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Tag Archives: 2000s movies

My Last Three Movies: Oliver and Company, Man of the Year, The Giver

Entertainment 150Oliver and Company (1988)
Ryan and I are making our way through the library of Disney animated film, and we’ve made our way up to this re-imagining of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The action is transplanted from Victorian London to modern-day New York, and Oliver is an orphaned orange cat that no one wanted. He’s befriended by Dodger, a stray mongrel who lures him into Fagan’s petty theft operation. Fagan is…a homeless guy?…who owes a ruthless businessman named Sykes a whole lot of money. Sykes menaces Fagan, while his two dobermans menace the gang. This being a Disney movie, things work out for the best, but not before the characters move through a lot of complications.

This movie is pretty heavily 80s, with Billy Joel providing the voice of Dodger and so many of the songs — which are deeply influenced by the pop music at the time. In a way, it’s kind of endearing; so many movies that aim for the “latest and greatest” in terms of attitude are usually the ones that end up being the most dated, and this film is no exception. It is very much a love letter to 80s entertainment.

I think that attitude is what makes the movie stick with you; the story is what it is, and it moves through the beats about as well as it can for something so predictable. But the characters, whether you love them or hate them, stick with you. Dodger is the star of the show; well-designed, bristling with attitude, the dog with the emotional arc that wraps up neatly at the end. Oliver is more of a catalyst character — he has a journey that he moves through as well, but he’s pretty much the “orphan in trouble” through most of the movie.

Disney has this great “shared” universe, it feels, with movies like this that runs from 101 Dalmatians, through Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, and into Oliver and Company. Who knows, maybe The Rescuers belongs to the same cinematic world? There are supporting characters in one movie that will pop up in the background of another — or at least, their models will. It’s a fun game to see what you can notice.

Most people say that Disney had a fairly rough go of it in the 70s and 80s, and while they were doing things that pushed them away from their “Golden Age” I’ve come to admire the risks they were taking. In a lot of ways, Oliver and Company feels like a bit of a step back into safer territory. Still, the movie was successful enough to usher in a bolder leap — the very next film on the list begins the Disney Renaissance in earnest (it’s The Little Mermaid).

If you like your Dickens stories a bit more frenetic, a bit brighter, and with talking animals, I’d recommend this. You could certainly do worse!
Man of the Year (2006)
This movie definitely could have been something special; Robin Williams stars as a Bill Maher-type who ends up making an improbable run for the White House. After several instances of speaking truth to power and being disruptive in the best way, he’s taken seriously enough to be added to the debate; from there, the dominoes just keep falling.

Meanwhile, in another movie, Laura Linney is a high-level employee at Delacroy Inc., which has just been given government approval to be the sole company providing voting machines in national elections. She notices that there’s something wrong with the counting algorithm, tries to talk to her superiors about it, gets shut down. Of course, that error causes some significant stuff to go down that could change the course of the country.

Lewis Black and Christopher Walken co-star as the advisers of Tom Dobbs (Williams’ character). Barry Levinson directed a script that he wrote. This…should have been a lot better than it was. It felt like there were two great movies struggling to climb out of a merely-adequate one.

Williams does his usual ad-libby stuff here; sometimes it hits, sometimes it doesn’t. The idea of Dobbs no longer being content throwing tomatoes at politicians and showing up to change the system himself is really intriguing, and I think Williams is at his best when he presents Dobbs as someone who is genuinely interested in pushing the country through its political gridlock, using humor and tactical honesty to do it. Linney’s part of the movie is intriguing in its own way, especially considering that we were just five years removed from Bush vs. Gore and the 2000 election. Rigging was hot on everyone’s mind at the time.

But instead of really diving into a political satire — or wish-fulfillment drama — we get this sort of muddled story that tries to be a lot of things all at once. Linney is sometimes stuck in a political thriller, sometimes she’s in a movie about a woman’s slow and steady mental breakdown, and sometimes she’s in a weird political romantic comedy. Levinson has a lot that he’s trying to do here, and he doesn’t navigate the shift in tones or genres very well at all.

It’s a shame, because I love everyone involved here. They deserved better, and I’m not entirely sure what went wrong. Was Levinson’s script tampered with by producers? Was Williams simply not a good fit for what he was trying to do?

At any rate — if you miss Robin Williams and want to see one of his lesser works where he still shows promise but the movie ultimately fails, this is for you? More likely, you’re either a Barry Levinson completist or a Williams fanatic.
The Giver (2014)
Jeff Bridges was one of the driving forces trying to bring this film to the screen, and it’s easy to see why. The Giver is one of those books I absolutely loved growing up, and I could see how it would make for an excellent movie.

This adaptation isn’t quite there, but it’s pretty solid. The basic thrust of the story is this: in a post-apocalyptic world, a community had been built that works on very strict rules. A person’s life is guided through milestones that allow them independence, or purpose, or a sense of completion of their life’s work. Jonas is coming up on just such a milestone — he is about to leave childhood behind and be given his job.

It turns out that Jonas has a few special qualities that make him chosen for one of the rarest positions: The Receiver of Memory. He must hold the collected memory of all humanity, so that he may dispense the wisdom of history when it is needed. The old Receiver shows him what has come before, and why the world is in the state it’s in now. Jonas has to struggle with the crushing weight of his knowledge, and just how much it alienates him from his friends, family unit and entire community.

It’s a fascinating book that shows us the power and danger of emotion, the inherent tension in society between safety and freedom, and what happens when the balances tip too far into one corner. The movie largely gets that down through the first part, but then the second half falls into the well-worn tread of most young-adult action movies we’re seeing these days. Even though it becomes fairly generic, the performances of the child stars and the lovely world design is just enough to keep you from giving up on it.

Brenton Thwaites is just about perfect as Jonas, bringing the character from his unquestioning acceptance of his life through the series of painful, disorienting revelations that follow. He’s tremendously emotive, so even when he struggles to find the word for an emotion he’s feeling the first time, we’re already feeling it with him. His confusion about the world around him, as well as the delight he has in these discoveries, are tremendous. His first days as the Receiver of Memory are easily the best part of the film.

It’s just too bad they couldn’t bring that same energy to the resolution of the story. Once the movie begins to sink into its familiar beats, that’s all there is to it until the credits roll. It doesn’t quite finish as strongly as it could, which is unfortunate because the book ends so tremendously. Still, it’s worth your time if you’re a fan of the novel. If you want to see Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep snipe at each other, or Eric Freaking Northman as the world’s nicest, blandest dad, then this movie is for you.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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My Last Three Movies: Final Destination 3, Tammy, Jersey Boys

Entertainment 150Final Destination 3 (2006)
If you’ve never seen a Final Destination movie, it pretty much goes like this: one person in a group of high-school/college students sees a horrifying calamity unfolding in their imagination right before it happens and freaks the hell out. They (and a number of friends and acquaintances) avoid the disaster, but Death — not one to be cheated — stalks after them one by one, making sure to correct the tapestry of fate before too long. It’s a really neat concept, especially since it’s a slasher film with an existential threat more than an actual killer.

Even still, the Final Destination series has always vaguely disappointed me because it flirts right up to the line of doing something really interesting or thought-provoking with the premise before retreating back into the safety of its Rube Goldberg devices (each character is killed in an increasingly complicated set of freak accidents) or sophomoric foreshadowing and discussions about death. Even the really good ones (like the first two) are fun, but leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Whether it’s fair or not, I always kind of want them to be more than they are.

The third movie doesn’t hold up as well as the first two, and it’s here where we start to see the seams of the formula showing. This time, the epic accident is a roller-coaster malfunction that’s fairly impressive but not nearly as harrowing as the plane crash or highway traffic accident that preceded it. The build-up to the set piece is stocked with groan-worthy dialogue, and it almost feels like the writers have gone out of their way to make these characters as unlikeable as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim!) leads the cast here, and she does a pretty good job. Her love-interest co-lead (Ryan Merriman) is Wonder Bread bland, though, and it all goes downhill from there. The group of “lucky” students saved from Death by roller coaster only to be killed in arguably more gruesome ways later on are almost uniformly terrible, and it makes me feel mean to wish horrible things to happen to them only to see them suffer some pretty terrible fates.

Horror movies are at their most fun when they have engaging or fun characters to root for, an inventive premise that’s fun to explore, and a sense of inevitability that never lets the main characters off the hook (even though they’ve won…for now). With Final Destination 3, there’s really only the knowledge that everyone you’re seeing will suffer and die, and after three installments of it the whole affair feels a little sadistic. There needs to be something more to it; inventive and gory ways to kill supporting characters just aren’t enough at this point.

Still, if you’re a horror franchise completionist or like watching annoying characters die in terrible ways, pull up a chair and pop it in. The DVD has a “Choose Your Fate” feature that opens up a few alternate scenes that might actually be fun.
Tammy (2014)
This was a rare misfire from Melissa McCarthy, a sort of mumble-core comedy that no one really knew what to do with. It was loaded with talent (Alison Janney! Susan Sarandon! Kathy Bates! Sandra Oh! Dan Akroyd!) and had a potentially amazing premise, but for some reason it felt like a hybrid between a Duplass Bros. movie and an earnest Cameron Crowe road-trip film.

Tammy (McCarthy) is fired from her dead-end burger job after wrecking her car running into a deer (don’t worry though, the buck is fine) and comes home to discover her husband in an emotional affair with another woman. She runs next door to her mother’s house and threatens to leave — only to be pushed out the door by her grandmother (Sarandon), who insists on coming along. She is, after all, providing the car and the trip money.

A series of misadventures follows, of course. We see Tammy and her grandmother Pearl getting into all kinds of trouble, and it becomes increasingly clear that Pearl might actually be the hotter mess of the two. Both women learn a bit more about themselves than they bargained for, and stumble into potential relationships with a retiree and his son after Pearl has a one-night stand with the older gentleman.

The movie takes a few dark turns that feel oddly specific yet not-quite-jokey that makes it hard to navigate the emotional turns. Pearl is an alcoholic diabetic, which…we’re never quite sure how to feel about. She’s funny when she’s drunk, until she isn’t, and her diabetes is a potential problem, then maybe a huge one, then maybe not so much. It’s almost like the writers themselves aren’t quite sure what to do with their own characters.

Nevertheless, both McCarthy and Sarandon are great when the material allows them to be freely funny, and the beginning of the film is awesome enough to carry you through the uneven, emotionally-dissonant second act. Tammy gets increasingly dramedic as it goes on, smoothing down the jagged edges of its protagonists as if admitting it would be kind of exhausting watching them be as crazy as we know they could be for a whole two hours.

Still, it’s worth watching. There’s great stuff there, and the worst of the film is never bad enough to make you tap out. If you’re looking to put on a comedy, laugh hard for thirty minutes, then maybe fall asleep in front of your television, this is one for you.
Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood produced and directed this movie adaptation of the jukebox musical, and you can tell that this was a fairly faithful conversion from stage to screen. A lot of the narrative tricks are there — actors breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience, smooth transitions from expository monologues to in media res action, even the way actors speak their lines point to a theatricality that was meant for another medium. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but I think I would rather have someone trying to take advantage of the fact that film provides them a certain amount of freedom they wouldn’t have had on stage.

I think your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your awareness of the catalogue of the Four Seasons and how much you like the unique vocal stylings of Frankie Valli. His signature sound is a high falsetto that lowers to a kind of nasally tenor(?), which isn’t for everyone but I find pretty nice. The story moves from the early days of Valli’s career in a rough New Jersey neighborhood, to the formation and dissolution of the Four Seasons, to his later solo career and family troubles. The music matures accordingly, from nascent 50s doo-wop and crooner covers to 70s pop standards that I was surprised were written so early. Valli’s songwriting partner, Bob Gaudio, is responsible for some legitimately great music.

The story, though…that’s something else. While it doesn’t fall into the standard musical biopic structure (earnest ingenue works hard from humble beginnings, breaks through to success, falls to excesses of drugs or affairs or general assholery, makes a comeback that ends the film), it does spend most of its time on the unhappy career of the Four Seasons. Tommy DeVito, the group’s de-facto leader and money manager, is portrayed as a selfish and irresponsible grand-stander who accrues a shocking amount of debt during the group’s success. His personality makes it difficult to enjoy the breakthrough of the Four Seasons, and he’s the single reason the group busts up.

Frankie Valli himself produced the movie in part, so I have to be a little suspicious of the narrative here. He had enough pull to appear on the credits, so he probably had enough pull to influence the story. Did DeVito really sink the Four Seasons? Is it really true that Valli’s post-Seasons career was almost entirely working whatever jobs he could find in order to pay back DeVito’s debt? It feels like he could have pushed that part of the narrative to justify his absence to his family; it’s clear that his wife and daughters were bitter about his not being there, and the movie suggests the only reason he was on the road so much was a misguided sacrifice of one type of family for another.

Still, the performances are solid, the direction is competent and the song arrangements are decent. It’s a reasonably good adaptation that will serve you well in place of a more immediate or energetic live-theatre show. If you’re really big into 50s doo-wop or jukebox musicals, or you want to see Christopher Walken as the world’s most paternal mob boss, give Jersey Boys a try.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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