Thursday, November 29, 2012

Flight

"This is your captain speaking. If you look out the right side of the plane, you'll see we're passing over the Grand Canyon."

"This is your captain speaking. I've just turned off the No Smoking sign."

"This is your captain speaking. The in-flight movie is Sleepless In Seattle, starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks."

And so it goes for two-and-a-half hours in the riveting tale of a cross-country flight, with Denzel Washington as the low key pilot who lands the plane safely after no issues arise.

Well, no. Of course not. Can you imagine?

Flight is the story of a truly great airline pilot who manages to land a plane safely after a severe mechanical failure dooms it. The malfunction is based on a real life incident Alaska Airlines Flight 261, where all hands were lost despite the daring maneuver that Washington's character, Whip Whitaker, pulls off in this film.

The catch is that Whip is stoned and drunk and sleep-deprived at the time. Really, I had no idea what this movie was about going in, but that's it: It's kind of in the Lost Weekend genre. And it's the kind of story that director Robert "I Guess A Back To Future Part 4 Is Out Of The Question" Zemeckis proved to proficient with his last non-animated film, Cast Away.

It's good. Denzel is good. Kelly Reilly, as his love interest, does a convincing American accent. Bruce Greenwood is the old pal trying to extricate Whip from the mess, and save the airline. Don Cheadle is the slick, cynical lawyer whom Whip manages to amaze. And the great John Goodman is Whip's drug dealer.

Goodman is almost metaphysical in his appearances. Actually, before realizing it was a Lost Weekend, I thought maybe it was going to be a Steambath thing. When Whip and Nicole (Reilly) meet, it's because they've gone to the stairwell to have a smoke, where they encounter a dying chemo patient (James Badge Dale). It's all kind of surreal.

But, whatever the larger thematic implications were to be, it's ultimately a literal scene in a literal movie.

Which brings me to the only real problem I had with it: It was ambiguous about religion, at best. Murky, is probably the word. For example, Whip's co-pilot is a Jesus freak, and he panics when the plane is in trouble. Later, when he can fry Whip (and he has reason to) he prefers to have him pray with him.

This seems to be a matter of him being nuts and Whip cynically exploiting that. I wish we could say that this was just Whip's POV but it's really the movie's.

There's a similarly ambiguous treatment of some nearby baptists who flee the plane crash, but then pull people from the wreckage, and later still make something of a shrine out of the crash site. (This also contributed to the metaphysical feel the movie had at times.)

This faithlessness ultimately weakens the climactic moment of the film. I won't elaborate to prevent spoilage, but there it is.

Still a good movie. Just not great.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære)

I don't know about you but when I hear "royal Danish" I think of pastry, or possibly those cookies that aren't great but are hard to stop eating. So you can imagine my surprise to discover that Danish is a real country (or was once) that has real royalty (or had once)!

Heh.

A Royal Affair is a Danish period piece centered around the story of the not-quite-stable King Christian VII, his neglected English wife, Caroline Mathilda (sister to George III), and the German doctor, Johann Fredrich Streunsee that ran Denmark and schtupped the queen for a while.

Basically, Christian VII is not much of a king, and his council is running the show, protecting all the necessary interests and downtroddening (new word!) all the peasants, until some courtly outsiders get the idea to bring in Streunsee as the royal doctor. Streunsee and Christian hit it off (throuh a shared love of Shakespeare, according to the film) and the German's influence of the Dane grows slowly.

As does his attraction to the Queen, who is neglected in this film due to her not caring much for the King's erratic ways (including his tendency to whore around in public), although (historically) rumors of his homosexuality also abounded. (Naturally. Are there any historical figures who aren't gay?)

The Queen and the Doctor have a love for liberal philosophy. (Tragically, largely Rousseau.) The Danish council doesn't have any interest in any of this reform nonsense, and blocks even the mildest sorts of reforms, like making it illegal to insulate the walls of your drafty old castle with peasant children.

The film is highly sympathetic to the Queen and to Streunsee, and their reforms and it's a highly entertaining tale of—well, really, how thinking with one's sexual organs can interfere with the noblest of agenda. So, I can recommend it on this basis. The Boy also liked.

That said, I couldn't help but notice—help but wonder and dream—if only they had read more Smith instead of Rousseau. They enact ruling after ruling after ruling, changing the country dramatically overnight, or at least meaning to.

The ensuing chaos does not endear them much to The People, even if they quite like not being used as fiberglass. In fact, The People are all too happy to angrily mob it up at the service of the mean-old Council when it tries to get back in power. (Though the implication is that these are like those fake "grassroots protests" the unions are always putting on.)

I couldn't help but notice, though, that all the money for their plans came from taxing the rich—which, if it were ever going to work, it would've been in the Enlightenment or earlier when the rich really did have all the money—and they were soon out of it.

They drained the coffers and made a lot of enemies. Soon, they had run out of other people's money to spend. If they'd operated less from a viewpoint of condescension to the peasantry and more from a viewpoint of respect, a free market could have flourished—that they then could have taxed to fun their wacky schemes.

Well, as you can imagine, it all ends in tears, as these things always do. Everyone (everyone!) portrayed in this movie is dead now, letting it stand as a cautionary tale that no matter how good your intentions are, you will be dead 300 years from now.

Or maybe I missed the point. It happens.

(This film is Denmark's submission to the Academy for best foreign language picture.)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Perks of Being a Wallflower


Ah. Teen angst. Where would cinema be without it? No John Hughes. No causeless rebels. Jungles of ordinary foliage rather than of blackboards...

But writer/director Stephen Chbosky ("Jericho", Rent) goes Hughes one better: He wrote a novel called Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he then wrote the screenplay for and directed.

The story involves painfully shy Charlie (Logan Lerman, Percy Jackson in a former celluloid incarnation) who sort of accidentally makes a couple of friends at his new school Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller, We Need To Talk About KevinCity Island). Actually, young Master Miller is possibly playing his most normal character here, as the out-and-flaming charismatic semi-leader of a bunch of oddballs and outcasts.

Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh are the requisite clueless parents. Paul Rudd is the sensitive, role-model teacher. Tom Savini (of the special effects Savinis!) plays the belligerent shop class teacher.

The teenage rebel model of film, going back to James Dean, had kids rebelling against clueless adults, specifically parents. Teens were angry, see? For nothing in particular, back in the '50s. By the '80s and '90s, it was mostly not being understood, not wanting to live up to expectations, wanting to be meeeeeeeee. Whoever that was.

This is a different beast: The kids in this movie are more depressed than angry, and it's mostly due to directly being abused by adults or other kids. That's kind of refreshing. Sorta. I guess. World's a messed up place, dude.

Anyway, the kids are likable. Good characters. Parents are peripheral, as always. The Boy liked it. And I guess he's the demo. Or maybe 30-somethings are the demo, since the movie takes place 20 years ago. (I think John Hughes used to write about his own school days but dressed them up in modern trappings.)

I was confused because Sam and Patrick are obviously hip, even hipsters, some might say. But at one point Sam gets Charlie to dance with her to her favorite song, which turns out to be "Come on, Eileen". I don't know much about pop music but I wouldn't have thought a song that was released in 1982 (and was hopelessly square by 1983) could be edgy or hip in 1991 or 1992.

It'd be like The Breakfast Club rockin' out (unironically) to "Stayin' Alive".

But I have noticed pop culture these days comes less in waves than an avalanche.

I said after the movie that Emma Watson had to be least sexy starlet around. I had to explain Helen Hunt wasn't a starlet at first. Then he said Kristen Stewart. I guess she's a starlet, but she's also outright unpleasant looking, at least to us. Watson is quite lovely. She's just not sexy. (Not that she doesn't have her moments in this movie.)

It's apparently deliberate. And it's kind of refreshing. She seems more believable in this movie, I think, than if she had vamped it up. Also, and this is a wild notion, she might be trying to succeed more on her acting ability than personal pulchritude. (Some young actresses might have balked at playing girl-next-door to Marilyn.)

Overall an entertaining film. Less whiny than the average teen angst flick. Worth a watch.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Frankenweenie

Tim Burton is back! Way back! All the way back to his original brief stint with Disney which, I think, began and ended with his short film Frankenweenie. If I recall the lore correctly, it was this film that reassured both him and Eisner's Disney that Burton was not a good fit in the Magic Kingdom.

Well, 30 years brings a lot of change, not the worst of which is the general acceptance of corpse-based kiddie entertainment, and so we Burton returning to the fold with this full length stop-motion animated treatment of his previously career-killing professional short.

And?

Well, it's cute. Very cute.

I really couldn't take the Barb to see ParaNorman. Too scary. But she was fine during this movie which, if I'm not mistaken is the only full-length stop-motion animated feature to be in black-and-white. And possibly the first black-and-white kidflick (animated or otherwise) since color became cost-effective.

It's got a nice look. The story takes place in the mythical city of New Holland (Burbank), which looks way less creepy than Edward Scissorhands' pastel suburbia and recalls Ed Wood's Baldwin Park home of Bela Lugosi.

In a cute twist, the townspeople of New Holland are normal, but their children are all escapees from old horror movies. Victor Frankenstein, the lead character, is the normal one. One of his classmates is a hunchback, another looks and dresses like Pugsley Adams. The class bully speaks like Boris Karloff and there's a wide-eyed toe-headed girl who looks like she escaped from the Village of the Damned.

And then there's Victor's crush, his girl-next-door, who looks and sounds exactly like Lydia Deetz from Beetle Juice. And is voiced by Winona Ryder.

Victor's favorite teacher looks exactly like Vincent Price—but sounds like Bela Lugosi from Ed Wood, probably because Price is dead and Martin Landau did the voice.

In a refreshing turn, Victor's parents, while not fully getting him, are actually pretty supportive and cool.

If you don't know the story, it's basically about a kid whose dog gets hit by a car, and he uses his love of science (and his dog) to bring him back. It's fleshed out a bit with the Vincent Price character hosting a science fair, so that soon all the kids are looking to Victor to help them with their science projects (which they mistakenly think his dog is).

It's a cute device that allows them to pile on the references to the Universal horror classics, a little Toho, too, and it makes the 1:20 movie go by fast.

The Boy, The Flower and The Barb all liked it, even without catching most of the references. I enjoyed it but I wasn't really impressed, beyond the look and the fact that the parents weren't completely worthless. It's kind of a desultory affair, moving from scene-to-scene without much drive.

In that sense, it's sort of like Dark Shadows, which itself feels like a wan recapitulation of Edward Scissorhands. But it's watchable and probably re-watchable even. And that ain't bad.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

ParaNorman

You get a lot more corpse-based comedy in the new stop-motion animated ParaNorman than you do in your average kid-flick. Storyboard artist Chris Butler (Coraline) writes and directs alongside Sam Fell (the British director of Flushed Away and The Tales of Desperaux) the tale of a creepy kid who sees dead people.

Basically, Norman is an outcast in his little town, which has a dark history of trouble with a witch. And it's looking like Norman is following in the footsteps of his even creepier outcast crazy uncle, who seems to have some connection with the whole spooky business.

I won't spoil it, though it's not particularly surprising—except for the extent of the aforementioned corpse-based humor. It's not as dark, nor as original as Coraline, and I thought Coraline was overrated. It's fun. Pleasant. Better than Frankenweenie, or at least possessing more of a coherent, sensible story progression.

It's about on a par with Monster House, better (at least to my taste) for being stop-motion rather than (uncanny valley) CGI-ish. And it's a bit darker, where the older film deals with personal tragedy, this film is more about stupid, scared mobs.

A glance at the IMDB boards for this flick reveals discussion dominated by discussions of homosexuality and abortion. (The Internet is the sick, sad world.) Which I guess proves the movie's point about mobs and conformity.

Honestly, I'd forgotten in the past week any references to homosexuality in the movie. Then I remembered, and a little surprised anybody reacted. Basically, there's a gay character in the film. It's obvious who it is. It's one of the oldest gags in the book. Benny Hill would use this joke twice a week on his show. It's the punchline to the "Call Me, Maybe?" video.

Seriously. The world is insane.

Uhhh...voices. There's mostly a bunch of voices that'll make you scratch your head and wonder "Is that someone famous?" I picked out John Goodman and Jeff Garlin easily enough, but Anna Kendrick (50/50, End Of Watch), Leslie Mann, Casey Affleck, Christopher (McLovin!) Mintz-Plasse, Tempestt Bledsoe and Alex Borstein were all just at that vaguely irritating level of recognizability.

I guess people do go to see these movies because some live actor is providing a voice, but I remain lightly annoyed by the practice.

They're fine, though.

The Boy and the Flower both liked but were not particularly excited. I did not take the Barbarienne, because it would have been too scary for her.

Friday, November 23, 2012

President Evil: Redistribution

How could I pass up that title? And you gotta admit, it's a lot scarier than anything to come out of the Resident Evil franchise, on which we are viewing number five in the series. And I have the dubious distinction of seeing all the films in the theaters, I think.

In a way, I'm responsible for the never-ending slow-mo car accident that these movies are.

I'm sorry.

Sorta.

The thing is, with Resident Evil: Retribution, the series has kind of lapped itself. The first movie heavily ripped off The Matrix, but with #5, the movie is now ripping off itself.

It's an accomplishment of sorts. And it's achieved by introducing clones. Clones first appeared at the end of the third movie, and were all killed at the beginning of the fourth, or so it seemed. Those were all clones of Alice, letting me overuse my favorite MST3K joke.

How much Jovovich is in this movie? A Milla Jovovich!

But the clones are back in number five, which allows director PWS Anderson to bring back characters long killed or missing, like Michelle Rodriguez (from #1), Oded Fehr (#2 and #3), Sienna Guillory (#2, #4), Boris Kodjoe (#4), Colin Salmon (#1) and even Mika Nakashima, who is in #4 as patient zero in Tokyo, and in this as a clone perpetually regenerated to simulate the infestation of Tokyo.

They couldn't bring back Michaela Dicker to play the Red Queen, since that role is a perpetual child, and Ms. Dicker I think is currently married and expecting her first grandchildren. (See, that's how long this series has been going. It's a joke, get it?) The did bring back Shawn Roberts as Albert Wesker, super-powered evil CEO dude whom I'm pretty sure got hisself Jovoviched-with-extreme-prejudice in the last picture. But I guess he got better.

They did get the lovely young Aryana Engineer (the little sister in Orphan) to play Newt. I forget what her character name was, but she was Newt to Jovovich's Ripley. I don't mean, "Oh, here's a similar plot point as seen in Aliens." I mean, "Remember how Ripley risks her life to go among the alien pods to free Newt from her gooey fate? Yeah, they did that exactly, with no explanation as to what the zombie creature would be doing encasing people in goo."

I swear Anderson makes movies by addressing the audience directly: "You remember that scene in The Thing? With the walking spider head? Wasn't that great? Here, watch it again, bullet-time style!"

There's a group of wise-cracking mercenaries whose sole purpose seems to be to let you know that Anderson saw The Expendables, and to make sure that Milla gets a break between fight scenes. Anderson has also seen The Day After Tomorrow, Reservoir Dogs and The Shining. Oh, and Westworld.

I'm not complaining. The Boy and I go into these with knowledge and awareness of what we're about to see. This is the least coherent series since Friday The Thirteenth. And it's kind of interesting how it's all morphed over the past decade.

It started as a zombie-based Matrix rip-off. The second one, the only one not directed by Anderson seemed to try to base itself a little more on the actual game. The third one went back to the well that is the Matrix, giving Alice near-omnipotence.

That could have been as good an end to the series as one could hope for. But there's still money to be made, so #4 took all those powers away, although to not much effect. The fourth went heavily into ripping off the Matrix: Revolutions, which was a dry well to begin with. In a movie series that's never been what you might call "smart", the fourth was offensively stupid.

The fifth takes all of this bundled up dumb and then—and I'm not sure how they managed this—removed all semblance of acting from the film. I felt especially bad for Guillory. I know most of the other actors' work. So, when they're bad—and they are—you know the blame falls on writing, directing and editing.

But Guillory is wrestling with all that, plus she's mind controlled, walking around like she escaped Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Hilarity.

And the hilarity is compounded by the arbitrary physics of the Resident Evil universe. I'm not talking subtle or nerdy stuff either. In one scene, rockets are fired into a house and the target sees them coming, runs to the side and fires bullets into the floor enough to fall through the floor and be saved from the resultant blast.

It's as if the slow-mo from the film translates to the physics.

We were giggling through the whole thing. (Of course, we paid $3 for tickets.)

When he's not doing scenes from other movies, Anderson moves from set piece to set piece, with the sole logic seeming to be "I wanna flood New York." or "I want Commie (Nazi?) zombies on motorcycles!" or "Have the tough guy say something funny."

Or, by far the #1 thought: "Let's do this in slow-mo!"

This was the weakest of the movies in the series at the box office, doing worse than the original, if you adjust for inflation, but you can bet your ass it set up a sequel, as all previous four movies did. Much like the movies themselves, the series won't ever reach a conclusion, they'll just stop when they run out of money.

Skyfall

Bond. Gold Bond. That's what secret agents say when they go to the pharmacist for jock itch. Which is apropos of nothing but a lame intro to the latest 007 film Skyfall. On the 50th anniversary of the first flick, Dr. No, this 23rd (?) film in the series eschews most of the darkness of the Casino Royale reboot while not fully embracing the goofiness of the gadget-laden quipping Bonds of yore.

Upshot? Well, we liked it. The Flower had never seen a Bond movie had fun, though she liked the callbacks (the original Bond Aston-Martin, complete with machine-gun headlights and ejector seat) more than the simple radio and trigger-locked gun which comprised most of the film's gadgets.

Plot? Well, the same plot as always. Bond flies to a remote and/or exotic location, where he finds a clue that leads him to another remote and/or exotic location. Some hot chicks get slept with and threatened and/or killed. (One of the creepier aspects of Bond, if you ask me.)

Craig is good as Bond. Dench is good as M. Javier Bardem is maybe a little closer at times to Dr. Evil or, what's-his-name, Bernie Kopell when he was the head of K.A.O.S. on "Get Smart" than Dr. No than was entirely appropriate. Naomie Harris (28 Days Later) is cute as always. Bérénice Marlohe is suitably exotic but pretty disposable. Ralph Fiennes is the uptight suit who looks like he's going to interfere with the MI6 (wait, MI5? Or are they up to MI7 now?). But is he?

Gratuitous Albert Finney.

Having said that we enjoyed it, I would add that there are a lot of things about this movie that are dopey, and even unlikable.

There's a mockery of the Aston-Martin, for example, which I take as dissing the kind of now campy feeling of the old movies. But this movie is just as dopey as the old ones. At one point, Bond calls in the cavalry and you kinda think "Bond doesn't usually do that but it makes sense that he would." So, great, a blow for something a little more realistic than a laser pen.

Except that by doing it an hour earlier, it could have happened with a lot less bloodshed.

Likewise, the new Q is all tech-oriented, using computers instead of shoe-phones or whatever the spy gadgets are. But the villain has demonstrated superior hacking skills (a la Napoleon Dynamite) for the whole movie and what does Q do but hook the evil dude's computer up to MI6's secure computer network.

Is that any less dumb than an ejector seat? I don't think so. An ejector seat is an engineering issue. Things like that, or being the head of the spy agency without enough sense to not wave your flashlight when you're being pursued by the bad guys, are at least as goofy.

Then there's the whole first part of the movie where Bond is sulking because M had him shot. What happened to the stiff-upper-lip thing? It wasn't a gratuitous shooting. A whole bunch was at stake. (Though it doesn't pass the technological laugh test if you think about it for five seconds, which you shouldn't.)

That said, it's a fun romp. We all liked it.

Probably the best hidden thing about this movie is that it's directed by Mr. Kate Winslet himself, Sam Mendes. And that means that while he was doing this he wasn't directing another angst-ridden "I hate suburbia" movie.

So, there's that. And that's something we can all be grateful for.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Posession

What if, instead of centering around Roman Catholics, The Exorcist had centered around orthodox Judaism instead? If you've ever asked yourself that question (and I know I haven't), Posession is the movie for you.

In this case, the demonic spirit comes to an unsuspecting young girl, Hannah (played by a very Lohan-esque looking Natasha Kalis) via a dybbuk box. You may remember a few years back, some wag put a dybbuk box up for sale, claiming to have suffered various ill effects from the spirits within. Well, Leslie Gornstein wrote an article about it for the L.A. Times, and Juliet Snowden and Stiles White turned it into the screenplay for this flick.

Based on a true story, right?

Anyway, Hannah's parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgewick) have recently divorced and dad's moved into a spooky new exurban tract home where most of the action takes place, even though it's the girl and the box that are the issue. Unpopular with Hannah and her big sister (played by the impossibly-named Madison Davenport) is smarmy new guy, Grant Show (in a thankless role you know isn't going to turn out well).

The exorcist is played by the "Hasidic Reggae Supertar" Matisyahu, whom I would've sworn was someone from the Apatow crowd with a long beard. But it's a small role.

What we have here is an updated Exorcist, stripped of any theological depth, and of any special effects that might give it an R rating. It's not quite the Hawaiian curse episode of "The Brady Bunch" but in steering away from most of the unpleasant aspects of possession, what you end up with is a movie that's probably easier to watch, but more of a thriller than a horror flick. (Since the underpinning is still horror, though, it's a thriller without any of the laws of physics or causality.)

It's not bad. It's just not very good, either. I got a small kick out of mentally cataloging all the similarities between this and The Exorcist, most of which weren't really necessary. In the older, better movie, the divorce was critical to the story, for example. In this movie, it's just a thing. For example, at one point the father is supposed to have hit the Hannah; this doesn't really develop, though.

At one point, they go to the hospital for an MRI, like in the original. Only one thing comes of this, and then the movie ends up playing out in the hospital, with all kinds of chaos and heck breaking loose, but with absolutely no staff or other people around somehow.

There's actually a lot of stuff like that in this movie: Ideas that are things but just sort of sit there. The dybbuk box itself starts out pretty strong and is critical to the movie, but for something that might have been used to create some suspense, it spends most of the middle of the movie feeling like a prop.

Dad is not around because he's a sports coach, except when he is, which by the very structure of the movie is necessarily all the time—he's basically the main character—so that whole angle doesn't really pan out.

It's just feels shallow and unambitious, which is an unfortunate thing to mix with "blatant clone of classic film". It's not horrible or anything and, much like House at the End of the Street, it could easily be on TV and you could watch it during dinner without worrying about being grossed out or even particularly jumpy.

Kyra Sedgwick was really good, though. She'd been playing "The Closer" for so long, I practically forgot she was playing a character. She plays a completely different sort of character here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Sessions

What's a paralytic polio victim to do, once he's hit 38 and wants to get some action?

I'm assuming here, the guy has no game, what with being in an iron lung most of his life.

Well, if he's a poetic Catholic in Northern California in the late '80s, he might consult with his priest. And since it's Northern California in the late '80s, that priest is probably going to encourage him. And before you know it, he's got a sex surrogate showing him the (heh) ins and outs of makin' sweet love.

And who better to star as the sex surrogate than Helen Hunt, reprising the role she played 20 years in The Waterdance? And who better to replace Eric Stoltz than John Hawkes?

Nah, just kidding, the two movies aren't really that close. Just paralysis and naked Helen Hunt.

So, this is a typical Hollywood glorification of sin and promiscuity, but it's a pretty good movie for that.

John Hawkes plays Mark O'Brien, a sufferer of polio (based on a true story!) who finds himself yearning for a real romantic relationship, especially when he replaces his frumpy old caretaker (played the great character actress Rusty Schwimmer) with the hot young co-ed (Annika Marks).

This leads him to Moon Bloodgood (who is quite good in this, apparently surviving her brush with the mediocrity that is "Falling Skies"). Then Helen Hunt. And finally Robin Weigert. Lotta chicks end up liking this guy.

Earl W. Brown also has a role, by the way, making a mini-"Deadwood" reunion (Hawkes, Weigert and Brown).

So, the acting is top notch. Hawkes is great and consistently under-appreciated around award season.

The story—well, it's touching. O'Brien wrestles with God and theology, and is genuinely concerned at the prospect of sinning. And you can't help but root for him. He's a sensitive, intelligent guy with normal drives that are utterly thwarted by his physical state.

It's the sort of thing that the secular world just says "Screw theology. Go for it." The fact that the movie never really gets deeper than that keeps the proceedings light and fluffy, but probably shortchanges Macy's priest and O'Brien's devout Catholic.

Eh. It's impossible not to root for this guy and hope that his "sessions" don't work out. But it's shallow in the area of morality.

The story touches briefly on the general ickiness of sex surrogate-ness. Hunt has a kid and is married to a worthless "philosopher" (the always excellent Adam Arkin). And while it's all supposed to be profesisonal, O'Brien's desire for a normal, romantic relationship is seductive in its own way to a woman whose own husband doesn't care enough about her to, you know, stop her from having sex with other guys for a living.

(Hey, that's my interpretation. I'm sure more sensitive ones are available.)

So, fun, lively, heartwarming and incredibly graphic film of dubious moral proportions. View accordingly.

It's impossible to discuss this film without discussing Helen Hunt's looks. She's in her late 40s, which is age appropriate for the role, and she's also about as nude as you can be in an MPAA "R" rated flick. I'm reminded of the saying (attributed to Catherine Deneuve) that "after 30, an actress has to choose between her face and her ass".

Well, Hunt's ass is amazing. Actually, her whole body is. She's lean and tight and there are plenty of women 20 or even 30 years younger who would kill to have her body.

Her face? Well, I'm not someone who ever thought Hunt was a great beauty. But her face is positively distracting in this film. Part of it can be attributed to really severe makeup in the styles of the '80s. But not nearly enough. I suppose part of it can be attributed to knowing what she looked like 30 years ago, though The Boy thought she was odd looking, too.

So, whether it's that she hasn't gotten plastic surgery or that she has, it's conspicuous. (It may be, per Deneuve, that the same leanness that makes her body look so tight also makes her face tight.) It's a testament to her acting ability that she can overcome this, at least to a degree. She still can project a winning warmth and appeal.

But I can't help but wonder if they'd gone a little less porny and had her put on 10-15 pounds, if that might not have better served the story.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

House At The End Of The Street

I suspect The Boy has a little bit of a "thing" for Jennifer Lawrence, so when House At The End Of The Street came to the bargain theater at an opportune time, we shuttled out to see this movie, with it's title reminiscent of so many '70s flicks.

This has a sort of '70s feel to it, actually. Elissa (Lawrence) and her mom, Elizabeth Shue (whom I still know best as the actress who took over for Claudia Wells in the Back To The Future sequels, though she had a small role in Hope Springs) move to a rural town after—I dunno, something happened in Chicago or something.

Anyway, they take up in a lovely house (in the horror movie tradition) across from a house that they thought to be abandoned but in fact houses a boy a couple of years older than Elissa. The boy, Ryan (Max Thieriot), lives there alone because his parents were murdered, apparently by his sister, who ain't raht-in-the-head.

Faster than you can say "all the high school boys are weenies", Elissa has fallen for the troubled older boy. (Though the movie makes clear that Elissa is experienced, whereas Ryan appears to be not.)

Naturally, Mom's not thrilled with this, which, just as naturally, encourages Elissa to get even more involved and keep it from her mother. All setting up an environment where the whole question of whether Ryan is entirely sane, or whether crazy little sis is running around in the woods and looking to kill Elissa, cannot be properly examined in a timely fashion.

Mayhem ensues.

OK, this is a pretty by-the-numbers affair. But it was utterly trashed by critics (11% on that tomato-based site), and even the audiences (51%) weren't crazy about it. But it's not bad for what it is. There are a few twists that, while far from shocking, do keep things moving.

It's a little slow up front. There are points where Theo Green's (Dread) music is called into service inappropriately, presumably to create some tension in early scenes where none actually exists. (Better choice would've been to eliminate those scenes.)

But it's really not bad. One thing I was curious about was whether Lawrence would be able to pull off a damsel-in-distress role. In most of her parts, she plays a preternaturally strong young girl whose emotions are bubbling just under the surface. That's cool and all, but it's sorta what Kristen Stewart used to do—and never stopped doing.

And, hallelujah, she pulls it off! She's feisty in this but not heroic, emotional but it gets to actually bubble through rather than just percolate, and she actually seems vulnerable in human ways.

So, that's kinda cool. Kid might have some real chops.

So, there ya go: Middle-of-the-road thriller/horror. The camera, shall we say, enjoys Ms. Lawrence without leering at her (maybe that's why the critics trashed it). The Boy was entertained, not finding it great but not understanding the trashing either.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bully

I had wondered why I was seeing so much buzz for Bully, the documentary about school bullying and its consequences until it came to the local bargain theater and the credits rolled.

"Presented by the Weinstein Company"

Ohhhh. You may remember the Weinsteins from when they were Miramax. They gave us Kevin Smith and, more relevantly, used their massive PR machine to secure an Oscar for Shakespeare In Love. So I don't think Dinesh D'Souza has to worry about writing that acceptance speech. We have a winner.

Snark and PR machine aside, Bully is the story of kids who were or have been bullied, beyond the typical shenanigans and well into abuse. Let me say up front that this is a pretty good documentary—I'll discuss its weaknesses in a bit—and it's hard not to feel for these kids.

Fortunately, we were the only ones in the theater, because I was exasperated enough to—well, be more expressive than is appropriate for a public viewing. The kids, of course, cope with the bullying the best they can. They're naive, bitter, optimistic, depressed, playful—just trying for something that works.

But the adults are fucking clueless.

Swearing is appropriate here.

I went to good schools. Yet the one universal quality they all had was a near complete lack of ethics. We hear all the excuses I've heard adults give my whole life in this movie. Things like "let the kids sort it out for themselves" and "it takes two" and other clueless things.

If the purpose of schools is to prepare children for life as an adult, I could never figure out the logic behind letting lunch money be extorted, or turning a blind eye to physical assaults, or even the sort of coordinated social ostracization that happens so often.

I guess women (and sometimes men, too, though I think not as commonly) do the social ostracization thing even outside of school. But, of course, one can escape most social circumstances (unlike school, and prison).

But, last time I checked, robbery, burglary and assault were all crimes. The people who commit them go to jail. The people who defend themselves from it are heroic, and entitled to use deadly force to keep from becoming victims.

The adult perspective of "Well, it's just kid stuff. It's not that serious" imposes an adult viewpoint on a child who can't possibly adopt it. A child doesn't know if that other, bigger child with the mob of friends is going to kill him. And, as this movie shows, it's often very, very serious.

I'm a laissez-faire parent in a lot of ways. But, as I've stated before, I'm suspicious of techniques for handling children that reinforce adults' natural tendency to be lazy. And figuring out the ethics of a situation between kids can be very difficult indeed.

But that's not what we're dealing with here: There are tormentors. And there are the tormented. And neither are served.

Indeed, this is where this movie is the weakest: It alternates between a half-dozen kids, showing a nerdy boy and a black girl and a lesbian and friends of one who committed suicide and so on, and it's probably between 25%-40% more than we need to see. Even my kids, who are pretty unfamiliar with bullying, got the idea in the first hour.

What would've made this movie great is spending some time with the bullies. I can get why this would be challenging but you only get half a story. It's a tragedy with no villain, practically.

And not just bullies but everyone. Bullies are typically loners or small packs that pick on other loners or small packs. But they do so with the tacit (or overt) approval of the entire community.

What possible good comes out of an environment like that?

Yes, whether meaning to or not, this plays to my prejudices as a homeschooling parent. Because nobody seriously questions the academic superiority of homeschooling these days, the fallback is "But what about socialization?!" Yeah. Spare me. I've seen what passes for socialization in schools. It's basically prison with evening furloughs.

So, overall a good documentary, powered a lot by the subjects, but not the best documentary we've seen this year, whatever the Academy Awards say. The Boy and The Flower both liked, even though they had limited experience with bullying. (The Boy has always been immune and The Flower is very cognizant of the jerkiness of some of her peers. She finds it disappointing but isn't trapped enough to feel bullied.)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Expendables 2

The Expendables are back! And this time they're caaaaampy! Well, not really, but pretty much all the pretense of gritty seriousness—really, the low point of the first movie—is gone. Stallone turns directing duties over to Simon West this time and, while I'm not a fan, particularly (although I did sort of like Con Air and The General's Daughter), the occasional breaks in reality really work to make this movie feel like a classic '80s CarolCo or Golan-Globus production.

Mickey Rourke is out this time, and Jet Li only has a small role, while Willis and Schwarzenegger have larger roles, and Jean-Claude does some serious van Damage as the bag-eyed baddie. Also, Nan Yu plays the kung-fu chick.

We didn't need a chick at all last movie (except for a brief appearance by Charisma Carpenter, who is back again as the gal who can cheat on Jason Statham and get away with it), much less a kung-fu chick. I would've preferred Maggie Cheung or Michelle Yeoh, who are genuine action heroes from the '80s and '90s, but Nan Yu is fine.

The plot concerns...the plot is about...uh...the plot...

Lost my train of thought, there! I mostly remember explosions at this point, but as best I can figure JCvD is out to capture some old Soviet uranium to sell to the highest bidder, and it's up to the American heroes (also Brit, Swedish and Chinese) to stop him.

The plot allows them to visit an old Soviet fake American town and rescue some Albanian villagers (presumably the ones who don't have Liam Neeson's family hostage). And encounter the Lone Wolf himself, Chuck Norris.

The screenplay is chock-full of '80s action movie references, too. The scenes with Willis and Schwarzenegger are outright goofy. "Die Hard", "Terminator", "Total Recall", "Lone Wolf McQuade" and many other movies are referenced. The action, however, is most reminiscent of Schwarzenegger movies like Commando, where the good guys can spray bullets wildly in the air and there's always a bad guy's body stop them.

Entire battalions are wiped out in less than two hours.

This is exactly what it says on the label: Good-natured, mindless action. The Boy had liked the first one, but like this one a lot better. The Flower had never seen a movie of this ilk, but she is a big Chuck Norris fan, and found the whole thing agreeable and fun.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

The team that brought you In Bruges and The Guard is back, doin' what they do best. (Basically, making you laugh at slightly awkward and/or totally inappropriate things.)

This time we've got Colin Farrell back, but no Brendan Gleason. Instead we have the incomparable Christopher Walken and the always amazing Sam Rockwell. Walken and Rockwell run a dog-napping scheme where Rockwell steals people's dogs and then Walken returns them to collect the reward. (This is a real thing, by the way.)

Farrell is a drunken Irish writer with writer's block. The movie is, of course, very aware that cliché which is the font of some humor and a significant plot point.

This is a typically fun flick—and you should know by now if this sort of thing is your sort of thing—where Rockwell ends up kidnapping a local mob boss's (Woody Harrelson) dog and he really loves his dog!

A fun part of the movie is that it points out who the psychopaths are as you go along. And there is a mix of real and fictitious psychopaths (Farrell being a writer, after all) that keep  you guessing along the way. This ends up feeling a little like meta-humor, though it does so without being campy or cute (as, say, Joss Whedon).

I can't really do much but spoil it, so I'll keep this review short, and just say that it's as good as (and similar in feel to) the McDonagh's previous work.

The Boy was amused. He observed that it kept the humor going all the way through, whereas most comedies tend to have big starts and slow down quickly.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Loopoopoopooper

Time travel is tricky. Not the mechanics; those are impossible. The logic. This was best expressed in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me":

"Oh, no, I've gone cross-eyed."

And so we have Looper, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt is some kind of organized crime thug whose job is killing people sent back from the future for execution. When the mob wants to end the contract, they send the looper back for his younger self to kill, "closing the loop". Hence the title.

On the plus side, the older soon-to-be-dead guy comes back with a lotta gold strapped to his back, and the looper gets to live out the next thirty years, spending the gold and doin' whatever.

In the case of Gordon-Levitt, he turns into Bruce Willis in 30 years. This is preposterous because we know what Willis looked like 30 years and it's nothing like JGL. JGL wears a prosthetic chin and nose in this which is kinda cool, except we do know what JGL looks like now, and it's not like what he looks like in this movie.

And that's just one of many, many preposterous things in this film. For example, the whole business of sending people to the past to be executed, then using people to kill their older selves (an idea fraught with peril which would seem to have no value compared to the risk), and then the whole idea that killing yourself leads to your retirement, which 30 years later leads to the mob killing you.

I mean, what possible purpose could there be to killing loopers thirty years after they stopped working for you? They could pretty much do whatever damage they wanted in that time, so why are you antagonizing them?

The most surprising thing, though, is that the movie works. It's very '70s sci-fi, dystopic with JGL and Willis as anti-heroes—and they are dark, with some quality action and a lively script that's not overly predictable. Writer/director Rian Johnson, who directed one of my favorite films of 2009, The Brothers Bloom, is comfortable in his mildly futuristic, highly dystopic world.

JGL eerily mimics Willis' iconic facial expressions and acting style, which is cool. Willis is dark and disturbed and driven and desperate and some other d-words, to boot. The Americaphobic Emily Blunt is really good, as usual. Paul Dano (Being Flynn) has a critical, sorta weaselly role. Piper Perabo (The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) plays a hooker/stripper with a heart of aluminum. Young Pierce Gagnon is believable as a very perceptive five(ish)-year-old.

Jeff Daniels rounds out the cast as the evil superboss from the future. He's got a beard in this, so you know he's bad. Or a college professor.

It's fun, but it is dark, cynical—though not nihilistic—and parts are definitely unpleasant. The world is unpleasant, and there are some very unpleasant moments. There's not much heroism in "Joe", the character played by both Willis and Gordon-Leavitt, which is critical to the story but probably a deal killer for some of our more sensitive readers.

The Boy liked it a lot, as did the Flower.

Loving "Hating Breitbart"

Well, it was a 25 mile drive into the wilds of Burbank, but The Boy and I caught the documentary Hating Breitbart two weeks ago.

I haven't written about Andrew since his passing in March, finding it almost as difficult to articulate my thoughts about him as about my father, who died last year, though the difficulties stem from entirely different sources. I used to tweet things like "I think @AndrewBreitbart is Batman" partly because I thought he was wealthy (he wasn't) but mostly because he was heroic.

He would confront mobs of screaming lefty protestors. In one clip I saw him single-handedly drive off an entire crowd just by asking them questions. It wasn't just challenging them about who was paying them—they often were paid—but just asking them what their signs meant and to give an example of what they were protesting.

The documentary shows a classic moment of an anti-Glenn Beck mob, where Breitbart challenges him to back up his "Beck Lies" sign with a single example. The guy sputters about hundreds, and Breitbart continues to persist to ask for a single specific example, until the guy just says "I'm not going to fall into your trap."

Of course, it wasn't exactly him, so much as it was the cameras that faced down the mob, which was Breitbart's point. But he was critical to that happening, he was the face of all of  us who are tired of the manipulations and machinations of the radical left.

So, I was "there" for all of these shenanigans (in the sense of following them in real time on social media) and there is very little that's actually new to me in this documentary. (Even the behind-the-scenes stuff reminds strongly of Breitbart on "Red Eye".) I loved it anyway, of course, as I loved Breitbart.

From a technical standpoint, it's a competent bit of documentary film-making. We get a little background and some interviews from pro- and anti-Breitbart people mixed in with the footage of him going to-and-from events, hanging out in hotels and so on.

The music by Chris Loesch does the job, mostly, although I thought the passage used during a scene of one of Andrew's more playful moments was unnecessarily mawkish. I mean, I totally get it because I never even met the guy and get choked up thinking about him, so I can't imagine how it must be for the Loesches. A minor quibble at best.

Without naming names, I can safely say that quite a few people are expert at taking flattering pictures for their avatars. Nobody looks very good in this. I mean, even when some seem to be okay looking, they usually don't look very healthy. Including Andrew, sadly. Part of this is probably due to the impromptu nature of the footage—but not all of it. These are not people with "healthy outdoor lifestyles".

Overall, it's less slick than D'Souza's 2016, but relatively fast-paced and of course more inspirational than terrifying (as D'Souza's film is meant to be). Ultimately, Bretibart's battle is the more important one.

A pivotal part of Frank Miller's seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns involves Batman training other people to be, in essence, Batman. He's older, the corruption is out of hand, fighting crime is not a job one man can do any more (if it ever was).

Breitbarts hatred of the distortions and outright lies of mainstream media led him to exhort everyone to carry cameras with them, to record everything, to learn to be Batman, because Batman won't be around forever, at least according to Miller's book.

Of course, Batman being fictitious will always be around, unlike Breitbart. Which would seem to make it more incumbent on the rest of us to step up.

Yeah, I really can't give up on the whole "Breitbart is Batman" thing. Down to hoping he faked his own death to better fight evil, as The Batman has done so often. When the credits rolled, someone in the audience is front of me said "We got your back, brother."

The Boy, who hasn't really followed this stuff closely, found it well worth watching.

It's Like Poetry. It Rhymes.

The Boy and I watched the Plinkett reviews of the Star Wars prequels, where they kept showing a clip of Rick McCallum saying something like "It's like poetry. It rhymes." whenever the prequels lamely ripped off an idea from the first (better) movies. By the end, Plinkett is interjecting "SHUT UP!!" after saying it.

It's kinda funny.

But we had our own little rhyming poetry moment this week as signs went up proclaiming "If You See A Downed Power Line Don't Wrap It Around Your Testicles As A Party Joke!"

That wasn't precisely it. The message is something about staying away and calling 911. This reminds me of the reckless driving ads a few years ago. The Powers That Be have now decided people need to be warned away from power lines.

Which is probably true.

But what are the odds the people who most need to be warned can actually read?


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Atlas Shrugged 2: The Shruggening

Is one obliged to see films that reinforce and promote their political and moral beliefs, no matter the quality of those films? I've seen that argument made a lot on conservative blogs. "Go see this, if you don't like what Hollywood puts out." I say "Nay."

"Nay," says I.

Though some of the best and most interesting movies of recent years have been conservative, Atlas Shrugged, Part I, was not really one of them. Though it was "interesting", I wouldn't really recommend it. But the Boy and I did go see Part 2.

Kind of interestingly in itself, we could both recommend it—even if you haven't seen the first one. Maybe especially if you haven't. The first interesting thing about it is: They replaced every single actor from the first movie. No one is back.

An older, warmer Dagny Taggert here, as Samantha Mathis (Princess Daisy from Super Mario Bros, also American Psycho) takes over for Taylor Schilling. An older, gravelier Jason Beghe replaces Grant Bowler as Henry Rearden. Esai Morales ("NYPD Blue") replaces Jsu Garcia (Along Came Polly). And on and on. These changes are largely fine. I missed Michael Lerner as the evil Wesley Mouch, but it's hard to complain too much about Paul McCrane (whom they had to drop a helicopter on to kill in "E.R.").

But if the acting is improved, the actors are greatly aided by the screenplay, which lacks most of the awkward speechifying of the first. If I had to guess, I'd say that Brian Patrick O'Toole's screenplay served as a starting point for this movie but producer John Agialoro is not credited on part 2, and two other writers (Duncan Scott and verteran TV writer Duke Sandefur) did some cutting out and punching up, as it were.

The awkward dialog is mostly gone, with only one kinda weird speech given at a party by Esai Morales. And tt's primarily weird because of the context (a party). The whole thing is generally less stilted, which gives rise to a few more intended laughs than the last.

Chris Bacon's music works better than Elia Cmiral's did.

The story still sits uncomfortably between current day and its 60+ year old roots. The whole ore/steel/train thing is more than a little dated, and the central dramatic plot point revolves around the shame brought on by a woman who has an adulterous affair (even though she's not married, and the guy, who is, is not really going to be affected by it).

I'm pretty sure today that sort of thing is empowering or something. (For women, anyway. You could even argue it would be reversed today.)

Overall, though, the whole thing works better. The Boy, who liked the first one, commented that this was a lot better. And, honestly, it's not like you can't figure it out without seeing the first one.

I can recommend this, if somewhat reservedly, but without reservation admit that I'll feel a whole lot better about seeing part three—if they make it, which they might not, because I think this movie has flopped even more than the first one.

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