Sunday, February 23, 2014

Girl on a Bicycle

A French Romantic Comedy! I had to work to convince The Boy and The Flower that French were actually famous for romcoms, not just angsty existential films chock full of ennui. Though not so much romcoms as sex farces, which are sort of like romcoms, except that everyone has sex with everyone else, but it never seems to matter in the end.

The Old Man used to say "sophisticated" was a word meaning "sexually deviant", which I always think about when I hear someone call the French sophisticated.

So, imagine my delight when A Girl on a Bicycle—while very French and containing a number of amusing sex scenes—turns out to be a sweet, funny, romantic film that I didn't regret taking The Flower to. (It's also mostly in English!)

Absolutely rife with European stereotypes. Heh.

Paolo, an Italian bus driver living in Paris, loves Greta, a German stewardess, and so proposes to marry her. (Paolo is an awesome tour bus driver: He describes Paris in terms of all of its monuments—which are all just pale imitations of the ones in Italy, natch.) He's as happy as a clam when she accepts—despite her stern and ordered nature, she seems to understand and appreciate his Italian-ness—until he's stopped at traffic light and the titular girl on a bicycle rolls up beside him.

And what a girl!

He becomes obsessed, especially when it happens again and again. His English friend Derek—constantly pissed off that despite years of studying French, no one in Paris will deign to talk to him, except in English—gives him a sensible plan: Meet the girl on the bicycle. That'll cure him, because no woman could possibly live up to this idealization he has of her.

Of course, things don't go as expected, and not just for the characters in the movie, but for me. I know how these French farces usually play out and, well, this didn't. So refreshing.

Instead we get a comedy where a sudden, unexpected humanity from the main character, puts him in an increasingly precarious position.

And it's funny!

Beautiful cast, though not anybody I knew (except Paddy Considine, who played the English bloke). I had a slight problem in that I didn't think the French girl was more beautiful than the German girl, especially, but that's not really the point.

The point, as Derek says, is: There's always gonna be a girl on a bicycle. How are you going to handle it?

This film has a whopping 8% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics, and 78% from viewers. Color me unsurprised.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Frozen

The Barb had a birthday and the pickings were slim at the bargain theater—Walking With Dinosaurs wasn't lighting her candles, and I sure wasn't gonna push it—so we went and paid full price for Frozen, Disney's latest animated musical fairy-tale extravaganza.

Had you told me that Disney would, in 2014, make a movie of all white people, that wasn't just a movie with songs but outright musical-with-a-vengeance, and that it would have not one but two princesses, I would have had a hard time believing it.

But for whatever reason (John Lasseter?), Disney seems to have decided they'd rather make a good, fun movie, damn political correctness, and thus Frozen, which is even inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story (though apart from some names and the general premise of an ice-sorceress, one might be hard-pressed to detect the inspiration).

As a result, they do a damn good job.

It's got the Disney look (as it should) and it feels familiar but without feeling tired or reticent. It doesn't try to be hip, as it seemed like Tangled was trying to. The story is one of two sisters who are tight, with the younger one enamored of the older one's ice powers (and why wouldn't she be) until an accident nearly kills her.

The King and Queen decide the best approach is to make the little sister forget, and separate the two, and encourage the older sister to fight her powers.

Of course, as everyone but the King and Queen knows, fighting something is the absolute worst way to try to control it, and things go to Hell—the icy 9th circle, if you're into Dante, the 5th if you're into D&D—rather quickly (in movie time).

Well, look, they all live happily ever after. Can you imagine otherwise? The point isn't the destination, but the journey. And it's a good journey.

The music is unapologetic, as I said, if a little too modern for my taste. I can't remember any of it, except I guess the big ice number. Similarly with the dialog—it's a little too contemporary to my ear.

The characters are likable. The anthropomorphic/marketable cute animal is a charming moose. With two unmarried princesses, the movie has a chance to tease us with, well, more than one potential romantic outcome. The ending was refreshing.

The animation is wonderful, happily. The snow provides all sorts of interesting and vibrant scenery, and the attention to detail is there. There's one sequence of ice growing that looks fakey—but real ice can kinda look fakey, too, you know, when it's all perfect crystalline and light-reflection. (Hey, I'm an L.A. kid. I don't see much snow and ice.)

Elsa, the snow queen, has the sexiest sequence in a Disney movie (her "coming out" song) since Jasmine came on to Jaffar in Aladdin. Nothing lewd, just sort of a side-effect of not completely de-sexing her.

It's also interesting that the cast is not exactly jam-packed with A-List movie stars. Kristen Bell is Anna, the little sister. Alan Tudyk, doing a voice, is an officious duke, who fills in as the evil businessman (gotta have one). And Ciaran Hinds plays the leader of the trolls. But other than that, the names I recognized—Maurice LeMarche, Nick Jamison, Fred Tatasciore—are voice actors.

So, maybe there's a sea change going on. We can hope.

We all loved it. Great ending, as I mentioned. Pure Disney princess flick. Who'd've thunk?

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Last of the Unjust

I've lamented—frequently—on the trials and tribulations of being a frequent moviegoer at this time of the year. The Oscar contenders linger in the theaters like the smell of microwaved skunk, and the new crap being shoveled out is typically foreordained failure to meet even the meager demands of genre films.

I mention this as an explanation as to why, when a 3:40 minute documentary is the only thing at the local movie house you haven't seen, it actually doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

And, in fact, except for the very beginning of the film, the movie flies by.

The Last of the Unjust is Claude Lanzmann's follow-up to his nine hour Holocaust documentary, Shoah, and I would say, with all humility, that it's worthy of the 100% ratings (both critical and audience) on Rotten Tomatoes.

These are Lanzmann's interviews with Benjamin Murmelstein, the Last of the Elder Jews (a title apparently conferred by the Nazis), who was the last person to "run" the Threisenstadt ghetto at the end of The War.

Well, it's 210 minutes—what can I say? There's so much here. I had a little trouble following at first, because Lanzmann is an expert in the material, obviously, and at first he was throwing around a lot of detail about streets and railways and stuff like that.

But by the end, that stuff all comes back, over and over again, and becomes significant, so, yeah, even though it made me nervous at first—'cause nothing's worse than being five minutes into a 3-hour movie you know you're going to hate—the initial slowness sets everything up well.

The story? Gotta be one of the most challenging in human history.

Murmelstein was a "collaborator", a Jew who worked with the Nazis, in this case to make Threisenstadt useful for propaganda purposes. Dreadful! An abomination! He deserves to be hanged, according to one prominent Israeli historian (who had agitated for mercy for Eichmann).

And yet.

And yet.

Nothing about this is simple. Murmelstein had many chances to flee, yet took none. He ascribes this to a "thirst for adventure". When asked if he likes power, he retorts "Who doesn't?" When asked if he abused his power, he says, yes, but always in service of the people of the ghetto.

I said of Hannah Arendt that she her thesis that the Jews could've done more to fight the Nazis may be accurate, but it's also Grand Champion Hall of Fame Monday Morning Quarterbacking. (More on Arendt later.)

I felt that here.

Would it have been nobler for him to leave? It doesn't seem to be in dispute that he helped a lot of Jews escape. In fact, what's clear is that the reason he's vilified is that he lived and that's therefore suspicious, but it's just as clear that he lived primarily because the war ended before the Nazis could muster up the excuse to kill him. (While he was there for a couple of years, he was only in charge for a few months.)

And Murmelstein seems to have viewed his mission to say alive, and keep others alive as well, even if that didn't make him popular. At one point, the Nazis said, "Hey, get this typhus epidemic under control or..."

The "or" was always a given. The Jews knew the Nazis would kill them while pointedly (at least according to Murmelstein) not knowing about the camps. There was "out east", which was known to be worse, but not not known how much worse. Murmelstein relates two stories of trainloads coming in from other places where the passengers freaked out about the showers.

And yet, it's human nature to deny the awful, especially in the face of powerlessness. So when he says they didn't know, I believe that. When he says he played Scheherazade, spinning stories to keep the ghetto alive, I believe that, too.

And when he says he withheld food from people who refused to get typhus vaccines, that's not in doubt, and it's entirely inevitable that this would produce resentment in those who were there. And when he says he ended the freedom-for-favor style of management of the privileged Jews, who traded exit visas for service, sex, or whatever, well, then you can see why he'd really be hated.

It's not much discussed but the Jews did not behave admirably in the camps (and Threisenstadt was a camp, even if they called it a ghetto). This is expected: Treat people like animals and they'll become animals.

I'm just scratching the surface here, of course, but it's just an amazing thing, this record.

It was instructive to hear Murmelstein speak of Eichmann, whom he personally knew and personally witnessed during the Krystallnacht. He wasn't impressed with the tribunal that couldn't determine that Eichmann was there at all, given that there were hundreds of witnesses—and pictures!

He was also particularly disdainful of Hannah Arendt's description of Eichmann with the phrase "the banality of evil". "He was a monster," says Murmselstein, and he's got the anecdotes to back it up.

It does support my observation of the Arendt movie when I said " it never seems to occur to Arendt that Eichmann is just lying." There's no doubt in Murmelstein—the hated collaborator—that Eichmann was no mere paper pusher.

Anyway, I could go on and on, and I'd understand being deterred by the length, but not only did I have no trouble sitting through it, The Boy found it riveting.

Now I'm looking to find the Shoah movie online—that one I'm going to watch over a period of a few days.

Gloria

Gloria is a movie about a woman living life out loud! Unapologetically! Like a Bossa Nova! Or so the critical reviews would have you believe.

I guess.

Also: Pointlessly, desultorily, and with no small amount of fear.

Also, senior-citizen genitalia got more screen time than I usually like in a film.

Look, the Tomatoes on this are 99% (!) for critics and 68% for audiences. And the audiences are skewed toward the sorts of people who would go see a plotless slice-of-life movie about a 50-something woman.

The story, such as it is, concerns Gloria (the lovely Paulina Garcia), who has a day job, and spends her nights dancing in a club, picking up guys who catch her eye. (Well, we only see one of these guys but the implication is that she's pretty comfortable doing this.) So, she lives like a 20-something, only she has two grown children and an ex-.

Anyway, she picks up a guy who seems great or at least wealthy and accessible and they have a whirlwind romance complicated by the fact that he's a total wuss that is "separated" from his wife and fully-grown daughters, who nonetheless call him all the time.

It turns out about as well as you'd expect.

In the process, though, we get to meet Gloria's somewhat alienated children and her lugubrious ex-husband who laments his absence from the children's lives. We can infer from that that he initiated the split from Gloria, but it's never discussed at all. His kids, especially his daughter, are pissed at him, is all we know, really.

It kind of raises the question of what's going to happen with all the broken families and older parents acting like their kids, but only peripherally. Nothing here struggles to make any sort of statement at all. About anything.

We didn't dig it much. Not a lot of admirable character shown.

Sort of amusingly, the version of Gloria used in the movie was the Spanish love song lyrics, but the American version would probably fit better, if make an acerbic postscript.

I don't know. After this, we saw Last of the Unjust, the 3 hour, 40 minute talkumentary about Benjamin Murmelstein and we squirmed a lot less in our seats than we did during this.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

If Lone Survivor had me in tears from the get-go, The Broken Circle Breakdown wasn't far off, though for entirely different reasons. This is a remarkable—dare I say unique?—film just on the surface characteristics.

First of all, it's Flemish. So, it's Belgian, but not French Belgian. I've seen about two other Flemish movies in the past ten years, the one leaping to mind being the effective thriller Memory of a Killer. Flemish is a lot like English. Every now and again, the actors would speak whole sentences that were perfectly understandable English. (Kind of like Dutch, but more so, to my ear.)

Second of all, the Flems (heh) involved are bluegrass musicians. They do American bluegrass/folk/country with perfect Southern accents. I'm not talking Southern Belgium, either.

Seriously, how many Flemish bluegrass movies are there? Did that ever even occur to you? What's wrong with you? Have you no imagination?

Third, the music is really good. Besides sounding authentic, it's just really, really good. Standards, of course, but performed with complete sincerity and not inconsiderable skill. Like, the people involved really loved the music they were making. (Contrast with Inside Llewyn Davis' "I don't even like folk music."

Fourth, the music is absolutely central to the story. Both the individual songs and the fact that it's bluegrass is critical to both the details of the plot and the major themes.

Fifth, there is an amazing paean to America at one point, and later on an amazing anti-W rant. (More on this in a moment.)

The story, told in broken time (a la 500 Days of Summer) is that of a bluegrass singer/guitarist, Didier, who falls in love with a tattoo artist, Elise, and introduces her to the music. She becomes a singer in his band, and they have an amazing, passionate relationship which culminates in the birth of a child, Maybelle. The child gets sick—that's actually where the movie starts, in a hospital.

Obviously, the sick child is the pivotal plot point, but the movie isn't really about that, it's really about how the two handle crisis/tragedy. And, despite their love of bluegrass, they have none of the cultural roots nor even similarities with the culture that bluegrass comes from.

They have no community, to speak of. They have no family beyond the three of them. The band they play in seem like good guys and sort of like family, but that's about it. They have no religion. Didier is an earnest atheist. When Maybelle looks to him for comfort at various points, he can't give it to her.

Nor is he of any help to Elise in that regard. If Didier is an atheist, Elise is a pantheist. She wears a cross, but burns incense on a statue of Buddha. (And while Christianity and Buddhism are not incompatible, this doesn't seem to be a case of someone who's studied both carefully and reconciled them; she just believes in everything.)

As such, when they have fights over Maybelle, they have nowhere to turn, and end up blaming each other. Elise accuses Didier of never wanting Maybelle in the first place, and Didier points out Maybelle's smoking and drinking.

Never are we more superstitious than when we are powerless to help the ones we love.

Didier begins to drive Elise away with his militant atheism, which breaks through in a really ugly anti-George W. Bush rant, where he blames the President for holding back stem cell research.

Now, I saw this in North Hollywood, heart of the TV media district, and I could hear people vocally agreeing with this rant. But, you see, this isn't an American movie; it's a Belgian movie, so it didn't have to take a particular side.

If you're paying attention, though, it's hard to not come to the conclusion that this is just another exercise in superstition. (I think the Academy wasn't really paying close attention or it wouldn't have nominated this for an Oscar.)

In fact, even if you're not paying very close attention, it's hard to avoid the final scenes where the filmmakers seem to be overtly telling us that Didier is wrong. Not about the politics; I mean, who really cares about that? But about his materialism and by proxy his atheism.

He's so stubborn that he fails to recognize that Elise has embraced the American ideal he said he most admired: The ability to start fresh. He misses it very badly, perhaps to the very end.

It reminded me a little of Steve Coogan's character in Philomena. We know for a fact where the bulk of the filmmakers' sympathies lie in that story, and yet it's hard to not observe that she is the noblest of the characters, and Coogan among the despicable wretches.

I think this is why the film scores lower with critics than regular audiences. The critics who picked up on it I think decided to throw out the term "melodrama" to mean "I didn't like it but I don't know or don't want to explain why".

Anyway, great acting from the two principals, Johan Heldenbergh (who was one of the authors of the original play) and Veerle Baetens. Adapted from the play by the director Felix Van Groeningen.

The Boy liked it, but he found it music-heavy (he's not into music, somehow), and, as I pointed out, he hasn't been outside a hospital tearing his hair out because he's worried his kid is going to die. (Pointed cough.)

Fun aside: On the way out I was interviewed by a Flemish reporter who wanted to know what Americans thought about this film and why we went to see it. I opened with "Well, we've seen everything else..." but really Flemish Bluegrass. That's a hook right there.

This movie is up against La Grande Bellezza, The Missing Picture and The Hunt, which were all great, and Omar, which we haven't seen.

When she asked, I told her I thought the Italian picture would win, but they're all worthy.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Past

I could make a comment on how, if you're Ashgar Farhadi, you gotta be feeling the heat after your last picture (A Separation) won the foreign language Oscar and you got a rare non-English nom for writing.

But if you're Ashgar Farhadi, you've made a half-dozen or more films, all pretty much hitting it out of the park.

And so we come to The Past, another Dickensian tale of people who are just a little bit crummy.

I can't actually remember now if A Separation was populated by crummy people. There were some, of course. I think I called them "flawed", which would be a good summation of the characters in The Past.

But on reflection, I'm thinking they're just a little bit crummy. For example, we have Berenice Bejo—looking fabulous, I should say—who has called in her husband from Iran so that they can get a divorce. They've been separated for years, but she wants to re-marry, and he opts to come in person to sign the papers in court.

He's been gone for a while, and she's been living with a new man and her son for a few months, since the man's wife "got sick". Meanwhile, her older child, a teenage daughter, is increasingly estranged from her and clearly missing the presence of the soon-to-be-ex, while hating the new boyfriend.

So, Bejo's character is pretty self-involved and not really getting why the teen is upset. The teen is upset and not telling anyone why. (In American movie, it'd be because the new boyfriend had made a pass at her; nothing so pedestrian here.) The two men are sullen, with the soon-to-be-ex having deserted the family years ago, and the new boyfriend with a wife still in the hospital.

Yeah, about the wife in the hospital: She's the MacGuffin, after a fact. Her story comes out—not in flashbacks, but in reminiscences by the other characters, that leave room for doubt as to what the whole truth is.

Everyone has sinned. Nobody seems to have sinned quite a badly as they think.

Ultimately, we're not really responsible for what others do, I guess, but it can sure feel that way.

Much like A Separation, this movie starts out slow, pedestrian even, and then involves you more and more in the details, defying you to come to conclusions about the characters. Judge not, lest ye be judged, it seems to say.

Well, I'm a regular Judgy McJudgerton and I say, they're all kind of crummy. Even the five-year-old.

Good movie, though. The Boy was, I think, less taken with it than I was, but liked it nonetheless.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lone Survivor

It would be a fair assessment to say that my eyes began to tear up at the opening credits of Lone Survivor, and were seldom dry for the next two hours. I'm not unique; the Boy said as much on the way out, along with saying he'd love to see it again.

Yeah. It's that good. In our world it easily shot to the top of "best films of the 2013", though it may not be my top—it might be and it will certainly be top five.

I can't quite explain the emotionalism. It can't be that it's "based on a true story" because it is openly ficitonalized—and, in fact, the historical import of the film is nearly irrelevant. Unlike, say, Blackhawk Down, which fit into a larger picture of the military under Clinton and the role of the US in Africa, this movie could be about any four SEALs, sent into any village, and presented with a difficult situation.

Dramatically, that's a great thing. The real people, the inspirations, are shown in pictures at the end of the movie, which, dulce et decorum est.

So, what is it? It's partly The Charge of the Light Brigade effect: The opening montage of actual training shows what hardships special forces endure to become special forces. (And let us pause for a moment to marvel at the volunteer army.) And this brutal training—the sort of things the effete cluck at as "unnecessary"—is vitally necessary not just for physical endurance, training and toughening, but to build a brotherhood.

And so, in a way, the opening montage is justified by the next two hours. The hazing, of sorts, of new recruits, the eagerness of same recruits to actually go on a mission, and when things go sideways, the willingness to sacrifice for your brother, or to survive for him when it might be easier to just lay down and die.

And that, I think, is what it is, why this evokes such strong emotions. The note hit over-and-over again is that of male camaraderie, played unironically, straight and true, to the end.

We don't get a lot of that these days. Male relationships are usually between slackers. They're goofs. You kinda know they're not going to be there for each other, at least not until things get really bad.

What a concept to have a band of men who, however hard they rag on each other, know with as much certainty as anyone can know anything that they can depend on each other.

On top of that, it's a competent action film, helmed by personal favorite, Peter Berg. Not just competent, but the best in recent memory: The story doesn't adhere to action movie conventions, which means, for example, that when the heroes get shot, or—and this is unseen in modern action films—fall more than a few feet, it hurts.

And it doesn't just hurt in a Wile E. Coyote sense, where one scene has them taking damage, and then they're fine in the next. When one of these guys takes a hit, they feel it, you feel it, and you feel the scar, the torn cartilage, the blow to the head that says you'll never be quite right again.

It also doesn't have a glib "10 Little Indians" approach where the characters are picked off one-by-one. Even though the title, and opening scene, tell you all you need to know about who's going to survive, the protagonists hang on for dear life, and you are rooting for the story to come out differently than you know it must.

Mark Wahlberg is good as Marcus Luttrell, the eponymous lone survivor who went on to write the book. Taylor Kitsch (John Carter) and Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe) are also good as Michael Murphy and Danny Deitz respectively. (Michael Murphy was the subject of a 2013 documentary which unfortunately got no theater play in our neighborhood.)

Ben Foster...well...he just becomes Matt "Axe" Axelson. It's uncanny, from the pictures shown. I saw his mother talking about the performance after the fact, and she said it was like having him back for a moment. (And if that doesn't rip your heart out, we can't be friends.)

The supporting players are also—well, the best way to describe it is "genuine". The whole thing feels very genuine.

Although I've always suspected Berg was not entirely at home with modern Hollywood's leftist values, I can't really back that up. I've heard that he was concerned about The Kingdom being too jingoistic, for example.

This movie (much like The Kingdom) is about as apolitical as it can be, given the circumstances. I have, of course, heard some really dumb movie critic observations. One person, who I can only assume didn't stay to the end, said the movie's message was "brown people bad". (And Afghan village is critical to Luttrell's survival, and they protect him at grave personal risk.)

It's only pro-America in the sense that, yes, we have a military, and it's staffed with good people who make great personal sacrifices for the rest of us, and we're not always worthy of that.

Well, if you can't muster at least that much pro-American sentiment, you're basically indifferent to America's survival at all (at best).

The closest it gets to a political point is that the key plot point, that starts the terrible events in action, is whether or not the SEALs should kill three villagers who have stumbled over them. One is clearly Taliban, and the other two can be expected to inform out of sheer survival necessity.

In a brief argument, they debate whether they should kill them, whether they can kill them (legally), the repercussions of either way—they basically know they're dead if they let them go. The fact that the Press will attack them comes up. The Rules of Engagement are discussed.

It's a great scene. Again, very Charge of the Light Brigade.

It's already been snubbed, getting just a couple of sound Oscar noms. War films can't get awards unless they're anti-war. (And this isn't pro-war, for crying out loud. It just posits that the character of the soldiers is actually a bit nobler and higher-minded than Hollywood is comfortable with.) Being an exemplary action film doesn't get you anything come award time either.

But to those who say "Well, it's not a great movie. It just gets its gravitas from the real story, and from the action," I say "OK, let's see a dozen more like that from the past 40 years."

And it's a shame, because the War on Terror has produced more than its share of gripping stories that Hollywood eschewed for making anti-war, anti-America propaganda.

If The Arts owe our soldiers anything, it's to tell their stories. I'm glad this one got told. It's in the top 30 for the 2013's releases, but that may not be enough to encourage similar films, since it probably won't do big business overseas.

But if it were up to me, I'd be turning out pictures like this 3-4 times a year. You'd never run out of stories.

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