Thursday, October 31, 2013

You Will Be My Son

When we last left Niels Arestrup, he was being a creepy old rich dude and tormenting a poor French girl into horrible things (somehow, sort of obliquely) in Our Children. In You Will Be My Son, he flips the script around by being a creepy old rich dude who torments everyone, but especially his son who doesn't have what it takes to take over the family biz.

Actually, this film was released before Our Children and even War Horse, but after Sarah's Key, but you know how it is with foreign films. Sometimes it takes two years for a movie to show up here.

By the way, let's stop for a moment to appreciate that title. The word emphasis could change everything about the story. Like, if it were You Will Be My Son, it suggests a defiance, like you've asked someone to be your son, and they said "no", so you're reasserting your dominance. If it's You Will Be My Son, then it suggests someone wanting to be someone else's son, and not yours, and you're slapping them down.

But if you're speaking to your daughter, it could be You Will Be My Son, meaning you're insisting they have a sex change.

The emphasis here, however, is more on the You, as the premise of the film is that crusty old Paul (Arestrup) runs a winery and is losing his number one man, Francois. His son, Martin, would like to take over but Paul is pretty sure the kid isn't up to it. Francois' son, Philippe, on the other hand, is doing very well in California, and when he comes back to visit his ailing pére, Paul uses that opportunity to, in essence, groom Philippe as a sort of late-life changeling.

Philippe is kind of into it because, hey, free winery. Martin and his wife Alice, not so much, to say nothing of Francois, who feels like his reward for a lifetime of faithful service is to have his son stolen. (Francois's mom is a little more pragmatic about it—because, hey, free winery.)

So, there's your story. There's a little give-and-take as Paul is more-and-less of a monster, but the movie is basically about how twisted he is. On the other hand, the movie's a little cagier about whether he's actually wrong.

Martin is a little hapless when it comes to wine. He's smart and diligent, but lacks the sensitivity to be a great winery-dude, at least according to Paul. The movie tends to back Paul up on this, if somewhat ambiguously. It's also a little ambiguous with regard to Martin's general masculinity. Certainly Paul doesn't think he measures up but Alice (Anne Marivin) is both hot and utterly devoted.

She's also no pushover when it comes to Paul. She's openly hostile to him, especially in defense of her husband. I looked for some sort of weakness there, like maybe an attraction to Philippe or (shudder) even Paul, but nope.

Which is a nice thing to see, even if just in a movie, but the movie actually makes a kind of weak case for Martin himself.

That brings us to the basic weakness of the film, which is that it paints a picture of its characters that don't alway seem borne out by their actions. Things happen and characters do things, but you can't always connect the characters with their actions.

Going back to Alice, for example, she seems to be aggressively sexual with Martin, you might think out of spite toward Paul, or to prove to herself (and maybe Paul and Philippe) that she'd chosen the right man, but the movie gives us nothing to back that up with. Martin never talks about it, and if it's just or even primarily about spite or justification for Alice, that never comes out.

It's not awful and this disconnect is nowhere as bad or as pander-y as Our Children, say, but great drama is driven by characters and this doesn't feel very driven.

We were okay with it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

This Is The End

Well, it was time for the annual trek to Knott's Halloween Haunt in Buena Park. Typically we head down around 1PM (to check into the hotel by 3PM), which means the morning is basically sitting around, waiting to go.

So, I looked around the park and found a bargain theater nearby showing three second run films we hadn't seen: The Boy wanted to see The Conjuring (one of the best reviewed films of the summer), and The Flower wanted to see Despicable Me 2 (one of the other best reviewed films). The Boy talked The Flower (who's not into horror movies) into The Conjuring to "get hype" for the night at the park.

On the way down my phone/GPS burnt out and we ended up arriving late, and so only had time to see This Is The End, which is really what I wanted to see anyway (primarily on the basis that this was going to be our only chance).

And I thoroughly enjoyed it, though the kids weren't crazy about it, not too surprisingly.

I thought this was a movie where the various actors (Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson, primarily) believed the end of the world had come and therefore acted like asses in their attempts to save their own skins.

In fact, the premise is that The Rapture has, in fact, come, and they, being the narcissistic assholes that they are, get Left Behind in the demon-infested wasteland of Los Angeles.

That's a pretty funny premise, really. Especially given that they're playing themselves. They've noted that they started with the actors "playing themselves" and then put in some completely off-the-wall not them part.

For example, one ongoing thread is that Jonah Hill is really, really nice, especially to Jay Baruchel. Later, he prays to God to suggest that Baruchel was His biggest mistake. (Praying to God in an evil fashion is probably not something you want to do during the Apocalypse: News you can use!)

At the same time, Baruchel has commented that scenes occasionally got intense because the actors were saying things to each other that they had been holding back in real life. (N.B.: Actors are insane.)

So, yeah, I was very favorably impressed by a lot of things in this movie. The very fact that they made it about an actual apocalypse, no Scooby Doo-ing out of it, for one. That it shows when a group of actors tries to survive the apocalypse, the first thing they think of to do is...make movies. (These guys are completely incompetent at anything even remotely like a survival skill, which may be an exaggeration, but then again might not be.) That some pretty big actors do little cameos where they're killed or debased. (Channing Tatum being my favorite, probably, but also Paul Rudd, Mindy Kaling, Michael Cera, and all the guys you'd expect to be hanging out with this crowd.)

Emma Watson shows up in a bit that was (obviously) written for Mila Kunis; Watson does a good job.

It drags a bit in the middle. The fact that they're actors and have no clue is both essential to the story and kind of an anchor to it. There was a lot of improvisation done and it's not bad, but it doesn't rise to, e.g., the "know how I know you're gay" bit from 40 Year Old Virgin, for example.

Lotta enormous demon penises (penii?). This is theologically correct, I should point out, but it's also weird.

While a very Christian take on the Apocalypse, potential salvation comes through sacrifice, not through accepting Jesus. That would've been odd, to say the least.

Of course, some people are offended at the very notion of Heaven and Hell and going to one place or another based on what you do, and probably even moreso that they're not the sort of people who'd make it to Heaven.

These people are insane, and should be shunned. Many of them post to IMDB.

Overall, though, kind of a gutsy film. Funnier if you know who the players are, which I think accounts for the kids not liking it as much as I did. Probably not funnier than Despicable Me 2 nor scarier than The Conjuring.

Jewtopia

The premise of Jewtopia is that a WASP-y guy wants to marry a Jewish woman so that he'll "never have to make another decision for the rest of his life".

The ethnically sensitive need not apply.

In fact, this is probably the most racially insensitive movie since Blazing Saddles. (Excepting maybe Avatar.)

We, of course, loved it. It's not great, admittedly: As a romantic-comedy, it stretched the tropes beyond recognition. There are a lot of missed jokes. A lot. But the movie trundles in its good-naturedly offensive way, pitching the whole way true.

Stereotyped here are Jews, of course, but also rednecks, hispanics, Mongolians—blacks not so much.

The story is preposterous: The whole premise of a Romantic Comedy is that the two principles must get together in the end, and yet we start with a significant lie—well, beyond the usual romcom lie, as virtually everything about Christian (Ivan Sergei) is completely false facilitated by childhood best friend Joel David Moore.

The Jewess of his dreams, Alison, is played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. 'nuff said.

Actually, for what seems to be a pretty low budget flick, the cast is pretty packed. Wendy Malick and Phil Rosenthal play the future in-laws, Rita Wilson and Jon Lovitz play Moore's parents, and there's Tom Arnold and Cheryl David and I've probably stretched the point further than it will go.

In the weirdest bit of casting, Peter Stormare, a Swede best known as the main nihilist Uli ("Karl Hungus") in The Big Lebowski, plays Christian's redneck father, and hits the accent about 1/2 the time. Generously.

I felt, at that point, that writer/director Brian Fogel was positively daring the audience to take it seriously enough to be offended by that.

That said, at the Encino location where I saw this, they informed me quite a few women had dragged their husbands out of the movie about an hour in, apparently failing to appreciate the irony of doing so.

About an hour in is where the labioplasty/circumcision jokes start. And as racially insensitive as this movie is, it's not demure about the sex stuff either.

On an unrelated note, Elaine Tan is as hot as her ultimate role in the movie was obvious.

But, once again, this isn't really a Romantic Comedy as a shaggy dog story, a vehicle for a variety of catskill-level jokes that, like a fledgling borscht-belt comedian throwing everything at the wall in the hopes that you'll laugh.

Well, we did.

Fun bit of trivia, the co-writer for the film, Sam Wolfson, appeared with Fogel in the flick Race To Witch Mountain. It'd be amusing to think they met on the set and crafted the idea (and possibly wrote the script) while on breaks appearing as Imperial Storm Trooper Gray and Imperial Storm Trooper Ciardi.

Wadjda

A mischievous arab girl decides to become an expert in the Koran in order to win a prize and get herself a bike and if you've seen any arab movies about women you already know this isn't one of those stories with a happy ending.

But wait! This isn't really like that! Unlike, say, The Stoning of Soraya M or The Patience Stone. Despite the somewhat menacing air, Wadjda keeps a fairly light-hearted, even optimistic tone.

Wadjda is the name of the lead character, a prepubescent girl who's a little tomboy-ish, with a little crush on a neighborhood boy (though he's got it way worse for her), and little bit of competitiveness in her nature. When the boy zooms around on his bike, she says she could go faster—but she doesn't have a bike.

She happens to spy a bike in a local store, but it's very expensive. 800 shekels or denari or riyals or whatever it is they use wherever they are. Wadjda lives in a modest hovel with her mother and, intermittently, with her father, who comes around to play on the Playstation, or bring a bunch of friends to eat the food his wife and daughter have prepared.

Wadjda's mom has a long commute that she's beholden to a local driver for since she's not allowed to drive. Another option is to, like her friend, work in the local hospital alongside of men. Wadjda's mom is leary of this.

Wadjda, meanwhile, goes to a very strict all-girl Muslim school. She's not a great student, and constantly in trouble with the headmistress, who senses her mischievousness and really wants to crush it and any semblance of spirit in the girl.

When the school announces a Koran-recitation contest with a cash money prize, though, Wadjda becomes the most devout girl in the world, studying the Koran like mad in an effort to win the cash and the bike.

Meanwhile, Wadjda's mom is struggling to hang on to her usually absentee dad—a difficult prospect since she's been unable to give him a son. He's under pressure from his mother to take another wife as a result, and while he claims to not be too interested in the idea, he's also clearly not uninterested.

In other words, we have an interesting blend of characters, dramatic tensions, and a fair amount of slice-of-life humor packed into this little film.

Director Haifa Al-Mansour has crafted a mini-masterpiece here on (I imagine) a pretty low budget, believable acting, and a strong story. The strength of the movie is in the women: Young Waad Mohammed as Wadjda, Reem Abdullah as mother and the gorgeous Ahd as the stern headmistress, are standouts, each representing a method of coping with a repressive society.

The whole movie is really revolves around how various women deal with each other in a society where they have so few rights.

The Boy pronounced it "super-good". I concur.

Expect to see this nominated for an Academy Award this winter.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Informant

The prime issue when discussing documentaries is to separate the subject matter from the presentation. The subject matter can be good, bad or indifferent, the treatment of the matter, in terms of the filmmaker's skill, can be good, bad or indifferent—and then there's the stance that the film takes relative to its subjects.

When Comedy Went To School, for example: the subject is a good thing of some cultural import, with uneven handling from the documentarian, and reverential treatment bordering on worship.

The Act Of Killing: About as big a subject as you can get (democide), expertly handled, with the subject being treated with a kind of respect that doesn't include any sort of approval. (Tricky, that.)

The King of Kongs: Trivial subject, excellent handling, respectful treatment of the subject.

The Central Park Five: This is an excellent example of a well-told documentary of an important subject which is totally ruined by the pushing of a narrative.

Although I personally have never felt this way, Triumph of the Will is considered a great documentary: A big subject about an evil thing, handled expertly from the standpoint that the evil is, in fact, a very good thing.

So part of what we're looking at is how the POV reflects on the topic. And while it's easy to denounce Nazism now—you can tell because everyone denounces it all the time—it's often not easy to tell in the thick of things what's what.

Those watching in the '30s should've been suspicious just because it was clearly propaganda, but a bias doesn't have to mean dishonesty. Werner Herzog's great treatment of capital punishment, Into The Abyss, succeeds in part because Herzog states his bias up front. Something like Gasland, on the other hand, is rather wounded by its over-the-top outrageous bias.

Then you have the films like Supersize Me, where the filmmaker makes you think he's being straight with you, but subsequent efforts reveal that he's not always honest. Or, like Roger and Me, where the whole premise was bullshit from the start.

So, let's look at the documentary Informant in those terms. (I tell ya, my intros are getting longer and longer.)

On point two, the craft used to present the story, all is well. Jamie Meltzer takes an oral history approach, relying primarily on firsthand accounts from different people, with no editorializing when they conflict (except to the extent that secondhand observers editorialize on the events). There are a few dramatic re-enactments of scenes, but Meltzer pulls back to show you the camera equipment, as if to say "I'm not endorsing this, I'm simply dramatizing one man's story".

But that leaves us with the tough part: What is Brandon Darby actually, and what does this movie try to convince he is? I actually tweeted Darby—his name came up in my Twitter timeline right before I went to see this—but he didn't respond.

The facts not in dispute are that Darby went to Louisiana in the wake of Katrina to do something and in fact something was done. It's pretty much agreed, I think, that the efforts were helpful there and he was significant to those efforts, even as there's debate about exactly how significant a role he played.

He was running in a left-wing crowd, so while part of this was actual assistance in the form of money, goods and services to areas that needed it, another part was making this the site of Social Justice. And Darby, it is agreed, was attracted to that aspect.

But then a funny thing happens: He goes to Venezuela (heh) and sees what revolution really looks like—and he's not, in fact, super-excited about the end results.

In what would be a shocking twist for a regular movie, Brandon Darby changes his mind.

But we are dealing with the Left, and in particular that fringe of the Left for whom Politics Is Religion and Everything Is Political. So when Darby is approached by the FBI to go undercover, he agrees, only to find himself among those who would make molotov cocktails in celebration of the Republican National Convention.

This is not in dispute. Nor is it in dispute that Darby was instrumental in bringing these folks to justice.

What is in dispute is whether or not the molotov cocktail guys are actually guilty. Well, no, that's not actually in dispute, since they did make the molotov cocktails. But there's the mitigating circumstances of "Well, we wouldn't have done if not for Brandon's encouragement and even if we did we were only going to destroy property, not hurt anyone."

At this point, I have to make my own biases known: I know the FBI has a long history of infiltrating groups and inciting violence. (Much like the CIA's penchant for assassinating troublesome foreigners, it's way easier than actually investigating and bringing ne'er-do-wells to trial.) The FBI's history of violence comes up over 100 years short of the Left's however (with them killing and destroying in the name of social justice since the French Revolution).

But, look, there's literally no evidence that Darby did anything to encourage these guys. They say it was all his idea—well, of course they would—yet he seemed to have literally no hand in the actual making of the incendiary devices. The best that Darby's detractors (none of whom were there) can come up with is that, well, it sounds like something he'd do, the traitorous bastard.

Of course, completely unmentioned is that, if Darby hadn't been there, some other old radical might just have easily been there, and maybe these firebombing weenies might have killed someone or gotten themselves killed as the FBI tried to stop them. Not that I'd expect them to be thanking him for saving their lives.

And I was wrestling this while watching it, because the movie gave a whole lotta time to Darby's detractors, but not so much any supporters other than Darby himself—whose testimony it challenges. And even his few supporters are kind of tepid about him. Very late in the movie we see footage of Andrew Breitbart, supporting him wholeheartedly, which was very significant to me, but could just as easily be taken as a sign Darby's celebrity-seeking.

Ultimately, though, the movie makes no case for Darby's innocence or guilt. For me, when Scott Crow—a radical left-wing activist who seemed like he got the lion's share of screen time, next to Darby—starts talking in defense of the molotov-gang, and how there's a time for the destruction of private property in protesting, I began to see the insanity of the whole thing.

I mean, Darby's detractors are people advocating the violent overthrow of society. They like to mock him as paranoid for thinking someone might kill him, but they would hail as a hero anyone who did. There is no civility in this alleged civil rights movement.

So, in the end, I come down in favor of the POV used here, because it showed pretty clearly the players and known facts (as far as I can tell) and did so without any overt editorializing.

As for Darby, well, I think he has a right to live. I ended up kind of liking him, actually. And I strongly disapprove of any political movement that thinks it's okay to kill defectors, even if they have a stated philosophy that "means well".

But that's just me.

I also liked this documentary, as did The Boy.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Populaire

Did you know? Women used to be treated rather dismissively! It's true! And not that long ago, either! Why, a woman could aspire to nothing greater than to be a secretary of a Big Shot in the Big City. And by "Big City" we're taling about Lisieux (pop. in 1958, approx 20,000).

In the charming French flick Populaire our heroine dreams of escaping her provincial life as the daughter of a general store owner, through her powers of typing.

OK, even if the premise is too self-satisfied by half—look at these silly 20th century men and how they treat women!—this is a delightful romcom, done in the style of the era in which it is meant to take place, 1958-1960. The film stock (probably all digital of course) looks the same. The music is in an appropriate style. The plot twists and conventions are the same—though more on that in a moment—and the actors are the living embodiments of their archetypes.

The basic outline seems sort of Pygmalion at first, but it's really more like Rocky, or maybe Gypsy, with Louis hiring the world's worst secretary, Rose, not for her beauty (as the townspeople of Liseux imagine) but for her mad typing skillz. And this, all, in some strange gambit to impress The Girl That Got Away, Marie, who married an American soldier after the war.

Well, it's pretty obvious how this is going to play out, but like all good romcoms, it plays out in a series of scenes by turn amusing, enchanting or romantic, so that you root for the two heroes to get over their dumb selves and get together. And so old school such that the post-Ephron weak-woman template is refreshingly missing.

Now, at the end of the second act, about the time an American movie might have ended, there's a sex scene! I mean, not a kiss-and-fade-out-wink-wink but a several seconds-long-with-boobage type scene you'd never have seen in a movie of that time.

Well, not an American movie, anyway. This was about the time of the French New Wave, of course, which had nudity and sex and violence and all that, but they weren't making romcoms. So, is it appropriate for this film? Well, I'm gonna let you down, dear reader, 'cause I just don't know.

The Boy and I liked it, but felt the third act dragged on a bit and was overall heavier than the first two, and not as fun. The arrogant Louis must sacrifice, get his comeuppance, and ultimately give Rose the strength she needs to succeed, of course, but it was a lot less fun.

Deborah Francois (her name has lotsa funky diacritics on it; I won't be typing those) is adorable as the klutzy Audrey Hepburn-esque Rose. Romain Duris looks a little odd in the period style hair and clothes, smallish with a strong Gallic nose, but he hits just the right note as the striving Louis.

Marie is played Berenice Bejo (still not doing diacritics, you frogs!) looking beautiful and a propos in her late '50s fashions (far moreso than in the '30s fashions of The Artist). Shaun Benson, a Canadian, plays Marie's American husband.

Written and directed by newcomer Regis Roinsard (still not doing diacritics, yo), whom we hope to see more of soon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Short Term 12

People, this is how you do it. Short Term 12 is the first feature-length project by writer/director Destin Cretton done on, I'm guessing, a shoestring budget with two locations and a hand-held camera or two, using a few lesser known young actors (though I wouldn't be surprised if those actors soaked up most of the budget) and a basic plotline revolving around a few people.

Even so, it felt like a real movie, moreso than The Internship.

The premise is that Mason has come to work at Short Term 12, a temporary holding facility for kids who might end up adopted or going back to their parents or caretakers, or might end up staying there for a while. The heart-and-soul of ST12 is Grace, who's been around long enough to be able to control the often rowdy kids and teens.

Mason and Grace are also involved. Also, they've both had different experiences with the foster care system, with caretakers, and so on. This difference in experience gives them sometimes wildly different reactions to romance, sex, and the possibility of long-term relationships.

Drama!

An axiom of moviemaking is "show, don't tell". (Also used in writing, speechifying, and what-not.) While a generally sound principle, it's not always true. For example, I guarantee that the new Secret Life of Walter Mitty will suck relative to the old, with CGI filling in for Danny Kaye's "ta-pocketa"s. We've seen a lot of variation on "tell, don't show" this year that have been very effective, such as in the documentaries The Act of Killing and The Missing Picture, about the Indonesian and Cambodian slaughters, respectively.

Sometimes, it's just too much to see the horrible.

And if those films are about horrible acts on a grand scale, this one is about the little horrors, the hells created by people for their children, which in some ways are even less confrontable, as they are exclusive to children and happening to our children in our cities, every day.

So, at first, we see the kids, and there's an almost juvie hall feel, as if these are bad kids sent to this place in lieu of prison, except that security isn't that tight and they're not allowed to drag escaped kids back. (This was kind of weird, but I have no doubt that it's true: Legal requirements trump caretaking requirements.)

But then we get little bits-and-pieces of their agonizing stories. The movie threatens to veer off into some sensational events, but wisely stays largely low-key. Nothing else has to happen to these kids to increase the dramatic impact, but the omens are there. Nobody escapes unscathed.

Great performances from John Gallagher, Jr., as Mason, and the supporting cast, who are largely not people you've heard of, though you might recognize one or two. Grace, played by The Spectacular Now's Brie Larson, and Jayden, played by Kaitlyn Dever (who also had a small role in Spectacular) have a real sororal chemistry.

The music, which is spare to the point of non-existence, is also quite good. There could've been more of it, though that might've detracted from the overall documentary feel.

It deeply affected me. The kids not so much, but I take that as a good thing. It's not something that's real to them, and there's no reason it needs to be real to them for a few years. Still, they liked it quite a bit.

The Internship

"OK, we need a new vehicle for Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn. Ideas?"
"They could...put on dresses and hide out in a women's fat farm!"
"OK, good start. Seems familiar but not too..."
"Or! We could send them to a women's prison...or a convent!"
"OK, let's give the drag thing a rest...anyone else got anything?"
"What if they...they're garbage men! And they get involved with a femme fatale/murder mystery thing!"
"No good. We've already got Eddy Murphy and Martin Lawrence doing the Men At Work reboot. Anyone else?"
"How about we make them regular guys who get caught up in a world of technology they don't understand. We'll have them say things like 'the world-wide webs' and 'electronic mail'?"
"And 'The Google'! Hahahahah!"
"That's great! Wait, let's have them work at Google! That's a freaky place! Total fish-out-of-water story!"
"Let's have them work at Google as interns!"
"Ooh, I bet we could get Google to put up some bucks, too..."

This has been my impression of how the brainstorming for the Wilson/Vaughn vehicle The Internship might have gone, although the truth is probably closer to: someone read a story about Google and thought it would make a funny story to have an ordinary, non-technical guy try to fit in there.

From there, getting the Wedding Crashers crew back together had to be pretty much a slam dunk.

This is probably exactly what you think it is: V&W doing their schtick for about two hours, and if you like that schtick, you'll like this movie. It could hardly be any more predictable or by-the-numbers. The jokes are frequent enough and amusing enough that the time flies pretty well, but this is basically the same movie as Monsters University, without any of the depth or originality.

I mean, we all liked it okay. We laughed, and that's the first job of a comedy. But it doesn't quite feel like a movie. It's hollow. It's an amusing two hour commercial for Google.

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