Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Force Majeure

Every year around this time, a lot of my so-called "friends" in the Midwest and North perpetuate this hoax called "snow". They post pictures of it on treetops, in their driveways, even make "snowmen".

But I've been on set: I know it's just soap.

Still I can play along, and nobody plays the joke better than the Swedes. And nobody's ever played it better than in Force Majeure.

Force Majeure takes place in a resort deep in the French Alps, where a Swedish family has come on vacation. We can tell, right away, from the awkwardness with which the wife speaks, that the family's in a fragile state, with her feeling neglected. The husband feels it as well, but is better at ignoring it and pretending everything's fine.

As part of making the resort viable, there are periodical explosions in the mountains to control avalanches. And our story really kicks into gear when one of these avalanches heads out of control toward the family. This ensuing events end up stressing the family to the breaking point.

It probably says something about Sweden that this is listed, at least in part, as a comedy.

Well, I laughed.

Some call it black comedy but it's not the wholesome sort of black comedy where people die. Instead, it's people's illusions that die, which is far, far worse. At the same time, there's an oddly upbeat end to it all, as if our illusions could be as easily built as they are destroyed.

Although the director has joked that he was trying to drive up divorce rates in Sweden, this doesn't stand so much as an argument against marriage as it is a testament toward behaving better. At least I took it that way: Significant attention was spent on the kids in the family who are aware of the tenuousness of their parents' relationship and live in fear of them breaking up.

These kinds of dysfunctional family films are not for everyone (I find them very hit and miss) and they tend to have a strained, tense feeling throughout. Force Majeure doubles down on this by introducing an air of contagion to the proceedings, as our main couple's problems spread to their friends and even acquaintances.

And then it triples down by filming this exotic resort in a positively alien manner. Sometimes, it's just a couple people surrounded by pure white. Often there's a fog settled over the whole valley. Just to screw with us, at one point the kids fly a drone in the night sky, and it looks more realistic than the hotel. The whole thing is ridiculously beautiful.

The only actor we recognized was the guy who plays Tormund Giantsbane on "Game of Thrones", as the friend of the family. The actress playing the wife is apparently his "medspillerske" in real life, which is a word I cannot find a translation for. I thought the lead was Peter Sarsgaard. I'm still not convinced they're different people.

But the acting is good, in that Swedish way, which apparently means really low-key right up until it's not.

Anyway, I can see why critics would like it more than audiences, but if you're open to this kind of drama/comedy, it's entertaining and oddly thought provoking.

Friday, December 12, 2014


Wow. Just wow. This kid, this Damien Chazelle at 29 has decided to write and direct his first movie, and to make it one of the best films of the year. Maybe the best.

Back at UCLA, there was this girl, a classic California girl named Maureen, who came into the music department, all sunshine and smiles, tan and blonde, a Bruin cheerleader on the side. Within three months, it had reduced her to a pallid, nervous, hair-falling-out wreck of a human being. I think she transferred to chemistry/pre-med because it was so much less stressful.

When a similar anecdote is mentioned here (in passing), I laughed. And laughed. And laughed some more. But then I laughed like crazy when Fletcher had a casual, friendly chat with new recruit Andrew before their first rehearsal. Hard enough that The Boy leaned in to ask me what he was missing.

Well, you just have to know those kinds of people. Every music school has to have at least one, it seems.

This is the story of a jazz drummer (Andrew) who's driven to be great, and a teacher (Fletcher) who's driven to create greatness, and the many clashes they have over the course of a year or so. There is so much suspense, and so many great twists and turns in this film, it puts to shame most of the thrillers we've seen.

It hits close enough to home that I probably can't be trusted, but The (largely a-musical) Boy also was really impressed. Paul Reiser and (relative newcomer) Melissa Benoist do a fine job in supporting roles as Andrew's father and girlfriend, respectively, but this really comes down to a movie about Andrew and Fletcher.

Andrew is played by Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) and Fletcher is played by J. K. Simmons, who's been doing great work for 20 years, but just tears up this role. Talks of Oscar are neither far-fetched nor unwarranted here. You're never really sure who Fletcher is until the very end of the movie, and Simmons (aided by Chazelle's script) makes any number of possibilities plausible.

I liked the music though it's not really my kind of music. I tend to think modern jazz self-indulgent. "Oh, look at me, I'm in 7/12 time!" Get over yourself, I say.

Nah, it's good. And it's perfect for the story.

Chazelle, besides writing a tight script, keeps the direction tight, too. Intense, tight, nail-biting, and some would probably say "over the top", but I can only assume they don't know musicians.

What else is there to say? It's a shoo-in to make the year-end "best" lists.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Scream At The Devil

There's a certain rollercoaster that can come as a hazard of the socially connected world.

"Oh, hey, Shari Shattuck's on Twitter! Loved her in Body Chemistry 3! I'll follow her."
"Well, she's been retired for a while, wonder if she's been raising kids or stage act—"
"Oh, she followed me back! How nice!"
"Look at this: She's got a new movie coming out called Scream at the Devil. Groovy."
"Wow, that trailer—that's a surprisingly cool trailer. I'll tweet that."
"She RTed my tweet! Neat."
"I'm looking forward to seeing this."
"Crap. What if I don't like it?"
"Remember Sturgeon's Law. And for horror movies, it's more like 95%."
"Uh oh. Written, produced and directed by her husband."
"Who's only done two other movies I've never heard of."

Thus ends Act I of "A Nice Guy Goes To The Movies".

Act II Spoiler: It's pretty good.

*sigh of relief*

Actually, there are parts that are great, but more on that in a bit.

Scream at the Devil is the story of a woman (Shattuck) trying to repair her marriage after a severe breakup/mental breakdown, as she and her husband move into an isolated home (that looks like it might be in the Montrose area) far, far away from working cell phones and expensive locations and extras.

What follows is a sort of Rosemary's Baby meets Repulsion, as Mirium, our heroine, starts to go-crazy-or-does-she? imagining demonic presences while she refuses her medicine and rages at her husband.`

A movie like this rests on a few things. First, and most obviously, the acting. Happily, Shattuck is more than up to the task. She is, by turns, vulnerable, agonized, bitchy, furious, haunted, grieving, determined, and just downright crazy.

Second, less obviously, is style. When you think about it, the plot here (as in Repulsion or Black Swan) is "woman goes crazy". Not a lot to hang your hat on. But Joe Stachura (Mr. Shattuck, if you will) sells it, and sells it with full conviction, using a full raft of camera angles, cuts and moves. There are a couple of great dutch angles in here, for example, sincerely and effectively done which give a nice unsettled air to things.

I'm assuming this was very low budget, but the cinematography and overall energy does yeoman's work in hiding that. In fact, if there's a fault here, it's that the director oversells certain things, leaving me to think at times, "Something sinister is going down...but I have no idea what!"

So, you have these great elements, what keeps this movie from being great? Well, what keeps most movies from being great?

Suspense, of course. Or rather, lack thereof.

In the case of horror movies, the most common culprit (I believe) is the desire for the "shocking twist". The temptation is to straddle the fence on what's going on (real horror, or a Scooby Doo tearaway mask) so that you can surprise people at the end.

Not to continually trash Something Wicked, but it's a near perfect example of trying to create tension by presenting three simultaneous "plausible" explanations for the story, lying to the audience, all in an attempt to create a surprise ending.

There's an interesting side-effect to the crazy/possessed dichotomy here: Shattuck is convincing enough as crazy, you end up having a sympathy for her (and her husband, played by Eric Etebari) that's more appropriate for a more serious film. But the movie whipsaws between this and literal presentations of demonic presences, which means:

1) She's either crazy beyond hope.
2) She's possessed beyond hope.

But the audience has to have hope for there to be suspense.

This might be one place where being low-budget tripped things up: A rather odd couple in the form of Tony Todd and Kiko Ellsworth show up very near the end, as a couple of police detectives. These scenes are rather stilted, except for the chemistry between Shattuck and Todd (whom we've occasionally seen misused, as in the Final Destination series and The Graves).

But it suggested a potential avenue for hope, if there had a been a second storyline involving them trying to unravel the crazy-or-possessed mystery. Instead, they, too, end up as swept up in the events as Mirium.

The odd assortment of creepy neighbors and service people (again reminiscent of Rosemary's Baby) was also weird and stilted, but it's supposed to be, and is rather effective in setting the tone here.

But the Boy pronounced it "solid" and solid it was, and we would definitely queue up to see more from this husband-and-wife team.

Oh, one thing, though: When the movie's over, just roll the credits, okay? If you feel you must, you can put a "The End" or a "Fin" in, though, note you're making a commentary. Never, ever put an ambiguous ending title in: Not "The End?", not "The End...or is it?", and for Heaven's sake, not "The Beginning".

We all saw the movie. If there's more to the story potentially (and there's always potentially more), we all know it. Spelling it out is just plain hokey.

Anyway, check it out: Overall, it's lots of fun.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Giovanni's Island

On the last possible day they could do it without breaking an agreement Stalin made in Tehran in 1943, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. This was August 9th, the day the US dropped the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. About three weeks later, Japan surrendered, and the Soviets had visions of occupying (and doubtless annexing or splitting Germany-style) some of the Japanese Islands, like Hokkaido. They were largely thwarted in their ambitions.

Giovanni's Island, an animated film out of Japan, tells the tale of one place where they weren't.

Shikotan is a small island north of Hokkaido, and our story begins in 1945 after the surrender, and young Junpei and Kanta's grandfather is describing the depredations about to be visited upon them by the invading American horde. Hide yo' kids, hide yo' wife, kinda stuff.

Instead of the Americans, though, it's the Russians. And they steal everything. I presume they raped everything, too, but this is a kid's movie, so nothing of that sort is shown.

On the other hand Grave of the Fireflies is also a kid's movie, so keep that in mind going in. This is not quite at that level. If memory serves, Fireflies is near constant tragedy, whereas this has strong elements of the positive aspects of a "coming of age" story.

For example, the Russian commandant who takes over the island (and Junpei and Kanta's house) has a young daughter, Tanya, who evolves a relationship with Junpei. The Japanese and the Russian kids end up learning each others' folk songs. While Junpei's family lives in the adjoining stable to their old house, Tanya and the boys share a toy railroad track.

The railroad is the theme of the story: Giovanni's Island is a science-fiction story the boys father read to them, and they are named after the two main characters of that story. (Well, sorta: Junpei is as close as you can get to Giovanni. And Kanta is...Capone or something.) This story has to something to do with trains, and the boys are obsessed with them. (They've never seen one. They live on a rural island.)

Things take a turn for the worse when the Russians decide to clear the island of the pesky Japanese and the boys take it on themselves to find their captured father.

But it's a good story, strangely bittersweet, and very Japanese. (But not Studio Ghibli.)

The Boy approved.


I found myself trapped downtown for a while and, as I often do, I wandered into a movie theater. And, when I wander into a movie theater not "my own", I marvel at how much it costs, and am not even the least surprised that people don't go to the movies any more. (One ticket was fifteen dollars! For a matinee!)

And, as often happens, I see a movie I wouldn't normally see at all, in this case Ouija, a movie that ranked only slightly higher on RT than the tragically awful Something Wicked. This is the story of a girl who plays with a Ouija board thus ensuring her doom, and that of all her friends.

As it so often does.

This is typical of the modern, slickly produced, PG-13 horror flick, Well shot, reasonably well acted, with good looking principles, a few startle shots, a twist, and a ridiculous stinger. It makes a few typical horror movie mistakes, in particular a sloppiness in "the rules" that makes it seem like things are happening just because the plot needs to advance.

Probably the most interesting thing about this film is one rather unusual mistake it makes, which I will endeavor to explain.

Genre films have certain conventions which are typically both limiting and necessary in order for the genre to hold up. For example, a mystery by nature downplays the terribleness of the crimes, because the crimes aren't the point. The point is the solving of the mystery. This is particularly necessary of the murder mystery serial, where the detective encounters corpse after corpse. Jessica Fletcher must be as perky after seeing her 200th corpse as she was after seeing her first.

Horror films come in different varieties with different conventions. Ouija may have had pretensions about being something else, but it's essentially a slow-moving Ten Little Indians (speaking of murder mysteries) as each character gets knocked off by an evil spirit.

But it's vital for this kind of horror film to shake off deaths quickly. Dwelling on the deaths of characters who, after all, exist entirely to be killed to demonstrate the growing menace takes all the fun out of it.

Friday The 13th, while not a great (nor even passable) series, typically handled this by hiding the deaths from the other characters. Other horror movies will spread the deaths around between characters who don't interact. And some approach the problem by not killing outright, but just threatening.

Ouija opens, after an initial flashback-type scene involving three of the characters as pre-teens, with one of the characters killing herself (after being possessed by an evil spirit). I didn't check my watch, but it seemed like the movie's characters spent close to the next 30 minutes grieving over the dead girl.

I mean, seriously, it could've gone into some sort of After School Special territory, so much time was spent on grieving characters.

That's neither fun, nor scary, but just sad. Then, when the next girl dies, there's no real reason for it, no narrative logic for why she gets picked, and why only her, it's just a standard issue "non-main character dies" beat.

The Boy (who wasn't with me) would probably call this a "problem with the tone".

This, combined with a sort of sloppy metaphysics, infrequent and not particularly novel horror PG-13 effects, and an unfortunate stinger, adds up to a largely forgettable flick. Not bad, exactly, just aggressively inoffensive.

Lin Shaye, who's practically become a latter day Vincent Price, has a short role in this.

Other than that, utterly unremarkable.


As the Allies were beating back Jerry on the European front, the Nutzis hatched a plan to delay the inevitable invasion of Germany by blowing up, super-villain style, Paris when the Allies tried to retake it.

And it really was a supervillain thing: The strategic value of destroying Paris (and killing over a million people) was actually pretty minimal, and the motivation seems to have been sheer Hitlerian insane rage, at least as portrayed here.

The actual history is rather murky. We know that some sort of plan was in the works, from all the explosives found wired to monuments and structures all over the city. And we know that General Choltitz didn't blow up Paris because, hey, it's still there. But why this mass murderer changed his mind is a mystery.

In Cyril Gely's play "Diplomatie", he boils the situation down into a single long night when the Swedish consul Nordlinger sneaks into Choltitz' hotel-based office (via a secret passage designed for a French noble's dalliances) to convince him not to push the plunger.

I knew about 15 minutes in that this almost had to have been based on a play, confined as it was to two guys in one room, talking, and this is the sort of thing I really enjoy when it's done well, so I have a bias here. But The Boy also liked it.

It works because there's an arc here: Nordlinger is clearly motivated, and willing to push whatever buttons he can find on Choltitz, while Choltitz appears to have no buttons to be pressed. But, as they do their little dance, you get tensions, resolution, and even character development, all based around a high stakes situation—really, all you need for good drama.

Some nice twists and turns, too. All in under 90 minutes!

Perennially evil dude Niels Arestrup (You Will Be My Son, War Horse) plays the evil German dude well, even as he evolves into a maybe slightly less evil German dude. Andre Dussollier (A Very Long Engagement, Tell No One) plays the Swedish consul/voice of reason with a deceptive sentimentality, under which lies determination, desperation, a hardness that suggests a level of threat. You can sense that he'd kill Choltitz if doing so wouldn't seal Paris' fate.

Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum, The Handmaid's Tale) directs and keeps it from feeling confined by its theatrical roots.

Worth checking out.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rifftrax Presents: Anaconda

The funny—well, funny oddthing about the last "live" Rifftrax Godzilla was that, despite being packed wall-to-wall with laughs, the movie itself was so bad, it sort of brought me down. That was a big-budget flick, and it was supposed to be good, or at least not as disastrously bad as it was. It was supposed to be exciting or campy or, you know, something.

Now, Anaconda? Unless you're prone to believing Siskel & Ebert (two thumbs up! 3 1/2 stars!), there's virtually no chance of being disappointed by this film. As a result, while there are probably fewer laughs in the RiffTrax version of this versus Godzilla, I actually enjoyed it more overall.

What? It's not that weird. Look at Manos: The Hands of Fate on MST3K: Most people agree that's a hard, hard film to watch, even depressing. Takes a lot of laughs to counterbalance that.

Jon Voight is probably the savior of this film. (Siskel and Ebert thought—not making this up—he should get an Oscar.) He's so ridiculously over the top, with his inexplicable accent and this combination of being outright evil with saving everyone's life is weirdly compelling.

There are a few lulls in the Rifftrax here, but mostly it builds to fast-and-furious end.

Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy and Mike Nelson definitely built up a good rapport on the last years of MST3K and on The Film Crew, which gives the proceedings a smooth feel. Even though the jokes are pre-scripted, there's a comfort level and camaraderie that adds another layer of fun.

Also, you can't buy this one either.

If you like movie riffing, or if you've never tried it, it's definitely a cool experience to get together with a couple hundred strangers and laugh your butt of. Check it out!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Israel Film Fest: Tubianski

After the War of Independence, people were a bit on edge in Israel. An IDF officer by the name of Meir Tobianski (spelled with an "o" on Wikipedia, but a "u" here) worked at a British-owned power station (lots of people pulled double-duty back then, serving both in a civilian and a military capacity) fulfilled a simple request from his (British) boss that would ultimately be construed as an act of treason.

This was the story behind the fourth (and sadly final) film of the IFF The Boy and I were able to get to. It's played out very simply and low-key, virtually daring you to get sentimental over it, but the nature of the story (and the quality of acting) is such that you can't help but be moved.

The Boy and I both liked it, but I pointed out that I'd have liked to see Hitchcock do the same story: This is sort of The Wrong Man meets Rear Window, with a couple of guys chasing across the countryside trying to save Tobianski, while the zealous and ambitious Intelligence officer pressures three other officers to convict him in a Drumhead court martial.

Then there's the whole young wife-trying-to-clear-her-husband's-name angle, the son, the mistrust of the British, and so on.

So it could've been great. As it stands, it's almost a "dramatic re-enactment" more than anything. I'm not surprised the director's most recent work is a documentary.

One nice touch is Tobiansky's wife waiting for him in a theater where The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is playing. It probably literally happened that way, but the contrast of whimsy-induced paranoia against actual paranoia is poetic.

All brought in comfortably under an hour-and-a-half.

So our IFF went four-for-four this year, and we didn't even get to the most hyped movie of the season, The Dove Flyer, about the eradication of the Jews from Iraq.

Israel Film Fest: Next To Her

A twenty-something woman, Chelli, takes care of her brain-injured younger sister Gabby (who's also in her 20s) in the Israeli Film Next To Her. Chelli also has a job so she leaves Gabby locked in the apartment alone all day, only to come home and find her sister banging her head on the floor amidst whatever destruction she's wrought during the day.

A social worker insists she send Gabby to a daycare, which reveals an interesting dynamic: As burdened as Chelli is by having to take care of Gabby, she's also a little jealous when Gabby turns out to really like the daycare.

Things get even more complicated when Chelli finds a boyfriend who, while initially unimpressive, turns out to be a stand up guy who's remarkably good with Gabby.

Here's the thing: This is the most authentic representation of a brain injured kid I've ever seen. Gabby's behavior matches about 90-95% that of The Enigma. The Enigma fortunately doesn't bang her head against hard objects, and she isn't overtly sexual like Gabby, but the running around naked, the biting her own hand, even the sense of humor was similar.

So, this was a very hard movie to watch. I actually asked The Boy if he wanted to leave, since The Enigma tends to yell in a way that gives him headaches, but he was okay. (Gabby actually yells much less in the movie.)

We stuck it out, though, and it's a fine, if ultimately tragic (on a number of levels) tale of sororal love, as Chelli tries to build a life around Gaby, while being suspicious of the possibility that Gaby might want to build a life beyond her.

Dana Ivgy (Jaffa, Or) is simply outstanding as Gabby. Playing a role like this is so easy to get wrong: The nature of the brain injury means having to give up a lot of the actors' usual tools like talking, having appropriate emotional responses, and looking at other actors. Ivgy is uncanny in her portrayal and very effective as an actress.

Liron Ben Shlush as Chelli is also excellent. She loves her sister, but has a wide range of reactions to Gabby's injuries. Sweet, at times, near murderous at others. Shlush also wrote the script, making me think she has some first-hand experience to draw on.

Bold, hard roles for both of them. The other actors, whom I don't really know, were also quite good, especially the hapless boyfriend, Zohar, and the World's Worst Mother.

This is the first feature directed by Asaf Koram, who edited God's Neighbors and Jaffa, and he's to be commended: He fits a great story into a tight 90 minutes, with just a few locations. The packed house I saw it in roundly applauded.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Suicide

After the delightful Going of Age comedy Hunting Elephants, our next IFF film was Suicide, a noir-ish myster/thriller that actually is mysterious and thrilling, told in parallel timelines (as is the fashion these days).

When the movie opens, an attractive woman is setting a dead man and a business on fire. It turns out the dead man is her husband, and the cop's ruling is, you guessed it, suicide. The "current" timeline has to do with a quirky police detective (Dror Keir, who played Meir The Librarian in the excellent 2010 Israeli film Matchmaker), interrogating the wife (Mali Levi, about whom much ado was made regarding co-starring with Brad Pitt in World War Z, said role never materializing), and trying to suss out a truth nobody wants him to learn.

I've commented regularly on the quality of the characterization of Israeli films, and this film is an interesting example of what I mean: In this kind of film (noir) the characters do not emote in any big ways. Their lives are threatened; they're in races against time; they have to lie in front of a bunch of rabbis—and at no time are we allowed to see what they're thinking and feeling.

A lot of times, as a result, the characterizations of these sorts of films end up flat, resorting to archetypes. The gangster, the hardboiled detective, the cynical cop, the moll, and so on. Not so here. The story moves along two timelines: the post-fire timeline, and the timeline leading up to the fire, where we see a picture of a man in financial trouble to the mob, the wife who seems to be passionately in love with him, the brutal gangster with a code, and a situation where even the peripheral characters all have backstories ultimately explaining their roles in the drama.

On the other hand, it's so tightly constructed, and the characters drawn so strongly, that the mystery is pretty well obvious by the time of the reveal, with the only real mystery being in the details. What's funny about that is that the police detective is putting it all together at the climactic moment, and you're sitting there (or I was, anyway) thinking, "Man, this guy is slow!"

Of course, the detective has none of the back info we have, so it's perfectly appropriate but it's kind of funny from a narrative standpoint to have the audience be aware of everything while the detective is still just piecing things together.

Good film. We both liked. The Boy noted that family was a theme pervading the movie, which is true, and also very unusual for noir. The IFF scored two for two at this point.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Hunting Elephants

The 28th Israel Film Fest has begun! And you know what that means!

Or maybe you don't, so let me learn you something: Five years ago, The Boy and I went to see the New Zealand crime thriller Out of the Blue starring Karl Urban, only to discover that it was in fact not from New Zealand, not a crime thriller, and had nobody in it we'd ever heard of. Instead it was Out of the Blue, an Israeli film about the amusing antics of some resourceful junk men.

Since then, we've grown to really look forward to the IFF, seeing more of the films each year in the (short) time allotted.

One of the chief characteristics of the IFF films is that they tend to develop strong, interesting characters, and this year is no different, though from what we've seen so far, there's also been an uptick in the technical quality, and we've even seen a few recognizable actors.

This year got off to a rip-roaring start with Hunting Elephants. If there are "coming of age" tales, there are also "going of age" tales. Slices of life stories involving old people out for one last hurrah before going gentle into that good night, like the '70s Art Carney, George Burns (who lived for another 20+ years, heh) and Lee Strasberg flick Going In Style. Or last year's Stand Up Guys.

In Hunting Elephants, we see young Yonatan left at the bank with his night watchman/security chief father, when a mishap ends the father's life in a sort of darkly comic fashion. Well, this doesn't help his mother out at all, obviously, and with nowhere else to turn, she dumps Yoni off at the old folks home her estranged father-in-law lives in.

And he's not a pleasant old fellow, oh, no. The details of his backstory come out over the course of the movie, and they're really not particularly flattering. (This is a particularly interesting feature of Israeli films: Whereas in American films, characters are often redeemed through "it was all a misunderstanding", in the IFF films, the characters are redeemed through action, and often not only don't apologize but practically cling to their old sins.)

Grandpa was a special forces guy during the Liberation, and as little use as he had for his son, he doesn't have much more interest in his grandson. But, of course, he doesn't kick the kid out either, or we wouldn't have a picture.

Grandpa's pal Nick was in the same service, a doddering, blind old dude, with an interest in the ladies suited to a much younger man, who generally serves as the driver on the gang's capers.

The third senior in the gang is a fading English actor, brother-in-law to Grandpa, who wants conservatorship over Grandma (his sister, who's in a coma) but Grandpa refuses to let her leave his side. Which, while romantic, turns out to have many not-so-romantic layers.

Well, for whatever reason, everybody needs money so a bank must be robbed. In particular, the bank where Yoni's father was head of security, since Yoni still knows a few tricks. And it doesn't hurt that the creepy bank manager is putting the moves (successfully) on Yoni's mother—who, also rather creepily, is kind of into it.

So, no groundbreaking setups here, but it's all done with such a great touch: Almost non-stop laughs, even in the face of tragedy (how Jewish is that?), great acting, fine directing and camerawork with a few inspired shots, good music—just a fun film with lots and lots of character oozing out of every plot point.

Also, the one weakness these "going of age" movies tend to have is that they peter out at the end, when (customarily) the characters start dying, but this movie actually picks up speed and throws a few more twists at you.

Originally, the fading English actor was to be played by John Cleese, which would've been amazing, but the role was taken over by Patrick Stewart, who is absolutely flawless. He mixes just the right level of comedy and pathos, enough for us to laugh with him (and occasionally at him, but empathetically). I think this is my favorite role of his.

But all the acting is solid: Sasson Gabai (who stood out in The Band's Visit) is Grandpa Eli, Moshe Ivgy (Out of the Blue) is creepy bank manager, Moni Moshonev as Nick, newcomer Gil Blank is Yoni, Yael Abecassis (Live and Become) is mom, and, oh yeah, Patrick freakin' Stewart!

Fun and recommended. And half-in-English for the subtitle-curious.

Monday, October 27, 2014


The problem with labeling something "mystery/thriller" is that people are expecting something mysterious and/or thrilling, usually both, depending on how they parse the ("/") slash. Of course, it's only a problem if you're not mysterious and thrilling, but it can be a problem even if you never meant to be mysterious or thrilling.

Such is the case with the new Aussie movie, Felony., directed by TV veteran Matthew Saville and written by Joel Edgerton (best known as an actor: Zero Dark Thirty, Animal Kingdom).

Felony is a straight-up cop drama featuring Edgerton as a hero cop who celebrates a collar by getting drunk with his cop pals, using his cop privilege to get around drunky checkpoints, and then hitting a kid with his car.

Jai Courtney (A Good Day To Die Hard, Jack Reacher) is the rookie boy scout who suspects right away something is up, despite grizzled veteran Tom Wilkinson "handling things" so as to keep the blue wall smooth and impenetrable.

We're not breaking any new ground here. But that's okay, really. Less okay, at least as far as staying awake goes, is that its tense, low-key, powder-keg-about-to-go-off feel never really pays off. I mean, one isn't required to have a big blowout to resolve a drama, but if you choose to go that direction, you'd probably better have some other theme that you're banging on so that the movie has some resonance, as they call it.

Otherwise, it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. Which is also something you can do, if you're pouring on the style.

I'm reminded somehow of fledgling songwriters, who are desperate to do something other than one of the four-or-five dominant chord pop-music progressions. Sometimes they'll do something that sounds bad, but this movie is more like refusing to play out the final chords because they're clich├ęd.

Maybe that's off base. I don't know. It didn't grab us, The Boy probably even less than me.

Our bias here, though, is (at least in part) a not great love of cop drama tropes. I have a thing—and it's been a while since I've talked about one of my things—about cops following the law.

In short: I think they oughtta.

In fact, I think they oughtta be Boy Scouts, meticulous followers of the law, both professionally and personally. They have the monopoly on force, locally speaking, and they're charged with using that force to protect the public, with The Law being the framework in which they act.

I think, for example, that they should scrupulously follow traffic laws, instead of that weird thing they do now where they drive too slowly looking for people to pull over, then suddenly drive too fast because they're bored or whatever and are going to go hunting somewhere else.

Never mind the whole lying under oath or on reports, hitting suspects, and above all covering for the crimes their fellow cops commit. The latter being the very definition of corruption which, as far as I can tell, they all do (or at least tolerate).

I hate the pop culture trope of "cops are people, too", because while they of course are, they shouldn't be while they're on duty. They're supposed to be better than the rest of us. That's why we trust them with guns and cars and so on.

So, when our premise begins with "hero cop has a few too many and can't be arsed to get anyone to drive him home", I'm lacking a certain amount of sympathy. And when the support for covering things up is, "Well, we've gotta arrest all these guys selling controlled substances to people who want to buy them," I've got a pretty dim view of that, too.

Good acting. Direction and writing is fine, at least in the details, while not really grabbing either of us. It's an okay movie, if you're in the mood for a cop drama. It is, however, devoid of both mystery and thrills, so don't be fooled.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Watchers of the Sky

Raphael Lemkin's life would make the basis of a really good episode of the "Twilight Zone". As a young man, he studied this habit humans have of wiping out—or trying to—entire tribes of fellow humans. And he noted that this was a Bad Thing, and perhaps should be condemned.

After an Armenian victim of such a pogrom sought out the Turkish architect of same and killed him, Lemkin would plead to the Europeans to criminalize such "acts of barbarity" such that it would effectively intimidate those who had such inclinations. They rejected him on the basis of, "Well, of course Turks are barbarians. That couldn't possibly happen in Europe."

Then the camera pulls back and it's Hitler saying that, and you're a Pole of Jewish descent. In the '30s.


Watchers of the Sky is a movie in part about Lemkin, who marketed the concept of genocide-as-a-crime to a bunch of dubious world leaders, and his cultural heirs, especially Benjamin Ferencz, Samantha Power and Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

It is wholly depressing and not for the reasons you might imagine.

Lemkin's story is actually pretty amazing: After inventing the word "genocide", he actually manages to foster an environment (with Ferencz) where people not only think it's a bad thing, but are actually even a little bit embarrassed to have committed it. He starts them on the way to criminalizing it, even.

That's kind of impressive. I mean, if you're coming from a world where of course you'd kill the Jews, or the Armenians, or the *kaff* Kurds, even getting insincere agreement that genocide is wrong is quite a feat.

Depressing, though, because the same people who recognize that genocide is something that people do, and need to be deterred from doing through harsh punishment, absolutely fail to recognize that nobody wants to start a war to save anyone else.

I mean, I'm pro-America and all that, but FDR specifically avoided saying we were going to war to save the Jews, and maybe he was just projecting his own antisemitism or cynicism or what-have-you on the American people, or maybe we wouldn't have been all gung-ho about going to war to stop genocide.

Although, in retrospect, it seems like we might have, given our horror over the Holocaust, it's kind of funny that, at a time when our armed services asks the least of the rest of us, we are more reluctant than ever to use their bravery to do good in the world.

Wait, "funny" isn't the word. It's more "dysfunctional". Too many of us believe we couldn't possibly be a force for good in the world. We wrecked up the world to begin with, or something.

Madeline Albright sums it up, however unintentionally: Given a word, "genocide", and a worldwide resolution to prevent it, when asked about the situation in Rwanda she calls it "a definitional problem". And so Hutu butcher Tutsi with machetes day in and day out because, politically, Bill Clinton can't get involved. ("End of history", don't you know.)

George W Bush might or might not have done anything about Darfur, but since that massacre started after the Democrat Congress took over on an anti-war platform, it seems unlikely they would have given him the power to act.

Which leaves the current guy, under whose reign the Darfur genocide has proceeded apace. Moreno-Ocampo finally gets the world to agree that the guy killing all those people (I think it's Bahr Idriss Abu Garda, but one genocidal maniac looks the same as an another to me) should be tried on genocide aaaand...nothing happens.

Well, a lot of tiny countries with no skin in the game agree that he should be brought up on charges. But he just says, "I don't recognize the authority of the International Criminal Court. What're you gonna do about it?" And that's pretty much it. Unless the USA gets involved.

Team America: World Police!

Which—and I may have gotten some mixed messages here—is a bad thing, right? We're not supposed to be the World Police, right? I guess as long as we do what everyone else says, we're okay.

I was not unimpressed by Samantha Power's early career, and she seems to have a good heart, but I really couldn't reconcile the boldness of her earlier actions with the sort of wan declarations she makes from her post as UN Ambassador.

That was depressing, too. She'd dealt with plenty of monsters before getting that post, why can't she recognize them for what they are now?

The Boy pointed out that Soghomon Tehlirian had done more than the UN by assassinating Talaat Pasha. Which, when you think about it, sort of suggests an easy, if not politically popular, solution.

By the way, I did a little research after the movie and discovered that Lemkin hadn't been shot down in the '20s because "we're European, not savage Turks", or at least not that I could find. Instead, he had been the Polish ambassador to the League of Nations in 1933, and was shot down specifically to avoid offending the Hitler and the Germans.

It says it all. On Blake's Three Point Documentary Scale:

1. Obviously a worthy an important subject.

2. The handling was competent, if not spectacular. A good mix of interviews with stock footage, and historical events with current events.

3. The tilt? Well, it's hard to tilt wrong with genocide. ("I'm for it!") But there was a tilt; toward the idea that one can use the mechanisms of civil society to stop international criminals who do not respect it. But the only reason cops can stop anything in civil society is because they have overwhelming force and they're willing to use it.

I didn't get, for example, on this last point why it would've been impossible for these little countries to take action. Do they have no armies whatsoever? We're talking the Sudan and Chad, not Moscow. Why couldn't they go in?

I don't know.

I sort of walked away feeling that we need a universal 2nd amendment, frankly. "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the preservation of a free world..."

Saturday, October 25, 2014

One Chance

I honestly don't know what's wrong with you people. I try to understand you, but I just don't. Hollywood makes a feel-good flick about a down-on-his-luck guy who achieves fame and glory through being an amazing opera singer, and you're just not happy about it. You don't go see it. If you do go see it, you're picking nits about accents and singing postures and God knows what else.

It's like I can't even trust you to rate a film, collectively.

If not for the insistence of @JulesLaLaLand, I would not have gone to see this movie, given its tepid mid-'60s ratings on Tomatoes. But, man, that chick can nag. I swear, I'm not sure how the President hasn't personally gone down to Mexico to free Sergeant Tahmooressi, given her advocacy of that particular issue. (Hi, Jules! *waves*)

But, as I point out, I don't understand a lot of things.

This is a feel-good movie centered around the not-so-feel-good life of Paul Potts, who went from abused and bullied kid who loved opera, to an abused and bullied adult who loved opera. And, while the movie is called "One Chance", it in fact shows a man who has had (and taken) many chances. Which is why it works, really.

For all the beatings he took, for his shyness, for a guy who was a 30-year-old virgin, here is someone who took whatever chances he could get away with, even if it meant entering a town talent show (to get the money to train in Italy), or approaching a non-local girl on the Internet, or just being a good cell phone salesman.

It's not nothing. We see Paul as a man who struggles to do well, even if the world seems to want to crush him. He finds a way. And sometimes he fails, which can be even harder than having the crap beaten out of you.

And this movie definitely smooths out the rough edges. Check out Potts' Britain's Got Talent performance if you've never seen it—although maybe not until after you've seen the movie; let's discuss that in a bit—and you can see Potts' face is one wracked with pain. It's not just shyness, either, it's the face of someone who's suffered a lot of actual, physical pain.

The movie does a good job of reminding us of the Potts' struggles with the thugs in his town, without letting it dominate the proceedings.

There's a pretty typical Hollywoodization here—which is not bad, really. The real thing would've been unpleasant, I think: We're not, as moviegoers, as resilient as Mr. Potts. James Corden is stocky (and even fat; he may have put on some weight for this) but he's basically a handsome fellow, and he plays Potts with sensitivity and warmth.

Alexandra Roach, as Julz, is a dead ringer for Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl, and makes a great counterpart to James in what has to be one of my favorite cinematic love stories in recent memory.

Julie Walters (when is she not great?) plays Mother Potts, and Colm Meaney plays grumpy old steel-mill-working opera-hating dad. We get a Hollywoodization of Dad and Paul's relationship, too, and I suspect it may not have resolved as neatly as shown, but it was the resolution we wanted to see.

The guy who played Pavarotti was excellent. I thought it was Pavarotti. No, I did not remember Pavarotti had died. But Simon Cowell was in it, too. I mean, not that Cowell's dead, as far as I know, but it looked like they used archival footage of "Britain's Got Talent" (I don't know why they wouldn't, and I re-viewed that clip, and the movie, if it recreated it, did an amazing job, down to Amanda Holden's tear. Amanda Holden is not credited, either.)

I guess I'm reduced to arguing that they had archival footage of Pavarotti dissing this poor unknown. Heh. Look, I'm just saying character actor Stanley Townsend did a great job. Or they reanimated Luicano. Either way.

Anyway, it's a breezy watch, fun and funny, moving in parts, but I think I'd recommend watching it first, then going back and watching the "Britain's Got Talent" clip after. I think maybe the issue some people are having is they remember the incident, and have all kinds of opinions about it, and so are less interested in this being a movie unto itself.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Canal

The Boy pronounced this Welsh/Irish horror film (The Canal) from Tim Kavanagh "solid", adding that he was disappointed they went for the "twist ending tax break". He's established that the only reason horror movies tack on these stingers is due to government programs that provide funds for them.

It took me a few seconds to realize he was kidding, since this film has Irish and Welsh government money in it, and since he's recently expressed a desire to be the next Uwe Boll. ("I could make crappy movies with tax breaks!")

Anyway, it is a solid film, though I found it less engaging then he did, which is interesting, since it's about a man obsessed, which is kind of my thing: David and Claire move into an old house, and after a few years David (a film archivist) discovers that it was the site of a grisly murder. A series of murders, even.

He also discovers his wife is cheating on him, and when she turns up missing, the suspicion naturally falls on him. But he begins to suspect the malevolent forces lurking in the house: Forces which are now after his son, the nanny, himself, and so on.

The movie has a lot of style, with a judicious use of jump cuts that both speeds things along and creates an unsettling effect. For me, one problem was that it also would do a montage of a film projector, and the noise was literally painful. Same thing as Purgatorio, and again, not the theater, as the rest of the dialog and ambient noises were fine, and even a bit on the quiet side.

In fact, I think part of the problem with coercing The Flower into the theaters these days, is that the volume hurts her ears. Mine, too, to a lesser extent, but I'm finally getting deaf enough to catch up to my peers who broke their eardrums listening to that loud music on their Walkmans.

For me, the film really kicked into gear at the end of the second act, when David has sent his son off with his nanny to a nearby hotel to be safe, only to discover they're not safe. There's some good suspense there, and the the lower key threats established earlier on start to pay off.

Anyway, I'm going to SPOIL the movie a bit hereafter. So if you don't want SPOILERS, STOP READING NOW.

You hear me? I don't want any lawsuits over SPOILERS!

By reading further, you have agreed to the Terms of Service of this website. (Not really. Can you imagine?) I'm also throwing in a mild Frozen and Something Wicked spoiler.

There are only two outcomes to a story like this, and of course the movie's going to try to convince you that it's one outcome, only to reveal it's the other outcome at the climax. This is unsurprising, at best, and disappointing at worst, since a lot of times the movie just outright lies to you to convince you that they're going to take path A instead of path B.

Sort of like the whole Frozen deal, really. The movie shows one thing to the audience that makes no sense except as a way to deceive the audience. It's not Something Wicked bad here—few things are—but I pointed out a few places that the movie outright lied to us that The Boy had missed.

IMPORTANT NOTE TO FILMMAKERS: It's fine (expected, even) for characters to lie to each other. It's fine for them to lie directly to the audience (though, as in No Country For Old Men, people will often believe what they're told even if you show them something contradictory). It's even fine to show something that just plain didn't happen, if it's from the liar/crazy person's perspective.

What you can't do is show characters acting falsely when no one is watching, because then you're just lying to the audience (Frozen). Also, when the character is not the narrator, you can't show scenes that reinforce the narrator's bias (falsity or insanity) while pretending that it's not from the false narrator's bias.

I mean, you can, of course, 'cause you're the Man In The Chair, and ain't nobody can tell you what to do, except, I guess, The Studio, The Producer, and The Producer's wife, and also his girlfriend that he made you hire to be the lead. Lots of people can tell you what to do, other than me. I'm just the sap who goes to see your movies.

But let's say you're making a movie about Bigfoot, and Bigfoot is going around eating all the pudding cups. It's fine if your obsessed character sees Bigfoot right-and-left. He's obsessed. We don't expect him to be reliable. It's fine if he sees Bigfoot attacking other people even if there's no Bigfoot there, because again, he's obsessed.

But if you have a character tramping through the woods alone, eating a pudding cup, and she sees Bigfoot come up to her, and Bigfoot takes her pudding cup and eats it, you can't then say "Well, it turned out it was obsessed guy all along! There never was any Bigfoot."

Unless, I guess, you Scooby-Doo it away and have the obsessed guy wearing a Bigfoot outfit. But you can't show Bigfoot when obsessed guy isn't around, 'cause it's you lying to the audience, not the character.

Whether or not this movie actually does that is, I guess, debatable. I think it does. It felt like a cheat.

But in the final analysis, the stinger throws the whole climax into question, as (by tax law, apparently) it must. The movie resolves one way, but the stinger says, "Or is it?" Bleaargh.

Good acting from a bunch of people I've never heard of before. The music was kind of all over the place. Some of it quite good and others a little out of place. Camerawork and editing top-notch.

So, it's still a solid film that's quite effective in parts, even as it cribs from a great many other movies. I just felt a little gypped.