PIG

Mani Haghighi is an Iranian director that I was unfamiliar with until this film. I hope to see more of his other movies after experiencing this vastly entertaining piece of sick humor about social climbing and status in the country of Iran. The set up is pretty simple and intriguing. Hasan Kasmai is a director of films in Iran, but he has run a fowl of the government censorship  rules and is basically barred from working in film for an unspecified period of time. While he is making due with commercial shoots and keeping up with the film community in the culture world, other Iranian film directors are being murdered by a serial killer, who has the unmitigated Gaul to ignore Hasan.

It might seem that serial murder and laughter are not complimentary companions, Haghighi as screenwriter, director and early victim, manages to argue persuasively that they do. Hasan is a close friend of the first victim we see and is asked to identify the body, correction, not the body, just the head. A moment from a Farelly Brother’s movie follows. It is painful, hysterical and gruesome all at once. Hasan is the central figure and his displacement in the community is heightened by the fact that everyone else in the community seems to be a target except him.

Some moments of grisly farce are interspersed with fantasy dream sequences as Hasan goes from being neglected potential victim to social media star suspect. His interviews with investigating officials don’t seem to lead anywhere except into a deeper hole. His aged mother has some dementia issues but at times she comes across as his strongest defender and the one who makes the most sense in the story. The other women in his life are breaking his heart or stalking him. We can’t really tell if one is a red herring or a black widow.

The character of the director who is lost emotionally and professionally is still pretty sympathetic. With his hangdog face and moribund demeanor he seems like a sad sack case but one that manages to be a provocative outsider. In every scene he appears in  Hasan wears a metal band tee shirt, including two Kiss shirts featuring the image of Gene Simmons. This was not something I expected to see in an Iranian movie but it clearly made an impression on me. Two other items that made a deep impression are the pesticide commercial he is directing and the music video he creates in his head as he is held in solitary confinement for a period.

The absurd story plays out with a great deal of violence and ridiculous imagery, which was all entertaining as hell. I’m sure Howard might have his own thoughts to write about but he told me this was the best thing he saw at the AFI Fest, and I could easily believe it. I can hardly wait for a blu-ray release.

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Lemonade

So I had an opportunity to meet up with a Fellow member of the Lamb at the AFI Fest yesterday. Howard Casner and I are the two senior sheep in the flock so to speak. Most of the other lambs are half our ages. We were talking on a podcast a few weeks ago and he mentioned he would be attending the AFI Fest in Hollywood. Since Monday was a school holiday, I was able to accept his offer of a couple of tickets to screenings at the festival. We greeted each other and had a nice conversation at McDonalds before getting in line for the first of the two films.

“Lemonade” is a Romanian production filmed in the U.S. and featuring actress Mãlina Manovici. She plays Mara, an immigrant who has married an American that she took care of at a convalescent hospital. She is seeking a green card and has arranged for her son to join her in the States. This is a stark tale of immigrant struggles against bureaucracy,  culture clash and toxic male  hegemony. It is a well told story but bleak for a number of reasons.

It is easy to appreciate the desire to locate to the U.S. when your economic opportunities are limited. Mara seems to have lucked out by connecting with a kind man who seems to care for her and is trying to cope with some medical issues at the same time. There are a number of hoops she must jump through as a result of the marriage. The Immigration agent investigating her case asks pointed questions of her and it’s not long before some shocking unpleasantness rears its ugly head. The main issue I had with the film concerns the way in which the difficulties start stacking up. In addition to potential and real exploitation, she is swept up in a child neglect case, her husband is not very understanding about the abuse that has been directed at her, and the strategy her lawyer recommends is full of danger and potential humiliation.

Manovici is suitably hopeful and naive as she confronts a pretty dark vision of America. The emotional scenes are handled well and she is appropriately defiant and cowed in a long conversation in an automobile. As loathsome as this encounter is, another one is coming up that will make you equally sick. As is typical in the American system, justice cannot be had simply because a rule or law has been broken. Her attorney sums it up well when he explains that victims get the benefit of the doubt and the system protects them more than it punishes the guilty. There is a little bit of convoluted hope at the end of the story and the aphorism that gives the movie it’s title is revealed.

Overlord

Frankly, this was the most entertaining movie I have seen in a while. It’s not artistic, or deep. It lacks the elegance of some fine movies that I have seen in the last few months. But if you were to ask me to go with you to see this movie, I’d do it in a heartbeat because I had so much fun the first time. This is the Nazi Zombie movie about D-Day. If that thumbnail does not turn you on immediately, you are reading the wrong blog. This premise could have been done 40 years ago. That it is a current film is just coincidence. This is well made pulp horror, that scares you and takes it’s time building tension and does so with energy.

“Overlord” starts as a typical WWII film, with the exception that black American soldiers are integrated into the combat units fighting the war, that just was not the case.  Otherwise, this is just a few men on a mission to destroy a radio tower that is crucial to the success of D-Day. Most of the Platoon is obliterated by anti-aircraft flak and German soldiers on the ground. The four who make it together to their destination include a milquetoast black private, a stereotypical wise guy, a photographer who is sort of in the way of the tough corporal who is the demolition expert and ends up as the leader of the team. The combat scenes are brutally realistic and there is some vivid sound editing in the film that will make the battles stand out. Of course it turns out there is more to the location than just the radio tower and that’s when the horror really begins.

Like a lot of WWII films, this one manages to get a female into the story so it is not completely male-centric. That does not make this a feminist film by any stretch of the imagination but Chloe, the young woman in the story played by Mathilde Ollivier, turns out to be pretty tough and when she picks up a machine gun or flame thrower, you better watch out. Jovan Adepo, who was very good as Denzel’s son in “Fences“, shows a lot of range here as a mild mannered man, sent to war, who has to overcome not only the horrors of war but of the nightmare horror story this turns out to be. At first he believes that Corporal Ford as played by Wyatt Russell, may be the worst kind of monster. Soon he discovers that the SS officer in charge of the local area is barely a human at all. When things go south from there his expectations get shifted quite a bit.

The less we see, the more unnerving things can be. That is typical in horror films, but there are also some things that need visualization. The practical effects and make up that are at the center of the story sell the horror factor much more than a lot of CGI blood would have. The fact that these are combat soldiers who are armed and capable, is a little like “Predator”. Russell may not be Arnold, but his bad ass is in for some reversals that are pretty scary. In the end he turns out to be a righteous guy who sees the dangers of technology in the hands of men willing to use it. Don’t worry, it’s not a peace polemic, it is just an interesting aside.

This was just exactly the movie it sets out to be. There is violent war action and tense drama with the civilian population, and then things take a hard left into zombieland.  The music in the  score builds tension and it clearly is designed to turn that tension into scares. The cast is game, the editing is crisp, the visuals are solid and it all works. Maybe it is not a great film, but read the premise again. If it appeals to you at all, I think you will have a heck of a good time.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

There are a lot of things I see in this idea that might make sense for a Holiday movie. The opening is set at Christmas time, the motif uses the Nutcracker Ballet and music, and it is family friendly. Having seen the film however, I can’t really say who it is for. The music is incidental to the story, as is most of the Nutcracker story itself. This is a stand alone movie that is too weird for it’s own good. It lacks the charm to overcome it’s weaknesses and frankly, it is not very well acted.

Set in Victorian Times, this new telling of the Nutcracker focuses on a young girl named Clara, who is mourning her Mother but also trying to be a bit independent. The family dynamic suggests a close bond with her younger brother and older sister, but neither of them become a part of the fantasy here. Her widowed Father also mourns but in the style of keeping a stiff upper lip and conforming to expectations and appearances. This drives a wedge between the two of them which is more appropriate for a contemporary film than one set in the 19th Century. When Clara is lead into the fantasy Realms of the Nutcracker, it is then she discovers how her Mother created this world and brought it to life. The four realms are sometimes ignorant of the real world but at other times seem to be well aware of what is going on there. The world building in this fantasy makes very little sense and never seems consistent.

Morgan Freeman appears as Drosselmeyer, and in this story, he gives gifts and is an inventor, but not as good an inventor as Clara’s Mother or her. He is in the bookend segments of the film only. Occupying the main story, which involves a war between one of the realms and the others, is Keira Knightly as the Sugar Plum fairy and Helen Mirren as Mother Ginger. We at first do not understand what is at the base of the conflict, and at the end we are equally ignorant. The contrivances the story comes up with are just odd. The mouse king is not really a king, the evil is very unclear, and the ray gun that transforms toys into soldiers is ridiculous. The fact that it operates using the key that Clara is searching for is so forced as to make this film feel more mechanical than it intends to be.

No one in the movie is very good, with the exception of maybe Matthew Macfadyen as Clara’s father. Mirren gets little to do and Knightley overplays both the sweetness and the reveal. Jaden Fowora-Knight is well cast as the Nutcracker, because he is as wooden as you can get. He is a handsome young man with some potential but even this children’s story seems out of his grasp. Mackenzie Foy has the look that Clara needs but her skills are also a bit weak, She is trying to carry this whole production on her shoulders with her charm, and frankly that is an unfair assignment.

The production values on the film are impeccable however. This movie looks like a Christmas picture book and both the “real world” settings and the four realms are lavishly decorated and use color design in interesting ways. The CGI exteriors are picture perfect but the best things are the costumes and the practical set designs. There is a five minute segment where Clara watches an abbreviated version of the Nutcracker Ballet, and the stage craft there is the most inventive aspect of the film and it doesn’t use CGI at all. There is a stacking clown sequence that uses a combination of CGI and costumes to achieve it’s look and that was also worthy. Lasse Hallström with an assist from Joe Dante, directed this film. It reminds me a lot of the  Barry Levinson misfire from 1992, “Toys”. Both have mildly interesting premises and are being sold as Family Holiday movies, but despite amazing art direction, they just don’t connect with an audience.

Bohemian Rhapsody

I was introduced to the music of Queen while I was in college. A senior on the Trojan Debate Squad, Mark Dickerson, was selling me some of his old sample cases since his debate career was finished. I went to his apartment and he played some Tom Scott jazz records while we were talking. As I was looking through his album collection, I came across the Queen Album “A Night at the Opera”. I asked about it and he played Bohemian Rhapsody for me, I was hooked. That summer when my family took a trip across country in the Chrysler Station wagon, I contributed two 8 track tapes to the trip. One was the Blue Oyster Cult album, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, the other was the aforementioned classic. We must have listened to the whole thing a dozen times between California and New York.

What made Freddie Mercury so great as an artist was both his vocal range and his theatricality. The film about the band, but mostly about Freddie, gets those two things right. The music tracks are synced up to work with the film and the performance of Rami Malek does justice to Mercury’s out sized persona. From put upon son of an immigrant family to one of the most charismatic performers of the rock era, Malek captures the essence of Mercury, even if he does not sing all the songs himself. As for the story, I suspect it has been cleaned and tweaked and molded into something that will be appealing to a mass audience, although how accurate it ultimately is will probably be a subject for discussion for many miles down the road.

Obviously for dramatic purposes, many events have to be condensed to tell the story in a timely fashion. The music montages that rocket us from his first performance with the band mates that connect with each other, to their signing a recording contract and becoming a major attraction in England is pretty swift. It does showcase some tremendous songs however and we see the flowering of his personality on stage. The romantic story that accompanies this rise is quite sweet but it is uncertain. We know that his life was extravagant and ultimately his sexuality is more focused elsewhere, but the pairing between him and Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin feels sincere and plays out in the early stages like most romantic films. The complexity of his need for her in his life might have made the film story more memorable, but it is largely glossed over and we simply are expected to accept that she accepts his terms for their relationship.

The traditional story beats of a band that comes together, struggles to find it’s voice and holds firm in the face of doubters are all played out here. The band members are introduced and each has sufficient personality to distinguish him enough to get the outlines of the story, but none of them have any complexity to draw focus away from Freddie himself.  When they argue over the inclusion of one song or another on their upcoming album, it feels more like a contractual obligation to keep the roles clear and give each member some role in the success of the band. Their sniping over song titles and lyrics is just an amusing way to show that the band was not just Mercury. There are some fun scenes where the creation of key works is mythologized. Roger Taylor hitting the high notes during the chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody is played for laughs. The idea that “We Will Rock You” is an audience participation number designed to feed upon the growing relationship of the band with it’s international audience, is planted like a seed to bring the fantasy to life.  If the bass riffs used to calm an argument can become the basis for “Another One Bites the Dust”, than all the better.

The downward trajectory of Mercury is set up early on by both the self discovery of his sexual identity and the indulgences of a decadent lifestyle. Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll are a cliche that even the great ones cannot escape. After bitterly discharging a longtime manager for suggesting he pursue a solo career, Freddie is guided into trying exactly that by a sycophantic friend and romantic interest who we have been suspicious of from the beginning. I quite liked the mea culpa that Malek has to make Freddie go through to be able to reconnect with his three musical partners. It’s a good scene that allows the actor to perform as a character and not just a performer. The performance part gets the full attention treatment in the last part of the film. The Live Aid Concert and the moments with a new romantic interest and his family, feel a bit contrived by all happening on the same day, but hey it’s Hollywood and we expect to be entertained by a movie. Yanking your heart strings and wowing you with theatrics are two sure fire ways that the screenwriters and primary director Bryan Singer keep you hanging on for two plus hours and send you out of the theater thrilled instead of despairing.  The movie may not be artistic but it is vastly entertaining. Oh yeah, it also has a Killer Soundtrack.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Role Models

This Post was Originally Published on the Defunct Site “Fogs’ Movie Reviews” in the Fall of 2013.

I just bought tickets for three different Concerts in February for the Kiss End of the Road Tour, so this seemed like an easy pick to return to this month.

This is an easy one this week. There is no historical value, cinema language, or back story intrigue to make this a movie you should see. It is just funny as all get out with wiseacre talk, inappropriate life lessons and a cast of funny people who are just trying to entertain you for a couple of hours. If you are a fan of films like “I Love You Man” or “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” then you don’t want to miss this treat starring the slacker gods Sean William Scott and Paul Rudd. This is dumb comedy done in a smart way and it has so many quotable lines that it could easily displace Caddyshack on the list of guy movies that guys will quote incessantly.

The premise is basic. Two guys who work together get into a legal tangle and have to do some community service as a way of avoiding jail time. They get sent over to “Sturdy Wings” a mentoring organization along the lines of Big Brothers. Here they are matched with a couple of youngsters and the bonding and hilarity ensue.

I’m not sure why Sean William Scott gets the crap I hear flung at him. He has made a bunch of films that are entertaining and while he is not really a thespian per se, he is usually cast very well and “Role Models” may very well be his perfect role. As Wheeler, the less ambitious and more socially satisfied of the two, he espouses wisdom like a college student, after midnight on a three hour buzz from the hot box he got out of on his way to the frat party.  While there are some drug references, this is not a stoner film like the Seth Rogan comedies of the past ten years. Wheeler is an amiable goof who probably will not get far in life but who deserves every friend he has.

Typical Wheeler Philosophy:

Wheeler: Never stare at the boobies, kid. Once you get caught, the game’s over.

Ronnie Shields: But how?

Wheeler: It’s called training. You know, being aware without drawing attention. You don’t think I’ve noticed those 34 C’s in the camouflage tank top setting up a tent directly to the left of us? Or how about those twin cannons hiking up a mountain ridge 50 yards due west? Or the ridge itself? Round mounds of grass shaped like…

Ronnie Shields: Boobies!

Wheeler: Don’t look over there. Look here. Focus… You’ll get it.

role models 4

Wheeler’s counterpart is Danny, the spokesperson for an energy drink who despises his job. Danny is at the point in life where he is afraid he is settling and he does not like it. Paul Rudd plays him as if he has a chip on his shoulder and he uses it to justify being a douche to everyone around him.  Obviously, the events in the film are designed to be a wake up call for him to adjust his attitude. Thankfully, before that happens we get an exchange like this:

Danny: Large black coffee.

Barista: Do you mean a venti?

Danny: No, I mean a large.

Barista: Venti is large.

Danny: No, venti is twenty. Large is large. In fact, tall is large and grande is Spanish for large. Venti is the only one that doesn’t mean large. It’s also the only one that’s Italian. Congratulations, you’re stupid in three languages.

Role Models movie image Jane LynchSturdy Wings is founded and run by addict turned do-gooder Gayle Sweeny, played by the acerbic Jane Lynch. She is in the movie for about ten minutes and steals every scene she appears in. Her lines are some of the most foul and most quotable and of course the most funny. Before she was drained of all her charm by “Glee” she made this movie a comic gem by her presence.  If “Big Bird” was a human, he’d look and move like Gayle (of course that language would never come out of his mouth).

The two kids that Danny and Wheeler get matched up with are nightmares themselves. Ronnie, is a pre teen firecracker with the mouth of a sailor. In a battle of wits with Wheeler, the kid wins most of the time. Bobb’e J. Thompson has personality to spare and he plays up the part so well that I wondered how they got away with the dialogue he has to speak. Maybe I’m a little sheltered but if I met a nine year old kid with a mouth like that, I’d be looking for child protective services to take him out of the environment he is being raised in.

Christopher Mintz-Plasse is so familiar a face in movies now a days, that it is hard to remember what a sensation he was in “Superbad”. This was his next role, playing the awkward Augie. A socially maladjusted teen, maybe a little old for the program but who needs the kind of attention a good pal would bring. You get a sense of what kind of fun friend he could be when he encourages Danny to use the phrase “Whispering Eye”.  I won’t spoil it for you if you have not yet seen this.

A lot happens in the film as the two losers try to meet their hours of public service but don’t quite get how this service works. There is admittedly a cliche heartwarming plot line that takes up the second act and will have few surprises but a bucket load of laughs. Sometimes the last part of a movie is a letdown for viewers. How can the characters live up to the potential that has been created in the first two thirds of the movie. “Role Models” answers that question by bringing in the greatest plot twist a classic rock fan like me could want. A special guest appearance by “Kiss”. OK, not really but  in spirit at least.

Role Models 1

It’s too complicated to explain so just let the joy of the moment of arrival wash over you. I cheered and laughed and decided right there that this was the greatest movie ever made! I don’t really think so but ask me at the right time and I could commit to that opinion again.

My guess is that most of you have seen the movie so this is a reminder that it should be experienced on a regular basis. It is full of odd ball characters and incredibly funny snark. If you have never watched it, get ready for a blast. If you get to Wheeler’s explanation of Paul Stanley’s lyrics of “Love Gun” and you don’t laugh, turn off the movie and good luck to you. Everybody else should get ready to “Rock and Roll all Night and Part of Every day.” (sic)

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.