Weekly Movie Reviews: Dec 24-31, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Chinatown (1974)

Chinatown is a frequent member of various lists of best movies ever made and its place is well-deserved. It’s a noir classic and it’s been hugely influential in a number of ways. It’s got incredible performances, an iconic score, and a screenplay that’s widely considered one of the best of all time.

J.J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is a private investigator that specializes in finding evidence of cheating spouses. Gittes’ latest case goes sideways when his client’s husband ends up murdered and it turns out that the woman who hired Gittes is not actually the wife of the man he’s been following.

Gittes is a great character. Superficially, he comes off as a tough guy, but he’s the moral center of the movie. He does the right thing, which includes implying that he would be willing to do otherwise. We see the events of the movie exclusively through his point of view which takes us on the same rollercoaster of emotions that he is subject to throughout the narrative; we don’t know what’s happening until he does. The movie’s atmosphere is also incredibly immersive – the music, the lighting, the dialogue, and everything else works together to create the imperfect world that Gittes has to deal with. The plot is pretty typical of noir, but it makes sense, it’s well-told and has a fitting ending.

Other Movies Watched

Bright (2017)

Bright is probably the movie that I’ve been most eagerly anticipating this year. It pushes all my buttons – it’s directed by David Ayer (who wrote the excellent Training Day and directed Fury and End of Watch), it stars Will Smith (I’m a fan) and Joel Edgerton (who I’ve liked in Midnight Special and Loving), and most importantly it’s an urban fantasy movie! There is a serious dearth of interesting fantasy movies, especially urban fantasy which usually tells stories that would be a good fit for film.

Anyway I went into this with a serious bias, but I loved it. It had an interesting reception – most critics did not like it, but the audience did (see Rotten Tomatoes), and I’m not surprised by that. Reading fantasy is probably my favorite thing in the world, so I found it easy to suspend disbelief and get into the world of the movie. Also if you ignore the setting, it’s a pretty standard buddy-cop movie. But it did have an original setting and interesting worldbuilding throughout the movie and I enjoyed the characters. I also appreciated its light tone and low stakes; all fantasy does not have to be epic. Plus, I’m a sucker for originality and I like movies that try something new even if they deliver something slightly uneven. I’m so excited that they’re making a sequel!

Heathers (1988)

I’d been wanting to watch Heathers for a while because I’m fond of both black comedies and teen movies (especially 80s teen movies). Veronica is a member of the popular clique at her school, the other three members of which are all rich and pretty girls named Heather. She’s tired of putting up with the Heathers and becomes fascinated by a new student, J.D., who seems to be able to handle anything that comes his way. Their mutual attraction gets out of hand quickly when their dates usually end in murder.

Being a teen can be painful and everyone has fantasies about the people they have problems with simply disappearing. Heathers takes those fantasies and runs with them and the result is incisive and hilarious. There’s something deeply compelling about J.D.’s cheerful bloodthirstiness and Veronica’s struggle between giving into her desire for retribution and being a normal, moral person. This is in large part because of Christian Slater and Winona Ryder’s performances; they both steal every scene they are in.

Colossal (2016)

I was intrigued by Colossal‘s premise of a twenty-something woman realizing that a series of attacks by a giant monster in Seoul was connected to her everyday actions. But I was also worried that it was just a gimmick and that the movie would fall apart halfway through, since I wasn’t sure how that situation would be explained or resolved. My concerns were unfounded though; this is a fun and internally consistent movie.

I like the recent trend of Western movies being inspired by Japanese media. I haven’t seen a lot of kaiju/mecha shows but I’m familiar enough with them to appreciate the references (and I absolutely love Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim). Colossal marries that genre and the heroism that comes with it to the indie-film trope of someone coming to terms with the choices they’ve made in their life and the responsibilities that come with it (like Garden State or Elizabethtown) and actually manages to pull it off. Anne Hathaway does a terrific job as the initially useless protagonist who eventually learns to use her agency. I can’t think of any other movies with a female protagonist that have this type of character growth (Lost in Translation and Ghost World are the closest ones, but their protagonists are very different), although I’m sure there are a few. The parts of the story that deal with the powers the characters possess reminded me a little of Chronicle; it was grounded and easy to relate to.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

People in the early 90s sure loved epic dramas; in addition to this movie, this was also the time of Braveheart, The English Patient, Dances with Wolves, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (and that’s just off the top of my head).

The Last of the Mohicans follows the last three members of the Mohicans, a dying native American tribe, who get involved in protecting the daughters of a British Colonel during the French and Indian war. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the protagonist, half-white Hawkeye; the other two Mohicans are his adoptive brother Uncas (Eric Schweig) and father Chingachgook (Russell Means). I found myself thinking about The English Patient and Legends of the Fall while I was watching this; their stories differ greatly but they share a similar tone of melancholy and expansiveness. There was clearly a lot of thought put into making the setting of the movie feel authentic and I appreciated that. But behind its pretty window dressing, this movie doesn’t make you think too much; it sticks to the familiar heroic tropes, which makes it fun to watch but ultimately not that notable.

Indignation (2016)

Indignation is the directorial debut of James Schamus, who has written many of Ang Lee’s movies (of which I am a big fan), so I’ve been wanting to see it for a while. It follows Marcus, a working-class Jewish student attending a small Christian college in Ohio in the 1950s.

As the title suggests, Marcus reacts to everything with indignation. He has the arrogance common to teenagers who realize they are smarter than most people around them but haven’t realized how much they don’t know yet and how little being smart actually matters. The movie is excruciating to watch because you see him react to situation after situation with the same resentful stubbornness and you’re just acutely frustrated (or maybe that was just me, I kept being reminded of myself as a 15-year-old in my Ayn Rand phase and being immensely glad I wasn’t that person anymore). Logan Lerman does an excellent job as the main character, his self-righteous conviction just leaps off the screen. I didn’t find any major flaws with the main narrative but I found the framing story a little too saccharine and on-the-nose.

The Book Thief (2013)

Liesel, a young girl, is sent to live with a foster family in Germany after her mother can no longer support her. She has trouble fitting in at first. When she’s finally becoming comfortable with her new life, World War II breaks out and her family begins harboring Max, the son of a Jewish family friend. Liesel connects with Max by reading him books that she “borrows” from the mayor’s house, hence the title of the movie.

I can’t help but identify with characters that love to read so Liesel automatically had my sympathies (especially in the scene where books are being burned; I was furious). The movie is heartwarming and had some lovely performances. I particularly enjoyed Geoffrey Rush as Liesel’s warm foster father and Nico Liersch as her best friend, Rudy. I found the movie as a whole somewhat bland, though. It took a very safe and well-tread direction with its portrayal of its setting and the relationships between characters.

The Bling Ring (2013)

Even though The Bling Ring is made by Sofia Coppola (one of my favorite directors, see: The Beguiled, The Virgin Suicides), I wasn’t that excited about it because the idea of a movie about a bunch of entitled kids stealing famous people’s clothes didn’t appeal to me. I tried to approach the movie with an open mind, though, since I was aware of my bias.

Coppola is skilled at making privileged protagonists relatable (see: Somewhere, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), but I just didn’t connect with the characters in this movie. And while I appreciate realism in most movies, in this case, it just translated to seeing kids “break” into houses (usually just by retrieving a key) and find rooms full of clothes and accessories that they stole from and then bragged about later. There’s no suspense or danger to liven it up. The dialogue was also painfully natural; I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near these people in real life. I think the reason I’m more sympathetic to Coppola’s other protagonists is that they are usually passively unhappy or unable to do anything about their situation; that’s a situation that we all find ourselves in. This movie was all about people making actively narcissistic and criminal decisions repeatedly, and that’s not as easy to stomach.

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