Do You Know What My Name Is?

This is an odd little film. Financed by some Japanese guys and initially released a couple of years ago, it floats around getting not much attention.

Which is kind of odd, since it shows people recovering (at least partially) from dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The document follows John Roderman over a period of six months where he works in an old folks home and interviews people with memory problems. He asks them the titular question, and when they say they don’t, he gives them his name tag and lets them read it. Then he talks over some stuff with them, and asks them his name again after about 5 minutes at which point they’ve forgotten it.

Over the course of six months, they’re given a treatment which is too simple to be believed: They read a passage or two aloud, and then they do some simple math, also while saying what they’re doing. This, the theory goes, draws blood into particular areas of the brain. (They explain this to the patients, too.)

If this sounds familiar to you, you may have encountered something like “Brain Age” for the Nintendo DS. Ryuta Kawashima, the creator of “Brain Age”, is behind this treatment. You may have also heard (I have) that there’s no scientific evidence to support these theories.

Of course, I’m familiar with valid therapies being pronounced unscientific, so it was interesting to me to see the six month period, at the end of which, the patients are very much improved indeed. This (still) isn’t scientific proof, but it’s very damn convincing.

One of the patients was able to remember John’s name, but all of them we saw reconnected with their families. One was able to knit again. They all became more social and more like their former selves (as described).

Of course there’s not much money to be made in such a simple thing. John goes from a minor role as an interviewer to doing the test administration (“helpers”, I think they’re called, but I don’t remember very well—oh, no!) and, frankly, I think I could both rig up the exercise and administer it just from watching the movie.

So, you can see why there’s not much interest. An easy, cheap cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s? Who needs it!

I thought it was interesting that it would work, though. If it can be fixed by exercise, which it seems to be, but then is further boosted by the people doing the things they did before they got sick, that suggests to me that there must be some sort of trigger event that starts the cycle going downward. It could be something really simple, too, like a spike in blood sugar or an ordinary illness.

It suggests that certain rituals people do may be prophylactic against this sort memory loss, too.

This is amazingly good news and important if true as they say.

Three-point breakdown:

1. The topic is obviously important. People aren’t getting less susceptible to these conditions. Or any younger.

2. The style is very simple. It has a home movie feel, despite having two directors. Roderman—I kind of wanted to punch him at first. But then it really became clear that he’s got a kind of Mr. Rogers thing going: He’s not talking down to old people, he’s just very gentle and sweet-natured.

3. Slant? Well, obviously this presents this technique as working. Can I guarantee it’s not edited to elide failures, or present the results as more dramatic than they are? I cannot. I’d like to hope not.

This film has no entry in IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes or Box Office Mojo.

Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks

The reviews on Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks are deservedly mixed, and The Boy and I were semi-reluctant viewers of this tale of an old lady who takes dance lessons from a con man. But not all 2-star movies are 2-star movies for the same reasons.

The worst, of course, might be called the staid 2-starrers. They plod along with no particular aspiration, leaving you vaguely unsatisfied, even if you found them largely unobjectionable. Then there are the ones that have aspects that are very good, or even brilliant, which come crashing against some technical failure or other, which can be frustrating but at least interesting and engaging, when they’re not driving you nuts.

Six Dance Lessons is the latter sort of film. It’s in such a panic to be a movie that makes an Important Social Statement, it trips all over itself in the beginning, and then ends with the subtlety of a political commercial.

In between, though, there are some moments of earned emotion payoff, as Gena Rowlands and Cheyenne Jackson spar and get to know each other. These parts were really good. I mean, the acting is good all the way through, enough so that, in the beginning, when the writing/direction rushes you through the early parts of their relationship, you can still be won over.

But in the middle, the writing calms down a bit, and the characters (now more comfortable with each other) are allowed to relate in a more natural way. This, unfortunately, sets you up for the climax, which (despite all evidence to the contrary) indicates the movie doesn’t really take place in 2014. Or the writer wasn’t aware that Roe vs. Wade passed in 1973. Or more likely this was written a while back.

I’m struggling here, but not as much as writer Richard Alfieri (The Sisters) had to to get in his one-two yay-Roe/yay-gay-marriage punch.

There’s some awful bigotry in it, as well. There’s a half-hearted pointing out of said bigotry but you can tell the writer and director feel it’s justified bigotry, which is how everyone feels about their own prejudices, of course.

Despite all this, we kind of liked it, The Boy more than I, but I notice he’s less sensitive to clunky character development. But we both felt the better story was subordinated to shoehorn the message in.

I don’t want to blame director Arthur Allan Seidelman, king of the After School Special, for this. But he seems the likely culprit.

Rita Moreno, Jackie Weaver and Julian Sands have nice supporting roles.

If you’re completely sympatico or reasonably thick-skinned it’s worth checking out.

The Babadook

Can you say “allegory”? I knew that you could!

The Babadook is an Australian horror flick that’s got the good buzz, and said buzz is fairly well deserved: This is a simple but stylish horror flick with not a few things in common with the last horror flick we saw, Scream At The Devil.

A woman in labor is being driven to the hospital by her husband when they get into a horrible accident that kills him. Seven years later, Amelia is a harried, depressed single mom raising a serious handful of a boy, Sam. She’s never gotten over her husband’s death, and her son, desperate for her attention and to fill the masculine role, swears to protect her with his litany of weapons and traps, and some parlor magic (illusions) to boot.

Our story begins in earnest when the two find a child’s book called “The Babadook” which is filled with a menacing ghastly story about a creature that, the more you deny it, the stronger it gets.

And, let me put my name in the hat for “Father of the Year” because I would totally read this horrifying popup book to my kids at bedtime.

Anyway, the Babadook begins to move from the pages to real life in an increasingly menacing fashion, about in accordance with Amelia’s grasp on reality slipping. The interesting thing about this movie, in horror terms, is that you’re never really sure if the babadook is going to get them, or Amelia’s going to get them. Hmmm—perhaps like The Shining?

Actually, yeah, that’s a pretty close comparison. Where The Shining hauntings are a manifestation of Jack Torrance’s alcoholism, The Babadook’s babadook is a manifestation of Amelia’s inability to deal with her husband’s passing. (There are some theories that there is no babadook at all and it’s all Amelia. That’s a bit far.)

I actually had a problem with this: It’s just so, so literal. I was all “Hey, ‘The Telltale Heart’ just called to say ‘Dial back the allegory a notch!’”

The Boy really liked it, as has everyone I’ve talked to. I did, too. I just was a little taken aback by the obviousness of it. Though, in fairness, while the allegory is obvious, the details are up for considerable debate.

Solid direction. Writer/director Jennifer Kent avoids cheap shocks and gore, making it work on a more emotional level. The Boy said there was music, because it stopped abruptly at certain horror points, but I would’ve said there was no music at all, especially when you’d most expect it, which I thought was a brave choice. (There’s a music credit, Jed Kurzel, so there’s music somewhere in there.)

Essie Davis (The Matrix Reloaded, Charlotte’s Web) and Noah Wiseman are good in their roles as mother and son. Wiseman has a particularly tough role, and I’m inclined to credit the director with a big part of his success: His character has to undergo a transition between obnoxious monster child to brave warrior, but it’s not that his character actually changes, but the way we perceive it. Barbara West was also quite good as the sympathetic neighbor.

Worth checking out.


The tagline for Aftermath proclaims “A dark comedy about one man’s overreaction!”.

No, it’s not.

It’s not a dark comedy, although there are some darkly funny parts to it. It’s not about “one man’s overreaction”. Well, probably not. I guess it depends on who you think One Man is. The implication is that it’s Anthony Michael Hall but—well, let me describe the story, and you decide.

Tom (Hall) is a successful contractor/douchebag living the good life with his hot wife Rebecca (Elizabeth Rohm, “Law & Order”) when his foreman, Matt (Jamie Harrold, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), who is as unhappy with his life (with less hot wife, Lily Rabe, “American Horror Story”, “Law & Order”, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”) as Tom is happy with his, has trouble with one of his crew, the menacingly fat Chris Penn (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”).

I don’t remember what Penn’s character name is, and he’s not listed in the IMDB credits. He died during the shooting of this film, and there were rumors that his scenes were taken out of this film—rumors that seem impossible given that he is the film’s antagonist. (I actually can’t find the character name anywhere!)

One thing leads to another and Penn ends up assaulting Matt in front of Tom one Friday afternoon. Penn has the idea that he’s going to be Tom’s #1 guy if he can dispatch Matt, and we get the idea he’s not too particular about the definition of “dispatch”.

Tom, of course, thinks this is nuts and fires Penn. As Penn tells his pal, Eric (Frank Whaley, “Law & Order”, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”), it’ll all be cool Monday morning. Keep in mind that Penn is not meant to be insane, but presumably part of a culture where felonious assault is just a thing, you know?

It turns out not to be cool Monday, especially given that Matt has vanished.

Of course, Tom tells the cops about it when they ask. But this really pisses Penn off. And Eric, who’s thinking they should go back to their criminaling ways. But Penn wants to go legit, even if that means killing people.

OK, I may have that muddled. What’s clear is that Penn is a menace, and responds to things with extreme violence, so maybe he’s the guy in the movie tagline who’s over-reacting.

Tom has a few avenues open to him: The cops are curiously unhelpful. To the point where I began to think some sort of Witness Relocation Program issue was at stake. Tom also has a buddy (Leo Burmeister, “Law and Order”) who happens to be a sheriff and who’s investigating stuff for him.

The Sheriff (that’s his name in the credits) tips Tom off to minor thug, King (Tony Danza, “Who’s The Boss: Criminal Intent Unit”) so he can get some “home protection” and the enterprising King sees an opportunity to get some cash by menacing Penn. So he and his mook Darrell (Federico Castellucio, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) go to give a warning to Penn, who easily outweighs both of them put together.

This ultimately works out poorly for all, including lesser, wheelchair bound mook, Clark (Clark Middleton, “Law & Order”, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”.) Also Rebecca. And Tom. And Penn.

Actually, everyone.

You have to feel bad for writer/director Thomas Farone, who seems like he had a good story and a stylish approach to telling it, but when your antagonist dies midway through the shoot, you’re fighting an uphill battle. Then, when you’re trying to fix things, another actor dies (Leo Burmeister), you can hardly be blamed for trying for “baffling” over…well, I’m not even sure what your options are at that point.

Penn makes a sudden exit from the film. The Sheriff ends up vanishing. We never do find out what happened to Matt, though I thought there was an implication that maybe his wife killed him. Matt and his wife have a daughter, apparently, though she never appears past the opening sequence. Frank Whaley turns out to be tougher than Anthony Michael Hall, which is some sort of weird Brat Pack Nerd Showdown gone wrong.

I just don’t know.

We didn’t hate it. It was disappointing and frustrating, and it’s entirely possible if it had been finished we’d have absolutely hated it. It opens with the end, which turns out to be the actual end of the story, not the pre-climactic moment where things turn around, so you end up feeling like you’ve been played a bit.

Tom’s self-description is pretty awful, but he never lives up to it in the actual movie: He busts some chops—which a contractor pretty much has to do—but it’s clear he’s living the good life because he’s worked hard. He’s quite taken with himself, but his actions in the film are clearly more centered around protecting his pregnant wife then, say, ego, obsession or stubbornness (cf. the Kevin Bacon/James Wan revenge flick Death Sentence).

It’s almost an anti-revenge flick, really: Where you sort of expect from the title and the tagline that this is going to be about taking revenge, what you have is a guy who’s desperately trying to stop bad things before they happen.

The Boy was particularly frustrated by the sense of something really quality trying to get out of the muddle. Though he didn’t get the whole comic-book thing. (The scene transitions are done as though you’re reading panels in a comic book. Which also seems to peter out at points.)

The funny thing is that we were trying to figure out when the movie took place. There are no cell phones at first—they turn up about 30-40 minutes into it, and they’re not smart phones. Also the monitors are all fat CRTs. I guessed early 2000s, but it turns out this wasn’t an attempt to make a period piece, it’s just that the film was mostly shot in 2005!

An oddity. But hard to recommend.

Viva La Liberta

It happens every so often where I just can’t figure out ratings. I get, for example, that most people don’t like black comedy and so I hold films like Drop Dead Gorgeous and Very Bad Things in much higher esteem than most. And it’s usually not a problem to figure out the critic/audience split, since critics and audiences have differences—usually well known and stereotype-reinforcing differences.

Viva La Liberta is a puzzler then.

It gets a thumbs down from critics but a fairly strong thumbs up from audiences. The disparity is wider than the Oscar-winning La Grand Belleza, and flipped, with audiences being warm while critics went ga-ga. (That one I understand.)

I don’t know. Maybe it’s a political thing. Everyone in Europe’s a socialist, but some are more socialist than others, I guess.

Viva La Liberta is the “Prince and the Pauper”, or perhaps Dave, updated for modern times as Tom Servilio (the lead in Bellezza) plays an Italian MP, the leader of the “opposition party” which is flagging and not living up to its early ambitions. On the verge of a complete rout, the MP vanishes leaving only a note that he’ll be back.

Desperate for damage control, the political operatives end up seeking out the MP’s crazy twin brother, who is a philosopher/poet/nut who speaks his mind and has plenty of practice imitating his brother.

Naturally, he’s a wild success, managing to turn a losing campaign into a winning one, just by being honest and enthusiastic. This lovely (and well-worn) narrative conceit suffers a bit when you realize that Crazy Bro isn’t really saying anything substantive when he talks.

But what are you going to do? If he said something substantive, he’d doubtless end up alienating some portion of the audience. And it’s not really the point. The story is really about the two brothers and their journey.

Well, sort of, and perhaps this is the somewhat weak part: The crazy brother is more of  a plot device than a character. He’s a sort of Italian paragon, a lover of poetry and romance and emotion, and he’s also crazy—or at least the world views him that way. The movie implies heavily that he’s the sane one in a world gone mad.

The MP brother finds himself in a completely different life which is at least as agreeable as his former life, though much simpler. A backstory involving the twins and an old girlfriend is hinted at, a story that ended badly and split the three apart decades ago.

By the end, the movie even begins to play fast-and-loose with the whole twins thing. I mean, the closing scene teases heavily as to who is who, and even whether there were two of these guys at all. That’s probably a bit of a reach, but the end is a definite tease.

The Boy and I really enjoyed it, though are expectations were somewhat lowered by the harsh reviews. It was light and cute, funny and sweet, and not really as dark or cynical as a movie like this might be expected to be. (Could that be why the critics didn’t like it?)

And, if nothing else, Toni Servilio is just a great actor.

The Immortalists

Here’s a pretty good, if slightly unfocused-feeling, documentary on Aubrey de Grey and Bill Andrews, two guys who are trying to defeat Death. Well, not really Death-with-a-capital-D but death as a natural end to the human body. Aging, in other words.

Now, the first thing you’d expect from guys trying to defeat death is a weird sex/family life.

What, you wouldn’t? I would. A normal sex life with normal progeny would hardly preclude research into immortality, but I would just expect the people most obsessed with it to be ones who hadn’t really gotten the hang of how the species achieves immortality (i.e., through family and children).

I’d also expect them to be materialistic, since a materialist believes he IS his body.

Well, check, check and checkity-check!

But before we get to this, let’s look at the theories of these interesting guys who may come up with some very cool stuff.

Andrews is all about the telomeres. As I understand it, telomeres are the protective ends of chromosomes (analogous to shoelace aglets in Andrews’ telling), a sort of repetitive buffer that keeps the chromosome duplicating properly and from getting messed up. Problem is, with each division, a little bit comes off the end of the telomeres and when they’re gone your chromosomes end up like so much gunk.

(The spell-checker wants to turn “telomeres” to “omelettes” and “aglets” to “eaglets”.)

The Science used to be settled (by Nobel winning physiologist Alexis Carrel) that human cells, taken out of the body, would continue to divide and reproduce forever. An American scientist, Leonard Hayflick, discovered that, no, in fact the number of times cells divide is very limited indeed. (Hayflick has not won the Nobel.)

I don’t know why I brought that Nobel stuff up. Except, maybe if you want to get the big bucks and awards, it doesn’t hurt to give people good news. (Actually, Carrel got his award for advances in vascular suturing, and rather boldly testified to witnessing an apparently miraculous cure at Lourdes.)

The movie interviews Hayflick, who seems to regard the whole immortality movement as distasteful, and Andrews (and probably de Grey) as snake oil salesmen. (Hayflick, it should be noted, is long married with five children and, implied by the movie, at least somewhat attentively Jewish.)

Anyway, Andrews is all about telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens telomeres. Sounds cool, right? It might be, although the shortening of telomeres might be the body’s defense against cancer. (As you age, your cells need to replicate less, so restricting their ability to do so might prevent cancer even if it causes cancer.) On the other hand, some argue that telomerase might increase your resistance to cancer.

Which, the engineer in me says, brings up the question of why the shortening of telomeres occurs at all, and why we aren’t flush with telomerase. It might just be a side-effect of other processes that we can safely ignore. Or not.

Meanwhile, de Grey is one of the people who thinks telomerase is carcinogenic, and his theory involves undoing the damage to cells done by…well, life. The movie doesn’t outright list the seven types of cell damage he theorizes but, broadly, he’s looking damage intrinsic to the cell (like mutations), damage internal to the cell (like crap accumulating) and, I guess, damage done by external factors, including damage the cell does to other cells.

Well, you gotta admit that “a magic prescription for telomerase” is a lot easier to grasp and market than de Grey’s plan which involves all kinds of stuff, including nanotechnology that doesn’t exist yet.

It’s also kind of interesting that the problems/solutions are practically orthogonal. Telomeres aren’t a factor in de Grey’s philosophy and Andrews doesn’t talk about damage (at least in this movie). I guess if you’re replacing the cell (a la Andrews) you don’t have to care about the junk in an old cell (presuming it dies) while if you’re repairing the damage to a cell, it doesn’t need to reproduce? (I’ve read the two philosophies are in opposition, but I don’t see that as necessarily true.)

The movie doesn’t go much into details like this, which is probably fine. It starts with a “booyah” story about successfully lengthening a mouse’s life in 2011, but it should be noted that this is pretty much the only success mentioned.

Andrews and de Grey themselves are pretty fit, I guess. With the amount that de Grey seems to drink and the thickness to his speech, I thought “This guy seems like a high functioning alcoholic”, but he’s able to ace Andrews out on most of the aging tests they take. (Though he digs for worms on his push-ups.)

The two are affable competitors, going to the same gerontology clinic, and filling out their forms with “Main complaint: Aging has not been cured” and such.

This movie was filmed over the course of several years, it seems, during which time several people important to the two principals die, in the usual way.

Andrews is a super-marathoner who tries (twice) and fails (twice, IMO) to run 130ish miles up in the Himalayas. (In fact, I think he sort-of marries his girlfriend in the Buddhist temple we saw in this movie.) When I say he fails, I mean, the first time he completely fails to complete the course.

In the second case, after a lot of braggadocio about how he’s going to beat this race just like he’s going to cure aging, he gets about 2/3ds of the way through and gets a massive blister (and probably some other cardio/respiratory problems) and gives up. After some unspecified amount of time lying on a bed and seeing a doctor, his girlfriend convinces him to carry on and he does.

Personally, I don’t think you’ve completed a course with the original intention if you took a couple hours break in the middle. Not that I’m taking the accomplishment away from him: Regular super-marathons are an amazing (and amazingly stupid physiologically, if I understand it correctly) thing, much less ones at 5 miles up.

But, man, what a metaphor: A race which is, perhaps, impossible for his body to complete, that he swears he’ll complete, and he does, sorta, if we allow for some goalpost moving.

On the other side, de Grey likes to go out into semi-secluded areas (like, covered with brush but near enough to a road that the cars passing by move the brush) and canoodle naked with his (much older) wife. Later, when he moves to California (of course) to open up the SENS Institute, his wife stays back in England and he hangs with his two younger girlfriends.

Andrews has a passion for not dying. He’d doubtless like to help his (Alzheimer’s afflicted) father, as well. Meanwhile, de Grey says there’s absolutely nothing personal about his quest, which is why he goes to the gerontology clinic to compare personal notes with Andrews.

Honestly, de Grey struck me as seriously damaged.

So, on the three-point-scale:

1. Subject matter: Good and important, I suppose, though somewhat conflicted about what the story was.

2. Presentation: Entertaining. Good interviews. Light on the science.

3. Slant. Well, something like this is almost always going to make you sympathetic, right? And it is. Is it biased toward these guys being successful? I don’t think so.

About the only time I kind of rolled my eyes at the treatment of the subject matter was a debate between de Grey and Some English Dude, in the classic style of Debates Meant To Settle Things. This was not focused on “Is it possible?” but “Is it Right and Good?” The contra-side was laughably bad. We should not seek immortality, the argument went, because the world is such a terrible place on the verge of crisis upon crisis.

Neo-Malthusian crap, in other words, as if the accumulation of experience could not possibly be of benefit to solving these problems.

Not that de Grey’s rebuttal, as shown, was any great shakes. “We don’t know” and “Future generations will despise us for not pursuing this…” Meh. He’s on solid ground when he says that if you’re anti-immortality, you must believe that it’s good for people to grow old or you must believe that there’s a time when people should die, even if they’re healthy.

There’s no decent argument against longevity any more than there’s a decent argument for the evils of “climate change”. To make either argument is to say that the way things are RIGHT NOW is how they should always be. Of course, those people are free to off themselves at 60 (about the expected lifespan of a pre-industrial person who made it to adulthood).

Nothing is resolved. We are not really enlightened. But it’s still an interesting film. The Boy was reasonably pleased, if not enthused.

Cure aging or die trying, they proclaim! Well, yes, those are the options.


A lot of people, in dismissing this movie, have sniffed, “Well, it’s about actors, and who cares about actors?

This is very shortsighted and narrow-minded indeed, and I hasten to remind everyone that actors are very much like human beings, and we can learn much from their struggles.

There’s gotta be something very close to irony in the fact that people will watch all kinds of movies about killers, pedophiles, gangsters, and the worst scum known to man, but get their hackles up when there’s a movie about actors. (All those other characters are played by actors, y’know?) And, for all the self-congratulatory encomiums actors give each other, when they make movies about themselves, they’re almost always about what a messed up lot they are.

I don’t know. It can be endearing, I think, and I think that’s the case here in Inarritu’s (21 Grams, Babel) Birdman, the tale of an actor (Michael Keaton) who gave up an easy paycheck to pursue art, and face-planted. Now nearing what may be the end of his career, he’s sunk everything into his own Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”.

Of course, many actors end up in a defining role that they can never escape, but in the case of Riggan Thomson, his meal-ticket superhero Birdman doesn’t only haunt his career, it lives inside his head in constant criticism of everything the guy does.

His life is, of course, a big ol’ mess. His girlfriend/co-star is pregnant (maybe), his estranged daughter/assistant hates him, his ex-wife actually seems to love him but knows better than to get mixed up with him again, and worst of all his male co-star can’t act. Strike that, worst of all, when a freak accident takes his co-star out, his other female co-star recommends her husband to take his place, and the unstable, arrogant jerk may be a better actor than he is—with a better understanding of the material!

His agent seems to be the only guy who really has a handle on him.

The icing on the cake? Riggan is convinced he caused the freak accident that took out his co-star, and is given to frequent bouts of telekinetic tantrums.

I had my doubts about this going in. I’m not a big fan of Babel—I didn’t really get it, and felt that this film might end up being pretentiously ponderous, or maybe ponderously pretentious, but it’s not at all ponderous.

I could say that it might’ve been interesting, actually, to make the characters themselves less interesting and focus on the struggle of trying to get a Broadway show on, but nobody does that sort of thing any more.

And while it’s fair to call it a “character study”, that doesn’t really do it justice. Much like Whiplash, despite a relatively sedate setting, there is quite a bit of suspense and excitement in this film: Will Riggan “sell out”? Will the play be successful? Will it be any good? Will Riggan be any good? Will Mike do something crazy to screw it up? Will Riggan do something crazy to try to get attention? Is the whole thing just rigged against our heroes in the first place?

And what the hell is going on with the whole Birdman thing, anyway?

I was deeply concerned, by the third act, about what would happen to Riggan. Even though his messes seemed entirely self-made, I wanted him to be redeemed even though he was an actor. I think we can all agree that this is a considerable accomplishment on Inarritu and Keaton’s part.

Except at the beginning and the end, this movie has no cuts, a la Rope. The Flower spotted a few of the tricks used to create that effect but what was interesting to me was that: 1) The constant tracking and tight shots made everything feel intimate; 2) No cuts is way less jarring than rapid-fire mega-cuts. Honestly, we were well into the first act before I noticed that’s what was going on, whereas (for me, anyway) constant rapid cuts call attention to themselves and away from the actual story.

Obviously the acting is good. Keaton is still Keaton, 30 years past Night Shift. Norton is always great (well, maybe not in that romcom he did with Jenna Elfman). Naomi Watts and Emma Stone put in heartfelt, memorable performances as well. You’ll forget Andrea Riseborough (Never Let Me Go, Shadow Dancer) has an English accent.

The big surprise is Zach Galifianakis, who has lost weight and looks absolutely nothing like himself (as we know him) despite, well, being just a skinnier version of himself. I mean, he didn’t shave his beard or put on an accent or even dress remarkably different. He just acted. And, I guess, he acted far differently, staying away from his comedic ticks and mostly keeping his voice out of that “I’m so whiny it’s funny” range.

The music is entirely ambient, mostly a guy playing drums (sometimes in oddly inappropriate places) and a stagey orchestral pit kind of thing.

The Flower, who is increasingly selective about her moviegoing, approved. The Boy gets a peculiarly satisfied air when we see multiple high-quality movies back-to-back, and since we had just seen Whiplash, he was feeling pretty good.

If you’re not allergic to actors, and stories about actors, we all recommend.


Tanks! For the memories! OK, dumb pun out of the way, Fury is the latest film written and directed by David Ayer (End of Watch). Ayer also co-wrote and directed (and regretted) the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage, but now he’s back in the saddle with this tale of a WWII tank crew captained by Brad Pitt.

Ayer is excellent at creating movies about male relationships, and Fury is a tour-de-force of war-forged brotherhood, as this squad of men have fought together in this crappy old American tank for years.

The story is that, at the end of the war, a tank crew are part of the final push toward Berlin and, as the movie opens, they’ve lost one of their team. The replacement they get isn’t just young, but not even combat trained—just a warm body that the Army has thrown into the mix.

This is, essentially, a road picture, probably moreso than a war movie. It’s a series of vignettes showing how the new kid becomes one of the team as the tank moves from place to place, less about any tactical or strategic goal. As such it’s very good. (End of Watch had a similar form, as I recall.)

I heard some people sort of dismissing it over moral ambiguity but I actually didn’t find it to be particularly ambiguous. The stakes are high, so just as a brief hesitation can result in innocent deaths, one can’t really apply non-wartime rules (particularly regarding the sanctity of life) to the situations the crew comes across.

Or, maybe I’m just a monster.

Anyway, I get the idea that Ayer throws these situations out there not for us to judge, but to get us into the mindset, which builds toward the Desperate Act of Heroism in the third act. You gotta understand the mindset, the bond, the Band of Brothers thing, for it to make sense.

Emotionally, I mean. As a practical matter the third act is kind of goofy. Ayer overplays his hand by showing us a massive battalion of super-Nazis with anti-tank weapons, against Our Boys and their one, badly damaged tank.

I didn’t mind that much. It wasn’t really the point, and if you could get past the improbability of it all, it’s good, gripping action with characters that have been well established by that point. And, much like End of Watch, it’s Manly.

I’m cool with that. We’re lucky to get an unapologetically Manly picture in any given year.

Acting is good. It’s probably my favorite (recent) Brad Pitt role. Shia LaBeouf is in it, and I didn’t even recognize him. He’s not in his typical typecasted role as a weenie, and he can act, I think, given a reason to. Michael Pena (End of Watch, American Hustle) and Jon Bernthal (the World’s Worst Best Friend from “The Walking Dead”) make up the cruder element of the crew. Logan Lerman (Perks of Being a Wallflower, 3:10 to Yuma) plays the kid.

Anamaria Vinca (of the harrowing 4 Months, Three Weeks, Two Days) plays guardian to a young fraulein Alicia von Rittberg (Barbara) during the very weird and tense “romantic interlude” vignette.

It’s good. Entertaining without being glib. Enough gore (some would say too much) to keep it from being a romp but not so much (in the post-Saving Private Ryan sense) that it rubs your nose in it. A little over-the-top heroism.

Definitely worth seeing. Maybe not up to End of Watch standards (although The Boy didn’t recall Watch being that great and claimed to like this better), but far better than the regrettable Sabotage. And by far better, I mean, Ayer admits to regretting doing that as a “work-for-hire” thing.

To which I say: Good. He has a unique voice. Let’s hope he keeps using it.

Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I

I query The Flower regularly about what movies she wants to go see, because she often facilitates our movie sojourns, and she told me in no uncertain terms she was not particularly interested in the latest Hunger Game movies.

She apparently liked the survival stuff. Not a big fan of the revolution stuff.

But then her friends (who have read the books) decided they were going to go see it, and they live downtown, so she needed me to drive her 20 miles to Burbank’s media district where there are three AMC theaters (helpfully named AMC 6, AMC 8 and AMC 16), tickets are $12 at least, and, oh, yeah, let’s go opening weekend to one of the biggest movies of the year.

I pointed out to The Boy this how normal people go to the movies, when they go. It ended up being a five hour deal, since we had to get there early, there were huge lines and traffic everywhere, and the whole thing cost about $60 for the three of us.

The Boy and I wouldn’t have gone but there was no way for us to see a different movie at our regular theater and still do the drop off/pick up thing.

Our verdict? It was all right. The three of us are completely outside this phenomenon, as we are most of the big movie phenomena. I mean, we’ll go see (some of) them, but for us, it’s just another movie. Not to get all hipster or nothing, but you probably haven’t even heard of our favorite movies in any given year.

Unless you read this blog, of course.

Anyway, the story picks up where the last one left off, with Katniss finding herself in District 13 in an underground bunker where the Revolution is being planned by Julianne Moore and the late Seymour Philip Hoffman.

I sooo wanted to hear Julianne Moore say “Our Hunger Game champions and proud we are of all of them” but that would’ve been in appropriate.

The deal is that the Revolution needs a face and, if you need a face to rile people into action, you could do worse than Jennifer Lawrence’s. Never mind, once again, that these people have the technology do make anyone’s face do whatever they want, because that would completely obviate the plot. But it’s especially funny here given all the digital video processing that goes on.

Since we all basically liked it though none of us were wild about it—either going in or after, just like the other movies—it’s kind of interesting to ponder why this was generally less well received.

The Flower liked the actual Hunger Games in the original. (Yeah, I have a strict “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to” policy.) What she liked about this one was that it was different, rather than just rehashing the previous two movies.

I heard some complain about the acting being too low key. Except for a couple of shots it looked like maybe they digitally inserted Hoffman (or a body double) in—oh, the irony—I found it to be about right. I like Lawrence better with each film and am convinced she is the anti-Kirsten Stewart foretold by The Prophecy.

And the burden is heavy on her. She has to badly act at times, but then she has to convince you she’s sincere at the most obvious (and even corny) moments. Essentially, her unchecked passions are what powers the Revolution. (Well, whaddayawant? It’s a book for teen girls.)

I think people are feeling used by the “split the last book” thing. I guess it all does feel a bit like a set up for the next (and final) film. But if the next one knocks it out of the park, why bitch? I don’t know, maybe wait till the next one comes out. You can watch ‘em back to back and pretend you’re watching an (abridged) Peter Jackson flick!

I kid. I kid because I hate Peter Jackson.

Anyway, no strong feelings one way or the other here. I guess you wouldn’t want to see this without seeing the other two, and by that point you know whether you want to see a third one. I mean, it’s different, but not so different as to swing you over to the “yea” or “nay” column if you’re not there already.

I’d wait till I could see it at the bargain theater, though.

Beyond The Lights

I’ll take “movies we’re not in the demographic to see for $500, Alex”.

The Homesman, a Western with Tommy Lee Jones, was playing and seemed like a promising candidate for a weeknight show, but it had this high critic/low audience split and was described as something like “a feminist rebuke of Westerns”.


But there was this other movie, about a black singer whose rise to fame is accompanied by a suicide attempt, from which she is rescued by a cop, and the ensuing love story. This is something I’d say couldn’t possibly be good—or at least of no interest to The Boy and I—but it had a high 90s from critics and audiences alike (at the time; currently it’s down to mid 80s), so off we went.

And it’s good! Not only is it good, we really liked it.

It’s also very sweet, and almost quaint at times, in its portrayal of the girl-who-just-wants-to-sing and the boy-who-wants-to-change-the-community. Naturally, the critics have to ding it as “formulaic”, but even so it got through to their coal black hearts. I don’t know: I haven’t seen it in a while, maybe since Judy Garland days. Or maybe that’s just the last time I saw a memorable form of it.

Gina Prince-Bythwood (Love and Baskteball) wrote and directed and manages to grab you from the opening scene. I’m not even sure how it works, exactly. You have a shrewish Minnie Driver (looking great, I might add) doing a classic stage mom thing, both putting her daughter at the center of her world and forcing her into a mold for success. (Gypsy, much?) And the recipient of this energy is a young Noni (played heart-breakingly by newcomer India Jean-Jacques).

Next thing you know it, young Noni is all grown up and played by the gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Odd Thomas, Belle), about to break out after playing second fiddle to the greasy rapper Kid Screwdriver (or whatever, played by Machine Gun Kelly), her beautiful voice hidden behind a bunch of autotuned crap in a crappy hip hop piece of crap.

Along comes the Denzel-esque Nate Parker (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Non-Stop) to save her life and her soul, with about two hours of romantic drama ups and downs.

The acting is solid, and the direction sure, but formula or no, if this sort of thing is easy to do, I sure don’t see it being done well very often. I think part of this is that the recent mainstream romances I’ve seen have taken romcom pandering to the nth degree, being nearly unwatchable for men. Hell, I’m still scarred from The Notebook.

Part of what sustains it is that the characters are strong and likable. Even if their aspirations are beyond what most of us have, you can relate to it. You can see where the conflicts between will arise.

I don’t know: Like I said, I’m gunshy on female-oriented movies these days. It’s almost like they set out to alienate males.

So, even though this takes nearly two hours, there’s only a slight lull near the end of the third act, but even this pays off well. I got genuinely choked up at the beginning of the movie, and at the end.

The only really tired cliché, I thought, was the whole “struggle against your parents to find your own identity” thing. It’s central to the story here and not just an easy punt for “how do we give this the feels” (as The Boy would put it).

Anyway, we both liked it and were very pleasantly surprised. It hasn’t done gangbusters at the box office, though. Go figger.

Force Majeure

Every year around this time, a lot of my so-called “friends” in the Midwest and North perpetuate this hoax called “snow”. They post pictures of it on treetops, in their driveways, even make “snowmen”.

But I’ve been on set: I know it’s just soap.

Still I can play along, and nobody plays the joke better than the Swedes. And nobody’s ever played it better than in Force Majeure.

Force Majeure takes place in a resort deep in the French Alps, where a Swedish family has come on vacation. We can tell, right away, from the awkwardness with which the wife speaks, that the family’s in a fragile state, with her feeling neglected. The husband feels it as well, but is better at ignoring it and pretending everything’s fine.

As part of making the resort viable, there are periodical explosions in the mountains to control avalanches. And our story really kicks into gear when one of these avalanches heads out of control toward the family. This ensuing events end up stressing the family to the breaking point.

It probably says something about Sweden that this is listed, at least in part, as a comedy.

Well, I laughed.

Some call it black comedy but it’s not the wholesome sort of black comedy where people die. Instead, it’s people’s illusions that die, which is far, far worse. At the same time, there’s an oddly upbeat end to it all, as if our illusions could be as easily built as they are destroyed.

Although the director has joked that he was trying to drive up divorce rates in Sweden, this doesn’t stand so much as an argument against marriage as it is a testament toward behaving better. At least I took it that way: Significant attention was spent on the kids in the family who are aware of the tenuousness of their parents’ relationship and live in fear of them breaking up.

These kinds of dysfunctional family films are not for everyone (I find them very hit and miss) and they tend to have a strained, tense feeling throughout. Force Majeure doubles down on this by introducing an air of contagion to the proceedings, as our main couple’s problems spread to their friends and even acquaintances.

And then it triples down by filming this exotic resort in a positively alien manner. Sometimes, it’s just a couple people surrounded by pure white. Often there’s a fog settled over the whole valley. Just to screw with us, at one point the kids fly a drone in the night sky, and it looks more realistic than the hotel. The whole thing is ridiculously beautiful.

The only actor we recognized was the guy who plays Tormund Giantsbane on “Game of Thrones”, as the friend of the family. The actress playing the wife is apparently his “medspillerske” in real life, which is a word I cannot find a translation for. I thought the lead was Peter Sarsgaard. I’m still not convinced they’re different people.

But the acting is good, in that Swedish way, which apparently means really low-key right up until it’s not.

Anyway, I can see why critics would like it more than audiences, but if you’re open to this kind of drama/comedy, it’s entertaining and oddly thought provoking.


Wow. Just wow. This kid, this Damien Chazelle at 29 has decided to write and direct his first movie, and to make it one of the best films of the year. Maybe the best.

Back at UCLA, there was this girl, a classic California girl named Maureen, who came into the music department, all sunshine and smiles, tan and blonde, a Bruin cheerleader on the side. Within three months, it had reduced her to a pallid, nervous, hair-falling-out wreck of a human being. I think she transferred to chemistry/pre-med because it was so much less stressful.

When a similar anecdote is mentioned here (in passing), I laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more. But then I laughed like crazy when Fletcher had a casual, friendly chat with new recruit Andrew before their first rehearsal. Hard enough that The Boy leaned in to ask me what he was missing.

Well, you just have to know those kinds of people. Every music school has to have at least one, it seems.

This is the story of a jazz drummer (Andrew) who’s driven to be great, and a teacher (Fletcher) who’s driven to create greatness, and the many clashes they have over the course of a year or so. There is so much suspense, and so many great twists and turns in this film, it puts to shame most of the thrillers we’ve seen.

It hits close enough to home that I probably can’t be trusted, but The (largely a-musical) Boy also was really impressed. Paul Reiser and (relative newcomer) Melissa Benoist do a fine job in supporting roles as Andrew’s father and girlfriend, respectively, but this really comes down to a movie about Andrew and Fletcher.

Andrew is played by Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) and Fletcher is played by J. K. Simmons, who’s been doing great work for 20 years, but just tears up this role. Talks of Oscar are neither far-fetched nor unwarranted here. You’re never really sure who Fletcher is until the very end of the movie, and Simmons (aided by Chazelle’s script) makes any number of possibilities plausible.

I liked the music though it’s not really my kind of music. I tend to think modern jazz self-indulgent. “Oh, look at me, I’m in 7/12 time!” Get over yourself, I say.

Nah, it’s good. And it’s perfect for the story.

Chazelle, besides writing a tight script, keeps the direction tight, too. Intense, tight, nail-biting, and some would probably say “over the top”, but I can only assume they don’t know musicians.

What else is there to say? It’s a shoo-in to make the year-end “best” lists.