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Mockingjay, Part 1

I think one of the reasons big corporate studios love serial movies (trilogies and so forth) is because once you’re hooked into a series, you’ll go see it to the end, whether or not the movies are any good, even if it’s out of nothing more than a yearning for resolution. (I think the “Twilight” series proved that conclusively.) When it comes to the Hunger Games, I thought the first movie was entertaining enough, even if it was a sanitized version of the Japanese classic “Battle Royale.”  It was the second movie that got me hooked, and that’s why I saw “Mockingjay, Part 1.” This is the worst of the lot, by far, but damn if I haven’t already made up my mind to see “Part 2.”
Not that it’s a bad film, exactly, but Suzanne Collins’ determination to follow Katniss down the rabbit hole of revolution has gotten darker at every term, and by this point it’s taking us some really depressingly glum places. This is not a happy movie. Or a pretty movie, or a satisfying movie.  It opens, for heaven’s sake, with our brave, resourceful heroine cowering in a storage closetand begging everyone to just leave her be.  It doesn’t get better from there.
After cracking the sky open at the end of “Catching Fire,” Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) wakes up underground at the beginning of “Mockingjay.” She is in the secret realm of District 13, not destroyed after all, but building a resistance movement to take down the Capitol. Julianne Moore is the President of the Rebellion, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, once her man inside, is now something like her Director of Communications. They need Katniss to make a series of propaganda films to motivate the other districts to join the Resistance, but Katniss, so inspiring in the Games, is terrible, terrible, terrible when trying to recite lines in front of a camera. (One of my favorite things in movies: watching a good actress, like Lawrence, play a bad actress. It’s always worth a laugh.)
To make matters worse, the Capitol has Peeta, and he’s making a series of propaganda films for that side — and it’s not clear if he’s being coerced, or worse, into doing so. Every time his face lights up the big screen, Katniss turns to goo and wonders if she’s doing the right thing.  She convinces the resistance to launch a rescue mission, but what they find will really pull your stomach out through your feet.  And that’s where the film ends.
This movie is a test: can we take away everything that made you want to see the first two Hunger Games films: the Games themselves, the fantastic costumes, the romantic tension between Katniss and Peeta — and still make you watch it?  The answer is “yes” — but “Part 2″ better pull us up out of the dark in spectacular and heartwarming ways, or I’m going to feel like this trudge through the mud wasn’t worth my while.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Mud (and other films by Jeff Nichols)

“Mud” was #7 on my top 10 movies of 2013 list.  I reviewed “Shotgun Stories” several years ago.

Over the last few years, Jeff Nichols has become one of my favorite new directors. He makes movies about blue-collar characters, men who are deeply connected to the land where they live and make their living, men who take care of their business but often see the world unraveling around them in one way or another. Nichols’ favorite actor is Michael Shannon, who’s also one of my favorite actors. If you’ve only ever seen him as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” you haven’t seen him at his best (though I thought he did a fine job there; in a film full of problems, he wasn’t one of them.) Shannon is eminently believable as both a man of the earth, a hard worker you’d want on your crew, and a thoughtful, pensive man, who doesn’t say half of what he thinks. That might well be the quintessential Jeff Nichols character, but, just as Shannon has only a minor role in “Mud,” that character is present but in the background in this movie.

Tye Sheridan, who was so good in “Tree of Life,” is just as good here, playing Ellis, a thirteen year old boy who lives with his father and mother on a houseboat on the Mississippi river. But that lifestyle is disappearing; his parents are splitting up, and the houseboat is in his mother’s name, who wants to move in to town. Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover a boat in a tree on a tiny island on the river, and then they discover a fugitive living on that island (Matthew McConaughey.) Neckbone thinks he’s just a bum and wants nothing more to do with him, but Ellis is intrigued, and decides to help him.

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Fury

“Best job I ever had.”

This is the toast members of a tank crew all offer to each other at the end of a particularly intense battle sequence in the new World War II drama “Fury.” They’re being sarcastic and/or ironic — all of them would rather be somewhere, anywhere else — but you get the sense that, even in the midst of the joke, they’re also speaking the truth. The adrenaline rush of a kill-or-be-killed situation is addictive, and so is the camaraderie of being in that situation with four other guys.  Add to that a cause worth fighting for, and you’ve got quite a powerful cocktail of violence, sacrifice and courage. And so even though every one of them would whoop and holler at the chance to go home, you get the sense that they’re going to find any other job startlingly anticlimactic.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Judge

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph. 

I was surprised when I got to the theater this week to find that the Gaslight had very nearly sold out the Friday afternoon showing of “The Judge.” When I bought my ticket, the cashier told me it was “one of those movies.” I had to check my ticket stub; the Gaslight was also showing “Left Behind,” which, I’d have to agree, is one of those movies. But that’s not what I was there to see, and that’s not which theater had nearly sold out.

“The Judge” opens with pretty standard, generic red state/blue state tension. Robert Downey Jr. is a well-to-do Chicago lawyer who successfully defends guilty clients. He had abandoned his small town Indiana roots. Robert Duvall plays his father, a judge in that small town, who hasn’t spoken to his son for years. Though the film never gets political, it wouldn’t be hard to guess which one voted for Obama, and which one is still waiting for Obama to produce a legitimate birth certificate.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

12 Years A Slave

This movie was #8 on my “Top Ten Movies of 2013″ list. 

I’m starting to think that in order to understand the filmmaking philosophy of director Steve McQueen, it’s necessary to watch (or read) “A Clockwork Orange.”  Remember that movie, where the morally bankrupt hoodlum is offered parole from prison, if he’ll only watch a couple of films? Seems easy and even fun, he thought, and so do we.  But here’s the catch: he’s not allowed to look away from scenes of violence, and they make him physically ill. Before long, any act of violence at all makes him physically ill, and voilà, he’s reformed.

Steve McQueen makes movies that never allow us, the audience to look away from ugly things – injustice, sex addiction, and, in the case of “12 Years A Slave,” slavery — in hope of sickening us, for the sake of reforming us.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

Gone Girl

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph

My favorite movies are ones in which I forget that I’m watching a movie. By that I don’t mean that I forget that I’m in a theater, or that I forget the things happening on the screen aren’t really happening.  That would be terrifying, and bizarre. I mean that I get so engrossed in the story itself – in what just happened, in what’s going to happen next — that I forget to pay attention to the individual elements of filmmaking — like the acting, the script, the pacing, the effects, etc.  I get so caught up in the telling of a good story that I barely notice how it’s being told.

That what happened while I was watching “Gone Girl.”  It is, without a doubt, an expertly directed, well-acted, perfectly shot and scored movie, but all those elements submit themselves to the telling of the story in such a perfect way that you’re unlikely to think about them while watching. Like the ingredients in a truly great soup, or the individual players on the San Antonio Spurs, they all work together to create something bigger and better than its individual elements.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

Boyhood

Originally published in the Durango Telegraph

 

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.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

Road to Paloma & The Lesser Blessed

Originally published in Indian Life magazine.

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.

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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 beautiful 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.

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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.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.