Rockin’ Past The Graveyard

I would have predicted that Young At Heart would be the big indie movie this summer. Old people singing edgy rock songs? How can that not be fun?

But I’m told that the buzz around The Visitor is better. For whatever “buzz” we have, The Boy and I liked this one better. A lot.

This documentary concerns chorus director Bob Cilman’s group of septuagenarians and octogenarians (and a couple of nonagenarians!) singing The Ramones, Sonic Youth, The Zombies, etc., as they prepare for a new season–only seven weeks away.

All right, you smart ass punk kids who are thinking, “Well, that’s the music of their youth, right?” Go to your rooms. Actually, these guys were well into their 30s when their oldest song (“She’s Not There”) was a hit.

The group rehearses three times a week and various members are given solos and duets and marvelously large font lyric sheets that they still need to use giant magnifying glasses to read. This works for a couple of reasons. First, Cilman takes it seriously: He pushes the boundaries. For example, he chooses Schizophrenic by Sonic Youth, which is not exactly a crowd-pleasing anthem, and the old folks don’t get it. Meanwhile, the Pointer Sisters funk classic “Yes We Can Can”, is just challenging to get two dozen old folks to sing all 71 of the “cans” right. And then there’s just the matter of some things being hard for your leads to get, as with the two lead singers having trouble with “I Feel Good”.

There’s a real sense of suspense here, as you the old folks work and struggle to get things right. But that’s the other thing that makes it work: These senior citizens are pros. What they lack in skill, or what age has dulled, they make up for in dedication. Cilman takes it seriously and treats them with respect–which is to say that he sometimes busts their chops for not getting things right. (Now, in the world of choral directors, he’s pretty mild but he’s not toothless, and some of the stuff he does may shock those of you who’re not familiar with the world of choral directors and conductors.)

I’m not giving away anything by telling you that they do own the music by the end. (If they didn’t, this would suck as a viewing experience.) But the suspense is still there as changes are made and they own the music in a surprising way.

It’s reminiscent of the Langley Schools Music Project in that it’s not necessarily the most homogeneous of choirs, smoothed down to peanut-butter commercial perfection. There are even a few moments where you can actually get the chills, such as when Fred Knittle sings in the final concert. This guy’s got a marvelous voice, even hooked up to an oxygen tank. For most you might say they sound good for their age–which actually is pretty usual for a choir–but Fred (and some others) have voices that are just plain good, no qualifications.

Mixed in with the documentary are a few low budget music videos which are quite cool (though some don’t think they belong in a documentary). But I thought these were good chances to hear songs all the way through, with a little studio production and without interruption. They do “I Wanna Be Sedated”, “Road To Nowhere” and “Golden Years”.

Now, I’ve often noted that, in any given family-dysfunction film, if there’s an old person, the old person will die by the end of the movie. (Most conspicuously in recent films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Man In The Chair.) But here we have over two-dozen people averaging 80 years of age, and we follow them over a three month period. Actuarially speaking, I think about half could be expected to die.

But where I tend to roll my eyes when I see the old person in the family-dysfunction film, in this movie, you’re practically holding your breath, crossing your fingers and hoping everyone makes it to the big show. This is a potential spoiler, so skip down to the next paragraph if you want to be pristine: Not everyone does make it, and a big part of the final act of the movie is how the group handles the losses. Some people find this sad, but I say it’s going out in style. Sad, to me, is dying because you have nothing to do.

Anyway, you’ll notice that I linked to the originals of the songs instead of the Young @ Heart versions. I would consider it a bigger spoiler to see the musical numbers outside of the documentary than it is to know the fate of each choir member. But they’re available on YouTube, or a lot of them are.

I’ve heard conflicting stories about a soundtrack. There isn’t one yet, and perhaps may never be because they couldn’t afford to license all the songs. (I don’t know how the Langley School Project got away with it.)

In any event, the movie is touching, funny, not mawkish, engrossing and heart-warming. Is the whole thing a little “gimmicky”? Yeah, maybe, but it works, for all the reasons mentioned above. Seeing old people sing edgy rock songs is a good hook, but if they didn’t do a good job, audiences would turn away.

But in a lot of ways, the songs take on new meaning being sung by these folks. And it’s a meaning worth hearing.

Prince Caspian

The onward march of the film-izations of the C.S. Lewis Narnia series proceeds, somewhat sluggishly, with the second film Prince Caspian, released this month.

I confess that I found the books enjoyable, but somewhat forgettable. They lack the intricacy of Tolkien but also the density. Unlike a 1,500 page single novel (as Lord of the Rings is), the Narnia books are episodic, and they’re all resolved (more or less) through a deus ex machina.

Not to say they’re bad, mind you. They’re very straightforward, though.

The movie follows the book pretty faithfully, from what I recall, except for a brief appearance from the White Witch. (I don’t reccall that from the book.) And, thankfully, the kids are a lot less whiny in this one. (Susan, in particular was sort of a scold in the first movie, whereas in the first book, she was more responsible and conservative without being shrewish.)

The Pevensies are transported back to Narnia to help Prince Caspian, whose uncle is trying to have him killed. Caspian and his uncle, King Miraz are Telmarines, whose ancestors have wiped out the Narnians in the 1300 year absence of the Pevensies. (The Pevensies, as you’ll recall, grew to adulthood in Narnia but apparently left behind no heirs, and regressed to childhood at the end of the first story.)

Caspian’s been trained by Dr. Cornelius, who has kept the story of the Narnians alive, so that when Caspian encounters them, he sees it as his job to rally them, both to defeat his uncle and to restore Narnia.

There’s your story right there, with Aslan floating around on the edges. (If there’s a theme in the second book, only partly captured by the movie, it’s that one should cleave to the truth, even if no one else believes it.)

And it’s pretty solid. Not boring. A lot has been made of the violence, which is conspicuously non-bloody, but humans and other creatures die, sometimes tragically so. The Flower wasn’t too concerned but she knew it would turn out okay. (Some of the previews were rather dark, though.)

The acting is top-flight, as could be expected. In particular, Peter Dinklage steals the show as Trumpkin, the recalcitrant dwarf. There’s a brief scene with Tilda Swinton that she pwns, too.

The kids are good, thankfully, though the three years have resulted in some serious…blossoming…for Anna Popplewell. It’s pretty well hidden, thankfully, and they do their best to make her look young, but at times it’s clear she’s closer to 20 than 15.

Special effects-wise, this movie is better than the last. The centaurs are noticably improved. The only really awful effect is a Bear. Oh, and a lot of the shooting was clearly outdoors, and very beautiful, which has the effect of making the CGI very obviously CGI-ish. (Directors need to learn that: Using real locations really throws the fakes into contrast. Be-vare!

I’d say if you liked the first one, you’d like this one. You might even like this one better.

UPDATE: The Boy was not pleased. He liked that the children weren’t so whiny but he highly disapproved of the battle scenes. Listening to him, I tend to agree there was some loose stuff, but I tend to turn off the brain during this sort of movie anyway.

Before The Rains

A series of domestic disasters propelled me to the theater for a late night showing of Before The Rains.

Two words: Merchant-Ivory

Or is that one hyphenated word?

In any event, this is the story of Brit Henry Moores (Linus Roache, now seen weekly doing an American accent on “Law & Order) and Indian T.K. (Indian actor Rahul Bose) as they plan to build a road up a mountain that will give them access to teas and spices.

Only challenge? They have to get it done before the rains.

Oh, if only. Wouldn’t that be an exciting movie? All the engineering challenges and time pressures to finish the road before the monsoon season! And, in fairness, that is the context in which the story takes place, and it does provide what suspense the movie has.

But the main problem is that Moores has, eh, dickitusinthewrongplaceitus. In this case, his house servant is the lovely Sajani (played by the lovely Nandita Das) and she’s quite a temptation. Not that we get any impression Moores was inclined to resist.

Of course, she’s married, he’s married and, it goes without saying, that’s way more risky for her than for him.

This is all done against the backdrop of 1937, with India’s burgeoning revolution from Britain.

Sounds better than it actually plays out. It never really grips you. The suspense never really cranks up, and in some sense it seems as though the director is hard on the British, even while the British have far less savage practices as far as handling adultery.

I don’t know quite what it was but I asked the Boy and he said. "It was okay. It didn’t provide you with any context so that you could get into it.”

Interesting. Neither of us got into it. The Boy felt it was lack of context–perhaps so.

What was funny was that he added, “I’m such an economics geek that I was really interested in the road and the spices, and the use of elephants…”

Yeah, me, too. I wanted to see that movie. But then, that’s why I prefer straight-up fiction to historical drama.

The Visitor

OK, so, the trailers look pretty hackneyed: An old white man is taught to enjoy life through the transformational power of music by an immigrant young couple of color. A pro-illegal-immigration propaganda fest.

But this written and directed by “The Wire” regular Thomas McCarthy who also wrote and directed the highly enjoyable The Station Agent.

Besides, while the anti-illegal crowd gets to trot out the felons, it’s fair for the other side to point out that the mass of immigrants are good people, right?

Anyway, the pre-show buzz at the theater was high. The room was packed and the manager was telling us that the word-of-mouth was so good, The Visitor had been increasing its audience every week. So fore-warned, we entered the theater.

And, lo, we were disappointed.

The Boy said, “I was disappointed. It started good. But sometimes when you put a message in a movie, you screw up the movie. Good acting, though.”

I actually hadn’t thought of it in those terms–that it was the message screwing up the movie–but he might be right.

Let’s start with what’s right about this movie. The great character actor Richard Jenkins–whom you know from about a million things–in the role and performance of a lifetime as Watler Vale, an economist who is in extended mourning over his dead wife when he’s wrangled into going to New York City for a conference.

Much to his surprise he finds a young couple living in his New York apartment: Tarek (played by Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician and his Senegalese wife Zainab (played by the stunning Danai Jekesai Gurira).

The spotlight’s on Walter, though, whom we first see in real human contact with others when he agrees to let the couple stay for a while. Tarek is both grateful and gracious, while Zainab is much more suspicious.

The connection is made stronger when Walter sees the drum that Tarek plays and ultimately ends up having Tarek give him lessons. His wife was clearly the source of music in his life, and he fails miserably at the piano, but takes remarkably well to the freer expression of improvised percussion.

This part of the movie sings. It reminds me of another favorite I bring up here a lot: Schultze Gets The Blues, though it doesn’t have the same static feel. Schultze’s ennui is because, well, he’s German, and lived a life in the salt mines. Vale’s ennui is clearly brought about by the death of his wife, and his failure to resolve it through finding a new source of music–though the fact that he’s an economics professor doesn’t help, one supposes.

The grand part of this movie is the way music flows through every part of it. Classical, jazz, percussive jams, even Andrew Lloyd Weber–all inform the experience of the characters.

Then Tarek is picked up by the USCIS. Oh, no! He’s illegal! He’s detained! He was supposed to have been deported years ago!

Walter hires an immigration attorney, and when Tarek’s mother Mouna (played by the lovely Hiam Abbass of Munich and Paradise Now fame), he quickly forms an intense attachment to the widowed woman.

Now, in a Hollywood big budget picture, we all know what has to happen: After a series of exciting court challenges, Mouna and Walter get married, and thus are allowed to keep Tarek in the country while Zainab has an anchor baby.

That would be bad, of course, because it would be nonsense. This is a giant, faceless bureaucracy, answerable to no one and responsive to no one. It’s the modern “deus ex machina” where a pissed of Poseidon sinks a ship because someone blinded his son. It is, in effect, shit happening.

No, we know there’s not going to be a perfect ending, exactly, but there are various degrees of sub-optimal endings that are possible. I mean, in the stereotype of the art-house flick, Tarek goes back to Syria and gets killed, Walter commits suicide, and the women are sold into slavery.

Or something. There are degrees, and I don’t want to give anything away here.

The problem with this is, what had been an engaging movie up to that point comes almost to a dead stop. We’re left with the burgeoning relationship between Walter and Mouna, but we’re concerned about Tarek, whom we no longer see at that point.

I suspect it’s very, very realistic. That does not make it entertaining or engaging. The characters continue to develop, so its not unbearable, but they’re frozen. The filmmakers have presented them with an obstacle they are utterly powerless to change.

And maybe that was the message, and so, as the boy said, trying to get it across ruined the movie. Maybe so. There are certain things that, I think, defeat that message if that’s really supposed to be the point.

Whatever the reason, though, the end of the movie left the audience in silent contemplation, not rousing applause. Or even quiet applause.


Back in the day, I was a martial artist. I worked hard at it, and it was probably the only non-familial group I’ve ever really felt strong bonds with. Of course, a big part of the appeal is the shared suffering. (Martial arts training, if you take it seriously and it’s a serious school, has a sort of military feel to it.) But another part of the appeal, at least for me, was the complete impracticality.

This may come as a shock to you (all 14 of you), but I’m not very practical by nature. I have responsibilities, of course, and I handle those as efficiently as possible. But I do so precisely because I’m not very practical. I tend to be very A-to-B when I work, as well, because I know that my inclination is to expand problems until the solution becomes interesting.

I mean, really, if you want practical self-defense, buy a gun and learn how to use it. Knives, sprays, air horns and cell phones are probably all going to trump physical combat in a self-defense situation. Probably the most useful thing self-defense training can teach the average person is how not to panic in a threatening situation. (A gun’s no good if your hands aren’t steady enough to retrieve it.)

But more than that, there’s The Code. Warrior codes are great. Just knowing and aspiring to them tends to puff a person up (in a good way). But they all tend to have their roots in days of knights or samurai, and so, they aren’t very practical.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but all of the real fighters and teachers of fighters that I have known have been poor. Even those who had made some money fighting or being in movies ended up broke.

Which brings me to David Mamet’s new work, Redbelt. Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) runs a serious Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studio which isn’t financially successful. In fact, the loss of the front window is enough to seriously challenge its survival.

At the urging of his wife, Sondra (played by the gorgeous Alice Braga, whom I immediately pegged as a relative of Sonia Braga), Mike goes to a bar to borrow money from his brother-in-law, and the events that follow lead circuitously to what appears to be a fortuitous turn of events for everyone.

But the wheel spins again, and everything suddenly turns sour. Actually, it’s not entirely clear how much of what happens is chance. It’s entirely possible that the whole thing was plotted from the get-go by one or more characters. Or perhaps most of the events are sheer coincidence.

People can get hung up on those things. But none of that is the point.

The point is how Terry reacts, how his code survives contact with unpleasant real world choices, betrayal, disappointment, and other assorted ugliness.

I know the type of person being portrayed. And for the most part, this highly stylized story is an accurate portrayal. The only part that struck me as off was how quickly Terry takes up the opportunity to parlay his acumen into a potential job in the movies. The warrior types I’ve known tend to be highly suspicious and protective of what they do.

Now, the ending of this movie is more outrageous than any Rocky movie. There are things throughout the movie which may or may not be plot flaws–and for the most part I think it’s Mamet cutting out long-winded expository or hand-holding in favor of showing us the meat of the thing–but the ending is pure dramatic license.

This offended me not at all, but if you’re looking for something that’s hyper-realistic, this is not that film.

The acting is top-notch. The characters are well fleshed out, and better known actors (like Tim Allen as a narcissistic star, David Paymer as a loan shark, Emily Mortimer as a neurotic lawyer, and Joe Mantegna as a sleazy assistant) work well with the less known (such as Braga, who’s more famous in Brazil, Jose Pablo Cantillo as “Snowflake”, the only other student of Terry’s that we see, and Max Martini as the cop who’s down on his luck).

Ultimately, though, this is Ejiofor’s show and Terry’s battle, and the actor (and character) are both up to the tasks at hand.

The Boy also enjoyed the film, which is interesting, since the he recognized the unreality of the final scene. But I think it’s that the film overall didn’t insult his intelligence that he was able to enjoy and appreciate the drama of the last scene.

The fights weren’t bad either.

Priceless (Hors de Prix)

I hadn’t seen an Audrey Tatou movie since A Very Long Engagement and I wasn’t actually champing at the bit to see this one. But we were desperate, and I had actually liked the director Pierre Salvadori’s previous outing, Après Vous, rated at a mediocre 6.5 on IMDB.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the lead was the highly talented Gad Elmaleh as Jean, who was also the eponymous Valet (La Doublure). Once again, he’s a member of the service industry (a sort of jack-of-all-trades in a hotel) when he’s mistaken for a wealthy man by the gold-digging Irène (Tatou).

A second chance encounter results in chaos, and in his pursuit of Irène, he ends up living the life of a gigolo. This leads to an interesting examination of double standards, to say nothing of the peculiar situation of the two trading tips on how best to milk their respective marks.

At the same time, the aloof and mercenary Irène torments Jean, then warms to him, then finally becomes both jealous and admiring of his successes.

It is, as most French sex farces, rather seamy. You can’t help but feel a little bad for their marks, however foolish. But the charisma of the leads ultimately wins out. And it doesn’t hurt that Ms. Tatou is getting no less beautiful over time.

Actually, this movie is sort of an inverted Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a thought made all the more striking by Tatou’s resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. But obviously, it’s not for the easily offended.

I. Am. (Fe) Man.

All right, everyone’s on about the new superhero movie Iron Man and I actually did go to see it opening weekend (rare for me, but it was the only thing playing at the time I could get away).

First things first: Take the f#$*(@ing bluetooth earpiece out of your (*#$*@ ear, jerkwad. That piercing blue LED makes watching the movie near you like watching it on an airport runway. OK?

OK, then.

Iron Man is apparently some sort of comic book hero–a guy in a waldo, by classic sci-fi terms. Because it’s the first movie (and, oh, yes, there will be more), we get an origin story: Arms dealer and man-about-town Tony Stark is captured on a middle east tour and held captive by terrorists who want him to build them one of these super-duper missiles he’s building for the US.

Instead, in comic book logic, he builds a super-suit and kicks their ass. Oh, and in the course of his kidnapping, he gets shot up and his co-prisoner saves his life by installing some sort of electromagnet that keeps the shrapnel out of his heart.

This is probably the most inspired comic book logic since Doc Ock preceded his work on a fusion reaction by building four artificially intelligent cyber-limbs (Spiderman 2).

Which is to say it’s delightfully insane.

Anyway, he frees himself with the help of his suit, and then gets rescued from the deserts of Terroristan. And then things sorta get murky.

In the first part of the movie, Stark is an unrepentant patriot–you ain’t seen patriotism like this since Starship Troopers, and in this movie, they aren’t kidding!–convinced he’s doing the right thing. After being kidnapped, and learning that the bad guys have his weapons, he sort of has an epiphany, and decides to stop making weapons. He devotes his time to his iron-man suit and the remarkable (also very comic-book) arc-generator that powers it.

Now, logically, Stark would be concerned with how the bad guys got his weapons and, to its credit, the movie does touch on this. But given the pro-military attitude, the idea that he would stop making weapons–jeopardizing his friends in the armed forces–seemed a little inconsistent. Some have interpreted the pause as tempoarary, until he found out who was supplying them.

But as I said, murky.

By the way, if you know anything about comic book logic, it’s apparent from the get-go who the bad guy is.

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, basically, it’s good. Robert Downey Jr. was an excellent choice, and director Jon Favreau is to be commended for this and his overall handling of the subject matter. As with Elf, he plays the story out sincerely, avoiding camp, cynical intellectualism, and any sort of “I’m too good for this” vibe.

The pacing is good, and although the action payoffs aren’t very big, they’re big enough, as the rest of the script is populated by interesting characters, funny situations and the usual stuff that makes movies fun to watch. The music is adequate, if not memorable.

The supporting cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow (looking like Kirsten Dunst and sounding like Lisa Kudrow), Terence Howard as an Air Force buddy, Leslie Bibb as an intermittently antagonistic reporter, Shaun Toub (of Kite Runner) as the cave-imprisoned heart surgeon, and–as an extra added bonus for any movie–Jeff Bridges as corporate chief of Stark Enterprises. (I didn’t actually recognize him–bald and gray-bearded–until he spoke, and kept hoping he’d say “Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!”)

Overall, it’s fun, but not quite great. To compare it further with Spiderman 2, which I think is in some ways the epitome of the comic book film, in that movie, everyone’s motivations were clear, even when distorted for comic book reasons. In this movie Tony Stark stops making weapons but becomes a weapon himself, giving us the message that, what, you can only count on or trust yourself?

Still, I suppose we can’t get the Salkinds/Donner vision of Superman, with Truth, Justice and the American Way presented without further comment (and even back then, there was a lot of camp in those phrases and actions). Shame, though, as it really suited this movie while it lasted.