Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Above and Beyond

Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain are back! What, you didn't know they were gone? You didn't know who they were, even? Well, let me put you some knowledge: The two collaborated on the wonderful Hava Nagila some years ago, and have now put together an entertaining and stirring documentary on the Israeli Air Force at the dawn of that countries creation.

The Boy and I loved this. The story of Israel is one of the great underdog stories of all time, as a bunch of scrappy, beat-up Jews managed to reclaim their ancestral homeland outnumbered by orders of magnitude by a virulent mix of ancient enemies mixed with a virulent progressive philosophy (Muslims inspired by Naziism).

The story begins when the British, sympathetic to the Jews' plight post-WWII but not so sympathetic as wanting to alienate all the oilarabs in the Middle East punt the question of the Jewish homeland to the UN. The UN reaches the pinnacle of its existence by voting to give the Jews their homeland back, and then doing nothing as the surrounding Muslim nations plan to invade once the British withdraw.

In anticipation of the attack, the future Israelis scramble to assemble an air force. The US has tons of planes just rotting, but—despite having voted for the homeland—immediately bans the export of all weapons to Palestine. Then a funny thing happens: A lot of air force pilots, mostly of Jewish descent but not particularly religious and very American, decide the Jews have been kicked around enough, and join the struggle.

Since the U.S. Air Force—and this is particularly awesome—has a "buy a plane on the cheap" plan for former pilots, one of them buys a dozen and sets up a fake cargo company that hops around the world to avoid detection of their real motives. There's a particular joy in hearing all these 90-year-old vets recount their world travels as handsome young flyboys in Panama, Rome and finally...Czechoslovakia.

The Czechs are eager to help the Israelis, or at least eager to sell them abandoned Messerschmitt 109 fighters. Or, to be even more precise, sell them flying jalopies cobbled together from 109s and whatever spare parts (including bomber engines) they had lying around.

As the Arab invasion begins, the Israelis have three of these planes, and about half-an-hour training.

It's just a great story of heroism, luck (both good and bad), and questions of purpose and meaning (especially for the secular Jews who find themselves key to Israel's survival). Grossman and Sartain tell the story in a almost-too-short 90 minutes, alternating between showing us the interviewees, some stock footage and some recreations.

On the three-point scale:

1. Importance of topic: Awesomely important.

2. Delivery: Simple, straightforward, but not dry. The mix of approaches keeps us interested. The stories are like the ones your grandfather would tell, only cooler and with a point.

3. Bias: It's a one-sided story. Pro-Israel. Pro Air Force. Pro-Israeli Air Force. Personally, I don't see any need for "balance" here. From the moment of its inception, the Arabs have hated the notion of Jews having a right to exist in their own country. They were never interested in peace, and the fact that tiny little Israel kicks their asses at every turn delights me.

Bonus points for Surprise Pee-Wee Herman, whose father was one of the original pilots.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Big Hero 6

There is this heartfelt moment in the new Disney superhero cartoon, Big Hero 6, where two characters have an emotional talk about what has happened and how things are going to play in the future. At the end of this, I leaned into The Boy and whispered, "And that's why you have to die!"

15 seconds later, the character was dead.

Peak superhero, people. The tropes are so well ironed out they're virtually incapable of surprising. But, hey, the Western dominated films for at least 40 years, so I guess we could have 25 more years of this.

So, as far as these sorts of movies go, this is a good example of one. Our hero is an orphan living with his aunt who teams up with a medical robot and some nerdy friends to avenge a crime. The supporting team is pretty one-dimensional, but at least they have a dimension. The lead kid's fine. It's all pretty affable with some passable action and good humor.

Beymax? The medical robot pressed into service as a crime-fighter? Pretty much perfect. No point in arguing it. In a future world of hyper-geniuses too dumb to have invented fire extinguishers, Beymax stands out as actually reasonably believable (and adorable) technology.

Sanfransokyo is nice, too, and not New York, which is nice.

The other outstanding aspect of this film is the character movement. CGI "actors" went through several phases: First they didn't move at all, except in stilted Frankensteinian lurches, looking creepy. Next they exaggerated minor motions, breathing with their shoulders and waving their hands like drunken Italian stereotypes. Then it was kind of (traditional) cartoony affair, with the exaggerations feeling a little more artistic and less a product of technology.

Here, it's completely natural. It's comic at times, of course, but it's the comic of a Buster Keaton instead of a Bugs Bunny.

Well, look, I'm an animation geek (and a computer geek). This stuff impresses me. It vanishes quickly as we get spoiled, but I'm calling it: This is another perfect aspect of the film.

There's a nice touch in the beginning whereby you're set up for a really traditional villain/hero thing, but it quickly becomes apparent the villain isn't who you're supposed to think it is. (And thank God for that, as it's an eye-rollingly tired cliché.) At the same time, it's not really a surprise when you learn who the real villain is, because who else could it be?

The means of defeating The Big Bad was good, too, I thought, not one of these typical "Well, they fight until the scene is over" scenarios that superhero movies do. The villain has a weakness that's inherent in his power, and they figure it out. (I hope knowing that the villain is defeated isn't a spoiler. Also, you are an alien if it is.)

There's nothing wrong with it. The Boy was tempted to class it as "one of those movies that an alien would make if he came to earth and tried to pretend to be human" but that's not fair. It is good, it's just utterly by-the-numbers.

The Barb, of course, loved it. I liked it okay.

I also liked the short at the front of the film. It may win an Oscar.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mommy

A two-hour and twenty-minute French-Canadian film about a trashy single mom and her violent son filmed in a sort of squeeze box that looks like an iPhone video? Sign us up!

Heh.

So, yeah, there was a certain trepidation in seeing 24-year-old writer/director Xavier Dolan's intimate film of struggle and drama, but when we walked out The Boy—The Boy!—pronounced it in his Top 5 for 2014. (Said list was previously at Top 4, so hard-pressed was he to recall truly outstanding films from last year.)

Yeah, it's good. It's not for everyone for a variety of reasons, but all-in-all, it's an amazing achievement.

The setup is simple: Widowed mom Die ("dee") Després gets called down to juvie to pick up her son, who has set the cafeteria on fire and injured a kid, and the institution will no longer care for him. She loses her job as a result (at least partly, there's more going on there), and must simultaneously figure out how to get money and homeschool her wild child.

Going on welfare is straight out, interestingly, just as it was in 2 Days, 1 Night. It's almost as if some people—even in socialist paradises!—inherently realize how destructive it is to the soul to not work for one's own keep.

Anyway, Steve is no run-of-the-mill wild child, what with his penchant for setting things on fire, smashing things, groping inappropriately, and so on. Fortunately, Die's neighbor Kyla is a teacher on sabbatical who is amenable to helping her and Steve out.

Kyla has her own issues, which she never actually discusses in the film, but which can be deduced fairly easily. There's a distinct tension between her and her emotionless husband, and she's distant from her young daughter.

The free-spirited (and even chaotic) Després clan is a sort of remedy for the buttoned-down Kyla, who seems fragile but who is actually fairly broad-minded. Steve and Die trade shocking foul-mouthed barbs over the dinner table and escalate their emotions pretty quickly, and de-escalate them almost as quickly.

So, right off the bat, one of my first worries about Mommy—that it would be boring—never comes to pass. All three main characters are interesting in their own ways, and where Steve and Die's vulgarity could be tiring, there is genuine affection and good character underneath. Die's apparent trashiness belies an interesting backstory, and she's actually both acutely aware of her age (the actress herself is 54) and (at least it seemed to me) still mourning her husband, even though her philosophy doesn't really allow for moping.

One of the movie's other great achievements is making Steve likable. In the first few minutes, he's described as having committed a horrible crime, one for which his mom reflexively defends him—not by proclaiming his innocence but by blaming the victim. I mean, you don't want to say Steve is a monster, but the movie doesn't soft-pedal the severity of his problems.

It's so much the case that you have a sense of doom from the start, which the movie more-or-less encourages.

Dolan rather impressively uses his 1:1 screen ratio (they call it 1:1, but that should be a square, and this was very clearly a "portrait mode" rectangle) to create a claustrophobic, intimate feeling and at two points in the film to create huge emotional moments. And I mean, moments of real joy and heartache, which is rare enough at any aspect ratio.

The first time, he literally shows you what he's doing, as if it were Steve himself breaking free. The second time takes place in Die's head, and is one of the most heartbreaking montages I've ever seen, and it had passed before I realized what he had done. Very adept, but perhaps something he's been mulling since he filmed I Killed My Mother, his autobiographical debut film five years ago.

Yeah, I'm impressed.

The only thing that seemed gratuitous to me is that this is a semi-futuristic film: The idea is that the health law has been amended such that a parent has the legal and moral right to commit a troubled child to an institution, with no third party confirmation. (I didn't know that wasn't already possible.)

Anyway, the acting was tremendous: Anne Dorval is utterly convincing as Die, and Suzanne Clemént is moving as Kyla. Their ease together may be due to the fact that they were both also in I Killed My Mother. But, whatever, along with Antoine Olivier-Pilon, and the portrait shot, it often feels more like we're eavesdropping/spying than watching a movie.

I did not recognize Patrick Huard, Starbuck himself, as Paul, so humorless was he.

Obviously, this isn't a film for everyone, because, you know, there's a big old dysfunction right in the middle of proceedings. Despite that, there's a lot of hopefulness here, a lot of fun, a lot of melodrama amongst the actual drama and, like I said before, The Boy puts it in his top 5 for 2014, which is a pretty respectable recommendation for any such drama.

Son of a Gun

We went in semi-blind to this Austalian caper flick, Son of a Gun, and the opening moments were somewhat ominous. Young JR (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus, Maleficent) is being incarcerated, and going through the various humiliating rituals for his six month stint (which should be three with time off for good behavior). He quickly falls afoul of a jail gang that wants to rape him, against the advice of long timer Brendan (Ewan McGregor), and is rescued from a brutalization by Brendan and his gang.

Such rescue comes at a price, however, and before you know it JR has wandered into an extended edition of Grand Theft Auto.

The point, however, is that Son of a Gun is a caper flick, which isn't obvious from any of the material I saw. Caper flicks are hard. In America, it's pretty much relegated to magic, whether figuratively (as in Ocean's 11, 12 and 13) or literally (as in Now You See Me). Your anti-heroes are pretty much straight-up heroic. Maybe not perfect, but not really true anti-heroes by a long shot.

This flick, then is kind of a breath of fresh air. It's gritty without wallowing in squalor. It has its dark side, but doesn't let that get in the way of the fun, and even features a romance you want to root for. McGregor's Brendan is not completely without honor, but he's still a pretty bad dude.

It's a nice balance. It doesn't go too far into the goofy. It does encourage you to overlook things, as these films almost invariably must, being about thieves, but it doesn't insult your intelligence in doing so.

Likable performances from McGregor and Thwaites, Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina) as The Skirt, Jacek Komen (Defiance, Children of Men) as The Boss, and Damon Herriman (J. Edgar) as The Weasel.

We were really happy to have caught this: It didn't get a big release and doesn't even appear on Box Office Mojo at the moment.

Human Capital

Based on a book by American author Stephen Amidon, Human Capital (Il capitale umano) tells the story of a hit-and-run on a bicyclist. Not really, but you'd kind of get that impression from the trailers and capsules.

This is actually a semi-Rashomon type story, where we see the accident from a distance, and then experience the surrounding events from the perspectives of Dino (Fabrizio Bentvoglio), a grasping middle-class real estate agent, Carla (Valerie Bruni Tedeschi), the wife of a rich financial-type guy, and Serena (Matilde Gioli), Dino's daughter.

It's not really a Rashomon because while perspective gives us a new story with new details that change our perspective, they don't really contradict each other. In fact, if there's a key theme to this story, it's that nobody knows what's going on with other peoples' lives.

Dino starts the ball rolling: His daughter (Serena) is dating the son of the rich financial guy (Carla's husband, Giovanni), and he sees in a passing amiability the opportunity to make it big by investing with Giovanni—something he really can't afford to do.

Dino is successful, and he thinks his success is proof of his intelligence. The funny thing to me about this was that even if an investment like the one Dino made was successful, he'd still be screwed because it's illiquid.

Our second perspective is that of Carla's. She's kind of aimless until she comes across a dilapidated theater, and gets it in her head to refurbish and reopen it. Her happiness is as tied up with her husband's fortune as Dino's is, but she's perhaps even less aware of how quickly things can go sour. Giovanni is an indulgent but not attentive husband, and her frantic day filling is relieved at the prospect of having something meaningful to do.

The third story is Serena's, and it is the one that provides the key to the mysteries and the stories' ultimate resolutions. Dino's awareness of her seems to not extend beyond her relationship with Massimiliano, Giovani's son, which is also true of Carla (who is no more aware of her son's life). If Dino is motivated solely by money, and Carla by art or perhaps fame, Serena's motivation is love. If there is a ray of hope in this movie, it comes from her, even when her story doesn't go so well.

Although generally well received, the complaints I've seen have regarded the murkiness of the theme. My take on that is: So much the better. As a condemnation of capitalism, this would be stupid. As a story about people whose lives intersect in various ways, it's fine melodrama.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Interview

Speaking of hard to recommend movies, there's this hot mess of a film that landed in a political brouhaha. The Interview, a collaboration between long-time cohorts Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen.

A lot of people wanted to support this film one week, only to retract that support the next week when Rogen made an unflattering statement about American Sniper. Or America, depending on how you wanted to interpret it. I chose not to interpret it at all.

I wanted to see it in the theater on principle, but it was only out in that brief window and it was one of those weeks where I couldn't get out. In normal circumstances, I would've caught it at the bargain theater. As it is, I watched it on Netflix. I don't usually review stuff I see on Netflix, but this is a movie of some unusual interest.

The premise is simple: A shallow entertainment superstar (James Franco) and his wanna-be-better-than-that producer (Seth Rogen) get tapped by the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, to do a softball interview in NoKo. The CIA decides this is their perfect chance to kill the little runt, so they put some effort into teaching the two how it should go.

Franco's character Skylark is so dumb and so gullible, that he actually finds himself under the sway of Un, a situation that infuriates the more level-headed Rogen, when he's not pursuing the hot Korean PR officer (the very lovely Diana Bang). Ultimately this resolves to a pro-America and pro-West sentiment which, weirdly, is almost shocking.

But then, the whole thing is more than a little weird and uncomfortable and I found myself more interested in why that was so, than I was in the actual movie.

The team's previous outing, This Is The End, is weird and uncomfortable, too, but it also works somehow. Maybe because of the sort of fantasy element to the whole thing, or maybe because in that film, everyone was lampooning themselves. There's something rather endearing in a story about a group of rich actors who realize, come Judgment Day, they're mostly going right to Hell. And, hey, it's the End of the World, so the dark, broody camerawork works to achieve a funhouse effect.

But in The Interview the same type of camerawork is used, and it sits on the movie like a shroud. This is a screwball comedy shot in the style of a serious spy thriller. It reminds me, at its best, of the cinematography in Network, which this film sometimes shuffles embarrassingly around, and other times lampshades (e.g. when Rogen explains that Franco, the media, is being manipulated by Un.)

It doesn't help that, as far as I know, in real life, nobody outside of North Korea is actually fooled by Un's antics. (Dennis Rodman and Michael Moore maybe pretend to be.) So the big message is, well, it's dopey.

But the big problem is that great satire, like Network, teases your credulity, by playing things absolutely straight. Part of the game is getting your audience to go along with you as far as you can stretch them before they just reject your premise outright. (The obvious example being Swift's A Modest Proposal. You can see someone saying "You're making sense...you're making sense...you're making sense...wait, eat the what?"

The Interview absolutely refuses to treat its audience with any sort of respect in that regard. It's as though they're worried if they go five minutes without a dick joke, you'll lose interest in the film, without seeing how the tonal shifts both destroy the film's credibility on the one hand, and make the jokes fall flat on the other.

Now, that maybe wasn't a wrong choice, though nota bene that most of the other projects the two have worked on together (Funny People, Superbad, Knocked Up) don't have that problem. Interestingly enough, one that does is The Green Hornet, which would fit with the idea that there's a lack of conviction in the subject matter.

I'm criticising here, but it's not completely unredeemed. It has a strange bravura to it, like the best aspects of This Is The End. Some of the jokes work. Diana Bang is really cute. The ending is an interesting kind of twist.

A lot of people praise the Rogen/Franco chemistry, but I often found it grating here. There's a lot of graphic violence at the end, which will alienate a few people who might otherwise enjoy it. When I found myself asking "Who would like this?" I kept coming back to the answer "me". Dark, broody, satirical, over-the-top gore.

So why didn't I like it more?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Leviathan

It's not like I was expecting Mr. Smith Goes To Washington from the Oscar-nominated Russian movie Leviathan (левиафан for those of you with your Cyrillic goggles on), but I was sort of expecting something a little more akin to Twelve, where layers of self-interest are peeled back and a perverse outcome is arrived at as the best solution for the screwed-up world Russians live in.

But no: Leviathan is utterly bleak. There is no hope. Hope is mocked.

We liked it.

When the story opens, Kolia is talking with pal Dimi about an upcoming hearing: The Mayor has decided to take over his land, and Kolia is resistant, given that he built the house on his land and runs his business there, and The Mayor is offering him about 1/6th of what he considers fair value.

My capsule from the trailer was "Russian guy doesn't know he's living in Russia". But, whatever, Kolia seems to think he has property rights, and so he and Dimi have a scheme to extort the mayor so he can keep his place or at least get a good price for it.

At the only point where it looks like Kolia might have a chance, the story is instantly derailed with a melodrama involving Lilya, Kolia's pretty young wife. In fact, I started to get a little annoyed with the movie, thinking it had gone off base with this story, but it all ties together in the most horrible, cynical way imaginable.

There are no heroes in this story: Everyone knows what's going on. They're apathetic or complicit (or both). There's cowardice and betrayal. Faint glimmers of decency are swallowed almost as quickly as they appear.

One's soul cries out for a theme, a metaphor, or an understanding of some kind here, and Leviathan seems to tell us that in this modern reinterpretation of Job, the state is God, the Enemy and the Leviathan.

The ending is so dark, it makes you think Russia should be burned down and paved over with something nice, like Hell.

Beautifully shot, compellingly acted, and soul-crushingly realistic, Leviathan is a fine film I wouldn't recommend easily to anyone.

And I in no way feel smug about living in America, where this kind of thing happens all the time, and gets not so much as a mention in the papers.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Zero Motivation

If I had to sum up Zero Motivation, I'd probably call it "M*A*S*H but with hot incompetent secretaries and without anti-war pretentiousness." That kind of captures the feel, though tells you little about the actual movie.

Israel has a kind of half-hearted conscription mandating two years of service to 18 year olds—although one of the exemptions (at least these days) is "low motivation", which perhaps explains the title of this movie. But with any draft, you get a lot of people who really shouldn't be there, and when you're drafting 18-year-old girls, no one could be surprised that you're going to get some who are worse than worthless (from an organizational standpoint).

Zero Motivation is really the story of two friends, Zohar and Daffi, who are essentially experts at loafing. Zohar is the queen of Minesweeper, while Daffi (whose title is something like "Chief Shredding Officer") principally occupies herself by sneaking naps and writing letters to command about wanting to be relocated to Tel Aviv. (The girls are in a camp in the middle of the desert.)

The movie is divided into three stories: The first concerns Daffi's training of her replacement, a girl she's sure has been sent to replace her so she can be transferred to Tel Aviv. The second concerns Zohar's efforts to lose her virginity. The third follows Daffi in her scheme to relocate to Tel Aviv by virtue of going through officer's training.

Writer/director Talya Lavie keeps the proceedings light, over all, even when it touches on serious subjects. Ultimately, this is a movie about two girls and their friendship, and it could've worked similarly in a university environment or even a large enough corporation. There is less disrespect for the military than there was in M*A*S*H, or there would be in virtually any modern similarly placed American story. (I think because it's much harder to make the argument that Israel "opts in" to wars.)

Anyway, it made me laugh to beat the band. Nicely plotted, doesn't take itself too seriously, but treats its characters with respect. Zohar is played by Dana Ivgy (of the moving Next To Her), Nelly Tagar (who had a tiny role in the dark Footnote) plays Daffi, and the two have a natural chemistry as if they're really close friends. (The movie does, in fact, pass the Bechdel test.)

Two other standout performances: First, Shani Klein, as the long suffering IC of the girls, who longs to make them into an effective bureaucratic force, and to have a real military career. This was Klein's first role, making it all the more impressive how she sort of channeled her inner Major Houlihan. Second, the impossibly named Tamara Klingon, who plays the hard-nosed Russian suddenly possessed by a wan, but vengeful, spirit. (Or is she?)

The Boy enjoyed it, though perhaps not as much as I did. The Flower, who still has some trouble with subtitles did enjoy it though, which is a good indicator of how fun it was.

It got a very limited release, but is well worth seeing. You'd never know this was Lavie's freshman effort.

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