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(Movies) My Last 3: The Pyramid, The Book Thief, The Sacrament

Entertainment 150The Pyramid (2014)
This is a minor found-footage horror movie that I had been interested in mainly because I thought (mistakenly) that it was directed by Alexandre Aja. He’s a horror director I’ve really come to like after watching High Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Horns. It turns out he only produced it, which is a real shame. Under the hands of some better filmmakers, this could have been really good.

The Pyramid is a faux documentary set during the Egyptian uprising of 2013 about a group of archaeologists uncovering an ancient structure that appears to have been built and then buried underground. After unearthing the apex of the pyramid, they find a way inside — and a series of events lead them further and further into the byzantine hallways. It doesn’t take long before they discover a malevolent force trying to keep them there, and kill them one by one.

The set-up and a lot of the action is actually fairly well-done here. I was impressed by the plotting; in a lot of found-footage movies, the characters have to contort themselves to have a reason to keep filming, or to go deeper into a horrible situation. Here, I thought it was fairly well-handled if a bit obvious that they were expositing. Once the scientists make it inside the pyramid and the proceedings get underway, the atmosphere changes dramatically and the sense of peril mounts really well.

Still, a lot of the dialogue is just clunky, and Denis O’Hare (hi, Russell Edgington!) is the biggest name and best actor there but you wouldn’t know it. The ending and the revelations about the true nature of the pyramid might work or it might not, depending on your tolerance for warped Egyptian mythology and low-budget (for a feature film) CGI. Even though the archaeologists and documentary crew are really put through the ringer, it doesn’t quite feel like torture porn because there are clear stakes and a hope — however small — that these hapless men and women will survive.

If you’re a found-footage enthusiast (like me) and are looking for a decent B-grade horror movie that’s slightly left-of-center, you could do worse than The Pyramid. It’s not astonishing, but I thought it was solid enough.

The Book Thief (2013)
A little girl is given up for adoption to a poor but lively German couple, right around the time the Nazi party is coming to power. After her new father discovers she can’t read, he teaches her and through that process instills in her a love of books and stories. As Hitler’s grip on Germany tightens, their Jewish and progressive neighbors are rounded up and disappeared. The community changes. And the son of the father’s wartime friend (himself a Jew) comes to their door seeking sanctuary.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of an Australian novel written by Markus Zusak, and it’s pretty obviously one of those movies that come out during Oscar season as a prestige picture. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction is measured and restrained, and the acting has that stiff, important quality — for the most part.

Here, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse make up the family that binds together through the onset of World War II, and they actually do a pretty wonderful job. Rush is breezily amiable as the cool, engaged dad; Watson is unrecognizable as a muttering, severe house-frau. Nelisse is an effortless actress, moving through the story with whatever is required of her. It’s quite impressive to watch these three, especially as the hard exterior of Watson’s housewife cracks and you see the effect that the war and the political situation has on her.

And yet, the story itself doesn’t quite land with the weight it’s clearly trying to. It meanders from subject to subject with the expansive air of a biography but it doesn’t quite leave you with anything you can take with you. The framing narration — the voice of Death talks about the proceedings with a bemused, detached air that’s really grating — isn’t as clever or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. And honestly, the ending is a bit of a let-down in its obviousness. Instead of being emotionally affecting, it feels manipulative instead.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that explores the lives of ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and for that alone it’s worth a look. The performances are solid enough to keep you engaged even as you roll your eyes whenever the movie tries to prey on your sympathies. The only Oscar nomination it managed to earn was Best Score, and the music from John Williams is quite well done. I just wish that it was in service to a movie that had been more artful in what it wanted to do.

The Sacrament (2013)
More found-footage horror! This time, a documentary crew from Vice magazine travels to Bolivia after one of their fashion photographers receives a letter from his estrange sister inviting them to a religious commune that’s been started there. Upon arrival, they’re more than a little freaked out by the vibe they get from the followers of “Father”, and just when they’re about to shrug and say “different strokes for different folks” the movie takes its turn.

What follows is an updated and fictionalized account of Jonestown, one of the biggest mass suicides in American history. Directed by Ti West, this move maintains a great sense of tension throughout; he really knows how to mine the vague unease one would feel among an isolated group of fanatics. As events unfold and escalate, it becomes increasingly clear that the documentary crew are in over their heads, and that discovery is appropriately terrifying.

The main reporter, Sam, is distractingly stiff and unconvincing as the narrator of the documentary. As things unravel and it becomes harder to justify the decision to keep filming, the framing of the found-footage format begins to suffer; you’re not sure why the camerman would keep documenting an increasingly desperate situation. A lot of the dialogue rings hollow, especially the stuff surrounding Father — the actor portraying him has a off-beat charisma all his own, so he makes it work regardless.

Ultimately, this is a great movie for found-footage and Ti West fans, but I’m not sure it’s a must-see film. If you’re in the dark on a Friday night and are looking for something to get the blood pumping, this is certainly a good choice.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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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: Before Sunrise, Ragtime, Snowpiercer

Entertainment 150Before Sunrise (1995)
This is one of the earliest works for Richard Linklater, the writer-director responsible for my favorite film last year, Boyhood. It was a little cult film, though critics love it and it’s still really fondly remembered by film-loves everywhere. I can see why — this is a quintessential Linklater film: the narrative tricks are all meant to strip away anything but the central conceit, and while still a movie it’s really concerned with ideas. It’s as introspective as you can get without being inert.

Here’s the set-up: American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train and convinces her to get off with him and spend an evening walking around Vienna. There, they talk about their lives, loves, and the nature of each as they see them. The bond they share over the evening — especially as it nears its end — deepens and grows more complicated, and the interactions they have with various people in the city only spurs that along. The decisions they make reflect an opening up to one another, and this singular experience.

It’s a great idea, but it took a little while to convince me it was. I spent a little more than half of the movie hating Jesse, a self-involved, smarmy faux-intellectual who speaks like he has these grand realizations. Really, they’re the ideas you have in college, where your knowledge of reality gets its first great expansion. It can feel like your mind has expanded in these earth-shattering ways, but for those of us on the other side it can be a struggle not to roll our eyes.

Celine, on the other hand, is almost immediately fascinating. She has complicated ideas about what it means to be a woman, how that affects romantic entanglements, and what exactly she wants to be. You can see her struggle between the image of independent, willful man-eater and allowing herself to be vulnerable, to deeply love a man and choose a domesticated life. Her bravado up front clearly masks an almost aching desire to buy into a fairy-tale romance, and it’s fascinating to see.

After sunset, as they walk through an alley, Celine opens herself up to Jesse, who in turn drops the cynical act and offers up a bit of himself. Once he stops holding the movie back it becomes much richer, deeper and engaging, and it’s a lot easier to invest in these characters and entertain their ideas. As the movie follows them through the evening, and they become increasingly aware of the fact they’ll need to go their separate ways, the ephemeral, transitory nature of their evening becomes all the more precious and their resistance to it surprisingly touching.

In the end, it becomes a beautiful movie, and even better, a jumping-off point for your own complex, vulnerable conversations. This is a film you have to see with someone you love, or at least someone you love talking to, simply because it awakens in you a newfound love for simple, earnest conversation. I highly recommend this, with a cup of tea or coffee, and a good walking trail in mind.

Ragtime (1981)
Apparently 1981 was an exceptional year for movies, and I had no idea. The Academy Awards were dominated by Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond and Reds. Arthur earned John Gielgud an Oscar, and there was also Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Clash of the Titans, Escape From New York and Time Bandits. So many great movies, so many of them threatened with the ravages of time.

My continuing education in 80s film brought me to Ragtime, which was nominated for eight Oscars that year. I had never heard of it, and I’m sorry I hadn’t — this was the movie Milos Forman directed before Amadeus, adapted from the novel by E.L. Doctorow. There are so many great actors in it, from James Cagney in his last film role to an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson, it kind of blows you away. But the story and performances are what’s really gripping here.

It’s a sprawling movie that drops you into three different entry points to the story: a rich family in a suburb of New York City is enjoying dinner when one of their servants screams at the sight of a black baby left in their garden; a jealous industrialist shoots an artist over the unveiling of a nude statue he believes was modeled after his wife; a street vendor (Hi, Mandy Patinkin!) discovers his wife (Hi, Fran Drescher!) cheating on him and promptly throws her out. The set up is a bit dizzying; the world is chaotic and full of people, and you’re left to determine relationships and conflicts on your own. The plot does not wait for you.

Things get a bit easier as the disparate plots come together. A musician named Coalhouse Walker arrives at the family’s house, claiming to be the father of the baby; the younger brother of that family becomes obsessed with the model of the nude statue, then with Coalhouse’s stand-off against a volunteer fire department who harassed him, then vandalized his Model T car. Coalhouse slowly emerges as the main character, and his run-in with these racist firemen becomes the focal point all of the other stories revolve around.

The racism portrayed in Ragtime is shocking mostly because you’re exposed to so many different forms of it: the casual, matter-of-fact dehumanization of black people by doctors and the law; the blatant and almost cartoonish idiocy of overt bigots; the frustrating stonewall of institutional racism. It shows how this kind of thinking infects almost every aspect of life, and how difficult it can be for black people to escape it even as they struggle to present themselves legitimately and for white people to even understand it in the face of “sudden” black anger and unwillingness to accept one more insult.

This is an incredibly important idea, that the institution of racism has insinuated itself into the fabric of our society, and that relatively good and decent people can still hold racist ideas or support that institution through inaction or preserving the status quo. Ragtime shows the radicalization of victims of racism, and how they’re pushed to these drastic measures simply to be heard. It’s astonishing how the situation escalates simply because the power structure in place cannot understand what is at stake here, and refuse to stop and listen. That’s the tragedy here.

Ragtime is necessary viewing for understanding the black experience in America. I recommend you watch it. No qualifiers. Just do it!

Snowpiercer (2013)
You’ve probably heard about this movie during the summer of 2013, when it was one of those small independent movies that broke through the pop culture chatter to grab a good portion of the hype that year. Mostly, it was described as a smart and crazy mid-budget blockbuster that was like nothing you’ve ever seen. That part is true. But it’s also an intensely polarizing film that’s doing a lot of stuff all at once, and your reaction to it will largely depend on how you’re interpreting the action.

In the near future, attempts to combat global warming with weather engineering via a chemical called CW7 has gone terrifically wrong. The entire world froze, killing all life on Earth save for a small remnant of humanity huddled aboard a train called the Snowpiercer. The track transverses the globe, and the train is designed to complete one loop every year.

Of course, there’s a class system on the train. Those who paid for tickets or contributed to the creation of the project are in the front. Those poor sods who were “lucky” enough to gain free passage are in the back, packed into dirty cars with nothing but protein bars to eat. One day, after enduring the theft of their children to the front and a rather brutal punishment for fighting back, a revolution is organized. The movie follows this resistance as they move from the back of the train towards the luxurious front and the creator of the Snowpiercer, Wilford.

The microcosm of the train is fascinating. Each new traincar offers a surprise that gives us a little more information about the world that’s developed in the 18 years since civilization has fallen, and it’s endlessly interesting to compare that information to the structure of our own society. There’s a mixture of world-building, very solid character moments and vital action that keeps you engaged through the entire film. It’s really hard to think of a single moment that was wasted.

I loved this movie; the plot was great, the stakes were never far from the top of my mind, and the subtext within the story is something that just blows me away. Like so many films that swing for the fences, Snowpiercer might be too over-the-top for some, and that’s fine. It can be really hard to take something this high-concept and make it feel grounded; I feel that director Bong Joon-ho mixes the familiar and the outlandish quite well, but other people might not.

Still, it’s a unique film that I highly recommend. It’s best watching this in summer; the movie is atmospheric enough that you’ll feel the cold despite the temperature outside, and personally I love the idea of stepping outside and feeling the heat. It’s easy to imagine that quick and desperate measures will become increasingly plausible as the effects of climate change connect and multiply; despite its insanity, it’s insanely easy to imagine the world of Snowpiercer becoming our own.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 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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My Last Three Movies

Philomena (2013)
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a disgraced adviser for the British government trying to determine what he should do next. At a party, he was approached by a woman suggesting he write about her mother, an elderly Catholic who had been forced to give up her son for adoption while living in a convent. Though initially reluctant to do a “human interest” piece, he eventually agrees to meet the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Her story — uncovered in fits and starts despite opposition at nearly every turn — proves to be shocking, tragic and almost unbelievable. Of course, most of it is true.

This was a lovely surprise. It was on our radar mainly because it had been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Judi Dench had been nominated for Best Actress. Honestly, who can resist a great Judi Dench movie? She’s just amazing.

Here, she largely disappears into the role of Philomena, an old, slightly doddering woman who remains devout despite the failings of the Church she believes in so strongly. It’s impressive to see her so ordinary and simple, pulling out only hints of her natural gravitas when she needs to underscore a dramatic beat. It’s unlike almost any other role I’ve ever seen her in.

The movie is directed briskly by Stephen Frears, who guided another British treasure to a Best Actress Oscar (Helen Mirren for The Queen). The more we learn about Philomena’s past, the more sympathy we feel for her and the deeper our desire to know what happened to her son. The answers lie in Washington, DC, and they’re just as surprising. How the film handles each revelation, allowing just enough time for the shock to settle in before moving quickly through the fallout, is kind of a marvel of pacing. This is a film that knows what it’s about, and doesn’t waste time getting there.

Coogan is great as Sixsmith, the prickly journalist who bonds with Philomena through the search but never quite stops being himself. A final confrontation underscores the wide gulf between the reporter and his subject, and while you understand Sixsmith’s reaction (and probably share it), Philomena’s gives us much-needed grace and closure.

If you’re waiting for more episodes of Downton Abbey or Doctor Who, this is going to be your jam.
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Robert Towne wrote and directed this California crime film, which is pretty confusing. On one hand, he wrote the classic film Chinatown and here he is returning to the genre that made him. But on the other, maybe Roman Polanski deserves all the credit and visibility he gets for Chinatown; while that film’s many, many twists are managed quite nicely, this one feels inert — like we’re standing in one place, spinning in circles, and calling it entertainment.

Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Michelle Pfeiffer, JT Walsh and Raul Julia all star in this movie but it’s hard to care about that. Gibson is a former drug dealer who Russell’s detective believes is selling again. They’re at each other’s throats for a good bit of the movie, but it’s hard to care about that either. The dialogue sinks pretty much every exchange, aiming for crackling and witty and landing far short.

After an hour or so, when we see the seventeenth slow-burn conversation between two of the characters, I realized that I had no idea what was going on, why the characters knew what they did or why they were saying what they were saying to each other. Ryan and I turned it off without finishing it, which almost never happens. Life’s too short and there are too many great (or at least more interesting) movies to watch.

I can’t say I recommend this one, but if you want to see an early Mel Gibson movie where he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of an American accent or Kurt Russell looking like he’s auditioning for the part of Patrick Bateman, this is your movie.
Last Action Hero (1993)
The real star of this movie is Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, the stereotypical shouting black police chief, but Schwartzenegger actually does pretty great work here as well. This is one of those movies that got buried by bad timing and kind of unfair press; it opened a week after Jurassic Park and held up poorly against Sleepless in Seattle later. By the end of the summer, everyone called it a bomb and to this day there’s not a lot of fondness the way there is for other overlooked classics like, say, UHF.

But the movie is a really solid concept held back just a bit by shaking execution. To be fair, it’s a bit of a high-wire act that had never been done before — Last Action Hero tries to straddle the line between a parody of action movies and an homage to them, while also being a parable about the value and nature of storytelling. It swings for the fences, and that earns it my respect, and it mostly succeeds. Everyone gives it their all, and it’s really enjoyable if not quite as emotionally effective as it tries to be.

Teenage movie-buff Danny Madigan finds himself transported into the world of his favorite action hero, Jack Slater, through a magic ticket handed down to him by the elderly projectionist of an old movie theatre that’s about to be torn down. His presence in the film shades the live-action cartoon enough that the stakes are changed, especially when the sub-boss Benedict (Charles Dance!) slips through to the real world and realizes that the rules of the cinema don’t apply. Benedict is a great villain — smart, amoral, calculating, and he makes a nice foil for Schwartenegger’s meathead protagonist, Jack Slater.

Not everything works here — the big scene introducing the magic ticket is pretty corny, and not every self-aware joke lands quite right — but Last Action Hero gets more right then it gets wrong. The action is at once silly and engaging, and the comic timing actually works well slipped in amongst the thrill beats. Schwartenegger is game for self-parody, and he’s a lot funnier than he’s given credit for.

It’s still a minor film in his filmography, but it’s good enough for me to say it’s overlooked. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of Schwartenegger’s panned films; I thought Jingle All The Way is a legitimately-good Christmas movie, and Kindergarten Cop is not great, but fun. The same could be said for Last Action Hero, but I hold it up a little higher because of all it tries to do. It’s a mild success that could have been an unmitigated disaster, and that deserves at least a little love.

If you want to see Schwartenegger poking fun at his oiled-up machismo or the role that probably got Dance the part of Tywin Lannister, I’d recommend this one. It’s a great one to pop in on a Friday night where you just need to decompress.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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The Last Three Movies

Entertainment 150I miss posting movie reviews! And I would also like to learn how to be more efficient with my writing. So I thought I’d try to kill two birds with one stone by offering some short reviews of movies I’ve seen, three at a time. If something really warrants a bigger conversation, I might spin it off into future blog posts. But for now, here are the last three movies I’ve seen.

Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty co-wrote, produced, directed and starred in this epic film detailing the life and career of John Reed, a journalist who became one of the organizers of the Communist Party in America during and after the Russian Revolution. Diane Keaton co-stars as his lover and partner, Louise Bryant, and Jack Nicholson gives a solid supporting performance as the playwright Eugene O’Neill.

This is one of the movies that feels like it’s dangerously close to being lost to history, and if that happens it would be a real shame. The film details the very beginnings of the American bohemian’s flirtation with communist politics, as well as the protracted revolution from Russia’s side of things. It’s fascinating to watch this small community of writers and artists being pulled into the orbit of socialism, and Reed in particular becomes absolutely swallowed by it. Through the course of the film, he goes from being intrepid observer to the beating heart of American communism.

The movie is packed with tremendous performances from Beatty, Keaton, Nicholson and Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman. Scene after scene simply blows you away, with the writing sharp enough to cut through the core of the characters involved. The acting is pitch-perfect, with Keaton especially handling really difficult scenes like they’re no big thing. For a movie that’s over three hours long, it feels like an efficient machine using its own momentum to pull itself along.

For an epic movie, it also feels remarkably grounded. These are exceptional people with passionate minds and big ideals, but they’re meeting in crappy little living rooms or the basements of public buildings. Even when Reed and Bryant go to Russia during the Revolution, the headquarters of the new governments seem stripped bare of any opulence. This makes the movie feel intimate and personal, even as it deals with political upheaval that shaped the world for most of the 20th century.

You have to see this movie. No other American movie details this period of Russia’s history (or the American reaction to it) in quite this way, and the unique perspective is buoyed by the fact that it fires on all cylinders. This is perfect for a Sunday afternoon indoors, with a dinnertime discussion right afterwards.

Rating: 5/5.
These Final Hours (2013)
A meteor has slammed into the northern Atlantic, causing tsunamis and a global firestorm that will reach the coast of western Australia in twelve hours. A young man named James (Nathan Phillips) leaves a woman in her beachside home to head inland and meet the end with a party to end all parties, completely smashed out of his mind. “It’s going to hurt,” he says, “and I don’t want to feel it. I don’t want to feel a thing.”

Of course things don’t go according to plan. He saves a little girl (Angourie Rice) from being brutalized by two men, and finds himself protecting her for the rest of the world’s existence. Along the way, he learns how to face his life just in time for it (and all life on Earth) to end. This sounds like one of those typical indie “realization” stories about the lonely white male protagonist who wakes up to life when a woman enters his life and he falls in love, and in a way that’s exactly what it is.

It’s particularly well-done, though, and the fact that Rose (James’ young charge) is a pre-teen with no possible chance of sexual tension really helps. Instead of James learning how great or enjoyable life is, he’s actually forced to step outside of his own head for a minute and think about the safety and happiness of someone else. The scene where their time together comes to an end is the best in the entire movie, an understated, quiet moment of connection between two people.

I love pre-apocalyptic movies that focus on the ways people fall apart once the artifice of society is no longer there to keep them together. The great Last Night remains my favorite, but this is a solid contender — moody, quiet, but filled with loud and frightening personalities. The ending provides a fitting close and an indelible final image. This is a perfect movie to watch on a hot summer’s day, just so you can go out and appreciate the world around you once it’s over.

Rating: 3/5.

The Great Gatsby (2013)
Baz Luhrmann co-wrote and directed this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novels, and it certainly shows. When you see the wild revelries at Gatsby’s estate, you totally understand what drew him to the material — it’s really a chance for him to release his famously overblown aesthetic all over celluloid, and when has Luhrmann been one to turn away from a good time?

There’s also a painfully romantic story beating beneath the excess that Luhrmann has a little more trouble mining. Nick Carroway (Tobey Maguire) has moved to New York to work on Wall Street, and he quickly falls into the orbit of the upper crust there — through his neighbor, the mysterious and generous Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio); and through his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her old-money husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). Once he’s pulled into their web it gets increasingly complex, and of course, tragic.

One of the things that makes the novel so great is its florid, poetic writing, and that’s something difficult to translate to film. Luhrmann gives it his best shot, though, by using a framing device that allows Nick to write directly about his time with Gatsby. It hints at the genius of Fitzgerald’s prose, but doesn’t quite get there.

Everyone’s so earnest, though, that it’s clear that they’re doing their best with the material — especially Luhrmann. You get the feeling he really, really wanted this to work. There are dazzling visuals, to be sure, and a lot of the heart-sickness within the characters is put across well, but ultimately Gatsby comes across more as an obsessive stalker than a lovestruck suitor. DiCaprio has become great at playing great men, but there’s something a little hard about him; he can’t bring Gatsby’s vulnerability forward nearly as easily as Fitzgerald does in his novel, and the story suffers for it. If Maguire had played him instead…

Still, even though the movie doesn’t quite capture Fitzgerald’s story, there’s a lot of other things to like about it. Luhrmann certainly has an eye for color and style, and the 20s fashions are pitch-perfect. He does wonders with the setting, depicting a New York that’s more a patchwork of neighborhoods than a cohesive city. The nouveau-riche village of West Egg is separated from old-money East End by a bridge and a valley of ashes, where the waste of the coal that powers the city is dumped. The physical distance emphasizes the emotional and social differences in every group you see so, so well.

Even failures can be worth watching, and Luhrmann’s ode to 20s excess is only a near-miss. I recommend it for those times where you feel you need more excitement in your life and need to remember drama does not equal happiness.

Rating: 3/5.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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Why I Loved “Boyhood”

Entertainment 150The 87th annual Academy Awards were last night, and it was a big night for Birdman. Alejandro Inarritu won Best Director for what was admittedly an incredible movie that seemed like one long take over most of its two-hour running time, and the movie itself won Best Picture. A cynic might say that of course Hollywood loves movies that reflect itself more than anything, but that would be diminishing Inarritu’s achievement. Birdman is a tightrope-walk of a movie; it stays with its actors through long, complicated scenes; it dips between natural, honest dialogue and winking meta-text and hilarious slap-stick set pieces and surreal flights of fancy without taking a breath. It really is something, and I see why it’s getting the recognition it did.

That being said, I have to admit that I’m bummed Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture last night. Taking nothing away from Birdman, I would have loved to see Linklater get rewarded for another, different feat in film-making. He rounded up a number of game actors (and children) for a grand experiment in long-form storytelling, the likes of which we may never see again. While it’s true that there are other movies that allow us to see people growing up right before our eyes (hello, the Harry Potter series! I see you, Michael Apted’s Up series!), the episodic nature of Boyhood‘s narrative allows us to look at the process of childhood and parenthood from a bird’s eye view. It shows us simultaneously what it was like to grow up in the 2000s and the timeless challenges that face families across generations.

The more I think about Best Picture winners, the more I want them to serve as something of a time capsule. The Best Picture winners that really stand out are the ones that either serve as a timeless example of its form, or give us a snapshot of what life was like during a particular time frame. That’s why I’m content with say, The Hurt Locker winning in 2010; it was a great snapshot of a particularly thorny time in our country’s history and helps us remember the incredible emotional toll that war can take on a man. I’m not sure too many Best Picture winners do that — offer something timely or timeless.

I love Boyhood because I think it does both. Linklater ties Mason’s arc to a very specific point in time, anchoring us to a place where the idea of family is morphing into something else; in addition to the people who’ve given birth to us, there are all sorts of people who enter our orbit, affecting us strongly for a time. Sometimes they stay with us, and sometimes they leave our orbit and go elsewhere, but the connection changes us just the same. Mason’s contact with two stepfathers (who turn out to be difficult, overbearing men) encourages him towards the more erratic but lighter touch of his biological father and infuses him with a deep distrust of authority figures later on in life. Things that mean an awful lot to us in the moment are consciously forgotten but spin us in different directions, while the constant, mundane contact of those who we’re closest to either encourage those diversions or gently, steadily course-correct us back to who we are. It’s fascinating to see all of Mason’s major experiences lead him to the next thing; the things he sees and observes burrow deep, and sprout later on in the film once he’s able to own the lessons he’s learned.

The broken family, the difficulties his mother faces as she tries to find love and career satisfaction, the earnest and misguided attempts at parenting from a father who’s still maturing speak to something that’s very much happening now. The boundaries of the family and community are expanding and blending and more than ever I think children are seeing their parents not as people who have their shit together, but fragile, frightened human beings who are just doing the best they can. I think it’s important to capture that, to immortalize the nebulous shape of our most fundamental relationships.

At the same time, we see Mason go from a (sort of) blank slate to a young man, with all the ego of youth and the inklings of who he’ll grow to be over the next decade. It’s fascinating to watch him grow up, and it’s fascinating to watch his mother struggle to find her place while she’s trying to provide her children with good and stable lives. While these issues have been shaded by the complexity of our times, they’re still the same issues every parent and child have faced for so long.

Linklater takes these universal problems and expresses them in ways that are thoroughly modern. At the same time, he doesn’t cast judgement on any of the characters throughout their lives; he merely allows them to express themselves as naturally and realistically as they can. At the end of Boyhood, I felt content, compassionate, connected to my fellow man in ways that generally only happen with great stories. While Birdman is a great film, it didn’t quite give me that feeling. Both are great movies; but I think Boyhood is the one that I’d love for people to remember ten years from now.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen either Boyhood or Birdman, please go see both! But…see Boyhood first.

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Movies

 

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