Friday, July 31, 2015

Tangerine

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

And I'm already having trouble with pronouns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ant-Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stanford Prison Experiment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep repeating, "It's just a movie." Because, really, it's just a movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there's more science in Ghostbusters.

Runoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mississippi Grind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartel Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's not a pick-me-up of a film.

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

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

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

Worth watching twice.

Infinitely Polar Bear

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

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

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

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

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

You end up liking everybody and rooting for everybody.

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

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

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

The Boy really liked this one.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Absolute Rest

Sometimes you gotta go in blind. And if, like us, you're considering the case of an enterprising Persian distributor, traveling the country looking for outlets for his movies, you're almost always going in blind.

In this case, the movie was called Absolute Rest, and I still have no idea why, unless it is meant to refer to death. But it was (yet another) excellent rebuttal to the notion that low budget movies have to be bad.  (A notion, I confess, that nobody is forwarding, but leaps unbidden into my mind when I consider Sharknado.)

The story concerns Samira, a 30ish mother who returns to Tehran after, I think, a sort of self-imposed exile in her hometown, following trouble with her truculent, ne'er-do-well husband. No spoilers but the opening sequence has her being hit by a car in that manner that suggests finality, and the entire movie is a build-up to that point.

We see Samira arrive at the airport, we see her fight with her husband (Hamed?) who takes their child and runs off to her sister's. (He promptly abandons the child there and we actually never see him again.) A recurring theme of this movie is people asking why she came back, knowing it would infuriate him, and her retorting that Tehran is probably big enough for the two of them. (Tehran has a population of over 8 million, about the size and density of New York City.) However, the reason she came back it seems, is that Hamed spread horrible lies about her in her home village, and she couldn't escape that, whereas his powers to ruin her reputation would be greatly limited in Tehran.

However, when you know all the same people, and a person is dedicated to destroying you, they can do a pretty good job. She first finds a crappy, smelly apartment and enlists a friend (Saber?) to help her clean it and fix it up.

This is culturally kind of interesting, because there's an old lady living there already, and the two of them do their repairs and cleaning up while she's still living there, and with tremendous respect for her. There's no eviction or any actual talk of what they'll do when the time comes.

Thing is, though, Saber is also Hamed's friend. Saber lets Hamed crash with him in his room, which is actually at his menial job—the sort of job that Hamed derides, while leeching off Saber.

Meanwhile, Davoud and Rezvan (real life husband and wife Reza Attaran and Farideh Farimarzi) have been graciously holding her stuff from before she moved and agree to let her crash at their place for a while. Rezvan and Samira are long-time friends, it seems.

Rezvan is an archetypal nagging wife, looking for some attention from Davoud, who is more interested in Samira. And this is another kind of interesting theme running throughout the movie: Everyone wants Samira, but nobody actually makes any moves, and Samira has other things on her mind, like becoming self-sufficient.

Davoud makes a living installing illegal satellite dishes and hatches a plan with Samira to buy a bunch of black market receivers to box up as genuine Chinese receivers and resell at a nice profit. Yes, this is where Iran is as a nation: It bootlegs Chinese electronics. I was really curious as to where these worse-than-Chinese electronics were coming from, and I think it's...Iran.

She goes to yet another (male) friend, a...uh...toilet magnate who gives her a loan. And also avers how he has an apartment she can stay in rent free. This is kind of interesting, too: She simply demurs, taking the loan and declining the apartment, but without either of them saying a word as to the implications.

And so she goes along, trying to make her way, but bringing a fair amount of disruption with her, all of which is amplified by the truly worthless Hamed, who sets about whispering in Rezvan's ear, vandalizing stuff, and possibly ratting out Samira and Davoud to the cops.

It's nicely done, if low key. The characters are strongly drawn and well acted. The story is well written, but I wasn't sure about the end. Was a message meant? Was no-message meant? Is this the work of Iranian censors?

Back in the days of the Hays office, American filmmakers followed some tropes that were, for lack of a better word: odd. A fallen man would be shamed, but a fallen woman would find death in some form, for example. In some cases, fallen might mean "fell in love out of her race", too. Looking at some of this stuff makes you wonder, if you don't know the back story.

So maybe that was what was going on here. Nonetheless, it was a fine film done on a very low budget, and (going back to Sharknado, sorry) it exudes caring.


City of Mice 2

The second of the Persian movies we saw, courtesy of Daricheh Cinema, who brought us A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, illustrates the perils and pleasures of going into a movie completely blind. Apparently, City of Mice was a movie from about 30 years ago, which in turn was based on a TV show, about a bunch of mice who live in a city and in fear of their arch-nemesis, an evil creature who is largely referred to as, roughly, "He Who Is Not Named".

Actually, the construction is somewhat more awkward (at least in English) and used in a number of roles, to mean "cat", both a specific cat, minions of said specific cat, all cats and kittens, and possibly things that look like cats.

It's quite cute, clever puppet show with some nice musical numbers, and way better than Sharknado 2. I don't mean to keep harping on that point, but every movie we've seen since Sharknado 2 has been better, regardless of the budget, and a reminder that "low budget" doesn't have to mean "crap".

I don't have any idea what the budget was here, but it wasn't huge, and the puppet technology isn't quite at the level of "The Muppet Show" in 1978, but a whole lot of care was put into this and it shows. The little mouse city is charmingly crafted, somewhat reminiscent of Ernest and Celestine, and the lighting and camerawork is careful and well thought out.

I won't bring Sharknado up again. Even if Sharknado 3 is the top Twitter trend right now.

Anyway, although it's aimed a children, much like the muppets, it's got enough clever parts to hold the interest of adults, and I imagine for adults in their 30s, there's a special nostalgia in seeing all the old characters again—who, if I'm not mistaken, were also made 30 years older, and whose kids are now fighting the evil cat. (Confirmed: My 28-year-old Persian co-worker saw this and loved it, having watched the show as a kid.)

I liked thinking that they were the grownup versions of the former characters, anyway; I hope it's true. I can't quite tell from the trailer for the original, though it's easy to see how much better they've gotten at puppetry.

Also, because it's not American, whatever "political correctness" they may have is lost on me. I would've thought, for example, that the underlying message was a bit subversive for the Mullahs—the kids disobey authority constantly, and there's no mention of Allah or Islam—but now that I think about it, if it's like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, it was shot here in the states, rather than back in Iran.

Anyway, it's kind of refreshing seeing the nagging busybody wife villain (not unlike Absolute Rest), the kids fighting evil with slingshots and scratchy gas. Oh, and also burning and blowing up their enemies.

It was a hard movie not to smile along with, even if it wasn't the sort of thing we'd normally pick.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Third Man (1949)

I think we can say, safely and not unkindly, after 65 years, that whatever the merits of zither music, it is not really a suitable instrument for expressing the suspense and tragedy of a classic film noir. Although, in fairness, this is my third viewing of The Third Man and the first on the big screen, and the zither is actually the least annoying that I can remember it.

I recall being driven to distraction on my first viewing. As The Boy, viewing the film for the first time put it, it's too whimsical. Which is a shame, because otherwise this is a near perfect film.

But perhaps that's just a #confessyourunpopularopinion moment for me.

I've heard it claimed that this is not a noir movie, and the zither music is proof of that, which is an interesting, if completely bonkers, theory.

The story is that hack pulp writer Holly (Joseph Cotten, Citizen Kane, Shadow of a Doubt) has flown to Vienna because old pal Harry has offered him some sort of employment which, apparently, Holly can't find in post-WWII America.

And this is one of those movies, by the way, where you begin to speculate on these kinds of details. Was it because Holly's a bit of a goldbricker? Is it because Harry represents an adventurous, exciting life? Is it something they just overlooked in their shoddy plotting? Everything seems so well  put together, it's hard to consider writer Graham Greene (The End of the Affair, The Quiet American) just "overlooking" something. And this is one of the few movies based on his works that he actually wrote the screenplay for.

Anyway, Holly shows up and Harry's dead. Hit by a car. His own driver even and purely accidental don'tcha know. He died instantly, after which he said nice things about Holly. And three—no, two—men carried him to the side of the road. In other words, everyone's acting suspicious and Holly begins to obsess about the third man, even as he uncovers his old pal Harry's roguish-or-possibly-murderous schemes.

Alida Valli (Eyes Without A Face, Suspiria) is the femme fatale, and while there's some tension between her and Holly, he's pretty hapless compared to the dashing Harry. Greene fought with director Carol Reed (Oliver!, Night Train To Munich) over the the romantic fate of these two, with Reed ultimately winning out—though I think Greene went to his grave thinking it was a mistake.

The movie is beautifully shot, with cinematographer Robert Krasker rightfully winning an Oscar against legends All About Eve and Sunset Blvd. Even so, the movie really makes it shift from solid noir to timeless classic when Orson Welles makes his grand entrance—an iconic movie moment if there ever was one—and the photography and Welles' performance meld to create a sublime aesthetic.

Handsome, charming, seductive, and so much smarter than everyone else, we simultaneously see how he manipulates the other characters and begin to take a different view of those characters, based on their relationships to him.

Meanwhile, the shadows are growing longer, the lighting is getting more stark, the dutch angles are getting...dutcher.

The movie ends with a chase through the sewers of Vienna that is quick-cut after quick-cut (something that can drive me nuts when done poorly) where every shot is beautifully and perfectly composed, even if it's visible for 2 seconds or less. Honestly, the last 30 minutes of this film is better than the best of most other movies, and easily better than all the CGI e'er made.

It was the number one film in the UK for 1949—and try to imagine what that world must have been like, if you can in a world where you have to go back to 1996's Trainspotting to find a non-cartoon at #1 Box Office in the UK—and remains the BFI's number one British film.

The Boy was impressed.

Jimmy's Hall

I could describe Ken Loach's (The Wind That Shakes The Barley) latest movie as "Irish Footloose if Kevin Bacon was a communist" but I think I'd be underselling the subtlety of the '80s dance classic.

OK, look, I didn't really want to see this film. We're in the middle of a summer drought where the E ticket movies (Terminator: Genisys, Ted 2) are unappealing and the indie/foreign flicks can't seem to muster good reviews, so we were down to this or Amy, the Amy Winehouse documentary. It has great reviews but it's over 2 hours long which I sort of suspect means it's stuffed with music. (I don't really like documentaries padded with music; they tend to be musically frustrating, because you don't get the full song, and frustrating as movie experiences because everything stops while the music is playing.)

Critical acceptance was warm (76%) while audiences were decidedly cooler (60%) and for exactly the reasons you might imagine: This is a movie about the poor communist Irish laborers who just want to dance (and subvert—but mostly dance) who end up being bullied by the Church and the richies.

This philosophically childish muddle simultaneously denies the prominence of Communism in the importance of the eponymous hall—focusing on endless dancing, Irish culture preservation, and the Jazz that Jimmy brought back from his exile in America—but frames the entire battle as one of the pure Irish workers versus the evil English landlords. Seriously, Steinbeck called from the grave to say, "Present a little bit of the other perspective, maybe?"

And I'm sympathetic to the Irish. I am Irish. Sorta. As far as I know. (There are some issues down at the adoption agency...)

But beyond the un-nuanced take on the topic, it's just not very interesting overall. The pacing is off. The story doesn't go into any real depth, even for the protagonists. It feels like there's so much history being crammed into the sub-2-hour film that all of it gets short shrift.

I mean, basically, you gotcher message crammed in (Irish good/English bad, Atheists good/Church bad, Communists good/Everyone else bad) and that's about it. There's a priceless speech where Jimmy describes his Utopia: It's old-school, laissez-faire America, of course—the freedom to be left alone—which describes exactly nothing about Communism.

And in all the struggles with the Church, not a single layperson is shown having, y'know, a spiritual crisis. Nary a one. They're all oppressed by the Church and would all of course be happy to live without any of its services, if only they could be freed of its evil. (I've known a lot of ex-Catholics; most of them still held Catholic ideals to some degree or another.)

I don't know. For what it was, it could've been a lot shorter and done the same job. I feel like something more was desired, but sacrificed on the altar of message.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Riiftrax: Sharknado 2

The guys at Rifftrax have hit their 200th riff track this weekend, surpassing the amount of riffing done by Mystery Science Theater 3000, and we trundled down to see the second film in The Crappening, the 2015 slate of four films, starting with The Room and closing out with Miami Connection and Santa Claus vs. The Ice Cream Bunny.

Sharknado is one of those dumb Internet things, that would be barely worth a second look, except for the hyper-attention it got and the sort-of communal watching experience provided by Twitter which, even with all that, did not deserve even the "let's all goof on it" attention it got. And, hyper-attention notwithstanding, it apparently did no better than an average SyFy channel monster-fest. Perfect riffing material, right?

Well, no. At least not for me. Don't get me wrong: Mike, Kevin and Bill do yeoman's work here, by-and-large. We laughed. We had a good time. The only serious problem, technically, with this riffing was that the sound mix was bad. Like almost every other aspect of Sharknado 2: The Second One, the sound is half-assed. It's poorly mixed, in such a way that it was often hard to hear what people were saying, and the riffing sometimes got lost in the noise.

Bad sound was such an issue in MST3K that "good audio" was one of the key points of a good riffing movie on a list made by, I think, Joel in later years. But unlike the muffled ambient sound or poor overdubs of something like Manos: The Hands of Fate, this just feels neglectful.

In fact, all of Sharknado 2 could be summed up as "They just didn't care," a riff used during the classic MST3K episode "Attack of the the (sic) Eye Creatures". But it's more likely that the "Eye Creatures" creators did care but lacked the budget and skill to make a watchable film. This film is more a pure cynical calculation done on a spreadsheet in the bowels of NBCUniversal that answers "It doesn't matter what's in this. We can sell the rights for $X, and with $Y for budget, we'll make Z% profit."

And that trickles all the way down from the top to almost every corner of this looks-like-it-was-shot-on-a-cell-phone film. In the opening of the film, there's an airplane-in-distress sequence where the pilot is Robert Hayes. Although I barely recognized him, I guess that's worth a smile. But then you're kind of doing that through the whole movie: Is that somebody? Or somebody who used to be somebody?

But it can't keep your mind off, for example, the visible makeup, because the lighting is so bad. Or the sparing, awful special effects, which often look like somebody ran a blur filter on the frame. Or the constant, weather-free-except-for-sharks-and-flood effects of the Sharknado itself. (It never rains but floods figure big.)

You can justify some of this as being the natural effect of a low-budget, but I would point out the doubtless lower budget Big-Ass Spider or this year's Zombeavers. The former is constrained by the SyFy formula as much as Sharknado, but it looks like people cared. Zombeavers manages to be very entertaining and also highly skillful at balancing an extremely dumb concept with humor and horror.

And I recognize that these are largely people past their primes but I don't know if I were in the business of selling my face that I would agree to be in something like this. I don't know who Ian Ziering is, really, and had even less idea about Mark McGrath. Tara Reid at 38 needed a much gentler treatment. Vivica Fox looked decent, partly due to her skin I imagine, and partly due to fighting the trend of starving yourself thin so that when you hit 50 look like a drumhead. Kari Wuhrer also looked good, and actually professional.

The guys even commented on that: Something like "Stop that. Nobody else is acting..." I thought Bill Corbett said something about Wuhrer being in a worse movie (maybe the Eddie Murphy disaster "Meet Dave" with Corbett co-wrote) but I couldn't quite make it out. And she wasn't in that, so maybe he was talking about someone else. (Wuhrer was in Anaconda, of course.)

There's probably a master's degree or doctorate in characterizing "riffs", but I want to do a quick categorization to explain why, movie aside, the riffs here didn't entirely work for me.

1. You can riff on overall quality. This is standard audience-level riffing, where you turn to your friend and say "This sucks." It's easy and the sort of thing that makes you think you could riff, too, given a chance. There's actually a good example of this here where Ian Ziering is flying around in the tornado, able to kill sharks as he flies by. I think it's Mike who says, "You know guys, this movie is kind of dumb."

2. You can point out plot flaws. Murphy does a long riff here pointing out the complete stupidity of the idea that sharks could be tossed about in a weather event and not only not be killed but be so completely unaffected that their sole purpose would be to bite you. But here, as with everything in comedy, timing and brevity is everything. In episode #305 of MST3K, "Stranded In Space", one of the characters must abandon the hero because he spills his medicine, and he can't live without it. Crow comments: "Note to myself, pack more life-saving liquid."

3. You can draw physical environment references. Something looks like something else. Penises and boobs are always popular, though they mostly avoid that obvious stuff.

4. You can draw cultural references, which is a big source of jokes. As it turns out Jared Fogle, of Subway fame, is in this, with the FBI raiding his house only three days earlier, apparently looking for child porn. So, when he shows up on screen, they say, "We had a joke for this on Monday" which is better than any actual joke.

5. You can make fun of the actors. I think this is the trickiest thing to do well. It's best when there's an idiosyncratic element at play, like when Adrianna Miles can't pronounce "werewolf" in the movie Werewolf, or pretty much all of Tommy Wiseau. Ed Wood. Even Joe Don Baker. Or if there's an element of the movie that the actor just doesn't fit, like being lusted after by all the other characters inexplicably, or being really out of shape and yet still an action star.

So, here we have a lot of riffing on Tara Reid. A whole lot. I get that she's had plastic surgery. I get that she's sort of rough looking (and the lighting, makeup and camera work don't help). I get that she doesn't seem to be able to (or care to) act. And as someone who bashes this whole movie for its cynicism, I can relate to the idea that not trying is particularly mock-worthy.

But it stops being funny after a while, and for me, in fairly short order. It just feels mean.

I don't want to rag on it because it is funny, and Reid's not on screen much, but when she is, the laughs for me (and my companions) mostly stopped. Although we enjoyed it, it's not one I'd select for repeated viewing, especially with all the gems in the Rifftrax/MST3K catalogue.

Magic Mike XXL

The Boy wanted to go see a movie, but we've been in a sort of curious summer drought. The tentpoles don't automatically appeal to us, and sometimes turn one or both of us right off. Bad reviews for Terminator:Genisys are foreboding and he couldn't be dragged to Jurassic World, I think finding the first one only passable. (We hate that they're using CGI in the sequels rather than actually cloning dinosaurs, as they did in the original.)

The Overnight has pretty strong critical reviews (81%) but it looks like a movie about swinging, and that kind of thing gives me the hives, and I remembering that the audience for this sort of thing is self-selecting, the 68% rating is doubtless much higher than I, a person who self-selects away from this sort of thing, would rate it. I saw my share of these kinds of movies in the '80s and, well, yuk.

So, instead, we saw a wholesome family movie, namely Magic Mike XXL.

Heh.

Magic Mike XXL starts three years after the last one ended (three years ago!) which Tatum running his (minor) furniture concern, with one employee he can't afford health care for, and the former "Kings of Tampa" (Orlando? Miami? Some Florida city) on the skids after having been abandoned by Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) and The Kid (Alex Pettyfer in the original).

Old guy Tarzan (55-year-old wrestler Kevin Nash, who looks a lot better with his natural white hair) lures Mike back for a "last hurrah", a road trip where the boys break out and find their true inner voices as a stripper.

Longtime Soderberg first AD (who 1ADed the first movie) takes the helm as writer Reid Carolin breathes a little new life into his characters as they strip their way to the Championships in Myrtle Beach.

It's not great. It's not terrible. It's a lot less bro than the first one. There's a huge amount of time spent on the actual stripping routines, and the addition of Jada Pinkett Smith cranks up the pander level to 11, as our boys make it their mission in life to make women feel good about themselves.

It's actually sleazier than the first one and, like the first one, not always in a good way.

Double-standards abound. Flip the character genders and...it's not even possible.

Anyway, we didn't hate it. It was more or less what we expected. Drags a bit for the hetero male crowd. Our only eye candy is a nearly 60 Andie MacDowell and a mid-40s Jada Pinkett Smith. They both look good (although Smith wears some unflattering clothes). But the women in the audience hooted and hollered, so...there you go.

A Borrowed Identity

Where Palestinian films tend to be of one sort—here's a story about how the Jews are to blame for everything and that makes it okay to blow up buses and cafés—Israeli films are much broader, and when they address the issue of the conflict with Palestinian arabs, you really don't know what side they're going to come down on.

Waltz with Bashir, for example, struck me as very anti-Israeli. It's not about yet another arab aggression but about how some Israelis suffered ethical lapses during, you know, war. (An astute observer might note that, well, duh, and that individual lapses, or even organizational lapses don't invalidate the larger issues in the war. For example, FDR interning Japanese-looking Americans doesn't suddenly make the Nazis and Japs good guys.) Then there was Walk on Water, The Gatekeepers, Cannon Fodder (which is floating around streaming services as Battle of the Undead).

I think it's safe to say that Israel has a healthy leftist coalition dedicated to its destruction.

Point is, when you go to an Israeli movie about Palestine/Israeli relations, you don't really know what you're going to get, which makes a movie like A Borrowed Identity a genuine pleasure.

Our protagonist is Eyad, a Palestinian boy living in Israel in the mid-'80s whose father is a fruit-picker/activist/possible terrorist. When confronted, Eyad's father tells him "terrorist" is a word made-up by Israelis for "warriors"—though when asked, he denies being any such thing. High-schooler Eyad (early '90s) is naturally appalled at the notion of going to the Best School in Israel since, of course, it's predominately Jewish.

Here we get a little racism—though, more accurately, it's tribalism—as Eyad is subject to a variety of outsider treatment, including abuse from Jewish Jocks (a category that hardly exists here in the USA). He finds a friend in Yonatan, a boy he hangs out with as part of a community service program (requirement for school), and as one would expect, falls in love with a girl, Nomi, though they must keep their relationship on the down-low.

The tribalism ebbs and flows, on the one hand, with Eyad and Yonatan trading barbs as good friends can, and on the other, while on the other, Eyad can't get a job above dishwasher as an arab. The borrowed identity in question is Yonatan's, which opens the lofty door of waiter to the young man.

You can probably see the big issues that must be dealt with: How does Eyad go back to his arab neighborhood? And if he does, how does he get a job worthy of the considerable cost to his parents? What does he do with a Jewish girlfriend? What about her parents? What happens when Yonatan and/or his mother find out he's stolen his identity?

It takes a sensitive touch, and director Eran Riklis is up to the task, which would not have been apparent to me from the last film of his we say, Zaytoun. Don't get me wrong—we really enjoyed Zaytoun (The Boy may even have preferred it), but it was a much less sophisticated take on a similar topic. Screenwriter Sayed Kashua doubtless deserves considerable credit, too.

The kids are mostly newcomers (to us, anyway) with Razi Gabareen and Tawfeek Barhom as young and old Eyad, respectively, Michael Moshonov as Yonatan, and the lovely Daniel Kitsis as Nomi. (I believe "Daniel" is correct, not "Danielle" or "Daniela".) They provide a strong core dynamic, and wrestle with much bigger problems than you'll find in your average teen movie, and while relatively mature, not overly so.

The resemblance between Barhom and Moshonov is an important part of the story, what with the whole borrowed identity thing, but I thought it was interesting that Yonatan's mother, played by Yaël Abecassis (Live and Become) and French Lebanese actress Laëtitia Eïdo also look somewhat similar—and both took a strong maternal interest in Eyad. Surely not a coincidence.

Ali Suliman (Lone Survivor, Zaytoun) rounds out the major adult roles as Eyad's oddly quixotic father. If the film has a weakness, it's that the story raises a huge question about Eyad's relationship with his parents, especially with Salah (Suliman), which is never addressed.

The Boy really liked this as well, though he was appalled at the Israeli arabs cheering Palestinian rocket attacks during Desert Storm.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Is the teen cancer novel a thing these days? Last year we saw (the excellent) Fault In Our Stars, and this year we have Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the tale of a friendship formed under duress when a boy's mom forcing him to visit a little known classmate who has leukemia.

One more and we got ourselves a trend. Or at least, that's how they do it in the media.

Anyway, this movie/story hasn't got much in common with Stars, except in having cancer as a central element, and a desire to not be one of those stories. (Where "those" is some sort of clichéd cancer film, I guess.) The main character is Greg, a kid who surfs through school casually, fearfully avoiding being noticed by any of the groups, while cultivating superficial amiability amongst them all.

His dad is a sociology professor of some sort—apparently this doesn't involve much works, so he hangs around the house making exotic and often foul dishes. His mom is a "concerned" person, who believes that her son should, I don't know, do stuff about things. Greg's super-antipathetic to the idea, but nagging wins and he ends up heading over to Rachel's house, where desperate mom, Denise takes an instant shine to the glib, reasonably charming young boy.

Rachel's not so big on the whole idea, but she understands the whole mom nag thing, so as a favor to Greg, she agrees to spend some time with him.

Obviously, a friendship forms, and becomes the basis for the movie, otherwise, y'know: No movie.

But the journey is the thing, and it's done very well here in this script by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel. One might even suspect that it's autobiographical, which is high praise for both screenwriter and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (The Town That Dreaded Sundown, "Glee", "American Horror Story"). And it really is Greg's journey.

The titular Earl in the story is a black boy from the wrong side of the tracks who grows up with Greg making movies which (in a very Michael Gondry/"Home Movies" style) are based on existing movies, with joke titles. "A Box of 'lips Now", as explained, is about a couple of guys fighting in Vietnam when they come across a box of tulips and decide they don't want to fight any more.

Heh.

Lotta movie jokes. "2PM Cowboy". "My Dinner with André The Giant". "Hairy, Old and Mod". "A Death In Tennis".

Really auteur stuff. Lotta foreign, arty things from the '60s and '70s, which is backed up by a combination of Greg's weird Dad, and a too-hip-for-school History Teacher who has "RESPECT THE RESEARCH" possibly tattooed on the back of his neck.

Anyway, Greg does not call Earl his friend. He calls him his co-worked or collaborator. Greg has no friends, at least that he'll admit to, but obviously that comes to a crashing head when he starts to really like Rachel. Not just like, but care and sacrifice for her. To the extent that he's either with her or thinking about a movie he's been pressured into making by hot girl Madison.

The whole "hot girl" dynamic thing is pretty funny and on the nose, too. Overall, The Boy and I sided with the audience's 90+% over the critics' 80ish.

Thomas Mann (Hansel and Gretel, The Stanford Prison Experiment) plays the lead convincingly, and is someone we'll be seeing a lot more of. I mean, literally, he's in six or seven upcoming movies in the next year. Olivia Cooke (Ouija, The Quiet Ones) breaks out of the horror ghetto to play The Dying Girl with great sensitivity, although in no ways does she look ugly when she loses her hair.

Amongst the high school cliques that Greg has identified and loosely affiliated with, she's a JAP—though he has a different term for Jewish American Princess—though I wondered if the presence of an actual Asian girl was a sort of comic nod to that.

Newcomer RJ Cyler plays Earl, the voice of reason. Former "Walking Dead" jerk Jon Bernthal (Fury) continues to remind us that that was just a role and he's really a fine actor capable of all kinds of range.

Terrific performances from Nick Offerman (an icon now as the macho libertarian Ron Swanson on "Parks and Rec") as Greg's Dad, the shiftless Sociology professor and Connie Britton ("American Horror Story", This Is Where I Leave You) as Greg's Mom.

Especially great performance by Molly Shannon, whom I don't think I've thought of since her 1999 Catholic schoolgirl movie Superstar. Here she plays the emotionally fragile, incredibly lonely single mother of Rachel, right on the line of comic (at least to teen children) and tragic (because, wow, incredibly tragic). There's a lot of depth there.

Check it out.