As If I Needed Lessons

How To Lose Friends and Alienate People is the second movie in as many weeks that seems to illustrate the rather large indifference of the American masses to British stars. Last week’s delightful Ghost Town showed we don’t care much about Ricky Gervais, while this week’s similarly delightful How To Lose Friends and Alien Poeple indicates we don’t give a rat’s ass about Simon Pegg. It reminds me a bit of the complete and utter rejection of the perfectly delightful Aardman studio movie Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as well as the later, less delightful but still pretty good Flushed Away.

Maybe Troop is right about “perforated abalones” or whatever he calls the Brits.

I, on the other hand, think it’s a shame. While this is a pretty by-the-numbers romantic comedy (as was Ghost Town), it’s a solid one and provides plenty of laughs.

The story concerns trashy Pegg being wooed away from his trashy little celebrity-hit-rag by magazine mogul Jeff Bridges (as the anti-Dude!) to work at his trashy BIG celebrity-kiss-ass-rag. There he meets nice girl Kirsten Dunst, a pre-op transsexual, and super-hot Megan Fox, channelling a sort of Marilyn-Monroe-meets-Bette-Davis type. He lusts after Fox (I mean, of course) but falls in love with Dunst (again, of course, but for different reasons). Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy pursues other girl–the story begins with Pegg in striking rang of his goal of having sex with Ms. Fox, and I don’t need to tell you how that turns out–and loses his soul in the process, but again, I don’t need to tell you how that turns out, either.

As I said, by-the-numbers but less gross than a lot of modern comedies, with more slapstick, and with a curious message–or so it seemed to me: That it’s better to be a celebrity-mocking journalistc parasite than to be a celebrity-ass-kissing-journalistic parasite.

Isn’t that like saying it’s better to be typhus than The Plague?

The cast is absolutely pitch perfect. Bridges is entirely credible as a guy who both hates and, at some level, longs for the person he used to be. Pegg has the right combination of likability and unlikability–he’s really quite a good actor, showing range by being a completely different person than he was in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead. Kirsten Dunst is almost too believable as the girl who trades in her dreams for a steady paycheck and a creepy boyfriend. Danny Huston, by the way, is the creepy boyfriend/sleazeball/obstacle to all of Pegg’s dreams, and he’s got the smarmy thing down pat. Gillian Anderson is excellent as the soulless PR agent bending everyone to her will.

Megan Fox is eerily dead-on as the flavor-of-the-month actress. She’s completely superficial and at turns siren, vulnerable girl, airhead and cruel vixen. (Her award-winning movie role is hysterical, too. Stay through the credits, because they do a full trailer.) You really don’t end up knowing much about her–she’s completely insubstantial, really–which is in its own way perfect for the story.

All the little roles seem to have been filled with care, as well. Miriam Margoyles plays the Polish (Russian?) tenement manager, Bill Paterson shows up as Pegg’s father, Max Minghella is the over-rated wunderkind director, Diana Kent plays the washed up ‘70s actress (though is she really old enough?), and Thandie Newton does a turn as herself, being chatted up by Pegg in one of his more charming disguises.

And, hey, you got your full-frontal male nudity, sorta, in the form of nude model Charlotte Devaney, who plays a pre-op transexual stripper. I don’t really believe it myself, as she lacked any outward male characteristics whatsoever and I don’t think Playboy and Hustler feature TSes, but since about 12% of my hits are for full frontal male nudity, I thought I’d throw you guys a bone. (Heh.)

A solid flick with lots of laughs from humor both broad and subtle, but it ain’t gettin’ no love in terms of distribution and box office.

Damned abalones.

An American Carol: Fa la la la la, la la la la

Hectic weekend that it was, I was glad to get out of the house for a bit to the movies, and did go–with much trepidation to see Zucker’s An American Carol.

Regular readers know how I feel about clap humor, but as I pointed out earlier, this is the first overtly conservative movie made in my lifetime that’s ever gotten a semi-wide release.

So, what did I think?

Not bad. Pretty good even. I didn’t laugh as much as I did for, say, Dodgeball. And I would issue the caveats that you probably had best like the Zucker style of humor. Having said that, this movie probably falls somewhere between BASEketball and Top Secret! in terms of comparison with his earlier work. And it’s more like the former in terms of “reality”: In other words, where the Top Secret!/Airplane! style of movie has people acting deadpan in a zany world, the BASEketball-style movie posits a less zany reality with more broadly humorous characters.

I laughed a lot more than I expected to, and it works much better than I would have thought. There were only a few parts I cringed at, and a couple of genuinely touching parts.

The story concerns a fat, narcissistic documentary-maker named Michael Malone who wants to stamp out the 4th of July celebrations. Some terrorists want to make a professional jihad movie using a Hollywood director, but they need the most America-hating director in Hollywood. This provides a framework for a Christmas Carol ripoff that powers the bulk of the film.

There isn’t a rigorous adherence to the Dickens story, which is good: The primary ghost who torments Malone is George S. Patton, who takes him to see the anti-war protests of WWII and how life would be if the Civil War hadn’t been fought. (George Washington makes a brief appearance. And the third ghost is living country music star Trace Adkins!)

The movie opens strong with a “duck and cover”-style terrorist training film, follows into a weak (more accurate than funny) parody of “Sicko”, segues from there into a sometimes funny, sometimes not parody of a movie awards show, and hits and misses for the rest of the movie. But a lot of the less funny parts are worth a chuckle, and occasionally, if you’re inclined, a clap.

What particularly worked for me were: the zombie lawyers, the slavery scene, the crowd chanting scene, the “It’s the Christians!” documentary, and a surprising amount of the slapstick.

What didn’t work for me were: the Bill O’Reilly scene (the first one, the second one in the outhouse was pretty funny) with Rosie O’ Connell (except for the “It’s the Christians!” documentary), the Hitler scene, and the occasional long didactic tract thrown.

Parts I’m on the fence about: the ‘68 musical number, the inclusion of certain serious moments, and the inclusion of heavy slapstick during some of those moments.

I wouldn’t expect critics to review this favorably. I’m a little surprise no kudos have been forthcoming for the talent: Kelsey Grammer does a servicable Patton, for example, which isn’t easy to pull off in the shadow of George C. Scott. Chriss Anglin plays a pissed JFK, more accent than looks, while Fred Travelena does a Carter that’s all accent. Voight plays Washington himself during one of the heavier moments, and pulls it off.

Kevin Farley plays Malone, and if there’s a problem, it’s that he doesn’t ooze a fraction of the sleaze Michael Moore does. He’s self-absorbed, cruel and destructive but he never reaches the level of dislikability that Moore manages effortlessly. In fact, he’s kind of a heroic character: He realizes the error of his ways and risks public humiliation to save lives. And while there are a few stale fat jokes, he’s never portrayed as stupid.

And there are a bunch of other people you’re likely to recognize: Gary Coleman, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’ Grady and Dennis Hopper as a gun-totin’ judge.

The audience laughed–though not at the whole thing–and clapped at the end pretty easily, but the theater was only about half full.

The Boy loved it, by his own admission being very right wing. He wanted to know if there other such movies and I had to regretfully inform him that I wasn’t aware of anything like it. That seems a little skewed.

“This cat knows something!”

So says Robert Montgomery in Mr. & Mrs. Smith–the 1941 Hitchcock screwball comedy, not the weird Pitt/Jolie action comedy of 2005.

The woman completing this pair was Carole Lombard, after whom Frances Lillian Mary Ridste had styled herself upon arriving in Tinseltown (to my perpetual confusion half-a-century later). And like Landis, Carole Lombard died far too young, though in an airplane crash.

Behind the lens we have a young(ish) Alfred Hitchcock, shooting his only corpse-free comedy. In this case, the shallow Montgomery and the bat-sheet Lombard discover that they’re not married, despite three years of great make-up sex. (For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, Montgomery hides the info from his wife, and Lombard gets ticked, apparently because he wants to have his way with her even though they’re not legally married.)

Lombard–who really does come across like a screwball–decides she doesn’t want him back and ends up with his business partner, the bland, staid Gene Raymond.

This is really a cute movie with some good laughs that are a little too far apart to make this a really good comedy 65 years later. In other words, it might have been a lot funnier when released, but a lot of the sexual innuendo is nearly imperceptible to our coarsened sensibilities. Still, we all laughed at points, even The Boy.

I liked the early scene where they’re having dinner at a place that has become a dive in the three years since they’ve been there and Montgomery is trying to get a cat (that’s sitting on the table!) to test the soup to see if it’s safe to eat. (Hence the quote.)

And since it’s been a while…some breasts!

Lombard is of course pre-pointy-breast era. She’s the right age to be a flapper but I don’t think she did the flapper thing in the movies.

Had she lived, though, I’m sure we’d have seen her in a torpedo-shaped brassiere alongside of the other greats of the ‘50s.

“You can trust me. I’m a dentist.”

I think Ghost Town is officially a flop. It barely cracked the top 10 in a weak week last, uh, week, and has completely dropped off the charts over the weekend. And that’s a shame, because it’s a solid comedy.

It’s a bit formulaic. Think Groundhog Day meets Ghost. Ricky Gervais is a misanthropic dentist–and let me interrupt here to say that all the dentists I’ve known have been wonderful, warm people–who wakes up after a colonoscopy (in which he demanded a general anaesthetic) with the ability to see dead people.

Dead people with needs.

Who annoy him.

My I say that I came up with this premise 20 years ago, but not having writer-director David Koepp’s connections I never could get the movie made?

Primary among the annoying dead people is the ever-smarmy Greg Kinnear. (Nobody does smarm like soup boy.) Kinnear is concerned that his ex-wife (on whom he was cheating) is about to marry a gold-digging…uh…civil rights attorney. He enlistst the reluctant Gervais’ help by promising to call off other dead people–he’s good at convincing people to do stuff–and it doesn’t hurt that Gervais is instantly attracted to Kinnear’s widow, Tea Leoni.

This movie works for a couple of reasons:

Koepp keeps things moving and doesn’t skimp on the jokes. (Some of them are so characteristic of the actors, particularly Gervais and KatherineKristen Wiig, that one senses perhaps some improv was done.) Koepp’s got a track record of under-appreciated movies: He wrote the script to Panic Room, wrote and directed Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes, and also wrote Death Becomes Her.) Or maybe all those movies sucked, and you wouldn’t like this either.)

Fun fact: Koepp is the douche who wrote War of the Worlds and paralleled the Martians to US troops in Iraq! Yes, I maintain that he’s both talented and a douche. Fortunately, this movie is apolitical.

The acting is top notch: Besides Gervais and Kinnear, Tea Leoni is really quite marvellous. I mean, really: She plays an odd Egyptologist with a fondness for lovingly detailed descriptions of mummification. If there’s a flaw there, it’s that it’s a little hard to imagine Kinnear’s smug narcissist hooking up with her.

Besides the three leads, there’s also Katherine Wiig as the surgeon. This chick is funny. I guess she’s on SNL but I know her primarily from Knocked Up, and she does a similar bit here trying to keep Gervais from suing the hospital. (I know her from something else, too, but I haven’t seen any of her other IMDB credits and her scenes were apparently cut from Superbad and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, so I can’t recall what. UPDATE: Oh, yeah, I know her from the freakin’ Ghost Town commercials. I’m such a dingus.)

She gets a great assist in this scene from Michael-Leon Wooley as the hospital lawyer.

The ghosts play comic relief, mostly, but they also give the movie it’s final poignancy. Dana Ivey as a mother trying to reconcile her family, and Alan Ruck as the father trying to give his son some peace in a particularly poignant moment.

Fortunately, this all comes at the end, and avoids the mawkishness that occasionally bogs Groundhog Day.

Let’s see: Pacing, acting…I was going to mention a third thing here that makes this movie work, but I’ve forgotten what it is now. Damn my tangents.

Well, there’s some spectacular cinematography. New York hasn’t looked this gorgeous in years (at least in the movies). Uh. Hmmm.

OK: I laughed. I had a low chuckle going through most of the movie with some occasionally raucous outbursts. Ultimately, that’s “why” this worked for me. Little funny stuff, like Gervais’ awkward or jerky moments punctuated with knee slappers. Not quite rolling in the aisles, but still quite amusing.

The Boy laughed, too.

Altogether worthy of better box office than it’s getting. It’ll do better in England, I’d bet.

Frozen River: Slurpees Half Price

Melissa Leo is in a big budget picture out now alongisde mega-uber-super-duper-screen legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But you could probably skip that film that can only generate lukewarm reviews and box office, and see her in Frozen River, filmed for less than 1% of the cost and is something you aren’t likely to see much in movies.

Leo plays Ray Eddy, a poor woman with two boys (T.J., 15 and Ricky, 5), who lives at the northern edge of New York state, near the Canadian border. When we meet her, her gambling-addicted husband has vanished with money they need to purchase their double-wide. She’s not a very likable character, and T.J. blames her for his father running off, though, in fairness, she’s in the difficult situation of keeping her family together while not letting the missing dad destroy it.

She crosses paths with Lila, a Mohawk Indian whose husband was killed and whose son was taken away from her when she was caught smuggling.

This leads the two to end up smuggling immigrants across the Canadian border through Mohawk reservation, which is half on the USA border and half on the Canadian border. Ray’s initial reluctance is plausibly denied by Lila’s insistance that what they’re doing isn’t illegal, because the reservation can admit whomever it wants and, uh, I guess, let whomever it wants off the reservation?

It’s a dubious justification, but one that serves well enough to convince the desperate for money Ray that she’s not really a criminal as she, you know, commits all these crimes. As it usually does, her life of crime has some negative consequences, as does her sense of right and wrong.

I won’t spoil anything here, but let’s just say her desperation leads her to venture into the dark, mean streets of Canada. So, you know.

This is a good low-budget flick that tells its story crisply, without relying too heavily on dialogue–Lila barely talks at all–and playing nicely on the cold, desolate poverty of Plattsburgh, New York. There’s a little too much shakey-cam in the opening scene (though I think I understand why) but things settle down and draw a picture which is sort of the opposite of the pristine snowscapes of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan. The snow always looks questionable, dirty and even sinister.

The acting is good. While Melissa Leo allows the camera and lighting to show all the age and poverty she’s supposed have endured, Misty Upham packs on 40 pounds to play her laconic Indian sidekick. They look and act their parts–very naturally, as if director Courteney Hunt pulled them out of the trailer parks in Plattsburgh. The boys (Charlie McDermott, James Reilly) do solid work, and Michael O’Keefe, normally seen as a white-collar type, if I’m not mistaken, makes a credible state trooper whom it’s really not clear if he’s racist or just (rightly) suspicious of Lila.

The ending of a movie like this is tricky. Very, very tricky. Our heroines are criminals, after all. But as we get to know them, the movie–almost grudgingly–gives us a chance to like them. I won’t say how it ends, but I will say it avoids the common pitfalls this sort of movie often falls prey to.

Solid flick, worth checking out.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: The Last Woman On Earth

One of Roger Corman’s favorite budget-saving tricks was to film two movies while on location instead of one. The second film was done on a shoestring-budget–an even stringer-shoestring budget than the first, shot quickly and sometimes without a full script. And sometimes, they were better than the higher-budgeted flick.

Such is the case with Creature from the Haunted Sea, and its twin The Last Woman on Earth. TLWOE is a perfect example of what makes a post-apocalyptic movie attractive to the Z-movie director: It has a cast of three and one of the three is the screenwriter.

Said screenwriter is no less than Robert Towne, best known for having written Chinatown and Bonny and Clyde. And while this isn’t his finest work–and as you might imagine this is a pretty talky flick for a post-apocalyptic thriller–it acquits itself fairly well.

Two men. One woman. The woman is the last woman on earth. Gosh, it practically writes itself.

The worst–and best–part of this movie is the fetching image of Betsy Jones-Moreland on the poster. As lovely as she is, she never quite finds herself in this state of dishabille.

Another cool thing about the movie is that it’s Public Domain. Watch it for free or download it from the Internet Archive.

Until next Monday, mutants, stay radiated!

Waitress, On Reflection

Adrienne Shelley’s Waitress has been on cable quite a bit, and I’ve had a chance to re-view it.

When it first came out, Althouse hated it. I think I even put off seeing it for weeks on that basis.

I realize now, Althouse and I do not have anything like comparable movie tastes. (For example, I’ve given a cursory view to Across The Universe, and found it vaguely offensive, despite the music.)

Anyway, I liked the movie when I first saw it, and I like it more on re-view. It’s stylized: deliberately placed out of time and a fairy tale situation, in the sense that the characters are all placed in their situations without much concern for how they got there.

What I find weird was Althouse–and others–assertion that this was a man-loathing movie. Yet, in the end, all the characters are flawed, and the only really bad man is Jeremy Sisto’s creepily played Earl. Indeed, one of the most despicable characters in movie history.

In fact, the lead character–whose view colors everything in the movie–goes from seeing men as bullies and ogres, and comes to see them as human as her girlfriends.

Now, I’m not unsympathetic to the view that movies–particularly female-centered ones–portray men badly, as villains, etc. But that just doesn’t apply here. About the only characters who don’t show off severe flaws are Dawn and Ogie, with Dawn being rather insecure and Ogie being…a little intense.

IMDB has this at 7.4 which is maybe a hair low for the current curve (maybe a 7.6). I’m a bit surprised by the number of comments I’ve read that are so severely judgmental. I sort of come away from this film thinking, “Well, we all make mistakes, and the idea is that we should correct them and move on, and also not be too severe about others mistakes.” It’s such a non-controversial concept (“Lord’s Prayer” anyone?), I’m surprised at how many people approach this from the viewpoint that the main character should be pilloried.

Anyway, Adrienne Shelly was just cute as a bug’s ear, to boot. And her tragic death should not go unobserved. Fortunately, it hasn’t.

On The Importance of Being Earnest

Not the Oscar Wilde play but the actual importance of being earnest.

I was thinking about why I find Ed Wood watchable. And then about how I find the blaxploitation flicks of the ‘70s so entertaining.

And I think it sums up as: earnestness.

Earnestness is the opposite of camp, snark, irony, hipness. It’s meaning what you say, without regard for triteness or unintentional humor. It takes a kind of courage to be earnest, and a particularly in this post-modern era of deconstruction and over analysis.

One could, were one so inclined, analyze the national election in terms of earnestness versus camp. You might say the Reps tend to favor earnest candidates suspiciously, while the Dems earnestly favor hip candidates. But I won’t say that here.

Earnestness, of course, is no guarantee of quality, as Mr. Wood, Jr., clearly illustrated, along with the dialogue of the ’70s flicks about “the Man” and white and black prejudice. But it’s almost always entertaining, if not in the way the creators intended.

The original Evil Dead, for example, has many moments of unintended comedy mixed in with some truly scary moments, reflecting Sam Raimi’s youth and intensity. By contrast, Spider-Man 2 has a few scary moments that Raimi cribbed directly from his earlier film, and which are almost intense enough to push the movie into R territory.

We see from these two films, that it is possible to maintain earnestness even while raising quality. The second Spiderman movie is probably Raimi’s masterpiece, completely committed while technically brilliant.

But very often, earnestness is lost in the perfection of craft. I like Spielberg, and am not inclined to bashing him, but I think since about Saving Private Ryan, he’s lost a lot of the earnestness he used to have making popcorn movies. (He even mentions it in reference to Jurassic Park 2. His heart just wasn’t in it.)

Earnestness can become strident proselytizing, too. When I consider Plan 9 From Outer Space, with its message of non-nuclear proliferation (or…non-solarinite proliferation), I see a movie that’s a movie first, where the message of peril is meant to give some underlying resonance to the story, rather than a story dedicated to pushing that message. And I’d still rather watch it than The Constant Gardener or any of the anti-Iraq movies that have emerged in the past five years, regardless of “quality”.

Religious movies can fall into the same trap, of course. But you don’t get many religious mainstream movies these days.

I’m not a big Peter Jackson fan, but he kept the snark out of Lord of the Rings. You can’t do “epic” without earnestness: Things have to matter, while the whole of being hip, cool and camp is that nothing matters–and very often that nothing is really very good. Or, rather ironically, that “very good” = “very easy”. (That’s a kind of modern art conceit: You can’t write a song in C or make a representational painting like the old masters. That would be too easy.)

Earnestness, like being plainspoken, reveals how we actually feel and think, of course.

This requires a degree of vulnerability.

Which, in turn, is what makes art dangerous to create and even, in a way, to enjoy.

Burn After Reading. Then Eat The Ashes.

You could divide the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen into two categories: Tragedies and comedies. You could almost adhere to the classic definition of these as well: In tragedies the hero dies; in comedies he lives.

The tragedies are usually pretty apparent up-front: Miller’s Crossing and No Country For Old Men, for example. The movie tips you off pretty quickly as to what kind of movie you’re going to see.

The comedies also come in two different flavors: dark, and extra-dark. The ones that are merely dark would include Raising Arizona (probably the lightest), Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother! Where Art Thou. The extra-dark would include movies like Barton Fink and possibly The Ladykillers. The difference between the dark and the extra-dark is that, probably nobody’s going to die in the former, whereas anyone might die in the latter.

Fargo, for example, would be one of those extra-dark comedy: Marge survives, but anyone else is up for grabs.

The potential “problem” is that you think you’re watching one kind of movie until someone ends up in the woodchipper. Still, if you’re familir with the Coen Bros’ work, you shouldn’t be surprised by any particular surprise. As it were.

Still. I was surprised.

Anyway, Burn After Reading is the story of a personal trainer (Frances McDormand, who proves that just because a director puts his wife in the film doesn’t mean she has to suck) and her dimwitted pal (Brad Pitt, in his best role since Fight Club) who stumble across a CD full of an embittered ex-intelligence agent’s memoirs and personal financial information. Said agent (John Malkovich) is having trouble with his wife (Tilda Swinton) and so she was collecting the financials in preparation for a divorce.

The agent’s wife, you see, is having an affair with a federal marshall (George Clooney) who’s a narcissitc exercise freak given to trolling the internet for women while lying to his successful children’s author wife (Elizabeth Marvel of “The District”) and having an affair with…France McDormand!

Anyway, Linda and Chad (McDormand and Pitt) figure they can get some money for the CD, which Linda desperately needs to pay for the plastic surgeries she desires. This leads them to blackmail Osborne (Malkovich) and even go to the Russian embassy when he refuses.

The various plot twists and turns remind me a lot of Lebowski and a bit of Blood Simple. Though it’s not as dark (literally) as the latter and it lacks the loveable characters of the former. It is funny–though obviously you have to be appreciative of the Coen sense of humor.

What makes it particularly funny, oddly enough, is agent David Rasche explaining what’s happening to department head J.K. Simmons. You actually feel sorry for these guys trying to figure out what’s going on, especially as they’re trying to work it out from the standpoint of whether this rises to the level of actul espionge.

“What did we learn here?” as Simmons says at the end of the movie.

Good question. Good question indeed.

One thing that cannot be denied is the quality of performance of the cast. McDormand’s shallow self-absorption, Pitt’s energetic idiocy, Clooney’s paranoid sex-addict–actully Clooney could never work for anyone but the Coens again and it’d be okay by me.

Richard Jenkins–probably the only really sympthetic character in the film–is having a good year, with this and The Visitor, and I’m sure Tilda Swinton must be the sweetest woman in the world. (She’s always portrayed as cold and mean to children, sometimes very literally as in Narnia.)

This movie speeds along–actual running time about an hour and a half–and ends almost abruptly, but exactly where it should, and keeps you paying attention and laughing. A nice change from No Country for Old Men.

Pleasantville with Zombies

Even here in La-La Land, not every movie gets a shot in the theaters, and sometimes the ones that do get a shot get just a few days. And yet, I’m surprised when a good one slips through the cracks.

I’d never even heard of Fido until we watched it last night on cable, and that’s a shame. It’s a sort of alternate-history movie (which we don’t get much of) where a Night of the Living Dead scenario occurs in the ‘20s, leading to the Zombie War. The Zombie Wars are ended when a scientist discovers their weakness (i.e., destroying the brain kills them) and also how to curb their fleshlust through a collar, allowing for their domestication.

The movie itself takes place in a recognizable version of the ’50s, where housewife Helen Robinson (Carrie-Anne Moss, in a role far scarier than The Matrix) lives on the edge of hysterical concern about appearing strange and keeping up with the Joneses. Frazzled husband Bill (Dylan Baker) is having trouble keeping up, what with the costs of funerals these days.

Seems that if you don’t want to come back as a zombie, you have to have a separate head casket from your body. With the various economic incentives, most people opt for coming back as a zombie, but Bill–having had to kill his own father who tried to eat him–is adamant on spending the family’s money on funerals. He hates zombies.

Helen, on the other hand, can barely conceal her shame, as they’re the only one on the block without a zombie! The Bottomses, who’ve just moved in, have six! And so, Helen runs out and buys a family zombie (Billy Connolly, barely recognizable without his goatee and brogue).

And this is just the set-up.

The Robinsons have a son, Timmy. (Of course, he’d have to be named Timmy.) Timmy (played by the unlikely-named K’Sun Ray) is a bit of an oddball, picked on by bullies, but friendly with the new Bottoms girl (Alexia Fast), who finds in the family zombie the father Bill isn’t. And also sort of the family dog.

Thus, the zombie is christened is “Fido”.

Ultimately, this movie works out to be both dark and cute, as it veers away from the borderline camp at the beginning of the movie, veers through a Lassie movie (if Lassie, you know, were a zombie and not a collie), and ends up in a strange Pleasantville-ish location where humans and zombies reach new levels of understanding.

There are some Cold War undertones, if you want to look for them. The father’s obsession with funerals neatly parallels the money spent on bomb shelters. And whether zombies are actually dead comes up a lot, with the Helen and Timmy deciding they’d rather be zombies than dead which reminded me of the old “Better Dead Than Red” saying.

But ultimately, this is just a fun, dark little movie–good for Halloween–and worth a watch.

A few bonus points: Henry Czerny as the ZomCon security chief; Tim Blake Nelson as a the necrophiliac neighbor; and tons of gorgeous classic cars, all polished to a shine.

Check it out!

The Chick Flick: Causes and Cures

I was going to write about “chick flicks” when I realized I already had, on New Years Eve Day, no less.

But the remake of The Women brought up an interesting point: Does the original movie The Women qualify as a “chick flick”, and if so, how can it be so good?

The answers would be: Sort of. And that’s how.

The Women may be a prototype of sorts. It meets half my definition of chick flick needing to have women treat each other badly. But I would suggest that the ill treatment in The Women is different; they’re not, for the most part, pretending to be friends. There is a rivalry, and a moral ending–i.e., the guilty are punished and the good rewarded (sort of).

The other thing is that there’s no disease. What makes the modern “chick flick” execrable is the underlying theme that one only needs to be civil, decent and generous when someone’s life is on the line. (God, that’s almost masculine.) So, the disease is vital to the ending, wherein the characters who abuse each other can show how much they truly care.

It’s an appalling Hollywood trope that one heroic emotional gesture can make up for a life poorly lived, but life is, of course, much more about day-to-day choices. You don’t break a real relationship, nurtured daily for years, by missing one event–and you don’t repair a real relationship with one heroic gesture.

Ultimately, in the chick flick, one character is martyred and the other is made heroic by becoming a victim herself.

Confused? Consider Hilary and Jackie, my favorite whipping boy: Jackie treats Hilary horribly but when Jackie is shown to be a martyr (due to impending MS), Hilary takes the heroic action of forcing her husband to sleep with Jackie (?), and thereby martyrs herself–saving the relationship (with her sister; she gets pissed at her husband).

A lot of times, it should be noted, the whole thing makes no freakin’ sense at all. Hell, maybe never. (Beaches? Wind beneath my wings? Really?)

The Women poses the question to the main character: How much is your marriage worth? As catty as the characters are, the entire thing boils down to what one woman is willing to sacrifice for that relationship. This isn’t really about the heroine wallowing in her unfortunate circumstances.

The victimization part is key. That’s what turns the story of a modern “chick flick”. And it infects some modern romantic-comedies as well, which has turned the normally crowd-pleasing genre in to one more tilted to (certain kinds of) women. It’s particularly pernicious there; you essentially turn a staple of American cinema into a romance novel.

If the remake of The Women keeps the strength of the original characters, it will have done fairly well just on that.

The Dark Knight Returned

I saw The Dark Knight again.

My original review, from six weeks ago is here. Some observations upon reflection:

  • It holds up rather well.
  • It’s at #3 on IMDB (under Shawshank and Godfather) which is still too high.
  • My initial appraisal of Maggie Gyllenhall was off. She really isn’t convincing as the tough-as-nails DA. What’s surprising is that, in retrospect, Katie Holmes was. But Gyllenhall is far more convincing as a hippie/folksinger/drifter than an authority figure, and sort of slouches and shrinks her way through this film.
  • Mostly unchanged on my view of Heath Ledger: He did good. But he’s actually not even in the film that much.
  • I was contrasting with Superman 3 and noticing that Bale does a good job acting even while wearing the cowl. I know people didn’t like the “Batman growl” he does, but it still works for me.
  • Aaron Eckhart has the toughest role: He’s a good guy in a way that’d perfectly comfortable in a movie from the ‘40s. For a guy who played a cigarette PR guy (Thank You For Smoking), he does sincerity really well.
  • Gary Oldman is too old to be Commissioner Gordon but it works.
  • Caine and Freeman and Bale should make a non-Batman movie together.
  • Joker’s claim to not be a “schemer” is not credible.
  • Watching Spiderman 3–with celebrations for Spidey–twigged a vague recollection of something. In the DC world, with Superman and Batman, the heroes are generally publicly praised. I think it was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby who introduced the idea of public opprobrium to comic books. I never once read an anti-superhero comic as a kid, unless it was due to a temporary misunderstanding.
  • The theater was about 2/3rds full. (!)
  • UPDATE: Also, Batman’s head was HUGE. That was one problem with showing him in full light. What’s up with his head being almost a perfect sphere with bat ears?

Man on Wire: Audience on Seat Edge

Narcissism and nostalgia, would be my bullet summary of Man on Wire, the documentary of Philippe Petit’s crossing of the World Trade Center on a tightrope.

Petit, a Frenchman whose means of support is not discussed at all, is a singular man with an incredible drive…to tightrope walk. His certainty and clarity of purpose is like a magnet to those around him, as he acquires a team to help him pull off a number of remarkable stunts: Walking between the towers at Notre Dame, and over a Sydney freeway, and finally, between the two largest towers in the world (at the time).

So, here’s a story about hope, passion, dedication, the creative impulse, and the ability to do the impossible, as well as a story about how easy it was to get people to do really stupid things in the ‘70s.

Petit narrates a lot of the story with tremendous passion, interspersed with comments from the others who were there at the various events. That’s not a spoiler, dammit: He’s there in the opening scenes of the movie. He obviously didn’t die. Actually, everyone still seems to be alive, which is not bad, given the time span.

This is an interesting story, both of the actual events and of the group dynamic, which completely disintegrates after the big event. It’s interesting to note that the whole thing was held together by one man’s passion, and it worked right up until he achieved his goal.

So, there’s the message: If you’re passionate enough–and you don’t care how you use people–you can do anything. I’m only being a little bit snarky, here. Everyone seems to have enjoyed being around this guy when he had this passion. He burned brightly. But I don’t get any sense that he ever related to anyone in any other way than how they could facilitate his ambitions.

Which, perhaps, is a lesson of its own about creative drive.

All-in-all, a pretty good movie, though I was confused by the fact that there’s actual footage of training they did. I first thought they had hired some very similar looking actors to the real people and recreated the scenes but, no, a lot of the (remarkably high quality!) footage is real, though they weren’t able to carry that through to the actual crossing.

Then they started throwing in re-enactments, which were pretty obviously fake. But at the end I found myself wondering which was which, and that’s not good for a documentary.

The ghost of the World Trade Center haunts the entire movie, though they never once mention 9/11. There’s no need to. You’re sitting there, looking at them going, and if you were sentient seven years ago, there’s going to be some resonance there.

All-in-all, not bad, though you don’t want to approach it from a dour, conventional point-of-view–or you’ll end up wondering what the hell it is that allows Europeans to waste all their time doing pointless things.

Take it as a flare of brilliance–a remarkable incident, never to be repeated–that fired up the imagination of the world for a few moments.

Maybe if you do something like that, that’s all you really ever need to do.

Traitor In Trange Land

The Boy opted for the new Don Cheadle movie over the documentary about the guy who tightrope walked across the World Trade Center, and since he had been the King of All Brothers with a rather whiny Flower, I let him hold the popcorn for a while.

Which isn’t really relevant to anything. Except I was proud of him. The Flower’s been going through a difficult time and she tends to take it out on him, while at the same time missing him when he shutters himself in his room.

So we went to see this movie–based on a story by wild ‘n’ crazy guy, Steve Martin!–and, The Boy didn’t really get it. That’s unusual except there are some subtitles in the movie. I’ve noticed that if the movie is entirely in a foreign language, he does fine, but if they come and go, he can get lost. In this case, while most of the dialog is in English, part of it is in arabic, and the arabic’s not all subtitled.

The other thing I think is a factor is that for more than half the movie, you’re in the terrorist’s lair, and that’s hard to relate to, I think. I liken it to the mad scientist in a Bond movie who’s going to destroy the world, except writ small. The thing is, the Bond movie doesn’t have to make sense. You have to wonder about the logic that says, “If we just blow up enough random, non-military stuff, we win.”

For a moment, I got a kind of Paradise Now vibe off it. Paradise Now is a kind of brilliant movie, told entirely from the Palestinian POV. If you’ve drunk the kool-aid, anyway. An objective POV might chafe a bit at the Palestinians blaming the entirety of their plight on Israelis. I’m sure they do that, but it turns them all into victims whose only recourse seems to be further victimization.

So, in this movie, we have Don Cheadle, Islamic explosives expert, who gets deeper and deeper into the world of jihad until he’s sent on a mission to equip 50 American moles with 50 bombs to detonate on bus trips, all on the same day.

All is not as it seems, of course, and one of the big problems is that Don Cheadle is almost a latter day Henry Fonda. Even when he’s not playing an American, he radiates a kind of All-American good-heartedness. He’s the guy who turns the hotel into a refugee camp, who takes his crazy ex-roommate under his wing, who is wise in the ways of racism. Even in Boogie Nights, he seemed like an incredibly decent guy in a sleazy business.

Seeing him as a terrorist is challenging, and maybe it ultimately works because terrorists see themselves as good people. The movie does raise a whole lot of questions about what limits it’s okay to go to get a bad man.

One of the other big problems, however, is that the actions taken to get the bad man (not Cheadle but his ultimate boss) don’t entirely make sense. They do set up a bravura climax, one that’s really quite satisfying.

Which leads us to the biggest problem: The movie is more tense than suspenseful, which makes it feel a little slow. (I remember Joel Siegel saying once that the difference between tension and suspense is that two hours of suspense is fun, while two hours of tension gives you a headache.)

I’m calling out the faults, but it’s only the movie’s slowness that hurts it seriously, and it’s still quite watchable. Cheadle is fine, as always, and the supporting cast includes Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce and Neal McDonough. Cheadle’s real co-star is Saïd Taghmaoui, who respects his love of Islam and takes him further into the terrorist network.

Ultimately, the movie works in the sense that it challenges you to think about, as I said, what’s okay in the war on terror, and it does so without being a navel-gazing exercise in America-bashing. So, that’s a plus.

It needed a little crisper direction, however. But the director’s former “big script” was the abysmally perplexing The Day After Tomorrow, so this is a step in the right direction.

Movie Post Mortem: Evan Almighty

I avoided Evan Almighty when it was in the theaters because it had less than stellar reviews and a bad IMDB rating. Too much about it should’ve sent it off the charts: It reunited director Tom Shadyac with screenwriter Steve Oedekirk, with a way more appealing leading man in Steven Carrel. (Jim Carrey was good in the original but Carrel actually steals the movie in the scenes he’s in.)

Now that it’s rolled around to On Demand, we’ve watched it. Actually, The Flower really likes it, so we’ve watched it more than once. We all agree that it doesn’t really work (except for The Flower, obviously).

In the original, you may recall, Jim Carrey was a self-absorbed jerk who caught a few bad breaks and took it out on God (Morgan Freeman, who predicted he would be cast as God after being cast as President in Deep Impact). God responds by giving him unlimited power, thereby giving Bruce enough rope to hang himself. There’re a lot of sight gags and slapstick, and a litle bit of power fantasy, all of which conspire to make a fun watch.

Evan boldly follows up by abandoning the premise and most of the major setups of the original: There’s no extended “you’re not really God” slapstick (some, but nothing like Bruce); Bruce was self-absorbed but Evan, in this movie, has clearly changed to be a caring person with good ideals, though still very flawed; Evan doesn’t get God’s powers and so we don’t get the sight gags associated with the abuse of those powers; Evan’s tasked with building an ark, so we get building and animal gags; Bruce’s lesson of humility has more to do with not being self-absorbed while Evan is more of a Job figure–his lessons are more about listening to God and having an appreciation for small acts of kindness rather than large scale efforts.

This should’ve been a great, great movie, just looking at it on paper. Better than the original, potentially. So why isn’t it?

First, and foremost, there aren’t enough gags, and a great many of the gags are tired. For example, the always enjoyable Wanda Sykes seems to have fallen into a number of roles lately that are less humor and more sassy stereotype, this being a prime example. The animals tend to lend more “cute” than actual “funny”. Jonah Hill (he of many Apatow films like Knocked Up and Superbad) adds a mildly weird edge that provides for a little offbeat humor.

But a great deal of the jokes that are presented are very standard. And there just aren’t enough.

The Boy feels it doesn’t work because Evan is a clearly decent human and God is just messing with him. Bruce needed a lesson in humility because he was completely self-absorbed. Evan is only quirkily self-obsessed with grooming and cleanliness. God totally messes up his life with facial hair and ancient clothing where Bruce only reaps what he himself has sown.

There’s a lesson about faith here, as well, in God and in each other, which is quite nice. But, for example, Evan’s relationship with his wife (Lauren Graham, who’s as cute as can be) is not so well illustrated that her loss of faith in Evan doesn’t seem hard enough. Compare with Jennifer Anniston in the original: Bruce had to pile on insensitivity after insensitivy after self-absorption after complete unawareness of what she wanted.

So that tension is missing the front end.

There’s some attempt to create tension with the kids which is somewhat more successful.

This is not to say there aren’t some good moments in this movie. As much as I hate to lay blame anywhere, I’m inclined to lay it at the feet of Steve Oedekirk.

I love Steve-O. Kung Pow: Enter The Fist is one of the greatest, original comedy ideas in years. I’m seriously hoping he has a chance to make the sequel. But this movie fails in much the same way his Barnyard kid’s movie fails. Which is to say, benignly but under a paucity of jokes and with Wanda Sykes doing sassy. Also, it’s sort of fascinating to look at why it doesn’t work. (In Barnyard’s case, for example, consider the concept of male cows.)

Of course, dying is easy: Comedy is hard, and nobody hits it out of the park every time. With luck Steve-O is back on the ball and turning out some new classics.

Tropic Thunder: Tenacious Iron Zoolander!

Comedians are often the hardest working guys in show business.

You may not like Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Owen Wilson, Jack Black or Ben Stiller, but you know what? These guys never phone it in.

They’ve all been in bad movies, but the movies were never bad because the actors weren’t trying. (I remember Groucho Marx commenting with disdain on a critic’s observation that a mere comedian was capable of dramatic acting, with Marx’s rebuttal pointing out that comedians are required to do all the acting dramatic guys do all the time and often compressed within a few seconds.)

This is a rather odd way to start talking about a movie which, in essence, makes fun of actors. Brutal mockery. And has both Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise in my favorite role of his since Rain Man.

Hollywood satires are often dry (Altman’s The Player), ridiculously broad (Edward’s S.O.B.) or ultimately succumbing to what they are lampooning (McTiernan’s The Last Action Hero). This, by the way, would make a great weekend trilogy. Or, they’re just plain stupid, like the recent rash of [blank] Movie ridicule/Airplane!-style fiascos that, for example, make fun of comedies that are way funnier than the objects of their ridicule.

Seriously, this is a good rule: If you’re going to lampoon somebody, you’d better be better at what they’re doing than they are.

I remember a first-gen SNL where Larraine Newman parodies Barbara Streisand by singing a medley of her hits with altered words. Problem is, even if you hate Streisand, you have to concede the quality of her singing and the most prevalent thing I remember about the song (the lyrics of which attacked, perfectly legitimately, her acting and her apparent self-centeredness), is that Newman cannot hold a candle to Streisand in the singing department. (South Parkwas more successful decades later by just painting her as a crazed megalomaniac and not going anywhere near her singing ability.)

But really, movies like The Comebacks(which parodies the far superior Dodgeball–actually, in The Comebacks’ case, it’s clearly a rip-off, not a parody–and Disaster Movie (which parodies the far superior Juno) don’t do themselves any favor by drawing comparisons to other, better comedies.

Note that the original, classic Airplane!primarily parodied the melodrama Zero Hour! which nobody on Earth had seen, and a bunch of classic movies, along with referencing the plethora of airplane-based disaster movies, which had been given a decade–that’s a decade without DVDs and Internet–to season. I’m pretty sure that matters, even if I’m not sure how. (I know that when I saw it, despite having seen most of the Airportmovies, I really didn’t think “Hey, that’s from Airport ‘74!” or anything.)


Tropic Thunder parodies Hollywood and actors, and Vietnam war movies–though, again, primarily as they reflect on actors’ desire for legitimacy.

Stiller plays an action hero–fairly believably, for someone who’s played Mr. Furious–searching for credibility by moving out of the straight-action genre and playing a retard, and then doing a “serious” war movie.

Another digression here: It’s appallingly true that the Academy is an absolute sucker for “retard” roles. As Downey’s character points out, though, you can’t be a “full retard”, like Sean Penn in I am Sam, it has to be a half/not-really retard like Hoffman in Rain Man or Hanks in Gump.

For people who know, live with, and love brain-injured people, this fantasy view of the handicapped is appalling, on the level of The Magic Negro. It reduces these people to their injuries plus some bullshit enchantment.

A lot of brain-injured people are savants, mind you. Way more than anyone understands. But this doesn’t change the fact that, this savant-ness doesn’t really improve their quality of life, and most importantly that they are still humans with all the human frailties that we have, plus a few more we can’t comprehend.

Almost weirdly, it’s only comedy that actually respects the brain-injured, by being willing to treat them like everyone else (e.g. South Park’s Timmy or the Farrely Brothers movies, like Stuck On You.

Stiller’s character in the movie is the one I have the hardest time connecting to a real world actor. He’s sort-of Willis. Maybe Schwarzenegger or Stallone? Sort of a melange, or archetype, but a lot of what he did would’ve been physically funnier if he were 6-plus-foot and ripped.

That’s nitpicking, since there’s plenty of absurdity and good jokes to go around.

On the other hand, Downey plays, essentially, Russell Crowe. I don’t know if Crowe is a method actor, but Downey plays one of those guys who gets so into the role, he loses himself. That, of course, is a little nod to himself, since that was reportedly what happened with Chaplain. Since Downey is playing a black guy, he becomes a kind of parody of Fred Williamson and Richard Roundtree–which really pisses off the actual black guy in the cast, played by Brandon T. Jackson (whose character goes by the moniker Alpa Chino and sells “Booty Juice” and “Bust-A-Nut” bars).

Meanwhile, Jack Black plays…Robert Downey Jr.! Not exactly, of course. His character is a melange of those comedians like Eddie Murphy who play all these different roles in one movie and wear a lot of fat suits. But he’s the bad boy drug user who can’t be insured–and if that’s not Downy ca. ’95, I don’t know what is.

So we have these three mega-actors and their mega-egos on set with a green director trying to make a “serious” war movie. In desperation, the director (played by Steven Coogan of Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story) ends up listening to hard-bitten war vet Nick Nolte (author of the book on which the movie is based) and decides to go guerilla by seting the actors down deep in the jungle and letting them fend for themselves.

Hilarity ensues.

No, really, it does! This movie balances very delicately on the line between dark humor and absurdist comedy. Something that Stiller, the director, has not always succeeded in the past. (Compare to The Cable Guy–commonly regarded as too dark–and Zoolander–which is very broad, and not dark at all, except in the actual filming.)

What I’m saying is that land mines aren’t all in the movie. Kill everyone and you have a movie people aren’t going to see. Make everything goofiness, well that’s a turn-off, too.

On the other hand, paint your characters as ridiculous but still very human, don’t be completely cynical, and be as real as you can without dragging the movie down–this is a damn hard thing to do and Stiller pulls it off.

Cruise’s character is the closest to pure evil, while McConaughey is given an opportunity to do the right thing in the face of a very tempting offer.

Everyone liked it. I found myself wondering halfway through why it was R-rated, until Black, going through withdrawals, described in detail what he would do to Jackson’s penis if he’d let him go. It’s only about 30 seconds long and it’s not that graphic, but, eh, what’s a ratings board to do?

Before closing out, a shout-out to former child actor Jay Baruchel (of Are You Afraid of the Dark?) who plays straight-man to all the heavyweights and does a fine job.

A great close to a pretty damn good summer.

TransSiberian: Like TransAmerica, minus the gender reassignment

A stable, staid couple hooks up with a wilder one causing havoc in their otherwise ordinary lives. Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it on a train crossing Asia?

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer have just finished helping some orphans in China have decided to take the train back home instead of a plane, when they meet a sexy, sleazy Spaniard played by Eduardo Noriega, and his twitchy, sexy girlfriend Kate Mara. Hard-nosed Ben Kingsley is sniffing around with his lapdog Thomas Kretschmann, ratcheting up the tension.

I actually can’t describe much more without giving away the plot twists. This movie can be commended for missing about half the usual clichés of this well-worn plot. The normal trajectory of the “good couple gone bad” has them clashing with the “bad couple” and doing desperate things to restore normalcy back to their life. The theme of this movie is more about faith and honesty.

This latest film from Brad Anderson lacks the eerie atmosphere of his earlier film The Machinist, though it has much of that movie’s predictability. It generally seems above-average by missing a lot of the typical turns, as I’ve noted.

The Boy liked it but felt it was a bit slow in parts. I didn’t find it such, but with movies with foreign languages I (sorta) know, I’m always trying to parse out the foreign language.

Bottle Shock: “It’s just that I’m British…and you’re not.”

‘Why don’t I like you?“
"Because you think I’m an ass. And I’m not really. It’s just that I’m British…and you’re not. ”

If there’s a danger in Randall Miller’s new flick Bottle Shock, it’s that it might be just one big pro-America pander. Which, I confess, is not much of a danger, both because it’s unlikely and because it would be refreshing.

This neat little film is “based on a true story” and centered around the 1976 wine-tasting competition in France where California wines beat out French wines in a blind tasting.

It’s really two stories (and perhaps weaker than it could be as a result): The first is the story of affable Brit snob Steve Spurrier (Alan Rickman) who, with his Wisconsinite friend Maurice (Dennis Farina) contrives the contest as a way to raise his stock with the elite French wine culture.

Rickman and Farina are a delight, as might be expected, as Farina mooches off Rickman’s failing wine “Academy” business, and as Rickman travels around Napa valley, tasting a variety of wines along with Kentucky Fried Chicken, guacamole, and whatever else American cuisine has to offer.

This is a fun story and the better (and smaller) part of the movie.

The other story concerns xenophobic, perfectionist, pig-headed wine owner Jim Barrett, who’s watching his dream go down the drain with debt as he refuses to release his wines before their time. (“Gallo” is a name spoken with disdain in this movie.) Barrett is played by Bill Pullman, who seems to be channelling Martin Sheen with this uncharacteristicaclly harsh (but compelling!) character.

A burr under Barrett’s saddle is his son, a fun-loving late-hippie ne’er-do-well named Bo. (Bo is played by Chris Pine, who will probably become a lot more famous once he’s known as Captain Kirk in the new “Star Trek” movie.) As Bo comes out of his daze and starts to take action, he actually pisses his stubborn father even more. (Jim is convinced the wine-tasting is a setup to bash America on the bicentennial.)

This story is a bit sparser and somehow less compelling–perhaps due to shortage of Rickman, though Pullman gives a great performance. It may be because it’s the more traditional of the two stories. Or maybe it was because I spent the whole movie thinking, “Get a haircut, ya damn hippie!”

But it’s not a bad son-vs-father-vs-hot-chick-who-thinks-he-can-be-more story, as those go.

Rounding out the cast is Freddy Rodriguez as the son-of-a-migrant-worker who’s building his own vinery on the sly, Rachel Taylor as the hot-n-sexy intern/love interest, not nearly enough Eliza Dushku as the local bar owner, and character actor great Joe Regalbutto, whose role I won’t elaborate on, since it would be a spoiler.

Other points of interest: Mark Adler’s score recalls (not unfavorably) David Newman; the movie has a nice, authentic ’70s feel, not too camped up or bogged down in bell bottoms and disco; I wanted more from the cinemtography–Napa is beautiful and this doesn’t really showcase that, except in one or two places–but it is a low budget film so I suppose the budget wouldn’t allow for much; and the attitude is affable but not cloying.

On that last point, the moviemakers seemed not to be trying to Make A Point, much, about anything. Rickman brings real humanity to a character who could have been completely unsympathetic (as could Farina’s). Pullman is hard to get along with, but for understandable reasons. Bo is a screwup, of sorts, but he finds in the girl a reason to not be.

It’s not super-deep or nothin’. But it does demonstrate that you can make a good popcorn flick for a few bucks that doesn’t need a lot of profanity, nudity or violence to hold an audience’s attention for a 100 or so minutes.

The Boy sez, “I liked it very much.”

A documentary of the event would also be cool.

Mirrors, The Playthings of Men’s Vanity

I was not particularly optimistic about seeing Mirrors, the latest Asian horror remade American-style, but the initial buzz was pretty good and, as I’ve pointed out before, horror movies are substantially better in the theater.

OK, so, Kiefer Sutherland is a down-on-his-luck cop whose life fell apart after shooting another cop the previous year. He’s estranged from his life, sleeping on the couch at his sister’s, and working as the night watchman in a burnt out department store where the former night watchman (seen gruesomely dispatched in the opening scene) kept the store mirrors meticulously clean.

Shortly after beginning his new job, weird things start happening to him, and he’s ultimately forced to go on a sort of mini-quest to save his family. Think The Ring.

This movie initially annoyed me as it seemed to not have a consistent internal logic. The opening scene suggess what happens in the mirror happens in the real world: Just as you control your reflection, generally, your reflection controls you. But in other situations merely the effect shows up in our world.

The effect seems less egregious as time goes on, and the movie builds nicely to a somewhat odd action-y climax. (This modern trend of ending horror flicks with explosions is not that appearling to me.) Then there’s a stinger.

The stinger is often the worst part of horror movies, as filmmakers try to recapture that feeling they had when they were ten and first saw “The Twilight Zone”. This one was not so bad, though I felt it was either pointless or a set up for a sequel. The Boy liked it because, as he said, it didn’t undo the entire movie.

Yeah, that’s a real problem. “It was all a dream” or “If only I had thought of that sooner” tends to feel like a rip off.

Plus, it was new to The Boy, and I have to admit, I haven’t seen that twist used in 30 years or so.

Anyway, Keifer pretty much dominates the film, though Paula Patton does a good job as his wife–who thankfully gets on board sooner than in most horror films. They shouldn’t have put her in so many low-cut outfits, though. It was distracting. (They were distracting?) The children were beautiful and did their parts well, too.

One thing that makes this work, I think, is the change-up of horror “effects”. (Not as in “special effects” but as in “effects used to create fright”). Any movie is a series of scenes, and in horror movies, there are certain clichés used to pad things out till the real action starts. Things like the frightened cat, the phone ring, the door slam, etc. This movie rather successfully keeps you uncertain as to when you’re getting a fake-out versus when you’re getting the goods. It’s not always sensible, but it’s fairly entertaining.

The Boy liked it quite a bit. And if you like Sutherland II, he does his thing here. Since only a few characters know what’s going on, it’s up to them to sell the horror–and Kiefer most of all–and they do a good job.

How About a Nice Pineapple Express?

From the guys who brought you Superbad, as the tag line goes, comes another film which curiously blends ‘00s sensibilities with a ’70s feel. What is this movie, anyway? Comedy? Action? Love st–okay, nobody’s thinking it’s a love story. (Though it is, kinda.)

Drug comedy–at least the old style stuff, whether it’s Cheech & Chong or, hell, even Dean Martin or Foster Brooks staggering around–doesn’t really do it for me. I find the humor to be overly broad, without the cleverness of a Chaplin or something else to ameliorate it. I enjoy Kevin Smith’s stuff, I think, partly because the stoner characters are comic relief, not the main focus. Also, they’re just as dopey when they’re clean and sober (as in Clerks II).

I’ve noticed with the Judd Apatow guys that they take a lot of conventions of the genre they’re working in, and render those a lot more realistically than previous movies have, and then stylize some other aspect instead. Superbad, for example, was a lot more realistic in terms of how the kids acted, on the one hand, but on the other hand, the subplot with McLovin and the cops was surreal.

In Pineapple Express we have the story of lovable stoner/loser Dale Denton (Seth Rogan), a process server who smokes pot all day while driving between jobs, and waiting for his targets, and dressing in costumes, who has no apparent ambition and a girlfriend who’s still in high school (Amber Heard).

After receiving the titular marijuana from his dealer Saul Silver (James Franco in a wonderful change from his usual, more intense roles), he witnesses his next victim (of service) murder a person with the help of a cop (Rosie Perez). This murderer is Ted Jones (Gary Cole), who just happens to be his dealer’s dealer’s dealer.

The “love story” aspect is between Dale and Saul, by the way. They’re both losers, sure, but they both have potential, unlike the other losers they deal with, and they sort of recognize that. Dale feels superior to Saul because, hey, Saul is a drug dealing felon. Saul’s sensitivity, which shows up in many ways, is what makes him lovable, despite his dependence on the loco weed (and his subsequent lack of good judgment).

Anyway, Dale, also not functioning at peak efficiency, tosses his pineapple express out of the window after witnessing the murder, which allows Jones and his cop accomplice to track him down through Silver’s dealer, Red (Danny McBride). Hilarity, or at least a few good chuckles, ensue, and along the way we learn the dangers of smoking too much dope. (See? There’s a moral! Heh.)

So, first off, the cast: Yeah, pretty top-notch. There’s a weird, great chemistry between the always fabulous Cole and Rosie Perez, to say nothing of the relationship between Franco and Rogen (occasionally with McBride). James Remar and Bill Hader show up in an amusing opening showing how marijuana came to be banned. Kevin Corrigan and Craig Robinson (the bouncer in Knocked Up) play the heavies sent to kill Dale, Saul and Red with a mixture of humor and menace. And the whole rival Asian (Chinese? Japanese? Indian? Who knows?) gang is amusing as well. And Ed Begley and Nora Dunn turn up as the girlfriend’s parents.

So even though you have a buddy movie, essentially, it’s also a nice ensemble piece, with each new character bringing their own little twist to the proceedings, so that you keep going, “Oh, and remember when this character showed up?”, like Cleo King as the school cop who arrests Dale.

I think they call that good writing. It reminds me of Hitchcock, actually. Very seldom did a characer show up on screen who wasn’t a character, i.e., who didn’t seem to have their own life and their own problems, and just because the movie’s about you doesn’t mean they’re going to roll over.

The last set of the movie, a shootout in the drug lord’s hideout, is necessarily somewhat goofy. But the movie walks the fine line between slapstick and gory-realism very well, as the characters are only required to be just heroic enough, and not suddenly Willis, Stallone and Schwarzeneggar.

Although Rogan does that jump from the second floor on to Cole near the end–they show it in the commercial–is sort of unexpected and cool, even if you just know that he’s got the safety harness on and needed a lot of editing and multiple takes.

Those things usually do, of course, it’s just–you know–Seth Rogan. (Though, honestly, the guy just has a round, five-o-clock-shadow face; he’s not really very fat. He’s probably reasonably fit.)

So, all-in-all, a pretty entertaining couple of hours. Not your thing if drugs are offensive to you. And possibly not your thing if you’re into the whole drug scene and find anti-drug moralizing off-putting (though there’s not much of that, it is there).

Better than it had a right to be. The Boy approved, and particularly of the last action scene which he thought had just the right feel.

Tell No One (Ne le dis à personne)

Margot and Alex are childhood sweethearts (ignore that there’s 15 years age difference between them) who grow up to be a happily married couple, until Margo ends up dead and Alex ends up in a coma for three days, with no explanation for what happens.

The official story is that Margot was killed by a serial killer, though the police suspected Alex.

Flash-forward eight years, as the still morose Alex, mourning his wife on the anniversary of her death, receives an e-mail linking him to a live security camera where a woman who looks a lot like his wife can be seen staring upward.

Meanwhile, two bodies have been found in the woods near where Margot and Alex were attacked, and evidence on these bodies raises questions about the official story. The police once again turn their attention to Alex.

Meanwhile, some mysterious thugs are going around killing people and Alex must consort with some unsavory characters while getting to the bottom of the mystery.

This is a heavily plotted film. There were a couple of moments where I went “Ohhhhh” as I had figured out what was going, only to find another layer of plot deeper. It’s not, however, too much plot gettin’ in the way of the story, as Joe Bob Briggs would say. It all works except, to a degree, the final, ultimate exposition.

Which isn’t to say that the final exposition is bad, since the character’s motives all work out. But the actions, as described, are fairly improbable.

The Boy had trouble following it. He got distracted by trying to read things that were in French. He liked it, but it wasn’t until the end that he figured out what was going on, and even then I had to fill in some blanks. There’s a bit of exposition at the end that I thought was overlong but that helped him catch up.

But it still works. It’s interesting, there’s some good action, and the actual motivations are pretty clear. Things not quite hanging together doesn’t kill a movie like the characters acting inappropriately. It’s good drama.

François Cluzet is the lead, turning in a tightly wound performance that reminded me of Dustin Hoffman. Marie-Josée Croze, as Margot, necessarily has a smaller role, being killed in the first scene, and thereon living in flashbacks. But there’s good chemistry there.

Kristin Scott-Thomas, last seen (by us) as the suspicious wife in The Valet plays the savvy lesbian lawyer, married to Marina Hands (from The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, which Croze was also in), who is…uh…Margot’s sister?

One thing that confused The Boy and also confused me was keeping everyone’s relationship straight and, in fact, keeping the characters straight. It might’ve been the subtitles, which occasionally were white-on-white (doesn’t someone check these things?) and so demanded attention at times long after the subtitles usually disappear. (If you watch movies with subtitles a lot, you often forget you’re reading them 10-15 minutes into the movie.)

Not a perfect film, perhaps, but quite enjoyable and with a nice emotional depth you don’t usually get from a summer thriller. Of course, this is a fall movie from 2006, but still. New direcctor Guillaume Canet–an actor from one of my favorite films of 2005, Joyeux Noël–does a commendable job with a difficult script.

Smart Gits

Get Smart was still playing and a movie was needed. The new Mummy flick doesn’t look too good, and 3-D doesn’t work for me, ruling out the other Brendan Fraser.

He’s doing cute spots with Maria Bello on cable, though. (Cinemax?)

The movie is not as funny as the old show, but in fairness, the old show isn’t as funny as it once was. As a summer movie, it’s good fun, with wall-to-wall comedian cameos; as nostalgia, it’s not bad, there are some good references to the old series; as a sitcom remake, it’s one of the better ones (if not the best of what is a horribly weak field).

Some details:

They made a lot of good choices. Instead of Maxwell Smart being a complete boob, he was a highly competent desk jobber who wanted to be an agent, but was too good at his data crunching to be field agent. And actually, many of his failures were not in execution, but in timing or just plain luck.

This…works. If you recall the original series, Don Adams’ Smart was a constant goof. But in order to forward a plot with an incompetent protagonist, you have to rely on others (which diminishes your lead) or you have to rely on luck, which gets tiresome. Adams did both, which was fine, because the series was composed of 22 minutes shows, stuffed with sight gags and other absurdities. This movie gives Smart enough skill to make him less irritating than he might have been.

Carrel is just right. He could do a fairly good, dead-on, Don Adams imitation if he wanted. But that wouldn’t have worked for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s weird. The guy’s dead, but only for about five years. Second of all, the original character wouldn’t have fit due to the changes made in the setting.

Like an Owen Wilson or (in most cases) a Will Ferrel, Carrel has created a persona that works in a wide variety of situations, and that means he can do the goofy stuff and switch into a more serious–though never too serious in this movie–mode. In this movie, that means, completely missing a stunt on the one hand, and then moments later doing something competent, and then doing something movie-competent (like avoiding lasers with Olympic-level gymnastics).

The movie walks this line, too.

In the originl show, you had to sort of wonder what Agent 99 saw in Agent 86. And Barbara Feldon can hardly be commended enough for convincingly conveying real love in an absurd sitcom. I’ve heard people–guys–pining for her decades after and in retrospect, it’s probably because she managed to adore Agent 86 and respect him, even though her skills were far superior.

Not really my type, I do see the appeal. Now compare her to Anne Hathaway, also not my type.

I’m putting these here because I these pictures may say something about changes in taste, at least as presented by Hollywood. Beauty, in the ‘60s, had a rounder face, and smaller nose and eyes, as this picture of Feldon doesn’t actually illustrate all that well.

Hathaway is more in the Julia Roberts/Uma Thurman mold, with a longer nose and wider mouth, to say nothing of enormous eyes. Her eyes are so strikingly large that it’s easy to forget she’s not really my type. (Not that she’s been hounding me for attention anyway.) Is it just my imagination? I see more Hathaways than Feldons these days.

Anyway, I don’t really “get” the appeal of Hathaway. When I see her in a movie, I think, “Why’d they pick her?” And then at some point during the movie she wins me over, as she did here. Right about the point she donned a 99 wig and was doing the goofy laser-dodging thing that’s been all the rage since Entrapment, and actually gave us a husky voiced (momentary) Feldon imitation, I was swayed.

The supporting cast is superb: Dwayne Johnson as the uber-buff super-agent; Alan Arkin–man, this guy’s been funny since before I was born; Terence Stamp just-so in the Bernie Kopell role as head of KAOS; the versatile Terry Crews; Masi Oka and Nate Torrence as the uber-nerds; Ken Davitian as Stamp’s lower-key right-hand man; and the ginormous Dalip Singh as the sensitive crusher, whose domestic problems make him grumpy at work.

On top of that, we got cameos. Bill Murray as Agent 13. Patrick Warburton as Hymie. James Caan as the Presdient. Larry Miller and Kevin Nealon as agents of a competing bureau. Etc. What’s cool is that they’re not just gimmicks. Everybody does a good job both fitting in and being funny in their own ways.

It’s fair to criticize the movie for not being funny enough. One character appears to get killed–in a non-funny fashion–and that felt wrong. The original would’ve shown him in tattered clothes and smudge-faced, I think. (Though if memory serves, the original show did have people dying, but off-screen due to some sort of “missed it by that much” deal.)

But ultimately, this movie works pretty darn well, has a lot of the spirit of the original, and showed proper respect. Name a movie based on some other ’60s sitcom that does the same.

Fractured Plot

SPOILERS about Fracture forthwith, in the form of questions:

Why the hell didn’t our high-powered lawyer (played by Ryan Gosling, who’s so distraught over his loss, he ends up with a Real Doll) bully the security at the ICU? Lawyers are all about throwing their weight around and he had a court order, however dodgy.

Why the hell was he so interested in “saving her life” in the first place? She was a vegetable. It wasn’t like she was going to wake up suddenly and finger Anthony Hopkins. (Maybe he was thinking she was going to rise from the dead?)

When all is said and done, the “gotcha” moment comes because the cop who commits suicide (Billy Burke, who’s killed his wife before) used the same gun that killed Embeth Davidtz. But wouldn’t that just fit in with the notion that he had killed Embeth, framed Hopkins and killed himself out of remorse?

Double jeopardy doesn’t work that way! No matter what Ashley Judd says.

Irritating movie on several levels.

Fractured Eardrums

We watched Fracture yesterday, a film I had avoided in the theaters due to its alleged mediocrity. (It is fairly mediocre, but before you see a movie, you have to assume that it was alleged, right?)

It suffered from precisely the situation I talked about here. At one point, the music kept getting louder and louder while the dialogue kept getting quieter and quieter.

This almost never happens in the movie theater. Mix it for stereo TV, jerkwads!

The Boy’s perception is pretty keen. He noticed the movie was good while Hopkins was on, and pretty much un-engaging otherwise. The lovely Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Doom) is overly made-up and has no accent. Actually, it’s a fine cast, with David Strathairn and Ryan Gosling, etc. etc. etc. But it’s a by-the-numbers cat-and-mouse detective/killer story.

I realized early on the movie was in trouble because I was rooting for Hopkins. I wanted him to get away with killng Embeth Davidtz. Now, I love Embeth Davidtz, from Army of Darkness to Junebug, and from Matilda to Thi13een Ghosts (is that how you spell that stupid title?). She was in Schindler’s List for cryin’ out loud.

Hopkins kills her, and I’m still rooting for him to get away with it. He’s the shoring member that holds up the creaky mineshaft. Or something.

Anyway, director Hoblit has done better, particularly with his uneven but very touching Frequency, about a son whose radio allows him to talk to his (now dead) father. That one doesn’t really work logically, either, but it makes up for it with some great chemistry and a novel concept.

Baghead (Not A Story Of A Trooper York 3AM Date)

There’s some well-worn ground in the new little flick Baghead. Four actors who long for bigger and better careers are inspired after watching a (amusingly pretentious) low budget film to go into a cabin in the woods to make their own picture. The sexual dynamics between them are ambiguous on the one hand, and on the other, one of them dreams of a man with a bag over his head, and turns them down the road of making a horror movie.

Until Baghead starts making his presence known and they start disappearing one by one…or do they?

So we have a relationship movie about guys making a movie, that’s also a horror movie about guys making a horror movie.

It works pretty well. Someone on IMDB compared to the Coen Bros., but this is no Blood Simple. That said, it’s not bad.

Our characters are: the handsome one (Matt, played by Ross Partridge), the nebbishy one (Chad, played by Steve Zsiss), the older-and-wise blonde hottie (Catherine, played by Elise Muller), and the new blonde hottie (Michelle, played by Greta Gerwig). Matt and Catherine are “beyond labels” in their relationship, while Chad is crushing on Michelle. Michelle, of course, is crushing on Matt, which pisses Catherine off. Chad is resentful of Matt, who he thinks gets all the girls, but Matt isn’t doing too well, apparently, since he broke up with Catherine.

Somebody shoot me.

This stuff’s all right. There’s a lot of drinking. And scheming. But it’s a bit slow.

It’s also a bit familiar. I kept wondering if I knew these actors or I just knew a lot of people like them.

Baghead livens up the proceedings but the movie sort of plays with being a horror movie without ever actually being a horror movie. That’s not necessarily bad, except for me finding that, when they finally commit at the climax of the movie, I was curiously unimpressed. I didn’t buy it whole hog. The filmmakers didn’t convince me that they would actually allow the things to happen that I was seeing.

Part of this is the limit of low-budget-ness. The camera’s at a pretty removing distance most of the time. Part of it is the limit of the story, though, too. There’s a sleight-of-hand that’s not very convincing even when it’s all laid out at the end.

But, all-in-all, not bad. Short. Fairly thoughtful. They do manage a few good scares, though I would hasten to point out that that’s a relatively easy task compared to making an effective full-on horror movie.

Nonetheless, no point in critiquing it for not being what it’s not trying to be. It does what it tries to do fairly well. So, good work to the Duplass brothers who wrote and directed.

The Dark Knight Consterns

Batman Begins has the distinction of being the first Batman movie that isn’t even a little camp. The Batman has a particularly checkered past–which is saying something in the comic book world–including the rather famous TV series, which itself was reflective of the late ‘50s/early ’60s era of Dark Knight comix. (I mean, really, his outfit was done in a variety of pastels for one issue.)

The 1989 Tim Burton blockbuster proved that, given a big enough budget, you could create a good enough rendition of Gotham that people would line up to see it, even if you had no understanding of comic books, no insight into Batman, and fell back on camp in any mildly serious situation. (Burton’s Batman is positively casual about killing people, though only the Joker’s death is shown.)

Also, the 1989 script was just gawdawful. “Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” That’s up there with “Don’t feed them after midnight” in the world of screenwriting.

Far worse was the follow-up with The Penguin and The Catwoman, where Burton makes it perfectly clear, he has no concept of comic book heroism. (Seriously, dude: Was there ever a comic book movie that had, as its overriding message, “We’re all victims”?)

After that, they just sort of gave up. Joel Schumacher publicly apologized for the fourth one, if not the third.

By contrast, under Chris Nolan (Memento, Insomnia), the Batman is starkly real and almost entirely humorless. There’s no camp to be found, which is good, but there’s also an unrelenting grimness, which is not so good. As severe as the first movie was, the new movie, The Dark Knight, is far more so.

The first movie used a stylized Gotham–not as heavily stylized as Burton’s movies, which took place primarily on sound stages and a small area inside the WB lot, but still obviously not any real city, and particularly fake in the ghetto where the fear drug was released. The new movie uses Chicago, without changes, and looks entirely different, and entirely real as a result. Also, The Batman himself is less stagey, appearing in full light from time to time.

I guess this is good. I have mixed feelings. I think reality is over-rated.

But realism is the watch word. The story concerns the highly corrupt Gotham as a few good men Bats, along with Gordon (Gary Oldman) and D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) try to pull an Elliot Ness and bring down some mobsters. Mixed in to this is Heath Ledger’s psychotic Joker, whose sole purpose in life is to bring down the Batman, and to bring chaos into the world. (This, actually, is not so different from Ra’s al Ghul in the first movie, though the Joker is supposedly less well organized, a premise which isn’t really sustainable given the things he pulls off.)

The primary struggle in the movie is how the three men, and Rachel Dawes (with Maggie Gyllenhall filling in ably for Katie Holmes) deal with the threats to their lives, their loved ones, and to civilization.

Heady stuff.

This aspect of the movie works fairly well. Gordon’s approach is different from Harvey Dent’s–and Aaron Eckhart’s performance has been, but shouldn’t be, totally neglected in favor of Ledger’s. The problem is with the Batman himself. And it’s something not easily retconned.

Two thing are apparent in the hyper-realism of this movie: It would be impossible not to kill bunches of people as a vigilante in the mold of Batman. The somewhat weak attempts made here to disguise the fact that all kinds of people, innocent and otherwise, would be killed during the caped crusader’s hijinx, breaks rather hard. Secondly, it’s just stupid for The Batman not to kill the Joker.

The Batman’s code–famously not to kill people, though he used to bump people off pretty casually in the ’40s–just doesn’t make sense in the context presented in the movie. The Joker even points it out: Batman will let lots of people die rather than do what needs to be done.

This has been a kind of running gag in Batman for decades, with Frank Miller providing the ultimate answer in his iconic The Dark Knight Returns.

Powerhouse acting–when your supporting crew is Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, you know you’ve got dramatics to spare–reasonably good action scenes, some suspense, and a little mystery, all combined with some pretty heavy drama, and you have yourself a good summer flick.

Althouse reports hating it. Heh. The Boy approved. And, really, so do I, but I think two things are certain:

1. It’s really not the greatest film ever made, whatever 125,000 IMDB users think.
2. Heath Ledger’s peformance is good, maybe even great, but his death is probably the main reason people are talking Oscar.

Batman was off-and-on my favorite comic as a kid, but to be honest, it was the “little” stories. Probably as a reaction to the series, the Batman of my youth were quiet little mysteries, often featuring ordinary people in a more Sherlock Holmes-like setting. Even pitted against the Joker, the setting was intimate. He seldom had more than a rope and grapple in his belt, and certainly he was not bullet-proof.

You couldn’t make a summer movie out of that, these days. It’s something PBS or the BBC might do.

Oh, well.

Why Didn’t I Hate Wall-E?

I saw Wall-E again, and was wondering to myself why I didn’t hate it. (This actually triggered a long rant on the nature of multiple viewings, but it’s such a mess I can’t bring myself to publish it.)

Anyway, conceptually, this Pixar movie contains pretty much all the elements of the crappy enviro-dystopic children’s “entertainment” of my youth, which may have something to do with my current hobby of deconstructing post-apocalyptic scenarios.

I mean, look at it: Wall-E posits a future–just 100 years away, mind you–where we’ve consumed and disposed of so much that we’ve actually destroyed the planet, and covered it with so much trash that we have to keep it in the cities that we lived in. And there’s enough to make cities with itself.

People have no sense of the scale of this planet, it’s just too big for people to grasp. We throw trash on the ground and weep like a fake Indian, but the impact is personal and aesthetic. (Likewise, the planet cares not whether it’s warmer or colder.) It is not “global”.

At the same time, we have an alternate utopic dystopia, if that makes sense, on board the Axiom. All human needs are taken care of, to the extent that humans themselves are totally incompetent. Yet despite this, the market structure seems to be unchanged. In other words, in a world where robots do all the work, people are still “buying” stuff somehow, and there’s an implication of exploitation, even though there’s nothing to actually exploit.

Meanwhile, the ship itself jettisons massive amounts of garbage out of itself–but from where is all the raw material for this garbage coming? Given that energy seems to be no problem, why wouldn’t this solution have worked on earth?

We won’t even talk about the whole babies thing. None of the people seemed to actually have ever had any physical contact with each other, and there are no children on the ship, only adults and babies. This suggests that the babies are gestated in some mechanical fashion and raised by machines until adult. I’m pretty sure this would create psychopaths.

Did I mention that a group of humans who were so physically underdeveloped and so conditioned to a trouble-free life would have zero chance of fixing anything? I mean, seriously, they’d have no hip sockets! (I bet you didn’t know that we’re not born with hip sockets, we make them by crawling and walking!)

Actually, they’d also be insane. If you’ve never noticed this, as society removes more and more real survival problems from people’s lives, they get crazier and crazier. Did you ever hear of a neurotic barbarian? Neuroses are a luxury of civilization.

Nope, Wall-E makes no sense, structurally. On top of that, it’s a story about robots with feelings, and there are few premises I find more annoying.

So, why didn’t I hate it?

First, it’s Pixar. Which means that it was executed at the highest level of artistic quality. You don’t hear talk of Lasseter retiring Pixar into the Disney brand; I think it’s clear that “Pixar” is going to maintain the premium brand.

Second, it’s Pixar, which means that there is a whole ‘nother movie’s worth of interesting, entertaining and funny details.

Third, it’s a kid’s movie. Director Stanton (A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo) makes kiddie movies, and he does so very well, by simplifying and streamlining things. Wall-E reverses the trend of kiddie movies getting longer and longer, so we can forgive him not showing the electro-re-programming machines that turn angry, psychotic teens into passive consumers. (Compare this to Brad Bird of Ratatouille, The Incredibles and Iron Giant, whose work tends to have a hard edge.)

Fourth, it’s very gentle, steering strongly away from the misanthropy that usually characterizes such films. The theme isn’t “evil humans destroyed the earth” so much as “we got kind of carried away and let things go, but it’s up to us to fix it”. The former message is a pretty crappy trick to play on kids, the latter a reminder to look at the real world once in a while, and to take care of it.

Finally, and this became apparent on a second viewing, Wall-E is first and foremost a love story. Like a Charlie Chaplin movie, the social commentary frames the story without changing it from boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl.

The two robots are the most human characters in the movie. And again, I have to fall back on the “Well, it’s Pixar!” thing again. These are the guys that make you care about toys, bugs, rats, and a freakin’ lamp. There’s the triumph of animation that can bring life to everything–and indeed, we find all the robots have personalities, even the poor, doomed security robots, this movie’s “stormtroopers”.

It would be odd to tihnk of the robots as not real, living beings.

So, I guess, on the scale of things, while it’s a message movie, the message is way more abstract than, say, Toy Story 2, which basically told your kids they were soul-destroying monsters for giving away their toys.

And I love Toy Story 2, too.

Trumbo: First Blood Part II

Trumbo! Ed Driscoll does a video commentary on the new documentary, pointing out that the movie never says whether Trumbo actually was a member of the Communist party. In its defense (sort of), it implies very heavily that he was, as were the others, because “it was the most liberal thing around”. He runs down the lengthy list of movies on the McCarthy era, and searches hard to find a few paltry counter-examples.

There actually isn’t anything like “Trumbo” on the other side. Refuseniks, for example, features no celebrities. Andy Garcia’s The Lost City was basically buried, and it was about the relatively small awfulness of Cuba’s “revolution”. Most of the anti-commie action films of the ‘80s were essentially anti-Nazi films with upgraded hardware.

There’s a remarkable wealth of material and ideas that Hollywood simply leaves on the floor. Imagine a movie with a religious hero, where a corporate executive saves the day, where a communist rounds up dissenters and kills them, and so on. Wild, eh?

As for Mr. Driscoll, someone will have to explain to me why he says he’s in a movie lobby when he’s clearly in front of a green screen. And also whether his suits are too big or his head is too small.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Director

I’ve liked Guillermo Del Toro since the dubious but strikingly visual Mimic. Directors who make more of the material than is actually there impress me, like Gore Verbinski. But where Verbinski seems to have gotten a little drunk with big budget pirate movies, del Toro takes on the comic book genre to produce one of the best and most original approaches to date. He even managed to bring back John Hurt in a flashback sequence to when Hellboy was about 10.

I like the young Hellboy, too.

Die his hair brown. He’ll totally look 30…40…wait, how old is he supposed to be?

In this installment, Hellboy–played by the inimitable Ron Perlman because Del Toro insisted–must fight to stop an elf prince from awakening the invincible Golden Army, built in some lost era when men and elves and goblins fought battles on the earth. The trio of Hellboy, Liz (Selma Blair), and Abe Sapien (Doug Jones) is rounded out by an “ectoplasmic” German fellow, Johann Krauss (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), who walks around in a sort of space suit and is something of a stickler for protocol. Returning is Jeffrey Tambor (who must soon be cast in “The Dr. Phil Story”) as the agency’s front-man with a difficult relationship with Hellboy.

The investigations begin at an auction house invaded by evil “tooth fairies”, move to the “Troll Market” and ultimately wind up in Ireland. (Actually, I think the whole thing was filmed in Eastern Europe, to make it possible to accomplish with a “mere” $85 million.)I’m not sure what part of this comes from the comic books, but it looks completely Del Toro, stylistically. The “tooth fairies” remind me a lot of the fairies in Pan’s Labyrinth.

Not sure what she'd make of the tooth fairies, tho'.

The Flower still hasn’t seen this film (2016). I think she’d like it.

Incidentally, Pan in Pan’s Labyrinth was also played by Doug Jones, who has two other roles in Hellboy, as the Angel of Death and the Chamberlain. He also played The Silver Surfer in the recent Fantastic 4 movie (but not the voice, which is Larry Fishburne) and all the imps in the Doom movie. I guess the mime training paid off. However, in the first movie, as was readily apparent to anyone who had ever watched even a single episode of “Frasier”, Abe Sapien was voiced by David Hyde-Pierce. For years, this has been driving me nuts, since it was so clearly his voice, yet–at Hyde-Pierce’s insistence–only Jones receives a credit. I only recently confirmed the truth. I do think however, Jones provides the voice for Hellboy 2.

Del Toro is quite masterful at moving between rather realistic modern settings to high fantasy, and at least one critic complained that there’s so much to see, that the movie’s main flaw is that it doesn’t give you a chance to stop and look at it. I can empathize, but it is a superhero movie after all.

This movie is fast, funny, touching and epic. It could have–and this is something you know I don’t say often or lightly–even been longer than the two hours it supposedly runs. (I imagine there’s about 20 minutes of credits, though.) And we saw the midnight show, and I was really tired.


Actors who spent five hours in makeup every day for 8 weeks don’t want to hear about how tired you were.

In short, this is a good summer movie. Take that Chris Nashatawy!

Update: Text reformatted and pictures added.

Riki Tiki Trumbo

For a brief shining moment in the ‘50s, anti-communist groups ran rough-shod over the Constitution and engaged in ineffective attempts to identify and rout out the massive Soviet infiltration of the government, education and entertainment industries.

This was a great moment for, well, the useful idiots that the USSR cultivated so carefully because they would forever point to it as vindication of all their beliefs. Other things, like the historical murderousness of their idols and the direct correlation of their ideals with the failures (indeed, destructions) of societies where they were employed, tend to garner less attention then the ten screenwriters who were blacklisted.

Also seldom mentioned is the fact that Hollywood, which routinely congratulates itself for its bravery and social advances, powered the blacklist, extending what might have been a relatively minor aberration. (The blacklist officially ended in the ’90s! what a profile in courage!)

Caught in this collusion of stupidity was one of the great screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo. A truculent, principled man who refused to cooperate with the fumbling bullies of the House Un-American Activities Commitee, and who paid dearly for not playing ball.

That said, a movie that is part biography and part actors reading Trumbo’s letters had a chance to be very, very bad indeed. I was a little concerned at first, since the first thing up is an absolutely horrible quote from Johnny Got His Gun. This may work better if you are more familiar with the story, but out of context, if you hear it it sort of sounds like, “Hey, yeah, that guy was a Commie!”

The rest of the movie is better, though, as Trumbo wasn’t a simple person. Too smart to demonize his enemies, but not so sublimely serene that he was above ripping them a new one. The movie excels when it focuses on the personal, how he dealt with the oppression, letters he wrote to his family, and a high point when Paul Giammati relates two letters he wrote to the phone company.

Other readers include Joan Allen, Michael Douglas and Liam Neesom, while Kirk Douglas is interviewed, and a lot of archive footage is used, as you might imagine, since most of the principals are long dead. All things stemmed from the HUAC’s abuse of power (and the shocking acquiescence of the Supreme Court), but with the exception of jail, the worst the family endured seem to come from what you might call freelance assholes: The movie studio blacklist, the publishers blacklist, the local school groups, realtors, etc.

The left tends to look at this and go “See!?!”, to the point where they’ve basically done the same thing to the right for the past several decades (created a de facto blacklist of those who disagree with them).

You could almost excuse the abuse of power if it had been effective, but the government messed with all these people, and we’re still awash in communism, in our schools, in our entertainment, and in our government. (Nationalization of oil companies, anyone?)

But instead, an ineffective government task force wasted tax money to destroy people they didn’t like, while doing nothing to actually solve the problem. And they picked some bad targets to have as enemies, probably making the situation worse.

What was especially cool about Trumbo is that you get the idea that he was standing up for something worth standing up for, and that he wouldn’t (and didn’t) turn around to be a tool for some other political viewpoint.

The Boy liked it as well, though he added, “Not enough of that John Adams guy.”

Pixar Conquers The Universe

The real problem with Wall-E is that it can’t possibly live up to expectations, can it?

Maybe. Right now, this latest flick from Pixar is hovering in IMDB’s top 10 of all time. I assume this will settle over time. I’ve already said how excited I was to see this film.

The Flower had earned herself a trip to the movies and she picked this over Get Smart. (She’ll have to work hard to get back to the movies before Get Smart leaves our preferred theater, though.) I don’t blame her, though.

I mentioned in the last review that the Laemmele has a 2-for-1 deal for certain movies. They also have a Wednesday $4 deal, so the four of us getting in was $16. Even with $12 for refreshment, that’s a pretty good deal.

Andrew Stanton, whose previous works are considered both among Pixar’s weakest (A Bug’s Life) and Pixar’s strongest (Finding Nemo), tackles a whole bunch of trite and dystopic clichés in this movie of a little garbage-bot who falls in love with a probe-bot on a trash-laden, dead Earth.

I mean, I grew up on environmental catastrophe movies, and the Earth-is-so-toxic-it’s-unliveable thing is was old even when I was a kid. (Ark II anyone?) The earthican population is living in a nearby space station (2001 on steroids), though they have grown fat and infantile over the centuries as their robots do everything for them. (There are babies, intriguingly, but it’s made pretty clear that humans never come into physical contact with each other.)

Actually, I got a serious Brave New World vibe off of it.

This really shouldn’t have worked. Everything I know about kiddie-enviro flicks is that they’re all preachy and about how bad Man is and so on. But it does work.

First of all, Wall-E and Eve are sort of–well, you know that lamp at the beginning of each Pixar movie? The Pixar mascot? This is them saying, “Yeah, we could make a whole movie starring that lamp and it would pwn!” This is basically a very good silent movie, though I don’t think it’s on a par with City Lights, necessarily.

The other reason it works is that it’s so, so gentle. Humans have forgotten what it’s like to be self-reliant. They aren’t inherently lazy or bad, just, well, things happen. Granted, Wall-E and the strangely attractive Eve (? how is that possible?) are the most, eh, human characters in the show, apart from the increasingly deshiveled Fred Willard, but there’s a kindness mixed in with some gentle slapstick that makes us root for the humans.

So, while we have the typical messages about rampant consumerism, pollution and–if I’m not mistaken, there are no polar regions left–global warming, the movie doesn’t try to be about those things, and surely doesn’t bludgeon you with them.

Thomas Newman provides a typically distinctinve score (called it in the first five minutes) that is both distinctly the work of the guy who did Finding Nemo and The Green Mile, and very unique to this film.

To top it all off, the movie comes in at 97 minutes and features a hilarious Pixar short at the front. And, of course, it’s breathtaking, with hyper-real looking shots of Wall-E’s garbage collecting and Hubble-worthy scenes of outer space.

John Ratzenberger and Kathy Najimy play the first two humans to wake up, with Jeff Garlin as the heroic captain who overcomes his tiny baby limb-limitations. As a special treat Sigourney Weaver–who played the crazy ship’s voice in an episode of Futurama–plays the voice of the ship’s computer in this film as well.

The Boy was curiously restrained in his approval at first. By the time we got home, though, he was asking about seeing it again, and when would it come out on DVD. There is no higher praise.

The Flower was quite pleased as well, as was Grandpa, who accompanied us at The Flower’s request. Curiously, an older lady asked The Boy and The Flower what they liked, and I gather she didn’t like what she called “the crazy parts”. I was curious as to what those were, but whatever they were seemed to put her off so much that I didn’t want to offend her by not knowing what (obviously!) they must have been.

It worked for us, though. I’d recommend it for anyone who didn’t need dialogue in a movie. I do sort of pity the next Pixar flick–but I think that’s going to be Toy Story 3, so it probably doesn’t need my pity.

Go, Live and Become

We were going to try to hit the free showing of Live and Become at the locale Laemmele but it’s basketball season again for The Flower and that tends to cut into the movie nights. The games are great, though.

We were itching to see something, though, and The Flower called dibs on both Wall-E and Get Smart, so we went down to Encino to see Live and Become there. The Encino theater is both more expensive and smaller than the West Hills theater, and the staff is a little more standoffish (though still a billion times more alert than most theater chains around here), but we do venture down there at night because the local Laemmele has its last show in the 8pm range.

Extra bonus: Live and Become was the designated “movie of the week”, so one ticket paid for both of us. Cool.

Anyway. Live and Become (Va, vis et deviens) is a French-ish film directed by a Romanian and featuring predominately French, Hebrew and Amharic languages (with a smattering of Yiddish), about an Ethiopian boy raised in Israel. I had more occasion than I cared to muse over this since the subtitles were all too frequently white-on-white.

During the ‘80s Ethiopian–have to struggle not to type Ethernopian, after “South Park”–famine, Jewish Ethiopians, the Falasha (children of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, I think) were allowed to escape into Israel. When a Jewish woman’s son dies, a nearby Christian mother sees an opportunity for her son to escape.

Once in Israel, the Jewish mother also dies, and the boy (“christened”, heh, “Schlomo”) ends up orphaned and forced to carry his secret alone.

The movie follows Schlomo from here to his adulthood, and manages to have a truly epic feel. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, it actually felt much faster than the slightly shorter Mongol.

We see the amazing country of Israel, generous enough to accept Ethiopians and petty enough to start little witch hunts to route out the fake Jews, or to treat the blacks badly out of fear of AIDS, an oasis in a truly forbidding desert, but not simple.

And the people are not simple, either. We see good and bad in the same people, though even when the bad comes up, there’s a strong sense of family.

Most fascinating, however, is Schlomo’s journey from ostensible Christian to Jew. He goes to schul (?), has a bar-mitzvah, enters into a formal debate about the color of Adam’s skin in front of the community and rabbis (“the controversies”, they called it), and yet constantly feels like a fraud. And he constantly yearns for his mother while puzzling over her last message to him: “Go, live and become”. But become what?

He tries on several occasions to tell the truth, but somehow it never works out for him.

His journey takes him in several directions, and all three actors (a child, a teen and a young adult) carry the role well. (The teen and the adult didn’t look that much like each other to me, but it was only momentarily disturbing.)

There’s a recurring theme with the moon, which the NYT reviewer calls mawkish, but which I thought were appropriate for the character’s age. Schlomo talks to the moon, and whenever something personal emerges, it’s in the form of one of these monologues. He even incorporates it (inappropriately, I think) into his debate. I rather liked that because, as children and teens, especially that’s what we tend to do: Put things that resonate with us out in public thinking everyone will relate to them.

Also, the same review (which is quite good and more focused than my usual rambling) refers to the movie not diving into Schlomo’s internal struggle enough. Again, I’d consider this a positive attribute. Rather than have him wail about his conflict, the conflict emerges, often in ways even Schlomo doesn’t clearly understand.

What’s particularly interesting about this struggle, at least to me, is Schlomo’s sense of being a fraud. There can be no doubt that from the get-go he studies Judaism with a passion and never once can be seen as just going through the motions. (His Christianity seems to be something he learned by rote.) But by virtue of being in Israel on false pretenses, he never feels right.

And that, along with the struggle to understand (in his heart, surely intellectual he quickly grasps) his mother’s actions, is what gives the movie its focus. I love this aspect of the film: It isn’t about the Falasha in Israel, it’s not about racism and politics, it’s about one person, and how he creates and comes to terms with who he is.

The Boy approved heartily.

Kung Fu Panda Express

The Flower wanted to see Kung Fu Panda and, though The Boy had resisted it, he came along with us. We had dinner out first which is always fun. I’m not sure why, except that my kids are very polite and also really enjoy it, but it’s just a blast to take them out. The Flower didn’t even eat anything, but she colored the menu and did the word search.

The movie itself? Well, Dreamworks is about the only studio that can hold a candle to Pixar in terms of animation quality. They’re also real hit-and-mostly-miss as far as story goes. (Sorry, but while I’ve enjoyed the Shrek movies, they’re horribly clichéd and don’t really stand the test of time. They’re too busy being hip.) KFP is similarly shallow–though not as tragically hip–but with some excellent choices made that buoy it up well past the usual kiddie fare.

The artwork is truly exquisite. There’s a wonderful blend of more typical CGI with a heavy eastern influence. Mulan did this well, too, but it’s more in-your-face here. And it works, even though this is a light comedy film, there’s no attempt to convey “wackiness” with the artwork.

The story concerns a panda named Po, who works with his father (a duck!) in their ancestral noodle house, but dreams of being a kung fu master. Not just a kung fu master but the kung fu master, revered by the Fighting Five. (Of course, rather than just adhere to certain fighting styles, the Fighting Five actually are the animals of those styles: tiger, crane, mantis, monkey and snake.)

Predictably, he is the kung fu master and just as predictably, he struggles through training until he blah blah blah. You know the drill. Not really the point. Every one of these movies (like this year’s Forbidden Kingdom) has to have a transformation scene where the hapless would-be kung-fu-er finds his strength in some (hopefully meaningful) way, and this movie’s approach is quite amusing and clever.

As is the whole movie. Jack Black is eminently likable, as usual, and the jokes and action were good enough to keep The Flower from too much fidgeting.

I, of course, spent the whole movie going…“Who is that?” I identified Dustin Hoffman (the master, some kind lemur-like creature) and Seth Rogen (as the Mantis) right away. Oh, and James Hong, the 50+ year veteran of TV and film, of whom everyone says “who?” when I say his name, but “Oh! That guy!” when I mention that he was on “Kung Fu” or in Big Trouble In Little China, or any of literally hundreds of other shows and movies. Wayne Knight and Michael Clarke Duncan were instantly recognizable as well.

Ian McShane (“Deadwood”, the evil tiger in this movie), I couldn’t place my finger on. David Cross (who was the Crane) drove me nuts, as his voice is very familiar, and I’m a big fan of “Mr Show”. I don’t even recognize women’s voices, honestly. Dunno why, but I didn’t place Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu or Laura Kightlinger at all. (OK, Kightlinger doesn’t have a lot of lines but I used to watch her on “Stand Up Stand Up” in the ‘90s all the time.)

Anyway, with the exception of Black–and Hoffman does all right, though he’s soooo restrained and it carries through–everyone else is disposable and feels like they got their parts out of a grab bag. (Isn’t that what they do now? Put a bunch of celebs’ names into a hat and say, “Who shall we pick for this role?”) Don’t get me wrong, they all do well, but they all could’ve been scrambled and put in different roles, too.

But not the Jables. Don’t believe me? Check out Along Came Polly sometime. Philp Seymour Hoffman is basically doing Jack Black. And while PSH is a fine actor–well, that’s what he is. Jack Black has star quality: Whether or not he can act is a separate issue, and PSH doubtless has the greater range, but if you’re going to be a disgusting slob, as in Along Came Polly, you better bring the charisma, too. They oughtta reshoot that movie and digitally put Black in there.

Similarly, this part requires a completely sincere expression of highly nerdy enthusiasm that is more lovable than off-putting, and JB is one of the few guys who seems to actually have that in him. A complete unselfconsciousness. He throws a role to his Tenacious D bandmate Kyle Gass and maybe had something to do with David Cross being in the show, since Mr. Show was a big part of JB’s climb to glory.

But I digress. Ultimately, this was a funny, fast-paced and beautiful flick I won’t mind watching again. (That’s the greatest thing animated film producers can do for parents: Make movies that don’t make you want to stab your eyes out on multiple viewings.) Unlike Dreamworks’ other stuff, I think this one may hold up.

Even The Boy enjoyed it, and thought they struck the right balance between too serious and too silly.

Incredibly, New Hulk Gets It Right

Sometimes I feel like an Ang Lee apologist and I’m not really sure why. Sense and Sensibility was a great film, but it was material that was distinctly suited to Lee’s style. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon while beautifully shot and quiet poetic was, let’s face it, overlong and even rather dull at times. His Hulk movie is a spectacular failure, worth re-watching just to try to figure out why it completely fails to engage.

Sorta like Kubrick, I’ve figured that you have to be in the right mood to enjoy a Lee film. I haven’t really been in the mood since Hulk. Can’t say I’ve been in the mood for another Hulk movie, either.

But you sort of instinctively know that a movie directed by Louis Leterrier (of the Transporter series) is going to be a lot more watchable, just as you surely know that some critics are going to review it negatively because Lee is a darling of the critic set.

Rest assured, however, that this new movie is not just a little better, it’s a lot better.

It starts by ignoring the first film completely. The set-up is done in the opening credits, so the movie starts with Bruce Banner on the run in Brazil, trying to find a cure. The first action sequence is actually a foot race with Banner (played by Ed Norton) running from a military squad sent to capture him.

When Banner finally transforms, it takes place in shadows and we never get a clear view of The Hulk. Smart move. The first film’s CGI was a definite weak spot, with the Hulk appearing almost weightless and never really feeling integrated with the live portion of the scene.

Later, we do get clearer views of The Hulk and–well, it’s CGI, so whaddayawant? But major flaws have been corrected: The Hulk looks to have some real mass, he’s not day-glo green, and he’s not cute. This keeps the bottom from dropping out on you while you watch it. Even the final battle, which has two CGI characters battling it out in NYC works fairly well, considering.

The story is brisk and clear: Banner is trying to cure his condition, on the run from evil General Ross (played by William Hurt) who just happens to be the father of his girlfriend (Liv Tyler). Meanwhile, mercenary soldier Blonsky (Tim Roth) covets The Hulk’s incredible powers, and mad scientist-ish Samuel Stearns (Tim Blake Nelson) might be able to cure–or cause–said powers.

Good, solid comic book fun with a good, solid cast. Hurt’s performance doesn’t quite measure up to Bridges’ in Iron Man, though I did have a similar experience of identifying him by his voice rather than appearance. (He doesn’t look so different but it’s out of type.) Similarly I’ve heard some unfavorable comparisons between Tyler and the original film’s Jennifer Connelly. I don’t envy any actress having to follow Connelly but Tyler has a sort of plaintive look that fits pretty well.

Norton’s kind of a sad sack, too, so that works out. Roth is a little scrawny for a super-villain, but they sort of work the fact that he’s playing a guy almost ten years younger into the plot. And he does the ambition-driven villain thing well. Tim Blake Nelson turns in a great performance as the mad-scientist-ish guy (though he’ll forever be Delmar to me), and he’s set up to be a super-villain in a later film.

To top it all off, the action is really pretty good. The Boy approved, and he’s a hard-ass about this stuff. The bullets look like they hurt even if they don’t harm The Hulk. The movie doesn’t gloss over the fact that The Hulk is killing, though it doesn’t dwell on it either.

And it doesn’t get over serious.

Is it perfect? Well, there’s a weird anti-military thing going on, which is just a common ‘50s and ’60s trope. The anti-science thing is a little weirder: Stearns wants to use Banner’s blood to create a disease-free world, and Banner’s so determined to not have it be used as a weapon, he rejects the notion outright. (How is it that super-scientists are so unprepared for the consequences of their actions? )

This touches on a tangential point that is more stylistic than anything else. I’ve never read The Hulk (I was a DC kid) but I sort of thought the point was that Banner had a terrible temper. It’s an intriguing super-hero concept and a great power-fantasy, best epitomized by Ben Stiller’s performance as “Mr. Furious” in Mystery Men. (We all like to think our rage is powerful when mostly we just look goofy.)

The struggle between this flaw and the power it gives him should create a more involving dichotomy. To the film’s credit, it’s central to Banner’s motivations but it doesn’t really resonate. And, in fairness, I’m told the film was cut way down, which I can appreciate, and in the end it’s nit-picking.

We got a good, fun, funny, and fast-paced Hulk flick. That’s something to be grateful for.

Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality

I am precisely the wrong sort of person to gauge the relative merits of the new Indiana Jones movie relative to the others. (Also, Star Wars.) When I saw the first movie, I was enjoying it, I was having a good time, and then Harrison Ford rode a submarine across the Atlantic.

I realized later that with Indy (and Star Wars), Lucas and Spielberg were trying to recapture the magic of the serials of their youth. Those serials, of course, blew rotten monkey chunks. Even Fritz Lang’s seminal, incomplete serial “The Spiders” isn’t very good. And my beloved Flash Gordon serials, while they hold up relatively well, are still pretty high camp.

So, I hated the original Ark (just like I hated the first Star Wars) and then later re-adjusted my view based on a new understanding that these were, essentially, kiddie flicks. Different standards applied. So I enjoyed the heck out of Temple of Doom–and people hated that one. I thought Last Crusade was okay, but mostly for Sean Connery. (The same thing happened to me with the second set of Star Wars. I liked Phantom Menace the best–I’ve actually written in defense of Jar Jar Binks!–and the other two hardly at all. Though I admit to a real feeling of relief at the end of Sith. It’s over! I don’t have to see any more!)

So, dragged to #4 in the Indy films, my feeling was that it was…so-so. It’s buoyed considerably by the return of Karen Allen to the series, and Shia Le Beouf really isn’t bad in his amusing parodic Marlon Brando style. Without a doubt, Ford’s age impacts your viewing. I mean, he wasn’t really a young man (nearly 40!) for the first film, but at 65, you wanna chide the villains for punching a senior citizen.

Also, if you’re 25 and run hunched over, it looks like you’re avoiding attacks. If you’re 65 and run hunched over, it looks like you need a walker.

Anyway, the killer for me with these films is that there’s never any jeopardy to the hero. Now, in point of fact, there can’t be too much actual danger to the hero–that’s against the formula. Nobody wants to see Indy (or Superman or Spiderman or Luke Skywalker) die. But a skillful approach makes you forget that. There are moments in Raiders–right up to the submarine ride–where you get the impression that something bad could happen to Indy.

This movie opens up with Indy surviving an atomic blast at ground zero by hiding in a (fake, even!) refrigerator. I realized about the time that the party goes over the first (of three) waterfalls, that I didn’t feel any suspense because not only was it obvious the characters were not imperiled, the characters acted like they knew they were not imperiled.

Superman is (dramatically speaking) one of the most difficult characters to write for, if you keep true to his roots. He’s literally invulnerable, and his morals are flawless. But comic writers and the Salkinds and Donner in the ‘70s, have managed more-or-less, off-and-on.

Part of Indy’s appeal is that he’s not Superman, but check it: In the waterfall scene, it’s not just he who goes over increasingly larger waterfalls, it’s him, Shia LeBeouf (OK, Shia’s filled out, looking buff), the 57 year old Karen Allen, and the 68-year-old-probably-playing-older John Hurt. And they all emerge without a scratch.

The score holds up pretty well.

I didn’t hate it. I was only bored in a few parts. Probably less than the beloved Crusade. Way more than Doom which (if memory serves) at least had a lot of unexpected stunts.

But I’m getting a “Worst. Indy. Ever.” vibe off of people who really dug the first three (or at least #1 and #3) so I’m not the person to ask.

As I noted up front.

Son of Rambow

In a forehead slapping moment half-way through Son of Rambow, a character pulls out a cell-phone the size of a toaster, and I realized it took place in 1983. Seriously, up until that moment, I had sort of vaguely wondered what time period it was supposed to take place in, with a sort of half-conscious amusement at these kids dressing like Boy George and drinking Coke while eating Pop Rocks.

The anchor for the film is a Brit show called “Screen Test”, which I think went off the air in ‘84, so that would’ve been a clew for them. (There was an unrelated game show in the US in the mid-’70s called “Don Adams’ Screen Test” but who remembers that?)

Anyway, the story concerns a young Christian boy, Will, (a Mennonite?) who takes up with Simpson-esque troublemaker Lee Carter to film a short for the show “Screen Test”. Since the only video Will has ever seen is “First Blood”, he wants to make their film The Son of Rambow. This results in a number of amusing montages, and a strange new popularity among the kids at school for Will.

It’s a cute coming-of-age film, without the resonance of a classic like Stand By Me,
though with some oddities. For example, Will is supposed to belong to this Christian group but none of its morality seems to have touched him at all. He lies and steals fairly casually. This doesn’t really fit in with what I’ve seen with kids raised in similar faiths. There is some question as to how long they’ve been members of the church, though. In any case, it raises the question but doesn’t really answer it.

Still, the ending seems to work well, and the ride is pleasant; I was actually a bit surprised it didn’t last longer at the theater, but that may have been because of the influx of summer films. It may re-emerge in the fall.


So, The Boy and I ended up doing a double-feature last week of two movies that weren’t going to be around after the Friday turnover. The first movie we saw was the documentary on Soviet Jews who were denied egress to Israel. The “Refuseniks”.

This is a classic case of a documentary with really outstanding material in an unfocused presentation.

The basic premise is solid: Jews–highly discriminated against in the Workers’ Paradise–tried to get out of the USSR and to Israel after WWII. As soon as you applied to leave, however, you were fired from your job. At the same time, you were not necessarily allowed to leave.

Both the anti-semitism and the “refusenik” stuff was largely ignored by the western Jewish establishment until some desperate Jews attempted unsuccessfully to hijack a plane, even though a grass roots movement had been brewing for years.

The main-ish focus of this movie is on a couple who were 17 years “Refuseniks” and how they finally got free.

I wish I could tell you more about this couple but we didn’t really learn that much about them. I don’t know how they survived those 17 years. Apparently some lower level work was available, but I don’t know if that’s how they did it, or if they had benefactors of some sort, or what.

There were all kinds of interesting bits of data in this, but nothing too cohesive. (Other than “Life in the USSR was bad, mm-kay?”) They particular dropped the ball when discussing why the American Jewish community–the establishment, not the grass-roots–was so unwilling to do or say anything. It took a hijacking to get their attention.

The guy representing the community made a really stupid, self-serving statement that it was because the Soviet Jews, by risking their lives, had proven they were really serious about getting out, and that up till then they couldn’t do it alone. “Yes, we were just waiting here, silently, almost as if in complete approval, until we couldn’t pretend it wasn’t happening any more.”

My wild-ass guess would be that Jews in this country have always been fairly positive toward socialism in its various forms, and that that particular intellectual vanity trumped their concern for fellow Jews. But that’s just my WAG. We never get told.

The movie suffers at a result. Despite all the historical highs and lows it touches on, there’s never any real focus to the two hours, and it gets a little hard to sit through after about 90 minutes. Worth watching, but maybe worth breaking up in to several viewing periods.

Strangers In A Familiar Land

Update for Ace of Spadesers: Thanks for clicking through and thanks to Ace for the link. You can click on the poorly maintained “reviews” keyword below to see some other bits of criticism I’ve written (mostly movies, some books, the occasional game). I do quite a bit of horror, so you might look at that and also post-apocalypse stuff is big. Still, some prefer the pointy breasts (start at the bottom of that link if you want to see how it all got started). Also, there’s a little slice-of-life series called Conversations from the Living Room. Thanks for stopping by!

I am adding
the following annotation to my will:

Should I die in mysterious and violent circumstances, please do not allow them to portray me as a jackass in the horror movie portrayal of my final hours.

We went to The Strangers today which was “inspired by true events”. Since the entire movie takes place virtually without any interaction with anyone with any insight into what could have happened, what we have is a broad imaginary reconstruction between two real bookends, as we’ve seen before, many, many times.

Actually, in this case, the story is entirely fictitious, except that some people, somewhere, at some time, have been terrorized during home invasions.

That said, this a pretty good entry in the home invasion genre.

Now, the home invasion picture is usually an unpleasant affair: A gang of thugs invades some poor middle class (usually; occasionally wealthy people are the target) and the next 60 minutes are spent torturing and humiliating the poor bastards. Sometimes, at the end of the movie, a woman is offered a chance at revenge.

Nasty business, where the only suspense comes from wondering what horrid thing will happen next. (The quintessential such movie is Wes Craven’s execrable Last House on the Left.)

In The Strangers, however, the villains break a lot of rules. While no actual home invasion would miss these rules, the action is the better for it. Instead of subduing them, the three psychos terrorize them for the bulk of the movie.

Some good starts, nice atmosphere, creepy moments, even if it all feels sort of familiar.

So, what about the stupid parts? Well, at one point, the victims have a fully operable shotgun with lots of shells. At that point, you know, it should’ve been game over. The characters’ behavior wasn’t unbelievable, but it was stupid.

The other dumb thing is that, after the bad guys have demonstrated an ability to show up inside the house and move through it silently–whenever they feel like!–the man goes off to do something and tells the woman to stay behind, and he takes the gun with him! This one is a little less believable.

Overall, a watchable flick. Though it did strike me while watching it that horror movies, in particular, are far more effective in the theater. The lead couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) do a good job, and the movie comes in at a brisk 80 minutes or so.

So good work to Brian Bertino. But don’t let them make a movie like this about me.

Pride before “The Fall”

I’ve compared Tarsem’s mixedly-reviewed film The Cell to one of my low budget favorites, Huyck and Katz’s Dead People. (Huyck and Katz would later go on to write Howard The Duck!) Dead People is a movie of strikingly disturbing visuals which fail to be tied together by a plot that is both incomprehensible and banal.

The Cell is similarly full of striking imagery, allegedly in the service of a murder mystery that is so weak, it’s transparently a flimsy excuse for the visuals. It’s the equivalent of the plot in a porn movie.

I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to see The Fall, therefore, but The Boy picked it and Althouse’s review gave me some hope. In this movie, an East Indian child with a broken arm is being told a story by an injured, heartbroken stuntman whose motivation is to entice the child to get him enough morphine to kill himself.

The story is, as a result, disjointed and internally incoherent–but it works this time for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that it works as a reflection of the reality of the main story. The man and the little girl both inform the story with their understanding of each other. This is what actually provides a lot of the tension.

Perhaps the main reason, however, is that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is, after all, being told to–and envisioned by–a little girl (as opposed to being the inner workings of a serial killer, as with The Cell) and this allows the costumes to be rather outrageous and colorful, with the expectation that the audience will laugh at certain things.

There is a Princess Bride vibe, as Althouse (and I think Ebert) noted, though the suicide/whimsy combination also evoked for me The Little Prince. In fact, this could be a good kids’ movie, except for the fact that the director needs blood to color some of the scenes (which I don’t consider that big a deal) and for the climax, which features a number of deaths that might be upsetting. (There’s a shot, too, where the little girl is watching two people have sex. We don’t see it; we’re watching her watch it, and we hear the sounds.)

But the “R” rating is harsh, to say the least. I mean, I suppose it’s a little intense, adult theme-y and all that. But the MPAA may have been reflecting on Tarsem’s previous film. They do that sort of thing.

Now, as to the visuals themsselves. I am not, like Althouse, averse to CGI. It can be poorly done, and is, a lot. It can be overdone–and is, a lot. But I love Pixar, the first Jurassic Park and movies like Master and Commander, where it’s hard to tell where the CGI is.

But compare, some time, if you can stand to, the first two (recent) Mummy pictures. Both use CGI by the bucket-load, but the first movie is punctuated by actual landscapes that are quite breathtaking, while the second substitutes CGI almost completely for the real world, to its considerable detriment.

This movie forgoes CGI (almost?) completely for real shots of Giza, The Taj Mahal, China, Turkey and so on (all to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony) and it reminds, painfully almost, how superior reality still is to CGI, in the hands of a competent cinematographer.

Moral of the story being: If you’ve got the money, and you’ve got the chops, step away from the computer and shoot reality.

Edit: I forgot to add that the boy really liked it. He does not suffer fools or foolishness gladly, so this tells me the movie walks the fine line very well indeed.

Rockin’ Past The Graveyard

I would have predicted that Young At Heart would be the big indie movie this summer. Old people singing edgy rock songs? How can that not be fun?

But I’m told that the buzz around The Visitor is better. For whatever “buzz” we have, The Boy and I liked this one better. A lot.

This documentary concerns chorus director Bob Cilman’s group of septuagenarians and octogenarians (and a couple of nonagenarians!) singing The Ramones, Sonic Youth, The Zombies, etc., as they prepare for a new season–only seven weeks away.

All right, you smart ass punk kids who are thinking, “Well, that’s the music of their youth, right?” Go to your rooms. Actually, these guys were well into their 30s when their oldest song (“She’s Not There”) was a hit.

The group rehearses three times a week and various members are given solos and duets and marvelously large font lyric sheets that they still need to use giant magnifying glasses to read. This works for a couple of reasons. First, Cilman takes it seriously: He pushes the boundaries. For example, he chooses Schizophrenic by Sonic Youth, which is not exactly a crowd-pleasing anthem, and the old folks don’t get it. Meanwhile, the Pointer Sisters funk classic “Yes We Can Can”, is just challenging to get two dozen old folks to sing all 71 of the “cans” right. And then there’s just the matter of some things being hard for your leads to get, as with the two lead singers having trouble with “I Feel Good”.

There’s a real sense of suspense here, as you the old folks work and struggle to get things right. But that’s the other thing that makes it work: These senior citizens are pros. What they lack in skill, or what age has dulled, they make up for in dedication. Cilman takes it seriously and treats them with respect–which is to say that he sometimes busts their chops for not getting things right. (Now, in the world of choral directors, he’s pretty mild but he’s not toothless, and some of the stuff he does may shock those of you who’re not familiar with the world of choral directors and conductors.)

I’m not giving away anything by telling you that they do own the music by the end. (If they didn’t, this would suck as a viewing experience.) But the suspense is still there as changes are made and they own the music in a surprising way.

It’s reminiscent of the Langley Schools Music Project in that it’s not necessarily the most homogeneous of choirs, smoothed down to peanut-butter commercial perfection. There are even a few moments where you can actually get the chills, such as when Fred Knittle sings in the final concert. This guy’s got a marvelous voice, even hooked up to an oxygen tank. For most you might say they sound good for their age–which actually is pretty usual for a choir–but Fred (and some others) have voices that are just plain good, no qualifications.

Mixed in with the documentary are a few low budget music videos which are quite cool (though some don’t think they belong in a documentary). But I thought these were good chances to hear songs all the way through, with a little studio production and without interruption. They do “I Wanna Be Sedated”, “Road To Nowhere” and “Golden Years”.

Now, I’ve often noted that, in any given family-dysfunction film, if there’s an old person, the old person will die by the end of the movie. (Most conspicuously in recent films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Man In The Chair.) But here we have over two-dozen people averaging 80 years of age, and we follow them over a three month period. Actuarially speaking, I think about half could be expected to die.

But where I tend to roll my eyes when I see the old person in the family-dysfunction film, in this movie, you’re practically holding your breath, crossing your fingers and hoping everyone makes it to the big show. This is a potential spoiler, so skip down to the next paragraph if you want to be pristine: Not everyone does make it, and a big part of the final act of the movie is how the group handles the losses. Some people find this sad, but I say it’s going out in style. Sad, to me, is dying because you have nothing to do.

Anyway, you’ll notice that I linked to the originals of the songs instead of the Young @ Heart versions. I would consider it a bigger spoiler to see the musical numbers outside of the documentary than it is to know the fate of each choir member. But they’re available on YouTube, or a lot of them are.

I’ve heard conflicting stories about a soundtrack. There isn’t one yet, and perhaps may never be because they couldn’t afford to license all the songs. (I don’t know how the Langley School Project got away with it.)

In any event, the movie is touching, funny, not mawkish, engrossing and heart-warming. Is the whole thing a little “gimmicky”? Yeah, maybe, but it works, for all the reasons mentioned above. Seeing old people sing edgy rock songs is a good hook, but if they didn’t do a good job, audiences would turn away.

But in a lot of ways, the songs take on new meaning being sung by these folks. And it’s a meaning worth hearing.

Prince Caspian

The onward march of the film-izations of the C.S. Lewis Narnia series proceeds, somewhat sluggishly, with the second film Prince Caspian, released this month.

I confess that I found the books enjoyable, but somewhat forgettable. They lack the intricacy of Tolkien but also the density. Unlike a 1,500 page single novel (as Lord of the Rings is), the Narnia books are episodic, and they’re all resolved (more or less) through a deus ex machina.

Not to say they’re bad, mind you. They’re very straightforward, though.

The movie follows the book pretty faithfully, from what I recall, except for a brief appearance from the White Witch. (I don’t reccall that from the book.) And, thankfully, the kids are a lot less whiny in this one. (Susan, in particular was sort of a scold in the first movie, whereas in the first book, she was more responsible and conservative without being shrewish.)

The Pevensies are transported back to Narnia to help Prince Caspian, whose uncle is trying to have him killed. Caspian and his uncle, King Miraz are Telmarines, whose ancestors have wiped out the Narnians in the 1300 year absence of the Pevensies. (The Pevensies, as you’ll recall, grew to adulthood in Narnia but apparently left behind no heirs, and regressed to childhood at the end of the first story.)

Caspian’s been trained by Dr. Cornelius, who has kept the story of the Narnians alive, so that when Caspian encounters them, he sees it as his job to rally them, both to defeat his uncle and to restore Narnia.

There’s your story right there, with Aslan floating around on the edges. (If there’s a theme in the second book, only partly captured by the movie, it’s that one should cleave to the truth, even if no one else believes it.)

And it’s pretty solid. Not boring. A lot has been made of the violence, which is conspicuously non-bloody, but humans and other creatures die, sometimes tragically so. The Flower wasn’t too concerned but she knew it would turn out okay. (Some of the previews were rather dark, though.)

The acting is top-flight, as could be expected. In particular, Peter Dinklage steals the show as Trumpkin, the recalcitrant dwarf. There’s a brief scene with Tilda Swinton that she pwns, too.

The kids are good, thankfully, though the three years have resulted in some serious…blossoming…for Anna Popplewell. It’s pretty well hidden, thankfully, and they do their best to make her look young, but at times it’s clear she’s closer to 20 than 15.

Special effects-wise, this movie is better than the last. The centaurs are noticably improved. The only really awful effect is a Bear. Oh, and a lot of the shooting was clearly outdoors, and very beautiful, which has the effect of making the CGI very obviously CGI-ish. (Directors need to learn that: Using real locations really throws the fakes into contrast. Be-vare!

I’d say if you liked the first one, you’d like this one. You might even like this one better.

UPDATE: The Boy was not pleased. He liked that the children weren’t so whiny but he highly disapproved of the battle scenes. Listening to him, I tend to agree there was some loose stuff, but I tend to turn off the brain during this sort of movie anyway.

Before The Rains

A series of domestic disasters propelled me to the theater for a late night showing of Before The Rains.

Two words: Merchant-Ivory

Or is that one hyphenated word?

In any event, this is the story of Brit Henry Moores (Linus Roache, now seen weekly doing an American accent on “Law & Order) and Indian T.K. (Indian actor Rahul Bose) as they plan to build a road up a mountain that will give them access to teas and spices.

Only challenge? They have to get it done before the rains.

Oh, if only. Wouldn’t that be an exciting movie? All the engineering challenges and time pressures to finish the road before the monsoon season! And, in fairness, that is the context in which the story takes place, and it does provide what suspense the movie has.

But the main problem is that Moores has, eh, dickitusinthewrongplaceitus. In this case, his house servant is the lovely Sajani (played by the lovely Nandita Das) and she’s quite a temptation. Not that we get any impression Moores was inclined to resist.

Of course, she’s married, he’s married and, it goes without saying, that’s way more risky for her than for him.

This is all done against the backdrop of 1937, with India’s burgeoning revolution from Britain.

Sounds better than it actually plays out. It never really grips you. The suspense never really cranks up, and in some sense it seems as though the director is hard on the British, even while the British have far less savage practices as far as handling adultery.

I don’t know quite what it was but I asked the Boy and he said. "It was okay. It didn’t provide you with any context so that you could get into it.”

Interesting. Neither of us got into it. The Boy felt it was lack of context–perhaps so.

What was funny was that he added, “I’m such an economics geek that I was really interested in the road and the spices, and the use of elephants…”

Yeah, me, too. I wanted to see that movie. But then, that’s why I prefer straight-up fiction to historical drama.

The Visitor

OK, so, the trailers look pretty hackneyed: An old white man is taught to enjoy life through the transformational power of music by an immigrant young couple of color. A pro-illegal-immigration propaganda fest.

But this written and directed by “The Wire” regular Thomas McCarthy who also wrote and directed the highly enjoyable The Station Agent.

Besides, while the anti-illegal crowd gets to trot out the felons, it’s fair for the other side to point out that the mass of immigrants are good people, right?

Anyway, the pre-show buzz at the theater was high. The room was packed and the manager was telling us that the word-of-mouth was so good, The Visitor had been increasing its audience every week. So fore-warned, we entered the theater.

And, lo, we were disappointed.

The Boy said, “I was disappointed. It started good. But sometimes when you put a message in a movie, you screw up the movie. Good acting, though.”

I actually hadn’t thought of it in those terms–that it was the message screwing up the movie–but he might be right.

Let’s start with what’s right about this movie. The great character actor Richard Jenkins–whom you know from about a million things–in the role and performance of a lifetime as Watler Vale, an economist who is in extended mourning over his dead wife when he’s wrangled into going to New York City for a conference.

Much to his surprise he finds a young couple living in his New York apartment: Tarek (played by Haaz Sleiman), a Syrian musician and his Senegalese wife Zainab (played by the stunning Danai Jekesai Gurira).

The spotlight’s on Walter, though, whom we first see in real human contact with others when he agrees to let the couple stay for a while. Tarek is both grateful and gracious, while Zainab is much more suspicious.

The connection is made stronger when Walter sees the drum that Tarek plays and ultimately ends up having Tarek give him lessons. His wife was clearly the source of music in his life, and he fails miserably at the piano, but takes remarkably well to the freer expression of improvised percussion.

This part of the movie sings. It reminds me of another favorite I bring up here a lot: Schultze Gets The Blues, though it doesn’t have the same static feel. Schultze’s ennui is because, well, he’s German, and lived a life in the salt mines. Vale’s ennui is clearly brought about by the death of his wife, and his failure to resolve it through finding a new source of music–though the fact that he’s an economics professor doesn’t help, one supposes.

The grand part of this movie is the way music flows through every part of it. Classical, jazz, percussive jams, even Andrew Lloyd Weber–all inform the experience of the characters.

Then Tarek is picked up by the USCIS. Oh, no! He’s illegal! He’s detained! He was supposed to have been deported years ago!

Walter hires an immigration attorney, and when Tarek’s mother Mouna (played by the lovely Hiam Abbass of Munich and Paradise Now fame), he quickly forms an intense attachment to the widowed woman.

Now, in a Hollywood big budget picture, we all know what has to happen: After a series of exciting court challenges, Mouna and Walter get married, and thus are allowed to keep Tarek in the country while Zainab has an anchor baby.

That would be bad, of course, because it would be nonsense. This is a giant, faceless bureaucracy, answerable to no one and responsive to no one. It’s the modern “deus ex machina” where a pissed of Poseidon sinks a ship because someone blinded his son. It is, in effect, shit happening.

No, we know there’s not going to be a perfect ending, exactly, but there are various degrees of sub-optimal endings that are possible. I mean, in the stereotype of the art-house flick, Tarek goes back to Syria and gets killed, Walter commits suicide, and the women are sold into slavery.

Or something. There are degrees, and I don’t want to give anything away here.

The problem with this is, what had been an engaging movie up to that point comes almost to a dead stop. We’re left with the burgeoning relationship between Walter and Mouna, but we’re concerned about Tarek, whom we no longer see at that point.

I suspect it’s very, very realistic. That does not make it entertaining or engaging. The characters continue to develop, so its not unbearable, but they’re frozen. The filmmakers have presented them with an obstacle they are utterly powerless to change.

And maybe that was the message, and so, as the boy said, trying to get it across ruined the movie. Maybe so. There are certain things that, I think, defeat that message if that’s really supposed to be the point.

Whatever the reason, though, the end of the movie left the audience in silent contemplation, not rousing applause. Or even quiet applause.


Back in the day, I was a martial artist. I worked hard at it, and it was probably the only non-familial group I’ve ever really felt strong bonds with. Of course, a big part of the appeal is the shared suffering. (Martial arts training, if you take it seriously and it’s a serious school, has a sort of military feel to it.) But another part of the appeal, at least for me, was the complete impracticality.

This may come as a shock to you (all 14 of you), but I’m not very practical by nature. I have responsibilities, of course, and I handle those as efficiently as possible. But I do so precisely because I’m not very practical. I tend to be very A-to-B when I work, as well, because I know that my inclination is to expand problems until the solution becomes interesting.

I mean, really, if you want practical self-defense, buy a gun and learn how to use it. Knives, sprays, air horns and cell phones are probably all going to trump physical combat in a self-defense situation. Probably the most useful thing self-defense training can teach the average person is how not to panic in a threatening situation. (A gun’s no good if your hands aren’t steady enough to retrieve it.)

But more than that, there’s The Code. Warrior codes are great. Just knowing and aspiring to them tends to puff a person up (in a good way). But they all tend to have their roots in days of knights or samurai, and so, they aren’t very practical.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but all of the real fighters and teachers of fighters that I have known have been poor. Even those who had made some money fighting or being in movies ended up broke.

Which brings me to David Mamet’s new work, Redbelt. Mike Terry (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) runs a serious Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu studio which isn’t financially successful. In fact, the loss of the front window is enough to seriously challenge its survival.

At the urging of his wife, Sondra (played by the gorgeous Alice Braga, whom I immediately pegged as a relative of Sonia Braga), Mike goes to a bar to borrow money from his brother-in-law, and the events that follow lead circuitously to what appears to be a fortuitous turn of events for everyone.

But the wheel spins again, and everything suddenly turns sour. Actually, it’s not entirely clear how much of what happens is chance. It’s entirely possible that the whole thing was plotted from the get-go by one or more characters. Or perhaps most of the events are sheer coincidence.

People can get hung up on those things. But none of that is the point.

The point is how Terry reacts, how his code survives contact with unpleasant real world choices, betrayal, disappointment, and other assorted ugliness.

I know the type of person being portrayed. And for the most part, this highly stylized story is an accurate portrayal. The only part that struck me as off was how quickly Terry takes up the opportunity to parlay his acumen into a potential job in the movies. The warrior types I’ve known tend to be highly suspicious and protective of what they do.

Now, the ending of this movie is more outrageous than any Rocky movie. There are things throughout the movie which may or may not be plot flaws–and for the most part I think it’s Mamet cutting out long-winded expository or hand-holding in favor of showing us the meat of the thing–but the ending is pure dramatic license.

This offended me not at all, but if you’re looking for something that’s hyper-realistic, this is not that film.

The acting is top-notch. The characters are well fleshed out, and better known actors (like Tim Allen as a narcissistic star, David Paymer as a loan shark, Emily Mortimer as a neurotic lawyer, and Joe Mantegna as a sleazy assistant) work well with the less known (such as Braga, who’s more famous in Brazil, Jose Pablo Cantillo as “Snowflake”, the only other student of Terry’s that we see, and Max Martini as the cop who’s down on his luck).

Ultimately, though, this is Ejiofor’s show and Terry’s battle, and the actor (and character) are both up to the tasks at hand.

The Boy also enjoyed the film, which is interesting, since the he recognized the unreality of the final scene. But I think it’s that the film overall didn’t insult his intelligence that he was able to enjoy and appreciate the drama of the last scene.

The fights weren’t bad either.

Priceless (Hors de Prix)

I hadn’t seen an Audrey Tatou movie since A Very Long Engagement and I wasn’t actually champing at the bit to see this one. But we were desperate, and I had actually liked the director Pierre Salvadori’s previous outing, Après Vous, rated at a mediocre 6.5 on IMDB.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the lead was the highly talented Gad Elmaleh as Jean, who was also the eponymous Valet (La Doublure). Once again, he’s a member of the service industry (a sort of jack-of-all-trades in a hotel) when he’s mistaken for a wealthy man by the gold-digging Irène (Tatou).

A second chance encounter results in chaos, and in his pursuit of Irène, he ends up living the life of a gigolo. This leads to an interesting examination of double standards, to say nothing of the peculiar situation of the two trading tips on how best to milk their respective marks.

At the same time, the aloof and mercenary Irène torments Jean, then warms to him, then finally becomes both jealous and admiring of his successes.

It is, as most French sex farces, rather seamy. You can’t help but feel a little bad for their marks, however foolish. But the charisma of the leads ultimately wins out. And it doesn’t hurt that Ms. Tatou is getting no less beautiful over time.

Actually, this movie is sort of an inverted Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a thought made all the more striking by Tatou’s resemblance to Audrey Hepburn. But obviously, it’s not for the easily offended.

I. Am. (Fe) Man.

All right, everyone’s on about the new superhero movie Iron Man and I actually did go to see it opening weekend (rare for me, but it was the only thing playing at the time I could get away).

First things first: Take the f#$*(@ing bluetooth earpiece out of your (*#$*@ ear, jerkwad. That piercing blue LED makes watching the movie near you like watching it on an airport runway. OK?

OK, then.

Iron Man is apparently some sort of comic book hero–a guy in a waldo, by classic sci-fi terms. Because it’s the first movie (and, oh, yes, there will be more), we get an origin story: Arms dealer and man-about-town Tony Stark is captured on a middle east tour and held captive by terrorists who want him to build them one of these super-duper missiles he’s building for the US.

Instead, in comic book logic, he builds a super-suit and kicks their ass. Oh, and in the course of his kidnapping, he gets shot up and his co-prisoner saves his life by installing some sort of electromagnet that keeps the shrapnel out of his heart.

This is probably the most inspired comic book logic since Doc Ock preceded his work on a fusion reaction by building four artificially intelligent cyber-limbs (Spiderman 2).

Which is to say it’s delightfully insane.

Anyway, he frees himself with the help of his suit, and then gets rescued from the deserts of Terroristan. And then things sorta get murky.

In the first part of the movie, Stark is an unrepentant patriot–you ain’t seen patriotism like this since Starship Troopers, and in this movie, they aren’t kidding!–convinced he’s doing the right thing. After being kidnapped, and learning that the bad guys have his weapons, he sort of has an epiphany, and decides to stop making weapons. He devotes his time to his iron-man suit and the remarkable (also very comic-book) arc-generator that powers it.

Now, logically, Stark would be concerned with how the bad guys got his weapons and, to its credit, the movie does touch on this. But given the pro-military attitude, the idea that he would stop making weapons–jeopardizing his friends in the armed forces–seemed a little inconsistent. Some have interpreted the pause as tempoarary, until he found out who was supplying them.

But as I said, murky.

By the way, if you know anything about comic book logic, it’s apparent from the get-go who the bad guy is.

So, what’s the verdict?

Well, basically, it’s good. Robert Downey Jr. was an excellent choice, and director Jon Favreau is to be commended for this and his overall handling of the subject matter. As with Elf, he plays the story out sincerely, avoiding camp, cynical intellectualism, and any sort of “I’m too good for this” vibe.

The pacing is good, and although the action payoffs aren’t very big, they’re big enough, as the rest of the script is populated by interesting characters, funny situations and the usual stuff that makes movies fun to watch. The music is adequate, if not memorable.

The supporting cast includes Gwyneth Paltrow (looking like Kirsten Dunst and sounding like Lisa Kudrow), Terence Howard as an Air Force buddy, Leslie Bibb as an intermittently antagonistic reporter, Shaun Toub (of Kite Runner) as the cave-imprisoned heart surgeon, and–as an extra added bonus for any movie–Jeff Bridges as corporate chief of Stark Enterprises. (I didn’t actually recognize him–bald and gray-bearded–until he spoke, and kept hoping he’d say “Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!”)

Overall, it’s fun, but not quite great. To compare it further with Spiderman 2, which I think is in some ways the epitome of the comic book film, in that movie, everyone’s motivations were clear, even when distorted for comic book reasons. In this movie Tony Stark stops making weapons but becomes a weapon himself, giving us the message that, what, you can only count on or trust yourself?

Still, I suppose we can’t get the Salkinds/Donner vision of Superman, with Truth, Justice and the American Way presented without further comment (and even back then, there was a lot of camp in those phrases and actions). Shame, though, as it really suited this movie while it lasted.

Forbidden Kingdom

Jackie Chan has been trying to crack the US market for almost three decades, now. The funny-man made the best decision of his life when he threw off the shackles of “The New Bruce Lee” and took his cue from Chaplin and Keaton, and yet his multiple runs at America have met with limited success.

His latest run, starting with the watchable Rush Hour and cute Shanghai Noon–followed by the less watchable Tuxedo, Around the World in 80 Days and The Medallion–have mostly not lived up to the combination of physical comedy and light-hearted action that made his ‘80s and ’90s films so much fun.

Meanwhile, Jet Li, since his break-through performance as the frightening assassin in Lethal Weapon 4–his death at the hands of Martin and Riggs being the least believable part of an increasingly silly series–has had grim role after grim role.

Nonetheless, both have legions of fans, and hope springs eternal for each new outing. To have both in the same film is bound to produce a massive geekasm amongst the kung-fu-philes.

And dropped in the middle of this is poor Michael Angarano. The White Guy. I’m guessing the Italian guy from Brooklyn. In between praying they weren’t going to remake Karate Kid and wondering why they didn’t use an Asian kid, I did notice that he did pretty darn well. But more on that in a moment.

I particularly revile The Karate Kid, with its inaccurate portrayal of everything having to do with the martial arts scene of the ’80s and the absurdist notion that you could learn to be a good fighter by doing janitorial work for a few days. So hints of that film send off warning flags big time. (Bit maelstrom fun fact: Ralph Macchio would go from being the world’s greatest karate guy with a minimal amount of effort to the world’s greatest guitarist with a minimum of effort. We hate that guy around here.)

The Forbidden Kingdom is a mishmash of Chinese mythology done up in a sort of Indiana Jones style. There’s a lot of bloodless death, and the big baddie dies (whoops! spoiler! as if you didn’t know) a particularly gruesome way, in the manner of Temple of Doom or the closing scene of Lost Ark. At the same time, it could have been PG, because it’s all comic book level action and violence.

There were some serious overtones, such as the lead betraying his friend who looks to get killed as a result, and Golden Sparrow’s family being killed, but these are pretty common tropes in Chinese cinema, and about the level of Batman’s parents being killed. I admit to initially being surprised by some of this, hearing how family friendly it was all supposed to be, but it is. It’s just somewhat different from the modern western approach.

Heck, even The Flower, who worries about such things, didn’t get too worried. She would occasionally hug my arm but she’s the kind of girl who likes a little scare in the theater. (She’s absolutely fearless at Knott’s Scary Farm, however. Go figger.)

This is basically a road movie, a buddy movie, a revenge movie, in which a modern kid is thrown back into a mythical Chinese time and given a quest to fulfill a prophecy. Along the way, there’s fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. But the rules are pretty straightforward: Minions are dispatched quickly; heroes (and super villains) are almost never seriously hurt.

Rounding out the cast are Collin Chou (of the Matrix trilogy) as the evil Jade Emperor, the wicked beauty Bingbing Li as the witch with white hair, and the breathtaknig Yifei Liu. Really, the best thing you can say about them, is that they hold their own when working with Li and Chan. (Likewise, Li and Chan integrate well with them as a team; despite the hammy roles they play, they don’t chew up the scenery.)

On this journey, Angarano has to go from being completely ignorant of real kung-fu to being able to fight amongst the immortal masters.

How does that work? Well, the way every huge plot hole in this movie works: By not bothering to explain it, really. (Star Wars doesn’t really explain Luke Skywalker’s flying abilities, either, though some retconning in future movies does. The first one doesn’t seem to have suffered from that plot hole, though.)

The Boy nailed it really: He enjoyed it more than he thought he would because they set us up early on as to what kind of movie this is going to be exactly. And then by keeping the execution fun and lively.

Special kudos to Jet Li, here, portraying the Monkey King. He does a nice job and its good to see him smile–he has a nice smile! And while he doesn’t have Chan’s highly honed clowning ability, the two have a good dynamic.

Another nice thing about this movie is that mixed in with the CGI and the wire-fighting, we’re treated to real images of China, which has a marvelous and under-utilized (in American movies) variety of landscapes.

Finally, add to the whole mix a pitch-perfect score by Harry Gregson-Williams, and you have yourself–if not a great movie, a good time for the whole family.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Judd Apatow has a knack for producing films with familiar themes that nonetheless take new angles. Knocked Up is basically a romantic comedy with the added complication of a baby (Miracle of Morgan’s Creek anybody?) while Superbad is both a parody and paragon of the teen sex movie.

It’s rewarding, then, if not surprising that Forgetting Sarah Marshall takes the break-up flick to a new level. This movie’s average shmoe lead (played by screenwriter Jason Segel) is an unambitious composer whose girlfriend is hot actress Sarah Marshall (played by Kristen Bell).

Early on, of course, Sarah dumps Peter and the inconsolable chap tries having sex with all manner of creatures to take his mind off her. This is a pretty funny, if unusual, montage. Next, he decides to get away from it all, and through a not entirely improbable set of circumstances, ends up at the same hotel as the ex- herself.

Now, the formula for a break-up movie requires: a) the couple to get back together; b) the lead to find happiness with a new love. And according to Hollywood rules, the new love has to be hotter than the old one–no easy feat when starting from the flawless Ms. Bell.

Enter Mila Kunis. She of the blue & green eye. You know instantly that Peter is going to hook up with Rachel.

I saw Mila live with the “Family Guy” crew when they went around before the hit-and-miss revival of the series. It was very funny and, not surprisingly, Mila (who seemed shy) was overshadowed by the two Seths, the writers and even Alex Borstein (who also seemed shy, but would occasionally break into an uncanny and startling monkey impression).

Since I’m not familiar with “That ‘70s Show”, I didn’t otherwise know her work. (OK, except for the odd American Psycho 2.) It was interesting to note that, yes, she’s actually doing a voice for Meg on “Family Guy” and also that she effortlessly portrayed the role of at-least-as-hot-but-way-lower-maintenance girl.

The fourth major character in the movie is vacuous rock star Aldous Snow, played by Russell Brand (who, while English, seems to be aping Johnny Depp’s pirate accent).

Now, it would be easy–and most break-up films go this way–to portray Sarah as a bitch and Aldous as an asshole, and have Peter’s relationship with Rachel be his vengeance against them. But there are a lot of wrinkles here: When we think Sarah’s totally unjustified, we’re given a look into her POV that indicates otherwise; when we think Aldous is completely useless he turns out to be kind of cool, and helpful to a newlywed basket-case; and when we think Rachel and Peter are going to hook up, he and she have issues.

In other words, instead of the usual “you’re the cause of all my problems” movie, we get a movie where everyone’s situation is more-or-less of their own making.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast is typically awesome, the surrounding stories making even minor characters feel fleshed out. Apatow regulars Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd, for example, and the two plus-sized Taylor Wiley and Davon McDonald are consistently funny.

The icing on the cake is excerpts from a rock opera based on Dracula, and featuring puppets, a CSI-like crime show (only barely parodic) and some marvelously awful rock lyrics.

Despite having a different writer and cast than previous Apatow films, it’s still in the same vein, so if you didn’t like the previous flicks, you’re not gonna like this one either. If you did, though, this is a strong entry in the canon, even for him.

The Ruins

So, out of desperation, we picked the movie that seemed the least likely to suck, and that movie was the Mayan-based horror flick The Ruins. Written by the same guy who wrote A Simple Plan, Scott Smith (who also wrote the screenplay, but with the initial “E” in his name), I figured, well, even if it wasn’t going to be to my liking it probably at least wouldn’t be totally run-of-the-mill.

The first 20-30 minutes? About as totally run-of-the-mill as it could possibly be. We’re introduced to our college-age (natch) characters, off on a last fling in Mexico, somewhere in the vicinity of the old Mayan empire, who are funnin’ and sunnin’ by the pool, on the beach, wherever good times are had.

Then they get the wacky idea to visit a ruin–off the maps! unknown to civilized man! what could possibly go wrong!–and head off into an area where (natch) cell phone signals won’t reach.

You know, back in the ‘90s, there was all this competition focused on providing cellular service, with many companies planning to launch satellites, until they figured out that repeating towers was lots cheaper and, if not nearly as good, as good as they cared to be since they’d probably already decided service wasn’t going to be a primary concern. But just think: If they’d gone satellite, they could have saved a whole bunch of people a lot of trouble.

But I digress. Anyhoo.

(What do you think about using the quote style for digressions? I’m quoting my own rambling consciousness.)

We even get some gratuitous (but not entirely unwelcome) nudity from Laura Ramsey, ensuring her death, and guaranteeing that top biller Jena Malone would be the sole survivor. (That’s a joke, not a spoiler. Or is it?)

As you can imagine, hijinks ensue up on the old Mayan pyramid, and some old Mayans get pissed, and some flesh is rent, and some chick starts screaming…somebody loses an eye…or a leg…maybe both.

I’m not going to give it away, because there was an “oh” moment for me early on when I realized what the “boogen” in this flick is going to be. Let me say I’ve seen a few movies with similar premises and most of them suck in part because of the limitations of the boogen in question.

Yet, surprisingly, the movie actually takes off when it gets to the horror parts. There’s some decent suspense, a few creepy moments, some–well, I don’t scare much in movies, but if I did, I know which couple of scenes would have done it.

The Boy was even pleased, and he is an increasingly tough customer. He’s revising his opinion down a bit over time, but that could just be because he likes being a tough customer. But he’s still defending it as “not stupid”, and that’s high praise indeed.

So, you could do a lot worse, unless you really don’t like horror flicks.

This week is going to be rough; I don’t see a thing playing within 30 miles from my house that a) doesn’t seem steeped in mediocrity; b) I’ve not already seen.

But things should pick up shortly. Forgetting Sarah Marshall looks pretty good, the Chan/Li movie will be disappointing–how could it not be?–but maybe not crushingly so, and I have high (heh) hopes for Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay. It’s stupid humor, yes, but it’s welcome stupid humor, so long as they don’t get political.

And that’s just the majors. Eventually all of last year’s cruft will clean out of the art houses and we’ll start getting some good, fresh stuff again.


Regular readers (both of you) will know I’ve decided to defy the demand for pointy breasts, last week with Jane Russell’s magnificence(s), and this week with the lovely Carole Landis.

A rather tragic figure, Landis appeared in an early blog post here about Turnabout. Her comedic work in that movie is marvelous, aping John Hubbard’s (exaggerated) masculinity, often while in this flowing nightrobe that displayed her femininity (insofar as movies of the time were so allowed).

However, Miss Landis’ breakthrough role was in the original One Million Years B.C., also for yukmeister Hal Roach. For better or worse, her performance here has long been over-shadowed by Racquel “fuzzy britches” Welch’s in the remake.

Nonetheless, it seems fairly clear that Landis’ talent (to say nothing of her talents) was squandered.

Landis’ co-lug for B.C. was the large-headed Victor Mature (whose only excuse for his name is tht he was born with it). Landis and Mature would later star with Betty Grable in the proto-noir I Wake Up Screaming.

The Other Adam Carolla Project: The Hammer

If you don’t like Adam Carolla, you can stop reading this now. Seriously, there’s nothing here for you.

I’ve found Mr. Carolla amusing since his Loveline days on MTV. His working class-style approach often made a lot more sense to me than Dr. Drew Pinsky’s educated opinions. Reasonably, a guy who spent a big part of his life as a boxing trainer before and a carpenter before becoming a comedian has made a funny movie about a carpenter who has a chance to box in the Olympics.

As might be expected, the hero of the film, Jerry Ferro (played by Carolla) is basically a loser. But he’s not a loser because he hit hard times or was ground down by someone. No, he’s just a loser because, well, it was easier and more fun to get high and play video games. This is probably truer to life than most similar stories, and keeps it from the typical melodramatic pitfalls.

The story begins when, on his 40th birthday, he loses his and his pal’s (crap) job and his girlfriend, but manages to channel his frustration into his boxing. This turns into a shot at the 2008 Beijing Olympics–or does it? Boxing is a young man’s game, generally speaking (and as near as I can tell, the age limit is 36) but the movie gives us certain expectations without dealing to heavily in fantasy.

Joining Carolla on his 88 minute journey are his Nicaraguan buddy Oswaldo (played by Oswaldo Castillo, Carolla’s real life construction pal) and cute-as-a-button Heather Juergensen, as a Public Defender with a love of underdogs. Old timer Tom Quinn, looking and acting like he’d been born to play the role of tough-as-nails boxing coach Eddie Bell, also coaches a deeply religious flyweight (Jonathan Hernandez) and Carolla’s much younger rival played by Harold House Moore.

Adam has chemistry with everyone, and the only time I felt he overplayed his hand a bit was on a date to the La Brea Tar Pits. Apart from that this movie is tight, funny, even suspenseful–you don’t know how far he’s going to get–and gives us enough back to where we feel rewarded for rooting for the guy, but not so much that we feel pandered to.

It’s a delicate balance.

It’s also a good reminder that you can make a good comedy/drama for under a million bucks.

It should get a wider release.

An Elephant For All Seasons

The primary problem with converting Dr. Seuss into a feature length film is that Seuss’s stories are a distillate of the very essence of drama: A stranger comes to town and changes the characters’ world views (Cat in the Hat); a curmudgeon finds spiritual redemption (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas); a bitter war is waged to the ultimate destruction of both parties (The Butter Battle Book).

A part of his greatness was his ability to play out these dramas in a short space. Even the classic Chuck Jones specials can seem stretched thin, and they run 26 minutes according to IMDB (and I think that’s an exaggeration). The prospect of stretching it out for 88 minutes is not promising, if for no other reason than everything added is not Seuss, and that’s usually painfully obvious.

Imitating Seuss is a common phenomenon, but nobody does it very well. Even Seuss can be said to not add successfully to his own material (as with the extra verses in the TV version of Grinch which he wrote). As a result, you get the abomination that was the live action Grinch, where the Whos lose their pure spiritual goodness and become horrible things that created the Grinch. (I’ve never been able to watch that movie past the first few minutes.)

The next tactic for padding out the source is to fill it with gags. But that’s not easily done, either. Seuss books are really about the essential drama. They’re fun, but they’re not really “jokey”. And they’re never scatological or sexual (another crime of the live-action Grinch). The physical comedy of the cartoon Grinch is probably one of the best approaches, and even that’s more Jones-y than Seuss-y. (For the record, Ralph Bakshi’s The Butter Battle Book is the purest interpretation of Seuss.)

As fraught with peril as the task is, wise men would refuse to take it on. Horton’s directors, Pixar alumnus Jimmy Hayward and Robots art director Steve Martino prove shockingly worthy of the task, fools though they may be.

Poor Horton (Jim Carrey) finds himself custodian to an entire world in the form of a tiny speck that only he can hear the inhabitants of. The if-not-quite-evil-then-meddlesome Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) makes it her business to squash this Horton’s fanciful imaginings, with the help of Will Arnett (as a vulture) and of course, the evil purple monkeys known as the Wickershim Brothers.

Let me say up front that the Wickershims are way scarier and freakier in the Jones cartoon than they are here, despite being pretty similar. (They get a lot more screen time in the ‘toon, and seem irremediably evil there. Plus, they sing in the Jones version. No singing in this one till the end.) Nonetheless, the Flower grabbed my arm a couple of times in fear.

Meanwhle, down in Whoville, the Mayor (Steve Carell) has to save a world that doesn’t believe it’s in any peril, with the help of Isla Fisher as the wacky Who-scientist and Jonah Hill, who plays the tiniest Who of them all.

Most of this film works quite well: Carrey is on a tight leash. In fact, the whole movie shies away from zaniness and super-broad comedy. It’s fairly straight action, for a cartoon. The required length is achieved by having Horton take a long-ish journey and the Mayor having to deal with disbelief in his world.

What doesn’t work that well is the sub-plot where the Mayor doesn’t “get” his son (which isn’t terrible, just not very Seussian) and particularly a little segment of animé, where Horton imagines himself as a ninja (which is thankfully short). In what constitutes an hour’s worth of padding, that’s fairly impressive.

Anyway, The Flower liked the movie a lot. (She was particularly excited when the dialogue actually included some real Seuss words, which didn’t happen much: “I meant what I said and I said what I meant: An elephant’s faithful one-hundred percent.”) The Boy was not displeased, which is high-praise since, in his own words, he has “a low tolerance for the kind of broad humor they usually put into” these things.

Of course, someone’s always trying to co-opt Dr. Seuss. The Wikipedia tries to draw parallels between the Wickershims and Joe McCarthy (“citation needed”), while anti-abortion groups have tried to see it as an anti-abortion tale (“a person’s a person no matter how small”).

But they miss the point: It’s the conflict that’s universal, not the particulars. Horton is like a more heroic Thomas More. He’s told up-front to either give up what he knows to be true or suffer the consequences. Similarly the mayor.

You could apply the particulars to terrorism, global warming, or whatever you wanted.

That’s why Seuss is great.

And these guys are to be commended on preserving that.

The Bank Job

I wonder if Jason Statham gets tired of playing roguish burglars and assassins. If so, that’s too bad, since three of his next four films have him doing the same schtick over and over again. Well, he’s good at it, and I suppose not much different from other action heroes in that regard.

In The Bank Job, he’s a lower class swindler–a used car salesmen in debt with the local loan shark–who is tempted by the very tempting Saffron Burrows into pulling a heist on a Baker Street bank.

Pretty ballsy, if you ask me, to knock over a bank four blocks down from Sherlock Holmes.

The movie is based on an actual heist that occurred in 1971, news of which was suppressed via a D-Notice, which is apparently something you get when you don’t have a First Amendment.

Anyhow, the filmmakers posit that the gov’t had a “black power” radical cold for drug smuggling but couldn’t bust him because he had compromising photos of Princess Margaret so they needed to steal those photos without looking like they were stealing those photos, and hence used an outside crew. (This is all made relatively clear in the first time-bouncy-10 minutes.)

As it turns out there’s lots of other bad stuff in the vault, and our bank robbers end up under the gun of a lot of unsavory characters. Many of whom are employed by the crown.

There’s probably as much reality in this as there was in, say, Murder by Decree. But it was well acted and paced nicely. There was some confusion (at least in my mind) about Jason’s relationship with Saffron. The crew finds their way into the vault and decides to break then to sleep. (It’s a little far-fetched, but they had been up for 36 hours by this point.)

Anyway, the two end up meeting in the vault and having a romantic interlude. Are we supposed to, at that point, think that they had sex? It seems improbable, but a later scene with the wife suggests that is what happened.

A minor nit. This is a fun ‘70s-era flick–without all the ridiculous costumes that are usually omnipresent in a movie based on this time period–that keeps the suspense up till the end. More sex (mostly implied) and nudity than your average heist flick, I thought, though it all related back to the (rather involved) plot.

But eventually, we’re gonna wear out on these types of roles, Handsome Rob.

The Band’s Visit

One of my favorite comedies of recent years is the German film Schulze Gets The Blues. It’s not for everyone: It’s statically filmed, slow-paced and, naturally, plays a bit on German sensibilities. But it works for me because it taps into the love of music and how it can motivate people to leave their “comfort zone”.

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret) is an Israeli film which might seem to have similar premise: An Egyptian police band (classical Arab music) ends up in a small town in Israel by accident, and all kinds of wackiness ensues. Or at least amusing, human episodes.

This film cleaned up at Israeli film award shows.

But, in the end, I have to say, I didn’t really get it. It seemed aimless to me. And the idea that people can get along–even Arabs and Jews–strikes me as not all that revolutionary (from the comfort of Hollywood, CA). Where Schulze’s slowness was usually a setup for some amusing tableau, like a silent movie, The Band’s Visit seemed to let the characters brood for extended periods of time. (Not dissimilar to the movie 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days.)

Unfortunately, I have little insight into what they’re thinking.

Ronit Elkabetz was pretty hot, though, and Sasson Gabai brings an odd “warm distance” to his role that makes his character believable.

But I suspect that 80% of this movie’s resonance is parochial.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day

I often ruminate on how the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ’40s can’t be recreated in modern times. I’ve always assumed they couldn’t be redone because, well, they never have been. When they try, we get things like The Money Pit or Legal Eagles which, whatever their merits, do not manage to capture the spirit of those films. Often, even good modern movies are hurt by trying to be like these old movies and failing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, however, proves that it’s possible. This film is so straight out of the ’30s that it’s absolutely obvious from the trailers how the outcome has to…uh…come out. You know the poor Miss Pettigrew has to hook up with the rich guy with the shrewish girlfriend just as you know that Delysia, the ingénue, is going to end up with her true love, instead of the guys who can advance her career.

Anything else just would have–to use a non-’30s expression–sucked.

This movie, which takes place in ’39 (I think), touches on a lot of the tropes of the ’30s-’40s with just the right lightness. It starts with Frances McDormand doing a bit of down-and-out nanny that reminds one (favorably) of Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp”. That’s saying a lot right there, though the scene never goes into full on slapstick (a good thing, I think).

When Miss Pettigrew and Delysio meet, you get the screwball, fast-paced dialogue of, say, a Howard Hawks, along with some zany antics as the two try to keep the delightful Delysio from the sort of social embarrassment that comes when one of your boyfriends walks in while you’re having sex with the other. This sort of dialogue cropped up relatively recently in Joss Whedon’s series Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Angel, and was a staple of The Gilmore Girls, but in this case, it’s well choreographed with the action. Actually it reminds more of Leo McCarey than Hawks.

The modernization of the story shows up only a bit at this point. First, we get some Amy Adams cheesecake. Second, the girl in the ’30s movies was usually playing with the men as opposed to actually having sex with them. There was usually a “plausibly deniable” out for the audience who didn’t want to imagine the characters being less than pure.

This is one of the things that makes a ’30s-’40s style zany comedy ordinarily impossible to remake. The audience rejects too much coquettish-ness but the character of the movie changes if it rubs your nose the characters’ sexual indiscretions.

Somehow, Delysio remains charming despite her relatively libertine ways, which is in no small part due to the charms of Amy Adams.

Rounding out the pith-perfect cast is Shirley Henderson (best known as Moaning Myrtle from the Potter movies), Ciaran Hinds (late of the HBO/BBC series “Rome”, as Julius Caeasar), and Delysio’s three boyfriends (Lee Pace, Tom Payne and Mark Strong).

Is anything off about this film? Well, yeah: The characters are mostly too old to be who they’re playing. Amy Adams is 33. I’m pretty sure ingénue age stops at 28, tops. Now, she’s quite lovely, and the character can easily be on the high end of the age range (adding to her desperation), so only occasionally did I find myself thinking, “Hmmm, she’s a little old for that.”

One of those occasions was, however, when McDormand and Hinds respond to the younger people cheering at the airplanes flying overhead with “they don’t remember the first one”. The practical age cap for not remembering WWI when WWII started would be around 25, I think. (Keep in mind that Shirley “Moaning Myrtle” Henderson is 40, however young she looks!)

Still, the whole thing works well–surprisingly well.

The boy said “Tell them the boy is pleased.”

And he was.

UPDATE: Kelly H. talks about the movie and source book in her “movies from books” series here. Turns out it is derived from a ’30s book. It would be a good template to draw from if someone wanted to re-do Thorne Smith.

Grindhouse: Death Proof redux

Oh, yeah. Way too long. It’s 35 minutes before the first car scene, which is, like, five minutes, and then there’s 50 more minutes to go. 15 minutes later…get in the car, bitches!

Sheesh. Finally!

The last 20 minutes are quite good. Quite good indeed.

I don’t really know much about Tarantino. I’ve only seen this, the little bit he did in Sin City, and Kill Bill, none of which really clicked with me. (Well, maybe the Sin City bit; Clive Owen was great!)

I’m not sure why he thinks we want a grindhouse movie that’s over an hour of talking. They had movies like that, but it was because they didn’t have any money to actually film the action they wanted. Not because they actually wanted to pad the film with blather.

Not. Grindhouse.

The Boy started out thinking it was boring but not stupid, but in the last 20 minutes switched to thinking it was all out stupid.

This is (part of) why I didn’t take him when it came out.

Update #1:Hey, is it just me, or does Mr. Tarantino actually create really shallow fantasy girl characters?

Update #2: Zoe Bell was great. But Kurt Russell makes the whole thing bearable. (And he’s not in most of the movie, unfortunately.)

Update #3: I don’t get why Stuntman Mike doesn’t attack the girls in the car at the end. The gun would be disturbing, sure, but once they’re back in cars, he should have the advantage.

Update #4: I do not believe that, at any time in the history of the universe, four hot 20-something chicks ever spent 10 minutes at breakfast talking about Vanishing Point. Period.

Update #5: I do love the QT fans on IMDB who maintain with absolute earnestness that if you find fault with this film, it is because you are a cretin devoid of intelligence. (Guilty!)

Grindhouse: Planet Terror Redux

I didn’t take The Boy with me to see Grindhouse when it came out since I wasn’t sure it was appropriate (and it probably wasn’t at the time). Also, I wasn’t sure he could relate. As he’s older now and I’ve seen it (and it’s on cable), we watched it together.

His reaction was much like mine during Raiders of the Lost Ark: I was okay with it up until Harrison Ford rode the submarine across the Atlantic. And it just got stupider from there. Not too long after, I realized that it was basically a kiddie movie, like Star Wars, and you can’t really apply rules of logic or sense to it. (And as a result I enjoyed Temple of Doom a lot more.)

Anyway he was appalled by the stupidity.

I still think it was 20 minutes too long but I found the various film corruptions a lot more interesting in the re-watch. Rodriguez cleverly used the scratches, blurs and distortions to punctuate parts of the action.

Anyway, the trailers are still the best part.

Hell is an eternity In Bruges?

In Bruges is my kind of movie. Like Drop Dead Gorgeous, Very Bad Things, Wrong Is Right, Harold and Maude, S.O.B. and the original Wicker Man, it appeals to the part of me that thinks death is very, very funny.

This is somewhere in between last year’s whimsical Death at a Funeral and, say, Shaun of the Dead which was a bit heavy-handed. In Bruges is a bit more likable than your average black comedy, as it’s actually not cynical (as many films in the genre are).

Hitmen Brendan Gleeson (prob’ly best known as Harry Potter’s Alastor Moody) and young cohort Colin Farrell (lotsa stuff, but I like his turn in Phone Booth the best) are in the picturesque Belgian city of Bruges after bungling a job. They’re on orders to sight see until things cool down, and Colin Farrell’s character is bored to tears of all historical richness. (Hence the title of this entry.)

The only thing to pique his interest is the morally dodgy Clémence Poésy who seems torn between her romantic interest and her inclination to roll easily duped marks. Adding a little bit of spice to the proceedings is Jordan Prentice (probably best known for playing Howard T. Duck). They meander through the streets of Bruges until Ralph Fiennes, their boss, tells them the real reason for their visit. (Favorite role ever for Fiennes, a low-talking, yet somehow likable, uber-violent thug.)

Ironically, despite the topic and the source of humor, this is a movie about honor and redemption. You’re kind of rooting for these guys, hit men though they are. At the same time, you know it’s not likely.

Anyway, lotsa laffs (if you can laugh at this sort of thing, which I can), and great acting all around. A refreshing change from the brooding, introspective stuff that dominated the award season.

Savages You Can Count On

In 2007’s The Savages, Laura Linney turns in an Oscar-nominated performance of Kenneth Longergan’s Oscar-nominated screenplay about a sister whose tragic childhood scars her and her brother well into adultho–

Wait. What? That was 2000’s You Can Count On Me?

Oh, right. Sorry.

In The Savages, Laura Linney turns in an Oscar-nominated performance of Tamara Jenkin’s Oscar-nominated screenplay about a sister whose tragic childhood scars her and her brother well into adulthood.

Snark aside, the movies aren’t that close. In the older movie, Linney has adjusted pretty well and is sort of a rock for her brother, Mark Ruffalo, who is much less stable. About all she can do for him is be there.

In Savages, Linney and Hoffman are both maladjusted, with Linney somewhat more adrift, but neither able to grow up. You know, the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that the trailers make this out to be sort of whimsical. There are some humorous moments–especially punctuating what would otherwise be overly heavy-handed scenes–but this isn’t a movie with a lot of yuks.

In fact, I thought at first the movie was going to be a real slog. Linney’s character thrives on melodrama, and she’s happy to lie to get a reaction she wants. Hoffman’s character is flat–not his acting, but his character, I know some of you hate him, but I liked him in this–and dull, not given to open expressions of emotion, which in this case means his emotions emerge in weird ways.

When the movie starts, their father, played by Philip Bosco, is being kicked from his house, apparently as his dementia worsens. Although they haven’t talked to him in a long time, as his family, the responsibility of taking care of him falls to them. The back story, not terribly fleshed out, is that he was abusive and their mother simply ran off. Somehow they survived and while they must have relied on each other–they talked with each other even though they haven’t talked to their father in 20 yers–they’re not exactly warm to each other.

Anyway, it’s a (perhaps not so) curious thing. They are likable, even with their flaws. I’m not sure, for example, in that situation, whether I would feel any particular obligation to take care of an abusive parent. But they never challenge it for a second. Linney’s character even feels guilty about the quality of the home (which is functional but not wonderful).

You realize pretty soon that this isn’t going to be a “reconcile with Dad” movie (a la Tim Burton). Dad’s a MacGuffin. He seems to have no awareness of his past sins. (It is suggested at one point that his father was abusive, but this isn’t really a cathartic thing.) He’s basically there so that his kids can figure out how to let go of the past.

It’s an indie movie, so there’s no big “happily ever after,” but there’s a nice bit of hope. As contrasted with You Can Count On Me, where you know the brother’s going to be a screw-up for the rest of his life, in this film, you have reason to believe that the two will get past a least some of their dysfunction.

This movie’s been floating around for three months now and probably isn’t going to be released widely (can it really have wide appeal?) but it’ll be on DVD within two months, I’ve heard. Hollywood’s put me into this quandary, though: They’re not really turning out the quality fluff these days. I love independent and foreign films but come on: A guy’s got to have desert, too!

Anyway, Laura Linney kicked ass as the CIA chief in Breach. Enough of the dysfunctional sisters, I say!

Die Mönefachers: The Counterfeiters

Die Fälscher won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language picture and happens to be the only one of the nominees to actually make it to a local theater (a few days) before the ceremonies.

You can’t ever get enough WWII stories, apparently. This shows us yet another angle we’ve never seen: Nazi counterfeiting rings. (Well, at least not in this detail.)

This is the story of a Jewish counterfeiter who’s captured by the Nazis and placed into a concentration camp where he manages to survive by doing portraits of various representatives of the Master Race long enough to be enlisted into the Nazi’s scheme to fund their war effort and bankrupt the allies by forging pounds and dollars.

The movie gets off to a bit of a slow start, but builds nicely as the counterfeiter (Karl Markovics, whose oeuvre I’m unfamiliar with, though there are familiar faces from Das leben der anderen and Downfall) goes from a near sociopathic state to something a little more human.

It’s not an easy transformation: The counterfeiter (Saloman) is constantly forced to act in self-interest to survive. The world is telling him to act as he’s always done, but he doesn’t like the world that this creates. By the time he’s confronted with the reality of funding the Nazi war effort or dying and letting his fellow concentration camp inmates, he’s clearly conflicted. Intriguingly, he has one code (don’t squeal) that he holds on to when almost everyone else is surviving at any cost.

The movie is nicely bookended with Saloman visiting Monte Carlo with a briefcase full of cash.
You have a different view of that at the beginning than you do at the end.

I don’t know if it was the best foreign movie of the year, but it was the best of the five I’ve seen.

Juno, Romanian Style

I went to see the Romanian flick 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days before if vanished from the local cinema. I didn’t take The Boy. He already hates commies and like Das leben der anderen, this film isn’t going to enamor anyone of communist regimes.

This is not a movie for everyone, as I’m fond of saying, because it’s an ugly story and it’s paced like a Kubrick movie, without the long tracking shots. Think Schultze Gets The Blues, only devoid of humor and life. And, actually, Schulze sets up a shot and the characters move through it, but in this film, the camera sits there and the central characters barely move at all.

The premise of the movie is simple (and if you want to go in blind, you shouldn’t read this): It’s 1987 Romania and college1 student Gabita is pregnant. She uses her roommate to help her get an abortion. This results in unexpected costs. and nearly two solid hours of bleak despair.

The director is remorseless in this regard. The movie–the events of the movie–could be cut down to 40 minutes easily. There are long shots where no one talks and very little happens. This heigtens the uneasiness, the awkwardness, and the general discomfort–but also made it hard for me to stay awake during the climactic scenes.

Actually, the movie this reminds me the most of is Caché, even though that movie is a metaphor disguised as literal events, where this movie is a very literal series of events which could be seen as a metaphor. But Caché has the trappings of a mystery, which it isn’t, and if you watch it that way, you’ll be bored. This movie incorporates a lot of the elements of a thriller, but never carries through (and would be an entirely different, and less real, film if it did). You might still be bored, depending on how much you appreciate the restrained, tense acting that is center stage for most of the film.

It’s really a treatise on the banality of evil. The characters are trapped in this oppressive state, where corruption is so integral to every day life (black markets, bribery, surveillance), that the only time Otilia (the main character) seems awakened to what they’re actually doing, is when she must confront (and dispose of) the evidence.

Like Juno, Mar ardento, and other movies that handle controversial topics well, a commendable thing about this film is that it doesn’t take a side and beat you to death with it. You could argue that it’s pro-choice, for example, especially given the passing reference to the young women’s periods being monitored by the dorm mother. On the other hand, it offers no romanticization of it. It’s clearly anti-oppression and anti-corruption, but those are hardly controversial points.

But it’s a disturbing film, and slow, and contains a particularly shocking scene. This makes it hard to recommend.

1. Forgive the imprecision. She’s at a school, she’s college age. I don’t know if they called them universities, or polytechnics or what.

Cloverfield: Gojira Redux

I don’t rush out to see (or quickly post reviews of) the big movies. You can get that lots of other places. Unlike, say, my keen insight on the latest movies about the Middle East.

But we did go out to see Cloverfield. The Boy pronounced it “the best monster movie I’ve ever seen”.

Well, okay.

Monster movies are inherently a dated thing. Alien–the horror movie of my generation–to him is like Frankenstein was to me. It’s perhaps weird to think of exploding chests in the same category as stiff-legged golems, but it’s not so much a matter of gore, I think, as a matter of what seems more real.

And Cloverfield does a good job selling itself. In a nutshell, this is a Godzilla movie with the emphasis on a group of people who are unfortunate enough to be at Ground Zero when “it” arrives. A plot contrivance forces them to go toward the monster rather than away, which gives us opportunities to see the the beast major as well as all the little beasties that drop off it like lice.

This contrivance takes about 15-20 minutes to set up which had me saying “Thank God!” when the monster finally arrives. (At another point, when the characters have spent lots of time and risked themselves horribly to save another character who appears to be dead when they find them, The Boy leaned over and said to me, “Well, that was time well spent.”)

I’d heard some bitching about the monster, but I liked it and the boy proclaimed it “perfect”. The shaky cam didn’t bother me much and of course The Boy barely noticed it. (I have a theory about that: I think kids today are well-exposed to shaky-cam stuff so their brains automatically stabilize images internally in a way that older folks have to work at, if they can do it at all.)

It’s fun without being campy. Exciting without being too preposterous. Mysterious without being obscure. It’s actually a very old school style movie, with the monster not introduced until well into the movie, and not really shown clearly until the last act. It’s surprising that it works at all, but it does.


The Kickboxer vs. The Mime

Back in the glory days of the teen slasher and the martial arts film, someone got a wonderful idea. A wonderful, awful idea. “Let us marry,” they said, blowing smoke rings into the already hazy room from a fat, hand-rolled cigarette, “the slasher film with the karate film.”

Then, of course, they got the munchies and forgot all about it.

But the idea was out there now. In the zeitgeist, if you will. And somehow–Jung only knows how–the idea filtered into Producer Anthony Unger’s head, or perhaps it was writer Joseph Fraley who saw it in a vision, and someone said unto them, “Hey, I know Chuck Norris.”

And Silent Rage was born.

The premise is simple: Brian Libby (now one of the Frank Darabont regulars) plays a killer who is taken down by the inimitable Chuck Norris. In the morgue, some coroners (those scamps!) decide to bring him back to life using a serum that renders him immortal. (I think the idea is that he regenerates super-fast, like Wolverine or something.)

Now, this plays out like two films: The horror film where the killer goes around killing, and the Chuck Norris film, where Chuck Norris goes around kicking. And that’s all I have to say about that.

But when they finally meet, it’s actually a groundbreaking bit of cinematic goofiness I like to call bullets-can’t-hurt-him-I-guess-I’ll-have-to-kick-him-to-death. It may not be the first example of this, but it’s the first I can recall. (I think the pinnacle of this kind of absurdity was probably Underworld: Evolution.)

Basically, after being shot, run over, dropped off a building, and set on fire, all that’s left is for Norris to kick the crap out of him. He’s slow moving, as all these guys are for some reason, so Chuck gets to wail on him a good long time before knocking him down a well.

Keeping in mind all that he’s gone through up to this point, you’d say, “OK, board up the well. Or fill it with rocks. He’s already fallen further and been fine. Surely you can’t just walk away at this point. NOT NOW?!”

But indeed, the movie ends there, with Norris walking off arm-in-arm with Toni Kalem (late of “The Sopranos”), and the entirely predictable moments-later bursting out of the well by the killer. One of those, “Well, we had to end the film some time and this seemed as good a time as any.”

Though unique (as far as I know) in its status as a genre-blender1, this move is actually very, very typical of movies of the day, and the two genres come off as oil-and-water.

Besides the aforementioned actors, the film features a number of familiar character actors, including Stephen Furst (“Flounder” from Animal House, who would go on to achieve stardom anew by being in and directing episodes of “Babylon 5”) and the great Ron Silver, who really wasn’t so great back in those days. (Though he’s way better than he was in the ‘70s by this point.)

With enough action that you can watch it for fun, and enough goofiness that you can riff on it, if that’s your mood, it’s not a bad film to sit down with.

1. Friday The Thirteenth Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan has a short scene where a karate dude tries to kick Jason around and gets his head knocked off, but if that’s an homage to this film, it’s not apparent. The Buffy universe doesn’t really fit in this category either, since it’s not horror blended with martial arts, but martial arts in an occult universe, where the horror elements are window dressing. (Joss Whedon does the same thing in a sci-fi universe with Firefly.)

Persepolis: Another Movie About The Suckitude In The Middle/Far East

But wait! This one is animated.

And, actually, that’s an important starting consideration. Low budget animation can be very hard to watch. (Check out Adult Swim some time.) This mostly black-and-white marvel manages to evoke the UP-style 2D animation, techniques of Ralph Bakshi, and the occasional florid Yellow Submarine-ish look.

I’m grateful. Really. The animation serves the movie.

I found the story interesting and engaging, which is in itself kind of intriguing, because it has features that I’ve found reprehensible in other recent films. Basically, the story follows Marji Satrapi, who grew up during the fall of the Shah, the subsequent revolution, the Islamic takeover, the subsequence Iraq-Iran War, and the increasing enforcement of Shari’a.

Where The Kite Runner featured a character who was cowardly but obsessed with his shame, Persepolis is about a character who commits no great acts and is primarily self-absorbed. When the movie starts, she’s a child, and it’s understandable that she sees things in terms of herself. (One of the movies subtle yet moving contrasts is that of young Marji’s dreams of being a prophet at the beginning of the movie with her defiance of others claiming to be prophets toward the end.)

When the Iran-Iraq War starts, her parents send her to live in Vienna, where she associates with a bunch of typical teens enamored of anarchist/nihilist type philosophies in the usual shallow way. The ironic part is that when she realizes how full of crap they are (having survived the sort of upheaval they all listlessly pine for) she doesn’t seem to really gain any insight into her own experience. (It’s kind of funny to me, though, that she’s made to feel shame about her Iranian heritage in multi-culti Europe. Iranians in USA seem to refer to themselves as Persians, but I can’t recall anyone caring.)

Even when she goes back to Iran, and the repression is bad and growing worse all the time, she doesn’t really clue in quickly. (As it turns out, she’s still pretty young, around 20, which is sort of shocking given all she’s goes through in her teens.) There’s a persistent undercurrent of anger and victimization which is somehow not off-putting, perhaps because it’s rather warranted.

The story wisely stays away from trying to figure anything out. The situation in Iran has been complicated for some time, and it’s clear even the characters don’t really get what’s going on (though it’s fairly clear they’d like it to stop, please).

We’re often told that Iranians are a lot like us and that the smart thing to do in Iran is encourage them to make the choice they want to make anyway. And it’s hard not to admire a people who are willing to party when the consequence of being caught partying is death. Like the Afghanis depicted in Kite Runner, we’re left with the trite observation that things have gone horribly wrong there and the world would be much benefited from stability and freedom in those parts.

I have to wonder, though: Can we get a story like this about Iraq?

Oil Milkshakes

There Will Be Blood, Daniel Day-Lewis’s latest Oscar-ticket item came to our local Laemmle this week.

If you’re not a Paul Anderson fan (Boogie Nights, Magnolia–not Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil), this movie probably isn’t going to be the one that wins you over. A lot of people (notably Kevin Smith) razz Anderson for his long films, but I personally wouldn’t categorize them as vanity pictures. Though epic in length, his two San Fernando Valley-based movies paid off by building to satisfying dramatic conclusions.

This movie lacks the drive of those films. It’s basically Daniel Plainview’s life at four different periods in time. His character goes slowly mad (and murderous) over that time period but there’s no coalescing of dramatic point in the end (say as compared to Magnolia’s lyrical embrace of coincidence or Boogie Night’s plucky Dirk Diggler’s optimistic return to porn stardom).

And, of course, since it’s Mr. Anderson, when a guy walks from point A to point B, you’re gonna see him walk from point A to point B, no matter how long it takes. Long, languorous tracking shots somewhat reminiscent of Kubrick are a mainstay, and it’s actually pretty refreshing compared to the constant jump-cutting that infests a lot of modern film. An interesting thing about this approach is that Anderson films characters approaching or going away from things–often the most challenging part of any encounter–where other directors just cut directly to people talking, then cut away when it’s over. It’s rather effective–but it’s obviously not for the impatient, and there’s a lot of it here.

Anderson doesn’t fill up his film with chatter, either. At times, the film was evocative of a silent movie, a sense that was underscored when one of the characters goes deaf. (The music played into this as well, but more on that in a moment.) Of course, Anderson picked good actors, and he gets great performances from everyone (like Kevin O’ Connor as Plainview’s brother and Dillon Freasier as Plainview’s son), but this is mostly The Daniel Day-Lewis Show.

And Day-Lewis delivers, as usual, and he’s probably more effective than your average superstar, as he doesn’t suffer from the sort of over-exposure most other successful film actors do. I saw Daniel Plainview, not Daniel Day-Lewis. And a lot of things that might’ve been hack–for instance, a leg injury in the first scene causes Plainview to limp through the rest of the movie–struck me as brilliant in Day-Lewis’ hands. Instead of dragging his foot or turning it out lamely, Lewis walks with a sort of limp that suggests his hips and back are almost fused. It becomes part of his character, like the deformities of Shakespeare’s Richard III.

No, one of the reasons Anderson could afford those long tracking shots of people walking is that Day-Lewis can walk and act at the same time. And probably chew gum. He certainly kicks ass. And spawned an internet meme: “I Drink Your Milkshake!”

Now, about the music. The music was very dissonant, very-silent-era-nobody’s-talking-so-we’ll-use-music-to-set-the-tone. I found it…overblown. In truth, the movie is about tough people, but the industry they’re engaged in is not particularly sinister. (Nor, despite the title, does the movie have anything in particular to do with Upton Sinclair’s Oil! or his socialist tendencies. Thank God.) But the very act of the initial digging is accompanied by music that might’ve fit in the opening to The Exorcist.

There’s a certain irony in that we actually get little insight into Plainview’s character. The music tells us something bad is going on, or lurking under the surface–something really, really bad–but Plainview actually seems to undergo a slow corrupting transformation, far subtler than the music. Then, curiously, in the final act, the music just plain stops.

Thing is, I thought about the music a lot, and that’s usually not a good sign. Incidental music’s effect is supposed to be more subliminal. At the same time, I’d be hard pressed to say I didn’t like the music, and even with my composer’s ears on, I’m not sure how I would’ve done it differently. But I think it might’ve been more effective to start with something sedate but traditionally harmonic and then build to the whole hell-bound thing.

At a whopping 2:38 running length, I was surprised that the boy liked it as well as he did, though the whole oil drilling stuff was quite interesting and–as mentioned–Day-Lewis can act. But then I’m probably more surprised that this film is sitting at #16 on the IMDB all-time list.

So, maybe I’m wrong: Maybe this is the Paul Thomas Anderson movie you’re going to like. (It is just one story instead of many inter-connecting stories, but did people really have trouble following Boogie Nights?) But I’d be surprised.

Kicking The Bucket List

Actually, I’m not gonna kick The Bucket List at all. As the credits rolled last night, I was shocked: I just saw a good Rob Reiner movie! A new one!

I mean, the guy made seven good movies in a row in the ‘80s: This Is Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing (cute fun, if not great), Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men. That’s a hell of a string. The middle four are classics and each in a different genre: coming-of-age, family/fantasy, romantic comedy and horror. And, of course, Spinal Tap is the mother of all mockumentaries.

Damn. It looks even more impressive now.

Then came North, with Elijah Wood. But he rebounded, sorta, with The American President and Ghosts of Mississippi. Then some shorts, a documentary, a TV sitcom and three dogs in a row! The Story of Us, Alex & Emma and Rumor Has It.

Reiner has resisted doing a sequel to Spinal Tap, reportedly because he doesn’t like to repeat himself. Maybe he’s easily bored, and hence the genre switching. Dunno. But here we are in 2008 and he made himself a new sort-of Sure Thing. It has the most in common with that film, I would say than his earlier films.

It’s a buddy picture. It’s a road picture. It’s an old-fart picture that doesn’t use old-age humor as a crutch (as seen in Matthau and Lemmon’s last movies, as well as the President movie where James Garner fills in for the late Matthau.) It’s funny in parts, but not hilarious, and really not very wacky, which is how the commercials portray it.

It’s also touching and sentimental, occasionally maudlin, loaded with clichés and has gratuitous Morgan Freeman narration.

But damn, you have to be trying–hard–not to be moved by Freeman and Nicholson who are absolute powerhouses without stage-grabbing or scenery chewing. It’s not surprising to me that the critics panned it: Like Reiner’s other great work, it’s just classic movie-going fun. Not shallow, really, but completely unpretentious. Even when the movie goes to the top of the Himalaya’s, you get the feeling that you’ve just seen a nice story, not an “important” one.

And unlike many of today’s hot directors, Reiner doesn’t make this movie into some indulgent vanity pic, clocking in at 97 minutes. He doesn’t shout “Look at me! I’m so talented!” Maybe, at this point, he doesn’t have that luxury, but he didn’t do it in his prime either.

So, critics have bashed it and audiences aren’t turning out to see it, particularly–though if I understand the numbers on IMDB, it only dropped 20% in its second week, and has made it’s $40M budget back. It could become a sleeper hit.

It certainly works as a remedy for all the Oscar-nominated films. You can go to the movies and just have fun.

The Kite Runner

I was actually not really amped to see this tale of Afghani woe called The Kite Runner. But, in my own defense, I didn’t know that it was directed by Marc Forster, of Stranger Than Fiction and Finding Neverland fame.

This is the story of a rich boy who is best friends with his servant, a “Hazari” boy who is, in most ways, of a superior character than his master. Hassan is brave, loyal, fearless, and highly protective of Amir, even when being terrorized by the neighborhood thugs. Amir is cowardly, and upon witnessing Hassan’s victimization and doing nothing, tries to drive Hassan and his father away.

This drama is interrupted by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Amir and his father flee to America, where Amir makes a life as a writer. 20 years later, he receives a call that summons him back.

(As a footnote, I’m not sure if it’s the passage of time that makes it permissible, but the Soviets take it in the shorts in this movie, as they did in Charlie Wilson’s War. Apparently, when they invaded a place, they were all about the raping and pillaging. I never saw this kind of negative PR when they were in business, nor in the ‘90s.)

Anyway, this film lands a few good punches, as when Amir’s proud, intelligent, noble father ends up working at a convenience store, or when the family is at a swap meet and runs into a Afghan general. And mostly pretty tight for a running time of over an hour. (It does drag in the middle a bit, as The Boy pointed out.)

Also post-Taliban life in Afghanistan–when Amir goes back after the Soviets have been repelled and the Taliban is in control–is genuinely horrifying on a lot of different levels. It doesn’t seem like we hear much about this, except in the context of how it’s America’s Fault. The Afghanis obviously don’t feel that way (versus how they feel about the Russians, as is made clear several times in the movie).

Contra Atonement, the cowardly character is given a chance at redemption and takes it, even when it can mean his life, his dignity, his safety, his comfort, and for that it’s a far more watchable movie.

Ultimately, I wasn’t expecting something quite this brutal (the implicit violence is horrifying, there’s little violence shown on screen), but there’s no doubting this is one of the best movies of 2007.

As another footnote, the Hazara thing is reminiscient of the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, where the two characters are half-white and half-black but hate their racial differences. Seriously, the Afghans could all tell the difference between the Hazara and the Pashtun, but I sure couldn’t. (The “Hazari” are a Star Trek race, even!)

Crazy humans and their prejudices.

Cinematic Titanic Sinks The Oozing Skull

Well, it finally arrived. And…? And…?

Well, it’s been 20 years about since the Satellite of Love launched. Our beloved crew is older, wiser, and technology has moved forward a lot in 20 years.

Can you go home again?

Well, Cinematic Titanic is like going home and finding things better than you remember them.

Don’t get me wrong: Episode 1 is not perfect, and we all missed the campy set up and in-between sketches that were standard on MST3K. Also, it feels like a first episode in some ways, like the cast hasn’t got their rhythms down perfectly yet.

But in terms of riffs-per-minute? Sheer comic gold. About as good as anything MST3K ever did.

So, how does it work? The five principals (Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo and Josh) sit along the edges of the screen and riff. The resolution is such that you can actually make them out better than Tom and Crow from the original series (but we do miss the puppets). Sometimes Trace will use the Crow voice and it’s sort of bittersweet.

With five people there is a different dynamic, and there’s a lot to be explored there. This first episode, besides being funny in itself, promises greater things.

To spice things up a bit further, there are guest appearances (Stephen Hawkings in this episode), and they stop the movie from time-to-time. There’s a scene in this one where a character has acid poured on his face, and Joel stops it to ask if it’s really necessary. The gentleness of Joel’s character made a great foil on MST3K and it still works here, as the others scold him for stopping the movie. (You don’t really see anything as far as acid being poured on anyone’s face, by the way. The whole show is pretty family friendly.)

At another point Trace stops the film on a close-up of Regina Carroll so he can fix her makeup, after which Frank quips something like “If that doesn’t get us on Bravo, nothing will.”

Oozing Skull itself is a fairly standard “let’s transplant someone’s brain so they’ll live forever” plot. In this case “someone” is the beloved dictator of a middle (far?) eastern country (“Postcardia!” as Trace riffs when a picture of a Taj Mahal type building is shown). But it’s a sort of no-holds barred ‘70s version of the story that includes a mad scientist, an evil dictator, a platinum blonde bimbette (the director’s wife, no less), a disfigured giant, a dwarf, a dungeon, a lab, and graphic-ish brain surgery! There’s also two romantic sub-plots, betrayals abound, and the mad scientist has a pain-ray-gun.

It’s a myth that only the worst movies can be riffed on. (I have a dream of seeing the crew do Citizen Kane.) The movies must attempt a plot, have the right amount of dialog, and if they have no action at all, they can still be hard to watch, riffing or no. Skull is particularly rich in plot and action, just a little confused and more than a little hampered by a low budget.

This makes it a perfect movie for riffing, and riff they do. It’s definitely a multiple-watcher.

If I had but one request, one dream come true, it would be this: Stay clear of the political humor guys. There are a couple of instances where Frank riffs on Bush and, really, it’s not good. Yeah, I’m sure it gets applause when you do it live. But it’s “clap humor”, not real humor, and I’d rather have a dozen more references to Ray Stevens and Ginger Baker.

For $16 (including shipping and handling, with luck to be dropped to $13 for download-and-burn once they work out that out), you could do a lot worse for a night’s entertainment.

Forgotten Gems: Turnabout

I run hot and cold on comedy legend Hal Roach. Well, not on him, per se. He seems like he was a helluva guy, working hard for the better part of four decades in showbiz, making the transition from silent to talkies, and from two-reel wonders to, well, almost to feature-length pix. (If TV had come along sooner, he’d probably have been the first Aaron Spelling or Sheldon Schwartz.)

Yes, if it weren’t for his persistent Mussolini-love, why, he’d be near perfect.

But Harold Lloyd wasn’t my favorite silent guy and Our Gang grated on me when I was a kid. (I can hardly imagine now.) I do, however, love me some Thorne Smith. Smith was very much about a rejection of Victorian morals on the one hand, and an embracing of those morals on the other. Which is to say, he had no use for the scold, the pious or the pompous. It’s easy to see him joining a group like Joe Bob Briggs’ Drunks Against Mad Mothers. At the same time, his characters found unhappiness discarding traditional morals and happiness coming back to them (or something like them) on their own terms.

Which is further to say, his stories involve sex. A lot of it. Not graphic, obviously, but copious.

His stories were really unfilmable at the time for that. And today they’re unfilmable because they reflect a gentility that no longer exists, at least anywhere in the product that Hollywood churns out.

Hal Roach, though, tried and scored big hits by taking the late Smith’s stories and substituting a healthy dose of “screwball”. The result is much less sophisticated, but it keeps a guy out of trouble with the Hayes office.

The most famous of these movies are the Topper series. (Not the least of which for featuring a rising Cary Grant in the role of George Kirby.) But the lesser known Turnabout is also worth a watch or two.

In this story, bickering husband and wife John Hubbard and Carole Landis are switched by a mystical statue (played by perpetual extra Georges Renavent) , who then proceed to wreck each others’ lives (which are, of course, more complex than each gives the other credit for).

Sure you’ve seen it before. As Freaky Friday three times, or one of those ‘80s movies with one of those ’80s Coreys. I think it was a play in Ancient Greece, and they probably stole the idea from the Upanishads.

But surprising, to me, is how a lot of yuks hold up after 68 years. John Hubbard swishes around the Ad Agency he works for while the elegant Carole Landis (just 21 at the time!) squats and sits open legged like a mook. Adolphe Menjou was the headliner, and he’s fine, but not really the star. The ending is an absurd twist on Thorne Smith’s ending, which results in the husband remaining in his wife’s body until their baby is delivered (as punishment for his infidelities).

All very broad, yes. And at times overplayed. Yet it still works. I’ve seen it twice in the past couple of years (on TCM On Demand) and I laugh every time.

The Boy laughed, which says something.

And the beauty of watching a Hal Roach movie is that, even if you don’t like it, it’s not going to last long.

El Orfanato: The Orphanarium

We decided to take a break from the award-bait movies today and went instead to see Guillermo Del Toro Presents some other spanish dude’s movie El Orfanato.

This is what you call a crap-shoot. Famous directors put their names on others’ films I think because they genuinely feel they have merit, or something worth cultivating. Very often whatever that is ain’t there yet. Horror movies may be the worst, and sometimes the directors may have less pure motives than cultivating talent.

The Orphanage was, in the end, pretty good. I mean that literally, too: The ending is solid, nicely spooky and a not disappointing payoff for the build-up. The beginning is too slow and while the shocks that there are are quite good, there aren’t really enough of them.

This is more suspense than horror. In the end, you could argue convincingly that nothing supernatural happened at all, though that’s sort of a bleak way to look at things.

If you don’t mind a slow build-up, it’s good for a watch.

Juno. Not like the city in Alaska.

I caught Juno finally the other night. The writer, Diablo Cody, had a sort-of sex blog for years, which was vulgar and funny, and one of the first blogs I read. (At least, one of the first I read that was called a “blog”; we had these things back before the Internet was a cultural hub. They were called “vanity websites”.) Anyway, nomadic blogger is she, I think she’s currently on MySpace, after having left there and trying blogspot and some other locales.

A lot of the dialogue is distinctly Cody which is good on the one hand, but which I think probably reads funnier than it sounds. And it’s not as edgy or offbeat as it once was: “The Gilmore Girls” used a similar (far less vulgar) style during its run.

But this is nitpicking.

You know, back in MY day, when we did a movie about teen-pregnancy, the girl got an abortion and everyone lived ick-ily ever after. (Seriously, movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Last American Virgin were grotesque. Increasingly so to the degree they reflected reality.)

So there’s a certain poetic irony in the plot of Juno, where the girl starts out pregnant, and it’s really only because she’s something of an iconoclast that she decides to keep the baby. And really, while the movie doesn’t labor the point, it’s hard to pull back from that story without observing that the “safe” option–the one that preserves your reputation and allows you to pretend nothing has happen–is the one heavily encouraged today.

Clearly director Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking) and Cody “get” what it means to be transgressive at a fundamental level. It’s not dressing weird, or listening to a particular kind of music: It’s going against The Way Things Are. (This is seen in Smoking as well.)

One of the ways this movie succeeds this season is by NOT eschewing traditional narrative structures, satisfying resolutions, and trying to be “artsy”. It could be a run-of-the-mill film but for its refusal to take any of the easy outs. At the same time, it doesn’t mock you for wanting some sort of happiness, some sort hope or optimism.

So, I liked it. As The Boy opined, it could’ve had a few more jokes. The first act takes a while to pick up. But this is a solid flick.

The casting is perfect by the way, from Ellen Page as the pregnant girl, Michael Cera as her best friend/impregnator, Allison Janney and J. K. Simmons as Juno’s stepmother and father, Olivia Thirby as the best friend, and Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the couple who wants to adopt Juno’s baby.

A special nod to the last two: Garner plays a woman on the edge, she’s controlling and desperate, but conveys a seriousness that wins us over; Bateman plays the reluctant father, cool, but chasing his youth (at 39) who forms a special bond with Juno.

This is a movie that’s easy to like and easier to like the more you reflect on it.

Anyway, nice job Diablo et al. I hope to see much more from all of you in the future.

What did I do deserve this? (A review of Atonement.)

When I first saw Joe Wright’s take on that old Austen warhorse, Pride and Prejudice, I thought it was a fun angle on something that had been done the same way for many decades. Over time, and re-watchings, I began to appreciate the tight piece of machinery it is, with every scene leading into the next logically and with tremendous urgency. Emma Thompson’s punch-ups captured much of the spirit of Austen (for a modern audience) while condensing the experience. It is the most viscerally exciting interpretation of an any Austen story ever. And, he knows how to shoot Keira Knightly.

So, I was looking forward to Atonement, though I didn’t expect it to be as good, despite the critical praise heaped on it, just because the source material was unlikely to be of the same caliber.

And as I’m watching, I’m seeing the same sort of artistry: Gorgeous cinematography, with composition that reminds of the great James Wong Howe, fine acting, music that cleverly incorporates the typewriter clacks as a sort of sinister percussion. Excellent choice of matching children with their older versions–though I guess, since Juno Temple played herself at both ages, they only had to match up the 13-year-old Saoirse Ronan with Romola Garai (of Amazing Grace).

So, I ask myself, “Why am I not enjoying this?” And my answer is the terribly unprofessional, “It’s just not very good.” The story, I mean, and as it’s portrayed in this filming. This is really the story of Briony Tallis (Ronan and Garai) who tells a lie that ruins two people’s lives, and comes to regret it later.

I mean, that’s it. Confused girl tells lie. Bad things happen. Girl grows up and regrets telling lie.

Of the bad things that happen, the movie focuses on what happens to James McAvoy at Dunkirk, where he’s forced to go (else stay in jail). This is some stunning set design and photography and 20-30 minutes of irrelevance. There’s some resonance added by the end scene, but it really doesn’t excuse the fact that, if the movie is going to be about bad things happening, we really need to see the main character’s reaction to those things.

And we do, a bit, but the bad things she experiences are only after the fact of her regret. In other words, we see her before her change, we see her after her change, but it’s only getting older (and gaining understanding of sex) that causes the change, and we don’t see that.

Clearly Briony has a crush on Robbie, so is her lie an act of jealousy? Doesn’t seem to be. Her character has a longing for Robbie and Cecelia’s relationship, without any of the hatefulness. Basically, her motives for telling the lie come down to not understanding what she sees, therefore her realization of her error comes down to a big “Whoops!”.

And we’re left with a main character (who doesn’t get much screen time, perhaps because she’s not a big box office draw) who is a coward.


The boy was pissed. He ranks it with Skydivers as the worst movie he’s ever seen.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse

Me: I thought “Apocalypse” was pretty good for a “Resident Evil” movie.

The Boy: Yeah. A bit silly though. Wouldn’t corporations be the best chance of survival in a zombie-ridden world?

Me: Well, them and hot chicks running around in shorty-shorts.

The Boy: True.

Me: Which, if you can accept the premise that fighting zombies is best done in skimpy clothing, it’s all downhill from there, silliness-wise.

EDIT: This should’ve been RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION. I couldn’t stay awake through Apocalypse, shorty-shorts or no.

A Paean To Sexual Harrassment: Charlie Wilson’s War

Just got back from Charlie Wilson’s War. (And hang tight, there are about eight movies out on my “to see” list–after weeks of scratching to find one worth watching.)

I had read Extreme Mortman’s review (via Instapundit) and figured I could risk this politically themed movie, as the subject–America’s contribution to the Soviet-Afghanistan war–was of some interest. (EDIT: Actually Karl’s review at Protein Wisdom, which looks at some of the more political reactions, was probably more influential.)

What I was immediately struck by was that the movie positively glorified what we now call “sexual harassment”. Wilson is introduced to us–after the left end of a bookend scene with a medal ceremony assuring us that the Cold War never would have been won without him–at an ‘80s strippers ‘n’ coke party and he staffs his office with gorgeous chicks. Much of the negotiation the Congressmen does involves having sex with women. These things are obliquely referred to however, since the actual act of–well, the actual acts might take some of the sheen off of even Tom Hanks (last seen lending his credibility to The Simpson’s Movie’s dubious US government).

This part of the movie is fun. Hanks gets to pour on some of the southern charm he marvelously overplayed in the Coen brothers’ Ladykillers. The movie picks up real speed when Philip Seymour Hoffman shows up as an offbeat CIA agent, and is humming along nicely when Julia Roberts does her turn as the aging Texan ex-beauty queen who pressures the Congressmen into acting to giving the Afghans armaments. (And unlike the Mortman, I had no trouble hearing either Hanks or Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it’ll probably be inaudible in the TV mix.)

For a based-on-a-true-story, this is a rather odd film. The movie wisely avoids partisan politics for the most part, concentrating on the dysfunction of the process–with only a few scenes that (fairly, I’d say) show how the idiosyncrasies of a particular party. For example, Dems are shown backing the aid to Afghanistan for the “tough” street cred. (The CIA takes another huge black eye, though, both for missing the invasion and not backing the resistance.)

It seems, though, that this was partly accomplished by ignoring huge chunks of history. Reagan was referred to once in the movie–and only as “a Republican President”. Democrats and media types who were (and still are) sympathetic to communism are completely ignored. The Afghanis themselves are practically props in the acts of heroism of a guy who, when you get down to it, is gonna be okay no matter how things turn out.

The Boy once again encapsulates this in his laconic style: “It was pretty good but it could have grabbed me more.”

This complete disconnect from historically significant events means the movie sort of drifts in its second half, devolving into a sort of money/body count (for hardware). And the end veers way to the left, implicating America in the subsequent rise of fanatic Islam. It’s almost like–or maybe exactly like–the writer can’t stand for America to have done something unequivocally good.

There are a number of things worth bitching about as far as the historical events that actually are portrayed as well. It’s really quite challenging to imagine large swaths of the Democratic Left talking about killing Russians with the sort of vigor that is portrayed in this film. At the time, Reagan was soundly mocked for viewing the world in such a simplistic manner.

It’s also weird to see the hero engaging in all sorts of sexist activities. Or activities that would be regarded as such today. At least if a Republican did them. This movie sort of makes you wonder why we have all those laws, all that grab-ass looks like fun for all involved.

Anyway, I give points to the film for showing that grassroots Reps were involved and concerned, and for showing that the Communists fielded a vicious army that routinely and deliberately engaged in the sorts of atrocities that a few outliers in the US Army commit (and are punished for).

It shouldn’t be noteworthy but it is. I can’t think of the last American film that portrayed the Soviets (and their satellite governments) as the horrors they were. Or any American film, come to think of it. (Das Leben Der Anderen should be required viewing for anyone who wants to push centralized economic planning. And even it’s mild.)

Overall a flawed but fairly entertaining movie, especially if you’re not too wrapped up in historical accuracy. Sort of a left wing Red Dawn. Top-notch acting. (I’m not a big Julia Roberts fan; this was probably my favorite of her work. Also, while I love Hoffman, he can veer toward the precious, and this was a nice switch from Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. ) Mike Nichols doesn’t dawdle or have characters engage in lengthy speeches: Evil is shown and we’re expected to recognize it as such.

It may not do well, of course. People are already sick of politics as we enter this election year, or so it seems. But in this year of highly political bombs, you could do worse.

Speaking of Good Looking Old Folks….

I managed to catch Away From Her as it began it’s pre-awards rounds this week. (These things seem to go in curious streaks, don’t they? There was an ad for a documentary about a young guy who checks into an old folks home to see how they live.)

I had put off seeing this previously because I had been scarred by The Notebook a few years earlier. (I’ll probably do a review of that film later on, because it ranks as one of the three worst films I’ve seen in a decade, and a good example of how you can love everyone involved in the making of a movie and hate the movie itself. But I digress.)

The incredibly talented Sarah Polley wrote for the screen and directed this film. Polley, first known to me as the little girl in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, has emerged as an adult with a formidable acting–and now writing and directing–talent.

Grant Anderson (played by Gordon Pinsent of Saint Ralph and The Good Shepherd) is married to Fiona (played by the still radiant Julie Christie) who has Alzheimer’s. She forces him to put her in a home where, after an enforced 30-day absence, he returns to find she has fallen in love with another man, and regards him as a troubling confusion.

The movie reveals, in bits and pieces, their history together, the progression of her disease, the relaationship of her beau with his wife, Marian (Olympia Dukakis), and ultimately the relationship that Grant forms with Marian. It succeeds in making us care, while not hesitating to show the warts of the various characters.

Ultimately, I found it to be upbeat, as there is honesty and love on display, with difficult choices being made.

Julie Christie–who at 66, is often pointed out as being “young” to have Alzheimer’s so severely–actually makes a particularly poignant victim. With a little acting judo, she turns her youthful looks into tragedy. I found her more appealing in this film than in Heaven Can Wait or any of the other flicks she did in the ‘60s and ’70s.

But she’s not shouldering the burden alone: Even Michael Murphy, who plays the non-verbal Aubrey, object of Fiona’s newfound affections does a smashing job conveying an age which (one can only presume) none of these remarkably well-preserved old folks actually feel. (At least not to the oppressive degrees their characters do.)

The music, as I noticed it, was an excellent mix of classical (I noticed Bach’s cantate no. 147) played in a jazz guitar style.

The whole thing was so good, and so polished, the director’s insertion of a political statement stands out like a sore thumb. It’s brief, fortunately, but it’s the archetype of how “messages” can ruin films, it’s so out of character with the rest of the movie.

Statuette Hunting

In honor of Christopher Plummer’s passing, I thought I would repost a review of a movie he made nearly fifteen years that nobody saw. For reviews of other recent Plummer works, check out Remember, the last Nazi warcrime story (at least it was until we deported Friedrich Berger last week!) and the out-and-proud Beginners. The ‘gique also recommends the classic The Sound of Music and, of course, the always amazing <i>Starcrash</i>.

Or maybe "Dragnet".

Plummer wouldn’t wear this much eyeliner again until “Beginners”.

****”STAUETTE HUNTING” (originally published December 20, 2007)****

It’s that time of the year when all the movies designed for Oscar glory are released on to not the unsuspecting masses (who often have to wait months or weeks for a wide release) but the suspecting elite.

A lot of this annual burst of energy seems to have been absorbed or deflected by anti-war films. It’s still possible these films will carry home Oscars, but I think Hollywood likes to be popular as well as right, and with the way the war seems to be going these days, rewarding anti-war films may prove to be neither.

And so we have a strange little low-budget film, The Man In The Chair, from Michael Schroeder, a man probably best known for introducing the world to a (occasionally topless) 17-year-old Angelina Jolie in the even lower budget Cyborg 2. (I have to admit I find that film watchable but that may have more to do with comparing the Jolie of then–awkward but still with a sort of presence–to the Jolie of now than any other quality of the film.)

Do your own damn web search!

Yeah, I could’ve put a pic of topless 17-year-old Jolie here, but this is a classy post.

Christopher Plummer plays lighting man “Flash Madden” who wanders around L.A. reading, drinking, smoking Cuban cigars, and yelling at the screen at the Beverly, much to the amusement of juvenile delinquent Cameron Kincaid (played by Michael Angara) who spends his time in-between school and getting tossed in jail dreaming of making a movie.

This is to Christopher Plummer what last year’s Venus was for Peter O’Toole. A film that no one is going to see, but which shows the old man’s chops and gives him a shot at the little gold statue. ‘course, O’Toole missed out on his because the Academy had given him a “get this guy an Oscar before he croaks” award in the previous years.

Plummer is not the icon O’Toole was, but his age shows far less on his face. A lot of the wide-open expressions O’Toole has used his whole career look overly broad now, with age pulling his long face down even longer. Plummer (who is three years older) seems young by comparison.

And he is good, as you might imagine. As is M. Emmet Walsh, letting himself be filmed in a most unflattering way. Robert Wagner joins the crew as the still rakishly good looking and rich arch-rival. (Also with a small role is one of my favorite character actors, George Murdock.) Another remarkably well-preserved specimen in the cast is the very lovely 65-year-old Margaret Blye.

I have no idea who these people are.

Steve Carell, Chris Plummer, Jeff Bezos and M. Emmet Walsh at the premiere.

Am I obsessing on age here? Well, yeah, because the movie’s about aging and what we do with the aged. Also, the cast is ten years too young. Flash was a young gaffer on Citizen Kane…but I kept thinking, “okay, he had to be born in 1920, making him 87…no way is Plummer 87.” (He’s 78.)

If I had to describe this movie in ten words or less, I’d call it “an afterschool special on steroids”. It’s very well done with a top-notch cast, tightly directed and edited (though with a gratuitous shaky-blurry-cam scene transition effect, in a style most commonly used by zombie horror flicks).

The story is kind of pat, a little clichéd, a bit run-of-the-mill. Old people teaching younger people, and aren’t we horrible for not taking better care of, and respecting our senior citizens? Flash, through his horrible life mistakes, has learned that he might be better off now, if only he hadn’t treated people so badly through the rest of his life.

Except, well, we’re never sure about Mickey Hopkins (Walsh’s character) who seems to have been abandoned by his daughter. He seems like a very nice fellow but he can’t get his daughter to talk to him for five minutes.

I actually felt a sort of blowback after seeing this film. Are we supposed to generically care about old people? And take care of them? Even when they had an entire life to cultivate friends and family and did none of that? Do we feel sorry or empathize when they reach the end of that life alone?

Well, yeah, we do. But maybe somewhat begrudgingly.

L.A.’s greatest landmark, the San Fernando Valley’s own Sepulveda Dam.

Another thing that sort of annoyed me: One of the old characters dies in this film. I won’t say who it is so as not to spoil anything but I will say I both saw it coming and hoped it wouldn’t as soon as I realized what the movie was about. OK, if you’re watching a movie about old people, it’s natural some might die, especially if the movie spans the course of a year or longer.

This movie takes place over three weeks.

And the character just…dies. Rather conveniently, too. But unnecessarily, except maybe to give the whole thing a little more gravitas (and hopeful Oscar contenders a meaty scene).

What I liked about this film was the idea that, in the retirement homes of the San Fernando Valley, you could find a top-level crew still capable of making a high quality movie. A highly romantic notion, to be sure, and one that would’ve been better served by the whole crew getting together for ANOTHER movie after shooting the first one.

Nonetheless, it’s a good film, with Oscar-worthy performances.


Well, upon review, it seems that the cast has gone on to do many more notable things, most notably dying, though not as many as you might think. Plummer, of course, went on to a career renaissance, winning an Oscar for the gay movie, and Walsh and Wagner live yet. Blye and Murdock a few years after production. Unlike your usual low-budget film, a lot of the younger actors had at least minor Hollywood careers both before and after, while writer/director Michael Schroeder does not appear to have worked since making this.

Gore-illas In “The Mist”

OK, lame title. “The Mist” isn’t all that gory. And what’s an “illa” anyway?

That aside, I have to wonder if it’s hard being Frank Darabont. Since Shawshank Redemption, Darabont directed The Green Mile and The Majestic, all based on Stephen King novels. None horror.

When he makes a movie, expectations are high. (Part of the relatively cool reception of The Majestic was doubtless the phenomenal quality of Shawshank and Mile.) And Stephen King’s horror novels have made mincemeat out of some otherwise competent directors.

It’s no coincidence that the movie isn’t being advertised as “Stephen King’s The Mist”.

Anyway, I think Darabont could probably remake Maximum Overdrive into a quality film. The guy’s got the chops. He does the atmosphere right and gets great performances, including from a lot of Darabont regulars, like the great William Sadler, Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn.

And it’s a good thing, because the story is pretty threadbare. It’s your basic barricaded-in-a-house movie, only it’s a grocery store. This allows for some community dynamics that are not really much different then barricaded-in-a-house movies, though you got a bigger cast to work with.

In this case, the tension occurs between regular guy David Drayton (excellently played by Thomas Jane) and his group, versus crazy religious freak Mrs. Carmody (whom Marcia Gay Harden is a little too sexy to play but pulls it off anyway). I’d call her a “Jesus freak” but she’s entirely Old Testament. I don’t she ever invokes the J-Man.

And here we have precisely why King novels don’t often translate well into movies. We have a pretty standard scenario (at least since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead) which is larded with a bunch of clichés: Where did the monsters come from? The nearby military base no doubt. Who causes trouble? The crazy religious person. In a store with grocery clerks, a judge, some blue collar workers, some soldiers and a painter (art, not house), who naturally leaps into the lead? The artist. The soldiers, completely unarmed, are mostly a zero or negative asset.

The artist writes the story, the artist gets to pick the hero, right? Fair’s fair.

And the underlying message, of course, is that an unknown fear results will turn people quickly toward superstition and barbarism. A message underscored by Mrs. Carmody’s increasing power as the ordeal wears on. We get to see denial in many forms (horror movies almost universally have an element of denial).

Darabont’s so good that you don’t mind that the premise is actually pretty badly botched. Monsters show up. These Lovecraftian beasties are quickly shown to be mortal, however scary. Granted, the people in the store don’t know the extent of the mist, whether it’s local or global, but they have a piece of it well understood enough.

Wacky cults tend to spring up when the danger is less immediate and has no clear source. Think volcanos, droughts, natural disasters.

I didn’t find that part of the premise particularly believable. (Read my rant on Tooth and Nail for another lengthy ripping of the barricaded-in-a-building genre.)

What’s more, we’re treated to the sort of illogic that King ought to be famous for. In this movie there are, uh, space-spiders that shoot their acidic space-web (hellloooo, xenomorph!) all over people for some nasty thrills. And this stuff is seriously nasty: One person is nearly instantly bisected by it.

At the same time, it’s all over everything. Shelves, walls, doors, buildings, and even people are completely bound in this horrifyingly acidic web crap. But it only burns as needed for the scares.

Not too important, I suppose. Even less important is the whole premise that there’s an entire other plane of existence out there that’s just waiting for us to let them so they can use us as the base of their elaborate ecosystem. Despite being completely alien in every way to them, we’re still a tasty and nutritious snack, suitable for laying eggs in (did I mention Alien? Well, I’m mentioning it again).

This is horror, people, not sci-fi. If you want a more scientifically realistic treatment of how an alien invasion might work, you might try my old friend David Gerrold’s War Against The Chtorr series.

Anyway, The Boy put it best in his review: “It’s a good movie but the ending was a little too ironic for my taste.”

Endings are tricky. There are only a few ways to end the barricaded-in-a-building story. The threat can be removed or escaped, it can turn out to be a global, persistent problem doomed to chase mankind through a series of sequels, or…both (think Night of the Living Dead).

I’ll give Darabont credit: I didn’t see the ending coming till the last shot was fired (about a minute before the actual reveal). But while The Boy called it “ironic”, I’m more inclined to call it “mean”. It isn’t really sold well, either. (There will be plenty who love the movie and hate the ending.) I didn’t hate it. You know, it wasn’t the Lincoln Monument with an Ape’s Head on it. But it was the meanest thing I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

Two Hours In The Uncanny Valley

At the behest of my partner-in-crime, Loaded Questions Kelly, I went to see Beowulf.

There’s a theory called The Uncanny Valley that is applicable here. I quote from Wikipedia:

as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion

In other words, when something is very humanlike, but not quite there, we tend to reject it. One can think of many reasons why a corpse is creepy, but why mannequins? How about a Real Doll? Well, okay, lotta reasons that’s creepy.

Beowulf is two hours in the Uncanny Valley. Better than Final Fantasy, in some ways, and presumably better than director Zemeckis’ earlier work, The Polar Express, which I could not bring myself to watch, Beowulf still had me thinking thoughts like, “Hey, that almost looks like Anthony Hopkins!”

They spent millions creating animated models of Hopkins, Robin Wright (Princess Bride) Penn and of course, Ray Winstone, but they clearly devoted a huge amount of time and energy to the Jolie model. In some shots, from some angles, it’s very impressive. Because the “hits” are so good, the “misses” are terribly jarring, reminding you that, in fact, it’s not Jolie but an amazing simulation.

With Hopkins, you sorta think, “Hey, that kinda looks like Sir Anthony,” but actually, with both him and Jolie, you miss their subtler facial twitches and tics. Maybe Hopkins over-acts in general, but whatever the reason, his model seems flat. Some of the biggest misfires with Jolie’s model is a failure to capture her seductiveness. (Though, in fairness to her animators, I can’t recall a time she’s been a truly evil character, as she is here.)

Winstone and Penn hardly look like themselves, or realistic at all, but that sort of works in their favor. I don’t know Winstone enough by look. And, to be honest, I have a strange sort of uncanny valley feeling whenever I see Penn, especially in Princess Bride. I have some sort of disconnect between my brain being told she’s a beautiful princess and what my eyes are seeing. (Not that she’s ugly or anything, it’s just an odd feeling I get when I see her, which the movie actually recreated pretty well.)

Obviously, I’m rambling about the animation here but that’s because it was always on my mind. As with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Final Fantasy, I’m constantly thinking about the technique while I’m watching it. It’s very tiring. Even the more adventurous animé techniques (like those in Appleseed) usually vanish as the movie progresses.

Not for me. Not with this sort of CGI. (Pixar, no problem.)

I didn’t see the 3D version. This will be the first iteration of a new 3D technique I’ve missed in my lifetime. It usually barely works for me and almost always gives me a headache. Plus, the movies are almost always pure crap. (Exceptions being the original versions of The House of Wax and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Back in my day, they didn’t even try.)


This movie takes the thinly plotted Old English poem Beowulf and, uh, oh, hell, does it matter? OK, basically, the movie takes a straightforward story of a guy who beats the crap out of two evil monsters, and then a third evil monster when he’s old, and turns it into a story about a guy who beats the crap out of one evil monster, has sex with the second, and thereby spawns the third, which then kill each other.

And, yes, if you’re keeping score at home, monster #2 (Ms. Jolie) lives on to, presumably, inspire a sequel.

The whole sex angle is…different. And I guess it adds some depth to an otherwise straightforward story. Though since he ends up dying as a result of his own earlier sin, it takes some of the shine off the story. The story’s Beowulf was not a man with any sort of weaknesses (as pointed out by this review by Dan at Gay Patriot). They foreshadow Beowulf’s fall from grace by showing him losing a swimming contest because he stopped to kill some sea serpents and canoodle with some mermaids.

Of course, when you combine that with Hrothgar’s (Hopkins) previous dalliance with Grendel’s mother, it’s obvious what’s going to happen.

Stupid though it may seem, Walthow’s (Penn) icy perfection made Beowulf’s tryst seem somewhat understandable (even if she and Beowulf weren’t yet involved). Even as an evil water demon, Jolie seemed a lot more inviting than Penn.

Of course, I don’t remember any women in the poem.
I do remember a naked fight.
I would have also sworn that Beowulf wins his last fight through the power of Jesus.

The mind, it plays tricks.

Well, overall, it wasn’t horrible. Mostly not boring. The Boy sez, “It was stupid.”

Look for Crispin Glover as GRENDEL! in an upcoming musical version.

After Dark 2007: Tooth & Nail

I love a good post-Apocalyptic thriller. It’s too bad one’s never been made. No, no, there are a few—very few—classics of the genre, but mostly they’re quite bad. And perhaps worse than just badness, they’re stupid. Take the Triple A title Children of Men: It posited all kinds of horrors that stemmed from women not being able to get pregnant, and missed the obvious ramifications of such a situation. (For example, if youth is exceedingly rare, it would also become exceedingly valuable; the idea that there would be youth running around unemployed seemed far-fetched.)

No, it’s really best if the whole reasons behind the apocalypse are ill-defined and not much discussed.

Tooth and Nail brings the stupid with its theory of apocalypse being “we run out of gas”. And the world collapses so quickly and thoroughly, there’s no time to adapt to coal, nuclear, natural gas, or whatever. Why? Because everyone floods south to warmer climates and wars ensue. As we all know from history lessons, prior to the refining of oil, everyone had to live in temperate zones.

Despite the apparent amnesia regarding “fire”—something that might have been handy with a bunch of people running around Philadelphia in light clothing—the heroes of our film seem to have acquired virtually no survival skills in their two or three years in the apocalypse.

I’m gonna keep ripping on this movie for a while longer, so you might be surprised to know that I did enjoy it quite a bit. But make no mistake, it’s dumb enough to have been a Michael Bay film.

And it really served no purpose to make this a post-apocalyptic thriller, except as a premise for locking up a bunch of college kids in a hospital so that a bunch of cannibals could come after them. Surely they could have thought of something else. Even the setting was dumb, though: Anyone who’s ever been in a large, modern hospital could tell you that six people could hide for weeks without being found by a dozen or so people searching for them.

In the dark.

So, the premise of the movie is that Ford (Rider Strong again!), Viper (Michael Kelly) and Dakota (Nicole DuPort) are out scavenging one day when they come across an injured girl, Neon (Rachel Miner). They bring her back to the hospital, where Professor Darwin (Robert Carradine) sets her to work fixing the water purifiers.

‘cause, you know, there’s a real shortage of water in Philly. Or maybe running out of gas ruined the water, even though everyone has moved south.

This causes stress because Viper (Michael Kelly) doesn’t trust Neon and wants to spend time fixing on the barriers instead of the damn water purifiers like the Professor wants. We never see “the barriers” by the way. When Michael Madsen and Vinnie Jones, and their band of cannibalistic freaks invades the hospital, they walk in through one of the “dozen” entrances to the hospital.

Because, you know, despite civilization collapsing into violence, you wouldn’t worry about finding a defensible position to settle down in.

You also would be sure to let everyone follow their whims as far as relationships, even if it meant two of your young men were without women and therefore ties to your group. (Darwin is hooked up with Dakota, Torino is hooked up with Ford, and Viper and Yukon are celibate because Victoria is picky enough to make good on that “last man on earth” threat.)

You may have noticed that while our crew hasn’t picked up any worthwhile skills, nor done anything but sit around contemplating the future, they have found the time to rename themselves after automobiles.

Things go bad when Neon fesses up that she was fleeing a bunch of cannibals who will now be coming after Darwin’s gang. Needless to say, our crew acts like an apocalypse-hardened team who is used to defending themselves against any and all attacks.

Ha. Just kidding. They act like a bunch of pampered college kids who don’t know how to fight, strategize or set traps.

I should probably point out that if you love uber-nerd Robert Carradine and tough guy Michael Madsen like I do, you will want to keep in mind that, generally, the big name on a low-budget horror flick works for a couple of days. The star gets quick cash and the movie gets the name on the box. (I hope that’s not too big a spoiler.) Interestingly, Madsen is one of the producers of the film.

The movie actually gets increasingly preposterous. At one point, one of the characters suffers a compound fracture. No problem, right? These guys have been living in a hospital for 2-3 years, they’ve probably been studying first-aid, bandaging and splinting techniques, even minor surgery. They have all the supplies organized; that’s the smart part of using the hospital, right?

No, they never bother with any of that. This leads to a whole bunch of giggling in the audience whenever a medical matter comes up.

I could go on like this. Really. For days. As I said, nobody does post-apocalyptic stuff right. It takes too much thought. We’re all way too comfortable to think through what life would be like without society to take care of us.

The upshot, though, is that if you’re a master at suspending disbelief, this is a fun little movie. Carradine and Madsen’s brief performances are what you’d expect, and Vinne Jones (X-Men 3’s Juggernaut) is over the top. Rider Strong turns in a typically good performance, and I thought Alexandra Barreto and Michael Kelly were fairly believable characters in a context where little was believable.

One thing that makes the movie work is that it moves. Not to draw ridiculously high comparisons, but Road Warrior is not really less absurd than this film, but it also moves. That’s how you keep people from questioning the absurdities. (Where the hell do they get their tires from in that movie?)

The other thing that makes it work is the interplay between Rachel Miner and Nicole DuPort. Not unlike Emmanuelle Vaugier in Unearthed, neither actress looks particularly plausible as the strong-headed tough-minded leader in a crisis situation. Miner’s eyebrows are exquisitely sculpted and her skin flawless while Nicole DuPort’s hair looks salon styled whether she’s just set a bone or painted herself with half-camouflage/half-tiger face paint.

I guess you could say the film was thought-provoking, since I’ve been rambling about it for so long, but really, you shouldn’t watch this film with any sort of pretensions. There’s a review on IMDB talking about its Nietzsche-ian undertones, for example, and I think that’s probably setting the bar a little high.

But some folks would say that Children of Men was thought-provoking, where I would say a speculative fiction movie needs to make sense on its own terms before it can actually provoke thought about real life.

Gone Baby Gone

Lost somewhere in the, uh, maelstrom that was “Bennifer”, that was the alcohol abuse treatment, that was the uneven acting performances, the record-breaking number of Razzies, was this talented and tragically good-looking guy named Ben Affleck.

Well, I guess we’ve never lost sight of his good looks. How could you really? He’s damn pretty.

But the talent part. Sometimes he’s damn good–like in Kevin Smith films and the underrated Hollywoodland—but he doesn’t seem to flourish in the big budget films. Sort of like Stallone following up the marble-mouthed Rocky with a series of mono-syllabic dim-witted action characters (Rambo, Cobra) people forget that he wrote Rocky, as well as most of his other films.

Affleck looks to be trying to stave off this kind of pigeon-holing both with his role as George Reeves and his direction of today’s movie, Gone Baby Gone. (Of course, he’s been trying to do this all along if the bit with Matt Damon in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back isn’t entirely parodic.)

So, how does he do?

Not bad. Not bad at all.

This movie is based on a Dennis Lehane novel and so invites comparison with Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (by the same author) which, on the one hand, is a pretty gutsy move, but on the other hand–well, Lehane can clearly plot. Affleck’s not padding out Mousehunt, here.

The story concerns a missing girl incident of the sort anyone who’s ever flipped past “On The Record with Greta van Susteren” is familiar with. Casey Affleck and his girlfriend Michelle Monghan are private detectives/repo-men(?) who are hired by the family to augment the police investigation. As the story progresses, we learn more about the missing child’s mother, who is increasingly revealed as a horrible person, and responsible at some level for her child’s disappearance.

As with Mystic River, at the point where a normal detective story would end–the clues pretty much unravelled and the plot explained–this story goes on for another 20 minutes. In this 20 minuets, Lehane’s story presents us with a horrible moral dilemma.

I hated this in Mystic River more than Sean Penn’s Oscar-baiting hamfoolery, as I tend to hate all stories that try to tell us, in the end, man is far more degenerate than even we thought. (It’s sort of porn for cynical intellectuals and I think about as accurate as the sexual kind.) In Gone Baby Gone, however, the challenge is a lot more credible and interesting. And Casey Affleck’s decision is both more straightforward and more complex than the protagonist in “River”.

So, what do we have, once we distill all the Affleck-hype (positive and negative)? Surprisingly great performances from Casey and Michelle, predictably great performances from Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, and also outstanding work from the lesser known John Ashton (as Ed Harris’ police partner), Amy Ryan (as the world’s worst mother) and Titus Welliver as her brother. (I found Titus Welliver’s performance particularly moving.)

Casey knocks it out of the park despite not looking the park at all. (He has more than a few of his brother’s mannerisms, too.) He has to be tough, smart, sensitive, brutal, etc. This is no easy role.

We also get a really good score from Harry Gregson-Williams, who seemed to be channeling the Newmans for this film. (A little bit Randy, a little bit Thomas.)

It didn’t hurt to have Academy Award winning John Toll behind the camera. The cinematography was just so: Not flashy or ostentatious, not lethargic, keeping pace with the story without trying to horn in on it.

One never knows, in the final analysis, what part the director plays (without having been on set) in creating a film. Some directors fit more into the auteur theory than others. And I suspect Ben Affleck’s benaffleckiness is going to encourage a “second shooter” theory.

But really, even if all he did was get out of the way and let everyone else’s talent do the heavy lifting, this is quite an accomplishment. (Movies where the various egos struggled behind the scenes to get their way don’t usually work out.)

In short, not only do I like this movie, I like what it portends for Ben Affleck’s career.

The Rape of Europa

In the third film of our documentary-thon, we saw The Rape of Europa, a feature based on Lynn Nicholas’ book of the same name.

I've heard mixed things, tbh.

The source material.

I heard a sentiment expressed recently–not about this movie, which is a fairly obscure little film, but about another WWII-based feature–which went something like, “There were other wars, you know!” From the clichéd use of Nazis in computer and video games, to the post Saving Private Ryan deluge of WWII movies, TV series, documentaries, museum shows, art exhibits and strained analogies to current social and political events, it can certainly seem like we’re inundated with WWII over any other event in history.

I’ve heard this same sentiment expressed several times over the past 30 years. I’ve never had any response for it.

The Rape of Europa covers a facet of WWII I’ve never seen treated in detail, unless you count Kelly’s Heroes, to wit, the Nazi raids of art treasures from all over Europe.

The film starts with Hitler’s rejection from art school and proceeds quickly to his rise to power and the attendant expurgation of the entartete Kunst (degenerate art), followed by his grand plans to create a super-museum of all the great artwork of Europe, accumulating as he invaded each country.

But it’s not that simple, of course. There was the systematic stripping of Jews of artwork and–just in case you thought the Nazis weren’t bad enough–their religious symbols (torahs, menorahs, and so on). There was the defensive moves by the Russians and French to protect their artwork, both of whom were used to evacuating art work after a century of industrial-era European warfare.

We're awful good in a lot of ways.

Fortunately, AMERICA is there to SAVE the day! And the art!

Then there were the Poles, whose Royal Castle was completely obliterated as punishment for their resistance, the Italians, whose reward for allying with the Nazis was the Nazis destroying their cities as they retreated from the American advance. And, of course, the Americans, a handful of “monument men” trying to convince a bunch of grunts that they should risk further bloodshed to save a monastery or a bridge.

It’s all told with stock footage and still photos, narrated by Joan Allen, and punctuated with interviews of a few surviving children whose family’s artwork was confiscated, monument men, museum curators and the like. Despite this, the drama is all there. Stories of heroism and sacrifice abound here as they do in all tales of WWII. The efforts to restore and return artwork continue to this day, though it is somewhat like unscrambling an egg.

There is a little bit at the end that tells the story of a German official whose job it is to try to reunite all the stolen Jewish artifacts with any surviving community members or their ancestors. It’s probably a powerful story unto itself, and it does remind you that you’ve spent the past 90 minutes focused on the harm done to inanimate things—however culturally important. Unfortunately, it feels a little tacked on to the rest of the movie.

Despite this, it’s fascinating story, and I’m glad it’s finally being told.

Not my thing but hey...

This Klimt portrait is the centerpiece of the story and was reportedly returned to the owner per a tag at the end.

Even if there ARE other wars.

UPDATED: 2020, added pix, fixed an en-dash.

The Kings of Two Worlds

Two documentaries recently released demonstrate what I consider to be good movie-making while using two different and honest approaches to their subject matters. What’s interesting also, is that they’re at completely different ends of the spectrum in terms of, let’s call it “social relevance”.

Or not.


First up is The King of Kong, Seth Gordon’s look into a world most of us couldn’t care less about: World champion retro-gamers. I mean, seriously, I can sort of see the interest in modern games like Unreal Tournament, which have a sort of football-esque feel and head-to-head action. These have the potential to be really fascinating live. Well, maybe.

But 1980s-era quarter munchers? Pac-Man? Centipede? Donkey Kong? I just don’t see it. In fact, Donkey Kong pretty much put an end to my time in arcades. In order to get good at these old games, you had to memorize patterns. That strikes me as one of the biggest waste of time and energy imaginable: Memorizing an arbitrarily constructed and delicate pattern for the purpose of getting good at a video game. I mean, seriously, it’s harder than learning Latin, without the attendant utility and respect-mixed-with-fear you get from knowing Latin.

Carpe calossum!

I swear to Google: This is the first picture that comes up on a “Latin Scholar” search. A Latin tutor, apparently. Tell me that doesn’t make you fear and respect her!

The beauty of this documentary, though, is that you do end up caring. Though a fair number of statements by the competitors were laugh-out-loud funny, especially when applied with just the tiniest bit of perspective, you have to give these guys their props. They’re not really wasting any more time than the average TV watcher (or moviegoer, hey) and in that time they’ve become the best at what they’re doing.

And there are a lot of poseurs, as well. People who would pretend to the crown of video game mastery, and a lot of them–no matter how hard they work at it–will never touch the hem of our two heroes, Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.

Doesn't exactly scream self-confidence, but look at the gleam in his eye.

The underdog challenger.

The movie takes the (always dramatically fruitful) angle of the underdog challenger (Wiebe) looking to dethrone longtime champ (Mitchell). The two are polar opposites as far as their social personalities. Mitchell is a smooth-talking high-powered businessman type who wears a pony tail (yes!) and could easily be selling real estate or doing the motivational lecture circuit, and who views himself as a winner.

Wiebe, by contrast, is a sort of lovable loser, a nearly great athlete (whose big shot was blown by his father), musician (he looks good playing the drums, but I couldn’t tell you if that was good drumming, and his piano playing–well, it reminds me of mine), artist, out-of-work aerospace engineer, whose life is full of near misses, but who uses his mastery of Donkey Kong to make a name for himself.

We’re treated to the cardboard table that is retro-game-score-record keeping, an organization that looks like it’s run on quarters and out of trailer parks and pre-fab homes, but which prides itself on its integrity. And we have the shunned would-be retro-gamer going by the name of “Mr Awesome” who claims they’ve shut him out.

Or pro wrestler.

Mitchel would also be a good candidate for “cult leader”.

Mitchell repeatedly gets favorable treatment from the record keepers, which tweaks our sense of fairness, and he ducks out in a chance to go head-to-head with Wiebe, who fails to beat the high score live, just a couple of blocks from Mitchell’s home and restaurant.

Of course, at the level of DK they’re playing, sheer randomity is as big a factor as anything as to who gets the higher score. While either of them can routinely break the long-standing 650K score, neither can guarantee what will happen after that, leading to a lot of taped scores. And Mitchell gets the chance to point out that he’s simply not prepared–out of training!–to go head-to-head with Wiebe at that point.

Nonetheless, reconciliations are made, and people mostly come across looking like real people, in all their flawed glory. Wiebe gets his place at the table for a while, then Mitchell comes back, and so on.

Wiebe’s personal story has a happy ending as well, as he finds his niche as a school science teacher, and brings his considerable focus to bear on making science interesting for kids.

Contrast with In The Shadow of the Moon.

No joke.

This picture from 2010 showing the struggle continued years after the events depicted in this film.

2016: Updated with formatting and pictures. At the time of this update, director Seth Gordon is slated to helm the Baywatch movie. No joke.