brendan sets off to the forest to collect berries for ink, he encounters a wolf-spirit-girl, Aisling.
The two develop a relationship, even as the crisis in the town grows worse. (Actually, the rhythm and setting of the movie is remarkably similar to How To Train Your Dragon.)
If you’ve heard of this movie at all, it’s probably as the “Say what?” entry in the Oscars. You had Pixar’s Up, Henry Selick’s Coraline, Disney’s Princess and the Frog, Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox and…this one!
This is pretty typical Oscar stuff, of course. Monsters vs. Aliens was the #11 movie last year, grossing about $200M, but no, let’s nominate the little foreign film. (Just as a reference, Fox made about $20M, Coraline $75M, Princess $100M, and Up nearly $300M. Kells may not have made back it’s $6.5M budget.)
The other thing you might have heard about this movie is how good it looks. Let me agree that, yes, it looks good: It also looks a whole like an episode of “Samurai Jack”. It uses many of the same techniques pioneered by Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of that series, and former collaborator Craig McCracken (of the “Powerpuff Girls”).
The whole thing is in the flat UPA style—remember Mr. Magoo—that McCracken and Tartakovsky proved could actually be artistic and not just money saving, with the aforementioned shows (and others like “Dexter’s Laboratory”).
Further, Tartakovky’s trick of changing the screen shape based on the action is employed here. The image goes from 4:3 to 16:9 and even to a screen split into three parts to show different parts of the action at once.
And the Vikings (called “barbarians” here, but they have the pointy helmets) look just like villainous robots from “Samurai Jack”.
None of this to say it’s bad, but one gets the sense that a lot of the oohs and ahs from the critics may come from their lack of experience with the Cartoon Network.
It’s short. We were all kind of startled when it was over.
Of the five of us, The Old Man didn’t care for it, because he hates the style of the animation (it reminds him of the crappy cartoons of the ‘60s), and The Barbarienne had no clue what was going on.
The Boy and The Flower both liked it, as did I. But I sort of think I’m going to end up liking Monsters vs. Aliens more over time.
Oh, and if you’re interested in what The Kells are, Wikipedia is your friend.


Oil companies have been buying up the drilling rights to properties all over the country. What could be better than waking up to a big check (offer) in your mailbox? It’s like you got rich for just being lucky enough to be on a natural gas deposit.

Or, to quote a common meme these days, “What could possibly go wrong?”
This is the question asked by Josh Fox, after the Fox family manse receives such an offer.
You already know this isn’t going to turn out well, right?
Josh decides to investigate, grabs a video camera, and an enlists the help of a pal (?) with a camera and they run around the country investigating “fracking”, the process of—well, hell, you can read about it on Wiki, if you want, but suffice to say, it’s a practice of extracting natural gas (something America has in abundance).
Now, a simple truth is this: Just like oil wells, mines, or any other excavation activity, bad things are going to happen. A cold analysis of the situation would be to examine the amount of gas extracted relative to the damage caused in the process, thus allowing us to decide for ourselves whether the risk was worth the cost.
But I suppose that’d make a dull movie.
Fox runs around to farmhouse after farmhouse where the fracking seems to have caused serious problems. A propos of the situation in the Gulf, natural gas seems to also be capable of gushing out of control.
The effect of this is to make the air smell bad, causing rivers to bubble with toxicity, and (as Fox demonstrates repeatedly), makes tap water flammable.
Yes, apparently, on a farm, when your water turns bad, your first instinct is to try to light it on fire. They do this so many times in so many places in this movie, you worry about someone actually blowing up their whole damn farm.
It’s a pretty decent (if one-sided) trip over all, with Fox ultimately drawing pictures of the entire northeastern area of the country being poisoned, the entire west being wrecked with wells, and stretches like someone’s dad being exposed to the toxic water and being dead inside of 2 years from pancreatic cancer. (Patrick Swayze didn’t even make it two years, I don’t think. Pancreatic cancer is a bitch.)
About a third of the movie is borderline unwatchable in the literal sense because the hand-held cam is so shaky as to deliver no meaningful picture. The music is, well, homemade. The maker, hopelessly naive about the topic of energy. At one point, Halliburton’s name shows up, as if that explains something. At one point, Fox plays the banjo in front of a plant while wearing a gas mask.
Powerful? Or just silly?
Whichever, it all ends up being sort of endearing. This is something we should know about. One would think that the drilling companies would plan for these contingencies and have settlements ready for the landowners, though I suspect the landowners sign those away with the mineral rights. I also suspect that, soon, every problem people have becomes associated with these wells.
Nonetheless, it’s just as certain that the various corporations involved stonewall at least some of the time and have a lot of political clout.
Overall, then, this is one of those awareness raising deals. I’d recommend it even if you have to squint through parts and cover your ears through others.
The Boy and the Old Man both enjoyed it as well.

Ghost Writers In The Storm

A funny thing happened on the way to the movies: in order to see a movie that didn’t feature anal rape, I had to go see a movie made by an anal rapist.

I have a friend who has seen every Michael Moore movie to come out in the past 15 years. But he’s never bought a ticket for one. Instead he buys a ticket for another movie, and sneaks in to see Moore’s latest propaganda. I’ve always sort of disapproved of this but, well, our choices were Brooklyn’s Finest or the French movie A Prophet. Actually, I thought about Hot Tub Time Machine, because at least there the anal sex was probably consensual.
Anyway, we ended up watching Roman Polanski’s latest. I don’t know why I do this to myself. I guess because I don’t think of Polanski as being boring, whatever his other flaws. But Ghost Writer is a big old stupid fest on top of some really stupid politics and only marginally competent old-school direction.
Nice traditional score, however, by Alexandre Desplat, who also scored the French movie we didn’t go see.
The story is that Ewan McGregor is a writer offered a juicy contract with the former prime minister Pierce Brosnan to help him finish his memoirs. The old friend who had been helping him up to that point mysteriously turned up dead through accident or suicide—but you know he was murdered.
McGregor runs into Kim Cattrall, who sports an on again off again English accent, and Olivia Williams, who bravely goes without flattering makeup and lighting so that she can appear to be a peer of Pierce Brosnan. Brosnan, meanwhile, looks like he’s done a George Clooney on his face. Also showing up are Jim Belushi and Eli Wallach, as well as Timothy Hutton.
When I confessed to the theater manager and I had bought a ticket to see Girl with a Dragon Tattoo but saw this instead, she agreed and said it was disappointing to see so many actors she liked willing to work with Polanski. It’s true: You watch and go, “Awwww…not Pierce! Not Timothy (what would his dad think?)! Not Jim! Anybody but Jim!”
I don’t need to elaborate, I’m sure, about how this movie unfolds. Obviously, McGregor is going to find out both that the previous ghostwriter found something out that got him killed and is going to find out the same thing and therefore be in jeopardy himself.
The point to this kind of movie is in how it’s executed. I was not impressed and neither was The Boy.
Both of us were sort of impressed by the sheer stupidity of McGregor’s character. He seems to grasp the level of danger early on enough and yet takes few if any steps to preserve his anonymity.
Allow me a digression here for a moment: Remember Jar Jar Binks? Everybody hated Jar Jar. Except me. Sure, he was the most grating character to be seen on stage or screen since Gilbert Gottfried did his one-man-show on Bobcat Goldthwait, but he was vitally necessary. His traveling companions were Jedi who never got excited about anything. If not for his exaggerated overreactions, you’d never know anybody was in danger.
So it is with McGregor, both in terms of his emotional state and in terms of how he reacts to danger. At one point, during a car chase, he pulls off the side of the road and waits. And nothing happens for a minute or two, so he pulls right back out on to the road and proceeds on his way. (By the way, if these guys tailing him meant to do him harm, they could’ve been a little less conspicuous.) At one point, his room gets trashed and, well, he seems a bit miffed.
And for what should be a highly paranoid movie, he ends up trusting a voice on the phone, letting an unknown thug/bodyguard pat him down for weapons, and generally doing things that would get you killed in a real thriller.
And, now that I think about it, the MacGuffin—the thing the whole movie revolves around and which the bad guys are trying to destroy—in the hands of the bad guys the whole time. They knew they wanted it. They go after McGregor for having something that looks like it. But they had access to it from scene one.
To ice this particular cinematic cake, the entire movie is thinly disguised Bush bashing. The guy has been out of office for over a year, but they can’t stop making movies about him. Brosnan is playing Tony Blair, and the movie’s premise is that Blair was a lapdog to the US. This was a popular meme on the left.
Ever wonder if that happened during World War II? “That Churchill guy! He’s always siding with Roosevelt! How come he never takes Hitler’s side?” You know, it’s so inconceivable that America and Britain could have a common interest that the only possible reason for them to agree must be that the British prime minister is under some sinister American influence.
This movie features waterboarding—which we did a total of three times, if I’m not mistaken, but which apparently we did so well, the world is outsourcing its torturing to us.
Stupid, stupid stuff.
And the ironic cherry on top of our cake is that the Prime Minister might have to flee to the US to escape prosecution for war crimes. One character notes that the US does not respect the international criminal Court’s jurisdiction putting it in the same category as North Korea and Israel.
Surely Roman could not have missed the irony of speaking with such contempt for those who flee punishment passed by legitimate courts.
It does make you wonder why he’d want to come back here, though. And really makes you wonder why anyone would agitate to allow him back.
Anyway, dumb plot, dumb politics, and only a glimmer of directorial skill to buoy up some really weak action scenes make for a rather cheap movie. One person actually clapped at the end. I looked over and said, “Really? Really?!
We actually should have gone to see the Girl with the Dragon tattoo again.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Finally! A good movie! And it’s from Sweden! Betcha didn’t see that comin’, didja? Huh? Huh? Well, me neither. Last time a buncha Swedes got together to make a good movie, vampires were involved.

If you were going to describe the girl with the dragon tattoo, you might call it a Swedish Silence of the Lambs.
The story is that investigative reporter Sven Anderssen (okay I’m making that name up) has been shamed publicly when an investigation of an evil capitalists goes sideways on him and lands him in legal trouble. as he loses the trial, he ends up working for a wealthy man who is trying to solve a 40 year old mystery.
Now, how Swedish can you get? He ends up being found guilty in the first five minutes of the movie but he doesn’t have to start serving his sentence for six months. And, of course, his jail cell ends up looking more comfortable than your average room at an Extended Stay America.
Anyway, while he’s researching this 40-year-old murder, he’s also being researched by the titular girl with a Dragon tattoo. She’s a feisty, dark-haired computer hacker who is being watched over by the protective, paternalistic Swedish government for some events that occurred in the past.
Unfortunately for her, her new parole officer—it’s actually called something like Guardian—sees her vulnerability as a opportunity to explore his perverse sexual peccadilloes with a partner that can’t complain.
Naturally, the old investigative reporter and the young computer hacker end up working together to solve this old mystery which involves lots of dead women and, believe it or not, Nazis.
Okay, I have to admit the introduction of Nazis into the storyline made me roll my eyes a little bit. But it wasn’t as hacky as that sounds.
Like some of the best European films, this one has many elements that feel very Hollywood and otherwise American while retaining a unique local sensibility, much the same way that Let The Right One In did. In other words, while it presents certain elements of the genre, there is no question that this is a Swedish movie.
It’s decidedly anti-capitalist, natch—"Capitalist" is used as a slur in the way “Commie” was used as a slur in the USA in the ‘50s, and most of the movie’s capitalists are Nazis or murderers or both—but at the same time, with the torture inflicted on the heroine by her state-appointed guardian, it must also be viewed as anti-statist at some level.
Mostly however, it’s entertaining. It engages you in its characters, as intriguing plot, and while dealing with a seamy subject matter—actually several seamy subject matters—it never feels too self-important.
By the way, I do mean seamy. Much like Silence of the Lambs, this is not a movie with a lot of lighthearted subject matter.
The Boy, the Old Man and I all liked this movie.

The Art of the Steal

There’s a documentary running around the art houses these days that’s better than most of the movies that are playing. It’s called The Art of the Steal, and it’s the fascinating story of the Barnes Foundation, which is a little place outside of Philadelphia that contains one of the most astounding collections of art in the world.

And 85 years ago, while Albert C. Barnes (who had amassed a fortune by inventing Argyrol) was busily collecting this art, he got a showing in Philadelphia. And the elites of the Philadelphia social circle trashed his art, and him for thinking it was worth collecting.
Flash forward a couple of decades, and all of a sudden, the art critics have caught up with Barnes, and all those Rembrandts, Matisses, Picassos, etc., are worthwhile. But Barnes has sworn they’ll never get their hands on his art again.
At the forefront of the bad blood was Philadelphia Inquirer owner Moses Amnenberg who was no less forgiving of Barnes’ snub than Barnes was of what he received. Moses passed on the feud to his son Walter, and the 90 year drama looks like it’s about to come to a close.
This is one of those documentaries that has a very clear agenda from the start. What Barnes did was to set up a special environment for his art. He placed art from different cultures and different time periods but which dealt with similar subject matters in the same room, for example, which makes for some interesting contrasts. He also limited access to this art to, for lack of a better word, people he liked.
In other words, an art critic had a much smaller chance of getting to see this art than a plumber. Well, as long as that plumber had impressed upon Barnes a genuine interest.
While this appeals to me in a rather perverse way, I can’t help but feel that the more people who get to see these works of art, the better. The filmmakers clearly feel differently and give lots of air time to people who object to the commoditization of art.
However I feel about it, however, the point that should never be glossed over in a civilized society is that Barnes felt the way he felt and put down in writing how he felt and set up a legal contract to protect his interests. So while I think that Barnes particular arrangement of art is interesting but not sacrosanct, it’s so painfully clear that the moneyed interests of Philadelphia have their own agenda that was above the law, the whole matter is a disgrace.
I mean, it’s really that simple: the man left instructions on how the art was to be taken care of. Forces worked to thwart those instructions. Barnes’ big mistake was not leaving enough money to take care of the art in the upcoming decades. Although, he actually did – he simply couldn’t foresee the level of incompetence among those who followed.
Once the documentary reached the point where the art collection was jeopardized, I found myself repeatedly asking myself — because I try not to talk to other people in the movies — why not just sell one of these truly priceless paintings some of which were valued at a half $1 billion? I mean, the trust specified that the art was not to be sold or rented or otherwise broken up but of all the elements of the trust that were corrupted over time, one tiny sale could have prevented all of that.
What it comes down to, of course, is Big Charity. we tend to feel like charity by virtue of its mere name must be a good thing. But in the United States, “charitable organization” is it more of a tax designation than anything else. The movie kind of flounders when it comes to discussing how the Barnes collection was critical to the charitable status of the Pew Foundation, but one thing is certain: a lot of people were highly interested in ignoring the wishes of the man who was smart enough to put this art collection together, and for them a mere legal contract was no barrier.
All in all, a very good movie, and better than most of the ones that we’ve seen lately: it had interesting characters, intrigue, suspense, dramatic irony, a nice pace and it was enlightening to boot.
I, the boy, and the old man all enjoyed this film.

Alice In Burtonland

Sometimes I feel like saying that all of our greatest directors suck. Like, Avatar seems more like a Cameron parody than an actual Cameron movie. Spielberg? Tell me the last Indy movie didn’t seem like a parody of the previous ones.

And now we have Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton kind of pioneered the whole CGI/live-action mix with Mars Attacks! which is a fun movie, even if highly flawed and a little hard on the eyes (or so it seemed at the time).
But, see, here’s the thing: While Mars Attacks! is sort of funny, wacky, and even a bit whimsical, it’s a dark sort of whimsy. Burton is not exactly what you’d call light-hearted. Even Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure has a dark edge—but that works really well, there, since the whole Pee Wee schtick is silly.
So, while it might seem like a natural fit—the quirky, artistic Burton taking on the quirky, artistic Lewis Caroll—the result is, of course, more Burton than Carroll, with all the lightness and humor of the latter buried in the gothic sensibilities of the former.
Worse yet, this isn’t even good Burton. Wonderland is in ruins, smoky and barren. But even in flashbacks or at the (inevitable) happy ending, Burton can’t muster a truly cheerful, much less joyous, picture of Wonderland. The whole thing is emotionally and artistically muted.
It doesn’t help that we’ve seen this before. Well, you probably haven’t. But over ten years ago, American McGee’s Alice had a similar plot and actually a nicer look. Obviously Disney wasn’t going to go this dark under any circumstances, but then why team up with Burton?
Wait, didn’t Burton get fired from Disney?
Well, that was billions of dollars ago, if it’s even true.
What we have in Disney’s Tim Burton’s Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is a sort-of sequel to a mash-up of the classic children’s tales Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. In it, a grown up Alice avoids an awkward, highly public marriage proposal by escaping down a rabbit hole.
Ah, but she’s been down this rabbit hole before, she just doesn’t remember. She thought she was simply dreaming. Well, Underland, as it styles itself is in a pickle. The Red Queen has used the Jabberwock and the Bandersnatch to lay waste to everything and rule in terror. It’s up to Alice to remember who she is and bring about the frabjous day foretold in the Oracular.
So, yeah, Alice by way of Narnia.
The Flower and The Boy liked it well enough.
To me it seemed awful familiar. Like the tree with the rabbit hole? A less sinister version of Sleepy Hollow’s head tree. Johnny Depp looking more like a fruitier Wonka than the Mad Hatter. Helena Bonham Carter’s enormous head was kind of cool and disturbing. She really seemed convincing when she yelled “Off with their heads!”
But Anne Hathaway as the White Queen reminded me so much of Ichabod Crane’s (Depp, again) mother (former Burton paramour Lisa Marie) that I began to fear for the future of Burton and Bonham Carter’s children.
What’s interesting to me is that the movie’s bookends—the story of Alice outside of Wonderland—is classic Burton. Alice is an oddball, and she doesn’t fit in, though practically she must (or so it seems). Here is the Edward Scissorhands, the Ed Wood, the Jack Skellington, even, or the better parts of Wonka (where he’s not coping with his daddy issues).
Her oddness drives the movie by creating some tension for the rest of the characters to play against.
Once in Wonderland? Dead stop. She’s not really odd by Wonderland standards, after all, and the Burton-esque tension goes slack as she sort of mopes her way through a plot obvious enough to make Uncle Walt blush. I mean, it goes out of its way to tell you what’s going to happen.
Burton’s movies all basically boil down to oddball vs. normies. It’s one of the reasons Batman Returns was so awful. To him it’s not heroes and villains, as comic books traditionally are, but oddballs and regular people. He identifies with the oddballs, so the Penguin comes off as sympathetic rather than evil.
Similarly, here we have oddballs versus oddballs. And the whole thing is ridiculously heavy-handed. I mean, I sort of get that: I love the original story, but it’s not really full of warm characters suitable for plush toy merchandising. The characters are memorable, but it’s an intellectual story, full of puns and illogic, not emotion.
Here, the characters are largely unmemorable, except for what you sort of remember from your previous encounters with the story. The Mad Hatter wants to be a Scarecrow-esque companion to Alice’s Dorothy (heh, you following that?) but he just reminds you of better sidekicks.
And, weirdly, every now and again Depp channels Mel Gibson as Braveheart. The Flower liked that: “He’s talking like Shrek!” I couldn’t figure it out. I think it was to shoehorn him into a heroic character somehow.
So, the characters that get the most time, character-wise are Alice (Mia Wasikowska), the Queen (Carter) and the Knave of Hearts, played by Crispin Glover. (Fun trivia: Glover came within a hair’s breadth of being Edward Scissorhands.)
The villains, in other words, are the most clearly drawn, apart from Alice.
There are a few other good points, too. A conflicted basset hound (Timothy Spall), the frumious bandersnatch. I giggle like an idiot at a lot of parts simply because I recognized the Burton repertory player. Christopher Lee as the Jabberwock? Sure, why not.
Overall, I’m afraid it was a big heaping plate of meh. Not Burtony enough. Not Carrolly enough. Didn’t sacrifice enough narrative logic to capture the zaniness of the source material. Didn’t sacrifice enough of the zaniness of the source to connect emotionally.
I liked Elfman’s score, though. There were several points where outright “you’re nothing but a deck of cards” moments were spared by virtue of a convincing score.
Recommended for Burton (or Hathaway) completists only.

Oscar Predictions

I’m just not feeling it this year. I don’t watch the Oscars any more. I don’t like to subject the kids to it. I mean, it’s right after the Olympics, and nearly as long.

But I’m gonna take some WAGs here on who’s gonna take home the gold.
Best Picture: Avatar
It doesn’t make a lick of sense, but then Titanic beat out Life Is Beautiful, L.A. Confidential, Boogie Nights, uh…Men In Black…actually, ‘97 was a pretty crappy year. But I don’t think the Academy can give the award to what is, essentially, a pro-troop movie. Bigelow tried to make their service more a compulsion than a duty, though, so it’s possible. Precious, maybe, could get it.
Best Actor: Jeff Bridges
Morgan Freeman could win, of course. He always has a chance, even in years where he’s not nominated or hasn’t been in a movie. But Bridges doesn’t have one, he did great (as always), and it’s the sort of role the Academy likes to reward.
Best Actress: Sandra Bullock
I’m way shaky on this. Sandra played a rich, white (duh) Republican. Can they really let her win over Gabourey Sidibe? My only real thought there is “Gabourey Sidibe who?” So, maybe.
Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer
What the supporting award was made for: Slipping Oscars to old guys you might be embarrassed of not having awarded when you die (See Palance, Jack and Landau, Martin.) Stanley Tucci will get one eventually. Chris Waltz probably deserves it the most for being the only non-boring part of Inglorious Basterds.
Supporting Actress: Mo’Nique
Supporting Actress has been a ghetto for black actresses since Hattie McDaniel. Plus, no comedies have been nominated. Actually, no comedies have been nominated anywhere this year, except for kid movies.
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
This is a total WAG. Tarantino and Cameron already have awards. Bigelow doesn’t quite have the pedigree, I think, which makes me hesitate. But can they really give the award to Reitman. He probably is the best director out of the bunch, but that seldom actually matters.
No clue about screenplay. Should be the Coens, though. Avatar will pick up Cinematography, Editing and Art Direction.
Meh. I’m filled with…lack of interest. You?
UPDATE: OK, nine predictions, and I missed Best Picture and Editing (The Hurt Locker), supporting actor (Waltz of Basterds). Six out of nine is not really good. I probably could’ve guessed The Cove would win, muckraking as it is. And I maybe could’ve guessed Crazy Heart’s “Weary Kind” would’ve won a song just by eliminating Randy Newman who had two of the other nominations.
But I couldn’t have cared much more. Let’s have some better films this year, H-wood.

Best of 2009: The Thinnening

On my first pass through the list of 2009 movies, to determine a best, I shall remove all movies that sucked to a greater or lesser extent. We’re going for movies with zero suckage. OK, it was a bad year: minimal suckage.

That leaves us with about 45 that were worth seeing for some reason.
Away We Go
The Blind Side
The Brothers Bloom
Crazy Heart
District 9
Drag Me To Hell
Etsba Elohim: Out of the Blue
Everybody’s Fine
Fantatstic Mr. Fox
500 Days of Summer
Funny People
The Great Buck Howard
The Hangover
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
The Haunting in Connecticut
The Hurt Locker
I Love You, Man
In The Loop
Is Anybody There?
The Maid
Moon, Inc.
Observe and Report
Paranormal Activity
Pirate Radio
Play The Game
Saw VI
A Serious Man
Sherlock Holmes
The Stoning of Soaraya M.
Sunshine Cleaning
The Taking of Pellham 1 2 3
Tickling Leo
Up In The Air
From that, let’s remove those whose scales were tipped slightly more to flawed, or which just didn’t bring enough to the table to warrant being considered in a “best of”:
Away We Go
The Blind Side
The Brothers Bloom
Crazy Heart
District 9
Drag Me To Hell
Etsba Elohim: Out of the Blue
500 Days of Summer
Funny People
The Great Buck Howard
The Hurt Locker
I Love You, Man
Is Anybody There?
Moon, Inc.
Paranormal Activity
Pirate Radio
Play The Game
A Serious Man
The Stoning of Soaraya M.
The Taking of Pellham 1 2 3
Tickling Leo
Up In The Air
Huh. OK, that only shaved it down to 30. Let’s eliminate the fluff (I Love You, Man, Taken, Pellham, Management, Pirate Radio, Play The Game), the good-but-not-great (Adventureland, Away We Go, Coraline, 500 Days of Summer, The Stoning of Soaraya M.
Tickling Leo, The Great Buck Howard) and, as much as it pains me, the movies that weren’t really great so much as having great performances (Crazy, Is Anybody There?).
Now we’re down to fifteen:
The Blind Side
The Brothers Bloom
District 9
Drag Me To Hell
Etsba Elohim: Out of the Blue
Funny People
The Hurt Locker
Moon, Inc.
Paranormal Activity
A Serious Man
Up In The Air
From this list, I’d drop Drag Me To Hell for the ending, Etsba Elohim: Out of the Blue because it did drag a bit in spots, Funny People for not being funnier. I’m tempted to drop The Hurt Locker because the ending reveals a lack of understanding on the producers’ part, IMO. But instead I’m dropping Ponyo (for being a little too sweet) and Up In The Air for tasting too much like a hotel ashtray.
My top ten for the year, then:
The Blind Side
The Brothers Bloom
District 9
The Hurt Locker
Moon, Inc.
Paranormal Activity
A Serious Man
Not in order. Yeah, I got two horror movies on the list, not counting Zombieland. Maybe they’re not as good as they other movies, but they’re good horror movies and that’s a damn rare thing. Also, two sci-fi movies and a post-apocalyptic thriller.
In order?
A Serious Man
The Blind Side
District 9
The Brothers Bloom
Moon, Inc.
The Hurt Locker
Paranormal Activity
There ya have it. Next up, my Oscar predictions. I didn’t even see how many of my top ten are on their list. I’m thinking, at most, three?

Best of 2009: The List

Here’s a list of the movies we saw over the past year, less the eight After Dark movies, plus a couple that we saw in early 2009 that weren’t 2008 movies, and minus the movies we’ve scene this year that actually are from 2010. About 70 again.

Our impression was that it was a bad year, though looking back, the fun little Liam Neeson actioner Taken released early on suggested the year was going to be much less drab than it was. Anyway, here’s the List, which I shall pare down in the next post:

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel
Away We Go
Baader-Meinhoff Complex
The Blind Side
The Brothers Bloom
Crazy Heart
District 9
Drag Me To Hell
An Education
Etsba Elohim: Out of the Blue
Everybody’s Fine
Fantatstic Mr. Fox
500 Days of Summer
Funny People
The Great Buck Howard
The Hangover
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
The Haunting in Connecticut
The Hurt Locker
I Love You, Man
Inglorious Basterds
In The Loop
Invention of Lying
Is Anybody There?
The Maid
Moon, Inc.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Observe and Report
Paranormal Activity
Pirate Radio
Play The Game
Public Enemies
Revolutionary Road
Saw VI
A Serious Man
A Single Man
Sherlock Holmes
Star Trek
The Stoning of Soaraya M.
Sunshine Cleaning
The Reader
The Taking of Pellham 1 2 3
Tickling Leo
Up In The Air
White Ribbon


I didn’t want to. But I had to. James Cameron’s Avatar is undoubtedly the hugest movie of the year and maybe even the decade. And, you know, I enjoyed Titanic, despite the length. So, I figured I’d enjoy this, despite the flaws.

This movie is a marvel: It manages to be simultaneously amazing and boring at the same time.
Technologically, it’s amazing. The 3D—I haven’t seen the new 3D at all, so this is my first encounter with it—really works. 3D doesn’t generally work well for me, as my right eye is significantly weaker than my left, so I usually end up with an uncomfortable feeling in my head. On top of the whole thing not being very impressive.
This works. The Boy and I both closed one eye at various points and agreed that it seemed to be pretty deep looking, even with one eye.
Even more, the CGI doesn’t suck. I think we can all agree, at this point, that CGI sucks, big time. I mean, it’s a great way—and the only reasonable way—to achieve certain effects. Some things just aren’t possible without it. But it’s overused. And usually painfully obvious. Except for a few scenes where the aliens interact with humans, it’s seamless here. Though this is really due in part to the movie being almost entirely CGI, Cameron’s standards have always been incredibly high.
So, as you’re swooping around on WTF-the-planet’s-name-is you really feel like you’re riding on the back of a WTF-that-is, with your hot alien WTF girlfriend.
When James Cameron was a kid in Junior High school, he had all these great ideas. Unfortunately, he never grew out of them. Or ever even remotely challenged them. Or apparently even thought about them long enough to realize how crusty they had become.
This movie is so predictable, you know within the first 5 minutes of meeting every character not only whether they’re a good guy or a bad guy, but how they’re going to die. It’s almost as if Cameron’s never seen one of his own movies, even.
All your favorite James Cameron characters are here: There’s the tough-as-nails marine sergeant (think Apone from Aliens), and the bitchy-but-competent scientist (Mastroantonio from The Abyss), the macho Hispanic chick (played by, heh, Jenette Goldstein and a lot of makeup in Aliens), the sort of bland quiet-but-noble hero one suspects may be Cameron’s own avatar (played by Michael Biehn in both Terminator and Alien, Schwarzeneggar in True Lies) and the evil corporate guy (Paul Reiser in Aliens). It doesn’t really matter so much that Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington and Giovanni Ribisi are in those roles here.
Well, Weaver’s always great. And Giovanni Ribisi stands out, too. But they’re just archetypes. No need to, you know, flesh them out or anything. Part of the problem is that the dumb marine, Jake (Sam Worthington, who didn’t overly impress in Terminator: Salvation), is supposed to provide the dramatic tension by being torn between his human life and his life among the Native Americans (Navi, for short) and his marine commander’s assurance that he’ll get his legs back (yeah, he lost them in battle) if he cooperates with The Company’s Evil Plan.
Yeah. You feelin’ that tension? Me, neither. We’ve already established he’s a Good Guy. Also, he immediately falls in love with his giant, functioning Navi body.
Wait! Did I forget to say what the plot was? OK, a distant planet has a rare resource—the bastard actually calls it unobtanium as if to rub our noses in the cliché—and the peaceful and nature-loving natives just happen to live right over it. Company Man Ribisi wants to relocate the Indians but barring that, he’ll just blow them up. Worthington plays the crippled grunt whose identical-twin-ship makes him the only person suitable to use his late identical twin brother’s avatar—a laboratory grown genetic mashup of human and Navi—to act as missionaries among the natives.
Now, look, you don’t go to a Cameron movie looking for original stories, any more then you’d go to Stephen King or Shakespeare for them. There aren’t really any original stories, and only a few that really manage to feel that way, so there’s no shame in recycling. But doesn’t it just make ya go, “Come on!?!?”
Still, same plot as Aliens (minus the avatar part which, I guess, isn’t trivial), which was a great action flick. What kills this for me? The clichés are wrapped in a huge ol’ layer of self-indulgent, almost masturbatory fantasy about the beautiful natives. (Almost? I’m being kind here.) The movie spends, literally, an hour in panoramas of swooping around on dragons, marveling in its own beauty, native orgiastic dances (that remind unpleasantly of the second Matrix movie), while sort of contradictorily lingering lovingly over the evil tech war machines that are going to destroy them.
So, yeah, an hour less movie (running time is 2:45) would’ve been a lot easier to stomach.
But it would have also helped if the damn thing didn’t get right in your face and slap you with the stupid. But it does. A lot. The Navi are larger than humans, and their bones have a natural “carbon fiber” built in or something. But they’re stone age people. And they’re up against a civilization with faster-than-light technology.
At one point, Lang is concerned because, OMG, there might be as many as 20,000 Navi converging on them. Give me 10 guys with machine guns and enough bullets and I’ll take on the 20,000 aboriginals. But they have way more than 10 guys. It looks like they have hundreds. And they have these super-duper flying machines. Explosives enough to destroy an entire mountain. Missiles by the gobs. Oh, and those cool waldos, like in Aliens, but with lots of military goodies attached, instead of just crate loaders.
They do have one weakness however: Nobody thought to make the glass in these super-military devices arrow proof. I’m pretty sure the windshield of my ‘91 Geo Metro is arrow-proof. Also, nobody wears any kind of protective vest. In fact, even the windows of the various human outposts aren’t particularly tough, even though it’s death to breathe the alien world air.
That’s toward the end, but it surprised me with its stupidness. I mean, you kind of need some stupid to have a story, because what an Evil Corporation would do is simply wipe the planet out from space. Carpet bombing to clear anything that got in there way. Right? (The movie makes a little nod to what they can and can do by suggesting there are PR issues, but that’s not an explanation that bears much scrutiny.)
But the movie starts out with a whole heaping dump truck full of ignorance, too. Cameron’s view of the Marine Corps isn’t just that they’re bad-ass, but that they’re largely without honor, so that your average marine would transition from fighting to defend his country to fighting for a mining company without even noticing the difference.
And then, there’s the whole Avatar concept. While linked with your avatar, your human body is unconscious, though you can be woken up. When not linked with it, your avatar is unconscious and unrousable.
Anyone wanna guess what the life-expectancy of the average stone-age person is if they couldn’t get up at night?
This actually comes up at one point, but the assumption is that—despite the packs of deadly animals—it’s perfectly fine to leave your giant, tasty blue body lying around the rain forest at night.
And Cameron’s understanding of how such primitive tribes actually lived seems to have stopped with a viewing of Dances With Wolves. (Yeah, this movie is sort of Dances With Smurfs.) Males and females—hated, mistrusted, alien males, that is, are just, you know, hanging out with, like, the shaman’s daughter, all casual-like.
Their entire social structure seems to consist of, y’know, like, hangin’ out, listening to the forest, and, uh, linking arms and dancing in front of the sacred tree.
Once again, archetypes. No need to flesh them out. Smelly Ugly Western Europeans = Evil. Non-showering-but-still-lemon-fresh Blue Aliens = Good.
Meh. I could go on and on (and on and on and on) but the overall effect of the movie is that of a guy who’s just really enamored with his own juvenile creation, both in terms of a beautiful, symbiotic biological ecosystem, and a shallow, ugly straw-man-of-a-representation of the society that makes it possible for him to spend $500M to make movies.
The Flower liked it. That’s about right. I would expect eight-year-old girls to react to this movie the way they do to unicorns and pegasi. The Boy, The Old Man and I just rolled our eyes and talked about the technology. (I’m very careful about letting the youngsters enjoy their movies, no matter how stupid.)
But I really can’t recommend it. At two hours shorter, it would’ve been a kind of fun and exciting technology demo. At one hour shorter, it would’ve been a tolerable, but predictable movie. At its current length, it’s an unrelenting exercise in stupidity dressed up in top-flight production values.
In the words of Dorothy Parker, there is less here than meets the eye. It’ll win some Oscars, but I’d put it in my bottom ten for 2009.

No Man Is A Shuttered Island

I’m not a Martin Scorcese fan. Normally, I attribute this to the subject matter he deals with. I’m not into the gangsters or the dumbass, abusive boxers, and that tends to overwhelm my opinion of his technical prowess, which is considerable.

I did rather like The Departed, so I thought maybe I’d enjoy his latest work, the psychological thriller Shutter Island, even though—well, it’s pretty obvious from the trailer how the whole movie is going to play out.
And it does. The opening scene actually tips the whole thing off. The ending 30 seconds could’ve been out of any of the movies from the After Dark Horror Festival, which pissed The Boy off, but he rather liked it, and has been inclined to appreciate it more over time.
The Old Man also found it pretty predictable but enjoyed it more than I did.
Because, you know, I’m just not a Scorcese guy. Never really engaged. Found myself thinking, “Well, that was kind of interesting” a couple of times. But it couldn’t really distract me from the obviousness of the whole thing.
Good acting. Dicaprio does okay. The Old Man thought he was too young for the part. But then, he’s old. I don’t think he’s processed that DiCaprio is in his mid-30s.
Mark Ruffalo was good. The acting is generally good and the atmosphere great, as you might expect. But, look, the story is “Federal Marshall goes to asylum/prison to investigate mysterious missing patient.” So, this only plays out one of..well, one ways. Just once, I’d like it to turn out that…
Well, no spoilers, here.
I kept hoping. I kept hoping for the non-twisty ending. And as The Boy and I have often observed of late, the non-twisty is the more surprising these days. It would’ve surprised the crap out of me.
There was a little, mini-twist past the big twist I thought might turn out in an unexpected way, but no dice. That was the part that pissed The Boy off. (Though, as I said, he’s liked it more upon reflection.)
So, you know, I can’t really complain. It was exactly what I expected. Meh.

Crazy Heart

A washed up Country Western star struggles to repair the shambles of his life. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we seen it with Robert Duvall? Oh, wait, yeah, we have: Tender Mercies. We’ve also seen it with Clint Eastwood (Honkeytonk Man), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk The Line) and Willie Nelson (Honeysuckle Rose). Just to name four others off the top of my head.

Ah, well, Duvall has just a small role in this one, but I swear, I thought the audience was going to applaud when he showed up. Duvall’s pushing 80, but apparently he’s having whatever Eastwood’s having; he looked great!
Mostly, though, this is all about Jeff Bridges. The movie starts with him playing in a bowling alley, and I so wanted to hear him say, “Yeah, well, the Dude abides.” But there’s no Dude in this similarly alcoholic down-on-his-luck character.
There’s no way for me to talk about this without gushing. Bridges rocks. He always has. At least as far back I can remember. He’s one of the few actors I’ll go see a movie just because he’s in it. (I almost went to see Door in the Floor and Men Who Stare At Goats for him.) He’s one of these actors who is not quite a chameleon, changing his looks and speech for every role, but also not a “movie star”, who plays the same guy every time.
In this movie, he plays Bad Blake (ahem), a guy who’s been killing himself slowly over decades. His songwriting skills have earned him some money from being performed by hot, new singer Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell—that Irish guy does good accents!), but he’s hit the skids and not writing, while Sweet basks in the limelight.
At the very bottom, he meets Jean Craddock (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, probably best met at the very bottom) and her 4-year-old son, and sort of latches on to them, as they fill a (self-created) void in his life.
I think it’s a testament to Bridges that the relationship between the 60-year-old Blake and 30-something Jean seems plausible. The writing, I think, is on the money, too. Bad Blake sees them as a chance at redemption, a way to turn his life around.
I give Gyllenhaal credit, too. After being horribly miscast in The Dark Knight, and constantly typecast as quirky characters, she does a good job as a single mom who’s really trying hard not to fall for a guy who is, quite clearly, trouble.
I liked the ending. It’s not Hollywood. But it’s not a big up-yours-life-sucks indie ending, either.
I also kind of liked the music. It was very simple, with quite a bit of rhythm and blues in with the traditional country feel.
Watching the movie, I thought that Bridges doesn’t have the singer/songwriter stage charisma to pull it off, but I realized I was comparing him to Loudon Wainwright, who is sort of the ne plus ultra of one-man-shows (and who doesn’t play bowling alleys).
Took my dad with me on this one. He loved it, maybe more than I did. The Boy? Not so much. He’s not much into music. (Yeah, I don’t get it, either.) He’s not so familiar with Jeff Bridges, though he liked his performance. But it’s a grownup movie.
Anyway, this is the fifth Oscar nomination for Bridges. And it’d be a worthy win.
Now I just need to knuckle-down and go see Avatar and I can give you my best of 2009 list. So far I can say it’s gonna be tough to find 10 movies worthy of being on any top 10….

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Lake Mungo

Way back in 2006, when the very first Horror Fest was, and they had some advertising budget, the After Dark folks tried the angle of “horror movies TOO INTENSE for regular release”. This was two years after Saw had been released to general popularity, however, and none of the movies came anywhere near that level of intensity (to say nothing of gore).

They’ve dropped that now, and good thing, since Lake Mungo—the last of the eight movies for us—isn’t, in fact, a horror movie.
It’s a mystery. It’s a ghost story. It’s a travelogue for Victoria, Australia. But mostly, it feels like a “documentary” on the SyFy channel, without the cheesy narrative. (Actually, the style is very much like a Christopher Guest mockumentary, so if he decides to make one of those again, haunting would be a great topic.)
It’s the documentary aspect that guarantees a complete absence of any sort of real visceral shocks or thrills. This isn’t Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity style of “hey, we found the videotapes”; this is characters being interviewed after the fact. You know right off the bat none of them died or sprouted tentacles or whatever.
That said, this is a fairly well crafted story of the Palmer family, who loses their daughter while swimming at the lake. (Not the titular Lake Mungo, however.) Then it alternately looks like they were being haunted, and then not, and then haunted, and then maybe just subject to a less supernatural (but creepier!) kind of harrassment, as they try to make sense out of the whole thing.
Along the way we learn a surprising detail or two about the missing Alice and her brother Matthew, and then the mysterious secret of what happened to Alice at summer camp the season before that changed her. (That camp was the titular Lake Mungo.)
The truth will SHOCK you.
Nah, not really. It might give you a little frisson, if I may abuse that word. It won’t make a lot of sense. And, on reflection, the big reveal sort of reminds me of The Reeds, where I didn’t much care for it either.
This one has a curious message: If you ignore ghosts, they’ll go away. I suppose, strictly speaking, that’s true. Barring a violent poltergeist like The Entity, you can just ignore anything incorporeal by definition.
But it’s not real exciting. I will concede that the time-lapse photography of Victoria is absolutely breathtaking, though it set up a particularly slow, almost soporific, rhythm. (At one point The Boy thought I had fallen asleep. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t, but I was sitting back with my eyes half-closed.)
The stinger is kind of interesting (and runs through the first part of the final credits), though still, if you dare call it a horror movie, then it’s is a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies. Or being scared much. (Looking at you, Darcy!)
Noteworthy is Talia Zucker, who plays Alice, the missing girl. She never appears in the movie, except on “archival footage”, you might call it, and she has no dialogue, I don’t think. But she (or perhaps more accurately, the director) manages to create a presence.
I was glad we saw it last. It was so low-key and mild that it would have put me to sleep for the movies that came after it. But it sure ended the festival on a quiet note.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Final

Another first time outing for the revenge story The Final, though director Joey Stewart has a substantial assistant director credits. Writer Jason Kabolati has a few credits, too. And the cast is fairly experienced, too. I mention this for no reason in particular.

The Final is the story of two sets of clichés at odds with each other. Clichés that would’ve made John Hughes blush. On the one side you have the jocks and cheerleaders. On the other, the outcasts. The former, naturally, torment the latter. And then, the icing on the cliché cake: The cool kid (the only black kid in the school, natch) who bridges the two worlds.
When I say cliché, I’m not talking mild similarities, either, to school archetypes. The “popular” kids are so incredibly cruel to the geeks, and in such typical ways, while the geeks themselves are just a little more varied, that there’s virtually no reason to add any characterization. You’re not surprised that the alpha jock is cheating on his girlfriend, and you could probably guess what class the banjo player is when he plays D&D. (Druid.)
Is this bad? Well, not necessarily. It’s easy to instantly hate the villains, which is always good considering the protagonists’ are going to do terrible things to them. The protags are blandly inoffensive at worst, really—they actually don’t do anything overtly geeky, or anything at all, really. It’s a very one-sided story.
The villains are so villainous, that when the outcasts trick them, drug them and capture them, you’re not really feeling sorry for them. You don’t feel all that sympathetic for the outcasts either, though, curiously. The whole thing doesn’t resonate much.
Actually, this also isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the outcasts do some pretty horrible things. Acids, cattle guns, gun guns, traps, etc. If you really felt deeply for anyone, it would be an awful experience. As a morality play acted out by symbols, it’s much more bearable.
Some of the effects are weirdly bloodless. They’re cuttin’ off fingers (e.g.) right and left, but not much blood comes out.
Oh, yeah. There’s a crazed Vietnam vet, too. He looked a little young to me, but I guess the last troops came out in 1973, so I guess he was plausible. (He didn’t look much older than I, but I look old.) Anyway, seems like those guys are getting long in the tooth to keep being the go-to-troops for crazy.
Anyway, the whole thing sort of lopes along. There were some moments where the director came very close to giving us some great, Hitchcockian suspense, but those were safely bypassed without much excitement. The story elements are all there but not really fully engaged. So, there’s close calls and betrayals and surprises but none of it really grabs you.
Again, not necessarily a bad thing.
Then it’s over. The characters, the audience, and I guess the filmmakers, have had enough.
They didn’t screw up the ending. I think there was a real attempt to make it plausible. (There were some rumors about being based on a true story. Don’t believe it. The school torment plausibly was; the violent retribution? Not so much.)
I’m dunno. The whole thing felt a little conflicted. Like it didn’t want to be there. On the one hand, there’s no torture porn aspect, i.e., you’re not expected to enjoy it. (Or if that was intended, it wasn’t successful.) On the other hand, the violence feels understated—not really as horrible and visceral as it would really be.
It comes off kind of paper thin, such that the stinger kind of makes you go, “Oh. I get it,” without really feeling anything.
The Boy kind of liked it, but it didn’t knock our socks off.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Reeds

A group of six young adults rent a boat for a weekend to go out in the marshes. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, your boat could be trashed and all the other boats be out for the weekend.
But wait! The old boat rental guy has an old boat he doesn’t rent out much but will let you have if you want. Great. Weekend saved. Nothing else could possibly go wrong, right?
Well, your boat could be covered with recalcitrant teenagers. Including the one that ran out in front of your car on the way in.
But wait! You offer them some beers and they go away. So, now you’re good to go. Nothing else could possibly go wrong, right?
Well, you could get lost. There’s nothing out there as far as the eye can see and the reeds make a kind of maze. And of course your cell phones don’t work. And there’s all this junk at the bottom of the marsh that might just end up wrecking your boat.
But that’s gotta be it, right? It’s not like there’s anything in the reeds to worry about. Except maybe those kids who seem to be able to show up wherever you go ahead of you, and without needing any cars or boats or fancy things like that.
And of course, some of your friends (or you) could end up dead.
So, basically, this is a typical vacation movie.
Seriously, this is a reasonably well-executed movie that throws in a lot of miscues to create some mystery and horror around what’s basically a straight ghost story.
The problem with a movie like this is that it throws all these cues out about what the movie’s about, and doesn’t follow through with them. Like, you might think that the boat was significant, since the movie makes a point of that boat being the only one available. Like, if the only place to spend the night is the creepy motel outside the city limits, you expect that creepy motel to factor into things.
But the boat never does. And there’s nothing in the reeds, at least nothing like the camerawork implies. In the end, it’s a ghost story. There’s a twist with the lead, but I saw it coming, well, almost immediately.
In the end, I was pretty satisfied, though the multiple distractions bored me a bit.
And then, they screwed it up in the last 2 seconds again. The movie’s end is pretty good, but the stinger throws the whole damn thing into question, makes no freakin’ sense, and can’t even be described as a plausible lead-in for a sequel.
Pointless. Pissed us off, too. Otherwise, The Boy rather liked it.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Dread

If you wanted to put a label on what it is I dislike about “Usher” movies like Skjult, you could use “Dread” pretty accurately. Dread, of course, is not wanting to confront something, generally out of fear. For me, dread quickly turns to boredom and sleepiness. (Just get it out of the way already!)

Fortunately, Dread, the movie, is nothing like that. Clive Barker is attached (author of the original story and producer) which says to me that a) there’s gonna be some kinky sex, and; b) the ending’s gonna be dark.
Dread is the story of young Stephen (Jackson Rathbone of the Twilight series) who falls under the sway of the moody, angry Quaid (Shaun Evans, evoking a kind of young Dennis Leary) and agrees to elicit his friend Abby’s help in collecting people’s stories of—you guessed it—dread.
Rounding out the core cast is Hanne Steen as Cheryl, a girl who works in the used bookstore with Stephen, and who has a birthmark that covers half her face and body.
I may have Abby and Cheryl mixed up, in terms of their roles. I actually wondered for a second if they were the same actress, and if this were some sort of surreal turn, but it was just a matter of having cast two dark-haired, doe-eyed 5’4"/5’5" actresses.
Most of the initial stories are trivial and Quaid gets more and more dissatisfied with their “progress”, until Abby shares a personal story of abuse. We’ve already learned that Stephen lost an older brother to a car accident, but Quaid trumps them all: He saw his mother and father murdered with an axe.
One of the interviewees, a young man who experienced years of deafness after a trauma, pinpoints the dread: After surviving suffering, you have this dread that you will suffer it again. As bad as the others have it, when your dread is focused on an axe murderer coming back to get you, that trumps most other fears.
This movie really underscored a probably unconscious theme in this year’s selections: Man’s inhumanity to Man. There’s not a monster movie in the lot.
Anyway, the first half of the movie builds up the tension, as Stephen and Abby hook up and Quaid ends up hooking up with Cheryl, in what at least initially seems almost like an act of kindness.
I actually had a little problem with this storyline: Hanne Steene (I think it’s her) is really, really cute. A bit bubbly. The birthmark actually looks, well, sexy. Kind of like a superhero mask. (The movie needed a bit more of showing her shyness.) Also, while Stephen is interested in Abby, that seems to start at the beginning of the movie, and doesn’t explain why he’s not all over Cheryl, who’s interested. (The implication is almost that it’s her birthmark, which just strikes me as dumb.)
That aside, the disintegration of the characters, particularly Quaid, who becomes obsessed with taking things to “the next level” is fascinating—and (typically of Barker) increasingly sadistic.
Philosophically, the story’s actually a little weak and limited in its understanding of terror. Quaid’s theory is that, in a tragedy, the terror comes from thinking “that could happen to me”. I don’t really buy that.
That aside, this is a low-key psychological horror film that pays off in a fairly big way, though a way that is really, really creepy and gross.
Another theme of the festival: the director Anthony DiBlasi is a first-timer, and shows a lot of promise. Overall, we both liked this one, and were especially pleased that they didn’t screw it up.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Hidden (Skjult)

We started our third day of the Horror Fest with the Norwegian flick, Hidden. One of my idiosyncratic movie genre labels is “Usher” (after Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher”, not the hippity-hoppity guy). In an “Usher” movie, it is clear that the main character(s) is(are) doomed from the opening scene from events that have occurred in the past. Whatever struggles seem to grant any kind of light or hope of escape are merely teases; there is, in fact, no plot movement whatsoever because the plot happened before scene 1.

In the very first ADHF, their big movie was The Abandoned, which epitomizes the genre, down to the main character fighting with her family in the ancestral manse. Blair Witch has a little of that feel. Jacob’s Ladder sort of fits, too, and 1408 has much of the feel, but the key emotion is an overwhelming despair. A sort of nihilism.
I generally hate those kinds of movies. I actually skipped the last three movies of ADHF 1 because I couldn’t take any more after The Abandoned. They feel like cheats to me, like a denial of free will.
So, when the main character of Skjult comes home to the house he’s inherited from his recently deceased evil mom, I despaired. But then he had two big cans of gas, and I was happy. But then the local sheriff (a girl who kind of likes him) stops him, and I despaired again.
That’s sort of how these movies work. You think there’s an out but there’s not.
Another thing these movies like to do is present you with all these riddles. And then not resolve them in any comprehensible way. Honestly, it makes me pass out, and I had a hard time staying awake for the film, which was subtitled.
I should point out that The Boy rather liked it, except for the last two seconds, which he decided to pretend did not occur.
Basically, the movie opens at night with a young boy taking a pee by the side of the road as his parents wait in the car. Out in the (gorgeously shot) forest, a hand emerges from the ground, then a whole boy, half-naked, of a similar age as the micturating one. Half-naked boy runs in wild escape, out into the road, when a truck swerves to miss him and runs into the car containing the other boy’s parents. (Bet he wishes he’d gone at the rest stop like they asked him to then!)
Nineteen years later, our hero K.K. returns to make sure his mom is really dead. It’s somewhat confusing but, it turns out K.K. is half-naked wild boy. Beyond that, things get a little murky. K.K. apparently spent some time in foster homes. Pee Boy, on the other hand, fleeing the accident, died the night of the car crash when he plunged over the side of a cliff, into a (gorgeously shot) waterfall.
Or did he?
Basically, K.K. is haunted by the notion that Pee Boy—er, Peter, is the character’s name—didn’t actually die, but was instead captured by his mother and subsequently abused, just as she abused K.K.
The other problem with this sort of movie is that the main character (and what he experiences) is unreliable and/or the director bends reality to cheat however is needed to keep things bleak. (Blair Witch’s walking in circles thing for example.) So, it’s very hard to tell whether a character is crazy or just more aware.
We never do learn why everyone hates K.K. We don’t know if the girl at the hotel is real, or even if the hotel itself is real. And if it is, why is the room number significant, or is it not that the number itself is significant, but just our cue that he’s not really in said hotel?
Meh. These movies are filled with stuff like that. But while it can make you try to puzzle out the plot, it doesn’t make the process palatable.
But again, I’m not your go-to guy for reviews of stuff like this since, as I point out, I don’t like this whole genre. The Boy was unfazed and thought it original and fresh (except for the last two seconds). So. There you are.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Zombies Of Mass Destruction

This is another movie where the cast and crew were around. In fact, we kept seeing the director hanging around in the lobby while we killed time between movies. In a lot of ways, this movie is the antithesis of The Graves. The direction and editing is fantastic: It’s smart, funny, campy, sharp and pops.

And at the end, I began to think if I stayed for director Kevin Hamedani’s Q&A, I’d end up smacking him in the face.
But let’s talk about the good: This is the story of Frida Abbas (Janette Armand), a Persian who’s come back to her small northwestern hometown of Port Gamble, just in time for a zombie outbreak. Frida’s dropped out of Princeton, much to the disappointment of her traditional father (played wonderfully by, I’m guessing, the director’s actual father). No less disappointing is her taste in boyfriends (Ryan Barret as Derek, who composes a song largely composed of repeating “Frida” over-and-over again).
Meanwhile, closeted homosexual Tom (Doug Fahl) is back from New York with boyfriend Lance (Cooper Hopkins), preparing to come out to his mom. And hippie Cheryl (Cornelia Moore) is running to oust Mayor Burton (James Mesher), who is busy commiserating with the desultory Reverend Haggis (Bill Johns) about how things have gone to Hell.
Oh, yeah, and there are zombies, but nobody seems to notice. (Very Shaun of the Dead.)
As I said, the script pops. Lots of jokes and cute plot points, so that when the first zombie attack occurs, you are genuinely shocked. (This movie actually shocks pretty well, though it never achieves the tension you get from other zombie comedy classics, like Shaun or Return of the Living Dead.) The director’s hand is as sure in the action sequences as in the character building.
So, about the slapping?
Well, first of all, this movie is pretty left. Not entirely left and, in fact, some of the best parts are the ones where the political tilt is dropped for a good joke. But it starts with the Persian girl being accosted by a redneck family. The wife apologizes for the war in Iraq and says they always vote Democrat. The husband demurs. (“I don’t vote for pussies!”) And, of course, they don’t know the difference between Iraqi and Iranian.
Eh. It’s fine. It’s funny enough, at first. But at a later point, the redneck dad decides he’s going to torture Frida, and the torture theme is re-introduced in the church later on, in reference to the gay couple. The movie really breaks down at these points, particularly the later scenes in the church. The third act church scenes, while funny, completely rob the movie of any momentum.
But there was something else that began to bug me, early on, and more and more as the movie progressed. The initial horror movie scene—the one I talked about in reference to The Graves, where the movie ceases to be one kind of movie and clearly becomes a horror flick—is shocking and also (intentionally) kind of funny, because it’s so far over the top.
And there are other similarly over the top gore scenes, including a pan-by of a body which is sending up two small steady streams of blood like a fountain, zombies eating their own body parts, and so on. Clearly meant as campy fun.
But there’s a cruelty there, too. The director seems to relish some of the really painful parts, to the point that borders on torture porn. Too, there are scenes of our Persian and gay characters hacking up zombies that smack of revenge fantasy. (Note that Hamedani is a native of a small Washington town which both makes one think he’s relating real experiences and also maybe indulging a bit.) I realized halfway on that the only smart and really likable characters were the ones from out of town, with a nod to Frida’s dad, who gets more sympathy than any other character.
And there’s a scene at the end with a fence that commemorates the attacks in pictures on letters to the dead which has some funny aspects to it on the one hand, but on the other seems like a tasteless comparison to 9/11.
I think that was ultimately why I wanted to slap the Director: The guy is clearly talented, extraordinarily so. He used a crew of largely inexperienced actors and crew and put together a movie that largely succeeds, and beyond expectations. But even allowing for the fact that the movie’s supposed to be campy and satirical, and therefore not entirely warm, I felt like I could easily see this talent being wasted from a lack of empathy to other viewpoints.
Nonetheless, this is probably the best of show.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: The Graves

If you’re a regular reader, then you’ve probably grasped that I don’t care particularly for trashing movies. There are a lot of reasons for that. It is fun to make fun of movies, of course, and I can certainly rail with the best of them about things I don’t like.

But when you get down to it, making a movie is an accomplishment, involving at least dozens of people and often hundreds. And even bad movies bring joy (which is why I’d usually prefer to see an awful movie than just a mediocre one) and a certain sense of amazement.
And if I don’t like it in general, you can imagine how it is when the cast and crew is in the audience. You don’t want to—well, I don’t want to, I can’t speak for your character—say, “Hey, nice to meet you. You suck.”
Which brings us to The Graves. This is kind of a cute title since the movie isn’t graveyard based but based on the The Graves sisters, Abby and Megan. Megan is on her way to New York City, which will separate the two for the first time. For reasons that elude me, this leads to the world’s shortest road trip, where they end up in Skull City.
The director (Brian Pulido) came up before the movie and thanked everyone, his wife, Francisca, was a co-producer, and the other producers, the Ronalds Brothers were there. (The movie has, like, six executive producers, whose contribution was just money, I believe.) And he thanked the cast for doing a great job, etc.
Unfortunately, it’s a terrible movie. And most of that can be laid at the director’s feet, with most of the rest laid at Dean Matthew Reynolds’ feet, as he doubled as the film’s editor.
The Boy said the acting was terrible. I disagreed. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that, in low budget movies, editing is the big killer. Think for a moment of a daytime soap. There are these long pauses in between the lines, and especially on fade outs. It makes everything seem stilted.
I’ve seen great actors reduced to looking foolish by bad editing. Or, say, bad directorial choices. (See Jeremy Irons in Dungeons and Dragons. Or don’t. You’ll be glad you didn’t.) So, for the most part, I’d say it wasn’t bad acting, but bad editing and bad choices.
The great Tony Todd, who has provided menace for dozens of movies and TV shows, is ridiculously over the top. There’s another guy who talks in the same overblown baptist preacher cadence who is also absurd. But someone told them to play it that way (Brian).
To recap the plot, Megan (played by Maelstrom PB-girl Clare Grant) and Abby (the teeny Jillian Murphy) are splitting up, in a kind of Cloverfield-party sequence shot off-and-on on camcorder, and then off on the road to Skull City (also shot off-and-on in handicam style), where they’re terrorized by some murderous folk.
This is more-or-less a remake of the first part of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, down to where every single person in the audience was unsurprised by the “twist”. There’s a supernatural Children of the Corn angle, as the demon of the mine is shown swallowing some souls in dodgy CGI.
When they escape the the first peril, and you’re thinking “Well, maybe this movie will go for being short…” there’s a whole cultist angle. This is set up in the beginning, so it’s not a surprise, but it’s totally a shift in movie tone and feels very slapped on. As if there weren’t enough pages in the script so they ended the one movie and started a new one.
It just doesn’t hang together. A lot of things don’t really follow one-to-the-next. The camcorder thing is completely dropped. (Why have it at all?) The thing in the mine seems to have no autonomy and yet no clearly defined purpose for the townspeople. And on and on. Kill Theory was just as clichéd, but hung together far more successfully and interestingly.
Worse, the director misdirects. There aren’t really any great shots in the movie; there’s one pretty good one where the girls are in the archetypal car-that-won’t-start and you can sort of make out the maniac-of-the-moment coming up. That was effectively subtle.
But otherwise, the movie feels mis-cued. With most horror movies, there’s a moment where the film transitions from ordinary story to horror story. (Often these movies start with some horror, but then resets to a road trip or buddy flick, or whatever.) Usually when the characters first become aware that they’re in a horror movie, by witnessing a murder or other horrific act.
This movie transitions as the girls are walking through a house in the ghost town, and Megan suddenly pins herself up against the wall and tells Abby there’s a murder going on outside. Abby thinks she’s putting her on. I thought she was putting her on. There was no music—a shame, as the music used in the opening scene was a nice melange of clichés put together effectively—and when the body shows up, it’s outside a window, occupying maybe 15% of the screen.
It’s not impossible to pull that off. Well, strike that, it might be. This is your first big shock! Contrast with Kill Theory, where they throw the freakin’ body through the freakin’ window. Clichéd? Sure! But so is the guy fighting for his life slamming up against the window.
It’s all been done; the director’s job is to do it well. And sell it.
And it happens a lot in this movie that the director’s just not there in any kind of close action sequence. Probably half-a-dozen times, I turned to The Boy to ask him what had happened. (He mostly didn’t know either.) At one point, for example, Abby tackles a baddie, and they both drop off the bottom of the screen.
Now, things going out of frame is a common low-budget tactic, and a perfectly valid one. But Abby looks like she weighs less than a hundred pounds and we don’t see what happens to the baddie for several minutes (apparently he says something like “Ow! My face!” but I didn’t hear that) and even having seen it, it’s hard to figure exactly how it happened.
But this happened a lot, like the director wasn’t really comfortable with action shots.
Another bad choice was—well, okay, the smell from the mine is supposed to drive the girls crazy at two points in the movie, and that was just silly. And a little bit (unintentionally) sexy. I mean, they’re snarling and snapping, but it’s not clear what’s keeping them from actually biting. I’m all for restraint when using effects, but with no help at all, the two girls just looked kinda hot. Heh.
Then, approaching the film’s climax, there was a bunch of exposition which had the unfortunate effect of slowing everything down while failing to illuminate anything. It was all kinda “Duh”.
Yeah, I mostly blame the director here. On the plus side, it’s his first feature and while I think nobody should ever make some of these mistakes, a lot may simply be knowing what to emphasize given severe budgetary constraints.
And, as bad as it is, I’d still rank it above most of last year’s movies, on the strength of the Megan/Abby relationship. Last years’ movies were inept in a variety of ways but on top of that features casts of dismal representations of humanity. While Grant and Murphy are among the actors who end up looking silly from time to time, they had good chemistry and could do well with a little more help from Pulido and Ronalds.
This is really apparent when veteran Bill Moseley is on-screen. Moseley (late of HBO’s “Carnivalé”) is great, even when his lines aren’t, and the girls also get better when they’re interacting.
Overall, though, hard to recommend, except for Grant and Murphy fans.
Fun side-note: The movie’s hulking menace of a blacksmith, Shane Smith, sat two rows directly in front of me. He’s about my height and probably weight, too, though he has a wider frame. The rest of the cast was around after, and were all pretty much teeny.
Fun side-note 2: The movie’s casting director was Nina Axelrod, star of Maelstrom house-favorite Motel Hell, among other ‘80s horror goodies. I’ve noticed her (casting) work in the past, too, and it was cool to see her name come up here.

After Dark Horror Fest 4: Kill Theory

On the scale of unpromising horror premises, “college kids trapped in house by maniac” has got to be in the top…one. So, when Kill Theory starts with a maniac being released by a doctor and we cut to a bunch of college kids in a van on a way to the Rich Kid’s dad’s lake house, I was not optimistic.

All the clichés are here: You got snotty Rich Kid, all around Good Guy, the Fat Dude, the Hyper Guy, and their girlfriends. You got the Level-Headed girl who loves Good Guy, and the kinky Curvy Girl who’s hooked up with Rich Kid but pines for lost love, Good Guy. Hyper Dude has the Sweet girlfriend. Fat Dude is, of course, alone, but Slutty Stepsister shows up at the lake house.
There is what seems to be an inordinate time spent on characterization in these opening scenes. This also didn’t fill me with hope.
Yet, when the first dead body shows up, not only does the story move in some unexpected ways, a lot of the earlier characterization shows up again as a plot point.
This movie is, sort of, Friday The 13th by way of Saw. You know, in a very real way, the Jigsaw Killer is not far removed from Jason, Freddy or Michael. He’s all-powerful in his anticipation of the characters’ actions, and his ability to plan for them far in advance, and (more importantly for the movie’s purposes) his ability to lock them into a very simple moral dilemma.
The Maniac in this movie is not quite so sophisticated. His traps are simple and secondary.
The main tension is this: Mr. Maniac (Kevin Gage, who could easily do a bunch of sequels to this, a la Tobin Bell) spent three years in an institution because on a mountain climbing expedition, he cut loose three of his friends to save his own skin. (I’m not sure how that’s illegal but play along.)
His exceedingly annoying psychiatrist (working actor Don McManus, whom you recognize without being able to name, and who actually manages to be irritating on a Richard-Dreyfuss-in-What-About-Bob? scale) has taken exception to Mr. Maniac’s insistence that anyone would do the same thing he did, and in his smug, wanna-punch-him-in-the-face way demands that while Mr. Maniac is no longer a threat to society, he does need more therapy.
Mr. Maniac plans to prove his side of the argument by putting the college kids to the following test: If one of them is left alive in the house at dawn, that person goes free. If more than one is left alive, they all die.
The kids are pretty good actors, though I was really confused at first because I thought they were high school kids. But they looked far too old and they acted like college kids. Then, yeah, it was made clearer later on, but, to be honest they’re largely too old for that, too. (It doesn’t matter much, but I did notice, and I’m not the most observant in this area. Theo Rossi, whom I’ve dubbed “Hyper Kid”, is 34! He’s in good shape for a middle-aged man!)
It’s not, I don’t think a huge acting challenge, for the most part. There’s a lot of low-key stuff. Curvy Girl Ryanne Duzich has a relatively tough part, having to be both sexy and vulnerable and in love and desperate, all in turns. (Also, she’s not that curvy but wears what must’ve been a pretty dang uncomfortable bra the whole time.) Fat Kid Daniel Franzese (30 years old, by the way) has to do a lot of whining and cowering, but manages to be sympathetic all the same.
I’d lay the credit for the success of this movie at the feet of writer Kelly C Palmer, who was in the audience. Within some very narrow constraints, she does a good job of avoiding a lot of the horror movie trope traps. And there’s a strong undercurrent about the characters’ basic goodness: They don’t, for the most part, want anything to do with the Maniac’s plan—and willingness to go along comes from some surprising arenas.
The other guy who gets the credit is Chris Moore. Now, this is Moore’s first outing as a director, but if you ever watched “Project Greenlight”, he was the incredibly nice, remarkably professional producer who made sure that the movies actually got made.
Moore handles this movie really well. Most of the directors picked for “Project Greenlight” were sort of flamboyant. Moore handles this confidently without being flashy. You never think, “Oh, that was clever.” The shots tell the story without pulling you out of it. His pacing, along with the humor and twists of the script make this above par.
‘course, we get the old “so far out we can’t get cell phone reception” gag, along with the phone lines being cut, but Something Must Be Done about the phone thing. Still, recommended.

After Dark 4: First Thoughts

I pondered last year how long the After Dark Horrorfest could go on, with so few people in the audience. This year, there are a total of four venues in all of California, and the closest one (by a margin of 50 miles) is the dreaded Beverly Center 13, located in that monstrous mall in downtown Beverly Hills.

Actually, the theater itself is not bad. But having to navigate the streets is not great.
We planned to split the movies up in to four days this year, a plan I think The Boy favored given how bad the movies were last year. But he was in the mood to go Friday, so we went to the 10PM showing of Kill Theory.
About ten people in the whole theater, until some members of the crew came in.
Got a bad feeling about After Dark 5. Good news, though: Kill Theory did not suck.

White Ribbon: A German Children’s Story

Generally speaking, if a foreign language film gets much play in the US, it’s going to be pretty good. We are monoglots with extreme prejudice. (I don’t find this a condemnation of the USA; we’re monoglots because we can be, and any other group with that luxury would take to it just as readily as we do.) It takes a Das Boot or a La Vita E Bella to get our butts in the chair (and even then, a lot of us insist on dubbing).

When I heard that White Ribbons (the title actually translates to The White Ribbon – A German Children’s Story but I can see why the distributors didn’t want to use that) had won a Globe and was being praised up-and-down, I seized on it as a likely way to break the award-season doldrums. (This year has been particularly uninspired.)
A little hasty on my part, unfortunately. Da Weisse Band was directed by Michael Haeneke, who is a critic’s darling and, well, you have to know that he directed one of his movies going in, or you’re probably going to be disappointed.
This reminded me heavily of one of his earlier films, Caché, which is about a French couple that’s being mysteriously filmed. The films are being sent to them, the (rather despicable) hero runs around tracking down people he’s pissed off in the past, and the general level of menace increases until—well, until nothing, really. That’s sort of the problem.
You start to engage with the movie as a mystery, as a thriller, but it never goes anywhere. Because it’s neither a mystery nor a thriller, it’s a metaphor. It’s a metaphor for how crappily the French treated the Algerians, something portrayed excellently (and literally) in the contemporary film Indigenes.
This can really piss you off. You’re not being entertained, you’re being instructed.
Which brings us to White Ribbon.
Same deal. Here we have a story that should be exciting, thrilling, suspenseful and creepy, but it really just comes off as creepy. Any actual excitement or enjoyable aspect is meticulously stripped out. Sort of like an Oliver Stone movie, where if you actually start having a good time, the movie’s gonna turn around and slap you for being so shallow.
Believe it or not, I don’t mean that to be condemnatory. Some people like going to serious, joyless films. Most of them seem to be art critics. And, honestly, I can do that if I’m aware of it going in. And I did pick up on it soon enough.
The Boy was irritated, though.
Basically, the story is that bad things are happening in this small town in Germany. Some are accidental, but some are very clearly deliberate. As the tale unfolds, we get a closer look at the characters.
The widowed town doctor, is the movie’s first victim, when someone strings a wire between two fence posts and trips his horse on his daily ride. We learn that he’s a sexual deviate who abuses the midwife who has taken care of him since his wife’s demise. (And that he was no better to his dead wife.)
Oh, hell, I can’t even bring myself to list the litany of horrible things everyone is doing to everyone else. The narrator and his love interest are at least decent people, but apparently the only decent ones in the village.
It becomes apparent soon enough—like, from the opening scene—that the children are behind all the horrible “accidents”. They don’t restrict themselves to taking revenge on the bad adults, mind you. They happily do bad things to each other and even babies and, in that crowning glory of storytelling, a Down’s Syndrome kid. (Don’t you love it when movies feature abuse of the handicapped?)
Of course, we don’t see any of this. What we see is the slow, plodding narrator (a schoolteacher) figuring out what’s going on. All the action occurs off-screen, and we’re left to view the horrible after-effects.
OK, I’m not gonna beat the guy up for making an unpleasant movie because that’s clearly what he had in mind. Mission accomplished. I am going to beat him up a little because the movie, which takes place on the eve of WWI, is meant to be insightful as to the rise of Nazi-ism.
In that regard, I think it’s a wash. I mean, it’s a made up story with made up characters, and while I have no doubt that there was plenty of sexual perversion in Germany before the War (as everywhere else), and that they were perhaps indulgent of their children (though my experience says “seen and not heard”), I don’t think it makes for an insightful storyline.
But it’s really my fault: A bit more research and I would’ve connected the director with his past works, but I’m not so up on foreign films that I expect to recognize directors.
Anyway, if you’re into flat, nasty, long stories of decadence, this is your movie.

A Single (Gay) Man

We should be flush with Oscar-bait movies and I guess we are, but they seem to lack a certain majesty. Or even modicum of interest. I suppose Avatar will sweep, since it combines the right politics with big budget and big success. (I will see it. Eventually. I guess.)

We haven’t been able to muster up the interest in seeing The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus so The Boy opted for the other seemingly, potentially, might-be-good A Single Man. We didn’t know much about it other than being the story of a widower trying to get through his day.
Being the sort of heteronormative guy that I am, and seeing Julianne Moore on the poster, I jumped to the conclusion that his wife had died. But no, it was his partner. His young, male partner.
While Cartman may not be correct that indie movies are all about “gay cowboys eating pudding"—an observation made years before Brokeback Mountain—there was a time about five years ago where it seemed like every indie movie had to have a subplot with a gay character.
Now, not so much. And it’s preferable to have a main gay character if that’s the story you want to tell. So, props there, even if minus a few points for the stealth ad campaign.
Expectations were not exactly high. This is a movie about a guy moping. Part The Constant Gardener (without the massively stupid drug plot), part Hamlet’s soliloquy, you’ve got about 100 minutes of "to be or not to be, for a broken heart”.
Colin Firth plays a college professor (looked like UCLA) in 1962 who’s lost his partner of 17 years (they met during post-WWII celebrations). Eight months has passed and he’s still racked with grief, and as when we meet him, he’s making preparations for his own demise.
Well, gay or not, it’s not exactly an exciting story. And it’s rather indulgent, like Constant Gardener, but it comes in well under 2 hours which means that you only get a little tired of the slow-mo and flashes of imagery. It also wasn’t as oppressively bleak as you might think, either.
There seemed to be a modern sensibility imposed on the story from time-to-time, but nothing too heavy-handed to me.
Strengths: Performances by Colin Firth and Julianne Moore as the woman who loves him; A lush score by Pole Abel Korzeniowski, who also scored the moody Tickling Leo; confident direction; not overlong.
There were some weaknesses, too. It’s a very static film; the main character is hung up between living and dying. You can’t get much more static than that. But The Boy was particularly insightful and loquacious.
He said the problem wasn’t that the main character was gay, but that was all he was. We didn’t learn anything about him except that he was gay. No hobbies. Nothin’.
Well, yeah. Good point, kid.
Truth be told, if I’d known it was about a gay man, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. As well as directors, certain themes are particularly overrated (to my mind) relative to others. Alcoholism and drug addiction, homosexuality or sexual deviance, anti-American, etc. Not to say these movies can’t be good, or that this one isn’t good, just that it tends to result in inflated evaluations.
Where would I put it? It’s…okay. The ending is such an “art movie” cliché, it reminded me of all these horror movies where everyone dies. And somehow, it comes off not as pretentious as it seems like it ought to. It’s often touching and of course very intimate.
But as The Boy points out, it doesn’t do the leg-work as far as characterization goes to build the sentiment properly.
Now I can see there being an exception, if you’re a 50-60+ year old gay man. You might really be able to relate in a way that needs no further detail.
That’s another one of those niche markets.

Sherlock Holmes and the EXXXTREME Mysteryish Thing!

I miss mattes. There, I said it.

I remember seeing The Wizard of Oz and the matte of the Emerald City that Dorothy and her pals were dancing toward. I loved that matte. It was quite evident they were going to dance their way into a wall if they kept on, but the very principle was elegant storytelling, to me.
“This is the setting. We have painted it for you on plywood. We’ve done an excellent job, and we’re going to throw it away after the shoot. Enjoy.”
I loved the matte used in When Worlds Collide, too. The oncoming Alpha and Bronson Beta painted multiple times larger and larger and super-imposed over the foreground—sheer menace.

There’s some great matte work in the 1979 Dracula by the master, Albert Whitlock, who did a lot with Hitch, the disaster movies of the ‘70s, and even the ’80s-era Dune. The guy was genius with
Mattes used to be such a big deal, the Universal Studios tour—back when it was more tour and less amusement park—actually began with a display of a matte. I think it was of San Francisco. Gorgeous.
Mattes aren’t used much any more. Instead, everything is 3D computer generated cityscapes. As a result, everything looks like freakin’ Hogwarts. Mordor. Gotham. Fake. Comic-booky.
“But Blake,” you say, “mattes were, like, the fake-est looking fake things evar!” Well, yeah, maybe the early ones, but I think they were simple and communicated clearly. The obsession over “fake” and “natural” is a dumb one. It’s all fake.
But this CGI stuff isn’t supposed to look fake. And CGI smoke, dust and fog particularly does to me. There’s a scene in this movie where some mooring comes loose and smashes through the scenery. And whatever it smashes through leaves a kind of dusty haze. The same dusty haze you saw when the troll broke through the door in Mordor, or when the Quidditch ball breaks through some bleacher supports. Fake.
Why am I talking about mattes in a review of Sherlock Holmes? I guess because the computerized cityscape, with its computerized fog and smoke, looked fake to me. Also, mattes have about as much to do with this movie as this movie has to do with to Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.
Anyway, assuming you’re not as big a dork as I—and, let’s be honest, who is?—you’re probably interested in other parts of the new Sherlock Holmes movie than set design and related special effects. And fortunately, the other parts are better.
Robert Downey Jr. plays the master detective this time. He looks not at all Holmesian, but that’s okay, he’s a good enough actor. Jude Law plays Watson, and I think that’s one way the new version excels compared to most older ones. Nigel Bruce, who paired with Basil Rathbone in the classic ’30s-’40s movies, tended to be a bit more bumbling, more comic relief, than the character in the stories, who was both tough and handsome.
The Boy really nails it, when he says if you’re expecting an action-adventure movie, it’s pretty good.

And it is. It’s fun. It moves, mostly, with just a little bit of drag in the 2nd to 3rd act transition. And it’s basically a buddy movie, with an aggressively modern sensibility applied to a stuffy old late Victorian tableau.

Director (and Madonna survivor) Guy Ritchie applies a mishmash of modern tropes to Holmes observational skills, making him somewhat reminiscient of TV characters like Adrian Monk or even Shawn Spencer of “Psych”. Casual. A bit slovenly.

I found it didn’t really fit with my idea of the character. Not that Holmes wasn’t eccentric, but my memory of him is that of a gentleman without land. An aristocrat without money. A man who had used his skills to act as he felt a lordly person should, even though he didn’t have the means.

But, okay. I wasn’t expecting Basil Rathbone.

There is a sort of mystery here, though the whole thing is greatly informed by The Illusionist and The Prestige. There’s the question of is it, or isn’t it, supernatural, but you can’t really have genuine supernatural elements in a Holmes story. The more the movie tries to convince you that it is supernatural, the more likely the final reveal is going to have a “Scooby Doo” feel to it.

But then, this isn’t your momma’s Holmes, or her momma’s, or her momma’s. So maybe they would ghost it up.

Not that you really care by the time Holmes explains everything at the end. It’s an action movie. It’s not like you’re brooding over the meaning of the drop of blood on the transom nor the petals strewn mysteriously on the ledge.

Look, I did like it. But parts of it sort of irritated me, like the non-mattes, I guess because it didn’t hang together for me in little ways. London didn’t look quite right. Rachel MacAdams didn’t seem quite English enough. Downy and MacAdams didn’t seem to have any real chemistry. Hans Zimmer’s score seemed a little clunky.

Also, it more than teases the sequel, which strikes me as a little presumptuous.
But these are minor irritations which may have drawn me out more than most viewers, due to my own prejudices rather than any real flaws in the movie. Like The Boy says, go in expecting a light action-adventure flick, and you’ll have yourself a good time.

Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Cashing In

There are things you just have to do as a parent. You don’t have to enjoy them, you just have to do them.

Seeing a sequel to Alvin and the Chipmunks is one of them. I tried, mind you. The original movie’s rated about a 6 on IMDB, with the sequel at just under 3, so it’s nearly half as good as the original, right? (That was more for The Boy, admittedly.)
The highly lauded Princess and the Frog was playing at the same time, for example. But, as The Flower explained, the Princess is a frog practically the whole movie. And who wants to see a movie about frogs?
Chipmunks, on the other hand, are apparently God’s gift to celluloid.
So, let me start by saying The Flower was pleased. No regrets. Thought it was a fine movie.
Me? Well, I survived. Racked up a few Daddy points. It was only physically painful a couple of times—as when the Chipmunks did the Bee Gees. (I’m not exaggerating: The frequency and volume did actually hurt my ears, which I have not sufficiently impaired through the blasting of rock music.)
And it’s nice to see that Betty Thomas is still working. She was great on “Hill Street Blues”. And as a director, I thought some of her ‘90s movies were cute (The Brady Bunch Movie, Private Parts, The Late Shift). Sort of interestingly, The Flower was also obsessed with seeing Thomas’ previous feature John Tucker Must Die. (She didn’t like it, though. If I’d remembered, I would’ve tried that, too.)
The original A&TC was not without its charm. Jason Lee is pretty good at being both irascible and paternal as Dave. (He’s barely in the sequel.) Cameron Richardson was cute ‘n’ perky as the cute ‘n’ perky love interest. (She’s not in the sequel at all.) David Cross is, of course, excellent at being the sleazy record company executive. (He’s back, at least.)
And you had a simple plot: Chipmunk singing group makes it big in the city, learns family values. In the (ugh) “squeakuel”, you’ve got more plot than any 80 minute movie oughtta have. (This movie has a whole lot of plot gettin’ in the way of the story, as Joe Bob Briggs would say.)
You’ve got loser Toby (Zachary Levi, Chuck of “Chuck”) taking care of the Chipmunks. You’ve got the chipmunks going to school. You got Alvin trying to fit in with the cool kids (even though the girls adore the Chipmunks who are both rock stars and cuddly little mammals). You’ve got the stern principal (Wendy Malick) who’s trying to save the school music program. You’ve got Alvin and Simon fighting while Theodore longs for family values.
This all taking from the presumably main plot of evil David Cross having three new singing Chipmunks almost literally dropped in his lap, and trying to use them to both destroy the old Chipmunks and restore his lost musical producer career.
Also, of course, these are girl chipmunks (“The Chipettes”) who are perfect analogs for the boys and act as their biggest fans, love interests and foils. Fun fact: Janice Karman, who created the Chipettes and receives a credit for this in the movie, was the daughter-in-law of Ross Bagdasarian Sr., who created the Chipmunks. She also voiced all of the Chipettes in the TV series where they originally appeared.
We’re going for the $200M box office here, though, so we get hot properties Christina Applegate, Amy Pohler and Anna Faris doing the girls.
And, hell, they’re going to get pretty close to $200M, so who am I to complain? (Oh, right, the guy who paid $20 to see this!) And, really, if you lower the bar on your expectations—I mean, way low, here, lower than the original—the time will pass reasonably quickly, if rather frantically.
But The Flower liked it, and so did some of her friends who saw it, and in the long view, it’s not any worse than Dungeons and Dragons, which I took the boy to see.

Up, Up In the Air (san beautiful balloons)

Jason Reitman (son of iconic comedy director Ivan Reitman) is probably one of the most promising young directors around, having directed the darkly comic Thank You For Smoking as his feature debut, and following that up with the comically dark Juno.

So, while waiting for the lights to go down on his latest, Up In The Air, I had to wonder: Would it be comic? Would it be dark? What would the ratio of comic to dark be?

As it turns out, way more on the dark, not so much on the comic.

The story is about ruthlessly shallow Ryan Bingham, whose job it is to fly around the country firing people. The company he works for acts as a (very) short-term Human Resources department which has as its sole function the removal of employees in as painless and low-key manner possible. Bingham is glib, and so thoroughly disconnected from humanity that he actually prefers being in the air 320 days out of the year, and loathes the few days he has at home.

Played aptly by George Cloony and oh, my God! what did he do to his face? I wish I were kidding when I say that. I spent about 30% of the movie trying to figure out whether he’d been botoxed or lifted or what. And that’s a shame since this is the kind of role he was made for.

Anyway, Bingham is flying around the country firing people when he gets called home by his boss (Bit Maelstrom favorite Jason Bateman). Seems that the latest addition to the firm, firm young Natalie Keener (Twilight’s Anna Kendrick) has successfully promoted the idea of firing-by-webcam.

Cue existential crisis as Bingham must contemplate the notion of not flying all around the country. This plays out as Bingham flies Keener around the country to get some real hands-on experience firing people.

So. Yeah. Seeing people get fired for a good half-hour may not be exactly what the doctor called for in this economic climate. (Seriously, anyone looking for a veteran computer programmer/movie geek?) There’s a buttload of acting, though, and we actually do gain a little respect for Bingham; there is some technique to what he does.

The other tension in the story comes from love interest Alex, played by the sexy Vera Farmiga (of this year’s Orphan and last year’s Oscar bait Boy In The Striped Pajamas). Alex shares Bingham’s love of the perks of travel, including the niceties that ultra-frequent travelers enjoy. As Bingham’s work situation comes to a head, he also finds himself reconnecting with his sisters (about whom we know nothing till late in the film).

Can Bingham use this old connection to hel phim find happiness with a chick he picked up in an airport bar?

It’s a well-made movie, with strong characters and believable settings, yet I wouldn’t recommend it broadly. It’s hard to explain why without some spoilers so let me just say that beyond the firings, while the movie’s not exactly bleak, it’s not exactly a pick-me-up either. (More dark than comic, like I said.)

Great little performances from J.K. Simmons, Bateman (of course), and Sam Elliott (who I swear is reprising his role as “The Stranger” from The Big Lebowski).

The Boy thought it was okay, but he expected more humor. This is the umpteenth movie we’ve seen this year that was made out to be funny in the commercials, but turned out to have a much more dramatic edge in the theater. (Adventureland, Duplicity, Observe and Report, Sunshine Cleaning, Management, just to name a few off the top of my head, all were advertised as being wackier comedies when they all had a fairly serious dramatic edge.)

A little more truth in advertising would be nice.

Cross-posted at Ace of Spades HQ.

The Blind Side

When you see as many movies as I do, you learn to avoid entire categories, either because you don’t like them or because you’re just flat out tired of ‘em. For example, I skipped last year’s “The Class” and “The History Boys”, just because I’m tired of the whole Blackboard Jungle thing.

Even when I like a movie, if I’m acutely aware of the formula, it can be hard to really get into it. (I liked “The Last Samurai” but I couldn’t keep from thinking “Oh, look, a white guy’s gonna show the Japanese how to be better Japanese.”)

Rarely, however, you end up missing something that approaches a well-worn storyline in a refreshing way, as I almost did with the new Great Expectations-ish The Blind Side.

In this movie, Michael Oher, a ginormous black orphan who has lucked into a place in a fancy Christian private school, ends up being adopted by Leigh Ann Tuohy (a MILFed-up Sandra Bullock). Over the next two hours, they change each others’ lives.

You can understand my dread. “Based on a true story!” even.

In what constitutes a Thanksgiving miracle—yeah, it’s been out for a while—this actually works. Why?

Continue reading

Well, first of all, the characters are well-defined and interesting, the story is lively with lots of barriers impeding the characters’ desires, the dialogue is funny and touching, and the resolution is satisfying. It all sounds so easy when you put it that way. But really, there are a ton of pitfalls t this kind of movie, and the movie avoids almost all of them neatly.

For example, there’s a tendency (to put it mildly) in a movie like this to wallow in racism. There is racism in this film, but it goes both ways and mostly comes across as one of many forms of xenophobia. There’s no temptation to make it the central point of the film.

This can lead to the related pitfall of viewing the world as a unrelentingly cruel place where selfishness is the sole motivator, and the righteous protagonists are the only beacon of hope, sacrificing all in the process. Now, the Tuohys are definitely good folk, but there’s no real hardship for them. It’s not about them “sacrificing”; the movie shows a convincing case that (as said in the movie’s most wince-worthy moment) Michael is changing their lives.

Their “sacrifices” are shown in contrast to what their charge has endured, but rather through their understanding of those things, instead of through graphic flashbacks. Really, the only serious discussion about whether they should be doing what they’re doing revolves around their kids. And even then, it’s not like there’s a question that they should help.

It’s kind of refreshing. And it feels true, too, in the characters’ reactions to what is, essentially, Leigh Ann’s rather powerful sense of responsibility.

The tertiary characters are a rich assortment. There’s a lot of naked self-interest. There’s some altruism. There’s a veneer of altruism masking healthy doses of self-interest. At the same time, the movie doesn’t try to portray self-interest as evil. It comes across as natural: There is an “I”; there is also an “us” (as in our team or family). In other words, it seems very realistic.

This movie avoids The biggest pitfall of all—mawkishness. This is charmingly reflected in Leigh Ann’s tendency to leave the room rather than have anyone see her get emotional. But the whole film does that: It shows us the projects, the poverty, the bureaucracy, the politics, the opulence, the desperation, the kindness, the bravery—all without the high melodrama or glib politics these sorts of movies are prey to. It allows you to feel what you’ll feel from the circumstances, not from having characters overact.

I can’t say I viewed it entirely apolitically. The Tuohys are Republican. So Republican, apparently, they don’t know any Democrats. But this is more of a cute point, only significant because I can’t recall any film ever where the main characters are both kind, generous and explicitly Republican. The real (political) thought that occurred to me, as I was watching this poor kid wander around The Projects was, “Gosh, everyone wants to go to public school and live in public housing! Why wouldn’t they be crazy about public health care?”

So, yeah, I brought my own snark. The movie doesn’t address the issue at all. (Which is fitting, I think.)

Anyway, the Boy (my 14-year-old movie companion) enjoyed it quite a bit. I attribute that to the lack of gross sentimentality and the general liveliness of the whole movie.

Anyway, if you’re like me and you’ve been waffling on seeing it, give it a shot: There’s a reason it’s still playing. And stay for the closing credits to see pictures of the real Tuohys with Michael Oher.

(Previously posted at Ace of Spades HQ.)

Everybody’s Fine

Ah, that great holiday tradition, the dysfunctional family film. I don’t know when it started, but the modern form seems to stem from Ordinary People, that Oscar-winning depress-fest that made us miss Mary Tyler Moore’s spunk.

This season’s dysfunction starts off with Kirk Jones’ (Nanny McPhee, Waking Ned) Everybody’s Fine and Robert De Niro, Kate Beckinsale, Sam Rockwell and Drew Barrymore. And, as might be expected from a director with such a gentle pedigree, this isn’t your hard-core “you ruined my life and now I’m a drug-addicted suicidal crack whore!” type family dysfunctional movie.

Actually, the dysfunction’s pretty mild. De Niro’s character is a decent guy, a blue collar wire-insulation man who worked hard to make sure his kids have plenty of opportunities. And his kids, for the most part, aren’t screwed up—they’re just worried about disappointing him.

On top of that, the one kid who is really screwed up, well, that’s not laid at his father’s feet.

Kind of refreshing, really. It’s less about soul-crushing guilt and despair, and more about communicating to improve relationships. (Sort of an anti-About Schmidt, if you will.)

De Niro is pleasing as the recently widowed father whose kids all cancel a long-planned weekend home, and so decides to embark on a medically ill-advised cross-country journey to see them instead. (The opening scene where he prepares for their arrival is rather touching, with nice touches, such as when he pulls out, inflates and fills the old wading pool.)

The movie flirts with a lot of clichés, reminding me quite a bit of Waking Ned Devine, as it toys a bit with your expectations, but eschews melodrama for something a little less over-the-top and an ultimately less predictable and more satisfying ending.

I rather enjoyed it. We were actually standing there debating whether or not to go see this or The Road, but I’ve made my opinion on the book rather clear, and the movie is apparently quite faithful to it. So, even without having seen it, I’m pretty sure I picked the more pleasant of experiences available.

It didn’t knock The Boy’s socks off, of course, but it reminded me, many years ago of having seen Peggy Sue Got Married with my dad. For him, a very emotional movie. (His grandparents were long dead, and so he was deeply touched by Kathleen Turner’s trip to the past to see them.) For me, not so much.

One device used here is to show the kids as kids, through De Niro’s eyes, and that got to me in a way I wouldn’t expect to get to him. Overall, though, I was pleased by the relatively low-level of dysfunction; I think it’s a little more realistic than the high dramatics we usually get.

I’m sure the actors love the scene chewing stuff, but there was a lot of nice, low-key drama here. Each of the children lies to their father, trying to protect him from bad news (and also trying to avoid confrontation), but they’re not all comfortable with it—or good at it.

So, while the cool, professional Beckinsale puts De Niro off rather mechanically, expressing regrets but not exhibiting a lot of warmth in her attempt to keep news away from him, the bubbly Barrymore is much more facile in her lying, and still very affectionate to him. The more morose Rockwell is an abysmal liar and knows it.

I’m not particularly a De Niro fan (more a matter of the sorts of movies he’s in) but he was excellent here as a guy who’s trying his best to understand his kids, while his kids are busy hiding from him.

As the man says, you could do worse, and probably will.

An Education

“She was a young maiden in the full bloom of youth,” or so could have started An Education, the movie based on the memoir of Lynn Barber. The story concerns 16-year-old Jenny, whose middle-class father controls her life tightly, forcing her to concentrate on education and building the appropriate resume to get into Oxford.

But Jenny finds herself the object of David’s attention. David is a roguish 30-something of the sort of mysterious (but copious) means that seem to signal “gentleman” to the English. He’s cultured, smooth and charming, and proceeds to seduce the family with his wiles.

What? Well, obviously he has to seduce the mother and father or they’re not going to be letting their 16-year-old daughter go out with him. I mean, it’s 1961 England, after all.

You know, as uptight as things were in England in 1961, I have a hard time imagining a stolid middle-class family today being cool with—well, let’s be honest, the guy isn’t even a young 30, the actor is 37!—sending their 16-year-old daughter out with an unknown man old enough to be her father.

And then sending her away for the weekend, even if it is to Oxford, and even if he has convinced them he’s connected.

Forget about Paris.

But, like I said, this is a memoir, and if I’m going to believe that Cameron Crowe lost his virginity in foursome with three groupies while on the road with a rock band (Almost Live), I suppose I can believe this.

Actually, it’s a testament to the movie’s execution that this comes off far less creepy than it should. Indeed, the movie only works at all because the audience is also seduced by David. He keeps a respectful distance from Jenny, and she’s ultimately in control of how their physical relationship progresses.

And as the cracks in David’s veneer begin to show, the movie does a good job of rationalizing. In particular, the defenders of the traditional path—work hard, do lots of boring, irrelevant stuff so that you can go to a good school, so that you can then become a teacher and teach boring, irrelevant stuff—are particularly weak at defending it.

Her teacher, her principal, her father really can’t explain why she should dedicate herself to study rather than run around with the roguish David and hang out in nightclubs, eat fine food, and explore Europe.

Beside the excellent handling by director Lone Scherfig, and nuanced performances by Peter Saarsgard (as David), and Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour (as mom and dad), the movie is largely powered by the charming Carey Mulligan. (She’s 23, but like Ellen Page, she can play much younger convincingly.)

The actresses in this movie are especially strong, as they all seem to reflect the various choices available to the young Jenny. Mom is tired with an unextraordinary life, and we see both hints of danger and jealousy in Cara Seymour’s performance. Rosamund Pike (of Doom and Pride and Prejudice) plays Helen, who is the paramour of David’s partner in crime Danny, and in her we see—besides a shocking level of ignorance—wistfulness toward Jenny’s naiveté, jealousy of her sparkling youth, and the kinship of one who knows the man she loves is not as noble a character as she might like.

Olivia Williams (late of “Dollhouse”) plays Miss Stubbs, the teacher Jenny most highly respects (and ultimately gravely insults) as a buttoned-up disciplinarian, and Emma Thompson is the imperious and vengeful headmistress who sternly reminds Jenny that non-virgins are not allowed in her school. Heh.

Oh, and there’s also Matthew Beard, who plays Jenny’s age-appropriate suitor, Graham. He’s awkward and unsophisticated and also sweet and sincere, but wholly unable to compete against the urbane David. In his few short scenes, he has to deal with going from a likely successful suitor to being snubbed mysteriously to realizing what he’s up against.

Solid acting, solid writing, solid direction. Ultimately, though, I did find the whole exercise oddly Victorian and almost melodramatic. Will Jenny lose her virtue to the handsome rogue? Will her life be ruined? Will anyone care in five years, when the world so radically changes?

The Boy thought it could’ve been worse, but as remote as the whole thing felt to me—I could, at least, relate to the larger parental issues of making sure your kids know why they have to do things that aren’t fun—it’s ancient history to him.

Just as an addendum, Roger Ebert has put this on his top 10 list of mainstream movies of the year. I probably wouldn’t put it in the top ten or on the mainstream list. Heh. (But Ebert’s a contemporary so that might be part of the appeal for him.)

Uncredited Remakes

Icons Of Fright has a fun post up called “Ted’s” top ten uncredited remakes. “Uncredited remake” is a bit of a canard, because it implies that the “remake” knows about the original. For about 30 years, I’d heard that Alien was an uncredited remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space!

Well, it was on recently so I finally had a chance to see it and, yeah, there are some similarities. But it’s really a thematic similarity with some superficial resemblances that might reasonably be expected to occur in any random “alien monsters kills crew of spaceship” story—which itself is basically a variant of the “Old, Dark House”.

If it’s debatable whether or not Dan O’Bannon (Alien’s screenwriter) saw It! it’s even more dubious that Predator screenwriters Jim and John Thomas derived much, if anything, from the low-budget flick Without Warning.

Now, I noted immediately that Predator had the same story as Warning, but of course nobody knew what the hell I was talking about because nobody had seen the older movie. (According to the linked article, it was never released on DVD or VHS, which boggles the mind but seems to be true.) And my observation was tongue in cheek, because it’s just a casual story similarity: Alien comes to earth to hunt humans, is stopped by a particularly feisty human. Despite the capsule at the article, there isn’t a group of hired mercenaries in the older, cheaper flick, just…Jack Palance!

Without Warning itself seems to have been inspired, visually, by “Star Trek”. The alien looks like the big-brained guys in “The Menagerie” and it throws little Frisbee-esque parasitic creatures that look like they’re from “Operation: Annihilate”.

And when I say “look like,” I mean it looks like the crew busted into the prop warehouses at Paramount and stole the FX from the mothballed “Star Trek” show.

Both movies are sort of cornucopias of cheese, though. (Cornucopias of cheese?) Without Warning features Larry Storch as a scoutmaster and may be the feature debut of none other than David Caruso.

The triple-threat of WW, though is: Cameron Mitchell, Martin Landau and Jack Palance, all of whom probably figured they were on the downward sides of their careers. Cameron Mitchell would have been right but both Landau and Palance would go on to win Oscars well after this movie. Landau for his role as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, and Palance for his role as Curly in City Slickers.

And Ted thought he didn’t have a life.

Ahoy, Mate! Pirate Radio!

I avoided the ‘60s love-fest Pirate Radio for its first few weeks because, well, it’s a ’60s love-fest. It’s not that love-notes to bygone eras are bad. Hollywood’s love affair with the Gilded Age lasted into the ’60s and produced some of my favorite movies. (That’s 30 years of nostalgia!)

Rather than compare and contrast turn-of-the-century nostalgia in the ’40s to ’60s nostalgia today, though, I’ll just stay focused on this particular movie, the Richard Curtis (writer/director of Love Actually) pic The Boat That Rocked. Or, as it’s known here in the States, Pirate Radio, with distributors perhaps hoping for a Disney tie-in. (Pirate Radio of the Carribean, anyone?)

Pirate Radio is sort of an Almost Famous on the high seas. (If even has Philip Seymour Hoffman!) Basically, a teenage boy is sent by his mom to live on a ship that’s anchored off of England in order to supply Britain with desperately needed rock music. (Government-controlled radio won’t play any of it. To paraphrase one character, “That’s the point of being the government. If you don’t like something, you can pass a law to make it illegal.”)

So, there’s your story: coming age plus the renegade cool cats versus the squares in government. Neither of these stories is done very well. No, strike that. It’s not that they’re done poorly at all, it’s that they’re barely done.

But you know, I’ve never seen Almost Live—a generally highly regarded movie—a second time, and yet I might watch this again.

The very thing that kept me away from this movie was a fear that it might be self-important. A rock-saves-the-world motif. And of course, not really the rock ‘n’ roll that my dad’s generation dug, but that high ’60s stuff which some people earnestly maintain was the Best Music In The History Of The World. And all, like, socially relevant ‘n’ stuff. And that this would be contrasted with social repression, brought down by titans of social change who set themselves against…well, you get the idea.

To hearken back briefly to Hollywood’s love of the Gilded Age, as if the great things of that era were the result of Ragtime.

This movie does none of that. It’s really just a series of vignettes and character interactions punctuated with brief montages of people listening to the radio.

What a relief.

The guys on the boat are half-defiant, half-loser, whose defining characteristic is their love of music. This seems reasonable. Musicians aren’t really revolutionaries—and these guys wouldn’t have been crossing swords with the government had the government not created (let’s be honest) a black market for rock.

It’s kind of interesting to watch the twisting of the movie’s villain as he comes up with various ways to make pirate radio illegal. It reminds one that governments claim all sort of “reasonable” power which they then used to stamp out things they just plain don’t like.

But it’s not exactly historical. Even the sampling of music is probably a bit ahistorical. (The opening of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” is part of the soundtrack—but not as a record, only to punctuate a dramatic scene. What would we do without Pete Townsend?) This may have been to avoid a lot of the seriously overused tracks. Also, no Beatles. (Beatles songs almost never seem to be in movies that aren’t Beatle-centric.)

Again, though, this is really at the level of your average low-budget coming-of-age tale with good music. It’s better than most because it’s consistently funny. Also, acting. We have Kenneth Branagh as the evil minister of musical correctness, or whatever the hell his position is, with his ex-wife Emma Thompson as the mom of Carl (played by Tom Sturridge). I didn’t recognize either of them.

Fans of the BBC show “Spaced” will recognize Nick Frost, in a (once again) completely different character. This time he’s a rock ‘n’ roll Lothario. Really! I marvel over Frost because he doesn’t consider himself a real actor. Which tells you something about the English versus Americans. Here, a guy who gets to be famous repeating a catchphrase in a sitcom thinks he’s ready for Hamlet next. There, the guy probably has done Hamlet, and still considers himself not quite legit.

Finally, there’s Bill Nighy. Ever see the second two Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Nighy played Davy Jones. Those movies would’ve been ten times better with more Nighy. In the Underworld movies? He was King of the Vampires or somesuch. Those movies aren’t very good, but they’d have been a millions times better with more Nighy. Love, Actually features him in the washed-up rock ‘n’ roll star role, singing his old song naked.

Good movie. Needed more Nighy.

You know that movie Precious, about the black girl with the poor self-esteem and crappy home life? Bill Nighy isn’t in that, I don’t think. I haven’t seen it. But it’d have been better with more Bill Nighy.

The Boy was pleased. The movie kept him laughing, and that was quite welcome.

Go in understanding what it is, and what it isn’t, and you can have yourself a good time.

Saw VI: This Time It’s Political

At this point, we must concede that the Jigsaw Killer, Jonathan Kramer, must certainly have spent more of his life setting up his murderous little games than any other activity. And that the amounts of money involved to play them are staggering.

Which makes one wonder if he might have done something more productive with his time and money.

Anyway, we have here the sixth entry in the notorious movie franchise.

And while I defend these movies as not being torture porn, I have to admit, when this one started I thought, “Well, that’s a bit much.”


Now, Saw suffers from the the same problem every successful horror movie does: The demand for sequels far exceeds the planning of the people who wrote the original. Sort of queerly in the case of the Saw series—which uniquely (I think) has had one release every year for six years—each entry has to do some retconning. I say “queer” because I think movies 2-5 were a done deal after the first one, and #7 seems to be guaranteed. In other words, you could do some planning.

And, in fairness, the Saws’ retconning has been rather mild up till this movie.

In case you’re not familiar with the premise, John Kramer is an engineer who entraps people he feels are wasting their lives by constructing elaborate and horrific traps they must escape, in an attempt to give them a new appreciation for life. (Oh, and he’s been dead for half the series, and lives only through the elaborate plans he set up in advance.)

Well, that’s the original premise. Jigsaw’s mission has drifted away from that pure idea to where he’s been trying to teach forgiveness, cooperation, anger management, and so on.

The other drift that has occurred is that the original motivation for Jigsaw was anger over his own life. He had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and so felt it unfair that others didn’t appreciate what they had—what had been taken from him.

Now, to me, the thing that sets the series apart from the typical slashers (besides the generally above par suspense and plotting), is empathy. The characterizations in most slashers are weak: They’re just fodder. Their personalities are largely irrelevant.

In this series, the victims’ personalities are the killer’s prime motivation. (And not stupid things like having premarital sex and smoking pot.) Infidelity, violence, depression, selfishness and so on, are the flaws that Jigsaw tries to correct with his unique brand of therapy.

In the third installment, for example, the morose father gets the option of killing or saving the people he holds responsible for the death of his child and the subsequent injustices. To add injury to insult, he can only save them by enduring considerable duress. It’s a sort of high drama, compressed into a very determinate, short time period.

This is a huge part (in my mind) as to why the movies work, when they do work.

Saw VI has the unfortunate added burden of a political message. And this message completely struggles against the established precedent of the previous movies.

You see, in Saw VI, John Kramer targets insurance company employees!

Even if you accept the premise (which cheerfully skips around the general success of the insurance industry by noting offhand the millions of people insurance works for) that these guys (and everyone who works for them) are pure evil, the movie undermines itself and the entire series in two big ways.

First of all, there’s a scene where John goes to Insurance Guy because he’s found an exotic treatment for his cancer. Naturally, he’s refused, and on top of that threatened with having his coverage dropped if he goes and does it himself.

Well, on the one hand, how would they know? But more importantly, we know John has tons of money. In fact, they even point that out, by saying the treatment he’s getting now could wipe him out financially, to which he says “Money is not the issue.”

Y’see, it’s a matter of principle. So the guy who’s gone around for five movies putting people in horrendous situations to gauge their love of life doesn’t bother to take a mild risk to save his own life? Really?

Second of all, there is a “test” in this movie completely different from every other in the series’ history: An innocent character is given the chance to kill someone.

In every previous case where someone playing a game has had the opportunity to kill, doing so meant their own death. (Y’see, Jigsaw teaches tolerance and forgiveness with all his hacksaws and barbed wires.) But in this movie, it’s fairly clear that killing is just peachy! One presumes that not-killing would be okay, too, but it’s not entirely clear.

Worst of all, this otherwise well plotted movie struggles because you’re obviously meant to hate the insurance exec, but the formula requires us to empathize with the victims at some level. As a result, the exec comes off very human and really, very decent. (His employees, to a man, are completely one dimensional monsters, which is rather weak, too.) Actor Peter Outerbridge, while capable of seeming like an unctuous sleaze, is a little too deep and human to make us feel like he deserves his torture.

So, the whole thing ends up ass-over-tea cart.

There was much swearing from The Boy who liked the movie except for the weird imposition of politics onto it.

And it’s a shame, because it’s otherwise the strongest entry since #3. Good pacing, good characterization (with the noted exceptions), clever and interesting “games"—notably bad lighting, however, and maybe a slightly cheaper feel over all.

Costas Mandylor (of the perpetual trout pout) is back in this movie, doing Jigsaw’s dirty work, with an especially brutal flair, and providing one of the movie’s two big twists (setting up the sequel).

Shawnee Smith (who died several movies back) re-appears in flashbacks, as of course does the Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell. Weirdly, Athena Karkaris, who took a face full of death a movie or two ago ends up having gotten better, though not for any reason I can figure out. (The series’ tendency to kill everyone makes it hard to establish much continuity, so they keep resurrecting minor characters.)

Happily, the wonderful Betsy Russell is back. Though it seems to me her character has drifted over the movies, again I think due to the fact that not many characters survive from one film to the next. She seemed to be pretty appalled by her ex-husband’s behavior when we first met her, but gradually seems to have warmed to the whole serial murder thing.

I’m not sure if this soured us to the next one. This one we waited till it was only $3/ticket. I’m guessing the next one won’t have any political agenda, however.

The Maid

I never feel so quintessentially American as when the topic of “help” comes up. The whole concept of hired live-in help feels wrong to me, at least as a separate class. I’m not even all that comfortable with hiring someone to come in to clean the house.

At least, I think that’s American. Maybe it’s Western. In any event, it’s very me.

And this newish Chilean import La Nana (The Maid) brings up all the uncomfortable-ness and throws it into sharp relief.

Catalina Saavedra plays Raquel, who’s been in service to a family for over 20 years, cleaning the house and raising the children. Also, she seems to be increasingly recalcitrant, though we’re not entirely positive of this since we don’t see any past stuff. Maybe she was always way?

When the story opens, we see the family throwing a birthday party for Raquel, which she doesn’t want to attend. But the oldest boy (Lucas) drags her in and she shares in the cake. But the awkwardness is palpable. The father (Mundo) excuses himself to go work (build a model ship), and Raquel barely tastes the cake before deciding she should do the dishes. The mother (Pilar) tries to insist that she not do them now but she points out that she’d only have to do them later.

The catalyst that moves the story along is a condition that causes Raquel to have bad headaches, and to occasionally swoon. Pilar has been toying with the idea of getting help for Raquel, because the house is so big anyway—an idea that Raquel hates—and soon there’s a new maid helping out.

Along the way, we discover all the strange family dynamics that Raquel is in the middle of. Though interestingly, most of the strangeness seems to emanate from Raquel herself.

I never really knew how this movie was going to play out. It’s supposed to be a “black comedy” but I don’t get why, really. It’s not a comedy at all, from what I experienced, but a quirky drama. It’s got funny parts, most of which stem from this awkward intimacy—the covert ways that Raquel makes her displeasure known and gets her way against the wishes of the rest of the family.

I liked it. It’s a bit slow, but it’s also curiously upbeat, and you do come to have a strange affection for the character. I’m not sure if there’s something uniquely Chilean that makes it resonate particularly for them; I’d just call it an interesting little movie.

The Boy liked it as well, but he didn’t think it was very funny and a little slow.

A Serious Man

I never miss a Coen brothers movie. Which isn’t to say that my reaction to them all is the same. Besides not provoking the same reactions at the time, often the reactions change over time and repeated viewings.

Befuddled bemusement, for example, followed The Big Lebowski. But over repeated viewings it has become one of my favorite movies of all time. No Country For Old Men also took multiple viewings to fully figure out, though for entirely different reasons. O Brother! Where Art Thou? was enchanting and remains so. Even Blood Simple was sort of amazing, resurrecting these long-out-of-fashion zooms and giving us a plot that the lead character ultimately didn’t understand.

I’ve maintained that the Coen’s have different styles of films, which sort of forces my hand with this one: Where does it fit? Comedy? Tragedy? Comedy of the darker sort?

I’ll be damned if I know.

I laughed. A lot. At the same time, the entire film is remarkably poignant and—well, it’s a sort of modern retelling of the Book of Job—or maybe a preface to Job?—set in the Midwest in the ‘60s. (1965-1967, given the appearance of “F-Troop”.)

Our hero is Larry Gopnik, a Jewish physics professor who’s up for tenure. He’s got a series of minor nuisances—a disgruntled student, snotty kids, and a loser uncle who makes home life difficult. And as we watch, Larry’s life goes slowly to hell.

Larry’s a decent sort. He’s passionate about the physics he teaches, and about the math behind the physics, although as a wise man once said, there are no answers there. (Something Larry himself must face as he tries to find reasons for his worsening predicament.)

The Coens are always lauded for cleverness, but often also labeled as “cold”. I don’t agree, necessarily, but I see the point. This movie probably remind me most, at least superficially, of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Except that where Billy Bob Thornton’s barber character was metaphorically non-existent and challenging to care about, Larry seems to be strongly guided by a desire to do the right thing.

Where Thornton barber’s misfortunes might evoke a sort of wry smile that tweaks your sense of injustice, you just really wish Larry could catch a break. And it’s quite a roller-coaster ride. You don’t get any easy answers. In fact, the final scenes suggest you may have had the wrong questions all along.

In the telling, of course, you have amazing camerawork by the amazing Roger Deakins. The palette for the movie is the gawdawful, drab ’60s avocado greens and mustard yellows, and the whole thing strongly evokes the faded, crappy Kodachrome you’d see on all those late-night movies-till-dawn programs ca. 1980.

But wow. Amazing stuff. Every shot communicates. It’d be worth seeing again just to see what the various angles and compositions were saying. And then again to try to figure out how all those ugly colors and styles make such an aesthetically pleasing movie.

The Gopnik family itself seems both vaguely familiar and not immediately identifiable, actor Michel Stuhlbarg (Larry) has been a few things, but for the actors playing his wife, daughter and son, this their first roles.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is a sort of “Who’s Jew”: Richard Kind as poor uncle Arthur, George Wyner, Adam Arkin, Michael Lerner, even Fyvush Finkel as a dybbuk (maybe).

Yes, about that dybbuk. The movie opens with a story about a man who’s helped during a snowstorm by a beloved rabbi. Which would be a blessing, if the rabbi hadn’t died years ago. Because the rabbi did, in fact the man has invited a dybbuk into his home. Which is quite a curse.

But did the rabbi die? Is it really a dybbuk? The ambiguity there may, in fact, be the key to the whole movie. What are blessings and what are curses? Is it always known?

I liked the movie more and more as it went on, I think for its peculiar empathy. Even when Larry does something wrong, you feel for him. There’s no judgment there. He’s human. And it has stayed with me all week.

I started thinking as I left that this may be the best movie of the year, better than my previous champ The Brothers Bloom. I can’t see it getting the attention No Country did: There’s a strong spiritual undercurrent, about Man’s relationship to God, and as dark as it is, there’s something life-affirming about it, where Hollywood seems to prefer nihilism.

The Boy liked it very much, though he missed a lot of the Biblical imagery. He was puzzling out the meaning of the dybbuk though, after I had sort of forgotten it.

I wouldn’t call it a dark comedy, though. As a lover of dark comedies, this felt entirely different to me—perhaps way too much reality. I don’t know. But I’d recommend it on a lot of different levels.

Tickling Leo

If there’s one thing that movies have taught me, one secret mystery that has been revealed to me, over and over through celluloid magic, it’s this:

Genocide is bad.

Time-and-again, Hollywood’s superior moral compass steers away from life’s most treacherous pitfalls. Just the other day, I was thinking of wiping out the Ainu but I remembered some important (if sometimes confusing) lessons recent movies had taught me.

“But Blake!” you cry, “What about Reds and Che and all those movies celebrating revolution that resulted in, or even immediately involved mass murder!”

“Well, that’s democide,” I reply smugly. “The jury’s still out on democide. No consensus there.”

“But genocide was also a big part of the Soviet regime, too!”

“Shut up,” I explain.

I digress. And exaggerate. Because today’s movie, Tickling Leo, is really a low-budget effort without much of Hollywood about it. It’s the story of Zak Pikler, who goes with his girlfriend Delphina to visit his estranged father upon hearing that he’s not quite right. Upon arriving, he finds out that his father is not well. In fact, he’s losing his mind.

Sure, we’ve seen it before. A lot. But have we seen it with WWII-surviving Jews? (Actually, I sort of think we have.)

Anyway, while Zak is estranged from his father Warren, Warren is, in turn estranged from his father Emil (Eli Wallach at 94, folks). As it turns out, Emil had to make a hard choice during WWII that Warren never understood, and Warren carried this anger through by renouncing his faith and not raising his son in the church—and further excoriating his non-Jewish wife when she tries to expose him to a little of it.

Delphina obviously has a passing interest in resolving this conflict, though there’s not a whole lot she can do, other than insisting Zak act like a civil human being.

I asked the boy afterward what he thought and he said:

“It was a very good example of its genre.”
“What did you think its genre was?”

But, in fact, it’s not a depressing movie, which is quite a feat, given the subject matter. Movies like this—I mean both Alzheimer’s movies and Holocaust movies—can tend to wallow. (Helloooo, The Notebook!)

It’s traditional film-making for the most part. Not a lot of shaky-cam. A few scenes are too darkly lit for what appears to budgetary reasons rather than artistic ones. But overall, the solid acting and writing makes for something that doesn’t feel uncomfortably low budget.

And it manages to weave a thread of optimism in it, which I tend to favor.

Still, it’s a niche.

Intriguingly enough, our next movie would also be steeped in Jewish-themed.

Paranormal Activity: Return of the Old, Dark House

The Boy and I snuck in a Saturday Matinee in the hopes of seeing Paranormal Activity while avoiding—well, let’s be honest, the public, who can’t really be trusted to shut up and actually watch a movie these days. Particularly, since one of our last horror outings (The Orphan) had taken place in a theater full of rowdy teenagers, we’d hoped an early Saturday show would be mostly empty.

It wasn’t, unfortunately. But the audience was quiet, leading me to suspect that alcohol plays a factor in teen jerkiness, maybe more than the teen part even.

This movie, the brain child of writer/director/former video game programmer Oren Peli is actually nothing more than a classic Old, Dark House story. Which means, seriously, a bad audience will ruin it for you.

This movie has one of the slowest buildups for a horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. Well, for a good horror movie. The movie is absent any gore whatsoever—you’ve seen worse on “Law and Order”. The horrors, very literally, are bumps in the night.

Actually, those are some of the more overt horrors. A couple of others are a door that moves about six inches, and one of the characters just standing there.

You get the idea. It’s all in the telling. Oh! And sleepwalking! I haven’t seen sleepwalking used to be scary since, what, 1943’s I Walked With A Zombie?

The story is that Katie and Micah have been living together with a bit of poltergeist phenomenon. It’s been getting worse and rattling Katie, so she calls in a psychic. In this interview, we come to understand the Katie’s been having this problem most of her life. The psychic decides that it’s not your average restless spirit, but a demon, and he doesn’t do demons. Call the local demonologist.

Against this backdrop, the glib, cocky Micah goes through a number of changes. Katie, of course, believes and is very respectful of her demon while Micah goes from thinking on the one hand that it’s all silly and psychics are worthless, to being excited about the prospect of catching interesting film footage and actually stirring stuff up.

And while this is all hand-held video, for good stretches the camera is mounted, meaning much less of the shakes.

It’s actually got a very real feel to it, much more so than Blair Witch, and if Zombieland is a sort of low budget, the budget for this movie is said to be eleven thousand dollars. Most of the chills are ghost-story type things, such as a door opening slightly or a sheet billowing, but there are some interesting footfalls and a bit of special effects at the ending, too. It’s all lightly done, though.

Adding to it is that Micah and Kate (the actors’ real names) have a very real look to them. Kate is “Hollywood fat” which is to say, not fat at all, but probably fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than they’ll let her be if she’s in anything else. (Remember how skinny Heather Donahue got after “Witch”. Scarier than the movie.)

Anyway, rather realistically and conveniently, her boyfriend tends to leer a bit when he’s got the camera on her. A little less realistically is that she wears bras to bed. (I guess not unheard of, but it reminded me a bit of Megan McCain’s just lying around the house picture.) A couple of other things like that sort of caught my eye. (Like, why don’t they change sides in bed? Well, the camera shots are better that way and it probably wouldn’t make any difference story-wise. Still, that’s what I would’ve done.)

But when you’re picking nits at this level, you’ve got yourself a solid picture.

Couldn’t figure out why it was rated R when it was over. I guess there was some swearing? (I don’t usually notice.) But I’d guess it was more that that’s what the filmmakers wanted. PG-13 would’ve been more than adequate. It had an “R” feel, though.

I like “house” movies; always have. But this is an especially good one.

The Boy was less impressed. You could say we were flipped on this and Zombieland. I liked the slow buildup, he thought it was too slow. Also, Zombieland is more lighthearted, whereas this movie gets more and more serious every passing scene, despite a lot of humor.

Nonetheless, not only were people quiet during this movie, most stayed quiet well after the final scene, not really sure if it was over. Even the people who decided it was over left quietly. Pretty amazing, really.

Movie Review: Zombieland

Using the template established by 28 Days Later, and bouncing off a little Shaun of the Dead, the new movie Zombieland gives us a fun-filled romp across a zombie-filled American West.

What more do you need, really?

Well, if you’re The Boy, a lot more. I had a hard time getting him to see this one. The potential for stupid was huge, and director Fleischer, along with writers Reese and Wernick, don’t have a big dossier. I kind of blanked on Woody Harrelson—whom he actually knows from a bunch of movies at this point—and while I remembered Jesse Eisenberg from Adventureland, I had forgotten that Emma Stone was his love interest in that movie, as well. Abigail Breslin from Little Miss Sunshine rounds out the core cast.

But he doesn’t usually go see movies because of the actors anyway.

But I persuaded him and he loved it. It’s a brisk movie, just an hour-and-a-half which is pretty solidly plotted, and mostly pretty light for a post-apocalyptic movie. It dispenses with a number of the genre traditions set up by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to good end. It’s not real scary, despite a few good shocks in the beginning, but it is massively gory.

Possibly the goriest I’ve seen this year. Possibly the goriest last year, too.

The gore is very sincerely done and well-executed. For a relatively low-budget movie, it does a very convincing job of gore-spewing and head-smashing and so on.

If you’re squeamish, in other words, steer clear.

Anyway, the plot basically concerns Eisenberg as an unlikely survivor who crosses path with the more macho Harrelson as they journey to their respective homes. Harrelson’s character likes to call everyone by their home town, so Eisenberg becomes Columbus, while he’s Tallahassee. Stone and Breslin are Witchita and Little Rock, respectively.

Columbus, formerly a shut-in, has managed to survive by compiling a simple list of rules he always follows. Things like strapping on the seatbelt and being extra-cautious of bathrooms—the latter being a virtual zombie movie cliché. These give the movie a nice start, funny and in good contrast with Tallahassee’s more ad hoc style of engagement.

This is mostly dropped in the middle of the movie which may or may not have been a good idea. It resurfaces again toward the end. I have to say, even at ninety minutes, I actually thought the end of act 2 and the beginning of act 3 was kind of a drag.

The movie is really well plotted up to this point. There’s a gag bit in the middle which is hilarious but seems to end the movie’s drive.

Still it all ends well enough, and there were a lot of ending clichés avoided as well. Where Shaun of the Dead ends with an excellent (but very standard) zombie beatdown, this stays true to it’s own feel, which is nice.

I’m being vague about details because a lot of the delight of this movie comes from its originality, and the light character arcs which manage to be pretty good despite being very light.

If you can get past the (over the top) gore, you can have yourself a good time.

Review: The Invention Of Lying

Imagine a world where no one lied. That there was no concept of lying, even. That all manners of fictions, deceits, imaginations and cons simply did not exist, and so neither did protections against them. Then imagine one man suddenly developed the ability to lie.

Or, don’t imagine it and go see the new Ricky Gervais movie The Invention of Lying instead.

Or, maybe don’t go see it.

The Boy said it was good though he thought it could’ve been funnier. Then the next day he said it was kind of depressing.

It’s interesting. The premise posits a drab world—modern day but rather colorless—and presumes the most cynical values of “truth”. After all, one can say any number of true things at any time. One doesn’t have to pick the most hurtful truth. But that wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

It’s a fragile premise: As if we could get to this point without imagination. But even allowing for that, as if we could get to this point without the concept of differing in opinion or just simply being wrong. Survival would be unpossible.

OK, we’re playing for laughs here. And it’s sort of funny seeing the world without euphemism, though actually not as funny as it should have been. (I felt like I could think of a dozen funny opportunities missed.) Part of this premise seems to be that there’s an agreed upon truth, and no one can deviate from it.

So, our hero (Gervais) is a homely loser who will never amount to anything—because he’s a homely loser who won’t amount to anything. We see him on a date with Jennifer Garner, who states flatly that she’s out of his league and, even though she likes him, they’re not “genetic matches"—as if that were a term with some sense to it.

In his darkest hour, something in his brain goes off, and he is able to lie to get himself out of a jam. And for a moment, it looks as though he’s going to pull a Groundhog Day, using his power for self-indulgence until he hits rock bottom and comes out the other side. I was grateful they avoided this plot—though Gervais could certainly pull it off—because that was sort of the plot of Ghost Town.

Gervais is most emphatically not a jerk here. He’s a nice guy who’s been labeled a loser and believes that label (because he has no choice but to do so). He quickly turns his ability to lie to try to help others. (Not that he isn’t plenty self-serving.) He brings his loser pals CK Louis and the suicidal Jonah Hill along for the ride, just for example.

The movie’s turning point is very possibly its downfall. In one of the most touching scenes I’ve seen all year, Gervais sits with his mother as she dies.

I’m going to do a little SPOILER here, so beware if you want to be surprised. I wasn’t surprised in the least, because the "twist” here had occurred to me about five times before it happened.

You’ve been warned. You probably should check out of this review now if you want to view this movie in a pristine state.

OK, so Gervais’ mother (the lovely Fionnula Flanagan, whose name I spelled right without looking it up!) is dying and sobbing hysterically because that’s the end and she’ll cease to exist for all eternity, so to make her feel better, he invents Heaven. This makes her happy but increases the complications for him, since the staff overhears him and wants to know more.

Cue Life of Brian style intrigue.

Hugely touching scene. But now the movie’s stepped in it. Truth is now materialism. And Gervais is then required to invent religion. But he does a piss-poor job at it, taking a micromanagement view of God that confuses everyone and gets them worked up.

Now, it’s perfectly plausible that Gervais’ character would do a poor job. But there was no reason for him to invent The Man In the Sky in the first place. No reason, in fact, that he would think of such a thing. All he had to do was invent the soul. Which makes the whole thing comes off rather anti-religion, atheist and working on the assumption that materialism is truth.

Then all of the “helpful lies” start falling apart, too. At first, we’re given a world where no one is happy because there are no lies. Then we’re given a world where no one is happy because of lies.

Well, a world where no one is happy isn’t very funny. And all the guest-stars in the world (Jason Bateman as a smiling doctor who is completely unmoved by death, Rob Lowe as Gervais’ genetically superior rival, Philip Seymour Hoffman as a bartender, Ed Norton as a cop, etc.) can only buoy it a little.

I’ve never had any opinions of Jennifer Garner in her early years but her work here and in Juno has really impressed me. (Though I do think she’s kind of goofy looking. Is that just me?) At the same time, a scene with her and Lowe just lies there (as it were).

It all comes off a little clunky, and the sharp veer into what are rather heavy matters of truth and reality, ends up bringing the whole movie down to a limping pace. Kind of depressing, as The Boy says, and ultimately saying what about Man and humanity?

We can’t be happy if we only believe the truth, and we can’t be happy if we believe in lies, but we can be happy if we can fool everyone else with our lies?

I mean, it’s a comedy, right? It probably didn’t mean to be profound at all. But if not, it should have trod a lighter path.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Miracle Mile

Here’s a kind of obscure movie that wasn’t out long enough for me to see back in the ‘80s. It perfectly captures the Reagan-era atomic annihilation paranoia which, interestingly enough, seemed to peak at the end of the Cold War.

The press reveled in presenting Reagan as an amiable dunce with an itchy trigger finger which, curiously, never took effect. They and their Democratic masters called him the Teflon President. They tried to smear him and were frustrated by their failure. (It is hard to understand, really, the Press spoke with one voice back then that can scarcely be imagined now. But the economy was going gangbusters and that pretty much determines popular success or failure, I think.)

This had two effects. One was, they perhaps bizarrely gave Reagan a kind of credibility with the Communists that scared them into bankrupting themselves. But the more obvious one was that they scared the bejeesus out of the West, giving rise to apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives like at no other time in history. Possibly at a time when they were least like to happen.

So let us look at this 1988—no, really, the wall would come down the next year—nuclear war film, which stars a bunch of TV luminaries, like Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, Denise Crosby and Mykelti Williamson, as well as cult favorites O-lan Jones, John Agar and Jenette Goldstein, to say nothing of a cameo by actor/director Peter Berg.

The story goes that trombonist Harry (Edwards) and waitress Julie (Winningham) meet each other at the museum, but due to a stray cigarette and some sleepy pills, Anthony ends up missing a late-night date with her. This puts him at his date location at 4:00AM in the heart of the Miracle Mile district.

While waiting outside Johnny’s Diner, the phone rings, but it’s not Julie, it’s some guy in a nuclear silo trying to reach his dad. He’s distraught because, apparently, he’s been ordered to launch.

Now, Anthony has about an hour and fifteen minutes to live, and he ends up trying to convince others in the coffee shop that it’s for real, and they’ve got to get out of the city. But as they’re in progress, he decides he has to get off—he has to go get Julie.

So it’s sort of a surreal love story.

Why the movie works (for me) is the surreality that attends this adventure. The love-at-first-sight-turning-to-boning-on-second-date. The bird that carts off the cigarette. The possums that fall from the tree. The transvestite. The 1988 cell phone. The cop covered in gasoline who shoots her gun. The old couple that refuses to talk to each other till the day they die. The helipad search for vitamins. The eerily lit all-night gym. The rioting. The elevator make-out.

All in an area I had lived in for a couple of years. Not Miracle Mile—I didn’t have that kind of money. But I knew Johnnies. (I didn’t eat there; I was more a Norm’s guy. But I’m pretty sure that they didn’t have the Bob’s Big Boy-style giant dude with twirling hamburgers.) The Fairfax district (where the museum is) still looks basically the same, and I visit the museum and other sights occasionally. So there’s a little of the Volcano-type thing that appeals to me, too.

Some people just think it’s all stupid. I don’t know: None of us really knows how we or anyone else would act in that circumstance. I think a little weirdness is in order, frankly. Some say this movie was originally meant to be part of “The Twilight Zone” movie which, I suppose, wouldn’t have fit any better or worse than John Landis’ entry, though Vic Morrow might still be alive.

If there’s a moral to this week’s entry, it’s that a lot of people, even into 1988, months before the wall came down, thought the end was nigh. In the next few years, nuclear apocalypse movies would take a big hit. (Even though an unstable Russia may have been far more dangerous than a decaying USSR.)

Now, while people still worry about nuclear bombs, they worry a lot less about total nuclear annihilation. Which goes to show you that sometimes it really is darkest before the dawn.

Movie Review: Pandorum

We’re coming out of lean times as far as moviegoing goes. As August winds down and well into September, typically the dregs of the season are released: Summer films that everyone thinks will flop, Award-season films that won’t win any awards, horror movies that can’t compete at Halloween, and so on.

That means that an occasional breakout success cleans up—it has no serious competition—though we haven’t seen that this year. But it’s a challenge for the regular moviegoer.

From this bleak desert we wandered into Pandorum, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi old-dark-house road-trip monster movie, starring Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid.

The story is simple, but perhaps I shouldn’t describe too much. Basically Payton and Bower (Quaid and Foster, respectively) wake up on their way to a distant world, but with no memory of who they are or what their mission is. OK, no need to panic since memory loss is a side-effect of hypersleep—but a little more disturbing when they realized they weren’t woken up by the previous shift. And the power is down. And they can’t get out of their sleep area.

That’s the sci-fi and old-dark-house part.

Shortly thereafter, they find the ship overrun by monsters. That’s the monster movie part.

Foster realizes he has to get to the reactor and restart it before it shuts down for good, and he finds some other awoken folks to accompany him: Road Trip!

And, oh, the movie starts with a series of rather grim statements about earth in the upcoming years, then goes to a picture of a crew on the bridge of the ship receiving a message from earth that says “You’re the last of us.” So, yeah, you can figure out the post-Apocalyptic part.

In fact, there are a couple of “reveals” like that later on in the movie where you’re thinking, “OK, not shocking since you showed that in the first fifteen minutes,” but this is well-directed and acted to the point where you sort of empathize for the characters: They didn’t know it. (Came in late to the movie, as it were.)

This sort of evokes Moon though without the shoestring budget. It still feels kind of cheap but—I don’t know, is $40M cheap these days? Kind of seems like a lot to spend on a movie with no hot stars and no promotion/marketing budget. I hadn’t even heard of this film.

It also saves its minimal corporate bashing for the beginning of the movie. There are intimations that corporations are behind all the world’s problems, but nothing to get hung up on.

As I mentioned, a lot of the reveals aren’t very revealing. And a lot of the tension I felt came from worrying they were going to screw the whole thing up. The titular Pandorum is, like, the “space willies”. So there’s a lot of question about who is crazy and who isn’t, and it has a big impact on how you perceive the story.

You might even, at the end, wonder if the whole thing’s a hallucination. But that’s reaching.

The boy proclaimed it very, very good, and particularly because the ending didn’t suck.

Sci-Old Dark House movies (Alien, Event Horizon, Sunshine) very often end badly. This looked like it was going to take one of those bad endings. About six times, actually. And one of the resolutions was sort of disappointing.

But overall, the spooky stuff works pretty well, the action works pretty well, the adventure works pretty well—though it’s all a bit familiar by now—and the plot (also well-worn) plays the right balance of tension and gratuitously-twisty-ending to come out in a satisfying fashion, which is rare.

Foster is good, Quaid is…Quaid, the other supporting actors are quite good, though most of the notice is going to go to Antje Traue, who’s like a German Kate Beckinsale with curves.

In short, this was a pleasant little surprise of a movie, I mean, if you don’t rule out cannibalism, monsters, murder, insanity and treachery from your “pleasant surprise” entertainment.