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.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Walk Among The Tombstones

Liam Neeson doesn't know who you are. But he will find you, and he will kill you. Or so they say on that there Internet the kids are all hopped up on. I don't know how all these 60-ish guys do it. I work out, but after garotting a few guys and shooting some others, or just running 'em down in my car, I'm worn out for the night.

Not Liam, though. In A Walk Among The Tombstones, Neeson plays an ex-cop (now unlicensed PI) who gets roped into helping a drug trafficker whose wife has been kidnapped and very possibly killed.

In fact, someone is targeting the wives of drug traffickers all over the city. (New York City, of course. That's where we keep the serial killers. Well, there and Miami.)

Now, I always thought you didn't mess with drug traffickers because, y'know, they'll kill you. But our kidnapper/killer/crazy people manage to easily defeat the nonexistent security and just as easily extract money from our drug guys, who are strong family men, apparently.

Seriously, as part of the Liam Neeson action canon, this is a fine entry. Besides the action scenes, which are fairly spare but well done, there's actually a story here and a nice relationship story between Liam and a little black orphan (no, really!), which I enjoyed even as I felt it was sorta cheesy.

It's another one of these movies that takes place in the '90s, in this case just pre-Y2K, which is sort of a thing these days. The Lawrence Block novel on which it is based was released in the early '90s, so go figure. (Maybe the director wanted to bring it forward, but ubiquitous smart phones would have changed things too much, so he brought it forward as far as he could without screwing up the story.)

The Boy and the Flower both enjoyed it, as did I. Veteran writer Scott Frank did a fine job of directing here, and we look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tusk

There is only one way a movie about a man who turns another man into a walrus (against his will) can go wrong, and that's by being boring. As such, Kevin Smith's new movie Tusk, is a success. But even more, this is an entertaining flick that straddles the line between horror and comedy in a way few movies do successfully.

The story concerns Wallace (oh, yeah, Wal-Lace), a podcaster whose gimmick is that he travels the continent in search of interesting stories that he describes to his partner Teddy, who is agoraphobic or doesn't like to travel or something. They call their show the Not-See Party. (Smith understands the podcast world pretty well, I'd judge.)

Wallace has journeyed to Canada to interview a handicapped kid he's been making fun of, but when he shows up, the kid has selfishly committed suicide, leaving Wallace without a story. A chance sighting of a flyer leads him to the home of Howard Howe, who may possibly be The Most Interesting Man in the World.

But behind Howe's oddly affable exterior lurks a sinister desire to turn a man into a walrus.

This is not just preposterous, it virtually dares you to take it seriously. And Smith never loses his sense of humor about the proceedings; but he also dares you to not take it seriously. Wallace is a real person—a jerk, to be sure, given to cheating on his girlfriend Ally, but in no way deserving of his fate. Ally and Teddy aren't exactly great, either, but their concern is genuine when they go to look for the missing Wallace, and down to the final scene which is both hilarious and touching.

Dark comedy, obviously. It reminds of many other movies, of course: It could almost stand as a parody of Silence of the Lambs, and it recalls The Human Centipede (without the gratuitous grossness). But the movie it most feels like to me is Motel Hell, which similarly straddles the line between sincere, campy and satirical.

The most instructive comparison is probably between this and Centipede. Both are body-horror type films, and as I've noted with regard to The Human Centipede, it used to be that this sort of mad scientist revolved around said mad scientist never accomplishing the desired goal. That's important because the dread is way more potent than the actualization, which is gross, unpleasant and (in the case of Centipede) frankly goofy.

Smith does an excellent job of creating the dread, as well as a few moments of genuine horror, which is perhaps a bit surprising coming from the guy famous for things like Clerks (although Dogma has its startling moments). There seems to be a consensus (insofar as these things go) that this part of the film is well done.

When confronted with the reality of the, uh, werewalrus, though, about half the audience bails (critics and commoners alike). I kind of think people are taking themselves too seriously, though. "I couldn't possibly enjoy a movie about a man turned into a walrus!"

Again, the only sin is to be boring, which is actually really easy to do: If you disrespect your characters, if you go for too many goofy jokes (rather than just letting the absurdity/horror of the situation speak for itself), if you just go too long—these are the landmines of the, uh, human-walrus hybrid film.

Smith steers through the minefield in his own idiosyncratic way, keeping his movie in the 90-100 minute range, and balancing the absurdity and horror with the human elements.

He does have one weakness: The long monologue (or sometimes dialogue) with a tight shot of the speaker(s), straight on looking at the camera. He does this effectively a couple of times here, and then a couple of other times less so, as with the Quebecois detective Guy Lapointe describing his encounter with Howe, and then again later with a long dialogue between Lapointe and Howe (pretending not to be Howe).

These word-storms actually manage the horror/comedy thing well at first (sort of like Gremlins Phoebe Cates' hilarious/horrifying monologue about why her family doesn't celebrate Christmas), then they go long, then they get absurd again, but then they go too long.

In a movie about a guy turned into a walrus, this is a pretty minor complaint.

Michael Parks ("Twin Peaks", We Are What We Are, Planet Terror/Deathproof) does an excellent job as Howe, as does Justin Long as Wallace. Genesis Rodriguez (Identity Theft, Big Hero 6) and Haley Joel Osmont (really!) play the concerned girlfriend and friend, respectively. Johnny Depp plays the French-Canadian detective (the kids did not recognize him). Smith's daughter Harley Quinn, and Depp's kid Lily-Rose Melody have cute roles as Canadian convenience store clerks. Even Mrs. Smith (Jennifer Schwalbach) has a short role as a waitress.

A lot of Canadian/American humor. We all liked it. Even weeks later we find ourselves chuckling over parts of it. There are a couple of really nice shots in here, too, which is always nice to see from the guy who revived "set the camera down and talk" as an art form.

This film does demand that you suspend your belief, of course, and you probably know if you're up for that. Weeks later, we still find ourselves chuckling over it, and The Flower has taken to using it as a new barometer. ("Gone Girl was pretty good, but you know what would've made it better? A walrus.")

EXTENDED SPECIAL BLOGGER'S CUT MATERIAL:

I'm going to add some insider stuff and some personal stuff, so if you want to geek out a bit with me here, read on.

You know, I always like Kevin Smith movies, even as I disagree (often vehemently) with whatever the underlying message is. Like, is a guy really supposed to roll with it when he finds out his girl has lied about her (as it turns out) extensive sex life (Clerks, Chasing Amy)? Is God's main message to Man really just not to believe very much in anything (Dogma)?

I can forgive Jersey Girl's "Make this one big gesture to prove you love me or all is lost" thing because that's a standard Hollywood trope.

But they're fun, funny, and distinctive (an important thing). They're also short and not boring. I feel like I could comfortably say, "Well, they're entertaining, but not masterpieces" but then I think back to all the movies in that category from the '90s that get watched and re-watched and emerge as new classics.

The Big Lebowski, for example, had a meager $17M box office when it was released. And Groundhog Day, now a beloved classic, was received with the critical warmth of a golf clap, and finished somewhere between Free Willy and Demolition Man at the box office.

Re-watchability is a big deal.

Anyway, Tusk came about as a result of a podcast where Smith and hetero-life-partner Scott Mosier, wherein they came across an actual ad by a man who wanted to exchange rent in his house for someone willing to dress up as a walrus for about 2 hours a day. You can hear them actually map out the plot, almost as filmed, here. And here them talk about the box office failure here.

Though, as noted on the second podcast, with a $3M budget, there was no chance of losing money. Smith's attitude is instructive; he wishes it did better, but he has a laundry list of how it was great for him.

It will still make a lot more at the box office than Life of Crime, unless that gets a much bigger release somehow, but it won't make as much as Motel Hell, even without adjusting for inflation.

But I can't see how this doesn't get a place in the cult horror pantheon next to that film.

Atlas Shrugged Part 3: Live Free or Shrug Hard

You know, I've been pretty game about the whole Atlas Shrugged thing. I sat through the first one, mostly without laughing, and I appreciated the great strides in quality made in the second one. These are movies that I have to go out of my way to see, too. (A trip to a regular theater runs a good $40-$60 instead of my usual $22. Color me completely unsurprised that people aren't going to the movies.)

And I knew—I knew—that a movie that was bothering to kick-start $500K (the craft services tab of your average low-budget flick) wasn't going to make good on the promises of Ayn Rand's dystopic future.

And I haven't even read the book.

Which is okay, because Part 3 is more of a book report than a movie, sorry to say. Every cheap tactic you can think of is used to compress the story into what must have been a meager budget. And it's not that it's bad, really, it's that it's not entirely there. Which is a shame on a number of levels.

The new actors (they're replaced again from part 1 and part 2) are good: Laura Regan is even warmer and more appealing in this role than Samantha Mathis and Taylor Schilling, and she has some genuine chemistry with Kristoffer Polaha, who plays John Galt (replacing D.B. Sweeney and Paul Johannson, who had very minor roles in the previous films).

But the rest of the cast phones it in, and I mean that literally. Rob Morrow plays Henry Rearden, Dagny's love interest in the previous film, but his big scene here is a mutual break-up over the phone. (Love, like business, is something that entails no obligations on the parties involved beyond initial agreements, if I understand correctly.)

I like Morrow a lot; would've liked to actually see him in this film. Greg Germann who has been playing weasels since at least "Ally McBeal" (and possibly "Ned and Stacey"), plays Dagny's brother. What a great choice. He even has a few lines. Peter Mackenzie has probably the most substantial role after Dagny and John, as "Head of State Thompson".

I had some trouble with that. What is "Head of State"? Are they trying to say "President" without saying "President"? Did that come up in the previous films? It didn't bug me then, but it did here.

Anyway, the voice over is provided by an actual returning cast member, Jeff Yagher, who plays Jeff Allen. No, I don't know who "Jeff Allen" was in the movie. To me, the story, as I can piece it together from the movies, boils down to a power struggle between Productive Giants and Tyrants, with a love quadrangle between Dagny and, alternately, John, Henry and Francisco, and the big character arc is Dagny's as she is ultimately moved from fighting to her death to save her father's railroad (still makes me laugh—railroad!) to "going Galt".

So, the big climax in this movie is set up beautifully: The heart of her rail operation is this bridge. Galt has predicted this bridge will collapse due to government regulation/incompetence. She says she won't let that happen.

Obviously, obviously, obviously: The Bridge Is The Thing. The movie should revolve around the fate of that bridge. The climax of the movie should be a 10 minute desperate struggle to save the bridge from, I dunno, explosive railway regulators. Whatever.

Instead, we get a still picture of a collapsed bridge and a narration saying, "Yep, it collapsed."

I mentioned in the first movie how off-putting the philosophy itself is. And, by the way, I'm not saying that I understand Objectivism; I'm just going by what the movie presents. The second movie beat out the first by focusing on cannily accurate description of government overreach, and less on the revulsion toward altruism. It also cleverly wove actual current events into the story, where they fit seamlessly.

But where Rand excelled in her understanding of governments, she was seriously lacking in her understanding of humans, which apparently was based rated on the Autism Spectrum Disorder scale.

The Boy noted that Galt's Gulch was peculiarly unfree: You couldn't give food away, you had to charge for it. He made the point that, essentially, he just wants his stuff to be his, to sell or to give away as he saw fit. Indeed, that's freedom, in the end.

And to get into the magic machine room (the perpetual motion machine room), you have to take an oath: "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine."

The contradictions in this are inherent in the movie itself though it never notices them, leading me to believe they're in the source material. The whole movie revolves around the tragedy caused by constantly grasping government; yes, it deals with it primarily in terms of individual sacrifice, but the apocalyptic scenario it paints is horrifying because other people matter.

We identify with Dagny (sorta) because she's competent and good at what she does; but the gravity of the catastrophe that unfolds is because millions will starve without her.

The spoken philosophy is practically an embrace of the cartoonish notion of businesses as profit-seeking narcissists, even as the exposition demonstrates that greatness is greatness because of the beneficial aspect of free economic exchange.

To say nothing of the fact taht the whole premise of the story is deeply 20th-century late industrialism: We still have industrial giants, but we are powered by millions of little Galts. There's a great story to be told there about how they, too, will "go Galt" in the right circumstances.

This trilogy probably isn't the movie series anybody wanted, and if we judge it by its own philosophy, there's little reason for a disinterested moviegoer to go see any of them. But there were a few Randians in the audience whose opinion seemed to be "Well, the book was better."

Something Wicked

We went to see the posthumous release of James Gandolfini's last (?) film but ended up seeing Brittany Murphy's last (?) film, a five-year-old why-are-they-releasing-it-now horror flick called Something Wicked.

The Flower was so appalled, it took me weeks to talk her into seeing another movie.

Solid horror movies are pretty rare. A lot of horror movies work well up to a point. The vast majority of horror movies do something well. It's not uncommon for a horror movie to set up a good atmosphere, for example, or an interesting premise. Most can manage a few cheap (but effective) shocks through (say) tight editing, and a few manage moments of suspense or boast a really fine performance.

These are all things missing from Something Wicked. Even its 90 minute runtime feels long and sloppy due to the editing, which does the acting no favors. Murphy does all right, I guess, but it's not like there's a lot to work with. I'm guessing the other actors actually can act, since most of them have pretty extensive credits.

The lead, Shantel VanSanten comes off particularly poorly, though this is doubtless due to the nature of the material, which can't really make up its mind what her role should be.

That's 'cause it's actually a big ol' cheat. In the desperate attempt to fool the audience with a "twist", the movie just lies to you from the first important scene—which, by the way, I spotted as it was happening.

That would be fine—I assume most people wouldn't see it coming, because it was really stupid, and you'd have to watch a lot of horror movies to pick up on it—but then the movie wants to set up a ghost story, for the cheap shock factor. And when I say cheap shock factor, I mean lone-girl-spooked-in-swimming-pool-goes-to-take-a-shower. (Because what girl doesn't respond to the threat of physical danger while scantily clad by getting naked in a publicly accessible yet more secluded place?)

Basically, the climax of the movie manages to both be completely absurd and totally unsurprising, punctuated by moments that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. Not enough of those to be in the so-bad-it's-good territory, unfortunately, but—well, at one point, while staring down the barrell of a gun he's just been shot with, a character says:

"Babe...have you gone crazy?"

As I said, it took weeks to get The Flower back into a theater, and I may never get her into another horror movie, since it's not really her thing to begin with.

Felt bad, though. There were two potentially good movies here, if they had picked one and stuck with it, instead of trying to Scooby Doo it up and give us a twist ending, and in the process invalidating every single plot point and possible moment of suspense. Even Scooby Doo doesn't do that any more.

Speaking of which, have you watched the latest Scooby Doo series, Scooby Doo, Mystery Incorporated? It ran for two seasons in 2010 and with a clearly planned and executed story arc. Ridiculously well done with an amazing cast and tons of in-jokes.

You should go watch that.

The Drop

We went to see James Gandolfini's final (?) film, The Drop and (due to traffic) ended up seeing Brittany Murphy's final (?) film, Something Wicked. It's probably uncontroversial to suggest that Gandolfini got the better deal.

Newcomer Michael R. Roskam directs Dennis Lehane's screenplay, based on Lehane's short story, a tale of a hardworking bartender named Bob (Tom Hardy), who finds himself in a tough spot when the bar he works in, run by his dubious cousin Marv (James Gandolfini), is robbed.

The owners of the bar, as it turns out, are Chechen mobsters, who acquired the bar from Cousin Marv a few years back after he had a run of bad luck. It's a smallish amount of money, a few thousand dollars, but the Mob doesn't take kindly to losing even small amounts of money, which means Cousin Marv (and perhaps by extension, Bob) is on the hook. And, as is always the case with the mob, it's not so much the money as it is the principle.

On top of which, one bar is chosen at random to hold all the Mob's ill-gotten gains, and the robbery may be the set up for an even bigger robbery.

Bob sort of floats through all this, seeming positively naive about things, and dealing with his own issue: To wit, a puppy found in a woman's garbage can, that he must raise and train, only to discover the original owner wants to blackmail him over it. (As in, "Give me a lot of money or I'll go to the police and get my dog back, at which point I'll torture it to death.")

So, Bob's our hero, and we sort of see him through the eyes of the dog owner's ex-girlfriend, Nadia (Noomi Rapace), and as the movie unfolds, we learn about the history of Marv, Bob, Nadia and Nadia's ex (played by Matthias Schoenarts, of Veerhoven's Black Book).

By the way, Schoenarts is Belgian and Rapace, of course, she of the dragon tattoo, is Swedish, which means half our cast of Brooklynites is furrin'. They do a good job with their accents (especially when compared to A Walk Among The Tombstones, which made me wonder if New Yorker actors were in short supply).

Anyway, it's a good little story, with some well-done suspense moments and character development. Given the story, the ending was obvious, I thought, but necessarily so. That is, if it hadn't ended the way it did, the rest of the story really wouldn't have held together. This is a good thing.

The denouement between Bob and Nadia is very Lehane-y. I have mixed feelings about his view of male-female relationships, I confess. (Mystic River disgusted me, for example.)

Great performances all around. Fine direction. The Boy and I approved.

The Green Prince

It was interesting, after seeing so many movies of Palestinians turned to serve the Israeli Shin Bet, to see a documentary on The Green Prince, who surely must have inspired these stories.

In some ways, though, this documentary presents a cleaner narrative than any of the movies we've seen, which is also pretty interesting. Our Palestinian protagonist is Mosab Hassan Yousef, whose father is a high-ranking member of Hamas—though apparently the non-terrorist wing of Hamas.

The astounding thing about Yousef's story is that he is steeped in anti-Israeli propaganda his whole life, but upon being arrested and witnessing Hamas' actions in jail versus his treatment at the hands of his captors, he begins to realize that it actually is propaganda. The Israelis aren't the bad guys.

This is magnified by Hamas' terror rampage against civilians.

So, here's the real life drama of a guy who doesn't want to betray his country, especially doesn't want to betray his own father and family, but still has the integrity to see things as they really are.

Ironically, perhaps, the worst Israeli bashing comes from his handler, Gonen Ben Yitzhak. Much like in the movies, Yitzhak has a lot of issues with Shin Bet tactics in Palestine. This is understandable, given that he had to deal with the issue of betrayal, himself, though in his case, the betrayal was of Yousef.

At the same time, it's hard to fault the organization trying to (and often succeeding in) thwarting Hamas' despicable tactics.

On the three-point documentary Blake scale:

1) The material is good and interesting.

2) It's well presented, though sparing. This isn't a big-budget documentary with a lot of fancy recreations. There's one overhead shot of a guy getting into a van on a deserted road that's used several times.

3) Bias. None that I detected, except sympathy for the human beings involved. It doesn't really try to change minds on the nature of the conflict. It lets Yitzhak have his say about the Shin Bet. It also points out that the psychotic fixation Palestinians have on the Israelis makes them extremely gullible, as when the morons tramping around a funeral with RPGs accidentally fire one off. The smoke hasn't cleared before the Palestinians are convinced that it was a nefarious Jewish plot.

And as incompetent as these Palestinian terror groups are, there's always fodder to suspect The Jews.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Frank

At one point during the offbeat indie-ish film Frank, things began to feel so real that I suspected it was based on a true story. I later learned that it was. And still later, I learned that it actually wasn't, although it was based on certain real events.

This is a credit to director Lenny Abrahamson, and to writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan (who collaborated on The Men Who Stare At Goats), who have taken a preposterous tale about a man spending all his time in a giant paper maché head fronting a difficult avant-garde band, and making it feel realistic.

Our story begins when Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, who was a Weasely in the Harry Potter flicks, but has been in a bunch of stuff, like Calvary, Anna Karenina, Dredd, True Grit) happens to be on the scene when the keyboardist for Soronprfbs (Frank's band) goes nuts and runs off into the sea.

Jon ends up being the keyboardist.

This leads to Jon spending a year or so recording an album with Soronprfbs, ultimately supporting them with an inheritance. Meanwhile, he's blogging and tweeting the experience, and gaining fans for his hard-to-pronounce band, while fighting off the white-hot hatred of Jon's girlfriend, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal, looking all of her 37 years while returning to her roots as a weird bohemian artist chick type).

This movie, in so many ways, felt like an early '70s flick. It has an almost magical realism feel to it, except that nothing magical really happens, unless you count suicide and insanity as magical things. Frank has a guru quality, such that people are attracted to his talent and his words of wisdom, even as he demonstrates a certain detachment from reality.

I think that's probably it: The wise man who is detached from reality and ultimately destroyed by it was a big '70s theme, I think. (Can I think of any movies like that offhand? Apparently not. Tommy? Those Lindsay Anderson flicks?) Honestly, as a plot, I've always found it creepy and heavily influenced by drug culture. But that's just my take.

Frank avoids this nonsense, mostly. He's a talented guy, but fragile and weird. He's nice to Jon in a way the others are not, and it is really an exercise for the viewer to decide whether or not this relationship is a good thing. Jon means well, but he's more taken by Frank's talent than he is aware of Frank's shortcomings.

You could say that the movie has a tonal shift in the third act, but that's not really true. It's true that the first two acts are fairly light-hearted (with darkly comic overtones), while the final act is a lot less comic, but the events are rather incidental: The first two acts are funny for their fish-out-of-water character, for the (always tenuous) isolation of the characters from reality, but it's not like you don't see the train coming at you—hell, from the first scene.

I actually think that's a big part of why this works: Jon wants to bring Frank and his amazing talent to a wide audience who will then appreciate him (and make Jon a rock star, not incidentally) without seeing that Frank's very nature makes that nigh impossible. Even if we side with Jon, and less with the pissy bandmates, it's not like we can avoid the obvious fact that a man is wearing an enormous paper mache head.

Just as the initial part of the movie doesn't get zany for the sake of zaniness, the closing act doesn't get dark for the sake of darkness. In fact, the movie just destroys a beloved trope of artists—the tortured genius.

Well, that gets it a few points right there from me. The Boy and I both greatly enjoyed. A brisk hour-and-a-half story with a good narrative and strong characters, which will be seen by very few people.

But, hey, it's got about twice the box office of Life of Crime!