Sunday, May 19, 2013

Love Is All You Need

One of my tweeps, @JulesLaLaLand asked for my opinion on the new Susanne Biers movie Love Is All You Need so when it came to the local Laemmle, The Boy and I hauled off to see a matinee, pretty much blind. I mean, you got Pierce Brosnan, so what more do you need?

Later she told me it was intended as a romantic-comedy, which was a mild surprise. Although funny, and interesting, it was not really light-hearted enough to identify as part of the genre.

Here's the premise, which sounds sort of like a Danish "Mamma Mia!", without the music: Patrick and Astrid are getting married and having a big wedding at the abandoned family home on the sort of gorgeous Italian island that makes you think "Someone wanted to hang out in Italy so they made up this movie."

Astrid's brother is going off to war, while Astrid's mom and dad, Ida and Leif, are, well, let's say "having a difficult time". Meanwhile, Patrick's dad, Philip (Brosnan) is a jerk. His wife died long ago, and he's buried himself in his work, leaving Patrick to be raised by his execrable sister-in-law, Beneditke.

Right off the bat, you know something is wrong: Patrick isn't all over Astrid, in the manner of fiancees, e.g. Also, no matter how comical the circumstances, you don't show infidelity (in a romcom) with any degree of graphicness. Actually, you don't show sex much at all, lest your romcom turn into a sex farce. (I'm guessing Mamma Mia! didn't have a bunch of graphic sex scenes between Streep, Brosnan and the other two dudes, but maybe I'm wrong.)

In this case, the lead character of the movie is Ida (played by the lovely Trine Dyrholm, of the director's previous work, Hævnen), who has just finished up her chemo—maybe this is considered a "light touch" in Denmark—and who ends up running into (literally) Philip, thus setting up the movie's real intended romance.

Director Susanne Bier, who also directed such thigh slappers as Things We Lost In The Fire and After The Wedding, seems to have taken the "wacky misunderstanding" staple of the genre and interpreted it in a unique way: Almost every single character in the movie, when they speak, is speaking in a completely self-absorbed way, from his or her own perspective, with no concern or regard for others' points-of-view.

The exceptions become Ida and Philip, which is the only thing that makes the romance aspect of the movie possible or plausible. But even they start out more or less self-absorbed.

Now, this is funny. It's dark humor, to be sure. Often, in fact, I was the only one laughing. Beneditke (played by the beautiful Paprika Stevens looking absolutely hideous) delivers this wonderful, horrible speech, not about the bride and groom, as you might expect, but to Philip. Except, it's not even to or about him, it's about how her sister stole him away, and her own divorce, and so on.

As I said, we enjoyed it. I more than The Boy. Although he did find it hilarious at one point, because of this awful joke he heard somewhere on the Internet:

Q. What kind of cave does a homosexual man live in?
A. A gayve!

It applies here.

It's an interesting effort, and I can see why critics liked it and why audiences (perhaps, you know, expecting a romantic comedy) might be disappointed.

Kon-Tiki

Finally, a movie based on the documentary based on the book based on the adventure of Kon-Tiki! You've been waiting your whole life for this!

Maybe not. But it is fun.

Back in the '40s, wacky Norwegian ethnologists Thor Heyerdahl decided to prove his theory that pre-Columbian Incans crossed the ocean to settle in Polynesia by drifting on a wooden raft from Peru to the Tumatou Islands.

The poster shows a picture of the raft with a picture of Pal Sverre Hagen (who plays Thor) and Agnes Kittelsen (who plays his wife) smooching over it, like she's there with him on the raft. The trailers are edited to make it look like she's there, too.

She's not. It's a total sausage-fest. Though Thor's wife Liv is apparently with him on early adventures, by the time the Kon-Tiki adventure rolls around, they have two kids, and he's tramping around NYC looking to get backing for his theories while she's stuck in Norway raising their two boys and worrying he's gonna get himself killed.

It's a fun adventure flick, very pure, like a throwback to the '50s. Thor is religiously devoted to his idea, which every other scientific mind in the world disagrees with, even when there are sharks and killer whales and the raft is rotting and the all-pre-Columbian twine is starting to unravel, etc. etc. etc.

Oh, and the storms and the deadly reefs and giant waves and so on.

Apart from Thor and the nebbishy Herman Watzinger, portrayed here as a faint-hearted soul who undermines the reason for the trip on a number of occasions, the other characters didn't really stand out for me. That might've also been because, you know, Scandi: They all look alike.

Like I said, fun. Oscar-nominated, much like the other raft-based entertainment this year, Life of Pi. Without any complex or pseudo-complex religious or philosophical overtones.

From a theoretical standpoint, I remain dubious about the science of the project. Just because you make your raft out of the materials (you think) pre-Columbians had—and God bless you for believing primitive cultures could undertake stuff that took more "advanced" cultures centuries longer—you don't really know what technology they had. If they were making trips like this, they were probably far better sailors, fishers, and they might have even had ways of, oh, I don't know, water-proofing the logs for their rafts.

There's something to be said for showing that a bunch of amateurs, essentially, could make the trip, of course. It's certainly not impossible.

But on the other side, your point is that the currents flow from South America to the South Pacific, ergo perhaps migration went that way? Possible, sure, but the South Pacific peoples might have been very skilled sailors what with living on a bunch of islands who could work the currents going both ways.

Anyway: We liked it. Some beautiful cinematography. The acting worked for us. (You never know with subtitles, if the actors are really badly misemphasizing their words, right?) I've heard the script is actually very unnatural, dialogue-wise, but subtitles save the day for foreigners. Two hour flick, but it flies by briskly.

If you don't like subtitles, the dubbed version of this would probably be fine. It's not really about the dialogue.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Aftershock

"Jews weren't meant to suffer. We don't handle it well." This is probably the most amazing thing about Aftershock, a movie about a Chilean earthquake and the aftermath.

Aftershock is an Eli Roth film, which is really all you need to know about it. No, he didn't direct it, but he wrote it and stars in it (and speaks the above line). In fact, and if you've seen Cabin Fever or the Hostel Movies,  you know exactly what to expect.

The story concerns a group of revelers floating around Chile's underground dance scene. About half-way into the movie (yep, half-way) there's an earthquake, and a bunch of them die. The survivors then must escape the city without being crushed, shot, raped, stabbed or otherwise maimed.

Needless to say, they don't make it. This is not a spoiler. While Aftershock might seem like a disaster movie, about five minutes after the earthquake scene, you realize it's not (if you were naive enough to think it was in the first place). This is a slasher. Everyone's gonna die, except maybe the last little Indian, probably a female, and probably a virgin (or at least not a slut).

Yeah, I even saw the "twist ending" coming about five minutes after the earthquake hit.

It may seem like I'm down on this horrible flick, but I'm not. It was exactly as I expected it to be. Can't hardly complain about going into an Eli Roth flick and getting exactly what he delivers, every time, right?

So, if you're not familiar with Roth's work: He develops fairly decent characters, and you don't generally want them to die (which is a common horror movie tactic: make the victims insufferable) even if there are some jerks among them (there always are). There's gonna be plenty of T&A, often contrasted with really awful violence.

Although he's no stranger to gore, awfulness is his specialty. Typically, one of his characters will suffer some horrible thing: loss of limb, maiming, or say torture or humiliation, but something which seems permanently disfiguring and scarring. Then, after the awfulness is fully soaked in, with feeble attempts by the other characters to mitigate, the character is fully killed off, often in an unrelated way. (Because, honestly, you can't really do much with someone hobbling around with one foot and one eye.)

I've expounded on "torture porn" before and how I think it's a term that can apply fairly accurately to parts of Hostel II, but in this movie, it's less about enjoying the suffering of others as maybe (he says guardedly) exploiting it.

In other words, Roth's characters are pretty well crafted, as noted. You don't want them to die but at the same time, there's a curious detachment. An almost mechanical sort of "Well, the characters have to die, so let's do it in the worst way possible." Sometimes there's something revealing in the mechanism of their death, but usually not. And even when there is, the empathy for the victims is very shallow.

It's a tough gig, really, which is probably why I don't hate these movies. You want to create strong characters, but you have to make them suffer, but when you do make them suffer, if the audience invests too heavily, the movie stops being fun and becomes, well, horrible.

Which, as I said, is how Roth's movies usually are. It's not a value judgment. They're very well made, smartly crafted horrible flicks.

You know if it's the sort of thing you like before you walk in, and, really, you probably don't.

Erased

It's become a thing, you know? The "bad father/secret service agent rescues daughter" genre, sparked into (modern) being by Liam Neeson's Taken movies. And so we have Aaron Eckhart in the Neeson role, and Belgium in the France role.

That is, the trouble begins in Antwerp, the other Belgian city you've heard of. Eckhart plays a security engineer who finds weaknesses in devices, ostensibly so the company he's working on can improve their devices.

When he's not being a kickass security dude with mysterious keloidal scars on his back, Eckhart's being a bad father to his daughter (played well by Liana Liberato). The backstory seems to be that Eckhart and his wife split, and then she died, meaning that the daughter had to accompany him to Europe.

How bad a dad is he? Well, on the opening scene's day, he gives her a cookie, not aware that she's allergic to peanuts and they end up spending the night in the hospital. Next day, when he goes into work, the office is gone. When he goes to track down what happened, he finds he's been erased!

Well, not really. He finds out he wasn't really working for who he thought he was (like a spy guy is gonna research a company that hires him? c'mon, they're a trusting lot) but who, how and why?

I gotta be honest: I saw this movie Tuesday and I've almost completely forgotten it by now. I mean, it's an action/thriller type movie, and pretty good at it. Eckhart is no Neeson (wait, what?) but he gets the job done.

The father/daughter stuff starts out excellent. Liberato pulls off being pissed, and a teenager and a girl (yeesh) but also likable. Usually, these kinds of things are pretty awful—the first Taken wasn't the worst of the genre, but even so, Maggie Grace's character is pretty insufferable. Erased has a kind of troubled warmth. People are upset, we don't know why, but it isn't histrionic.

By the end, though, it starts to feel a little Lifetime-y. Inappropriate, even. You're on the verge of being murdered, repeatedly. Heart-to-hearts (not done in a kind of '80s action style, but sincerely) are hard to pull off without both seeming treacly, contrived and killing the momentum.

I think fleeing the police and hordes of mysterious thugs would be a bonding enough experience that you'd put the other stuff aside till it was over. And even then, you might be assuaged by laying down your lives for each other to need any lengthy emotional expositions.

Just sayin'.

Anyway, the hate on this movie (22/37% RT) seems outsized. It's really not bad. I guess it's on a par with Taken 2, though, which was probably a bit better. Note that Arnold Schwarzenegger's "classic" Commando scores 65/69% on RT which says something about something.

Plot don't make a lick of sense. Predictably, the villain is an Evil Corporation With A Name Suspiciously Close To Halliburton. But since they get what they want almost right off the bat, the whole erasure thing (which involves mass murder) seems gratuitous.

Also, the MacGuffin is documents. You know, photos, typed things, etc. Apparently there are no Kinko's in Belgium.

We didn't dislike it, and if you're an Aaron Eckhart (or Liana Liberato) fan, well, why not, right? Olga Kurylenko (from back when we did cheesecake here, remember?) is also in this, acting well enough but looking kinda rough for a 33 year old. (So, if you're an Olga fan, maybe just watch Quantum of Solace again or something.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

In The House

We followed up one French movie (Paris-Manhattan) with another one, In The House, a twisted little tale of a bored literature teacher who becomes taken with the one alert and talented student in his class, and in the process of mentoring ends up going down a dark path. (It's been compared to Election, and there are some similarities, though the teacher isn't out to get his student and, even though the consequences are fairly dire, the whole affair comes off much more congenial and less misanthropic than Alexander Payne's flick.)

The story is that Germain, the teacher (Fabrice Luchini) gives a "what I did this weekend?" assignment to his barely literate class, and gets back the literary equivalent of grunts and farts, except for one student, Claude (Ernst Umhauer).

Claude tells an engaging story of how he finagled an invitation to a classmate's house. A perfect house with a perfect family (implicitly unlike Claude's own) that Claude writes sneeringly about, in particular the mom (the perennially delicious Emmanuelle Seigner) and her trivial, bourgeois concerns.

Germain encourages Claude to write and offers his advice, while chiding him for his tone (knowing that a great writer empathizes with all his characters). Claude continues to write, becoming more and more intimately involved with his classmate's family, and as you might expect, his relationship with them begins to change.

Germain, on the other hand, persistently treats the story as complete fiction even as Claude insists otherwise, and develops an attraction to his classmate's mother. Germain keeps pushing him to "write" more without consideration of the consequences thereof. Also, the teacher—and his wife (played by perennially delicious Kristin Scott-Thomas)—have become addicted to the story that Claude is writing/living and so can't bring themselves to stop him.

The movie does a few interesting tricks to indicate fictitious events from actual ones, so it doesn't play too hard on the "is it real? or not?" trope (thankfully). The characters evolve nicely, particularly Claude, although at the denouement he does some intentional harm which seemed out-of-character, at least to me.

It's an entertaining film, if a little distant given the topic matter, but actually far less creepy and malignant than the commercials make it out to be. It's low-key, clever and amusing and, while French, not in the usual "How French!" way that I usually remark.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Pulp Fiction

We dragged ourselves out for a late night showing of Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino's, despite generally being unimpressed by QT's films, and downright despising Inglorious Basterds. (In fact, as that movie left us sympathetic to Nazis, we were rather afraid to go see Django Unchained.)

Why? Well, that's a good question. I guess because I feel like I should like QT and he wouldn't be the first director who went off the rails as he went along; indeed, increasing self-indulgence is the hallmark of our great modern directors (which is why they're not as great as they might be).

And, it's a funny thing: Pulp Fiction contains all the hallmarks of QT's quirkiness, and yet, somehow, it all kind of works. The Boy loved it and I did not hate it.

Roughly, this is the story of two hitmen going about their day, with some tangents involving a gangster's moll, a down-and-out boxer, and the hitman's boss. If I were to bullet-point it (and I shall, just watch me):

  • It features QT's signature "long, pointless and inappropriate" dialogues. But these dialogues are genuinely amusing or at least engaging.
  • It features QT's foot fetish, though rather obliquely.
  • The actresses are odd looking. That's kind of endearing, I think.
  • It's long, but it moves briskly.
  • There is a contrived chase that ends up with the characters jeopardized by a random third party. This has a point, even though it is silly.
  • QT himself is in the film, but this actually isn't an irritant. (At least it wasn't to me; I know fans of his films who hate his presence on screen.) And he actually doesn't look awful.
  • No bad-ass chick fights. (I'm sort neutral on this but it does see to be a trademark.)
Enjoyable flick overall. And remarked upon occasionally historically significant, though that I can't quite figure out. 

Also, if you don't like QT films, I'm not sure I'd recommend it. I can't quite put my finger on why this one worked for me while I'm meh about his other films. Your distaste would have to be similar to mine, if that makes sense.

But, once again, The Boy loved it, and he probably hated the other QT movies more than I did, so go figure.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Paris-Manhattan

This is now officially my favorite Woody Allen movie.
"But Blake!" you say, "Paris-Manhattan isn't even a Woody Allen movie!"
"Exactly!"

So, Paris-Manhattan is a French romcom about a...mmmmm...35 year old pharmacist who's looking for love and meaning in life, and has tragically turned to Woody Allen movies as inspiration. OK, it's not supposed to be tragic, but in real life, it pretty much would have to be, right?

The story is basically that Alice (Alice Taglioni) meets the guy of her dreams, Pierre (Louis-not-gonna-even-try-to-spell-his-name), and when it looks like they're going to hit it off in a big way, he spies Alice's sister, Helene (Marine Delterme) and before you know it, Pierre and Helene are getting married and 15 or 20 years have passed and they have a teen daughter, while Alice is a spinster taking over their father's drug store.

The story gets going when, after years of Alice being unsuccessfully fixed up with every available bachelor in Paris, it turns out that Pierre has a brother (either actually or metaphorically) who is perfect in every way (and recently single) and takes a shine to Alice. He is, of course, a red herring, as the unassuming, far-from-perfect Victor (Patrick Bruel) shows up to install an alarm in the pharmacy.

We all know how this has to play out, of course, but the point of the romcom is the journey.

And the journey is pretty cute, in its own French way. There's a clever device where Alice asks questions of the giant Woody Allen poster in her room, and the answers come from dialog from Allen's movies (sort of Play it Again, Sam! style) and the plot features references to Allen films (like an incompetent robber) that bring a smile, even if you don't know the movies.

I know this because the kids enjoyed it, and the only Allen movie The Boy has seen is Midnight In Paris and the only thing the Flower knows about Woody Allen is that "he married his daughter" (as reported by Peggy Hill in an episode of "King of the Hill").

The sub-plots are entertaining as well, such as a goofy investigation in an effort to discover whether Pierre is cheating on Helene, and Helene's anxiety over her daughter's mysterious boyfriend.

It's silly, of course. They don't bother to make the women look particularly young for their college years, e.g. And Delterme is beautiful, of course, but so is Taglioni. They didn't put glasses on her and have her hair in a bun, in the style of Hollywood "ugly", so her unappealingness seems to come from, I guess, a slightly abrasive manner? Wearing flats instead of heels? Wait, I remember: She wears loose fitting shirts and snug fitting jeans.

I sincerely think it's the last one now that I think about it. Someone in the movie made a comment about her wearing a dress or something.

Anyway, all the women are beautiful, including Margaux Chatalier, who plays the daughter, and Marie-Christine Adam, who plays the mom.

We enjoyed it, as I said. Cute cameo by Allen himself.

It's being distributed with a short Woody Allen documentary called "Woody Before Allen" which is also pretty adorable.

So, yeah, I think his strength is not actually making movies but having movies made about him, or at least tangentially so.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dark Skies

Despite being virtually interchangeable with hauntings, alien abductions are a relatively rare device for a horror film. Aliens can cause scary noises, weird object stacking, vanishings, and just about anything poltergeists can cause. So why not use them more often?

My guess is, in part, that there's no plausible escape from aliens. If a house is haunted, you leave the house. If you're possessed, you have and exorcism. Monsters can be slain and demons banished.

If the aliens are out to abduct you, though? You're well and truly boned. All of the same technology that allows them to do the haunted-house stuff virtually excludes any rationale by which you can escape them.

Not that Dark Skies doesn't come up with an acceptable hook to give a glimmer of hope.

Dark Skies is the latest movie from VFX stalwart Scott Stewart, and pretty clearly his best work (excluding, perhaps the new Sci-Fi series Defiance). But his previous two films (Legion and Priest) were just awful, bad enough to where any talent in direction might have been swamped.

This is very competently directed, with genuine suspense and good characterization, with some competent misdirection and a few staggeringly bad choices avoided. I got a few chills; it wasn't so much a rapid-fire shock machine, but that's okay.

It establishes early on that aliens are the culprit. None of this "is it or isn't it?" crap. Although it sets up the premise that the aliens can control what their victims can experience, this is used sparingly, not in a "or did I dream it?" style. In fact, a few situations where you think that might have happened are quickly dispelled: That awful thing you thought you dreamed was real.

The Boy liked it, though I think I liked it more. On the way home, I described Whitley Streiber's Communion to him and he said that was scarier than the movie, which is hard to argue with. The creators of Dark Skies did their homework, though, so if you're familiar with the phenomenon, the movie is probably going to be more effective.

Good acting from Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton, but Hamilton's character actually crystallized a major gripe I have with horror movies. Hamilton plays the skeptical father looking for non-alien answers to his problems, which becomes a significant plot point when he ends up assaulting a neighborhood kid whom he blames.

The thing is, skepticism is believable. Even skepticism in the face of what should be overwhelming evidence. A degree of stupidity is necessary for most horror films to play out, but it's also not necessarily a stretch: people don't want to believe what they don't want to believe.

However, this really only works well when there's a good potential simple story. It's one thing to believe that a neighborhood kid has been messing with your kid; it's an entirely different thing to pursue that belief while ignoring: object stacking in your house, alarm system in your house going crazy, flocks of birds killing themselves flying into your house, every one in your family being remotely controlled somehow, etc.

It was annoying here. And kind of lazy, I think. People are capable of making crazy connections to keep rationalizations alive, but it's just not plausible when they isolate one thing and ignore all the really wild, implausible stuff—the stuff that is really upsetting.

Anyway, that aside, the atmosphere, direction, acting and characterization make for an above-par fright fest.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Zaytoun

An Israeli fighter pilot is shot down over Lebanon during the 1982 conflict and finds himself in the hands of a group of very pissed off Palestinian refugees. Among the refugees is a young boy who recently lost his father in a bombing raid, and who has become a rabid future warrior for Palestine. But his father's fondest wish was to plant a tree on the family land once Palestinians returned to Israel, and the fighter pilot is the only one who can help.

Can you say road trip/buddy movie?

Yeah. No joke: This is a buddy movie where the buddies are a young Palestinian would-be terrorist and an Israeli fighter pilot, and the road trip they're on is to cross Lebanon into Israel during the war.

You just aren't going to see this coming out of Hollywood. And it's actually a very entertaining ride.

They, of course, must become buddies, however improbable. But the fate of the road trip, at least for young Fahed, is not certain. Even if they can get back to Israel, Fahed doesn't really know where the old homestead was, and a lot of these places were not recorded on Israeli maps, apparently. Also, there's the whole business of having a radicalized Palestinian running around Israel.

It's maybe a little too pat, in the Hollywood style, but it's still very winning, with Stephen Dorff (the only actor we knew of in the entire film festival) playing the pilot and Abdulla El Akal playing Fahed.  It manages to cram a little zaniness in the most unlikely spots, along with some real danger, genuine tragedy and the sort of impartial non-judgmentalism that's characteristic of a lot of these Israel films (and probably isn't super-warranted, frankly).

A good movie to close out the IFF with.

Sharqiya

A Bedouin who works as a security guard struggles to find a way to save his "village" in the Israel Film Festival entry Sharqiya. (His village is four shacks on a plot of land where his brother and sister raise goats hence the scare quotes around "village".)

The Boy did not like this film and it's not hard to see why: Kamel, our hero, engages on several avenues of approach to making change in his life, like going to the Office of Bedouin Affairs, trying to get stationed at the front gate of the mall instead of the back, and at one point even planting a fake bomb so he can become the hero, and thereby get media attention for his plight.

Spoiler alert: Nothing works. But, that's okay, because ultimately the danger to the village is at worst a minor inconvenience.

I didn't hate it. I thought the camerawork was pretty good. The characters are lightly developed, in the sense that you're given a picture of them as being one way throughout the movie, and at the end the picture is slightly altered.

Kind of sad to think these are the people who kicked ass with Lawrence of Arabia, though.

Difficult to recommend.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Angel's Share

A bunch of low-life Scots decide to turn their lives around by nicking a few bottles of a uniquely rare winewhiskey in The Angel's Share, a caper movie that's really not at all like an American caper flick.

Oh, also awesome: The movie's language is Scottish, with English subtitles. You know 90% of the words but can only make about 15% of them out.

Director Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes The Barley) gives us a tale of a violent young man, Robbie, who starts the movie narrowly avoiding a lengthy prison sentence, with the clear message that even the slightest violation will send him back to jail (even though the judge concedes he didn't instigate the violence). Since Robbie's about to be a dad for the first time, he's gotten serious about going straight.

Problem is, the people he was defending himself from before still want him dead. Oh, and they work for his father-in-law. (Or his baby mama's dad, I'm not quite sure if they're married.)

Just to add another wrinkle, we are forced to confront a chapter of our hero's violent past, and it is seriously violent. However reformed Robbie is now, he was a menace at some point.

So, quite far from the sassy, suave, lovable rogue a la Clooney, the director gives us a taste of what this young thug was like and dares us to like him and root for him anyway. Which, of course, we do because it's a movie and he can be handsome and brilliant and clever and good-hearted as well as a reformed thug.

(Yes, if I think about it for very long, I do have some mixed feelings, not the least of which are that this movie probably expects you to think about it, and societal privilege and what not. In the end, it's still a caper movie—just a grittier one than we're used to.)

The lad's break comes in the form of an avuncular supervisor named Harry who runs his "payback" (community service) program. Harry takes a shine to Robbie, and introduces him to the art of hard whiskey appreciation. I don't mean he gets him drinking, but takes him on a tour of a distillery.

Anyway, it is on this tour that they learn about the "angel's share", the small amount of whisky lost to evaporation, and also about a recently discovered, last-bottle-ever of booze, said to be worth as much as one million dollars.

The movie does a good job on making you care about and root for the characters, and we all enjoyed it. I think I felt the conceit of having such a violent lead character and gritty surroundings was sort of belied by a certain neatness to how things turned out. And it was crime, even if it was only committed against an American.

Thank God for subtitles, though.

No Place On Earth

We took a break from the Israel Film Festival to see No Place On Earth, a new documentary on Ukranian Jews who survived the Holocaust by living in caves.

Hey, whaddayawant? It's Encino.

Anyway, we'd been looking forward to it, for reasons that are not entirely explicable. After all, we'd seen In Darkness, the excellent 2011 Polish film about Jews living in the sewers. What new twist was this going to bring to the extensive oeuvre of Holocaust films?

Not much, as it turns out. Except, maybe a reminder that the lessons and stories of the Holocaust don't need much in the way of twists and embellishments. At least not for us popcorn eaters (RT 100%) even if the critics are more jaded (75%).

Director Janet Tobias frames the history with the tale of a Brooklyn-based spelunker (they call it "caving" now but I'll never give up a word as awesome as "spelunking") who stumbles across an otherwise forgotten cave wherein he finds extensive drawings and graffiti. Years of investigation yield nothing, except one snippet from a nearby village: Maybe some Jews used to live there.

Ultimately he does find a clue, but not in the Ukraine. (Like a New Yorker needs to go to the Ukraine to find a Jew.)

And then we get the story. And it's a good one. The family matriarch is an iron woman. The young men are brave and a little reckless. The girls stay strong and endure months of darkness. There's understandable betrayal from within and staggering betrayal of all stripes from without. (For me, the hardest part is how the war does absolutely nothing to reduce the anti-semitism.)

In the end, some of the survivors even go back to the old caves, with not just pride but even a little nostalgia. They not only survived, they thrived. And live to this day, which is pretty impressive given the traumas endured.

You have to be made of stone, or a film critic, to not be moved by that.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

From Up On Poppy Hill

Japan's greatest director—and let's not mince words, here, that's what Hayao Miyazaki is: Japan's greatest director, animation, non-animation, living or dead—has been winding down for a decade or more, trying to cultivate new directors and animators for the next generation.

In the mid-'90s, for example, he wrote, produced and storyboarded Yoshifumi Kondo's premiere feature Whispers of the Heart, a romantic tale of a girl who discovers all the books she's checked out of the library have already been checked out by a boy. Unfortunately, Kondo died shortly after (of overwork, it is believed) and so never took over the reins from Miyazaki.

And now we have From Up On Poppy Hill, a film directed by Goro Miyazaki, the great master's son who, until relatively late in life stayed far away from animation projects precisely because of his father's legendary status (it is said).

And this film is more along the lines of Whispers than Hayao's own films, a literal (i.e., non-fantastic) film that takes place in the early '60s, where the post-war generation is clashing with the modernization and recovery represented by the '64 Tokyo Olympics.

The story concerns Umi, a 15-year-old girl who works in her grandmother's boarding house before and after school, taking care of boarders and her family. Her mother is away in America, and her father is a navy man who is lost at sea. Every morning she raises the signal flags for him, though, and one day, one of the ships in the harbor signals back.

Meanwhile, at school, she builds an attraction with Shun, a spirited boy who is spearheading the effort to save the school "clubhouse" from being torn down and renovated. When we first meet him, he's jumping from the roof of the house into a tiny pool as a publicity stunt that goes awry, at least in part because he's distracted by Umi.

I read one review where the reviewer thought that he was jumping solely to impress her, which—like the rest of his review—missed the subtlety of the development of their relationship. Ghibli films usually are subtle and deeply Romantic, but they're typically dressed in fantastic terms which are enjoyable on their own merit.

So,  yeah, none of this here. It's a teen melodrama, and your enjoyment of it will be based on how much you like the characters. Which we did.

Also, the whole concept of the "clubhouse" is a wondrous artifact of an earlier time, which for me made the movie worth watching by itself. It's basically an impossible tall house, in the Japanese style (duh), with a large open center, and each section of the house has been claimed by young men who are obsessed with a particular area of study.

Our hero is a literature/journalist-type, but there are chemists, archaeologists, anthropologists, and most amusingly a philosopher (voiced by Ron Howard!) who mix up in a melange of sweaty, smelly, academic boy nerdiness.

Can you imagine?

And then, to try to save the club house, they bring in the girls to clean up the place. They all work together, to clean and paint and repair, and there's a wonderful transformation that takes place on a group level. Though we don't know how it's going to turn out till the end, any more than we know whether Shun and Yumi will get together. (The movie throws a couple of curve balls at you that would make them hooking up impossible.)

We enjoyed it. The Flower was positive about it, though perhaps the least so of the three of us. Intriguingly, The Boy completely adored it. Not would I have guessed, but there it is.

If you're in the mood for a gentle, slice-of-life teen comedy-drama, this hits the spot.

Friday, May 3, 2013

By Summer's End

OK, I'm gonna lay this one out for you, and you gather your impressions: By Summer's End is the story of a woman, Michal, having a tough time with her daughter, her husband (he's cheating on her and everyone knows it), and her depressed sister (her husband left her a single mom), when suddenly a creepy dude starts approaching her kids at the park. Said creepy dude turns out to be the father who abandoned them years ago, leaving their mother a wreck and making a shamble of their lives.

You could not be blamed for thinking "Lifetime movie of the week".

And yet, this entry in the Israel Film Festival is not nearly so pat. It is low key, and modestly filmed, though there are some striking images created throughout, but a funny thing happens when you run what could be a hack story through a culture with different ideas of political correctness.

The main thing, at least if you're not part of that culture, is that you get a film that's far more interesting to watch.

The Boy's impression coming out of this is that all the characters were crap. Which is probably what I would've thought at his age. I contended that they were flawed and he allowed that, although very flawed he insisted.

I wouldn't argue.

What makes this movie watchable, at least for me, is almost that they are all jerks, kinda. (We all are, kinda.)

Why does this make things better? Because the inclination—the inevitability, I daresay—in an American film would be to paint the lead sister as a heroic victim (wait, what?) and all the men in her life as bastards. It's not nearly so simple here.

The movie teases us a bit. Michal's father offers an excuse: I tried to stay in touch, I wrote you every day, I bought you presents, but your mom kept me away. Michal desperately wants to believe this while her sister rejects it outright. Just when you think you've discovered Chaim (the father) really is an irremediable liar, the movie throws another curve at you to suggest you don't have the whole story.

Michal alienates her husband with her moodiness, but hubby is reckless enough to be spotted canoodling by his daughter (Maya), confirming for us that this isn't a rumor or something she's imagining.

Maya develops a relationship with Chaim, her grandfather, who teaches her about gardening and figures out a clever way to help her to learn to read and write. The titular end of the summer refers to the readiness of the vegetables in the garden and Maya's deadline for passing a test to go up a grade.

Maya, like all the other characters, is kind of a pill. She simply refuses to pay attention in school. Down to where, when she's taking this test to see if she can move up a grade, she just doodles on the back of it

Lesson? People are difficult. And kind of a problem.

You gotta fish or cut bait.

And cutting bait has consequences.

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