Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Picking up where I left off last night, here’s the second movie in what should have remained the Indiana Jones Trilogy. A bit of a confession up front; I tend to like this movie a lot more than most people, who enjoy it but are somewhat put off by the fact that it’s so dark and weird. That’s exactly why I love it almost as much as the phenomenal first movie.

I happen to like the doofy musical opening where they sing Anything Goes in Mandarin and you get the whole 30s musical spiel, and I was impressed at once that this disc looks like a blu-ray. You get all the details like pores in the skin and every weave in the fabric of Willie’s (Kate Capshaw) dress, and while, yes, again you can spot the soundstages, eh, this movie is twenty-nine years old so I forgive a little. The James Bondish opening sequence is fine, weak compared to the first film but then that’s a damned high bar. We do start off on the wrong foot with Willie, though. You can clearly picture George and Steven sitting around jawing, saying, “Well, she has to be different from Marion, so let’s make her a whiny annoying bitch.” Willie just never works, at all, on any level. Yeah, Kate Capshaw’s pretty enough here, I’ll grant you that, but the character is so noxious that not only do you hate her, you kind of wonder why Indy would be attracted to such a dipshit like her. Come on, the guy dated Marion Ravenwood and now he’s chasing after this? Or is Indy the kind of guy who just has to bag every available girl? Either way, no.

Luckily – miraculously– Willie is offset by the single greatest child character in the entire history of cinema (and there is no hyperbole there, just fact), Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), who is fun, funny, smart, the perfect sidekick and – like Sallah – steals most of the scenes he’s in. There are only three kids in genre cinema who don’t suck (the others being Alex O’Connell from Mummy Returns and Hit Girl) and Short Round is head and tiny shoulders above the other two. The kid’s so good he even gets a great theme courtesy of John Williams, who provides one of the more unique soundtracks he’s ever done.

The film bogs down a little when we first get to India; after the “Lucas must have come up with this” sequence of falling out of the sky and down a mountain and rapids on an inflatable raft, the movie warps all goofy and (not in a good way) weird when we are treated to fat guys burping, eating bugs, snakes, and monkey brains. Why they went for such broad comedy (what? No fart jokes?) becomes evident later, but both the silly gross-out scene and the painful Indy/Willie ‘will they/won’t they’ scene tax the viewer. Indy then stumbles onto a secret passageway, leading to one of the greatest scenes ever committed to action cinema celluloid.

The sequence where we are introduced to the actual Temple of Doom, the fiery, hellish underground cavern where Mola Ram reigns supreme, is the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen on film – so terrifying that it birthed the PG-13 rating. Mola Ram – who’s scary enough as it is – pulls some guy’s heart out of his chest, which doesn’t kill the guy, and then when they dip him in the lava, the heart flares up on fire and Mola Ram laughs like he’s just heard the best joke in the world. Williams scores the scene with truly frightening cult-like chanting and drums; the whole effect is grisly beyond words, not in a schlocky horror way but in a holy Christ what warped twisted bastard thought that up and decided to FILM IT?!? kind of way. Most people find this scene somewhat off-putting (especially in a PG movie, where they only suggest parental guidance, never mind therapy), but it’s one of my favorites in any film period. Horror movies don’t scare me, but this gets to me in a way that stuff that’s supposed to be scary never could, and it’s stayed with me for thirty years. That is filmmaking with an impact.

But then it gets even worse; turns out that on top of the whole human sacrifice bit they’re also torturing kids and employing them as slave labor. Hey, it’s not easy to top the Nazis, but the Thugees manage it; they subvert Indy to the dark side, and they almost kill Willie (big bonus points in my book), and then, as I sat there watching the movie this time, I realized that Short Round saves the world. The entire world – well, the entire Indiana Jones world – is still spinning because of this one kick-ass kid (told you he was freakin’ great). He breaks Indy from the evil trance, which allows Indy to survive the adventure and not only put a stop to the Thugee thuggery but also keep the Ark of the Covenant out of Hitler’s hands a year later (although given what God did to Belloq, he probably would have really gone biblical on Hitler). Then we’re treated to an over-the-top rollercoaster mine cart ride that wasn’t all that special in 1984 and is painful to watch now, as you can plainly see every time they use miniatures, rear-screen projection, etc. You never noticed any of this in the cinema, but it screams out at you in high def, spoiling an already sloppy and kinda stupid sequence. The final scuffle with Mola Ram on the bridge is neat, though (even if Lucas makes him do the Darth Maul tumble and then to DRIVE HOME THE POINT THAT HE’S DEAD has the crocodiles licking their lips, because falling a half-mile and banging your head on the rock face twice is somehow survivable if you don’t have a dozen crocs to make sure the job is done right).

What I also love about this film, again from the shit-your-pants scary of Mola Ram and the Temple, is that for one of the very few times I can recall in a big American action film we’re not mining western mythology. No Christ goblet, no God tablets, no sword of Arthur, none of that crap. The film embraces Indian theology and then cranks it up to eleven, and it’s a terrific change from all the usual bullshit about Avalon and the true cross or whatever, a nod that the rest of the world has myths and some of them are should-have-worn diapers frightening.

Temple of Doom isn’t as good as Raiders – how could it be? – but it’s a lot better than the two movies that follow it, and it’s only maybe a half- or a whole step down from the original. There aren’t many movies like it, even now, so it’s retained its unique appeal and freak-out factor. I know most people don’t enjoy the movie like I do, and I’ve never met anyone who actually revels in it the way I do, but it’s still, three decades on, refreshing to see Lucas and Spielberg do something so different. I’ll always reserve a special place in my heart for this movie, even with the crappy ending where Indy bangs Willie (but then so did Spielberg, so hey), for Mola Ram and Short Round, two characters who continue to stand out in cinema and who, for their respective appeal, have never been equaled.

November 17, 2013


Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

There is no earthly reason to review this film. Everyone of my generation reveres it, rightly so, and even the generation following admits it’s pretty damned good (what the millennials think of it, if they even think of it, I don’t know), and it’s one of the most influential films of the last three decades. The Mummy franchise wholly owes its existence to it; its sequel was largely responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating; and even the execrable and least-necessary film ever made, Crystal Skull, can’t tarnish the legacy of this film.

So rather than review a film you’re all familiar with, I’ll just commit my reactions upon this viewing, somewhere in the neighborhood of my 20th time, although it’s been close to a decade at least since I’ve seen it. The movie screams iconic from the get go, all the murky atmosphere in the jungle, and the reveal of Ford – then a huge star coming off Empire Strikes Back – is exceptionally well done, but I spent most of the sequence thinking man, Alfred Molina must have been about fifteen when they made this, and, frankly, the blu-ray in the jungle sequence looks like a copy of the VHS ported over; you can’t blame that on old source material, they made Jaws and even Goldfinger look like they were made yesterday, and this film starts out looking like it was made in 1936, not set in 1936. The picture quality gets better when we hop to Chicago and see Jones in his classroom, but by that point I was thinking I wonder what happened to the guy who played Belloq? He was really good, and then he was in that crappy King Solomon’s Mines (which also never would have been greenlit if not for this film, and maybe it shouldn’t have been, but it featured a young Sharon Stone back when she was really hot, so I forgive them). The whole first reel of the film, up until Indy boards the plane (in a shot that is VERY obviously a matte painting), is exceptional filmmaking, and includes what I still think is one of the best if not the perfect example of exposition, the scene where Indy explains the Ark to the two knobs from Army Intelligence (and by extension the audience). John Williams’ breathtaking score really makes itself known here, and remains delightful throughout the film.

I was surprised how many of the effects shots are so blatantly obvious; even the soundstage scenes look fakey and TV-ish, which I didn’t expect. I’d read on that this was supposed to have undergone an amazing restoration, but I didn’t see whatever their reviewer saw; I suspect he was taken in by the quality of the film, not the quality of the disc, because this movie shows its age on blu-ray. The outdoor scenes in Cairo look great, but step into the Well of Souls or even the bar where Belloq threatens drunk Indy (there’s an action figure they never made) and you’re obviously stepping foot on a soundstage – which, okay, I know they are, but it looks really obvious here in a way I never noticed before (maybe this film just wasn’t meant for high def). But I was easily distracted from this annoyance by John Rhys-Davies playing the role of his career (no, not Gimpi the Dwarf), Sallah, a character so huge and so warm you can’t help but love him the moment you set eyes on him (and it helps if you ignore the bastardization he went through in film three, Indiana Jones and the Cartoon Nazis). Sallah is fun, funny, big-hearted, and the kind of supporting character we should see in more films – someone who steals a little bit of each scene he’s in but knows when to step back and let the hero be the hero. I felt myself a little disappointed when Indy leaves Cairo, because I know he’ll be leaving Sallah behind. Of course in this movie Indy gets to hang with Marion Ravenwood (what a great f**king name), played brilliantly by Karen Allen, a gal with real moxie as they would have said when the movie was set. Marion was so much better than the other girls in the series that they brought her back in Shia Le Beouf is Indy’s Kid, That’s Not a Joke, but ignore that for the moment (or better, forever) and just revel in one of the great heroines of cinema period. Marion’s a delight, tough, a tomboy, and yet feminine and sexy without being weak or girly. The whole fight scene in Cairo is great, and the moment where Indy shoots the swordsman still gets a laugh; watching the movie this time, I was reminded just how groundbreaking and how clever it was, and I was able to channel some of the joy I felt upon first viewing it, which is why you buy movies in the first damn place. I also realized that monkeys are almost always evil in movies (here, the Pirates monkey, the flicks where they take over the planet, even 12 Monkeys, and don’t forget what they did to us in 28 Days Later), but the little bugger in this one is cute, giving the Nazi salute and then getting his for betraying Marion in the craftily executed bazaar fight/chase scene when he chokes down a poisoned date that his owner bespoiled. There’s some irony for you.

The whole “Indy rides a Nazi U-Boat across the Mediterranean” sequence was always a bit much (especially when you’re trying to ignore the fact that he’s spotted by the guy who played Chocolate Mousse in Top Secret), but they’re clever with his stolen uniform not fitting, and the last reel of the film is spectacularly set up, the tension slowly rising, the whole “Jewish ritual” being laid out, and of course the amazing scene where the angels (?) turn into demons (?) and roast the Nazis pretty good and make cinematic history by friggin’ melting the SS creepo and the uber-fascist Dietrich. And then I remembered what my brother said thirty years ago, that at the climax of the movie the hero stands there and closes his eyes while the ultimate Deus Ex Machina occurs – literally—and God cleans up Indy’s mess (would that he would have also done so with the fourth movie). It also occurred to me this viewing that man, this ending is some real Jewish revenge on the Nazis; God wipes their symbol off the crate carrying the Ark, and then he boils them from the inside out, and the two worst anti-Semites are liquefied (Belloq, an atheist, just gets the Scanners treatment of cranial detonation); this is without a doubt the pre-Jesus Old Testament God who paid people back personally for their sins, and I imagine there were a lot of Jewish viewers who felt a particular emotional satisfaction when they watched this scene back in ’81, like you Nazi bastards had that coming, you pricks, and they really did, no argument, and then I thought, nah, I’m overthinking it, but then I remembered Spielberg is, well, you know, and maybe I wasn’t overthinking it, but then, the guys who gave us the Holocaust definitely have it coming.

Raiders still stands up as a tremendously enjoyable film even after all these years, even after it’s been imitated and ripped off and homaged a million times; this was something we hadn’t seen before, or more accurately it was something Spielberg and Lucas had seen hundreds of times before when they were kids and, as was their particular genius in that place and time, they distilled what was so wonderful about it from their childhood and added a dash of modern sentiment to it and bam, they made a film that’s one of the most beloved and influential of all time. This is one great film, especially if you’re able to forget what comes later, and it’s worth a look again if only – and there are many more compelling reasons – to remind yourself how great escapist entertainment is made. Raiders still hits on all cylinders and is able to reach us emotionally the way it did when we were kids. Now please, for God’s sake, don’t ever ever ever make another one.

November 16, 2013

Europa Report (2013)

I knew nothing about this film – not even who was in it. This was a blind stab in the dark, which is rare for me with movies.

Europa Report concerns itself with a near-future manned mission to Jupiter’s fourth largest moon, and is presented in documentary fashion. We talk to several members of the company which privately funded the mission back home, but the majority of the time is spent with the crew of the space ship as it travels to Europa and what it discovers. The crew is international, and the cast is largely unknown, though you’d likely recognize Sharlto Copley as a crew member desperately missing his family, and sharp-eyed viewers might notice Michael Nyqvist as an engineer who is slowly deteriorating through the course of the mission.

Europa’s emphasis on the science proves interesting, and while there’s a good deal of character development, the movie grounds itself as far as possible in reality. The performances are compelling across the board, and as the situation proves increasingly dire, people respond in ways you don’t always expect. The film grows tighter and more tense as we proceed, and while we can guess at the end before we get there, nonetheless it’s an entertaining and thought-provoking ride, well done all around.

Europa’s a low-budget film that’s smartly made and very enjoyable; the only drawback for most viewers, I would expect, is that it covers a lot of the same themes that Gravity covers, and while Europa is good, it can’t compare to Gravity. Those who haven’t seen Gravity will enjoy this film a good deal more, I think, than those who have. Naturally that’s no slight toward Europa, it’s just unfortunate timing. If you have to pick one peril-in-space movie, pick Gravity; but if you want to see more, or having the emphasis on science in your science-fiction is your thing, give this movie a spin.

November 11, 2013

Lincoln (2012)

Few figures have been mythologized in American culture as greatly as Abraham Lincoln (the Founding Fathers and Washington, perhaps, but that’s about it), and it must be a temptation for filmmakers to play into the myth of the man rather than his history. Spielberg attempts to avoid some of this by only covering the last six months or so of Lincoln’s life.

Yet the film starts off with Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) being regaled by troops he’s visiting by having them recite – one by one, piece by piece – his Gettysburg address back to him. From there the film predominantly concerns itself with Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) trying to pass the 13th Amendment, which of course abolishes slavery. There’s also a fair amount of screen time given to Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), and Lincoln’s relationship with his two boys, young Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and cusp-of-manhood Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

Much of the wheeling and dealing to secure the vote to abolish slavery reminded me keenly of Sherman Edwards’ 1776, and was, here as there, very skillfully done. Seward hires a trio of negotiating arm-twisters led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to seek out vulnerable Democrats and urge them to support the president’s legislation. There are also battles in the House itself, most notably between firebrand Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), which again recall 1776 vividly. His son Robert mostly rails against being kept from enlisting, and Mary Todd is a difficult figure here, as she was in real life; the death of a son hangs over her, and she and Abe have it out in a powerful scene later in the film.

The period details are all perfect, or, to an unexpert eye at least feel perfect; a Washington D.C. full of grassland and muddy roads jars at first, but the crowded, dimly lit rooms, the bowlers and top hats, the exuberant hairstyles, all help to draw us in on a background level while some first class drama unfolds in front of us. The performances are all very strong; Spader tends to steal any scene he’s in, Pace and Lee Jones spar magnificently, and Field, while saddled with the unsympathetic Mary Todd, is terrific. But naturally a film centering on Lincoln stands or falls on its portrayal of him, and Daniel Day-Lewis is superb as the sixteenth president. From Lincoln’s reedy voice to his penchant for storytelling to his humility and patience, Day-Lewis brings humanity and frailty to a figure we often see as larger-than-life; seeing his version of Lincoln, one begins to understand just how great a loss it was that he was taken from us so suddenly.

I suspect some who have less of an appetite for political drama might find stretches of this film slow-moving, but I enjoyed luxuriating in a slew of fine performances, the slow tautening of tension (even though we know how the vote for the amendment turned out, it still generates a fair amount of anxiety onscreen), and a powerful examination of one of the greatest men ever to lead the country. Lincoln is a little long in the tooth, clocking in at about two-and-a-half hours, but it’s certainly worth your while to investigate.

November 4, 2013

Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

I probably dropped this in my Netflix queue because of Paul Rudd’s participation, even though he’s not in it very much.

Perks centers around Charlie (Logan Lerman), a freshman outcast who hated middle school and has low expectations of his impending high school experience. Initially reality conforms to his fears, but he is adopted early in the school year by a senior named Patrick (Ezra Miller), an extrovert, and his sister Sam (Emma Watson), who take him under their wings and save him from isolation. He fits easily into their orbit, and the three become fast friends, even though they are seniors and he’s a freshman. Charlie falls for Sam, which of course leads to some complications later in the second act, but the film is more interested in the overall experience of discovering who you are as an emerging young adult than it is in centering on a romance.

There’s a fair amount of baggage – Charlie’s old best friend committed suicide, there are a few cases of child molestation, Patrick’s partner is very much in the closet and fears being discovered — and so on. There’s an undercurrent of angst, and yet while the film explores it, it smartly avoids wallowing in it; for every dark moment we’re shown, there’s a counterpart to it that’s either uplifting or deftly funny (Charlie shovels snow in a perfect circle around where he’s standing when he gets high at a party, for example). It’s rare that a teen film marries these disparate elements together so seamlessly; both are major parts of the teen experience, and yet so often films veer in one direction or the other (or remain upbeat until The Bad Event two-thirds of the way through).

What makes the movie stand out is the uniformly excellent performances turned in by the leads. Lerman, whom I’ve been less then impressed with pretty much everywhere else I’ve seen him, displays a talent I would never have guessed at here. He’s vulnerable and accessible as Charlie, but most importantly, he’s authentic; you believe in his character at once, and Charlie is easy to identify with and rally behind. Ezra Miller comes very close to stealing the show as the flamboyant Patrick; he’s exactly the antidote to what’s weighing Charlie down, and he lifts the movie and never lets it falter. He’s the friend every young kid wants in high school, and he’s terrific here. Emma Watson, whom the whole world knows as Hermione Granger, shows that she has a lot more to offer; she’s simply perfect here as an emotional midpoint between Charlie’s vulnerability and Patrick’s confidence, shifting from one state to another in a seemingly effortless performance. Charlie’s lack of self-esteem prevents him from declaring his interest in her, but it’s obvious why he falls so hard for her; Watson here captures the mystique of that girl you always loved in high school but were always far too afraid to tell about it.

The movie waxes a bit emo, yes, but the performances are so strong that’s a relatively minor sin, and there are some truly memorable and powerful moments that impressed me deeply (one scene where the trio are cruising through a tunnel, reveling in the simple freedom of being away from your parents in your teen years, leaps off the screen); had I seen this movie when I was a teenager, it would have left an indelible mark. As it is I was quite taken with it; a rare teen movie that pretty much gets it right, reaching its audience regardless of age.

November 3, 2013

The Oranges (2011)

Not entirely sure why I rented this from Netflix – I’m guessing because Hugh Laurie was prominently featured – but it has an interesting cast: Oliver Platt, Alison Janney, and Catherine Keener, along with Laurie; there’s also Adam Brody and Leighton Meester.

Platt and Laurie plays best buds Terry and David, mid-lifers securely ensconced in New Jersey suburban bliss. Janney is Terry’s wife Cathy, and Keener David’s wife Paige. The two families are exceptionally close, so much so that Cathy and Terry hope their wayward daughter Nina (Meester) will finally go for David and Paige’s highly eligible son, Toby (Brody). For no reason I could discern David and Paige also have a daughter, Vanessa (Alia Shawkat), who, despite being a decidedly lesser character, is chosen to be the narrator. When Nina comes home from California for Thanksgiving after catching her boyfriend cheating on her, Cathy all but physically pushes her toward Toby, who, freshly home from China, more or less just wants to sleep. Nina, however, casts her eyes upon David, and the two begin a romance that shatters the comfortable lives of just about everyone.

Despite a strong cast and some witty dialogue, the movie never really comes together. Though we are given no evidence that Nina is being anything but honest with David, Meester and Laurie have no romantic chemistry, and it always feels like she’s going to dump him at any second. Platt and Janney have a little better time of it; despite playing semi-stereotypes, they often get to work off one another, and they make a strong couple. Keener’s Paige, most hurt by all of this, reacts ridiculously, shedding everything in her life to volunteer for an aid foundation; her anger only surfaces at the end, when she attempts to destroy David’s Christmas lawn decorations through vehicular homicide. Brody’s in the film so briefly he barely registers, and Meester, well, maybe she’s not that good of an actress, or maybe she’s just out of her depth here, but she never pulls Nina off. You want to like Nina because David does, but you can’t, because there’s no core, and you can’t believe in the relationship because, again, you spend the whole movie waiting for the other shoe to fall. Shawkat’s acceptable, but her character is so annoyingly written – and so unnecessary – that you wonder why she’s even there.

Still, for all its flaws, I enjoyed watching a foursome of seasoned pros work their way through the material, right up until the end, which made some logical sense, but just turned me off; I could forgive the movie’s transgressions up until that point, but ultimately, with a lackluster ending, it’s just not worth the investment of your time. There are some good interactions in the film, most particularly with Laurie and Platt; but there’s no payoff, and enough to irritate, that you’re better off skipping this one altogether.

October 28, 2013

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

For some reason I thought this was the owl movie (Legends of the Guardians) and was uninterested, but a co-worker with kids told me it was actually pretty good (and also wasn’t the owl movie – not that I have anything against that film, I’m just not interested). I knew Jack Frost was in it, but little else, so the film was something of a surprise for me.

Jack Frost (voiced by Chris Pine) exists, but he has no memory of his life before becoming the spreader of frost and snow; and while he can see and affect people, they most certainly can’t see him. This all changes when the Man in the Moon – who created Jack in the first place – suggests to the other Guardians that Jack should become one of their number. Jack isn’t convinced, but Santa (referred to here as North, and voiced by Alec Baldwin in a Russian accent), Tooth (Isla Fisher), Bunny (Hugh Jackman), and the Sandman (silent) convince him to at least help them out. It seems that someone is plotting nastiness for the world’s children, turning Sandman’s dreams into nightmares, and he reveals himself when he steals all of Tooth’s fairies: Pitch Black, the Boogeyman (Jude Law). As children begin to lose their belief in the Guardians, they lose power; if they mean to oppose Pitch’s plans, and they do, they must hurry before they fade and are invisible to children, as Jack is.

The story’s fun and the voice acting is all very good – I spotted Jude Law, but the other actors I had to look up (I would never have guessed Alec Baldwin, the accent is perfect). Each lends some nice color and depth to their characters. The design work is brilliant, and the characters themselves have been nicely tweaked – Santa’s a big, beefy Russian with yeti helpers (and the elves are incredibly cute); Bunny is fully Australian, with boomerangs and a thick accent; Tooth is sparkly and green, and her fairies, hummingbird-like, are adorable; and Sandman is a round little orange cherub who, despite being silent, is the most expressive character in the movie. Jack’s more straightforward for this type of film – a young boy with white hair – but he’s still engaging. Pitch is deceptively simple – just a mildly handsome face and dark clothing – but he too is exceptionally effective.

Often the most I hope for with these types of films is a few throw-away jokes for the adults or some nice design – which this movie had, in spades – but the whole re-imagining is engaging, and the characters are so much fun I was pulled right in. Yes, the plot and the internal conflicts are a bit simple – it is a kid’s movie, after all – but I found I could enjoy it on the level; the reworking of the myths of the characters was ingenious and humorous. I’d bet only the most jaded children wouldn’t enjoy this movie, and ditto for the adults. This was a surprisingly good film and certainly worth a look.

October 27, 2013

The Way Way Back (2013)

Thank you, Kurt Loder. Your review of this movie not only made me aware of it, but stirred an interest to see it.

The Way Way Back follows the story of young Duncan (Liam James), a shy fourteen year-old who loves his mother Pam (Toni Colette) but dislikes her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell). Trent is taking the two of them and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin), who’s a few years older than Duncan and wants nothing to do with him, to his summer home for a vacation. Upon arrival they are immediately embraced by Trent’s drunken neighbor, Betty (Allison Janney), who has two kids of her own: Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), who’s about Duncan’s age, and Peter (River Alexander) who’s a few years younger than Duncan. Rounding out the cast are Trent’s friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and his wife Joan (Amanda Peet).

While the adults pass the time predominantly in a boozy haze (“This place is like spring break for adults,” Susanna remarks), Duncan, already isolated, feels increasingly alone and despondent. He is directed to spend time with Peter and the two get on acceptably, but Trent’s constant badgering makes him uncomfortable at home. He escapes during the day to a local low-rent water park, named Water Wizz, where he encounters Owen (Sam Rockwell), a witty slacker who takes a shine to him and gives him a job. Duncan takes all of Owen’s gibes literally at first (Owen stops at one point, regarding Duncan, and asks, “Do you get comedy?”) but soon begins to open up around him, and the other colorful characters at the water park soon accept Duncan as one of their own.

Of course there’s more, but two paragraphs suffice to give you the gist of the plot. That’s not what this movie is about anyway; it’s much more interested in the characters and their relationships, and manages the feat of introducing us to this world through Duncan’s eyes and letting us gradually piece things together for ourselves. We understand the threads of his life better than he does, but even so he has his moment of awakening in a painful but powerful confrontation with his mother and Trent.

The script is smart, funny, and tender, and the acting is all completely first rate. Of course you expect that from Toni Collette and Allison Janney, but Carell, whom I usually don’t care for, is almost perfect here, far better than I’ve ever seen him. The kids are uniformly good – Levin’s Steph isn’t in it much but her self-absorption and dripping contempt for Duncan are deftly revealed; likewise, Robb’s Susanna – who’s a shade too pretty for such a sympathetic role– is nonetheless very very good. And of course Liam James, who is in just about every scene, is top notch; the movie wouldn’t work otherwise. But the real scene-stealer here is Rockwell, who effortlessly portrays the sort of underachieving man-child every teen secretly (at least when I was a kid) aspired to be; Owen’s funny, he’s sharp, smart, he’s way too good for the water park, and he knows it. But unlike everyone else there, there’s no rancor or regret in his continued employment in the place; Owen accepts himself fully, and it is this self-comfort that allows him to pick Duncan out of the crowd and help the kid along. Rockwell’s ad libs and comic timing are letter-perfect, and while he already has a career full of terrific performances, this is probably his best.

There have been many coming-of-age movies and in certain ways this one hews to the formula, but the performances are so riveting that this is a must-see movie. Comedy should always strive to be this organic and intelligent, and the non-comedic part of the film is just as strong. The framework may be familiar, but this movie is so smartly made you forget that and lose yourself in the characters, which is entirely the aim of most storytelling in the first place. This is an excellent film and I’ve told you too much already; see it before anyone can spoil it further.

October 26, 2013

Le Havre (2012)

I tend to like French films. I don’t like them all – no one does, and for that matter no one likes every American movie – but at least the ones I see tend to involve themselves more with characters and emotions than plots. A steady diet of that might prove tiresome, but an occasional sampling can cleanse the visual palate (and mine was in need of some thorough scrubbing after suffering through Pac Rim).

Le Havre is chiefly set in the port city that shares its name, and follows one Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms), a middle-aged shoeshine who arranges his day around the coming and going of commuter trains so he can maximize his customer base; after the last nightly train has arrived, he stops off at the café for a glass of wine and then home to his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen). One day, however, he comes across an escaped illegal immigrant from Gabon, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel); the young black boy stands out like a sore thumb in Le Havre, and Marcel impulsively decides to help the boy, even though the police are looking for him. Most of the rest of the film consists of Marcel trying to reunite the boy with his family in England, hiding the boy from the police, and relying on his wide network of friends in town to help him with both tasks.

But this is no action film. The people in this movie are all shopkeepers and housewives, filled with their own problems, and react like normal people would. There’s no tense standoff – a little bit, maybe, at the end, when the police close in on the boy, but most of the film is a relaxed affair, with Marcel doing what he can between shoeshine jobs and his long-time friends helping him without really breaking their daily routines very much. There’s also a lot of staring off into space and smoking, but I expect that from French films.

Andre Wilms is terrific here, delivering a pleasantly subtle performance. We like Marcel at once, and the more time we spend with him, the deeper that bond becomes. It’s easy to understand why characters who chide him a little at the start of the film – he’s a bit of a moocher – rally around him quickly once he decides to stick his neck out for the boy. I was impressed with most of the rest of the cast, particularly with Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darrousin), who delivers a finely tuned performance. The boy Idrissa, Blondin Miguel, is a little too blank and lifeless for my tastes, but in a movie where so much of the cast is so laid back, it’s a lesser quibble.

Le Havre feels like it was shot in the early Sixties – not only the bright colors, but no one has a cell phone, few of these people even have cars, and their lives seem to be simpler and certainly more relaxed. I’m guessing this warm, enjoyable film wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea – you’d sort of have to at least be inclined to like the French, which many Americans aren’t –but I found it engaging and refreshing.

October 21, 2013

Killing Them Softly (2012)

I trust Brad Pitt as an actor not to lure me into any really crappy films. While some of his work is better than others (naturally), I feel he does consistent enough work that I can bank on him – he might not have the track records of a Damon or a Clooney, but he’s in a similar league from a dependability standpoint.

Pitt plays Jackie, a hitman who prefers to keep a distance from his targets. Jackie is called in by a front man (Richard Jenkins) for… the mob? It’s never really said… who is concerned because Markie’s (Ray Liotta) high stakes card game was knocked over. Problem is, this is the second time it’s happened, and the first time Markie orchestrated the hit himself. He doesn’t this time (we are shown the real story), but everyone figures Markie did it, so he has to be taken out. Jackie also has to track down who conducted the actual robbery and deal with them too.

The problem here is that it takes far longer than it should to get to that plot. We start out with the robbers and spend a lot of screen time establishing the thieves’ patois, then we follow them to the hit, and we seem to sort of run in circles for a bit before Pitt establishes himself and people start to die. And even then, there’s a lot of unnecessary dialogue scenes, as if some scriptwriter just fell in love with his word processor or wanted to prove he was the next Tarantino or both. There’s also a wholly unnecessary, completely time-wasting subplot with James Gandolfini as a New York assassin named Mickey called in to do one of the hits as the mark will recognize Jackie, but all Mickey wants to do is drink, whore, and bitch about his life, so all Gandolfini does is pad out the film’s run time (it’s only 97 minutes to begin with), and by his second or third appearance I was considering reaching for the remote to fast forward when I thought the guy just died, just watch his scenes, but there was no payoff at all, and even worse, Gandolfini seemed to be trying for some sort of SNL-inspired imitation of Robert DeNiro. With a film this shakily constructed, you don’t need an actor wandering off into potential spoof.

There’s also a troubling sense of timelessness; we seem to be in the present day (Jackie sports a relatively recent-looking cell phone), but all the cars and haircuts are from the 70s, and the mish-mash of accents makes it impossible to pin down place, either, either than somewhere in America where it gets cold. Most of the recent spate of really good crime movies (Gone Baby Gone, The Town, etc.) draw from their environs, and I think making the setting here so generic doesn’t help.

All that aside, Pitt gives a fairly good performance as a laid-back but nonetheless brutal hitman; the menacing here is very subtle, and we know before the marks do that they aren’t going to make it out of the scene alive. Everyone else other than Gandolfini is satisfactory, though Liotta is capable of better than this. Gandolfini, like I said, is way, way off.

For those who simply love crime dramas (or Brad Pitt), this is marginally worth watching. If neither one of those two factors are your strong suit, you could give this one a pass and not miss much. We’ve seen this type of thing done a fair amount recently, and usually better.

October 20, 2013