Monday, June 27, 2011

Submarine

If you've seen the trailer or poster for the Brit flick Submarine, you're probably thought "Wow, they discovered a rejuvenation serum and wasted it on Bud Cort."

Well, okay, that made me chuckle, but unless you remember Hal Ashby's cult classic Harold and Maude—ok, look, I'm not gonna apologize. You know what kind of blog this is. Deal with it.

Anyway, eerie resemblances notwithstanding, Submarine is the story of a nebbishy, pale kid named Oliver who manages to score a girl he's been longing for and figures he's got something of a chance with because she's also kind of pale and nebbishy.

Oliver's an oddball who monitors his parents' sexual activity (by checking the dimmer switch, you pervs) and suffers considerable anxiety that they'll split, which is only compounded when a smarmy aura-reading motivational speaker moves in next door and puts the moves on mom.

So, we watch as Oliver manages his first adult relationship with Jordana (who is complex and has worse problems than his) and struggle to keep his parents together. This is occasionally funny, and warmer than the rather sterile trailer suggests, but it's pretty heavy overall. It's a little over an hour-and-a-half, but just slightly too long, with the denouement dragging out a hair.

The acting is superb, of course. It's British, after all. Craig Roberts (late of Jane Eyre) and Jasmin Page are more than credible as the—well, they don't drive, and they could convincingly be middle schoolers, but I think they're meant to be 15 or so. (In real life, they were both 19.) Noah Taylor (who played Mr. Bucket in the Burton Wonka) and the very English-y cute Sally Hawkins (also of Jane Eyre and Never Let Me Go) are odd without being ostentatious. Paddy Considine is great as the smarmy motivational speaker.

This movie is conspicuous in its a-temporality. It never says what the year is. While this is a deliberate choice, it sort of draws attention to itself: There are no cell phones, computers, CDs, and the music is original so that you can't pin it to any specific time (other than, well, 2010, because that's the year the movie was made); but there are video tapes, and Considine has a distinctly late '70s/early '80s vibe, with his disco van and track suit. Noah Taylor, who slumps through the movie with a wild mop and beard, which would fit that period.

Meanwhile, Crocodile Dundee is in the theaters (1986/1987) and the book the movie is based on is set in 1997/1998, I think.

So. The director (Richard Ayoade, best known here for, I guess, "The Mighty Boosh" series on Adult Swim?) didn't want a time and ends up making the whole thing feel old.

The Boy and I liked it, though neither of us were overwhelmed. This is in that broad "slice of life" category which suffers a bit from being, maybe, too real. High drama is eschewed for the prosaic, the banal, the ever day. Oliver is, by turns, amusing, jerky, shallow, noble (in spirit), cowardly, possessive. Sympathetic, often, but not always likable.

I'm still a sucker for "flawed character overcomes all to make heroic stand"-type movies, but I can't fault this movie for not being that, since it never presents itself that way. Oliver is just a very human character, with features and flaws like any other. There is, at least, some dramatic arc if no particularly heroic one.

Which is, like, cool, man. If that sort of thing is your bag. If not, well, it's also relatively short.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Trip

So, Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden take a trip and they make a movie out of it.

Wait, who and who do what and why?

If you're like me (and I know I am), you barely know who Steve Coogan is and have no clue at all about Bryden. Well, if you're like me five years ago, anyway, when Steve Coogan teamed up with Michael Winterbottom to make Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story. And, really, if you've seen that movie, you've practically seen this one, too, even though the stories are completely different.

I liked Shandy, but I wouldn't recommend it for most Americans. It's extremely British and extremely focused on the art and business of cinema. On top of that, it's roughly based on the very fractured narrative of Tristram Shandy, upon which they laid the narrative of Coogan—a vain, self-important actor who feels the world hasn't rewarded his talent appropriately. (Who manages, both because and despite, to be endearing in his frailties.)

I had a hard time interesting my British somewhat successful actress friend in it, you know?

The Trip is a similar movie, smaller scale, primarily involving Coogan and Bryden travelling into northern England doing restaurant reviews for a British magazine. The set-up is that Coogan arranged the jaunt to get cozier with his American girlfriend (Margo Stilley) but she bails on him beforehand and Bryden is at the bottom of a long list of people who refused to go with him.

So, we have a buddy/road movie, where the buddies aren't very buddy-buddy, and since it's England, there's actually not all that much road.

Bryden and Coogan have a tension: Coogan wants to be appreciated for his greatness, and he's genuinely unhappy for not receiving this appreciation. Bryden, on the other hand, is quite happy with his modest success which is vaguely galling for Coogan—but worse, seems to be able to compete (and beat) Coogan in the little competitions they have.

The comedy largely comes from the form these competitions take: primarily impressions of Michael Caine,  Richard Burton, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro—and mostly Michael Caine. Also, while Bryden pines over his wife (they have goofy phone sex), Coogan beds a series of different women while trying to win back his girlfriend and connect with his son.

The dramatic tension, in a big way, comes from the fact that Coogan is 45. He had a huge success in his late 20s that never materialized into the kind of success he wanted as a serious actor (he's jealous of Michael Sheen), he's divorced and his girlfriend has moved back to America, and he's being offered a 7-year gig in California for an HBO show—possibly the "big break" he's always wanted.

The characterization is developed through little vignettes, such as Bryden asking whether Coogan would trade his children's health for his own success. Of course not, right? But then, Bryden phrases it more as, "Would you, for a best actor Oscar, allow your child to suffer a minor, temporary illness?" As the old saw goes, "Now, we're just haggling on price."

Of course, for all his flaws, Coogan comes off rather endearing. He has a self-awareness that makes the movie possible, and at the same time isn't used to mitigate or flinch from said flaws.

Once again, I liked it. But I wouldn't recommend it to many people. The Boy enjoyed parts but felt it went on too long—at the same time he missed bunches of the references and has little awareness of British culture. There is a dramatic arc to the film, but it's very low key.

Also, this is a middle-aged man movie made by middle-aged men. So, you know. Not exactly the target audience.

Acclaimed director Michael Winterbottom reminds of a sort of British Christopher Guest, in the sense that this feels a bit like a mockumentary in the vein of A Mighty Wind or Best In Show, with lots and lots of improvised footage being shot and then edited. Except Winterbottom is way more serious, doesn't cut nearly as much away, and got his start with the pornographic 9 Songs (featuring the same Ms. Stilley).

You probably know, sight-unseen, whether this is your sort of movie. But if you're a bit of an anglophile, a bit of a cinema geek, and not looking for an adrenaline-fueled high-octane rush, you might enjoy this for an hour-and-a-half.

X-Men: First Class

We just can't get enough of the superhero movie thing, can we? Well, yeah, I guess we can. I'm getting spandex fatigue, I swear, which is bad for even good superhero movies, like this one.

X-Men: First Class is the story of how Professor X comes to set up his school for exceptional children and Magneto becomes an anti-human villain. The movie starts with a fleshed out version of the scene shown in the first X-Men movie (from eleven years ago) with the future Magneto being torn away from his parents at a Nazi concentration camp. Then it flips to, I dunno, Westchester County or someplace in New York, I think, where Professor X finds a naked, underage Mystique in his kitchen.

The Boy and The Flower had trouble with telling young Magneto and Prof X apart, which caused some confusion early on. I would have, too, actually, but I had a clearer view of the narrative going in.

Professor X grows up to be James McAvoy and Magneto grows up to be Michael Fassbender, so there's no shortage of acting in this movie. Naked child Mystique grows up to be Jennifer Lawrence, who is mostly clothed throughout the rest of the movie—unlike previous Mystique, Rebecca Romijn, who remains the only actress in modern movie history who actually looks sexier than the comic book character she's based on.

Also, unlike Rebecca Romijn, Lawrence's features don't seem to translate all that well to being blue. Which is actually nothing compared to January Jones' Emma Frost, who looks positively homely somehow. Maybe it's just me, though. People seem to like her on that Angry Man show. Er, "Mad Men".

But this is getting lost in the weeds. Lawrence is a fine actress who does a fine job.

Also doing a typically fine job is Kevin Bacon, as the Nazi torturer/mutating mad scientist bent on destruction of the non-mutant world.

The backdrop is the Cuban Missile Crisis, as X and Mag rush to create a group of mutants to defeat Bacon's mutants and prevent the world from being destroyed by World War III. (Memo to self: Tell kids that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved without mutant help, most likely.)

This allows the costume department to dress up the girls in cute mod outfits, and for McAvoy to say "Mutations are groovy, baby" (or something similar) when trying to pick up chicks. It also caused a twinge for me, as the film featured Citroëns like the kind my dad had when I was a kid. (He actually offered me one of them when I hit sixteen but they were really old and my mom nixed that idea.)


Good acting all around, even in the smaller parts (including Rose Byrne of Bridesmaids and Insidious) and even bit parts, which feature Oliver Platt, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside, James Remar—just tough to complain.

The actual action is occasionally muddled, especially in the two big fight scenes, which really didn't grab me much. Director Matthew Vaughn did better with the more mundane fighting his last effort Kick Ass. Though it's only decent to point out Vaughn's 4-for-4, with his other two movies being the entertaining and very different Layer Cake and Stardust.

It didn't really thrill me, though. All of us walked out with the same approximate attitude: Fun, entertaining, but a little long, and not really knock-your-socks-off great. Which, come to think of it, is how I felt after Vaughn's other three films: Pleased. Warm, even. But not excited.

Might be the director or might just be comic book fatigue, as mentioned earlier.

In any case, I would recommend it if you're not adverse to comic book movies, or not feeling over-saturated with them.

Insidious

What do you get when you mix Paranormal Activity with Saw? A subtle, spooky ghost story where everyone falls into a wood chipper at the end!

No, actually, you get Insidious, which The Boy pronounces "a really good horror movie" after pointing out that most horror movies suck. I reminded him of Sturgeon's Law but I think he figures horror movies beat the average for suckiness. (I can't argue, and they were way worse when I was his age.)

This is a marvel of a film, really. It combines the chills and tension of the Paranormal movies with the grit and suspense of Saw—and it's PG-13. It's also gore-free, which tells you something about the PG-13. The Boy has a bit of an aversion to PG-13 as a rating (but I don't really check).

I'm not going to talk about the story because there are some nice twists you don't usually see.

Patrick Wilson (Watchmen, Hard Candy) plays the feckless dad, Rose Byrne the mom. (We've seen Byrne three times in the past two weeks, with the other two being Bridesmaids and X-Men: First Class.) Barbara Hershey, who's had her own problems with the supernatural in the past (i.e., repeatedly raped by a ghost in The Entity) looks both remarkably well-preserved and slightly odd in a way that to me detracted from her actual acting.

Fundamentally, this is an "old, dark house" movie, a lower-budget and much lower key Poltergeist. The effects (not special effects, just horror effects) build quickly and keep coming, with only a few clunky points. A few conventions are subverted and the audience—a typical summer horror movie audience full of obnoxious teens—was a little more shrieky and even subdued at (a few) moments than with your average horror.

Where the movie is weakest is in the dialog about what exactly is going on. As cheesy as Poltergeist was, it dealt in familiar terms of lost souls and the afterlife—though it did substitute cheesy pseudo-science for religion (as does Insidious). This movie deals in terms of astral projection, which is okay, but refuses to say "Hell" when it clearly means Hell.

The actual main boogen is weak, too, though it's really only on screen for a few frames, it bears a remarkable resemblance to a villain in a late vintage science-fiction franchise.

Overall, a very successful outing made for a paltry $1.5M, which says something about something.

This hits the sweet spot for audience appeal, too, I'd say: If you like the Paranormal and Saw franchises, you'll like this. If you liked Saw but not Paranormal, you'll probably like this (unless you were just there for the torture). If you like Paranormal but not Saw, I'd say it's almost certain you'll like this.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Everybody Was Kung-Fu Panda 2 Fighting

The Boy and I spend his birthday together every year (since he was two, in fact), and that traditionally involves seeing a movie. There wasn't much out—he's tepid on the PG-13 action flicks, meaning X-Men: First Class was out of the question—but we hadn't seen Kung Fu Panda 2 and, hey, popcorn is popcorn so off we went.

It sort of reminds me of The Hangover 2, in the sense that it's virtually a remake rather than a sequel. Po, the titular panda, starts out with some skills and gets to go crime-fighting with his buddies, but once again he must face a challenge that requires a new level of Kung Fu. So, now he's struggling less with basic competency and more with hyper-competency mixed with the sort of basic competency that allows him still to be a comical character.

And ya know what? The inevitable sequel will be exactly the same.

They set up Kung Fu Panda 3. It's an inevitability. I mean, they've done this since Back to the Future. A movie's a big success, so they shoot two sequels back-to-back. Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek—though, with Shrek they swore their story arc would require five movies, I think they still only planned the first two sequels after the first was a hit—and on and on. Doing two movies together reduces production costs, too, I believe, which offsets the diminishing box office for the third sequel (which is almost, but not always, certain).

Anyway, it pissed The Flower off. She likes her movies to end, dammit.

So, you probably want to know a little bit more about the actual movie. This film revolves around Po's struggle to find his real origin. Kind of a bummer, actually, since one of my favorite parts of the first was that the obvious silliness of a panda having a goose for a father—a joke lampshaded when his father reveals the deep, dark secret of the noodle sauce.

But I suppose they couldn't leave it like that. (Although, I swear, it wasn't that uncommon when I was a kid for a cartoon to mix animal type families with utter disregard for genetics. I mean, it's not that big a deal when you start by having talking, anthropomorphized animals, right? These days, only Spongebob Squarepants does it, that I know of, and Mr. Krabs' great whale daughter's mother is unknown.)

Anyway, the origin issue provides Po with the distraction he needs to be unable to defeat the villain, voiced this time by the incomparable Gary Oldman, who is a less bombastic villain than the first, though his plot is maybe more convincing.

The cast, by the way, is otherwise identical, except for stunt-casting Jean Claude Van Damme, Michelle Yeoh and a couple other dudes as kung fu masters. There seems to be a lot less of everyone, though. Not sure if it's because there are so many people on-screen or the demand for action crowded out a lot of dialogue but character development is light. (There's a little more depth to Angelina Jolie's tiger, though.)

Ultimately, it all works, if not as well as the first one, nearly as well. It moves quickly—a little too quickly in some cases, with the first action scene being a little, eh, chop suey—has plenty of laughs, and it's almost too beautiful to look at.

The Boy and The Flower (who had already seen it) both liked it, but neither was particularly blown away.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Hangover, Part Deux

In the least-surprising-sequel category, a sequel 2009's blockbuster hit The Hangover finishes only slightly behind the eighth Harry Potter movie.  A comedy doesn't make half-a-billion dollars these days without a sequel. The Hangover, Part II is a sequel like Escape from L.A. is a sequel: That is to say, almost a remake.

I thought the first was over-rated. I enjoyed it, but it's not on my list of greatest comedies. (It was in my top 45 movies for 2009.) This movie looks to be under-rated. Again, I enjoyed it, but it's not actually going to be on my list of greatest comedies. (And it'll probably make the top 45 cut for 2011.)

You can read an Ace of Spades mega-review here. I have a lot less to say. I had about the same sporadic chuckling throughout this as the last one. I enjoy Ed Helms' character and performance tremendously, and he's got quite a niche as a sort of nerd-plus (see Cedar Rapids). He takes center stage from the too-cool Bradley Cooper and the mostly-idiot-but-savant-when-the-plot-requires Zach Gallafianikis. Newcomer Mason Lee has a small but pivotal role in the story which makes it a little "nicer".

The chemistry seems better this time. Characters recur from the original, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a gimmicky way.

It is more vulgar, darker and has a hint of ominousness to it not in the original. Also: a monkey.

What I'm gathering is that people who loved the original were somewhat disappointed by this. If you just liked the original, you'll probably just like this, too.

In any event, you know if you want to see this based on how you felt about the original. (I guess you'd miss out a bit if you haven't seen the original first, but not that much.)

The Boy was not displeased.

If I had a gripe, it's probably that this movie was called "Part II". As if the first left so many unanswered questions, they had to give us closure. It's not a "Part II" guys. It's not even a "II". It's just a "2". Deal.

Conversations From The Living Room, Part 33: Lady Gaga Need Not Apply

Me: I'm just the way God made me!
The Barb: God made you like that?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bridesmaids: A Non-Tragic Chick Flick

Ace of Spades has one of his shorter mega-reviews up for this comedy Bridesmaids in which his first argument is that it's not a chick-flick, but is deceptively marketed as one. I'm going to disagree, but using the official Bit Malestrom definition of a chick flick:
A chick flick is a movie about women who treat each other badly, until one gets fatally ill and they all rally around her in her final days.
Don't talk to me about Romantic Comedies. Those are not traditionally chick flicks, and eventually they're gonna stop letting Nora Ephron make them, and the general audiences can claim them back.

The thing is, in recent years, most chick flicks seem to be tragedies, hence the getting sick and dying part. But it doesn't have to be that way. A Chick Flick can be a comedy, as this one is, we just don't see them very often. And, as this movie proves, Chick Flicks can be enjoyed by men, too. (And I know a lot of guys who will admit—in private—that they loved Steel Magnolias.)

But this movie is very chicky. Ace is definitely right, though, that it's not a genial slice-of-life movie about wacky things that happen leading up to a wedding. Rather it's a comedy about how two women who view themselves as rivals for the affection of another (woman) savage each other while smiling the whole time.

So, you know: true life.

The story begins with Wiig being really down. Her business went bankrupt, taking all her money with it. Her boyfriend checked out at the same time. She lives a with a creepy set of Brit siblings in a small apartment. She drives her crappy car to her crappy job at a jewelry store, which she does crappily because she's bitter about love and life. She doesn't have a boyfriend, just a guy who uses her for (apparently bad) sex that she tries really hard to impress and wheedle her way to real girlfriend status with.

Then her best friend, played by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged.

She gets engaged to a rich guy whose boss is really rich, and his gorgeous socialite wife, Jessica St. ClairRose Byrne, latches on to Rudolph like a leech. This movie is basically Wiig crashing on the rocks of her feelings of inadequacy and actual inadequacy compared to St. ClairByrne.

Rounding out the cast are "Reno 911"'s Wendy McLendon-Covey as the disenchanted married-with-boys one, "The Office"'s Ellie Kemper as the bubbly newlywed-virgin one and "Mike and Molly"'s Melissa McCarthy as the butch might-be-lesbian-except-she's-also?-after-the-guys one.

What you might notice, first, is that there's no hot one. Particularly, the lead isn't being played by Jessica Alba or Jessica Biel or Jessica LangeChastain. Jessica St. ClairrRose Byrne is good-looking but she's more the sort of beauty that women are jealous of than men lust after, I think.

The next thing you might notice is that, with the exception of McCarthy, these are all comediennes. McCarthy is hilarious in this and a great actress, but I don't think she has the sketch comedy background the others have. (And she does a cute bit with her real life husband, whom she's convinced is an Air Marshall in the movie.)

What I'm getting at was that it felt like there was no stunt casting. No casting because someone said "We gotta get the 18-25 male demo." Some material apparently came from the cast hanging out and doing improv, which gave a more natural feel to things.

These ladies set out to make a funny movie, their femininity presumably essential to their characters, but not going to stand in the way of a good laugh. And there are some good laughs. I think one essential element of this movies' femininity was the closer attention to character development than you might get in a similar guy flick (like I Love You, Man) while avoiding the trap (for a comedy) of letting sentimentality overpower humor.

There's a scene involving a cake and a raccoon which exemplifies this.

The men are virtually incidental. We don't see the fiancée hardly at all. Wiig's F-Buddy is generic. Even her love interest, Chris O'Dowd (remember Pirate Radio?) is virtually a prop around which Wiig's character has to evolve.

In other words, the men in this movie are like the women in more male-oriented buddy flicks.

We laughed all the way through, with The Boy approving strongly. He feels comedies tend to spread the laughs too thin in the late second act.

My main concern going in was, as much as I enjoy Wiig, I was concerned I was going to be seeing two full hours of social awkwardness. Sort of like a female Larry David. (I have a hard time sitting through "Curb Your Enthusiasm".) But Wiig has a very winning way about her; she doesn't alienate you. Even though she's bound to lose throughout most of the movie, she does have her moments; It doesn't feel like the writers are being gratuitously cruel.

So, generally recommended.

Also featuring Jill Clayburgh in her last film role.

WARNING: There is a hardcore gross-out scene as bad as any you've seen in a guy movie. So beware.

Finally! Mel Gibson in Jodie Foster's Beaver!

Now with the obvious joke out the way, we can take a serious look at a movie about a man who is down on his luck, and is subsequently rescued by a hand puppet of a Beaver.

No, really, it's a serious movie. Damn serious.

Mel Gibson is a man in a serious funk. He sleepwalks through his work day at the toy company his father left him (which is tanking). He's uninterested in his wife, Jodie Foster (stop snarking). His teen son (Anton Yelchin of Star Trek) keeps a record of the ways in which he's like his father, so that he can stop being that way. He can't even muster a smile for his younger son.

Out of desperation, his wife kicks him out of the house, and he picks up a whole bunch of booze—and the eponymous beaver, fished out of a dumpster—and crashes in a hotel where he drinks himself silly, then tries to kill himself and fails. Only to be woken by the beaver puppet, who starts ordering him around.

The Beaver narrates, by the way.

This works better than one might think. Foster (directing) keeps a light touch for as long as she possibly can, given the heaviness of the subject, and she's very careful about juxtaposing the puppet and Gibson during the dialogue.

She's probably not going to get the credit she deserves, really. The audience laughs at the right parts and not at the wrong ones, and stays away from any kind of heavy-handed approach, really just focusing on how crazy folks cope.

Do I need to say the acting is good? It's arguably the best stuff Gibson's ever done. He and Foster have a genuine chemistry, that your heart goes out to her as she's trying to figure out how to save the man she loves. Yelchin is very good, too, being in that Jesse Eisenberg/Michael Cera mold without the wimpiness of the latter and the bitterness of the former. The little brother (Riley Thomas Stewart) also did a fine job.

Jennifer Lawrence shows up as Yelchin's girlfriend, who has troubles of her own. You may remember her from Winter's Bone, and as my pic for last year's Best Actress Oscar. I liked her but it seemed like her scenes with Yelchin detracted from the film's intensity.

This was probably deliberate. This movie isn't trying to be allegorical. At one point, it looks like Gibson and his crazy puppet are going to become media sensations, offering an almost What About Bob? approach to life.

But besides not being a comedy, the movie doesn't try to be neat. There is fallout from the crazy—serious fallout. And we see the crazy hurting lots of people in lots of different ways: If they had tied everything up in a neat bow, turned Gibson into a kind of crazy savant, it would have cheapened the whole story.

At the same time, it's not quite great. Solid. Memorable. Great performances. Respectful.

And short. Foster doesn't wallow in it. She tells her story—in 90 minutes—and gets out. The movie is much the better for it.

Obviously not for everyone. The Boy enjoyed it, but he classed it as one of those movies that looks like it might be really funny, but is really serious instead. (Longtime readers may recall we had a spate of those throughout 2009.)

Me, I was sort of expecting a supernatural overtone, as movies about puppets are wont to speculate on the liveness thereof. There's never even a hint of that, so when the puppet does seem to defy Gibson's will, it's incredibly chilling. Also, it sounds a lot like Michael Caine to me. And that's sorta scary (since it is of course Gibson).

Not a joke of a movie.

The Incendies Conundrum

The thing about the Oscar-nominated French film Incendies is that I can't use the adjective that best describes it without giving it away totally.

Taking place in an unspecified place and time where Christian Nationalists are warring with Islamic groups, and evoking a whole lot the mid-'70s Lebanese civil war, this is the story of a woman named Nawal who dies and who leaves behind a will instructing her children to find their father and their brother, and to not give her a proper burial and headstone till they've delivered letters to them both.

Thing is, bro and sis knew of no brother and thought their father to be dead. Also, Nawal was apparently a kind of crappy mom, so bro isn't really interested in the mission.

The rest of the movie is a segment of Nawal woven in with a segment of her children trying to discover the truth.

Along the way, we see the sorts of atrocities that might make a woman off and that generally remind us, while war is Hell, war in the Middle East is a special kind of Hell. This is a brutal movie, and the brutality is as senseless as it is horrifying; You can probably tell from this whether this is the sort of movie you find worth seeing.

A lot of people who do will also find it moving. If you don't, and you see it anyway, you might just be disgusted.

For myself, I thought it was good-ish. I'd watch it and remember some good performances and not think too much more of it, but it insists on itself, as the kids are saying these days. It wants you to think about it, and it doesn't really hold up to a lot of sustained thought.

It is ridiculously contrived, which is necessary in order to get to its desired shock ending. That's not really the sort of thing that bugs me, really, but with no factual basis, it also means they worked very hard to put all this brutality on to film. It was supposed to have meaning.

Was it warranted? Well, the point of the movie is to show the horror of war and how it shapes Nawal, with the problem being that we only see the horror and not the shaping. She has a character arc but the movie doesn't really tie it to what she's experienced. She's like a little piece of flotsam floating upon the tides.

And then they choose not to show certain violence that would seem to be central to her character development. I mean, they put us through some crap early on, and it's almost like they ran out of heart in the third act. We also don't ever see the direct after-effect, so Nawal jumps from situation to situation in what (to the viewer) seems almost random.

Like I said, I thought it was good, but I don't think it warrants thinking on too hard. It feels like there was an agenda overpowering the story. I liked the Oscar-winner much better, where the story seemed to complicate any attempt at simple messaging.

Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Familiar Tides

The latest installment of the greatest movie series ever to be based on an amusement park ride has recently launched to tepid-to-negative reviews.

It's like these people haven't seen any of the earlier Pirates movies.

I have, fortunately, so when The Flower said she wanted to see it, I was not especially surprised at all by the content found therein. I was largely pleased, in fact, that they'd dialed it back a few notches from the previous two movies excesses.

I love Gore Verbinski's way of making a lot of movie out of a little material, but he also can make way too much movie, flogging the crap out of the material. Rob Marshall helms this entry, somewhat inexplicably, but he does a good job at keeping the proceedings moving and fairly well grounded

The plot—does it matter?—is a race to the Fountain of Youth. The English (with Geoffrey Rush as a pseudo-reformed Barbossa, having nicely recovered from his death in the first move), the Pirates (with Ian McShane as Blackbeard himself, and Penelope Cruz as his comely daughter) and the Spanish (who act largely as a convenience for plot points and a sort of deus ex machina).

Johnny Depp, of course, is back as the mascara wearing, mincing trickster, Jack Sparrow, along with his First Mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) being the only original cast member I could spot reprising his role from the original trilogy.

You got all the expected stuff: Ships a-sail (though no ship-to-ship combat), sword fights (Sparrow has become a good swordfighter, it seems, inexplicably), swashbuckling, and general shenanigans. These are competently done and fun enough.

Good stuff you might not have expected: Depp and McNally have a sort of buddy movie thing going on. This actually works well. Gibbs is loyal without being naive, and Sparrow seems to earn the loyalty plausibly enough. (A far cry from the original's refrain of "pirate!" to excuse any and all bad behavior.)

Depp and Cruz have a pleasant sort of chemistry, which I wasn't really expecting. Cruz is sort of a mystery, part jilted lover, part schemer, part pirate—and I say this as someone who has gone through much of the past years saying "I don't get it" whenever anyone brought up Ms. Cruz. You never really get a good sense of her real backstory, because she's so willing to lie to get what she wants, in which wise she makes a perfect companion to the scurrilous Sparrow.

Bad stuff: The main criticism I've seen leveled at this is that none of it mattered. That events sort of move one to the next without any real flow. And, honestly? The Flower had insisted on eating at Denny's for breakfast which is punishing on my digestive tract. The significance of this being I missed about five to ten minutes in the middle of the movie.

And it didn't really matter.

I don't know if that's a bug so much as a feature for a summer flick. I mean, you could miss huge hunks of Star Wars and it wouldn't really matter, just for example. We don't go to these things for the tightly constructed plots—and, really, the plot in this is quite good (stolen from an unrelated pirate book, I believe). It just doesn't matter that much.

These movies are really about big name actors chewing scenery in between special effects. Nothin' wrong with that. The actors are really good and the effects are better for the restraint lacking in the previous two films.

So, I liked it. Met my expectations, even slightly exceeded them. The Flower liked it, though she wished more of the original cast had been in it. The Boy—who can be quite savage of this sort of thing—was also not displeased. None heaped praise. None heaped scorn.

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