Monday, April 13, 2015

Salt of the Earth

Let's launch this one with the three point documentary scale, because I want to get that out of the way and then go on a bit of a mini-rant. Our subject today is Wim Wender's and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's documentary of Juliano's father, Sebastião Salgado, the brilliant Brazilian photographer.

Subject matter: Good. Salgado (I'll refer to the subject as Salgado and his son as Juliano) is an interesting character and highly talented photographer, who has photographed Very Important Things from the four corners of the earth.

Treatment: Near flawless. The Boy felt it may have leaned too heavily on Salgado's work, and it is odd to see a movie that's about 80% still pictures. The Viviane Maier movie, by contrast, used a lot of film footage as well as her pictures, but the aesthetics here are unimpeachable. Wenders, too, teases the medium by taking gorgeously composed but relatively static shots of Salgado, and where Salgado works exclusively in black-and-white, Wenders manages to make some breathtaking compositions with color and movement. But you've got to be "in the mood" for something that is primarily driven by aesthetics, almost not at all the supposed subject of the film. (Note, though, that this isn't called Salgado but Salt of the Earth, Wenders' appellation for the people who are Salagdo's subjects.)

Slant: Well, pro-Salgado, obviously. Which, as I often point out, is fine. But this is where my mini-rant is going to take off, because Salgado is thoroughly steeped in, dare I say it, the M word. M meaning Marxism. He is so thoroughly a creature of the Left that he walks around with these presuppositions that Wenders isn't going to challenge (probably also well steeped in such things), but which have caused him both considerable misery and made for what I thought was a completely unremarked upon ironic twist.

So, here's a guy chasing the horrors of the world—he's in Kosovo, he's in Rwanda, he's in Mali—and (apparently surprisingly) after two decades of taking pictures of people starving and being butchered in a variety of horrible ways, he begins to take a slightly less than rosy view of humanity.

Nota Bene, none of his adventures included what we might call "the free West": US, Canada, Western Europe. In fact, he refers consistently about the universality of the inhumanities he's witnessed, by saying "even in Europe!"

Not so fast, my Brazilian buckaroo. Yugoslavia was Communist, and if not precisely Soviet, certainly not representative free markets, free speech, or really, free-anything. But of course Salgado's not free (heh) to entertain the possibility that there is something uniquely positive about Western thoughts and processes.

Now, after decades of seeing people starving, Salgado inherits his father's farm. Naturally, he decides to retire it and restore the rain forest. Because, you know, what kind of person would think of feeding those starving people he witnessed for decades?

This is not an entirely fair criticism, of course. Popular belief notwithstanding, there really aren't food shortages, not in the global sense. America—hell, possibly California with one or two other states—by itself could feed the world. The problems are entirely political and intentionally genocidal. But, N.B. again that he seems to be a promulgator of these sorts of ideas.

I wouldn't even bring this stuff up—it would hardly be relevant, except his success among the bien pensants can, in large part, be attributed to his being one of them. This does not take away from his artistry, but one does marvel at a guy who, for four decades, in a world controlled by the people he agrees with, takes pictures of monstrosities and finds no connection.

Here is a man, in other words, praised for "raising social awareness" of issues that virtually all resolved in the worst possible ways. Giving you a sense both of what it means to "raise social awareness", and the commitment to solving problems of big institutions like the U.N.

Blah-blah-blah. Anyway, it is a good movie, and if you don't mind seeing lots of pictures of starving and mutilated people, it's well worth watching.

Wild Tales

I was somewhat leary going into the Argentine film and Academy Award nominee Wild Tales, a series of vignettes that center on a theme of revenge. Vignette movies: meh. Argentine vignette movies? Meh-to-the-nth-degree, as they conjure memories of cheesy, sleazy, pretentious european "art" films of the '70s. (The Giorgio Moroder interlude in the third vignette felt almost like the movie was mocking me.)

Oh, well, Pedro Almodovar is attached, so there's that.

shudder

As it turns out, this is really good. Way better than the Oscar winner, Ida. And since it grabs you by the lapels from the teaser, I'm not sure what it says about the whole "Academy only watches first five minutes of foreign films" theory.

It's not for everybody. First of all, it's dark—very dark—humor. And it's unsettling in more than one place. Writer/director Damián Szifron never takes the easy way out. Where the custom for vengeance tales is to be cathartic, where you identify with the vengeful one and never with his victims, it's always a mixed bag here, to say the least. You can't even always tell villain from victim for that matter.

There are six stories:
  • A strange coincidence on a plane with dark implications.
  • A mobster walks into a diner where the sole people working are a waitress whose father he drove to death, and a chef with a checkered past.
  • A jerk on the road taunts another jerk on a lonely mountain road as he passes him, only to get a flat a few miles later.
  • A demolitions expert who is constantly being harassed by predatory towing companies.
  • A rich couple whose adult son is seeking to escape the consequences of his hit-and-run, who discover the depth (and cost) of corruption.
  • A bride at a reception who discovers her groom has been unfaithful.
One of the problems with vignette movies is that they tend to stuff a few weak stories in with the strong ones, or they just feel like watching random TV programs because nothing ties the stories together.

These six stories are all pretty strong, have a similar tone, and the whole question of vengeance, both as a visceral reaction and as a moral (or immoral) acts as a kind of emotional tie. For a movie about vengeance, it's remarkably non-judgmental, and it's hard to say how the stories are going to turn out. (Except the last one, the end of which I thought was pretty inevitable. This isn't bad, necessarily: It shows the consistency of the story telling.)

It's very funny, if you like this sort of humor, which I do. And, as I said, there's an unsettling toying with the audience, which is used to "picking a side" in movies about vengeance. (That's why we go see vengeance movies, after all: To enjoy injustices being "corrected".) So you might feel one way about a character, then revise that, then revise it again.

It's not a "vicarious thrill" type of revenge, in other words.

If there's a weakness to this, it's that we do end up with a kind of ironic distance from our protagonists, which limits the emotional impact to a kind of queasiness and uncertainty. This is not what you'd call a "warm" picture.

Anyway, The Boy and I were very glad to have had a chance to see it. Very entertaining.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It Follows

Here's a cinematic oddity: A horror movie gets a small theatrical release simultaneous with a pay-per-view launch, but its limited release is so successful, the distributors pull the PPV and give it a wide release! The jury's out on whether this was worth it, though I gotta think that going from $50K/day box office to $500K/day has to be worth something. Like, $450K/day. (Up to about $10M now!)

What's it about? Well, the premise is simple enough: There's a boogen wandering around with an itchin' to kill a girl. Why? Because she had sex!

Heh.

This is not the '80s era "virgin lives" trope, which actually wasn't as much a thing as it was made out to be in retrospect. Rather, this is the monster-as-venereal-disease trope of the '70s—indeed David Cronenberg cut his teeth on this theme with flicks like Shivers and Rabid. In this case, having sex with a cursed person transfers the curse to you, and tags you with a supernatural GPS the boogen uses to...

Walk

Ever

So

Slowly

Toward

You

So, sort of like a zombie movie where there's only one zombie.

Speaking of the '70s, this movie sort of takes place in it. There are no cell phones, no computers, no social media, only CRT TVs, a lot of big cars, porn magazines, and kids watching black-and-white horror movies with Peter Graves far into the night. Also, parents and adults only on the periphery.

And then one character has a pink clamshell e-reader (which she's using to read Dostoyefsky's The Idiot) of a sort I've never seen before.

Which, I believe, is the director's way of saying, "Chill. It's a campfire story. Who cares when it takes place?"

The music, which is occasionally overbearing, is also sometimes very effective, recalling classic '70s horror movies, especially Phantasm, which is a good choice since it's not as on-the-nose as an homage to Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street would have been.

The opening shot reminded me of Halloween, though: The peaceful suburban street where something terrible is going on, even though no one sees what it is. Actually, the whole "unstoppable boogen" has a John Carpenter feel to it. And the main characters' house is sort of a downscale Nightmare on Elm Street house.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell brings to this mix of familiar elements some more idiosyncratic touches. For example, the movie takes place in-and-around Detroit. As such, he has a wide range of atmospheres to draw on: The kids live in a decent, if not affluent suburb around 12-mile. At one point, they go to the lake (Michigan). But around these nice settings, we also have the post-apocalyptic Packard Plant, the beautiful-but-ominous-looking-at-night Water Works Park, and the poignant street-by-street travel that shows Detroit's transition between glory, ruin and abandonment.

With buckets of atmosphere to spare, Mitchell adds to it by having a creature that can look like anyone, and then constantly plays with middle-range shots to increase the sense of paranoia. Is that It? No? Who's that?

On top of that, the creature can only be seen by its intended victim, meaning your pals can't easily watch out for you.

Primarily a movie like this lives-or-dies on suspense, of which we are particularly fond, but which we also can easily lose if the movie breaks its own rules. The way It Follows works is by twisting expectations about how it's going to work. At least, I expected It to be a particular type of creature, and when it wasn't I was fairly surprised.

And having set the rules, the movie by-and-large doesn't break them, although I don't know if the math would work out as far as walking everywhere. I thought about this in terms of my own life and realized I'd never see the thing. It would follow me to work in the morning, but by the time it could get there, I'd be on the way home.

Heh. Californians.

There's a very nice touch here where the kids come up with a cockamamie Scooby Doo scheme to defeat the monster that fails horribly. I really liked that. In any other movie, that stupid idea would've worked.

So, we all liked it. I think I liked it the most, though The Flower was also pleased. The Boy had a problem—he has my problem, where he can't tell people apart, especially in movies—in that he thought that the teaser at the beginning was actually the ending of the film. Once he realized that the buxom, leggy brunette killed at the start was not the lithe blonde heroine, he reevaluated the movie more positively.

"I hate it when they show the ending first!"
"Uh..."

Anyway, glad we got to see it, especially in the theater. Note that even though this movie is rated R, it's actually for sex and not violence. There's very little violence in the movie. Mostly it has what you might call prophylactic sex.

Seymour: An Introduction

I had not heard of Seymour Bernstein before, but Ethan Hawke was so impressed by him that he went and made this documentary about the octogenarian piano player. So it's kind of a musical version of Supermensch.

It's fun: Bernstein and his pupils have many nice stories both personal and historical, an interesting history, a cool view on life and art, and a passion for teaching it. He's sort of the anti-Fletcher, although I can't say The Boy and I didn't have fun whispering "NOT my tempo!" and "Wait, this is where he throws a grand piano at his head."

Some good music, as you would expect. Cool hanging out in the New York Steinway & Sons basement. The pianos sounded good, too. (The last time I played new Steinways they sounded mediocre and played like crap.)

1) Subject matter: Good, interesting, arty.

2) Treatment: Competent. Not super flashy. I remember a slight feeling that there were a few too many long "beats" between parts of the movie, but really very slight.

3) Reverential. Some critics had a problem with this but really, how else you gonna do this sort of thing? Shep Gordon and Roger Ebert are easily more contentious characters, although maybe Bernstein is some sort of toxic quantity in the New York Art circle.

We liked it. Probably won't change your life like it seems to have Hawke's, but you could do worse.

Cinderella

Speaking of movies with simple stories that win just by being sincere, I followed up Paddington with Cindarella, or perhaps Disney Presents Kenneth Branagh's Cindarella, as Branagh has directed this yet-another-adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale. Having "missed" the last Jack Ryan movie and his rendering of MacBeth, the last Branagh-helmed movie I saw was Thor.

And this has some things in common with that.

To the extent that the Thor movie worked, it worked because Branagh fully embraced the comic book milieu. He didn't try to hip it up, make it edgy or cool: He just let the comic book speak for itself. In Cindarella, the material is Disney's classic 1950 film—moreso than the Grimm original (a la Into The Woods)—and Branagh plays it straight.

First of all, the movie opens with a solid 10-15 minutes of Cinderella's life with her parents—both at first, then just her father—in by far the most heartbreaking rendition of the tale I've seen. Most interpretations tend to gloss over the happy portion of Cinderella's childhood. Here, the audience gets to feel her fairytale beginning and share the loss with her.

The Barbarienne will not be seeing this film, at least for a while. (The other kids wouldn't have had a problem, but the Barb is very emotional and deeply affected by this stuff.)

So, yeah, put that in, take out the musical numbers, tone down the talking mice, and give the prince and Cinderella a chance to meet briefly before the ball—make it, in fact, the impetus for the ball, and that's your movie.

It is perhaps the least surprising movie of the past few years, including a bunch of cookie cutter superhero and horror flicks, except that it surprises by being so wonderfully square. Cinderella is good and pure, and the handsome prince "Prince" is simply charming. In a way, it makes sense having a guy who does Shakespeare do this sort of thing, because he's used to interpreting already existing material, and knows that the interpretation can succeed on its own merits, regardless of how old the story.

The only part that felt a teeny bit off was the Fairy Godmother. She's oddly zany. The movie breaks up the serious moments with comedy, particularly involving the mice, but the actual transformation ends up feeling almost out of place. On some level, though, it works for being so startling (even as you know it must be coming).

And it has a charm to it, as well. It's almost as if the Cinderella's mantra: "Be courageous and kind" was translated into the making of the movie. And that's a good thing.

Lily James (of the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is suitably beautiful and sweet for the role. Hayley Atwell (Captain America) is radiant as Ella's mother, and Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line, The Truth About Cats and Dogs) is wonderfully warm as her father. Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother has apparently not recovered from her quirky Burton period. (Nah, that's not fair. She's fine, particularly as the narrator.)

I did not recognize Cate Blanchett as the Evil Stepmother, which as bad as I am with faces I largely attribute to her almost unrelenting evil. There are a few moments, briefly, where she struggles with human emotions, but they always lose out to the evil. Great performance.

The cast is pretty high-powered even past this. Richard Madden (Rob Stark of "Game of Thrones"), Nonso Anozie (Xaro of "Game of Thrones"), Stellan Skarsgård (not from "Game of Thrones", yet), Derek Jacobi, cameo by Rob Brydon, etc.

Great score by Patrick Doyle. Great script by Chris Weitz.

Like Sunday, Like Rain

I think of Frank Whaley as the guy, along with Jon Cryer, who filled in the "nerd gap" created in the '80s when Michael Anthony-Hall buffed up and Robert Downey, Jr. got strung out, but that's probably not fair. Anyway, he's not in the film Like Sunday, Like Rain but he did write and direct this sweet little tale of a precocious rich boy who ends up with a beautiful young girl from the wrong side of the state as a nanny.

Eleanor leaves her loser musician boyfriend Dennis, who manages to cost her her job by having a tantrum at the restaurant where she waits tables. Penniless and homeless (she was living with Dennis) a quick call home makes it clear she's not welcome back there and not happy with her sister's new job (as a stripper, is implied).

Meanwhile, super-genius Reggie daydreams through his AP Calculus classes (he's got the material down at least as well as the teacher) and lugs his cello around between his rich kids' school and the ridiculously opulent house where his mother browbeats a bunch of Latin American women into coddling Reggie.

Mom insists, and requires the help to insist, that Reggie take the car she has constantly waiting for him, but Reggie is smarter than she is, and has arrangements with the help vis a vis getting them to go along with him.

When Eleanor replaces a suddenly absent nanny, it's not exactly love at first sight. As pretty as she is, he's not the sort of kid who would just fall head-over-heels at first sight. (Reggie's a lot like an old man, in a lot of ways.) But in their time together, where she's his sole caretaker, they have a lot of time to get to know each other.

So, yes, what we have here is basically a love story. And it's to his credit that Whaley does this effortlessly, without ever going into sleaze. (It's probably unrealistically pure, really.) Both characters are aware of their differences, and there's always a proper distance between them, such that the occasions where they do touch are especially significant. Although Reggie's friend likes to refer to her as "hot", the beautiful Eleanor is never vampy.

Reggie, especially early on, borders on unlikably smartass-y, but that's another line delicately walked by Whaley. He's smarter than just about anyone ever, a master of music, math, and many other things (though not swimming). He's right about circumventing his mother's wishes at every turn: Although largely unsympathetic, we get a little sense of what she's going through, raising this son she cannot relate to. Her misguided attempts to shoehorn him into normalcy are somewhat touching, even while terribly uninvolved and superficial.

Anyway, good little flick. Frank should be proud. Released in merely two theaters, but still ahead of Eva and Buzzard for box office.

Besides the writing and directing, the acting is quite good, being carried by Leighton Meester (Eleanor) and newcomer Julian Shatkin (Reggie). They get the chemistry just right: Eleanor can see Reggie is the kind of guy who would treat her as she deserves to be treated—to say nothing of being wealthy beyond what her destitute poor white trash mind can imagine—but never once do we see a flicker of predatoriness. She could probably exploit him, manipulate him, wrap him around her little finger and set herself up for life.

Well, maybe: Reggie is very smart, and he's aware of where he stands in a lot of ways. It is his moments of vulnerability, even though carefully controlled, that make us like him and feel for him.

Debra Messing is surprisingly dowdy and (less surprisingly) unlikable as Reggie's mom. Billie Joe Armstrong, a musician of some sort, is also really unlikable as Eleanor's musician boyfriend.

This sort of material is difficult to do well, but it's done well here. I doubt it will get a wider opening, so check it out via Netflix/Amazon/whatever..

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Paddington

You know there's something odd going on when a kiddie movie about a talking teddy bear gets a 98 from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And sure enough, there is: Paddington is really, really good. The trailer is somewhat unfortunate, as it highlights a physical comedy scene which is probably one of the more clichéd elements of the film. (The film features a lot of physical comedy but most of it has some originality to it.)

The main thing, though, is that Paddington never phones anything in. Each scene is loaded with jokes, big and small, so that the occasional miss is swamped by other jokes and general good-naturedness. A terribly pedestrian fish-out-of-water story featuring a gentle wife, nervous husband, peer-conscious teen girl and parentally restrained adventurous young boy is thus saved.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Paddington travelling to London from Darkest Peru, where (40 years earlier) The Explorer had assured his Aunt and Uncle that he would always be welcome. Of course, it's 40 years earlier from the original 1958 publication date, so The Explorer looks like something out of H.G. Wells' time, not the '70s.

Once in London, he takes up with the Browns, who agree to house him long enough to find The Explorer. But there's a mystery afoot! There's no record of any trip to Darkest Peru at the London Explorer's Club.

Meanwhile, a mysterious and sinister taxidermist is seeking Paddington out for her own nefarious—and come to think of it, self-explanatory—reasons.

Much like the trailer, nothing in this review would actually compel me to go to see this film. But it succeeds by doing things very well. Despite having a ridiculously cute protagonist, it largely avoids trying to coast on said cuteness. This has a salutary effect on Paddington as a character: It gives him a kind of dignity he wouldn't get from being a prop.

There's also a decidedly unapologetic pro-English thing going on here, which is nice. Although Paddington has trouble at the train station, in most cases, the English people he meets are extremely helpful and polite to him. And they never once raise the issue of him being, you know, a talking bear. Wouldn't be cricket.

Good comedy redirection, that.

The always appealing Sally Hawkins (Godzilla, Great Expectations, Submarine) and rather Firth-y Hugh Bonneville (from that "Abbey" show; I don't know how I know the guy) are delightful as the Browns. Julie Walters (Brave, all those Potter flicks) plays the grandma character. A bit of stunt casting with Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton (both late of the Potter flicks, too, come to think of it) as Paddington's aunt and uncle.

Pete Capaldi, Jim Broadbent—you know, this had a hell of a cast, come to think of it.

Nicole Kidman, whose face has very nearly returned to normal, is perfect as the evil taxidermist. Really, she gets it just right.

Written and directed by Paul King, whom my only exposure to is commercials for his bizarre comedy series "The Mighty Boosh". (And maybe I should watch that show given it was also the breeding ground of Richard Ayoade, who directed Submarine.) Presumably co-writer Hamish McColl, of various Mr. Bean movies, is responsible for much of the slapstick.

Hell, I thought Nick Urata's (Crazy Stupid Love, What Maise Knew) score was a standout.

But at this point, I've probably oversold it. It's good, very good even. Take a few points off if you don't like physical comedy and it's still really good. The Barb loved it, and The Boy, who had no interest, ended up in taking his girlfriend to see it, both reporting back positively (if not wildly enthusiastically).

Friday, March 27, 2015

Run All Night

Liam Neeson is getting tired. No, I'm not referring to his recent announcement that he's going to give up action films in a couple of years. I'm referring to the fact that in his latest action film—at least the latest one this month—he looks a lot more convincing when he's hobbling around injured or drunk than when he's springing into deadly action.

In fact, part of the problem with Run All Night is that Neeson seems positively crippled by his past as a hitman for some sort of New York-based Irish mob, but not so crippled that he can't instantly shake off the alcohol and stiffness when he needs to. Which, of course, he needs to pretty suddenly here.

Point being, I guess, that he's no John Wick, and the believability of Reeves' transition from retired hitman to no-longer-retired hitman benefits from 10+ years of age difference and character not supposedly having hit the skids years earlier.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra did such a fine job with Orphan, but since then he turned out (for Neeson) the weak-ish Unknown and the stronger (but still flawed) Non-Stop, and this is, well, more of the same.

It's got some strong points. Besides Neeson, we have Ed Harris, Bruce McGill, Vincent D'Onofrio and a surprise appearance from Nick Nolte. So, there's some acting there, even if the plot hasn't really changed since Bogart and McCrea did it in Dead End.

Joel Kinnamon (who was in both the Robocop and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remakes) is appealing as Neeson's good-guy son who wants nothing to do with him, as is Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6, Tusk) as his wife.

I couldn't quite figure out what Common (SelmaNow You See Me) was doing here. I mean, he's good as the hitman who so despises Neeson that he jumps on the chance to kill him for free. But he was really just a rather transparent plot device.

Serra directs with buckets of style. At times, I thought, too much. I still don't know if I liked the scene transitions, which we basically the camera moving from one place in the city to another (by passing through or over all the streets it would take to get there). The lighting during some of the action scenes was too dark, so it could be hard to tell what was going on.

Action films have many of the same weaknesses as superhero films, in that the action scenes are simply set pieces that end because, well, it's time. There were two or three action scenes that bugged me on that level. At one point, Neeson is cornered by McGill. He's sitting in a corner of a bathroom, back against the wall, and McGill draws his gun. Before he can draw it, Neeson jumps from his sitting (and even leaning back) position to tackle him.

Try that some time. You don't even have to be a 62-year-old long-time alcoholic. You can be a teen gymnast, and you won't be able to shift your weight that fast from that position.

I was expecting, at least, a courtesy distraction. Somebody bumping into McGill from behind. But no, it's just a straight on attack when McGill is supposedly pumped on adrenaline (they've been fighting for a while).

Another one is when Neeson and Kinnamon are trapped in the projects by a fleet of police, including a helicopter. They just sorta...get away. They go into what looks like a small, closed-off building, but somehow emerge 500 feet away, presumably because they know the projects better than the cops do.

Stuff like this destroys suspension of disbelief, at least for me. The Boy wasn't too impressed either.

We didn't hate it, or anything. As he said, it was fine: But like Taken 2 or Non-Stop (or Unknown, when I reminded him of that one). There are even quite a few good parts. We just don't think we'll be remembering it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What We Do In The Shadows

This was an unexpected surprise. The guys behind the TV show "Flight of the Conchords" filmed this, um, documentary, about four vampires sharing a flat in Wellington. The four vampires range in personality, from the effete European royal, the old Vlad-The-Impaler type, the really old Nosferatu style, and the brash young (180 years or so) thug.

Despite being sworn to vampiric secrecy, the lads have decided to do this documentary about their lives, which is complicated when one of their torment-the-humans dinner parties results in a new human being turned. Being a thoroughly modern human, he likes to run around and tell people he's a vampire which is both strictly against the code and unwise given the high propensity of vampire hunters in New Zealand, apparently.

This all comes to a head at the grand ball where all the vampires (and zombies!) get together for what looks like a casual mixer.

It's very, very funny. It has the feel of a Chris Guest mockumentary, like Best in Show, plus all the sort of goofy off-the-cuff feeling humor that comes from being vampires/roommates.

It'll probably make about $5-6M worldwide. It's not getting much of a release, but it probably didn't have much of a budget, either.

It does use what it has well, in the style of the best shot-on-video horror flicks, like when two of the guys start fighting and have a very sissy bat fight, or the various mirror gags.

It's a little less dry than a typical Guest mockumentary, so I might recommend it even to those who don't usually like that style of humor.

Well, hell, it's the funniest new movie I've seen all year. Taika Waititi (who played The Green Lantern's sidekick, and was an occasional Conchord director) is the heartbroken European vampire, Viago. Conchord mastermind Jemaine Clement (whom I've mentioned is the only thing I can remember about Rio and Rio 2) plays the vulgar Vlad. Jonathan Brugh is the young buck, Deacon. Cori Gonzales-Maceur is the new convert.

IT Consultant Stu Rutherford plays IT Consultant Stu, the human that everyone loves so much they only want to kill him a little bit. Experienced boogeyman Ben Fransham (30 Days of Night, The Ferryman, Gar on the TV series "Legend of the Seeker") plays Petyr, the 2,000 year old vampire.

Written and directed by Waititi and Clement.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Deli Man

It's not that this documentary about Deli's is great: It's not. It's that it's delicious.

This is the story of the delicatessen, also of "deli men" men (and women) who have been in the business for generations, and also of a particular Deli Man, Ziggy Gruber, who's been in the business since he was eight, taking over where his grandfather left off.

The history is rather interesting, and I did not know it: The deli is, like all great food things, an American invention. It was a mash-up of a variety of Jewish traditions from all over Europe, especially Eastern Europe, combined with some old-fashioned American awesomeness. Like the giant sandwich thing. And Sephardic Jews settling in Norte Mexico (Texas!) in the 1500s(!) to escape the Inquisition. (Are flour tortillas just the American version of unleavened bread?) And the "Kosher is great, but maybe a little ham would be nice once in a while?"

Ziggy is a great central character, too: A world class chef, he gave up working in a three-star Michelin restaurant to carry on the tradition and the care he takes making food, and the love he has for his employees, are all just wonderful to see. Even as he struggles with his wait, and his love life (involving a Roman Catholic health-nut acupuncturist).

In between the various bits, we get interviews with deli men all across the country, and learn about their dwindling numbers. From 1,500 kosher delis just in the 5 boroughs of New York in the '30s to only about 150 nationwide today.

It's just fun. And watching them make this food was great. In fact, we knew we were going to get hungry, so we planned a trip to one of our local delis right after. I realized I'd been remiss as a father since neither The Boy nor The Flower had ever been to a deli before.

It was great. It wasn't cheap, though.

Which brings up part of the problem, I suppose: Deli food is labor intensive and a lot of it is protein-intensive as well, none of which adds up to cheap. Also, as the movie points out, while genuine Italian Bistros are also on the decline, there's no place for new deli people to come from. (Somehow all the Jews are missing from Eastern Europe. Someone should delve into that mystery.)

Anyway, as I say, it's not a great documentary, but I got no complaints. It's not pretentious, and doesn't try to be more than it is, and comes in at about 90 minutes. And makes you hungry. I always get a sandwich when I go to the deli but this food made me consider trying some of the other dishes. (Ziggy makes some kind of stuffed chop that looks amazing and they never said what it was! OK, that's a complaint.)

Written and directed by Erik Anjou, whose only other work I know is as the writer of 976-Evil II (a friend of mine had a small role in that), and the writer/director of the 1993 erotic thriller (and weren't they all?) The Cool Surface. Which itself is most famous for Teri Hatcher going topless. (They're real. Whether they're spectacular, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.)

On Blake's Documentary Scale:

1. Subject matter: Fun. Maybe not important the way war crimes and criminal justice is, but certainly well above who's the best at a video game.

2. Delivery: Good in the details, a little weak overall, maybe. But I'm not sold on that. I liked each aspect of the film, and I don't think I would've enjoyed a film just about Ziggy or just about the history of the deli as much. So, I guess I'm saying: I agree with those who claim it's somewhat unfocused but I would challenge them to do it better.

3. Slant. Who cares? It's food. Food is good. People making food are good. People celebrating their heritage with food are the best.

Check it out. But have a nosh handy.

Still Alice

So, here's a perfectly fine movie about Early Onset Alzheimers—I think, pretty soon, every actress will have to have a dementia/Alzheimer's based role, sort of like cancer in the '80s—which earned Julianne Moore an Oscar, and which, more or less, annoyed me.

Moore plays a distinguished linguist teaching at Columbia, while her cancer researching husband—he's trying to cure it, I think, not cause—researches cancer at the ivy league school when suddenly she loses her marbles. And, unlike regular Alzheimer's, Early Onset really is pretty sudden.

The movie chronicles her descent into mindlessness.

She has two perfect kids, and Kristen Stewart, who—if I gather this correctly—trades her sexual favors and her dad's money for a chance to perform on stage in dubious venues in L.A. That's the real stretch in this movie: Casting Stewart as an actress, amirite? Heyooo!

Actually, she's pretty good in this, which isn't something I say lightly.

Anyway, it all plays out in a really predictable fashion, with the Alzheimer's putting a crimp in her and hubby's lifestyle, and the discussions about what to do when she's really lost it, complete with her leaving herself a suicide plan. Although it's sort of more like a murder attempt, really.

Of course, I've seen this movie before. A lot. I became annoyed with this rendition, however, because Alec and Julianne are playing this ultimate "elite" fantasy couple, and I felt like the movie was expecting us to be extra-sympathetic because they had this perfect life. And wasn't it so ironic that a linguist, of all people, should lose her facility with words?

And then, to top it all off, she and daughter Stewart end up bonding over the plays the latter might possibly be in, and (natch) pick "Angels In America". Because "we all lost someone". How perfect.

Obviously, I'm not the target audience. (That would be The Academy.) And it's fine. Really.

But when we learn Moore's backstory (her mother and sister killed in car crash 35 years ago, father an alcoholic, dead for 15 years) and that her condition is congenital and her father may have had it, I thought maybe there'd be some sympathy for this guy who didn't have the perfect life, and who may have drunk himself to death in reaction to his condition but, no, it's just a footnote.

And then there's the whole husband-having-his-golden-chance thing. At a critical moment, he's offered a spot at the Mayo clinic. Obviously, she doesn't want to leave since she's having trouble hanging on to the few things she does remember. And I'm thinking, "Well, the Mayo clinic? Maybe they, I dunno, have some ideas?"

I think, on reflection, I found their relationship amazingly unsatisfying. I guess I can't fault it for realism, in the sense of "Well, some 30-years-married husbands would just let this roll off their backs." That probably happens. Doesn't make for great narrative, I think.

Maybe I'm just a sourpuss: This has a whopping 90/86 on RT, so you'll probably like it. I can think, offhand, of similar movies I liked as well if not more: Away From HerTickling Leo, and probably my recent favorite of the genre, Still Mine, to say nothing of any of the documentaries.

This is probably the highest grossing Alzheimer's/dementia movie, though, having taken in over $15M, dwarfing its nearest competitor (Away From Her which I suspect is the next nearest competitor made only about $5M.)

Moore didn't really deserve the Oscar for this, but I guess the common wisdom is that she didn't actually win it for this.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Buzzard

One of the things you look for when you visit theaters in the triple-digits in a year is different. So it came to pass that when this little film Buzzard popped up, we picked it for a weeknight outing.

And it is definitely different.

It's almost Napoleon Dynamite-ish in its low-key humor, low-key characters and overall low ambitions, but it turns dark and loses its focus in the third act, which makes for a, well, different experience. One that is interesting to be sure—mesmerizing at points, even—but not exactly great.

Our protagonist is Marty Jackitansky (Russian, not Polish), slacker extraordinaire, who "works" at a bank, taking three hour lunch breaks and complaining about what a crappy job it is. He actually never works. The closest he comes is when his boss gives him a stack of checks that never made it to their intended recipients, with the assignment to find those people and their correct addresses.

After a few abortive attempts to connect with these people, he lights on a brilliant idea: What if, instead mailing the checks to the payees, he just deposits them in his own account?

Up until that point, we have a weird, begrudging respect for Marty, as he engages in his hobby in taking advantage of The System. Like, he closes down his bank account so that he can re-open it and get the $50 promotion. (And it may not have been the first time he's done this.) He does this unapologetically in front of the account manager, while even informing him that he's on the third hour of his lunch at another branch of the same bank.

His hobby, meanwhile, is calling up the companies that make the food products he likes and telling them he received bad product so that they'll send him coupons for replacements.

But when he decides to deposit the checks, we realize Marty isn't really so much brash as he is stupid. Ultimately, he risks trouble with the law for what amounts to, maybe a month's worth of paychecks (at a job he barely has to show up for).

When he realizes he's made a mistake, he becomes paranoid. He crashes at his friend's place. (I can't swear to it but it looked like he had a comic book collection that might have been worth a lot more than the checks, too, as well as some collector's edition Nightmare on Elm Street posters.) But even there, he's sure the cops are hunting him down.

So, he's both too dim to realize he might get in trouble for the checks, and to realize the cops aren't going to set out a dragnet for a couple of $50 checks.

The movie probably reaches its height, dramatically speaking, when he goes out—sure that the cops are watching him—and ends up getting ripped off by a convenience store clerk, whom he's helpless against because he's on the lam!

From there, the movie wanders, as Marty wanders. He heads to Detroit (his home?), at each step consuming all the resources available to him and never thinking about the next step on his journey. And the further along he goes, the more apparent it is that he is dumb. He's so fixated on these checks that as he commits more and more grievous crimes along the way, they never register with him.

The final scene commits a possibly unforgivable crime of magical realism. OK, that's just my way of saying "I didn't get it." But there's a not-possible image and I can't tell if it's supposed to be metaphorical, a reflection of Marty's paranoia, or just a "Well, we got end it somehow" thing.

Anyway, interesting, which is not nothing. Not for everyone, especially people who aren't into that low-key flat-affect sort of comedy/drama. Joshua Burge is utterly convincing as Marty. Writer/director Joshua Potrykus is equally convincing as his dweebish pal.

I'm guessing the movie was meant to take place in Low-Budget-1990. Low-Budget-1990 is like regular 1990 in that it has all the trappings of 1990, like no cell phones, Nintendo Power Gloves, big CRTs and Freddy Krueger, but no one going around trying to actually create 1990 in terms of automobiles, cityscapes, or (say) tearing off posters of The Matrix that are on the wall.

In fact, on reflection, it almost seems like a juvenile fantasy. The Nintendo Power Glove refashioned in a Krueger-esque way. The signing over of checks, which is the sort of thing you'd do with your mom when your grandma wrote you a check when you didn't have a bank account. The Bugles on the treadmill. (Heh.)

Buzzard just kind of takes that to the logical conclusion parents struggle to keep their kids away from.

Anyway, we liked it. Looking forward to more from Mr. Potrykus.

These Final Hours

Apocalyptic movies are an odd breed. They're sort of like "Usher" movies, without the cheat: In an apocalyptic movie, you know the world is going to end from the get-go, with no pretense of hope.

Which leaves precisely two avenues of exploration, thematically: The nihilistic one, where nothing matters and all life is a lie; or that what one does matters, in and of itself, regardless of whether the world is coming to an end.

In These Final Hours, we see a massive meteorite fly overhead in the opening credits, and when the movie starts, we see our protagonist, James, having sex with a girl. After which, the two talk, and he explains that he can't face the end of the world sober. (It's going to hurt, apparently.) He starts drinking and doing coke, and tries to get her high, which she refuses. She tells him to go to his girlfriend.

Our hero.

The movie flashes back to this scene a couple of times, revealing more and more about it, and making the hero seem more and more dubious a character.

Our movie begins as he heads to a wild bacchanalia whereupon he will drink and drug and sex until the world ends. A detour leads him to a situation where a couple of major league creeps have decided they'll spend the rest of the world abusing a little girl. And as bad as our hero is, he's not that bad.

This leads to him being stuck with the girl, who's trying to get back to her father so they can be together at the end of the world.

Anyway, there's your tension, because Our Man, while not a complete scumbag, really, really doesn't want to face the end of the world, and only a vestige of his humanity keeps him from just abandoning his charge to her (short) fate.

In other words: Road picture!

Apocalyptic movies are in some ways much easier to do than post-apocalyptic movies: You only have to imagine the end of the world, not a new world that comes after it. But you do have to create drama and suspense out of a scenario that, no matter what, ends with pretty much everything and everyone being destroyed. (Barring a few exceptions like When Worlds Collide.)

And so it is here: Writer/director Zack Hilditch creates a scenario where the audience can care, very much, about what James (Nathan Philips, Wolf Creek, Dying Breed) does with his final moments. Angourie Rice plays the girl looking for her father (and quite convincingly). Jessica De Gouw ("Arrow", "Dracula") plays Jame's side piece.

We really enjoyed it, insofar as one "enjoys" an apocalyptic film.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Eva

Well, this is just odd. A 2011 Spanish sort-of version of A.I. or D.A.R.Y.L. where a man, Alex, returns to his hometown to program a special robot, the S.I.-9. We soon learn that he's been gone for ten years, since he abandoned his girlfriend, Marta, who is now married to his brother, David, who have a precocious ten-year-old daughter named Eva.

There's residual sexual tension between bro and now-sis-in-law, which is complicated by Eva's strong attraction to Alex, which deepens as Alex surreptitiously uses her to program his new S.I.-9.

In this world, apparently, AI is programmed by asking a bunch of word association-type questions, and plugging the recorded answers into some CGI effects. It's goofy, just go with it.

Actually, the whole plot is quite flimsy and doesn't bear a whole lot of scrutiny, but that's okay. As with Snowpiercer, once you get past the initial conceit, there's an entertaining story here, with some tension, a few feels, and the occasional twist and turn.

Some of the CGI less than stellar, though I think they did some clever stuff with the S.I.-9 itself. I think it was someone in a robot suit (there's a telltale thickness to the robot, which doesn't yet have skin or hair), and then I'm guessing they CGIed out the suit at certain joints. (Actually, I just looked it up and that's exactly what they did.)

There's a hit-and-miss robot cat. And a few (though not many) shots that are crowded with varieties of robots.

But you don't expect great CGI from a Spanish movie—or any European film—do you? What's noteworthy is how the humanoid robots communicate their robot-ness. In particular Lluis Homar plays a robot who cooks, cleans, and offers emotional support. However, he is not "free". Alex even orders him to turn down his emotions at one point. To level six. From eight.

Homar is just excellent. He doesn't do The Robot, either the dance or the overly artificial stiff movements time-honored among hacks; there's just enough stiffness and "unnatural" approaches to things, along with juuuuuust enough flatness in his voice for him to seem off. He won some awards for it. Like, three.

The acting is all around good: I don't know Marta Etura or Alberto Ammann, who played Eva's parents, and Claudia Vega (who played Eva) is a newcomer, but they were all quite good. Playing Alex was Daniel Bruhl, who's been in all kinds of Hollywood films, like A Most Wanted Man, The Bourne Ultimatum, Inglorious Basterds, and he plays Baron Zemo in the upcoming Captain America Flick.

And I think the acting and drama are why this works. (Duh?) The movie propels itself on emotion, which allows you to overlook the fantastic nature of the story. Sort of like a Ray Bradbury thing.

We were pleased. The Boy actually picked this because the trailers make it look sort of like a horror flick (it wasn't) where you didn't know what was going to happen (we didn't).

'71

This is the first of two films about 1971 we're expecting this month, and this one is about an English soldier trapped behind enemy lines in Northern Ireland. Jack O'Connell, whom we just recently saw play an all-American hero in Unbroken, plays a single dad/new English soldier whose first mission is a home raid in Belfast.

A weak commanding officer emboldens angry Catholic rioters and before you know it, our hero has been left behind when the rest of his unit flees the chaos.

What ensues is a representative of what you might call the "survival night" genre, like The Warriors or Escape from New York. Jack (Gary, in the movie) has to sneak through the darkness, trying to suss out friends from enemies, and find a way back to his unit before the various interests kidnap and/or kill him.

We liked it, but not that much. Expectations were rather high going in: It had a 99% critic RT score; literally one critic did not like it. (It's up to two, now.) On top of that, this is the sort of thing we generally like, The Boy in particular.

But it's just okay. Even good. Nowhere near great. Even allowing for the fact that, with the Irish accents, every now and again you'd pray for subtitles. The character development is good, but the action is sort of flat. Frosh director Yann Demange seems more comfortable with the former than the latter.

The ending is too long, but it is, I suspect, why the critics loved it. It's a movie about white terrorists where the English are villainous.

I wouldn't discourage people from seeing it, but I'd only recommend it reservedly.