Thursday, April 30, 2015

5 to 7

My son, one day you'll meet the woman of your dreams. She'll be beautiful, your heart's desire, your every waking moment will be filled with thoughts of her, and how happy the two of you could be.

Of course, by that time, you'll be married.

Anyway, as I've previously outlined that there is a scale of wimpy young male actors (Cera, Eisenberg, Yelchin, Le Beouf, Gordon-Levitt) which seem to be considered for roles about, well, wimps. Gordon-Levitt has been playing, convincingly, more tough guy roles of late, so it barely makes sense to include him any more.  But another guy who has been breaking out of the mold is Anton Yelchin, who plays Chekov in the Star Trek reboots, and played an action hero and romantic lead in the mysteriously buried Odd Thomas.

In 5 to 7, though, Yelchin is a full-blown romantic lead in what is the most romantic movie in recent memory, written and directed by longtime producer ("Mad About You") Victor Levin. And he must play this role across from long-necked Bond Girl Bérénice Marlohe (Skyfall).

The premise is this: While walking down the street, Brian spies Arielle smoking on the sidewalk (Yelchin and Marlohe, respectively) and decides he has to meet her. She's receptive, teasing, flirty and when she finishes smoking tells him he can find her smoking there every week at that time.

They strike up a relationship in which Marlohe (being French) casually mentions being married, and how this shouldn't be an impediment to her relationship with Yelchin. In fact, the French have a phrase for just this, "cinq à sept" (pronounced "sahnk-ah-set"), "5 to 7": In other words, those hours after work but before you're expected at home, when it is most opportune to visit one's mistress.

Of course the French have a phrase for it.

Brian balks at the notion of having a relationship with a married woman. But come on. Bérénice Marlohe?
The Least Flattering Picture of Bérénice Marlohe On The Internet
Anyway, morals are great, but with 'em, we ain't got a picture. And Brian is soon sharing a hotel room and precious bodily essences with Arielle. This is mostly done quite tastefully, thank God and Victor Levin.

Also, if everybody stuck to their morals, well, there wouldn't be the opportunity to show why said morals exist, and the harm they're meant to prevent.

The critic/audience split is rather severe here with audiences preferring the movie by a wide margin (66%/86%), and I suspect this is in part due to the earnest and straightforward nature of the story, which seems familiar. But there's also an underlying belief in doing the right thing, even when it's the hardest thing in the world to do, and a sincere and unapologetic belief in love that maybe seems unsophisticated to a worldly wise filmgoer.

The Boy was wowed by it, which sort of surprised me. I mean, I rather liked it, but he was enthusiastic. Likable characters in difficult situations is his thing.

Glenn Close and Frank Langella steal a few scenes as Brian's mother and father. (Of course, Brian's supposed to be 23 which would make him a very late in life baby to those two, indeed. But who cares? It's Frank Langella and Glenn Close!)

The Clouds of Sils Maria

The original title of this movie was probably Maloja Snake, after the clouds of Sils Maria that come whirling into the valley in a most reptilian fashion under certain weather conditions. (This is a real phenomenon with disappointingly few videos available online about it, though an old documentary about them in black-and-white that's featured in this movie is available.)

The Clouds of Sils Maria probably has the most beautiful movie shots of Switzerland since Force Majeure. Which would be the last movie we saw that took place in Switzerland, come to think of it.

Anyway, this is a movie whose trailer is an utter lie; a movie that I loved; and a movie that I would only recommend to a few people.

First of all, the trailer makes it seem like a psychodrama. In fact, The Boy actually said "I'm in the mood for a psychodrama." And I said, "Really?" because psychodramas are usually the ickiest sorts of films. And he said, "Yeah," and looked at me like I was his crazy old father.

But the movie isn't a psychodrama at all: Every "high drama" line from the trailer is actually not dialogue but lines from a play ("Maloja Snake") that our main character, Maria (Juliette Binoche), is rehearsing. She's doing the lines with her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) who, not being an actress, tends to deliver them in a rather banal way, which is why Binoche seems so unhinged in the trailer relative to Stewart.

And while I've done my share of Stewart bashing, this makes two movies in a row where she's actually acted, and she does a terrific job here with a much harder role, basically carrying the film along with Binoche.

But the trailer makes it seem like Valentine is the manipulative character being described, which she is not. Valentine is actually the voice of reason. She's a bridge between the brittle, high-strung world of the actress who, while skilled, also traded heavily on her sexuality—and the girl who's poised to be her replacement, Jo-Ann (played with convincing cruelty by Chloe Grace Moretz).

The premise is that Maria's first role was as this vicious sociopath, Sigrid, who manipulates an older woman, Helena, grows tired of her and abandons her (to suicide, apparently, though this becomes a bone of contention later on). Now, it's 20-25 years later—and the movie is ambiguous here because Binoche is comfortably over 30 years past the 18-year-old she was supposed to have been—and a new director wants to take the play on and have Maria play the Helena.

Because, as he says, Sigrid and Helena are the same woman. Well, Maria completely rejects this. And the ensuing struggle is why I love this film.

But, it is about actors, and process, and art, and I know how some of y'all feel about that.

Basically, Maria identifies with the horrible, horrible Sigrid. She identifies so strongly with her, she can't identify with Helena, her victim. At the same time, Helena is at heart just an older version of Sigrid.

I can't emphasize enough how awful a play this would be to actually watch. But as a metaphor for an actress trying to come to grips with her self-identity? It works well.

Stewart and Binoche have a compelling chemistry, and it's hard not to sympathize with the level-headed Valentine as she tries to help Maria navigate the new world of Internet fame, to understand that, yes, even Big Budget Superhero/Sci-Fi flicks can have emotional depth, and to possibly look beyond the understanding of "Maloja Snake" Maria seems to have evolved at the age of 18 and never advanced beyond.

The climax of the film is one of the more unusual ones I've seen. It's essentially a negative event, which I shan't describe because it would be a serious spoiler. But it's aesthetically quite pleasing. The movie practically could've ended there, but we need to see what happens to Maria, and that is very subject to interpretation.

Writer/director Olivier Assayes has created a beautiful and fascinating film that plays at a very high aesthetic level.

And, once again: Kristen Stewart plays the level-headed, grounded, rooted-in-modern-culture-but-not-lost-in-it girl who both loves Jo-Ann as an actress and has a certain disgust for her antics which are remarkably similar to Stewart's real-life antics. Just as the whole movie is an examination of the actress's meta-role, the movie itself acts as a sort of meta-commentary on the actual people playing the actresses.

Ow, I think I hurt myself with that one. But you get the idea. Obviously not for everyone but we found it compelling.

Tangerines

The last of the five films nominated for the foreign language Oscar, Tangerines has the distinction of being least liked by the critics (only a 70% RT, while the other four are in the 90%s!) and just being edged out by Wild Tales for being most popular among audiences.

Tangerines is the story of the Abkhazian War (yes, that was a thing) in the '90s, where Georgians fought the Russians for control of Abkhazia. Well, "Abkhazian separatists", which I think is pretty much like "Crimean separatists".

Any, our hero is an Estonian crate-maker named Ivo, who lives alone after his family fled back to Estonia at the beginning of the war. He's making crates for his neighbor, Margus, a tangerine farmer. Margus is fretting because his tangerines are ready for gathering, but there's no one left in the village but the two of them, and they need to fill 250 crates.

The mystery is why Ivo and Margus stayed behind, although Margus at least has the lure of a tangerine crop ready to be harvested.

A skirmish in the abandoned village leaves Ivo with two wounded soldiers, one Georgian and the other Chechen. (Chechen mercenaries fought for the Russians—this is right before the First Chechen War in 1994.) He nurses them back to health, all while they're spitting and cursing and swearing to kill the other.

But they do have a code of honor in common, so they behave themselves while recuperating under Ivo's roof.

So, what we have here, if you haven't guessed, is the classic setup for an anti-war film: As you might guess, the two learn that they don't really have the animosity for each other that the people they're fighting for have cultivated in them. But it's done well here, and it's never a bad lesson. (Even if it is a rather futile lesson.)

Well directed by a guy you've never heard of and well acted by guys you've never heard of. It's only real shortcoming is that it doesn't last long enough for the reconciliation-of-sorts between the Georgian and the Chechen to fully resonate, so it seems sort of innocent—even childlike.

But we didn't mind that, particularly. I kind of felt that the two had bonded just by virtue of being honor-bound not to kill each other, as well as a few other things.

Way more watchable than Ida or Timbuktu, and not as bleak as Leviathan. Wild Tales was more fun, of course.

I never did figure out what Estonians were doing nearly 3,000 miles away from Estonia in Abkhazia though.

Bonus points for being largely comprehensible to my one-year-of-Russian ears.

Woman In Gold

We're in one of those odd times again. Large splits between audiences and critics for not obvious reasons. At which point, you just gotta make like Mr. Goodsen and say "What the hell". In this case, we have a movie critics disdained but audiences adored. A 53%/87% split, which is worthy of a Christian-themed film.

This is the (sigh) based-on-a-true-story of Maria Altmann who sued Austria for the return of artwork stolen by the Nazis. Helen Mirren plays Altmann and, well, who can really ever get enough Helen Mirren? Ryan Reynolds is the good-guy lawyer and grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, and he's awfully good. I mean, his character, not his acting. (Not that his acting is bad. But the point is Schoenberg's a Good Guy.)

Altmann approaches Schoenberg to get him to take the case, and (of course) he becomes obsessed with this. And really, why not? It's a rather grievous injustice, and after being stonewalled by the Austrians (duh), Schoenberg discovers their deception. Which, of course, they deny, and cling to the painting which they claim has become part of Austrian consciousness.

She's the "Woman in Gold" by the way because "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" kind of gives the game away vis-a-vis the semitic nature of the subject.

Anyway, we get legal wranglings, loopholes, and goddamned American Justice—which more surprisingly is followed by genuine Austrian justice. Interspersed with this are flashbacks of Altmann's story, which help give the painting its meaning.

And, can we be honest? This is an awful painting. Just gaudiness heaped on poor technique.

I kid. I wouldn't judge a painting without seeing it in person. (Whatever it is that makes artworks great does not survive electronic reproduction.)

Anyway, it's a decent enough survival story and a decent enough story of justice, we both thought, allowing for some personal prejudice because it's the sort of story we like. (The Boy, in particular, has a fondness for justice being achieved through clever application of the law, as in Amazing Grace.)

Now, if you haven't seen it, you might want to stop reading, because there was one aspect of the movie I thought totally catastrophic, and nearly ruined the film for me. I haven't seen anyone else mention it, so it could just be a Blake thing. But if I call your attention to it, you might not be able to watch the film without being distracted. So go see it first.

I'll put the thing that drove me nuts in the comments.


Child 44

It was easy to figure out why the critics would hate Child 44, what with its depiction of life in the USSR under Stalin.

Spoilers: Life under Stalin wasn't great.

In fact, Child 44 shows us starvation, orphans, war, summary executions of parents in front of their children, torture, rampant politics, rampant abuse of power, extortion of homosexuals, and perhaps worst of all McCarthyism (heh). Not the sort of namby-pamby McCarthyism that McCarthy practiced, either: The kind of McCarthyism that was both trumped up and resulted in fatalities.

But while audiences liked it twice as much as critics, they still didn't like it that much, and that's a more interesting question. With just over 50% on RT, The Boy was disinclined to see it, but my curiosity was piqued.

The story is roughly based on that of Citizen X, the child serial killer that could not possibly exist in the Worker's Paradise (and so ran amok for years, racking up dozens of kills). Tom Hardy plays Leo, a cop, though the police here are just an extension of the Party apparatus, and they do a lot more exterminating "traitors" than they do solving crime.

When his godson is murdered, it falls to him to tell the child's family that he was hit by a train. (Because, as noted, murder is impossible.) While this is going on, he's given the task of investigating his wife, Raisa (Noomi Rapace, looking exotic, as usual), and her potential treason. When it's made clear that his choice is to throw her to the wolves or suffer serious consequences—well, of course he doesn't throw her to the wolves, and they end up shipped off to Volsk.

Now, one of the really good parts of this movie is the relationship between Leo and Raisa. It is not at all what it seems, but it's the logical consequence of life in a police state, even if poor dumb Leo doesn't understand those consequences at first.

Leo himself is an interesting character. He goes from being a starving Ukrainian orphan to tool-of-the-state with just a brief step in-between for "war hero".

In Volsk, the more traditional mystery aspects of the story heat up, as it turns out children have been murdered in Volsk, too—in fact, all up and down the rail line. Leo's new boss, General Mikhail (Gary Oldman), is paranoid and uninterested at first, but ultimately is won over. Soon they're all taking risks to try to solve the mystery even as the State appears at every corner to crush them.

There's a lot of unpleasantness along the way, and I can see that turning people off. And it's not flawless: There are a lot of threads here, and it takes a good 30 minutes or so for Swedish (!) director Daniel Espinosa (Safe House) to pull those threads taut.

The only other person I know who saw it liked it but was less than thrilled. He didn't care for Tom Hardy's performance which he described as "being Marlon Brando for 2 hours". Also, some of the actors spoke with Russian accents, and some with British, which bugged him. (I don't even notice that sort of thing, really.)

I thought the action scenes were hit-and-miss, but they usually are. And I thought the ending was too neat to be plausible—but this is the first book in a series, and if the ending had been realistic (everyone gets a bullet to the head!) that would both be really depressing and rule out sequels.

So, we liked, but not for everyone. Certainly not for anyone who wants to maintain the illusion that life in the USSR was on a par with life in the US.

Bonus points for self-waterboarding.

Monday, April 27, 2015

1915

One of the least well-kept world secrets is the Turkish genocide of the Armenians. It seems to be only a secret to world leaders, although the Pope recently acknowledged it, this being the 100th anniversary, and the Turks responded by recalling their ambassador to the Vatican.

So, yeah, they're probably trying to avoid being known as the ones who gave Hitler all his Swell Ideas™. The blame for the intellectual underpinning should probably go to Ernst Rüdin, but the Turks were an important example of a genocide that had gone well for the genocidal. Well, with some caveats that would become the inspiring force behind the word "genocide".

Which brings us to this odd little film, 1915. This is the story of Simon (played by Simon Akbarian, whom we just saw in Gett), a playwright/theater owner who is coming out a seven-year retirement with his wife, Angela (Angela Sarafyan, Marion Cotillard's sick sister in last years The Immigrant) to put on a play about the genocide that is being protested by both Turks and Armenians.

The Turks, we've already covered. Why the Armenians? Well, at the end of his play, Angela abandons her mother and child to run off with a Turkish colonel, and the Armenians aren't happy about that.

Meanwhile, Simon and Angela have their own tragedy, which they're using the play to work through. Simon's got some Method/hypnosis thing he's running on Angela, where she becomes the person she's playing from 100 years. And this sort of goofy device is a way to get her character to face up to what happened in 1915, and the modern day Angela to face up to her own tragedy.

We also got a possibly haunted theater that's on the ropes financially, mysterious threatening phone calls, and a transvestite reporter wandering around asking questions.

This is a movie that takes a lot of chances, and they don't all pay off. The haunted thing doesn't go anywhere. The threatening phone calls are pretty irrelevant. I didn't get the whole thing with the brother and the reporter. The theater being on the ropes financially was all right if unnecssary. The attempt at magical realism isn't entirely successful, nor is the mapping between the personal tragedy and the genocide.

And yet. The main thrust of the story ("You have to acknowledge the past to move forward") ultimately does work. The Boy, while liking this, sort of missed the point: He thought the Big Reveal was the uncovering of the Angela's mystery which, since we both saw it coming about 15 minutes into the movie, wasn't really a big reveal.

I liked it more because, at the climax of the movie, I saw the point not as revealing things we all know happened, but admitting that we survive today because people in the past chose to survive, even if we look back disdainfully on the context of those choices. (This is a similar sentiment to what we see in The Last of the Unjust.)

We do that a lot: We scorn our ancestors as if our life choices were so much harder and we navigate them so much better.

Very low budget but with some nice camerawork, especially inside the Los Angeles Theater, where most of the action takes place. The small cast is rounded out by Jim Piddock (A Mighty Wind), Sam Page (lots of popular TV shows like "Mad Men" and "Gossip Girl"), Debra Cristofferson (whom I remember best as one of Nathan Lane and Lee Evans' dates in Mousehunt, but she's been a ton of stuff), young Sunny Suljic (a Bosnian actor!), and the lovely Courtney Halverson.

Creepy brother is played by Nikolai Kinski who, as creepy as he is, is only a fraction as creepy as his dad. Thank God.

Anyway, game effort. Some of the rough spots may be off-putting but I ultimately found it moving and effective.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

While We're Young

One thing is for sure: Critics love them some Noah Baumbach. Especially, it seems, since The Squid and The Whale, his semi-auto-biographical tale of kids who react badly to their parents' divorce. What is less certain, however, is whether Generation X will age more gracefully than the Boomers did.

I don't know that this genre started in 1980 with the Bruce Dern/Ann-Margaret starrer Middle Age Crazy (co-written by Jerry Lee Lewis!). Certainly earlier films showed the ravages of middle age, including my beloved Heaven Can Wait, when Gene Tierney tells the roguish Don Ameche that she no longer worries about his dalliances, since he's spread out into middle age. And it seems like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart and even John Wayne were always suffering some sort of indignity due to age.

But these were not movies about middle age. They were about life, and aging as part of that. It wasn't an "oh, my God, we've lost our youth" thing. But it turns out that Don Ameche's Henry Van Cleve was charming precisely because he was such an oddity: A silly, unserious person who could get away with it due to fortunate circumstances and considerable charm.

We're all Henry Van Cleve now (sans the charm). We're not serious. We don't settle down. A shocking number of us don't even work. And this is why you can't remake Heaven Can Wait, but you can make movies like Middle Age Crazy, where old age is seen as a personal insult.

And it's a peculiarity of the modern coming-of-middle-age film that many of the tropes that used to be reserved for movies about young people are revisited. Which brings us to While We're Young.

In this movie, Ben Stiller (Josh) and Naomi Watts (Cornelia) are a 44 and 43-years-old (respectively) childless couple living in Manhattan. He makes documentaries—he's been working on one for ten years—while she produces documentaries for her father (played by Charles Grodin). Their friends have just had a baby, and this causes some distance between the pair, as babies are fairly time-consuming.

What a thing to find out in your 40s, right?

They end up falling in without a young married couple, Jamie (played by Adam Driver of Tracks, Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davis, This Is Where I Leave You—I'm putting all these credits in for Driver because I did not "know" him despite his distinctive looks) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). He's a cocky Millennial hipster who makes silly little semi-improvised "documentaries", and she's a sweet maker of artisanal ice cream.

And so begins the fish-out-of-water/old-person-out-of-touch experiences as Josh and Cornelia try to navigate the youthful world of hip-hop, fedoras and street foods. Which they do pretty well, actually. Some of Baumbach's cleverest stuff is in the contrast between the old and young: Where our Gen Xers embrace iTunes, Netflix and all the conveniences of the digital age, Gen Y has LPs, VHS tapes, and ironic consumption of '70s, '80s and even early '90s culture. (Their experiments with trying to co-opt the casual vulgarity of the younger couple are not so successful. The language is unusually salty for a film of this genre.)

As entranced as they are by the vitality of the young couple, the Josh and Cornelia reveal their foolishness by never looking past the surface. Instead of seeing what Darby and Jamie really are, they see themselves 20 years ago. They don't see Darby's longing to be treated better by Jamie; that the bad language is not all fun-and-games, for example. They live with Tipper (yes, Tipper! and doubtless named after that Tipper), who acts as Jamie's sound girl, but whose relationship with Jamie seems a little murky, but Josh and Cornelia are "cool" about it.

The willful blindness leaves them open for Jamie's predations.

Which, frankly, aren't that bad. A lot of times, these movies get really, really gross. Jamie is a hipster douchebag, manipulative and hypocritical, and the movie rather touchingly (and convincingly) posits that his worst crime is convincing Josh that he's genuine.

The prime problem here—and one suspects a certain degree of autobiography—is a kind of creative block that Josh has, one borne of integrity and a commitment to quality, but also in no small part due to pride and stubbornness. Cornelia suffers from this directly—in her case, finding out too late, like so many Gen Xers, that the biological clock is real and remorseless—as does their marriage as a whole.

Baumbach refuses to condemn anyone, and dodges or handles artfully the most common tropes of this genre, but there's no getting around the fact that neither Josh nor Jamie, our main characters, are particularly likable. Josh grows on us and becomes more sympathetic by the end and, after a fashion, the movie petitions for sympathy for Jamie as well. But by that point, you're an hour-and-a-half into a 97 minute movie.

It's not bad. It's not great. I liked it better than Squid or Baumbach's recent Frances Ha. The Boy tended to occur. Maybe extra points for managing a typically icky subject fairly well, though.

Bonus appearance by renowned sex offender Peter Yarrow as the weird and unpleasant guy who Josh interviews for endless hours to make his documentary.

Kumiko, The Treasure Thief

A woman follows a map to find a video tape, and another map, buried under a rock. The tape of is of Fargo. After analyzing the movie, she decides to embark on an adventure to find the money Steve Buscemi buried in the final act of that film. This is the story of Kumiko, The Treasure Thief, based on the urban legend which was inspired by the real story of a Japanese tourist foolish enough to come to Minnesota in the winter.

What's particularly uncanny about this film is how much it is like Buzzard, that low-budget flick we saw a few weeks ago: Kumiko is a misfit. She's an "office girl", but at 29, she's too old for that job, which she's not very good at, doesn't do well, and is additionally too antisocial to even enjoy on a human level.

She's a depressive who avoids calls from her nagging mother, and who really only comes to life at all in pursuit of this mysterious treasure.

Which would be cool if she weren't insane. This is where Kumiko departs from Buzzard: Buzzard's hero is phenomenally dumb and unethical, and most of the humor comes from Napoleon Dynamite-esque antics. Kumiko has fewer laughs, and they're entirely based on the absurdity that comes with insanity.

Which, you know: Mixed feelings. It's hard not to laugh at her actions, but it's hard to feel good about laughing about them, either.

The Boy and I liked it all right. It wasn't boring, just sad. It just hit my pet peeve about "based on a true story" movies: It wasn't, really. It was a fanciful imagining, about a legend that arose due to a translation difficulty. The people who were involved have actively denied the whole Fargo thing. (The real Kumiko had been to Minnesota, apparently, and had an old boyfriend there.)

So it seems like these movies tend to hew to some reality at the expense of good storytelling, but then throw reality to the wind when it doesn't matter so much. Foxcatcher is another example of that: Lots of changes to the fact that didn't make for better drama.

Good acting from director David Zellner, who co-wrote with brother Nathan. Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Brothers Bloom) is suitably pathetic—is that the right word, or is it bathetic?—as Kumiko. She basically carries the film. Well made and shot overall.

I can't blame it much for not being the movie I wanted it to be. But if I see another film about someone who contributes nothing to life and has no ambition, I'm going to call it a trend and write a lengthy article for a glossy magazine about it.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Salt of the Earth

Let's launch this one with the three point documentary scale, because I want to get that out of the way and then go on a bit of a mini-rant. Our subject today is Wim Wender's and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado's documentary of Juliano's father, Sebastião Salgado, the brilliant Brazilian photographer.

Subject matter: Good. Salgado (I'll refer to the subject as Salgado and his son as Juliano) is an interesting character and highly talented photographer, who has photographed Very Important Things from the four corners of the earth.

Treatment: Near flawless. The Boy felt it may have leaned too heavily on Salgado's work, and it is odd to see a movie that's about 80% still pictures. The Viviane Maier movie, by contrast, used a lot of film footage as well as her pictures, but the aesthetics here are unimpeachable. Wenders, too, teases the medium by taking gorgeously composed but relatively static shots of Salgado, and where Salgado works exclusively in black-and-white, Wenders manages to make some breathtaking compositions with color and movement. But you've got to be "in the mood" for something that is primarily driven by aesthetics, almost not at all the supposed subject of the film. (Note, though, that this isn't called Salgado but Salt of the Earth, Wenders' appellation for the people who are Salagdo's subjects.)

Slant: Well, pro-Salgado, obviously. Which, as I often point out, is fine. But this is where my mini-rant is going to take off, because Salgado is thoroughly steeped in, dare I say it, the M word. M meaning Marxism. He is so thoroughly a creature of the Left that he walks around with these presuppositions that Wenders isn't going to challenge (probably also well steeped in such things), but which have caused him both considerable misery and made for what I thought was a completely unremarked upon ironic twist.

So, here's a guy chasing the horrors of the world—he's in Kosovo, he's in Rwanda, he's in Mali—and (apparently surprisingly) after two decades of taking pictures of people starving and being butchered in a variety of horrible ways, he begins to take a slightly less than rosy view of humanity.

Nota Bene, none of his adventures included what we might call "the free West": US, Canada, Western Europe. In fact, he refers consistently about the universality of the inhumanities he's witnessed, by saying "even in Europe!"

Not so fast, my Brazilian buckaroo. Yugoslavia was Communist, and if not precisely Soviet, certainly not representative free markets, free speech, or really, free-anything. But of course Salgado's not free (heh) to entertain the possibility that there is something uniquely positive about Western thoughts and processes.

Now, after decades of seeing people starving, Salgado inherits his father's farm. Naturally, he decides to retire it and restore the rain forest. Because, you know, what kind of person would think of feeding those starving people he witnessed for decades?

This is not an entirely fair criticism, of course. Popular belief notwithstanding, there really aren't food shortages, not in the global sense. America—hell, possibly California with one or two other states—by itself could feed the world. The problems are entirely political and intentionally genocidal. But, N.B. again that he seems to be a promulgator of these sorts of ideas.

I wouldn't even bring this stuff up—it would hardly be relevant, except his success among the bien pensants can, in large part, be attributed to his being one of them. This does not take away from his artistry, but one does marvel at a guy who, for four decades, in a world controlled by the people he agrees with, takes pictures of monstrosities and finds no connection.

Here is a man, in other words, praised for "raising social awareness" of issues that virtually all resolved in the worst possible ways. Giving you a sense both of what it means to "raise social awareness", and the commitment to solving problems of big institutions like the U.N.

Blah-blah-blah. Anyway, it is a good movie, and if you don't mind seeing lots of pictures of starving and mutilated people, it's well worth watching.

Wild Tales

I was somewhat leery going into the Argentine film and Academy Award nominee Wild Tales, a series of vignettes that center on a theme of revenge. Vignette movies: meh. Argentine vignette movies? Meh-to-the-nth-degree, as they conjure memories of cheesy, sleazy, pretentious european "art" films of the '70s. (The Giorgio Moroder interlude in the third vignette felt almost like the movie was mocking me.)

Oh, well, Pedro Almodovar is attached, so there's that.

shudder

As it turns out, this is really good. Way better than the Oscar winner, Ida. And since it grabs you by the lapels from the teaser, I'm not sure what it says about the whole "Academy only watches first five minutes of foreign films" theory.

It's not for everybody. First of all, it's dark—very dark—humor. And it's unsettling in more than one place. Writer/director Damián Szifron never takes the easy way out. Where the custom for vengeance tales is to be cathartic, where you identify with the vengeful one and never with his victims, it's always a mixed bag here, to say the least. You can't even always tell villain from victim for that matter.

There are six stories:
  • A strange coincidence on a plane with dark implications.
  • A mobster walks into a diner where the sole people working are a waitress whose father he drove to death, and a chef with a checkered past.
  • A jerk on the road taunts another jerk on a lonely mountain road as he passes him, only to get a flat a few miles later.
  • A demolitions expert who is constantly being harassed by predatory towing companies.
  • A rich couple whose adult son is seeking to escape the consequences of his hit-and-run, who discover the depth (and cost) of corruption.
  • A bride at a reception who discovers her groom has been unfaithful.
One of the problems with vignette movies is that they tend to stuff a few weak stories in with the strong ones, or they just feel like watching random TV programs because nothing ties the stories together.

These six stories are all pretty strong, have a similar tone, and the whole question of vengeance, both as a visceral reaction and as a moral (or immoral) acts as a kind of emotional tie. For a movie about vengeance, it's remarkably non-judgmental, and it's hard to say how the stories are going to turn out. (Except the last one, the end of which I thought was pretty inevitable. This isn't bad, necessarily: It shows the consistency of the story telling.)

It's very funny, if you like this sort of humor, which I do. And, as I said, there's an unsettling toying with the audience, which is used to "picking a side" in movies about vengeance. (That's why we go see vengeance movies, after all: To enjoy injustices being "corrected".) So you might feel one way about a character, then revise that, then revise it again.

It's not a "vicarious thrill" type of revenge, in other words.

If there's a weakness to this, it's that we do end up with a kind of ironic distance from our protagonists, which limits the emotional impact to a kind of queasiness and uncertainty. This is not what you'd call a "warm" picture.

Anyway, The Boy and I were very glad to have had a chance to see it. Very entertaining.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

It Follows

Here's a cinematic oddity: A horror movie gets a small theatrical release simultaneous with a pay-per-view launch, but its limited release is so successful, the distributors pull the PPV and give it a wide release! The jury's out on whether this was worth it, though I gotta think that going from $50K/day box office to $500K/day has to be worth something. Like, $450K/day. (Up to about $10M now!)

What's it about? Well, the premise is simple enough: There's a boogen wandering around with an itchin' to kill a girl. Why? Because she had sex!

Heh.

This is not the '80s era "virgin lives" trope, which actually wasn't as much a thing as it was made out to be in retrospect. Rather, this is the monster-as-venereal-disease trope of the '70s—indeed David Cronenberg cut his teeth on this theme with flicks like Shivers and Rabid. In this case, having sex with a cursed person transfers the curse to you, and tags you with a supernatural GPS the boogen uses to...

Walk

Ever

So

Slowly

Toward

You

So, sort of like a zombie movie where there's only one zombie.

Speaking of the '70s, this movie sort of takes place in it. There are no cell phones, no computers, no social media, only CRT TVs, a lot of big cars, porn magazines, and kids watching black-and-white horror movies with Peter Graves far into the night. Also, parents and adults only on the periphery.

And then one character has a pink clamshell e-reader (which she's using to read Dostoyefsky's The Idiot) of a sort I've never seen before.

Which, I believe, is the director's way of saying, "Chill. It's a campfire story. Who cares when it takes place?"

The music, which is occasionally overbearing, is also sometimes very effective, recalling classic '70s horror movies, especially Phantasm, which is a good choice since it's not as on-the-nose as an homage to Halloween, Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street would have been.

The opening shot reminded me of Halloween, though: The peaceful suburban street where something terrible is going on, even though no one sees what it is. Actually, the whole "unstoppable boogen" has a John Carpenter feel to it. And the main characters' house is sort of a downscale Nightmare on Elm Street house.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell brings to this mix of familiar elements some more idiosyncratic touches. For example, the movie takes place in-and-around Detroit. As such, he has a wide range of atmospheres to draw on: The kids live in a decent, if not affluent suburb around 12-mile. At one point, they go to the lake (Michigan). But around these nice settings, we also have the post-apocalyptic Packard Plant, the beautiful-but-ominous-looking-at-night Water Works Park, and the poignant street-by-street travel that shows Detroit's transition between glory, ruin and abandonment.

With buckets of atmosphere to spare, Mitchell adds to it by having a creature that can look like anyone, and then constantly plays with middle-range shots to increase the sense of paranoia. Is that It? No? Who's that?

On top of that, the creature can only be seen by its intended victim, meaning your pals can't easily watch out for you.

Primarily a movie like this lives-or-dies on suspense, of which we are particularly fond, but which we also can easily lose if the movie breaks its own rules. The way It Follows works is by twisting expectations about how it's going to work. At least, I expected It to be a particular type of creature, and when it wasn't I was fairly surprised.

And having set the rules, the movie by-and-large doesn't break them, although I don't know if the math would work out as far as walking everywhere. I thought about this in terms of my own life and realized I'd never see the thing. It would follow me to work in the morning, but by the time it could get there, I'd be on the way home.

Heh. Californians.

There's a very nice touch here where the kids come up with a cockamamie Scooby Doo scheme to defeat the monster that fails horribly. I really liked that. In any other movie, that stupid idea would've worked.

So, we all liked it. I think I liked it the most, though The Flower was also pleased. The Boy had a problem—he has my problem, where he can't tell people apart, especially in movies—in that he thought that the teaser at the beginning was actually the ending of the film. Once he realized that the buxom, leggy brunette killed at the start was not the lithe blonde heroine, he reevaluated the movie more positively.

"I hate it when they show the ending first!"
"Uh..."

Anyway, glad we got to see it, especially in the theater. Note that even though this movie is rated R, it's actually for sex and not violence. There's very little violence in the movie. Mostly it has what you might call prophylactic sex.

Seymour: An Introduction

I had not heard of Seymour Bernstein before, but Ethan Hawke was so impressed by him that he went and made this documentary about the octogenarian piano player. So it's kind of a musical version of Supermensch.

It's fun: Bernstein and his pupils have many nice stories both personal and historical, an interesting history, a cool view on life and art, and a passion for teaching it. He's sort of the anti-Fletcher, although I can't say The Boy and I didn't have fun whispering "NOT my tempo!" and "Wait, this is where he throws a grand piano at his head."

Some good music, as you would expect. Cool hanging out in the New York Steinway & Sons basement. The pianos sounded good, too. (The last time I played new Steinways they sounded mediocre and played like crap.)

1) Subject matter: Good, interesting, arty.

2) Treatment: Competent. Not super flashy. I remember a slight feeling that there were a few too many long "beats" between parts of the movie, but really very slight.

3) Reverential. Some critics had a problem with this but really, how else you gonna do this sort of thing? Shep Gordon and Roger Ebert are easily more contentious characters, although maybe Bernstein is some sort of toxic quantity in the New York Art circle.

We liked it. Probably won't change your life like it seems to have Hawke's, but you could do worse.

Cinderella

Speaking of movies with simple stories that win just by being sincere, I followed up Paddington with Cindarella, or perhaps Disney Presents Kenneth Branagh's Cindarella, as Branagh has directed this yet-another-adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale. Having "missed" the last Jack Ryan movie and his rendering of MacBeth, the last Branagh-helmed movie I saw was Thor.

And this has some things in common with that.

To the extent that the Thor movie worked, it worked because Branagh fully embraced the comic book milieu. He didn't try to hip it up, make it edgy or cool: He just let the comic book speak for itself. In Cindarella, the material is Disney's classic 1950 film—moreso than the Grimm original (a la Into The Woods)—and Branagh plays it straight.

First of all, the movie opens with a solid 10-15 minutes of Cinderella's life with her parents—both at first, then just her father—in by far the most heartbreaking rendition of the tale I've seen. Most interpretations tend to gloss over the happy portion of Cinderella's childhood. Here, the audience gets to feel her fairytale beginning and share the loss with her.

The Barbarienne will not be seeing this film, at least for a while. (The other kids wouldn't have had a problem, but the Barb is very emotional and deeply affected by this stuff.)

So, yeah, put that in, take out the musical numbers, tone down the talking mice, and give the prince and Cinderella a chance to meet briefly before the ball—make it, in fact, the impetus for the ball, and that's your movie.

It is perhaps the least surprising movie of the past few years, including a bunch of cookie cutter superhero and horror flicks, except that it surprises by being so wonderfully square. Cinderella is good and pure, and the handsome prince "Prince" is simply charming. In a way, it makes sense having a guy who does Shakespeare do this sort of thing, because he's used to interpreting already existing material, and knows that the interpretation can succeed on its own merits, regardless of how old the story.

The only part that felt a teeny bit off was the Fairy Godmother. She's oddly zany. The movie breaks up the serious moments with comedy, particularly involving the mice, but the actual transformation ends up feeling almost out of place. On some level, though, it works for being so startling (even as you know it must be coming).

And it has a charm to it, as well. It's almost as if the Cinderella's mantra: "Be courageous and kind" was translated into the making of the movie. And that's a good thing.

Lily James (of the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) is suitably beautiful and sweet for the role. Hayley Atwell (Captain America) is radiant as Ella's mother, and Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line, The Truth About Cats and Dogs) is wonderfully warm as her father. Helena Bonham Carter as the Fairy Godmother has apparently not recovered from her quirky Burton period. (Nah, that's not fair. She's fine, particularly as the narrator.)

I did not recognize Cate Blanchett as the Evil Stepmother, which as bad as I am with faces I largely attribute to her almost unrelenting evil. There are a few moments, briefly, where she struggles with human emotions, but they always lose out to the evil. Great performance.

The cast is pretty high-powered even past this. Richard Madden (Rob Stark of "Game of Thrones"), Nonso Anozie (Xaro of "Game of Thrones"), Stellan Skarsgård (not from "Game of Thrones", yet), Derek Jacobi, cameo by Rob Brydon, etc.

Great score by Patrick Doyle. Great script by Chris Weitz.

Like Sunday, Like Rain

I think of Frank Whaley as the guy, along with Jon Cryer, who filled in the "nerd gap" created in the '80s when Michael Anthony-Hall buffed up and Robert Downey, Jr. got strung out, but that's probably not fair. Anyway, he's not in the film Like Sunday, Like Rain but he did write and direct this sweet little tale of a precocious rich boy who ends up with a beautiful young girl from the wrong side of the state as a nanny.

Eleanor leaves her loser musician boyfriend Dennis, who manages to cost her her job by having a tantrum at the restaurant where she waits tables. Penniless and homeless (she was living with Dennis) a quick call home makes it clear she's not welcome back there and not happy with her sister's new job (as a stripper, is implied).

Meanwhile, super-genius Reggie daydreams through his AP Calculus classes (he's got the material down at least as well as the teacher) and lugs his cello around between his rich kids' school and the ridiculously opulent house where his mother browbeats a bunch of Latin American women into coddling Reggie.

Mom insists, and requires the help to insist, that Reggie take the car she has constantly waiting for him, but Reggie is smarter than she is, and has arrangements with the help vis a vis getting them to go along with him.

When Eleanor replaces a suddenly absent nanny, it's not exactly love at first sight. As pretty as she is, he's not the sort of kid who would just fall head-over-heels at first sight. (Reggie's a lot like an old man, in a lot of ways.) But in their time together, where she's his sole caretaker, they have a lot of time to get to know each other.

So, yes, what we have here is basically a love story. And it's to his credit that Whaley does this effortlessly, without ever going into sleaze. (It's probably unrealistically pure, really.) Both characters are aware of their differences, and there's always a proper distance between them, such that the occasions where they do touch are especially significant. Although Reggie's friend likes to refer to her as "hot", the beautiful Eleanor is never vampy.

Reggie, especially early on, borders on unlikably smartass-y, but that's another line delicately walked by Whaley. He's smarter than just about anyone ever, a master of music, math, and many other things (though not swimming). He's right about circumventing his mother's wishes at every turn: Although largely unsympathetic, we get a little sense of what she's going through, raising this son she cannot relate to. Her misguided attempts to shoehorn him into normalcy are somewhat touching, even while terribly uninvolved and superficial.

Anyway, good little flick. Frank should be proud. Released in merely two theaters, but still ahead of Eva and Buzzard for box office.

Besides the writing and directing, the acting is quite good, being carried by Leighton Meester (Eleanor) and newcomer Julian Shatkin (Reggie). They get the chemistry just right: Eleanor can see Reggie is the kind of guy who would treat her as she deserves to be treated—to say nothing of being wealthy beyond what her destitute poor white trash mind can imagine—but never once do we see a flicker of predatoriness. She could probably exploit him, manipulate him, wrap him around her little finger and set herself up for life.

Well, maybe: Reggie is very smart, and he's aware of where he stands in a lot of ways. It is his moments of vulnerability, even though carefully controlled, that make us like him and feel for him.

Debra Messing is surprisingly dowdy and (less surprisingly) unlikable as Reggie's mom. Billie Joe Armstrong, a musician of some sort, is also really unlikable as Eleanor's musician boyfriend.

This sort of material is difficult to do well, but it's done well here. I doubt it will get a wider opening, so check it out via Netflix/Amazon/whatever..

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Paddington

You know there's something odd going on when a kiddie movie about a talking teddy bear gets a 98 from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And sure enough, there is: Paddington is really, really good. The trailer is somewhat unfortunate, as it highlights a physical comedy scene which is probably one of the more clichéd elements of the film. (The film features a lot of physical comedy but most of it has some originality to it.)

The main thing, though, is that Paddington never phones anything in. Each scene is loaded with jokes, big and small, so that the occasional miss is swamped by other jokes and general good-naturedness. A terribly pedestrian fish-out-of-water story featuring a gentle wife, nervous husband, peer-conscious teen girl and parentally restrained adventurous young boy is thus saved.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Paddington travelling to London from Darkest Peru, where (40 years earlier) The Explorer had assured his Aunt and Uncle that he would always be welcome. Of course, it's 40 years earlier from the original 1958 publication date, so The Explorer looks like something out of H.G. Wells' time, not the '70s.

Once in London, he takes up with the Browns, who agree to house him long enough to find The Explorer. But there's a mystery afoot! There's no record of any trip to Darkest Peru at the London Explorer's Club.

Meanwhile, a mysterious and sinister taxidermist is seeking Paddington out for her own nefarious—and come to think of it, self-explanatory—reasons.

Much like the trailer, nothing in this review would actually compel me to go to see this film. But it succeeds by doing things very well. Despite having a ridiculously cute protagonist, it largely avoids trying to coast on said cuteness. This has a salutary effect on Paddington as a character: It gives him a kind of dignity he wouldn't get from being a prop.

There's also a decidedly unapologetic pro-English thing going on here, which is nice. Although Paddington has trouble at the train station, in most cases, the English people he meets are extremely helpful and polite to him. And they never once raise the issue of him being, you know, a talking bear. Wouldn't be cricket.

Good comedy redirection, that.

The always appealing Sally Hawkins (Godzilla, Great Expectations, Submarine) and rather Firth-y Hugh Bonneville (from that "Abbey" show; I don't know how I know the guy) are delightful as the Browns. Julie Walters (Brave, all those Potter flicks) plays the grandma character. A bit of stunt casting with Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton (both late of the Potter flicks, too, come to think of it) as Paddington's aunt and uncle.

Pete Capaldi, Jim Broadbent—you know, this had a hell of a cast, come to think of it.

Nicole Kidman, whose face has very nearly returned to normal, is perfect as the evil taxidermist. Really, she gets it just right.

Written and directed by Paul King, whom my only exposure to is commercials for his bizarre comedy series "The Mighty Boosh". (And maybe I should watch that show given it was also the breeding ground of Richard Ayoade, who directed Submarine.) Presumably co-writer Hamish McColl, of various Mr. Bean movies, is responsible for much of the slapstick.

Hell, I thought Nick Urata's (Crazy Stupid Love, What Maise Knew) score was a standout.

But at this point, I've probably oversold it. It's good, very good even. Take a few points off if you don't like physical comedy and it's still really good. The Barb loved it, and The Boy, who had no interest, ended up in taking his girlfriend to see it, both reporting back positively (if not wildly enthusiastically).

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