Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nebraska Movie Review

No one is currently making movies about small town middle Americans quite like Alexander Payne. He’s like the Frank Capra of Nebraska, but with a drier sense of humor. It takes a special kind of disposition to tell stories about people in flyover states without playing down to the erudite and occasionally superior attitudes of the self-described educated people of New York and Los Angeles. Nebraska tells the story of simple people in a rather simple situation. There’s none of that common-man-in-extraordinary-circumstances here, although Woody Grant is treated like a hero or a celebrity for reportedly being named the lucky winner of a million dollars.

Short Cut Movie Review: Blackfish

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

In response to the popularity and Oscar win for the documentary film The Cove, comes another version of a marine mammals in distress call to action documentary in Blackfish. The subject here is killer whales in captivity and specifically those used at sea amusement parks like the famous Seaworld in Orlando, Florida.

Saving Mr. Banks Movie Review

The Walt Disney Company truly exists now to perpetuate its own myths. They include, but are not limited to, the idea that Walt Disney was the greatest human being who ever lived and was devoted exclusively to making people smile, and that a good wholesome family entertainment can solve most of life’s problems, often with a saccharine song and dance number. Saving Mr. Banks proposes some mythology of its own about the origins of P.L. Travers’ series of Mary Poppins books and the way Uncle Walt convinced her to sign over the rights.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Stories We Tell Movie Review

Actress and filmmaker Sarah Polley turns the camera on her family’s history and, by extension, herself in her documentary Stories We Tell. She starts by asking, in a series of on camera interviews with various family members and friends of her mother’s, to tell their version of the story to her as if she didn’t already know it. They all have an initial hesitation and some of her brothers and sisters even suggest that they don’t really see their family’s story as particularly unique or worth presenting to the world.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Movie Review

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does just about everything a studio wants from its sequels. It basically repeats the successful formula of The Hunger Games, but adds a new bevy of recognizable Hollywood faces. The one thing it mercifully resists is ramping up the action. The Hunger Games was an exercise in Gary Ross’s control and his successor Francis Lawrence follows in his footsteps, keeping the majority of the action within the centerpiece installment of the “games” themselves even while the stakes have been greatly increased.

Short Cut Movie Review: Dirty Wars

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Anyone who is not, at the very least, deeply troubled by the American government’s sanctioning of targeted killings of people classified as enemy combatants, especially when some on the kill list are American citizens, does not have a very deep appreciation of or respect for the Constitution. Night time assassination squads of the recent past or drone attacks of the present don’t cause me to lose a great deal of sleep. I see them as part of a continuum of a new way of waging war. This is even while I do understand and recognize why some people have very serious objections. But when those targeted are citizens of this country and when there is no public evidence that the target has committed any crime, we’re essentially looking at a death sentence without due process, without any evidence brought to light, and without a jury finding him guilty.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.
I’m really having a tough time figuring out if Guillermo del Toro’s wild, CGI-packed, global-minded mindless summer action flick Pacific Rim is a serious movie that is as badly written as the worst of the Transformers films or a half-clever (and only half, really) satire and sort of send up of big, dumb, and loud Hollywood action films. The fact that it’s not entirely obvious is a sign of either a brilliant scheme to attract both fanboys and cinema enthusiasts alike or a complete failure to signal exactly what it’s trying to do.

Given del Toro’s record as a filmmaker, I’d like to think he’s up to something interesting here, but even if he is, I didn’t really enjoy most of the film. Written by del Toro and Travis Beacham, Pacific Rim is an amalgam of so many different films of recent Hollywood history that it’s hard to keep track of the references. It combines elements of Transformers, Alien, Top Gun, Star Wars, Starship Troopers, Godzilla, and countless old WWII films. The sum of all these disparate parts suggest a comment on the direction of summer tent pole action cinema as nothing more than further extensions of what has come before without regard for originality, even if Pacific Rim is ostensibly an “original” screenplay, it remains a largely derivative work.

The time is the near future and earth is under regular attack by alien creatures called Kaiju entering from another dimension at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The creatures take the form of enormous dinosaur-looking creatures that have caused the world to band together and pool resources to construct giant robots to battle them. The robots, known as Jaegers, are so complex they require dual pilots who pass through “neural drift” (really like a longer version of the Vulcan mind-meld) and work in synchronicity. One of these crack pilots if Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam). Idris Elba plays his superior officer and leader of the Jaeger program. There are a couple of mad scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) with crazy theories and even crazier behavior. Rinko Kikuchi plays a budding Jaeger pilot with a traumatic history.

The dialogue is so over-the-top bad and the behaviors of every character so clichéd and hackneyed that I ultimately have to believe it was done intentionally. Still, apart from some pretty well-choreographed fights involving gigantic CGI creatures, there was little I found thoroughly enjoyable. Except the scenes with Ron Perlman (a del Toro regular) as a Hong Kong black market dealer in Kaiju body parts. He’s fantastic and his dialogue was actually well-written and delivered.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

25 Years Ago This Month: December 1988

Typical of December, the final month of 1988 was full of releases vying desperately for awards consideration, especially Oscars. Eight films released in this month received Academy Award nominations, including all five of the Best Picture nominees.

As always, we start with what I've seen...

Barry Levinson's Rain Man was the box office behemoth of the year and winner of the Best Picture Oscar the following year. It embodies everything a typical "best picture" is, but mostly it's a rather simplistic portrait of autism produced at a time when virtually no one knew anything about the disorder. A quarter century later, many people can probably tell you something about it, most mistakenly that it's caused by childhood vaccinations. Dustin Hoffman's autistic savant is the very rare exception among people on the spectrum, but in 1988 it led most people to believe that being autistic meant being able to count cards and take the house in a Las Vegas casino.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Short Cut Movie Review: Frozen

Short Cut Movie Review is normally less than 400 words, but in some cases may go slightly over. This is my attempt to keep writing about as many films as I see without getting bogged down with trying to find more to say. They are meant to be brief snapshots of my reaction to a movie without too much depth.

Disney’s Frozen is a loose (very loose) adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale The Snow Queen. As an example of classic Disney animation, it succeeds wonderfully. This is gorgeously rendered computer animation. The palette is beautiful icy blues blended with crystalline whites with lots of shine and sparkle. The story, by Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, and Shane Morris is at least more contemporary in theme than Disney’s princess movies have typically been, by which I mean this isn’t strictly about a young woman desperate to meet a man to marry. Buck and Lee directed the film.

Elsa is the young woman with the often uncontrollable power to turn the world around her to ice. She’s spent the majority of her youth and first years of adulthood locked away from the world. Her sister Anna has no memory of what she can do. Both women want the best for each other and their primary goals are, in the case of Elsa, to avoid hurting her sister, and for Anna, to have a normal life with access to and a relationship with Elsa.

Unable to resist the temptation to include adorable non-human characters, there is a snowman come to life named Olaf (voiced by Josh Gad), who has the best musical number in the movie in which he sings about his desire to experience summer and warm sunshine. There’s also an interesting colony of little trolls with the film’s second best number. Unfortunately, the rest of the songs are close to dreadful. They capture little of the classical style Disney used to do best. The music by Robert Lopez sounds like contemporary pop rock: the same spiritless, over-produced music for mass consumption that we get from any of the TV talent contest shows. Kristen Anderson-Lopez’s lyrics often don’t help, performing the function that too many modern musicals utilize which is to have dialogue and narration sung rather than spoken. Songs in musicals should express ideas and emotions rather than actions and instructions. Incidentally, the singing by Kristen Bell as Anna and Idina Menzel as Elsa veers into ear-splitting awfulness. When Menzel strikes the high notes in her big song, I literally cringed and winced at the piercing shriek. But this is what passes for good singing today – the tightly strained and forced cries that would never pass muster outside popular opinion. It would have been much better movie without the songs.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Philomena Movie Review

The trailer for Philomena is selling a very different movie than what Stephen Frears made. I admit to wanting to avoid this movie at all costs, but for my yearly goal of watching everything that gets an Oscar nomination (and it’s looking ever more likely now that I’ve seen it that Judi Dench will be nominated). But I should have given Frears more credit as a director. After all, he’s made some movies I really admire and one I love (as well as a couple of stinkers). The publicity campaign makes Philomena out to be a maudlin story about a woman trying to find her long lost son, who was taken from her and adopted fifty years earlier. It looks like the focus is on a daft old lady who says silly little things, the kind of simplistic humor that appeals to the lowest common denominator.

Shine a Light Movie Review

It’s only natural that Martin Scorsese would have made a Rolling Stones concert film. He was one of the first film directors to employ rock music on the soundtrack of his films and has continually returned to the Stones, even using “Gimme Shelter” three times, although it is sort of ironically absent from Shine a Light. But also Mick Jagger is a quintessential Scorsese protagonist. Watching him preen, gyrate, strut, and bounce on stage calls to mind Tom Cruise winning at pool in The Color of Money, the explosiveness of De Niro in Mean Streets, or his unpredictability in Taxi Driver, and the ferocious energy of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. At the risk of sounding grandiose, there’s even a comparison to be made to Willem Defoe in The Last Temptation of Christ in Jagger’s ability to lead the crowd in The Beacon Theater, a historic temple of performance. Archival interview footage even reveals Jagger’s self doubt prior to performance – feelings that Defoe’s Jesus would find familiar.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Counselor Movie Review

In general I try to avoid what other critics have to say about a film before I see it. Sometimes I have a general idea of the critical consensus, but in the case of The Counselor I knew nothing. I was shocked to find that the majority of critics had ripped it apart. It would have been surprising enough only for the fact that it was directed by Ridley Scott from an original screenplay by novelist Cormac McCarthy (his first produced). McCarthy is, after all, one of the greatest contemporary fiction writers in America. It also features a phenomenal cast of highly capable actors. Mostly my disbelief registered so high because I thought The Counselor was just wonderful, exemplifying the very best of what McCarthy accomplishes in his novels.

Man of Steel Movie Review

I’m not even sure there’s much point in having a critical view of a movie like Man of Steel. What exactly does it add to the conversation? When an indie or an arthouse film is bad, at least it’s bad in a way that still contributes something to cinema. When big, bloated action films are bad – and most of them are – they’re just plain bad. And anyway, they’re not made for people who actually try to put nuanced thought into their movie watching.