Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Gatekeepers

A documentary about Shin Bet! Yay! Wait, who?

Shin Bet is something like the Israeli FBI which is the sort of comparison that invites recognition without noting scale. Shin Bet is something like the Israeli FBI, if America were outnumbered 100-to-1 by people wanting to destroy it.

Yeah, that's more like it.

On the one hand, this is a fascinating look at people who have one of the hardest jobs in the world: maintaining the safety of a free state surrounded by enemies. This look is provided by a half-dozen former Shin Bet heads, talking about various incidents in Israeli history and how they were handled, for better or for worse.




You'll see people saying that this is a "balanced" movie because people on both sides felt it was biased in favor of the other side.


There's no moral equivalency here. Let's take an example: the Bus 300 affair, where terrorists hijack a bus full of people, and are soon captured by Shin Bet and the army. The terrorists that survived were beaten to near death by the army, and then finished off by Shin Bet, with the head guy thinking "No live terrorists on trial."

You can argue that the law should protect those in its custody, and therefore the beating and deaths of these terrorists was wrong. But it's a minor crime compared to killing 41 innocent people, which is what was at stake.

There's another incident where Shin Bet stops an internal Jewish terrorist group, plotting to blow the dome off the Temple Mount mosque. But it's Shin Bet that stops them. The terrorists get off light—but they also don't plot more terrorist activities, putting them way ahead of most of the Muslim terrorists who (e.g.) get out of Gitmo.

Even if you consider them equivalent, I note again they were caught by Shin Bet. When was the last time a Palestinian group caught a Palestinian terrorist group? Ever?

I kept telling myself, "Blake, these are the former heads of Shin Bet. They probably understand the situation a little better than you." Yet it seemed like they were drawing equivalencies that are unconscionable.

Creative editing aside, I began to think of Colonel David Hackworth. "Hack" was a great colonel who died around the time of the second Iraq war. He was against it. Not on the basis of Saddam not being a bad guy who didn't need to be taken out, but on the basis of not wanting to see WMDs used on our troops.

And then I thought back to all the opinions I'd ever heard him give, and they were universally on the side of "We shouldn't do this because our troops will get killed." And this was not the pacifist's abstraction. It occurred to me that this is a guy who'd seen his boys killed over decades—from the time he was a boy (he joined the last days of WWII when he was 14). That has to take a toll.

Similarly, these guys running Shin Bet have had to do things nobody should have to do. Of course they want things to change!

I just can't buy the premise that the Israelis are anything like equally responsible for the situation, as long as their enemies embrace terrorism.

So, while we liked the movie quite a bit, it also made us very suspicious. It was exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to see from the safety of Encino, if that makes sense.


At the close of World War II, a Nazi girl must lead her young siblings across a divided Germany to find safety in Hamburg—and her only hope lies in a recently liberated Jew she simultaneously loathes and desires.

Had this movie been made in Hollywood, it would be awful, wouldn't it? The little Nazi girl would learn an important lesson about how Jews can be good people—the very best of people, even—and discard the world-view she'd been indoctrinated into for the past 14 years, experiencing the imprisonment and death of her parents as a mere road bump on the way to enlightenment.

So, you know, good thing it'd never be made in Hollywood. It'd end up being a WWII-themed Enemy Mine.

The bad news is that, well, it's still not very good. It's well done enough. And it may come as a shock to some that losing the war didn't instantly change the German's minds about Jews, so I guess there's some value there.

Problem is, these are some seriously unlikable characters. Our heroic Jew isn't much of a hero. His early intentions toward Lore are aggressively sexual, possibly even rape-y, and she's about 14. What seems to hold him back is that she looks at him as sub-human, even while lusting toward him.

Once all is revealed, this is actually worse than it sounds.

In the end, Lore has a character arc that takes her from immature child to adult, I guess, though this culminates with a kind of temper tantrum.

I don't know. Sure, it's not a perspective you see a lot of in the movies—even with the hundreds of movies about WWII out there—but maybe that's because it's a mine field of unpleasantness that isn't all that revealing about human nature.

The Boy and I were sort of "huh" about the whole thing. You know, where you say, "What did you think?" and the other person says "Huh." In fact, I don't think we asked each other. I think we just walked out saying "Huh."

Other than that, it's well shot, well acted, even well directed, although the dramatic tension suffers from the characters being kind of uninteresting and certainly unlikable. Hard to recommend, tho'.

A Good Day To Die Hard

In Soviet Russia, hards dye you. Or something. I'm not good with memes.

This is one of those movies that needs no reviewing, really. After 25 years and four previous films, you know more or less exactly what you're going to see. Bruce Willis is gonna get into his tank top, fire some guns, and get beaten up for a couple of hours.

This time, with his son, played by Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher), rather than his daughter, although Mary Elizabeth Winstead is back as grown-up Lucy for a scene.

Well, it's short. Only about 90 minutes, which is really short given that Die Hard pioneered the lengthy action flick, clocking in at over two hours at a time when action films tended to run about 100 minutes.

The opening action sequence is amazing, but also ridiculous, with McClane causing dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries with little provocation. I mean, they don't show it, but there's no way for that series of events to occur without lots of civilians being hurt and killed.

It doesn't really fit in with his character. It's one thing for him to blunder into a situation, but another for him to just—well, it's just silly and out of character.

The second action sequence is also over the top and really predictable.

On the third action scene, I was going to go to the bathroom, and I figured I'd wait until the scene was over, and then I realized this was going to be the closer.

The third sequence? Also way over the top.

The fourth movie in the series did this similar over-the-top action scenes, which really isn't in the—well, I'd argue that the hallmark of the first film was the convincing manner in which John McClane survived a number of relatively intimate encounters with the bad guys. There are a couple of big scenes, but really, the way McClane survived was in the manner of a horror movie monster.

That is, he took the bad guys out in small numbers, which was the only thing that made the movie "plausible", and gave it a semblance of suspense. (Joe Bob Briggs has a convincing argument that Die Hard follows the model of a horror movie more than an action flick.) It also lets the few big action sequences breathe.

But they really threw that out the window on Die Hard 2, and I haven't really cared much since then. It's just an action flick with Bruce Willis doin' his Bruce Willis action thing. He's always likable, and if you want to see him in something different, go see Moonrise Kingdom.

The kids liked it, but were far from overwhelmed.

The Boy is funny about Willis, though. When I talk about being old, he advises me to be like Bruce (who is substantially older). Time to shave my head and put on the wife-beater, I guess.

Chasing Mavericks

In our desperate gambit to avoid seeing Amour, we've been grasping at whatever movie might be passable entertainment, even if it's not something we're really into. (Because we're really not into old French people dying.) Which brings us to this surfing movie, Chasing Mavericks.

"It's a surfing movie" is about what we knew about it, and also that the critics didn't like it much, but audiences seemed okay with it.

And? We liked it. It turns out to be a biopic of a surfer named Jay Moriarty (Johnny Weston), who latches on to a surfer bum, Frosty (Gerard Butler), and uses surfing to give his life direction, culminating in an ambition to ride the Mavericks, mythical waves of titanic proportions that only the most skilled surfers can survive.

Based on a true story, as noted, this takes place in 1994. And I remember this time. A surfer (not Moriarty) died at Mavericks. (My reaction at the time was to think they were stupid, but I'm less judgmental now.)

Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) directs, though Michael Apted (56 Up) took over in the last few weeks as Hanson had to bow out for health issues.

As a cinematic experience, it starts out with a very After School Special feeling. Jay is a really, really good kid. His mom (Elizabeth Shue, House At The End Of The Street) is single (of course), alcoholic-y, and borrows money from him, even as he's saving up for a surf radio. (It tells you where the big tides are.)

To top it off, he hangs around Frosty—who has the coolest wife in the world (played by Abigail Spencer) and has peer problems with his best bud, Blond (Devin Crittenden) and his potential girlfriend, Kim (Leven Rambin, "All My Children").

So, yeah. It's hard to escape that After School feel, but after a while, it settles into the surfing groove, and the character of Jay is one that's hard not to like. He's not perfect, but he radiates the kind of serenity that comes from dedication to a—well, in this case surfing, but any of the arts that promote that Zen state.

I tend to judge a movie like this based on how I feel about what the characters are pursuing. Like, I don't call it The Perfect Storm, I call it Five Idiots In A Boat. Maybe it's the storytelling, maybe it's the characters, or maybe it's that there's a difference between risking your life for a paycheck versus doing it for a spiritual reason.

Normally, actually, I think I'd be more sympathetic toward the people making a living, and thinking the people risking their lives "for fun" are being irresponsible. In fact Frosty's and his wife have a showdown over his responsibility to her and their children versus his desire to surf dangerous waves.

I dunno. It won me over. Made me wanna surf. Wasn't sure how it was going to turn out, and if you don't look up the guy beforehand (I didn't), it can be pretty suspenseful.

The kids liked it, though The Boy did note that TV movie quality in the beginning. It won him over, too. Maybe we'll do some surfing this summer.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Stand Up Guys

Al Pacino gets out of jail after a long stint, to be picked up by his only friend, Christopher Walken, who's also contracted (after a fashion) to kill him. Over the course of 24 hours, they reminisce, party, fight, eat (and eat and eat), burgle, steal cars, rescue a girl, and save their old wheelman Alan Arkin from a boring nursing home.

What's not to love?

Well, a lot according to the negative Rotten Tomatoes critical reviews and the tepid audience reactions. At least one person in our audience didn't like it—but quite a few of the others applauded!

Go figger.

I went into it warily, and warned the kids not to expect much. And we all enjoyed the heck out of it.

The Boy spotted a bit of The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez, in that the early dialogue is halting, and a little awkward, like maybe they're trying to remember lines. I don't know how much of it was that, how much was director Fisher Stevens giving Walken his head, and how much was sloppy editing (often a bane of low budget films).

It didn't bother me because the scene is supposed to be awkward. Walken is struggling with killing a guy for something that happened 25 years ago—that the guy didn't even do. Sure, Pacino is obnoxious, crude and insulting, but he's a stand-up guy.

Despite the gangster angle, this is basically an updated version of 1979's Going In Style, where George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg decide to hold up a bank. It's also in the "continuous timeframe" genre, taking place in about a 24-hour period where the characters don't sleep.

The supporting cast is good, with Julianna Margulies as Arkin's daughter, Mark Margolis as the gangster who wants revenge, Vanessa Ferlito as the wronged hooker, and Lucy Punch as an accommodating madam who gets more than she bargains for.

I dunno. It was just fun. I wasn't inclined to clap at the end, but I didn't feel the urge to walk out either. Your mileage may vary, of course.

Friday, February 15, 2013

56 Up

Nearly 50 years ago, a young Michael Apted filmed interviews with a group of seven-year-olds, asking about their dreams and aspirations, how they felt about the opposite sex and so on. Seven years later, he revisited them, filming and interviewing them again.

The resultant documentary was called Seven Plus Seven. But the cool thing is that he followed up at 21, 28, 35, 42, 49 and, now, 56 years. 56 Up is the first of the highly praised series I've seen.

The good news is that you don't need to have seen any of the others in the series to get this. It doesn't hurt to be English, I think—a lot of stuff went over our heads. Like, I gather the London's East End is not a swank neighborhood.

The bad news is, I think that the praise heaped on this series comes from the filmmaker's agenda to show how the class limitations you were born into basically govern the rest of your life. It's all about class warfare, really.

Meh. England's not America, I tell myself. It's an issue there, I guess. There's plenty of trashing of Thatcher from the folks. I guess she's still responsible for all their problems, despite being out of office for 20 years.

I asked the Boy what he learned from the movie, and he said "You can't trust government." One of the women was on disability, and her heartbreaking story was that she worked—and she worked even when it hardly profited her to do so, with the welfare payouts being roughly equivalent to what she could get without doing anything. But her sense of ethics compelled her to work because she was able-bodied.

Until she wasn't. So she had to take the welfare finally, at least with the comfort that she had earned it.

Until the government told her, no, she could work, and therefore couldn't receive anything.

This was kind of hilarious (in a horrible way), particularly after reading about this able-bodied couple that seems to have no trouble collecting checks.

Smart boy.

The lesson I learned was this: getting old sucks. English people aren't pretty to begin with, and they ain't getting any prettier. Age is a harsh mistress. It makes you wrinkly and fat and crushes all your dreams.

I didn't really need that lesson.

I'm snarking here, obviously, but it's pretty good. They're reasonably interesting people, and there's a discussion at one point about how the snapshot you get gives you a very incomplete picture of who they are. (How else could it be, right? But these docs have made them somewhat famous back in old Albion, so it's gotta be annoying to have people think they know you from 20 minutes every seven years.)

I also liked that the last person looked at in the show was Tony. A scrappy East Ender who drives a cab and has done quite well for himself (hurt though he's been by the economic downturn). I think I liked him because he was the most "American": He seems to live his life according to his passions, not worrying too much about whether it's his "station" to do so.

Anyway, the kids liked it, though they weren't agog.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Bullet To The Head

Our favorite theater is closing down—or more accurately, changing ownership from our local, indie-friendly chain, to monster conglomcinemaco AMC, and in our mourning, we've been casting about the local theaters looking for alternatives, and (at least for me) being reminded of why we don't go to these theaters much any more.

Being plum out of the sort of weird fare we're used to seeing, the kids opted for Bullet To The Head, the buddy pic about a hitman who teams up with a cop after their partners end up dead.

The big news surrounding this flick was that its star, one Michael Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone, came out mildly in favor of some controls on guns. It was the sort of blandly, vaguely statist sentiment that all bien-pensants are partial to these days, and might have served as a kind of indulgence for a guy who probably holds a record for most on camera kills.

However, I gotta believe that the sort of peeps who go to see these kinds of films have opinions on gun rights, a lotta of 'em anyway. And a lot of those folks seem to be pretty cheesed at Hollywood right now.

For myself, I think a welcome response would be a cheerful: "This is all make-believe and escapism. Drawing real-world issues into it takes the fun out of it." Sometimes I think they can't do it 'cause they need realism to sell things. Dunno.

So it's ironic in extremis how anti-gun control this movie is. In a lot of movies, you could imagine gun control themes going either way. The good guys, typically the cops, are outgunned by the bad guys, typically mob types, drug dealers and what-have-you. So you can base your preferred narrative on whatever you imagine the surrounding situation to be.

Not here. The story is that hitman James Bonomo (Stallone) does a successful hit with his partner and, while celebrating, ends up on the wrong side of a contract. His partner ends up dead, which sorta bugs Stallone in that tough-guy way. Meanwhile, Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang) flies in from L.A. Turns out it was his partner they hit. But he doesn't care so much, since his partner was crooked.

He does care in the legal sense; he wants to team up with Bonomo and go after the guy who hired them, since they're small fish (in the legal sense). So, you gotcher old, white, racist, tough thug paired up with your young, Asian, politically correct, tech savvy cop and we're off to the races.

There aren't a lot of surprises, as you might imagine. In fact, when we see Bonomo's old wooden cabin on the water, I immediately said to myself "Self, that cabin's gonna get blowed up." Simple cinematic physics: The structure on the pier must be exploded.

Anyway, this movie takes place in a city that isn't exactly New Orleans, though it imitates it in every fashion. I'm guessing they didn't want to tar New Orleans' police department, since Kwon is the only honest cop in the movie, and he's from Los Angeles.

So, about the gun control aspect? Well, the instant Kwon comes to town—even though he's a cop—the local police remind him he doesn't have a carry permit for their city, so they disarm him. Not long after, they try to kill him, of course.

We never discover if Bonomo has a license. He's got no shortage of weaponry, though, and he needs it all, to fight cops and criminals. Meanwhile, Kwon goes around trying to arrest people, in a naive fashion, but even he, by the end, realizes it's kill-or-be-killed.

Ultimately, the individual's judgment is superior to the state's in all cases, and the only thing that clean up the gritty streets of Not New Orleans.

Walter Hill directs, and does a good job, keeping it all moving quickly, and not letting the plot get in the way of the story. It's thin in parts, as you might imagine. There's a romantic subplot with Sarah Shahi which isn't bad for what it is, but definitely not well fleshed out.

As you might imagine, it largely avoids sentimentality, and despite having a very '80s feel, mostly avoids feeling like a campy rehash of the movies of that decade. The kids liked it. As The Boy says, "There's nothing there to hate."

Which is true, unless you thought you were going to see Quartet or something.

Meanwhile, the outing cost twice as much as our usual theater-going visit, and the popcorn was sub-par. So AMC isn't going to be on our list.


From the makers of...some other horror movies that you may or may not have liked, nor even remember, comes Sinister, the tale of a true crime author who moves his family into a new house in order to get close to a ghastly murder that took place there not too long ago.

In a shocking twist, he researches the book without incident, publishes it and goes on to live a long and successful life.

Or maybe not. Some mayhem may have occurred.

Ethan Hawke plays the true-crime writer in question, who achieved success early on with a great true-crime book, but then followed it up with two apparently poorly researched and misleading tomes, causing local sheriff Fred Thompson to explain that they don't want no trouble around these here parts.

Probably my favorite parts of this movie were Thompson's sheriff and Vincent D'Onofrio Skype-ing it in as a professor of the occult. (It's a classic low budget movie trick to bring in some name stars for near-cameos they can shoot in one day, and I always like spotting that.)

Anyway, Hawke moves his family into the scene of the crime without telling his wife that's what it is—and as cliché as that is, the movie handles it very well, and in a fairly amusing fashion. Juliet Raylance plays the long-suffering wife appealingly, which gives the whole get-the-story/don't-get-your-family-killed tension more life than it usually has.

The story has nice mystery overtones: The crime in question involves an entire family being killed (hanged from a tree) except for the youngest child who has gone missing. But Hawkes' investigations lead to him tracking down a bunch of similar murders, taking place over decades, all with the same footprint: Family is killed (all at once), youngest child goes missing.

Toward the end of the second act, we learn a critical detail that's brushed over, but which instantly told me how the movie was going to end. (Although I'm not a big "try to guess how it ends" guy, horror movies are kind of based on the whole "how can they ever survive?" tension, so sometimes the ends are obvious.)

I didn't mind that aspect. There were only two things that really bugged me about this movie. One is that while children can be scary, just having them tilt their chins down while looking up (a la Stanley Kubrick) doesn't really cut it.

More importantly, the catalyst for the movie is this: Hawke is rummaging around in the attic and comes across a bunch of home movies. Home movies of murders. Hawke immediately calls the cops, but hangs up before actually reporting this valuable cache of evidence.

So far, so good. It's dodgy, at best, but he's very ambitious and seems to think losing his shot at fame would be the worst thing imaginable.

But here's the thing, at various points in the movie, the found films expand to include footage of him, in what are essentially impossible ways. At that point, the only logical conclusion is that: a) he's being haunted by a very technologically savvy supernatural force; b) somebody has such good access to his house, they can mess with him with impunity.

Neither of those things logically prompts a reaction of "well, let's just see how this plays out", no matter how freakin' ambitious you are. You can pull that kind of thing off if you have a Jack Torrance/Shining thing going on, where the guy is losing his mind, but it broke an otherwise carefully constructed sense of reality for me.

Also, there wasn't any reason for them to move to the house at all, given he never left it. I mean, you'd move there if your plan was to go around and interview people about the crime, but he finds all he needs in the attic—something he straight up acknowledges is impossible. (The attic is completely empty except for this box of films.)

That's really a minor point, another low budget movie convention. (You save a lot of money not bringing in a bunch of cast and locations.)

Actually, I could go on and on about the little things like that, but these Paranormal/Insidious type films aren't about the logic. It's good atmosphere, a few good shocks, a better than average plot, and probably slightly sub-par in terms of boogens. (That is, they're not very scary, memorable or creepy.)

Not real violent. Gore is implicit. The film violence in particular shows little but is awful by implication. And the implications are very dark and well in the horror literature tradition for nihilism, so even if you like your horror movies spookier than gory, you may not like this. (Also: children are involved. That's a no-no for a lot of folks.)

Otherwise, check it out.


Dustin Hoffman directs! While this is a dubious omen, to be sure ("guy famous for low-key method acting moves behind the camera for the first time at age 75"), the topic of three classical singers famous for their rendition of a Verdi quartet living in an old age home whose life is thrown into hubbub when their estranged fourth appears was sure to be—

Ah, who'm I tryin' to kid? We went to this somewhat concerned that it would be a slower, more low-key Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—and we were all pleasantly surprised at how lively and entertaining it was. It's less about music than A Late Quartet, and could just as easily have been about an aged Shakespeare repertory company, or a Star Trek cast reunion, if those guys weren't dead already.

It's a simple story. Tom Courtenay (Dr. Zhivago, Leonard Part 6), Pauline Collins ("Upstairs/Downstairs", "Dr. Who", Shirley Valentine) and randy old Billy Connolly (Boondock Saints, Brave, "Pale Blue Scotsman") are living out their final days in a gorgeous English retirement home for old classical musicians, where an annual benefit to raise money to keep the (ridiculously luxurious) place open is being coordinated by Richard Gambon (Professor Dumbledore!).

In between ministering to patients and fending off Connolly, sexy doc Sheridan Scott (whom I kept thinking was Martine McCutcheon from Love, Actually) is preparing to receive their biggest star, Miss Jean Brodie, herself, Maggie Smith. (Or maybe you know her as Minerva McGonnagal). Smith was the fourth in Courtenay, Collins, and Connolly's quartet, and she was even married to Courtenay. But she ditched them (and him) for a solo career.

What plays out is a fairly standard drama, in terms of loves lost and redemption, but of course played out with some of the finest actors ever recorded on film. Hoffman, with the help of play/screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) keeps the proceedings light and avoids the pitfalls you might expect from an actor's actor.

You might expect a lot of "big" scenes with a lot of ACTING, but mostly (much like Hoffman's style) things are subtler. Lots of good quips and catty diva behavior to keep things rolling, and an inescapable poignancy about how our bodies ultimately fail us all, no matter how great our artistry in youth was.

If you're a regular reader, you know how sour I can get this time of year, with all the cynical and nihilistic award-bating flicks, but, as The Boy says "There's nothing here to hate." The Flower was similarly entertained.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Life of Pi

So, on the one hand, I had iffy feelings about seeing the movie Life of Pi, due to a sort of New Age-y feel, while on the other, I had Sue SkyBluez saying I should read the book before seeing the movie. As a result, I waffled till it left theaters.

But then it came back. And, as always, during award season, potential winners persist. And persist. And persist. And I finally had to come to the realization that: a) I wasn't going to read the book any time soon, if ever (I'm really a pre-1950 guy, literature-wise); b) I had kids who wanted to go to the movies.

And, to my delight, this turned out to be my kind of movie. Pi, the lead character, is an interesting fellow, very Indian in his pursuit of religion (while his father and brother are atheist), meeting God through Hinduism, then Christianity, then Buddhism. I get why this could annoy people but it's not as squishy as it sounds.

The story really gets moving when Pi's father has to relocate his zoo (long story), and after a wild storm, Pi ends up on a raft with an assortment of animals, most notably a tiger. Now, this seems rather improbable, and while I thought the tiger was going to reach an understanding with Pi, it pretty much wants to eat him for the rest of the movie.

So, on the one hand, you have a fabulous (in the sense of being a fable) situation, but on the other, there's a literalness to the proceedings, as Pi struggles to keep the tiger, and himself fed. I really liked the way the film teases your perceptions of reality, essentially daring you to believe in it, but also fighting against sentimentalism that would cause you to dismiss it as pure fantasy.

At times, it reminded me of The Little Prince, but never for very long. I found the third act resolution satisfying, though it probably raised more questions than it answered.

As someone who has defended Ang Lee over some dubious movies (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk) but gave up around Brokeback Mountain even going to see his films, it's good to see him tackle something that seems to be in his wheelhouse. He has the right touch for this subject matter, though at (fortunately brief) times the CGI is about at Hulk quality.

Always nice to see Irfan Khan, who plays the elder Pi here, in a flick. (You probably know him from such films as Slumdog Millionaire and Darjeeling Limited.) The beautiful Tabu (who was in The Namesake with Khan—there are only so many Indian actors with crossover appeal, I guess) plays Pi's mother. Gerard Depardieu has what is essentially a cameo as a vulgar French cook.

This is the sort of movie that you can talk about a lot afterwards, as it invites you to challenge yourself about what you saw (or thought you saw), but doing so would be completely spoiler-rific, so I shan't do that here. What's cool is that it manages to be entertaining in the process, and  you can take it as literally as you like—the Flower's preference—or turn over what things might mean.

In other words, there's a lot here about knowledge, faith and the pursuit of understanding about God, but only if you want it. You could think of it as Cast Away, only with a tiger instead of a soccer ball, if you want.

A pleasant moviegoing experience. Not for young children, despite the whimsical presence of a tiger on a lifeboat, but The Flower (who's eleven now) enjoyed it, as did The Boy.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Silent Hill: Revelation

I'm a big proponent of not disappointing people. At least in terms of movies. One problem I have with Michale Haeneke (Cache, White Ribbon) movies is that, unless you know Haeneke, you can easily think you're going to see a mystery, or a thriller, when you're going to see the opposite.

One thing that may explain our relative movie-going happiness—especially The Boy's—is that the movies lately are delivering pretty much exactly what you'd expect. And doing so pretty well. We haven't seen many masterpieces, to be sure, but it was only a year or ago where every film we saw seemed to substitute basic storytelling skills for some weak attempt at a twist.

I'm taking the scenic route to tell you we saw the sequel to the murky, illogical 2006 flick, Silent Hill, called Revelation (or sometimes Revelation 3D) aaand, yes, actually liked it. It's not that it's good, exactly, but it is basically what you'd expect, only (perhaps) a little better (unless you're fanatical about the first film as, shockingly, some are).

The story is that single dad "Harry"—not his real name—is struggling to raise future cult figurehead "Heather"—not her real name, fleeing from city to city 'cause, I guess, the cult members keep tracking them down. Immediately on arrival at their latest dump, Harry sends Heather to school (because possible demons being pursued by crazy cultists need a good education, and what could be more secure than a public school?) where she's shadowed by strange figures and bitchy teenage girls.

OK, maybe I'm biased but I would think homeschooling would be easier than trying to fake IDs. It's not like you're going to have your transcripts forwarded. (Crazy cultists dominate public school administration offices!)

Anyway, weird stuff happens, and they end up back in Silent Hill itself, a town which attracts no particular attention despite being shrouded in a constant mist, and swallowing up anyone who happens to accidentally stumble into it.

I'm snarking, but the atmosphere is good. There are some good surprises and some very good imagery (the first excelled in imagery) along with some dubious CGI and gratuitous Malcolm McDowell.

The acting is reasonable. The eminently decapitatable Sean Bean reprises his role from the original, as does Deborah Kara Unger and even Radha Mitchell in a short cameo. Inexplicably replacing Jodelle Ferland (Case 39) is Adelaide Clemens. Carrie-Anne "Will Never Be Known For Anything But The Matrix" Moss, plays a witch, sorta. Sean Bean's son-from-another-show Kit Harrington plays the, uh, love interest.

Roberto Campanella is back as Pyramid-Head Dude. Though I think he's had a change of heart from the first flick.

Obviously, we're not talking about a masterpiece here. But it's surprisingly watchable, takes itself seriously enough without bogging down, and is over quickly.

Hey, I didn't say our standards were always high. But it's surprising how long they go without being met.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Anna Karenina

I don't know. Maybe we're just in a good mood. Anna Karenina is one of the movies we avoided seeing when it came out. The trailer looked reasonably interesting, but the Joe Wright/Keira Knightly collaboration record is...spotty.

Their 2005 collaboration on Pride and Prejudice is my favorite filmed version of the book, a heretical statement among lovers of Austen. But P&P is a fast-paced book, light without being frivolous, socially aware (for the early 1800s) without being preachy, and romantic without being sappy. Wright's interpretation (with script help from Emma Thompson) clears out the stuffiness you usually get.

On the other hand, Atonement was squirm-in-your-chair bad, as chronicled in this early review.

The reviews on Anna Karenina were tepid, which tells little, though audiences and critics were similarly "meh". The only moviegoer I ran into who had actually seen it actively disliked the central conceit of the film, which pretty much guarantees an unpleasant experience.

This is the story of a young, earnest mother (Knightly), married to an older, important Russian official (played winningly by Jude law), who becomes obsessed with a handsome cavalry officer (Mr. Kick-Ass himself, Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and fairly quickly goes to Hell, figuratively at first, but ultimately (presumably) literally.

The central conceit of the film is to have much of it take place on a (literal) stage, and in the auditorium for the stage. I wondered at first if, perhaps, this was a budgetary consideration: Replacing several costly sets with a decorated stage, e.g., might save some money. But the way it's shot and presented, I can't imagine they saved very much, if anything.

(Actually, a quick Google search reveals that, no, it was the exact opposite of a budgetary consideration, it was an expensive flash of inspiration.)

I think, ultimately, it was a metaphor made literal: This is the story of how we act on our desires stands up to public scrutiny.

The upside of the approach is it allows for Wright to stage absolutely gorgeous and sometimes audacious shots. The Flower identified the movie from the trailer as "the movie with the indoor ice skating rink." Then there's a horse race on stage. That'd be the "audacious", though it does stress the limits of CGI past the breaking point (as The Boy observed).

The downside of the approach is it yanks you out of the story, repeatedly, throughout. The metaphor seems even more stressed than the CGI, and you're initially drawn out wondering if some aspects of the film aren't meant to be real, but later on left puzzled as to why only some scenes take place on the stage while others do not.

Even now, I can't help but wonder if there's a pattern to the elements that took place on the stage (representing public life) versus those that took place under the stage (representing humdrum activities, that are public yet ignored, maybe?). I'm sort of left thinking it was based on what looked cool.

Not that that's necessarily bad. The Flower adapted pretty quickly and The Boy didn't seem too bothered. Might be harder for old guys like me to accept.

The acting is pretty much what you'd expect: Really good, unless you have a problem with the actors going in. Like, if you think Knightly's too skinny to be hot—or Taylor-Johnson is too skinny for that matter to be the dashing cavalryman. The supporting cast is excellent, too: The cream of the under-60 English acting crop, like Matthew MacFayden, Kelly MacDonald (Brave, No Country For Old Men) and Olivia Williams, for example.

Dario Marianelli's score delivers. Masterful blocking and staging. Definitely a work of art.

But will you enjoy it? Both The Boy and The Flower did, and seemed to more than I did. I wouldn't give it a "meh", exactly, but I can see why others might.