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Blue Ruin

As “Blue Ruin” opens, the protagonist is in the bathtub.  Except it isn’t his bathtub.  He has snuck into someone else’s house, eaten their crackers, and is taking a bath when they pull into the driveway, and he has to make a quick exit out the window, and “borrow” some clothes from a neighbor’s clothesline. We wonder what kind of man this is, and what kind of movie this is.

But we soon find out he hasn’t always lived this way.  Macon Blair plays Dwight, whose parents were killed in a gruesome double murder, which led, understandably, to his downward spiral. Now he finds out that the man responsible for their deaths has been released from jail. So he decides to take justice into his own hands. Dwight is homeless, scrounging in dumpsters for food.  sleeping in a beat up Pontiac (The titular blue ruin, as far as I can tell, unless the title means that Dwight himself is blue, and ruined, which is kind of corny.)

But this isn’t really a revenge movie; it’s about how difficult it is, once that horse is out of the corral, to get it back. Dwight is comically incompetent when it comes to violence; you wonder if this guy has ever even played a violent video game, let alone held a gun for real. And he’s up against a family that keep submachine guns in their La-Z-Boys. He’s way out of his depth, and the only thing he’s got going for him is that he doesn’t care if he dies.

Because Dwight is so completely incompetent, “Blue Ruin” functions on one level as a warped mirror, refracting back to us the violence of action movies.  It’s almost as if there’s a checklist of stock action scenes — the kill, the getaway, the stakeout, the interrogation, etc. — all turned on their head so they go terrible wrong, and yet, exactly right. The film highlights just how detail-oriented most action heroes are.  Bruce Willis and Liam Neeson are nothing if not attentive to the little things.  They are as meticulous as an ace wedding planner.  No contingency is left to chance. Dwight, on the other hand, makes plans and abandons them like they’re used Kleenex, mostly because in the middle of the plan he realizes how stupid it is. There’s also a healthy dose of reality here, the kind usually missing from big action flicks – he manages to steal a pistol, but breaks it trying to get the trigger guard off.  He almost gets caught and killed because he can’t get his flashlight to turn off. He doesn’t survive because he’s skilled, or determined, or prepared. He’s fairly resourceful, but mostly just lucky.

There’s not a lot of talking in “Blue Ruin,” which is one of its strengths.  Director Jeremy Saulnier has spent a lot of time as the DP and cinematographer on other low-budget indie projects since his last feature, and it’s clear he has put that time to good use, learning a lot about visual language, imagery, and how to tell a story without words. This is also a great example of how to make a great-looking movie on a tight budget. Nothing about “Blue Ruin” feels cheap or corner-cutting. A lot of big-budget movies don’t look this good.

As much as anything, “Blue Ruin” is about the terrible cost of violence in our society. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that Dwight gets his revenge; that happens pretty early in the movie.  But it sets in motion other forces that he can’t control, and it’s pretty clear that (of course) it’s not nearly as satisfying as he hoped it would be.  Is there any way to end this before everyone on both sides of the feud is dead?  And if so, will Dwight be able to move on with his life, or will he go back to living in that rusted out Pontiac?  The answers to both these questions are decidedly up in the air.  That’s the kind of movie this is.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Inside Out

My favorite thing about Pixar’s excellent new film, “Inside Out?”  All the way home, my six-year-old was using the basic concept to talk about things that have been going on lately with her own emotions.   A few days later, she was building her own personality islands with Legos, and telling me about the core memories that powered each island. Because we watched this movie together, I know my daughter better.  I understand better what is happening inside her head. That’s not just great, it’s verging on miraculous.

The center of “Inside Out” is Riley, an 11 year old girl who is in the middle of a major transition. Along with her parents, she is moving from the iced-over lakes of Minnesota to the crowded hilltops of San Francisco. (It appears to be a shaky business venture for her dad, but the details are neither disclosed nor important.)  Inside Riley’s head are an entirely separate cast of characters, who help her process everything that happens to her.  There is bright and bouncy Joy, in her tinkerbell dress, and turtle-necked, bespectacled Sadness.  Also Anger (Lewis Black – is this guy ever allowed to be happy?)  who looks like an inflamed tooth, and Fear, and my favorite, Disgust (Mindy Kaling.)

The plot is pretty basic (and more or less the same as Toy Story.) Joy(Amy Poehler, bringing her combination of cheeriness and oblivion straight from “Parks and Recreation”) and her least favorite companion, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), get separated from headquarters, and must make their way back before something terrible happens. Those left at home do their best to keep things in order, but are terribly, comically inept. Along the way, Joy discovers that Sadness isn’t so bad after all, and in fact may be necessary for Riley to understand what’s happening to her.

But the worldbuilding is fantastic.  I can’t wait to see “Inside Out,” because I know there are a plethora of things I missed or didn’t fully understand the first time around. Joy and Sadness spend time in Riley’s imagination, where they meet an almost forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong (voiced by one of my favorite voice actors ever, Richard Kind.  Remember how great he was in “A Bug’s Life?”) they stumble into Abstract Thought, and make a hasty exit.  And of course, there are the Personality Islands, the memory orbs, and the dark, scary Subconscious.  This is great stuff.

The writers at Pixar have clearly done some reading. There are a number of psychological insights tucked into “Inside Out,” beyond the most clear and obvious, which is that Sadness isn’t a nuisance, but a necessary part of the emotional team.  I’ve even heard that choosing these five emotions is based a theory from Charles Darwin about our emotional responses, but I don’t know if that’s exactly true. Nonetheless, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find another movie this year, for kids or adults, that is more psychologically insightful, creative, perceptive, and in, the end, wise.  I’m looking forward to the conversations I’ll continue to have with my six-year-old thanks to this movie.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Babadook

 

I’ll wager with you, I’ll make you a bet - 

The more you deny, the stronger I get! 

At first it seems like the boy is a problem, like he’s either disturbed or in tune to dark spiritual things adults don’t want to see (“He sees things as they are, that one,” says a wise old neighbor.) He builds weapons to fight monsters, he screams and freaks out and we’re pretty sure he’s going to end up killing somebody.

But gradually, it becomes clear it’s not him, it’s his mother, who has is losing her grip on reality.  The boy acts weird because he’s the only one who notices how odd she’s behaving, and that’s because he’s the only one who’s paying attention. Like us, everyone else thinks the problem is him – nobody takes seriously his concerns, not least because they are, of course, in the language of a six year old, whose vocabulary doesn’t include “mental illness” or “blackouts” or “suppressed grief.”

“The Babadook” is an excellent movie. Richard Roeper called it the scariest movie of the year; I don’t watch very many horror flicks, so I can’t make an assessment like that. But it does everything I want a scary movie to do, and avoids the common pitfalls. It builds an atmosphere instead of relying on startle scares. It’s wonderfully designed, edited, and shot. Its monster has a unique and genuinely scary look (all of the monsters in recent horror flicks look like backwood cousins of Gollum. This one doesn’t.) It has psychological (and/or spiritual) depth.

Spoiler alert: stop reading here if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want me to ruin its surprise.  Continue on to page 2 to read my interpretation.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Top 10 Movies of 2014

A couple of notes about movies from 2014:

–There was no clear winner in my mind this year.  Everything on the top ten list (and at least five that didn’t make it) could move up or down three spaces, depending on the mood I’m in, or the weather outside.

–There were a lot of creeps, weirdos and losers in the best movies of the year. John DuPont, Louis Bloom, Amy Dunne, and Andrew Neimann are NOT people I’d like to spend time with.  (on the flip side, you’ve got Martin Luther King, Jr., Chris Rock, and Baymax. I’d hang out with them any day.)

–It was a banner year for kids’ movies. Two kids’ movies made my list this year, and several more almost made the list.  I think you would be hard-pressed to find any other genre that can boast a top 5 as strong as “Big Hero 6,” “Song of the Sea,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “The Lego Movie,” and “Ernest & Celestine.”

–Also notable: none of those movies were made by Pixar, who didn’t release a movie in 2014 (the first year they’ve skipped since 2015.)  Pixar undoubtedly raised the bar for kids’ movies over the last decade, but other studios have elevated their game in response.

 

10. Blue Ruin

A revenge thriller about a man who definitely doesn’t have a very particular set of skills. Good stuff.

Haven’t written this review yet; look for it soon. 

 

 

 

9. Interstellar

In “Interstellar,” Nolan plays with a lot of the same pieces he played with in “Inception.”  Time speeds up and slows down, characters operate entirely without a safety net, and are often unsure where reality begins and ends. But this time the whole thing is (supposedly) based in more in science than in fiction… [but] when you’re watching “Interstellar,” you’re not thinking about how overly complicated everything is.  You’re thinking about how in the world MacConaughey and company are going to get from point A to point B, and how much it is going to cost them.”  

 

8. Big Hero 6

Big action, big laughs, but most of all, a big heart. This is my 4 year old son’s favorite movie.  He’s got good taste.

Haven’t written a full review yet; I will soon, I promise. 

 

 

 

7. Selma

“If director Ava DuVernay made just a few missteps, if she hadn’t paid careful attention to the film’s tone every microsecond, “Selma” could easily feel like a film critical of Dr. King and his political machinations. But DuVernay, with a lot of help from David Oyewelo as King, manages just the right tone of sobering realism.  If Oyewelo had come across at all self-important, the whole thing would have been sunk.  Instead, he comes across as humble, tired, filled with doubt, but also determined and driven by both vision and the desperate need for change.  It’s a great performance, and a perfect mix of greatness and humanity.”

 

6. Nightcrawler

Unprincipled capitalism run rampant makes for great cinema. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t exactly a gangster or a drug dealer, but he’s not far off.

See, the thing is, I get so busy watching movies to see if they belong on this list, I have no time to actually review them.  But I’ll get to it.  I will. 

 

 

5. Song of the Sea

How come this movie didn’t get more attention? It’s a beautiful, sweet, sad, lovely movie with a song that I’m happy to get stuck in my head every time it plays.

Actually, my sister is supposed to be writing a guest post about this one.  So don’t blame me.

 

 

4. Top Five

“Written, directed and starring Chris Rock, at times it feels like he best Woody Allen film in twenty years. Since Allen is probably the best smart/funny actor/director in the history of cinema, Rock’s decision to borrow from him instead of (or in addition to) guys like Murphy and Cosby feels like a stroke of genius. And Rock brings the kind of comic energy that Allen seemed to run out of a while ago.”

 

 

3. Foxcatcher

“Everything about this film is top-notch.  It’s probably the best-acted film of 2014; Ruffalo, Carrell and Tatum all deliver career-defining performances.  The direction is subtle but effective; this is a deceptively complicated and difficult story to tell, but director Bennett Miller consistently makes choices to serve the story and stay out of its way.  I think this takes more skill than the kind of flashy direction that won Innaritu the Oscar this year.  From beginning to end, from top to bottom, “Foxcatcher” is quietly, devastatingly, one of the best films of the year.”

 
2. Whiplash

“Whiplash” sort of straddles the line between unorthodox teachers who inspire greatness in their pupils, and films about abusive mentors who damage and destroy their students.  Maybe it’s one and the same thing; maybe in order to fully realize potential, other parts of a person’s soul must be destroyed. That’s a sobering thought.  ”The worst words in the human language,” says Fletcher, “are ‘good job.”  It’s enough to make you wonder if it mightn’t be better to let some potential go unrealized and encourage people to be happy, balanced, and well instead.  Which does the world need: more good art, or more good people?”

1. Gone Girl

“One of the major themes in the film is the difference between appearance and reality, and the ways different characters respond to that disparity. This isn’t a moral clumsily laid over the top of the story, but an idea that is one seamlessly into almost every element of it, from the way the Affleck and Pike’s marriage crumbles because neither of them can continue to keep up the facade they presented — that we all present — in those first happy, golden moments, to the way the media decides that Affleck is guilty of his wife’s murder before the police have even arrested him, and … well, to other, more disturbing ways as well.”

 

20 more that are definitely worth your time: 

Locke - Tom Hardy plays a man trying to do the right thing as his life falls apart around him.

Under the Skin - Scarlett Johansson is a seductive alien.

Calvary – Brendan Gleeson asks “What Would Jesus Do?” and comes up with an unsettling answer.

The LEGO Movie - Everything(in this movie) is awesome!

Snowpiercer - Class warfare on an eternally running train at the end of the world.

Inherent Vice - P.T. Anderson’s latest is confusing, raunchy, and intoxicating.

Cold in July - You might think you know what’s going to happen next, but you don’t.  Promise.

Guardians of the Galaxy - This year’s “Serenity.”  OK, maybe not that good, but points for trying.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - Forget the Hobbit and Game of Thrones.  You like dragons? Watch this.

Ida - Beautiful, simple, thoughtful, heartbreaking.

The Babadook - The year’s best horror flick.  (Also, the only horror flick I watched this year.)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Political theory!  Monkeys with machine guns!

A Most Wanted Man - A lot like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.”  Thinking man’s espionage.

Dear White People - Throws thorny issues at the screen like a toddler eating spaghetti.

The Grand Budapest Hotel - Yeah, it’s higher on other lists.  I’m just kind of Wes Anderson weary this year.

X-Men: Days of Future Past - That Quicksilver scene was one of the best of the year.

Night Moves - Kelly Reichardt directs a quiet, introspective film about eco-terrorism.

A Most Violent Year - OK, it’s not quite “The Godfather” like it wants to be.  It’s still a pretty memorable film.

Pride - feel-good movie of the year.  Overcoming differences to find common ground and fight a common enemy.

Ernest & Celestine - This year’s kids’ movie for adults. I liked it a lot more than my children did.

 

…And 10 That Definitely AREN’T (No matter what the other critics say:) 

Boyhood - 3 hours of listening to Ethan Hawke spout slacker philosophy at his poor, unsuspecting kids.

Birdmanpretentious and artsy. Also kind of charming, but the bads outweighed the goods in my book.

The Immigrant - Maybe the most sexist film of the year.

Gloria - This woman seems to base her entire life philosophy on pop songs.

Frank - Michael Fassbender wears a paper mach head all the time, and we learn that mental illness really sucks.

Theory of Everything – bland, syrupy, Oscar bait.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya - boooring.

The Guest - it’s really too bad everyone in this movie (except the bad guy) is a complete moron.

Mr. Turnerplease, please please… tell a STORY.

The Tribe - Easily my least favorite movie of the year, and the one (there’s always one) I wish I hadn’t watched.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Interstellar

I actually wrote this review last summer, when “Interstellar” was released, but forgot to publish it.  Oops. 

You always know when you’re watching a Chris Nolan film, whether it’s about a masked vigilante or a guy no short-term memory trying to solve his wife’s murder. There’s nobody else in the movie business who can make total confusion so enjoyable and entertaining.

In “Interstellar,” Nolan plays with a lot of the same pieces he played with in “Inception.”  Time speeds up and slows down, characters operate entirely without a safety net, are often unsure where reality begins and ends. But this time the whole thing is (supposedly) based in more in science than in fiction.

Matthew MacConaughey, who has been in so many movies in the last 18 months that he must only ever see his family over Skype, plays an astronaut who sets out from Earth on a desperate mission to find a new habitable planet, and only sees his family over Skype.  In a not-too-distant future, all organic life on Earth is dying thanks to something called “the blight,” and everyone has become corn farmers. But MacConaughey has his eyes on the heavens, and on his daughter Murph’s bedroom, where some mysterious entity seems to be trying to communicate with him by knocking books off the shelf.

Turns out who or whatever entity is communicating with them has also managed to open up a wormhole to another galaxy, where there are several promising planets to replace Earth as humanity’s home. Though, if you ask me, who or whatever this superior entity is, it doesn’t take humanity all that seriously.  The wormhole is out by Saturn, so it takes the astronauts several years just to get to it. And then when they do, the promising planets all orbit a black hole, which makes things all kinds of complicated.  I mean, seriously? There weren’t any potentially habitable planets anywhere in the vast universe that didn’t orbit a time-distorting black hole?  And you couldn’t put the wormhole just this side of Venus? It’s sort of like telling a homeless guy “I found you a place to live… I’ll send a car to a location fifty miles from where you are now, so start walking.  And by the way… your new house is in Iran. You’re welcome!”

Or maybe it’s all the ploy of a director who likes puzzles and much as he likes stories, and likes stories that work like puzzles better than anything. Because when you’re watching “Interstellar,” you’re not thinking about how overly complicated everything is.  You’re thinking about how in the world MacConaughey and company are going to get from point A to point B, and how much it is going to cost them.

Alongside “Gravity,” it’s pretty remarkable that we’ve now got two movies in two years that pay homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and in my opinion, surpass that film as entertainment. “Interstellar” may not be as tightly wound and intricately constructed as “Inception,” but it’s still, easily, one of the best, most interesting, most fun to watch films of 2014.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Whiplash

How much happiness does it cost to be great?  Or, put another way, how much greatness does it cost to be happy?

In the middle of “Whiplash,” there’s a dinner table scene where the main character, Andrew (Miles Teller) feels like he isn’t getting the credit and accolades he deserves.  He’s the first chair drummer in the country’s best jazz ensemble, which means he’s one of the best drummers in the country. But his family would rather talk about his cousin’s football achievements, which are, in all frankness, pretty minor.  So he decides to put his cousin in his place. “It’s a Division III school,” he says.  ”It’s not even Division II.”  His cousins responds, “you think it’s no big deal?  Come play with us.”  ”Four words you will never hear from the NFL,” Andrew shoots back.  His uncle chimes in. “Andrew, do you have any friends?”  ”No,” Andrew says, “I never had much use for them.”

You get the picture – our hero isn’t a very nice guy.  He’s conceited and self-absorbed.  He’s also a very, very good drummer.  ”Whiplash” goes to great lengths to make sure that we understand that those two things are connected.  He’s a good drummer because he’s self-absorbed; he drums, for hours and hours a day, in his quixotic quest to be the next Buddy Rich.  And because he basically doesn’t do anything but drum, he’s self-absorbed and has no friends.  His drive to be great is so strong that he doesn’t care about being happy.  It’s no coincidence that he idolizes people like Charlie Parker, who were great at what they did, but died young and miserable.

Continued…

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Under the Skin


On the rough coast of Scotland, in what is definitely a no-swimming area, a dog swims after a ball and gets caught in the rip tide.  He is drifting farther and farther out into violent waves, swimming hard against the tide but losing ground.  A boy jumps in to save him.  Then a man jumps in to save the boy.  Another man, an experienced swimmer in a wetsuit, goes after the man, drags him back to shore, but the man just immediately goes after the boy again.  A toddler sits on the shore and screams.  This is all filmed from a distance.  We don’t know these characters; we are only observers to this tragedy.  We know without a doubt that anyone who gets very far into that water is going to die. It’s just the way it is.

This scene is in the middle of the film that seemingly has nothing to do with the rest of what’s happening, except that perhaps it perfectly embodies, the mysterious, horrifying yet captivating tone of the film.  Almost nothing is explained in “Under the Skin,” so we’re going on my best guesses here. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that puts on the skin of an attractive young woman, and seduces lonely young men and then… captures them.  Does she feed on them?  Are they put into a kind of zoo, or museum?  I don’t know. All that’s clear is that she uses their lust against them.

Continued…

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The Grand Budapest Hotel

Before and after all things, “Grand Budapest Hotel” is a Wes Anderson film.  That’s more than just a fact (I hear you: “gee, thanks, Will, I didn’t know.) it’s a mission statement.  Maybe more than anything else, Anderson has a unique voice; he makes movies nobody else could make.  It’s fun to imagine a Marvel superhero movie directed by Wes Anderson, but it also makes my brain hurt a little.

I’ve written in the past about what I like about Wes Anderson movies, and I am a fan.  But I’m not a huge fan, not like some people (writing about “Grand Budapest” last year, Nathan Rabin compared not liking Wes Anderson films to not liking sunshine and wet puppy noses.) “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Moonrise Kingdom” both made my top 10 list for their respective years, but both were at #9.  I don’t think “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is going to make the list this year, though it’s on par with both of those movies in terms of quality and, well, Wes Anderson-iness.

So, I’m going to say, this is a pretty good movie, and then I’m going to tell you what I don’t like about Anderson’s movies.

Continued…

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Mad Max – Fury Road

Mad Max

“Mad Max” is a 2 1/2 post-apocalytpic car chase through the desert, with minimal dialogue or plot. It’s an adrenaline rush, an unapologetic popcorn movie. But that doesn’t mean it’s a brainless or stupid movie.

There aren’t many ideas in the script, but there are a ton on the screen. A movie filled as this one is with action scenes can be a borefest, because you just see the same thing over and over again. For reference, see any Michael Bay movie ever made how many shots of shattering glass, flying concrete, and blurry machinery does one really need? “Mad Max” avoids that fate by being, well, not monotonous. People don’t have to be talking in order for interesting things to be happening on the screen, and this is a film that gives us something interesting to look at in nearly every frame. There’s the crazy heavy metal guitar player strapped to the back of a semi, whose guitar is also a flame thrower. There are the guys who jump motorcycles over the giant trucks and throw bombs down into the cabs. There are guys and giant, flexing poles suspended from speeding muscle cars. There’s always something new, something creative and clever, happening. Who needs dialogue when the visuals are this good?

Continued…

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Pride

Near the beginning of “Pride,” gay activist Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) gathers his group together after a Pride march.  ”Does it seem to you like the police have been leaving us alone lately?  Hardly any beatings, bottles thrown, random harassment?” he asks.  ”Maybe it’s because they’re too busy harassing these guys,” and he holds up a paper with striking miners on the front page. From there, he organizes GLSM – Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners – as an act of solidarity for a community that is suffering from the government inattention/oppression, and the demonization in the press, and the random ill-feeling that his community has grown used to.  It’s an interesting way to proceed – it’s almost as if Ashton misses the persecution and goes looking for it – but it’s pretty amazing the way he is able to lead others to look past differences and find common ground.

It’s hard to imagine a more practical application of Jesus’ command to love your enemies.  Ashton and his friends raise money by rattling buckets outside of a gay-themed bookstore and making fundraising phone calls, but that’s the easy part. Things get more interesting when it comes time to deliver the money they’ve raised to the miners. These aren’t the kind of people who welcome drag queens and butches with open arms.  These are the kind of people who break their arms. My favorite moments in “Pride” are the multiple times Ashton and his friends recognize that they’re walking into a situation where they might get beat up, cussed out, stuff thrown at them — and they walk in anyway, extending a hand of friendship while bracing for a punch in the face.  That takes real courage.  

“Pride” is based on a true story, coming out of the 1984 Miners’ strike in Great Britain. It’s rich source material, and I’m glad somebody brought it to the screen — this falls in the “too strange to be fiction” category.  The way writer Stephen Beresford and director Matthew Warchus brought it to the screen, however, could’ve used a bit more polish.  We are told almost nothing about the strike, and the people in the miners’ community remain roughly sketched at best. The gays aren’t much better – every stereotypical gay is represented here, and nothing more than lame attempts are made to fill out the characters and make them more interesting.

In general, it feels like the writer and director are trying to tell too many stories at once.  We don’t really need the closeted young man who tells his family he’s going to pastry school but goes to marches instead – we’ve heard/seen that story plenty of times. And though it’s an interesting historical detail, we don’t really need the story of the second man diagnosed with HIV in Britain, ever.  And the lesbians are almost completely superfluous. Sharper focus on a few characters would make for a better movie.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.