Monday, November 23, 2015


Calvary is rough going.

The film begins with an Irish priest (Brendan Gleeson) sitting in confessional.  He’s listening to a man recount his tale of having been raped by a priest at the age of seven.  Then he hears the man say that since the rapist is long dead, the man will take the life of one good priest in a week’s time.  Brendan Gleeson is the good priest.

One could go a lot of places with a story like this.  It could be a pre-murder mystery.  It could be a meditation on faith.  It could be a thriller.  This film’s approach, however, is right there in the title: Calvary.  This is The Passion of the Christ, with the scorn of an Irish village and the sting of cruel words taking the place of the scorn of Jerusalem and the sting of the lash.

You see, this is an Ireland reeling from financial meltdown and revelations of years of sexual abuse at the hands of the clergy.  The people of our priest’s little town have not only lost faith, they’ve turned actively hostile to faith, actively hostile to the church, actively hostile to our priest.

And in the middle of it all, walking his own road to Calvary, our priest struggles to maintain his own dignity, his own faith, his own love.  He’s miserable.

On one level then, we can view Calvary as an exercise in making Brendan Gleeson unhappy.  On another, however, we can see it as a story of the very toughest part of Christianity: the imperative to actively love people who may actively hate you.  As such, Calvary has much to offer the devout viewer.

But that viewer is going to have to work for it.  This is not a film for the faint of heart or faith.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1

Without an extended sequence in the Hunger Games Arena, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is merely half of a dystopian revolutionary thriller. 

That said, it’s a *good* half of a dystopian revolutionary thriller, thanks to its cast.

I’ve been on the Jennifer Lawrence train since Winter’s Bone While I still haven’t quite forgiven her for Silver Linings Playbook, there’s no denying that she’s a movie star through and through: whenever she’s onscreen, she’s the most interesting thing onscreen.  Surround her with supporting players like Rachel McAdams (having a wonderful time), Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Jeffrey Wright, Julianne Moore, and the late (and legitimately great) Philip Seymour Hoffman, and you have a cast that could elevate a soap commercial to the realm of high art.

And elevate they do, for while this is only half of a story, they fill it full of interesting moments.  I look forward to viewing the other half and seeing how the whole thing hangs together.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Army of Darkness

Attention S-Mart Shoppers:

I doubt it’s possible to love movies without loving Army of Darkness.  This movie has everything: knights, wizards, skeletons, a princess in distress, and a hero with a chainsaw who isn’t afraid to belt out a lusty “Gimme some sugar, baby!” when he has a damsel in his arms.

The film represents the culmination of Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” series.  The first, a reasonably straightforward horror movie about college kids in a remote cabin, is respectably scary.  Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, mixes horror with comedy, as when its protagonist amputates his own (possessed) hand atop a stack of books that features A Farewell to Arms.  Army of Darkness goes for full slapstick, with scenes paying comic homage to films as diverse as Return of the Jedi, The Seven Samurai, The Three Stooges, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Gulliver's Travels, and The Day The Earth Stood Still.  It’s goofy, it’s silly, and it’s an all-around good time at the movies.

That’s if you’re an adult.

Last Halloween, I saw Army of Darkness with my pre-teen boy and his friends.  They found it much better than a “good time at the movies.”  In fact, the movie had them howling with laughter, frequently rewinding to re-view parts they’d missed because they’d been laughing so hard.  Somehow, this film’s combination of slapstick and horror resonated in a way I hadn’t expected, turning Army of Darkness from a beloved amusement (for me) to an instant Halloween classic (for them).

And y’know what?  Laughter is catching.  The more they laughed, the more I laughed with them.  And when I laughed at the gags specifically directed to the older members of the audience (there’s a whole Chuck Conners in ‘The Rifleman’ thing going on), they cracked up just because they were in the zone.

So this was the Halloween in which I learned to love Army of Darkness even more.  I didn't think that was possible.  Hail to the king, baby!

Saturday, November 07, 2015

3 Recent Screenings

Alive Inside

Alive Inside is a documentary about Dan Cohen, a nursing home volunteer who discovered exposing seniors with dementia to the music of their youth can relight their memories and personalities.

Here’s the deal:  when we’re growing and our brains are still in supersponge mode (a period that lasts roughly from birth through our mid-20s), the music of our youth gets encoded deep in our brains – way back near the stem.  If dementia sets in, that’s the last part to go.  Thus, it’s possible to light up the brain once more by triggering those musical memories.

This isn’t to imply that iPods cure dementia.  It appeared that patients slipped back into their hazes some time after the music stopped.  Nevertheless, while the music played, these people were themselves again in a fundamental way.

That’s a thing of beauty.


Fury is a by-the-numbers WWII picture, just like they used to make.  Brad Pitt is the grizzled, fatherly first sergeant.  Jon Bernthal is the hick; Shia LeBeouf the preacher; Michael Peña the alcoholic, and Logan Lerman the New Guy.

They hit many of the same beats as the dogfaces from the great Lee Marvin film The Big Red One, and the film doesn’t have much to offer in the way of surprises.  But if you like war movies, you’re sure to like this one.  It touches all the bases.

Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Rude, crude, and mildly amusing, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is the perfect movie to fold laundry by.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Story of Adele H

Francoise Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H chronicles the descent into madness of Adele Hugo, daughter Les Miserables author Victor Hugo.  While exiled to the (British) island of Guernsey, Adele fell in love with a seducer named Albert Pinson, a lieutenant in the British Army.  When Pinson’s regiment transferred to Nova Scotia, Adele followed.  When it transferred to Barbados, Adele followed.  She simply refused to believe that the man she’d fallen for had not, in fact, fallen for her.  She broke with reality and wound up in a madhouse.  So, kids, there’s your night out at the movies.

Isabelle Adjani, as Adele, is a fine actress who performs creditably in the title role.  Her very casting, however, struck me as a misstep that created a barrier to my suspension of disbelief.  You see, Adjani ranks among the most beautiful women of her generation – not “interesting beautiful,” but “Greco-Roman statue beautiful.”  I simply could not imagine any young man, particularly one so saddled with debt as Pinson was at the time, passing on the opportunity to marry a woman both so beautiful and so wealthy as Adele Hugo.  I particularly couldn’t imagine an ambitious young British Army officer of the 19th Century refusing such an opportunity.  Ms. Hugo’s beauty, wealth, and connections would have made a star of her husband at a time when a man could climb the promotion ladder simply by purchasing higher-ranking commissions and being generally regarded as a “good fellow.”  Even knowing that The Story of Adele H was based on the historical record, I think I may have had an easier time of becoming lost in the narrative had its protagonist been somehow more average.

Still, this is an engrossing film.  Though its pacing feels anything but brisk, Adjani is so watchable (and so well-photographed) that we can’t turn away from her descent from romantic to obsessive to lunatic.  The Story of Adele H is one worth seeing.

Friday, October 30, 2015

SMOSH: The Movie

SMOSH, for those of you without children, is the YouTube channel of Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla.  The duo specializes in adolescent humor, cheap gags, and song parodies.  They’re hammy, they’re crude, and my older boys love them.  My boys aren’t alone: Ian and Anthony have parleyed SMOSH from a couple of YouTube videos into a multimillion dollar empire with a Spanish language affiliate, record deal, and their own movie.  Regardless, this was a movie I decidedly did not want to see.  However, my older kids begged me and I do like to style myself a marginally good father, so I sat down with one either side and locked myself in for a tedious 84 minutes.

I am surprised and delighted to report that, while juvenile, crude, and hammy, SMOSH: The Movie is actually funny.  The film establishes parental goodwill in the very first frame, when it announces itself as an Alex Winter (Bill of Bill &Ted’s Excellent Adventure) film.  [I like Alex Winter.  I want good things for him.  I’m happy he landed the gig.]  It then proceeds into the laziest story imaginable, when our YouTube stars find themselves actually stuck inside YouTube, flitting from video to video on their quest to find and erase the one clip that so humiliated (Ian?  Anthony?  I get them mixed up.) that he can never find true love.

Just when I started thinking about all the chores I could have been doing, however, the gags started rolling in.  And they kept rolling in, one after another.  This is the kind of movie that, while aggressively stupid, is so intent on making you laugh that it just keeps throwing stuff at you until something sticks and you catch yourself chuckling.  Then, once it has broken down your resistance, it throws more silly gags at you until, despite yourself, you find yourself laughing out loud, then laughing again.

Look, don’t get me wrong: this movie still feels like something recorded for nothing in somebody’s living room.  Ian and Anthony are bad actors, they’re surrounded by bad actors (with the notable exception of a beloved supported player from Bill and Ted, whom it’s a pleasure to see onscreen), and the entire affair comes across as B-level stuff.  However, Ian and Anthony are bad actors who are willing to do just about anything for a laugh. 

And y’know what?  That’s good enough for me.  I can’t believe I’m writing this, but I’ll actually queue up Smosh 2.  And I’ll do it with a smile.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Under the Skin

Under the Skin is a great example of why we need more 60-minute featurettes.  This is a mesmerizing film, featuring a brilliant performance from Scarlett Johansson, that’s about 48 minutes too long.

Johansson plays The Monster, albeit a monster who happens to look like Scarlett Johansson in a hooker costume.  She spends the first act of the film (mostly) driving around Glasgow in a windowless van, hunting for single young men.  When she spots a mark, she pulls over and asks for directions.  Once she has the young man talking, she tries to talk him into the van.  Pro tip:  don’t ever let a stranger lure you into a windowless van, even if that stranger looks like Scarlett Johansson in a hooker costume.

Fun fact: many of the film’s early encounters actually happened.  Johansson spent several days and nights driving around Glasgow in a van wired with microphones and hidden cameras, and she really did stop strangers and try to talk them into the vehicle.  Those who declined were chased after by people with waivers.  Those who accepted met the crew hiding in the back of the van and – you guessed it – signed waivers.

Not so fun fact: Under the Skin’s first act is an hour long, though it only takes the audience about twenty minutes to discern The Monster’s pattern and understand that she is growing and changing.  After that, it’s 40 tedious minutes of more of the same, punctuated by the occasional scene of heartbreak and horror.

Those second two acts move along nicely and keep us engaged, and in so doing they give us an inkling of how wonderful this film may have been as a 60-minute featurette.  Under the Skin creates a wonderful, suspenseful, and uneasy (yet meditative) mood.  It does great things with special effects on a very low budget.  It draws a career-highlight performance from its star, who is such a good actress that she can stand, nude, in front of a mirror and keep this male viewer's eyes locked on her face.

This film has so much going for it, I can only imagine how much better it may have been with a more ruthless edit.  As it stands, Under the Skin is good.  At 60 minutes, it could have been great.