Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

A mad scientist loses his wife in a automobile fire and seeks solace in recreating her appearance on an unwilling victim. Avant-garde cinema or cheesy B-movie plot from the '50s and '60s? Well, why not both, as we see here with Al-muh-DOH-var's—I assume that's how you pronounce AlmodóvarThe Skin I Live In. I'm old enough to remember when he still used his first name (Pedro) but this would be the first of his movies that I've seen. Like Tarantino, Spike Lee and a few others, I've always found the trailers to Pedro's films sufficiently off-putting that I never felt the need to see his movies. (A reaction I've overcome in the last few years with Tarantino, to my everlasting ennui.)

Although it's not the best fit, I kept thinking about The Brain That Wouldn't Die, the '62 potboiler about the scientist who saves his girlfriend's head after a car crash, then spends the rest of the movie scouting strippers for a new body while she hectors him from a lasagna pan about his lack of ambition and nags him to take out the garbage. (Or something, it's been a while since I've seen it.)

It's amusing (at least to me) the extent of this movie's overlap with that older one (and other similar old flicks I'm not remembering at the moment). This is a sleazy film filled with unlikable characters, creepy situations and sexual violence. There are also moments of what today might almost be considered high camp.

When the movie opens, Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is presenting on a new kind of transplantable skin mutated from human and pig cells he developed in honor of his broiled wife, after which some of his shocked peers warn him of the consequences should SCIENCE discover his lapse in ethics. (Mutating human and animal stuff is apparently a no-no.) This scene is reprised later on, when one of his formers business partners threatens to blackmail him by outing him to the scientific community.

Interestingly enough, the whole pig-human thing doesn't really go anywhere. His victim in all this, Vera (the ridiculously beautiful Elena Anaya of Point Blank) doesn't develop super-powers or get bulletproof skin or anything like that. I thought there was going to be a twist where the science went wrong but the movie plays out straight revenge tragedy, basically.

Not that there isn't a twist, mind you. Oh, yes, there's a twist, though I didn't see it coming until about 10 minutes before it popped.

There are other sorta '60s things about this movie, too. The color doesn't used the washed out blue-gray feel that's so popular (hacky!) today, but a more vibrant one. Not exactly Technicolor but Kodachrome(ish). Antonio Banderas has his hair slicked back and walks around in a tuxedo at one point, evoking a Sean-Connery-as-James-Bond figure that's amplified when he holds a gun.

In fact, if you listen to the semi-techno song used in the trailer (and also in the movie's one chase scene), the electric guitar sound is very mid-to-late '60s. I'm not hitting bulls-eyes today but the '60s surfin' classic "Wipeout" comes to mind.

There are no cell phones, computers or modern devices, except for large-screen viewers, which were pretty commonly faked in '60s movies.

So, what's not '60s about it? Well, there's a lot of nudity and it's pretty pornographic which wasn't common in a mainstream, high-budget '60s flick. It's not gratuitous, but it is gross. (The nudity isn't. Did I mention that Elena Anaya is gorgeous?) The sex is done covered or far-away, but it's still very explicit (and often violent) in terms of the imagery Pedro creates in the viewers' mind.

I see this movie being fetish-fuel for a small but intense niche.

Overall? We liked it all right. It could've been shorter. The Boy found it disturbing but it's a fool's errand to try to create much of an impact on the younger generation through shock or transgression. As for myself, I was expecting something bizarre! titillating! shocking! along the typical lines that certain directors endear themselves to certain critics, and I was only put off-guard by the naivete of the genre.

I mean, really: Who makes mad scientist movies any more? In my lifetime, there haven't been that many. The (speaking of pornographic) Re-animator series, that Peter O'Toole/Mariel Hemmingway oddity from '85, Creator, sorta—but really, the modern science-gone-awry is more likely to feature a noble, avuncular scientist rather than a mad one. The science goes awry (these days) because of the evil businessman or a tangential individual's greed.

This movie's sort of like taking Humanoids from the Deep (where mutated fish-men emerge from polluted water to rape women) or Creature from the Black Lagoon and exploring seriously the potential for relationship between the fish-men and the women they kidnap.

So...odd. Well, done, for the most part. Good acting. The music's a little heavy-handed. The graphicness is going to be off-putting for some, to say nothing of the indecency. Vera is the closest thing to a hero the movie has, and for reasons that can't be explained with spoilage, she's hardly pure.

The Boy said he would have a hard time recommending it, and I tend to agree.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Spy Kids 4: Waste of Time

I said a few reviews ago that all our great directors suck, which is kind of sad, but to my mind not as sad as all our young turks—the promising film-makers of 20 years ago—seem to have not matured into greatness but stay wallowing in the stuff that made them famous without adding any real polish or sophistication.

I've never been a Tarantino fan but when I express disappointment, everyone tells me to go back to Reservoir Dogs. I could make an exception for Kevin Smith, because he really tries to grow and change—and Red State is supposed to be good—but he says he's going to make one more movie (a hockey movie he's been working on for quite some time) and then retire.

Which brings us to Robert Rodriguez and Spy Kids: All The Time In The World. Rodriguez is one of these guys who acquired his skills through tons of time behind a video camera. His movies have always been fast-paced, a little chaotic, and also kind of sloppy and poorly thought out. He usually overwhelmed his shortcomings with style, but the style is played out a bit.

Sin City may be his best movie, simply because so much was laid out in the comic book and he could follow it (and made the choice to follow it) so closely.

In some ways, the Spy Kids series is the ultimate expression of Rodriguez' style. It doesn't have to make any sense as long as it looks cool, any situation can be resolved with CGI, and there's no limit on how ham-handed you can make your pro-family-time message.

The Flower refused to go see this, with her point being that they just kept getting worse and worse. She's not wrong. (The Barb doesn't really care as long as the popcorn keeps flowing, but I couldn't get more of a "pretty good" out of her.)

This time around, it's Jessica Alba in the maternal role. The story goes that Rodriguez was on the set of Machete when Alba's one-year-old let off a diaper bomb and he thought, "Yeah! Mommy spy with baby bombs!" Or maybe, since the Spy Kid franchise has been far-and-away his biggest hits, he just was looking for an excuse to bring it back after eight years.

Alba plays stepmother to two new kids, a gentle hard-of-hearing boy and his really bitchy sister. I thought the sister was older, and maybe she's supposed to be, but the boy actor is actually a little older than the girl. (The actors, Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook, are fine; the characters are who Rodriguez made them.) Mom is dead, and Alba has to pay, apparently.

Alba's also an ex-spy who's given up her career to raise her baby with Joel McHale, who's a doofus-y TV personality.

Meh. I've already lost interest in explaining it. None of it really matters. It's just a big mess comprised of smaller messes. There's a whole lot of insulting stupid, even for a Spy Kids movie.

Jeremy Piven has a fun role as head of the OSS, who's doing a fast-talking '40s thing. The original kids are back and all grown up. Vega is a hottie now, and Sabara has gotten even odder looking; but even here Rodriguez is just rehashing the same old themes. You know, how many times do these people have to re-learn their family values before they stick?

Oh, Ricky Gervais is the voice of a robotic dog. The English whore.

I've already said "meh" and I don't want to say it again, because this is not a two "meh" movie.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Into The Abyss with Werner Herzog

Probably the greatest capital punishment movie ever is Dead Man Walking. The temptation—succumbed to frequently throughout the decades by Hollywood—is to show an innocent man wrongly convicted and killed. It's far more interesting, and fair, to show a heinous criminal being killed.

Werner Herzog takes his own interesting approach in his new documentary Into The Abyss. The German film-maker (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn) gives us the story of a brutal, senseless crime that echos of Crime and Punishment.

Two young men kill a grandmother, Sandra Stotler, for her car for a joyride. Before stealing the car, though, they go deposit the body in a nearby lake. When they go back to get the car, it's after dark and the woman's gated community is locked up. So they wait for her son (Adam Stotler) and his friend (Jeremy Richardson), in order to lure them into the woods to kill them—in order to get the remote to get into the community and steal the car. Later the two are captured after an extended gun battle with the police.

One of the criminals, Michael Perry, is given a death sentence. The other just barely escapes that fate and gets 50 years in prison.

Herzog shows his brilliance—repeatedly—here. First, he says right off the bat that he's against the death penalty, and he lets Perry make his case for his own innocence. (He blames his partner in crime, Jason Burkett.) But then, he details the horrific nature of the crimes, and lets the victim's families expound on their lost love ones. This takes the first third of the film. Further, he never lets the movie go on very far without bringing back on the families.

Herzog is determined that you never forget what these two young men did. Further, he presents sufficient evidence of their guilt. He never tries to present a case of innocence.

For Burkett, though, he also unflinchingly shows the tragedy of his life. His father's in jail across the street, after a lifetime of drug use and dealing, and he's interviewed. Apparently he's got a brother in jail, too. Burkett's father is a particularly tragic figure, whose closest familial memory is a Thanksgiving dinner shared with his two sons who were also in jail.

Indeed, to my eye, these people, who have escaped the executioner's needle, are far more tragic types. They seem redeemable and our system is almost completely incapable of providing any redemption.

But even here, Herzog's not taking a bleeding-heart approach. Among the people interviewed are a couple of other locals who were touched, indirectly, by the crime. One of them was an illiterate miscreant who learned to read in jail—and also learned to stay out of jail and go straight.

Jeremy Richardson's brother was himself a miscreant who was arrested at Jeremy's funeral, and who laments having introduced him to the Perry (or Burkett, or both, I'm not sure), but he seems to be doing better now.

In fact, one thing Herzog does is detail the incredible amount of violence, crime and family dysfunction in Conroe, Texas, which can't help but throw into sharp contrast that most of the people manage to survive the craziness without randomly killing people.

A couple of other good segments include the opening, where the priest who works death row describes his experiences doing it, and a segment where one of the executioners describes how he gave up his job and pension after facilitating over one hundred executions.

A weirder part is the story of Jason Burkett's lawyer who ultimately ends up marrying him and—well, you'll have to see it. (Or Google it.) I think Herzog was trying to say something about hope and life, but it struck me as a tragic echo of Burkett's own life. Or maybe Herzog was just recording the facts.

Despite Herzog's inclination, he lets Adam's sister (Sondra's daughter) describe how seeing Perry's execution lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. He prompts her with "Would a life sentence also have worked?" She agrees, but also quickly slips back into "Some people don't deserve to live."

Herzog wasn't trying to make a political statement or even an issue movie, and he succeeds. He's crafted something much more genuine and complex. Now, one of his producers thinks this is a searing indictment of Rick Perry's Texas but I'm thinking it's just like Dead Man Walking: People who are for the death penalty are going to see that the system worked.

I'm not pro-death penalty myself, but I felt like the system worked here. It's tragic, but Burkett was (and no doubt is) a dangerous man, deserving of a long sentence.

And Perry?

Well, I don't know how Herzog felt, but after getting over the jarring incongruity of the smiling, boyish looking Perry claim his only crime was being homeless and accepting charity from Burkett, I became quickly convinced that he was a sociopath of the first order, like that other famous murderous Perry.

Anyway, this is about more than capital punishment, and definitely worth watching if you're interested in crime (or punishment).

The Boy also liked it, though he felt it, as all documentaries, dragged a bit.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

A woman escapes a crazy cult only to find herself unable to fully get away, psychologically and literally. Sure we've seen it before, but have we seen it with this much nudity? Well, yeah, we probably have, but not recently. That was more a '70s supernatural horror plot and Martha Marcy May Marlene is more of suspense thriller.

We were kind of tepid about the movie from the trailer. The line from the LA Weekly was "A thriller that shifts nearly imperceptibly between dream, memory and reality." If that were accurate, it would probably make for a terrible movie. What MMMM does do is switch between two timelines very rapidly—one post-cult, and one mid-cult.  But it was almost always very quickly clear which timeline you were in, which was very important to being able to understand what the hell was going on.

Martha toys with the whole "Is it a dream?" idea, but this is a product of her psychological state. The movie itself stays very realistic.

We see Martha struggling with her traditional family, and constantly flashing back to her cult family. What I think the reviewer was getting at was that the cuts were very tight, and there's no warning as to where you are, so you really have to pay attention.

I can't talk about it much, since at least half the point of a movie like this is how things unfold. The drip-drip-drip of the reveal of info about the cult and the simultaneous unfolding of Martha's normal familial relationships.

This movie hangs together really well. You have all these questions about how Martha ends up in the cult and why others can't see that she's not quite right, and the movie trickles out development that makes it all make sense. Again, being opaque here because the experience is really about the discovery.

It's a little weaker the suspense/thriller department. It's good, but it backs off a bit with the tension. The ending is good, but the movie's climax is more about social embarrassment than any real fear. It's like the shape of the movie is tight, just not propelled forcefully forward, like a great thriller.

The Boy liked it, but not enthusiastically. I liked it, too, especially as it managed to show the creepy cult without spreading the creepiness to the viewer, as these movies often do.

Monday, November 14, 2011

J Edgar Whozits

One of my outré positions is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't really have a right to exist under the Constitution, and that J. Edgar Hoover was an evil little troll who was a horrible influence on this country.

So, yeah, Eastwood does a biopic of J. Edgar? Why not.

Let me say, first, that this is classic Eastwood (as director): Much like last year's Hereafter or (say) Million Dollar Baby, the octogenarian auteur is all about telling the story, whatever it is. And, in this case, the story is about an ambitious, vainglorious, sexually repressed blackmailer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he tells the story on the one hand of the history of the FBI, and how, at the end of his life (as blackmailer in chief), he is threatened by the incoming President Nixon on the other.

I can't help but admire the direction, which is unflinching and unsentimental. He doesn't demonize Hoover—who could arguably benefit from a demonization—but he portrays him gathering his blackmail and expanding his powers, good intentions cheerfully in tow.

And yet. It's not a great movie, and I'm inclined to blame screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. If Tim Burton has daddy issues, and Alfred Hitchcock had issues with being falsely accused, Mr. Black has gay issues.

Actually, before I get to those, I want to also say that it seems like everyone has some issues when it comes to this movie. I read quite a few reviews of this beforehand (which I don't normally) at places like Big Hollywood and PJMedia and I'm not convinced we all saw the same movie.

For example, I read a reference to Hoover's mother, as played by Judi Dench, as domineering, which feeds into the clichéd gay thing, But that really reduces the role to a cartoonish level that isn't warranted. Dench's portrayal is stern and forbidding, but not domineering.

Likewise, getting back into the gay thing, Hoover is (at least initially) portrayed as a complex person, or perhaps if you prefer, a very simple person for whom sex (in whatever form) isn't on the menu. Sex is only going to be permissible if it's of a non-blackmail-able variety, is sort the impression you get.

But then Black goes whole hog (as it were) into "Hoover was a homosexual but refused to act on it." I'm of two minds as far as this goes: One, it's a completely hack and stereotyped way to indulge in a little fantasy; and two, it has the effect of humanizing Hoover in a very unlikely way, a way that makes the movie rather more watchable.

I think there's a little truth to both these ideas, but it also has a couple of other effects: One is that it's complete fantasy. I don't mean Hoover wasn't gay, 'cause I don't know. (I'd always heard he was a transvestite, though, and TVs are usually men—often macho men. But on reflection, it seems unlikely that the king of the blackmailers would ever put himself in a compromising situation.) What I mean is that the completely undocumented aspect of his relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) gives Black free reign to do this sort of wish-fulfillment thing.

This includes a scene where Hoover and Tolson (Armie Hammer) virtually swish over the gaucheness of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball at Del mar, and Tolson describes Dorothy Lamour as "camp". (That's not the only time that the dialog assaults the ear with a too modern sound, but it's one of the most egregious ones.)

The other effect of this, though, is that we're sort of mired in this (ultimately trivial) aspect of Hoover's life. This is the problem with the modern obsession with private details: The real story gets crowded out. This is sometimes justifiable, say, with something like The King's Speech (another largely fictitious but far more interesting movie).

But here, it doesn't matter that Hoover is gay (at least partially evinced by the fact that he probably wasn't). It could have been just as interesting to see him as bottled up, and tested by his attraction to Dorothy Lamour (who claimed to have an affair with him).

And it's not like there isn't 50 years of interesting dirt about Hoover, you know? The whole thread feels self-indulgent.

It's a flawed biopic. The acting is good. I think Dicaprio—who normally leaves me kind of cold—did one of his better jobs here. A lot of criticism has been leveled at the old age makeup, and it's got some validity to it, but I kind of register that as a big "so what"? Old age makeup is always bad, and always has been.

I would have preferred to see more actual FBI stuff. The fact that the FBI got their guns as a result of the Lindbergh kidnapping perhaps beginning the precedent that states that all laws named after children are bad ones.

HBO did a movie a few years back on the Lindbergh kidnapping which took the point-of-view that Hauptmann was innocent of the charges, whereas this movie posits that he didn't act alone—that he was maybe a patsy for the real criminals. Sorta. He's essentially a vehicle for the bureau's expansion of power.

Then there's the whole FBI rising while denying the existence of the mafia. What up wid dat? I mean, seriously, if you're going to go into fantasy-land about the story, how about bringing in the mafia? As a character study, wouldn't it have been more interesting to know (or speculate) on whether it was pride, arrogance, stupidity or something else causing Hoover's complete bungling of the major crime issue of his day?

Ah, well, lost opportunity. Also, keep in mind that my review isn't much like any of the others I've read, so maybe I saw a different movie from the ones other people saw, or the one you'd see.

As an Eastwood fan since Flags of our Fathers, The Boy was a bit disappointed, and found it overlong, though not especially so for a biopic. As someone more-or-less ignorant of the politics and history, his experience viewing the movie was probably one of the purer ones, and he rated it "so-so".

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Time (and Out Of Luck)

The Boy's weakness is popcorn so we sometimes end up going to the movies even when there's nothing to see. The choices this week were between Tower Heist and In Time. The Flower wants to see Tower Heist but I refused to take The Boy to see that on the grounds that I don't want to listen to him rant about it for the next day.

In Time is written, produced and directed by Andrew Niccol who also did Gattaca. Now, I've seen Gattaca but I didn't really remember it well. I know that people think it's a pretty intelligent sci-fi, so I thought this might be similar.

Well, the good news for Gattaca fans is this is extremely similar. The bad news is that means it's extremely contrived, kind of dull and frankly kind of stupid. The good news is it's well shot, romantic and occasionally insightful.

Did I mention contrived?

The premise, literally, is that time is money. People buy stuff with time. They work for time. And, the crux of the movie, some have lots more time than others. Also: When you run out of time, you die.

Everyone starts with one year on their clock (shown in handy digital format on your forearm), which starts at the age of 25. At 25, you stop aging completely, but if your clock ever runs out, you die. (And if your clock never runs out, you never die.) The ghetto people are constantly scrabbling for enough time to make it through the next day, while the prices for everything constantly go up.

When we meet our hero, Will (Justin Timberlake), he's celebrating his mother's 50th birthday. His mother is Olivia Wilde, so that's weird. Anyway, Will is a stand-up guy who shares his time with his mom, and ends up saving the life of a guy walking around in the ghetto with 100 years on his arm before a bunch of thugs kill him. Will sets out to get some social justice, and there's your movie.

Oh, and he meets rich girl, Amanda Seyfried, who I think is the only actor in the film who is actually 25. And, yeah, at 35, Cillian Murphy as the copy out to get Will is an awful hard 25.

There are some good parts to the movie. The poor people are constantly running around while the rich people move with not just deliberate slowness but with caution, since they're immortal as long as they don't die in an accident or violent act. There were occasional touches like that had a certain kind of profound resonance.

These are totally overwhelmed by the stupid, though. If you really had 26 years to live, you'd start accumulating time as soon as you could. People in the movie are constantly cutting it close, down to the second, and gratuitously so. Suffice to say, you wouldn't do that. No one would. The chance for a minor snafu to result in death—well, it happens all over the place in this movie, and it's just not plausible.

Then there's the question of where the time comes from. It's not really explained at all. At one point, one of the characters is revealed to have a million years. If everyone starts with a year, though, that would mean a million people had to die at 25 just to accumulate that one million, which is just one of many millions the man is presumed to have.

That's not really workable.

But if the time isn't intrinsic (drawn from living people) then it must be extrinsic, and thereby create-able. That would make more sense and a better parallel with money as we currently know it, but it would undermine the premise of the movie.

But then, the movie undermines its own premise at every turn. Murphy's cop is obsessed with the notion that Will is going to destroy the system with his newfound wealth. Yet, at one point, he delivers a speech clearly designed as an attack on our current system: Basically, the people support the system because they think they might one day become super-wealthy with time, but there's no actual chance of that.

Well, okay, but if it's true that people support the system because they have that hope, then shouldn't someone occasionally make it? Wouldn't Will's success be supportive of the system, just like the occasional American's success causes us all to support the awful American system even though it's all rigged against us. (And, yeah, this basically comes off as an anti-western civilization flick.)

Contradictions, holes, and stupidity is all well and good, but the movie is polluted with time puns, too. People live in "time zones". Thugs who steal time from others are "minute men". The cops are "time keepers". People constantly say "I finally had the time to ..." meaning they literally had some money to spend.

On top of that, the movie manages to be dull. I'm not even sure how. I think it's all the contrivance. Like a lot of the superhero movies where the battles just seem to go on till the director gets bored but the audience was bored all along because it's all so obvious.

Timberlake is good. He radiates good-guy-ness. (I know a lot of people hate this guy but they also seem to begrudgingly admit he's good, and he is.) I'm not sure Olivia Wilde and he pull of a maternal relationship, but it's so incongruous it's hard to tell. Cillian Murphy is good, as always, and the only one whose character development has a certain element of surprise to it.

I'm not a big fan of Amanda Seyfried (I don't dislike her but I don't get her recent super success) but she's surprisingly appealing as the spoiled rich girl.

Anyway, I didn't avoid a Boy Rant. He hated it with a white-hot passion. Claimed it was worse than Atonement, which is kind of our barometer for bad movie-making. Atonement was only populated by icky people versus the stupid here.

The popcorn was good though. And comped. So there's that.

Captain America. F--- Yeah!

I finally got around to seeing Captain Ameria: The Last Trailer For The Avengers Movie and it was...well, a movie. The superhero things are kind of losing their luster for me; the gee-whiz factor has really been gone for years—a casualty of ubiquitous CGI—but the real thing is just that the movies are getting (predictably) worse.

Captain America starts very strong. It's World War II (the best war). We're introduced to the physically frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who played The Human Torch in The Fantastic Four movies) who, like all red-blooded young American men in 1943 wants to enlist in the armed forces. But he's just a wreck, physically. 4F.

He finds a way in when he's picked out by an army scientist for a super-soldier person. The scientist (Stanley Tucci, who seems to enliven every movie he's in, no matter how otherwise banal) reasons that an honorable, frail man will respect the power that the super-soldier program will give him in a way a naturally powerful man might not.

This part of the film is really good. It's unabashedly pro-American. Rogers is a truly heroic character in his wimpy form. And the transformation from wimpy dude to muscle-bound hero is great. (Well, really, it's the imposition of Chris Evans' face on a frail body that's so impressive.)

It's after he becomes Captain America that things start to drift. First, he's off selling war bonds. This is kind of cool and realistic, but it goes on too long. But then it gets into the action. And the action is, well, meh.

You know, director Joe Johnston has made one really excellent film: October Sky. But I guess that stuff don't pay the bills, so he does stuff like Wolf Man and Hidalgo—which, upon reflection all suffer in the same way. Johnston likes his characters, and you see this in a lot of little ways. Every character seems to matter.

But the action is just dull. It's all of the "fight until the scene is over" kind of stuff. The story progresses as it should but lacks tension and excitement.

Acting-wise, Evans seems to have gone to charm school since his Johnny Storm days, which is good, given the role. Hayley Atwill is appealing even if her character is somewhat stale even by comic book standards. Tommy Lee Jones is Tommy Lee Jones. And Toby Jones is Toby Jones, but with an English accent.

Then there's the villainous Red Skull. He's played by Hugo Weaving, who's been a popular heavy since his days of menacing Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies. (He also made elves a lot more menacing than I imagined them to be in Lord of the Rings.) Thing is? He's actually way scarier without the Red Skull makeup.

The Red Skull's villainy is another place where director Johnston seems to lack conviction. I mean, he's a Nazi and he's got all kinds of blasty weapons, but there's no blowing-up-a-planet moment. I never felt like he was a real threat to the Captain.

Suffice to say that The Boy was mildly offended at the stupidity of the action scenes. Even with low expectations, they weren't met. And we did find ourselves talking about how bad the scenes were. Like, when the Captain is conducting his first raid amongst a crowd of laser-gun equipped Nazis, you can see the various Nazi extras waiting for their turn to attack. And the Boy felt it was unrealistic for a bunch of soldiers to be firing with automatic weapons at point blank range and not hit anything.

I've always kind of liked Johnston's movies, even when they weren't popular (like Hidalgo), but this whole movie felt a lot like padding. I'm feeling a little milked by the Marvel folks. This bodes ill for the Avengers movie.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Margin Call

We were even less enthusiastic about Margin Call than The Rum Diary, not really feeling in the mood to have a bunch of people who know nothing about high finance lecture us on the evils of high finance, but The Boy's grandfather recommended it (mostly on the strength of the acting). The Boy likes to tell people why their opinions are wrong, so he figured there'd be at least that going for it.

We didn't hate it, but on reflection it does sort of seem exactly like what we thought: People who don't understand high finance trying to lecture on the evils of high finance. But there's a kind of honesty there: They don't try to demonize everyone involved which is good, but at the price of there being no really strong moral dilemma.

Basically, the story is that a finance company has found that the commodities (mortgage-backed securities) it's trading are worthless, and therefore must figure out how to save itself. The story trickles up from a recently fired risk assessor (Stanley Tucci) to a young ex-rocket scientist (Zachary Quinto, who also has a producer credit) and his younger, money obssessed buddy (Penn Badgley), their boss (Paul Bettany), his boss (Kevin Spacey), his boss (Simon Baker) and his boss, the owner of the company (Jeremy Irons). Also, Demi Moore, who seems to be above Spacey but maybe catty-corner to him.

And this is after three layers between the top and the bottom have been eliminated in a big layoff.

The movie gets away with not understanding what's going on by having most of its characters not understand either. (Quinto and Tucci's characters are really the only ones who get it, and most of the characters aren't even interested. This may be true.)

So, I liked the acting, sure. And I thought the characters were well developed, although The Boy disagrees, finding only Bettany's character of interest. The dramatic tension boils down to will they or won't they dump all this worthless stuff on the market, thus ushering in financial disaster. Which characters will go along and which will follow their consciences?

The narrative really, really wants Kevin Spacey be the good guy, but Jeremy Irons—who's pretty clearly meant to be villainous—makes the best points.

Worst of all, the movie uses a sledgehammer of a metaphor, in the form of Spacey's character's dying dog, whom Spacey has been spending tons of money and emotional capital on, but doesn't have the heart to put down. Sheesh.

The Boy was particularly uninterested, but he was 12-ish when the crash occurred and so he didn't have the necessary baggage to understand what the whole impact of everything was. I did, but I was far from bowled over.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Rum Diary

"Is it me, or was that a little...murky?" quoth The Boy upon departing the new Johnny Depp tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary. Or was it The Rum Diaries. Well, whichever, the key thing is the rum part.

The movie is based on HST's novel, which I'm sure I started reading at one point, and pretty sure I never finished, and reminded me of the people I've known who were heavy drug users: They start with good ideas and then just wander off in a haze.

The story concerns a hard-drinking journalist (aren't they all) in 1960 Puerto Rico who writes for the island's ailing rag and stumbles into a role with a developer who plans to turn the island's gorgeous coast into a row of hotels serving doughy, white middle-class bowlers. (Apparently, midwesterners went to Puerto Rico to bowl in the '50s. Who knew?)

The movie opens fairly strong, capturing the kind of gonzo feel HST communicated at his best. At its worst it's self-serving, self-indulgent and elitist. (Is it really so awful that someone puts up hotels that employee 10,000 people?) Then there's the drug use.

Point is, the movie defuses itself and seems to be really more about HST than, say, the audience. It's all kind-of proto-'60s, counter-culture, anti-establishment which doesn't seem all that relevant today.

Good acting from Depp, reminding me of his work in Ed Wood. Richard Jenkins plays the cranky (aren't they all) editor-in-chief. Aaron Eckhart plays to type as the evil developer. Amber Heard is beautiful, wild and vulnerable. Michael Rispoli, whom I'm not familiar with, does a fine job as Depp's sidekick. Giovanni Ribisi plays their crazy, drunk, Nazi-loving sort-of roommate.

Cinematographer Bruce Robinson hasn't directed a film since 1992's Jennifer Eight but I think he does fine with the material, which is what it is. Maybe a few too many scenery shots of PR.

You can probably guess if you have any interest at all, based on your feelings about gonzo novelizing and Hunter S. Thompson, but even if you're a fan, I don't think you're going to find this satisfying.

The Way of All Estevezes


I just saw the new Emilio Estevez movie! How many times do you get to say that in your life? I didn't see Bobby and I don't count his made-for-cable semi-biographical story of the Mitchell brothers Rated X. So, for me, the last time I could say that would be for Wisdom, the first movie Estevez directed in which he starred with Demi Moore as Bonnie and Clyde-style bank robbers of sorts.

Not a great movie but not, I thought, at all unwatchable. So, 25 years later, I was actually kind of favorably inclined toward seeing this film, and I can honestly say it's the best Emilio Estevez movie ever. That sounds kind of snarky but it's not really.

In fact, it's kind of cool: This is the third movie in as many weeks we've seen where the question of religion and spirituality were central to the story. Machine Gun Preacher is (far and away) the best and boldest (probably too much for some) of the three, but Take Shelter has its own quiet depth in its smaller scope.

The Way has an even smaller scope still, as the story of a father—played by real life father Martin Sheen—who goes to collect his son's remains in Europe after he dies attempting The Way of Saint James, a thousand year old pilgrimage. The younger Estevez' role is virtually a cameo; this movie could be seen as a vehicle for Sheen, who I kept hoping would say "Campostela. I can't believe I'm still in Campostela."

Basically, the son, Daniel has dropped out of school a year before getting his PhD in Cultural Anthropology and decided instead to walk The Way. His father, Tom (an optometrist) objects strenuously, tells him he's ruining his life, and that real people can't take a month off their life for this sort of thing.

Of course, I'm sitting there thinking "Emilio Estevez is 50. If he hasn't gotten his degree by now, he's already wasted his life." I mean, if he's still in that "studying in preparation to launch his life," he's kind of missed the boat. Now, he's playing a guy ten years younger (nearly 40, I think the movie says) and so is Martin Sheen ("over 60" compared to real life over 70), but even then I gotta wonder how much a difference a month makes.

But I rolled with it. The movie wanted father-son tension in a neat package, and this was reasonable shorthand.

Anyway, next thing you know, Daniel has died on the first day of his journey and Tom must go to France to collect him. (The Way is mostly in Spain but can start in France.) Once there, Tom becomes possessed with the idea of traveling The Way for Daniel, and spreading his ashes along the route.

This is basically the start of the movie—really, you can get all this from the trailer.

So we got ourselves a road picture. A pilgrim's progress, if you will. The elder Tom taking the 650 mile walk using Daniel's supplies and carrying his ashes on his back. Naturally, he ends up with companions on this trip: a fat, jolly Dutch man, a sexy, bitter (Canadian?) divorcee and a drunk Irishman with writer's block.

Yeah, it's a little cliché. Occasionally, the dialogue gets precious in its attempt to be profound, but for the most part the younger Estevez stays his pen and lets the imagery and the action speak for him.

The four travelers are making their pilgrimage for non-religious, nor hardly even spiritual reasons, which is interesting. The Dutch guy, Joost, is just trying to lose weight. The divorcee, Sarah, is trying to give up smoking. Jack, the drunk Irish writer, is not on a pilgrimage so much as interviewing pilgrims for a travelogue piece. (Apparently, travelogues of The Way are about as old as The Way itself.)

Nonetheless, religion is everywhere, and the movie evokes a kind of Chaucerian feel, with characters drifting in-and-out, and giving a sense of this-is-how-things-have-been-for-centuries. (Maybe it's more Dickensian, but I kept thinking Canterbury Tales.) There's an interesting effect to all this, like God is watching all, and providing some sort of proving ground for the travelers.

In other words, the spirituality of the thing catches up with them, even if they don't quite recognize it. Where this struck me—and maybe this was just me—was with Deborah Kara Unger, who plays the divorceé, and Angelina Molina who plays the caretaker at the pilgrims' first overnight stop. These are both women who are famous, to a large extent, for being beautiful (and Unger's figure, while well covered, does attract our male travelers' attention), but they are not made up or shot in glowing light or anything of that sort.

Angelina Molina has the hand of death on her face. When Tom asks her if she's ever done the trip she says, "When I was young I was too busy. Now I am too old." She's only 55! But she really does look dramatically old.

The whole thing comes off very well, as a very nice movie, with a kindness and depth that maybe isn't really warranted. (Heh.) But it's good. It's not boring. Certain choices are interesting: Jack, the Irish writer, is a cute device for teasing information about Daniel out of Tom, and thereby Tom and his relationship with Daniel—but after setting it up, Estevez just has Tom do a short, very generic (like horoscope-level) bit of exposition and then pulls back, so you can't hear what Tom's saying.

The result is we don't ever really know what Tom or Daniel is like. We only know Tom on his path from grief—another movie-based convenience is that he has to basically go through his catharsis about Daniel in 30 days. I think it's too soon. Reality might be closer to a year of mourning, followed by doing the pilgrimage, but narratives work better when compressed.

Anyway, it's a choice. And I'm not sure the movie suffers much, if at all, from it. They're a father and son. They don't always see eye-to-eye. Specific issues might have ended up seeming overly cute. At the same time, the movie isn't necessarily going to resonate deeply as a result.

Overall, a job well done by Emilio, and a tour-de-force for Martin.

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