Saturday, April 19, 2014

Non-Stop

Liam Neeson has quietly emerged as one of the pre-eminent action stars of  the last five years (since about Taken), which is just one of those thing I observe every single time he comes out with one of these movies.

This is the best of the five action movies he's made in the past five years, I'd say, with the possible exception of Taken.

What?

Some sort of controversy?

All right, I'll get to that.

The story is that Neeson, a Federal Air Marshall who's on the edge, man, finds himself on a plane with a terrorist who is one step ahead of him at every step. The opening sequences are great paranoid cat-and-mouse suspense thriller, and Neeson gets deeper and deeper in the muck with every new corpse that turns up.

It's clever, it's entertaining, and it has good emotional depth. (It's also preposterous, of course.) It still wound me up enough to where I was wondering whether Neeson was hallucinating about everything. That, of course, would've been awful, but it was a cool thing to tease.

Of course, it's Liam Neeson, so he's great at eliciting empathy.

The problem, of course, is that when you get such a masterful set up, the problem comes in setting up a proper villain. And there aren't a lot of choices. Basically, your choices are evil mastermind or ex-military.

Well, judging by the reaction, a lot of people really didn't like how it worked out. And I can see that: It was a clumsily inserted bit of inanity that couldn't decide whether to go Hans Gruber or Magneto.

Honestly, it didn't bother me much. I had already accepted the lax airplane standards. Plus, I lived through the '80s. And the movie is solid up to that point—and after that point, too. Really! The ending is solid.

Still I only buy two or three tickets tops for a flick, and if they pissed off the people who are most likely to go to see this film, maybe they'll think it through next time.

Neeson is, as always, up to the task. Julianne Moore does a good job as the passenger who might just be in on the whole thing!!

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (of the less effective Neeson thriller Unknown and the excellent horror flick Orphan) does a really fine job with the action. But I don't think we're getting a "Non-Stop" franchise.

In Secret

I forgot to review this after seeing it back in February.

It's probably for the best.

The acting is good: Jessica Lange plays a doting mother to weird, sickly son played by Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy!), when orphan Elizabeth Olsen comes to live with them. You probably don't know Elizabeth Olsen, but she's the younger sister of Mary-Kate and Elizabeth—and she can act!

Elizabeth (as Therese) gets railroaded into marrying her sickly cousin, and the family moves to Paris to open a shop. The trouble starts when she runs into her decidedly attractive husband's friend (Llewin Davis himself, Oscar Isaacs) and they—shall we say?—"hit it off".

Because this is based on a 19th century French novel by Emile Zola, Therese and Laurent (Isaacs) decide their life would be perfect if they murdered Malfoy.

19th century + French = It doesn't work out well for anyone. Including the audience.

I don't really fault the direction per se. Charlie Stratton whom I know best from the '80s Gremlins knock-off Munchies (not to be confused the Critters or Ghoulies) seems comfortable moving the camera and setting scenes and moving things along. Editing is fine. Music is fine.

But why?

Hey, I have that reaction. I had that same reaction to the last Therese movie we saw. "Is this a story that must be told?"

Or, maybe more accurately: "You're going to pour millions of dollars and months into your life into making something, and you make this?"

So, I guess it's a matter of taste. But, in fairness, that's true of most award-bait movies and I don't know why they get the end of year "boffo!" treatment from critics and the Academy while this is in the dungheap of winter. (Well, I know part of the reason: pedigrees matter a whole lot.)

As odd as it sounds, it's fine for what it is. It's just not something we care for.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Omar

As noted in the previous review for Bethlehem, I got the titles of these two movies mixed up. I think I had them juxtaposed in my mind because Bethlehem is a superior film in most respects to Omar, which not only shows the Palestinians completely manipulated by Israeli agents, it also shows them to be kind of awful all on their own, even in matters not relating to terrorism.

Omar is the hero of our film, and he and his crew are "usual suspects" frequently rounded up by Shin Bet (presumably it's Shin Bet, I don't recall seeing any identification, though), at which point they're interrogated until they give up their friends. Although considerable pressure is brought to bear on them, apparently the smart ones know not to say anything, since they won't be held if there's no evidence.

But then the fun begins: Omar is pressured into becoming a snitch, which he agrees to while never actually intending to follow through. Regardless, the rumors spread that he has turned, making his life increasingly difficult.

The centerpiece of this story is Omar's romance with his girl, and the money he's saved to make them a good life. But as the smear campaign against him ramps up, he's less and less able to convince her that he's not a traitor.

It doesn't end well for Omar, or for the audience for that matter, since the ending (certainly perceived as the only honorable "out" for him among anti-semites) is ridiculous enough to almost qualify as a power fantasy.

Also, while you might be inclined to sympathize with Omar, who's a straight shooter (heh) in his own tribe, his troubles start when he and his pals murder a random Israeli patrolman.

There is absolutely no guilt for this act. The movie barely recalls this seminal act. It's almost as if the filmmakers believe that, "Yes, Palestinians are going to kill Jews, and that's the order of things. It's the Jews retaliating that is so horrible."

Once again, we find ourselves at the brink of a good movie which completely implodes unless you're willing to accept that random acts of violence are a legitimate way of dealing with grievances. But this isn't even one of the better one of those.

Needless to say, I'm glad La Grand Belleza won over this. Actually, all four of the foreign language movies (The Hunt, The Missing Picture, Broken Circle Breakdown) were way out of this film's league.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Bethlehem

This was the last of the five foreign-language films nominated for the Oscar, and the last entry we actually saw before the Oscars (not counting the animated shorts). The category was tight this year, way moreso than the English language pictures, with The HuntThe Great BeautyBroken Circle Breakdown and The Missing Picture, all films with greatness in them.

Then there's the Palestinian entry, Omar.

The Boy emerged from the theater saying, "Boy, Palestinians are dicks!" Perhaps not surprisingly, that is the common thread running through Palestinian movies (and Israeli movies sympathetic to Palestinians). I don't think it's deliberate: I just think when your defining philosophy sanctifies the wanton destruction of innocents, well, you are a dick and there's no hiding that.

Omar is thematically similar to Bethlehem, which I would swear we'd seen first though the movie listings seem to suggest the former stopped playing the day before the latter started, and which I also realize now I forgot to review. (I get behind, as you know.)

And now, having written this review, I realize that I have the two reversed. This is a review of Bethlehem.

Anyway, the story is that of a young Palestinian (not named "Omar") whose older brother is a bigwig in a Palestinian, uh, "activist" group who was recruited at a young age by an Israeli agent (Shin Bet?) in the hopes that he would ultimately lead to his older brother, and maybe even serve as a mole inside the more "active" groups when he grew up.

I'm no Jim Bond, but it seemed...dubious to me that the Israelis were going to capture or kill this kid's brother and then have him be gung ho about continuing to work for them.

Super-spy logic often escapes me.

Anyway, like the other Palestinian movies we've seen, it's really very good except we lack whatever it is that makes it possible for one to say "Oh, yes, I can see why you'd blow yourself and other random people up for that." The anti-Israeli squad is out in force, as usual, talking about how this movie shows the crafty Jew manipulation of the Palestinian people which, as far as it goes, is true enough.

The Israelis totally make the Palestinians their bitches. Heh. They know so much about what's going on, they have so many moles, and such good surveillance, the terrorists are in a constant state of paranoia. If they're not actually ratting each other out, they're killing each other because they think they're ratting each other out.

It's plausible that this is supposed to engender sympathy for them, but it doesn't. At least not in me. To suggest that there's something wrong with this is to suggest that Israel shouldn't defend itself. (The point, of course.) "Mind games with terrorists" doesn't even rank next to "blowing up cafés".

Terrorist logic also often escapes me.

Anyway, it's a plausible and interesting film, up to the end where, much like Omar, it strains credulity. Although Bethlehem is much better in that regard, because it at least sets up the Shin Bet agent to have the necessary characteristics to do the really stupid thing the plot requires.

Like I said, it's good, but I can't really recommend it. I'll review Omar next, though it's way ickier and the Palestinians are even worse—and it's actually Palestinian (Bethlehem is Israeli).

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

We ended up seeing this after dropping The Flower off at a party and so missed a couple of the animated shorts, including the one that ultimately ended up winning the Oscar and the Disney Mickey Mouse short.

We came in at the end of the winning one, "Mr. Hublot" which had a "Despicable Me meets Cyberpunk" feel that was cool, and we saw the Mickey Mouse one at the front of Frozen, and it's cute. It's a fun homage to the old Steamboat Willie era with Peg Leg Pete and, uh, the cow lady and what-not.

After "Mr. Hublot" was "Feral". This was visually interesting as it told the story of a "wolf boy" who's found by a man and introduced to society. No dialog. Distinctive, non-traditional animation style, which was nice and evocative. Ultimately, it got a little too abstract for me to follow, and I didn't "get" the message (or more accurately, emotion) it was trying to convey.

"Possession", the Japanese entry (not nominated in the final five) was also very distinctive, using a CGI technique that I believe is called "cel shading" (after the traditional technique) which I'd only ever seen in computer games before. Anyway, it gives CGI a nice, flat-but-layered look. The story itself concerns a fix-it man who wanders into a haunted house in a storm. The (very Asian) twist being that the house is haunted by things—i.e., stuff that people used for years and years, but discarded.

His haunted night consists of trying to repair or assuage the possessions. A Japanese answer to Toy Story, if you will. This was probably my favorite.

The Boy, on the other hand, greatly favored a silly French short (also not in the final five) called "A la Francaise", which was about chickens in the court of the Sun King. I mean, it was chickens playing the nobility in the court, dressed in silly rococo gowns and doing silly French royal things. One of them is writing about all the stuff that goes on, until a wind carries her pages away and the court begins to read them. Mayhem ensues.

The Boy sez, "It's chickens! Acting like people!" I dunno, sometimes his tastes run to the simple. (In the otherwise dull Gloria, there's a scene with a busker who has a skeleton puppet, which he just adored.) Anyway, funny chickens. Tough to go wrong.

"Room on the Broom" is the longest entry, at 26 minutes, and a little bit too long at that, but one that will probably get a lot of play, having an all-star cast and directed squarely at young kids. Simon Pegg narrates the story of a witch (Gillian Anderson, who mostly has non-verbal expressions) whose familiar cat (Rob Brydon) finds himself with increasing company (a dog, a bird and a frog), all of whom cause increasing difficulty on the overburdened broom, until the whole thing comes to a head with a run-in involving a dragon (Timothy Spall).

Cute, as I said. Mostly entertaining, though I felt it dragged a bit around the 15-minute mark.

There was a Pixar short, "The Blue Umbrella" which was at the front of the snubbed Monsters U, and it's—well, it's meh. It's a love story about umbrellas. As The Boy said, it's basically Pixar saying "We can anthropomorphize" anything. It's sort of reminiscent of last years splendid "Paperman" but while artistically impressive, feeling a little like we'd seen it, and seen it better.

The last short was a very funny Irish entry (also not in the final five) called "The Missing Scarf", which is a simple child's tale, familiar seeming, but which somehow ends up in the complete destruction of everything. It's so very Irish. The animation is a primitive but nice 2D-ish thing that looks sort of like origami. George Takei narrates.

The DVD shipped around to theaters has the shorts being introduced by giraffe and an ostrich, doing a kind of "I worked with [this or that animated character]" bit that's actually pretty funny. For some reason, though, I don't think they sell this so there's not much chance of seeing all these films together.

Which is a shame, because it's kind of a fun way to pass an hour-and-a-half. If you don't like one thing, you only have to wait 10 minutes for the next. And there's a good variety. But there it is. Market realities and what-not.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

2013 Year In Review

So, the Oscars again, and I care less than ever. I think, in part, it's because it's all so rigged. I mean, probably not the winners, but there are never any surprises. There's no room in the nominations for an unexpected outsider; they know which films are going to be nominated—the ones that get released in November and December.

So, The Boy and I saw nearly 160 films last year. Counting a couple of double-screenings, that's 160 trips to the cinema, close to every other day!

12 Years A SlaveErasedMuch Ado About NothingThe Book Thief
20 Feet From StardomEvil DeadMudThe Conjuring
56 UpFaustMuscle ShoalsThe Croods
A Good Day To Die HardFill The VoidNebraskaThe Gatekeepers
A HijackingFrances HaNoThe Grandmaster
A Single ShotFrom Up On Poppy HillNo Place On EarthThe Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
A Touch Of SinGangster Squad (In Color!)Now You See MeThe Heat
Aftermath (Poklosie)Genius On HoldOnly God ForgivesThe Hunt (Jagten)
AftershockGravityOur ChildrenThe Iceman
Ain't Them Bodies SaintsGreat Expectations (2013, London West End)Our NixonThe Impossible
All Is LostGreat Expectations (Newell, 2013)Oz: The Great And PowerfulThe Internship
American HustleHannah ArendtPacific RimThe Missing Picture
An Unfinished SongHava Nagila (The Movie)Paris-ManhattanThe Patience Stone
Anna KareninaHawkingPhilomenaThe Pin
Arena of the Street FighterHitler's ChildrenPitch PerfectThe Place Beyond The Pines
BarbaraHotel TransylvaniaPlimpton! Starring George Plimpton as HimselfThe Purge
BastardsHow I Live NowPopulaireThe Rabbi's Cat
Becoming TraviataHunger Games: Catching FirePrisonersThe Sapphires
Big Ass SpiderHush! Girls Don't ScreamPulp FictionThe Spectacular Now
BlancanievesIn A World...QuartetThe Untouchables (1987)
Bless Me UltimaIn The HouseRed 2The Way, Way Back
Bullet To The HeadInformantRed DawnThe World's End
By Summer's EndInside Llewyn DavisRenoirThis Is The End
Cannon FodderInsidious 2Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. HydeThor: The Dark World
CarrieIsrael Film Festival: God's NeighborsRust and BoneThérèse
Casting ByJack ReacherShadow DancerTurbo
Chasing MavericksJack The Giant SlayerSharqiyaWadjda
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2JewtopiaShort Term 12Warm Bodies
Come Out And PlayJurassic ParkSide EffectsWhat Maisie Knew
Dallas Buyers ClubKochSilent Hill: RevelationWhen Comedy Went To School
Dark SkiesKon-TikiSinisterWolf Children
Demon's RookLeonieStand Up GuysWolverine
Despicable Me 2
Star Trek Into DarknessWorld War Z
Detention of the DeadLife of PiStarbuckWreck-It Ralph
Dorfman in LoveLike Father, Like SonStill MineYou Will Be My Son
Drinking BuddiesLike Someone In LoveStories We TellZaytoun
ElysiumLoreTexas Chainsaw Massacre 3DZero Dark Thirty
EmperorLove Is All You NeedThe Act of KillingCaptain Phillips
Ender's GameMamaThe Angel's Share
Enough SaidMan Of SteelThe Attack
If I seem uncertain, it's because this list is based on blog posts, and I know I didn't manage to post a review of all the movies we saw. For example, I just realized I had forgotten Captain Phillips. (Not that it's going to win in any awards at Casa 'strom.)

Which, among these were the best? Note that I'm not including Broken Circle Breakdown, and several other Oscar nominees, since they didn't meet the qualifications for the Casa 'strom awards (i.e., I had to see it in 2013).

Well, let's start by eliminating the worst...
CarrieCannon FodderThérèseThe Place Beyond The Pines
BastardsA Touch Of SinAin't Them Bodies SaintsThe Attack
The PinOur ChildrenElysiumMan Of Steel
Muscle ShoalsThe InternshipOur NixonOz: The Great And Powerful
Demon's RookWhen Comedy Went To SchoolOnly God ForgivesSharqiya
Note that these were "bad" for a variety of reasons, and I hate to put some (like Demon's Rook) in this category because I wanted so much more for them. By far, the number one disease afflicting these films was self-indulgence (A Touch of Sin), manifested in over-long-ness (The Place Beyond The Pines), overbaked-special-effects (Man of Steel), self-importance (Elysium), or just adding nothing to the world (Our Nixon).

A few (like Oz or The Pin) were just misfires. The Attack has a special place on the list exclusively for being politically execrable. (Next year, Omar will occupy that spot.)

Turbo probably shouldn't be on there. It wasn't much worse than The Croods, and that's up for an Oscar. Actually, I've taken that out and put on Our Children which was truly awful on many levels.

Still 20 really horrible experiences out of 155-160 isn't bad.

I'd rule out the others bit-by-bit, but I don't really have a good way to keep track of all these things. So I'm gonna skip right to my top 25. 

The Act of Killing
Aftermath (Poklosie)
Dallas Buyers Club
Faust
Fill The Void
From Up On Poppy Hill
The Hunt (Jagten)
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
Inside Llewyn Davis
Like Father, Like Son
The Missing Picture
Monsters University
Much Ado About Nothing
Mud
Nebraska
Prisoners
Pulp Fiction
The Rabbi's Cat
Short Term 12
A Single Shot
12 Years A Slave
The Untouchables (1987)
Wadjda
Wolf Children

Some of these are hangovers from the previous year: Zero Dark Thirty; one of the kids' top 5, Wolf Children; my favorite for the first part of the year, Fill The Void; Faust, and The Rabbi's Cat. The Untouchables and Pulp Fiction, are of course from long ago.

The Act of Killing
Aftermath (Poklosie)
Dallas Buyers Club
From Up On Poppy Hill
The Hunt (Jagten)
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
Inside Llewyn Davis
Like Father, Like Son
The Missing Picture
Monsters University
Much Ado About Nothing
Mud
Nebraska
Prisoners
Short Term 12
A Single Shot
12 Years A Slave
Wadjda

Paring down from this last 18 is challenging. I'd drop out some as falling just short of masterpieces: Dallas Buyers Club, Poppy Hill, The Missing Picture (as The Boy says, not great cinema, just a great story), and with even greater reluctance Much Ado About Nothing (even though I love it for many of the same reasons that critics trashed it), A Single Shot (Sam Rockwell should have two Oscars by now), and Nebraska. If throw in 12 Years A Slave for having no character arc (which I concede is true without admitting that it's necessary for a great story), I've still got eleven left. Gun to my head, I'd drop Short Term 12, over some slight roughness in the story editing.

The Act of Killing
Aftermath (Poklosie)
The Hunt (Jagten)
The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)
Inside Llewyn Davis
Like Father, Like Son
Monsters University
Mud
Prisoners
Wadjda

At this point, I cry no más! I can reduce no further. I notice there's a commonality between these films: They're all kind of difficult. Even Monsters U deals with hard truths. Mud is a fun one, but also a sober look at friendship and love. I mean, for a coming of age movie, it's pretty heavy, man.

So, there's the official Bitmaelstrom top 10 for 2013!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Tim's Vermeer

Despite Jillette's bombastic voice, and their occasionally strident atheism, it's hard for me not to like Penn & Teller. I think they are basically good classical liberals with a live-and-let-live philosophy, who are genuinely concerned about the truth.

I mention this because, if you have any kind of P&T baggage, you shouldn't let it deter you from seeing their new movie, Tim's Vermeer (directed by Teller and narrated by Penn).

This is a joyous celebration of life, art, and genius. It's inspirational, compelling, and, at 80 minutes long, manages to avoid PDS (padded documentary syndrome).

It's a simple story: Fabulously wealthy Tim Jenison has spent his life inventing wild and wacky things, when he's not inventing industry-defining A/V software that makes him fabulously wealthy.

Well, Tim's got it in his had that the Dutch master Vermeer was a technologist, too. And, in fact, that he used a special gizmo to get the shadings of light he got in his paintings—shadings which no other painter of the day achieved.

Having established his premise and devised a hypothetical tool, Tim (who has never painted in his life) uses it as a proof-of-concept, painting a simple image of a vase. He shows his tool to other artists like Martin Mull (!) and David Hockney, and all agree that he's on to something.

So Tim (not a painter, remember) gets the idea to paint Vermeer's The Music Room to really demonstrate the worthiness of his idea.

The catch is, he wants to (has to, you could argue) do the whole thing using only the technology available to Vermeer, and recreate all the elements of the music room to boot.

This takes years.

Then, when he's done that, he's actually got to do the painting.

I have a bias here, of course: Obsession is favorite topic of mine. (I like being obsessed, too.) I sent my mom to see it (she tackles all kinds of projects) and she also found it inspirational.

It's just so much fun.

Also, while I generally don't pine for wealth, I do occasionally become aware of a story that makes me think, "Yeah, that's a good amount of money to have." This is one of those stories, since Tim and Penn and Co. all jet off to England and Holland, or wherever they need to whenever. Tim buys all kinds of hardware and generally doesn't let anything (least of all money) get in his way.

(By the way, my favorite "good amount of money" story is George Harrison listening to Erik Idle talk about the uncompleted Life of Brian, and Harrison funding it because it sounded like a good movie and he wanted to see it. Harrison of course went on to fund Handmade Films, which was credited with revitalizing British cinema.)

One of the best documentaries in years.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Girl on a Bicycle

A French Romantic Comedy! I had to work to convince The Boy and The Flower that French were actually famous for romcoms, not just angsty existential films chock full of ennui. Though not so much romcoms as sex farces, which are sort of like romcoms, except that everyone has sex with everyone else, but it never seems to matter in the end.

The Old Man used to say "sophisticated" was a word meaning "sexually deviant", which I always think about when I hear someone call the French sophisticated.

So, imagine my delight when A Girl on a Bicycle—while very French and containing a number of amusing sex scenes—turns out to be a sweet, funny, romantic film that I didn't regret taking The Flower to. (It's also mostly in English!)

Absolutely rife with European stereotypes. Heh.

Paolo, an Italian bus driver living in Paris, loves Greta, a German stewardess, and so proposes to marry her. (Paolo is an awesome tour bus driver: He describes Paris in terms of all of its monuments—which are all just pale imitations of the ones in Italy, natch.) He's as happy as a clam when she accepts—despite her stern and ordered nature, she seems to understand and appreciate his Italian-ness—until he's stopped at traffic light and the titular girl on a bicycle rolls up beside him.

And what a girl!

He becomes obsessed, especially when it happens again and again. His English friend Derek—constantly pissed off that despite years of studying French, no one in Paris will deign to talk to him, except in English—gives him a sensible plan: Meet the girl on the bicycle. That'll cure him, because no woman could possibly live up to this idealization he has of her.

Of course, things don't go as expected, and not just for the characters in the movie, but for me. I know how these French farces usually play out and, well, this didn't. So refreshing.

Instead we get a comedy where a sudden, unexpected humanity from the main character, puts him in an increasingly precarious position.

And it's funny!

Beautiful cast, though not anybody I knew (except Paddy Considine, who played the English bloke). I had a slight problem in that I didn't think the French girl was more beautiful than the German girl, especially, but that's not really the point.

The point, as Derek says, is: There's always gonna be a girl on a bicycle. How are you going to handle it?

This film has a whopping 8% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, and 78% from viewers. Color me unsurprised.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Frozen

The Barb had a birthday and the pickings were slim at the bargain theater—Walking With Dinosaurs wasn't lighting her candles, and I sure wasn't gonna push it—so we went and paid full price for Frozen, Disney's latest animated musical fairy-tale extravaganza.

Had you told me that Disney would, in 2014, make a movie of all white people, that wasn't just a movie with songs but outright musical-with-a-vengeance, and that it would have not one but two princesses, I would have had a hard time believing it.

But for whatever reason (John Lasseter?), Disney seems to have decided they'd rather make a good, fun movie, damn political correctness, and thus Frozen, which is even inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story (though apart from some names and the general premise of an ice-sorceress, one might be hard-pressed to detect the inspiration).

As a result, they do a damn good job.

It's got the Disney look (as it should) and it feels familiar but without feeling tired or reticent. It doesn't try to be hip, as it seemed like Tangled was trying to. The story is one of two sisters who are tight, with the younger one enamored of the older one's ice powers (and why wouldn't she be) until an accident nearly kills her.

The King and Queen decide the best approach is to make the little sister forget, and separate the two, and encourage the older sister to fight her powers.

Of course, as everyone but the King and Queen knows, fighting something is the absolute worst way to try to control it, and things go to Hell—the icy 9th circle, if you're into Dante, the 5th if you're into D&D—rather quickly (in movie time).

Well, look, they all live happily ever after. Can you imagine otherwise? The point isn't the destination, but the journey. And it's a good journey.

The music is unapologetic, as I said, if a little too modern for my taste. I can't remember any of it, except I guess the big ice number. Similarly with the dialog—it's a little too contemporary to my ear.

The characters are likable. The anthropomorphic/marketable cute animal is a charming moose. With two unmarried princesses, the movie has a chance to tease us with, well, more than one potential romantic outcome. The ending was refreshing.

The animation is wonderful, happily. The snow provides all sorts of interesting and vibrant scenery, and the attention to detail is there. There's one sequence of ice growing that looks fakey—but real ice can kinda look fakey, too, you know, when it's all perfect crystalline and light-reflection. (Hey, I'm an L.A. kid. I don't see much snow and ice.)

Elsa, the snow queen, has the sexiest sequence in a Disney movie (her "coming out" song) since Jasmine came on to Jaffar in Aladdin. Nothing lewd, just sort of a side-effect of not completely de-sexing her.

It's also interesting that the cast is not exactly jam-packed with A-List movie stars. Kristen Bell is Anna, the little sister. Alan Tudyk, doing a voice, is an officious duke, who fills in as the evil businessman (gotta have one). And Ciaran Hinds plays the leader of the trolls. But other than that, the names I recognized—Maurice LeMarche, Nick Jamison, Fred Tatasciore—are voice actors.

So, maybe there's a sea change going on. We can hope.

We all loved it. Great ending, as I mentioned. Pure Disney princess flick. Who'd've thunk?

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Last of the Unjust

I've lamented—frequently—on the trials and tribulations of being a frequent moviegoer at this time of the year. The Oscar contenders linger in the theaters like the smell of microwaved skunk, and the new crap being shoveled out is typically foreordained failure to meet even the meager demands of genre films.

I mention this as an explanation as to why, when a 3:40 minute documentary is the only thing at the local movie house you haven't seen, it actually doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

And, in fact, except for the very beginning of the film, the movie flies by.

The Last of the Unjust is Claude Lanzmann's follow-up to his nine hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, and I would say, with all humility, that it's worthy of the 100% ratings (both critical and audience) on Rotten Tomatoes.

These are Lanzmann's interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Last of the Elder Jews (a title apparently conferred by the Nazis), who was the last person to "run" the Threisenstadt ghetto at the end of The War.

Well, it's 210 minutes—what can I say? There's so much here. I had a little trouble following at first, because Lanzmann is an expert in the material, obviously, and at first he was throwing around a lot of detail about streets and railways and stuff like that.

But by the end, that stuff all comes back, over and over again, and becomes significant, so, yeah, even though it made me nervous at first—'cause nothing's worse than being five minutes into a 3-hour movie you know you're going to hate—the initial slowness sets everything up well.

The story? Gotta be one of the most challenging in human history.

Murmelstein was a "collaborator", a Jew who worked with the Nazis, in this case to make Threisenstadt useful for propaganda purposes. Dreadful! An abomination! He deserves to be hanged, according to one prominent Israeli historian (who had agitated for mercy for Eichmann).

And yet.

And yet.

Nothing about this is simple. Murmelstein had many chances to flee, yet took none. He ascribes this to a "thirst for adventure". When asked if he likes power, he retorts "Who doesn't?" When asked if he abused his power, he says, yes, but always in service of the people of the ghetto.

I said of Hannah Arendt that she her thesis that the Jews could've done more to fight the Nazis may be accurate, but it's also Grand Champion Hall of Fame Monday Morning Quarterbacking. (More on Arendt later.)

I felt that here.

Would it have been nobler for him to leave? It doesn't seem to be in dispute that he helped a lot of Jews escape. In fact, what's clear is that the reason he's vilified is that he lived and that's therefore suspicious, but it's just as clear that he lived primarily because the war ended before the Nazis could muster up the excuse to kill him. (While he was there for a couple of years, he was only in charge for a few months.)

And Murmelstein seems to have viewed his mission to say alive, and keep others alive as well, even if that didn't make him popular. At one point, the Nazis said, "Hey, get this typhus epidemic under control or..."

The "or" was always a given. The Jews knew the Nazis would kill them while pointedly (at least according to Murmelstein) not knowing about the camps. There was "out east", which was known to be worse, but not not known how much worse. Murmelstein relates two stories of trainloads coming in from other places where the passengers freaked out about the showers.

And yet, it's human nature to deny the awful, especially in the face of powerlessness. So when he says they didn't know, I believe that. When he says he played Scheherazade, spinning stories to keep the ghetto alive, I believe that, too.

And when he says he withheld food from people who refused to get typhus vaccines, that's not in doubt, and it's entirely inevitable that this would produce resentment in those who were there. And when he says he ended the freedom-for-favor style of management of the privileged Jews, who traded exit visas for service, sex, or whatever, well, then you can see why he'd really be hated.

It's not much discussed but the Jews did not behave admirably in the camps (and Threisenstadt was a camp, even if they called it a ghetto). This is expected: Treat people like animals and they'll become animals.

I'm just scratching the surface here, of course, but it's just an amazing thing, this record.

It was instructive to hear Murmelstein speak of Eichmann, whom he personally knew and personally witnessed during the Krystallnacht. He wasn't impressed with the tribunal that couldn't determine that Eichmann was there at all, given that there were hundreds of witnesses—and pictures!

He was also particularly disdainful of Hannah Arendt's description of Eichmann with the phrase "the banality of evil". "He was a monster," says Murmselstein, and he's got the anecdotes to back it up.

It does support my observation of the Arendt movie when I said " it never seems to occur to Arendt that Eichmann is just lying." There's no doubt in Murmelstein—the hated collaborator—that Eichmann was no mere paper pusher.

Anyway, I could go on and on, and I'd understand being deterred by the length, but not only did I have no trouble sitting through it, The Boy found it riveting.

Now I'm looking to find the Shoah movie online—that one I'm going to watch over a period of a few days.

Gloria

Gloria is a movie about a woman living life out loud! Unapologetically! Like a Bossa Nova! Or so the critical reviews would have you believe.

I guess.

Also: Pointlessly, desultorily, and with no small amount of fear.

Also, senior-citizen genitalia got more screen time than I usually like in a film.

Look, the Tomatoes on this are 99% (!) for critics and 68% for audiences. And the audiences are skewed toward the sorts of people who would go see a plotless slice-of-life movie about a 50-something woman.

The story, such as it is, concerns Gloria (the lovely Paulina Garcia), who has a day job, and spends her nights dancing in a club, picking up guys who catch her eye. (Well, we only see one of these guys but the implication is that she's pretty comfortable doing this.) So, she lives like a 20-something, only she has two grown children and an ex-.

Anyway, she picks up a guy who seems great or at least wealthy and accessible and they have a whirlwind romance complicated by the fact that he's a total wuss that is "separated" from his wife and fully-grown daughters, who nonetheless call him all the time.

It turns out about as well as you'd expect.

In the process, though, we get to meet Gloria's somewhat alienated children and her lugubrious ex-husband who laments his absence from the children's lives. We can infer from that that he initiated the split from Gloria, but it's never discussed at all. His kids, especially his daughter, are pissed at him, is all we know, really.

It kind of raises the question of what's going to happen with all the broken families and older parents acting like their kids, but only peripherally. Nothing here struggles to make any sort of statement at all. About anything.

We didn't dig it much. Not a lot of admirable character shown.

Sort of amusingly, the version of Gloria used in the movie was the Spanish love song lyrics, but the American version would probably fit better, if make an acerbic postscript.

I don't know. After this, we saw Last of the Unjust, the 3 hour, 40 minute talkumentary about Benjamin Murmelstein and we squirmed a lot less in our seats than we did during this.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

If Lone Survivor had me in tears from the get-go, The Broken Circle Breakdown wasn't far off, though for entirely different reasons. This is a remarkable—dare I say unique?—film just on the surface characteristics.

First of all, it's Flemish. So, it's Belgian, but not French Belgian. I've seen about two other Flemish movies in the past ten years, the one leaping to mind being the effective thriller Memory of a Killer. Flemish is a lot like English. Every now and again, the actors would speak whole sentences that were perfectly understandable English. (Kind of like Dutch, but more so, to my ear.)

Second of all, the Flems (heh) involved are bluegrass musicians. They do American bluegrass/folk/country with perfect Southern accents. I'm not talking Southern Belgium, either.

Seriously, how many Flemish bluegrass movies are there? Did that ever even occur to you? What's wrong with you? Have you no imagination?

Third, the music is really good. Besides sounding authentic, it's just really, really good. Standards, of course, but performed with complete sincerity and not inconsiderable skill. Like, the people involved really loved the music they were making. (Contrast with Inside Llewyn Davis' "I don't even like folk music."

Fourth, the music is absolutely central to the story. Both the individual songs and the fact that it's bluegrass is critical to both the details of the plot and the major themes.

Fifth, there is an amazing paean to America at one point, and later on an amazing anti-W rant. (More on this in a moment.)

The story, told in broken time (a la 500 Days of Summer) is that of a bluegrass singer/guitarist, Didier, who falls in love with a tattoo artist, Elise, and introduces her to the music. She becomes a singer in his band, and they have an amazing, passionate relationship which culminates in the birth of a child, Maybelle. The child gets sick—that's actually where the movie starts, in a hospital.

Obviously, the sick child is the pivotal plot point, but the movie isn't really about that, it's really about how the two handle crisis/tragedy. And, despite their love of bluegrass, they have none of the cultural roots nor even similarities with the culture that bluegrass comes from.

They have no community, to speak of. They have no family beyond the three of them. The band they play in seem like good guys and sort of like family, but that's about it. They have no religion. Didier is an earnest atheist. When Maybelle looks to him for comfort at various points, he can't give it to her.

Nor is he of any help to Elise in that regard. If Didier is an atheist, Elise is a pantheist. She wears a cross, but burns incense on a statue of Buddha. (And while Christianity and Buddhism are not incompatible, this doesn't seem to be a case of someone who's studied both carefully and reconciled them; she just believes in everything.)

As such, when they have fights over Maybelle, they have nowhere to turn, and end up blaming each other. Elise accuses Didier of never wanting Maybelle in the first place, and Didier points out Maybelle's smoking and drinking.

Never are we more superstitious than when we are powerless to help the ones we love.

Didier begins to drive Elise away with his militant atheism, which breaks through in a really ugly anti-George W. Bush rant, where he blames the President for holding back stem cell research.

Now, I saw this in North Hollywood, heart of the TV media district, and I could hear people vocally agreeing with this rant. But, you see, this isn't an American movie; it's a Belgian movie, so it didn't have to take a particular side.

If you're paying attention, though, it's hard to not come to the conclusion that this is just another exercise in superstition. (I think the Academy wasn't really paying close attention or it wouldn't have nominated this for an Oscar.)

In fact, even if you're not paying very close attention, it's hard to avoid the final scenes where the filmmakers seem to be overtly telling us that Didier is wrong. Not about the politics; I mean, who really cares about that? But about his materialism and by proxy his atheism.

He's so stubborn that he fails to recognize that Elise has embraced the American ideal he said he most admired: The ability to start fresh. He misses it very badly, perhaps to the very end.

It reminded me a little of Steve Coogan's character in Philomena. We know for a fact where the bulk of the filmmakers' sympathies lie in that story, and yet it's hard to not observe that she is the noblest of the characters, and Coogan among the despicable wretches.

I think this is why the film scores lower with critics than regular audiences. The critics who picked up on it I think decided to throw out the term "melodrama" to mean "I didn't like it but I don't know or don't want to explain why".

Anyway, great acting from the two principals, Johan Heldenbergh (who was one of the authors of the original play) and Veerle Baetens. Adapted from the play by the director Felix Van Groeningen.

The Boy liked it, but he found it music-heavy (he's not into music, somehow), and, as I pointed out, he hasn't been outside a hospital tearing his hair out because he's worried his kid is going to die. (Pointed cough.)

Fun aside: On the way out I was interviewed by a Flemish reporter who wanted to know what Americans thought about this film and why we went to see it. I opened with "Well, we've seen everything else..." but really Flemish Bluegrass. That's a hook right there.

This movie is up against La Grande Bellezza, The Missing Picture and The Hunt, which were all great, and Omar, which we haven't seen.

When she asked, I told her I thought the Italian picture would win, but they're all worthy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Past

I could make a comment on how, if you're Ashgar Farhadi, you gotta be feeling the heat after your last picture (A Separation) won the foreign language Oscar and you got a rare non-English nom for writing.

But if you're Ashgar Farhadi, you've made a half-dozen or more films, all pretty much hitting it out of the park.

And so we come to The Past, another Dickensian tale of people who are just a little bit crummy.

I can't actually remember now if A Separation was populated by crummy people. There were some, of course. I think I called them "flawed", which would be a good summation of the characters in The Past.

But on reflection, I'm thinking they're just a little bit crummy. For example, we have Berenice Bejo—looking fabulous, I should say—who has called in her husband from Iran so that they can get a divorce. They've been separated for years, but she wants to re-marry, and he opts to come in person to sign the papers in court.

He's been gone for a while, and she's been living with a new man and her son for a few months, since the man's wife "got sick". Meanwhile, her older child, a teenage daughter, is increasingly estranged from her and clearly missing the presence of the soon-to-be-ex, while hating the new boyfriend.

So, Bejo's character is pretty self-involved and not really getting why the teen is upset. The teen is upset and not telling anyone why. (In American movie, it'd be because the new boyfriend had made a pass at her; nothing so pedestrian here.) The two men are sullen, with the soon-to-be-ex having deserted the family years ago, and the new boyfriend with a wife still in the hospital.

Yeah, about the wife in the hospital: She's the MacGuffin, after a fact. Her story comes out—not in flashbacks, but in reminiscences by the other characters, that leave room for doubt as to what the whole truth is.

Everyone has sinned. Nobody seems to have sinned quite a badly as they think.

Ultimately, we're not really responsible for what others do, I guess, but it can sure feel that way.

Much like A Separation, this movie starts out slow, pedestrian even, and then involves you more and more in the details, defying you to come to conclusions about the characters. Judge not, lest ye be judged, it seems to say.

Well, I'm a regular Judgy McJudgerton and I say, they're all kind of crummy. Even the five-year-old.

Good movie, though. The Boy was, I think, less taken with it than I was, but liked it nonetheless.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lone Survivor

It would be a fair assessment to say that my eyes began to tear up at the opening credits of Lone Survivor, and were seldom dry for the next two hours. I'm not unique; the Boy said as much on the way out, along with saying he'd love to see it again.

Yeah. It's that good. In our world it easily shot to the top of "best films of the 2013", though it may not be my top—it might be and it will certainly be top five.

I can't quite explain the emotionalism. It can't be that it's "based on a true story" because it is openly ficitonalized—and, in fact, the historical import of the film is nearly irrelevant. Unlike, say, Blackhawk Down, which fit into a larger picture of the military under Clinton and the role of the US in Africa, this movie could be about any four SEALs, sent into any village, and presented with a difficult situation.

Dramatically, that's a great thing. The real people, the inspirations, are shown in pictures at the end of the movie, which, dulce et decorum est.

So, what is it? It's partly The Charge of the Light Brigade effect: The opening montage of actual training shows what hardships special forces endure to become special forces. (And let us pause for a moment to marvel at the volunteer army.) And this brutal training—the sort of things the effete cluck at as "unnecessary"—is vitally necessary not just for physical endurance, training and toughening, but to build a brotherhood.

And so, in a way, the opening montage is justified by the next two hours. The hazing, of sorts, of new recruits, the eagerness of same recruits to actually go on a mission, and when things go sideways, the willingness to sacrifice for your brother, or to survive for him when it might be easier to just lay down and die.

And that, I think, is what it is, why this evokes such strong emotions. The note hit over-and-over again is that of male camaraderie, played unironically, straight and true, to the end.

We don't get a lot of that these days. Male relationships are usually between slackers. They're goofs. You kinda know they're not going to be there for each other, at least not until things get really bad.

What a concept to have a band of men who, however hard they rag on each other, know with as much certainty as anyone can know anything that they can depend on each other.

On top of that, it's a competent action film, helmed by personal favorite, Peter Berg. Not just competent, but the best in recent memory: The story doesn't adhere to action movie conventions, which means, for example, that when the heroes get shot, or—and this is unseen in modern action films—fall more than a few feet, it hurts.

And it doesn't just hurt in a Wile E. Coyote sense, where one scene has them taking damage, and then they're fine in the next. When one of these guys takes a hit, they feel it, you feel it, and you feel the scar, the torn cartilage, the blow to the head that says you'll never be quite right again.

It also doesn't have a glib "10 Little Indians" approach where the characters are picked off one-by-one. Even though the title, and opening scene, tell you all you need to know about who's going to survive, the protagonists hang on for dear life, and you are rooting for the story to come out differently than you know it must.

Mark Wahlberg is good as Marcus Luttrell, the eponymous lone survivor who went on to write the book. Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe) are also good as Michael Murphy and Danny Deitz respectively. (Michael Murphy was the subject of a 2013 documentary which unfortunately got no theater play in our neighborhood.)

Ben Foster...well...he just becomes Matt "Axe" Axelson. It's uncanny, from the pictures shown. I saw his mother talking about the performance after the fact, and she said it was like having him back for a moment. (And if that doesn't rip your heart out, we can't be friends.)

The supporting players are also—well, the best way to describe it is "genuine". The whole thing feels very genuine.

Although I've always suspected Berg was not entirely at home with modern Hollywood's leftist values, I can't really back that up. I've heard that he was concerned about The Kingdom being too jingoistic, for example.

This movie (much like The Kingdom) is about as apolitical as it can be, given the circumstances. I have, of course, heard some really dumb movie critic observations. One person, who I can only assume didn't stay to the end, said the movie's message was "brown people bad". (And Afghan village is critical to Luttrell's survival, and they protect him at grave personal risk.)

It's only pro-America in the sense that, yes, we have a military, and it's staffed with good people who make great personal sacrifices for the rest of us, and we're not always worthy of that.

Well, if you can't muster at least that much pro-American sentiment, you're basically indifferent to America's survival at all (at best).

The closest it gets to a political point is that the key plot point, that starts the terrible events in action, is whether or not the SEALs should kill three villagers who have stumbled over them. One is clearly Taliban, and the other two can be expected to inform out of sheer survival necessity.

In a brief argument, they debate whether they should kill them, whether they can kill them (legally), the repercussions of either way—they basically know they're dead if they let them go. The fact that the Press will attack them comes up. The Rules of Engagement are discussed.

It's a great scene. Again, very Charge of the Light Brigade.

It's already been snubbed, getting just a couple of sound Oscar noms. War films can't get awards unless they're anti-war. (And this isn't pro-war, for crying out loud. It just posits that the character of the soldiers is actually a bit nobler and higher-minded than Hollywood is comfortable with.) Being an exemplary action film doesn't get you anything come award time either.

But to those who say "Well, it's not a great movie. It just gets its gravitas from the real story, and from the action," I say "OK, let's see a dozen more like that from the past 40 years."

And it's a shame, because the War on Terror has produced more than its share of gripping stories that Hollywood eschewed for making anti-war, anti-America propaganda.

If The Arts owe our soldiers anything, it's to tell their stories. I'm glad this one got told. It's in the top 30 for the 2013's releases, but that may not be enough to encourage similar films, since it probably won't do big business overseas.

But if it were up to me, I'd be turning out pictures like this 3-4 times a year. You'd never run out of stories.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Divorce Corp.

Holy crap. No, let me amend that: HOLY FREAKIN' CRAP! I knew Family Court was screwed up, but I had no idea the extent of the horrors.

Fortunately, there's this documentary, Divorce Corp, narrated by Dr. Drew Pinsky and featuring victims (and culprits) of the system.

Watch, and be horrified. By virtue of wanting a divorce, the government reaches into people's lives (and bank accounts) to extract the most money possible. If they don't set out to destroy people's lives—i.e., if that's a side-effect and not the intended purpose—they certainly show no remorse.

The fascinating thing is how the Family Court evolved: It's essentially extra-legal. There are no Constitutional protections. No trial by jury. No freedom of speech. No ethics. Going into one of these courts, you no longer have any right to your property, nor to your future earnings, nor even to your children.

Upon entering Family Court, the judge can force you to pay large amounts of money to an unqualified friend of the judge to determine whether or not you're a fit parent. And what they say goes.

It's a horror.

This is why I tend to recoil around social conservatives—not people who live socially conservative lives, but people who think the government should be involved in promoting social conservatism.

It's not that it's that the country doesn't have a decided interest in socially conservative values: the family unit, monogamy, even heterosexuality and birth control all have significant impact on society, and, well, you can count the number of successful societies that have been sustained on modern permissive values on the fingers of no hands.

And yet, the one thing you can count on is this: If the government has power, it will abuse it, it will pervert it, it will try to extend it. Family Court is a perfect example of this: Established to enforce traditional views of marriage—that a husband must support his wife and children even if he splits from them—it now is a complete and utter perversion, motivated to destroy families and even encourage divorce.

The movie starts with an odd thing. It says "50% of all marriages end in divorce. This is why." First of all, the 50% number isn't true. Second of all, as awful as family court is, I don't think it can be blamed for divorce. If anything, the awfulness of it should act as a deterrent—though perhaps only after the first divorce.

The Boy and I were amazed. We were also sort of annoyed by the constant references to Scandinavia's superior system but give the Scandis their due: You sign some papers, and you're done. Very few cases are litigated, because there's no incentive.

The first must-see documentary of the year.