Thursday, January 23, 2014

Divorce Corp.

Holy crap. No, let me amend that: HOLY FREAKIN' CRAP! I knew Family Court was screwed up, but I had no idea the extent of the horrors.

Fortunately, there's this documentary, Divorce Corp, narrated by Dr. Drew Pinsky and featuring victims (and culprits) of the system.

Watch, and be horrified. By virtue of wanting a divorce, the government reaches into people's lives (and bank accounts) to extract the most money possible. If they don't set out to destroy people's lives—i.e., if that's a side-effect and not the intended purpose—they certainly show no remorse.

The fascinating thing is how the Family Court evolved: It's essentially extra-legal. There are no Constitutional protections. No trial by jury. No freedom of speech. No ethics. Going into one of these courts, you no longer have any right to your property, nor to your future earnings, nor even to your children.

Upon entering Family Court, the judge can force you to pay large amounts of money to an unqualified friend of the judge to determine whether or not you're a fit parent. And what they say goes.

It's a horror.

This is why I tend to recoil around social conservatives—not people who live socially conservative lives, but people who think the government should be involved in promoting social conservatism.

It's not that it's that the country doesn't have a decided interest in socially conservative values: the family unit, monogamy, even heterosexuality and birth control all have significant impact on society, and, well, you can count the number of successful societies that have been sustained on modern permissive values on the fingers of no hands.

And yet, the one thing you can count on is this: If the government has power, it will abuse it, it will pervert it, it will try to extend it. Family Court is a perfect example of this: Established to enforce traditional views of marriage—that a husband must support his wife and children even if he splits from them—it now is a complete and utter perversion, motivated to destroy families and even encourage divorce.

The movie starts with an odd thing. It says "50% of all marriages end in divorce. This is why." First of all, the 50% number isn't true. Second of all, as awful as family court is, I don't think it can be blamed for divorce. If anything, the awfulness of it should act as a deterrent—though perhaps only after the first divorce.

The Boy and I were amazed. We were also sort of annoyed by the constant references to Scandinavia's superior system but give the Scandis their due: You sign some papers, and you're done. Very few cases are litigated, because there's no incentive.

The first must-see documentary of the year.

The Invisible Woman

As it turns out, Charles Dickens was just another middle-aged celebrity cliché who jumped a 17-year-old at the first opportunity and whose amazing story can now finally be told! Or so is framed this Ralph Fiennes directed/starring vehicle The Invisible Woman.

Meh.

I suppose it's a fitting punishment, to have penned some of the great works of the English Language, only to be reduced to a late-life dalliance some 150 years later. I guess after nearly 70s years of Hollywood (and Borehamwood) of squeezing your literary output for material—and you have to go back to 1946 to find a year that didn't feature a video version of some Dickens story—it was only inevitable that they would start squeezing your personal life as well.

Or perhaps I'm being too cynical.

Probably. Actors and showbiz types being fascinated by actors and showbiz types from the 19th century is only natural.

Thing is? It's not fascinating. It's utterly banal. Where Fiennes debut picture, Coriolanus, was a brave and challenging take on a lesser known Shakespeare play, this is, well, sort of Lifetime movie material. Well, Lifetime plus amazing actors (but more on that in a bit).

In a nutshell: 40-something Dickens (Fiennes) catches the eye of adoring teen fan Nelly (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy). It seems like she's quite smitten, but of course, he's married, ancient and she's a virginal Victorian lass, despite being an actress.

Dickens is then seen oh-so-casually arranging his schedule to run into her, say, by walking to London from his house in the country. Everyone is pretty much aware of the situation, even before Dickens and Nelly are, including Mrs. Dickens (Joanna Scanlon, The Girl with the Pearl Earring) and Nelly's mom (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Nelly's mother demurs at first, fearing for her daughter's reputation but, in perhaps the only really interesting twist in the movie—that you should probably stop reading about if you don't want to be spoiled, even though it's only a 20 second bit in a two-hour movie—in this only really novel angle, her mother begins to encourage the possible affair on the basis of Nelly being a really, truly horrible actress with no real prospects in show business, apart from what Dickens might be able to help her with.

Heh.

As for the rest of it, the part that isn't "older dude hooks up with then falls in love with much younger woman", deals with the stigma of being a mistress in the 19th century, and the dialogue might just as well have come out of the 1960s, or the 1930s or the 1880s or any of the other time periods when non-traditional relationships struggled against the tyranny of monogamy.

It's woefully pedestrian.

Still, great things come from trite stories. Shakespeare did wonders with the trite. Valdemort could be considered trite and Fiennes did wonders with the dark wizard.

This, though? Nuffin'. There's an implication that Nelly was Dickens muse for works like Great Expectations from this period, but the movie doesn't really sell it. It's all sort of "No, I shouldn't. No. No. No. Well, okay. Crud. I really shouldn't have."

It just teases a bunch of stuff without ever coming into focus. Nelly should be the centerpiece of the film and—I mean, if you want a good drama—she should be completely infusing his work and his thoughts. And, in fairness, Dickens' actions here fit the bill, but we never actually see much actual passion.

Which brings up another point: As you might expect from a film directed by an actor there are long moments where nothing happens but acting. Thing is, though, these are usually middle-shots with the actors in shadow. We're left to glean how they must feel from their posture.

Not that it's hard to figure out, but if you're going to rest the camera so the actors can act for everyone, a Shatnerian approach beats a Fincherian one.

It's all so low-key. Long, mysterious walks on the beach with gazing off into the distance.

It's well made, of course. Competent, even proficient, in most regards. But some of the artistic choices make it difficult to recommend. The Boy was similarly unimpressed. We didn't hate it; we didn't even dislike it. It just didn't take off.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

I was reluctant to see this film, Saving Mr. Banks, about Disney's process of courting P.L. Travers through the process of turning her Mary Poppins books into the classic movie musical it became, because, quite frankly, Walt Disney isn't someone that modern Hollywood can even come close to comprehending.

An all-American fierce capitalist and vehement anti-communist, modern Hollywood was eager to suck up the slander in Hollywood's Dark Prince which had it that Disney was an anti-semite (because lord knows the Sherman brother who walked with a limp because he'd paratrooped into Germany and helped liberate Dachau would've totally been cool with that) and also that he had his head frozen cryogenically.

So, here's a guy who's not only an artistic genius, a promoter of technology and arts, and a great businessman to boot, he's also pro-America and probably never did anything in his life which could be classified as snark. And snark is where Hollywood lives, currently.

The buzz was strong, though, and we'd seen everything else. And it's actually a very, very good movie. No, Tom Hanks doesn't really come across like Disney. He comes across like Tom Hanks in a Disney 'stache. And at the climax of the movie, he makes a speech to P.L. Travers that did not ring true. (Not the facts of the speech, but the idea that he would actually make that kind of speech, and say those things.)

And—and this sort of annoyed me—the premise of the movie is that Disney needs Travers to sign a release to make a movie, and she's very uptight and insists on being called "Mrs. Travers" so what does Disney do? Call her "Pam" the whole movie.

Really? Antagonize the woman you're going to need to sign this paper to make this venture work? And obliviously, too. Like he's not aware of it. It also seems wildly improbable that Disney would've missed the point of the Poppins story, i.e., that it is Mr. Banks that she's there to save.

I didn't like that he actually said "Mr. Disney was my dad." Even if he actually said it. Which brings up the main point:

It doesn't really matter. This is a solid movie about a writer coming to grips with her past and reality, and Emma Thompson kicks all kinds of ass in it. Disney isn't the main character—he's not much of a character at all, really, and more a deus ex machina who comes and goes as is needed to forward the plot.

Ostensibly, he's the one with the problem (getting Travers to sign), but he has no character arc, and he's not really going to suffer regardless of how things turn out. No, this is all about the fictitious Travers' journey.

As historical fiction, it's nonsense, pretty obviously. Travers and Disney had completely different ideas about how Mary Poppins should go down, and Travers hated the animation Disney used, and Disney made one of the great movies, one of the great musicals, and is probably largely responsible for Travers' books being read today.

And, I think, if they were alive today, Disney would love the film and Travers would hate it.

Nonsense aside, Thompson carries the film. It's about her, and in the first few seconds, with a close-up she gives a master class in acting. And it never lets up. She's incredibly difficult, especially to those around her, but to the audience she is warm. A great deal of the movie is done in flashbacks where young Travers grows up in increasingly hard times as her alcoholic father (whom she idolizes) drinks himself to death.

You know: Family film.

Nah, it's done well enough, with Colin Farrell being sufficiently charming and convincingly drunk to make us see how she might idolize him.

And this brings up the movie's other strengths: Besides Emma Thompson, there's Farrell, Ruth Wilson (the saucy Princess Besty from Anna Karenina and The Lone Ranger, but who saw that?) as Travers' mother, Paul Giamatti as the affable chauffeur who befriends Travers in L.A., Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers, Rachel Griffiths, Bradley Whitford and on and on.

So, good acting. The exchanges between Giamatti and Thompson are especially nice. Hanks got the Disney mannerisms down; he didn't phone it in. (At no time was I in danger of thinking he was playing a real person, but that's not really his fault.)

Top notch score from 'strom favorite Thomas Newman, who did such classics as Finding Nemo and The Green Mile. (I told the kids almost immediately: "That's Thomas Newman!" They have no idea what I'm talking about or why I care.)

It moves along pretty well for a two-hour flick. The heart-wrenching flashbacks are actually more interesting than the contemporary timeline, I think in part because the contemporary timeline required a dramatic arc of characters who didn't actually have them.

John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Alamo) directs.

The Boy and The Flower liked it more than I did. I also liked it but there are a number of *s, †s and ‡s in my mind about it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

American Hustle

This was the last film we saw in the theater, early New Year's Eve of 2013, ending an amazing year of filmgoing. All told we saw over 150 films in the theater, which got a little pricey after our favorite theater closed and the new one doesn't ever comp us.

But The Boy is eighteen now, and he's already beginning to scope out the trouble juggling the many factors that come with adult life. I like to think he'll remember this year; I know I will.

And it's only fitting, I suppose that we should see David O. Russell's American Hustle as the last film of the year, since when our favorite theater closed we saw Silver Linings Playbook a second time (a couple days after seeing this, which they did as a kind of farewell).

American Hustle features, again, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence but the stars are Christian Bale (and his comb-over, which deserves a best supporting actor Oscar) and Amy Adams (and her cleavage, which deserves better than the Golden Globes pun that is all I can think of) as a couple of hustlers who get in too deep when a zealous FBI agent (Cooper) decides to use them for Abscam.

Abscam! Remember Abscam? It was...a thing...in the late '70s and early '80s. It was too hard to solve actual crime so the FBI got into the business of making crime and filming it so, you know, slam dunk at trial.

Impeccable acting from the top four (except for Amy Adams' dodgy accent which, while it was meant to be fake, was perhaps not meant to be quite so intermittent) and great support from Jeremy Renner (as Camden mayor "Carmine Polito"), Elizabeth Rohm (whom I did not recognize from "Law & Order") as his wife, and Louis CK as an uptight FBI agent trying to corral Cooper.

Over the course of two-and-a-quarter hours, the movie moves from vignette-to-vignette in a way that makes structural and dramatic sense, but lacks the urgency, focus and character arc of SLP. As a result, it's a fun time but not particularly moving. (Even though SLP was a fantasy in terms of how it depicted the sorts of problems its characters had, it was dramatically tight.)

The Boy and I liked it. I tried to talk The Flower into coming with us but she demurred.

One thing I've noticed about Russell's films of late is a near philanthropic feel: He seems content to draw drama not from good-vs-evil so much as many well-intentioned people who conflict in how they reach their desired goals.

Considering that our four heroes are scam artists (Bale and Adams), power drunk cops (Cooper and his pals), corrupt politicians (Renner and Rohm) and just plain dangerously nuts (Lawrence), that's kind of a feat.

Just like SLP's sort of breezy treatment of serious mental problems, this sort of looks a serious political and law-enforcement issues with a sort of shrug-and-smile, as if to say "People. What're you gonna do?"

Some folks aren't going to care for that sort of thing, but I think I prefer it to the far more common misanthropic cynicism, where everyone can be trusted to act in the worst possible way.

Winner of three Golden Globes.

Not a bad end to not a bad year.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Ender's Game

We saw over 150 movies this year (2013), so many that I'm sure I missed reviewing quite a few, like Ender's Game. We saw it second run and The Boy liked it. I also liked it, just not very much.

There was a dumb controversy surrounding it because sci-fi icon Orson Scott Card apparently said something (about gay marriage?) that was not approved of by the bien pensants, who apparently lack the sort of nuance that all those who disagree with them must embrace if they wish to partake in the modern culture at all.

To wit: You suck, but that's a pretty good song/movie/book.

The movie is essentially a standard young-adult space opera, as Heinlein might've written in the '50s, about an Earth that has barely survived an attack by evil ant-aliens (or was it bees?) and has rebounded by embracing a militaristic society where children are trained from a very young age to defend against an expected future assault.

It isn't well explained, but basically only the young have the adaptability to defeat the Alien Menace. (This gives it both that young-adult feel I was mentioning and an unfortunate Harry Potter vibe.)

Our movie shows Ender's progress in and out of the academy (which is highly manipulative), in boot camp, and in training for the anticipated future battle, and is fairly unobjectionable in its particulars.

I would single out Harrison Ford as being particularly miscast as a long-time military dude, but then I began to realize that I didn't think the possibly flawless Viola Davis was very good either. I've forgotten the kid (Asa Butterfield, Boy In the Striped Pajamas). His older brother seemed awkward and even Abigail Breslin as his older sister didn't feel quite right.

Nothing seems to fit here. There are all these little vignettes: Zero-G combat training (which never comes up outside of training), Ender's conflicts with his peers, his emergence as a sort-of leader, a mythical and possibly dead hero but something's up with the whole story, the sexual tension he has with a girl (Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit), and on and on.

Nothing seems to gel.

The movie's both too long and too short, if that makes sense: It's too long to be a fun, fluffy popcorn flick, and too short to develop all the critical mass it needs to carry its desired dramatic weight. This probably comes from not wanting to cut key elements of the 384-page book down even more than necessary but being stuck with having two hours to cram the whole thing in.

I mean, if you're Peter Jackson, you make it into a twelve-hour movie and add a sub-plot about ants in love. But if you're Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) you probably don't have that luxury. Might be worth viewing an extended/director's cut.

The Boy, as I said, liked it more than I did. And even though I've been critical, I wouldn't say it was bad. It just didn't work very well somehow, at least not for me.

Dallas Buyers Club

Matthew McConaughey is Losing Weight! Actually, it's not that funny, since he's having a hard time putting it back on, I've heard, and he is seriously skinny as Ron Woodruff, HIV sufferer, drug-user, and homosexual-bashing-occasional-maybe-bisexual-or-at-least-into-some-manly-looking-chicks.

Dallas Buyers Club is an essentially American story. Woodruff gets HIV and, in what should be his final days, gets a hold of experimental drugs that arrest his condition. And when I say "gets a hold", I mean "illegally procures". This leads to further procurement of other unapproved drugs, time south of the border in Mexican clinics, and ultimately smuggling—and kind of smuggling-in-plain-sight—these drugs across the border for fun and profit.

Where the hell does the U.S. Government get off saying what drugs anyone can use for any reason? is, of course, my question. Must be in one of them "penumbras and emanations" the Supreme Court likes to go on about.

Anyway.

Outstanding performances from McConaughey and Jared Leto as the gay man who provides Woodruff with his entreé to his client base. Both won Golden Globes for their performances last Sunday.

Woodruff, while doubtless lightened up by the charming and abdominally-excellent McConnaughey, is commendably incorrect politically, racist, sexist, antagonistic to homosexuals, antagonistic to most everyone outside of his parochial world, and yet still admirable for his boldness, his refusal to lay down and die, his refusal to accept a dubious authority telling him it must necessarily be this way.

He gets over the gay-bashing thing, more or less. He manages to woo Jennifer Garner, a doctor, which would strike me as more than implausible, if it weren't McConaughey. The movie doesn't make too much of his heroism, nor too much of the bizarre and corrupt drug trial system, nor even too much of the villainous FDA.

The director, Jean-Marc Valleé, is a French-Canadian. I think that's significant. Ultimately, this is a movie about a bunch of banal, desultory yet overpowering forces against a single, reckless man.

I do hope it makes people ask why, though.

The Conjuring

You probably could just go read my review of Insidious 2 for this horror movie also directed by James Wan, though with horror stalwarts Chad and Chris Hayes (House of Wax, The Reaping) writing and Patrick Wilson in the ghost-buster role instead of the haunted role.

All of the elements for a good old, dark house movie are here: Creaky doors, things that go bump in the night, stuff flying around, books stacked in a way no human would stack them...

In this situation, the victims are Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor as the Perrons, a family who have moved into an old house that's just chock full of ghosts, probably. Most troubling of the ghosts is Bathsheba, a witch with a penchant for sacrificing children to...Satan!

Based On The True Story that took place in the early '70s, thereby freeing director Wan from the troublesome nature of cellular technology and the Internet, this is a very well paced film that banks heavily on the likability of its character.

The Perrons are a good and happy family with five (!) daughters, and Wilson and Vera Farmiga play Lorraine and Ed Warren, spook police with a history of battling with all manner of imps and lesser demons.

This was one of the best reviewed films of the summer, and even did well overall for the year, I think due to great performances and a natural feeling portrayal of family life that allows you to get attached to the potential victims. With a cast as large as the one for this movie, you simply expect that some characters are introduced for the sole purpose of being killed.

Here, that would really bug you. (And it's not the "based on a true story" thing, either, obviously.)

Another thing done really well is to make the Warrens selfless warriors in the battle against the Forces of Evil. The movie gives the sense that a the Warrens have a rich history going back before this incident, and they invest heavily in the Perrons which gives the audience empathy for both the Perrons and the Warrens.

I mean, for reals, how often do you see a horror movie about character?

That said, there's no other real hook, here. No gimmick, like the Insidious series' astral plane shenanigans or anything like that. It's really a simple tale told well, with a fair amount of suspense (unusual for horror films these days) and hardly any gore to speak of.

This is kind of interesting although, post-Saw, Wan has demonstrated he doesn't need to do gore to get scares. There are some blood effects but they perhaps more effective than anything over-the-top would be, because they feel real.

Although it was hard to get The Boy to this, he did enjoy it, as did I. Definitely among the best horror films of the year (2013), and even one of the best films overall.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza)

Interestingly enough, for all the foreign movies we see, almost none are Italian. I really don't know who Paolo Sorrentino, the writer and director of La Grande Bellezza, is, nor do I recognize Toni Servillo who stars a Jep, the lead character. I couldn't pick any of the other actors out of a lineup, though they all seemed somehow familiar, like maybe I'd seen them in movies from 20 or 30 years ago.

This movie also feels like a cultural successor to all those excessive '60s/'70s Italian flicks: As in, what happened to all those hedonistic people decades later?

Well, it's not pretty. Jep is a man who, at 65 (Servillo is actually 53 but he pulls it off) realizes that his life has been a meaningless series of parties, and so sets off to find "the great beauty". Well, sorta. It's more a vague hope expressed at one point, that he'd hoped to see such a thing.

At this point, I should note that his apartment overlooks the Coliseum. And at one point, he takes his lover, Ramona (the gorgeous and touching Sabrini Ferilli), on a nighttime tour of all the great museums of Rome.

There's an intro to the movie with a bunch of tourists at the Fontana dell'Acqua Paola, with an Asian tourist looking out from Janiculum Hill, who takes a picture and breathes a sigh of what looks like perfect bliss, then immediately drops dead.

It's something of a sickness of the soul, really, to be unable to see all the beauty around one, I guess we could say the movie is telling us. And if this were a French movie, it'd probably be unwatchable. All dark ennui and nihilism.

But since it's Italian, it doesn't take itself too seriously. You end up feeling for Jep. He's trying. And his relationship with Ramona is a tender and humanizing thing. In the journey, he's skewering modern art and society, religion and secularism, vanity and humility, and pretty much everyone in his circle.

There's a Mother Teresa figure called "The Saint" (played so convincingly by Giusi Merli you'd think she actually was 100-plus years old) who sleeps on the floor and eats, I don't know, uncooked barley and is basically the complete opposite of Jep and his hedonistic friends.

And while there's considerable farce surrounding her, and she can seem like a character actually comical in her stoicism, the movie's climactic moment suggests that she has gained something from her spiritual life and she can share that with Jep.

Now, here's the thing about this movie: At 2 hours and 20 minutes, with no single compelling narrative, this could've been a trauma to sit through. Even with many compelling vignettes, it could've been merely amusing (and even then, at 2:20, it would've worn out its welcome long before the credits rolled).

But this really worked for both The Boy and I, and I doubt we got the same things out of it. There is such tremendous beauty here, and at the same time so many questions raised, it's almost optimistic at the bottom of it all.

I don't know if I can give a good sense of it. It's just very Italian.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Hush! Girls Don't Scream

Sometimes, and not infrequently in 2013, it happens that we see a movie that practically no one else in the world sees. The moving documentary, The Missing Picture, for example, which has an entry at Box Office Mojo showing no box office receipts. Or like Arena of the Street Fighter or Big Ass Spider, which don't show up at Mojo at all.

Or, say, this Persian film, Hiss Dokhtarha Faryad Nemizanand kindly translated as Hush! Girls Don't Scream.

We wanted to see the last Persian film that came to our local, but the distributor had not bothered to fron the $100—that's five Andrew Jacksons—it took to get it subtitled. (This is what the people at the theater told me, as well as they had turned away more than $100 in business for it. They also said non-Perisan people saw it anyway and enjoyed it.)

I was struck by the wordiness of the title, which reminded me of cheesy '70s movies, and maybe even especially late '70s/early '80s made-for-TV movies about the terrible things people do to their children behind closed doors.

The funny thing is, that's what this is: A story of a woman who murders a random man on her wedding day, and turns out to have done so due to a dark history. Enhancing the feeling is low-budget lighting and sets, as well as a '70s color palette (though there is some surprisingly effective camera work at times).

Not helping matters is spotty subtitles, rumored to cost around $100.

And yet. The film rises above its own limitations. Partly this is due to strong performances, partly due to the earnest handling of the subject matter, and partly due to certain oddities of Iranian culture.

For example, it's probably no surprise to anyone that when a woman is raped in Iran, it's considered her fault and she may be punished (even killed for it). It's probably not much less surprising that a child who is molested brings dishonor to his or her family, so much so that the family would cover it up rather than report it.

Somewhat more interesting is that "blood money" (last seen in The Separation) means that a person convicted of a crime can be granted a reprieve if a member of the victims family allows.

Hush! moves from mystery to personal drama to courtroom drama to an action-suspense film by the end, and there's an authenticity to the proceedings which makes it increasingly compelling. The Boy barely noted the lower production values, but we both came out liking it a lot.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Insidious 2

Eh. Horror sequels. Can't live with 'em. Can't live without—well, no you actually can live pretty happily without them. If kidflick sequels are bad, horror movie sequels are often much, much worse: Not only are they often just phoned in, and the people involved were not involved with the original at all, sometimes sequels are made by people who haven't even seen the original (I'm looking at you Friday The 13th series).

We won't even talk about the inevitable descent into camp.

But there are exceptions. The Saw series for example, while it varied wildly in quality, the variation came largely from the limits of the—well, of trying to beat a dead horse, really. In their eagerness to set up a franchise with Jigsaw, the movies used increasingly preposterous (and occasionally confusing) devices (both literarily and physically speaking).

So, it's fitting that it should be James Wan, at the helm of the sequel to his earlier mini-masterpiece, Insidious, making a sequel that's just as good as the original. Obviously, opinions will vary, but as of this writing the two movies share a 6.8 rating on IMDB and a 61% popular rating on Rotten Tomatoes. (Critics liked the first one and not the sequel, but I'm not sure film critics are allowed to like horror sequels.)

Also, some object to the fact that this movie dispenses completely with the whole haunted-or-not? dilemma of the original as well as the can-we-just-move-out? plot device. I, personally was relieved by this. We saw that dance in the first film and, frankly, it would have been not just tiresome but incredible to believe that a family just having undergone the events of the first film wouldn't pretty much jump to the conclusion that they were experiencing the same thing if a light bulb suddenly burst, much less the spooky goings on that do occur.

As a result, this is less a spooky film and more a scary film, though there are some eerie parts. Virtually the entire cast is back, although Lin Shaye is a corpse, having died at the end of the first film.

It's instructive to view this alongside Wan's other 2013 film, The Conjuring. That film, which is probably better, hews pretty closely to the "formula" that Wan (and co-writer Leigh Whannel who also co-wrote Saw and other films with Wan) has polished:

1. Characters you care about. (This is not a given. A philosophy of horror film making has the audience wanting to see the putative protagonists die.)

2. Atmosphere. They can do a slow build, as in the first Insidious, but it's not mandatory. This time they hit the atmosphere hard and fast.

3. An element of mystery. There's just enough of "what's going on?" to engage you, and they don't cop out by not explaining. Admittedly, the exposition can be the weakest part, though this movie suffers less than the original in that regard.

4. Suspense. This is the one that most horror movies leave out. They sort of give a half-hearted try, but they're so caught up in imitating familiar tropes, they end up robbing their movies of any suspense.

The Boy, in particular, was pleasantly surprised, and we debated whether or not this was the better of the two films without coming to any conclusions.

Keep in mind, of course, that this is an "old, dark house" flick at its heart. It's basically rattling chains and floating furniture, with Patrick Wilson doing a pretty damn good Jack Torrance at one point. If that ain't your cuppa, this ain't your cuppa.

Bonus points for concluding the story definitively while still setting up the possibility of a franchise.

Friday, January 3, 2014

How I Live Now

Here is a movie about a girl and her lover that takes place in a dystopic future which is neither The Hunger Games nor Twilight, the star of which is neither a messianic Katniss or a magic-whatever-thingy-it-is-that-Kristen-Stewart plays. As such, it's a smaller story in scope, disparaged and overlooked unfortunately.

The heroine of our story is Daisy, a troubled American teen who has been shipped off to England by her dad, a fate she's none too happy about. Saoirse Ronan (Hanna, The Way Back) plays this part to a tee, being a completely unpleasant waste of space.

Seriously, I was starting to worry that this was gonna be an "I'm so unpleasant but you love me anyway because I'm sooo special" kind of thing, but the movie does a fair job of presenting the chaotic thoughts in her head which buys her enough time (with the audience) to develop into something more.

The young man of the house, Isaac (Tom Holland) has caught her eye, and (in the movie's only fantasy element), he seems to be telepathic. They fall in love and then World War Three breaks out.

That'll put a crimp on your summer romance.

Especially when the boy of your dreams is conscripted and you're hauled off to pick food, the war having apparently put all automated farming equipment out of commission.

The bulk of the movie concerns her struggle to get back to her home and Isaac, and her growth into a real, live woman.

Honestly, the war stuff is pretty sketchy. That's okay because it's not about The War. You never see a battle. There is an odd attitude toward authority: It's scary and bullying, but it seems also to be right, ultimately. I suppose that's about right for a young-adult book (upon which the movie is based).

If it's possible for a teen romance involving World War III and a maybe-psychic romance to be low-key and realistic, this is it. Kevin Macdonald (Last King of Scotland) directs, and this movie has a similar feel to his picture The Eagle.

Jon Hopkins delivers an effective, haunting score.

This movie never made it to 100 theaters.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Aftermath (Poklosie)

I've always had a particular affinity for the Poles. Maybe becaue it seems like whenever there's a war in Europe, the Germans go through Poland, slaughtering as they go, and then when they're beaten back by the Russians, the Russians go back through Poland and they slaughter everyone they can.

Maybe it's because of Lech Walesa. Amazing guy.

Or maybe it's just all the Polock jokes from when I was a kid. They seemed like an affable bunch, if not too bright. (There isn't really a noticable Polish community here so to me "Polock" jokes could've been about Martians.)

Aftermath is a completely different take on how things went down in Poland in WWII, even though it takes place in modern times (ca. 2000). This is actually a great film, in the sense that it tackles a serious subject head on, but never forgets to be a movie. So interleaved in the tidbits about Polish history is a thriller, mystery, suspense and even ghost story.

The setup is that a Frank, a Polish man living in America has returned to Poland (after decades) to talk to his brother Joe. Seems his sister-in-law and her children showed up in Chicago after leaving Joe, who has been acting erratically. Frank wants to find out why.

Frank learns that the village blames Joe for pulling up the stones that make the roads to and from the village. Joe doesn't really want to talk about it. He's not exactly friendly with Frank, who didn't show up for their parents' funerals, and has been completely out of contact in America.

When Frank does find out the mystery of the stones, the story doesn't end there. More questions are raised. The people in the village get angrier and angrier. Only the village priest stands between Joe and Frank, and angry villagers (you don't get a lot of angry villagers these days), and he's frankly not looking too healthy.

Ultimately, you end up with an indictment of Poles (at least these Poles) that I have never seen portrayed anywhere, and which is apparently based on true events. Enough so to get the movie banned in parts of Poland.

Also, writer/director Wladislaw Pasikowski unflinchingly tells us that, not only did it happen, nothing's really changed since WWII. That's unfortunate, if true, and very chilling in the context of the film.

I'm not revealing much because it really does work as a mystery and a thriller, and possibly the best mystery/thriller we saw this year (2013). It's a shame no one will see it outside of film festivals and limited art house runs.

Faust

Faust is the fourth movie in Alexander Sukorov's tetralogy, following Moloch, Taurus and The Sun, which probably means as little to you as it does to me. Even more confusing, the first three movies are about Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito (respectively), so to close this tetralogy out with a fictional character seems like an odd choice.

I don't really know that it's a tetralogy, though. Maybe he's got seven more movies planned which will put this film in to context. Beats me.

The story, more or less, is the story of Faust as told by Goethe, though I think it's less rather than more. Faust is some sort of learned man, son of a doctor, living in squalid 19th century German conditions, and finding no meaning in life.

Enter the Moneylender. The Moneylender is willing to trade Faust something—whatever he wants, really—for a little something back. A trifle, a trinket, something he's not even using. (And which, it is suggested, he may not even have.)

Faust has nothing. He wants a reason to live, really, to find meaning in existence, to know what to wish for, in essence. He's floundering, until he sees Margarete.

That's when things really go to Hell, metaphorically, before the go to Hell, literally.

This is a very surreal film. It's defined by ennui, but since it's not French it doesn't endorse ennui. It plays an interesting narrative game by having the real-world events of the story seem remote and insignificant, secondary to Faust's interaction with the Moneylender.

All the earthly scenes take place in an amazingly crowded town. Everyone has to squeeze by everyone else, through tiny roads and tinier buildings and narrow hallways. It evokes the silent German Expressionism of movies like Nosferatu and Caligari. Life, it seems to say, is awful.

I kind of wanted to hate it. But it's unusual and entertaining in so many unexpected ways. By the end, you're practically feeling sorry for the Moneylender—whom, it must be remembered, is the Devil, or a devil or perhaps some manner or lesser imp or demon.

And you come to identify with Faust, somehow. There's something pure about him. I mean, he's a 40-year-old dude lusting after an 18-year-old girl, and using sorcery to get her, but, I don't know. There's no malice there.

You gotta focus on it, though. A lot is going on. The subtitles weren't great. The sound has to be just right or it's gonna be just a mess. It was worth it, though, I thought: There's a remarkable empathy in it, which sort of makes me wonder about the previous three films.

The Boy...loved it. I can't really explain that. Or maybe shouldn't. I think he got swept up in it.

The Book Thief

The Book Thief is an oddity. It has a split normally reserved for Christian or pro-America movies (50/80 critics/audience) and yet it's about how badly the Nazis treated communists, and communists are movie critics' favorite people!

A real puzzler, that one. We'll get back to it in a bit.

Directed by "Downton Abbey"'s Brian Percival, this is the story of young Liesel (played beautifully by Sophie Nélisse) who is given up by her mother to be adopted by Hans and Rosa, who are good (or at least politically safe) Germans.

Liesel's brother dies on the way and when they stop to bury him, Liesel snatches the gravedigger's manual, as a kind of memento.

This provides her with an avenue to learn to read, which ultimately leads to future thefts. Or "thefts".

Her adoptive mother is a battle-axe (Emily Watson, looking authentic) and her new father endearing (Geoffrey Rush), who learns to read with her. I'd say he's a down-on-his-luck painter, but that's not exactly right: He's a house painter, and the war has not been good to him. Rosa berates him mercilessly for his failures, and she's not particularly generous or understanding toward Liesel either.

It's not all brownshirts and kristallnachts, though: A boy, Rudy (Nico Liersch) takes a strong interest in her and strikes up a fast friendship, as does the local burgmeister's (Rainer Bock, War Horse) wife (the striking Barbara Auer). Complicating things is the appearance of Max (Ben Schnetzer), a Jewish boy whose father saved Hans in WWI.

Actually, speaking of War Horse, this is a similar film, in the sense that it's a movie about war that's targeted at a non-adult audience. Not that it's childish, exactly, but it's not as gruesome as it might be, which seems to be some critics' argument against it.

War is plenty awful even without a lot of gore, though, and there are many, many deaths in the film. Death itself is the narrator, though never a character in the story.

That's another thing critics seemed to object to a lot: The use of Death as narrator. "How dare they!" or something. It's not a big thing, though. (I understand the book is also told by Death.) The movie doesn't rely on it much.

One of the other complaints is that it doesn't show enough how badly the Jews have it. Yeah, I can't figure that one out. The whole story is centered around Liesel's love of Max, and her terror regarding his plight.

I don't know. It's not perfect, I guess. It's somewhat sprawling, since it's about Liesel primarily, and a lot of points where it could have ended, it didn't. Really, there are about half-a-dozen points in the last half-hour it might have stopped. But it didn't stop being interesting after those points, so we didn't find ourselves squirming. I could see being disappointed if you wanted a story, rather than many stories in a slice-of-life fashion.

I guess some attacked it for a lack of originality or failing to measure up to The Diary of Anne Frank. Yeah, I don't know what to make of that, either. We saw half-a-dozen WWII-based movies this year, and none were like this. It had its own voice.

It's slicker than most of them. Very polished and big-budget (guessing around $30M-$40M by the looks and actors). Lushly shot. Many moments of genuine suspense. Great score by John Williams, which surprised me. (I thought he sorta petered out in the '90s.) Nobody's criticizing the performances.

I choked up in a few parts, but it didn't rip my heart out and stomp on it. (Sort of amusingly, stories aimed at younger audiences sometimes are far less sentimental.) The Boy and I both liked it.

I did wonder if some of the critical objection came from anti-war sentiments. WWII is a problem for pacifists. And this was kind of interesting because, while the village was far removed from the front, it was a bombing target, and ultimately American bombs end up killing people in the village.

But what conclusion can you draw from that? The evil American empire shouldn't have attacked Germany? That's the popular narrative today, but this movie shows that war isn't a neat package where the righteous can avoid killing the innocent. I could see that upsetting some folks.

But mostly, I don't get it: It's a well-made film with much to commend it.

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