Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

I am about done with the superhero thing, I think. This is not directly connected to the movie Thor: The Dark World, except insofar as I was thinking that as I was watching it.

We start with a big ol' back story about dark elves who want to use the Aether(?) to uncreate the universe to restore the pre-light universe or whatever—you notice that these movies have to constantly up the stakes, and this one is now only slightly under Dogma (in which all of existence would never have been).

Natalie Portman—I think her name is Jane in this, but who really cares?—stumbles into an alternate universe ('cause periodic alignment of the Nine Worlds or whatevs) and gets the Aether sucked up into her, which wakes the Dark Elves (led by Dr. Who and Unfinished Song's Chris Eccleston) and causes them to lead their very sci-fi spaceship assault on Valhalla, where an aged Anthony Hopkins shows up to collect another check.

Rene Russo is back not being Michelle Pfeiffer. Sorry, I thought Frigga was played by Pfeiifer in the original, but it's not. For some reason Russo looked a lot worse in this to me. It's only been 2-3 years, right?

So, that time has passed and Thor's (Chris of the Hemsworths) been stuck in Valhalla, except for that Avengers thing, and Natalie has been pursued by non-norse-godly men (like Ian Boothby, whom she strings along hilariously, I guess) but she's been true and Thor's been true, rather than going all Viking on the much hotter Sif (Jamie Alexander).

All those Viking cohorts (Sif, and the Asian dude, and all the other weirdly ethnic characters) are back for the movie, but they don't have much in the way of parts.

Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, and he's as Loki-ish as ever. Does he care? Does he not care? Do you care?

I'll just comment to note that the Valhallans are the worst immortals ever. They die en masse in this film. Some of them, like Loki and Thor can take all kinds of abuse, as long as it's delivered through impact. You can drop a building on them and they'll be okay, but if they're pierced with a sword or butter knife or whatever, that does them in.

Or kinda sorta does them in. Sometimes. As the plot requires.

Which, of course, is the problem with all these movies. They're failing to convince me of any actual peril. It's like I'm not supposed to notice that the extensive damage to buildings or people never matters.

Eh. It's not bad for what it is. It's just become so predictable. The twists were obvious a mile off. Well, maybe not to a seven year old. (I took a seven-year-old but the elves creeped her out so she went to see Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2 again.)

The set-up for the sequel was also obvious.

I thought the direction was, while more sedate than the first movie (directed by Kenneth Branagh) but also less fun. The whole thing was less fun.

I could really go for the Batman foiling a jewel thief or something. I mean, if you wanted to do a comic book hero movie that was different.


Alexander Payne is one of those directors whose movies I view with trepidation. I enjoyed the quirky black comedy of Election and, of course, Sideways was a lot of fun, but I had a hard time sitting through About Schmidt and the Descendants and since he's always well reviewed, it's impossible to glean from that whether I'm going to like any given film.

What's more, having seen it, I'm not sure I can describe whether anyone else is going to like this film, either. @Sky_Bluez, for example, hated it. Not an identifiable character in the lot, she fairly points out. But you know what?

I liked it. I ended up liking it a lot, as did The Boy.

I started out with a sense of dread, as we see ancient Bruce Dern hobbling along the highway, meet his rather bitchy wife—see my Descendants review for Payne and women commentary—and his two sons, one of whom is a news reader (this is out in Billings, pop 162,000), while the other (our hero) sells audio equipment.

Slow-paced and unpleasant, with a lot of bitterness and dysfunction.

Or so it starts.

As it turns out Woody (Dern) thinks he's won one of those magazine sweepstakes, so he's determined to go to Lincoln, Nebraska to collect his million dollars. But he can't drive, so he's going to walk, I guess. He never gets very far. His wife, Kate (June Squibb, The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vincente Fernandez) and son Ross (Bob Odenkirk, "Mr. Show With Bob and David") want to put him in a home, though it's far from apparent that there's anything seriously wrong with Woody. He might be hard of hearing, and he surely isn't paying much attention, but there's not a lot worth paying attention to.

Finally, his other son, David (Will Forte, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2) decides to take him to Lincoln in the hopes it will get the idea out of his head.

Road trip. Also, and sort of melancholy, a buddy picture, as we learn how little David knows about his dad.

They end up taking a side trip to the small town Kate and Woody came from, and get glimpses of the dramas that played out 60 years earlier. Slowly, we begin to learn about these old people as something more than stereotypes. While not exactly nice people, they demonstrate some positive traits, and even human decency.

They come together as a family. And Ross, who is kind of a loser at the beginning of the movie, seems like he might make some positive changes in his life by the end.

I don't know. It won me over. And not just a little. I was rooting for our guys at the end. It's low-key and some would say slow-paced, but I didn't get bored. The scenery shots feel less like pacing than a lot of other films we've seen this year.

Rance Howard (Ron's dad) is in it. Stacy Keach, too. He looks pretty good. (I was worried.) Not a lot of big names.

Gorgeous cinematography. The West in black-and-white. Tough to miss with that.

Can't see it making its money back at the BO. Would be cautious in recommending. But really liked.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

As frequently noted, a la Casa Maelstrom, we don't ask much from our children's movies. Just don't phone it in, we beg. You're spending tens of millions of dollars, don't skimp on the script. Don't just slap some B-list celebrity in there, if you gotta have celeb voices.

And, if you're a sequel, for God's sake, don't just rehash the first movie. Yes, the original movie was a hit, that's why there's a sequel in the first place. But if you just repeat the gags from the first one, you not only get diminishing returns, you diminish the original, too.

Which means there was no small trepidation approaching Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. We actually didn't see the original in the theater, but we grew to love it from repeated home viewings. It may not be a great film, with many hoary kidflick tropes in place, but it is a very good and very watchable film, with lots of creative and entertaining bits.

Everyone is back for the new film (except Bruce Campbell's increasingly obese mayor), which starts with Swallow Falls being cleaned up by a crew of Thinquanauts, led by billionaire genius Chester V (Will Forte). In a bit of retconning, Chester V is shown in flashback to be Flint Lockwood's (Bill Hader) childhood hero, a sort of combination of Steve Jobs and Billy Mays, and he "temporarily" relocates the entire island's population to San FranJose.

He's up to no good from the start, sparing us the notion of a twist, and the inevitable character arc of his good-hearted super-intelligent orangutan companion (Kristen Schaal, who's getting a lot of voice work these days on "Bob's Burgers", "Adventure Time" and Toy Story 3) could only be a surprise to a toddler.

Like the first one, it's not great, in much the same ways—especially the character arcs. But, like the first one, it works, and works pretty darn well, and also for much the same reasons: They didn't phone it in.

In other words, if the basic framework of the story is as by-the-numbers as can be, the details are lovingly attended to. There's never a scene transition or a character movement that doesn't look like it was devotedly attended to, from the cartoonish dynamism of Earl Devereaux, now subtly altered to reflect Terry Crewes as the voice (formerly Mr. T, who apparently declined to do the sequel), to the impossibly fluid movements of Chester V's finger rolling.

The plot? Basically Star Trek III. Well, sort of a combination of II and III, with the food making machine serving as the Genesis device, both as a MacGuffin and as an excuse to make a whole lot of food-based animal puns, like "shrimp-panzees" and "taco-diles".

It kind of goes off the rails in the end, becoming some kind of food-creature-based Braveheart, and there isn't a lick of moral logic to be had with the villainous Chester fiendishly wanting to make the little food animals into...well, food...even as the heroes and the food animals...eat each other, or at least sardines.

That's okay. It doesn't have to make sense. It's "another film by a lot of people", as it says, and sometimes that shows in odd ways. They did rehash one thing, sadly: Andy Samberg's Baby Brent re-appears and where his "Uh! Oh." in the original was supposed to be ironic and lame, it's done straight here.

But that's a nit. Go in with modest expectations and enjoy the delicious scenery. You'll have yourself a good time.

Oh, yeah: Some people are suggesting that this movie is better than Monsters U and should win an Academy Award. These people are wrong.

Inside Llewyn Davis

It's been three years since the Coen Brothers gave us True Grit and their absence is hard-felt around casa 'strom, so we headed out to see Inside Llewyn Davis on Christmas weekend. The Flower tagged along.

It won't come as a shock that a really, really liked it, I don't think. The Boy also liked it, though less than I, and The Flower, I think, less than either of us. (She didn't seem bored, however.)

Of course, that tells you nothing: The only Coen movie I didn't like right off the bat was The Man Who Wasn't There and I'll probably give that another look soon. If I were to describe this in terms of their oeuvre, I'd put it as Barton Fink meets The Serious Man Who Wasn't There.

Our "hero" is the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, Drive) who has trouble connecting with the masses (much like Barton, except it doesn't seem to be something he aspires to) and who also has trouble connecting cause-and-effect. But unlike Serious Man's Larry Gopnik, for whom cause-and-effect is legitimately mysterious, Llewyn's life is a series of causes he sets into motion without ever seeing or following through on the effects of.

It's 1961 Greenwich Village, the nascent folk music scene, and Llewyn and his cohorts hang out at a coffee house singing traditional music for a share of "the hat" that gets passed around at the end of the show.

But Llewyn's kind of a loser: His agent doesn't care about him, his album's been remaindered, he's lost the other member of his duo, and he's reduced to crashing on people's couches for the length of stay they can tolerate him for.

His ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan, who was also in Drive and An Education) is married to his more likable and successful friend, Jim (Justin Timberlake, doing a great job as always), and, oh, by-the-way may be pregnant by Llewyn. She's pissed at him in the way only a woman in that situation can be.

Llewyn is such a champ he tries to borrow money for her abortion from Jim. He's adored by the Gorefeins, college professors on the Upper West Side (Ethan Philips of "Star Trek: Voyager" and Robin Bartlett of "American Horror Story") even as he has a nagging feeling of being a kind of pet or novelty.

But Llewyn just doesn't connect. It's not just a feature of his music, it's who he is, most notably evinced in a scene where he plays for his vacant father.

This isn't O Brother, Where Art Thou. Davis is less likable than Gopnik, though perhaps more likable than Man Who Wasn't There's Ed Crane, but interesting to view in contrast with those two. Crane did nothing, never seemed to care to do anything. Gopnik wants to do the right thing but has no idea what that is.

The universe virtually begs Llewyn to take responsibility for anything. It says "Here's your ticket to fortune" and he says "I'll take cash up front". It says "Here's a chance for you to continue in music" he says "I'll become a merchant marine". It says "Maybe you should look up that old girlfriend" and he says "Yeah...but maybe I shouldn't." It says "Are you sure you know what you're doing? You've gotten everything wrong up till now." He says "Yeah, I got this."

At one point he encounters a beat poet chauffeuring an old, fat man around (Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman respectively). When it would become inconvenient, he abandons them to their fate. We never know what happens to them.

And so this is a movie full of loose ends. Nothing but loose ends, really.

There's a cat. I sort of reacted badly to the cat at first, thinking it was a little too on-the-nose as a metaphor for Llewyn's ambitions. Through a bit of recklessness he ends up in charge of the cat, which he carries around, then loses, then finds, then maybe loses and finds or possibly kills or...

You get the idea. It actually works less as a metaphor than as a living example of Llewyn's odd relationship with cause-and-effect and care-and-neglect.

As a movie, there are some bold choices which are bound to alienate some folk. For example, a great many songs are played in full, and consist of the person playing and the audience watching. Where the Coens typically have smart dialogue and great cinematography, this movie rests on performances and reactions of people to performances.

In not one but two cases, the audience is one man, and they're completely flat—or I think they are. I thought maybe they were reacting, but I'm not sure if that was me reacting to Llewyn wanting a reaction or if they actually did change.

It's definitely a watch-again for me. But that's going to be off-putting to some, especially if they don't care for the music.

How is the music? Well, again, this ain't O, Brother. I would describe it as aggressively anodyne. Like Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind, only without parody. It's pretty unexciting, as such music is. The musicianship is there but it's not clear what it's in service of.

You could really see why someone like Bob Dylan could go in and shake things up. (The Old Man always maintained that he would've been ignored at any other point in time, musically.)

Now, this is as much my music as anything: I love folk and harmonies and nice-sounding things. But it was pretty unengaging, except for the last performance Llewyn makes of the movie's central song "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)".

His other performances are nice but they pale in comparison to the version of that song he recorded with his absent partner, which is played in montage. This is also the point, maybe even deeper than it seems:

Sure as the birds flying above
Life ain't worth livin'
Without the one you love

You could view the movie from the lens of a man who's lost his partner and now drifts aimlessly. I don't know if that's right. I'd have to watch it again.

There are some other traditional songs, though the only one I recognized was "Green Green Rocky Road". The most fun piece is a made-up novelty song called "Please Mr. Kennedy" about not wanting to be shot into space. In a lot of ways, though, it feels like the vitality has gone out of the old songs, or at least the singers.

Thematically appropriate but not necessarily gonna make you run out and buy the CD.

On the other hand, I'm not anyone's "go to" guy for popular music interests.

The Coens used to be criticized pretty routinely for being "cold". It's not necessarily an unfair cop. A lot of movies rely heavily on the "designated hero" trope, encouraging the audience to feel certain ways about their characters based not on what they do, but how they're presented, essentially.

High Noon is like this. Gary Cooper's just the good guy, and the Bad Guys are the Bad Guys, and that's the movie's set up, which is never really justified. Although it's done satirically, more than one web essay has been written on the Empire being the good guys in Star Wars because it relies heavily on those old Western tropes, and we root for the underdog, and so on.

This is a kind of sentimentalism, and I'd I would say that the Coens avoid it like an excessively abused metaphor. They present their movie as "Here's what these people say and do, feel about it how you will." That can seem cold, particularly as there are few angels in Coen movies. Most everyone can be a jerk.

In this film, there's a scene shown twice. And in the first you might think the beating put on poor Llewyn was undeserved. I didn't, actually, but the second time they show how he set this into action, and they do so with complete unsentimentality. You've been with a guy through one of the worst weeks of his life, and yet what he does is so awful—well, you're challenged to sympathize with the "hero".

I liked it, a lot, as I said. And the more I think about it. But it's definitely not for everyone.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


Steve Coogan plays a journalist/political functionary who falls on hard times and, as a result, ends up pursuing a "human interest" story about an old woman (Judi Dench) who is looking for a child she gave up for adoption 50 years earlier ('cause she wasn't married).

This is Philomena, the latest effort from Stephen Frears, the man in the chair for such memorable flicks as The Queen, High Fidelity and Mrs. Henderson Presents.

Coogan's Martin Sixsmith is as cynical and awful as Dench's Philomena is good and god-fearing, and while we needn't spend much time wondering what side the film makers' come down on (in the secular liberalism vs. religious traditionalist "debate") the film works because of Coogan's unflinching portrayal of a shallow modern man—and, of course, Dench's typically resonant depth.

Coogan co-wrote the script with John Pope based on the book by Martin Sixsmith (a real person!).

Explicit in this movie are the sins of the Catholic church, in particular the nunnery that took in the wayward girls, forced them to work off their medical bills, and then sold their babies to rich Americans.

Not exactly kosher, you know? Make them work off their medical bills or sell the babies. Doing both is double-dipping.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. In this movie, we have three story threads: The personal journey of Philomena to find her child, the mystery of what happened to said child, and the personal journey of Sixsmith, the last being the traditional movie character arc, as Coogan morphs from a major asshole to a slightly-less major asshole.

It's a solid film. It suffers a little as one of its major twists and turns has to do with homosexual Republicans. The movie chooses to boggle at the notion rather than explore it in any depth, when the exploration could've led to greater understanding.

No, really.

I don't want to give anything away but since Coogan-via-Sixsmith is essentially the author of the story, and he has no concept of anything other than his worldview, at least that he can regard without contempt, a whole lot of interesting questions are never raised.

But as drama and an acting vehicle for the two, it's solid. The Boy also liked it quite a bit.

I just kept wanting to say:

She was only fifteen years old!


Tuesday, December 17, 2013


"Mistakes were made."

I tried to talk him out of it. The Boy wanted to see a matinee. We're tied up most days lately so he likes to take up a weekend day to see something. Problem is, we're in an awkward period where the arty movies we've been seeing all year are flooding the art houses, and the discount theater is full of stuff we've seen or didn't want to see.

And so: Carrie.

I have not, in fact, seen the original Carrie, despite being a Brian De Palma fan—at least until the Iraq War when he went full moonbat with the career-killing Redacted (US box office about on a par with the under-rated Nice Girls Don't Explode, though far less if you adjust for inflation).

Anyway, haven't seen it. I read the book, which is essentially a "found footage" approach in novel form, and which (like all of King's stuff) is highly derivative of some pretty hokey tropes, in this case, the school revenge picture.

The book, nonetheless, works, while this movie does not. I'm going to list a bunch of ways that it doesn't work before getting to what I think the key reason it doesn't work:

  • It's not the early '70s any more. It's not even the late '90s. Carrie is 18, meaning she was born in the sexually repressed days of...1995.
  • Julianne Moore is 53, meaning she was a blushing bloom of...33 or 34...when she was impregnated. (OK, she's probably supposed to be younger, and just haggard looking but...Julianne Moore was Maude Lebowski back in '97!)
  • Actually, timeline-wise Carrie just about works as Maude and The Dude's love child. Heh.
  • Chloe Grace Moretz acts the part well but she recalls a young Scarlett Johannson. The clever thing here is that she was really 15 while her classmates are all late teens, early 20s, so the "late bloomer" effect works.
  • But still, she's ridiculously good looking. Sissy Spacek was cute, but not so cute that she didn't do a lot of "plain" girl stuff. Moretz will probably be a glamour goddess in a few years.
  • The characters are so broadly drawn as to be ridiculous. I don't remember anyone from the book except for—well, except for the mother, in fact. But nobody's accusing King of subtle characterization.
  • There's a scene where Carrie is thrown into her prayer closet, which is punctuated by the gruesome imagery of Jesus-on-the-cross which therein lays, making this a closet of horror. Except that if you'd been thrown into such a place your whole life, the imagery would be boring to you, not shocking or horrifying. 
  • The Christianity—there's no connection to it. It's probably less anti-religious than the original novel, but there's a lack of depth that brings with it a lack of resonance.
A lack of depth is basically a good way to describe this film, which is competently directed by Kimberly Pierce (pretty much out of work since her award winning Boys Don't Cry back in '99). It deals broadly in archetypes that were rusty when King used them in '73. (How many campus-geek-strikes-back movies were there in '50s?)

The problem is you really don't care. The Boy was just waiting for the climactic scene, which he thought was pretty well done, it's just that you have to watch the rest of the movie to see it, and it's not particularly spectacular or, on a visceral level, satisfying.

It doesn't really work on a human level, either. I actually don't believe the response to seeing someone drenched in blood would be laughter. This one follows that up with a video of the infamous shower scene, but it rings false. I think people'd be horrified.

So despite all the types, Carrie doesn't seem fragile enough, her mom doesn't seem evil enough, et cetera. I'm guessing that whatever flaws the De Palma version has, excessive restraint due to good taste is not among them.

But that's not what I think kills this flick. 

The book, as I mentioned, is in the "found footage" style: The story is told via newspaper clippings, diary entries, and so on. (Perhaps a clever way for a young writer to get around a lack of confidence in his own narrative ability?) The ending is a forgone conclusion from page one, just like the movie.

But the book works by instilling a sense of dread and suspense, that even though you know how it's all going to turn out, there are all these little moments that might go differently and change things.

It's a good trick. Better than relying on a twist or a Big Effect or whatever. You watch "Romeo and Juliet", hoping for a different outcome. 

There's none of that here. There's never any doubt what will happen. There's no tease, no suspense, it's all on rails, and then when it happens, it's sort of like, "Well, yeah, that'll happen."

It feels weirdly unearned.

Competent acting, though. I liked Judy Greer (sort of a pleasanter version of Vicki Lewis who's a pleasanter version of Kathy Griffin) as the kind gym coach, and Barry Henley as the principal. Competent direction. Dialogue's okay.

But as the Boy noted, ruing his insistence on going to a matinee, it was all pointless. And I think that's not just true at the narrative level, but at the meta-level. Without a compelling motivation to reinterpret, you have a remake that's dislocated from its time and place, and just...not really able to find its modern audience.

It made about as much money as the original, as long as you don't adjust for inflation.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games sequel Catching Fire illustrates one of the major truths of modern society:

Reality show producers are dicks.

The Flower and The Boy liked this movie as much as the original one, but I liked it a lot better, for a number of reasons. There's a lot less child murder, for example.

Ha, like that's a plus.

Seriously, though, the ephebocide is limited, since the "games" play a more peripheral role in this one and the candidates are former winners, Katniss and baker boy are the youngest involved. (But if you need more child murder, you can check out the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is really highly praised by critics an audiences. I think it so dumb as to actually cross into camp.)

So, yeah: A year of movie time has transpired since the events of the previous movie, and Katniss and Peeta have to pretend to their romance for the cameras—well, wait a tick, they were faking? What kind of ret-con bullhooey is this? Oh, right, Katniss is still in love with the guy back home, Gale, who's one of the Thor brothers (Chris, Liam, Luke—the Hemsworths...this one is...Liam!), leaving Peeta (Josh Hutcherson, who was in Red Dawn with Chris Hemsworth, which could be really awkward if we were blending movies with meta-gossip-stories) to hold the bag. Of flour.

'cause remember? He could toss those bags of flour around last time.

Anyway, evil Prez-for-life Donald Sutherland wants Katniss dead, having already dispatched the evil, blundering Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and replaced him with even eviler, more blunderinger Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Where the original movie is preposterous in its premise (something I made allowances for, given that it was a young adult story, so by convention it had to focus on young adults) and technology, this one is largely just ridiculous in its technology.

That is to say, this advanced society can craft animals from holographs (or whatevs) and manipulate the weather but somehow can't edit a reality show in such a way as to turn Katniss into a traitor that all the people of the country hate, a feat which isn't beyond a multitude of hacks around today.

But we'll leave that aside.

The movie works partly because it's based on the premise that the whole thing is starting to unravel, which gives a lot more room for intrigue and mystery. Perhaps not coincidentally, the regime is 75 years old, which is about as long as the USSR lasted (if you include the first few years of the revolution), so maybe that's as long as a preposterous social order can last or something.

Meanwhile, the characterizations are given more depth. If Lawrence's Katniss was bottled up most of the first movie, she cuts loose here, with the final shot of the film (really an arbitrary stopping point than the resolution of the story) being basically a close shot of her face as she struggles with a variety of emotions.

I think it goes on for 15 or 20 minutes.

A bold choice for a 5 hour movie.

I kid. It's about two-and-a-half hours and it could've been longer. It doesn't have the feeling of being padded I sometimes got from the first one. It also isn't so darn self-conscious, which helps. It borrows shamelessly from Roman/Nazi imagery and less from campy '70s dystopias. I think I'd credit director Francis Lawrence for this; although I like Gary Ross (director of the first film and Seasbiscut and Pleasantivlle), I think Lawrence has more conviction in the quality of the source material.

But getting back to the characterizations, everyone introduced in the first film gets another spin against a backdrop of their world falling apart. Nobody makes better use of this than the previously insufferable Effie (Elizabeth Banks), who just wants everything to be perfect in her little world, but whose sense of fair play, however strained, is not infinitely flexible.

The only one seemingly completely untouched is the incomparable Stanley Tucci, as the smarmy MC of the games.

Hey, remember The Running Man? 1987 Schwarzenegger flick, Paul Michael-Glaser directed and Richard Dawson played the MC. Stronger premise (in that criminals were made to fight for their lives, which is less of a strain on the imagination than innocent children) but overall weaker movie, with Dawson being one of the weaker links.

And it wasn't really his fault, necessarily. It's just that he was drawing on a paradigm (game show host) which had limited emotional range. The beauty of Tucci's Caesar Flickerman is that he's able to guide the audience through a wide range of emotions, not entirely unlike that you'd see from Bob Costas at the Olympics and, of course, the reality show setting.

Just like the reality show setting, of course, these are all bullshit emotions. But the audience is shallow enough not to care.

Josh Hutcherson may have the hardest role, as the boy who may get the girl of his dreams even though she doesn't want him. That's tough. He's got to be appealing on some levels, but he can't be too obviously more appealing than the guy she really loves.

But even Lawrence's Katniss is interesting here. She's pretty much dragooned into every heroic thing. She'd rather split. She attempts to run and hide. It's the other characters that stop her. When she tries to sacrifice herself, it seems less heroic and more cowardice or exhaustion. She has PTSD (as do many survivors).

She's not awful, a la any given Kristen Stewart character, she's just kind of average in a lot of ways. Like, when she gets hit by a man, she ends up seriously hurt. How often do you see that in a movie?

Anyway, as much as I've tried, I don't find the first movie very re-watchable. This one may be. In any event, I think it's considerably better and look forward to the conclusion, even if they did split it into two more damn movies.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Despicable Me 2

One of the reasons Pixar is so revered around here is that, as parents, you have to see a lot of movies you wouldn't normally see. So, when a kid's movie has the inevitable sequel that just phones it in, you just kind of grit your teeth and get through it. Bad enough to even have an Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, worse to have a sequel with the identical plot and a "well, they're gonna see it anyway, so don't bother doing anything interesting" attitude.

I said to The Boy after this, if it had been a sequel to Madagascar, we would've had the nerdy Bill Gates guy and his squid gun back, and the mom again, with the same Gru-trying-to-impress-her plot and on and on.

In a lot of ways, the central comic relief of these movies—the minions—is just a derivative of the little green dudes from Toy Story, but they've made them funny and with sort-of personalities and their weird little made-up language that make the execution unique to these films. This is good.

It's fine (even necessary) to steal ideas, the only real sin is just ripping it off and adding nothing. (As I've commented on "The Family Guy", I'm pretty sure they have, by this point, redone every gag in Airplane, often with no change.) This goes even when you're ripping off yourself.

Not to pick on Madagascar too much, but you know they're always gonna do that "I Like To Move It" dance, and they're always gonna have the "hilarious" old grannie punching out someone or something tough, and so on.

So, what's great about this sequel is that it's not any of those things. Think of a gag from the first one and you won't see it again here. The fierce dog? Well, he's there, but just a little. Gru's mom? Shows up at the end.

The girls' angst over Gru (and vice-versa) that was the central plot point of the original? Nowhere to be seen.

This is a great thing. Nothing cheapens characters like undoing the dramatic arc of the previous film so that you can reuse it in a sequel.

I doubt the Barbarian cared or noticed, even, though she did like the film a whole lot. (More than Turbo, less than Monsters U.)

The premise of the film is that Gru (Steve Carell, again doing his indeterminate Eastern European accent) is sort of down on his luck, because he's no longer in the super-villain business, and his efforts to repurpose his lab and minions to more productive ends has resulted in some really bad tasting jellies.

So he gets his mojo back, in a fashion, by working for the good guys in trying to capture a villain who has a nefarious plan for world conquest. He does this by going undercover in the mall with a quirky-but-lovely secret agent (Kristen Wiig). There, they settle on a Mexican restaurateur (Benjamin Bratt) as the likely villain, though there are some twists and red herrings along the way.

Russell Brand is back as Dr. Nefario, in a much smaller role. Moises Arias (Rico Suave on "Hannah Montana") plays the young latino paramour of Gru's eldest daughter (still played by the not-yet-skanky Miranda Cosgrove).

In summary: It felt like they were trying; it felt like they weren't so creatively bankrupt they had to lean on the gags and ideas of the original; there was enough detail to suggest a rich world with a long history, and to make some rather subtle jokes and references; and they gave it a new, dramatically satisfying story arc that's almost subversive in its conventionality (Gru needs a wife and mother to his girls).

As I said The Barb liked it, but so did The Boy and I.

Like Father, Like Son

Two couples find out their six-year-old sons were switched at birth and must decide whether to switch them back or leave them where they are.

Challenge Level: Japanese

This is a difficult topic to tackle well. It's easy to set up but lends itself to getting mired down in dramatics, and it certainly doesn't lend itself to satisfactory resolutions.

Writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda gives us a glimpse at the two couples: One, an affluent city couple, polished, refined, intelligent with a corporate climbing dad around 40 and a stay-at-home mom who dotes on her only child; the other, a more rustic couple, a small-town shop owner, who's closer to 50, and his wife who have two other kids, and squabble and struggle to make ends meet.

The country couple seem mostly focused on the lawsuit money they're anticipating, with the father sort of passive-aggressively agreeing to whatever the mother says, so you start out being more sympathetic to the city couple.

Meanwhile, the movie assures us that, in 100% of the cases, when babies are switched they're always switched back. This is the Japanese factor: a child is yours because he's your blood, not for any other reason.

But as the movie progresses, we get deeper looks into the two families, and the buffoonish older father, besides having skills the younger one doesn't, views his life through the prism of his role as a father. The young city father barely notices his family, devoting his energy to work.

That's a gross oversimplification, however. One thing this movie does really well is not give you an easy out. At times you think you're gonna end up hating city dad, but then his genuine love for the child he raised surfaces, and you realize a lot of his distastefulness is just him conforming to cultural expectations.

This movie has about the happiest possible ending for a movie about switched children without completely destroying suspension of disbelief, and The Boy and I were both moved by the story and presentation. Even at two hours, without any big, splashy scenes, it never felt too long.

This is one of those movies that feels organic, like the actors are their characters and the cameras were just lying around. But of course that takes a lot of effort and good technical skills all around.

There were clearly some aspects of this movie we couldn't appreciate: allusions to culture that were lost on us, like A Touch Of Sin, for example. But we still really enjoyed it. I think it's too late for the 2014 Foreign Language Oscar, but I wouldn't be surprised it nominated in 2015.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Great Expectations (Newell, 2013)

Or, if you like, Harry Potter and the Great Expectations. OK, no Daniel Radcliffe, but Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter and Robbie Coltrane are in this Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) interpretation of the Dickens classic.

Which is not, it cannot be emphasized enough, apparently, the classic 1946 David Lean version of the same story. Nor is it the "South Park" version, but nobody seems to be holding that against it.

I don't have much truck with Dickens. I tried reading The Pickwick Papers once; it was so dense with what were, essentially, the pop culture references of the day (specifically politics, which is just self-important pop culture) that, well, it just didn't seem worth the effort.

Well, it was his first work, and he was paid by the word, and probably mostly concerned with keeping the gravy train going. Probably a bad choice to start. My fault, really.

In any event, I mention it because there are Dickens purists out there, and between the Lean purists and the Dickens purists, this movie doesn't have much of a chance.

The Boy and I really liked it, however. The story is more or less the one you know and love, or not. They pretty much show it all in the trailer, which is kind of a shame because the third act twist is a good one. If there's a serious flaw with this film it might be that it's too aware of what has come before.

It clocks in at about two hours and moves briskly the whole time, which means scenery must be chewed at a breakneck pace. That's not a dig, there are a whole lot of acting chops crammed into this timeframe and, in typically English fashion, alongside the big names are many lesser known actors carrying their weight.

Jeremy Irvine (whose only other major credit is the lead in War Horse) plays Pip likably, but Holliday Grainger (who, at 25, is a grizzled old acting veteran) perhaps had the tougher job playing Estella likably, as in many interpretations, she's rather detestable.

This is a relatively optimistic interpretation—something I think that bothered some of the purists, although it's debatable whether the Dickens meant it to be as bleak as it is often portrayed—and so Estella must suffer the scars of her twisted association with Havisham, but also reveal, however subtly, something redeemable, and something worthy of being redeemed. Grainger has a kind of porcelain beauty to her that has some warmth, and Newell, too, is fairly skilled at making her unattractive at times and not at others.

Helena Bonham-Carter threads that needle very nicely, too. At times she looks almost ghostly beautiful, like a shadow of her young self, and at other times like a hag, but even if when she looks "good", she looks like the live-action version of herself in The Corpse Bride.

If we're being honest, though, all the roles have challenges. Dickens isn't really about safe, subdued strokes, I don't think, and the characters are broad—perhaps too broad for modern audiences.

I don't know; I'm just trying to figure out why a lot of people seem put off or outright hostile.

It's a good story with memorable characters. It rewards your time in the chair, and isn't self-indulgent. So, I guess I'd recommend if you're open to Dickens but not fanatical about him.

The Flower demurred, by the way, because she figured she had already seen it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

All Is Lost

Look, in any movie of Robert Redford vs. the Sea, I'm going to root for the sea. That's just how it is.

We went to see Great Expectations but there was a traffic jam, so we opted instead for the latest Israeli documentary on their Prime Ministers. But we were a little late for that, too, and the only seats were down front—and there was a Q&A with the filmmakers.

Q&A can be fun, but it's a little ostentatious to be sitting in the front row with our giant-sized sodas and popcorns slurping and chomping away while people talk about the existential crises that Israel has confronted over the years.

Gauche, eh, what?

So we ended up seeing this movie I hadn't planned on seeing, All Is Lost, starring that anti-Tea Party bigot. He had to come out vocally against the Tea Party, too, right beforehand. So while I'm not pleased I contributed my dollars to its box office, I'm glad it didn't go over the five million mark.

Heh. Take that Sundance Kid.

This is the second film from J.C. Chandor, writer/director of the muddled Margin Call, and this is a better film, because even if it makes no sense from a nautical standpoint, the struggle is always immediate and therefore more real feeling. (Though, like Margin Call, it really doesn't make much sense even to amateur eyes, and every seasoned sailor I've talked to just sort of rolls their eyes.)

This is, essentially, Gravity, but on a boat. Only without George Clooney, and with Robert Redford in the Sandra Bullock role.

Redford's boat hits a shipping container, and he spends the next 100-plus minutes in increasingly dire situations. This is all told in flashback, mind you, so we're spared any uncomfortable suspense. Although at some point the movie passes the opening monologue, though it was not at all clear to me when that was.

The sum total of what we learn about Redford, beside that he's a bad sailor, comes from that monologue. In which we learn, he has regrets. Well, yeah: He's drowning out in the Indian Ocean alone somewhere, that'd tend to bring up the remorse.

That's it.

So a movie like this tends to rest on how much you relate to the lead actor, and political nonsense aside, I'm ready to call it on Redford. Much like Peter O'Toole, a great deal of his acting was in his face, and his face is little-old-lady-ish at this point. He's nowhere near as washed out as O'Toole, whose age is positively distracting, but it seems to me like he hasn't adapted to not being gorgeous.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But Gravity would've been twice as much better had they kept Sandra Bullock in her undies the whole time, and this film would've been twice as good had they used someone a little younger.

Shallow? OK, yeah, maybe. Blame Hollywood.

James Cromwell probably could've done a great job, and the $5M it took in might have been a profit. (Except it might not have even made that much, given that Still Mine only took in slightly over $1M, and is a much better film.)

Well, what do I know? Redford's got fans, still. Critics gave this a near perfect score. Audiences, besides turning away in droves, are more lukewarm. I can't see it being a big video/cable hit either. Maybe a last-chance shot at an Oscar for Redford?

It's competently directed, I guess. I keep thinking of all the movies we've seen recently where the montage—the dialogue free stuff—is the best part. I somehow think more could've been done here. It's so literal that I was actually starting to crave something more metaphorical, some kind of larger picture than "What kind of schmuck doesn't have an emergency transponder on his life raft? Don't they all have that now?"

So, yeah, with bolder direction or better acting, it could've been good. That Tom Hanks fellow did good in his lost-at-sea movie, right? The Boy shared my sense of ennui over the proceedings.

Despite it all, I actually wanted to begrudgingly like it, and I sorta guess I did maybe. I didn't hate it. Meh.

12 Years A Slave

Serious You Guys slavery was bad.

I mean, in case you didn't know. Americans wear their slavery history hair-shirt like the French wear their treatment of the Algerians.

It can be tiresome.

So, a movie like 12 Years A Slave is kind of refreshing.

Turns out racism isn't a black American billionairess who has some difficulty window shopping a $38,000 handbag in Switzerland. It's more about, you know, the degradation of an entire country.

This is, I think, a pretty accurate depiction of slavery, at least in a movie sense. The story, if you don't know it, is about a free black man named Solomon Northrup who was lured to Washington DC where he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. As the title suggests, he spends twelve years in bondage until finally freed.

And, really, knowing that doesn't mitigate the power of that eventual liberation.

Why this film stands out from other treatments of slavery, I think, is that it shows the richness of the degradation caused by slavery. Just from the get-go, the fact that a human being is a commodity allows them to be "stolen" and also "disposed of" as the whim suits.

As Solomon is given a new identity and sold, we see the next level of degradation: That of a good Christian who hates the system, and sees the evil in it, but is economically bound by it. However, most of the story takes place on the plantation of a not very good (though still very devout) Christian whose awfulness is given free reign by his complete power over other human beings.

The blacks themselves are given a human range of states to be in, as well. This is kind of nice, as the urge to sanctify can be overwhelming. But there's Solomon, who feels the degradation acutely, as a free man, and there are slaves who have gotten along with their masters, and one who his her master's favorite mistress, with much favors associated, and one who wants to be killed rather than be in the same position, and so on.

Slavery affects everyone who takes a part in it. That's the point. It would make sense, of course, for Solomon to have penned a memoir that highlights that, but even in situations where the racial factor wasn't the key factor (say, in ancient Rome), and Greeks were enslaved for intellect, it was still degradation.

You'll hear that the film is brutal in its violence, and while that's true, it's also rather restrained. Except for one scourging, director Steve McQueen leaves a whole lot to the imagination, which is sufficient, as we've seen in many movies this year. The social situation is so refined (antebellum South) on the one hand that it throws the savagery of the system into sharp contrast.

Chiweetel Ejiofor (Love Actually, Children of Men) is an obvious choice for a Best Actor nomination, having to play—as Northrup must have played—many different characters in order to stay alive as a slave. He has a quality of nobility, of Everyman, even, that makes you root for him from the get-go. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is just heart-rending as the slave who wants Solomon to kill her.

Couple that with a moving score by Hans Zimmer and photography by Roger Deakins, and I think we're looking at a whole lot of Oscar here.

The Boy loved it.


A French film-noir thriller about a series of seamy sex crimes? That could be good.

Or, it could be Bastards, the latest film from French director Clair Denis, best known for the '80s racial flick Chocolat, and in no danger of being best known for this muddled, murky, mess of a film that feels overlong at 80 minutes.

There's some good imagery. The acting is okay in that New Age way, with desultory monologues and lots of barely interested sex.

I'd say the plot is a mess, but it's really not. It's actually a very simple plot told in a very convoluted matter, with the movie not being exactly in chronological sequence but not being careful about signalling deviations from the main timeline.

It's like Girl With A Dragon Tattoo infused with French ennui.

The story? Well, as near as I can tell, a merchant marine (? sailor?) comes back from the sea when his brother-in-law commits suicide. He starts an investigation into matters and discovers that everything—everything and everyone sucks.

I could elaborate, but what's the point? Each layer of degradation gives way to a deeper, more disgusting layer, all of which culminates in a pointless ending that gives nihilism a bad name.

Yeah, did not care for it. Neither did The Boy. We'd say we hated it, but it sort of drained all our energy out of us, so we couldn't work up much more than a meh.

Enough Said

I had avoided this James Gandolfini movie for several weeks because I had the idea that it wasn't very good. Something about the advertising turned me off, and that it was his last film made me suspicious of the beatific reviews.

I liked James Gandolfini. I've never been a gangster guy, so I never watched "The Sopranos". I always figured him for one of the great character actors who got supremely lucky to find a role that really allowed him to shine and was amazingly popular. But he showed great range in The Last Castle and Killing Them Softly, even if his role was pointless in the latter.

Here, he's less Soprano-y than ever, as he's a kind of lovable doof, a good man with a passion but modest ambitions, a 50-year-old showing all his age but still a bit of a romantic at heart.

Yeah, we have a romantic comedy for 50-year-olds here. Which also made me a bit suspicious. Is this the tail end of the Boomer generation lamenting its agedness or a new crop of narcissists coming to the fore? I wondered.

Actually, though, it's good. It's really good. A little melancholy, in the way aging is melancholy. But kind of optimistic in its unflinching look at the lives of people who have entered middle-age divorced and self-absorbed.

Wait, is that even possible?

Well, you be the judge. The lead here is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a masseuse who travels around the streets of L.A. with her table, catering to a bunch of people who don't seem to have jobs. And whom, frankly, she doesn't seem to like much, because they're all so freaking self-absorbed.

So, yeah, pretty accurate take on Los Angeles in 2013.

Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) is dragged to a party by married couple friends Sarah and Will (played by Toni Colette and Ben Falcone) where she meets a woman she quickly comes to idolize, Marianne (Catherine Keener), and a guy, Albert (Gandolfini) to whom she flatly states the unattractiveness of everyone at the party.

Anyway, Eva is a single (divorced) mother, as is Marianne, as Albert is a divorced dad, and their relationships to their ex-spouses is contrasted with the frayed relationship of Sarah and Will. And all their relationships with their children who are, themselves, starting to date and move away from home.

Louis-Dreyfus is perfect for the role here as she can be very, very awful and still be kind of sympathetic, like things have just gotten away from her. In fact, you could imagine this role having been written for her. Though it has a personal feel that makes me think writer/director Nicole Holofcener experienced a lot of this stuff firsthand.

It's a good script, too. Funny, smart, and human. Also kind, where our views on characters can flip very suddenly based on something they do or say—an unexpected tenderness or expression of genuine feeling.

In the romcom genre, we have to assume the two are going to get together but this also has kind of an "indie" feel which means it can go any way, and even the way it does resolve isn't entirely dispositive. Part of this is that while Eva's character arc is really strong, the enormity of her crimes would pretty much kill any relationship.

That's kind of a funny realization to have in a romcom, by the way. The Wacky Misunderstanding is the staple of RCs, and (pre-Nora Ephron, anyway) has to be shared or at least provoked by some misunderstanding of human nature or something to mitigate it. (Or it can be glibly dismissed, a la Jewtopia.)

Eva's just awful. She has a weakness that causes her to exploit her circumstances in an absolutely devastating fashion. And her character completes her growth arc in a manner that Albert cannot possibly be aware of. That leaves him to be a saint or a sap to even consider taking her back.

Well, maybe the ending is dispositive but I had trouble viewing it that way because of that aspect of the film. Really the only weakness in the movie, perhaps necessitated by the structure of romantic comedies themselves.

OK, it's a pretty serious flaw. It relies heavily on the audience's sentimentality toward the two to even suggest the plausibility that they might get back together.

I didn't care that much, though, at the time.

The Boy really, really liked it, though, which is interesting, since he isn't at all the target audience. I chalk that up to the basic humor and pace of the script, and the fine acting all around.


You sometimes—if you're a very, very frequent moviegoer, like The Boy and I—meander from disappointment to mediocrity and go for surprisingly long stretches without seeing anything really good.

I mean, if you're careful, I think you could probably see 50 really fine movies in the theater in a year. But if you're into the triple-digits, as we are, you're going to have a lot of misses among the hits. Especially if, like The Boy, your objective is about going to the movies than seeing something in particular. (Like me, The Boy enjoys the focus and relative solitude of the movies, only in spades. I once invited a friend of his to come with us, and he uninvited him, saying "Movies aren't really a social thing for me.")

I've created a monster. Yes. But he's a monster with good taste and a keen eye for the good and bad in cinema. This, ultimately, is the point: To view movies with an eye toward the art, rather than as just a passive experience.

So after our recent disappointments, The Boy proclaimed, "I want to see a good movie." (He hasn't seen Clerks yet, so he doesn't get why that amuses me.) But, you know, post-Summer/pre-Oscar doldrums, so there aren't a lot of options.

This movie, Prisoners, had amazing buzz, and we'd somehow missed it when it was local, so I hauled us down to Pasadena and, yeah, this is a gem. Written by unknown-to-me Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Vilanueeve (who directed the contrived Incendies), this is a complex film that doesn't sell out its basic role of telling an entertaining story.

Which is damn good, because it's two-and-a-half hours long.

This is the story of the Dovers (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terence Howard, Viola Davis) who are good friends whose children are kidnapped. On the case is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) who quickly finds a connection at the home of Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) and her simple nephew Alex (Paul Dano).

The nephew is targeted early on but released by Gyllenhaal, who is convinced that he's as simple as he appears. But Jackman hears the boy taunting him as he's released and decides to take the law into his own hands.

This movie is nearly as brutal and contrived as Incendies though it works a lot better because the twists and turns of the convoluted plot manage to both surprise and straighten out the story (i.e., when you get the whole picture, it's not really that complicated), and because there are frequent suspense and even some action scenes.

This gives a framework for some really powerful acting, coming from a place that's more easily relatable. How far would you go to save your child? Jackman is convincing in his role, and really the lead, here.

Lotta red herrings which, come to think of it, reminds me of Incendies, too.

Did I mention it's brutal? Yeah, it's brutal. And it dares you to both empathize with Jackman as he descends into his darkest place and dares you not to, as we learn what happens to the kidnapped children.

It veers away from two easy plot pitfalls: Painting Jackman as a cartoon because he loves guns and Jesus, and he's a survivalist, and bringing in race (since the Birches are black). The only real weakness I saw was that Jackman's faith in God seemed superficial, like a religious person wouldn't look to God in times of real trouble—or deliberately turn away.

It kind of felt like the people involved didn't get that about the religious. Not having a sense of what God is for, they didn't bring any depth to that aspect of the role. But that's so much better than doing it badly, I didn't mind too much.

So, yes, we loved it. It was a good antidote to the wan sort of directionless films we'd been seeing, and this was both tight (despite the length) and deep.

Did I mention it's brutal, though? Yeah. It is. If you're the squeamish type, you might want to steer clear.

The Pin

The first Yiddish Canadian narrative drama, The Pin! Look, you know you're in trouble when they start trotting out the "firsts". I mean, maybe the first Canadian movie was a big deal—although, probably not since people were just shooting stuff without any real sense of history (or at least anyone caring much). Maybe the first Yiddish movie. Maybe even the first Yiddish Canadian movie!

But I'm guessing there must've been a Canadian documentary done in Yiddish at some point, and very possibly a Yiddish comedy, and doubtless Canadian movies about Jews, so we're down to the first Canadian narrative drama in Yiddish.

This is a very low budget film. As a result, it combines a recent favorite padding device (extended shots of very nice scenery) with a classic low-budget '50s technique (a narrator to exposit) that basically kills the film's momentum at every turn.

Outside of that, it kind of reminded me of a dark version of The Notebook, without the horrible pandering.

The story is that a Jewish girl fleeing the destruction of her village wanders into a barn where a Jewish boy who has also fled is hiding. They hide out, they talk, they're suspicious, but they get over it, they fall in love and then are separated.

None of this is spoilers, by the way, the movie is entirely the flashback of the boy, now grown old, who is a shomer (one who watches over the dead), who recognizes his long-lost love when he's tasked to take care of her.

It's actually a fine story, with good acting and even direction, but there's only about 40 minutes of it stretched out into more than double that.

It may seem odd, but this is one of the advantages of seeing films in the theater. This is the kind of film it would be very hard to focus on anywhere else and, again, it is a good story, worthy of some attention, but so sparse as to be virtually unwatchable if there's any distraction.

I hope the director gets a chance—and the money—to flesh out her next idea.

The Boy says "Meh".

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Muscle Shoals

Why she's so dumb, it really is a shame
She thinks "Muscle Shoals" is a boxer's name
--Rudy Vallee, "Kitty from Kansas City"

I was just listening to this (highly dated) Rudy Vallee song (no, they're not all highly dated) when I came across this reference to Muscle Shoals, within days of seeing this documentary, Muscle Shoals, and, perhaps most interestingly, the two have nothing to do with each other.

OK, maybe that's the opposite of interesting. Muscle Shoals, a small town in Alabama, was a topic of interest in Vallee's day because of a dam and munitions plant, but this is a story about the music scene which started up in the '60s and had a specific funky sound that defined entire subgenres of music fortwo decades. (It's still going today but, shhhh, it's about as dated as Vallee.)

So, what we have here is another paean to the not-waning-fast-enough era of the Baby Boomers.

So, using the method I described in the Darby documentary, we have three parts: the topic, the skillful handling of the topic, and the stance taken about the topic.

Factually, the topic is a fine subject for a documentary. The main subject is, or rather should be, Rich Hall, the founder of the Muscle Shoals sound, who came from desperately poor and tragic circumstances to rise to meteoric heights. There's the story of his rise, and success with turning Aretha Franklin from a vanilla girl-group lead singer to the Queen of Soul, Wilson Pickett, and so on. Then his falling out with his core group of musicians, and his rise to even higher heights.

Lotta good stuff here, with Hall getting screwed by a variety of people, though, honestly, in most cases, you just have people acting in their own interests, and he was admittedly hard to work with. Undoubtedly it was his perfectionism, but hey, you wanna make quality art, even if it's just disposable pop art, you gotta suffer through hundreds of retakes.

It's also kind of nice that there don't seem to be a lot of hard feelings. It was a long time ago and most of the motivations that led to trouble were not malicious, so letting bygones be bygones is worth something.

There's a common theme of shock-and-awe when all these coastal musical types wanna come down to Muscle Shoals to get that authentic black sound, only to find that the musicians were a bunch of redneck crackers. But, yeah, the music industry, at least from all these documentaries, was pretty damned racist back in the '60s and '70s.

Anyway, good source material.

So, let's talk about the handling. It's...okay. It suffers from a two moderate problems: First, it's seriously padded out with pictures of the Muscle Shoals area. This is lovely country, undoubtedly. But its relevance to the story is easily communicated with a few shots, not shot after shot after shot.

Perhaps more serious, if more understandable, is the kind of nostalgic shopping list that clutters up these kinds of films. It's significant to the story that Aretha Franklin got her second wind here, and how they rebounded with Etta James after she left, and that the Rolling Stones were there, and there's a great section on Lynyrd Skynyrd and the umpteen minute (nine minutes and forty seconds?) original version of "Free Bird", and so on.

At points, though, we're getting into music trivia that's only really good for reliving the past and perhaps scholarly interest. At one point, Hall recounts the death of his dad, and how he turned that into a hit song which, from a topic standpoint made a lot of sense and was touching, but from a musical checklist standpoint had me wondering why I'd never heard this hit song (and why, frankly, it seemed so awful to me).

But, hey, I'm not a music critic. I'm not even a film critic. I just go to a lot of movies. And this was pretty good, just diluted. Not When Comedy Went To School diluted or anything crazy, but enough to rob the narrative of a lot of its power, at least for me.

At the same time, if you were really into that music and that time period, you might completely disagree.

The Boy, who is rather unaware of the time period and not particularly into music, tended to agree. And I kind of think he's the audience of the future.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Big Ass Spider

Big Ass Spider is a title that raises many questions. For example: Does Big modify Ass, signifying "extremely large", or does it modify Spider, implying that you have a larger-than-usual ass-spider, a perhaps even more horrifying prospect. Or is, perhaps, the Ass meant as a noun, not an adjective, meaning that it's the sort of spider that only takes up residence inside the sort of derrieres that Mr. Mixalot would approve?

Of course, it raises none of these questions. It's merely another low-budget creature feature in the mold of such SyFy films as Sharknado and Mechahalibut vs. The Conqueror Worm, which isn't in fact a real movie, yet, but give them time.

In fact, The Boy complained that this was basically Arachnoquake, especially in the final act, and thus rather devoid of all suspense.

And yet.

In the chair is Mike Mendez, behind one of the best of all After Dark Horror Festival films, The Gravedancers. In fact—and somewhat inexplicably—this is his first film since that 2006 flick. Mendez is good, if for no other reason than he seems to really care about the product, and also not regard the audience as idiots.

He's also very good at the horror while also being good at the comedy, which is a tricky balancing act. His movies tend to remind of the best Corman/Griffith collaborations (like Little Shop of Horrors), with heavy Raimi overtones and even a touch of Whedonesque.

So, within the straitjacket of this low-budget giant-monster flick (the limitations of which are so obvious, you'd think the money guys would give the creative guys a little more freedom), what do we get?

Well, powering the film is a buddy picture with Greg Gumberg as an exterminator (Alex), and Lombardo Boyar (Jose) as the hospital janitor who ends up buddying with Alex, and providing most of the workable ideas, as they drive around L.A. in pursuit of a the eponymous arachnid.

It was nice to see Clare Kramer (of Gravedancers) turn up here, even though the romantic subplot couldn't have been more perfunctory. It had some nice touches but Gravedancers had a much better triangle, and this felt like "well, there has to be a love interest, and the two have to get together at the end."

There's actually a kind of unevenness that this shows up: Alex is supposed to be kind of a dunderhead, with José giving him the good ideas, and Kelly (Kramer) is supposed to be a hard-bitten lieutenant (in the Giant Insect Defense Corps, presumably) who is initially turned off by Alex's goofiness but who is ultimately won over by his astuteness and bravery.

Well, I guess his bravery isn't really in question.

If I were to hope for a sequel, I'd like to see Kelly back and the two of them having romantic difficulties. (A sequel involving a giant cockroach is set up by the end credits.)

Anyway, the high points of the film are the effectiveness of the very early scare scenes involving very small spiders that don't look blatantly CGI, and the switch to light humor and action once the blatantly CGI Big Ass Spider appears in the park.

The park in the middle of L.A. where bikini-clad girls play volleyball, apparently, and which I do not know where it is but wish I did.

Anyway. That was another kinda fun part: Seeing L.A. destroyed by a big spider. Not as good as Volcano, in that regard, because the effects—

Eh, I'll stop bitching about the effects. It used to be that low-budget horror movies understood that their effects were bad, so that they used them sparingly. The last 15 seconds of Corman's Haunted Palace utterly destroys the otherwise fine, atmospheric film with a 2D model of something like Sigmund The Sea Monster filmed with a wavy effect. But at least it was only the last 15 seconds.

Anyway, I said I'd stop bitching. And one day, maybe, I will.

Inexplicably, the movie features Ray Wise and (briefly) Lin Shaye (who were co-stars of the ultra-creepy Dead End) and Patrick Bachau and, explicably, a cameo by Troma found Lloyd Kaufman.

Again, the thing that makes it work, to the extent that it can escape the SyFy Formula Ghetto, is that at frequent intervals, there's something little that's somewhat unexpected, something funny—not much scary after the first few scenes, sadly—something that says, "Hey, we're not just here to collect a check."

I remember the Sharknado screenplay guys joking, while the movie was airing, that they'd have the script for the sequel done by the time the airing was over—but that's only half-a-joke. They're making crap, they know they're making crap, and they're just kind of riding a wave caused by a brief burst of over-the-top creativity that they then completely fail to follow-up on, producing a movie that just goes through the motions.

It'll probably be overlooked, but you can really tell the difference. A producer with half-a-brain would give Mendez a bigger budget and even more creative freedom and see what he came up with. Also, he'd make Gumberg and Boyar into a light X-Files-Meets-Tremors TV series. But I don't know how many producers can meet that fraction of cerebral mass.

OK, I'm done. It's not great. It's way better than Sharknado. There's a lot of talent that could be unleashed here.

Oh, I didn't know this was the Gravedancers guy going in, I should note, even though in retrospect, the movies remind me of each other.

Extra shoutout for Lombardo Boyar, who plays his character just right, as a sort of an admiring Sancho Panza to Gumberg's Quixote.

Also, this has the most unusual product placement I've ever seen in the film, with Alex running around in a Western Exterminators van.


We weren't exactly clamoring to see this wildly hyped action space pic with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. If anything, the wild praise made me suspicious, even if I rather liked Alfonso Cuaron's turn at the Harry Potter franchise (Azkaban) and didn't hate Children of Men. Whatever: We're still in the post-summer doldrums, and desperate times call for any excuse for popcorn, so there we were.


It's over-hyped. Not really its fault. It's a solid action flick, considerably better than most stranded in space movies (like Marooned and those awful Mars movies from the last decade), and it's a nice showcase for Ms. Bullock (and even Clooney is perfectly cast here).

Some who saw it insist it's a good vehicle for 3D. I didn't see it in 3D because 3D annoys the crap out of me, and having seen it, I think it would've detracted. But note my predisposition.

The story is minimal. Seasoned astronaut Clooney and novice astronaut/comm-satellite-specialist Bullock are repairing a satellite when their ship is taken out by Russian mayhem. I forget what exactly it was. A satellite explodes and ends up taking a bunch of other satellites with it, and the whole thing creates a debris storm circling the earth at 24 hours at whatever height our heroes are currently at, and with enough density to cause trouble.

No, it's not realistic.

Or, let me say, I wouldn't use the word "realistic" to describe it. There are some more realistic choices made in this film than many other films of this ilk. For example, there's no sound in most of the situations where there shouldn't be sound. Things float around well in excess of your typical zero-G movie. A great deal of attention is paid to the no-gravity situation, e.g., when Sandra Bullock rests her head, instead of falling back on the chair headrest, it floats forward.

In fact, if anything, they probably overdid it. It seemed like the zero-G persisted into scenes taking place on re-entry.

The debris field is way more visible than it would actually be in the darkness of space, and individual particles seemed to be making noise. Real life would lack the suspense. You'd either never see it coming, then you'd be dead, or you'd see a hole appear nearby you, or (most likely) nothing. You'd just never know.

But that'd be boring.

We seem to have been on a vector for the past 50+ years where everything has to be "more realistic" (even our superhero movies!), but mostly this involves shifting the unrealism around to things that we have less knowledge of. (For example, superhero movies seem to revolve entirely around a lack of understanding of Newtonian physics that our grandparents would probably have found preposterous.)

So, despite the cries that this is "the most realistic ever!!", it's really just a matter of conforming to our limited notions of what reality is.

Which is fine, but a good thing to be aware of. It would help the world a great deal if we realized we aren't really the apotheosis of culture and evolution, rising out of a sea of ancient barbarism.

I digress, but that's probably because there isn't much more to say about this movie. If you like Sandra Bullock and stories of struggling-for-life, this is a movie you will probably enjoy.

The movie fosters a bit of characterization involving Bullock's character and her daughter and I couldn't really decide whether or not I liked this. On the one hand, it was awful ham-handed. On the other, well, All Is Lost (think of it as Gravity, but on the ocean) is completely devoid of such background material, and suffers from it, I think.

But I think that Bullock is almost inherently empathetic (except to certain feminists, as noted*), and if the movie needed this underlying character development, it could've done with a lot less of it.

Nonetheless, The Boy and I liked it. The Flower demurred, deciding that the trailer looked like the entire movie (astute) and that it didn't look very interesting (your mileage may vary).

*For double-super-awesomeness, you could read a review of how the movie is a betrayal of all things feminine here. It's the sort of review that could only not be satirical in our modern world.

Demon's Rook

The next feature had such a tantalizing premise that we swallowed our disappointment over Cannon Fodder and marched in to see it.

It was called Demon's Rook and the idea is that a young boy communes with demons until one takes him to the underworld, where he lives for a decade or more, only emerging as a confused, heavily bearded adult. And, as it turns out, leading a bunch of other demons up into our world, where they wreak havoc.

The other hook this had going for it was that all the effects were practical. The director, James Sizemore, was also the special effects chief and star of the film (with his wife Ashley Jo). The makeup is quite good, very old school '80s but lovingly done, and by itself sets this movie apart from other low budget flicks.

Which is why the movie itself is such a crushing disappointment, in its way far worse than Cannon Fodder, which didn't really have much promise.

The best parts of this movie were the stretches without any dialogue, and another long stretch where the dialogue is entirely in demon-ese (no subtitles).

Another amusing thing was how it hearkened back to '80s, '70s and (at points) even '60s horror flicks. It starts out squarely in the '80s, during that Creepshow-inspired wave of monster-oriented horror features, videos and TV shows. Then at other parts it evokes '70s cult-oriented flicks like The Devils' Rain. At one point, there's a virtual go-go dance with demons, a la '60s. And the ending is kinda '60s nihilistic and reminded me of, like, Manos or Dementia 13 or something from that ilk.

Apart from that, it's a complete and utter mess. It's said that it took over two years to make with all the consequent cast and crew issues that would occur when you make a movie over the course of two years, even if it's mostly with friends and family. At the same time, Mrs. Sizemore can be seen in videos from a year ago talking about how "principal photography" is about to begin, and the movie was first aired in March.

Both things are possible, of course. It might be that many of the scenes were filmed over the course of two years with little more purpose than "this will be cool" and an idea about demons terrorizing a rural community.

Anyway, it's a sort of depressing experience, precisely because there's some real talent involved, not just in the makeup (obviously) but Sizemore seems to have a real facility for the visual aspect of filmmaking. But this comes off as sort of special-effects porno: the non-SFX portions are just filler.

We were so bummed at the end, we gave up on the festival.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Cannon Fodder

Our backup theater in North Hollywood played host this year to the Los Angeles Screamfest. Now in it's 13th year, I was not even aware it was a thing until seeing its movies turn up on familiar screens. And I wouldn't have been aware any other way. The After Dark Horror Fest had a billboard/newspaper/radio budget.

But, of course, that's not around any more, and maybe that ad budget is part of why.

The Screamfest features dozens of films shown over a ten day period, so you can't really see them all. I talked The Boy into going to one show, which kind of interestingly turned out to be an Israeli zombie flick.

So, even here, we had subtitles.

Cannon Fodder is a low budget World War Z and unfortunately, that's about all you can say about it. The premise is as hoary as any you'll find: Basically, a mad scientist working for the government created a disease to turn the enemy into zombies, or maybe to turn soldiers into zombies or something.

A special forces squad is required to go into the enemy territory and retrieve the scientist, or maybe just his blood (which for some reason would hold a cure). The Boy called it "Call of Duty: The Movie", based on the movements and capabilities of the team.

The acting is strong here, and the characters are pretty decent, with a conservative Jew, a Russian and an African alongside the squad leader, a disillusioned intelligence agent called in for that one-last-job, and Yafit Shalev (who has a producer credit) as the Scientist's Daughter.

Shalev looked very much like another Israeli actress we've seen recently but is not, in fact, that actress, having no other feature credits than this.

This movie makes a lot of rookie mistakes, sadly, that keep it from ever getting very engaging. Instead of enforcing the movie's strengths, which is the acting, it goes with a more big budget formula of knocking off the characters and having lots of cheesy action sequences and explosions, none of which it had the budget to pull off convincingly.

Like a lot of big budget movies, it's more a series of things-that-happen rather than a logical sequence of events, carefully plotted out.

Even at 90 minutes, it seems to drag on. It was bad enough that The Boy figured that was enough movies for the day, and we would've headed home until I read him the description for the NEXT feature...

(By the way, this movie has some awards attached to it, and some critical praise. I believe that's because the Israeli government is the villain of the piece.)

Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde

I ask The Boy and The Flower what lessons they had learned from Running Wild after seeing it. After they made their feeble guesses about the moral of the story, I set them straight:

  1. Horse people are crazy.
  2. Always get the mineral rights.

Running Wild is the story of cowboy poet Dayton O. Hyde who has gained notoriety over the past decades as an author and a protector of wild mustangs. If you look at the reviews for this, they'll talk about a heart-warming story about a noble guy who's saving magnificent beasts.

I presume those are horse people.

Dayton O. Hyde is a cowboy, in the classic sense of a guy who decides how things are going to be and then sets about making things that way, and really doesn't talk much about it. I mean, that's a kind of archetypal cowboy, along with the whole farming and ranching thing.

This outlines his early life, with his apparently equally taciturn father, his time in school, his WWII service, some of his cowboy antics, and his time working a huge ranch with his wife and five kids. There are some anecdotes about wild mustangs and the government's rather barbaric handlings of them.

Then, one of his daughters is killed by a horse. What actually occurred is a little vague.

His reaction to this is interesting. If he blamed his wife, it's not apparent. He certainly didn't blame the horse, which of course is sensible, but he could be forgiven for it maybe putting him off horses for a little while.

But, you know, horse-persons aren't like that.

Instead, the lesson he takes from this is that we all have a brief time on this earth, and if he's going to save those mustangs, like he's always wanted to, he better get moving. So he heads out to the Black Hills of South Dakota to start a wild horse sanctuary.

Pro tip: Googling "Mustang Ranch" will not bring this guy up.

Family? Well, they were all busy with the current, ginormous ranch in Oregon, and South Dakota is quite a trip. So, yeah. Oh, well.

It's like that Randy Newman song:

Oh my mother's in Saint Louis
And my wife's in Tennessee
So I'm going to Arizona
With a banjo on my knee

One of the sons, Andrew, I think, is frequently interviewed, and seems to be even more taciturn than his father. He's both supportive of his father and yet still fairly devastated by being abandoned by him 20-odd years ago. You can tell just in the way he answers the questions, or doesn't, without him needing to say much.

One of his daughters is particularly distraught that he's out in South Dakota where she, crippled with arthritis (I think it is), can't really get to him.

The final portion of the film concerns his efforts on the conservatory, his support of the local Indian tribes (we just can't stop messing with the Indians, can we?) and his effort to stop some uranium mining that a Canadian company wants to do under his land.

I thought this was kind of interesting: There's a little on how the company buzzes the horses with helicopters (which apparently freak them out due to the helicopters done by the government to round up their ancestors, or something). There's a little on the potential dangers of mining. There's a little on the activism. And in South Dakota, owning land means you own the surface of it, not the mineral rights, which has to be one of the classic government power grabs.

But even if the horse people are being irrational regarding the mining, that really should be their right: It's a big world, and the Canadians don't have any right to that uranium. Let 'em eat frack or whatever.

Overall, an interesting film that we all liked, but also padded to 90 minutes with a lot of landscape shots.


Have you noticed we've seen a lot of documentaries this year? Although this is the sort of thing that ebbs and flows (like foreign films), this year may represent a sea change, in that our preferred local theater is showing dozens of them in short order, apparently due to requirements laid down by the Oscar folk.

They've probably been doing this for years, but with our former preferred theater shutting down, and The Boy's three-times-a-week habit, well, there's likely to be more in the future.

This one is particularly noteworthy not because it's about Stephen Hawking, but because it's an autobiographical documentary about Hawking.

He points out, off the bat, that people probably know him more as the guy in the wheelchair than with any understanding of what he's done to be a famous physicist. And, actually, after hearing him talk about what made him famous, I still don't get it.

In a nutshell, he broke into the scene by proving the Big Bang didn't need a God to make it happen. He did this with math, apparently. While I'm sure the math was brilliant, the Boy and I were sitting there thinking, "OK, but how did that get there, asshole?"

This is not entirely fair, of course. Scientists can't be answering questions with "God" any more than they can answer the question of "God", but Hawking's an avowed materialist and atheist—and perhaps not coincidentally, ruthlessly ambitious and concerned with worldly success.

In fact, I'm convinced that a non-insignificant part of his motivation making this is that he wants an Oscar.

Let's not be churlish: He's an interesting guy who brought astrophysics to the masses, which is no mean achievement, and he did so while suffering a debilitating disease that nearly killed him a couple of times.

The movie is part personal life, part career ambitions, and part—probably the smallest part—physics. Apart from the Big Bang thing, he lightly covers a couple of other big theories he had. But mostly it's about his life growing up, his wife and children, the writing of his book, the use of technology to make that talking chair thing, his divorce and post-divorce relationships, and all the various ways he's been feted in recent years.

Which is not boasting, it must be said: I'm not exactly hip but I could name quite a few Hawking references off the top of my head that they just didn't cover in the movie (probably due to lack of time).

However much the guy loves himself, though, the movie sticks to a manageable 90 minute length. Even so, toward the end it felt like it was wandering gratuitously into self-congratulation.

We did like it, though, the Boy and I. But it really shouldn't be in the running for an Oscar given the competition.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Missing Picture

You know, I don't know if we should've been in Vietnam. I've heard it was all a power play by the CIA to create and consolidate their influence in America's shadow government, and that isn't really as preposterous as it should be. The Gulf of Tonkin seems to have been dubious grounds for which to go to war, assuming it actually even happened.

I'm not even sure we shouldn't have pulled out, even if doing so emboldened the Soviets and Chinese, or that this wasn't a victory for popular revolt—even if the popular revolt was just the tool of communist agitators.

There is no doubt, however, that the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon was a series of atrocities, and also no doubt that information about those atrocities was largely suppressed in the USA for years.

Which brings us to this interesting little documentary called The Missing Picture. This is the story of the Khmer Rouge's democide of Cambodians in the wake of America's evacuation. It's the Cambodian version of The Act of Killing, basically, but where the latter film used moviemaking as an excuse to pantomime the horrors, this movie uses little wooden carvings. (There's also some archive footage but primarily it's wooden dolls.)

The carvings are set up in little tableaux to illustrate particular events that occurred, as the narrator (a young man at the time of the purge) describes the events he witnessed.

I've mentioned before that some things are too awful to directly stage, both in fictional films and in documentaries, and these sorts of slaughters tend to be among those things. The little dolls allow us to look at and contemplate the horrors without showing us something so directly horrible that we turn away.

It's a good strategy, and the primitively carved figures are still perfectly capable of reflecting the horrors the narrator experienced.

It's all very familiar, but no less horrible for it. The communists took over the farm (food is a human right, donchaknow) and so everyone ends up starving. Of course, while this is going on, they keep touting how popular their programs are and how much traffic they get on their websitehow much food their farms are producing.

I guess Pol Pot was a true believer, or at least managed to come across that way, wearing the same drab, awful uniforms as everyone else in that jungle mess. So there's that. On the other hand, there's the between two and two-and-a-half million deaths (in a country that had a population of about 7.5 million).

It's a short movie that can seem long, though not from being boring. The Boy and I were both greatly impressed. Unlike the previous Cannes film laureate A Touch of Sin, we both were impressed and moved by this film.

A Touch Of Sin

In the "mixed bag" category of going to obscure movies is that you can literally have no clue what you're about to see, or how good it is. I mean, you can't ever really know how "good" something is until you see it because only you can know how good something is in that all-important universe of yourself.

But you can get a sense of what other people think, and if you read reviews like the ones I aspire to write, you can get a sense of whether or not you'll like it regardless of whether the reviewer liked it. (That's always my goal, anyway.)

But sometimes nobody's seen it. At least nobody who's written anything. Or at least anything in English. Or, perhaps, the only people who have written things are completely untrustworthy. Which brings us to today's film in question A Touch of Sin.

This won "best screenplay" at Cannes. My response to that is "Huh?" Although I thought (and still think to a degree) that I missed a lot because there are many things that are doubtless significant in China that I did not get, I kinda wonder if this didn't win its award because nobody got it.

The movie is, in fact, an anthology of four stories. The four stories never come together, they never impact on each other, and they don't interact except maybe incidentally at one point. The fourth story may have had a callback to the first. I sorta thought so at the time, but I was also trying to find meaning in this overlong mess.

It's only two hours and change but the problem is, just as a story is gaining momentum and building interest, it ends and you're back to square one, not knowing what's going on or why. Worse is that the first story is the most interesting. An interesting character in an interesting situation does interesting things, gets himself in a position of incredible peril and then, story over. None of the rest of the stories achieve that level of interest.

The four stories are:

1. A crotchety old dude is dismayed by the corruption in his village and takes violent steps to "correct" matters.

2. A roguish man visits his home village, wife and kids, then goes out to work as a murderous purse snatcher.

3. A girl works as a receptionist in a sauna, where "sauna" is a euphemism for brothel, but she really is just a receptionist. A series of unfortunate events push her out into other work for a while.

4. A young man weighing his options in life goes for the increasingly easier ones but discovers this doesn't lead to any sort of happiness, meeting a violent end.

The theme, I guess, is violence, which may be is also why it won an award. But, I dunno, violence is just as legitimately the theme of the Transformers movies and I don't see those getting any awards.

At first I thought maybe it would be gun violence. I can't imagine there are too many guns in the hands of the peasantry in China so that might be interesting. But the last two stories don't involve guns.

Actually, before that, in the first story, I thought we might be getting a Chinese Death Wish—that would've been interesting. But then I thought "OK, guns." And then I thought maybe the stories would all be tied together, if only incidentally. And then, beginning to despair, I thought maybe there would be something in the final story that tied everything to the first three.

Something. Anything.

No joy. It's a pretty joyless film. The takeaway may well be "China sucks" which comes as no surprise to anybody. Communist countries always suck. Oh, wait, they're not considered Communist any more. Uh...totalitarian countries always suck.

I think the suckage is best exemplified by a scene in the first story where our main character injects himself with insulin. The movie takes the time to show him injecting the insulin (and his equipment is exactly the same as The Boy's, which I found interesting). It never came up again.

But unless the director is taking the piss, presumably against pretentious art films, or is just plain awful, there has to be a reason for showing this. Was it to show that this fire-breathing example of Chinese Tea Party-ism was dependent on the State he hated so much? Was the whole story a commentary on keeping your blood sugar in line?

Who the hell knows?

Not great. Fine production values, acting, camera work, including lovely shots of China, and the same sort of atmospheric oppression you get from all movies that are based in CommunistTotalitarian countries.

We couldn't get up the interest level to actually hate it. But The Boy and I would definitely not recommend.