Orphan: Orphanarium, Part Deux

One of the first movies I blogged about was the Spanish horror film The Orphanage. So it’s only fitting to make my last movie blog about the new horror movie The Orphan. Except, of course that this has no connection with that Spanish film, and I’m not going to stop blogging as far as I know.

Other than that, there’s a real poetry here.

Let me just say up front that this is a really, really solid horror flick. I mean, great. Up there with Drag Me To Hell but completely the opposite in tone: Deadly serious.

There was one problem, however: It’s mid-summer, it’s a horror film, which means it’s hard to see it without there being a large percentage of assholes in the audience. And our showing had more than the usual amount. It’s always male teens, of course, whose concept of masculinity is so poor, they feel compelled to prove it by “acting tough” during a horror movie. Half the audience was texting, too.

Really, I should have known better. And I do, but I forget because I’m not all that tied into “summer” and I usually go to the local art house where the big peril is the old folks.

Anyway, back to the movie. This is part of the “Bad Seed” genre, where a young couple (the annoyingly familiar-but-not-quite-identifiable-to-me Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiger) go to adopt a child to compensate for a recent stillborn.

There they meet the delightful Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) who makes rather good oil paintings and sings old show tunes, while not really blending in with the other kids. John and Kate (yes, that is the parents’ names) decide to adopt this quirky kid and bring her home.

Where she immediately sets about killing all who stand in her way. OK, not really. In fact, the initial treatment she receives from her peers (and older brother) is pretty awful. Still, you’re not quite sympathetic because she really does come across as malevolent.

The movie escalates bit-by-bit as Esther reveals more of her true nature and is required to take more and more drastic means to cover up her crimes. She’s also clearly driving a wedge between John and Kate.

You know, I dislike this genre almost as much as I dislike “House of Usher”-type movies (i.e., movies where it’s apparent from the start that the characters are doomed); I think it’s kind of a cheap shot to jeopardize children and put them in the position of evildoers. (Roger Ebert, who gave this movie 3.5 stars said something similar about the late Gene Siskel. I think it’s kind of sweet of him to bring his old partner up.)

Yet, this is a genuinely great horror flick; It manages to present many of the common genre tropes (murderous children, weird sexual overtones, etc) but without falling into the merely unpleasant or icky–the usual fate of such films.

Yes, there is a twist to this film. It occurred to me almost immediately but the movie rather adroitly made me forget about it until about the third act, by which time there were only a few ways the story could go and still make sense. Often after the big reveal, horror movies kind of peter out and coast along, but this one kept going right up to the very last moment.

A huge amount of credit has to go to the young actress playing Esther. (Sure, her Russian accent comes and goes, but it would in real-life, too.) Alternately beautiful and charming, and cold and psychopathic, she bears the brunt of conveying the horror. Kate must be believably menaced by Esther, and this comes off nicely, though the script gets a lot of credit there for not relying too heavily on any particular trope.

That is, when you have a menacing child, there are only a few ways to go to string the movie out, and this one hits them all, but none of them ridiculously hard. Farmiga is not entirely credible due to past history, but the movie doesn’t rest solely on that. And she realizes Esther is off in a serious way, but not one that would justify drastic measures until the end. And then there’s the whole social issue of “troubled children”.

Again, that very delicate balancing act of “well, that’s creepy” versus “well, that’s just downright unpleasant”.

Also true of Sarsgaard, who must be the bland, committed father who is unaware that he’s being manipulated by his new daughter. (All fathers are manipulated, of course, it’s just the unaware part that’s bad. Heh.) Margo Martindale (“Dexter”’s woman in search of the perfect key-lime pie) plays the dull, easily manipulated psychiatrist–sort of a mandatory part for this kind of movie–infuriatingly convcingly.

The siblings (Jimmy Bennet, Aryana Engineer) do an excellent job as well. Interactions with other children are another way that these movies can go off the rails, but the dynamics are handled excellently and rather lightly, in the sense that the movies stays especially focused on Kate and Esther, rather than Esther and her siblings.

A lot of care and thought went into lighting, shooting, music, editing–nothing looks “phoned in”. All-in-all, a very watchable horror flick. Not super-violent, but nonetheless very “adult themed”–not for kids. Two hours long, too, without feeling as long as some 90 minute horrors I’ve seen.

The Boy commented that he wasn’t into it–I think he was especially distracted by the jackasses in the audience–but that it kept drawing him back in. That’s about right. The movie really did overcome the bad audience.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers David Johnson and Alex Mace don’t have much in the way of credits, and at this point in my life I’m inclined to regard this film as kind of a fluke where everything comes together just so. Nonetheless, I’ll be watching to see what they do next to see if they can duplicate their success here.

This joins the ranks of our “Best of 2009”: The Brothers Bloom, Up and Drag Me To Hell–and it lacks the last’s lame horror ending. So, you know: Check it out.

Kevin Smith and The Haters of Twilight

I follow Kevin Smith on Twitter because, well, why the hell not? I like his movies (warts and all, I almost feel obligated to say) and his live talks are simply awesome. (Wait, what are we saying now, Darcy? Superhot awesome sauce?)

Anyway, he’s at ComiCon right now and partaking in all the nerdiness therein. (I did go to the L.A. Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror convention as a kid and realized I was not as big a nerd as I thought. And it wasn’t fashionable back then.) Anyway, he reports on Twilight fans being booed and points out the stupidity of that on a number of levels. Perhaps the most telling of which is: why the hell do a largely male population want to chase a bunch of teen girls away?

But nerd pride is severe. One simply can’t be seen liking the wrong Star* franchise. There’s probably some peer pressure but more than that, there’s a need to feel better than others. Not just nerds, of course; you see the same thing among sport fans, whether they hate baseball and love football or the other way around.

Smith’s certainly not afraid to rip things he doesn’t like, so his message of peace across nerd factions struck me as kind of nice. (Especially given that he did take heat for it, and surely knew he would.)

And Away We Go!

I was sort of leaning toward seeing the dark S&M Nazi dissection movie Death In Love, but it seemed really inappropriate for The Boy and the more I looked at it, the more I suspected the few IMDB ratings that put its score in the 8s were from the cast, crew and family members of the cast and crew.

So, instead I took The Boy to see Away We Go, which opens with Burt performing oral sex on Verona.

Oh, well.

In fairness, it’s a plot-crucial moment, and more funny than anything else. We learn a lot about the two characters both individually and their relationship with each other. So, it’s one of your rare, non-gratuitous oral sex scenes.

It’s also cute, as is the whole movie.

I was somewhat reluctant to see this movie, because it was directed by Sam “Taking Out The Trash Is An Existential Crisis” Mendes. And it does scrutinize the whole family thing, as Mendes is wont to do.

But let’s scroll back a tick: This is the story of Burt and Verona, a 30-something couple that has just discovered that they’re gong to have a baby. Verona’s parents are deceased, and Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) have chosen this moment to take a two year trip to Antwerp.

Lacking any local support, Burt and Verona are now free to travel about the country in search of some kind of family role model.

That’s right people: It’s a road picture.

And it works! What’s nice is that it doesn’t work just because Mendes is a fine director and the actors (Maya Rudolph of Idiocracy and John Kasinski of “The Office”) are very believable, but because the characters they’re playing are very likable. Flawed, certainly, but very likable.

They doubtless represent a big chunk of the post-Boomer generations, too. With no real imperative to do much of anything, no real parental guidance to speak of, and an unprecedented amount of freedom, Burt and Verona are not the first to realize that they’ve got a kid coming and they’d better get their act together before it shows up.

Part of what makes them likable, though, is that they begin this long journey in an effort to figure out the best life for their child. And not in a everything-has-to-be-perfect way, but in a what-is-a-family way.

Their journey takes them to a family that just sort of hangs together because, well, that’s what families do. They’re sort of an unlikable group, but you do feel a kind of empathy for them.

Then we meet Verona’s younger sister, who’s a bit more adrift than she is. After that, it’s Burt’s cousin, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (who reminds us that she’s a lot more believable as an insufferable New Age-y shrew than a Assistant D.A.) who nurses her kids well past the usual age, and shares a family bed (and more!) with the kids.

And so it goes. There isn’t really a “normal” family here, but that’s to be expected. And as awkward and uncomfortable as many of the scenes are, we always have Burt and Verona’s ambition to do right by their kid.

This really was a pleasant surprise: lightly humorous, sweet and hopeful. I found myself slightly annoyed by the acoustic guitar folk music that’s mandatory in these films, but that was probably more due to the previews leading up to this movie that looked and sounded just like the preview for this movie.

The Boy really liked it, too, way better than Revolutionary Road, and he brings a new understanding to his viewing since he had his movie class. We both agreed that the comedic and other light-hearted aspects made this a more watchable movie. And I thought it actually made the serious parts more profound than the relentless despair of the DiCaprio/Winslet vehicle.

It won’t get the plaudits, though, so you’ll have to be a little more aggressive if you want to actually catch this one.

Harry Potter And The Sixth Movie In The Franchise

Well, we’re in the homestretch as far as Harry Potter movies go, though the bastards have decided to milk the franchise by splitting the last book into two movies. As if you couldn’t possibly do the story justice in 2 ½ hours, you need a full five to tell it.

But that’s a problem for next year. Or the year after that, depending on whether they decide to drag it out even further.

Now, about this latest movie, The Half-Blood Prince. Well, wait, before we get to the latest, I have to assume that you’re aware of the whole “Harry Potter” world and its inconsistencies. ‘cause the world ain’t getting any more consistent. (Like, how, in the fourth movie, all three forbidden curses were performed in a classroom; in this movie, a non-forbidden spell nearly as fatal as the death curse in the fourth one turns up. And an incredibly fatal potion is brewed as a casual class exercise.)

But, really, you should be expecting stuff like that by now.

You should also be expecting this movie to follow the increasingly dark trend the previous four sequels have followed, and it does, big time. The Flower and I have a running gag that started with the biting candy from the fourth movie: “Harry just can’t get a break!”

And Harry doesn’t get much of a break in this one. It’s literally darker, too, with very few bright days, so that even the lighter moments–and there are actually quite a few light-hearted moments, probably more so than in the previous film–still feel like darkness is weighting them down. John Williams’ Teddy-Bears-Picnic-esque theme is completely gone, except for some echoes in Nicholas Hoopers’ gripping score.

I was somewhat reluctant to take The Flower to see it, in fact, but she brushed off my concerns and really seemed completely unphased throughout the movie. (There’s even a bird that dies–or appears to–and she was disappointed by that, but not upset. Maybe she’s growing up?)

You should know that there is a major character death in this film. The Flower, apparently wise to the ways of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror story, was fairly confident the character would come back in the next movie. But even when I assured her that the character wasn’t coming back–I think that’s true–she was okay with it.

Your eight-year-old’s mileage may vary. (Of course, if your eight-year-old is frightened, that might offer a respite

Anyway, this darkness is kind of interesting in contrast with the rampant sexuality in the movie. Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing graphic about it. The movie is just rife with teenagers and love potions (as if those were necessary), and some light snogging ensues. This also did not trouble the eight-year-old, though she found much of it silly.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole lot about this film that is truly excellent. The camerawork is the best of the series. The establishing shots are breathtaking, a few scenes look like they’re from Romantic era paintings, and director Yates (on his third Potter film) is increasingly confident. (Or perhaps he’s just being given more freedom with his successes in the previous films.)

There’s also a lot of richness in this movie. Most of the tedious exposition has been gotten out of the way in the previous five films, and the characters are well-established. The kids are better actors, too, and while the story needs to focus more on the main ones, it’s a shame that so many of the peripheral kids are barely in the film. (Never mind the adults, who can now add the great Jim Broadbent to their rolls.)

I’d give a special shout out to Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and Bonny Wright (Ginny Weasley) who get some meaty, if not huge, parts they acquit themselves well with. I missed Katie Leung (Cho, from the previous two films) both as an actress and as a character. Did their relationship really end because she was forced to tell about the secret room in the previous movie? Seems unfair.

The action is brisk, too. The movie really flies by, despite the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time (not counting credits). The plot is…well, the plot. It works because the director stays focused on the simplicities as much as possible: Threats large and small abound, and survival is a tenuous thing.

The big reveal is very nearly stupid, however. If you’re super-sensitive to spoilers, you may want to skip this paragraph, but what I’m going to “spoil” is the entire basis for all the movies prior to this, at least as I have understood them. Ready?

The big secret Harry uncovers is that Voldemort used some magic to preserve his life even after shuffling off his mortal coil in the battle with Harry’s parents. Stunning, eh? Didn’t see that coming. If you were Dumbledore. OK, it’s a little more detailed than this, but really, given that Voldemort spent the first four movies re-incarnating, you’d think a trivial stroll through the library’s Restricted Spell section–a stroll that apparently any kid can take, would’ve revealed this mystery sometime during the previous 15 years of Harry’s life. Or at least the last five years.

As I said, you kind of have to be used to this stuff by now. None of the movies make a lick of sense (and I understand the books aren’t much better in that regard). But this movie does leave things in a very precarious spot indeed. Along with a path for resolving those things.

The Flower did not rate it with her favorite, The Prisoner of Azkaban. (She likes it when Harry makes the Aunt blow up like a balloon.) But she wasn’t displeased. The Boy liked it, too, though it doesn’t comport with his economic sensibilities.

And I liked it, too. I sure wish they weren’t splitting the last book in two movies, though.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Ah, women. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t beat ’em to death with rocks.

Oh. Wait a tick.

It’s Iran! And the movie is The Stoning of Soraya M., based on the 1986 true story of an Iranian man who uses Sharia law to handle his marital issues in a creative manner. That is to say, he conspires to have her convicted of committing adultery.

I sort of have to be a little flip here because this is a grim story of an unfortunately common experience in Iran and other Muslim strongholds, and you know from the get-go pretty much how it’s going to come out.

The build-up felt slow to The Boy but this is a story I think is done well, and reflects one of my favorite narrative flourishes: Even with the outcome being known in advance, a good storyteller creates suspense and a desire to see a different outcome in the audience. (I’m not a Stephen King fan, but he does a good job of this in Carrie. And, of course, that Shakespeare guy.)

There isn’t really a lot to talk about, movie-wise. The acting is quite good. You’ll probably recognize Shoreh Aghdashloo who is (in essence) the narrator, and Soraya’s Aunt. You might recognize Mozhan Marnò from her work in Traitor or from the refugee camp scenes in Charlie Wilson’s War. And so on. (American movies about foreign cultures tend to have the same A-List actors from that culture, so it’s practically shocking that I didn’t recognize anything from Kite Runner.)

There are a few directorial flourishes, and a little music, but mostly this is a spare tale, plainly told.

And, frankly, it pissed me off. I mean, when the opening scene has Aghdashloo running to the river in a black burka, it reminded me so much of The Life of Brian, I had to smile. The Life of Brian also has the greatest stoning scene ever.

And it made me think of what I was saying in my last MMA post. There is a fate worse than death, and the Irianians opted for it 30 years ago. I mean, come on! The stunning similarity between life in Iran in 1986 to (an admittedly faked) portrayal of life in the year 1 reminds one that, in the year 1, the Persians were probably ahead of where they were in 1986.

I was actually sort of jarred by the presence of an automobile. Occasionally there are shots of men in modern-ish clothes. And a radio. Otherwise, this story could’ve taken place centuries ago.

I mentioned it pissed me off? It did. Big time. The men in this movie are evil, weak, cowardly and stupid. There are bookends with Jim Caviezel (of Jesus fame) who is the only male in the movie approaching heroic. It would make me ashamed to be Persian.

The women are more varied. Some are happy enough to be tools of a genuine patriarchy (not like the one we allegedly have here), and most are convinced of their own helplessness. Zahra (Agdashloo), though more acclimated than the other women to freedom, also seems to know Sharia better than they do, and how and when to push against the order.

The visceral reaction I felt at times was rather unusual for me. Soraya’s husband was a good example of a guy who “just needed killin’”, as they say in Texas. And I kept thinking that women should be champions of the second amendment. Also, I kept hoping someone would stick a knife into that guy.

When a bus rolls in at the climactic scene, I wanted it to plow through these worthless men.

It’s not that kind of movie, obviously, but it would make a great primer for a Persian Death Wish or Rambo. A more transparent and gross miscarriage of justice would scarcely be possible.

In my more phlegmatic moments I reminded myself that there are similar stories in the Western world. I don’t know of any wholesale “get out of marriage free”-type situations like those set-up by Sharia but Ancient Greek culture had some interesting oddities in that regard. Still, that’s a long time and a lot of apocalypses ago.

But this goes on today! Needless to say, there’s an awful stoning in this picture. A true, horrible depiction. Where Kite Runner gave us a scene of wide-scale social insanity, an impersonal lynching by a huge mob in a massive modern arena, Stoning gives us an intimate, awful, close-up look at an innocent woman being killed by her family and friends.

The framing story actually pissed me off more for reasons I can’t say without a spoiler. Nonetheless, a good movie about an awful story.

Moon, Inc.

I asked for tickets to Moon, Inc. at the theater the other night, which was a conflation of the new low budget sci-fi movie Moon and the documentary (exposé) on food corporatism Food, Inc. but in fairness that may have been because it was pretty obvious from the summary that an evil corporation was central to the Moon plot.

More on that in a second.

First, because you probably haven’t heard of it, Moon is a new movie by director Duncan Jones which stars Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell, approaching the end of his three year contract for Lunar Industries when things start to go awry. His computer companion, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) seems to be helpful, but is he?

OK, yeah, clichéd as all get out. What works, though, is Sam Rockwell, a fine actor who has incredible range: There are times in this movie where he doesn’t quite look like himself. And this movie gives him a chance to show range, which he manages to do without really recalling other characters, like Crewman Guy from Galaxy Quest or Wild Bill from Green Mile.

Kevin Spacey, whose voice is the sort of pleasantly bland, banally modulated sound we’ve come to expect in movie computers, and whose character’s emotions are otherwise represented by a series of emoticons, very AIM-like smileys, still manages to convey some kind of subdued humanity, thanks to one of the least clichéd aspects of the story.

This part, Spacey and Rockwell–who are basically it, as far as presences in the movie–really does work, and makes the movie more engaging to me than, say, the more opulent Public Enemies.

Now, from an economic standpoint? The movie makes not a lick of sense. I’m sure I’m it will come as no surprise to you (or anyone else who’s ever been to a movie) that, in this movie about a corporation, greed is the primary lens through which the corporation is viewed.

But we have, as with the execrable The Constant Gardener, a poor sense of scale. Lunar Industries is supposed to be providing the earth–the entire freaking planet–with 70% of its “clean energy needs”. The problem that the corporation is presented as solving in a creative money-saving way is nowhere in the order of magnitude of the amount of money they’d have at their disposal.

And the solution is positively absurd. It really raises more questions than it solves. An undertaking of the magnitude implied would be far more expensive and challenging than the supposed solution.

Also, a significant percentage of the earth’s energy being dependent on one man?

Yeah. No. No chance.

But that’s okay, it’s not really the various “reveals” or “plot twists” that make this movie. The story lays things out pretty quickly, and where the movie excels is with Sam struggling with being away from earth for so long, missing his young daughter, working through his personal anger issues, and so on.

So, a good little movie. Entertaining, dramatic, nicely done cheap effects–looked like models instead of CGI, which I like. Spare without being austere. Nice use of a limited budget.

Check it out.

Old Movie Review: Are You In The House Alone?

I pulled this one out of the ether because of its provocative title, mirroring the “house” movies of the day, which somehow managed to capitalize on the slasher genre while being rated three stars and staying within the very, very narrow confines of what constituted “acceptable” in ‘70s TV terms. (Which, I assure you, were regarded as pretty appalling at the time and yet come nowhere near what’s acceptable during “the family hour”.)

It’s about half tormented babysitter and then turns into half rape-prosecution advocacy story. I’m not really spoiling anything by telling you that: The movie opens with Kathleen Beller (playing “Gail”) being wheeled out of the house claiming she’s been raped and that no one will believe her.

That’s what you call “a hook”.

We then see the events leading up to the opening event, which are photographer Gail and her new sensitive boyfriend “Steve” (Scott Colomby, who would go on to limited fame in the Porky’s series) working out their teen-age angst about sex and relationships. Gail has just broken up with jerky “E.K.” (Randy Stumpf) because she wouldn’t go all the way with him. (“Sleep with” being the operative, acceptable phrase of the day.)

Since the mystery is “who’s going to rape Gail?”, we are treated to E.K.’s jerkiness, inappropriate comments from her photography teacher, leering from her best friend’s boyfriend, the incredibly rich and good looking Lance–Harvey–Phil! (Whatever, it’s Dennis Quaid). If they’d made it five years later it would’ve included inappropriate touching from her father.

Meanwhile, someone with access to her locker and full knowledge of her schedule has been leaving her threatening notes and making creepy phone calls saying, that’s right, “Are you in the house alone?” Keeping things from getting too tense are a lot of discussions about sex. And ultra-casual atmosphere about threats fostered by school counselor Ellen Travolta. (John’s eldest sister, yes. It’s the ’70s. Get used to it.)

Ultra-casual? Well, where now we have zero tolerance, back then it was 100% tolerance.

Gail’s mom, Anne, is played by 35-year-old Blythe Danner. Because 30-something actresses used to play moms to girls in their late teens back in the ’70s, and we’ll just ignore that Kathllen Beller–and Quaid, and Colomby–was, like, 22 and only about 13 years younger at the time. Beller does a good job acting young, though.

The acting is good all around, actually, snark aside. Anne is going through her own difficulties with husband Neil (Oscar-winner Tony Bill, who was a producer on The Sting and still acts, directs and produces.) The direction deftly defuses most of the tension, however.

There are some interesting (for the time) directorial techniques, like a little less reliance on establishing shots than was the norm. (Today, establishing shots are short and sweet, if used at all; we’re expected to understand that the character who was at home in scene A and at the police station in scene B used some means of conveyance–say, an automobile–to get from home to the police station, found a place to park it, walked into the building, and made the customary greetings, without actually being shown all that.) But the whole thing feels like an “ABC Afterschool Movie”.

Except for the sex. No, they don’t show anything, but after refusing to sleep with E.K. (despite going out for, like, six months) she ends up sleeping with Steve after a few days. It’s love, you see. (This is foreshadowed, even: Their first date is to see Three Days of the Condor which features Faye Dunaway (I think?) sleeping with Robert Redford after knowing him for two days.

Then, when she’s raped, we get all the angles on how hard it is to prosecute a rape case. (With Blythe Danner saying “It’s because she’s not a virgin!” though I must’ve missed how she found out.) The weirdest casting was Lois Hamilton as the police woman. I mean, she’s all right, but she looks like a fashion model. You know, Farrah (PBUH) hair, worn down, obvious makeup, etc.

And it gets weirder at this point, and very Nancy Drew. Gail, devastated by the attack (of course), goes from hiding out to going back to school and concocting a scheme to catch her rapist. She’s not even particularly depressed, apparently.

Resilience, people. Look into it.

The movie you can take or leave, but it is a kind of time capsule: fashions, hairstyles, a complete absence of digital technology. This is what we used to do before cable, kiddies.

Public What? Oh, Enemies?

People do seem to love them some Michael Mann. I’m not one of those people, so you should keep that in mind as I review his latest opus, Public Enemies.

I don’t hate the guy or nothin’. Well, okay, I used to. During the late days of 1980 and early 1981, it seemed like every movie thata was released wallowed in mediocrity. To some degree that may have been pure happenstance, as there were many, many fewer movie options back then and if you were dedicated, it was hard to avoid seeing bad ones.

One of those movies was the very disappointing James Caan vehicle Thief, Mann’s first big-league feature. He followed that up with the even more disappointing The Keep, a nazi-monster horror flick with a great cast. Then he got famous for “Miami Vice,” which was fun and quintessentially ‘80s, and with that fame, he was the first to put Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter onscreen with the remarkably noisy-yet-forgettable Manhunter. That same year he put his name on the downright icky Band of the Hand.

But he got better in the ’90s. (That’s consensus, not just my opinion.)

I personally find myself not engaged by his movies, generally. They don’t resonate with me. Even if I enjoy one of his movies, like Collateral and to a lesser extent the (overrated) Last of the Mohicans, I almost immediately forget them after seeing them. (If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that I like Michael Mann the director more than Michael Mann the screenwriter.)

And now, forearmed with an inkling of my tastes, to Mann’s Public Enemies, the story (primarily) of special agent Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of notorious Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger in 1933 Chicago. Summary: I found it more or less like Mann’s other works; I wasn’t engaged, mostly, and I’ll forget most of it pretty soon.

But there are some really fine moments in this film. And while it’s an ensemble piece, a lot of what works has to do with Johnny Depp’s performance as Dillinger. I wonder if it gets tiring hearing how awesome you are, but Depp is ridiculously empathetic as the man whose early incarceration turned him into an effective (yet gentle!) bank robber. Violent, but principled, dangerous but with high standards.

Yeah, it’s romanticized, big time. It’s kind of weird, even. There are good guys and bad guys among both the FBI, the police and the gangsters, in no particular distribution.

The story arc basically follows Dillinger’s breaking into a jail, then returning to Chicago where he embarrasses the G-men, who then resort to increasingly brutal tactics to cover up their general incompetence. Christian Bale is the hard-edged but largely moral special agent who has to carry out J. Edgar Hoover’s demands.

Complicating matters for Dillinger is his fledgling yet instantly permanent romance with Billie Flechette (Marion Cotillard of La Vie an Rose and 9/11 and moon landing conspiracy theories), for whom he tries to take responsibility, and who (of course) becomes his weakness. (Actually, upon reflection, this aspect of the story is almost Harlequin-esque, which may make it popular with the ladies.)

She’s not as big a weakness as The Syndicate, which is becoming mighty unfriendly to these bank robbing celebrities who attract unwanted attention to illegal activities.

You get the idea.

I was distracted. There were about 20 interesting stories here, and I felt like we got the most banal one. Which could’ve made for a great movie, mind you, but it was also unfocused. Give us the love affair and the noble bank robber, if that’s the story you want to tell.

The Boy liked it, I should point out, so I may just be making excuses for why this film didn’t ignite my toes like it is for Mann fans. He did express disappointment that it wasn’t about the economic underpinnings of organized crime; I don’t have the heart to tell him that they don’t really make movies about the economic underpinnings of organized crime. (Though last year’s Rock ‘n’ Rolla came pretty close!)

But, damn, there was an interesting story right there: How The Mob was in bed, then out of bed, with the bank robbers.

There’s another scene with J. Edgar Hoover trying (and failing) to get money from Congress for the FBI, and being thwarted by a principled man who saw the danger in a national police force and the threat particularly posed by Hoover. Interesting.

There’s Dillinger himself: Rough upbringing, stupid life choice early on, forged into a criminal by the system, but still drawn to this low class girl with integrity, and fiercely protective of her. But why? What really happened? Where did he get his principles from? Interesting.

And, wow, what about a society (America during the Great Depression) that venerates bank robbers? That has so little faith in the system that it roots for criminals, but at the same time elects the same man President over and over again. (The former is a big part of the story, the latter not so much. )

Anyway, I just kept thinking of all these interesting things that would never be developed.

Really fine acting, of course. Though I have trouble with these period pieces, ’cause they all kind of dress alike and have similar hair cuts, but I did manage to distinguish, generally. The lighting doesn’t help, however: A lot of the interior shots look “naturally” lit, i.e., details of faces hard to make out. (Fincher does that, too, but you always know who you’re looking at even if you can’t make out their face.)

The use of the shaky-cam–well, it wasn’t gratuitous. It indicated a certain kind of shift in the action. But it distracted me. As did Mann’s trademark use of music. The score was good, but it irritated me the way it was worked into the action. The songs were hit-and-miss.

So, there you have it. If you like Mann’s work, you’ll probably love this. If you like Depp, you won’t hate it.

Happy Belated Birthday, Carroll Baker

I’m over a month late on this, but Carroll Baker turned 78 last month, and I wanted to note this momentous occasion. Baker was a sex symbol back in the ‘50s, making an Oscar-nominated splash as the eponymous Baby Doll, and having a respectable career into the mid-’60s. Then she went off to Europe and did a bunch of Giallo films before returning to America in the ’80s and ’90s to do a whole bunch more parts.

A working actress, in other words. Our favorite kind here at the ‘strom.

Astonishingly, though despite vamping her way through the height of the pointy-breast era, I couldn’t find a single picture of her in a torpedo bra. In fact in a world of Monroe rip-offs, Baker was a modest, marvelous B-Cup.

Well, what do you think?
Not bad, eh? Elisha Cuthbert bears a superficial resemblance, but we’ll see how Cuthbert’s doing in 2060. Er, well, those of us still alive, anyway.

Tetro Fish

One of my favorite movies is Apocalypse Now. I love it, right down to its murky ending. So much so that I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch Apocalypse Now Redux, the mega-expanded hour-longer version for fear it will make me reject the whole project.

My old martial arts instructor, with whom I used to have hours long bull sessions after class, rejected it as a “film student project”. And the thing is, I can’t really argue with that perception of it. It’s a bold movie, and if it fails in your eyes, “film student project” is a fair description.

Last Sunday, I dragged The Boy out to see Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film, Tetro, and if you had that idea that Coppola inclined toward that sort of “film student project”, this is not going to be the movie to disabuse you of that notion.

There are two things I can say for sure about this movie:

1. It is positively gorgeous, a sheer masterwork of cinematography, light and shadows, blocking, and composition with nary a throwaway shot.

2. At about two hours, it is overlong by about 20 minutes.

The story is simple: Young Bennie (played by Alden Ehrenreich in a role Leo DiCaprio would’ve done ten years ago) goes to Buenos Aires to track down his older brother, Tetro, who fled the family many years earlier with a promise to come back for him, but who never did.

Tetro has become a famous writer who doesn’t ever write or publish anything, but seems to be very well liked and respected in his own modest way in this little corner of the city known as La Boca. He has a faithful girlfriend-not-quite-wife, and in his not-quite-functional way, he’s living a good life.

The imbalancing effect of Bennie is two-fold: First he knows nothing about his own history, so he digs through Tetro’s autobiographical play; second, Tetro’s friends know nothing about Tetro’s past, so Bennie reveals truths to them Tetro wanted to keep hidden.

This all unfolds in glorious black-and-white, except for the flashbacks, which are in color (and a 4:3 format instead of 16:9?), and we slowly get a picture of the dysfunctional family the two are from. A little too slowly, really, since I figured it out at the start of Act III.

So, besides the length, this movie is both very meta- and very “inside baseball”. First of all, it’s littered with shots that, if they aren’t famous from other movies, feel like they ought to be. Coppola can (and does) do that. It always feels more like he’s painting from the same palette as the masters versus ripping them off. But unlike, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where it was almost necessary to know all the films he was riffing off of, this stuff just works.

But this is about the struggles of a very creatively talented family. Their dysfunction manifests in the expression of their art: The play Tetro can’t finish; the life Bennie can’t begin; and the patriarch who is not satisfied with his own greatness unless he can grind everyone else down. It’s not necessarily something everyone can relate to.

Even more problematic is that Tetro and Bennie bonded through Tetro exposing the younger boy to arty films, and segments of the third act play out as dance numbers that hearken back to one of those films. I’m talking ballet-esque bits with real dancers (not the actors). One was interesting; three was probably excessive.

One thing that Coppola has over most of the “film student” types is an inherent upbeat nature. His movies, no matter how dark the subject matter, tend to be an affirmation of life. And so, while this movie looks very noir, it doesn’t wallow in darkness.

That’s probably why I like it. I really wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. And we picked a bad time to go see it, too: The show started after 10PM, and we were both wiped out. The Boy couldn’t decide if he was having trouble getting into it, or if it was just bad. (Keep in mind that he couldn’t sit through Vertigo the night before with the same issue. He had a restless weekend for various reasons.)

Other things to appreciate in this movie include the acting, with young Ehrenreich doing fine work, Vincent Gallo doing what he does, Maribel Verdu just perfect as the devoted not-wife, Klaus Maria Brandauer as the patriarch, and so on. The music is perfect.

But even so, I know a lot of people would consider it boring, pretentious, overly arty, and so on. I was won over by its basic good nature, and skill in execution that you just don’t see any more. You might not be.