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what i watched last week

Saving Mr. Banks (John Lee Hancock, 2013). Emma Thompson is good as the author of Mary Poppins, and Tom Hanks is interesting as Walt Disney … his accent is sometimes on the money, such that I fell into nostalgia for the days of Disneyland, but other times he just sounds like Tom Hanks doing an accent. The film doesn’t overcome the dangers of being “based on a true story” when “based” is more important than “true”, and there’s a sense of money-grabbing in the whole affair (Mary Poppins is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary, and Saving Mr. Banks functions as a feature-length preview for that film’s re-release). Perhaps in that way, Saving Mr. Banks is accurate about Disney, who made a lot of money creating entertainment for children. But for the most part, the representation of Disney is too loving and sanitized. 6/10. You don’t really need me to tell you what movie matches up well with this one, do you?

The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982). Paul Newman gets one of those Give Me an Oscar roles, and he manages to keep his dignity. (He got a nomination, but lost to Ben Kingsley. Gandhi, after all, is the ultimate Give Me an Oscar role.) I feared that The Verdict would be a dreary tale of an alcoholic who finds redemption, and was glad to find that the alcoholism was the result of the character’s problems, i.e., it wasn’t about alcohol, it was about a human being. That’s the Oscar part. What The Verdict really is surprised me for some reason: it’s a courtroom drama, Perry Mason with a better budget, more famous guest stars, and artier production. It wasn’t a great courtroom drama, but it was good enough. And late in the film, Lindsay Crouse shows up, which is always a good thing. Five years after Slap Shot, Newman and Crouse are together again! I love recounting Crouse’s career … daughter of playwright Russel Crouse, named Lindsay after her father’s writing partner Howard Lindsay, sister of Timothy Crouse who wrote the fine The Boys on the Bus in the early 70s, wife of David Mamet (who wrote the screenplay for The Verdict), mother of Zosia Mamet, and an important character in Season Four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh yeah, The Verdict … #933 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time (c’mon, it’s not that good). 7/10. They are completely different movies in every possible way, but it might be fun to watch Slap Shot alongside this one.

The Lady (Luc Besson, 2011). 7/10.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010). 7/10.

blu-ray series #11: certified copy (abbas kiarostami, 2010)

I’m familiar with Kiarostami because of his great film, Close-Up, which totally snuck up on me when I saw it. He won’t get that advantage again … I’m ready for excellence from the start. It helped Kiarostami that I held that earlier film in such high regard, because Certified Copy is so annoyingly tricky that I might have given up on it if I didn’t have positive expectations. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Close-Up had more layers than a dozen other movies. As I wrote at the time, “It’s all based on a true story … a man impersonates a noted filmmaker, is caught and tried for fraud, and another filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami, becomes fascinated by the story and films a documentary (Close-Up) as the trial takes place. There is footage from the actual trial (I think, anyway), but there are also re-creations of the events in the case. And in those re-creations, the actual people involved play themselves.” Certified Copy, a fictional film, is layered in a different way. The central theme is the relationship between an original and a copy, and whether a copy can be the equal, or even better, than the original. William Shimell (an opera star making his film acting debut) plays a British author who has written a book, Certified Copy, about this topic. Juliette Binoche plays … well, now I’m venturing into the spoiler zone. When we first meet her, she is attending a talk by the author.

The way Kiarostami uses layers here make the notion of spoilers irrelevant. I could tell you what “happens”, but it is never clear if what is happening is “original” or a “copy”. (I know this doesn’t make sense, and it isn’t even a particularly accurate description of the “plot”, but it’s the best I can do without giving a full plot summary with analysis.) Suffice to say that the relationship between the two main characters is never made entirely clear, which makes Certified Copy something of a puzzle movie. But the setting is a lot like Linklater’s Before movies … the two leads wander around an Italian town, jabbering away, and at times they seem to be playacting for other characters who cross their paths, and they always seem to be playacting for the audience … but then, isn’t that what actors do?

Honestly, I’m not sure what the heck was going on. But Binoche and Shimell are great together, and easy on the eyes, as well. #156 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10. Best companion piece would be the Before Trilogy.

by request: the lady (luc besson, 2011)

Earlier this year, I got an email from a friend in England who had just watched The Lady. He gave it lavish hosannas, and strongly recommended it. I was finally able to catch up with it this week.

The Lady is a “based on a true story” telling of the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is played by Michelle Yeoh, and with that, I’ve already told you the best thing about the movie (I am not to be trusted on this, I am very much the fanboy when it comes to Yeoh). The acting is solid throughout, with David Thewlis drawing our attention as Suu Kyi’s husband. Perhaps too much attention, since the way Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn have decided to “humanize” Suu Kyi is to emphasize what her separation from her family means to her. (Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest in Burma, while her husband and sons lived in England and were only able to make infrequent visits.) This emphasis turns the story of a remarkable woman into the clichéd tale of a woman who must choose between family and work (in her case, “work” being bringing democracy to her country).

Suu Kyi’s actual politics are reduced to a generic call for democracy, a fine agenda, to be sure, but again, without a deeper presentation of her politics, we’re left with a simplified version of reality. Besson wants to make an emotional connection with the audience, and he does very good work with the spectacle surrounding Burma at the time. But he needed to take a few risks … when you are telling the story of a woman who risked everything, you should also step outside the comfort zone of biopic genre conventions.

Still, Yeoh covers up a lot of flaws. She’s grown a lot in her career as well, from being Miss Malaysia to being the one woman Jackie Chan would let do her own stunts, from being the only Bond Girl to suggest she’d make a better 007 than the nominal hero to co-starring in the Oscar-winning classic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She brings something interesting to every role I’ve seen her in, and she is the reason to see The Lady. 7/10. For a different kind of Yeoh, watch Supercop (or Police Story 3, or whatever it’s called this week), or watch her steal Tomorrow Never Dies from Pierce Brosnan.

agents of shield, season one finale

Got a little behind yesterday, as the cable guy came out and installed a new system. (Xfinity X1, if you care.)

Earlier in the week, we got the season finale of Agents of Shield (I still refuse to use their punctuation). I gave the pilot a B+, which was mostly me accepting that I could trust Joss Whedon (it’s unclear how much he actually has to do with the show, of course). I had little specific to say … the most interesting thing was finding out in the comments that Brett Dalton went to Cal with my actor friend Arthur.

The series went rapidly downhill. The characters were mostly boring, the overall arc was vague. I stuck with it because I liked Clark Gregg, because Ming-Na Wen turned 50, allowing me the chance to remark to my wife once per episode, “she’s 50 years old”, usually after her character had kicked some ass, because I hadn’t yet tired of the cutesy smarty pants, FitzSimmons. But it was going nowhere.

And then, things changed. I’m not locked into the Marvel world, and I didn’t see Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so I was never entirely clear about how that movie changed the world of Shield. What I do know is Bill Paxton joined up for a seven-episode arc, and I especially like Paxton when he’s in his Near Dark evil-is-fun mode, so his presence raised the level of everything else. The aforementioned Dalton, who up to that point seemed a bland actor playing a bland character, got a backstory that added a lot to the character, and Dalton responded well. Chloe Bennet’s Skye was integrated into the group, losing much of her annoyance factor. I don’t suppose I’d give the entire season that B+ grade, but the latter part of the season deserved at least that much, and promises much for Season Two, which has already been announced, and which was set up in the concluding scenes of the season finale.

In the Joss World, all of this most closely resembled Dollhouse, which stumbled along in a fairly mediocre way until they mostly junked the standalone episodes and leapt fully into The Dollhouse Arc. By the time the series ended (it got a second season for unknown reasons), it was one of the better shows on TV.

It’s important to note that I’m onboard for Season Two … I don’t stick with shows I don’t like (although I am known to stick with shows I do like far past their sell-by date). But, just as was true before the first episode aired, Agents of Shield is more about potential than anything concrete. Overall grade for Season One: B. Hopes for Season Two: A-.

I’ll add a note that doesn’t really fit anywhere. I’m sure my wife finds it tiresome that I obsess about Ming-Na Wen’s age, but it’s so refreshing to have a 50-year-old woman as a central character in a show like this, and when she kicks ass, it’s even better. Last weekend, I was at a friend’s art show and was talking about Ming-Na and how great she is at 50, when a woman stuck her head in the door and said, “hey, I’m 50 years old!” She was holding a biker’s helmet, and she was pretty much a walking advertisement for the greatness of being 50. I talked with her for a bit … she was pretty funny, told me she’d broken both her knees over the years, but what the heck, right? She was, and I felt silly making so much of age 50.

another pleasant valley thursday

An oldie but goodie, which I suppose is the point of these things. I chose to post this photo again for a specific reason. First, the picture:

brothers grandma dad neal (gabe remix)

This is late 1975-early 1976, or thereabouts. On the left is my older brother Geoff; next to him, my younger brother David. Then Grandma Rubio and me. Finally, there’s my dad, with my son Neal sitting on his lap.

I chose this picture for today because yesterday would have been my dad’s 90th birthday, and tomorrow is Neal’s 39th.

penny dreadful, series premiere

A supernatural thriller/melodrama set in 19th-century London, on Showtime, with Eva Green and Billie Piper (recently seen on Showtime in Secret Diary of a Call Girl). You’d be forgiven for thinking there would be a lot of sex and violence and sexy violence and violent sex … I’ve always thought True Blood was the most Showtime-like series HBO ever ran. You wouldn’t have been wrong in your expectations, exactly, but it turns out Penny Dreadful is a fairly classy attempt at a sex-and-violence melodrama, with some clever angles that promise an interesting future.

The word “classy” isn’t necessarily what you look for in a series that claims to be inspired by the cheap sensationalism of the actual penny dreadfuls. But it’s clear that Showtime intends to offer sensationalism that is anything but cheap. Timothy Dalton plays a leading role … he and Green make something of a time-travel James Bond reunion … Dalton gives us a perfectly submerged hamminess (if he offered straight ham, it would be too much). Literary allusions abound … there are too many spoilers out there, but you won’t get them here. Suffice to say that some of the characters seem to be based on well-known characters from literature, and some are the actual characters.

Plenty of effort has gone into making the world of Penny Dreadful seem “accurate”, rather in the way HBO did for Rome. Things aren’t always clean, class differences are clear, and despite the world of 19th century London seeming at least a little like the present day, we are always reminded that the ensuing 100+ years have seen a lot of change.

Dalton and Green are excellent, which is to be expected. Josh Hartnett? Well, I once wrote of one of his performances that “Josh Hartnett spends the entire movie with a look on his face that says ‘uh oh, that burrito I ate for lunch is about to make my ass explode, I better try to hold it in until this scene is over.’” He isn’t as bothersome here, which is probably good enough.

They’ve saved plenty of surprises for later episodes, and I imagine this will be popular enough to run for several seasons. (Not to mention, Showtime has a long history of keeping series around long past their sell-by date, so we could be seeing Penny Dreadful for quite some time.) For now, I’d put this in the B+/A- range.

what i watched last week

Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Garbo laughs, and she’s very good at it. There are some interesting people in the cast, like theater legend Ina Claire and Bela Lugosi, who only gets one scene. Melvyn Douglas is OK, although he seems to be standing in for someone better. The movie has lots of memorable quotes (“The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”) It’s much better than Billy Wilder’s later One, Two, Three. Lubitsch does his usual good job. Honestly, none of that matters. When Garbo is on the screen, you can’t keep your eyes off of her, and when she’s not on the screen, you realize Ninotchka isn’t quite the classic you’d remembered. #576 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10. You might follow this up with the musical version, Silk Stockings, starring Fred Astaire.

Locke (Steven Knight, 2013). A setup for a tour de force of acting and directing: an 85-minute movie that takes place almost entirely in a car, as we watch and listen to a driver talking to various people on his cell phone. You have to admire the audacious nature of Locke, and it’s not boring (although 85 minutes is just about the limit). Tom Hardy gets the acclaim for his role as the driver, showing us all of the facets of this complicated man. But I think some other actors also deserve credit: the people on the other end of those phone calls. There are, I don’t know, a dozen or so of them, and as the film progresses, their characters become detailed for us, as well. When you see the character names on the cell phone screen as a new call arrives, you look forward to what comes next, because we’ve come to know the callers. In the end, that might be the real tour de force. (The only name I recognized was Olivia Colman of Broadchurch.) 7/10. Not sure what matches up with this … Vanishing Point?

Hausu (Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, 1977). (Also known as House.) The all-time leader in the I Can’t Describe It, You’ll Just Have to Watch It category. And it doesn’t really help even if I could describe it, because the look of the film is so bonkers you still have to see it to appreciate it (or hate it … “bonkers” isn’t a value judgment, it’s a statement of fact). A look at some of the 85 “plot keywords” listed on the IMDB suggests some of what you might see: hapkido, female frontal nudity, female warrior, psychedelic, surrealism, visual hallucination, playing a piano, dismemberment, coming of age, watermelon, experimental film, and banana (yes, banana). You’d be right if you noted that those aren’t really plot points, but then, plot isn’t the primary concern here. Oh, I can briefly offer the scenario: teenage girl in Japan, along with six of her girl friends, go to visit her aunt’s house. The girls have names (in the translation, at least) like Gorgeous and Melody and Kung Fu. Kung Fu was my favorite, in fact, although what happens to Melody when she fulfills the “playing a piano” part of the plot is pretty much the highlight of the movie. I can’t help but be vague … I could tell you the “good parts” and it wouldn’t even be much of a spoiler, because seeing is believing here. 7/10. I have no idea what other movies might play well with this … you hear talk that Evil Dead 2 wouldn’t have happened without Hausu. The movie that came to mind for me was The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? This is a better movie than that one, though.

music friday, 2005 edition

You’re on your own this week … no time for anything but a list:

Amy Rigby, “The Trouble with Jeanie”.

Kanye West featuring Jamie Foxx, “Gold Digger”.

R. Kelly, “Trapped in the Closet, Chapter 1”.

Spoon, “I Turn My Camera On”.

Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.”.

Sleater-Kinney, “Let’s Call It Love/Night Light”. OK, I said no notes, but Janet Weiss (sigh) is a great drummer.