Friday, September 30, 2011

Drive, Too

We haven't seen a documentary in quite some time, and The Flower has maybe never seen one in the theater. (I didn't to take her to March of the Penguins; I just can't see her taking the more tragic aspects of nature documentaries very well.) The Boy's kind of a hard sell, as far as documentaries go--he has to be in the mood for it (as do I, really).

So, we went to see Moneyball. Once there, however, the theater was chock full. Of old people. So we moved over to the showing of Senna, the documentary on the great Brazilian Formula One racer, Ayerton Senna.

This is one of those documentaries that gets raves, and they assure you that even if you don't know anything about racing, you'll still find it a great documentary. And that's true, mostly. (I'll get to the exception later on.)

Ayrton Senna was a  young, handsome, confident but not arrogant go-cart racer who moved up from go-cart and Formula Three racing to join the big leagues at the age of 24 (in 1984). There, he quickly makes a name for himself until 1988, when he moves to the McLaren-Honda team. His first team pairs him with an arrogant French driver, Alain Prost, and the two of them dominate Formula One racing.

Tension, dirty-pool and politics abound as the French man out-maneuvers Senna politically when he can't beat him on the track. Ultimately, the team breaks up as Prost moves to a different team which is using computer-balanced cars that apparently take a lot of the skill out of racing.

The next year, after Prost retires, the F1 rules change, eliminating a lot of the computer gear and consequently making the races much less safe. Many crashes result, including two that lead to fatalities, Senna being one of them.

Now, I'm sure I've made hash of the actual history here. While the movie does a good job constructing a narrative about Senna--maybe too good, as this humble lover of God, and hero of the Brazilian people, struggles against corruption and favoritism against the evil (or at least dickish) other guy--for those of us who don't even know what a chicane is, it was occasionally hard to follow.

The real story is more complicated, too, then what I gleaned from the movie. For example, there's a race where Prost forces Senna off the track "accidentally", and even when Senna comes back to win the race Prost runs to the refs to get him disqualified for missing a chicane. The movie shows this as an egregiously political move on a technicality the F1 judges have never enforced before.

Not only was he DQed and thereby eliminated from the championship, he was fined and suspended.

The next year, when the situations were reversed and Senna pulled a similar move on Prost, it's sort of presented as an accident that Senna didn't mind much. According to Wiki, Senna confessed later to having driven Prost off the road deliberately, but this isn't shown in the movie. (And maybe it's not true. I sure don't know.)

Also, Prost ends up chairing Senna's literacy institute after his death, and there's a suggestion that Senna not just forgave Prost when he retired, but perhaps later came to appreciate their rivalry as a source of inspiration. It's just not clear in the movie.

Anyway, it's a good story, whether accurate or not, and I'm content to think well of this Brazilian hero and mourn his premature passing, even though I'm really murky on what changes precipitated the accident that killed him. And, we are reassured that Senna's favorite track doctor was put in charge of making the races safe again, and no one has died in F1 since.

So, I did enjoy it, as did the kids, though they had to contend not only with unfamiliarity with racing terminology (I, at least, know what the "pole position" is from an early arcade racing game), but also partially obscured subtitles and heavy Brazilian accents. Also, they had a hard time telling Senna from Prost.

Even so, they did enjoy it. If you're in the mood for a documentary, it's a good one. It's almost entirely source material, too, with tons of archive footage of Senna, and there's a lot of car-camera shots which add a level of excitement you don't usually get with documentaries. On the other hand, you do see a couple of fatal car crashes, which I found disturbing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I Just Driiiiiiiiive!

In Drive, the 14th (of 29) Ryan Gosling films due out this year, Mr. Gosling plays—wait for it—a driver! Actually, I like the guy, which is a good thing, since he's in, like, everything.

In this flick, he plays a guy with three jobs: Mechanic, stunt driver for the movies, and wheel man. The story begins when he gets involved with his cute neighbor Irene (the adorable Carey Mulligan) and her cute son.

When I say "involved," I mean sort of minimally involved. They pass in the hallway. He helps her with her car. He smiles at her kid. It's a testament to Gosling's acting that his emotionless, possibly sociopathic, affect is humanized so easily with a few reticent smiles. You do end up liking the guy, especially when Mulligan's jailbird husband Standard (Oscar Isaac, of the recent Robin Hood) comes back.

As it turns out, Standard is a pretty good guy. And Gosling's (nameless) character wins us over by helping him out, despite his obvious attraction to Irene. But there's something not quite, let's say, well-adjusted about him.

I don't want to spoil the story, but let me warn you: This movie turns suddenly and shockingly violent about at the mid-point. You might think you're going to see a fun caper flick, but no: This movie decides that not only does it need violence, it can't be the fun, semi-campy violence of an action flick. It needs graphic violence and extreme brutality.

I'm not knocking this, I'm just pointing it out for those who don't like that sort of thing.

The Boy and I liked it, though The Boy felt that the violence represented a somewhat unsuccessful tonal shift, and that the movie had a couple more shifts toward the end that didn't work. That didn't bug me, particularly, because this movie was basically a homage to the '80s, where it was common to put some grittily "realistic" aspect into your heretofore semi-dopey genre flick.

Call it "Miami Vice Syndrome". Or "Michael Mann Syndrome" if you're film-literate.

The movie imitates (and improves in a lot of ways) on the '80s crime drama, which a Moog-y synth pop track, slow-mo moments, inappropriately beautiful music over violence, and even hot pink opening credits! (The Flower noticed the hot pink "Drive" written on the movie poster and asked why it was pink. '80s, baby!)

There is a lot of fun stuff in this movie: Bryan Cranston plays Gosling's loser boss who's trying to get money so Gosling can do stock car racing. Albert Brooks as the mob-ish boss he's trying to get the money from. And Ron Perlman as his brutish Jewish mob-ish friend (that's a lot of -ish, but how these guys are syndicated isn't really explained). It's nice to see Perlman not only get to play without heavy makeup (Hellboy, "Beauty and the Beast", Quest for Fire) but also play a Jew!

Also, if you're a native, the movie is full of street and overhead shots of the City of Angels, which is kind of neat. Though at one point, Irene takes her beater from Echo Park to Cranston and Gosling's garage in Reseda, which strikes me as as improbable as Gosling living in Echo Park and commuting to Reseda. But these are of course just fun details.

Talented crew. Confident direction. Artsy, bordering dangerously close to pretentious. The ending doesn't really make sense, and is a little murky to the actual details.

The Boy and I approved. I more than he, as he didn't really get the '80s homage and hasn't driven the streets as much.

I would reservedly recommend for crime drama fans, for '80s crime drama fans especially, but not for the squeamish.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Contagion: Sickos?

The thing about disease movies is that they're almost always dumb action flicks. Sometimes they're dumb horror flicks, but not usually the big name ones. Nope. Usually, you got some horrible, fatal disease that will kill the world, and the action revolves around people chasing a vial of either the disease or the cure. And it usually flies up in the air at some point, with people scrambling to catch it.

Steven Soderbergh's latest, Contagion, isn't any of that.

It's basically a straight-on look at what would happen if a midwestern floozy (Gwyneth Paltrow) contracted a horrible new disease in China and brought it through a bunch of airports on her way home. There are biologists having trouble isolating the disease, a CDC dealing with political issues, crazy internet theories, riots, crime, murder, people who were prepared and people who weren't, and so on. It's never suggested that everyone in the world will die from the disease, but 1% or 2% dying seems horrible enough—and at one point, it's suggested that maybe 20% will die.

It's basically a hyper-realistic look at things. Which is to say, a lot of the usual dramatic conventions are not used. There is music, but there are long stretches with out it. There isn't a single character whose journey we follow, but many characters, many of whom die. There is no hero, but there are isolated actions of heroism. There is criminality but far more human frailty.

It reminds a lot of Soderbergh's earlier work, Traffic.

Dramatically, the aversion to certain sensational conventions has made Contagion somewhat muted, emotionally. It's not a bad thing, necessarily: The film engages on a lot of levels, but not necessarily the ones that cause people to marvel at the film making.

I kind of did. You don't see a lot of restraint these days. At the same time, as The Boy said, you didn't know who was going to live or die, and you cared, but not necessarily very much. The aversion to mawkishness led to a certain distance.

Nonetheless, this may be the best movie about a disease ever, and it's certainly the least stupid.

Cars 2: This Time, It's Impersonal

There is a great moment in the short that Pixar assembled describing the process of making The Incredibles. In (creator) Brad Bird's original vision, Elastigirl had a sidekick who managed her hardware—the supersonic jet and what-not. In fact, in the scene after said jet is shot down, there's a moment where she looks down at the wreckage that seems a little out of place.

The great moment is Brad Bird explaining how important this character was to his concept of the story and how badly he wanted him in, then cutting to John Lasseter explaining that the movie was already too long, and there were too many characters, and so on. And the two of them go back and forth, with Lasseter saying he had to let Bird do what he felt was right, no matter how wrong.

Bird finally realized that Lasseter was right, and he removed the sidekick. That out-of-place wreckage scene is the only remaining vestige: It's there because Elastigirl is basically watching her friend sink into the deeps—but since he's been completely removed from the movie, it's just a momentary oddness.

I've always imagined Pixar to be that sort of place, where artists battled over ideas, and the ideal battled with the practical.

That's why it's tragic to see Cars 2, supposedly directed by Lasster, now head of all Disney animation, forget such basic rules and become the first not-very-good Pixar film.

There's so much right about this film. It's chock-full of Pixar's attention to detail. There are stunning visual moments. The movie is centered around Mater, the lovable tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, so that it avoids being a rehash of the original Cars.

But it's waaaay too complicated. Not just for kids, but for drama. A lot of people accused Cars of being an animated version of Doc Hollywood, to which I say "so what"? You got to know the characters—a whole town full of characters, so that it mattered whether or not Lightning stayed or went. It was squarely in the Pixar model of movies about service to community (cf. Disney films which are almost entirely about being yourself), so you had a struggle over what one wanted as an individual and what was right.

This movie almost sets it up that way. Mater is a rube, of course. And he embarrasses his friends. And he gets almost to the point of recognizing that he does and changing his ways, when everyone says he should be himself and the rest of the world needs to adapt to him. (Really? You shouldn't maybe hold that flatulence in until after you've met the Queen?)

That wouldn't necessarily be bad by itself, except that the whole thing is tied up in an Evil Big Oil plot. The Big Oil thing is neither here-nor-there, but the plot requires the introduction of a whole fleet of new characters. Notably, Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer play Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell, straight out of a 007 film.

But then there's the chief villain, half-a-dozen or more mook cars, Guido and Luigi's family in Italy, a new, snotty competitor for McQueen (voiced by John Turturro, who actually does a quite memorable turn), and there's just not really any room for much in the way of real dramatic storytelling.

The second major issue has to do with action.

The whole concept of Cars is fraught with all kinds of weird imponderables. When Tex Avery did his car and plane-based cartoons in the '50s, the anthropomorphosization of which was just like Cars, the implication was that cars were sort of biological creatures, having children and parental issues and what-not. Cars just sort of ignores the issue, but it's actually pretty central to the plot and concept of the "lemon".

What does this have to do with the action? Well, in order for Finn to impress us all these incredible spy things, we have to have a concept of what it is a car can do in the first place—what its limitations are, in other words, so that we can marvel at the extraordinary actions. Almost immediately, for example, a car falls off a high point into the water, and the fall kills him. Then Finn jumps into the water later and is not only fine, but able to turn into a (very Bond-esque) submarine.

Well, okay. Why not? There's a difference between falling and diving, and he's a spy and all that. But it kind of lampshades the whole problem: If there's going to be suspense that the audience can relate to, doesn't there need to be a way to grasp the limitations of the characters. (This is a really common action movie issue these days, at least for me, but they keep doing it.)

This ties into the third major issue, which has to do with mass. In the early days of animation, animators simply exploited their animated-ness: They'd have the characters use their own thought bubbles for rope, or climb up walls, or whatever. I'm sure it was entertaining for a while, but ultimately they had to come up with a kind of physics or they'd never have passed the phase of "Gee! Look! Animation!"

CGI, similarly, doesn't weigh anything. It's particularly conspicuous in action movies where the character is throwing something supposedly heavy around and it doesn't look real. And in low-rent CGI, you get a lot of gags like you'd see in primitive animation. Pixar has always been exquisitely careful about the physics of their films.

By the end of Cars 2, crap is flying around so fast it's just hard to invest in any of it. It's almost like the standard, crap summer action flick has infected Pixar.

Now, it's really not that bad. It's a little boring because of the points I've mentioned. And hugely disappointing after what must be the longest unbroken streak of great films in any movie studio's history. But this makes a modest stumble seem like a huge fall. It's not, of itself.

The Boy and The Flower declined to partake, but the Barb liked it. She wanted to see the original one right after, of course, but she didn't complain.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Debt

The Israelis make some good movies, though much like us and the French, they tend to flagellate themselves rather a lot. Back in 2007, they made a film called The Debt, which never got released to theaters here but which captured the eye of someone here enough to encourage an English-language remake.

This was the last film made under the Miramax banner before its acquisition by Disney and with delays and (probably) dubious marketability, it's only now coming out, in the last gasp of summer. But, hey, Helen Mirren got spend a couple of years getting into character.

Which pays off.

The story is—and you can see this all in the trailer, no spoilers here—back in the '60s, Rachel, Stephan and David are sent behind the iron curtain in order to extract the Mengele-like character Dieter Vogel, who escaped capture after the war to set up a practice. The mission goes awry and the three are stuck behind enemy lines with no way out, and a hostile hostage to transport.

Now, since the movie is told in flashbacks 30 years later, we know they survive. But something else happened when they were out in the field, and it's something nobody knows about.

The Boy said, afterwards, that this was a remarkably suspenseful film considering you already knew that they lived through the adventure. This is true and a good storytelling trick: To create suspense even though the audience knows how it turns out.

Because we don't know exactly how it turned out. And the Devil is in the details, as it turns out. The '60s-era stuff is high tension, interesting and also creepy. There's a brief part that takes place in 1970 that is necessary but kind of unpleasant and sad. Then the rest takes place in '97, when the three character reunite as a book about their adventures has been written.

This leads to a rather improbable but satisfying close that works dramatically and on an action-movie level.

Simon and Chetwynd (of Poliwood) loved this movie and have gone so far to say that our movie critics are somewhat dense for not liking it. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars apparently because he had trouble distinguishing between David and Stephan, which he says is vital in a thriller. We (The Boy and I) suck at that, and I was confused initially, too, except that it didn't really matter from a thriller standpoint. You had plenty of time to straighten out the young actors from the old actors during the dramatic closing parts, when it mattered.

So, yeah, I'm going with "not too bright", too. Also, anti-semitic. Just to be safe.

That said, I think they've over-rated it a bit. Don't get me wrong, it's well above average. It marries espionage thriller with some pretty heavy drama, against which some interesting social questions are asked. But somewhat like Sarah's Key, the issues of the modern world against the backdrop of the Cold War and Nazi-ism tend to feel sort of trivial. Though here the modern issues are considerably bigger, at least, than Sarah's Key.

A helpful guide for the Ebert-esque:

Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren.
Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson.
Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds.

Sort of amusingly, to me, Helen Mirren is the oldest of the old actors, but looked far-and-away the best. She's also the closest in age now to how old her character would be now but since the movie takes place nearly 15 years ago, she's actually playing someone ten years younger. It works 'cause, you know, Helen Mirren.

Csokas and Wilkinson look similar enough to where you can see the former aging into the latter. Ciaran Hinds, on the other hand, looks like death warmed over, and I can only assume this was deliberate, if heart-breaking to the ladies in the audience.

Needless to say, the acting is top-notch, not the least of which is done by Jesper Christensen (Quantum of Solace) as the Nazi doctor. It recalls Bruno Ganz in Downfall, as he transitions smoothly from a doctor-like patter of sympathy and concern to explaining exactly why the Jews deserved to die.

Chilling.

And you know how I am about the whole Nazi thing. If you're going to do a Nazi story, you better be giving me something other than "Nazis are bad." The strongest dramatic parts of the movie occur between Jessica Chastain and Christensen, both in the doctor's office and later on. It works so well that when Helen Mirren confronts him later, the character continuity is seamless.

Messr. Ebert notwithstanding.

Solid flick, and above-average in a summer sea of average and sub-par crud.

A propos of what I was ranting on in my review of The Guard, this movie strives and achieves a verisimilitude without worrying about authenticity. I don't think a lot of Nazi war criminals escaped behind the iron curtain, for example, and I don't think Mossad performed any extractions (although I believe they helped the Refuseniks to some degree). But it all has a plausible feel, to where you start to wonder if they did do something like that, or could have.

Definitely recommend.

Our Idiot Brother

My mother gave me the scowl when I mentioned The Boy and I were going to see Our Idiot Brother. Momma has a very limited range of comedy she approves of which completely excludes anything involving Stooges, Marx Brothers, Abbot and/or Costello, Lewis (and possibly Martin), Mel Brooks, Woody Allen (though she liked the Paris thing), anyone who was ever on Saturday Night Live (except for Gilda Radner and Jane Curtin), or anyone who looks like they might have been on SNL.

She particular hates "stupid" comedy. So Will Ferrell is right out.

I mention this because the trailers for Our Idiot Brother apparently play it as a dumb Ferrell-style comedy which it most assuredly is not. Not really a mystery: Those dumb comedies draw in the teens and make a lot of money, and this sort of gentle, realist kind of comedy aimed at an older audience does not.

This movie is more in the mold of, say, a Simon or a Being There. (I don't know why I decided to pull two 1980 movies out for comparison but there it is.) That is, it's a fish-out-of-water story (like Thor or, as a character coyly comments, The Guard). But it's a particular genre of FooW story, where the character is an innocent, trusting, pure soul in a dark, cynical world. In Simon and Being There, the innocent takes on messianic qualities, but Paul Rudd's Ned is nothing so grandiose, which makes this movie very watchable.

The innocent in these movies tends to cut a wide swath through the other characters' lives, as his goodness tends to reveal the corruption they wade in, having a tendency to then blow those fragile lives apart, and in this case, it's Ned's poor sisters who are this victims.

Our movie opens with Ned selling pot to a uniformed cop. Not really selling. The cop begs him for it, playing for Ned's sympathy and Ned freely gives. The cop then insists on giving him money which Ned reluctantly takes. Next thing you know, Ned's in jail. Theme song, title, credits. (Actually, I don't remember if they did that there, but the could've.)

This shows up a bit of a problem, of course: How does Ned get to be 42 and not have had this happen so much that he doesn't get cynical, or at least aware enough to not fall for tricks like this?

But it's Rudd who's 42, maybe Ned's only supposed to be in his 30s. And lucky. And...look, just roll with it.

After eight months of prison (model prisoner, inmate-of-the-month) Ned tries to return home to his girlfriend and his organic farm, but she's moved on. Which is to say, she's taken his farm and gotten a new boyfriend (TJ Miller of Cloverfield and How To Train Your Dragon in an amusing turn). Also, she won't give him his dog, Willie Nelson, back.

And so, this is really a story of a man trying to get his dog back. Which is the sort of story my mom would like, if she'd ever go see it.

Ned visits his sisters in the manner of a Big Bad Wolf, except that all three have built their lives of straw. Settled-down Cindy (Emily Mortimer, Shutter Island) is married to insufferable sleazeball documentary director (Steve Coogan), and both are working hard to insulate their older child from anything fun or boy-like, forcing him to do ballet while he really wants to do karate.

It doesn't take long for Ned to be a bad influence on the boy or uncover the sleaze, leading to a short stay with sister number two, Miranda, played by a brunette Elizabeth Banks (who was Paul Rudd's love interest in Role Models). Miranda is struggling at Vanity Fair after landing an interview with a hot celebrity who doesn't want to dish about her personal life. Meanwhile, she and neighbor Jeremy (Adam Scott of The Great Buck Howard) have the hots for each other, which remains unexpressed since she's a bitch.

I mean, not to put too fine a gloss on it.

Miranda is particularly unlikable, but Banks does a good job with this somehow. You should despise her for a lot of reasons, but somehow there's something at her core that seems redeemable.

After her, Ned ends up staying with the sexually chaotic Natalie (Zooey Deschanel, who played Rudd's wife in the short "House Hunting"), who is hooked up with Cindy (played by Rashida Jones, who played Rudd's wife in I Love You, Man). She thinks it's love but she's, well, a slut. A recovering slut, anyway. By the time Ned's actually staying with her, he's managed to potentially ruin and save her life as it is.

Normally, I really find Deschanel appealing but not here. She plays an unfunny, foul-mouthed comic.

Honestly, though, none of the three sisters are particularly attractive, which is the point. They tend to take out their self-made frustrations on Ned, who rolls with it mostly, but suffers because he doesn't know all the rules about lying to get what you want or to not rock the boat.

An enjoyable, surprisingly mature flick that will not do very well precisely because it's not a slapstick fest and also (significantly) because it's been marketed that way, apparently. It is a little sleazy, of course, but at least it appears to suggest that people shouldn't be that way.

It works, at least for me and The Boy, precisely because Ned isn't cruelly mocked in a way that the audience is encouraged to join in on. We could all be a little more Ned-like. Also, the ending is satisfying in an unexpected way, with a nice little closing to the story.

Not sure if mom would have liked it, though.

The Guard

"I'm Oirish! Racism's part of me culture!"

That line alone was enough to make The Flower want to see the new Don Cheadle/Brendan Gleason collaboration The Guard, in which a murder in a Gleaon's sleepy Irish county draws the attention of CIA Agent Cheadle.

Gleason is sort of a Bob Beckel character, happily getting stoned and whoring around while sort-of doing the occasional bit of police work. Besides a complete lack of political correctness, he apparently has complete contempt for the service.

I don't know what a "Guard" is, actually. I Wikapedia-ed and everything. In the movie, they seem like sheriffs—and the movie draws a strong parallel with the western genre, though almost a "piss take" as the Brits say—but they're apparently some sorta military outfit.

Not really important: Gleason is playing an Irish Clint Eastwood. So take a kind of edgy, hard-boiled, mysterious man who's not afraid to do violence, make him fat and drunk, not really keen on the violence part and really not all the mysterious—you know, maybe this comparison isn't working out.

Let's try this: The writer and director of 2008's sleeper hit In Bruges, Martin McDonagh is the executive producer of this film, and it has a very similar feel to it. It's not as dark, but it is a kind of buddy picture/tale of honor and redemption.

Actually, it's sort of High Noon-ish, as it turns out that Gleeson is the only honest Guard in Ireland. And after the rest have been bought off (with advances secured through the trafficking of over half a billion dollars in drugs, a financial estimation of considerable consternation throughout the movie) he has to face them down alone.

Well, alone with Cheadle, of course.

Also similar to In Bruges, our three villains are philosophical sorts. Less believable as actual criminals than as meta-criminals who commit atrocities while examining their own motivations and character flaws while they do it. That may sound like a dig but I find it appealing, personally.

I mean, having grown up in a time where "natural" was de rigueur, I'm distrustful of all these highly artificial things that seem less focused on verisimilitude and more on a putative authenticity. It's all fake; sell it enough to make it work, not so much—a la reality shows—that people walk around believing they've seen something real.

But I digress. The point is, you get villains that are the sort of villains you love-to-hate. Liam Cunningham is the evil mastermind, Mark Strong (whose career will survive his turn as Sinestro in The Green Lantern) is his smart muscle, and David Wilmot is the psychopath—or, wait, no, he's a sociopath, if I recall correctly. (The issue of "psycho" versus "socio" being a debate from the movie.)

Fionnula Flanagan plays Gleeson's dying mother, whom the Guard smuggles booze (and the occasional joint) to in her hospice care. She shares her son's irreverence, and the scenes between them are really quite touching without even the barest hint of mawkishness.

All-in-all, a lively mashup of police procedural, western, comedy, drama—something that defies easy categorization. The Flower enjoyed it quite a bit, except for the end. The ending is not spelled out, and she took it to mean one thing when the closing song ("Leaving on a Jet Plane") really leaves no room for doubt as to what happens.

Of course, it was no Gran Torino—pretty much her reaction to every film these days.

The Boy and I also enjoyed it greatly, no comparisons to Gran Torino required.

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