Sunday, January 25, 2015

2 Days, 1 Night

Marion Cotillard has a bad case of ennui. Real bad. So bad that she had to spend four months in the funny farm getting semi-un-ennui-ed (constructions like this is why robots will never speak English) only to find on the eve of returning to work, that her co-workers have opted to have her position eliminated rather than lose their year-end bonus.

She has 2 Days, 1 Night (or Deux jour, une nuit in the original, apparently inaccessible French) to reverse that vote!

Usually, when I say "I know, right? French!" in these reviews. I'm referring to some sort of sexual deviance that has been normalized by our frisky Gallic pals, but in this case, let us ponder the situation of a heroine who has been collecting a paycheck for doing nothing for four months, but for whom we are supposed to root, as she goes to inflict hardship on each of her co-workers, both emotionally and financially, after a four month period where her absence was already presumably a problem.

I know, right? French! Or more accurately, Belgian, but French Belgian, not the cool Flemish Belgian.

It's a testament to the Dardenne brothers (The Kid With A Bike) that this works at all.

@uncommentari once mentioned, in reference to some of the more difficult movies The Boy and I see, some puzzlement over the fact that we seem to enjoy these experiences, many of which cannot be considered pleasant. Well, sometimes we do and sometimes we don't, depending on the skill of the participants, the purpose of the unpleasantness, and the attitude of the execution.

For example, some horror movies are just unpleasant because it's easier to be unpleasant than scary and they don't really know the difference. I don't want to go see Haneke (The White Ribbon, Amour) movies because his goal seems to be punishing the audience. (Not enlighten or cause to empathize, but just punish.)

This is not the most unpleasant of film experiences but, let me tell you, you will feel all 90 minutes of it, as Sandra (Cotillard) drags herself across the countryside from family to family, humiliated and depressed the whole way.

It works, though, because Sandra isn't looking for pity. Ultimately she's just asking her co-workers to fire her to her face, which is something you should be able to do, if you're going to be voting to fire people. It's hard, but it has a heroic character to it as, let's face it, she hasn't really shaken her ennui, popping Xanax like Tic-Tacs.

But she has a character arc, Hollywood-ized up a bit, and you do end up liking her. (Cotillard has an extra barrier to deal with in my case, since people have been gushing about her since La Vie En Rose, which was really unpleasant.) I wondered if perhaps the Dardennes had actually told everyone else to dial back the acting, since this is the Marion Show, and even though her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione, The Kid on a Bike) is constantly around, he's just very low key.

I could understand "keeping it together", of course, but he never seems to look like he's suppressing any emotion, just that he's—well, he comes off sort of dumb, somehow. Your mileage may vary.

The other actors are fine and the ending is satisfying (though perhaps not with the same resonance to an American), and I ultimately walked away from this pondering the socialist/Cotillard balance of our critic class. 'cause ultimately, they love this film, even though it's a pretty damning indictment of socialism.

Sure, you could say the evil capitalist (a solar panel manufacturer) forced his employees to make an inhuman choice, but it's actually pretty clear by the end that it was necessary to cut costs, and Sandra's four month paid vacation made it clear that 16 people could do the job as well as 17.

Which, duh.

But a running theme throughout the movie is that people don't want to be on the dole. It's shameful. It's degrading. The big threat for Sandra and Manu is that they'll have to move back to whatever the Belgian equivalent of The Projects is.

And these are all skilled laborers. Welding is mentioned at one point, though I'm not sure it's what they all do. But these skilled laborers are agonizing over 1,000€, which means they're all torturing themselves over the equivalent of $300-$600 (after taxes, which are obscene in Belgium).

Meanwhile, a bunch of them do stuff "on the black", presumably working illegally, doing things like repairing cars or stocking shelves or whatever. The Dardennes may think they're being critical of capitalism, but they're honest enough to just tell the story and let you think and feel what you want.

My initial thought was that management that forces workers to choose between co-workers and bonuses (a real thing) are terrible management (and the movie paints considerable ambiguity on the who-did-what-to-whom plot points) but then I thought, well, why not force workers to make the hard choices that have to be made?

Especially in socialist countries where "management" is painted as the enemy of "labor" (as if they were different), I can see a certain value in forcing childish we-should-all-be-hired-forever-with-pay-raises-and-ponies to make the hard calls.

Fortunately, all that is incidental to the real story, which is about Sandra. And which is good.

But not easy to watch.

The Imitation Game

I've always known of Alan Turing as "the father of modern computing"—the guy who first described certain things in certain ways which have proven to be useful, certainly. The recent Weinstein movie about Turing, The Imitation Game, suggests that he invented "Turing machines", and those are just another name for computers, which is the sort gross inaccuracy you expect from a Hollywood film about a gay genius.

I had some reticence about seeing this film, because I was worried they were going to turn a story about a gay computer guy (there are many) into a story about a gay guy who worked on computers. Which, frankly, it's a trivialization of anyone to reduce them to their sexuality.

They do do this, actually, but do it so well, you'll hardly notice it's being done.

This is a slickly made pseudo-biopic centered primarily around Turing's work at Bletchley Park, where the German code was cracked in WWII. It's taut, dramatic, fun to watch, and wholly fictional both in terms of details and big story elements.

Turing's contributions are exaggerated. . His social eccentricities are turned into severe liabilities (they weren't). He's presented as a loner (he wasn't). He's presented as a man pining for a lost childhood love (maybe?), so much so that he names his computer after him (it wasn't). He's blackmailed into silence by a Soviet spy over his homosexuality (who knows?). He's punched (he wasn't) by the very hetero guy for making a statement about hiding intelligence (never his call). They present him as having killed himself (experts disagree) during court-mandated hormone treatment (it had ended over a year prior to his death) which crippled him intellectually (it didn't).

He's outed as a homosexual when cops come to investigate a robbery of his house (never happened) on a neighbor's noise complaint (not a thing) which he didn't report because of his homosexuality. That was a stretch.

The producers have said people get hung up over accuracy, when they're not going for accuracy, they're just trying to present to the audience what it was like to be Alan. I disagree: they've made a composite gay-experience guy and put him in Turing's body.

Like I said, though, this largely works, dramatically, even if it feels overly slick at times. Where it rang false was in their portrayal Commander Denniston, who ran Bletchley park for the first years of the war. He's sort of the stock "angry dean" character of college comedies, the closest people in Hollywood seem to come to understanding military types. I can believe that Denniston didn't get the nerds in Hut 8; I can't believe that he would do anything to jeopardize the war effort, just because (as the movie has it) he didn't like someone. That's not how non-emotionality-based-organizations work.

Not that I'd expect anyone in a Hollywood "idea room" to get that.

It's sort of like when a character is expected to let his brother die rather than let out information, and he cries and complains about it. That just doesn't seem very British to me. At least, not the British of WWII. But those guys are mostly not around any more, and a movie has to be made for the audience that's here, right?

Yes, I'm being highly critical, but I say to you: We liked it. It's a good movie. You're probably not gonna care about this stuff. I really didn't much until after the movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch is fine, as always. Keira Knightly passes for a homely computer nerd. That evil Lannister guy is the evil Commander. The always great Mark Strong (The Guard, Green Lantern, Zero Dark Thirty) has a great role as a presumably entirely fictitious MI6 agent who acts as a sort of deus ex machina.

It is, as @juleslalaland has noted, a fine season for actors in projects that don't rise to the same level of skill.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Wild

This is only the fourth woman-on-a-journey movie we've seen in the past year, and only the third that involved actual walking, but this is the first one to feature naked Reese Witherspoon. The other three were On My Way with Catherine Deneuve (she drove), Redwood Highway with Shirley Knight, and Tracks with Mia Wasikowska. It's the last that has the most in common with Wild, and not just because Mia also got naked.

In Tracks—based on a true story, like Wild—a woman walks across the desert because she's troubled, to some degree or another. Tracks is interesting despite not going into the details much. Wild is the opposite: The whole thing is a search for "why"s.

Why does she have to do this? Why did she do all those drugs and have all that anonymous sex? Why is Reese Witherspoon still playing teens and 20-somethings?

The Boy, who wouldn't know Ms. Witherspoon from any other big turn-of-the-century actress (having only seen her in Mud) leaned in at one point to say "She's, like, in her thirties or something, right?" during one of the scenes where she was playing a college student. (I think she's gotten better looking with age, but she doesn't look young.)

It's important because the age at which one has this sort of life crisis pretty dramatically impacts how we feel about the character. The movie's flashbacks are kind of confusing because they're not in order and they completely omit certain things, like Cheryl's marriage, except in terms of the wreckage she's made of it.

But the other thing the Boy whispered to me, early on, was something like "I'm not hating my life choices," which is fairly high praise given that this is the sort of movie that could be awful. In fact from the trailers, it could hardly not be awful, since they cast it as sort of an Eat, Pray, Love thing where an awful woman finds excuses for being awful, and finds it's mostly other awful people's fault.

(N.B., I'm guessing since I wouldn't go see Eat, Pray, Love with your eyeballs.)

Still, it works. Mostly.

Why? I think because it's mostly free of bullshit. There are times when our heroine seems to blame her bad behavior on her mother's death, e.g., but in the end she seems to find—well, I don't know, maybe the ending is bullshit, but I guess it worked for her.

This brings me back to Tracks, which works because the journey is the point. This is true of Wild as well, even though there's all this supporting material. And, frankly, it works because Witherspoon is good. But this has always been in her wheelhouse: Good-hearted characters who are flawed, even highly flawed, but still appealing.

She has to carry the movie, and pretty much does. Laura Dern has really the only other serious role in the movie as her mother, and the two play off each other as mother-and-daughter perfectly (despite only being less than ten years apart *kaff*). This part works very well, because we see Cheryl at her worst in a lot of ways, but in a way that is more relatable, perhaps, than the drug addiction/promiscuity thing.

Your mileage may vary, of course.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby (About A Boy, An Education) and director Jean-Marc ValleƩ (Dallas Buyer's Club) have done a good job here, as did producer Reese Witherspoon in sponsoring a project that showcased her talents.

John Wick

"They'll know you're coming," the Russian mob boss says to Keanu Reeves, who is planning an all out assault on the well-guarded safe house containing the mob boss's son.

"It won't matter," says John Wick, the slayer of boogie men, ne plus ultra assassin supreme, all 'round badass who just wants to go straight, you guys, but they killed his puppy.

And indeed it doesn't in John Wick, the story of John Wick, a guy who is really good at killing stuff. The reported body count is 84. It might be more. It's hard to tell in all the excitement.

This is the sort of man-vs-mob movie that every action hero does occasionally and Liam Neeson does two or three times a ye—oh, look, Taken 3 is out. Anyway, I think this is a first for Keanu, who's normally paired off against robots or unicorns or samurai or what-not. Well, I think so: I haven't seen Keanu in a movie since The Lake House.

There's not really much to say about a movie like this, except that if you like this sort of movie, you'll probably like this instance of this sort of movie. The freshman effort by stuntman Chad Stahelski is stylish, fast-paced, with great fight choreography and a lot of fun touches. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad, whose last big feature had Steve Austin playing Tommy Wick (brothers?) creates an underworld mythology where everyone knows who John Wick is.

Everyone except the boss's kid, played by "Game Of Thrones" Alfie Allen, that is, who starts the whole ball rolling. Wick almost immediately figures it out with the help of local chop-shop impresario, John Leguizamo. Mob boss (Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist, who's an actor I'm coming to like more and more, the more I see him) tries to quell things in between trying to kill Wick.

Other supporting players include Willem Dafoe as a hitman, Adriane Palicki (who played Wonder Woman in the attempted reboot),  Iane McShane as a saloon keeper, and Bridget Moynahan as the disembodied voice of the late Mrs. Wick. I mean, really, she's barely in the film but she gets pretty high billing.

I liked it. The Boy is hard to get to this kind of movie, because it's a fine line between stupid and clever and all that, so I ended up sneaking in the last showing of this while he was otherwise occupied. (I think he would've liked it.)

But as someone who went to most of the Schwarzenegger movies in the '80s and quite a few of the clones, I can say this was in the same ballpark, but really a lot better than most of those.

Into The Woods

The Flower is particularly reticent to see any films involving fairy tales, owing to, shall we say, strong opinions on the topic. But when I told her that Into The Woods included the oft-omitted portion of Cinderella wherein the evil stepsisters mutilate their feet (in order to be able to fit into the golden shoe) and they also have their eyes plucked out, she was much pleased and averred she might be interested after all.

And that's the sort of musical this is. A Stephen Sondheim musical. You know, like Sweeney Todd, though without the cannibalism somehow. It was a bit edgier 30 years ago, when post-Disney fairy tales and folklore were making a literary resurgence (or so it seemed to me at the time).

The story combines a number of fairy tales: A baker and his wife, barren, make a deal with a witch to collect four items from the woods in exchange for a child: A red cloak, a milky white cow, hair as gold as corn and a golden slipper. This puts them on a collision course with Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk), Rapunzel and Cinderella.

It's remarkable to note, at first, how faithful to the source material the first act is, despite tying all the stories together. (The character of The Mysterious Man, from the stage version, has been removed, with The Baker basically taking his parts, from what I can tell. Snow White is also written out.) It's also remarkable to note how tightly plotted it all is, with the characters motivations and actions leading logically one to the next. On top of that, the initial theme (the bittersweet character of growing up) is both very fitting and nicely done.

It hits the fan in the second act, of course, when the Happily Ever After turns out to be fraught with consequences, disappointments, and blamestorming.

It's not great. It's good, though. The clever parts, the plot, the machinery of the story, if you will, hang together admirably well—one wishes we could see more of this sort of attention to detail in all movies—but the emotional parts make sense without being very moving. That's not quite fair: The emotional parts work great on the back-burner; you can see why the people act how they do, for the most part, and you can empathize with it.

But the arias where they express their feelings, which are often the high points of opera/musical theater, didn't really work, at least not for me. Interestingly enough, I had a similar reaction to Burton's interpretation of Sweeney Todd, where I didn't find the stage presentation to be lacking at all emotionally.

The cast is good. Well, dramatically. Well, let's say they're better than Les Miserables. And let us also concede that casting movie musicals is just like casting animation: Actors are selected for their perceived drawing power, not any musical ability.

Meryl Streep takes the Bernadette Peters Witch role, which both reduces the musicality of the part and takes some of the "wow" out when she transforms from an old hag to a—well, not an old hag. But at least she's the only cast member of Mamma Mia! here.

Emily Blunt (the Baker's Wife) survives her role. Barely. Johnny Depp's (The Wolf) role is mercifully short. James Corden (The Baker) is fresh off pretending to sing in One Chance. Tracey Ullman (Jack's Mom) was the only one whose singing voice I could actually identify. Oh, and Anna Kendrick looked and sounded like she maybe could've been Cinderella on stage.

Dramatically, they're all fine, even Ms. Streep, whose affected style is actually appropriate in this circumstance. But just like Le Miz, you're gonna wanna not listen to the original cast in the vicinity of this.

The Boy and I enjoyed it. We didn't have any particular attachment to the original, though. I could see it again if The Flower decided she wanted to see it. But I can't help feeling a great opportunity was missed here.

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