The End of the Tour

Restricting my fiction reading, as I largely do, to things written prior to 1950, there is nothing I can say about The End of the Tour’s representation of David Foster Wallace. I was aware of the Infinite Jest craze, and have read recently that it’s one of people’s favorite books to have pretended to read. I will say the movie’s a pretty good buddy flick, though.

The story is that Wallace (Jason Segel) has just hit it big with Jest and frustrated writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg)—himself having just published a little read book but also little sold and talked about book—cons his boss at Rolling Stone (Ron Livingston, Office Space) into letting him interview the lauded author. (As if Rolling Stone was interested in heady things like, you know, reading.)

As it turns out, Wallace is a bit of a weirdo, a kind of fragile shut-in in some ways, possessed of amazingly keen insight on the one hand, and completely oblivious on the other. It was interesting to see this so close to seeing the Marlon Brando documentary, because there’s an awareness here of how the media-packaged personality David Foster Wallace is not the real David Foster Wallace.

Basically, you have two guys who are part of the media machine: One who has this sudden fame and glory and is made uncomfortable by that, and one who wants that fame and glory more than anything. The awkward product (Wallace) and the uneasy producer (Lipsky). Unlike Brando, however, we’re not given any background to help understand why Wallace gets depressed—suicidal—as he does, and the interview is filled with these “don’t look into this or that” demands by Wallace, which Lipsky, as a guy both admires and wants to be admired by Wallace acquiesces to.

It’s a journalistic transgression, but since the whole selling point of the interview is to dig up dirt on Wallace’s alleged heroin addiction from the ‘80s, ethics are nowhere to be seen at a professional level.

Wallace’s character, as portrayed, is interesting because he’s a sort of lazy hedonist. He eats junk food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He doesn’t own a TV because, he says, he would do nothing but watch it all day long if he did. And when he gets in front of a TV, that turns out to be true, nearly to the point of missing a tour event.

He’s aware of some other issues, too, enough to avoid them. Such as parlaying his fame into easy sexual conquests. He has enough awareness to realize that would just make him sadder and lonelier than he is. But he’s honest enough about wanting to do it anyway.

He’s aware that his practice of shielding himself from his past failures by dismissing successful things as popular tripe backfires in the face of his own success.

He relates his depression to the American ideal of doing something about it. And he feels like that was his big mistake, because there’s nothing he can do about it. That really stuck out to me. It may be a strange thing to observe about someone who is considered one of the great wordsmiths of my generation, but his whole outlook was essentially juvenile.

The junk food, the TV, the lack of commitment to relationships, the “sour grapes” attitude toward the success of others, and the notion that because everything doesn’t always work out, you’re not even going to try—these are childish things.

It’s hard not to like these guys, though, even when they’re being petty, jealous and awkward. They’re trying. Wallace struggled along enough to where Lipsky could be surprised when he finally did kill himself.

Good performances. Joan Cusack has a good turn as the Minnesotan “handler” for Wallace. A low-key but not dull story. I liked the direction by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) but I didn’t object to his portrayal of Lipsky as some did.

And it’ll take a lot less time than actually reading Infinite Jest. Though less time than pretending to read it.

Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

This is one of those movies where the trailers made me nervous. The story is about a poet who is locked up for committing the crime of poetry, and the poems are like the musical numbers of a musical—you have to like the music to like the movie, pretty much. It’s not really even poetry, so much as poetic prose. (You know, there’s no meter, rhyme, or any of the traditional hallmarks of poetry.)

It’s not so much that this is a good movie—it is—it’s that it’s surprisingly good at what it’s trying to do, which isn’t easy. The story is very simple: After 12 years of imprisonment, Mustafa is being freed from his cabin prison on Orphalese, on the condition he go home and never return to Orphalese. The catch, if it’s not obvious from the start, is that the authorities don’t plan to let him go so much as they plan to get him to the water’s edge and kill him—unless he denounces his own words.

The movie, then, is basically the walk from the cabin to the water, escorted by an officious sergeant, where at each point along the way he is greeted by worshipful villagers, all of whom he treats as at least his equal, stopping to share one of his “poems” with them.

The poems are all done in different styles of animation, abstractions of the ideas being presented, by different directors even. Including one by comic animation genius, Bill Plympton, who plays it utterly straight while still being thoroughly recognizable.

The shocking aspect of this is revealed in the 20-point split between audiences and critics: Namely, Gibran’s poems are deeply, deeply conservative, at least as presented here. What do we learn from The Prophet?

  • No work is beneath you. The meanest of work is worthy of dignity and gives dignity to the man who does it.
  • Monogamy is vital. Don’t be fooled by the allure of those who would take you away from your true love.
  • As a parent, you are the bow from which the arrows that are your children are launched. This was a fascinating poem, and true, I thought. It allowed that it was okay to try to emulate your children, but not to try to force them to emulate you. 
  • You are greater than the earthly powers that try to imprison you.

None of which fits into the current leftist worldview dominating this country. Mike Rowe has made legions of enemies just by suggesting the same thing about work. Monogamy is mocked in the popular culture. And you can’t really create the workers of the future out of your children if you can’t make them believe all the right things.

Ultimately, though, this is just a beautifully poetic film of beautiful poetry. The story of Mustafa’s relationship with the mute little girl Almitra is as touching as it is predictable. But that’s sort of the way of this movie: It say true, simple things well, and the real surprise is that you’re surprised to be hearing it.

But then you probably won’t hear of it because won’t get a wide release. It only opened slightly bigger than the Jewish sex documentary, The Lost Key (which we saw the following week).

Salma Hayek produces—she was the impetus in getting this made, perhaps due to her Lebanese roots—and voices Kamila, Almitra’s mother. Almitra is voiced by Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild). Liam Neeson is Mustafa. The great Frank Langella plays the evil military leader, Pasha. John Krasinski (Away We Go) plays the lovesick Halim. Alfred Molina is the Sergeant.

We were actually looking to see it again, we liked it so much. And The Boy wanted to take his girlfriend. And when we did see it, one of the guys who works at the theater was there for his second viewing.

So, yeah. Well done, Ms. Hayek!

The Lost Key

A lot of people don’t know this, but the Jewish scriptures, the Torah and the Talmud, talk a lot about sex. You don’t have to think about it for very long to realize: Of course they would: They are the guiding knowledge for the oldest extant religion on earth. Sex probably would come up some time in the past 5,000 years. I think I first heard about this in the ‘90s, when I ran across some story about a man being required by rabbinical decree to have sex with his wife (whom he’d been neglecting) at least three times a week.

It’s one thing to acknowledge this, of course, and another thing to make a movie about it and send it around the art houses of Los Angeles. We’re pretty closed-minded out here. This is one of those movies made to be buried in obscurity. Seriously, this has 20 ratings on IMDB, with one 45+ age woman giving it 10, and the average being 4.2. On Rotten Tomatoes, it’s got a total of two critic ratings, one positive, one negative, and is 0 for 5 with the audience.


The Boy and I really enjoyed it. But then, I don’t think we felt threatened or ordered around as I imagine some folks must have felt.

The premise of the film is that there is a higher purpose for sexual intimacy beyond pleasure, and outside of procreation, which is a physical and spiritual oneness, a transcendence beyond the mere carnal. This is perhaps unique to Western religions (though surely not Eastern), but there’s a catch.

There were several times where I leaned over to The Boy and whispered “homophobia!” and “transphobia!” and “gender roles!” in humor, but of course you’re not going to dig up ancient Jewish traditions and have them be just groovy with the perversity of modern society.

So, this is about a man and a woman. And more than that, the man has to be A Man and the woman has to be A Woman. There has to be a lot of “preparation” prior to “intimacy”. There aren’t prohibitions on activities per se, except for a few (which are never mentioned), but the “main event” is to be the Main Event, with none of your onanism or fancy acrobatics.

I enjoyed the subversiveness of it. In this tradition, to achieve transcendence (essentially) through intimacy, is to be completely naked, in the dark, in a room dedicated to the purpose, with the man on top and the woman on the bottom. This is so that each is facing their “source”, Man being drawn from the earth and Woman from the Man.

The dark is so that you’re not distracted by looking.

This stuff is revealed in a series of interviews between Rabbi Manis Friedman and various couples, of varying degrees of conviction regarding the whole process. I confess my favorite was the most dubious of couples. The rabbi says “No TVs in the bedroom” and they say “We have a TV in the bedroom. We use it to watch porn during sex.”

And so it goes, with each suggested prohibition. But the Rabbi never says “you can’t”, he just says that “you won’t achieve this oneness that way”.

It’s like you’re inviting God in, but most people are probably a bit conflicted and confused about the relationship between God and sex. So much so, most people probably never think of sex beyond the pleasure and procreation (and mostly in terms of avoiding procreation).

Another nugget that might make a lot of people uncomfortable: When you’re married, you’ve married your soul mate. When you divorce, you’re divorcing your soul mate. But then, should you remarry, that person is just as much your soul mate as your first spouse.

I don’t consider Rabbi Friedman infallible, and I actually always have this split reaction when someone talks about spiritual “events”: Might be a good thing, might be a bad thing, depending on where it comes from, you know?

I guess some people were also confused thinking this was a “how to”, but I don’t think it was meant that way at all. I think it was meant more as a “Well, this is possible, did you even know?” You know how some people get irritated when they hear a Christian say “Did you know Jesus died for your sins?” Well, imagine the level of resentment they’d feel if they heard “Did you know you’re missing out on the greatest act of sex?”


Well, look truth is truth, and it’s not something you should resent, even if you didn’t know it. So maybe keep an open mind, and enjoy an interesting look at life.

The director Ricardo Adler is a man who seems to have found something more meaningful in these teachings, motivating him to make the film. (Co-directors Ricardo Kora, Belen Orsini.)

Oh, yeah, the three point scale:

1. Subject matter? Hell, yeah, it’s interesting. It’s sex. Sex is supposed to sell!

2. Technique? Run of the mill. Interviews, dialogues, none of those floating, freeze-framed, 3Dized photographs the documentary directors love so well these days, but this isn’t really a historical documentary.

3. Bias? Sure. It’s biased that the whole premise isn’t complete nonsense and that there might be something tucked away in those old Jewish scrolls.

It might’ve been more interesting to hear a number of rabbis debating the best way to achieve this heightened state (and this would be a good prequel to that), but for what it was, it was good.

And easily the most transgressive film I’ve seen in a while.

Listen To Me Marlon

When he was alive, Marlon Brando used to tape record himself talking. (No word on whether he continued this in death.) Writer/director Steven Riley and co-writer Peter Ettedgui have fashioned a fascinating documentary about a man some would call the greatest film actor of the 20th century, using primarily his own words. (The words that are not his are those of interviewers, and Bertolucci when we get to Tango, but there is no other narration, except for the occasional title card.)

Brando was an interesting guy with a severely dysfunctional background, and the looks and talent to turn that background into a supremely dysfunctional life. This isn’t a movie with a lot of biographical detail. We hear of two of Brando’s children, but he had at least, well, double-digits. Five from his three wives, three from his housekeeper, three others by different women.

We do learn that his mother, whom he adored, was a drunk, and his father, who he hated, was a rambling man. He struck out on his own as a teen and fled to New York City where he was cared for by one of the teachers at The Conservatory (?); Stella Adler, I think. No mention of any other sort of relationship with her, it’s described her as more of a maternal, selfless thing, which Brando was unused to.

My dad had a theory that The Method, for all the often good results it had, was very, very hard on a person. (Recall Laurence Olivier’s advice to Dustin Hoffman on the set of the Marathon Man: “Why don’t you try acting?”) Of course, selection bias is strongly in play here (Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman) and we’re dealing with actors to begin with, but if you needed an example, Brando would probably be a good one.

It’s rather compelling, and a little humorous, just because it’s almost like listening to Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, from Apocalypse Now for 90 minutes. (Brando’s ranting actually was improvised for that movie.) He was not without insight, perhaps the greatest of which was that the famous Brando was not him. You get the sense that with a little more to draw on in terms of familial or community support, he might’ve been okay, even happy.

But if he’d had any of that, would he have been the same Brando that ran away from home and lived on the street, and gave himself to his art?

On the three point scale:

1. Material. Interesting enough. Ultimately, I suppose books and movies get made of boring actors, but Brando is a worthy topic both for generational significance and sheer oddness.

2. Style. Very sparse. You get some filmed images, and footage of his old estate, as well as from the movies he worked on, as he discusses the various problems (there were always problems) associated with them. But this is largely an auditory experience.

3. Bias. There must be some bias at play here, just by virtue of having sifted through hundreds or thousands of hours of tape and selecting the interesting tidbits, but I think it’s not just forgivable but necessary.

Not a by-the-numbers biography at all. You may not know anything more about his life coming out than you did going in. But you’ll have some sympathy for the man.

Doctor Zhivago (50th Anniversary Edition)

Ask me if I want to go see a three hour movie. (Go on, Peter Jackson, ask me.) The answer is likely to be “maaaaaaaaaybe”. Now, tell me it’s by David Lean, the great director of Lawrence of Arabia. I’ll have my popcorn in hand before you finish rolling your “r"s, which you should do, if you’re saying "David Lean, the great director of Lawrence of Arabia”.

Dr. Zhivago is, in fact, 3 hours and 20 minutes, and longer if you factor in the intermission and the overture, but much like Lawrence, it leaves you wanting more. But before we get into that, let’s just recap the plot: The eponymous Zhivago is orphaned at a young age and taken in by some family friends who have a daughter his age. Zhivago and the daughter fall in love and get married, and live happily ever after, in the manner of all protagonists of Russian novels.

Nyet! But seriously, things are going all right, at least for their little family, and then there’s a bit of trouble in the form of World War I and the October Revolution. In the tumult, Zhivago ends up manning a hospital full of injured with the help of Lara, a nurse he has crossed path with several times previously, and who is now married to a fanatical revolutionary.

Zhivago and Lara fall in love, though they never consummate, and Zhivago goes back home to find his family property divided “fairly” amongst the survivors of his family and a bunch of poor people who see a good opportunity for revenge. To make matters worse, Zhivago is a poet, and his poetry is on the outs with The Party, so he has to flee into the country—where his path crosses again with Lara.

One of the reasons I’d never seen this film before is because it just sounds boring to me. Much like Lawrence, really. Even now! But there’s something magical about Lean, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. The cinematography and blocking is flawless, of course—this is a great movie to look at, with its snow palaces and shadowy street scenes. The characters are interesting, sure, even for three or more hours. The story hangs together better than most modern ones, maybe: Instead of a series of things that just happen, every cause and effect here seems thoughtful, even when essentially random from the characters’ perspectives.

There isn’t a ton of suspense. This sort of movie can make Hitchcockian suspense seem practically gimmicky. But you care, so there is that level of suspense. Zhivago is a good man, even a pure man, which is an odd thing to say to one in a love triangle. Perhaps because he is not a womanizer, just a man blindsided by love. He doesn’t seem entirely earthly.

Sometimes you see a movie that everyone loves and agree with them about all the great aspects of it but still personally just don’t like it. Sometimes there’s a movie like this, where you agree with everyone about all the great aspects, love it—but still don’t understand why.

The acting was different back then, I note. I don’t want to say it’s stagey, but it’s bigger than modern acting. There’s a scene where the Moscow police/army storm through a Commie protest and mow everyone down. Lean doesn’t show the violence, he shows Zhivago’s reaction to it, and it’s bigger than you’d see today. Not, like, Shatner big, but still: big.

Overall, it’s an amazing film, perhaps not quite up to Lawrence but still a classic. Of course, it got very mixed reviews at the time, and there’s no need to speculate why. Lean and Pasternak do what Zhivago is accused of in the movie: They tell a story about human beings in a time of great revolution. And there’s nothing Romantic about the Revolution.

The movie is bookended by Zhivago’s half-brother, a party apparatchik, trying to locate Zhivago’s daughter. He tells the story partly to a younger comrade (who notes pointedly that, if the younger generation doesn’t appreciate Zhivago’s poetry, it’s because they weren’t allowed to by the State). The possible niece works in a mine or factory or something that falls short of a worker’s paradise, and is scared of her would-be uncle who, as a Party Leader, is extremely powerful and dangerous. As he says, “nothing ordered by the Party is beneath the dignity of any man.”

He fights in World War I with the purpose of making Russia fail. And succeeds. And counts it as his greatest work.

Lara’s husband, insane as he is, articulates the the Revolutionary ideal: “The private life is dead for a man with any manhood.” Then in the same breath, when it’s pointed out to him that he burned the wrong village, he says “A village betrayed us, a village is burned. The point is made.”

Then, after serving in the war, when Zhivago comes home, his home has been #occupied. All of Moscow is, really, and of course, everyone is sick and starving and feeding off resentment of the rich. Zhivago, as a man who writes love poems, is a threat. When they escape to the country, they find their old house unused and boarded up, but with a sign threatening terrible things to them should they dare to use it. And already the Party has spies everywhere.

We don’t actually witness Lara’s fate, but we hear she may have ended up in the gulags.

So, yeah, I don’t wonder that critics judged it harshly, in an era when the New York Times was decades away from admitting Duranty lied. It’s a deeply Romantic film at every level and breathes with an understanding that the joyless worker state of Communism is death to Romance.

It was fun to see all these people in their prime that I knew as a child primarily in middle age and late life. Omar Sharif is quite handsome and earnest in a way that keeps things from getting sleazy. I’d always thought of Geraldine Chaplin as okay-looking, but she is heart-breakingly sweet here. Until 2006’s Away From Her, I’d always thought of Julie Christie as unremarkable looking, but it’s hard not to fall in love with her here.

Rod Steiger does a great job as the epitome of the old world corruption. I imagined Alec Guinness standing there, delivering his lines with the perfect combination of menace and party-toadying, thinking “I’m going to be remembered for swinging around a flashlight-sword.”

The music, by Maurice Jarré, is near perfect. About the only thing that I wasn’t sold on was the creepy music he used for Lala’s (Christie) affair with Komarovsky (Steiger). But I wasn’t clear on that whole thing. It was creepy, and I’m not saying Jarré was wrong, or anything, but maybe the relationship needed a little less elision in the movie itself.

Still, here’s the key thing: The Boy and I? We would sit down and watch it again in a heartbeat.

If you have a chance to see it in a theater—it’s making the rounds for its 50th anniversary restoration—by all means, do so.


We were not exactly clamoring to go see Christian Petzold’s latest flick, Phoenix, not having been huge fans of Barbara, but it was an intriguing, almost Danielle Steele/Harold Robbins/Judith Krantz plotline, which we thought would be interesting in the hands of such a restrained director.

Our protagonist, Nelly, is driven into Berlin after being shot in the face in a concentration camp. Her friend, Lene, puts her up and helps through extensive reconstructive surgery. Nelly, a Jew, is obsessed with finding her gentile husband Johnny, from whom she was separated (along with all her gentile friends) when dragged off to the camp.

Lene is against it. Johnny betrayed Nelly, she says, and is agitating to get her money (as her widower). Nelly, who’s suffering from an identity crisis, can’t let it go, though, and hunts Johnny down. When she finds him, he doesn’t recognize her, but he does think she looks enough like her former self to be useful in a scam to get Nelly’s money.

And there’s your movie.

It’s positively lurid, isn’t it? And the book it was based on was filmed before as Return from the Ashes with Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar and Herbert Lom. But that movie was a thriller. This movie…is not.

That’s an observation, not a critique. Much like Barbara, scenes that might have been played as a edge-of-your-seat suspense are played super straight. Everything is played super straight. I could say Petzold lacks showmanship, but that’s not really the case: There are some breathtakingly good shots and the final scene is powerful—it really knocked the Boy’s socks off—without any orchestral score playing, without any big reactions, without straying from the basically austere style of the whole film.

There’s something to be said for not going the whole made-for-TV-miniseries route, after all, but you should know going in it is a movie with a whole lot of tension, where the payout is internal to the characters. It doesn’t even answer the big questions. You’re left to decide the sincerity of Johnny’s feelings toward Nelly, Lene’s feelings toward Nelly, all of her friends feeling towards them. Sometimes that can piss me off, but didn’t here.

Fine Teutonic acting from Nina Hoss and Ronald Zehrfeld, both of Barbara, with great supporting subtext from Nina Kuzendorf, of Woman in Gold.

Best of Enemies

In 1968, a desperate ABC network, unable to compete with the gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Democrat and Republican national conventions—and let us pause for a moment to consider how a network (back when there were only three networks dominating 90% of the American population) needed to beef up its political cred to increase its revenue—came up with an idea to have a conservative, William F. Buckley, and a degenerate, Gore Vidal, act as proxies for the Rs and the Ds respectively.

Seriously, I was pleased that the documentary identified Vidal as a liberal. But, really, he was a degenerate. He may or may not have said that you should never say “No” to only two things, sex and appearing on television, but the movie makes clear that his goal in going on TV was not to debate the issues, but to destroy Buckley personally.

Which got boffo ratings and destroyed TV debate forever—and if we’re being honest, didn’t do any favors for debate in general. Vidal, of course, wasn’t the only one to do this—it is a hallmark of the Left, at least since Marx, if not going back to the French Revolution.

Never once does the documentary suggest that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, I’m sort of guessing that the makers of this film figure that Vidal was right to do so, and his gotcha moment against Buckley vindicated his tactics. To me, it looked like the moment damaged both of them.

But, hey, what do I know? It’s not nice to call someone a “queer"—and they had John McWhorter to tell us how, in modern times, that might even be considered "hate speech"—but I’m not sure why it’s less hateful to call a former WWII infantryman a "crypto Nazi”.

That’s as bizarre to me as the tendency of the Left—on extreme display here—to demonize their opponents by smearing them as closeted homosexuals.

Anyway, it’s entertaining, though there are four topics here, and they’re all given rather short-shrift: The character of political debate in our society, the changing role of television and television news, the actual debates, and the impact of the debates on two men. On the three point documentary scale:

1. Topic. Reasonably important and certainly interesting, I think the movie might have been better served if they’d kept it entirely personal, though that might have been difficult to pull off.

2. Presentation. The movie is competent, technically, but The Boy thought that the supporting talking heads didn’t really add anything—i.e., that they were all fluff. I mention this because The Boy didn’t know any of them or their political leanings.

3. Bias. This is is the sort of film that the Left says is unbiased and the Right says, “you say it’s unbiased because, like a fish swimming in water: that bias surrounds you at all times, so you don’t see it.”

Am I exaggerating? Well, I’ll give the film some credit: When Vidal caricatured Buckley on the Jack Paar show (with Paar mugging along), they allowed that Buckley disarmed Paar by going on his show and not being the ridiculous joke that Gore made him out to be (echoed in our modern, feeble fashion with Jon Stewart’s lazy failure to nail John Yoo.) But it never points out the degeneracy and destructiveness of this whole “Left creates a caricature of Right and claims victory when it can plant that caricature in people’s mind, true or not.”

You could argue that it wasn’t the film’s job to point that out, that it should be left to the good wit of the audience, except that the only conservative voice they could find was Buckley’s brother, and he’s bought into the notion of America as an Empire—straight out of Noam Chomsky, whom they also had on to opine.

Who else did they have? Brooke “liberals in the media are TOO fair” Gladstone of NPR; Ginia “TV’s gotten so conservative since the ‘70s!” Bellafante of the New York Times; Sam Tanenhaus, who wrote “The Death of Conservatism” and refers to conservatism as an “insurgency”, and whose understanding of conservatism is so profound, he regards George W Bush as an extreme conservative ideologue; Dick “Sure, why not?” Cavett; Andrew “That’s Not Palin’s Baby” Sullivan; Frank “Dan Rather did nothing Wrong” Rich; Todd “President of Students for a Democratic Society” Gitlin; and on and on.

The late, lamented Chris Hitchens is here, with little to say, except “Yes, they hated each other for real.” While he has a soft place in a lot of right wingers’ hearts, he was a liberal who simply recognized the threat of Islam.

They had on Buckley’s caretaker, I think she was.

You know who they didn’t have on? A single person from National Review, the magazine Buckley founded. Buckley takes exception early on—foreshadowing!—to Gore and the Left’s (ultimately successful) attempt to make National Socialism into a right wing phenomenon. These guys couldn’t be bothered to have on, say, Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, to give a rebuttal.

Swimming in it. They spend time on the grotesque flop that was Myra Breckinridge and the presumably less grotesque but even more forgotten The Best Man. We learn about Vidal’s history as an author, beginning with Williwaw, through his ’80s books on American History. It spends no time at all on God and Man At Yale, and little on any of Buckley’s ’60s books.

Swimming. In. It. The only narrative about Vietnam is the media created one about America having lost in Vietnam, and the only greater tragedy being that it might have won.

I have mentioned it was an enjoyable film, right? It was. If you don’t agree with the Conventional Wisdom,  you are used, I’m sure, to seeing the bias, so this stuff doesn’t bother you so much as it is just business-as-usual.

I haven’t seen Robert Gordon’s previous work, but Morgan Neville won for the entertaining (if overrated) 20 Feet From Stardom which also suffered from the desire to create a narrative the audience is already well familiar with.

So, yeah. Gird your loins, because this is one of those movies that needs a rebuttal, but go ahead and see it anyway.

(See, even as I publish this, I keep thinking of rebuttals. Vidal attacks Buckley on the topic of, yes, income inequality, which has resurfaced yet again in the past years. Buckley notes that Vidal is a great beneficiary of income inequality, which they-who-make-the-argument always seem to be, don’t they?)

Insidious: Chapter 3

One place where Rotten Tomatoes really has to be taken with a grain of salt is horror movies. Insidious: Chapter 3 originally had thumbs-down worthy ratings, prompting a certain amount of trepidation about seeing it. (The critical rating has crept up to a marginally positive 60% as of now.) But not a large amount, since we liked the first two quite a bit, and the second one was quite negatively received by critics (though audiences received pretty much all three the same, hovering right around 60%).

And while it’s fair to say that this is an uneven movie, it’s uneven because it uses a relatively fresh device, that of the “Further"—what might have been called the Astral Plane in former times—as a way to ratchet up suspense and bring a little movement into what can be an otherwise static formula.

For this movie, a prequel to the first two, we have once again the wonderful Lin Shaye as our ghostbusting medium. Here, though, she’s afraid and depressed over her deceased husband, and out of the ghostbusting biz even when ridiculously cute and wholesome Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott of Disney’s "A.N.T. Farm”) comes to her looking for help in getting into communication with her dead mom.

Elise (Shay) gives it a shot, but can’t really commune with the dead since she had a run-in with the demon from the first two Insidious movies. This actually makes sense in the context of the other two movies, but where this movie is strongest is mostly where it doesn’t worry too much about the other two. Okay, with an exception for where it serves as an origin story, of sorts, for the Ghostbusters Biz featured in the previous films with Elise, Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (writer/director Leigh Whannell).

Anyway, the disaffected Quinn plans to run off to college to escape her overwhelmed, widowed father (Dermot Mulroney, The Grey, J. Edgar, Zodiac) who relies on her to raise his son, but of course the capricious spirits of The Further get in the way.

There are about three points in this movie where I actually uttered noise in shock. Two of those times, I lost the popcorn I was holding. (It was in a tiny tray, but still, The Boy ended up wearing it one of those times.) This movie does a lot of shocks, and does them well.

There’s also a bit of good horror, a fair amount of suspense and even some mystery along with some new characters who, while fairly stock, are also reasonably developed.

As The Boy is fond of saying these days, somewhat sarcastically, “It may not have redefined what horror is, but it was pretty damn good!” Although he usually swears more colorfully. We have a lot of theories for why moviegoers and critics are so tough on horror films, but mostly we just take to ignoring them.

Very solid freshman effort from Whannell.


Judd Apatow movies have the distinct and perhaps dubious honor of being among the raunchiest mainstream movies while also being the most subversive. Where 40 Year Old Virgin challenged male promiscuity, and Knocked Up suggested that maybe getting and staying together for the sake of a child is not such a bad thing, we now have Trainwreck, which challenges that holiest of grails: Female promiscuity.

Some time ago, rather than rein in the men who are dogs, a loud, connected and unimpeachable group of women decided they should “get to be” dogs, too, hence this story of a woman who finds her life of drunken hookups unsatisfying is controversial.

I mean, not to sane people, of course, but to…well, they’re out there in the media. You can find them without even looking too hard.

Amy Schumer stars, and she wrote it, sort of by cribbing the opening of Shallow Hal, reversing typical rom-com tropes, and mixing in a bunch of her trademark humor which, yes, is reminiscent of Sarah Silverman and Janeane Garofalo. (In fact, I was frequently reminded of a Garofalo bit where she’s kicking the guy out of her apartment post-coitus.)

There’s a lot of what typically makes Apatow films enjoyable: Frequent humor delivered with a sure hand, not frantically or desperately, and a supporting cast which doubles both as humor relief pitchers and dramatic backstops. So, while the cute love story between Amy and Aaron (Bill Hader) would be an okay chick flick (like Bridesmaids chick flick, not Beaches chick flick), this movie transcends that with:

  • Aaron’s best friend being a very sensitive (and passionate about Cleveland!) LeBron James.
  • Amy’s former boyfriend being the phenomenally thick and musclebound Steven (wrestler John Cena), unable to talk dirty, and possibly a little “confused” sexually.
  • Amy’s dog of a father, played by Colin Quinn, having MS and being both wildly offensive and lovably human.
  • Amy’s sister Kim, played by Brie Larson (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now), who’s generally the nice one, but who has unresolved resentment toward dad.
  • Vanessa Bayer as the work friend. I’ve never seen her before, but she was quite appealing.
  • Dave Attell as the homeless guy who begs outside of Amy’s apartment. Attell may have adlibbed all his stuff, it sounds so…Attell-y.
  • Randall Park (Kim Jong Un in The Interview) and “Delocated”’s Jon Glaser play Amy’s dorky co-workers at S’NUFF magazine.
  • Mike Birbiglia (Cedar Rapids) and Evan Brinkman have the sort of thankless task of being Kim’s husband and stepson (respectively), who must be dorky and unlovable when Amy has one point of view, and then endearing when she reforms.
  • There’s an awesome running gag about an arty film called “Dogwatcher” featuring a morose, chain-smoking Daniel Radcliffe as the guy walking seven dogs, and a troubled Marissa Tomei as the woman who wants to give him one more dog.
  • Tilda Swinton as the evil boss and Ezra Miller as the odd intern. Swinton and Miller were the contentious mother and son of the grisly We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Actually, we’ve seen so much of Miller, we were going nuts trying to remember where. The Boy and I both thought maybe he was part of The Wolf Pack but he had an important role as “8612” in The Stanford Prison Experiment, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Kevin and, hell, going back a ways, City Island.

It doesn’t all work. Arguably LeBron James makes the movie, with his earnest Aaron’s BFF performance, but then he’s gone from the last third of the movie. (He shot all his scenes in one week.) And there’s an intervention that features a randy Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick and Marv Alpert that broke the suspension of disbelief for me.

I mean, I guess the one-on-one basketball between Hader and James was stretching it. But the intervention seemed sort of pointless.

100 year old Norman Lloyd is in it. That was nice.

Raunchy, though. A lot of mid-coitus humor. A lot of post-coitus humor. A lot of pre-coitus humor. A lot of humor in non-coital situations referencing coitus or other sex acts.

As for Schumer, she’s not model thin, and that works pretty well for her, although she’s not looking great next to the cheerleaders. Literally. I mean, her body looks fine but cheerleaders are top-notch athletes and she doesn’t come close. Which is played for a pretty good, if overlong, gag.

Her face, on the other hand? Well, I’ll grant that Fox News has some great makeup people, but the Amy of 2015 looks a bit haggard compared to the one of 2010. I don’t know if that’s due to her fair complexion, or if they wanted to, to some degree, not over glamourize her, but she doesn’t quite pull of the “only four years older than Brie Larson” thing.

She is likeable, and a fine actress (as comedians often are)—her interactions with and about her father being truly fine, emotionally moving work (and apparently based on her real life situation with her father).

Anyway, by this point, you should probably know if you like this sort of thing, this Apatow humor, with the condoms and the bodily fluids and what-not. If you do, this is a reasonably good example of same.

The Outrageous Sophie Tucker

In truth, the trailers for The Outrageous Sophie Tucker were particularly uninspiring. It looks cheap. It sounds cheap. And, of course, it is cheap—it’s a documentary, after all—but most documentaries try in the trailers to draw you into the story or the mystique so that you overlook the cheap. These trailers are more of a ta-dah!

You know: “Sophie Tucker: Ta-dah!”

And that’s really how the movie itself is. So I can sort of see where the critics tended to give it mixed reviews (currently at 72% on RT) while still siding with the regular viewers (at 92%). The critical detractions are mostly of the “It could’ve been so much better!” And there were certain things that I didn’t care for:

  • They built up a song, “The Angle Worm Wiggle”, and the dance for which Tucker was apparently arrested for, and then neither showed it, nor played it, nor anything, really.
  • Tucker played in blackface, and they have a story with her grand-niece calling her on it, with Tucker having some story about having to and getting out of it by “forgetting” it. Consider that a personal peccadillo. I prefer we just admit nobody (nobody white, anyway) thought anything of it and leave it at that.
  • Dumb story outright stating Hoover was a cross-dresser. The idea that he was a cross-dresser and gay is only slightly less preposterous than the idea it was an open secret in Hollywood.
  • They use the same technique for suggesting Hoover was gay to suggest Tucker was gay, mainly, “Hung out with a member of the same sex for decades.” We used to call those “friends”.
  • Tucker’s son comes off as a loser. I’ve mentioned here many times that hagiographies are acceptable—it isn’t necessary to dwell on a person’s failings to make a good documentary. But Tucker abandoned her boy as a youngster and there’s no mention of how this might have played into his future womanizing and incompetencies.
  • The recent practice of animating still photos is weird and creepy. I’m sure it’s compelling for the producers, though, given the static nature of a lot of this stuff.
  • The movie ends with producer Lloyd Ecker choking up about Tucker’s death. I get this: A lot of work went into this project, and the person feels like a friend or family member. At the same time, dude, you weren’t a friend, you were some guy who read her memoir and scrap albums. It’s an odd choice to make your emotional response to the 30-year-old death of an 80-year-old woman who lived a great life the centerpiece of a scene.
These are pretty minor points. If there’s a major flaw with the film is that it absolutely sparkles when it shows clips of Tucker and yet it shows very few clips. And there, it seems to me, is the real magic that the filmmakers didn’t quite bring out.
How does a fat, homely Jewish woman sing-talking about how sexy she is become an international star? That’s amazing. (Carol Channing is in this, and she has the audacity to claim that Tucker was beautiful when younger—but the pictures do not bear that out.) And by the time she appears in a movie (the flop vehicle Honkey Tonk), she’s 43 years old! According to the movie, the near 60-year-old Sophie Tucker was a pin-up for some soldiers. (One of the best stories of the movie involves a GI who wanted to play the banned “My Yiddishe in Momma” in Berlin.)
Well, one thing movie illustrates well is that Tucker was a true professional with a grasp on publicity, to say nothing of a love of people that great performers have. She always made her commitments. She did her own books. She kept a record of everyone she met and wrote them notes when she came into town. She did product promotions for just about everything.
She had no problem singing “I Don’t Want To Be Thin”:

Those slender-waisted women
They make me laugh
My goodness
Men like to see a little fore and aft

I don’t want to reduce
Furthermore, what’s the use?
When the men follow me around
Like Mary’s lamb

The girls who talk of dieting
Gee, they get on my nerves
If you want to keep your husband straight
Show him a lot of curves

There’s some great back-and-forth with her pianist, too:

“Keep your mind on your music”
“I can’t when you’re around”
“Look where I am not”
“I can’t see that far.”

By the way, her weight, according to that song, is 163, which is about the weight of the average American woman. But she could sing that and then sing:

Nobody loves a fat girl
But, oh, how a fat girl can love
Nobody seems to want me
I’m just a truck on the highway of love

She had stage presence. And she had it up to her final performance at the age of 79, when cancer struck her down. Whatever its flaws, this turned out to be a really enjoyable film. On the three-point scale:

1. Subject matter. Interesting, for sure.
2. Presentation. Fairly typical. Nothing especially noteworthy, good or bad.
3. Spin. The aforementioned hagiographic aspects mixed with some dubious sensational elements. Nothing egregious.

Worth checking out.

The Eckers (producers of the film) wrote a fictional memoir of Sophie Tucker which is available for purchase in the foyer, $27.50. $10-$20 for web extras.


Should you ever wonder how “in touch” with America film critics are, you could look at the reviews for Tangerine—about a transexual crack whore who’s searching L.A., looking to throw down with his pimp, who cheated with (of all things) a real woman—and read the phrases “old-fashioned comedy” and “future direction for the movies”, and you would wonder no more. (Although that latter phrase may have to do with the production than the content, in fairness.)

And I’m already having trouble with pronouns.

Let me get this out of the way and say, yes, this is a good movie. The acting is good. There’s an actual story. There’s laughs. There’s a character arc. The plot develops and resolves in a fairly interesting way. For being shot entirely on iPhone 5ses and costing $130K, it still looks better than you-know-what.

But this is what is euphemistically called “gritty”. Gritty in a way that writer/director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch tipped their hand with on their previous joint effort, Starlet (which features a hardcore sex scene/porn shoot).

So, yeah, this movie is about Sin-dee, who went to jail, taking the fall for pimp Chester over some drugs, only to come out and find Chester (who proposed right before the jailing incident) was having a thing with Dinah, an actual woman. Sin-dee runs all around the worst parts of Los Angeles, hunting down this woman and finding her in cheap motel shared by a half-dozen whore and their johns.

Sin-dee’s companion for some of this journey is Alexandra, who seems relatively level-headed, though also the one who let slip the whole “Your boyfriend is cheating on you” thing.

Sin-dee finds Dinah, as I said, and kidnaps her, roughing her up, and dragging her across the city by her hair. The two sort of bond over Dinah’s crack in the bathroom of a club where Alexandra has paid to sing Christmas tunes.

Oh, this all takes place on Christmas Eve day which, in L.A. is pretty much the same as every other day, although the poorly clothed Dinah does end up suffering from the desert night by the end.

The third major player in our drama is an Armenian cab driver, Razmik, who cheats on his beautiful wife, though only with transexual hookers. At one point, he throws out a pretty (too pretty, if we’re talking L.A. streetwalkers, frankly) whore when he finds out she doesn’t have the equipment he’s interested in.

Razmik’s got a thing for Sin-dee and ends up trolling the streets on the night before Christmas. The movie climaxes when these two stories come crashing together at a donut shop on Sunset and Highland.

So, there’s your capsule. And, as I said, it’s fine as a movie. Per se. But there were parts I found problematic.

For example, I can’t think of any other circumstance where a man would be allowed to abuse a woman for a good twenty minutes and have it be played for laughs. Sin-dee kidnaps Dinah, which he can do because, as a man, he has superior strength, hormones or no. Although the movie is generally empathetic toward its characters, it felt somewhat mean toward Dinah, whose major sin seems to have been doing what whores do with their pimps, and being a woman.

Another thing that sort of bugged me: the pretty hooker is so obviously female, I couldn’t figure out how a seasoned patron like Razmik could’ve been fooled—in broad daylight! (I’ve known a number of transexuals who thought they could pass, but I think people are just being polite.)

It’s a strange, seedy world. If you don’t mind some pretty graphic sex, gender bending and non-stop gutter language and life, you might like this.


It’s interesting to note that DC’s Atom first appeared in October 1961, and Marvel’s Ant-Man January of 1962, which shows, I think, that much like movie studios, comic book companies are more about the “me-too” than being original. I always liked The Atom, while Ant-Man would be the sort of thing that (as a kid) I would point to as dumb.

The two are virtually interchangeable in terms of powers, except Ant-Man can command the mighty power of ants. Which is especially dumb, but in that classic comic way of “Gentlemen, we’ve conquered the problem of ant communication and control and, oh, by-the-way also figured out how to decrease the size and alter the density of arbitrary objects.”

No connection between the two, but the same scientist is always good at doing All The Things.

Where the concept is not dumb is that shrinking things down and seeing ordinary items at a ginormous scale is cool for bored comic book artists. This sort of thing is usually disastrous in cinema, resulting in the bulk of Bert I. Gordon’s (Beginning of the End, Village of the Giants) oeuvre.

It’s so dodgy cinematically, because of composition issues completely destroying the suspension of disbelief, that it can induce eye rolling in a good film, and stand out as a particularly bad element of a bad film—like the little French dudes in Willow. (Remember them?)

Add to this the fact that the mastermind behind this as a movie project was no less than Edgar Wright (the Cornetto trilogy), and he dropped out mid-production due to “creative differences”, mixed in with unencouraging trailers—well, we were very cool on the prospect of seeing it.

And yet! It’s good! And it’s kind of nice that, even though the world is at risk (because it has to be, right?), the movie by-and-large has an intimate feel. It is, essentially, a caper flick—something the villain actually notes toward the end.

And departure or no, the film is still full of Wright-goodness, such as Ant-Man’s gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight pals, especially Michael Peña’s can’t-get-to-the-point gunsel.

But really, this movie was going to rise and fall—however good the script—on how the shrinking was done. Done poorly, even the best script wouldn’t have survived. This movie uses a mix of macro photography (like Microcosmos) on the one hand, but on the other does a lot of gags where our hero shrinks down and immediately grows back. (This is his primary fighting style, in fact.)

In essence, they normalize it. Almost every other shrink/grow film I can think of spends inordinate time on the gee-whiz factor of it all. “Look how small/big I am!” This hurts because, typically, the effects are cheesy to begin with: Back in the day, Universal Studios had a giant hand (and maybe pencil) so you could have your picture taken “tiny sized”, and that wasn’t much worse than what they used in their movies. But it also hurts because nothing happens while you’re gazing around in wonder. (And you can’t really do much without ruining the shot, at least pre-CGI.)

Here, the small stuff is all done in montage, and in action scenes. It was a wise choice. As was switching from Ant-Man’s perspective to a more normal one, for comedic value.

Fine cast. Paul Rudd handles it easily. Bobby Cannavale plays new boyfriend to ex-wife Judy Greer. Some amazing CGI done to make Michael Douglas look 30 years younger. Evangeline Lily is the new love interest. I particularly liked Corey Stoll as the villain. It’s kind of a hack role—the apprentice to Douglas’ mad scientist who turns evil—but he really nails it, brings some nuance, and gets that love-to-hate thing that makes for a good baddie.

The Boy, who was particularly reticent to see it, liked it a lot, commenting on the modest scale. (The shortest of all Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies, they tell me, it’s just short of 2 hours.)

I still might seek out the original script to see what Wright had in mind, but Peyton Reed (Yes Man) did not fumble here.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

“Say, what’s the independent variable in this study?” I burst out into laughter and didn’t stop giggling for 2 minutes. Because the Stanford Prison Experiment might be many things, but none of those things even approximates science.

This is the sixth film treatment of The Experiment, I think, counting documentaries, and it’s easy to see why: It’s a compelling story of upper middle class white people who turn into the worst sort of authoritarians (and victims) in a matter of hours.

Or, maybe it’s not. The problem is, there is no independent variable, no control, not really much in the way of parameters. If you look at it this way, what you have is nine guys who are playacting at being powerless, and three guys who take turns in eight hour shifts tormenting them, playacting at being Strother Martin.

The ringleader actually said this in real life. They called him “John Wayne” but he was doing Strother Martin, maybe in True Grit or Liberty Valance. He suddenly develops a southern accent and sees what he can get away with.

And it turns out, that was quite a bit. And with eight-hour shifts with nothing to do but screw with a bunch of other guys’ heads, the real miracle is that nobody was killed.

The story is that Dr. Zimbardo, a psychologist (natch) at Stanford, puts together this experiment where he pays these mild-mannered college-age males $15/day for no apparent reason. I mean, seriously, there’s no reason given for the experiment, which he assures his girlfriend will be “boring”. But there’s no description of what it is he’s trying to figure out in the first place.

He assures us that just as his subjects got caught up in the experiment, so did he—so seductive are the trappings of power, and the…trappings of powerlessness, I guess.

Keep repeating, “It’s just a movie.” Because, really, it’s just a movie.

Billy Crudup (Public Enemies, Watchmen) sells it as the obsessed professor, as do the boys, all of whom are famous enough that you’ve seen them in bunches of stuff (like Me & Earl and Wallflower) but not so famous (and with ‘70s hair and clothing styles) that you immediately go, “That’s Shia Labeouf!” (Sad that I had to go there to think of someone “too famous” for a role like this.

Some of the changes from the real thing are interesting. In real life, the doctor’s girlfriend (played here by Olivia Thirby, whom I’ve quite liked in Dredd, 5 to 7, and Being Flynn) is the one who essentially ended the experiment by pointing out the ethical problems with it. Here she makes her big speech, but the doctor ends it a few hours later after a particularly humiliating incident.

I don’t know that really added anything to the drama. It might’ve been cooler to have them hashing them out while the incident was going on.

Another thing I thought funny: In the real experiment, they moved the “prison” to a different floor in anticipation of a possible “break”, but in the movie they didn’t. I presume this was budget constraints, but it might have been a desire to keep the sort of locked-up feel going. (I think they may have actually gone outside in the real experiment, too, which they didn’t here.) It might’ve been more interesting to see them move the prisoners about.

It works overall, though, and what actually happened is totes not important here.

One thing that felt cheesy—whether or not it reflects the reality—was that there were precisely two black people in the movie, both “behind the cameras” of the experiment. One was a Black Panther-esque militant with a huge chip on his shoulder and a desire to see the white boys punished, while the other was a “good black” who was the most bothered by the ethical implications. We were only short Morgan Freeman coming in and healing them all at the end with a soothing monologue.

Anyway, don’t take it too seriously: It’s a good vehicle for drama, mostly worthy of its 80%s RT scores. Or, I guess you could take it super seriously, and let its searing truths sear their way into your soul, leaving sear marks, as some critics seem to. De gusti.

But there’s more science in Ghostbusters.


Here’s a sort of old-fashioned story of a husband and wife living in the country, running a farm supplies company, with a couple of kids, and a the sort of serious debt problems that seem to be endemic to farmers. (Although, come to think of it, my great-grandfather ran a farm and never had any financial problems that I know of. I think he ended up with a lot of money and property, actually.)

Anyway, the story is that the family’s being squeezed, and the big question is will they/won’t they take this dodgy job for the big cash wad money. A simple, classic story that you don’t get much of these days, and with enough of its own voice to keep it interesting.

I particularly liked, for example, the husband/wife relationship. Betty and Frank are 20 years married, and still very much in love (and impossibly good looking, ‘cause, why not?), and Frank’s main “mistreatment” of Betty is trying to shield her from their financial problems. Betty’s his business partner as well as wife, but she gave up going out and selling to raise the boys, and to help out she ends up going out trying to drum up new business.

It’s cool that she’s not even mad about Frank hiding it from her. She just pitches in.

She’d probably be less sanguine about his health problems, which he’s also hiding from her, and which she finds out a little bit about toward the end of the movie. (She never really does find it all out, just that it’s going to be expensive.)

Betty’s also the bridge between the old-fashioned work-with-your-hands Frank and the more artistically inclined son.

Yeah, it’s really Betty’s movie. But the characterizations are strong enough that, by the end of the movie, you’re really fearing for her soul. And for that alone, along with the wonderful photography of the beautiful, treacherous countryside, this movie is worth seeing.

It’s weakest in the suspense department. The Boy spotted this and said, “I thought they over-used tension”. Yes, there’s a big difference between tension and suspense. Joel Siegel once said—I forget of which movie—that two hours of suspense is exciting, but two hours of tension just gives you a headache.

Runoff hasn’t nearly that level of problem. The tension isn’t ratcheted up too high. These are stoic farm folk; there’s not much in the way of histrionics. But where writer/director Kimberly Levin (in her debut feature) has a near perfect grasp of the characters, the scenery and even the basics of plot, she seems to shy away from what could have been truly suspenseful scenes. The climax of the movie is so matter-of-fact as to rob the movie of some of its power.

The climax also suffers from a certain improbability, as if our smart, tough heroine suddenly ran out of ideas.

Apart from these details, though, I really liked the conclusion and the way Frank and Betty each resolved the moral dilemma presented to them. It was unexpected. It shouldn’t have been, and the simple surprising nature of it is kind of a testament to how powerful character drama can be if you’re not constantly serving a simplistic message of political correctness. (A strength shared with the similarly surprising Mississippi Grind.)

I’m not saying how because: Spoilers. But the fact that the audience rates this at 92% on RT while critics only give it an 82% might be precisely because of this willingness to serve the story and its characters over “acceptable” messages.

Neal Huff (who had small roles in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom) does a fine job as the husband, but the movie really belongs to the amazing Joanne Kelly (who features regularly on something called “Warehouse 13”). Shout out to Alex Shaffer, whom we haven’t seen since Win Win, and who was just as believable here—like, you don’t even think he’s acting, but he’s much different here than in the wrestling picture.

This is one of those situations where we saw this on the only screen playing it in America—which is a shame. This kind of movie is a good antidote/counter-balance for the superhero flick.

Mississippi Grind

We had not heard from the writing/directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck since 2010’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but when Mississippi Grind popped up out of nowhere, we took our chance to see it. (It ran for one week, one late showing every day, but perhaps that’s for Oscar consideration. It’s actual release date is listed as being in September.)

The story is simple enough: Gambler on the brink Gerry (Ben Mendelsohn, The Place Beyond The Pines, Killing Them Softly) meets devil-may-care Curtis (Ryan Reynolds, Woman In Gold, Green Lantern, Adventureland) and they hit it off. Gerry, who’s a very good poker player, though uptight, has a very good night, and (in the way of gamblers) associates Curtis with good luck.

There is a genre of film about magical people: The sort of folks who come into our lives and seem to make everything better, interesting, more lively, just by being around. In a traditional narrative, this is typically centered around a character arc like, to take a very literal example, Mary Poppins helping to bring Mr. Banks around. Or, presumably, Bagger Vance, though I didn’t see that one.

They don’t have to be literally magic, of course. There’s a much exploited sitcom cliché where a visiting uncle or aunt provides the necessary arc. The recent Judy Moody movie has this plot in the form of Aunt Heather Graham, for a non-literally magic example.

The beauty of this film is that it teases that genre. You think Gerry’s gonna have his life turned around by Curtis, so successful he is when the two are together. And Curtis is the sort of guy who gambles for fun—so, naturally, caring not about the money, he wins all the time. Gerry on the other hand, gambles to solve his problems—which he then creates more of by gambling more.

But the problem with that genre is that it gives short-shrift to the magical person. They’re not really real. They can’t be real, because real people have complicated, messy lives, and showing that is not part of the genre.

So when our boys go on their road trip down the mighty Mississip’, and their close quarters reveal an insight into Curtis’ life, and his issues, it’s quite a refreshing turn.

We might have just had a good character study here, a buddy picture, a road flick, and Reynolds and Mendelsohn have enough chemistry to have pulled something like that off, but in addition to that, we also have the most suspenseful film of the year. Sure, normally you think of suspense in a thriller or action flick, but here the stakes are infinitely higher: Are these guys gonna pull their heads out of their asses and get their lives together?

You just don’t know. The last act is so full of moments where the story could end. They literally could’ve stopped it anywhere from the beginning of the third act: Ending at any of the sequences would’ve had a different impact. And you really don’t know if you’re going to get one of these bleak stories where everyone ends up dead, or a silly happy one where they all end up millionaires.

I’m not used to being surprised in movies—even though I’m actually pretty easy to surprise if you’re not hard-wired into a genre, like with the superhero stuff—but I did not see the ending coming. Not because it was out of the blue, but because each character had to make a pivotal decision that could’ve gone any number of ways.

That’s quality writing, right there. You’re rooting for the characters, who are deeply, deeply flawed, in borderline criminal ways, and the movie leads you up to an understanding how they work, such that you care how they choose, even though the two main choices (continue down a destructive road, or get your life together) are both in character.

We were on the edge of our seats, no joke.

Anyway, this is supposed to get a real release in September. I hope it does well. It would be worthy of writing/acting Oscars.

Also? Great music. Just great. But you were expecting that, I hope.

Cartel Land

Sometimes you just know you’ve got a good one on your hands. Something about the topic and presentation screams professionalism, high quality, riveting subject matter—just the right mix for a can’t-miss experience. And sometimes, you’re just flat out wrong.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with Cartel Land, a documentary produced by Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty, The Hurt Locker) and directed by Matthew Heineman, which is just good enough to make me consider watching Escape Fire, his earlier documentary on the health system in America.

I mean, it might not be the one-sided glop of, say, Michael Moore’s Sicko.

Cartel Land is about two different parts of the world: The Arizona Border in the USA and the Michoacan province in Mexico, both of which are being terrorized by the titular cartels. The bulk of the movie concerns a doctor who raises a vigilante army to free his country from the drug cartels; this is the more interesting of the stories.

The American side is interesting in its own way. In the tony Pasadena theater where I watched it, the rednecks patrolling the border at night were the source of much amusement. Not our sorts of people, those gun-toting, minority-harassing, trailer-dwellers.

I didn’t feel the movie had that tone. Oh, they showed the one guy who was down there because we gotta keep America white, or whatever, but however outré this impromptu border patrol is, there’s no doubt they’re dealing with some bad hombres. And dealing with them because our feckless, sclerotic bureaucracies don’t care to.

But if there’s apathy on the American side, the Mexican side is just a—spoiler alert—dispiriting voyage into sheer corruption. Our doctor is sincere, no doubt. He’s also successful. But success attracts power, both from the cartels and the government—who are, in essence the same thing—and soon a noble movement to save the people becomes a cartel itself.

Our doctor has some ethical problems of his own, too, pedestrian though they are, and it’s a very hard thing to lead a movement that absolutely requires, above all things, a strict code of honor when your own hands aren’t clean.

It’s not a pick-me-up of a film.

But it is interesting: How do you end systemic corruption? There have been corrupt times in many societies, and many societies have pulled out of the spiral to enjoy glorious golden ages—even if they weren’t aware they were living in them.  But you have to have a code, and you have to follow the code, even at the expense of your friends or yourself.

Fascinatingly, there’s an incident on the Mexican side that is, for lack of a better word, murder. The vigilantes stop a guy who has tattoos indicating membership in a cartel. So they interrogate him, then they kill him. (The doctor gives the order; we don’t actually see this.) If they don’t, they know he’ll get 50 of his closest friends to come and kill them.

That’s sub-optimal, to say the least. And not really conducive to a code of honor. But it’s an interest look into genuine powerlessness. (And, as a side note, American media is a happily compliant contributor to the corruption.)

Worth watching twice.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Movies involving mental illness are a dodgy bet at best, tending either to the bleak or to a fake Hollywood gloss that treats it as a metaphor, and there’s nothing in particular in first time writer/director Maya Forbes’ previous writing career (“Larry Sanders”, Monsters vs. Aliens) suggests an ability to handle such a delicate subject in a way that works.

Miracles and blessings, Infinitely Polar Bear is a fine film, avoiding the bathos of the zanier members of the “nuts” genre (like The Dream Team) and the sheer crushing depression found in the more serious entries (examples of which elude me, as I try to avoid them).

There’s something wonderfully banal in Infinitely’s set up: Maggie (Zoe Saldana) meets and falls in love with Cameron (Mark Ruffalo), who at the front of their whirlwind romance, mentions his mental problems to her. But of course she has no clue what that really means until ten years later, when they have two kids and no money, and they can’t stay in their beautiful country home because Cameron can’t hold a job, what with running around half-dressed in the front yard.

After an extended stay in the spin bin for Cameron, and the public school system discovering that the girls don’t live in the right district to go to the good school that Maggie has enrolled them in (rather than the awful one the government school system requires), Maggie decides she’s going to go to get an MBA so she can provide for the family. But this requires the fragile Cameron to take of the girls.

And there’s your plot. It’s a rocky road of course—how could it not be?—but there’s so much sympathy for all the characters, and neither attempts to minimize the severity of the situation nor a grief porn-y type wallowing in it.

You end up liking everybody and rooting for everybody.

And the movie avoids all the easy paths it could have taken: Maggie could be a superheroine who doesn’t have to sacrifice anything, or she could’ve been completely unsympathetic when contrasted with the “fun” Cameron. (Props to Saldana for her great performance.) Cameron could’ve been harmless crazy, like a Robin Williams character, but his downs are down and he can be mean, and he’s childish in both positive and negative ways. (Props to Ruffalo for his great performance.)

The movie could’ve made a big deal about the mixed-race marriage—which was a much bigger deal back in the ‘70s, when the movie takes place—rather than just having a some awkward moments. There’s a scene where Maggie doesn’t get a job that I think was dead on for the time and place.

It surprises me not at all that it’s based on Maya Forbes’ life. It felt very real, and underscores perhaps the usual problem for crazy person movies: Insanity is a vehicle for humor or drama, as opposed to a real thing that some folks have to deal with in their lives.

The Boy really liked this one.