Sunday, March 30, 2014

Divergent- Teen Strong

My youngest child is an avid reader.  She's been anxiously awaiting this movie for months, having devoured all three books of the series.  She's 12 and loved the film, informing me that is was close enough to the books and worth the wait.

Shailene Woodley, who amazed in "The Descendants" and "The Spectacular Now" is off to a great start to her career.  She plays Tris, a teenager in this futuristic adventure.  The world is regulated by five different factions, each championing a different virtue and serving a different function in society, without any cross over.  Abnegation is all about selfless service to others, Dauntless is about bravery and physical strength, Erudite is the intelligentsia valuing academics and logic, Candor is about honesty and honor, and finally Amity is about peace and love (and farming).  At a certain age each citizen if forced to choose a faction.  When Tris chooses Dauntless, after having grown up in Abnegation, she faces her future alone in her new tribe, without contact with family or friends.

The world created by director Neil Burger is in some ways modern and futuristic, and in others a barren, run down, version of our current world.  The future Chicago is surrounded by a wall, protecting us from some undisclosed threat.  The buildings appear bombed out, the trains are rickety, and much of the clothing tatters.  Yet there is sophisticated machinery and weaponry.  The look and feel of this movie is consistent and interesting.  I did find it odd that there seem to be no old people in the future.  Ashley Judd, playing Tris's mother, was just about the oldest person on the planet.

My typical criticism about action movies is the lack of character  and plot development.  The action starts too quickly, without giving us time to get to know and care about the characters.  The more we know, the more we care, and the more the action matters.  "Divergent" was completely opposite.  It felt as though the entire movie was a build up.  We spent hours getting to know the characters, watching them grow and learn.  Tris transitions from a meek girl to a strong and brave warrior, while falling in love with her mentor, Four, played by Theo James.  The two share a wonderful chemistry and it's easy to root for them.  However, after an entertaining set up that I did enjoy, the final action seems to fizzle.  There is no true suspense and no satisfying payoff in the end.  It's almost as if the director suddenly realized he already had two hours in the can but hadn't yet shot the final act, and only had 20 minutes left to wrap it up.

While there was an overly thorough and entertaining character development, I didn't feel that much attention was given to plot development.  I do know that basically one faction was trying to overthrow another, under the guise of protecting the collective society.  However, I'm still not exactly sure what the one faction did to put society at risk or why they had to be eradicated.  The reasons for much of the action was vague at best.  I suspect this is all made more clear in the books.

Overall this was an enjoyable film and I'm looking forward to a sequel.  It was entertaining and well paced until the end.  I do think it'll be enjoyed more by a younger audience.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire- limp

If all you care about is violent combat scenes you'll love this movie.  If you care about plot, acting, or anything else, you probably won't.

I knew the sequel to the amazing "300" was in trouble when I saw there would be a different director.  This uninspired edition takes place after the original 300 all perish at the hands of the cartoonishly evil Xerxes.  The remainder of Greece is now being pulled together by our new hero, Thermistocles, played by Sullivan Stapleton, in an effort to push back the invading Persians, led by anti-hero Aremisia, played by Eva Green.  None of the actors have half the charisma or talent of Gerard Butler, who himself isn't exactly DeNiro.

On the plus side.... the combat scenes are well choreographed and satisfyingly violent for this type of film.  There are more swords going through more various body parts then I can ever remember seeing.  It doesn't end with a blade going through a torso, neck, mouth, eye, or skull.  There are also more amputated limbs and severed heads then you'd expect at a KFC slaughter house.  That being said, it did seem like there were far too many scenes in slow motion.  At times it felt as though the entire movie would be shot S L O W.  There was also a shocking lack of color.  I don't think there was a hint of yellow or green in the entire film.  Even the gallons of shed blood were more dark maroon then red.  Once in a while our hero had on a dark blue cape, which did make him stand out.  I can appreciate using color to set a tone or as a vehicle to amplify the mood but this was just dark for darkness sake.

My brother-in-law, whose taste I don't typically share, but whose opinion I always respect, once told me that a voice-over narration is the lazy man's device.  Most of the plot of this film is shared by voice-over narration, thoroughly making his point.  I don't agree that it's always "wrong" but in this case....... since there was no other real plot development, it was all wrong.

In addition to there being virtually no plot development, and poor acting, there was no chemistry between any of the characters, making it impossible to care if they lived or died.  The one sex scene in the film was as close to rape as a consensual act could be.  I also found it hard to be intimidated by Eva Green's character.  She's a thin woman leading, through fear and intimidation.  Her cowering legions are a collection of sweaty muscle bound Greeks.  There are more six packs in this movie then at the local liquor store.

If all you want is combat, by all means see this film.  If you're expecting a sequel to carry on where "300" left off, you'll be sorely disappointed........ as I was.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Great Beauty- Not

First I should admit that I'm not a huge fan of foreign films, I simply don't always enjoy reading movies.  I also tend to be put off by pure "art films".  That being said, it should be no surprise that I didn't much care for "The Great Beauty", even if it did win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

"The Great Beauty" is what I call a classic "poem movie".  Instead of following a more linear or obvious narrative, like a novel, a poem is more random and less literal.  A poem feels more like a collection of lines, thoughts, or scenes, then a continuous arc of a story.  It's more like several MTV videos then a show.  Poems, to me, are more thought provoking then entertaining.  Poems might leave you wondering "what did that mean?" or who a character is, or how someone or something fits in to the story.  A good movie shouldn't leave you confused about what's happening or what the point is.  To my mind, while watching a great movie, there should be more feeling and reacting, then thinking.

"The Great Beauty" is an Italian film, set in Rome.  Jep, our "hero", is an aging author, recently turned 65, and still living a playboy party life.  His claim to fame having written an important novel in his 20's, but nothing since.  The movie shows his conflict with aging and the meaning of his life.  He's finds himself alone, even at parties he doesn't really want to attend, and surrounded by "friends" he doesn't really like.  He can't even be sure anymore which of his friends he's slept with and doesn't really seem all that interested in genuinely connecting with anyone.  He's a sad, lonely, character contributing nothing.  We're made to pity the one couple who lead normal lives..... loving each other, watching TV together at night, and being in bed before midnight.

The dimensions and the range of aging are demonstrated in several ways.  The music is dramatic and an important character in this film.  It ranges from soft and classical, to heavy modern beats you might hear at a rave.  Even the dancing ranges from isolated stripper-like performance dance, literally performed behind glass, to an old fashioned Conga-line train that is praised for "going nowhere". The costume design also ranges from old fashioned to modern chic.  Older characters are often shown dressed in styles suited to younger characters.  Nobody seems comfortable in their environment or in their own skin.  Ironically none of the main characters is particularly attractive and one is a dwarf.

Perhaps this particular "poem" is trying to tell us that art isn't created but lived.  The "Great Beauty" isn't something we can go to a museum to find, it's in the way we live and the choices we make.  The beauty around us, the music, the town we live in, the people we surround ourselves with, are the art of life.  Maybe that's more important then what we do or what we create.  Several unusual artists are portrayed in less then flattering, even painful, ways.  We're shown a poet whose climax comes by running in to a brick wall to reveal blood oozing from a fresh head wound, a child painter throwing buckets of paint on to a canvas while sobbing, a self indulgent writer shilling for a politician, a dancer who is literally a Forty-something year old stripper, and a photographer whose work consists solely of one self-portrait taken every single day of his life.  None of the artists have any depth or soul, not to mention beauty.  While there are several scenes I enjoyed, characters I found interesting, many visuals I found entertaining, in a nutshell I felt about the film in it's entirety like I did about the artists portrayed in the film....... Pretentious and lacking beauty.

Clearly I must be in the minority with this opinion, given that it won the Oscar for best foreign film.  I welcome all opinions and debate.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Movies you may have missed- 2013

The Oscars have come and gone, even if some of the nominated films are still in theaters.  The summer blockbusters are still weeks away.  This is the annual drought for movie lovers, who, like me, prefer to see films in the theater.  Here are several movies I enjoyed in 2013 which didn't get recognized by the Academy, most of which didn't enjoy as large of an audience as I think they deserved.

I was thinking about why I like certain movies.  There are a few elements that are critical... to me.  First and foremost I simply want to be entertained.  To that end I expect the duration of the film to transport me.  Time should stand still and I should become part of the time and place of the movie.  If I'm checking my watch, or thinking about, or wondering, what's happening then I'm less likely to be captured by the action.  I don't care as much about if it's serious or silly, deep and meaningful or frivolous, as long as I'm entertained.  The single most important element which makes that possible is simple.  I just have to CARE what happens to the character.  It needs to matter.  We can root for him, or against him, hope he finds his love or gets his comeuppance, but in the end we just have to care.  I suspect it's the writing that makes us care more then any single element.  The characters, human or not, are developed and flushed out in the script.  The look and visuals of the film, the cinematography, the effects, the music and sound, the editing, the direction, and of course the acting all simply enhance or magnify the degree to which we care.

So, here are a few movies I saw in 2013, which didn't enjoy a large audience but that had characters I cared about.  I'd put "The Butler" on the list but it made over 100 million, while the others at most made 21.

1.  THE ICEMAN:  I'm typically less impressed by "based on a true story", but somehow when it's a biopic I find that less of an issue.  Think "Walk the Line", "Capote", or "Ray"........  In "The Iceman" Michael Shannon portrays contract killer Richard Kuklinski who recently died in prison after being suspected in more then a hundred murders for the mob.  The film has a dark edgy feel reminiscent of old Scorsese, a-la "Mean Streets".  Director Ariel Vromen expertly manages to capture the look and feel of the 80's.  Michael Shannon, best known for his performances in "Boardwalk Empire" plays Kuklinski as a cold, calculating, relentless, but not conscious-less killer.  The only time we see any heart is when it comes to his family, whom he clearly loves and wants to protect.  Somehow Shannon manages to play the character in a flat monotone of murderous intent but yet we're able to see his humanity.  I've often objected to the lack of range, or arc, of emotion in such characters.  They are typically played so stoic that we're left cold, can't connect, and ultimately don't care.  Somehow Shannon pulls it off, being cold and unrelenting, yet letting us see his deeper love and concern for his wife and children.  Compare that to the failed deadpan performance of another gifted actor, Ryan Gosling, in "Drive".  Lesser roles well played by a terrific case including Chris Evans, Winona Ryder, David Schwimmer, James Franco and Ray Liotta make this film worth seeing.

2.  THE SPECTACULAR NOW:  It's all about the writing.  This gem of a coming of age film was written by Scott Neustadter, who also wrote one of my favorite Romantic Comedies of recent years "(500) Days of Summer".  He has an authentic way of capturing the feeling and the tone of youth.  He seems to understand the conflicts that confront even the most well adjusted adolescent.  The film is about Sutter, played by Miles Teller, a high school kid, who is conflicted about everything and everybody in his life.  I'm not sure why I felt so connected to his character but that's the beauty of film.  After the writing I credit Miles Teller.  This is the first film of his I've seen and I found myself hypnotized by his charm and skill.  He has a Tom Hanks every-man quality and a charisma seldom seen in such a young actor.  I'm really looking forward to seeing more of his work in the future.  This is not your typical boy meets girl movie and I strongly recommend it.

3.  THE WAY WAY BACK:  More people, still not enough, saw this coming of age film which in my opinion it wasn't quite as effective as "The Spectacular Now".   Liam James plays Duncan, a struggling teen on a beach vacation with his Mom (Toni Collette), her asshole of a boyfriend (Steve Carell), and his sister.  Duncan is conflicted by his own identity and his place in his family and in the world.  Not an uncommon theme.  He takes a job at the local water park amusement center.  He learns about himself and life under the watchful eye of Owen (Sam Rockwell) who hasn't quite grown up himself.   This movie has a few more "that can't happen" moments then I like to see in a serious movie but not enough to seriously detract.  There are a lot of laughs and a few poignant moments as well.

4.  ENOUGH SAID:   This is  marvelous film made for an adult audience and told with a female sensibility.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the recently deceased James Gandolfini, along with Catherine Keener, give deeply soulful and authentic performances.  The movies gives us a peek in to the lives of real people struggling with real issues.  How do we move on, how do we find love or companionship after divorce?  Who are we when we're not in a relationship?  What do we want and what do we NEED from a potential mate?  How do we deal with the loss of our children when they move out?  How do we deal with our children when they become adults and their own people......who we may not understand or even like?  This is a tender tale beautifully told and acted.  I cringed at times, laughed more then a few times, but always cared!

5.  ABOUT TIME:  This romantic and quirky time travel Rom Com was a lot of fun.  Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) learns from his father (Bill Nighy) that he can travel backi in time, simply by going in to a dark space and wishing it.  What would you do if you could have countless do-overs?  How would you improve your life?  Tim's primary focus is love and family.  His love interest is played by none other then Rachel McAdams who made her name in everyone's favorite love story "The Notebook".  Sure, there are plenty of those "that can't happen" moments and the rules about time travel are murky at best.  However, the genuine emotions, the chemistry between characters, and the spot-on performances carry this film.  I was easily able to accept the premise and move on from there.  I found the moments between father and son to be most powerful.  That may have something to do with my personal fondness for such scenarios, but more so because of the writing and performances.  Bill Nighy steals every scene he's in.  You can't take this movie too seriously but it held my attention from start to finish and I left the theater with a smile on my face.  What more could you want?

6.  THE KINGS OF SUMMER:  I'm not sure why I have so many movies on the list about teenagers, but here's another one.  This one is about three friends who are fed up with being kids.  They find a clearing deep in the woods and build a "house" in which to live.  They hope to become men, living off the land, fending for themselves.  This movie has a true indie feel and while flawed in several ways was different enough to be interesting.

7.  RUSH:  I'm not sure why this movie didn't do better at the box office.  It has the charm and rugged good looks of Chris Hemsworth.  It has the high octane power of formula 1 car racing.  It has the tension of a deep rooted rivalry and conflict of style.  It also has the expert direction and easy story telling of Ron Howard, who admittedly is hit ("Apollo 13", "A Beautiful Mind", "Frost/Nixon") and miss ("Far and Away", "Edtv").  In the end I enjoyed the look of the film and cared about the characters.  Not exactly a chick flick but I think this movie deserves a chance.

As always I do hope someone actually reads this.
As always I welcome any and all comments........ be they in agreement or to tell me I'm out to lunch.
I also welcome comments about movies I haven't "reviewed".  I just simply enjoy talking film.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Oscar's Best Picture Review

As in most years I have seen all the movies that have been nominated for an Oscar in the major categories.  More accurately I have seen them all in the theater.
As this is my first experience with blogging I decided to start with a quick review, or opinion, about each of the films that have been nominated for Best Picture.

I should mention that I've been addicted to movies since I was roughly 12 years old.  Every year I probably go to the theater 40-50 times.  I enjoy all sorts of film ranging from the artsy indie types all the way to the summer blockbuster commercial types; and pretty much everything in between.  I'm particularly drawn to drama and action, especially if it's on the darker side.  I just find sad, demented, tortured, and angry more interesting then happy.  Horror and silly, slapstick, comedy are probably my least favorite genres but I have enjoyed any number of both.  My primary gauge to judging a movie is how entertained I was.  If I'm moved or if I learn something, I consider that a bonus.  I do not go to the movies to feel good, but I do like to feel something, even if it's sadness.

So, I will give my opinion about Oscar's Best Picture nominees for 2013.  I will review them in no particular order.

1.  AMERICAN HUSTLE:  I understand that this movie is one of the front runners to win Best Picture.  Director David O. Russell has assembled an A list cast and it shows.  The movie was well written, interesting from start to finish, with rich characters brilliantly acted by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence.  My issues with the film were few but significant.  While I felt Jennifer Lawrence's performance was quite good I found her character to be unbelievable.  I have heard many contrary opinions from those who found her character to be absolutely spot-on.  However, I found it hard to believe anyone could be so self delusional, naive, and unaware, while still being so clever, manipulative, and insightful at the same time.  I didn't think she deserved the Oscar win over Jessica Chastain last year, and won't be rooting for her this year, which is not to deny her significant talent.  I also felt the film lacked the big scene; the one unforgettable moment.  While there were many scenes demonstrating acting brilliance, like Cooper trying to seduce Adams or Bale scheming with Adams, not to mention the bathroom scene between Adams and Lawrence.  Still, there wasn't that one moment that jumps to mind when I think about the movie.  In fact, there were many moments that felt like I'd seen them before.......maybe in "Casino" or "Goodfellas".  All that being said, I won't be disappointed if it wins the Best Picture award.

2.  NEBRASKA:  Another actor driven movie.  It was fun to see Bruce Dern, who clearly doesn't work enough.  June Squibb stole every scene she was in; a true joy to watch.  Even big screen novice Will Forte held his own.  Still this movie, while being an acting gem, was somewhat slow moving, bordering or boring to me.  Dern's character thinks he's won a million dollars in an obvious sweepstakes scam.  I kept wondering why nobody just explains his delusion to all those who accept it as true.  It would only have taken a few sentences to let the world know he was delusional but then we wouldn't have had a movie.  I'd only recommend this film to acting aficionados and true indie movie lovers.

3.  CAPTAIN PHILIPS:  Based on a true story, which is a tag line that should give pause in most cases.  The movie was solid but far from overwhelming.  I just never felt the sense of menace needed to drive the dramatic tension.  Not once did I think Hanks might die.  I was riveted by Barkhad Abdi and was thrilled to learn his performance was rewarded with an Oscar nomination.  That alone wasn't enough to make it a truly great film.  It was entertaining enough and certainly worth seeing.  I am a fan of Tom Hanks but didn't find this performance Oscar worthy, and am not one of those crying about his being "snubbed".   Joaquin Phoenix has a far better case for being overlooked in "Her".

4.  PHILOMENA:  Another film "based on a true story" but far more interesting and relevant then "Captain Philips".  It's a beautifully written and acted film about the meaning of faith and forgiveness.  "Philomena" shows what it is to struggle with your faith and yet never lose faith.  It's insightful and poignant, but still clever and funny at times.  It is a slow moving film and likely won't appeal to a younger demographic.  I don't think a movie like this has a chance to win any of the major awards but it is a gem!

5.  DALLAS BUYERS CLUB:  This was my favorite movie of the year and the one I hope wins for Best Picture, although I don't think it has a chance.  The character masterfully played by Matthew McConaughey shows the greatest "arc" of any of those up for best Actor.  He takes us on a journey it'll be hard to forget.  We start out hating him, pitying him, cringing at his antics, and by the end we are genuinely rooting for him, even falling in love with him  Despite his transformation he manages to remain true to his core self.  There is no epiphany, no bolt of lightening.  He simply grows, learns and evolves in to a better person; flawed but better.  Jared Leto plays a cross dressing drug addict in truly unforgettable fashion.  He will win the Oscar for best supporting actor and he'll deserve it.  This is not a feel good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a must see!

6.  12 YEARS A SLAVE:  Clearly the most important film in the group and the likely winner for Best Picture.  The deeply personal and deeply painful look in to slavery was gripping and memorizing.  Steve McQueen has a way of showing inner pain in a unique and powerful way.  2011's "Shame" was perhaps the most sad and tormented portrayal of a human being I can remember seeing.  The topic, the performances, the direction, and the visuals were powerful and meaningful.  I will have no objection if it wins the award for Best Picture, in fact I expect it to.  My one "issue" with the film was the writing.  It seemed that every single characters, no matter how high or low their station in life....... from slave to slave owner...... spoke as if the words were written by Shakespeare.  There was an eloquence that was so much more flowery then seemed natural.  This is an important film and I strongly recommend it.

7.  GRAVITY:  A thrill ride of a movie.  If it's not already a ride at Disney Land it should be.  Much to my surprise I have heard several people say things like "it was cool to see but lacked a story".  I couldn't disagree more.  There are essentially only two human characters in the movie but the lead was played by "space".  The deep peril of facing near certain death, the cliff hanger feeling knowing debris was imminently inbound, the shear terror of being alone miles above early...... simply gripping.  I also found the story to be fascinating and the visuals to be mind blowing.  This is one movie that deserves to be seen on the big screen....... IMAX if you can find it.  Even better, the run time is only 91 minutes.   A bit of a pet peeve of mine- the need to make all movies well over 2 hours long.

8.  THE WOLF OF WALL STREET:  Martin Scorsese is probably the best living Director.  Leonardo DiCaprio is at worst in the conversation for best living male actor.  Terence Winter is a writer without peer.  The movie was absolutely entertaining and time seemed to fly.  That being said, I'm not sure it needed to be a full 180 minutes long.  I can't remember a movie that glorified drug use more.  Heck, it made me feel like I needed to use drugs if I want to enjoy my life to the maximum.  The decadence and debauchery was legendary.  What bothered me was the degree to which they choose demonstrate how "over the top" the characters were.  I understand that "over the top" and "out of control" is what it was all about  The characters lived in a rule free, narcissistic, greed fueled world.   Still, it went over the line of what I found believable.  When a movie plays it straight; meaning it tries to make you believe "that could happen", then it should stick to that form or story telling.  I don't mind if a movie wants to go the unbelievable route- heck, I loved "The Hangover".  All I ask is for it to be consistent.  This film just crossed the line from plausible drama to just plain silly too often.  All that being said, I did really enjoy the film.  In my opinion DiCaprio got robbed when he didn't win for "The Aviator" but I don't think he deserves it this time.

9.  HER:  This is the least discussed and I believe the least well known of the nominated films.  It also happens to be one of my favorites.  Joaquin Phoenix continues to add to his resume in impressive fashion.  No matter the role he takes on he seems to inhabit the character in an authentic way.  There seems to be a sadness or torment within him that he doesn't mind sharing with us in his performances.  This movie is relevant in a number of ways.  It explores the impact automation may have on all of our futures.  Will it be a blessing or a curse?  Spike Jonze gives us a glimpse in to what may lay ahead.  However, the film really has less to do with what the future holds or anything abstract.  At it's core it's a film about loneliness and what we're willing to do to combat it.  Humans are intrinsically social creatures and we all need a connection to someone.  Does that someone need to be human?  This is a thought provoking work of art.

I do hope someone reads my thoughts.
If you have read my blog and wish to share your thoughts I'd welcome it.
I hope to continue writing more detailed reviews as I watch movies going forward.
I think I'll also give a few suggestions for movies people may have missed in 2013 that I think are worth seeing.