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.