Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Rabbi's Cat

The Boy has been cheerfully commenting on our good luck in moviegoing lately. We're usually pretty low at this point in the award season, having been subjected to pretentious, nihilistic critically acclaimed films alternated with the sort of movies that Hollywood is pretty sure are going to tank anyway, but this season has been pleasantly surprising.

We had wanted to see this French film, The Rabbi's Cat, but it was reviewed reverse of the way we normally like: Critics love it, audiences are somewhat tepid.

Well, score one for the critics this time, as this is a delightful animated romp, though not particularly for kids. It's not graphically sexual at all, or violent except for one scene, but it is rather cerebral.

The story is that of a good-hearted, if not brilliant rabbi living in Algiers in the '30s with his gorgeous teen daughter and her mischievous cat who has no name, but whom we'll call "RC" for our purposes.

RC's origin story is pretty simple. He eats the family parrot. This gives him the ability to talk, and his first words are something like "I didn't do it." Which, if memory serves, is something akin to what Adam and Eve said to God after eating the apple.

RC turns out to be a pretty bad influence in general, tempting the Rabbi's daughter (who also has no name that they mention) with saucy tales from French romances and questioning the existence of God, prompting the Rabbi to keep him separated from her and (unfortunately) with him all day.

The cat causes a lot of trouble, first by demanding to be Bar Mitzvahed, then by suggesting the Rabbi should use him to help him pass a French test he's struggling with, but the adventure really begins when they find a handsome young Russian Jew, who's been shipped to them in a box full of bibles.

It turns out that said Jew is looking for the lost tribe of Jews said to be in Africa, living in Zion, and the Rabbi, the cat, the Russian Jew, an old Russian adventurer/hedonist, and an old Muslim cleric who's close with the Rabbi (I think they're descended from the same saintly character whose monument they visit every year) set off in an old Citroen half-track across the wilds of Africa looking for Zion.

It was just a lot of fun. Philosophical, but not pretentiously so. Our heroes seem ridiculously and disarmingly naive, and the last act with its visions of an African Zion, just can't possibly be politically correct. I mean, I don't even know how to classify it.

It sorta falls in the same category as Tintin, but it's so much better because it's not trying to pander to kids or Americans. So it's easy to accept just as what it is, an almost nostalgic reflection on a "simpler" time. (Though not really simpler, since it's freaking Algeria pre-WWII.)

Our big concern was that it would be boring, and it was not. The Flower had a little trouble following it, it moved so fast. The Boy really enjoyed it, and I probably enjoyed it most of all.

Hotel Transylvania

Deep into award season, you get desperate. We'd been debating whether to see Hotel Transylvania since before it came out back in September. The movie posters looked dumb. The trailers looked dumb. It's an Adam Sandler movie, fercryinoutloud.

But.

Genndy Tartakovsky.

If you don't know the name, Tartakovsky partnered with Craig McCracken, and the two created "Dexter's Laboratory" and "The Powerpuff Girls". (The latter was McCracken's concept, while the former was Tartakovsky's, but the teams involved in worked pretty interchangeably.) From there, Tartakovsky went on to create "Samurai Jack" and then produced pretty much the only watchable "Star Wars" stuff in the 2000s: "The Clone Wars".

At each step in his career, you can see brilliance: He and McCracken made art out of spare drawing and strong characters, and they did it in a way where it looked to be an artistic choice rather than budgetary necessity. "Samurai Jack" is particularly interesting for being a cartoon that uses not just spare drawing but minimal dialogue, getting its story across primarily through action and expressive characters.

Yeah, we're kinda fans around here.

So. Adam Sandler. Genndy Tartakovsky. You can see the dilemma. The Boy, in particular, has a heavy distaste for Sandler, even though (I'm pretty sure) he's never actually seen a Sandler film.

But in the preceding weeks, we've seen, literally, every film that we didn't violently object to (Django, e.g.) which left us with things we only strongly objected to, like this one, and Fat Man Falls Down (better known as Here Comes The Boom). And in The Boy's mind, James is pretty much tainted by association with Sandler (from Zookeeper, which he flat-out refused to see, clever boy).

And? Well, Hotel Transylvania is exactly what you'd expect from a combination of Adam Sandler and Genndy Tartakovsky. The most Sandler-esque elements of the movie (and I'm not referring to his personal efforts, but what his team seems to bring to most of his projects) are relentlessly mediocre.

The plot is that over-protective Papa Dracula (Sandler), who lost his wife (played by his real-life wife) to an angry mob 100 years ago, has spirited his young daughter (played by his real-life daughter) away from the world of humans, and set up a hidden hotel for monsters. Every year all the monsters come to celebrate her birthday in a big bash, until she's 18 years old and voiced by Selena Gomez and wanting to see the world.

Only it's not her 18th birthday, 'cause she's a monster, it's 118th birthday. Get it?

Now, Jonathan, a human boy (Andy Samberg, fresh off the poorly received Sandler flick That's My Boy) has accidentally wandered into the castle, and Dracula has to keep the other monsters from killing him and keep his daughter away from him.

This is strained, to say the least, but understandably so. You can't really have the monsters snuffing humans out in a kid flick. The excuse given is that it would end up drawing human attention to them, which of course makes no sense, since the entire premise is that they're completely hidden, and it's only through sheer accident that Jonathan has stumbled upon the place.

So, basically, I guess, the premise is that monsters are merely misunderstood by easily frightened humans.

It plays out in a painfully predictable way, with Dracula's daughter, Mavis (hilarity!) becoming more attracted to Jonathan, and Dracula hating him, but then growing to like him more, particularly in a pointless 3D, um, flying table race, but then Jonathan coming to agree that Mavis should be protected from angry humans, and—well, let's just say there's a race to the airport at the end.

On top of that, the movie is chock full of celebrity voices that are largely non-descript, but just recognizable enough to be annoying. "Who is that?!?" Not Gomez nor Samberg—they're just non-descript. Though, in fairness, the one that drove me nuts was David Spade, who plays the Invisible Man, and is really funny.

On top of them, you've got Molly Shannon and Steve Buscemi as a werewolf couple, Kevin James and Fran Dreschers as Frankensteins, Cee Lo Green as a mummy and Jon Lovitz as a hunchback.

You also, naturally, have a bunch of jokes about bodily gases, but not as many and not as tasteless as you might think.

By all rights, this should've been pretty awful. There are a few chuckles from the usual suspects. Sandler is not untalented and has some good lines, and there's some good support among the rest of the cast.

Mark Mothersburgh's score seemed to have a couple of awkward moments, but I don't think I would put that on him. Seems like they were going for something and didn't quite sell it right, so the music stood out.

So, if the plot is awful, the voice acting so-so to pretty good, the script largely tired except for a few jokes, why isn't this an awful movie? Well, first of all, there are quite a few jokes, so the ones that miss are quickly forgotten for ones that follow those up.

But the real brilliance of the film is in the cracks between the typical movie structure, i.e., the Tartakovsky parts. Even if the monsters are saying something tired, they are excellently animated. Even Dracula, whose basic outline was almost offensive to my kids ("He looks like Metro Man!"), moves with aplomb.

There are just bunches of nice touches, great character animations, little sight gags, and so on, to basically overwhelm the tedious plot. And the artistry there keeps you alert so the jokes work a lot better as well. The hacky characterization also benefits hugely.

Would I recommend it? Well, it depends. I know if I'd seen this when I was a teenager, I would've scorned it for the plot (and execution of said plot), but ultimately it won me over. The Boy was similarly charmed, if only mildly. The Flower liked it more than we did. Her logic was that, as a kid, she was used to seeing this kind of crap done really poorly, and she thought it was done really well.

So, there you have it. Adam Sandler as Dracula. Next up: Adam Sandler as Benjamin Disraeli.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gangster Squad (In Color!)

I'm just gonna come out and say it: Sylvester Stallone is way more talented than Sean Penn. You can argue about the limits of their acting talents, but Sean Penn is always Sean Penn as much as Sly is always Sly. They have the same expressive range, which is to say, not much at all as far as we're allowed to observe.

Penn actually has far less excuse to be as monotone as he is. Stallone wanted to play Edgar Allen Poe back in his 30s but who was going to put  up money for that movie? (Instead, thirty years later, we get John Cusack.)

And don't give me that Harvey Milk/I Am Sam crap, either. Guarantee you never, ever stop thinking "I'm watching Sean Penn pretend to be gay/handicapped/Republican". Even when he's giving the most over-the-top performance in the history of Clint Eastwood movies—and keep in mind that's the scene they showed at the Oscars when giving it to him (instead of Kevin Bacon, who kicks ass)—much like Stallone, he might as well just play characters named "Sean Penn".

Stallone at least can write. He got his Oscar noms for writing and acting in Rocky of course. When Sean Penn writes, he channels the Unibomber.

Fortunately, Gangster Squad makes no literary demands on him, and only requires Penn to rehash his ersatz Robert De Niro thing, and he does passably well at that, playing L.A. gangster/businessman/ex-pugilist Micky Cohen.

Critics didn't care for this movie with audiences responding somewhat more favorable, so we were a little surprised at how much we all enjoyed it. This is just a straight-up, old-school—like '30s/'40s era old-school—gangster flick. The good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, even if there's otherwise no particular difference in their behavior.

I mean, look, Ryan Gosling is the lovable rogue who hooks up with Cohen's girlfriend (the delightfully ubiquitous Emma Stone), and who isn't interested in joining the Gangster Squad until an innocent shoeshine boy finds himself in the crossfire of a gang war.

That really tells you all you need to know, except that apart from the anachronistic plot and characterization, the action is entertaining and the movie rambles along at an amiable clip, allowing Josh Brolin, the stalwart, bullheaded detective to grunt his way through to a satisfying conclusion.

Giovanni Ribisi plays the Charles Martin Smith role, as a nerdy tech who wires up the bad guys' house. Michael Pena is in the Andy Garcia role, as the Mexican rookie who tags along uninvited.  Robert Patrick is his partner, a quick-drawing cowboy in the Sean Connery role. (That would be The Untouchables, of course.)

Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) has a nice, light touch that comes out, once again. The proceedings are fun, and almost completely devoid of the ugly grittiness that usually accompanies gangster flicks.

Of course, a lot of people like that stuff. It feeds into their vanity that they're into "realism". Or at least that's my theory. This kind of film feeds into my vanity that I'm into "fun". So, you know. Whatevs.

The Flower and The Boy both enjoyed. The Boy, who really loves The Untouchables, was particularly pleased by the straightforward nature of the film.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

So, after all the caterwauling on the right about Zero Dark Thirty basically being a campaign commercial for Obama, the film was finally released (months after the election) aaaand...well, the President is barely in it, and for the brief moment he is in it, he looks like a jackass.

Not that a certain degree of suspicion isn't warranted, but Kathryn Bigelow's follow-up to The Hurt Locker is fascinating for how non-committal it is, except in one regard that makes it destroy a bunch of treasured left-wing shibboleths (and even a few on the right).

The movie, if you've been living in bin Laden's apocryphal cave, is a classic tale of an obsessed young CIA agent (the continually impressive Jessica Chastain) whose first job out of high school is, in essence, finding the notorious terrorist. And long after others have given up and moved on, she doggedly pursues (and of course locates) him.

This is a good movie. Maybe not the complete, stunning blowout that a lot of people seem to be calling it, however. Sometimes I wonder if the critics didn't actually see it, and just figured that what the right was saying about what was in it was actually there, so it had to be good.

The acting is good. Jason Clarke (Lawless), Kyle Chandler (Argo) and James Gandolfini provide good support for what is basically a vehicle for Chastain. Whom, again, I have to say continues to impress, as her character goes from squeamish naif to hardass operative over the decade. I also particularly liked Jennifer Ehle (without recognizing her from The King's Speech or Contagion) as a catty-competitor-turned-cohort.

Bigelow has developed a real knack for character development that could be called "masculine". It reminds favorably of classic directors like Hawks and Ford: Her characters tend to speak through their actions, and we're given little glimpse into their personal lives, as if what was important in life was what they did, rather than how they felt about it.

I mean, we get the idea that Chastain is frustrated. Pissed, even. Ready to throw down on anyone who would get in her way. There's also a real personal sense of failure you get when the terrorists succeed at blowing or shooting up some shopping mall. And we get a sense, toward the end of the first act, that Clarke is a little weary of torturing people to try to collect intel.

Which brings us to how this movie slaps the left in the face: First and foremost, America is the good guys. Not just America, but the C-freaking-I-A. The bad guys, championed by some on the left as "freedom fighters" are out to gun down innocent people, and our heroes are trying to collect enough information to intercept them.

In this context, not only does extreme interrogation seem reasonable, you kind of feel sorry for the guys who are doing it.

Deep into the movie, as we've come to sympathize with the protagonists, Obama shows up in the background on "60 Minutes" telling Steve Croft, "America doesn't torture." It's such a shallow, stupid thing to say, so far removed from the actual "War on Terror" that, as I said, he comes off like a jackass.

The movie makes no comment on whether or not torture works, but it does remove the discussion from the cartoonish depiction of interrogators as moustache-twirling sadists. As someone who basically hates the CIA, I was moved to respect the challenges they face in trying to stop this enemy.

The President is absent except as an invisible political actor, who makes it harder for them to do their job on the one hand, and delays the raid on the compound for four months on the other. And, a sentiment repeated often, the quality of the intel for raiding the compound was far worse than the intel for WMDs in Iraq.

Whoops.

Now, look, I don't know what, if any, of this is true. It's a plausible narrative in a lot of ways, dressed up as a nice character study. I don't think there was any intent to be political, and it's hard to imagine the director of The Hurt Locker as a right-winger—though there's both a passion and understanding for military characters that she obviously developed directing that film—but I think by being true to the material, she may have hurt her career.

But long after anyone stops caring about that stuff, this will still be a good movie.

The Boy and The Flower both strongly approved.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

It's not the most promising movie idea, really: A "Donkey Kong" era video game villain gets tired of being the baddie after 30 years and decides to become a hero by venturing into other, more modern video games.

But John Lasseter's absorption of Disney animation can be considered complete with this. It has a lot of heart, and a lot of strong character development, and the weak spots are inundated with a boggling attention to detail.

Also, it's prefaced by an absolutely charming "silent" short, "Paperman".

And, truly, when I think about it, I think about how many wonderful choices were made in the process of making the film. For example, Ralph is an 8-bit character, though they make him a full 3D model inside the game (because it would be too hard to relate to him if he were that limited), his compatriots move like they would inside their game, with just a few frames of animation. This provides a lot of chuckles.

Then, in the first-person shooter alien invasion, the conceit is that the world is "real" and the player is represented by a monitor on wheels. (And that's now a real thing!)

OK, so Ralph is shunned by his video game companions (that's not really explained; the movie is fast and loose as far as the nature of the game, whether they're real, or recognized as games, or more like movie roles), and becomes convinced that if he gets a medal, his co-game-people will let him in to their social circle.

A number of contrivances allow game characters to visit other games, though Ralph is constantly admonished to not "go Turbo" after a rogue video game character who invaded other games in pursuit of  his former glory. This ultimately leads him to a Candy Land racing game, where he clashes with a socially ostracized "glitch"—a character who was coded to be in a game, but then removed for release.

So, there's your movie: Ralph wants respect in his own game while Vanellope (the Candy Land racer) wants it in hers, and circumstances are contriving to keep them from self-actualization (the theme of all Disney movies since The Little Mermaid).

It's good. There's one swooshy roller-coastery scene which is apparently mandatory in all kid movies these days that was really dull, but other than that the mix of characters, humor and convincingly sticky plot points carries through.

There's a lot of video game humor, most of which I'm pretty sure I missed, though so did my kids, I think. I think it's mostly based on later '80s and '90s games which none of us know much about. The Flower likes MAME, so she'd played some games that The Boy and I didn't know, and The Boy caught stuff that The Flower and I didn't. But the movie didn't really depend on it.

There's a nice little bit about Fix-It Felix, the hero in Wreck-It Ralph's game, being in some ways just as cursed as Ralph is. As Ralph cannot do anything but wreck stuff, Felix can't wreck anything no matter how necessary it is. There's some kind of an eastern thing there.

Rich Moore, of "Futurama", "The Critic" and "The Simpson's" fame, directs (and apparently wants to do a sequel).

Voices are done by John C. Reilly, who's great as Ralph. Sarah Silverman is Vannelope and, honestly, without knowing it was her (whom I usually like), I found her performance grating and rather unlikable. Too much edge for the part—which was, I think, inspired by and written for her. Go figger.

Jack McBreyar ("30 Rock") is fine as Felix, the carpenter who falls in love with Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch, never sexier) from the first-person shooter. Alan Tudyk (Spamalot, Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, A Knight's Tale, "Firelfly") does a great Ed Wynn impression.

Cool is that Rich Moore brought along some voices you don't normally hear in Disney movies, though you won't recognize them, probably: Maurice LeMarche (The Brain, Kif), John DiMaggio (Bender, Jake the Dog), Kath Soucie (Qubert Farnsworth), and so on.

We enjoyed it. A lot of fun. And a lot of people liking it. I thought the Disney formula, while largely redeemed by the presence of Moore and Lasseter, was still pretty transparent and is still really tired. Award season is coming, of course, and I'd place Brave well above Frankenweenie, Paranorman, Pirates!  and this movie, but I'm not gonna, y'know, virtual rumble over it.

(Unlike others on the Internet.)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Rust and Bone

I am not a Marion Cotillard fan. There are many French women I love—the Isabelles (Huppert and Adjani), Audrey Tatou, Kristin Scott-Thomas—and Ms. Cotillard is not among them. I mostly don't notice her (Big Fish, A Very Long Engagement) or register a "meh" (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises). I found La Vie En Rose pretty repugnant, though, and that's the only movie I've seen that was basically a vehicle for her talents.

It didn't keep me from watching Rust and Bone, however, an unusual French love story by Jacques Audiard about a tough guy pugilist named Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) who has rescued/smuggled/kidnapped his son from an apparently abusive mother (who used him as a drug mule, maybe) and then promptly ignores, abuses or pawns him off on his sister while scrabbling for work in Antibes (which is just north of Cannes).

While bouncing in a club, he rescues marine biologist/leggy club tease Stephanie from some altercation where, I guess, someone didn't appreciate her teasing. He takes her home and proceeds to humiliate her beta boyfriend, which seems to be something she does pretty regularly as well.

And scene.

Alain and Stephanie part, never to meet again.

No, of course not. What happens is Stephanie's legs are eaten by a killer whale.

Occupational hazard for a marine biologist.

It's never really explained why Stephanie thinks "I'll call that club bouncer" nor why Alain responds to the call. But there's your picture.

It's not bad. They're not very likable characters. They're French. It's very French, down to a plot point revolving around employers not having the right to surveil employees who may be stealing things.

It has a lot of thematic similarities to The Intouchables though I don't think it's in the same league. It also reminded me a bit of Raging Bull, in the sense that the lead character was a moron whose stupidity and self-destructiveness led to negative consequences in his life.

It's a pretty fast two hours, and I would say it's a good movie. The Boy liked it okay (though he was puzzled about why it would be against the law to monitor your employees). I've noticed quite a few people are wild about (it lost the Golden Globe, along with Intouchables and A Royal Affair, to Haeneke's Amour) but I had a few problems with the character arc that kept me from buying the ending.

I give Cotillard a pass on this one. She has a nice body, even legless, and you see a lot of it. (It's pretty sexually graphic.) Schoenaerts is believable enough.

I wouldn't recommend it enthusiastically, I guess because I had a problem with the implicit message of the film. This is one of those movies where you wouldn't really want to try to figure out any message because it's all so peculiar. But the character dynamics were so odd that it didn't sit right with me. It seemed to me like French society is pretty dysfunctional, these were pretty dysfunctional people, and none of that really had any chance of being fixed, however happily the end is spun.

But maybe I'm just grumpy.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Red Dawn

The most important thing to remember going into the 2012 remake of Red Dawn is that the original, like so many classic action films of the '80s, isn't very good.

What is was (like so many classic action films of the '80s) was very, very American.

This was a big deal at the time. The styles of the '60s and '70s regarded films that celebrated America and American traditions as being in bad taste, and the Reagan era ushered in a spate of jingoistic movies. (Sylvester Stallone was a critic's darling up until Rambo.)

So, a lot of these movies were highly enjoyable for cathartic reasons, if nothing else.

The key thing, then, is that no matter what goofiness occurred with this remake, it would be challenging to make it unAmerican. I mean, this movie is inevitably a paean to the Second Amendment. It's all about Americans keeping and bearing arms, and how kick-ass that is!

So, I believe the studio screwed up in a couple of ways here. First of all, when they announced changing the Chinese villains to North Koreans, they should've pointed out that the enemies were a melange of menacing eastern countries. The Norks aren't imagined to be the sole invaders of America, just the group that invaded the particular area, thus reducing (somewhat) the absurdity of the scenario.

The second error, I think, was taking the Chinese out in the first place. The rationale, apparently, was that they wouldn't be able to release the movie in China. The simpler solution to that? Leave the Chinese in, and make an alternate ending where the Chinese win!

Win-win.

And then, ironically, it hasn't even been released in China

All that aside, how is this remake? Probably better than the original. Chris Hemmingsworth (Thor) and Josh Peck ("Drake and Josh") are in the late Patrick Swayze and even later Charlie Sheen roles, and they're probably much better actors. (Both have had long running roles on TV and more movie credits than either Swayze or Sheen.)

They play out the fraternal drama well enough, with the only distraction being Peck's odd and vaguely effeminate haircut.

Basically, though, this is a survival movie, akin to a zombie apocalypse or alien invasion, and so lives and dies on its action sequences and how the characters react to their new circumstances which are largely quite good. The Flower was entertained, but more importantly, The Boy was not pissed off.

It's a short, peppy movie that zooms through its 90 minutes going from devil-may-care action scenes to touchingish emotionalish moments(ish) to character development moments—really, it's not bad at all, all things considered. Very '80s without any inclination to camp.

Surprisingly enjoyable!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Impossible

While The Impossible is about a disaster—the terrible 2004 tsunami, to be specific—it is not, in fact, a disaster movie. That is to say, the genre tropes about different classes of people being thrown together as they struggle to (typically) get to some specific safe point, designed to teach us how (underneath it all) we're all the same when the SHTF. Or something.

Also, there's nothing campy or tongue-in-cheek about this deadly serious flick: Naomi Watts and Ewan MacGregor are vacationing with their three young sons in Thailand when they're swept apart by a wave.

I don't want to get into specifics because I enjoyed not knowing who lived and who died and what happened along the way. Suffice to say that they didn't all die and the story follows the survivors as they try to reuinte and, you know, not die from tsunami-related injuries.

Of which there are some doozies.

Watts and MacGregor are great, as always. I somehow feel like I shouldn't like Watts for some reason or another, but I don't know why. She seems to bring class to most endeavors (King Kong, The Ring, she's great in Tank Girl) and she does that acting thing those British ladies are so good at.

Anyway, acting is good. There's some real suspense in here, along with no small amount of dread, gore, and bodybags (of all sizes). It's harrowing and emotional, and you should stay away from the IMDB message boards unless you want to read pages of how racist it is, because it focuses on a rich, white family instead of a Thai or other...minority?

That's kind of a puzzler since (even with all the European tourism), whites would be a minority in Thailand, where a Thai wouldn't. But I guess it's not so much about minorities as it is about white people being evil and self-involved. I'm sure any Thai movies made about the tsunami have or will have plots centered around British and American families.

Some people are truly sick with obsession. Which isn't really relevant to the film.

It's harrowing. I wouldn't say I enjoyed it per se—this is why there is a disaster genre, so that we can enjoy cataclysmic destruction, as opposed to realistic depictions of such horrors. And I'm pretty sure it was toned down to boot, as awful as it was.

The Boy and The Flower liked it. I don't think this sort of thing affects them much (as I would have been unaffected at their age). There were some interesting points where ethical considerations had to be weighed against survival considerations, and (with some exceptions), our central characters behaved intelligently (and doggedly) in their pursuits.

I guess I'm pointing that out because (however closely this hews to the real story) the actions of the characters were believable and not insanely stupid, which tends to drive The Boy and I nuts.

Summary: Good movie, good acting, not necessarily a good time, and not for everyone. Also, tsunamis suck.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Barbara

Barbara is a doctor in East Germany in 1980—which let me tell you, is as much fun as it sounds—in the eponymous movie from Germany's Christian Petzold. She's crossed the Stasi and as a result has been assigned to a backwater province where she must work to repay her debt to the "farmers and workers" who paid for her medical education.

Or, as we say in this country: You didn't build that.

This is a movie in the mold of Das leben der anderen (The Lives of Others) and 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, which show us where socialism inevitably goes. It's an atmosphere of paranoia, where the local secret police head (Rainer Bock of Inglorious BasterdsWar Horse, White Ribbon) visits Barbara every time she's not accounted for for any length of time, tosses her house and does a cavity search. (Well, has it done. Has to be proper, after all.)

The local doctor, André (Ronald Zehrfield) is immediately taken by the blonde beauty (Nina Hoss, looking haggard), but she's naturally stand-offish, given that he's filling out regular reports on her activity to the Stasi. 

She also has a West German boyfriend (Mark Waschke) whom she sneaks off to canoodle with and perhaps plot her escape from that communist hellhole. 

Rounding out the story is the up-and-coming Jasna Fritzi Bauer, who plays Stella, a girl who has escaped from a local work camp, and is brought to the hospital when caught because she's got some kind of weird disease. 

It's actually a pretty tight little movie, with the tension coming largely from those four character, and even more centrally Barbara and André as two people in the worst of situations, trying to figure out the right thing to do and not really having any good options—and damn few bad ones, really.

I liked it greatly. The Boy and the Flower liked it okay but not as much. The whole Communist experience is a bit out of their awareness (so far), so the paranoid tension probably resolved to boredom after a while. 

This is the German entry for the Oscars for 2013.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Pitch Perfect

I admit when Darcysport told me her kid (a teen boy!) wanted to see Pitch Perfect I looked a little askance. This is a movie that screams GAY!! more than Any Day Now, A Single Man and Frisky Summer 4 put together—and that's without any actual, expressed gayness anywhere in the film.

But then I realized the incredibly cute Anna Kendrick was in it. And she does this in it. So, Man Card un-revoked.

I had actually taken The Boy and The Flower to see Wreck-It Ralph but it was virtually sold out, so we ended up in this film instead.

Pitch Perfect is part Revenge Of The Nerds (if the nerds were music nerds and their antagonists were also music nerds), part Best in Show and part John Waters. And I guess (per The Flower) part Glee, though without the spontaneous musical-number biz.

The premise is that cranky disaffected wannabe DJ Kendrick is humoring her father by going to college, rather than running off to L.A. to fulfill her dreams, and ends up being recruited by the Bellas, one of the four campus a cappella groups. The Bellas' arch-rivals are the Treblemakers—which is a seriously odd name for an all-male singing group—to whom they lost the last national championships.

The Bellas are run by a seriously uptight leader (Anna Camp) and her #2 (Brittany Snow) and after their leader tossed her cookies at the finals, can't get anyone normal or decent to sign up. Instead, they have a slut (Alexis Knapp), the lesbian (Ester Dean), the mumbly (and quite possibly psychotic) Asian (Hana Mae Lee) and Rebel Wilson, as the too-cool-for-school Fat Amy.

Like I said, very "Revenge of the Nerds". Although, it's actually much better than RotN, for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is the absence of rape).

You can kind of get a sense of this melange from the trailer, which is one reason I hadn't put this at the top of my list, but it all works much better than it should. Credit must go heavily to director Jason Moore, and perhaps even more to Kay Cannon for recognizing the hoariness of the premise required lots and lots of jokes to shore up.

A fair amount of credit also has to go to Elizabeth Banks, who is a producer on this film, and provides (with John Michael Higgins, who arranged the Main Street Singers vocals in A Mighty Wind) the inappropriate commentary (a la Fred Willard in Best In Show).

JMH: "What was the name of that group?"
EB: "The Menstrual Cycles, John."
JMH: "That's an unfortunate name."

Also, this movie shares Best In Show's fascination with a largely unknown examination of a fanatical  even bizarre, segment of society. (I say that as someone who loves and, yes, has even sung a cappella stuff.)

This is a tightly edited movie, too, with a good comedic rhythm that the trailer butchers. Rebel Wilson's delivery, for example, breathes new life into the beaten-to-death (and vaguely offensive) cliché of the ridiculously over-confident fat chick.

And it's not just Wilson: Alexis Knapp, as the oversexed hottie manages to combine that cliché with a comedic physical awkwardness/inappropriateness that transcends the cookie-cutter formula.

The whole script works this way: You think that the leader of the Belles, Aubrey and Chloe, are going to be your standard issue mean girls, but they're just stressed, insecure and misguided. Even the putative antagonists in the TrebleMakers are not bad guys, with the exception of their leader, Bumper.

Bumper is played by Adam Devine, channeling Jack Black's Tenacious D persona uncannily, and as awful as his character is, he's still got a great deal of charisma (and talent) backing up his douchebaggery.

I've covered the Revenge of the Nerds and Best In Show aspects, but the John Waters feel is strong, too. The movie teeters on the edge of camp, Rebel Wilson reminds of Ricki Lake and other heavier-set Waters' characters. Also, there is a formidable vomit scene. While I'm not a big fan of excretory function-based humor, the combination of, uh, tasteful (?) presentation and over-the-top goofiness sorta worked for me here. (But be warned.)

"Better than it ought to be" is pretty much how I'd sum this up.

The kids liked it, but less than I did, and The Boy less than The Flower.

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