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Boyhood

I guess you either love Richard Linklater or you don’t. I don’t, and from what I can gather, I am the only movie lover in the world that doesn’t love his movies. “Boyhood,” which is currently playing at the Gaslight, has a perfect score at metacritic.com. I’ve never seen a movie keep a perfect score on that site for more than a week – some critic is always willing to come along and burst the bubble, to complain about some small element of a truly fantastic movie. But “Boyhood” has been out for a month, and stands unassailed thus far. Everyone loves it. Everyone but me.  (Too bad metacritic.com doesn’t pay attention to this small but excellent newspaper. I could be the bubble-burster.)

“Boyhood” was filmed over a period of eleven years, from 2002 to 2013. Linklater would get the group of actors together every year, shoot a few vignettes, and then send them on their way.  This gives us the chance to watch the main character, a kid named Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow from first grade to his first day of college.  I guess this is impressive, experimental filmmaking, sort of. But just a few years ago, I got to watch Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson grow up on film, and those films had dragons in them.

There are no dragons in “Boyhood.”  There’s hardly any plot at all (and I swear to God, if another critics puts plot in quotation marks, I’m going to slap someone) or narrative structure, or dramatic tension. Linklater has done away with all storytelling techniques altogether, apparently because he’s not interested in telling a story.  I’m sure there’s some nonsensical reason behind this; I can just hear Linklater spouting off that “life doesn’t have a narrative arc, bro – it doesn’t happen in three acts” but that makes me just want to answer back that this isn’t life, this is a movie, and even if it is a movie about life, even if it did take you twelve years to make it, it’s still a movie, it’s three and a half hours of my butt stuck in a theater seat, and would a TINY BIT OF STORYTELLING really kill your precious artistic vision?

Mason Jr. has an older sister, played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei (which begs the question: was it really even all that hard to get these actors together once a year, when one of them is in almost all of your movies, and another lives in your house?) Their parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, are divorced before the movie starts. They got married and had kids too young.  Now Arquette is trying to figure out what to do with her life with two kids in tow; she works a job, goes to school at night, and does her best to keep her kids clothed and fed and all of them sane. Hawke, meanwhile, is too busy having adventures in Alaska and driving fast cars and being in a band to be a father. He shows up periodically, takes them bowling, spouts confused platitudes about Life and Love and Relationships at them, and then disappears again. One of these moments that I found particularly irritating: he won’t let Mason Jr. use the bumpers at the bowling lane, because “life doesn’t give you bumpers.” I wanted to shout at him, “Yes, life does give you bumpers. They’re called parents.” But since he refuses to play that role for his kids, deciding he’d rather be their cool older friend and slacker guru instead, I guess it makes sense that they’ll have to throw gutter balls until they can figure out how to keep it in the lane by themselves.

Mason Jr.’s mom is so desperate for some sense of structure and stability that she keeps going overboard, falling for anti-Masons. The first is one of her professors, a man with kids of his own, who descends from closet alcoholic to complete drunken, abusive nightmare. This is the best part of the movie, because a) Ethan Hawke isn’t in it, and b) there’s actually something at stake; this guy is dangerous, and when Arquette does finally leave him, it is heart-wrenching to see the other two kids, who have become friends and siblings to Mason and his sister, left behind, and realize they (and we) are probably never going to see them again.  But a few years later Arquette falls for a sullen ex-Marine who doesn’t seem to be enjoying his job as a corrections officer very much. He clashes with teenage Mason, who is longhaired, paints his nails, and smokes pot. The Marine disappears from the film abruptly and without explanation, but by this time, we can pretty much guess what happened.

Both of these guys serve to make Ethan Hawke look better – he might be a hipster windbag, but at least he’s not alcoholic and abusive. But then Hawke comes back for the final hour of the film, and we’re reminded just why Arquette could not stand to live with this guy. He’s settled down now, married a nice Christian gal and had a baby, sold the sports car and bought a minivan, and grown a horrible Ned Flanders mustache. But he’s still a rock star philosopher on the inside. And just when it seems like he ought to be working hard to listen, inviting his son to express his own thoughts and feelings about life, the universe, and everything, he just Will. Not. Shut. Up.

Hawke is Linklater’s voice in the film, and I find Linklater unbearably preachy. I watched the entire “Before Sunrise” trilogy, and didn’t like any of them; I thought they should all be subtitled “Why Love is Impossible When you’re Completely Self-Obsessed.” Linklater doesn’t preach any particular religion or philosophy, but he pushes his particular brand of half-assed existentialism very aggressively in his films. And, to give credit where credit’s due, his slacker philosophy appears to be resonating, at least with a ton of critics, who don’t think it’s preachy at all, just the straight up TRUTH about life, bro.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Road to Paloma & The Lesser Blessed

Road-to-Paloma

Two pretty decent films about Native Americans (and featuring Native American actors) have been released on DVD recently.

“The Road to Paloma” stars Jason Momoa, who also directed the film. Momoa, who is of Hawaiian, Pawnee, German and Irish descent, is probably best known for playing the fierce Khal Drogo in HBO’s series “Game of Thrones.” He’s also the star of SundanceTV’s series “The Red Road,” which is about Ramapouh Mountain Indians in New Jersey. In fact, according to the internet, he got that role because of this movie.

Momoa is easy to look at, an icon of beefy masculinity, but he also handles himself admirably behind the camera.  “Road to Paloma” can’t boast the most interesting or original plot, but it is chock full of beautiful and striking images, and there’s a sense of moody grace to its proceedings.  And even though the whole thing is pretty much a cliche, Momoa manages to keep it from feeling campy, silly, or ham-handed.

He plays a member of the Mojave tribe on the run from the police, after avenging the violent death of his mother. The death and the vengeance all take place before the movie starts; it’s essentially a road trip movie, as Momoa rides his tricked out chopper across painted desert and endeavours to deliver his mother’s ashes to their final resting place. Along the way, he befriends a wayward rock star, fixes Lisa Bonet’s radiator (Bonet and Momoa are husband and wife in real life, and she also co-stars in “The Red Road), and visits his baby nephew. But the FBI are on this trail, and it’s only a matter of time before this idyllic journey must come to a tragic end.

lesserblessed_03

“The Lesser Blessed” takes place in the Northwest Territories, which feels like a completely different planet from the canyons and rock formations Momoa motorcycles past. Based on this movie, there’s no beauty up north, only bleakness, and people trying their hardest to fight off both the coldness outside and the darkness within.

Joel Evans plays a loner Dogrib (Tlicho) teenager who is contantly picked on and doesn’t have any friends. He’s in love with the prettiest girl in school, but can hardly say hi to her.  He’s new in town, and has a dark secret, which only one other boy in town knows about, and that kid seems determined to make his life miserable.

But then Kiowa Gordon shows up, and everything gets a little better. Gordon has the great hair, winning smile and easy charisma of a young Johnny Depp.  And he knows how to fight. He stands up for Evans, befriends him, and then seduces the pretty girl. This may not be the ideal situation for Evans — he’s essentially the third wheel everywhere they go — but it’s a lot better than things used to be.

“The Lesser Blessed” is essentially a high school coming of age story, and, like “Road to Paloma,” isn’t exactly the most original material.  When Evans’ big secret is revealed, he discovers who his real friends are, and finds out that sometimes the people who seem hardest to trust are most deserving of it, and the ones you think are close are going to bail on you as soon as things get tough.  These might not be the most profound revelations, but, like “Paloma,” this movie doesn’t oversell itself, and the result is a pleasant, if moody, movie experience.

In both of these movies, sense of place is important, but the places they portray are somewhat romanticized on the screen.  The deserts in the southwest are filled with a rugged beauty that seems made for motorcycle road trips; however, they’re also full of big empty spaces between those beautiful places, and those never show up in “Road to Paloma.”  And, while I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the Northwest Territories, I trust that life there isn’t quite as bleak and ugly as it appears to be in “The Lesser Blessed.” There’s beauty to be found up North, too, I’m sure of it.

I’d recommend both of these movies to anyone interested in Native cinema — they may not be big award-winners, but they’re both solidly entertaining and artistic pieces of indie filmmaking.  However, viewer beware: there is some objectionable material in both of them.  “Paloma” features a scene in a strip club, with all that that entails, and the teenagers in “Blessed” use drugs at a house party. Neither movie glorifies this kind of behavior (in fact, “Paloma” is clearly frowning on it,) but it’s there, nonetheless. I have no doubt that some people will be offended by it. You’ve been warned.

 

 

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Blancanieves

This movie was #9 on my “Top Ten Movies of 2013” list. 

Some movies are different just for different’s sake, and when I hear that a movie is silent and black and white, that’s what I expect. Any who reads this blog regularly knows I wasn’t very impressed with “The Artist,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2011, despite the fact that nostalgia was almost all it had going for it as a movie. The old-fashioned techniques didn’t serve that movie, they were that movie – take them away, and all you’d have was a mediocre romantic comedy. But sometimes the filmmakers find that the road less traveled is the most effective way to tell a story in an entertaining and engaging way, and that’s what happens in “Blancanieves.”

Snow White adaptations are a dime a dozen lately, but none have the guts to reimagine the story the way that Pablo Berger has – or the storytelling chops to make the audience feel like maybe this is the original story, and all the others are just remakes. Set in 1920s Spain, Carmen (Macarena Garcia, who likes like Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister far more than Maggie does) is the daughter of a famous bullfighter, born into a tragedy: her beatiful mother dies giving birth to her on the same day that her father’s career is ended by a moment of distraction in the bullfighting ring. (“You must never take your eyes off the bull,” he tells her much later.) Maribel Verdu, surely one of Spain’s finest actresses, plays the wicked stepmother, who nurses the father through his convalescence and then shoves him into a corner room and ignores him once they’re married. Poor Carmen wishes her stepmother would ignore her, but instead she is viciously cruel to her, and the only moments of peace she can find are when she sneaks upstairs to spend time with her father.

I suppose you know pretty well what happens after that. Carmen wakes up in the traveling caravan of a troupe of bullfighting dwarves — their show is more of a freak show comedy than actual tauromachy. Carmen can’t remember who she is, but instead of immediately washing their dishes and making their beds, she joins them in the bull ring, and finds she can hold her own just fine, and more.

“Blancanieves” is more in the vein of the wonderfully weird 1932 film “Freaks” (which actually wasn’t silent) than last year’s “The Artist” or the movies it was emulating. But it also borrows liberally, in its quick cuts and overall storytelling style, from music videos – which, are, essentially, modern silent films, after all. “Silent” never meant no music; it just meant no dialogue. It is chock full of arresting images – like the moment, after her nanny’s sudden death, young Carmen’s pure white confirmation dress is dipped into a basin, and emerges black – a mourning dress. It’s also not too concerned with ending happily. “True love’s kiss” has been exposed as a sham over and over again in films lately (see “Frozen” and “Maleficent”) but perhaps never so scandalously as it is here.

I suppose a silent, black and white film about a bullfighting fairy tale character isn’t for everyone, but generally I find that the movies that are for everyone really aren’t for me. “Blancanieves” has flair, it has wit, it is visually striking and completely engaging. It’s easily one of my favorite movies from 2013.

 

Random Notes:

–Other recent adaptations of Snow White include “Snow White and the Huntsmen,” starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, and “Mirror Mirror,” starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins. Both got middling reviews. I haven’t seen either of them.

–One of my favorite adaptations from the original story: instead of a magic mirror, we have a fashion magazine. The evil queen was supposed to make the cover, but get supplanted and bumped to page 12 by the sudden sensation of this bullfighting beauty.  Who’s the fairest of them all?

 

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

La Grande Belleza (The Great Beauty)

Calling “La Grande Belleza” a remake of Federico Fellini’s classic “La Dolce Vita,” may be going too far.  But saying Paolo Sorrentino’s new film quotes the old one, or to simply point out how similar they are, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  They are almost the same film, separated by about 50 years.  Apparently, not much in Rome has changed in half a century.

Rome is one of a few cities, that, when it appears in film, operates more like a character than a setting. Things happen there that wouldn’t happen anywhere else, and the only explanation necessary is, “It’s Rome.”  Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film takes a look a the Eternal City that is at times affectionate, disgusted, bored, fascinated, amazed, and disappointed. To perfectly capture the unique feel of the film, I suggest a drinking game. Every time you see a nun (or a group of nuns,) take a drink.

And while it’s basically impossible to talk about this film without mentioning that “La Dolce Vita,” it’s equally impossible to talk about Paolo Sorrentino without talking about Italian cinema in general. It’s been dormant for a number of years, but nobody makes films like the Italians do, and if you’re not ready for their brand of exuberance mixed with melancholy cut through with blatant symbolism and over-the-top imagery, you might be put off by it.  My recommendation: go with it.  Not everyone has to make art films the way the Japanese do (quiet, restrained, full of long, unbroken shots of sunlight on furniture.) Thank God for the Italians.

Sorrentino takes a look at the Eternal City through the eyes of Jep, one-time king of the socialites. He might still be king, but he’s thinking seriously about abdicating the throne. He once wrote a book that won him a prestigious, or possibly pretentious, award. Since then, he’s been a cultural columnist. He’s maybe a step on the social ladder above Marcelo Mastroianni in “La Dolce Vita,” who was a gossip columnist, but both approach the glitterati with the same attitude. He floats through it all, the parties, the orgies, the Botox religious ceremonies, participating, but then stepping out of it, part of it, and apart from it, seduced by it, disgusted by it. I suspect that I am not supposed to like him as much as I do. Other critics find him jaded, joyless, cynical. I find him… grounded. He knows the difference between art and nonsense, even when none around him seem to. He interviews a preposterous artist (she paints the Soviet flag into her pubic hair and then head butts stone walls) and reduces her to tears with the simplest of questions. He delicately, but thoroughly, deconstructs the personal narrative of a close friend who thinks she’s better everyone else. And then he invites her down off her high horse, into the mud with him and everyone else. We need each other. What we don’t need is pretension, deception, and falseness. Jep understands that great art is sometimes decadent, but sheer decadence is nothing like art.

The people Jep hangs around with, the people he loves, are mostly frauds. Some of them have developed better, more complicated ways to cope with their emptiness and desperation than others. Almost all of them are performing in one way or another, for each other, for posterity, for themselves. The director treats these characters with he same balance of disgust and affection that Jep has for them, and I’d guess that’s the way he feels about Rome as a whole.

I guess what’s most impressive about “Belleza” is that it can come so close to sacred territory — La Dolce Vita was surely one of the best films to come out of Europe in the ’60s — without ever feeling irritating or repetitive.  I never felt like, “this is fine, but if I wanted to watch a film about Roman decadence with a bored and cynical protagonist in the middle, I’d just go watch “La Dolce Vita.”  (The way I felt after watching Super 8, JJ Abrams, homage to E.T.) Like “La Dolce Vita,” this film is really just a series of related vignettes, more interested in reflection and examination than in telling a story. “La Grande Belleza” lacks the formal structure of Fellini’s film, and doesn’t have anything coming close to the grand bookends of that film (heaven at the beginning, hell at the end,) but maybe that’s just as well. Fellini was known for his bold flourishes, and a lot of other directors are less well known for trying to do the same thing, and failing. Maybe that’s why this film never feels like a pale imitation of that other one; Sorrentino has a keen sense of what to imitate, and what to stay away from.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Top 10 Films of 2013

Here are my ten favorite films from last year.  To the best of my knowledge, all of these are now available on DVD, so you don’t have to try and remember and/or hunt them down in obscure theaters with sticky floors and smelly seats.

I haven’t reviewed hardly any of these yet, so stay tuned… I’ll get to them soon.

10. Frances Ha

A difficult, funny, frustrating movie about growing up, and letting your dreams and ambitions grow up, too.  ”Frances Ha” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” are very similar movies, but Noah Baumbach wins out over the Coen Brothers because he seems to genuinely like his title character.

 

 

9. Blancanieves

I wish all the people who went ape over “The Artist” a few years ago would take the time to watch and seriously consider this overlooked silent film. Charming, strange, and wonderfully engaging, it’s a retelling of “Snow White” (as a bullfighter) that makes all the Hollywood remakes seem tepid and tame.

 

8. 12 Years A Slave

A powerfully moving film that reminds us, just how brutal and unjust the practice of slavery in America really was.  How can it be that on one side of an imaginary line in the sand, you are a person with rights and dignity, and on the other, you are nothing more than property? The whole cast is great, but powerful performances for Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o set the pace.

 

7. Mud

Everyone’s talking about Matthew McConaughey’s performance in “Dallas Buyers Club,” but I don’t think drastic weight loss equals great acting (and found the plot of that film overly conventional and thin in places.) He does solid, less glamorous work here, as a fugitive hiding in the woods who must rely on two young boys to bring him food and help him reunite with his girl. But the film really belongs to Tye Sheridan, a kid trying to understand his own parents’ divorce (and the mystery of adult love and relationships) through his friendship with this stranger in the woods.

6. The Spectacular Now

I’ll admit it, I’m a sucker for a great coming-of-age story, and this is one is even better than “Mud.” Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley have great chemistry together, and Woodley might be the next Jennifer Lawrence.  But more important than that, the characters here feel real, and deep — you can see them acting out of deep issues that don’t all get neatly resolved by the end of the film. This is one you’ll watch, and keep thinking about for days, and then watch again, and see things you missed the first time.

5. Frozen

I have two kids under the age of six, so we’ve watched Disney’s latest about a million times in the last two months. I should be thoroughly sick of it. But the more I watch it, the more I appreciate it. This is Disney Animation’s best film in twenty years, a film that not only defies convention in satisfying ways (the handsome prince is a jerk! true love’s kiss comes from a sibling!) but is also loaded with legitimately great songs, and a surprisingly complex (but never overloaded) plot.

 

4. Short Term 12

This is nothing more or less than a fantastic indie flick about two semi-adults running a group home and trying to figure out their own lives, and the love between them. Every moment rings true, every character feels like a real person. In a movie season where everyone seems obsessed with their own problems, it’s so refreshing to watch two people so devoted to helping others that they may not have the time and/or energy to invest in their own relationship. Then again, maybe they do.

 

3. Her

Speaking of people who are self-obsessed… the miracle of “Her” is that it manages to take a story about a loner falling in love with his computer and make it feel like something other than a farce.  Watching this, I engaged in a serious debate with myself about whether this relationship was “real” or not. This is the most profound, thoughtful movie of the year, as well as one of the most engaging and entertaining.

 

2. Gravity

Wow… just wow. Nobody has come close to accomplishing as much with CGI (and 3D) as Alfonso Cuaron does in “Gravity.”  This is a knuckle biter from the first moment to the last, as well as a startlingly beautiful (and surprisingly deep) film.  Hey Hollywood hitmakers: more like this, please.

 

 

1. American Hustle

I seriously don’t know how David O. Russell does it.  Nobody else is making movies like this. How in the world does he create movies so fun, so full of manic energy and pure insanity, without losing the thread altogether and descending into outright craziness?  That’s the genius of “American Hustle;” it walks the razor edge of chaos in such an invigorating way, watching it is almost like watching a tightrope walker teeter but never fall. Fantastic filmmaking. Easily the best film of the year.

 

 

Others that almost made the list (definitely worth watching:) 

  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • The Past
  • August: Osage County
  • Philomena
  • The Place Beyond the Pines
  • The Bling Ring
  • Saving Mr. Banks
  • All Is Lost
  • The Kings of Summer

 

Top 10 Films of 2012

Top 10 Films of 2011

Top 10 Films of 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

Top 10 Films of 2008

Top 10 Films of 2007

Top 100 Films 2000-2009

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Maleficent

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Do we really need another prequel? Another origin story? Is it that important to know what all our heroes looked like when they were still in diapers, and to witness the tragic events that turned good guys into bad guys? Wolverine, Magneto, Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch… who’s next? Donald Rumsfield?

But just because a tune is familiar doesn’t mean the right artist can’t totally kill it. (In a good way.) And that’s what happens with “Maleficent.” The general outline of the story is overly familiar, but Angelina Jolie puts so much soul into her performance as the wicked fairy, she saves this one from the junkpile.

Jolie plays the title character, a powerful fairy who rules over a kingdom of magical creatures. On the other side of the river are the humans, who are greedy and mean and don’t like magic.  A boy crosses the river and wins the trust of the fairy queen, but, back on his side of the river, he is overwhelmed by ambition. When the king declares that whoever can kill the fairy queen will marry his daughter and become the next king, he betrays the trust of his friend (and love?) in a shocking manner, stealing her magnificent wings and presenting them as evidence of her death.

Pause there. The scene when Jolie discovers that she has been betrayed and violated is easily the most intense and disturbing in the movie. You may have heard that Maleficent has a “rape scene;” this is it. Thankfully there is no scene of violent sexual assault in this kids’ movie, but the way Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent’s sense of loss, of violation, of anger and hurt and disbelief is heart wrenching and unforgettable. It’s a powerful moment in the film, but also the main reason why I would not take my daughter to see this movie. This is not kids’ stuff.

In line with the old adage that “hurting people hurt people,” Jolie transfers her kingdom into a dark place, builds a wall of thorns between herself and the humans, and then puts a curse on the king’s daughter — this part you’ll remember from “Sleeping Beauty,” and it plays verbatim here. But when the cursed infant is placed in the care of three (very irritating) fairies who might as well be the Three Stooges, the job of keeping Aurora alive until the curse can kick in sort of inadvertently falls to Maleficent herself. If left up to the stupid fairies, she’ll be dead before she turns three.

And I guess that’s the problem with putting a sixteen year delay on your revenge; it gives you a ton of time to sit and think about it.  Maleficent calls Aurora “Beastie,” first out of hatred and disgust, but eventually, with affection.  Again, this should be really cheesy and predictable, and ok, it kind of is, but Jolie really sells it. It works, and it’s because she doesn’t over-act, doesn’t chew the scenery, doesn’t camp it up. It’s really a pretty quiet performance from Jolie, and because of that, the big, loud, frightening moments really work. In the craft of acting, less is almost always more, but movies like this (and actresses like Jolie) very rarely grasp that. I was pleasantly surprised.

But of course, the curse has to happen anyway, because, well, there is that 1959 Disney film, after all, and you can’t just ignore it and hope it’ll go away. But at a key moment, “Maleficent” takes a page straight from “Frozen,” and while it’s kind of refreshing (and undoes the worst of the sexism from the ’59 film,) it’s enough to make a guy wonder if there’s anything left for the non-fairer sex in the wonderful world of Disney. Will handsome young princes be relegated to sidekick roles (at best) for the next 50 years? Well, I guess that would be fair and just.

As I watched it, I wondered who “Maleficent” was for – I certainly would not take my five year old daughter to see it, and I’m not sure I’d take a twelve year old to see it, either. It’s dark, and intense, and really never lets up. Elle Fanning is given the task of bringing some sunshine to the picture as Aurora, but she doesn’t have anywhere near the screen presence to compete with Jolie’s darkness. I hesitate to blame the young actress, though; she really doesn’t isn’t given all that much to work with. Probably the physical comedy of the three fairies was supposed to lighten things up, but they are, without a doubt, the worst part of the movie, and just make a black mood blacker. Maleficent isn’t just hurt and angry, she’s surrounded by brightly colored idiots.

It is interesting, and satisfying, to watch Maleficent journey from hurt and hatred towards love and redemption. It’s made doubly so to watch the king on the other side of the river (played by Sharlto Copley) journey deeper and deeper into fear and madness. He has the power he wants, but it can’t protect him from his own conscience– or Maleficent’s curse.

Aside from Jolie’s makeup (which is pretty great – prosthetic cheekbones!) the visuals here aren’t particularly interesting.  Everything looks borrowed from an earlier movie. The fairy creatures look like overweight house elves and smallish Ents.  The battle scenes could’ve been pulled straight out of “Prince Caspian.” There’s a dragon in the climactic scene that pales in comparison with the one we saw not too long ago in “The Hobbit.”

Frankly, I’ve never thought much of Angelina Jolie as an actress. Her film history suggests that she mostly relies on what her mama gave her instead of investing much into the study of her craft; her attempts at “serious” movies have been pretty bad. But there’s no doubt in my mind that without Jolie in the title role, “Maleficent” would have been a forgettable bit of summer nonsense. Instead, it’s worth watching.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Pretty often someone asks me what I think about a movie like Seth McFarlane’s “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” My answer: I don’t think about movies like this.

I’ve said all this before.  But just to reiterate: that doesn’t mean I don’t watch movies like “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” or that I don’t enjoy watching them. I do. It’s just that thinking about this kind of movie doesn’t make much sense. A lot of movies are enhanced by reflection and critical analysis; dumb comedies decidedly are not. You just spoil the fun; it’s like critically analyzing a birthday party clown’s routine. I’d venture a guess that McFarlane doesn’t want you to think about his movies.  He wants you to watch them, and laugh, and forget about them, at least until the next time you need to watch something and laugh.  And that’s okay with me.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

All Is Lost

“All is Lost” opens with the only speaking sequence in the entire film: the narration of a goodbye letter from a man to his family, apologizing for his shortcoming and letting them know that he was thinking of them when he died in a lifeboat on the open ocean.

It serves as an introduction to the only character in the film, played by Robert Redford, but not really. When you think about it, what he writes is pretty general.  He wishes he had been kinder, more patient, easier to get along with. But he doesn’t say anything unique or specific; a million and a half men in America could recite his apology. (And recited better. Redford’s acting in this film is quite good most of the time, but this reading is terribly, terribly stagey.)

And so we know basically nothing about him. He is Everyman, or, as the credits list him, Our Man, devoid of details, more a symbol than a character. He represents something.

After that little speech, we cut backwards in time a ways, to the beginning of the problem. Somewhere in the Indian Ocean, Our Man has run his little sailboat into a stray shipping container full of kids’ shoes.  It puts a sizeable hole in his boat, but not one beyond repair, and does his best to fix it up and sail on.  But things go from bad to worse, until… well, until the final message in a bottle.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

There’s always an ongoing moral struggle at the center of the X-Men. When I wrote about the first film 14 years ago, I wrote that the point of the whole thing was that, in the face of oppression and suffering, you can choose to respond with forgiveness and hope for reconciliation, which is frustrating and leaves you vulnerable to even more suffering.  Or you can choose to respond with anger, violence and hatred, which is simpler and safer, but ultimately leads to a cold, dark hole.

It took seven movies to finally expand on that bit of moral philosophizing, but “Days of Future Past” adds a nice wrinkle: in the pursuit of your goals, no matter how noble they might be, you absolutely must resist the urge to manipulate people along the way. Whether you are equipped with psychic powers or are just a master of oratory skills, if people are not allowed to make up their own minds about joining you or opposing you, you’re asking for trouble.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Neighbors

Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents in a new neighborhood.  They both seem unsure about this stage of life they’ve entered, enough to make you wonder if maybe it happened to them by accident, and they’re struggling to make the best of it. They don’t seem to have (or want) any friends who are also parents, and the friends they do have don’t see any problem with taking a baby to a rave.

So when a fraternity, led by Zac Efron and James Franco’s little brother moves in next door, their first concern isn’t for their child’s welfare, but whether or not their new neighbors will think they’re cool.  They head next door during the housewarming party with a peace offering of pot in hand, and end up staying until sun up, doing mushrooms, and generally out partying the college kids.

This scene, like a lot of “Neighbors,” doesn’t ring true, and might be funnier if it had more to do with reality.  I am a parent, and when my kids were as small as the one in the movie, staying out all night wasn’t an option, not because I was trying to be a responsible parent, but because sleep was as hard to come by as a sober person at a frat party.  Rogen and Byrne know that they ought to tell their neighbors to keep the noise down, but they don’t seem very invested in the idea. Clearly, they are getting too much sleep.  When our downstairs neighbors threw a loud party while the baby was sleeping, my wife did not practice hip ways to ask them to “keep it down.”  She stormed downstairs, wild hair flying, murder in her eyes, and DEMANDED that they shut the hell up.  She didn’t even knock.  I think she scared the party out of them forever.

Posted in The Movie Blog.