Weekly Movie Reviews: Feb 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Ordinary People (1980)

Ordinary People is the directorial debut of Robert Redford, and won the Best Picture Oscar the year it came out. It is about a family dealing with the loss of their older son in a boating accident. Conrad, the younger son, has just returned from a four month stay at a psychiatric hospital, and his parents have very different reactions to the situation.

I thought this was a fantastic movie. Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore picked up major awards for their performances as Conrad and his mother Beth, and the other actors are great too – Donald Sutherland (playing someone who is not evil and/or crazy, for a change) is lovable as Conrad’s father Calvin, and Judd Hirsch plays the curmudgeonly psychiatrist to perfection. The story is subtly told, and the characters react to things like real people. That does mean they’re not always nice – Conrad’s mother Beth, for example, is selfish, emotionally distant, and overly concerned with appearances.

Ordinary People is fundamentally a happy movie – we see characters come to terms with themselves and the world around them. Unlike other movies (I’m looking at you, Captain Fantastic), that doesn’t mean a tidy ending where everything is tied up in a bow. and instead it takes the characters’ behavior to its logical conclusion. This really sealed the deal for me and catapulted the movie to one of my favorites.

Other Movies Watched

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

Billy Lynn is an Iraqi war hero who is being paraded around the country with the rest of his squad for publicity before being redeployed. At the final stop on his tour, a halftime show for a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game, he contemplates his life and choices. I was pretty excited to see this movie because it’s directed by Ang Lee, who is amazing, and Chris Tucker is in it, and he’s rarely in movies these days.

I thought this movie was really good. The way the shots are framed can get uncomfortable at times, and it’s shot at 120 frames per second (movies are usually shot at 24 fps, the Hobbit movies were notable for being shot at 48 fps), which adds to the sense of discomfort. It was a good choice, though, because Billy is uncomfortable and it makes the audience feel more connected to his story. The acting and casting was great – newcomer Joe Alwyn as Billy, Vin Diesel as Billy’s staff sergeant that he gets a medal for trying to protect, Garrett Hedlund as the wry leader of Billy’s squad, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, pretty much everyone. The movie was also constantly self-referential, which I enjoyed – Billy’s squad is performing in a show while trying to get a movie made about their story, so there’s plenty of opportunity for meta dialogue.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014)

We watched the other two Hobbit movies last week, but I was most excited about this one because I hadn’t seen it before. It’s a great conclusion to the series, and as the title suggests, it’s basically one huge battle. Bilbo, as always, is the best character. Martin Freeman has a lot on his shoulders, and carries it beautifully. I was not a big fan of the interpersonal drama involving Tauriel, Legolas, and Kili – it seems like a cheap emotional ploy to get the audience to care about characters. I also thought Thranduil’s motivations could have been explained a little bit better, he seemed to do whatever was convenient to the plot. That being said, it was great to see the how the alliance of men, elves, and dwarves came together.

Titanic (1997)

I always think of Titanic as defining my generation. It was the first English movie that I remember being a huge deal in India. I only saw Titanic once, but I can sing The Heart Will Go On pretty much from memory, and I’m terrible at remembering lyrics. I hadn’t seen it for about fifteen years, though, so I was looking forward to seeing it from a fresh perspective. And… it’s pretty good, but it also has flaws.

James Cameron is the master of making formulaic movies that are made so well that you almost don’t notice the predictability, and Titanic is probably his masterpiece. The attention to detail is astounding – the sets are gorgeous and immersive, and the people walk, talk, and act differently from the way they do these days. They even filmed at the real Titanic wreck twelve times! But it is formulaic, and the characters are mostly just archetypes, and that’s okay – not every movie has to have well-rounded characters. Jack is only likeable because he’s everything Rose needs him to be, and isn’t really a character otherwise, and Cal seems to do whatever the plot needs him to do to be a villain.

Arrival (2016)

I was really excited about Arrival, I love sci-fi movies, and I’ve seen it reviewed with titles like “sci-fi masterpiece of a generation.” Well, it’s a good sci-fi movie, but it has too many flaws to be a masterpiece. We follow Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is chosen to try and communicate with newly arrived aliens. Her attempts to decipher the alien language are interspersed of shots of the story of her daughter. I loved the atmosphere of this movie, it takes a slow and contemplative approach to telling the story (a little like Interstellar.) However, the science depicted is the movie is terrible (the learning/teaching of the language scenes don’t account for so many variables and are almost painful to watch), and the movie eventually turns into a generic save-the-world-before-time-runs-out plot. A lot of movies get science wrong, so it’s not that big of a deal, and the movie was still enjoyable because it was well-made.

Mad Max (1979)

In a post-apocalyptic future, Max Rockatansky is one of the best cops to police the roads. When a gang of criminal bikers hurt his partner and then his family, Max seeks revenge. I didn’t enjoy this movie very much, although Joseph loves the sequel and says it is very different, so we’ll keep watching the series. The movie throws you right into the world without explanation, and it takes a while to figure out what’s going on. The way it’s shot and the action scenes are compelling, especially on such a low budget. I didn’t like the pacing, for most of the movie, things happen, but don’t seem to matter at all, and so it’s boring. Max only does something in in the last fifteen minutes of the movie. The other part I didn’t like was that we just keep hearing about how Max is the best, but it seemed entirely like telling, not showing.

Backdraft (1991)

I’ve liked several of Ron Howard’s movies (Apollo 13, Willow, A Beautiful Mind), so I was expecting Backdraft to be pretty good, but unfortunately, it’s terrible. It’s two different movies fused together – one is about finding a dangerous arsonist that’s been murdering people, the other is about two firefighters/brothers who can’t get along learning to trust each other. The arson investigation is actually pretty great – Robert De Niro plays the curmudgeonly investigator who has all the best lines in the movie, Donald Sutherland plays a delightfully crazed imprisoned arsonist – and if the movie only focused on that, it would be terrific. Unfortunately, it’s main focus is a badly-written and over-sentimental “family” plot, and it just doesn’t work.

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