Monday, December 31, 2012

This Is 40 Movie Review

The Judd Apatow brand of comedy has dominated the genre for the better part of the last ten years. His influence extends far beyond the handful of films he’s directed himself into a host of other films that he’s also produced, many of them featuring actors he’s fond of using in his own films. His films don’t go for the simple gross-out and zany laughs of the Farrelly brothers. They rarely rely on shock value. They’re more like situational comedy with believable situations, unlike what you get from your average popular TV sitcom. His writing is often insightful, replete with astute observations of human behavior, even if it’s usually from the eccentric limit of the spectrum. In his latest (only his fourth as writer and director) film, This Is 40, he returns to peripheral characters created for his 2007 comedy Knocked Up, crafting a story around a married couple with two daughters and their attempts to deal with their changing lives as they reach middle age.

Special 400th Movie Review: It's a Wonderful Life

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Words of wisdom uttered 35 years too late for George Bailey to take them to heart. Who, upon reaching middle age, hasn’t felt that sense of loss at having failed to achieve the ambitions of youth? Who actually fulfills all the dreams he has before growing up and settling into a life of adulthood? And who among us truly appreciates the riches we have when all we can see are missed opportunities? It’s a story at least as old as the Industrial Age, when increased leisure time for most people meant the possibility of doing things most people would never have dreamed about. George Bailey has become an enduring cinematic character because he embodies all those universal characteristics of failed ambitions and dreams deferred or lost. George believes his life is disappointing and sad. This is just another aspect of his universality. For it sometimes takes an outsider to point out just how fulfilling our lives truly are – in fiction anyway.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Movie Review

Every family has troubles and internal drama. It’s very easy to spot it in other families, but to turn the lens inward and examine your own circumstances is difficult. We have a tendency to always think of ourselves as reasonable despite evidence to the contrary. Harder still is to turn a literal lens onto a family’s problems and conflicts and shape it from paper to screen into a compelling story that people might learn something from. Edward Burns has been trying to do that since his independent filmmaking career began auspiciously more than fifteen years ago during the American renaissance (which turned out to be the last dying gap) of indie films.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jack Reacher Movie Review

It has been so long since I’ve been both truly surprised and genuinely thrilled at the movies that I’d almost forgotten the feeling, but Jack Reacher reminded me of exactly the reason why I love sitting in a darkened cinema several dozen times a year. It is not the best movie I’ve ever seen. It’s not even the best movie I’ve seen this year. But it did exactly what I expect an action thriller to do and it did it competently, excitingly, originally, and without pandering to the lowest common denominator audience members. I loved this movie. I loved it almost unequivocally. I loved it for all the reasons it could have been a standard genre film, but wasn’t. Loved it for all the ways it managed to enthrall me from one minute to the next. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the hugely popular (though not well-liked by me) The Usual Suspects, adapted the story from the eponymous character created by author Lee Child and more specifically from one of the sixteen books featuring Jack Reacher as the main character.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Bourne Legacy Movie Review

Tony Gilroy, so desperate along with Universal Studios, to continue the cash cow of the Jason Bourne film series that he personally crafted and adapted from books to films, went ahead with a fourth film even after Matt Damon, the series’ eponymous hero, bowed out. How can you have a Bourne film without Bourne? They could have decided to make it something like the Bond series, replacing the actor periodically as they age out of the role, providing the character contemporary problems to confront. But then it would have run the risk of copycat syndrome, I guess. So instead Gilroy, with the help of his brother Dan, decided with The Bourne Legacy to keep it all in the same universe, but provide a new protagonist in Aaron Cross, a super-assassin involved in a program similar to the Treadstone project that created Bourne. It’s an expansion of the Robert Ludlum series of books, taking the title, but nothing of the story, from the fourth book, which wasn’t even written by Ludlum. Confused? It doesn’t matter because The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum had already deviated far from Ludlum’s novels.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Slow going with the reviews

I've had a hard time motivating myself this month to plow through the reviews of the films I've watched. So I have a backlog and I just keep watching more movies rather than write. My original goal when I started this blog was to write on every movie I watch. I've come pretty close to keeping up with that.

Now I'm not only behind in reviews for the end of the year trying to cram them in before the Oscar nominations on January 10, but I'm behind on basic film viewing. I have so many films in the cinema to see now and I lost quite a bit of time this week because I was sick on Monday and Tuesday, my days off from my regular paying job. Now we've got Christmas coming, I've got my own party I'm throwing tomorrow, which requires all day preparation. Then I'm working every day until next Friday. So I will try to get through it all, but a lot of films and reviews may have to wait until after the new year.

Also, I'm seriously considering re-evaluating my approach to what I choose to write about. After nearly three years of this, it's getting to be too much of a commitment to write a review for every movie I watch and it leaves so little time for other, perhaps more interesting, projects I'd like to tackle here. More on this subject after the awards season wraps in late February.

Rust and Bone Movie Review

Living principally on a diet of Hollywood cinema, it would be easy to believe that there’s only one way to tell a story of physical disability. American movies handle similar material in roughly the same formula again and again. Even when it’s done competently, it’s not any more interesting or groundbreaking than the last time it was done well. This year, French cinema has offered up two examples (at least among films that found American distribution) of the way the film medium can tell a story of a character with a severe physical handicap and not make it maudlin, manipulative, and utterly predictable. The first was The Intouchables, which, had it opened later in the year, would almost certainly be a serious awards contender. The second is Rust and Bone, which has recently generated some Oscar buzz. Both films have been nominated for the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film, but Academy rules limit one film per country and France selected the former.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sensibility wins out over sensitivity

I'm not immune to the devastating emotional impact of the school massacre in Newtown, CT. It was a terrible tragedy and I can't imagine being a resident in that town, let alone a parent of one of the murdered children.

But at the same time, I think we have a tendency to, in the name of being sensitive, reduce or eliminate anything that could possibly cause discomfort to anyone affected by tragedies of that nature. Movie studios reduced the scope of their premiers for the films Jack Reacher and Django Unchained, both violent films featuring their fair share of gunfire. In the name of good taste, I have little problem with that. There's a difference between reveling at a party for a violent murderous film days after an unspeakable act of violence killed 26 people, 20 of whom were small children, and leaving in a joke that, within the context of the film, has nothing at all to do with actual child murder.

The joke involves references to child murder which, of course, in light of what happened last week, takes on an entirely new meaning for most people. Certainly, many people watching the film will immediately call to mind the horrors of watching the news reports. Perhaps as an artistic decision it might have been wise for Apatow to remove the joke because who wants an audience thinking of actual real life child murders in the middle of a comedy? But if the joke is removed simply because it could make some people uncomfortable, then we cross the line into that territory I dread we will continue to fall deeper and deeper into: nobody should ever feel bad about anything ever. We see this attitude constantly and quite frankly, I think it's making us into a nation of frightened little kittens.

So I applaud Apatow for making the decision to leave the joke in the film if for no other reason than that it might make people briefly uncomfortable only to soon discover that nothing terrible comes from that fleeting feeling.

Let's please stem the tide of transforming ourselves into a nation of pussies.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Movie Review

Visually splendid, but lacking depth, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, certainly left my mouth watering for the delectable raw fish preparations that have exploded in popularity in the last decade. The Jiro of the title is the 85 year old chef and owner of a tiny ten seat sushi restaurant in a basement in Tokyo. It has twice been awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide, an honor that suggests it’s worth a trip to that country just to eat in the restaurant, where the menu is determined based on quality and availability that day, and perfection is the only standard by which Jiro judges the food.

Monday, December 17, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: Empire of the Sun Movie Review

There are three images that stand out in Steven Spielberg’s WWII drama Empire of the Sun that help define the film as a coming of age and loss of innocence tale. The first is of a boy becoming separated from his parents in a throng of Chinese citizens fleeing Shanghai as the Japanese invasion begins. The second is the same boy being slapped in the face by a Chinese household servant whom he has probably spent his short life bossing around. The third and most powerful is when the boy witnesses the flash of light from the Nagasaki bomb, a moment that heralds both the boy’s passage into a new world and more grown up life and the loss of innocence of humanity, which had definitively demonstrated the ability to destroy itself.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Movie Review

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy must pack so much into those novels that it’s a minor miracle they were ever made into successful films. I’ve never read the books, of course, but you get a sense by the third installment of director Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of adaptations that the final book is replete with an abundance of minor and secondary characters all requiring a closing to their arcs. The effect is a film that is bloated and overblown, but at the same time a visual wallop and a great piece of entertainment filmmaking.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hitchcock Movie Review

There is a speech delivered by Helen Mirren in Hitchcock that begins bluntly and forcefully, before becoming one of those acting moments that gets played over and over again at awards shows. It’s a moment of performance that can so quickly and easily become overwrought, but then you realize that Mirren is an actress of incredible skill, subtlety, and professionalism that she won’t let her performance overshadow her character. She plays Alma Reville, the great director Alfred Hitchcock’s long-suffering wife and behind-the-scenes collaborator. She holds the film together and although Hitchcock is ostensibly concerned with the making of Psycho, that’s really just a backdrop for the way their marriage functioned and occasionally faltered.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: December 1987

Movie release schedules were not all that different 25 years ago. Studios saved their best films for the very end of the year, just like they do today, in order to be fresh in awards voters' minds. The result is that a lot of deserving films released earlier in the year are largely ignored. The December 1987 film releases garnered a combined total of 28 Academy Award nomination. If we add The Last Emperor, which had a limited release in late November followed by a wider December release, that makes 37 nominations spread over ten films.

In Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg returned to WWII, subject matter that has been at the crux of no fewer than six of the films he's directed. Christian Bale starred in the film about a boy from a wealthy British family living in Shanghai who finds himself in a Japanese internment camp after the occupation begins.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Life of Pi Movie Review

I have never agreed with the general sentiment that “the book was better than the movie.” This has always seemed a meaningless assertion to me. Books and movies might set out to accomplish a similar task – telling a story – but the ways they go about it could hardly be less similar. Books have the space to fill in details you can’t possibly bring to light in a film. A reader is privy to setting descriptions, histories, character development and inner thoughts that often can’t be represented on the screen. A movie does the imagining for the viewer. Whereas a book allows a reader to visualize images evoked by the words on the page, a film director, cinematographer, writer, etc., present their personal visualizations, which most likely don’t mesh with yours. What we need to test is whether or not the film adaptation of a book is 1) some sort of faithful adaptation and 2) good on its own terms by the standards laid out through cinema history. It doesn’t matter if the movie tells the same story in the same exact way as the book. All that matters is that the movie works. Does it draw you in? Do you learn enough about the characters to care about their fates? Is the story moving?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Movie Review

Eowyn tests Aragorn's fealty to his beloved in The Two Towers.
As much as I loved The Fellowship of the Ring is as disappointed as I was in The Two Towers. Except in its magnificent closing epic battle, it failed to inspire a sense of awe. Everything I admired about the first film was largely absent in the second. This includes the focused storytelling that had as its centerpiece a group of men on a quest. Now the fellowship was fractured, it felt like three different stories. And the toggling back and forth left me feeling impatient and restless. I don't know that there was any way for screenwriters Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh to get around that. It's a style of 'cutting' that works fine in the format of a novel, but for a three hour plus film it grows tedious.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Last Emperor Movie Review: 25 Years Ago

The Last Emperor was released in New York and Los Angeles 25 years ago last month, but received its wide release in December 1987. So I revisit the film in between the two months. Look for a new 25 Years Ago review later this month when I take a look at Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.

What a strange film is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Twenty-five years later it still has a powerful resonance. It remains a gorgeous visual piece with remarkable costumes, art direction, and set decoration. It helps that the production was given unprecedented access by the Chinese government to film in the Forbidden City. I’m not sure any set could stand in as effectively for the real thing, which is imposing with its mammoth surrounding walls and impenetrable gates that keep the young emperor locked away for all of his youth. But here is a historical epic about a man who is not a hero. He made no great impact on a way of life, or any government, or even a great number of individuals for that matter. Although the story is about the man who happened to be the last imperial ruler of the old feudal China, it is really a historical view of a China in transition to a Republic and then a Communist state, with a passive hero at its center.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook Movie Review

Director David O. Russell has become something of a specialist in staging chaotic family scenarios with emotions running to a fever pitch and pushing the comedy of the moment nearly to the breaking point. He did it several times in his sophomore effort Flirting with Disaster, which had Ben Stiller on a cross-country search for his birth parents, and then most recently in The Fighter with boxer Mark Wahlberg and his girlfriend, played by a tough Amy Adams, squaring off against his seventeen or so sisters. In Silver Linings Playbook, his newest film that he both directed and wrote (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) brings together just about every character, lead and supporting, under one roof for a scene that would be greatly comedic if it weren’t also somewhat tragic at the same time. It’s a scene that I thought just about went over the edge of reason, but Russell brings it back to earth before things get out of hand.