Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

The Flower was wildly enthusiastic about seeing this film. What? No, "William who? It's Joss Whedon, dad!"

Sigh. Parental fail.

The Flower took a shine to "Buffy" and "Angel", and really loved Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers, so, yeah, this was a must-see, given that the cast consists primarily (or entirely) of Whedon-regulars.

She couldn't get into "Firefly", though. She is, somehow, not a nerd.

This is the (slightly abridged) "Much Ado About Nothing" filmed in 12 days and shot, you know, at Whedon's house in Brentwood, and using money that would otherwise have been used to take a vacation celebrating Whedon's 20th anniversary. (That suggestion made by Mrs. Whedon, Kai Cole, who must surely be in the running for "Best Wife Ever".)

Like most Shakespeare plays it took me about 20 minutes to get used to the patter, and I was sweating a little that the kids were having trouble following along. But about that point, it starts getting hilarious. Really, really, really funny.

Slapstick, cutting wit, clever wordplay, just what you'd expect from Shakespeare, but also delightfully juxtaposed in modern settings. The story gets a little dark toward the end (before rebouding, 'cause it's a "comedy" and not a "tragedy") but mostly it's just non-stop funny lovingly shot in black-and-white with a gorgeous cast of great actors.

It's both got a "let's put on a show" feel and "God damn, we are some talented and beautiful mofos" simultaneously.

The two leads, Beatrice and Benedick are played by Amy Acker and Alex Denisof. I didn't watch much "Angel" and none of the "Dollhouse" so I didn't really know her. Denisof played the nebbishy Wesley on "Buffy". The Flower mocked me for not recognizing him, but he is quite the actor, playing the swaggering, em, Sicilian soldier (in that Shakesperean way) quite convincingly. And at 47, he can move pretty damn well, too.

The secondary couple, Hero and Claudio, played by the delicately beautiful newcomer Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz (the stoner from Cabin In The Woods). There's actually a kind of Pride and Prejudice vibe to this story which makes me wonder how far back the good-and-sweet-lovers contrasting with the nasty-and-cutting-lovers trope goes.

A ways, I'd guess.

Nathon Fillon plays the awesomely named Dogberry, a sort of dimwitted cop with a fragile sense of honor.

The actress that was driving me nuts was the ophidian (The Flower's description) Riki Lindhome, who plays Conrade. The intimate confrere of the piece's villain Don John, Whedon has cast her as a female and Don John's lover.

But I just couldn't remember that she is "Garfunkel" to Katie "Oates" Micucci in the gag girl group "Garfunkel and Oates". She does an excellent job with her small role, by the way.

As does everyone, really. This seems to have been that rare combination of "labor of love" and "bunch of friends getting together having fun". The former gets you Reds, while the latter gets you all those awful Hal Needham movies with Burt Reynolds and Dom Deluise.

Unqualified and enthusiastic endorsements from The Flower and The Boy, and me for that matter.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Evil Dead

Modern horror movie remakes tend to follow a particular pattern: They have better production values, often ridiculously better acting, sound editing, music and special effects.

And with all that, they also almost universally lack the energy and shock value of the original, trading visceral horror for slickness and a sometimes a PG-13 rating. As such they're often more fun, more generally accessible, while being completely cinematically forgettable.

The original Evil Dead, the product of a young Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert (with an assist from the Coen brothers) is a dizzying all-out fun-house, done in complete sincerity for $90,000 back in 1979. When I first saw it, I thought, contra Stephen King ("fiercely original"), that it wasn't very original at all: Five college kids trapped in a cabin as an evil force possesses one-by-one them and torments them till dawn.

But I was looking at the story, which was traditional, if not tired, back in 1979. From a production and story-line development standpoint, it's absolutely inspired. Raimi hung from the rafters, strapped the camera to a motorbike, and never did a single boring shot in 85 minutes. Not only did he shoot some great angles, they were often tied together thematically.

So with all that, it's no big surprise if I say that the 2013 version of The Evil Dead in no way occupies the same cultural niche that the original did, and that is (like most remakes) more accessible and certainly slicker than the original.

But this movie works way better than most horror remakes: It is immensely respectful of the original (perhaps because Raimi, Campbell and Tapert are producers) and doesn't try to recapture Bruce Campbell's Ash, so you don't really know who's going to survive, if anyone. The story is patched in certain ways that make the narrative more coherent: For example, the original features two couples and Ash's sister, who is the first to experience the Evil Dead, but the other four don't believe her.

This really didn't make sense in the original. In this movie, the four friends have gathered in the wood to help the sister dry out. Since she's flipping out, they at least have a reason to not believe her and to insist on staying in the woods.

By the way, in the original, the sister's first encounter with the Evil Dead is to be raped by a tree, in a truly unpleasant scene that Sam Raimi has expressed regret over. I was a little surprised to see the scene re-done here, but it isn't nearly as awful and has a greater connection with the actual story.

Also, one of Raimi's trademark shots in the original was kind of a cheat—basically a fast-moving POV when nothing is is there to have the POV—and this movie uses that shot more carefully.

It's slick and enjoyable without being completely antiseptic. We all enjoyed it, even The Flower, who isn't much of a horror fan. She said "It kept you guessing." And that's probably what it had in common with the original: The fun-house feel. The Boy even liked it, and I didn't hear any griping about cliches. (The ending of Raimi's own recent effort Drag Me To Hell pissed him off, e.g.)

Another interesting aspect is that a Big Baddie is threatened, giving a greater motivation (I guess) to stop the Evil Dead. I think this was sort of implied in the original, but not very clearly. (The original was not filmed in one shoot, but in pieces, as low-budget movies that run out of budget often are.) This gives the narrative a better shape and less ambiguous ending.

This, by the way, is the second remake of Evil Dead. The first remake was called...Evil Dead 2!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Croods

I don't wanna get off on a rant here—oh, who am I kidding? Of course, I wanna get off on a rant here. That's why I'm blogging while the rest of the world has gone to Twitter!

Anyway, this pseudo-prehistoric movie, The Croods features an all-star cast: Nicolas Cage as Grug, leader of his primitive family, Catherine Keener as Ugga, his wife, Ryan Reynolds as Guy, the smarter homo sapiens sapiens who is wooing daughter Eep, played by Emma Stone. Also, Grug's mother-in-law is voiced by Cloris Leachman. This last threw me off because it didn't sound like Betty White, and yet it seemed like it just had to be.

My gripe? This was completely unnecessary. Except (marginally) for Nicolas Cage, there was no reason to cast face actors in these roles. It could've been ten times better with any two random voice actors (one male, one female). And a few voice actors could've done all the roles, and made this more interesting.

But, yeah: Frank Welker and Tara Strong, or Billy West and Gray DeLisle, or Maurice Le Marche and E.G. Daly...seriously.

And all this because Robin Williams' schtick worked particularly well when some animators got a hold of it 20 years ago.

Again, not saying they were bad or anything, just...meh. Voice actors excel at what they do, that's why they do it. (A few prominent stars also have amazing vocal range, of course, but not many.

So, what about this movie? Well, The Barbarienne loved it, which is probably all you need to know. (Though she didn't rank it as highly as Oz due, apparently, to the lack of flying monkeys.)

It's not the Flintstones at all, so it's got that going for it. I was somewhat concerned about that, not being a Flintstones fan and being a fan of originality. It's possibly dumber, though maybe not offensively so.

The premise is that Grug's family lives alone in a cave that they hide in every night. Their motto is "never not be afraid". And they eke out a living from the difficult landscape, which is something like a terrestrialized version of underwater (e.g., there are underwater creatures, like whales, walking around on Darwinian legs).

The balance is upset with the presence of Guy, who seems a little more evolved (physically and mentally), and who is alone and a master of fire. He's fleeing the end of the world, as he calls it, and ends up leading Grug's family on a long journey.

The tension comes from Grug feeling emasculated by Guy's cleverness, and the movie is basically a struggle between the two of them over Eep, the rebellious daughter.

It's entertaining enough if you don't think about it at all. Some of the sequences are pretty good and there are a few amusing moments. The Boy didn't hate it.

I didn't either, though I went from semi-pleased that Grug seemed to be a reasonably competent father figure (of which there are few these days) to sort of annoyed that he was such a lunkhead, to sort of indifferent about the whole affair.

More annoying to me was: Where did these people come from? What was the plan for Eep and the son? How does a nuclear family make it in prehistoric times? And Guy's family is all killed so...he wanders around?

OK, but no. No thinking. Kiddie movie. Lots of bright colors. Only a little annoying 3D crap. Not awful. Go see. Or not. But if do, think like caveman. It help.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Now You See Me

Four magicians are summoned together to form a group magical Super Friends in the new caper flick Now You See Me, the latest pop hash from French director Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2, Clash of the Titans).

This movie begins winningly enough, showing Woody Harrelson as a blackmailing mentalist, Jesse Eisenberg as a street magician, Isla Fisher as an escape artist, and the other guy as a pickpocketing con artist. (The Other Guy, as it turns out is Dave Franco, James Franco's younger brother. I guess that's a thing now.)

All four are called together by a mysterious puppet-master, and when we get past the intro, it's been a year and they've formed an uber-magic-team in Las Vegas, whose grand trick is going to be robbing a bank on stage.

This part is entertaining enough, although a kind-of ersatz Oceans 11, that tells you right off the bat that the movie is going to be able to pull off anything because, you know, the characters planned everything so far in advance.

But that's okay, that's pretty standard fare for a caper flick. Less okay is that our four character pretty much vanish at this point as characters, as the movie switches to focus on determined, if not too bright, FBI detective Mark Ruffalo. He's watching Internet celebrity Morgan Freeman, who makes a living revealing magic secrets, but he's none too keen on billionaire Michael Caine either, who the four celebrate as their "benefactor".

Also, French beauty Melanie Laurent (Inglorious Basterds, Beginners) is an Interpol agent because, why not?

In other words, there's a whole lotta plot getting in the way of the story here, which would've been fine if the film didn't also turn into an action flick at the end of the second act. Actually, you can tell there's going to be trouble early on in the first act, when Ruffalo is grilling the four magicians. In a Gilligan's Island-style "...and the rest" moment, we only see him grilling Eisenberg and Harrelson, with Fisher and Franco apparently not having anything interesting to say.

What this means is, by the end of the third act, you barely remember who the four characters are and you can't really much care. The resolution is preposterous of course, and the denouement both needlessly mystical and a clear set-up for a television series, but I did not guess it.

Although I guessed the motive tying all the crimes together instantly, I did not guess the perpetrator. Actually, my guess was slightly less preposterous than what they actually went with but, like a bad mystery, they could've used my ending (and might have had it in mind at one point) without actually having to change a damn thing in the movie (apart from the reveal, of course).

The Flower liked it quite a bit, which doesn't surprise me. It was entertaining and the twists-and-turns were relatively fresh for her. The Boy and I also liked it, he less than I, though we had similar problems with it.

Two issues grated on me: At one point, an electronic bank heist is done, moving money between accounts (through magic I guess). But that's just silly. You can physically rob a bank because money has no intrinsic ownership record. There's no difference between the $20 bill you earn and the $20 you steal, which is how all robberies work.

You can't do that electronically. You. Just. Can't. All you've done is make work for people in the bank's IT department, as they roll back transactions. Guaran-damn-teed, banks do this every day.

I think this was my big issue because it suggests that the writers and audiences are content to take a "well, it's magic" view of the world they actually live in. It's that kind of thinking that leads to "Let's make a trillion dollar coin!"

The other thing is a long standing pet peeve that was more an annoyance for me (though it irked Boy something fierce). If you've ever seen a classic "Scooby Doo" cartoon, the set up was always the same: Something spooky was happening which, at the end, was shown to be the application of ordinary technology.

But, even as a five-year-old, I was unwilling to buy the idea that a movie projector could make a ghost convincing enough to fool anyone. It's a big ol' cheat.

This movie "Scooby Doo"s it by injecting CGI into the magicians' tricks. Unnecessary and completely fake looking. Plenty of great magicians could've pulled off effects similar to what was wanted, and at times it just felt lazy.

That was my main gripe. The Boy, on the other hand, felt his suspension of disbelief kept getting disrupted by the increasingly preposterous situations we're expected to believe in order to pretend this is something other than "movie magic" (vs. the stage kind).

There were other annoyances, too, but I can't get into them without spoilers and I've already bitched enough. It's not bad. It just seems like movies are demanding that we switch off our brains more and more and for longer and longer periods.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Hannah Arendt

If there's one semi-comforting thing we can take from the movie Hannah Arendt, about the 20th century philosopher who used the phrase "the banality of evil" to characterize Nazi-ism, it's that people have always reacted to ideas they don't like with hysterical over-reaction.

Arendt was a philosopher and one-time lover of Heidegger who wrangled an assignment to cover the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker magazine. Many months, and 300 pages later, she wrote a philosophical treatise which really pissed a lot of people off.

The two main objections, at least per the movie, were her assertion that Eichmann was less a monster and more the sort of bureaucrat certain societies were bound to produce, and that the Jewish leaders could've somewhat mitigated the Holocaust had they been less cooperative.

The movie takes place ca. 1960 and at first focuses on Arendt's personal relationships, which is the very definition of banal, really. She runs with a very European crowd, apparently has some sort of open-ish marriage with her husband that seems in no way to diminish their fondness for each other, and her students love her.

When the stuff surrounding Eichmann's trial starts, things get a lot more interesting. In fact, the actual footage of Eichmann's trial and her reflections on it are so much more engaging than the typical biopic stuff, I suspect that the director (Margarethe von Trotte—really!) showed all that stuff less because it was interesting and more because it rebutted the number one criticism of Arendt: That she was cold.

I liked it, and more than the kids who had a little hard time following it. It's 90% in German, and 100% Existentialist, so the subtitles fly past with some fairly dense content.

I had some problems with it, though, and they may have had to do with the limitations of the form or actual weaknesses in Arendt's philosophy. For example, it never seems to occur to Arendt that Eichmann is just lying.

No doubt his trial was political, and it surprises me not at all that there wasn't a ton of evidence of his personal, actual crimes. Furthermore, you don't need to convince me that large organizations, particularly governments, enable people to do the most horrifying things without taking any responsibility for them.

At the same time, if the righteous racial anger of the Jews were wholly focused on former Nazi me, I'd be lying so hard even I believed it. And who'd be around to contradict me? (And while I'm no expert on the matter, I'm pretty sure Eichmann's role in the Holocaust was hardly that of a mere functionary.)

So, while there was certainly a great deal of soulless government bureaucracy at work, Eichmann probably wasn't the best example of that. (Again, talking about the movie, not the actual work that I haven't read.)

Meanwhile, the other point (that Jewish leaders cooperated too much with the authorities) is valid, for sure, but it's also the Grand Champion Hall of Fame Winner of Monday morning quarterbacking. It's easy to say they should've done it different, but without something enlightening to add, it comes off as kind of glib.

I mean, who looks at the ruins of the most destructive war known to Man and says, "Well, that could've gone better?"

And let's face it: She was cold. Not personally, but as a philosopher trying to reason something out, an unemotional approach is reasonable and even admirable. At the same time, her complete inability to predict how people would react to what she wrote doesn't speak volumes for her understanding of the humanity she hoped to improve.

Barbara Sukowa gives an Oscar-worthy performance. Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs) does a good job, too. I especially liked Megan Gay as the catty New Yorker editor who's dubious about having Arendt write for them.

Arena of the Street Fighter

There are so many ways to look at Arena of the Street Fighter, East German stuntman Mike Möller's martial arts flick. Though, come to think of it, I could probably stop with "East German stuntman Mike Möller's martial arts flick."

But what fun would that be?

This movie reminds me of a lot of things. "Enter the Dragon". My days at the dojo. Ed Wood.

Had you, in my youth, handed me a camera and said "Make a movie," this is probably the movie I would've made. Except for the camerawork, which is highly professional, this looks like Möller's got his training partners together to do Karate demo.

The movie's in English, we're pretty sure, though they may have shot it in both German and English. At first I thought the audio was "location sound" (versus the more typical-of-today overdubbing everything) because it sounded like everyone was in a cave, but at one point (a fight in an empty pool) they cranked the reverb up so high, it was clear to me someone just thought it was cool to have everything echo a lot. (And if a little is good, a whole lot must be awesome.)

It made it hard to understand. The thick German accents also made it hard to understand. That unique patois that I dubbed "Germanglish" (when I was writing for the German "Toolbox" magazine back in the '90s) makes it even harder to parse even when you can make out the words. Then there's the fact that Germans all kinda look alike to make things hard to track.

Fortunately, there is nothing here that needs comprehension. This movie is straight outta the '80s. (Even the music sounds like someone dusted off their old DX7s.)

The plot, insofar as I could discern it is this: The city (time and location uncertain) run by an evil gang, that does, you know, whatever it wants, including putting on fights to determine who the best fighter is. The good dojo just wants to, like, train and stuff, and gives the bad guys a wide berth until one day, the bad guys kill one of their members.

I wasn't sure who was killed. By a head count, I didn't notice any fewer people on screen. (The movie recycles a lot of its actors for the action scenes, and at least one actress who is doubtless of very fun, very game stuntwoman.) I thought initially it was the dojo's master, but that seems to be Möller.

So, somebody got killed, and it was someone they cared about. Not enough to have a funeral or change in any appreciable way, but still. The "kid" (I think he was supposed to be young) decides to enter the arena of the street fighter to exact his revenge (though I'm unclear on how that would've helped) but loses and—well, you'd sort of expect him to die at this point, right?

He doesn't though. He's just kinda embarrassed and down about it, even though everyone seems reasonably nice at the arena, vis a vis him losing.

Eventually, though, Möller has to get involved, on or about the 3rd (of four or five!) times that the bad guys walk into their dojo and rough them up. This follows the '80s tradition of being able to discern the good guys in a martial arts by the fact that they're the least competent at actual martial arts (cf. Macchio, Ralph).

If you can't fight guys, at least put a lock on the front door.

So, yeah, Möller gets involved and fights a bunch of guys in...well, it's not an arena so much as a room. Nobody watches. There seems to be no reward or significance, although thanks to some spiffy exposition, we learn that the bad guys' gang is in charge of the city because they win the championship.

This is due to the evil Skyline corporation (no, seriously) that uses the gang for its nefarious ends and...I dunno, may replace them with Nice Guy Dojo if they lose the match? Because martial arts street gangs are the best way to do that sort of thing, I guess.

Anyway, the whole tale is told in flashback with Möller in jail—this confused the hell out of me for the first third of the movie—by a guy with a very low-brow Scottish(?) accent who, from what I could gather, runs the evil Skyline corporation.

Also, there's some parkour.

Actually, if one of you guys could see this and explain it to me, I'd be grateful.

Best East German martial arts movie I've seen this year. The Boy loved it, of course.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself

There's a tall thin man standing in the shadows
When he calls your name his voice is strong and clear
It's a dark and smoky place, so you can't quite see his face
He pulls you close and whispers in your ear

And he tells you he was born into some money
But it didn't mean he had to sit around
And he knows a thing or two about the things that you should do
If you don't want to take life lying down

So, here's a documentary about George Plimpton, the New England patrician who made a name for himself interviewing the greatest writers of the 20th century, and parlayed that into a Sports Illustrated gig where he, himself, took part in the sports and activities he wrote about.

The lyrics posted above are to Jonathan Coulton's "A Talk With George", which he wrote after reading a bio about him that he has credited with inspiring him to strike out on his singing/songwriting career. And it encapsulates neatly a lot of the fascination in the form of advice:

First of all hang out a lot with Hemingway
Spend some time fighting bulls in Spain
You should go three rounds with Archie Moore and Sugar Ray
So damn scary you won't mind the pain

The premise of Plimpton! is that George was born into this New England blueblood family and the pressure on him was so great to uphold the honor of the family and make a name, and George really bought into this but, apparently, wasn't really clear on the connection between work and success. It's almost like he'd been told "Well, this must happen" and interpreted that to mean that it would happen, and he needed only to be their to receive the bounty.

And when that proved to be a failure, he ended up kicking around in England, not doing much of anything until a friend called on him to edit the Paris Review. He introduced the idea of interviewing writers about writing, rather than just reviewing materials, and this resulted in him becoming close with a lot of great writers.

And they were all gaga about Hemmingway back then, so the big victory was that George managed to get Papa to actually like him, even if he remained reticent about discussing craft to the very end.

Be ringside at the Rumble in the Jungle
Make friends with Hunter S. and Jackie O.
And when they shoot poor Bobby down, you wrestle Sirhan to the ground
Love your friends and miss them when they go

You should write a book or two and start a magazine
Even if it never makes a dime
You should swing out by your feet above the circus ring
At the very least throw parties all the time

The Paris Review led to the Sports Illustrated gig, where George lit upon the idea of "participatory journalism". He hadn't invented it, but he took it to new heights, becoming famous for boxing Archie Moore, and then especially for playing with the Detroit Lions.

He was not good at this stuff. But he was good at writing about it.

Time and tide will never care
Not so far from here to there
Just go

The movie spends most of its time talking about George's accomplishments, with a lesser emphasis on his family life, full of spontaneous parties and a late-in-life second marriage complete with twins. Happily it doesn't spend much time on his critics, who consist of people who say he would've been taken more seriously had he written serious stuff and stayed away from the celebrity talk show circuit and product endorsements.

The product endorsements, by the way, were how he kept the Paris Review afloat after decades of unprofitability. And kind of amazing: New England Patrician isn't something you could expect to move a lot of product, especially not beer or garage door openers, but it did, and he came across as eminently likable, even when speaking with an accent probably best identified with Thurston Howell III.

So enjoy yourself, do the things that matter
Cause there isn't time and space to do it all
Love the things you try, drink a cocktail, wear a tie
Show a little grace if you should fall

Don't live another day unless you make it count
There's someone else that you're supposed to be
Something deep inside of you that still wants out
And shame on you if you don't set it free

This is a fun documentary, for the history, for the good-natured-ness, and not least for the man who, for all his flaws, lived an amazing life, pursued passion, and even pursued failure as means of communicating how skilled people make the impossible look easy. Hard not to recommend, unless you're a sourpuss.

Bonus: Toward the end of the movie, we get to see his last stint (as a hockey player) and he does really well at it. (There's also a fun stinger of the trapeze.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Luke and Kate are drinking buddies, and a little bit more. In contrast to Frances Ha, this is a story about male/female best buddies whose attraction seems to put their relationships in constant peril.

Kate's with a somewhat older dude, Chris, but she's not that into him, something he senses pretty readily. Luke's been with Jill for years, but he keeps putting off The Wedding Talk, which makes Jill insecure and unsure that he's really into her.

They get together for a weekend at Chris's cabin in the woods, and even here, it's clear that Luke and Kate are more comfortable and suited to each other than they are with Jill and Chris. Jill and Chris share a surreptitious kiss, in fact, which makes you think that this is going to play out in the traditional  rom-com or rom-dram fashion with a little partner swapping.

The movie plays with those expectations quite a lot, while never giving you what you expect. This makes it more interesting than it would've been had they played it by the numbers, and it's a solid little effort from writer/director Joe Swanberg (LOL, V/H/S).

"New Girl"'s Jake Johnson plays Luke. Olivia Wilde does a good job as the loose, lost Kate. Anna Kendrick is delightful, as always. Ron Livingston, forever cast as a guy who does nothing, is Chris.

We liked it well enough. Somehow, it's sort of hard to care about...anyone. Also, toying with the expectations of the audience and not delivering on those is one thing, but not having anything of equal-or-greater dramatic (or comedic) value makes it hard to achieve greatness.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Oz: The Great And Powerful

Theory: Producer Joe Roth decided he could make a Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie without either Tim Burton or Johnny Depp and it would be just as good.

Conclusion: Tragically, he was right.

Neither The Boy nor The Flower wanted to see this, but The Barb, being seven, was primarily concerned about whether the flying monkeys would be too scary. The Flower wobbled, almost heading out with us at the last second, but got cold feet and bailed.

The Boy yelled "YOLO!" and ended realizing the shortcomings of that philosophy. I said no fewer than six times afterwards "You didn't have to come with us!"

The Barb declared it the greatest movie EVER!

Oz is directed by Sam Raimi, which is why I wanted to go see it. Raimi's movies are almost always interesting. The Quick and the Dead, for example, is highly watchable for all its flaws. Spiderman 3 is the only movie of his which I would dread watching again. I figured it would be a plodding fantasy like, say, Jack The Giant Slayer or Roth's Alice In Wonderland, but Snow White and the Huntsman is more on the mark.

It's not that it's plodding; it has that going for it. It's just that some of the artistic choices are so staggeringly bad, the movie never fully recovers.

James Franco is no Johnny Depp. I generally like Franco, whether he's trapped under a rock or being assassinated by a hitman, but while handsome, he doesn't have the raw charisma needed for the part. He's a carnival magician who flits from town-to-town and woman-to-woman, and while he's believable enough as a womanizer (is there any chance he could not be in real life?), he just doesn't have the raw charisma, stage presence or the voice to play a great huckster.

He always seems like a decent guy, which may be the problem. Honestly, I'd have a hard time thinking of who could do this role these days. Johnny Depp's a little old. That would make him 70 when Dorothy Shows up. (Frank Morgan was around 50 in the original.) Jack Black, too. Actually, even Franco's a bit old.

I dunno. Channing Tatum? Seriously, I have no clue what 30-ish male actor has the necessary stage presence. Depp 20 years ago was just developing that presence. In fact, Depp's portrayal of Ed Wood is closer to the mark than Franco here.

Sorry to harp on it but in a movie about Oz, the portrayal of Oz himself is pretty important.

Even so, the opening black-and-white in Kansas is one of the stronger parts of the movie. The backstory was okay, even if a bit eye-roll inducing. The story introduces Dorothy's mother as Annie, the love of Oz's life, whom he can't commit to because he's got greater ambitions...that...uh...she wants him to live up to but he can't. Or something.

The need to connect the stories struck me as cheesy, but I'm not 100% sure that's not from the books. L. Frank Baum was the honey badger of retconning. First book? The Emerald City isn't emerald at all. It's a normal city where everyone is required to wear green lenses. Second book? It's emerald.

When we get to Oz, the second staggering artistic failure emerges: The Whimsy Woods (I think) are a garish nightmare of CGI, completely devoid of any verisimilitude. The Boy pointed out astutely that this kind of splashy, garish, and completely unnecessary sequence is akin to the mandatory sex scene in movies of the '70s/'80s.

It's really and truly awful. And the 3D is irritating. (We saw it 2D, so it was stupid as well as irritating.)

Then we're hit with the next big casting disaster: Mila Kunis. We generally receive Miss Kunis favorably here at the 'strom, having occupied the niche of "World's Coolest Girlfriend" in a number of movies, but when we first hear her (offscreen), she sounds like she's off the set of "That '70s Show". The makeup is troweled on so thick (or maybe it's CGI), she looks completely artificial. She does a little better later on.

Then we're introduced to Frank, a friendly flying monkey (Zach Braff) who becomes Oz's companion. I was cringing at this point but...this actually works out okay. It's not great, but given the capacity for "Frank" to turn into another Jar Jar or Ewok or other cutesy irritating sidekick, it's sort of amazing that I didn't want to "Fluffy and Uranus" Frank by the end.

Similarly, China Girl (a girl literally made of china) should've been both creepy and cloying, but Raimi very deftly handles this.

Apparently, he eschewed motion capture and had the actors do their parts, which were filmed and then rendered independently by real-live animators. This was a solid choice.

Next we get Rachel Weisz who's been growing on me of late. She's all right.

The cast is rounded out with Michelle Williams, who is the brightest spot in the cast. I was not a huge fan of her Marilyn, you may recall, but she imbues her portrayal of Glinda with a purity that recalls Billie Burke (who was 56 at the time of the 1939 flick!) without a trace of camp or irony.

After the initial shocks, the movie actually works pretty well because of its absolute sincerity. Raimi is a true believer and his earnestness is precisely what pulls iffy premises like The Quick and the Dead into the watchable category, and comic book flicks like Spider-Man 2 into greatness.

The Oz books are dubious in a lot of ways: They're not surreal, like Wonderland, but they're not fantasy-realist, like Middle Earth or Narnia. I can't recall if they were actually violent—violence in kidlit being a non-issue back then—but if memory serves there were occasional outbursts, with the overall inclination being to resolve things via absurdity and bluff rather than actual conflict.

Raimi deftly handles The Battle for Emerald City without turning it into Minas Tirith, although the resemblances to Army of Darkness are unavoidable. Oz in Oz is much like Ash in the 13th century. Still there's less violence and more chicanery, which is really keeping with Baum.

Yeah, we hated it. We really couldn't get over the initial awfulness. The Boy was really turned off by Kunis, though he was somewhat more favorable toward Franco than I. We both conceded that we didn't not care at the end, which is an accomplishment, really.

And, again the seven-year-old thought it was the greatest movie ever! (And wasn't scared, which has been a real issue for her.)

Music by Danny Elfman. In case the Burton-y-ness of it wasn't obvious enough.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Fill The Void

So, the Internet Movie Database has a capsule of the movie Fill The Void from the Sundance Film Festival:
A devout 18-year-old Israeli is pressured to marry the husband of her late sister. Declaring her independence is not an option in Tel Aviv's ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community, where religious law, tradition and the rabbi's word are absolute.
This is a truly awful synopsis, which, after the first sentence gets it completely wrong.

When we meet Shira, she's sneaking into a grocery store with an older woman who's pointing out a boy to her. This is the boy she's going to marry, and she's very excited, as she feels like he's the right one for her.

So, right off the bat, you can see that she's not just okay with the arranged marriage, she's happy about it. She's looking forward to it. She wants to take her place in society. She's actually envious of her older sister who married a decade earlier and is perfect in every way (at least in Shira's eyes).

You can see why the bien pensants at Sundance would have to affix a female oppression narrative over this.

Anyway, as noted, Esther dies in childbirth and it falls to Shira and her mother to take care of the child while the father, Yochay, grieves. (He might be working, too, I don't know. It's unclear to me what anyone does for a living here.)

After about six months, pressure begins to mount for Yochay to remarry. I'm not exactly sure why he's such a hot ticket, but a Belgian family wants to marry him off to their daughter. Shira's mom hates the idea of losing her grandson (the movie takes place in Tel Aviv) and so comes up with the idea that Shira should marry Yochay. (The rabbi doesn't enter into it, as you see, until much later, and at no point is his word law. Actually, quite the contrary, he susses out Shira's unhappiness and insists she not marry out of obligation.)

There's also a sad creature named Frieda running around that nobody seems to want to marry. (Although, again, I'm not sure why.) She kind of cocks things up by suggesting Esther wanted her to marry Yochay.

So the story here, really, is how Shira interacts with Yochay, and her journey from girl to woman as she decides what she wants, and whether that can be reconciled with what society wants from her.

Remarkable film.

Culture (more than religion per se) permeates every frame. There are customs for grieving, for expressing "sorry you're not married yet", for expressing disagreement, and on and on. You quickly learn the right way to behave, and when people break the customs—when they let their individual desires override manners—it's both embarrassing and causes trouble, sometimes serious.

At the same time, the strict code creates a lot of the problems in the first place.

Even then, when a happy ending is suggested, and everything seems to have shaken out for the best, the stinger tells us "Oh, no, this is not a 'happily ever after', but a beginning, fraught with all new challenges."

It reminded me a bit of God's Neighbors, though there was much less actual religion/theology, and much more "How in the world do we all get along?" It seemed like a non-judgmental view of a society that is very unorthodox (ha!) in today's world, which made it worthwhile on its own.

The Boy and the Flower liked it, though not as much as I. This will probably be one of my favorites for the year.

Becoming Traviata

OK, I'm gonna get artsy-fartsy on you. We saw this documentary Becoming Traviata, on the staging of Verdi's opera for a new performance at the Aix-en-Provence Festival and I loved it.

If you're into opera or stagecraft, this would make a great double-feature with Wagner's Dream, even as, in some ways, the two films are polar opposites. Where Dream was centered around an amazing piece of technology used in the staging, Becoming Traviata is almost entirely focused on the performances, especially the dramatic development of Natalie Dessay as she and the director Jean-Francois Sivadier work their way through understanding Violetta.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this more than Dream, even though Dream is very impressive. First, it's very intimate. Dessay is a captivating soprano coloratura and, while obviously very kick-ass, positively humble seeming as she approaches this iconic role.

This leads to everything seeming very relaxed. Partly, I'm sure, this is because there is no 45-ton apparatus (and equivalent budget) at stake. But culturally, occupationally, artistically, there is as much at stake in a "low-budget" performance, if not more. It's naked talent, raw performance, and nobody's going to care if a backdrop doesn't quite unfurl perfectly. No excuses.

Second, I like Verdi more than Wagner. Not that I listen to either regularly but this is like Michael Bay versus Steven Soderbergh. I can respect the bombast but I enjoy the style of music more. The singing in Wagner tends to be almost bellowing, with vibratos large enough to drive a fat viking chick through. Verdi's sound is a purer, more subtly stylized kind of singing.

Although the documentary slips into overdubbing at points (essentially montages), most of the time ambient sound recording is used and I pointed out to The Boy that the singing he was hearing was just singing, filling the entire room.

You don't get that a lot these days.

Breezily directed by Philippe Béziat and seamlessly edited by Cyril Leuthy, the documentary uses artistic advancement to propel things forward. We see later-and-later rehearsals as the movie progresses, and see how things have evolved. One of the very last things they address is how to handle Violetta's passing—they go with falling to the stage, but with the lights cutting out before she hits the ground.

And then, as the credits start to roll, we see a montage of Dessay working with another woman (a stunt woman?) on how to fall, falling over and over again.

Very charming. I liked it more than The Boy (who liked it all right), and probably more than most of you will. Upon reflection I can't say why I found it so winning, except that all the inflections on how things can be performed and how they shape the audience's viewing interests me.

Yeah, might be a little too "inside baseball" for the masses. I could watch it again.

What Maisie Knew

As any modestly educated, half-literate 21st century citizen knows, What Maisie Knew is a novel written by Victorian luminary Henry James that—what? No, I'd never heard of it either. Yeah, my knowledge of James is limited to "Turn of the Screw" and Portrait of a Lady.

Anyway, Maisie, published in 1897 but updated for cinematic purposes, is the story of a young girl whose awful, awful, AWFUL parents are divorced and use her in their ongoing battle to be the Most Awful Person Ever.

Julianne Moore plays rock star mom, who throws inappropriate parties at inappropriate times, letting numerous strange musician-types wander around. Not-So-Successful Dad, Steve ("We Leave At Dawn") Coogan, looks like he might have a scrap of decency at one point but, no, no he doesn't. You were quite mistaken.

Shortly after their divorce, mom and dad quickly remarry, for the sole purpose having someone to take care of their kid. Former nanny (Scottish actress Joanna Vanderham) ends up caring for Maisie predominately, except for when bartender-cum-cougar-bait Alexander Skarsgard (of the Stockholm Skarsgards) takes her ('cause, you know, mom's on tour or whatever).

Nanny and bartender end up hooking up and forming a semi-stable family unit when Maisie's parents abandon her in increasingly careless ways.

The movie ends more romantically than the book.

Maisie is played by the suitably winsome Onata Aprile.

We liked it, though it had a surreal quality to it. It's hard to believe, in this day and age, in a story like this because the government never really gets involved. I gotta believe, in modern times, the state would swoop in and end this charade (though hardly for the better).

Directed by Scott McGehee and David Seigel of Bee Season, Uncertainty and several other films I avoided seeing, this movie is not unpleasant to watch, despite/because of the sort of fairy-tale-ish quality.

The kids also found it unobjectionable though they were not overly impressed.

Really fine performances. Moore especially punchable in this one.

I confess was thinking, at first, "OMG! Is that Maisie Lebwoski?!" Of course, if it were, Maisie would be 17, not nine. And Jeff Bridges would be in the Steve Coogan role. It just wouldn't have been the same.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Stories We Tell

Well, this is something different. OK, wait, actually, it's very much mundane. And yet. Also very different. It's like this:

If I said to you "This is a documentary about a woman who had an affair, and then got pregnant, and her husband raised the child without knowing till after she died," you might rightly say that this is an everyday tale. A tale old when Chaucer told it seven-hundred years ago.

What if I said, though, that it was the child who had made the documentary, and this is not just the story of old love affairs, but more the long journey of how those affairs affect living people, how they discover the truth, indeed even if they discover the truth—much less us, the viewer, watching a documentary on the topic.

The documentarian is Sarah Polley, a nearly aborted child (you can imagine the relevance) who has gone on to act and direct, and who at one point describes the internal process that lead from the discovery to filming of the people and events involved. At the same time, she's far from the center of the film. (You could even argue she's hiding, or hasn't quite confronted her feelings.)

The film is framed, nearly narrated, even, by the man who raised her, Michael Polley. Her mother, Dianne died in 1990, when Sarah was 11. Her siblings are older, and so Michael and Sarah became close in the years following Dianne's death. But the family joke, weirdly enough, was the question of Sarah's paternity (ostensibly because she doesn't look like Michael).

This "joke" leads her on a journey. And I'm not going to say too much about it, because the journey is the point. And what Polley does is present you a picture of her mother, then another picture, then another picture. and while from many different angles the facts remain unshakable, Polley is constantly throwing more into the mix; she's daring you to think you can really understand her mother.

There's even a stinger, though I called it early on and The Boy also saw it coming.

Just as an example, Polley's real father thinks the whole story should be about him and Dianne, and since Dianne is dead, basically about him. He thinks his story is the important one, the only true one. But the truth is, he's the least important aspect of the story. Even Dianne herself is less important than the impact of her actions, on this child she had, and the children she'd had before.

By the way, Michael and Dianne's relationship is classic: They're both actors and Dianne falls in love with Michael when he's playing a tough guy alpha role. They end up acting together and again Michael has an alpha role, sealing the deal with Dianne.

In real life, Michael's an introverted beta, and Dianne is incredibly frustrated by his lack of ambition. His unwillingness, she reportedly says, to use his amazing talents as a writer (in particular). For his part, he seems happy enough to let her believe what she wants to land her in the first place.

How could this not end up the way it did? In that sense, each of the reveals is more or less predictable. Overall, though, this is a captivating presentation. The Boy and the Flower did not fidget during the nearly two hour runtime.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Frances Ha

I spent most of the movie Frances Ha trying to figure out where I know Greta Gerwig from. After it was over I realized she was in Damsels in Distress, which I did not see, but which they ran ads for for months.

Phew!

Oh, the movie? Well, it's from Noah Baumbach, beloved of critics and less beloved of audiences, who helmed the autobiographical The Squid and the Whale and the presumably less autobiographical Greenberg (which I did not see but which also featured Gerwig), and who is a frequent co-conspirator of Wes Anderson, having written The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Madagascar 3. (One of these things is not like the other, eh, what?)

Gerwig co-writes the story of a no-longer-quite-young dancer who's an apprentice with a local dance company and sort-of couch surfing as she tries to find a way to support herself in New York City.

When we begin the movie, she's living with her BFF, and way more into that relationship than she is with her boyfriend. Said boyfriend asks her to move in with him, she demurs, citing her lease with her BFF, and the two break up.

Honestly, I thought during this scene, "Well, no, obviously he's gay, so you're not his type," but I realized later that these guys aren't gay, exactly, but hipsters. More salient to the story, I guess, is that most everyone in Frances' circle is rich. Not her, of course, so while everyone is kind of laying around doing nothing and making the sorts of decisions that would probably haunt them later in life if they weren't rich, Frances is kind of awkwardly trying to fit in, or avoid having to fit in, or convince them that, no, for her a week in Paris isn't a reality.

There's a little bit of a Sara Rue vibe here. Where Rue was more adorable-but-occasionally-awful, Gerwig is more of a not-quite-sure-if-she's-cute deadpan. As I said to The Boy upon exiting the theater: "If you ever act like any of the people in this movie, I will have to punch you in the stomach."

I said that to The Flower as well, but she passed on seeing the film (described as "a woman pursues her dreams with increasing vigor even as they seem less and less likely") because she said it sounded less funny than awful.

It's simultaneously funny and awful. Like Larry David for the college set.

Even with the odds stacked against it—oh, Woody Allen's Manhattan is a big inspiration here, with the film being in black-and-white—we actually did enjoy it.

The real premise here is "Frances grows up." Reluctantly, for sure. But without a doubt. Her character is presented with ruin, or modification of certain aspects of her lifestyle, and how to reconcile her dreams with reality. She's surrounded by narcissists, but she is one herself. At least up until she realizes she can't afford it.

I think we were kind of annoyed by the movie's reluctance to portray reality in some ways. For example, Frances is a dancer and is an apprentice (at 27, mind you). She's also a self-admitted klutz and Gerwig seems really ungainly. (I don't know the reality but Gerwig is least dance-y actress I can think of. Maybe Cybill Shepard but Shepard was an uncontested beauty. So maybe you wouldn't notice. But I digress.)

At the same time, it's not impossible for someone to be ungainly in regular life and graceful on stage. And the dance company direct her compliments her on her dancing at one point. But is she just being nice? She also encourages Frances to choreograph, but not in a way that says "You can't dance. Do something else."

Actually, the dance company director was very hard to process, as she's seems completely sincere and good-hearted in her dealings with Frances. A grown up, but a "good guy".

So, I guess what makes this work for me is that if these be hipsters, and Baumbach and Gerwig (a couple, by the way) are certainly beloved by hipsters, they are not glamorizing it. The process of growing up means getting some skin in the game, making some hard choices, and trying to find fulfillment (even at the risk of failure). And certainly not worrying too hard about how others perceive you.

Under 90 minutes. Vulgar in parts, as  you'd expect, but dialogue-wise only. The most graphic language is front-loaded, probably to grab the audience's attention.

Gerwig works as does bestie Mickey Sumner (whom you know best from...from...well, from being Sting and Trudie's kid, I guess). To say that the guys all ran together is to demean things that run together. Not so much the actors' faults, I would say, as the script, which is really about Frances, and Frances' relationship with Sophie (Sumner).

Tony-award winning Charlotte d'Amboise is a standout as the dance company director, and since her part is relatively small, this is interesting. I don't know if it's the fact that her character is sincere, or she's just got stage presence that the other, younger, non-stage actors don't have.

Anyway, nice little film overall. Not for everyone, obviously.

Jurassic Park

"Let's go see that documentary for your birthday. The one about the dinosaurs."
"Jurassic Park?"
"Yeah, that's the one."
"Huh."
"Well, it's either that, or the French one about the girl who gets hypnotized. At least this way, you'll get all references to it in the shows you watch."

And so it came to pass that The Flower and The Boy and I went to see the 1994 classic Spielberg pic, Jurassic Park. In 3D.

I enjoyed the movie when it came out 20 years ago. How does it hold up? Pretty well, all things considered. A big part of the "wow" factor was the dinosaurs they cloned and bred for the purposes of shooting the film. Beyond that, it's a solid, but not really great film.

And, here's the thing: The 3D-ization is just awful. I mean, it looks 3D and all, no arguing that. But the 3D rather detracts from the film. A classic Spielberg angle is to have some object in the foreground framing the subject of the shot. You know, like filming the character through a fence.

Well, when you 3D-ize that, the fence, which you're completely and totally NOT supposed to focused on, is in  your face, all 3D style. It draws your eye. Dumb. It's the modern form of colorization, as if the only thing that makes a black-and-white film black-and-white is an absence of color.

Also unfortunate is that the 3d-ization makes everything look fake, I presume because they must re-composite the shots somehow to get the depth. So, while the dinosaurs (which are a mixture of CGI and puppetry, I believe) hold up pretty well technologically, there's a weird kind of glow—presumably a computerized attempt to emulate a light source at different angles, I'd guess—that really makes it look like the actors were in front of a green screen.

The kids liked it but they weren't particularly wowed. Non-3D would've been better but they probably still wouldn't have been bowled over. As I said, while it's a fun movie, its impact was largely technological—and ironically, the 3D-ization process not only diminishes that, it's a constant reminder of how even a great technological achievement quickly becomes a yawn.

The Iceman

Michael Shannon sure is creepy. If you know who he is, of course, you knew that. (See Take Shelter, Revolutionary Road, Bug, to name a few.) I mean, as a person, he's probably very normal and a sweetheart, but as an actor, he plays ominous weirdos. And he does so quite well, bringing empathy to often unlikable characters.

In this case, the character he's bringing to life is the infamous "Iceman" Richard Kuklinski, a man who killed over a hundred people for fun and profit over many decades.

The story is that Kuklinski is an amateur murderer. The movie does not show his early work torturing animals but does give us a taste of how a barroom argument that seems to have been resolved peacefully results in him slitting a throat later on.

Not what any conventional narrative would call a "good guy".

His paying job in the '60s as a porn bootlegger (I guess, though I thought the porn was made by the mafia in the first place, but maybe that was a '70s thing) leads to him hooking up with a small-time crime boss Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta) and lackey Josh Rosenthal (David Schwimmer, who shows some nice range), for whom he does many profitable murders.

Rosenthal is a screw-up, though, and ends up getting Demeo in trouble, at which time he has to furlough Kuklinski and lay low.

Now, a lot of people are critiquing this movie for not getting deeper into Kuklinski's psyche. To which I say "meh". I'm not sure what calculus says "Hey, this guy kills people for fun and profit, he must be really deep."

But at this point, Kuklinski gets a little nutty (nuttier than previously presented in the film) and I was unclear on whether it was just financial troubles or whether he just really loved his job. So, yeah, maybe a little more depth at this point would've been nice, but (in fairness) it would've required expository material from Shannon, and the Iceman wasn't much of a talker, I guess. (Well, late in life, maybe.)

So he hooks up with Captain America (Chris Evans, basically unrecognizable from his CA incarnation), whom he met previously on a job to kill the Hobgoblin (James Franco, that is, who's always James Franco-looking).

Winona Ryder plays Mrs. Iceman, who never seems to have a clue what her husband does. He's in money, or something. And, let's not let that pass. Winona Ryder landed an acting gig! I mean, I guess she's been in stuff, like she was a voice in Frankenweenie and Spock's (presumably now dead) mom in the Star Trek reboot, but I can't remember her as a leading lady since the execrable Adam Sandler remake of Mr. Deeds. And before that, what, Alien: Resurrection? This has gotta be an uptick in the ol' career arc.

So, there's that. (She's fine. She looks...odd.)

Robert Davi plays a heavy, natch.

So, overall an engaging movie, if not exactly compelling the way Bug and Take Shelter were. They threaded the needle between making their protagonist watchable without making him exactly sympathetic.

The Boy and I liked it.

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