Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Road

If I turned this review over to the Boy, the page would be filled with expletives. First things first, though, this is a review of The Road. Not the 2009 Viggo Mortensen post-apocalyptic flick, but a new Filipino horror about an out-of-the-way-road that everyone seems to take a shortcut on their way home from school or shopping, or just whenever.

The story is about a young cop who gets some kind of award and promotion, and is approached by a woman whose daughters have been missing for several years. There are then three vignettes, each ten years earlier than the last, showing the history of The Road and its victims.

We didn't know it was Filipino going in. The last Filipino movies I watched were when Eddie Romero's "Blood Island" movies aired on TV all the time. They were popular with me and my buddies to riff on.

This movie isn't in that tradition, though. There aren't any Yankees to shore up the box office and it's not dubbed in English, which is probably why it ended up at our art theater. (Although we do have a sizable Filipino population here, it's not a common thing to get their movies.)

This is more in the Japanese tradition. Ghosts of unspecified power and conflicting motivations pop up suddenly, sometimes visible, sometimes not, and it's not clear as to who can see them when, and never really why. It's actually not really clear who's doing the killing in some cases since there is a living, human agent around, too.

Japanese (and Korean) films in this genre get away with this with atmosphere, shock, dread and the best ones also manage suspense and a kind of aesthetic logic that transcends the need to actually make sense. The Ring (Ringu) is probably the main impetus for (and maybe best example of) the genre which plays at your expectation for one kind of logic and substitutes another kind at the last moment.

Despite the relatively high ratings on some review sites, this movie misses the shock and suspense mark by a wide degree, and is aggressively incoherent. The final vignette, which is meant to explain motivations, is dopey, but the "twist" is even dopier, essentially destroying the characterization set up by the vignette.

There may have been a double-twist, too, actually, that the apparently human agent wasn't really human after all. I dunno. It's murky.

I thought the atmosphere was okay, but the Boy immediately spotted and disliked the shot-on-video look, and when I compared it to the lesser "After Dark" movies, he didn't think it was even at that (low) level.

The editing had the mark of a low-budget film, with certain scenes being incoherent since key shots were too expensive to film. This seemed particularly true of the few action scenes.

I though the acting was all right but again The Boy hated it. This might be because it was bad (hey, I never claimed to be an expert on acting) or it might be because they spoke a heavily accented English sometimes that had an unfortunate cadence to the native ear. You know, like, if a character's name was "Bobby", they would yell "BahBEE!".

It had a baby-ish sound to it. I just regarded it as just coincidental to English but it was jarring.

The Road is pitched as a mystery, but it's not that mysterious. Even the twist—the one that didn't make sense and was actively undermined by the rest of the movie—was obvious from the get-go. (We both saw it coming, though we were wrong in one detail.)

It's pitched as a horror but it's so low key and laid back it manages to produce the sort of effect you get from going on "The Haunted Mansion" ride for the 40th time. Today. It's like seeing the animatronic ghoul's head pop out from the grave in predictable rhythm and slow motion, so you can analyze exactly what the director is trying to do without ever being engaged by it.

The Boy would probably class it as one of the worst movies he's ever seen and—well, I've seen a lot more movies, but I couldn't really recommend it. Except maybe to a native. (The subtitles contained spelling and other translation errors. So maybe not needing them would have helped. But not that much.)

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Highest Pass

An American man goes to India in search of a guru and finds one, in the form of a handsome young man who is prophesied to die. They decide to go on a motorcycle ride with five others over the highest motorable road in the world, deep in to the Himalayas. This is the premise of The Highest Pass, a documentary by John Fitzgerald and written by one of the journeyers, Adam Schomer.

Well, actually, I assume that Fitzgerald was one of the journeyers, too, since the whole thing was shot presumably live at the time. (You can read about it here, in fact, if you're interested.) There were many times when it didn't make sense for the camera to be there, kind of like a reality show: Our hero is traipsing through the jungle alone, can he possibly make it through this thick bramble? Meanwhile, the camera's shooting from the other side of the thick bramble, so you know it's do-able. And been done, actually.

The interstitials also give it a reality show feel, as people talk about what happened in-between the actual footage of it happening.

Let me say that I enjoyed this movie, I really did. The Boy liked it even more than I did. All caveats included, this is an amazing journey of seven people motorbiking up to—I forget how high up they are at the highest point, whether 4 or 5 miles—and even if they didn't all bike all the way, they all seemed to challenge themselves in a way that I can accept as spiritually beneficial.

They're both likable and admirable, I think, for daring to do it.

You can tell there are some caveats coming, though, can't you? Some observations? Maybe even some reservations?

By far my biggest problem with the flick is that the guru talks way too much. I don't believe you can talk someone into enlightenment. The things that are enlightening are, by their very essence, stupid. That is to say, we are basically simple creatures who get mired in complexity, and who are occasional touched by epiphanies that are as meaningful to us as they are stupidly obvious.

Enlgihtenment is a bumper sticker. Let Go and Let God. Do unto others. Be Kind, Rewind. (Wait, strike that last one.) Not to single out Christianity, either, since Buddhism and Hinduism too are all about simple, obvious things. That's why when you talk to someone who's excited about some revelation, they always sound like an idiot.

"And, yeah, then I realized, that, you know, if I just stopped treating people like crap, they'd think I was less of an asshole!"

I'm not setting myself apart from this either. It's just the nature of the beast: Enlightenment is personal and, yes, dumb, for all of us, because we're unwinding the complexities we've created for ourselves.

This is a long way to travel (as it were) to just point out that the Himalayas are, by themselves, an amazing, uplifting thing that could bring a lot of enlightenment to people just seeing them—"You know, these mountains aren't gonna crumble if I don't have that paper in on Friday."—versus having a guru telling you how amazing they are.

I figure since the writer was the one who follows the guru, we got way more talk than was helpful.

My other observations are more of a puckish nature,. For instance, arguably the most dangerous part of their journey was driving through the Indian city (I forget which one). They almost lost a couple of people there. 'course, Indians do that every day.

The next most dangerous part comes when they push through the trail before it's cleared of snow. (The thaw is late this year. Thanks Global Warming!) They can't breathe and they're freezing and the snow plows are having trouble and there are avalanche dangers everywhere, but they finally get through to a Buddhist temple. Where, of course, lots of Buddhist monks live every day.

Then there's the guru himself who, according to prophesy is to die that year. So, if he doesn't die, has he beaten the prophesy? Or maybe people can't really see into the future all the well, even in India.

And the mind-bending question is: Does it matter?

Ultimately, I don't think it does. Our experiences are relative. If he believed the prophesy, then it was a bold move to spit in its face and do something borderline reckless. Sure, lots of people live ever day in the climate that our protagonists were struggling through, but that doesn't the struggle any less real.

Insofar as there's a message one could carry away, it would probably be that: Are you going to sit there passively and let the universe happen to you or are you going to spit in The Fates' eye?


Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Avengers

I am actually getting pretty tired of all these superhero movies. Most of 'em are Marvel, for one thing, which was never my thing. Since the lead time is so long on these suckers and one bad apple can kill a franchise, nearly every damn one of 'em has an "origin story". They tend to rely on dodgy and homogenizing special effects. Also, the tropes of the genre have infected most other genres, turning up where you wouldn't expect, like in Dark Shadows.

Et cetera.

But they're also often the best movies made in the year, however, so there ya are. Or rather, there I am, with The Flower and The Boy watching the latest smash 'em up directed by no less a figure than Joss Whedon ("Buffy The Vampire Slayer", "Firefly").

Well, it's good.

Very good.

I'd say that The Dark Knight Rises has got its work cut out for it to be the comic book movie of the year, but I'm not sure Dark Knight is even really a superhero movie. (Batman's not a superhero, and Nolan seems increasingly determined to avoid most of the tropes of the superhero genre, in something akin to irony.)

This really is.

The story doesn't really matter. The world is imperiled and earth's mightiest heroes must come together to save it. Well, the mightiest heroes in the Marvel universe that aren't already licensed out to other studios. Which is why the whole thing is kind of odd, from a marketing perspective: Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk and Thor aren't the A-List. Black Widow and Hawkeye aren't even on the B-List!

But Whedon does an excellent job delineating the characters. Granted, these guys are drawn in broad strokes and have long histories, but there's a scene where the slutty chick from "How I Met Your Mother" says something to Captain America about Thor being a god, and Captain America says, "There's only one God, ma'am, and he doesn't look like that."


Because, you know, that's what Captain America, frozen in time in WWII, would say.  There's a somewhat meta-reference to the fish-out-of-water thing as Captain America and Thor seem to be competing vis a vis who's more out of the cultural loop.

And the movie is filled with nice touches like that, that aren't really touches but maintaining continuity of character, in a knowing but respectful way that makes the movie lively, upbeat entertainment.

There's no doubt that he's behind the strength of the two human heroes, Hawkeye and Black Widow. They would've been disposable in just about any other writer/director's hands, but their relationship is central and Black Widow in particular has a number of pivotal roles and surprising turns.

Whedon also fully embraces the insanity of comic book logic, much in the way Sam Raimi did with his Spider-Man movies (particularly the second one).

The Boy, who isn't inclined toward these things, said he didn't think it could've been any better, and not in a backhanded way. The Flower loved it. You can't really ask much more of an action movie than that it makes you care enough about the characters to make the action interesting, and this mostly does.

With eight big characters (the six heroes, Nick Fury and Loki), you're going to be pressed for time. All the actors from the previous movies are back, with the exception of The Hulk being played not by Edward Norton but by Mark Ruffalo, who is possibly the only better guy for the role of the wan Bruce Banner. The new character, Hawkeye, is played ably by Jeremy Renner (of The Hurt Locker and The Town).

It's said that this movie started as an in-joke as the stinger for Iron Man, but on the strengths of the movies about the other three heroes became a reality and it's something of a minor miracle that it paid off at all, to say nothing of this well.

So, tired as I am, I'd go see Avengers 2, if Whedon directs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Five-Year Engagement

Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel are together again (for the second time) in the new romantic-comedy The Five-Year Engagement, the story of an up-and-coming chef (Segel) and his Psychology grad student fiancee (played by Emily Blunt) whose plans to marry are derailed after she gets accepted for post-grad work at the University of Michigan. (Go Fighting Hedgehogs!)

Stoller and Segel's previous collaboration was the delightfully raunchy Forgetting Sarah Marshall and you'll find much of the same tone here (although, somewhat sweetly, a bone of contention is an errant drunk kiss rather than—the more graphic stuff in Marshall).

I and The Boy liked this movie quite a lot. It was pretty consistently chuckle-worthy, if not uproarious, and its extended length (two hours) didn't feel padded, though you are really ready for it to end when it finally does. That's kind of a cute cinematic trick, to convey the sense of a lengthened engagement so literally and, frankly, I liked it, but I could see others' complaints in this regard.

The strength of this movie is in its characters, perhaps more so than Marshall, which fell back on some fairly standard character types. (That probably allowed it to be funnier, though.) Segel's character is as ambitious, at least, as Blunt's—kind of refreshing in these days of slacker men—but he sacrifices for her opportunity.

Obviously, this isn't going to go well, or we wouldn't have a picture.

But what's interesting (and enjoyable) is this old-school romcom feel where the conflict comes from having two basically strong characters butt heads. Tom gives up the chance of lifetime for Violet, but he never tells her that. And as he slowly disintegrates, unable to maintain his identity in this new context, he's as supportive as he can be—which is increasingly less supportive, since he's becoming a basket case.

It evokes, with less wackiness, Michael Keaton and Teri Garr in Mr. Mom. You know from the moment you lay eyes on him that Violet's supervisor George (aptly played by Jim Piddock, Catherine O'Hara's urniary-incontinence mogul husband in A Mighty Wind) is going to go after her. At the same time, this movie gives him a lot more depth than the sleazy caricature Martin Mull depicts in Mr. Mom.

No, much as in Marshall, while the characters have problems, they tend to come from being stubborn, or just too fixed in how they view themselves and others. This basic truism lends a lot of strength to the tale, rather than making it a story of good guys and bad guys.

Perhaps the most interesting side-facet of the movie comes in the form of Alex and Suzie, his and her best buds, who end up drunkenly hooking up at the engagement party. Alex (Chris Pratt, Moneyball) is a pig, a neanderthal, a complete throwback and, if not a loser, a modestly ambitious and somewhat shortsighted person while Suzie (Alsion Brie, "Mad Men") is a more modern, feminist woman who is completely embarrassed by the hookup—and who ends up pregnant.

 The movie relishes the irony of demonstrating the mismatched couple living their lives over the five year period in a reasonably happy and responsible way while the perfect pair we're rooting for go utterly to pieces. "You're over-thinking it," the movie seems to say. Or perhaps, in the parlance of our times, "You're doing it wrong."

Jason Segel, pioneer in the modern "full-frontal comedy" lets us down a little bit by only featuring an apron with a picture of a penis rather than the real thing, but he's getting up there in years to be waving that thing around. (What the hell am I saying?)

Anyway, The Boy and I both enjoyed it, and while we agreed it ran a bit long, it was hard to see a lot of opportunities for cutting that wouldn't undermine the story they were telling.


Movies about teenagers with superpowers, they suck, right? No, seriously, I'm asking because I haven't seen I Am Number Four or Blink or any of those other films. I saw The Craft, but that has more to do with knee socks.

It's just not a very interesting topic. I mean, it could be, but the odds are against it. It just lends itself to pandering power fantasy. And not to me, so, why should I care?

What's more, the reviews that accompany these movies usually reflect an abysmal character, and they don't seem to do much at the box office, so you kinda gotta wonder why they keep making them.

But they do, which brings us to Chronicle, the first super-teen movie in 35 years that doesn't suck! I'm evoking, somewhat reservedly, Brian De Palma's The Fury which, well, maybe that's not a great example.

Anyway, this is the story of three kids who find themselves with telekinesis, the ability to move things with their minds. It starts out slow, with our three protagonists—one a moderately well-liked philosopher, one a class leader and one an outcast—going about their lives in the manner of high-school students.

Sure, it's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye, usually from telekinesis-related hemorrhages.

The story is told from the POV of the outcast, who has video-recorded the events Blair Witch-style. This might make you roll your eyes at first, but there are some really clever exploitations of this conceit. At first you get a little bit of the shaky-cam but mostly a static POV as someone sets the camera down and the scene unfolds in that frame.

But then, later, well, hey, they're telekinetic—so the camera can be moved completely independently of being held by a character in the movie.

Another interesting side-effect is that very mundane special effects tend to have a little more impact, at least at first. You're surprised to see simple levitation in this cinema verité style. It sort of wears off a bit toward the end when all hell breaks loose.

The movie unfolds relatively slowly as well, allowing the characters some time to develop, even if they're drawn from some pretty well-worn high-school archetypes.

It does hit some wll-worn grooves by the end, but overall it was an entertaining take on a genre which is usually tiresome. The Boy and The Flower were entertained, if not enthused.