A Separation

Iran sucks. Just thought I’d get that out of the way before looking at this (legitimately) acclaimed tale of a woman who separates from her husband because he won’t leave the country with her. I thought at first this was going to be the woman’s tale, following in the footsteps of other “Iranian women take it in the burka during the Islamic Revolution” genre, but it turns out that the 1979 look of thing hearkens back to Iran sucking.

Which is a shame. Iranians seem like good people. We should have helped them more.

In A Separation, Simin leaves her husband Nader to live with her parents for a while because he won’t leave the country, but is also not forbidding her to leave—with their daughter Termeh opting to stay with her father. Nader’s reluctance centers primarily around the care of his father with Alzheimer’s, and when Simin leaves, he must hire a woman, Razieh to take care of him.

But, of course, the father is deteriorating, and Razieh, a devout Muslim, finds her in the position of having to clean the old man, which she considers inappropriate. She contrives a plan for Nader to contact her unemployed husband, Hodjat, through a mutual friend, so that he can take the job. (She can’t tell her husband directly because she’s been keeping the house of a non-related man.)

But Hodjat doesn’t make it and Razieh comes back the next day, when bad things happen.

The subsequent story that unfolds is complex and rich, with each of the characters showing their strengths and weaknesses as they choose between what is easy, what is right, what is true, and what helps them survive.

This rightly has an Oscar screenplay nom, and some are saying it should be up for Best Picture (not just foreign language picture) which is also right—but in part because of the really weak field this year. The Boy pronounced it a “solid” flick but he felt it was over-hyped.

In that sense, it’s much like The Artist: A solid movie of the kind Hollywood used to make, done with certain modern sensibilities—though perhaps ironically, The Artist is far more modern than this simple, yet subtle film.

Overall, though, this is a fine film of strong but flawed characters struggling to make it in an unforgiving world. The movie causes you to empathize with each character in turn and even share in their occasional moral indignation, only to reveal their own flaws, and humble the viewer.

Definitely a good film, worth seeing.


The deafening sound of the collective eye-rolling on Twitter—yes, I know eye-rolling doesn’t make much sound, but that’s the point—when awareness of the plot of Haywire rippled through the community was, um, deafening.

See, this is why I don’t try to be clever.

Haywire tells the story of a secret agent who is betrayed by her superiors and must use all her powers to stay alive and avenge herself against evildoers.

Sure, we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it with a female secret agent?

Well, yes. A lot.

What about if the female is also a real-life athlete?

Well, yeah. It was Cynthia Rothrock’s bread-and-butter in the early ‘90s.

What about if she’s surrounded by over-the-hill former A-list actors?

Oh, yeah, big time. Also a staple of ’80s and ’90s actions flicks.

Well, what if it were directed by an A-list director! And! And that director was the critically acclaimed Steven Soderbergh, who could totally be directing Ocean’s 14 or something?

Never seen that before, have ya, smartypants!

And, back-peddling a bit, the A-list actors supporting our heroine are actually still A-list: Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan MacGregor and rising star Channing Tatum.

But the point of this movie is to showcase MMA champion/former American Gladiator Gina Carano.

And for Soderbergh to do to the rogue-spy genre what he did for the outbreak genre. That is, make a reasonably intelligent, somewhat emotionally distant film that avoids most of the usual tropes and is never copied by anyone ever again. (OK, I’m guessing no one will copy it, but Soderbergh is largely blazing his own, unrepeatable trail these days.)

Hiring an actual athlete to play a part is full of all sorts of pitfalls, of course. They often can’t act, for example. And sometimes that even matters. Sometimes the desire to showcase the athlete results in shoehorning inappropriate physical motions into—well, Gymkata, okay?

And, of course, when the athlete is female, it’s customary to exploit the crap out of her figure from every conceivable angle.

So, the good news is that Carano has a fair amount of charisma and can deliver lines convincingly. She also moves convincingly in the action scenes, which are appropriate and not gratuitous. Soderbergh also resists the urge to show us Carano in the shower, or in lingerie, or even in shorts, dammit.

I mean, that was very mature of him.

The whole movie is very mature, really. Much like Contagion, Soderbergh seems to have asked himself, “Well, if this were really gonna happen, what would the plausible results be?” Carano isn’t super-powered, just super-competent. Her opponents are less so, necessarily, but not ludicrously so, as is often the case in this type of film.

For instance, there are a couple of drops in this movie: Once where she falls, and another where she jumps off a roof. If you’ve ever fallen (or jumped) from a height, you know it hurts a lot and it doesn’t take a very high fall (in movie terms) to end up with broken bones. Action movies tend to completely ignore this—and the challenge of most other physical tasks—resulting in increasingly goofy action sequences.

Not here: The fall winds her. When she jumps from a high point, she uses a couple of tricks that (while difficult) are fairly plausible.

The same goes with the fighting: It’s not like she stands toe-to-toe with her male attackers trading punches. She positions herself to use more of her body weight. And she’s no Kate Beckinsale, either, prancing around in a catsuit: Her fighting weight is a good 30 pounds heavier. She looks believable doing this stuff because she’s doing this stuff.

You know how when there’s an action scene involving some slip-of-a-thing starlet and it’s all done with reverse shots and below-the-neck shots? And you know it’s because there’s no way that woman could do that. Sometimes they can’t even get a stuntwoman who’s even close to the body type?

My favorite example of that is Her Alibi where Paulina Porizkova is supposed to be climbing a rope (with just her arms, no less), and in the reverse shots—where they actually show the stunt woman climbing—her ass is five sizes bigger. They couldn’t find anyone with Porizkova’s body type who could climb a rope like that.

When Soderbergh does a neck-down shot, you know he’s doing it so you can see the action, not because he’s trying to hide something. This worked very well for me.

The breast implants are distracting, sadly, both because they don’t fit with the character and because—well, large breasts, you know? There was something about her skin that was oddly distracting, too.

Overall, it’s not a great movie—The Boy said he couldn’t get into it at all, though he didn’t blame this entirely on the movie itself, but more a prejudice toward the genre—but it’s a solid one. It actually makes sense and proceeds logically from plot-point to plot-point. Soderbergh uses a cute device where half the movie is told in flashback to a clueless, frightened guy, which allows Carano to reinforce the significance of certain characters and elements of the plot so that we can follow as well.

The other thing is that it feels like a pilot for a TV series. It has a very B-movie feel. But it is good, and my reaction to it is much like of Contagion: It’s good that he avoids the sillier tropes of the genre, but sometimes he seems to be trying to hard to remove a lot of the dramatic tropes that really engage.


So. Yeah. Roman. Again. Sigh. And Kate Effin’ Winslet. John C. Reilly, in one of his arty outings (versus, say, teaming up with Will Ferrell or Jonah Hill again). Jodie Foster. Christopher Waltz.

Foster and Reilly play a middle-class couple whose son has been hit by Winslet and Waltz’s son. With a stick. Hard enough to knock his teeth out. The two have gotten together to handle the legal and insurance and school issues (apparently) and to try to show that they’re above the attendant emotions.

Which, of course, they don’t.

This is based on a play. That means you’ve got 80-90 minutes of four people in one room arguing. Forewarned is forearmed. (The Flower was not forewarned, though I tried.)

Comparisons have been made to Virginia Woolf but I think that’s a much darker film. This is a trivial movie about trivial people. And as far as that goes, it’s not bad. The alliances shift during the film, and of course, all four are the finest of actors. They manage to convey varying degrees of likability that aren’t entirely warranted by the nihilistic script.

And the moral of the movie seems to be “having kids messes you up”.

I laughed at those parts more than The Boy or The Flower did. Obviously.

Polanski over-directs a bit. I mean, the camera doesn’t need to move half as much as he moves it. It doesn’t really matter much.

I like this kind of one-room deal and this was okay. Last year’s Jack Goes Boating was better, though darker and more dysfunctional. One of my favorites is actually Cube, the horror flick. Actually, Wait Until Dark—though it has a decidedly different dynamic—is also a better example of the genre.

The kids didn’t hate it. It wasn’t funny enough for them. On the dramatic side, it’s—well, it’s just not very. Everyone’s sort of desultory. The movie kind of trails off without any big reveal or point or purpose, which is all very post-modern, I guess, but not very interesting.

I thought maybe Kate Winslet would turn out to be pregnant. Oh—this movie features the most on-screen vomiting of any play I can think of, enough to put it in the running with Bridesmaids. So, you know, if you like that sort of thing and you’re on the edge, there ya go.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

It’s not exactly fair to call Tomas Alfredson’s interpretation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy incomprehensible, but between the three of us, I was the only one who could figure out what was going on, and it took me an hour.

I did warn the kids in advance that spy movies could be rather difficult to follow. They don’t really know that much about the cold war. (We won! Wooo!) Someone I know who read the book said it was impossible to follow without having read the book, so I can feel reasonably smug—or if I’m wrong about what went down, comfortably deluded.

The Flower didn’t seem to mind too much. The Boy actually liked it, while conceding he didn’t have the faintest clue what was going on.

I’m not quite sure why that is. There’s a good atmosphere. (Alfredson’s last film was the moody Let The Right One In.)  The music is used judiciously and sparingly.

Acting? Well, Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, the lead spy and—well, what can I say? It’s a dramatically understated part. He mostly has to be there. There’s a quiet righteousness to it, but I suspect the garnering of nominations for Oldman are because he’s Oldman, in spite of the part. (At least, I don’t see award ceremonies  really appreciate subtlety.)

There are more excitable characters around him, though not very. Toby Jones plays an irascible Scot, but most of the remaining cast are degrees of moody. Mark Strong (last seen in Green Lantern), Ciaran Hinds (of The Debt), Colin Firth, etc. Well, it’s the cold war. Nobody was laughing.

Ultimately, this is what you’d expect from a cerebral espionage movie. A little murky, paranoid, effectiveness somewhat blunted by the occasionally confusing delivery.

What’s probably the most noteworthy thing about it, is that the story works, even if you can’t follow it. Compare that with so many of the movies this year, where you can follow the events perfectly, and yet there seems to be no actual working story.

It’s A Small War After All

War Horse tells the tale of a demonic horse who curses all who cross his path for the rest of their dramatically shortened lives.

Well, not really. But you couldn’t prove otherwise.

This is one of the two Steven Spielberg movies we’ve been blessed with this holiday/award season, and it has Spielberg’s trademark subtlety.


OK, the story is that, in a moment of pride, an Irish dirt farmer gets into a stupid bidding war with his landlord in order to buy the titular, completely inappropriate horse. In doing so, he gets his farm in hock (to same landlord), and his boy falls in love with the horse. Then the war comes, and the horse gets drafted, goes AWOL, and has many adventures. Or something.

I mentioned Spielberg’s subtlety ironically, of course, but not sardonically. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with bombast even if, like Spielberg, you don’t even bother to hang a lampshade on it (which can feel a little insulting).

But this is a bizarre, bizarre movie that doesn’t move fast enough to make you (or me, rather) overlook the weirdness of it.

This movie came from the mind of someone who felt that we’re so inured to the horrors of war, we could only experience it if it were suffered by an innocent horse.

I know, right?

Especially World War I? That most wasteful, inhumane, horrific war. The Great War. The War To End All Wars? You know, the war that gave us All Quiet On The Western Front, Gallipoli, Joyeux Noel, A Very Long Engagement. Hell, even Hugo gave us the horror of war as it pertains to film.

But, no, Spielberg says you’ll only get it if it happens to a horse.

As a result, Spielberg has the horse sort of anthropomorphized sporadically. Sometimes it seems like just a horse. Other times, it’s acting noble, and saving the day, etc.

It’s a children’s story, but it’s about the horrors of war. In WWI, cavalry lines met machine gun nests for the first time—an encounter which ended the cavalry line for all history, as horses were mowed down in a horrifying slaughter. (Actually the Poles would set their cavalry against German tanks in WWII, but the less said about that, the better.)

Since this would be a nightmare to watch, Spielberg does this bizarre thing where the charging horses are somehow spared, and break through the German lines completely riderless. As if only the cavalry soldiers themselves were killed. The effect is surreal.

And yet, later, we’re treated to an extended scene of a horse being chewed up by barbed wire. I mean, you guys know me: I sat through all the Saw movies (but the last one) but this was truly horrifying.

For some reason (supporting my horse-of-the-damned theory) the last 20 minutes is shot in a kind of hellish red. I mean, clearly, the idea was that it was sunset, but they must’ve done it with computer color correction, since the scene lasted longer than any sunset south of Reykjavik could last.

The Boy’s reaction to this was “That was a long, damn movie!” He didn’t dislike it (or like it) particularly. He just thought it was long. And it is. Over 2-and-a-half hours long.

The funny thing is that there are a bunch of different strands, accounting for this length, and yet the various story resolutions seem contrived or abandoned.

However, The Flower liked it, as I suspected she would. I mean, it had horses and sadness and some happiness and some kids. She’s ten.

Thing is, I don’t know that I could call this a children’s movie. Like, the violence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom didn’t bother me—it’s cartoonish, and really didn’t deserve the hubbub (that resulted in the PG-13 rating). This movie is chock full of dead kids and horses.

I don’t regret letting her see it, and she was fine, but I think the audience for this movie is real narrow. Much older and she’d see the flaws. Much younger and she’d be traumatized.

I dunno. It gets a 7-point-something on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, though Metacritic gives it 7.2/6.0 (critic/audience). I can’t really recommend it, though, beyond that demographic of relatively sturdy tween girls.

The Artist

Big-name silent era movie star loses it all when talkies come into vogue while the girl of his dreams hits it big in those very same pictures. Sure, we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it in the past 40 years? (I’m thinking the Kristofferson/Streisand Star Is Born.) Have we seen it good in the past 75?

The Artist is a love song to ‘30s movies—more ’30s than ’20s in my estimation—done in beautiful black-and-white and pseudo-silent. George Valentin is Douglas Fairbanks-style action movie hero, on top of the world, who gives an ingenue Peppy Miller (a sort of Mary Pickford-type) her big break in the movies after a chance meeting throws her into the public eye.

Fortunes are reversed when talkies appear and Valentin refuses to talk even as Miller’s star rises. What follows is a story of loyalty and love as people move in and out of Valentin’s life.

This movie is filmed in black-and-white and is mostly silent, and is a wonderfully simple tale told elegantly, with Jean Dujardin in the lead role. He channels a mix of Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn and Gene Kelly, and he manages to do it with just enough broadness to make him feel like an authentic ’20s actor and enough warmth to feel an authentic ’20s person.

Bérénice Bejo is somewhat less successful, though not because she doesn’t have the mannerisms down. She’s a little broader, a little more like a zany Ziegfield girl, but ultimately very winning. Her only weaknesses are that, at 35, she’s a bit old to be playing the ingenue and, as a modern actress, she’s way too lean. (Modern actresses tend to be so lean their skin looks positively stretched over their faces.)

It feels nitpicky, but it’s a bit jarring.

Director (and husband to Bejo) Michael Hazanavacius manages to capture a lot of the ’20s/’30s directorial style while taking advantage of some modern shots to avoid the more static elements of old-style movie making. And his script manages to comfortably move between the depths of despair and comic lightness in a way that feels very true to the era and is still affecting nearly a century later.

This is the first (and so far the only) unalloyed success of the season, I would say. It reminds me how little we ask for in a movie, really: There’s no complex plot, no fancy sets, no CGI to speak of (I assume there’s always some in movies these days), the score is traditional… There’s a heroic, loyal dog. It’s just over 90 minutes, minus the credits.

Oh, it’s not for everyone, I guess. Some people won’t be able to accept the straightforwardness of it. The simplicity of the characters. The silent/colorless aspect. And it’s very French in parts, with a couple of things you’d never have seen in a movie of the time.

But The Boy and I both liked it quite a bit. It’ll be easily rewatchable.

Some stunt casting of American actors, presumably to try to draw in the American crowds: Penelope Ann Miller as Valentin’s wife, Missi Pyle (who got high billing!) has a small part in a few scenes, Malcolm MacDowell, Stuart Pankin, and even ’80s B-movie starlet Jewell Shepard has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role.

John Goodman has a meatier part as the producer who sees the changes on the wind, and James Cromwell is the #3 character, playing Valentin’s ever faithful man-servant.

This is worth seeing over the other Oscar-bait movies this year, and even in spite of its Oscar-bait positioning, if you have any love of the old films.

Greece Is The Word

In his transition to conservative, the great Frank Miller penned a comic book called 300, based on the story of the Spartan’s stand at Thermopylae. It was a romantic retelling, but well researched, and true to the cultural spirit of the story. When Zack Snyder gussied it up for the big screen, he made it more comic book-y (ironically, I guess) by adding some monsters here and there.

The new movie Immortals, which follows in this tradition spits in the eye of 300 and kicks Greek mythology in the ‘nads for good measure.

Which, frankly, I expected.

And yet, I was retroactively disappointed when the credits rolled and Tarsem Singh’s name appeared as directory. Singh’s two previous credits were the J. Lo vehicle The Cell and the under-rated The Fall. If I had expected the level of imagery in those movies here, I would’ve been utterly deflated. The imagery here is fairly standard CGI-superhero fare, with the exception of a lot more cool gore effects.

This does not a movie make.

This barely rises to the level of a movie, too, which is typical of a Tarsem flick. There’s a real poetry to his earlier works, and this allows one to overlook, for example, that the actual plot of The Cell is about five minutes long, and the whole “entering a killer’s mind” premise is completely superfluous.

The same is true here, minus the poetry. In the opening scene, we learn that…uh…crap…I’ve forgotten. It’s a retelling of the story of Kronos and the Titans versus Zeus and the Olympians. These are the titular immortals. Except that we learn in the first few seconds of the film that they discovered a way to kill each other.

The first rule of immortals is: there aren’t any immortals.

Anyway, this leads to a war (though it seems like it should be the other way around, with a war leading to discovery of mortality) and the gods lock up the titans in 10x10x10 cubicle. (These are decidedly non-titanic titans.) And the only thing that can set them free is a magical bow.

The thing that makes this bow magical, I think, is that it’s the only bow in all of Greece. Seriously. There’s a big battle scene. There’s a siege. But nobody has a bow, except for the guy with the magic bow. Which, by the way, looks like something out of Diablo.

So the plot is that Mickey Rourke—who is back to being sleazy and unappealing after a brief hiatus—plays the conquering Hyperion (who in the actual mythology, all we know of is that he was a Titan) whose big plan is to—well, he’s got two plans. The first is to rape all of the known world, a la Genghis Khan. The second is to find the magic bow of Epirus (who, in actual mythology was a mortal girl who died young and relatively uneventfully) and use it to travel to Tartarus (a city/mountain and the place with the titan-cube).

Tartarus seems to be the closest thing this movie makes to a hit to actual Greek mythology. Some Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, but it was considered to be a place in the underworld.

OK, so, shutting off the part of the brain that knows anything about Greek mythology about five minutes into it, we’re left with a bunch of incoherent plot lines and unsupported character backstory.

Like, the fact that Rourke’s two evil plans contradict each other. He releases the titans, they destroy the world: So much for all the raping he wants to do. (He never talks about ruling the world or looting or pillaging. He’s all about the rape.)

There’s a kind of Star Trek-style prime directive going on with the gods: According to Zeus, the law is that no god may interfere directly with mortals as a god (biting tongue) even though he’s apparently been going down in the form of John Hurt to raise the atheistic hero of our piece. That’s not “as a god” so, loophole!

Now, this could make sense as a dramatic device, right? Just like in “Star Trek,” it could prevent deus ex machina type escapes and keep the tension high. If the audience knows that the gods can intervene at any time, after all—just stop right there, buster. This movie completely depends on deus ex machina.

Actually, not just deus ex machina but villain ex machina. The villain manages to have henchmen everywhere. Including, at one point, an artifact fetching jackal/hyena/dog thing. Who happens to be right where the artifact is. Even though the villain had already left that spot. And the movie goes through great pains to make sure we know the villain doesn’t know where the artifact is.

Truly, the hero’s actions are completely irrelevant, or possibly negative. There’s really nothing heroic about him. He fights good, I guess. And he’s good to his mom. He’s less offensive than the other characters, so he’s got that going for him. He also has some casual sex that would seem pretty reckless in terms of the whole saving-the-world thing (avoiding spoilers).

The Greece of this movie is populated with atheists, true believers, apostates and pragmatists. The hero is an atheist (up to the point where Zeus actually spanks him), the villain is an apostate, most of the rank-and-file seem to be believers, but the residents of Tartarus are more pragmatic. But everyone’s chief gripe about the gods is that they don’t get involved, and the difference between the villain and the hero is that the hero chooses to believe that means there are no gods while the villain decides it means there ARE gods and they hate him, and so therefore deserve to die (along with the rest of existence).

Good lord, in the beginning of the movie, a well-meaning cleric tells Rourke that he only need ask for forgiveness to set all right with the gods. (You know, ’cause what’s the difference between the Greek gods and Jesus?) Of course, the Greek gods would’ve struck the villain dead for defiling the temple—that’s what they did—but setting that aside, there’s no space in even the movie-created theology for forgiveness, or much of anything other than a blind partisanship.

The relationship between the gods and mortals seems to be trivial, at best, and inverted at worst, with Zeus emphatically assuring the hero that he (Zeus) believes in him (Theseus).

Weirdly, in the first few minutes of the movie, the narration tells us that the titans were “called” evil because they lost the war of the heavens. We’re never given any idea of the gods as being good, or frankly being of much interest whatsoever.

The gods, by the way, look like a campy re-enactment of The War Against The Titans done at Ceasar’s Palace. “How will anyone be able to tell the gods apart? They’re all unshaven brunette 30-year-old men wearing togas.” “I know, let’s put ’em in goofy hats!”

It’s a greatly reduced pantheon, by the way: Zeus, Athena (who seem to be leering at each other while expositing on how they’re father and daughter), Ares, Helios and Poseidon are, I think, all we see. Though maybe Apollo pops in at the end.

Aw, hell, I’ve already given more thought to this movie’s theology than anyone actually making the movie did.

Immortals manages to offend on nearly every other level as well, though. For example, Tartarus is a walled city. Wait, did I say “walled city”? I meant to say it’s behind freaking Hoover Dam. They have the technology to build a wall that’s a thousand feet high, but they have no means to defend it whatsoever. No bows. No boiling oil. No nothing. Just a wall.

And when The Only Bow In Creation blows through the front of the gate like a bazooka, the villain never ever fires it again in battle. (The Bow is problematic in terms of how much force it can deal. Apparently the answer is “how much do you need?”)

It’s kind of insulting.

Also, they know where the villain is headed: To free the titans. Post guards? Why no, why would you? The thing there is, the villain could easily have dispatched them (magic bow, remember?), so why not even put out the effort to show us that our putative good guys are kind of thinking?

Some guy named Henry Cavill plays some dude named Theseus. Stephen Dorff plays a lovable rogue who breaks character at the first convenient plot point. Frieda Pinto, as Indian looking a woman as you can ever imagine, plays the Oracle, and has a spectacular body double for her nude scene (which screams body double). Luke Evans, fresh from playing Apollo in Clash of the Titans, plays Zeus-with-a-five-o-clock shadow here. The other hottie is Isabel Lucas, playing Athena.

I have no opinions about any of these people based on this movie. I’ve liked Stephen Dorff since he was a kid in that goofy demon-summoning movie The Gate. But really, none of them are particularly relevant. This isn’t a movie about characters. Or plot. Or continuity. Coherence.

The music is heroic.

I would’ve gone to see this, on the strength of Tarsem’s name. He’s doing one of the three Snow White rehashes next year (his is Mirror, Mirror and the other two are Snow White and the Huntsmen and—hmm, maybe there’s only two) and I won’t be lining up to see it.

P.S. Ares actually throws a hammer in this flick. A hammer.