Countdown to Schmucks Galore (Weekly Links)

Serving champagne during coffee? Schmucks.

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Dinner for Schmucks. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Remake rumors have been attached to the 1998 comedy “Les diner des cons” (aka “The Dinner Game”) ever since the movie first came out. Natural enough: it was a huge hit in France, and writer-director Francis Veber’s films invariably get Hollywood remakes, albeit with varying results.

It took a while, but here’s “Dinner for Schmucks,” a movie that retains some of the central ideas from Veber’s original, but also invents a lot of new material (and substantially changes the overall feel).

The plot still revolves around a strange and cruel dinner ritual. An ambitious middle-management guy, Tim (Paul Rudd), has an opportunity to move up the greedy corporate ladder. The executives invite Tim to a cute little event they stage: each attendee must invite the biggest idiot they can find to an elegant meal. It will reflect very well on Tim’s chances at the firm if he can line up a complete dolt. Therefore, let us ponder the Olympian goofiness of Barry (Steve Carell), an overly enthusiastic taxidermist whose hobby is stuffing mice and arranging them in tiny little diorama displays.

Tim has found the perfect dinner date, but first the movie must get through an enormous amount of pre-dinner mayhem. While Tim loses his girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) and fends off a stalker (Lucy Punch), Barry drags in his IRS co-worker (“Hangover” star Zach Galifianakis, in an extended cameo).

There’s also a self-important artist who likes to photograph himself in antlers—a fine role for “Flight of the Conchords” comic Jemaine Clement, who is almost as funny here as he was in “Gentlemen Broncos.” His role in the film functions much like Russell Brand’s part in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”: he’s an egotistical foreigner who remains oddly likable.

Director Jay Roach, who did the “Austin Powers” pictures, sets the tone early, by using the Beatles’ “Fool on the Hill” over the opening credits. The good-natured melancholy of the song cues the film’s mood, which is oddly bittersweet for a slapstick comedy.

“Dinner for Schmucks” has a careful approach, as though it didn’t want to offend anybody, least of all the misfits invited to the dinner party. It must walk a delicate line: early on, we’re meant to chuckle at Barry’s weirdness, but later we’ll be rooting for him against the creepy corporate executives. There’s just one problem with this approach. Being delicate and careful isn’t always conducive to comedy.

It’ll be interesting to see if audiences accustomed to Apatow-like naturalism will respond to the kind of stylized old-school farce seen here. The French original wasn’t a masterpiece, so “Dinner for Schmucks” has some leeway—also enough belly laughs, largely due to the spirited efforts of good people such as Carell and Clement, to justify a peek.

South of the Border. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Oliver Stone obviously had a goal with his documentary “South of the Border”: to provide a counter-narrative to the way South American politics has been portrayed by the media north of the border.

On that score, he’s certainly succeeded—when Stone wants to spark something (whether on Vietnam, Wall Street, or the JFK assassination), he’s usually the guy at the party who gets things rolling. “South of the Border” has generated its share of controversy and criticism.

Much in the manner of a first-person Michael Moore documentary, “South of the Border” presents Oliver Stone himself at the center of the action. The Oscar-winning filmmaker visits a series of leaders (or dictators, depending on your point of view) and allows them to make their case on camera. Along with writers Tariq Ali and Mark Weisbrot, Stone has a big picture in mind: that the political changes in South America over the last decade represent a positive step away from dependence on the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund, a rejection of disastrous policies of the past.

To add entertainment value to his argument, Stone includes clips from hysterical Fox News broadcasts and other sources. In South America, he argues, private news organizations have been partly responsible for propping up corrupt dictators of the past.

Stone has said that this is not a documentary, and he’s right. A documentary investigates, where “South of the Border” looks like an attempt to prove Stone’s pre-existing thesis. That may be why, when he sits down for chummy talks with Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, Stone does not raise allegations of human-rights abuses during Chavez’s leadership; nor does he interview opposition leaders.

Instead, in traveling to Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, and other stops, Stone makes the case for a continent-wide movement of South Americans taking matters into their own hands—a David vs. Goliath story.

That this is an intriguing historical movement is undeniable. But I found myself wishing for an objective, unsentimental journalist to step in and lay out both sides of the issue. There’s something sneaky about holding up Fox News for easy ridicule while not presenting the full picture yourself.

As a presence, Stone comes across as too deferential to his subjects, even if his avowed purpose is to let them speak. A little skepticism could’ve worked wonders here.

Even though I think the film falls short, it does have interest. How many South American leaders can the average North American name? If Stone gets a conversation going, then he will have lived up to his usual role as provocateur without portfolio.

Countdown to Zero. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Hope you’re having a good summer. Sunshine, vacation, the pleasant feel of warm July evenings.

Oh, by the way, we’re all at greater risk of nuclear catastrophe now than we were during the Cold War. Have a great summer!

Here comes “Countdown to Zero,” a new documentary by Lucy Walker, to remind us of how precarious our existence is. You’d think that since the Soviet Union and the U.S. ended their policy of mutual assured destruction (and the Soviet Union ended its policy of being the Soviet Union), things might have calmed down a bit.

But Walker’s film makes an anxious case for diligence. Somewhat loosely (but cleverly) arranging her movie around a 1961 speech by President Kennedy, Walker takes Kennedy’s theory that a nuclear incident would likely come from “accident, miscalculation, or madness.”

The film looks at scenarios, real or possible, that could conform to one of those three instances. Some of the examples might be familiar, some might not. Taken in one sitting, they are alarming.

Some of the near-misses play like scenes from “WarGames” or “Dr. Strangelove.” Gulp, a plane carrying a bomb crashed over North Carolina? Gee, that doesn’t sound good.

Then there’s the moment in 1995—yes, 1995, not 1962—when the U.S. launched a rocket to study the aurora borealis in Norway. Funny thing is (oh, this’ll slay you), the message telling Russia about the project got mislaid. So once he was informed of the mysterious rocket, Russian president Boris Yeltsin had 60 seconds or so to decide to unleash a full-scale counterattack on the United States.

Yeltsin didn’t do it—although, according to protocol, he should have. His rational decision-making would never have passed muster with Dr. Strangelove.

The “madness” part of Kennedy’s proposal is easily filled out by 21st-century terrorist groups, who are, we are assured by the film’s many talking heads, trying hard to get their hands on nuclear material.

As a movie, “Countdown to Zero” is overbearing—its relationship to music is that of a salad that’s been drenched in Thousand Island dressing, and it has a tendency to hype every one of its already-potent points.

Still, those points get made. Looking back at Kennedy’s rules, the fact that we haven’t mistakenly blown ourselves up yet seems as much of an “accident” as otherwise. At the end, the movie offers its ideas for keeping things safer, but still—hang on to that rabbit’s foot.

Stonewall Uprising. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The gay-rights movement in America points to the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in 1969 as its galvanizing moment, a point of no return that made a civil-rights issue out of homosexuality.

But as the title of the documentary “Stonewall Uprising” deliberately suggests, maybe “riots” isn’t the right word. A riot is a crime; an uprising is a political movement.

“Stonewall Uprising” gives a chronology of the days of the Stonewall uprising, when the habitués of a gay bar finally decided to resist yet another raid from police (homosexuality was illegal in New York in 1969—as it was in 49 of the 50 states).

The film apologizes in advance for the fact that scant archival footage exists of the actual days of Stonewall protests and altercations. But in a way, this is an unneeded apology. The interviews with people at the scene—rioters, bystanders, and the leader of the police squad executing the raid—are quite vivid on their own terms. In fact, it would probably be riveting to give the account of the incident using only voices, without bothering to re-create footage.

The talkers are a fittingly varied bunch, of all sorts of temperaments. Aging, gray-haired baby boomers now, their recollections of those nights still have some force behind them. One man recalls that police back were driven back inside the Stonewall bar for their own safety, along with some arrested patrons and a couple of Village Voice reporters (the newspaper office was down the block). “I wanted to kill those cops,” he remembers, and the heat of the moment comes to life.

Directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have gathered the information, although their movie has a peculiar shape to it. The first half consists mostly of painting a portrait of just how much gays were ostracized, and worse, even in the supposedly freewheeling Sixties (clips from a notorious 1967 CBS special, hosted by Mike Wallace, give a dose of particularly noxious reality).

That’s fair; the uprising needs context. But then the Stonewall events are suddenly upon us, and so is a great deal of overbearing music, and somehow the whole thing seems lopsided and over-sold.

That noted, give the movie credit for getting a piece of American history down, complete with multiple first-person perspectives. Seeing history from 40 years’ perspective puts the riot—or uprising–in its rightful place.

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

What have the cats been doing since 2001’s “Cats & Dogs”? Plotting out new strategies for world domination? Creating a devious satellite device that could render dogs insane? Building cat robots?

All of the above, it turns out. All is revealed in “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” a rather belated sequel.

As in the first film, the action here is live, not animated, although various layers of computer animation are used to create the illusion of talking animals (and it looks as though most of the cats are computer-generated, the better to make fiendish facial expressions—although most real cats don’t have a problem with that anyway).

New to the scene is one Kitty Galore (voiced, robustly, by Bette Midler), whose plan to drive canines loco might just succeed. But dog agent Buck (Nick Nolte), teaming up with a new crime-fighting partner, Diggs (James Marsden), have got to try.

Since we live in a post-species society, the dogs are joined in their effort by an actual feline operative, Catherine (Christina Applegate), and a broken-winged pigeon named Seamus (the inappropriately named comedian Katt Williams). You’ve also got the villain from the first movie, Mr. Tinkles (Sean Hayes), in a cameo appearance—an extended riff on “Silence of the Lambs,” which will probably fly over the heads of younger viewers. At least I hope it will.

All of this plays out pretty much as you’d expect a movie about talking animals to play out: some funny gags, lots of kiddie slapstick, and almost enough good cheer to pad the thing out to 90 minutes. Not quite, but almost.

The film does score extra points for its faux-James Bond opening credits, complete with “Get the Party Started” as performed by Shirley Bassey, the original “Goldfinger” singer herself. And Roger Moore turns up as the voice of a particularly lofty spy-cat.

There’s also 3-D, although this appears to be an afterthought (and has virtually no effect on the moviegoing experience). The 3-D does come into play in a new Warner Bros. cartoon featuring the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, a neat little number in which the ever-hopeful coyote puts his faith in yet another product from the Acme Company: a bungee cord.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Before we get into the reasons the Japanese have a national love affair with bugs, let us first note: did you know the Japanese have a national love affair with bugs?

I did not, which is one reason the documentary “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo” serves a valuable function. This film by Jessica Oreck (who apparently works at the Natural History Museum in New York, which makes sense in this context) turns a light on a nation and its obsession.

The trapping, selling, and buying of insects is a big business in Japan. We witness beetle-hunters in forests, kicking trees so that bugs come tumbling down from branches. Kids in pet stores gaze at the hard-shelled creatures in rows of plastic boxes and count the change in their pockets, hoping to have enough to purchase a beetle king.

We hear from people in various levels of the insect economy, from an academic who muses on the tender relationship between his country and insects to a trapper whose business has bought him a Ferrari.

Oreck does not present any of this in PBS fashion. Instead, she aims for an impressionistic, non-narrative tone—thus she shows scenes of insect mania, interrupted by zen-like visual montages of nature scenes or cityscapes.

There’s also a weirdly cheerful narrator chirping along, sharing information about haiku and art and philosophy. As far as I could tell, this narration has almost a musical function, because it isn’t actually all that informative about what we’re seeing on screen.

I think Oreck is suggesting some of the contradictions of the culture: on the one hand, the Japanese obsession with insects might come from the delicate aesthetic sense that forms other kinds of Japanese art. Yet there is a strong consumerist undercurrent to the economic model on display, right down to the kids throwing their bugs together to fight each other.

And we are left to solve for ourselves the irony of exalting the beauty of insects while also killing them in order to artistically arrange them on a panel, as the people who mount butterflies so methodically do.

So if you want an explanation of why this phenomenon happens, you might have to look elsewhere. But for a poetic look at the subject, full of rapturous shots of fireflies bobbing at night and caterpillars emerging from their larval stage, this is it.

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the filmmakers (and TV-makers) whose work reflects our times in the way Frank Capra’s movies caught the 1930s: here. The movie bit begins about 11 minutes in.

Movie Diary 7/28/2010

Dinner for Schmucks (Jay Roach, 2010). Nobody says the word “schmuck” in the course of the movie. But somebody thought it was better than “idiot” or “moron” for the title? So it’s the theory of the hard “k” sound in comedy? Another thing: I wonder why so few films seem to be catching the mood of public outrage in the wake of Wall Street buccaneers and BP bespoilers; this movie has some corporate jerks just ripe for eviscerating, perfect opportunity for something like that, but nobody really closes the deal. Let it rip, for god’s sakes. We would all like that. Another thing: Carell and Rudd do their stuff, and Galifianakis is an extended cameo, but there is a nice big role here for Jemaine Clement – who is splendid, even if his turn in Gentlemen Broncos remains hard to beat. (full review 7/30)

Movie Diary 7/27/2010

Middle of the Night (Delbert Mann, 1959) and Jeanne Eagels (George Sidney, 1957). Two with Kim Novak, from the new box set. The Mann film is a very Paddy Chayefsky proposition, and pretty effective for that; the Sidney film is a misfire, but with a handful of wild shots and a thoroughly unsympathetic main character – Novak’s overreaching shows the limits of her talent.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010). Please, Edgar Wright, make more movies. And we should be sick of Michael Cera doing this kind of thing, but not yet – not with this hoot. (full review 8/13)

Middle Men (George Gallo, 2010). Luke Wilson and a broken-down cast in the story of guys who got rich with Internet porn. And yet still using Rolling Stones songs on the soundtrack. (full review 8/6)

Animal Kingdom (David Michod, 2009). Tough Aussie stuff, almost a variation on A Prophet, if not at that level; some fearsome work by Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton & co. (full review 9/3)

Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (Brad Peyton, 2010). Talkin’ animals, people. And a 007-style credits sequence. (full review 7/30)

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sidney Lanfield, 1939). Wanted to check the seance sequence in this one. Yup, there’s one. (Working on an upcoming lecture.)

Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002). Again, working on a lecture – different one. A neatly managed job of work, and Nolan really gets excited when Al Pacino’s cop goes at it with Robin Williams’s suspect; the shades of Batman/Joker are already lurking there.

Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (Jessica Oreck, 2009). Japanese people love insects – like, keep them as pets. This movie tells the story, and tries to create a little zen mood besides. (full review 7/30)

The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915). This makes two versions of The Cheat seen in the same year; this one’s got some strong set-ups and evocative lighting (great use of an Oriental screen), plus something like a middlebrow’s idea of a sophisticate’s idea of kink.

1968 Ten Best Movies

Although 2001: A Space Odyssey is regularly included in that group of films that should be seen in pristine giant-screen glory, it can spellbind in a so-so 16 mm. print (not that anybody would see it that way now) or on TV. But still, try to see it on a large screen. Not only is the immersive experience important, but 2001 is a movie that shouldn’t be paused, or watched in pieces – even if it does contain a built-in intermission (one of the zingiest “to be continued” moments in movie history).

Mad magazine offered a genius-level parody of this movie back in 1968, but people seem to overlook the humor already in the film (the IMDb FAQ page sternly notes that the Zero Gravity Toilet is the movie’s “only intentional joke”). Actually, like so much of The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut, there is something subversively hilarious running beneath many scenes in 2001, and everything with Dr. Heywood Floyd has a weird Strangelovian mirth at the corners. “I’m sure it beefed up morale a helluva lot.” Now that’s funny.

Yeah, so it’s the best movie of 1968. Sergio Leone also creates a great adventure in space (the other kind of space), and Petulia is Richard Lester’s precise survey of people swimming across the Sixties. But Stanley Kubrick has always laid claim to this year. Best movies of 1968:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

2. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

3. Petulia (Richard Lester)

4. Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut)

5. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)

6. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)

7. Les Biches (Claude Chabrol)

8. Faces (John Cassavetes)

9. If… (Lindsay Anderson)

10. Play Dirty (André De Toth)

Not really a Cassavetes guy, but Faces is an achievement that can’t be denied. You might not know Play Dirty, but it’s a real sleeper; as somebody says in this Amazon.com editorial review, it’s a post-Dirty Dozen war movie with an even more nihilistic edge – a perfect product of ’68. Next up: Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi is a bureacratic comedy of Shakespearian proportions, the drive-in double bill of Targets (Peter Bogdanovich) and Witchfinder-General (aka The Conqueror Worm, Michael Reeves) is terrific, and two Andy Warhol offerings are significant moments in that career: Flesh (Paul Morrissey) and Lonesome Cowboys (Warhol, I guess).

In very different realms, Don Siegel’s Madigan goes about its cop work despite what looks like a low budget, and Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes is what it is in variously fun ways. Further afield, Herzog’s Signs of Life, Oshima’s Death by Hanging, and the two Bergman pictures Hour of the Wolf and Shame (not my faves from Ingmar) contributed a bleak view of the moment.

I like The Bride Wore Black; whenever Truffaut lost his audience, there was something interesting going on. The Producers gave us “Springtime for Hitler,” for which we can only be grateful, Mel Brooks. A doppelganger pair of serial-killer pictures have been linked in my mind since I saw them around the same time in adolescence: The Boston Strangler, a sober true-crime number by the underrated Richard Fleischer, and No Way to Treat a Lady, a truly offbeat black comedy, directed by the hard-working mostly-TV director Jack Smight. And 1968 also brought Yellow Submarine, which was the only one of these movies (other than Planet of the Apes, of course!) I actually saw in 1968.

Eccentricities of Wild Salt (Weekly Links)

Eccentricities of a Blond-Hair Spy

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Eccentricities of a Blond-Hair Girl (and Cropsey). “Utterly assured, soberly whimsical.”

Salt. “Angelina Jolie seems so unreal anyway, we can accept her in this indestructible role.”

Wild Grass. “An aura of frizzy blood-red hair.”

Agora. “Does not bode well for the rationalists.”

Ramona and Beezus. “Would not be entirely out of place in an episode of ‘Leave It to Beaver.'”

And on KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about how what we know of actors’ (and directors’) offscreen lives affects our ability to watch their movies; listen here. The film bit kicks in at the 15-minute mark.

And new issues of Rotten (and the trade paperback of the first six issues) are about to hit the streets. The new stuff just got a rave from the Ain’t It Cool News crew, here.

Movie Diary 7/21/2010

Salt (Philip Noyce, 2010). Angelina Jolie beating blond chase ledge freeway trucks bomb chase brunette Russians guns punch shoot chase tanker grenades nukes spidervenom chase helicopter Potomac snow Angelina Jolie. (full review 7/23)

Eccentricities of a Blond-Hair Girl (Manoel de Oliveira, 2009). The director’s 101 years old, I think he can get away with making a 60-minute film. And this one is definitive from the first moment to the last, a very droll little offering that nods more than once in the direction of Luis Buñuel. (full review 7/23)

Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958). Aside from its general appeal, this has tasty design artifacts from the late Eisenhower era, plus Kim Novak winning the day by underplaying next to the fairly broad clowning by James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Elsa Lanchester, and Ernie Kovacs. It’s about witches.

Movie Diary 7/19/2010

Wild Grass (Alain Resnais, 2010). It might not be the best movie Alain Resnais has created in 50+ years of making movies, but it’s a tonic anyway. Stubbornly irrational, right to the ending, or the “endings.” (full review 7/23)

The Call of the Wild (William Wellman, 1935). Not the brightest moment for anybody involved, although some of the location shooting around Mt. Baker in the North Cascades is great. Possibly most famous for Loretta Young becoming pregnant with Clark Gable’s child while on snowbound location.

Never Cry Wolf (Carroll Ballard, 1983). Seen again at a distance, a very late-Sixties, early-Seventies sort of film, not least for its appreciation of a singular actor, Charles Martin Smith. I’m working on an Alaska project here, all right?

Ramona and Beezus (Elizabeth Allen, 2010). In which Ramona comes to find a personal relationship with Beezus. Decent grown-ups on the scene: Bridget Moynahan, John Corbett, Josh Duhamel, Ginnifer Godwin. (full review 7/23)

Cropsey (Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman, 2009). Docu-creepfest about a child-killer in Staten Island, capturing some of the chill of forested areas and abandoned buildings (and the network of tunnels that run beneath the old insane asylum – oh great). (full review, or partial review, 7/23)

1945 Ten Best Movies

Les Enfants du Paradis is one of the great large movie-watching experiences – a spectacle of life and art and the mixing of the two. It sounds old-fashioned, and it is, a  classically-made film (albeit one created under hectic circumstances by director Marcel Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert during the Nazi occupation) that engages the big issues and makes the audience feel like children of paradise. That kind of ambition seems to have become unfashionable now; so many of the really talented people have gone for genre, while the middlebrows plug away at heaviosity.

Children of Paradise is less frequently mentioned as an acclaimed masterpiece these days than it was in the heyday of the movie repertory theater; maybe it really does need an actual collective audience to truly thrive. (Now that we’re mostly out of that era – unless you live in New York or Paris – it is sad that people will lose the experience of meeting a classic in a particular theater, which theater then becomes associated with the viewing: as the sizable, balcony-bearing Neptune Theatre in Seattle’s University District is for my first encounter with Children of Paradise.)

John Ford’s They Were Expendable should be more widely acclaimed. Supposedly it sounded too somber a note to be a hit when it came out near the end of World War II, but this beautiful film about the U.S. defeat in the Philippines is one of the greatest of all war films.

The war affects some of the other best movies of the year, and film noir has a strong showing. Two gorgeous U.K. love stories are here, but as impeccable as Brief Encounter is, I Know Where I’m Going! is the one that really expands your world. The ten best movies of 1945:

1. The Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné)

2. They Were Expendable (John Ford)

3. I Know Where I’m Going! (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)

4. Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang)

5. Open City (Roberto Rossellini)

6. Detour (Edgar J. Ulmer)

7. Brief Encounter (David Lean)

8. The Clock (Vincente Minnelli)

9. Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz)

10. Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)

Scarlet Street and Mildred Pierce are perfectly honed distillations of noir, while Detour (which shares some Germanic tendencies with Lang’s film) carries more of a sense of being created on the fly. In Europe, Rossellini was founding the world of neo-realism and Bresson was discovering a unique approach (after Les Dames he went to non-actors filling out most of his casts).

Other top-notch noir: My Name is Julia Ross (Joseph H. Lewis), Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger), The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak), and, in some ways, Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend (which, with The Shining, is one of the handful of great horror films about writer’s block). Speaking of horror, two eerie titles from the Val Lewton production unit, Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson) and The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise) doing nice things on small budgets.

Another Lean-Noel Coward picture, Blithe Spirit, also ranges across the ghostly, but in a different key; The Southerner is a worthy title from Jean Renoir’s Hollywood stay; and Hangover Square (John Brahm) gives a juicy starring role to Laird Cregar, that bulky menace, who died at 31 shortly after making the picture. And: the final scene of Road to Utopia (David Butler) is one of the funnier punchlines of the era.

The Kids Are All Inception (Weekly Links)

Dude could use some sleep: DiCaprio in Inception

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Inception. “Engrossing and gimmicky.”

The Kids Are All Right. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

There are kids in “The Kids Are All Right,” a movie title cribbed (with spelling corrected) from a classic Who song. But you get the feeling the title refers to everybody in the film, not just the teenagers.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko’s warm and funny movie (co-written with Stuart Blumberg) exudes empathy for all concerned—everybody here is bumbling through life, sometimes rising to the occasion, sometimes doing the wrong thing.

The teenagers are Joni (Mia Wasikowska, “Alice in Wonderland” herself) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson); they have two mothers, longtime partners Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore). Joni and Laser have gotten curious about the sperm donor whose biological imprinting they carry, the unknown, nameless person who allowed their mothers to get pregnant all those years ago.

And when that guy, Paul (Mark Ruffalo), a bohemian restaurateur, enters this family’s world, things get a little weird. And we have the excuse to examine a batch of well-drawn characters in detail.

If your interest lies in politically-correct characters who fit into cardboard-cutout shapes demonstrating how people should behave, well, Cholodenko has failed you completely, and you should probably see a different movie. This filmmaker, who made “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” has no interest in fulfilling expectations of how characters ought to act.

But what wonderfully rich and well-spoken characters these are. Although Annette Bening has perhaps played too many sourpusses lately, Nic is a very specific, control-oriented physician, the person in the household who’s gotten used to making everything run on time. And she needs to, given Jules and her uncertain, post-hippie dithering. Julianne Moore is terrific at making Jules equal parts exasperating and fun—and when she makes a particularly huge misstep midway through the film, she makes you believe it comes from an all-too-human choice, not a screenwriter’s need to add spice to the story.

As for Mark Ruffalo (late of “Shutter Island”), I can only say that his performance is one of the most completely lived-in examples of the species Man-childus americanus I have ever seen in a movie. Sleeping with his employees and riding his motorcycle, he’s nobody’s idea of a role model, yet Ruffalo inhabits this dude with such hang-loose good cheer that you easily understand why people are drawn to him.

Ten years ago a movie like this probably would have taken the form of an “issue film,” a study of gay parenting or something. But “The Kids Are All Right” takes gay parenting as a given, with some particular challenges but basically the same as any other kind of flawed, well-meaning, happy/sad kind of parenting. Not worse or better, but all right.

Restrepo. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

One of the soldiers included in the war documentary “Restrepo” says, months after the combat action in the film has ended, that he prefers not to sleep, if possible. If he’s not asleep, then he can’t have dreams.

The audience for this raw movie might feel the same way. Shot over the course of a year by experienced journalists (first-time filmmakers) Sebastian Junger and Tim Hethertington, “Restrepo” attempts an entirely neutral, fly-on-the-wall approach to depicting a pocket of the war in Afghanistan.

The place is the Korengal (also spelled Korangal) Valley, a mountainous region not far from the Pakistan border, which doesn’t look like the customary desert scrub of much war reportage. According to the film, it is one of the most dangerous postings in the war. Junger and Hetherington took their video cameras and made five visits (each a month long) to the site between May 2007 to June 2008, the length of battle duty for the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Korengal.

There is no narration for the film, although the soldiers are occasionally seen in their post-duty interviews, recalling the hardship and tedium and camaraderie that made up their stint.

The film itself is somewhat repetitive at first—perhaps intentionally?—as we see the rituals of life. Skirmishes come and go, without apparent strategic gains or losses (though lives are lost—the company names its new outpost Restrepo for a well-liked soldier killed early in the deployment), and negotiations are made with local authorities.

A farmer’s dead cow becomes an issue, and the lack of satisfactory conclusion to the incident is a parable of short-sightedness—one of those tiny, unimportant things that seem to represent larger strategic problems. One central battle is described by the soldiers without footage, although we then witness the traumatic aftermath. These scenes—of sudden death, the realization of it, and the nakedly emotional responses of men in the moment—are images not commonly witnessed on movie screens.

The pep talk that follows, where the platoon’s captain urges his guys to use their anger over their losses to go out and kill more of the enemy, is presented without editorial emphasis. To some it might be as inspirational as countless such scenes have been in fictional war movies. To others it might be a hollow call to continue expensively rolling a stone up a hill even if the stone will roll right back down to the bottom again.

Either way, see the movie. It will bring home the realities for (and the toll on) the very human people sitting in war zones right now.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. “Cheerfully familiar.”

Perrier’s Bounty. (Dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

The jokery contained in “Perrier’s Bounty” is rarely slowed by flying bullets or the spilling of blood—just one of the many problems with this derivative Irish action-comedy.

It’s the old story of a regular bloke, Michael (played by Cillian Murphy), who needs to pay back a large amount of cash in a short amount of time. How many movies have used that plot for suspense?

If a reason is given for Michael’s loan, I missed it; it’s just a given, as is the idea that Michael seems like a nice enough guy except for his vague brushing-up against the Dublin underworld. We certainly don’t know anything else about him.

The big boss is Perrier (Brendan Gleeson), but most of the time Michael is being chased by one henchmen or another. Along with this basic chase structure, Mark O’Rowe’s script invents three peculiar complications.

First, Michael’s father (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent) shows up, broke but otherwise seeking to bond with his son. Frazzled and strung-out, he’s refusing to sleep because he’s convinced the Angel of Death will take him as soon as he slumbers.

Then Michael gets mixed up in a kooky blackmail scheme plotted by a gangster (Liam Cunningham, “Clash of the Titans”), which really could get him the money he needs to pay off his debt.

Finally, Michael’s downstairs neighbor gets directly involved in shooting one of his pursuers—the one moment in the film that carries a bit of a jolt. She’s played by Jodie Whittaker, who starred opposite Peter O’Toole in “Venus” and has an offbeat delivery.

Cillian Murphy, also on view this week in a very different role in “Inception,” does his best with a part that almost doesn’t exist except to give the story a central character. Demerits, however, for his very weak beard.

With brash, tough actors such as Gleeson, Broadbent and Cunningham around, this movie ought to offer some oomph. Gleeson, that burly, ginger-haired marvel, brings echoes of “In Bruges,” another violent-funny-profane Irish picture.

Alas, the comparison is devastating. If you haven’t seen “In Bruges,” go rent it. “Perrier’s Bounty” gathers some pleasant-enough actors together, but beyond that its sarcasm seems rather hollow.

Killing Kazstner. “We hear it from the man who assassinated him.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about Restrepo and war movies, hear from some vets calling in, and think about the battle scene in Forrest Gump in a new way: here. The movie bit kicks in around 14 minutes in.

Movie Diary 7/13/2010

Perrier’s Bounty (Ian Fitzgibbon, 2009). Irish gangsters, Brendan Gleeson, Cillian Murphy (some men should not grow beards), Jim Broadbent, Jodie Whittaker (from the Peter O’Toole Venus) – in short, much promise. But another In Bruges it ain’t. (full review 7/16)

Killing Kazstner (Gaylen Ross, 2008). I’m not sure if this is the only Holocaust documentary directed by a cast member of the original Dawn of the Dead, but it’s certainly the best. What a story: the tale of a man who is not only not honored in Israel despite being responsible for saving hundreds of Jewish lives, but who was actually assassinated for his perceived treachery. It’s complicated, but worth sifting through. (full review 7/16).