Funny People Who Need People Are The Funniest People In The World

When I saw the posters for Funny People, I thought to myself, “Aw, Apatow finally gave his wife a serious role in one of his movies.” And then, the quirky-but-cute Leslie Mann doesn’t show up for the first half of the movie.

The thing to know about this movie going in is that it’s not funny ha-ha. In fact, the movie should be called Funny (not ha-ha) People or maybe Funny (Strange) People. Because that’s what it’s about.

Really, though, that’s what all Apatow movies are about. People love all the gross humor and all that, but what always supports that are characters. Strange characters trying to figure out what “normal” is–late era victims of a cultural revolution that left us knowing how to groom, how to behave, how, in short, to grow-up.

As a strange person, I kind of like that. I kind of identify with the 40-year-old virgin, the guy who knocked up the girl, and now the sensitive self-deprecating comedian who’s struggling to, uh, struggle less.

First up, though, I note for Knox’s sake that Seth Rogan has lost a fair amount of weight, and is looking pretty good. (I think he’s kind of good looking, in a friendly sort of boy-next-door way, but I’m not exactly qualified to judge.) And, his love interest is Aubrey Plaza, who is adorable but convincingly mousey in this role.

Unfortunately, people identify primarily with the gross humor, which means that Apatow is sort of stuck delivering that, if he expects to keep up the same box office receipts. But as the Farrelly brothers can attest, even that wears out. But if you’re not expecting that, and at the same time not put off by it, uh, this is your movie.

The story is that young, sensitive comedian Ira, living with two more successful guys (Jonah Hill as a better stand-up and Jason Schwartzman, who also has a composer credit on this film, as the handsome young sitcom actor), gets a sudden break when big-shot George Simmons (Adam Sandler) discovers he’s dying and needs a new assistant.

Simmons is a weirdo. He’s been very successful, and so lives a self-involved, shallow existence. In short order, Ira becomes his closest–if not only–friend. Ira ultimately helps him remake the human contact he abandoned on his way to success. Including, incidentally, Leslie Mann, who figures heavily in to the third act.

There are two obvious ways a story like this can end and I was rather pleased that this movie took neither of those two routes. If there’s a message here, it’s awfully close to that old saw attributed to Ed Wynn: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Well, what can you say about this movie? It’s ridiculously better than the abysmal Punchline, the 1988 Tom Hanks/Sally Field vehicle, both in terms of being funny and in terms of being not incredibly painful to watch. It has a lot of funny parts, too. And it manages to deal with its serious topics in a fairly light-hearted manner.

And, typical of Apatow, he doesn’t take the easy way out.

Sort of amusingly, this is probably the least gross of his gross-out comedies. Most of the gross stuff is, well, comedians telling jokes, which is a lot less graphic than having those jokes acted out.

One thing I love about movies like this is that they can line up the comedians (Dave Attell, Norm MacDonald, Sarah Silverman, Charles Fleischer, Paul Reiser, Ray Romano, etc.) for the group scenes or montages, serious or funny, and it’s going to be cool.

One of the big problems with Punchline was that neither Fields nor Hanks were stand-up comedians. Their material wasn’t very good, and they demonstrated very well that being affable and even charismatic was no substitute for having stand-up chops.

Sandler, Hill and Rogan actually are (or have been) stand-up comedians, and Rogan does a nice bit of bad stand-up that demonstrates subtly, yet clearly, how his character grows (as a stand-up) over the course of the movie. Sandler also does a good job being the self-involved character who manages to be really, really self-involved.

When Mann shows up as the sort-of frustrated older actress (and mom of the same two adorable Apatow kids who were in Knocked Up), you kind of get an eerie feeling like all these people are acting a little less than remembering. That’s–well, either really convenient or just good acting. (As Groucho Marx nearly observed, it’s a lot easier to get good acting out of a comedian than good comedy out of an actor.)

Anyway, I liked it. The Boy liked it, even though it topped the 2 hour mark. I thought it was pretty tight despite the length. I had a little trouble with believing Seth Rogan was a stand-up comedian. I liked that he was Mr. Sensitive but I didn’t see how Mr. Sensitive could actually survive as a stand-up.

And that raised another issue that was really only lightly touched on. I mean, if all your friends are comedians–hardcore pro or wannabes–then it’s gotta be a bitch having a real problem. For one thing, that particular subculture (at least by reputation) considers jokes to be an acceptable response to things most humans don’t joke about.

I mean, the highest form of eulogy is to roast the deceased. I kept thinking about Andy Kaufman having a hard time convincing anyone he was dying.

I just wasn’t sure how someone like Ira could survive. Ah, what the heck. It worked for me. And I sort of wonder if the sensitive character, the one who turns up in these movies and seems so out of place for adhering to a traditional view of sex and relationships, isn’t Apatow himself.

Fun fact, though: Sandler and Apatow were room-mates, and the movie opens with some home movies from that time period.

The Hurt Locker

Like the rest of you, I was outraged by this movie! I needed to know: Who hurt this locker, and why?

Heh.

The Hurt Locker is the latest from the beautiful and talented Kathryn Bigelow, the story of a EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) squad in its final days in Iraq 2004.

Bigelow’s catalogue is a mixed bag, delivering an unexpected gem in the early vampire movie Near Dark, and an unexpected stink bomb in the Jamie Lee Curtis/Ron Silver starrer Blue Steel. (Really, that film has a killer cast, great atmosphere, a reasonably promising premise, and yet it’s astonishingly bad. It’s worth seeing just to try to figure out why.) However, those were quite some time ago and Bigelow hasn’t directed much since the high profile bomb K-19: The Widowmaker. (I rather liked that one and thought a number of the critiques were sort of superficial.)

If The Hurt Locker shows anything, it’s that Bigelow is supremely confident and competent handling scenes of high suspense. This movie is 80% powered by suspenseful set pieces, as the crew defuses bombs and otherwise engages with hostiles in Iraq. A persistent tension holds these scenes together like glue (without being annoying, as tension can be over a 2-hour-plus period).

Bomb defusing is of course inherently suspenseful, but if it seems like low-hanging fruit, consider all the times it’s been done badly, even when it’s done once or twice in a film. This film has at least five bomb defusings, each one different from the last, and each one putting you on the edge of your seat.

I almost didn’t see this film, since I read a review (from a right-winger) saying that the movie got political at the end, ruining an otherwise good film. In trying to find that review again, I came across a slew of leftist reviews that were alternately pissed at the absence of politics, pissed at the notion that it wasn’t political and/or just pissed at the whole war.

I’m happy to report that if you don’t bring your political baggage to this movie, you probably won’t find it to be especially political. Leave your English degree at home, too, lest you start seeing metaphors for…stuff.

So, beyond the excellent suspense scenes, and the atmosphere of tensions, what else do we have? Well, our three leads are either clichés or archetypes, take your pick. And the last 20 or so minutes, which is meant to give us insight into the main character’s psyche–well, really doesn’t particularly. I suspect there’s an element in here of trying to make a political statement, but it’s pretty weak tea. (There’s really not much of a political statement you can make when you’re dealing with the guys on the ground; war looks the same from there, regardless of politics.)

What else? Well, the whole thing struck me as a little far-fetched. OK, not just a little, a lot. I didn’t delve into details on how the EOD squads worked, but–well, these guys didn’t seem to be with anyone, to answer to anyone, or even particularly be affected by anything else going on. They just went out to answer bomb threats and then–again weirdly–left the defused ordinance lying around. (I presume for others to clean out, but this was part of the isolation the movie shows.)

In writing this, I stumbled across this interview pointing out some the same issues I had.

OK, so, don’t take it like it’s supposed to be Michael Yon’s blog–though they came awfully close to recreating his classic photo–and don’t bring your political baggage and you can have a good time. If you do bring your political baggage, you can probably find support for whatever point-of-view you have if you look hard enough.

The Boy also liked it, though he thinks it won’t hold up well. That is, he thinks the immediacy of the Iraq War gives the movie an extra cachet it won’t have a few years down the line.

Either way, I hope see more films from Bigelow.

Orphan: Orphanarium, Part Deux

One of the first movies I blogged about was the Spanish horror film The Orphanage. So it’s only fitting to make my last movie blog about the new horror movie The Orphan. Except, of course that this has no connection with that Spanish film, and I’m not going to stop blogging as far as I know.

Other than that, there’s a real poetry here.

Let me just say up front that this is a really, really solid horror flick. I mean, great. Up there with Drag Me To Hell but completely the opposite in tone: Deadly serious.

There was one problem, however: It’s mid-summer, it’s a horror film, which means it’s hard to see it without there being a large percentage of assholes in the audience. And our showing had more than the usual amount. It’s always male teens, of course, whose concept of masculinity is so poor, they feel compelled to prove it by “acting tough” during a horror movie. Half the audience was texting, too.

Really, I should have known better. And I do, but I forget because I’m not all that tied into “summer” and I usually go to the local art house where the big peril is the old folks.

Anyway, back to the movie. This is part of the “Bad Seed” genre, where a young couple (the annoyingly familiar-but-not-quite-identifiable-to-me Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiger) go to adopt a child to compensate for a recent stillborn.

There they meet the delightful Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman) who makes rather good oil paintings and sings old show tunes, while not really blending in with the other kids. John and Kate (yes, that is the parents’ names) decide to adopt this quirky kid and bring her home.

Where she immediately sets about killing all who stand in her way. OK, not really. In fact, the initial treatment she receives from her peers (and older brother) is pretty awful. Still, you’re not quite sympathetic because she really does come across as malevolent.

The movie escalates bit-by-bit as Esther reveals more of her true nature and is required to take more and more drastic means to cover up her crimes. She’s also clearly driving a wedge between John and Kate.

You know, I dislike this genre almost as much as I dislike “House of Usher”-type movies (i.e., movies where it’s apparent from the start that the characters are doomed); I think it’s kind of a cheap shot to jeopardize children and put them in the position of evildoers. (Roger Ebert, who gave this movie 3.5 stars said something similar about the late Gene Siskel. I think it’s kind of sweet of him to bring his old partner up.)

Yet, this is a genuinely great horror flick; It manages to present many of the common genre tropes (murderous children, weird sexual overtones, etc) but without falling into the merely unpleasant or icky–the usual fate of such films.

Yes, there is a twist to this film. It occurred to me almost immediately but the movie rather adroitly made me forget about it until about the third act, by which time there were only a few ways the story could go and still make sense. Often after the big reveal, horror movies kind of peter out and coast along, but this one kept going right up to the very last moment.

A huge amount of credit has to go to the young actress playing Esther. (Sure, her Russian accent comes and goes, but it would in real-life, too.) Alternately beautiful and charming, and cold and psychopathic, she bears the brunt of conveying the horror. Kate must be believably menaced by Esther, and this comes off nicely, though the script gets a lot of credit there for not relying too heavily on any particular trope.

That is, when you have a menacing child, there are only a few ways to go to string the movie out, and this one hits them all, but none of them ridiculously hard. Farmiga is not entirely credible due to past history, but the movie doesn’t rest solely on that. And she realizes Esther is off in a serious way, but not one that would justify drastic measures until the end. And then there’s the whole social issue of “troubled children”.

Again, that very delicate balancing act of “well, that’s creepy” versus “well, that’s just downright unpleasant”.

Also true of Sarsgaard, who must be the bland, committed father who is unaware that he’s being manipulated by his new daughter. (All fathers are manipulated, of course, it’s just the unaware part that’s bad. Heh.) Margo Martindale (“Dexter”’s woman in search of the perfect key-lime pie) plays the dull, easily manipulated psychiatrist–sort of a mandatory part for this kind of movie–infuriatingly convcingly.

The siblings (Jimmy Bennet, Aryana Engineer) do an excellent job as well. Interactions with other children are another way that these movies can go off the rails, but the dynamics are handled excellently and rather lightly, in the sense that the movies stays especially focused on Kate and Esther, rather than Esther and her siblings.

A lot of care and thought went into lighting, shooting, music, editing–nothing looks “phoned in”. All-in-all, a very watchable horror flick. Not super-violent, but nonetheless very “adult themed”–not for kids. Two hours long, too, without feeling as long as some 90 minute horrors I’ve seen.

The Boy commented that he wasn’t into it–I think he was especially distracted by the jackasses in the audience–but that it kept drawing him back in. That’s about right. The movie really did overcome the bad audience.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra and writers David Johnson and Alex Mace don’t have much in the way of credits, and at this point in my life I’m inclined to regard this film as kind of a fluke where everything comes together just so. Nonetheless, I’ll be watching to see what they do next to see if they can duplicate their success here.

This joins the ranks of our “Best of 2009”: The Brothers Bloom, Up and Drag Me To Hell–and it lacks the last’s lame horror ending. So, you know: Check it out.

And Away We Go!

I was sort of leaning toward seeing the dark S&M Nazi dissection movie Death In Love, but it seemed really inappropriate for The Boy and the more I looked at it, the more I suspected the few IMDB ratings that put its score in the 8s were from the cast, crew and family members of the cast and crew.

So, instead I took The Boy to see Away We Go, which opens with Burt performing oral sex on Verona.

Oh, well.

In fairness, it’s a plot-crucial moment, and more funny than anything else. We learn a lot about the two characters both individually and their relationship with each other. So, it’s one of your rare, non-gratuitous oral sex scenes.

It’s also cute, as is the whole movie.

I was somewhat reluctant to see this movie, because it was directed by Sam “Taking Out The Trash Is An Existential Crisis” Mendes. And it does scrutinize the whole family thing, as Mendes is wont to do.

But let’s scroll back a tick: This is the story of Burt and Verona, a 30-something couple that has just discovered that they’re gong to have a baby. Verona’s parents are deceased, and Burt’s parents (Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara) have chosen this moment to take a two year trip to Antwerp.

Lacking any local support, Burt and Verona are now free to travel about the country in search of some kind of family role model.

That’s right people: It’s a road picture.

And it works! What’s nice is that it doesn’t work just because Mendes is a fine director and the actors (Maya Rudolph of Idiocracy and John Kasinski of “The Office”) are very believable, but because the characters they’re playing are very likable. Flawed, certainly, but very likable.

They doubtless represent a big chunk of the post-Boomer generations, too. With no real imperative to do much of anything, no real parental guidance to speak of, and an unprecedented amount of freedom, Burt and Verona are not the first to realize that they’ve got a kid coming and they’d better get their act together before it shows up.

Part of what makes them likable, though, is that they begin this long journey in an effort to figure out the best life for their child. And not in a everything-has-to-be-perfect way, but in a what-is-a-family way.

Their journey takes them to a family that just sort of hangs together because, well, that’s what families do. They’re sort of an unlikable group, but you do feel a kind of empathy for them.

Then we meet Verona’s younger sister, who’s a bit more adrift than she is. After that, it’s Burt’s cousin, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal (who reminds us that she’s a lot more believable as an insufferable New Age-y shrew than a Assistant D.A.) who nurses her kids well past the usual age, and shares a family bed (and more!) with the kids.

And so it goes. There isn’t really a “normal” family here, but that’s to be expected. And as awkward and uncomfortable as many of the scenes are, we always have Burt and Verona’s ambition to do right by their kid.

This really was a pleasant surprise: lightly humorous, sweet and hopeful. I found myself slightly annoyed by the acoustic guitar folk music that’s mandatory in these films, but that was probably more due to the previews leading up to this movie that looked and sounded just like the preview for this movie.

The Boy really liked it, too, way better than Revolutionary Road, and he brings a new understanding to his viewing since he had his movie class. We both agreed that the comedic and other light-hearted aspects made this a more watchable movie. And I thought it actually made the serious parts more profound than the relentless despair of the DiCaprio/Winslet vehicle.

It won’t get the plaudits, though, so you’ll have to be a little more aggressive if you want to actually catch this one.

Harry Potter And The Sixth Movie In The Franchise

Well, we’re in the homestretch as far as Harry Potter movies go, though the bastards have decided to milk the franchise by splitting the last book into two movies. As if you couldn’t possibly do the story justice in 2 ½ hours, you need a full five to tell it.

But that’s a problem for next year. Or the year after that, depending on whether they decide to drag it out even further.

Now, about this latest movie, The Half-Blood Prince. Well, wait, before we get to the latest, I have to assume that you’re aware of the whole “Harry Potter” world and its inconsistencies. ‘cause the world ain’t getting any more consistent. (Like, how, in the fourth movie, all three forbidden curses were performed in a classroom; in this movie, a non-forbidden spell nearly as fatal as the death curse in the fourth one turns up. And an incredibly fatal potion is brewed as a casual class exercise.)

But, really, you should be expecting stuff like that by now.

You should also be expecting this movie to follow the increasingly dark trend the previous four sequels have followed, and it does, big time. The Flower and I have a running gag that started with the biting candy from the fourth movie: “Harry just can’t get a break!”

And Harry doesn’t get much of a break in this one. It’s literally darker, too, with very few bright days, so that even the lighter moments–and there are actually quite a few light-hearted moments, probably more so than in the previous film–still feel like darkness is weighting them down. John Williams’ Teddy-Bears-Picnic-esque theme is completely gone, except for some echoes in Nicholas Hoopers’ gripping score.

I was somewhat reluctant to take The Flower to see it, in fact, but she brushed off my concerns and really seemed completely unphased throughout the movie. (There’s even a bird that dies–or appears to–and she was disappointed by that, but not upset. Maybe she’s growing up?)

You should know that there is a major character death in this film. The Flower, apparently wise to the ways of the sci-fi/fantasy/horror story, was fairly confident the character would come back in the next movie. But even when I assured her that the character wasn’t coming back–I think that’s true–she was okay with it.

Your eight-year-old’s mileage may vary. (Of course, if your eight-year-old is frightened, that might offer a respite

Anyway, this darkness is kind of interesting in contrast with the rampant sexuality in the movie. Don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing graphic about it. The movie is just rife with teenagers and love potions (as if those were necessary), and some light snogging ensues. This also did not trouble the eight-year-old, though she found much of it silly.

Meanwhile, there’s a whole lot about this film that is truly excellent. The camerawork is the best of the series. The establishing shots are breathtaking, a few scenes look like they’re from Romantic era paintings, and director Yates (on his third Potter film) is increasingly confident. (Or perhaps he’s just being given more freedom with his successes in the previous films.)

There’s also a lot of richness in this movie. Most of the tedious exposition has been gotten out of the way in the previous five films, and the characters are well-established. The kids are better actors, too, and while the story needs to focus more on the main ones, it’s a shame that so many of the peripheral kids are barely in the film. (Never mind the adults, who can now add the great Jim Broadbent to their rolls.)

I’d give a special shout out to Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and Bonny Wright (Ginny Weasley) who get some meaty, if not huge, parts they acquit themselves well with. I missed Katie Leung (Cho, from the previous two films) both as an actress and as a character. Did their relationship really end because she was forced to tell about the secret room in the previous movie? Seems unfair.

The action is brisk, too. The movie really flies by, despite the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time (not counting credits). The plot is…well, the plot. It works because the director stays focused on the simplicities as much as possible: Threats large and small abound, and survival is a tenuous thing.

The big reveal is very nearly stupid, however. If you’re super-sensitive to spoilers, you may want to skip this paragraph, but what I’m going to “spoil” is the entire basis for all the movies prior to this, at least as I have understood them. Ready?

The big secret Harry uncovers is that Voldemort used some magic to preserve his life even after shuffling off his mortal coil in the battle with Harry’s parents. Stunning, eh? Didn’t see that coming. If you were Dumbledore. OK, it’s a little more detailed than this, but really, given that Voldemort spent the first four movies re-incarnating, you’d think a trivial stroll through the library’s Restricted Spell section–a stroll that apparently any kid can take, would’ve revealed this mystery sometime during the previous 15 years of Harry’s life. Or at least the last five years.

As I said, you kind of have to be used to this stuff by now. None of the movies make a lick of sense (and I understand the books aren’t much better in that regard). But this movie does leave things in a very precarious spot indeed. Along with a path for resolving those things.

The Flower did not rate it with her favorite, The Prisoner of Azkaban. (She likes it when Harry makes the Aunt blow up like a balloon.) But she wasn’t displeased. The Boy liked it, too, though it doesn’t comport with his economic sensibilities.

And I liked it, too. I sure wish they weren’t splitting the last book in two movies, though.

Everybody Must Get Stoned

Ah, women. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t beat ’em to death with rocks.

Oh. Wait a tick.

It’s Iran! And the movie is The Stoning of Soraya M., based on the 1986 true story of an Iranian man who uses Sharia law to handle his marital issues in a creative manner. That is to say, he conspires to have her convicted of committing adultery.

I sort of have to be a little flip here because this is a grim story of an unfortunately common experience in Iran and other Muslim strongholds, and you know from the get-go pretty much how it’s going to come out.

The build-up felt slow to The Boy but this is a story I think is done well, and reflects one of my favorite narrative flourishes: Even with the outcome being known in advance, a good storyteller creates suspense and a desire to see a different outcome in the audience. (I’m not a Stephen King fan, but he does a good job of this in Carrie. And, of course, that Shakespeare guy.)

There isn’t really a lot to talk about, movie-wise. The acting is quite good. You’ll probably recognize Shoreh Aghdashloo who is (in essence) the narrator, and Soraya’s Aunt. You might recognize Mozhan Marnò from her work in Traitor or from the refugee camp scenes in Charlie Wilson’s War. And so on. (American movies about foreign cultures tend to have the same A-List actors from that culture, so it’s practically shocking that I didn’t recognize anything from Kite Runner.)

There are a few directorial flourishes, and a little music, but mostly this is a spare tale, plainly told.

And, frankly, it pissed me off. I mean, when the opening scene has Aghdashloo running to the river in a black burka, it reminded me so much of The Life of Brian, I had to smile. The Life of Brian also has the greatest stoning scene ever.

And it made me think of what I was saying in my last MMA post. There is a fate worse than death, and the Irianians opted for it 30 years ago. I mean, come on! The stunning similarity between life in Iran in 1986 to (an admittedly faked) portrayal of life in the year 1 reminds one that, in the year 1, the Persians were probably ahead of where they were in 1986.

I was actually sort of jarred by the presence of an automobile. Occasionally there are shots of men in modern-ish clothes. And a radio. Otherwise, this story could’ve taken place centuries ago.

I mentioned it pissed me off? It did. Big time. The men in this movie are evil, weak, cowardly and stupid. There are bookends with Jim Caviezel (of Jesus fame) who is the only male in the movie approaching heroic. It would make me ashamed to be Persian.

The women are more varied. Some are happy enough to be tools of a genuine patriarchy (not like the one we allegedly have here), and most are convinced of their own helplessness. Zahra (Agdashloo), though more acclimated than the other women to freedom, also seems to know Sharia better than they do, and how and when to push against the order.

The visceral reaction I felt at times was rather unusual for me. Soraya’s husband was a good example of a guy who “just needed killin’”, as they say in Texas. And I kept thinking that women should be champions of the second amendment. Also, I kept hoping someone would stick a knife into that guy.

When a bus rolls in at the climactic scene, I wanted it to plow through these worthless men.

It’s not that kind of movie, obviously, but it would make a great primer for a Persian Death Wish or Rambo. A more transparent and gross miscarriage of justice would scarcely be possible.

In my more phlegmatic moments I reminded myself that there are similar stories in the Western world. I don’t know of any wholesale “get out of marriage free”-type situations like those set-up by Sharia but Ancient Greek culture had some interesting oddities in that regard. Still, that’s a long time and a lot of apocalypses ago.

But this goes on today! Needless to say, there’s an awful stoning in this picture. A true, horrible depiction. Where Kite Runner gave us a scene of wide-scale social insanity, an impersonal lynching by a huge mob in a massive modern arena, Stoning gives us an intimate, awful, close-up look at an innocent woman being killed by her family and friends.

The framing story actually pissed me off more for reasons I can’t say without a spoiler. Nonetheless, a good movie about an awful story.

Moon, Inc.

I asked for tickets to Moon, Inc. at the theater the other night, which was a conflation of the new low budget sci-fi movie Moon and the documentary (exposé) on food corporatism Food, Inc. but in fairness that may have been because it was pretty obvious from the summary that an evil corporation was central to the Moon plot.

More on that in a second.

First, because you probably haven’t heard of it, Moon is a new movie by director Duncan Jones which stars Sam Rockwell as astronaut Sam Bell, approaching the end of his three year contract for Lunar Industries when things start to go awry. His computer companion, Gerty (voiced by Kevin Spacey) seems to be helpful, but is he?

OK, yeah, clichéd as all get out. What works, though, is Sam Rockwell, a fine actor who has incredible range: There are times in this movie where he doesn’t quite look like himself. And this movie gives him a chance to show range, which he manages to do without really recalling other characters, like Crewman Guy from Galaxy Quest or Wild Bill from Green Mile.

Kevin Spacey, whose voice is the sort of pleasantly bland, banally modulated sound we’ve come to expect in movie computers, and whose character’s emotions are otherwise represented by a series of emoticons, very AIM-like smileys, still manages to convey some kind of subdued humanity, thanks to one of the least clichéd aspects of the story.

This part, Spacey and Rockwell–who are basically it, as far as presences in the movie–really does work, and makes the movie more engaging to me than, say, the more opulent Public Enemies.

Now, from an economic standpoint? The movie makes not a lick of sense. I’m sure I’m it will come as no surprise to you (or anyone else who’s ever been to a movie) that, in this movie about a corporation, greed is the primary lens through which the corporation is viewed.

But we have, as with the execrable The Constant Gardener, a poor sense of scale. Lunar Industries is supposed to be providing the earth–the entire freaking planet–with 70% of its “clean energy needs”. The problem that the corporation is presented as solving in a creative money-saving way is nowhere in the order of magnitude of the amount of money they’d have at their disposal.

And the solution is positively absurd. It really raises more questions than it solves. An undertaking of the magnitude implied would be far more expensive and challenging than the supposed solution.

Also, a significant percentage of the earth’s energy being dependent on one man?

Yeah. No. No chance.

But that’s okay, it’s not really the various “reveals” or “plot twists” that make this movie. The story lays things out pretty quickly, and where the movie excels is with Sam struggling with being away from earth for so long, missing his young daughter, working through his personal anger issues, and so on.

So, a good little movie. Entertaining, dramatic, nicely done cheap effects–looked like models instead of CGI, which I like. Spare without being austere. Nice use of a limited budget.

Check it out.

Public What? Oh, Enemies?

People do seem to love them some Michael Mann. I’m not one of those people, so you should keep that in mind as I review his latest opus, Public Enemies.

I don’t hate the guy or nothin’. Well, okay, I used to. During the late days of 1980 and early 1981, it seemed like every movie thata was released wallowed in mediocrity. To some degree that may have been pure happenstance, as there were many, many fewer movie options back then and if you were dedicated, it was hard to avoid seeing bad ones.

One of those movies was the very disappointing James Caan vehicle Thief, Mann’s first big-league feature. He followed that up with the even more disappointing The Keep, a nazi-monster horror flick with a great cast. Then he got famous for “Miami Vice,” which was fun and quintessentially ‘80s, and with that fame, he was the first to put Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter onscreen with the remarkably noisy-yet-forgettable Manhunter. That same year he put his name on the downright icky Band of the Hand.

But he got better in the ’90s. (That’s consensus, not just my opinion.)

I personally find myself not engaged by his movies, generally. They don’t resonate with me. Even if I enjoy one of his movies, like Collateral and to a lesser extent the (overrated) Last of the Mohicans, I almost immediately forget them after seeing them. (If I were to hazard a guess, I would say that I like Michael Mann the director more than Michael Mann the screenwriter.)

And now, forearmed with an inkling of my tastes, to Mann’s Public Enemies, the story (primarily) of special agent Melvin Purvis’ pursuit of notorious Public Enemy #1 John Dillinger in 1933 Chicago. Summary: I found it more or less like Mann’s other works; I wasn’t engaged, mostly, and I’ll forget most of it pretty soon.

But there are some really fine moments in this film. And while it’s an ensemble piece, a lot of what works has to do with Johnny Depp’s performance as Dillinger. I wonder if it gets tiring hearing how awesome you are, but Depp is ridiculously empathetic as the man whose early incarceration turned him into an effective (yet gentle!) bank robber. Violent, but principled, dangerous but with high standards.

Yeah, it’s romanticized, big time. It’s kind of weird, even. There are good guys and bad guys among both the FBI, the police and the gangsters, in no particular distribution.

The story arc basically follows Dillinger’s breaking into a jail, then returning to Chicago where he embarrasses the G-men, who then resort to increasingly brutal tactics to cover up their general incompetence. Christian Bale is the hard-edged but largely moral special agent who has to carry out J. Edgar Hoover’s demands.

Complicating matters for Dillinger is his fledgling yet instantly permanent romance with Billie Flechette (Marion Cotillard of La Vie an Rose and 9/11 and moon landing conspiracy theories), for whom he tries to take responsibility, and who (of course) becomes his weakness. (Actually, upon reflection, this aspect of the story is almost Harlequin-esque, which may make it popular with the ladies.)

She’s not as big a weakness as The Syndicate, which is becoming mighty unfriendly to these bank robbing celebrities who attract unwanted attention to illegal activities.

You get the idea.

I was distracted. There were about 20 interesting stories here, and I felt like we got the most banal one. Which could’ve made for a great movie, mind you, but it was also unfocused. Give us the love affair and the noble bank robber, if that’s the story you want to tell.

The Boy liked it, I should point out, so I may just be making excuses for why this film didn’t ignite my toes like it is for Mann fans. He did express disappointment that it wasn’t about the economic underpinnings of organized crime; I don’t have the heart to tell him that they don’t really make movies about the economic underpinnings of organized crime. (Though last year’s Rock ‘n’ Rolla came pretty close!)

But, damn, there was an interesting story right there: How The Mob was in bed, then out of bed, with the bank robbers.

There’s another scene with J. Edgar Hoover trying (and failing) to get money from Congress for the FBI, and being thwarted by a principled man who saw the danger in a national police force and the threat particularly posed by Hoover. Interesting.

There’s Dillinger himself: Rough upbringing, stupid life choice early on, forged into a criminal by the system, but still drawn to this low class girl with integrity, and fiercely protective of her. But why? What really happened? Where did he get his principles from? Interesting.

And, wow, what about a society (America during the Great Depression) that venerates bank robbers? That has so little faith in the system that it roots for criminals, but at the same time elects the same man President over and over again. (The former is a big part of the story, the latter not so much. )

Anyway, I just kept thinking of all these interesting things that would never be developed.

Really fine acting, of course. Though I have trouble with these period pieces, ’cause they all kind of dress alike and have similar hair cuts, but I did manage to distinguish, generally. The lighting doesn’t help, however: A lot of the interior shots look “naturally” lit, i.e., details of faces hard to make out. (Fincher does that, too, but you always know who you’re looking at even if you can’t make out their face.)

The use of the shaky-cam–well, it wasn’t gratuitous. It indicated a certain kind of shift in the action. But it distracted me. As did Mann’s trademark use of music. The score was good, but it irritated me the way it was worked into the action. The songs were hit-and-miss.

So, there you have it. If you like Mann’s work, you’ll probably love this. If you like Depp, you won’t hate it.

Tetro Fish

One of my favorite movies is Apocalypse Now. I love it, right down to its murky ending. So much so that I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch Apocalypse Now Redux, the mega-expanded hour-longer version for fear it will make me reject the whole project.

My old martial arts instructor, with whom I used to have hours long bull sessions after class, rejected it as a “film student project”. And the thing is, I can’t really argue with that perception of it. It’s a bold movie, and if it fails in your eyes, “film student project” is a fair description.

Last Sunday, I dragged The Boy out to see Francis Ford Coppola’s latest film, Tetro, and if you had that idea that Coppola inclined toward that sort of “film student project”, this is not going to be the movie to disabuse you of that notion.

There are two things I can say for sure about this movie:

1. It is positively gorgeous, a sheer masterwork of cinematography, light and shadows, blocking, and composition with nary a throwaway shot.

2. At about two hours, it is overlong by about 20 minutes.

The story is simple: Young Bennie (played by Alden Ehrenreich in a role Leo DiCaprio would’ve done ten years ago) goes to Buenos Aires to track down his older brother, Tetro, who fled the family many years earlier with a promise to come back for him, but who never did.

Tetro has become a famous writer who doesn’t ever write or publish anything, but seems to be very well liked and respected in his own modest way in this little corner of the city known as La Boca. He has a faithful girlfriend-not-quite-wife, and in his not-quite-functional way, he’s living a good life.

The imbalancing effect of Bennie is two-fold: First he knows nothing about his own history, so he digs through Tetro’s autobiographical play; second, Tetro’s friends know nothing about Tetro’s past, so Bennie reveals truths to them Tetro wanted to keep hidden.

This all unfolds in glorious black-and-white, except for the flashbacks, which are in color (and a 4:3 format instead of 16:9?), and we slowly get a picture of the dysfunctional family the two are from. A little too slowly, really, since I figured it out at the start of Act III.

So, besides the length, this movie is both very meta- and very “inside baseball”. First of all, it’s littered with shots that, if they aren’t famous from other movies, feel like they ought to be. Coppola can (and does) do that. It always feels more like he’s painting from the same palette as the masters versus ripping them off. But unlike, say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, where it was almost necessary to know all the films he was riffing off of, this stuff just works.

But this is about the struggles of a very creatively talented family. Their dysfunction manifests in the expression of their art: The play Tetro can’t finish; the life Bennie can’t begin; and the patriarch who is not satisfied with his own greatness unless he can grind everyone else down. It’s not necessarily something everyone can relate to.

Even more problematic is that Tetro and Bennie bonded through Tetro exposing the younger boy to arty films, and segments of the third act play out as dance numbers that hearken back to one of those films. I’m talking ballet-esque bits with real dancers (not the actors). One was interesting; three was probably excessive.

One thing that Coppola has over most of the “film student” types is an inherent upbeat nature. His movies, no matter how dark the subject matter, tend to be an affirmation of life. And so, while this movie looks very noir, it doesn’t wallow in darkness.

That’s probably why I like it. I really wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. And we picked a bad time to go see it, too: The show started after 10PM, and we were both wiped out. The Boy couldn’t decide if he was having trouble getting into it, or if it was just bad. (Keep in mind that he couldn’t sit through Vertigo the night before with the same issue. He had a restless weekend for various reasons.)

Other things to appreciate in this movie include the acting, with young Ehrenreich doing fine work, Vincent Gallo doing what he does, Maribel Verdu just perfect as the devoted not-wife, Klaus Maria Brandauer as the patriarch, and so on. The music is perfect.

But even so, I know a lot of people would consider it boring, pretentious, overly arty, and so on. I was won over by its basic good nature, and skill in execution that you just don’t see any more. You might not be.

The Taking of Pellham 1, 2, Profit!

There’s a 1995 movie directed by a guy by the name of Mike Sedan (who I want to blog about some time) called Lap Dancing that I think of a lot. As the title suggests, Lap Dancing involves strippers, and the movie is about half angst-ridden sleazefest, and about half stripping routines which are largely not related to the other half of the movie. And the thing that struck me when watching this movie (on “Joe Bob Brigg’s Drive In Theater”, I think) was, “Wow, Sedan must really think strippers are boring!”

You see, any real stripping routine–any stage routine–is designed to be seen from a relatively static viewpoint: That of the crowd. (I’ve never been in a strip club, but I’ve seen the pseudo-documentary Stripper, so I’m an expert, okay?) Instead, the camera was jumping all over the place. If there was anything exciting about the routine, it was completely lost in the camerawork.

That thought has recurred over the years: “Wow, this guy must really think what he’s filming is boring.”

I think it a lot during Tony Scott movies like The Taking of Pellham 1 2 3. Scott using so many frenetic camera tricks in one of his films, I wonder if he has no faith in his stories. The buzz on this movie has been pretty mixed, too.

It was Father’s Day, though. What was going to take him to see? The Proposal?

On top of that, my dad held little fond memories of the original, but free popcorn is free popcorn.

And it was actually pretty darn good.

The premise is preposterous, of course: A group of ne’er-do-wells (led by John Travolta) capture a subway train, with the intention of ransoming off the passengers.

Kinda kooky, innit? A subway’s not exactly like a plane. You can’t take it anywhere. The exit strategy, as it were, is problematic, to say the least. But Scott is no stranger to dubious plots, and he handles this pretty well.

Managing the crisis is everyman Denzel Washington–who’s maybe too good looking to be an Everyman but surely gives Tom Hanks a run of his money in that area–as the guy who “takes the call” and rises to the occasion.

For all his flashy camera work, Scott knows where the drama is–between Travolta and Washington, and lets them do their thing. And they do their thing very well indeed, reminding me of another movie where two top-notch actors played off each other in what was generally considered a flawed movie: The Negotiator.

But I can watch that one over and over again–the little nuances of Samuel L. Jackson as he interacts with Kevin Spacey being very compelling. I can’t say for sure this is in that category but it did keep me entertained.

Of course, this is an action flick, which is kind of tough when the two principal characters are: 1) holed up in a subway car, and; 2) sitting at a desk at the transit authority’s office. Scott remedies this by having a cross-city car chase which is over-the-top and gratuitous but, hey, keeps you awake, right?

Supporting actors include John Turturro and James Gandolfini, who are also always compelling.

The only real problem I had with it is I could see three or four logical things the bad guys could’ve done to make their lives easier. Just painfully obvious stuff. A little trickier was the fact that Travolta tends to be very likable, but he’s a cold-blooded murderer. (This isn’t a light caper movie.) He was believable, but that particular aspect didn’t quite sit right with me.

But, overall, a good, fun movie. All three of us liked it, including The Boy, who isn’t really inclined to like these sorts of things, and my dad, who was carrying around baggage from not liking the original.

So, not really sure what the bitching is about.

Etsba Elohim: Out Of The Blue

“I have an idea. Let’s have coffee.” So suggests Shabtai to his cousin Herzel, but falls asleep before the coffee is ready. He has a dream of a beautiful woman speaking intimately to him and, on waking, discovers that the woman is real–in fact a national celebrity, model, singer, businesswoman named Lili Dekel. He then constructs a fantasy story of his relationship with Lili while Herzel listens, entranced.

So begins Yigal Bursztyn’s delightful little movie Etsba Elohim, featured in the 24th Israeli Film Festival in America as Out of the Blue.

Shabtai and Herzel are junkmen, buying and selling old furniture on the streets of Tel Aviv. Shabtai is married and lives in a small apartment with his wife, Rachel, and his daughter Batya, while Herzel, an orphan, lives alone in Shabtai’s warehouse.

Shabtai is lazy, surly and unfulfilled, while Herzel is his simple, cheerful sidekick who does most of the work, and becomes increasingly enamored of Shabtai’s fabrication. He hatches a plan for them to meet Lili Dekel which ends up taking some very funny turns.

Herzel is spurred on by his infatuation with Shabtai’s daughter, a young (high school?) girl who likes getting gifts from him, but seems a little dense as far as understanding his intentions. (Which are honorable, but pretty inappropriate.)

The twist of this movie is that Lily finds herself attracted to Herzel, while he’s doing everything he can to direct her to an increasingly hostile Shabtai. In fact, Shabtai seems to have a penchant for freezing up in a clinch. And we begin to wonder why Herzel is so loyal–and he is, even when Shabtai treats him very badly indeed.

Anyway, good fun. You probably won’t have a chance to see it, without going out of your way. Israel seems to turn out a bunch of good little movies that don’t get much airing over here. (See the 2004 charmer Ha Ushpizin for example.)

We actually saw it “by accident”. There’s another movie called Out of the Blue, a 2006 crime drama with Karl Urban which IMDB linked to instead of this one. I kind of figured it wasn’t the one showing–I knew the Israeli film festival was at the theater. I like to know a little bit more about things going in, but at 90 minutes, it wasn’t a huge risk.

Though it was $12 a ticket. Yow! Painful. But always easier to swallow when the money’s going to some struggling film auteur.

Anyway, no regrets. Lots of fun. Actually enjoyed it more than The Hangover.

Very Badly Hungover Stag Things

I always warn people when they ask for movie advice: “Keep in mind, I loved the movie Very Bad Things.” The fact that I love that movie, a dark comedy written and directed by actor Peter Berg as his debut feature, symbolizes all that is wrong with my sense of humor.

You should keep this in mind as we review another movie in the “Bachelor Party” genre. And, yeah, that hoary Tom Hanks flick is probably the progenitor of the modern form (there seems little connection with Paddy Chayefsky’s ‘57 movie). Except that, in the ’90s, the form went rogue and started involving dead strippers.

This brings us to The Hangover which, depending on whom you ask, is either the funniest movie ever or the most offensive movie ever. Truthfully, it’s neither. Not even close. But it is funny.

And, no, there isn’t a dead stripper in it. Or, at least I don’t think there is. The twist in this stag film is that the main characters have no idea what happened the night before. (Attentive film students may remember this same device used relatively recently in Dude, Where’s My Car?)

Is it offensive? You know, life on this planet has basically broken the needle off my offensensitvity gauge. I didn’t regard is as such, particularly, except for a photo shown at the end of the film of one of the characters receiving fellatio from a transvestite. And this, primarily, because they needlessly used a prosthetic to make it look real.

There’s a masturbation joke involving a baby that apparently offended some people. I can only assume they don’t have, have never been around, and don’t remember being young children, since the discovery of the genitals well proceeds any kind of respect for social standards about not playing with them all the time. Actually, I appreciated that there weren’t a lot of fart/vomit/urine/feces/sodomy jokes. (I guess I’m more offended by banal repetition than actual content.)

This is really a silly movie, with the characters doing–and having done things while completely out of their gourds–that strain credulity. It never goes into fantasy (like Dude, Where’s My Car?), never gets heavy (like Stag), avoids any sort of social commentary (like Very Bad Things), and veers away from the heavily slapstick. It really is more like Bachelor Party: Sort of sweet and good-natured, with a lot of jokes and amusing scene set-ups that are coarser without being mean, and which give the film a kind of shallow feel–sort of like someone exaggerating their “true life” Vegas story.

I was at a low chuckle throughout most, with a few LOL moments. I never fully engaged with the hilarity somehow. It felt like the story was actually written backwards, with writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) starting with a zany set of circumstances (“a tiger…a baby…one friend missing…”) and trying to make sense out of how it all happened.

And perhaps it’s just me, but this didn’t have the ensemble chemistry of a really great comedy. I can’t say I didn’t like any individual actor–in fact I did like them all–but I’m being a crusty old dude by saying I felt like the timing and chemistry of Bill Murray’s old comedies (with John Candy, Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, et al) was a lot better.

That said, I give the movie props for avoiding the most clichéd outcomes. Much like Wedding Crashers (apparently script-doctored by Lucas and Moore), this movie ends up being relatively optimistic about marriage, about what makes a good relationship and a bad one, and relatively sweet about friendship–and in the long run, very positive about human nature.

In that sense, the reverse of both Stag and Very Bad Things.

Heather Graham–once white-hot, remember?–plays the escort with the heart of gold, to Ed Helms whipped dentist, Bradley Cooper is the glib high school English teacher, and Zach Galliafianikis is the weird brother-in-law, cause of and solution to most of the plot’s problems. Justin Bartha, the groom, ends up being the missing one, and it was great to see Jeffrey Tambor as the future, overly-understanding-about-Vegas father-in-law.

Mike Tyson’s in the movie. I thought the whole sequence with him was rather weak. It felt more like “Bwhahahahaha! We got Mike Tyson in our movie!” than actual cleverness.

I probably got the biggest kick out of Ken Jeong, who was also very funny in the previews of an upcoming movie called The Goods. He played the world’s second worst obstetrician in Knocked Up and an ubergeek in Role Models. He’s perfect here because you never know what he is. He seems both menacing and goofy.

And hey, he gives the movie it’s full-frontal male nudity. (Something the ‘strom predicted would be a trend back with Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)

Go in with your offense meters off and not too high expectations and you can have a fun time.

Drag Me To Hell (but try not to scratch the floors)

Thirty years ago a bunch of kids went out to the woods and a young director made a balls-out horror movie by hanging from the rafters, attaching to cameras to 2x4s and running with them, and (according to some rumors) attaching cameras to motorbikes and nearly running down actors.

The uneven mess that resulted (Evil Dead) made an impact. It created a genre. Inspired a generation. Accidental camp and genuinely effective moments created a uniquely harrowing experience. I’d say it launched a career, but it was 10 years before Sam Raimi got a shot at a real movie (Darkman).

He remade Evil Dead as the much better Evil Dead II, which substituted the accidental camp and amateurishness of the first with an almost bizarrely acute awareness of how horror and humor overlap, and how you could make an audience laugh, squirm and scream at the same time.

This distinguishes it from the grimly serious style of horror and the wisecracking style. This is the William Castle-style, the James Whale-style, and it’s remarkably refreshing. Raimi may try to gross us out, but there’s no sadism in his film. At the same time, he’s never letting his characters out of the vice: they don’t get to laugh along with us, no matter how absurd the situations. And there are are a lot of absurd situations here.

The funny thing is, Sam Raimi claims to not even like horror movies. (Hence the near complete transformation of the Evil Dead series to action/comedy in Evil Dead 3, Bruce Campbell vs the Army of Darkness.) But there were occasions to think he missed the genre: The stark presentation of A Simple Plan and the horror overtones of The Gift certainly suggested it, but nothing moreso than the use of his Evil Dead camera tricks and stylistic approaches for the surgery scene in the excellent Spiderman 2.

Well, most (but not all) of those tricks are present in Drag Me To Hell. In fact, there’s a seance scene that could have been right out of the original movies, complete with a floating body, and vocal distortions saying a line very close to “I’ll swallow your soul.” (The only thing conspicuously missing is Raimi’s trademark zoom-stop, where the camera zooms in and stops when something makes a big noise.) Which isn’t to say he doesn’t have a few new tricks in his repertoire.

Still one thing hasn’t changed in three decades: Nothing is scarier than an old woman with cataracts who vomits goo.

So, what do we have here?

Christine Brown is a girl from down on the farm who’s trying to make her way in the big city, and has made it to bank loan officer. She’s landed rich guy psych professor Clay Dalton and she has a nice home in the Hollywood Hills. (A little too nice, I think, to be realistic. It’s not big, but those places are expensive.) Her big problem is that her boss is considering new-guy suck-up for the position of Assistant Manager, because she’s maybe a little too sweet.

Enter the old gypsy woman. Yeah, you heard me. Next to ancient Indian burial grounds, there’s probably nothing more hack. But it’s okay. This is a carinval ride: The point is not breaking new thematic ground but to scare you with the familiar. (A harder trick if you think about it.)

Anyway, the gypsy is behind on her payments and already has had two extensions. But Christine’s manager leaves it to her: extend again or foreclose. I won’t say what she decides to do here, but I will say she ends up with a curse on her. ‘cause, you know, that’s what the movie is about.

This is a tightly compressed movie where Christine ends up terrorized by an evil spirit (called the Lamia) and she’s got three days to get rid of the curse or end up being dragged to Hell (do not pass go, do not collect $200). Along the way, she gets beaten up, terrorized, betrayed and rebuffed in attempt after attempt to make things right.

She looks for help among the gypsies, with a spiritual reader, and finally with the Lamia’s old nemesis. The climax of the film has the previously mild-mannered Christine pushing herself to the limit to rid herself of this curse.

And then there’s the “twist” ending. The Boy and I were of two minds about it. We both saw it coming. I saw the device they used to set it up, but got distracted by the expertise of the execution. He thought, “Well, this is how they all end,” and so was just disappointed by it when it finally came.

So, we both agreed: Excellent movie, disappointing ending. Again, the execution here is top notch. It’s just the way Raimi chose to end it was just very typical.

Still, hard to complain: Genuinely good horror movies are few and far between. This one was, in turn, scary, funny, clever, involving, suspenseful, squicky and just plain fun.

I’ve heard that Raimi was disappointed with the third Spiderman movie, and has said that he wasn’t given the creative freedom he was given with the first two. And also that that would be his criteria for moving forward. I tend to believe that, and would rather have him make fewer and lower-budget films he has control over rather than lots of big budget films he doesn’t.

Don’t drag me to hell for saying so.

Up–and Away

Seeing Pixar release a new movie is like watching a great figure skater do a triple axel. First, you realize that when all those other figure skaters are up, you were kind of nervous. They might land it, they might not, and you’re really on the edge of your seat. But then the gold medalist comes, and you just relax and watch the beauty unfold.

Remember last year, when the money men on Wall Street predicted that movie about the robot–the one with almost no dialogue–couldn’t possibly be a hit? And then the one about the rat? And the cars? And on and on.

I wasn’t worried in the least.

The two things that you can count on hearing when a Pixar movie come out are: “That was the best (Pixar) movie ever!” and “That wasn’t as good as [some other Pixar movie].” In the former case, they sometimes leave out the “Pixar” part. In the latter case, the person is typically referring to a Pixar movie that uniquely resonated in some idiosyncratic way.

But, really, the key thing about Pixar movies is that they’re all different. Even Toy Story 2 was thematically different from Toy Story. It’s not hard to make meaningful comparisons between them, but it is hard to state outright that of any two elements, one is necessarily better than the other. (I think this is true of all the movies, even A Bug’s Life and Cars, which are often unfairly maligned.)

Which brings us to this, the tenth Pixar film, and the tenth triple axel to be landed perfectly.

But differently.

In this case, we have the story of Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), a 78-year-old widower who’s about to get put into an old folks home. Now, a lot of kid movies feature old people, but this one is about Carl. This is his story.

Showing, once again, that they know how to tell a story without a lot of expository dialog, director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) and co-director/writer Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo co-writer) use the first few minutes of the film to give us a love story between Carl and Ellie. They meet as kids, and through a love of adventure, share their lives for the next 65 years.

No child is going to experience this the way an adult does, particularly older adults. But this opening provides the hook that powers the movie. The older kids will get the connections, but if you’re an adult there will probably be parts that make you tear up.

It’s no surprise that Carl–a balloon salseman–rigs up a bunch of balloons to make his house float away, but when it happens, it’s nonetheless magical. And Carl’s expression as he floats through the air is sublime. But of course it only lasts a few seconds.

The fly in Carl’s ointment is young Wilderness Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai), and the subsequent adventure includes a giant toucan-ish type bird, talking dogs, and aerial combat. These are the sorts of things you expect from a kid’s movie. But as a grownup, you’re never far away from these little moments that ground the story in a peculiarly real way.

In a way, Carl’s actions are those of a man who’s life is almost over. This final grand gesture is his tribute to his wife, and yet Russell keeps interrupting that by embroiling him in things that are going on now. And because we’ve seen Carl at Russell’s age, we feel the wealth of emotions he feels at certain things Russell says and does, even while Russell himself doesn’t realize the impact he has on the old man.

So, plenty for the kids–and The Flower liked it a lot–plenty for the adults–as did I. If I were going to pick a demographic this wouldn’t appeal to, it’d be the teenagers, yet The Boy also liked it a lot.

Darcy pointed me to this blogcritics review, which is perhaps, an interesting. idiosyncratic counterpoint to mine: The reviewer loved Carl’s story but was dismayed by the actual adventure parts (while noting that the kids in the audience loved those parts, while seeming restless during the parts he liked). He even asks whether he is Carl, curmudgeonly hanging on to his old dreams.

At least he sees what’s going on: Many of the early Cannes reviews derided the picture’s “de-evolution” into an action film. They missed the point. Or maybe just made their choice.

The Brothers Bloom: Where Is Your Soul’s Ass, Anyway?

“I think you have a big hunk of petrified crap up your soul’s ass.” So says Rachel Weisz to Adrien Brody in Rian Johnson’s new caper movie, The Brothers Bloom. Johnson previously directed the interesting low-budget high school-based “film noir” Brick.

I say this is a caper movie, but it’s definitely a different kind of caper movie. The typical representative of the genre–The Italian Job or the “Ocean’s” series–deals with the pursuit of a MacGuffin, and the plot usually undergoes a number of twists and turns, sometimes in an attempt to fool the viewer (e.g. Ocean’s Twelve). There’s usually stuff about the people and how their interpersonal relationships as thieves and conmen are affected, but this is generally baggage that slows the shenanigans down.

The Brothers Bloom turns this on convention on its ear by centering all the action around Adrien Brody’s development. The capers are essentially incidental to the story. This is way better than it sounds. In fact, the Boy and I think it’s the best 2009 movie we’ve seen so far.

The story is about Stephen and Bloom, who are shuttled from foster home to foster home, town to town, until they finally find their calling running elaborate cons. Stephen (Ruffalo) is the planning genius, putting little themes and symbols into their games, while Bloom (Brody) is the sensitive one–the people person who makes the confidence part of the con game work.

The problem is that Bloom is sensitive, and a romantic, and he can’t ever have the one thing the true romantic really craves: genuine human contact. Since he makes contact through false premises (with less than pure motivations), he can’t have a true loving connection. This makes him despondent.

Of course, Brody broods well, and not in a monotone way. (That is, his brooding here seems different from, say, his brooding in The Darjeeling Limited.) As his older brother, Ruffalo gives a really sublime performance. Stephen is clearly a smooth operator, intellectual and calculating, yet he’s not motivated by money. He loves the game; he also sees himself as providing entertainment, moral lessons, artistic resonance, even.

The perfect con, he says, is the one where everyone gets what they want.

This is his ethical code, really, and his failure is that he can’t give Bloom what he wants. If the caper movie is usually cold, this one is the very antithesis. By trying to help him survive, Stephen has turned Bloom into a pathetic, self-loathing character who seems unclear who or what he is. Stephen, for all his apparent glibness and devil-may-care attitude, actually seems to deeply care about Bloom.

Or…does he? This is what Bloom wrestles with. He provides sincerity and depth for the con game, so is Stephen just using him? We quickly see that he’s completely the wrong type to be a grifter. To quote Teddy from Memento, that’s why he’s so good at it.

The brothers work with a mysterious Japanese woman known as Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, last seen largely naked in 2006’s Babel). Kikuchi is excellent in this film, as a kind of animé-ish Harpo Marx. I have no idea if she can actually speak English, but the device of not having her speak means both that she can remain mysterious and we’re spared a lot of (what would have been) tedious dialogue.

The mark for the movie is a millionaire shut-in played by Rachel Weisz. She’s a woman who, through various circumstances, lives in isolation but is also hyper-competent in most regards. All her time has been devoted to acquiring various skills, except conversational skills. Almost like her character from “The Mummy”, though very well realized and not cartoonish at all.

I sort of run hot and cold on Ms. Weisz, or maybe just some of her movies rub me the wrong way (I’m looking at you Constant Gardener!), but she’s also positively exquisite (in an entirely different way from Kikuchi). Her character is that of an essentially young woman coning out of her shell, and she buoys the movie tremendously. The “crap” line quoted above comes off charmingly sweet and even endearing when she says it.

She embraces adventure (sometimes in a surprisingly sensual way) and brings to the forefront the film’s primary thesis. To wit, in the world of human feelings and relationships, how fake is an illusion that everyone believes?

How much, in fact, is life itself a con game?

This is an honest-to-goodness feel good comedy! As mopey as Bloom is, there are enough laughs and light-heartedness to make you feel good about the proceedings. Suspense and concern are not sacrificed. Instead, the characters care about Bloom–and we do, too–and try to get him out of his funk.

Doesn’t sound like a caper movie at all, does it?

Just for good measure, the cast is rounded out with Maximilian Schell and Robbie Coltrane. Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson is back with the score–which I didn’t notice. (That’s often a good sign.) And the whole thing feels just right at 1:45 (minus credits). It could’ve been shorter, but only by cheating us out of the excellent ending and giving us a more Ocean-y/Sting-y one.

Funny without being silly or campy, profound without being heavy, well plotted without being fake, adult without being crude–the line quoted at the top is the crudest thing in the movie–and easily the best drawn new characters this year.

So, this is my first likely top 10 movie of the year. It’s unlikely that this film won’t make it–nothing else from 2009 has my unreserved approval. Of course, today Up comes out, so this may not be in my #1 slot for long.

Random Update #1: There was one kind of weird thing about this movie. Weisz, who does an excellent American accent, has a nasal resonance that reminds me very strongly of Kathryn Erbe. Ruffalo, meanwhile, wears a long black coat, has the slightly unshaven look, and somewhat similar cadence and look of Vincent D’Onofrio. So, every now and again, I got this weird “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” vibe.

Random Update #2: I didn’t praise the costumes and sets, and I really should have. This is clearly a movie taking place in modern times, yet the Brothers Bloom wear hats and long coats that evoke the early 20th century. Some of the sets seem very ‘20s and others seem sort of ’40s. Part of the con involves traveling by steamer, for crying out load. This was a very nice touch and gave the movie a timeless feel.

Night At The Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

The first Night at the Museum movie was a rather pleasant surprise for me and The Boy, who were there at the behest of The Flower. It struck a nice balance between silly comedy and (slightly) less silly stuff aided greatly by Alan Silvestri’s score, which also helps this movie not degenerate into random-feeling chaos.

What? You didn’t expect me to start with the score? In this case, it’s absolutely necessary. The score sets the tone as more light adventure than wacky randomity, even though this movie is a lot more random and chaotic than the first.

And, it must be admitted, quite a bit more leaden. Somewhat ironically, The Boy and I enjoyed it more than The Flower did, who had higher expectations and found it predictable. I suspect this spells trouble for the movie, if the eight-year-old girl demo is finding it predictable.

And it’s not that they didn’t try. There are a few twists and wrinkles, and a few new bits, but a lot of these flat flat. Meanwhile, a lot of the best stuff is recycled stuff from the previous movie that still works. (A lot of humor based on the diminutive cowboy Jedediah, played by Owen Wilson, and Roman Centurion Octavius, played by Steve Coogan, e.g.) Also, this movie suffers from 70% less Robin Williams, so it’s got that going for it.

Actually, the level of talent oozing from this film makes you really want it to be better. Hank Azaria plays Ahkmenrah’s (from the first movie) evil brother with a lispy Boris Karloff accent. Bill Hader shows up as General Custer. Christopher Guest is Ivan the Terrible. And they’re all good, as they always are. Ben Stiller gives his all, like he always does. He has a bit with Jonah Hill that’s very Apatow-ish (clean, but goofy).

Basically, though, the funny’s just not there. Things that should’ve been funny weren’t. The lightness from the original movie is mostly gone. Not content-wise. This pretty much could be “G”-rated; Im’ hard pressed to remember what might have pushed it over the line to “PG”. But delivery-wise. There’s too much self-awareness, too much “look at this, isn’t this hilarious!” going on.

The original walked that line mostly successfully. This one not so much.

Buoying the movie impossibly is perennial Maelstrom crush, Amy Adams. She plays a delightfully heterosexual Amelia Earhart, as a sort of mix of Katharine Hepburn and Betty Hutton. Carla Gugino and her tight sweaters are gone without notice from this movie, to be replaced by Amy Adams in her tight pants (and remarkably fitted aviator jacket).

But more than eye-candy, Adams brings a much-needed unselfconscious lightness to the proceedings. At the same time, I did find myself thinking “They must have spent a freakin’ fortune on this movie.” In other words, where the first movie seemed like a shallow “high concept” ultra-slick Stiller vehicle, but managed to hide the gears pretty well, this movie ends up feeling a lot more transparent and cynical.

I didn’t actually dislike it. It’s not overlong. It doesn’t try to be important or relevant. It’s not vulgar or crass. It just doesn’t have the finesse of the first one, which underscores the fundamentally unclever nature of both movies.

Again, The Flower was disappointed, finding it not at all surprising. Part of that, of course, may be that she was five-and-a-half when the last movie came out and is eight now. I would say that if you’re interested in seeing it, and don’t have high expectations, see it in the theater. Because I suspect that the movies’ problems are going to be magnified on the small screen.

Manic Monday Apocalypso on Friday!: Terminator Salvation

We were going to see the new Michael Keaton movie (he directs) called The Merry Gentleman, but it had cleared out to make room for the new Terminator movie, so we saw that instead.

I would save this review for Manic Monday Apocalypso but I figured some of you might consider seeing this this weekend.

I’d skipped the third movie in the Terminator series, feeling that it was really James Cameron that was the heart-and-soul of those flicks, that raised them above standard B-movie fare. (I’m dubious of Harlan Ellison’s claim on the property. Not that Cameron didn’t steal the ideas, only that the ideas are both fairly generic and not at all the point.)

A chilling factor for me is that this movie is directed by the infamous McG, who helmed the two Charlie’s Angels movies. There was much to dislike about those strangely uneven films but they at least weren’t boring. And that’s not a bad way to describe the new movie, though it’s not nearly as uneven as those earlier films. Unfocused might be a better term.

So, let’s talk about the good things. Fine acting, as you would expect from Christian Bale. In smaller roles are Jane Alexander (who could be her own MMA feature for her 1983 role in Testament), Helena Bonham Carter and the great Michael Ironside. The primary supporting roles are played by Sam Worthington and Moon Bloodgood, who I thought were fine, but seem a little callow in comparison. (Partly and maybe mostly, this is their characters, and by the end I think the actors have fleshed them out more than the writers did.) Anton Yelchin, fresh of his Checkov role in Star Trek manages to come off pretty dang tough, and evocative of Michael Biehn in the original movie. They even have a little girl in the Newt role.

Elfman does the music, and does a fine job, though there’s not enough of it. This may sound strange, but there’s not an over-reliance on CGI. The T-800–the classic Terminator–has been slightly redesigned. It was a skinny, skeletal thing in the original, stop-motion animated. But we’re sort of jaded to that now, I think, and the redesign has a more muscular build–like it’s a guy in a Terminator suit. This is a good choice.

Also, the CGI is really good. That helps a lot. It might not be a guy in a Terminator suit, but if not, it’s smooth. This helps the action feel a lot more credible, and to McG’s credit, there are some good old-fashioned fights and vehicle stunts, instead of the CGI spectaculars that get so numbing.

There are a lot of other really nice touches, too, which I won’t spoil by enumerating here.

This movie falls well short of greatness, though. First, we have the time-travel problem. The story requires John Connor (Bale) be the savior of the human resistance, but he mostly seems like a pain in the ass. In fact, I went through 2/3rds of the movie wondering what the hell he was doing that was even necessary, given the way the war was going. That was nicely resolved, though, and ultimately made sense. So I didn’t count that against it.

No, the real problem is with the characters of Marcus and Blair. We see Marcus put to death in the first scene of the movie (in 2009, presumably), and yet he’s walking around in 2018, and Connor and Reese (Yelchin) are secondary characters to him, and–to a degree–his relationship with Blair.

But because the story really should be about Connor and Reese fulfilling the prophecy of the first movie, we get a lot of cuts from Marcus to Connor or Reese, sometimes disrupting the flow of the action. Also evoking Star Trek, in the sense that the baggage the movie is required to carry is both its strength and its weakness.

This forces some awkward scenes, such as Connor having to decide what to do with Marcus. He actually makes up his mind and then yells, inexplicably, “Who are you?!” Bale does a good job, but the whole scene–a dramatic focal point–flops.

The next big dramatic moment, where Connor delivers a speech about how humans are different from machines, also flops out of sheer silliness and inappropriateness.

And without giving too much away, the story hinges on this bit of information which allows the main Skynet base–and silly me, I thought the Skynet base would be, you know, in the sky–to be attacked. Things don’t come off as expected (do they ever?), yet the Skynet base ends up seeming ridiculously easy to get in and out of.

And there’s the other thing, the big thing, which is that the view of the future doesn’t quite hold up. The original concept had humans as a ragtag underground resistance. This movie carries that idea forward, but at the same time, features humans with subs and jets–neither of which would really be sustainable in that context–and says there are areas the robots haven’t ventured. (And, queerly, at the same time, those areas are not where the humans are strongly based.)

To top this all off, there’s a strongly hierarchical command structure and traditional military at the begining of the movie, with a suddenly completely casual rebel feel at the end. And they communicate via radio. Like, regular radio.

But I suppose I’m just overthinking it. One of the nice thing about those old WWII movies, though, was that were enough people around who had been there, that movies had a certain verisimilitude I’d like to see more strongly applied to post-apocalyptic stuff. (As you know if you’ve read this blog for long.)

Anyway, The Boy liked it very much, though he was a bit taken aback by the PG-13ness of it. And it’s true, this is a much gentler movie than the first two. There were certain things that didn’t hold together for him, but it didn’t keep him from enjoying it.

So, once again, a good summer popcorn movie, like Star Trek, but rife with flaws, like Star Trek.

Management: Boy Meets Girl, Feels Butt

The tried-and-true love story formula (boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl) has actually held up even in this post-modern, deconstructive age, when you think about it. Really, the main variation is in the final part (boy fails to regain girl), and that was old when Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juilet”.

It’s a broad outline.

Storytellers, then, are forced to be creative within those parameters. A lot of fun can be had with the “boy meets girl” and “boy gets girl” parts, and a lot of dramatic tension can be had with the losing and regaining (or not) part.

Jennifer Aniston’s new romantic-comedy (she exec. produces as well as stars) has a lot of fun with the meeting, getting and regaining process, and a nice bit of drama with the losing. It’s really a very solid, good romcom in a world where that’s actually pretty rare. Yet the buzz is already highly negative.

I sort-of think that a lot of negativity surrounding Aniston–and there always seems to be a ton of it–must either come from her success on “Friends” or her relationship with Brad Pitt. Because I don’t see how it could come from her performances. Not that you might not dislike them, but there seems to be positive glee everytime she’s in a low-budget movie.

I’m not intimate with her work and admittedly–like most actresses–she’s often a prop. I think she’s found a way to remedy that by producing her own movies and giving herself meatier roles. Smart and, at least in this case, a very good showcase for her talents.

The premise of Management is a strange one: Steve Zahn–also often under-rated–plays Mike, who works in his parents’ motel in Kingman, Arizona. They’re kind of dull, and he’s kind of dull, too. One day, in walks Sue (Jennifer Aniston)–and her great ass. It’s love at first sight, from behind.

Mike is immediately taken with her, and likes what he sees from the front, too, and contrives an excuse to visit her in her room. As an actor, Zahn’s really to be commended here, because–for all Mike’s listlessness in life–he comes across as genuinely taken by Aniston’s character, and sweet rather than stalker-like. He’s a guy who’s never felt inspired enough to do anything, and as we quickly see, Sue becomes that inspiration.

Sue is a tougher nut to crack. She’s cold, a little prickly, even bad with people, but seeing through Mike’s ruse, she asks what would make him feel like his gambit was successful. She agrees at that point to let him lay a hand on her butt.

Strange, right? Yet, by the end of the movie, we see that it’s perfectly in character for Sue, who manages her dysfunction at one level with a kind of over-the-top altruism. We also see that Mike’s somewhat over-the-top, Quixotic pursuit of her is in line with his previously dormant passionate nature.

So, wow. Here we have a romantic-comedy with carefully drawn characters conflicting over expectations of each other and life, without anyone seeming like a victim. That’s pretty rare these days and I’d like to see a lot more of this.

Occasionally, the move delves deeply into quirkiness. Woody Harrelson plays Jango, a former punk/yogurt mogul/vicious dog trainer, who offers Sue a security–and an opportunity–Mike can’t. “Prison Break”’s James Hiroyuki Liao plays Al, the fast-talking son of Chinese Restaurant owners who immediately befriends Mike in his time of need.

These two offer more quirkiness than, say, Mike’s parents. His father Jerry (Fred Ward) is a semi-shell-shocked war vet, while his mother Trish (Margo Martindale) is terminally ill. This movie alternates between almost wacky stunts, like skydiving into a swimming pool, and dramatic scenes, like deathbed conversations.

Screenplay author and first time director Steven Belber makes it all work by never letting the quirkiness get cartoonish.

It won’t get much of a run, and Aniston won’t get much praise for her restrained, subtle performance as a cold woman who slowly begins to melt, to say nothing of Steve Zahn, who didn’t even get much praise for his excellent work in the under-rated Rescue Dawn. But if they were smart about it, this was a no more than $15-20M work that will easily clear that and more when international box office and video/cable rights are figured.

The Boy declared it “good” and was quite pleased with the story. I declare it “good”, too. Since both Aniston and Zahn have three movies coming out this year, I imagine this will get swept under the rug–but it shouldn’t be.

Star Trek: The Next NEXT Generation

I’ve never been a Trekkie or a Trekker. In fact, my mom was a big fan of “Star Trek” and because I hated certain episodes (“Miri”, “And The Children Shall Lead”) but had to watch them anyway, it took me a couple of decades to where I could like the show.

I got into “The Next Generation” for a while but it got more and more ponderous as the series wore on. It seemed that every alien just needed a sympathetic ear and all technology was environmentally destructive. (I’ve heard that Roddenberry had to remind the writers that technophobia was not an appropriate attitude for the show.)

I loved “Deep Space Nine”. Which, it must be confessed, is barely Star Trek at all. Dark, with religion and spirituality woven in, reveling in the dark parts of society that Roddenberry would have us believe didn’t exist (yet which all turned up in the third season of the original series).

The less said about “Voyager” and “Enterprise” the better. (Well, okay, “Voyager” was “Star Trek meets The Lifetime Channel”. “Enterprise” should have worked. And yet, didn’t. Well, I heard it got better after I–and practically everyone else–stopped watching.)

So, was I excited about the new “reboot”? Nah, not really. “Curious” is a better word. The only JJ Abrams stuff I’m familiar with is Cloverfield, which is a good movie made of a pretty thin gruel. All good directors can do that. See The Birds or, hell, look at what Gore Verbinski did with the Pirates of the Caribbean or even Mouse Hunt.

This is kind of the reverse scenario. There’s too much in the “Star Trek” universe–much of it contradictory–to capture in a movie. And if “Enterprise” proved anything, it was that retconning is incredibly dull, except perhaps to die-hard fans.

Now that I’ve seen it, my reaction is a kind of generally positive “Meh”. Read on.

Dropping the canon was an excellent choice: They actually manage to do some pretty surprising things by untethering themselves from the bloated beast that is the Trek universe, while still making plenty of references. And you can savor the irony of fans being upset by this by noting that the device used to justify the changes is a Trek cliché that formed the basis for half the movies and TV series.

It was also smart of Chris Pine, who plays Kirk, not to study Shatner. While I’ve long maintained that Shatner’s performance–his utter conviction in selling some truly awful storylines in front of papier mache backdrops–is a big part of the reason the original show is watchable at all, his performance style is too iconic to be imitated without creating an entirely surreal atmosphere. Pine–apparently drawing on Indiana Jones and Han Solo–still manages to evoke a famliar feeling Kirk.

Using relatively little known actors was also a good choice. The first person I recognized was Bruce Greenwood, playing Captain Christopher Pike, the captain that young Kirk is supposed to serve under. (OK, I “recognized” Eric Bana as the villain, but only because I knew it was him. Bana for some reason never makes enough of an impression on me where I could actually identify him.) I didn’t really recognize Winona Ryder (in Jane Wyatt’s old role as Spock’s mother), though, so maybe I should just give up that battle right there.

The acting is, overall, very solid. Casa Maelstrom favorite Simon Pegg does a nice job as Scotty and Karl Urban steals the show as “Bones” McCoy, channeling the late DeForest Kelley without seeming like a parody. Zoe Saldana plays the Uhura role Nichelle Nichols wishes Uhura had been wrttten for her. John Cho (Harold, of “Harold and Kumar”) plays a tough guy Sulu, while Anton Yelchin (Bird from “!huff”) does a super-young Chekov (with heavier accent than Walter Koneig) to round out the core crew.

The action is pretty good. Kirk is drawn as a rash, arrogant, cocky SOB, and this often results in him getting the crap beaten out of him. (He gets beaten up by redshirts! Who are actually portrayed as pretty tough in this, in contrast to the original series.) They resist the urge to make him a superhero, good at everything, which gives the rest of the crew a chance to do their things.

So, if I consider it a decent homage to the past and a good, fresh summer action flick, why am I sort of “meh”? I think because it’s not really great at either. One thing that Star Trek is known for is absurd plot resolutions, the sci-fi equivalent of deus ex machina. “The Next Generation” was so awful in this regard, that it probably put “reversing the polarity” into the cultural lexicon.

There are plenty of absurd situations which might be suspenseful if one didn’t know how things sort of had to turn out. And even if you don’t watch the show, there are certain things you know. So when Kirk is stranded on a remote planet with no way (in the story’s own terms) to catch up to the plot, you know that some sort of technological magic is going to have to arise.

This ultimately diminishes the movie. I would’ve liked to see a reboot like the Bond reboot that eschewed the dumber aspects of the franchise.

The other thing that really diminishes it is Leonard Nimoy. Not that I don’t love the guy, or that he does a bad job. It’s nice to see him don the ears again after 15 years. But he’s a crutch, the deus ex the machina. He acts as both fan service and plot device, and I thank God they didn’t resurrect Shatner for Kirk, despite the pressure. (Kirk pretty definitively died in the first TNG movie.)

The whole thing feels a little stale to me, even with the new angle and approach. Now I’m not sure a (much) better outcome was actually possible here–certainly much worse outcomes were–so I’m disinclined to cast any stones. The kids should like it, the fans (who are a shrinking base, I think) maybe less so, depending on how invested they are in the original history.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, saying it was a lot more than he expected. The two Trek fans I know (including the one I saw it with) also liked it. My mom’s convinced, well-trained as she is, that they’ll move the new franchise in to merge with the old history. I’m trying to explain that the whole point of the movie was to reimagine a lot of this stuff. We have a bet that a certain minor character that died is (or isn’t, I say) going to come back in a later movie as a result.

There’s a lot about this movie that is really well done, too. The production values are quite good. They eschewed the trend of making things darker, both with the physical setting and attitude, and kept it light, even when things were, plot-wise, dire.

Strangely, the music is sort of disappointing. Michael Giacchino, who did the marvelous scores for The Incredibles and Ratatouille, never really delivers the goods with a iconic, hummable tune a la Alexander Courage (who wrote the theme to the original) or Jerry Goldsmith (who wrote the movie theme which became the theme for “The Next Generation”).

Maybe I’m just a grouch, here, or still burnt out from past disappointments, not feeling energized (no pun intended) by the new stuff, and not excited enough by the old stuff to really have that carry me through.

It’s not that I thought it was bad, it’s just that it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be.

The Haunting In Conneck-ticut

It’s a trope of horror stories that the (typically doomed) protagonists are not happy-go-lucky types with the world at their command. Unhappiness, disease or other disturbance is usually the lot of characters about to be visited by some supernatural evil.

Which, you know, kind of sucks for them, quite apart from all the horror they’re about to go through.

There’s a difficult line to tread here. At it’s best, horror is often (but far from always) an analysis of real life problems, but for movie horror in particular, you don’t necessarily want to create a grim story where beleaguered people suffer increasingly horrible fantastic events, while continuing to suffer realistically horrible events.

Which is the line that The Haunting of Connecticut treads very carefully, and maybe not always successfully. This is the “true” story of the Campbells, a financially stressed couple with three kids whose oldest has cancer. The father (played by stalwart character actor Martin Donovan) is a recovering alcoholic whose fledgling contracting business drains the family bank account, while the mother (by longtime Maelstrom favorite Virginia Madsen) shuttles the sick kid (Kyle Gallner) back and forth from Connecticut, where he receives treatment, to their home in…some place eight hours from Connecticut.

OK, this didn’t bug The Boy (and wouldn’t have bugged me at that age, either), but I confess to finding it uncomfortable enough seeing a child (Gallner is in his 20s but he’s playing a teen) racked with cancer and suffering from chemo and radiation to where I tend to demand more out of a movie that uses those things as somewhat incidental story elements.

Anyway, the family makes the logical conclusion that they should relocate, at least temporarily to Conneck-ticut. (Pronunciation courtesy of recent birthday girl Katharine Hepburn in, I think, Philadelphia Story.) But the only suitable place they can afford has some history, so they pass–until the trip gets to be so long, Madsen can’t bear to put her son through it any more and so settles on the house with the history.

The movie gets off to a slow start this way. Unlike many horrors where we have a hard time seeing why the characters don’t extract themselves sooner, this one puts us pretty squarely in reasonable shoes. We see how they got there, and the initial signs of hauntings are experienced almost exclusively by the sick kid–who is undergoing treatment that apparently might cause hallucinations–we see why they stay.

In fact, it’s not until relatively late that anything indisputably supernatural occurs. There was a point where it looked like it might all be in the kid’s head, which would’ve been an interesting twist, though not the marketing boost that a supernatural “based on a true” story is presumed to be.

Rounding out the fine cast is Amanda Crew as the niece-who’s-handy-for-the-shower-scene and another stalwart character actor, Elias Koteas, as the priest with all the answers.

So, good acting. Pacing that starts slow but picks up about half-way in and stays pretty solid.

The Boy liked it a lot, and more than I did, but we both appreciated the change in tempo and character, as the movie got more supernatural, and the ending, which wasn’t the sort of knee-jerk nihlism that plagued the After Dark horror festival.

Maybe due to the Amityville connection–the couple that pimped the story when it “happened” back in the ‘90s, were the same couple that pimped the Amityville Horror–it felt a little bit like a throwback, but overall this is a decent movie.

True story? Not so much.

Lymelife: Life’s little tics.

Return with me now to the glorious year 1979, when the air was dirty, the only thing uglier than fashion was interior design, and the children were expected to be more mature than the adults.

Lymelife is a new movie from Derick and Steve Martini, who are (amusingly) too young to remember the time they’re writing and directing about! But they do a good job, mostly, of capturing the time. If I were to quibble, I’d point out that the fashions are maybe a little too restrained, that there was never a disco song playing on the jukebox, and oddly, I swear that when they showed angry Iranians, they showed them with an effigy of Reagan, which doesn’t make any sense.

Also, there was a discussion of the Falklands and how it would result in the older boy being mobilized sooner. That didn’t make sense to me. It might be true, but since Falklands was several years later and a British conflict that they resolved easily on their own, I think, I’m not sure how it was likely to be an issue. Also, prior to the conflict, nobody had ever heard of the Falklands.

As long as I haven’t actually talked about what it’s about, I’d like to say that this movie has an awful tagline. To wit: The American Dream Sucks. This movie isn’t really about the American dream. It’s really just a coming-of-age story where the flow is interrupted by parents who think they can treat their relationships casually without affecting their children.

The story is focused on 15-year-old Scott Bartlett (Rory Culkin) who adores his father, Micky (Alec Baldwin, who’s so good at playing an asshole, you start to wonder how much an act it is) and can’t figure out why his worried, unhappy mother, Brenda (Jill Hennessy) is such a drag. He’s being tortured by his long-time female friend, Adrianna (Emma Roberts) who clearly likes him but is hanging around older bad boys.

When the story begins, Scott’s mother is duct-taping his clothes shut so that the ticks don’t get him–there’s apparently an outbreak of lyme disease on Long Island–and he gets to listen to his parents fighting about whether he can go hunting, and the girl he longs for is not returning the affection, and he gets beaten up by a bully.

The other family in this drama are the Braggs, Adrianna’s parents. Charlie and Melissa (Timothy Hutton and Cynthia Nixon) have their own problems. Charlie has lyme disease, maybe, though it’s obviously pretty advanced, and Melissa–who dresses in a ‘70s porn style (which was not uncommon back then)–sells real estate in Mickey Bartlett’s office.

At this point, the story practically writes itself, but the catalyst for the events that unfold over the next 90-odd minutes is Scott’s older brother Jimmy (Kieran Culkin), on leave from the Army. Jimmy knows a lot more about what’s going on between mom and dad, and the relatively naive Scott ends up having his worldview radically altered.

The Boy said it was good, but he asked me later if there were any “feel-good” movies out that we could go see.

We do seem to be steeped in movies about dysfunction. And none of the wacky comedies we’ve seen lately have turned out to be wacky comedies.

Sad thing is, I couldn’t point to any! Maybe we’ll go see Monsters vs. Aliens.

So, yeah, it’s a good movie, but enough of the dysfunction, you know? I know it means you get taken seriously, and the actors like it because they get to act up a storm, but it’s low hanging fruit. Especially in this case, where there’s not much else going on.

With Is Anybody There? you have the old-folks angle, and with Sunshine Cleaning you have the crime scene cleanup, but here–like The Squid and the Whale–you just have a family coming undone.

Again, good, but it can be a tiring diet.

Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

Have you ever noticed that the English seem to have an unending supply of wide-eyed pre- or just-pubescent boys who can act well and who all look vaguely similar? Just off the top of my head, there was (in recent years): Paul Terry (James and the Giant Peach), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Freddy Highmore (Finding Neverland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and now we have Bill Milner in the new coming-of-age/dying-of-age story Is Anybody There?

There seems to be an endless supply of parts for this age (say, like, 9 to 13 or 14) but, of course, it’s not something an actor can build a long career on. It’s got an even shorter lifespan that “starlet” as far as career paths go. And much like our starlets, the English never seem to run out of them. But finding beautiful young women is a numbers game made easy by the fact that they sort of just happen, and they tend to congregate in highly visible areas.

It’s a lot more impressive to see someone like Milner or Highmore, who somehow have managed to acquire some serious talent in their short times. Why, back in the day, (particularly American) child actors were both hard to work with and not very good. You had lower standards, and you weren’t surprised when they didn’t have adult careers. A Jodie Foster or Jackie Earle Haley was a rare thing.

I’m starting to wonder if they have some sort of cloning device/Treadstone program for actors o’er there.

But, I digress. Milner, who was in the previously reviewed Son of Rambow, plays a pubescent boy whose parents have turned their house into a rest home to save themselves from bankruptcy. Young Edward (Milner) responds to this by becoming sullen and obsessed with life after death.

Into this picture comes The Amazing Clarence in his painted mini-camper, a travelling magician whose wife is convincing him to stay “for just a while”, something which doesn’t appeal to him, especially given the sorry cast of despondent old folks populating the house. Clarence’s wife, one can’t help but notice, is at least young enough to be his daughter. Hell, biologically, he’s probably old enough to be her grandfather (which is to say, he’s probably 30 years older).

And one thinks, if one is me, that the old fella is doing pretty damn good if he can live in that tiny camper van with his pretty young wife and still be agile enough to put on magic shows. But then, Clarence is played Michael Caine, so it seems completely plausible.

Edward and Clarence have a rough start, to say the least. Clarence is harboring huge regrets while Edward is filled with hostility. And throughout the course of an hour-and-a-half, we get to see all kinds of takes on mortality. Edward’s father, about to hit 40, is acutely aware of his own mortality, we learn, as he sees his service to the older people as leeching his life away.

The other old people themselves are all handling their twilights with different degrees of aplomb. And because it’s an English movie, they’ve all got their chops, and you recognize them at least a little (and in the case of Rosemary Harris, a lot), and never a moment is wasted.

The Boy commented that (once again) this wasn’t the wacky comedy the trailers made it out to be, but neither should you get the idea that it’s grim. It’s funny, sometimes very darkly funny and poignant at the same time, entertaining and restrained. It doesn’t wallow. The big emotional scenes are Caine’s, and they have not to do with getting older, but with unforgiven sin.

Which, when you get down to it, is what really makes a tragedy. Everybody dies. It’s the thought of sinning and being unforgiven that tortures us.

Since we’ve been talking about dramatic structure lately, I have to say that the 2nd act climax is huge, and probably Oscar-worthy for Caine. I saw the resolution coming well in advance, but it was still very satisfying.

Ultimately, then, this is an optimistic movie about life. Keep in mind, though, that Caine reported crying on reading the script and his (pretty, younger) wife was shaken up by seeing his (pretend) deterioration.

Actually, it kind of disturbed me, since Caine was one of the first actors I could identify, and he (as Dennis Miller put it) was contractually obligated to appear in every single movie made in the ‘80s. He’s always seemed to age without getting old. It’s a little hard to see him and a lot of other actors that seemed sort-of fatherly (Albert Finny, Alan Arkin, Peter O’Toole, Christopher Plummer) play these roles where you’re about 80% sure their death is a critical plot point.

The title Is Anybody There? comes from a seance scene that Caine performs to give Edward some hope. But, of course, it also works as a question for those whose minds are going, or who have just given up with age. And it works as the great spiritual question, as well: Is anybody there? Or are we just bodies ultimately consigned to nothingness.

Expect to see this mentioned in the Oscars race for next year.

The Great Buck Howard

Remember Almost Famous? The semi-autobiographical tale of Cameron Crowe’s experiences following around The Allman Brothers? OK, imagine if, instead of following around a rock band, the lead had followed around The Amazing Kreskin.

If you can imagine that, you’re probably better at imaginin’ stuff than I am. If you can’t, you can always go see The Great Buck Howard.

TGBH is the dramatized story of writer/director Sean McGinley–and big props to this guy, who came up through the ranks writing for Fred Olen Ray and other B-movie luminaries, to finally get this big break–as a young man, who has freshly dropped out of law school in order to find something he actually likes doing. (An amusing note, he says through his character that he never found anyone in law school who loved it.)

Having no direction and no money, he signs up for this interesting job of “Road Manager for Big Celebrity”. The celebrity is The Great Buck Howard, a talented mentalist whose best days were 20-30 years ago. A regular on The Tonight Show–the one with Johnny Carson–he travels from town to town, proclaiming that He Loves This Town and giving handshakes like a man trying to start a model T.

His act is cheesy and corny, with his none-too-shabby “mentalist effects” alternating with some less than stellar standup and positively Shatneresque singing. Howard himself is by turns charming, irascible, wise, rude and ill-tempered.

The plot sort of hangs off a trick that is Howard’s signature: He leaves the stage, the audience hides his pay for the performance among them, and he has to find that money or not get paid. I’d say it was a heavy-handed metaphor, except that the Amazing Kreskin actually performed a similar trick repeatedly–not always succeeding. So the fact that it works as a metaphor is coincidental, apparently.

The whole movie breezes along in under 90 minutes, and with John Malkovich in the title role, you almost couldn’t get bored. This is a movie in the vein of My Favorite Year or any of the other “young man follows his heart while observing a wacky elder” flicks, from which you can probably figure out if it’s your cup of tea.

The lead role is played by Colin Hanks, whose father is played by his father, Mr. Tom Hanks. Emily Blunt, late of Sunshine Cleaning, gets to play a non-neurotic love interest/PR person, and the cast is filled with celebrities playing themselves (Tom Arnold, George Takei, Regis and Kelly), and a lot of people who look familiar but might take a moment to place, if you can place them at all (e.g. “Happy Days” Don Most).

The Boy enjoyed it, and was curious about the mentalist tricks. He didn’t know there wasn’t a Buck Howard. Understandable. Even I really couldn’t be sure. I didn’t know, and there were so many celebrities running around in the ‘70s, most of which I still don’t know what they were famous for. (I pity the future trying to keep track of today’s celebrities.) Anyway, it might be more interesting–or a different kind of interesting, anyway–to know where this movie hews to truth and where it wanders.

It probably won’t get a big release, but you could do a lot worse this weekend.

It Was 30(ish) Years Ago Today!

Back in 1978, producer Robert Stigwood unleashed upon the world the horror that is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Not the album, obviously, but the movie. If you’ve heard of the historical (and perhaps hysterical) hatred of disco, this is probably exhibit A in understanding why.

Stigwood was hot off of Saturday Night Fever and Grease–both of which are sleazefests in their own way, really–and with the massive success of both the movie and soundtrack to Fever, the USA was subjected to a kind of musical homogeneity that we can scarcely imagine today.

The problem with disco wasn’t that it was bad, in other words, but that it was mandated. Everything had to be disco. Every producer was trying for that mega-blockbuster-Bee Gee deal. I didn’t listen to much radio, but I still heard a lot of disco, where before I’d been hearing Led Zeppelin and heavy metal, and more importantly a lot of different styles.

For a while, though, total disco immersion. It was inescapable. Hence the massive backlash that would end up with a lot of vinyl deposited in landfills.

So, here we had the callow flavor-of-the-day, in the form of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, discofying the music of the grand pop masters. And it’s kind of funny: Frampton’s voice is not unlike McCartneys, and the Bee Gees were certainly capable of carrying the Beatles’ trademark harmonies, even if with a little added nasality.

There are some genuinely high points, as well: Aerosmith’s cover of “Come Together”; Earth, Wind and Fire doing “Got To Get You Into My Life”; and Billy Preston–a guy with Beatles bona fides–saving the day with his version of “Get Back”. Oh, and the lovely and fresh-faced Sandy Farina who gave uncluttered renditions of a few tunes that work really well with a woman’s voice.

The lows are horribly low. It wasn’t felt necessary to actually sing a number of the songs. Frankie Howerd (who?) talks his way through “Mean Mr. Mustard” and the incredibly white-hot super-mega-talent Steve Martin does a version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” that rivals anything William Shatner ever did. (There’s a universe between his performance here and his later one in Little Shop of Horrors.) George Burns–enjoying one of five or six career revivals–talks and smokes his way through “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”.

“She’s Leaving Home” is performed largely by robots. Voice synthesizers were sooo cool in ‘78.

The little town of Heartland is the Warner Bros. lot. You’ve seen it a zillion times. (I used to drive through it sometimes on my way to work.) Gazebo in the middle of a small grass park. Lots of storefronts but no parking. It’s been Gotham, Central City, Chicago (for “ER”), but usually they only show parts of it. Even at the time, I recognized it.

Anyway.

The discofication of most of the songs that are actually performed–I mean, someone thought it’d be good to put in a refrain of “Talkin’ ’bout Lucy!” at the end of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”–robs most of the music of its listenability.

The over-produced sound would ultimately give way to a much cleaner, simpler sound in the ’80s, and a kind of Damnatio Memoria where instead of building on the previous big sound, bands would go back to the ’50s for inspiration. It would be just two years later that Airplane! would knock a tower off a station that promised “disco would live forever”, to huge audience applause and laughter.

The other aspect of this movie is, well, while Stigwood may not himself be sleazy, he’s made some really, really sleazy films. Beside the aforementioned Grease and SNF, there was Tommy and–hell, I thought Bugsy Malone had a kind of sleazy feel. So the camp and corniness in this film is overwhelmed by the sleaze.

It achieves a pornographic sensibility while being positively PG. There is, for example, a drug-fueled orgy, even though no clothing is removed. In the Potterization (Mustardization, actually, in this case) of Heartland, a clean storefront is turned into a (scandal!) video game arcade with lots of dancers writhing around the games.

Right. Because video games are like magnets for sexual activity.

No opportunity for sleaze goes unexplored, giving this film the only “fresh” thing it brings to a pretty shopworn plot. (Smalltown boys make it big and forget their values.) Sex, drugs, and no rock-and-roll.

At this point, I should probably offer a comparison to the recent Across The Universe, but I find that movie so offensive I can’t sit through it.

Observed and Reported

Observe and Report is the third movie in about as many weeks where the trailer is somewhat misleading about the kind of film being advertised. (The two previous were Adventureland and Duplicity.) I’ll take the position that this is due to the entirely laudable reason that these were different movies and hard for the marketing folks to pigeonhole. (None of these flicks have been blockbusters, either.)

In fact, while the trailer up until about last week had made the movie seem like a Will Ferrell-esque clown movie, the last trailer played a whole bunch more, making the movie seem more awkward and painful. I was on the fence before and leaning against it, but The Boy was rather enthused, so off we went.

It probably says too much about me that I really enjoyed this. It ping-pongs between a somewhat exaggerated broad comedy, and a black humor that borders on the tragic, much like the main character’s manic depression. It also surprised me on three or four occasions, which is not something I’m accustomed to.

The story is that Seth Rogan plays Ronnie Barnhardt, a mall cop with a bloated sense of self-importance. Hilarious, right? We had one of those movies this year already! This is really no coincidence, by the way: Studios get wind that one of their competitiors is coming out with a movie about meteors, volcanos, mall cops or whatever, and they’ll try to get their own product in there.

Anyway, the mall is being terrorized by a flasher. Which, I confess, struck me as quaint. (Can women today be terrorized by a flasher? I’d rather hope not.) Ronnie, of course, has only the sort of police skills one picks up from watching David Caruso dramatically take off his sunglasses. And when the beautiful cosmetics counter girl (Anna Farris) is traumatized, the cops are called in.

I love Anna Farris: She has the looks to go full bimbo, but somewhere about Scary Movie 3 she seems to have given her all to comedy. She actually plays a bimbo here, and a simply horrible person besides.

Meanwhile, the cop is played by the cruelly handsome Ray Liotta, who must endure Ronnie’s endless boasting and posturing, even as the mall cop ends up eating up his day with stupid dead-ends.

So, typical wacky comedy right?

But then we see Ronnie’s home life, and alcoholic mom (played by Celia Weston, who strongly recalls a younger Louis Lasser), and the laughs are of a completely different character. We see that he cares about something other than himself and also that his clownishness has a lot to do with his dreams and ambitions.

There are a lot of alternating scenes like this. Ronnie is an insufferable jerk, but then it turns out that his megalomania is the result of actual manic-depression. He invites the world to treat him badly, but sometimes when it does, he becomes surprisingly effective. We see him neglect the sweet and charming Toast-A-Bun girl most of the times, but also come surprisingly to her aid, even if in a terribly inappropriate way.

I can’t believe that this sort of movie has a broad appeal. It sets itself up in a very generic fashion–I knew instantly that Nell would be the true love interest instead of Brandi, for example–but then it refuses to overplay or oversell the comedy, and instead sells a strange violent twist.

Funny, if you can laugh at that sort of thing. Which I can. And The Boy can as well.

But if you find that sort of thing disturbing, this isn’t your movie.

Taking Chance

It took me a while to watch this one. It’s taken me longer to review it.

Taking Chance is the story of Lt. Col. Mike Strobl, who escorts the body of Chance Phelps to his final resting place in Dubois, Wyoming.

It’s about 1:15 long. It’s devoid of big emotions, high drama, or even a plot, really. And yet, I can barely imagine the soul that would be unmoved by it.

If you’re ignorant of these sort of things, you have no idea how much care goes into this detail. The rules are specific and the protocol meticulous. And it’s impossible not to feel a measure of pride in the respect given, even if you never knew about it before.

It seems right. It seems the only proper recognition, really. And what’s beautiful about this movie is that Strobl encounters a stream of Americans who are overwhelmed by Chance’s sacrifice.

And you get, in one small moment, a sense of why the whole mission means so much to Strobl (Kevin Bacon), and a look into the soul of the brothers-in-arms who serve us, often at the ultimate price.

You should see it.

Adventureland

Another case of terribly deceiving trailers, like Duplicity, Adventureland comes across as a wacky summer teen-sex comedy, in the mold of the ‘80s (when the story takes place). In the trailers, they show lots of Bill Hader (Superbad) and Kristen Wiig (misidentified in an earlier review as Katharine Wiig), who have a great and funny chemistry as the couple that manages the amusement part. They reference Superbad which was not entirely froth, but which had a very light feel overall.

The trailers even set it up to look like a mishap with the corn dogs causes hallucinations. Zany!

OK, so, Hader and Wiig are great. And very funny. But they’re really just a sideshow in what is essentially a romance. Not even a romantic-comedy, but a fairly heavy clash of two people trying to love each other.

In the lead is Jesse Eisenberg (Squid and the Whale) as James, looking a lot like the wispy Michael Cera, but with a fierce undercurrent of strong passion, and the waifish Kristen Stewart (hot off Twilight).

As our story open, Jesse’s dad has been “reassigned”, meaning they now don’t have the money to send him to Europe. They don’t even have the money to help him out at Columbia, where he’s been accepted into the Masters program for Journalism. So he gets a job at Adventureland, being not qualified for anything else. (That strikes me as a stretch; were there no temp office jobs for college grads in Pittsburgh in the ’80s? But, rolling with it….)

There at the park, he meets Joel (Martin Starr of Superbad), a morose but highly intelligent college graduate who majored in Russian and Eastern European Literature, and ultra-cool musician/maintenance older guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds in the role Paul Rudd would have done ten years ago). He also meets the sharp, broody Em (Stewart) and the shallow, curvy Lisa P (Margaraita Levieva, looking more ’80s than any of them).

I’d like to give a shout out to all the smart, curvy women who are tired of this stereotype, by the way. It’s necessary for the plot, here, though.

Basically, James is the romantic type. He’s at least 22, and still a virgin. It’s not that the opportunity hasn’t arisen, it’s that he wants for it to be worthy of a Shakespeare sonnet:


Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?

He decides to break up with his steady girlfriend on the night she was going to bed him because he didn’t want to be a slave to the hours and times of her desire.

This is not your ’80s-guy-tries-to-get-laid-with-wacky-consequences movie. James’ virginity is not played for laughs, awkward and embarrassing as it is, when he sits down with Em face-to-face to compare sexual histories. And they are both embarrassed for different reasons.

James falls for Em very quickly, but Em, who has suffered her own family traumas, is currently having an affair with the married Connell. Connell uses his cachet as a musician (though we never, ever hear him play, and the band we do hear is awful) to attract the young girls into his mother’s basement (no joke!).

So while James is falling harder and harder for Em, she’s feeling worse and worse about herself and trying to slow him down. His quirky charm attracts Lisa P who, against his better instincts and with Connell’s encouragement, takes her on a date. He’s wracked with guilt, unaware of Em’s relationship.

You can see how rough this is going to get, can’t you?

And it does.

There are many things that amused this old moviegoing warhorse, too: This movie is way less creepy and raunchy than the ’80s teen sex farces it reminds of. There’s no nudity. No glamorization of drunken makeout sessions. Apart from the kissing, everything else is off screen. Marijuana figures big with no particular judgment made about it, and there’s a lot of drunk driving–none of it funny. There’s a big going to New York City scene, which ends in the rain on a graffiti-and-trash covered street.

There’s anti-semitism! And the parents and adults, always fodder for humor in the teen sex farce, are portrayed fairly sensitively (if not in any great detail). For example, Em’s stepmother hates her, but when Em pulls at her wig during a cocktail party, you feel bad for the stepmother, too.

It’s not, not, not the wacky Superbad. That movie, upon reflection, suffered from the fact that Jonah Hill doesn’t really have Seth Rogan’s charisma, which is kind of critical for understanding why the girl is interested in him. The whole cast here does a great job even when there’s little screen time. I particularly thought that the two actors who played the fathers (Josh Pais and Jack Gilpin) did a good job looking like men who had somehow lost control of their lives.

We liked it–The Boy included–but I think they’ve played the PR wrong. A lot of people are going to think the movie is boring and slow because they were promised a comedy. So, as with Duplicity, beware. Unlike Duplicity, however, Em and James are hugely sympathetic characters–just kids trying to figure out how to reconcile their feelings with the fear that comes from not knowing how the other feels.

I Love You, Man

“And give me two tickets to Sunshine Cleaning.”

Lame joke, but you know I ran with it at the box office when we went to see I Love You, Man. They put up with me.

Male friendship is a popular topic here on the ‘strom, and here we have an interesting cinematic example. This movie is a romantic comedy, except the leads are two heterosexual platonic friends.

And, hey, ladies! The women in this movie are not jerks!

The story concerns Peter Klaven (the omnipresent Paul Rudd) who is a milquetoast-y real estate agent who has just proposed to girlfriend Zooey (“The Office”’s Rashida Jones) and realized that he has no candidate for Best Man. Seems Peter is more comfortable with women than with men.

His initial attempts at finding male companionship are unsuccessful, if not exactly hilarious. The humor here is really not broad; the movie stays realistic and tackles the issues in a fairly straight manner. Rudd does a good job being awkward at male-male relations.

Things get funnier when he meets Sydney Fife (the formerly fully frontally nude Jason Segel of Forgetting Sarah Marshall), who takes a shine to him and invites him on some “man-dates”. Sydney leads the life of the consummate bachelor and, if possible, Rudd is even more awkward than ever.

I liked this part. Peter doesn’t really know how to appropriate greet his new male friend, and in trying to be cool says things that are not real words. At one point, trying to come up with a nickname for Sydney, he calls him “Jopen”. There’s a lot of stuff like that, but Sydney rolls with all of it as Peter gets up to speed.

So, if you wanted to be hack about this, how do you create the tension? Well, you’d start making Peter’s fiancee jealous. The very cool thing about this movie is that fiancee Zooey never really gets jealous. What happens instead is that Peter finds himself just as ill-equipped to manage the needs of both people as they arise.

This happens at a Rush concert. So, if you like Rush, it’s got that going for it, too.

This culminates in a second act where the issue of trust becomes paramount. The hero loses his best friend, his girl and his job. (Not literally, but it looks like he’s going to have his dream property sold out from under him.) Having just seen Sunshine Cleaning, where the script never really recovers from the second act crisis, this movie works out very well and believably.

The trap of these movies often fall into is that they make you wonder why the hell the hero is interested in the girl in the first place, but not here. Besides Zooey, Jamie Pressley plays Zooey’s friend Denise, whose boorish husband Barry (John Favreau) refuses to do anything for her unless it results in some kink later on from her. (But even there, we learn that this isn’t quite as it seems.)

Zooey’s biological-clock-is-ticking sister Haley (Sarah Burns) has eyes for Sydney, but he’s not interested in settling down, but the movie avoids making her pathetic, and calls the eternal bachelor in his issues, without insisting he end up married at the end.

The movie’s about the two of them. And, rather sweetly, features callbacks to all the guys whom Peter didn’t bond quite as well with.

Although it has much of the feel of an Apatow movie, it’s mostly not as raunchy (the raunch is verbal and a lot less outrageous)–and, as I said, a lot more female friendly.

The Boy liked it. I had thought about not taking him, since there’s a fair amount of sex talk in it, but I didn’t find myself cringing. (He, of course, was not bothered at all.) He made the comparison between the more loosy-goosy Sunshine and this.

And I liked the message: It’s okay to be best friends with your girlfriend, and it’s okay to have guy friends, too. But most importantly, you have to communicate with both.

Oh, yeah, and Lou Ferigno looks great and not at all like he’s pushing 60.

Little Miss Sunshine Cleaning Company

We have a lot of slacker comedies these days, but they’re not usually centered around women. This may be because slacker women aren’t funny. For instance, in the new dramedy (can I still use that word?) from the makers of Little Miss Sunshine, Sunshine Cleaning we have slacker sisters Rose and Norah, working as cleaner and waitress respectively, our girls aren’t really slackers because they just never grew up (as is the usual case with boys), but because of a tragedy in their early lives.

This swaps out some comedic potential for drama, which is ookkaaaay, I guess, but maybe a little, I dunno, cheap? (Drama is way easier to pull off than comedy, especially when you’ve got Amy Adams and Emily Blunt in a tragic situation.)

Anyway, in this case, we have the lovely and versatile Amy Adams in the title role, playing a normal person (as opposed to a nun, a wild ‘30s actress or a fairy princess) and there’s just no doubt that this girl can act. She’s a single mom having an affair with a married man (instead of getting her real estate license) and hard up for money because her son, Oscar, decided to lick things at school, and they don’t want him there any more unless they can drug him. (I didn’t know that the state could force you to “medicate” your child but, hey, way to go Big Pharm, if that’s the case. Nothing like hooking ’em young. I guess the tobacco guys knew what they were doing, eh?)

Her cop boyfriend hooks her up with a crime scene cleanup job, not entirely on the up-and-up, and Rose takes to it, dragging her recently fired sister along with her. The money is good and they begin to feel good about it, making some investments and getting the necessary training and certification.

There are about half-a-dozen subplots: Grampa (Alan Arkin) car-schools Oscar while buying things off the back of a truck and trying to sell them for profit; a romantic thread with the one-armed proprietor of the store (acting chameleon Clifton Collins, Jr.) where they buy their supplies; the affair with the cop; Rose’s high school quasi-reunion; Norah’s pursuit of a person connected to one of their cases; I think that’s all of them.

This keeps things moving, and everything builds nicely to a second act catastrophe. In a traditional three-act screen play, the second act ends with a disaster–the big disaster that knocks the hero down and gives him something to overcome in the climax in act three.

And that’s where this movie kind of peters out: The second act catastrophe is awesome. Just when it looks like Rose has finally got her act act together, Norah ruins everything. You just can’t see a good way out of this mess.

And then there’s some resolving of personal conflicts and–I won’t call it a deus ex machina, because it’s not, exactly, but for a movie that doesn’t bother to tie up half its loose ends (which is fine, things can be too neat), this main one is not tied up way too neatly and unconvincingly. (I can’t go into it without spoiling things.)

Overall, it’s an entertaining movie with good acting (including the aforementioned Emily Blunt of Charlie Wilson’s War, Steve Zahn as the cop boyfriend and Jason Spevak as Oscar) a few laughs from a broad spectrum of humor (that is some standard comedy fare, some darker), and quite a bit of drama.

We actually felt it could’ve been a little bit longer. It runs only 90 minutes, with about ten minutes cut from the European release. (That might’ve been another subplot, who knows?)

This movie isn’t all that much, in nature, like the contrived, sit-com-y Little Miss Sunshine, either. (I liked Little Miss Sunshine but it was terribly clichéd.) It shares a couple of producers with this movie, and you can feel their influence–like I suspect the filming location is part of that–and Alan Arkin is in both movies, but the earlier movie is a lot shallower and, yes, funnier.

And it was almost like the director and writer wanted to avoid the tidy wrapping up of loose ends enjoyed by the LMS crew and so left us with a lot more questions, and a little unsatisfied.

See, I’m having trouble ending this. The short form is: We liked it but wouldn’t recommend it unreservedly.

Duplicity: Nobody Trusts Anybody

The trailers for Duplicity initially positioned it as a super-serious spy movie. Then they had a run suggesting it was a romantic comedy. This dichotomy may have something to do with its tepid reception, because even while there’s an overlap in the audiences, there’s not much overlap in the urge.

That is, people don’t think “Oh, I want to see Sleepless In Seattle–but I guess The Osterman Weekend is just as good.” I mean, you might be in the mood for either, or both, but a strong urge to view one genre just isn’t going to be satisfied by a movie in the other genre.

This is, however, a romantic-comedy/spy movie. Though a little light on the comedy and more a caper flick.

The premise is that Clive “And Just When Everything Was Going So Well” Owen and Julia “They’re Called Boobs, Ed” Roberts are corporate spies who are managing a convoluted caper while trying to build a relationship.

Well, look, I’ve been bitching about how Romantic Comedies have gone from the struggle of two independent, strong-willed people to find a way to cohabitate, to being about neurotic women pursued by persistent and apparently not very bright men. So, I guess we have a compromise: Duplicity is about two, independent, strong-willed and neurotic people trying to find a way to cohabitate.

It works, sort of. The plot centers around a mysterious product that one company has and another company wants, and the revelation of that MacGuffin was pretty funny. The corporate spy angle makes it possible for the movie to be lighter than a traditional spy-game movie would be.

The narrative ping-pongs between current day and progressive flashbacks, and somehow I missed the first flashback cue, so I got a bit confused at first. But the plot’s actually pretty straightforward despite the other plot (the one the two are hatching) being ridiculously complex.

Naturally, The Boy and I were more intrigued by the business aspect of corporate spying, and with the two CEOs being played by Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson, the Owen-Roberts relationship seemed a little…less so. (Giamatti is at his scene-chewing best while Wilkinson’s role is unfortunately tiny; you could see a really fun movie being made out of their relationship.)

I don’t think this is entirely a testosterone issue. These two characters are not very sympathetic. They constantly test and mess with each other, which they simultaneously seem to enjoy and revile. It’s a difficult task and writer/director Tony Gilroy (screenwriter for the Bourne series) doesn’t quite pull it off.

Normally, in a caper movie, you want the guys pulling the caper to succeed. (It’s a bit perverse, but we don’t expect movies to teach a moral lesson, do we?) And normally, in a RomCom, you want the two protagnoists to get together. This was not especially the case here. (And I give Gilroy credit for not making the ending too pat.) The whole thing ends up feeling a bit overly intellectual (Bourne has this in parts, too, I think) and unfocused.

I’m not a Julia Roberts fan, particularly–I find her looks distracting rather than engaging–but I thought she brought some warmth to the role, even though there wasn’t much room for it. I am sort of a Clive Own fan, but there was no room at all to gauge whether his charm had any genuine affection to it.

You can see why this undermines the romantic-comedy part; it also really undermines the caper part. And the whole thing ends up feeling overlong.

A shame, really.

Sweet Coraline

One important rule of making it in Hollywood is to always be working on your next picture by the time your last one opens, and to have the one after that all nailed down. That way, if the one at the box office flops, you have two more chances before your career is finished.

This is probably impossible if you’re doing stop-motion animation. And so it came to pass that the director of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach went eight years between movie releases: the disastrous Monkeybone and the reasonably successful Coraline.

I had held off going to see this movie, as it The Boy wasn’t really in the target audience–too old–and neither was The Flower–if not too young, exactly, then not particularly inclined to the creepy. But it has hung on and made an unexpected appearance at our local art house this week, when all the Oscar dross finally got pushed out. (Yay!)

The Flower seemed pretty confident that, as this was a fairy tale (my description), that they would all live happily ever after, and therefore it would be okay for her to see. But why o why, she lamented, didn’t they just tell you the ending beforehand? Then you’d know if you wanted to go see it!

This led to a less surreal discussion than the one I posted here (which occurred after the movie) between her and the boy about whether the ending was more important than how you get there.

So, about the movie: This is, indeed, a fairy tale about a young girl who moves from the big city into a sub-divided house out in the boondocks with her preoccupied parents. In the house, she discovers a tiny door with only a brick wall behind it. But if her parents aren’t around (asleep, away), the wall becomes a passage. And on the other side of the passage is a mirror image of her world, only this world fulfills her dreams of the perfect life.

Her other parents are doting and entertaining, her neighbors aren’t crazy old coots but magically talented, the garden is a living world of lights, and even her room is fantastically enchanted.

The only apparent thing that’s “off” is that all the people in this mirror world have buttons for eyes. (This, of course, is just a warning sign of how off the whole thing is.)

Creepy, eh? Now, fairy tales are creepy and horrific, in general. This isn’t much different, thematically, than Hansel and Gretel and the gingerbread house, or Celtic stories of “little people”, who were always doing horrible things. But if you’re going to take a kid to see this, make sure they’re not freaked out by eye stuff. (The other really disturbing part of the movie, that of the fat old women running around in skimpy clothing, was in the “well, there’s something you don’t see every day” category. The Flower recognized the reference to Boticelli immediately.)

The Flower is primarily disturbed by unhappy endings, so no issue with the eyes for her, though when the illusion of the other world started to come apart, my arm was grabbed and stayed grabbed for quite some time.

And come apart it does as the mystery of the “other mother” unfolds.

Wonderful voice work by Teri Hatcher (who shall forever be Lois Lane to me) and Keith David (as a savvy cat nemesis to the “other mother”), as well as Dakota Fanning as Coraline, John Hodgman as Father, and the comedy team of French and Saunders as the crazy old ladies next door. Ian McShane, late of Kung Fu Panda, plays an old Russian guy training mice in his apartment.

Ultimately, this is a satisfying movie, with solid Fairy Tale logic. Everything hangs together. I would swear I’ve read the tale before in another form; certainly the concept of a fairy world where illusions make very mundane or even nasty things seem marvelous is not new. But I can’t remember any particular fairy tale that goes that way. (Fritz Leiber wrote a Fafhrd/Grey Mouser story called Bazaar of the Bizarre in that vein, and the theme of great-illusion-masking-horrible-truth was used in the 2000 version of Bedazzled.)

And Selick’s work is good here. He demonstrates (again) that much of the visual artistry of Nightmare Before Christmas was his, if you didn’t pick that up from James and the Giant Peach and Monkeybone. (His pallette is less ruthlessly grey/white/red than Burton’s.) Since it was meant to exploit 3D–my brain doesn’t do 3D so we saw it regular-flat-style–it has more than a few moments that are conspiculously sticky-out-of-the-screen-y, but it’s not horrible in that regard.

And the stop-motion is very fine, indeed. It’s even more impressive to think that, in this day-and-age when computers can simulate this style of animation (or even more, that computers fulfill the needs stop-motion animation was originally meant to address), that there are teams of people out there moving little dolls around a millimeter at a time. And you get to marvel at the broken mirrors, the running water, and all the other little things that seem impossible with just stop-motion. (There are some parts that were surely computer animated, but not that many!)

The only caveat I have is that the movie is probably over-rated. It’s very good, but not a mind-blowing revelation. I think a lot of the hype comes from the fact that Neil Gaiman–a comic book luminary along the lines of Alan Moore or Frank Miller–wrote the story on which this was based.

It’s a fine story. And a fine movie. Part of the reason for both, though, is that it doesn’t have grand pretensions. It’s a nice, moral fairy tale. Enjoy it for being that.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Cannibal Women In The Avocado Jungle Of Death

This little known camp gem is the story of a–well, I’m not exactly sure, really, that it’s post-apocalyptic. All I know is that somehow, the Avocado Jungle has sprung up between San Bernardino and the Arizona border, it’s the only source of the apparently vital avocado crop in the US, and a hyper-feminist group of cannibals known as the Piranha Women are refusing to let the precious fruit (vegetable?) be harvested.

This is a profoundly ridiculous movie, part Apocalypse Now, part Indiana Jones, and a kind of kissing cousin to the Richard Chamberlain/Sharon Stone camp spoof Alan Quartermain and The Lost City of Gold.

Adrienne Barbeau (hi, Troop!) is Dr. Kurtz, leader of the feminists, while Shannon Tweed heads a crew consisting of Karen Mistal Waldron and–I’m not making this up–Bill Maher. There’s some very good chemistry between Barbeau and Tweed, and Karen Waldron is surprisingly good as the dumb blonde. (I mean that seriously, she looks like a bimbo, but she has good comic timing.)

Obviously, this isn’t Citizen Kane, but I laughed like an idiot. (“Like” he says.)

Actually, Bill Maher is the weak link in this, which surprised me at the time I saw it because I was a big fan of his. But the reason the movie works to the extent it does is because everyone is playing it straight, like a ZAZ movie, and Maher can’t stop smirking. That aspect of it is painful to watch.

You definitely have to have a taste for this style of camp, which was really huge in the low-budget direct-to-video ‘80s, but if you do, it’s one of the better ones. (And if you are, you should also check out Nice Girls Don’t Explode from the same era.)

12 Angry Russian Men

I was in the mood to sit in a dark room and eat popcorn Thursday evening so I scanned for a movie of interest, and failing that–I just can’t muster any interest in The Class but maybe this will be the week!–settled on a little film called Phoebe In Wonderland, which is yet another teacher drama, but of the single student variety I think, rather than the teacher goes and teaches underprivileged kids variety.

But when we got to the theater, it wasn’t playing! I’m still not sure how I made the mistake, but when we got there the Russian movie 12 was playing. Well, excellent, I actually wanted to see that.

12 is a Russian take on 12 Angry Men. It lost out at last year’s Oscars to The Counterfeiters. Yay for finally getting 2007’s best foreign films in 2009. Just for the record, the other three films nominated were Mongol (reviewed here), Beaufort (which we skipped) and Katyn (which I still don’t think has come around).

Of course the original is a dramatic masterpiece, tight as a drum and gorgeously staged and composed, so remakers must beware. (William Friedkin’s mid-‘90s is a respectable update.) And, of course, it’s a distinctly American story.

Just to top it off, the original is The Boy’s favorite movie. (It was on-demand last summer and we watched it one night, and then he asked to see it again the next night.)

So, lots could go wrong here.

However, this isn’t really a remake. The framework is the same: 12 men are locked in a room in order to decide the fate of a boy who allegedly killed his father. The evidence is overwhelmingly against him, and a lone holdout keeps the argument from being settled quickly. In the end, he sways the other jurors, and a murderer goes free.

Wait, that might not be how it goes. (Interestingly, Greg Gutfeld mentioned on “Red Eye” a few weeks back that he thought 12 Angry Men was the turning point in the culture wars. He didn’t elaborate, but given that the authorities are wrong, and a bunch of people are about to send an innocent boy off to die, it makes an interesting thought.)

But where the American version is a tale of forensics against which the personalities of the jurors emerge and reveal bias and irrationality, this sprawling Russian version mostly skips the forensics. The jurors, in turn, reveal some personal story or aspect of their lives, and this sways voters to the other side. (Some of the deductive reasoning of the original surfaces, but at one point–when the twist is revealed–a character runs through the forensic points that were overlooked, a nice homage to the original.)

The pressure to convict quickly also comes from the authorities: The baliff is a comical figure who can’t believe they’re taking as long as they do, even as he makes long distance phone calls on the cell phones he’s appropriated from them. But the implication is that most deliberations are over in a couple of hours.

Russian culture and society is on trial here, too. In this setup, the boy is a Chechen, the adopetd son of a retired Russian soldier. The sequestration is broken up by flashbacks showing how the soldier came to adopt the boy, and also by shots of the boy (now grown) in his cell. (One of the jurors is Jewish, and anti-semitism comes into play, too!)

The whole movie is both heavily laden with symbolism and bogged down in the reality of the effects of a society that’s lived under the oppressive thumbs of dictators for as long as anyone can remember.

I kept thinking, “Wow, so that’s what a jury deliberation in a dead society looks like.” Not that this should be taken as a documentary, but the Soviets’ impact is still being felt, with absurd testaments to their waste and corruption everywhere. “Everyone’s in on it” a character says at one point. The despair is palpable.

And yet, this is a hopeful movie. It’s by turns moving, absurd, tragic, funny and grim. Very Russian, as one character says.

And, it has a twist ending. Right about the time the original ends, there’s another character who starts arguing back the other way! And he makes an excellent point! Actually, there are about four points where it seems like the movie is going to end, and the last two endings seem rather gratuitous.

All-in-all, a fairly captivating 2 ½ hour flick. The Boy was pleased. And I got to practice my Russian ears. So, win-win.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Watchmen

I would hate to judge an author by the film adaptations of his work, but if I were to do so for Alan Moore, I would say he was a nihilistic misanthropist who was far enough left to make Chosmky blush. And also that he was an idiot. But while the latter would probably be true of assessments made of most authors based on screen adaptations, there may be some merit to the former.

This is the guy who gave us V for Vendetta after all. Also League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but I have to believe that’s not as stupid as it sounds, and it couldn’t possibly be as dumb as the movie made it out to be. I just have to believe that, if I’m to have any faith in humanity at all.

Let me back up a bit and just talk about the movie: This is a decent superhero action flick, surprisingly entertaining for its length (two-and-a-half hours, not counting credits). The story takes place in an alternate 1985, and the premise is that masked heroes started appearing ca. World War II, and a second generation appeared in the ‘60s and helped the USA fight (and win!) the Vietnam War. (As if we lost that war for military or even enemy morale reasons.)

This win, and apparently the use of our five superheroes by President Nixon allows him to seek a fifth term–1968, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1984–and somewhere around his third term, he makes masked vigilantism a crime. So our heroes are retired (a la Incredibles, which probably took a little inspiration from here) and either working clandestinely or not at all.

The story begins with one of the heroes, the Comedian, being killed. The Comedian’s kind of a psychopathic Punisher type who really enjoyed Vietnam, and in one appalling scene opens fire on a crowd of protesters while screaming about the American Dream having come true. Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a fine job playing this “nuanced” character.

The hyper-violent Rorschach, who most reminded me of The Question, suspects foul play. Or rather, suspects fouler play than just a random burglary. He warns the Nite Owl, reminiscent of the Blue Beetle, but really evocative of a clunky Batman (complete with lots of money and toys), and the Nite Owl warns Ozymandias, now a super-successful businessman who’s working on a cheap power source with the help of Dr. Manhattan.

Dr. Manhattan was exposed to some super-science thing that allows him to see into his own future and past, and apparently to give others the same power. Like his girlfriend, the Silk Spectre, who seems to be the only hero who inherited the position from her mother. Anyway, Dr. Manhattan’s superpowers don’t include giving a damn, which puts a strain on their relationship.

Anyway, there’s lots going on, and director Zach Snyder keeps the action coming so that the story never gets bogged down. I’m always amused by the sort of critical reception of movie like this gets: Apparently it confused the poor dears. It’s actually not at all confusing; it is, however, high volume, and some things are done shockingly poorly for such an A-level production.

The acting is largely top notch. I mentioned Morgan as the Comedian, but Patrick Wilson (most known to me as the guy who gets tortured by Ellen Page in the neat little horror flick Hard Candy) does a very fine job as Nite Owl, and Billy Crudup does well with a difficult role as the subtly emotional Dr. Manhattan. I found Malin Akerman, who plays the Black Canary-esque Silk Spectre, a little grating and occasionally radiating a kind of bimbotude, which was just tragically wrong for that part.

Once again, though, newly reborn Jackie Earle Haley (Bad News Freakin’ Bears!) just kicks ass as the uncompromising terror, Rorschach. And he does it, for the most part, through a completely opaque, featureless mask. (Featureless except for the shifting pattern on it.)

So, while the acting is overall quite good, there is some wicked bad makeup. The makeup for the Nixon and Pat Robertson characters, for example, is just ostentatiously bad. Carla Gugino, who plays the original Silk Specter, does a fine job, but her old age makeup reminds me of that episode of the Brady Bunch where Peter plays Benedict Arnold. (Maybe I’m just hyper-critical of old age makeup and maybe I was turned off by the Nixon caricature after Frost/Nixon, but that’s how it seemed.)

The familiar let’s-open-an-action-scene-with-a-pop-song approach takes a beating here, too. The Hendrix version of Along The Watchtower is used, for example, and it fell flat with me. Worst of all–people are talking about this one a lot–was the use of Leonard Cohen’s version of Hallelujah.

People, it was a dubious choice to have Leonard Cohen singing in the documentary about his own life, I’m Your Man. Putting his voice and the ridiculously clunky Hallelujah Chorus Singers that grace his recording of that song over a sex scene–not subtly in the background but loudly and insistently–was ridiculously tin-eared.

The other thing I’m on the fence about is the fact that, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, they’re all just regular heroes, not super heroes. That is, they have no powers. Except that they sort of do. I mean, in the opening scene where The Comedian is fighting his assailant, walls and furniture get smashed through. Rorschach scales walls as though attached to wires. Ozymandias is faster than a speeding bullet. And so on.

I dunno. A certain amount of “super” heroism is pretty much standard in action films. It was better than bogging down the film with a bunch of origins stories. (I had a minor but similar sort of feeling about the technology used by the Nite Owl. It was so clearly of today and not of the ’80s; I would have liked to see future tech as imagined in the ’80s.)

Overall, a flawed, but engaging movie.

The Boy pronounced it “Entertaining. But it had a message, and I don’t know what it was. It would have been better without it.”

But, of course, I knew what the message was, and I’m sure it seemed so incredibly profound back in ’86 when this was written, that a lot of people are clinging to the story’s “greatness” now without observing the irony that it was terribly, self-indulgently wrong. See, the authors proceeded from the standpoint that the human race was on the brink of destroying itself in ’85, and built themselves a story around that concept.

Man’s capacity for self-destruction is, of course, a fond topic for writers, as well as how to diver that energy elsewhere. Ray Bradbury wrote an upbeat little story called “The Toynbee Convector”, for example on how a time machine saved humanity. This wouldn’t be that story.

No, this is a story where imperialist America goes unchecked and–you know, when you get down to it, the villain is none other than Richard Nixon–brings the world to the brink of destruction.

Heroes are made from sadists and neurotics and mass-murderers, and the desire to create a “nuanced” story turns–as it always does–into a soap opera’s celebration of pettiness. Dr. Manhattan gains incredible knowledge and wisdom, and as a result becomes detached from his humanity–not so detached that he can’t cheat on his wife with a younger woman, but detached enough that he can’t decide whether humanity is worth saving. The climactic scenes work–they vary from the graphic novel–but they don’t bear much thinking about.

It’s not that there aren’t a lot of conflicting messages here, because there are, and there are supposed to be. You’re supposed to make your own moral, which is what good artists allow the viewer to do. But the backdrop that that decision is supposed to made against is false, and rife with ugliness and ennui.

I haven’t read the graphic novel; The Boy and I both eschewed that, feeling that the movie should stand on its own, and I think it does. Ultimately, whether the grim world view presented–and the few upbeat notes therein–are the influence of Moore (who had his name taken off the production) or Snyder or Gibbons (who illustrated the comic) doesn’t really matter.

It’s so very ’80s, though, like Blade Runner, American Psycho and The Dark Knight Returns. The ’80s generation, in its own way, is insufferable as the ’60s generation was: Faced with unprecedented wealth and the demise of the great threat of our time, everyone was just so freaking convinced the world was coming to an end. (At least the Dark Knight embraced the notion that hard times meant heroes had to be even more heroic, on an even larger scale.)

Just in case you thought it mattered which Republican was in the White House.

So I give it a reserved recommendation–but you might find yourself a little embarrassed. There was talk of a sequel–I don’t think the movie will do as well as predicted–but that would only be slightly less stupid than a sequel to Snyder’s last film: 300.

Camorra, Gomorrah

The Boy was recovered enough to take a trip to the movies, though the pickings are slim, with the Oscar films still clogging up the screens. It’s hard to sell even the high rated films that are out now: Two Lovers, Bob Funk, Medicine for Melancholy (some asshole ripping off Bradbury’s title again), and Must Read After My Death (“Imagine if Revolutionary Road had been a documentary!”). There are a few mainstream releases out we haven’t seen, but he’s very particular about those. (I don’t know that he makes the distinction in his mind, but he’s at an age where he has an aversion to stupid, and that rules out a whole lot of movies.)

Then there’s Gomorra, a mixed-reviewed gangster flick about the Naples crime syndicate. Well, The Boy likes himself a gangster flick, though I myself run cold on them.

And, well, it’s a sprawling mess of a film, unfocused and a bit hard to follow, not because any individual scene is complicated but how they tie together is. The movie concerns: A gang war with “secessionists” trying to split from the Camorra, a boy who wants to join the gang, a couple of phenomenally stupid young men who are trying to be independent outlaws, a dress counterfeiting operation, a toxic waste dump operation, and a man who either collects the protection money or distributes retired gangster’s pensions (or both).

You could’ve made this a miniseries, with the six stories each being its own 22-minute episode–or you could have fleshed them out into 48 minutes for an hour show. This would’ve worked better, I think, because the stories didn’t really overlap, so telling them cut into pieces just made them hard to follow, without any added dramatic benefit.

The movie runs two-and-a-quarter hours, but even so, you don’t get a satisfying resolution to the young kid’s story. Here’s how it could’ve been better: The boy delivers groceries to a woman who is also chummy with the money carrier, and has some connection with the secessionists, or at least is imagined to. The boy is also trying to get chummy with the local, low-level Camorra thugs. This woman could’ve served as the focal point of the whole story, crossing paths with the tailor and the toxic waste managers–I think she was actually connected to one of the idiots doing random thuggery.

She could’ve been a good anchor for the story which, unfortunately, comes off as sort of “inside baseball”.

There is no beauty in this film; where the Godfather saga dressed up mob antics in gorgeous colors and impeccable fashion in opulent surroundings, the ruffians in this film wear cheap track suits or t-shirts celebrating sports teams of other countries, and live in housing that would embarrass trailer trash. I don’t recall any music whatsoever. There’s no dramatic lighting and the camera work is straightforward, though fortunately avoiding the dread shaky-cam.

I suppose then, this is a “realistic” film. But a little artifice could’ve gone a long way to make it a truly great film.

Best of 2008

It’s hard for me to pick a “best” film of 2008 because, the truth is, the term has very little meaning beyond a certain level. As Woody Allen supposedly said, “On what basis are you going to compare my film with Star Wars?”

Well, you could compare acting. Half of the acting in Star Wars is laughably bad, and 2/3rds of the dialogue. But in the lighting and sound editing departments, there’s no contest, right? But, of course, we’re not talking production values per se when we talk about “best”.

You could compare subject matter: A love story about trivial, neurotic people, no matter how good, maybe isn’t worthy of the same consideration as an epic story of good versus evil. Or perhaps a childish fantasy isn’t worth comparing to a realistic look at modern life. Take your pick.

You could factor in popularity, and Star Wars would finish only behind Gone With The Wind–and if you factored popularity over time, Star Wars would almost certainly end up the winner. The fun-factor seldom seems to get considered at the Oscars, either. Or you could look at the difficulty factor: Star Wars was a harder movie to make, and it attempted (successfully!) things that had never been done.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences generally factor in all these things to come up with uniquely wrong answers. In ‘77, it’s hard to say what good movies might’ve been passed over, except perhaps Soldier of Orange. (And I probably would’ve picked Close Encounters of the Third Kind as my favorite movie that year.)

With that in mind, let me make my uniquely wrong choice. First, my top nine, which met my criteria mixing subject matter, entertainment value, and the various other factors.

  1. Changeling
  2. Let The Right One In
  3. Rachel Getting Married
  4. Slumdog Millionaire
  5. Tropic Thunder
  6. Wall-E
  7. Defiance
  8. Frost/Nixon
  9. Gran Torino

By subject matter, I can eliminate Let The Right One In, Rachel Getting Married and Tropic Thunder. These topics (adolescence, addiction and stoopid Hollywood) border on the trivial, however well done. I can eliminate Slumdog Millionaire and Gran Torino for being formulaic. Frost/Nixon can go, because it’s so imbalanced: Frost needed to be a lot stronger a character to compete with Nixon. Wall-E is a tour-de-force, particularly as the greatest silent/slapstick movie in 70 years, but doesn’t end as strong as it starts. The Changeling, while a very strong movie, and an emotionally resonant one, doesn’t exactly challenge the viewer with its muckraking of a long dead Los Angeles.

(The above paragraph, by the way, is basically nonsense. I’m not really figuring anything out; I’ve decided well in advance and am making silly arguments to justify it.)

My pic, then, is Defiance, which I hinted at in my previous post. It’s been growing on me since I saw it, at least in part because I think director Edward Zwick is increasingly able to avoid the sort of facile treatments he’s given earlier films (he has an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love!) to present a more complex subject in a clear fashion.

Maybe timeliness is a factor, too. Defiance is, essentially, about the breakdown of society and how survival requires a brutal adherence to a system of ethics, but also how we have (many of us) the necessary toughness to endure the worst and survive even when the forces against us seem insurmountable.

It resonates.

Even though it takes place 65 years ago, it’s not a fantasy or ancient history. It still resonates–which is part of the reason a lot of the critics downgraded it, I think. Though to be fair, when I read the critics’ reviews, I keep asking myself if they saw the same movie. Maybe history will prove me wrong, but I think it’s the under-rated gem of the year.

More seriously, for whatever reason Changeling didn’t quite hit home for me. And while I love Wall-E and have seen it many times by this point, it’s basically just another great Pixar film. The Pixar film in any year is worth considering for “best picture”, but I think WALL-E gets an (incidental) boost because it’s so politically correct. Even so, I think it’s a safe bet to say that this (and all Pixar films) are going to be the most viewed films in future generations: classic children’s tales always have the longest life.

I asked one other moviegoing guy his best and he said Frost/Nixon, a choice I would be hard-pressed to deny. Interestingly, he said he probably favored it because of the overlap with his own life, where to me, I like it precisely because of the (call it) “fantasy” element.

So, as always: Your mileage may vary.

Revolutionary Road Warrior

Easily the best part of this movie is when Humongous sends his S&M punk troops in to crash the suburban home in an attempt to steal their gasoline.

Ha! I wish!

No, no, this is Revolutionary Road, starring Kate & Leo, together again for the first time since Titanic. And director Sam Mendes is here to tell us they were better off when Leo drowned. For all the crap I’ve heaped on this movie, it’s better than the trailer makes it out to be.

But isn’t Ms. Winslet a charmer? She stars as the most horrible, narcissistic, self-absorbed characters in film, wreaking a swath of destruction wherever she goes–and not even the usual femme fatale type swath, but the inconstant lover swath–and yet we keep going back to see her do it again (and again and again)!

The story here is trite enough: Boy meets girl, boy and girl have a lot of pillow talk about grand adventures, girl gets knocked up, boy gets job and buys girl house, boy knocks up girl again, and both are really depressed.

It’s a little better than that, fortunately, because the two characters are so unlikeable at first, you sort of wish they would do one of those murder-suicide things. April (Winslet) is a wannabe actress, but she’s really horrible. She’s also moody and uncommunicative and none-too-bright Frank (Di Caprio) hasn’t figured that out.

Frank, not feeling special, has a fling with the new girl in the steno pool–gets her drunk first, too, classy!–but then comes home to find new passion in his wife who has concocted the following plan: Move to Paris; they live on savings and money from the house; April will get a government job; Frank can use the time to “find himself”.

This reinvigorates their marriage so much, they have spontaneous, unprotected sex, apparently unaware that that activity can have long-term effects. Meanwhile, Frank, in a moment of ebullience, did something noteworthy and is offered a big promotion–a once in a lifetime thing.

So while Frank is starting to feel good about things, April is getting increasingly depressed. Things go downhill from here.

This is when I began to realize what a truly horrible person April is. She’s so focused on being “special” that she can’t see the esteem in which others see her and Frank. (Or she can, but lacking any respect for those who admire her, she doesn’t care.) I thought we were seeing another side of her when she came up with the Paris plan, but then I realized it meant: 1) getting out of their neighborhood; 2) getting away from their kids; 3) attaching herself to Frank’s future achievements.

This becomes painfully apparent when Frank’s newfound satisfaction results in less happiness for her, and her subsequent actions get more and more selfish. (Though I wonder if Winslet sees any of this. She’s the one who failed to see her Nazi character as a sexual predator.)

Anyway, while I enjoyed American Beauty because I saw it as upbeat–no, really–this movie doesn’t give you any positive thoughts to close on.

For sheer moviegoing pleasure, I thought the movie dragged a lot until April comes up with the Paris plan, then it starts to drag again at the ends of both act 2 and act 3. And as much as I love Michael Shannon (who drives the little horror flick Bug), his character has to be one of the laziest and ham-handed literary devices I’ve ever seen in a movie.

Not to say he doesn’t do the part well, ‘cause he does, but the whole “Aaaand here’s the crazy guy who perceives the situation between Frank and April perfectly and explains it thoroughly to that part of the audience that hasn’t figured it out yet” is completely unnecessary.

The Boy basically liked it. He disagreed with the premise, though, finding suburbia far from hellish. Of course, now, when he’s taking out the trash, he looks pensively up-and-down the street–’cause that’s just what a smartass he is.

And on that last point, the house Frank & April have is gorgeous, and they just have to walk across the street to find themselves in the woods! They’re tramping through the woods explaining how they have to get away from it all at one point.

But, you know, okay, the point is (in part) that it’s not for everyone. However nice your situation is, if you don’t want it, it’s unpleasant. And at least the movie doesn’t force that point on you; I was sort of surprised by that. I perceived it that Frank found a way to be happy there, and that April’s exceeding selfishness stopped her from being happy.

Whether they meant it that way or not is another issue.

Waltz With Bashir

You don’t see a lot of animated documentaries these days and truth be told, Waltz With Bashir’s style reminded me a lot of Ralph Bakshi. Computerized rotoscoping, perhaps?

This is an odd, almost feckless movie, about a man who was involved in the Lebanon War of 1982 and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. But he doesn’t remember it at all. He just has this dream of being chased by 26 angry dogs. He goes to find other people who were there, and learn their stories–none of them remember being at the massacre either.

The opening scenes feature two different instances of soldiers shooting (a lot, for a long period) with no idea what they’re shooting at. There seems to be no commander anywhere. We saw this in Apocalypse Now, of course, but in that case, we were deep in enemy territory. In this case, it’s like they walked down the street. But I guess these wars do take place in small spaces.

I didn’t think the IDF was that disorganized. But, as I said, this is supposed to be semi-autobiographical.

It’s sort of indicative of the random stories being told. From what I can tell, the Israelis invaded Lebanon allied with the Christian Phalangists after the assassination of Lebanese President-Elect Bashir Gemayel. The massacre occurred as Israeli forces invaded and the Phalangists used them as cover to go into certain areas and slaughter civilians.

In stereotypical Jewish fashion, the Israelis–who from the looks of things couldn’t have stopped this if they tried–feel really, really guilty about this. I mean, I’m guessing we won’t see any parallel film come out of Palestine. (Though in fairness to the Palestinians, their cameras are all tied up staging inflammatory news stories.) And it’s pretty clear from the story that the terrorists they were trying to kill loved to hang out with the civilians. (I have to investigate the historical precedent for the common Israeli tactic of “OK, we’re going to attack you, so if you’re not the enemy, you’ll want to be running away now.” I wonder if any other nation has done that routinely?)

But war is heck and leads to a lot of morally and ethically ambiguous situations that can be traumatic and haunt you for decades after–kind of the same theme as Gran Torino, actually, though Torino turns that on its head–and this movie shows us the various hecks that the various Israeli soldiers endure.

It’s pretty effective, I suppose. The Boy was fascinated and unsure, but he seems to be trending more favorable toward as time goes on.

I didn’t check the parental stuff beforehand, so I was a bit surprised when there was a scene of an Israeli commander issuing orders while watching hard-core porn. You probably want to keep that in mind before showing it to the kids. I mean, if the graphic violence wasn’t sufficient. There are also some surreal nude scenes.

It wasn’t boring. It’s probably worth re-watching, even. But I think I was put off a bit by the introspectiveness of it.

This is the only one of the foreign language films up for the Oscar I’ve seen this year. I might also go see Class–but damned if it doesn’t sound like that movie that gets made every 2-3 years here, about the teacher in the inner city? I think the last one of those I saw had Edward James Olmos in it.

Friday The 13th, Part 2

You almost have to admire a movie that completely invalidates its own predecessor in the first few minutes.

WARNING: Once again, here be spoilers.

The first 6-7 minutes of Part 2 recaps the last several scenes of Part 1, and ends with the sole survivor of Part 1 (Adrienne King) getting a screwdriver to the head. After which, the killer politely removes her tea kettle from the stove.

Part 2 is full of unintentionally silly things like that.

But the big ol’ plot flaw is, of course, Jason Voorhees, ghost of the first film, ends up the slasher in this, and most of the remaining movies. He’s not a supernatural force, though, he’s a kid who grew up in the wild.

Wait, what? Didn’t his mother kill everyone for letting him die? Are you saying she wasn’t a mother-of-the-year candidate as she pretended? Jason wasn’t really dead at all?

This movie takes place five years after the last one, so that young Jason could grow up. Lest you find yourself inclined to give the film makers credit for even that, I remind you that Jason died in 1958. That was spelled out in Part 1. He dies, the there are murders the following year, the camp burns down.

So, were he not an undead creature, he’d be in his 30s by part 1. Unless we are to presume that the first movie takes place in 1960 and this one in 1965. (Pay no attention to the jogging suits!)

Well, a sequel was needed. This one has even more sex and maybe even more violence than the last and because there’s no need for a Scooby-Doo reveal, it has the more plausible hulking figure of a grown-up Jason doing his dirty deeds.

Oh, he’s gonna get those counselors back for…for…for…um…chasing him off and forcing him to live in the woods while convincing his mother he had drowned.

No drugs in this one, unless you count alcohol. Actually, if memory serves, there’s really not much drug use in any of the movies. That’s one of those things–like the virgin living–that comes more from fuzzy memories.

Much like the original movie, it doesn’t really matter who survives this one. But we know when Amy Steel starts to sort-of defend Jason that she’s the one. I love the little speech she gives when she’s trying to be sensitive to what Jason might have become, “What would he be like today? Out of control psycho? Frightened retard? Child trapped in a man’s body?”

Well, whatever he is, he managed to track down the survivor from the first movie, call her on the phone, pick the lock on the door to her house–remember, she’s having constant nightmares five years later, no way does she not lock the door–and ninja up behind her despite the hard-soled “casual elegance” shoes, which he’ll later change for a pair of shiny black ones.

So, obviously not “full retard”.

I believe this is the first movie to give us the full-on cheat shock. When the guy in the wheelchair–you heard me–gets it, the camera closes on him from front and back. There’s no one around. When it gets in close, an arm with a cleaver comes out of nowhere to chop the guy across the face. But in order for that angle to make any sense, Jason would have to be kneeling or crouching at a 45 degree angle in front of the guy, and we’ve already seen there’s no one there.

This pales compared to when he garottes ol’ Crazy Ralph from behind a large tree! Long arms, that guy, to reach with the garotte over the top of the tree and then bring it down in front of Ralph’s neck. Or maybe he nun-chucked it.

Stuff like this, which ultimately becomes the hallmark of the F13 series, really destroys any chance to achieve suspense, unless it’s the sort of suspense you get from wondering when Bugs Bunny is going to let Elmer Fudd have it.

About the wheelchair thing: It’s not until Kane Hodder takes on the role of Jason in the 7th movie that there are any rules to his behavior, and so the Jason of the early films is just not a very nice guy. Guy in wheelchair? Fair game. Children or animals? Fair game.

Blech.

This movie does less sproingy-body tricks than the previous, presumably because Jason doesn’t have his mother’s engineering savvy (though he does manage to make himself a nice rope-tree trap), but it has a particularly odd scene where Jason kills a couple in bed, hangs the guy’s body up on the wall, does something unknown with the girl’s, and then gets in bed and waits! Because he knows, I guess, that someone will come looking in that bed soon enough. (Nobody would think of letting a young couple be undisturbed for the night, I guess.)

What’s awesome is that he then hides all of the bodies, but without ever leaving the house. I think he even manages to take one of the bodies to his forest hideout, too, while in pursuit of the surviving counselors. You wish you were that creative.

Despite his teleportation skills, Jason’s pretty weak in this one. He gets knocked over by the slight Amy Steel, she kicks him in the groin, and she confuses him by dressing like his mother. (Hello, Oepdipus!) He stands on a rickety chair to fool the girl under the bed into thinking he’s gone. (Say what? What kind of killing-machine slasher doesn’t just drive his pitchfork through the bed, like he’s done so many times before?)

In a weak attempt to recreate the thunder of the original, the two survivors “kill” Jason–who wears a flour sack over his head in this one–only to crash through a window and grab the girl sans mask. (He looks like a cross between the Elephant Man and Jack Black as the farmer in this Mr. Show sketch, “The Farm House Musical”.)

Inexplicably, Amy Steel (“Ginny”) is left alive while the hapless John Furey (“Paul”) simply vanishes. No rhyme or reason, except perhaps to give the series a protagonist.

Somewhat amusingly, Adrienne King, the survivor from Part 1 wasn’t offered a big role in Part 2 due to a miscommunication–and Amy Steel wouldn’t take any role in Part 3 on her agent’s advice. At least Steel and Furey would go on to have real careers, even as F13 would go on to lack any semblance of continuity.

Gore-wise, this one is particularly uninspired. A lot of slit throats, an impalement (a twofer!) and members of the cast seem to just vanish. (They actually do: They go into town, never to return, not even when the police are hauling away Amy Steel at the end.)

The next entry in the series would rip off a few of the original movies’ deaths, but would at least provide some particularly creative new ones–and in eye-popping (heh) 3D. It would also be the first film not to take place on Friday the 13th. (Not that this ever seemed to be a prominent feature in any of the movies. Let’s be honest, they called it “Friday the 13th” because they needed a holiday and “Groundhog Day” just doesn’t sound very scary.)

Friday The 13th (1980)

In honor of the upcoming explosive remake of the film-series equivalent of “The Guest That Wouldn’t Leave”, I thought I’d review the original series. The remake already cracks me up, with the extended trailer being a second-long shot of everyone killed in the movie. (13 people, get it?)

Suspense is over-rated, I guess. Although one of those 13 looks like it might actually be the mad killer his own self, so there’s some suspense there if you don’t know that it’s impossible to kill a successful horror villain.

WARNING: I’m going to spoil like crazy since the movie is almost 30 years old, and it was pretty well spoiled on the day it came out.

As a little background, I should note that I rather despised this series as it was happening. I saw one in the theater. I saw the first one on TV because I’d heard so much about it. I saw the third one in the theater, because it was in 3D. (I saw, I think, all of the 3D movies that came out in the ‘80s, and they had two things in common: They ranged from bad to unimaginably awful, and the glasses made my eyes hurt.) That was about it until long after the series ended (the first time) in 1993.

For various perverse reasons that would require you to report me to Children’s Services, I’m not going to explain how it is that I’ve become something of an expert on the series. You’ll just have to take it on faith that I am, and that I’m very, very sorry for what I’ve done.

Anyway, over time, I began to appreciate the sheer awfulness of the films. They’re not just bad singly, they’re bad as a series. Jason Voorhees is an iconic slasher now, of course, but it took six movies to come up with the complete ensemble and “character” that he’s now recognized as–and which only lasted for the next two movies before the series ended with the ninth. (Though the modern “reboot”, of course, skips all that.)

The basic premise of the film is simple: Halloween had cost less than half-a-million to make and made nearly $40M, couldn’t similar returns be had for an even cheaper movie that stole the best ideas?

If you think I’m being snarky, I’m not really: One refreshing thing about F13 is that nobody making that first movie had any pretensions whatsoever. The various interviews of cast and crew that can be found start with, “Well, I needed the money and …” Betsy Palmer needed to buy a car (scroll to last question).

The story itself borrows more from Scooby-Doo than Halloween: Mysterious disappearances at a summer camp are caused by a completely unknown character who is unmasked at the film’s climax. (In the above article, Palmer says that she told director Cunningham that it was unfair only to show her at the end, but that he was right. I’m unconvinced. It did feel like cheating.)

As I said, they’re stealing from Halloween, which basically had a slasher who was hung up on sex and fond of posing bodies in freaky ways, so they base the story around naughty counsellors who have sex and smoke pot, and really does some very elaborate body posing. I mean, we’re talking wires and pulleys–it’s extensive.

Which adds to the absurdity when we discover that 54-year-old Betsy Palmer is the culprit. Not only is she able to easily dispatch virile young Kevin Bacon (and his prominent penis), she’s able to lift bodies into trees and cause them to fall out at appropriate moments.

She kills Bacon by grabbing his forehead from underneath the bed–hella long arms–holding him down, and driving a knife or spear through the mattress, through his spine and out through the front of his throat. And then turning it.

So, it’s not just a cheat, it’s a ridiculous cheat. And then Palmer finds herself challenged trying to dispatch the frail Adrienne King. Their fight scene is, admittedly, pretty intense.

Oh, what? You wanted to hear about Kevin Bacon’s penis? It’s not a big deal (ha!), he waves it around more than Harvey Keitel. It may be accidental in this film but during the swimming scene, he’s wearing a very, very tight Speedo-like brief. Did I mention that he’s circumcized?

The scene where young Jason Voorhees makes his appearance (to the “Love Theme from Friday the 13th”) is definitely a shocker though it, too, makes no sense. We have to assume that he is some sort of undead creature, since the whole impetus for the slaughters was his death. (Plus, the flesh is falling off his skull.)

Or we could assume it was just a dream.

The next movie will completely undermine any logical or even coherent supernatural explanations for what Jason is or was.

A lot of imagined slasher conventions grew up around this series. For example, because Michael Meyers of Halloween killed everyone but the virginal Laurie Strode, there’s this imagined cliché that the “good girl” is the survivor. But as a veteran of ’80s horror movies, I can assure you there seldom was a good girl. And in this, first in the series, Jason’s first modern victim doesn’t have a chance to do anything. She’s just killed for having the audacity to apply for a job at a summer camp.

The survivor, Alice (Adrienne King), is not a good girl, either. Although she’s not shown having sex with the camp director, the implication is there. She is shown smoking weed, too. Although the “one female survivor” trope is the rule for, I think, most of the movies, the big problem here is that the characters are bland enough to completely interchangeable.

Now, if the purpose of the movies is to showcase gory special effects, we can give at least the first movie its due: This was pretty graphic stuff for the time, and fairly convincing. Of course, as time has passed and movies have gotten shorter and shorter shots, those full 2-3 second gore shots have aged very poorly.

High definition makes it even worse: You can pretty much see how all the effects were done now. In fact, in some shots, the fake skin is so obvious as to make you wonder how you ever fell for it.

This movie duplicated Halloween’s box office success but lacked a director like Carpenter whose idea of hell would be producing sequel after sequel of the same crap. Hence, the next eight movies.

Believe it or not, the series goes downhill from here: Way down.

Frost & Nixon & Ted & Alice

Over the years, I’ve had to re-look at most of what I know about right-wing politicians because the stories I got were growing up (from school and the media) were so one-sided, that I just learned to qualify any of that atmospheric “everyone knows” stuff with the question, “Well, how does everyone know this?”

Even so, Tricky Dick was still in my book as a slippery, sleazy guy. Not so much for Watergate, which strikes me as a relatively trivial offense on the scale of Presidential crimes. (Criminally stupid, I’ll grant.) But for his rather ruthless use of various agencies to harass and punish his enemies.

Plus, he was a conservative when conservative meant “for massively expanding governmental powers, but okay with Jesus and anti-hippie.” The EPA, price-controls, kind of like W, only without W’s remarkable honesty.

I’m sure it’s not what Ron “Gee, I Hope I Get To Vote For Someone As Great As Obama Someday” Howard had in mind, but Frost/Nixon made me think that I’ve maybe been too harsh on the guy. I sort of feel like this movie was targeted at the Boomers who hated Nixon with every fiber of their being (like Matt Groening, who brought back Nixon’s head 25 years later in Futurama), and so that we’re assumed to identify with the “journalists” who join Frost in an effort to get the disgraced President.

But since I’m not one of those guys, I sat there going: “Ah. So the whole point of the interviews–for everyone but Frost–was to wring a confession of guilt out of the Nixon. Anything less meant failure and disgrace for eveyrone involved in the project.”

Let me back up a bit and say, this is a movie chock full of great acting. I’ve heard some criticisms of Frank Langella’s Nixon, but I think those views come from people who remember the guy. Langella plays Nixon like King Lear: He’s a towering giant of man, not just in stature but in ability. He’s sly, powerful, elusive, frighteningly intelligent and he intimidates his enemies easily. He controls the space, he rumbles with Langella’s marvellous bass, and he’s so confident, it’s only his enemies absolute conviction that he’s evil that keeps them strong.

Problem is, he doesn’t come across as evil at all. In fact, there are so many points in the movie where he’s validated–as a powerhouse diplomat, as a strong leader, even his defense of Vietnam is better than his enemies’ attack–that when the moment finally comes where he admits to abuse of power, it seems sort of trivial. Downright petty even. And his own confession of guilt and clear feelings of disappointment and shame, well, 30 years out, I began to feel like we weren’t really worthy of him–and that I wouldn’t mind having him in charge today.

TIP: If you want to demonize someone, you probably shouldn’t put a great stage actor up there to play him. And it’s possible, I suppose, they weren’t trying to.

In any event, the whole movie ends up having an almost Amadeus-like surreality to it. Like we’re watching a clash of Titans. Or a titan being brought down by ankle-biters.

Michael Sheen (who gave a brilliant performance as Tony Blair in The Queen) plays David Frost with Matthew MacFayden (Mr. Darcy of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice) as his friend (agent? producer?) . They pick up the always dependable Olver Platt and Sam Rockwell (as Bob Zelnick and James Reston, Jr. respectively) for their American research team. And Frost picks up chippie Caroline Cushing (played by Rebecca Hall of The Prestige) and parties with her in ‘70s Los Angeles while the project is being put together.

Sheen’s Frost is a media-savvy charmer, a playboy, and a bit of a dilettante until the very end. He’s portrayed as being outclassed for most of the interview. (This is largely fictitious; Obviously Frost didn’t rise to prominence being a lightweight.)

The Nixon side features Toby Jones (who played Truman Capote in one of the two Capote bios that came out a few years ago) as the only truly reprehensible character in the movie: talent agent Swifty Lazar. TV news personality Diane Sawyer apparently helped Nixon write his memoirs, so there’s an actress playing her. But there’s really not much room on the Nixon side for anyone else, with one exception.

Kevin Bacon plays the most heroic figure, Jack Brennan. To get a sense of this guy, you can read this article in People from 1976. Bacon will probably be ignored and underestimated as usual, but the movie’s great emotional moments are his and Langella’s.

Again, I have to wonder if this was the intention: Without any preconceived notions, Nixon comes out nearly heroic. A tragic hero, for sure, but heroic nonetheless. The script refers numerous times to his achievements (his foreign policy coups with Kruschev and Mao), and even his fiercest opponents admit that he was quite accomplished. They just believe him to be criminal.

I saw a man with great ambition and ability who was beset by partisan hacks out to destroy him. They blame him for Vietnam, for the Khmer Rouge, for Watergate–though the point is never the crime, as the gotcha–and all Nixon wants is respect. There’s a fictitious scene where a drunk Nixon calls Frost and goes on a rambling analysis of his own and Frost’s sense of inferiority which I felt overplayed the dramatic hand, but even that didn’t undermine my sense that this was a partisan witch hunt.

This is the guy who famously won his first election by (falsely) accusing his opponent of being a communist. (Though, you know, come to think of it, maybe that’s an “everyone knows” thing, too. The guy was a massive liberal/New Deal type.) The real Frost interviewed the real Nixon on that topic but that wasn’t part of the movie.

Meh. Treat it like you would Amadeus or Richard the III–an interesting fiction with historical figures as characters–and you can have a good time.

The tough question is whether Langella or Jenkins (The Visitor) should win the Oscar. The two performances are nearly polar opposites.

Reprint: Children of Men

In the year 2027…

Women are barren. And have been for 18 years.

OK, it’s not exactly Terminator plot-wise. But while this isn’t a sexy premise, it’s a reasonable one for a movie about dystopia. Besides no new children being born, the world is trying to get into England because of a world-wide famine. (And…England is where the food is? Meh, the movie is English, so let’s just roll with it.)

At the helm is Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and on-screen, primarily, is the ultra-cool Clive Owen (Sin City) being a little more “every man” here, as the guy who’s tagged by terrorists/rebels/insurgents to transport a woman to The Human Project. (Something about dystopia movies requires that they mention a refuge for the protagonist to escape to, I guess.) The woman, of course, is pregnant.

From this springs a chase movie, action punctuated only by periodic (unnecessary) exposition and peppered throughout with revolution music. Said music is a little out of place, actually, since virtually everyone in 2027 is an asshole (pardon my French), including Owen’s ex-wife, Julianne Moore, who gets him into this mess in the first place.

Moore’s smart enough, though, to know that Owen is trustworthy, and to predict many of the various betrayals that would occur on the way. Michael Caine has a small, but important role as a pot-growing hippy pal of Owen’s who provides him with the means to escape.

This is a pretty good film. Not particularly original—I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s supposed to be so all-fired cretaive about the premise, which was used most recently on film in The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not particularly tight as far as its construction of the dystopia: What’s valuable when the youngest person on earth is 18 years old? Well, youth, of course. Yet the children of England are frequently shown as indigent. Please. Not only would the demand for food be steadily falling (most likely negating any possibility of famine), the demand for labor would be steadily increasing.

But perhaps I nitpick.

It’s just that when a movie is praised for its detail, intelligence, and ranks in the top 250 on IMDB, I have to call out the obvious. It’s a fine movie, with some excellent sequences, but it ain’t well thought out. Or, then again, maybe it is, seeing as it’s based on a novel, and the director just expects everyone to overlook the glaring questions. Since they did, maybe I should just shut up.

One employee at the theater where I saw this said people were freaking out about this movie, with one person saying they had “no right” to show this film, and another asking “When did this happen?” (If you miss the first five minutes, you could easily not see that it took place in t he future.) All in all, though, I found it a well-executed, well-acted, but otherwise pretty routine dystopic flick. Smarter than The Island (but what isn’t?) but not as smart as…oh, hell, there must be some reasonably well thought out dystopic film…maybe Minority Report? Eh, the movies aren’t really the right place to look for intelligent science-fiction.

But it’s a good film. And it’s not boring.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Doomsday

I haven’t done one of these in a while but Hoosier Daddy was waxing enthusiastic on the charms of Rhona Mitra (whom I only know as the hot next-door neighbor chick that Kevin Bacon rapes in The Hollow Man) so I thought I’d have it on when Cinemax showed it in high-def. In Doomsday, Mitra channels Milla Jovovich through Kate Beckinsale. (And she does it in a cast that includes Bob Hoskins and Malcolm McDowell; those English can turn out a cast regardless of the movie, can’t they?)

The movie itself–well, as I’ve said before, there aren’t really a lot of “sound” post-apocalyptic thrillers. Even the best usually suffer from some logical fundamental flaw. In Doomsday, writer/director Neil Marshall–who also wrote the surprisingly cogent The Descent–doesn’t even try.

This is one where knowing the director set out to lift things directly from other films doesn’t really help. You keep recalling where you’ve seen what you’re seeing, and remembering how much more you enjoyed that other film. For a complete neophyte, that wouldn’t be the case, of course, but unless the viewer is totally swept up in fairly run-of-the-mill effects–maybe hasn’t seen any film ever made–the whole thing is a head-scratcher.

The plot is that there’s a virus outbreak in Scotland (reminiscent of the disease in Planet Terror) so England decides to wall it up (Escape from New York). A little girl is rescued at the last moment but loses an eye (a la Snake Plissken) which later is fitted with a remotely-controllable prosthetic (Harry Potter and The Goblet Of Fire). As a grownup, she is a super-duper fighting machine (Resident Evil) working for some sort of special forces group that needs her to go behind the wall to retrieve the Mad Doctor working on a cure (Escape from New York again; actually, unless otherwise noted, assume the plot point came from Escape from New York).

Behind the wall her highly unprofessional SWAT-like team (Aliens) is beset by gang members (The Warriors) who destroy their vehicles (Dawn of the Dead-remake style) and the gang members even eat one of the crew (A Boy and His Dog). Escaping from these guys on a train (another Harry Potter reference?) they find themselves in a newly reconstructed medieval Scotland (Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness) where Mitra must fight a gladiator (Gladiator) before they can escape with the goods.

Malcolm McDowell plays a Colonel Kurtz-type character (Apocalypse Now) and the whole thing climaxes with a chase scene straight out of Road Warrior. The ending is a reasonable transposition of Escape From New York with Mitra betraying her ostensible bosses and then, inexplicably, becoming queen of the punk gang who tried to kill her? I think that’s what that last scene was about but I wouldn’t swear to it. It was very Escape, too, though, reminding of the “boxing” scene where Snake Plissken kills the big guy to everyone’s approval.

I just didn’t give a damn.

You could say, cruelly but not unfairly, that this film swam in cinematic greatness and never got wet. For all the budget, acting and fetching costumery, it comes off like any of 500 low-budget movies made after Road Warrior.

But since our topic is post-apocalyptical fun, we should look at how ridiculously constructed the apocalypse part was. One nice touch is that it’s just Scotland and the wall that fences it in is right where Hadrian’s Wall was.

OK, quarantining is fine. Logical even. Most of the movie takes place 20 years later, when nobody with the disease is left alive. The entire population is immune. Yet the plan is to send someone in to get the guy who may have found a cure. Though, really, why would anyone assume that? Diseases peter out without human intervention all the time. And what possible system could a guy cut off from all support develop to inoculate people? Scotland’s under surveillance the whole time, how bad could their intel be?

Given that all of Scotland’s immune, why keep up the wall at all? Especially after the disease turns up in England?

“Well, it’s there. And we had a divil of a time putting it up, so there it stays!”

The first thing they show us when we’re in the newly recovered Scotland is a veritable horde of cattle. So whither cannibalism?

And why, with plenty of food around, and the legendary resourcefulness of the Scots, do these post-punks just hang around waiting for someone to come through the gate to terrorize and kill them? Especially given that it had never happened before (or at least not very often)?

How do they keep their S&M gear so neat and shiny?

Where’d the cars come from? And if they had them, and gas, why not use them? And can you really unbox a 20 year old Bentley and have it run like it was fresh off the line? (If so, I suppose that would explain the expense.)

I can sort of see why there wouldn’t be any old folks among the punks, but where were the children?

Why does everything explode when a car hits it? Are they storing boxes of explosives everywhere? Why?

Is movie violence really more entertaining when you show everything getting reduced to a bloody pulp?

Why is it that there always seemed to be plenty of whatever technology that was needed around but nobody had bothered to try to turn that into a sustainable lifestyle? Why, if they were dealing with a limited supply, was use not strictly rationed and substitutes found?

Obviously, I’m overthinking this: The movie never rises above “ooh, look at the pretty explosions” and it was clearly never meant to. It was meant to be “outrageous” in the director’s own words.

But you have a problem when you can’t even be bothered to give us some characterizations that we care about. Even the Resident Evil movies (which you borrowed so heavily from) manage to do that. And you can’t blame it on the actors.

Note that this all could’ve been done with a more plausible storyline and it would have worked–well, it would’ve worked better. Or it could’ve been done completely outrageously, a la Shoot ‘em Up. Then it would’ve been funny, at least.

It seems instead like, on the one hand, they were going for an honest homage (like Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark) while on the other they wanted to show they were too smart to be sincere about this stuff.

Until next time, mutants: Stay radiated!

Taken: Greasy Arabs and Corrupt Frenchmen

We were just talking about the revenge movie and whether they made ‘em like they used to. And here comes Monsieur Morel (The Transporter) and Liam Neeson to put us a bad-guy slaughter-fest where the good guy can shoot innocent people and not only do you not mind, you see his point.

In a nutshell: Neeson plays “preventor” Bryan Mills who has retired from the CIA (?) to try to build a relationship with the daughter (Maggie Grace) he estranged through years of field work. His bitchy ex-wife (Famke Janssen) guilts him into letting said daughter go to Paris with wild friend (Katie Cassidy) and before you can say “Charles Bronson Lives”, the two are kidnapped.

Now, here’s the beauty of this: They’re not kidnapped for ransom. The kidnappers are not desperate folk just trying to survive. Oh, no.

The kidnappers are white slavers who take young female tourists and drug them up and sell them to the sex trade.

I understand Fox toned the movie down for a PG-13, but it’s bad enough. When Neeson starts killing people, you have no remorse. When he tortures people, you’re thinking, “Well, good.” As I say, he even shoots an innocent woman in the arm and your response is, “Yeah, that was necessary. For the greater good.”

There’s no remorse on Neeson’s face at any point. Ever. It’s almost comical.

And yet.

It’s hard not to relate to his emotional state. The bad guys are well and truly scum. And, tragically, such people do exist as does the trade, though not with Western European tourists. (That, in a way, makes it all the scuzzier, since it implies a degree of control over things.) And if you’re a parent, some part of you is going, “Yeah, that’s about what I’d do. But I probably would’ve shot that guy a couple more times just to be sure.”

No, the villains here are Greasy Arabs (and Albanians) and the corrupt French government. Kind of like Casablanca, if Ingrid Bergman had been kidnapped by Sydney Greenstreet.

Alongside the crispness of pace, the film benefits greatly from Mr. Neeson’s performance: He moves seamlessly from concern over his daughter (even desperation) to cool professionalism. He doesn’t do a lot of the angry grimace/grunt thing but stays cool and on top of things, even when machine-guns are spraying and he’s outnumbered 12-to-1.

Not only does his paternal nature come through when he’s with his daughter, it comes through when he’s with others’ daughters. At no point does he leer or touch inappropriately, and the screenwriters were wise enough not to try to shoehorn a romantic subplot in with one of the 20-something actresses.

I was also impressed by young Maggie Grace–who isn’t that young at 24–but really was convincing as a 17-year-old, rather spoiled girl. Famke is, as always, convincing as a bitch, though she comes around a bit at the end.

As with most action pics, it gets a little silly at points. Once, early on, he tries to track down his lead and ends up with the gendarmes on his tail, yet we are not treated to how, exactly, he manages to evade them. At mid-point he kills five or six bad guys at once, though there is the element of surprise at least. Toward the end, he takes the mandatory bullet which barely slows him down.

There is a point where he does a moderate jump (by film standards) from a bridge to a boat and ends up with a limp for the rest of the movie (minus the parts where it’s necessary for him not to have a limp, heh).

The Boy approved of the relative lack of superpowers and endorses the movie whole-heartedly. I thought some of the bullet spraying at the end stretched our hero’s good fortune a bit thin.

Nonetheless, a good time. I think it’s probably better for the edits and things left unshown. At about an hour-and-a-half running time, it’s not too presumptuous either.

I advise any Albanians who see it not to take it too seriously, though.

Vantage Point

Just finished watching Vantage Point. This film uses, sort of, the Rashomon gag of showing the same events over and over from different perspectives. (Eight, as the film boasts, though they start to get mushed at the end.) Unlike Rashomon, however, you don’t get the “unreliable narrator” effect. Instead, you get a trickling out of information from each perspective.

It’s not bad.

The start is a little slow, because the first perspective is a little slow and the new information trickles out slowly in the subsequent perspectives. As the perspectives begin to converge more and the plot is revealed, the movie picks up the pace a lot.

Unfortunately, it also gets a little silly. The problem with all caper movies (where the caper-ers are not the good guys) is that they rely on the criminal masterminds making mistakes or worse, acting out of character. In this case, the impressiveness of the stunt is glaringly undermined by the subsequent stupid mistakes and a climactic out-of-character moment. On top of that, the basically realistic vibe is broken as Dennis Quaid becomes practically superheroic at the end.

As you may know, I’m a big fan of concise moviemaking. (I’m not a short movie snob per se but if you’re going to indulge yourself at my expense, you’d better be good at it.) So I have to give this film its props for bringing in the whole eight-viewpoint thing in under 90 minutes.

A good cast, good suspence and pacing, so set your mind off and have a good time.

Defiance

There must be a bunch of critics who just sit around sharpening their knives waiting for historical movies to come out so they can savage them for not being comprehensive or presenting their preferred angle on history.

Case in point, Defiance. This is the story of Belorussian Jews who flee into the forest because the Nazis have invaded with the intent of rounding them up and hauling them off to the “work” camps. Through hard-work, tough choices and persistence, they manage to survive for a time even despite the brutal winter.

That’s really the story in a nutshell, and it’s based on the real-life story of the Bielski brothers.

But check it, New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott says the message of the movie is “if only more of the Jews living in Nazi-occupied Europe had been as tough as the Bielskis, more would have survived”.

Well, first of all, that’s a bit of a stretch. It’s hard to imagine a more insulated story about the Jews in WWII. These aren’t German Jews or Italian Jews, but Polish/Belarus Jews, and their experience of the war is particularly idiosyncratic.

On the other hand, isn’t it true, to the extent that it can be applied? If more Jews had been as tough–and had a wilderness to escape to–wouldn’t more of them have survived? Do we have to take the stance that, as harsh as the Nazi regime was, all the Jews did everything they could?

That sort of simplistic analysis is rebutted by this film, in fact, as one of the big problems they have in freeing the Jews from the ghetto is that the Jews still believe that the Germans are sending them to “work camps”. In fact, that they won’t be killed because they’re useful as slave labor.

Anyway. Sometimes I see a review and just think, “What the hell movie was he watching?”

So. About this film, which The Boy pronounces “excellent”.

This is a manly film. Daniel Craig and Liv Schreiber are the brothers who end up taking on more and more “civilians” and trying to figure out how to feed them in the woods. (I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t hunting animals.) Craig wants to take on the civilians and concentrate on surviving while Schreiber wants to join up with the Red Army partisans.

This leads to some tension between our manly men.

Director Zwick (Blood Diamond, The Last Samuri) is remarkably non-judgmental in his direction. There are things in this movie that might be called murder, but there’s no attempt to make you feel one way or the other about them.

There’s a scene, for example, when the Jews get a hold of a nazi soldier and want to kill him. And, really, it’s hard to fault them for it. I mean, if we’re supposed to be appalled at the savagery of human nature, or something, it doesn’t come off. There’s a revenge scene and a command-struggle scene as well, and there’s even a debate about what to do with a baby being born.

But while the emotions are there, they’re not forefront. At the forefront is survival, and the question of what makes us decent human beings versus what we have to do to survive.

Note that while this is a manly-man film, the women are enlisted into the fighting and are eager to defend themselves and provide for their families. In fact, the manly-men have to adjust to them doing so. But you can see the echos of Israel in these scenes of women fighting.

So, we have strong characters, good pacing, some historical authenticity, rejection of victimhood (at least to the extent possible under the circumstances), dramatic tension…and Nazis! But no Oscar noms here. (We’ll leave that to the naked girl Nazis.)

Flaws? Well, the accents seem to come and go (particularly Daniel Craig’s). The last scene struck me as somewhat preposterous, if dramatically necessary for a satisfying ending. And I thought some of the scene juxtapositions (marriage vs. battle) were needlessly affected. But overall a solid flick, and not at all ooky.

Which may be why the Academy and critics didn’t like it.

Bolt from the Blue

You just knew John Lasseter taking over Disney’s animation studios would be a good thing. In the Eisner years, the “gimme” product, where some Disney property was used in some shoddy direct-to-video format because they knew it would sell X units, was reminiscent of those ‘70s live action films the studio went to after deciding animation was too expensive. Even the A-list material had begun to decline after the death of Howard Ashman (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and the good half of Aladdin).

Although I thought I detected some of his influence on the earlier film Meet The Robinsons, this seemed unlikely to be very direct, since he had just taken over the studio. But it is very obvious in Bolt. The lead character is a dog in a TV show who, for dubious reasons (earnestly explained by the TV show’s director, voiced by “Inside the Actor’s Studio” host James Lipton) requires Bolt to be convinced that he’s a superdog really rescuing his person (Penny, played by Miley Cyrus).

Bolt, then is much like Buzz Lightyear, Lasster’s Toy Story hero, or becomes much like him when a mishap has him mailed across the country and forced to find a way home to rescue Penny (who isn’t really in trouble). His companions on the journey are Mittens, the cynical New York cat, and Rhino, the couch potato hamster. The former doesn’t get Bolt’s delusion until the latter–a Bolt true believer–explains that he knows Bolt from “the magic box”.

John Travolta, Susie Essman and Mark Walton are the dog, the cat and the hamster respectively, with longtime Disney animator Walton being far and away the funniest voice. Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) takes enough of the nasal twang out her voice to be palatable as the tough-but-vulnerable cat. Travolta is, if not distinguished, exceedingly pleasant as a dog learning how to be just a dog.

There’s no edge to this movie which, as you may know, I approve of. I don’t really want kid’s films to be “edgy”. There is the usual message of what you believe being an empowering factor but it’s ultimately an appreciation of his mundane abilities that allows Bolt to save the day.

The animation is quite good, as you’d expect. There’s a very nice transformation with Bolt, who both captures a lot of expressions and mannerisms of Travolta, as he becomes more “doggy”. And the common problem of the CGI character seeming lack mass is avoided.

The Flower liked it, of course, but The Boy also approved. Also, my mom loved it. So, there’s a broad range of appeal, even if this isn’t a great movie.

We didn’t do the 3D. My brain doesn’t do 3D.

David Fincher’s Zodiac

David Fincher rose from humble beginnings (music videos for Madonna and Alien3) to become one of the most influential filmmakers of the decade through films like Se7en and Fight Club, but since 2002’s Panic Room, he’s been associated with dozens of films that never got made (or got made without him).

So, it’s with some anticipation that his newest film about the Zodiac Killer is met, and it’s not surprising that it perhaps doesn’t meet with expectations.

Zodiac is a sprawling story, not primarily of the Zodiac killer, but of Robert Graysmith, an editorial cartoonist who becomes obsessed with deducing the identity of a crazed killer who is writing taunting letters to the newspaper where he works.

This is more a film on the lines of Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Silence of the Lambs. The only violence is early on: The Zodiac went on a little spree early on in his “career” and this is shown somewhat graphically. But really, this is practically a Fincher movie for people who don’t like Fincher movies. After the initial spurt of violence, you still have two hours of psychological suspense thriller to endure.

Despite finding it rather low key, I rather liked it, but this is my kind of film. Alongside the always good Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards and Robert Downey, Jr. (typecast as a guy who ends up drinking and drugging his way to obscurity), it was peppered with short, solid performances from lesser known actors who still usually play meatier roles: Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny, Candy Clark, Dermot Mulroney, Philip Baker Hall, James Le Gros, Charles Fleischer, and on and on. (The only place this may have backfired, ever-so-slightly, is in the casting John Carroll Lynch as the pedophile prime suspect. Lynch does a great job, but I had just watched Fargo, where he plays Marge Gunderson’s gentle, artistic husband.)

In some ways, the low-key atmosphere makes the intense parts more intense, but the fidelity to actual history means there is no great climactic point—in particular, no great showdown between Graysmith and Zodiac. They do share a moment, and it’s important but not really satisfying in the cinematic KABOOM sense.

Just as it doesn’t meet some expectations, there are those who would over-hype it because it is a Fincher film, but it’s best to approach this as a competent but modest slice-of-American-history movie. It won’t actually lose much on the small screen.

Finally, some critics objected to the lack of period music: I actually thought that was one of the strongest points. Veteran David Shire (Norma Rae, All The President’s Men) provides a score that’s way less self-conscious and hip than, say, playing The White Album would’ve been. Although the story takes place in a let’s-call-it-”colorful” period of history, it also transcends the time.

(originally posted 2007-03-11)

The Curious Case of the Benjamin Button Down Mind

I like David Fincher. Not as a person. I mean, he could be perfectly fine as a person, even if there are rumors that he’s a jerk. (It’s not like those rumors don’t fly around for just about every great director.) But I don’t even know the guy. Cut me a break. How the hell should I know?

But I digress.

I mean to say, I like his direction. As a streak, Se7en, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room and (arguably) Zodiac is up there with the best directors of all time. (I think Panic Room is under-rated.)

Maybe the best thing you could say about this movie is that it doesn’t seem like it’s two hours and forty-five minutes long. That’s a pretty good thing to say about a movie (unless it’s 90 minutes long, I guess).

It’s basically an episodic story about a man who is, sort of, growing younger, and the problems this causes in his life. It doesn’t really work, in a mechanical sense, but it’s okay dramatically.

Mechanically it doesn’t work because it’s clear from the start that he just looks old. Physically, he’s supposed to be afflicted with all these old-age conditions at birth–yet he goes through puberty after about 12 years of being born. The aging is sporadic, as well, the movie settles him in to middle-age to soon and keeps him there too long. (One plot point revolves around him getting “too young” but he looks about 40.) In his youth, he becomes afflicted with dementia, meaning that he ends up having old-age problems both coming and going.

And he’s not living backward in time, a la Merlin, either. So he’s completely inexperienced while looking 70 but has a lifetime of experience while looking 20.

Dramatically, it mostly works, except where the murky mechanics raise questions, and a sort of “well, what’s the point, then?” feel. That is, how is this story significantly different from someone aging normally? It really only provides one major plot point that comes when Benjamin and Daisy finally get together.

Well, and it does provide the gut-punch at the movie’s end. (Think about it.)

Lord knows I don’t need–or even want–a message movie, but this movie does sort of play around with it. There is a message here that Benjamin understands and Daisy only “gets” when it’s practically too late: That there is worth in loving others and being loved, and that worth transcends worldly things and–in good people–selfish interests.

Yeah, it’s not exactly rocket science, but it works for me.

Your mileage may vary. (What do you think? Good catch-phrase or no?)

The Reader (not _iam)

Sure, Nazis are bad. But is it okay to sleep with them if they’re really hot?

That’s the challenging question the new Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, The Hours) Oscar-baiting movie asks.

The answer appears to be a qualified “yes”.

I’m being flip about the totally super-serial movie The Reader wherein a 15-year-old boy ends up involved with the stoic 37-year-old Hanna Scmitz (Kate Winslet) who teaches him ze ways of love.

This just in: Kate Winslet looks good naked.

But that’s not really important when you’re dealing with, you know, deep thoughts.

You might not even notice that the film is produced by ZOMBIES! OK, no one’s seen Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack emerge from their graves, but no one’s not seen them, either.

OK, ok. I’ll try to calm down a bit.

Wait, why isn’t this child porn? I thought it was against the law to have sex scenes involving minors or anyone pretending to be a minor or a drawing of a putative or even fictional minor.

Let me try this again: This movie is about Michael Berg, played half by Ralph Fiennes and half by David Kross. Fiennes played the top half.

And David Kross was a lot funnier on “Mr. Show”.

I guess I don’t have much to say about this movie. It’s good, and all, for some definition of “good”. Good acting, and plenty of it, of course. (Besides Winslet and Fiennes, there’s also Lena Olin and Bruno “Hitler” Ganz.) Good cinematography. It moves pretty quickly, though some seem to think the first half (with all the sex in it) is slow, it sets up the 2nd and 3rd act, wherein Berg’s life is ruined by the events in the first act.

I think this movie works as a character study of a boy who was too young to have an affair with an older woman and whose life is basically ruined by the affair for one reason or another.

I think it’s supposed to be about the difficulties of the Nazi generation and the next generation in reconciling those actions. (Turns out war sucks and genocide has repercussions. Huh. Who knew?) There isn’t a lot of empathy for the Nazis, which is good, I guess (see first sentence) but the forms this lack of empathy takes–show trials, expressions of desire to basically kill one’s parents (which oh-so-coincidentally takes place in the ‘60s, when lots of non-Nazis were talking about the same thing).

If it is, it partially misses there, because Michael is all messed up before he finds out Hanna is a Nazi, and then after he finds out she’s a Nazi, he takes ten years or so but finally decides to send her books-on-tape. Also, he’s almost completely non-functional as a human being, so he’s obviously punishing himself, too.

So, he he doesn’t forgive her, exactly, but he doesn’t break it off exactly, either.

Dunno. I guess it’s a reasonably murky topic so presenting a clear resolution would probably seem too pat. At the same time, it’s so freakin’ morose, I sort of have this counter-urge to laugh at the whole thing.

Your mileage may very. After all, it’s no laughing matter.

Update: Be sure to check this out as well.

Gran Torino: Grumpy Old Men With Guns

Many have already noted that Clint Eastwood, at 78, dominates the screen in every way in his new movie Gran Torino. Some of this has gone out as criticism of the younger actors, but I think that’s misplaced. They are callow and naive, and whether it’s bad acting or not, it works perfectly in the context of the movie.

And this is legendary stuff, with Eastwood no less a mysterious, alien figure than an Ent from Lord of the Rings. This is kind of rare: Power Fantasies are common enough, but how often do we see a senior citizen power fantasy? (2-3 times a decade, max.)

It’s also really, really corny. Has anyone mentioned that yet?

Get over, for a minute, that Eastwood’s playing the “gunslinger with a past”, only instead of blowing into town, the town has blown up around him. He’s killed people (55 years ago) and he’s a lousy father and his wife–the one person in the world who understood and loved him–has just died.

Beyond all that, he’s still the archetypal “crusty but benign” oldster who takes the youngster under his wing and teaches him about the world.

Corny as hell. But it works, even down to gravel-voiced Eastwood singing the first verses of the closing song.

That’s right. You heard me: Singing.

And I think it works because, like Kwai Chang Caine and the Incredible Hulk, Walt Kowalski hates violence–but he’s not afraid of it. Well, “hate” is a strong word. Let’s just say he doesn’t like killing people. Roughing them up can be part of a healthy parenting philosophy.

It also works because there’s a disturbing truth there: Urban centers are an awful lot like Old West towns where gangs have the population in fear because nobody is willing to fight to defend themselves–well, nobody not in a gang, anyway.

Mostly it works because Eastwood glowers, growls and snarls his way through, while wearing his pants too high and having a strange little old-man paunch and wobbling when he walks–except when it’s time to hold the rifle steady.

There’s also some good story building there. It’s hard to imagine my pool-sharping, sharp-dressing, beer-selling (and swilling), WWII-fighting grandfather having much in common with me or my dad.

So we understand when Kowalski doesn’t “get” his sons and views them as disappointments. They are hugely spoiled, by his standards, and his grand-kids even worse. When he has a revelation that he shares more in common with the Hmong than his own descendents, it works.

And it works without trying to cover up Kowalski’s sins–his failure to reach his sons being his worst.

So, yeah. It works. Well. And it’s a successful vehicle for a 78-year-old 4-decade strong movie star. The Boy heartily approved.

Now, I make a point of avoiding message movies. Milk, for example, is not on my list. But Eastwood is definitely working at more than one level; does he make message movies?

I tend to say no. For example, I think it’s a real mistake to look at Million Dollar Baby as being pro-euthanasia. The situation addressed in that film was unique. It would make no sense to apply it generally.

This situation addresses something more generic, I think: That we’ve lost an important set of values, that we’re spoiled, and that immigrants represent a lot of those old values–but not all the truly great American ones.

But, you know, that’s all very cliché–and very corny–stuff. It’s something you could see John Wayne doing. Hell, it’s something Wayne probably did in one of his later movies.

What’s nice, though, is that it still works. Is anyone in Hollywood paying attention?

Best of Fest

Knox asked me which films I would recommend from previous After Dark festivals, and whether they were things you could actually view on (e.g.) Netflix. Last question first: Yes, they’re all get-able through Amazon.com and get aired on FearNet and sometimes the Sci-Fi channel, so I have to assume they’re available through Netflix as well.

I wouldn’t recommend watching any horror movie on a network that has commercials, with the exception of FearNet because FearNet only puts one commercial break in, early on. (They do the noise at the bottom of the screen, though, which is nasty.)

Recommending movies is a much harder process, because it’s highly personal (and doubly so for horror) and the experience tends to be different at home which affects some movies more than others.

But assuming you’re not a horror fanatic, there are a few recommendations I can make pretty comfortably.

Borderland is probably the most genuinely frightening film of the three festivals, not because it’s based on a true story (which is usually an excuse for lameness) but because it’s so very, very plausible. Americans down in Mexico end up crossing paths with a violent gang. Sean Astin plays a very creepy role. I remember being concerned that it was going to veer into “torture porn” but the horribleness is mostly kept at a very real level–that is, you know, in real life, we’re more rattled by things that we brush off in horror movies–and is still very effective. (UPDATE: My reviews at the time say it is, actually, torture porn-style violence. So, use caution.)

The Gravedancers is probably the most fun. It stars “haunted house” and goes “Poltergeist”, with more than a nod to “Scooby Doo”.

Rinne (Reincarnation)is probably my favorite movie of the three festivals, but it’s not for everybody. It’s a mystery, you have to be very attentive, and it breaks Blake’s law of movie reincarnation (which is that audiences reject using dramatically different actors for the same characters). But it “made sense” to me. (It reveals “the rules” and “follows the rules” without being predictable.) Apparently some people find it slow, though. Subtitled. Must be relatively immune from “they all look alike” syndrome.

I love the atmosphere in Unrest, which is powered almost entirely by the verisimilitude of the situation. The corpses are not just realistic, they’re real. The writer/director having been a med student gets the feel just right.

In an entirely separate way, I loved the “realism” of Mulberry Street,which comes from the setting and the truly excellent characterization. I get the idea that the writer/director pulled his friends out of the neighborhood and said “Here, be in my movie.” Which may be totally false–because they all do their lines excellently and without sounding stilted–but it feels that way. The movie runs out of steam when it goes into standard zombie/plague mode, sort of ironically, or this movie would be a horror classic.

I can’t really recommend The Abandonedbecause I didn’t like it. But I don’t like this kind of movie. No matter how well done, if I know the characters are doomed from the start and yet the movie is going to make them go through the motions of surviving, I get both bored and pissed off. But for whatever reason, this movie is the only one they show on pay cable so maybe it’s a good example of a kind of movie I really dislike.

In the horror-like-Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-is-horror category, there’s The Deaths of Ian Stone.This is one of the few films that had a real budget, like $14M or something. It shows. And while it’s darker than Buffy, it feels like it could be a pilot for a Buffy-like series.

Butterfly Effect: Revelationhas a similar feel. I mean, the whole premise isn’t far off from “Quantum Leap”, which always threatened to scramble Sam’s brains. They just do it in this one.

Out of the 24 films, then, I’d feel comfortable recommending six pretty strongly. Sturgeon’s Law and all that.

If you’re okay with campy low-budget type flicks, then I can add Tooth & Nail,Nightmare Manand Autopsy.The camp in T&N may be entirely accidental but director Kanefsky (Nightmare) knows the limits of his medium and knows a laugh is as good as a shriek–and Autopsy is so completely committed to the “funhouse” style, it’s unimaginable that they didn’t know exactly what they were doing.

So, those are my recommendations.

Except for Autopsy, there’s not really any heavy gore in any of them (and the gore in Autopsy is right on the line of horrific/comic). Oh, there’s a compound fracture in T&N, that’s always good for an “ew”, and the majority of Unrest features half-dissected corpses as props. (I’m trying to remember if there was a lot of gore in Borderland. If there is, I’ve blocked it out.)

For hardcore fans, most of the movies have something to recommend them. And for would-be filmmakers, these would have to be interesting if only to examine: a) how much can be done on so little; b) how easy it is to go off the rails.

But for entertainment, the six abovementioned are worth the 80-90 minutes.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Voices

I was pleased when the credits started rolling and this turned out to be a Korean film. ADHF #2 didn’t have any foreign films, and were it me, I’d be trying to push the foreign stuff, since you have the chance of a high quality film that can’t get access just because it’s subtitled. Also, my favorite film of ADHF #1 was the Takashi Shimizu (of The Grudge–trust me, he’s better in Japanese) film Rinne.

This film is actually similar in some ways to The Grudge, in the sense that there’s a curse causing people to act out their jealousies by killing their rivals. Call it The Blame.

The problem with all of these abstract-concept-comes-to-life films–and other killer ghost story movies like The Ring or One Missed Call–is that without defining some clear parameter for your boogen to operate in, you give the game away that you’re just making it up as you go and ending the movie in the 6th reel.

Really, it’s vital for a horror movie to have rules. (Or any fantasy film.) Without it, you’re not performing the “trick” of art that your audience wants.

For example, The Ring is powered by the idea that the ghost can be stopped by doing something for it. That gives the characters a task to undertake that can help them avoid their fate. Then, when the truth is revealed, this gives them another, different task. This is good.

Another good example can be found in The Sixth Sense, even though the characters and the audience are not ever made explicitly aware of the rules. In fact, it can be fun to go back and look at all the clues (the colors, the effects, etc.) that indicate when ghosts are around.

Without rules, the audience feels cheated, which is unfortuantely what happens here. I’m not going to rag on this movie much because it wasn’t boring, which is the absolute worst crime for a horror film (or perhaps any film, although being unfunny may be even worse).

Basically, anyone can turn on you at any time. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. Worst of all, one of the characters admonishes that you can’t even trust yourself. Well, that’s like the deus ex machina of any horror story, since you can always end it by having the character do soemthing unintended by fooling with their perception. That can done well, but it’s very tricky. (See Fight Club for a good example–but once again there are rules.)

The end tries to make us believe that, somehow, the events of the film are set into action by the characters, as if they had control over it all along, but that just feels like a big cheat. There’s no reason for it and no control.

So it wasn’t the worst we saw, but it was disappointing. It should have worked: The whole concept of your family and friends having the urge to kill you–which you know they all do, or is that just me?–could’ve made a tight, paranoid film like Bug.

Instead, the film is unfocused, having the lead meander about as person after person harms or kills themselves trying to kill her.

Then the movie tags on an epilogue which would’ve perhaps helped the film hang together had it been filmed with the lead and stuck at the beginning of the movie, but just ends up feeling like a cheat.

Kind of a disappointing ending to the whole festival, which itself was kind of disappointing.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Broken

Doppelgangers were big for a brief while in the ‘70s, but they’ve had a resurgence of late because of Geoul sokeuro (remade as Mirrors). And, actually, if I’m not mistaken, the evil doppelganger is a common “effect” in Asian horror, if not as an entire plot. (That is to say, I think there are a lot of Asian horror movies where a person sees an evil version of someone else.)

This was actually our “big name” movie, even more so than the mad doctor flick Autopsy, which we saw yesterday. This one featured the hot (in more ways than one) Lena Heady (of 300 and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) and Richard Jenkins (who should get an Oscar nom for The Visitor but it’s not looking good).

And, essentially, what we have here is Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

It’s so, so boring.

I mean, okay, it was obvious to us within the first few minutes what was going on, but you know, I can watch Invasion over and over again, even though I know exactly what’s happening. The ’50s one or the ’70s remake, even. (I draw the line at the two latest ones, though.)

This has the similar problem as Slaughter in that they expect atmosphere to carry them through the uneventful parts, and it just plain doesn’t. Remember that all eight movies are under 90 minutes–this one was really short, they say 88 minutes but I’m thinking under 85 if you don’t count the credits.

But it seems so much longer.

You’re waiting for something to happen. And waiting, and waiting. There are two or three good chilling moments, but that works out to nearly a half-an-hour of nothing in-between them–or it would, if they were spread out, which they’re not. They all come at right around the same point.

And the reveal is tortuously slow.

Despite the good production qualities and acting, this would be my pick for worst of fest.

OK, let me see if I can think of something else to say about it. Well, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, really. Which was something of a trend this year: Directors and writers so obsessed with having a “twist”, they make their whole movie nonsense–and then the twist is actually “generic horror ending #4”.

I don’t find windows particularly menacing, I’ve discovered. I don’t find the London skyline very menacing, though I do wonder what’s up with the giant penis building and the Brobdingnagian Ferris wheel. Dripping water doesn’t threaten me. Whatever technology they have that allows them to simulate (or just super slow down) car collisions is cool, but not really very interesting after the 14th or 15th time you’ve seen it.

Seriously, there’s a car collision which is the focal point of this movie, but the actual purpose it plays in the story is murky. That is, it hides behavior from the main character that is part of the Big Reveal, but since the events of the Big Reveal occur before the collision, there’s no real reason for the events prior to the Big Reveal to have occurred at all.

The ultimate problem, though, is that while the menace in Body Snatchers comes from an increasing awareness of the intent of the invaders and the scope of their plan, at the end of this movie, you don’t know anything about the doppelgangers. Why are they doing this? Are they just evil? If so, how is the premise of the movie even possible?

As I said, worst in show.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Autopsy

Another in the generically named series, this was probably our favorite movie of the day. It’s also misnamed: There are, in fact, no autopsies. This reminds me most, I suppose, of Horror Hospital, from the mid-70s.

A bunch of college-age kids get into a car accident and are taken to a hospital (in New Orleans? Katrina is mentioned!) whereupon they one-by-one get to “see the doctor”.

This is a mad-doctor-tries-to-save-his-wife movie, in the vein of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, e.g. It’s really kind of old school. And it helps that the mad doctor is none other than the T-1000 himself, Robert Patrick.

And, speaking of James Cameron alumni, in the Nurse Ratched role, we have none other than Jenette Goldstein (Sgt. Vazquez in Aliens, John Connor’s foster mother in Terminator 2), looking more than a bit frumpy if not downright frowzy.

This is the movie equivalent of a fun-house ride. There are a lot of set-ups for scares, and the scares and done knowingly, in such a way that you’re set up for one thing but get a completely different surprise. These don’t always make sense but, seriously, why should you care?

This is also the first movie that wasn’t unrelentingly grim. There are some good, deliberate laughs in the movie. And this movie gets the “best image” award for the fest (so far), involving a great deal of let’s say “floating viscera”.

It’s a little bit campy and a lot creative. A fun, fast-moving watch!

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Perkins 14

Now, Crazy Eights + 75%! No, actually, this ends up with more of a Mulberry Street vibe, though it’s set in a small town, which is a lot easier to pull off.

Basically, our movie features the interesting face of Patrick O’Kane as Dwayne Hopper, a cop who’s been brooding over the loss of his boy since his abduction 10 years previously. He’s jeopardized his job and is on the verge of losing his family. When we meet him, he’s about filling in for a friend on the night shift at the precinct.

The residents that night include a “usual” (who amusingly turns out to be an eco-terrorist) and a guy named Roland Perkins (portrayed by excellent heavy Richard Brake, who played Joe Chill in Batman Begins) who tried to flee a traffic stop. As the night progresses, Dwayne becomes more and more convinced that Perkins is the serial abducter who kidnapped 14 kids ten years ago.

The title is, of course, the giveaway there.

So, this part of the movie works. A little mystery, some nice interaction between O’Kane and Brake.

The next part of the movie involves the 14 Perkins “kids” but is, essentially, a zombie movie. O’Kane powers this, as he becomes determined to rescue his daughter (the gorgeous Shayla Beesley) and his wayward wife (Mihaela Mihut). All three do a good job here and the build-up to the final act is pretty good.

At last, they decide to barricade up in the police station. A logical choice on paper, this is where the movie falls apart. After risking life and limb to get to the police station, they move around dangerously and ultimately decide they need to leave. Rather than, say, holing up in a cell until at least the morning.

This act only has the vestiges of the family dynamic from the second act, and Dwayne’s hope that he can somehow connect again with his long-lost son.

The ending goes totally obvious and cliché, unfortunately.

Director Craig Singer’s last appearance at the fest was at the helm of #1’s Dark Ride, which suffered from a similar problem: The first third of the movie is funny, referential (to the slasher genre), and fast-moving. When they finally get to the amusement park, it’s as if amnesia set in, and they were unaware anyone had ever directed a slasher-in-a-funhouse flick.

So, hey, you know, this is better.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Slaughter

Inspired by true events. Few words strike fear into my heart than those. Usually it’s a poor substitute for a well-plotted movie with a lot of really awful stuff that’s based on nothing but the film maker’s attempt to pander to the lowest common denominator.

The generically named Slaughter claims to be so inspired. How generic is the name? Well, I thought this Slaughter was the one where a bunch of actors find themselves in a Japanese snuff film. When, in fact, this is the Slaughter where a woman on the run from an abusive boyfriend finds herself on a farm populated by menacing rednecks.

The Boy opined that he would like to see rednecks be cast as the heroes once.

The “true events” may be a 100 year old story where a farm family lured city folk to their doom to steal their stuff and then fed them to their pigs. (I think I saw that on HBO’s “Autopsy”. ) That sort of fits, though very loosely.

Anyway, the story as it’s told here is that Faith (Amy Shiels) is fleeing her abusive boyfriend, and ends up befriending Lola (Lucy Holt) and staying with her at the family farm. The first half of the film abounds with menace: Men in clubs, the old boyfriends, the men at the farm–hey, they don’t call it menace for nothing.

This film’s biggest problem is that the menace is dull, virtually Lifetime movie-of-the-week girl stuff about Faith and Amy’s horrible upbringings. This does come in to play later, but that doesn’t actually make it any less slow.

When the action gets going, the movie picks up tremendously. It veers into a slightly unexpected territory and plays out in slightly unexpected ways. It only goes off the rails at the end–which, unfortunately, is the by-word for this festival’s movies. (Four, maybe five, depending on how you reckon it, out of the six movies so far have pretty much gone the “everyone dies” route which is just a cheap out.)

The only other thing I’d add, maybe weirdly, is that the actresses seemed to old for their parts. It’s not something I notice, usually, but Faith is between 18-21 and Amy is under 18. This is important to the plot, but I would’ve guessed both girls were in their mid-20s.

Verdict: The action parts are better than the scare parts.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Dying Breed

Inbred hillbilly cannibals menace city folk.

Sure, we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it in Tasmania? I think not! (Joe Bob Briggs is going to sue me for stealing his shtick.)

Leigh Whannel is best known as the writer of the first three “Saw” movies and producer of the whole series. But before that, he was an actor, as he is here, in this rather by-the-numbers hillbilly horror flick.

Seems his movie-girlfriend is on the hunt for a rare Tasmanian beastie (which I believe they have found but don’t disclose the location of in real life) and also for answers as to her sister’s drowning eight years previous. He invites jerky buddy along for the trip and buddy brings along girlfriend, so that we have plenty of potential victims.

Before you know it, they’ve pulled up in a small “town” in out-of-cell-tower-range territory and are being menaced by the locals. Although the locals actually seemed pretty nice to me. Maybe it’s just the Aussie accent.

Actually, tThe accents are somewhat Irish which is confusing to me since I didn’t know if they were Aussies trying to do Irish accents or if some Aussies actually have Irish-ish accents.

Then they’re 10 miles into the out–well, not the Outback because it’s Tasmania, but whatever the Tasmanian equivalent is–and walking around trying not to fall into mineshafts.

The jerky guy–who’s really very jerky–brandishes a crossbow, which upsets the lead, but I was thinking if it were me, everyone would have a pistol, a rifle, a knife and possibly some small explosives (or optional automatic weaponry).

There’s not much to write here because it’s mostly pretty standard, with a little twist at the climax which sort of gets untwisted at the end, which gives us a kind of twist-ish stinger. Except it wasn’t surprising in the least. It was sort of like, “Oh, yeah. I guess that makes sense. Or something like it.”

Not horrible, and less cliché-driving than From Within (which was really merciless as far as the stereotyping goes), still a lot less than I was hoping for.

Butterfly was definitely the winner of day 1.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: Butterfly Effect: Revelation

I didn’t see the first Butterfly Effect due to my severe allergies to Ashton Kutcher. (I don’t know why. I barely know who the guy is. I’m probably just pissed he wouldn’t do a sequel to Dude! Where’s My Car?) So I don’t know what, if anything, this has to do with the previous two movies.

I didn’t see the second installment because I blinked.

The basic premise is that the lead character can change the past by–em–well, he time travels by sitting in a bathtub fill of ice in the dark. I gather that this is given a more plausible treatment in the first film but in this one we don’t waste any time justifying it. (In fact, I think they get around it by saying he doesn’t actually time travel.)

Look, the guy can time travel, let it go already. Think of it as “Quantum Leap” with gore and a gratuitous sex scene.

When the movie opens, he’s doing what he does for the cops: Basically, he travels back in time to the scenes of crimes and IDs the perps. This falls within the confines of “the rules”, the things you can and can’t do without frying your mind or unleashing the dreaded butterfly effect.

The butterfly effect, of course, is when you make a change, however minor, to the timestream. The ripple effects from that cause massive changes in history, and in the case of this movie, the time-traveler ends up with a mashed-up memory of both timelines. (I think. It’s a little hard to tell what the main character knows and doesn’t know.)

So, the trouble begins when a childhood friend–the sister of his murdered girlfriend, in fact–exhorts him to use his talent (nobody knows the icy bath thing, they just know he knows stuff) to clear a wrongly accused man about to be put to death and to find the real killer.

But going back to your own life causes all kinds of problems and God help you if you change your own timeline.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Every time our hero goes back in time to right something, he wakes up in a new present with new people dead and his own life worse off than before. Before you know it, he’s created a serial killer and gone from taking care of his shut-in sister (whom he saved in a previous incident but at the cost of his parents dying) to being taken care of her.

The sister, by the way, is played by Rachel Miner, who I always figure should be the daughter of horror-meister Steve Miner, but doesn’t appear to be. Ms. Miner has the distinction of being the only actress I know of who has appeared in all three Horrorfests: In #1, she was the eponymous Penny Dreadful and in #2, she was in the much enjoyed Tooth and Nail.

The Boy liked this one a lot, as did I. Chris Carmack in the lead has to play an increasingly confused and unstable character, and you do feel sorry for him even if you wonder how smart he is to keep going back trying to fix stuff.

The aforementioned gratuitous sex scene is pretty funny, just because it goes on way longer than necessary, only to end with a “I guess I’m just not in the mood.”

Anyway, this film does follow a nice dramatic arc, pulls you in, gives a sense of real danger, and then a pretty satisfying climax and denouement. There is a certain preposterousness to it, even accepting the time-travel stuff. The plot hinges on a looseness in “the rules” that isn’t really explained or justified, and the ending is a little too neat (though with an obligatory “…or is it?” feel).

But, hey, not complaining. It was different enough and fun enough.

After Dark Horror Fest 3: From Within

A curse afflicts members of a small town, causing them to “commit suicide”. Crazy Christian community members decide to blame the local witches.

Sure, we’ve seen it before, but have we seen it…uh…have we seen it…have we seen it…

OK, yeah, we’ve seen it. There’s nothing really original about this film. The old “witch’s curse” thing hasn’t really been big since the ‘70s, but they’ve sauced it up a bit with Japanese-style horror effects. Actually, come to think of it, that part is highly reminiscent of Mirrors.

The boy pronounced it “run of the mill”. At the same time, we both agreed it wasn’t boring. One reason is that it’s mercifully short. Another reason is that the general production quality is good: Good cinematography, good acting, lighting, sound, etc.

But it is relentlessly clichéd: Screenwriter Brad Keene wrote one of my favorite films of the first After Dark Horrorfest, Gravedancers. It was also rife with clichés but it sort of takes them to the wall, with the movie getting progressively more outrageous. It was a light, sorta funny-scary that moved from “haunted house” to “Frighteners”-style.

This one starts as standard coven ‘n’ curse and ends that way, too, though I guess you might give the ending a few points for not totally Scooby-Dooing out. It has a kind of a “Twilight” vibe, too, with the Christian girl liking the, uh, Witch boy.

Curiously, IMDB lists this as having a planned sequel for 2010.

There’s a peculiar problem with this sort of film: It’s almost necessary (apparently) for the Christians to be clueless and powerless against the real witchy, and to show them as narrow-minded bigots. At the same time, they sorta have to be right. So we’re confronted with at least one character who has to be both sympathetic and murderous.

The movie could’ve been better without that constraint. If there’s a plot more stale than “small town narrow-minded Christians go wrong” I am not aware of it.

I actually enjoyed this more than the first film last year (Unearthed) which, while beautifully produced, was really dull.

Torture Porn

“Torture Porn” is most commonly a phrase applied to a movie the critic applying it didn’t like, regardless of merit (cf. The Passion of the Christ). This is unfortunate as it robs the phrase of any meaning.

The label “torture porn” should only be applied to movies where the point of the film is to titillate the viewers through the suffering of others. This is why I don’t consider Saw torture porn: However sympathetic Jigsaw is made out to be, he doesn’t enjoy the suffering of others and the audience isn’t expected to either. In Hostel, the young characters are victimized by the wealthy older psychos, and there’s no empathy for the older guy (even before you know how crazy he is).

Death Wish comes to mind–it’s the 25th anniversary–though it may not be a good example. Been a while since I’ve seen it. A lot of those revenge flicks of the ‘70s were particularly affectionate toward the violence committed.

On the other hand, Hostel II clearly meets the definition, in parts. In what was probably an attempt to keep things edgy, there’s a strong focus on the mechanics that make the whole thing possible. Then there are some twists to keep you “on edge” about what happens next but which also tend to put you into sympathy with someone doing violence and enjoying it.

Then there’s an actual porn scene where blood is used instead of some other bodily fluid. I mean, really: A hot older woman tortures the “homely” girl and–well, it’s pretty awful, or it would be if it weren’t so silly.

You could argue the point, since there’s no narrative or exposition about the older woman, but director Roth knows how to make something ugly and there was a sympathy, at least at the level of the imagery, for this act. In other words, one gets the sense he is trying to titillate there despite the perverseness and horror of the situation.

Interestingly, Hostel II flopped compared to the first movie’s relative success. True sadism is a niche market.

Doubt

I am, for the most part, not inclined to look at movies through a particular political filter.

Let’s say, for example, there’s a movie about an evil Republican. Well, doubtless such a creature does (or could exist), and I’m disinclined to view a movie about said creature as an indictment of all Republicans.

Even if it’s meant that way.

My justification for such ignorance is Shakespeares Richard the III. Ol’ Bill knew what side his bread was buttered on. He wasn’t going to make a Yorkie a good guy while there was a Tudor on the throne.

Still, it’s a great play. And that’s what matters in the long run.

Bush-related stuff of the past decade is an exception for two reasons: The drumbeat was constant, and impossible to ignore; but more importantly, art was sacrificed at the altar of Making A Point.

I mention this because many people went to Doubt with–or avoided it based on–some pretty heavy prejudices. And that’s unfortunate, because this is a pretty solid little movie.

There is a lot of acting in this movie. (Not necessarily a bad thing: 12 Angry Men has more acting per foot of film than any other movie I can think of.) You have Meryl Streep doing an accent that reminds me of an old Jewish lady, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the charming priest and Amy Adams as the wide-eyed naive girl.

And, as you might imagine, they’re all quite good. I’ve not always been a big Streep fan–I like her much better now than during her more acclaimed youth. She’s convincing as the feared Mother Superior, but not monochromatic even given the narrow palette she has to work in. Hoffman has a rather challenging role, too. (I’m not sure how much doubt we’re supposed to have that he’s a pedophile; clearly he’s “good” with children, and that takes on creepy dimensions.)

The delightful Amy Adams–last seen on this blog in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day–shows that she is just as comfortable as a naive, unworldly nun as she was a vibrantly sexual flibberdigibbit. She, in a lot of ways perhaps surprising, best reflects the audience: She’s enchanted by Flynn’s (Hoffman) modern ways and disapproving of Sister Aloysius’s (Streep) draconian ways.

And yet she learns. Quite apart from Flynn, she learns that there is a reason for the stern-ness, and there are consequences for abandoning it. Viola Davis (“Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit”) has a brief but powerful role as a woman who is willing to sacrifice her son to help him succeed. (That’s as convoluted as it sounds.)

In fact, you could easily see this movie as a struggle between conservatism and liberalism and, perhaps surpisingly, conservatism comes out way ahead. I think that’s probably an unsubtle and incomplete take-away, but the most sympathetic character in the movie is the ballpoint/transistor radio hating Streep.

And it’s impossible to not see this 1964 school, even with its slow integration of blacks, as superior to modern ones. Sister Aloysius, as school principle, knows all the types of students there are: good ones, bad ones, fidgety ones, troublemakers, etc. She knows which girls are going to get into trouble. She’s a terror, yes, but because she’s a terror, a naif like Sister James (Adams) can control her classroom while still being sweet and gentle.

Sister Aloysius’s matter-of-fact-ness–her complete lack of doubt, in fact–is what powers everything. The students get an education because she makes it her business to see that they do, to the limits of her ability, and regardless of any of the sticky, mushy, ultimately obstructive dramas the world wants her to care about.

It’s that same shark-like focus that removes any doubt as to Father Flynn’s ultimate fate, too.

Indeed, Flynn’s guilt is never spelled out, but as Sister Shark swims for him, the inability to stare her down, unflinching–his continual shifting of tactics, from denial to eliciting sympathy to what might even be considered blaspheming, is what makes him so obviously guilty.

It’s ultimately this dynamic–the implacable Streep versus the shifty Hoffman, the pollyannish Adams, the horribly oppressed Davis–that powers the movie. Indeed, like the aforementioned 12 Angry Men, Streep is juror #8, if Fonda’s character had Lee Cobb’s fierceness and E.G. Marshall’s intellect to go along with his sense of justice.

The Boy liked it. And this is ancient history, really. The world isn’t one that he has any familiarity with.

Althouse has some thoughts up about it. I confess I didn’t notice the mucous. Does that make me unobservant? She’s right about the religion being mostly absent, though there is a bit with Flynn praying and the altar boy ringing the bells behind him that was decidedly religious.

The issue of pedophilic titillation I can’t really address. Going out on a limb here, as a non-pedophile myself, I’m not sure how it works. Is a movie about a priest among boys the equivalent of Some Like It Hot? Titillating because it’s a fantasy, even though nothing suggestive is shown? If so, I’m not sure how the subject can be addressed at all without falling afoul of the implications.

There’s also talk over there of the lack of subtlety in certain places, such as using the weather (windy, wintry) to hammer home a point. But my guess would be that writer/director Shanley would’ve put that in his play if it were less trouble than it was worth.

Howard Shore (and his all nurse orchestra) does a great job on the score, too.

I can see this film being very re-watchable. I wouldn’t recommend skipping it just because you think it’s another H-wood hit job on The Church.

Role Models

I’ve started and stopped this review so many times, I can’t remember if I, in fact, already did review it. It’s mostly the holiday season and what-not, but to a degree it’s that the new Paul Rudd/Sean William Scott vehicle Role Models is not all that memorable.

It’s not bad. In fact, The Boy really liked it. The story is that the rather juvenile Scott and Rudd do some rather juvenile things and end up in front of a judge. The sentence is community service, to be filled in a “bigger brother” type organization.

I’m pretty sure–I hope!–this never actually happens, sentencing people who act like idiots to be mentors to children. But, hey, it’s a vehicle, and the first part of the movie is really carried by the not-nearly used enough Jane Lynch.

Doing a classic “reformed drug addict, now responsible but compelled to share uncomfortable details at every turn” bit, she rides the boys asses (even when they’re being relatively good), much the way she did in 40-Year Old Virgin.

Rudd is paired up with a nerdy LARPer whose parents don’t understand him, and in fact demean him even when they’re trying not to. Scott is paired up with a sassy black kid, as if Gary Coleman had been raised on hip-hop and porn. Scott is a womanizing frat-party regular–what you might imagine Stiffler to grow up to being, while Rudd is on the verge of losing perennial girlfriend Elizabeth Banks.

Knox will be happy at least that this time Banks is paired up with the reasonably good-looking, clean-cut Rudd instead of the slovenly, unshaven Seth Rogan.

You know how this plays out, right? Our Peter-Pan-esque boys actually get involved and start caring about their wards, only to screw up at the end of the second act and have to fight for honor, even at great personal risk to themselves.

I mean, seriously, how else is it going to play out? They continue their reckless ways and get the kids killed? Come on. What’s the matter with you? (OK, just once….)

The movie keeps you chuckling throughout, which may be sufficiently distracting from the parts that don’t work that well. Too, there is enough avoidance of some of the obvious subplots to make it not seem fresh, exactly, but at least not completely predictable.

The relationship between Rudd and Banks is really a pointless waste of screen time. Banks is really just a backdrop on which Rudd’s growth can occur, but the whole growth thing is pretty minor, and when contrasted with the fact that in the end she, of course, loves his new self, it’s particularly unconvincing why she would. (I like Banks a lot, but this is a pretty typical male comedy writer’s idea of women, i.e., a cardboard cutout.)

It looked early on like they might go with Scott putting down roots with his little buddy’s single mother. Thank God they didn’t go there.

LARPing gets an unexpected fair shake. I mean, personally, I’ve never met a LARPer who wasn’t totally insane, but I assume that’s just random chance. (They can’t all be nuts, can they?) At first, the movie is unsympathetic but then allows that it’s really not an unreasonable pursuit.

Rather than teach the foul-mouthed little black kid to behave, Scott teaches him how to score with the ladies. OK, that’s different.

As I noted, The Boy liked this a lot more than I did, and he is closer to the target demo than I am, so I guess they did that right. There’s a KISS theme running through the movie which is, I suppose aimed at me (and I did find it amusing), but ultimately I was sort of underwhelmed.

This currently has a whopping 7.9 on IMDB. It takes an 8.0 to break in to the all-time top 250. (Score inflation: When I started looking at IMDB 10+ years ago, the #1 movie in the top 250 was The Godfather and it had a 7.9.) I found it trite and sloppy which is something that doesn’t necessarily kill a comedy, if the gags are good.

And the gags are pretty good. So, you know, have at it.

Ride of Die Walküre

I was on the fence about seeing the new Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie. I’m kind of on the fence about Cruise, and not just because the one time I saw him, he kept shooting me dirty looks. (OK, in fairness, I kept sorta staring at him like, “Who the hell is this little guy?” But I digress.) But as an actor, I don’t find him particularly compelling. The exceptions are his under-rated performance in Rain Man–I thought he was better in that than Hoffman by a long-shot and, uh, oh, yeah, he was great in Tropical Thunder. Oh, yeah, I liked him in Risky Business, too. (He was good in Magnolia but it almost felt like a rehash of his Rain Man character.)

He seems callow to me, even after all these years.

But I don’t dislike the guy, and he has some fine moments in this film about Germans who set out to kill Hitler–and actually more significantly, overthrow the National Socialist government.

I don’t buy the rather silly argument that since we know how this turns out, it has no potential to be an interesting movie. We know that the Titanic sank, yet the movie made over a billion dollars. Whatever the Hindenburg’s movie’s problems were, knowing that it was going to blow up was not one of them.

There are several hundred miles worth of film coming out in the next few weeks all dedicated to WWII, and we know how that event turns out, too.

Silly argument. And, in fact, director Bryan Singer does a great job handling the issue. You do wonder, at more than a few points, whether they’re going to be able to pull it off, and while it’s in progress, there are times when it seems like they can’t fail.

In fact, the plotting and execution of the plot is quite good, but it felt like the movie was waiting to get started up to that point. Stauffenberg is a difficult character to write and play, and the opening character development is sort of hit-and-miss. Obviously, the guy was a bit of a bad-ass, and cool as ice, something Cruise does pretty well. The other side, the more emotional, father, husband, human, is also hit-and-miss, though particularly good during the “let’s kill Hitler” and less so during the family scenes.

I found myself, overall, less engaged than I wanted to be. I was distracted by the timeline, for example, since the plot takes place about nine months before the war ended and I kept wondering if it would really help much taking Hitler out when the horse was sorta out of the barn already. (Though a lot of the worst stuff happened at the end of the war.)

I was also distracted by wondering if, at this point, more English-speaking people had played Nazis than there had ever been actual Nazis. The accents are all over the place. Cruise stays American but most of the rest of the cast is English. Except his wife, who is Dutch. Also his secretary. (Both actresses from Black Book.) Some use German accents. All the signs and telexes are in German, though.

Usually this doesn’t bug me, but it did, as did a big round of “Hey, who is that?” Bill Nighy, for example, I half-recognized. Like, “That guy looks like Bill Nighy, only thinner. And less funny.” Nighy is a great actor, but I’m used to seeing him in silly things like Pirates of the Carribbean. Terence Stamp and Tom Wilkinson are also great, but they’re also so very English.

I try to avoid comments like “this would’ve been better in Japanese” but I have to think this might have been done better with a bunch of no-name German actors.

Or maybe not. The Boy liked it more than I did.

Moscow, Belgium

I told The Boy when we left the theater that he could probably claim to be the only 13-year-old American boy to see the Belgian-made Dutch-language movie Moscow, Belgium. Sage that he is, he said, “It doesn’t matter what it’s about as long as you care about the characters.”

Dayamn. When I was 13? I was all about plot. Plot and boobies. (OK, I threw that in for Troop.)

Anyway, this is the wrong title for the movie. The Dutch title is Aanrijding in Moscow, which means “Collision In Moscow”, I think. That’s a better title but stupid Americans would think it was a Russian movie, I suppose. Not a Belgian movie. In Dutch.

I don’t know why I’m fixated on that. I guess because I was listening to it and thinking, “That sounds Germanic more than Frankish,” which is the sort of thing that bugs me. The last Belgian movie I saw (the fine Memory of a Killer) was in Frisian.

I digress.

This is the story of 43-year-old Matty, whose husband Werner has wandered off to have an affair with a younger woman but who won’t divorce her and sort of hints about coming back (for six months!) and has made her miserable, raising her three kids alone except for the alternate weekend.

The story begins when frazzled Matty gets into an accident with 29-year-old truck driver Johnny and is taken aback by the fact that Johnny is strongly attracted to her. This is interesting because she’s a complete shrew to him.

In fact, she’s rather unpleasant throughout the beginning of the movie. On top of anger, sarcasm, bitterness, they also do the “no makeup and hair” thing so she looks a haggard 43 indeed.

But with his persistence, we start to see Matty change and get a glimpse in to what’s made her so angry. (We also later get a full-on view of her body in a mirror which I think most even 20-something women would kill for.) And when she gives in (sort of), she has to take a hard look at what her husband has done and how she’s let it affect her.

There’s a curious element to this movie in that none of the characters are portrayed as victims. The cheap shot–the Hollywood formula–would be to have Werner be a jerk and Johnny be a saint, but Werner digs up dirt on Johnny and we find out he’s far from a saint. And then, just to make things a little more complicated, the movie shows us Johnny being a jerk. Meanwhile, Werner brings back a lot of the old memories that made Matty attracted to him in the first place.

Werner is especially jerky, I guess, since he seems to not want to let go of either Matty or the girlfriend.

There’s no “happily ever after” but this movie is hopeful–optimistic, even. We know the characters may be happy, but it won’t necessarily be perfect or easy. And there’s the subtext, or at least one subtext: Easy isn’t always better.

There’s another interesting bit of tension: Werner is an art professor; Johnny is a truck-driver. I somehow thought the enlightened peoples of Europe were beyond class wars as snobbery, but this movie brings the bigotry to the forefront. And it shows the prejudice going both ways as Werner turns out to be an insufferable snob–as does Johnny in his own way.

Ultimately, The Boy is right: While this movie is positively prosaic in its subject matter, ultimately you care about the characters, and so it works.

If you see only one Dutch-language Belgian film this year, make it this one.

Let The Right One In

It’s hard being twelve. Being Swedish probably doesn’t help, with the long, dark winters and constant snowfall. Being a smaller kid with an absentee father who’s a target for bullies certainly doesn’t help.

What does help, though, is getting a girlfriend. Sure, she’s a little strange looking, sometimes very pale, and the windows on her apartment are papered over, and people start mysteriously vanishing from the neighborhood, but hey–a girlfriend’s a girlfriend.

And here we have the crux of this Swedish vampire tale, which plays very cleverly on the vampire legend and, in particular, the notion of a vampire not being able to enter a person’s home without permission. (Something I’ve always considered metaphorical.) Whom do you let into your life?

This movie felt really Swedish. Somewhat slow, dark (literally and metaphorically), brooding and snow-covered, the bursts of violence is especially shocking given the quiet, bourgeois surroundings.

It also works by avoiding, on the one hand, the pitfalls of glamorizing vampires, and on the other by making the vampire victims largely sympathetic. There’s really only one truly evil character, and it doesn’t seem to be the vampire.

It’s a good movie, and there’s really only one thing that doesn’t work. But if I say what that is, and you watch it, you’ll be thinking about that thing through the whole movie, and it’s really unnecessary to the film (but is a vestigial remnant of the backstory in the book).

Suffice to say, there’s one aspect of the story you may wonder about, and it has to do with a very short shot (in the USA version) where we see the vampire naked from the waist down. (This is simulated; no actual naked twelve-year-olds were shown, I’m told.) I totally misinterpreted what I was seeing.

The Boy liked it and we think it was probably way better than the teeny-bopper Twilight.

And if you don’t like subtitles, give ‘em a year and you’ll see this movie remade in English. (But it probably won’t be as good.)

Zack And Miri Make A Porno

Toward the end of his career, Blake Edwards made a bunch of comedies that were widely regarded as not as good as the films he had made previously. But what you could count on in those ‘80s movies was that while he was going to introduce farcical elements into the topic, he was also going to seriously address some topic that was usually glossed over.

For example, Skin Deep looks at the Casanova-type both from the “good times” aspect of having a lot of unattached sex, but then from the more serious aspect of the effect those “good times” can have. Micki + Maude looks at when a couple’s urge to have children (or not) are in conflict, and it doesn’t gloss over the ending. Switch takes a look at misogyny inside of the body-switch-style farce.

I mention this because Kevin Smith, at his best, does something similar. (And he’s also often steeped in his time heavily that, like Edwards, you wonder if some of his “better” works aren’t going to age well.) Chasing Amy takes an unflinching look at the problems of expectations and desires in the post-sexual revolution world.

Also, like Edwards, he’s not afraid to go to the custard pie (or in Smith’s case, the fecal matter) for a joke, lest you think he’s overly full of himself.

And this brings us to Zack And Miri Make A Porno, the tale of Zack (Seth Rogan) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks), long term friends who, on the eve of their 10th High School reunion, find themselves without power, water and heat in the brutal Pennsylvania winter.

Let me take a moment to say that one thing I admire about the Smith kid is that he grows. Each movie he makes is a little more like a real movie. From the early days of setting the camera down for 10 minutes while a couple of characters talk in Clerks to actual camera movement and letting the visuals tell the story in Clerks II, he’s come a long way. One of the comments on Dogma was something like “It looks like a real movie.” And we’ve had a running gag about that ever since.

This really looks like a real movie. There’s some excellent visual work, like a withdrawing shot of a distraught Miri as Zack heads down the hallway to have sex with Stacey. She gets smaller and smaller and the shot gets darker, and finally on the side, we see the bedroom door close.

Great work.

Besides Smith, there’s Rogen as (again) the lovable slacker–hey, it works well for him–and Banks as his platonic friend. Banks has real range, and she plays a character that’s fairly far removed from her sex-freak persona in 40 Year Old Virgin, her secretary-with-a-heart-of-gold in the Spiderman movies, or even her damsel-in-distress turn in Slither, just to name a few. Craig Robinson (the bouncer in Knocked Up and hotel staff in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) gets a meatier role here.

I have no idea what the Apatow connection is, except that there’s a superficial similarity between Smith and Apatow.

Meanwhile we have some Smith regulars doing some acting: Mrs. Smith as the too peppy high school reunion coordinator (she always does a good job, but she does tend to be cast as a bitch, hmmmm); Jeff Anderson as a-sarcastic-and-world-weary-but-not-really-Randall-esque cameraman; and Jason Mewes not being Jay. Also, going full frontal.

That’s right. Full frontal male nudity is here, for your viewing enjoyment.

There was also Tyler Labine, who is not Ethan Suplee, and Tom Savini, who is not Brian O’Halloran. Sorry, you tend to look for these guys when you know Smith’s movies and both of them confused me. (Savini’s gotta be 20+ years older than O’Halloran, too, but I just figured it was a good acting job.) Actual porn star Katie Morgan is in the movie, and she doesn’t look like a Smith regular, but she sounds like Joey Lauren Adams.

Rounding out the cast is former child actor Ricky Mabe and new mother Traci Lords. Traci looked a little tired in this movie but she’s got the acting-without-dialogue thing down. Justin Long and Brandon Routh play gay lovers. Long is hilarious. But what is up with Superman going on to doing gay kissing roles? That’s just what Reeves did!

It’s a good cast. One thing I like about the Smith kid is that he tends to keep his movies short. Brutally so, sometimes. Short and fast-moving. They’re not boring. This isn’t boring. But.

He’s trying to cram two things into one short movie here, and neither exactly work. First, there’s a love story between Zack and Miri–did you doubt it? (If someone could do it, it’d be him, I guess.) The dramatic tension is created through the fact that they’re going to have sex for the first time and it’s on camera, but it’s supposed to be “just sex”. But they’re also supposed to have sex with others which, well, you know, it’s not “just sex”.

Their transition from completely convincing platonic friends to being in love isn’t really built-up. Rogen and Banks sell it, though, so it does work. Their sex scene is intensely intimate; the antithesis of the porn they’re trying to make. The transition between the vulgar and the romantic reminded me strongly of Edwards better work.

The other thread, though, is the “let’s make a movie” part. This is a condensed encapsulation of Smith’s own experiences making “Clerks” but there just isn’t enough time for the camaraderie to really resonate.

Overall, it seems like one of his best movies. It’s not boring, it’s made with considerable attention to detail, and the dialogue is fun without being too much in Smith’s strangely idiosyncratic soliloquy style. It is, of course, vulgar, but not unexpectedly so. I’m a little surprised it didn’t take in a bit more money at the box office–though they really didn’t advertise it much, presumably because of the “porno” in the title.

Don’t leave before the stinger.

Rachel Getting Married

While Jonathan Demme is best known for Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, this Roger Corman alumnus has a broad and diverse resume. Which is another way of saying you don’t really know what you’re going to see when you see one of his movies.

In Rachel Getting Married, you’re going to see Anne Hathaway act, for example. (I’d heard she could act, but I really only know her from Get Smart and that picture that circulates around the ‘net of her in the see-through top. (In this movie, her hair is shorn, she looks strung out and she’s so thoroughly narcissistic, there’s no chance for looks or charisma to carry her performance.)

You also get a lot of shaky cam, so beware. I found this well within my tolerance and The Boy praised it for making you feel like you really were there. There is a minor character, in fact, who is filming the proceedings, and you kind of feel like that while watching this. Adding to this is the fact that all the music is ambient. There’s a band that hangs around doing nothing but playing eerily appropriate music, even if such music wouldn’t be appropriate an actual wedding. (Heh.)

OK, so the story is that Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt of “MadMen”) is getting married to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe) and sister Kym (Hathaway) is checking out of rehab to join the festivities. Kym, being an addict and compulsive liar, immediately makes everything about herself.

Kym has done a Bad Thing. The upshot has resulted in her own downward spiral, her parents (Bill Irwin and Debra Winger) divorcing, and alienation galore.

And it was bad. And Kym feels really, really bad about it. But she expresses this by constantly drawing attention to her own suffering. Rachel understandably dislikes this idea, while her father tends to try to defend and protect her, and her strangely serene mother simply absences herself as much as possible.

In order to have a story, though, we need to have some sort of change. And there are only a few that will work. For example, Rachel could make the ultimate expression of self-pity by committing suicide, or she could have an epiphany and be miraculously cured–all in the fine melodramatic tradition, but not necessarily effective in the hyper-realistic form being used here.

Demme rather bravely pursues his climax at the wedding in a way that makes the resolution clear and eschews soap opera style dramatics. And amazingly, this works. The Boy liked it, which says something for a movie that’s nearly two hours and primarily about wedding plans.

I’ve seen some hay being made out of the multi-culti aspect of the family (the bride is white, the groom black), as if their acceptance of diversity and quirkiness doesn’t extend to the real quirkiness of Kym, but I don’t see it, myself. First of all, the families are largely musicians. Second of all, Kym’s not quirky, she’s deranged and narcissistic.

No, if I had a problem with this, it was the timeline. The Bad Thing took place when Kym was 16. We don’t know how long ago it was, but let’s say Kym is now in her early 20s. Meanwhile, Rachel is the older sister (I think, certainly the actress in her 30s), so some of the tension doesn’t make much sense to me. (I don’t think parents divorcing when you’re in your 20s is quite the same as them divorcing when you’re a child.)

So I did get a little hung up on that.

But otherwise the movie works, and well.

The Boy In The Striped Pajamas

As mentioned previously, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was sold out Saturday evening when The Boy suddenly up and decided he wanted to go see something. But we returned for the last show, never to be daunted by the fair-weather moviegoers who sometimes inhabit our cinema.

The story takes place in Germany in WWII and concerns an eight-year-old boy whose Nazi father (literally, not the more common metaphorical “Nazi” you read about these days) gets transferred to a concentration camp. Isolated from his friends, the boy Bruno–looking for all the world to me like a mini-Bud Court circa Harold and Maude days–looks for friends in the area and happens to come across an eight-year-old Jew behind the fence of the camp his father runs.

WWII afficianados assure me this is impossible. But, hey. I’m amused by the fact that “Hogan’s Heroes” has made it impossible for anyone in a movie about Nazis to have a German accent. We all just think of that lovable Sgt. Shultz!

What we have here is a fable, an antethesis to Benigni’s La Vita E Bella. Only instead of a father trying to keep his Jewish son unaware of the horror they live in, it’s a father trying to keep his German son (and whole family) unaware of the horror they’re committing.

Heavyhanded? Oh, yeah, without any of the lightness of Benigni. But what the hell else can you do? The mother is the first to figure out what’s going on, and the knowledge breaks her. The sister, having a crush on her father’s driver, endeavors to be a good Nazi, but even she’s taken aback when she pieces it together.

We don’t actually know if Bruno ever figures it out.

It’s not bad. There’s a scene in the beginning where Bruno is playing soldier with his friends that’s more than a little trite. And there’s a scene in the middle where the sister has gotten rid of her dolls, and the pile looks like a bunch of dead bodies. Other than that, the director spares us most of the really weighty symbolism.

It is in danger of being regarded as important, mind you, like Crash or Babel or any of the other Oscar-baiting crap one sees. But I think Benigni had the harder task.

Ultimately, if there’s a flaw in the story–beyond the whether-you-can-suspend-disbelief-this-much, which is your problem, not the movie’s–it’s sort of that it’s a morality tale, a stern warning, a scolding–ultimately directed at long dead people.

I mean, seriously, the odds of me running a genocidal camp while my children are still young enough to be negatively impacted are pretty small. I’m not even in the genocide field so, you know, I’d have to start as camp janitor or cafeteria worker or whatever. It’s just too late in life for me to change careers.

Sorry, is that in poor taste? (If you have to ask….)

It’s just that the writers are in a corner. There’s very little actual death in the movie, but we can’t whitewash the Holocaust. Therefore more difficult and challenging endings that respect the complexity of the situation are forsaken for a tidy, less-than-happy ending that really drives home how bad the Holocaut was.

You know, in case you hadn’t heard. Or maybe needed driven home to you. (Last year’s The Counterfeiters does a pretty good job.)

I guess my point is, I hate Nazis as much as the next guy, but this movie feels like it’s lecturing Nazis, and I just didn’t think there were many in that theater. Even when it was sold out.

Sidney White and the Seven Dorks

Revenge of the Nerds meets Snow White. You just know that’s how the Amanda Bynes vehicle Sydney White was pitched. What’s interesting is that the Snow White parts work a lot better than the Nerds parts.

Amanda Bynes got to be famous when I wasn’t paying attention to kid shows, particularly girl-oriented kid shows–that narrow window–and so when she starred in What A Girl Wants I was like, “Ooh! Amanda Bynes in a movie! Wow! Who’s Amanda Bynes?” And, honestly, I’ve had the same reaction every subsequent time she impinged on my consciousness.

These channels, particularly Nickelodeon and Disney, act as grooming areas for the next generation of stars–quite effectively, I think. You know, when they remade all those horror movies after Scream, while the movies weren’t very good, the one thing they had over the old movies is that the acting was a zillion times better.

Take the not very good late ‘90s horror film Disturbing Behavior. Not a great movie, but the kids include Katie Holmes (Thank You For Smoking), James Marsden (who would go on to be in Hairspray with Bynes), Nick Stahl (of the late, lamented “Carnivale” series) and Katharine Isabelle (who’s not as big a star but a fine actress nonetheless).

Of course, the adult cast (Bruce Greenwood, Steve Railsback, William Sadler) and the production also kick ass over the old ones, which suggests there was a lot more money in the new movies. But I think there were also a lot fewer young adult actors who had been through the day-to-day grind of TV shows production.

Disturbing Behavior, by the way, was written by a chief writer on one of Trooper York’s new favorites: Life on Mars. Interesting that the whole movie isn’t much better.

Anyway, Bynes is sufficiently charming. More than sufficient. She does the “adorable but accessible” thing perfectly. Her foil is Sara Paxton, who does a good “Evil Queen” even though she’s been a convincing protagonist in her own right in such tweenie fare as Aquamarine. (And she’s going to be in the remake of Last House on the Left…[shudder].)

The premise is that tomboy Bynes raised by widowed plumbing contractor John Schneider (who’s career has finally recovered from his success as a Duke boy) goes off to college and to the sorrority her mother used to belong to. The Evil Queen running the sorrority drums her out, and she ends up in the wilderness.

That’s when the seven dorks living in the run-down house at the end of Greek Row invite her in. She does some Snow White-style cleaning up, and runs a campaign against the Evil Queen to get her and the dorks into the student council.

What makes the movie watchable is really the little references to Snow White. For example, the magic mirror is a “Hot or Not” list, and Paxton is pretty hilarious with her over-the-top outrage over Bynes climbing up the rankings. The poisoned apple turns out to be a virus-infected Mac. “Hi ho!” becomes “Hi, ho.”

And of course, you find yourself going, “Oh, that one’s Sleepy. That one’s Sneezy.” Happy is, for this updated version, Horny. And Arnie Pantoja as George does the most overt imitation of Dopey from the movies.

Just as these clever interpretations liven up the proceedings, using the Revenge of the Nerds framework drags it down. Although I liked Nerds, it’s far from a great movie, and when this film does the “I’m a nerd” scene at the end as “I’m a dork,” it’s pretty weak. They sort of punted on the whole framework of the movie.

The film isn’t really raunchy, and Matt Long, who plays the Prince Charming character, manages not to come off like a douchebag. Most of the naughty bits are on the level of comments you might hear in a primetime sitcom. (The Flower basically misses them.)

Apparently Bynes lost her hair doing a short role in Hairspray and so wears a wig throughout, also, her makeup reminds me of Juilanne Moore in Boogie Nights.

Little things like this aside, the movie turns out to be a not unpleasant 1:45.

Bond: A Small Amount of Comfort

Quantum used to be used to mean a small amount. Really. I’m just positive. Somewhere in the ‘80s it started to be used to mean a large amount, as in, “a quantum leap”, playing on the idea of electrons moving from one position to the other without traversing the space in-between.

And now, with Quantum of Solace, we have Quantum being….well, I’m not exactly sure. OK, it’s a play on words: Bond, having lost love of his life, pointy-breasted Eva Green, must console himself with round-breasted Olga Kurylenko. (Actually, and fortunately, it’s not that obvious, though that’s sort of how it would’ve worked in the old Bond series.)

Quantum is also the reboot’s version of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. (Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), the super-secret bad-guy organization that was always out to blow up the moon or artificially inflate the retail price of Peeps or whatever.

Anyway, to me the real danger that this new series is has to avoid is campiness, and I give it good marks for that. The Boy noted that in the original (Casino Royale), when James Bond was confronted with an extremely agile suspect fleeing on foot, he made up for his shortcomings with brute force and determination, whereas in this one, he seems to be super-agile and just matching his opponents.

Interesting point. Casino Royale did make Bond seem less super-heroic. And that’s a dangerous route to go down. There’s a scene where he takes out three agents in an elevator that struck me as a little much.

OK, let’s get out of the way first that this is not, in any way, as good as Casino Royale. But it’s still better than the other Bond movies on a number of levels: It’s not campy. There are virtually no gadgets. (I’m not anti-gadget per se but they’re going to have to be oh-so-careful to not lapse into the nonsense the original series went through.) Quantum is both mysterious but has a villainous face that can serve as the focal point of the plot.

Some members of the organization meet at an opera and talk to teach other over something akin to bluetooth, so that they’re in the same room but not face-to-face. I’ve seen some objections to that but I think it’s something you could actually pull off with a little money.

The overarching scheme–utility rights in Bolivia–seem somewhat less grandiose than blowing up the moon, and I’m not sure where I stand on that as being a good MacGuffin.

Bond, at least in part seeking revenge for the death of Vesper, ends up tangled up in a plot involving Camille (Kurylenko) who is also seeking revenge on the Bolivian General who’s using Quantum to overthrow the government. The CIA wants to get in bed with the future ruler and agrees to “get rid of” Bond on behalf of the Quantum agent (what?).

Can’t say I’m crazy about that line. Frankly, I think intelligence agencies are prone to doing bad things–the nature of being able to act in secret with other people’s money and official protection–but I didn’t need the America-bashing. (Show us as cloddish dunderheads, but at least good-hearted!)

The main shortfall of this movie over the superb Casino Royale is it’s relatively unfocused nature. It meanders, relative to the previous film, but it’s sort of remarkable in that it manages to suffuse an action film with a certain melancholy without being boring.

Anyway, not as bad as some die-hard fans are suggesting.

Madagascar 2: Back To The Box Office

Of course, the real problem with these Dreamworks movies is I sit there going “Who is that? Is that…?”

It’s Alec Baldwin this time. He’s the evil lion whose constant haranguing of the king (the late Bernie Mac) is ultimately what results in Ben Stiller’s Alex the Lion Cub being kidnapped and ultimately ending up in Central Park Zoo.

This movie takes up where the last left off, basically, with the four characters (lion, zebra, giraffe and hippopotamous played by Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer and Jada Pinkett Smith) trying to get back to New York. The Penguins get them to Africa where they find a preserve and many of their own kind, and Alex The Lion is reuinted with his parents.

Before you know it, evil Alec Baldwin is there taking advantage of Alex’s ignorance of lion ritual and gets Alex banned from the reserve. Marty finds a bunch of other zebras exactly like him (all voiced by Chris Rock, amusingly enough), Gloria finds hippo love and Melman discovers that his fellow giraffes are also all hypochondriacs.

The plot ends up being more derivative than original, reminding particularly of The Lion King, though never played at that level of seriousness, obviously. Also, no musical numbers. But the jokes are pretty steady and not all bad. Because it’s Dreamworks and Katzenberg, there are a few more jokes aimed at the parents than I’d like, including some of that referential stuff that ages poorly.

But The Flower liked it and The Boy didn’t hate it, and I had a few laughs, so that’s not bad.

RocknRollan on the River

The thing about these English gangster flicks is that it takes a while for the ol’ ears to adjust to the myriad accents and quaint sayings and slang and whatnot, and by the time you’ve adjusted, you don’t know who anyone is and have no idea what’s going on.

OK, it’s not that bad, but I remember getting halfway through Billy Elliot–which had been given an “R” rating for swearing–wondering where all the swearing was before I realized that “fook” and “shite” are naughty.

And so we come to Guy Ritchie’s latest production, his divorce from Madonna.

No, wait, it’s RocknRolla, the tale of a couple of British “real estate developers” whose deal has gone sour because their partner in crime has prevented the necessary zoning from being passed so that he can get the land from them and squeeze them for his “losses” which ultimately forces them to look for other sources of money which actually ends up causing trouble for the guy who swindled them because of his hot ‘n’ wild accountant all while searching out the rat who’s been turning them in for years.

Phew.

Oh, yeah, and the big guy’s son is the titular RocknRolla, a local drug-abusing musician who has a habit of being reported dead. He steals a painting which doesn’t quite act as a MacGuffin, but which provides a fun thread throughout the film.

Surprisingly, this movie is a little slow, at least at first. It picks up momentum as it goes and finishes strong, with lots of good moments.

The cast is very good, with Gerard Butler as One-Two and Idris Elba as Mumbles and a bunch of other Brits with equally colorful character names. The music is what you’d expect. And there’s a nice combination of whimsy with really, truly abhorrent gang style violence. Sassy!

We liked it. I’m not a big gangster movie guy, but this was fun.

I noticed something interesting: These guys weren’t really gangsters in the traditional sense of running drugs and booze or hookers or contraband: The big boss’s power came entirely from government. Zoning laws and building codes, in fact. The money came from the change in value of a property based on zoning changes.

[insert “small government rant” here]

But I wonder if that’s not something that’s just considered normal in the highly regulated world of London.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changeling

I love me some Clint Eastwood. Acting, sure. An archetype. But behind the camera? Awesome.

Also, the guy is 78 and has two movies in the hopper, one of which he’s directing and starring–as the tough guy! WTF, man. I’m such a freakin’ slacker.

Anyway, what I love about Eastwood is that he always hits the universal themes while telling a specific story. For example, some people got upset about Million Dollar Baby, as if it were pro-euthanasia. I say they’re taking too broad a view: Million Dollar Baby isn’t pro-euthanasia, it’s pro-euthanasia, if you have the opportunity to kill Hilary Swank.

Actually, to focus on the euthanasia is to miss the point of the movie. And Eastwood’s movies don’t really lend themselves to generalizing. They tell a specific story in a very convincing fashion, and they don’t skimp on the atmosphere or the research. (That’s why Spike Lee’s accusations about Flags of our Father struck me as such naked self-promotion.) You could see why Eastwood’s character does what he does in Baby. Even if you didn’t agree with it, it was true.

Let me throw some roses here on the much maligned Flags of our Fathers. I liked it–more than most apparently–because it was a naked look at the costs and value of propaganda. And how some soldiers give more than their lives.

And now we come to Changeling, the story of a woman whose son is kidnapped in 1928 Los Angeles, and an impostor returned to her by a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department.

You know, you see Eastwood’s name on a picture, you expect someone to be blown away with a .357. But no dice.

You see J. Michael Straczynski’s name you expect a Narn or at least a cameo by He-Man. Strangely, neither makes an appearance.

But you do get an interesting profile of the abuse of power 80 years ago. Most fascinating is the continued assertion to the mother that the impostor really is hers, and she’s just crazy, obstinate or enjoyed her freedom too much.

The icing on the cake is the “Code 12”, which allows the cops to commit anyone to the L.A. Psycho Ward. They get special treatment there, too, which involves signing waivers to exonerate the police.

Did I mention this is a true story? And not a fake-true story either.

So, whomever is elected tomorrow, and whomever was elected a few years ago, keep in mind that things are pretty much better now. (I’m not saying this doesn’t happen anymore, but at least it requires more effort.)

This is the Angelina Jolie show and I have to say, despite the emphasis of some critics, she pretty well vanishes into the role. She’s scrawny, worn out, washed out–and that’s before her son gets kidnapped. I’m not joking; very little of her beauty is in evidence, she turns the glamour and sex appeal off completely, and even when she fights back, it’s more a quiet, demure determination than a Lara Croft-esque feistiness.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, I can now say I’ve seen Angelina Jolie in a good film!

It’s not great, I don’t think. It’s worth a second view for sure. It lacks a big payoff, though it’s remarkable how much suspense there is, as far as whether or not the boy is ever going to return. In fact, the movie goes on past the climax for quite some time where you really get a sense of the alternating hope and despair of a mother missing her child.

Oddly, though, I didn’t tear up or anything like that, and I’m usually a sucker for this sort of thing.

So, what else can you expect? A stunning recreation of L.A. in 1928 (and 1935). Wonderful cinematography and expert pacing. Excellent acting rounded out with John Malkovich (as a corruption fighting preacher), relative unknown Jason Butler Harner as the child dismembering psycho, and especially Jeffrey Donovan as Captain J. J. Jones, the arrogant and corrupt officer who sacrifices a distraught mother to save himself from ridicule. Oh, and Michael Kelly as the cop whose horror over child-murdering exceeds his concern for the department’s reputation.

And, okay, in the psycho ward, there was this nurse. If they remake Cuckoo’s Nest they could put her in the Louise Fletcher role. I mean, seriously, check out her IMDB photo. She looks only half-evil there, and probably isn’t even trying. She looks pretty much 100% evil when she’s administering shock treatment. Note that the actress, Riki Lindhome, also looks like Eastwood’s “type” (Sandra Locke, Frances Fisher) and was in Million Dollar Baby.

This a propos of nothing, but it’s the sort of thing your mind picks out when you watch too many movies. Another thing your mind picks out is that they used the phrase “serial killer” once in a voice-over. But that phrase didn’t exist in 1930. A detail, but one that leapt out at me.

The 2:20 pretty well flies by and I have to admit JMS has written a solid screenplay.

The Boy also approved, though he didn’t seem wowed.

And now back to trying to accomplish in the remaining decades of my life a fraction of what Eastwood has planned for the next 24 months…..

Kiss Me Deadly

I’m not really familiar with Mickey Spillane’s work, being more a Hammett or Chandler guy myself. I rather liked the short-lived ‘80s series with Stacey Keach, but since I’d heard good things about this particular film–and I knew about the “whatsit” from somewhere (maybe the ’80s cult classic Repo Man)–I queued it up and gave it a view.

It’s…well, it’s solid enough as a detective noir film, but Bezzerides script is subversive and Aldrich’s direction plays that aspect of it up. So, Ralph Meeker’s Hammer isn’t just tough, he’s sadistic and misogynistic. Life isn’t just hard, it’s cruel and isolating.

Bleah.

Part of the charm of the hard-boiled detective is that he’s a good man, but he knows that a white hat will get him killed. He’s not a sucker for dames but he’s got a code. He’ll think nothing of getting rough, but it has to achieve something.

So, the great photography, nuanced performances (Cloris Leachman in her first film role!) and intriguing story are marred by this misanthropic world view.

I didn’t enjoy it as much as I would have liked, therefore.

Q is for Quarantine

A few months ago I mocked an article lamenting the state of the horror movie, and pointing to the Spanish-language films The Orphanage and Rec as showing the way to–oh, hell, I don’t even know what the guy was going on about.

But here we are seven months later and we have the American remake of Rec called Quarantine.

It’s not bad.

Viewing it touched on a lot of themes that have been bubbling in my head since I’ve been computer-free at night.

  • A thread over at the Althouse had people singing the praises of watching movies at home, which (with the brood here) I can’t relate to. And particularly not with horror movies, and even comedies. The audience was particularly chatty and laughy during this, which undermines my point a little.
  • There’s a certain type of film I call “House of Usher” films: A sort of film where the ending is a foregone conclusion due to circumstances that occurred before the movie started. Ironically Corman’s House of Usher isn’t one of those films. Neither is Quarantine, even though the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
  • Horror movies try to do something very, very difficult. It’s hard to be scared by a movie these days, and it’s even hard to be horrified. We’re all a little too “meta”. As a result, a successful horror scene often results in laughter. (The famous “head-spider” scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing, for example.) In Quarantine, there’s a scene where the camera is used as an actual weapon.

I’ll go a bit more into some of these ideas in a later post.

Quarantine is a good balance of terror and horror, with suspense connecting the scenes. The actors are not super-famous (there’s Dexter’s sister in lead–you see her getting killed in the commercials and on the movie poster, hence no real question of how this movie turns out, even before the movie starts, and there’s the wattle-fetish guy from “Ally McBeal”) which works in the movie’s favor.

So, some firemen go to investigate a problem at a small L.A. apartment building and find tenants suffering from a mysterious disease. But when they try to get out, they can’t.

Where most horror movies have the victims hoping to hold out until help arrives, in this move help arrives–and makes everything far, far worse. The idea is that the CDC has locked everyone in to contain the disease, and they’ve got SWAT to kill anyone who tries to escape.

How’s that for a kick in the krotch?

One of the reasons this is not an “Usher” movie is that it’s perfectly reasonable that the people could survive the situation, but they do a whole lot of stupid things. Like everyone sits together in the lobby with the infected. It might be understandable why the CDC would kill the outgoing phones, but it’s less comprehensible why they cut the incoming cable and the power.

Also, I’m not clear on why they wouldn’t try to route everyone out of the house, one at a time, since there’s still a chance of escape of the disease if nothing else. I think you’d route everyone out and then burn the place down, if you were worried. Or maybe chemical bomb it. (I wonder what the actual CDC protocols are, come to think of it.)

Anyhoo. We got the standard trapped-inside-a-house deal with a little Blair Witch thrown in: We only get to see the events that transpire because Dexter’s sister (heh, okay, her name is Jennifer Carpenter in real life) is a documentarian doing a story on firemen who tags along with her cameraman, expecting a routine call.

The camera is less shaky than usual, thankfully, but if you get the nausea or carsickness, you’re not going to like the end at all. The camera, sensibly but annoyingly, gets shakier and shakier as the movie goes on.

This partly obscures the fact that this is a pretty tired premise used for most zombie movies, and you’re really just dealing with that.

Nonetheless, it’s well done. I was a little confused as to whether I was supposed to be rooting for these guys. “Yay! Get out and…infect everyone?” Isn’t that the premise of the second and third Resident Evil movies?

Getting away from the fact that most horror movies are Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians”, right?

I was looking for the demon baby but there really isn’t one. The thing that looks like it is not a baby at all but the most recognizable guy in the movie: Doug Jones, whose miming talents (as seen in The Fantastic Four, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy I and especially II) are making him very recognizable indeed, for a guy who seldom says anything. (Kind of like how Ray Park’s karate moves were so recognizable after The Phantom Menace and Sleepy Hollow.)

Anyway, it worked for me and The Boy also approved. But I don’t know if it will survive the transition to small screen.

Manic Monday Apocalypso: Gas-s-s-s

There are many endings.

On the one hand, it’s arguable that I’ve never seen Gas-s-s-s because I’ve only ever seen it on commercial TV, and the last time was decades ago. The opening cartoon suggests something to a child that the movie itself doesn’t deliver.

On the other hand, it’s arguable that no one has ever seen Gas-s-s-s. Roger Corman ran off to Europe to shoot another film while this was in editing, and lambasted AIP for their editing it down to incomprehensible hash. (I want to blame Sam Arkoff, but I can’t really remember who Corman held responsible.) It was the end of the road for Corman and AIP, and curiously, the end of the road for Roger Corman as a director as well.

The movie takes the Boomer motto of “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and puts it into practice. In the opening credits an accident releases a gas upon the world which kills everyone over the age of 25. (Being in the credits allows us to overlook the question of what sort of accident could spread a gas across the entire face of the planet.) Also, the nature of the apocalypse is fleeting, with way too many people being around, acting normal in some scenes.

Anyway, this was doubtless meant in the dark vein of black comedies like Little Shop of Horrors, but it’s after the experimentation that Corman did for The Trip, and full of the psychedelic imagery and cuts that just annoy the crap out of sober people.

Corman, for all his reputation as an exploitation guy, didn’t pander in this film. Instead of some sort of utopia that his audience might have enjoyed, the world of Gas-s-s-s is more like Lord of the Flies. There’s cynicism and disillusionment and nihilism, and it ends up feeling more like a world where the adults are simply being ignored rather than dead.

Apocalyptically speaking, stories that center around wiping out a particular demographic are seldom as interesting as they should be.

This movie was also a begining, being the first filmed effort of George Armitrage. Armitrage would go on to do a couple of “nurse” movies for Corman, but his writing career probably peaked with the HBO story of the battle between Leno and Letterman, The Late Shift, and his directing career certainly peaked with Grosse Pointe Blank.

There were a handful of new, future celebs in the show as well, with Ben Vereen and Cindy Williams riding across country.

In retrospect, I wonder if Corman didn’t deliberately produce a junk movie because he wanted an excuse to break away from AIP, and to get out of the directing game. It’d be interesting to see a “director’s cut”.

It’s not something you’d want to watch in the expectations of a coherent narrative.

Appaloosa

There’s a scene in Unforgiven where Clint Eastwood talks about how, rather than straight gunfights in the street, assassins were more likely to shoot their target coming out of the outhouse. In Ed Harris’ new movie Appaloosa, Harris and co-star Viggo Mortensen kidnap Jeremy Irons after his morning, em, activities.

Cowboy movies in the past 30 years are sort of like Baroque music after Bach died. It’s all been done by guys who were better at it than the modern generation, so most oaters feel warmed over and weak.

Happily, Appaloosa works and feels fresh.

Harris directs and plays Virgil Cole, a hard-nosed Have Gun Will Travel type whose sidekick Everett Hitch (Mortensen) guards his back and occasionally reins him in when he’s gone too far. There’s some serious good chemistry here.

Cole is straightforward and somewhat thick who only seems to be uncomfortable when made aware of his limitations, and at the same time spends time reading Emerson and asking Hitch what various words mean. Hitch is eminently practical, and respectful of Cole’s abilities, almost acting as an apologist.

Cole and Hitch are hired to protect a town from the villainous Randall Bragg (Irons) who has just offed the previous sheriff’s department–though he was smart enough to hide the bodies and deny it, making it impossible to bring him in.

An uneasy peace exists between Cole, Hitch and the town and Bragg and his men, who live outside of town. The peace is unsettled by a witness to the murders and, even more, the arrival of Allison French (played by Renee Zelwegger).

French dresses nicely, and plays piano (laughably badly, though no one seems to notice or care), and quickly latches on to Cole. Before you know it, though, she’s making moves on Hitch. And it doesn’t stop there.

As it turns out, French is one of the more interesting female characters in Westerns history. And Cole’s response is equally interesting and pragmatic. This does not turn into a rather tired love triangle.

In fact, the whole movie is a bunch of interesting events framed by typical Western set-ups, but not in a contrived way either. In other words, it doesn’t seem so much like they were trying to tell a story that was just contrary to Western genre clichés, but rather had a story to tell that simply hadn’t been told before.

The place where a typical Western would end left about 15-20 minutes of the film; that is the action-y climax left a bunch of situations unresolved that ultimately come to a head later.

An engaging, entertaining film. I guess there’s no one in it to power a big release but keep your eyes on your local indie theaters. You’ll be glad you did.

The Boy liked it quite a bit, too.

Cinematic Titanic’s Legacy of Blood

Episode 4 of the new riff delivery system that is Cinematic Titanic was made available for download yesterday, and I dutifully downloaded from EZ Takes and burned a DVD.

We watched this 1971 horror mess with the good humor of Joel, Trace, Frank, Josh and Mary Jo. And Josh was on fire this time, I must say.

The story is a creepy “rich man’s relatives gather in his possibly haunted house to collect their inheritance…if they survive” kinda deal with a creepy incest subplot and lots and lots and lots of talking.

It’s sort of Manos: The Hands of Fate without all that searing white-hot action.

You know how bad this movie is because the cast is actually all-pro, including some folks still working today. Faith Domergue, the maelstrom’s #1 pointy-breasted poster girl, for example, is one of the first to get killed. And the seemingly immortal John Carradine plays the, uh, dead guy.

But the cast is rounded out with hard-working TV actors, like Ivy Bethune who had a bit part in this year’s Get Smart, and muscle-man Buck Kartalian who has been on “ER” and “How I Met Your Mother”. Brooke Mills plays the absolutely stunning crazy chick in serious lust with her creepy brother.

John Russell was a western veteran, winding his career down with Pale Rider, as was John Smith, star of “Laramie”. Jeff Morrow was last seen (in the riff world) with Faith Domergue in This Island Earth. (Her character is identified as “Veronica” but the credits have her as “Victoria”.)

And then there’s Merry Anders, who I’d bet money one of my parents worked with after she left the business. (One thing about living in L.A. is that a lot of former actors settle here even after they retire. And most of them die right around here, too.)

Anyway, I’ve noticed a pattern with the CT movies, which is that they start off blazing, and this one is no exception. At the beginning, the end, and a few spots in the middle, the laughs come so fast you either have to rewind or commit to watch again.

At the same time, there are a few lags, like the badness of the movie bogs down the riffers.

There are probably fewer lags in this than in the previous three films. The sketches are starting to hit the mark pretty consistently, though there could be a few more, and the ones they have could be longer. The timing is improving, as we suspected it would. There’s a more natural rhythm; everyone seems to be getting more comfortable working together.

The Boy was less than enthusiastic about watching, saying the old stuff (MST3K) was funnier. But he laughed a lot and slapped his thigh more than once; I think he just misses the puppets.

I’m not missing them as much as I used to, but the “plot” of the show is trickling out excruciatingly slowly. Apparently the crew has been captured and sent forward in time (or maybe just abducted by aliens?) who need their riffing talents to save humanity.

What’s good about the new set-up is the use of the silhouette approach to rig up sets that would be otehrwise challenging. For example, in this episode, it looks like there’s a tank to one side of the movie room.

This episode stands out because, I think, it’s probably the most re-watchable episode to date. I’m not 100% sure of this, but this is the first one where I was thinking “I could watch this again” while the episode was running.

So, good job to the CT crew, and keep the shows coming!

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.

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.

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 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.)

Anyway.

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.

A Man Named Pearl

The documentary-as-hagiography without a political end is a neglected genre.

I say this non-facetiously. A lot of people have done really cool things, and we don’t really need to know about the not cool things they’ve done. We’ve all done those, for the most part, and it tends to trivialize the really good things.

Just an opinion, of course. Some of us do seem to enjoy a good wallow. And it’s hard to imagine some documentaries, like Crumbor Bukowski – Born Into Thiswithout considerable examination of these men’s flaws.

But it’s nice to have a movie that’s along the lines of “Here’s a cool dude and here’s the cool stuff he’s done.” Exempli gratia, A Man Named Pearl. The only remote negativity is the ghost of racism, which is ameliorated by the fact that his current best friend is a white 40-something female museum curator.

Pearl Fryer bought a house nearly 25 years ago in Bishopville in South Carolina, not welcome in certain areas because, apparently, he wouldn’t keep his yard up. So, the marginally educated, 3 decade veteran of a can company bought his house elsewhere (with 3 acres of land! we who live in L.A. salute you!) and embarked on a horticultural journey which may ultimately have the effect of revitalizing his somewhat backward hometown.

First, he had no training, apart from a four-minute how-to on “bonsai”. Second, he builds his garden entirely with cast-offs from the local nursery. Third, he has plants thriving in his yard that really shouldn’t be. Fourth, he uses a hand chainsaw, which is totally inappropriate.

Most importantly, however, Pearl worked weekends–and nights, using a big lamp–for decades and turned his yard into a masterpiece.

And there’s your story.

It’s simple. It’s got lots of great pictures of sculpted bushes and trees, and Pearl Fryer working on them. It’s got his church group, a museum curator, the manager of the local Waffle House, and lots of kids talking about the inspiration the old guy gives them.

There’s a nice message about race relations, God, and the value of hard work–and the value of hard work doing something you love.

I confess, about 20 minutes in, I thought, “Oh, my God! It’s a real live magic negro!” But in that thought, I realize the problem with that stock character: Fryer isn’t magical, he just works his ass off. He’s not a saint, he’s just a really good role model. He’s actually a living example of why that stereotype is offensive.

It’s a nice, hopeful movie with nice, hopeful people in it. It’s about ten minutes too long. Even at that, it’s hard to object too strongly.

And if the people of Bishopville work half as hard as Fryer does, they’re going to be all right.

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.