Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Hedgehog (Le hérisson)

Ze Frenchies, zey are everywhere this year!

Well, what can I say? If you can't find a decent movie in English, you have to turn somewhere. Last year, it was Sweden. This year, France.

The Hedgehog is a neat little French film about a building full of rich people that is managed by a grumpy, frumpy concierge. Well, really, it's about the 11-year-old daughter of one of the rich families, and her countdown to killing herself on her twelfth birthday.

I know, French, right?

It's dark, obviously, but—how to put this?—childishly so. I don't mean that as an insult: Paloma is a child, maybe a future "goth" or "emo" or whatever, but her grasp of the significance of things is distinctly childish. The upshot is that you have this dichotomy of knowing that she's perfectly capable of killing herself and intent on doing it, and at the same time being amused by her thought processes. Bemusement, to use the word correctly.

The story begins with her making this decision, but the catalyst for the subsequent adventures begin with the death of one of the tenants in her building, and the appearance of a new tenant, Kakuro Ozu. This elderly Japanese fellow clearly likes Paloma, but more importantly to the story, he has an eye for the apartment's concierge.

It's helpful to realize that, apparently, the concierge of a wealthy building is rather low on the totem pole. At one point she exclaims that she's the janitor (or so the translation has it). Point is, she's way down on the social scale, expected to be a coarse woman who watches soaps all day long and to be generally unnoticed by the upper crust clientele.

Our movie concierge is a frowsy, frumpy, crotchety old woman, immediately off-putting to all who meet her, except for one little thing. When Kakuro asks about the family that lived there before and the agent (that's probably not who she is, but that's who would do that here) says they were a happy family, Renée (the concierge) says "Happy families are all alike."

To which Kakuro, naturally adds, "Every unhappy family is unhappy in it's own way."

OK, I'm not going to pretend I've read Anna Karenina, but I recognized the quote. If they'd quoted from Crime and Punishment, I'd've been all over that.

And so the movie is basically about how the two of them form an unlikely bond through a love of Russian literature. Also, how Paloma's ennui is lifted, sort of, by watching this. (She actually curses her luck of finally having something interesting happen just as she's about to end it all.)

The three principals are incredibly appealing which contributes greatly to this movie's watchability. The characters are strongly written and the acting has a certain je ne sais qua. (That's French for "I'm too lazy to come up with a better joke".) Togo Igawa projects a quiet dignity as the charming widower, and Garance Le Guillermic does the angsty pre-teen with a subtle depth that makes her likable throughout.

I mean, that's a real potential landmine: Though she's young, Paloma is much in the mold of the rebellious teenager, and lord knows they can be insufferable to watch—even when you're one yourself. My father thought The Breakfast Clubbers were a little whiny. I couldn't figure out why James Dean was pissed off all the time. It's not that they don't make good observations, it's that the observations tend to be incomplete or shallow, which makes the subsequent arrogance (to repeat myself) insufferable.

Paloma is still a child, and her mother has spent her whole life indulging her neuroses. Her older sister is monstrously self-important and self-involved. Dad is feeble and placating without being engaged. The audience's heart goes out to her, naturally, but they manage to keep empathy even when Paloma seems a little cruel.

Which happens.

Josiane Balasko, as the concierge (and the titular hedgehog), is the key to making it all work. She really makes herself unattractive. Not in that Hollywood, slap-a-pair-of-glasses-onto-Kathy-Ireland way, either. And it's not just skin deep: There's an unhappiness, a little bitterness, prickliness to it all.

Her transformation is amazing. Not her physical transformation. She does get a makeover, and it helps, but it's very understated. But when you first catch a glimpse of happiness, or warmth, or even joy on her face, it's a moving experience.

Balasko has been playing homely middle-aged women for 20 years at least, since she played Gerard Depardiu's lover in Too Beautiful For You. But some time before that, I'm pretty sure she was a French hottie, romantic-lead-with-occasional-nude-scene type.

I mention this for a couple of reasons. One, I often wax poetic on these pages about the way the French let their women age, and how I think it's far more attractive than the botoxed/tightened/implanted look of the American never-get-old style. This is a weird case of that, in that Balasko isn't an Isabelle Huppert or an Isabelle Adjani (who are peers), yet there is a respect afforded her that I can almost not imagine in an American film.

The other thing is that I can't imagine—can't think of a single American hottie in a similar career path: Used to be hot, now plays homely. Mostly they'll do anything to stave off aging. Like, say, Morgan Fairchild or Victoria Principal. I could see Nancy Allen maybe doing it, except she's aged more gracefully than either of the aforementioned.

Maybe a propos of nothing. It's a remarkable performance on its own, but seems amazing given the context.

Anyway, The Boy was once again able to overcome his loathing of all things French to enjoy this film. His main comment was something like "it got French at the end, but it didn't go full French". And this is true.

Worth seeing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Help

Spunky young wannabe journalist "Skeeter" (Emma Stone) returns to her small town in Alabama looking for some kind of entreé into the world of writershipitude, and ends up discovering a rich vein of stories by the colored help of the town's middle class families.

You know who should be crying over this?

Lindsay Lohan.

I mean, seriously: Crazy Stupid Love, Friends With Benefits, Easy A, Zombieland, this movie—a share of those probably should have gone to the Lohan, but for the whole life-is-a-trainwreck thing. She's sort of the unwritten meta-tragedy here.

And completely off-topic. The mind, it plays tricks.

This movie is, dare I say, a chick flick. And, at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it's long. It's also dangerously "socially relevant" and Baby Boomer pander-y, taking place in the early '60s.

Nigh miraculously, it all works. It wasn't till the end of the film that I realized how long it was getting and both the Boy and the Flower sat through it without complaint. The acting is all solid, the music has the right mix, and the pacing is lively.

This is one of those reviews where I don't say much about the actual events that unfold in the movie, even though you could probably take ten minutes to guess them all from a light outline. Well, most of them; there are probably a few surprises in there.

The movie does a very good job of drawing the characters and granting them their frailties. There are no "magic negros" and it's not really (as it might first seem) about the white (wo)man coming to set them free. It's also not about how bad white folk are, though there's plenty of bad behavior from them. The black women seem to less ill-behaved, but one could see this clearly as a function of not having much free time.

What I'm getting at is that it navigates the historical minefield of race relations—and more importantly, for the sake of the moviegoing audience, the cinematic minefield of portrayal of race.

If there's one perhaps politically correct oddity, it's a near complete absence of black men. Though the only white men of significance are those who interact with our intrepid journalist.

It's a chick flick. If Bridesmaids is the chick-flick-as-comedy, The Help is chick-flick-as-historical fiction.

It's actually kind of reassuring. There need to be good chick flicks.

There's Oscar scuttlebutt—fairly—and lots of talk about how the movie is racist—predictably. I've heard a lot of research went into the source book, and I tend to believe that, but there is a fair amount of wish fulfillment here, too. There wasn't such a book, as far as I know, and the movie can feel a little pat in its resolution.

But there's nothing wrong with that. It's not as extreme as, say, La Vita E Bella or Dances with Wolves, and it's a grand Hollywood tradition to give the audience an upbeat, if not exactly happy, ending. Writer/director Tate Taylor has achieved something well above par here, something worthy of recognition.

And Lindsay Lohan should be dying, watching Emma Stone take a swing at a pitch she could have had, and knock it out of the park.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rio

I couldn't get the Flower to go see Rio with me, but after it had been playing for four months, the Barb realized she hadn't had any popcorn lately and when she pressured me into taking her to see something, Rio was still playing.

For a movie that's been playing for four months, I expected better.

It's not bad. It's even good. Just not very good. Not very anything, even. The animation is good, of course, but nothing spectacular. Actually, the animation is probably the strongest part: It has a nice subtlety to it (except for an early scene where the girl's hair is blowing in the wind the way nobody's hair blows except in cartoons).

The story is pretty strong, too. A cerulean macaw is transported to Minnesota where its found by a nebbishy young girl who raises it for the next fifteen years. As an adult, a Brazilian ornithologist comes to her bookstore and says that Blu (the macaw) is almost the last of his kind, and that he needs to mate with the last female to keep the species going.

Linda, the bookish girl (Leslie Mann), is not thrilled with this idea, and neither is Blu (Jesse Eisenberg), who is just as nebbishy and domesticated as his owner. They're even less thrilled when the female macaw Jewel (Anne Hathaway) is a feral, unfriendly creature focused on escape.

The birds are immediately captured by smugglers and this leads to a kind of buddy picture with Blu and Jewel trying to find their way to freedom.

So. Cute.

But not that cute. Not in the sense of, say, Despicable Me, which was in danger of being too cute (but pulled back). It's also not that clever like, say, a Ratatouille. It has a passel of animal characters voiced by celebrities that are instantly forgettable. Even now, I know there was a fat bird and a skinny bird and a toucan, but I couldn't tell one from the other.

This movie takes stunt casting to the extreme. Eisenberg and Hathaway could've been Cera and Bynes or Mintz-Plasse and Gomez. In fact, I kind of think maybe they wanted Cera, because Eisenberg sounds like he's doing a nicer, wimpier version of the character he usually plays. Jane Lynch and Wanda Sykes are in here as a couple of geese--for one 30 second scene.

It's, like, why?


The one truly standout voice is done by Jemaine Clement of Flight of the Conchords.

Amidst the passel of forgettable characters are a few desultory musical numbers. I don't even remember how many. You're not going to be whistling tunes from this after leaving the theater. I was actually forgetting the songs as they were being sung. Which was sort of disturbing in a Memento way.

At one point, Blu has a tantrum and says he hates samba because it all sounds alike. Yeah. Well, at least in this movie?

The score by John Powell overall is actually good, though, as is the song he co-wrote with Powell and performed as the movie's villain. But it's an expository character piece that is never again referenced in the rest of the film.

You can do this sort of thing and still be very successful if you pull it out in some other fashion: Being very funny for example (nope) or having a lot of thrilling, suspenseful moments (better).

One of the things I've noticed lately is that animators will take an idea from a Pixar flick and run with it in such a way that it works on a new level. For example, the minions of Despicable Me are very reminiscent of the green alien dudes of the Toy Story series. (Their intonations, their tendency to do things en masse, etc.) But Despicable Me takes it to a higher level, imbuing the minions with individual personalities and basically providing fodder for humor whenever things threaten to get too slow or serious.

The penguins from Madagascar are—well, I can't remember where they're derived from, but I remember thinking how cliché they were at the time, but they also provide a lot of interest for an otherwise plain movie. (Though the rather original King Julian and his entourage are significant.)

This movie has a monkey crew reminiscent of the penguins, but they're bad guys. So they're not very funny and they're kind of creepy, and they don't have any personality.

There are other weird things, too. George Lopez plays a family-man toucan (I think) who uses the macaw's predicament to get out of the metaphorical house, but later on lectures to Blu on how he's going back to his family rather than enjoying Carnival.

Why? Was that something Blu needed to learn? Was Blu in danger of turning to a life of fleeting carnal pleasures? Blu can't even make it with the last female (cerulean macaw) on earth!

You put enough of these things together and it comes out like mush.

But again, the core parts (story, animation, voice acting) are all solid, just never really taking flight (ironically, wah-wah).

When I asked the Barb if she liked it, she said "Of course!" (And aren't you a moron for asking?)

"So, it was good?"
No dignifying that with a response.
"Did you have a favorite part?"
"Yes."
...
...
"Well, what was it?"
"When Blu was a baby."

OK, so she liked the first 3 minutes. And the popcorn. I dunno. You figure it out. Can't wait till she's a teenager.

Point Blank (À bout portant)

The Boy and I love suspense/thrillers. Hitchcock fans to the bitter end. And, let's face it: If a movie is a thriller, the one thing you know is that it's not going to be boring. Right? Except, of course, when it's mis-labeled melodrama. Which it often is. Especially if it's a foreign film. Especially French.

But the French can make some good potboilers and, happy to say, this movie, Point Blank, is one of them. It's a simple (Hitchcockian) premise: A nurse on duty (male nurse, it's France, remember) saves a man from an assassination attempt, and ends up being a pawn in a game of dirty cops and robbers.

The action is breakneck. The twists are twisty but not overblown. We get some character development as our hero Sam (Gilles Lelouche) must transform from a mild-mannered good guy nurse into a something a little grittier. This actually is worth a pause: He doesn't become, Police Academy-style, a complete caricature of an action hero. He barely qualifies at all, really: He just gets more desperate and it's more like we see the quality of his character (showcased early on in a normal situation, that's foreshadowing, people)  proven over the course of the adventure.

And it doesn't really let up till the end, which involves a chaotic brawl inside a police station.

Fun!

A couple of points right at the end made me wonder if they were going to get all dark and French and stuff, but they avoided that for a nice climax and satisfying denouement.

Good stuff. Not weighty or serious, but the fast, fun, quick movies (this clocks in at 84 minutes, including credits) aren't as easy to do as people think, clearly.

The Boy and I liked it. The Boy even mentioned it a couple days later as being good. And he hates the French.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sarah's Key (Elle s'appelait Sarah)

Gendarmes pound on the door of a French apartment in WWII to collect the Jews who live there, and a little girl thinks to save her brother's life by locking him in a closet. The rest of the family is taken away and the little girl desperately tries to get back, or to send someone, to fetch him.

So begins the French film, Sarah's Key, which is this story and also the story of a journalist (Kristin Scott-Thomas) who moves into that apartment with her family 60 years later, who happens to be researching the story for a magazine article.

The coincidence bugged me a bit, but then it occurred to me that with tens of thousands of Jews having been rounded up in France, it's not as huge a stretch as it first seems that there'd be a connection, even an intimate one.

Mélusine Mayance plays the eponymous Sarah, and her struggle to free her brother from the closet is suspenseful, moving, riveting and heart-breaking as Sarah's story crosses those of other children.

Julia Jarmond's story is necessarily far more low-key. She's obsessed by the story, moving into her husband's family apartment in Paris, and newly (surprisingly) pregnant with a child her husband doesn't want.

The Boy and I deconstructed it immediately: The climax is a little past the middle of the film. We find out what happens to Sarah as a child, and follow Julia as she tries to find out her fate as an adult. This doesn't have the drive of the first part of the film, and—well, it's all sort of denouement.

As I've noted, when the French aren't beating up America, they're beating up themselves, and there's a little of that here, though not as much as you might think. (Not like, say, the moving Indigenes.) But there's an undeniable triviality of modern life compared to World War II and the Holocaust. The Boy said at the end he was reminded of that scene in Crazy, Stupid Love (the giddy "It's just a divorce!" celebration).

And yet. For both of us, the movie seemed to get better and better in the ensuing hours. It's a tricky (some would say dangerous) juxtaposition, and the reviews for this movie indicate that the critics were less likely to accept it than the general audience. Maybe this is because Julia is an American and she (rightly) has a certain moral concern over the possibility her French in-laws may have acquired property from Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and American moral superiority isn't big among our elite these days.

But maybe it worked for us because we're humbled by the experience. The events of our lives are happily trivial compared to those of who came before us, thanks to their efforts. And maybe we could relate to Julia and her peers trying to find some meaning at the peril of re-prioritizing things in favor of what's important rather than what's convenient.

Excellently acted throughout, of course. Beautifully rendered in two different styles (for the flashback and the modern times). Effective, understated music. If I am jaded about Holocaust movies occasionally, this one had a different, challenging aspect to it that made it worthy of viewing.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

The inestimable @Darcysport, who's sort of become my conservative conscience as far as movie-going goes, goaded me a little bit about last week's Cowboys and Aliens comment, pointing out that Ed Morrissey liked it.

I retorted that I knew that, but I thought his whole equating the holocaust with KFC rendered his judgment questionable.

I can be obtuse that way.

Anyway, I knew Morrissey had liked it, and I don't know much about his taste in movies, but it got me thinking: What if some of the negative reviews had not been based on the actual quality of the movie per se (that's Latin for "I'm a pretentious dork") but on themes that might be regarded as right-wing, and therefore not worthy of any praise?

We have a winnah!


OK, let's say it up front. This movie is what it says on the label: Cowboys (check) and aliens (check). A mysterious stranger wanders into a town on its way to being a ghost town, and runs afoul of the cattle baron with a maniac kid, when the western clichés are interrupted by an alien attack.

And it works.

There's some stupid here, necessarily. But way less stupid than you might expect. Way less than (say) Independence Day. Allowing for the fact that any alien invasion movie is going to have to have some stupid in order for earthlings to have a chance at fighting back, this movie does a good job of setting up the seeds of the aliens' potential failure.

Director Jon Favreau does what he does best, I think: Deliver more than you expect from some thin material (see Elf). And how does he do this?

Primarily, he refuses to pad things out. Especially with summer blockbusters, you get lots of padding. Movies tend to be padding between special effects, and then the special effects are padded! (Think the Star Wars prequels.) Every scene here has a purpose: characterization, plot development and even the occasional special effect.

The effects are light in general. Favreau seems to have opted for filming real places instead of a bunch of people on a green screen, and the plot is pretty straightforward, too. So what you get is a lot of characterization.

I don't get why action directors don't figure this out: Action sequences (and special effects) are nothing if you don't care about the characters. Super 8 knew this, but it lampshaded it to the point where the characterization felt forced.

Here you have The Mysterious Badass, The Upright Sheriff and his Ward, The Evil Cattle Baron, The Preacher, The Nebbishy Saloon Owner and his Hot Wife, The Indians—pretty much stock genre characters. But each one is imbued with a certain, unique life by their time onscreen, no matter how short.

The Outlaws and The Indians, e.g., have very little screen time between them, but you can tell 'em apart with the short time they have. Favreau did the same thing with Ironman, you may recall: If there's a character on-screen, they're not just filling in a plot point or being sucked into a special effect. The characterization is positively thick, with The Hero being layered in a Jason Bourne kind of style and The Evil Cattle Baron being by turns merciless, racist, ruthless but also with a toughness that seems to come from an almost sentimental place.

In other words, there's something to hang your hat on.

It doesn't hurt that the lead is played by Daniel Craig, who lacks the bulk of a John Wayne, but is damned convincing as a wiry, tough bastard. There is one shot that reminds me so strongly of a comic book image—I don't read a lot of comic books but I can't remember where I've seen it—that I completely overlooked how impossibly well his clothes fit him.

While Craig does excellently, Harrison Ford almost steals the show as the Evil Cattle Baron. It's a little weird to see him as a bad guy, but he's more complicated. You could argue, even, that he's the main character, since his story has the most clearly defined arc. (Craig's arc is there, but it's subtler.)

Olivia Wilde is about a million times more appealing than she was in Tron. Her role is a bit odd and she manages to bring a real warmth to it completely missing from Legacy. Sam Rockwell plays the nebbishy bartender while Paul Dano is the snotty son of the cattle baron—a role that probably would have gone to Rockwell ten years ago.

Clancy Brown plays the preacher man, once again. Seems like he's a preacher a lot, though the only thing I can swear to offhand is his role as the evil radio preacher in "Carnivalé".

It's his character that really gets up and slaps you in the face with the movie's right-wingedness.

It's not really a right-wing movie, though, any more than Iron Man was. It's just that, working in a genre where traditional American values are celebrated, it's just going to come off that way. And I think that's why it rubs some folks the wrong way.

And being rubbed the wrong way, they come up with stupid other reasons for not liking it, like "What do the aliens want with gold?" Really? That's your idea of a plot hole. We're told early on that gold is as rare on their world as on ours. What more do you need? A giant gold space laser?

Sheesh.

This confirms my thesis that most people (including, say, Roger Ebert) react to movies on a gut level, then just sort of backfill the reasons why they hate something or like something to make it seem logical.

That's why I try to let you know my biases and tastes.

Anyway, this movie is full of western tropes that seem remarkably right-wing now. The Preacher is a decent, tough man who tries to help out the bartender. The Indians are savages (though we do get a little Indian medicine magic). The gun is celebrated, whether six-shooter, Winchester rifle or alien laser doo-hickey.

The Cattle Baron is a racist, but he has a good heart.

I don't know why that last should be "right-wing" except that political correctness seems to require certain things be signifiers of pure evil. Things like racism, or smoking.

There's some smoking, too. The hero smokes! Primarily to look cool to his friends!

So, yeah, I'm willing to guess that this stuff shaved a few points of the ratings.

We all liked it. Me, The Boy, The Flower. We weren't really blown away, but we agreed it was fun and under-rated.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Cowboys and Aliens wasn't really getting the top notch reviews, and The Boy is a hard sell on "high concept" movies anyway, so I took him and The Flower to see the new Steve Carell flick Crazy, Stupid, Love. And that punctuation (including the period) is part of the title.

It's a simple premise: Middle-aged, nerdy Cal and his wife Emily are splitting up, and Cal ends up under the tutelage of Jacob, a top-notch player who shows him how to score women. Meanwhile, Jacob has his eye on the sexually modest Hanna, and 17-year-old babysitter Jessica has a crush on Cal while fending off the advances of Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie.

So, of course, it's not the plot but the execution.

This is a fairly light movie. Carell is pleasant, of course, and likable even in his wimpy mode, and he's supported by Julianne Moore, who seems pleasingly vulnerable in this role. Ryan Gosling plays Jacob, managing to be charming and strong without seeming sleazy, sort of doing the opposite of his Lars and the Real Girl role. Analeigh Tipton (Jessica) and Jonah Bobo (Robbie) are both very appealing, as well, and the supporting cast includes Kevin Bacon, Beth Littleford and John Carroll Lynch. Oh, and Emma Stone as "good girl" Hannah and Liza Lapira as her slutty friend are a delight.

The comedy moves pretty quickly and consistently, too, with no serious lags or lulls. It's not entirely fluff, as we do see some of the consequences of (multiple, frequent) casual sex, but obviously not the worst ones (or it would cease to be a comedy, most likely). It highlights some of the crazy, stupid aspects—but not really of love so much as sex and infatuation.

There are some technical issues. One of the plot points involves Jacob's strategy of always buying a girl a drink, for example, when everyone knows you don't buy a girl a drink. This sets up a nice awkward moment for Carell to riff on, though, so we can overlook it, along with some of the other aspects of Jacob's "game" that seem improbable.

A more serious issue, to my mind, is the ease with which Carell's character, Cal, falls into his new lifestyle. Given the sort of person he is portrayed as being, his history as we learn it, and his reaction to  circumstances later on, I don't know if I really buy that. I also don't know if the movie's resolution makes sense, given all that.

There's another, less obvious issue that raises its head twice in this movie, with regard to male/female relationships. In both situations (involving different characters), a female becomes unhinged because her relationship with a male didn't work out the way she thought it would.

Now, obviously, this is true to life enough.

In one case, though, we're more inclined to believe that the character is a little unstable, while in the other case, the character is meant to be admirable. But from what we're shown, both cases involve the woman making assumptions that are never stated anywhere, and in both cases we're invited to blame the males for this.

In one case, a one-night stand, this is ridiculous. The other case involves a long-term relationship—but one in which we're given no reason to even understand the woman's attraction to the man, except as a demonstration of her superior character, much less why she would have the expectations of him she does—except, again as a demonstration of her relative superior value.

Not to say I haven't known hot chicks who went for less-than-hot guys because they valued kindness, stability and all the other things that aren't supposed to turn women on, and who didn't end up being just as badly used by them as they would have been by bad boys. But just that the movie doesn't show us any depth, so it sort of looks like women have no responsibility for relationships, men are just supposed to meet their needs (however unspoken), and it's men's fault for not doing so.

Come to think of it, that might have been the over-arching message of the film.

Can't say I approve of that.

But I'm over-analyzing things, I suppose. It's a cute movie, with plenty of laughs. You'll probably enjoy it. Both The Boy and The Flower did, as did I.

There was a distinct shortage of both cowboys and aliens, however.

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