Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 10-16, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Friday Night Lights (2004)

I love Explosions in the Sky (Your Hand In Mine is probably my favorite piece of music – close your eyes and just listen to it) and I’ve been wanting to watch this movie purely because it was scored by them. I also enjoy sports movies and movies based on real life events (which director Peter Berg specializes in), so there’s that too.

Friday Night Lights is about the Permian High School football team and their run for the Texas state championship in 1988. The team’s hometown of Odessa, Texas is obsessed with their success, and the players must deal with the pressure of those expectations as well as other problems that come up during the season.

There is a unique atmosphere to this movie (aided by the outstanding score) and I’m not quite sure how to describe it. It’s almost magical; you feel completely immersed in Odessa and invested in the team’s success. There is a good balance between individual players’ stories and a more general focus on the team and the town. The cast does a great job, even Billy Bob Thornton who usually plays characters I detest and Lucas Black who I found supremely annoying in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.

Other Movies Watched

Girl, Interrupted (1999)

Girl, Interrupted is based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir about spending 18 months at a mental institution after a suicide attempt. Mental illness is a hard thing to depict in movies (for example, A Beautiful Mind had to resort to inventing imaginary people that only John Nash saw) but this movie does it well without oversimplification.

Susanna, the main character, is not visibly insane; she just seems withdrawn and melancholy from the outside. Winona Ryder gives an extremely nuanced performance and really brings her to life. The other patients in this movie have compelling stories as well. Angelina Jolie stands out as Lisa, a charming sociopath that the other girls look up to, but Elizabeth Moss’ childlike Polly and Brittany Murphy’s obsessive-compulsive Daisy (among others with various other illnesses) are essential to why the film works so well.

This movie is mainly a coming of age story. Despite the unusual circumstances, Susanna just has to start truly investing in her life to get out of the rut that she is in, which is something most of us can identify with. This is a powerful movie to watch to demystify the concept of mental illness; many people seem to think that there is a wide gulf between themselves and someone who has mental health issues (although that attitude is changing), but in reality it’s a pretty fine line.

Pollyanna (1960)

I remember reading an abridged version of Pollyanna when I was young and found the titular character’s sunniness memorable. I enjoyed Hayley Mills a lot in The Parent Trap and that was a big part of why I was excited about this movie.

Pollyanna is a 12-year-old who has been recently orphaned. She comes to live with her rich Aunt Polly, who is strict and uptight and is not well-liked in her small town. Pollyanna’s relentless optimism clashes with her aunt but wins over almost everyone she meets in her community. Hayley Mills is terrific as Pollyanna, she’s earnest and lovable and you’ll wish you knew her too. The other performances are quite good as well, especially Jane Wyman as Aunt Polly who admirably straddles the fine line between being imperious and sympathetic. The movie has great pacing and even though it was made in 1960 (almost 60 years ago!), it feels modern. If you’re in the mood for a cozy and heartwarming family movie, I recommend it.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Star Wars:The Force Awakens but I had high hopes for this sequel since it was directed by Rian Johnson (he made Brick and Looper, both of which I enjoyed) instead of J.J. Abrams (who seems to favor style and action over substance). We bought tickets to the opening showing, which is rare because we hardly ever watch movies in theaters any more (we have better video and audio at home) and when we do, we go to the least crowded showing. I don’t think it was worth it though because I was disappointed yet again.

I’m not sure how good The Last Jedi was independent of the rest of the Star Wars canon because I love the Star Wars universe and I can’t look at the movie from any other perspective. I do know that the things I love about Star Wars are clearly not the same things that the creators of this trilogy think is important. I love the pulpiness, the idealistic characters, the hero’s journey, the worldbuilding, and even the political intrigue. This movie was a little better than The Force Awakens at those aspects, but only the tiniest bit. It doesn’t respect the characters from the previous movies (Mark Hamill agrees with me), it rehashes the same tired tropes from the previous trilogies rather than creating something new (both in terms of plot and worldbuilding), and it often chooses humor over drama or character growth, which strips away any real stakes and makes it impossible to take the characters seriously.

There were some moments where it seemed like the series might go in an original direction (for example, Rey and Kylo’s connection) but they are resolved predictably and that was really frustrating. I did find Poe’s story somewhat interesting, he actually had a clear character growth arc, but it wasn’t enough.

Don’t get me wrong, The Last Jedi isn’t a bad movie, it just doesn’t have the things that make the Star Wars universe unique. I hope Gareth Edwards gets to make more Star Wars movies because Rogue One had pretty much everything I wanted.

Hulk (2003)

I was curious to see how Ang Lee would handle a superhero movie because his thoughtful, character focused style didn’t seem like it would be a good match for the genre. Hulk was definitely an interesting movie with some ideas that seemed ahead of their time, but it ultimately didn’t work too well.

This movie tells a pretty standard superhero origin story – after Dr. Bruce Banner is exposed to gamma radiation, he starts to transform into a huge green monster under high stress. Unlike other movies of its genre, it doesn’t have a supervillain for the Hulk to fight; just the army concerned (rightfully) about a person who can transform into a destructive monster without conscious control. There’s no good or evil (although there are annoying smarmy guys) and all the characters have fleshed-out motivations that make sense. The focus is on character growth rather than action, which I liked but it didn’t quite mesh with the tone of the action scenes. There were a lot of creatively framed that were clearly meant to evoke the panels of a comic book, but they often didn’t add anything to the story and made the movie seem a little unfocused.

Mona Lisa Smile (2003)

This is a pretty standard “inspiring teacher inspires students to think outside the box” movie. Julia Roberts plays a free-spirited art history professor who takes a job at Wellesley (a private women’s liberal arts college) in the 1950s. Kirsten Dunst, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Julia Stiles, and Ginnifer Goodwin play the students featured most prominently in the movie and they’re the usual archetypes that you expect – the one who is initially vehemently opposed to everything the teacher stands for, the one who acts out for attention, the one who can’t choose between tradition and her dream, and so on.

Mona Lisa Smile is not a bad movie but it doesn’t really stand out, even in its genre. It might have made an excellent Sofia Coppola movie, but as it is, it’s forgettable. The characters are not relatable; I’m not exactly sure why. It might be because they’re so privileged, but Dead Poets Society is set at an elite private school and does not suffer from the same problem. It was also hard to understand what made Julia Roberts’ character such an inspiration; she seemed to give up on her ideas pretty easily. And even though there were talented actors in this movie, their performances seem somewhat insipid.

Switch (1991)

Switch seems to have largely been forgotten and I’m not sure where or how I heard of it, but I was intrigued by the premise – Steve Brooks, a sexist man, being reincarnated as a woman and growing as a person as he/she realizes what the life of a woman is like. Plus I love Jimmy Smits in the Star Wars prequels (as Princess Leia’s adoptive father Bail Organa) and The West Wing (as presidential candidate Matt Santos), so I was curious about what he was up to more than a decade before those roles.

Ellen Barkin plays the reincarnated Steve Brooks, and she does a fantastic job walking and talking like a man. I hadn’t ever thought about the subtleties of how men move differently from women until I saw her performance and it seemed so natural. Besides that, though, this is a weird, weird movie. At first it tries to be an over-the-top comedy based on the assumptions that both men and women make about gender roles, which it manages quite well. Then it tries to change its tone to a drama dealing with things like rape and pregnancy, and it falls apart. The characters are repurposed to make the plot go where the writer wanted it to and it’s hard to suspend disbelief any longer.

I think the movie is still worth watching because of Ellen Barkin’s performance, but don’t go into it expecting much else.

Your Name (2016)

We also re-watched Your Name this week but I reviewed it fairly recently, so I’ll just link to my previous review. We watched it again because we received our pre-order with the English dub (we had watched it subtitled last time) and wanted to see what the dub was like. It’s a fantastic movie so any excuse to watch it again is welcome.

The dub was well done and I had no issues with it. I prefer the original Japanese audio, though, probably just because I watched that first.

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