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A Most Violent Year

Michael: My father is no different than any powerful man, any man with power, like a president or senator.

Kay: Do you know how naive you sound, Michael? Presidents and senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naive, Kay?

“I’ve spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster,” Abel Morales says near the end of “A Most Violent Year.” Is it fair, then to still call it a gangster movie? Because even though there’s nary a mafioso in the film (there are one or two just offscreen,) everything about this film — from the cinematography to the storyline — makes it the best gangster film released this year.

To begin with, Isaac’s performance is reminiscent of Al Pacino in “Godfather Part II.” It is mannered, carefully controlled, and scary. He is intentional with his words and rarely raises his voice, or needs to. When he does finally explode, the scene is a mirror image of the Michael and Kay scene in “Godfather Part II” where Michael finally explodes (the abortion scene.) Except in that scene, Kay is taking away the kids because Michael has become a gangster, and in this one, Chastain is making a different set of choices, because Abel won’t become a gangster.

He’s a legitimate businessman (which, of course, is what they all say.) He is aggressive in growing his business, he’s not afraid to take risks, but he stays within the bounds of the law — at least, as much as any of his competitors do. There is a definite sense of moral/legal grey areas in Abel and the way he conducts his business, but he draws a sharp line when it comes to violence. Even when his trucks are being robbed, and his salesmen ambushed by thugs, and his family threatened.

I think it might be easy to miss, but Abel’s struggles to not respond violently, to not become a gangster, aren’t grounded in morality. As the movie unfolds, it’s clear he has made a number of immoral choices in the running of his business (and he willingly makes a deal with the devil at the very end.) He doesn’t want to become a gangster because it’s bad for business. It’s the easy way to solve his problems, but the way that will cost him most in the end. He is the consummate capitalist, and violence is bad for business.

There has always been, in the best gangster movies, a tacit indictment of capitalism itself, a sense that what men like Michael Corleone do isn’t really any different from what men like Gordon Gekko do. Maybe that’s why “A Most Violent Year” feels like a gangster movie. For Abel, the line between being a businessman and a gangster is hard and fast. But to us watching (and, perhaps, even to his wife,) it might as well be imaginary.

 

Random Notes

–This is director JC Chandor’s third film, and all three are drastically different, and all three are good movies “(the other two are “Margin Call” and “All is Lost”) It’ll be interesting to see what he does next.

–I don’t understand the deal at the heart of this movie, and it almost spoiled it for me. Why would you make a down payment on a property 30 days before you sign the loan agreement with the bank? Is this normal in the business world? It seems foolish.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Gift

the-gift_new

During the first act of “The Gift,” I thought it was a version of “Cape Fear,” a film about an unwelcome visitor from the past who won’t go away. (The concept can be either thrilling or funny; see “What About Bob?”) Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall have just moved back to his childhood neighborhood near Los Angeles, into one of those houses that has more windows than walls (I was reminded of the great scene in “The Bling Ring” where we watch an entire robbery through the windows from a nearby hillside.) Bateman runs into an old classmate (Joel Edgerton) who clearly thinks they were better friends than he remembers. He’s kind of weird, and he shows up at odd times. He doesn’t seem to have any other friends, and he’s not exactly in the same social strata they are. After a few awkward visits, Bateman tells him bluntly that they don’t want to be friends, and he needs to leave them alone.

You can see where this is going… except it doesn’t go there. This isn’t a version of “Cape Fear,” it’s a riff on that idea, a riff that turns the roles upside down in a thrilling way. Emily Blunt is at the center, because she alone doesn’t know what actually happened between these two in high school. As she tries to figure it out — and to figure out what kind of person she’s married to – the film just gets more and more interesting.

Jason Bateman is playing the same character he always plays, except not for laughs this time. It’s as if someone binge-watched “Arrested Development” and thought, “you know, if Michael Bluth wasn’t so funny, he’d be pretty scary.” Joel Edgerton, on the other hand, is playing very much against type. I first saw him a few years ago in “Animal Kingdom” (link that) and thought, “this guy’s a pretty good actor, but he’s always going to be typecast as a bruiser.” That help up through “Zero Dark Thirty, and “The Great Gatsby.” I was surprised to discover that he played Pharaoh in “Exodus: Gods and Kings” — I did not recognize him. And now, he plays the very opposite of a bruiser. He also wrote and directed this film, and did a better job than most actors can do in those roles, so he’s very intentionally climbing out of the box Hollywood put him in. That’s admirable. I’d like to see Jason Bateman do that. I wonder if he’s capable.

I didn’t love the ending of “The Gift.” As I said earlier, Blunt has been the center of the film, and a sort of stand-in for the viewer. But then, rather suddenly, she becomes the way that one of them is able to attack the other. At that point, she has stopped being a character and become just a plot mechanism. That’s disappointing, since it was a smart, scary, over performing flick up until that point.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

In “Misson:Impossible – Rogue Nation,” Ethan Hunt is on the run again, as the IMF (that’s Impossible Mission Force, not International Money Fund) is being shut down by CIA director Alec Baldwin, who is convinced that the shadow organization Hunt is chasing is nothing but shadows.  Seems like this guy can never catch a break or just carry out a normal mission. (This might be the only way Mission:Impossible differs from the Bond movies: nobody’s ever trying to shut down the British Secret Service.) He’s always got to save the day and prove that he was necessary in the first place. It’s hard work, being an IMF agent these days.  But it also looks like a lot of fun.

Tom Cruise hand-picked Christopher McQuarrie (who won an Oscar more than twenty years ago for writing “The Usual Suspects) to write and direct “Rogue Nation,” showing that Cruise still has more than a big paycheck invested in this series. Say what you want about Cruise (and a lot of different things can be said,) he really pours himself into the M:I movies, and it shows.  A lot of ink has been spilled about the stunts he did himself — he’s become this decade’s Jackie Chan, which makes you wonder what has become of Jackie Chan — and those are impressive and and a real sense of thrill to the movie, but I’m at least equally impressed by the choices he’s made as producer.  McQuarrie delivers an exciting, fun script that is coherent but not overly complicated, and directs it with panache. Cruise was also involved in the casting of two virtual unknowns into big roles, and both of those choices pay off marvelously.

We’ve also got a solid bad guy, played by raspy-voiced Sean Harris, who reminded me more than a little of Mads Mikkelsen in “Casino Royale.” And Rebecca Ferguson is fantastic as the femme fatale, sometimes working with Hunt, sometimes against him, always mysterious and intriguing. She comes awfully close to stealing the movie from its star. Simon Pegg returns to provide comic relief, and Jeremy Renner to suck the fun out of every scene he’s in.  (Not a fan.)  There’s even a scene or two with Ving Rhames.

“Rogue Nation” is everything I want a “Mission:Impossible” movie to be.  Really, it’s everything I want a summer action flick to be.  It’s exciting and stylish, it’s occasionally funny, and it’s great-looking.  That last one seems to be more and more unusual, though just a few years ago it was a staple of top-notch action flicks. “Rogue Nation” makes great use of exotic locations, like an opera house in Vienna and a villa in Morocco, that just add to the fun. I’ll happily say a lot of good things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but one knock against it is that it’s never figured out how to make a great-looking movie like this one. What can I say, I’m a sucker for action heroes in evening clothes shooting things at each other inside and around thousand year old buildings.

 

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Ant-Man

“Ant-Man” comes in as a fairly minor entry into the Marvel Universe canon. Some of that is by design, I think, and some of that is a result of its quality. Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” this film takes place in a different corner of the universe from Captain America and Iron Man– a more obscure, less important corner. At one point, the hero even says, “You know what we should do? Call the Avengers!” and the mastermind says, “They’re probably busy with something important. Like dropping a city from the sky.” The stakes are a lot lower here.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, the second iteration of Ant-Man. The first is Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, but he gave up the suit and antics a long time ago, and buried the technology so that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands. Lang is an ex-con trying to go straight so that he can be a good dad for his daughter, but he can’t get a job. Even Baskin-Robbins fires him when his managers finds out he’s a thief. Prospects are limited, until Douglas recruits him (in a ridiculously convoluted way that’s just better if you don’t think about it much) to be the new Ant-Man, and battle the bad guy, who has the same technology, plus lasers, and calls himself Yellow jacket.

The bad guy fails the essential bad guy test – he doesn’t think he’s right or good; he’s just angry and dealing with some serious daddy issues in a seriously unhealthy way. Corey Stoll does his best to chew any scenery he happens to come across, but you can only work with what you’re given, and Darren Cross will go down as one of the more generic, forgettable and occasionally ridiculous villains in the Marvel Universe — right alongside Aldrich Killian or Justin Hammer (Iron Man, apparently has the least interesting rivals.)

Michael Peña plays Lang’s former cellmate and current sidekick. Peña is a funny guy – he’s one of my favorite actors to watch, because he can be funny, and he can be serious, and he can seamlessly switch between the two in the blink of an eye – but “Ant-Man” overuses him, to the point where instead of laughing and a Latino funny man, I felt like I was laughing at a caricature of Latino funnymen. It doesn’t help that (aside from a cameo from the Falcon, and a cop with maybe three lines) the only people of color in “Ant-Man” appear in comic relief.

There are a ton of problems with “Ant-Man,” but really, none of them keep it from being a funny, if slightly dumb, mostly enjoyable movie experience. It’s not going to hold up to intense scrutiny or critique, and it’s no the surprisingly good out-of-left-field entry that “Guardians of the Galaxy was.” But it’s not the worst movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, either. I’d slot it right between “The Incredible Hulk” and “Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier” — which is to say, right in the middle of the pack. For a movie with modest ambitions, that’s not half bad.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

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

“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.”

 

 

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.

Birdman – pretentious 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. Turner – please, 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.