Saturday, June 30, 2012


The opening scene of Prometheus features an alien landing on a lifeless earth, drinking some black goo, and then dissolving into a cloud of life-granting DNA.

I missed that scene.

The movie makes a lot more sense without it.

Prometheus is a prequel to the seminal 1979 sci-fi horror flick Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. It's not a "side-quel" as originally suggested, it's a straight-up prequel that explains how the alien-infested ship in the first movie came into being.

Sort of.

Prometheus can only marginally be said to explain anything. Well, that's not fair: It actually does explain Alien. It does so in such a way that raises a whole bunch of other questions that it can't possibly answer.

New franchise anyone?

The Red Letter guys did a bit where the one guy (who plays "Plinkett", I think, in the mega-star-wars-hooker-killing reviews) just fired off a series of things that don't make sense for about five minutes while the other guy sat there dumbfounded.

I thought one of the questions missed something pretty obvious, and a few others were deliberately raised, but there were a bunch of illogical things in the film, and a few of them bugged me. There's a couple of twists toward the end that are so obvious from the beginning that they're silly.

Actually, if the movie suffers from anything, it's the number of well-established sci-fi/horror tropes it hits—which it then feels the need to spell out. Not often in great detail or anything, but it has been over 30 years since the original Alien and we all know the drill by this point.

That said, I confess I liked this movie. I guess a lot of people had higher expectations because they were thinking "Ooh, Alien! By the original director! And the guy who did Blade Runner!" And maybe a few were thinking Gladiator, too. But, of course, those are three films over a 35 year career. And, if you think about it, it's really H.R. Giger's alien design in Alien—and a whole mess of visionary artists in Blade Runner—that make those films so iconic.

Not to minimize Scott's contributions to those movies in any way, but it's remarkable lightning struck twice in his career, and that shouldn't be confused with an ability to call lightning at will.

But I do tend to like his films, and I include this one with it. Noomi Rapace, the formerly dragon-tattooed girl, shows another side of herself: Sigourney Weaver's Ripley character is split between her, on the softer side, and Charlize Theron, whose character seems to have been almost entirely transplanted from Snow White and the Huntsman. Irdis Elbra reprises a character close enough to Al Matthews' Sgt. Apone in Aliens to where I started to wonder why they didn't just call him Sgt. Apone, Sr.

Other than that, there's Guy Pearce in ridiculous old-age makeup. As I mentioned in my review of J. Edgar, old-age makeup is always bad and that doesn't usually bother me. In this case, it called to mind an episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Peter (I think) plays Benedict Arnold on his deathbed. He's supposed to look like he's only got a few days to live, besides being 112-years-old or something.

The other characters are alien-fodder. The attempts at characterization clearly buckle under the larger need to put said characters in jeopardy.

The other thing that I really enjoyed about the film was the way it referenced and set up the original. The original, if anyone were to think about it, makes no sense either. How does it happen that a bunch of creatures on a forsaken planet are waiting there—completely untended—for untold time for compatible biological life to come along? It don't make no sense.

This, at least points to a connection that, if not plausible, is still way more plausible than any aspect of the "Star Wars" prequels. But there were nice directorial touches, shots and moments that pleasantly recalled the original.

You could say, in fact, this is one of the better Alien rip-offs. That's damning with faint praise, of course.

The Boy was fairly "meh" about it. Not too impressed, and a little insulted by the lampshade hanging, I think. Well, not really lampshade hanging but maybe more Narrating The Obvious. Ridley Scott hasn't directed a sci-fi or fantasy movie in over 25 years, but I am beginning to suspect he hasn't seen one in at least as long.

But, look, if you go in with modest expectations and a high proficiency at belief suspension, you'll see an expertly shot movie that moves almost fast enough to escape it's own illogic. Well, okay, not really, but you might not care.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

"I don't care what you guys say; I think the new Wes Anderson movie is gonna be quirky." So tweeted the imitably dry Andy Levy about Moonrise Kingdom-or really any Wes Anderson, which of course is the point. 

The Flower, who enjoyed The Fantastic Mr. Fox was eager to see this. The Boy, who didn't care much for Fox and wasn't all that keen on The Darjeeling Limited was less eager. I enjoy Anderson, but I keep my expectations mild. I expect his movies to be lightweight but a little dark, funny but not often laugh-out-loud funny.

Too, Anderson's films co-written with Noah Baumbach are darker, broodier, less comic than his early work co-written with Owen Wilson. In this film he teams up again with Roman Coppola, who co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited, and the two manage to hit the sweet spot.

Moonrise is a funny, whimsical film set in a 1965 New England island town about a pair of alienated 12-year-olds who plot over a year's time to run away together. It has a dark undercurrent, of course, but not an overpowering one. In addition to the typical sweeping set shots and the excellent blocking and other Anderson trademarks—though the Flower pointed out that he didn't do his lean-behind shot, where a character in close is talking to someone you can't see, until they lean to one side and appear behind the character in front—there's a story of purity and love that is quite winning.

If you like Anderson movies, you'll like this. (Well, maybe. People who like Wes Anderson films are unpredictable.) But even if you don't like them, you might just like this anyway. (I'm working on creating the most meaningless recommendation ever...)

I had this thought while watching it that it's sort of the anti-"Blue Lagoon". In that story, the absence of adults leads to children having sex, because "it's natural"—basically, a thin cover for ephebophilia. The camera leers. The audience is invited to be titillated. And those who object are prudes and unnatural.

In this story, the presence of adults drives the kids away, and while they're in love and experimenting with kissing and so on, the movie never gets creepy. The kids are awkward, timid, and manages to have 12-year-old Kara Hayward running around in a vintage 1965 mini-dress without ever ogling or inviting prurience. (Jared Gilman is Sam, who is Anderson's stock male character: An odd combination of bravado and neuroses.)

The kids draw a sharp contrast with the adults, who are by turns self-involved, officious, dull-witted, dull-emotioned—in fact, in writing this, it seems like Moonrise Kingdom feels more like a Roald Dahl story than Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox did.

The adult cast is populated by actors who've either been in Anderson's movies before, or make you sort of think they have, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, of course, Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel and, acting as a narrator of sorts, Bob Balaban.

They're all perfect, except for being 10-20 years too old. Seriously, Suzy (Hayward) is supposed to be the oldest child (of four) to Murray and McDormand's characters. Characters in their late '30s/early '40s would have made more sense. 

Tilda Swinton is still playing the White Witch, but I guess she's been doing that since before Narnia. In this, she plays "Social Services", an implacable force of bureaucracy determined to take Sam to detention.

From a narrative standpoint, the movie starts to careen out of control toward the end, though the pace is fast enough to help you overlook the occasional breaks in continuity. It makes an emotional sense, even if the details don't quite hang together.

The Flower and The Boy both liked it a lot, finding it very funny and not boring at all.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

I never read The Borrowers, only the Scholastic rip-off books, The Littles. At least, I'm guessing that was the impetus behind The Littles, which has only rated a cheap SatAM series, versus the two series and two features devoted to The Borrowers.

This is a propos of nothing. My mind wanders.

The Secret World of Arrietty is the latest Studio Ghibli movie to make it to these shores, and through the deal with Disney to receive a limited distribution and minimal advertising.

Well, that's not fair. Disney used to give the Ghibli movies short-shrift, but since John Lasseter (of Pixar) took over, they do a good job of dubbing in English and released this to over 1,500 theaters. Nobody really went to see it, because we're stupid Americans who don't go see stuff that comes from England (like The Pirates) much less stuff from Japan.

But I digress. Again.

The Borrowers is the story of a family of little people who belong to a race of parasites who live off of normal-sized people. I mean, they call themselves borrowers but do they ever return anything? No, they do not. They justify their theft by saying they only take stuff no one will miss.

They probably download a lot of MP3s illegally, too.

Can you tell I'm having trouble focusing? It's not the movie. The movie is very good. It follows the story of Arrietty, who strikes up a friendship with a sick young boy who lives in the house, and in doing so forces the whole family to move, since they're not safe if the large people know about them.

It's a charming film. More serious than most kids' films, with the little people's survival genuinely at stake, and a kind of bizarre antagonist in the form of an old lady who's obsessed with the little people, to the extent of destroying them. I mean, seriously, she seems motivated by trying to prove they exist so people won't think she's crazy, but everyone pretty much knows they do.

It's less serious than the books, though, where the boy is sent away to India.

This appears to be Hayao Miayzaki's transition down from being a director. He wrote the script based on the novel with animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi at the helm. The overall impression is very reminiscent of the classic My Neighbor Totoro, though less fantastical than that film.

The Flower, the Boy and the Barb all approved, warmly.

First Position

The Boy turned 17 and on his birthday we celebrated by eating, shooting a scoped rifle and going to see a documentary about ballet dancers.

The Boy enjoys contrasts. He's a brony—or he was, before creator Lauren Faust left at the end of the first season—who pumps iron. He sings Justin Beiber songs in the voice of Christian Bale's Batman while fragging people on line. He's just funny that way.

Anyway, what he has to say about First Position is that "I didn't really know about the subject, or care about, but I did by the end of the film."

That's about as high a praise as you can give a documentary. The Flower was similarly positive.

First Position is the story of six kids—well, seven, really—who are seriously into ballet. I probably don't need to elaborate on what, in the words of our esteemed Vice President, a big effin' deal that is. Training is always interesting, but the action is shaped by progression toward winning a major competition that determines their future in ballet.

The seven kids come from different backgrounds: Aran is the son of a military man stationed in Italy; Jules and Miko are upper middle class siblings in California; Gaya's an Israeli girl who suffered an injury only to be inspired by Aran; Michaela is a Sierra Leonine whose parents were killed in the civil war, who was then adopted by a New Jersey couple that struggles to keep her in tutus; Joan is a boy from Colombia who immigrates to New York, since the Cali, Colombia doesn't have a flourishing ballet culture; and Rebecca, a beautiful blonde princess who perfectly fits the stereotype of a Prima ballerina.

The dedication is impressive, of course. Except for Jules, Miko's little brother. He's a pretty typical ten-year-old boy, except for being incredibly talented, but he doesn't seem to care much about ballet and drives his instructor nuts. (When it's showtime, he lights up, though.) And of course, their families carry a huge burden in trying to support them.

Aran is a picture of confidence. He's 11 but his command of the stage is unquestionable. Gaya clearly adores him, even though they don't speak a common language. Joan is constantly in contact with his parents, who are quick to remind him that the entire family is counting on him being successful, so he'd better succeed in this very narrow window of time. Michaela's relative poverty, horrific history and even skin color work against her, as does an injury she suffers close to competition time.

Jules and Miko seem to have the easiest time. Jules seems to train on a lark, but that's kind of a weight on Miko who's devotion is calm and steady. Their mom comes off as seriously stressed, as though she had the weight of her children's future on her shoulders, and their failures are hers. (I think this attitude is a luxury we develop from having so few children.)

Rebecca was fascinating for seeming so normal in a lot of ways. She has a boyfriend and claims to eat normal food, goes to school, and with her lithe, delicate figure is blessed with genetics that, e.g., Michaela is not. At the same time, at 17, she's at the do-or-die portion of her career. If she doesn't win, she's basically out.

Michaela's struggle is also interesting. There aren't a lot of black ballerinas. Michaela reminded me of Debi Thomas, the black figure skater, in that the sport is predominately white, and black female skaters are said to develop athleticism over artistry. While that's a mixed bag in figure skating, it's mostly downside in figure skating, and Michaela was devoted to graceful performance. Then her injury leads to a serious contemplation of whether it would be better to skip the year instead of risking permanent injury.

The whole thing is quite compelling, the characters likable, the struggles both real and surreal. And it doesn't drag out—it's a perfect length.

This is getting consistently strong notes and may even break the million dollar box-office barrier (heh). If you like documentaries at all, you'll probably like this.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Lorax

"I am the Geisel! Everyone speaks for me!" There's a good reason you're only seeing Dr. Seuss movies now that he's dead. The crusty old bugger was very particular about how his stories were used. And so we  have The Lorax, the latest interpretation of his short works blown up into a feature-length film.

The problem with turning these stories into features is that there's not enough content, and so the proceedings must be padded out. This can be disastrous, as in The Cat in the Hat and particularly How The Grinch Stole Christmas, where the pure-of-heart Whos were twisted into service to make the Grinch a victim. Horton Hears A Who! worked by preserving the essential character of Horton and his Who pals, and padding mostly through entertaining comic bits.

But Geisel's genius was largely that he told simple stories based on the purest of truths. Horton and his fidelity, the power of "something more" in The Grinch, the status seeking Sneetches, the stubborn Zaxs—they all run the risk of being corrupted by "nuance". I can't even watch the live action Grinch, it's such a perversion of the original.

It's probably not fair to say that Seuss was never making a political statement. It's difficult to imagine that The Butter Battle Book, published in 1984, isn't about the arms race. But if it is, it's a terrible, nihilistic story where the slavery of Communism is no different from a free-market society. As a story of people fighting to utter annihilation over a trivial difference, however, it holds up very well indeed.

"A person's a person no matter  how small" makes a great slogan for pro-life—but Geisel got lawyery when a group tried to use it that way. And if Thidwick, The Big-Hearted Moose isn't a story about the Occupy movement, I don't know what is. (I don't care if it was written 60 years ago.)

The point of all this being that, if you want to make a good Dr. Seuss movie, stay far away from any political statement and focus heavily on the characters—the depiction of human nature.

Which brings us roundabout to The Lorax, which takes a very faithful adaptation of an uncharacteristically soft-headed Geisel book, and wraps it thick in a bizarre anti-consumerist, wake-up-sheeple dystopia.

The Lorax speaks for the trees, y'see. He's a mystical character and that's what he does. We don't know by what authority he does this, but he does, and that's about the extent of his power. Again, even as not one of Seuss's stronger stories, what's presented is very reasonable: In a landscape bereft of trees, maybe it's not a good idea cut the few trees you have down.

The movie double-downs on this: The trees don't even need to be cut down. Their tufts can be harvested to make the prized thneeds that give the Once-ler his wealth. So, the Once-ler, a largely sympathetic character, gets so greedy he gives the okay to kill his golden goose.

Not that this doesn't happen from time-to-time, but it tends to be a tragedy-of-the-commons thing more than a big business thing. I'm pretty sure the lumber industry plants trees like crazy. Big agriculture farms re-fertilize the soil. Etc.

This strained tale would probably be a little too one-sided to ever be very good, but the producers wrapped the story in a bizarre, Wall-E-esque dystopia, where the Once-ler has robbed the world of its clean air, and another character (looking like Edna Mole from The Incredibles) became successful selling people clean air, ultimately encasing the entire city of Thneedville in a protective dome.

This uber-plot goes completely off the rails. The movie is actually the story of a boy who wants to find one of these truffula trees to impress a girl, and in doing so he escapes his Logan's Run-esque world and discovers the Once-ler and the story of the Lorax.

Never explained is how the citizens of Thneedville came to be okay with this guy closing their city up and having apparently limitless power over things. There's no government to speak of, so this is all an evil corporatocracy in which every one seems happy and satisfied—except of course they're not really.

This is an aspect of anti-bourgeois evangelism that's difficult to overlook. If Wall-E is a warning or a parody of what we might become, The Lorax is a condemnation of what we are. We only think we're happy or are forced to pretend we're happy because of peer pressure or something.

This isn't a child's movie, made by parents, so much as a teenage fantasy about what things are really like, man.


It's clunky, too. The music is occasionally awful (which is weird, because John Powell is typically quite good, having done Chicken Run, Evolution, Kung Fu Panda and dozens more). It occasionally makes you go "Huhhh?" Betty freakin' White plays the freakin' fesity grandmother. Jenny Slate, as the protagonist's mother, inexplicably seems Jewish. (I can't remember why I think that, whether she affected a Yiddish or what it was, but it seemed tired.)

The animation is okay. There are some good extrapolations on Seussian visual motifs.

The Barbarienne liked it. It was colorful and there was popcorn.

But they missed the point. And, in fairness, so did Dr. Seuss. Had they not put propaganda over telling a story, The Lorax would be a classic.

The real story should have been the Once-ler's. His redemption. In the book and movie, the Once-ler holds on to the last Truffler seed, and lives in regret—and he never takes a single step to repair what he's done. But why? Well, that's the propaganda part: The kids have to do it. And the kids never say "Do it your own damn self, you made this mess in the first place."

And...hey, then the Once-ler could've kept his thneed business going and there'd be more tuffler trees than ever and—well, crap, there goes the narrative. Of course, it'd be a better story.

So I started out talking about the dangers of extending Dr. Seuss stories and ended up saying it'd have been an improvement if they did just that, only differently.

Hey, if the movie doesn't have to make sense, neither do I.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

I love a fairy tale. Fairy tales are the new zombies, I guess, with "Grimm" and "Once Upon A Time" and Mirror, Mirror and now Snow White and the Huntsman, the previously untold story of the man sent by the evil queen to cut out Snow White's heart.

Well, sorta.

But before we get into that, we have to address The Elephant in the Room. The anemic, wan, extremely skinny elephant that is Kristen Stewart. What's up with this chick? Why are people hiring her to do all these big budget extravaganzas? I mean, sure, she was great as the boy in Panic Room (stole that from Red Eye's Bill Shulz) and she was appropriately cast in Adventureland, but it does seem like the young lass is playing the same character over and over again.

Is it because she's very girl next door? (If the girl next door is a brooding goth chick?)

I thought she was a pretty good actress—and maybe she is, but she seems to be doing the same thing over and over and over again. Brood. Sulk. Pout. (And, you know, at some angles, she's very off-putting to look at, even.)

I can't say she was bad in this but I can say I don't get it. Though the movie twists the "fairest of them all" idea into a literal use of magic, Stewart in no wise is a threat to the 15-years-older Charlize Theron, who (appropriately) chews the scenery as the wicked witch-cum-stepmother whose evil plans are far more overt than a poison apple.

Even so, her character seems somewhat muted and generic, as does everyone's in this movie. The hot—explicably hot, in my opinion—Chris Hemsworth (Thor) plays the hunstman, a drunken broken-hearted fellow who becomes Snow White's reluctant (of course) protector after Prince Charming (well, he's called William here) is separated from her during the Queen's insurrection.

Muted is probably the best way to describe the entire proceedings. I felt like, when watching this, everyone was acutely conscious of the potential for campiness and steered away so hard from it that the whole thing seems kind of matter-of-fact. Banal. Drab, even.

It's a little "Game of Throne"-y, in the sense that it substitutes a more "realistic" tale of conquest for fairy tale treachery, but it can't really create GOT's atmosphere of enlightened disbelief (which is what makes the occasions of magic or monster sort of shocking) and the sudden appearance of (e.g.) a troll is less thrilling than the appearance of Rodents Of Unusual Size in The Princess Bride.

Also, there are dwarves. 'cause, sure, why not. And while we're at it, let's put the very best (or at least most interesting) actors on tiny bodies, like Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Brian Gleeson, Nick Frost and Bob Hoskins. (Eddie Marsan and Johnny Harris round out the seven, in case you're counting.)

There are some faeries, too, though they don't amount to anything. And just as the regular (and even plus) sized actors were put on tiny bodies, the roles could've been played just as well by regular sized people.

They pissed off some little people doing that. These guys were probably the most interesting part of the movie, but I'd have liked to see Warwick Davis, Ed Gale and Jordan Prentice (who did end up in Mirror, Mirror) and all those other hard-working guys. Hell, they could've gotten Tony Cox and had a persistent black character in the movie.

In one of the movies weirdest parts, they have a black guy who's a badass who is dispatched so quickly you almost laugh.

Yeah, tonally it's a bit weird. It's not just derivative of the Snow White story, as you'd expect, it's derivative of a lot of things. Legend, Lord of the Rings, of course, and two scenes are just directly lifted from Hayao Miyazake's Princess Mononoke, and they don't serve any purpose here. Well, I guess they show how gosh-darn special Snow White is.

Also in that category is a throwaway battle shot where she dispatches a fully armored solder with a casual side-swipe with her little knife. Gratuitous, and suggestive to me that the filmmakers had that same sinking feeling that their main character didn't seem to actually demonstrate any of her inborn specialness.

The whole "chosen one" thing is dubious to begin with, and it's pretty damn tired at this point but it does at least tie into the plot and climax of the film. It makes a kind of sense. I give the movie some props for that. There's a lot of fluff and filler and by-the-numbers fantasy crap but it does hang together.

On top of all that, they ran the whole thing through the color processor to turn the whole thing gray and dull brown.

The Boy gave it a "meh" but The Flower liked it, because she felt it hewed pretty closely to the spirit of the original. She preferred Kristen Stewart to Lily Collins of Mirror, Mirror (at least in looks). She didn't care for the evil queen being blonde instead of having long, evil-looking black hair.

I didn't hate it. It just seemed mired in a mediocrity. Maybe the inevitable sequel will be better.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

John Carter and A Princess of Mars

This movie might as well have been called "Don't Go See This. You Don't Even Know What It's About. It's Just More CGI Crap." for all the marketing campaign did for it.

And that's tragic.

This is a really, really good movie. Almost great.

It's a bit long. But that works because it's epic in scope.

Despite the material having been plundered over a century (from the original), John Carter feels amazingly fresh. From the story A Princess of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs first book in his Barsoom series, the story is that of a former confederate soldier who ends up on Mars, and in the middle of a planetary civil war.

Because of the lesser gravity—and pre-dating Superman by 20 years—Carter is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and able to withstand what is, in Martian terms, tremendous damage. Circumstances arising from his super-strength result in him becoming an accidental hero of the barbarous six-limbed Tharks.

The Tharks are occasional players in the Martian civil war, which primarily concerns the efforts of the jerky Sab Thon to conquer Mars, a task in which he is aided by the creepy Thern, a super-advanced race who manipulate Martian life to their liking.

The Thern have managed to coerce a wedding of Sab Thon to the titular Princess of Mars, Dejah Thoris, who is, like, totally not interested. Also, she soon develops a thing for the super-Martian John Carter.

Classic pulp, which while it includes elements of the first three Barsoom novels, is very true to the Burroughs spirit.

I was prepared to be bored. I figured there'd be a lot of cheesy CGI—the commercials really make it look generic. But the CGI is as close to flawless as I've ever seen. (Though we'll see if it holds up.)

Well, look, The Boy loved it. And he hates this kind of crap. The Flower, too.

I expect critics to hate this kind of story. They hated the novels—everything Burroughs ever wrote, really. (I lived next door to Tarzana growing up and it was commonly said that you couldn't find a Tarzan book at the Tarzana library.) As for audiences, there are a lot of reasons why this wouldn't catch fire.

  • The marketing is awful. The title says nothing—means nothing to most people these days. The trailers were boring and murky and put the focus on some not very interesting special effects.
Well, I won't dwell on this point much more except to say The Flower came up with the title mentioned here ("John Carter and a Princess of Mars"), which we think would have been a more interesting title. ("John Carter? You mean that doctor from 'E.R.'? Wait, is this about that 'Falling Skies' show?")

I nearly had to drag the kids to see this.

  • The movie had a rep before it came out. It was expensive. People love to see expensive things fail. For example, Ishtar was not, on the merits, utterly flopworthy. Worthy of a tepid reception? Sure. But a great big heaping helping of schadenfreude can drag a film down.
I think a lot of people are blindingly envious of Pixar's success and chortle in glee at any mis-step by the studio or its talent. I have no doubt that many eager to see Director Andrew Stanton (A Bug's Life, Wall-E, Finding Nemo) fail spread some poison about this.

There was so much talk of Stanton reshooting scenes, as if he were unaware of the difference between an animated feature and a live action one, it strains credibility. But you know what? The cinematography in this movie is flawless.
  • It doesn't try to be cool. This is an old school swashbuckling adventure, and even Carter's jaundiced view of war ultimately gives way to the fact that there are good guys and they are worth fighting for.

The last is sad but it's true that Burroughs' stories were square before I was born, and our love of "cool"—dispassionate, uninvolved, apathetic, anti-enthusiasm "cool" has only grown since then, at least in some circles.

I suppose it's possible that people looked at a lot of this stuff and said, "Eh. Saw it in Star Wars." but I find that a little hard to believe. These movies have no Jar Jar. There is a story, and character development and all the other things that go into making a good movie.

So, why would I hesitate to call it "great"? I'm not entirely sure. The pacing may be a little off. It's kind of breakneck. Some people complained about the non-action scenes but I thought they had a real depth and kind of naturalness we didn't get in Star Wars. I suspect because the people making it were familiar with all eleven books in the series.

I know that I won't hesitate to watch it again more closely.

Dark Shadows

The phrase "hot mess" comes to mind when viewing Dark Shadows. A lot.

But really, Tim Burton should be happy to have "hot" anywhere near one of his movies these days.

My mother tells me I loved the "Dark Shadows" TV show. I have a pretty good memory. I remember nursery school (which I started at 21 months) and lying in my crib and our first TV (my dad hated the things so we never had one till we got it as a gift). But I don't remember watching that show.

Which is probably just as well, because this really doesn't have much to do with it, except that it concerns the exploits of a vampire in modern times. Where modern times is the '70s, anyway. (I look at The Boy and do the math: A movie about '72 is as modern for him as a movie about WWII was for me at his age. Chew on that for a while.)

The premise is lifted from Thorne Smith's last screenplay I Married A Witch (later the inspiration for Bell, Book and Candle and "Bewitched"), in that Barnabas Collins is cursed when he spurns a witch's love. Only in this case, instead of being doomed to unhappy romances in all his subsequent incarnations, he's turned into a vampire. And if that's not bad enough (and by gosh don't you think it oughtta be?) he's buried for 400 years until uncovered in an excavation.

Whereupon he murders nine construction workers in a rather horrific display.

That would be our hero.

Then it's camp time! The bloodied, archaic Johnny Depp—whose makeup through the whole thing is campy in its awful obviousnessness—wanders around the '70s for a while until he finds his old estate where his listless descendants live, their riches drained by the same evil witch (Eva Green, Casino Royale) whose desire for destruction didn't stop with him.

You know, it's always a mistake for Burton to try to do a hero story. Barnabas is supposed to be the hero, but he's killing people right and left. Innocent people. And his only excuse is that it's the witch's curse. Not his fault.

There is some humor found in here. It's not the boring mess that Alice In Wonderland was, at least not until the end when it devolves into a kind of low-rent-Superhero-meets-Beetlejuice set piece. But tonally, it doesn't know what it wants to be, and undermines the heroic narrative, and the comedy narrative is undermined by the graphic horror, with the drama undermined by the comedy, and the whole thing undermined by some really bad special effects.

The Flower picked it as her birthday movie and was not disappointed. So, y'know. If you're an eleven-year-old girl, maybe. The Boy didn't hate it but he thought it just didn't work on most levels.

I really didn't hate it either. I was expecting much worse.

It's been almost 20 years since Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaborated on Ed Wood, which is a great, great film where Burton's quirks fit perfectly in with the romantic retelling of a bizarre artist's life. I'm beginning to suspect them of milking my good feelings of that film at this point.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel For The Elderly And Beautiful

Buncha ol' Brits go to India to retire. Things don't turn out how they planned. The end.


The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel For The Elderly And The Beautiful is the tale of, lessee, Tom Wilkinson, Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie who end up at the misleadingly named (and Photoshopped) hotel.

This isn't a zany comedy so there really isn't much wrong with the hotel. It's missing a door here and there and the phones don't work, but the main tension comes from these Brits adapting to their decidedly foreign surroundings.

And, actually, if they were the sorts of whiners that complained for a whole movie, it would be quite unpleasant indeed. In fact, Penelope Wilton's character is exactly that sort of person and is entirely unpleasant for the whole movie. (I know Wilton best from her wonderful turn in Shaun of the Dead as Shaun's mom, in which she was also married to Bill Nighy!)

Wilkinson is the fish out of the most water? He's the least out of water? That is to say, he's the mot at home in India, since he lived there many years ago. He's returned to look for a lost love.

Celia Imrie and the aptly named Ronald Pickup are there to find new love. Well, Imrie to lure a rich husband and Pickup to have one last memorable fling.

Judi Dench is there because she's newly widowed who has discovered her husband had blown all their money. Rather than burden her children she opts to find a new job in India. I'd say she's probably the main character.

Nighy and Wilton are there because after a lifetime of civil service, the retirement home is basically chock full of assistive devices for their decline. (They're a little young for this but I would imagine their retirement homes, like the civil service are all one-size-fits-all.) They're lured to India by the promise of something better.

Maggies Smith's situation is kind of interesting. She's a lovable racist who ends up in India because the National Health Service is outsourcing some surgeries.

Tena Desae and Dev Patel provide the love interest, as the young lovers whose dreams are being crossed by Patel's mother (Lilette Dubey), who's also trying to put the kosh on the hotel.

The film is directed by John Madden, whose ridiculously feted Shakespeare in Love earned him the enmity of a nation and proved how powerful Miramax's PR department was, keeps a similarly light touch on the proceedings, making the two hours breeze by rather quickly.

This is not a high-octane adrenaline-fueled thrill-ride, of course. My mother referred to it as "nice" in a way that suggested she was bored. But The Flower and The Boy both ranked it in the "ok, pretty good" strata.

I seem to have enjoyed it more than they did. It was predictable in the way that these movies tend to be. I mean, it's clear from the trailers who is going to hook up with whom. And you know one of them is going to die; the movie even acknowledges that with "Well, you get a bunch of old people together and..." although, really, in modern terms, they're not that old. Dench is the oldest, at 77 and Celia Imrie is a virtual spring chicken who will turn 60 this year.

But I think that's okay: To complain about it is akin to complaining about a romantic comedy where the couple get together at the end. The execution is skillful and the cast is top-notch.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


I try not to use the phrase "pitch-perfect" too much but I can't think of a better way to describe the casting of Bernie, the true story of the world's nicest man and his encounter with the world's meanest woman.

Jack Black plays Bernie, the guy-of-indeterminate-sexual-orientation who manages to befriend Shirley MacLaine's Marjorie, with Matthew McConnaughey as Danny Buck, the politically ambitious DA who wants to see Bernie hang when Marjorie goes missing.

Richard Linklater's (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, School of Rock) film feels a bit like a Chris Guest mockumentary, with parts of the story being told in retrospect by the townspeople whose appearance and cadences seem to genuine to be actors.

But this isn't a comedy. It's funny in parts. Darkly funny in others. Funny weird in still others. And it's provocatively philosophical in a very deep way.

Bernie's a successful guy on most observable levels. He's an assistant funeral home director who is a master at...uh...corpse preparation. (Makeup and clothing,) But once working in this small town mortuary, he also brings a more religious tone to the business. And when things get awkward or slow during a funeral, he's there to smooth it out, or to lead the people in song.

Because he has a lovely singing voice. Lovely enough that he's soon performing in the town's community theater. And not long after that, he's directing the plays (musicals, natch).

Wherever you look, he's there helping out. And people might have some doubts about certain aspects of his personality, nobody seems to care too much.

Why, when an old man in the town dies, he's at the widow's house the next day with flowers and condolences, making sure she's feeling okay.

And that's where the trouble begins.

It's in this way that he meets Marjorie, a rich old woman married to a mean old man who dies, revealing that however mean he was, she is even worse. But now she's all alone. She's estranged from her family, which has tried to sue her to get her money. She has no friends, although there are a few people who sort of tolerate her, like her business manager.

But to Bernie, why, this just means she's even more in need of a friend than anyone.

 There's a reason the cast has to be perfect for this story. Bernie is just very good with people. He upsells them on caskets—but he does it because he truly and genuinely believes it's respectful to the dead. He's devout. He's sincere. He's generous.

His only serious flaw is that he's a compulsive shopper, but even there he just gives everything away.

Very, very few actors could make this work. Just the slightest hint of unctuousness and you could end up despising Bernie faster than a California hillside catches fire. (Er, maybe a Texas one, since this takes place in Texas. Do they have hills there?)

But that wouldn't be very interesting at all. If Bernie were just a greasy hustler on the make, this would be a horrible tale barely worth telling. But Bernie is good. At every turn, given the opportunity to do something good or right, he'll do the right thing.

Well, almost. Which is what raises deep, and moving, questions.

This isn't going to be a blockbuster hit, of course. It's not exactly escapist, though its picture of a small town like one not many of us live in any more. It's not a comedy, either; really, it's a tragedy. A light tragedy, if such a thing is possible.

The Boy and The Flower both enjoyed it as well, though I think not as much as I did.