Sunday, January 25, 2015

2 Days, 1 Night

Marion Cotillard has a bad case of ennui. Real bad. So bad that she had to spend four months in the funny farm getting semi-un-ennui-ed (constructions like this is why robots will never speak English) only to find on the eve of returning to work, that her co-workers have opted to have her position eliminated rather than lose their year-end bonus.

She has 2 Days, 1 Night (or Deux jour, une nuit in the original, apparently inaccessible French) to reverse that vote!

Usually, when I say "I know, right? French!" in these reviews. I'm referring to some sort of sexual deviance that has been normalized by our frisky Gallic pals, but in this case, let us ponder the situation of a heroine who has been collecting a paycheck for doing nothing for four months, but for whom we are supposed to root, as she goes to inflict hardship on each of her co-workers, both emotionally and financially, after a four month period where her absence was already presumably a problem.

I know, right? French! Or more accurately, Belgian, but French Belgian, not the cool Flemish Belgian.

It's a testament to the Dardenne brothers (The Kid With A Bike) that this works at all.

@uncommentari once mentioned, in reference to some of the more difficult movies The Boy and I see, some puzzlement over the fact that we seem to enjoy these experiences, many of which cannot be considered pleasant. Well, sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, depending on the skill of the participants, the purpose of the unpleasantness, and the attitude of the execution.

For example, some horror movies are just unpleasant because it's easier to be unpleasant than scary and they don't really know the difference. I don't want to go see Haneke (The White Ribbon, Amour) movies because his goal seems to be punishing the audience. (Not enlighten or cause to empathize, but just punish.)

This is not the most unpleasant of film experiences but, let me tell you, you will feel all 90 minutes of it, as Sandra (Cotillard) drags herself across the countryside from family to family, humiliated and depressed the whole way.

It works, though, because Sandra isn't looking for pity. Ultimately she's just asking her co-workers to fire her to her face, which is something you should be able to do, if you're going to be voting to fire people. It's hard, but it has a heroic character to it as, let's face it, she hasn't really shaken her ennui, popping Xanax like Tic-Tacs.

But she has a character arc, Hollywood-ized up a bit, and you do end up liking her. (Cotillard has an extra barrier to deal with in my case, since people have been gushing about her since La Vie En Rose, which was really unpleasant.) I wondered if perhaps the Dardennes had actually told everyone else to dial back the acting, since this is the Marion Show, and even though her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, The Kid on a Bike) is constantly around, he's just very low key.

I could understand "keeping it together", of course, but he never seems to look like he's suppressing any emotion, just that he's—well, he comes off sort of dumb, somehow. Your mileage may vary.

The other actors are fine and the ending is satisfying (though perhaps not with the same resonance to an American), and I ultimately walked away from this pondering the socialist/Cotillard balance of our critic class. 'cause ultimately, they love this film, even though it's a pretty damning indictment of socialism.

Sure, you could say the evil capitalist (a solar panel manufacturer) forced his employees to make an inhuman choice, but it's actually pretty clear by the end that it was necessary to cut costs, and Sandra's four month paid vacation made it clear that 16 people could do the job as well as 17.

Which, duh.

But a running theme throughout the movie is that people don't want to be on the dole. It's shameful. It's degrading. The big threat for Sandra and Manu is that they'll have to move back to whatever the Belgian equivalent of The Projects is.

And these are all skilled laborers. Welding is mentioned at one point, though I'm not sure it's what they all do. But these skilled laborers are agonizing over 1,000€, which means they're all torturing themselves over the equivalent of $300-$600 (after taxes, which are obscene in Belgium).

Meanwhile, a bunch of them do stuff "on the black", presumably working illegally, doing things like repairing cars or stocking shelves or whatever. The Dardennes may think they're being critical of capitalism, but they're honest enough to just tell the story and let you think and feel what you want.

My initial thought was that management that forces workers to choose between co-workers and bonuses (a real thing) are terrible management (and the movie paints considerable ambiguity on the who-did-what-to-whom plot points) but then I thought, well, why not force workers to make the hard choices that have to be made?

Especially in socialist countries where "management" is painted as the enemy of "labor" (as if they were different), I can see a certain value in forcing childish we-should-all-be-hired-forever-with-pay-raises-and-ponies to make the hard calls.

Fortunately, all that is incidental to the real story, which is about Sandra. And which is good.

But not easy to watch.

The Imitation Game

I've always known of Alan Turing as "the father of modern computing"—the guy who first described certain things in certain ways which have proven to be useful, certainly. The recent Weinstein movie about Turing, The Imitation Game, suggests that he invented "Turing machines", and those are just another name for computers, which is the sort gross inaccuracy you expect from a Hollywood film about a gay genius.

I had some reticence about seeing this film, because I was worried they were going to turn a story about a gay computer guy (there are many) into a story about a gay guy who worked on computers. Which, frankly, it's a trivialization of anyone to reduce them to their sexuality.

They do do this, actually, but do it so well, you'll hardly notice it's being done.

This is a slickly made pseudo-biopic centered primarily around Turing's work at Bletchley Park, where the German code was cracked in WWII. It's taut, dramatic, fun to watch, and wholly fictional both in terms of details and big story elements.

Turing's contributions are exaggerated. . His social eccentricities are turned into severe liabilities (they weren't). He's presented as a loner (he wasn't). He's presented as a man pining for a lost childhood love (maybe?), so much so that he names his computer after him (it wasn't). He's blackmailed into silence by a Soviet spy over his homosexuality (who knows?). He's punched (he wasn't) by the very hetero guy for making a statement about hiding intelligence (never his call). They present him as having killed himself (experts disagree) during court-mandated hormone treatment (it had ended over a year prior to his death) which crippled him intellectually (it didn't).

He's outed as a homosexual when cops come to investigate a robbery of his house (never happened) on a neighbor's noise complaint (not a thing) which he didn't report because of his homosexuality. That was a stretch.

The producers have said people get hung up over accuracy, when they're not going for accuracy, they're just trying to present to the audience what it was like to be Alan. I disagree: they've made a composite gay-experience guy and put him in Turing's body.

Like I said, though, this largely works, dramatically, even if it feels overly slick at times. Where it rang false was in their portrayal Commander Denniston, who ran Bletchley park for the first years of the war. He's sort of the stock "angry dean" character of college comedies, the closest people in Hollywood seem to come to understanding military types. I can believe that Denniston didn't get the nerds in Hut 8; I can't believe that he would do anything to jeopardize the war effort, just because (as the movie has it) he didn't like someone. That's not how non-emotionality-based-organizations work.

Not that I'd expect anyone in a Hollywood "idea room" to get that.

It's sort of like when a character is expected to let his brother die rather than let out information, and he cries and complains about it. That just doesn't seem very British to me. At least, not the British of WWII. But those guys are mostly not around any more, and a movie has to be made for the audience that's here, right?

Yes, I'm being highly critical, but I say to you: We liked it. It's a good movie. You're probably not gonna care about this stuff. I really didn't much until after the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fine, as always. Keira Knightly passes for a homely computer nerd. That evil Lannister guy is the evil Commander. The always great Mark Strong (The Guard, Green Lantern, Zero Dark Thirty) has a great role as a presumably entirely fictitious MI6 agent who acts as a sort of deus ex machina.

It is, as @juleslalaland has noted, a fine season for actors in projects that don't rise to the same level of skill.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wild

This is only the fourth woman-on-a-journey movie we've seen in the past year, and only the third that involved actual walking, but this is the first one to feature naked Reese Witherspoon. The other three were On My Way with Catherine Deneuve (she drove), Redwood Highway with Shirley Knight, and Tracks with Mia Wasikowska. It's the last that has the most in common with Wild, and not just because Mia also got naked.

In Tracks—based on a true story, like Wild—a woman walks across the desert because she's troubled, to some degree or another. Tracks is interesting despite not going into the details much. Wild is the opposite: The whole thing is a search for "why"s.

Why does she have to do this? Why did she do all those drugs and have all that anonymous sex? Why is Reese Witherspoon still playing teens and 20-somethings?

The Boy, who wouldn't know Ms. Witherspoon from any other big turn-of-the-century actress (having only seen her in Mud) leaned in at one point to say "She's, like, in her thirties or something, right?" during one of the scenes where she was playing a college student. (I think she's gotten better looking with age, but she doesn't look young.)

It's important because the age at which one has this sort of life crisis pretty dramatically impacts how we feel about the character. The movie's flashbacks are kind of confusing because they're not in order and they completely omit certain things, like Cheryl's marriage, except in terms of the wreckage she's made of it.

But the other thing the Boy whispered to me, early on, was something like "I'm not hating my life choices," which is fairly high praise given that this is the sort of movie that could be awful. In fact from the trailers, it could hardly not be awful, since they cast it as sort of an Eat, Pray, Love thing where an awful woman finds excuses for being awful, and finds it's mostly other awful people's fault.

(N.B., I'm guessing since I wouldn't go see Eat, Pray, Love with your eyeballs.)

Still, it works. Mostly.

Why? I think because it's mostly free of bullshit. There are times when our heroine seems to blame her bad behavior on her mother's death, e.g., but in the end she seems to find—well, I don't know, maybe the ending is bullshit, but I guess it worked for her.

This brings me back to Tracks, which works because the journey is the point. This is true of Wild as well, even though there's all this supporting material. And, frankly, it works because Witherspoon is good. But this has always been in her wheelhouse: Good-hearted characters who are flawed, even highly flawed, but still appealing.

She has to carry the movie, and pretty much does. Laura Dern has really the only other serious role in the movie as her mother, and the two play off each other as mother-and-daughter perfectly (despite only being less than ten years apart *kaff*). This part works very well, because we see Cheryl at her worst in a lot of ways, but in a way that is more relatable, perhaps, than the drug addiction/promiscuity thing.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education) and director Jean-Marc Valleé (Dallas Buyer's Club) have done a good job here, as did producer Reese Witherspoon in sponsoring a project that showcased her talents.

John Wick

"They'll know you're coming," the Russian mob boss says to Keanu Reeves, who is planning an all out assault on the well-guarded safe house containing the mob boss's son.

"It won't matter," says John Wick, the slayer of boogie men, ne plus ultra assassin supreme, all 'round badass who just wants to go straight, you guys, but they killed his puppy.

And indeed it doesn't in John Wick, the story of John Wick, a guy who is really good at killing stuff. The reported body count is 84. It might be more. It's hard to tell in all the excitement.

This is the sort of man-vs-mob movie that every action hero does occasionally and Liam Neeson does two or three times a ye—oh, look, Taken 3 is out. Anyway, I think this is a first for Keanu, who's normally paired off against robots or unicorns or samurai or what-not. Well, I think so: I haven't seen Keanu in a movie since The Lake House.

There's not really much to say about a movie like this, except that if you like this sort of movie, you'll probably like this instance of this sort of movie. The freshman effort by stuntman Chad Stahelski is stylish, fast-paced, with great fight choreography and a lot of fun touches. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad, whose last big feature had Steve Austin playing Tommy Wick (brothers?) creates an underworld mythology where everyone knows who John Wick is.

Everyone except the boss's kid, played by "Game Of Thrones" Alfie Allen, that is, who starts the whole ball rolling. Wick almost immediately figures it out with the help of local chop-shop impresario, John Leguizamo. Mob boss (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist, who's an actor I'm coming to like more and more, the more I see him) tries to quell things in between trying to kill Wick.

Other supporting players include Willem Dafoe as a hitman, Adriane Palicki (who played Wonder Woman in the attempted reboot),  Iane McShane as a saloon keeper, and Bridget Moynahan as the disembodied voice of the late Mrs. Wick. I mean, really, she's barely in the film but she gets pretty high billing.

I liked it. The Boy is hard to get to this kind of movie, because it's a fine line between stupid and clever and all that, so I ended up sneaking in the last showing of this while he was otherwise occupied. (I think he would've liked it.)

But as someone who went to most of the Schwarzenegger movies in the '80s and quite a few of the clones, I can say this was in the same ballpark, but really a lot better than most of those.

Into The Woods

The Flower is particularly reticent to see any films involving fairy tales, owing to, shall we say, strong opinions on the topic. But when I told her that Into The Woods included the oft-omitted portion of Cinderella wherein the evil stepsisters mutilate their feet (in order to be able to fit into the golden shoe) and they also have their eyes plucked out, she was much pleased and averred she might be interested after all.

And that's the sort of musical this is. A Stephen Sondheim musical. You know, like Sweeney Todd, though without the cannibalism somehow. It was a bit edgier 30 years ago, when post-Disney fairy tales and folklore were making a literary resurgence (or so it seemed to me at the time).

The story combines a number of fairy tales: A baker and his wife, barren, make a deal with a witch to collect four items from the woods in exchange for a child: A red cloak, a milky white cow, hair as gold as corn and a golden slipper. This puts them on a collision course with Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Rapunzel and Cinderella.

It's remarkable to note, at first, how faithful to the source material the first act is, despite tying all the stories together. (The character of The Mysterious Man, from the stage version, has been removed, with The Baker basically taking his parts, from what I can tell. Snow White is also written out.) It's also remarkable to note how tightly plotted it all is, with the characters motivations and actions leading logically one to the next. On top of that, the initial theme (the bittersweet character of growing up) is both very fitting and nicely done.

It hits the fan in the second act, of course, when the Happily Ever After turns out to be fraught with consequences, disappointments, and blamestorming.

It's not great. It's good, though. The clever parts, the plot, the machinery of the story, if you will, hang together admirably well—one wishes we could see more of this sort of attention to detail in all movies—but the emotional parts make sense without being very moving. That's not quite fair: The emotional parts work great on the back-burner; you can see why the people act how they do, for the most part, and you can empathize with it.

But the arias where they express their feelings, which are often the high points of opera/musical theater, didn't really work, at least not for me. Interestingly enough, I had a similar reaction to Burton's interpretation of Sweeney Todd, where I didn't find the stage presentation to be lacking at all emotionally.

The cast is good. Well, dramatically. Well, let's say they're better than Les Miserables. And let us also concede that casting movie musicals is just like casting animation: Actors are selected for their perceived drawing power, not any musical ability.

Meryl Streep takes the Bernadette Peters Witch role, which both reduces the musicality of the part and takes some of the "wow" out when she transforms from an old hag to a—well, not an old hag. But at least she's the only cast member of Mamma Mia! here.

Emily Blunt (the Baker's Wife) survives her role. Barely. Johnny Depp's (The Wolf) role is mercifully short. James Corden (The Baker) is fresh off pretending to sing in One Chance. Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mom) was the only one whose singing voice I could actually identify. Oh, and Anna Kendrick looked and sounded like she maybe could've been Cinderella on stage.

Dramatically, they're all fine, even Ms. Streep, whose affected style is actually appropriate in this circumstance. But just like Le Miz, you're gonna wanna not listen to the original cast in the vicinity of this.

The Boy and I enjoyed it. We didn't have any particular attachment to the original, though. I could see it again if The Flower decided she wanted to see it. But I can't help feeling a great opportunity was missed here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy's first directorial effort is a Michael-Mann-ish looking film called Nightcrawler. Hungry Jake Gyllenhaal ends up shooting video footage for the ambitious Rene Russo and becomes increasingly obsessed with getting amazing shots, even if he has to fake them. Ultimately this drags him into a murder plot.

I haven't seen this film yet. This is the sort of film I'd probably not go to see if not for the glowing ratings. As I mentioned, it looks very Mann-ish, and I am not a Mann man. Also, it's big claim to fame is that it's a thriller. And we are probably having worse luck with so-called "thrillers" than with horror movies.

I think they use "thriller" to sell any drama, no matter how plodding, if any aspect of the resolution is in doubt.

But Gilroy wrote Tarsem's The Fall, which is his best film by a long shot, in no small part because of the story the effects could be hung on. He also wrote The Bourne Legacy, among other things. But in all his previous work as just-a-writer, he probably didn't have much clout. But this baby is his.

And it's being showered with awards. So it's gotta be good, right?

Right?

[later...]

Actually, yeah, it's really good. And the trailers are both weirdly spoiler-y and completely misleading in ways that I can't describe without spoiling it. My summary, above, based on the trailer grossly misrepresents the actual shape of things. Heh.

Gyllenhaal is just great. The supporting crew is very good: Riz Ahmed as the sidekick, Bill Paxton in a smaller, sweet role as a competitor and Rene Russo. Rene Russo is especially good as an aging news director seeing her salvation in Gyllenhaal. Also, given that I praise French women for looking their age, I'm should praise Russo as well: She looks her age, and if she's had work done, I don't see it—but she looks good. Which is all the more remarkable given her character is one who's a little desperate, cynical and bitter.

But ultimately, Gyllenhaal has to power the movie and he does.

So, will you like it? Well, it's dark, darkly comic, cynical, a directly scathing indictment of news media and by extension an indirectly scathing indictment of society, tense, suspenseful and horrifying.

Once I got a handle on the kind of story it was, I had a strong idea how it was going to end—and I could list some similar films, but that could spoil it, and a lot of people will be surprised by how it turns out.

It was a lot of fun. But remember, I have odd ideas about what's "fun". The Flower also really enjoyed it—but her sense of humor is a lot like mine. The Boy was a little cooler toward it, though he definitely liked it, and very much appreciated the suspense. He nitpicked the climax a bit; he felt it was a little unrealistic, that I can't tell you without a spoiler.

I thought maybe it was unrealistic for a different reason, that I can tell you about without spoiling: The police are called to Western Avenue and 3rd Street, which is about 3 miles from the Rampart Station—a big LAPD station in LA. I used to live in that area and when I called the cops, they would be there in seconds.

So I thought the movie showed them taking too long to get there, and it looked like they weren't even the ones who had been called. In other words, they maybe just moseyed in on accident. Minor point, at best. But the sort of thing that you could expect from me watching a movie taking place in L.A. (which adds to the fun for me, of course).

The Flower and I would probably put it in our top 10, while The Boy said it was more a top 20—which I think is more a statement on where he felt it belonged rather than being able to name 19 better other movies.

It's been an odd year: There've been very many good, even very good movies, but not so many great ones. I suspect our assessment for the Best of 2014 will be very documentary heavy.

Still, this was a good film to close the year out on.

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

There's some old-fashioned sleight-of-hand huckstering going on with this new Iranian flick A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. What I saw in various places was "the first Iranian vampire movie". But in other places I'm seeing "the first Iranian vampire western." Big diff.

Although I see nothing of the Western in here.

There is boatloads of style in this beautifully shot black-and-white tale of a hapless guy who ends up on the wrong side of a loan shark/drug dealer's attempt to collect a debt his heroin-addict father incurred, and then ends up the lucky recipient of said dealer's wealth when a hungry girl vampire kills him.

This isn't one of those vampire movies where the vampire only kills bad guys, though. We puzzled over it afterward and the only commonality between her victims were that they were all male.

Of course, as I've noted for other movies, some ideas that are popular in American culture have a lot more force in others. Whatever the state of women in America, for example, Persian women could tell them a thing or two about oppression. The problem being an American can't always relate to the emotional impact they're meant to have.

You know, so maybe it's nothing in particular that she only kills men. And threatens boys. I dunno.

Anyway, it's a sort of love story between our living hero and our undead heroine, though one quite obviously fraught with certain issues (that are never addressed). In the end, the hero comes to realize that she's a murderer, but never that she's a vampire. Or does he? I don't know how he could have, really.

In the end, the three of us were split. The Boy did not care for it. It was too static and the characterization was weak. I can't really argue with that, but I kind of liked it anyway. I felt there was enough characterization and motion in the plot to make it worthwhile, though no where at the level of, say, Let The Right One In.

The Flower? She loved it. She's developed a strong sense of aesthetics and really enjoyed it on that level. Also, vampires are cool, and chick vampires doubly so, I'm sure.

The Girl is played by Sheila Vand (Argo, "State of Affairs") sort of like a French noir heroine. The Boy is played by Arash Marandi. The Boy's father is played by Marshall Manesh, whom The Flower recognized as playing a cab driver on "How I Met Your Mother" and who was also the doctor in The Big Lebowski, and who's one of those guys in a ton of things. He gets to stretch his acting chops.

Mozhan Marno (The Stoning of Soraya M, "House of Cards") plays a prostitute, while Dominic Rains ("General Hospital") plays the thug. Rains and Manesh were in the short version of this film, made a few years ago with the future star of Shirin In Love.

You may notice that all these actors are in a lot of American shows and movies. Punchline: it's not really an Iranian film. It's an American film starring a bunch of Persians. Shot in California. Heh.

Which is cool. Especially because I kept thinking, "Man, Iran looks a lot like California."

The King and the Mockingbird

Back in post-war France, a crazy Frenchman by the name of Paul Grimault decided to make the first French animated feature, and started work on a wild tale called Le roi et l'oiseau, literally, "The King and the Bird". Then something bad happened. Funding got cut, people fought over the rights, the unfinished film got released, and for the next two decades Grimault and writer Jacques Prévert struggled to get control of it.

Eventually, they won their battle and the film was completed and given a limited release in 1979. And now, finally, it's gotten a home video release, fully restored, and viewable in all its insane glory.

Hayao Miyazaki and Iwao Takahata cite this movie as a primary influence on the creation of Studio Ghibli, and that is so very apparent within a few minutes of this film. Certain techniques used remind me of Ralph Bakshi, and I wouldn't be surprised if he'd seen this at an impressionable age.

Then, in the second act, The Iron Giant shows up. I mean, if you read about this movie, you'll see "influenced" or "prefigured", but it's so recalls the robot in Brad Bird's classic film, that it's almost inconceivable he didn't see this movie.

The story is rather scattered at first: An incompetent but all-powerful king (a mix of Hitler and one or two of the Kings Louis) earns himself an enemy in the form of a big-mouthed bird (I would've guessed cormorant rather than mockingbird), who acts as a foil in his plan to marry a beautiful shepherdess.

Actually, I guess his main foil is the portrait of himself that comes to life and does away with him, but subsequently acts exactly like him. The shepherdess, also a painting, is in love with a chimney sweep—also a painting. None of this matters particularly, as once they come to life, they're just as real as anyone else.

Anyway, the king tries to capture the two lovers, who are kept one step ahead with the help of the bird. At least for a while. 

All the action takes place in the king's palace which is a marvel of insane (and impossible) opulence. The King's tower is on the 299th floor. There's a sub-cellar that's a city unto itself, where the king keeps those who aren't part of his bootlicking coterie for slave labor ("Work makes free!"). This section is very reminiscent of Metropolis and Modern Times.

Also, the product of this underground factory seems to be nothing but images of the king. Which seemed sort of Biblical to me.

You might wonder when this movie takes place. I did and finally came to the conclusion that it was 1948 France. Just a different one from the France portrayed in history books. (That's something I always note in Studio Ghibli films, like Kiki's Delivery Service, which seems to take place ca. 1900 in some unspecified part of Europe with a lot of zeppelins.)

Getting around in this arcology used frequently and hilariously as a gag set-up, as people use stairs and elevators, sure, but also things like paddle-boats and bumper-cars.

The Boy enjoyed it a lot, though he felt the movie's narrative looseness early on robbed it of some of its power. The Flower loved it, as she was spotting all the Ghibli-isms, and she is a big fan of Studio Ghibli. I also loved it for that, while recognizing The Boy's point.

There's just not a lot to dislike here, and if you have any interest in animation, it's a must-see. It's really quite a joy.

St. Vincent

Since his 1988 appearance in the movie Scrooged, Bill Murray has made a career out of being the curmudgeon who is redeemed by the third act through repetition, ghosts, elephants, Scarlett Johannson or whatever. And he just gets better and better at it. Seriously, check out his performance in the daring, yet nigh unwatchable, The Razor's Edge (1984)—which movie he agreed to do Ghostbusters in order to get the green light on, and which basically killed his career—and compare to his work in later films, and it's impressive how good he's gotten.

Later films like St. Vincent, in which Murray plays a crotchety old man who's broke and drunk and a whoremonger (said whore being pregnant Russian-accented Naomi Watts). Our story begins after Vin (Murray) smashes his fence after driving home drunk, with him waking up the next morning to find his property being smashed by the careless movers of his new neighbors. Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) is a recent divorcee who works as a technician in a hospital, and often ends up not being able to get home in time to take care of her son Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher).

Vin sees an opportunity to make some cash and offers to sit for the desperate Maggie.

Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

Murray is great. Better than many of his highly praised performances in recent years. He's found the perfect notes between antagonism and despair, and even has some moments of genuine joy. He's got a perfect co-star in Lieberher, too, who's savvy without being obnoxious. Actually, of all the characters, Oliver's the most likable and probably the sanest and most Christian (or perhaps I should say "small-c christian").

For a youngster, he's quite capable of hitting subtle notes.

The supporting crew is good, as you would expect. Chris O'Dowd (Calvary, Thor 2) as the hip-but-not-too-hip Catholic priest is a standout.

For all the familiarity of the story, there are enough twists-and-turns to keep you guessing. Writer/director Theodore Melfi also hits the right notes, by neither making Vin a complete reprobate nor a crusty-but-benign cliché. (Melfi, interestingly, has only directed one prior feature, back in 1999, with Kimberly Quinn—who plays a nurse/administrator in St. Vincent—as the star, and his co-writer.)

Quinn is a producer on this film, as is Don Cheadle!

I really enjoyed this film. I got choked up at the end.

The kids, interestingly, were not as moved. They both enjoyed it, but neither was amazed. (Or, as The Boy might say, "It didn't roxxor my boxxors.")

I put this in the category of films, like Chef and Beyond The Lights, which have formulas but which are really quite hard to do well, and which raise the boundaries of expectations for their genre.

Foxcatcher

There's a point in Foxcatcher—the climax of the movie, of sorts—where I thought to myself, "Oh, crap, I remember when that happened!"

This sometimes happens in "based on a true story" movies. You weren't really paying attention when they were news, then suddenly the clown car crashes into the sour cream tanker and you go, "Oh, hell, yeah, I had forgotten about the great sour cream/clown pileup on the I-5."

Foxcatcher is the story of John E. DuPont's attempt to make his family estate (the eponymous Foxcatcher Estate) the seat of U.S. Olympic Wrestling. To this end he enlists the help of a couple of gold-medal winning wrestling brothers, Mark and David Schultz.

It all works out beautifully, of course, and the US goes on to dominate wrestling in the next 10 Olympics.

Heh.

As if!

DuPont is, shall we say, a little bit off. Weird under the best of circumstances, living in the long shadow of his famous family, in their massive estate with only his disapproving mother as a companion. He makes patriotic gestures, tries to set up himself up as a leader of a team in a field he has no real expertise in, and engineers minor accomplishments to try to measure up.

That's him at his best. At his worst, he's capricious, manic or depressive, spacey, dazed, drug-addled, violent, dissociated and just plain discomfiting.

At first, he can only lure Mark Schultz to his Valley Forge home, the younger and dimmer member of the team. Schultz, despite being an Olympic gold medalist, has poor prospects in life, delivering truly awful motivational speeches for 20 bucks a pop at local grade schools. To put it in perspective, when DuPont asks him to name his price, he says $25K/year, because it's the most money he could imagine.

Du Pont and Mark bond pretty quickly, and this is followed by a series of feel-good photoshoots and PR stunts about how they're the future of wrestling. (Just in case you thought the media hasn't always been bought and paid for.) Du Pont gets Mark into drugs, which is just a bad idea on a lot of levels, and soon the two have a conflict that can't be smoothed over with cocaine and cut-rate trophies.

David is persuaded to join the team, presumably with a much larger sum of money, but this creates even more tensions.

It's kind of dry. The sense The Boy and I got was that there was this desire to adhere to the facts in the actual story, which while admirable, can derail the sort of dramatic buildup that makes a good narrative.

Outstanding acting from the three principals, all of whom are playing against type: Channing Tatum plays Mark, and while Tatum is certainly no stranger to playing an athlete, Mark Schultz is not someone with a lot of charisma or social skills. (Schultz co-wrote the book that inspired this.)

Mark Ruffalo—and this may sound odd—plays a normal guy. For as long as I can remember him, which goes back to 2000's You Can Count On Me, he's been playing mopes, Sad Sacks and losers, down-on-their-luck and not likely to get a break.

I mean, fercryinoutloud, when he's in a superhero movie, who does he play? Bruce Banner. The Sylvia Plath of alter egos.

In this, Ruffalo plays the sensible brother. Good natured, not overawed by money, with a strong sense of doing what's right by his family. He helps Mark out, but encourages him to take the opportunity with Du Pont—to spread his wings and try to succeed on his own. (Mark, for his part, harbors some serious resentment.)

I mean, I guess it's not necessarily a hard role, but you don't see Ruffalo do it much. If ever. Most of his mannerisms are different, too, though later on, when things get stressful, you seem some of the classic Ruffalo hands-through-the-hair moves.

As John "Golden Eagle" du Pont, Steve Carell is bound to get a lot of attention for his role as the weird, dangerous billionaire who is completely flummoxed at the notion that someone might actually not have a price. And he is good. You'll barely recognize him at first, although, much like Ruffalo, certain Carell-isms come to the fore from time-to-time.

It's good work but is it good enough to sustain a whole movie? Well, sure, but not always a compelling one. Bennett Miller's previous work (Capote, Moneyball), also based on true stories, was more entertaining, I think (and also less rigorous with the facts).

We didn't hate it. We sort of liked it. But it's 2 hours of tension, really, which isn't great entertainment.

The Book of Life

At last we have a triple-A CGI-animated movie that is gloriously Mexican in its art design and setting in The Book of Life!

The good news is: It's gorgeous.

The bad news is: Otherwise, it sucks.

OK, sucks is probably a little harsh. But political correctness went to war with Mexican culture and the audience lost.

The story is that of two daring boys, one from a powerful military family, and one from a family with a long bullfighting tradition, who love the same girl. She goes off to a nunnery (or whatever) in Spain (or wherever) for years after a prank she pulls, and in her absence the two boys grow into men and burnish their resumes in the hopes of impressing her when she gets back.

¿Quién es más macho?

What could be more Mexican, sí?

Perro...but...no, wait, perro is "dog", I mean "pero". But. Pero grande.

The prank the girl pulls is to free the pigs because they're so cute, but they go on a rampage, endangering people and destroying the village.

Aw...come on. Really? How "first world problem" is that? It's not "hey, chica, people are gonna starve to death 'cause you let out all the food", it's "save the piggies!"

It gets worse, though: Our hero is Manolo, the bullfighter. Of course. Because the other kid, Joaquin is a nasty military guy, and even though he keeps the village safe year after year, and even though his father apparently died doing the same, military is icky and yucky and not sexy like bullfighting.

Oh, and of course, bullfighting? That's monstrous. Except how Manolo does it, because he doesn't kill the bulls. This relies so heavily on ignorance, it's just sad. After a bullfight, killing the bull is a mercy. But, of course, if they actually took a stand on bullfighting, they couldn't include it in the movie, so they do this stupid half-measure that just increases the ignorance in the world.

'cause you know the kids seeing this are going to take away this dumb notion that bullfighting would be just peachy if they didn't kill the bull.

But, okay, I'm overlooking all this stuff, and the second act gets a little better.

Wait, I forgot to mention the framing story. And the framing framing story. Basically, the good goddess La Muerte and the evil god Xibalba have made a bet for the fate of the happy land of the dead, which is a grande fiesta of remembered people. If Maria picks Manolo then La Muerte wins, but if she picks Joaquin Xilbalba gets the happy land of the dead, and La Muerte is consigned to the the other underworld, where everyone is forgotten and sad.

Whoa, guilt trip much?

Actually, I liked this part of it. At least it felt somewhat authentic. The framing framing story involves a bunch of school kids being told this story.

Now, it must be said, the happy underworld is breathtaking, a truly glorious realization of the whole "Dia de los Muertos" aesthetic. Back when Burton did Alice, I dinged it for not reaching the stylistic level of American McGee's Alice, and one could make a similar comparison between The Book of Life and Tim Schafer's Grim Fandango. But there's no shortcomings here, not in the art design.

It all comes down to a sloppy battle at the end, as all things must, I guess.

Typical stunt casting. 'cause when you think Mexican, you think Channing Tatum. He's the military guy, I think. There's Diego Luna and Zoe Saldana...I picked out Ron Perlman and Hector Elizondo. The former does a lot of fine voice work and the latter has just always been very distinctive.

The Barb liked it, though, and the RT is high (around 80%); she ranks the last four movies in this order: The Book of Life, Rio 2, The Boxtrolls and How To Train Your Dragon 2.

So, there you go. Beautiful but kind of boring. And the kid liked it.

Rifftrax presents: Santa Claus

OK, this is the third "live" Rifftrax I've seen—though never live live, which would be cool, just to see it at the same time, to say nothing of being in the audience—and I was literally in tears by the time it was over.

And! Super-bonus! I'm pretty sure you'll actually buy this one over at Rifftrax in a couple months!

The film being riffed this time was the 1959 Mexican "classic" Santa Claus which, you know, if you're going to make a Christmas Movie, maybe don't put "Santa Claus" in the title, because as far as I know, that's never been anything but disastrous.

In this mess of a flick, Santa watches Earth from his castle in space through his giant telescope (next to which is a giant mouth that's '70s porn-style nightmare fuel), as we see a variety of kids suffering through the holiday season. The two main kids are a girl so poor she can't afford a doll, and a boy who's super-rich but who never sees his parents.

There are also some hooligans tempted into evil shenanigans by ol' Pitch himself! Well, okay, not the Pitch, but some manner of lesser demon who's sent by Satan (in the form of a giant bonfire) to Earth in order to stop Santa from making his Christmas rounds, after which Satan will take over the world!

Yeah, I'm a little murky on the theology, too. I'm guessing it's some sort of Mexican variant on Catholicism. Fortunately, Santa has Merlin on his side, some invisibility dust and a bag of roofie—er, sleeping powder.

The Mystery Science Theater 3000 tradition was to riff bad movies. In most cases, not just bad, but so bad as to be virtually disowned by its creators. This made them cheap to license—when MST3K actually did that, and when they weren't actually in the public domain. And while I've often thought Citizen Kane would be a ripe target, I have to admit this is so wonderful in part because it barely resembles a movie.

It gives you just enough to hang on to, but puzzles you enough with its various twists and turns, that when the guys say something to capture the sheer insanity of the moment, I haven't even mentioned the whole "It's A Small World" sweat shop musical number featuring children from around the world that makes up the opening.

And the cherry on top is it's dubbed, which is hilarious in all but the best circumstances.

So, by all means, check this one out for Craig's sake! It's for sale, even!

The Boxtrolls

Stop-motion animation is sort of a weird beast these days. It is, as always, a time-consuming, labor-intensive process (a fact brilliantly riffed on at the end of the movie). But it's not a smooth visual, to the point where when Aardman and Sony collaborated on their software to make Flushed Away, choppiness was built-in in order to simulate that look. It's kind of weird.

The implication of the ending bit is that this movie was done by hand, but however it was done, it's occasionally distractingly choppy, in between some strong art design. This is the 4th movie from Laika, who also did The Corpse Bride, Coraline and Paranorman, which may have been similarly distracting in parts, though I don't recall noting that at the time.

The choppiness sort of works as a metaphor for the whole movie: There's a lot to admire here, even if overall it seems a little wanting.

The Boxtrolls is the tale of some shy, cowardly trolls who live under a city, coming up only at night to fetch the city's broken, discarded machinery, which they take to their little underground city to repair.

Among the trolls is a human boy who doesn't know he's human, but who ends up going to the overworld to save his people from the evil troll exterminator. The Exterminator plans to wipe out the trolls completely and forever, which will help him achieve his great ambition to join the elite of the city and their opulent cheese tasting parties.

You know, just once I'd like to see a story about monsters where the monsters aren't the good guys.

Anyway, he meets an obnoxious girl, the daughter of one of the elites, and discovers the nefarious plan of the Bad Guy to Do Bad Things to the Poor Box Trolls. It's been noted that the story parallels that of the Nazis and Jews in WWII but I actually didn't think of it that way. Despite watching (literally) five or six Holocaust themed movies a year, I don't automatically go Godwin. And I think the deal with Hitler is that while he was horrible in terms of scope and efficiency, he pretty much ran the usual despot playbook.

I mean, the idea that someone would demonize a productive and beneficial part of society in an attempt to gain power for himself? When does that not happen?

So...it's not great. It's easily the worst of the four Laika films (which could arguably ranked in the order they came out, though we could debate whether Coraline was better than The Corpse Bride). The story doesn't really hold up. The trolls are kind of hard to distinguish one from the next, which is kind of interesting because they're more distinct than, say Despicable Me's minions, but the minions by-and-large seem to have more character.

All the characters are kind of forgettable somehow. Oh, except the evil dude's (Ben Kingsley) henchmen played by Nick Frost (The World's End) and Richard Ayoade ("The IT Crowd"), who are increasingly dubious that they are, in fact, in the service of good in this story. The thoughtful-if-brutish henchman is kind of clichéd by now but is still appealing.

The movie gets better as it goes along. By the end I was fairly engaged, though there was a by-the-numbers feel to it in most regards.

However, one way this movie shines struck me almost instantly and made me wish it had been better overall: It's remarkably boy oriented. That's a pretty rare thing. The trolls are mechanically oriented, for example, and the troll-boy, Eggs, eats the Boxtrolls diet: grubs and the like. Winnie, the girl, is interesting and the daughter of an elite, but definitely not a princess.

Good score by Dario Marinelli (Atonement, Anna Karenina, Quartet).

The Boy saw this with his girlfriend which, as he says, eliminates his ability to comment meaningfully on it.

I saw this with The Barb who liked it okay. It was no Rio 2, but it beat out How To Train Your Dragon 2.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Do You Know What My Name Is?

This is an odd little film. Financed by some Japanese guys and initially released a couple of years ago, it floats around getting not much attention.

Which is kind of odd, since it shows people recovering (at least partially) from dementia and Alzheimer's.

The document follows John Roderman over a period of six months where he works in an old folks home and interviews people with memory problems. He asks them the titular question, and when they say they don't, he gives them his name tag and lets them read it. Then he talks over some stuff with them, and asks them his name again after about 5 minutes at which point they've forgotten it.

Over the course of six months, they're given a treatment which is too simple to be believed: They read a passage or two aloud, and then they do some simple math, also while saying what they're doing. This, the theory goes, draws blood into particular areas of the brain. (They explain this to the patients, too.)

If this sounds familiar to you, you may have encountered something like "Brain Age" for the Nintendo DS. Ryuta Kawashima, the creator of "Brain Age", is behind this treatment. You may have also heard (I have) that there's no scientific evidence to support these theories.

Of course, I'm familiar with valid therapies being pronounced unscientific, so it was interesting to me to see the six month period, at the end of which, the patients are very much improved indeed. This (still) isn't scientific proof, but it's very damn convincing.

One of the patients was able to remember John's name, but all of them we saw reconnected with their families. One was able to knit again. They all became more social and more like their former selves (as described).

Of course there's not much money to be made in such a simple thing. John goes from a minor role as an interviewer to doing the test administration ("helpers", I think they're called, but I don't remember very well—oh, no!) and, frankly, I think I could both rig up the exercise and administer it just from watching the movie.

So, you can see why there's not much interest. An easy, cheap cure for dementia or Alzheimer's? Who needs it!

I thought it was interesting that it would work, though. If it can be fixed by exercise, which it seems to be, but then is further boosted by the people doing the things they did before they got sick, that suggests to me that there must be some sort of trigger event that starts the cycle going downward. It could be something really simple, too, like a spike in blood sugar or an ordinary illness.

It suggests that certain rituals people do may be prophylactic against this sort memory loss, too.

This is amazingly good news and important if true as they say.

Three-point breakdown:

1. The topic is obviously important. People aren't getting less susceptible to these conditions. Or any younger.

2. The style is very simple. It has a home movie feel, despite having two directors. Roderman—I kind of wanted to punch him at first. But then it really became clear that he's got a kind of Mr. Rogers thing going: He's not talking down to old people, he's just very gentle and sweet-natured.

3. Slant? Well, obviously this presents this technique as working. Can I guarantee it's not edited to elide failures, or present the results as more dramatic than they are? I cannot. I'd like to hope not.

This film has no entry in IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes or Box Office Mojo.

Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks

The reviews on Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks are deservedly mixed, and The Boy and I were semi-reluctant viewers of this tale of an old lady who takes dance lessons from a con man. But not all 2-star movies are 2-star movies for the same reasons.

The worst, of course, might be called the staid 2-starrers. They plod along with no particular aspiration, leaving you vaguely unsatisfied, even if you found them largely unobjectionable. Then there are the ones that have aspects that are very good, or even brilliant, which come crashing against some technical failure or other, which can be frustrating but at least interesting and engaging, when they're not driving you nuts.

Six Dance Lessons is the latter sort of film. It's in such a panic to be a movie that makes an Important Social Statement, it trips all over itself in the beginning, and then ends with the subtlety of a political commercial.

In between, though, there are some moments of earned emotion payoff, as Gena Rowlands and Cheyenne Jackson spar and get to know each other. These parts were really good. I mean, the acting is good all the way through, enough so that, in the beginning, when the writing/direction rushes you through the early parts of their relationship, you can still be won over.

But in the middle, the writing calms down a bit, and the characters (now more comfortable with each other) are allowed to relate in a more natural way. This, unfortunately, sets you up for the climax, which (despite all evidence to the contrary) indicates the movie doesn't really take place in 2014. Or the writer wasn't aware that Roe vs. Wade passed in 1973. Or more likely this was written a while back.

I'm struggling here, but not as much as writer Richard Alfieri (The Sisters) had to to get in his one-two yay-Roe/yay-gay-marriage punch.

There's some awful bigotry in it, as well. There's a half-hearted pointing out of said bigotry but you can tell the writer and director feel it's justified bigotry, which is how everyone feels about their own prejudices, of course.

Despite all this, we kind of liked it, The Boy more than I, but I notice he's less sensitive to clunky character development. But we both felt the better story was subordinated to shoehorn the message in.

I don't want to blame director Arthur Allan Seidelman, king of the After School Special, for this. But he seems the likely culprit.

Rita Moreno, Jackie Weaver and Julian Sands have nice supporting roles.

If you're completely sympatico or reasonably thick-skinned it's worth checking out.