Thursday, August 29, 2013

Letter to the Tooth Fairy

Remember this?

The Fearless Vampire Tooth Fairy Killer

It's been a while since we've heard from the Tooth Fairy, but The Flower lost a tooth, and scrawled a letter to her, folded it up tight, and wrote a bunch of little notes on the flaps. See what you think.
Front flap:

To TF
My first real friend

Already choked up. Here's the main body:

Dear TF,
I know we haven't talked in a while. I am 12 now. I know that I am getting older and that means we won't talk as much if at all. But I want you to know that you have made my life better and made me happier and helped me keep believing. I wish that I could find the words to tell you [what you] mean to me.
I hope this is not our last [letter] because I still have so many unanswered questions and I value our friendship. If this is our last letter please tell me.
You have helped me so much.
Love
[The Flower]
Please answer
Then on the back flaps:
Will my tooth grow back?
You do not have to give me any money
I'd rather have a letter
Sorry my room is messy
No words.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Single Shot

Sam Rockwell has a talent for picking good and unusual projects, and also delivering the goods regardless of what the role is. In the past few years we've seen him do tortured soul (Moon), wacky man-child (The Way, Way Back), evil genius (Iron Man 2), insecure son (Everybody's Fine), weakling bartender (Cowboys vs. Aliens), a psychopath or two (Seven Psychopaths), and a dogged reporter (Frost vs. Nixon).

That's what you call a "working actor".

And you often don't know which way his character's going to go.

Add "salt-of-the-earth hillbilly" to the list of characters he's played entertainingly and believably.

The premise is this: While out hunting, John Moon shoots at a deer only discover it was actually a young woman. Distraught, he tries to figure out who she is and discovers a big cache of money. The money leads to a series of increasingly menacing situations, of course, with John Moon having to figure out what, in life, is important.

So, it's kind of Winter's Bone meets A Simple Plan. Maybe a little Mechanic thrown in.

But it's not really. Though there are certain similarities with A Simple Plan, that was largely about the group dynamic and the costs to the main character's family. In A Single Shot, John Moon is separated from his wife and son, and (at least initially) sees the money as an opportunity to get them back.

But the ethical situation is very different. The thing that weighs on his mind is the killing of the girl, and his subsequent treatment of her body.

Great performance from Rockwell. Awesome supporting cast of great character actors. William H. Macy, Ted Levine, Melissa Leo, Jeffrey Wright, W. Earl Brown, Jason Isaacs: Basically a bunch of people you might not recognize, or people you do recognize from that thing you liked even if you don't know their name.

The Boy pronounced it "super-good" and I agreed, though it took me a good 40 minutes to be able to parse what everyone was saying. (I think they mumble out there in the hills.) The first few minutes of the film are completely without dialogue, and they're quite strong, and the movie follows a pattern of action and emotion where the words being said aren't that important. The final scene is dialogue-free, or nearly so, as well.

There is a lengthy bit of exposition before the climax which sets things up, though. I could mostly follow that. Heh.

Good paranoid suspense thriller. It comes out officially next month. (For some reason, our local theater has been getting Oscar films all summer long. Not sure if it's a rules thing or an accessibility thing or what.)

Our Children

This French movie opens with a woman (Émilie Dequenne) in the hospital telling the doctors to make sure her children are buried in Morocco, while cutting to several tiny coffin-sized boxes being loaded on to planes before flashing back 10 years.

I've heard this described as a spoiler, but really, when you start a movie like that, you're using the shock to grab people, and telling them you're going to explain how this terrible tragedy came to pass.

Critics love this movie. Love it. 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences are decidedly cooler at 65%. So, what I figured is that, this would be really depressing and grim, and people don't really want to see that (while critics just wallow in it), so we went in with that in mind, and popcorn and sodas in hand. (I admit to a kind of perverse pleasure in that.)

And, honestly, I came out thinking both critics and audiences had oversold it. It's not that it's depressing; it's that it never lives up to the beginning/ending. In fact, it's so undeserving of the deaths of four young children, I've begun to wonder if the whole thing is just a metaphor for French/Moroccan relations.

They eat that stuff up in France, I guess. We sure see it a lot.

The basic premise is that Murielle (a French girl) and Mounir (a Moroccan) are in love and want to get married, and while Mounir's stepfather Dr. Andre Pinget (Niels Arestrup, Sarah's Key, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is against it on the basis of their cultural differences but comes around.

And it turns out that Mounir is very dependent on the doctor, and the three of them live together during the course of their young marriage. And, from the reviews, it seems like most people interpret this as the Doctor being the cause of their problems.

I didn't really get that. I didn't entirely buy the notion of the not-always-honest Doctor being able to come between them, as they seemed to communicate pretty well. But even if we buy it, the Doctor wasn't really a bad guy, just kind of a dick from time-to-time. As were they all. As are we all.

Especially when we have four young children practically back-to-back that need taking care of. Meanwhile, when he's not being a jerk, he's a big help.

The money thing was kind of slippery, since the Doctor at times seemed to be made out of money that he gave freely, while at the same time, Murielle can't stay at home because it's too expensive to live in the city (Paris, if I recall correctly).

Anyway, a depression settles on Murielle, and she becomes more and more detached and alienated, despite the happy pills and therapy. The therapy is kind of interesting, because in order to get it, she has to game the system. The Doctor writes the prescription, which is a no-no, because he lives with them.

Oh, and he's married to Mounir's sister, though this is a paper marriage, designed to rescue her from Morocco. Their mom and younger brother are still back in the old country, and part of the discussion is about how to get the brother over.

Meanwhile, Murielle wants to raise the kids in Morocco, which The Doctor derides for the stupidity it is. (Although, I guess if he's supposed the problem that would help.)

So, maybe it works well as an analogy for French-Moroccan relations, but it never really earns its beginning. In fact, the actual end is a cop-out, from a literal standpoint. If characters are to be sympathetic, we must see them at their worst, or it's dishonest.

Also, it's pretty obvious how things are going to go pretty early on. You kind of think maybe there'll be something shocking or a twist, but no. It's almost a clichéd testament to ennui.

The acting is excellent, however.

The director is Joachim Lafosse, who did The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was similarly highly critically praised.

The Way, Way Back

Steve Carell has three main modes: Good guy, moron and a-hole. And whether he's being a good guy (40 Year Old Virgin, Evan Almighty, Little Miss Sunshine), moron (Anchorman, Get Smart, Dinner for Schmucks) or a-hole (Bruce Alimighty, "The Office") is obvious within about 30 seconds of his first words on screen.

Which, in the case of The Way, Way Back, are first words spoken. A-hole. Huge, huge a-hole.

And, in this case, he plays Trent, the step-father of 14-year-old Duncan (Liam James, whom I know best as "young Shaun" on "Psych"). He's just married Duncan's mom, Pam, (the perpetually wan Toni Colette) and is taking them and his bratty teen daughter out to the beach house for the summer.

Do people still do that? Why is it we're so much richer but don't take these multi-month-long summer trips to the beach house any more? (Did we ever do that? Or is that just a '50s east coast thing?)

Anyway, they're doing it here, in this ambiguously time-oriented coming-of-age film. I mean, they do set it in modern day, but Carell drives a '70s or '80s era station wagon with the backward facing seat—the way, way back of the title. (Are those even legal any more?)

Anyway, with Duncan paired up with some stereotypically awful 14-year-old girls on the one hand and a geeky little nine-ish-year-old on the other, in-between his step-dad's alternating micromanagement and disdain, the summer is shaping up to be pretty awful.

Enter Owen (Sam Rockwell), the hip, fun and reckless owner of the local water park, who takes a shine to Duncan and offers him a job. Duncan finds his feet in the water park, enough to make a move or two on the non-bitchy neighbor girl (AnnaSophia Robb, "The Carrie Diaries"), and ultimately call out his mother for being a doormat to Trent.

None of the mysticism of Beasts of the Southern Wild, nor the starkness of Mud, nor the ennui of Perks of Being a Wallflower, this is a funnier, more fun coming-of-age summer flick, that's being compared to '70s and '80s fare like Meatballs. But that's not really an apt comparison.

For one thing, those movies relied largely on crude, even mean humor, whereas "The Way, Way Back" is relatively gentle and (particularly given what's allowed and even excepted today) modest.

But on a deeper level, the teen summer comedy of my youth was basically centered around the premise of "Yeah, this sucks, but it gets better so hang tough and have fun." The camp counselor/cool younger adult was there to show that being an adult didn't mean the end of all fun and to kind of show a way to adulthood. And Owen certainly fills that role here. (Sam Rockwell is as comfortable mugging and delivering glib, outrageous lines as Bill Murray, which is high praise.)

Older adults, while square, were pretty dependable,

Not so here. The theme is that the adults basically get together every night and act like dumb kids, which ain't pretty. The supporting cast here is great, with Allison Janney as...well, the sort of awesomely awkward cougar-y kind of woman she often plays, Amanda Peet as the not awkward, but sleazier cougar-y mom, and Rob Corddry (In A World, the creepy clown doctor on "Children's Hospital") as her hapless husband.

But the message is pretty clear: Yeah, this sucks, and it's probably gonna get worse unless you get not just your act together, but your parents' as well.

That's a way more serious message than a typical summer romp, but writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash keep the touch just right, light and funny and optimistic.

The Boy enjoyed it more than Mud, and The Flower also really enjoyed it.

The Act of Killing

Imagine if WWII had ended in 1942 or 1943, before unconditional surrender became a thing, and the war had been resolved by pushing everyone back to their pre-war boundaries, but leaving the Nazis in charge of Germany.

Then imagine 50 years later, a documentarian went around and interviewed the surviving Nazis to talk about what they had done, in terms of killing Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and what-not. And then they recounted and even re-enacted for the sake of a movie the atrocities.

That's about what you have with The Act of Killing.

The country in question is Indonesia. The "revolution" was in 1965. (About the time a certain American President was hanging out there, eating dog! Thanks, Obama!) The purpose was the purge of the Communists.

Now, from what I can tell, "the Communists" basically meant "Chinese people". Everyone in Indonesia is staunchly anti-Communist, but they all agitate for "Worker's Rights" at the same time. There's no real ideology; it's all tribal, and philosophical hash.

It seemed like a cartoonish version of us, in a lot of ways. The media cheerleads in a way reminiscent of the "It's a Good Life" episode of "The Twilight Zone". ("It's good that you slaughtered all those Communists. Real good!") And all the murderous organizations remind me of nothing so much as unions on steroids.

Of course, unlike unhappy families, every unhappy society is unhappy in the same way: Rights are contingent on being part of the protected class, because being too protective of rights in general really cuts back on the opportunities for graft and extortion.

What makes this movie special, however, is the central part the heads of these gangs that actually did the killings play in it. There are three or four of them, talking freely and without really any concept that what they did was evil.

There's one clownish fat guy who shakes down the local Chinese vendors and plots to run for higher office because he can shake down so many more people for so much more money at once. (As a building inspector, he can say a building isn't up to code unless they give him big bucks! Like I said, sounded just like us.)

Then there's a grumpy guy who objects to making a movie about this stuff because it reveals that they were cruel, that they were lying about the Communists, and it basically makes them look bad. He's an interesting fellow because he firmly expresses that he has no regrets (unlike the fat guy who never talks about, e.g.) and basically has many mechanisms for justifying what he did.

But the lead character is a kind of charismatic guy, the wise-and-kind-looking Anwar Congo. He was probably the biggest killer of them all, racking up (they say) over a thousand kills. Personally. He demonstrates some of the best techniques he had for killing throughout the movie, in much the same manner a car mechanic might explain what's wrong with you car, or a plumber talking about the pipes.

But you can see it doesn't add up for him. And between the ludicrously stagey pseudo-noir detective pieces and the bizarre musical renditions (culminating in a choir performance of "Born Free", no joke), you can see him coming to learn (through acting out the victim role) that maybe, just maybe, he did something unpleasant to the hundreds of people he murdered.

This isn't quite Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil". There's no soul-less bureaucracy in evidence. It was all ad hoc genocide, really. It's almost "the innocence of evil". These guys are largely family men. Congo is a grandfather who clearly loves his grandchildren.

And then there's a scene where a man describes his step-father, a Chinese man, being hauled off in the middle of the night and killed during the purge, to these killers, but trying to keep his anger and grief bottled up, and offering the experience as one might offer "notes" to a moviemaker.

It's surreal. As a moviegoing experience, it's astonishing. Gorgeously shot in that beautiful country, the movie shocks without ever showing any real violence.

If anything works against it, it's precisely surreal-ness. You could easily feel like you're being put on, because the violence they blandly testify to is so horrific, and at the same time so celebrated, and in such an essentially juvenile way, it can be hard to relate to in any meaningful fashion.

The Boy was deeply moved. Disturbed, but also touched at the possibility of redemption (at least on a personal level) for someone who was (by our standards) monstrous, in the service of his country.

Apparently this and The Hunt are fighting for Oscar space, both being from Denmark. I'm not sure why this film is from Denmark, since the director Josh Oppenheimer is a Texan, but I guess it's where the money and the film crew/editors came from.

I wouldn't want to have to choose between them myself.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Hunt (Jagten)

A man who loves children finds his life destroyed when one of them accuses him of behaving inappropriately toward her in the new Danish movie The Hunt.

And this is why I stay away from children. Even my own. It's just not worth it.

OK, I'm kidding about the last. But having come of age in the '80s and seeing the McMartin fiasco play out, more "The Crucible" than the McCarthy era ever was, it wasn't hard to see that the easiest way to destroy a man was to level that charge against him. (Women, too, though not as much as has been evident by many recent cases.)

It's fair to say that Thomas Vinterberg's movie is about a perfect depiction of how these things play out as there is, suggesting a kind of universality to the proceedings not only not ameliorated by big, socialist governments, but actually made worse. (This is not, however, any kind of political movie. It's a human one.)

The story is that Lucas (Mads Mikkelson, Hannibal in the "Hannibal" TV series, A Royal Affair) lives by himself in a big house at the edge of town, near his best friend in the world, hangs with the local Royal Order of Moose, or whatever the Dutch equivalent is, and teaches at the local pre-school. (The only dude, of course.)

He's extremely popular with the kids, especially his best friend's daughter.

This plays out exactly as you think it will. It's like an oncoming freight train, inevitable and all the more horrible to contemplate and experience as it plays out in all of its gory detail.

Some of the trailers make it seem like this turns into a Most Dangerous Game-type scenario. This is false advertising and would've been a much cheaper (dramatically speaking) movie. Also, there's no ambiguity as to Lucas' innocence, which is good.

No, this is about how individuals and groups shut off all rationality if you tell them something horrible enough. It's a remarkably clear-eye film that steers clear of easy resolutions to things while not copping out, either.

Excellent film which is probably making the rounds in search of an Oscar. (UPDATE: Apparently competing against the documentary "The Act of Killing", somehow. Oscar rules are weird.) In the top 5 for the year so far.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Elysium

I thought, during the first 15 minutes or so of Elysium, that the melodrama reminded of those old damsel-in-distress setups where the maiden in question agrees to marry the landlord in order to make good on the rent (which was the fate of Jane in the first Tarzan book, just to put it in perspective).

Then I realized that's pretty unfair, since at least you knew the landlord's motivation, however wrong you considered it to be.

Then I thought, "The Purge called. It's embarrassed by your ham-handed socially relevant sci-fi. Also, dude: Stealing a Star Trek episode? Totes played out!"

Then, "You know what features a more balanced and nuanced look at pressing social issues? Birth of a Nation."

But, here, let me back up a bit: Elysium is the sci-fi action flick from Neil Blomquist, maker of the classic 2009 movie District 9. The setting is: poor people live on an overpopulated, desolate earth while the rich people live in Elysium. (Say it with me now: Thanks, Obama!) The premise is that Matt Damon has a way to infiltrate Elysium.

And that's really it. That's your MacGuffin, right there. You might be wondering, "Well, okay, but then what?" Presumably not everyone can live on Elysium, so even if everything works out for the best what difference, as our former Secretary of State once said, does it make?

This is a lot like The Purge: Besides ripping off a basic premise of a "Star Trek" episode, it removes all the motivations and meanings from the plot. Where the original "Star Trek" episode featured a mind-controlling computer, The Purge had to make do with "Well, people would just act that way under a Tea Party President." (And that was their thinking, embarrassingly enough.)

In this case, "The Cloud Minders" featured a similar premise with the idea that life in the clouds, away from a particular gas prevalent in the mines created (in essence) two different tribes of people. This presents a problem, and a potential solution. Here, the problem is overpopulation, and the solution is...healthcare?

Anyway, Elysium (the place, not the movie) is great and wonderful and prosperous and perfect and abundant, and absolutely none of this filters down to earth because fuck you. Pardon my French, but that is the sole motivation of every "citizen" we encounter. (See below for a spoiler/explanation of how extreme this extended middle-finger is.)

I'm not kidding about Birth of a Nation either: It is somehow acceptable to present an entire class of people as completely evil strictly on the basis of them being rich. (And largely white, though the putative head of Elysium is an Indian.)

There's no reason given for how society works. Profit is vaguely mentioned at one point. But it's not clear what the money is used for. We never see anyone selling anything. There are no stores, just a landscape of tin shacks, Tijuana style, covering all of Los Angeles. Sure, the robot/defense merchant wants a beefy Elysium contract and evil Jodie Foster wants to run everything, so there's that. But we don't really know why. Nicer house? Social status?

By the way, I would consider myself a fan of Jodie Foster's work and this is the absolute worst acting I've ever seen her do in 40 years. (I mean, we can argue about the merits of her work in Napoleon and Samantha, but she was nine, for crying out loud.) She got to put her French to use; I can only hope it was better than her English, which was reminiscent of Julianne Moore in The Big Lebowski.

There's no argument that Blomquist is a very talented director. A lot of the same techniques showcased in District 9 are used here again, and well. (Though there's some shaky-cam abuse.) As The Boy said, "It wasn't boring." But it was so amazingly stupid, not just in the big picture, but in every little detail, we were chuckling at first—then finally outright laughing by the end.

You can see this stuff in the trailers, but if you thought things were better fleshed out in the movie, you're wrong. Like, in the trailer, it's clear that Damon is a reformed thief, but he gets beaten for cracking wise to the cop-droids.

And he's shocked by this. As if he'd never encountered cop-droids before, or as if someone had just turned off their humor circuits or something.

In a lot of ways, he acts like a fish-out-of-water, which can be useful for explaining stuff to the audience, but ruins him as a character.

Oh, also? Remember all the kind of darkly comic violence in District 9? Lots of the same here, except without the comic part. I think Blomquist just likes blowing people up in a messy way. Which is a little creepy.

If I listed everything about this movie that made no sense, I'd basically be typing out the screenplay.

Elysium has no defenses—it's completely open, not a sealed torus, which is possible scientifically but problematically since the poor folk of Earth can scrape together shuttles pretty easily, it seems.

Alice Braga and Matt Damon are supposed to be peers. I guess the the theory is he's had a very, very hard life and/or she really hasn't, because their 10 year age difference is noticeable.

One thing that had us laughing out loud by the end was the gun battles. There were a plethora of guns which is good, because Matt Damon's combat strategy was to grab one, fire until it was out of ammo, then throw it away. (At one point, including a shotgun which had spare shells mounted on the side!)

Oh, it just goes on and on.

Now, District 9 was taken to be about apartheid, but was in fact about the Zimbabwe invasion of South Africa. This film is taken to be about socialized medicine, but it's really about overpopulation. Unlike District 9, though, the overpopulation concept is actually much less nuanced: A movie actually about socialized medicine might have had more depth.

Music's good.

You know, we enjoyed it, but couldn't really recommend it. Which is kind of weird. We were expecting little and it exceeded our low expectations, so far the other way as to be a clown show. Almost like the last Resident Evil movie.

OK, are you ready for the big spoiler?

Here it comes!

You've been warned!

****SPOILER****
At the end of the movie, Damon is successful (duh, summer flick) in his gambit to free Elysium. When this happens, his sidekick literally punches a single button, causing fleets of ships bearing healing machines to distribute themselves on earth.

So...that's all they had to do. Push this button and heal the sick. At no cost to themselves. (OK, a cost like driving to corner store would be now.) They all had these machines in their houses, energy wasn't an issue, obviously, and they had bunches to spare but they were just sitting there.

And, now, all the sick are healed on earth. Yay! But...wait...the problem was overpopulation. How does this solve any of the core problems of crowdedness, poverty, deoslation, etc. In fact, in this Malthusian dystopia, doesn't it in fact make everything worse?

I'm used to turning my brain off for summer flicks, but I think this movie insulted my spinal cord.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wolverine

The Ackman in this movie is big. How big? Why it's huge!

Just one of the many so-called jokes virtually mandated around casa 'strom.

It's Wolverine with Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen reprising the roles (of Wolverine and Jean Gray, respectively) they originated thirteen years ago! That's kind of impressive. Especially since Jean Gray's been dead since 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. (I didn't see it but it seems to have been subtitle "Up Your Bryan Singer For Abandoning The X-Men For Superman".)

The story is that Wolfie is moping around (Man of Steel style, kinda), seeing Jean in his dreams, coaxing him to die (he killed her in The Last Stand) when an old pal contacts him to come to Japan to say goodbye.

Important setup info that might be confusing if you don't know: Wolverine is immortal and indestructible, and has been since at least WWII, when he saved this Japanese guy from the A-bomb. In current day, said Japanese guy is old and dying and wants to offer Wolfie the opportunity to transfer his immortality to him.

(The given of any Hollywood movie about immortality is that the immortal will be seeking death.)

The other big trope this movie uses is robbing the hero of his powers (since it would be too easy otherwise). In this case, it's the insidious Viper who poisons him and weakens his regenerative strength.

The ending of this movie is obvious almost from the beginning. And it's not great. But.

Overall? This movie is really solid, avoiding most of the problems that plagued Man of Steel. The scale isn't save the world stuff, but more traditional hero with crisis saves day, finds love, handles personal crisis. That gives you a shot about caring what happens.

It's not super-heavy on the CGI, either, relying more on traditional stunts and choreography which, by-and-large is more interesting.

Acting is solid. Jackman is really good in this role. Janssen is ridiculously beautiful as she closes in on 50; if she's had any work done, she's escaped looking like a frozen-faced alien. I suspected CGI was used at points but I think maybe it's just good old-fashioned makeup and lighting (and good genes).

Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima play the young Japanese girls, the former as the love interest and the latter as the sidekick, and they do a good job. Fukushima is sort of odd looking, like Devon Aoki, which I found somewhat distracting.

Svetlana Khodchenkova plays the evil viper and, thinking about it, the main characters, except for Wolverine himself, are females. All different character types, too.

The use of Japan as the setting was cool, too. The whole thing, really, was more enjoyable than a lot of the more bombastic summer flicks of the past few years, I think because it focused more on one man's struggle—less the super and more the hero—than on cataclysmic consequences.

We both liked it, The Boy more than I. I found the obviousness of the ending somewhat detracting from my enjoyment of the proceedings. Still: One of the summer's better comic book flicks.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Red 2

Who doesn't love a geriatric caper flick? Going In Style, Stand Up Guys, Tough Guys—well, okay, actually those films were not very well received, but the film Red was, so here we have a sequel.

And Red 2 is probably better than the original, or at least more fun. The original had a few (granted very few) pretensions to being serious, whereas this one is outright silliness. Everyone's back from the original, unless they died in the original, though that hardly seems like it should matter much. Oh, and of course Ernest Borgnine didn't quite make it to play his part again (which alas was to be a much bigger, action-y role).

The Boy wasn't particularly impressed. I think it was too silly for him. And he doesn't have any particular attachment to the actors, except maybe Bruce Willis.

Bruce makes a fine straight man to John Malkovich and has good chemistry with Mary-Louise Parker, who's just adorable as the unprepared girl thrust (by her own devices) into the world of super spy-dom.

New to the proceedings are Anthony Hopkins, doing a nice turn as the crazy nuclear physicist. I'm beginning to think he was just sick for most of the 2000s, because his more recent roles have been a lot better (well, Hitchcock and this were pretty good).

And a new Asian baddie in the form of Byung-hun Lee shows up, in a role you'd sorta expect Jet Li to show up for.

Also, Catherine Zeta Jones appears as the super seductive femme fatale. To which I say, sadly: Meh. The last ten years have not been kind to her, and she looks unnatural in this film. Parker is supposed to be intimidated by her, which is certainly understandable the way she's portrayed here, but even at five years older, Parker is a lot cuter and more appealing.

Pains me to even write it, as Jones was the most glamorous of starlets in the '90s, and seemed wildly talented to boot. I guess you can't smoke and drink and be crazy and not expect it to take a toll.

It actually made me sad, as did her appearance in Side Effects.

I digress. It's a fun flick. Dumb, sure. But good acting, good chemistry, and really not any dumber than any other spy flick, and also not taking itself seriously. Malkovich steals the show.

Casting By

You can tell this is a fun movie when the 18-year-old and the 12-year-old both enjoyed it, even though they had little concept of the movies being discussed.

Casting By is a documentary about casting directors, who cannot be called such because there's only one director on a film, according to the Director's Guild. Well, I think there're four allowed actually: the director, the director of photography, the art director and...I forget the other one. Maybe there are only three. (Director of editing?)

Point is, adding another director is right out. Taylor Hackford plays the douchebag antagonist, and plays it quite well. (Who knew he was still alive? And married to Helen Mirren!) And he makes the point that the director has final say, and therefore is the director so to hell with the person who brings the actors in.

To which the movie rebuts that's also true of the camerawork, editing, etc., so why not the casting, too?

Casting By, perhaps inadvertently, answers its own question, though:  It begins by describing the old days of the studio system, where pictures were cast by directors looking at the list of available actors, picking out a leading man and leading lady, etc. Actors were cast as particular types, and you filled the roles as called for by the script (though clearly character actors often had a lot of leeway).

Then it points out that this is the way movies are increasingly being made again and, boy, is that true. I could describe a film currently in production to my kids, without telling them who's been cast, and they could come up with the actors who actually were cast.

Is this bad? Well, the Golden Age of Hollywood is, after all, called the Golden Age of Hollywood as a reason, and they don't seem to have had any trouble making great movies, nor do they seem to have many more miscasts than during what might be called the golden age of the casting director.

In other words, like 20 Feet From Stardom, and many documentaries, it's basically a lamentation over what was basically a short time span—a time span that was something of a fluke, perhaps, in the scheme of things.

And it may not be coincidental that the time period covered is very similar, with the golden age of the casting director being the late '50s to the '80s.

All that aside, this movie focuses on Marion Dougherty and Lynn Stallman, primarily the former, following her career as she moved from TV into feature films, starting her own casting agency and ultimately coming to run casting at Warner Bros in the '80s and '90s.

So we get a lovely little film, clocking in at under 90 minutes, including interviews with nearly 60 people, vignette after vignette of great moments in Hollywood's dingiest period or just good human stories. (As one of the interviewees said, Marion treated actors like real human beings.)

The best stories are the ones where iconic actors nearly didn't make it, like Jon Voight, whose disastrous first performance on "Naked City" (and it is awful) caused him to write an apologetic letter to Dougherty that he never sent, asking for forgiveness for even daring to act. Of course, later, he ended up prepared to beg for another shot and she picked him for Midnight Cowboy.

Jeff Bridges recounts the terrible story of bringing his famous father and brother to see him in his first big performance in the awesomely titled Halls of Anger, only to see his big scene reduced to a quick shot of him looking ridiculously overwrought. Before he could pack it in, though, Dougherty sent him for The Last Picture Show, and the rest is history.

There are some great Stallman stories, as well, with John Travolta testing out superbly for The Last Detail, only to be replaced by Randy Quaid, living the role. But then, of course, Stallman recommended him for the role that ultimately became Vinnie Barbarino on "Welcome Back, Kotter".

Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate (written in the book as a blonde Aryan type, as was most of the cast); Al Pacino for Panic In Needle Park; Glenn Close and John Lithgow for World According To Garp; Mel Gibson and Danny Glover for Lethal Weapon, and on and on.

You can't imagine these movies cast with other people, and Dougherty says she did casting by selecting three (or fewer) actors for a particular role, only sending multiple actors for the same role when they would do the roles in dramatically different ways.

Clearly she was crucial to the process, with a bunch of writers, directors and producers marching through saying "Oh, yeah, I couldn't have done it without her." Woody Allen in particular discussed how bad he was at casting and how Marion (and then when she moved to WB, Marion's protege) was critical to his films being made.

And remember, most filmmakers (including these!) are ego maniacs who don't eagerly share credit; you'd really expect a lot more to be in the Taylor Hackford camp. So it's touching to see the biggest names of the '60s and '70s come forward and say, "We were gonna cast Linda Hunt for Rumble Fish but we went with Diane Lane, thanks to Marion!" (OK, that's not a real thing, though Diane Lane got the Rumble Fish role through Dougherty.)

Of course, it still didn't make me wanna see any of these films. Heh. (Not my era, dammit.) And, as I said, the kids don't even know most of the movies and stars, but they enjoyed it, too.

That's a pretty good recc for a doc.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pacific Rim

What's this Pacific Rim movie about? I think it's best summed up by this poster the North Hollywood Laemmle had up:

Actually, the only way Pacific Rim could've been better is if it had featured Gigantor beating up Godzilla.

After Man of Steel, I was basically never wanting to see another big-budget CGI summer blockbuster ever again, but I love me some Guillermo del Toro and, despite bad box office, the buzz on the movie was very solid indeed.

Verdict? Well, it's a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. And it's about as good as a movie about giant robots fighting giant monster can be. Which ain't great—but also ain't bad!

The premise is unapologetically Japanese Video Game-y, with the earth under assault by Kaiju, monsters who emerge from the ocean (via a gate to another dimension) to terrorize shore cities. In order to combat the Kaiju, earth's governments band together to create Jaegers, giant robots which must be controlled by two psychically linked pilots.

The frequency, power and quantity of kaiju incursions is on a rapid increase, so level up Kaiju pilots!

Here's what works in Pacific Rim:

  • The CGI is excellent, but it doesn't seem to exist for its own sake. 

Think about that for a second: A movie about giant robots and monsters fighting—a movie that would not exist without CGI—actually shows tremendous restraint, and avoids the 20-minute-combat set pieces found in, say, Man of Steel.

  • The scope is global, but the drama is primarily personal.

Also kind of astounding, in a movie that sets up the "save the world" plot from scene 1 is actually focused primarily on the (melo)drama of the lead characters. The psychic link is a convenient shortcut for the sort of bonding you get in more realistic combat movies. This makes it more engaging than either Man of Steel and (most of) World War Z.

  • The plot has a few mild twists.

Nothing super-shocking, but not a straight shot from first punch to final boom.

  • It has a real "anyone can die at any moment" feel.

You don't usually get any kind of surprise in a blockbuster as to who is going to live or die. But this was almost horror-movie-esque. (More on this in a moment.)

  • Ron Perlman!

More on this, after we cover the bad, too.

Here's the bad:

  • The acting isn't very compelling
Maybe it's not the acting, exactly, but there's not a lot of charisma on screen here. A movie like this needs a William Shatner or a Nic Cage even selling it. 'cause, you know: silly. Suspension of disbelief hard-strained.
  • It's magicky.

OK, this bugs me, though obviously, in a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots, engineering isn't a big deal. And there's a typical (enjoyable) comic book logic that leads one to the path that says "Yes, giant robots are, of course, the way you'd fight giant monsters, because you couldn't possibly deliver the same or far worse damaging payloads from long ranges with missile and plane attacks."

That aside, the actual combat is about at the level of Toho's Godzilla movies and, truth-be-told, most action movies these days: We have a fight until the plot necessitates some resolution, and the damage done is exactly what is called for at any moment.

I'm not complaining, in the sense that of course that's the way it would play out. Why spend a few thousand dollars of your $200M budget to try to make sense? Whatever you came up with to tie things together with some semblance of coherence would get taken about in one of the draft processes any way.

But it does distance me. It's not even that I object to being awkwardly manipulated, it's that this stuff is so clumsy as to be completely ineffective manipulation.

Probably the worst thing is that this movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots isn't even the worst offender of this variety.

Now, the neutral:

  • No all-star cast.

This aspect of the film was interesting. Ron Perlman was the only actor I could name in this film, and he's typically B-movie fodder, though he played Hellboy, the beast in the '80s "Beauty and the Beast" TV series, and a caveman in Quest for Fire.

He's usually in makeup, in other words.

But this allowed them to make the results of the movie somewhat less predictable. It made the horror movie-esque aspect possible, or at least more likely. And it doubtless knocked $30-40M off the budget.

It may be why there was no really compelling charisma there. The Japanese girl, Rinko Kikuchi (who was in one of my favorite films a few years back, The Brothers Bloom) is a good mixture of vulnerability and moxie, and Charlie Hunnam (Children of Men) strikes the right notes as the humbled hero. Even Idris Elba (Prometheus, the black Norse God in Thor), whose role is the most egregiously clichéd, pulls it off.

I don't know if it's the acting per se, really. But there's a lot more genuine chemistry in del Toro's Hellboy movies. This may be one place where the scale actually did hurt: There's too much space for the camaraderie to fill. Also, the characters end up dying at an alarming rate, long before you can care much for them.

Weirdly, this might need a four hour director's cut.

Anyway, The Boy, who hates this kind of stuff really and truly enjoyed it. I mean, he saw the original Transformers movie when he was about 10, and hates it to this day, and leans against the big, dumb action flicks that are aimed primarily at his demographic. But this won him over, I think due to a general lack of pretentiousness, and a degree of respect for the audience.

It's bombed here in the U.S., looking like it might just barely clear $100M, but it's earned twice that overseas, such that we might actually get a sequel.

So, I guess the recommendation is: If you can like a movie about giant monsters and robots fighting, this is probably a movie you can like.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Our Nixon

A documentary! About Nixon! This is gonna be...

Well, let's be honest, it's going to be hideously biased about Richard Milhouse Nixon, right? Ain't nobody actually objective making documentaries any more. If we're lucky, they're like Morgan Spurlock and state their biases up front. (Well, Spurlock did that in Supersize Me, but went far less honest in later works.)

The premise here is that a bunch of Dick lovers, Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Dwight Chapin, took a bunch of Super 8 "home movies" of the various shenanigans going on in the White House from 1968-1974ish, which have been recently declassified or somehow or other made public domain, and enterprising filmmaker Penny Lane has edited from the many, many hours of doubtless stultifying footage and selected presumably the least dull footage, over which snippets of the legendary tapes are played.

The Boy was not engaged, especially, though he came out feeling kinda sorry for Tricky Dick, which he felt was probably not the filmmaker's intent.

I was rather more, since I knew a bit more about the times and people involved.

The best parts of this are the truly documentarian parts, which is to say, there's a lot here that reflects well on Nixon and poorly on the press, which was by-and-large quite obviously out to get him.

Then there are a couple of parts that seem gratuitous: Nixon fretting over Kissinger's seduction techniques, which apparently involved taking total credit for the China trip. Nixon asking for help from Haldeman (or Ehrlichman, I can't recall) after he'd had to resign in disgrace. And worst of all, an anti-gay diatribe.

Nixon didn't care for the gays. And upon viewing a pro-gay episode of "All In The Family", he vented on the subject. And he vented in a way that was pretty normal for the time, if a bit bombastic. And not just that time, but just about every time in the past 1,500-2,000 years.

That felt agenda-y, but I assured The Boy that he probably could've heard similar diatribes from all previous Presidents, and if not making them, then they almost surely heard uncritically such things. MLK didn't embrace homosexuality, unsurprisingly, although squabbling over his corpse is done to speculate on how he would have evolved. (I can only assume he would've evolved out of being a Republican, too, by that light.)

Anyway, the real problem here is that the tapes are the interesting part. The actual film is what you'd expect from home movies: Shots of scenery and taking pix of someone else holding a camera who's taking pix of you. It might add some depth if you viewed these guys as monsters, I guess. I dunno.

It's short but feels a little too long. Director Lane has a cute trick of calling herself the "co-director", with the CREEPers being the other directors, one presumes.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mud

I think I was thinking this Matthew McConaughey Mud had some anti-government messaging in it, as a follow-up to the previous day's scathing attack on bureaucracy, Still Mine, but on reflection I'm not really sure it is, particularly.

It's somewhat reminiscent of my favorite movie of last year Beasts of the Southern Wild, in which the government was an implacable, overbearing force, in that it's a coming-of-age story that takes place in the south (Arkansas, not Louisiana), where the river and water represent freedom and joy in living. And also where a government decree is going to end that life, so I guess it is to that extent.

This movie, written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) is about a couple of pubescent boys who gambol around the delta and run across a fugitive named Mud (McConaughey) who's hiding out from the law, waiting for his girl, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and needs some help keeping out of sight and escaping from the dragnet that's out for him.

Now, Mud isn't the main character. He's just the catalyst for the story and the lens through which the actual main character, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) views his impending adulthood.

Basically, Mud is about love. Romantic love. Mud is a guy who epitomizes Ellis' idea of love. He's on the run because he killed a man who beat his darling Juniper. That's love, right? Not like his squabbling parents, who are on the verge of divorce. But maybe like May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), this girl he's sweet on.

But probably not.

It's fair to say women do not come off well in this flick, which, interestingly (for all the war on men) talk, has been an undercurrent in several movies we've seen lately.

Mud adores Juniper, but she in no way behaves like a woman who deserves to be fought for so fiercely. (I'm not a big fan, but Witherspoon is great in this role.) His mom, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson of Serenity, "Deadwood" and Martha Marcy May Marlene) seems to be perfectly willing to destroy the family on the basis of, well, her husband's just not up to what she figures she deserves. May Pearl is a teen girl who has no concept (or interest) in Ellis' intensity.

But there's nothing about this movie that's simple.

We can certainly believe Juniper when she says Mud isn't all he's cracked up to be, and Ellis' dad is kind of a mope, and Ellis certainly went overboard in his affections toward May Pearl.

Life ain't simple. It's messy.

Through it, you can count on your friends, or so you hope. In this film, Ellis' companion is the steadfast Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), but Mud also has a father-figure/friend in Tom Blankeship (Sam Shepard). It's only poor old dad (Ray McKinnon, also of "Deadwood") who doesn't seem to have a friend to fall back on, in fact. And he's not doing too well.

Oh, and Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) is Neckbone's older brother who has a small but significant role as someone who follows a kind of Man Code in dealing (and not dealing) with Ellis, Neckbone and Mud.

This was kind of weird. Shannon was totally normal in this. I don't think I've ever seen him not play a prophet, psycho, drug addict or hit man before.

Anyway, an excellent film that I think reaches the greatness that Take Shelter narrowly missed. Barely cracked the top ten at the box office, I think.

The Boy also really enjoyed it, while picking up on another theme: Honesty. The movie had a lot of plot points revolving around how people handled situations, truthfully or otherwise.

Unlike a lot of films that, when you think them over, they get worse and worse, this one gets richer and richer.

Oh! And Joe Don Baker was in it! I had to explain to The Boy why I called out Mitchell! when he came on screen.

Still Mine

It was unusual to see what seemed to be two small-government oriented films in as many days, and quadruply for one of those films, Still Mine, to be Canadian.

James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold play Craig and Irene, a married couple in their late 80s (! they're both actually in their early 70s) who are starting to have a little trouble fitting in to the modern world.

By the way, the fact that they're Canadian is never actually mentioned. They could be Midwestern. I suspect they figured that'd be better for the American box office. (The movie's made about $300K domestically so far, so I don't know if that's right or not.)

Anyway, Irene is losing her mind, and Craig's solution is to take some of their land (the portion with a better view) and build a new, smaller, more manageable house.

And when I say "build a house," I mean personally build a house.

Awesome, right? I mean, just a 70-year-old building a house would be pretty cool. An 87-year-old even moreso. And of course he finds that building the house is therapeutic and rejuvenating and gives him a purpose and direction and vision he hasn't had in a while.

Of course, the government wants to stop him. He's got to have permits and inspections and licensing, and a whole lot of stuff he can't afford because we live in a Nanny State. Doesn't even matter that it's Canada. It'd be the same anywhere in the Western world no doubt.

The movie never fails to show us the difference between the way we live today, and how these relics from the past live and have lived: Shunning debt, living simple lives without a lot of electronic gewgaws, being self-reliant, but also generous and supportive. Indeed, the couple's history throughout decades results in support from a variety of corners when it is most needed.

James Cromwell is great, of course, who manages to play Craig without resorting to stereotypes. He's good without being saintly. He's crusty, even rough, and not always quick to apologize. He gets frustrated with Irene, but he can't live without her.

Genevieve Bujold—well, what can I say? I've never been a fan. Never especially noticed her. She was amazingly photogenic, I guess, back in the day, but never really drew me in the movies. (I mean, if you go look at a still photo of her from her youth, she's flawless, but I saw her in bunches of movies without even noticing her.) Until now.

She was completely charming in this. Dementia is a tricky thing to play, momentarily there and gone again. She was believable, sympathetic, vulnerable yet still with a kind of strength that made her plausible as a once self-sufficient farmer's wife. (Well, at least the Hollywood version of one.)

Director Michael McGowan keeps it low key but lively, much like his 2004 film Saint Ralph. The Boy and The Flower both liked it, too. I think the key to that being that Cromwell is very likable and we all can relate to not liking to be told what to do by bureaucrats.

It's not really political per se and it's hard to imagine the people involved being anything less than die-hard leftists, but it's hard (for me, at least) not to see a strong message about independence that's anti-government.


Thursday, August 1, 2013

World War Z

Zombies. Love 'em or hate 'em, they're here to stay, apparently. I mean, think about it. This latest binge-of-the-undead started in 2002 with Danny Boyle's excellent 28 Days Later. (Resident Evil was also that year, but it was more of a Matrix rip-off than a traditional zombie flick.)

Now, eleven years later we have World War Z, which is about as far from Night of the Living Dead in concept and execution to make one question whether it's even the same genre. And it's not. NotLD is a horror picture. This (like the Resident Evil series) is an action flick with zombies.

And, as far as action-based zombie flicks go, this isn't a bad one. In fact, it starts off pretty smart. Brad Pitt is passable as some sort of retired spook whose actions once he realizes something is afoot seem reasonably plausible (if improbably lucky) and the action is fairly well choreographed. Marc Forster (Machine Gun Preacher, Finding Neverland) has a sure hand and moves the proceedings along at a good pace.

When Pitt is rescued by his military buddies and taken to an aircraft carrier (also smart!) things take a turn for the silly. Despite having seen two big eastern seaboard cities wiped out by zombies, when The Company (I don't remember what actual agency it was, if any was mentioned) tells Pitt they need him back out in the field to try to get to the bottom of these spooky hijinx, he has a heart-to-heart with his wife (Mireille Enos, "Big Love") that goes something like this:

Brad: They want me to go out and save the world.
Mireille: No, you can't!
Brad: I don't want to. I have to.
Mireille: I've seen what this job did to you.

Wait a tick. What?

This is one of my biggest pet peeves about post-apocalyptic stuff: The idea that the trivial concerns of yesterday matter. "Falling Skies" and "Walking Dead" do this all the time. On one of those shows, when a young boy wants to learn to shoot a gun (reasonable and necessary in both circumstances) the parent says something like "He deserves to have a childhood."

Sorry, you're not surviving the apocalypse, buddy.

It takes a further turn into silliness when Pitt visits Israel. In a conspiracy reminiscent of 9/11, the Jews knew all along! Actually, the truth as a revealed makes a lot of sense and Israel would be pretty well suited to surviving an apocalypse of this sort, but what actually happens on screen is kinda dopey. Kinda way dopey.

There's some other very serendipitous stuff past that, but ultimately the movie isn't weighed down by the silliness, and there are yet many good parts mixed in with the typical dopiness. There also wasn't a ton of look-at-me-CGI; there's a fair amount of CGI but it doesn't drag the movie down much.

The Boy and I recommend, if not wildly enthusiastically.

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