Monday, October 22, 2012

Taken 2

Liam Neeson is at it again, kicking ass in the Gray Unknown Taken Titan Wars 2! Er, wait. That's not right. This is...uh...just plain ol' Taken 2, a follow-up to the goofy fun action flick from the Luc Besson film factory. Director Olivier Megaton—that's right, Megaton—takes over from Pierre Morel this time out and the results are pretty much exactly what you'd expect.

The Albanians are back, and they. Are. Pissed! Apparently, the bunches of people Liam killed in the first movie had families, and one of them is not a very nice man at all. And he decides to take his vengeance on the Mills family, conveniently vacationing in nearby Istanbul.

The twist in this case is that dad and mom (Famke Janssen) are captured first but the ever prepared Liam has a change to warn his daughter (Maggie Grace again) and give her tips on how to get them free. This is fun, if a little silly, as it involves chucking live grenades all over the city.

A constant, in the Taken universe, is the general lethargy and lack of alertness of the local gendarmerie.

It's fun. There's also a lengthy car chase. Lotsa punchy-shooty stuff. An overriding message of "violence begets violence—but what the hell can ya do?" that is de rigeur for the genre.

I'd say it's as good as the first one. Very similar, indeed, though this felt faster paced and perhaps a little less intimate.

Check it out. I mean, if you liked the first one. Or just Liam Neeson.

The Boy approved. (During the movie, he got some large, thuggish looking gentlemen (who had snuck in) evicted for using their cell phones. So we were both on full Liam exiting into the parking lot.)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Searching For Sugar Man

So, back around 1970, labels were going nuts trying to find "New Bob Dylans". Or, as Loudon Wainwright III sings it, in his "Talking New Bob Dylan" song:

Out of commission in a motorcycle wreck
Holed up at Woodstock with a broken neck
The labels were lookin' for guys with guitars
Out to make millions lookin' for stars...

Wandering around ol' Detroit was a man known as Rodriguez who was spotted by a producer singing in a dive with his back to the audience. But who blew the producer away anyway.

Before you know it Rodrigquez has a record deal, and he records his revolutionary-ish folk music and puts out a record—that no one buys. Only slightly daunted, he puts out another record—that no one buys. In the midst of recording the third, he gets dropped by the label.

Sounding a lot like the ol' Loudo, actually, except for two things: 1) He sort of vanishes. I say "sort of" because he's not really known in the first place; 2) His records make their way over to South Africa, where he becomes a cultural icon; 3) He's such an icon, and a voice of a generation opposed to apartheid, that 25 years later, his older fans decide to look for him, all convinced that he died in some spectacular fashion on-stage (immolation, shooting himself in the head).

I won't tell you how it turns out (though the trailer spoils it, if you're paying close attention) but I will say it's a wonderful, charming story of a fascinating guy.

Did NOT care for the music.

Heh. No, it's not bad. It's very Dylan-esque, only moreso.

It's very well presented, with photographs and film footage and animations subtly woven in-between the interviews, and a funny thing happens: The pseudo-revolutionary music of that era, which is fairly insufferable at best and at worst toxic, makes a whole lot more sense and works a whole lot better when it's transplanted to a place with a genuine oppressive government.

Say, South Africa.

Living in a country that combined apartheid with sweeping control over basic freedoms of supposedly free whites, the revolutionary sound gains a little more relevance. It becomes a little less like armchair rabble-rousing (the most egregious being John Lennon's Some Time In New York City, which made limousine liberals in Manhattan say, "Dude!") and a little more like something—well, I as the white, middle-class South Africans put it, it was permission to rebel.

Not that the South African government didn't try to stop it. Meanwhile, American record producers are collecting royalties that seem to vanish. (Living the stereotype, those record producers are!)

The portrayal of Rodriguez himself shows a man of authenticity as well. His producers tell of meeting him on street corners and in diners—they did not know where he lived, or if he lived anywhere. Singing and songwriting being a low paying gig, if it pays at all, Rodriguez did construction work, too.  He got involved, or tried to, in local government.

Anyway, it's a fun show. The Boy liked it, and he thought it only dragged a little, which is about as high a mark as he ever gives a documentary.

I found it enjoyable the whole way through, and actually better and better as it went along. There are some great and surprisingly fun aspects to it. Definitely worth checking out.

Argo Eff Yourself

Ben Affleck is at it again, directing and starring in yet another interesting and entertaining picture, and proving that not only does he actually have some skill at a director, he gets a better performance out of himself than other directors!

Almost five years ago, one of this blog's first movie reviews was Gone, Baby, Gone. The Town came out when I was working the three jobs and doing the weekend commute thing, so I don't think I have a review of it here, but it was also solid.

Argo is probably the best work he's done to date. And except for the opening narrative, which explains how the Iran hostage crisis was all our fault, and the closing voice-over from Jimmy Carter, it's actually a pretty pro-America movie.

The story, for those of you who weren't around in 1979, is centered around the Iranian hostage crisis, when terrorists stormed the American embassy and captured everyone and held them for 444 days. It probably didn't cost Carter the election—he was going down hard anyway—but it sure didn't help him to have Ted Koppel making his career and establishing "Nightline" as a serious news show by harping on it night after night.

Hell, Howard Hessman did a thing on it as his opening monologue on "Saturday Night Live".

Yes, children, there was a time when the leftist media would criticize lefty politcians.

I digress. Argo concerns six Americans who weren't in the embassy who found refuge in the Canadian Embassy, and the CIA planning to get them out. Ben Affleck plays Tony Mendez, master spy, whose specialty is extraction, and who quickly dismantles the proposed plans for getting the hapless Americans out of Iran.

The plan they hit on—and it helps to emphasize that this is based on a true story—is to pose as a Canadian film-making team in Iran to film a sci-fi epic called,  you guessed it, Argo!

This may offend or shock some of you but, in fact, Mr. Affleck takes some liberties with the truth. And there have been a lot of Monday-morning film-producers bitching about this. For example, the Canadians were far more active and important than the film shows.

But this is the sort of thing film-makers do all the time to create focus. (Steven Soderbergh probably wouldn't have done that.) Similarly, the ending is a nail-biter race against the bad guys that never happened. But it's a great climax.

Affleck gave Mendez personal and profesisonal problems he doesn't seem to have had, which was probably gratuitous, but since it was his ass on the line, Affleck can be excused for making more time for ACTING. It's not the strongest part of the flick but it would be churlish to begrudge him that.

The acting is wonderful: John Goodman plays makeup artist emeritus John Chambers, whom he strongly resembles; Alan Arkin is an archetypal (fictional) producer past his prime; Bryan Cranston, Clea DuVall, Tate Donovan, and lots of other hard-working actors who always seem to turn in good work and enliven a movie.

The hostages have plenty of drama to act out, of course, with Goodman and Arkin providing comic relief—and great chemistry—as Hollywood old-timers. Bonus: An abundance of porn-staches and feathered hair.

Double-secret-super-bonus: Adrienne Barbeau as a sexy space queen!

Adding to the fun, if you were there, is all the 1979 references, even if slightly discombobulated. Like, "Battlestar Galactica" had been canceled by the time of the hostage crisis, but there are Cylons on the movie lot. I guess, arguably, they could have been from the short-lived "Galactica '80" series but mostly, I think they were there to emphasize the popularity of sci-fi post-Star Wars. (Said presence is strongly felt, of course.)

They even matched the color scheme to '70s. Not just interior design stuff, but the film itself had a bit of that ugly brown/yellow palette that was favored in the "realistic" movies of the day. (But without the ugliness, happily.) All that was missing was a score that was brass-heavy.

Anyway, overall, a thriller that manages to be tense and fun and warm. Quite an achievement really.

The Boy liked it a lot. The Flower liked it a lot. I liked it a lot.

I just wish they hadn't tried to pin this whole thing on the USA. The narrative glibly refers to how the US and Britain interfered with a legitimately elected rule who "nationalized" the country's oil wells, returning the oil to The People.

Seriously? "Nationalize" is just another word for "steal". And after being "nationalized" wealth ends up being squandered. Damn little of it gets to the people. And I can't help but think, from the spate of Iranian movies we've seen, that things haven't been so rosy for Iran even though it's been free of evil Brit and US control for over 30 years.

But, like I said, that only bugged me a little.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia (50th Anniversary Restoration)

Is Lawrence of Arabia the greatest film by the greatest director who ever lived? No, probably not. But that occurred to me as I sat down to write this: As a technician, few directors get the kind of respect that David Lean did and Lawrence, arguably, next to Bridge On The River Kwai, may be his greatest film.

I had not seen it until the recent re-release. I was reluctant to go, as the movie clocks in at a startling four hours—brevity was not Mr. Lean's thing, man—but @soquoted encouraged me, and The Boy has a new movie-going philosophy that got him worked up about it. (What? What philosophy is that, you ask? "Balls to the wall." Yeah. Kids.)

I mix up Lawrence with The Man Who Would Be King so I really had no idea what to expect, other than sand—and lots of it. On the sand front, this movie does not disappoint. I've never seen so much sand. And I live on the beach. In a desert. (You wonder why I mix up those two movies? Because they were a common double-feature at revival houses when I was a kid, which I never went to, perhaps because of the six-hour total running time.)

Lawrence opens with the titular character riding a motorcycle in England, using shots that Sam Raimi liberally ripped off for his Evil Dead movies. So, that was kind of surprising. I expected to recognize influences on other films, just not that one. (It was a little like seeing a shower-head POV shot in an old Judy Garland musical.) Throughout the rest of the movie there were shots I was familiar with from a variety of other films, most notably Star Wars and the first Mummy movie.

My reaction to seeing this movie was "Hollywood should be ashamed. They could never make a movie like this now."

And they couldn't. Quite apart from being able to eschew the shaky-cam, to block the shots with casts of thousands, and to actually make a four hour movie interesting, this movie is way too politically incorrect.

Which is to say, it's probably pretty accurate. The Brits are stubborn, principled, but also using the Arabs, while the Arabs are tribal, greedy, but also without pretense. There's no kumbaya here.

Oh, the story is WWI North Africa, with the Brits trying to use the Arabs to defeat the Axis, but without really understanding the Arabs, and having no luck till a young intelligence officer is assigned to the area.

I barely recognized Peter O'Toole, so young and beautiful was he. I mean, I think the first movie I saw him in was The Stunt Man, and he was 47 by that point—and a pretty hard 47 at that. But his acting style was there, large and in-charge.

It's odd. Lawrence is both possessed of British reserve in some regards, and wild and emotional in others. I've heard that Lawrence's brother saw the film and didn't recognize O'Toole, and I believe that, but it hardly matters.

At turns manic to the point of megalomania and depressive to near suicide, O'Toole barrels through desert, not quite able to "go native", trying to bring British organization to Arab tribes, never really able to reconcile the two cultures.

Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Jose Ferrer and a bunch of other non-Arabs play Arabs. Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy and Jack Hawkins play white people. They're all good and memorable. And familiar, too!

It's a total sausage fest. There are some women in it, very briefly, and I don't think they have any lines.

Maurice Jarré's score is noteworthy for being simple but working for the whole four hours. If you're not humming it during the intermission, you're probably tone deaf.

Won seven (out of the ten) Oscars it was nominated for. Beat out The Longest Day, To Kill A Mockingbird and Mutiny on the Bounty (it's said Brando turned down Lawrence to play Christian) and The Music Man. Ouch. What a year.

The Boy loved it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Won't Back Down

Okay, here's the thing: I hate education movies. Hate them. Haaaaaaaaaaate them. Even the good ones. Even the ones I like, I hate. They're always about the super-teacher who comes in and changes everyone's life, and now, at last, Everything's Gonna Be Okay!

And this is why I hate them.

For the entirety of my life, schools have been failing. No number of Jaime Escalantes or Joe Clarks or, uh, Robin Williamses or Michelle Pfeiffers—none of the dozens of movies or trillions of dollars has changed this.

They're a big lie.

So, I didn't have any real intention to see Won't Back Down because, besides being an education movie, the trailers feature Maggie Gyllenhall being really obnoxious in that I-am-woman-hear-me-roar kind of way. I mean, why torture yourself, right?

Well, The Flower wanted to see a movie. And the thing about Won't Back Down is that all the right people hate it. It's supposedly anti-union. Well, I hate unions even more than I hate education movies. What a dilemma, right?

As always in these cases, popcorn is the tie-breaker, and there was good popcorn to be had.


Well, I didn't hate it. It isn't really about a super-teacher, which is one of the main things that irritates me. It's basically the story of a mom (Gyllenhall) and a teacher (Viola Davis) who set out to turn around a failing school in a poor area of Pittsburgh. They're fought at every step by the union, city hall and parental apathy.

Fortunately, Gyllenhall's most clunkily strident moments are in the trailer. And there are a few clunkers here.

But overall, this is a pretty solid movie. It's ridiculously naive, of course: The movie's climax necessarily revolves around the two heroines jumping through all the right hoops in time to get a hearing where they know the school council will use any excuse to reject their application. Of course, in real life, if they thought you were going to be trouble they'd approve you at the meeting, and find an excuse after everyone had gone home to reject you.

And then, of course, even if you managed to navigate the bureaucracy, the various lackeys of the bureaucracy (which you are forced to deal with) would sabotage you at every turn. Battles against The Machine are marathons, not sprints.

But sprints make better movies so that's what we get here. And that's good, because the underlying message is a positive one: That people can get off their own damn asses and get themselves a school that doesn't suck.

Now, keeping in mind that I hate unions, I didn't think this was particularly anti-union—said stance being the reason for the critic hate (32%/61% on Rotten Tomatoes), but union people are definitely villain in this. They resist, intimidate, smear, and use every dirty trick in the book to stop this from happening—obviously a complete fantasy, right? But at least half the teachers have to sign up in order for this to happen at all, and there's a definite message that the vast majority of teachers are in it to teach (rather than the money). And core union figures/bureaucrats also have to support this in order for it to happen.

You don't really know how it's going to play out, which provides the primary dramatic tension for this film. There are personal things between Gyllenhaal and her daughter and Viola Davis and her husband and son, but these are not very strong. I can't quite explain why, but when the personal sacrifices are more abstract, it's actually more effective than when they're played out on-screen.

And it is pretty devastating, even without much in the way of showing the worst of how these schools grind children down, because you can't help but notice how many barriers there are to children actually learning. There are just so many reasons a kid has to sit in a class with a teacher who's so bad, she's been removed from six other schools. Teachers need fair pay, after all, right?

This is all the logical endpoint of the "people are entitled to" thought process. Instead of a buyer and seller engaging in a contract they both agree on, an arbitrary third party gets to decide what the "buyer" gets and insulate the "seller" from the consequences thereof.

But I digress. Like I said: I didn't hate it. Neither did The Boy. We were generally positive toward it, perhaps because our expectations were low going in. The acting was pretty good: Primarily Gyllenhaal and Davis doing roles that seem well-worn for them, Holly Hunter, Rosie Perez (who seems to have taken some diction lessons) and youngster Emily Alyn Lind. Also some guys, but they're not really integral to the story.

It's already bombed, which isn't really fair, but that's showbiz for ya. I can't really rave about it but you could do a lot worse.