Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Israel Film Fest: Tubianski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel Film Fest: Next To Her

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Israel Film Festival: Hunting Elephants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Felony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short: I think they oughtta.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Watchers of the Sky

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

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

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

Dah-duh-duh-DUH-DUH-DUH!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Team America: World Police!

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Obviously a worthy an important subject.

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

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

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

I don't know.

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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

One Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Blue Room (La chambre bleue)

The main mistake I made in going to see La chambre bleue (The Blue Room) is forgetting that The Boy cannot follow mystery/thrillers when they're in a foreign language. Early on, I figured this was just a reading skill issue. The subtitles go by fast and thick, usually, when there's a lot of plotting involved. (They just vanish to me after about 30 seconds so I usually can't even remember if a film had subtitles a week after seeing it.)

Yeah, he had no clue what was going on. Which is okay, I guess. It's not great. It's not bad, either. Critics are piling on the love with a 90% RT while audiences—keeping in mind that we're talking people who'd go see a subtitled French mystery in the first place—give it a more modest 68%. I'd incline more toward the audience score, I think.

It's a brooding little film that takes place in flashbacks as Our Hero relates to the police the details of an affair he had with a Strange Woman Who Was Most Certainly Not His Wife. When we start, we just know that Something Has Transpired that is worthy of police attention; the details don't come out until later.

Needless to say, it all ends in tears.

The points of interest revolve around the fact that Julien (Our Hero) is lying to the police in small, visible ways that are understandable but that also might conceal a larger part in the crimes committed, and that we are left to our own devices to suss out the motivations and feelings of the characters.

This, I believe, is what makes the critics like it, and audiences react less warmly.

Meanwhile, the movie resolves absolutely nothing. The events play out mostly in flashback, then there's a trial, a verdict, and absolutely no indication of whether justice is reached, or what's going on with the characters internally.

This, I believe, is also what makes the critics like it, and alienates the audience.

I don't know. It's a thing. To leave up the story resolution to the viewer. It's arty. I kind of came out thinking that justice had not been done, but in fact, the guilty party had been allowed to skate free. I can't really back it up, though. I see means, motive and opportunity for the true (in my mind) criminal but truth be told, there are many possible stories that may have happened here.

I didn't find this particularly satisfying. I'm not a big fan of movies that are all denouement, as this one is, in the final analysis. But I didn't hate it either. I did find it engaging. The acting is subtle but not pretentious.

Lotta Gallic noses and genitals.

Directed by and starring Matthew Amalric (The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Rabbi's Cat), and starring newcomer Stéphanie Cléau as The Lover and Léa Drucker as The Wife.

Purgatorio: A Journey Into the Heart of the Border

There is a Spanish horror movie out this year called Purgatorio. Then there's this documentary which has the full title of Purgatorio: A Journey into the Heart of the Border. But if  you, e.g., Google "Purgatorio", you'll see this movie marked as a horror/thriller/suspense film. It's not. It's a documentary. You can tell the difference, because this has the picture of the guy scaling he wall.

So, on the three-point documentary test, how does this fare?

Subject matter: Meh. The U.S. Mexican border is actually not inherently any more important or interesting than any other border, or your front door, or any other boundary between two things. There's a certain interest created if there's a contrast between the things the boundary is separating but the boundary itself, unless it's, like, The Wall, has no inherent interest.

Treatment: Some good camerawork. Otherwise, the writing and topic development is about at the level of a 14-year-old girl. Utterly emotional transposition of near random imagery. Makes "Imagine" look like a detailed, well thought out blueprint for a highly advanced civilization.

Bias: Close to 100%. Only accidentally not 100%.

In Purgatorio, writer/director Rodrigo Reyes gives us 80 minutes of emotional outpourings centered around the U.S./Mexican border as if The Border were original sin. I'm not making this up. The movie begins with an actual (non-Christian, natch) Genesis story of how the great humans were until they discovered the concept of private property.

The movie ends with a big paean to how great it will be when everyone is dead. Preferably by a quick death, but whatever. Just so long as everyone ends up dead.

After the intro, a couple of fence jumpers are interviewed at the border. This looked potentially interesting. "Perhaps," I thought, "we'll follow these people as they cross the border."

Hah. Fat chance. Instead we get a series of vignettes, starting with a disappointed monologue from the filmmaker that he could only find one victim on the border. (He calls this "a weird streak of luck".) You kind of know you're in trouble when the director laments not being able to show you enough corpses.

From there, we get vignettes: a drug addict, a cop funeral, testimony from a woman whose family beaten by friends of the dead cops, A guy bowling. A nuclear missile silo. A river canyon. (Rio Grande?) A halfway-house/shelter. An American who cleans up the litter and also obscures the coyote trails, making it harder for the illegals to cross. Kids reciting the names of (their favorite?) weapons. Dogs being euthanized. A staged shootout in Tombstone.

What's it all mean? Well, the only thing I can figure is that Reyes means to indict The Border for all the ills in Mexico. As if the USA was a pool of awesomeness that only the US/Mexican border keeps from flowing south. As if we didn't have police deaths, drug deaths, poverty, or euthanized dogs in America.

As if, also, this litany of the awfulness of Mexicans was a good argument for opening the border.

Seriously. In my heart, I'm an Open Borders Guy. But, good lord, open borders people make the worst arguments. In this situation, it's not even an argument. It's just a big, emotional demonization of the whole concept of borders, which (naturally) only concerns one border in the whole wide world.

Canadian/US border? Not evil. Or not worthy of mention. Mexican/Guatemalan border? Apparently also not a problem. Nope: The sum total of evil in the world stems from the US/Mexican border.

Now, narrowness of focus can be a good thing, and there's nothing wrong with making a personal statement, but this whole treatment goes back to the 14-year-old girl thing. "OMG! This country...protects its borders...and people die of poverty!" There's no depth. No understanding. In fact, not even an attempt to understand, just emotion.

The American who cleans up the litter gets to monologue a bit about how enforcing the border isn't cruel, but it's all ARF ARF ARF Ginger to Reyes, who engages with it not at all and gives it no weight. (Sort of like his treatment of the "Why not stay and make Mexico better?")

There's a scene in Michael Moore's career-launching Roger and Me at the end where a woman is selling rabbits for "Pets or Meat", and Moore films her killing, cleaning and skinning a rabbit. It's a heavy-handed metaphor for...I dunno...corporations feasting on people or some damn thing.

It's disgusting. There's no point to it except to shock and disgust. But at least it's for an artistic (if utterly propagandic) purpose.

Reyes shows dogs being injected with killing poisons. Films them dying. Films them freshly killed. Films being shoveled into an cremator of some kind. (I assume that's what it is.)

It pissed me off. This facility kills 20,000 dogs a year, which is pretty horrifying. But millions of dogs are euthanized in America. What's the purpose of showing it?

I guess this goes to the heart of this misanthropic diary entry. People are bad, everything's bad, the only possible hope is letting everyone into America, which will never happen.

The music is awful, too. It's primarily one note on a clarinet that's delivered in increasing volume until it hurts your ears. You could blame the theater for being too loud, but there's nothing else at this volume in the entire film.

Not really a movie. More an admonition against putting cameras in the hands of Highly Upset People.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Copenhagen

"Copenhagen" is kind of a generic name for a movie. Is it about tobacco? Denmark? That Danny Kaye song? Who knows?

Having seen it, I can tell you it's none of those things. Though it does take place in Denmark, and makes a pretty good travelogue for that fair city.

This is the story of William, a major league jerk who has traveled to Copenhagen with his pal, Jeremy, in order to find his grandfather. Jeremy, unfortunately, has brought his girlfriend along. This puts William in a bad mood: He doesn't like her; it was supposed to be a guy's trip; the impression we get also is that William has delayed this trip, for some reason, on Jeremy's behalf (perhaps) for ten years—maybe so that they could do it together? And now, his fianceé's presence is putting a damper on the proceedings.

Not the least because William wants to tomcat around. He's really, really a jerk. Which, of course, is no barrier to appealing to the fairer sex. Things take a turn for the jerkier when William hits on Jeremy's fianceé. This leads to Jeremy and fiancee splitting for London, leaving the Jerk to jerk around Jerkenhagen.

Actually, that's not fair. Copenhagen does not seem especially jerky.

A young waitress spills coffee on his documentation, which Jerkstein hasn't made any copies of, and which erases his grandfather's address. But she saw it enough to read the address. And by twists and jerks, this movie turns into a buddie/road picture with William The Jerk and Effy The Fair.

You might think I'm exaggerating the jerkiness here, but I'm not. It's important because William The Jerk begins to have feelings for Effy The Fair. Real ones. She brings an energy to his existence that he seems barely aware can exist, not just showing him around the city but, essentially, showing him that he doesn't have to be a jerk all the damn time.

I'm not sure how you say "kleines problem" in Danish, but there is a little problem here, and that is that Effy is young. Younger than William. Young enough to give William second thoughts about being with her physically.

Younger than that, even. No, still younger.

Surprisingly this movie works: I think this is precisely because it is not Lolita. Effy is a young girl, but she's not precocious. She acts her age the whole time. It's just that William is so incredibly immature—and also, one suspects, deprived of that stretch of childhood that Effy is in—that she's practically someone he can look up to.

And Effy, who never knew her father and was raised by a single mother who has trouble holding on to her jerky boyfriends, well, that's almost too clichéd for words, but cliché because it's sadly true.

This aspect is kind of depressing, because it's just so common. Broken families are so much the norm, we don't even call them that anymore. Normal, intact, nuclear families are fodder for horror films now. (Oh, they look normal...)

Anyway, the Boy and I liked it. Good characters. Believable situations (sadly). Adequate resolution wherein the characters evolve, and we see them in a new light. Solid drama.

Freshman feature from writer/director Mark Raso. Starring Gethin Anthony (known to me only as Reny Baratheon from "Game of Thrones", and the only person in the film I knew) as The Jerk, and Frederikke Dahl Hansen, who pulled off playing younger quite expertly.

Gone Girl

If Gone Girl shows us anything,it's that Ben Affleck is up to the task of wearing a big rubber mask with bat ears on his head and growling on poorly lit sets. I mean, seriously, who are these people who think playing The Batman is such a challenge? And Hollywoodland was eight years ago, for crying out loud, and an excellent performance.

Anyway, I'm really glad David Fincher has gone back to directing thrillers. Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Panic Room is just an amazing streak of top-notch thrillers. Panic Room gets no love, I think, because it's just a thriller, without the depth of Fight Club, which it had just followed.

But I say, if it's so freaking easy to make "just a thriller" why do we have so many boring movies? (And here, poetically if not ironically, we have an excellent thriller nearly torpedoed in its desire to be more.)

Since Panic Room, Fincher directed the broody, slow-paced mystery Zodiac, the broody, slow-paced fantasy Benjamin Button, and the broody slow-paced thriller The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Seriously, the guy has a hard time bringing a film in under 2:30 any more, and while I wasn't exactly bored in these films, none of them seemed to me have the energy of his '90s flicks.

Gone Girl, I'm happy to say, is a much better overall experience. The first act is a mystery, with a lot of suspense and twists-and-turns. The second act is more on the thriller side, resolving the mysteries of the first act in a kind of fun and wicked way.

The third act is a completely preposterous, misanthropic, malignant excuse to shoehorn in a larger, sillier message about marriage. I mean, really, it's goofier than any episode of "Columbo" or "Murder, She Wrote", but in the service of something really nasty, that you're meant to take earnestly.

We all liked it, but that third act broke our suspension of disbelief more than seeing Justin Long in a walrus suit. I can't tell you about it here without major spoilers, and the movie is still fun, both in getting to that third act and even the presentation of the preposterous circumstances of said act.

Although, the "message" means the movie doesn't really end, and if you can make it out of the theater lobby without realizing how the implications of the endings couldn't possibly work out, then you're better at shutting off your brain than I am. (It reminds me of Mystic River's ending in its awfulness, though Mystic River's end was just evil, not entirely implausible.)

Anyway, the acting in this is just great. Fincher's choice of Affleck is no less than perfect. There's a scene where Nick (Affleck) is being prepped to go on a cable news show by his lawyer Tanner Bolt (I'm so white, I didn't realize it was Tyler Perry) and when Bolt is questioning him, and he comes off as too glib, he throws a gummi bear at him.

Can it be that this has never happened to Affleck? It certainly should have, some time in the '90s.

Carrie Coon plays Nick's sister Margo, and for a woman with a relatively light CV, she's just amazing. Absolutely natural as a devoted, loving sister who would do just about anything for her brother. The always excellent Kim Dickens ("Deadwood", The Blind Side) does a great job as the dogged detective who's trying to get to the truth.

Rosamund Pike, who I've enjoyed since seeing her in 2005 play back-to-back in Pride and Prejudice and (shortly thereafter) Doom, plays Amy, the perfect girlfriend/less-than-perfect wife here. After relatively less interesting roles in Jack Reacher and The World's End, I bet she enjoyed this. It's a challenging role and she aces it.

I can't ever fault the acting Fincher gets out of his players, even in his least interesting (to me) films. What's more, he seems to be able to make a movie with celebrities without you sitting there the whole time thinking, "Hey, it's Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden!" The one possible exception in this film is NPH himself, Neal Patrick Harris.

Don't get me wrong: He's perfect for the role here as Amy's stalker-or-is-he? and he pulls off the role easily. But his initial appearance (in a photo) got a laugh from the crowd. He's just very recognizable, presumably after the whole "How I Met Your Mother" thing. Like I said, he plays the role very well, even with that hurdle to clear.

It's something likely to fade over time. Sort of how my kids ignore me when I laugh because somebody from some long ago TV show turns up in a film.

Anyway, a fine, fine film.

Except the third act. The third act is terrible. Not in execution, of course, but content. Hated it. Hated it enough to where, even a week later, it's kind of still pissing us off. (I actually haven't mentioned it, but The Boy brought it up two or three times.)

Fincher and author Gillian Flynn have some sort of HBO series going, so good for them. I have a feeling I'm not going to like it though.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Skeleton Twins

September seems a little early to start the now traditional holiday parade of dysfunctional family dramas, but writer/director Craig Johnson gets a jump on things with his tale of suicidal siblings who destroy other people's lives when they're not destroying their own.

Hilarious.

It's not as grim as it sounds, thank the Lord, and actually has a fairly positive sorta-pro-family message, as well as a fair amount of laughs, among the really low lows.

In the opening, Milo (Bill Hader) is killing himself in a bathtub, but screws it up and the hospital winds up calling his estranged sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) to let her know. The call interrupts her attempt to kill herself, fortunately, and the two end up at Maggie's house, rekindling their relationship.

Maggie's other big relationship is with her fiancee, Lance, played by now archetypal average guy/everyman Luke Wilson. Wilson is an incomparably decent guy, whose attraction to Kristen Wiig is a little unclear, except that, by all appearances, he seems to love her in a very normal way that includes navigating her moods and not holding her outbursts against her.

Wiig is as awful to him as a girlfriend can be, and the movie teases that awful conceit of presenting him as somehow unworthy because he likes wall climbing and toe shoes. Also, he treats Milo and Maggie's mom (played by the always delightful Joanna Gleason, who manages to be as delightful as she is by implication horrid) with common courtesy.

But this works because the movie just toys with the idea: Milo and Maggie are dysfunctional, not Lance. The movie as a whole works, I think, because there's little attempt to justify the awful mess these two make out of their lives. It's more about how they support each other, even when they've brought their lives down around their ears.

I think dysfunctional stories are often autobiographical, and the authors are thus inclined to justify the characters' awfulness, but it's always—always!—easier to identify with the characters when the movie just shows the awful behaviour without judging or justifying.

It's interesting to have a movie which makes the argument "You shouldn't kill yourself because your siblings are counting on you to save them" against suicide, but again, that works: When the twins are apart and alone, suicide seems like a reasonable answer, but when they're together, they at least share that level of responsibility—toward each other.

The trick is to not drive each other apart with their awfulness, though.

Hader and Wiig have great chemistry, of course (see Adventureland, where they play husband and wife), and manage to squeeze a lot of laughs out of their dark circumstances. (I would not be surprised to learn that the funnier scenes were improvised.)

The acting is good all around. Ty Burrell (The Hulk, Peabody and Sherman) plays a sleazy teacher/writer. Boyd Holbrook (A Walk Among The Tombstones, Gone Girl) plays a sleazy SCUBA instructor. Yeah, there's a lot of sleaze in this movie. Hey, dysfunctional family dramas—they're about 90% sleazy.

Mark Heyman (Black Swan) co-wrote the script with the director.

We're not actually inclined to like these films, really, but The Boy and I did, for the strong characters, for the lack of "cheap outs" ("I had a bad childhood, so I'm entitled to be bad now!"), and for putting the "fun" back in "dysfunction".

Tracks

A young woman in the '70s walks across the Australian Outback with her dog and some camels.

I tell you, the whole concept of "high-concept" has some merit.

Just think of all the questions this raises: Why is she walking? What's with the camels? What kind of dog is it? Why the Outback?

None of these questions are particularly answered in Tracks, but that's okay, because the answers are sort of like "Why not?",  "Camels are cool!", "A good dog!" and "Well, we're in Australia, where else you gonna walk?"

It's probably a testament to Robyn Davidson's story, as interpreted by director John Curran and writer Marion Nelson, that the answers really don't matter much. If a woman wants to take a bunch of camels across the desert alone, why shouldn't she?

And, really, if you've met people, why wouldn't you want to cross the desert alone?

Anyway, it's a long trek, of about 2,000 miles, much of it completely water-less. Also, it's the mid-'70s, when a mile went a lot further. For long stretches, Davidson is completely alone (except for dog and camels), while for other stretches she's being harassed by National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan, who nearly botches her trip by trying to secretly photograph an aboriginal ritual.

She also has a stretch where she's accompanied by an aborigine, with whom she strikes up a friendship based on, I think, neither of them being able to understand the other. There's also a brief stop at a house that's about as far in the middle of nowhere as is possible, and is remarkable for looking like it could've been straight-up in the middle of the MidWest of the US.

Amazingly, it all works, without being boring. We learn a bit about Davidson's past, but really it's just an adventure story/personal journey, and I sort of think the background information, while interesting, isn't the point. (How can the background information of a personal journey story not be the point? Well, because the point of the journey is to come to terms with it, whatever it is, such that what it actually is, isn't very important. That's hard to follow but worth it.)

Mia Wasikowska does a fine job as Davidson. Adam Driver also looks the part as Smolan. Actually, the two look just dead on like the people they're portraying. It's not a high-octane adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, but it's a solid adventure film, in the mold of Kon-Tiki.

The Boy and I approved.

Horns

This is one of these movies that doesn't fit neatly into a particular paradigm. Some of the posters for Horns make it look like a straight-up horror movie, while some of the trailers look a little more nuanced. So, what is it actually?

Essentially, Horns is a mystery mixed in with a fantasy fable, about a young man named Ig (Daniel Radcliffe) who is being subjected to incredible scrutiny by his community and local news media because, well, he killed his girlfriend.

Allegedly.

Very, very allegedly, though it looks bad indeed, and doesn't help that Ig can't remember the night too well.

So, there's the mystery.

But in the course of all that focused hate, a newspaper compares Ig to the Devil, and he wakes up after a drunken tryst with—you guessed it—horns. And not just benign, everyday horns, but horns which are, essentially, a manifestation of a satanic presence. In his presence, people are inclined to reveal their unbridled ids, and to ask his permission as to whether or not they should act on them.

So, there's the fantasy/fable part. Which is kind of neat, because it plays into the mystery aspect. On the one hand, the horns allow Ig to extract information that he otherwise couldn't from people; on the other, if Ig is innocent, why would he sprout horns? It ain't exactly a halo.

By the third act, the movie shifts gears and goes into actual horror territory, including a rather over-the-top climactic scene with some serious gore, snakes, and somewhat dubious CGI.

The Boy and I really liked it. The Flower could not be induced to come, but we might take her to see it because we think she'd enjoy it. It's an unusual sort of film, but it made me want to read the book (by Joe Hill).

Alexandre Aja (Mirrors, Pirahna 3D) wrote the script and directed.

Daniel Radcliffe does a damn good American accent, even if he is once again playing a beleaguered young fellow with mysterious powers and an unnatural relationship with snakes. Even though he has the weird child-actor-all-grown-up look, he's filled out a bit, and he can act.

Juno Temple (Killer Joe, Maleficent) is entirely plausible as the ethereal beauty who may be Ig's angelic faithful soulmate, or may be a dirty whore. Heather Graham has a small gem of a role as a remarkably evil waitress. James Remar and Kathleen Quinlan play possibly the worst parents ever, or maybe just the most honest.

Max Minghella (The Internship, The Social Network) is the faithful friend and Joe Anderson (The Grey, A Single Shot) plays the unreliable big brother. David Morse plays the girlfriend's father. Kelli Garner is the hot mess who pines for Ig.

What I'm getting at is, it's good acting. Interesting and entertaining story. Mostly a mystery, though with some serious gore at the end. Oh, it's also, essentially, a love story.

Critics are not liking it much, and when we saw it the audience ratings (which have now been retracted on RT, presumably in advance of a wide release) were equally indifferent/negative. The Boy and I enjoyed the hell (heh) out of it.

This makes an interesting comparison with the (much more serious) Calvary, in that when Ig is walking around in his horns, he finds out how truly awful the entire town is. It also makes an interesting comparison with Faust (I'm thinking of the 1926 version because that's the one I've most recently seen), in that Ig is given a certain power, but with a righteous cause.

The question is, will it tempt him away from that righteous cause? Actually, the funniest scene in the movie is him abusing his power in a way it's hard to disapprove of, as it involves the media. Or at least, it's hard for me to disapprove but that probably just means I'm very corruptible. (If only someone would try, dammit!)

Anyway, this seems like a rather bold choice of movie to make. Like I said, it's not neatly in any genre, but it perhaps enough pop-appeal to hit it big. No idea, really. (And with boxofficemojo.com having been absorbed into IMDB, I may never know.)

It opens wide this Halloween. We saw it earlier because...I don't know...Academy Award consideration? (Our theater does that a lot. We saw Two Faces Of January months ago and it just now got released.)

But if you're open to a fantasy love story and not put off by gore, this could be the movie for you.