Absolute Rest

Sometimes you gotta go in blind. And if, like us, you’re considering the case of an enterprising Persian distributor, traveling the country looking for outlets for his movies, you’re almost always going in blind.

In this case, the movie was called Absolute Rest, and I still have no idea why, unless it is meant to refer to death. But it was (yet another) excellent rebuttal to the notion that low budget movies have to be bad.  (A notion, I confess, that nobody is forwarding, but leaps unbidden into my mind when I consider Sharknado.)

The story concerns Samira, a 30ish mother who returns to Tehran after, I think, a sort of self-imposed exile in her hometown, following trouble with her truculent, ne’er-do-well husband. No spoilers but the opening sequence has her being hit by a car in that manner that suggests finality, and the entire movie is a build-up to that point.

We see Samira arrive at the airport, we see her fight with her husband (Hamed?) who takes their child and runs off to her sister’s. (He promptly abandons the child there and we actually never see him again.) A recurring theme of this movie is people asking why she came back, knowing it would infuriate him, and her retorting that Tehran is probably big enough for the two of them. (Tehran has a population of over 8 million, about the size and density of New York City.) However, the reason she came back it seems, is that Hamed spread horrible lies about her in her home village, and she couldn’t escape that, whereas his powers to ruin her reputation would be greatly limited in Tehran.

However, when you know all the same people, and a person is dedicated to destroying you, they can do a pretty good job. She first finds a crappy, smelly apartment and enlists a friend (Saber?) to help her clean it and fix it up.

This is culturally kind of interesting, because there’s an old lady living there already, and the two of them do their repairs and cleaning up while she’s still living there, and with tremendous respect for her. There’s no eviction or any actual talk of what they’ll do when the time comes.

Thing is, though, Saber is also Hamed’s friend. Saber lets Hamed crash with him in his room, which is actually at his menial job—the sort of job that Hamed derides, while leeching off Saber.

Meanwhile, Davoud and Rezvan (real life husband and wife Reza Attaran and Farideh Farimarzi) have been graciously holding her stuff from before she moved and agree to let her crash at their place for a while. Rezvan and Samira are long-time friends, it seems.

Rezvan is an archetypal nagging wife, looking for some attention from Davoud, who is more interested in Samira. And this is another kind of interesting theme running throughout the movie: Everyone wants Samira, but nobody actually makes any moves, and Samira has other things on her mind, like becoming self-sufficient.

Davoud makes a living installing illegal satellite dishes and hatches a plan with Samira to buy a bunch of black market receivers to box up as genuine Chinese receivers and resell at a nice profit. Yes, this is where Iran is as a nation: It bootlegs Chinese electronics. I was really curious as to where these worse-than-Chinese electronics were coming from, and I think it’s…Iran.

She goes to yet another (male) friend, a…uh…toilet magnate who gives her a loan. And also avers how he has an apartment she can stay in rent free. This is kind of interesting, too: She simply demurs, taking the loan and declining the apartment, but without either of them saying a word as to the implications.

And so she goes along, trying to make her way, but bringing a fair amount of disruption with her, all of which is amplified by the truly worthless Hamed, who sets about whispering in Rezvan’s ear, vandalizing stuff, and possibly ratting out Samira and Davoud to the cops.

It’s nicely done, if low key. The characters are strongly drawn and well acted. The story is well written, but I wasn’t sure about the end. Was a message meant? Was no-message meant? Is this the work of Iranian censors?

Back in the days of the Hays office, American filmmakers followed some tropes that were, for lack of a better word: odd. A fallen man would be shamed, but a fallen woman would find death in some form, for example. In some cases, fallen might mean “fell in love out of her race”, too. Looking at some of this stuff makes you wonder, if you don’t know the back story.

So maybe that was what was going on here. Nonetheless, it was a fine film done on a very low budget, and (going back to Sharknado, sorry) it exudes caring.

City of Mice 2

The second of the Persian movies we saw, courtesy of Daricheh Cinema, who brought us A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, illustrates the perils and pleasures of going into a movie completely blind. Apparently, City of Mice was a movie from about 30 years ago, which in turn was based on a TV show, about a bunch of mice who live in a city and in fear of their arch-nemesis, an evil creature who is largely referred to as, roughly, “He Who Is Not Named”.

Actually, the construction is somewhat more awkward (at least in English) and used in a number of roles, to mean “cat”, both a specific cat, minions of said specific cat, all cats and kittens, and possibly things that look like cats.

It’s quite cute, clever puppet show with some nice musical numbers, and way better than Sharknado 2. I don’t mean to keep harping on that point, but every movie we’ve seen since Sharknado 2 has been better, regardless of the budget, and a reminder that “low budget” doesn’t have to mean “crap”.

I don’t have any idea what the budget was here, but it wasn’t huge, and the puppet technology isn’t quite at the level of “The Muppet Show” in 1978, but a whole lot of care was put into this and it shows. The little mouse city is charmingly crafted, somewhat reminiscent of Ernest and Celestine, and the lighting and camerawork is careful and well thought out.

I won’t bring Sharknado up again. Even if Sharknado 3 is the top Twitter trend right now.

Anyway, although it’s aimed a children, much like the muppets, it’s got enough clever parts to hold the interest of adults, and I imagine for adults in their 30s, there’s a special nostalgia in seeing all the old characters again—who, if I’m not mistaken, were also made 30 years older, and whose kids are now fighting the evil cat. (Confirmed: My 28-year-old Persian co-worker saw this and loved it, having watched the show as a kid.)

I liked thinking that they were the grownup versions of the former characters, anyway; I hope it’s true. I can’t quite tell from the trailer for the original, though it’s easy to see how much better they’ve gotten at puppetry.

Also, because it’s not American, whatever “political correctness” they may have is lost on me. I would’ve thought, for example, that the underlying message was a bit subversive for the Mullahs—the kids disobey authority constantly, and there’s no mention of Allah or Islam—but now that I think about it, if it’s like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, it was shot here in the states, rather than back in Iran.

Anyway, it’s kind of refreshing seeing the nagging busybody wife villain (not unlike Absolute Rest), the kids fighting evil with slingshots and scratchy gas. Oh, and also burning and blowing up their enemies.

It was a hard movie not to smile along with, even if it wasn’t the sort of thing we’d normally pick.

The Third Man (1949)

I think we can say, safely and not unkindly, after 65 years, that whatever the merits of zither music, it is not really a suitable instrument for expressing the suspense and tragedy of a classic film noir. Although, in fairness, this is my third viewing of The Third Man and the first on the big screen, and the zither is actually the least annoying that I can remember it.

I recall being driven to distraction on my first viewing. As The Boy, viewing the film for the first time put it, it’s too whimsical. Which is a shame, because otherwise this is a near perfect film.

But perhaps that’s just a #confessyourunpopularopinion moment for me.

I’ve heard it claimed that this is not a noir movie, and the zither music is proof of that, which is an interesting, if completely bonkers, theory.

The story is that hack pulp writer Holly (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt) has flown to Vienna because old pal Harry has offered him some sort of employment which, apparently, Holly can’t find in post-WWII America.

And this is one of those movies, by the way, where you begin to speculate on these kinds of details. Was it because Holly’s a bit of a goldbricker? Is it because Harry represents an adventurous, exciting life? Is it something they just overlooked in their shoddy plotting? Everything seems so well  put together, it’s hard to consider writer Graham Greene (The End of the Affair, The Quiet American) just “overlooking” something. And this is one of the few movies based on his works that he actually wrote the screenplay for.

Anyway, Holly shows up and Harry’s dead. Hit by a car. His own driver even and purely accidental don’tcha know. He died instantly, after which he said nice things about Holly. And three—no, two—men carried him to the side of the road. In other words, everyone’s acting suspicious and Holly begins to obsess about the third man, even as he uncovers his old pal Harry’s roguish-or-possibly-murderous schemes.

Alida Valli (Eyes Without A Face, Suspiria) is the femme fatale, and while there’s some tension between her and Holly, he’s pretty hapless compared to the dashing Harry. Greene fought with director Carol Reed (Oliver!, Night Train To Munich) over the the romantic fate of these two, with Reed ultimately winning out—though I think Greene went to his grave thinking it was a mistake.

The movie is beautifully shot, with cinematographer Robert Krasker rightfully winning an Oscar against legends All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Even so, the movie really makes it shift from solid noir to timeless classic when Orson Welles makes his grand entrance—an iconic movie moment if there ever was one—and the photography and Welles’ performance meld to create a sublime aesthetic.

Handsome, charming, seductive, and so much smarter than everyone else, we simultaneously see how he manipulates the other characters and begin to take a different view of those characters, based on their relationships to him.

Meanwhile, the shadows are growing longer, the lighting is getting more stark, the dutch angles are getting…dutcher.

The movie ends with a chase through the sewers of Vienna that is quick-cut after quick-cut (something that can drive me nuts when done poorly) where every shot is beautifully and perfectly composed, even if it’s visible for 2 seconds or less. Honestly, the last 30 minutes of this film is better than the best of most other movies, and easily better than all the CGI e’er made.

It was the number one film in the UK for 1949—and try to imagine what that world must have been like, if you can in a world where you have to go back to 1996’s Trainspotting to find a non-cartoon at #1 Box Office in the UK—and remains the BFI’s number one British film.

The Boy was impressed.

Jimmy’s Hall

I could describe Ken Loach’s (The Wind That Shakes The Barley) latest movie as “Irish Footloose if Kevin Bacon was a communist” but I think I’d be underselling the subtlety of the ‘80s dance classic.

OK, look, I didn’t really want to see this film. We’re in the middle of a summer drought where the E ticket movies (Terminator: Genisys, Ted 2) are unappealing and the indie/foreign flicks can’t seem to muster good reviews, so we were down to this or Amy, the Amy Winehouse documentary. It has great reviews but it’s over 2 hours long which I sort of suspect means it’s stuffed with music. (I don’t really like documentaries padded with music; they tend to be musically frustrating, because you don’t get the full song, and frustrating as movie experiences because everything stops while the music is playing.)

Critical acceptance was warm (76%) while audiences were decidedly cooler (60%) and for exactly the reasons you might imagine: This is a movie about the poor communist Irish laborers who just want to dance (and subvert—but mostly dance) who end up being bullied by the Church and the richies.

This philosophically childish muddle simultaneously denies the prominence of Communism in the importance of the eponymous hall—focusing on endless dancing, Irish culture preservation, and the Jazz that Jimmy brought back from his exile in America—but frames the entire battle as one of the pure Irish workers versus the evil English landlords. Seriously, Steinbeck called from the grave to say, “Present a little bit of the other perspective, maybe?”

And I’m sympathetic to the Irish. I am Irish. Sorta. As far as I know. (There are some issues down at the adoption agency…)

But beyond the un-nuanced take on the topic, it’s just not very interesting overall. The pacing is off. The story doesn’t go into any real depth, even for the protagonists. It feels like there’s so much history being crammed into the sub-2-hour film that all of it gets short shrift.

I mean, basically, you gotcher message crammed in (Irish good/English bad, Atheists good/Church bad, Communists good/Everyone else bad) and that’s about it. There’s a priceless speech where Jimmy describes his Utopia: It’s old-school, laissez-faire America, of course—the freedom to be left alone—which describes exactly nothing about Communism.

And in all the struggles with the Church, not a single layperson is shown having, y’know, a spiritual crisis. Nary a one. They’re all oppressed by the Church and would all of course be happy to live without any of its services, if only they could be freed of its evil. (I’ve known a lot of ex-Catholics; most of them still held Catholic ideals to some degree or another.)

I don’t know. For what it was, it could’ve been a lot shorter and done the same job. I feel like something more was desired, but sacrificed on the altar of message.

Riiftrax: Sharknado 2

The guys at Rifftrax have hit their 200th riff track this weekend, surpassing the amount of riffing done by Mystery Science Theater 3000, and we trundled down to see the second film in The Crappening, the 2015 slate of four films, starting with The Room and closing out with Miami Connection and Santa Claus vs. The Ice Cream Bunny.

Sharknado is one of those dumb Internet things, that would be barely worth a second look, except for the hyper-attention it got and the sort-of communal watching experience provided by Twitter which, even with all that, did not deserve even the “let’s all goof on it” attention it got. And, hyper-attention notwithstanding, it apparently did no better than an average SyFy channel monster-fest. Perfect riffing material, right?

Well, no. At least not for me. Don’t get me wrong: Mike, Kevin and Bill do yeoman’s work here, by-and-large. We laughed. We had a good time. The only serious problem, technically, with this riffing was that the sound mix was bad. Like almost every other aspect of Sharknado 2: The Second One, the sound is half-assed. It’s poorly mixed, in such a way that it was often hard to hear what people were saying, and the riffing sometimes got lost in the noise.

Bad sound was such an issue in MST3K that “good audio” was one of the key points of a good riffing movie on a list made by, I think, Joel in later years. But unlike the muffled ambient sound or poor overdubs of something like Manos: The Hands of Fate, this just feels neglectful.

In fact, all of Sharknado 2 could be summed up as “They just didn’t care,” a riff used during the classic MST3K episode “Attack of the the (sic) Eye Creatures”. But it’s more likely that the “Eye Creatures” creators did care but lacked the budget and skill to make a watchable film. This film is more a pure cynical calculation done on a spreadsheet in the bowels of NBCUniversal that answers “It doesn’t matter what’s in this. We can sell the rights for $X, and with $Y for budget, we’ll make Z% profit.”

And that trickles all the way down from the top to almost every corner of this looks-like-it-was-shot-on-a-cell-phone film. In the opening of the film, there’s an airplane-in-distress sequence where the pilot is Robert Hayes. Although I barely recognized him, I guess that’s worth a smile. But then you’re kind of doing that through the whole movie: Is that somebody? Or somebody who used to be somebody?

But it can’t keep your mind off, for example, the visible makeup, because the lighting is so bad. Or the sparing, awful special effects, which often look like somebody ran a blur filter on the frame. Or the constant, weather-free-except-for-sharks-and-flood effects of the Sharknado itself. (It never rains but floods figure big.)

You can justify some of this as being the natural effect of a low-budget, but I would point out the doubtless lower budget Big-Ass Spider or this year’s Zombeavers. The former is constrained by the SyFy formula as much as Sharknado, but it looks like people cared. Zombeavers manages to be very entertaining and also highly skillful at balancing an extremely dumb concept with humor and horror.

And I recognize that these are largely people past their primes but I don’t know if I were in the business of selling my face that I would agree to be in something like this. I don’t know who Ian Ziering is, really, and had even less idea about Mark McGrath. Tara Reid at 38 needed a much gentler treatment. Vivica Fox looked decent, partly due to her skin I imagine, and partly due to fighting the trend of starving yourself thin so that when you hit 50 look like a drumhead. Kari Wuhrer also looked good, and actually professional.

The guys even commented on that: Something like “Stop that. Nobody else is acting…” I thought Bill Corbett said something about Wuhrer being in a worse movie (maybe the Eddie Murphy disaster “Meet Dave” with Corbett co-wrote) but I couldn’t quite make it out. And she wasn’t in that, so maybe he was talking about someone else. (Wuhrer was in Anaconda, of course.)

There’s probably a master’s degree or doctorate in characterizing “riffs”, but I want to do a quick categorization to explain why, movie aside, the riffs here didn’t entirely work for me.

1. You can riff on overall quality. This is standard audience-level riffing, where you turn to your friend and say “This sucks.” It’s easy and the sort of thing that makes you think you could riff, too, given a chance. There’s actually a good example of this here where Ian Ziering is flying around in the tornado, able to kill sharks as he flies by. I think it’s Mike who says, “You know guys, this movie is kind of dumb.”

2. You can point out plot flaws. Murphy does a long riff here pointing out the complete stupidity of the idea that sharks could be tossed about in a weather event and not only not be killed but be so completely unaffected that their sole purpose would be to bite you. But here, as with everything in comedy, timing and brevity is everything. In episode #305 of MST3K, “Stranded In Space”, one of the characters must abandon the hero because he spills his medicine, and he can’t live without it. Crow comments: “Note to myself, pack more life-saving liquid.”

3. You can draw physical environment references. Something looks like something else. Penises and boobs are always popular, though they mostly avoid that obvious stuff.

4. You can draw cultural references, which is a big source of jokes. As it turns out Jared Fogle, of Subway fame, is in this, with the FBI raiding his house only three days earlier, apparently looking for child porn. So, when he shows up on screen, they say, “We had a joke for this on Monday” which is better than any actual joke.

5. You can make fun of the actors. I think this is the trickiest thing to do well. It’s best when there’s an idiosyncratic element at play, like when Adrianna Miles can’t pronounce “werewolf” in the movie Werewolf, or pretty much all of Tommy Wiseau. Ed Wood. Even Joe Don Baker. Or if there’s an element of the movie that the actor just doesn’t fit, like being lusted after by all the other characters inexplicably, or being really out of shape and yet still an action star.

So, here we have a lot of riffing on Tara Reid. A whole lot. I get that she’s had plastic surgery. I get that she’s sort of rough looking (and the lighting, makeup and camera work don’t help). I get that she doesn’t seem to be able to (or care to) act. And as someone who bashes this whole movie for its cynicism, I can relate to the idea that not trying is particularly mock-worthy.

But it stops being funny after a while, and for me, in fairly short order. It just feels mean.

I don’t want to rag on it because it is funny, and Reid’s not on screen much, but when she is, the laughs for me (and my companions) mostly stopped. Although we enjoyed it, it’s not one I’d select for repeated viewing, especially with all the gems in the Rifftrax/MST3K catalogue.

Magic Mike XXL

The Boy wanted to go see a movie, but we’ve been in a sort of curious summer drought. The tentpoles don’t automatically appeal to us, and sometimes turn one or both of us right off. Bad reviews for Terminator:Genisys are foreboding and he couldn’t be dragged to Jurassic World, I think finding the first one only passable. (We hate that they’re using CGI in the sequels rather than actually cloning dinosaurs, as they did in the original.)

The Overnight has pretty strong critical reviews (81%) but it looks like a movie about swinging, and that kind of thing gives me the hives, and I remembering that the audience for this sort of thing is self-selecting, the 68% rating is doubtless much higher than I, a person who self-selects away from this sort of thing, would rate it. I saw my share of these kinds of movies in the ‘80s and, well, yuk.

So, instead, we saw a wholesome family movie, namely Magic Mike XXL.


Magic Mike XXL starts three years after the last one ended (three years ago!) which Tatum running his (minor) furniture concern, with one employee he can’t afford health care for, and the former “Kings of Tampa” (Orlando? Miami? Some Florida city) on the skids after having been abandoned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and The Kid (Alex Pettyfer in the original).

Old guy Tarzan (55-year-old wrestler Kevin Nash, who looks a lot better with his natural white hair) lures Mike back for a “last hurrah”, a road trip where the boys break out and find their true inner voices as a stripper.

Longtime Soderberg first AD (who 1ADed the first movie) takes the helm as writer Reid Carolin breathes a little new life into his characters as they strip their way to the Championships in Myrtle Beach.

It’s not great. It’s not terrible. It’s a lot less bro than the first one. There’s a huge amount of time spent on the actual stripping routines, and the addition of Jada Pinkett Smith cranks up the pander level to 11, as our boys make it their mission in life to make women feel good about themselves.

It’s actually sleazier than the first one and, like the first one, not always in a good way.

Double-standards abound. Flip the character genders and…it’s not even possible.

Anyway, we didn’t hate it. It was more or less what we expected. Drags a bit for the hetero male crowd. Our only eye candy is a nearly 60 Andie MacDowell and a mid-40s Jada Pinkett Smith. They both look good (although Smith wears some unflattering clothes). But the women in the audience hooted and hollered, so…there you go.

A Borrowed Identity

Where Palestinian films tend to be of one sort—here’s a story about how the Jews are to blame for everything and that makes it okay to blow up buses and cafés—Israeli films are much broader, and when they address the issue of the conflict with Palestinian arabs, you really don’t know what side they’re going to come down on.

Waltz with Bashir, for example, struck me as very anti-Israeli. It’s not about yet another arab aggression but about how some Israelis suffered ethical lapses during, you know, war. (An astute observer might note that, well, duh, and that individual lapses, or even organizational lapses don’t invalidate the larger issues in the war. For example, FDR interning Japanese-looking Americans doesn’t suddenly make the Nazis and Japs good guys.) Then there was Walk on Water, The Gatekeepers, Cannon Fodder (which is floating around streaming services as Battle of the Undead).

I think it’s safe to say that Israel has a healthy leftist coalition dedicated to its destruction.

Point is, when you go to an Israeli movie about Palestine/Israeli relations, you don’t really know what you’re going to get, which makes a movie like A Borrowed Identity a genuine pleasure.

Our protagonist is Eyad, a Palestinian boy living in Israel in the mid-‘80s whose father is a fruit-picker/activist/possible terrorist. When confronted, Eyad’s father tells him “terrorist” is a word made-up by Israelis for “warriors"—though when asked, he denies being any such thing. High-schooler Eyad (early ’90s) is naturally appalled at the notion of going to the Best School in Israel since, of course, it’s predominately Jewish.

Here we get a little racism—though, more accurately, it’s tribalism—as Eyad is subject to a variety of outsider treatment, including abuse from Jewish Jocks (a category that hardly exists here in the USA). He finds a friend in Yonatan, a boy he hangs out with as part of a community service program (requirement for school), and as one would expect, falls in love with a girl, Nomi, though they must keep their relationship on the down-low.

The tribalism ebbs and flows, on the one hand, with Eyad and Yonatan trading barbs as good friends can, and on the other, while on the other, Eyad can’t get a job above dishwasher as an arab. The borrowed identity in question is Yonatan’s, which opens the lofty door of waiter to the young man.

You can probably see the big issues that must be dealt with: How does Eyad go back to his arab neighborhood? And if he does, how does he get a job worthy of the considerable cost to his parents? What does he do with a Jewish girlfriend? What about her parents? What happens when Yonatan and/or his mother find out he’s stolen his identity?

It takes a sensitive touch, and director Eran Riklis is up to the task, which would not have been apparent to me from the last film of his we say, Zaytoun. Don’t get me wrong—we really enjoyed Zaytoun (The Boy may even have preferred it), but it was a much less sophisticated take on a similar topic. Screenwriter Sayed Kashua doubtless deserves considerable credit, too.

The kids are mostly newcomers (to us, anyway) with Razi Gabareen and Tawfeek Barhom as young and old Eyad, respectively, Michael Moshonov as Yonatan, and the lovely Daniel Kitsis as Nomi. (I believe "Daniel” is correct, not “Danielle” or “Daniela”.) They provide a strong core dynamic, and wrestle with much bigger problems than you’ll find in your average teen movie, and while relatively mature, not overly so.

The resemblance between Barhom and Moshonov is an important part of the story, what with the whole borrowed identity thing, but I thought it was interesting that Yonatan’s mother, played by Yaël Abecassis (Live and Become) and French Lebanese actress Laëtitia Eïdo also look somewhat similar—and both took a strong maternal interest in Eyad. Surely not a coincidence.

Ali Suliman (Lone Survivor, Zaytoun) rounds out the major adult roles as Eyad’s oddly quixotic father. If the film has a weakness, it’s that the story raises a huge question about Eyad’s relationship with his parents, especially with Salah (Suliman), which is never addressed.

The Boy really liked this as well, though he was appalled at the Israeli arabs cheering Palestinian rocket attacks during Desert Storm.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Is the teen cancer novel a thing these days? Last year we saw (the excellent) Fault In Our Stars, and this year we have Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the tale of a friendship formed under duress when a boy’s mom forcing him to visit a little known classmate who has leukemia.

One more and we got ourselves a trend. Or at least, that’s how they do it in the media.

Anyway, this movie/story hasn’t got much in common with Stars, except in having cancer as a central element, and a desire to not be one of those stories. (Where “those” is some sort of clichéd cancer film, I guess.) The main character is Greg, a kid who surfs through school casually, fearfully avoiding being noticed by any of the groups, while cultivating superficial amiability amongst them all.

His dad is a sociology professor of some sort—apparently this doesn’t involve much works, so he hangs around the house making exotic and often foul dishes. His mom is a “concerned” person, who believes that her son should, I don’t know, do stuff about things. Greg’s super-antipathetic to the idea, but nagging wins and he ends up heading over to Rachel’s house, where desperate mom, Denise takes an instant shine to the glib, reasonably charming young boy.

Rachel’s not so big on the whole idea, but she understands the whole mom nag thing, so as a favor to Greg, she agrees to spend some time with him.

Obviously, a friendship forms, and becomes the basis for the movie, otherwise, y’know: No movie.

But the journey is the thing, and it’s done very well here in this script by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel. One might even suspect that it’s autobiographical, which is high praise for both screenwriter and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, “Glee”, “American Horror Story”). And it really is Greg’s journey.

The titular Earl in the story is a black boy from the wrong side of the tracks who grows up with Greg making movies which (in a very Michael Gondry/“Home Movies” style) are based on existing movies, with joke titles. “A Box of ‘lips Now”, as explained, is about a couple of guys fighting in Vietnam when they come across a box of tulips and decide they don’t want to fight any more.


Lotta movie jokes. “2PM Cowboy”. “My Dinner with André The Giant”. “Hairy, Old and Mod”. “A Death In Tennis”.

Really auteur stuff. Lotta foreign, arty things from the ’60s and ’70s, which is backed up by a combination of Greg’s weird Dad, and a too-hip-for-school History Teacher who has “RESPECT THE RESEARCH” possibly tattooed on the back of his neck.

Anyway, Greg does not call Earl his friend. He calls him his co-worked or collaborator. Greg has no friends, at least that he’ll admit to, but obviously that comes to a crashing head when he starts to really like Rachel. Not just like, but care and sacrifice for her. To the extent that he’s either with her or thinking about a movie he’s been pressured into making by hot girl Madison.

The whole “hot girl” dynamic thing is pretty funny and on the nose, too. Overall, The Boy and I sided with the audience’s 90+% over the critics’ 80ish.

Thomas Mann (Hansel and Gretel, The Stanford Prison Experiment) plays the lead convincingly, and is someone we’ll be seeing a lot more of. I mean, literally, he’s in six or seven upcoming movies in the next year. Olivia Cooke (Ouija, The Quiet Ones) breaks out of the horror ghetto to play The Dying Girl with great sensitivity, although in no ways does she look ugly when she loses her hair.

Amongst the high school cliques that Greg has identified and loosely affiliated with, she’s a JAP—though he has a different term for Jewish American Princess—though I wondered if the presence of an actual Asian girl was a sort of comic nod to that.

Newcomer RJ Cyler plays Earl, the voice of reason. Former “Walking Dead” jerk Jon Bernthal (Fury) continues to remind us that that was just a role and he’s really a fine actor capable of all kinds of range.

Terrific performances from Nick Offerman (an icon now as the macho libertarian Ron Swanson on “Parks and Rec”) as Greg’s Dad, the shiftless Sociology professor and Connie Britton (“American Horror Story”, This Is Where I Leave You) as Greg’s Mom.

Especially great performance by Molly Shannon, whom I don’t think I’ve thought of since her 1999 Catholic schoolgirl movie Superstar. Here she plays the emotionally fragile, incredibly lonely single mother of Rachel, right on the line of comic (at least to teen children) and tragic (because, wow, incredibly tragic). There’s a lot of depth there.

Check it out.

Inside Out

It’s been two years since the under-rated Monsters University, the last Pixar film to be released until Inside Out, and it’s good to finally have a new one. (In theory, we also get Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur this year around Thanksgiving.) This latest film is directed by Pete Docter, who also directed Up and Monsters Inc, as well as being one of the writers of the original Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

To top it all off, Inside Out is the highest ranked Pixar movie on IMDB and the second highest animated film overall (behind Miyazaki’s Spirited Away), though that’ll probably settle in the coming months, and was the second highest ranked Pixar movie on Rotten Tomatoes (behind Toy Story 2), though it has already settled there into sixth place (behind the Toy Story trilogy, Finding Nemo and Up).

That’s a lot of hype to live up to.

The Boy was not blown away, however, at least in part because he has very high standards for Pixar films. But there may be other reasons, as well.

The story is a sort of coming-of-age: An 11-year-old girl named Riley has lead a largely joyful life in Minnesota, when her parents relocate the family to San Francisco in a fairly disastrous (for a kid) move. She struggles with her loss, her loneliness, and the pressure to stay upbeat through all this while, you know, being a pre-teen.

The twist is classic Pixar: Most of the movie’s focus is inside Riley’s head, where little entities representing five emotions (joy, sadness, fear, anger and disgust) themselves struggle over who gets to control Riley’s outward state, with Joy (Amy Poehler) being the main driver and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) being the misunderstood outcast.

This is similar to the premise of the not-well-remembered Fox sitcom “Herman’s Head"—but Toy Story was hardly the first to posit a universe where toys were alive. (It was a common cartoon subject back in the ‘30s.) Furthermore, much like Toy Story, there’s no way this premise holds up under serious scrutiny, just from a philosophical level. (I mean, think about it: The vast majority of toys are unloved in a landfill, which would make for an entirely different movie.)

It is, however, an amazingly well-constructed aesthetic representation of things that’s useful for telling a story.

Here, our Emotion-people are looking out for Riley, but they’re not really aware of how anything works, or what’s going on. The way it seems to work is that the five big guys sit in headquarters determining how Riley reacts, which in turn creates memories.

Memories have various purposes: Most are put in to long term storage, but some are used to create "islands” which are focal points of Riley’s personality. There’s a family island, a friendship island, an honesty island, a hockey island (she’s from Minnesota, she plays hockey), and so on.

A few memories are “core” memories, and these apparently determine who Riley is, emotionally. Under Joy’s watchful hand, those memories are all happy. The story really gets going when Sadness starts going around touching all the memories, including some core ones. In the struggle to reclaim them, Joy and Sadness end up getting sucked out of HQ into long-term memory.

And the movie becomes a road trip at that point, with Joy and Sadness wandering around Riley’s mind, encountering people, getting lost in abstract thought, riding the train of thought, avoiding the memory dumb (where memories go to die).

Actually, it’s a lot like Toy Story in structure, when you think about it. Which is not a bad thing.

Inside Out plays to virtually all Pixar’s strengths. It’s gorgeous, of course, occasionally bordering on the photorealistic. I had a jarring moment when we switched from inside Riley’s head to out, where she’s playing hockey. Although Pixar stays well away from the uncanny valley by keeping the faces of their humans sufficiently cartoon-y, there’s a moment in the hockey game were you don’t see faces that looks for a moment like video of a real game.

But the fantastic premise allows them to make arbitrarily beautiful things. The Emotions themselves are fuzzy around the edges. The memories glow in vibrant colors. The “abstract thought” sequence allows them to play with perspective.

The bar is so high for Pixar here, you’d be disappointed if it were anything less than dazzling.

What’s more Pixar was founded on emotion. Lasseter rejected the “tough, edgy” Toy Story premise that (IIRC) Katzenberg tried to foist on him, and went for a story about toys with human frailties and feelings. So a movie that directly deals with feelings and expression is square in their wheelhouse.

And the road trip allows them to make so many funny and poignant moments which hit parents probably harder than kids. Growing up is kind of a loss for parents, after all: You have these things that depend on you and bring you joy (and frustration, of course) and you get attached to their whimsy, their little joys, and you want to protect them from all the bad stuff.

Which, of course, you can’t. And really shouldn’t. And that’s really what this movie is about.

And that brings me back to The Boy, and the other reason I think he didn’t like this as much as I did. He has no experience with this. Parts of it must seem silly and sentimental to him, and he is fundamentally unsentimental (as I was at his age).

Do I think it’s a bit overhyped? Yeah, probably. For various reasons, we saw it without The Flower and The Barbarienne, though, and I’ll happily go see it again.

The Wolfpack

Okay, so a couple of weeks ago, I told you how much better your life is because you don’t live in a Russian landfill. This week, I’m going to tell you how great a parent you are, because you didn’t keep your wife and seven children locked up in a small lower East Side apartment for 20-odd years.

This is The Wolfpack, the tale of six boys who grow up in an apartment, and whose only encounter with the outside world is a window on the 16th floor and movies. Lots and lots of movies that they watch incessantly and re-enact.

It’s hard to understand how these things happen, but they do. Or, maybe they don’t. There’s some question as to whether or this story is real. I will review it as though it is.

In this case, the story is that a young woman from the midwest is travelling around Peru and falls in love with an Incan hiking guide. They move back to New York City with an eye toward heading to the socialist paradises of Scandinavia and Finland, where all Incans must ultimately feel most at home.

Dad, Oscar by name, finds the denizens of the lower East Side, where they live on welfare in public housing, not to his liking, and not the sort of people he wants to raise his children around. This ultimately translates into never letting any of them out of doors, except maybe closely supervised walks with no interaction, anywhere from bi-monthly to bi-annually.

Dad’s also got a Hindu thing going, where he wants to have 10 kids by his wife. The first is a girl with Turner Syndrome, though the movie really doesn’t discuss this much. I think that’s probably a mistake, as having a handicapped child can be kind of spooky, and stressful in a way that might explain Oscar’s protectiveness toward the boys.

All of the kids are named after avatars of Hindu gods, like “Bhagavan”, “Krsna”, and they all have super-long black hair and totally Incan noses.

They’re also wildly creative, or perhaps recreative, re-enacting scenes from their favorite movies, especially Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Oh, and the various of the recent Batman movies. They make props from garbage, though they do a really good job of painting them.

The first two acts here are dark and weird, because this is a dark situation. The last act involves the oldest son emerging from the apartment (and then getting arrested, since he chose to visit banks and grocery stores wearing a hand-crafted Michael-Myers-from-Halloween mask). In remarkably felicitious—yes, even suspicious—timing, director Crystal Moselle is there for the big moments of their lives: Going out to a real movie for the first time, seeing Central Park for the first time, estranged mother calling grandmother for the first time.

Although, as noted by one of the sons, one couldn’t be completely free of the fear their childhood imparted to them, they do seem to manage to launch—and come to think of it, in ways a lot of parents of some children with normal upbringings might be jealous of.

Three-point scale:

1. Assuming it’s genuine, this is (of course) an interesting topic. It raises so many questions it can’t possibly hope to answer. The family reportedly lived entirely on various handouts. It wouldn’t be possible for this to occur without those handouts. The parents couldn’t have had seven children; or the mom couldn’t have stayed home to take care of them.

2. It’s all on hand-held camera, which is appropriate here. The best shots (visually) are at the end, when they’re being set up by the son with film-directing aspirations for his project. I think the subject matter could’ve been a bit more detail-oriented, which would’ve answered a lot more questions. Like, at one point, they’re assaulted by SWAT agents—the camera’s not there for that—because of their prop guns. It all works out, but why not interview the SWAT guy?

3. Bias? Well, if things are as they seem, it’s actually pretty neutral. The temptation to paint Oscar as a devil would have to be extreme, and he merely seems wrong, stubborn and maybe a little bit crazy here.

It’s a fine example of documentary-making, regardless of veracity. And while there were quite a few parts that made me go “Hmmmm…”, I felt it might be because the director sort of fell into the job, and she was interested in the people. It may never have occurred to her to go interview other people in the story.

And that’s the most suspicious part. Can you really live on the 16th floor of a building for 20 years with nobody taking an interest in you? On the other side, is it possible that these six distinct looking Incan-Americans have been wandering around New York City and nobody saw this film or heard about it and said, “What? Those guys? I see ‘em running around the neighborhood all the time.”

So. Grain of salt and all that, it’s still a good story.

Balls Out

The sports parody movie has taken a beating in recent years. Actually, most parodies have, being locked into themselves being weak parodies of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker classic film Airplane! Which tells you something about that film, which owes no small part of its success to being different from anything else at the time.

Dying, Ed Wynn noted, is easy. Comedy on the other hand is hard, so not-negative reviews for Intramural (retitled as Balls Out by some clever PR wag, no doubt) tempted The Boy in to the only showings for this film, which played for one week, last showing every night.

As far as I know, it only played in that theater for that week. Anywhere. In the world. (You can get it on Amazon, at least.)

It was made and starred people I’ve never heard of, though a few of them have been around for a while, and some were or are “Saturday Night Live” regulars. (I can’t imagine that carries much cachet these days but what do I know?)

The ominousness continues as the film opens with the Orion logo. I’ve been seeing that logo more and more lately, so I can only assume the once great/once bankrupt company…well, had its logo purchased by some distribution company.

The premise is that, during the final game of a freshman Intramural flag football league, our heroes, the Panthers succeed in a last minute play to win the game—at the cost of one of their players being paralyzed from the penis down. Yes. Right from there.

It’s four years later after the credits roll and down-on-his luck fifth-year senior Caleb wants to reassemble the Panthers (who haven’t spoken since that game, apparently) for a last chance at glory before going on to his horrible, horrible life of wealth with his rich, monstrous girlfriend and her overbearing dad.

Yeah, look, the more I explain the plot, the dumber it’s going to sound. ‘cause it is dumb.

But look, there were a lot of ways to go, here. They could’ve played it mostly straight with some wacky situations, somewhere past Dodgeball land into, say, The Replacements or Major League, or they could’ve gone for full-on Airplane! style absurd. The former probably would’ve been boring, and the latter would’ve been an atrocity, if modern attempts are any guide.

So, where they sit is in this realm of silliness that has enough story structure to hang on to—the hero meets the girl of his dreams and the villain uses his fiancee to create the necessary 2nd act nadir—and never goes into the surreal. At one point, their scrappy coach tells them (in the words of FDR) “Anyone can piss on the floor. It takes a real man to shit on the ceiling. And that’s NOT a metaphor!”

So, at one point, they actually try it. It’s not a high water mark for the film, but it sort of makes sense in the scheme of things.

There is some cleverness here. Scrappy coach—the wheelchair bound victim of the first game injury—explains everything in terms of sports movies early on, and there’s a montage of an entire movie with all the characters going through those steps. At that point, I thought, well, crap, now we’ve seen the whole movie—except that instead the narrative uses an entirely different set of sports movie clichés.

I dunno. It won us over. It just kept throwing joke after joke, without reaction takes (which are murder when a joke fails), and without apology. “Just keep up with us,” it seems to say, “and we’ll get to something you like.” It’s so low-budget and earnest, you end up kind of rooting for it like an underdog sports team.

So, maybe only half the jokes land. There are a lot of jokes. The characterization is cartoonish, but you still kind of care about the characters.

There were only two guys in the theater beside us, a couple of dude-bros (in the parlance of our time) who were laughing hysterically at most of it. So, not for everyone, for sure, but definitely for those guys.