Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mr. Peabody and Sherman

I think we can agree that the film versions of Jay Ward's satirical and pun-laden cartoons have been largely wanting. Underdog, Dudley Do-Right, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and, really, the shining gem of the set, George of the Jungle.

It's not a promising track record. Part of it has to do, I'm sure, with the fact that these were originally based on 5-6 minute segments (generally oriented around a pun) ballooned up into a 90 minute (or longer!) movie. Looney Toons have never thrived in long formats, either.

Hopes were not high for Mr. Peabody and Sherman at first, but the reviews were generally positive so The Barb and I went to see it (with The Boy tagging along).

It's a remarkably pleasant and even heart-warming film that captures a lot of the feel of the original segments while adding enough depth to make it sustainable.

I mean, I think The Lion King is just a overblown mediocrity, but director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) has pulled a treat by turning a vehicle that was basically an excuse for shaggy dog (no pun) stories into something with some feels (as the kids say) without losing sight of the absurdity of the premise.

Basically, the premise is that Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) is a hyper-intelligent dog who can't get adopted for being too smart. ("Fetch the stick? Why? You'll probably just throw it again. It's an exercise in futility.") And after mastering all human arts and sciences, he decides what's missing in his life is a child of his own—so he sues to be allowed to adopt a boy (Max Charles).

It was played strictly for gags in "Rocky and Friends" (as everything was) with Peabody's supercilious nature being contrasted with Sherman's regular-boy kind-of dopey affability. Here, although Sherman has much the same personality, his "dopiness" is more comparative: He's actually quite smart and knowledgeable relative to others his age (he's 7 1/2 here); he just can't hold a candle to Peabody, whose peers are more like Einstein (Mel Brooks) and Leonardo (Stanley Tucci).

Rather nicely, though, the implication is that Sherman could be that smart and even might be the smart when he grows up.

So despite Peabody's superficial diffidence, he's almost a helicopter parent, who has invented the WABAC Machine to teach his boy about history.

So, where does the conflict come from when a hyper-competent parent attentively raises a bright child effectively? Public school and social services!

Heh.

Also, a snotty little rich girl, Penny, and her milquetoast mom (Leslie Mann) and disinterested, snotty dad (Stephen Colbert).

This contrivance results in Peabody and Sherman and Penny (Ariel Winter) hurtling through time at random (although not random enough to be in the 99.9999% of history where nothing famous or interesting is happening, of course) and making all kinds of terrible, terrible puns.

Most of these jokes land pretty well, and are groan inducing, but there's one about Achilles that was so bad you could hear a pin drop in the theater. As successful as the humor was, it was kind of interesting and noticeable that that particular one bombed so hard. (Later, I realized it was that referencing Achilles' heel is so obvious, it's just a setup for a joke, not an actual joke, so you were waiting for a punchline that never came.)

A lot of the same jokes in their Greek adventure were made in 1997's Hercules, as you might imagine. And if I say "Ancient Egypt",  you can probably guess quite a few of the puns there, too.

No matter: Delivery was largely good. It's a good-looking film and the voice acting is well done, despite the profusion of stunt casting. (I spotted Stephen Colbert immediately, and we all spotted Patrick Warburton instantly, naturally.) It's hard to manage much suspense in this type of film but they did a pretty good job even there.

The Barb liked it but wasn't wildly enthusiastic about it. The Boy was actually a lot more positive about it. I also liked it a lot, despite my initial reservations.

Ty Burrell (Dawn of the Dead, "Modern Family") was probably a key factor in this. At first, I was put off by his Peabody, since Bill Scott (who did the original Peabody, as well as Bullwinkle and many of the other Jay Ward characters) really defined the voice for me, but I see why Minkoff went the way he did: Scott's Peabody is just on the edge of insufferable in his intellectual superiority. Burrell brings a warmth to the character that keeps the edge while tempering it just enough with genuine affection.

The kid, Max Charles—who's one of your harder working 11 year olds, being a regular on "The Neighbors", young Peter Parker in the newest Spider-Man movies, and a voice actor in a variety of things from "Family Guy" to "Adventure Time"—also doesn't sound "quite right" at first, but works out better because he is a kid, rather than adult pretending to be a kid, as on the original show. (Walter Tetley, perennial man-child, played the original Sherman.)

So, overall, a good time had by all, despite the odds.

Godzilla

I have never been a fan of the Giant Rubber Suit movies. I remember them as interminable scenes of tiny Japanese army men firing ineffectively into the air as primitive models were destroyed. And Raymond Burr.

In a lot of ways they foreshadowed the modern superhero movie, with mayhem going on interminably until some arbitrary point.

I love the 1933 King Kong but that has a lot to do with the stop motion animation. I find that more compelling than guys in rubber suits.

And had you asked me, I probably would've said Pacific Rim is going to be as good as you can get with this genre. Especially after the awful 1998 version, which really should've been good, given that it was in the hands of Devlin and Emmerich who had been so successful with Independence Day.

And yet.

This latest incarnation of Godzilla is quite delightful and kind of the anti-Pacific Rim. To say nothing of being the anti-D&E Godzilla.

There's nothing hip about this movie. It's sincere from its backstory about a seismologist (Bryan Cranston) obsessed with the death of his wife 15 years ago, to the current relationship with his estranged son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the navy man who still cares enough to bail him out of jail when he'd rather be with his wife (Elizabeth Olson) and son.

Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins play the scientists trying to figure out what's going on.

There are some real acting chops here. And complete earnestness in delivering a simple melodrama to serve as the backdrop for giant monster hijinks.

But the movie makes you work for it: None of Pacific Rim's jumping into battles from scene one. Also, none of the hipster-suave ironic detachment of the '98 Godzilla. When Godzilla's name is spoken, it is with reverence. And when he appears, you are both awed and kind of happy, in that childlike way.

It's actually kind of nice. There's no moral ambiguity, no shame, no sense that the proceedings are beneath anyone. No camp. Everybody acts their hearts out.

Oh, yeah: David Strathairn and Juliette Binoche.

This was very much an unexpected and pleasant surprise. The Boy enjoyed it, though he said he lost interest in the human characters once the monsters showed up because, hey, they're not giant monsters.

I'm not sure he liked it as much as I did, which may have to do with a nostalgia factor that I'm not immune to, even as someone who's not a fan of the originals. I know that my contemporary tweeps who have seen it (@uncommentari and @The_Monarch) had similar good feelings, so that may be a factor.

God's Not Dead

There's a principle around here that if a movie has a dramatic split where critics hate it and audiences love it, we have to go see it. Nine times out of ten, this is a movie with "Christian themes" of a sort that used to be completely unremarkable but now are rather scandalous. (My favorite film of 2011 was Machine Gun Preacher which had a 25/75 split.)

God's Not Dead boasts an impressive 17/84. And WARNING: if you are allergic to Jesus, just stop reading here, 'cause this movie is chock full of The Jesus.

We're actually pretty tolerant at Casa 'strom, though, I think owing at least in part to my belief that a person should be free to follow his heart and conscience when it comes to spiritual matters, and that people doing so is a good thing.

I also think Man's struggle with God can be an epic dramatic theme, a la Machine Gun Preacher, and we miss out on a lot with our current aversion to that theme.

So, how is God's Not Dead? Well, it's not bad. It's pretty entertaining, actually. It is a movie that is praying for your soul—yes, you, in particular, and if you have a problem with that, you'll have a problem with this.

The Boy said it was pretty hokey, and this is also true, though it's not particularly hokier than, say, Inherit The Wind. I mean, much like that movie, it stacks the deck in favor of its desired outcome, even when that outcome is preposterous. (Also, Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain are no Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, maybe not even a Jack Lemmon and George C. Scott.)

But you kind of have to love putting avowed Christian Sorbo in the role of militant atheist—a gag Hollywood's been running the other way for ages. (George Carlin as a Catholic cardinal in Dogma, for example, or Gore Vidal as a conservative professor in With Honors, off the top of my head.)

The story is that Josh (Shane Harper) has to take a philosophy class elective and runs smack dab into Professor Radisson (Sorbo), the dickish atheist who insists that the class start with every student writing "God's Dead" on a piece of paper and signing it.

This will allow him to skip large, boring and difficult portions of the class and go right to—well, I guess whatever vistas open to you once you dismiss the existence of God.

Naturally, everyone in the class signs, except for Josh, who can't bring himself to deny God. This leads to the ultimate sucker bet: The Professor offers to let Josh make his case for God, and Josh wrangles this into "Let me convince my classmates, because you're not trustworthy to judge."

Now. Honestly. No class full of modern college students is going to go against their professor. And no college student is naive enough to believe that, were God himself to come down to the classroom and turn Evian into Zima, it would matter when GPA is on the line.

It's just silly. But okay, there's our premise.

This is also silly because you can't prove or disprove God. That's what "faith" means in this context, yet we expend so much energy one way and the other in our media.

Anyway, dramatically, Josh runs into his first test with his ridiculously hot and controlling girlfriend (Cassidy-freakin'-Gifford, who's now 21, all you fans of Regis and Kathy Lee from the '90s) insisting that he not waste time challenging his professor, given that their whole lives are at stake. 

Much like the dickish atheist professor, the girlfriend is a character who certainly exists in reality, but she's such a hard-ass, there's a kind of interesting (and, of course, completely unexplored) subtext there about the relationship between Christian men and women.

I kept thinking "It's okay if she leaves you, she's gonna end up cheating on you anyway, if she's not already."

Anyway, if the movie was just student vs. professor, it would be a pretty weak film, because (as I've said) it's a supremely dumb argument. I mean, the entirety of the professor's arguments are by authority. "God doesn't exist because all these smart people say He doesn't."

Or, in fairness, there's a brief nod to the other Big Argument of atheism, extrapolation: "We used to think all this stuff, like lightning and famine, was caused by the Gods, but we know better now, so therefore there is no God."

But mostly it's argumentum ab auctoritate on a subject one cannot be an authority of. And at one point, Sorbo uses this quote for Stephen Hawking:
“Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing."
This stumps Josh and provides some dramatic tension, but come on: This both cites authority and begs the question. Two logical fallacies in one! It literally says nothing.

Much like Inherit the Wind, I found myself wanting arguments that I couldn't refute sitting in a theater chair eating popcorn. (I mean, Spencer Tracey disarms Fredric March with "how long is a day in Genesis?" which has to be apologism 101.)

Anyway, this struggle provides the backdrop for a bunch of other characters: A Muslim girl whose father insists she wears a face covering, but who's interesting in the Christian God; a Vegan lefty who practices ambush journalism on the Duck Commander, Willie Robertson; her jerky but successful boyfriend (Dean Cain) who's as shallow and secular as he is handsome; his faithful sister who visits their senile mother and struggles to get respect from her atheist lover; and a pastor who's trying to take a pastor from "the trenches" in Africa but can't get his car started.

That last story is resolved when God starts the car.

I'm not kidding about that; I was sort of expecting a more worldly answer to be slipped in, but it actually appears as though the car was started with faith, and just in time for the pastors to unify all the stories and message of the film.

As The Boy said, it's hokey, but it's not 17% hokey.

I don't mind: All art is contrived and our rejection of this kind of thing is more a reflection on us and our cynicism than anything.

The Flower, for example, loved it and thought it was well done. That made me happy. She has plenty of time to learn to be cynical, if such a thing is necessary.

So if, artistically, it's a little "neat", well, fine, it's virtually parable anyway. The ending was overlong, with much jubilation and Christian rock from a group that I'm assuming is known in the community. The movie clocks in at a lively sub-2 hours (about 1:45) and only the end felt dragged out.

If there's a shortcoming, I think like with Gibson's Passion, it's that the movie preaches to the choir. That, I think, makes the movie less accessible overall and probably less effective evangelically.

But really, it's an uplifting story, if you're open to it.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Locke

Tom Hardy in a car for 90 minutes. Boom, there's your elevator pitch!

Writer/director Steven Knight (writer of Amazing Grace and Eastern Promises) serves up a tight little drama that features, literally, no other person on screen but ol' Bane himself. And it works!

I thought from the trailers that this might be a thriller; a crime story where Locke (Hardy) was fleeing mobsters and trying to draw villains away from his family. The Flower, after comparing the trailer to Janet Leigh's driving scenes in Psycho, speculated he had a body in his trunk. (Heh. My girl.)

This is not that kind of movie. In the most abstract sense (without spoilers) Locke is a guy who's made a serious mistake, and he's trying to make it right, even though making it right will cost him everything.

And that's really your movie. Locke is an extremely decent fellow. He's holding several worlds together single-handedly, and he's determined to keep them together from a cell phone in his car.

No joke, Locke is a classic tragic hero. Maybe not even the tragic part, since he's recognized his error (and even that seems to have stemmed from an improbable, but not impossible act of kindness). But he's definitely haunted by a jerk of a father and a need to control his life to a degree that suggests near neurosis. But even in this, he sometimes seems like the only ethical guy around.

Obviously, this movies rests heavily on Hardy's shoulders and he's well up to the task. The voice acting is done by a variety of quality British actors whom I'm not going to list here, but you've seen 'em around.

With little physical action and just voice interaction, Knight gives us a well-formed story arc, with threats and some positive resolutions, some not so positive, some ambiguous, and makes it all look easy—like what's with all these other people who need sets and special effects and more than one actor?

The Boy and I both enjoyed greatly.

Ida

I've mentioned it before, but it has been a weird, weird Spring for us, movie-wise. There's no shortage of movies out, but a serious shortage of consensus about what the best (or even good) movies are. We've done all right, but it's been a struggle. (And that's with going to far fewer movies this year!)

Ida was supposed to be slam dunk, with a suspicious >95% critic rating and a suspicious-for-other-reasons 80% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Meanwhile The Boy had not gotten much sleep, and this is not a movie you want to go to if you're groggy.

Ida is the story of a young orphan woman in the '60s raised in a Polish convent who's about to take her vows. But before she's allowed to the Mother Superior insists she visit her one surviving family member—the one who opted not to raise her.

She doesn't really want to go, and the aunt doesn't really have anything to say to her at first. But Aunt Wanda, who's a mucky-muck judge and also a hard-drinking, hard-partying, uh, paragon of independent Communist womanhood warms up before Ida leaves, and the two embark on a journey to visit the grave of Ida's parents.

Now, Ida, despite being about the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland, is basically the opposite of Aftermath. Aftermath is great action/thriller/mystery film-making, independent of the subject matter, even as it wields its subject matter like a sledgehammer.

Ida is all gorgeous black-and-white photography with blocking that would make James Wong Howe weep. Every shot is set up to reveal the characters' relationship with each other, with society, with God. And once set, the camera never moves. Not until the very last scene do we get a tracking shot, of Ida walking down a desolate road, suitcase in hand.

As a narrative though, Ida is basically: A, then B, then C, then D. Or, maybe A, B or C? A. D, E or F? D. In other words, the events simply occur one after the other, and they're resolved with an almost pathological aversion to drama.

It's definitely an approach, and not an approach for everyone. I was engaged by the photography enough to where I was involved, but I was well-rested. The Boy came out kind of scratching his head, not sure if it was a bad movie or a good movie that he'd missed the point of.

Honestly, I couldn't say one way or the other. I loved the look of it. There was a compelling narrative there but the presentation was as cold as possible.

This from the director of My Summer of Love, which I deliberately avoided because it had a similar creepy look, and a similar critic/audience split (though audiences liked that movie even less).

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Redwood Highway

Old folks. They're everywhere. Often on the road, apparently. At least, that's where they keep turning up for us. This time, though, it's Shirley Knight.

Shirley Knight, you may recall, was (one of) Paul Newman's dishy co-star in Sweet Bird of Youth. I sure don't remember that, or any of her roles until she passed comfortably into a middle age (with an awkward "Mrs. Robinson" thing in Endless Love in the '80s.)

Honestly, I know her most as Paul Rudd's mom in Our Idiot Brother, Kevin James' mom in Paul Blart: Mall Cop and I forget whose mother she was in As Good As It Gets.

Hey, she gets steady work. And she stars in Redwood Highway, as mom to the doughy James Le Gros, who always impresses me with how young he looks, until I remember he's not Paul Le Mat.

In this little story, we have the miserable Marie (Knight), whose son Michael (Le Gros) has put her in an old age home. Despite this being the nicest old person home in the history of old people, she hates it and wants to go back to Bend, Oregon where she lived alone out in a cabin in the woods, or something.

This is a bone of contention with Michael, though he's not super-impressed, since she was apparently not a great mom. He's not carrying a chip, exactly, but he's not won over by her free-wheeling, independent, if cranky, ways.

Meanwhile, she's refusing to attend the wedding of her granddaughter Naomi (former child actress Zena Gray) because she thinks it's a huge mistake for a 22-year-old to get married, particularly to a 30-something musician.

Our story begins when Marie decides she's going to go to the wedding after all (though she still doesn't approve) and she's going to walk there. She has about a week, and it's about 80 miles. That struck me as a little slow, but my mom (who's about the same age) said that's how long it would take her.

My mom also stated that she could cover a lot of ground the first day; it'd be the second that got her. And so it is here. The second through seventh days comprise the bulk of our movie, as Marie discovers that she's not quite as tough as she thinks she is—but still, she's pretty damn tough.

This movie also works as a tourism ad for Oregon, since she consistently meets the nicest people at every turn, many of whom would more than willingly drive her where she wanted to go. This, of course, makes her crazy since she wants to do it her own damn self. She accepts help, very reluctantly from a widowed sculptor (Tom Skerritt) and a sassy bartender (the gorgeous Michelle Lombardo).

Ultimately, of course, the journey teaches her a little something about life, and love, and laughter.

But seriously, it does, and like other movies The Boy and I have enjoyed like this, it has several things that really make it: The characters are interesting and largely likable. There are plenty of bad decisions in evidence both current and historical, of course.

There's a story hinted at early on, Marie's story, that is revealed step-by-step which sort of helps explain her, at least somewhat, but doesn't really excuse some of her bad decisions. So that keeps the interest up without making everything neat and tidy and phony.

Director/Writer Gary Lundgren and Producer/Writer James Twyman have put together a nice little movie with solid acting,

Twyman is strongly connected with the "Indigo" phenomenon which posits that there are ubermenschen among us. (It doesn't call them that for obvious reasons, but I defy you to define the difference.) And I've seen some connecting this movie with the Indigo stuff, but I kind of think you have to be looking for it.

Anyway, the Boy and I liked.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Operation Sunflower

It's a matter of faith among some that Israel has The Bomb. Part of Middle Eastern brinksmanship seems to be intimating that you have horrible weapons and daring your enemies to come discover the truth (cf. Assad, Hussein).

This movie begins with a coy denial that Israel has the bomb—well, the phrase used is something like "Israel has decided it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East", which is kind of a classic non-denial denial. It doesn't say that they don't have them, only that they wouldn't be the first to use them.

Anyway, after the denial (with which the movie also closes), we get a framing story of a young Jewish man in Israel who's trying to get his mother to work up some sort of anxiety over an incoming Iranian (?) nuclear attack, and she's not concerned.

The movie proper is the story of her brother, the nuclear physicist who helped Israel develop The Bomb. It's the story of an obsessed Mossad chief, his "secretary" (who's actually more like his heavy), peace-loving Jewish hippies who are goaded and tricked into helping (when they're not being killed to protect the secret), and a semi-incompetent France that is determined to get the bomb but doesn't actually have the smarts.

There's this precious song the young college physicists sing about peace with the Arab Muslims that is as preposterous as it would be fatal if anyone took it very seriously. (Of course, these youngsters are deadly earnest.) Just as radical folk music that's dopey in America becomes a lot more relevant when you transplant it to South Africa, pacifist anthems become a lot less idyllic and dreamy and more suicidal when to transplant them to Israel.

Anyway, this short-ish movie (90 minutes) has a kind of rabbinical story feel to it, which gives it a certain charm, though The Boy was somewhat underwhelmed.

The plot is really the template of a spy thriller, yet the movie engages in few of the spy thriller tropes. There's no suspense to speak of. When the Israelis start eating their own to protect the secret, you'd almost qualify it as "unpleasant" rather than the shocking betrayal it is.

Also, the mother is supremely calm throughout, so you know there's never really any danger.

So, where I'd put it in the positive column, anyone expecting a suspenseful action/thriller would be disappointed. And it is kind of an odd thing to say "Well, it's a story of intrigue and how a tiny country handled its existential crisis by getting the Ultimate Weapon, but it's pretty low-key."

Yet it is, and I didn't mind particularly. Shot simply but well enough, with acting that seemed fairly natural.

One thing noted frequently was that the Israelis had to hide their research from the US, lest the US shut them down. I guess we didn't want everyone getting The Bomb but that still sort of surprised me.

Anyway, a happy ending (telegraphed from the start) to this entirely fictional (kaff) story.

Jews In Palestine (1913)

A recently recovered film—documentary but not a documentary, in the sense that it's literal documentation of Jews leaving...I think it's the Ukraine, during one of the particularly heinous periods, though before the horrors of the Soviet revolution.

The parts that we saw showed the Jews getting on a boat, after having paid considerable fees to the corrupt officials to get out, and to pass through—well, there's the chilling thing: Every thing they sail past I'm thinking: "Oh, yeah, those guys would kill them. So would they. They're goners if they stop there..."

When they finally arrive in Palestine, it's kind of amazing to see the barrenness, in which a few institutional buildings have been constructed. Schools, farms, a cultural center, and so on. While it's pretty upbeat in its way, the children are being physically trained—prepared for the conflict that would inevitably come (as it had so often in the past).

But it's literally just film. There's no soundtrack to what we saw. There was a guy actually there, pointing out things. "My great-bubba's home movies from her trip to Palestine." (This was part of the L.A. Jewish Film Festival. We have a lot of Jewish film festivals here.)

There is no small significance to this: The Jews had a presence in Palestine, were actually called Palestinians before 1917 if I'm not mistaken, and (despite recent revisionism) didn't suddenly appear in Tel Aviv in 1946.

That said, The Boy and I were relieved when about 20-30 minutes into it, they wrapped up and showed us a real movie (Operation: Sunflower). We don't really have the connection to Israel most of the audience had.

You can watch an hour of it on YouTube if you're so inclined, this narrated by someone in...I dunno, Hebrew? Didn't sound Yiddish to me. It doesn't cover all of what we saw, nor did we see all of what is covered here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Blue Ruin

The revenge story has been a staple of human entertainment since there has been human entertainment (Samson, anyone?), and while there can be considerable vicarious enjoyment in a well done straight-up revenge, the variety of riffs on the motif can be equally or more compelling (like, say, Hamlet or Death Sentence) whether they subvert the theme through questioning the morality of the premise (as in Hamlet) or through carrying it to an extreme (as in Death Sentence).

Blue Ruin is a revenge picture that's almost a mix of Hamlet and Death Sentence. Intimate and disturbing, it features a "least likely protagonist", like Hamlet, who ends up having to go to extremes, like Nick Hume (Kevin Bacon's character in Death Sentence).

Dwight (Macon Blair), our protagonist, is homeless, living in his car on the beach somewhere on the east coast. He stays out of trouble, though he's not above a little B&E to use someone's shower, and the police know him. But when the Sheriff (Sidné Anderson) does come to visit him it's not to bust him, but to give him some news.

It turns out the thug who killed his father is being released from jail. And Dwight, whose itinerant lifestyle seems to stem from this trauma, takes it on himself to kill his father's murderer.

And that's our opening. I won't give any further details because they all contribute to the experience of the film, which is both complex and deep. Suffice to say that Dwight hasn't really thought his revenge through and isn't really cut out for the whole killing thing.

All that would be enough to challenge the formula, but add to that that Dwight's understanding of the situation is imperfect to say the least, down to the last moment of the movie, and you have—not exactly an anti-revenge flick, but something that challenges any idea that revenge is tidy.

It's a very good balancing act: I mean, it's a relatively easy thing to take an anti-violence stance, an anti-revenge stance, and so on. And of course, the staple of revenge stories is to add that element of fantasy that provides a kind of vicarious release with no consequences. It's a much, much trickier thing to present a story—well, shoot, it's almost an inverted revenge flick, when I think about it.

Anyway, well done. The Boy liked it.

The acting is fairly low-key given the subject, and has that "natural" feel, like people just showing up and being themselves, which works well for the story. This is aided by writer/director/cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier's style of shooting, which is very intimate.

As I said, not your average revenge pic, and fairly unsensational—but engrossing.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Lighter Side of Agony

One of my tweeps, @thekellijane, edited and published her blog detailing four-and-a-half years of her life struggling with, well, life, but specifically life with fibromyalgia (and though she never knew it during that time, celiac) and I told her I would make it my business to see that she had an additional review on Amazon by the end of the week.

I'm writing and posting it here as well because Amazon silently discarded a review I wrote twice, and I spend a long freaking time on writing reviews. It pissed me off so much, I pretty much stopped reviewing. (I was a top 1000 reviewer for quite some time, though not through any concerted attempt to become so. I think they're better now about not just throwing stuff out but I'm less entertained by the notion of providing free content for them.)

Funny. Weird. Disjointed. Surreal. Moving. Inspirational. Sad. Enthusiastic. Human.

The Lighter Side of Agony is a book based on four-and-a-half years of blog entries written by the author, KJ Adan, a woman in her 30s living in Nevada, detailing her discovery and management of fibromyalgia. That's my third-grade-book-report-style-summary; it's much trickier to nail the experience of LSoA down.

The epistolary autobiography, the diary, the author who interacts with an unseen audience all have a long tradition in literature, and this blog-book neatly encapsulates those traditions, with several strange and interesting twists.

Probably the least strange element is simply KJ's writing style, which is breezy and almost whimsical, except that it belies a kind of underlying intensity. You can get a sense of it quickly by reading a few sample pages: the author has a voice. Nothing non-descript here.

But she's going through this thing with her health. And by "thing" I mean excruciating pain and semi-fugue states, to say nothing of a ingesting a variety medications. This results in sudden sharp shifts of the topic under discussion—though curiously with no loss in intensity.

Not a few times, detailed descriptions of her dreams become the central topic but, unlike most airy-fairy dream journals, these are vivid depictions of literal actions (no real symbolism here). This lends a decidedly surreal aspect to the proceedings.

It's probably not quite right to call it "literary pointillism" but that's how I felt after the first few entries when a clear picture began to emerge.

A remarkable thing to me about this work is that while it's personal, even intimate, and while it's about the author's foibles and the foibles of those around her, it's remarkably free of gossip and luridness. This is refreshing, and to my mind, a major strong point.

The book has a lot of strong points: KJ's writing style, as mentioned; the characters and events seem real (presumably because they are); and some epic ranting that reveal a young woman full of contradiction and confusion. It feels honest and, even as it is chock-full of grand ambitions, ultimately humble.

Also humbling. Although she's quick to point out that many have it worse, it's impossible not to admire the ambition and joie de vivre, even, of someone who treats her energy and ability that the rare gift it is.

There are some weaknesses, at least for me. It took me a while to learn how to read the context properly: The proper names used are largely nicknames, and there are actually quite a few characters here that make only few (or just one) appearance.

More on context: This whole work is completely saturated in pop culture. More than once I found myself doing a web-search to try to get oriented. And I'm not that much different in age than KJ, though I know nothing of her music, and little of the TV shows and games she mentions.

But if the pop culture is challenging, the medical billing culture is even moreso. Fortunately there's much less of this. And ultimately, I just had to learn to let go and go with the flow.

I couldn't always do this. Some typos and malaprops were left in to give the sense of the dysfunction caused by KJ's condition. Well, sometimes this worked. Other times it just annoyed me and jarred me out of the story. (I will never get used to "as is my want" versus "as is my wont".)

I wanted a stronger narrative. It's not that kind of book, but there were so many threads that started out strong and don't wrap up neatly. (What happened with the Vitamin D? With Tom? With the plans for the movie where Vincent D'Onofrio kills a hooker?) This is realistuc—how many things do we all pursue that seem interesting at first but go nowhere?—but probably more realism than I want.

It's not really in the same category, but I found the relationship with her fiance profoundly sad. KJ gives herself no quarter on the girlfriend front: she's quite overweight and no fun, and there are entries where she's completely pissed at him, often followed by entries of utter love and devotion. It can't have been easy to deal with.

But you are supposed to deal with such things. As an adult. If for no other reason than an understanding of how often shoes end up on other feet. 'nuff said.

Probably the most fun aspect for me were the rants (which I'm also prone to). It's not that I agreed with them, it's how they often didn't agree with themselves. Summed up perfectly with this:
Every time I reach a point in my life where I feel I've had an epiphany, I make a note of it in some kind of journal or blog. And then I look at it later, & think, "God, what was I talking about? I was still a moron then !" So, five years from now, I will realize I was a moron at 33, too. I hope so. If not, it will mean I didn't learn squat.
I'm sure this was most pointedly left in as she edited LSoA, especially given the post-scripts.

In the end, this is a unique view into a weird little world largely populated by cool, fun people, one of whom has some crippling health problems—which is way better than a book about a disease.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Lego Movie

I'm not a huge Lego fan. I mean, conceptually, I'm okay with the interlocking blocks idea. I pretty much made tall, uniform towers of the same color (except where I ran out of bricks of the right size and shape), but I never really had a sense of how to do the cool stuff.

These days, of course, there are kits, which some in my generation scorn, but The Boy had a pretty serious one as a kid of the Enterprise (I don't think he even knew what it was) and it was still 1,500-2,000 pieces. A pretty good project, despite the by-the-numbers aspect of it.

I soured on the Lego video games because, as cute as they were, they had some DRM that made them impossible for me to actually play. That pissed me off.

Is any of this relevant to The Lego Movie? Well, sorta. The movie has a similar look to the games (a little more roughly animated, by design I believe) and the plot is all about the struggle between order and chaos—in particular the struggle between predefined kits of related themes and the anarchy of a child's imagination.

It's one of the best reviewed movies of the year, actually, so The Boy and I caught it at the discount theater.

It's kind of a hot mess.

At its best it recalls the insanity of the golden age of Warner Bros (who made this movie) cartoons. At its worst, well, it moves along too fast to think about much.

The story is basically a riff on The Matrix, with regular joe Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt, some guy) fitting into his happy little world of Lego conformity by liking what everyone else likes and doing what everyone else does. (In fact, at one point, it becomes obvious that nobody thinks much of him because he conforms so completely to what everyone else likes, he's completely forgettable.)

But things change when he meets Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks, 'cause why the eff not?) and actually finds himself on the receiving end of a prophecy about "The Special" who will find the "Piece of Resistance" and stop the evil President Business (Will Ferrell, duh) from employing his ultimately weapon of conformity, the Kragle.

Now, a point of amusement to me is that some view "President Business" as a typical left-wing anti-business attack, and some view it as a more libertarian anti-cronyism angle, but it seems pretty clear to me that it's "Well, here's something an eight-year-old would think convey importance and a fun-killer." President. Business. That's the sound of authority crushing your good times.

As I said, it's a hot mess, but it's a hot mess because it's very much like the inside of a child's head when playing with Legos and action figures. (The child in this case being Jadon Sand, who's mostly known for doing voices at this point, which may make him the only real voice actor on the project.)

The anarchic approach means that the movie can chuck in a bunch of "guest stars", particularly from other WB properties, and they're not necessarily just cameos. Many "famous characters" appear prominently and play a significant role in the plot.

This is kind of cool, and again, a lot like being inside an 8-year-old's head.

I liked it, as did The Boy, a lot even. That said, it's probably over-rated. It's funny and fast, sure, but I didn't get the sense it's something that's going to persist well. A lot depends on surprise, on chaos, a few gags, the sort of things that don't necessarily hold up on a second viewing.

If you were to compare it to The Matrix movies that it's riffing on, for example, it's pretty much the entire trilogy in an hour-and-a-half, and it's probably not quite as good as the first Matrix movie, but light years better—and ultimately more meaningful in its shallow, silly way—than the other two Matrix movies.

A lot of animation choices were designed to emphasize the Lego-ness of things, and some of them I liked—for example, water flooding in was shown as a bunch of discrete, cylindrical one-hole legos—and some of them, like the fire and other explosive effects actually kind of put distance between me and the movie.

Actually, I'd ultimately put any serious weakness down to that: Certain animation choices and certain story choices were distancing. In fact, while the meta story was touching (and way better than the Matrix meta story, as noted) it also was a massive deus ex machina that undermined the entirety of the rest of the movie, dramatically speaking.

On the other hand, we are talking about a bunch of plastic bricks, so I guess I should just chill.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Captain America: Winter Soldier

As I've mentioned, patience for the superhero movie is wearing thin at Casa'strom, so much so, I think I pushed this out of my mind almost immediately after seeing it.

Which isn't fair, because it's really quite good, and it avoids a lot of the worst aspects of the superhero movie.

But if we can take anything from Captain America: Winter Soldier, it's that life isn't fair.

Actually, I don't think that's really the message of any of it, but what the heck.

The story follows Captain America, after he wakes up in the future—er, present—and fights whatever it was "The Avengers" were fighting (do I remember? No, I do not) and now wanders around DC in a sort of emotional isolation.

One thing this movie does very well is bring the feels, but without bogging things down. It's a nice touch that Steve Rogers is emblematic of war veterans who have trouble adjusting to civilian life, for example.

Hayley Atwell is back as Peggy Carter, though she's—well, I guess she'd be 100 now—so the movie uses that to get some emotional grounding.

Scarlett Johansson reprises her role as Black Widow, and brings some real depth to her character, who's mostly been filler to this point. (Though her big sacrifice doesn't seem to amount to much.) As Cap's platonic pal, with issues of her own, she contributes a lot to his development as well.

The story is that Cap is working for SHIELD and Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson, of course) though there's a tension between them since there are things that Fury wants done that Cap wouldn't do. Black Widow does the dirty work, but Cap isn't crazy about being used in that fashion.

The big back story involves Fury's Big Plan to launch a fleet of those awesome flying aircraft carriers that showed up in the Avengers film, and the trouble he's getting from world bureaucrats. Well, he and his pal Pierce, who represents...I'm not sure, exactly. Civilian command? Intelligence officer? I don't recall him being given any title or organization designation. He's just Fury's ally in handling paperwork and politics or something.

He's also played by Robert Redford, who's the best villain since Jodie Foster in Elysium (and you should read this to get exactly how cutting a critique this is). The fact that he's a villain is a spoiler, by the way. Sorry. I mean, "Sorry, if you didn't see that coming the instant Redford agreed to play the role of a government intelligence agent building a super-secret army."

I've already said it's time to pull the plug on Redford, and this role—well, apparently he's been bitching about not having the chance to play villains previously, which strikes me as an odd statement for a guy who built a film empire—this role is just not flattering for him. Much like Foster in Elysium, there's no understanding, no depth, just a sad caricature of what he thinks a bad guy might be like. (Just a regular, laid back dude, apparently.)

Weakest part of an otherwise strong film.

All that aside, the action is above par for a superhero film, not going gaga with the CGI, and relying on a lot of standard fighting action where possible. I thought it also hit the sweet spot of "comic book logic" with a few silly surprises that work 'cause, you know, it's a comic book. (See, I'm not going to spoil those because those are actual surprises, unlike the what-the-heck-is-he-except-third-act-turncoat-bait Redford role.)

The final set piece is huge, and The Boy didn't care for it, but it worked for me, mostly. It didn't make a lick of sense, of course, and some of the fighting seemed kind of silly, but overall it was appropriate.

I mean, if you like superhero movies, there's no reason to not like this. But, as I said, they're wearing out their welcome here.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Under The Skin

The six-foot-tall poster in the lobby of the North Hollywood Laemmle proclaimed Under My Skin to be "a blazingly brilliant piece of filmmaking" and "best science fiction in a decade".

I wasn't fooled. While critics have grown increasingly gaga over this, audiences are decidedly not.

But, as I mentioned previously, it's an odd Spring, without a lot of wholehearted recommendations, at least among the fiction films, so The Boy jumped on this rather than catch The Lego Movie at the second run theater, and The Flower came with us mostly looking to score some popcorn.

The popcorn was good, she said, but not worth it.

The Boy did not care for it, either. And that's with oodles of naked Scarlett Johansson.

Ms. Johansson is, by far, the most interesting thing about this film. She gets fully naked, more than once, and:

1) She does not have abs.
2) She does not have a "thigh gap".

This is something of a revelation, really. Mostly, when actresses know they have nude scenes, they starve, they work out like crazy, they do whatever they can to promote an "impossible" image. Ms. J seems to have just brought genetics.

And if she did do all that stuff, that's even better, because it means she doesn't buy into the skinny-boy aesthetic.

I mean, I hate to dwell on the superficial social issues that obsess our society but, really, this is a pretty threadbare movie.

Besides her body, she also, apparently, can act. I think we've seen her act before, like in Lost In Translation, but I'm not sure it's ever mattered that much before. She was also very good in Captain America: Winter Soldier, which I see now I've forgotten to review.

But Under The Skin is carried almost entirely by her, and she does a very good job except in one regard that was probably a directorial decision. The acting challenge is akin to Starman/K-Pax/Mork/whatever, where an alien tries to pass as a human without understanding human emotions.

But since the premise has her stalking and seducing men, she's perfectly normal seeming while she's doing that, yet completely unmoved by any aspect of their stories or lives, and the fate she condemns them to.

This is basically a punt: It would've been more challenging and interesting to have her not be, essentially, a smooth serial killer, but learning how to be seduce awkwardly. (After all, she's still in that body, and men are very, very dumb indeed.) Arguably, this would have added an unwanted element of humor—but there were actually a lot of those anyway.

So, she has a character arc of coming to be more human, and in (at least) an interesting change, the glibness she has early on fades, and she stops talking much at all.

The kids both complained that the movie had no plot, because the movie simultaneously didn't spell anything out while beating certain aspects of the story to death. (There were a lot of seductions.)

But, in fact, it did have a plot: It had a plot straight out of a Roger Corman potboiler. Oh, you don't get the details, because the aliens never talk to each other with words. But this movie is, in essence, a variation on the Not Of This Earth/Not One Of Us/Alien Avengers genre.

Those movies are all from the '90s, because that's the last time I recall it coming up, but they were remakes of (or inspired by) films from the '50s.

What this movie brings to the genre is no exposition. That's probably for the best: The exposition spells out the dumbness of such plots, where super-advanced societies for some reason need human blood. Besides that, it allows the filmmaker to indulge in some of the films more memorable imagery without that imagery having to make a whole lot of sense.

But, really, it's a hoary old trope, the alien harvest. (Impossibly, Alien Harvest is not the name of a movie, but if it were, this would be its plot.) The angle this takes on it, is the change from alien to woman.

You may recall that from "Star Trek" episodes "By Any Other Name", "Catspaw" and "Wink of an Eye", presumably only one of which could really have qualified for blazingly original given the similarities of story arcs.

I actually began to suspect that the reviews used on that movie poster were fake, so I checked out the two sites ("Cinevue" and "The Playlist"). Both sites are aggregators and I couldn't find the reviews so-quoted, but they are, of course, as meaningless as saying "BEST MOVIE EVER — some Internet guy who may have been paid to say so".

I don't want to say it's awful, exactly. There are some good visuals. It's kind of cute that SJ picked up those guys for real, i.e., they didn't know they were going to be in a movie. It does give an authenticity to the proceedings. But it's not exactly a revelation that most guys would accept a lift from her, regardless of intentions.

I've sort of gravitated away from Jonathan Glazer's previous films (2004's reincarnation drama Birth and 2000's Sexy Beast) but I don't really know where I stand on the guy. Props for trying to breathe some life into an old genre, I guess.

But I wonder if using SJ didn't work against him: The PR is going to overshadow the film, and nobody will see it anyway. They'll just download the clips from the 'net.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden

The trailers for this melodramatically titled documentary, The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden, had me hooked in a way that trailers just don't any more. Really, I usually show up in spite of the trailers because they're just chock full of spoilers. But documentary trailers, perhaps because they're not just bait to get you to come see your favorite masses of flesh dance in front of a bluescreen, tend to be a little bit more hook-y. (Like the Afternoon of a Faun trailer teases its dark twist excellently.)

And then, when it came out? Audiences were not thrilled and critics were sort of tepid, levelling that worst of all documentary critiques: long, plodding, slow, slog. But you can't always trust the first reviews, and the film has settled at a near 80% on RT for critics (though only a 67% for audiences). (UPDATE: Currently at 78/72.)

It is nearly two hours, but except for one (very good, but not entirely germane) digression of a young girl who thought she'd escaped the Galapagos only to end up spending her life there, it is not overlong. The interstitials between the dramatic story points are turtles and giant lizards and other fauna, but the movie never descends into Muscle Shoals style: "Here, have another 15 seconds of picturesque windmills" type padding.

The two hours really breezed by for me, if somewhat less so for The Boy. We both ranked it slightly under the near perfect Finding Vivian Maier but I'd put it pretty close up against that.

So, what's it about? The very essence of humanity. It's like "Gilligan's Island" on a diet of coconut milk and narcissism. In five years, seven adults alone on an island end up experience the entire gamut of existence. Well, maybe not the entire gamut so much as a hyper-malignant slice of it.

A lot of great developments that you should experience as you go, so I'll just outline the broad strokes:

A Nietzsche loving doctor leaves his family, and runs off with a besotted would-be intellectual woman (who also leaves her family) to the Galapagos so that he can live in solitude and work on his philosophy.

But just any old Galapagos island isn't isolated enough for this guy. No, he picks a completely empty island on which to meditate. Since he's interested in divesting himself of emotions, and not so much the lovey-dovey stuff, she quickly gets bored and since she is not really an intellectual, and positively disdainful of such bourgeois things as homemaking, she becomes a kind of pain in his ass.

Meanwhile, the newspapers are going nuts over these two, and their crazy nudist cult of satanism. (Seriously, the many varied ways the newspapers sensationalize and misrepresent this story to move copies is positively familiar.)

But this does prompt an interested science vessel to stop by and deliver some much needed 20th century luxuries to our inept intellectuals. This will be important later.

If things weren't crowded enough with the two of them on this 67 square mile island, it's not long before two more people show up! Another couple! And, horror of horrors, they're utterly bourgeois. (Their motivation appears to have been to get away from Hitler and the rising Nazi menace.)

It turns out that the new husband chose the island specifically because he knew the doctor was on it and his wife is pregnant.

Well, there goes the neighborhood. The doctor leads them to some caves far, far away from the little shack near the beach he and his live in.

The middle-class couple, presumably because they weren't trying to escape their values, immediately set about and make their little cave hospitable, and are soon thriving on the little island. This stokes some resentment among the intellectual class.

But the fun's not over. One more set of arrivals rounds out the cast. We have intellectuals and working folk, and last arrives royalty. A woman who calls herself a baroness shows up with her two husbands and lays claim to most or all of the island.

Now, obviously, no one with any real claim to a title strands themselves on an island far off the coast of Ecuador, but the Baroness manages to be convincing or charismatic (or possibly just slutty) enough to virtually win over every man she meets. And I guess we should be grateful since the documentary has copious footage due to her ambitions.

The papers go crazy again with her arrival, making up pulp level fiction about her activities.

And, in one of my favorite parts, when the science ship comes back, this time loaded with gifts for our intellectuals, she becomes furiously jealous and demands that the goods be distributed evenly among the island's occupants.

You can't make this stuff up. But you don't have to, because humans are ridiculously predictable, at least when it comes to behaving badly.

To add to the sordidness the Baroness brings is her two "husbands", one of whom is clearly, practically and literally a cuckold.

It's just an amazing, amazing story. I like to think that any random three couples on a desert island would most likely form a community and help each other out, and that it was just a particularly unfortunate mix. (People on other islands fared better.)

But as the movie comes close to saying, "Wherever you go, there you are."

So, using the Bit Maelstrom three-point documentary scale:

1. Subject matter. Obviously, I loved it. Though the characters are of no great note, they are very human indeed. I think it's impossible not to relate to this on some level, even as we laugh. (It reminds, somewhat, of the great King of Kong.)

2. Presentation. Very, very good. It could've been tighter. If all but the story of the seven adults on Floreana were excised, and a lot of the commentary, it could've come in 10-15 minutes shorter, probably.

3. Spin. This is one of those cases where, if there were any spin, you'd have to already know the subject coming in. It's possible, I suppose, but I didn't detect it.

It's been a great year for documentaries (Maier, Jodorowsky, The Last of the Unjust, Tim's Vermeer, etc.) and this fits in among the best. And unlike some of the others, you only need an interest in humanity to find this one fascinating.

The Railway Man

It's been a weird Spring. I mean, Spring is always a little weird for movies, since it lasts from about the end of Oscars (March 1st-ish) to the first Friday in May (the 2nd, this year). And in this little narrow space go all the flicks that don't fit into the summer scheme of things, but that which aren't considered likely award candidates for next year.

In this particular Spring, however, there are all these movies that look interesting, and some that look like pure award bait—but which end up horribly received by critics and audiences. Like Walking With The Enemy, which looks to be an amazing story of a guy who pretends to be a Nazi to rescue his family from the Germans in WWII, has been hovering around 50% at Rotten Tomatoes since it came out.

The Railway Man was modestly reviewed (hovering around 70%), but it was our best bet, so The Boy and I gamely trundled off to see it.

And it's really quite good!

The story concerns Eric (the always sensitive Colin Firth) who seems like a nerdy fellow greatly interested in trains. And who, in fact, uses his mastery of trains to woo the lovely Patti (Nicole Kidman). But we quickly learn that his apparent nerdiness originates in his wartime experiences, and are far deeper than occasional social awkwardness.

Eric's pal Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) is similarly distraught, though not particularly informative. Most of what we learn is told in flashbacks, where the young Eric (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse, Great Expectations) and Finlay (Sam Reid) are captured in the South Pacific and enslaved by the Japanese to build a railway.

In this earlier time, Eric's love of railways lands him in no small trouble, as the increasingly paranoid and brutal Japanese mistake his interest for espionage.

Which may be, come to think of it, why the critics are so meh about this film: It portrays the Japanese as brutal monsters. And, though it doesn't come close to showing the true extent of their brutality in WWII, it's enough to make the white guilt kick in, I suppose.

But really, the principals are doing what they do best: Firth is tormented, barely functional and yet impossibly appealing to women. Kidman is super-girlfriend/wife who refuses to just let him work it out for himself. Skarsgard is the brooding guy whose nationality is whatever, but who just has to be Swedish given how dark he is. And Irvine is the bright-eyed young fellow whom the world is about to kick in the teeth repeatedly till he ends up looking like Colin Firth.

Good acting. Fine direction. At first the telling of the story in flashbacks was a little jarring but, I think, primarily because you're not sure what sort of movie it is going in. It's really kind of a PTSD movie.

They could've stayed in present time, but the flashbacks give you some sense of what Eric endured. Frankly, I've seen enough movies that consisted entirely of Firth staring sensitively off into the distance, however good he is at it.

The Boy was very pleasantly surprised, as was I. It's an engaging, even uplifting story, and it's based on the stories of Eric Lomax, much like Bridge on the River Kwai was. (OK, it's not Kwai level, certainly, but it's a story worth telling.)

Surprise Spring recommendation from Casa 'strom.

Joe

"Oh, Nicolas Cage, don't you go all Nicolas Cage on us!"
"I won't."
"Nicolas Cage, are you going all nanners on us?"
"I'm not. I'm fine."
[violence and bloodshed ensues]
"Nicolas Cage, you went all nanners on us!"

That's my (poor) impression of The Boy upon learning about Joe, the new film from David Gordon Green (most normally associated with comedies, like Pineapple Express and The Sitter).

Of course, the Boy does Cage's voice as well (even if it does sound a little like his Nixon).

However, whether you get "Stoic Nic Cage" and "Nanners Nic Cage", you know he's not going to mail in his performance. If the general public finds his choices of movie roles confounding, I think he says to himself things like: "How would a guy whose head explodes into flames react to this?"

In other words, he likes a challenge.

Nonetheless, he has an essential Cage-iness, and if you don't like him, you're not going to like Joe. If you do like him, or you only like him in his less absurd roles, on the other hand, this may be the movie for you.

Similar in some ways to last year's Mud, in terms of number of syllables in the title among other things, Joe is the story of young Gary (also the lead in Mud) who's out looking for work to support his family. But where Ellis' family was essentially middle class, if on hard times, Gary's family is essentially homeless, having squatted in an abandon house outside of town.

And whereas women were the source of all of Ellis' problems, Gary's problem is his abusive drunk of a father, whose main competency appears to beating him, his catatonic mother and his autistic-ish sister.

Gary's a decent sort, who gets a hard manual labor job with Joe killing trees. This was really kind of interesting, like an episode of "Dirty Jobs": These guys chop a gash out of a tree then pump the gash full of some kind of deadly cocktail. (They do this to clear out unwanted trees so that the landowner can plant wanted ones. It's, like, a metaphor.)

Gary's a good worker and Joe likes him. Joe instantly apprehends the situation with drunk, abusive father as well, but Joe keeps his nose out of things. Mostly.

Joe's got a lot of problems himself; he seems to be kept afloat by sheer work ethic and above-average intelligence. But he's got a rivalry with a local ne'er-do-well that's escalating. And with the cops. And with the dog at the local whorehouse.

Yeah, that was one thing that didn't strike me as realistic about this: This is some kind of one-horse town outside of Austin but the hookers were really good looking.

Anyway.

This movie is powered by several effective sources of dramatic tension: Gary is clearly the sort of kid who will do well, if not stopped by his father, but apart from getting drunk, his father's sole purpose in life seems to be to grind everyone else down, and the big question is will Gary find an out (for his sister and mother as well) before Dad hits rock-bottom and drags them with him.

Meanwhile, Joe has an oddly similar relationship with society in general: He could do very well if left alone, but society is constantly poking at him, challenging him, daring him to just try to make something of himself. Is he going to go Nanners Nic Cage? Or will he stay Stoic Nic Cage?

It's a very good film, really, and Mr. Cage is very good in it. Tye Sheridan continues to impress. And the rest of the cast, which is largely little known extras, also does a convincing job.

The Boy liked it a great deal, preferring it even to Mud due largely to the wide variety of colorful characters. I come down more on the side of Mud but I find no serious fault with this film.

Here's to hoping director Green continues on this path in the future.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

13 Sins

Elliot is a nice guy. A devoted boyfriend, brother, son and soon-to-be father, swamped by student loan bills and suddenly out of work, when a mysterious phone call (that manages its own ring tone somehow) offers him fifty bucks if he'll swat a fly.

Discovering the money instantly dropped into his account, Elliot is intrigued. Then disgusted as he offered substantially more money to eat the fly.

Then the voice tells him he's part of a game show: For each task he completes, he will receive increasingly larger sums of money, up to a total of $6.2 million dollars.

Well, sure, who wouldn't agree to such a sweet deal?

For one, anyone who'd ever been to the movies, who knows that the "challenges" are going to not just get harder, but increasingly humiliating and/or dangerous and morally reprehensible.

Elliot, however, has never been to the movies so he signs up. And once you've signed up, there's no way out, of course. Soon he's looking not just at losing all the money he's supposedly won, but also losing his life.

This is a tight little thriller, well done, and reasonably fun given a kind of mean-ness that generally underlies these kinds of scripts, and a couple of twists that are especially mean. It's brisk, short and there's a fair amount of suspense though, obviously, you have to increasingly suspend your disbelief, since the game "hosts" need to have a supernatural control over the world and environment in order for the whole thing to play out.

Kind of like The Box, if you remember that one, though this is considerably more successful artistically.

Not commercially, sadly. I'd say it's going to be overlooked but it already has been: It had a tiny release and we only saw it because it got one late showing at our local theater.

Confident direction from Daniel Stamm (The Last Exorcism), sensitive performances from Mark Weber (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Devon Graye ("Dexter") as Weber's handicapped brother. Tom Bower plays their despicable father with a palpable venom. Rutina Wesley plays the warm, down-to-earth girlfriend.

Ron Perlman, the Beast his-own-self, plays a detective who suspects something larger is afoot.

The Boy approved which means that the movie won him over enough to allow him to suspend disbelief.

Remake of Thai movie: 13: Game of Death.

Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq

After Vivian Maier, it was unlikely that we'd see a better, or even nearly as good, documentary, but the non-documentary stuff coming out has been uninspiring at best. I couldn't convince The Flower to come, since she's decided she's seen enough ballet-based documentaries. (That would be one, apparently: 2012's wonderful First Position. She liked that, but, yeah, she's picky.)

I was unfamiliar with "Tanee La-Clare" as she was most often referred to here, but the trailer hinted at some dark disaster that struck her down at the height of her career. Murder? Blacklisting? Gaining 6 ounces?!

Nope. None of those. And I won't spoil it.

But it's a doozy.

The story is told in old filmed footage of her performances (and just hanging around) and it appears some stock footage is thrown in there, with oral histories of the people who knew and loved her. Ballet documentaries are always so full of drama, and this is no exception, with old feelings welling up from 60 years ago.

So, how's it rate?

1) Subject matter: Well, if you are interested in ballet, I have to imagine this is a big deal. Le Clercq apparently was the inspiration for George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, whom you also presumably are familiar with. (I was vaguely aware of Balanchine, though I know Robbins from his stage plays that were turned into movies.)

Even if you're not, well, here's a story of an usual, strong woman who faced terrible indignities and cruelties in life, with considerable grace. So quit whining.

2) Presentation: Just a hair long. When we learn the terrible news of Le Clercq's fate, the footage is stock: Ballerina legs, plieing over and over again to some discordant music. Yes, it's horrible and ironic. No, we don't need to see stock footage, and you don't need to pound that chord 20 times.

Maybe someone more into the dance thing would've needed the time to recover from the shock, but I was more interested in what happened next than wallowing in it.

This is a relatively minor point, though. There really isn't much padding in this film. And just when you think it's gonna run long, it's over (at about 90 minutes).

3) Spin: Well, I can't really speak to that. How big was Ms. Le Clercq? She was tall, but that's neither here nor there. The movie kind of banged on the "she's so beautiful" drum a whole lot, which I didn't really see. She was elegant and lovely, sure, but there were prettier girls in the same classes (at least IMO).

Now she clearly, clearly had no small measure of charisma. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, I think the movie would've been better served by a somewhat less infatuated view. It's actually fairly late on before I really got the sense of the depth of her charisma (to say nothing of her character).

But I'm not a ballet-person. Maybe it's obvious to such.

I was rather interested in the George/Tanaquil/Jerome love triangle. La Clercq's true love appears to have been Balanchine, a classic alpha male, aloof and brilliant, but for a brief moment willing to turn a girl into the center of his white-hot attention.

Meanwhile, Robbins, who was probably much the same in many regards, was way more beta when it came to Le Clercq. He poured out his heart, and she reciprocated, at least in writing, while keeping him at arm's length. But then, she's heartbroken when he's not there for her in her time of need. (Their relationship seems to have closed on a rocky note.)

But again, a relatively minor point: It's a good, interesting story well-told.

Finding Vivian Maier

This is a near perfect documentary. Between this and Tim's Vermeer (which technically counts as a 2013 documentary), Jodorowsky's Dune and The Galapagos Affair, the documentaries are kicking butt already in 2014.

This is an oral history/investigative documentary looking into the life of Vivian Maier. Who's Vivian Maier? Well, that's what makes this achievement all the greater. You've never heard of her (well, probably not yet at this point in time) and so it's up to documentarian John Maloof to: explain who she is; explain why we should care.

Maloof stumbled on this adventure a few years ago (2006 or 2007) when, in looking for vintage photos for a book, he won a chest full of negatives at an auction. Thousands of pictures, mostly undeveloped, spanning decades. He immediately went and located the other two chests that hadn't been won, and found himself in possession of tens of thousands (ultimately around 150,000!) of photos and negatives all taken by this person, Vivian Maier, who apparently took some delight in being mysterious and coming up with creative spellings for her name.

I'm no photography expert, but these photos—at least the ones shown in the movie—are as good as any I've ever seen.

Maloof embarks on two projects. The first is discovering who she is or was, which might largely be considered finished by this documentary; the second is getting her life's work recognition. Her photographs are extremely popular (per the movie, and per my own eyeballs, which found them wonderful even as photography is not something that usually grabs me) but he must navigate the artifices of the art community, which is traditionally more interested in politics and protecting their phony-baloney jobs.

The film may help there, however, too, for she is a compelling character: Secretive in the extreme, managing to take all these pictures with none of her families ever really putting together the scope of her activities. Quirky, funny, eccentric, but also cruel and brooding and a hoarder and, in the end, of questionable sanity.

Recalling the three-point system for evaluating docs:

1) Subject Matter: It's always great to have a documentary about subject matter you wouldn't think much of, or you wouldn't think would grab you, only to have it grab you. That Maier was genius makes for more important subject matter than you might have thought going in, and that she was so human make for more compelling subject matter than perhaps expected.

2) Presentation: Maloof, with assistance from Charlie Siskel (Bowling for Columbine, Religulous), does an expert job telling the story plainly with most of the Maier info coming from her now grown (and aged) charges. An oral history, mostly, with Maloof providing clues that he sussed out on his own. But mostly, he lets the "kids" stories stand as a testament to the person.

3) Spin: Maloof is obviously sympathetic, as well as a big booster of Maier's art, but he doesn't let that turn this movie into a hagiography. He lets the darkness and tragedy come through—though without letting that swamp the positive aspects of the story.

The whole thing is jam-packed into 80 minutes with zero padding and yet still not feeling rushed. Of all the ways this story could've gone, when you think about the most likely ending: That Maier's photos are destroyed and her story not known, it's easy to feel a sense of wonder that this treasure trove should fall into the hands of a dedicated archivist.

Then it becomes easy to wonder if there are other Vivian Maiers out there, whose genius have gone into the furnace or landfill, never to be found.

I only wished The Old Man had been around to see it. He loved photography.

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