Friday, March 27, 2015

Run All Night

Liam Neeson is getting tired. No, I'm not referring to his recent announcement that he's going to give up action films in a couple of years. I'm referring to the fact that in his latest action film—at least the latest one this month—he looks a lot more convincing when he's hobbling around injured or drunk than when he's springing into deadly action.

In fact, part of the problem with Run All Night is that Neeson seems positively crippled by his past as a hitman for some sort of New York-based Irish mob, but not so crippled that he can't instantly shake off the alcohol and stiffness when he needs to. Which, of course, he needs to pretty suddenly here.

Point being, I guess, that he's no John Wick, and the believability of Reeves' transition from retired hitman to no-longer-retired hitman benefits from 10+ years of age difference and character not supposedly having hit the skids years earlier.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra did such a fine job with Orphan, but since then he turned out (for Neeson) the weak-ish Unknown and the stronger (but still flawed) Non-Stop, and this is, well, more of the same.

It's got some strong points. Besides Neeson, we have Ed Harris, Bruce McGill, Vincent D'Onofrio and a surprise appearance from Nick Nolte. So, there's some acting there, even if the plot hasn't really changed since Bogart and McCrea did it in Dead End.

Joel Kinnamon (who was in both the Robocop and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo remakes) is appealing as Neeson's good-guy son who wants nothing to do with him, as is Genesis Rodriguez (Big Hero 6, Tusk) as his wife.

I couldn't quite figure out what Common (SelmaNow You See Me) was doing here. I mean, he's good as the hitman who so despises Neeson that he jumps on the chance to kill him for free. But he was really just a rather transparent plot device.

Serra directs with buckets of style. At times, I thought, too much. I still don't know if I liked the scene transitions, which we basically the camera moving from one place in the city to another (by passing through or over all the streets it would take to get there). The lighting during some of the action scenes was too dark, so it could be hard to tell what was going on.

Action films have many of the same weaknesses as superhero films, in that the action scenes are simply set pieces that end because, well, it's time. There were two or three action scenes that bugged me on that level. At one point, Neeson is cornered by McGill. He's sitting in a corner of a bathroom, back against the wall, and McGill draws his gun. Before he can draw it, Neeson jumps from his sitting (and even leaning back) position to tackle him.

Try that some time. You don't even have to be a 62-year-old long-time alcoholic. You can be a teen gymnast, and you won't be able to shift your weight that fast from that position.

I was expecting, at least, a courtesy distraction. Somebody bumping into McGill from behind. But no, it's just a straight on attack when McGill is supposedly pumped on adrenaline (they've been fighting for a while).

Another one is when Neeson and Kinnamon are trapped in the projects by a fleet of police, including a helicopter. They just sorta...get away. They go into what looks like a small, closed-off building, but somehow emerge 500 feet away, presumably because they know the projects better than the cops do.

Stuff like this destroys suspension of disbelief, at least for me. The Boy wasn't too impressed either.

We didn't hate it, or anything. As he said, it was fine: But like Taken 2 or Non-Stop (or Unknown, when I reminded him of that one). There are even quite a few good parts. We just don't think we'll be remembering it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What We Do In The Shadows

This was an unexpected surprise. The guys behind the TV show "Flight of the Conchords" filmed this, um, documentary, about four vampires sharing a flat in Wellington. The four vampires range in personality, from the effete European royal, the old Vlad-The-Impaler type, the really old Nosferatu style, and the brash young (180 years or so) thug.

Despite being sworn to vampiric secrecy, the lads have decided to do this documentary about their lives, which is complicated when one of their torment-the-humans dinner parties results in a new human being turned. Being a thoroughly modern human, he likes to run around and tell people he's a vampire which is both strictly against the code and unwise given the high propensity of vampire hunters in New Zealand, apparently.

This all comes to a head at the grand ball where all the vampires (and zombies!) get together for what looks like a casual mixer.

It's very, very funny. It has the feel of a Chris Guest mockumentary, like Best in Show, plus all the sort of goofy off-the-cuff feeling humor that comes from being vampires/roommates.

It'll probably make about $5-6M worldwide. It's not getting much of a release, but it probably didn't have much of a budget, either.

It does use what it has well, in the style of the best shot-on-video horror flicks, like when two of the guys start fighting and have a very sissy bat fight, or the various mirror gags.

It's a little less dry than a typical Guest mockumentary, so I might recommend it even to those who don't usually like that style of humor.

Well, hell, it's the funniest new movie I've seen all year. Taika Waititi (who played The Green Lantern's sidekick, and was an occasional Conchord director) is the heartbroken European vampire, Viago. Conchord mastermind Jemaine Clement (whom I've mentioned is the only thing I can remember about Rio and Rio 2) plays the vulgar Vlad. Jonathan Brugh is the young buck, Deacon. Cori Gonzales-Maceur is the new convert.

IT Consultant Stu Rutherford plays IT Consultant Stu, the human that everyone loves so much they only want to kill him a little bit. Experienced boogeyman Ben Fransham (30 Days of Night, The Ferryman, Gar on the TV series "Legend of the Seeker") plays Petyr, the 2,000 year old vampire.

Written and directed by Waititi and Clement.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Deli Man

It's not that this documentary about Deli's is great: It's not. It's that it's delicious.

This is the story of the delicatessen, also of "deli men" men (and women) who have been in the business for generations, and also of a particular Deli Man, Ziggy Gruber, who's been in the business since he was eight, taking over where his grandfather left off.

The history is rather interesting, and I did not know it: The deli is, like all great food things, an American invention. It was a mash-up of a variety of Jewish traditions from all over Europe, especially Eastern Europe, combined with some old-fashioned American awesomeness. Like the giant sandwich thing. And Sephardic Jews settling in Norte Mexico (Texas!) in the 1500s(!) to escape the Inquisition. (Are flour tortillas just the American version of unleavened bread?) And the "Kosher is great, but maybe a little ham would be nice once in a while?"

Ziggy is a great central character, too: A world class chef, he gave up working in a three-star Michelin restaurant to carry on the tradition and the care he takes making food, and the love he has for his employees, are all just wonderful to see. Even as he struggles with his wait, and his love life (involving a Roman Catholic health-nut acupuncturist).

In between the various bits, we get interviews with deli men all across the country, and learn about their dwindling numbers. From 1,500 kosher delis just in the 5 boroughs of New York in the '30s to only about 150 nationwide today.

It's just fun. And watching them make this food was great. In fact, we knew we were going to get hungry, so we planned a trip to one of our local delis right after. I realized I'd been remiss as a father since neither The Boy nor The Flower had ever been to a deli before.

It was great. It wasn't cheap, though.

Which brings up part of the problem, I suppose: Deli food is labor intensive and a lot of it is protein-intensive as well, none of which adds up to cheap. Also, as the movie points out, while genuine Italian Bistros are also on the decline, there's no place for new deli people to come from. (Somehow all the Jews are missing from Eastern Europe. Someone should delve into that mystery.)

Anyway, as I say, it's not a great documentary, but I got no complaints. It's not pretentious, and doesn't try to be more than it is, and comes in at about 90 minutes. And makes you hungry. I always get a sandwich when I go to the deli but this food made me consider trying some of the other dishes. (Ziggy makes some kind of stuffed chop that looks amazing and they never said what it was! OK, that's a complaint.)

Written and directed by Erik Anjou, whose only other work I know is as the writer of 976-Evil II (a friend of mine had a small role in that), and the writer/director of the 1993 erotic thriller (and weren't they all?) The Cool Surface. Which itself is most famous for Teri Hatcher going topless. (They're real. Whether they're spectacular, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.)

On Blake's Documentary Scale:

1. Subject matter: Fun. Maybe not important the way war crimes and criminal justice is, but certainly well above who's the best at a video game.

2. Delivery: Good in the details, a little weak overall, maybe. But I'm not sold on that. I liked each aspect of the film, and I don't think I would've enjoyed a film just about Ziggy or just about the history of the deli as much. So, I guess I'm saying: I agree with those who claim it's somewhat unfocused but I would challenge them to do it better.

3. Slant. Who cares? It's food. Food is good. People making food are good. People celebrating their heritage with food are the best.

Check it out. But have a nosh handy.

Still Alice

So, here's a perfectly fine movie about Early Onset Alzheimers—I think, pretty soon, every actress will have to have a dementia/Alzheimer's based role, sort of like cancer in the '80s—which earned Julianne Moore an Oscar, and which, more or less, annoyed me.

Moore plays a distinguished linguist teaching at Columbia, while her cancer researching husband—he's trying to cure it, I think, not cause—researches cancer at the ivy league school when suddenly she loses her marbles. And, unlike regular Alzheimer's, Early Onset really is pretty sudden.

The movie chronicles her descent into mindlessness.

She has two perfect kids, and Kristen Stewart, who—if I gather this correctly—trades her sexual favors and her dad's money for a chance to perform on stage in dubious venues in L.A. That's the real stretch in this movie: Casting Stewart as an actress, amirite? Heyooo!

Actually, she's pretty good in this, which isn't something I say lightly.

Anyway, it all plays out in a really predictable fashion, with the Alzheimer's putting a crimp in her and hubby's lifestyle, and the discussions about what to do when she's really lost it, complete with her leaving herself a suicide plan. Although it's sort of more like a murder attempt, really.

Of course, I've seen this movie before. A lot. I became annoyed with this rendition, however, because Alec and Julianne are playing this ultimate "elite" fantasy couple, and I felt like the movie was expecting us to be extra-sympathetic because they had this perfect life. And wasn't it so ironic that a linguist, of all people, should lose her facility with words?

And then, to top it all off, she and daughter Stewart end up bonding over the plays the latter might possibly be in, and (natch) pick "Angels In America". Because "we all lost someone". How perfect.

Obviously, I'm not the target audience. (That would be The Academy.) And it's fine. Really.

But when we learn Moore's backstory (her mother and sister killed in car crash 35 years ago, father an alcoholic, dead for 15 years) and that her condition is congenital and her father may have had it, I thought maybe there'd be some sympathy for this guy who didn't have the perfect life, and who may have drunk himself to death in reaction to his condition but, no, it's just a footnote.

And then there's the whole husband-having-his-golden-chance thing. At a critical moment, he's offered a spot at the Mayo clinic. Obviously, she doesn't want to leave since she's having trouble hanging on to the few things she does remember. And I'm thinking, "Well, the Mayo clinic? Maybe they, I dunno, have some ideas?"

I think, on reflection, I found their relationship amazingly unsatisfying. I guess I can't fault it for realism, in the sense of "Well, some 30-years-married husbands would just let this roll off their backs." That probably happens. Doesn't make for great narrative, I think.

Maybe I'm just a sourpuss: This has a whopping 90/86 on RT, so you'll probably like it. I can think, offhand, of similar movies I liked as well if not more: Away From HerTickling Leo, and probably my recent favorite of the genre, Still Mine, to say nothing of any of the documentaries.

This is probably the highest grossing Alzheimer's/dementia movie, though, having taken in over $15M, dwarfing its nearest competitor (Away From Her which I suspect is the next nearest competitor made only about $5M.)

Moore didn't really deserve the Oscar for this, but I guess the common wisdom is that she didn't actually win it for this.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Buzzard

One of the things you look for when you visit theaters in the triple-digits in a year is different. So it came to pass that when this little film Buzzard popped up, we picked it for a weeknight outing.

And it is definitely different.

It's almost Napoleon Dynamite-ish in its low-key humor, low-key characters and overall low ambitions, but it turns dark and loses its focus in the third act, which makes for a, well, different experience. One that is interesting to be sure—mesmerizing at points, even—but not exactly great.

Our protagonist is Marty Jackitansky (Russian, not Polish), slacker extraordinaire, who "works" at a bank, taking three hour lunch breaks and complaining about what a crappy job it is. He actually never works. The closest he comes is when his boss gives him a stack of checks that never made it to their intended recipients, with the assignment to find those people and their correct addresses.

After a few abortive attempts to connect with these people, he lights on a brilliant idea: What if, instead mailing the checks to the payees, he just deposits them in his own account?

Up until that point, we have a weird, begrudging respect for Marty, as he engages in his hobby in taking advantage of The System. Like, he closes down his bank account so that he can re-open it and get the $50 promotion. (And it may not have been the first time he's done this.) He does this unapologetically in front of the account manager, while even informing him that he's on the third hour of his lunch at another branch of the same bank.

His hobby, meanwhile, is calling up the companies that make the food products he likes and telling them he received bad product so that they'll send him coupons for replacements.

But when he decides to deposit the checks, we realize Marty isn't really so much brash as he is stupid. Ultimately, he risks trouble with the law for what amounts to, maybe a month's worth of paychecks (at a job he barely has to show up for).

When he realizes he's made a mistake, he becomes paranoid. He crashes at his friend's place. (I can't swear to it but it looked like he had a comic book collection that might have been worth a lot more than the checks, too, as well as some collector's edition Nightmare on Elm Street posters.) But even there, he's sure the cops are hunting him down.

So, he's both too dim to realize he might get in trouble for the checks, and to realize the cops aren't going to set out a dragnet for a couple of $50 checks.

The movie probably reaches its height, dramatically speaking, when he goes out—sure that the cops are watching him—and ends up getting ripped off by a convenience store clerk, whom he's helpless against because he's on the lam!

From there, the movie wanders, as Marty wanders. He heads to Detroit (his home?), at each step consuming all the resources available to him and never thinking about the next step on his journey. And the further along he goes, the more apparent it is that he is dumb. He's so fixated on these checks that as he commits more and more grievous crimes along the way, they never register with him.

The final scene commits a possibly unforgivable crime of magical realism. OK, that's just my way of saying "I didn't get it." But there's a not-possible image and I can't tell if it's supposed to be metaphorical, a reflection of Marty's paranoia, or just a "Well, we got end it somehow" thing.

Anyway, interesting, which is not nothing. Not for everyone, especially people who aren't into that low-key flat-affect sort of comedy/drama. Joshua Burge is utterly convincing as Marty. Writer/director Joshua Potrykus is equally convincing as his dweebish pal.

I'm guessing the movie was meant to take place in Low-Budget-1990. Low-Budget-1990 is like regular 1990 in that it has all the trappings of 1990, like no cell phones, Nintendo Power Gloves, big CRTs and Freddy Krueger, but no one going around trying to actually create 1990 in terms of automobiles, cityscapes, or (say) tearing off posters of The Matrix that are on the wall.

In fact, on reflection, it almost seems like a juvenile fantasy. The Nintendo Power Glove refashioned in a Krueger-esque way. The signing over of checks, which is the sort of thing you'd do with your mom when your grandma wrote you a check when you didn't have a bank account. The Bugles on the treadmill. (Heh.)

Buzzard just kind of takes that to the logical conclusion parents struggle to keep their kids away from.

Anyway, we liked it. Looking forward to more from Mr. Potrykus.

These Final Hours

Apocalyptic movies are an odd breed. They're sort of like "Usher" movies, without the cheat: In an apocalyptic movie, you know the world is going to end from the get-go, with no pretense of hope.

Which leaves precisely two avenues of exploration, thematically: The nihilistic one, where nothing matters and all life is a lie; or that what one does matters, in and of itself, regardless of whether the world is coming to an end.

In These Final Hours, we see a massive meteorite fly overhead in the opening credits, and when the movie starts, we see our protagonist, James, having sex with a girl. After which, the two talk, and he explains that he can't face the end of the world sober. (It's going to hurt, apparently.) He starts drinking and doing coke, and tries to get her high, which she refuses. She tells him to go to his girlfriend.

Our hero.

The movie flashes back to this scene a couple of times, revealing more and more about it, and making the hero seem more and more dubious a character.

Our movie begins as he heads to a wild bacchanalia whereupon he will drink and drug and sex until the world ends. A detour leads him to a situation where a couple of major league creeps have decided they'll spend the rest of the world abusing a little girl. And as bad as our hero is, he's not that bad.

This leads to him being stuck with the girl, who's trying to get back to her father so they can be together at the end of the world.

Anyway, there's your tension, because Our Man, while not a complete scumbag, really, really doesn't want to face the end of the world, and only a vestige of his humanity keeps him from just abandoning his charge to her (short) fate.

In other words: Road picture!

Apocalyptic movies are in some ways much easier to do than post-apocalyptic movies: You only have to imagine the end of the world, not a new world that comes after it. But you do have to create drama and suspense out of a scenario that, no matter what, ends with pretty much everything and everyone being destroyed. (Barring a few exceptions like When Worlds Collide.)

And so it is here: Writer/director Zack Hilditch creates a scenario where the audience can care, very much, about what James (Nathan Philips, Wolf Creek, Dying Breed) does with his final moments. Angourie Rice plays the girl looking for her father (and quite convincingly). Jessica De Gouw ("Arrow", "Dracula") plays Jame's side piece.

We really enjoyed it, insofar as one "enjoys" an apocalyptic film.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Eva

Well, this is just odd. A 2011 Spanish sort-of version of A.I. or D.A.R.Y.L. where a man, Alex, returns to his hometown to program a special robot, the S.I.-9. We soon learn that he's been gone for ten years, since he abandoned his girlfriend, Marta, who is now married to his brother, David, who have a precocious ten-year-old daughter named Eva.

There's residual sexual tension between bro and now-sis-in-law, which is complicated by Eva's strong attraction to Alex, which deepens as Alex surreptitiously uses her to program his new S.I.-9.

In this world, apparently, AI is programmed by asking a bunch of word association-type questions, and plugging the recorded answers into some CGI effects. It's goofy, just go with it.

Actually, the whole plot is quite flimsy and doesn't bear a whole lot of scrutiny, but that's okay. As with Snowpiercer, once you get past the initial conceit, there's an entertaining story here, with some tension, a few feels, and the occasional twist and turn.

Some of the CGI less than stellar, though I think they did some clever stuff with the S.I.-9 itself. I think it was someone in a robot suit (there's a telltale thickness to the robot, which doesn't yet have skin or hair), and then I'm guessing they CGIed out the suit at certain joints. (Actually, I just looked it up and that's exactly what they did.)

There's a hit-and-miss robot cat. And a few (though not many) shots that are crowded with varieties of robots.

But you don't expect great CGI from a Spanish movie—or any European film—do you? What's noteworthy is how the humanoid robots communicate their robot-ness. In particular Lluis Homar plays a robot who cooks, cleans, and offers emotional support. However, he is not "free". Alex even orders him to turn down his emotions at one point. To level six. From eight.

Homar is just excellent. He doesn't do The Robot, either the dance or the overly artificial stiff movements time-honored among hacks; there's just enough stiffness and "unnatural" approaches to things, along with juuuuuust enough flatness in his voice for him to seem off. He won some awards for it. Like, three.

The acting is all around good: I don't know Marta Etura or Alberto Ammann, who played Eva's parents, and Claudia Vega (who played Eva) is a newcomer, but they were all quite good. Playing Alex was Daniel Bruhl, who's been in all kinds of Hollywood films, like A Most Wanted Man, The Bourne Ultimatum, Inglorious Basterds, and he plays Baron Zemo in the upcoming Captain America Flick.

And I think the acting and drama are why this works. (Duh?) The movie propels itself on emotion, which allows you to overlook the fantastic nature of the story. Sort of like a Ray Bradbury thing.

We were pleased. The Boy actually picked this because the trailers make it look sort of like a horror flick (it wasn't) where you didn't know what was going to happen (we didn't).

'71

This is the first of two films about 1971 we're expecting this month, and this one is about an English soldier trapped behind enemy lines in Northern Ireland. Jack O'Connell, whom we just recently saw play an all-American hero in Unbroken, plays a single dad/new English soldier whose first mission is a home raid in Belfast.

A weak commanding officer emboldens angry Catholic rioters and before you know it, our hero has been left behind when the rest of his unit flees the chaos.

What ensues is a representative of what you might call the "survival night" genre, like The Warriors or Escape from New York. Jack (Gary, in the movie) has to sneak through the darkness, trying to suss out friends from enemies, and find a way back to his unit before the various interests kidnap and/or kill him.

We liked it, but not that much. Expectations were rather high going in: It had a 99% critic RT score; literally one critic did not like it. (It's up to two, now.) On top of that, this is the sort of thing we generally like, The Boy in particular.

But it's just okay. Even good. Nowhere near great. Even allowing for the fact that, with the Irish accents, every now and again you'd pray for subtitles. The character development is good, but the action is sort of flat. Frosh director Yann Demange seems more comfortable with the former than the latter.

The ending is too long, but it is, I suspect, why the critics loved it. It's a movie about white terrorists where the English are villainous.

I wouldn't discourage people from seeing it, but I'd only recommend it reservedly.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Timbuktu

It is said that the Academy members watch about five minutes of whatever foreign language film screener they feel like and vote on that, which may be true, but before they even have the chance to ignore the movies, the screening committee has to select them.

The screening committee and I seldom see eye-to-eye.

Such is the case with Timbuktu. This is the story of people living in and around the titular city in Mali who are Muslims, but who have recently been placed under some sort of super-Islam, possibly Sharia. The sub-Saharan world is largely dysfunctional, and what we have here is a story of a bunch of thugs breaking the few things that do.

The main story concerns a goat-herder and his little family living outside Timbuktu. The arab schmuck who seems be chief enforcer of the jackassery likes to come around when the goat-herder's away to try, in his own pathetic way, to attract the goat-herder's wife. She's neither fooled nor impressed.

Meanwhile, there's defiance, as a fishmonger woman refuses to put on gloves—we're just outside the Sahara, recall—and people play music, which is apparently forbidden, even if it's to Allah. Maybe. The stormtroopers in charge of enforcing things have to radio in, "Well, they're doing this, is that okay?"

But weirdly mixed in with the defiance is a kind of feeble acquiescence to things. The fishmonger allows herself—insists, even—to be hauled off. The music lovers quietly submit to their fates in front of friends and family.

I don't know. It's...odd. It's dystopic. It's not bad. It's far from great, though. We don't learn enough about any of the characters. It may be that the flow of events is perfectly logical in Mali but we couldn't figure out how the ending, in particular, made sense.

It's shot well enough. The first five minutes are as good as any other first five minutes, we guessed.

Mostly we just came out of this one scratching our heads.

Unbroken

I saw this little YouTube video that Angelina Jolie put up about how she had a disease—chicken pox, I think—and that's why she wasn't doing publicity for her freshman film, Unbroken, based on the book of the same name. Kinda sad. Once in a lifetime event and all that.

What does this have to do with the movie? Not much. But then, I can't really figure out much about the reaction to this movie, which is a solid hero-endures-hellish-conditions type flick.

Jack O'Connell plays Louis Zamperini, a delinquent whose brother gets him straight by getting him into track. After a surprise top showing (8th place) at the '36 Olympics, he was looking forward to the '40 Olympics when something comes up to put a kosh on that idea.

That something? World War II.

I'm joking here, of course, but WWII looms so large in our national memory, it's almost funny to realize that, at the time, a lot of people didn't see it coming. (Sort of like the next big war you're pretending won't happen.)

Anyway, Zamperini ends up a bombardier which, as I understand it, wasn't the deadliest place to be in a plane—I think the tailgunners had that honor—but it was pretty close. Sure enough, his plane crashes at sea and he and his crew ends up adrift for a month and a half!

Good news, bad news, when they're finally rescued, but by the Japanese.

Well, we all know what monsters the Japanese were in WWII, and how they felt about POWs, and Unbroken spends the bulk of its time showing Zamperini enduring some truly remarkable and horrible things. It's much like 12 Years A Slave, in that regard, so it's a fair bet that if you didn't like that or wouldn't watch that, you'll not care much for this, either.

The movie has a shockingly low 51% from Critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and only breeches the 70s for audiences, but it doesn't (to me) seem to be any less worthy a film than Slave. So I can only figure a few things: It wasn't the right person being tortured (a sorta-white guy—in the '30s, Italians were only sorta white), it wasn't the right people torturing (non-white guys), and I think, at least for the popular vote, a lot of people expected it to be more like the book, which I think spends a lot of time on his PTSD and religion-aided recovery.

But it's already over 2 hours, although the length works pretty well with the theme of endurance. We feel Zamperini's struggles without being bored. Overall, a very solid flick, with (I think) strong Eastwood influences. There's not a lot of emotionalism or sentiment. Stuff happens. People endure.

I wouldn't say it's a great movie, which I think is part of why it's been judged harshly. It is a great story and a much beloved book, so I think expectations were high. Jack O'Connell (of the highly praised '71) is great as Zamperini. And there are some great moments in it.

The Boy liked it as well.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Penguins of Madagascar

Science has yet to create a device that can measure the length of time between The Barbarienne never having heard of Penguins of Madagascar and it being the defining movie of her generation! I had zero interest in seeing it after hearing that the original cast was largely not in it, and it's somehow regarded as a "spinoff", not quite connected to the series...hell, I don't know.

Well, I guess they largely used the movie voices of the penguins rather than the TV voices, and decided to extra-special stick it to John DiMaggio, who defined the belching Rico character on the series (and who is the beloved voice of Bender from "Futurama" and Jake from "Adventure Time"). The new characters are all face actors, like John Malkovich, Peter Stormare and Benefract Cumberdink.

The only one that made me smile was Werner Herzog, playing himself making a documentary of the Penguins.

There's sadly not a lot to smile about here. When the penguins first showed up in Madagascar, they seemed as hackneyed as only a riff on a 40-year-old TV show could. The Penguins TV series actually developed the characters a bit more and made the whole thing more interesting. Here, they're back to their devil-may-care mission-based nonsense, where everything just sort of randomly works out for them.

I didn't hate it. I was bored. The story arc is so tired, you could feel like they didn't even try. The Barb liked it all right, though she didn't rank it very high, and it seems to have made no lasting impression.

With $132M budget, this film ended up being a $50M+ write-off for the studio. Call it DiMaggio's revenge.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Serena

We knew going in that this Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper vehicle was going to bad. But The Boy likes him some J-Law and even bad movies can have redeeming qualities, or at least be unintentionally funny. And it can be amusing to hear The Boy rant about bad filmmaking. (He still bitches about In Time. Less so about Carrie.)

But when we left the movie he said, "That movie actually made me feel bad."

This is probably the worst thing one can say about a movie, that it makes you feel bad. Not unsettled, or challenged, or even sad or depressed, but just bad.

You probably won't have that reaction, but this is almost the antithesis of Aftermath, that tragic case of the movie whose stars died midway through production. In this case, director Susannah Bier (Love Is All  You Need) spent a year-and-a-half in post-production trying to save the film. The result is a mess that lacks even Aftermath's sense of promise. It's like there was never anything good here to begin with—a situation that probably isn't true, given everyone involved.

Ultimately, this feels like one of those Jackie Collins/Judith Krantz-based '70s TV miniseries, where the matriarch of a large empire tells her backstory of the man she loved and lost, all the while destroying those around her. (And, actually, on checking out the book this is based on, that's almost exactly what the book is like, though we're missing a lot of important elements here.)

From what I can gather, Lawrence and Cooper are both the protagonists and villains of this story. They have a plan to grow their Smokey Mountain-based lumbermill while fighting off the government's plans to open up a national park. Various indiscretions result in them having to kill certain people, and it all ends in tears and flames.

So, there's your first problem: In most of their movies, Lawrence and Cooper are heroes. Even when they're not super-powered (Raven, Rocket Raccoon, Eddie Morra), they're high-powered (Katniss, Chris Kyle), or at least extraordinarily decent (Ree from Winter's Bone, Norah, Phil, Doug).

I think, in retrospect, they're supposed to be essentially evil here. After all, they're cutting down trees, killing folks who get in their way, overextending their credit... Again, checking against descriptions of the source material, this isn't in doubt. They're supposed to be ruthless.

The movie doesn't show them that way, unfortunately.

For example, Serena is an orphan, with her whole family having been burned to death in a fire only she escaped. Well, look, tell me you're the only survivor of a fire, and I'll assume you set it. I'm just suspicious that way, at least of women-who-are-the-equal-of-any-man heroines of these sorts of romances. And I don't know, but I have that impression from people who have read the book.

The movie has Serena describe the fire in a way that is horrible, but makes her sympathetic. In fact, it creates a kind of sympathy for her rather bizarre character. At every turn, when the story has the chance to showcase the protagonists' corruption, it chickens out and gives us a way to think better of the characters than they deserve. Comeuppance time, and instead of a cathartic sense of justice being served, it's just sad.

It seems like Bier wanted to create a tragic love story from what should have been a nigh camp exposition of evil. (I can see why The Boy would feel bad come to think of it.)

And if that weren't bad enough—and it was, believe me—every aspect of the movie is similarly misshapen. The Boy railed against the editing. Editing, of course, makes scenes awkward and actors look like dorks. Which highlights the fact that the best part of this movie are the awful, awful lines Jennifer Lawrence must recite.

This movie was her idea, by the way, if I'm not mistaken. She probably wanted a break from the largely heroic/good-girl type characters she's been playing. (So far, even though she's playing super-villain Mystique, she's playing her as a far more sympathetic character than the deliciously cruel and sadistic Rebecca Romijn.)

Filmed in Prague, the cinematography is often beautiful when it's of the landscape, and otherwise completely pedestrian. The music starts out like it's going to rock your socks off with that hard bluegrass guitar, and then just sort of peters out. (The Boy even noticed the long stretches of sudden soundtrack silence. This may be a side-effect of the extended post-production.)

Finally, in a move that I am comfortable attributing entirely to Bier, Serena and George's relationship is largely expressed in terms of awkward sex scenes that manage to be neither expository nor erotic. Much like All You Need Is Love, they pretty much wreck up what little tone the movie has.

I can't even recommend it for hardcore Lawrence fans. Only for the morbidly curious.

GETT: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem

Included the expansive category of "foreign language films that are better than Ida" comes Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem, the story of a woman trying—for years—to get a divorce from her husband. (If I understand correctly, until last year, only a religious council could grant a divorce.)

Here's a thought-provoking topic. But before we get into that, let's note that this is a very good, and in some ways very typical Israeli film. First, it's clearly shot on a shoestring budget. The whole thing takes place in a small courtroom—and when I say "courtroom", I mean something that looks like a converted high school coat closet—except for a couple of scenes which take place in the tiny rooms adjoining the courtroom.

Second, it's populated with an amusing and interesting array of characters, richly drawn, all within the confines of these tiny spaces.

Third, it tackles a serious subject—divorce—with an undeniably Jewish humans-are-flawed sense of humor which means, despite what you might think, this two hour movie about divorce delivers more laughs than Kevin James' last couple of films.

This movie is, at heart, a mystery. We don't know why Viviane wants the divorce. We don't know why Elisha won't grant it. Over two hours we get a picture of the two that reveals bits-and-pieces, and raises the question "Whose business is it anyway?"

And there's the rub: In America, of course, we have "no-fault" divorce, which is great for individual freedom, but pretty rotten for the institution of marriage. Should it be enough for a person to say, "No, I can't live with that other person"? Or should there have to be some reason, some specific terrible act or pattern of neglect?

The rabbis here need cause. They're already inclined to say "Go home and make it work" which is wiser than it might seem to us these days. But "My husband is stubborn" isn't really going to cut it. We see some other marriages, too, in the form of witnesses. They're not perfect, not by a long shot, but they seem to be doing okay. (Maybe. Who knows, really?)

Anyway, the movie takes on the challenge, and doesn't flinch. Nor does it judge, especially, although Elisha ultimately comes off worse than Viviane, who was probably too young (15) to get married in the first place. But we have sympathy all around, for our fellow humans trying to get by.

Terrific performance by Ronit Elkabetz, whom I haven't seen since 2007's The Band's Visit. Her co-star in that film, Sasson Gabai, who played the crusty Arab that didn't get her, plays her husband's counsel/brother here.

Ronit also directed with her brother Shlomi.

This picture cleaned up at the Israeli Film Academy Awards, though it lost the Golden Globe and was not even nominated for an Oscar.

Song of the Sea

When the critics were going gaga over The Secret of the Kells, I was somewhat dismissive: I liked the little movie (78 minutes!) but I thought they were just showing their hipster cred by preferring the simple animation which (as I noted at the time) was very much like "Samurai Jack". Just about five years later and we're so inundated with rich, vibrant CGI—even in bad animated movies—something like Song of the Sea comes along, and its simplicity is refreshing.

The story concerns an angry young boy who blames his little sister for the death of their mother. The two live with their father in a lighthouse, with the father mostly moping around, except one night a year—his daughter's birthday, and the anniversary of his wife's death—where he goes to mope in a bar in town.

But the daughter isn't quite normal, and her love of the sea ultimately frightens her grandmother so much, she convinces the father to let her keep them in town. This proves to be harmful to the girl and the brother is convinced she has to get back to the sea in order to live, and to save...well, everything.

So, road picture!

In keeping with the Gaelic themes of Secret of the Kells, there are magical forces at work here.

It's a good story. There's a strong emotional element, between brother and sister, between husband and wife, and between mother and children across three generations. It has a kind of epic feel to it, but stays very close to the main characters at all times, so it connects well.

I have not seen Studio Ghibli's The Tale of Princess Kaguya yet, and I'm sure I'll like it. But I don't think it'll take the crown of Best Animated Feature for 2014.

Brendan Gleeson and Fionnula Flanagan play the lighthouse keeper and his mother respectively, reprising their relationship from The Guard.

American Sniper

When does Superman sleep? I mean, say you're out there, putting in a 16-18 hour day, saving Lois, stopping runaway trains, thwarting evil geniuses, and you get home, and lie down. Eight hours later you wake up and some maniacs have flown airplanes into some buildings, or a tsunami has killed a couple hundred thousand people, or maybe taken out a nuclear reactor.

When do you sleep? How do you sleep? When Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man put the "with great power comes great responsibility" line into the pop culture, I thought it would be interesting to have a story about a regular person who slowly becomes a superhero, focusing on the physiological and psychological effects it would have. (Right now, superheroes are basically our version of the Greek gods. All the power, but otherwise just like us in their trivial ways.)

American Sniper is as close as we may get to a movie about what would really happen to someone who got superpowers.

Our hero is Chris Kyle, who comes from an upbringing where his dad tells him there's three kinds of people: wolves, sheep and sheepdogs. Wolves are bad, and he ain't raising no sheep. It's in one of these father-son moments that Kyle discovers his superpower: killing things from far away.

By the way, these early scenes of father-son bonding: the stern patriarch, the gun lessons, the hunting, are by far the most shocking thing about American Sniper. In my lifetime, these scenes would be the backstory of a racist or a serial killer, not a hero. I suspect this jarred a bunch of people right out of their seats and into the lobby for jujubes.

As far as superpowers go, though, "killing things from far away" is not a very useful one, at least not until September 11th, 2001. Then the ability to kill from far away becomes synonymous with saving hundreds of lives. And Kyle—the sheepdog, remember—takes his responsibility seriously and goes to fight. Then he comes home.

But here's the catch: The war is still going on, and he's not there helping out. When does Superman sleep? In this case, he doesn't sleep, not well or for long, and before you know it, Kyle's back overseas, saving lives by killing. (This is the messy part of reality you don't see much in superhero movies, which makes things Dark Knight profoundly silly.)

Not only that, there's not one but two super-villains around killing troops and innocent civilians: The Butcher of Baghdad and Iraqi Chris Kyle. The Butcher was a guy who went around butchering people who weren't sufficiently anti-American. The guy I'm calling Iraqi Chris Kyle was just that: An excellent sniper raining hell on American troops.

But despite this comic heroic analogy, American Sniper resembles movies more like The Hurt Locker than Lone Survivor: Though much of it takes place on the front, a whole lot takes place back home. The toll that the being home takes on Kyle is not dissimilar to the toll that Kyle being at war takes on his wife.

I guess that's the odd thing about this "war" movie: The drama comes from his time at home. And it's all done very well indeed. You care about this guy as a person, and supporting players are imbued with an uncharacteristic (for a war film) depth and reality (perhaps because they are based on real people).

But for all that, the scenes of Taya were the ones that just tore me up. This story—of a kind of jaded and heartbroken modern woman who is won over, maybe even transformed by a simple love—is really the centerpiece of the movie. First she doesn't believe he's for real, then she falls in love, then she loses him to war, then when he comes back, she still has lost him to the war, a cycle repeated over and over again.

Poignant stuff. Being a superhero has consequences beyond catching Lois when she gets shoved off the top of the Daily Planet building.

It's expected to hear talk of Eastwood retiring—though I wonder how much stock to put in that, given that he had two movies this year (the underrated Jersey Boys being the other). If he does retire, he could do worse than to go out on this film, which will break the top 200 all time box office (adjusted for inflation). I don't think it'll pass Hunger Games or Guardians of the Galaxy, but it could. Not too shabby. (BEFORE POST UPDATE: Actually, it's looking like it will be the #1 box office film of 2014.)

Bradley Cooper does a great job as Kyle (we've noted here that he can really act when he wants to and has a demanding role), and Sienna Miller (whose work I've seen but never much noticed) broke my heart as I noted. It won't win any significant Oscars, of course.

The Boy loved it, and the Flower liked it, though added (as she almost always does), "It was no Gran Torino". I'd put it in my top ten for 2014, but not my top five.

And we learn something: Being a superhero in real life is hard, and when you die, you don't get to come back for the sequel.

OK, that's my review. Now about the kerfuffle.

As always happens when I'm the last to see a movie, when I finally do get to see it, I think "What the hell movie did YOU watch?" Seriously, the assessments on both sides of the trumped-up, fake-outrage-y argument are way off.

Clint Eastwood is about the story. He's not really political (empty chair gag notwithstanding), he's not trying to make a statement, he's just telling a story. It borders on insane to say, for example, that Million Dollar Baby is pro-Euthanasia. There's a particular story there, and we're given to empathize and understand why it happens in a particular case. Generalizing from a fictional story to real-world policy shows a detachment from reality.

The idea that there's anything pro-war or glorifying about this is nonsense: This movie shows the awfulness of war. To the extent that there's anything good about it, it's that people can rise above the terrible things they must do and still be decent.

At the same time, it's not rational to say Chris Kyle, was not a victim of the war. He clearly was, with a bad case of PTSD and survivor's guilt. And ultimately the war claims him, long after he's out of it. (Assuming genuine PTSD on the part of his killer and not some other insanity or evil.)

Kyle is a guy with a bigger mission than you or I. Just like the Machine Gun Preacher, he's someone who took responsibility for something huge. I'm sorry if that makes you feel inadequate. But if everyone could do it, we wouldn't call it "heroism".

The film was popular in Iraq, if controversial, it really should be pretty uncontroversial here.

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