Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Above and Beyond

Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain are back! What, you didn't know they were gone? You didn't know who they were, even? Well, let me put you some knowledge: The two collaborated on the wonderful Hava Nagila some years ago, and have now put together an entertaining and stirring documentary on the Israeli Air Force at the dawn of that countries creation.

The Boy and I loved this. The story of Israel is one of the great underdog stories of all time, as a bunch of scrappy, beat-up Jews managed to reclaim their ancestral homeland outnumbered by orders of magnitude by a virulent mix of ancient enemies mixed with a virulent progressive philosophy (Muslims inspired by Naziism).

The story begins when the British, sympathetic to the Jews' plight post-WWII but not so sympathetic as wanting to alienate all the oilarabs in the Middle East punt the question of the Jewish homeland to the UN. The UN reaches the pinnacle of its existence by voting to give the Jews their homeland back, and then doing nothing as the surrounding Muslim nations plan to invade once the British withdraw.

In anticipation of the attack, the future Israelis scramble to assemble an air force. The US has tons of planes just rotting, but—despite having voted for the homeland—immediately bans the export of all weapons to Palestine. Then a funny thing happens: A lot of air force pilots, mostly of Jewish descent but not particularly religious and very American, decide the Jews have been kicked around enough, and join the struggle.

Since the U.S. Air Force—and this is particularly awesome—has a "buy a plane on the cheap" plan for former pilots, one of them buys a dozen and sets up a fake cargo company that hops around the world to avoid detection of their real motives. There's a particular joy in hearing all these 90-year-old vets recount their world travels as handsome young flyboys in Panama, Rome and finally...Czechoslovakia.

The Czechs are eager to help the Israelis, or at least eager to sell them abandoned Messerschmitt 109 fighters. Or, to be even more precise, sell them flying jalopies cobbled together from 109s and whatever spare parts (including bomber engines) they had lying around.

As the Arab invasion begins, the Israelis have three of these planes, and about half-an-hour training.

It's just a great story of heroism, luck (both good and bad), and questions of purpose and meaning (especially for the secular Jews who find themselves key to Israel's survival). Grossman and Sartain tell the story in a almost-too-short 90 minutes, alternating between showing us the interviewees, some stock footage and some recreations.

On the three-point scale:

1. Importance of topic: Awesomely important.

2. Delivery: Simple, straightforward, but not dry. The mix of approaches keeps us interested. The stories are like the ones your grandfather would tell, only cooler and with a point.

3. Bias: It's a one-sided story. Pro-Israel. Pro Air Force. Pro-Israeli Air Force. Personally, I don't see any need for "balance" here. From the moment of its inception, the Arabs have hated the notion of Jews having a right to exist in their own country. They were never interested in peace, and the fact that tiny little Israel kicks their asses at every turn delights me.

Bonus points for Surprise Pee-Wee Herman, whose father was one of the original pilots.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Big Hero 6

There is this heartfelt moment in the new Disney superhero cartoon, Big Hero 6, where two characters have an emotional talk about what has happened and how things are going to play in the future. At the end of this, I leaned into The Boy and whispered, "And that's why you have to die!"

15 seconds later, the character was dead.

Peak superhero, people. The tropes are so well ironed out they're virtually incapable of surprising. But, hey, the Western dominated films for at least 40 years, so I guess we could have 25 more years of this.

So, as far as these sorts of movies go, this is a good example of one. Our hero is an orphan living with his aunt who teams up with a medical robot and some nerdy friends to avenge a crime. The supporting team is pretty one-dimensional, but at least they have a dimension. The lead kid's fine. It's all pretty affable with some passable action and good humor.

Beymax? The medical robot pressed into service as a crime-fighter? Pretty much perfect. No point in arguing it. In a future world of hyper-geniuses too dumb to have invented fire extinguishers, Beymax stands out as actually reasonably believable (and adorable) technology.

Sanfransokyo is nice, too, and not New York, which is nice.

The other outstanding aspect of this film is the character movement. CGI "actors" went through several phases: First they didn't move at all, except in stilted Frankensteinian lurches, looking creepy. Next they exaggerated minor motions, breathing with their shoulders and waving their hands like drunken Italian stereotypes. Then it was kind of (traditional) cartoony affair, with the exaggerations feeling a little more artistic and less a product of technology.

Here, it's completely natural. It's comic at times, of course, but it's the comic of a Buster Keaton instead of a Bugs Bunny.

Well, look, I'm an animation geek (and a computer geek). This stuff impresses me. It vanishes quickly as we get spoiled, but I'm calling it: This is another perfect aspect of the film.

There's a nice touch in the beginning whereby you're set up for a really traditional villain/hero thing, but it quickly becomes apparent the villain isn't who you're supposed to think it is. (And thank God for that, as it's an eye-rollingly tired cliché.) At the same time, it's not really a surprise when you learn who the real villain is, because who else could it be?

The means of defeating The Big Bad was good, too, I thought, not one of these typical "Well, they fight until the scene is over" scenarios that superhero movies do. The villain has a weakness that's inherent in his power, and they figure it out. (I hope knowing that the villain is defeated isn't a spoiler. Also, you are an alien if it is.)

There's nothing wrong with it. The Boy was tempted to class it as "one of those movies that an alien would make if he came to earth and tried to pretend to be human" but that's not fair. It is good, it's just utterly by-the-numbers.

The Barb, of course, loved it. I liked it okay.

I also liked the short at the front of the film. It may win an Oscar.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mommy

A two-hour and twenty-minute French-Canadian film about a trashy single mom and her violent son filmed in a sort of squeeze box that looks like an iPhone video? Sign us up!

Heh.

So, yeah, there was a certain trepidation in seeing 24-year-old writer/director Xavier Dolan's intimate film of struggle and drama, but when we walked out The Boy—The Boy!—pronounced it in his Top 5 for 2014. (Said list was previously at Top 4, so hard-pressed was he to recall truly outstanding films from last year.)

Yeah, it's good. It's not for everyone for a variety of reasons, but all-in-all, it's an amazing achievement.

The setup is simple: Widowed mom Die ("dee") Després gets called down to juvie to pick up her son, who has set the cafeteria on fire and injured a kid, and the institution will no longer care for him. She loses her job as a result (at least partly, there's more going on there), and must simultaneously figure out how to get money and homeschool her wild child.

Going on welfare is straight out, interestingly, just as it was in 2 Days, 1 Night. It's almost as if some people—even in socialist paradises!—inherently realize how destructive it is to the soul to not work for one's own keep.

Anyway, Steve is no run-of-the-mill wild child, what with his penchant for setting things on fire, smashing things, groping inappropriately, and so on. Fortunately, Die's neighbor Kyla is a teacher on sabbatical who is amenable to helping her and Steve out.

Kyla has her own issues, which she never actually discusses in the film, but which can be deduced fairly easily. There's a distinct tension between her and her emotionless husband, and she's distant from her young daughter.

The free-spirited (and even chaotic) Després clan is a sort of remedy for the buttoned-down Kyla, who seems fragile but who is actually fairly broad-minded. Steve and Die trade shocking foul-mouthed barbs over the dinner table and escalate their emotions pretty quickly, and de-escalate them almost as quickly.

So, right off the bat, one of my first worries about Mommy—that it would be boring—never comes to pass. All three main characters are interesting in their own ways, and where Steve and Die's vulgarity could be tiring, there is genuine affection and good character underneath. Die's apparent trashiness belies an interesting backstory, and she's actually both acutely aware of her age (the actress herself is 54) and (at least it seemed to me) still mourning her husband, even though her philosophy doesn't really allow for moping.

One of the movie's other great achievements is making Steve likable. In the first few minutes, he's described as having committed a horrible crime, one for which his mom reflexively defends him—not by proclaiming his innocence but by blaming the victim. I mean, you don't want to say Steve is a monster, but the movie doesn't soft-pedal the severity of his problems.

It's so much the case that you have a sense of doom from the start, which the movie more-or-less encourages.

Dolan rather impressively uses his 1:1 screen ratio (they call it 1:1, but that should be a square, and this was very clearly a "portrait mode" rectangle) to create a claustrophobic, intimate feeling and at two points in the film to create huge emotional moments. And I mean, moments of real joy and heartache, which is rare enough at any aspect ratio.

The first time, he literally shows you what he's doing, as if it were Steve himself breaking free. The second time takes place in Die's head, and is one of the most heartbreaking montages I've ever seen, and it had passed before I realized what he had done. Very adept, but perhaps something he's been mulling since he filmed I Killed My Mother, his autobiographical debut film five years ago.

Yeah, I'm impressed.

The only thing that seemed gratuitous to me is that this is a semi-futuristic film: The idea is that the health law has been amended such that a parent has the legal and moral right to commit a troubled child to an institution, with no third party confirmation. (I didn't know that wasn't already possible.)

Anyway, the acting was tremendous: Anne Dorval is utterly convincing as Die, and Suzanne Clemént is moving as Kyla. Their ease together may be due to the fact that they were both also in I Killed My Mother. But, whatever, along with Antoine Olivier-Pilon, and the portrait shot, it often feels more like we're eavesdropping/spying than watching a movie.

I did not recognize Patrick Huard, Starbuck himself, as Paul, so humorless was he.

Obviously, this isn't a film for everyone, because, you know, there's a big old dysfunction right in the middle of proceedings. Despite that, there's a lot of hopefulness here, a lot of fun, a lot of melodrama amongst the actual drama and, like I said before, The Boy puts it in his top 5 for 2014, which is a pretty respectable recommendation for any such drama.

Son of a Gun

We went in semi-blind to this Austalian caper flick, Son of a Gun, and the opening moments were somewhat ominous. Young JR (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus, Maleficent) is being incarcerated, and going through the various humiliating rituals for his six month stint (which should be three with time off for good behavior). He quickly falls afoul of a jail gang that wants to rape him, against the advice of long timer Brendan (Ewan McGregor), and is rescued from a brutalization by Brendan and his gang.

Such rescue comes at a price, however, and before you know it JR has wandered into an extended edition of Grand Theft Auto.

The point, however, is that Son of a Gun is a caper flick, which isn't obvious from any of the material I saw. Caper flicks are hard. In America, it's pretty much relegated to magic, whether figuratively (as in Ocean's 11, 12 and 13) or literally (as in Now You See Me). Your anti-heroes are pretty much straight-up heroic. Maybe not perfect, but not really true anti-heroes by a long shot.

This flick, then is kind of a breath of fresh air. It's gritty without wallowing in squalor. It has its dark side, but doesn't let that get in the way of the fun, and even features a romance you want to root for. McGregor's Brendan is not completely without honor, but he's still a pretty bad dude.

It's a nice balance. It doesn't go too far into the goofy. It does encourage you to overlook things, as these films almost invariably must, being about thieves, but it doesn't insult your intelligence in doing so.

Likable performances from McGregor and Thwaites, Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina) as The Skirt, Jacek Komen (Defiance, Children of Men) as The Boss, and Damon Herriman (J. Edgar) as The Weasel.

We were really happy to have caught this: It didn't get a big release and doesn't even appear on Box Office Mojo at the moment.

Human Capital

Based on a book by American author Stephen Amidon, Human Capital (Il capitale umano) tells the story of a hit-and-run on a bicyclist. Not really, but you'd kind of get that impression from the trailers and capsules.

This is actually a semi-Rashomon type story, where we see the accident from a distance, and then experience the surrounding events from the perspectives of Dino (Fabrizio Bentvoglio), a grasping middle-class real estate agent, Carla (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi), the wife of a rich financial-type guy, and Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino's daughter.

It's not really a Rashomon because while perspective gives us a new story with new details that change our perspective, they don't really contradict each other. In fact, if there's a key theme to this story, it's that nobody knows what's going on with other peoples' lives.

Dino starts the ball rolling: His daughter (Serena) is dating the son of the rich financial guy (Carla's husband, Giovanni), and he sees in a passing amiability the opportunity to make it big by investing with Giovanni—something he really can't afford to do.

Dino is successful, and he thinks his success is proof of his intelligence. The funny thing to me about this was that even if an investment like the one Dino made was successful, he'd still be screwed because it's illiquid.

Our second perspective is that of Carla's. She's kind of aimless until she comes across a dilapidated theater, and gets it in her head to refurbish and reopen it. Her happiness is as tied up with her husband's fortune as Dino's is, but she's perhaps even less aware of how quickly things can go sour. Giovanni is an indulgent but not attentive husband, and her frantic day filling is relieved at the prospect of having something meaningful to do.

The third story is Serena's, and it is the one that provides the key to the mysteries and the stories' ultimate resolutions. Dino's awareness of her seems to not extend beyond her relationship with Massimiliano, Giovani's son, which is also true of Carla (who is no more aware of her son's life). If Dino is motivated solely by money, and Carla by art or perhaps fame, Serena's motivation is love. If there is a ray of hope in this movie, it comes from her, even when her story doesn't go so well.

Although generally well received, the complaints I've seen have regarded the murkiness of the theme. My take on that is: So much the better. As a condemnation of capitalism, this would be stupid. As a story about people whose lives intersect in various ways, it's fine melodrama.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Interview

Speaking of hard to recommend movies, there's this hot mess of a film that landed in a political brouhaha. The Interview, a collaboration between long-time cohorts Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.

A lot of people wanted to support this film one week, only to retract that support the next week when Rogen made an unflattering statement about American Sniper. Or America, depending on how you wanted to interpret it. I chose not to interpret it at all.

I wanted to see it in the theater on principle, but it was only out in that brief window and it was one of those weeks where I couldn't get out. In normal circumstances, I would've caught it at the bargain theater. As it is, I watched it on Netflix. I don't usually review stuff I see on Netflix, but this is a movie of some unusual interest.

The premise is simple: A shallow entertainment superstar (James Franco) and his wanna-be-better-than-that producer (Seth Rogen) get tapped by the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, to do a softball interview in NoKo. The CIA decides this is their perfect chance to kill the little runt, so they put some effort into teaching the two how it should go.

Franco's character Skylark is so dumb and so gullible, that he actually finds himself under the sway of Un, a situation that infuriates the more level-headed Rogen, when he's not pursuing the hot Korean PR officer (the very lovely Diana Bang). Ultimately this resolves to a pro-America and pro-West sentiment which, weirdly, is almost shocking.

But then, the whole thing is more than a little weird and uncomfortable and I found myself more interested in why that was so, than I was in the actual movie.

The team's previous outing, This Is The End, is weird and uncomfortable, too, but it also works somehow. Maybe because of the sort of fantasy element to the whole thing, or maybe because in that film, everyone was lampooning themselves. There's something rather endearing in a story about a group of rich actors who realize, come Judgment Day, they're mostly going right to Hell. And, hey, it's the End of the World, so the dark, broody camerawork works to achieve a funhouse effect.

But in The Interview the same type of camerawork is used, and it sits on the movie like a shroud. This is a screwball comedy shot in the style of a serious spy thriller. It reminds me, at its best, of the cinematography in Network, which this film sometimes shuffles embarrassingly around, and other times lampshades (e.g. when Rogen explains that Franco, the media, is being manipulated by Un.)

It doesn't help that, as far as I know, in real life, nobody outside of North Korea is actually fooled by Un's antics. (Dennis Rodman and Michael Moore maybe pretend to be.) So the big message is, well, it's dopey.

But the big problem is that great satire, like Network, teases your credulity, by playing things absolutely straight. Part of the game is getting your audience to go along with you as far as you can stretch them before they just reject your premise outright. (The obvious example being Swift's A Modest Proposal. You can see someone saying "You're making sense...you're making sense...you're making sense...wait, eat the what?"

The Interview absolutely refuses to treat its audience with any sort of respect in that regard. It's as though they're worried if they go five minutes without a dick joke, you'll lose interest in the film, without seeing how the tonal shifts both destroy the film's credibility on the one hand, and make the jokes fall flat on the other.

Now, that maybe wasn't a wrong choice, though nota bene that most of the other projects the two have worked on together (Funny People, Superbad, Knocked Up) don't have that problem. Interestingly enough, one that does is The Green Hornet, which would fit with the idea that there's a lack of conviction in the subject matter.

I'm criticising here, but it's not completely unredeemed. It has a strange bravura to it, like the best aspects of This Is The End. Some of the jokes work. Diana Bang is really cute. The ending is an interesting kind of twist.

A lot of people praise the Rogen/Franco chemistry, but I often found it grating here. There's a lot of graphic violence at the end, which will alienate a few people who might otherwise enjoy it. When I found myself asking "Who would like this?" I kept coming back to the answer "me". Dark, broody, satirical, over-the-top gore.

So why didn't I like it more?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Leviathan

It's not like I was expecting Mr. Smith Goes To Washington from the Oscar-nominated Russian movie Leviathan (левиафан for those of you with your Cyrillic goggles on), but I was sort of expecting something a little more akin to Twelve, where layers of self-interest are peeled back and a perverse outcome is arrived at as the best solution for the screwed-up world Russians live in.

But no: Leviathan is utterly bleak. There is no hope. Hope is mocked.

We liked it.

When the story opens, Kolia is talking with pal Dimi about an upcoming hearing: The Mayor has decided to take over his land, and Kolia is resistant, given that he built the house on his land and runs his business there, and The Mayor is offering him about 1/6th of what he considers fair value.

My capsule from the trailer was "Russian guy doesn't know he's living in Russia". But, whatever, Kolia seems to think he has property rights, and so he and Dimi have a scheme to extort the mayor so he can keep his place or at least get a good price for it.

At the only point where it looks like Kolia might have a chance, the story is instantly derailed with a melodrama involving Lilya, Kolia's pretty young wife. In fact, I started to get a little annoyed with the movie, thinking it had gone off base with this story, but it all ties together in the most horrible, cynical way imaginable.

There are no heroes in this story: Everyone knows what's going on. They're apathetic or complicit (or both). There's cowardice and betrayal. Faint glimmers of decency are swallowed almost as quickly as they appear.

One's soul cries out for a theme, a metaphor, or an understanding of some kind here, and Leviathan seems to tell us that in this modern reinterpretation of Job, the state is God, the Enemy and the Leviathan.

The ending is so dark, it makes you think Russia should be burned down and paved over with something nice, like Hell.

Beautifully shot, compellingly acted, and soul-crushingly realistic, Leviathan is a fine film I wouldn't recommend easily to anyone.

And I in no way feel smug about living in America, where this kind of thing happens all the time, and gets not so much as a mention in the papers.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Zero Motivation

If I had to sum up Zero Motivation, I'd probably call it "M*A*S*H but with hot incompetent secretaries and without anti-war pretentiousness." That kind of captures the feel, though tells you little about the actual movie.

Israel has a kind of half-hearted conscription mandating two years of service to 18 year olds—although one of the exemptions (at least these days) is "low motivation", which perhaps explains the title of this movie. But with any draft, you get a lot of people who really shouldn't be there, and when you're drafting 18-year-old girls, no one could be surprised that you're going to get some who are worse than worthless (from an organizational standpoint).

Zero Motivation is really the story of two friends, Zohar and Daffi, who are essentially experts at loafing. Zohar is the queen of Minesweeper, while Daffi (whose title is something like "Chief Shredding Officer") principally occupies herself by sneaking naps and writing letters to command about wanting to be relocated to Tel Aviv. (The girls are in a camp in the middle of the desert.)

The movie is divided into three stories: The first concerns Daffi's training of her replacement, a girl she's sure has been sent to replace her so she can be transferred to Tel Aviv. The second concerns Zohar's efforts to lose her virginity. The third follows Daffi in her scheme to relocate to Tel Aviv by virtue of going through officer's training.

Writer/director Talya Lavie keeps the proceedings light, over all, even when it touches on serious subjects. Ultimately, this is a movie about two girls and their friendship, and it could've worked similarly in a university environment or even a large enough corporation. There is less disrespect for the military than there was in M*A*S*H, or there would be in virtually any modern similarly placed American story. (I think because it's much harder to make the argument that Israel "opts in" to wars.)

Anyway, it made me laugh to beat the band. Nicely plotted, doesn't take itself too seriously, but treats its characters with respect. Zohar is played by Dana Ivgy (of the moving Next To Her), Nelly Tagar (who had a tiny role in the dark Footnote) plays Daffi, and the two have a natural chemistry as if they're really close friends. (The movie does, in fact, pass the Bechdel test.)

Two other standout performances: First, Shani Klein, as the long suffering IC of the girls, who longs to make them into an effective bureaucratic force, and to have a real military career. This was Klein's first role, making it all the more impressive how she sort of channeled her inner Major Houlihan. Second, the impossibly named Tamara Klingon, who plays the hard-nosed Russian suddenly possessed by a wan, but vengeful, spirit. (Or is she?)

The Boy enjoyed it, though perhaps not as much as I did. The Flower, who still has some trouble with subtitles did enjoy it though, which is a good indicator of how fun it was.

It got a very limited release, but is well worth seeing. You'd never know this was Lavie's freshman effort.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

2 Days, 1 Night

Marion Cotillard has a bad case of ennui. Real bad. So bad that she had to spend four months in the funny farm getting semi-un-ennui-ed (constructions like this is why robots will never speak English) only to find on the eve of returning to work, that her co-workers have opted to have her position eliminated rather than lose their year-end bonus.

She has 2 Days, 1 Night (or Deux jour, une nuit in the original, apparently inaccessible French) to reverse that vote!

Usually, when I say "I know, right? French!" in these reviews. I'm referring to some sort of sexual deviance that has been normalized by our frisky Gallic pals, but in this case, let us ponder the situation of a heroine who has been collecting a paycheck for doing nothing for four months, but for whom we are supposed to root, as she goes to inflict hardship on each of her co-workers, both emotionally and financially, after a four month period where her absence was already presumably a problem.

I know, right? French! Or more accurately, Belgian, but French Belgian, not the cool Flemish Belgian.

It's a testament to the Dardenne brothers (The Kid With A Bike) that this works at all.

@uncommentari once mentioned, in reference to some of the more difficult movies The Boy and I see, some puzzlement over the fact that we seem to enjoy these experiences, many of which cannot be considered pleasant. Well, sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, depending on the skill of the participants, the purpose of the unpleasantness, and the attitude of the execution.

For example, some horror movies are just unpleasant because it's easier to be unpleasant than scary and they don't really know the difference. I don't want to go see Haneke (The White Ribbon, Amour) movies because his goal seems to be punishing the audience. (Not enlighten or cause to empathize, but just punish.)

This is not the most unpleasant of film experiences but, let me tell you, you will feel all 90 minutes of it, as Sandra (Cotillard) drags herself across the countryside from family to family, humiliated and depressed the whole way.

It works, though, because Sandra isn't looking for pity. Ultimately she's just asking her co-workers to fire her to her face, which is something you should be able to do, if you're going to be voting to fire people. It's hard, but it has a heroic character to it as, let's face it, she hasn't really shaken her ennui, popping Xanax like Tic-Tacs.

But she has a character arc, Hollywood-ized up a bit, and you do end up liking her. (Cotillard has an extra barrier to deal with in my case, since people have been gushing about her since La Vie En Rose, which was really unpleasant.) I wondered if perhaps the Dardennes had actually told everyone else to dial back the acting, since this is the Marion Show, and even though her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, The Kid on a Bike) is constantly around, he's just very low key.

I could understand "keeping it together", of course, but he never seems to look like he's suppressing any emotion, just that he's—well, he comes off sort of dumb, somehow. Your mileage may vary.

The other actors are fine and the ending is satisfying (though perhaps not with the same resonance to an American), and I ultimately walked away from this pondering the socialist/Cotillard balance of our critic class. 'cause ultimately, they love this film, even though it's a pretty damning indictment of socialism.

Sure, you could say the evil capitalist (a solar panel manufacturer) forced his employees to make an inhuman choice, but it's actually pretty clear by the end that it was necessary to cut costs, and Sandra's four month paid vacation made it clear that 16 people could do the job as well as 17.

Which, duh.

But a running theme throughout the movie is that people don't want to be on the dole. It's shameful. It's degrading. The big threat for Sandra and Manu is that they'll have to move back to whatever the Belgian equivalent of The Projects is.

And these are all skilled laborers. Welding is mentioned at one point, though I'm not sure it's what they all do. But these skilled laborers are agonizing over 1,000€, which means they're all torturing themselves over the equivalent of $300-$600 (after taxes, which are obscene in Belgium).

Meanwhile, a bunch of them do stuff "on the black", presumably working illegally, doing things like repairing cars or stocking shelves or whatever. The Dardennes may think they're being critical of capitalism, but they're honest enough to just tell the story and let you think and feel what you want.

My initial thought was that management that forces workers to choose between co-workers and bonuses (a real thing) are terrible management (and the movie paints considerable ambiguity on the who-did-what-to-whom plot points) but then I thought, well, why not force workers to make the hard choices that have to be made?

Especially in socialist countries where "management" is painted as the enemy of "labor" (as if they were different), I can see a certain value in forcing childish we-should-all-be-hired-forever-with-pay-raises-and-ponies to make the hard calls.

Fortunately, all that is incidental to the real story, which is about Sandra. And which is good.

But not easy to watch.

The Imitation Game

I've always known of Alan Turing as "the father of modern computing"—the guy who first described certain things in certain ways which have proven to be useful, certainly. The recent Weinstein movie about Turing, The Imitation Game, suggests that he invented "Turing machines", and those are just another name for computers, which is the sort gross inaccuracy you expect from a Hollywood film about a gay genius.

I had some reticence about seeing this film, because I was worried they were going to turn a story about a gay computer guy (there are many) into a story about a gay guy who worked on computers. Which, frankly, it's a trivialization of anyone to reduce them to their sexuality.

They do do this, actually, but do it so well, you'll hardly notice it's being done.

This is a slickly made pseudo-biopic centered primarily around Turing's work at Bletchley Park, where the German code was cracked in WWII. It's taut, dramatic, fun to watch, and wholly fictional both in terms of details and big story elements.

Turing's contributions are exaggerated. . His social eccentricities are turned into severe liabilities (they weren't). He's presented as a loner (he wasn't). He's presented as a man pining for a lost childhood love (maybe?), so much so that he names his computer after him (it wasn't). He's blackmailed into silence by a Soviet spy over his homosexuality (who knows?). He's punched (he wasn't) by the very hetero guy for making a statement about hiding intelligence (never his call). They present him as having killed himself (experts disagree) during court-mandated hormone treatment (it had ended over a year prior to his death) which crippled him intellectually (it didn't).

He's outed as a homosexual when cops come to investigate a robbery of his house (never happened) on a neighbor's noise complaint (not a thing) which he didn't report because of his homosexuality. That was a stretch.

The producers have said people get hung up over accuracy, when they're not going for accuracy, they're just trying to present to the audience what it was like to be Alan. I disagree: they've made a composite gay-experience guy and put him in Turing's body.

Like I said, though, this largely works, dramatically, even if it feels overly slick at times. Where it rang false was in their portrayal Commander Denniston, who ran Bletchley park for the first years of the war. He's sort of the stock "angry dean" character of college comedies, the closest people in Hollywood seem to come to understanding military types. I can believe that Denniston didn't get the nerds in Hut 8; I can't believe that he would do anything to jeopardize the war effort, just because (as the movie has it) he didn't like someone. That's not how non-emotionality-based-organizations work.

Not that I'd expect anyone in a Hollywood "idea room" to get that.

It's sort of like when a character is expected to let his brother die rather than let out information, and he cries and complains about it. That just doesn't seem very British to me. At least, not the British of WWII. But those guys are mostly not around any more, and a movie has to be made for the audience that's here, right?

Yes, I'm being highly critical, but I say to you: We liked it. It's a good movie. You're probably not gonna care about this stuff. I really didn't much until after the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fine, as always. Keira Knightly passes for a homely computer nerd. That evil Lannister guy is the evil Commander. The always great Mark Strong (The Guard, Green Lantern, Zero Dark Thirty) has a great role as a presumably entirely fictitious MI6 agent who acts as a sort of deus ex machina.

It is, as @juleslalaland has noted, a fine season for actors in projects that don't rise to the same level of skill.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wild

This is only the fourth woman-on-a-journey movie we've seen in the past year, and only the third that involved actual walking, but this is the first one to feature naked Reese Witherspoon. The other three were On My Way with Catherine Deneuve (she drove), Redwood Highway with Shirley Knight, and Tracks with Mia Wasikowska. It's the last that has the most in common with Wild, and not just because Mia also got naked.

In Tracks—based on a true story, like Wild—a woman walks across the desert because she's troubled, to some degree or another. Tracks is interesting despite not going into the details much. Wild is the opposite: The whole thing is a search for "why"s.

Why does she have to do this? Why did she do all those drugs and have all that anonymous sex? Why is Reese Witherspoon still playing teens and 20-somethings?

The Boy, who wouldn't know Ms. Witherspoon from any other big turn-of-the-century actress (having only seen her in Mud) leaned in at one point to say "She's, like, in her thirties or something, right?" during one of the scenes where she was playing a college student. (I think she's gotten better looking with age, but she doesn't look young.)

It's important because the age at which one has this sort of life crisis pretty dramatically impacts how we feel about the character. The movie's flashbacks are kind of confusing because they're not in order and they completely omit certain things, like Cheryl's marriage, except in terms of the wreckage she's made of it.

But the other thing the Boy whispered to me, early on, was something like "I'm not hating my life choices," which is fairly high praise given that this is the sort of movie that could be awful. In fact from the trailers, it could hardly not be awful, since they cast it as sort of an Eat, Pray, Love thing where an awful woman finds excuses for being awful, and finds it's mostly other awful people's fault.

(N.B., I'm guessing since I wouldn't go see Eat, Pray, Love with your eyeballs.)

Still, it works. Mostly.

Why? I think because it's mostly free of bullshit. There are times when our heroine seems to blame her bad behavior on her mother's death, e.g., but in the end she seems to find—well, I don't know, maybe the ending is bullshit, but I guess it worked for her.

This brings me back to Tracks, which works because the journey is the point. This is true of Wild as well, even though there's all this supporting material. And, frankly, it works because Witherspoon is good. But this has always been in her wheelhouse: Good-hearted characters who are flawed, even highly flawed, but still appealing.

She has to carry the movie, and pretty much does. Laura Dern has really the only other serious role in the movie as her mother, and the two play off each other as mother-and-daughter perfectly (despite only being less than ten years apart *kaff*). This part works very well, because we see Cheryl at her worst in a lot of ways, but in a way that is more relatable, perhaps, than the drug addiction/promiscuity thing.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education) and director Jean-Marc Valleé (Dallas Buyer's Club) have done a good job here, as did producer Reese Witherspoon in sponsoring a project that showcased her talents.

John Wick

"They'll know you're coming," the Russian mob boss says to Keanu Reeves, who is planning an all out assault on the well-guarded safe house containing the mob boss's son.

"It won't matter," says John Wick, the slayer of boogie men, ne plus ultra assassin supreme, all 'round badass who just wants to go straight, you guys, but they killed his puppy.

And indeed it doesn't in John Wick, the story of John Wick, a guy who is really good at killing stuff. The reported body count is 84. It might be more. It's hard to tell in all the excitement.

This is the sort of man-vs-mob movie that every action hero does occasionally and Liam Neeson does two or three times a ye—oh, look, Taken 3 is out. Anyway, I think this is a first for Keanu, who's normally paired off against robots or unicorns or samurai or what-not. Well, I think so: I haven't seen Keanu in a movie since The Lake House.

There's not really much to say about a movie like this, except that if you like this sort of movie, you'll probably like this instance of this sort of movie. The freshman effort by stuntman Chad Stahelski is stylish, fast-paced, with great fight choreography and a lot of fun touches. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad, whose last big feature had Steve Austin playing Tommy Wick (brothers?) creates an underworld mythology where everyone knows who John Wick is.

Everyone except the boss's kid, played by "Game Of Thrones" Alfie Allen, that is, who starts the whole ball rolling. Wick almost immediately figures it out with the help of local chop-shop impresario, John Leguizamo. Mob boss (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist, who's an actor I'm coming to like more and more, the more I see him) tries to quell things in between trying to kill Wick.

Other supporting players include Willem Dafoe as a hitman, Adriane Palicki (who played Wonder Woman in the attempted reboot),  Iane McShane as a saloon keeper, and Bridget Moynahan as the disembodied voice of the late Mrs. Wick. I mean, really, she's barely in the film but she gets pretty high billing.

I liked it. The Boy is hard to get to this kind of movie, because it's a fine line between stupid and clever and all that, so I ended up sneaking in the last showing of this while he was otherwise occupied. (I think he would've liked it.)

But as someone who went to most of the Schwarzenegger movies in the '80s and quite a few of the clones, I can say this was in the same ballpark, but really a lot better than most of those.

Into The Woods

The Flower is particularly reticent to see any films involving fairy tales, owing to, shall we say, strong opinions on the topic. But when I told her that Into The Woods included the oft-omitted portion of Cinderella wherein the evil stepsisters mutilate their feet (in order to be able to fit into the golden shoe) and they also have their eyes plucked out, she was much pleased and averred she might be interested after all.

And that's the sort of musical this is. A Stephen Sondheim musical. You know, like Sweeney Todd, though without the cannibalism somehow. It was a bit edgier 30 years ago, when post-Disney fairy tales and folklore were making a literary resurgence (or so it seemed to me at the time).

The story combines a number of fairy tales: A baker and his wife, barren, make a deal with a witch to collect four items from the woods in exchange for a child: A red cloak, a milky white cow, hair as gold as corn and a golden slipper. This puts them on a collision course with Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Rapunzel and Cinderella.

It's remarkable to note, at first, how faithful to the source material the first act is, despite tying all the stories together. (The character of The Mysterious Man, from the stage version, has been removed, with The Baker basically taking his parts, from what I can tell. Snow White is also written out.) It's also remarkable to note how tightly plotted it all is, with the characters motivations and actions leading logically one to the next. On top of that, the initial theme (the bittersweet character of growing up) is both very fitting and nicely done.

It hits the fan in the second act, of course, when the Happily Ever After turns out to be fraught with consequences, disappointments, and blamestorming.

It's not great. It's good, though. The clever parts, the plot, the machinery of the story, if you will, hang together admirably well—one wishes we could see more of this sort of attention to detail in all movies—but the emotional parts make sense without being very moving. That's not quite fair: The emotional parts work great on the back-burner; you can see why the people act how they do, for the most part, and you can empathize with it.

But the arias where they express their feelings, which are often the high points of opera/musical theater, didn't really work, at least not for me. Interestingly enough, I had a similar reaction to Burton's interpretation of Sweeney Todd, where I didn't find the stage presentation to be lacking at all emotionally.

The cast is good. Well, dramatically. Well, let's say they're better than Les Miserables. And let us also concede that casting movie musicals is just like casting animation: Actors are selected for their perceived drawing power, not any musical ability.

Meryl Streep takes the Bernadette Peters Witch role, which both reduces the musicality of the part and takes some of the "wow" out when she transforms from an old hag to a—well, not an old hag. But at least she's the only cast member of Mamma Mia! here.

Emily Blunt (the Baker's Wife) survives her role. Barely. Johnny Depp's (The Wolf) role is mercifully short. James Corden (The Baker) is fresh off pretending to sing in One Chance. Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mom) was the only one whose singing voice I could actually identify. Oh, and Anna Kendrick looked and sounded like she maybe could've been Cinderella on stage.

Dramatically, they're all fine, even Ms. Streep, whose affected style is actually appropriate in this circumstance. But just like Le Miz, you're gonna wanna not listen to the original cast in the vicinity of this.

The Boy and I enjoyed it. We didn't have any particular attachment to the original, though. I could see it again if The Flower decided she wanted to see it. But I can't help feeling a great opportunity was missed here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy's first directorial effort is a Michael-Mann-ish looking film called Nightcrawler. Hungry Jake Gyllenhaal ends up shooting video footage for the ambitious Rene Russo and becomes increasingly obsessed with getting amazing shots, even if he has to fake them. Ultimately this drags him into a murder plot.

I haven't seen this film yet. This is the sort of film I'd probably not go to see if not for the glowing ratings. As I mentioned, it looks very Mann-ish, and I am not a Mann man. Also, it's big claim to fame is that it's a thriller. And we are probably having worse luck with so-called "thrillers" than with horror movies.

I think they use "thriller" to sell any drama, no matter how plodding, if any aspect of the resolution is in doubt.

But Gilroy wrote Tarsem's The Fall, which is his best film by a long shot, in no small part because of the story the effects could be hung on. He also wrote The Bourne Legacy, among other things. But in all his previous work as just-a-writer, he probably didn't have much clout. But this baby is his.

And it's being showered with awards. So it's gotta be good, right?

Right?

[later...]

Actually, yeah, it's really good. And the trailers are both weirdly spoiler-y and completely misleading in ways that I can't describe without spoiling it. My summary, above, based on the trailer grossly misrepresents the actual shape of things. Heh.

Gyllenhaal is just great. The supporting crew is very good: Riz Ahmed as the sidekick, Bill Paxton in a smaller, sweet role as a competitor and Rene Russo. Rene Russo is especially good as an aging news director seeing her salvation in Gyllenhaal. Also, given that I praise French women for looking their age, I'm should praise Russo as well: She looks her age, and if she's had work done, I don't see it—but she looks good. Which is all the more remarkable given her character is one who's a little desperate, cynical and bitter.

But ultimately, Gyllenhaal has to power the movie and he does.

So, will you like it? Well, it's dark, darkly comic, cynical, a directly scathing indictment of news media and by extension an indirectly scathing indictment of society, tense, suspenseful and horrifying.

Once I got a handle on the kind of story it was, I had a strong idea how it was going to end—and I could list some similar films, but that could spoil it, and a lot of people will be surprised by how it turns out.

It was a lot of fun. But remember, I have odd ideas about what's "fun". The Flower also really enjoyed it—but her sense of humor is a lot like mine. The Boy was a little cooler toward it, though he definitely liked it, and very much appreciated the suspense. He nitpicked the climax a bit; he felt it was a little unrealistic, that I can't tell you without a spoiler.

I thought maybe it was unrealistic for a different reason, that I can tell you about without spoiling: The police are called to Western Avenue and 3rd Street, which is about 3 miles from the Rampart Station—a big LAPD station in LA. I used to live in that area and when I called the cops, they would be there in seconds.

So I thought the movie showed them taking too long to get there, and it looked like they weren't even the ones who had been called. In other words, they maybe just moseyed in on accident. Minor point, at best. But the sort of thing that you could expect from me watching a movie taking place in L.A. (which adds to the fun for me, of course).

The Flower and I would probably put it in our top 10, while The Boy said it was more a top 20—which I think is more a statement on where he felt it belonged rather than being able to name 19 better other movies.

It's been an odd year: There've been very many good, even very good movies, but not so many great ones. I suspect our assessment for the Best of 2014 will be very documentary heavy.

Still, this was a good film to close the year out on.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

There's some old-fashioned sleight-of-hand huckstering going on with this new Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. What I saw in various places was "the first Iranian vampire movie". But in other places I'm seeing "the first Iranian vampire western." Big diff.

Although I see nothing of the Western in here.

There is boatloads of style in this beautifully shot black-and-white tale of a hapless guy who ends up on the wrong side of a loan shark/drug dealer's attempt to collect a debt his heroin-addict father incurred, and then ends up the lucky recipient of said dealer's wealth when a hungry girl vampire kills him.

This isn't one of those vampire movies where the vampire only kills bad guys, though. We puzzled over it afterward and the only commonality between her victims were that they were all male.

Of course, as I've noted for other movies, some ideas that are popular in American culture have a lot more force in others. Whatever the state of women in America, for example, Persian women could tell them a thing or two about oppression. The problem being an American can't always relate to the emotional impact they're meant to have.

You know, so maybe it's nothing in particular that she only kills men. And threatens boys. I dunno.

Anyway, it's a sort of love story between our living hero and our undead heroine, though one quite obviously fraught with certain issues (that are never addressed). In the end, the hero comes to realize that she's a murderer, but never that she's a vampire. Or does he? I don't know how he could have, really.

In the end, the three of us were split. The Boy did not care for it. It was too static and the characterization was weak. I can't really argue with that, but I kind of liked it anyway. I felt there was enough characterization and motion in the plot to make it worthwhile, though no where at the level of, say, Let The Right One In.

The Flower? She loved it. She's developed a strong sense of aesthetics and really enjoyed it on that level. Also, vampires are cool, and chick vampires doubly so, I'm sure.

The Girl is played by Sheila Vand (Argo, "State of Affairs") sort of like a French noir heroine. The Boy is played by Arash Marandi. The Boy's father is played by Marshall Manesh, whom The Flower recognized as playing a cab driver on "How I Met Your Mother" and who was also the doctor in The Big Lebowski, and who's one of those guys in a ton of things. He gets to stretch his acting chops.

Mozhan Marno (The Stoning of Soraya M, "House of Cards") plays a prostitute, while Dominic Rains ("General Hospital") plays the thug. Rains and Manesh were in the short version of this film, made a few years ago with the future star of Shirin In Love.

You may notice that all these actors are in a lot of American shows and movies. Punchline: it's not really an Iranian film. It's an American film starring a bunch of Persians. Shot in California. Heh.

Which is cool. Especially because I kept thinking, "Man, Iran looks a lot like California."