Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pantaleon y las Visitadores (Captain Pantoja and the Special Services, 2000) ***

I chose this one simply because my Peruvian friend suggested it as a good example of Peruvian cinema.  Interestingly, it is a remake of a 1975 film based on a Peruvian novel.  It turned out to be quite good, and surprisingly deep, given the subject matter.
Army Captain Pantaleon is selected for a top-secret mission.  Soldiers in remote jungle outposts are becoming restless, so far from their wives and girlfriends.  A number of rapes in far-flung villages have been blamed on the military, and the generals decide that a solution is needed.  Pantaleon is recruited to discreetly establish a military prostitution service.  The women, called Visitors, will see to the needs of the soldiers and be well paid, but the whole operation has to be kept quiet.
Pantaleon turns out to be the perfect choice, although he accepts it reluctantly.  As a newly-wed, clean-cut, Boy Scout type, he is less susceptible than many would be to the inherently corrupting nature of his task.  He plots and executes the operation with a businesslike efficiency that makes his superiors proud.  Unfortunately, when Pantaleon stands up for his Visitors publicly, he learns an unfortunate lesson about military expediency.
Rather than simply playing the story off for laughs or melodrama, the film strikes a nice balance of humor and realism.  Most impressively, it develops the character of Pantaleon, who initially seems so squeaky-clean, but turns out to be very complex and noble.  “Pantaleon y las Visitadores” is by turns funny, sexy, and poignant, and well worth watching.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) ***1/2

It’s a shame this move is weighed down by such a cumbersome name.  It’s an excellent, very sexy movie about swinging married couples in the late ’60’s.
Bob (Robert Culp) and Carol (Natalie Wood) attend a New Age, group therapy session that transforms their relationship and consciousness.  Suddenly they are asking everyone how they “feel” about things, and urging everyone to tell the “real truth.”  Their newfound enlightenment prompts Bob to confess immediately after having an affair, and that same enlightenment allows Carol to laugh it off without jealousy.  When Carol turns the tables, it takes Bob slightly longer to get into the groove, but ultimately they are really both very hip about the whole thing.  Their best friends, Ted (Elliott Gould) and Alice (Dyan Cannon) have a harder time accepting the whole grooviness of this lifestyle when they learn of it.
I should temper my praise for the movie with a warning that it is quite chatty.  “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is hilarious at times, but it is also a serious movie about sex and relationships.  It is not paced like a romantic comedy.  The characters have long conversations, which for me is the strength of the film.  They really take time to explore these issues of love, sex, jealousy, and friendship.  The film is an excellent time capsule of what some people were thinking about these subjects back in the swinging ‘60’s.
“Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” reminds me of another movie, “Carnal Knowledge,” starring Jack Nicholson, Candace Bergen, and Art Garfunkel.  Both films were groundbreaking in their frank exploration of sexual politics.  The difference is that “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” is much easier to watch.  The characters are generally good people, which makes the film perhaps less grittily realistic than “Carnal Knowledge,” but definitely more fun.  Also, Natalie Wood is absolutely adorable and looks great in her underwear!

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Atlas Shrugged Part I (2011) ***

Next to Hillary Clinton, Ayn Rand is probably the most polarizing woman of modern times.  Her two most well-known books, “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” have helped countless twenty-something Americans figure out which side of the ideological divide we fall on.  Love her or hate her, chances are you at least know the basics of her philosophy:  Individual freedom is all-important.  The world works best when every individual looks out for his or her own rational self-interest (The virtue of selfishness).  The world moves forward because of the insights of individual creators and inventors.  Individual producers should be free to exchange their wares in the free market of laissez-faire capitalism, and government should not confiscate the fruits of their labor in order to feed people who do not produce.
These ideas are obviously a counterpoint to the views of the Left, and that was Rand’s intention.  Her books gained traction because they gave voice to a worldview held by at least half the country, but generally ignored by artists.  This is why Rand’s voice still speaks so loudly today despite the fact that she is arguably a writer of limited talents.  Even those who love her ideas have to admit that her books are ponderous and preachy, with often ludicrous plot elements.  Still, critiquing Ayn Rand’s writing at this point is as pointless as criticizing the Bible.  The ideas are the important things, and people either believe them or they don’t.
This brings us to the “Atlas Shrugged” movie.  It has been on my Netflix queue for ages, constantly overlooked.  I happen to be one who likes Rand’s ideas, but I was not optimistic about this film.  The book “Atlas Shrugged” is long and full of pages-long monologues on various themes of Rand’s political philosophy.  I figured it was un-filmable.
Imagine my surprise when the movie turned out to be watchable!  It’s beautifully filmed, the (mostly little-known) actors are competent, and the film actually manages to boil down Rand’s stilted, preachy narrative into something that mostly flows, while maintaining her message.
For those who haven’t read the book, it is the story of industrialists and inventors trying to keep their businesses going during an economic depression and in the face of socialist meddling.  Railroad executive/engineer Dagny Taggart and steel magnate/inventor Hank Rearden are capable, practical leaders who could probably turn the economy around if they weren’t constantly beset by politicians and slimy businessmen who seek to get ahead through government favors.  The bottom-dwellers cry “unfair competition” when a competitor threatens to get ahead, and rather than innovate, they get laws passed that are supposedly “for the common good,” but are really aimed at crippling their competition.
Meanwhile, skilled inventors, engineers, and executives are disappearing one-by-one after being approached by a mysterious man in a trench-coat and hat.  While Dagny and Hank struggle to keep their industries going despite all the parasites, they also try to figure out what is happening to all these capable people, and to answer the rhetorical question on everyone’s lips, “Who is John Galt?”
Sound a bit ridiculous or contrived?  It is.  Remember, in Rand’s work, plot is completely subservient to her philosophy.  With no background in science or technology, Rand just made up scientific advancements that served her story, and they are sometimes as ridiculous as her utopian fantasies.  Nonetheless, her depictions of political maneuvering and interference in business are pretty realistic. Viewers (and readers) in any decade will recognize the manipulative socialist propaganda and the mania for innovation-strangling regulations.  People like this story because it helps them put into words what instinctively repels them about Statism and Socialism.   In it’s slavish worship of laissez-faire capitalism, of course, the story ignores the historical tendency of all enterprises to eventually come under the control of people whose only talent is taking advantage of power to make money.  This type of Capitalist will use government regulation to his advantage if possible, but he can also simply manipulate markets through deception, monopoly, and bullying.  Government regulation is an imperfect counterbalance to this power, but it is all we have.  Rand’s complete blindness to this reality is a major weakness that leaves her work open to ridicule from the Left.
The bottom line is that if you like Ayn Rand’s philosophy, you will probably like the movie.  For a low-budget portrayal of a rather contrived story, it’s surprisingly well-put-together.  Now for the bad news.  The filmmakers broke the story into three parts.  This is Part I.  For Part II, they completely replaced the cast and director.  So in addition to asking “Who is John Galt,” we get to spend the first part of the sequel trying to figure out who everyone else is.

3 stars out of 5

Monday, September 09, 2013

End of Watch (2012) ***

“End of Watch” gets a lot of mileage out of the charisma of its stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena.  These two guys have so much chemistry that just watching them drive around the streets of L.A., engaging in the occasional action sequence, is enough to make this film moderately entertaining.  Just don’t expect the story to really go anywhere.
Officers Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Zavala (Pena) are as close as brothers, and they patrol the L.A. streets like a couple of true heroes until the evil of the Mexican cartels catches up to them.  That’s all there is to the plot.  Taylor and Zavala aren’t corrupt, and they don’t discover corruption.  They don’t really solve any big mysteries.  They just make a series of good busts, through luck and good police work, and a drug/human trafficking cartel eventually puts out a hit on them.  My beef with the film is that there really isn’t any character arc.  These officers are really good guys who do a good job, which is nice for them, but it doesn’t make for much of a story.  They aren’t conflicted, and without conflict in a story, what do you have?
In the case of “End of Watch,” you have a reasonably good action flick.  The guys engage in several intense chases and shootouts, which are realistically filmed, partly with point-of-view cameras.  One gets the feeling that the portrayals of police work in general are pretty realistic.  The film really is pretty tautly directed by David Ayer, (who wrote the superior, in my opinion, “Training Day.”)  Combined with the excellent cast, it makes for entertaining viewing even if the story is lacking.   I’m still tempted to complain that the movie is simplistically gung-ho, and that the Gyllenhaal/Anna Kendrick sex scene is so “Top Gun” that I could practically hear the song “Take My Breath Away” in the background.  But what the hell?  If you are in the mood for something action-packed and un-complicated, you could do worse than this.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Amores Perros (2000)

I don’t bail out on a lot of movies, but after about a half hour of this one, I gave up.  It’s a shame.  The movie seems to be highly regarded, and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu went on to become a big deal after this film, directing “21 Grams” and “Babel”.  It was also Gael Garcia Bernal’s first film.
So what didn’t I like?  I can sum it up in two words: dog fighting.  I tolerated the first couple of scenes, but they just keep showing scenes of dogfights, with graphic images of wounded and killed dogs.  I don’t need that.
Roger Ebert made a comment once that I think applies here.  In his review for “Blue Velvet,” regarding the scene in which Isabella Rossellini is left naked and abused in a suburban neighborhood, he says that the movie had not done anything to justify or earn the right to show him that image.  In general, I find images of children or animals being harmed to be un-watchable.  There may be some exceptions, if the film is particularly gripping, and the scene is clearly necessary.  “Amores Perros,” however, was not nearly good enough to justify seeing so many dead or injured dogs.
I can live without seeing the rest of this one.

0 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Extraterrestrial (Extraterrestre, 2011) ***

I’m going to give away a spoiler right away here: “Extraterrestrial” is not about aliens.  When Julio (Julian Villagran) wakes up in a strange apartment to a hangover and a beautiful girl, the UFO they discover hovering over the city just serves as a backdrop for all the human craziness that follows.  The girl, who is coincidentally named Julia (Michelle Jenner), turns out to be married.  She also has a creepy, not-so-secret admirer living across the hall.  When her husband, Carlos, returns, and the neighbor, Angel, starts snooping around, the four of them form quite a love-quadrangle.  They engage in humorous hijinks, misunderstandings, and lies in a city that is largely abandoned due to the UFO invasion.
Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, this Spanish film is more enjoyable than it has any right to be.  Vigalondo wrote and directed “Timecrimes (Los Cronocrimenes)”, so with “Extraterrestre” I was all set for some creepy, head-trippy, sci-fi action.  Instead I got a romantic comedy with a UFO in the background.  Fortunately, the film works well as it is.  It’s funny and sexy, and at the end they play a song by the Magnetic Fields.
Actually, I may be selling “Extraterrestre” short as a science-fiction film.  In a way, this is very subversive sci-fi.  Plenty of movies have put guys in the middle of an alien invasion, and they do all the heroic or evil stuff they are going to do while generally refusing to acknowledge that there is a drop-dead gorgeous girl standing next to them.  “Extraterrestre” puts that unavoidable fact front and center.  Julio does what he does and makes his mistakes for the most obvious reason possible: he does it for the girl!

3 stars out of 5