Sunday, September 14, 2014

Life of Crime

Frank Dawson is skimming the money from his housing projects and Ordell and Louis know it, but can't prove it. So to extract money from the corrupt developer, they decide to get a little bit of extra leverage by kidnapping his wife, Mickey.

Frank is too busy ignoring his son, Bo, and diddling his mistress, Melanie, to notice. When Louis and Ordell make him aware of his plight, it takes very little persuasion from Melanie to convince Frank not to negotiate with the kidnappers: win-win, either way, right? Louis and Ordell, meanwhile, are struggling to keep Mickey reasonably safe while they shelter her in the house of neo-Nazi Richard.

The first thing you've gotta be grateful for when someone adapts a crime story, particularly one by Elmore Leonard (3:10 to Yuma) is that you can follow it, and this one you mostly can. I couldn't quite figure out how Ordell sussed out Melanie's plans, nor did I exactly buy the relationship between Mickey and Louis.

But the bigger mystery is how a movie with Jennifer Aniston (Mickey), Tim Robbins (Frank), Mos Def (Ordell) and Isla Fisher (Melanie) ends up with under 50 theaters for its opening. Maybe it's 'cause of John Hawkes, who plays Louis, who is restricted to independent films (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Winter's Bone) by law, apparently.

I mean, it's not great, sure. But it's good. It's fun. It's dark, but not overly so. Writer/director Daniel Schecter moves things along at a pace that allows you to appreciate the cleverness and gloss over the silliness.

So I guess it's the Leonard thing. People who go see films based on Leonard's work have expectations. I guess those expectations were met by '90s films like Jackie Brown and Get Shorty, both of which are probably over-rated.

Guessing. I've only ever seen the 3:10 to Yuma flicks, and John Frankenheimer's ugly and unpleasant 52 Pickup. (The latter film along with the even worse film The Men's Club, released the same year, left me with a life-long aversion to Roy Scheider films.)

I don't know who makes these decisions. After a summer when Lucy is still in the top 10 in its 9th week, this movie (in its second week) is sandwiched between Land Ho! and Snowpiercer which are both in their third months! In fact, those two films are picking up theaters while this one languishes after a not-even half-hearted attempt to market it.

Did you hear of it beforehand? I didn't. It was just playing and not awful (though the popular RT score has dropped from the 60s into the 40s since it first came out).

Anyway, it's fun, short, dark, and maybe too cute for some. Good acting, especially from Aniston (not in Rachel mode) and Hawkes (who's always good). Mos Def and Tim Robbins are doing their things: It's not a reach for either of them, with Def seeming only slightly more sleazy than he did in Begin Again and Robbins having perfected the Evil Republican caricature years ago. (Of course, the character's party is never mentioned out loud but you know what template Robbins is drawing from.) Mark Boone Junior is amusingly loathsome as the Nazi.

I was struck by how long-in-the-tooth Isla looked in this. She's 38, but the lighting really revealed a heavily applied makeup. Perhaps that was a deliberate choice; I know I've never thought in the past, upon seeing Fisher, "She's getting long in the tooth." Aniston, 45, looks great. Like a woman in her 40s, but not one mutilating herself in an attempt to look like a woman in her 20s.

So, maybe it's deliberate, to keep the audience from identifying too much with Melanie. On the other hand, Melanie is far-and-away the most evil character in the story, so I'm not sure that was ever an issue. (Actually, given that the movie takes place in 1978, they're all too old for their roles.)

I spotted two things in Life of Crime that struck me as anachronistic: At one point the smarmy country-club confrère play amusingly by Will Forte (Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2, Nebraska) is about to dial 9-1-1. And at another point Aniston talks to Robbins about "quality time". Those things were '80s in my world, but 9-1-1 has a long history and the first recorded use of "quality time" is in the '70s, so maybe both things were in the original book, written in '78.

Anyway, details aside, The Boy and I liked it.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Rifftrax Presents: Godzilla

I did not go see the 1998 Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla in the theaters. And when I put it on the cable many years later, I got immediately distracted, and only looked at it glancingly to think, "Well, now, this isn't very good at all."

I never put my finger on why. The idea didn't seem too bad. Make Godzilla nimbler and more reptilian in movement, and don't scale it up so that it's crushing model buildings under foot, rather have it dodging in between New York's skyscrapers. Have Godzilla be (SPOILER!!!!) pregnant, for example. None of these are bad ideas, per se.

Having now sat through the entire feature in a theater, I can sum it up in three words:

Oh. My. God.

This movie is so bad, it was hard to watch even with the Rifftrax guys (Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy's always lovable baritone) letting the jokes fly fast and furious.

It's not that the ideas, as I mentioned, were bad: It's that they're mishandled at every turn. For example, making Matthew Broderick your "action hero" could work, because it's not like anyone's going to be punching out Godzilla, or pulling out a minigun to take him one-on-one.

But making Matthew Broderick your hero when he's doing the exact same mugging he does in Ferris Beuller? That's catastrophic.

Unleashing the possibility of dozens of Godzillas? Kinda cool. Using that to rehash scenes out of Jurassic Park? Oh, so lame. Especially after the 6th or 7th time someone tries to stop these little velocizillas by bolting a door, having witnessed all previous attempts not even slow them down.

Feisty love-interest for Broderick? Good. Sociopathic love-interest with virtually no redeeming qualities? Not so good. Even if he did end up marrying Sarah Jessica Parker in real life.

Hank Azaria and Mary Pitillo presage "Jersey Shore" with their, ahem, broadly drawn characters. Harry Shearer practically reprising his Simpsons character, Kent Brockman.

The parade of French clichés that is Jean Reno.

The CGI was state of the art for 1998, and it's unbearably bad now. I mean, the old '50s movies with the rubber suits holds up better. (I think one of the reasons Jurassic Park still largely works is the practical effects.) So even the effects don't help save this thing, even with the kind of cool ideas about how Godzilla should move and act. (Also, he's ridiculously nimble: Dodging missiles right and left.)

Honestly, you have to go back to Coleman Francis or Manos: The Hands of Fate (or maybe The Doomsday Machine) to find a film as unwatchable as this. Sometimes I think watching these things is like having a baby: Incredibly painful but when it's all over, you had a lot of laughs (and a sore abdomen), so you forget until the next time.

I should talk more about the riffing, but it's always hard to encapsulate these things. This is really, really funny. Really, really, really funny. The main problem with MST3K is that there would be lulls: There would be long stretches of rapid fire humor, and then things would slow down a bit, and sometimes too much.

There are a few breathing points here. But not a lot. Not all the jokes land but maybe 90% or more do, which is damn good. Well, the Boy may have missed a few more, since he knows nothing of the '90s, doesn't know who Matthew Broderick, Nathan Lane or Sarah Jessica Parker is, and so on.

It's fun to watch in a theater, too, because the audience roars.

The next Rifftrax "live" show is Anaconda, which is a truly terrible film, but I think I actually managed to watch that on TV after it came out. It's kind of a compelling bad as I recall, with a good part of the time you going, "What the hell is Jon Voight doing with his voice?"

Anyway, the 1998 Godzilla needs Rifftrax to survive. NEEDS IT! Otherwise, it only has the distinction of not being the worst film Devlin/Emmerich ever made.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The One I Love

I am willing to speculate, somewhat tentatively, that I prefer the Duplass brothers as actors and producers to directors. The Boy and I have seen three of the boys' movies (Baghead, Cyrus, and Jeff, Who Lives At Home), only missing their most recent (The Do-Deca-Pentathlon, I think it was called) probably because, well, something more promising was playing.

In fact, I think it might have been the delightful Safety Not Guaranteed, which they produced and in which Mark (the acting brother) had a role. Actually, Jay also acts, but I think Mark acts more and Jay directs more. I don't know. They do a lot of everything.

The key thing about them, though, is that their projects have a distinct style. Their stuff always screams "independent film". Also "low-budget" but "independent", because they don't really do exploitation stuff—even Baghead, ostensibly a slasher flick—was more a character study than kin to Friday the 13th.

So, what makes a Duplass brothers film? Well, it's going to be low-key. It's going to have a starkly realistic feel, and if there's a non-realistic aspect to it, that's going to create a certain mystery that causes you to doubt whether or not the non-realistic aspect is really real...or not. Heh.

There's gonna be a lot of acting. Not hammy stuff. Not showy stuff at all, in fact. But a whole lot of subtle exchanges and character dynamics never fully expressed in words.

It's gonna be short. It may not feel short, however, because of the low-key thing.

And so we come to The One I Love, directed by newcomer Charlie McDowell and written by newcomer Justin Lader, the mysterious story of a couple (Mark Duplass, Elizabeth Moss) sent to a get-away-from-it-all-and-repair-your-marriage spot by their therapist (Ted Danson).

Things start out pretty well. Then they get weird. Then they get really weird.

The movie is powered entirely by Duplass and Moss, and typifies (to the extreme) what I mean by "a lot of acting". Duplass performs well, and Elizabeth Moss (who I guess is a TV person, a regular on "Mad Men" and "West Wing") holds her own next to him. The range of emotions and intentions and character developments that they must communicate is very impressive indeed, and also necessarily constrained by the situation.

Which you'll notice I'm not describing in any way.

Because that would spoil it.

It's a fun film. It's not, as I was somewhat worried, an icky psychodrama, as movies around marital difficulties can be. The movie doesn't really try to solve their problems so much as raise the ultimate question of what it actually means to be in a relationship with someone. There's a light touch to this, a bit of a thriller-ish aspect, even.

The Boy and The Flower both enjoyed, and agreed that one of the reasons it worked was that it didn't try to explain too much. It simply set up the rules, dropped a few clues, and let the drama play out, as the correct focus of the film.

As I say, I think I liked it (and Safety Not Guaranteed) better than the Duplass written and directed films, perhaps because the touch of fantasy/mystery/suspense in this and Safety make a more compelling hook to engage with.

Directed by newcomer Charlie McDowell and written by Justin Lader, whom we hope to see more of in the future.

Boyhood

A boy grows from age six to age 18 in Richard Linklater's slice-of-life film Boyhood. The hook? The film was actually filmed over twelve years, with the same actor (Ellar Coltrane) in the lead role.

Two main observations:

  1. Two-and-a-half hours is a long time for a "slice-of-life" picture.
  2. The gimmick is surprisingly effective, and actually transcends mere gimmickry by the end of the film.

That said, you have to be able to get past point one to enjoy point two. Mason (Coltrane) is a young man whose parents have split up, and when the movie starts, his dad has been away long enough to prompt his mom to wonder if Mason really remembers that much about him.

Dad's obsessed with his non-existent music career and struggling against settling down, which is maybe something he should have thought of before having two kids. Mason's sister Samantha (the director's daughter, Lorelei Linklater) is truly awful, manipulating her mother and being mean to her brother.

The story arc, such as it is, is powered mostly by Mom's drive to make herself a better life, getting an education, a degree, and ultimately teaching in college. This ability to make that life is almost completely scuttled by her complete inability to pick a decent man to be her husband.

Mason is pretty much on the periphery of the action, with these things affecting his life. As such, the movie's emotional impact comes from a kind of emotional pointillism: Little things that build up over the course of the 2:40 minutes, like getting a note from a girl who says she likes you, or learning how to do something well.

It's kind of a sad thing to see this cheery little kid grow into a sullen, muted teenager, but I guess that's what happens (if not always, then a lot). Remember those old '50s teen movies, where the kids were all spirited and, well, maybe a little wild, with their surfboards and sock hops, but basically good-humored, whether hanging 10 in Hawaii or fighting The Blob in Pennsylvania?

I miss those days, even though they were well over before I was born. But I think I would've preferred the average teen to be more like Tommy Kirk than James Dean. (After all, when everyone's James Dean, then nobody is. Or something.)

We liked it, The Boy and I, length and all. I think, however, this is one that would have a much harder time holding one's attention outside the theater. It's too low key. There are some scary moments. There are a few funny moments, as well, though not nearly enough. (At least, I'd like to think of a distillation of life having a lot more humor in it.)

Mostly, though, it powers through on little dramas, and a kind of accumulation of sentiment. You see the kid grow up, and that's an entirely different experience from seeing one actor play a character at one age, and another playing a character at another age.

We have not seen Linklater's Before... series of films, though they must have a similar effect, being filmed with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy at three different and widely separated points in time. We did enjoy Bernie, however.

This is probably a bit more demanding than Linklater's other films, overall, and definitely not for everyone, but it can be rewarding if you invest in it.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Trip To Italy

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are back! Or maybe I should say Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are back! Steve would doubtless prefer the former. In this sequel to 2011's The Trip, which is both a movie and a TV series, Brydon (whose name I consistently spelled wrong in my earlier review) and Coogan are travelling all over Italy, eating fine food and doing impressions.

The funny thing about the last movie is that while we weren't bowled over, we were constantly referencing that film later on, especially the Michael Caine impressions. "She was only fif-teen years old!" and stuff like that.

It kind of stuck with us, me and even The Boy.

This one is actually even less accessible in a lot of ways. I enjoyed it, not as much as the previous film, but way more than The Boy and The Flower, for whom a lot of the references were completely lost. Brydon does a great Gore Vidal, for example, but my kids have never even heard of Vidal. (So sue me; I don't think he's going be much of a significant historical/literary figure.)

Needless to say, it didn't go over big with them, but I rather liked it. Like Coogan's previous efforts, there is a kind of "in-joke" feeling to it, with Coogan and Brydon playing characters roughly based on themselves, but also very clearly not playing themselves.

Brydon makes a wry reference to being "affable", in one of the funnier bits, where he's kind of obnoxiously insisting on his affability, which (immense as it is) is not as great as people think it is.

The switch in this film is that Coogan comes off as the likable guy trying to make things right with his family while Brydon becomes increasingly boorish and caddish. Obviously, he's not really playing himself, but perhaps venting a bit about being typecast.

Another thing which I thought was odd was that, in the first movie, Brydon's impressions seemed far better than Coogan's, really running circles around him. This time, Coogan seems more on the ball, with Brydon attempting to constantly be the center of attension, but Coogan's stuff seeming to get more of the character of the person being imitated.

This is, like, serious theater nerd-ery here. Just like the last one, I could only recommend it guardedly, to people who like the inside-y, is-it-real-or-not actor shenanigans. And even then, I would recommend it somewhat less vigorously than the previous one.

The Giver

In a world where...the Dude is the wisest man in all the land...One Man must...

Or something like that. Jeff Bridges has been trying to get his movie made for 20 years, apparently having filmed a home-movie version with his father and his brother Beau's kids a few decades back. So, I suppose we have The Hunger Games to thank for this teen-dystopic-future-drama.

In this future world, the population lives on an isolated plateau, protected from all harm, protected from competition, feelings, discomfort, with everything decided for them by a central planning committee. In other words, it's the end game of "soft" socialism.

Not that this is ever overtly expressed, of course. (Can you imagine?) But, really, the idea is that there's a completely safe, pre-planned world, free of chaos, with job security and 24/7 monitoring combined with rules for everything, and that seems to be the way our world is going.

Except for the "free of chaos" part, but eventually pharmaceuticals will get up to snuff.

The monkey in the wrench here is that the society (for some unexplained reason) feels a need to preserve history, and this is done through a quasi-mystical telepathic process. Our hero is this generation's designated receiver, and Jeff Bridges himself is the eponymous Giver.

The problem is, the rules don't apply to The Giver: He is simultaneously subjected to the history of Man while being weaned off his Ritalin (or whatever), and thus exposed to all sorts of emotions and alien enthusiasm toward life. He also exposes his friends and "family" to it.

I put "family" in quotes because it's an interesting construct here: It looks like a family, with a mother and father and a little sister, but the mother and father aren't married, and the children aren't produced by their union. This means that their first loyalties are to the community. (Remember, if you see something, say something!)

It's not exactly spelled out but I don't think anyone has sex in this world. Babies are made through artificial insemination or possibly in vitro, then implanted into women who are designated breeders, and on birth, immediately removed from the breeders and given to other families to raise-ish.

School is coordinated by the central authority and everyone is designated the job they're best for by their 18th year.

There's a kind of naive sincerity to the proceedings that make this all work. I've gone on rants before about sci-fi dystopias that kind of fail their initial premise, i.e., they haven't really created much of a dystopia. Or more accurately, while the trade-offs are there, every society has trade-offs and you have to make the case for why this particular trade-off is bad enough to be called "dystopic". (Especially against the backdrop of our current world.)

In this case, I kept feeling like "Well, yeah, a lot of people would trade a lot of things for a world where they had complete security." If not feeling emotion freed you from the bad ones, a lot of people would make that trade. If being designated for a particular role meant you had a job for life, a lot of people would make that trade.

So, the world looks so perfect and well-ordered, that you can see the appeal, but when The Receiver is experiencing real emotions for the first time, you (and he) begin to realize what was lost. And then, when he gets a taste of the chaos and pain caused by real emotions, you can at least understand the logic that went behind creating this world in the first place.

Good acting from Jeff Bridges, who does his usual "just enough to not evoke all those other roles" things he does, where you know it's him but you're not confusing it with Rooster Cogburn or The Dude or whoever. Meryl Streep is...well, she's Streeping it up here. Brenton Thwaites (whose name I spelled wrong in the review of Oculus) does a fine job as Jonas. Odeya Rush, who was in last year's Jim Mickle/Nick Damici cannibal horror collaboration We Are What We Are, evokes a young Amy Irving.

The supporting players also do a fine job: Alexander Skarsgard is the father, Cameron Monaghan plays the friend (whose emotions seem a little less well-checked to me than others'), little Emma Tremblay, already a veteran of dystopias with last year's Elysium, plays the little sister. The now middle-aged Katie Holmes plays the mother. (I mention that she's middle-aged because I'm sure that'll blow somebody's mind. I never watched that show she was on so it means nothing to me.)

It's not all beer-and-soma, though: The fact that everyone's walking around with muted emotions means that the acting is very often subtle, and the drama has to come from the situation rather than the acting at least for most characters through most of the movie.

It's also short, barely over an hour-and-a-half, so it doesn't hit the kind of epic feel of a Hunger Games, and a lot of stuff had to be condensed, I'm quite sure. We all really liked it, though: The Boy and The Flower as well as I.

It's not a challenge to figure out why critics hate this film while audiences are much more favorable to it (32/67 rating on RT). First, it is, essentially a trashing of central command-and-control type societies. They can (sorta) work, the movie argues, if you give up your memory, your feelings, your humanity. Indeed, the people of this society can be seen as the sort of perfect people who make up socialist's dream societies, all focused on the goals the community has decided for them. They have literally immanentized the eschaton.

But probably more powerful and direct offense comes in the community's selective retention process for babies. This involves technicians measuring infants along various metrics, and deciding which ones live and which ones die. The society's lies allow people to believe that such babies (and old people, for that matter) are "released", where "release" is like Logan's Run's Sanctuary, or The Island's, uh, Island.

This is pretty powerful stuff watching babies being killed. Maybe you can avoid the connection between that and abortion, particularly selective abortion where Down's kids and the like are "released", but I couldn't.

I'm guessing the critics couldn't either, and thus the very low score.

Nonetheless, it is a good film, about on a par with the even more overlooked How I Live Now, which I realized I can't link to because I still haven't written the review.

It didn't do gangbusters at the box office, either, so we may not be seeing a sequel. The book had two or three. If you're in the mood for some teen dystopia, though, it's worth a watch.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Rio 2

The Barbarienne liked this sequel to, I dunno, some other movie we saw a while back. You could read that review and it would serve for this film, too.

Utterly forgettable. The Barb had seen this a month or two ago on Netflix ("Why pay for it when you can watch it for free at home!") and she kept saying things like "Oh, remember that guy from the original? And that one?"

No. Nope. Nuh-uh. Don't remember it much at all.

I vaguely remember there being music in the previous film. I think there was also music in this one.

Jesse Eisenberg! He's in this, and back. He's actually kinda doing a voice here; he doesn't sound like the same dick he plays in all his films. He's vested Blu with a little more quiet strength, as opposed to strained neurotic.

Miguel Ferrer and Andy Garcia add their voices to the menagerie of instantly forgettable characters. I think the rest of the crew is back, like...uh....Anne Hathaway as the female macaw and...Leslie Mann as the bird wrangler.

The plot? Um. Men are incompetent boobs that are only saved by their hyper-competent girlfriend/wives.

No, wait, Jermaine Clement is back as the evil...I have literally forgotten. Was he a bird? Or an evil human? I think he was a bird. He must've been because he was doing bird Shakespeare. He's still good but he's sharing screen villain time with a human antagonist who wants to destroy the Amazon Rain Forest.

For the past 30 years, I've been hearing about how we're destroying the Amazon rain forest. Over 2 million acres are still standing.

I remember when men used to be able to do things.

I digress. I digressed a lot in the movie. Even the animation didn't hold my attention. There are some bright spots there but the movie is just so relentlessly politically correct, in never comes within 2 million square miles of anything remotely interesting.

Bruno Mars has a kind of cute role as a feathered Lothario, though he's just as incompetent as the rest of the men, when you get down to it. The original score almost grabbed me a couple of times, but it's almost like this movie is basically an excuse to sell soundtracks on iTunes, and there really wasn't time for traditional scoring that might add some depth.

Rita Moreno has a little role as "Aunt Mimi".

Yeah, I'm reaching for things to say about it. I can't really remember it. The eight-year-olds I know liked it, but not a whole bunch.

Guardians of the Galaxy

I hereby make this (highly dubious) announcement: We have hit peak superhero movie. It's all downhill from here on out, and the death knell is Guardians of the Galaxy. Not because this isn't a good movie, it is: One of the best superhero movies to-date, though overrated. And not even overrated necessarily on its own merits, but in the sense of the "Marvel can do whatever it wants!" message being promulgated. More on that in a moment.

But first, our movie: Guardians of the Galaxy is the story of a boy kidnapped from Earth by aliens who goes on to become a petty outlaw that goes by the name of Star Lord, a pretentious moniker nobody seems to know but himself.

One of his jobs results in him getting stuck with a particularly powerful artifact (along the lines of the Tesseract that was in a lot of the other movies and the Aether from the second Thor film), which in turn leads him to cross paths with a bunch of people who initially want to kill or capture him: The barbarian dude, the hot green daughter of the evil emperor, the wiseguy raccoon and his companion giant tree pal.

And, really, if reading any of the above slows you down, you haven't been going to the movies lately.

Despite the fate of the universe being in the balance, the proceedings are light and lively, and mostly not bogged down in their own CGI, which is interesting because it's pretty much all CGI. This is a space opera, essentially, like Star Wars or any of its many clones, but with more of that cool-nerd vibe that all the kids are into today.

And it's funny.

The Flower liked it. The Boy also liked it, even though he finds the fights in these things dopey; he thought they kept them within the bounds of good taste.

I could go see it again. I'd take the Barbarienne, but there is some stuff that might scare her. (She couldn't make it through Thor 2.)

Solid cast: Chris Pratt, whom the Flower recognized from "Parks and Recreation" and whom we know best as Emmett Brikowski from the Lego movie, plays Star Lord affably enough. Zoe Saldana seems to need a minimum amount of makeup to look like a hot alien chick. I assume her skin's not really green, but she does look in serious need of a sandwich. Wrestler Dave Bautista makes a good barbarian. Bradley Cooper is stunt cast as the raccoon, though he's doing a voice sorta. (I kept thinking it should be Bruce Willis.) Vin Diesel reprises his role as the Iron Giant, er, Giant Tree.

Other notable smaller roles include Glenn Close as some sort of leader/functionary, Benecio Del Toro as some sorta creepy guy, Michael Rooker (famous for playing a creepy guy on the "Walking Dead") playing a creepy pirate guy, Karen Gillan (we just saw her in Oculus, and she has a series coming up this fall called "Selfie"), and John C. Reilly as Everyman.

It's probably good idea to point out that if you set your movie in space, and people go to this super-advanced universe completely alien to Earth, and they find John C. Reilly, there? Well, you might as well have set it at the corner 7-11.

I'm kidding. Sort of. But sort of not: Nothing says "NOT REALLY SPACE" like John C. Reilly.

Oh, and Gregg Henry. Fine character actor. Been playing a dick since at least Body Double. Plays a dick here.

It's all slick and fun and breezes by to a '70s/80s soundtrack, including even a few songs I've heard, like "Fooled Around and Fell In Love". Writer/Director James Gunn, who did a fairly decent body-horror film back in 2006 called Slither, is to be commended.

All in all, though, I think it's all downhill from here. I probably shouldn't be trusted, since I was pretty sure this was going to be the next Howard The Duck (who has a cameo at the end of the movie), but this feels like a sea change. Even as the #1 film of the year, it's just barely going to crack the all-time Top 200.

And the tonal balance it strikes is precarious, indeed. If all superhero movies (as the Ace of Spades suggests) ultimately become Batman movies, it's because the danger of falling into camp is very high indeed. And nobody gets that better than The Batman, at once the grimmest of heroes (though not nearly as grim as he's been made out in the movies) but also the one with the campiest history. (As has been noted, the problem with the '60s TV series wasn't that it wasn't faithful to the comic book, just that it was faithful to elements and time periods of the comics fans wanted to forget.)

Gunn manages the comedy/drama/silliness well. Others will not be so successful. Widening gyre, center not holding, and what not.

None of which means you shouldn't enjoy this. But I'm thinking you probably won't remember it for long either, except, years from now, when "Daredevil vs. Batman" comes out, and Robin starts helping Batman on with his pink cowl. You'll think "I remember when superhero movies didn't suck" and then "Blake said this would happen."

The cool thing, is that if it ever happens at all, I can take credit for being right. And if it doesn't, I'll just pretend I didn't write this.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Mood Indigo

Michel Gondry is one of the most idiosyncratic directors working today, with a style as unmistakable (even moreso perhaps) than Wes Anderson or Tim Burton. The first film of his that I saw was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I did not like much. His subsequent films (Science of Sleep, Be Kind, Rewind, The Green Hornet), which I liked more, have largely not been as well received.

I get this: There is an uncanny polish to ESotSM, a clear message, clearly delivered. It is, by all measures, a better film than the others. But it's not so much Gondry's message, in my opinion, as writer/producer Charlie Kaufman's, whose fingerprints can be found on the grotesque Being John Malkovich, and Adaptation. (which I did not see after realizing it was by the same guys who did BJM and ESotSM).

This is important in understanding my take on Gondry's latest film, Mood Indigo, because I prefer Gondry's characteristic imperfections over what are generally considered better movies. You know, you don't come to me looking for sympathetic opinions on Woody Allen or Martin Scorsese films, whatever their technical merits. (Hell, I don't think I've ever spelled Scorsese's name right up until now.)

Meanwhile, there's a sort of childish romanticism to Gondry that appeals to me, and Mood Indigo is chock full of it. Not that it's all happy. Oh, no, not at all: The source material is a French (?) novel from the '40s (?) called Froth on the Daydream. (Yeah, you can look it up if you want to know for sure. What am I? Google?)

The basic outline is simple enough: Wealthy and creative Colin meets quirky and beautiful Chloe and the two hit it off in their quirky, creative and wealthily beautiful way. But their happily-ever-after is clouded by Chloe contracting a disease (a water-lily on the lung) for which the only treatment is to be surrounded by flowers.

Their happy-go-lucky existence is slowly destroyed by the disease and, since this is Gondry, the beautifully creative ways their happiness expressed itself in their actual physical existence become equally dark and oppressive as their situation worsens.

With the exception of The Green Hornet, which is more-or-less bound by genre conventions, one never really knows how Gondry's films will end. The Boy and I were both taken aback by the ending here which is...well, it's just not what we expected. I suspect it will turn many people off.

Great characters: Besides Colin and Chloe, there is Colin's pal Chick, who is obsessed (to the point of financial ruin) with the writings (and other artifacts) of one Jean-Sol Partre. (It's somehow reassuring to realize that Marxist Existentialism was being roundly mocked even at its height.) Chick's obsession is so thorough that he squanders his opportunities to marry the beautiful Alise.

The other main character is Colin's man-servant, who is more a chef/major-domo as well as a sidekick (except when Colin is being his sidekick). The faithful Nicolas must be thrown out by a well-meaning Colin, so dedicated is he to his friend's well-being.

Everyone focuses on Gondry's whimsy but as you, Dear Reader, may know, I consider all art to be artifice, so to me the whimsy is as natural as a superhero movie or a romantic-comedy or any straight-up drama, even when they try so hard to be "realistic" they remove all dramatic interest. The main thing is that the characters are "real", and so we care what happens to them. If they seem "extreme" or if the physics of their world don't seem to match ours doesn't really matter. (At least not to me. Some folks can't relate, or don't care to.)

The Boy and I really liked it. We might have even loved it, though it is in some (narrative) ways a difficult film to say you "loved".

Romain Durais, who's kind of the French actor of the year for us (Chinese Puzzle, Populaire) plays Colin. Perennial Casa 'strom favorite Audrey Tatou (Chinese Puzzle, Priceless) is Chloe. Gad Elmaleh (Priceless, The Valet) is Chick. Omar Sy (The Intouchables, and a small part in X-Men: Days of Future Past) is Nicolas.

If you're a Gondry fan, you'll probably like this. If you're not, you probably won't. Either way, you won't forget it.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

The Rotten Tomatoes score for Zach Braff's newest film is a cold critical 40 up against a reasonably warm 76 for the audience. I mention this because I probably can't be trusted with regard to this film.

Braff plays Adam, a down-on-his-luck actor who's supported by his wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) while his dad (Mandy Patinkin) pays for his two kids (Joey King of Crazy Stupid Love, and Pierce Gagnon of Looper) to go to an ultra-orthodox Jewish school. So orthodox that when we first meet Grace (King), she's explaining to her father how she plans to shave her head so that only her husband finds her attractive.

It wouldn't work, he explains, because she's so beautiful, she'd even be beautiful bald. Grace doesn't show it, but she turns away from her dad to smile.

By contrast, Adam and his father have a much more antagonistic relationship. Gabe (Patinkin) views Adam as a serious disappointment, having married a half-Jewess who he then has support him while he does the (very occasional) commercial. His father speaks of fondness about his brother, Noah, a genius (we're told) who's also a serious loser and perhaps an even bigger disappointment than Adam, who maybe never had that much potential to squander. Noah doesn't even speak to Gabe any more.

Gabe, however, is dying. This leaves Adam has to wrestle with his life, his marriage, his kids education, his brother and his relationship with God and his fellow Jews all at once.

Well, look: Dialogues between a dying father and his son about life's challenges and disappointments, along with an absentee sibling? A little too close to home for me to be "objective" about. It felt real, and familiar, to me, and I liked the respectful way it contrasted the challenges facing the incoming middle-agers with those of their parents. Some of them are the same: Balancing work, love and child-rearing.

But then there's that embrace of childish things, which older generations eschewed as part of growing up, and younger ones cling to longer and longer while not growing up. It helps that Adam is likable, concerned and well-meaning, as well as willing to change. He's indicted by his lack of awareness of his wife's situation, and to a degree even his kid's situations, despite being more genial toward them.

I think there's a message there: Liking your kids and showing them affection is not the same as raising your kids.

And God's there, too, which may have been off-putting to the critics. God takes Adam's own form (and Adam was made in God's image, right?) but an idealized form, that of a superhero image of himself he had as a child. There's a suggestion that getting right with God—even before tackling the whole religion thing—is important.

I liked it quite a bit. It's about small things, really. Little choices. Growing up without growing old.

The kids were not as taken with it as I was, though they both liked it as well. I was not surprised that they weren't as moved as I was. But it's one reason that when I write these things, I tell you my mood: It matters a whole lot. A movie that seems mildly interesting at one point in your life can feel suddenly profound at another.

Begin Again

After his critically acclaimed musical Once, director John Carney did a few other projects that apparently didn't get much notice (Zonad?), and he now returns to the musical well with Begin Again, which is sort of like Once, minus the Irish, so you can understand what the people are saying.

I saw Once, but not in the theater, which is often like not seeing it at all for me (see my upcoming Rifftrax: Godzilla review, e.g.). I think I had a hard time understanding what they were saying and with the low-budget audio and film quality I got distracted, so I barely remember it. It's supposed to be great.

Begin Again isn't supposed to be as good but I liked it a lot more, as did The Boy, or The Boy did insofar as he could remember seeing Once, which he was pretty confident he hadn't. On the other hand, I remembered him hating it, which is why I didn't recommend going to see Begin Again.

But we gambled and won on this tale of broken-hearted songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightly, looking unusually appealing) who crosses path with a washed-up and broken-hearted music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo, looking Ruffolish), who hears in her song the sort of music that inspired him to become a washed-up broken-hearted music producer in the first place.

Wait, no, just a music producer. And a successful one once, before some domestic troubles with his wife (Catherine Keener, looking Keen) caused him to be alienated from his daughter (Hailee Steinfeld, looking Steining, okay, I'll stop now).

The broke Dan decides to make an album with Gretta on the streets of New York City—a truly awful idea musically, but a good cinematic gimmick—with no money and by calling in a lot of favors. In doing so, he reconnects with his long-lost mojo and gives Gretta a chance to reconnect with her cad of a boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine).

Meanwhile, there's a distinct attraction building between the Dan and Gretta, that both largely give a wide berth, but which might burst through at any moment, adding a weird Hollywood ending to an otherwise unique indie-feeling film.

Not saying it does or doesn't. No spoilers.

It's not really a movie with much of a plot, but neither does it need much: "Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl trashes boy" and its gender-complement do the trick. The movie relies on conveying the emotions of the characters as they decide what's important to them in life, primarily through music and montage.

And it works! Surprisingly well. I know this because The Boy approved, and he is largely immune to music. Ultimately, it boils down to Carney's light touch. He's not worried about the narrative; he just lets the music and the episodic nature of the performances build a story about repairing broken hearts.

Obviously this would work less well if the cast wasn't up to it, but they all do a fine job, including potential the stunt-casting roles for Levine, Cee Lo Green and Mos Def. James Corden, whom I last recall seeing in The History Boys, has a good turn as Gretta's best platonic pal.

And the music is good.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Summer's Tale

Finally! After nearly twenty years! A chance to see Eric Rohmer's A Summer's Tale on the big screen!

Wait, who? What? Why do we care? Erich Rohmer was a French filmmaker (who passed in 2010), part of the La Nouvelle Vague of the '50s and '60s who, well, has his fans, but also a great many detractors even among those whom you might consider likely supporters.

Basically, he's a guy who directs talky, non-plot-driven films, and this one was part of a four film series of "seasons", that may be thematically connected but not by characters or stories (I think).

So, why do we care? Well, it's the middle of the week in a rather uninspired summer, in a year that's generally been hard to find obvious movie choices.

The first thing I noticed about it was that the title card was off. I can't remember what it said ("Summer Tale"?) but it was something not very idiomatic English. The next thing that became very apparent was that Messr. Rohmer has a distinct type.

The story is about young Gaspard (Melville Poupaud, The Broken) who's moping cluelessly around Brittany (I believe; it's somewhere on the beach in the north of France) while his not-girlfriend is tooling around Spain with her sister and his boyfriend, and maybe some other guys. He's about to start a boring engineering job in a few weeks, so this is his last vacation before he joins the real world, or at least as close as France gets to the real world.

He meets perky waitress Margot (Amanda Langlet, Pauline at the Beach, another Rohmer film from a time when it wasn't considered creepy to ogle 15-year-olds in skimpy bikinis), a doctor of some squishy social science, who is waiting on her boyfriend to come back from wherever he is. The two strike up a friendship that is decidedly sexual (without actually involving sex).

Margot doesn't think much of Gaspard's non-girlfriend, so she fixes him up with Solene (Gwenaëlle Simon) and the two hit it off. Solene's deal, though, is that if they're going to have a relationship, they're going to have a relationship, with clear boundaries and no half-in/half-out nonsense.

Gaspard's okay with is, which mysteriously pisses Margot off. She claims to be disappointed he's so easily swayed by Solene's crude aggression—and when I say "crude", here, I just mean "non-crazy"—or maybe just pissed off that he's less interested in her. I think they may even make out at this point, I can't really recall.

Just when it looks like Gaspard's going to get something going, his non-girlfriend Lena (Aurelia Nolin) shows up and throws a monkey wrench into his plans.

So sort of like a French "Three's Company".

Anyway, if Margot is coquettish, Lena is just outright nuts. Presumably dramatically more attractive than the other two (I can't really see it but I think that's the implication), she's barely interested in Gaspard. Well, at first. Then she's super-into him. Then she's pissed off at him for thinking she's into him, and dumps him. Then she's back, screwing with his plans again.

This is basically your movie, then. The hopelessly beta Gaspard being buffeted around by women.

It's not unpleasant. I mean, if it's not your sort of thing—long walks through the countryside and boat rdies off northern France—this isn't going to change your mind about talky movies. (Like My Dinner With Andre might, for example.) But the characters are likable, really, even if you want to slap Gaspard around a little bit.

Young people are kind of clueless, especially about romance. That's why we used to marry 'em off at 13.

But the point is, Gaspard is clueless in exactly the way young men tend to be clueless. He's attracted to Margot, but she's taken (despite the mixed signals). He's attracted to, but somewhat intimidated by Solene. And he idealizes, to an absurd degree, Lina. To the extent where he'll let her mess up his life with her capriciousness. I can't really fault the accuracy here.

Still, it's not the sort of thing that's going to ignite your toes. Unless, perhaps, you share Rohmer's taste in women: elfin, small-breasted women with good child-bearing hips. You know how, about 5 minutes into a Russ Meyer film, an alert viewer will think, "Good heavens, I believe the director has a taste for inordinately large mammary glands?" Well, by the time Solene shows up, I began to suspect a similar preference (if not exactly fetish). In fact, I did a little research after seeing this movie, to confirm this and, yes, this was the sort of body type Mr. Rohmer preferred, I feel confident in saying.

Nothing wrong with it. Just amusing. Dream-girl Lina has slightly larger breasts (though still not large) than the other two, and I wasn't sure if that was a coincidence or meant to be a marker of her greater beauty.

You know, the most remarkable thing about this film may be that Rohmer was in his mid-to-late 70s when he made it, and yet he had a keen memory (or eye) for the behavior of people 50 years his junior.

The Boy liked it. And I think we both liked that it wasn't depressing or nihilistic, unlike what we commonly associated with French New Wave. Just don't expect a lot of fireworks.

A Most Wanted Man

How fitting that Philip Seymour Hoffman's last role (ruling out the heavily CGIed Hunger Game sequels) should be done entirely in a German accent. Actually, I don't know that it's fitting at all. It is rather fitting, however, that he plays a fat, pasty, stressed-out, wheezing, heavy-drinking, fatty-food eating, chain-smoking workaholic.

Method acting, man. It is to actors what airplanes are to rock stars.

But then, maybe Hoffman's condition had nothing to do with this role, and he was just making poor lifestyle choices in general. He does not look healthy, no sir, not at all.

Whatever the truth, we can safely assess that the critic adoration of A Most Wanted Man is greatly influenced by PSH shuffling off his mortal coil. It's a good performance, sure; he seldom turned in a bad one. But it's not his best.

The story (which takes place in Germany) revolves around Hoffman's (illegal per German law) surveillance of a potential terrorist, a Chechen who has fled Russia and seems to be trying to hook up with a philanthropist doctor who may be funnelling some of his charity money to terrorist groups in the Middle East. Bachmann (Hoffman's character) and his hot, yet probably murderous assistant Ima Frey (Nina Hoss, Barbara) have a pretty good idea of what's going on, but they lack definitive evidence, and their ambition is to turn Karpov (the terrorist, played by Grigory Dobrygin, or should I say Григорий Добрыгин) and possibly the doctor as well. (And at this point, I'm out on the foreign actors names. The doctor may have been the guy from The Kite Runner, I don't know.)

Bachmann is battling a dickish local intel guy, the bitchy and possibly evil CIA agent (Robin Wright), and Karpov's lawyer, Annabel (the shall-we-say-lightly-accented Rachel McAdams), who's kind of got a thing for this Chechen, who cleans up real nice by the end of the film. Bachmann extorts possibly evil banker Willem Defoe, both through family history and his obvious attraction to Annabel, and ultimately Annabel herself becomes part of his ridiculously circuitous plan.

John Le Carré wrote the screenplay based on his novel and executive produced, and does this guy hate America or what? He seems to hate Germans as well, but he really hates America.

That may be the other reason that the critics loved this movie. You don't have to hate America to enjoy it, mostly, but there's a seen with Bachmann and Sullivan (Wright) are arguing about extraordinary rendition. Bachmann asks why she doesn't just grab Karpov off the street and she replies, defensively, "We don't do that anymore."

Take that W!

Sure we don't. And I'm sure the Germans never did, or at least stopped. And I'm sure we don't outsource that sort of thing for deniability, either. Nosiree.

I dunno. I think if a move wants to be a smart spy thriller, it shouldn't have seasoned agents having a debate that sounds like it would be at home on MSNBC.

And Bachmann doesn't retort with the "No, now you just drone them" which would be the obvious response to an attempt to assert moral superiority, but not one that would reflect well on the current administration. And spy thrillers need well-delineated good guys and bad guys as badly as cowboy movies did, even if they necessarily draw the lines differently.

Bachmann is clearly our hero, by the way, but he's sort of an accidentally comical figure. At one point, he kidnaps Annabel to do convince her to help him persuade Karpov to do what he wants. But here's the dumb thing: Because he's the good guy, and what he wants Karpov to do really is the right thing, and Karpov really seems to want to do that, and Bachmann knows this, one is left wondering why he didn't just call Annabel on the phone and talk to her rather than, you know, throw a bag over her head and yank her off the street.

Personally, I'd think that sort of action would be counter-productive. One might be less inclined to believe that someone had your best intentions at heart after such an action. I can only assume this scene exists to demonstrate the moral ambiguities involved in spy work, but in a guardedly apolitical way. (In other words, spying raises challenging issues, but you should by no means consider those if they mean you might find sympathy with Bush or lose it with Obama.)

But I don't expect even-handedness, or even a nod toward the sort of cohesion a little common sense would provide from the hack who wrote The Constant Gardener. So, overall, I thought it was acceptable as movie fare.

The Boy also thought it was decent, though he didn't like the pacing. True, the movie had a lot of potentially tense scenes that played out rather straightforwardly, and was rather sparing with the suspense. The effect was a little dulling.

It was at least easier to follow than the last Le Carre effort, at least.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Le Chef

If you've been following along with the reviews, you may have noticed that one of my pastimes is observing the discrepancies between critic and audience reactions, courtesy of the Rotten Tomatoes website. A severe audience/critic split where the audience approves and the critics do not usually indicates Christian or patriotic themes, or possibly a Transformers movie.

We don't always side with the audience over the critics. One of the effects of going to see a ton of movies is acquiring a taste for some of the more esoteric aspects of the art. We don't have anything much invested in any particular film, so we might appreciate something that might actually piss us off if it were our one chance to see a movie for a few months. (And I always try to note the difference here between "interesting" and "good".)

Sometimes, though, we just come out of films thinking What the hell is wrong with people?

Which brings us to Le Chef. We'd seen the trailers with interest: It looked like a silly French farce based around cooking. Fun, not serious—not even as serious as the relatively light-hearted Chef.

Then it comes out and the RT score is brutal 47% critics, 59% audiences. Well, hell. Who wants to go see something like that. But on a recommendation from a friend, and given a lack of other appealing options, we decided to roll the dice. And you know what?

Le Chef is a silly French farce, based around cooking. Fun, not serious and just exactly what it said on the tin.

The plot is sort of Ratatouille meets Chef, with once great chef Alexandre LaGarde (Jean Reno) having lost his mojo, and waking up in a world where he's in danger of losing one of his stars, doesn't understand molecular cuisine, has a terrible relationship with his All-But-Dissertation daughter, and sleeps alone, so consumed is he with running his restaurant and doing his TV show.

Meanwhile Jacky (Michaël Youn) is bursting with energy, opinion and talent, and a devotee of LaGarde who can't hold a job down because he's so opinionated about food. But pregnant wife Beatrice (Raphaëlle Agogué) insists he do something to prepare for their coming child, so he ends up painting and cleaning windows at an old folks home.

Jacky being Jacky, he finds himself correcting the kitchen in the home, and soon becomes popular there, but it doesn't last. LaGarde loses all his support staff as his weaselly boss prepares to fire him (from his own restaurant named LaGarde, even) and wants him to okay icky chemicals in his name-brand frozen foods. When LaGarde comes to taste Jacky's cooking while visiting the home, and recognizes the recipe as his own (from 1997!), he lures Jacky to his place (at no pay, of course).

It's frothy light, barely ever in danger of crashing into serious feelings, and it's (of course) rather predictable, because there are only a few ways to end a story like this and keep it the lighthearted comedy it always intended to be.

So why be hatin'? I'm actually not sure. Critics attacked the American Chef for being well-worn and predictable as well, but I would bet money we won't see another quality family-friendly comedy/drama like it for the rest of the year. Similarly, critics attack this Le Chef for being predictable and its obvious farce, but it's funny and I can't recall the last French farce I saw like it.

Girl on a Bicycle maybe. It was fun and (intriguingly) hated even more by critics than this—though also dramatically better liked by audiences. In The House was very dark. Populaire was fun and frothy at first, but turned heavier and more sexual as it went on. So, I guess if you went back to Paris-Manhattan, that would be about right.

Maybe if all these films were frothy confections it would be tiring, but like Chef, I bet we see exactly zero French films for the rest of the year that have no greater ambition than to make you laugh and tell a pleasant enough story so you don't feel scummy for laughing.

Some of the humor is broad in the extreme. At one point, Jacky and LaGarde go under cover as a Japanese husband and wife to check out molecular cuisine at their competitor's place. And the Spanish molecular cuisine specialist is a goof.

But I'm really working hard to try to understand the animosity. Maybe French film fans are just too snobby to laugh at silly stuff. If so, that's a shame: The audience that would like this most—general film audiences, not "French film fans"—will never go see it.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Land Ho!

The reviews on this Icelandic travelogue were not great but, come on: Stella Gets Her Groove Back, only with two old dudes tramping around a volcanic island! How can you pass that up? And, over time, the ratings on this film have gradually gone up.

The premise is simple enough: Lecherous and wildly inappropriate doctor Mitch corrals pal and former in-law Colin, into a trip to Iceland. Colin's just suffered a breakup, and seems a bit buttoned-down (Australian, but more what Americans would see as stereotypically English), especially next to Mitch (Texan or some other belligerent form of Southerner), enough so that he turns Mitch down.

Mitch has already bought the tickets and paid for the trip, though, because he knew Colin would say no.

And there's your set up. Young filmmakers Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens have made themselves a nice little film, which manages to be funny without being shallow, and awkward without being disrespectful.

The movie is powered by the unusual chemistry between Earl Lynn Nelson (Mitch) and Paul EenHoorn (Colin). Colin is normal, mopey, even boring. Mitch is loud and a pain in the ass, but adventurous in a way that makes life fun. (Nelson is a cousin of Stephens, while I think Paul Eenhoorn has more experience and worked with Katz on a previous project. But they both feel like people you've known your whole life.)

Sort of like a Scandinavian, sexagenarian version of The Trip, dialogue and plot-points are interspersed with shots of geysers and food.

It's a brisk hour-and-a-half, that is perhaps a little too brisk. It sort of feels like it ends right before the second act crisis. Like you're just getting warmed up and...it's over!

Well, Katz and Stephens were trying to make a movie with no money, and they did a pretty damn good job. It reminds me of Short Term 12, though I'm guessing Short's million dollar budget far outstripped Land Ho! (which may not have cracked six digits). But what I'm getting at is that a lot of these low (and ultra-low) budget guys are zeroing in on essential elements of storytelling the big guys just gloss over. For example: characterization.

There's a general freeness to the film to that works to its advantage: Shots you wouldn't normally see in a modern movie, like a sudden zoom. Or a segment filmed like you would a horror movie.

The Boy and The Flower were both pretty pleased; even if it's not great or epic or high drama, Land Ho! is a hard film not to like.