IN THE FOG, RED 2 and THE CONJURING



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In a Russian village recently taken over by the Germans during World War II, six men are marched out to be hung for being part of the underground.  One is pardoned.  Assuming that the pardoned one must have been an informer, two Russian soldiers are sent to kill him.   The one pardoned denies having done anything wrong, but can’t explain why he was released.   It doesn’t matter.  It’s gotten to the point where he’s not sure whether he wants to live or die as it is.
 In the Fog is a story about a group of people trapped in a nightmarish situation that cannot have a satisfactory ending for anyone involved.  Reminiscent in certain ways of Army of Shadows (Jean Pierre-Melville’s powerful story of French resistance fighters), all the characters are forced to make up their own morality as they go along because there are no standards to cover their situation.  As a result the three men find themselves in both a literal and metaphorical miasma that is referenced by the title.  It’s a harsh, unflinching and deeply moving story about a situation that most of us will never find ourselves in.
Written and directed by Sergei Loznitsa, with Vladislav Abashin, Vladimir Svirskiy and Sergie Kolesov as the three men.
I would truly love someone to explain this to me: Pacific Rim, which is filled with one-dimensional characters, bland actors, even blander acting, and even blander dialog, with a slip-shod script, a movie that has almost nothing to redeem it except some neat CGI (as if the producer/director/writer thought that’s all a movie is, instead of that being the least a movie should be), gets a 65% with top critics on rottentomatoes.com (72% all critics), while Red 2, a thrill ride of a movie with brilliant actors playing fun and vibrant characters, spouting witty dialog worthy of, well I won’t go Oscar Wilde, but I will go Noel Coward,  in a clever plot and a story not dependent on special effects, only gets a 28% from top critics and a 39% from all critics?   Maybe contemporary wisdom is wrong.  Maybe it’s not the studios that are the problem here if critics can’t even tell the difference between a good blockbuster and a bad one.
Red 2 is a sequel to Red (okay, not much originality there, but still).  As in the earlier one, a bunch of over the hill secret agents get caught up in some totally ridiculous set of circumstances whose purpose is not so much to make sense, but to give the audience a great time watching over the hill actors get to do things over the hill actors are almost never allowed to do (unless you’re Sean Connery).  I won’t try to explain the plot except to say it’s as dexterous as a roller coaster at Six Flags and involves some sort of apocalyptic macguffin mumbo jumbo and a bomb planted in the Kremlin. 
Many of the usual suspects are here.  Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker are still working out their Nick and Nora Charles relationship while John Malkovich plays the part of the guy who is summed up with the old chestnut, “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” (and having the time of his life doing so).  Also back on board is Helen Mirren, channeling Julie Newmar by purring her way through her part as a hired assassin, whether she’s dumping acid on a dead body or shooting Russian soldiers while lying on a picnic blanket with her stocking foot curled up as if she’s having an orgasm.  They are joined by newcomers of various generations, including Anthony Hopkins as a mad doctor; Catherine Zeta-Jones as Kryptonite (she plays a woman in lust with Bruce Willis and all involved carry this off without one reference to Michael Douglas, which may actually be the real miracle here); Byung-hun Lee (the great star of Korean films like I Saw the Devil and The Good, The Bad and The Weird) as a Bruce Lee type martial arts expert who owns his own plane; David Thewlis who traffics in stolen information, but has an Achille’s punt (that pun’s a bit obscure, but I’ll go with it anyway); Brian Cox as a Russian agent who has a foot fetish (but it’s Mirren’s foot, so who can blame him); and Neal McDonough as a fascist with the smile of a Neo-Nazi. 
Directed by Dean (Galaxy Quest, which may explain a lot) Parisot and written by Jon and Erich Hoeber (who wrote Battleship, which doesn’t, though the source material, a graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, may). 
The Conjuring is one of those horror movies like The Innocents and The Haunting about creepy crawly doings at a house in a remote location.  A family made up of mother, father and five, count ‘em, five, girls move into a fixer-upper whereupon slowly, but surely, ominous things start happening, the sort of things that get so bad, the family feels compelled to call in demonologist experts Ed and Lorraine Warren (most famous for their investigation of the Amytiville Horror—oh, did I forget to mention that The Conjuring is based on a true story—well, that’s their story and their sticking to it). 
The movie starts out rather well with some nice fun and wittily eerie scenes (one involving a hide and seek game that employs clapping).  The house itself is a marvel of design and becomes a character in its own right (with gigantic basements and crawlspaces).   And the family is headed by Lily Taylor and Ron Livingston, who give first rate performances (why, oh, why isn’t Lily Taylor given more to do in films). 
Things get a bit harder to take seriously when Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as the demonologists enter the scene.  They have a totally different acting style than the others (they underplay to a fault, apparently to emphasize how every day the supernatural is to Ed and Lorraine—they have lines like demons can stick to you like gum on a shoe).  They’re a bit stiff to the point that a few generations before this, they’d make perfect models for American Gothic.  What also doesn’t help is that the movie takes place in the 1970’s and just one look at Wilson in his sideburns and polyester suit and Farmiga in her granny dress, and it’s hard not to let out an unintentional giggle or two (it was the ‘70’s; what did we know about fashion).
The movie has a nice build in the beginning (it doesn’t rush things as too many scare fests do); has its fair amount of frights; and there’s enough mood left over to feed an orphanage.  But by the end of the movie, director James Wan and writers Chad and Carey Hayes go for broke and basically throw everything at the story except the kitchen sink (which kind of makes sense since, in the movie, the various demons throw everything at the characters except the kitchen sink).  At this point, the movie becomes a fairly routine and pedestrian ghost story. 
Perhaps what is most disturbing, though, is the idea that the witches killed at Salem (you remember them from history class, right) weren’t just poor beggar women or people who made enemies of the wrong people or an injustice grown out of sexual hysteria—no, according to the movie, the Salem witches were really, well, witches.  Huh.  Who’d a thought it?

THE OSCAR RACE: Best Actress, Part Duex



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My analysis of the Best Actress Oscar Race, part duex.
My previous entry was a general analysis of the race when it came to Best Actress.  For this entry, let’s go directly to my list:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook right now has the lead to win even though the movie hasn’t opened yet.  At the same time, I hesitate to be definite here since the movie is still an unknown quantity.  But her nomination seems assured.  Probably what helps is that she has proven herself as an actress by getting a nomination for a small, independent film (Winter’s Bone), but also an actress that can make a ton of money (The Hunger Games), a double whammy.
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This has been settled law for some time.  Not only did this eight year old munchkin give a marvelous performance, the movie is likely to get a Best Picture nom, a possible Best Director, a possible Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay nom.  And it’s still in the theaters.  I also can’t imagine any voter, no matter how Scrooge McDuck they are, who would want to give this fairy tale an unhappy ending.
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour.  This is also supposed to be almost a sure thing.  Though the Academy is more loathe to give career awards and noms to women than to men, Riva has been around since another amour film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), one of the great films of all time.   Amour was also suppose to get a nomination for co-lead Jean-Louis Trintignant, but as the movies with strong male leads started pouring in, that was that.  Amour is suppose to be Michael Haneke’s most accessible film and is in the lead to win in the best Foreign Language category and may even get a Best Picture, Director and Screenplay nom.
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone.  A Hollywood favorite since winning the Oscar for La Vie en Rose, she is supposed to give a knock out performance.   The filmmaker Jacques Audiard is also responsible for such films as A Prophet and The Beat that My Heart Skipped and is fast becoming one of France’s leading directors.   However, this is still an unknown quantity.
Helen Mirren for Hitchcock.  It doesn’t really matter where she decides to run, this is the category that will most likely get her.  A superb performance helped by a strong possibility that her co-lead, Anthony Hopkins will also receive one.
Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible is getting some buzz, but it may be too little too late.  Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina just opened, but it didn’t get very good reviews and is not exciting anyone.  And Helen Hunt in The Sessions will probably get a supporting actress nom.
Which means, sorry Jessica Chastain.  You should probably start pushing for that supporting acting nom instead.

HITCHCOCK


Hitchcock the movie is something one might describe as having an identity crisis (which might be appropriate considering the subject matter).  It’s a few parts mid-life crisis; a few parts artist at a cross roads; a few parts sexual obsession; a few parts middle aged love story; a few parts homage.  In the end I’m not sure whether it holds together or whether everyone is so brilliant at their jobs, that they cover up the fact that it doesn’t really hold together.  I strongly suspect the latter, but I didn’t really care.  I was too thoroughly entertained to really worry about it.  Whatever else it is, Hitchcock is a ton of fun and I’m not talking about Sir Alfred himself.

The basic storyline revolves around the great (in size and stature) director desperate to do something fresh and challenging after the success of the very commercial and lightweight North by Northwest.  So, naturally, when his eyes land on a novel that everyone thinks is pure trash, what can he do but read it.  And it has all the elements he is looking for: serial murders, grave robbing, incest, Oedipus complex, transvestitism, and most important of all…the chance to be the first director to show a toilet in an American film.  And thus Psycho was born.

The title role is played by Anthony Hopkins.  Except for the girth, he really doesn’t particularly look like the man himself.  This was apparently a conscious decision.  When he was put in the makeup, the less like Hitchcock he seemed (that’s one of the odd things about art—the more realistic it is, the less realistic it is).  But when Hopkins opens his mouth and that stentorian voice carefully enunciates his lines in lugubrious wave after lugubrious wave, all you can see is Hitch.

Hopkins is supported by Queen Elizabeth II as Alma Reville (or Helen Mirren as she is more commonly known).  The rest of the case is basically name that impersonation with the more memorable being James D’Arcy as a slightly more than effeminate Anthony Hopkins and Scarlett Johansson as a perky, hey, look at me, I’m Janet Leigh.  Perhaps most surprising is Jessical Biel doing a very credible job as Vera Miles.  Meanwhile, Toni Collette wears glasses and Kurtwood Smith reprises his role from That 70’s Show by playing the head of the ratings board.

The extremely witty script is by John J. McLaughlin.  The extremely witty direction is by Sacha Gervasi (a bit far from Anvil: The Story of Anvil, perhaps—or perhaps not).  

BRIGHTON ROCK (2011)


The remake of the 1947 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel about gangsters at Brighton (the title doesn’t refer to a location, but to a kind of candy). The original starred Richard Attenborough as Pinky and put the actor on the map, but it’s doubtful it will do the same for Sam Riley. It’s visually stunning (cinematography by John Mathieson); the director Rowan Jaffe works his tail off to get the most out of it; and Helen Mirren is excellent. But the main problem is that in this version, Pinky isn’t particularly threatening or scary and hard to take seriously. And if one can’t take Pinky seriously, then it’s very difficult to take the story seriously. The story has been updated to the 1960’s and set among the Mods and Rockers riots; many critics have criticized this aspect of it, but I thought it very clever.

ART ISN’T EASY: Reviews of Crazy Heart and The Last Station


The last two reviews of the 2009 year. I will start 2010 with a review of 3 Idiots.


The first part of Crazy Heart, a movie about a broken down, down on his luck, alcoholic country western singer is exhilarating. Jeff Bridges is impressive in the part of Bad Blake and the scenes of people singing their hearts out to country western tunes shows just why this type of music connects deeply with its fans. The first part of the film reaches quite an impressive climax with the appearance of Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a former backup singer to Bad Blake, but now an even bigger star on his own. Tommy is still so in awe of Blake and realizes just how much he owes this man, he can’t even look him in the face when they spend time together. They have an exhilarating duet when Tommy joins Blake on stage during one of his numbers, perhaps in an attempt to show Blake that he can help his former mentor if Blake would just let him. But Blake is stubborn and refuses to write any new songs; that is, until Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her appearance as Jean, a newspaper reporter who interviews Blake. At this point, formula completely takes over and there’s not an unpredictable moment left in the story, written by the director, Scott Cooper. Even Jean never really comes alive as a real person. She’s just the typical female character one usually sees in this sort of film, not there because she would be, but there because the author needs her to be. She has one unintentionally funny scene where Blake loses Jean’s four year old son in a mall and she shows up furious at him; all I could think of was Claude Rains in Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked that an alcoholic, broken down, dysfunctional singer would lose my son”). The movie is buoyed by some fun scenes between Blake and his agent where the agent takes all the anger and nastiness Blake gives him, but is willing to allow it (up to a point) because Blake is, well, Blake. But all in all, this is a movie that has its moments with some fantastic music, but is told in a way that is too overly familiar to really grab me like I would want it to.

The Last Station is about the last days of the great writer Leo Tolstoy (played in appropriately grand style by Christopher Plummer) and the fight over his memory and inheritance between his wife, Sofya, played like a character from a Euripedean tragedy by Helen Mirren (as Tolstoy says, “she needs a Greek chorus”), and Chertkov, the head of the Tolstoy movement, played by Paul Giamatti, who from an acting standpoint, seems to be more than up to the fight. Caught between the two factions is Vladimir Bulgakov, an aspiring writer and devoted Tolstoyian (he’s even a virgin) who is sent to spy on the Tolstoy’s by Chertkov, but becomes sympathetic to Sofya’s point of view. Bulgakov, though well played by James McAvoy (and the part is better suited to him since he’s a much better character actor than romantic lead), is never quite convincing. He is more of a device of the writer Michael Hoffman (who also directed) and the efforts Hoffman goes to in order to keep him front and center to the conflict at times seem a little forced. The conflict between Sofya and Chertkov is mainly defined in the movie in sexual terms—whether one should have it or not. The more political aspects of Tolstoy’s religion and philosophy (ideas that influenced Martin Luther King and Ghandi) are given little more than lip service. Because of this, the fight seems too one sided; today, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone who wants people to be celibate. As a result, the battle, though glorious at times, is not as strong as one might wish it to be. What gives the conflict the strength it does is the acting. Everyone more than rises to the occasion and delivers. Mirren is wonderfully sexy and passionate. Sofya is willing to humiliate herself to win and Mirren is able to make us not dislike Sofya for doing so. Plummer disappears behind Tolstoy’s beard and finds the down to earth humanity of the iconic writer. The smaller cast gives able support. It all looks great and at times it’s a lot of fun.

MYSTERIES BOTH SECULAR AND DIVINE: Reviews of Angels and Demons and State of Play


The producers, director, and writers would have you believe that the intended audience for Angels & Demons are those who find religious issues to be of interest. But in reality, the actual audience for this movie are people who like crossword puzzles, anagrams and other word games. The real theme of the movie is not whether science and religion can be reconciled (in fact, whenever the dialog drifts to rel v. sci it all gets pretty silly), it’s what does this clue; that word hideously branded into a cardinal’s chest; that dead body mutilated and murdered in that way mean, and how will it lead Tom Hanks to what obscure bit of art history that will lead him to the bad guy. Angels and Demons is a perfectly acceptable suspense thriller that is actually very entertaining until the ending whereupon we are blessed (blessed, get it?, get it?) with one of those twists that renders everything that has come before it ridiculously unbelievable. The acting is perfectly fine with Stellan Skarsgard taking the honors. However, the real standout performance is the incredible recreation of the Vatican. The low point of the film is Armin Mueller-Stahl’s last line which is a paraphrase of Deborah Kerr’s final words in Tea and Sympathy (where she tells a teenager she is about to deflower “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will…be kind”). It’s simply too close not to believe that someone didn’t know.

I consider the original version of State of Play to be one of the great mini series in TV history. So I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed the movie version. The main reason it worked as well as it did for me was that the authors (screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gillroy and Billy Ray) found an absolutely brilliant American parallel scandal to put at the heart of the drama, an attempt by a Big Brother type company to win a government contract to take over domestic spying. And whenever the movie focuses on the central mystery of how two apparently unrelated deaths are intrinsically linked, it’s riveting (the direction by Kevin McDonald is quite satisfactory). It falters when it comes to characterization. Russell Crowe plays one of those scruffy reporters who always looks like he just got out of bed; you know, the kind who don’t play by the rules, but we forgive him because he brings down people like Nixon? The character’s a cliché and if he’s not a stereotype, he should be. The up and coming blogger is played by Rachel McAdams and she has no real character whatsoever; she’s a less developed version of one of those Dirty Harry sidekicks, though in this movie she’s allowed a better fate. The little tete a tetes the two have over the old journalism versus the new journalism never catch fire because the dialogue is the same paint by numbers argument that comes up whenever any new technology is introduced, the old “mark my words, the introduction of sound will be the death of the movies” type stuff. The acting honors are taken by Helen Mirren as the hard as nails editor and Justin Bateman as a slimy bisexual lobbyist. Ben Affleck is becoming more and more interesting as he seems to be taking a page from the Matt Damon play book: be an ensemble player rather than a star. All in all, a fun ride.