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The Muppet Christmas Carol

Posted by martinteller on August 23, 2015

I didn’t have any reason to be wary of this rendition of the classic Dickens tale… until the opening credits rolled and I saw “Michael Caine as Ebenezer Scrooge”.  Hold the phone.  This is The Muppet Christmas Carol, right?  Why would I want the lead character, the most prominent character BY FAR, to be anything but a Muppet?  No offense to the esteemed Mr. Caine, but this is not what I signed up for.  I want a Muppet Christmas Carol, goddammit, not a Michael Caine plus incidental Muppets Christmas Carol.  Kermit the Frog should be Scrooge, not Bob Cratchit.  And Miss Piggy (my favorite) is barely present as Bob’s wife Emily.  Humbug!

Once this disappointment wore off, however, I quite enjoyed this.  Even more than the revered Alastair Sim version.  And really, the credit belongs to Caine.  His Scrooge is the most convincing I’ve seen.  In the early scenes, you can tell he had a solid belief in his way of doing things, he’s not just an evil bastard.  And his transformation feels right, more right than Sim’s at least.  The problem I’ve always had with this story is that the message shouldn’t be “don’t be a dick or you’ll die unloved” but that’s how it usually comes off.  This version doesn’t play it that way.  Scrooge is already sufficiently moved by the past and the present, the future is just the final nail in the coffin (so to speak).  I always thought the message of the story would be sweeter if Future came before Present… Scrooge’s transformation shouldn’t be about fear.  The way this rendition unfolds, it works as is.

I also enjoyed the clever device of Gonzo as Dickens, narrating from within the story.  It’s not only a new twist on an old tale, but it gives the movie the comedic elements one expects from a Muppet production.  It’s unfortunately a little short on jokes on the whole, because it’s not a scenario that easily lends itself to humor.  I wasn’t especially taken with the songs, either.  They were all fine, but none stick with me.  Also some of the special effects haven’t aged well, though I must say the production design is impressive.  I liked the German Expressionist touches of Christmas Future.

It’s not exactly what you expect from a Muppet movie, but it’s an effective telling of a familiar tale.  Rating: Good (77)


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Posted by martinteller on August 11, 2015

Based on a true story (but don’t ask me how much of it is faithful to the actual events).  Alex Michaeletos plays a South African boy named Xan who adopts a lost cheetah cub.  He names the cub “Duma” and bonds with the animal, but his father (Campbell Scott) reminds him that Duma must return to the wild before he gets too old to assimilate.  Then the father dies of an illness, and Xan’s mother (Hope Davis) wants to put Duma in the hands of a nature preserve.  Insistent on fulfilling his father’s wishes, Xan runs away into the wild with the cheetah, and encounters a wandering figure named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker).

It’s not hard to spot a running theme throughout Carroll Ballard’s directorial career.  His 1979 feature debut (what most, including myself, consider his masterpiece) The Black Stallion concerns a young boy and his bond with a wild horse.  In 1983, Never Cry Wolf told the story of a man and his bond with wild wolves. 1996’s Fly Away Home is about a young girl and her bond with wild geese.  And so in 2005, Ballard again returns to explore the relationship between humans and the animals they grow attached to.

It’s something he’s really good at.  His movies are never about trying to make the animals more human.  Always he — and the characters he puts before us — respect the wildness of these creatures, demonstrating how an animal and a human can love each other, but there is always an otherness that divides them.  Xan respects Duma’s innate need to be a cheetah, and Duma appears to enjoy Xan’s company for the time being.  The recognition of the inherent gulf between their species does not make their mutual affection any less touching.

However, Ballard’s films show a steady decline in quality.  The photography is stunningly beautiful as always, there is genuine joy in the bond between Xan and Duma, and genuine thrills in their adventures with Ripkuna.  Fine performances from Walker and Michaeletos.  But the narrative feels all too episodic, making it feel like a collection of anecdotes rather than a developing story with an arc.  Out of one scrape, into another, this happened and then that happened.  Ticking off the beats of the plot.  Enjoyable, but less stirring than Ballard’s previous works.  Rating: Good (72)


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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Posted by martinteller on August 9, 2015

I would say this is the weakest of Roy Andersson’s modern (i.e., from 1987 until today) films.  But that isn’t saying much, because that has been a formidable body of work, even though it includes only two shorts and two other features.  The two features — Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007) — precede this one as the beginning and middle of a trilogy about “being a human being”.  Here he finally completes his magnum opus.

Those familiar with the previous entries will know what to expect.  Completely static shots of dreary figures in bland settings (beige and gray dominate the color scheme), vignettes that stretch the boundaries of “deadpan” to comment wryly on the human condition.  The comedy is black.  Very black indeed at times, as this film features the most disturbing scene of Andersson’s career, followed immediately by one that is his darkest since 1991’s short World of Glory.

It’s the overwhelming misery of this movie that makes me rank it below the others.  The comedy is more sparse, and one sequence (involving Charles XII showing up at a diner while his troops march past the window) is frustratingly tedious in a way that Andersson never was before, even in his slowest-paced scenes.  Don’t get me wrong, there is undoubtedly humor to be found, but to me it seems that the director’s pessimism is growing.

And yet, his compassion for humanity still shines through the cynicism.  If he sees humans as often indifferent to (or exploitative of) the suffering of others, he sees also their fragility and their foibles.  A recurring line is “I’m happy to hear that you’re doing fine”, always spoken to an unseen, unheard listener on the other end of a telephone call (and always repeated, as if the other person didn’t hear it the first time).  No one ever actually looks that happy when saying it, and one suspects that further investigation would show that the other party isn’t doing all that fine — but one senses a deep compassion and empathy for all involved.  As we endure unrequited love, or impending financial ruin, or bureaucratic frustration, or insensitive greed, or outright cruelty… as we endure, Andersson wants to try to make us happy, like the two novelty item salesmen who are the film’s most prominent recurring characters (is it me, or does their “Uncle One-Tooth” mask look like Ingmar Bergman?).  We can laugh at the absurdities of life, and the awful tendencies we have as human beings, even while we suffer for them.  But in this final act of the trilogy, there is perhaps more anger (“No one ever asked for forgiveness”) than amusement.

There are several fantastic moments, whether because of their humor or observations or touching sympathy.  In the film’s most transcendent scene, a 1942 barmaid erupts into song.  The scene abruptly returns to the present day and the joy of the music is instantly undercut by melancholy.  Andersson’s sympathy for humanity has always been evident… rarely is it so moving.  I wish the film had more of such a beautiful balance of hope and misery, instead of leaning so much towards the depressing.  But it has enough greatness to warrant a second look.  Rating: Very Good (88)


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Force Majeure

Posted by martinteller on August 1, 2015

We all like to think we’d be the hero in a crisis situation.  Especially when it comes to protecting our loved ones.  But in the heat of the moment, a primal instinct can kick in.  A survival instinct.  This movie explores that scenario as a father abandons his wife and children in the face of peril.  And more importantly, what happens afterward.

You could argue endlessly about what a person’s split-second instincts say about him or her.  Is it a sign that Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is a fundamentally selfish man, or not built to be a provider?  Or is it unfair to judge a person based on their snap decisions?  Perhaps what’s more important is how they deal with it afterwards.  This is the opportunity to take responsibility… to “man up” as one might put it (and Tomas certainly feels his masculinity is in jeopardy).

Watching Tomas and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) try to keep it together makes for compelling viewing that raises questions about trust, identity, and even fidelity.  On the one hand, if you can’t trust your partner to “man up”, can you trust him to be faithful?  On the other hand, perhaps monogamous relationships aren’t the ideal, and putting all your faith in one individual is just asking for disappointment.  The film explores this possibility as well.

Writer/director Ruben Östlund examines such serious subject matter with a nice touch of dark humor.  You can’t help but laugh at Tomas’s phony theatrics, or the lame obviousness of a staged attempt to present a unified couple to the children.  However, some of Östlund’s offbeat flourishes are a bit ostentatious, and come off as artistry looking for a purpose.  Despite a few missteps, a quite worthwhile movie.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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July 2015 Recap

Posted by martinteller on July 31, 2015

New viewings: 11 (plus 3 shorts)

1. The Search for General Tso
2. Antarctica
3. Daughter From Danang
4. A Long Goodbye
5. The Babadook

6. Bless Their Little Hearts
7. Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys
8. Tig
9. Deep Valley

10. Trainwreck
11. Ant-Man

I also watched a few of the Carroll Ballard shorts included on the Blu-Ray for The Black Stallion, but none of them were worth writing about.

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The Search for General Tso

Posted by martinteller on July 27, 2015

Who doesn’t like Chinese food?  Crazy people.  And I should know… I used to be involved with a crazy person, and she did not like Chinese food.  As for me, I love the stuff.  I’ve had a few somewhat “authentic” Chinese food experiences (ask me about cold spicy chicken feet) but really when I crave Chinese food, I want the cheap Americanized stuff.

This highly enjoyable documentary tries to track down the origins of the now-ubiquitous “General Tso’s Chicken” (also General Tsao, Cho, Gao, or a dozen other variants).  Along the way it explores the General himself, how Chinese food became such an American phenomenon, the struggles of Chinese immigrants in America, cultural attitudes about re-purposed ethnic food in general, among other topics.  One of the most enlightening sections concerns the organizations that help Chinese immigrants get their own restaurants established, doling out territory and giving advice on how to make the dishes — usually a far cry from anything they actually ate in their homeland — that Americans want to buy.  I also loved the discussion of the value of authenticity.

Sometimes the movie skims over certain things in a way that leaves you wishing they’d dug a little deeper.  For instance there is a mention of the anti-Chinese racist sentiments that cropped up in the 50’s, but the movie doesn’t really say anything about the subject except that Nixon’s visit to China kind of turned that around.  But for a 70-minute film, it covers a lot of ground, and does so in a manner that’s often informative and always entertaining.

And mouth-watering.  I think I’m gonna try to make some General Tso’s Chicken myself next week.  Rating: Very Good (85)


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Dolgie provody (A Long Goodbye)

Posted by martinteller on July 27, 2015

My first film by Soviet director Kira Muratova studies the strained relationship between translator Yevgeniya Vasilyevna (Zinaida Sharko) and her withdrawn teenage son Ustinov (Oleg Vladimirsky).  Ustinov is planning to live with his more permissive father, and Yevgeniya tries to prevent his departure in ways that make her unsympathetic.  But Ustinov is no saint either, sullen in that kind of aimlessly defiant way that teenagers often are.  The film is most remarkable for its sound design, often emphasizing the generation gap (such as when two different strains of music compete for the soundtrack) or lack of communication, sometimes by dropping out the sound completely, and sometimes by introducing snatches of circular, repetitive dialogue.  The chasm between mother and son is further emphasized by the apartment they occupy, which places them in closed quarters and yet still distant.  However, Muratova’s seemingly cynical view of the inability for these characters to connect (or really, any two characters in the film) is tempered by a somewhat more hopeful ending.  Rating: Very Good (82)


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two on a Saturday

Posted by martinteller on July 25, 2015

Welp, Ant-Man was a big piece of shit… charmless, predictable, clichéd, and worst of all, boring.  There is some mildly fun energy in the early stages, with a pretty decent training montage (although peppered with quips that were too familiar to be clever).  But the closer it gets to its so-called climax, the more generic and tiresome it gets.  I’m done with superhero movies.  Done.  Rating: Crap (33)

Earlier today I watched Deep Valley, an overcooked melodrama that is elevated by its cynical, noir-ish tone.  And by Ida Lupino, who just can’t help being a compelling presence (Moonrise‘s Dane Clark isn’t that bad either).  Jean Negulesco directs with his usual competence, but again seems to drop the ball when it comes to plot momentum.  Still, he pulls off some fine construction of mood, especially in establishing the oppressive misery of Lupino’s home life.  Rating: Good (74)

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Posted by martinteller on July 17, 2015

Credit to Amy Schumer’s comedic sensibilities, there are about a dozen good laughs in this movie.  Brie Larson and Bill Hader both come off well, and it’s fun to see talented people I enjoy like Dave Attell, Kyle Dunnigan, Claudia O’Doherty, Jon Glaser and Tim Meadows.  Aaaaand that’s about all I can do as far as saying nice things.  This mess of a movie does not know what it wants to be, trying to fit into the Apatow formula but it swerves all over the place.  Scenes feel unfinished, unpolished, pasted together, just fragments of ideas that were meant to be built up later into something meaningful.  Schumer’s character is not so much “complex” or “daring” as she is “unlikable”.  Her whole relationship with Hader feels unearned, and I kept wondering why he wanted to be with her.  And the stuntcasting gets very tiring.  Hey, everything’s funnier when it’s being said by LeBron James, right?  Oh look, it’s Daniel Radcliffe doing a thing.  Here’s Matthew Broderick for no good reason.

The movie is most successful when it goes for laughs.  When it tries to do anything else, it falls flat.  Rating: Crap (37)


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Daughter from Danang

Posted by martinteller on July 13, 2015

Hiep was one of thousands of “orphaned” children airlifted out of Vietnam at the end of the war, whisked away to shiny new lives in the United States.  The thing is, Hiep — now Heidi Bub — was no orphan.  Her mother, Mai Thi Kim, was abandoned when her husband ran off to fight for the Communists.  An American G.I. offered financial support in exchange for Mai Thi’s “love”, and the result was Hiep.  The mother was persuaded to give up her child, knowing that she would have a better life in America.  Now in her early 20’s, Heidi is married and has two kids.  She has easily passed as a Caucasian, and is “101% Americanized”.  She learns that her mother is still alive and travels to Vietnam to reunite with her family.

If that were the whole story, it would be a mildly interesting and probably heartwarming documentary, and also informative about the whole process of getting these kids to the US (there’s chilling stock footage of an American woman, who I’m sure thinks she’s doing the most amazing, wonderful thing, talking Vietnamese women into handing over their children).  But it doesn’t end there.  Heidi is ill-prepared for this journey, both culturally and emotionally.  Her adoptive mother was cold and abusive, and even disowned her.  Heidi, perhaps desperate for parental affection, flings herself into a situation that she just isn’t ready for.  Never mind that she can barely communicate with her relatives without an interpreter present… the Vietnamese attitudes about family are very alien to her.

I don’t want to give away too much.  The story takes a very interesting development that shocks Heidi.  It challenges the viewer to consider everything that’s going on before passing judgment.  Try to put yourself in Heidi’s shoes.  Try to put yourself in her family’s shoes.  Is either really so wrong?

This thought-provoking film is available on YouTube.  Rating: Very Good (83)


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