Sunday, May 31, 2015

I'll See You In My Dreams

I feel like I should post a "trigger warning" up front here for I'll See You In My Dreams, but I can't do that without a spoiler so let me just say: As you might expect in any movie involving the retired set, there will be some death. One death you might not be expecting might be especially...traumatic.

Anyway, this is a film about Carol (Blythe Danner), a septuagenarian widow whose husband died 20 years ago, and how she never really recovered from that. She lives her life in a quiet routine, not inactive, exactly, but sort-of routine-as-shield.

Her life starts to change when a rat appearing in her house forces her to sleep outside (which you can do in Studio City, where the movie takes place), and she wakes to a new pool guy, Lloyd, with whom she strikes up a friendship. Lloyd is a youngish man who gave up on his musical dreams in Austin to move back in with his Mom in L.A.

Meanwhile, while shopping for vitamins for the vague purpose of "not wanting to be missing anything", a tall, handsome stranger tells her she doesn't need them, since she's perfect the way she is. Said stranger being none other than The Stranger himself, Sam Elliot.

And, hey, if your heart doesn't flutter when Sam Elliot tells you you're perfect, even if you're a guy, your problem isn't that you're not gay, it's that you're dead. Seriously, he plays this as a perfect alpha male, charmed and charming, assertive but not obnoxious. It's not an easy gig. Unless you're Sam Elliot.

There's a comical scene when Carol's cronies (played by Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place) talk her into a nice 40 Year Old Virgin-style speed-dating riff. Some of these actors are going to look familiar (like "Barney Miller"'s Max Gail, who's been working constantly since then but whom I don't see often) and a lot of them—not just here, but throughout the movie—seem like maybe they were just natives pulled off the actual location.

And not in a bad way, either. Just a kind of cool, natural-seeming thing.

So, throughout the movie, we get a picture of Carol, from her friends, from her daughter (played by Malin Akerman of Watchmen), and through Bill's (Elliot) eyes. Elliot just has to be charming, and Danner's co-stars get to be fun, believable characters (which they do well), but Danner has to be subtly broken in a kind of terrible way while still being relatable and empathetic.

I'd say she did a great job. The other guy who has a similar role is the pool guy, played by Martin Starr (of "Freaks and Geeks" and last seen playing himself in This Is The End). He's also broken in a not very appealing way, but manages to be empathetic.

It's not really chock-full of wisdom. I liked the rat, which was pretty obviously a metaphor but not a super ham-handed one, and I like it when writers do something like that can work believably as a real thing.

I enjoyed it. The Boy, on the other hand, was unimpressed. It didn't grip him, he said, which is fair enough. It's not really meant to be a gripping film. It was also, you know, about old people, of which he's not one, and low-key, which when he's slightly under the weather (as he was) can make him that much harder to grab.

I thought it was particularly poignant, if inside baseball, that the picture on the mantle of Carol in  younger days, with her husband and daughter was actually of her late husband (Bruce Paltrow, d. 2002) and Gwynneth.

Writer/director Brett Haley and co-writer Marc Basch have made a nice little movie/showcase for the perennially lovely Ms. Danner. Worth checking out.

When Marnie Was There

This latest film in the "last of Studio Ghibli" films is from the director of The Secret World of Arriety, the delightful film of a young woman's encounter with tiny people, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and has much of the same poignancy and subtlety—the kind that you're almost surprised to encounter in what might be a very pedestrian or even boring story.

Almost surprised, of course, because it's Ghibli, which means it follows an aesthetic logic that transcends traditional storytelling rules.

The story is about an orphan girl, Anna, who is sent out to the country to live with some friends of her foster mother, because she has asthma and that's what doctors did to kids with asthma long ago: Sent them other places.

She's an irritable, moody girl, self-involved and prickly. Not like Spirited Away's Chihiro, really, who was just kind of a brat, but more feeling like life is kicking her when she's down—something we might be willing to grant an asthmatic orphan. While unable to make friends at school, or perhaps more accurately, she's unwilling to make friends and more likely to alienate the ones who try to befriend her, she finds an instant fast friend in the form of Marnie, a beautiful blonde girl who lives in the mansion across the marsh.

Now, I've been around the block a few times, cinematically speaking, and I can honestly say, I had pretty much resolved the entire plot in my head within the first 15-20 minutes. And yet despite that the measured plot reveal was just so, enough to genuinely move me by the end of the film. Perhaps because the details, which are really unknowable early on, end up being rich and deep when they're finally revealed.

It's based on an English book by Joan Robinson, but if it's like any of their other adaptations, it probably bears resemblance only in tone and atmosphere, with very broad story points hit. I could see being annoyed if you were a fan of the book, but I actually think I prefer that to "Well, here's an adaptation that's only going to screw up the most imporant points." Or, especially, "Well, this is based on the world the author created, only with more explosions." (*kaff*Peter Jackson*kaff*)

The Boy really liked it. The Flower loved it, though she wants to see it again dubbed (we saw it subtitled) because she wants to look more at the artistry of it. It's funny, but to my eye, the Ghibli stuff gets prettier and more sophisticated each time out in terms of background and general movements, while maintaining the traditional half-animation for the characters.

Part ghost story, part love story, part tragedy, Yonnebayashi has done a truly fine job and given Ghibli a good closing note, if this truly is to be their last film.

Mad Max: Fury Road

The Flower had been coy about going to see a movie on her birthday. She wondered whether there would be anything good out (apparently Avengers 2 wasn't going to cut it and Marnie hadn't opened locally yet). I tentatively suggested Mad Max: Fury Road, about which she was dubious until I dropped the CGI-bomb.

As in, Mad Max's special effects are not primarily CGI but actual cars and what-not.

I actually didn't think that would sell it, but it did, in a big way. Then my concern was that the movie wouldn't live up to the hype in her own head.

But it did. In a big way.

How good is Fury Road? Very, very good. The Boy put it in his top 5 of the year-to-date. (Keep in mind that three of the other four—American Sniper, Mommy and Wild Tales are actually from last year—but he goes by the year he sees them, not the "official" year. For the curious, the fifth and most recent of the top 5 is the deeply romantic 5 to 7, which will probably drop a bit lower as the year wears on.)

Fury Road on the other hand is not just good in comparison to other things, but just plain good. Even if you didn't like any of the three previous entries in the series, you might like this. There's less graphic violence, for example. And maybe because he spent the past two decades directing family films like Babe and Happy Feet, director George Miller has a sure hand had creating emotion and drama without a lot of words.

In fact, if this movie has a weak point, it's the few words that are actually spoken. It's virtually a silent film—could've just about have been, in fact.

The story is that Max is captured by an evil warlord who keeps women for breeding (and milking!) purposes, in attempt to have a son who isn't a hideous defective mutant. Max spends the first half of the movie providing blood for (anemic?) Nux (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies, X-Men: Days of Future Past), the son of the warlord Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Bearns, who was the villain in the first Mad Max).

I want to point out now, as I feel I always must, that the first Mad Max isn't post-apocalyptic. It's just an Australian version of Death Wish, and it's only apocalyptic in the sense that all those revenge movies of '70s gave a sense of apocalyptic doom and civilizational collapse. It's not until Mad Max 2, known in The States as The Road Warrior, that the collapse has actually occurred. (And then of course, Beyond Thunderdome, where an emergent civilization, Bartertown, begins to take hold.)

Speaking of The Road Warrior, hailed in its time and for years after as the greatest action film ever made, Fury Road may actually be better. But perhaps better for the series as a whole, it's different.

Anyway, Max (Thomas Hardy, who spent his last movie in a car, too) finds himself with a bunch of the breeding women trying to escape, but in true Max style, he's not too interested in getting involved. It's only through the machinations of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) that he ends up going on this road trip.

Now, we can't really pretend that the Maxian apocalyptic world makes sense. As The Old Man was fond of pointing out, if you were driving cars along in the Australian desert, your problem wouldn't be gas, it would be tires. But within the confines of its own rules (Apocalypse, but with cars) it all works. And it works because considerable care went into playing within those rules.

For example, the breeding women? They're near useless. They're gorgeous, soft, pale, scantily clad, and they can't do a damn thing. Predictably, at times they debate the wisdom of leaving their comfortable lives for the crazy, wild world outside, where they'll have to work and scrabble like everyone else. But they do have heart, or at least some do. (This doesn't make them useful but it makes them likable.)

Furiosa fights Max but she can't really harm him much unless she grabs some sort of a weapon. This is refreshing given the current nonsense regarding women fighting men, with little sub-100 pound women beating up hulking giants. (Just as a reference, consider that trans-sexual that's going around smashing up women in MMA in his weight class!)

I suppose I should talk, at least briefly, about the whole Eve Ensler thing. (Because everything must be political, apparently.) George Miller apparently had Ensler, whose sole claim to fame seems to be pedophilia-endorsing "The Vagina Monologues", consult on the film, and this resulted in—I guess—the Vuvalini, a sort-of Amazonian tribe of motorcycle women.

But, here's the thing: the name never comes up that we recalled (and I was listening for it). And the whole premise—i.e., that some women might get fed up of the abuse they'd been fed (especially in Road Warrior and here) and form their own group? It's not that far-fetched. They're largely older women, too, which would make sense.

And to me, the irony is that it's in the running for Least Feminist Movie Ever. (Apocalyptic movies almost can't be feminist if they're going to make sense. Feminism is a by-product of civilization.) The Vuvalini come off reminiscent of pioneer women, nothing even slightly edgy or radical there. There are traditional male roles, female roles, a couple of classic boy-meets-girl stories woven in, and so on. And it's a world where a bourgeois lifestyle would be paradise.

So unless the idea is to boycott everything that certain people touch, I'm not getting the point here.

Another common criticism is "The movie isn't about Max!" Well, none of the movies are about Max, after the first one. The first movie is Max's character arc. It defines him. The second movie is about a struggle over gas he doesn't want to get involved in. The third about Tina Turner. So, I don't find that complaint interesting, especially given how silly most franchises get in trying to make all their movies about one character going through arc after arc, unable to learn from anything, like it's an episodic sitcom.

Anyway, the action is gripping in a way that I don't get out of the superhero stuff. The character development is economic but strong. It's got style coming out its ears. And it confirms a belief I have regarding CGI: It can be a lot more effective if it's used sparingly, as-needed. The scenes of the Australian Outback are breathtaking (as seen in Tracks, e.g.) and the CGI is used to create just the right amount of sci-fi/fantasy vibe.

The kids really dug all the little touches, like the swamp where the Ravens—a tribe that navigated the toxic marsh on stilts—lurked. The cult. The chrome. The tree. And there are just tons of these little details everywhere. It's one they've both indicated strongly they wish to see again.

And I won't mind joining them.

Iris

My stepfather quipped, when I mentioned we had seen Albert Maysles' (Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter) new film, Iris, "I didn't know you guys were fans of big costume jewelry."

Heh.

Iris Apfel is a 93-year-old woman who is known as a fashion icon, and in particular for wearing shall-we-say striking clothing accessorized with copious quantities of large costume jewelry. She, with her now 100-year-old husband, Carl, started an interior design business after The War which emphasized uniqueness. So, where most designers would decorate from the stock at hand, Iris would travel the world finding unique fabrics, tchochkes, and furniture so that your living room wouldn't look like everyone else's.

Needless to say, this appeals to a client base that is very wealthy. Iris even did the White House from—I think it was—the Trumans to, I dunno, maybe even the current guy. (There's a cute scene in the trailer where Carl starts to talk about having trouble with Jackie, and Iris hushes him. She warns that the White House doesn't like it when you talk about them.)

Needless to say, we aren't really big fashion folk. (The Flower wasn't there.) But in my experience, people don't really make documentaries about ordinary people—if there even is such a thing. And certainly, if Viviane Maier taught us anything, it's that extraordinary people lurk under ordinary surfaces.

Using the three point system:

1. Subject matter is...well, interesting. Iris is an interesting woman who's had a long, successful life. She was not an attractive woman, but she had style, and she cultivated it into an amazing career. It's touching and amazing how she and her husband are after 70 years!

2. The presentation is very straightforward. Veteran director Albert Maysles, who died in March at the age of 88, was certainly capable of of a variety of approaches—he directed the Stones' classic "Gimme Shelter"—but the choice he made here was to follow Iris around today on a schedule which makes almost everyone else in the world look like a slacker. There's enough backstory to get a sense of Iris' past, but it's oddly—for a movie about a nonagenarian—not about her past at all. It's about her present! On the one hand, you might wish for more background material, but on the other, as a living human, she's probably more interesting than just history can capture.

3. Slant? Well, probably. One of the gags (seen in the trailer) is someone suggesting she did the movie because she thought the director was cute. She runs with that, pronouncing him a lady-killer. And that's kind of a recurring theme: She's all about fashion, but she's never mean. And she doesn't ever come off as pretentious (which I totally would, if I wore feather boas and big bracelets).

So, maybe there's a slant there, but as I always say, when we're dealing with biographies, a little hagiography can be okay.

Speaking of things Iris can pull of but I couldn't, the woman has been shopping for almost 90 years now (she relates her first shopping adventure) and has a impressive "collection" of baubles, bangles and what-not. If I had that much stuff, I'd probably end up on "Hoarders". But that's fair. It's all junk when you get down to it—all of the things of life, really—and what matters is what you make of it.

Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

Things have not improved in the past three years—and by "things" I mean my attitude toward superhero movies—and by the past three years, I mean since the last Avengers movie.

The Boy and The Flower really liked it. And later, when asked, The Flower said "Then Dad spent the whole ride home sandbagging us."

Heh.

I did, I confess. I said it was good (and it was) and then spent the ride home pointing out all the things wrong with it. I can't deny that Joss Whedon manages an ensemble better than most, maybe anyone.

So, quick review: This is pretty much what you'd expect if you saw the first one, though you don't really need to, if you can jump into the tropes quick enough. The battles are chaotic, and to my eye suffer from fidelity to their comic book origin. (But, I'm old, so factor that in.) In other words, a great comic book panel can (and sometimes must) cram too much action into the plausible time being represented, but I think it just looks like fwaaaaahhshsh on screen.

It's not as funny as the first one. I think there's less dialogue which suggests they're less worried about people following the plot. (A fair assumption this late in the superhero movie game.) It hangs together well, though, and there are some reasonably clever handlings of the predictable "twists".

You can't really ask for much more. And, as I said, the kids liked it. I did, too, but there were a few things that put me off a bit.

First, the CGI is just awful. I'm sure it's state-of-the-art, and I'm sure it wasn't cheap, but it was so obvious from scene one. I mean, it's CGI of outrageous things so, I guess it's always obvious, but the composition—the places where they overlay the live action on to the CGI and vice-versa just leapt out at me.

It got better later on. But it was kind of eye-roll inducing for me.

Second, with the exaggerated superheroics, it becomes increasingly ridiculous to have heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow along for the ride. They would be smashed. At one point Whedon lampshades the issue: "The city is flying! We're fighting an army of robots! And I have a bow and arrow! None of this makes sense!"

It really doesn't. Even less sensible is a moment in the movie where one of the characters reveals a secret life with family which he brings the whole team to meet. You know, when the super-powerful-hero-hating villain wants them all dead. I guess this was necessary for dramatic reasons, and isn't any less logical than the sort of comic book science which treats AI as something that needs to be woken up, and which, once woken up, becomes virtually omnipotent and omniscient.

But again, irked me. These movies are built on the ability to find and attack individuals all over the world. Why would anyone take the risk shown?

The third act cavalry bit was also goofy, but again, provided a dramatic hook. A good one.

So, I don't know. I'm being churlish. It's good, it's just that the tropes are wearing thin on me.

Ultron struck me as a "could be anyone" role, in this case "anyone" is James Spader. Paul Bettany does a good job having a little more to work with as Vision.

Oh, the stuff about sexism is just stupid and wrong. Black Widow gets kidnapped, sure, but from there she alerts the rest of the gang to the Big Bad's evil plans and thus saves the day by being saved. Also, she's not paste in the first five minutes, which she (and Hawkeye) would be were any of it real.

There are five females in this movie: Black Widow (who saves the day), the superpowered Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who also saves the day), and the kickass SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders, who is as impossibly composed as Hawkeye and Black Widow under the most impossibly stressful situations, i.e., constantly being faced down by godlike beings.

The other two are Hayley Atwell in a flashback and Linda Cardellini as an impossibly dutiful wife.

So, yeah, dumb to even discuss it.

Good sort of film if you're interested.

The Connection

The Connection is about the French Connection, done from the French perspective instead of the New York perspective. And the funny thing about it is that the actual title, in French, is La French. Well, you couldn't call a movie The French here. Wouldn't mean anything. And you can't call it The French Connection because, well, you know.

So, The Connection it is. "The French" is the name of the organization providing the drugs to the New York mob and in French, everyone says their name as "The French". Not "le Français".

What we have here is a mob story, in French, which means: a) It's going to be hard to follow, because mob stories are especially hard to follow (at least for me); b) The villains are going to be Italians, all played by French guys, speaking flawless French.

OK, I can't really support (b) here: I have no idea if that's true of French mob movies, or if their French is flawless. That said, writer/director Cedric Jimenez and co-writer Audrey Diwan don't do themselves a lot of favors with the pacing of this film.

One of my oft-noted pet peeves: This movie is very loosely based on real events, at which point—when you've already tossed fidelity to the wind—I think you need to juice it up a bit. As The Boy said, it was "too real". Many outcomes seemed pre-determined and lacking suspense. (And while it's historical, certainly The Boy wasn't aware of any of the history.)

Fine acting across the board, good characterizations, big name French stars, tight editing (even if the pacing is somewhat lax), the style is spot on for the late '70s, and the music is good without being obnoxious, though at one point the mafia kingpin loses it over Kim Wilde's "Cambodia". (No idea what that was about.)

And—I guess this is the French part—at one point, our hero has a breakdown in a phone booth when his wife leaves him, and there's a big dramatic moment that, you know, you won't find in The French Connection. The odd part to me was that his family was never at risk. I've never seen that in a mob movie. That's how the mob gets you: Threatens to kill you, and if that doesn't work, threatens to kill your family.

It's so weird that this guy tools around Marseille on a scooter while pursuing the most vicious drug dealers of the day. The denouement was also weird. Almost "Crime doesn't pay. Isn't that sad?"

So, a lot of missed opportunities, we felt. It's not bad. It's just not as good as you want it to be. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as the hero, Celine Salette (Rust and Bone) as his wife, Gilles Lelouche (Point Blank) as the drug lord, Benoit Magimel (For A Woman), Guillaume Gouix (Midnight in Paris), Moussa Maasrki (Point Blank), and Dominic Gould as John Cusack. (Really! Sorta confusing, actually.)

And, of course, I have my standard reaction to these sorts of films: "And drugs were never seen in the land again." Because the stupidity behind all this stuff is that fighting the laws of economics like fighting the laws of physics. But you know: We get some movies out of it.

The Spongebob Squarepants Movie: Sponge Out Of Water

The Flower had planned an evening with The Barbarienne where they sat and watched Spirited Away while eating Chinese food (there's a lot of eating of Chinese-looking food in Spirited Away) but ended up making last minute changes, so I took the Barb out for a consolation movie (with popcorn).

It's been about 16 years since "Spongebob" first premiered which means a few parents out there could be taking their kids to see something they enjoyed as children. It's been about ten years since the first movie came out and years since there was a new episode, so you can't really accuse anyone of milking the franchise, either.

That said, it's not great. It's not bad. It doesn't quite rise to the level of good, nowhere near the best of the series nor does it reach the committed lunacy of the first movie, having only Antonio Banderas instead of David Hasselhoff as its big name star. On the other hand, the first movie had Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Tambor and Alec Baldwin as voices, whereas this movie's almost a "Who's Who" of voice actors, so point for the newer one, there.

The plot, heh, is that during a near successful attempt to steal the Krabby Patty formuler, while Plankton and Spongebob fight over control of the bottle containing the recipe, it vanishes. Without the recipe, no more Krabby Patty's can be made, and Bikini Bottom slips instantly into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Instantly.

"Welcome to the apocalypse, Mr. Squidward. I hope you like leather."

There are quite a few moments like this, where the sheer absurdity of the situation is both given free reign and still clever enough to get a laugh. There are long stretches of absences of such moments, as well.

There's a thing that animators do with their successful characters: They put them into other situations. I used to really enjoy that. Chuck Jones did, for example, Nude Duck Descending A Staircase, which I might like better than the original. Of course, "The Simpsons" made a practice out of it, and that was cute for a while.

Now they all do it. No matter how minor the character, it can be mashed into something better for, I guess, a laugh.

Here, one of the (ultimately irrelevant) plotlines has Spongebob and Plankton time-travelling through a whole bunch of groovy psychedelic imagery. I don't know: For me, the moment where seeing Mr. Squarepants in a variety of different palettes and styles was amusing has long past—if it ever was a thing. (I think the artistic style of the show is adequate, but not particularly striking.)

Does any of this matter? No, it does not. I may feel like the concept and creators long ago ran out of steam, but The Barb cares not. She loved it. At one point she did say "That movie ruined my childhood," which is an odd thing for a nine-year-old to say. And I think she was just repeating what she hears on the Internet since she couldn't provide any more details and (as I said) loved it.

So, some chuckles. Not horrible. A little like an extended version of a later episode of the show. Oh, the third act, the characters are CGI, and that's mostly well done.

The Barb says "Check it out".

Monday, May 25, 2015

Ex Machina

This was one of those movies with EXTREME buzz, which then cooled off, weeks before I saw it.

And that's good.

Because Ex Machina is a good movie, but not a great one. In fact, while we both agreed it didn't suck, The Boy said he preferred the thematically-similar Spanish film Eva to this. I don't object to that sentiment at all.

The story is that of a young man (Domnhall Gleeson, Harry Potter, Unbroken) who visits a secret laboratory where and odd, manipulative super-genius (Oscar Isaac) wants to use him to test his artificial intelligence. Said artificial intelligence taking the form of the lovely Alicia Vikander (Son of a Gun, A Royal Affair, Anna Karenina) in CGI makeup that's a dead rip-off of that in Eva.

Her name is Eva, too.

But where that movie played on paternal instincts, this one goes straight for the groin—er, heart, as Eva involves Caleb (Gleeson) in the shadowy underpinnings of the spooky lab and Nathan's (Isaac) ultimate plan for her.

So, yeah, it's Island of Doctor Moreau.

I mean, seriously, this isn't as blatant as the gushing over Under The Skin, but it really is just a standard mad scientist/haunted castle scenario, dressed up in Mac/iPhone styling.

First of all, though, it does not suck. And it's to be commended for that.

Second of all, it avoids most of the really terrible pitfalls of this genre of Mad Science/Old Dark House movies.

Thirdly, Isaac really does a good job as the mad scientist.

Fourth, the remaining cast is certainly up to the task. Vikander and Gleeson are appropriately vulnerable. Sonoya Mizuno is suitably exotic and mysterious.

Fifth, the ending, while overlong, mostly works.

So, with all this goodness, why weren't we blown away? Well, I think, first of all, it really is just a restyled '50s horror movie plot which, even if The Boy didn't recognize it, was full of unanswered questions and plot holes. One point, which we didn't agree on, was the implication of Nathan working on "classified" stuff. I got the impression he meant government-classified, in which case the whole setting seemed preposterous.

The setting is that Nathan is completely alone out in the Alaskan wilderness, by the way. I pointed out to The Boy that, at work, it will take a team of people to perform a relatively trivial task. (It's not always true, but generally speaking "cowboy coders" started vanishing in the '90s.) But in this case, Nathan's conquering both Artificial Intelligence and AI literally by himself. One presumes he gets shipments of supplies from somewhere but it's never discussed.

And that's a plot point. In fact, the whole point of the plot is whether or not Eva is alive in a meaningful sense. When we find out Nathan is reusing stuff, we simultaneously have to ask why since there's no reason to do so, and then later there's a strong implication that, no, he doesn't really re-use much of anything. I can't explain it without spoilers but it doesn't make a lick of sense.

There's a lot of stuff like that which, if you gave it a moment's thought as an engineer, wouldn't fly. But, you know, the mad scientist stuff never made any sense either. It still works, basically. There are a few surprises, just because you expect a major screwup at some point.

The ending's a bit too long.

Good acting all around. Vikander is a great choice for the 'bot. She's lovely, of course, but she's not a sexpot, and as a result she comes across more vulnerable than anything, which is important to the story. As Mike Nelson quipped on Twitter: "Saw the film Ex Machina, a contemplative take on Artificial Intelligence and how it's affecting our -- look, the robot chick isn't THAT hot."

Heh. No, she's not. It's not a role like Under The Skin.

So, the broad strokes? Typical goofiness. The details? Fun, clever and lively. Worth a look.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

5 Flights Up

We were going to go see Iris, the documentary about the fashion maven, but got there late, and figured, well, 5 Flights Up was just starting, and if nothing else, it would give us a chance to work on our Morgan Freeman impressions.

And well, yes, that was true. This movie did give us that chance. Mine was definitely improved. The Boy's still sucks, however.

It's not bad. It's not really good, either. The Boy described it thus (paraphrasing): "Take St. Vincent. Nice, but forgettable movie. But it works because it's focused. This one really wasn't." I happened to like St. Vincent more than he did, but he's right. 5 Flights Up serves up interracial marriage, young love, stress over old pets, real estate stress, stress over growing old, and just feels like the tip of the iceberg.

This is the hazard of adapting novels, right? You have to leave stuff out, but you loved the book—that's why you're filming it, presumably—so you hate to leave stuff out, so you get an overstuffed movie. Heroic Measures by Jill Ciment, the book the movie is based on, is merely 209 pages, but at the standard one-page-per-minute book-to-screenplay formula, that would be a movie coming in at three-and-a-half hours.

And that's before Peter Jackson adds the subplot where the elf princess and goblin king get it on.

Also...the interracial thing? Well, that's just not something they're gonna give up easily in Hollywood, is it? "We got married while it was still illegal in 30 states!" Diane Keaton says to Morgan Freeman. Let's do some math, shall we?

Well, they've been married 40 years. 2015 - 40 = 1975. Supreme Court ruling legalizing interracial marriage in all states? 1967.

Anyway, I'm guessing that perhaps the book, published in 2009, is meant to take place in the early 2000s. Or they just added that in because it's never wrong to remind people that there's been racism in America in our lifetimes! As long as you're a Boomer, anyway.

Kind of ticked me off. They could've set the movie earlier. Diane Keaton is a little young to have been married in 1965, but they could've said they'd been married for 50 years instead of 40. (I think the 30-state thing would still would've been untrue but it would've been closer.)

Anyway, we get one dirty look from an old neighbor when they move in, a traumatic encounter of "I'm marrying a black guy" with the young Diane Keaton character, and that's about it. Just like we get one modeling session and one art show, and a contemporary follow-up scene, and that's it for the art.

That was really confusing, too, actually. They have a million dollar apartment because they moved into it when Brooklyn was down-and-out. But are they hard-pressed for money? Are they not? On the one hand, they drop $10,000 on a pet operation. On the other hand, when negotiating for a house, Morgan Freeman's all Mr.-Realist-Can't-Sell-For-$950K-When-We-Have-A-$960K-offer.

It's weird. The whole real estate thing is weird. The movie takes place over a couple of days. I get that things move fast in New York, but economics is economics. At one point, it looks like they're going to buy a house for $930K and the realtor tells them they have to sell their own place for $950K for that to work.

Huh?

And then we have Freeman saying "We're not rich!"

Probably the most enjoyable thing about this film, apart from Keaton and Freeman (and their younger counterparts, who are quite good) is the parade of NYC freaks that march through the open houses they have. But then, if the movie is telling us that New York is full of insufferable rich people, we're not really given a huge basis on which to exclude Freeman and Keaton's characters from that set.

Claire van der Boom and Korey Jackson play young Ruth and Alex. Sterling Jeris has a nice role as a young Brooklynite with a crazy mother. Cynthia Nixon is the realtor, who's supposed to be insufferable, I think, but for whom I sort of felt sorry at the end.

Written by Charlie Peters (Blame It On Rio, My Father The Hero). Directed by Richard Loncrain (of the broody '70s horror The Haunting of Julia and the HBO Winston Churchill biography "The Gathering Storm").

Totally gratuitous—even grating—Morgan Freeman narration. I realize it's mandatory to have Freeman narrate if he's in  your film (and sometimes even when he's not) but the voice over was gratuitous, clunky and cluttered up what might have been emotionally stronger scenes.

But the old folks liked it well enough.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Kung Fu Killer

One of the easiest ways to get The Boy to a movie, regardless of time or film is to say "Oh, hey, looks like our last chance to see..."—and it really doesn't matter how you finish that sentence, he's up for it.

In this case, I finished the sentence with Kung Fu Killer, Teddy Chan's chop-socky martial arts festival about a serial-killer who specializes in killing only the masters of various branches of martial arts.

Which, you know, seems like a dangerous theme compared to, say, taking out fat chicks or senior citizens. Add to that he apparently has to kill them by beating them at their own game. Although, in fairness, some of them are retired. Or disabled. Or just not very good, apparently.

The Boy and I agreed that, while we enjoyed this film, it was not nearly "batshit" enough. The closing fight is wonderfully over the top, with the last men standing duking it out in the middle of a busy roadway, trucks full of convenient construction related items and occasionally bamboo fighting staffs. There's also a great battle early on that takes place on top of a giant replica of the human skeleton.

And, the action is good overall, but I think we figure once you break out the wires—you know, when you signal that physics don't really apply—then why not just go whole hog?

So, fun, for sure. Worth a look, if you're into the fighting flicks at all. Better than most of the action movies we'll see this year, at least in terms of the actual action parts.

Noble

An Irish girl with a beautiful singing voice loses her family and suffers all kinds of vicissitudes at the hands of men and nuns, only to grow up and save children in Vietnam. Such is the true story behind Noble, a moving tale of accomplishing things you have no business doing.

One could argue that it's difficult to screw up a movie about a heroic tale, but not if one has been to the movies very often. Writer/director/relative newcomer Stephen Bradley has done a fine job of splitting Noble's story into two parts: Her life up until she has the dream to help Vietnam, and the first three months of her journey into Vietnam.

Noble is an amazing character, too. Defiant of authority, self-possessed at a ridiculously young age, and blessed with a beautiful singing voice she breaks out at times more mild-mannered folks might consider it inappropriate—and usually to great positive effect on her cause—it seems inevitable that she would fall afoul of the world's worst characters. And she does.

From a basically evil truant officer, to countless nuns—I reminded The Boy there was a time when nuns were played as heroes onscreen, as I don't think he's ever seen that in a movie—to thuggish men (so many thuggish men), it definitely seems as though the world tried its best to grind Christina down.

But the funny thing is she has a faith in God. And it's a most interesting faith in God. One could almost say she treats Him as an equal. She makes demands. She expresses disappointments. At one point, she literally says "You lead. I'll follow," and walks randomly through Ho Chi Minh city. In a lifetime full of disappointment, she believes fervently that God has an amazing plan for her (and apparently random walk actually works out).

Lotsa feels. Lotsa baby-related feels.

There were things that annoyed me. Like when she arrives in Vietnam, a fellow Irishman tells her to visit it all before Americans move in and develop everything. I've become rather appalled by this love of poverty first worlders have when third worlders have it. (But, in fairness, said Irishman turns out to be there for some pedophilia so, you know, not exactly a ringing endorsement.)

The struggle to get this facility built that Noble wants is the MacGuffin here, and she naturally meets all kinds of resistance from a stodgy politburo and virtually all the oil companies. What kills me is that it turns out she's trying to raise $20,000, which is less than about $40,000 in today's dollars.

Which a) is a pretty damn small amount of money, like petty cash for an oil company; b) is the sort of money we routinely raise in the Internet age.

Anyway, good character, played at different ages by three different actresses: The brand new Gloria Cramer Curtis plays lovable orphan Christina, Sarah Greene ("Penny Dreadful") plays the feisty young mother Christina, and Deirdre O'Kane (who worked with the director on the zomcom Boy Eats Girl) plays middled-aged/motivated Christina.

Not likely to get a big release here—it opened with 175 screens—worth a look-see, especially if you're in the mood for an inspirational story.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared

A boy whose unusual proclivities toward blowing things up take him on a life journey through many great world events. This is the premise of writer/director Felix Herngren's film The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out A Window And Disappeared, which is as whimsical as its title suggests.

Though the title doesn't really suggest the blackness of the comedy here, unless you realize the original original title of Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann, which is Swedish for "All Old People Must Die".

I kid the Swedes. The English title is, in fact, a faithful translation of the Swedish. Unlike some other films.

But it is Swedish, and as we know, Swedes can be a morose bunch, which makes the light-hearted tone of this film—notwithstanding the body count which is easily in the double-digits—a pleasant surprise.

The movie begins with our hero, Allan Karlsson escaping his old age home moments before his 100th birthday. From there he takes a bus—but when he gets on the bus, he finds himself in possession of a suitcase. The suitcase becomes the MacGuffin for the modern part of the story, as the gangsters who stuffed said suitcase full of money attempt to retrieve it from him.

He drifts from location to location, road-trip style, picking up companions along the way who end up sucked into his adventure. The first companion is a guy who's just about the age to go into an old folks home and doesn't want to, and you begin to think maybe the movie will make a serious statement about, say, treatment of old folks.

But then body count clicks up a notch and you realize: Nope. If there's a message here, it's roughly equivalent to "Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries". Death is swift, sudden and often stupid.

Along the way, the two pick up a middle-aged man who's been in school his whole life, but has failed to finish any of his innumerable degrees, a woman who cares for an elephant stolen from a circus, and a thug who's thuggishness is apparently cured by a devastating blow to the head.

Meanwhile, in flashbacks, we see Allan's life, Forrest Gump-style (without all the crappy music), as he loses his father to the burgeoning Russian revolution, spends time in an insane asylum, fights in the Spanish Revolution for the Communists but ends up nearly killing but also saving Francisco Franco, builds skyscrapers in New York, helps Oppenheimer finish The Bomb at Trinity, spends quality time in Stalin's gulag with Herbert Einstein, and then acts as a double-agent throughout the Cold War, shuttling crap intel in both directions.

It is through Allan we see that the Soviets tore down the Berlin wall because of a mistaken recording of Reagan insisting that a wall in the White House not be torn down. Reverse psychology, I guess.

Goofy and hugely disrespectful of popular history, which I much prefer to the quasi-self-seriousness/pander-to-popular-history of Gump, for example. And rather than CGI Allan into a bunch of stock footage, they recreated historical scenes with cheap sets and actors. (Though they did Photoshop him into a bunch of historical photos for promos, including Ellen Degeneres' recent Oscar selfie.)

The reviews on this are not strong; apparently, it's a Swedish tradition to not like Swedish films. The audience laughed fairly raucously in the theater I saw it at, and even gave a warm round of applause at the end.

Anyway, enjoyable nonsense, and probably in the top 5 of comedies you'll see this year with a double-digit body count and a flying decapitated head.

Sidenote: Mia Skäringer, the film's elephant caretaker is a stand-up comedian who makes me wish I understood Swedish. Then I would understand why she was in a bikini and sneakers in her show.

Felix and Meira

Sometimes you get critics and audiences agreeing on a modest, yet award-winning film, about a provocative subject, and discover yet that they're all wrong. Not a one has a lick of sense or the faintest idea of aesthetics in general much less moviemaking.

Felix and Meira isn't really one of those films, but it was disappointing.

The premise is that Meira, a young mother and wife in an orthodox Jewish community, feels oppressed by the culture she's in and attracted to Felix, a ne'er-do-well Quebecois with time and money, but no grounding whatsoever.

And that's not a bad premise. The trailers tease all kinds of possibilities. Meira likes music, but the music she likes is forbidden, or maybe it's all music except what the men sing. I don't know, and the movie doesn't illuminate.

Which is probably the main issue here. The movie doesn't really illuminate much. Writer/director Maxime Giroux directs with modesty—which is good—but so much modesty that, at times, you don't really know what's going on.

For example, as much as I think movie sex is generally awkward and misplaced, the issue of sex between Felix and Meira is pretty damn important here. Meira crosses various boundaries at times, but they're all pretty minor. The issue of sex would, I think, be pretty cataclysmic to a young woman who has (presumably) only ever known the touch of her husband. The movie punts on it. There's a scene that might have ended in sex, but just as well might not have, given Felix's general deference toward Meira. And Meira seems no different after than before.

We get why Felix is into Meira: He's a middle-aged man and she's young and beautiful and has an identity. (Ironically, his pursuit of her will necessarily destroy that identity, which idea isn't really illuminated, either.)

We get why Meira is into Felix: He's not orthodox. She can dance and listen to music and wear pants and take birth control and otherwise enjoy all the pleasures of life in Canada in...I'm guessing...the '60s. (Not that any of this actually relates specifically to Felix. He's just the guy who's willing to support her in her non-Jewishness.)

But ultimately, Meira will go whichever way the wind blows. She'll never stand up for herself. If Felix gets her it's because he pursued her. If her husband gets her back, it's because he took her back from Felix.

And, one suspects, as unhappy as she is in her little Orthodox community, she isn't really likely to find happiness outside of it either. The movie sort of suggests that as well. Though I've heard some say that the ending was supposed to be a romantic, happy ending, and I didn't get that at all.

Some would say this is "subtle" but I don't think that's the right word. Some might say "murky" but murkiness can only be employed to hide something. The Boy and I felt more like stuff was just left out to avoid having to tell the story.

Fine acting by people you don't know, except if you read this blog and recall 2012's great overlooked film Fill The Void, which also stars Hadas Yaron (Meira) as a young Jewish woman in a marriage-conundrum. She's a fine actress, and is able to bring sympathy to a role which doesn't really lend itself to much.

I mean, really, she's toying with destroying her family and ruining her husband, with the vaguest of apprehensions. She never expresses any feeling for him, which seems pretty cold. But it's hard to say, because the movie, as I mentioned, illuminates little.

But, hey, no long, boring expository speeches either, so it's got that going for it.

You probably don't want to think about the fact that Meira is probably 19 or 20, either, while Felix is in his 40s. That might kill the romantic buzz and make it seem more exploitative.

Critics and audiences agree though, both giving it around 75% approval. So what do we know?

Rifftrax Presents: The Room

This may come as a shock to you but I have never seen Tommy Wiseau's 2003 cult classic The Room. And while this is clearly a film that stands on its own, I was pleased to see it from the safety of a "Rifftrax" event.

It's probably less shocking that The Room shares a lot of qualities of Plan 9 From Outer Space, for better and worse. For example, it is idiosyncratic as hell. You're not going to forget seeing it. Wiseau is not as, let's say, erudite as Ed Wood was. I don't think we'll be seeing him pen a bunch of erotica a la Mr. Wood, Jr., even of the non-transvestite variety.

But he has a unique way with words that, naturally, all the characters share.

He has, for his time, the equivalent level of special effects, though. Apart from the titular Room, the movie has scenes on a rooftop, in an alley, and other locales that I think are just green screens. The rooftop definitely is and is positively hard on the eyes. The other locales aren't great either.

It kind of has the effect of a '90s-era full-motion-video cut scene from a game.

And then there's the sex scenes. Oh, good lord. I've never seen a riffed-on movie that had sex scenes—certainly not long ones with nudity. I may never recover from "hipdick". (Though, if we're being fair—and why would we be?—"hipdick" is a staple of  '90s era softcore.) I understand the initial sex scene was twice as long in Wiseau's preferred cut, and the secondary sex scene was actually made up of stuff not used in the first sex scene.

Well, look, Wiseau's at least 40 in this, and his poor co-starlet is, like, 22, so, y'know, if you're going to write, produce, direct and (most importantly) star in your very own film, you might want to take your sweet damn time about it, too, damn the poor suffering viewers. And, I guess the members of the crew who wandered into the open set. (Yes, the set was open. Never have an open set for sex scenes.)

Anyway, boffo effort from Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett: The trick of riffing a movie like The Room is that it's simultaneously too easy—anyone can point out the obvious flaws—and too hard—because The Room really does speak for itself, on so many levels.

The boys are savvy enough to back off for long periods and let the natural laughs flow, and then when they step up to take a swing at one of the juicy meatballs Wiseau serves over the plate, they usually knock it out of the park. Although there's one moment where Corbett points out an incongruity and then points out the absurdity of noticing a technical flaw—heh, it stuck with me even though I can't recall what he was talking about.

I laughed harder at the Santa Claus one but this is still a magical ride. A strange, magical ride.

Hercules vs. Vampires

And now for something completely different: An opera based on the 1964 Mario Bava "classic" Hercules In The Haunted World or Hercules with/at/in the Center Of The Earth, or just Sword and Sandal, if you saw it on Australian television.

This inspired bit of lunacy was playing at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion, and it was very nice, I must confess, to hear live music and singing—with no electronic amplification whatsoever!—once again. (I mean, apart from when I'm playing.) A lot of you younger people may not realize that truly "acoustic" music is a thing, as even stuff like MTV's "Unplugged" are recorded and mixed and messed with in all sorts of ways.

It's just not the same as being there with 27 instruments and 8 singers and everyone having to project in a 3,000 seat theater.

It was short, which was a good way to introduce The Boy to live opera. And Hercules is actually not a horrible movie at all. Bava knew how to compose shots and there's some editing that's tight enough to seem positively modern.

Like, pre-'90s, if someone said "I'm going to see the Oracle", there'd be this sequence where they left the room, hiked up the hill, walked in the temple, then saw the Oracle. In this movie, there are a couple of scenes where someone says "I'll see about that!" and then, boom, they're wherever they need to be. (Low budget? Sure! Still: modern!)

The effects are all practical, of course, and some of them come off as just goofy (particularly a cliff dive in Hades) but a lot of them are quite striking.

Now, the opera: Without a doubt, Patrick Morganelli's score is marvellous. It's very effective and it occurs to me that if I were going to try to score a movie these days, I'd probably start by scoring an old movie like this. It's just wonderfully rich and evocative, and serves to give some depth to what might otherwise be a completely campy affair.

The singing? Well...the singing is...operatic. So...I dunno. For my ear, the vibrato on the male singers especially tends to be too wide for me to enjoy. It can be pretty severe on the female side as well, although the alto (Lacy Jo Benter, I believe) was just sublime.

Now, the whole concept—Hercules goes to Hell to retrieve an artifact that will allow his love to come out of the Christopher-Lee-induced-funk that she's in, meets an assortment of evil spirits, titans and spectral fluids, and along the way his sidekick Lycos picks up a new girlfriend, who happens to be Hades' daughter, who gets revenge by ravaging the land*, and then must defeat the Big Bad and his vampire minions—is suitably goofy for opera. (Opera is generally not great literature.)

I actually watched the movie after the fact (currently available on Amazon), sans singing, but with one of those '60s/'70s era dubs that sounds sort of like one guy is doing all the voices. They trimmed about ten minutes from the 1:16 runtime, which created some, em, plot holes (but why be churlish? Opera is not about plot!). It particularly highlighted how effective a score—complete with spooky choral moanings at appropriate points—can be.

The weakness with the premise is that an opera's greatness stems from its arias—the melodic, non-plot-advancing expository stuff—and there's little room for such things in most movies. Maybe a James Bond movie where the villain lectures, or maybe one of those Atlas Shrugged flicks. The closest we get to that is Christopher Lee's final reveal, and it's not quite as marvellous as I wanted it to be.

Nonetheless, highly enjoyable, and enjoyed all 'round. And, if I may say, a brilliant way to get new audiences into the opera house.

(*ravaging not pictured)

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