Monday, December 31, 2012

Les Miserables

I had largely avoided the '80s phenomenon that was Les Miserables but as the title cards rolled on this movie version of the opera, I suddenly realized: Holy crap! This is why we got that abominable 1996 Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame!

I mean, think about it: Why on earth would anyone say, "Let's take this dark, cynical satire about 19th century French culture and make it into a children's musical!"? Certainly, I wondered at the time, but I figured someone had seen that episode of "The Critic".

Blame all your cares and woeses
On the one with scoliosis

Heh. Brilliant, underwatched show. It seems likely that this segment was inspired by Les Miz just as this classic scene from South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was.

My kids have these moments all the time: "Oh, so that's what that's referencing."

Anyway, Andrew Lloyd Weber managed to turn me off modern musicals with Evita (and truthfully, every song from every musical of his I've ever heard), and I regarded this film with suspicion, not just due to its vintage but its length and potential pomposity.

And?

Actually, I liked it. A great deal. As did The Boy and The Flower. Despite its length, it moved along at a breakneck pace. It is an opera—virtually, no spoken dialog at all—which The Flower finds more accessible than the traditional American musical form where people break into song and dance, but nobody really notices.

The only time the movie really stops is for the various emotional set pieces. And they are emotional. As Kurt Loder wrote, "I have to admit that I was sometimes moved to the verge of contemplating the possibility of tears." (For myself, I did actually mist up at times, though some of that may have been due to just getting The Boy out of the hospital.)

Some have said that it is bombastic. I don't think I'd disagree with that. But it worked for me, dealing as we are with epic archetypes.

Some have said that Hooper's tactic of having the actors actually singing rather than lip-syncing didn't work. I would strongly disagree with that. I often find lip-syncing distracting, even alienating.

Some have said Russell Crowe's singing voice is not up to the task. I can only weakly argue against that by saying his parts were not especially tuneful, nor would they be assisted much by being so. I do agree that his denouement doesn't come off as well as it should.

Hugh Jackman is amazing. Amanda Seyfried surprised the heck out of me. Anne Hathaway continues to win me over, despite my earlier resistance to just about everything Anne Hathaway. Samantha Barks practically steals the show in her short on-screen time. Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provide much needed comic relief with aplomb.

The music? For the most part, I wasn't greatly impressed. It feels tightly constructed, and deliberately (I assume) reserved musically. However, it may be one of those things where I have to listen to the music multiple times to really get it. (Though I should note that while I adore Sweeney Todd, the music in the movie version didn't do it for me, even though I was familiar with it.)

Parts weren't reasonably catchy, but catchiness wasn't the point. Not that there wasn't someone sitting behind us who felt a need to hum along with the whole thing. (Mom? Is that you?)

So, I'd recommend, if you're not allergic to opera. It is a great story, briskly told.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hobbit (or there)

Get it? Get it? See, the novel The Hobbit has an alternate title of "Or there and back again" but since this is going to be a trilogy, the first movie can only cover the "Or there". (I assume the second movie is going to be "and" and the third will be "back again".)

OK, it's not a good joke, but I think it's an original one.

If you want to go see this movie, you just have to understand that it's not really the novel The Hobbit in movie form. It's Lord of the Rings: Episode I: The Gollum Menace. Where The Hobbit is a charming child's story about a bunch of dwarves going on a gold hunt, this is really just a ponderous exercise in milking a previously non-existent movie franchise.

Seriously, if anyone thinks there won't be a third trilogy based on the remaining appendices of LOTR that weren't used here, and the Silmarillion, well, you're either high or basing it on the vagaries of the movie industry in general rather than, say, greed.

Let me say before beginning my bitch-fest that I didn't hate it. I expected little relatable material and an exhausing amount of CGI with more love of excess than good taste, and I got what I expected. This movie really combines the worst aspects of Jackson's LOTR and King Kong, and yet, I say, I did not hate it. Jackson would have had to find new ways to offend me, but he mostly stuck with all the old ways.

The Flower liked it, though she knows the book a little and while she didn't like the deviations, she did like where it was true. The Boy also did not hate it, though he despises Jackson's combat choreography.

As a movie, this is a largely well-produced, well-directed, well-acted and very bland action film. If you liked Battleship, you might like this, for example.

Instead of a, let's say, Jeremy Renner or Daniel Craig as a super-agent, falling from some ridiculous height only to get back up and run off, you have Richard Armitrage as the least dwarfy-looking dwarf in history doing it. Only, instead of a ridiculous but marginally plausible 15 foot drop, you have a suspension-of-disbelief-shattering 300 foot drop.

Instead of calmly walking away from a mega-explosion, but being completely unaffected because you're outside the fiery ball of flame (concussive wave? never heard of it!), you're being smashed by stone giants, only completely unaffected because they didn't directly crush you.

Jackson's King Kong became a crashing bore because of the way the ape juggled around Fay WrayJessica LangeNaomi Watts. Lucas' Clone Wars had similar problems as Annakin threw himself out of a moving flying vehicle from thousands of feet up (culminating in the hilarious "but I have the high ground!" conclusion in the third movie).

Jackson is capable of making some good (or at least comprehensible) choices, like reducing the length of the riddle game part of the book, or reducing the singing (there's a song in nearly every chapter in the book)—and as much as I razzed this in advance, there's one short dwarf song at the beginning that's actually pretty good.

But mostly it's all "Well, if one orc is good and scary, then one thousand will be a thousand times scarier!" Of course, that's not true. One orc can't be scary when your heroes are plowing through thousands of them like they're blind and drunk Imperial Stormtroopers.

And "if being treed by wolf-riding orcs who set the trees on fire is awesome, just imagine how awesome it would be if the trees knocked each other over like dominos and the last tree is at the edge of a cliff that they'll all fall off."

I confess: I laughed. I've always considered myself a fan of excess. I had no idea what excess was. Ken Russell (Tommy, Altered States) called from the grave to say "Whoa. Dude."

While this stuff is tasteless, it's not really what bugs me. What bugs me is perhaps best illustrated by this "Rejected Pitches" sketch. In this presumedly comical video, three cretinous Hollywood types explain how Lord of the Rings couldn't possibly get made because it stars a bunch of short, fat, hairy ugly leads.

That would be hilarious if the LOTR movies were actually about Frodo and Sam. On about the second movie, they became about the love story between Aragorn and only-a-footnote-in-the-book Arwen, and all the improbably and poorly choreographed human battles. By the third movie, they were all about the superheros, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf with more momentum killing love scenes and even less coherent combat scenes.

The Hobbit doubles down by making it largely about the dwarves, particularly the leader, Thorin, whom I've mentioned is the least dwarf-y looking dwarf, having a minimum of facial hair and less exaggerated features than the others.

Did you know that Tarzan was about 38 years old through most of the books? Did you know that Conan the Barbarian was a bit over 6-feet tall and, as a teen, about 180 pounds? Did you know that Edgar Rice Burroughs was about 38 when he wrote the first Tarzan and Robert E. Howard was a bit over six feet tall and about 180 pounds?

Why is this important? Adventure stories tend to be power fantasies. They reflect the audience's and significantly, the author's desire to express themselves in a way that's not socially acceptable.

While the geeks love the massive detail behind Tolkien's fictitious world—and I've had Tolkien fans explain to me that the whole Arwen subplot was just super, being stuff explained in the appendices—the real magic in the stories is their diminutive heroes.

Hobbits aren't just reluctant heroes, they're incapable heroes. They can't fight (too small). They can't run fast (Bilbo must be carried by the dwarves at times in The Hobbit). They have no magic. They can be clever, but are not notably brilliant.

About all they've got going for them is that they're small enough to go unnoticed sometimes, and can move very quietly. Bilbo Baggins is also credited by Gandalf as being very lucky, which is central to him finding the ring.

More than that, they're completely disinclined toward adventure. They have as many meals as they can fit in in a day, they have their comforts and are happy with them, and they even, as a group, strongly disapprove of anything smacking of adventure.

In essence, they are modern man, at least as far as early-20th century English professors are concerned. Bilbo, like Tolkien, is a middle-aged man, comfortably padded, and vaguely remembering the adventures of his youth.

So, here we have Tolkien's power fantasy: No super strength or agility or toughness. The hobbits are heroes because they endure (though seldom without complaint), and because they possess a certain degree of humility. They're good, but not angelic—they are, in essence, humans, moreso than the actual humans of Middle Earth, who are often heroic.

This is what makes the latter LOTR movies and this Hobbit movie is so bland. The extraordinary humanizing qualities of the hobbits is replaced with standard sword and sorcery hijinks. And, look, I've read all of Tarzan, all of Conan, all of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, all of Bran Mak Morn—I love standard S&S hijinks.

And this movie is...well, it's okay S&S, but it's actually held back by the source material, since there's a whole lotta deus ex machina in the book undermining traditionally heroic story approaches.

The gravest injury to the narrative is the climax of the movie, which, while it was way too obvious for me to consider a spoiler, is sort of a spoiler, so if you don't wanna be spoiled, stop reading here.

OK, stopped reading? Here goes: The book's narrative of the dwarves' general lack of faith in Bilbo is, in the movie, concentrated specifically in Thorin. This creates dramatic tension. Thorin can barely stand Bilbo. Since we know that can't persist, we also know something will have to happen to change that.

In the book, Bilbo increases his stock with the dwarves bit-by-bit, with luck and pluck and even a little deception, at the same time increasing his faith in himself. Jackson replaces some of the luck of the book with Bilbo's actions (meh, but okay, I guess), but in the final scene, Thorin is about to be killed by an orc when—

—Bilbo tackles the orc and slays him.

This completely perverts the central notion of hobbits. Now, instead of being brave little souls who try even though they're not physically capable of surviving direct conflict, they're kind of just cowardly jerks. Apparently, they've been able to fight orcs directly all along, and they've just been holding out.

Well, I guess Bilbo just packed a lot of heart. Which I guess would mean, he didn't have any heart before.

Stupid. Self-defeating. Perverse, even. But hey, you got trolls blowing their noses on Bilbo.

Paranormal Activity 4: This Time, It's Again

So, the joke running around about Paranormal Activity 4 goes something like "Isn't the activity pretty normal by this point?" Haw haw haw haw! Let's see how much you're laughing when a demon-faced skank snaps your neck like a pretzel. Er whatever.

Actually, the tragedy of this movie isn't in the paranormal so much as it is the activity. As in, they should've called Paranormal Inactivity. It's slow, is what I'm getting at.

Now, the series has always been marked by long, atmosphere building set pieces where your eyes strain to pick out ghosts in the grainy video footage, punctuated by sudden sharp violence, made all the more convincing by its swift, bloodless finality. The previous movies were quite a feat, really: A whole lot made out of very little action, kind of like the old, dark house movies of yore.

But as I noted last time, the effects are getting kind of played out. (The horror effects, the movies still have few special effects.)

If the franchise were about the story of Katie and her witchy family, they could have continued their trek back in time to see how the whole thing began, ditching the video camera approach for a more traditionally cinematic one.

But, of course, it's not. It's really all about the technique, and audiences would probably reject something that expanded the story while using a different approach. At the same time, there has to be some connection, I guess, because audiences would probably reject a new story, too. (See Halloween 3. Or don't, it's awful.)

So, we have a similar story as in the previous movies, about an apparently completely unrelated family that happens to live next door to Katie Featherstone (last seen stalking around the movies as a demon) and happens to have an adopted son. No one will be seated during the shocking twist tipped in the first scene!

Nah, that's not fair. There's no twist here. Well, the stinger is sorta twist-ish, in the sense that it's only vaguely alluded to and primarily references the previous film, but it's more likely to create a "huh?" than a frisson.

The only really fresh thing here actually comes from Microsoft (ironically, since MS never does anything fresh except by accident). The family has a Kinect, which is a cool device that allows you to control things on the X-Box without using a controller. The way it works, apparently, is to throw out infrared beams and detect movement through those multitude of beams.

Using night-vision, these beams look like a green dots plastering the room, which provide great camouflage for ghosts. (Who knew?)

Anyway, we thought the couple of moments where scares were actually employed were reasonably effective. Just very few and far between.

Despite doing relatively poorly, there will be a fifth movie, of course, but no one will blame you for having bailed out after the second one.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Dredd

It would be damning with faint praise to say the new cinematic interpretation of the British superhero Judge Dredd was better than the old 1995 one but, you know, nothing like saying it was worse than Danny Cannon's goofy, pre-strained bland disappointment.


It didn't help that Stallone's slide into self-parody had practically lapped itself by that point, and the successful action movie formulas of the '80s had distilled themselves into safe, boring pablum. And you have to be kidding yourself to think that a modern action movie is likely to be much (if any) better.


So, the good news is that this avoids the worst sins of the old film: Particularly Rob Schneider. Not that it was Schneider's fault, but the whole story of a cop with a noob rookie chick partner, a comic relief sidekick, fighting against a corrupt system? Ugh.

And while there are bad judges, the system itself is portrayed as being overwhelmed rather than corrupt at the top. (This apparently maps to the comic book, where the top judge is incorruptible.)

And instead of a plucky Diane Lane (whose character makes little sense in Dredd's dystopia), we have a sort of odd, ethereal Olivia Thirby, whom Dredd is supposed to "field test". She doesn't meet Judge criteria, but she's psychic, which works out better than it sounds.

In a refreshing change from most of these modern comic book interpretations, we don't take up 40 minutes with an origin story: Basically, there's a dystopic future America with crime-ridden megalopolises peppered with giant towers where the poor peeps live. The Judges are one-man legal systems, catching the perps, sentencing them, and occasionally (when they resist arrest) executing them.

In this case, Drudge, played by Karl Urban, and Anderson (Thirby) track down some murdered drug dealers to a vicious drug kingpin MaMa (played with typical vigor by Lena Heady), who dominates a large tower in a particularly bad sector of town. For reasons I forget, MaMa decides that her best option is to kill the two Judges rather than let them go back and report their discoveries.

In service of this end, she gets the tower locked down into "war mode", traps our two heroes inside and has her goons go after them, floor-by-floor. In essence, Anabasis, then. (Think more The Warriors than End of Watch.)

Actually, I've been playing this sorta non-game, and all I could think was "Wow, this is just a really dysfunctional Tiny Tower.) And then, "Wow, that would be a 10 times better game than the actual Tiny Tower."

Karl Urban, once again manages to amaze, playing Dredd straight, with a touch of Sylvester Stallone and a fair amount of Peter-Weller-as-Robocop. It reminds me of his performance as Bones in Star Trek. Just enough DeForest Kelly to be appealing, without being parodic or campy.

So, acting is good, story is unpretentious, and the direction is mostly pretty crisp. Entertaining.

Flaws? Well, it's violent. While that's not so much a flaw as a prerequisite for this kind of film, and while it's better than the kind of bloodless fare of the '90s, the stuff here is gratuitously graphic, a la Killing Them Softly. Maybe more so. It's also a bit over-the-top at times.

This is magnified by the "slo-mo" drug, which is the movie macguffin and causes the user to perceive things in extra slow-motion. Naturally, much of the violence that occurs is seen from the perspective of the drug-users. Since nothing is really from their perspective, this comes off as a cheap and transparent gimmick.

But that's kind of a minor nitpick. If you don't mind the gore, it's a pretty good flick. Even The Boy liked it, and I doubt I could get him to sit down and watch the '95 version.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Hitchcock


The Flower is at the age where she's starting to get more cultural references (at least more outside juvenilia) and this naturally exciting development got her enthused to see Hitchcock, the biopic of the auteur centered around his making of the cinematic masterpiece that is Psycho.

We watched Psycho a few months ago; I also showed her Hitch's little featurette, which she may have liked more. The trailer for the Hitchcock movie features a lot of similar humor, so she was quite excited. I even got a picture of her in the shower display, although she was stabbing out rather than being stabbed. (My kids.)

Hitchcock features Anthony Hopkins in the title role, and it is nice to see him do some acting after what seems like a decade of phoning it in. (Well, not quite a decade. He was great in 2005's World's Fastest Indian, an under-stated and under-rated gem.) Helen Mirren plays his wife Alma, and she's good (of course) but the role is almost unbearably traditional, i.e., supportive and neglected wife.

Danny Huston (son of John) plays the stiff (heh) lothario that's wooing Alma but perhaps entirely to get his material to Hitch, while working actor Michael Wincott plays Ed Gein, Hitch's spiritual counselor throughout the movie.

Standouts include Ralph Macchio as the screenwriter, Joe Stefano, and James D'arcy, who seemed to actually channel Anthony Perkins, both in very brief scenes.

Jessica Biel plays Vera Miles, who Hitch loved and lost when she decided to take time out have a family. There's a rumor going around Hollywood that Biel is upset over not getting the roles she wants. There's another rumor that this is due to what's called in the industry "not being very good". The latter rumor is confirmed in this film, sadly. She's not bad, exactly. She's just not very good.

Actually, I kept thinking of that scene in Ed Wood where Sarah Jessica Parker (playing Dolores Fuller) is doing a line with Juliet Landau (playing her usurper on Bride of the Atom, Loretta King) reads a line across from her, and does it masterfully badly. It's the sort of bad acting actors love to do, and there are hints of inappropriate anger and jealousy along with the overacting that comes with trying to upstage.

I kept thinking of that scene whenever Biel played against Scarlett Johansson's Janet Leigh. Johannson is immensely appealing as Leigh, being cheerful and professional and cooperative without being intimidated by Hitch, a phenomenon at least partly explained by her previous movie having been with Orson Welles. Kinda surprised me. I sorta though Johannson peaked with Eight-Legged Freaks.

This is one of your typical end-of-the-year acting movies and it largely doesn't disappoint. The fat suit Hopkins wears is a little bit distracting (some times more than a little) but sometimes he's dead on.

The movie excels in a few areas: When covering the actual making of Psycho, showing Hitch in all his arrogant glory and passion for art, it's very good indeed—if not exactly accurate. Hey, some of these stories are legendary, like Hitch getting the reaction he wanted out of Janet Leigh by using cold water, not by doing the stabbing himself in a particularly convincing manner. We know that Janet Leigh doesn't blink after being killed, she breathes.

Or at least we think we know that. We also thought, for example, Leigh was never naked in the film, but she later claimed that the moleskin she was covering her modest with washed off on one occasion. And that the shower scene originally tested to laughs, before the music was added in, though some are say it wasn't test audiences so much as the scene not working for Hitch and others "in post".

Well, whatever: one shouldn't expect a rigorous study from a pop film. It's fun enough and close enough, however much people think Hitch should have been shown as a sadist, or bit players think they should've gotten more credit.

The story of the making of the movie is glued together with a melodrama about Hitch's obsession with his leading ladies and Whitfield Cook's (Huston) wooing of Alma, and also the great financial risk of making the movie (even though the movie defuses that by pointing out the vast amounts of money Hitch was getting from his TV series, thanks to his agent).

This stuff is almost laughably movie-of-the-week, reducing these great people to weird little neuroses and insecurities. I'm not saying they're not accurate, mind you, because I don't know. I mean, obviously it's not accurate in a literal transcript sort of way, but over the decades Alma and Alfred doubtless suffered all sorts of marital problems so, hey, maybe there's some accuracy here. (Apparently the Alma/Whitfield affair is a "thing", pushed by...Alma Hitchcock scholars?)

But this stuff plods along. Except!

For quite a few scenes in this part, director Sacha Gervasi imposes over the Hitchcock's marital tensions, classic Hitchcokian camera angles. Like at one point, while Alma is bitching about something with her back to Alfred, he's looking at the back of her neck, the camera dollying in like Strangers On A Train.

I think, accuracy aside, Hitchcock himself would've approved of this kind of thing, as he would have the idea that Ed Gein was his sort-of Jiminy Cricket. It really reflected his brand of black comedy.

So, not a great movie, but some great moments therein. The Boy and The Flower both approved, The Flower being particularly excited that she got many of the references.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Central Park Five

I had not known that the Central Park Five were black (and black-ish) until today. Nor did I hear that they had been exonerated ten years ago, which brings us to this latest Ken Burns (and Sarah Burns and David McMahon) documentary.

Let me say that this is, or should be, my kind of documentary. The premise of the movie is that the five kids were abused by the cops and framed for the rape and near murder of a woman jogging through Central Park. Wrongful accusations speak to me; they pique my sense of justice and outrage. (It's one of the reasons I love Hitchcock.)

The strength of this movie comes from that: It's pretty apparent that there was a gross miscarriage of justice here, and it has basically ruined these men's lives. As an examination of police malfeasance, media malpractice and (kind of interestingly) a condemnation of the jury system, it's top-notch.

And yet.

It's far from a great documentary. It has a narrative, and it's going to push that narrative at all costs. Let me explain:

Our story begins when five boys get together with 25 other boys to terrorize Central Park. To say this is glossed over in the movie is to be generous. What we're told is that the five (who mostly didn't know each other) were going out to play basketball and just happened to be around when the mob formed.

While they're in this mob, they witness many crimes. They don't, as far as we know, take part in them, but neither do they attempt to stop them, alert the authorities nor even have enough sense to stop going along with the mob.

And yet the movie actually has one of the five saying "It's as if we were born guilty."

When they're arrested by the cops and subjected to lengthy interrogation and long periods without food or sleep, they—each of them—decide to go along with the cops' plan to implicate one or more of the others (whom they still don't know) in these heinous crimes.

"I just told them what they wanted so I could go home," was the refrain. I guess the cops got the least streetwise five kids in Harlem, since they never lawyer up or exercise their right to remain silent. I'm not condemning them for this; they paid dearly for it, unlike all the others involved.

But it highlights the problem with the movie: It's both absurdly one-sided and the narrative conveniently filled in by people who weren't actually there, weren't involved, and are casting this as condemnation of society in general, using the word "we" in the safe abstract, given that they weren't actually involved.

Burns and Co. were unable to solicit a single interview from anyone on the law-and-order side of the story (perhaps understandable given Burns' deeply leftist worldview), and this absence is used, naturally, to convict them all of unchecked ambition and corruption.

This is a shame, because while it's not merely plausible but probably even true, we never get even a smidgen of insight as to why they picked these five kids to send up (in the complete absence of DNA evidence, and a contradictory timeline).

One of the chief investigators, in a newspaper interview quoted by the movie stands by the conviction, saying she thought the actual rapist was part of the mob who broke off to "complete the assualt". The other one isn't mentioned, though she also stands behind it, saying the truth will out.

See, I'm really hating this documentary now. I feel compelled to point out all these glaring flaws and irrelevancies, but in my heart I believe that even if the five were guilty there were plenty of abuses on the police side that should've short-circuited their prosecution. Why?

  • The movie draws a parallel between the 1989 case and a lynching from the '30s. But the case unfolds over two years, even if the cops made up their minds in 3-4 days, and the boys were duly convicted in two fair trials.  (A fair trial does not guarantee a correct outcome.) And they weren't executed. I've noticed that any time black people are killed by whites, there's an eagerness among some to call it a lynching, which I think is problematic given the frequency of whites killed by blacks.
  • It draws this parallel because it's basically obsessed with race. This case, we are assured, matters to people because it was black and mixed-race kids raping a white woman. The media certainly loves white, female victims (their audience is white female victims, so that makes sense). But as I pointed out at the top, I never knew they were black! I thought the outrage/sensationalism came more from the fact they were kids, they were a mob, and gang-rape was one of their activities. 
Now, I'm not saying my perception is right, but I am saying that the race-obsession was hyped on both sides. The news was completely obsessed with this thing called wilding and blacks were sure that this was all about race.
  • To this point, the movie shows two groups protesting during the trial: Rev. Sharpton's "it's all about race" and a bunch of white chicks demanding the five be punished 'cause, you know, gang rape is not OK. What the movie doesn't point out is that both groups would have been there regardless of the actual facts of the case.
  • So, while Rev. Al's crusading is presented uncritically, despite his involvement around the same time fomenting antisemitism and orchestrating riots under false pretenses, the movie decides to show Donald Trump and a Pat Buchanan column in support of the death penalty, as proof apparently of their complicity in the madness of the times.
  • The focus on the death penalty is extraneous. Probably most people would say that raping and beating to death (the woman lived through sheer luck and toughness) is a pretty reasonable application of the death penalty. (I'm against the death penalty but extraneous is extraneous.)
  • Wait, back to Rev. Al, for a sec: The supporting (non-involved) players in this film are sanctimonious and condemning of society in general (from the safe vantage point of not being involved) and yet here's a guy who inflames society's worst aspects who is displayed without commentary. This is just galling.
  • It's entirely possible that the two women detectives who led the case believed the confessions of the five, and their motivations had nothing to do with ambition, and we see a video of one of them asking over and over again "Are you just telling me what I want to hear?"
  • The one person in the film, other than the five, who was involved and is interviewed is one of the jurors. Apparently, he was a "Juror Number 8" type, insisting that the boys' confessions didn't make sense, and ultimately being browbeaten into voting guilty because (say it with me) "he wanted to go home". That takes a lot of courage to admit, but I can't help but wonder if part of the problem was that the confessions were actually pretty compelling.
  • Note that the jury contained many black people who found these guys guilty. That seems to have had no impact on the narrative.
  • One of the people interviewed is a writer for (I think) the New York Times suggesting that maybe the press dropped the ball, a little. Well, no, they created this mess. They flooded the zone with stories of "wilding". How about interviewing one of the writers actually culpable and calling them out like they did the cops and prosecutors?
  • Given how (according to the movie) obviously innocent The Five were, a little more explanation of how the legal team managed to screw up the case would've been welcome. One of the defense lawyers was apparently literally asleep during the trial. One of the other defense lawyers pointed out that they didn't want to use the "they couldn't have been raping her because they were busy beating up someone else", but the movie totally glosses over this point, preferring to stuff the movie full of "significance" and commentary on America.
  • Seriously, Sharpton appears on the side of the preferred narrative without commentary. The movie has plenty of commentary about "the system" when there are actual indictable bad actors involved.
Al effin' Sharpton!

And that's ultimately what this comes down to: The filmmakers are so eager to show America as an awful place, and generally condemn us all, rather than focus on the specifics of the case. 

I suspect this is indicative of how I'd react to any Ken Burns documentary (I believe this is the first I've ever seen): Positively at first, swayed by the presentation and general sympathy for the message, then slowly getting more pissed off as I realize how slanted the whole thing is.

That's just a guess, though. The Boy liked it, but he probably won't after I get done grousing about it.

Hell, I still don't know if wilding is or was a thing. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez

It's a common fate of yesterday's stars to end up, at the end of their lives, starring in low budget films. This can be tragic or exploitative, and a lot of great actors have a really crappy flick as their last. Sometimes, it can even lead to a career resurgence, or a second wind.

And so we come to the last film of one of the hardest working actors of the past 60 years: Ernest Borgnine as The Man Who Shook The Hand of Vicente Fernandez, a really wonderful close to a wonderful career. (Not that Borgnine wasn't in a ton of schlock, but he was always enjoyable to watch.)

The 95-year-old goes out as "Ricochet" Rex Page, a former DJ who is obsessed with a role he didn't get some 45 years ago in a low-budget Western  called The Good Man Who Died Bad.  He's so obsessed that he watches an old video of the movie (the only one in existence, according to his daughter) over and over again, and his 10-year-old grand-daughter can recite the parts with him.

As it turns out, he flubs the closing monologue, probably at the time of the audition (though it's not spelled out) and even now, decades later. Despite this, and despite being really old, ol' Rex is on the phone with his agent (the same one from decades ago, apparently) and on the ball for the next big score.

The story starts when he has a stroke (I think that's what it was) and ends up in the Rancho Park Assisted Living Center, which is run by one of its members (the great Barry Corbin, playing older) in the fashion of a bad-ass gunslinger in a one-horse town.

This is the movie's central conceit, and it is adorable. Rex comes in as the man-with-no-name and is slowly won to the service of the Latino staff, to whom he becomes a hero when it's discovered that, as a DJ, he once shook the hand of Vicente Fernando, a legendary musician the staff adores (and whose concert is a central plot point). Their faith in him fulfills a longstanding desire to be somebody and gives him strength to fight the evil Walker clan. ("Walkers", get it?)

So, the whole movie is set up as a spaghetti western taking place in an old folks' home. This conceit kept us laughing throughout most of the movie. It's corny and overdone at points, but it's still just really funny, thanks in no small part to Ernest's earnestness.

The dramatic parts are also a little corny and ham-handed, but very good-natured and enjoyable nonetheless—and they ultimately work as a dramatic arc for a lovable curmudgeon.

Borgnine is remarkably vigorous for a 95-year-old. I wouldn't say his performance is perfect. There are times when he stumbles over his lines in a way that suggests that, either for budget reasons or due to his age, they didn't re-shoot. He's comfortable as a crotchety character (a la McHale) but less so as an angry one, which he must be a couple of times here.

Perhaps he had less far to fall than Peter O'Toole, but his acting here was about what it was 30-35 years ago, and I could've easily believed he had another 5-10 years left in him. (Whereas I was surprised to see O'Toole still alive after 2006's Venus.) This is more like Christopher Plummer in The Man In The Chair, who has followed up with several more great performances.

The movie itself is nicely filmed, jam-packed with shots recalling the old Westerns, with its low budget only showing up in a few obvious ways, such as close shots on crowd scenes. Ruy Folguera's music, too, occasionally suffers. Sometimes it's spot-on, but in a couple of already heavy-handed scenes, the dolorous and cloying celeste (or more likely the celeste setting on a synthesizer) is almost overpowering.

The movie's strength is the Western parody/homage, because it ends up speaking to the nature of human dignity and desire for respect. The weakness is spelling it out. Nonetheless, we all enjoyed it.

It doesn't seem to be getting a big roll out. Borgnine is not the box office draw he once was (or was he?) and the producers seem to be focusing on turning out the Latino community for this. But it's a fun little romp, sweet, with a nice ending.

Check it out.

A Late Quartet

The real problem with the sort of award-baiting drama like A Late Quartet is that we're most likely to end up wanting to strangle all the characters. That's one reason this movie was low on the list of flicks to see. I mean, look: The story of a string quartet which is thrown into upset when the cello player announces he has Parkinson's disease and the remaining three are juggling their ambitions and personal lives practically reeks of the potential for narcissism and neuroses.

It must be said that this movie manages to have you not want to strangle the characters, and actually kind of feel for them. And since there are a lot of the expected icky moments, that's actually kind of a feat.

Christopher Walken plays Peter, the widowed cellist who discovers when the group gets together for a new season, that he can no longer play in time. Walken is such an icon, so easily parodied and so comfortable parodying himself, it's almost surprising to see him play a role so straight, and so sensitively.

Philip Seymour-Hoffman plays Robert, the second violin, and classic beta male, who's neglected by his wife and being wooed by a hot-'n'-sexy flamenco dancer (Israeli actress Liraz Charhi) who thinks he should be more aggressive about playing the first violin.

Catherine Keener plays Juliette, the mother of a brilliant young violinist (played by the lovely English actress Imogen Poots) whose daughter is a bit miffed that she missed out on most of her childhood.

And, if you seen the trailers, the movie stars these three Oscar-winning-or-nominated actors, plus a fourth guy: Ukranian Mark Ivanir plays Daniel, the emotionless first violinist who uses the quartet as a vehicle for his own artistic expression, perhaps at the expense of others.

The relationships between Peter, Robert, Juliette and Daniel are more complex and deep than I'm letting on, not because they're shocking twists but more because the story hints and reveals at its own pace, which is more enjoyable and less pretentious than I'm making it sound.

As regular readers know, my theory of film criticism is that most film critics have the same visceral like/dislike reaction to film that audiences have, and then they backfill their reviews with "reasons" why they liked or disliked it.

I mention this because, having noted that this is the sort of movie that makes me want to strangle the main characters, I didn't here, and ended up liking the movie a lot. So, what follows are my justifications, which I (of course) think are legit.

The big thing, I think, is that while the story concerns the feelings, ambitions and neuroses of the characters, it's not exactly about those things. It's about the string quartet. It's a world class quartet that all the members have sacrificed greatly to be part of and to cultivate over 25 years. So, the characters are not just responding to their internal issues, but what they would or wouldn't give up to save the quartet.

And, in truth, musical groups, even in the classical world, often don't last long. Back in school, my guitar teacher and his partner would win awards for their playing, which he maintained was less due to raw talent and more to the fact that they had been playing together for 10-15 years where most had only been playing together a year or two.

Each of the three (non-Walken) characters have their chances to destroy the quartet, and we get to see and know how and why they might do so.

Now, I specifically will rule out the acting as a reason I liked this. The acting was great, of course, but it always is in these films. I thought it was especially good here, but I think that's more to do with the characters themselves.

Walken, as mentioned, but Hoffman also manages to heave his mottled body around convincingly. (Seriously, he jogs in this movie, and I always think, "I believe you do jog. I also believe it doesn't seem to help much.") He manages the beta male thing very well, without being too unlikable. (It was a little hard to figure out what the flamenco dancer saw in him. You know he's a world-class musician but I'm not entirely sure he pulled off that combination of master performer/somewhat insecure man. I'm not sure he didn't either.)

Keener's character is interestingly thin. She plausibly inhabits the roles of wife, daughter, mother, lover and is often the sounding board off which the other characters play. It works, I think, because she's neither wholly victim nor wholly villain. The movie doesn't pander to the cliché of women who do no wrong.

Amusingly, I was particularly taken with Mark Ivanar's performance. He's a stereotypical cold Russian musician, obsessed with form and meticulous planning. (That's a stereotype, right?) It sort of looks like they took the least actor and gave him the least challenging part—but in a lot of ways, his role was the most challenging and interesting, and his story ends up being heartbreaking, maybe especially so.

The music helps, too. Lotsa Beethoven.

I admit I teared up at the end. Not a wheezy sniveling cry, but a misty-eyed Mark Ivanar moment of poignancy.

Recommended. The Boy liked it, too.

Killing Them Softly

Some low-level thugs get the bright idea to knock over a card game run by some high-level thugs and are hunted down by the high level thugs.

Sure, we've seen it before. But have we seen it with the 2008 financial collapse?

Meh. Probably.

This was an okay movie to watch. Brad Pitt was the world-weary hit man just trying to get "the games" going again. The great Richard Jenkins is the middle-manager who contracts him out, but is squeamish about the whole killing thing. James Gandolfini is the past-his-prime hitman who can't get his act together enough to do a simple job. Ray Liotta is the hapless card-game runner who gets framed, and must pay the price even though everyone knows he didn't do it.

There are more than a few weaknesses here, though.

The Flower said, "Who was the main character?" It was Brad Pitt's character, of course, but he doesn't show up for about 15 minutes into the film and his character arc is non-existent.  James Gandolfini's character is literally pointless. Arguably, he sets up the final confrontation between Jenkins and Pitt, but the character could've served that purpose without ever showing up on screen.

It's sort of funny to suggest that a fairly short movie (about an hour and a half) could be padded, but it sort of is. Not just by Gandolfini's character, but by scads of transitional scenes over which snippets of Bush and Obama's speechifying are played.

Which gets to the film's biggest weakness: It has all the subtlety of a chainsaw, and yet manages to be completely incoherent at the allegorical level it struts around at.

Y'see, the whole thing is a metaphor for America. The card game represents the business of America, and the low-level thugs who rip it off are, presumably Wall Street. Ray Liotta—I'm not sure who he's supposed to be, but someone who's ripped off the economy before but was innocent this time. Gandolfini is the fat, aging, undisciplined American middle-class and Richard Jenkins is the middle manager for ruthless corporate interests. Pitt is the hard-headed realists is calls it as he sees it, but who gets screwed over by the system. There's a reference to "the street" which is probably meant to be the populace at large, that must be mollified if the games are to go on.

Then, in case you didn't get the message, Pitt closes the movie with an "I hate America" rant about Thomas Jefferson sleeping with his slaves. (Which, frankly, I doubt.)

So, we've got sophomoric political ideology delivered clumsily combined with slow-mo gratuitous extreme violence.

I'd say it's a heady mix if you're a teenager but The Boy wasn't particularly impressed.

The problem, of course, of taking a 1974 movie about thugs and grafting it to a 2008 political allegory is that all of the characters are scum, is that you end up with something completely nihilistic. To say nothing of confusing.

I mean, Pitt's a scumbag. He's likable, 'cause he's Brad Pitt, and he's got something of a work ethic. But he's a hit man, killing pretty harmless people. But if you're meant to identify with him, well, he's got nothing good to say about Obama either. (I'm presuming this is coming from the far left because of the TJ rant but it wouldn't have to be.)

So, you know. It's got some technical merit but I don't think I'd recommend it for anyone who wasn't an 18-25 year old leftist/nihilist, unless they were really in to slow motion gore.

This, by the way, is the follow-up film by Andrew Dominik, the writer/director of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Silver Linings Playbook

When I was deciding whether or not to bring The Flower to David O. Russell's latest, The Silver Linings Playbook, I checked over at IMDB's parental advisory. I'm just looking for the extreme over-the-line stuff, as when I took The Boy to Waltz With Bashir (an animated film which had a brief but suprisingly explicit oral sex scene).

Well. The summary there made it seem like a seething hothouse of explicit sex. This seemed a little unlikely to me, so I perused the entry more carefully and noticed it was full of things like "We hear that a character in a Hemingway novel is pregnant."

So I took the chance. And she really enjoyed it.

And it's not really very raunchy, though it is fairly adult.

The story is this: Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from an institution to the custody of his parents (Robert De Niro, Jack Weaver of Five Year Engagement) after snapping when he caught his wife having sex with another man, whom he promptly beat to a bloody pulp.

Or as we like to call it, "Texas".

I mean, seriously, my reaction is, "Yeah? Seems reasonable to me." Although he apparently went way over the line when he snapped and this was only the most extreme example of the way he'd been behaving his whole life.

So. Yeah. A little unstable. Compounded by the fact that, upon escaping, he wants nothing more than to get back with his ex-wife, and seeks to do so through mutual friends (John Ortiz and Julia Stiles) who introduce them to a wayward younger sister, Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany is also unstable, having recently lost her husband and gone a wild sex spree.

And so begins an unlikely Romantic-Comedy.

And, it's good. For a movie with such a sordid backdrop, it's really very sweet. (Indeed, that's doubtless the point). There are some nice parallels between Pat's bi-polar disorder and his father's sport's superstitiousness, bordering on OCD by itself, and becoming critical to the story's resolution.

As you may know, The Boy is a fan of the Lawrence, whereas I've been wary of her, though swayed by The House at the End of the Street and worried she'd end up another Kristen Stewart, who just does the same sullen moping through every film.

Worries abated.

She's great in this role, and it's unlike any we've seen to date from her. By turns vulnerable, obnoxious, manipulative, sincere and sexy, she does what can only be called "acting".

Speaking of which, Bradley Cooper can also act. This may be less of a surprise but after The Hangover movies and Limitless and probably the People Magazine's Sexiest Man of the Year award, I hadn't thought of him in terms of his thespian qualities in some time.

But, yeah, it's a challenging role, always, playing the slightly crazy. Particularly bi-polar. The urge to ham it up must be tremendous, yet makes a mockery of serious mental illness. Cooper plays it subtle. His highs are high and his lows are low, sometimes even to comical effect to be sure, but the antics never swallow the character.

As such, we can sympathize with him not just because he's been victimized, but because he's willing to grow beyond that.

The Boy and The Flower both liked, as did I. I'd rate it the best of the burgeoning award season so far. It doesn't strive to be "important" or "weighty" and instead manages to be very human.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lincoln

Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was our first ninja President? (Our second, of course, being Grover Cleveland.) It's true! As Steven Spielberg shows in his, uh, 4-month biopic of the 16th President, despite being nearly 8 inches taller than the average person and the most powerful person in the United States, Lincoln was able to sneak into a room unnoticed until he'd suddenly shock everyone with a real-life parable relevant to the crisis at hand.

Heh.

I read a pretty bitter review of Lincoln over at Breitbart, but it's not that bad. And relative to last year's War Horse and The Adventures of TinTin, it's at least not a totally bizarre movie.

It is a little weird. There's the ninja Lincoln thing, for example. And the fact that the movie eschews various iconic moments conspicuously. The Gettysburg Address is one example, but the more interesting one is that rather than showing Lincoln being shot in the Ford theater, they show the theater his son was at when they announce that Lincoln was shot.

Then there's the whole story. This is, essentially, an American version of Amazing Grace, the under-rated English film with Ioan Gruffud as William Wilberforce, with the whole story focused on Lincoln's efforts to get the 13th Amendment passed during a lame duck Congress.

The Boy, for whom Amazing Grace was his favorite picture at the time, liked this movie a great deal, and as a tale of parliamentary wranglings, I suppose it's not bad. The Flower also liked it. Mah Mommah, who doesn't see a bunch of movies, thought it was (literally) dark and talky (and it is).

Daniel Day-Lewis is, of course, brilliant. The movie is packed wall-to-wall with some great actors but they could've just had Day-Lewis doing the ninja thing and it would have worked just as well. The Breitbart review criticized Tommy Lee Jones for being Tommy Lee Jones, but I actually thought he had some nice subtleties and really wasn't the usual character.

Sally Field was...well, let's say that the parts of the movie surrounding Lincoln's family were generally the weakest, especially the parts about Mary Todd. The ubiquitous Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln's older son, champing at the bit to go off to war, while Dark Shadows' Gulliver McGrath plays the younger Lincoln boy—but the personal drama feels tacked on and doesn't really go anywhere.

Meanwhile, the legal wrangling is engaging, but it raises more questions than it satisfactorily answers. The whole point of the corrupt exercises (and they are corrupt) is to get the 13th Amendment through the Congress before the Civil War's end. The election has already happened and it's a cinch that the Amendment will pass once the new Congress is in.

So...what's the hurry?

The movie tells us that a court might undo the Emancipation Proclamation, which was a dubious thing based on an expansive interpretation of the Presidential war powers. I don't know if this is true. It seems improbable to me that a nation, weary of war and angry at the losers (the South), would then expend resources toward rounding up formerly freed slaves.

Or, perhaps more importantly, that the Chief Executive couldn't stop that, or get an amendment passed before anything could actually happen.

But maybe I just don't get it. I also didn't get why there would be any debate among the Republicans about ending slavery, given that that was the party's raison d'ĂȘtre.

I guess what I'm getting at is that I think a better movie would've minimized the personal life aspect and focused entirely on the political, with some cinematic representations of the danger. The threat ends up being very abstract.

I don't think it will age well. Here's an illustration of why. This article picks apart the technical flaws, some of which it says were quite egregious and unfair, but then calls them "quibbles". Why? Because while not "perfect" the film is "important".

It's all about Obama, you see. Our modern-day Lincoln.

As I said, though, it's not bad. It is talky, so if that's not your cuppa, give it a miss.


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