Monday, May 25, 2015

Ex Machina

This was one of those movies with EXTREME buzz, which then cooled off, weeks before I saw it.

And that's good.

Because Ex Machina is a good movie, but not a great one. In fact, while we both agreed it didn't suck, The Boy said he preferred the thematically-similar Spanish film Eva to this. I don't object to that sentiment at all.

The story is that of a young man (Domnhall Gleeson, Harry Potter, Unbroken) who visits a secret laboratory where and odd, manipulative super-genius (Oscar Isaac) wants to use him to test his artificial intelligence. Said artificial intelligence taking the form of the lovely Alicia Vikander (Son of a Gun, A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina) in CGI makeup that's a dead rip-off of that in Eva.

Her name is Eva, too.

But where that movie played on paternal instincts, this one goes straight for the groin—er, heart, as Eva involves Caleb (Gleeson) in the shadowy underpinnings of the spooky lab and Nathan's (Isaac) ultimate plan for her.

So, yeah, it's Island of Doctor Moreau.

I mean, seriously, this isn't as blatant as the gushing over Under The Skin, but it really is just a standard mad scientist/haunted castle scenario, dressed up in Mac/iPhone styling.

First of all, though, it does not suck. And it's to be commended for that.

Second of all, it avoids most of the really terrible pitfalls of this genre of Mad Science/Old Dark House movies.

Thirdly, Isaac really does a good job as the mad scientist.

Fourth, the remaining cast is certainly up to the task. Vikander and Gleeson are appropriately vulnerable. Sonoya Mizuno is suitably exotic and mysterious.

Fifth, the ending, while overlong, mostly works.

So, with all this goodness, why weren't we blown away? Well, I think, first of all, it really is just a restyled '50s horror movie plot which, even if The Boy didn't recognize it, was full of unanswered questions and plot holes. One point, which we didn't agree on, was the implication of Nathan working on "classified" stuff. I got the impression he meant government-classified, in which case the whole setting seemed preposterous.

The setting is that Nathan is completely alone out in the Alaskan wilderness, by the way. I pointed out to The Boy that, at work, it will take a team of people to perform a relatively trivial task. (It's not always true, but generally speaking "cowboy coders" started vanishing in the '90s.) But in this case, Nathan's conquering both Artificial Intelligence and AI literally by himself. One presumes he gets shipments of supplies from somewhere but it's never discussed.

And that's a plot point. In fact, the whole point of the plot is whether or not Eva is alive in a meaningful sense. When we find out Nathan is reusing stuff, we simultaneously have to ask why since there's no reason to do so, and then later there's a strong implication that, no, he doesn't really re-use much of anything. I can't explain it without spoilers but it doesn't make a lick of sense.

There's a lot of stuff like that which, if you gave it a moment's thought as an engineer, wouldn't fly. But, you know, the mad scientist stuff never made any sense either. It still works, basically. There are a few surprises, just because you expect a major screwup at some point.

The ending's a bit too long.

Good acting all around. Vikander is a great choice for the 'bot. She's lovely, of course, but she's not a sexpot, and as a result she comes across more vulnerable than anything, which is important to the story. As Mike Nelson quipped on Twitter: "Saw the film Ex Machina, a contemplative take on Artificial Intelligence and how it's affecting our -- look, the robot chick isn't THAT hot."

Heh. No, she's not. It's not a role like Under The Skin.

So, the broad strokes? Typical goofiness. The details? Fun, clever and lively. Worth a look.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

5 Flights Up

We were going to go see Iris, the documentary about the fashion maven, but got there late, and figured, well, 5 Flights Up was just starting, and if nothing else, it would give us a chance to work on our Morgan Freeman impressions.

And well, yes, that was true. This movie did give us that chance. Mine was definitely improved. The Boy's still sucks, however.

It's not bad. It's not really good, either. The Boy described it thus (paraphrasing): "Take St. Vincent. Nice, but forgettable movie. But it works because it's focused. This one really wasn't." I happened to like St. Vincent more than he did, but he's right. 5 Flights Up serves up interracial marriage, young love, stress over old pets, real estate stress, stress over growing old, and just feels like the tip of the iceberg.

This is the hazard of adapting novels, right? You have to leave stuff out, but you loved the book—that's why you're filming it, presumably—so you hate to leave stuff out, so you get an overstuffed movie. Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment, the book the movie is based on, is merely 209 pages, but at the standard one-page-per-minute book-to-screenplay formula, that would be a movie coming in at three-and-a-half hours.

And that's before Peter Jackson adds the subplot where the elf princess and goblin king get it on.

Also...the interracial thing? Well, that's just not something they're gonna give up easily in Hollywood, is it? "We got married while it was still illegal in 30 states!" Diane Keaton says to Morgan Freeman. Let's do some math, shall we?

Well, they've been married 40 years. 2015 - 40 = 1975. Supreme Court ruling legalizing interracial marriage in all states? 1967.

Anyway, I'm guessing that perhaps the book, published in 2009, is meant to take place in the early 2000s. Or they just added that in because it's never wrong to remind people that there's been racism in America in our lifetimes! As long as you're a Boomer, anyway.

Kind of ticked me off. They could've set the movie earlier. Diane Keaton is a little young to have been married in 1965, but they could've said they'd been married for 50 years instead of 40. (I think the 30-state thing would still would've been untrue but it would've been closer.)

Anyway, we get one dirty look from an old neighbor when they move in, a traumatic encounter of "I'm marrying a black guy" with the young Diane Keaton character, and that's about it. Just like we get one modeling session and one art show, and a contemporary follow-up scene, and that's it for the art.

That was really confusing, too, actually. They have a million dollar apartment because they moved into it when Brooklyn was down-and-out. But are they hard-pressed for money? Are they not? On the one hand, they drop $10,000 on a pet operation. On the other hand, when negotiating for a house, Morgan Freeman's all Mr.-Realist-Can't-Sell-For-$950K-When-We-Have-A-$960K-offer.

It's weird. The whole real estate thing is weird. The movie takes place over a couple of days. I get that things move fast in New York, but economics is economics. At one point, it looks like they're going to buy a house for $930K and the realtor tells them they have to sell their own place for $950K for that to work.

Huh?

And then we have Freeman saying "We're not rich!"

Probably the most enjoyable thing about this film, apart from Keaton and Freeman (and their younger counterparts, who are quite good) is the parade of NYC freaks that march through the open houses they have. But then, if the movie is telling us that New York is full of insufferable rich people, we're not really given a huge basis on which to exclude Freeman and Keaton's characters from that set.

Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson play young Ruth and Alex. Sterling Jeris has a nice role as a young Brooklynite with a crazy mother. Cynthia Nixon is the realtor, who's supposed to be insufferable, I think, but for whom I sort of felt sorry at the end.

Written by Charlie Peters (Blame It On Rio, My Father The Hero). Directed by Richard Loncrain (of the broody '70s horror The Haunting of Julia and the HBO Winston Churchill biography "The Gathering Storm").

Totally gratuitous—even grating—Morgan Freeman narration. I realize it's mandatory to have Freeman narrate if he's in  your film (and sometimes even when he's not) but the voice over was gratuitous, clunky and cluttered up what might have been emotionally stronger scenes.

But the old folks liked it well enough.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Kung Fu Killer

One of the easiest ways to get The Boy to a movie, regardless of time or film is to say "Oh, hey, looks like our last chance to see..."—and it really doesn't matter how you finish that sentence, he's up for it.

In this case, I finished the sentence with Kung Fu Killer, Teddy Chan's chop-socky martial arts festival about a serial-killer who specializes in killing only the masters of various branches of martial arts.

Which, you know, seems like a dangerous theme compared to, say, taking out fat chicks or senior citizens. Add to that he apparently has to kill them by beating them at their own game. Although, in fairness, some of them are retired. Or disabled. Or just not very good, apparently.

The Boy and I agreed that, while we enjoyed this film, it was not nearly "batshit" enough. The closing fight is wonderfully over the top, with the last men standing duking it out in the middle of a busy roadway, trucks full of convenient construction related items and occasionally bamboo fighting staffs. There's also a great battle early on that takes place on top of a giant replica of the human skeleton.

And, the action is good overall, but I think we figure once you break out the wires—you know, when you signal that physics don't really apply—then why not just go whole hog?

So, fun, for sure. Worth a look, if you're into the fighting flicks at all. Better than most of the action movies we'll see this year, at least in terms of the actual action parts.

Noble

An Irish girl with a beautiful singing voice loses her family and suffers all kinds of vicissitudes at the hands of men and nuns, only to grow up and save children in Vietnam. Such is the true story behind Noble, a moving tale of accomplishing things you have no business doing.

One could argue that it's difficult to screw up a movie about a heroic tale, but not if one has been to the movies very often. Writer/director/relative newcomer Stephen Bradley has done a fine job of splitting Noble's story into two parts: Her life up until she has the dream to help Vietnam, and the first three months of her journey into Vietnam.

Noble is an amazing character, too. Defiant of authority, self-possessed at a ridiculously young age, and blessed with a beautiful singing voice she breaks out at times more mild-mannered folks might consider it inappropriate—and usually to great positive effect on her cause—it seems inevitable that she would fall afoul of the world's worst characters. And she does.

From a basically evil truant officer, to countless nuns—I reminded The Boy there was a time when nuns were played as heroes onscreen, as I don't think he's ever seen that in a movie—to thuggish men (so many thuggish men), it definitely seems as though the world tried its best to grind Christina down.

But the funny thing is she has a faith in God. And it's a most interesting faith in God. One could almost say she treats Him as an equal. She makes demands. She expresses disappointments. At one point, she literally says "You lead. I'll follow," and walks randomly through Ho Chi Minh city. In a lifetime full of disappointment, she believes fervently that God has an amazing plan for her (and apparently random walk actually works out).

Lotsa feels. Lotsa baby-related feels.

There were things that annoyed me. Like when she arrives in Vietnam, a fellow Irishman tells her to visit it all before Americans move in and develop everything. I've become rather appalled by this love of poverty first worlders have when third worlders have it. (But, in fairness, said Irishman turns out to be there for some pedophilia so, you know, not exactly a ringing endorsement.)

The struggle to get this facility built that Noble wants is the MacGuffin here, and she naturally meets all kinds of resistance from a stodgy politburo and virtually all the oil companies. What kills me is that it turns out she's trying to raise $20,000, which is less than about $40,000 in today's dollars.

Which a) is a pretty damn small amount of money, like petty cash for an oil company; b) is the sort of money we routinely raise in the Internet age.

Anyway, good character, played at different ages by three different actresses: The brand new Gloria Cramer Curtis plays lovable orphan Christina, Sarah Greene ("Penny Dreadful") plays the feisty young mother Christina, and Deirdre O'Kane (who worked with the director on the zomcom Boy Eats Girl) plays middled-aged/motivated Christina.

Not likely to get a big release here—it opened with 175 screens—worth a look-see, especially if you're in the mood for an inspirational story.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared

A boy whose unusual proclivities toward blowing things up take him on a life journey through many great world events. This is the premise of writer/director Felix Herngren's film The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared, which is as whimsical as its title suggests.

Though the title doesn't really suggest the blackness of the comedy here, unless you realize the original original title of Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann, which is Swedish for "All Old People Must Die".

I kid the Swedes. The English title is, in fact, a faithful translation of the Swedish. Unlike some other films.

But it is Swedish, and as we know, Swedes can be a morose bunch, which makes the light-hearted tone of this film—notwithstanding the body count which is easily in the double-digits—a pleasant surprise.

The movie begins with our hero, Allan Karlsson escaping his old age home moments before his 100th birthday. From there he takes a bus—but when he gets on the bus, he finds himself in possession of a suitcase. The suitcase becomes the MacGuffin for the modern part of the story, as the gangsters who stuffed said suitcase full of money attempt to retrieve it from him.

He drifts from location to location, road-trip style, picking up companions along the way who end up sucked into his adventure. The first companion is a guy who's just about the age to go into an old folks home and doesn't want to, and you begin to think maybe the movie will make a serious statement about, say, treatment of old folks.

But then body count clicks up a notch and you realize: Nope. If there's a message here, it's roughly equivalent to "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries". Death is swift, sudden and often stupid.

Along the way, the two pick up a middle-aged man who's been in school his whole life, but has failed to finish any of his innumerable degrees, a woman who cares for an elephant stolen from a circus, and a thug who's thuggishness is apparently cured by a devastating blow to the head.

Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we see Allan's life, Forrest Gump-style (without all the crappy music), as he loses his father to the burgeoning Russian revolution, spends time in an insane asylum, fights in the Spanish Revolution for the Communists but ends up nearly killing but also saving Francisco Franco, builds skyscrapers in New York, helps Oppenheimer finish The Bomb at Trinity, spends quality time in Stalin's gulag with Herbert Einstein, and then acts as a double-agent throughout the Cold War, shuttling crap intel in both directions.

It is through Allan we see that the Soviets tore down the Berlin wall because of a mistaken recording of Reagan insisting that a wall in the White House not be torn down. Reverse psychology, I guess.

Goofy and hugely disrespectful of popular history, which I much prefer to the quasi-self-seriousness/pander-to-popular-history of Gump, for example. And rather than CGI Allan into a bunch of stock footage, they recreated historical scenes with cheap sets and actors. (Though they did Photoshop him into a bunch of historical photos for promos, including Ellen Degeneres' recent Oscar selfie.)

The reviews on this are not strong; apparently, it's a Swedish tradition to not like Swedish films. The audience laughed fairly raucously in the theater I saw it at, and even gave a warm round of applause at the end.

Anyway, enjoyable nonsense, and probably in the top 5 of comedies you'll see this year with a double-digit body count and a flying decapitated head.

Sidenote: Mia Skäringer, the film's elephant caretaker is a stand-up comedian who makes me wish I understood Swedish. Then I would understand why she was in a bikini and sneakers in her show.

Felix and Meira

Sometimes you get critics and audiences agreeing on a modest, yet award-winning film, about a provocative subject, and discover yet that they're all wrong. Not a one has a lick of sense or the faintest idea of aesthetics in general much less moviemaking.

Felix and Meira isn't really one of those films, but it was disappointing.

The premise is that Meira, a young mother and wife in an orthodox Jewish community, feels oppressed by the culture she's in and attracted to Felix, a ne'er-do-well Quebecois with time and money, but no grounding whatsoever.

And that's not a bad premise. The trailers tease all kinds of possibilities. Meira likes music, but the music she likes is forbidden, or maybe it's all music except what the men sing. I don't know, and the movie doesn't illuminate.

Which is probably the main issue here. The movie doesn't really illuminate much. Writer/director Maxime Giroux directs with modesty—which is good—but so much modesty that, at times, you don't really know what's going on.

For example, as much as I think movie sex is generally awkward and misplaced, the issue of sex between Felix and Meira is pretty damn important here. Meira crosses various boundaries at times, but they're all pretty minor. The issue of sex would, I think, be pretty cataclysmic to a young woman who has (presumably) only ever known the touch of her husband. The movie punts on it. There's a scene that might have ended in sex, but just as well might not have, given Felix's general deference toward Meira. And Meira seems no different after than before.

We get why Felix is into Meira: He's a middle-aged man and she's young and beautiful and has an identity. (Ironically, his pursuit of her will necessarily destroy that identity, which idea isn't really illuminated, either.)

We get why Meira is into Felix: He's not orthodox. She can dance and listen to music and wear pants and take birth control and otherwise enjoy all the pleasures of life in Canada in...I'm guessing...the '60s. (Not that any of this actually relates specifically to Felix. He's just the guy who's willing to support her in her non-Jewishness.)

But ultimately, Meira will go whichever way the wind blows. She'll never stand up for herself. If Felix gets her it's because he pursued her. If her husband gets her back, it's because he took her back from Felix.

And, one suspects, as unhappy as she is in her little Orthodox community, she isn't really likely to find happiness outside of it either. The movie sort of suggests that as well. Though I've heard some say that the ending was supposed to be a romantic, happy ending, and I didn't get that at all.

Some would say this is "subtle" but I don't think that's the right word. Some might say "murky" but murkiness can only be employed to hide something. The Boy and I felt more like stuff was just left out to avoid having to tell the story.

Fine acting by people you don't know, except if you read this blog and recall 2012's great overlooked film Fill The Void, which also stars Hadas Yaron (Meira) as a young Jewish woman in a marriage-conundrum. She's a fine actress, and is able to bring sympathy to a role which doesn't really lend itself to much.

I mean, really, she's toying with destroying her family and ruining her husband, with the vaguest of apprehensions. She never expresses any feeling for him, which seems pretty cold. But it's hard to say, because the movie, as I mentioned, illuminates little.

But, hey, no long, boring expository speeches either, so it's got that going for it.

You probably don't want to think about the fact that Meira is probably 19 or 20, either, while Felix is in his 40s. That might kill the romantic buzz and make it seem more exploitative.

Critics and audiences agree though, both giving it around 75% approval. So what do we know?

Rifftrax Presents: The Room

This may come as a shock to you but I have never seen Tommy Wiseau's 2003 cult classic The Room. And while this is clearly a film that stands on its own, I was pleased to see it from the safety of a "Rifftrax" event.

It's probably less shocking that The Room shares a lot of qualities of Plan 9 From Outer Space, for better and worse. For example, it is idiosyncratic as hell. You're not going to forget seeing it. Wiseau is not as, let's say, erudite as Ed Wood was. I don't think we'll be seeing him pen a bunch of erotica a la Mr. Wood, Jr., even of the non-transvestite variety.

But he has a unique way with words that, naturally, all the characters share.

He has, for his time, the equivalent level of special effects, though. Apart from the titular Room, the movie has scenes on a rooftop, in an alley, and other locales that I think are just green screens. The rooftop definitely is and is positively hard on the eyes. The other locales aren't great either.

It kind of has the effect of a '90s-era full-motion-video cut scene from a game.

And then there's the sex scenes. Oh, good lord. I've never seen a riffed-on movie that had sex scenes—certainly not long ones with nudity. I may never recover from "hipdick". (Though, if we're being fair—and why would we be?—"hipdick" is a staple of  '90s era softcore.) I understand the initial sex scene was twice as long in Wiseau's preferred cut, and the secondary sex scene was actually made up of stuff not used in the first sex scene.

Well, look, Wiseau's at least 40 in this, and his poor co-starlet is, like, 22, so, y'know, if you're going to write, produce, direct and (most importantly) star in your very own film, you might want to take your sweet damn time about it, too, damn the poor suffering viewers. And, I guess the members of the crew who wandered into the open set. (Yes, the set was open. Never have an open set for sex scenes.)

Anyway, boffo effort from Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett: The trick of riffing a movie like The Room is that it's simultaneously too easy—anyone can point out the obvious flaws—and too hard—because The Room really does speak for itself, on so many levels.

The boys are savvy enough to back off for long periods and let the natural laughs flow, and then when they step up to take a swing at one of the juicy meatballs Wiseau serves over the plate, they usually knock it out of the park. Although there's one moment where Corbett points out an incongruity and then points out the absurdity of noticing a technical flaw—heh, it stuck with me even though I can't recall what he was talking about.

I laughed harder at the Santa Claus one but this is still a magical ride. A strange, magical ride.

Hercules vs. Vampires

And now for something completely different: An opera based on the 1964 Mario Bava "classic" Hercules In The Haunted World or Hercules with/at/in the Center Of The Earth, or just Sword and Sandal, if you saw it on Australian television.

This inspired bit of lunacy was playing at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, and it was very nice, I must confess, to hear live music and singing—with no electronic amplification whatsoever!—once again. (I mean, apart from when I'm playing.) A lot of you younger people may not realize that truly "acoustic" music is a thing, as even stuff like MTV's "Unplugged" are recorded and mixed and messed with in all sorts of ways.

It's just not the same as being there with 27 instruments and 8 singers and everyone having to project in a 3,000 seat theater.

It was short, which was a good way to introduce The Boy to live opera. And Hercules is actually not a horrible movie at all. Bava knew how to compose shots and there's some editing that's tight enough to seem positively modern.

Like, pre-'90s, if someone said "I'm going to see the Oracle", there'd be this sequence where they left the room, hiked up the hill, walked in the temple, then saw the Oracle. In this movie, there are a couple of scenes where someone says "I'll see about that!" and then, boom, they're wherever they need to be. (Low budget? Sure! Still: modern!)

The effects are all practical, of course, and some of them come off as just goofy (particularly a cliff dive in Hades) but a lot of them are quite striking.

Now, the opera: Without a doubt, Patrick Morganelli's score is marvellous. It's very effective and it occurs to me that if I were going to try to score a movie these days, I'd probably start by scoring an old movie like this. It's just wonderfully rich and evocative, and serves to give some depth to what might otherwise be a completely campy affair.

The singing? Well...the singing is...operatic. So...I dunno. For my ear, the vibrato on the male singers especially tends to be too wide for me to enjoy. It can be pretty severe on the female side as well, although the alto (Lacy Jo Benter, I believe) was just sublime.

Now, the whole concept—Hercules goes to Hell to retrieve an artifact that will allow his love to come out of the Christopher-Lee-induced-funk that she's in, meets an assortment of evil spirits, titans and spectral fluids, and along the way his sidekick Lycos picks up a new girlfriend, who happens to be Hades' daughter, who gets revenge by ravaging the land*, and then must defeat the Big Bad and his vampire minions—is suitably goofy for opera. (Opera is generally not great literature.)

I actually watched the movie after the fact (currently available on Amazon), sans singing, but with one of those '60s/'70s era dubs that sounds sort of like one guy is doing all the voices. They trimmed about ten minutes from the 1:16 runtime, which created some, em, plot holes (but why be churlish? Opera is not about plot!). It particularly highlighted how effective a score—complete with spooky choral moanings at appropriate points—can be.

The weakness with the premise is that an opera's greatness stems from its arias—the melodic, non-plot-advancing expository stuff—and there's little room for such things in most movies. Maybe a James Bond movie where the villain lectures, or maybe one of those Atlas Shrugged flicks. The closest we get to that is Christopher Lee's final reveal, and it's not quite as marvellous as I wanted it to be.

Nonetheless, highly enjoyable, and enjoyed all 'round. And, if I may say, a brilliant way to get new audiences into the opera house.

(*ravaging not pictured)

Thursday, April 30, 2015

5 to 7

My son, one day you'll meet the woman of your dreams. She'll be beautiful, your heart's desire, your every waking moment will be filled with thoughts of her, and how happy the two of you could be.

Of course, by that time, you'll be married.

Anyway, as I've previously outlined that there is a scale of wimpy young male actors (Cera, Eisenberg, Yelchin, Le Beouf, Gordon-Levitt) which seem to be considered for roles about, well, wimps. Gordon-Levitt has been playing, convincingly, more tough guy roles of late, so it barely makes sense to include him any more.  But another guy who has been breaking out of the mold is Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the Star Trek reboots, and played an action hero and romantic lead in the mysteriously buried Odd Thomas.

In 5 to 7, though, Yelchin is a full-blown romantic lead in what is the most romantic movie in recent memory, written and directed by longtime producer ("Mad About You") Victor Levin. And he must play this role across from long-necked Bond Girl Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall).

The premise is this: While walking down the street, Brian spies Arielle smoking on the sidewalk (Yelchin and Marlohe, respectively) and decides he has to meet her. She's receptive, teasing, flirty and when she finishes smoking tells him he can find her smoking there every week at that time.

They strike up a relationship in which Marlohe (being French) casually mentions being married, and how this shouldn't be an impediment to her relationship with Yelchin. In fact, the French have a phrase for just this, "cinq à sept" (pronounced "sahnk-ah-set"), "5 to 7": In other words, those hours after work but before you're expected at home, when it is most opportune to visit one's mistress.

Of course the French have a phrase for it.

Brian balks at the notion of having a relationship with a married woman. But come on. Bérénice Marlohe?
The Least Flattering Picture of Bérénice Marlohe On The Internet
Anyway, morals are great, but with 'em, we ain't got a picture. And Brian is soon sharing a hotel room and precious bodily essences with Arielle. This is mostly done quite tastefully, thank God and Victor Levin.

Also, if everybody stuck to their morals, well, there wouldn't be the opportunity to show why said morals exist, and the harm they're meant to prevent.

The critic/audience split is rather severe here with audiences preferring the movie by a wide margin (66%/86%), and I suspect this is in part due to the earnest and straightforward nature of the story, which seems familiar. But there's also an underlying belief in doing the right thing, even when it's the hardest thing in the world to do, and a sincere and unapologetic belief in love that maybe seems unsophisticated to a worldly wise filmgoer.

The Boy was wowed by it, which sort of surprised me. I mean, I rather liked it, but he was enthusiastic. Likable characters in difficult situations is his thing.

Glenn Close and Frank Langella steal a few scenes as Brian's mother and father. (Of course, Brian's supposed to be 23 which would make him a very late in life baby to those two, indeed. But who cares? It's Frank Langella and Glenn Close!)

The Clouds of Sils Maria

The original title of this movie was probably Maloja Snake, after the clouds of Sils Maria that come whirling into the valley in a most reptilian fashion under certain weather conditions. (This is a real phenomenon with disappointingly few videos available online about it, though an old documentary about them in black-and-white that's featured in this movie is available.)

The Clouds of Sils Maria probably has the most beautiful movie shots of Switzerland since Force Majeure. Which would be the last movie we saw that took place in Switzerland, come to think of it.

Anyway, this is a movie whose trailer is an utter lie; a movie that I loved; and a movie that I would only recommend to a few people.

First of all, the trailer makes it seem like a psychodrama. In fact, The Boy actually said "I'm in the mood for a psychodrama." And I said, "Really?" because psychodramas are usually the ickiest sorts of films. And he said, "Yeah," and looked at me like I was his crazy old father.

But the movie isn't a psychodrama at all: Every "high drama" line from the trailer is actually not dialogue but lines from a play ("Maloja Snake") that our main character, Maria (Juliette Binoche), is rehearsing. She's doing the lines with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who, not being an actress, tends to deliver them in a rather banal way, which is why Binoche seems so unhinged in the trailer relative to Stewart.

And while I've done my share of Stewart bashing, this makes two movies in a row where she's actually acted, and she does a terrific job here with a much harder role, basically carrying the film along with Binoche.

But the trailer makes it seem like Valentine is the manipulative character being described, which she is not. Valentine is actually the voice of reason. She's a bridge between the brittle, high-strung world of the actress who, while skilled, also traded heavily on her sexuality—and the girl who's poised to be her replacement, Jo-Ann (played with convincing cruelty by Chloe Grace Moretz).

The premise is that Maria's first role was as this vicious sociopath, Sigrid, who manipulates an older woman, Helena, grows tired of her and abandons her (to suicide, apparently, though this becomes a bone of contention later on). Now, it's 20-25 years later—and the movie is ambiguous here because Binoche is comfortably over 30 years past the 18-year-old she was supposed to have been—and a new director wants to take the play on and have Maria play the Helena.

Because, as he says, Sigrid and Helena are the same woman. Well, Maria completely rejects this. And the ensuing struggle is why I love this film.

But, it is about actors, and process, and art, and I know how some of y'all feel about that.

Basically, Maria identifies with the horrible, horrible Sigrid. She identifies so strongly with her, she can't identify with Helena, her victim. At the same time, Helena is at heart just an older version of Sigrid.

I can't emphasize enough how awful a play this would be to actually watch. But as a metaphor for an actress trying to come to grips with her self-identity? It works well.

Stewart and Binoche have a compelling chemistry, and it's hard not to sympathize with the level-headed Valentine as she tries to help Maria navigate the new world of Internet fame, to understand that, yes, even Big Budget Superhero/Sci-Fi flicks can have emotional depth, and to possibly look beyond the understanding of "Maloja Snake" Maria seems to have evolved at the age of 18 and never advanced beyond.

The climax of the film is one of the more unusual ones I've seen. It's essentially a negative event, which I shan't describe because it would be a serious spoiler. But it's aesthetically quite pleasing. The movie practically could've ended there, but we need to see what happens to Maria, and that is very subject to interpretation.

Writer/director Olivier Assayes has created a beautiful and fascinating film that plays at a very high aesthetic level.

And, once again: Kristen Stewart plays the level-headed, grounded, rooted-in-modern-culture-but-not-lost-in-it girl who both loves Jo-Ann as an actress and has a certain disgust for her antics which are remarkably similar to Stewart's real-life antics. Just as the whole movie is an examination of the actress's meta-role, the movie itself acts as a sort of meta-commentary on the actual people playing the actresses.

Ow, I think I hurt myself with that one. But you get the idea. Obviously not for everyone but we found it compelling.

Tangerines

The last of the five films nominated for the foreign language Oscar, Tangerines has the distinction of being least liked by the critics (only a 70% RT, while the other four are in the 90%s!) and just being edged out by Wild Tales for being most popular among audiences.

Tangerines is the story of the Abkhazian War (yes, that was a thing) in the '90s, where Georgians fought the Russians for control of Abkhazia. Well, "Abkhazian separatists", which I think is pretty much like "Crimean separatists".

Any, our hero is an Estonian crate-maker named Ivo, who lives alone after his family fled back to Estonia at the beginning of the war. He's making crates for his neighbor, Margus, a tangerine farmer. Margus is fretting because his tangerines are ready for gathering, but there's no one left in the village but the two of them, and they need to fill 250 crates.

The mystery is why Ivo and Margus stayed behind, although Margus at least has the lure of a tangerine crop ready to be harvested.

A skirmish in the abandoned village leaves Ivo with two wounded soldiers, one Georgian and the other Chechen. (Chechen mercenaries fought for the Russians—this is right before the First Chechen War in 1994.) He nurses them back to health, all while they're spitting and cursing and swearing to kill the other.

But they do have a code of honor in common, so they behave themselves while recuperating under Ivo's roof.

So, what we have here, if you haven't guessed, is the classic setup for an anti-war film: As you might guess, the two learn that they don't really have the animosity for each other that the people they're fighting for have cultivated in them. But it's done well here, and it's never a bad lesson. (Even if it is a rather futile lesson.)

Well directed by a guy you've never heard of and well acted by guys you've never heard of. It's only real shortcoming is that it doesn't last long enough for the reconciliation-of-sorts between the Georgian and the Chechen to fully resonate, so it seems sort of innocent—even childlike.

But we didn't mind that, particularly. I kind of felt that the two had bonded just by virtue of being honor-bound not to kill each other, as well as a few other things.

Way more watchable than Ida or Timbuktu, and not as bleak as Leviathan. Wild Tales was more fun, of course.

I never did figure out what Estonians were doing nearly 3,000 miles away from Estonia in Abkhazia though.

Bonus points for being largely comprehensible to my one-year-of-Russian ears.

Woman In Gold

We're in one of those odd times again. Large splits between audiences and critics for not obvious reasons. At which point, you just gotta make like Mr. Goodsen and say "What the hell". In this case, we have a movie critics disdained but audiences adored. A 53%/87% split, which is worthy of a Christian-themed film.

This is the (sigh) based-on-a-true-story of Maria Altmann who sued Austria for the return of artwork stolen by the Nazis. Helen Mirren plays Altmann and, well, who can really ever get enough Helen Mirren? Ryan Reynolds is the good-guy lawyer and grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, and he's awfully good. I mean, his character, not his acting. (Not that his acting is bad. But the point is Schoenberg's a Good Guy.)

Altmann approaches Schoenberg to get him to take the case, and (of course) he becomes obsessed with this. And really, why not? It's a rather grievous injustice, and after being stonewalled by the Austrians (duh), Schoenberg discovers their deception. Which, of course, they deny, and cling to the painting which they claim has become part of Austrian consciousness.

She's the "Woman in Gold" by the way because "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" kind of gives the game away vis-a-vis the semitic nature of the subject.

Anyway, we get legal wranglings, loopholes, and goddamned American Justice—which more surprisingly is followed by genuine Austrian justice. Interspersed with this are flashbacks of Altmann's story, which help give the painting its meaning.

And, can we be honest? This is an awful painting. Just gaudiness heaped on poor technique.

I kid. I wouldn't judge a painting without seeing it in person. (Whatever it is that makes artworks great does not survive electronic reproduction.)

Anyway, it's a decent enough survival story and a decent enough story of justice, we both thought, allowing for some personal prejudice because it's the sort of story we like. (The Boy, in particular, has a fondness for justice being achieved through clever application of the law, as in Amazing Grace.)

Now, if you haven't seen it, you might want to stop reading, because there was one aspect of the movie I thought totally catastrophic, and nearly ruined the film for me. I haven't seen anyone else mention it, so it could just be a Blake thing. But if I call your attention to it, you might not be able to watch the film without being distracted. So go see it first.

I'll put the thing that drove me nuts in the comments.


Child 44

It was easy to figure out why the critics would hate Child 44, what with its depiction of life in the USSR under Stalin.

Spoilers: Life under Stalin wasn't great.

In fact, Child 44 shows us starvation, orphans, war, summary executions of parents in front of their children, torture, rampant politics, rampant abuse of power, extortion of homosexuals, and perhaps worst of all McCarthyism (heh). Not the sort of namby-pamby McCarthyism that McCarthy practiced, either: The kind of McCarthyism that was both trumped up and resulted in fatalities.

But while audiences liked it twice as much as critics, they still didn't like it that much, and that's a more interesting question. With just over 50% on RT, The Boy was disinclined to see it, but my curiosity was piqued.

The story is roughly based on that of Citizen X, the child serial killer that could not possibly exist in the Worker's Paradise (and so ran amok for years, racking up dozens of kills). Tom Hardy plays Leo, a cop, though the police here are just an extension of the Party apparatus, and they do a lot more exterminating "traitors" than they do solving crime.

When his godson is murdered, it falls to him to tell the child's family that he was hit by a train. (Because, as noted, murder is impossible.) While this is going on, he's given the task of investigating his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace, looking exotic, as usual), and her potential treason. When it's made clear that his choice is to throw her to the wolves or suffer serious consequences—well, of course he doesn't throw her to the wolves, and they end up shipped off to Volsk.

Now, one of the really good parts of this movie is the relationship between Leo and Raisa. It is not at all what it seems, but it's the logical consequence of life in a police state, even if poor dumb Leo doesn't understand those consequences at first.

Leo himself is an interesting character. He goes from being a starving Ukrainian orphan to tool-of-the-state with just a brief step in-between for "war hero".

In Volsk, the more traditional mystery aspects of the story heat up, as it turns out children have been murdered in Volsk, too—in fact, all up and down the rail line. Leo's new boss, General Mikhail (Gary Oldman), is paranoid and uninterested at first, but ultimately is won over. Soon they're all taking risks to try to solve the mystery even as the State appears at every corner to crush them.

There's a lot of unpleasantness along the way, and I can see that turning people off. And it's not flawless: There are a lot of threads here, and it takes a good 30 minutes or so for Swedish (!) director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) to pull those threads taut.

The only other person I know who saw it liked it but was less than thrilled. He didn't care for Tom Hardy's performance which he described as "being Marlon Brando for 2 hours". Also, some of the actors spoke with Russian accents, and some with British, which bugged him. (I don't even notice that sort of thing, really.)

I thought the action scenes were hit-and-miss, but they usually are. And I thought the ending was too neat to be plausible—but this is the first book in a series, and if the ending had been realistic (everyone gets a bullet to the head!) that would both be really depressing and rule out sequels.

So, we liked, but not for everyone. Certainly not for anyone who wants to maintain the illusion that life in the USSR was on a par with life in the US.

Bonus points for self-waterboarding.

Monday, April 27, 2015

1915

One of the least well-kept world secrets is the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. It seems to be only a secret to world leaders, although the Pope recently acknowledged it, this being the 100th anniversary, and the Turks responded by recalling their ambassador to the Vatican.

So, yeah, they're probably trying to avoid being known as the ones who gave Hitler all his Swell Ideas™. The blame for the intellectual underpinning should probably go to Ernst Rüdin, but the Turks were an important example of a genocide that had gone well for the genocidal. Well, with some caveats that would become the inspiring force behind the word "genocide".

Which brings us to this odd little film, 1915. This is the story of Simon (played by Simon Akbarian, whom we just saw in Gett), a playwright/theater owner who is coming out a seven-year retirement with his wife, Angela (Angela Sarafyan, Marion Cotillard's sick sister in last years The Immigrant) to put on a play about the genocide that is being protested by both Turks and Armenians.

The Turks, we've already covered. Why the Armenians? Well, at the end of his play, Angela abandons her mother and child to run off with a Turkish colonel, and the Armenians aren't happy about that.

Meanwhile, Simon and Angela have their own tragedy, which they're using the play to work through. Simon's got some Method/hypnosis thing he's running on Angela, where she becomes the person she's playing from 100 years. And this sort of goofy device is a way to get her character to face up to what happened in 1915, and the modern day Angela to face up to her own tragedy.

We also got a possibly haunted theater that's on the ropes financially, mysterious threatening phone calls, and a transvestite reporter wandering around asking questions.

This is a movie that takes a lot of chances, and they don't all pay off. The haunted thing doesn't go anywhere. The threatening phone calls are pretty irrelevant. I didn't get the whole thing with the brother and the reporter. The theater being on the ropes financially was all right if unnecssary. The attempt at magical realism isn't entirely successful, nor is the mapping between the personal tragedy and the genocide.

And yet. The main thrust of the story ("You have to acknowledge the past to move forward") ultimately does work. The Boy, while liking this, sort of missed the point: He thought the Big Reveal was the uncovering of the Angela's mystery which, since we both saw it coming about 15 minutes into the movie, wasn't really a big reveal.

I liked it more because, at the climax of the movie, I saw the point not as revealing things we all know happened, but admitting that we survive today because people in the past chose to survive, even if we look back disdainfully on the context of those choices. (This is a similar sentiment to what we see in The Last of the Unjust.)

We do that a lot: We scorn our ancestors as if our life choices were so much harder and we navigate them so much better.

Very low budget but with some nice camerawork, especially inside the Los Angeles Theater, where most of the action takes place. The small cast is rounded out by Jim Piddock (A Mighty Wind), Sam Page (lots of popular TV shows like "Mad Men" and "Gossip Girl"), Debra Cristofferson (whom I remember best as one of Nathan Lane and Lee Evans' dates in Mousehunt, but she's been a ton of stuff), young Sunny Suljic (a Bosnian actor!), and the lovely Courtney Halverson.

Creepy brother is played by Nikolai Kinski who, as creepy as he is, is only a fraction as creepy as his dad. Thank God.

Anyway, game effort. Some of the rough spots may be off-putting but I ultimately found it moving and effective.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

While We're Young

One thing is for sure: Critics love them some Noah Baumbach. Especially, it seems, since The Squid and The Whale, his semi-auto-biographical tale of kids who react badly to their parents' divorce. What is less certain, however, is whether Generation X will age more gracefully than the Boomers did.

I don't know that this genre started in 1980 with the Bruce Dern/Ann-Margaret starrer Middle Age Crazy (co-written by Jerry Lee Lewis!). Certainly earlier films showed the ravages of middle age, including my beloved Heaven Can Wait, when Gene Tierney tells the roguish Don Ameche that she no longer worries about his dalliances, since he's spread out into middle age. And it seems like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and even John Wayne were always suffering some sort of indignity due to age.

But these were not movies about middle age. They were about life, and aging as part of that. It wasn't an "oh, my God, we've lost our youth" thing. But it turns out that Don Ameche's Henry Van Cleve was charming precisely because he was such an oddity: A silly, unserious person who could get away with it due to fortunate circumstances and considerable charm.

We're all Henry Van Cleve now (sans the charm). We're not serious. We don't settle down. A shocking number of us don't even work. And this is why you can't remake Heaven Can Wait, but you can make movies like Middle Age Crazy, where old age is seen as a personal insult.

And it's a peculiarity of the modern coming-of-middle-age film that many of the tropes that used to be reserved for movies about young people are revisited. Which brings us to While We're Young.

In this movie, Ben Stiller (Josh) and Naomi Watts (Cornelia) are a 44 and 43-years-old (respectively) childless couple living in Manhattan. He makes documentaries—he's been working on one for ten years—while she produces documentaries for her father (played by Charles Grodin). Their friends have just had a baby, and this causes some distance between the pair, as babies are fairly time-consuming.

What a thing to find out in your 40s, right?

They end up falling in without a young married couple, Jamie (played by Adam Driver of Tracks, Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis, This Is Where I Leave You—I'm putting all these credits in for Driver because I did not "know" him despite his distinctive looks) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). He's a cocky Millennial hipster who makes silly little semi-improvised "documentaries", and she's a sweet maker of artisanal ice cream.

And so begins the fish-out-of-water/old-person-out-of-touch experiences as Josh and Cornelia try to navigate the youthful world of hip-hop, fedoras and street foods. Which they do pretty well, actually. Some of Baumbach's cleverest stuff is in the contrast between the old and young: Where our Gen Xers embrace iTunes, Netflix and all the conveniences of the digital age, Gen Y has LPs, VHS tapes, and ironic consumption of '70s, '80s and even early '90s culture. (Their experiments with trying to co-opt the casual vulgarity of the younger couple are not so successful. The language is unusually salty for a film of this genre.)

As entranced as they are by the vitality of the young couple, the Josh and Cornelia reveal their foolishness by never looking past the surface. Instead of seeing what Darby and Jamie really are, they see themselves 20 years ago. They don't see Darby's longing to be treated better by Jamie; that the bad language is not all fun-and-games, for example. They live with Tipper (yes, Tipper! and doubtless named after that Tipper), who acts as Jamie's sound girl, but whose relationship with Jamie seems a little murky, but Josh and Cornelia are "cool" about it.

The willful blindness leaves them open for Jamie's predations.

Which, frankly, aren't that bad. A lot of times, these movies get really, really gross. Jamie is a hipster douchebag, manipulative and hypocritical, and the movie rather touchingly (and convincingly) posits that his worst crime is convincing Josh that he's genuine.

The prime problem here—and one suspects a certain degree of autobiography—is a kind of creative block that Josh has, one borne of integrity and a commitment to quality, but also in no small part due to pride and stubbornness. Cornelia suffers from this directly—in her case, finding out too late, like so many Gen Xers, that the biological clock is real and remorseless—as does their marriage as a whole.

Baumbach refuses to condemn anyone, and dodges or handles artfully the most common tropes of this genre, but there's no getting around the fact that neither Josh nor Jamie, our main characters, are particularly likable. Josh grows on us and becomes more sympathetic by the end and, after a fashion, the movie petitions for sympathy for Jamie as well. But by that point, you're an hour-and-a-half into a 97 minute movie.

It's not bad. It's not great. I liked it better than Squid or Baumbach's recent Frances Ha. The Boy tended to occur. Maybe extra points for managing a typically icky subject fairly well, though.

Bonus appearance by renowned sex offender Peter Yarrow as the weird and unpleasant guy who Josh interviews for endless hours to make his documentary.