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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.

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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.

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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.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

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?

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

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.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Marvel has so dominated the summer movie scene for the last few years, I’m kind of surprised I’m writing about “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in May.  What are we going to do in July?  Watch it on DVD? Come to think of it, as big as this movie is, there’s a good chance it will still be playing in July.  We’ll just watch it again.

It’s a lot less comic book-y than the first movie, which was loaded with gags and jokes and just determined to be a lot of fun for girlfriends who roll their eyes at all things geek (it succeeded.) This time around, director Joss Whedon seems to be operating on the assumption that by this time you’re either a fan or a hater, and there’s no point in making movies for the haters. “Age of Ultron” is a darker, denser movie, less interested in going for the joke (though it finds plenty of humor) and more interested in exploring the broken and/or human sides of this team of superheroes.

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Posted in The Movie Blog.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

It’s amazing to me how far we’ve come since 1968′s Planet of the Apes. I just watched that movie for the first time, and was surprised how empty and vapid it is, crammed with ill-fitting and pitifully shallow “social commentary.”  I can’t see how in the world that original movie generated four sequels, a 2001 Tim Burton remake, and now two prequels.

What’s even more amazing is how far above their source material these two prequels are.  I don’t think I reviewed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in 2011, by I watched it and enjoyed it enough to buy the DVD. It’s a fine, thoughtful, surprisingly poignant film.  And “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is even better.
Taking place 10 years after the events of the last films, “Dawn” finds the intelligent apes living in a treehouse colony in the forests near San Francisco.  They haven’t seen humans in years, and assume they’re all gone, but they’re wrong.  A desperate colony is hanging on in the city, unsure if anybody anywhere else has survived , and unable to communicate outside the bounds of the city.
The two communities become aware of each other and try to relate with caution and wariness – both want to keep the peace, but do not trust the other side.  On the human side, this is little more than racism (technically, species-ism, I guess)  as most of them fail to grasp that there could be another intelligent species worthy of respect on the planet. The apes, however, have good reason not to trust their human counterparts.  Many of the founders of the colony have vivid memories of the days of captivity and abuse.
Jason Clarke leads a human expedition into Ape territory, in an effort to repair a dam that will power the human colony in the city. Aided by his wife, Kerri Russell, and son Kodi Smit-McPhee, he is a model of diplomacy, trust-building, and careful communication (though I did wonder why he didn’t bring along someone who spoke ASL as an interpreter; the apes understand English, but speak very few words.) Unfortunately, not everyone on his team is as respectful as he is, and for a while it looks like this movie is going to go the “Prometheus” route, where one bad apple can spoil a whole expedition.
But then the film pulls back from that and delves into the ape community, where much more interesting things are happening.  Caesar (Andy Serkis,) the protagonist of the earlier film, is extending trust to the humans in ways that are alarming to more than a few of his followers, and especially to Koba (Toby Kebbell,) who bears the scars of human brutality all over his body. Caesar has seen the best of humanity; Koba the worst.  Both tend to think all humans are basically the same.
“Dawn” is really well-written.  It portrays with s remarkable degree of nuance the way that two communities with a history of broken trust struggle to co-exist; the ways they try to balance peace talks with demonstrations of strength, how it’s tempting but misguided to try to relate to a culture as homogeneous and consider the actions and opinions of one member as representative of the entire community’s, and the ways that a leader pursuing peace is always working against a clock of rising tension and discord – if we don’t get something done fast, we’re not going to get anything done at all. Any student of history, or current geopolitics, will find a lot that resonates in this movie about talking monkeys who ride horses and shoot assault rifles.
The action scenes are there, too, but I found them less interesting than the in-between spaces, which means the movie ironically wound down as it ramped up. The final sequence wasn’t at all up to par with the rest of the film, as an aging, injured ape basically goes one on one with his much stronger, healthier opponent, in a battle to the death for supremacy.  Whatever happened to diplomacy and intrigue? Is the message here that negotiation and trust building are fine, but at the end of the day, the hairy ape who can smash in the skull of all the other hairy apes is the one who will rule?  I hope not.  Such a simplistic ending undermines a much finer, more thoughtful and nuanced movie.  But let’s give credit where credit is due: it’s almost miraculous that this movie emerged from its stupid source material.  It’s almost as amazing as talking apes evolving from their dim-witted grandfathers.

Posted in The Movie Blog.

Dear White People

“Dear White People” is a razor-sharp, carefully observed film that dips its toes alternately into satire and sobering social drama.  This is “you have to laugh, you’ll cry your eyes out if you don’t” kind of humor, and it’s intended to make you uncomfortable as much as it makes you laugh.  Or perhaps even more.

Set at an Ivy League school called Winchester (but really seems like a stand-in for Harvard,) this film is about the struggles of black students to find and secure their own identity in that kind of rarified air.  The film follows several characters on campus. Brandon P Bell is the son of the dean and head of the primarily African American house on campus, that is, until activist Tessa Thompson wins an election against him, an outcome that surprises them both; she was just trying to stir the pot. Tyler James Williams doesn’t really want to live in that house; he’s a gay Star Trek fan with a three-foot Afro for whom “the worst part of high school was the other black kids.” Instead, he lives in a house with Kyle Gallner, son of the school president, editor of the school humor rag, which regularly feeds writers to Saturday Night Live. He’s the only white lead in the film, and let’s just say he’s not a nice guy.  Add to the mix one more character, Teyonah Parris, who wants to be a reality TV star, but finds she has to manufacture racial tension in order to get hits on her YouTube channel, which is in competition with Thompson’s radio show, “Dear White People.”

Did you follow all of that?  “Dear White People” is a cut above most films that deal with race because it’s not just about their struggle against a racist system run by whites and favoring white students, though there is plenty of that.  It’s also about their struggle with and against each other, a struggle to forge an identity out of (and/or within) their ethnicity, to manage the expectations placed on them as minority students in an elite college, and the effort it takes to reconcile the seemingly contradictory parts of themselves into a single identity. In other words, “Dear White People” takes on an incredibly complex and intricate range of subjects, and handles it with a light touch that occasionally hits like a sledgehammer.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.

AV Club’s List…and My Revisions

AV Club just published their list of 100 Best Films of the Decade So Far.   It’s a good list… I’ve seen about 2/3 of the movies on it.  But it’s also filled with real duds, movies that were a waste of time.  So here’s my revised list, with movies I like a lot more in their place.  (The italicized movies are the ones I haven’t seen.)

  1. The Master
  2. A Separation
  3. The Tree of Life
  4. Frances Ha
  5. The Act of Killing
  6. Boyhood American Hustle
  7. Dogtooth 
  8. Under the Skin
  9. The Social Network
  10. Before Midnight Selma
  11. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  12. Margaret
  13. Holy Motors Top Five
  14. Her
  15. Inside Llewyn Davis
  16. Two Days, One Night
  17. Whiplash
  18. Winter’s Bone
  19. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
  20. Certified Copy Blancanieves
  21. Meek’s Cutoff Mud
  22. Everyone Else
  23. Moonrise Kingdom
  24. Zero Dark Thirty
  25. The Immigrant
  26. Drive
  27. Melancholia The Spectacular Now
  28. 12 Years A Slave
  29. Leviathan Frozen
  30. Inception
  31. Take Shelter
  32. Martha Marcy May Marlene
  33. Amour Short Term 12
  34. The Grey Killer Joe
  35. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
  36. 13 Assassins
  37. Magic Mike Silver Linings Playbook
  38. Bernie Chronicle
  39. Force Majeure
  40. Gone Girl
  41. The Wolf of Wall Street
  42. The Loneliest Planet The Perks of Being A Wallflower
  43. Computer Chess  Foxcatcher
  44. Stranger By the Lake
  45. Upstream Color
  46. A Touch of SiI Saw the Devil
  47. We Are the Best!  Flight
  48. The World’s End
  49. House of Tolerance
  50. Amer
  51. Haywire
  52. Beginners
  53. Room 237
  54. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
  55. Neighboring Sounds
  56. Father of My Children
  57. Skyfall
  58. The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu
  59. Two Years At Sea
  60. The Raid
  61. The Deep Blue Sea
  62. A Dangerous Method Locke
  63. Tabu Submarine
  64. Blue is the Warmest Color Another Earth
  65. The Turin Horse Of Gods and Men
  66. Oslo August 31st The Descendants
  67. Goodbye to Language
  68. Winter Sleep
  69. Greenberg
  70. Secret Sunshine
  71. Beyond the Hills
  72. National Gallery
  73. Gravity
  74. Citizen Four
  75. Lincoln
  76. The Color Wheel
  77. Stray Dogs
  78. The Kid With A Bike
  79. Looper
  80. The Past
  81. Mysteries of Lisbon
  82. Bird People
  83. Cabin in the Woods
  84. The Strange Little Cat
  85. Drug War
  86. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  87. White Material
  88. Toy Story 3
  89. Barbara
  90. Carlos
  91. Avengers
  92. The Skin I Live In Never Let Me Go
  93. A Field in England
  94. Only Lovers Left Alive
  95. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
  96. Black Swan
  97. The Interrupters
  98. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet
  99. Mother
  100. Edge of Tomorrow

Posted in The Movie Blog.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Studio Ghibli isn’t perfect. They’ve made some of my very favorite movies over the last twenty years, including classics like “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Lately, I’ve been a little underwhelmed with films like “Arrietty,” “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and “The Wind Rises,” but all three of those are decent movies I just didn’t love.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is the first Ghibli film since “Kiki’s Delivery Service” that I actively dislike. How in the world did the studio that used to produce such creative, inventive, unexpected movies deliver this tired cliche of a kids’ film? I am scratching my head in disbelief.

A bamboo cutter finds a magical baby in a stalk of bamboo, and takes the child home to his wife, and they adopt her and name her (apparently) Princess. I don’t know about in Japan, but in America, that’s a name you give a dog, not a child. The bamboo cutter returns to the magical bamboo, which yields riches and beautiful silks. He decides that, now that he has money and fine silks, it’s time to move his family to the city and raise Princess like a real princess.

At that point, you can pretty much guess the rest of the film, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The city is stifling, and Princess Kaguya (the name is purchased from a man with an abnormally large face) longs for the simple life of the country. She is taught how to be a lady, but is headstrong and rebellious, always wanting to dance and sing when she’s supposed to sit quietly and practice calligraphy. My gosh, even writing this plot summary, I feel like I’m penning a country song.

“Kaguya” is based on a 10th century Japanese myth, and I guess that should buy you some room to tell the same old story over again (I remember rolling my eyes hard the first time someone told me “Romeo & Juliet” was cliched.) But in that case, you’ve really got to pour creativity and originality into the details of the story, and director Isahao Takahata falls completely flat. Princess Kaguya is the blandest heroine imaginable. This is where the film really gets on my nerves. We are shown our heroine’s “vitality” and “joi de vivre” through scenes of her frolicking with kittens and dancing underneath cherry trees, scenes about as fresh and fun as the guacamole in my fridge.

“Kaguya” is the kind of film that supposedly stands against traditional idealization of women in Japan (women are silent, beautiful, elegant, etc.) but then substitutes other, equally false and impossible idealization (women are playful, adventurous, pure and noble, and love to frolick and dance.)

The film drags on and on. There are suitors, who fall in love with Kaguya without ever seeing or talking to her (a quick conversation might change their minds) but none of them are good enough for her. She sends them on impossible quests, and then reunites with the country boy from her childhood (who apparently has a wife and child?) because of course she does.

Something interesting and unusual starts to happen at the end, explaining Kaguya’s magical origins and semi-tragic end, but by then, it’s too little, too late. This film is too long, too boring, and way too cliched.

To give credit where credit’s due, the animation is really beautiful. It’s minimalist and full of pastels, and there’s creativity in the way the story is drawn. Too bad there’s so little in the way it’s told. “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is beautiful and boring, just like its protagonist.

 

Posted in The Movie Blog.