Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

MOVIE: Maggie (2015)

May 25, 2015

maggieOne of the reasons I like zombie movies as much as I do is because I also really, really like movies about pandemics, and a lot of zombie films are essentially movies about fast-spreading viruses chewing up the globe. I like pandemic movies both because they are scary in an authentic, contemporary way, and also because they are not.

That is, of all the things I worry about in life, and I worry about a lot of things (stop nodding so emphatically, you guys), pandemics are not high on my list — not because I don’t think they’re a legitimate thing to be afraid of, but because I don’t see a lot of point to freaking out over things about which I can do very little.  Aside from kicking up the hand sanitizer use and trying to avoid crowds, when a pandemic comes to town, I’m not going to be able to do much to avoid it, so why waste energy on being chronically afraid? And so, as with horror movies about monsters I don’t really believe in, not to mention freak weather patterns involving sharks and ‘nadoes, I find stories about global epidemics terrifying in an extremely safe sort of way.

Zombie movies typically take the pandemic thing to a whole new level, starting with a massive kicking-up of the timeline of the spread of the disease. In most of the zombie-virus stories I’ve seen, the disease launches and the world is quickly overrun in a matter of days (roughly 28, if Cillian Murphy is to be believed).  While I enjoy that scenario, and have enjoyed many a zombie movie that uses it, I feel like I’ve seen it so many times now, its capacity to engage me on any sort of deeper level has waned.

This is a long-winded way of explaining to you why I was intrigued enough by the description of this movie, which takes the usual zombiebola story in a different direction, to be willing to sit down for two hours to watch a zombie flick starring Arnold Schwarzehoweveryouspellit — something I would’ve been extremely unlikely to do had it just been another World War Z- or Walking Dead-type yarn.

In Maggie, the zombie virus has spread worldwide as usual, but its incubation period has been greatly slowed down, dramatically changing the character of the pandemic.  Instead of infected people turning into the undead in hours or days, people infected with the virus have about 6-8 weeks before their hankering for human flesh becomes a serious problem.  That’s given doctors and governments a vastly expanded ability to control the spread of the disease.  Sick people are typically rounded up and quarantined before they have a chance to infect others (timely parallel to ebola here, by the way), making the virus a lot more containable.

The title character, Maggie (Breslin), is a teenage girl who had left home for the big city only to be bitten by a rogue zombie one dark night in an alley (lesson to all teenage girls: avoid big city alleys after dark, regardless of rampant viral infections). She ends up in the hospital, where a doctor calls her father (Arnold Schwarzewazzup).  Ordinarily, someone with a confirmed bite is immediately sent to quarantine, but Dad has some connections in the medical world, and he calls in all his favors so he can take Maggie home until she “turns.”

What follows is a fairly thoughtful story about a dying girl home with her family with only weeks to live and a fairly horrible future to contemplate.  Just as wrenching as her side of the tale is that of her father, who not only has to watch his daughter die, but will also likely be responsible for taking care of business, so to speak, at the end.  The family doctor gives him a syringe of the drug cocktail used to euthanize the sick in quarantine (a place of expanding, terrifying lore, also in timely parallel to ebola) but tells him the drugs result in a slow, excruciatingly painful death and not-so-subtly suggests that the compassionate thing for a father to do in that moment is to shoot his little girl in the head.

It might be hard to take that quandary seriously when the disease involves turning into a zombie, but if you look at it as a metaphor for something else — say, terminal cancer — you can see a new relevance, and a new layer, to the story being told here. That’s true not just in terms of the anguished family members watching their loved ones suffer, but also for the policies surrounding medical procedures for the terminally ill, where we still typically rely on painful interventions to the bitter end instead of what some might describe as a more humane approach.

As Maggie begins her slow descent to undeath, complete with the terror of seeing her own body parts begin to rot and a sudden, startling, and confusing urge to eat her stepmother, the agony for all involved becomes difficult to watch. Schwarzenegger (I looked it up) is surprisingly effective in this for a guy I don’t typically associate with evocative emotional storytelling, though this movie would’ve been much stronger with somebody else in that role (mostly because I found his surprising effectiveness somewhat distracting, which isn’t fair, I’ll grant you, but it’s still true).  It also could’ve used a little more time in the rewrite room, because there are several moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite work, as well as more than a few scenes I felt were more than a little clumsy.

Still, overall, I enjoyed this film and appreciated very much its approach to the genre.  I’m always a little disappointed when a movie trying to do something a bit unique doesn’t quite nail it, but the attempt was certainly admirable, relevant, and heartfelt.  Definitely recommended, especially to fans of the BBC series In the Flesh, which this movie reminded me of more than once.

[Rent at Amazon | View trailer]

Genre: Zombies, Drama
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson, Mattie Liptak

MOVIE: Nightcrawler (2014)

February 26, 2015

nightcralwerLos Angeles denizen Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a petty thief with a nasty streak looking for his next big score. One night while out punching people and taking their watches, he comes across the scene of an accident, and is fascinated to see a group of freelance “newsmen” there with cameras, filming the carnage.  After a brief conversation with one of them (Bill Paxton), Lou learns just how lucrative the gig can be and quickly arms himself with a camcorder and police scanner.

Almost immediately, he manages to score some footage he’s able to sell to a blood-and-gore-thirsty news director, Nina (Rene Russo), desperate to raise her station’s ratings before she gets fired. She’s impressed enough to hand him a check for a couple of hundred bucks and thus a new career for Louis is born.

As it turns out, his life of not giving a crap about anybody else around him turns out to be a handy asset in his new biz, called “nightcrawling” because, it appears, everyone who does it is a big slithery worm only coming out after dark.  Methodical to the extreme, and a lover of self-help books and TED talk equivalents, Lou soon develops a complex business plan, which he begins to share in motivational poster-style quotables with his new “intern,” the hopeless Rick (Riz Ahmed), a homeless kid desperate and dumb enough to be willing to do just about anything for $30 a night.

Then one night, Lou crosses the line — he moves a body to get a better angle on the shot.  It ends up being so effective, he can’t resist going to greater and greater lengths to catch the perfect grisly footage, finally even breaking into a murder scene right after the killers leave and just before the cops arrive in order to get close-ups on the carnage. Meanwhile, Rick is growing first a set of balls and then a niggling sense of moral unease, just as Nina is starting to make the horrified realization she has joined forces with an absolute sociopath — one who is so outrageously good at what he does she doesn’t dare defy him lest he take his footage and its sky-high ratings somewhere else. Oh, moral complexity: why you gotta be so morally complex?

This was a pretty entertaining, well-crafted film, though it’s not one I’m likely to watch ever again.  Of the players involved, Riz Ahmed is by far the most interesting, both as an actor and in terms of his character in the story.   I have no idea if “nightcrawling” is an actual “thing” in TV news, especially since I thought the FCC had some pretty strict rules about showing real-life shotgun wounds in HD at 6pm. Then again, they don’t say “If it bleeds, it leads” for nuthin’, after all.  Still, I’m not entirely sure what the point of the film was, really, since the idea that American TV news watchers are all sickos who love seeing the suffering of others in technicolor is hardly revelatory.  Plus, there’s always something vaguely dissatisfying (for me, anyway) about a movie in which the yucky people win.

Nevertheless, this one is definitely worth a rental if you like crime thrillers — both my husband and I enjoyed it for what it was.  Solid entertainment on a Saturday night; you could do a lot worse for $3.99.

[Netflix it | Buy/Rent at Amazon]

Genre: Drama, Thriller
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed

MOVIE: World’s Greatest Dad (2009)

January 29, 2015

worldsRecently, I saw — and loved — the horror movie Willow Creek, written and directed by, of all people, goofy 80s comedian Bobcat Goldthwait. I’ve always been a Bobcat fan, but it honestly had never once occurred to me that he might be such a brilliant, not to mention deeply thoughtful, filmmaker.  Seeing that film really surprised and intrigued me, and I’ve been working my way back through his (short) writer/director catalog ever since.

This film, made in 2009 and also written and directed by Bobkitty, was, to be honest, a bit difficult to watch so soon after the loss of its star, the great Robin Williams.  It’s a film about death, you see.  A film about suicide, even (sort of).  Even harder, it’s a film about feeling negligible, a particularly poignant sensation for me, as well as the crazy-making impact of being a negligible person suddenly found necessary (knowing all along that it is a find both illegitimate and temporary).  Push your way through those emotional challenges, though, and you will be rewarded with a truly poignant dark comedy pumped up with so much effusive, legitimate heart it’s practically beating while it rolls.

Williams plays Lance, a high school English teacher, failed writer, and single father to a single teenage son, Kyle.  Kyle is essentially an outrageous asshole, and not just because he’s 17. You’ll try — you’ll try to write it off as a boy simply being 17 — but Kyle will not let you. He’s selfish, he’s judgmental, he’s snide, and frankly, he’s downright mean. Even worse, especially for his father, he’s also not all that smart.

Lance, on the other hand, is one of those people who feels things a little too much, painfully skulking away in a shy, dark corner way over on the opposite side of the empathy spectrum from his son.

When Lance gets home one night to find Kyle dead in his room from auto-erotic asphyxiation gone bad, his first thought is. . . well, his first thought is gut-wrenching grief. But his second thought is to protect his son from what he feels is a shameful, undignified death. The idea of his boy becoming even more of an outcast, a mockery, is so painful a notion he cannot bear it. So, he strings Kyle up from a pull-up bar in the closet (you see, then, why this was hard to watch in light of what happened to Williams) and fakes a poignant suicide note on his computer.

Though devastated by the loss of his son, the instant attention and affection Lance gets in the wake of his loss,  from the very people who used to make him feel so terribly, agonizingly invisible for so long, is utterly addictive. And while at first it’s easy enough to ride along, when Kyle’s “suicide note” is leaked to the school paper, things kaboom out of control.  Thus ensues a dark, satirical look at the way we humans so, so love revisionist history (as long as it’s revised in our favor, of course), as students and teachers galore begin claiming close, personal connections to the lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood Kyle. Latching onto Kyle suddenly makes them all feel less invisible too, of course, as they seek each other out for memorials, cry-fests, memorabilia swaps, and deep conversations with the poor dead boy’s lovely, brilliant, and misunderstood father. The world’s greatest dad.

Caught in the undertow of his own wave, Lance is astonished by the power his faked note has on the people around him, and can’t resist digging himself ever-deeper, next writing and releasing Kyle’s “journal.”  It’s the first time in his life his writing has ever gotten anyone’s attention, and that attention, to this poor ol’ underachieving big-heart, is painfully, agonizingly consuming — and, ultimately, painfully, agonizingly consumptive.

This is an incredibly smart, sharp, clever, witty, beautiful film.  It’s also a powerful reminder of the broad-achieving talent of Robin Williams, and his ability to play a wide range of moving characters, both inside and outside of comedy. (Extra irony here too, of course, because of the intense outpouring of love and support for Williams after his own death by many whom, I would imagine, actually barely knew and hardly liked his work. In my own defense, I was a completely unapologetic fan of Patch Adams, even, and so my aim here is true.)

Anyway. Dudes. Highly recommended, and DO NOT MISS.

[Netflix it (streaming) | Amazon Prime streaming (or DVD)]

Genre: Comedy, Drama
Cast: Robin Williams, Daryl Sabara, Morgan Murphy, Naomi Glick, Henry Simmons.

MOVIE: The Babadook (2014)

January 6, 2015

The-Babadook-PosterGuys, I totally did it again. I DO NOT LEARN!  You know the thing where a horror movie gets great critical reviews and I get all excited and can’t wait to see it and then I finally sit down for it and by that time my expectations are the size of China, and then, wah wah wah, it sucks?  Yep. That happened.   Well, “sucks” is a little too strong here.  But definitely a major disappointment.

I’d actually been wanting to see this film, an Australian independent, since last spring, when I bought a ticket for it at the Seattle International Film Festival and then failed to make it to the showing.  Oops!  After that, I forgot all about it until it opened last month in limited release and I started to see raves galore about it all over the Internet.

What I kept reading was that it was a smart, unique, and truly terrifying horror movie.  So, I was expecting some clever, satisfying scares.  As it turns out, though, The Babadook isn’t a horror movie at all.  If I had to sum it up in a phrase, that phrase would be “cautionary tale about the perils of single parenting.” In other words, it’s only “scary” if the thing you fear most is exhausted, angry moms yelling at tantrum-throwing kids.  And if that’s the case, you probably get enough shivers in your week simply by shopping at Costco; you don’t need a movie for more.

The Babadook is about a middle-aged mom named Amelia whose husband was killed in a car accident while he was driving her to the hospital to give birth to their first child, a boy named Samuel. Cut to about six or so years later, and Samuel has grown up to be a challenging child, to say the least. And understandably so: the story of his father’s death has clearly unsettled him since he was old enough to understand it, as has the emotional lability of his mother.

In response, Samuel has become obsessed not just with the usual monsters of childhood, but more specifically with protecting his mother from those monsters (because she is in what seems to him to be constant peril) — to the point where he has begun to devise elaborate weapons to combat them, which he frequently smuggles into school.

Finally, his school’s administration has had enough and they expel him, sending Amelia into a rapid downward spiral.  Right about that same time, a mysterious children’s book about a top-hat-wearing, black-clad monster called Mister Babadook appears in their house.  When Samuel asks Mom to read it, she begins, only to find it horrifically violent and terrifically creepy just a few pages in — the story of a monster that, as soon as you learn of it, will appear in physical form and torment you until the end of time.  Before she’s even a third of the way through, Samuel has a terror-fueled panic attack, screaming inconsolably in fear.  She slams it shut and later burns it in the backyard, hoping that’ll be the end of it.

But then the book reappears, and shortly after that, the Babadook himself shows up — just like he said he would.  Or does he?  Remember how I said in my recent review of Willow Creek that it’s important for monster movies to offer a plausible alternative narrative, one that doesn’t involve monsters?  That makes a monster movie all the more terrifying, because it allows you to maintain your logical disbelief in Sasquatch while still relating completely to the fear expressed by the characters.  You aren’t sure what’s going on, really, or what to believe anymore, and that mistrust of everything inside and out is what can make for a pretty satisfying chill.

This movie does a great job of presenting that alternative narrative — is it the story of an actual monster or the story of an exhausted, grief-stricken mother’s rapidly dwindling sanity (and/or the dwindling sanity of her son; hard to tell who was the driver, there).

The problem was, I felt like it ended up going too far in that alternative direction — there wasn’t a single, even-fleeting moment in which I wondered if the Babadook might be real, better judgment or not. And that lack of doubt essentially stripped away any potential for this film to be truly scary.  For me, anyway. It made it flop lifelessly to the ground, when, really, there was a lot of potential in this story for flight.

The acting, for example, especially of the little boy, is incredibly powerful and good.  Essie Davis, the mom, is also at her best here, though in a few places she kind of overdid the hysterics for me. Despite the lack of scares, though, this should’ve, at the very least, been a very moving drama about a struggling single mother who had experienced a traumatic loss — only, it wasn’t. I knew I was supposed to align with her, worry about her, and care about what she was going through. But, instead, I grew impatient with her quickly, largely because she was so viciously and ineptly harming her child, who had suffered just as much, and possibly even more (since he clearly felt the death of his father was his fault for being born).  If this had been a film more focused on their relationship, minus the excess monster gimmickry, it could’ve been so much more powerful. The monster element should’ve been a tool, not a major story line. Instead that shared, and thus blurred, focus made the film seem very muddled in genre very quickly, unsure what it was actually trying to accomplish and, in so doing, accomplishing very little at all.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terrible movie — not at all. It’s intelligent, beautifully made (the visuals are wonderful, especially the book itself), and well-acted, etc. But it’s also not all that special, making the critical raves particularly puzzling. There’s nothing terribly unique about this story — the crazy-parent/crazy-child emotional conflict felt so tired to me, and even the Babadook himself looked strangely familiar (though I can’t place this image I have in my head, which is driving me nuts; I’ll keep looking).

In any case, if what you’re really looking for is an authentically scary movie, with authentic characters you authentically root and despair for, I’m going to send you right on back to the surprisingly effective Willow Creek, which was definitely the best such movie I saw all year.  On the other hand, a lot of people really, really liked this film, so it’s worth checking out for yourself. Then again, on the other hand (yes, I’ve got three hands; what of it?), I’ve noticed most of those people were mainstream film critics or the people who tend to agree with them; the avid horror fans whose blogs I follow seem to have been more disappointed than impressed. In that way, The Babadook kind of reminds me of The Conjuring — which brings me right back to my first paragraph: will I never learn?

[Amazon buy/rent | View trailer]

Genre:  Horror (except: no)
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman

MOVIE: Veronica Mars (2014)

October 16, 2014

veronicamarsI’d been waiting to watch this movie until I could watch it with my mom, who was also a big fan of the series.  Neither one of us was sure what to expect from it, but we were both pretty happy about what we got, I’d say.  Not only was this a great movie for diehard fans of the show, but I think it works really well as a stand-alone mystery too.

As the story opens, Veronica is living in New York, having just gotten her law degree. She tell us she’s grown up, she’s changed, she has no interest in all that filthy snooping business she was into in her youth.  She is, in fact, about to land a high-powered job at a high-powered legal firm. . . when she gets a phone call from her old flame Logan.

Logan tells her he needs her help — he’s about to be put on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, a famous pop singer, and he didn’t do it.  Initially, Veronica, now living with the ever-charming but overly-“nice” Piz, plans to return home to Neptune just long enough to help Logan vet a few criminal attorneys.  But, of course, once she’s back in the world of private investigation, it turns out the lady had doth protested too much (that surely is not the proper way to conjugate that verb, but just roll with it); the lady’s no lawyer, she’s a class-A, snoop-lovin’ shamus.

The gang’s all here, from her dad (Enrico Colantoni, whom I was excited to see in The Mysteries of Laura until it became clear he wasn’t sticking around past the pilot, boo!) to her nerdy gal-pal Mac.  It’s great to see them all again, and the banter is as sharp as ever.  Additionally, the cameo from James Franco made me laugh out loud. TWICE. (Mom: “Who’s James Franco?” Me: “He’s like this super stoner dude who’s really, really smart. Except for the part where he tried to turn As I Lay Dying into a movie, which was really, really dumb.” Mom: “That does sound dumb.” Me: “I knew you’d understand.”)

Overall, they did a great job with this one, funded through a Kickstarter campaign.  And, they left it very clearly open to a sequel, which I’d definitely be on board for.  Recommended for fans of the show — big duh — but even if you never tuned in, you’ll find a lot to love here if you’re a fan of light, easy-going mysteries and solid writing.

[Netflix | Amazon]

Genre:  Drama, Comedy
Cast:  Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Chris Lowell, Tina Majorino, Percy Daggs III, Enrico Colantoni

MOVIE: The Calling (2014)

August 29, 2014

callingI had a bunch of brainless stuff to get done this weekend, including addressing about 150 letters asking for donations to a charity auction I’m working on and knitting a baby sweater for same, so, to keep myself entertained, I rented a ton of movies and made myself spend nearly two full days on the couch gettin’ shit done.

This one, out in theaters today, apparently, but also available on demand from various streaming platforms, was a fairly decent choice for the job.  I needed movies that would be engaging, but not require all that much in terms of steady concentration.  A murder mystery seemed like the perfect choice.

Set in Canada, it’s about a Detective Inspector, Hazel Micallef (Sarandon), who is nearing the end of her career both because of her age and her steadily worsening drinking problem. One morning, she’s sent to do a wellness check on an elderly neighbor, and finds the woman dead in her kitchen, her mouth frozen in a horrific grimace.

When the coroner tells her the woman’s face was not only posed, but that it would’ve taken hours for the killer to get it to freeze the way it was, Hazel starts to suspect this was more than a routine murder.  Sure enough, a little digging turns up several other bodies, their faces staged with similar expressions.

Those expressions end up being the key to figuring out who the killer is and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  And while I admit that whole element was a bit on the far-fetched side, I definitely gotta give it props for being unique, which is kind of the case with this movie in general.  A lot of what happens in the story is pretty unbelievable, starting with a mother letting a complete stranger, who is incredibly creepy to boot, frankly, visit her sick daughter and give her a cup of tea made out of a bunch of weeds he keeps in his pocket. Yeah, right. At the same time, while the killer’s motive was hardly original, the path to its reveal had its moments.

Since this movie wasn’t out yet last weekend, renting it on demand ran me somewhere along the lines of $10.  I’d say it was probably worth about that much and no more, and it’s definitely not the kind of film you need to see on the big screen unless you feel strongly about patronizing movie theaters (which I do myself, but not strongly enough to want to pay two bucks more to see things like this in them — well, $12 bucks more, really, because: popcorn).  Waiting until it drops to more like $4 would be a reasonable move.

But it was nice to see Sarandon again, and man, does Ellen Burstyn ever look fantastic. (Why can’t I be Ellen Burstyn? Where have I gone wrong?)  Plus: Topher Grace, whom I hadn’t seen for a while, and who does a decent job here as the newbie detective on the squad.

Recommended, though nothing to get too excited about.  If you have a big envelope-stuffing project to work on, you could do worse!

[Prequeue at Netflix | Amazon Rent/Buy]

Genre: Mystery, Drama
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn,Topher Grace, Donald Sutherland, Christopher Heyerdahl

 

MOVIE: Unforgiven (2013) (Japanese remake)

July 20, 2014

unforgivenFans of the Western genre will appreciate the symmetry of this film.  Back when Clint Eastwood was an actor instead of a director, he appeared in the film A Fistful of Dollars, a spaghetti Western based on the Japanese samurai movie Yojimbo.  And now, mumble-mumble years later (I could look that up, but I won’t) one of his films has been reverse-engineered into a samurai movie all its own.

The good news is that it’s very good.  The bad news is that it’s virtually a scene-for-scene remake, with few surprises.  The guns have been replaced with swords, and the outfits are (mostly) different, but aside from that, most of the characterizations and the action is the same.  Which is fine, really; it’s a remake, after all. It’s just that there was a lot of room in this story for newness based on the fairly dramatic cultural and historical differences, and that didn’t get as much consideration as I would’ve liked it to.  Maybe the grim business of killing is the same in every culture, but I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed by the lack of invention.

Fans of Ken Watanabe, future Boyfriend of the Week, should definitely catch this one — he makes an excellent Clint Eastwood.  But even better is his sidekick Akira Emoto, who not only plays Morgan Freeman’s character, but looks exactly like a Japanese Morgan Freeman.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him, frankly.  It was amazing how much they resembled each other.

Definitely recommended to fans of the original, but this film stands alone just fine as well, so if you hate gunslingers but love samurai, you’ll find a lot to like here for sure.

[View trailer]

Genre: Western/Eastern, Foreign
Cast:  Ken Watanabe, Akira Emoto, Jun KunimuraShiori Kutsuna, Yûya Yagira

MOVIE: The Broken Circle Breakdown (2012)

July 17, 2014

brokencircleThis is the saddest, most beautiful film I have ever seen.  I kind of want to leave it at that, but I’m about to make a huge mess of everything instead by going on, because, you know . . . I’m in a mood. And it put me there. Apologies in advance.

The Broken Circle Breakdown, based on a play cowritten by the film’s hirsute star, Johan Heldenbergh, is about a Flemish man, Didier, who begins the story in love with American bluegrass music, and ends it in love with a tattoo artist named Elise.

They meet at a show he’s playing, and fall head over heels almost immediately. Initially, it’s largely a physical relationship — they want each other desperately, and there’s little time for anything else. But when Elise suddenly becomes pregnant, the relationship is turned upside down, shaken like a cup full of dice in a Yahtzee game. Finally, they manage to overcome their trepidation at making so immutable a commitment to each other, get married, and move in together, beginning the business of living.

One night, as Didier’s playing some of his favorite tunes for Elise, she begins to sing along, timidly at first, then, gauging his reaction, more boldly. He realizes her voice is exactly the thing his band has been missing, and she soon becomes an integral part of the group, bringing harmony both to his life and to his music.

Nine months later, they have their child.  Four or five years after that, they lose her.

And then they lose everything else.

This isn’t a spoiler, I wouldn’t say, by the way — the story is told in a series of flash-backs and -forwards, jumping back and forth through various stages of their relationship, so you know what’s coming, for the most part, long before you get there.

That’s why, in fact, it took me over 2 months to watch this movie all the way through. After the first 30 minutes or so, I had to stop every ten and wait another week before continuing. It was that difficult to watch, that difficult to feel, to experience.  I have never lost a child, and I can’t even begin to imagine what that would be like.  But I’ll tell you this, because I can’t seem not to right now: I’ve lost the chance at a child, the hope of a child, and the language of that grief seemed to me to share at least enough of the same roots as the language of the grief in this film that it was completely and painfully decipherable.

It’s not the same, obviously, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is, either. After all, Didier and Elise meet their baby girl, they watch her grow, they come to know her, they fall desperately in love with her face, her smiles, her laughs, her tears, her curiosity, her lust for living. And then she is taken from them, slowly and with no small amount of suffering. It is a terrible thing. It is, in fact, the most terrible of all things. It compares to nothing. It’s the kind of grief that swallows a person whole and never spits them back out, not all the way. In this film, you watch Didier and Elise be swallowed up just like that, right there on the screen, every tiny, terrible gulp.

At the risk of exposing way too much about the bedrock of my heart, though — or worse, making this beautiful film and all its tragedies all about me (yuck) — I will tell you this:  there is a baby that haunts my dreams. She never existed, not once, not for a single moment.  Yet, she is as mine as anything ever has been. In those dreams, she is as real as you are. As real as I am.  She has my eyes. She has his hair. She visits me all the time. And when I wake, she is gone.  Every time, she is gone. And so, while it’s not the same — not even a little bit — it is still, in all the ways relevant to this, the same enough to matter.

This is oversharing, which I try not to do here, because who cares, really? What you want to know is whether or not this is a good movie. So I’ll tell you: yes, this is a good movie. In fact, this is a beautiful movie; it is a beautifully written, beautifully wrought film that will throw your heart into a well and leave you stand standing there craning your ears for hours, listening for the splash that never comes. This is the kind of movie you put on and never fully take back off. It is that rich a thing. That good, that hard, that everything and more.

Beyond that, and as a bonus to all you bluegrass fans out there (or those of you who never knew bluegrass before but are about to), the soundtrack is as much a work of pure, perfect craft as the film itself.  At one point in the movie, Didier tells Elise the story of the origins of bluegrass — how it was started by immigrants from all over the world who were living in this great melting pot of cultures in the Appalachians, coming together with each of their own traditional instruments to make a new sound.  More so than any other music, bluegrass is the sound of the acceptance of “other,” the sound of cooperation, dizzy experimentation, pure love of tone.  It’s a combination so artful it practically hangs on the walls.   Even if you decide not to watch the film, you should definitely give the record a listen, because every single minute is a total masterpiece of rhythm, resonance, and racket.

I don’t really have the words to express how highly I recommend this incredible film. I recommend it very, very highly.  The problem is, asking you to watch it — if you have any heart at all — is like asking you to take a kebab skewer and shove it into your eye.  I can’t help but think, however, that  movie capable of hitting a human being this hard is the rarest gift of all.  It’s what movies are supposed to do — they are supposed to generate that same rhythm and resonance in our own lives, right there as we watch them.  A film that actually succeeds at doing that is a rare gift, and it’s the kind of experience you’ll never forget.  In my private life, I am fairly rigorously loathe to feel things. I don’t like it. Not one bit.  But when I’m forced to do it, as I obviously was by this film, the reward sometimes more than makes up for the journey.

In that regard, I don’t know what to tell you, really, other than this:  The Broken Circle Breakdown grabbed me by the ankles and flung me heart-first into a wall.  And I’ll never be able to thank it enough.

Do with that what you will.

[Rent on Amazon (free with Prime) | Netflix it]

Genre: Drama, Foreign
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Johan Heldenbergh, Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster,Robbie Cleiren

MOVIE: Red Knot (2014)

June 12, 2014

redknotYou know that feeling of dissatisfaction that comes from seeing a film that could have been brilliant but wasn’t quite smart enough to pull it off?  Or, worse: when you can tell it’s not an issue of smartness at all, but one of vision? That’s the way this film made me feel. Blech, blargh, dang.

Described as “an Antarctic love story,” Red Knot is about a young couple, newlyweds Peter (Vincent Katheiser, Mad Men) and Chloe (Olivia Thirlby, Juno), who decide, because they are young and stupid, that they should spend their honeymoon on a research vessel loaded with other people and headed for the South Pole.

Well, really, Peter decides it — his academic hero, an expert on whales, will be on board, and he desperately wants to tag along — and Chloe agrees.  They tell each other, hey, what does any couple need on a honeymoon, anyway? Just a bed, right? That bed can be any-ol’-where. Even on a research vessel loaded with other people and headed for the South Pole!

See what I mean about “young and stupid”?  Oh, brother. Proper prior planning prevents piss-poor performance, as my dad would say. (Them’s the “7 Ps,” for those of you who didn’t grow up military brats.)

Predictably (to anyone but Chloe, anyway), Peter very quickly ditches his bride for lengthy, nerdorific conversations with his colleagues.  Instead of spending long nights next to her in bed, he spends long nights next to them in the cafeteria.  It doesn’t take long for Chloe to seek out attention elsewhere, and as Peter’s obliviousness increases, so does her anger, eventually leading her to the ship’s captain (Billy Campbell), who grants her request for a separate room — and then joins her in it.

This is a movie about what happens to a relationship when the people involved in it are either too afraid or too proud (or too dumb) to say all the things that need to be said. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to know that’s what it’s about.  It seemed far more interested in the content of the couples’ arguments, when the real power was in the content of their silences.  Have you ever ruined a relationship by not saying the things that needed to be said because you were afraid of what would happen if you did? Do you remember how terrible that was?  Did it make you hope you’d never do that again? Did you do it again anyway?  Wouldn’t that have been a great movie? That would’ve been a love story. Instead, this is essentially just the same old break-up/get-back-together kind of thing, and while their not talking, followed by their talking again, was key to the action, it wasn’t explored in a key way all its own. It was a plot point, not a theme, when it really should’ve been a theme. The theme.

That said, despite the fact writer, director, producer, and chief navel-gazer Scott Cohen didn’t seem to know what he had, this film does have one major thing going for it, and that’s the scenery.  If you can stand being walloped over the head by 9,000 graphical metaphors of Antarctic slides and collapsings (because it’s about a marriage falling apart, see? SEE?!), you will be rewarded with 86 minutes of pretty gorgeous camera work. The landscape is stunning, and the cinematography, especially the shifting between focus and out-of-focus in the visuals, was creative and effective.

Also: penguins!

Aside from that, though, what Red Knot mostly made me think of was a line from the Faulkner novel Mosquitoes, when a character, sick to death of frivolous chitchat, says, “Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.” That’s how I feel every time I see a film like this one.  What a waste of a good conversation.

[Official web site]

Genre:  Drama
Cast: Olivia Thirlby, Vincent Katheiser, Billy Campbell

MOVIE: Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas (2013)

May 23, 2014

uprisingBased on an 1810 German novel that was based on a folk tale that was based on a true story, this uninspiring 2013 French film is essentially a cross between Braveheart and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (sans wit and killer rabbit).  It is not a good combination.

As the movie opens, Michael Kohlhaas (Mads Mikkelsen), a successful horse merchant, is on his way to town with a pack of animals to sell when he’s stopped on a bridge by the local baron and his posse. 

Because he lacks the permit he didn’t know he needed, the baron has his men confiscate two of his horses.  When Kohlhaas returns home three days later, he finds the horses worked nearly to the bone and his servant Cesar eaten nearly to the bone by a pack of dogs unleashed upon him, the authorities say, when he tried to steal the horses back.

Enraged by this combination of events, Kohlhaas sues the baron for reparations, and loses his case three times in court due to the baron’s influence over the judge.  His wife, in a last ditch attempt to smooth things over, goes to the princess’s castle to plead her husband’s case — and returns dead, murdered by the baron’s lackeys (we think — we never really find out who killed her, but it doesn’t seem like the princess had anything to do with it).

In response, Kohlhaas sells his estate, sends his young daughter away for safety, and then launches a full-on rebellion, with many brutal, bloody losses on both sides. He takes obvious pride in his own morality, even hanging one of his own men after the man is caught looting a house after a battle (inspiring leadership at its best).  When he’s finally promised a fair trial by the princess, in exchange for ceasing and desisting, he disbands his army and returns home to his young daughter, only to find himself on the run (with the little girl) a few months later when one of his former soldiers kills another nobleman, forcing the princess to rescind her amnesty agreement.

Kohlhaas and his daughter are hunted down, and in an ironic conclusion, he ends up getting everything he wanted (reparation money, his horses back, the baron imprisoned) — plus his head chopped off.

Well, THAT worked out well.  (And sorry if the big reveal there bugs anyone, but since this based on a novel from 1810, I feel like the statute of spoilertations has passed.)

Though the film is beautifully made, there’s just nothing all that interesting about it, and while it was clear we were supposed to be inspired by Kohlhaas’s dedication to justice, it was hard to be too impressed, frankly.  There’s one character, clearly a stand-in for Martin Luther, who calls Kohlhaas out on the very things I’d been calling him out on in my head the entire film — a nice attempt to throw in a little balance, but it does nothing to change Kohlhaas’s mind.  Kohlhaas is, the pastor argues, a successful, well-to-do, land-owning merchant has two horses taken from him, loses a case in court, and launches a war fought primarily by lots of impoverished peasants who don’t have a clue about what they’re truly in for (while he sits away from most of the battles at a safe distance, watching the slaughter on both sides).  Where’s the “justice” in all of that?  As far as we can tell from the film, this is the first time Kohlhaas has ever been wronged by the royals in charge — and nobody else appears to have been terribly wronged by them either.  For the insult to his pride and the theft of two horses, he gets his wife killed, gets lots of other people killed, and leaves his daughter with no parents in a harsh world where she probably could’ve used ’em.

Though there’s obvious merit in trying to quash a corrupt aristocracy, of course, the baron is the only royal in the story who appears to be corrupt (we never quite understand the princess’s role in the wife’s death, but she seems fairly reasonable and helps Kohlhaas more than once — including demanding a “simple” beheading, rather than the usual flaying, boiling alive, or drawing-and-quartering of men with similar sentences. See? So nice, that lady!). The baron is young — a teenager — and it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t a better, smarter way to deal with his youthful insolence.

And, of course, it never sits well when a rich man launches a war staffed by poor men and spends most of it sitting on a horse atop a hill watching it unfold below.  You know, like pretty much every war ever.

Even more problematic for me, though, was Mads “Perma-Poker-Face” Mikkelsen. This is the third or fourth film of his I’ve seen, in addition to the NBC series Hannibal (where he plays the infamous Lector), and with this wealth of experience under my belt, I can now attest to the fact he is an actor with exactly zero range.

In this film, as in most of his other work, essentially all he ever does is glare into the distance, all steely-eyed.  His face never changes.  The cadence of his voice never alters.  The film opens with a few scenes attempting to establish him as being wildly in love with his life, his wife, and his family, but none of that felt at all authentic, because Mikkelsen doesn’t seem capable of any emotion other than grim determination.  His wife is murdered, he watches her die, and his face looks the same as it did when he was taking her dress off the night before.  Blah-blah-bland.

Overall, a major disappointment, and definitely one you can pass on.  Every Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) experience features at least one dramatic dud for me — it’s the price you pay for taking some risks on things you’ve never heard of.  Here’s hoping this is my one for the year!

[View trailer]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Delphine Chuillot, Bruno Ganz, Roxanne Duran