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 dystopian future in Looper, the new time travel movie written and directed by Rian Johnson, is every Democrat’s nightmare of what would happen if the Republicans regained control of the government: no middle class; no social safety net; everyone has guns; and China rules the world economy.
Everyone seems loopy over Looper (sorry, couldn’t resist), but I have to admit it left me more than a bit under whelmed. The basic idea, the conceit, it absolutely brilliant in its high conceptiveness (I love making up words): as anyone who has seen the previews knows, time travel has been invented in the future, but has been outlawed, and only bad guys use it to send people back it time to be assassinated by hired killers, called Loopers (the main one here played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). But then things didn’t quite go as I expected. In fact, once this conceit was established, I found the plot just one arbitrary decision after another until I felt the writer was driving the story rather than the concept and the characters changing the gears.
First, I find it almost impossible to believe that all the future governments would have gotten together in order to ban time travel (this is perhaps the Republicans’ nightmare view of what would happen if the Democrats regained power—world peace and cooperation). But let’s let that go; I’m more than willing to at least give that much on the basic set up (hey, I can be a good sport at times).
But things started falling apart for me when it was revealed that at some point, the looper’s future self is sent back for assassination. Why? Well, the only reason really given is that time travel is so illegal (you know, as opposed to only so-so illegal–like marijuana, maybe), they have to be disposed of. Okay, fine. But a week later and I still haven’t figured out the cause and effect here.
When this future looper is sent back, his present day counterpart kills him (himself); realizes that the time has come for him to retire; and he’s given a big payoff so that he can live out the rest of his life the way he would like. Thirty years to be exact. Why thirty? Why not thirty-one? Why not twenty-eight? Why not thirty-three and a third? Do I hear forty two years, one hundred and twenty two days? Again, a week later and I still haven’t figured out the cause and effect here.
But the arbitrariness doesn’t stop there. There are actually two, count them two for the price of one, conceits to the story. It’s not just a high concept movie, it’s a HIGH high concept movie. Some people in this future have suddenly obtained a genetic mutation that gives them a telekinetic ability. I’m not sure why Johnson fell he needed this to be part of the plot. To be ruthlessly honest, it feels like the sort of thing that is added when a writer doesn’t trust his basic concept (which, if so, is too bad, because again, the concept is brilliant) or it’s the only way he can force an ending based on the premise first given. It’s not that it doesn’t play a part in the story, but it just seems so…arbitrary, and not nearly as interesting as the original idea of loopers. But a writer’s got to do what a writer’s got to do, I guess.
It all leads to a showdown on a remote farm run by the only empathetic character in the story played by Emily Blunt (though for me, I just didn’t find her interesting enough to empathize with). You see (and stay with me here), in the future some ruthless gangster has gained control of all gangs and is systematically getting rid of all loopers (how anyone could know what is going on in the future is never explained). This leads to a child being raised by Blunt, a cute as a buttons, barely out of his nappies boy who has such an advanced stage of the telekinesis gene, that in the future it will give him the power to take over everything. (Exactly why he only takes over the gangs when with power like this he could take over the world, well…whatever).
So this new boss must be eliminated, because the men he sends out after Gordon-Levitt’s future looper (played by Bruce Willis) accidentally kill his future wife and Willis must stop this from happening. So, the goal is kill this kid so he won’t grow up to be a ruthless, sociopathic gangster that will do anything to gain power as opposed to the way everybody else grows up if the new boss never came along—ruthless, sociopathic gangsters that will do anything to gain power. But at least the future wife will still be alive (well, I guess—I mean, she died unintentionally so it could have happened no matter who ran the gangs, but a reason was needed for the future looper to come back, no matter how….arbitrary, I guess).
Wow, that was kind of exhausting.
At the same time, the movie is technically arresting, creating a very convincing nightmarish future, though perhaps the most impressive and moving shots are not the crumbling cities, but a lonely diner and farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. There are also some beautiful shots of an Asian city in the future that would be perfect for one of those 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles. And there are also some moments of wit, not just in the dialog, but in the way Gordon-Levitt mimics Willis’s facial expressions. But perhaps the emotional high point is the rather stunning and deeply emotional moving way Johnson ends the story; no matter what had come before, the ending does get to you.
This is the second time that Gordon-Levitt has joined forced with Johnson. They first worked together on the high school, hard boiled film noir Brick, a cult favorite (something I have little doubt that Looper will also become). I actually sorta have the same issues with Brick as I do here. The concept of teenagers acting like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and talking like Sam Spade was arresting at first (though my immediate reaction was actually, I’ve seen Bugsy Malone, I don’t quite get the originality here), but in the end, I started losing interest because I felt the concept was driving the story and little else. It was the same here.
But also like Brick, I realize I’m going to be on the outside of the zeitgeist here. Johnson is brilliant at concepts and is every studio’s dream. The fact that he and I don’t see eye to eye will probably in the end say more about me than him.