Friday, August 22, 2014

Mood Indigo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Begin Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the music is good.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Summer's Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Most Wanted Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take that W!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Le Chef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Land Ho!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Expecting Amish

Well, this is kind of a weird one. Trolling for a movie on a Tuesday night (I think it was Tuesday) and this movie Amish shows up on the schedule of our local Laemmle. No description. Can't find out anything about it. Director Richard Gabai.

Wait, Richard Gabai?

The same Richard Gabai who starred in Dinosaur Island and Assault of the Party Nerds? The very same Richard Gabai who starred in dozens of '80s and '90s Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski flicks that kept us up late at nights before the Internet allowed us to watch anything at any time?

That Richard Gabai?

Aw, hell yeah, I'm in.

Well, who knew? It was actually a movie for the Lifetime Movie Channel. This was a showing for the cast and crew. That's always fun because I can look at all the tiny people.

Honestly? Well, we enjoyed it! The Boy wasn't enthusiastic, but added it wasn't the sort of movie where you sat there regretting the choices that brought you to this juncture in your life. It's charming and it's sometimes funny, and I liked that (given the constraints) it was reasonably respectful of the Amish.

The acting was hit-and-miss, but as I point out in that review of The Graves, in low-budget flicks that's very often a matter of editing and pacing. This had a definite TV-movie pacing, with some awkward fade-outs to commercial breaks. (They don't seem so awkward on TV, but they stick out in a theater.) There were a few scenes that seemed like awkward line readings that probably could've done with some re-takes.

Beyond that, well, this is, essentially, a Romance novel, and we are most assuredly not the target audience. The premise is that Hannah (AJ Michalka of Super 8) and three of her Amish peers are running off to L.A. for their...uh...crap...I forget what it's called. The thing where they go spend a few weeks not being Amish, to decide if they want to be Amish for the rest of their lives.

As a sidenote, I just want to say that, if this is a real thing (and none of the Amish people I've run into have ever mentioned it), I have a lot of respect for it on the one hand. Treat your kids like adults and let them make their own decisions. Right on.

That said, what a stupid idea to throw teenagers into the Sodom and Gomorrah of modern life and expect any of them to come back. Even hard-working Amish kids (maybe especially them) are going to be tempted by the life of ease presented by modern day technology, loose morals and Barack Obama. (Bam! Just turned this into insightful political commentary! Take that A.O. Scott!)

Back to the movie: Hannah's friends adapt quickly to the "English" way of life, while she does the good girl thing for most of the trip until a sensitive and non-threatening DJ, Josh (Jesse McCartney, a well-established voice actor), catches her eye.

He shows her the world, at least the world of Southern-California-when-you're-on-vacation-and-not-having-to-make-money which, it must be admitted, is pretty damn nice. Well, pretty soon, she's comparing her modern life to the one back in the 18th century, and the modern life is looking pretty good, especially since she's been doing all her mother's work since her mother passed away.

The movie makes a few feints at looking at some really heavy issues before glossing over them for a completely pander-y ending.

Eh, I give it points for making the feints. But I presume everyone watching these movies knows exactly how they want the movie to end, as does everyone making them. I mean, if you're looking at the movie realistically, the main character sells out her sister to get her happy ending. But that's kind of like faulting the plumber in a porno for neglecting a house's infrastructure.

A few parts were casually amusing, though: For example, why would Pennsylvania Amish send their kids across the country to L.A., rather than to New York? (Obviously because they were from a section of Pennsylvania located in the Santa Clarita valley.)

The Amish "kids" are all way too old for their field trip, which is a standard Hollywood trope, so no big deal there. But they are varying degrees of successful in pulling off the Amish part. Michalka's all right, for example. Her boyfriend, played Jean-Luc Bilodeau (Pirahna 3DD), is perhaps a little exaggeratedly stiff, but it mostly works, as his character seems to be struggling with his role in life.

Actually, all the Amish men, including the great Ron Ely (back after a 15 year hiatus!), come off a little stiff at times. Brian Krause (as Hannah's father) probably finds the best balance between formal, stern and wooden. Bonus points for not doing the "thee" and "thou" thing.

Then there are Hannah's two friends, Mary and Sarah, played by Alyson Stoner ("The Suite Life of Zack and Cody") and Aurelia Scheppers, respectively. Stoner played the Tomboyish Max on "Zack and Cody", though she's blossomed since then. And while her character is handled somewhat ham-handedly to advance a few plot points, she's fairly convincing as Amish.

Scheppers (who was in the audience, I believe) I know nothing of, but her film credits have her as "Beach Babe", "Hot Tub Hottie" and perhaps most tellingly, "Venus Vavoom" and "Aphrodite". You get the idea. It's like casting Megan Fox as a nun.

It's not really about acting—there's nothing about her behavior that seems out-of-place—but the glowing makeup, the perfectly tweezed and arched eyebrows, and the glossy hair didn't exactly say "Amish" to me. I'm going to guess the target demo would prefer that to the kind of stocky, pasty, unibrowed look of actual Amish women.

But as I say, these were points of amusement more than scorn. It's a fine TV movie, with only a few slow spots, and if Gabai can get his sci-fi flick with Christopher Lloyd movie going, I'll be sure to check it out.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Heaven Is For Real

You don't even have to get to the "Real" in the title to know that a movie called Heaven Is For Real is going to have a classic critics-hate/audiences-love kind of split, and sure enough, this movie currently sits at 46/72 on Rotten Tomatoes (far milder than the 15/85 split for God's Not Dead).

Interesting to note that this is the third (and most successful/mainstream) top 30 movie this year on the topic of Christianity. That's kind of cool, though it would be cooler if the movie and its message (right there in the title) were uncontroversial.

I don't say this as a believer; I say it as a sane person. If a child tells you he's gone to Heaven, well, that's what he's telling you. If you find that convincing enough to write a book about and talk about, well, that's also nothing for people to get hysterical about.

But, alas, we don't live in sane times. A person can suggest that increasing poverty in the name of fairness is a good thing, and be elected President, or write a bestselling book no one reads. But suggest there actually, factually is something that a whole bunch of people at least pay lip service to, and everybody's gotta have an opinion.

I, actually, do not gotta have one. I particularly don't when I go to the movies. (Or I try not to. You can judge how successful I am.) I'm looking for the story, and this is a good (though not flawless) one. I think it'd make an interesting double-feature with the Belgian film Broken Circle Breakdown which dealt with similar themes from an a-religious (but not a-spiritual standpoint).

The story is that of a good-hearted, unassuming pastor/tradesman/family man Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) and his hot wife (Mary Reilly, who we've seen a lot recently in Chinese Puzzle and also A Single Shot, though for some reason my review doesn't mention her) and their beautiful family out in God's Country (Nebraska), living a great life (though hard-pressed for cash) when their son gets seriously ill.

The community rallies around Todd and Colton (newcomer Conor Corum) with prayers and such, but of course the problem comes when he gets well. And then starts talking about Heaven. Like, the real Heaven. In great detail. With details that he could not know otherwise (at least his father perceives it as such).

Which goes back to my original point: My kid comes to me and tells me about Heaven, I'm going to think that's pretty cool. (Which is why they won't make a movie about me.) Todd, on the other hand, experiences a kind of existential crisis. And even more, so does most of the town, to the point where the Burpo's viability is threatened.

This tension is what makes a good movie. They all believe in Jesus and Heaven in theory but they aren't going to say His name too loudly or deal in concrete representations of the afterlife.

It'd be easy to say that they're hypocritical, but I think it's more accurate to say that people's faith goes on autopilot. It's easy to water down faith into a dogma—hell, people do that with politics, which is just gross—or into abstract principles that can be debated in a sterile fashion with no connection to real life (people do that with politics, too, of course).

Experiencing faith as a constant matter, having it inform everything you do, living, breathing, wrestling with it: That's hard. (And the theme of one of my favorite films, Machine Gun Preacher.)

What's also hard is telling the truth. And that's the other big struggle: Colton has a simple faith based on personal experience, and it moves his father greatly, but testifying to that is embarrassing, awkward, and it makes people uncomfortable.

You don't have to be religious for that message to resonate: The ability to see the truth and then to fearlessly report what we see is the greatest struggle of our lives. (I think art critics have a particularly hard time with this.)

It's not a perfect movie by a long shot. Writer/Director Randall Wallace (Secretariat, We Were Soldiers) lets it go slack a bit at the beginning of the second act. We're not sure what direction the movie's going to go, and it feels like he isn't either. (The problem may be that the drama of the first act is so heavy, there's no way to recapture the momentum after it's resolved.)

And the characters—well, I didn't fully understand them. Maybe they're more archetypal to small-town Christians, but I didn't always get their motivations.

Other than that, though, a solid flick. The Boy and The Flower both liked it a lot, with The Boy much preferring it over God's Not Dead. The Flower, meanwhile, preferred that more parable influenced story to this based-on-a-true story.

Kinnear is completely cleansed of his early career smarminess, which is important here. Kelly Reilly is becoming one of my favorite actresses, fitting into whatever role as if she were born to it. (And this role is diametrically opposed to her shallow, self-centered Chinese Puzzle role.) Thomas Haden Church and Margo Martindale do good work, too.

Casa 'strom sides with the audience, once again.

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.