the Elegaic Symmetry of the Rhetorical Chessboard
Here’s to another year of great films AND whatever Reid’s watching.
HBO premiered this week Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Roger Ebert’s review is here. If any of you sees it, how about letting the rest of us know what you think?
I haven’t seen the new Paradise Lost, but I’ll let you know what I think if I see it.
Dir. Roman Polanski
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Christoph Waltz, Kate Winslet, etc.
I’d recommend this to Mitchell, Penny and probably Kevin and Chris. I’d probably add John, Grace and Tony to the list as well. Still, I wouldn’t say they should rush out to see this. Don and Marc would probably think this was OK (Don, a little less and Marc, a little more). Ditto Joel and Jill. Larri wouldn’t care for this, but would probably think it was OK.
The film is an adaptation of a play. Two couples get together to discuss a fight between their two sons. The entire play takes place in an apartment. I suspect those who like good acting and solid dialogue will enjoy this. (I’ll say more about the acting later.) The film very much has the feel of screen adaptations like Doubt or Closer–although the subject matter/story is very different. Still, if you liked the acting and dialogue in those films–to the extent that it’s worth the price of admission–then I would recommend this film.
The acting was good overall, but there was a theatrical quality (ditto the dialogue–and some of the behavior of the characters–specifically, leaving and coming back into the apartment). I think if Polanski had shot this on a stage or a setting that signaled this was more of a play, that would made the acting and dialogue work a lot better.
On another note, while I found the scenes amusing and sometimes funny, the satirical elements fell a bit flat for me. I’d guess the target of the satire–the liberal do-gooder, the hypocrisy, etc.–were easy and uninteresting targets. But I suspect those who I think will like this, won’t feel the same way.
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Gina Carano, Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender, etc.
The only people who have a shot of liking this, imo, are people who like action films. I would also say that unless you really like action films, you probably won’t love this. Penny would probably think this is a decent popcorn flick.
Mallory (Carano) is a CIA type operative working for a private contractor. On assignment, she helps free a political prisoner, but then seems to be a target from her employer….really, there isn’t much to the story–certainly nothing that you haven’t seen before.
The all-star cast is largely wasted–although the script doesn’t give them much to do.
The film does employ some curious or interesting (depending on your POV) filmmaking. For one thing, Soderbergh shoots mostly in video (HD, I think, because the film has a “hyper-real” feeling), and during hand-to-hand fight sequences he eschews music or sound to enhance the fighting—using natural sounds. (This doesn’t work so well, although the choreography and filming of the fights are solid.)
All in all, it doesn’t amount to much. On the other hand, unlike a lot of 80s action films, which seems to be the film’s MO, this isn’t so silly or stupid. It is sort of bland, however–and I think that Carano is the reason for that. She is definitely attractive and knows how to move and fight, and while her acting isn’t terrible (better than Lundgren, Norris, etc.), it’s a bit wooden and lacking charisma. She doesn’t add dimension and life to her cardboard character, and I largely felt indifferent toward her.
dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carrie Mulligan, etc.
Possible idiots who would be interested in this: Penny, Kevin, Chris, Tony and Mitchell. Of these, I think Penny and Tony might have the best chance of liking this, but that is a wild guess. Idiots who probably shouldn’t see this: Don, Joel, Jill and Larri. Marc has an outside chance, but I would guess not.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful businessman, with a strong sexual appetite. Cissy (Mulligan) is his sister who stays with Brandon for a short period. Imo, the film covers fairly well-worn topic–i.e., a man who has a strong sexual desires and hang-ups, while having difficulty with intimacy. Whether the film’s treatment of these topics will satisfy viewers is difficult to say. I didn’t think there were any surprises per se, but I mildly liked the resolution of the film. (And I might like it more over time.)
Fassbender has received accolades for his performances, and it is solid (although not outstanding, imo–although maybe I don’t fully understand the character). Mulligan is also very good in this–and it’s their interaction that makes the film interesting, imo (particularly near the end).
One final note. The film is rated NC-17 for graphic nudity (full frontal) and sex. I don’t think the scenes are disturbing unless pornographic scenes are disturbing. I can also say that the scenes don’t function as pornography; that for the most part, they serve the film in a legitimate way–imo, anyway.
If I wrote a review of the film, I might choose the subtitle, “the Secular Bad Lieutenant.” Both films have graphic nudity and sex scenes and both deal with deeply troubled and guilt ridden protagonists. Both, find a way at redemption–or at least seem to. The difference is that Shame eschews religion as a means for redemption–although it certainly borrows overtly from religious symbolism. (Cissy’s attempted suicide–the slashed, bloody wrists echoing Christ’s wounds.) Whether this scene and the scenes with Brandon after ward convince viewers, I’m not sure.
Personally, I think ending does lack power, but I’m biased.
The Grey (2012)
Dir. Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, etc.
I could see Tony liking this. Mitchell and Penny have a decent shot of liking this. Grace, Don, Marc, Joel and Jill have an outside of chance of liking this. Not sure about Kevin and Chris. Larri was kind of bored by this.
A plane carrying oil workers in Alaska crashes somewhere in the wild. Ottway (Neeson), a guy hired to protect workers by killing wolves, along with a handful of other people, survive the crash. And so begins their journey back to civilization.
I’m going to talk about the structure of the film, which gives away a minor spoiler you might not want to know. But if you don’t care or if you’re not planning on seeing the film unless you have a compelling reason, read on.
There are really two types of movies at work here. On one hand, we have the classic survival/thriller. On the other hand, we have a film about existential film about death. In this way, the film resembles other films like Roger Michell’s Enduring Love and Changing Lanes; or David Fincher’s early films.
To me the film isn’t great–although it’s not terrible–on two levels. First, as an survival/thriller, it doesn’t offer many surprises; the experienced viewer knows that the survivors will die off, one by one. Now, if the film conceived of these deaths in a creative way that might be fine, but, alas, that’s not the case. The predicaments and the solutions for those predicaments aren’t very creative or interesting as well.
Now this wouldn’t be so bad if the film succeeded on the other level–namely, if the insights about existence and deaths were deep or interesting. Perhaps I don’t understand the meaning of the film (which is a possibility, since I really didn’t take the time to analyze the film), but here’s my understanding of it:
The wolves represent death–chasing after us. The film depicts different ways death overcomes people and the way people handle death–e.g., by surprise; with resignation and peace; with futile resistance, etc. The film also raises the question of the role of God and faith, but the film’s point of view suggests that God either doesn’t exist or that his existence is irrelevant–we must face death head on–which could mean we live life passionately despite our fear of death:
Once more, into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day.
The poem is nice and I like some of the ideas–although they didn’t really have much of an impact. I would have liked the film more if the film was shorter or the thriller elements were better.
spoilers for The Grey:
There’s something else going on besides the death thing, and it’s the man-is-beast thing. I’ll write a proper review later, and I have to replay the whole thing in my head before I do, but there were a couple of really heavy-handed scenes that drew parallels between the wolves and the humans, where the wolves’ and humans’ behaviors were difficult to tell one from the other. It’s a theme I don’t mind much, but there wasn’t much subtlety in its execution.
And speaking of unsubtle, what was up with that score? Loud, tribal drumming to accentuate the suspense and drama unfolding in this blizzardy snowscape? Some of the scenes were so tense with anticipation that they would have better been served not to have any score at all, or at least something very faint and sustained, rather than the ridiculous symphony and timpani thing that they used.
I agree that the death themes were not especially well laid-out. The final scene with Diaz was actually kind of cool, and Ottway’s conversation with God was kind of gripping. Other than that, though, the whole concept seems cloudy and out there, as if the filmmakers were deliberately trying to get you to think about death without really giving you anything specific to ponder.
Spoilers for The Grey
…but there were a couple of really heavy-handed scenes that drew parallels between the wolves and the humans, where the wolves’ and humans’ behaviors were difficult to tell one from the other. It’s a theme I don’t mind much, but there wasn’t much subtlety in its execution.
If you’re thinking of the fight between Ottway and Diaz–which happens right after the alpha puts down a challenge from another wolf. I don’t mind this theme, but not only is the treatment heavy-handed, but it’s superficial, imo–i.e., what does it say about this besides make an superficial allusion?
Besides this scene, I don’t recall too many other connections between the wolves and the humans, so I’m interested in hearing your comments about this.
And speaking of unsubtle, what was up with that score?
You know, I don’t even remember the score very well. Much of the film was cliched and predictable to me, and I think I might just be lumping the score with that.
One thing I forgot to mention was the shooting of the plane crash–which was one of the best I’ve seen. The filmmakers depict what a crash would look like from a passenger’s POV, and I don’t think I’ve seen this–or at least not as good.
The final scene with Diaz was actually kind of cool, and Ottway’s conversation with God was kind of gripping. Other than that, though, the whole concept seems cloudy and out there, as if the filmmakers were deliberately trying to get you to think about death without really giving you anything specific to ponder.
My sense is that they want to depict different ways of handling death, which they did an OK job–although, I agree, that Diaz’s death was a little more interesting.
I can relate to your “cloudy and out there…” comment, although I the film’s “message” seems to be somewhat clear.
The Artist (2011)
Dir. Michael Hazanavicius
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, etc.
Penny liked this, and I would guess that Grace would like this, too. I could see Mitchell and Jill enjoying this, too (maybe Tony, too). There’s an outsides chance that Don, Marc and Larri would like this. Not sure about Kevin and Chris.
This silent film that pays hommage to silent films of the past. If you don’t care for silent films, you shouldn’t automatically rule this film out. My guess is that it is effective and accessible to average moviegoers.
The film is similar to Singin’ in the Rain–as it follows a silent actor who can’t make the transition from silent films to “talkies.” Along the way, the film delivers charming moments that echo similar famous scenes from silent movies. Both Jardin (nominated for an Oscar, I believe) and Bejo have sufficient charisma and acting to carry the film.
The construction of the drama and the main character were the biggest problem with the film, imo. Does George (Dujardin) fail to make the transition because he’s too old, too pround or a combination? This matters because the film ends in triumph for George, without really resolving these issues. Peppy just gets him a job and the film seems to ignore the obstacles and problems presented earlier.
Btw, I thought the extras in this film were important and wonderful. What I mean is that they really looked like people from that time period—at least the people we see in silent films. I’m not just talking about costumes and hairstyles, but the actual facial features of the people. I’ve seen other modern films covering the same time period and the extras look like people from the late 20th Century/early 21st Century.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011)
Dir. Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
The people who have seen the first two films will probably want to see this, although what I’ll say later my influence (positively or negatively) to see this. I would recommend this to Penny, though.
This is the third documentary that follows three young men convicted of killing three elementary aged boys in Arkansas. The first film focuses on the murders and the trial of the three young men. The second film follows up on the trial with new evidence, casting even more doubt on the case. The third film continues in the same vein as the second film–and doesn’t really add too much more details and information than the second film, imo. In that way, the film might disappoint some viewers–although it does reveal what happens to the three convicted men.
For what it’s worth, the first two films interested me more as crime dramas that showed the way three individuals were probably wrongly convicted. But the third film interested me for raising questions about the role of money and public scrutiny in the American justice system. I’ll go into more thoughts about that in a separate thread.
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)
Dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi
I’d guess Penny, Grace, Jill, Marc and Chris would mildly like this, at least. I don’t think I give a strong recommendation to any of them. I guess, Mitchell, Tony and Don would fall into that camp, too. FWIW, I took my son to see this and some of the situations were a bit too intense for him.
This is a studio Gibli anime adaptation of the Borrower stories. The Borrowers are little people (about 4″ tall) that live in people’s homes and “borrow” items that humans won’t miss. In this story, Sean, a boy waiting for heart surgery, comes to live in his Aunt’s house. There, he meets Arrietty, one of the young female borrowers. There’s some adventure involving a cat, raven and a curious housekeeper.
For all intents and purposes, this is a Hayao Miyazaki film. The animation is solid, but the story is predictable and nothing exceptional, although it’s not bad. To me, it felt more like an episode in an ongoing TV series.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
Dir. Werner Herzbog
This is a documentary about cave paintings found ten years ago in France. The paintings are 30,000 years old. Herzog and his crew of two get special permission to film the cave (filled with animal prints and bones) and the paintings. (The cave is not open to the general public as other caves have developed mold from visitors.) Btw, Herzog shot this film in 3D, wanting to give viewers a better sense of the way the paintings worked with the contours of the cave walls. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see it in 3D.
I would have two questions about this film. How were the paintings? And, does the film shed any insight into art or what it means to be human? As to the first question, the paintings are impressive in some ways, and not impressive in others. They look like other cave paintings that I’ve seen, and in a way these paintings are aesthetically interesting and appealing; at the same time, because they looked similar, I felt a bit let down.
As to the second question, I don’t think the film offers much insight into art or what it means to be human. Indeed, the film felt a little padded, as if Herzog struggled to meet the 90 minutes.
A Dangerous Method (2011)
Dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Viggo Mortensen, Keira Knightly, etc.
I understand Grace thought this was pretty good, and I expect that Penny mildly liked, at least. I’d guess Mitchell, Kevin and Chris would have a similar reaction. I wouldn’t recommend this to Don or Larri. Joel and Jill probably wouldn’t care for this, but they might think it was OK.
This is a film about Freud, Jung and one of their patients, who later became a fairly prominent psychologist her self. There’s a lot of dialogue in this film, and I think some (or a lot) of background information on Freud, Jung and Sabina Spielein (the patient)–including their psychologial ideas–would be really helpful. I only have a cursory understanding of their ideas (if that), and I think that made appreciating the film a bit difficult.
Certified Copy (2010)
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, etc.
I’d recommend this to Penny, Grace and Kevin. I’d probably recommend this to Chris, Mitchell and Tony as well. I’m not sure if the last three would really like this, but I’m pretty sure they would find this interesting. Jill has a decent chance of being interested in this. No to Don. Larri has a very slim chance of liking this. Not sure about Marc.
The film begins with a writer (Shimell) talking about his recent book about art forgery. His book deals with the differences between the originals and copies–namely, why and if the originals are superior. Later he meets one an art collector (Binoche). They go for a drive, and thus begins a long conversation about art, which reminded me of films like My Dinner with Andre, Mindwalk or even Before Sunrise/Before Sunset films–especially when the conversation turns towards husbands and wives.
Having said all this, the film isn’t as straightforward as I’m making it sound. There is an element of mystery, and I don’t really want to say much more. I will say that there is a kind of mystical poetry in the film–the layers of ideas and the way ideas are expressed and overlap in different ways.
There is a lot to process in the film, and, unfortunately, I haven’t finished processing the film, so I don’t really have too much more to say.
While I don’t have much to say, I want to leave some questions, as well as do my best to respond to them. The first, and probabably most obvious question, is whether the James Miller, the writer, is the woman’s (Binoche; called Elle in the credits) real husband. I understand that critics have debated this point (which reminds me of Last Year at Marienbad–there are similarities with that film), and I’m not sure it’s really crucial. I tend to think that he’s not the husband, but sort of becomes the husband while remaining himself at the same time. (This is the poetic mysticism that I referred to earlier.) Being both isn’t possible, but there’s a sense that that could be the case.
This raises another question: how does their relationship/situation relate to the earlier question about original art versus copies of them? One person I knew interpreted the second half of the film to be a sort of test case for the question of the first part. Is the Miller–a copy of the husband–just as valid as the real husband? I’m not sure I agree with this reading, but it is interesting, and there might be somethiing to this. (I still haven’t worked this out.)
I really should see this again and spend time thinking about it.
The Interrupters (2011)
Dir. Steve James
I would recommend this to almost every idiot. I think Penny and Chris would like this quite a bit. Mitchell, Grace, Kevin, John could also end up liking this quite a lot, too. I’m pretty sure Joel, Jill, Marc and Don would think this is OK at least, and I would guess they would like it a bit more.
This is a documentary about Ceasefire, a Chicago organization that tries to stop the growing number of gun related deaths of young people. Ex-cons/ex-gang members work for the organization and they try to mediate conflicts in the community. According to the film, many of the shootings are drug-related, but relate to petty grievances–e.g., someone looked at you at the wrong way. When someone is shot, friends and family members of the victim then retaliate which leads to a cycle of violence. Ceasfire tries to prevent or interrupt that cycle.
Now, I’m often very critical of documentaries–particularly in their thoroughness and fairness of the topic, but in this film, I got so caught up in the people and situations James captures on the screen, that I turned off those critical faculties and went along for the ride.
The film focuses on three interruptors–Ameena Matthews, the daughter of a legendary gang leader; Cobie Williams, a former street tough who has a terrific way of dealing with people who are angry; and Edie Bocanegra, a former gang member who struggles with his past. I really liked this people, and I want to describe them as great characters in a feature length film, especially Amina and Cobie. Matthews is very charismatic, strong, yet loving; and this is very compelling to watch. With Cobie Williams, I loved watching his facial expressions and hearing the concern in his voice when he spoke to angry people. I could see why he’s so effective.
And the situations that James captured on the screen are very powerful and dramatic. James edits the scenes like the fictionalized movie–moving from one facial reaction to another, and it’s pretty amazing. I don’t think I learned much about mediation, gang-violence, and I’m not sure if the film does a good job of exploring Ceasefire, but I do know it’s a terrific character film with some incredible moments captured on film.
A Separation (2011)
Dir. Asghar Farhadi
I’d recommend this Penny. Then I’d recommend this to Kevin, Mitchell, Grace and Chris. I also think Marc and John would appreciate this. Don, Joel and Jill like this at least a little. (See next section for more details.) I would recommend this to my parents, if that means anything.
This is an Iranian film that won the best foreign picture. I do not think this is a difficult film to understand or watch. While it’s not a fast-paced film, it does have a compelling plot that keeps advancing the film in an interesting ways. I would recommend knowing little, as the way the film unfolds is part of the film’s virtue. I wasn’t in the mood for this film, (based on the little I knew), especially because I felt under the weather. If you’re in the mood for a serious drama from 2011, this probably the best one I’ve seen.
If you really must know, I’ll say one more thing–the film feels like a moral puzzle posed to religious students, in the context of a family and courtroom drama.
Best Worst Movie (2009)
Dir. Michael Stephenson
I can see Mitchell and Penny enjoying this movie; Chris and Kevin would probably get a kick of this, too–but I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to see this for any of them. Grace and Marc might be amused by this, but I’d guess they could pass. Jill and Joel are probably in the same category. I don’t think I’d recommend this to Don; definitely not Larri.
This is a documentary about *Troll 2*, considered by some as the worst movie of all time. Stephenson starred in the film as a child and has felt embarassed by his part in it. As an adult, he discovered that a lot of people loved the movie and set out to make a film about. The film starts off by tracking down the lead actor, Georgy Hardy, who played the father of Stephenson’s character. We see footage of Hardy practicing dentistry, going about his business in a small Alabama town, as well as interviews with people who know and love him. I mention this because Hardy seems like a cool guy and that’s partly what kept me watching this film.
I don’t think the film really digs deep into *Troll 2*, although it does have clips of people talking about the reasons they like the film. The value of the film lies in the finding the cast, director and filmming of different festivals and conventions featuring the film. Basically, these are the most interesting and entertaining moments of the film.
I would have liked to have seen the film question the Claudio Fraggaso, the director, a little more. At first, he seems to embrace the adulation of *Troll 2*, but as time goes on you can tell he’s getting annoyed as most of the people who enjoy the film do so because they thing it’s terrible movie. Fraggaso seems to be aware of this (although maybe not, as his English isn’t so good), but he still seems enthusiastic. The film shows him getting annoyed–being challenging some of the disparaging comments made by cast members in a forum. But Stephenson never really explores this, and I wish he had.
Dir. Gavin O’Connor
Joel might have the best chance of liking this, but I’d guess he wouldn’t love it. I’d say Marc and Penny might have the next best chance. Mitchell, Jill and John could like this, and at the very least they’d say it was OK. I have no idea what Kevin and Chris would think. I’d guess Grace wouldn’t care for this. Larri thought it was OK.
The film looked dumb, but because of some critical buzz, I thought I’d check it out. The film is about two brothers, who fight in mixed martial arts tournaments. Tommy comes back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan looking into fighting professionally. Brendan, his older brother, has a wife, daughter and struggles to make his house payments. Against his wife’s wishes, he starts fighting for money. Along comes a tournament with a huge purse.
The heart of the film is a family drama involving the two brothers and their father, an alcoholic on the wagon. The film could have been a lot better if it handled this aspect well, but it doesn’t, imo.
I’ll also say that the fight sequences weren’t shot very well.
Finally, there are some other fighters that make the tournament somewhat interesting (but not really, imo).
The Station Agent
Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, Bobby Cannavale, Michelle Williams
One day in 2003, Reid called me and said he was going to see this film at the Varsity. He read me a one-sentence synopsis, after which I said, “That totally sounds like my kind of movie. Let’s go.”
I liked it enough that it was number 13 on my Best Films of the Decade list. In his review of The Visitor, Reid says The Station Agent is a film that “doesn’t go anywhere,” which I suppose is true, but I think it’s what I like about it.
I saw it again this past weekend for the first time, and I liked it even more. I mean a LOT more. You know those scenes where Fin (sometimes accompanied by Joe and/or Olivia, but usually not) takes those long walks down train tracks? There could have been twice as many scenes like that and I would have been happy. There’s something about the way this film paints these characters, especially the main character, that I love. Our own lives might not include inheritances of train depots, but they do include events like it, and our paths are crossed by the paths of people like Joe and Olivia and even the girl in the library (Michelle Williams!); the major events in the film (which aren’t very major, really) are a lot like the major events in our own lives. A yelling disagreement here, an almost-fight in the parking lot of a bar there, a quiet separation between friends over there. This friend has an ailing father, that friend is going through a divorce after the loss of a child, that friend has a stupid boyfriend who pushes her around once in a while.
(I don’t think this is a spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know what the last scene looks like, just skip these last paragraphs)
There is one scene where we see the three friends, after a dinner at Olivia’s house, sitting on the porch. Each of them is smoking a cigarette. Each is looking off into the distance, thinking thoughts we can guess at but don’t know for sure. They’re quiet for the moment, but any moment someone might say something, which might be followed by something else, and then is likely to be followed by more silence.
I had completely forgotten this scene, so it was like I was seeing it for the first time, and all I could think while I was watching it was, “This is perfect.” And then the film ended.
When I first saw this at the Vars, I thought the scene was kind of a whimper of an ending, but seeing it now, I can’t imagine a better way. Why not end on the perfect scene? Why not end with these characters sitting quietly in thought? It’s a thoughtful movie, and I love that most of the time, we don’t know what characters in the film are thinking. The fact that they are in thought is kind of cool enough for me.
I’m so glad I saw this again. I think I’m going to have to buy it on DVD, because I can see myself watching it a hundred times.
I loved Station Agent as well, probably in my top ten of all time. If not, it is definitely in the running.
For the sake of my understanding your movie tastes, I’d be interested in hearing more about what made you like this film so much.
Mitchell, I know you go into some detail, but have you seen other films where the characters and story seem to go nowhere and most of the moments are ordinary and not so dramatic? I’m wondering if you liked this film so much because you haven’t seen this type of movie or if this movie stands out among other, similiar, films. (There are many other films like this, but I’m not sure if you saw them or if something about this film distinguishes it from others.)
Don, I would never guess that this would make your top ten. I can see you liking some of the characters, but not so much as to make your all-time favorite’s list.
Here’s what I like about The Station Agent.
1. Interesting characters. In this case, we have a dwarf who shuns social interaction because his dwarfism has made socializing difficult. He doesn’t seem like an angry person, but there is a scene in a bar where we can see that anger does bubble up sometimes. We have a young man with an ailing father. He seems to crave attention and human interaction of just about any sort. He’s difficult not to like but he can be a bit much for an introspective loner like Fin. And we have a middle-aged woman who’s lost a child, is going through a divorce, and expresses herself through some semi-disturbing paintings she creates. Each character is lonely in his or her own way, and also broken in his or her way. They seem to be okay on their own, but they seem better with each other.
2. There is a peace that Fin gets from trains that I envy. I don’t know if anything gives me the kind of pleasure and peace that trains give Fin. There is something quietly poetic about how much trains mean to him, the way he will read a book about trains all day, or how he’ll sit on a bench for hours in order to see the next train that passes. Movies that demonstrate people’s passions for unusual subject matter are almost always interesting to me. But you already know that.
3. Beautiful visuals.
4. Characters interacting in ways that seem believable. Fin’s interactions especially resonate with me, since the thought of living all alone at an abandoned train depot actually appeals to me. During my spring break, I think I saw friends in person two or three days out of ten. That was a good amount for me. The other days were spent alone, or alone in public spaces (such as cafes or libraries). I like seeing how Fin spends his days.
5. Scenes that say a lot without the characters saying much at all. Yeah.
Have I seen other movies such as you describe? I suppose, but I think you didn’t think much of the ones I like, such as Lost in Translation, although I guess you liked Quiet City.
Thanks for sharing that. The loneliness of the characters and your descriptions of Fin explain why you would like the film. (I haven’t seen the film in a long time, too, so my memory is a little hazy.) I really think you should give Mystery Train a shot, although I’m not sure if there are any characters that you like as much as Fin. (I can’t think of any off the top of my head.) I also think you should really try watching one of Aki Kaurismaki’s films.
My concern with these films and others that may come to mind is that they might be a little too far from a mainstream sensibility. (I don’t think you’ll have any problems liking the characters in Mystery Train, though. Then again, you didn’t really like Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, right? Was this because the narratives in the vignettes were too sparse and uninteresting? (I think you’ll like the stories and characters more in Mystery Train.) I could sort of see you liking the lead character in Andrew Bujalsky’s Mutal Appreciation, too, although maybe the film might bore you.
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
This documentary about one man’s attempt to break the world Donkey Kong record and another man’s effort to hang onto the record is a bizarre, fun, mostly interesting film about the geeky world of competitive gaming, and the kinds of people who inhabit it.
In the 1980s, a guy in Iowa founded Twin Galaxies, and organization that kept track of high scores on arcade video games. Because it became the early standard and because it tried to adhere to certain guidelines, no record today is considered meaningful if it’s not endorsed by Twin Galaxies and its stable of referees.
Billy Mitchell was an early holder of several world records, notably for Centipede, Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong Jr. In fact, a Donkey Kong record he established in the 1980s was still intact in the early 2000s. Today, he is a scrawny, mulleted, sleazy, arrogant, successful business-owner in Florida. At least, that’s the way he’s painted in this documentary. He’s a celebrity in the competitive gaming world, and he’s capitalized on that celebrity.
Steve Weibe is a science teacher in Washington. All his life, he’s been a high-achiever who has always fallen just short of expectations. He doesn’t seem at all like the other guys in the world of gaming, but he feels he has something to prove to himself. So he purchases a Donkey Kong game and attempts to break Mitchell’s record.
What follows is a strange journey to arcades in the northeast and in Florida, where Weibe’s attempts can be documented by officials from Twin Galaxies. There are attempts at sabotage, sneaky photographs taken by visitors to Weibe’s home, accusations of cheating, and the appearance of bald-faced lying.
The film is very interesting up until the last twenty minutes or so, when all I wanted was to be told how things worked out. Some of the players get tiresome, and it’s clear that Weibe, who comes across as a good guy, has too many cards stacked against him.
I love documentaries like this, but this comes across much more like Trekkies, which I found interesting but tiresome, than Wordplay, which I found fascinating and lovable. Whether it’s because I relate more to the people in Wordplay I can’t honestly say, but that is technically a better film than this one.
If you were ever a denizen of the quarter arcades in the 1980s, this is worth checking out. I can almost promise you’ll get kinda misty with nostalgia when you see the vintage coin-op games these guys still play. Joust is in there, as are Tempest, Defender, Robotron, MAPPY, and Pac-Man. I think there’s more movie here than story, but it’s okay. Nice-guy Weibe makes rooting for him kind of fun.
Dir. Lee Chang-dong
I think Penny, Mitchell, Grace, Chris and Kevin would like this, at least a little. I think the film would hold their attention at the very least. I also think Tony could like this, as well as Jill and Don (although I’m less certain). Then I’d mention Marc and Joel.
This is Korean film, and I hesitate to describe the film one should discover the story and character as the film unfolds. But here’s what I will say, since I know that response isn’t adequate. Suppose Pedro Almodovar read the script to Rocky. I can imagine him chucking out the boxing, and then, in that Alomodovarian way, upping the ante by making the characters disabled.
If this description means little, I’ll describe a little of the plot. Jong-du just gets out of prison and starts heading home. We learn that he is the black sheep of the family, but not malicious in any way. One of the first things Jong-du does is visit the family of the man he killed in a car accident. The son quickly shoos he away, but not before Jong-du sees the man’s physically handicapped daughter. Jong-du learns that the son is moving out, and he becomes interested in what will happen to the daughter.
The film also has some moments of magical realism that some may really like (but I found fairly unimaginative and predictable). Indeed, while I mildly liked the film, my biggest problem was the predictably. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I didn’t think it took the story in any fresh directions. (It’s certainly not as wild as some of Almodovar’s films.)
I still haven’t found my reviewing mojo, but I saw Thor this weekend and I just want to say that I can’t believe how entertaining and engaging it is. If you take it on its terms, it’s quite good: and taking it on its terms seems like a TALL order. Props to Kenneth Branagh for making that somehow possible, and to Natalie Portman, who (as Tony mentioned last year) does a good job of immersing herself in this absurd story. There is a love story aspect that I found ridiculously unnecessary, but even with that it’s a strangely successful movie. The Asgard stuff somehow works. The earth stuff somehow works. The ridiculous accented dialogue somehow works. I appreciate how Loki is written as a pathetic character, well-intentioned and easily sympathized with, misguided though he is. My understanding is that he’s the bad guy in The Avengers this May; it’s a good call.
One especially unexpected presentation is Heimdall who comes across as a lot more badass than I ever imagined.
Still gotta see Captain America, but I don’t see how it could be as good as Thor.
I probably don’t think Thor was as good as you did, but I agree with pretty much everything else you said about it.
Iron Man Extremis (2010)
I strongly recommend this to Marc, Grace and Chris. Given that Tony likes comics, I’d probably strongly recommend this to him, too.Next, I’d recommend this to Penny, Mitchell, Joel, Don and Jill. Larri liked this.
This is a “motion comic” series (about six episodes varying from 10-20 minutes). What you see are drawn images, with some movement being added. Obviously, this involves Iron Man, and here he battles a human turned into a bio-weapon. There’s a quite a bit of talking (especially in the first two or three segments), so don’t expect a ton of action. But there’s an interesting conceptual twist that makes this worth-watching, imo. The series also tries to bring up some interesting questions about technology and human beings (but doesn’t really deal with these questions in interesting ways, imo).
Cabin in the Woods (2011)
Dir. Drew Goddard
I’d recommend this to Penny–maybe Chris (but that’s riskier). I’d also recommend this to Mitchell and, to a lesser extent, Grace, Marc and Joel. I wouldn’t recommend this to Larri. The rest I’m not sure about, but I probably wouldn’t recommend the film to them.
This is a horror film about four college students that, well, go to a cabin in the woods, on the weekend. I don’t really want to say too much more, and I would highly advise you not to know too much about the movie before going to see it. If you don’t really care, I’m going to talk about the film in more detail in the next section.
The film essentially critiques horror films–quite directly, I might add. The approach wasn’t very clever, satisfying or amusing for me, but others will may differ. (And I’m guessing Penny and Mitchell would probably disagree with me.) I discovering this on your own will make the film more enjoyable–hence, I recommend knowing little about the film. On the other hand, you guys will probably pick up on this fairly early, so it might not make a difference. Personally, I didn’t find the film very insightful or funny, so I didn’t really care for it.
Breaking News (2004)
Dir. Johnnie To
I don’t really understand the film very well, yet, so it’s hard to know who I could recommend this to. My guess is that most of the idiots would think this is OK, at best. Maybe Kevin would like this a little more than that, although it’s hard to say. (I’ll discuss what I think the film is about below, so you can make your decision based on that.)
This is a Hong Kong “action film.” I have action film in quotes because I suspect the film is quite different from the typical action film. (More later.) The plot is simple. A special forces unit of the police has been tracking a group of criminals. After a street skirmish, the unit tracks down the criminals as the criminals run through the city. While this is occurs, the media, having covered the skirmish, criticizes the police force. The police then decide that in addition to capturing the criminals, they must also put on a “show” for the media and public. In other words, they must not only apprehend the criminals, but they must create a favorable public image while doing so. The police chief(?) assigns an officer, Rebecca Fong, who suggests the importance of public perception, to oversee the case.
In my opinion, as an action film, the movie isn’t that great. The characters and villains aren’t very interesting; ditto the situations and action set-pieces. (Others like Penny may disagree with me.) But I fairly certain that the film is going for something more than providing an entertaining action film, and I’ll say more in the next section.
Initially, I want to say the film is about the role media and technology play in today’s world–especially with regard to way governments must now use these tools and manage their effects. Governments not only have to protect its citizens, but they have to also protect their images–mainly by manipulating events. Governments can’t win by simply defeat their enemies–they must also win the public relations battle. (Sometimes the two are inextricably linked–as in the battle against Islamist’s groups.)
The film shows this by having Rebecca in a van with monitors surrounding her. She also has an assistant and a PR person to meet with the media. The film is interesting for the way it has two battlefronts–the ones involving the press and images and the other with the actual criminals.
I’m still uncertain if the film really deals with this way. My feeling is that the film’s handling of this is rather unsophisticated, but I’m not sure about that yet.
The Avengers (2012)
Dir. Joss Whedon
I’m not sure who is going to like this, but my brother reacted in a similar way to myself, if that means anything. I’m pretty sure people like Penny, Mitchell, Marc and Don will at least think this is OK. It’s basically on the same level as the X-Men films, and some other average superhero movies. Larri liked it more than I did.
Loki, Thor’s evil brother, plans to bring an army to earth to take it over. Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. attempt to bring together several superheroes–Iron-man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, and two special agents, Hawkeye and the Black Widow–to stop Loki. That’s about it.
Let me say a few more things about the film in the next section, including my problems with the film. I will say that the problem doesn’t stem from an unfaithful adaptation to the comic books. I wasn’t a big reader of Avengers, and I never really encountered this story in the comic books.
In a film like this, one of the biggest challenges for a film like this involves managing the characters–specifically, their personalities and storylines–and integrating them into a cohesive plot. The subplots (if any) have to blend in well, either enhancing the main drama or at least not diminishing it; it shouldn’t make the film confusing, either. The film doesn’t really do a good job of handling this, imo. For example, one of the film’s main objectives was to show way the Avengers formed into a team, including who became the leader and why. The leader seems to be Captain America (a good move, since if he’s not the leader, he’s rather superfluous), but the film doesn’t really show the how they arrive at this decision–including the reason the other characters would decide to follow him.
The main drama of the film also seems to center around Loki and Thor, but the story isn’t very compelling or clear. Why would Loki want to take over the earth? Just to hurt Thor? This seems a little weak.
A part of me feels that Captain America (CA)–the way he becomes the leader and maybe the way he adapts to the new world–should be close to the heart of the film. While the other heroes are physically superior to CA, he might far exceed them in terms of character. (Also, I would have used the CA film to establish that he was a master of military tactics–something he studied to compensate for his weak physique.) CA could help Stark see the importance of working as a team. He could help Thor see the same thing, but also make Thor gain greater respect for the “mortals.” Maybe CA could win the Hulk over by showing his sense of trustworthiness or honor. (Maybe have an earlier scene where Iron-man and Thor deceive Hulk to keep him contained and contrast this with CA’s character.) But then, how would this tie into the drama involving Loki? That might be tougher, but these are just some ideas off the top of my head.
The action set-pieces and predicaments weren’t very creative or clever, either, and this was another disappointment in the film. Having said that, there were some funny moments, that I’m sure most idiots would enjoy–and maybe this will make the movie for many people.
Finally, I don’t think Joss Whedon is much of a director in terms of visuals. I like his wit and some of the ideas he has, but visually this was sort of bland.
I’m waiting for the furor to die down. There are still long lines to get in. Crazy. It sounds like if you like the X-Men films, you’ll like this one. And I do like the X-Men films.
Depending on your specific reasons for liking the X-Men films, I’d guess you would like *The Avengers* a little more. For what it’s worth, I would recommend seeing the films about the invidual members before seeing this film. (I suspect you will like, at least mildly, these films.)
Dir. Lars von Trier
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, etc.
If Penny heard some details about this film, I’m pretty sure she’d be interested in seeing this. (I’d be mildly surprised if she came out loving it, though.) I’m not sure how Chris and Kevin would react, but I’m sure they would have interest in seeing this at least. (Flip a coin–or read more and make a decision.) I have trouble believing that Mitchell and Grace would want to watch this, and I’m close to not recommending it to them. (Read the comments after this to get a better idea.) Don, Joel, Larri and Marc. (I could see Marc being highly annoyed with this.) shoudn’t see this. Jill could probably be added to the list as well, but there’s a slight chance she might find this interesting. I still need to analyze and process the film, so my score could dramatically change.
Anyone familiar with Von Trier knows his films are often controversial. This might be the most controversial (I’ll reveal the specific reasons later, although it might be small spoilers.). The film is about a husband (Dafoe) and wife (Gainsbourg) who have just lost their infant son. The wife experiences severe depression and the husband, a therapist, decides to treat his wife, against conventional wisdom.
Beside this, I really don’t have a good idea of what the film is about. I could describe some details about what happens next, but I don’t think it would make much sense, since I don’t have a good understanding of the film.
I will say that I really liked the look of the film. I forgot the degree of Von Trier’s skill as a filmmaker–especially visually. (I don’t remember a film of his looking this good–but it’s been a while.) I think this is one of the big reasons I liked this film–even though I didn’t really understand it very well.
The film does seem to try use a more symbolic approach and, at times, may be more dreamlike and surreal versus a realistic film. The film may also deal with several possible themes and issues–e.g., a critique of therapy, the nature of sex and the relationship between men and women…maybe something else? Like Dogville, I find the film compelling, but at the same time, I can’t help wondering if Von Trier really knows what he’s doing or just throwing all kinds of ideas and issues into the film and hoping something coherent comes out of it.
(Originally I planned to write a third section, which would contain my general thoughts about the film’s meaning, but I decided to do more thinking about the film and then maybe post a more coherent interpretation later.)
The World of Suzie Wong (1960)
Dir. Richard Quine
Starring: William Holden, Nancy Kwan, etc.
I’m pretty sure Mitchell, Penny, Grace and Kevin would find this worth watching–whether they like it or not is another matter (although I don’t think they will hate it because it’s too weird). There’s a chance Jill would like this, or find this interesting. I’m not sure about Don, but I’d guess he’d think this is OK.
An American architect (Holden) quits his job and comes to Hong Kong, with the hope of becoming a painter. He stays in a hotel that is really a brothel and meets Suzie (Kwan), a prostitute. The plot is fairly predictable–at least in terms of the general arc of the story. In addition to a romance, the film is also an exotic travelogue (the direction is very solid and the on-location shots provide effective atmosphere). However, the film also tries to be socially-conscious (at least for its time) and the fantasy Hollywood style, which works with the romance, clashes with social critique. Still, I was able to push aside problems and enjoy the film for what it is. (Kwan’s acting wasn’t very good, for example.)
The film left me with conflicted feelings. Am I not supposed to like this film? Can I excuse some of the racism and sexism to the time period of the film? (I think I did while watching the film.) Was the film racist and sexist? (I’d probably say, yes, at least to some degree.) This might have been an interesting film to discuss for all these reasons.
Reid, have you seen an 1964 Bengali film called Charulata (The Lonely Wife)?
No, I haven’t. Is it good?
It is good. I don’t know if you’d like it, and it’s definitely not a must-see, but the director, Satyajit Ray, is sort of the Kurosawa of Indian cinema, from what I gather. This is one of his more acclaimed pictures. I have nothing to compare it to because I’ve not seen very much Indian film.
Cactus Flower (1969)
Walter Matthau, Goldie Hawn, Ingrid Bergman
I was flipping through the listings this week and this caught my eye because Walter Matthau, Goldie Hawn, and Ingrid Bergman seemed like an interesting and unexpected trio of stars. Matthau and Hawn I could see, but Bergman? I had to check it out.
Matthau plays Dr. Julian Winston, a formerly womanizing dentist who now wishes to spend time only with Toni Simmons, a much younger woman who works in a record store. His problem is that he once lied to Toni about being married, in order to avoid the complications of a committed relationship. Now that he wants to marry her, he has to make up a divorce. But Toni’s a good person, and she wants things between her and Julian’s wife to be cool, so she insists on meeting this woman who seeks a divorce from Julian.
Julian convinces his nurse, Stephanie Dickinson (Ingrid Bergman), to act the part just for one short personal encounter with Toni. Stephanie, a rather sexless spinster (if you can believe it), reluctantly agrees, visiting Toni at the record store where she works. Stephanie’s a nice person too, and she and Toni like each other. Before long, Julian has to ask another friend to pretend to be Stephanie’s new lover, and things spiral rapidly out of control, as you could probably predict.
Hawn is doe-eyed and flighty in this picture, but she is likeable in a sweet, charming way, and she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance. With Matthau’s hangdog, stoic screen persona, you can see why the combination works: Hawn is basically the Jack Lemmon. What’s really unexpected is the chemistry between Hawn and Bergman, and between Bergman and Matthau. Bergman is 54 years old here, in a movie released twenty-seven years after Casablanca. I can see why Hawn got attention, but Bergman’s performance is much stronger. She’s convincing as a lonely, all-business, no-romance, super-competent nurse, but the way she gives you little glimpses into what else is going on in there is rather terrific. Toni knows secret things about Stephanie after just a few minutes of conversation, but we know them too because Bergman is so good at subtly conveying them.
Matthau is Matthau. There is one moment near the end where he gives a delayed reaction to something shocking he has just seen, and his reaction is basically a stony face with close to no expression. He holds it so perfectly and for so long that I was practically aching from laughter. It makes me want to see more Matthau stuff.
I have little patience for the sex romps of the Fifties and Sixties, but here is one that really wins me over. The dialogue is sharp (if mostly predictable) and the comic delivery of the primary actors is impeccable. I had never heard of Cactus Flower, so it is an unexpected treasure for me, one that I hope bodes well for a summer vacation full of nice cinematic surprises.
Dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, etc.
I’m not sure who would like this–maybe Chris and Tony. Maybe Penny would like this or think this is alright. I can’t see any of the other idiots responding stronger than “OK,” and I’d guess many would think it was a little less than OK. Larri would definitely not like this. I must say that my score is a bit high, but I’ll explain the reason it fits for me.
A group of scientists identify the location of a planet of aliens, who the scientists believe created human beings. A spaceship and crew are sent out to the planet. Do they find the aliens? And if so, are they friendly or hostile? That’s what the film explores.
The film isn’t very good, imo, and I’ll explain the reasons in the next section, but I liked the look of the film, which is the main reason the score is as high as it is. Without this element, the film might be in the 50s, 40s or even lower.
What I’m about to describe may not technically be spoilers, but I’m going to reveal details involving the unfolding of the film. With that said, the beginning of the film creates the impression that it’s going to be in a similar vein as 2001. The visuals and filmmaking were good enough to make me think the film actually had a credible chance of doing a good job of this. Unfortunately, at a certain point the film basically becomes a stupid horror/monster movie. By “stupid,” I’m especially thinking about the behavior of the characters. There are two many examples to name, but I imagine a good reviewer could have a lot of fun with them.
This might not be so bad if the monsters and horror set-pieces weren’t so familiar. As this movie is basically the prequel to the Alien films, the film basically presents variations of what you’ve seen in those films–and the impact isn’t very significant as a result.
Ridley Scott knows how to present very good visuals, but he either doesn’t care about stories and characters or he is completely incompetent when dealing with either.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)
Steve Carell, Keira Knightley
An asteroid is going to collide with the earth. It’s huge enough that there is no hope for survival anywhere on the planet, and when a last-ditch effort to prevent the collision fails, all that’s left to do in the remaining twenty-one days is what? The first act of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is an exploration of the options.
The film’s main character is Dodge, played by Steve Carell in the mopey, life-is-passing-him-by persona he exhibits in Dan in Real Life and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. If you like this Carell as much as I do, you probably don’t need to read this review because you’ve already seen the movie. Dodge isn’t sure how he wants to spend his remaining days, and at first he tries to carry on with his life as if nothing’s different. He sees the people around him giving over to hedonism, self-indulgence, mayhem, denial, and despair, each in several different interpretations, but none of these appeals to him, and it isn’t until violence in his neighborhood forces him to hit the road that he finally decides on a purpose: to visit his high-school sweetheart, the One Who Got Away.
In that rushed escape from chaos, Dodge rescues his newly introduced neighbor, Penny, played by Keira Knightley as an unsettled free spirit longing to return to England to spend her last days with her family. The commercial airlines have ceased operations, and Penny now beats herself up for all the excuses she’s made over the years not to visit during holidays, choosing instead to be with her boyfriends of the month.
Penny and Dodge strike a deal, each providing the other with assistance in putting these final affairs in order. The second act of the film becomes an odd-couple-buddy-road-trip flick, a vehicle that mainly serves the purpose of letting the two become friends.
This second act is what’s disappointing about this picture, the section that could have made it great but instead makes it merely good. One gets the sense that there could be a great romance between these two, even in the short time they have left. Many other movies have thrown odd couples together and convinced us of the quick flame that ignites, of the tenderness that’s shared, of the connection between two souls who find each other in extraordinary circumstances. Seeking a Friend somehow fails to stick the landing on any of these three jumps, and the viewer is left to receive the assertions without the compelling evidence. I found myself tenuously willing to accept the terms as offered, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for declining the invitation.
Whether the film works is entirely dependent on one’s belief in this relationship as it’s presented. I went along for the sake of dealing with the movie’s other ponderous themes, especially the obvious one, which asks us what we’d do with the end of days, and then asks why we’re not doing it now.
In his review, Roger Ebert says the film helped him decide what he’d do: adopt a homeless mother dog with puppies and be calmed by her optimism. It took me longer than the duration of the film to come up with mine, but I think it would be to pay one last visit to my mom and dad, then to find people who were alone against their wishes, and bring them together so they could die among new friends.
And I’d try to squeeze in some of the movies I’ve been saving: Lucas, Before Sunrise, and maybe The Sound of Music. Here’s hoping each of them is more believably developed than this one.
7/10, mostly on the strength of premise and mood.
That’s My Boy (2012)
Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Leighton Meester
All Adam Sandler wants to do is make you laugh, and if you think his movies are idiotic, low-brow, crude, and morally questionable, I get the feeling he doesn’t care as long as you’ve laughed a few times before the credits roll at the end of the films. That’s My Boy is one of the worst-reviewed movies of 2012 so far (it has a 30 on the Metacritic scale, which translates into “generally unfavorable”), which for a Sandler film usually means you might as well check it out if you’re looking for a laugh.
It deserves every negative criticism, but it did make me laugh. Several times. In one early scene, Sandler’s character Donnie Berger is seated in his lawyer’s office. His lawyer is played by New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, and his office is decorated the way I imagine many professional offices are decorated in Boston: with wall-to-wall Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics memorabilia. At one point in the conversation, the Ryan character points to a framed photo of Tom Brady and comments on his gorgeous looks. I laughed. Later in the conversation, he points to a bobble-head replica of Patriots coach Bill Belichick and refers to him in all sincerity as “the genius.” I laughed again.
It doesn’t matter to me that it’s a cheap, easy laugh, or that the joke effectively forces a self-awareness that’s pretty much just a crutch for a lack of real creativity or narrative competence. It’s funny to see Rex Ryan pretend to love a team he hates, darn it, and so I laughed, and so Sandler is rewarded. This is one of the tamer jokes; most of the other gags are crude and raunchy, some of them over the line even someone as permissive as me. Let the viewer beware.
Donnie Berger, at the age of fourteen, is seduced by his math teacher, who is sent to prison for thirty years as a result. Her unborn child is to be turned over to Donnie’s custody when he turns eighteen. Now, about twenty-seven years later, Sandler’s son Han Solo Berger (Andy Samberg) has disappeared from his father’s life, assuming a new identity and telling friends that both his parents died in an explosion.
Donnie’s in trouble with the IRS and reestablishes contact with his son in order to persuade him to appear on a reality show in order to raise the money to pay his delinquent taxes. Throw in the expected clichés, such as the demanding but affectionate boss, the uptight in-laws, the slightly wacky grandma, the angry brother-in-law, and the gorgeous suntanned bridesmaids, and mix in a few unexpected elements, such as Vanilla Ice playing himself, a plethora of silly cameos, and, well, that’s about it I guess, and you have pretty much the film you expect.
Really, everything hinges on your willingness (and ability) to laugh at the outrageousness Sandler puts on the screen, but that path is eased by a generally likeable main character who has the gift of disarming everyone around him with his charming, foul-mouthed sense of humor. When Donnie says he can hold his head up because he knows he’s a good person, you can agree with him because everyone else in the film thinks he’s a good person, even if in real life that probably wouldn’t be the case. And while it’s no major accomplishment to win a few laughs by making a Jets coach pretend to love the Patriots, some respect should be given a film whose inclusion of Vanilla Ice as a character actually gives the film extra likeability. As stupid as it is, it actually works. Which is maybe the epitaph Sandler has already chiseled into his tombstone.
PS: You also get to hear Dan Patrick use a few cusswords. I admit that was pretty fun, too.
PPS: This is now the second film I’ve seen Leighton Meester in (she was the PYT in Country Strong) and she is absolutely adorable. Almost worth the admission all by herself.
Oops. Forgot to rate it.
Bad Company (1972)
Dir. Robert Benton
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown, etc.
This is Mitchell’s type of film, but I’m not sure if he’ll really like this or not. I’m sure there are certain aspects that will appeal to him, and he might end up liking this quite a bit. I think Kevin and Chris might also appreciate this, but I’m not sure how much they would like it. At worst, they would think it’s just OK, but they could end up liking it a bit more than that. I’d add Penny and John to the list; Grace and Jill less so. I’d guess that Joel would think this is OK; Ditto Marc and Don, but it’s hard to say. Larri would think this is OK at best, and I wouldn’t really recommend the film to her.
Trying to avoid military conscription in the Civil War, Drew Dixon (Barry Brown, who is a winner of the Ryan Gosling look-a-like context) heads West, with the money (a considerable amont) his parents gave him. Along the way, he meets Jake Rumsey (Bridges) and his gang of riff-raff, young men also running away from the military.
What is nice about the film is the way it mixes humor, gritty realism, into a coming-of-age Western. The blending isn’t self-conscious, heavy-handed or ironic like so many post-modern movies–and I really appreciated this approach as well.
Unfortunately for me, the acting and chemistry between the two leads didn’t quite work for me–and I would guess that the film hinges on this. Brown wasn’t so convincing as the more straight-laced character. Some may object to this description, and they might have a point. He’s not strictly straight-laced, not in a simplistic way, but the complexity and nuance of his character (or Bridges’) doesn’t quite come off, imo. But it might for others, and if it does, they might really like the film. If nothing else, the film is an interesting take on the genre.
(Btw, the use of the simple piano score and Gordon Willis’ dark cinematography was also effective.)
Dir. Mark Andrews
I’m pretty sure Penny and Jill will like this, at least mildly. Larri would probably like it a little, too. I suspect Grace and Mitchell would like this, but I’m even less sure. I have no idea about everyone else. It’s the type of film that I could see Don, Joel and Marc at least thinking was OK, but they might even like it a little less or little more. I should say that I had to step out of the theater at certain times, so that might have diminished my experience of the film. Having said that, I can’t imagine that what I missed would dramatically change my reaction and assessment (but who knows?).
The film is about a princess who is must choose three suitors for her hand in marriage. However, she resents being forced to do this; moreover, she resents having to be a prissy princess–something that her mother, the Queen, forces upon her. To get out of this predicament, she meets a witch, and gets the witch to cast a spell to change her mother in a way that will change the Princesses’ fate.
The film isn’t utterly terrible, but the story, characters and themes are cliched, which wouldn’t be so bad if the film attempted to re-imagine these elements in some fresh way. But that doesn’t happen, imo. Even the animation doesn’t seem so memorable.
Really, this seems more like a bad–or at least mediocre–Disney movie than a Pixar film. Indeed, I can’t imagine this concept for a film beat out all the other proposals–to me, that’s a depressing thought and it doesn’t bode well for Pixar.
Dir. Satyajit Ray
I would guess that Penny and Grace would like this; maybe Jill, Kevin, Tony and Chris. Larri wouldn’t like this, and I wouldn’t recommend this to Joel, Don and Marc, mostly because they wouldn’t like this more than OK.
A woman, Charulata, is in a loveless marriage with a wealthy man running a newspaper. He’s a decent guy, but the problem can be summed up with his indifference to literature–specifically poetry. (The fact that she’s often left alone with domestic chores that don’t stimulate her doesn’t help.) What makes matters worse is that the man’s younger brother, who is full of life and aspires to be a writer, comes for a visit. If this sounds like a 19th Century novel, then you’d be in the right ballpark.
This is a fine-looking film and the story and execution are also solid. I especially appreciated Ray’s attempt to allow the actors to reveal their characters’ inner thoughts through their facial expressions and body language. There are several moments in the film like this, and I really appreciated this. (My guess is that this is one the main reasons Mitchell’s friend recommended it to him. The other reason probably involves the tragic tale and maybe even the intellect vs. the heart theme.) Unfortunately, I don’t think these scenes always worked for me, as I didn’t know what the characters were feeling or thinking. For example, when Charu learns that her brother-in-law has a poem published, I wasn’t sure about her anguished reaction. Since the news spurs her to write, I wondered if she was jealous(?).
On another note, at one point I hypothesized that the film was an allegory about the mind and the heart, but the final scenes dispelled that hypothesis for me.
I’m pleased it got a 71 out of you. I think I need to see it again before I review it myself.
The friend who sent me the Charulata DVD says she basically sent it because:
1) A scene in The Funeral (Juzo Itami) had a scene involving a woman on a swing; it’s very similar to the scene in Charulata where she’s on the swing. “Looks like I’m only one that saw similarity in swing scenes. Both women swinging, looking into horizon…wishing husband was there for them…” This friend just saw The Funeral recently and had heard me mention it, so she thought I’d appreciate the similarities. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that film since 1994 and don’t remember that scene.
2) Apparently I once said Bollywood films are no-brainers. I don’t remember saying this, but it sounds about right.
I’m trying to convince this lover of film to chime in. So stop being intimidating, everyone.
Oh, I just saw your last post.
I’ve never seen The Funeral (which might be the only Itami film I haven’t seen, so I can’t comment.
As for Bollywood, I’m sure you know this wasn’t a Bollywood film. I actually think you would like the other films by Ray. Also, a film by Ritwak Ghatak (hopefully, I’m remembering his name right) called, Cloud-Capped Star.
Yeah, I hope your friend chimes in. I’d be interested in hearing her thoughts.
Shoot! Here’s a review of Brave that destroys my criticism (or comes close) of it–if it’s correct, and I’m thinking it is. It’s a terrific review of the film, one of the best I’ve read. (This is the type of review I’d love to see more of. But there are major spoilers, so don’t read it unless you’ve seen the film.)
Charulata and Satyajit Ray
Greetings from Los Angeles! In response to the discussion on Charulata, I was wrong to say Satyajit Ray could be classified as Bollywood. Mitchell was quick to call me out on this statement.
This conversation came about when I mentioned that the NAZ 8 multiplex in Artesia (aka Little India) plays Indian movies every day of the year and that’s when I was told that Bollywood movies were “no brainers.”
I’m fairly new to Indian movies but am a fan of Ray’s work and was a little anxious to share his movies. No excuses. I know. I’m coming to realize that Satyajit Ray is in a class all by himself.
I’ve always wanted to check out Ray’s contemporaries such as Ritwick Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. I will definitely look into Cloud-Capped Star.
Going back to Bollywood film making, if you guys are open to it I’d like to suggest a Mumbai director like Shyam Benegal for future discussion.
For the record I have unearthed the offending message, and in it, what I actually said was, “i just haven’t been able to wrap my brain around bollywood. hormones, yes. brain, no.”
Which was not to say that Bollywood is brainless, but to say that I just don’t GET Bollywood films.
Oops. I’m so glad you clarified. Sorry! Btw, thanks for messaging me AFTER I posted here that the lovely people here have been “acheing for fresh blood.”
Welcome A. Cannavale-Tatum,
First, no worries about the Bollywood-Ray thing. Second, do you have one or two films you’d highly recommend by Shyam Benegal?
Also, I’m curious to know why you recommended the Charulata to Mitchell. (I can definitely think of reasons to recommend it to him, but I’m wondering if we’re thinking of the same things.) Have you seen the Apu Trilogy? How do you think Mitchell will like that? (I suspect he’ll like it at least a little, but I’m not sure if he’ll really like it.)
I’m currently going through a Satyajit Ray phase. For me, there are certain filmmakers where I see one movie of theirs and then have a need to see every single one of their movies to learn more about them. That’s happened with me with some actors and directors. In this case, I’d seen Charulata and was instantly curious to know more about Ray. I’ve since seen The Music Room, The Chess Players, Big City, The Home and the World, and Devi.
Why Charulata? For one thing, it’s the only movie of Ray’s I own. It’s a favorite for a lot of things. The opening scenes have stayed with me. I still remember the way the camera follows Charulata from the back as she’s got her nose in a book. The way the camera is low at her hand-level as she walks with the binoculars to go spy on a man outside her house. I love the music, especially Charu’s theme.
I’d like to own The Music Room eventually. It was in The Music Room that I found out about another director, Shyam Benegal, who interviewed Ray in a documentary for the Criterion version as one of the DVD’s special features. I didn’t really think about Shyam Benegal until later when looking for Bollywood directors. Benegal was always coming up as part of the Indian New Wave so I looked him up and found that his first four movies Ankur, Night’s End, Manthan and Bhumika from the 1970’s are famous as being art house type of Indian cinema. I haven’t been able to find most of these with English subtitles. I’ve only seen two movies of his, Night’s End (1975) and Well Done Abba (2009). I’m not as intrigued with Benegal but found it interesting that as a Bollywood director, he is considered part of the Indian New Wave.
As for the Apu trilogy, I attempted the first movie, Panther Panchali. After reading your review, I’d like to watch the third movie and maybe work my way backwards because I couldn’t get into the first one. Will Mitchell like it? Maybe. It seems that a lot of people point to the trilogy as their favorite so I want to try it again. I think he’d like The Music Room (1958), about a man who would give anything for music.
Going back to hormones and Bollywood, unrelated to Ray or Benegal, I really liked The Guru (2007), which stars Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai. The color here is really memorable. The dance and songs are great too. I’ve seen this more than a few times. ☺
I enjoyed reading your review of Charulata, along with other films. Also, I think it’s great that you guys know who of your friends may or may not like a movie.
Did someone say Aishwarya Rai?
I remember liking the music, too (although I can’t really remember it now). I don’t recall the opening sequence, but the compositional elements are solid in the film. What stood out, for me, was the way Ray seemed to want his actors to “show” their thoughts. Did you–and Mitchell–get the same feeling? If so, how successful was the film in this regard? (For me it was a mixed bag.)
I’ve seen The Music Room, but I barely remember it. I don’t think I was on the same wavelength, as I felt like I didn’t know what I was watching.
I haven’t heard of Benegal, but if you have anything you think I should watch, let me know.
As for the Apu trilogy, I think I liked the first film the best, but my memory of all three is pretty hazy.
Btw, if there were one or two Bollywood films you could recommend, what would they be?
I never really thought about their performances in that way. Soumitra Chatterjee plays Amal so naturally that I didn’t feel him showing his thoughts. Comparing his acting in Charulata to another Ray film, Devi, where he returns home to find his wife changed in a way he’d never have imagined, I felt his acting there was overly dramatic, showing too much of his thoughts where he could have held back a little. Is that what you meant?
The Music Room. One word to describe it would be obsession, especially with a love of music. A wealthy landowner, a zamindar, loses it all just so he can have one last concert, with the very best musicians, in his home.
I’ll go with the Bollywood movies I mentioned before. Well Done Abba (2009), a political comedy, directed by Benegal. Great dance and music in The Guru (2007), which was scored by A.R. Rahman, who also scored Slumdog Millionaire. Which are some of your favorites?
I saw Brave Sunday night and will review it in a day or so. As I’m thinking about my reaction to this film, a question popped up that I will ask now, since it maybe doesn’t have much to do with my review but it is one of my prevailing thoughts.
I seem to differ with a lot of people on the quality of Pixar’s animation, and I wonder if this is it: I pay a fair amount of attention, both professional and personal, to computer technology and how it helps accomplish whatever it sets out to accomplish. I’m not merely interested in what the technology does, but I try to understand how it does it. This is not to say I understand the intricate specifics of programming, but my effort is to understand the processes that come into play. Yes, I know that Microsoft Excel translates dates into standard numerical values so that they can be manipulated. But I want to know what the algorithm (the series of steps the software needs to take) looks like so that I can either apply it to other tasks if I ever need to, or solve problems related to that specific function, should it ever arise.
When I look at the animation in Brave and in Monsters, Inc., I’m amazed by the thinking processes (not to mention the computing processes) that go into animating Merida’s long, curly red hair and Sully’s soft, fine, blue fur. I don’t think anything I’ve seen in either computer-animated or hand-drawn-animated films even approaches the intricate attention to detail that has to go into making that hair and fur do what it does. It blows my mind every time I try to make sense out of it.
When we evaluate the quality of a film’s animation, what are we judging? I think a lot of it is simply how the images look, including how they look while they are in motion. Something else we consider is whether or not a film takes advantage of the fact that it is an animated film: what are the animators, writers, and directors doing to make the most of the medium?
Do we also look at the accomplishment in animation as well? Reid once told me (about Larry McMurtry, a debate we’ll continue some other time) that “just because what McMurtry does is difficult doesn’t make it good.” I can agree with that, but does degree of difficulty have any play in the evaluation of the work? I think it does.
If it were a gratuitous look-what-I-can-do-with-my-computer peeing contest, my reaction wouldn’t be as positive, ‘though I confess I would still admire it to some degree. But it’s more than that. Sully’s fur, the thing that makes him so cuddly to the little girl who causes all the trouble in the movie, is an important (and well-executed) part of the animation. And Merida’s hair is…well, I won’t spoil it for people who haven’t seen it. I will say that hair is pretty dang cool in this movie (yes, I did read the review Reid links above, but my thoughts are separate and different from that critic’s). The Pixar animators do an amazing job with Merida’s hair, something that I as a movie-goer appreciate.
All these words are to ask this: does my appreciation for the degree of difficulty cause me to over-appreciate the animation, or does others’ not knowing (or caring) about the technical accomplishment cause them to under-appreciate the animation? Or is it probably equal amounts of both?
By showing the actor’s thoughts and feelings, I was thinking of scenes with one character alone (often Charu). She’s not really doing much, but it’s obvious that she’s thinking or feeling something. Ray also uses quite a bit of close-ups in this moment. There’s no dialogue or direct behavior to let us know exactly what the character is thinking and feeling. In a way the thoughts have to come through the actors “pores.”
Halle Berry has a moment like this in Monster’s Ball; Streep has one or two in Adaptation. The actors don’t speak, but we can “see” what they’re thinking. I think Ray tries to have his actors do this, with mixed results, imo. (Btw, this is something that I think would appeal to Mitchell.)
I’m going to have to watch Music Room again. Your description appeals to me, but I don’t remember enjoying (or fully understanding) the film at all.
Well Done Abba and The Guru. I’ll try to remember those. I can’t remember if I’ve watched any Bollywood films, and, if I did, I can’t remember the titles now.
All these words are to ask this: does my appreciation for the degree of difficulty cause me to over-appreciate the animation, or does others’ not knowing (or caring) about the technical accomplishment cause them to under-appreciate the animation? Or is it probably equal amounts of both?
My first response is to ask if one is placing too much emphasis on the animation or too little–in relation to the film as a whole. A guy I know, who really loves the film, mentioned the incredible camera work with the bears. He’s an aspiring filmmaker, and he mentioned that not even filmmakers may able to pick up the details he finds wonderful. That’s fine, but my sense is that he thinks the film is great because of this one aspect. I don’t think a film can be great because of one detail like that.
I don’t know if that’s what you’re asking, though.
I have mixed feelings about the way difficulty of technical aspects of films influence our appreciation of a film. My knee-jerk reaction is to say that the difficulty shouldn’t matter at all. What’s more important is the filmmaking is appropriate and effective. Long, single takes come to mind. These are technically difficult and when you notice them, these shots can seem really impressive. There’s also the element of feeling good because you noticed the filmmaking. We can factor in the degree of difficulty of the filmmaking, but my sense is that we shouldn’t give this a lot of weight when evaluating how good a film is.
Viewers without the technical background probably won’t fully appreciate the difficulty of some of the filmmaking that goes on in a film. However, I’m not sure this is a huge deficiency on the part of the viewer.
I recall the close-ups. I’ll get back to you after i re-watch it with that in mind.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Dir. Christopher Nolan
Before I comment on how other idiots would react to this, I have to mention a huge caveat. I saw this at the Regal RPX theater (better visual quality and sound), and I would say I didn’t understand about 1/3 of the dialogue. Do you know how a good sound system will play the background sounds fine, but the dialogue will be soft? That’s how it was in the film. Plus, one of the characters spoke through some type of gas mask, so his voice was muffled. I thought of the adults in the Peanuts cartoons, and at times it sounded like Sean Connery doing Darth Vader.
So, I don’t know if I can really judge this film, and I have difficulty knowing who would like this and who wouldn’t. Generally, this is the type of film that Joel, Marc, Don and Chris would like, but I would guess that Joel, Marc and Don will think it’s just OK (I would be surprised if they like to as much or more than Dark Knight.)
Batman has gone into retirement after cleaning up the Gotham. Little does he know, Bane (Tom Hardy), a man who received the same training as Batman, is gathering people for a diabolical plan against the city. Catwoman also comes into the picture, but I won’t go into the details.
As an action film, I don’t think this film works so well. The point of interest for me is the way the film comments or reflects on zeitgeist in the U.S. (e.g., Occupy/Tea Party movements). However, I’m not sure if the film wants to make serious statements about these matters, but that’s the most interesting part of the film for me.
But I didn’t understand a 1/3 of the dialogue and I couldn’t remember the previous films very well, so keep that in mind. (I recommend re-watching Batman Begins and Dark Knight, as this film tries to tie the previous films together, and I couldn’t remember the details.)
So if we’re talking about a musical, the difficulty of the dance moves shouldn’t be a factor either? We should just care about the subjective, aesthetic pleasure they give us? What about Jackie Chan’s stunt work in some of his movies? The intricacy of the moves and the risks we know he takes seem to contribute to the quality of the movie and to our enjoyment of it.
When we look at a film like Snow White I think it makes sense to evaluate it as the first full-length animated feature, and to factor that into our assessment. Then, when we look at Pinocchio as the very next full-length animated feature in history, it is appropriate for us to be further impressed, because the difference in animation is miles and miles.
My question, in any case, is not really how much that should be a factor, but whether or not I’m over-appreciating the animation in Brave. There’s no question in my mind that it makes it a better picture than lesser animation might have, whether or not the viewer is conscious of it. Maybe it’s not that aesthetically great, but it feels to me as if it is. And maybe to someone else who is less aware of the technical difficulty, the animation is really not that great, especially compared to something like Avatar, which might possibly have been less technically difficult but is more aesthetically impressive.
I wonder if the dance moves and stunt work are good analogies. Do you enjoy dance sequences more if they’re more difficult? Do you even know the level of difficulty of a dance sequence? I’m not sure I do, and I don’t think that’s factoring in when I appreciate a dance sequence. My sense is that my excitement derives mainly from how good it looks.
With a Jackie Chan fight sequence, I think the difficulty heightens the danger and therefore makes the scenes more exciting. We may appreciate the scenes more because of the difficulty, but how do you separate that from the cool and clever factor? I think that’s very difficult.
But suppose the degree of difficulty causes us to appreciate the dancing and fighting more. I don’t think this difficulty make the movie better. If the dance moves and fight choreography were easy, would that make the film less good? Difficulty-ease or complexity-simplicity are not key determinants for the overall quality of the film. Do you agree with that?
In any event, both examples seem very different from computer programming involved in created good looking hair. This reminds me of a quote from Kurosawa about Tarkovsky (I think it was Kurosawa). He said that it was really difficult to shoot water, and that Tarkovsky was great at that. So does the difficulty matter? Is it compelling basis for saying a film is good? My sense is that it doesn’t.
My question, in any case, is not really how much that should be a factor, but whether or not I’m over-appreciating the animation in Brave.
Well, that depends on what you mean by over-appreciation. If you really love the animation because of the difficulty involved, that doesn’t sound like over-appreciation. That seems reasonable. But to say that the film is great because it the technical feats were so difficult seems to be going too far.
…especially compared to something like Avatar, which might possibly have been less technically difficult but is more aesthetically impressive.
My sense is that the filmmaking and technology was innovative, if not technically difficult.
I think that’s what I said. At least, that’s what I was trying to say: that I’m not talking about the overall quality of the film being judged because the animation is difficult.
But you have said that you’re unimpressed by the animation in Monsters, Inc. and I suspect you were unimpressed by the animation in Brave. I suggest that you UNDERappreciate the animation because you don’t really care how amazing it really is. I suggest further that I OVERappreciate the animation because I do. My question is whether or not anyone agrees with that, and to what extent. Do you and I equally underappreciate and overappreciate the animation, or is one of us (you!) underappreciating it too much while the other (me!) is overappreciating it but only slightly?
The real question is, why does this matter?
Seriously. I definitely underappreciate the difficulty of the animation, and I suspect I might not be fully appreciated the aesthetic elements of the animation. My reaction might also be a matter of taste as well. (For example, I think I prefer the animation in anime.)
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
I think Kevin has the best chance of liking this, but I’m not really confident about that. I suspect Penny, Mitchell and Chris would find this interesting at least. (For some reason I think Tony might like this, but I have no idea). Marc could possibly find this interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend this to him. No to Don, Larri and Joel. Jill probably could be added to that bunch as well.
This Turkish film has a very simple plot. Yusuf comes to the big city to look for a job. He stays with Mahmut, a relative who happens to be a relatively successful photographer. (There’s a country/lower-class vs. city/Bourgeoisie dynamic going on in the film.) Yusuf presence is an intrusion into Mahmut’s life. I’ll say a little more about what the film is about, although, in my opinion, part of the film’s satisfaction comes from putting together the film’s meaning from the bits of information the film gradually reveals.
More importantly, the way film reveals this information–with very little dialogue or theatrical drama–is one of the best parts of the film in my opinion. I’m not sure I can explain the reason this film held my attention and carried me along the way it did. The situations are prosaic, the acting doesn’t seem very extraordinary (the casting is good, though), and the visuals are not spectacular–and yet visuals are good, but I guess it’s not ostentatious (which is a good thing). And the film did hold my attention throughout, even though this was a fairly quiet film. (The movie might seem slow, but I actually thought the pacing was deceptively good.) Bottom line: Ceylan is a skilled and efficient filmmaker, and the filmmaking is the thing I liked best about the film.
So what is the film really about? Off the top of my head, I want to say this is essentially a moral tale–one that critiques a certain type of person (middle to upper class, narcissist) and possibly wants viewers to examine the way they treat certain people in their lives. While I was watching the film, I thought of the line before Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan: Who is my neighbor? the man asks Jesus. I sort of saw Yusuf as the man robbed and left for dead, while Mahmut basically ignores his troubles for the most part.
But Mahmut has other problems besides his callousness. He’s also emotionally distant from those around him and doesn’t seem to have any real attachments to people, including his family. His inability to express his emotions (as we see with his ex-wife) or his pride (which I saw when he finds the watch he suspects Yusuf stole from him) also seem to be serious problems.
Right now, I see Mahmut as someone the film wants us use as a teaching moment–namely, to learn from the mistakes of Mahmut and also examine our own lives. (That interpretation sounds OK, but I feel like it’s not quite right.) There’s something disappointing about this, if this reading is correct. Perhaps, I found these moral issues obvious or well-worn, at least they’re issues I’ve wrestled with for a while (which doesn’t mean they’re no longer relevant). Actually, the bigger problem is the obvious–and maybe heavy-handed–way the film depicts these issues. For example, Mahmut, at times, is a bit too callous. This can distance the viewer from the character as the character becomes closer to a one-dimensional villain; someone we don’t really sympathize with. Also, if my interpretation is correct, I thought the film telegraphed its intentions a bit. Still, I really liked the simplicity and economy of the filmmaking, especially without the reliance on dialogue or music.
One last thing. I consider this movie a type of moral Rorshach test. Your values and ideas of appropriate and inappropriate behavior will definitely reveal themselves as you describe each character. That’s certainly true with my characterizations above. Someone with different values and norms may see the characters and situations in a completely different way.
I’d give Distant a 68/100.
The direction, cinematography and acting are great. It doesn’t hurt that the director, Ceylan, is also a photographer and actor. I felt the cramped apartment and the intimacy between the two characters.
I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see some of Istanbul’s city life like we did in Akin’s The Edge of Heaven. It’s the simple story that I wasn’t quite sure about. Also, the pacing of the film moved too slowly for me. I felt unsatisfied in the end.
I did like Ceylan’s Three Monkeys (2008) better for its faster pace and much more interesting storyline.
The acting didn’t stand out for me, and yet I liked it. It’s simple, subtle and effective. I feel the same about the visual aspects of the filmmaking, but I like this part of the film even more.
I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see some of Istanbul’s city life like we did in Akin’s The Edge of Heaven.
It’s a really different film, though. EoH is more complex, similar to those braided narrative films.
It’s the simple story that I wasn’t quite sure about. Also, the pacing of the film moved too slowly for me. I felt unsatisfied in the end.
What’s your take on the meaning of the film? (I’m assuming my interpretation wasn’t very helpful.
I wasn’t too sure what to make of it. Are you kidding? Your interpretation of this film, along with Syndromes, was so deep that both reviews made me think about the films in an entirely different way. I’d watch this again to confirm your take (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it), but will be busy watching some other films for some odd reason.
My tagline for Distant: A film about overstaying one’s welcome. Can’t one watch a video without being disturbed?
I’d watch this again to confirm your take (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it), but will be busy watching some other films for some odd reason.
Heh. Yeah, I hope I will be able to live up to my end of the bargain.
Granted, I think Mahmut is in a trying situation. Still, Yusuf has nothing or very little. The factory closed in their hometown, and if he doesn’t find a job in Istanbul, he’s basically screwed. He doesn’t have enough money for his mother to get her teeth fixed, too; and he’s very lonely. Again, Yusuf is an inconvenience for Mahmut–and I don’t want to come down too hard on him–but I hope I would be at least a little more understanding, if not compassionate and helpful.
I’m guessing every idiot has seen this already. If, like me, you hadn’t seen it since you were a kid, you might be wondering if it’s worth watching again? That’s hard to say. I’d guess Mitchell, Penny and Grace would like this. Jill, too. Not sure about the others. For the parents, I would say this is one of the better children’s films I’ve seen, although it could be a bit too intense. (More later.)
The film follows a baby elephant in a traveling circus. The problem is that the elephant has unusually large ears–causing other elephants and spectators to ridicule him. At one point, his mother responds with rage and violence (exacerbated when the Dumbo gets separated from her). Because of this, the Ringmaster permanently separates Dumbo and his mother. (This was really a bit too much for my daughter.) Can Dumbo get his mother back and find someway to overcome the object of ridicule? (This is a Disney movie, so it shouldn’t be hard to figure out.)
Some other comments. The animation was OK, nothing really exceptional, imo. The songs weren’t really that great, as well. (The scene with the crows were potentially racist and offensive, although given the time of the film, it’s understandable.)
The film fairly effectively incorporates two themes. First, there’s the theme power of a mother’s love–manifested by loving a child that may not be so lovable and the protectiveness that comes out of this love. The film makes the relationship more poignant when Dumbo and his mother are separated.
Second, we see the way the deficiency and object of ridicule actually become the source of self-esteem and personal salvation. It’s the type of theme that I associate with God–the way he takes the “stone that everyone thought was worthless and becomes the most important one.”
The story, overall, may not be flawless. For example, the dream sequence is sort of interesting, but I don’t know how necessary it is. The transformation and the triumphant climax seems to happen a bit too fast and tidy as well.
But, overall, the film works fairly well, especially for the emotional impact.
Again, I’m not sure who should see this film, but I know that Mitchell thinks highly of it. It’s a pretty good film to see with kids although I think it might not be entirely appropriate for three to five year olds.
I don’t think I have to describe the plot as I suspect most people are familiar with the film. I will say a few things (that aren’t spoilers). First, the animation surprised and impressed me, particularly the detail in the background. Gepetto’s shop, with the toys and clocks, looked really good. Actually, the film made me think of Miyazaki films, as if this one film was one of the main inspirations for Miyazaki.
Second, the story, themes and characters still had an emotional impact for me. That’s not saying much, I guess, but whatever.
I’m not sure what the film is missing, maybe the flow in the narrative didn’t seem as smooth as it could have been? Anyway, one of the better children’s films I’ve seen recently.
They are both excellent movies, but to mention them in the same breath is almost insane. Pinocchio is a masterpiece, the single best traditionally animated Disney movie of all time. But more on that later. Costco is closing in 45 minutes and I’m out of broccoli.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Dir. Wes Anderson
85/100 (and rising)
I know Mitchell really liked this–and it has his name written all over it. I’d recommend this to Chris, Kevin, Penny and Jill. I guess Grace would have good shot of liking this. Marc, Don and Joel have a chance, too, and I think I would recommend this film or Bottle Rocket, if they would choose only one Wes Anderson film to see. Larri would probably think this was OK at best, so I wouldn’t recommend this to her.
I want to see this again.
The plot isn’t very interesting in my opinion. On a small New England(?) island, two pre-teen social misfits–the boy from a boyscout-like troop and the girl from a fairly well-to-do family–run away together. Meanwhile. the police captain (Bruce Willis), the scoutmaster (Ed Norton), the parents of the girl (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and the scouting troop hunt after the two. Really, the plot isn’t really that important–except that this time it helps sustain the momentum of the film. (More later.)
A few other comments. Man, this film is meticulously crafted. Almost every shot of the film is really nice too look at, and sometimes funny in a charming and delightful way. (I loved the opening sequence with the camera pans and pull-backs. I’ve heard other people describe Anderson’s aesthetic as “dollhouse,” and you really get that sense in this opening scene.)
I guess you could describe this as a romantic-comedy, but there’s some rather poignant moments that are quite sad. The film perfectly balances these moments with charming whimsy that Anderson is good at.
Oh, I can’t remember the last time I chuckled and laughed as much as I did. I really liked this movie.
I’ve always like Wes Anderson’s sensibility as a filmmaker–the quirkiness of the characters and set-design. But I feel he’s never really been able to put these qualities together into a strong, unified film–until now. This is the film (although I haven’t seen Life Aquatic or Darjeeling–which I really want to see now). The other films used narrative framework, but the energy and momentum would always peter out–as if the filmmakers lost interest in the narrative. Not so here.
Also, I think the film successfully integrates the characters and themes into the narrative. All these components are working together in a way that doesn’t seem to happen in the other films. The story and the resolution may not be notable, but they’re good enough because it provides a structure for the characters and sets/costumes–which are the main point of interest in Anderson’s films, imo. Really, the film is running on all cylinders (I loved the scenes with the narrator, too), and I’d have to consider it for one of the best films of the 10s.
Hotel Chevalier and The Darjeeling Limited (2005)
Dir. Wes Anderson
Starring: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman, etc.
I don’t think Don, Marc or Joel would like this very much. I’m not sure about the rest. My guess is that Mitchell wouldn’t like this much, though. Having said that, I would be curious to hear what he thought of the film. I’m not sure if I have a good understanding of the film, but if I do, it’s not very good.
Hotel Chevalier is a short film and considered Part I of two films, The Darjeeling Limited being Part II. In the first film, one character, Jack has been living in a Paris hotel. His former girlfriend (played by Natalie Portman) tracks him down and has sex with him. (I’m not entirely sure about the significance of part 1 except to set up Jack’s character.)
In Part II, Jack is on trip to across India with his two brothers. The oldest brother, Francis, has planned the trip. (He’s the type of oldest sibling that plans everything out for the others.) His plan is to visit the most spiritual places in order to find enlightenment and increase the bond between them. The brothers are not as close as they could be and all of them still struggle with the death of their father and the fact that their mother left them (to be a nun).
A lot of Wes Anderson’s films start off strong–e.g., the quirky and amusing characters and the interesting set-pieces–but they eventually peter out. I’ve often felt the narrative would eventually lose steam for some reason. This one doesn’t even start off strong. The characters aren’t very interesting at all (although I must say that I’m pretty tired of Owen Wilson).
I’m not really sure what the film is trying to do. Is it partly satirizing the spiritual quest that Westerners make? Is it trying to be a serious drama about the way we struggle with painful and traumatizing family experiences? I think it does a little of both, but I also think it fails on both levels. The target of satire and satire itself (not very funny) and the dramatic content were both too cliched–so much so that I’m wondering if I really have a good understanding of the film.
Dir. Gary Huswit
Kevin really liked this. I think this would interest Chris, Grace, Penny and Mitchell. I think the other idiots would find this interesting to some degree, but it’s not something they would choose to see.
In under 90 minutes, this film attempts to explore urban planning–the way it impacts one’s life and the challenges and solutions urban planners come up with. It’s a super-quick primer on urban planning, and given the time constraints the film does a good job. Still, I can’t help feel dissatisfied as this is a subject that can’t adequately be dealt with in 90 minutes.
Terror in a Texas Town (1958)
Dir. Joseph H. Lewis
Starring: Sterling Hayden, etc.
I think most idiots would think this is OK–at best–so I’m not recommending this to anyone.
The plot is very similar to Shane. A wealthy individual (Sebastian Cabot–aka Mr. French in Family Affair) tries to run off squatters, using a hired-gun to intimidate and even murder some of them. One of those victims happens to be the father of a seamen, George (Hayden–with an awful Swedish accent), returning from his voyages. The twist in the film is that instead of a gun Hayden uses a harpoon. (I say “uses,” but he one only uses it once.)
Someone mentioned that the villain (played by Nedrick Young) was one of the best of all time, which is what piqued my curiosity about the film. He was just OK, far from the best.
The story moves along slowly. The directing and cinematography aren’t very memorable. Basically, it’s a forgettable B-movie.
The Darjeeling Limited
I think you do have a good understanding of the film. I know a lot of people who didn’t like it but personally, I enjoyed it. I’d recommend viewing it with some sweet lime on hand.
My favorite part of the movie is when Owen Wilson’s character proposes a schedule of their spiritual journey. Seriously?!
Francis: I want us to be completely open and say yes to everything even if it’s shocking and painful. Can we agree to that? Now, I had Brendan make us an itinerary.
Peter: Who’s Brendan?
Francis: My new assistant. He’s gonna place an updated schedule under our doors every morning of all the spiritual places and temples that we need to see and expedite hotels and transportation and everything.
I wish I was on that train.
One for the Money (2012)
Almost everyone I know who’s read the novel upon which this film is based said before the film’s release that it was difficult to picture Katherine Heigl in the role of Stephanie Plum, the lingerie-buyer-turned-bounty-hunter heroine of more than eighteen books. I had only read the first three books in the series by the time I saw the film in theaters, and I didn’t have such a problem, not being especially familiar with Heigl anyway.
I think she works. With hair dyed black for this role, she brings a smart sexiness that I really like on screen. She’s still not what I picture when I read the books (I’m now through six of them), but for the movie version of this character, I really like her.
For the uninitiated, Stephanie Plum finds herself out of work and out of prospects, so she prevails upon her cousin Vinnie, a bail bond agent, to give her a job as a bounty hunter. Her first assignment is Joe Morelli, a cop suspected of shooting someone without cause, a cop with whom Stephanie also has some romantic history. Morelli is too good to be brought in by the likes of Stephanie, so the bounty hunter tries to help track down the people involved in the crime Morelli was investigating as a means to clearing his name. “Cops don’t do too good in prison,” Morelli reminds Stephanie.
The story is interesting enough, but it’s Stephanie everything depends on in this movie. If you like and care about Stephanie, you’ll enjoy this picture, and you’ll probably be willing to tolerate a plot that resolves much, much too quickly and without enough background info. I’ve seen the picture three times and the only reason I can make sense of what happens at the end is that I read the novel.
I liked Heigl in Knocked Up, and I didn’t think much of her at all in the very weak The Ugly Truth. She’s much better in One for the Money than in either of those pictures, confidently carrying the film with a cute personality and lots of down-to-earth sexiness. She affects a New Jersey accent I am unqualified to evaluate, but it works for me and I like it. Mostly, though, there’s just a really charming, unwarranted confidence she approaches every strange and dangerous situation with, as if she knows she doesn’t know what she’s doing but is pretty sure things will work out.
There are some differences that will matter only to fans of the series, but they are mostly small and not especially disappointing. I’m not a huge fan of the portrayal of Stephanie’s family, which is even more cartoony than in the novels, and Jason O’Mara took some getting used to as Morelli. Daniel Sunjata really works as Ranger; I was disappointed in Nate Mooney as Eddie Gazarra, a particular favorite of mine in the books. It’s a small complaint because again, it will all come down to how willing readers are to accept Heigl as their Stephanie. It works for me, and I’d be interested in seeing a sequel.
The Grey (2012)
Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermott Mulroney
Liam Neeson is John Ottway, a guy whose job is to protect oil-well drillers in Alaska from wolves. He’s haunted by the (apparently) recent death of his wife, and plans to follow her in death, but the rifle misfires and Ottway lives. He leaves on a small plane filled with other workers at the drilling site. The plane goes down in kind of a cool (but really scary) crash sequence in the middle of a snowy nowhere.
The survivors begin the long, cold trek back to civilization followed by a pack of wolves. The wolves aren’t especially hungry; Ottway, who is an expert on these wolves, explains that they are attacking to protect their den. The men don’t know where the den is, but if they’re lucky enough to be walking away from it, the wolves should leave them alone sooner or later.
They get killed one by one in what is on the surface a man-versus-nature survival story. There is bickering among the men, followed by bonding, but the outlook isn’t good for the group as a whole.
As the group dwindles in size, the viewer is meant to ponder death and different people’s approaches to it. Two of the men say they are atheists; another says he is religious. They all face the same earthly death.
For a survival flick, the movie is fine. The characters are interesting enough, and how do you not find yourself engrossed in a plot like this even if you’ve seen it or read it fifty times? The film-makers do a good job of communicating the cold misery through which the characters trudge, so good that it made me miserable myself just watching the journey. Add the threat (and reality, in several cases) of death by wolf-mauling and the tension is as thick as the unceasing arctic wind.
As a treatise on humans’ approach to death, it’s kind of weak and especially shallow. I find it mildly interesting that one of the atheist characters is the most welcoming of death, when one might predict that it’d be the religious character, but there’s not a whole lot there really to chew on. I think there’s something else going on, something about there being no difference between man and beast, but I need to see the film again to really get into that. Several incidents underscoring this point occurred to me during the movie but I couldn’t remember them even a few days after seeing the film.
Neeson is an interesting actor; he seems always to have more going on in him than he’s letting anyone know, something I think I should be getting tired of but which I am not.
One of my peeves is overly manipulative soundtracks, and this movie is guilty of it in a big way. I found it especially disappointing in this case, where the visuals do such a good job of communicating scope, desolation, and desperation. The soundtrack could have been just the harsh blowing of the wind and the sounds made by trees and wildlife in the forest and the scenes would have been twice as tense as they were with the loud, tribal drumming and the sweeping, dramatic orchestration.
For just escapist survival fare, you could do a lot worse. Don’t read past my rankings if you don’t want to know how this ends!
SPOILER: Don’t read past this if you don’t want to know how it ends!
The last man standing, Ottway stumbles right into the wolves’ den. It’s obvious which wolf is the alpha. The other wolves back off. Ottway examines the wallets of those who died on the plane and on the journey, placing them in the snow in the shape of a cross before adding his own wallet to the arrangement. He offers a prayer and recites a poem that his father wrote. Ottway tapes a knife to one hand and broken glass bottles to the other and gets ready to fight an obvious suicide battle with the alpha. The screen goes black and the credits roll.
After the credits, there is a very quick shot of Ottway’s head on the wolf’s belly; the wolf is on its side in the snow, still breathing but seemingly about to die. It’s unclear if Ottway is alive or dead. I like this ending, because it indicates a kind of hope. An atheist who says a prayer is not an atheist, and it’s possible Ottway survives this fight as an act of grace, served by someone. I suppose the ambiguous ending is designed to give a theist like me the hope I want from a film like this, while it could also give a nihilist the same satisfaction. Either way, it’s the ending I wish the film had properly given us, rather than as a tack-on after the credits.
…and how do you not find yourself engrossed in a plot like this even if you’ve seen it or read it fifty times?
Answer: you’ve passed the point of diminishing returns.
I can’t remember if I saw the last shot you talked about. I wonder how that would change my reading.
What Happened Was (1994)
Dir. Tom Noonan
Starring: Karen Sillas, Tom Noonan, etc.
Mitchell’s type of movie (See second section.) I think Penny would like this. I expect Chris and Kevin would like this. Grace could like this, too. Don and Jill might have a chance, but it’s 50/50 (maybe a little less than that.) I don’t think Marc or Joel would care for this. Ditto Larri.
Jackie (Sillas) invites Michael (Noonan–who often plays creepy villains in films. I believe he was the villain in the Manhunter remake.) to her apartment for dinner. They ‘re middle-aged characters who work together at a law firm and it’s their first date. Jackie is very anxious and Michael is…tall. The whole film takes place in the apartment, and it’s basically one long conversation between the two of them. I don’t want to say much more because the development of the conversation, as well as the conversation’s content, are the main points of interest.
I will say the acting is good, if not very good. And the film is worth watching. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy film to find, unless you have netflix streaming. It’s about 90 minutes, so that’s another bonus.
There are two things that stood out for me. First, there’s the way our impressions and understanding of the characters dramatically shift through the course of the film. (It’s a twist that I don’t really enjoy as much as I would in the past.) Second, when the layers are peeled away, I liked what I saw–not because it was a happy picture, but it was picture I could understand and relate to. These are middle-aged characters in a kind of situation that I imagine many middle-aged people can relate to. Michael being broken touched me, as well as Jackie arriving a point where she’s finally found herself, while discovering she’s struggling to find someone in her life.
One other thing. I thought Jackie’s “children’s story” was quite good, fwiw.
Man on a Ledge (2012)
Elizabeth Banks, Sam Worthington, Ed Harris
I’m not spoiling anything when I say that the man on the ledge isn’t really there to kill himself. He’s there because he’s an escaped convict, an ex-cop who was framed for the theft of a very expensive diamond, and while he’s on the ledge, not only does he bargain for someone to hear his side of the story, but he serves as a distraction while his brother tries to steal the supposedly stolen diamond from the wealthy owner who framed him.
And that’s pretty much all I’ll say because I don’t think I can share another detail without spoiling it for anyone who might see it. Although really, you could go your whole life without seeing this movie and it really wouldn’t matter, which I hate to say because I love Elizabeth Banks, who plays the police negotiator kind of caught between the police department who wants this man put back in jail and the man on the ledge, who claims he’s innocent.
The performances are fine. The story, while a bit complicated, is fine. The dialogue is fine. If I had been forced to leave the theater sometime in the middle of the picture, I would have wondered what happened. So I guess I kind of cared about the story and characters, but my caring ceased as soon as the credits rolled and I was tossing my soda cup into the trash. This wouldn’t be a bad rental, but please don’t change any plans in order to see it.
I’ve seen Elizabeth Banks in four films released in 2012, making her the leading candidate for my Most Valuable Player award.
The Secret World of Arrietty (2010 in Japan; 2012 American dub)
The problem, I am beginning to think, is that Hayao Miyazaki set the bar ridiculously high. I haven’t seen all of the classic, favorite Studio Ghibli films, but I’ve seen My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away, all of which have some amazing things to recommend them, so I go into a new Ghibli picture with all kinds of expectations.
Ponyo was nicely animated but too stupid a story for any except the very youngest of movie-watching children. And now here’s The Secret World of Arrietty, a film based on the near-classic series of English children’s books, The Borrowers. I went in cautiously optimistic but with high hopes. At least the source material had a good reputation.
The Borrowers are a species very little people. Arrietty’s family of Borrowers lives beneath the floorboards of a home where Sho, a very ill human boy, is staying with his great aunt. Arrietty’s family does its best to be completely invisible to the humans who live above, venturing out late at night to “borrow” small amounts of food and other supplies it needs in order to live. The young Arrietty is careless, though, and she allows Sho to discover her, and it’s not long before Sho is also aware of the living space beneath the floor. Sho and Arrietty become friends, but Sho isn’t careful enough and soon his great aunt is on the verge of discovering the tiny family.
As stories go, it’s pretty dang standard. It would have been improved enormously by more likable characters, but Arrietty’s not a very compelling girl, and in fact she’s pretty annoying. Sho is more interesting, perhaps because of his illness, but the film’s not really about him. Arrietty’s family and Sho’s great aunt are just plain, boring, regular stock characters. This is a problem, because one thing a Ghibli film should never be is plain, boring, or regular.
The animation is quite beautiful, drawn mostly in the style of older children’s books from western Europe, with warm, muted hues. The Ghibli attention to detail is all there, and I suppose the animation alone is worth the admission price, but without a decent story to hang it on, it feels kind of empty, like a wonderfully illustrated children’s book written in a foreign language.
Something should be said here about the Japanese aesthetic which focuses a lot on the sad beauty of impermanence. Japanese art that causes one to think about the impermanence of all things is an inescapable part of Japanese culture. The painting of a lone blossom exists to remind the viewer that there is beauty in the moment, but that the moment will pass, and there is beauty in that moment too, because it reminds us that everything will pass. Arrietty rides this aesthetic, and the result is a kind of bittersweet, melancholy trip that I suspect Japanese children are used to. American children might have more difficulty and find the story less satisfying.
I can’t think of any reason to recommend this film as long as the other great Miyazaki films exist. Don’t rent your kids this movie; rent them one of the others. And if they become the fanboys and fangirls that many of them will, let them rent this one when they get older.
I didn’t really mean to say it’s drawn in the style of those European children’s books. I meant in an anime style informed by those books. For some reason I don’t feel like changing what I wrote, though.
Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Alan Alda, Malin Ackerman
Kevin Smith is kind of famous for making films that just make him laugh. That’s a goal he has stated in some of his spoken-word performances. He says that’s his main focus, just making something that makes him laugh, and since he’s got a captive audience, if he can “whip a little bit of a message” at the audience while still bringing the laughs, he will. For all Adam Sandler’s idiocy, I think he tries to do the same thing, only without any of the smart subtlety Smith often employs, if light-saber bongs can ever be considered subtle.
I mention this because for all their faults as actors and film-makers, at least they’re trying. I’m not saying a film has to have a message or agenda or anything, really, except whatever it is, but if a stupid boogers-and-farts movie is only that, I don’t think you can be terribly disappointed. And when a film puts two married people on the precipice of the lives they’ve known, and then transplants the them to a religious commune where they supposedly learn something life-changing, there’s a certain burden on the film to attempt to say something meaningful. Am I wrong?
Maybe I’m wrong. But Wanderlust sets us up for it, putting the ingredients in place, including thoughtful actors like Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, and then doesn’t do anything with them. It barely succeeds at being entertaining.
Rudd and Aniston play George and Linda, a successful yuppie couple on the verge of moving into an expensive condo they’ve just purchased. Things fall apart. They both lose their jobs. They’re forced to sell the apartment and move south to live temporarily with George’s crass, filthy-rich brother and his family. They stop on the way at what they think is a hotel of some sort, but it’s really a hippie commune practicing free love.
Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. At first they’re reluctant to jump into the swing of things, but they end up having a fun time with their new friends. But the commune practices free love and the sharing of all property, and this causes some tension in the marriage. And then blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. We’re supposed to believe that there’s some kind of change within the characters, and then there’s some other kind of revelation. And the commune is threatened, and then things are not as they seem, and then people are not as they seem, and then the characters learn the real lesson of this film, but none of it is interesting or convincing and if it weren’t for the almost inherent likability of the lead actors, this would have direct-to-video written all over it.
Fewer guitar-strumming scenes around a campfire and more conversations between the main characters as they deal with this difficult time in their lives might possibly have saved this, but alas. It raked in a worldwide box office of twenty-one million bucks on a budget of thirty-five million bucks, and it’s difficult to believe it did that well.
This Means War (2012)
Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler
I’m sorta playing with the idea of a new category of film: Movies for Fourteen-Year-Olds. My problem is that I really like that name even though it doesn’t describe what I’m thinking, which is that a fourteen-year-old who likes movies hasn’t seen enough of them to tell the difference between a good film and a bad film. A fourteen-year-old judges a movie based on whether or not he or she is entertained, and when this year’s fourteen-year-olds are twenty-five, they’ll still remember This Means War fondly, but they’ll make excuses for it, saying they were only fourteen.
The actors are good-looking and mostly competent (except for Reese Witherspoon, but more about her in a minute). The sequences and interactions, are interesting enough. The action is fun, the characters are nice, the story arc is satisfying, and there’s enough of a budget to make everything look and sound really good. To a fourteen-year-old.
A fourteen-year-old doesn’t recognize plot elements that don’t make any sense, that serve only to bungee-cord plot elements to one another so that one thing leads to another, or dialogue laden with movie cliches that nobody in real life ever says, or characters’ decisions that no sane human being would ever make. By the time I was fifteen, Casablanca was already my favorite film, and I’d already seen Citizen Kane, but I still would have found this a fun, enjoyable movie.
Alas. I’m forty-three, and while there is nothing in This Means War to make me hate it, there is precisely one thing in it to make me like it, and it’s just not enough. Reese Witherspoon doesn’t seem to be aware that she’s in an awful picture, really giving it her all with the material she has. That she seems to approach this script with the same competence as in her better films is a wonderful testimony to her chops, something I admired through most of the picture, since there wasn’t anything else admirable. She is the one believable element in an otherwise unbelievable movie and she prevents everything else from devolving into a cartoony, Naked-Gun-like movie without the laughs.
Witherspoon is a smart, product-testing executive still getting over a breakup. Her best friend (Chelsea Handler) signs her up for an online match-making service, which pairs her with Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, who are best friends and partners in the CIA, each unaware that the other has signed up for the same match-making service.
This part is actually kind of believable, for reasons I know but won’t explain here.
We have this love triangle, and when the best friends discover they’re dating the same woman, they use everything at their disposal, which appears to be the full force and fury of the CIA, to spy on each other and to thwart each other’s attempts to romance Witherspoon. We’re talking full-on spy-cams in her house, phone-tapping, breaking-in, and all manner of creepy things that make the characters impossible to admire.
Witherspoon doesn’t know they know each other. She doesn’t know they’re CIA. And when a German criminal of some international reach shows up to get some revenge on them for something they messed up in the movie’s first scene, she is unknowingly put at risk.
So yeah. Get up and visit the concession. Go to the bathroom. Step into the lobby and check your voicemail. Because you’re not going to miss a thing unless you’re fourteen.
Critics seemed universally to hate Chelsea Handler in this, but I kind of like her.
33/100 (a three-point bump for Reese)
Friends with Kids (2012)
Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Kristin Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Fox
The movie trailer and the film’s title misled me about what Friends with Kids was going to be. I knew that Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott played best friends who decided to have a kid, and the title is a description of them: they are the friends with kids. I thought, based on the trailer and even the movie poster (look at it!), that the title was a description of their friends. I thought Scott and Westfeldt were two best friends whose friends had kids, changing group dynamics and the nature of the relationships forever.
This is all true, but the emphasis isn’t on the two friends’ friendships with the married couples, but on their own friendship, and that’s just not as interesting or rewarding.
But the first act is pretty good, starting out as the film I expected. Scott and Westfeldt play the kinds of best friends who always get invited to things together. There has never been any romance between them and there doesn’t seem likely to be. But they are the last remaining unmarrieds in their social group, which only seems to matter once the other couples have children. Suddenly, all the joking the group used to do about other people’s children becomes inappropriate, and the annoying things other people’s children did are now being done by their friends’ children, and the annoying parents at the next table in the restaurant are now the annoying parents at their own table.
Friends now have to back out of social gatherings, often at the last minute, and the gatherings become fewer and farther between, and the trendy restaurants are replaced by one or the other couple’s houses, and it’s harder and harder just to sit down and have normal conversation. When the couples start bickering, it gets even worse.
But Scott and Westfeldt are envious of their friends’ lives, in a way, thinking they’d love to have children but neither has yet found someone they want to marry. Why not have a child together so they can be parents before they are yet someone’s husband or wife?
It’s fun to watch them hash out the details: who’s going to do what, parent-wise, and what will the rules be? And how do you have sex with someone you’re not only not sexually attracted to, but with whom you have an already defined platonic friendship?
And then what starts off as a kind of fresh and interesting movie becomes the old lovers-and-friends story and you know what’s going to happen and all you can hope is that it happens well. It does happen well, but it’s disappointing because until that last act, the movie is really unlike anything I’ve seen.
The performances are good; I especially like Jon Hamm and Kristin Wiig. The dialogue has a nice flow, and in the group scenes, the laughter feels natural and believable. Westfeldt wrote the script, directed and produced the movie, and plays its lead role, and it feels like it has that kind of singular purpose and movement, like it was one person’s vision from beginning to end. These are all pluses, and the film is ably put together. It’s just not the film I wanted!
21 Jump Street (2012)
Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum
I was a big fan of the TV show which inspired 21 Jump Street. It was an issues-driven show with a great, ethnically diverse cast of talented young actors. One of my first conversations with Penny when we met in college was about Jump Street, in fact. So when I first saw the trailer for this movie, I got pretty excited.
There’s very little real connection between the series and the film, ‘though the effort is made to tie them together at least historically. The comical, bumbling theme and vibe of the film are very different from the very cool feel of the TV series. Except for the premise of the Jump Street program itself, viewers are warned not to expect anything consistent with the show.
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum play misfit cops who were once high-school classmates. Hill has the brains to pass all the written tests in the police academy, but passing the physical tests is a challenge that seems to be beyond his abilities. Tatum is a physical specimen, but he lacks the brains to pass the written tests. When they agree to help each other, they become good friends and the past high-school tension between them fades away.
But they are not very good cops, and because they supposedly look young enough, they are placed in a revived Jump Street program, which the police chief describes as “an old undercover-in-high-school program from the 1980s, because the only idea anyone can come up with now is to recycle **** from the past.” There’s a new, potent designer drug going around in a particular high school, and their mission is to keep it contained in that school before it spreads by finding out who the distributor is.
Here’s where it gets good: Tatum and Hill are forced to relive the insecurities of their high-school past, something that until now they seem to have been able to leave behind. But high-school is different now, and in this era of bullying awareness, what passed for cool a few years ago is now socially taboo. The film does a good job of highlighting shifts in school dynamics from the nineties to the new millennium, and while it never aims to be a treatise on these social changes, it’s a pretty fun observation.
Hill gets to be a nice, sweet, vulnerable comic actor in 21 Jump Street, while Tatum is surprisingly deft at being the straight man. So much is made of Tatum’s good looks nowadays that it was unexpected to see him display some chops. He plays funny as if he doesn’t know he’s supposed to be funny, something a lot of supposedly comic actors could stand to take notes on.
It’s a lot of fun to see these characters interact with each other and with the high-schoolers they’ve made friends with. The story is fairly interesting, and while there are a few more car-chases than I’d like, there’s a nice sense of fun throughout the film. And for the fan of the TV series, there are a couple of nice surprises, too. A sequel went into development before this movie opened; here’s hoping they keep the good ingredients in place and follow up with something just as fun.
When I look at the films you’re reviewing, I have little desire to read your reviews–just because I have zero interest in these films. (I scroll down to your score. But I actually do read some of them.) Seeing some of the low scores makes me wonder if you see these films for the same reason I continue to see action and sci-fi films–namely, I’m desperate to see decent films in this genre, and I’m thrilled when they’re terrific. I’m guessing that’s why you continue to see these? Or do you still feel that even a film of 30 or lower is still pretty enjoyable to you?
I think you do have a good understanding of the film. I know a lot of people who didn’t like it but personally, I enjoyed it. I’d recommend viewing it with some sweet lime on hand.
My wife isn’t that open-minded.
I think I have a basic understanding of the film, but the issues I brought up in the Anderson thread are still mystifying to me.
As for the humor, it just didn’t work for me at all (which was a disappointed because I found Moonrise Kingdom utterly funny and delightful).
The Lorax (2012)
Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Taylor Swift, Zac Effron
I will forever remember The Lorax fondly because it is only the second movie I’ve ever seen in a theater completely alone. I love my movie-going friends, but if there’s one thing I love more than seeing a good movie with good friends, it’s seeing any movie with nobody else in the theater.
It’s based, of course, on the Dr. Seuss picture book, the one about a world where there are no trees because of pollution and deforestation. It’s expanded in order to flesh it out and make it a movie, and the expansions basically work quite well, giving the story’s unnamed narrator a family story and a love interest. Ted (Zac Effron) is a boy who hears about “trees” from a girl he likes, and he’s determined to get one for her. He lives in a town completely sealed off from the world, totally paved over and sealed in a bubble where oxygen is something you pay for, and one person owns the oxygen market. You can see why someone who’s cornered the market on oxygen would be reluctant for trees to be reintroduced to a city where photosynthesis doesn’t exist.
To find a tree, Ted illegally leaves the confines of his city and meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms), a grouchy recluse who agrees to tell Ted the story of how he met the Lorax (Danny DeVito) and contributed to the end of the trees. The story’s pretty interesting, if a little too cutesy for my tastes, but I laughed aloud a few times at some of the clever lines. The Once-ler has my favorite bit of dialogue: “When a guy does something stupid once, it’s because he’s a guy. But when he does it twice, it’s to impress a girl.” The girl in this case is worthy of such stupidity, cutely played by Taylor Swift in a smart, earnest, charming way. You can see why Ted wants so much to get her a tree.
I get the feeling the 3D in this film might have been pretty good, but of course I saw it in 2D and the animation was good enough but certainly not great. It has kind of a shiny veneer that I don’t dislike but which seems out of place on a world based on Dr. Seuss’s drawings. Maybe I’m just old and long for the lovely, matte-textured illustrations of a printed page.
If the lesson taught by the characters in the film is heavy-handed, it can be forgiven mostly because it’s clearly a movie for young children, and shoot: the source material is pretty heavy-handed too. While I would have preferred something with the subversive message of, say, Yertle the Turtle, I suppose a good love-the-earth message like this certainly has its place. I was nicely (and solitarily) entertained and would buy this for my kids if I had any kids.
I have to get to BN in a moment, but I’ll get to your question later. I’m kinda glad you didn’t read the Friends with Kids review. I was worried you might take part of it personally, which isn’t what I intended.
He plays funny as if he doesn’t know he’s supposed to be funny, something a lot of supposedly comic actors could stand to take notes on.
I agree. I was also impressed with Tatum in 21 Jump Street.
I had heard a lot of positive reviews for Magic Mike but found that movie disappointing. The story wasn’t what I expected and it felt weak.
I enjoyed Darjeeling for the travel and soul searching aspect. Are these guys serious about finding themselves? Is Anderson serious? It’s fun trying to figure that out. It’s a memorable train ride we take with these brothers. And then to know it’s co-written by Anderson, Schwartzman and Roman Coppola made it a bit more intriguing. This would be Schwartzman’s first time writing and I think he’s brilliant as an actor.
You mentioned about your wife not being open-minded…about the sweet lime and the movie? It was just a fun and quirky movie for me.
I also enjoyed Moonrise Kingdom and would like to see it a second time before it leaves the theaters.
You mentioned about your wife not being open-minded…about the sweet lime and the movie?
I meant it as a joke (which completely failed)–“sweet lime” became the name for the Rita, the stewardess in the train or hot women in general. Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.
By the way, fwiw, I’m thinking of starting a separate thread on Darjeeling as some of the discussions I’ve had with others have turned out some interesting insights (made by these other people).
Sweet lime became Rita’s name? They got together once or twice but didn’t she serve the sweet lime more often than that? I didn’t mean it like that at all.
Speaking of trains, I’m going to go see about getting off of a train in Vienna, tonight, on the big screen.
The Silence (1998)
Dir. Moshen Makhmalbaf
No, to Don, Joel, Jill, Marc and Larri. Kevin, Chris and Penny could like this. I’m not sure about Grace and Mitchell.
Khorshid is a blind boy who tunes musical instruments. He and his mom need to come up with a lot of money, or they will be evicted in several days. Despite these dire circumstances, when Khorshid goes to work, he’s often late because he gets distracted by sounds or music that is so appealing, he’s compelled to follow them–even though his boss threatens to fire him. A young girl who helps Khorshid find his way to work befriends him in the process.
I liked the idea of this movie more than the actual execution for some reasons. (Maybe the visual aspects were a bit disappointing.)
Here’s my understanding of the film. Khorshid has an artist’s sensitivity–and like an artist he is drawn to beauty, only because he can’t see, beauty comes to him via sounds. Those beautiful sounds, whether the strumming of an instrument, a girl’s voice or even the banging of metal containers, are like magnets that he must follow. What does this all mean? I’m wondering if the film is about artists and lovers of art, especially in contrast to the average, more practical-minded individual. Artists are irresistibly drawn to beauty or their art, despite negative consequences to their material well-being and the ones they love. What I liked was the way the film depicted this. Khorshid seems to be a caring person, but he can’t help himself. It’s not a choice, but almost the way he sees and experiences the world–the way he lives his life. The film makes this clear by the way seemingly non-musical elements can become musical to him. (I wonder why Makhmalbaf chose music, instead of visual arts.) Everything can and does become music or noise. There is something beautiful–definitely romantic–in the way Makhmalbaf depicts Khorshid.
I want to also suggest some possibilities for the meaning of the title. My guess is that silence is something negative in the context of the film. Khorshid has to plug his ears when he’s going to work so as not to be distracted by beautiful sounds, which would cause him to be late for work. Therefore, silence might signify the stifling off artistic sensibility—primarily for practical reasons. In a way, that’s not necessarily negative, but it has a negative connotation at least. The silence might also refer to the way practical-minded people are “deaf” to the art and beauty around them. Or maybe it signifies the gulf between artists and people in general.
One last question. The scene and symbol I’m puzzled about is the mirror. There’s one scene where Khorshid and the girl going down to the lake to draw water. Here’s the sequence of events, which seem poetic and pregnant with meaning:
The girl looks in the mirror while putting cherries over her ears. She then asks Khorshid to hold the mirror. He asks what it is and what it’s for. She explains, and he asks where he is in the mirror. With his or her finger, she “draws” on the mirror a simply face, saying that’s him. We hear the buzzing of a bee (which references other scenes with Khorshid either releasing a bee from a bottle or catching(?) one). The girl plucks a petal off a flower, and Khorshid drops the mirror, breaking it. We see a shot of the two characters looking into the mirror, broken in two—Khorshid on one half and the girl in the other. The girl picks up the piece with Khorshid’s image and Khorshid reaches for the other. Later we see Khorshid’s black sweater laying in some leaves. Khorshid, bare-chested, lays on the sweater. The girl says she will go find their boss because he’s sad; she will call Khorshid later. The camera pans towards some yellowing leaves as she walks away. Then we see a shot of Khorshid half-buried in the leaves.
Later when the mother is riding on a boat with her belongings, we see a large mirror with a reflection of the sun, as the boat rows towards Khorshid.
“Sweet Lime” doesn’t become an official nickname or anything, but the brothers use it as a kind of sexual innuendo–or at least I thought so. I knew you didn’t mean it like that, I was just making a lame joke.
Train in Vienna?
The Hunger Games (2012)
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
In a future North America, a wealthy Capital city is supported by twelve poorer, outlying districts which provide the Capital with the resources its citizens need to live their resplendent, indulgent, vain lifestyles. As a means to remind the districts that they exist at the pleasure of the government, an annual Hunger Games is held, when each district sends one boy and one girl to an arena in the Capital to participate in a fight to the death. Participants are selected in each district by a lottery, and the winner earns fame and wealth for his or her family, plus a year of extra food for his or her district. The Games are broadcast live, all day and night.
District 12, a coal-mining district, sends Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, and they are advised before the Games by their district’s previous winner, the crude and drunken Haymitch Abernathy, who tutors the teens not only in gamesmanship but in playing to the TV audience, who can influence wealthy sponsors to send gifts that could influence the outcome.
It is a horrible, horrible story, and one thing I admire in both the novel and this film adaptation is the writers’ ability to make Katniss a noble heroine even while she resolutely confronts the task of outlasting twenty-three other children to remain the last one standing. The film does a good job of displaying the obscene pageantry and entertainment these children provide their benefactor audiences, but new scenes written for the film efficiently remind the movie-goer of the true, evil reasons the Games exist: from the government’s perspective, the Games are not an entertainment but an oppression.
Jennifer Lawrence, who was an Oscar nominee for her part in Winter’s Bone and an excellent Mystique in X-Men: First Class as Katniss is smart, tough, and determined, playing the game to win but maintaining certain personal standards whenever she can afford to. There has been some discussion about her body type perhaps not being appropriate for the girl raised in poverty who has had to rescue tossed-out bread for her starving family, but she’s so convincing otherwise that these thoughts are easily dismissed. Lawrence communicates Katniss’s thoughtfulness well, driving her character’s action by a strong sense of right and wrong, saving last resorts for when they are called for. Katniss participates in the Games as an act of subversion even while being manipulated by the Games’ requirements, and Lawrence convinces as this strong-willed, unbending character.
Supporting actors are also excellent, and while the actors who play Katniss’s two friends don’t especially impress with their chops, they do the job. Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz are spot-on as employees of the government, while Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci should get some consideration for supporting-actor Oscars. The pacing is mostly excellent, though there are a couple of parts that seem to drag when they should be thoughtful and tense. The editing is very effective, contrasting with good timing the difference between the way the combatants, the citizens of the Captial, and the citizens of the districts experience the Games.
I’m not sure what the technical term is for the filming technique used in this movie, but it’s strangely blurry in its movement. I don’t mean it’s out of focus, but as the camera follows the action, the area of focus is rather narrow, and everything out of that narrow focus is a blur of motion, kind of like the way a movie camera following a sprinter shows the sprinter clearly but the passing scenery as just a blur. It takes some getting used to, and almost everyone I saw the movie with (I saw it four times while it was in theaters) commented on it. I think it works, but it’s not very pleasant.
My one major gripe about the film is that not enough time is spent in the training portion. Some of the stronger, more affluent participants form a quick alliance as they work to wipe out the smaller, weaker combatants, and they’re not presented well enough as individuals to humanize them. In such a competition, Katniss knows she can never really be friends with any of the other children, but she does seem to favor some over others, and these feelings aren’t defined well enough for the emotional payoff they’re meant to generate, with perhaps one exception.
The Hunger Games is a movie worthy of its wildly popular source material, and a well-made, thoughtful film that should please fans of dystopian science-fiction. Expect it to receive some Oscar discussion at year’s end.
Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane
The nice thing about a movie like Mirror Mirror is that the reviewer doesn’t really have to summarize it, because who doesn’t know the story of Snow White? All that really remains is to mention whatever this film’s unique take is, and then to evaluate it on its terms.
Julia Roberts is the evil step-mom queen, ruled completely by vanity. If she is evil, it is an evil driven only by the desire to be beautiful and desired. Lavish parties she throws seem to exist for the sole purpose of showing off how great she looks in elaborate costumes, and the taxes she collects are increased only to cover the growing expense of looking beautiful and courting handsome, younger princes who can then provide the wealth she needs to continue to be the fairest of them all.
Lily Collins, who was Sandra Bullock’s older daughter in The Blind Side (and Phil Collins’s daughter, believe it or not), is truly beautiful as Snow White, a smart, compassionate, beloved princess who convinces the seven dwarfs to train her in their thieving, fighting ways, and then further convinces them to steal only from the queen so they can give the money back to the citizens. There isn’t a Dopey or Sneezy to be found among these dwarfs, but a certain dark, cartoon-like collection of personalities is still tame enough to keep the movie PG.
While the film definitely has some dark tones, it’s more a comedy than anything else, and except for a scary beast in the forest, it’s a pretty kid-safe film. Roberts seems to be having a lot of fun indulging herself as the queen in a seemingly endless series of ridiculous gowns, and Collins is just as winning as can be. It’s a fun movie.
I normally hate, hate, hate, hate musical numbers that close out a movie, but the Bollywood-inspired “I Believe in Love,” sung by Collins, is fun and poppy, and I was pretty much sucked in.
When I look at the films you’re reviewing, I have little desire to read your reviews–just because I have zero interest in these films.
Your loss! I think some of them are rather well-written, and that’s the reason I write them. First, I review them for myself, so I can set them in time and space and not forget them. As we have discussed before, I write in order to process stuff, to settle it into my brain and heart so that I know what stuff is, where it is, and what I think about it. The writing is a means in this case, not an end. Second, I write them because I’m trying to get better as a writer, as I have my whole life. Writing reviews is one way I hone the craft and analyze both my thinking process and my writing skills.
I would write them anyway, with or without an audience. But in case there is an audience, I share them and hope someone might get something out of them. I know this is not why you review movies, as we have discussed before. You write them so that you can compare your thoughts with others, so that you can have conversation with others who might see the films, and so you can encourage others to see movies they might enjoy. These are social reasons I don’t especially relate to. My reasons are much more personal and internal. I read almost every review Roger Ebert writes nowadays, and while I do pay more attention to the titles I’m interested in, I like his writing and that’s why I read him. His opinions of the films are secondary to me: I care much more about how he expresses them than I do what they actually are.
Seeing some of the low scores makes me wonder if you see these films for the same reason I continue to see action and sci-fi films–namely, I’m desperate to see decent films in this genre, and I’m thrilled when they’re terrific. I’m guessing that’s why you continue to see these? Or do you still feel that even a film of 30 or lower is still pretty enjoyable to you?
If you’re talking about genres, in the past few days I’ve reviewed two cops-and-robbers films, one survival tale, one thriller, two animated children’s movies, two marriage-crisis comedies, one romantic comedy, one dystopian science-fiction movie, and one family fairy tale. So I’m not sure what you mean by “these movies.”
If you mean movies that aren’t especially good, I have to say I don’t usually know how good they’re going to be before I see them. Most of my movie-going is on Tuesdays after work, and that’s usually when I just want to be comfortably entertained. A film I rate 30 or lower is not pretty enjoyable by itself, but if I’m sitting in a dark, quiet, air-conditioned theater where I don’t have to think about work and might have a friend or two to chat with, then yes, a 30 is good enough for me.
We will forever (probably!) differ in this way. In general, my movie-viewing is not a mission. I wrote somewhere else a few days ago that I don’t honestly care if I forget most of the movies I see, but I want to remember everything I read. Arlyn was dismayed at this thought. She used the word “hurt,” actually, which I’m kind of apologetic about even though there’s little I can do about it.
And I guess I shouldn’t say I don’t honestly care. If I TOTALLY didn’t care, I wouldn’t write all these reviews.
I should probably add that I of course welcome conversation inspired by the reviews I write. You know me: I love talking about movies, even if my brand of “talking about movies” is slightly different from yours.
Also, I have to admit that in the past year, in addition to my escapist movie-going tendencies, there’s been quite a bit more social movie-going, if you know what I’m saying. That definitely influences what I see, which I know is something you can relate to.
It surprises me that you haven’t yet seen The Hunger Games, although by your sometimes strict definition of science-fiction, I wonder if you’d even consider that part of the genre.
I’ve seen a few movies I probably would not have seen because of reviews you’ve written. It’s true. How would you know until after watching the movie, if it’s worth watching? As a movie-goer, it did bother me to read that you didn’t care if you “forgot most of the movies” you saw. Even though I may not see some of the movies you’ve reviewed, I look forward to reading your posts, especially your movie reviews and never got the feeling that books weighed more than movies. I’ve been a movie-goer since my life in the womb which reminds me, I need to interview my mom and ask her what her favorite movies of all time are. Thanks for caring and taking the time to write your reviews!
I caught the train to Vienna and them missed the plane in Paris. The Aero Theater in Santa Monica had a double feature of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset on Saturday night. And it wasn’t even my birthday!
You write them so that you can compare your thoughts with others, so that you can have conversation with others who might see the films, and so you can encourage others to see movies they might enjoy.
Well, my hope is that others will discuss the film, and I do like commenting on the films in relation to whether some of you may like the films or not. But, honestly, some of these films I review, I realize that I’m not going to get much feedback, if any–so I’m also writing these reviews to process the films, just as you are. But I appreciate anyone who would read on comment on them.
Btw, I want to be clear that I don’t NOT read your reviews because I think they’re poorly written. They’re not. What kills my motivation is the movies AND the scores. (I read your high or really low score reviews….and btw, I don’t want you to think I never read any of your reviews. That’s not the case. But in the recent reviews you wrote, I found myself saying, “Man, I’m so not interested in these films.”)
So I’m not sure what you mean by “these movies.”
I’m thinking of Hollywood genre films–mostly geared towards mainstream audiences that seem pretty safe.
If you mean movies that aren’t especially good, I have to say I don’t usually know how good they’re going to be before I see them.
But you do get a sense of films that you have a good chance of liking or not liking, right? Or is that not the case? When you see a rom-com or Hollywood romance or comedy, what percentages of them do you think you’ll like? Is it a 50/50 proposition? More? Less?
For me, when I’m watching an action film, the chances of me liking the film are about 30%. The odds are much worse if we’re talking about really liking the film. But I still go to these films because I’m pretty desperate for good film in the genre. (I think I can also pick action films that have a better odds of my liking them and I can eliminate ones that have a very low probability.) But it’s generally a high-risk proposition.
We will forever (probably!) differ in this way. In general, my movie-viewing is not a mission.
I tend to think you haven’t hit the point of diminishing returns yet. Did you ever notice that a lot of old people go to arthouse movies? My parents have also started going. They weren’t into these films before, but why are they and other old people interested in these films. My theory: they’re tired of seeing the same old, same old from Hollywood. They’ve seen it too many times–they’ve passed the point of diminishing returns. They might not know what the heck they’ve seen when they go to the arthouse films, but they have no choice because the other stuff just doesn’t interest them.
So we’re going to share these differences until you hit 70. (Then again, I might not be interested in films by that time.
I love talking about movies, even if my brand of “talking about movies” is slightly different from yours.
What’s the difference?
I kept waffling on reading the book before seeing this, and now it’s not in the theaters.
OK, got it! Sounds like a fun trip to the movies!
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Dir. Behn Zeitlin
I would say Penny, Chris and Kevin have the best chance of liking this. Based on the little I know of Arlyn, this would be something that might interest her, too. There are elements that Don might like, but I think some of the other qualities will prevent him from liking this. No, to Joel and Larri. I would say no to Marc as well. There’s an outside chance that Jill might find this interesting, but I’d guess not.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father, Wink (Dwight Henry), live in squalid conditions on a the swampy island, along with other people. (The setting seems to be close to New Orleans.) A storm is coming and except for a few people–including Hushpuppy and Wink–many leave the island.
Based on some comments I heard before seeing the film, I expected magical realism in the film–and the film does have these moments, but I was largely disappointed by them, mainly because of the filmmaking and even creativity.
The narrative is bare-bones and pretty sluggish–I don’t viewers (especially mainstream viewers) will find a really engaging story here. But Wallis and Henry have their moments–and I imagine Wallis will win over viewers–and Wink’s intentions and parenting of Wallis, as they become clear, will also appeal to many viewers. But the pacing, story and formal qualities of the film aren’t strong enough, imo. (I could see Arlyn disagreeing with me on this.)
The film also strikes me as something tapping into the Zeitgeist, which I’ll go into in the next section.
Close to the heart of the film (if not at its center) is the theme of independence, self-reliance, resilience and liberty–particularly in relationship to the government. We see this both in the community as well as the story of Wink and Hushpuppy. We may initially see Wink as an irresponsible and neglectful parent, but by the end, the film wants us to believe otherwise. He’s raising her to become this fiercely independent, self-reliant person—and the film portrays this in a heroic way—culminating in Hushpuppy taming the wild boar-like creatures. The value of independence and liberty trump almost every other value–it certainly trumps material prosperity and comforts.
Now, in discussing this film with other people, I mentioned that these themes resonates with the times we live in, pointing out that Americans seem to have lost a lot of faith in their institutions. Who can we really depend on, but ourselves? The film seems to tap into that and exalts the notion of self-reliance.
But I never really thought of this as a socio-politico screed against Big Government, but that does seem like a fairly compelling argument. This reading seems more compelling to me after having heard an interview about Paul Ryan–his belief that freedom depends on personal responsibility; that Ayn Rand was a big influence early in his life. One could easily see these ideas mesh nicely with the film. I’m not entirely convinced of this reading, but I think the chances are good that the inpretation will fit fairly well.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012)
Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Susan Sarandon, Rae Dawn Chong
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is an interesting combination of a slacker movie and discontented married-people movie, with Jason Segel the focus of the first element and Ed Helms the focus of the second. Segel plays the titular Jeff, who appears to have been living in his widowed mother’s basement in a fog of marijuana smoke and repeated viewings of the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. Helms is his brother Pat, who has one of those steady jobs where he has a desk and wears a tie but really has nowhere to go. Pat’s marriage to Linda (Judy Greer) is failing for many reasons, none of which he seems able to put his finger on, but he believes Linda is having an affair and is determined to catch her in the act.
Jeff and Pat’s mother Sharon, played by Susan Sarandon, is weary of them both, confessing to a friend at work (Rae Dawn Chong) that she doesn’t like her own children anymore. Her friend is a listening ear, a soft shoulder, and an encouraging presence, telling Sharon that she needs to forget her sons for a while and focus on her own needs, perhaps to start dating again.
This is all a setup for Jeff and Pat, who don’t get along well but who appear genuinely to love one another, to pursue their day’s mission: Jeff is supposed to go to the hardware store to purchase materials that will allow him to fix his mother’s kitchen shutters. Pat follows Linda in an effort to see who she’s having the affair with. Their missions sort of cross paths coincidentally, but Jeff, who seems to have turned Signs into a religion of sorts, is convinced that there are no coincidences and that his real task, at least for the day, is to follow the coincidences to his ultimate purpose.
I’m using a lot of words and space to describe a movie that’s only eighty-three minutes in length and is set within one day, and I’ll stop here, adding only that there is a shadow hanging over all three members of this family, that each can trace in very immediate, almost tangible ways, his or her problems to the same event, and their daily struggles to deal with them—alone and privately—are the real story.
The on-screen chemistry between Helms and Segel is surprisingly natural, something I’ve noticed Segel seems to bring to every film he’s in. The performances are all, in fact, quite good and I enjoyed almost everything about this film, except the bizarre payoff which just doesn’t seem worthy of the seventy-three minutes that set it up. One gets the feeling that the payoff is intentionally skew, as if the film-makers are not only trying to make some kind of comment on this family’s issues. I kind of don’t want to say it, but I suspect they’re making fun of M. Night Shyamalan, which is kind of funny, but is that worthy of the seventy-three minutes that set it up? I don’t know; I have a feeling I’m either under-thinking or over-thinking it, and now I suspect that’s what the film-makers are trying to do: confuse the filmgoer who would try to make sense of it all, like the Andy Kaufman fans who cheered him on during his Mighty Mouse sketch but were possibly the butt of Kaufman’s joke.
In any case, it’s not a bad way to spend seventy-three minutes plus ten more. I’d almost like to see a sequel, just to see the actors teamed together again.
American Reunion (2012)
Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Eugene Levy
What sets the films in the American Pie series apart from others of its raunchy ilk is a sincere affection for its own characters. As I have mentioned a million times, Sid Caesar said on Later with Bob Costas that “Great comedy makes you laugh until you cry.” So many idiotic, lowest-common-denominator films that have tried to copy the success of American Pie seem oblivious to this truth and simply place their characters in unbearably embarrassing situations, one after another, with no deference paid to the human-ness of anyone involved. The result can often be funny, but where American Pie shoots for Homer Simpson pedaling his bike into the sunset with Marge perched atop the handlebars just before the credits roll, lesser films are content to draw the curtains with Wile E. Coyote smashed beneath an anvil.
Jason Biggs’s character Jim has been impossibly embarrassed in ways that seem impossible to survive, but he keeps bouncing back, as do his hapless but loving friends, and the affection the characters have for each other is communicated and shared with the film’s audience so that you’re not merely laughing meanly at them but feeling their pain, too. It doesn’t seem like such a hard thing to pull off, but the evidence would appear to indicate otherwise.
The entire gang is back in what is supposed to be the last film in this series. The friends have been scattered across the country but return for their thirteenth high-school reunion (organizers weren’t on top of things enough to reunite after ten years). Jim and his wife Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) have a two-year-old now, and while they still love each other, they’re finding it harder and harder to communicate it with the constant presence of their son and all the accompanying responsibilities. Their hope is that a visit home with their old friends will allow them a few moments of privacy where they can just enjoy each other’s company.
Meanwhile, their friends are a successful but smarmy sportscaster, an intellectually enlightened world traveler, an architect, and a temp at an investment firm. Jim’s father is a widower sleepwalking through this new chapter of his life, alone and aimless. Other classmates have moved on but remain mostly the same, and as they catch up with one another, they are accompanied by their signature stupid plans, schemes, and awkward moments, a seemingly trademarked mix of scatological and sexual humor punctuated by public embarrassment, this time highlighted by their increasing awareness that they are approaching middle age.
It’s not great, but it definitely doesn’t suck. Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad and Alyson Hannigan give the film some emotional heft, providing polar opposites, plot-wise, to Jim’s other friends and keeping Jim nicely balanced in the middle as a pathetic hero. Babes from episodes past, including Tara Reid, Shannon Elizabeth, and Mena Suvari, add to the nostalgic feeling, and if this is the send-off for these characters, it seems to be the send-off they all deserve.
The Three Stooges (2012)
Chris Diamantopoulos (Moe), Sean Hayes (Larry), Will Sasso (Curly)
At different times in my life, I have been alternately a fan, not a fan, and just barely tolerant of the Three Stooges, mostly in that order with regressions here and there. I can’t decide whether the Stooges’ brand of slapstick comedy is an inherited, acquired, or simply unpredictable taste, but doesn’t it seem to be a guy thing? I don’t know any women who like them, which I find kind of odd.
There’s a story in this new The Three Stooges, kind of an origin story involving the Stooges as orphan children living in a orphanage run by nuns who, as adults with nowhere to go, continue to work there as groundskeepers until their clumsy antics get them tossed out to fend for themselves in a world they probably won’t understand. When they discover later that the orphanage is set to close because of rising healthcare costs caused by their own accidents, they are determined to raise the needed $800,000 to keep it running.
Along the way the audience is treated to a new presentation of the Stooges’ classic humor, played with uncanny aplomb (and unexpected sweetness) by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso. I can’t say why, but I was especially impressed with Sean Hayes as Larry Fine. I guess it’s sort of the way having a favorite Stooge has always been: there’s no really way to explain it, and if you could explain it somehow, you would feel silly doing it.
One nice little touch I enjoyed is the way the film was broken into three chapters with an epilogue. Each chapter is given a title card and silly title, such as “More Orphan Than Not” and “No Moe Mister Nice Guy.” It’s a nice callback to the short, episodic Three Stooges black-and-white memories of my sick-at-home-on-a-school-day youth.
Cameos by the cast of Jersey Shore are an unexpected ingredient, but in a way they seem entirely appropriate and fitting. Supporting roles by Larry David (who has always seemed sort of Three-Stooges-like to me anyway), Jennifer Hudson, and (in an eye-popping bathing suit scene) Kate Upton as nuns are fun reminders that any pretense or expectation of realism should have been checked at the door.
If you hate the Stooges, there’s no point to your seeing this. But if there’s even a tiny soft spot in your heart for the three lovable losers, I think you might enjoy at least a few parts of this. I did.
The Raven (2012)
John Cusack, Alice Eve
It’s been years since Edgar Allen Poe has published anything, and he’s a destitute drunkard just hanging on to his last years when a murder reminiscent of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is committed. He is called in for questioning and subsequently appalled at the use of his story to frame a real-life murder. He agrees to help the police track down the murderer.
Which is exactly what the murderer wants. The literate killer leads Poe and his police friend from one Poe-inspired murder to another, kidnapping the woman Poe loves as extra incentive and forcing Poe to write a column in the paper narrating his exploits, as if returning to the fore as the master of the macabre he once was.
It’s an interesting setup, and The Raven is on the surface not a bad idea for a movie, nicely stylized in greys and blues with Cusack a charismatic, despondent has-been who yearns for Emily (Annabel Lee is never referred to, as far as I could tell) the way any fan would imagine Poe would. As far-fetched a concept as it is for Poe to be hunting a serial killer, it kind of seems plausible. However, the film doesn’t capitalize enough on the Poe mystique and instead the picture devolves into a tired, cat-and-mouse thriller that could have been about anyone. If the writers were going to bother to set Poe up as the cat, why not take full advantage of Poe’s legend and really go for it, rather than let Poe simply be a man chasing a killer? One of the joys of a movie with a literary theme, at least for the literate, is noticing the little tributes paid to the subject in the context of the film, but except for the stories that inspire the murders and a brief nod toward the raven in the title, there is none of that. The result is a memorable premise but an utterly forgettable movie. I would at least have liked to see some kind of reference to the modern-day Poe Toaster, but even that seemed too much trouble for these writers.
Cusack does his best and cannot be faulted here, and the other actors are fine, but the plot and pacing are a total bore, and people should bother with this movie…nevermore.
The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, Rhys Ifans, Mindy Kaling
I do love me some Emily Blunt. Pairing her with Jason Segel seems like a can’t-lose proposition, and for the most part it’s an effective match-up. Blunt is Violet, a post-doctoral psychologist, and Segel is Tom, a sous chef in a nice San Francisco restaurant. The film begins with their becoming engaged, a year after their meeting. Their wedding is delayed when Violet’s sister needs to get married first, and delayed another two years when Violet is accepted into a program at the University of Michigan where she studies people’s inability to delay gratification even when promised something better very soon. Yeah, it’s not a very subtle metaphor.
Tom is agreeable all the way, taking a fry-cook job in a small diner that doesn’t challenge him as a chef, and trying to carve out some kind of life in this place he never intended to find himself. Violet has colleagues and a purpose, but Tom’s adjustment is much more of a strain.
When the marriage is delayed another two years so Violet can assist her mentor with a research grant, Tom goes off the deep end, and the relationship is tested beyond reasonable expectation.
It’s mostly a romantic comedy, and as in all romantic comedies there is a valley, a low point in the relationship which the couple must climb out of so it can get to the happily-ever-after part. The trouble with the valley in The Five-Year Engagement is that it’s very believably written, very believably acted, and very emotionally effective. And just as frequently happens in real life, the first bounce-back doesn’t stick. This section of the film is so well done that as a viewer, I wasn’t quite ready for the resolution. Sure, I was happy for the couple, but Tom and Violet had months to sort through their feelings, not to mention physical distance and emotional space. I only had half an hour in a dark theater, and that wasn’t enough healing for me, not even with assistance of a box of Junior Mints.
Supporting characters are interesting, especially Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, who play a shallower, cruder, less-smart foil for our happy couple, quick to meet and get married, impossibly made happy by the silliest shared moments, and unencumbered by professional goals or the ability to delay any kind of gratification. Violet’s colleagues at Michigan are also fun, if slightly cartoony, particularly Mindy Kaling who is always good in these roles. Rhys Ifans as Violet’s mentor is annoyingly cliche, complete with accent and intellectual aloofness. It disappoints me that this part couldn’t have been written with the same kind of believability as most of the rest of this film.
Violet and Tom are smart, likable, and funny, so it is good to see them get to happily-ever-after. It’s just kind of a rough ride, and the usual feel-good conclusion doesn’t feel good enough to me, a testimony to how realistic many of the plot elements are. It’s as if by being a little more real than your standard romantic comedy, the movie throws off the formula just enough to make it feel not quite as good. This should make it a better film, but I’m not sure it does. I think I need to see it again.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green
I don’t know the first thing about the long-running horror-gothic television soap opera upon which this film is based, but I have a feeling that doesn’t matter much because it’s a Tim Burton movie and that all by itself is going to have people instantly predisposed either to liking it or not getting it. It’s campy and stylized as heck and totally worth seeing even if you’re merely a casual admirer of the Burton-Depp team.
With the exception of the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, I’ve never seen Depp enjoy playing a role as much as he seems to enjoy playing Barnabas Collins, a member of the Collins family that in the Eighteenth Century established its wealthy presence in an eastern U.S. seaboard town named Collinsport. Barnabas is locked in a coffin by Angelique, a jilted lover, and emerges 202 years later to discover that in 1972 his family’s fish-cannery business is struggling, and the majesty of the Collins family (and of Collinwood, the family’s estate) has suffered, all at the hands of the same Angelique. She’s a witch, you see, and therefore sort of immortal, and Barnabas is a vampire, and apparently two hundred years isn’t too long still to be holding a grudge.
Collinwood is in dire financial straits, but Barnabas reveals to the family matriarch a secret treasure room. In exchange for this knowledge and for keeping the treasure a secret, the family matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer in a very good performance) allows Barnabas to stay, and he sets out to restore the family’s long-lost glory.
True to its soap-opera roots, everyone in the household has some kind of secret, and covert machinations abound. It’s all just colorful background, though, for Depp’s performance, which is worthy of Oscar consideration. His well-mannered interactions with every other character is restrained (except when he needs to feed, of course) but sympathetic, as if Barnabas knows more about each member of his descended family than any of them knows about the others.
The visuals are excellent and there is a silly but hot love scene, and right there in the middle of it all is this fun and funny performance by Johnny Depp, who makes up for a story that’s somewhat less than compelling. Recommended on the strength of Depp’s performance alone; however, there’s a quite a bit else to like.
Monsieur Lazhar (2011)
Dir. Phillip Falardeau
Starring: Mohamed Fellaq, etc.
I think Penny and Grace would like this. Next, I would say Mitchell, Kevin and Chris would like this a little. I think Don has a chance of liking this–and if he were bored on a Saturday night, and this came on TV, I’d tell him to watch it. Jill and Marc could like this, too. I guess Joel and Larri would think this is OK.
The film is takes place at a fairly, well-to-do Montreal school. A teacher commits suicide and the principal is desperate for a replacement. Luckily, Monsieur Lazhar, a former college professor from Algeria, appears on the scene. He’s a likable person (and I think viewers will agree) and his students quickly take to him.
I like films about teachers, but I’m tired of the teacher-as-savior story. Thankfully, the film doesn’t follow that formula. I’ll go into what this film is about in the next section.
While the movie makes some indirect remarks about the education system, parents, students–and also comparing the past approach and attitudes with current ones (I like the indirectness, by the way)–the film seems to be about death and the way Lazhar’s struggle with loss meshes with the students’. (Then, again, maybe I’m completely wrong in my reading.) The film seems to suggest that Lazhar understand and knows what the kids need because he is going through something similar. (There’s the trope of the adults not dealing with the death, while Lazhar believes the children should confront it. This sounds cheesy and predictable–and it is–although the film handles this fairly well. The film is a bit manipulative, but not unpleasantly so.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012)
Elizabeth Banks, Jennifer Lopez, Anna Kendrick, Chris Rock, Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Brooklyn Decker
I don’t think it’s fair that I’m probably going to put more effort into reviewing this film than was put into writing it, so I’m going to keep this short. What to Expect When You’re Expecting is one of those ensemble movies in the vein of recent films like Valentine’s Day and New Years Eve, wherein a large number of characters is involved in multiple, loosely connected stories tied together by some theme. In this case, five women are pregnant, each with a moderately interesting story as a setup.
Not enough time is spent on any one story for the audience to get truly invested or involved with the characters. Since the characters are basically quite likable and their stories kind of interesting, the result is like skimming quickly through an issue of People, giving us a lot of nice, pretty images and a general idea of who these people are, but that’s about it.
That would be okay, except the film tries in its extremely limited way to make you leave the theater feeling like something important has happened; a couple of the stories take on serious tones, injecting out-of-place tension and drama where it never earns the right to inject it. This is not to say the intended sad moments aren’t sad, but they’re manipulative and cheap, which is really too bad because they could have been part of a much better film.
I found the Anna Kendrick cycle especially interesting: the complications of being a parent with someone you never properly got to know take on new depths when there are complications with the pregnancy itself. How involved does the father have a right to be? And does the mother have the right to insist she will take care of the child alone if she’s not sure how she feels about the father? Alas, we don’t get to spend enough time with her to give us a chance to sort through this together.
It’s tough to fault the actors, most of whom are charismatic and easily sympathized with. The problem is that the script never gave them a fighting chance to leave us with any kind of lasting thought. For this reason, I think it’s not a bad date movie, really, if you see it with someone in a nearly empty theater and can chat quietly without disturbing other movie-goers. Also, there are people who are sentimental about pregnancy itself, so this is almost a quintuple-barreled attack right at the heartstrings for someone like that, another contributing factor to its possibly being a good date flick. Otherwise, you’re better off keeping your ten bucks in your pocket and driving somewhere with a nice view.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (also known as My Neighbors the Totoros Who Live in the Bayou)
Dir. by Benh Zeitlin
Co-written by Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar
Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie that takes place through the eyes of a fearless 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy, vividly played by Quvenzhane Wallis. She’s our narrator and our hero as the filmmakers take us on a wild ride to a place in the South, like New Orleans, with a storm on the way, similar to Katrina.
Hushpuppy lives in a community, burdened with poverty. Close to nature, she takes care of the animals that live around her. Living in her own makeshift trailer next door to her father, she cooks her own dinner, wearing protective goggles. Her mother’s absent and her father, Wink, drinks a lot. Their relationship is turbulent at times but underneath that there’s still love and humor.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is about a tale of survival. We witness how the community comes together during a storm, and most especially, we see how Hushpuppy copes with what’s going on around her. There is magical realism when she escapes to her dream world. In the occasional moments that we meet these giant boar-like beasts, I was reminded of the furry spirit creatures in My Neighbor Totoro.
There’s a view that the film is offensive because the filmmakers portray squalid living conditions they couldn’t be familiar with. How could they possibly know what would go on in our narrator’s mind and home? But I felt their compassion for these characters and the environment they lived in.
After I saw the film, I tried locating the script online because I wanted to quote so many of the beautifully written lines spoken so naturally by young Hushpuppy, “I see that I’m a little piece of a big big universe and that makes things right.” “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts—even the smallest piece—the entire universe will get busted.” “The bathtub has more holidays than the whole rest of the world.” “When you’re small, you gotta fix what you can.”
Reid, I agree with you on what you wrote about the heart of the film and the “notion of self-reliance.” And you’re right. This is my kind of film and I’m disagreeing with you on its pacing, story and formal qualities. The direction, cinematography, performances and music all came together brilliantly. Beasts of the Southern Wild is one of the most imaginative and genuine movies I’ve seen in a while.
On seeing a lot of big Hollywood movies:
In general, I totally get the whole tired-of-Hollywood thing. I’ve been there. But for three years while I worked on my degree, I missed movies. I missed the cool arthouse stuff and I missed pseudo-indie stuff and I missed the whole movie-going experience in general.
When I started my weekly Tuesday Movie, there was one basic objective: just getting to the movies in a way that fit nicely into my schedule. I wanted to prove that a weekly movie could be convenient. I don’t stress about getting there on time. I don’t worry about choosing something worth my time and money. I don’t worry about who’s going to join me or not join me. Any amount of worry or stress is against the spirit of the Tuesday movie.
One nice benefit that I hadn’t anticipated but have since embraced is the way it forces me to get off campus early at least once a week. Since nobody’s waiting for me at home during my work week, I’m usually not in a hurry to get there, meaning I spend far, far more time in my classroom than I think I should. Planning at least once per week to catch the last matinee has been great for me, personally and professionally. It’s been so good for me that if I end up working somewhere else, doing something else, I’m going to make it a point to get away as early as allowed at least once per week, whether that’s to see a movie or to do something else.
I know what you’re saying about old people. Maybe I’ll get there some day. Or maybe I will never get tired of sitting in the air-conditioned, quiet darkness of a theater and watching people on screen.
But you do get a sense of films that you have a good chance of liking or not liking, right? Or is that not the case?
Yes. That’s why I dislike so few films I review. And why I won’t see Step Up: Revolution no matter what else is showing at the theater.
When you see a romantic comedy or Hollywood romance or comedy, what percentages of them do you think you’ll like? Is it a 50/50 proposition? More? Less?
That’s too broad a generalization for me to estimate. I like romantic comedies, but the ones I see are the ones I’m more likely to enjoy. And while my range is very liberal in that genre, I still pretty much stick to it. Hollywood romances don’t interest me nearly as much, so I see fewer of them. Hollywood comedies depend largely on the actors and directors. I don’t see most comedies; the ones I do see I usually have some hope for.
A lot of people didn’t know I was doing this, but when Restaurant Row still had the Art House films, I occasionally snuck off campus right after the bell without telling anyone and just seeing something there. Geographically, it was easy to get to from work, and I enjoyed the films I saw. If the Cannery would start showing more of the films that usually play at Kahala, I’d probably see a lot more of those, too. Sometimes I go to the movies for the particular movies. But usually I go to the movies for the movie-going.
And finally, something I touched briefly on the other day: when you’re going to movies for more social reasons, the movies almost never matter except in the way they serve whatever your social purpose is. For this reason I’ve recently seen a few movies multiple times when the movies themselves wouldn’t normally have dictated multiple viewings. But who cares? I’m not there for the movie; I’m there for the company. And if the company wants to see it, that’s good enough for me, except for certain genres I just won’t see.
I should point out (I guess I lied when I said “finally” in that last paragraph) that while a lot of the films I’ve reviewed in the past couple of weeks were just films I went to ’cause why not, most of them were films I selected for reasons consistent with my preferences:
One for the Money (twice): Adaptation from a book I like.
The Grey: Just a movie.
Man on a Ledge: Just a movie, but selected because of Elizabeth Banks.
The Secret Life of Arrietty: Studio Ghibli.
Wanderlust: Jennifer Aniston
This Means War: Just a movie. I knew it wasn’t going to be good.
Friends with Kids: Indie; theme I was interested in.
21 Jump Street: TV show I used to be a fan of.
The Lorax: Adaptation from a book I like.
The Hunger Games (four times): Adaptation from a book I like.
Mirror, Mirror (twice): Julia Roberts.
Jeff, Who Lives at Home: Indie. Famous mumblecore directors/writers.
American Reunion: Just a movie but I liked the previous films in the series.
The Three Stooges: Just a movie.
The Raven: Literary themes.
The Five-Year Engagement: Emily Blunt.
Dark Shadows: Just a movie but with strong considerations.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Just a movie, but Elizabeth Banks.
And if the company wants to see it, that’s good enough for me, except for certain genres I just won’t see.
What certain genres would those be?
“Won’t” is maybe too strong a word. I’m highly unlikely to see a psycho-thriller (Secret Window and The Butterfly Effect are rare exceptions), a slasher flick, or a gross-out comedy. Not a big fan of straight tear-jerkers, but for dates they’re okay. I’m bothered by films that seem to glorify the kinds of movies where humans beat up on each other, ‘though shoot-em-ups are mostly okay.
Yes. That’s why I dislike so few films I review.
That’s more apparent with some of your recent reviews, but when I wrote the first post on this matter, I got the impression that you weren’t liking a lot of the films–which is partly the reason I asked about it.
The other reasons (e.g., social, just enjoying being in a theater, etc.) make sense. I only wish seeing an unsatisfying didn’t matter as much to me, too.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)
Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, Celia Imrie
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has seen better days in its Jaipur location, but Sonny (Dev Patel, the guy in Slumdog Millionaire) has inherited it from his father and has the idea that, in the way tech-support customer-service jobs are outsourced in England and the United States to workers in India, these countries might also outsource care for the elderly. Offering low-priced long-term care and even covering airfare to India from England, Sonny hopes to bring in enough cash to convince investors to pay for renovations, thus making a success of a struggling hotel, and thus impressing his mother enough to assert himself in marrying the girl he loves, instead of the girl his mother has arranged for him.
Seven elderly English citizens make the trip, disappointed in varying degrees to discover that the photos in the brochure were perhaps not very recent. The phones don’t work, the plumbing is unreliable, and parts of the structure need work.
The characters are each here for different reasons, many of them financial, but some romantic, some medical, and some almost spiritual. Most of them have some difficulty adjusting to life in India.
The film does a good job of following the different narrative strands, keeping them closely tied together by the hotel itself, a backdrop, a stage, and an anchor for the activity that surrounds it and takes place within it. In this way are we treated to different combinations of the excellent actors and their interesting characters as they pursue their new lives.
And the actors are excellent. It’s easy for me to pick Bill Nighy’s as my favorite performance, but the more I think about the different scenes, the less confident I am in this choice, for there is something wonderful about them all. Many of the early scenes are comical as fish-out-of-water sequences, but the film rises above that easy plot device and with each successive scene develops a growing sympathy for them all, almost right up to the very, very end. Even Penelope Wilton’s character, Bill Nighy’s grouchy wife who steadfastly refuses to assimilate, has a moment, a very quick but very convicted flash of a sympathetic moment that allows the film’s resolution gracefully—ever so gracefully—to set us down gently at the movie’s conclusion.
What ties up the final act is far, far less deft or subtle, and is the film’s most glaring weakness. In a movie of such gentle, skilled acting, the script at this moment becomes unworthy of its cast, and one character (played by Maggie Smith) suddenly becomes a movie cliche surrounded by otherwise original people.
This pitfall in the plot aside, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a wonderful experience. I’m tempted to address each actor’s best moments, but then this review would be too long, and it would leave too little for anyone to discover for him- or herself. I’ll say that two other exceptional performances are by Tom Wilkinson and Judi Dench, probably the most stable and most adaptable of the new residents, two characters who get along so easily that they could have known each other for decades, rather than the actual couple of weeks. And it’s kind of a shame that the plot requires so few interactions between Smith and Dench, two magnetic presences who could really have had some good moments together.
I don’t think a sequel is a reasonable expectation for this story, but somebody please get some of the actors together again soon.
“Have we traveled far enough that we can allow our tears to fall?”
Such a beautiful movie.
As for some genres that I probably wouldn’t consider, I totally hear you. For me, it would be true crime thrillers like Zodiac. I think that’s why I never saw it. A story about a serial killer they never caught? Creepy.
Whose performance did you most admire? As I said, I was sooooo impressed by Bill Nighy. I sorta think of him as the star, even though I think the writers meant for it to be Judi Dench.
That’s a tough question. They were all great: Smith, Pickup, Wilkinson and Dench. I’d choose Nighy. His story was sad and his performance caught me off guard since I thought he was going to be funny. I may have to watch this again.
The Avengers (2012)
Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye)
Loki’s got a chip on his shoulder. The younger, adopted brother of Thor has possession of a fearsome power source, the tesseract, and has made an agreement with an extraterrestrial race that will serve as his army in his takeover of earth. Don’t ask me why he wants earth; I know he wants it in a grand, self-glorifying way so he can demonstrate his superiority to his brother.
The Avengers need to stop Loki, to regain the stolen tesseract, to close the gateway through which Loki’s army is invading the planet, and to protect New York City, the location of the portal. It’s a plot with too many pieces because it’s a group of superheroes with too many members; they’ve each got to have something to do, after all.
As an ensemble movie, The Avengers works if you don’t try to make too much sense of it. Just go along with what happens and you’ll probably enjoy most of what you see: fun interactions between the characters, a lot of stuff that goes boom, and some pretty neat-looking visuals involving super-able people in weird costumes.
The temptation is to compare it to the X-Men films, but I found those movies much more enjoyable; something about the X-Men plots is much more compelling, plus there’s an extra charisma that most of the X-Men have, something the Avengers are lacking. For all their coolness, the Avengers are actually more interesting in their non-costumed alter-egos, except Thor who doesn’t have one.
The real disappointment is in Loki as the villain. In 2011’s Thor, Loki is a great villain because he’s Thor’s brother. He’s a villain easy to sympathize with because his torment is believable and because there’s a genuine fondness and love between the brothers. This is pretty much completely absent in The Avengers, and Thor himself, while still a pretty cool superhero, lacks the layered conflicts that made his solo movie much more interesting. Where the X-Men films have the great tension and fondness between Professor X and Magneto, this film just seems to have a lot of ugly flying mechanical caterpillars and butterflies.
What can separate the good superhero movies from the not-bad superhero movies are themes that have universal and personal applicability. While the X-Men films tend to be a bit heavy-handed with these themes, the attempt to be about more than just their plot and heroes gives them a little more resonance, a little more stickiness. In the post-credits scene at the end of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, we get to see a quick dialogue between Logan and a bartender, and it rings like those bronze bells at Buddhist temples. Okay, not really like that, but it rings a little, and we’re meant to feel something for Logan in this small moment. There’s very, very, very little of that in The Avengers, very little that’s meant to make us feel for the characters, a disappointing departure from the solo films of Thor and Iron Man, which give us enough angst and inner turmoil to make us feel like there’s a bigger and better reason to watch a superhero movie than just the costumes and explosions. Scenes with Bruce Banner (Hulk’s alter-ego) hint that there could have been a lot more, but the film seems intentionally to avoid becoming a movie with Hulk as the central figure.
I really wanted to see a lot more interaction between different combinations of heroes, something there just isn’t enough time for in this one picture. This can be forgiven if the intention is to build a long-term series with these characters. All by itself, though, the movie is fun to watch without being especially engaging. This is a bad decision, no matter what the box office receipts say.
Rock of Ages (2012)
Julianne Hough, Diego Boneta, Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Catherine Zeta-Jones
The thing about a movie like this is that you have to accept going in that it’s a big, dumb, rock musical. There’s pretty much nothing you can take seriously, not even the music. If you can do this, the film can work for you, but only if the film plays it straight. The actors and musicians in the film cannot act as if they’re in on the joke; they cannot themselves not take anything seriously, otherwise the whole thing devolves into a joke played on the audience, something audiences don’t like. By playing everything as straight as possible, the audience is allowed to laugh at the movie, rather than be forced to allow the movie to laugh at it. There’s a big difference.
As a fan of much of the arena rock and hair-metal paid tribute in Rock of Ages, I am especially sensitive to the way the songs are treated. Yes, I know it’s big, dumb music. But I like it, and when the bands who play it today treat it like a joke, it’s an insult to my fandom and to the large amounts of money I spend on recordings, concerts, and t-shirts. The band owes it to me to treat its music seriously: let me laugh at myself and my friends if I choose, but don’t take my seventy-five bucks for loge seats and laugh at me for doing it.
Everyone involved with Rock of Ages seems to get it. The songs (even “We Built this City”) are treated with affection and respect by everyone involved, especially by the actors who perform them, and the result is much more mindless, fun entertainment than the film-makers rightfully should have expected.
The scene is the late Eighties, on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip where most of the good pop metal bands got their start, specifically in a club called the Bourbon Room, probably a tribute to the Whiskey a Go-Go where bands like Van Halen and Guns N’Roses made their initial splashes. The Bourbon Room is owned by Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin), managed by Lonny Barnett (Russell Brand), and worked in by Drew Boley (Diego Boneta); it’s having a little bit of a problem with back-taxes, not to mention pressure by the mayor’s wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to be shut down for promoting immoral music.
Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough) gets off the bus from Oklahoma (yes; I, too, pictured the video from Poison’s “Fallen Angel”) carrying big dreams, her favorite LPs, and a suitcase. She is immediately mugged and takes a job at the Bourbon Room, thanks to the intervention of Drew, also an aspiring musician.
The Bourbon Room’s hopes for survival depend on Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise), who agrees to perform with his band Arsenal for the last time before embarking on a solo career. It seems everyone’s fortunes ride on Jaxx’s performance that night, but Jaxx is a drunk caricature of heavy metal excess and increasingly undependable.
There’s love. There’s philosophy (in a way). There’s alcohol. There’s hair. There’s an evil band-manager. There’s a baboon. And there’s a lot of big, loud, dumb music.
The really refreshing thing about the music (besides letting Cruise, Brand, Baldwin, and even Paul Giamatti, who plays Stacee’s manager, sing for themselves) is the very creative use of mash-ups in scoring the film. I’d never really noticed that “Jukebox Hero” and “I Love Rock and Roll” both had jukeboxes in them until they were superimposed in one of the movie’s first numbers. And there’s really no reason a mash-up of “We Built this City” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” should work except it totally does.
Two syrupy, sappy love songs (“I Want to Know What Love Is” and “I Can’t Fight This Feeling”) which I normally hate are given really interesting treatment here: the songs are sung completely straight, but the action that’s happening on the screen is hilarious for both songs. It’s a nice reminder that rock and roll should only take itself so seriously and no more, and the scenes with these two songs are surprisingly effective both in paying tribute to the songs and reminding us of how un-rock-and-roll they really are. I was very, very impressed.
In an unexpected turn of events, I saw this film twice when I really didn’t think I wanted to see it at all. A friend was about to leave for a stressful mainland trip and really wanted to see this movie in particular before she took off, so we saw its midnight premiere in the Cannery’s RPX theater (big screen, big audio, big comfy chairs) and had a nice, brainless, fun time. Then I saw it again at its very last screening in Honolulu because I won a radio contest and got to go for free. And again, I had a nice, brainless, fun time.
If you can disengage your brain and let yourself just enjoy the music and performances, you’ll probably have a decent time. While I would never consider Rock of Ages an excellent picture, I enjoyed it as if it were. A strong candidate for my surprise movie of the year.
The cast for Marigold is excellent, but it looks too sentimental and cheesy to me. Do you think I’d feel differently if I saw the film.
Btw, how do you think Don would like the film? It looks like something he could really like. (I could see Don really liking Bill Nighy as an actor.)
I can totally see Don liking Bill Nighy, and possibly enjoying this film. Which means it’s not looking too good for you.
By the way, I don’t think it’s a very sentimental film at all, except from the Dev Patel character’s point of view.
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth
Snow White and the Huntsman is the second Snow White adaptation in movie theaters in 2012, and where Mirror Mirror was a comical, pretty movie with peacock-inspired costumes and a lot of prettiness, this second is dark and stylized, kind of cold and vengeful. Julia Roberts as the wicked queen in Mirror Mirror is shallow and vain; Charlize Theron as the same character in Snow White and the Huntsman is much worthier of the wicked brand, playing the beautiful stepmother with a poisonous hate for men and for the way they treat women. It’s easy to laugh at the Roberts character, but the Theron character is downright scary, and when she gets angry enough to raise her voice, you’re sure she’s going to behead someone, possibly even you, and suck your brain out through your eye socket.
As the title character, Kristen Stewart is a lean, tough, almost gritty character. I’ve never thought too much of her as an actress, but she’s mostly okay in this movie, and not a lot is really expected of her. I appreciated the queen’s mirror’s little twist on the tale, explaining to the queen that it’s fairness of blood, not fairness of appearance, that will be the queen’s undoing. Stewart is pretty, but she’s pretty in a normal way, choosing instead to let the strength of her character and the stubbornness of her will take the lead.
Chris Hemsworth is the huntsman, convinced by the queen to retrieve Snow from the Dark Forest, into which the queen’s powers do not reach. The huntsman knows the forest and has survived it where few have, presumably because the darkness in his heart after his wife’s death has made him comfortable there. He changes his allegiance when he discovers who Snow is.
The dwarfs are tough, smart little people, dangerous themselves but sworn to serve Snow. When they lead Snow and the huntsman into the sanctuary of the faeries, the actions of the faerie queen (or the spirit of the forest, or something like that) indicate that Snow will be the one to finally free the land of the evil queen.
The visuals in this movie are pretty terrific, the manifestations of the queen’s powers especially impressive. What I really appreciate is how well-lighted the film is. Too many movies seem to rely on dim lighting in order to set the mood, but the audience’s interpretation of the action is horribly affected by this decision. Instead, the costumes and set design provide most of the darkness, with the actors and special effects supplying the rest. This is some pretty confident film-making.
It’s not exactly a film that sticks with you. Part of that has to be that there’s a definite downplaying of the romantic angle of the tale, and whether that was the original intent or a consequence of the very thin chemistry between Stewart and the competing love interests (there is a sort of Prince Charming in addition to the huntsman, but he’s not really a prince and he’s not especially charming) is hard to say. One suspects it may be the result of Stewart’s limited acting range, but I get the feeling it has more to do with the film’s very feminist themes. Minus the romance, the story sort of depends on the audience’s investment in Snow’s tough resolve and in her quest to win her kingdom, but when the feminist protagonist soundly defeats the feminist antagonist, the emotional payoff feels thin.
So it’s not a feel-good movie, but it’s definitely a look-good movie, and worth a couple of hours if you’re a little tired of Disneyfied fairy tales.
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (2012)
Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper
They played the heck out of this movie’s trailer in the months leading up to its release, and my impression of the film’s thesis was that in addition to all the things Abraham Lincoln did in his celebrated life, he also hunted vampires, perhaps as a hobby or some kind of spiritual conviction. The vampire-hunting is a lot more involved than that: it is the defining force in his life, the thing that makes him all the things he will become, including the husband of Mary Todd, a politician, the parent of a dying son, the President of the United States, and the Great Emancipator. They are all directly related to his occupation as a vampire hunter. It’s a crazy assertion, but it’s at least no remake, sequel, reboot, or adaptation from a TV show.
Lincoln, you see, as a very young man intervenes on the beating of his friend, a black boy around the same age, by a slaver. This leads to Lincoln’s father losing his job, his mother falling ill and dying, and a few years later, his being beaten up by the guy responsible for all of it. When Lincoln learns that this man is a vampire, he trains as a vampire hunter so that he might someday get vengeance. As he advances in years, he continues to hunt vampires and to learn about their culture, which secretly dominates much of life in the United States. American vampires, it seems, feed on slaves because slaves aren’t considered people, and their deaths don’t create the kind of furor that might be stirred if the vampires fed on everyone else.
I saw Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter within a week of Snow White and the Huntsman, and it’s a toss-up between these two pictures for the best-looking movie of the year so far. The visuals in this film are very impressive, so good was it to look at that I almost didn’t care about the rest of the movie. I have a slight issue with the lighting (it’s too dim, even considering that much of the action takes place, appropriately, at night) and the pacing of the fight scenes, but those quibbles aside, there are some wow-inducing sequences, especially a jaw-dropping fight scene involving charging horses.
Although the plot is interesting enough, there seems to be a disconnect between the Lincoln who kicks undead butt and the Lincoln who loves a woman, has a small number of dear friends, and aspires to serve his nation. It would be tough to make the case that not enough of the movie focuses on Lincoln’s fights against vampires, but there just aren’t enough scenes that establish and support Lincoln’s relationships with other people. So while it’s cool to see the good guys win, it’s disappointingly not as rewarding to see him save the lives of friends or to work with his wife in the turning the tide in the war’s most celebrated battle. A little extra effort in the character-development department could have made this a truly affecting movie, something with the ingredients to become a cult favorite. Instead, it’s merely a visually impressive, somewhat entertaining action thriller, not much more memorable than most of the action thrillers that overpopulate the cinemas.
I can totally see Don liking Bill Nighy, and possibly enjoying this film. Which means it’s not looking too good for you.
hahaha. That’s true.
So if it’s not sentimental or cheesy, why do you think I wouldn’t like it (besides the fact that Don would probably like it)?
I can’t think of one good reason for you not to like it, but that means nothing.
People Like Us (2012)
Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Pfeiffer
Dramatic irony is a literary device giving the audience important information that characters in the film don’t have. It can be used for comic effect, as when one character, unaware of what’s really going on, utters what he thinks is helpful advice but in the context of the actual story is unintentional double entendre. It can be used for tragic effect, as when one character swears he will kill the person responsible, unaware of what the audience knows: the person responsible is someone dear. At its worst, it’s every episode of Three’s Company; at its best, it’s Romeo and Juliet.
The trouble with dramatic irony is that it’s too easy. Wielded by unskilled hands, it’s cheap and manipulative, creating tension for the audience that could be alleviated if the characters on screen would only do what intelligent, decent people in real life would do. The main character in People Like Us is Sam, played by Chris Pine, who has the necessary intelligence but never the decency, and while the indecency is a character flaw that makes the movie possible and is therefore forgivable, there comes a moment—make that several moments—where he knows the truth can not only redeem him but also change the lives of his sister and nephew, and he allows the moment to pass. Beyond that moment, any hope for reconciliation with the audience is pretty much lost, no matter how forgiving the characters themselves may be.
Sam’s father, a celebrated and famous rock-and-roll record producer, has died, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the will for his mother or for him. But shortly after the funeral, Sam meets with his father’s lawyer, who hands him a shaving kit stuffed with $150,000 in cash and tells him it was his father’s wish that Sam deliver this to Frankie, a sister Sam never knew he had.
Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) has it tough. A recovering alcoholic, she does the best she can for Josh, but Josh has problems in school, the kind of problems that get students expelled. The money from her father could go a long way toward moving Josh to a nicer neighborhood and possibly paying for schooling that will get Frankie out of her job as a bartender. Rather than introduce himself and hand the money over, Sam becomes part of their lives without telling them who he is, a kind of mysterious, sudden friend out of nowhere who takes an interest in Frankie and her son.
It mostly works, except that where Frankie and Josh are wide open and vulnerable, Sam strings them along with sustained lies, and as the audience becomes fonder of Frankie, it becomes necessary to be less fond of Sam. This is not a good dynamic for the audience and film. When I realized that the big reveal just wasn’t coming until far, far into the film, I stopped stressing about it: I disengaged from the main character and instead hoped for the best for the secondary character. I had a feeling things would work out for Frankie, but I no longer cared about Sam’s issues or his increasingly irredeemable soul. I can’t believe the writers or director ever meant for me to divorce myself from their main character, but what did they expect, and how did they think I’d have any other choice?
It’s too bad. The actors all do their darndest, especially Elizabeth Banks, who has the toughest job. Frankie is keeping all her bowling pins in the air, but she’s constantly aware that they could come crashing down at any moment. Maintaining the juggling act while also clinging to a seemingly tenuous sobriety takes everything Frankie’s got, and there’s a weary-but-determined, constant near-panicky note that Banks holds deftly and sensitively. Whatever this movie’s problems are, it’s not because of any of the acting.
In the movie of my life, I am walking out of a theater after another terribly disappointing film. I say aloud (because that’s what people in movies do), “I will never, ever go to another film if the only apparent, interesting element is a lead actress I admire.” The audience knows better, and its suspicions are confirmed when the camera, following my dejected steps through the lobby, lingers on one movie poster labeled COMING SOON. It’s Pitch Perfect starring Anna Kendrick.
50/100 (slight bump for Elizabeth Banks)
In the movie of my life, I am walking out of a theater after another terribly disappointing film. I say aloud (because that’s what people in movies do), “I will never, ever go to another film if the only apparent, interesting element is a lead actress I admire.” The audience knows better, and its suspicions are confirmed when the camera, following my dejected steps through the lobby, lingers on one movie poster labeled COMING SOON. It’s Pitch Perfect starring Anna Kendrick.
Great ending to your review Cue closing credits!
This is on my list since they filmed a scene(s) at the music store in my neighborhood, next to my video store.
The record store scene is actually pretty good but the teacher in me was alarmed at the creepiness. Let me know what you think when you see it.
The Black Stallion (1979)
Dir. Caroll Ballard
I know Mitchell saw and liked this as a kid. I don’t know about the other idiots, but I think Kevin and Chris would at least be interested in this because they could watch this with their children (soon, if not right now). It’s a tough call with Arlyn, but my guess is that she will like this, and think this was at least OK. Tough call with Don, too, but I’m guessing he’d think this was just OK (more later). Jill, Joel, Larri and Marc would just think this is OK, or maybe a little more than OK.
The film is about a boy and horse who get shipwrecked on an island. Later they’re rescued and the boy and his horse race prominent thoroughbreds.
I really liked the concept, which was an arty picture-book style. The scenes on the island feature little or no dialogue, and it’s the one people seem to remember fondly. For me, the scenes felt a little too picture-postcardy, but maybe I might have been impatient.
The bigger problem I had with the film was the casting of the boy. I just didn’t connect or care about him very much. Maybe Arlyn and Don will like the actor playing the boy; if so I think they might have a good shot at liking this.
Personally, I think the film bogs down when the boy returns home, and a more simplified plot might have worked better. On another note, I think Pixar remaking this film–or doing something similar, i.e., a boy and his dog–might make for an interesting film–especially if they went for a silent film approach.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Dir. James L. Brooks
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, etc.
I think a lot of idiots would like this film. I’d recommend this to Penny, Jill, Mitchell, Marc–although, since it’s based on a novel, I might recommend reading that first. (I sort of wished I read the novel before I saw the film.) I’d also recommend this to Chris, Kevin (a movie Kelly could like, too, I imagine). I would guess Arlyn would like this, too, but I’m unsure. Don would be a little trickier, but I would guess he would like this. I would cautiously recommend this to him. (I think if he discovered this on his own, he could like this quite a bit.)
This is about mainly about two characters, Emma (Winger) and her mother, Aurora (MacLaine)–who plays an overbearing, but complicated mother. The two characters and their relationship are really good, if not terrific. And if you’re jonesing for a mother-daugther type of movie, this might be one of the best, imo.
If you’ve seen James L. Brooks other films, you know about his sense of humor and sense of drama, and if you like that, I’d highly recommend this film. Imo, when it comes to Hollywood drama and comedy, few are better than Brooks–especially combining the two in one film.
Unfortunately–and I find this frustrating–his films are often a mixed-bag. That’s less true of this film, which is good–and might be his best. But some of the problems that plague his other films are present in this one. Basically, the problem is that a two-hour film (even a three hour film) isn’t a big enough canvas for him. He has the mentality of a TV show producer–someone who wants to develop characters and stories in much larger time frame. He seems to have difficulty thinking of characters and a story in two hour format. As a result, characters and subplots seem underdeveloped and rushed.
What saves the day are some great scenes and moments–in almost all his films–either moments of terrific comedy or genuine pathos. Again, of the Hollywood filmmakers of the last twenty or thirty years, I don’t think there are very many other filmmakers that do these things better. I’ll make more specific comments in the next section
I assume the novel was long because of the film takes big leaps through time, fast fowarding ahead to different points in their lives. I’m not sure about the exact amount of years covered by the film, but my guess is that it covers a fifteen to twenty year period. Now, the film does handle this well, probably about as best as can be accepted. That’s an accomplishment, but it nevertheless hurts the film, imo. I wanted to stay awhile with the characters at certain times in their life before fast forwarding ahead. I didn’t feel like I could sink my teeth in the characters and get to know them well. The characters and the moments needed this breathing space. But again, the film had a lot of ground to cover, so I understand the reasons. (For what it’s worth, this film–like many of Brooks’ other films–would be perfect for an HBO TV series/mini-series–perfect in the sense that he could eliminate these problems I’m mentioning and make something truly great.)
This also affected some of the relationships in the film–specifically with Flap (Daniels) or their son Tommy, who has a grudge against his mother, which is not adequately developed on the screen, imo.
On a side note, some one pointed out that this was the first film where Jack Nicholson displayed the charicature of himself. It works nicely here, but I’m tired of this schtick, so the effect wasn’t as great as it could have been. (It was still pretty good, though.)
More on the Brave hair. This article gets a little techy, but skim any confusing parts and it’s still a great example of what I’m talking about.
The Princess Merida’s hair was almost a three year process to get correct. Earlier hair such as for the characters in The Incredibles had much more groomed hair, but here the character’s hair simulation needed to solve how to get this messy, tempestuous and unpredictable look while still
looking attractive and flowing nicely with the animation.
It’s interesting that the more I read about this move, the more I like it in retrospect.
I haven’t seen Terms of Endearment since I last saw it at the Marina Twin Theaters almost 30 years ago. Wow! I really love Debra Winger here. Yes, this was a pretty good movie. I had the choice of either seeing this or Scarface again and I went with the latter. I was going through an Al Pacino phase back then.
That’s so weird. Our friend Grace, who’s just a couple of years older than you (and a Kauluwela alumnus) said pretty much exactly the same thing: she and some friends went to that on their own, which would have been ninth grade, and she mentioned seeing it at the Marina.
Kauluwela represent! Speaking of Matt Dillon, did anyone see The Outsiders at Kuhio Theaters? Man 1983 was a good year for movies.
I’ve never seen The Outsiders. Would you recommend reading the novel?
I’d recommend the novel. It has one of the best opening lines I’ve ever read. I felt Coppola stayed true to the book and prefer the original The Outsiders film over the 2005 re-released “complete novel” where he added scenes and changed the score. Because I’d seen it so many times, listening to the new score sounded really foreign. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts since you’ve never seen it.
I accidentally edited Reid’s post just now, thinking it was mine. I sort of remembered his question about reading the novel so I re-wrote it. I would die if I had written over someone’s long post and saved it. Has that happened before where you accidentally edited and saved a post, thinking it was yours?
The nerve of you Kauluwela people! No, I don’t think I’ve accidently edited a post thinking it was mine.
Thanks for the feedback on The Outsiders. I’ll let you know if I see and/or read the film/book.
Seriously. The nerve.
It’s one of the greatest YA novels ever written. Your kids will almost surely read it someday, so you might as well read it too.
S.E. Hinton famously wrote it when she was sixteen.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, etc.
Mitchell liked this, and I can see why. I think Penny, Chris and Kevin would find this interesting at least. I want to include Jill in this group. Joel might find it somewhat interesting, but I can’t seem him being enthusiastic about this. This doesn’t really seem like Don’s type of movie, but I could see him thinking this was OK. Same with Marc. Again, I don’t really know Arlyn’s tastes well enough, but I would guess she would find this somewhat interesting at least. I’d guess Larri would think this is OK, maybe a little more than that.
Calvin (Dano) is a socially reclusive writer who is trying to top his first novel, which was a critical hit. As a form of therapy, his therapists gives him a writing assignment: write about someone who would like his pet dog. At the same time, Calvin is having dreams of this woman. He finally decides to write about this woman for the assignment. One day the woman, Ruby Sparks, is in his apartment. She’s a figment of his imagination right? Is Calvin losing his mind? Well, you’ll have to watch the movie to find out.
If you must know, I’ll say the movie looks like a Hollywood romantic comedy. There is some of that in the film, but not completely. It’s a thoughtful and intelligently made film, even if it might not be best film material. In a way, it feels a solid execution of the first script of a talented college student. That might be damning it with faint praise, but that’s not my intention.
I will also say that the film is a pretty good compromise movie for two groups of people–one that mostly likes Hollywood films and the other that likes independent/arthouse movies.
Perhaps the concept of bringing an author’s fictitional character to life to explore the relationship between artist’s and their work was a bit on the nose, but that might be a bit churlish. But even if that is a valid criticism, the way the film tries to interweave this point with real life relationships and the way we sometimes control them gives the film a fresher spin.
Still, I didn’t find the insights on both issues very interesting. Part of the problem (and some of you will probably think this is nitpicking on my part) stems from Dano’s performance and the dramatic structure of the film. I’m thinking specifically of the revelation of Calvin’s darker side. I didn’t see hints of this prior to the scene where his former girlfriend rails against him. The scene that soon followed–Calvin controlling Ruby like a puppet–was even more jarring. I don’t think it should have been so suprising. The film wasn’t a thriller were surprise twists could enhance the film experience. Instead this was more of a character study (or at least that was a prominent part of the film), and the surprise occurred more because the film didn’t establish the character well enough, imo. This could be due to the writing, acting and direction.
Dir. Bart Layton
I wasn’t sure if I was watching a drama or a documentary because they included a lot of re-enactments. Also, I thought the imposter in question was an actor because he was so charismatic and so at ease.
This documentary is about Nicholas Barclay, a young 13-year old boy who vanishes from his home in Texas and is found three years later in Spain. It looks like him. But some people in his Texas community start to doubt his true identity.
It sounded really intriguing and I decided to see it after I looked at the high rating on IMDB: 7.4.
I find it difficult to judge documentaries because the usual elements like acting and script aren’t there. The pacing was too slow and it felt like they were stretching the material at 99 minutes.
If you’re going to see it, I’d say wait for the rental.
Is that a new film?
Btw, I’ve been stalling on my review of Tarr’s new film, The Turin Horse, but I would highly recommend it to Kevin and Aryln. (Arlyn, I’m telling you this because if its screening somewhere I would recommend checking it out on the big screen. Of course, if you’re not in the mood to see something like Werckmeister Harmonies, I wouldn’t recommend it. Visually it’s excellent, though.)
This is streaming on netflix, so if any of you have that, I’d recommend it. Again, I recommend this to Kevin. I’m not sure about Chris, but I think he would find this interesting. Penny, Grace and Mitchell would also be impressed I think, but I’m not sure how much they would enjoy this.
Yes, it’s one of the newer ones playing at Laemmle Theaters. http://www.laemmle.com/
Not sure you should trust me on documentaries though. I wasn’t that impressed with Jiro Dreams of Sushi or Kings of Pastry.
Btw, I checked Laemmle to see if Turin Horse was playing and it screened for only six days back in March! I hate when they do that for any movie.
I appreciate when they screen certain movies at 11 am on weekends at the very least like they’re doing with The Imposter. I didn’t like it but at least it’s showing longer than 6 days. It takes time for the word to get out for certain films! Sad for the films that just vanish.
Anyway, I’ll check it out eventually just to compare it to Werckmeister Harmonies. Plus it’s 5 hours shorter than some of his other stuff. Ha ha!
Laemmle Theaters looks cool. You’re in L.A.? I’m not a fan of the place, but the movie theater options seem really good. You’re lucky. (Wasn’t there a classic movie festival earlier this year? The films screened looked really good. I would have loved to have been there.)
I didn’t like it but at least it’s showing longer than 6 days. It takes time for the word to get out for certain films! Sad for the films that just vanish.
I hate when this happens. This happened with 2046 for me. I didn’t think they would only screen the film for a week.
Plus it’s 5 hours shorter than some of his other stuff. Ha ha!
Heh. Yeah. He’s not as bad as Lav Diaz, though.
Movie theater options are quite good. I was thinking of starting a thread on Los Angeles movie theaters since there are a few historic ones still around showing films. Yes, there was a classic film festival put on by Turner Classic Movies, screening movies at the classic Grauman’s Chinese, the Mann Chinese multiplex (4 theaters upstairs), and the old Egyptian Theater across the street, all on Hollywood Boulevard. I attended for the first time this past April and saw Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and The Pink Panther (1963). Both were great. I forget how funny Peter Sellers was.
Oh, that’s so cool that you got to see Letter from an Unknown Woman in the theater. Was it a print or digital? How was the quality? We’ve had some classic movies screened here, but they’ve been in digital. I’ve only seen one other film by Max Ophuls, but I want to see his other films.
Yes, it was very cool. I had to look it up…It was print and the quality was fine. I’ve also seen The Reckless Moment (1949) which was just okay. It doesn’t compare to Letter from an Unknown Woman.
Have you seen Earrings of Madame de…? I never heard of it until I saw it listed in Entertainment Weekly’s top five foreign film of all time. I was really skeptical, but the pick wasn’t absurd. It’s an excellent film, with excellent filmmaking.
Speaking of which, Vertigo supplanted Citizen Kane as the greatest movie of all time, according to the Sight and Sound poll that they conduct every ten years. I just watched the film for the second time, and I must say I don’t understand this pick at all–although I don’t think I fully understand the film, too.
I also watched The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. I’m not sure I understand the high rating for this film, but I need to think about it more. Hopefully, I have comments up soon.
I haven’t seen it but I just checked and The Earrings of Madame De is screening this week at the Aero Theater as part of a Max Ophuls double feature:
I wish it wasn’t on a weekday.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either Vertigo or Citizen Kane. I think I was in high school when I rented them.
As for The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, I would have to agree…I have no idea why it ranked so high with critics.
Oh man. If the venue and print are good, _Earrings_ is worth seeing.
I’ll try to start a thread on Lazarescu soon. By the way, one of my hopes for the “best of 2000s” project is that we can help each other understand the films–specifically understand the reason others thought highly of them, if share the same opinion.
I watched Yi-yi today, and I liked and think much more highly of it the first time. I don’t know if I was just too young for the film or if I learned more about films, but I do think it’s a serious contender for a first tier film. Hopefully, I can write about it soon.
I’m thinking you mean you thought more highly of it the second time, based on the rest of your paragraph?
Oops. Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Ooh. Vittorio De Sica is in Earrings.
Yeah, and I never realized he was an actor (good-looking, too).
The Wife (1995)
Dir. Tom Noonan
Starring: Tom Noonan, Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn and Karen Young
Chris, Kevin, Mitchell and Penny probably have the best chance of liking this. I’m not sure about Arlyn. Jill could like this, but probably not much. Ditto Marc, Don and Joel–indeed, I would say they shouldn’t see this.
Jack (Noonan) and Rita (Haggerty) are therapists who happened to be married together. While spending an evening in their country home, they’re visited by Cosmo (Shawn) and his wife, Arlie (Young). Cosmo is a patient of both Jack and Rita (who seem to use New Age type therapy). Arlie is a bit wacky, barges into the house and basically invites she and Cosmo for dinner. Jack welcomes the idea thinking it will be good for Cosmo’s therapy, while Rita disagrees. Basically the film is a character-driven, one-act play. You can guess that some dramatic events occur during the meal.
The writing and acting are OK, although I felt Arlie–both the performance and writing–seemed a bit theatrical and hard to take. (Mabye I wasn’t in the right mood). Surprisingly, I found the direction to be one of the more interesting aspects of the film. Noonan uses reflection in the glass or mirror in creative ways, although they’re somewhat obtrusive.
Understanding Jack and his relationship with Rita were probably the biggest problem I had with the film. Jack just seemed creepy and weird for no good reason. (Noonan, often plays creepy villains in feature films, and he’s good at it.) I understood Cosmo and Arlie a lot better.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Bill Murray, Francis McDormand, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Tilda Swinton, Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward. Directed by Wes Anderson.
Sam is a young teenager, a member of a Boy Scouts kind of organization who runs away from his troop with Suzy, another young teenager. Sam is a smart, thoughtful, socially awkward, artistic loner. Suzy is a smart, articulate, lonely trouble-maker in school. Sam runs from his troop; Suzy runs from her family. Together they set up camp in a small harbor with a suitcase full of Suzy’s books and Sam’s considerable camping skills.
Here’s the thing about Wes Anderson, the director and co-writer of Moonrise Kingdom. When I saw Bottle Rocket many years ago, I was thrilled by the charismatic lead actors and the characters they portrayed. There was a quirkiness about the plot, dialogue, and characters that I really admired, and although the narrative fell a bit short of satisfying, the newness of these film-makers’ voices (Anderson co-wrote the script with his college friend Owen Wilson) was enough to keep me interested. Martin Scorsese famously listed Bottle Rocket as one of his ten favorite movies of the 1990s, and you could see why.
When Rushmore was released a couple of years later, again written by Anderson and Wilson, the critics swooned, and my interest was further tickled by the same stuff. But where the critics seemed to love the story, I found it completely unsatisfying, as if the writers and director had set me up for something really good (with excellent pieces in place) that was never delivered. I don’t have a problem with movies that don’t seem to go anywhere, plot-wise, but the feeling I had at the end of the film was one of a director telling me he had just said something meaningful, when in fact the plot had set up the meaningful something without ever getting there. As an ardent admirer of Bill Murray, I wanted to like this film much more than I did; there wasn’t enough movie where there should have been more movie.
If the critics swooned over Rushmore, they went ga-ga over The Royal Tenenbaums, which was even less satisfying than Rushmore. That film seemed like little more than a self-indulgence. Not only were the quirky characters not nearly as interesting as the characters in the two previous films, but they were so self-aware in their quirkiness that the entire thing felt like a put-on, as if Anderson were flexing his new Hollywood cred by populating his movie with big-name actors playing unimaginably idiosyncratic characters and then leading them all through a plot that ended in a empty lot at the end of a boring cul-de-sac.
I felt like I’d been taken. So The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou came and went and with nary a notice by me, and though I liked the trailer for The Darjeeling Limited, I refused to be hoodwinked again and ignored all critics’ reviews. I did see The Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I also found unsatisfying, but I didn’t know whether to blame that on Anderson or on Roald Dahl, so I don’t really count that one.
I probably would have avoided Moonrise Kingdom, too, if I hadn’t been so intrigued by the trailer, and if two friends hadn’t invited me to see it with them one Saturday night.
I have to say that it looked, sounded, and felt great from the very beginning. But my overwhelming thought through the first half of the film was, “Here we go again.” I was sure I was being set up once again for a narrative disappointment. That disappointment never came, so I saw it again the following week with fresh eyes.
It is visually an amazing movie, looking like a combination pop-up children’s book and those shoebox dioramas that once passed for book reports when I was in elementary school. Characters are not only quirky, but pathetic and interesting, many of the adults carrying a kind of tragic gravitas that seems well-earned, a sad, how-did-I-get-here grownup persona that the film’s main characters are determined to avoid becoming.
Among the film’s many accomplishments, the most admirable is the way Anderson walks the line between treating his main characters too much like little children and treating them too much like young adults. Sam and Suzy are tweeners, old enough to declare love for one another but not exactly old enough to do too much with those declarations. At this in-between age, boys are still short and chubby-cheeked, while girls are reaching already into maturity, a disparity that the film acknowledges but doesn’t exploit beyond a very realistic awareness of the tenuous foothold these young characters have on their own developing sexuality.
Suzy is presented as pretty, the kind of young teenager whose future beauty grownups are aware of even if her peers don’t see it yet. Anderson could play it safe and present her in the antiseptic, unsexualized, pre-pubescent way we want to see our young teens, but to do so would be to ignore or forget the reality. He could have gone too far the other way, the way so many Hollywood pictures do, presenting his thirteen-year-old character as much older, wiser, and knowledgeable, but that would be just as negligent. There is another in-between approach, a kind of Lolita-like presentation where the character is supposed to be ignorant while the viewer is not, but that’s not this film’s intention.
In a very non-provocative way, Anderson reminds us of this character’s sexuality without making lechers of the grownup characters or of the viewers. When the characters dance on the beach in their underwear, it’s pretty innocent, but it’s not totally innocent. Innocent with potential is what it is, like those early, tentative forays into romance that we experienced ourselves at that age.
It’s a bold approach, and Anderson takes it confidently, sensitively, and deftly. When I said, “He really walks a tricky line” to the English majors I saw the film with the first night, I didn’t even have to explain. They were nodding their heads before I was finished saying it.
None of this is to say this is not a flawed movie. There are parts of the plot that get a bit bogged down, and I could have used just a bit more information about the grownup characters, but that’s only because they are so interesting and well-acted. The only technical misstep is a soundtrack that’s just too invasive. Anderson uses the film’s music thoughtfully and deliberately, but I think it’s an unnecessary approach most of the time, one that takes away from the film’s overall quality.
Still, I was most pleasantly surprised by Moonrise Kingdom, one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.
To Rome with Love (2012)
Woody Allen, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Alec Baldwin, Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page, Alison Pill. Directed by Woody Allen.
The story of how this film got its title should all by itself tell you it can’t be very good. First, film distributors from Rome offered to finance an Allen movie as long as Woody filmed it and set it in Rome. He accepted the project and originally titled it Bop Decameron, but even Italians didn’t get the reference to Boccaccio’s work, so Woody retitled it Nero Fiddled, which was still thought to be too confusing. According to Wikipedia, Woody settled on To Rome with Love, a title he says he hates.
It’s not as bad as that fiasco might indicate, but it’s not very good. Four stories are interlaced, connected only by the city of Rome with no overlap in plot, character, or theme. Each of the four stories starts out interesting, but even in this abbreviated, vignette-like form, only one manages to stay interesting to its end. The rest get draggy, slow, and boring. In the one good story, Jesse Eisenberg plays a young American architect who gets tangled up with his girlfriend’s friend (Ellen Page), against the advice of an older, famous, American architect he has befriended (Alec Baldwin). There is the hint that something supernatural is going on in this story, much like the time-travel device in Midnight in Paris. The older character warns the younger against every decision the younger eventually makes anyway. Eisenberg and Page work really well together, and Baldwin is just his usual terrific self.
The other stories just don’t hold up against it. Roberto Benigni is a normal, everyday guy who suddenly finds himself his country’s biggest celebrity for no reason. Penelope Cruz is a prostitute given the wrong address by someone who means well, and before she can leave the confused, intended recipient of her services, his relatives show up and he is forced to introduce her as his fiance. Woody Allen plays a retired American opera producer who discovers an amazing talent who is capable only of singing while in the shower.
Everyone gives it a good go, but the material’s just not strong enough. Is it ever, in movies structured like this? My experience has been that it’s not.
Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane. Directed by Seth MacFarlane.
As a young boy, John is a lonely child who wishes one night that his favorite teddy bear would become real. It does, and once the initial shock wears off, Ted becomes something of a star. This explains why, years later when John is on the brink of middle-agedness and his best friend is still a walking, talking teddy bear, nobody seems to think it’s bizarre. This is good, because the double-takes by everyone he first encounters would get tiresome. Rather than have to explain all of that, Ted lets us accept the premise because everyone else has accepted it, and we’re allowed to move on.
John seems to be stuck in a bizarre arrested development that lets him basically function like a grownup in most contexts, but like a middle-aged teen whenever Ted is around. The fact that he has a girlfriend as comely as Mila Kunis says something about his likability among normal people. But Ted is just about always around, and John’s behavior when Ted is around is preventing his love life from going anywhere meaningful.
Ted is almost something of an alter-ego for John, a rude, crude, marijuana-smoking, locker-room-talking bear who’s funny often enough for people to forgive his frequent steps over the lines of appropriateness. In this way, he reminds me quite a bit of Adam Sandler’s character in That’s My Boy, another film where a character tries to distance himself from a developmentally arrested former celebrity. The fact that both films are set in Boston really makes them good candidates for a late-night, dollar-movie double feature someday.
It works because Ted is actually pretty funny most of the time, and Mark Wahlberg is such a likable, charismatic actor. When he’s being one of the guys, Wahlberg easily convinces you that he’s a guy you could hang out with and like. When he’s with his girlfriend, I think a lot of us see something of ourselves in his being forced to give up some of the things he likes just so that a pretty woman can stand to be in the same room.
Where it kind of messes up is when it becomes a weird chase movie, a section that takes up too much of the movie. When the story accepts this tired cliche, it takes us beyond merely accepting Ted as a believable character; it basically makes us forget that he’s a talking teddy bear because the things he has to say and do have been done in a hundred other movies just this year. This plot turn is a huge disservice to the rest of the film, and by the time we emerge from beneath its load (and I do mean load), it’s pretty tough to win us back over.
It must be extremely difficult to make a good comedic film that stays funny to the end. MacFarlane and Wahlberg had a really good thing going for a good two-thirds of the film, but that last third is just a gasping, wheezing, ho-hum of an act, and that’s something you shouldn’t have to say about a film that features a walking, talking, cussing stuffed animal who smokes weed and hires prostitutes.
Everyone gives it a good go, but the material’s just not strong enough. Is it ever, in movies structured like this? My experience has been that it’s not.
Are you referring to movies made up of multiple vignettes? I agree that the likelihood that all the stories doesn’t happen (at least I can’t think of when it does), but I wouldn’t describe that as the “material’s not strong enough”–especially as in 41/100. I hope you can see some of Rodrigo Garcia’s films–e.g., Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her or Nine Stories.
Is Nine Stories based on the Salinger book?
No. And it’s Nine Lives. (Sorry about that.)
With the voices of Kelly Macdonald, Emma Thompson, Craig Ferguson, and Robbie Coltrane. Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman.
Merida, the main character in Pixar’s Brave, is a princess in Medieval Scotland, the daughter of a king who maintains a careful peace in a kingdom of rival clans. Merida is a tomboy, a skilled archer and would-be adventurer who resists many of the traditional girly behaviors her mother insists she learn and respect. When Merida rebels against the ages-old tradition of allowing the clan chiefs’ sons to vie for her hand, her mother takes offense not only at the rejection of the tradition, but at Merida’s inability to understand that the kingdom’s tenuous peace rests upon the carrying on of such customs.
In a fit of rage one day, Merida makes a wish without considering the possible consequences of getting what she wants. One of these consequences affects her mother in a terrible way, threatening the possible loss of her mother forever.
I’d recommend this amazing critique by Lili Loofbourow, in which the author dissects the criticism (which I have heard from several friends) that Pixar’s story of the Scottish princess is little more than a traditional Disney princess film, but only if you’ve already seen the film (it contains major spoilers). Although I consider myself a feminist, I have to say that most (‘though definitely not all) of Loofbourow’s observations flew right past me, and my initial response to Brave was an agreement with the cliche-princess-story reaction. However, where my friends seemed mostly to be disappointed, I was exhilarated by one of the coolest achievements in film animation I’d seen in quite a long time.
If you’ve ever worked with the kind of animation software that’s readily available in the general market, you know that the basic concept is to create an image in one place and time, then to define where you want that image to be at a later time. The software fills in the blanks, as with the morphing at the end of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. When those blanks are large, the animation tends to be pretty primitive, like most of what you see in online Flash-powered games. When those blanks are smaller, the animation is smoother, but make those blanks too small and you’re basically drawing and re-drawing the movie frame-by-frame, which on a computer is seldom an improvement on such classically animated films as Pinocchio.
What animation studios such as Pixar are doing with computer-generated animation goes miles beyond that, not simply using the computer’s power to fill in the visual blanks. In addition to an object’s physical appearance, taking into account light, shadow, perspective, and texture, the computer calculates such things as how the object behaves with such other influences as gravity, wind, and moisture. What makes the animation in (for example) Finding Nemo so interesting is that while Marlin and Dory both are fish existing in the same water, Marlin has a wide body with large fins, while Dory has a narrow body with small fins, and the difference between their bodies’ motions just staying in one spot in moving water is considerable. A Pixar computer has been programmed to move Dory and Marlin differently from point A to point B through substance C.
Where Pixar’s real magical muscle is flexed is when it gets to redefine these parameters. This great article at FXGuide explains how, among other mind-blowing adjustments, Pixar used a gravity on Merida’s hair closer to the moon’s than earth’s in order to get the movement it wanted. If you’ve seen Monsters, Inc., think about the way Sully’s blue fur moves when Sully moves and how a severely rudimentary animation would have made his fur more like Fred and Wilma Flintstone’s basically plastic hair than the soft, cuddly stuff that the little girl falls in love with. If that doesn’t blow your mind, we probably don’t have much more to discuss, because the animation of Merida’s hair in Brave is more impressive even than that.
Just showing off the amazing accomplishment in animation isn’t enough to make a decent film, which is why I spend so much time now explaining my feelings about it. Merida’s hair is a critical symbolic element in the movie, an easy focal point on which the viewer latches, and one factor contributing to its effectiveness in this way is how well it is animated. I don’t know enough about constellations to comment on the animated movement of the stars through the night sky, but whether or not it’s lifelike isn’t important to the movie’s purpose. Merida’s hair, presented as it is, is a technological achievement and an artistic element, as much a part of Merida’s story as the glass slipper is of Cinderella’s.
From this technical standpoint, Brave is an amazing film. Its animation and sound are among the best I’ve experienced, and the artwork is quite close to breathtaking in one scene after another. My one complaint is with the way some of the animals are animated. Something about it feels wrong, as if everything else in the movie were drawn by one artist with one concept and one or two of the creatures, alone among the other elements in the film, were drawn by another artist with some completely different concept. The way they move, too, really sticks out as if they exist in some other Pixar movie. I found it disconcerting, and while I understand the film-makers’ desire to keep a bear’s fur as sleek and well-behaved as possible, they go so far as to render it almost seal-like.
One mostly irrelevant thing I love about Brave is this title. How often is a film’s title a one-word adjective? The argument could be made that Pixar’s Up is an adjective, but I always interpreted it as the adverb (which itself is pretty cool). There is something revealing about this title, but I haven’t yet been able to wrap my brain around it. There’s something there about the title describing the film itself, as if to say this is a brave film, a possibility I rather like. I get the feeling there’s more to it than that.
If there were just a little more heft to the story, it might have unseated my other favorite animated films. Something about the plot feels rushed, and I can’t point to a specific piece of it as the center of blame. Brave gets huge, huge points from me for its wonderful animation and beautiful visuals, so keep in mind that my rating is inflated by these considerations. But definitely go see it.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy. Directed by Christopher Nolan.
When I was in college, I house-sat for a friend who left a hard-cover anthology of Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) for me to check out. I am not a comic book enthusiast, but only because I’ve exercised uncommon (for me) restraint in that area, knowing that I could easily get sucked in and become a hardcore fanboy. I have too many obsessions as it is, and there just isn’t room in my life for one more, especially not for one with weekly updates.
But I was on Christmas break, so I dove in and discovered a Batman I’d never known: dark, brooding, borderline psychotic, and vengeful. Gone was the campy image of the television series with its garish colors and ridiculous (albeit sexy) villains, and gone was the Superfriend who fought alongside a gigantic Indian and alien twins with a pet monkey. This Batman kicked butt, sometimes in morally questionable ways.
At its best, the Dark Knight of that comic-book miniseries and of this recent Christopher Nolan trilogy is a character study. I have not seen the first film in the trilogy, and while I was fascinated by Heath Ledger’s terrific study of the Joker in the second film, that fell a little flat with me, with its mind-numbing, endless chase sequences. And while that second film was full of interesting characters, they (except for Batman) lacked the inner conflict that makes a good character study interesting. It didn’t help that Batman himself lacked a certain charisma.
To summarize The Dark Knight Rises would be to reveal the whole film; it’s pretty convoluted and involved. The best I can do is provide the set-up, which basically presents Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a recluse in a Gotham where organized crime has effectively been exterminated. A villain named Bane, an enormous, muscular beast of a man wearing what looks like a giant latex octopus over the lower half of his face, is bent on destroying first Bruce Wayne and then Gotham, and Batman is lured out of retirement, sort of.
It’s mostly a senseless conflict, but it provides the backdrop for some interesting interactions between our hero and some of the supporting characters, most compellingly with a burglar named Selina Kyle, played by Anne Hathaway, and a cop named John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, and Marion Cotillard as possible love-interest Miranda Tate also work well in scenes with Bale, helping to define the reticent Batman.
The performances are solid enough to forgive some strange decisions, such as making Bane almost unintelligible in much of his speech, and giving Batman himself very little screen time. Action sequences are so-so, but I’m probably the wrong guy to evaluate them; for me, most chase and battle scenes are just something to endure in between good dialogue.
If not as visually beautiful as The Dark Knight, it is still pretty good to look at, and the introduction of two interesting, hopefully recurring characters sets up what looks like another promising sequel. I really enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, enjoyed it much more than its predecessor, and would welcome another installment in the series.
Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012)
Voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Denis Leary, Peter Dinklage, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, Queen Latifah, and a hundred others.
The Shrek, Toy Story, and Ice Age franchises have all done the same stupid thing with their sequels, and while I think they each have different reasons for doing it, the result is pretty much the same. The introduction of more characters with each installment in each series shifts the focus from what made the original films so effective. Rather than give audiences more of what worked so well, all the writers have done is cram the frame with personalities, which necessarily means less of what worked.
Ice Age: Continental Drift tries its darndest, unveiling new characters behind every snow flurry, new characters voiced by talented performers like Keke Palmer, Peter Dinklage, and Wanda Sykes, but every addition of an offspring, grandmother, or love interest means a subtraction from time spent with the original trio of Manny, Sid, and Diego (Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, and Denis Leary). It’s as if the film’s own producers think the original movie’s success is based on the novelty of talking prehistoric creatures. It was never that: what made the first picture so enjoyable was the unexpected chemistry of its voice actors and their characters.
The title’s continental drift actually had me hopeful for a few minutes, when the three principal characters are separated from their loved ones by huge chasms opening dramatically in all the wrong places. Rather than seize that moment to right the film’s biggest wrong, however, the writers cleverly find ways to give us even more characters.
This is not to say the film doesn’t have its laugh-out-loud moments. Leguizamo’s Sid is so goofy and idiotic he’s lovable, even burdened by having to deal with a grandmother voiced by Sykes. Leary’s seething Diego is still the coolest character with some of the best lines, but he loses a lot of his edge in a romantic sub-plot that’s supposed to make us gooey when all it did for me was make me roll my eyes and groan.
What annoys me most about films like this is that in their effort to be kid-friendly, they take the easy way out and force a family-friends-spouses message almost from the beginning. The Keke-Palmer-voiced daughter of Manny seems to exist only to provide a lesson about being true to yourself and loyal to your friends. When the dramatis personae is dictated by the plot rather than the other way ’round, the result is mindless, syrupy dreck like this, which is offensive enough when you’re plunking down ten bucks at the box office, but it also teaches our kids to be entertained by thoughtless writing. If we want smart kids, we have to entertain them smartly. Kids would probably be ten times smarter if, rather than this shallow garbage, they watched something creative and clever but entirely lacking in overt After School Special proselytizing, like Tiny Toon Adventures or Animaniacs.
Robin Williams famously ad-libbed a considerable portion of his dialogue for Disney’s Aladdin, with animators and script-writers working from Williams’s recordings. Why didn’t the Ice Age writers just turn the mics on and let Romano, Leary, Leguizamo, and Sykes cut loose as their animal characters, and write a script out of that? It would have been a hundred times more entertaining than what they gave us. Ice Age is drifting away from its strengths, and overpopulation is at fault.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days (2012)
Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, and Peyton List.
For the uninitiated, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a wildly popular series of books (unread by me) by Jeff Kinney for older children and younger tweens about Gregg, a wimpy kid with a weird assortment of friends and a huge desire to fit in with the cool kids. Dog Days is the third film in the adapted series, based on the third and fourth books. Gregg has a goofy dad, a nice but clueless and strict mom, a baby brother, and an older brother who’s determined to keep him as miserable as possible. He’s also got an extremely socially awkward friend named Rowley, a sweet, doted-on mama’s boy who seems to be unaware of growing up as a concept, as if he thinks the grownups in his life have always been grown up and he will always be a child.
Gregg keeps a journal of all these forces conspiring to keep him from the popularity he seeks; this journal is cleverly animated with stick-figure-on-notebook-paper cartoons serving as segues from scene to scene, a very cool trick and one of the best things about the film adaptations.
This third installment is set during Gregg’s summer vacation, which starts out miserably because Gregg has failed to get the phone number of Holly, the girl he likes, and because his parents are bent on keeping him busy with outdoorsy activities. But when he learns that Rowley and Holly are members at the same country club, Gregg’s summer takes on a new purpose.
There has been an appalling trend in literature for young boys that caters to a kiddie version of stupid male humor. Farts, poop, and boogers abound in these attempts to get boys to read, and while Wimpy Kid strives to be about more than just that, it still has its share of bodily functions gone awry, something I’m willing to put up with in the film series if it’s kept to its current minimal ratio. There’s enough cleverness and sensitivity to make up for a disgusting urinal gag, though the real cleverness is decreasing with each film.
Dog Days is at its best when it remembers the insecurities of all young men and women and bravely puts its main character in the situations that paralyzed us with fear at their very notion: the difficulties presented by sleeping over at a friend’s house, for example, especially when the friend’s parents are extremely restrictive and treat their eighth-grade son like a six-year-old (the whole family goes out for ice cream and takes turns licking one cone), or the challenge of being cool in front of the girl you like even when her friend can see you for the fraud you are.
The second film in the series focused on the relationship between Gregg and his older brother, a near-universal conflict that’s interesting but not that interesting. This third splits its attention between Gregg’s relationship with his father and his efforts to spend time with Holly. Because of the Holly element, this is the more entertaining, more engaging film. Neither of the sequels has matched the original in creativity or humor, but here at least our hero is given a chance to deal with the more interesting stuff that comes along with the middle school years.
The young actors are all pretty good, ‘though one wonders how long Robert Capron can keep selling himself as young Rowley. Peyton List is especially winsome, believable as a pretty but sensitive, not-too-cool-for-Gregg character. She’s clearly out of Gregg’s league, but she convinces you that she doesn’t know it herself, creating enough hope for a fun, intriguing dynamic.
I’d see another sequel, but I would implore the writers of the as-yet undecided-on fourth film to take careful notes on what made the first film unique among movies of its ilk. While Dog Days is still a step above most tweener pics I’ve seen, the series is losing the creative edge that made the first film memorable.
At its best, the Dark Knight of that comic-book miniseries and of this recent Christopher Nolan trilogy is a character study.
So did you think the third film worked as a character study? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.
Action sequences are so-so, but I’m probably the wrong guy to evaluate them
No, you’re right. It’s not just the way the filmmakers shoot the sequences, but the build up to them, how they’re incorporated in the story. It’s pretty bland and dull, in my opinion. (My brother completely agreed with me on this.)
…but it provides the backdrop for some interesting interactions between our hero and some of the supporting characters, most compellingly with a burglar named Selina Kyle, played by Anne Hathaway, and a cop named John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon, and Marion Cotillard as possible love-interest Miranda Tate also work well in scenes with Bale, helping to define the reticent Batman.
I assume this is the reason you enjoyed the film, but what was it about these interactions that you liked. I’m not suggesting the interactions can’t be interesting; I just didn’t seem them as especially interesting, not more than the interactions in the second film.
For what it’s worth, I think seeing the first film is somewhat important, at least if you want to fairly evaluate this film, because it tries to tie all three films together. (I forgot a lot of the first film, and a part of me wished I had watched it again, although I really didn’t like the film.)
So did you think the third film worked as a character study? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.
At its best, it works okay as a character study, but it’s miles ahead of The Avengers (as a contrast) in that realm. Wayne is a brooding man, and we get glimpses into what’s behind the brooding through the interactions with Alfred, Selina, and Blake. I’m not saying the film goes especially deep, but it reminds us of who Wayne is and why we’re supposed to root for him. ‘Cause Batman himself certainly doesn’t give us any of that.
I assume this is the reason you enjoyed the film, but what was it about these interactions that you liked. I’m not suggesting the interactions can’t be interesting; I just didn’t seem them as especially interesting, not more than the interactions in the second film.
Knowing nothing about Catwoman or her alter-ego, I found her sly, sexy interactions with both Wayne and Batman as an interesting prelude to what could either be a partnership or a rivalry. Selina lives in a dump of an apartment with a troubled roommate she clearly cares about, is supremely confident even sneaking around in the Wayne manor, and doesn’t seem especially intimidated by the other bad guys. Wayne is not merely the victim of one of her burglaries; she seems to like him for some reason, or at least to respect him. It helps, of course, that she’s played by Anne Hathaway.
The Blake character is likable from the beginning. We like that he’s figured out who Batman is, and we like the veiled way he tries to let Wayne know he knows. There’s an extra layer to this film when we think about who this character is (I didn’t have it figure out ’til at least midway through the movie) and what he’s going to do with what he knows. Not to mention the intrigue of trying to figure out what Wayne’s response to this guy is going to be.
The interactions with Miranda Tate aren’t quite as interesting except perhaps in retrospect once the film plays out and you have a better idea of what she is. But it’s Marion Cotillard, and she’s always an interesting actress to watch on screen.
Although his part in the film was brief, I was impressed by Caine as Alfred and liked the way he spoke to Wayne. Because he’s the one person who knows Wayne the best, the interactions are about the most stripped-down we ever see Wayne in this film. Alfred’s monologue is maybe the best part of the film for me.
In my review I don’t mention Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox because I didn’t think he was that interesting a character, but it can’t be ignored that his brief interactions, too, play a part in our getting a better glimpse of Wayne. There are basically three methods of establishing character (at least as outlined by our high-school English teachers): What the character says and does, what the narrator says about the character, and what the other characters say and do in response to the character. Since this Wayne says and does so little in the way of letting us in, and because there’s no real narrator in this film, the film relies on these other characters for us to get a look at who he is. It’s definitely not a masterpiece in this respect, but there’s enough there to keep me interested.
I figured as much. That’s why I made sure to say that I never saw it.
The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Field. Directed by Marc Webb.
I don’t mind so much that this is a reboot of a film series that to me still seems recent. I just kind of wish the origin story didn’t take up so much of the film. A lot of the retelling of Spider-Man’s origins could have been told as effectively in flashbacks, but this is a small gripe because Peter Parker’s story in general is pretty dang interesting and it’s okay with me to see a new interpretation of it. The charisma of the principal actors definitely helps.
This Spidey is played by Andrew Garfield, who has a definite Brat Pack look and feel (I’m sure it’s coincidental that C. Thomas Howell has a small part in the film, but his presence doesn’t hurt the whole Brat Pack vibe I get), and I like him. He’s less pretty than Tobey Maguire, and some effort is made to give him a little more of an edge, less wimpy while still alienated by schoolmates for his braininess. There’s enough bad-boy in him to make it believable that Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) would at least take an interest in him.
It might seem like a small thing, but Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben also brings a certain badness, and the way he goes down in this film gives Peter a lot more to work with in his teen angst, enough eternal guilt, probably, to last at least another two films.
Emma Stone as Gwen is just terrific. Perhaps it is because of the grown-up misfit in me, the one who finds a lot in Peter to relate with, that Gwen’s interest in Peter really resonates with me. She should like Peter, darn it, but why the heck doesn’t that happen often enough in real life? As a viewer, I find myself caring less about the whole save-the-city plot and more about the Peter-and-Gwen romance with each passing scene, although maybe that says less about my teenagerhood than it does about my film preferences.
Most of the action sequences, the ones in which Spider-Man is interacting with bad guys or keeping some disaster from happening, are kind of interesting if not exactly thrilling, but those scenes where Spidey is slinging his way through the city are extremely fun. I was reminded a lot of Disney’s Tarzan sliding along tree branches; there’s that same reckless sense of fun above practicality, and we’re treated to some pretty cool p.o.v. shots as Peter improvises his way through the dark city. I’ve been wondering when a film would really integrate a parkour spirit in its chase scenes (Kevin Smith’s Cop Out doesn’t count), and The Amazing Spider-Man taps into that feeling. Peter Parkour.
It’s not a huge improvement over the Sam-Raimi-directed trilogy. It is a worthy parallel imagining, though, and you can count me in for a couple of sequels. A fun movie.
The Watch (2012)
Ben Stiller, Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, Richard Ayoade. Directed by Akiva Schaeffer.
Ben Stiller plays Evan, a Costco manager with something of a bloated sense of self-importance. He leads exercise groups, study groups, and other community activities where he can be in charge, but his world is small and his role in it not quite as critical as he perceives, and he doesn’t know it, but he doesn’t have any real friends. Even at work, where he sees himself as the chummy boss, he praises an overnight security guard for taking steps toward U.S. citizenship, saying, “Hey, if a bag of chips should somehow go missing, I won’t notice it” as a way of expressing his influence. His gesture of friendship is silly because the security guard routinely takes liberties far greater than swiping the occasional bag of chips, and Evan is completely unaware.
When there is a murder at the Costco, Evan is disappointed in the local police department’s effort to find the killer, so he establishes a neighborhood watch, but only three others show up to participate. Undaunted, Evan and the others (Jonah Hill, Richard Ayoade, and Vince Vaughn) set out to keep the neighborhood safe and to try to find out who killed the Costco employee.
The strength of the cast could have made this a pretty funny movie. There’s a really good guy-chemistry going on, and with Stiller as the straight man, Vaughn and Hill really have a lot to work with. The very big, very annoying problem is that the story doesn’t let the humor emerge (enough) from these actors’ talents or their understanding of their characters. I don’t mind that this is really a stupid alien movie or that it goes waaaaay overboard with the raunchy humor. What I mind is that the characters become slaves to the stupid alien plot, and rather than comedy emerging from the sequence of events, the only thing that emerges from any given event is the next boring event.
There is one early, rather crude scene (‘though compared to some of the other humor in this film, this is practically Sesame Street material) where the four main characters are staking out the Costco at night. The Vaughn character relieves himself into an empty beer can, and the conversation that shoots around in the SUV as he’s doing it is pretty funny. When the guy-ness of the characters is the source of the humor, as it is in this scene, it works especially well.
Alas, scenes like this are too few, and they are interrupted by a plot that’s impossible really to care about. The film thinks its conflict is the external alien plot, but it’s really Evan’s inability to be genuine with his wife and with the people around him, and it’s Vaughn’s tension with his teenaged daughter, a subplot that gives this film some heart, but in token amounts.
The Watch was written by Jared Stern, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg. Rogen and Goldberg collaborated on Superbad, another film whose script had dual personalities. Remember how, in that picture, the scenes with Michael Cera and Jonah hill were funny and sweet and interesting? And remember how the stupid alternate plot with Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, and McLovin’ was mostly a boring drag? This film suffers from the same issues, only in a less favorable ratio. And that’s really too bad, because I really like the characters.
Hope Springs (2012)
Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell. Directed by David Frankel.
Arnold and Kay (Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep) have been married a long time. Their son is grown, and they live alone in separate bedrooms. The couple has settled into a comfortable routine that seems to suit Arnold fine, but Kay longs for the intimacy they seem to have lost somewhere. She signs them up for a week of “intense couples therapy” in Maine, and makes it clear that Arnold had better be on the plane with her the next day.
Arnold is resistant, but he goes along, complaining the whole way. His ire is increased when Bernie (Steve Carell), the therapist, asks increasingly personal questions about the couple’s sex life, something Arnold think is inappropriate and uncomfortable. You can probably figure out the rest, so the film’s effectiveness is not really in where it takes us but how we get there, and if predictability is the kind of thing that turns you off, you’ll want to stay away from Hope Springs.
Meryl Streep is an amazing actor. I know I don’t get any points for coming up with that one, but geez, you’d think by now one would cease to be impressed. I haven’t ceased to be impressed. In 2009’s Julie & Julia, Streep is a larger-than-life, extremely physical Julia Child whose energy can barely be contained in the frame of the movie camera. Stanley Tucci (in a very underpraised performance) is the small, sturdy, steady rock who keeps her tethered to the earth. The acting is excellent from both actors, but Streep does most of the work, through glances and gestures allowing Tucci to keep her character steady. In Hope Floats, she plays a much smaller woman, a gentle, acquiescing soul whose husband is the dominant figure in her life. Jones is a fine actor, but the touchy-feely stuff his role demands isn’t quite what we’re used to seeing from him, and Streep tones it way, way down so that Jones’s character can move around. I kept thinking about what it’s like playing basketball with very young children. You’re there, but you’re not really there to play the game: you’re there to help the kids have a good time, so you get the tough rebounds and feed the little kids on your team, and get out of the way so they can shoot. I was left with the impression that Streep pulls herself into a smaller space on screen, coaxing Jones out into more territory than he thinks he’s deserving of.
It’s possible that I’m reading that wrong, because Jones is certainly capable of nuanced acting, as exhibited in the much-overlooked The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. And he does an excellent job here, working with an actress who’s out of almost everyone’s league.
Which of course leaves Carell to make the decision he makes: play it simply and let the lead actors drive the scenes. I thought I was going to be as annoyed with Bernie as Arnold was, but he wins me over with his sincerity and sympathy.
Streep and Jones get a lot of screen time together, and it’s really good time, but there are scenes where the main characters spend time away from each other, with coworkers, friends, and strangers, and these are some of my favorite scenes. They do a nice job of defining the characters outside the marriage, giving everyone a little more depth with less exposition than a much weaker film might allow. I would have liked a few more scenes like this, especially since the movie feels just a bit short, a problem probably made worse by a resolution that feels much too abrupt.
What it all really comes down to is whether or not you want to see the most celebrated actress of her generation keep doing what she does well. I do, and she makes worthwhile even a movie that doesn’t exactly swing for the fences.
People Like Us (2012)
The record store scene has the actual staff working there. They weren’t actors.
Which part was creepy? Is it Josh’s line in response to Sam getting too close? I thought it was natural for Josh to react this way because because he seemed wise for his age and was probably used to this because of all the creeps that his mom went out with in the past.
I liked the film. I was excited to see Michelle Pfeiffer and she did not disappoint. I agree with you on the acting. The entire cast (except for the doctor) was great, especially Elizabeth Banks.
I liked the movie a little more than Mitchell did.
The story could have ended sooner. It could have done without Sam showing Frankie the film footage.
People Like Us SPOILER:
I actually liked the film part. I got teary.
The creepiness is the situation itself. It’s a grown man showing up out of nowhere, striking up a conversation with a young boy, and buying him music. Inappropriate!
The Campaign (2012)
Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott. Directed by Jay Roach.
I was pretty turned off by the trailer for The Campaign, mostly on the strength of the baby-punching scene. Baby humor is something that eludes me, even if the humor is centered on comic-book violence done upon a baby. However, weeks leading up to the film’s release, I heard positive comments by people involved (one way or another) in politics, so I went in with a hopeful, optimistic spirit.
I won’t lie: I did laugh a few times, and I’m beginning to suspect that a few laughs is all I can realistically expect nowadays from one film. The laughs come from the silliness of the characters, which normally I’d be okay with, but the movie tries to fight a two-front war, going for laughs at the absurdity of the characters and trying to skewer the American electoral process, targeting corporations, the press, and voters at the same time. If it could somehow have tied all of that into one or two meaningful, coherent statements, it could have been great. Instead, the social commentary is out-shouted by cartoonish lead characters, something I found disappointing.
Will Ferrell plays an incumbent Democratic Congressman with no real convictions or political beliefs beyond his own enjoyment of being in office. He owes his seat in Congress to two wealthy brothers, the heads of an international corporation who count on him to let favorable legislation pass. When he makes a ridiculous blunder in a big, public way, the brothers (Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow) decide to cut him loose, throwing their weight behind a Republican candidate (Zach Galifianakis) they have hand-picked mostly for their ability to get him into office so their influence can continue.
Both candidates fight to get the better public image, in one case getting new, image-friendly dogs and a fake family. The only stance either candidate takes on any issue is the one that gets him the most votes.
In the long run, despite the laughs it generates, The Campaign succeeds only in pointing out how ridiculous we’ve all become when it comes to our politics, and that’s not hefty enough a message for the possibilities it opens up, because for all its ambition, it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, nor does it give us a new way to look at what we already know. In fact, by presenting us the happier of the possible endings, it almost seems to let us all off the hook, when perhaps it should be delivering one instead.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
It’s been ten years since Calvin, at age 19, published his first novel, a successful effort that has rendered him now unable to write, ‘though it seems to provide him income enough not to need a job. Late one night, as part of an exercise assigned him by his therapist, he writes about a girl who likes his dog, something that annoys him. It provides enough of a spark to get him writing again, and he does, in copious amounts, about this character he thinks he is falling in love with.
And then one day Ruby Sparks shows up in his apartment, as if she’d been there all along. She’s real, and she’s exactly as Calvin has written her, and at first everything is wonderful and romantic and special, and Calvin gives up writing his novel because he’s too happy to write.
Things get rough when life’s realities intrude upon their private world. Calvin has a family and must spend time with his mother and brother. He has social-professional obligations related to his status as a successful novelist. And Ruby wasn’t created to fit into all of that, and this ideal romance begins to fall apart.
Ruby Sparks is a sweet, thoughtful movie about very specific characters, something big, Hollywood movies seem to forget how to create in their effort to appeal to wide audiences. Calvin has well-thought-out issues, problems that have contributed to his problems and successes both, and they don’t cease to be real just because he is now living with an idealized lover of his own creation. As things get worse, Calvin brings his manuscript out of the locked drawer and attempts to fix Ruby, as if the reasons for his loneliness and unhappiness have everything to do with the other people in his life. Why address his own shortcomings, when he has the power to adjust someone else’s?
Paul Dano as Calvin is shaky, seemingly resentful of his own success, a skinny, neurotic-but-functional sort who must be some kind of artist, for the real world is a place where simply existing is too difficult without some kind of emotional crutch. Zoe Kazan (who wrote the screenplay) as Ruby is smart and sweet, eager to embrace every day for all its possibilities. She has a (literally) wide-eyed, openness a guy like Calvin would first embrace for all the hope she brings, but who is doomed to being brought down by the dim view he has of himself and his world.
I went in expecting something quirky and light, but was presented instead with something a bit edgier, something that gets pretty dark at its lowest moment. Strong performances and a (mostly) fun script are effective in wedging these characters into your good spirits. And without spoiling it, I’d like to say that this is about the best ending this film could have hoped for, an admirable achievement considering the challenging place it puts its characters. One of the best films of 2012.
I saw Finding Nemo in 3D in the Cannery’s RPX theater, and it was the best experience I’ve had in a theater all year, including the big-screen showing of Casablanca. I was worried that I’d been overrating that movie in retrospect, but I have instead been underrating it. I’ve updated my Criticker rating from 82 to 92.
It’s such a beautiful movie to look at, and it’s truly affecting in a way that no animated film has been for me since probably the first Toy Story film. The 3D-ness was pretty cool, but the dimming of the picture was still very noticeable to me, and I’m pretty sure I’d have enjoyed the film more at that size with that sound in that theater in 2D.
I think it’s Pixar’s masterpiece.
I’m interested in hearing you make a case for the film being a masterpiece. I can understand you really liking the film, but I’m a little surprised that you call it a masterpiece. Are you saying that partly because you think the film has some of the best animation you’ve ever seen? I’m also assume you also think the story and characters are close excellent and close to perfection.
I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece when taken as one of a million films already made. I meant to say that it’s Pixar’s masterpiece, as in the one creation that stands out for its excellence and as the best representative of Pixar’s body of outstanding work. But I’ll make my case later. I’m still doing 2012 movies.
The Bourne Legacy (2012)
Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, Edward Norton. Directed by Tony Gilroy.
You really don’t have to have seen the first three Bourne films to enjoy The Bourne Legacy, although some of the spy-vs.-spy stuff might get a little confusing if you haven’t. Jason Bourne is present in name only, and his actions in The Bourne Ultimatum create the situation Jeremy Renner’s Aaron Cross finds himself in, something Cross probably owes Bourne a punch in the face for, if the two should ever meet.
Cross is part of a different black-ops project, supposedly separate from Bourne’s Treadstone operation, but something happens and Cross’s program is “burnt to the ground” as worded by Edward Norton as Eric Beyer, an overseer of the CIA’s clandestine activities. That burning includes taking Cross out, but Cross figures out that his number’s up and manages to stay alive. He enlists the help of a geneticist (Rachel Weisz) who has been involved in the chemistry experiment that the government has been conducting on Cross and the other (now dead) agents. Cross depends on government-provided “chems” to maintain his mental acuity, but now that the government wants him dead, he needs to find a permanent solution, which Weisz can provide if they aren’t both killed first.
It’s a pretty cool setup. The film opens with a lengthy, dialogue-free sequence involving Cross on a training mission in the freezing environment of the Alaskan mountains. I was sucked in immediately. His brains, toughness, and difficult situation create a character it’s difficult not to root for. Early interactions with the Weisz character build more ethos. And there is a very cool cat-and-mice, high-tech (but not too high-tech) chase sequence where the main characters have an eighteen-hour head start on a government that doesn’t have a clue about which way they went and is thus not physically chasing them.
It is all quite engaging, up until the last thirty minutes or so, when this smart, tense movie becomes a very, very long actual chase scene. If you dig chase scenes, this is probably the climax of the film, but I find chase scenes to be mostly a drag, and there was really nothing to separate this one from any of the others I’ve seen in recent years.
It is a disappointing resolution to a pretty cool story, but not disappointing enough to erase my mostly good feelings about this picture. Weisz and Renner are as admirable and likable as Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, and I would welcome another film with them in the lead roles.
Note: this film shares a title with a novel published after Rubert Ludlum’s death, written by someone else. The film is not based on that novel.
Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012)
Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg.
Woo. This one’s going to be tough to write about.
Celeste and Jesse (Rashida Jones and Andy Samberg) have been best friends since they were children. Friendship turned to romance as they grew older, and they were married for six years before divorcing in their late twenties or early thirties. Still best friends, Jesse lives in a studio behind Celeste’s house, and although they are no longer a couple, they spend all their free time together, still socializing with the same friends. Celeste and Jesse Forever is an exploration of post-breakup life for these awkwardly placed, good people.
Should they ever have broken up in the first place? And if the breakup was right, does it mean they shouldn’t get back together? And if the breakup was wrong, does that mean they should get back together? And even if they never get back together, is it possible for their special, completely genuine friendship to continue if their separate romantic lives are to pick up? Their friends seem as confused by their relationship as Celeste and Jesse sometimes are, first demanding they should be together and then supporting them in their romantic pursuits as they really try to separate.
The film does its best to subvert the romantic-comedy genre. In some respects, it succeeds, as it treads ground I haven’t seen in those films, and I’ve seen a lot of romantic-comedies. One staple in films of that ilk is the meet-cute, a classic contrivance that brings together people who should never meet but who should eventually be together, happily ever after. Celeste and Jesse spares us this only-in-the-movies setup, plopping us down right from the start in their post-divorce days. The screenplay was written by Jones with Will McCormack, and where they get the most points is in keeping things as close to real-life as I think I’ve seen in a romantic comedy. People pretty much say and do what you’d expect them to say and do, and not in the expected-because-that’s-how-it-is-in-movies way.
The screen chemistry between Jones and Samberg is exceptional, and each holds his or her end of the movie up very well. Conversations seem natural and real, and silences feel comfortable. Supporting characters are for the most part pretty good, but I think the realness of the main characters makes everyone else feel like a movie character. Part of this could be simply because Celeste moves in circles that are foreign to me (she’s a trends forecaster, the sort who is frequently interviewed on television and who gets paid by a record label to help develop artists’ images), as with the teen-idol pop singer played by Emma Roberts, or the possible love interest, a mid-life crisis dude who tries to pick her up after a yoga session. A little more effort spent in trying to ground the supporting characters better could have made this as perfect as a film like this is likely to be.
There are elements of this movie that make it definitely not for everyone, but I am going to avoid spoiling the plot in this space. If you suspect you might be someone who shouldn’t see it, contact me privately and I’ll tell you what you need to know. Otherwise, it’s definitely worth checking out if you get a little tired of the romantic-comedy formula.
Woo. I’ve now written reviews for every 2012 movie I’ve seen in theaters so far. That’s forty films. Now I have left five films from 2011 but seen in theaters this year (all those dang Oscar pictures that didn’t get here until after the new year) and two films from 2012 that I caught on DVD. I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do with the thirty-three (as of today) other films I’ve seen. I’ve already reviewed some of them above. Maybe I’ll choose the ones I’m most intrigued by and go from there.
Premium Rush (2012)
Dir. David Koepp
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, Michael Shannon, etc.
I would recommend this to Jill and Don (3 stars, approaching 4, if not a solid 4 stars). Joel liked this, but he recognized flaws. I would mildly recommend this to Marc, Penny and Mitchell. Grace, Chris and Kevin would probably find this mildly amusing. If you’re desperate to see an entertaining movie, this is good movie to fit the bill.
I find movies about bike messenger services in New York to be an appealing idea, right off the bat, and that’s no different with this film. But it is filled with the type of elements that you would expect in such a film (if it were an action/thriller): you have the hot-shot messenger (Gordon-Leavitt), who is reckless and wild (he doesn’t use brakes and never stops pedaling); the hot-shot also has to deliver a special package that the bad guys are after. That’s basically what you need to know about the film.
The other thing you need to know is the quality of the execution. The casting is solid and the pacing is good; the film develops the story in a fairly interesting way. However, there are several developments that may seem unbelievable, and this may ruin the film for some. The ending is also a bit iffy, but, for me, everything worked fairly well up until the last twenty minutes or so. Joel cautioned me about the film, so I tried to go in with low expectations. If you do the same, you might enjoy the film.
Dir. Johnnie To
Starring: Johnny Hallyday, etc.
My guess is that most of you would be OK just passing on this, although some of you might think it’s OK and others might think it’s a little more than OK. I think Joel might have the best chance of liking this, and I would cautiously recommend this to him–at best. Read the second section if you’re curious.
This is an action film involving a French cook named Costello (Hallyday). His daugther and her family (she’s married to a Chinese guy) are gunned down by hitmen in Hong Kong. He goes to Hong Kong to avenge her death. By chance he runs into three man who have just killed another person. But Cosetllo walks away, pretending he doesn’t know what’s going on, and when he’s questioned by police he doesn’t say anything. He does this for a specifically because he wants to hire these hitmen to find and kill the people who killed his daughter and her family.
There are a couple of other twists in the film, which I’m reluctant to reveal. But if you’re probably not going to see the film, I’ll reveal them now. Basically, the film incorporates plot-device from Memento. Costello is also losing his memory from an old bullet wound. (Turns out he was a hit man before he became a cook.) The Chinese hitmen Costello hire sympathize with Costello and they decide to help him (although Costello is also paying them good money).
The other twist is that the men who killed Costello’s daughter and family happen to be paid by the boss of the hitmen Costello has hired. Costello’s hitmen now face a dilemma. Will they turn on Costello or turn on their boss?
So what’s my problem with the film? First of all, Hallyday is either a terrible actor or he’s just not interested in the part. Now, I can see why To chose Hallyday (although I understand it was supposed to have been Alain Delon, hence the name Costello–referencing Delon’s character in Le Samourai), because he was terrific in Man on a Train. He just has a great face and screen presence. But here, his acting isn’t very good–and the charisma and even wonderful face of his is just lifeless and bland in my opinion. So he utterly failed as a lead character and that probably made the rest of the film fall a part for me. The chemistry between Hallyday and the hitmen he hires is crucial and I didn’t really buy the chemistry between them.
Second, the Memento story line seems tacked on. We find out about at the half-way point of the film (or what felt like the half way point). There’s a clever way that To uses the plot-twist, but it feels pretty empty, largely because Hallyday doesn’t work so well in the role. He’s supposed to (or should) have this badass vibe a la Clint Eastwood or other actors in that vein, but he doesn’t in my opinion.
This doesn’t really go here, but I don’t know where else to put it.
Speaking of The Station Agent (we were speaking of it in March), two of the actors were nominated for Emmys this year. Peter Dinklage for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series in Game of Thrones, the award he won last year. He didn’t win this year. And Bobby Cannavale was nominated for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for Nurse Jackie, an award he won in 2005 for Will and Grace.
Of the major awards, I kinda think the Emmys are the silliest, but I guess if you were a television actor, you might not think so.
I’ve never heard of Vengeance. Is it in a foreign language?
Johnny Hallyday is a French actor, but he–and some of the actors speak quite a bit of English in the film. The others times the film is in Chinese. Johnnie To is a Chinese director and most of his films are in Chinese. Sorry about that.
Forest for the Trees (2003)
Dir. Maren Ade
(streaming on netflix)
I think Penny, Mitchell, Kevin, Chris and Grace would find this interesting, but I’m not sure how much they’d like it. I’m not sure about Arlyn, but I think she would appreciate the filmmaking at least. Jill might find this interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend this to the other idiots.
This is a German film about a young teacher, Melanie, who starts teaching in a new school, in a new town. I would describe it as a low-budget, character-driven slice-of-life film–almost a personal memoir of the character. The filmmaking–i.e., the directing and acting–is impressive, given the low-budget nature of the film. (It looks like she made the film with a simple video recorder.)
One compelling reason to see the film is that it offers a completely different take on the teacher-as-savior genre. (I think the depiction of the students is quite realistic as well–unlike some of these other teacher movies.) But the film isn’t really “teacher” movie. It’s more about this young character going through a transition. The film also involves Melanie and her friendship with Tina, a neighbor at her apartment, as well as Thorsten, a colleague at school.
I will say that the film made me squirm, as we see Melanie struggle in various situations.
Everyone Else (2009)
Dir. Maren Ade
Starring: Birgit Minichmayr (Gitti), Lars Eidinger (Chris), Hans-Jochen Wagner (Hans), Nicole Marischka (Sana).
I’m pretty sure Penny, Kevin, Chris, and Mitchell would be fascinated by this (in this order, Penny being the most interested). Would they all enjoy the film? I can’t say that, and it’s not something I would say they should rush out to see. Jill might find this interesting, but I suspect she would have to be in the right mood. No, to Joel, Marc, Don and Larri.
This German film, like Maren Ade’s other film, Forest for the Trees, is a character study–or, to be precise, a “relationship study.” Study is a good word for this because the film almost feels like a psychological case-study of a relationship. Indeed, I could see counselors and psychologists having a field day with this film; it would also probably bring out the armchair psychologist in many viewers. A part of me also feels like Ade said to herself, “Suppose we get this couple and we show how…,” what would that be like? So the film feels like a dramatic experiment or sketch–done out of curiosity, more than creating a full-blown story.
I must say that I really don’t think there is any point in describing the plot as the details probably won’t mean much. I also don’t really want to talk about the themes in the film, as I think it’s better viewers to discover them on their own. I’ll say this: a young German couple–Chris and Gitti–go off to vacation in the Mediterranean, and there they experience some bumps in their relationship. Dealing with these bumps are central to the film.
That’s not a very enticing write-up, but let me say something that might be: the acting in this film is not only exceptional, but I don’t think I’ve seen this type of acting anywhere else (with the exception of John Cassavetes movies–I would say they’re on the same level, whatever that means). The performances are not necessarily the best performances I’ve seen, but I felt the performances were really special and unique, and they’re the primary reasons I rated this film as highly as a I did. I can’t think of a time when I rated a film mainly for the technical aspects of the film. On the other hand, I would say the film depends heavily on the performances–the writing and visual qualities, while OK, aren’t enough to make this film work. (The editing is very good that’s part of the performances.)
Like Cassavetes, I get the feeling that performances are just as much expressions of Ade’s artistry as they are of the actors–if not more. What I do mean by that? First of all, I get the clear sense that Ade is keenly aware of film conventions–including character-types and tropes in these relationship films–and she deftly maneuvers around them, but not in self-conscious ways. The film doesn’t move in ways that you can easily expect or anticipate (and maybe after a while I stopped trying to do that). She also avoids simplistic, black-and-white characterizations. There are no “villains” in the film, only people with weaknesses and strengths. In other words, the characters seem like real people.
Second, the film communicates the feelings and dynamics in a relationship in very subtle (I want to say invisible ways). I noticed changes in the characters or the relationship, but I’m not sure how these changes occurred. At the same time the changes seem real and appropriate. I suspect I felt these changes, without being aware they were happening. I believe the direction plays a big role in making this happen. The director has to be extremely sensitive to details–from the the dialogue to the non-verbal aspects of acting. She must also have a keen sense of what information to include and what information to leave out–when and what to cut in the film. (Here’s where her skill in editing is crucial.)
There’s another part of the acting that I liked that–specifically the way the actors would communicate with each other primarily through body language. The scene with the sappy pop ballad playing in Chris’ mother’s room, with Hans and Sana in the corner. Chris moves over to Gitti and Gitti moves away. They look at each other and you know they’re communicating. The lyrics (which I can’t remember specifically right now) also provide an interesting counterpoint to what’s going on.
Finally, I should also say that the film avoids any easy explanations. The film presents the characters to the viewers and lets them interpret the characters and their actions.
What is this film about? Well, as I mentioned, the film feels like dramatic sketch or experiment. Here’s the experiment: take a heterosexual couple and use them to explore gender roles–particularly the power dynamics between the couple. Now, what if we had one person be the more dominant partner and then we shift the power over to the other partner? Could we create this shift in an invisible, but convincing fashion? And, finally, what would happen to the couple as a result?
That may not sound very interesting–and I wouldn’t be interested in the film based on this description–however, as I mentioned, the performances are so good–the transfer of power so interesting–that it makes the film worth watching.
In a way, the film is a like a puzzle film, as you have to interpret certain behaviors and the internal states of the character. It would make for an interesting discussion, but I don’t feel like using the space to go over that now, as I suspect very few of you have seen this film.
I will say something about the possible causes for the shift in power and what happens at the end of the film. Chris is basically uncertain about his career, and he’s especially stressed out and insecure about the architecture competition. When he finds out that Hans, an architect he respects, has also entered and lost, Chris seems relieved. (He admits at that moment that he also lost–which is something he never reveals to Gitti.) Because of this, Chris seems to gain a little more confidence and decides to spend time with Hans, without Gitti. This increase in confidence, while leaving Gitti alone, now makes Gitti feel insecure and unsure of herself.
At the second dinner with Hans and Sana, Gitti is now in the more passive role, but by the end of the night she is frustrated (perhaps, because this is not part of who she is). She decides to leave and impulsively (perhaps) decides to break up with Chris.
Now, when Gitti falls to the floor as if she’s dead, I’m not sure what happens. My best guess is that Gitti is faking–and it signifies that she has become herself again, switching back the power to herself.
Neighborhoods, apartments and neighbors
Neighboring Sounds (2012) Directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho
I saw this earlier at the LA Film Festival in June. A movie about a neighborhood in Brazil, this got me thinking about other films about neighborhoods, apartment buildings and basically our next door neighbors. This was a really interesting way to look at a neighborhood by listening to its unique sounds, as well as the stories of each person that lives in the community. There is a minor backstory that deals with plantation days and how the landlord came to acquire his wealth. 78/100
This is Not a Film (2011) Directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi
A documentary on a day in the life of director Jafar Panahi in his apartment in Iran. We get to know about his life and a little of the residents that life there. A few comedic moments include Panahi turning the camera around, directing from behind his iPhone camera, as he is the subject of this short (a little over an hour) documentary. 82/100
The Hedgehog (2009) Directed by Mona Achache
I saw this a couple of years ago but it has to do with neighbors and apartments, plus it’s become available on Netflix recently. Taking place in a Paris apartment building, the narrator is from the point of view of an 11-year old girl. Using an old video camera her father gives her, she records everyday life in the building. Through her observations she contemplates life and the relationships of her neighbors. The building’s concierge is quite interesting as she is a lover of books and films. 79/100
I saw This is Not a Film (I guess I didn’t write a review), and I didn’t feel comfortable rating it as I didn’t think I had a good understanding of the film. It did make me want to see Panahi’s Mirror and it shed some light on Crimson Gold, which confused me. By the way, if you have not seen The White Balloon, I’d recommend that.
Dir. Ivan Reitman
Starring: Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd, etc.
I’m pretty sure everyone has seen this already, but I just watched this again. Does it stand up? Yeah, surprisingly, I think it does.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan
79/100 (could go higher)
I’d recommend this to Kevin, Penny and Chris. (I have a good feeling Penny will like this.) I suspect Mitchell and Grace would appreciate it this and could even really like this, but I’m not as sure. I’m not sure about Marc, Don and Jill. I’d say no to Joel and Larri.
This a Turkish film that involves a police chief, doctor, prosecutor and some suspects looking for a dead body the suspect claims to have buried. They drive from place to place because the suspect can’t quite remember where he buried the body–it also happens to be late at night in the open country.
The film feels like a mystery, but it really uses this “body-hunt” to get to know the characters and explore themes about death, truth and other serious subjects. We see two characters talk while the police walk out into the field; the group goes to a small village to take a break from the hunt and interact with local mayor, etc.
The pacing is slow at times, but most of the episodes are not hard to understand. Like Ceylan’s Distant, the visuals are also quite good in this.
(There is a lot of questions and aspects of the film that require analysis, but I’m too tired to do that right now.)
In This is Not a Film, I found Panahi very interesting to listen to as he recounted his experience as a director. That he’s banned from currently making films made it more intriguing. Also, i know it’s not the theme of this documentary but I included it my list here with Neighboring Sounds as both films seem to have in common the unique sounds of a neighborhood.
I’d like to see The White Balloon along with his other films. Yes, I saw The Mirror also soon after This is Not a Film.
Trouble with the Curve
Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman. Directed by Robert Lorenz.
The baseball stuff in Trouble with the Curve is very good. That’s high praise from me, and usually it’s enough to make me really like a baseball movie. The fields look exactly right, and the baseball scouts talk and behave the way I’ve always understood them to talk and behave. The shiny, glamorous Major League scenes are contrasted by scenes of dusty, ramshackle high-school baseball parks where scouts do their jobs, and the cheap motels and bars where they spend their downtime. The film has a look and feel that testifies positively in favor of someone’s baseball cred.
Clint Eastwood hasn’t acted in a film he did not direct since 1993’s In the Line of Fire, and that was a very long time ago. His voice, always somewhat hoarse and whispery, has taken on a gravelly texture, and his glare, which used to speak volumes of menacing potential, isn’t so much of a threat now as the memory of a threat. He plays Gus Lobel, the fictional scout for the Atlanta Braves who discovered real-life Major League stars like Dale Murphy and Tom Glavine. But that was a long time ago, too, and where scouting used to be a job ruled strictly by baseball men administering the old eyeball test, it is today augmented by computers and advanced metrics.
Gus is in the final months of his contract and if not for a head of scouting (John Goodman) who still believes in him, he would certainly be headed for pasture at the urging of another, younger executive who insists he doesn’t need to see a player to evaluate his talent, as long as he can see the player’s numbers. Gus is scouting a high-schooler who is expected to be the number one or number two player selected in the upcoming baseball draft, but his eyesight is failing him, so he is joined by his lawyer daughter Mickey (Amy Adams), who knows more about baseball than anyone not being paid to watch. Mickey’s relationship with her father is delicate: they get along fine as long as conversation is limited to Mickey’s work or baseball.
It’s a movie about parents and children who know things didn’t work out for the best, but who each see things from a limited and only partially true perspective. Mickey, at turning points in her professional and personal lives, now finds herself at a turning point in her relationship with her father, himself at a professional moment of crisis. It all combines to form a sometimes overwrought (if mostly very sincere) narrative whose characters and audience take breathers from the stress by watching baseball. Arguments are suspended, issues put on hold, and tensions alleviated once the characters take their places in the bleachers. This is one thing director Robert Lorenz gets right: the pacing is a nice balance of explosions of pent-up, long-held grievances and the pastoral, untimed beauty of the ballpark.
What Lorenz and screenwriter Randy Brown do wrong is load the non-baseball parts with too many film cliches. There is a scene in a bar where a local challenges Mickey to a game of pool and doesn’t react well when she kicks his butt. There is a spontaneous bar-dancing scene. There is a pier on a lake, and there are characters who strip down to their underwear to jump off into the water and kiss. Someone symbolically throws a Blackberry smartphone into a dumpster. Each of these moments (and there are more) does its job, but it’s film-making shorthand in a picture that seems to put in extra effort to get the baseball parts right (with only a couple of cliches here and there). The dialogue is often the same way, with characters speaking when they should be be quiet, or saying one obvious thing when they could have said something less obvious but just as meaningful. Near the end of the film, Mickey quotes her father, but the quote is completely unnecessary because her actions in the previous scene say everything. This happens far too often, as if the intended audience is either brainless or has never seen a movie.
If not for the strength of the acting, this movie would be a huge disappointment. But Amy Adams is her usual terrific, down-to-earth, earnest, smart, thoughtful self. She is balanced on all sides by people who love her, including Justin Timberlake as a love interest, a young scout for a rival team. John Goodman (no stranger to baseball movies) hits exactly the right tone as Gus’s supervisor who wants to stay loyal to his friend but not at the risk of his baseball integrity. His interactions with Mickey are one of the film’s highlights for the way they tell us so much about Mickey and Gus.
It saddens me to say it, but Eastwood’s acting is the low point. There are moments of rage that I just don’t buy, and his tenderness is overacted. Without Goodman, Timberlake, and Adams to create a more believable backdrop for this character, Eastwood is almost a caricature and the material doesn’t dictate that he play it this way. I’m not saying he has to be Richard Kincaid from The Bridges of Madison County, but a little more sensitivity, a little more gentleness, and a little more humor could really have pushed this into the upper echelon of baseball movies, barroom pool games notwithstanding.
Trouble with the Curve is a mixed bag that gets roughed up in the middle innings but its strengths ultimately shut the door for the final three outs.
For what it’s worth, I liked your review Trouble with a Curve. I liked the part where you mentioned the cliches in the film. The flow of the piece and even the prose stood out.
Why thank you. I spent more time summarizing than usual, which I didn’t want to do, but my feelings were a little complicated so I felt it necessary.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2012)
Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt, Kristin Scott Thomas, Amr Waked. Directed by Lasse Hallström.
People who don’t know me well think I’m arrogant, which on the surface I can totally understand. For all my self-loathing (which people who know me well are quite familiar with), I’ve learned to function by asserting my strengths whenever I can, which I confess is perhaps the very definition of arrogance. I like to think of it more as a shield against finding myself in situations where I’m woefully inadequate, a constant worry in my life. I am in many settings socially awkward, so for the most part, I try to keep my social interactions within realms where I feel confident. I’m rather certain that this is one reason I became a teacher.
Many of my favorite movie characters share this quality. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti finds peace (except when overindulging) in wine. In The Station Agent, Peter Dinklage finds it in trains. And in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, a movie that grows on me with each new viewing, Ewan McGregor finds it in fish. I think one reason I respond so strongly to characters like this is my desire to have that kind of peace, to be able to center myself and to make sense of everything else when I view it through the metaphorical reality of something. This is why I was pretty much automatically going to like this film unless it was really bad.
McGregor is Fred Jones, a British government expert on fisheries. He has awkward relationships with his boss and wife, and if he has any social connections outside those two people, we never see them. When he is approached by Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt) acting on behalf of a wealthy Yemeni sheikh (Amr Waked) to help introduce salmon to a river in Yemen, he impolitely informs her that the resources required to pull off such a feat are ridiculously prohibitive. He has no concept of how wealthy this sheikh is, but he can at least understand why someone with the passion for fishing and the wherewithal to defy nature might attempt such a scheme. It isn’t the sheikh’s wealth that finally sways him; it’s time spent fly-fishing alongside him in a Scottish river.
There are a bunch of other plot elements to give this movie the real-world plausibility and depth most viewers might require, but they are only of passing interest to me. All that matters are the relationship between Jones and Chetwode-Talbot and the sympathy the audience has for each character. Harriet is working under the strain of a boyfriend’s presumed death in the war in Afghanistan (or somewhere). Fred own marriage is strained, and his wife has taken a months-long job in a foreign country without discussing it with him. Together with the sheikh, Harriet and Fred go to Yemen to work on the project. As we get to know each character, we care more about them and their relationship.
The acting all around is quite good, and the dialogue is well-written. The three primary actors seem really to enjoy conversing with one another, and while their early interactions are formal and professional, as their work progresses, they develop a believable fondness for one another, and the conversations become less professional and more personal, until you sense a very real friendship for all three. Fred’s awkwardness adds to his charm, and Harriet’s cool, businesslike efficiency is a nice contrast.
This probably doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the overall quality of the movie, but I really want to comment on the fact that McGregor is in this movie allowed to speak in his Scottish accent, something he’s seldom afforded in his films. Blunt is allowed to be English. Acting is very difficult; I imagine that even for these people who’ve made their living doing it that it’s a lot of work. It makes me wonder why they’re not allowed to speak in their accented English more often. Unless characters must speak in American English, why not remove the extra effort required for speaking like Americans from the actors’ already difficult jobs? I found the ease with which their characters communicate in this film to be one of my favorite things, and their being allowed to speak in their regular accents has to have contributed to that.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a romance that avoids being romantic, the way a lot of good relationships begin, and this is the film’s greatest strength: it takes these two normal people, and even in a most abnormal circumstance together, they continue to behave about as normally as you’d expect in life but not in movies. It’s a warm movie, and sweet as heck.
This is one of the most personal reviews I’ve read of yours which allowed me to find out a little more about you. Btw, have I ever thanked you for inviting me to this site? I am thankful and appreciate you for this. I have discovered a lot through you and your friends about film and other topics. I admire your writing style and honesty in this review.
I was transfixed from the beginning with you revealing a little about yourself and I especially liked the way you compared the other movies & characters.
I also enjoyed Salmon Fishing in Yemen and the cast. I’ve mentioned it before that this was the year of Emily Blunt. And I adore Ewan McGregor. This movie certainly deserves a second viewing. Actually this review totally inspires me to watch Station Agent, Sideways and Salmon Fishing in Yemen again!
Thanks. I thought this one out for weeks before finally writing it. You should have seen the first draft of my review for Celeste and Jesse Forever. It was practically the romantic confessional of my life. But I couldn’t write it that way without spoiling the movie ten ways, so I had to discard that approach.
Carnival rides make me nauseated. Alcohol makes me morose. Firecrackers hurt my ears. Movie thrillers cause me stress. None of these delivers a pleasant experience and I don’t willingly dive into any of them. Except the alcohol; I kind of like being morose.
With rare exception, thrillers just don’t pay off. The stress they cause me is never justified by an end that makes it worth it, and unless my brain is adequately engaged in some new way, I have no use for them. I suppose cynics would say the same is true of romantic comedies, a genre I like, but we’re talking about a different set of emotions here, a much nicer, warmer palette of colors. Thrillers cause me too much discomfort and the resolutions are seldom satisfying.
For these reasons, when Gone, starring Amanda Seyfried as Jill Conway, hit theaters, I stopped to admire the movie poster ten times but was only minimally tempted to see it. A one-dollar DVD rental, however, was a different story. I like the actress, love her large eyes and non-Hollywood kind of prettiness, and if the film sucked too hard I could just turn off the DVD player and I’d be out only a buck.
It doesn’t suck. But it tries to suck. It’s got an interesting setup: Jill has survived being kidnapped by a serial killer, and she hasn’t been able to back up any of her story with any evidence, so the local police think she’s making it up. When her sister Molly goes uncharacteristically missing with no explanation, Jill is sure her kidnapper has taken Molly in order to lure Jill into another kidnapping so he can finish the job. Jill tracks Molly’s abductor while evading the police, who at first are skeptical that there’s any foul play involved but want to keep Jill out of the way of their investigation just in case.
Seyfried is capable of carrying a movie, something I haven’t really seen her get a chance to do until now, and I admit I was pretty engaged through most of it. The problem is just what the problem always seems to be: the payoff is completely unsatisfying, and despite the main character’s smarts, the plot gets dumber and dumber with each scene in the third act. And this is what I seem always to experience in movie thrillers. Fans of the genre, being used to the format, I suppose, might enjoy this, but I was pretty annoyed. I was pleased to see Michael Pare as a sympathetic police lieutenant, but even that thrill fails to make this a good movie.
It doesn’t suck. But it tries to suck.
I agree that the description sounds interesting, something that would make me consider seeing the film–until you mention how the film gets dumber and dumber. But I want to say two things about that comment:
1. I think when you review films rendering this judgment is really tricky. The enjoyment of films like these (and maybe Hollywood films in general–or at least horror, action, and sci-fi) depends on the balance between satisfying and unsatisfying moments. Films that are enjoyable have rewarding elements that cause viewers to overlook deficiencies, while films that don’t have enough satisfying elements, or they’re not satisfying enough, tend to cause viewers to notice the negative qualities and that hurts the film. The problem is that this is a very subjective reaction. As a reviewer, how can you communicate to readers if the scales will tip favorably for them or not? (I was just thinking about this issue today for some reason.)
2. Does the dumber and dumber trajectory only apply to thrillers? Does it not apply as much to comedies, rom-coms or other genres? (I’m assuming you would agree that it applies to action, horror and sci-fi movies.)
I guess I don’t watch these films thinking about satisfying vs. unsatisfying moments. My big issue is that thrillers make me feel an unpleasant feeling (stress). If the movie concludes in a way that makes the unpleasant feeling worth it, I consider it a pretty good movie. But too often it doesn’t, so I have allowed myself to be put through that unpleasant feeling for not good enough a reason. I kinda thought that as a reviewer, I explained that, even leaving open the possibility that another viewer, one who liked that feeling of stress, might not agree.
The dumber and dumber trajectory can be found across genres. But again: romantic comedies in general try to make you feel good. When they get dumber and dumber, at least you didn’t put yourself through the unpleasantness of being stressed-out for an hour or so.
I’m trying to say that for a lot of people, I think the feelings they get from a thriller are part of what makes them like the genre, the way many people like the feelings they get from a carnival ride. I’m willing to go through that kind of discomfort if there’s some good payoff at the end, but for a carnival ride it would have to be something along the lines of osso bucco in order for me to consider it worthwhile. For others, it’s the ride itself that the enjoyment comes from. Not me.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt. Directed by Rian Johnson.
It’s 2044, and time travel hasn’t been invented yet, but in thirty years it will be invented and prohibited. Crime syndicates do it anyway, and rather than killing people in their present, they send victims back to 2044 to be killed by employees called loopers, who shoot them on sight and dispose of the bodies. It’s an interesting way to handle murder, because loopers are killing people whose bodies and lives still exist in their present, so how are they guilty of murder?
When Looper is at its best, it lets its talented actors crawl around in the moral crevices of a reality rich in ethical dilemmas. The metaphorical minefield has been trod before in other time-travel films, including Minority Report, Hot Tub Time Machine, and even The Final Countdown: knowing what’s going to happen in the future, how far is it okay to go, if at all, toward stopping something horrible? Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play Joe, thirty years apart, and what the older character hopes to alter is both personal and universal. Emily Blunt is a single mother who finds herself in the middle of Joe’s situation, offering her own spin on the moralizing the film doesn’t indulge in so much as encourage its audience to roll around in its consciences.
I thoroughly enjoyed just about every moment of this film, at times begging things to slow down so that I could poke my brain around in the choices confronted by the main characters, wishing I could consider alternate actions for them, like those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. I wanted Joe to linger with his acquaintances so we could get their stories; I wanted to stick a bookmark between its pages so I could flip to the glossary in the back and get explanations for the everyday objects and interactions the film doesn’t take time to explain. It’s a well-thought-out world this movie is set in.
The acting is solid, both lead actors taking advantage of the droopy-eyed weariness I never before noticed they each carry in several films. I have a particular fondness for Emily Blunt, but her performance is uneven in Looper, and her character seems the least developed. At times Blunt seems to change the way her character speaks and gestures from one scene to another, and at least once I could swear she changed her character’s accent in the middle of a sentence. There is also a child character, and I try to cut child actors some slack, but I couldn’t stand this kid, either as an actor or as a character.
The pacing is excellent, and the length seems exactly right, but although (no spoiler here) the ending is the correct ending, there is one nagging question for me that I hope will be answered by a second viewing: while it is probably the best choice for the characters involved, does it really solve the problem? I’m left pretty unsure.
Looper is excellent science fiction that relies not on special effects or space ships, but on thoughtful development of its characters and consideration of the implications of the fiction it creates. Don’t take the kids (it’s bloody and violent as heck), but do take yourself.
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Jason Moore.
Most football fans are aware of the annual Big Game between Stanford and UC-Berkeley. It’s one of the sport’s storied, long-standing rivalries at 114 games. What most people don’t know is that in the week before each Big Game, among other activities is the Big Sing, a performance of both schools’ a capella groups in a celebration of the rivalry. I know this because I was once very close to someone who sang in an a capella group at Stanford. For three years I heard great stories about the rituals, fund-raisers, concert shenanigans, rivalries, concert tours, and friendships this friend experienced in her small corner of the school. It is a different world, the world of college a capella.
It seems to me that the people who have the best experiences in college are the ones who carve out their places in these little corners. For me it was a campus ministry and the student paper. For others I know it was Greek life, intramural athletics, music, or even a favorite campus job. Pitch Perfect has excellent music and that’s all the reason it needs for existing, but it does make an attempt at a message, and this is probably it: the college experience (and maybe all our experience) is its fullest when we form meaningful relationships with a few people in our little pieces of the school.
Anna Kendrick stars as Becca, a misfit loner who creates mashups on her laptop computer and aspires to a career in the music business. She doesn’t really want to be in college, but her father, a professor at her university, insists. When he promises her he’ll help her move to California to pursue her dreams only if she gives college an honest try by joining at least one campus group, she reluctantly auditions for one of the school’s a capella groups.
Her group, the Barden Bellas, was last year in the finals of the International Championship of College A Capella (a competition that I just recently learned actually exists, since 1996), but a projectile vomiting incident and the graduation of most of its members have resulted in the group’s starting anew with only two returning singers. Its sullied reputation means that the Bellas are stuck with a lot of the leftovers after schoolwide auditions, and it is now a rag-tag group of odd personalities who can really sing.
The plot is actually pretty good, and it involves a love interest (a member of a rival singing group) and Becca’s difficulty with intimate relationships with her father, with peers, and with potential lovers, in addition to the built-in drama of district, regional, and national competitions. Along the way there is a lot of singing, and it is all wonderful and excellent. Even when the Bellas perform songs that bore the apparently jaded audiences and commentators at the competitions, the songs are fantastic. There is a beautiful joy projected in just about every song, by every group that performs. There are impossible-to-believe spontaneous numbers and more-impossible-to-believe a capella battles, but the ridiculousness of the setups is excused by the undeniably fun music.
I could almost like this movie as a movie, and not just as a vehicle for great singing, but there’s just far, far too much lowest-common-denominator stuff here, stuff that was a big hit among the college-aged audience I saw this with the second time. There’s a lot to chuckle at, but not as much as my fellow moviegoers would have you believe. They laughed so loudly at what they considered a funny accent (by Rebel Wilson) that they didn’t hear the actually funny things she said. They laughed so loudly at an Asian girl who can speak barely above a whisper that they missed the disturbing (and funny) things she actually said. Maddening, I tell you.
But fat jokes and vomiting aside, the film and its characters do a nice job of poking light fun at the world of college a capella, which one of the main characters playfully calls “nerd singing.” This is the funny stuff, the stuff that emerges out of what’s actually believable and likable, which includes nice performances by Kendrick (on whom I have been crushing since her Oscar-nominated performance in Up in the Air), Wilson, Brittany Snow, and Anna Camp. It’s only a passable movie, but I can recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who appreciates good singing.
Dir. F.W. Murnau
No, to Larri, Don, Joel, Jill and Marc. I’m not sure about Chris, Kevin, Grace and Penny. Mitchell might appreciate this on some level, but I suspect he wouldn’t enjoy it.
I haven’t read all of Goethe’s Faust, so I’m not sure if this movie is an adaptation of that work, but it basically gets the gist of the Faust story. Mefisto makes a bargain with Michael, the arch-angel, that he can tempt and destroy Faust. Michael agrees. The visuals, despite the low-tech nature of the film (compared to today), is quite good and stands up fairly well, considering the differences in technology.
However, the dramatic elements and the theological ideas weren’t that interesting to me, unfortunately. (If it weren’t for the visuals, this would probably get a much lower score from me.)
I guess I don’t watch these films thinking about satisfying vs. unsatisfying moments.
Maybe I’m not explaining myself well. (And I think you’re missing my point.) I’m suggesting that our sense of what is unsatisfying or dumb in a film depends on the degree to which there are satisfying and “smart” aspects of a the film. So the ratio between positive and negative aspects of the film is really key. A film you enjoy may actually have quite a bit of dumb parts, but you either don’t notice these or don’t think it’s a big deal because there are either many other parts that you like or a few parts that you really, really like. You can see this happening in some the discussions between us (including Penny and Grace).
I said that I think this really applies to action, thrillers and horror movies, but I suspect it applies to almost any Hollywood film (maybe non-Hollywood films as well).
I’m trying to say that for a lot of people, I think the feelings they get from a thriller are part of what makes them like the genre, the way many people like the feelings they get from a carnival ride.
Right. I got that. But when you said, “The film tries to suck,” I thought you were referring to the fact that it got dumber and dumber and the end was unsatisfying. You’re not talking about your discomfort with thrillers here, right?
My comments refer to how and why a film becomes dumber and dumber–or not.
Born in Flames (1983)
Dir. Lizzie Borden
I don’t know how much Penny, Kevin, Chris and Grace would enjoy the film, but I’m sure they would find it interesting. I want to put Arlyn in the same group, but I don’t know enough of her tastes to be confident. I suspect Mitchell would find this interesting, but somehow I think this would be too arduous for him. No to Don, Marc, Joel–and I’ll throw Jill in that group.
I would call this an avant-garde sci-fi film. It’s sci-fi because it is set sometime in the future, a future where a feminist-oriented party has gained power of the U.S. government–an underground group of female activists, discontent at the lack of progress with regard to women’s rights and maybe regression, starts forming.
It’s avant-garde because the film blends spoken monologues (by radio djs); live music performances; footage and pictures from FBI-types, who also discuss what they’re looking at; as well as more conventional dramatic scenes. This combination of different film styles was the most interesting part of the film for me. This is the primary reason I gave the film a 70/100.
The reason I can’t go beyond that is I’m not sure if all the parts come together well. At this point, I’m not entirely satisfied with the film as a whole, but I can’t really articulate specific reasons for this.
Four paragraphs about this movie and you don’t comment on the director’s name? Maybe it’s old news, but there’s a director out there named Lizzie Borden? Am I the only one who hadn’t heard of her?
My first thought was that somehow the lead singer from the band Lizzy Borden had turned into a film-maker:
But a quick wiki search turned up an article on this director whose name really is Linda Elizabeth Borden. Way cool. She shoulda directed slasher pics. She says she decided at age 11 to rename herself Lizzie: “At the time, my name was the best rebellion I could make.” I admit I’m intrigued just because of this.
Hotel Transylvania (2012)
Voices of Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Fran Drescher, Jon Lovitz, CeeLo Green, Steve Buscemi, Molly Shannon, David Spade, others.
Being a single parent is tough; just ask Dracula, who has been raising his daughter Mavis by himself for most of her life, ever since his wife was killed by insensitive humans. Determined to protect her from evil humans, he creates the Hotel Transylvania, a human-free home away from home for monsters who need rest and relaxation.
On the occasion of Mavis’s 118th birthday, Dracula plans a huge party and a who’s-who of monsterdom checks in for the celebration: Frankenstein’s monster and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Werewolf (and their kids), Bigfoot, and other assorted spirits and spectres are on hand for the festivities.
In an effort to keep Mavis safe, Dracula has taught her to fear humans as he and the other Hotel Transylvania guests fear them. This backfires when Jonathan, a young human, wanders onto the premises. In order to keep everyone calm, Dracula secretly dresses Jonathan up, passing him off as a relative of Frankenstein’s Monster, which sort of works until he and Mavis meet and are attracted to each other.
Hotel Transylvania has its charms; Adam Sandler is unrecognizable as the voice of Dracula and he puts more effort into his performance than in most of his non-animated roles. Selena Gomez is a real talent, famous teeny-bopper boyfriend aside. The animation is slick and shiny and pretty to look at like a box of Skittles, and some of the gags are worth a giggle or two. The problem is that there’s just not much of a plot; we’re basically treated to one hide-the-human scene after another in action sequences far less imaginative than can be excused. When your characters inhabit a world with floating banquet tables and secret passages all over the place, you really need to come up with something creative, or why bother to put a movie there? Remember what Wallace and Gromit did with just an electric train, some train tracks, and a house? Nothing in Hotel Transylvania is in the same area code as that.
Even the plot is pretty brainless; there is a story here about young love and about adult regret, something that I suppose is necessarily shallow in a movie aimed at young viewers, but the syrupy sentiment feels tacked on. Where Dracula’s relationship with Mavis is well-developed and oddly believable, very little is put in place to earn the goosebumps the writers want you to get for Dracula’s lost love or Mavis’s budding romance. The result is a happily-ever-after only the most gullible minds will accept.
Which is too bad, because it means that the movie is pretty boring, ‘though I imagine young kids will love it. This is the film’s greatest crime, because the fact that kids will accept it so readily is the very reason we shouldn’t be giving them this film. Telling children it’s okay to be entertained by such thoughtlessness is doing them no favors at all. If I had kids and took them to see this, I’d be totally encouraged if they fell asleep in their theater seats.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott. Directed by Stephen Chbosky.
In case you’re only hearing about it now, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a new film based on a very, very popular novel for young adults by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the screenplay and directed the film. If the novel, published in 1999, has somehow escaped your notice, it’s likely because it didn’t reach quite the heights of such phenomena as the Harry Potter books or The Hunger Games, but among the fifteen-to-twenty-nine crowd, it has earned a kind of cult-like status, quoted religiously on Facebook walls and Tumblr blogs. Often cited as this generation’s Catcher in the Rye, it seems to have hit a nerve with every alienated teenager, which is to say it seems to have hit a nerve with every teenager.
I am forty-three years old, which means I was sixteen when The Breakfast Club was released. That film is a cultural landmark for people my age, a film that seemed first to get us, tapping into the angst common to every generation of teenagers, and then to define us, shaping a worldview dominated all our lives by our ubiquitous Baby-Boomer parents. As a high-school teacher for these past sixteen years, I have lamented the lack of such a landmark for the students I’ve taught. In some ways Titanic is the mile-marker movie for the students I taught in the late nineties, but that film lacks the generational ownership and identity that the Brat Pack films of the Eighties had for me and my friends. I had high hopes for Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008) and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (2010), but teens failed to grab onto either of those with the fervor I thought they might.
Now here is The Perks of Being a Wallflower, whose source material already seems to have tapped into the psyche of the current generation of teens, a movie whose trailer inspired at least two friends to wonder if this is a John Hughes movie for the 2010s. Chbosky is 42, so it isn’t surprising that he has made a teen movie that reminds us so much of the teen movies of our past. He undoubtedly grew up watching those same films.
His main character is Charlie, played by Logan Lerman. Charlie is a ninth-grader with no friends, socially awkward but eager to give high school his best shot. It is not his nature to reach out in friendship-making gestures, but after a few days of eating alone in the cafeteria, he makes himself do it at a school football game of all places, where he introduces himself to Patrick and Sam (Ezra Miller and Emma Watson), two seniors who are step-siblings and best friends. The older students like Charlie, and soon he is socializing with them at a local restaurant, in their homes, in the cafeteria, and at the monthly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Fringe-dwellers themselves, Patrick and Sam seem much more comfortable in their alienated skin, participating in school activities but with a cool detachment that is equally forced upon them and instigated by them.
All by itself, that would make a pretty interesting movie with the actors and plot Chbosky has at his disposal, but intertwined with Charlie’s adventures with Sam and Patrick are scenes involving his relationships with members of his family. Scenes in Charlie’s house avoid the sitcommy rapidfire insults and prepackaged sentiment, focusing instead on parents who try hard and siblings who love each other but can drive each other crazy. Ask anyone who has read the novel and he or she will tell you that the family stuff is really the heart of the story, while the school stuff is the vehicle that serves it. My own viewing of the film is colored by my having read the novel first, so I can’t say with conviction the same about the movie, but the genuine effort taken to provide the main character with a meaningful home life is a plus in this film’s favor, something that too many of the great Eighties teen movies never attempt.
The acting is excellent from the three principal actors. Emma Watson has developed a remarkable quaver in her voice for those moments of veiled fragility, a tiny catch in her throat that brought me to tears more than once. There are a few problems with her American accent (only noticed by me the second time I viewed the film), but they can be forgiven for her otherwise very good performance. I had never heard of Ezra Miller, but his is the strongest performance in the film, worthy of a supporting-actor Oscar nomination at least. His ability to hold a scene together is testament to acting chops and a director who recognizes them. Logan Lerman’s Charlie is tentative but capable of asserting himself under the right circumstances. Lerman does a good job keeping him reined in most of the time, very believable as a sensitive, gifted reader with very little social grace.
The movie and its actors look terrific, as if Chbosky’s intentionally trying to create screen-captures over which the book’s best quotes will be captioned and re-Tumbled for the next fifteen years. I was reminded multiple times of the best frames in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink, not to mention all those U2 photoshoots for The Joshua Tree. Look at this thing and tell me you don’t see twenty magazine ads for the Gap.
I admire Chbosky’s attempt to swing for the fences. There are silly moments that turn profound, and profound moments that turn silly, and small moments that feel almost private, and big moments that try to take off into space the way all the great movies do. It doesn’t all work, and Chbosky cuts short two very important conversations Charlie has with the other characters, one which can be excused but the other which cannot. And where he sometimes lets us in on Charlie’s thoughts through a voiceover narration (in the form of a letter he’s writing to an unnamed friend), in some of the big moments he tries to let the dialogue and action do all the work. It is a good try, but the payoffs feel too small for the bigness to which they aspire.
Yet The Breakfast Club had its flaws too, and that didn’t keep it from being the most-important movie of my youth. I can’t say whether or not The Perks of Being a Wallflower will be that movie for the students I know today, because I’m not the one who gets to make that determination. Still, here is probably the best candidate I’ve seen.
My concern with Perks is that it’ll be predictable and a bit cliched.
It isn’t. Predictable, that is.
Wrong Rosary (2009)
Dir by: Mahmut Fazil Coskun
In Istanbul, Musa is the new muezzin for the local mosque. He wakes up at 3 am each morning to call his town to the first prayer of the day. Musa’s next door neighbor, Clara, is struggling with a calling to be a nun in the town’s catholic church. There’s a scene where the film gets its title. He sees her walking one day and she drops her rosary so he rushes to return it to her. He sits in the church and waits for her to pass the collection basket during service. As she passes by, he drops the rosary in the daily collection basket but is horrified that he mistakenly drops his prayer beads in there instead of hers. It’s the most touching and at the same time hilarious scene I’ve seen in a film. You can’t tell by the trailer, but it has comedic moments.
He wants to get to know her but his friends don’t think it will work.
In the trailer his friend admonishes, “Bukowski. Women. Be careful!”
It’s a moving love story.
OK. I’ll think about seeing the film.
The Only Son (1936)
Dir. Yasujiro Ozu
88/100 (and rising)
I’d definitely recommend this to Kevin and any fans of Ozu. I’m pretty sure Grace, Penny and Chris would find this interesting at the very least. I’m not sure about Joel, Jill, Don and Marc, although I’m sure I wouldn’t tell them to rush out and see this. Larri would probably think this is OK at best.
This Japanese film is the first “talkie” for the director. It’s about a widow who sacrifices a lot for her only son to go to school. When the son grows up he moves to Tokyo and the mother pays him a visit. I don’t really want to say much more, but I will say the film is about the hopes that parents have for their children and the way children satisfy and/or disappoint their parents.
I really liked this film, and while I’m sure part of my reaction stems from having children myself, I think the filmmaking–and it’s effect on me–is the primary reason for my enthusiasm for the film. I’ll say more about this in the next section, but I’ll finish this section by saying that Ozu is an incredible filmmaker–maybe the best filmmaker of all time. His films have a subtlety and simplicity that is sublime; a very delicate and careful touch comes through in the acting, compositions and overall tone of the film. It’s unbelievable. Having said that, I’m not sure a viewer would get this sense–at least not the full impact–from this specific film–or even just seeing one film by Ozu. Still, this is not a bad place to start, and if you’re a fan of movies, I would highly recommend seeing more of his films.
There’s a point in the film where I said, “Hey, Ozu is doing Capra,” and I was hoping the film would end like a Capra film. But it doesn’t, and, as much as I love Capra’s films, that’s all the better that the film doesn’t end this way. I say this because the film is so much richer and complex because it avoids that Capraesque ending. At the same time, you don’t feel like the film just tries to avoid an easy or predictable ending. In a way the ending feels like matter-of-fact–as in, this is the way things are–and it lets the viewer just absorb everything they’ve seen, which is a broader, richer experience than resolving the film more cleanly, leaving the viewer with one feeling.
The film, and the ending especially, creates a godlike perspective of the filmmaker–a god that is looking on from a distance, with a non-judgmental attitude, allowing people to exercise their free will. In other words, the characters seem to be real and indepedent entities, rather than creations or “tools” for the filmmaker.
The characters also feel this way because the “story” doesn’t feel contrived (not at all), and almost feel natural, realistic and maybe even prosaic. I can understand if some viewers feel underwhelmed by the films–as if the films don’t have an interesting story. That’s only true if you’re used to more theatrical or obviously dramatic stories. I would argue that the film does have a dramatic story, but the dramatic structure is more subtle. Here is another example of Ozu’s deft touch and artistic sensibility.
Really, he’s almost like a cinematic painter of families and family situations–as his films feel like portraits of familes or “paintings” of family situations.
The Chaser (2008)
Dir. Hong-jin Naa
I’d recommend this to Penny, Joel and Marc; probably Jill, too. I think they’d all enjoy this film. Don would probably give this a three, possibly more. I’m not really sure about Grace. Given what I know of Mitchell’s preferences, I’d say he probably shouldn’t see this. I’m not sure about Kevin and Chris, but I suspect they would both be entertained. I’m not sure about how Arlyn feels about this type of movie, so I can’t really say.
This is a Korean thriller about a pimp, who happens to be a former cop, looking for his prostitutes that have suddenly gone missing. The pimp notices that most of the missing girls have disappeared after seeing one particular client.
Like many other thrillers, there are unbelievable, silly things that one has to accept in order to enjoy the film. If the film doesn’t have enough going for it, then these silly things can be a problem. Knowing how you will react is very difficult to predict, but I think the people I recommended the film to would probably find enough to like that this won’t be a problem.
I’ve seen my share of thrillers, and I think this film film did a good job of keeping my interest and avoiding too many predictable outcomes. It’s definitely something that the typical American moviegoer would enjoy.
Is it in English?
Which film are you referring to?
The Chaser. If I don’t quote you or say directly what I’m referring to, it’s always the post immediately before my question.
It’s in Korean. Would you be more interested in the film if it was in English? I can’t see you liking this film, given what you wrote about Gone.
Not really, but it’s one of the things I like to know about a movie when I read about it. I didn’t have to ask about the Ozu picture because I’m familiar with the director. Hadn’t heard of the Korean one.
Wait, so calling it a “Korean thriller” wasn’t enough to tell you that the film was in Korean?
Shoulda been. Somehow that went right past me.
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, Christopher Walken, Tom Waits. Directed by Martin McDonagh.
Seven Psychopaths is a pretty good idea. Marty (Colin Farrell), a struggling screenwriter, is working on a script but so far only has a title: Seven Psychopaths, which everyone who hears about it agrees is a great title. Marty’s friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) is an out-of-work actor who makes money by stealing dogs and then returning them for the lost-and-found rewards. Billy’s partner in this scheme is Hans (Christopher Walken). When Billy and Hans unknowingly steal a dog owned by a mobster (Woody Harrelson), all four characters become involved in a strange, bloody story that may or may not be this movie you’re watching.
If the setup reminds you slightly of Adaptation, you aren’t alone. This film is not quite as self-aware or self-referential as that one, but it’s definitely less distantly related than a third cousin, with Inglourious Basterds as a favorite in-law. It’s a bloody, violent, fun story for the first two acts, when it seems to delight in telling its short, psychopathic stories. But as Marty gets the pieces of his script lined up, he lacks a climax and resolution, if he has any plot at all, and the principal characters become players and/or authors in the movie’s too-long, not-very-engaging wrap-up.
There’s got to be a reason for Billy’s last name being the same as one of cinema’s most quoted characters, and for Marty’s extremely bushy eyebrows, but whether they are part of Marty’s creative process or some kind of homage to the characters’ inspirations is never addressed. If in fact we’re looking at a movie written by Marty as he’s putting it together, that seems not to be the emphasis of the movie: trying to connect dots or follow hypotheses to their acceptances is frustrating and fruitless. The most we are encouraged to do is enjoy the ride, which is good enough for the first two-thirds. Somewhere after that, the film starts to drag even as it gets more violent, and when it finally concludes, all I could think was, “Well. That didn’t suck.”
The performances are surprisingly enjoyable. Harrelson, especially, seems to savor his every line of dialogue, and Walken manages not to remind us of the thousands of caricatures we’ve all seen by now, playing quirky but low-key and probably sweeter than I’ve ever seen from him. One critic I follow said this is Sam Rockwell’s best performance, but boy do I have to disagree with that. I really like Rockwell, and I think he’s usually the most interesting thing on any screen he occupies, but the overacting he does here is flat and uninteresting, lacking anything to lift him off the pages of his comic-like script.
Because Adaptation becomes a victim of its own cleverness (and that is a much better-executed film than Seven Psychopaths), one wonders if a truly rewarding movie can made with more than minimal meta-ness. I have high hopes for Cloud Atlas, which is scheduled for release next weekend, but I wonder if this film’s purpose is really to warn me against that; it certainly doesn’t bode well for anything that aspires to being more meta.
I didn’t read the entire review, because I want to see the film (although you’re rating makes me hesitate), but have you read Cloud Atlas? I really think you should read the novel before seeing the film. I could see you enjoying and being impressed by the novel. Plus, there are some cool things that would be spoiled if you see the film–and it’s likely that the film won’t be nearly as good as the novel. (The novel doesn’t seem like an easy film to adapt.)
I’m fewer than 100 pages from the end of the novel.
Oh. Cool. I’d be interested in talking to you about it when you’re finished. (I believe I have a review up somewhere, so we could start a separate thread on it.)
I can’t remember the last time when there were so many film adaptations based on books coming soon or in the theater. I attempted to read Life of Pi a few years ago but never got past a fourth of the way in. It was a bit of a struggle but I finished it in time for the movie next month.
Les Miserables (but I don’t really count this one)
The Great Gatsby
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (already out)
The Life of Pi
It’s going to be a great fall!
And also Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights from 1939 will be playing next month on the Turner Classic Movie channel. Check your local listings.
Definitely a great fall!
Here Comes the Boom (2012)
Kevin James, Henry Winkler, Salma Hayek
There are some big reasons not to see Here Comes the Boom: A ridiculous premise, a trailer filled with stuff that would never happen in real life, projectile vomiting, and what must be a record for predictability in a sports movie. But I saw it anyway because I like Kevin James as a comedic actor. James has an earnest, hard-working likability I have difficulty resisting, and since he plays a teacher in this movie, I had a feeling I might see a little bit of myself somehow in a movie bereft of real-world credibility. Add Salma Hayek as a love interest and I only needed a slight nudge toward the box office even though I hate, hate, hate mixed martial arts, the film’s central sport.
James is Scott Voss, a once-adored biology teacher who, after more than ten years on the job, has lost some of the excitement and creativity that long ago won him a Teacher of the Year award. When his principal announces that there is a huge budget shortfall and that all extracurricular activities will be cut the following school year, Scott comes to life and insists that something must be done. When he learns that losers in big-time, televised MMA fights make ten thousand dollars, he decides to raise the needed $48,000 by putting himself in the octagon.
Hayek plays the school nurse who has resisted Scott’s advances for years but admires his determination to do something meaningful in a seemingly unwinnable situation. She plays pretty much the same role she plays in most of her recent films, a smart, sensible, unbelievably hot love interest with a soft spot for guys who stand up and do the right thing. Henry Winkler as the school’s orchestra director is the film’s big surprise (perhaps the film’s only surprise). His goofy, somewhat effeminate persona works better here than anywhere I’ve ever seen it, especially in scenes where he’s teaching his class. When student performers love their instructor, you can see it in the performances, and the love he pours into them as he’s conducting them is dead-on. You can see how Scott would be as visibly moved by watching them rehearse as he is, and James does some of his best acting in these scenes, too.
Everything in this movie is eye-rolling in its obviousness, and I mean that in the worst way because the stuff that happens is only predictable because it ALWAYS happens in movies like this even though it NEVER happens like this in real life. How many more times must we be subjected to the student who has difficulty learning until someone writes the material as a song lyric? How many times will we see a dead-inside middle-aged character suddenly brought to life when given the chance to try a new career at something that has always been just a hobby? How many times will the strict Asian parent pull his child out of silly extracurricular activities and then change his mind when he sees how talented she really is? Believe me when I say I’m only scratching the cliched surface of an enormous crystal ball of predictability.
And yet. There’s enough here to make me like it despite its massive suckage. When I think about what James, Hayek, and Winkler could have done with these same characters in a much smarter script, it makes me sad. It’s an awful movie with three strong performances and a couple (literally a couple!) of really good scenes.
Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Chris Tucker, Julia Stiles. Directed by David O. Russell.
When someone does something outrageous and funny, is it still funny if the reason he’s doing it is a mental illness? How about if everyone in the room is aware of his illness, and knows that at any moment funny can turn to violent? Based on the reactions of my fellow audience members, the answer is yes. In an early scene, Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) reads Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and, frustrated by the way it ends, flings it through a closed bedroom window to the lawn outside. Needing someone to discuss his frustration with, he barges in on his sleeping parents and rails against the writer and novel.
It’s funny when it’s just a book and a glass window. But what if it’s a person who sets him off? I found myself squirmy with discomfort and sympathy for the character, who is sure he’s almost-almost-almost got his condition under control, and if the wife who has left him can only see how far he’s come, he knows he will finally have it all together. If only it weren’t for that restraining order. And if only people didn’t keep provoking him. If only, if only, if only.
Invited to dine with friends one Sunday night, Pat is introduced to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany’s husband has recently died, and dinner conversation is awkward until Tiffany and Pat find some common ground: they’ve each taken several of the same medications with similar side effects. It’s the beginning of a weird relationship with an uncomfortable dynamic. Tiffany isn’t so much recovering from her husband’s death as from the recovery process following her husband’s death, her life a huge vacuum devoid of intimacy she craves. Pat agrees to be Tiffany’s partner in a dance contest, possibly to help Tiffany with this vacuum. Tiffany agrees to pass along a letter from Pat to his estranged wife. They’re using each other, and someone in the agreement is getting the short end of the stick, ‘though at times it’s difficult to tell which.
The acting in this film is really good. Cooper reminds me of a caged panther, restless and volatile when confined in small spaces (a doctor’s office, his parents’ living room, his friends’ dining room) but somewhat more at ease when given bigger spaces with fewer people (a dance studio, the streets of his neighborhood). It’s a very physical performance he gives, but it might be easy to miss the physicality because so much of his character’s torment is coming from within. Lawrence, too, seems like two different characters: impatient and acidic in groups but vulnerable and sincere when alone with Pat. Sometimes when actors are forced to turn their characters’ moods on a dime, they leave the audience behind with a kind of “Where did THAT come from?” effect. That doesn’t happen in Silver Linings Playbook. The film does a good job of establishing these characters and the actors are great at making it work.
And both actors just look fantastic.
The one thing that doesn’t quite work for me is the family dynamic, and I can’t figure out why. Robert De Niro as Pat’s father and Jacki Weaver as his mother give it a good shot. De Niro is better than I’ve seen him in a long time, but something just fits poorly in the whole family subplot.
What this film really needs is more Cooper and Lawrence, and just a little bit less of everyone else. The too-large cast of characters comes together for a fun but too-quick, too-tidy resolution that makes your heart feel good but leaves your brain slightly unsatisfied. Strong performances from the lead actors mostly forgive that, and their story is interesting enough that I’d kind of like to see another movie with the same characters, with the ending of this film as its beginning.
PS: I’d like to deduct points for an awful title, but I don’t think that’s really fair.
End of Watch (2012)
Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick. Directed by David Ayer.
David Ayer wrote Training Day, a movie I mostly enjoyed but ultimately hated. There are movies that can do that to me. As time has passed, my dislike for the film has grown as the memory of my enjoyment has faded. I can therefore be forgiven if my first reaction to the trailer for End of Watch was, “I’ll pass.” Then the reviews and word-of-mouth were quite positive, and then I survived (and kind of liked) Pitch Perfect, a film I saw only because I love Anna Kendrick. So yeah: bring it on.
Kendrick, alas, plays a rather minor part, but she is of course lovely in it, particularly in one scene where she speaks directly into a video camera for the sleeping Jake Gyllenhaal to discover later. The camera is a plot device to explain the shooting and editing style, which is very point-of-view for the greater part of the film. Gyllenhaal plays Taylor, a South Central Los Angeles police officer documenting some of his work for a project in a college course he’s taking. The camera captures exciting, first-person looks at heated confrontations with LA’s citizens, as when Taylor’s partner Zavala (Michael Pena) takes off his badge and belt and accepts a challenge to a fair fight, or when the officers search a house for children whose parents have reported them missing. The effect is like the kind of thrilling, kind of disorienting first-person shooter video games that are so popular now.
The action sequences are quite good, but Taylor’s camera also captures the everyday banter between the cops as they drive their beat, conversations about dating, marriage, childhood memories, and the differences between their ethnic traditions. A lot of it is mundane, but it’s mundane in a great way, because it’s in these scenes that the characters are developed so that what happens in the action scenes is a reasonable extension of the characters we’re getting to know. The rhythm and flow of the dialogue is the best thing about this film.
Although some of it requires a strong will to suspend belief, and some of it (including the opening voice-over) is a bit strong-armed, the relationship between Taylor and Zavala and the performances of the actors who play them make this a pretty exciting, never dull experience. The editing is kind of mind-blowing at times, something some viewers may find annoying (since I think most people don’t want to notice a movie’s editing) but I found kind of cool. It’s a tough, engaging, well-made film.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Bae Doona, Ben Wishaw, James D’Arcy, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant. Directed by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer.
If you have read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, you are probably going to need to see this twice in order to judge it fairly. There are so many differences—big, big differences—between the source material and its film interpretation that it’s almost impossible not to be distracted by them. I was not planning to see the film twice, but a tsunami warning prompted an evacuation of the theater when I was about two-thirds of the way through my first viewing, so I returned the following night and was pleased to find it much easier on second viewing to accept the film on its own terms.
This is critical, because it’s a preposterous movie with all kinds of things to drive one mad: New Age sentimentality presented in Tuesdays-with-Morrie-like poster-ready freeverse voice-overs, gratuitous nudity, IQ-lowering shoot-em-up sequences, distracting makeup, and the stupidest-sounding pidgin dialects since Jar-Jar Binks. These should be enough to make anyone hate the film, but if somehow (somehow!) you can accept it on its own terms, there are some fun, interesting, rewarding narratives here that work together to unite six different stories under one theme. I couldn’t help myself, even in that first screening before the tsunami. I found myself liking it.
This can largely be attributed to some very good acting by Jim Broadbent and Ben Wishaw (the two strongest performances across the six different stories) and two especially engaging plots. In one, Broadbent plays an English publisher surprised to find that he has checked himself into a retirement home before his time, from which he cannot arrange his own release. In the other, a couple of hundred years in the future, Wishaw works to liberate a fast-food-serving clone and elevate her as the face of a revolution against a totalitarian government.
The film is cut in such a way that the six stories are not merely interlaced, but they actually overlap, with dialogue in one story sometimes describing action in the next (or the next few). If you can imagine a movie beginning with a “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” voice-over, and imagine at the same time the scenery leaping from Cinderella’s scullery, Luke Skywalker’s moisture farm on Tatooine, and Mad Max’s Australia, you can get a sense of what I mean, except it happens multiple times throughout the movie, and sometimes it’s actually dialogue that drives the scene-shifting, and not just a voice-over. It’s a neat effect, if slightly heavy-handed.
Neat (if slightly heavy-handed) describes most of the film quite well. Some of the gimmickry works well; some of it just seems gimmicky. There are moments where Tom Hanks is great; there are moments when you just feel bad for him. There are scenes of breathtaking, stunning beauty, and there are scenes you swear you’ve seen after having too many Bagel Bites in some late-night drive-in movie unheard of by anyone except Quentin Tarantino, featuring Rutger Hauer and Roddy Piper. Which is all to say that it’s both likable and hateable, and whether you will come down on one side or the other is tough to call. Over all, I like it and will probably see it again, if not in this life than surely in some future (or past) life.
Well this is kind of interesting. Someone I know who manages another website saw my reviews and asked if I want to write reviews for her site. Hers is of high-enough visibility that she gets mailed screeners for films that haven’t been released yet, mostly indies, mostly right before festival season, almost all with some kind of Asian connection. It doesn’t pay, but I get to see movies before they’re released, which is kind of cool.
I’ll tell you guys more about it once we get it rolling. I told my friend that I wanted to be able to cross-post to my own websites and that I’d only do it if either of us could cancel the arrangement at any time with no hard feelings either way. We’re going to give it a shot. More later.
Oh, that’s pretty cool, man. Hope it works out.
This is great! Curious if it’s a film site you’ll be writing for.
End of Watch I’d recommend this just for the scenes between Gyllenhaal and Peña. They’re great together. As for Kendrick, I was expecting her to have more of a bigger role. Good cast. I remember liking Training Day better for its credibility of a cop story. That felt more real than this one. But End of Watch is entertaining. 72/100
The Perks of Being a Wallflower As Mitchell mentioned it’s not predictable. Great cast and plot. I didn’t read the book but would like to. 83/100
If I can find the time, I’ll try to see both End of Watch and Perks–although both seem to be decent video movies (that is, I don’t have to watch them on the big screen).
Mitchell, would you recommend the book version of Perks?
Yes. Check out my review in the What are You Reading section. Although I have to warn you: once you read the book, the film will be predictable.
Penny has my copy of the book and can pass it along to you if you want.
Looking forward to Flight. That trailer is something else. And why has it taken this long to get Don Cheadle and Denzel Washington in the same movie? Seems like an obvious pairing to me. As much as I love Denzel (and I do), I’ve often thought he could take a few notes from Cheadle.
I wish I didn’t see the trailer for Flight, as it reveals things I would have preferred not knowing about. The film seems to reveal the key features of the film except for the ending. As for Denzel and Cheadle, I like both (although I’ve seen Denzel phone in performances), but I think they’re different types of actors. Denzel has good acting chops that are appropriate for Hollywood leads; Cheadle has more acting chops, period (although he doesn’t have the same star power as Denzel).
Dir. Ben Affleck
I’m a little surprised that Mitchell liked this as much as he did. I guess Penny would like this at least a little. I’m really not sure about everyone else. I suspect everyone else (except for Larri) would think this was OK at the least. Some might like this a lot more, and I guess Chris, Kevin and Don have the best chance of this, but that’s basically a wild guess.
This is based on the true story of the way a CIA operative got six American diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis. If you haven’t seen the trailer and you’re interested in seeing this, I would recommend not seeing the trailer or learning too much more. Personally, I think the trailer contains everything of interest; the details the film fills out doesn’t really add much to the film. I feel that partly because these details seemed predictable to me. I also didn’t think the characters or performances were very interesting.
One more thing. To me, this is the type of movie that would have been better as a documentary or even a segment of a documentary. I’d guess many of you would disagree with this, but there you go.
One reviewer talked about the way there were two movies–one, an espionage film and the other, a satire about Hollywood. That may be true, but, as an espionage film, it’s not so interesting largely because it’s predictable in my opinion. That might have been OK if the film didn’t take liberties to add excitement for viewers. I learned after seeing the film that the climatic ending didn’t happen, but I guessed that this was probably the case.
As for the satire, the target is too easy, and there are a lot of films that have satirized Hollywood. I must say that I really like Alan Arkin, and I was really wanting to like him. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I found him a little disappointing.
The direction was OK, nothing exceptional. I did think the film should have ended when Arkin’s character says, “Argo, f**k it,” or something to that effect. I thought the scenes after that were unnecessary.
Man, that’s kind of surprising. I thought the film looked great, and I was literally on the edge of my seat in parts of the film, barely able to sit still. I like Alan Arkin too, but lately he’s been suuuuuuuper irritating (I couldn’t stand him in Little Miss Sunshine or in Sunshine Cleaning). However, I thought he was pretty dang good in this, especially the way he and John Goodman played off each other.
I also didn’t expect the flood of memories that came over me as I watched the first third of the film, the part that showed the embassy takeover, Ted Koppel’s late-night updates, the yellow ribbons, and President Carter. Even seeing that date in print (January 20, 1981) was a trigger for me, because I remember that date exactly: it was President Reagan’s inauguration. I even know the date they touched back down on American soil (January 24) because the Raiders beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl that day. For 444 days, it was the singlemost important story on the news, a blanket that seemed to cover every conversation about current events.
I think the film is a big deal.
I’ll write my review later.
Hmmmm. The Cannery (and other Fathom Events theaters nationwide) is showing Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction on the big screen, December 4 and 6 respectively. That’s Tuesday and Thursday. I’m mostly putting this here to remind me.
Dir. Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig
I would say that Penny might like this, and I would be uncertain. But since Joel and Larri didn’t like this, my guess is that the chances will be a lot less. Grace might like this for reasons not really having to do with the quality of the entertainment, but I have no idea. Mitchell could like this, as there are one or two qualities I could see him liking, but I have no idea. I’d say no to Don and Marc. I’m not sure about Kevin, Chris and Jill.
This is a new 007 film. In this edition, someone is attacking MI6–possibly targeting M (Judi Dench). Bond has to find out who it is and stop him/her. A friend mentioned that the film tries to combine character-based drama with a conventional Bond action film–but fails at both. I would agree with that. The film is half-baked in both areas, in my opinion, but I could see many of you disagreeing with me. However, both Larri and Joel agreed with me that the film seemed bloated and sluggish. It took a while to get going. I’ll go into more details in the next section, but let me say one thing I liked, that may appeal to some of you: the film looked liked a million bucks, in terms of the cinematography. The title sequence looked really good (although the song was pretty lame). In terms of framing, editing and composition, I wouldn’t say the film stood out, but the lighting and vibrancy of the film were top-notch. It wasn’t enough to make the film worth seeing in my opinion, but I did appreciate this.
My sense is that the dual task of making a drama and an action film split the filmmakers’ attention and energy, leading to a failure of both. Let’s take the action aspect first. The film actually has an OK action plot: a former MI6 agent feels betrayed by M and wants revenge. The action set-pieces–especially in terms of the nature of the predicaments and the way the characters get out of them–lacked imagination (e.g., Bond’s escape from Silva and Silva’s escape from his imprisonment). I’ve said before that action films depend on keeping the viewer’s attention riveted in the moment so that his attention can’t anticipate what comes next as well as focus on more problematic aspects of the film. If a film allows viewers to wander away from the moment, the film can become predictable and the suspension of disbelief can be broken. That’s what happened in this film for me.
The film’s failure at developing the characters and the drama between them is also a big reason for this. Now, I am not saying the film had to be a great drama, but it had to be better. Casino Royale wasn’t a great drama, but the casting, acting and dialogue was excellent. (Like Skyfall the action storyline or set-pieces also weren’t very interesting, with the exception of the opening chase sequence.) The storyline was probably less complex than Skyfall. To be fair to the latter, I think the film’s drama may depend heavily on the star power of the actors and their chemistry between them. Then again, I love Daniel Craig as Bond (and he is one of the primary reasons I have some interest in the film) and I like both Dench and Bardem. I felt Mendes didn’t really do a good job of dealing with their backstories and weaving them into the drama. (Maybe I’m missing some of the potential symbolism in the film, but in terms of a conventional drama or action film, the film didn’t work for me.)
Did you leave out the last section, or just lose heart?
Yeah, I lost interest. But I went back and added it in.
Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman. Directed by Ben Affleck.
“Why don’t we just give them what they want so we can have what we want?” I asked my dad when I heard about the American hostages in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. It was the fall of 1979 and I was in the fifth grade.
“Because if we do, what does that tell other people who want something from this country?” my dad asked me right back. It was the first current-events thing I can remember us conversing about, beyond just clarifying facts. One year later, Ronald Reagan was elected President and I was in the sixth grade, and the hostages were still there. A lot happened in that intervening year, or perhaps it was exactly a year’s worth of stuff and I just hadn’t paid attention before. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States boycotted the summer Olympiad. And in the next few weeks, the hostages would come home, Reagan would be sworn in (on the same day, in fact), the Raiders would beat the Eagles in the Super Bowl, and I’d be interviewing to attend the high school I eventually graduated from.
It’s possible that Argo, starring and directed by Ben Affleck, isn’t as good a movie about this time period as I think it is, but if I overpraise this film it is because it is extremely effective in one very specific way: it takes me immediately back to the time in my life where the world beyond my house, my school, and my favorite football team was revealing itself to me. From the film’s opening sequences, images of yellow ribbons on American lawns, chanting Iranians on television sets, and Ted Koppel’s bad hair on Nightline trigger a flood of memories in a way few movies ever have.
And it does it very, very well.
Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA agent who concocts a ridiculous plan when the United States learns that in the takeover of the embassy in Tehran, six members of the American Foreign Service escaped to safety in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Posing as the director of a fake Hollywood movie, Mendez flies into Iran to scope locations, intending to leave the country with the six Americans posing as members of his film crew. Flying out with them means hoping the Iranians don’t notice that there’s no record of their ever flying in, and a lot of things have to go right in order for them all not to be discovered. John Goodman and Alan Arkin play Hollywood movie producers who help Mendez construct an elaborate story to serve as facade and foundation for the entire charade.
I was tense almost all the way through, literally perched on the edge of my seat during parts of the film. Affleck does a great job of capturing the energy, rage, and edginess of the chanting throngs in the streets outside the embassy. That TV news footage never got us close enough to those throngs to feel that energy, and as the Americans working in the embassy try to go about their jobs while the vibration of that youthful anger builds outside, you wonder how anyone there ever got any sleep or kept from going mad in those days leading up to the takeover.
The art direction in this thing is great. How challenging it is to make a movie look and feel like 1979 I have no idea, but this movie nails it. From the television news graphics to the hairstyles and automobiles, everything feels like 1979.
None of the actors turns in the performance of his career here; however, the acting is solid and difficult to find fault with. I have really grown to love John Goodman as an actor. I’ve heard people say he’s playing the same character in everything, but I don’t see it that way. I see a thinking actor who moves and speaks with a kind of effortless comfort that makes everything he does look like he’s not acting. The guy really knows his stuff. For the past few years, I have really not liked Alan Arkin (in Sunshine Cleaning and in Little Miss Sunshine, he seemed like little more than extra weight, tacked on to both films as surplus from the Hollywood Quirky Characters Store), but he’s really good in this, as if he’s taking notes from Goodman. The interactions between their characters are some of my favorite parts of the film.
Affleck can act. I don’t know why so many of my friends seem to think he can’t. I’m going to be surprised if doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Argo, and while I don’t think the performance is quite that good, I can understand the sentiment.
You could find fault, as one of my friends does, with the plot, which seems to contrive ridiculous obstacles in service to the edge-of-your-seat manipulation it strives for, and I suppose in retrospect a lot of it does seem difficult to believe. Yet the historical facts are difficult to believe too, and they happened. If a few things were changed in order to create drama, I’ll concede a few strikes in the pitch count. As a film-watching experience, however, it’s an excellent ride and worthy of its praise.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Voices of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, and Jane Lynch.
Ralph (John. C. Reilly) is the bad guy in a video game, and although he’s just playing the role given him, he’s tired of being the bad guy because the other denizens of his video game shun him, having condo parties without him while he sleeps in the dump outside of town. In the arcade’s off-hours, video game characters hang out with each other, even leaving their game cabinets to socialize with each other in each others’ games, including the bar in which the 1983 coin-op Tapper is set. Ralph attends a support group for video game bad guys, affirming with the group, “I am bad and that’s good. I will never be good and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be than me.” Only Ralph doesn’t really mean it. He wants to be a good guy.
Since his own game is set up not to allow him to win the medal his game’s protagonist always wins, Ralph is determined to be a hero in some other video game. He finds himself in a first-person shooter, and then in a cartoony go-kart racing game that looks like a Candyland board game threw up all over it, where he tries to help a girl (Sarah Silverman) gain some respect in her own game in exchange for the medal he’s lost possession of.
It’s actually a pretty clever plot and I’m avoiding giving away the surprises. Devotees of video games from the Eighties will recognize a cool kind of awareness of the gaming world. Silverman’s character, for example, displays characteristics of some of those secret characters some games were known to hide deep in their code, unlockable with elaborate combinations of joystick maneuvers and button-presses. There’s an existential, comic quality to this movie that takes it beyond the usual animated kids’ fare.
And while much of the action is too breakneck and frantic for my movie-going tastes, it’s just right for the video games the film’s action takes place in.
I’ve been down on 3D for years now, but here is a picture whose 3D was almost worth it. I enjoyed the effects despite the still-annoying dimming effect the glasses have on the quality of the image. For maybe the first time ever, I’m going to say you could probably go either way on this one if it’s still being offered in 3D where you are.
After reading your review of Argo, I think I’m going to cautiously recommend Skyfall. As you mentioned, some people consider this the best Bond of all time and an Atlantic writer actually suggested this film should get consideration for best picture, which leaves me mystified. But that’s how I feel about Argo. While the Skyfall may not be as suspenseful to you, it’s action, acting and drama are along similar lines as Argo in my opinion (which I would describe as middling–at best–at least in relation to awards). But I felt this way about The King’s Speech, too–hence, you might agree with critics about Skyfall.
Thanks. But if I’m going to see my first Bond film, I’d rather see one you heartily recommend.
Well, I don’t care for Bond films, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask. I definitely preferred Casino Royale to Skyfall, but I can’t say which one you would prefer.
The Yellow Sea (2010)
Dir. Na Hong-jin
I would guess that Marc, Penny, Joel, and Don have the best chance of liking this (in that order), but I’m not very confident about this. I’d say Chris, next, but I’m really guessing. I’d be surprised if the others really liked this (although I’m not sure about Arlene). Larri started watching this with me, but did something else about half-way through the film.
This is a Korean film by the same director of The Chaser. At the film’s beginning, we learn about a region between (or in) China and North Korea. The film mentions that 50% of the population are involved in organized crime. Many of the others go to South Korea to make money (the Koreans have a name for these people, but I can’t remember it now) and come back. In the film, a taxi-driver’s wife goes to South Korea, but he must make a considerable amount of money for a visa to come home. He meets a man who will give him the money–if he agrees to kill someone in South Korea. That’s the general idea.
The film is basically an action film.
The best thing I liked about the film was the way it relied on old fashioned stunts–chase scenes on foot and by car. As far as I can tell, there’s no cgi used at all. It definitely reminded me of old Hollywood action films from the 70s and 80s. While the stunts and action set-pieces weren’t extraordinary, they were visceral, real and effective as a result. You know you’re watching a movie, not a video game.
Unfortunately, that’s about the best thing I can say about the film. Let me go through the problems. First, there are several predicaments the protagonists finds himself in. Not only are the solutions unbelievable, but, worse, they’re completely unimaginative, almost as if the filmmakers don’t even try to put some thought into finding a satisfying solution. I tried to overlook the first and second time this happened, but after that I began to lose interest. To make matters worse, the plot turns out to be extremely convoluted–again, making me care even less about the characters and the film overall. (I don’t feel up to describing the serpentine plot, so I won’t.) There might be some other problems, but I don’t feel motivated to articulate them.
Dir. Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, etc.
I suspect Penny, Grace and Mitchell would like this. I’d guess Chris and Marc would like this, too, but I’m less certain. I’m not sure about Kevin or Don. Joel and Jill liked this.
The film is based on Doris Kearns-Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, but it didn’t really seem that way (from what I remember). Perhaps this is the case because the film focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment–the amendment that ended slavery. In addition, the film shows a bit family issues that Lincoln and Mary Todd-Lincoln dealt with.
Several thigns surprised me about this film. First, I dislike Daniel Day Lewis, but I liked him in this (or at least I didn’t dislike him), mainly because I didn’t detect any over-acting. Second, I don’t like Spielberg’s handling of family melodrama, but, for some reason, those moments didn’t rub me the wrong way–and I actually thought one of them worked well. Third, I actually enjoyed the film overall–although maybe that’s because I had really low expectations.
I do think there are some cheesy elements of the film–the use of the film’s score, the look of the film seemed more like a modern TV show, etc. But overall, the film carried me along, and I thought it was decent.
Dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Peter Weller, Nancy Allen, etc.
I’m not sure which idiots would like this. Maybe Chris would have the best chance, but I’m not sure about that. I think most idiots could take a pass on this.
In the future, Omni Consumer Products (OCP) starts taking over serices provided by governments–including law enforcement. They’re building a robotic police officer in the name of efficiency and lower costs, but really they want to control law-enforcement and take over the government as a way to win profits. One fully robotic police officer goes haywire, so OCP turns to a cyborg approach–reviving a recently slain police officer and turning him into RoboCop. The film follows RoboCop as he begins finding out dark secrets behind OCP.
Several comments. First, the make-up and effects for RoboCop stand up quite well. They still look really good and Peter Weller makes for an excellent cyborg. Second, the satire isn’t that great in the film. I re-watched the film primarily to examine the satire and themes underlying the action. I feel like the filmmakers aren’t very thoughtful or skilled in terms of the satire, so I found the film disappointing.
This review originally appeared here. Opens in Honolulu today at Pearlridge and Ward.
A Werewolf Boy (2012); Korean with subtitles
Park Bo-young, Song Joong-ki. Directed and written by Jo Sung-hee
I recently heard a prominent sports columnist admit that he never felt more guilt than when, after harshly scolding his old dog for disobedience, he realized the reason for the noncompliance was that his dog had gone deaf.
If the depth of this writer’s guilt is unfathomable to you, I’m willing to bet that you will find A Werewolf Boy to be a puzzling, if not comically absurd, experience. But if you have ever experienced the unique connection a human can have with his or her dog, you will discover here a stirring love story of a different kind, one that strives to express the specialness of such a bond.
It is a tough, uphill task that director-writer Jo Sung-hee sets for himself when he introduces Suni (Park Bo-young), an ailing teenaged girl with no friends, to Cheol-su (Song Joong-ki), a feral wolf-boy who doesn’t speak and has apparently never bathed. If he underhumanizes Cheol-su, he doesn’t have much more than a girl-meets-dog story, and the falling in love doesn’t work (or it gets really creepy); if he humanizes him too much, the love story is just another love story, something the director clearly wants his film to rise above. This is not merely the flawed love of all our favorite movies, but something realer and more profound than our fairy tales.
He mostly accomplishes this task, ‘though there are a few missteps. In presenting Cheol-su as a wild child, too many bizarre questions come to mind that are never even pondered by the film or its characters. For example, why does this teenaged wolf-boy with no human nurturing not have very long hair, and why is he clean-shaven? And what reasons would he have for developing the crazy, cartoon-like ferocious eating style he exhibits? Dogs and wolves just don’t eat the way he eats, and humans, even humans raised as animals, would have no reason to tear into a potato like Cookie Monster into a snickerdoodle.
These odd questions aren’t easy to push from one’s mind, even considering the mostly open willingness with which Suni and her family accept Cheol-su into their home. There is a convincing settling-in, thanks in large part to the neighborhood kids who welcome Cheol-su as a playmate and to Suni’s mother, whose no-nonsense approach to embracing this wolf-boy seems to come from seeing him first as a boy with no parents. But adoption is one thing. Falling in love is something else.
Park Bo-young is remarkably pretty, even for an actress in a Korean film, and the director enjoys framing her in visually appealing shots in front of a variety of scenes. Despite a few moments of overacting, she feels real, both as the mopey sick girl who writes poetry by moonlight and as an emerging friend for Cheol-su. In one dramatic scene near the end, Suni displays a deep anguish that can be tough for an actress to sell, but Park earns it with an earnest, thoughtful performance in the rest of the film.
I’m not as enamored of Song’s performance as Cheol-su, mostly because the absurdity of his character is just too much to overcome. Forced to do almost all of his acting through facial expressions and bodily movement, Song is helped, but just not enough, by Park’s believability. The blame is largely on bad decision-making by the film’s writer: I’m not sure the actor who can sell Cheol-su has yet been born.
Supporting actors, and the characters they play, are right out of Hollywood conventions: an overweight military officer, an intellectual but sympathetic professor, a jealous jerk who wants to be the main character’s boyfriend. A film that must convince you that a girl can fall in love with a wolf-boy has got to do better with secondary characters than this. Every character outside Suni’s home reminds you of two or three characters you’ve seen in other films, and it doesn’t have to be that way.
The visuals are impressive, almost self-consciously so. There are angles that make you think of Pulp Fiction; there are vistas that make you think of The Karate Kid. There is a long, slow cross-fade, and edits that make you think the director is auditioning for film school. It would be a bit too much if it didn’t somehow work, but most of it does.
I was on the fence with A Werewolf Boy until the very, very end of the movie. The last couple of scenes had me teetering in the film’s favor, and then the final scene, over which the closing credits scroll, pushed me over. It is a better film with that last scene, so do yourself a favor and stick around at least until the credits are scrolling over black.
Most thoughtful teens I know will find A Werewolf Boy, which has been a record-breaking success at Korean box offices, a very affective experience, ‘though they may need some help unpacking the movie’s end. Whether others will like it depends on how strong the impulse is within them to pet a friendly dog. It works for me.
But if you have ever experienced the unique connection a human can have with his or her dog, you will discover here a stirring love story of a different kind, one that strives to express the specialness of such a bond.
Sounds like a movie for Don.
Killing Them Softly (2012)
Dir. Andrew Dominik
Starring: Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, etc.
Penny might have the best chance of liking this, but I’m really uncertain. Maybe Chris and Kevin have a chance, but, again, I’m not sure. I’d guess that Joel, Don and Marc wouldn’t care for this. Ditto Jill. I sure Larri wouldn’t like this. I’m not sure about Arlene. There are some aspects that she might dislike, but others that she would find interesting. It’s a toss up.
Some small time hoods scheme and hold up a mob-sponsored card game. The mob brings in an enforcer to find out who did it and take care for them. If this sounds like a crime film I wouldn’t blame you, especially given the cast. But you would be wrong, based on my understanding of the film. In my opinion, I think this is essentially a social commentary, a rather preachy and overly long one. There isn’t much to the story and the film doesn’t present very interesting characters–and doesn’t really want to (although I did like McNairy’s performance in this; Liotta is largely miscast; Gandolfini’s character seems promising, but doesn’t serve the interests of the film). So if you’re looking for a Hollywood crime film, I’d stay away from this.
Dominik directed _The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford_, and this is his second film. There are some nice-looking moments (I liked the opening shot and the first scene with the three characters), but he doesn’t seem to know how to be subtle–specifically in his use of actual audio recordings of political speeches and newcasts–and most of all, the last speech in the film.
Some of the scenes also seem to go on too long (actually the film feels too long), and they often feel more like attempts at hip filmmaking (e.g., the heroin scene, Gandolifini in the hotel room, etc.) more than scenes that really serve the film.
One last thing. Mitchell might like the fact that there are many moments without the use of a score.
I would like that absence of score. But man, the critics haven’t had anything nice to say about this movie, and the masses seem to agree.
I think the film uses some music, but there are long stretches without it. Still, I’d be surprised if you enjoy this film, although I wouldn’t be too surprised if you thought it was a good film. There are some aspects that might make it a worthwhile risk, but, if I had to choose, I wouldn’t recommend it to you.
The Man With the Iron Fists (2012)
I’m pretty sure most of you wouldn’t like this. Maybe Joel, Penny or Mitchell has a chance, but I’d be surprised if they liked this or even if they thought it was OK.
This is a kung-fu film (with the characters speaking in English) about the members of the Lion Clan attempting to steal gold from the government. In the process, a few of the members kill of the leader, the father of Ex-Blade, a warrior who is adept at throwing knives and has a body armor with retractable metal “quills” and blades. The story also involves a mysterious Englishman (Russell Crowe, with a pretty bad English accent and potbelly) and a black blacksmith (RZA) who is adept at making weapons.
Here’s the bottom line: this looks and feels like a TV movie–one of those American ones set in Asia (think of Shogun), where everything is mediocre and cheap–the visuals, acting, writing, set design, etc. My sense is that the film was a fantasy daydream of the RZA when he was a teenager. I can imagine him watching a lot of kung-fu movies and wishing he could (or a black character) could appear in them. (There’s some softcore porn scenes and graphic violence that make me think it came from a male teenager.) This wouldn’t be so bad if the filmmaking didn’t seem to cheap and shoddy.
Iron Fist didn’t look too good. I would have took the chance on Dragon with Donnie Yen instead. Isn’t it playing in Kapolei?
A guy I knew said positive things about it. Larri wanted to see Dragon, but the times weren’t good.
Have you seen Argo or Lincoln? I think there’s a decent chance you’d like both (I’m more confident about the former–and you shouldn’t watch the trailers because they reveal some of the better moments.)
Denzel Washington, Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
The thing about Flight that made the biggest impression on me is impossible to describe without spoiling the film, so I’ll save that comment for the very end of this thing with a warning to mark it.
What I will say is that there was a point in this movie where I sat up straight and whispered to myself, “Whoa. This is going to be the most __________ movie I’ve ever seen.” When a film does that to you, as long as whatever’s in that blank is not something that you hate (“most violent,” “most cliche,” and “most manipulative” would make my list), it becomes more meaningful and perhaps more admirable than you’d otherwise give it credit for. Until that moment, I thought I knew exactly what I was seeing, so props to the film for giving me at least that pause.
Denzel Washington plays Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic airline pilot who pulls off a preposterous stunt to save his nose-diving jet from killing everyone on board, not to mention a bunch of people in houses on the ground. He’s like that real-life Sully guy who crash-landed his plane on the Hudson River five years ago: a hero no matter how you look at it.
Where the public is treated to its (and the media’s) portrayal of Whitaker as a hero, the film’s audience sees the rest of the story. The first person to speak to Whitaker when he awakens from unconsciousness is his union representative. Then he speaks with six agents of the NTSB. And then his drug-dealer, played by John Goodman, and then his union-appointed lawyer, played by Don Cheadle. There’s a lot going on that the public never sees, including toxicology reports and the testimony of the flight’s crew.
Washington and Cheadle together in one movie were reason enough for me to see it, and they don’t disappoint. Washington plays it pretty low-key (for him), and Cheadle is his usual steady self. I love watching Cheadle act, and could really have used more dialogue between his character and Washington’s. There is also an unexpected performance by Kelly Reilly as something of a love interest. Reilly does one of those jobs that gets nominated for supporting-actress Oscars, in the manner of Marisa Tomei and Mercedes Ruehl, if not quite as good. It’s not her fault. Tomei and Ruehl had better material.
If you think you’ve seen the whole movie because you’ve seen the trailer, you’re almost right. There’s a bit more to it than that, but I’ve got to say that while I found the film engaging and its actors comfortable (and enjoyable) to watch, taken as a whole, it’s about what you’d expect if all you’ve seen is the trailer. See it if you love Denzel (and/or Goodman and/or Cheadle), but try to go in with moderate expectations.
Don’t read past this sentence if you don’t want the film spoiled. There is a moment near the end where I thought the happy ending was going to come in a manner I don’t think you could predict. When I saw the film going down that path, I said, “Whoa. This is going to be the most cynical movie I’ve ever seen.” I’m not a big fan of cynicism, but I think a lot can be explored when a work of art is itself cynical. It was going to make some of the characters lose any admiration we might have had for them, as if to ask the viewer if we’re willing to accept our happy ending—and our hero—even at that cost. I don’t think I’d have liked the film more with that ending, but I think I would somehow have respected it more, because the ending we get is right out of the Lifetime Network, and it’s an ending we’ve seen fifty other times.
Life of Pi (2012)
Irfan Khan. Directed by Ang Lee.
Pi Patel is a sixteen-year-old boy on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea, all alone. Except for a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. His parents and brother have gone down with the cargo ship that carried them from their old life in India toward their new life in Canada, and he is confronted with all the usual concerns about survival and rescue. Plus that tiger.
The child of secular, progressive, educated parents, Pi has baffled his family by embracing religion at an early age: not only the Hindu religion of his community, but Islam and Christianity as well, finding access to God in all three expressions of faith. You’d expect a boy with such spiritual leanings to expound on them in light of his lifeboat-at-sea-with-a-tiger situation, but then when one’s every ounce of energy is spent on just surviving, perhaps Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of basic needs becomes the only religion one has time for. Not only does the voice-over narration of grown-up Pi many years later not discuss his spiritual survival while we observe his struggle, but neither does he do much to deliver on the promise someone else makes that this is “a story to make you believe in God.”
The film can be forgiven for attempting to be a spiritual movie without being direct about its spirituality. Some films I’ve found most spiritually uplifting and satisfying are films that don’t tell us what to think or do. But where films like Groundhog Day and Contact make an attempt to show us how deeply their main characters have been touched by their respective situations, Life of Pi seems content to let the viewer assume spirit-changing growth simply by telling us what the events are. It tells us what happened externally while Pi is at sea, but it doesn’t want to tell us what else happened, and then it doesn’t want to tell us what our takeaway is supposed to be. This is a ripoff because it is clear from the beginning that it wants to be a spiritual movie. It’s as much a spiritual tease as those PG films about crazy college students hanging out at the beach are physical teases.
This attempt at profundity that’s never really arrived at is the film’s great flaw, and if it weren’t such a huge part of the setup, that could also be overlooked, because Life of Pi is visually a breathtaking film. It’s not often you see scene after scene of something you’ve never seen before, but this film does it. I saw it in its 3D presentation, on a very large screen, and for the first time I can think of, the 3D actually enhances the film beyond a level of novelty (No, I have not seen Avatar). My biggest gripe with 3D is the dimming effect the glasses have on the picture, an effect that seems never to be compensated for, and that holds especially true for this film, which tries to dazzle us with bright, shiny, luminous scenery. Given the choice of losing the cool 3D in favor of a brilliant image or accepting the dimmer cinema in favor of the impressive 3D, I’d take the former. It would still be a bunch of stuff you’ve never seen on a screen, but at least it would look better.
I have read the novel upon which this film is based, and the best thing I can say about the comparison is that Ang Lee has made the film version of the novel. The novel’s strengths are a lyrical narrative voice and a main character we can like and believe in (for a time, anyway). The film lacks that voice which can only be delivered in prose storytelling, but it provides a similar effect with amazing visuals and a story that flows easily from one scene to the next. Unfortunately, the novel’s shortcomings are also the film’s, so whether you like the film or not depends mostly on how much in love you fall with those visuals or how readily you can accept the metaphors of Pi’s ordeal as something meaningful and affecting.
Although it is worth a look, it just doesn’t do it for me.
Anna Karenina (2012)
Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly MacDonald, Matthew Macfayden, Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander. Directed by Joe Wright. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard.
In a year that gave us Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi, Anna Karenina could be the best-looking movie of 2012. The colors, costumes, makeup, and staging are kind of mind-blowing, and the editing is kind of a mystery: there are single-take shots that seem to stretch much further than possible for the one soundstage on which they were filmed. In fact, it seems to make every attempt to go overboard with all the things that make us love or hate a costume drama. By setting the film on and around an actual stage, as if the film we’re seeing were being performed for us by players (and audience members) in a stage adaptation, the filmmakers give us bigger, brighter, more ostentatious dresses, makeup, facial hair, hats, jewelry, and dialogue.
Conversations that would be overwrought and self-aware in most films somehow work when presented this way, as if every ounce of the cast’s and crew’s energies is aimed at communicating with the people in the cheapest seats furthest back in the auditorium.
I have read the Leo Tolstoy novel on which this is based, a venerated classic that I’m just not extremely fond of. I like it but I don’t love it; I appreciate it but don’t exalt it. Which is pretty much how I feel about this movie. Yes, it looks terrific, but its beauty isn’t much more than skin-deep.
Keira Knightley, who is absolutely stunning here, plays Anna, a married noblewoman who falls in love with Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a young officer in the military. The torrid affair they fall into is known by others in Russian high society, but such intrigues are supposed to be gossiped about and carried on in pretend secret, and Anna’s feelings for Vronsky are too strong to be disguised or denied. If her husband (Jude Law) were to grant her a divorce, this could all work out tidily; however, she has a son she adores, and her husband will not give Anna the divorce and custody of his son.
“It would have been all right if she had only broken the law,” says one nameless lady who shuns Anna publicly, “but she broke the rules!”
Enriching the dramatic picture that Anna is painting are a brother and sister-in-law, Dolly and Oblonsky (Matthew Macfayden and Kelly Macdonald), who keep their marriage together, at Anna’s urging, despite her brother’s unrelenting affairs with ballet dancers and governesses. Dolly’s young sister Kitty and her suitor Levin (Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson) provide further contrast as lovers unencumbered by social restrictions but slowed by misplaced priorities.
In Tolstoy’s novel, much time is spent comparing these three privileged, beautiful women and these four privileged, handsome men. We fall in love first with Anna on the written page not because she is pretty, but because of the way everyone around her seems to like and respect her so quickly. She is elegant and graceful not only in her appearance, but also in the way she opens her heart for those around her. Anna unwillingly steals Vronsky’s attention from Kitty by virtue of her confidence and bearing, qualities Kitty has not yet developed. In the film version of this same scene, all we’re given to assume is that Vronsky and Anna just really like looking at each other.
Speaking of appearances, I just can’t buy Taylor-Johnson as Vronsky. I don’t know exactly what I pictured (okay, that’s not true; I pictured Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert in a movie I haven’t even seen yet), but this Vronsky is a thin, pale, fragile thing with a wispy handlebar mustache, and he just doesn’t work, at least on his own. We’re never given a chance to get to know Vronsky, for either his strengths or his flaws, so Anna’s devotion to him at enormous cost is just a puzzle.
“You can’t ask why about love,” says Vronsky to Anna in a moment of passion. This is actually not true, and the film’s willingness to sidestep the why of this relationship is its failing. There are three interesting women here, but we are given only the shallowest glimpses of any of them, and that’s a shame. A little more development of Anna’s relationships with Kitty and Dolly might have given this movie some heart and soul. As it is, it is only skin, and lovely though that skin might be, it’s not enough.
Reid, I would almost guarantee you won’t like Anna Karenina.
Thanks for the head’s up, Mitchell. I wasn’t very interested in this, but I considered seeing it. Not now.
I haven’t seen Life of Pi, but it looks like your type of movie, so I’m a little surprised you didn’t like it. (Of course, how would I know that without seeing the film?)
A Late Quartet (2012)
Dir. Yaron Zilberman
Starring: Christopher Walken (Peter Mitchell), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Robert Gelbert), Catherine Keener (Juliette “Jules” Gelbert), Mark Ivanir (Daniel Lerner) and Imogen Poots (Alexandra “Alex” Gelbert), etc.
I recommend this to Penny, Mitchell and Grace. I’m confident they will like this film–I can’t say how much they’ll like it, but if they don’t like it a little, I’ll be surprised. I would also recommend this to Chris (although I’m losing track of his preferences, but I’m fairly certain he would have really liked this twenty years ago). I suspect Kevin and Arlene would like this, too. I saw this will Jill, and she liked it. Marc might have a chance, but I’m not sure. I don’t know about Don, but my guess is that he would think this is OK. Ditto Joel, although I’d probably advise him not to see it. Larri probably wouldn’t like this.
When one of the members of the Fugue String Quartet considers leaving the group, this leads to a disruptive effect on each individual and the group as a whole. This is basically a “chamber drama” about a longstanding group of chamber musicians. The film is dialogue driven and it could almost be a play (although it doesn’t really feel like it was originally a play).
The film could really be about the costs it takes to make great art, particularly within a group of musicians. It could also be seen as a metaphor for the sacrifices individuals must make for the group (a team or maybe society) and the costs of professional excellence. The characters represent different types of people in these situations and the issues that arise illustrate the costs and challenges for excellence within a group context.
Dir. Peter Chan
Starring: Donnie Yen (Liu Jin-xi_, Takeshi Kaneshiro (Xu Bai-ju) etc.
I think there is a good chance that Grace, Kevin, Chris and Penny would like this, so I would recommend this to them. I’d be a little surprised if they loved the film, so take that for what you will. I could probably include Mitchell and Jill in that group, but I’m less certain. Joel, Marc and Don would probably like this, but I’m not sure. It might be a OK or a little better than OK. Larri liked this for the most part.
In a small Chinese village, some notorious criminals attempt to rob a store. One the villagers manages to stop the crime and he eventually kills the criminals. This brings a government official (Kaneshiro) who is skeptical that this villager could actually stop and kill these criminals. If this sounds a little like David Cronenberg’s History of Violence, you wouldn’t be so far off. Indeed, a part of me wants to describe this as a kung-fu remake of the film. Like that film, this one seems to want to explore some serious themes (about human nature and whether people can change and overcome their nature) more than simply making an entertaining kung-fu/mystery hybrid. I don’t know if the film is so successful at dealing with these themes (and I should add that it seems to use a mythic/legend feel to the story), and I really can’t say how you’ll react. My guess is that Penny, Grace and Mitchell would like this part more than I did. Now, I didn’t think the film failed in this regard, but I’m more ambivalent.
A couple more points. The visuals seemed interesting, as the film seemed to want to recreate the look of Chinese paintings (the type you would see of nature or rural scenes), and at some moments I thought of Rembrandt–particularly dark scenes. (The film uses a lot of natural light.) On the other hand, I don’t know how much of this was due to a bad print and bad projection. (The film looked a little dim and the film stock looked beat up.) Still, it was an interesting aspect, giving the film an artier feel.
Lastly, I must say I enjoyed the fight scenes, despite the use of more close-ups and less two-shots.
My Lincoln review is coming. I am surprised that Reid liked it as much as he did, which is to say at all. I’m actually surprised you went to see it, Reid. So you have not categorically shunned the Hollywood biopic as a genre?
Here’s what might surprise you: I actually kind of liked the use of the soundtrack in this picture, and I liked the way the film looked. I noticed, too, that the imagery was kind of modern-TV-looking, but I didn’t have a problem with that. I found very little to quibble with about this film, actually. And one scene really ripped me open. This is almost surely a top-five film for me (so far) this year.
Trust me. I’m surprised that I liked it as much as I did, too. The fact that I liked DDL and the fact that the melodramatic scenes with the family not only didn’t bother me, but I liked (the one between Lincoln and Mary arguing about their son going to war). Lots of surprises.
I saw the film because my father suggested we see this as a family, so I thought that was cool. I might have seen the film anyway because I admire Lincoln, and I liked the Kearns-Goodwin book.
I am surprised that you like the soundtrack. To me, it’s the exactly the kind of thing you hate.
Bunny Lake is Missing
Dir. Otto Preminger
I think Penny would like this the most. I’d say Jill would like this, too. Other people like Chris, Grace, Joel and Marc would also at least mildly like this, but I’m not sure I would strongly recommend this to them. Don would probably think this is at least OK. I think Mitchell would respect this, but I don’t think this is his type of film.
I made a request for “page-turning” movies and someone mentioned this film. I told Larri that we would give the film fifteen minutes and turn it off if it didn’t suck us in. It did. I’d say it was a good choice.
The film begins with a man walking in the yard of a mansion. He picks up a stuffed animal lying next to a swing set. We then see a woman at a school talking to a cook. The woman is trying to find the person in charge, as this if the first day of school for her daughter. The woman mentions she has to hurry and meet the movers coming to her new house, and the cook offers to watch the child, who is waiting in a designated waiting room. In the afternoon, the woman goes to pick up her child, but can’t find her. No one at the school–the other teachers or students–have even seen the child. The cook is not around because she left work early. Thus, the search begins.
The filmmaking is good, there isn’t much wasted film and it moves a long quite well. There are some dated elements, in my opinion, but nothing major. If you like mystery/thrillers, I’d recommend this.
Legend (Director’s Cut) (1985)
Dir. Ridley Scott
Starring: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry, etc.
For some reason, I think Arlene would like this, but I’m not sure. I’m really not sure who else would like this–Grace and Kevin, possibly, and maybe Penny. Given one film this reminds me of, Grace and Penny might like it a lot more. Mitchell would probably think this is OK. I don’t think Joel would like this; ditto Marc. Don has a chance of thinking this is OK, but I’d be surprised if he liked it more than that.
Princess Lily (Sara) meets Jack (Cruise) every day in the forest. One day, Jack takes Lily to see the unicorns. Little do they know that Darkness (Curry), a demon-like creature, has sent a minion out to kill the unicorns–for doing so will bring on an eternal night, which will give Darkness total dominion over the world. I think you can surmise some of what happens next, so I’ll stop there.
Now, I think one’s approach to this film is really important. If you go in expecting an fantasy-action-adventure movie–like LOTR–you’ll be sorely disappointed. This film, in my opinion, is really a children’s art movie. If you’re familiar with something like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast or even parts of The Black Stallion (the island scenes), then you have an idea of what this film is going for. The film isn’t so much about a specific fairy tale as much as fairy tales themselves. With terrific set-pieces, costumes and visuals, the film seems to capture of the feeling of reading a fairy tale story or watching theatrical production of a fairy tale–one directed at elementary-aged children. In this way, I think the film is good, if not very good. In a way the film has a meta/post-modern feel.
If you like good costumes, make-up, art direction–all of which hold up fairly well–especially Tim Curry’s creature–then I’d recommend this to you. I’d especially recommend this is you like the Guillermo del Toro’s set pieces, creatures and overall look, (I wouldn’t be surprised if he was influenced by this film.) and if you’re tired of cgi. (I found the lack of cgi very refreshing.)
Shoot. How come nobody ever told me Mia Sara is in that? Adding to queue.
So what was the Lincoln pre-movie discussion like? Was it more like:
Dad: Let’s go see Lincoln as a family.
Mom: Ooh, that movie looks good!
Kids (in unison): Yay!
Dad: Let’s go see Lincoln as a family.
Mom: Ooh, that movie looks good!
Joel: Okay. I’ll meet you guys there.
Jill: I’ll go if I don’t have to sit by Reid.
Reid: You guys SURE you want to see that? How about Shoah instead?
More like the second, except I wouldn’t recommend Shoah. I think the biggest concern from the children was my dad adding historical commentary and corrections during the film. (Actually, we were kind of teasing my dad about that.)
I saw sixty movies in theaters this year and didn’t love any of them until I saw The Hobbit on Christmas Eve. Then I saw Les Miserables the next day and loved that too.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
There are two things going on in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. There is first the portrayal of a beloved and legendary President, humorous and compassionate and accessible. And there is the unfolding of an enormous compromise of great import as brokered by the only man capable, it seems, of pulling it off. More weight is given to this second aspect of the film, presenting family life and personal issues as backdrop to the strain on a man trying to make lasting change as a nation’s leader, rather than presenting political life as the backdrop for stressful family issues, of which there are more than a few.
There is not a weak performance among the film’s many notable actors. Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor I’m not especially fond of, does an excellent job as the larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln, offering the President as a man unafraid to share passions and vulnerabilities in matters personal and political. His upper-register vocal interpretation of Lincoln’s voice is a thing of tense, tenuous beauty, and there is an amazing cadence in his delivery of Lincoln’s conversations with advisers behind closed doors and with the everyday people he encounters. In one quiet scene, the President converses with two peon-level telegraph operators in the White House, late at night. There is something big and important to be communicated to Ulysses Grant, and in the middle of figuring out what he wants the message to be, he connects with these telegraphers in a way that clearly makes them feel valued and privileged at the same time. The kind of magical grace that Lincoln touches others with could be comically Jesus-like even in the deftest hands, but moments like this are handled with such humanity and sympathy that you can feel it yourself, this weird sense that you in the theater seat are lucky just to be in the company of this man.
Tommy Lee Jones as representative Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward are the other standout performances. Jones presents Stevens as old and tottery, an object of ridicule by opponents in the House, while Strathairn offers Seward as smart and loyal, to his job if not exactly to his boss. A hardcore abolitionist, Stevens is as much an obstacle to the Thirteenth Amendment’s passing as those Congressmen who vocally oppose the change to the Constitution. In one of my favorite movie scenes this year, Stevens seems physically to wrestle with his own sense of right and wrong as his opponents try to take advantage of his idealism.
The look and feel of this film are the sort that I often dislike. It has a very television-like sense of framing, and the score is grand, sweeping, and dramatic. Somehow it works for me, perhaps because I like the juxtaposition of the big music and visuals over what are dramatically small moments. It is a very talky movie, and the overly cinematic look combines with the heavy orchestration to remind us that these moments of whispered conversations are the levers that moved our nation. I have seen small memorials, and they can be profoundly inspiring. But there is a time for a plaque on a wall and there is a time for a 555-foot-tall obelisk, and my sense is that Spielberg is trying to make the film version of the latter.
If I have one complaint about Lincoln, it is that there is so much contained in each line of dialogue that at times the best one can do is ride along with its meter and melody just to get a sense of what its feeling is. Of course, one wants also to hear the meanings of these conversations and to follow the logical paths they take, but to do that for the whole film requires multiple viewings. I agree with two friends who independently told me that when the film was over, they immediately knew they needed to see it again.
I look forward to seeing it again, because it is an outstanding movie.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett. Directed by Peter Jackson.
I like small movies. Little movies about people in small spaces of time, people maneuvering through the small (but often cavernous) spaces in their hearts and psyches. Most of my favorite films of 2012 are that sort: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Ruby Sparks, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for example. The stuff that interests me about someone else’s life is the small stuff: what’s on your night-table? What are you carrying in your backpack? When did you last experience buyer’s remorse? Little questions and little moments give me a more meaningful picture of you than big things. I do want to know what it says on your diploma; but I want more to know what’s printed on your coffee mug.
The trouble with small movies, though, is that they’re so specific they seldom achieve real universality, which means the likelihood that they will achieve serious greatness is smaller than if they swing for the universal fences that surround us all. It’s so, so easy to mess up a big movie, but when a big movie works, it can change everything for you because that’s what it’s trying to do.
This is probably why it took until the 359th day of 2012 for me to see a movie I loved. Until Christmas Eve, the big movies I saw were big but they didn’t swing for the fences, except for The Hunger Games, which I did like very much. When the credits rolled on The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, I’d somehow forgotten that a movie could make me feel as if something in me and in my world had been changed. I am not saying this is a world-changing film; somehow, though, something feels different.
Martin Freeman is the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, and he leaves the smallness of his home for the bigness of an adventure, surrounded by dwarfs and looked-after by the old wizard, Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). Freeman is perfect as the simple, wide-eyed, good-hearted Bilbo, so much a better hero than Iron Man or Thor could ever be. And Ian McKellan, reprising his Lord of the Rings role, is equally perfect. It would be so easy for McKellen to phone in his performance, or to play it with just a tiny amount of distancing or condescension, but he totally commits to his role, admirably not too cool to be a bearded, dragon-fighting, spell-casting wizard leading twelve dwarfs through a goblins’ cave.
Bilbo’s adventure is big, and his movie is long. But there are big effects, big vistas, and big music to fill in the space around his small being, and as long as you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere, it’s not an unpleasantly long film. I appreciate the way it takes its time, especially in the first act, and if the final act is something of a blur of actions scenes, one after the next, the film never forgets that it’s about a world that can be changed by the small, moment-by-moment convictions of one simple-hearted hobbit.
Les Misérables (2012)
Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen. Directed by Tom Hooper.
I honestly don’t know how a film like Les Misérables will be received by people who aren’t already fans of the stage musical on which it is based. Every criticism or praise I’ve heard has been from someone who knows and loves the stage production, and it is that filter through which I viewed it myself. I suspect that director Tom Hooper had that in mind, in fact. If the only people he pleases with this film are the fans, that’s already a huge audience, and one that can appreciate his interpretation as he adapts it for this medium.
For the uninitiated, the story is set in the heart of the French Revolution. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), formerly a prisoner for stealing bread to give to a hungry child, has fled his parole, changed his identity, and dedicated his life to serving his fellow humans. He owns a factory and is the mayor of a town. He has done many things to atone for his first offenses, but the law says he is still a criminal, and an officer of the law, Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), has sworn to find him and bring him to justice.
There are other plot elements involving Valjean and an adopted child, and that child’s eventual love interest, and it is all set against the personal tragedy of Valjean’s haunting past and his countrymen’s struggle to liberate themselves. The story is almost completely told in song, and this is where its strengths lie. The music is outstanding, and the songs’ performances in this adaptation are heartbreaking and beautiful. Anne Hathaway’s presentation of “I Dreamed a Dream” is almost guaranteed to slash through your heartstrings like a hatchet through a harp in one of the best musical performances I’ve ever seen in a film. Hathaway’s screen time is very small in this film, but I will be appalled if she is not nominated for a supporting actress Oscar.
Jackman’s singing is quite good, and Crowe’s is passable. He has the physical acting talent to portray an excellent Javert, but his voice is thin and it lacks punch. Still, he hits the notes and I was stirred by his rendition of “Stars.” There have been stories about how Amanda Seyfried as Cosette had great difficulty with her songs during filming (the songs were recorded live as the actors performed, rather than in a soundbooth for later syncing), but she must eventually have found her groove because her songs are wonderfully clear, high, and sweet. The big knock-me-out-of-my-chair surprise is Samantha Barks, whom I had never heard of, as Eponine. She quite nearly steals scenes from Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, who plays Marius.
If there is a disappointment, I guess it’s with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thernadiers. On stage, these characters are the center of a show-stopping number called “Master of the House,” an elaborately staged, heart-racing number that serves as a pivot-point for the story. Seen all at once, it’s an impressive display of what can be done in live theater. In its film version, it’s not given wide-enough an angle, and it feels cramped and far less impressive. At worst, the actors are just okay in their scenes, but just okay seems lacking when compared to the other performances.
There is one new song, “Suddenly,” sung by Valjean, and some of the other songs are snipped, much to my appreciation because I never cared much for “Little People” anyway.
I’ve been blessed to have worked in high-school theater, so I have seen the way every performance of a play is different from every other performance of the same play. This variation and unpredictability work in the film’s favor for fans of Les Misérables, because it can easily take its place alongside other interpretations without attempting to replace any of them, appreciated for its many strengths and forgiven its occasional lapses.
I was a sobbing, tearing mess at the conclusion of this beautiful film, and I’ve heard the songs a hundred times, at least, and I just realized that this sentence could be the entire review. I can’t wait to see it again and again.
I have two more films to write about for 2012: Django Unchained and Think Like a Man, which I saw last summer but which somehow I forgot to put on my list. Then I have to decide which of the other things I saw (on DVD or TMC or whatever) last year I want to write about.
Here’s the complete list of what I saw in 2012:
2012 Films Seen in Theaters
One for the Money (twice)
Man on a Ledge
The Secret World of Arrietty
This Means War
Friends with Kids
21 Jump Street
The Hunger Games (four times)
Mirror, Mirror (twice)
Think Like a Man
Jeff, Who Lives at Home
The Three Stooges
The Five-Year Engagement
What to Expect When You’re Expecting
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (twice)
Rock of Ages (twice)
Snow White and the Huntsman
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter
People Like Us
Moonrise Kingdom (twice)
That’s My Boy
To Rome with Love
The Dark Knight Rises
Ice Age: Continental Drift
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
The Amazing Spiderman
The Bourne Legacy
Celeste and Jesse Forever
Trouble with the Curve
Pitch Perfect (three times)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (twice)
Here Comes the Boom
End of Watch (twice)
Cloud Atlas (two and two-thirds times)
Life of Pi
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2011 Films Seen in Theaters in 2012
We Bought a Zoo
My Week with Marilyn
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
The Iron Lady
2012 Films Seen on DVD (or by some other home-viewing means)
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
A Werewolf Boy
Other Films, mostly on TMC or DVD
In the Mood for Love (2001)
Horrible Bosses (2011)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006)
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The Station Agent (2003, second viewing)
Cedar Rapids (2011)
Big Fan (2009)
American Wedding (2003)
Casablanca (1942) on the big screen at the Cannery
Charulata (The Lonely Wife) (1964)
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Cactus Flower (1969)
The Sting (1973)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Ride the Wild Surf (1964)
Modern Girls (1986)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) on the big screen at the Cannery
Green Lantern (2011)
Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011)
Daytime Drinking (2008)
Before Sunrise (1995)
Green Lantern (2011)
Oslo, Hawaii (2004)
Kamome Shokudo (2006)
Before Sunset (2004)
Beats, Rhymes & Life: Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011)
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008)
The Recipe (2010) at the Movie Museum
Ella Enchanted (a second and third viewing; 1999)
Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Don Johnson. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
When Quentin Tarantino is at his best, he has enormous fun making movies. Every plot element, line of dialogue, visual effect, splatter of blood, soundtrack tune, camera angle, jump cut, and title screen primarily serves the purpose of being fun, and when a mind as creative and untethered as Tarantino’s is set first on having fun, how does a lover of film also not have fun watching him do his thing?
I was worried that Tarantino was going to continue down a path he started with Inglourious Basterds, a decorated film that, for all its final-act silliness, manages still to take itself too seriously and forget how to have fun. There are a few moments in Django Unchained that teeter in that direction, when Tarantino seems to be trying to remind us, unnecessarily, of the evils of slavery, but he quickly jerks us back with an unexpected modern pop song in the soundtrack, or an enormous, side-scrolling title that stretches the entire height of the screen. Such hyper-stylistic decisions can be a distraction if one is intent on staying within the film, but this is the wrong approach: to enjoy a Tarantino movie, one must stay within the film-making, not the film itself. Self-awareness is the rule, not the violation.
In his best movie since Jackie Brown, Tarantino gives us Jamie Foxx as Django, a slave set free by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a bounty hunter who requires Django’s assistance. The duo brings in several bounties on its way to freeing Django’s wife, a slave owned by Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin J. Candie. Schultz walks through deadly situations with the calm assurance of someone who knows more than anyone else on the screen, like a video-game player who’s already played this level fifty times and is in a hurry to get to the hard part. I have not liked Waltz in anything he’s been in, but I like him very much in Django. Perhaps he is better suited to being the good guy than the bad. Foxx is an excellent combination of Sweet Sweetback and Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, charismatic and cool.
In his earlier films, Tarantino was more inclined to show the action leading up to the violent act and then that act’s messy results. Despite what you remember about the grisly Michael Madsen “Stuck in the Middle with You” scene in Reservoir Dogs, we are never actually shown the violent act. That framework is largely abandoned in this new movie, where we are treated to a couple of disturbing scenes. For all his focus on having fun, there is definitely a serious theme here about slavery-related issues we might not have been familiar with. And because he has often been criticized for the blood and violence in his movies, I suspect there’s an even larger exploration here on the topic of violence in film.
However, to lose oneself in topics and themes is to miss Django Unchained‘s best gift. It is three hours of joyous film-making, a return to form for a director who makes me laugh not merely by being witty or clever, but by reminding me of how much fun movies can be.
I saw this last April but for some reason forgot to put it on my list. It is the last 2012 film I have to review!
Think Like a Man (2012)
Regina Hall, Gabrielle Union, Taraji P. Henderson, Meagan Good.
Think Like a Man‘s premise is almost all by itself enough to make me hate it. Four women independently read Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and decide to take Harvey’s advice in their floundering love lives. These are smart, very beautiful women, and while that by no means exempts them from the problems plaguing us all as we struggle through love and romance, you’d think they’d have better access to guidance than a marginally funny stand-up comedian who’s been divorced twice and was the least entertaining (by far!) of the Original Kings of Comedy.
Yet it manages not to suck because its characters are mostly likable, its actors do a pretty good job, and everyone in the movie is just so great to look at. Although most of the characters’ decisions strain credulity, there are elements of realism I think most singles over the age of 28 will recognize. The road to romance is fraught with all kinds of unspeakable peril, and we all know (if we are not ourselves) smart, attractive, professionally successful people who seem to make it work in every aspect of their lives but one. If nothing else, this movie gives us a few moments to consider reasons for this puzzle.
The film tells the stories of four loosely connected couples, breaking the plot strands into four types, defined by the Steve Harvey book:
The Mama’s Boy vs. The Single Mom
The Non-Committer vs. The Girl Who Wants the Ring
The Dreamer vs. The Woman Who Is Her Own Man
The Player vs. The 90-Day-Rule Girl
I dislike this structure, mostly for two reasons. First, it sets these lovers up as opponents, each trying to get what he or she wants from the other, rather than trying to negotiate some kind of common ground from which to proceed. Second, the wording of the match-ups hints that the parties who really need advice are the men, but the men are so self-unaware that it’s the women who have to make changes to their lives in order to help the men come to their senses. I’m okay with the “you can only change yourself” approach to life, but here the women are changing themselves so they can change others, and this seems like a losing proposition to me, as life advice and script-writing advice.
Another problem is that these are all very nice, very attractive people. The implication that these people need to make romance work with these specific other people seems misguided. There is nothing truly wrong with any of the characters, and the are flawed only because they are human. Wouldn’t it have been better (and a more admirable challenge) to write a movie where these characters find the kinds of partners who are compatible and can make it work? Why, for example, couldn’t the Non-Committer, rather than learning to leave behind youthful interests and commit to a grown-up relationship, have found someone who shares his values and is equally non-committed but also equally in love?
It’s a romantic comedy, so you know where it all leads, and that’s fine by me, and its nice to see a film with a predominantly African-American cast that doesn’t water down its characters’ ethnicities and doesn’t play down to easy stereotypes or expectations. Where it fails to really distinguish itself is in letting us get to know the characters, probably a consequence of having to spread itself out among four stories. This is another of those films where you wish the cast just had stronger material. It doesn’t suck, but it only succeeds because its goals are so shallow and simplified.
My Ten Best Films of 2012 (in order from best):
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Hunger Games
Silver Linings Playbook
Honorable mention (Films also receiving ratings of 8 out of 10): Celeste & Jesse Forever, Argo, Looper, Moonrise Kingdom.
Moonrise Kingdom failed to make the cut, huh?
It got an 81, so that’s why it’s in the honorable mentions.
There were so many good movies this past year and I could keep thinking about it but I’m going to stop and go with these. I wasn’t sure if the films I saw at the festivals counted since they’re not really out but I added some, including a link to the trailer.
Here are my top 12 films of 2012:
1. Beasts of the Southern Wild
2. Moonrise Kingdom
3. The Life of Pi
4. Django Unchained
5. Les Miserables
8. The Orator
9. Rust and Bone
10. This is Not a Film
12. The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables
Best Supporting Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio or Samuel Jackson for Django Unchained
I thought Think Like a Man was the only 2012 film I forgot to review, but then I remembered this one. I’m pretty sure this is it for 2012.
This is 40 (2012)
Paul Rudd, Leslie Mann, Megan Fox, Charlene Yi, Albert Brooks, John Lithgow. Written and directed by Judd Apatow.
My favorite thing about films directed by Judd Apatow (and This is 40 is only the fourth, believe it or not) is the way all his characters mean well, misguided though some may be. Except for the weird turn one character takes in Funny People, everyone in Apatow’s movies is nice, which I suspect to be true of most of us in our real lives, at least on a day-to-day basis. When the director cares enough about his characters to show us both sides of a conflict, we have difficulty picking a side, and when conflicts are resolved in one or the other’s favor, everything tastes kind of bittersweet.
Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann play Pete and Debbie, a married couple we met in Apatow’s Knocked Up. They are about to turn forty, and while Pete would seem to be handling it better than Debbie, perhaps it is because Debbie has assumed the more grown-up role in the relationship, while Pete has been allowed to continue many of the behaviors that were charming in a twenty-something but may be less so in a forty-something. They have two daughters, two businesses, two strange fathers (John Lithgow and Albert Brooks), and multiple issues bubbling beneath the surface of a mostly affectionate, mostly pleasant marriage.
Although there is a general story arc, the film is presented as a series of connected vignettes, some of which work and some of which do not. I’ve heard some people complain about this structure, but I kind of like it. One interesting thing it provides is the chance to see Paul and Debbie away from each other as they interact with their parents and employees. These scenes may not add anything to the plot, but they let us get a better look at the characters, and that’s a good thing with characters this likable. There is one funny scene, at the height of Pete and Debbie’s marital difficulty, when they are brought together to deal with another parent (Melissa McCarthy) at their daughter’s school. United against an unreasonable attack, they forget their strife, stand up for their kid, and return to separate cars, barely able to speak to each other on the way back to the parking lot.
Leslie Mann has a way of pronouncing her words that I find incredibly sexy. I can’t describe it except to say that Mary Steenburgen has the same thing. If you know what I’m talking about, you know there’s no way I can dislike a movie with so much Leslie Mann in it. She is Apatow’s real-life wife, and the actresses who play Pete and Debbie’s kids are the real Apatow children, so there are levels of realism that make This is 40 succeed more often than it fails. I can see why so many people find it to be unsatisfying: it’s kind of sprawling, and what happens with Pete and his record company seems a lot more fantastic (and self-indulgent on the writer’s part, perhaps) than what happens with Debbie’s boutique, but with so much good faith all around, I found myself willing to write everyone a pass in exchange for the pleasure of their company.
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