Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Shining (1980)

Speaking of Stanley Kubrick, The Boy and The Flower had never seen The Shining, so when the local second-run theater had it as a late-night Friday showing, I offered to take them down to see it. The Flower had some babysitting to do at the last minute so it turned out just to be the two of us.

Late night showings can be a mixed bag, since few there are interested in avoiding spoilers or being quiet, but after about 5 or 6 false starts where the sound didn't play, we were on our way. We did not need the extra 20-30 minutes tacked on to the 2:24 minute runtime—back from when 2:24 was a really long-ass movie, especially a horror flick—but it's remarkable how well this nearly 35 year old ghost story holds up.

I mean, seriously,  you can count the number of horror movies that remain truly effective after 35 years on the fingers of one six-fingered, mutant hand. (OK, it's not quite that bad, but it's not good.)

Here's the peculiar thing: Kubrick's film is basically a funhouse horror flick combined with a very restrained slasher. It's only in the last half-hour that we find Jack Torrance running around The Overlook with his axe. Up till then, it's all shocks and scary images—all atmosphere.

What's fascinating is that the shocks and the scary imagery by-and-large still work. Like Nosferatu, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even Nightmare on Elm Street (and, of course, I'm referring to the Murnau, Siegel and Craven versions, respectively), they still pack a visceral punch, especially when viewed on the big screen. And in the case of The Shining, in particular, even when they've been parodied endlessly for the past 20 years.

The performances are awesome. They'll make you laugh, they're so good. For what feels essentially like an epic, there are only about a dozen people in this film, and the half-dozen or so with lines are near perfect. Everybody knows about Jack, of course. His performance was instantly iconic. And little Danny Lloyd (now in his 40s) also became an instant cinematic standard (despite or perhaps because this was basically his only role).

On a second viewing—I'm pretty sure I haven't seen this since it came out, and I was the only one in the audience who was old enough to have done so, it seemed—I found Shelley Duvall's performance very nuanced. It's easy to think she's just being a backdrop for Jack's lunacy, but she actually balances being kind of annoyingly weak with plausibly finding strength when she needs it with being on edge, etc.

Scatman Crothers plays Dick Halloran, the first of 47 magic negros found in the works of Stephen King. I always liked Crothers but that may be because he played the voice of Hong Kong Phooey and Meadowlark Lemon. (I always assumed, with a name like "Scatman" he was a singer, and he was, but I've still never heard him sing outside of The Aristocats.)

Anne Jackson is great in her little scene as Danny's doctor, and someone who thinks very little of domestic abuse, indeed. (Back in 1980, we just called it "wife beating".) And Joe Turkel, who would go on to play the prototypical Evil Corporate CEO in Blade Runner, is ridiculously creepy as Lloyd the Bartender (a role originally to be played by Harry Dean Stanton, who bowed out because of scheduling conflicts with Alien).

The music, as such, is very effective, too. The "classical" stuff works but most of the atmosphere is fleetingly melodic electronic synth buzzes (not to mention the electronified "Dies Irae" that serves as the title music) which, dated as they are, are still spine-tingling.

It doesn't all work. There are a number of scenes, particularly in the beginning of the film, that are ridiculously expository, at least in modern terms. They come off a bit hokey.

A number of the ending shots don't work either: The furry with his butt hanging out is a kind of "Huh?" moment: It's actually set up thematically by the hotel's roaring '20s history but it's not really supported by much else. And the Gold Room filled with cobweb-covered skeletons is cheesey amusement park level stuff.

I remember the ending favorably but while I still liked that it didn't have a Big Showdown, I'm not sure that it was up to the level of the rest of it.

Also, why was Jack reading the January 1978 issue of Playgirl in the lobby while waiting for his bosses? The '70s were weird, man. Probably the most horrifying thing about this to modern viewers will be Wendy exposing Danny to secondhand smoke.

The outdoor shot of the parking lot (the Timberline Hotel in Oregon, though most of the movie was shot on a sound stage in England) was basically wall-to-wall ugly cars. The '70s was hard on automobile aesthetics.

The Boy really liked it which, again, for a horror movie from 35 years ago, is really saying something.

I, personally, get a perverse pleasure out of this being the best adaptation of one of Stephen King's horror stories, and he absolutely hates it, to the extent of having shepherded a not-great TV remake in the '90s. I think because King is Torrance, and his book (which actually turned me off King) is more sympathetic toward him. (There's one scene in the movie where you have a moment of pity for him: When he has a nightmare of what's to come.)

The movie is more from Danny's perspective: Jack is scary, as all good fathers are (no matter how much we love them), and he's scariest when he's being good. He lies. He cheats. He plots. As a metaphor for alcoholism, it's great.

Here's something I noticed this time: The Hotel never actually does anything that we see. Danny suffers at the hand of a "crazy lady" in Room 237, but we don't see it. And Grady lets Jack out of the freezer so he can terrorize his family—but we don't see that either.

The only damage done in the film we can verify is done by Jack, and he could have hurt Danny. (Wendy fumbled considerably with the latch on the freezer, meaning Jack could've busted out.)

Although I'm generally disinclined toward movies that pull out "Scooby-Doo" endings (where there were never any ghosts, just some dink with a mask and a projector), I'm inclined to side with Kubrick for most of his choices both in terms of narrative and characterization.

Anyway, good times. Next up on the revival calendar: Taking The Flower to see The Big Lebowski.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Life Itself

I never had much use for Roger Ebert's movie reviews much less his politics, so I wasn't super keen on seeing Life Itself, a documentary of his life and final days. I was amused by the whopping 97% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes: A film about a film critic? Must be awesome!

But the audience gives it a hearty 91% as well, and even with that being skewed toward fans, it's a strong rating. And this is a good movie, a heart-warming portrayal of a flawed, but interesting character that Siskel and Ebert would've both given thumbs-up to.

I should warn you: of all the movies I've seen in the past decade, this is the least popcorn-appropriate.

Ebert had cancer from dental treatments received as a child. (My mom had a similar thing for acne, and makes routine trips to the dermatologist to get melanomas removed. Maybe the '40s and '50s were a little too gung-ho on the radiation, eh?) A few years back, his jaw had to be removed, and the reconstruction failed (and nearly killed him) so in his last years, he just had a mouth flap.

That was hard for me to see. He was upbeat, even in these final days, viewing death as just another part of life. And it was interesting to discover that his approach to dealing with his cancer was in part due to being hurt by Siskel's approach to his cancer. Siskel kept it quiet until very late, surprising everyone. So Ebert decided he would tell everybody what was happening along the way.

You know what? Both approaches are valid. Siskel wanted to spend his last year enjoying the company of his wife and children without his death hanging over their heads. Ebert didn't want anyone to be shocked or unprepared.

Although there's a lot more to this movie than Siskel & Ebert, their relationship was my favorite part of the film. Antagonistic, even openly hostile at times, the two grew to be genuine friends, and this is detailed through outtakes of their popular TV show.

They showed two classic TV moments I personally remember prominently: One was their appearance on the Tonight Show where Carson asks them about bad movies that are out, and Ebert says he can't recommend The Three Amigos with Chevy Chase sitting on the couch next to him. Ebert is very gracious and complimentary toward Chase, and Chase handles it with his usual aplomb. (That is, kinda like a dick, but also fairly funny when doing material from the '70s.)

But the more interesting moment came in an episode of their where they reviewed both Full Metal Jacket and Benji, The Hunted. Siskel gets his knickers in a twist because Ebert doesn't like FMJ, then gets into a bigger snit because he gives a thumbs up to BTH. Ebert doesn't phrase his defense well, in my opinion, but he raises the valid point that movies must be judged on what they are, not in comparison to arbitrary other works.

Joe Camp did good work with Benji (including one of Chevy Chase's best movies, Oh, Heavenly Dog!) and he made good family flicks. He'll never achieve the towering greatness of Stanley Kubrick, but you're not always in the mood to see elevators full of blood.

In the end, using the Bitmaeltrom Three-Point Documentary Scale:

1. Ebert, in the end, is a worthy subject for a documentary. He did interesting things and believed passionately in what he did. He loved his family and they loved him back, and he made a contribution to the industry.

2. Steve James (Prefontaine, "Hoop Dreams") directs largely by getting out of the way and letting the material speak for itself. There's a lot to be said for that style when you have an interesting subject and lots of good primary material, as well as a lot of good interviews to draw on.

3. The spin. Well, look, it's a bit of a hagiography. That's okay, I think, though I imagine there are some filmmakers who wouldn't agree. Ebert might not, come to think of it.

But that's okay, too, because this isn't "Siskel and Ebert at the Movies" and I've never cared for "thumbs down" or "thumbs up" ratings. (This is actually a point raised by other film critics here.) I've always preferred Joe Bob Briggs style reviews where he might talk for the entire thing about how awful a film is, give it zero stars and then end his review with "Check it out." (He even used to offer t-shirts to people who could sit through certain movies to the end.)

The Boy really enjoyed it, too, and he didn't know anything about Ebert or the time-periods in question, so that says something.

Bitmaelstrom says "Check it out."

Monday, July 14, 2014

Snowpiercer

The problem, of late, has been the sheer lack of agreement between critics and audiences about what's worth seeing. As mentioned previously, the Swedish WWII film (The Last Sentence) was beloved by critics but not so much audiences. But the alternative (at our local) was a French WWII film also beloved by critics, but not so much audiences. We could trek down to the backup theater to see Radio Free Albemuth, which was based on a Philip K. Dick story, utterly despised by critics, with audiences favorable to it, but just barely. (And also without any of the usual signals, like "Christian", to suggest why critics would hate it.)

Both the kids had seen and disliked the movie poster for Snowpiercer, generic as it was, but audiences were okay with it and critics were gaga so I just dragged The Boy to see it.

And he loved it!

I...also liked it, though not as much as he did. There was a discrepancy in our brain-disengagement process that accounts for the difference. Let me explain the premise:

In an attempt to fight Global Warming (I know, I know), the countries of the world inject a chemical into the atmosphere, but they screw it up and actually end up freezing the world and killing everyone.

Ha!

However, there's a train. Yes, a train. And it travels around the world. Once circuit a year. It's a super-fast self-contained ecosystem containing all the world's remaining life. When the movie starts, we're in the back of the train where the poor people live on something suspiciously Soylent Green-ish, oppressed by Nazi-esque soldiers and mob enforcers and Tilda Swinton, with Chris Evans and the kid from Billy Elliot (grown now, sorta) plot with John Hurt to invade the front part of the train where Ed Harris rules all.

So, it's Elysium-on-a-train. And I'm pretty sure that's why the critics liked it. Because it's an allegory of the evil 1% oppressing the rest of the world.

I found this incredibly amusing because the train is a terrible allegory for a free market economy—there's no movement or trade at all to speak of—and a perfect allegory for a centrally controlled "sustainable" society. The train is a perfect Progressive paradise: the upper class go to nice schools, live drugged/sexed-up adolescence, then go on to fulfill their various roles in the society.

And yet, pursuing any allegorical angle very far is the road to madness. Joon-ho Bong (The Host (2006), Mother (2009)) is operating on a different level. It's, like, a Korean thing, reminding me after a fashion of Ki-Duk Kim (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, 3 Iron) in the sense that you'll go wrong if you're being too literal. The narrative is a kind of poetry.

And this works in some not entirely explicable fashion. Perhaps because the narrative is strongly constructed from a dramatic standpoint, with real plot points and (perhaps somewhat clichéd) characters and foreshadowing and so on. That's what The Boy enthused about. Lately, he says, there have been a lot of what he considers "fake" movies, where they look like movies and have a lot of explosions and happening things, but they don't really hang together well.

So, there's a poetic logic to the proceedings that make it entertaining and engaging.

But that's the only kind of logic there is in this film. For example, the whole tension of the film comes from the people in the back of the train wanting to escape to the more forward cars of the train, but there's literally no reason for there to be any poor people on the train in the first place. I mean, I got to the point where I half-expected to see them get to the engine room where burly men would be shoveling heaps of babies into the burner. (There is a very, very tenuous contrivance for having created this lower class, but it's fever-dream conspiracy level stuff.)

Then there are the various horrors they encounter which, frankly, are kind of silly, since the alternative was death. And there are battle scenes. I mean, big confrontations. In train cars.

Bong has brought along two of his repertory players, Kang-Ho Song and Ah-Sung Ko (who played feuding brother and sister in The Host), who are drug-addicted lovers/psychics/engineers (well, he's the engineer, she's the psychic), who help the band of adventurers get through the doors on their way to the front of the train.

And they speak Korean. Kang-Ho Song speaks it all the time. Ah-Sung Ko speaks English sometimes. And they have a translating machine. Which they use sometimes. Other times, the characters appear to be reading the subtitles.

So, look, if you can't get past the sheer nonsense of it, you're not going to enjoy it.

The ending is...well, very final. Happy? Unhappy? Beats me. It didn't seem to matter much. It was just the ending. Don't judge.

There's really no distilling this down. As a straight adventure film, it's kind of a fun '70s-style dystopia with that unique Korean flavor. But don't go looking for science, engineering, logic...or anything like that.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Last Sentence (Dom över död man)

So, what was Sweden doing during World War II? Haven't you always wondered? I mean, sure, they were neutral, but how did they...uh...how did they...

Eh, who cares.

Actually, the trailers on The Last Sentence (Dom över död man, in Swedish, literally "Judgment of a Dead Man") looked fabulous: This is the story of Torgny Segerstedt, who poked Hitler in the eye from his newspaper in Stockholm, against the wishes of his publisher, his Prime Minister, and, well, Hermann Goering wasn't crazy about it either.

Doesn't that sound awesome? A guy who stood up to Hitler? Those Nazis were bad guys. They'd kill you just as soon as look at you.

But the Tomatoes were dubious: Critics like (77%) but audiences don't (47%). Now, as I explain to The Boy, it's not always bad when critics like something audiences don't. Critics are more likely to be film fans, and have an appreciation for things that general audiences aren't going to care for.

In the case of The Last Sentence, however, what it means is that, rather than focusing on the heroic struggle of a single man to stand up to Hitler despite the pressure of his country, the movie is primarily about Segerstedt's dysfunctional relationship with his wife and other women.

You know how, when I review a French movie, there's almost always a point where I say something like "I know: French, right?"?

The happiest people in this movie are dead.

I know: Swedish, right?

Segerstedt's haunted by his dead mother, and as people die in the movie, they come to haunt him and debate him in his darkest hours (which is most of them), and they're just as perky in death as they were morose in life.

I don't know. It's beautifully shot in stark black-and-white. Well acted. The characters seem realistic enough. But the struggle with Hitler is so clearly the central focus of Segerstedt's life, it's a shame they didn't make it the focus of the movie.

Jersey Boys

I have successfully avoided musical biopics for years now, for reasons I can't really explain. I love movies. I love music. You'd think I'd love movies about people who made music. And the thing is, I don't dislike them when I see them. But I've developed an aversion for the genre, I think due to:

  1. Biopics in general compress are full of acting.
  2. Musicals are full of music
  3. Musical biopics are therefore ripe for pandering at the expense of a real human being's life.
What I'm getting at is when I see a musical biopic done of a pop star whose heyday was, oh, about 1955 to 1979, I get this feeling that someone's life is going to be reduced to a cartoon to pander to Academy Baby Boomers in a bid to get some Oscars. 

The last musical biopic I saw on purpose was La Bamba (1987)—though I tried watching The Doors (1991) in the '90s when it came on cable and couldn't make it past the ponderous, self-important opening scene—and the two I've seen on accident since then (Hilary and Jackie and La Vie En Rose, with the latter being one of the more unpleasant movie experiences I've had in recent years, and the former being one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I've had ever) haven't really changed my mind.

About 10 minutes into Clint Eastwood's latest film Jersey Boys, the lead character, Frankie, starts to sing in a high-pitched voice and I thought, "Hey, that sorta sounds like Frankie Valli". And, if you haven't been living under a rock like I have, apparently, you know that Jersey Boys is, in fact, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. 

Heh. I'm a dope.

This is an interesting film, from the standpoint of the ratings. I don't expect Eastwood ever to get a fair shake from the critics again (since his "empty chair" bit), and sure enough, they give this a 53%. At the same time, the audience only rates it a 70%, which is a tepid thumbs up. 

Allowing for the possibility that politics may be depressing the score for audiences as well, I think that part of the reason is also that this is an adaptation of a play, and a lot of the moviegoers can be expected to have strong opinions about how that adaptation should have been done.

The Boy and I went in blind, which may have been an advantage. Interestingly, The Boy loved it, and the audience gave a hearty round of applause at the end. Also interestingly, most of the audience was about the same age as Frankie Valli (he turned 80 this year). I'm exaggerating only slightly: I was one of the younger members of the audience and I saw one girl about The Boy's age, maybe dragged their by grandpa.

As a biopic, it uses a great device of having the characters break the fourth wall to tell the story. And as the focus of the story changes, the characters telling the story do. We start by hearing from Tommy, the ne'er-do-well, street-wise kid who takes care of young Frankie (for some value of "take care of"), but gradually other characters begin to add and take over the narrative, and even contradict each other.

Eastwood does a great job not turning Valli's life (he's naturally the focus) into a cartoon, and the movie ends up with an epic feel, as Frankie goes from a 16-year-old wet-behind-the-ears kid to a middle-aged dad (all without looking any older!) in a way that feels well fleshed out.

In other words, most of what I object to in musical biopics is not here.

Which might, by the way, be part of why some people aren't liking it: The music of The Four Seasons was upbeat and high energy, even when it wasn't happy, but Eastwood doesn't confuse the music with the story behind it. And a lot of people really want that confusion. (Heh.) As the credits roll, there's a genuine musical dance number, and there are a lot of people who would've liked the movie to be that.

Which is fine. I love a good musical, too. I just get a little uncomfortable when a real (living!) human being's life is turned into one for fun and profit.

It's not my music, but it's good. I noticed that the singing by John Lloyd Young was a lot smoother and more polished than Valli's energetic, piercing twang. Also, I noticed the music has stayed with me in the days following. I was impressed by the amount of music, and the amount of variety in it over the years (which isn't something I'd noticed before).

I really liked it.

The acting was basically perfect, especially the casting of relative unknowns. The only name in the movie (that I recognized) was Chris Walken as the old gangster who gives Frankie a chit for singing his mother's favorite song in a club.

It's a great story: the criminal beginnings, the rise to success that nearly didn't happen, the little anecdotes. Frequent Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman (who's been kind of quiet the last couple of decades) co-wrote the script with Rick Elise from the play (which they also wrote).

Honestly, with the ratings as low as they were, I was worried I was going to be bored, and there was nothing boring about it. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Oculus

Evil haunted mirror is evil! Or so is the premise of Oculus, a horror movie by Mike Flanagan.

This time, the evil mirror's victims are Tim and Kaylie Russell. Tim is just getting out of the looney bin, having been straightened out by a mental health care professional, who has him convniced that his father went nuts and killed his mother, and then Tim killed him in self-defense.

Not (ha ha) some evil haunted mirror what is evil.

I mean, can you imagine?

Of course, the instant he gets out of Crazytown, his loving sister is there to tell him that, in fact, Evil Haunted Mirror is on the loose, and doesn't he remember they swore to destroy it?!

Anyway, that's your set up. The story is told in parallel with the historical story, with mom and dad going crazier and crazier, and the climaxes of the two stories synchronizing at the same time.

Good atmosphere. The characters are likable, so you feel for them as they go through their hardships. There's a good build up to the end without a reliance on cheap, schlocky shocks.

The acting is good: Karen Gillan ("Doctor Who" and the bizarrely funny "NTSF:SD:SUV") powers the movie as the obsessive Kaylie, determined to outsmart the mirror at its own game. Brendon Thwaite (Maleficent) is the brother who's fighting her but slowly being won over. Katie Sackhoff ("Battlestar Galactica", "24") is sympathetic as the mother, and Rory Cochrane (Argo, "24" also!) plays the brooding father with just the right hint of Jack Nicholson/Jack Torrance.

The Boy was really pleased.

Me? Not so much. But since the reason why could be considered spoiler-y, don't read on if you don't wanna be spoiled.

OK? You stop reading now!

Don't wanna hear any whining. (As if anyone comments these days.)

So, in short:

Not my kind of horror movie. Because the villain is the Evil Haunted Mirror, it has to have powers that make the whole game rigged. Of course, all movies are rigged, and horror movies doubly so, but when I clue in to that, I tend to lose interest. Just like any decent fantasy film, a truly great horror movie has to have some pretty strict rules.

And, to its credit, this movie sets up some rules, and appears to play by them, but ultimately the truth is, once you come under the Evil Haunted Mirror's influence, it's game over: It can make you experience whatever It wants, and you're cooked.

The resolution is reasonably well done, too, but again, not my thing.

Also, there's a lot of kids-in-peril stuff, which isn't something I find fun. (It doesn't rule it out, and this movie does a good job with it, but it raises my demands on a movie.)

But, as I say: A taste thing. And even with all my reservations: not bad.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

As near as I can tell, manager/PR agent Shep Gordon was really, really nice to Mike Meyers at a time when Mike Meyers really, really needed someone to be nice to him, and so Meyers decided to make a movie about him. This leads us to a couple of conclusions, one surprising, and one not so much.

The not-so-surprising conclusion: Decent people are so rare in Hollywood, the few there are seem like nearly divine characters.

The surprising conclusion: Mike Meyers (with an assist from Beth Aala) can make himself a fun documentary, with a lot of creative use of archival footage, photoshop and sharp editing.

It's a fun story, too: Gordon, after being summarily driven off on his first day as a juvie hall social worker, winds up crashing at the Hollywood Landmark Hotel, where a few musicians happened to be staying. Musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Musicians in need of weed that Shep happened to have.

Hendrix says he should be a manager. Who should he manage? Well, how about this "Alice Cooper" guy? They're not doing so well. Then, the cops start busting the hotel for drugs, and before you know it ol' Shep has to become a real manager. Which, of course, he has no clue about.

Life is funny.

Gordon's clever, though, and he understands how the media works, and how sex, violence and gaining the ire of parents is the key to success when marketing to kids. Some of his early attempts are hilarious failures, but ultimately he hits on some stunts that work and launches Cooper on his international career as the first shock/horror/goth/whatever star.

He employs subtler, though no less effective tactics, with Anne Murray.

This would've been a fun movie just with stories about his musical career, but Gordon notices something at the height of his career: Fame seems to get people killed. People he thinks of as family.

This sets him on a quest for something larger, something deeper, something to put his career into perspective. This is kind of interesting: The clichés of Hollywood fame are death-by-excess on the one hand, or dropping out on the other, but Shep seems to manage to maintain and grow his career while doing other things.

He manages more people. He produces movies for a stretch. He falls in with the Dalai Lama. He invents the "celebrity chef". He makes his home in Hawaii a little oasis for people who need to get away from it all. He evolves a philosophy to try to make everyone a winner, rather than a narcissistic pursuit of self-aggrandizement and destruction of his enemies.

And he's rather successful as a result.

So, yeah, fun movie. Seems like a cool dude.

And yet, even the Supermensch can't have it all: The most endearing aspect of the film is how Shep, a notorious womanizer, longs for a family of his own more than anything. In the twilight of his career (and life), his only regret was that he worked so much he never made enough time for a family. There's something charming about this megamillionaire super-agent wistfully musing that "there's still time".

And it might be a good reminder to all the women who listen to the "you can have it all" nonsense: Nobody can have it all. Not even—or maybe especially even—the most successful men on earth.

But you can have a lot of fun, make a lot of friends, and get some respect.

I enjoyed it; The Boy loved it. He likes stories of people who go out and live their lives balls out and never stop taking on new challenges. And Shep's one of those people.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

It's almost like they're daring us not to go see these movies. First, we got another superhero movie. Next, we got a reboot/crossover where the prequel (X-Men: First Class) encounters the future version of itself. And just to rub it all in, it's a freaking time-travel story.

Goddamn if it doesn't work, though, with the competent (alleged pederast) Bryan Singer back at the X-Men helm.

The story starts in a bleak future where the mutants have been all but wiped out by these adaptive robots (called Sentinels) that figure out their mutations, adapt to them and then figure out how to counter them. The only way the survivors have managed to last is through mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who can send someone's consciousness a few days back in the past—long enough to pre-empt the adaptive robots' victories.

I'm not sure how robots can adapt to something they never encounter (since it never happens, what with the time travel and all) but adapt they do, with only a few surviving mutants facing ultimate extinction: Storm, Wolverine, Dr. X and Magneto, as well as a few others who haven't yet starred in their own movies.

Dr. X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, still alive! and actually looking pretty good) have reconciled at this late date, with Magneto realizing the error of his ways, since it was his conversion of Mystique in X-Men: First Class that lead her down the dark path which ultimately leads to the creation of the Sentinels.

The evil genius Trask, played by the always wonderful Peter Dinklage, is the creator of the Sentinels—and, actually, if this movie has a serious narrative flaw, it's that it's hard to see that he doesn't have a damn good point about the Mutant Menace.

Anyway, the plot is that they have to send someone back in time to prevent the events that result in their ultimate doom, and since the time travel process is so traumatic (when you're going THAT far back), they have to send someone who can regenerate really fast. That'd be Wolverine, if you're not up on your mutants. And because regenerating your body is just like regenerating your mind, I guess.

The continuity within the movie works okay, given the issues that arise with time travel, but I kept feeling like there was a serious loss of inter-movie continuity. Like, I think the same event that results in the creation of the Sentinels results in Mystique's death, but she was in the original three X-Men movies.

Also, Wolverine doesn't have his adamantine skeletal structure yet, though the only consequence of that is that his claws aren't very useful. Somehow, though, I thought the implication of previous movies was that he had gotten them well before the '70s (when this movie largely takes place).

It doesn't particularly matter much in Singer's hands: There's good suspense, action, comic book logic, fine acting across the board, and so on. The ending didn't annoy me too much, though it had the character of a "It was all just a dream" ending, pertaining to the previous five films.

I gotta wonder where they're going to go next or if they're just going to reboot or what. Or maybe give the whole franchise a rest for a while. I kid! If you had a money printing machine, you'd run it day and night, too. In fact, the next movie should be out in two years, and it's going to be called Apocalypse.)

There's also an annoying bit early on where they enlist a super-speed mutant named QuickSilver to help them free Magneto, and it quickly becomes apparent that, if they keep him along, they can pretty much do whatever needs to be done without any further fuss, so naturally they leave him behind for no good reason other than his powers are too powerful for the plot to sustain.

The '70s stuff is actually not too awful, I'm guessing due to Singer. There's enough to signal the '70s without getting too campy. There was a fleet of Citroëns, like in the last one, which made me miss The Old Man more than usual.

It's solid. Can't really complain. It's just...you know...summer superhero movie.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

For A Woman (Pour un femme)

Say what you will about The French, they understand women. Having said that, I must endeavour to explain it in the context of For A Woman without sounding like a misogynous bastard.

For A Woman takes place shortly after World War II: Michel and Lena are living in their little apartment, happily married Communists, with Michel running a haberdashery and Lena bored and frustrated by her lack of employment (which Michel is rather against) when suddenly Michel's brother Jean shows up.

After a happy reunion, Jean is...well, opaque. How is it possible that he survived? The family was split up during the war, with Jean being trapped inside a Nazi camp in Russia while the parents were in Germany and Michel was in France. (I think I have that right. Point is: They were split up.)

Jean also seems to have connections. When Michel opens up his own haberdashery, Jean is able to come up with three boxcars full of unused fabric (diverted during the war but then forgotten) for the taking, giving the new business a real boost.

There's a certain wry humor to the proceedings: Michel's big fear is that Jean has fled the Soviet Union, which is just too reactionary for Michel's taste. In fact, Jean is more than happy to knock down Michel's idealized support for the USSR (as one who putatively escaped it), and Michel is more than happy to dismiss this counter-revolutionary talk.

So, is Jean a Soviet spy or a defector or something else?

I'd like to say that I called it early on and guessed exactly what he was and why he was there, though the film shook my smugness a little bit once or twice. And, in fairness, I figured it out based on feeling like we were supposed to like Jean and none of the obvious solutions made him very likable.

By the way, the movie is bookended by a story taking place in the late '80s and into the early '90s between Michel's daughters, and at the end of Michel's life. And he remains unrepentant Communist to the end of his days, enraged by the end of the Soviet Union.

I think this is based on a true story, and of course there are many real people who are like that. (Some of them even on the Internet!)

So, what's all this about women? Well, Lena and Michel are happy, basically, though Lena less so, both because she has little to do (and housework in post-war Europe was not easy), and while she loves Michel, he's boring. He's a businessman. He's staid. He's unmysterious. He adores her more than anything but she doesn't reciprocate, not to the same degree.

Oh, also? He saved her from the concentration camp by pretending she was his fiancee, and literally carrying her across country to save her life.

So, yeah, that might endear you to a guy, huh?

But when Jean shows up, he's everything Michel is not: Mysterious, dangerous, magnetic, sympathetic, and Lena is mistrustful of him, but definitely attracted. It is to the movie's credit, and a believable characterization, that she doesn't just jump into bed with him. At the same time, the attraction between them grows dangerously, threatening Lena and Michel's life together.

I couldn't help but note to myself "Dude saved your life. Can you really be unfaithful to him?" But of course the answer is: Sure. When Lena says "I could never cheat on Michel", her uber-Communist gal-pal who's cheating on her husband with a much younger stud-of-the-people, says "All women can cheat."

Actually, as big a mess as said gal-pal is, she also seems to have the best understanding of women, when she says she wants both men, because both men satisfy different needs (implying the same of Lena, and perhaps all women).

Writer/director Diane Kurys is said to have based this story on her own parents' lives and, secondarily, the effect it had on her life, and (perhaps surprisingly) this is a remarkably gentle and compassionate film. It both indicts her mother for her actions but not harshly so, demonstrating an understanding that nothing in life is that simple.

But if guys are going to take a message away from this, it probably should be: Dude, it doesn't matter if you save her life, if she's not into you, she's not into you.

The Boy and I rather liked it. We weren't crazy about the framing story, as it seemed to drag the story down a bit, but we could see why it was there.

The principles are fine actors: Benoît Magimel, who looked familiar but I can't think of anything I've seen him in, plays Michel. Nicolas Duvauchelle (The Well-Digger's Daughter) plays Jean. The regally beautiful Mélanie Thierry (Babylon A.D.) plays Lena.

It's a little heavy, of course, and sad in places, but it's not dreary or morbid, and mixes in a fair amount of suspense, mystery, romance and eroticism that makes it a good watch.



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise plays a weatherman forced to live out the same day over and over again during an alien invasion of Earth in Edge of Tomorrow.

I may have mixed that up a little.

Edge of Tomorrow is a sci-fi action movie that takes the plot of Ivan Retiman's revered romcom Groundhog Day and says, "What if living out the same day over and over again allowed you to save the world!"? It's actually not that big a stretch from the original, though this movie has very little in common beyond this gimmick and some of the circumstances that arise from the situation.

Also, out of necessity, the power to reset the day has severe limitations, else you'd have no possibility of tension for the third act.

What's most surprising about this film, actually, is that it's very, very good. In spite of being a big budget action flick. In spite of being a time-travel movie. In spite of starring Tom Cruise.

I kid. Cruise is generally fine as an action hero. Usually he's doing the same role, though, so he doesn't stretch his acting chops much, of which he seems to have at least some modicum (see Rain Man, Magnolia).

One of the ways this movie exceeds expectations is by giving Cruise a deeper role. At the beginning of the film, he's a glib, abject coward lacking any sort of morality. This turns into a more traditional action hero role later on, but the character arc makes this feel satisfying, giving us a sense of how real life military men go from being average joes to hardened warriors.

In addition, his character changes much the way Bill Murray's does in Groundhog Day, in the sense that he gains a depth of feeling for characters who don't really know or like him. What's more, despite the virtually mandatory save-the-world motif, director Doug Liman keeps things tight and light, with the action mostly being local rather than awash in ruins of cities and what-not.

Frequent Cruise collaborator Christopher McQuarrie (Valkyrie, Jack Reacher) co-wrote the script with frequent Liman collaborators Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and whatever the reason, this seems to have worked out extraordinarily well.

The Flower liked it, though she felt the denouement was cheap. I could see her point and I saw it coming, but at the same time, I wasn't sure it was going to play out the way it did, so I was relatively happy with it.

The Boy also liked, and was pleased with the relatively small amount of goofy action/war tropes, like the super-moves performed by Emily Blunt, who seems to have an uncanny ability to fight the aliens—an ability which, once you learn what's going on, does not in fact make any sense.

But there's a lot about this movie that doesn't make sense if you think about it, or is at least unanswered. To a degree this is handled by keeping things moving enough to where you don't have a lot of time to think about it, which is common enough these days. Better, though, is that it doesn't try too hard to offer an explanation. The movie gives you just enough of a back story to give you the hook, but not so much that you start thinking, "Well, if that's the case, then why don't they just blah blah blah?"

Movies are not the best vehicle for presenting plausible alien invasions.

Brendan Gleeson and Bill Paxton have small but fun supporting roles.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chinese Puzzle

In 2002, Cedric Klapisch made a film called L'Auburgene Espagnole (The Spanish Inn), and followed it up in 2005 with one called Russian Dolls. We had not seen either of those films, nor were we even aware of them, in fact, until we stepped up to the concession stand and someone said, "Oh, did you see the first two?"

No matter. This is a story of a fairly simple man whose life has become incredibly complicated through his associations with various women, none of whom seem to view any of this as a big deal.

When we begin, Xavier is married to Wendy. They've got two kids and his career as a writer is taking off. But when she flies off to America for some movie or TV show or something, she comes back wanting a divorce and to take the kids to the USA.

Xavier goes along with it (not sure if he has a choice given the laws of the land) but quickly misses his kids too much to stay in Paris while they're in NYC, so he packs up and moves. Whatever money he has for his writing does not equip him for living on Central Park South, where his ex is now living with her American producer boyfriend.

Although he has to scrape by for a living, his best buddy, Isabelle, lives in NYC with her lover and their baby. Allow me to clarify the "their": Isabelle is pregnant with Xavier's child because the two wanted a child and someone they knew, so Xavier donated against his wife's wishes. (Not that she ever finds out.)

But Isabelle argues him into it by saying he wouldn't be a father in the classical sense, just a donor, which turns out to be true until it becomes more convenient to have a father around. Especially when Isabelle needs someone to watch the kid while she's out diddling the babysitter.

Rounding out this trio is Martine, who was involved with Xavier before he hooked up with Wendy, and who has two kids she brings to New York for some reason (I forget) and ends up staying with Xavier and his two kids. While there she coaxes Xavier into having sex with her, and they rekindle an old relationship, at least while she's there.

Meanwhile Xavier is struggling to get some rights to his children, since Wendy's being a bit of a shrew.

These threads are all woven together, along with a backstory about Xavier's father, who apparently split from his mother when Xavier was quite young, leaving Xavier to wonder if the two ever loved each other.

And it all takes place against a backdrop that's essentially a love song to America. In a French film!

That's always kind of nice.

The Boy and I were rather fond of this film. Entertaining with strong characters, amusing story, remarkably uncynical: You can do worse making a movie (and many do). The acting is la creme de la creme of French cinema with Romain Duris (Populaire) as Xavier, Audrey Tatou (Therese, Priceless), Cecile de France (The Kid With A Bike, Hereafter) as Isabelle, and (English actress) Kelly Reilly (Flight, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows).

I keep feeling like we're seeing all these foreign films about the fallout from post-modern familial structures: The reviews are in and it seems like divorce doesn't lead to happy, together children.

I don't expect that observation to lead anywhere, of course.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Two Faces Of January

After the pleasant surprise of the low-budget '80s period piece Cold In July, I was feeling pretty optimistic about this 1962 period piece starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac.

Which is just how life sets you up for the big falls.

In The Two Faces of January, Isaac plays a grifter named Rydal who's scamming young tourists out of their money (and presumably other things of value) in Greece. Mid-scam of a young school girl (Dais Bevan) he spies Chester (Mortensen) and his young wife Colette (Dunst) and strikes up a friendship of the sort that can only occur when a good confidence game is at work.

Things take a dark turn early on when a threatening stranger shows up to threaten Chester and Colette, and that's all I'll reveal, because a few desultory semi-twists is about all this narrative's got going for it.

And that's kind of a shame: It's a good story; I have no reason to believe that the Patricia Hightower novel on which this is based is not a good read. The acting is fine. The cinematography is okay, though Greece looks like the bunch of barren rocks it actually is rather than the exciting, exotic locale portrayed in so many past films.

It's not hard to figure out why it fizzles: The movie is not so much a character arc (or series of arcs) but more of a character reveal (or series of reveals). But as we learned from Frozen, revealing characters for plot convenience without hinting at their true nature, or even presenting them falsely (how they behave when no one's watching) is very unsatisfying.

And that's this movie in a nutshell. As we learn more and more about Chester and Colette, it seems to invalidate everything we learned about them previously, and so feels less like a twist and more like a cheat.

Furthermore, writer/director Hossein Amini (co-writer of Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman) focuses on this stuff to the point of neglecting good potential action/suspense sequences, taking them down a notch until the final scene which, I think, is meant to recall The Third Man but you really just want to end so you can get up and pee.

Especially if you got that 44 ounce soda.

It's actually not that long and it actually doesn't drag out that much, really, probably just a little over 90 minutes excluding credits, which is a good thing. But it doesn't feel tight. It feels like a lot of missed opportunities.

The acting's good, though. The music was, well, kind of weird. Not in what it was so much as where they chose not to have any. I think that may have contributed to the lack of suspense in places.

We were pretty meh about it. I don't think it was that bad so much as disappointing after the pleasant surprise that was Cold In July.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Cold In July

Two thrillers suddenly popped up (how else would they appear, right?) in our theater last weekend and The Boy and I endeavored to see both, with the first being the low-budget indie Cold In July, starring Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson and Sam Shepard.

The first thing that struck me about this film is how good an actor Michael C. Hall is. Fresh off his turn as the eponymous serial killer in "Dexter", in this movie, he plays Richard Dane, nervous father/husband for whom things go awry when his house is broken into.

This movie is based on a Joe Lansdale story, and oozes with atmosphere, as well as going off in directions you'd never expect starting out. It reminds me very strongly of Lansdale's short story The Night They Missed The Horror Show, in terms of motifs, not exactly plot.

Dane has the story's main character arc, shrinking from something that seems evil, only to find himself confronting something horrific in a way that normal people can't understand. Sam Shepard's character, Russel, is a lot more opaque. We get that he's been through a lot and done some things, but he has a real sense of honor that powers the story.

Don Johnson is great as Jim Bob, a private detective who puts the pieces together both in terms of the mystery, and in terms of fleshing out the narrative, providing exposition, for example, where the laconic Russel would never, and keeping things from getting too grim (until they absolutely must).

It's a really fine noir thriller, complete with plot twists that don't really add up, and it takes place in 1989, with nice evocative music from Jeff Grace.

The only real shortcoming for me was that Dane's character arc doesn't quite work. He goes from a near milquetoast at the beginning who really doesn't want trouble to virtually seeking it out at the end. And the movie didn't quite support that change.

Eh, feels like a nitpick. The Boy and I loved it; it was a truly pleasant surprise to have this movie come out of nowhere and give us a classic pulp thriller.

Now, for the review's twist: The writer and director of the movie are none other than Jim Mickle and Nick Damici! And if you recognize those names, you're probably a dedicated enough reader of this blog to be considered a stalker.

The team of Mickle and Damici worked together on one of the best (and lowest budgeted) of the After Dark Horror Festival's films, Mulberry Street. While my review (linked there) suffers from having to write eight in three days, it's interesting to note that the better aspects of Mulberry Street are still in evidence: atmosphere, suspense, and characterization.

But where Mulberry unravelled, this film stays tight all the way through. If you're in the mood for a gritty noir thriller, Cold In July is a good bet.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Immigrant

If I said about a movie "Well, this wasn't as terrible as it could have been," you'd probably think I was saying it was a bad movie. But it really could be literal, as in "the way the movie unfolded could've been far more horrific than it actually did play out, and that's a good thing."

Which is my way of introducing writer/director James Gray's The Immigrant, a movie that isn't as terrible as it could've been. Allow me to elucidate.

The story is that Eva (Marion Cotillard) and her sister Magda, Polish immigrants fleeing—I think it's Cossacks—after World War I arrive at Ellis Island only to be split up. Magda has tuberculosis, and must stay on the island, while Eva has received some sort of black check on her record during the trip over ("questionable morals") and so will be sent back so as not to become a public charge, especially since the address she has for her Aunt and Uncle are apparently fake!

My main concern about seeing this film, by the way, was that it would be a big "let 'em all in" story. As I've said, I'm an open borders guy, but as should be obvious by now, imposing current political stories on historical—or even sci-fi/fantasy—narratives ruins them. Since The Immigrant avoids that, and sticks with a convincingly historical storyline, this is one important way that it wasn't as terrible as it might have been.

Eva is saved by a relatively sane-acting Joaquin Phoenix. I mention the "sane" part because I can't recall the last movie role he was in where he was sane, and even here, as Bruno, he's more than a little "off". But on the 1-to-10 JP-insanity-scale, he's only at about a three here. Crazy, but crazy in love, and mostly in control.

Bruno saves Eva through some sort of arrangement he has with the guards, and then offers her a place to stay in his apartment and a job sewing across the street. With enough money, he says, she can get her sister out.

Fortunately, since sewing jobs were so profitable in New York City in the '20s, she gets her sister out lickety-split and they reunite with their lost family and go on to live a happy and prosperous life as hot-dog magnates.

Heh.

As if.

You can imagine how wrong things go for poor Eva, but—I want to stress this again—as bad as they go, they don't go as badly as they might. That is, the movie never fully descends into "misery porn" as so many of these costume dramas do.

Things get rough. And confusing, especially, when she finds herself enamored of Bruno's cousin, who seems a lot nicer than Bruno, but may actually be less stable. And that's always a feat when Joaquin Phoenix is around. (The cousin is played well by Jeremy Renner, who's taken some time off from pretending to kill people with guns/agitating against real-life guns, to do a more serious dramatic role)

The movie very cleverly avoids giving us a neat narrative. There are villains, but it's not always clear who they are. The System itself doesn't come off well, which is fair. They seldom should. There's also a sort of surprising Act 3 resolution which draws on a perfectly appropriate spiritual resolution, that's nonetheless not the sort of thing you expect to see much in movies today.

The Boy and I didn't think it was great, but it was surprisingly acceptable. And we don't say that lightly.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Grand Seduction

I was intrigued by the Rotten Tomatoes rating on this new Brendan Gleeson starrer The Grand Seduction, because it had an 81% audience rating but a mere 61% rating from critics. I'm not always on the audience's side on these splits, especially when there's no obvious political slant that would entice critics to be extra-critical.

On the surface, the story seems harmless enough: Murray (Gleeson) is an out-of-work fisherman who is trying to lure a doctor to his small town so that a company will build a factory in his little village—wait, no, it's not a village, it's a harbor, that's an issue here—so that the unemployed and depressed folk of Tickle Head (Newfoundland, Canada) can get to work again with pride.

Did you catch it? The little tip that might make a politically leftist critic dislike this movie?

Actually, there's a bunch: Tickle Head residents file in monthly for their welfare checks, but this doesn't make them happy. Oh, and why are they on welfare? Well, they can't fish because of environmental regulations! And they have to trick the doctor into signing a contract to stay there because socialized medicine!

Oh, and Murray's wife leaves Tickle Head for a job in "town" (Ontario?) which she ends up hating—and it's sorting recycling. And the factory they're trying to get in Tickle Head? It's a petrochemical by-product repurposing plant.

Not that there's any great love for the oil company behind the factory, and there's a sardonic quality to the proceedings that makes it seem like "well, the last resort is to work this way" but it's noteworthy that it's presented as being preferable to collecting welfare.

That's the underlying message, after all: Not a political one, just a truism about honest work being better than just about anything else.

Even if you have to lie, cheat and steal to get it.

Heh. The gimmick of the movie is that the entire town, in order to seduce the doctor, has to be part of an elaborate plot of being his dream town. To that end, they investigate him, they tap his phone, the pretend to like things he likes, and Murray goes so far as to pretend he had a son who died, about the same age as the doctor.

They also lie to the oil company, the bank, and anyone else who gets in their way.

I mean, in any cold analysis, it's reprehensible, but director Don McKellar (best known for being an actor in...uh...Canadian stuff) pulls of a neat trick: He makes the townspeople likable despite this, and transforms the doctor (played by John Carter himself, Taylor Kitsch) from a shallow, unlikable jerk to a sort of lovable patsy whose shallowness masks a naive, even sweet, gullibility.

The intervening hijinks are quite amusing, meanwhile, and the movie passes rather breezily to a satisfying conclusion. The Flower, who is a tough critic, enjoyed it, as did The Boy and I.

There are some excellent bits here, as well: For example, the doctor loves cricket, and the villagers pretend to be cricket fanatics, too. But unlike almost every other sport in the world, cricket isn't something you can fake an understanding of easily, much less a love of a game that runs six hours and over the course of multiple days.

From a dramatic standpoint, there's a nice touch with what should be the love interest. In a typical Hollywood film, Kathleen (Liana Balaban) would start by hating the doctor and the scheme, but begrudgingly go along with it, then fall in love, and that would be what would make the whole deception okay, after a tearful confession.

Here, while she plays a pivotal role, she's barely in the movie, which focuses primarily on the connection between Murray and the doctor. I liked that because I kind of think it's nonsense to think you can start a relationship with an elaborate ruse (I mean, apart from standard dating elaborate ruses) and then recover it with a tearful confession.

So, while not exactly great, this is definitely more toward the 80% than the 60%, and worthwhile viewing.