Monday, December 26, 2011

Puss In Boots

Well, at least it's not another Shrek movie. You can start there with Puss In Boots, though The Flower declined to see this, stating she wasn't interested in any prequels or spin-offs or any of that nonsense. (A friend of mine went to see this and was crushed that it wasn't about the real Puss In Boots stories.)

In my book, it's probably better to set something in the same universe as another film than to try to wring out another sequel from poor ol' Shrek and Fiona, and the change of focus keeps them from dragging out a bunch of references to the original films that were tired in Shrek 4.

Unfortunately, this replaces them with even older tropes, in most cases.

You don't want to make the cat angry!

I make this look good!

PiB is the story of the rogue cat (voiced by Antonio Banderas) and his childhood pal, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Gallafianikis, of course) who gets him into trouble when Puss becomes a hero and Dumpty a thief. So, it's Dead End with an animated cat and egg.

They're seeking out the magic beans in order to get to the castle where the Goose That Lays The Golden Egg resides, and Dumpty has solicited the help of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, of course) in their adventure.

The Barb liked it. People in the audience actually clapped when it was over and I saw no alcoholic beverages being served.

I thought it was by-the-numbers and not all that well done, lacking most of the cleverness of the Shrek movies—though at least seeming less tied into the pop-meme-of-the-moment. Actually the hacky phrases above are pretty indicative. It relies a lot on the "cat's are cute" idea, and clearly the producers had been influenced by "Family Guy"'s Brian (the dog) and "South Park". Not vulgarity-wise, but there's a strong hint of the Pandemic episode of "South Park" at the climax.

Not unpleasant, but way below the bar set by animation in recent years. That's actually pretty true of all the animated films this year.

At some point, with all my "meh" reactions of late, I have to wonder: Maybe it's me?

The (Other) Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

It gets hard to defend Hollywood—and why would you try, really?—when they seem to reinforce the worst ideas people have. Like cowardice and completely paucity of original ideas.

I mean, when people talk about all the sequels and movies derived from other sources these days, it's easy to note that this has always been the case. Yeah, we have four Resident Evil movies but there were ten Ma & Pa Kettle flicks. Seven—or was it eight?—Saws? Try sixteen movies in the Andy Hardy series. There were nearly thirty Charlie Chan flicks, I think.

Point is, film has always been a derivative medium.

And I wanted to say, "Well, hey, this could be a good example of Hollywood making a foreign movie their own, with David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) at the helm." And there's no doubt this is a Fincher film. Plenty of sickly yellow and greenish lighting, shadowed faces, unusual camera dollying.

Still, it seemed like a sort of pointless exercise. It's actually more lurid than the original (though not enough to warrant the pissy review over at Big Hollywood) but this seems less effective because it's such a slick product. Complete with Macs, Coca-Cola and MacDonald's Happy Meals.

There were a few things I liked better than the Swedish original: The Swedish movie is harder to follow. Not just because it's Swedish but because the sprawling story involves over a dozen characters, and clue-gathering that doesn't really engage you in the mystery per se but that you feel like you have to keep track of to follow the story. As a result, when you finally learn the whole story, it's easy to be confused about who was who.

This version is a bit more careful—and longer—about making sure we know who the important characters are. On the good side, that means when Lisbeth meets with her guardian (social worker) we know who he is and why he's so important, and also gives us an insight into her personality.

On the bad side, the interaction with the bad guy is such a cliché of American cinema, that it's impossible to be surprised by the reveal, even if you've never seen the original films. In fact, even if you never seen any film ever.

There's another funny change. At one point, Lisbeth steals a whole bunch of money with her 1337 hacker skillz. I sometimes roll my eyes at that, you know, because I have some idea of the challenge involved and the movies make it seem like magic. (The American movie does this when Lisbeth reads Mikael's encrypted e-mail like it was nothing. But that actually makes sense to the degree that she's been watching his machine for some time.)

So, the American movie actually shows theft. In extensive detail. And I just wanted it to end. In retrospect, it was necessary for the number one change they made which I'll discuss in a bit.

The Boy and I thought it was okay. Way too long (at over 2.5 hours). The acting is good, of course. I warmed up to Rooney Mara. Daniel Craig is probably right where they wanted him to be (more on that in a bit, too). Chris Plummer—I'm just glad to see him going strong, as strong as ever, really, and getting such good roles in his 80s. Stellan Skarsgaard (apply diacriticals as needed), fresh from his flamboyant role in Melancholia—he's kinda subdued here.

You could do worse, that is, if you don't mind the squalid. (Though Melancholia is pretty squalid, too.) It's better if you haven't seen the original. My mom hasn't, but she had read the book, and said that it was pretty faithful to the book, without expressing enthusiasm for same.

Now I want to talk about the major change from the Swedish movies, which necessarily contains SPOILERS! In a very real way, these movies are primarily interesting because of the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael, so do not read on if you don't want to be spoiled.


So, the Swedish movies feature Blomkvist, who's a good guy, and Lisbeth, who's more of an anti-hero. Lisbeth is seriously damaged—the backstory of which forms the basis for the second and third movies, and which is no trivial matter.

In the original, at one point, Lisbeth basically uses Mikael for sex. It's a cold, mechanical and bizarre interaction, her on top until she's done, after which she leaves the room, and leaves Blomkvist bewildered.

This is their relationship in a nutshell. Mutually beneficial, but strained. Lisbeth does, slowly, come to trust him, to a degree. But at no point do you get the idea that we're in for some sort of odd-couple detective TV show pilot, like "Tatts and the Kvist" or whatever. (I guess Larson wrote a fourth book where they fight crime in Canada, though, so the old commie might have been open to that.)

Point is, all (Swedish actor's) Nyqvist's Blomkvist really has going for him is his integrity. He's not an action hero. Lisbeth has to save him. And while he saves her in the second movie, it's after all the action is over.

He's just beta.

This makes a whole lotta sense with Lisbeth's character. She's been abused badly by men for a long time. The actual title of the book  (and I think the Swedish movie) is Men Who Hate Women. Blomkvist's laid back attitude is about the only way Lisbeth can trust a guy.

So, in the American movie? Lisbeth is sort of nurturing Blomkvist after he gets injured. She's more timid in approaching him for sex. They interact. She mounts him. Then? He flips her over to be on top.

Pardon my graphicness here, but while the sex is explicit, it's not gratuitous. It's an important part of the character development. And they botched it here.

Afterwards? They cuddle.

So, after years and years of abuse, all she needed was the passing fancy of a sufficiently handsome guy, I guess.

Worse still? The original had Lisbeth vanishing at the end, and striking at Blomkvist's enemy, Vanager. (This was the part drawn out in the American movie.) And she's in love with Blomkvist. And he breaks her heart by not knowing about it.

Really? Really?


Now, it's not fair to bash this aspect of the American movie on the basis of how it compares to the Swedish movie. I mean, it's fine to have a preference, but the American producers can draw the characters however they feel. (I think it fails to ring true to the extent that they didn't really change the other details of Lisbeth's story.)

But it feels like pandering. I was a little sick of Blomkvist's wimpiness by the end of the trilogy, I admit, but however much Craig dials it down, he's still Daniel "James Bond/Cowboys and Aliens" Craig.

This probably some focus testing BS, like what ruined The Lord of the Rings. We can only have one kind of story, one kind of relationship in a film. Bleah.

Another weird change: In the Swedish movie, Lisbeth is confronting the villain and has a chance to save his life. She doesn't. When she tells Mikael, he's not down with that. He doesn't treat her badly over it but he disapproves.

In the American version she asks for permission to kill him—and then he dies without her getting the chance to.

Meh. Maybe they wouldn't detract from your experience if you hadn't seen the original. (Though my mom said the movie was true to the book, not in an especially favorable way though.)

Did I mention it's over two-and-a-half hours long?

Paranormal Activity 3

They're baaaaaacck! Those groovy ghoulies haunting Katie and Kristi are back knocking over chairs and hating on kitchen appliances. Except that this is a prequel so they're not really back so much as here for the first time. Until the next prequel.

We have speculated that they could keep going back, at least to the grandmother's story, since it seems to have been her supernatural shenanigans that started the demonic wheels in motion. Except, as The Boy pointed out, "accidentally" filming it gets trickier the farther back you go.

If you were interested in telling the story it would make a lot of sense to switch to a more traditional sort of movie. But you're just interested in maximizing profits and number of sequels, you'd just switch to super 8, 16mm, or whatever. So, there's not much doubt as to which way this franchise will go.

This movie takes place in the dark days of 1988, with young Julie and her two daughters, and Julie's boyfriend, Dennis, a wedding videographer (VHS, baby!) all living together happily somewhere in the suburbs.

Then, you know, stuff happens.

The form and technique of this movie is the same as the previous two in the series, as you might imagine. The characters are a little more likable, with Lauren Bittner and Chris Smith in the parental roles. Dennis, in particular, is more in tuned and aware than his wife, unlike the previous two films where the husbands were aggressively clueless.

I'm liking the backfilling of the story, though it's not as tightly integrated as the second film, and things we were told in both the previous movies wouldn't seem to be true. I don't count this as a lack of continuity, as the "unreliable narrative" device is not only logical, it's pretty well explained by this film.

Sadly, since it was Christmas vacation, we had the usual contingent of clueless teens who can't tell the  difference between their living room and a public theater and they'd been hitting the bong pretty hard. When the family travels to Moorpark, California, the howling didn't subside for 5 minutes. (We saw the movie just outside of Moorpark.)

We liked it anyway. The devices are holding up, in the sense that if you liked them in the previous films you'll probably still like them. It won't last forever, of course.

Anything else of interest? Well, Lauren Bittner is awful cute. (How cute? One of her credits is "Basbeball Cutie".)  Both she and Smith I think look better in their '80s styles than their current looks.  The '80s vibe is over-all kind of cute.

They have to use a book on demons instead of the Internet.

Liked it, but I'm not exactly champing at the bit for the inevitable fourth movie.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Shirley's Game of Shadows

So we saw the second installment in the newer, 'splodier Sherlock Holmes series with Robert Downey Jr as the titular detective and Jude Law as his sidekick, directed by the former Mr. Madonna Guy Ritchie.

Honestly? You could just read my review of the first movie, and it'd do. OK, subtract the matte rant, there's much less of the cheesy THIS IS CGI LONDON 1894, or whatever. Subtract any concern that might have arisen from thinking this was going to be a traditional Holmes mystery, 'cause it's even less justified then before.

Crank it up to eleven. This is Holmes as superhero. His super-smarts give him the ability to anticipate (sorta) how combat is going to play out, allowing him to fight multiple opponents in hand-to-hand combat. It sorta works.

Also, crank up the slow-mo-to-super-speed-camera tricks to about a zillion.

We all liked it, if not wildly. The Boy's reaction to this was exactly the same as it was to the last one. The Flower was okay on it, but really liked the end. Predictably, her favorite parts revolved around Holmes' puckish shenanigans, more than any aspect of the action or "mystery".

Noomi Rapace, the original Girl (with the dragon tattoo/who played with fire/who kicked the hornet's nest) plays a gypsy in this and what first hits you is that she's really cute. I mean, you could see it in the "girl" movies but she plays Lisbeth so well, it's hard to see her as being attractive, exactly. In this, she's much bigger emotionally as she searches for her missing brother. Acting!

Resident Evil—I mean "Mad Men" star Jared Harris plays the eeeeevil Moriarty, set on starting World War 1, and the ever doughy Stephen Fry plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' smarter, nuder brother.

So, there you are. Pretty much what's expected. You know if you like this sorta thing.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Be My Melancholia...Bayyyyyybee

The third and final pic in our trilogy-of-films-we-didn't-really-want-to-see is Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Trier (the "von" is an affectation) is like Almodóvar, in that I've never seen one of his movies until recently, though von Trier is a bit more avant-garde with his last film featuring all sorts of depravity, mutilations and infanticide, I'm told. Trier famously sympathized with Hitler at Cannes a few months ago, said shenanigans earning him a trip to the principal's office for violating various stupid European laws.

In essence, he proved there was something stupider than sympathizing with Hitler.

That kind of sums up this movie, in a weird way. Just about every predictable criticism you could level against this film is true—and yet...there's some there there.

The movie opens with about a 5-10 minute encapsulation of the film done in super-slow-mo super-high-res glory, culminating with the earth being smashed by a giant planet. To Wagner's Tristan and Isolde no less. And...scene. This is done so that you have no delusions about how this story is going to play out.

Part 1 of the movie involves Justine (Kirsten Dunst), blushing bride, at her reception. Thing is, she's depressed. Her mom's (Charlotte Rampling) a total bitch. She gets up at the wedding to make a speech on the futility of marriage. Also she's dressed really inappropriately (and in the fashion of a rampaging planet). Dad's (John Hurt) a flibberdagibbet who can't keep one Betty straight from another. Her sister (Charlotte Gaisnbourg) and wealthy brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) have spent a lot of money on this lavish party to try to make her happy, and all Justine wants to do is hide from everyone and sleep and take baths. And occasionally have some sort of sexual interaction with her husband or, you know, whomever.

What we have, in other words, is an externalized picture of severe depression, possibly manic-depression but I'm not up on my DSM, and there's a high degree of stylization here. I mean, within a few hour period, Justine is in love, married, fights with her parents, gets a promotion, gets fired, has an affair, ruins her marriage, etc.

Nobody really gets that she's depressed beyond depression. Nobody can accept it. It is a really good dramatization of how depressed people feel, I think.

As you might imagine, this is not incredibly entertaining. It's kind of interesting. But it's also kind of self-indulgent. Kind of way self-indulgent. And that makes sense, really, because depression is self-indulgent on some level.

But that ain't peanuts compared to part two, focused nominally on Clair, Justine's sister, who's trying to help her out of this depression. Clair seems like a good woman with a perfect life. She doesn't have Justine's good looks but she's married to Jack Bauer and somehow he's gotten incredibly rich. She has a nice son.

Clair's problem? The world is ending.

The big ol' rogue planet Melancholia is going to smash into earth in about five days. Her husband Jack—okay, his real name in the movie is John—has reassured her that Melancholia is going to pass by Earth, not only leaving it unscathed but creating the most beautiful astronomical event of anyone's lifetime.

Meanwhile, in the most realistic use of the Internet ever shown in cinema, Clair can't help herself from going to the Internet and reinforcing her sense of DOOM! Weirder still, her basket case sister Justine, who can barely feed herself at the beginning of this part, seems to be growing stronger and eerier as The End looms nigh.

As part one is a semi-literal rather narcissistic depiction of depression, part two is a completely allegorical utterly narcissistic and nihilistic depiction of same: Depression isn't just going to destroy Justine, it's going to destroy the Earth and everything that Earth ever was or stood for.

"Life is a mistake," Justine says at one point. "Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

So. Yeah. About as subtle as a hand grenade. As subtle as Wagner. As subtle as Lars von Trier apologizing for making such a perfect movie, and hoping people would somehow be able to find flaws in it to enjoy. As subtle as sympathizing with Hitler.

I could do a whole page of "as subtle as" from this movie. As subtle as the 19th hole on a golf course. As subtle as guessing—knowing—the number of beans in a jar. As subtle as wearing a dress that looks like the surface of an incoming rogue planet. As subtle as showing Kirsten Dunst naked and frail-looking at the beginning of part two and then later showing her naked and erotically bathing in Melancholia's light.

As subtle as making sure everyone knows Dunst appears naked to shore up your box office.

You know, we didn't hate it, The Boy and I, though The Boy had to go out and get a refill on the mega-beverage they give you at the theater.

Trier definitely has some skills. And it's not hard to see why actors like working for him. Dunst gets to have scene-after-scene that's sort of like an actor's workshop. The very artificiality and pretentiousness is grist for the actor's mill.

And it's not consistently boring. The problem with being this unsubtle is that you really don't need to spend an hour on each part, no matter how enamored you are with your various ways of re-stating the same thing over-and-over again. Especially when you go out of your way to beat the audience out of any semblance of hope or meaning.

Not something one can casually recommend to just anyone. In fact, not something one could argue against, if you wanted to say "this is a pretentious piece of self-indulgent crap". But just like I can't really explain why I don't particularly like Scorcese, I can't really explain why I sorta liked this.

Hu Got To Be Kiddin' Me!

OK, up front: I'm just not a Martin Scorcese guy. I've said it before, I'll probably say it again. I can explain it any number of ways—he makes movies about topics I'm not particularly interested in, with people in them who don't seem to be worthy of the attention, for example—but when you get down to it, I'm just not into him.

I don't deny he has considerable talent. He makes beautiful movies. He knows how to block a shot and how to light a set. All that. But when I see his movies? I don't hate them. They just completely fail to reach me. I was mildly entertained by The Departed and seriously bored by (and slightly offended by the naivete of) Shutter Island but ultimately, his movies are just a big meh in my book.

So, I'll redundantly say of his new family-ish film Hugo: Meh. The Boy echoed that. The Flower thought it was okay, not up there with your average Pixar/Dreamworks film. What's different about this film, compared to other Scorcese pictures, is that I should have loved it, based on the subject matter.

The trailers are really misleading. This is not an animated child's film about mysterious city, robots and adventures. This is a live action movie with ridiculous, atmosphere destroying CGI pull outs to a completely fake looking 1931 Paris.

Yeah, it's Paris in the '30s again. The story is about a freshly-made orphan who lives in the service areas of a train station winding the clocks to cover for his drunk (and missing) uncle, while stealing parts from a toy repairer to try to finish a project he and his dad were working on right before his dad got killed by some really silly looking CGI fire.

The project is an automaton which, contra the trailers, isn't a robot or any sort of fanciful thing, but a genuine wind-up automaton, like they used to have in the 19th century. (Here, buy this $500 book through my Amazon link.) While occasionally Scorcese imbues the proceedings with a certain fantastical aura, the movie is a very literal period piece.

The plot crosses through the work of the grandfather of film sci-fi, Georges Melies, so I should have been in movie nerd heaven throughout most of the film. And yet.

Well, look, I've already said Scorcese just doesn't reach me, so anything I add is going to be gratuitous. That said, this is a self-indulgent film. Not horribly so, but enough to need to be edited down by half-an-hour. Kind of like how I could have edited this entry down and eliminated these last paragraphs.

If you're a Scorcese person, and a film person, you'll probably dig it.

The Dispirited Descendants

"George Clooney can't act! Whatever he does, whatever his character is feeling, his expression is the same!" So began The Boy's tirade against The Descendants, the Alexander Payne Hawaii travelogue. So I think it's fair to point out that The Boy revised that opinion somewhat for this film, with the additional good news that whatever Clooney has done to his face, he does seem to be able to move it now more than Up In The Air.

So, yeah, this is the first in the trilogy of films-we-didn't-really-wanna-see-but-whatchoo-gonna-do? with Hugo and Melancholia rounding out the trinity of Oscar-bait crap crowding out potentially good films like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and The Human Centipede 2.

Verdict? Welllll, meh. The Boy had a somewhat favorable response, saying that he hadn't seen a movie like that before so it held some interest. My response was, well, meh, because I've seen About Schmidt and Sideways and Election. The Descendants falls somewhere between About Schmidt and Election in terms of entertainment value, and closer to About Schmidt in terms of characters.

Also, you know how, if you see a Tim Burton film, you're gonna see the director wrestle with his daddy issues? With a Payne film, you're gonna see the director wrestle with his woman issues. Women are going to be some combination of controlling, emasculating, cuckolding.

Having seen all of Payne's feature films (except Citizen Ruth), I think it's fair to say that Sideways is far-and-away the best and that allows a lot to Paul Giamatti's irascible lovableness.

In The Descendants, Clooney's character sets off on a journey around the Hawaiian islands to tell his friends that his comatose wife is dying (boat accident). The kicker is that his elder, delinquent daughter has let him know that his wife was cheating on him before the accident. (This is all in the trailers, and revealed early in the film, so it's not meant to be a twist or nothin'. In fact, I think that dramatic tension is supposed to be the compelling interest.)

So, it's a combination of telling everyone the tragic news, trying to find out more about the Other Man and, as in Sideways and Schmidt, finding some redemption in the journey.

Added to the mix, and giving the movie its title, are the descendants: People who own a big, undeveloped chunk of one of the islands, who are being forced to sell. Clooney's character is the controller of the trust, one of the descendants who makes no money from the trust, but lets it appreciate in value while working his modest legal business.

If I were going to fault Payne for anything, in general, it would be an apparent tendency to be muted. Like, WASPy-muted, as if big dramatic tension or emotional displays are in bad taste. And you can make an argument for that in real life, I guess, but in movie-making it means that, for example, when the cuckold has a chance for revenge, but that revenge will potentially destroy a lot of people around him, Payne will work to defuse that as quickly and quietly as possible.

At the same time, there's this pall of horribleness over the whole thing—a woman with one young child and one troubled child is going to die—so the potentially humorous moments are also very muted.

So, yeah. It's not as low-key and depressing as About Schmidt but the journey and redemption lack the exuberance of Sideways. View at your own risk.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

We're entering the craptacular award season and that can mean only one thing: Pretentious movies! Our favorite local theater got in Like Crazy, Hugo, The Descendants and My Week With Marilyn. So maudlin romance, mob-genre director does family-holiday pic, desultory director with a thing about cuckoldry doin' what he does, and...well, a by now relatively inoffensive sounding flick about a young British lordling who stumbles into his first film job, and finds himself babysitting Marilyn Monroe.

The Flower wanted to come so...yeah, I felt safest with the Marilyn pic. Can it be a biopic if it's only a week long? Would that be a weekopic? A septimanopic? (It sounds cooler in Latin, eh?)

I digress.

This is a fairly pleasant little fantasy pic with Eddie Remayne as the Brit, Colin Clark, who wrote up his little tale in the '70s (and again with uncensored parts included in the '90s). The Flower liked it. The Boy less so.

I liked it more than they did, of course, but there's a lot of a film geekery that's totally over their head. Kenneth Branagh hamming it up as Lawrence Olivier. Julia Ormond (looking older than her years) as Vivien Leigh, whose concern is that Larry might not just fool around with Marilyn but get more seriously involved. Emma Watson as the wardrobe-girl-next-door who gets involved with Colin despite her reservations, only to be dropped precipitously in the presence of Marilyn.

Dame Judy Dench adds some character as Dame Sybil Thorndike. As much as I enjoyed her performance, her role, as the kind voice of wisdom, was a little too neat. That's why I called it a "fantasy pic". Nothing wrong with that.

Of course, a movie like this rises and falls on Marilyn, or the reasonableness of the facsimile thereof. In this case, we have Michelle Williams, who does a very good job indeed, especially considering how little she looks like Monroe. She gets the mannerisms down, the moves, and she presents a plausible image of the personality behind the icon.

She doesn't have it, alas. I mean, I've never been a fan, particularly, but that Marilyn Monroe had something special is as undeniable as it is opaque. Since I get that she's supposed to be her, I get a lot of the buzz that probably didn't seem that clear to the kids. But it's not like you can CGI that stuff in and the movie does a good job of supporting it.

Overall, it works, much in the mold of other "coming-of-age" type stories. So it was probably the best choice for us at that moment in time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito)

A mad scientist loses his wife in a automobile fire and seeks solace in recreating her appearance on an unwilling victim. Avant-garde cinema or cheesy B-movie plot from the '50s and '60s? Well, why not both, as we see here with Al-muh-DOH-var's—I assume that's how you pronounce AlmodóvarThe Skin I Live In. I'm old enough to remember when he still used his first name (Pedro) but this would be the first of his movies that I've seen. Like Tarantino, Spike Lee and a few others, I've always found the trailers to Pedro's films sufficiently off-putting that I never felt the need to see his movies. (A reaction I've overcome in the last few years with Tarantino, to my everlasting ennui.)

Although it's not the best fit, I kept thinking about The Brain That Wouldn't Die, the '62 potboiler about the scientist who saves his girlfriend's head after a car crash, then spends the rest of the movie scouting strippers for a new body while she hectors him from a lasagna pan about his lack of ambition and nags him to take out the garbage. (Or something, it's been a while since I've seen it.)

It's amusing (at least to me) the extent of this movie's overlap with that older one (and other similar old flicks I'm not remembering at the moment). This is a sleazy film filled with unlikable characters, creepy situations and sexual violence. There are also moments of what today might almost be considered high camp.

When the movie opens, Plastic surgeon Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is presenting on a new kind of transplantable skin mutated from human and pig cells he developed in honor of his broiled wife, after which some of his shocked peers warn him of the consequences should SCIENCE discover his lapse in ethics. (Mutating human and animal stuff is apparently a no-no.) This scene is reprised later on, when one of his formers business partners threatens to blackmail him by outing him to the scientific community.

Interestingly enough, the whole pig-human thing doesn't really go anywhere. His victim in all this, Vera (the ridiculously beautiful Elena Anaya of Point Blank) doesn't develop super-powers or get bulletproof skin or anything like that. I thought there was going to be a twist where the science went wrong but the movie plays out straight revenge tragedy, basically.

Not that there isn't a twist, mind you. Oh, yes, there's a twist, though I didn't see it coming until about 10 minutes before it popped.

There are other sorta '60s things about this movie, too. The color doesn't used the washed out blue-gray feel that's so popular (hacky!) today, but a more vibrant one. Not exactly Technicolor but Kodachrome(ish). Antonio Banderas has his hair slicked back and walks around in a tuxedo at one point, evoking a Sean-Connery-as-James-Bond figure that's amplified when he holds a gun.

In fact, if you listen to the semi-techno song used in the trailer (and also in the movie's one chase scene), the electric guitar sound is very mid-to-late '60s. I'm not hitting bulls-eyes today but the '60s surfin' classic "Wipeout" comes to mind.

There are no cell phones, computers or modern devices, except for large-screen viewers, which were pretty commonly faked in '60s movies.

So, what's not '60s about it? Well, there's a lot of nudity and it's pretty pornographic which wasn't common in a mainstream, high-budget '60s flick. It's not gratuitous, but it is gross. (The nudity isn't. Did I mention that Elena Anaya is gorgeous?) The sex is done covered or far-away, but it's still very explicit (and often violent) in terms of the imagery Pedro creates in the viewers' mind.

I see this movie being fetish-fuel for a small but intense niche.

Overall? We liked it all right. It could've been shorter. The Boy found it disturbing but it's a fool's errand to try to create much of an impact on the younger generation through shock or transgression. As for myself, I was expecting something bizarre! titillating! shocking! along the typical lines that certain directors endear themselves to certain critics, and I was only put off-guard by the naivete of the genre.

I mean, really: Who makes mad scientist movies any more? In my lifetime, there haven't been that many. The (speaking of pornographic) Re-animator series, that Peter O'Toole/Mariel Hemmingway oddity from '85, Creator, sorta—but really, the modern science-gone-awry is more likely to feature a noble, avuncular scientist rather than a mad one. The science goes awry (these days) because of the evil businessman or a tangential individual's greed.

This movie's sort of like taking Humanoids from the Deep (where mutated fish-men emerge from polluted water to rape women) or Creature from the Black Lagoon and exploring seriously the potential for relationship between the fish-men and the women they kidnap.

So...odd. Well, done, for the most part. Good acting. The music's a little heavy-handed. The graphicness is going to be off-putting for some, to say nothing of the indecency. Vera is the closest thing to a hero the movie has, and for reasons that can't be explained with spoilage, she's hardly pure.

The Boy said he would have a hard time recommending it, and I tend to agree.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Spy Kids 4: Waste of Time

I said a few reviews ago that all our great directors suck, which is kind of sad, but to my mind not as sad as all our young turks—the promising film-makers of 20 years ago—seem to have not matured into greatness but stay wallowing in the stuff that made them famous without adding any real polish or sophistication.

I've never been a Tarantino fan but when I express disappointment, everyone tells me to go back to Reservoir Dogs. I could make an exception for Kevin Smith, because he really tries to grow and change—and Red State is supposed to be good—but he says he's going to make one more movie (a hockey movie he's been working on for quite some time) and then retire.

Which brings us to Robert Rodriguez and Spy Kids: All The Time In The World. Rodriguez is one of these guys who acquired his skills through tons of time behind a video camera. His movies have always been fast-paced, a little chaotic, and also kind of sloppy and poorly thought out. He usually overwhelmed his shortcomings with style, but the style is played out a bit.

Sin City may be his best movie, simply because so much was laid out in the comic book and he could follow it (and made the choice to follow it) so closely.

In some ways, the Spy Kids series is the ultimate expression of Rodriguez' style. It doesn't have to make any sense as long as it looks cool, any situation can be resolved with CGI, and there's no limit on how ham-handed you can make your pro-family-time message.

The Flower refused to go see this, with her point being that they just kept getting worse and worse. She's not wrong. (The Barb doesn't really care as long as the popcorn keeps flowing, but I couldn't get more of a "pretty good" out of her.)

This time around, it's Jessica Alba in the maternal role. The story goes that Rodriguez was on the set of Machete when Alba's one-year-old let off a diaper bomb and he thought, "Yeah! Mommy spy with baby bombs!" Or maybe, since the Spy Kid franchise has been far-and-away his biggest hits, he just was looking for an excuse to bring it back after eight years.

Alba plays stepmother to two new kids, a gentle hard-of-hearing boy and his really bitchy sister. I thought the sister was older, and maybe she's supposed to be, but the boy actor is actually a little older than the girl. (The actors, Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook, are fine; the characters are who Rodriguez made them.) Mom is dead, and Alba has to pay, apparently.

Alba's also an ex-spy who's given up her career to raise her baby with Joel McHale, who's a doofus-y TV personality.

Meh. I've already lost interest in explaining it. None of it really matters. It's just a big mess comprised of smaller messes. There's a whole lot of insulting stupid, even for a Spy Kids movie.

Jeremy Piven has a fun role as head of the OSS, who's doing a fast-talking '40s thing. The original kids are back and all grown up. Vega is a hottie now, and Sabara has gotten even odder looking; but even here Rodriguez is just rehashing the same old themes. You know, how many times do these people have to re-learn their family values before they stick?

Oh, Ricky Gervais is the voice of a robotic dog. The English whore.

I've already said "meh" and I don't want to say it again, because this is not a two "meh" movie.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Into The Abyss with Werner Herzog

Probably the greatest capital punishment movie ever is Dead Man Walking. The temptation—succumbed to frequently throughout the decades by Hollywood—is to show an innocent man wrongly convicted and killed. It's far more interesting, and fair, to show a heinous criminal being killed.

Werner Herzog takes his own interesting approach in his new documentary Into The Abyss. The German film-maker (Grizzly Man, Rescue Dawn) gives us the story of a brutal, senseless crime that echos of Crime and Punishment.

Two young men kill a grandmother, Sandra Stotler, for her car for a joyride. Before stealing the car, though, they go deposit the body in a nearby lake. When they go back to get the car, it's after dark and the woman's gated community is locked up. So they wait for her son (Adam Stotler) and his friend (Jeremy Richardson), in order to lure them into the woods to kill them—in order to get the remote to get into the community and steal the car. Later the two are captured after an extended gun battle with the police.

One of the criminals, Michael Perry, is given a death sentence. The other just barely escapes that fate and gets 50 years in prison.

Herzog shows his brilliance—repeatedly—here. First, he says right off the bat that he's against the death penalty, and he lets Perry make his case for his own innocence. (He blames his partner in crime, Jason Burkett.) But then, he details the horrific nature of the crimes, and lets the victim's families expound on their lost love ones. This takes the first third of the film. Further, he never lets the movie go on very far without bringing back on the families.

Herzog is determined that you never forget what these two young men did. Further, he presents sufficient evidence of their guilt. He never tries to present a case of innocence.

For Burkett, though, he also unflinchingly shows the tragedy of his life. His father's in jail across the street, after a lifetime of drug use and dealing, and he's interviewed. Apparently he's got a brother in jail, too. Burkett's father is a particularly tragic figure, whose closest familial memory is a Thanksgiving dinner shared with his two sons who were also in jail.

Indeed, to my eye, these people, who have escaped the executioner's needle, are far more tragic types. They seem redeemable and our system is almost completely incapable of providing any redemption.

But even here, Herzog's not taking a bleeding-heart approach. Among the people interviewed are a couple of other locals who were touched, indirectly, by the crime. One of them was an illiterate miscreant who learned to read in jail—and also learned to stay out of jail and go straight.

Jeremy Richardson's brother was himself a miscreant who was arrested at Jeremy's funeral, and who laments having introduced him to the Perry (or Burkett, or both, I'm not sure), but he seems to be doing better now.

In fact, one thing Herzog does is detail the incredible amount of violence, crime and family dysfunction in Conroe, Texas, which can't help but throw into sharp contrast that most of the people manage to survive the craziness without randomly killing people.

A couple of other good segments include the opening, where the priest who works death row describes his experiences doing it, and a segment where one of the executioners describes how he gave up his job and pension after facilitating over one hundred executions.

A weirder part is the story of Jason Burkett's lawyer who ultimately ends up marrying him and—well, you'll have to see it. (Or Google it.) I think Herzog was trying to say something about hope and life, but it struck me as a tragic echo of Burkett's own life. Or maybe Herzog was just recording the facts.

Despite Herzog's inclination, he lets Adam's sister (Sondra's daughter) describe how seeing Perry's execution lifted a huge weight off her shoulders. He prompts her with "Would a life sentence also have worked?" She agrees, but also quickly slips back into "Some people don't deserve to live."

Herzog wasn't trying to make a political statement or even an issue movie, and he succeeds. He's crafted something much more genuine and complex. Now, one of his producers thinks this is a searing indictment of Rick Perry's Texas but I'm thinking it's just like Dead Man Walking: People who are for the death penalty are going to see that the system worked.

I'm not pro-death penalty myself, but I felt like the system worked here. It's tragic, but Burkett was (and no doubt is) a dangerous man, deserving of a long sentence.

And Perry?

Well, I don't know how Herzog felt, but after getting over the jarring incongruity of the smiling, boyish looking Perry claim his only crime was being homeless and accepting charity from Burkett, I became quickly convinced that he was a sociopath of the first order, like that other famous murderous Perry.

Anyway, this is about more than capital punishment, and definitely worth watching if you're interested in crime (or punishment).

The Boy also liked it, though he felt it, as all documentaries, dragged a bit.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

A woman escapes a crazy cult only to find herself unable to fully get away, psychologically and literally. Sure we've seen it before, but have we seen it with this much nudity? Well, yeah, we probably have, but not recently. That was more a '70s supernatural horror plot and Martha Marcy May Marlene is more of suspense thriller.

We were kind of tepid about the movie from the trailer. The line from the LA Weekly was "A thriller that shifts nearly imperceptibly between dream, memory and reality." If that were accurate, it would probably make for a terrible movie. What MMMM does do is switch between two timelines very rapidly—one post-cult, and one mid-cult.  But it was almost always very quickly clear which timeline you were in, which was very important to being able to understand what the hell was going on.

Martha toys with the whole "Is it a dream?" idea, but this is a product of her psychological state. The movie itself stays very realistic.

We see Martha struggling with her traditional family, and constantly flashing back to her cult family. What I think the reviewer was getting at was that the cuts were very tight, and there's no warning as to where you are, so you really have to pay attention.

I can't talk about it much, since at least half the point of a movie like this is how things unfold. The drip-drip-drip of the reveal of info about the cult and the simultaneous unfolding of Martha's normal familial relationships.

This movie hangs together really well. You have all these questions about how Martha ends up in the cult and why others can't see that she's not quite right, and the movie trickles out development that makes it all make sense. Again, being opaque here because the experience is really about the discovery.

It's a little weaker the suspense/thriller department. It's good, but it backs off a bit with the tension. The ending is good, but the movie's climax is more about social embarrassment than any real fear. It's like the shape of the movie is tight, just not propelled forcefully forward, like a great thriller.

The Boy liked it, but not enthusiastically. I liked it, too, especially as it managed to show the creepy cult without spreading the creepiness to the viewer, as these movies often do.

Monday, November 14, 2011

J Edgar Whozits

One of my outré positions is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't really have a right to exist under the Constitution, and that J. Edgar Hoover was an evil little troll who was a horrible influence on this country.

So, yeah, Eastwood does a biopic of J. Edgar? Why not.

Let me say, first, that this is classic Eastwood (as director): Much like last year's Hereafter or (say) Million Dollar Baby, the octogenarian auteur is all about telling the story, whatever it is. And, in this case, the story is about an ambitious, vainglorious, sexually repressed blackmailer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he tells the story on the one hand of the history of the FBI, and how, at the end of his life (as blackmailer in chief), he is threatened by the incoming President Nixon on the other.

I can't help but admire the direction, which is unflinching and unsentimental. He doesn't demonize Hoover—who could arguably benefit from a demonization—but he portrays him gathering his blackmail and expanding his powers, good intentions cheerfully in tow.

And yet. It's not a great movie, and I'm inclined to blame screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. If Tim Burton has daddy issues, and Alfred Hitchcock had issues with being falsely accused, Mr. Black has gay issues.

Actually, before I get to those, I want to also say that it seems like everyone has some issues when it comes to this movie. I read quite a few reviews of this beforehand (which I don't normally) at places like Big Hollywood and PJMedia and I'm not convinced we all saw the same movie.

For example, I read a reference to Hoover's mother, as played by Judi Dench, as domineering, which feeds into the clichéd gay thing, But that really reduces the role to a cartoonish level that isn't warranted. Dench's portrayal is stern and forbidding, but not domineering.

Likewise, getting back into the gay thing, Hoover is (at least initially) portrayed as a complex person, or perhaps if you prefer, a very simple person for whom sex (in whatever form) isn't on the menu. Sex is only going to be permissible if it's of a non-blackmail-able variety, is sort the impression you get.

But then Black goes whole hog (as it were) into "Hoover was a homosexual but refused to act on it." I'm of two minds as far as this goes: One, it's a completely hack and stereotyped way to indulge in a little fantasy; and two, it has the effect of humanizing Hoover in a very unlikely way, a way that makes the movie rather more watchable.

I think there's a little truth to both these ideas, but it also has a couple of other effects: One is that it's complete fantasy. I don't mean Hoover wasn't gay, 'cause I don't know. (I'd always heard he was a transvestite, though, and TVs are usually men—often macho men. But on reflection, it seems unlikely that the king of the blackmailers would ever put himself in a compromising situation.) What I mean is that the completely undocumented aspect of his relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) gives Black free reign to do this sort of wish-fulfillment thing.

This includes a scene where Hoover and Tolson (Armie Hammer) virtually swish over the gaucheness of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball at Del mar, and Tolson describes Dorothy Lamour as "camp". (That's not the only time that the dialog assaults the ear with a too modern sound, but it's one of the most egregious ones.)

The other effect of this, though, is that we're sort of mired in this (ultimately trivial) aspect of Hoover's life. This is the problem with the modern obsession with private details: The real story gets crowded out. This is sometimes justifiable, say, with something like The King's Speech (another largely fictitious but far more interesting movie).

But here, it doesn't matter that Hoover is gay (at least partially evinced by the fact that he probably wasn't). It could have been just as interesting to see him as bottled up, and tested by his attraction to Dorothy Lamour (who claimed to have an affair with him).

And it's not like there isn't 50 years of interesting dirt about Hoover, you know? The whole thread feels self-indulgent.

It's a flawed biopic. The acting is good. I think Dicaprio—who normally leaves me kind of cold—did one of his better jobs here. A lot of criticism has been leveled at the old age makeup, and it's got some validity to it, but I kind of register that as a big "so what"? Old age makeup is always bad, and always has been.

I would have preferred to see more actual FBI stuff. The fact that the FBI got their guns as a result of the Lindbergh kidnapping perhaps beginning the precedent that states that all laws named after children are bad ones.

HBO did a movie a few years back on the Lindbergh kidnapping which took the point-of-view that Hauptmann was innocent of the charges, whereas this movie posits that he didn't act alone—that he was maybe a patsy for the real criminals. Sorta. He's essentially a vehicle for the bureau's expansion of power.

Then there's the whole FBI rising while denying the existence of the mafia. What up wid dat? I mean, seriously, if you're going to go into fantasy-land about the story, how about bringing in the mafia? As a character study, wouldn't it have been more interesting to know (or speculate) on whether it was pride, arrogance, stupidity or something else causing Hoover's complete bungling of the major crime issue of his day?

Ah, well, lost opportunity. Also, keep in mind that my review isn't much like any of the others I've read, so maybe I saw a different movie from the ones other people saw, or the one you'd see.

As an Eastwood fan since Flags of our Fathers, The Boy was a bit disappointed, and found it overlong, though not especially so for a biopic. As someone more-or-less ignorant of the politics and history, his experience viewing the movie was probably one of the purer ones, and he rated it "so-so".

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In Time (and Out Of Luck)

The Boy's weakness is popcorn so we sometimes end up going to the movies even when there's nothing to see. The choices this week were between Tower Heist and In Time. The Flower wants to see Tower Heist but I refused to take The Boy to see that on the grounds that I don't want to listen to him rant about it for the next day.

In Time is written, produced and directed by Andrew Niccol who also did Gattaca. Now, I've seen Gattaca but I didn't really remember it well. I know that people think it's a pretty intelligent sci-fi, so I thought this might be similar.

Well, the good news for Gattaca fans is this is extremely similar. The bad news is that means it's extremely contrived, kind of dull and frankly kind of stupid. The good news is it's well shot, romantic and occasionally insightful.

Did I mention contrived?

The premise, literally, is that time is money. People buy stuff with time. They work for time. And, the crux of the movie, some have lots more time than others. Also: When you run out of time, you die.

Everyone starts with one year on their clock (shown in handy digital format on your forearm), which starts at the age of 25. At 25, you stop aging completely, but if your clock ever runs out, you die. (And if your clock never runs out, you never die.) The ghetto people are constantly scrabbling for enough time to make it through the next day, while the prices for everything constantly go up.

When we meet our hero, Will (Justin Timberlake), he's celebrating his mother's 50th birthday. His mother is Olivia Wilde, so that's weird. Anyway, Will is a stand-up guy who shares his time with his mom, and ends up saving the life of a guy walking around in the ghetto with 100 years on his arm before a bunch of thugs kill him. Will sets out to get some social justice, and there's your movie.

Oh, and he meets rich girl, Amanda Seyfried, who I think is the only actor in the film who is actually 25. And, yeah, at 35, Cillian Murphy as the copy out to get Will is an awful hard 25.

There are some good parts to the movie. The poor people are constantly running around while the rich people move with not just deliberate slowness but with caution, since they're immortal as long as they don't die in an accident or violent act. There were occasional touches like that had a certain kind of profound resonance.

These are totally overwhelmed by the stupid, though. If you really had 26 years to live, you'd start accumulating time as soon as you could. People in the movie are constantly cutting it close, down to the second, and gratuitously so. Suffice to say, you wouldn't do that. No one would. The chance for a minor snafu to result in death—well, it happens all over the place in this movie, and it's just not plausible.

Then there's the question of where the time comes from. It's not really explained at all. At one point, one of the characters is revealed to have a million years. If everyone starts with a year, though, that would mean a million people had to die at 25 just to accumulate that one million, which is just one of many millions the man is presumed to have.

That's not really workable.

But if the time isn't intrinsic (drawn from living people) then it must be extrinsic, and thereby create-able. That would make more sense and a better parallel with money as we currently know it, but it would undermine the premise of the movie.

But then, the movie undermines its own premise at every turn. Murphy's cop is obsessed with the notion that Will is going to destroy the system with his newfound wealth. Yet, at one point, he delivers a speech clearly designed as an attack on our current system: Basically, the people support the system because they think they might one day become super-wealthy with time, but there's no actual chance of that.

Well, okay, but if it's true that people support the system because they have that hope, then shouldn't someone occasionally make it? Wouldn't Will's success be supportive of the system, just like the occasional American's success causes us all to support the awful American system even though it's all rigged against us. (And, yeah, this basically comes off as an anti-western civilization flick.)

Contradictions, holes, and stupidity is all well and good, but the movie is polluted with time puns, too. People live in "time zones". Thugs who steal time from others are "minute men". The cops are "time keepers". People constantly say "I finally had the time to ..." meaning they literally had some money to spend.

On top of that, the movie manages to be dull. I'm not even sure how. I think it's all the contrivance. Like a lot of the superhero movies where the battles just seem to go on till the director gets bored but the audience was bored all along because it's all so obvious.

Timberlake is good. He radiates good-guy-ness. (I know a lot of people hate this guy but they also seem to begrudgingly admit he's good, and he is.) I'm not sure Olivia Wilde and he pull of a maternal relationship, but it's so incongruous it's hard to tell. Cillian Murphy is good, as always, and the only one whose character development has a certain element of surprise to it.

I'm not a big fan of Amanda Seyfried (I don't dislike her but I don't get her recent super success) but she's surprisingly appealing as the spoiled rich girl.

Anyway, I didn't avoid a Boy Rant. He hated it with a white-hot passion. Claimed it was worse than Atonement, which is kind of our barometer for bad movie-making. Atonement was only populated by icky people versus the stupid here.

The popcorn was good though. And comped. So there's that.

Captain America. F--- Yeah!

I finally got around to seeing Captain Ameria: The Last Trailer For The Avengers Movie and it was...well, a movie. The superhero things are kind of losing their luster for me; the gee-whiz factor has really been gone for years—a casualty of ubiquitous CGI—but the real thing is just that the movies are getting (predictably) worse.

Captain America starts very strong. It's World War II (the best war). We're introduced to the physically frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, who played The Human Torch in The Fantastic Four movies) who, like all red-blooded young American men in 1943 wants to enlist in the armed forces. But he's just a wreck, physically. 4F.

He finds a way in when he's picked out by an army scientist for a super-soldier person. The scientist (Stanley Tucci, who seems to enliven every movie he's in, no matter how otherwise banal) reasons that an honorable, frail man will respect the power that the super-soldier program will give him in a way a naturally powerful man might not.

This part of the film is really good. It's unabashedly pro-American. Rogers is a truly heroic character in his wimpy form. And the transformation from wimpy dude to muscle-bound hero is great. (Well, really, it's the imposition of Chris Evans' face on a frail body that's so impressive.)

It's after he becomes Captain America that things start to drift. First, he's off selling war bonds. This is kind of cool and realistic, but it goes on too long. But then it gets into the action. And the action is, well, meh.

You know, director Joe Johnston has made one really excellent film: October Sky. But I guess that stuff don't pay the bills, so he does stuff like Wolf Man and Hidalgo—which, upon reflection all suffer in the same way. Johnston likes his characters, and you see this in a lot of little ways. Every character seems to matter.

But the action is just dull. It's all of the "fight until the scene is over" kind of stuff. The story progresses as it should but lacks tension and excitement.

Acting-wise, Evans seems to have gone to charm school since his Johnny Storm days, which is good, given the role. Hayley Atwill is appealing even if her character is somewhat stale even by comic book standards. Tommy Lee Jones is Tommy Lee Jones. And Toby Jones is Toby Jones, but with an English accent.

Then there's the villainous Red Skull. He's played by Hugo Weaving, who's been a popular heavy since his days of menacing Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies. (He also made elves a lot more menacing than I imagined them to be in Lord of the Rings.) Thing is? He's actually way scarier without the Red Skull makeup.

The Red Skull's villainy is another place where director Johnston seems to lack conviction. I mean, he's a Nazi and he's got all kinds of blasty weapons, but there's no blowing-up-a-planet moment. I never felt like he was a real threat to the Captain.

Suffice to say that The Boy was mildly offended at the stupidity of the action scenes. Even with low expectations, they weren't met. And we did find ourselves talking about how bad the scenes were. Like, when the Captain is conducting his first raid amongst a crowd of laser-gun equipped Nazis, you can see the various Nazi extras waiting for their turn to attack. And the Boy felt it was unrealistic for a bunch of soldiers to be firing with automatic weapons at point blank range and not hit anything.

I've always kind of liked Johnston's movies, even when they weren't popular (like Hidalgo), but this whole movie felt a lot like padding. I'm feeling a little milked by the Marvel folks. This bodes ill for the Avengers movie.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Margin Call

We were even less enthusiastic about Margin Call than The Rum Diary, not really feeling in the mood to have a bunch of people who know nothing about high finance lecture us on the evils of high finance, but The Boy's grandfather recommended it (mostly on the strength of the acting). The Boy likes to tell people why their opinions are wrong, so he figured there'd be at least that going for it.

We didn't hate it, but on reflection it does sort of seem exactly like what we thought: People who don't understand high finance trying to lecture on the evils of high finance. But there's a kind of honesty there: They don't try to demonize everyone involved which is good, but at the price of there being no really strong moral dilemma.

Basically, the story is that a finance company has found that the commodities (mortgage-backed securities) it's trading are worthless, and therefore must figure out how to save itself. The story trickles up from a recently fired risk assessor (Stanley Tucci) to a young ex-rocket scientist (Zachary Quinto, who also has a producer credit) and his younger, money obssessed buddy (Penn Badgley), their boss (Paul Bettany), his boss (Kevin Spacey), his boss (Simon Baker) and his boss, the owner of the company (Jeremy Irons). Also, Demi Moore, who seems to be above Spacey but maybe catty-corner to him.

And this is after three layers between the top and the bottom have been eliminated in a big layoff.

The movie gets away with not understanding what's going on by having most of its characters not understand either. (Quinto and Tucci's characters are really the only ones who get it, and most of the characters aren't even interested. This may be true.)

So, I liked the acting, sure. And I thought the characters were well developed, although The Boy disagrees, finding only Bettany's character of interest. The dramatic tension boils down to will they or won't they dump all this worthless stuff on the market, thus ushering in financial disaster. Which characters will go along and which will follow their consciences?

The narrative really, really wants Kevin Spacey be the good guy, but Jeremy Irons—who's pretty clearly meant to be villainous—makes the best points.

Worst of all, the movie uses a sledgehammer of a metaphor, in the form of Spacey's character's dying dog, whom Spacey has been spending tons of money and emotional capital on, but doesn't have the heart to put down. Sheesh.

The Boy was particularly uninterested, but he was 12-ish when the crash occurred and so he didn't have the necessary baggage to understand what the whole impact of everything was. I did, but I was far from bowled over.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Rum Diary

"Is it me, or was that a little...murky?" quoth The Boy upon departing the new Johnny Depp tribute to Hunter S. Thompson, The Rum Diary. Or was it The Rum Diaries. Well, whichever, the key thing is the rum part.

The movie is based on HST's novel, which I'm sure I started reading at one point, and pretty sure I never finished, and reminded me of the people I've known who were heavy drug users: They start with good ideas and then just wander off in a haze.

The story concerns a hard-drinking journalist (aren't they all) in 1960 Puerto Rico who writes for the island's ailing rag and stumbles into a role with a developer who plans to turn the island's gorgeous coast into a row of hotels serving doughy, white middle-class bowlers. (Apparently, midwesterners went to Puerto Rico to bowl in the '50s. Who knew?)

The movie opens fairly strong, capturing the kind of gonzo feel HST communicated at his best. At its worst it's self-serving, self-indulgent and elitist. (Is it really so awful that someone puts up hotels that employee 10,000 people?) Then there's the drug use.

Point is, the movie defuses itself and seems to be really more about HST than, say, the audience. It's all kind-of proto-'60s, counter-culture, anti-establishment which doesn't seem all that relevant today.

Good acting from Depp, reminding me of his work in Ed Wood. Richard Jenkins plays the cranky (aren't they all) editor-in-chief. Aaron Eckhart plays to type as the evil developer. Amber Heard is beautiful, wild and vulnerable. Michael Rispoli, whom I'm not familiar with, does a fine job as Depp's sidekick. Giovanni Ribisi plays their crazy, drunk, Nazi-loving sort-of roommate.

Cinematographer Bruce Robinson hasn't directed a film since 1992's Jennifer Eight but I think he does fine with the material, which is what it is. Maybe a few too many scenery shots of PR.

You can probably guess if you have any interest at all, based on your feelings about gonzo novelizing and Hunter S. Thompson, but even if you're a fan, I don't think you're going to find this satisfying.

The Way of All Estevezes

I just saw the new Emilio Estevez movie! How many times do you get to say that in your life? I didn't see Bobby and I don't count his made-for-cable semi-biographical story of the Mitchell brothers Rated X. So, for me, the last time I could say that would be for Wisdom, the first movie Estevez directed in which he starred with Demi Moore as Bonnie and Clyde-style bank robbers of sorts.

Not a great movie but not, I thought, at all unwatchable. So, 25 years later, I was actually kind of favorably inclined toward seeing this film, and I can honestly say it's the best Emilio Estevez movie ever. That sounds kind of snarky but it's not really.

In fact, it's kind of cool: This is the third movie in as many weeks we've seen where the question of religion and spirituality were central to the story. Machine Gun Preacher is (far and away) the best and boldest (probably too much for some) of the three, but Take Shelter has its own quiet depth in its smaller scope.

The Way has an even smaller scope still, as the story of a father—played by real life father Martin Sheen—who goes to collect his son's remains in Europe after he dies attempting The Way of Saint James, a thousand year old pilgrimage. The younger Estevez' role is virtually a cameo; this movie could be seen as a vehicle for Sheen, who I kept hoping would say "Campostela. I can't believe I'm still in Campostela."

Basically, the son, Daniel has dropped out of school a year before getting his PhD in Cultural Anthropology and decided instead to walk The Way. His father, Tom (an optometrist) objects strenuously, tells him he's ruining his life, and that real people can't take a month off their life for this sort of thing.

Of course, I'm sitting there thinking "Emilio Estevez is 50. If he hasn't gotten his degree by now, he's already wasted his life." I mean, if he's still in that "studying in preparation to launch his life," he's kind of missed the boat. Now, he's playing a guy ten years younger (nearly 40, I think the movie says) and so is Martin Sheen ("over 60" compared to real life over 70), but even then I gotta wonder how much a difference a month makes.

But I rolled with it. The movie wanted father-son tension in a neat package, and this was reasonable shorthand.

Anyway, next thing you know, Daniel has died on the first day of his journey and Tom must go to France to collect him. (The Way is mostly in Spain but can start in France.) Once there, Tom becomes possessed with the idea of traveling The Way for Daniel, and spreading his ashes along the route.

This is basically the start of the movie—really, you can get all this from the trailer.

So we got ourselves a road picture. A pilgrim's progress, if you will. The elder Tom taking the 650 mile walk using Daniel's supplies and carrying his ashes on his back. Naturally, he ends up with companions on this trip: a fat, jolly Dutch man, a sexy, bitter (Canadian?) divorcee and a drunk Irishman with writer's block.

Yeah, it's a little cliché. Occasionally, the dialogue gets precious in its attempt to be profound, but for the most part the younger Estevez stays his pen and lets the imagery and the action speak for him.

The four travelers are making their pilgrimage for non-religious, nor hardly even spiritual reasons, which is interesting. The Dutch guy, Joost, is just trying to lose weight. The divorcee, Sarah, is trying to give up smoking. Jack, the drunk Irish writer, is not on a pilgrimage so much as interviewing pilgrims for a travelogue piece. (Apparently, travelogues of The Way are about as old as The Way itself.)

Nonetheless, religion is everywhere, and the movie evokes a kind of Chaucerian feel, with characters drifting in-and-out, and giving a sense of this-is-how-things-have-been-for-centuries. (Maybe it's more Dickensian, but I kept thinking Canterbury Tales.) There's an interesting effect to all this, like God is watching all, and providing some sort of proving ground for the travelers.

In other words, the spirituality of the thing catches up with them, even if they don't quite recognize it. Where this struck me—and maybe this was just me—was with Deborah Kara Unger, who plays the divorceé, and Angelina Molina who plays the caretaker at the pilgrims' first overnight stop. These are both women who are famous, to a large extent, for being beautiful (and Unger's figure, while well covered, does attract our male travelers' attention), but they are not made up or shot in glowing light or anything of that sort.

Angelina Molina has the hand of death on her face. When Tom asks her if she's ever done the trip she says, "When I was young I was too busy. Now I am too old." She's only 55! But she really does look dramatically old.

The whole thing comes off very well, as a very nice movie, with a kindness and depth that maybe isn't really warranted. (Heh.) But it's good. It's not boring. Certain choices are interesting: Jack, the Irish writer, is a cute device for teasing information about Daniel out of Tom, and thereby Tom and his relationship with Daniel—but after setting it up, Estevez just has Tom do a short, very generic (like horoscope-level) bit of exposition and then pulls back, so you can't hear what Tom's saying.

The result is we don't ever really know what Tom or Daniel is like. We only know Tom on his path from grief—another movie-based convenience is that he has to basically go through his catharsis about Daniel in 30 days. I think it's too soon. Reality might be closer to a year of mourning, followed by doing the pilgrimage, but narratives work better when compressed.

Anyway, it's a choice. And I'm not sure the movie suffers much, if at all, from it. They're a father and son. They don't always see eye-to-eye. Specific issues might have ended up seeming overly cute. At the same time, the movie isn't necessarily going to resonate deeply as a result.

Overall, a job well done by Emilio, and a tour-de-force for Martin.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Take Shelter

Michael Shannon is acting weird again! This fine actor who gave such a touching performance in Machine Gun Preacher and of course haunted the creepy movie Bug, is having terrible dreams in this new brooding little flick  called Take Shelter.

These are really bad dreams, that affect him through the rest of the day. A storm's a comin', and all hell's gonna break loose. So, naturally, he starts to build out his storm shelter. In fact, he becomes obsessed with it, spending too much money, time, and social capital. However, he's not sure he's not crazy, either. So all the while he's doing this, he's going to various medical and psychological doctors, and visiting with his mother (Kathy Baker, who was also in Machine Gun Preacher) who went schizophrenic at about his age.

And there's your movie.

This movie's been a bit overhyped. OK, you probably never heard of it, unless you're into these little films like we are, but if you are, you've seen that it won at Cannes and has high ratings at IMDB and gets glowing reviews and so on.

And it is a good movie. But it falls just short of greatness.

The first act is action packed. We see Curtis' (Shannon) nightmares, and they're quite horrific. Of course, as the audience, you're more inclined to believe what you see, so you're inclined to believe that these visions are literal prophecy. Or at least true portents.

The second act, though, takes us out of most of the dreams which has the dual effect of reducing the intensity of the film and making you seriously doubt whether he's sane or not. This works but it radically shifts the tone of the film.

The third act is a rollercoaster, threatening the worst possible ending at one point.

Ultimately, it works, although the ending poses some interesting problems, not least geographically concerning the distance between Columbus, Ohio and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

Shannon is good, of course, as always. He brings empathy to roles that might—heh, well roles that might not warrant it, though not in this case.

What really makes the movie stand out, though, is Jessica Chastain, and her role as Curtis' wife Samantha. She loves him, she's proud of him, she's grateful to him, she supports him, she does what she can for the family, she's strong but not mean or stubborn—and it's all put to the test by his deteriorating mental state. She's basically the perfect wife and mother.

There used to be more of those in movies. Someone somewhere decided that was a demeaning or too secondary. And yet this movie wouldn't have worked without it. Curtis' challenge becomes her challenge, becomes the family challenge—even the community's challenge as the normally stalwart Curtis' starts to bring his life down around his ears.

The Boy said something on the way out, though. "It's strange that there was no God in the movie."

It was, kind of. I think any actual Presence would've made the movie less popular with critics and would have necessitated a different ending.

It's also kind of interesting that the last three movies we've seen have all dealt with spiritual issues: Machine Gun Preacher, Take Shelter and the new Emilio Estevez movie, The Way. Religion was definitely a thread throughout this film but Curtis' visions are never put into any religious frame (nor even incidental symbols that I picked up).

We recommend, but less enthusiastically than others.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Zookeeper

So, apparently, Kevin James is a bit overweight and hilariously awkward. Surely no more evergreen premise for a film since the days of (the wrongly maligned) Fatty Arbuckle. Remember what I said about being a dad in The Smurfs review?

Yeah, double that here. The Barb loves her some movie popcorn (though she doesn't like to share a bag) and The Flower wanted to see this comedy about a zookeeper who takes advice from animals in order to win over an ex-girlfriend.

Profoundly stupid. Like, Tron: Legacy level stupidity.

The premise is that animals can, apparently, speak English and relate to each other more-or-less exactly the way humans do, but they don't because it doesn't end well most of the time. They make an exception for James' character because he's having such a hard time of things and he's such a swell guy to them.

So, naturally, when a wolf tells him he needs to pee everywhere, well, that's what he does. Because, of course, that's what you'd do, right? A wolf tells you you need to mark your territory to entrance a mate, you'd naturally pee all over a fancy restaurant.

At least he didn't start throwing feces, like the monkey suggested.

Actually, in the "small favors" category, I was at least pleased that they mostly kept the story out of the gutter. Of all the suggestions made by the animals, I don't remember any references to penis size or the sex act itself. I suppose that may be partly because actual animal mating isn't very funny when transposed on to humans. ("Beat the crap out of the other guy, then hunt her down and take her." More horror movie material, really.)

So, this was an hour and forty minutes of me trying to figure out who the animal voices were. I spotted Sylvester Stallone as the lion easily enough, and Nick Nolte as the Silverback Gorilla. But Cher (as the lioness) and Adam Sandler (as the monkey) bugged me through most of the movie. I spotted Maya Rudolph as the giraffe somehow, but not Judd Apatow as the elephant, Don Rickles as the frog or Jon Favreau as the bear.

But then I didn't really care much.

Sandler's fingerprints are all over this movie, which wouldn't have to a bad thing, of necessity, but it sort of feels like second-tier hand-me-down vehicle Sandler himself wouldn't star in. (I guess they'd have had to make do without all the fat jokes.)

James is pretty talented. He does some good work. But the set pieces really don't work. There's a "wacky" bicycle race between him and Joe Rogan which comes off neither as particularly wacky and just plain unfunny, unless you're going for "look at the fat guy on the silly three wheeler", which they probably were.

It was sort of interesting to see "Game" concepts come up: James plays a classic "beta male" nice guy trying to get back Leslie Bibb from the clutches of major douchebag Joe Rogan. Bibb somehow sees "potential" in James—a high income earner, if only he'd leave his true love: The zoo.

The bigger the jerk James is to Bibb, the more she likes him, and it's a credit to James that he can pull off both characters with ease. But meanwhile, working at this same zoo? Rosario Dawson. She shares his passion for all things zoo-y and doesn't seem completely repulsed by him.

I don't need to spell this out for you. It so by-the-numbers, you know exactly how the climactic scene is going to play out the first instant you see Dawson come on screen. (And, really, last-minute-rushes-to-save-the-day really work best if you provide some back story, but The Zookeeper streamlines your experience by not providing any support whatsoever.)

It did strike me as dumb. There's never any doubt about what's going to happen in this movie, which would be fine, if it were funnier and more plausible. (Hell, strike the "more plausible" part.) And Dawson, somehow, has become the ultimate beta-loser's girlfriend (see Clerks II and The Rundown). I'm not sure how that happened. But we're supposed to believe that James overlooks Dawson somehow, until she puts on an evening gown. It's almost insulting the intelligence beyond the whole talking animal thing.

At least they didn't put her in glasses, and have her take them off dramatically.


The girls liked it okay. The Barb was clearly bored in parts but offered no particular complaints. But then, she's five and it has funny talking animals. I didn't hear either of them laughing much. I did, a couple of times.

I am grateful for the little things, particularly that they kept it clean outside of a way too many scenes of James peeing on things. But it wasn't worth my $3.

My Afternoons With Margueritte

Continuing 2011's French-a-palooza (which includes Sarah's Key, Point Blank, The Hedgehog, The Names of Love and Incendies) is the Gerard Depardieu vehicle My Afternoons With Margueritte. Depardieu's relentless approaching of a bowling ball in shape notwithstanding, this is a lovely, lovely film.

Depardieu plays Germain, a laborer of no small skill set—he does construction, raises vegetables to sell at market, carves wood—but of very small brain. Well, not really small brain, but (as we see) very horrible childhood. His mother shames him. His schoolteacher humiliates him. And the upshot is that he's averse to all things reading, and as a result quite ignorant indeed.

He takes his lunch in the park, where he names and tallies the pigeons, and one day, as he's counting, an old lady, Margueritte, already sitting there says "There are nineteen." They discuss the pigeons for a while, and Margueritte says that he reminds her of a passage from The Plague, which she's reading. She takes it out and reads the passage and the somewhat thick-headed Germain is entranced.

She offers him the book, but he demurs, is logophobia still intact. So, instead, she reads to him from the book over the next ten days in the park, and a friendship is born.

The story takes us through Germain's life in flashbacks, and through this new future where he becomes a different person to his friends—an educated man, almost, though still disastrously thick sometimes.

Depardieu's performance is truly wonderful in the subtleness of the transformation.Gisele Casadesus, who was in both Sarah's Key and The Hedgehog, has a sweet and generous turn as the motherly Margueritte (two "T"s for her father didn't know how to spell it). Sophie Guillemin is the ridiculously gorgeous bus driver and girlfriend to Germain who somehow makes that work without being creepy. Claire Maurier (whom I last saw in Amelie) plays Germain's complex and, sometimes, frankly insane mother.

If you have any affinity for reading or the printed word, you'll probably be charmed by this film. The Boy, who's not a big reader—and who maintains his loathing for the French despite all the movies (heh)—really enjoyed it.

I loved it, of course, and find it a shame that this will probably fall into the forgotten dust heap of history, missing an audience that would love it greatly.

Smurf Me With A Smurfin' Smurf

As you probably know, I'm a dad. And the spread between my children means that, at any given moment in the past 20 years, I've had to see dumb movies. Given our limited time and the existence of Pixar, I've been fortunate enough to steer the kids mostly to the better films, but I have not escaped the occasional Alvin and the Chipmunks, Dungeons and Dragons (okay, I probably would've seen it anyway) and, now, Smurfs.

The Smurfs is a comic strip from the '60s, by a Belgian dude who probably got drunk with one of his buddies and decided it would be hilarious to replace arbitrary nouns and verbs in a sentences with "Smurf". I mean, seriously, that's how it started, though the word was "schtroumph". From there he made little blue dudes, basically in the mold of Disney's dwarfs, where each Smurf's name matches their personality, like Happy Smurf, Sneezy Smurf or Sleepy Smurf—at one point everyone agrees that they don't much like Passive-Aggressive Smurf. Or, rather confusingly, if not their personality, their name matches their trade, like Plumber Smurf or Gigolo Smurf.

Kidding, of course. There are no plumbers or gigolos in Smurf village. There is a lot of toilet humor in the movie, however. I mean that literally, with Smurfs constantly falling into the damn things. And there are no gigolos because Smurfs are all male except for one, Smurfette.

Smurfette was created by the Smurf's evil nemesis Gargamel in order to destroy their society. Seems all it takes to mess up paradise is a chick.

Gargamel is a degenerate middle-aged wizard who wears a bathrobe and is constantly after Smurf essence for its magical powers, which are considerable. Considerable, but completely unavailable to the Smurfs themselves for some unexplored reason. Fortunately, Gargamel's incompetence is only exceeded by his general creepiness.

The story, such as it is concerns, Clumsy Smurf accidentally leading Gargamel to the hidden Smurf village, and the ensuing rampage (which is kind of horrifying) causes a group of Smurfs to go to the forbidden zone which contains a portal to New York City, wherein they meet up with a young(ish) ad exec on the verge of either great success or failure. So they have to get back before Gargamel captures them and, I dunno, takes over the world or something.

There are some problems with this film, to say the least. The first and foremost is that it's a really stupid concept. I mean, Smurfs in general are. There's just not much to hang your hat on there. You know what Grouchy Smurf. Gutsy Smurf and Clumsy Smurf are gonna do at any given moment.

The second one is that the voices don't work. Not that they're bad, exactly. It's just that they don't really seem to be coming out of the Smurfs themselves most of the time. Sound mixing fail.

The third is that Gargamel usually comes off like a creepy perverted avuncular figure than exactly evil. I mean, he is evil. His intentions seem to be to enslave the Smurfs, after all. But, probably to avoid being too scary, he's more of a weirdly comic figure. His cat, Azrael is a CGI disaster, combining a completely literal cat with human facial expressions and movement. Pure nightmare fuel.

The fourth is the (not new) idea that old, stale catch-phrases are still funny if a Smurf (or a talking CGI animal, or a cat with a hat and a sword) says them.

The fifth is the movie's 80% commitment to itself. Mostly, the movie is done sincerely, and that's good. It leads to some awful "be true to yourself" crap at the climax but that was probably inevitable. The remaining 20%, where the movie sort of winks at you grossly and says "We know. We're all better than this, really," makes me want to leave.

There are moments when Gargamel points out (facetiously) that Papa Smurf lives in the village which his 99 sons and one daughter—and there's nothing weird about that—or when the word "smurf" is clearly being used as a substitute for something lewd. that the movie both recycles 20 year old Smurf humor and snarks at itself at the same time where I really wanted to leave.

You're not better than this movie: You're making this movie. You took the cheapest (narratively speaking) route, going with a fish-out-of-water story and struggling-young-man-wrestles-with-his-conscience-but-Smurfs-show-him-the-way story. Own it. And this brings me to the last major failure.

See, the cast and CGI are pretty top-notch. It's not quite an A-List cast: Neal Patrick Harris is the lead human, and Hank Azaria provides most of the movie's scarce moments of genuine humor. In fact, Hank Azaria unintentionally invokes Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, in that you can't help but think to yourself, "Wow. They spent $120 million to make this piece of smurf."

And you sort of end up thinking, "Well, they got NPH because they couldn't get Justin Timberlake, Jayma Mays is his girlfriend insetad of Katherine Heigl, they got Hank Azaria instead of, I dunno, F. Murray Abrahams, Sofia Vergara instead of Penelope Cruz," and so on. Down to the cameos: Tim Gunn instead of Stacey and Clinton, Liz Smith instead of Mary Hart, and Joan Rivers instead of someone living.

And this carries down to the voice level. Anton Yelchin plays clumsy, maybe instead of Jesse Eisenberg, Jonathan Winters (still alive!) is Papa Smurf instead of Bob Hoskins, Smurfette is Katy Perry instead of Lady Gaga, George Lopez is Grouchy instead of, well, anyone else at all.

Not that any of these people do a bad job. Azaria, as I've mentioned, does what he can to buoy the proceedings. Yelchin has a nice, mild nasality to his voice. Alan Cummings does an excellent Scottish Brogue. And it's cute when Katy Perry says "I kissed a Smurf and I liked it."

But overall, it's a soulless exercise in budgeting and overseas gross receipts. (The movie grossed a modest $120M domestically but three-times more world-wide.) Probably the only indispensable cast member was Frank Welker, who's the cat-voice of Azrael. Apart from Welker, Narrator Smurf Tom Kane, and John Kassir, every voice is stunt casting. Welker and Kassir were both voices in the '80s Smurf cartoon, in fact.

This movie is the epitome of modern Hollywood, really. A movie so calculated, pre-packaged and lab-tested to make money, the chance of any actual art occurring is near zero.

The Barbarienne proclaimed the movie "smurftastic" and I couldn't disagree.

But I don't think we meant the same thing.


The trend of trailers revealing all the plot and most of the best lines of a movie continues apace with the new movie "from the makers of Superbad", 50/50. I guess the trailer guys don't care about anything other than opening weekend.

It's a credit to this movie's acting, editing, direction and just heart, that those lines are still funny in the movie, even after you've seen them in the trailer a dozen times.

"From the creators of Superbad," the trailers tell us and, yeah, this is pretty much the Superbad guys ten years later, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the Michael Cera role and Seth Rogen in the Jonah Hill role. That is to say, Seth Rogen is finally playing himself. (Both films are autobiographical of Seth Rogan, though in Superbad his skinny friend is childhood buddy Evan Goldberg,and in 50/50 his skinny friend is Will Reiser.)

Anyway, the two leads are a big leap in the looks and charm department from the earlier film, but the heart is still very similar: Gordon-Levitt's character Adam is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and his buddy Kyle is there to help him through it. Kyle is crude, a little reckless, and more than a little insensitive but he's a friend, and this friendship goes a long way.

Adam's girlfriend is played by rapidly-becoming-stereotyped-as-a-high-maintenance-bitch actress Bryce Dallas Howard, whose behavior is as predictable as it is tragic in how Adam fails to see it coming.

The movie basically concerns how Adam handles his cancer—the 50/50 of the title referring to his odds of survival, and how those around him handle it, and does so with a fairly light touch. Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer provide a little perspective as (much older) patients receiving chemo at the same time as Adam. Angelica Huston—who for some reason I kept thinking was Olympia Dukakis—plays Adam's mother, and their relationship (as well as his relationship with his senile father, played by Serge Houde).

The other interesting relationship is between Adam and a brand-spanking new counselor, Katherine. The two have a kind of tension as Katherine tries very hard to help Adam, but her constant assurances that what he's feeling is "perfectly normal" isn't as soothing as she thinks it should be. (I've noticed that a lot these days: People trying to comfort others, at least in movies, by saying "That's perfectly normal." I don't get why that's supposed to make someone feel better either.)

Katherine is played by relative newcomer, Anna Kendrick, who is as cute as a button, in stark contrast to her shrewish, slutty character in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Also, she has a great nose, that I hope she keeps. (Nobody keeps their noses in Hollywood any more.)

All in all, this movie accomplishes the difficult task of dealing with a serious subject with a light touch, but without trivializing that. It deals with a lot of heavy emotions without being glib or mawkish—this is probably a big part of the autobiographical influence. And you don't really know till the end whether or not Adam will live.

The Boy, The Flower and I all liked it.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Machine Gun Preacher

I don't have much use for the movie sites' ratings any more. IMDB is still the best, I guess, but it's not good. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are both unreliable. But the latter two have an interesting feature where they split the critics' opinions from the masses'. So while the newest Marc Forster (Kite Runner, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction) film looked sort of dubious from the (spoiler-ridden) trailers, and had an awful rating on IMDB (5.7 out of 10), I noticed that on Tomatoes the critics rated it a savage 25% while audiences gave it a 75%.

This warranted a look.

Sure enough, the movie has elements you could predict would turn off the hordes of movie critics, and a share of the audience with similar mindsets.

I think it's the best film of 2011 to date.

This movie is an epic spiritual journey (told entirely without sitars or psychedelic imagery) . It is the true, astounding story of a very bad man named Sam Childers who finds Jesus and becomes—well, a crusader, really. Almost literally. In Uganda and the Sudan. So let me recount the five strikes that would virtually guarantee this movie bad reviews:

  1. A completely sincere representation of evangelical Christianity that converts a very bad man into a very good one. (Not a perfect one, to be sure.) This is only barely tempered by a few scenes of Christian hypocrisy, and the Christians shown in worship are prone to doing things that embarrass sophisticates, like hold their hands up skyward.
  2. Muslims brutally killing defenseless Christians. (This happens a lot in real life but we're not supposed to talk about it.)
  3. The reformed Childers loves him some guns. A lack of guns is a serious problem for the Christian resistance. (This is generally true of people being slaughtered but again, we're not supposed to talk about it.)
  4. Africa is completely and totally screwed up, and there are no white people around to blame.
  5. The priggish English chick who sniffs at Childers efforts probably echoes the feelings of your average sensitive movie critic—and the movie entertains but doesn't exactly endorse her point-of-view.
  6. Lots of other stuff I can't talk about without spoilers.

It's a little hard to talk about the movie in depth without spoilers, and this is a movie, though not rife with twists-and-turns, that pushes the envelope and earns its two-hour-plus length, so I'm going to keep it fairly abstract.

Although the Sudanese civil war is the backdrop for the movie—and I'm sure what Childers himself would most want the spotlight on—the heart-and-soul of the movie is that of a man obsessed. He's found forgiveness in God, but he hungers for greater meaning, which he finds by constantly expanding his sense of responsibility.

As it must in this vale of tears, this brings him to confront an evil that is greater than he is, and in which confrontation brings out many of his old devils. He's found God but can he keep Him in the face of horror after horror? It's really this struggle that powers the movie on a Shakespearean level.

By the way: The horrors? They are truly horrible. Much like Childers' own evils, they're watered down for the movie—thank the Lord (or at least director Forster's sense of restraint). You get a strong enough sense of them without wallowing in them. (True horrors like these remind me why I like the fantasy of the horror genre.)

From what I've heard, everything in the movie's been dialed back a bit because audiences wouldn't believe the truth. And I can see that. Indeed, the common critical response I've heard is that it's too much for one movie.

I disagree. (Actually, less charitably, I think critics hated the movie for the abovementioned points and then made up rationalizations for that.) The movie actually has a laser-like focus on Childers, and that keeps it squarely in "epic" and out of "sprawlng". If you've read this blog at all, you know how I am about movies that express self-indulgence through length, and I never felt that here. There were times when I couldn't believe there was more, but it never felt gratuitous.

Honestly, I can't remember caring so much about a movie character—and it's not because it's a real person, because (if you've read this blog much) you know how I feel about "based on a true story" stuff, and I tend to assume that the movie is only barely based on the facts. (It's gratifying to find out otherwise here. There's a major narrative point that's almost too neat to have actually happened but it wouldn't be the most incredible thing of the film.)

It's also an edge-of-your-seat movie, as Childers keeps taking greater and greater risks, and you can't help this feeling that he's going to end up dead—or worse, with his dreams crushed.

Amazing performance by Gerard Butler that should win him a nom, if not an Oscar, but will probably be ignored. Michelle Monaghan is both appealing and complex in her portrayal of the woman who saves Childers' soul only to risk losing him over and over again. Michael Shannon, Kathy Baker, young Madeline Carroll, Soulemayne Sy Savane—you know, it's weird to compare this to Cowboys vs. Aliens but there's a similarity in that just about every character who got screen time established a distinct personality, a real depth of character.

Combine that with heart-wrenching tragedy, stomach-churning brutality, soul-lifting inspiration, and a few (perhaps too few) moments of lightness, and you have yourself a picture worth watching.

This movie might challenge you, though, too. Not in the sort of intellectual, abstract ways that most people prefer to be challenged, mind you. Not in the typical avant-garde fashion of "challenging" norms by laughing at people who believe in them. Rather, it challenges in the real "What are you doing about it?" way that I can't imagine a lot of people are comfortable thinking about.

And it does this without being preachy, either, which is an interesting feat.

The Boy and I were both very favorably impressed.

Still, I can't recommend for everyone. There are lots of people who find expressions of faith offensive or in poor taste, and they won't like this (or parts of it, anyway) one bit. Also, I couldn't really bring The Flower to see it, both for Childers' evil ways in the beginning, and the greater Evil of the Sudanese slaughter.

But if you can dare it, if you have that much of Childers' spirit in you, you should see it.