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 1980’s called; they want their villain back.
Side Effects is the new thriller written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh (it’s suppose to be Soderbergh’s penultimate movie, but time will tell). I have always considered Soderbergh to be the Michael Curtiz of contemporary cinema. Like Curtiz, he helms solid movies that are well crafted and quite entertaining. And like Curtiz, that’s all they usually are. Curtiz was not a particularly great director, just a superb craftsman of routine studio assignments. He only made one really great movie, Casablanca, and that was great only by accident. It’s hard to say whether Soderbergh will ever even achieve that (his best chances right now are Traffic and Che, with Che being the far superior choice).
Continuing in that tradition, Side Effects is well made, but also a tad routine. It gets the job done and is entertaining, but one can’t say much more than that. In fact, if truth be told, one can actually say a lot less. I really don’t think it works all that well; at least not for me.
The basic premise revolves around a psychiatrist played very handsomely by Jude Law (as if there is any other way for him to play a character) who proscribes a particular medication for a patient, Rooney Mara (of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame); let’s just say that after that, things go a tad awry for the good doc. Also on board for the ride is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Mara’s former therapist.
The movie begins as a social message picture that has such a serious anti-medication slant that it almost seems as if it was written by a Scientologist. It accuses the psychiatric industry of exploiting people (mainly women) in order to sell drugs that probably aren’t helping or needed (and if they work, it’s not because they work, but because the users have been manipulated into believing they work). There is a whiff of hypocrisy here because the screenplay feels like it’s just as exploitive of the people using medication as the pill industry is. Burns and Soderbergh don’t really care about the medicated and their illnesses and desperation any more than the pill industry does. In both cases, the poor schnooks are just there to further an agenda.
But then something happens. The big plot turn that changes everything. And it’s shocking and people gasp and sit up in their seats—except for me, who turned to his friend and told him exactly what was going on (I even knew what was going to happen before it happened). And since the characters aren’t all that interesting, all I’m doing now is waiting to find out whether I’m right or not. And I am.
The final third of the movie is the most interesting. That’s when Law starts fighting back. What he does may not always be that convincing (what he does is more what someone does in a movie than in real life), and I do feel that Burns and Soderbergh cheat a bit here and there, but it is entertaining and fun and suspenseful, so there’s that to make up for the rest.
But there’s another issue here. The big co-villain is that staple of 1980’s villainy, the evil lesbian. And I suppose there is something to be said for progress. I’m not sure what, but still, if this movie had been made back then, there quite possibly would have been demonstrations in the street. Now we’ve progressed to the point where a lesbian villain casts not a whiff of controversy. But when you combine that with the other staple of movie villainy, the woman trying to do a man’s job, but is incompetent at it because she is a woman and is therefore much weaker than a man because she is a victim of her own inherent unstable emotional state, the whole solution to this thriller feels depressingly uninspired and unimaginative; somewhat like Magic Mike, but without all the rear nudity to keep you interested.
What may be even more depressing is that Law reconciles with all the people who betrayed him, including a particularly unsupportive (and not quite believable) wife (let’s just say that women don’t come off too well in this movie—even of Law’s two partners, though both want him out for what happened, the woman’s a “bitch” about it, while the man is more understanding and even tempered). I didn’t understand why Burns and Soderbergh chose to do this. I bought this even less than the plot as a whole and thought that after everything Law went through he deserved a much happier ending. But que sera sera.
Burns and Soderbergh have collaborated before, on Contagion and The Informant!, and in both cases, the movies were much more original and exciting. Here, to be perfectly honest, I felt that they were phoning it in, and getting the wrong number at times.