Monday, September 09, 2013

Summer Movie Capsules

I have not done this in a while, so here is a damned big post covering a couple months worth of theatrical viewings....

Much Ado About Nothing - 12/15 - Joss Whedon's modern dress version, shot quickly in one location, but coming out sleek and effortless, handsome and clever. It might be the best modern dress Shakespeare I have seen - the easiest, the least affected, with the language intact, but a straightforward performance style... This might be Shakespeare's most modern play, come to think of it - at least, it is the one that translates most readily into the modern world - those warring lovers have become the foundational myth of screwball comedy. It holds up, for sure - partly in the way it steers around the lovers - the plot concerns the juveniles, while Beatrice and Benedict carry the emotional weight, without being bogged down by the plot. It makes for a very lovely film.

Bling Ring - 9/15 - kind of an intelligent version of Spring Breakers, complete with famous starlets acting badly. About a real gang of kids who broke into stars' houses in Hollywood - particularly the cut rate kind of stars, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, reality stars... The whole thing, I'm afraid, plays like home movies - useless hangers on stealing from talentless TV stars, filmed by (really) rich people - some of the pecking order comes through: real Hollywood royalty (Ms. Coppola) filming a bunch of wanna be's (and a kid from a franchise trying to be a real actress) playing semi-rich nobodies stealing from minor stars... Coppola is very good, I won't deny it, but this seems very empty.

A Band Called Death - 10/15 - nice little documentary about a band called Death - 3 black kids in Detroit in the mid 70s who pick up where the MC5 left off. (They end up sounding like a mix of the MC5 and early Love - My flash on you, my little red book, 7 and 7 is...) They were good enough, apparently, to get studio time and consideration for a record contract, but it didn't happen. Maybe the name - 1976, Detroit, black kids - it's quite possible; they seem to have thought so.... In any case, the moment passed, they drifted off, though they kept playing. They landed in Vermont, made a couple christian records without making much impression, then the leader, David, went back to Detroit while the rest stayed in Burlington and got on with their lives. Still playing music - the two in Vermont formed a reggae band, that sounds pretty good, in a modest regional way. But then David, the oldest one, the songwriter, the visionary, died, but left the master recordings with his brother. And over time, as collectors found their single, as people put it on the internet, played it at parties (where the son of one of the brothers heard it), people traced them, and found the tapes - and got the record released in 2009, sent the 2 surviving brothers on the road, and a bunch of their kids on the road as well, as a cover version of Death... That's the story. The style - the film is all interviews, especially with the two surviving brothers, who are both wonderful. And it is such a cool story - the family, the way their parents let them play the music they wanted to, no matter how strange, the way that next generation forms a band of their own to play their father's music - there's not much style in the film, but it's such a neat story, the people are so much fun to watch and listen to, it doesn't mater. And as for the music? There is a lot of talk about how good they were, how innovative, for 1976 Detroit - how they were punk before punk... That's putting it a bit too strongly. They are very good - they should have made an impact in the 70s - they probably were victims of their time and place. If they'd come out after punk hit, especially after punk started developing outside NY in the states - if they'd come after the Bad Brains, or if they'd come in the middle of a scene, like the Bad Brains - they probably would have made a name for themselves. But they were early - especially with the name... But the music - isn't all that unusual in 1976 - even 1974, when they started. They fit rather well with their contemporaries - The Ramones, the Dictators, Rocket From the Tombs, The electric Eels... They were carrying on from the earlier hard garage bands - the MC5 and Blue Cheer, The Stooges, etc.... They just did it in isolation - and didn't go on to form other bands, like the guys in Rocket From the Tombs and some of those bands. Too bad; they were good.

The Lone Ranger - 7/15 - The bomb of the summer, but that probably isn't entirely fair. Big sprawling nonsense about railroads and silver and massacring Indians and so on.... Tonto tells the tale, in 1933; it is a tall tale - more Baron Munchhausen than conventional western. It is amusing, for all its bombast and flaws, and one notes that Gore Verbinski is making something of a career out of telling tall tales. He's tagging along after Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, in more than just casting Johnny Depp in everything.

The Hunt - 12/15 - Thomas Vinterberg's quietly harrowing film about a kindergarten teacher who is accused of pedophilia. It's a quiet, understated kind of horror film - a little girl (whose teenage brother has been teasing her with pornography on his computer) tells a story about him when he reproaches her for being a bit too friendly, repeating what she heard from the teenagers. (All set up well - the kid's parents have been taking her for granted, fighting a bit - she sees Lucas as a kind of protector, I think, and is angry when he tries to distance himself...) The other teachers believe her (as maybe they need to) - but when she tries to retract, they trap her into repeating the story. And as it grows - it grows: other kids tell stories; and things go from bad to worse. He loses everything - his job, his friends, everything except his son and a lawyer... The story finally falls apart - the kids are caught clearly making up details - and so it ends. It's not an unfamiliar story - there have been several famous instances of this happening, false accusations that start to spiral into huge conspiracies - and Vinterberg does a very good job of tracing the ways it spins out of control. He does it without quite condemning, either - the teachers clearly have to take accusations seriously, they have to protect the children - but you can see where they get it wrong, where they stop listening, where they start to decide to believe the worst. A very strong film.

I'm So Excited - 10/15 - Latest Almodovar, set on an airplane, that develops difficulties with the landing gear. (It starts with a neat little vignette of Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz as part of the ground crew - she tells him she is pregnant, and in their celebration they forget to take the chocks off the wheels...) Anyway, up in the air - they can't come down - and the plane's crew (every one one of whom is gay, though a couple of them won't quite admit it) tries to deal with the passengers - a dominatrix, a hit man, a businessman, an actor with woman trouble, a middle aged virgin who has visions. Melodrama and camp follow, comedy, lip-synching. Very light weight but amusing.

You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet - 10/15 - Alain Resnais adaptation of a play, though it's not quite that simple. A dead playwright assembles a group of actors who have appeared in his adaptation of Orpheus and Eurydice through the years - they watch a video of a new performance of the play - and they start acting it out as well. The main conceit seems to be the ages of the leads: there are three sets of actors - Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi, Anne Consigny and Lambert Wilson, and Vamila Pons and Sylvain Dieuaide - playing Eurydice and Orpheus at different ages - their 60s, 40s, 20s.

Computer Chess - 12/15 - A rather wonderful new film from Andrew Bujalski. Presented like a video documentary from the 80s, about a computer chess tournament, though it's quickly apparent it's fiction. Gerald Peary turns up as a smarmy master of ceremonies, a chess master hosting the thing - Wiley Wiggins is in there as well, though the main story revolves around a couple other characters. One is Peter - the programmer for the Cal Tech team (Wiggins is a psychologist, and there's a professor who turns up late with a Russian wife). They won the year before, but are losing this time - their computer seems to be committing suicide in their games. They dig around the code looking for the mistakes, and the professor admits that his compiler adds code to the main code, allowing (he says) the thing to learn. The film sticks with Peter as he tries to figure out what is going on,a nd as he drifts between some of the other groups at the conference. There is another conference of new age therapy going on, complete with swingers; there are a couple fans, dealing drugs and hosting parties; there's Shelly, a lady programmer from MIT. Peter starts to think the computer wants to play people, not computers - things hint at the mystical... The other main character is a freelance programmer named Michael Papageorge, who spends the film in a strange kind of limbo - he doesn't have a room, doesn't have any money (a bit like Gerry and Cookie Fleck in Best in Show - Christopher Guest isn't a bad reference point for this film...), and ends up wandering the hallways of the hotel, looking for a place to crash. He has his own theories about chess and AI, that no one else takes very seriously, though he does well enough... Along the line, he buys drugs from the oddball fanboys, on credit, and ends in a loop at his mother's house looking for the money. All told - it's a neat little film, very witty, great looking, in that 80s video style, with the right kinds of angles and effects for the time as well. Very nice.

Crystal Fairy - 10/15 - Michael Cera is an American in Chile, who organizes a trip with three Chilean brothers to get San Pedro cactus to make mescaline. At a party, Cera invites a girl, Crystal Fairy - who turns up, to his dismay. They drive up north looking for cactus, running into trouble on the way - CF being a hippy given to walking around naked in their motel room. They steal cactus and Cera insists on brewing it up immediately - they take it - and wander around a beach, alternating between paranoia and euphoria. At the end - Cera apologizes for beign a jerk, and they all kind of sort it out. The two Americans are the most interesting characters - CF is a hippy, new agey thing, though she is really a dominatrix. She acts the part - over time, she reveals some of her normality - her name, Isabelle, her job, her past, her troubles, etc. Cera's character is a twit - uptight and weird, kind of a mix of an amateur druggy and something more. Very uptight. Cera himself is very good - playing this asshole; and Gaby Hoffman is fantastic as Crystal Fairy.

The Act of Killing - 13/15 - Documentary about the killers in the Indonesian genocide aimed at communists, chinese, intellectuals and so on in the wake of the 1965 coup. The film takes as its conceit the idea of having the killers restage their crimes any way they want. The main character in the film is a man named Anwar Congo, an aging gangster who was a leader of the death squads in the 60s. It is strange, then - for they are all unapologetic - claiming they were saving the country from the communists and such. On top of that, Congo and his friend Koto are huge film fans - they started as gangsters scapling tickets to American movies, and they seem to live the whole story in film terms. They pull on the style of hollywood, gangster films and war films and so on, to stage their stories. There are a number of main scenes: Congo on the roof demonstrating how he killed people with wires; Congo and Koto looking at the footage and talking about costumes; large paramilitary meetings, usually involving high officials; a visit to a newspaperman who boasts of orchestrating the killings; staged interrogations. About the middle, another killer joins - he and Congo dress as victims and talk; there is a scene by a river where they seem to come out of their shells a bit. The other man says the government should apologize for the killings; Congo talks about his bad dreams. After this, the other killer becomes more hardline; Congo, though, seems to be losing it. There is a scene of a village being burned; then a scene where Congo is - the other man says the government should apologize - Congo talks about his bad dreams - somehow this seems to send both fo them into their shells. Toward the end you get a village being burned; you have a man who had been cooperating with the killers who suddenly talks about how his father in law was murdered by the death squads. Finally - there is a scene where Congo plays a man being interrogated; he breaks in the scene - then we see him watching the footage, and the filmmaker confronts him about his feelings. And then - the film ends with Congo on the roof where he used to garrot people, trying to talk about it, and gagging... Meanwhile - along the way, there are dance routines, drag routines, Koto running for office - it's extraordinary, one of the most inventive and devastating films in years.

The Way Way Back - 9/15 - nice little coming of age comedy... a kid goes to the cape for the summer with his mother and her boyfriend. The place is hell, despite being on the beach. He finds a bike and rides around and finds an old water park and soon has a job. Sam Rockwell is charismatic, trying to kill the boredom and despair; Maya Rudolph plays his girl, with the film's writers along for comic relief. Steve Carrell, meanwhile, is the boyfriend, and a dick, and Toni Collette plays the mother... It's all clever enough, ending well, as these films do.

Despicable Me 2 - 9/15 - Someone steals a research station at the north pole, with a serum that makes things into monsters. Gru is kidnapped by the anti villain league, to find who did the deed - he refuses, but only for a scene or two. He and Lucy from the AVL infiltrate a mall to find the villain - Gru recognizes an old rival, El Macho, now running a Mesican restaurant - he tries to catch him but has no luck. Then they find the serum at a hair shop - so the investigation is called off - but El Macho did it of course. All this is interspersed with plot about dating - and in the end, Gru has to rescue Lucy and ends up marrying her. This last is a very annoying turn - she is a neat comic foil for him, competent and ridiculous, like he is, but in the end she is turned into a damsel in need of rescue. Annoying. Not that there is much story to it - mostly minion gags and dating jokes. All of it enjoyable enough, but fairly empty.

In A World - 9/15 - Lake Bell plays a woman who is a bit of a loser does vocal coaching - and lucks into a couple jobs for movie trailers. Her father of course is an old timer of voiceovers - who is grooming Ken Marino as his successor. There's the wisp of a plot involving the resurrection of the "in a world" line for trailers, for a Hunger Games knockoff called Amazon Games - the boys are after it - but she lucks into that as well. Meanwhile, she screws the voiceover jerk and flirts with a coworker and her sister almost has an affair with an Irishman. So it goes. It is episodic and a bit empty, but fairly entertaining. Bell has skills.

Prince Avalanche - 10/15 - solid indie film. A bit slow, a bit padded, 2 men working on a highway in Texas in 1988, a year after a big fire. Paul Rudd is dating Emile Hirsch's sister, and has got him this job - Lance (that's Hirsch) is a brat, lazy and rather useless, a player, of sorts. Rudd's Alvin is a fake philosopher, etc. The sister breaks up with him, since he is never home; Lance finds out one of his one night stands is pregnant. They drink and fight and sulk and bond. It's not bad, though nothing special - Green seems to be working to combine his early, Malick derived indie style with his Hollywood buddy picture stories, with some success.

World's End - 10/15 - another in the same vein from Pegg and Wright and company. 20 years ago, Pegg led his friends on a pub crawl, 12 pubs, 12 beers - it did not end well.... Since then, the rest fo the crew has grown up, but not Gary King - he gets them together to do it again. They go - things aren't great - one has stopped drinking, the others are tired of the act... but then he's attacked in the bathroom by robots and they are plunged into Shaun of the Dead, more or less. They keep on the pub crawl, fighting robots, a scheme to take over the world, etc. They are defiant, so it all ends. An epilogue that recycles the ending of Shaun of the Dead - robots assimilating into post-apocalyptic society, etc. Amusing, but kind of repetitive.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints - 12/15 - David Lowery film... Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara are outlaws, somewhere in the 70s - they get in a shootout with cops, and when their friend Freddy is killed, and she shoots a cop, he takes the rap and goes to prison. The lot of them were raised by Keith Carradine, as some kind of gangster, turned into something else in his old age - he supports Mara and her kid.... Well - 4 years along, Affleck breaks out of jail and comes back. Carradine is not exactly thrilled about this... And all this while, the cop who got shot has been hanging around making doe eyes at Mara. Anyway - everyone's looking for Affleck, but some hit men find him - there's a certain amount of gunplay and everyone who dies gets to do it with a nice little speech, thought he cop might get the best line - "that man needs to rest a while." All this bears the unmistakable imprint of Terrance Malick, but like most Malick imitations, is much better than anything Malick did after Badlands. (Though not as good as Badlands.) Malick is like Woody Allen - most of his career has been decidedly underwhelming - but he has inspired reams of imitators, almost all of whom are very good. (See Upstream Color, or David Gordon Green's indy films, etc.)

The Grandmaster - 9/15 - Wong Kar-wei film that is sort of about Ip Man, the martial artist. Lush and gorgeous and slow and confusing - a simple story made to seem epic. 1936 - a northern kung fu master comes to Foshan in the south, where he plans to retire - he challenges Ip Man, who impresses him with the hope of uniting the country, the martial arts. But the master has a daughter - she manages to beat Ip Man. He promises a remarch - but the Japanese come and ruin everything. Ip and she meet later, in Hong Kong, and she tells her tale - how her father's chief disciple collaborated with the Japanese, and stole her father's good name - but she fought him in the snow and beat the hell out of him, taking it back, and then has it die with her. Ip Man, meanwhile goes on to become a famous teacher... Again - all this is gorgeous and rather inert, though with some neat fighting sequences, and some interesting ideas floating around in the middle. Wong is too good not to be worth watching, but this plays a bit desperate at times.

Austenland - 9/15 - Keri Russell as Jane Hayes, an American obsessed with Jane Austen and Mr. Darcy (the Colin Firth version in particular.) This schoolgirl obsession has persisted into 30s spinsterhood, to the point where she finally decides to sink her life savings into a vacation at Austenland - an immersive regency era theme park. She goes, meeting Jennifer Coolidge on the way, playing a Jennifer Coolidge character; at the place, Jane learns that she has the copper package - which means plain frocks and a room in the servant's wing and a backstory as an orphan named Jane Erstwhile. Well - there's another rich girl on hand; there are 2 gentlemen (Colonel Andrews and Mr. Nobley, who is playing Darcy in this show.) There's also an irreverent stable boy, who takes Jane into his confidence. Jane despairs and almost goes home, but decides in the end to have fun, and with JC's help starts living it up. Another man now - a west Indian sea captain - who may be after her, though Georgia King's character wants him... etc. The plot is apparent more or less from the start - the stable boy is as much an actor as any of them and so poor Jane is let down again... But Nobley turns out to be a history teacher and nephew of the owner, slumming as one of the boys (he's almost a customer, actually, being as enamored with the past as the ladies) - he loves Jane, though she doesn't believe any of it - there is a big fight in an airport, with one of the best lines in the film - Martin is from New Zealand (it's Bret McKenzie), and Nobley makes fun of him - "couldn't get a part in the Hobbit?" And so - Jane goes home and Nobley comes for her - happy endings all around!

I will add - that Jerusha Hess seems to have picked up on Jared's themes, his obsession with artists - though I suppose this has been their themes all along, as they cowrote the other three films. They are all four, then, about artists, dreamers, people inventing themselves - so is this. Jared has been something of a low-rent Wes Anderson, low-rent both in a kind of pejorative sense (he;s nowhere near as good), and a descriptive sense - his artists tend to be trashier, wrestlers and junky writers and amateur dancers.... But like Anderson, the Hess's have stayed close to that basic theme, the idea of making yourself, through art. This film is pretty much more of the same. It is more conventional, more normal looking - Jared has cultivated a mix of Anderson's flat compositions and a kind of deliberate do-it-yourself look... Truth is, I rather like their films.

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