Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 15-21, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Fall (2006)

In a 1920s Los Angeles hospital, injured stuntman Roy Walker and Alexandria, a five year old girl with a broken arm, strike up a friendship. Roy begins to tell her the story of a band of legendary heroes battling an evil general and her vibrant imagination brings it to life. Although his initial motivation is to entertain Alexandria, he soon realizes that she could steal him the morphine he craves and starts trading pieces of the story for favors.

The Fall is almost impossible to describe, it’s a unique movie and I doubt there will ever be anything else like it. The cinematography is beyond spectacular, the heroes travel from one breathtaking location to another and the movie does not seem to be bound by any real-world rules other than the strength of Alexandria’s imagination. It’s not just the backgrounds either, the character design and the framing are also striking and evocative. The music is arresting, especially the use of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. There is also some good examination on the nature of storytelling, especially with the seamless transition between reality and fantasy, the way Roy’s story evolves in response to real-world events, and the obvious differences between the words that Roy speaks and the images that Alexandria associates them with (such as Roy describing a Native American when he says “Indian” but Alexandria picturing the character as someone from India since she is more familiar with them).

The acting by the two protagonists (Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru) is extraordinary. I’ve never seen a young actor that acted so realistically (she was six!) and I believe large parts of the movie were improvised so that they could allow her to be herself. I read that they even allowed her to believe that Lee Pace was a real quadriplegic so that she would respond naturally to him. Roy’s story is subtly told and all the more poignant for it; his anguish is both easy to sympathize with and unsettling to watch in the context of his relationship with Alexandria.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen The Fall and I have this reaction to it every time. I could keep gushing about it forever. I think it is one of the most visionary and memorable movies I’ve ever seen and am likely to see. If I was asked about the best movie I’d ever seen, this would probably be it because it takes advantage of its format to tell a story that no other medium could tell anywhere near as effectively.

Other Movies Watched

The Boy and the Beast (2015)

A young homeless boy living on the streets of Tokyo finds a portal to a magical world of beasts. He is taken in as an apprentice by the coarse and surly warrior Kumatetsu and christened Kyuta by his new master. Kyuta and Kumetetsu squabble constantly but learn from each other and eventually develop a deep bond. But Kyuta never forgets the human world either and his ties to both worlds are tested by various events.

This is the fourth and latest movie (as of now) by award-winning Japanese filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda. I’ve loved all his previous work (see reviews of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children) and he’s only getting better with every movie he makes. The Boy and the Beast has drama, comedy, and adventure in just the right proportions, and every bit of it is heartwarming. It doesn’t shy away from putting its characters through real difficulty, though. Like Wolf Children, it’s about being torn between two worlds and giving up something important no matter what choice is made. It is fundamentally a coming of age story for both for Kyuta and Kumetetsu though, and so it’s also about finding your place and being content with it.

Having watched this movie means that I have no more new Hosoda to watch, but he’s making a new movie, Mirai, that’s hopefully coming out in 2018!

Somewhere (2010)

Johnny Marco is an actor that seems to have everything figured out on the surface – he’s getting more famous, he’s winning awards, and he’s rich. He’s overcome by ennui though and can’t bring himself to care about or enjoy anything. When his ex-wife needs to get away for a while, his eleven-year-old daughter comes to stay with him and that experience slowly chips away at his apathy.

If you’ve read my previous movie reviews, you may have noticed that Sofia Coppola is one of my favorite directors and Somewhere only heightens that. It has a distinctive style, lingering for what feels like too long on every shot but perfectly capturing the weight of the character’s boredom and lethargy. Just like Lost in Translation there is some subtle satire of how show business works, especially publicity. Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning do an excellent job as the main characters and sell the father-daughter rapport admirably.

It’s hard to describe this movie because not a lot of stuff happens but everything that does seems much more intimate than you’re used to from other movies. I read that it was criticized because it focused on the problems of a successful actor but I actually liked that part; it’s a good reminder that no matter what things look like on the outside, everybody needs to figure out their own meaning and purpose for their life.

John Wick (2014)

John Wick used to be a hitman before he left the criminal world behind to make a fresh start with his wife. She has just died of an illness and he finds himself adrift. When he incidentally crosses paths with some gangsters, they take away what little he has left and he finds purpose again – hunting down and killing them all.

I’d heard a lot of good things about John Wick but I’m always slightly skeptical about Keanu Reeves (I’m not sure why, he’s been in a couple of clunkers but he’s a fine actor). It turned out to live up to the hype, though. If we hadn’t watched so many other good movies this week, it probably would have ended up being my favorite.

John Wick is one of those movies that is pure fun to watch. The character is already legendary by the time we meet him and he doesn’t need an emotional growth arc to make his story engrossing. Just seeing him kicking ass and taking names is mesmerizing. There is none of the cloying sentimentality that other “my wife just got killed” characters often have. And he doesn’t talk unless he’s got something to say and that makes him far less annoying than most characters. The movie reminded me stylistically a little of The Boondock Saints but it’s not as outrageous and much better. One of the other things I really enjoyed was how the infrastructure of the criminal underworld was set up; it made for a compelling world that I wanted to see more of. Luckily, John Wick: Chapter 2 exists and there is a third movie in production.

The Dark Tower (2017)

Eleven-year-old Jake Chambers has been plagued by apocalyptic visions that show him the Dark Tower that keeps the universe safe, the Man in Black that wants to destroy it, and the lone Gunslinger that opposes him, Roland Deschain. Roland is the last of the Gunslingers and he was abandoned his duty in order to seek vengeance upon the Man in Black who has murdered the rest of his compatriots. Walter, the Man in Black, has his own plans – has been hunting children with psychic powers since they are the only ones capable of bringing down the tower. Eventually his attention turns to Jake, who manages to run away into another world where he meets Roland. Together they must figure out how to stop Walter’s plans for good.

This movie tells a simple and familiar story – a young misfit meets a world-weary adult, makes him care about the world again, and together they fight against an undeniably evil villain. I haven’t read the Dark Tower books (yet) but I’m sure that it’s far more complex and the movie is probably not a great adaptation and/or sequel. I thought it was a pretty good, though. It establishes an interesting world without too much exposition, it’s got likeable characters and talented actors (Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey, among others), it’s got good pacing, and it tells a cohesive story. It’s not an outstanding movie but it’s not bad, either. And it definitely made me interested in reading the books.

Patriot Games (1992)

This is the second movie based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan books. I think it is supposed to be a sequel to The Hunt for Red October but most of the characters are played by different actors, including Harrison Ford taking over the title role. When Jack and his family are visiting London for a conference, he happens to be in the right place at the right time to save a member of the royal family from IRA assassins. One of the terrorists is killed and his brother (Sean Bean) becomes fixated on getting back at Jack no matter what the consequences will be.

I didn’t expect this movie to be as good as The Hunt for Red October but I was still disappointed by it. It’s actually a decent action movie but it was too generic. The appeal of Jack Ryan as a character is that he’s an analyst, not a field agent and he solves problems using his mind. This movie has no room for a character like that because the bad guys keep showing up wherever he is, there isn’t anything he needs to figure out. Plus Alec Baldwin played the character with a sense of thoughtfulness and deep resolve and I can’t think of many other similar movie characters. On the other hand, Harrison Ford’s Jack is indistinguishable from his other action roles. I could see his character becoming president a few years later and kicking Gary Oldman off his plane.

What Happened To Monday (2017)

In the future, fertility rates have rocketed and overpopulation has caused a global crisis. The Child Allocation Bureau strictly enforces a “one child per family” law, taking away any siblings to put into cryosleep. When Karen Settman dies after giving birth to septuplets, her father cannot bring himself to abandon any of his grandchildren and brings them up to make sure only one of them is ever outside the house at any given time so that they can all pose as a single person. This system works well until one of the sisters, Monday, doesn’t come back home as usual and the rest of the sisters have to figure out what happened.

I thought this movie had an intriguing premise but unfortunately it didn’t live up to its potential. Noomi Rapace does a passable job playing all seven sisters but she didn’t make them distinctive enough and I couldn’t tell a lot of the sisters apart (she’s no Tatiana Maslany). The plot has a couple of surprises but many of the twists felt predictable and stale. I wasn’t expecting the movie to be as violent as it was. Some movies can pull that off but it felt gratuitous in this one.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 8-14, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Sound of Music (1965)

I’m not sure how I’d never seen The Sound of Music, I’ve known songs from it ever since I can remember and I know it’s one of best-known classic movies all around the world.

Maria, a young Austrian woman, is a nun in training in a convent in Salzburg. She is excitable and easily distracted though, which are not qualities that nuns usually possess. So the abbess of her convent decides to send her to the Von Trapp family as a governess for a few months to help her decide if she really wants to be a nun. Maria finds seven lovely children who are desperate to get their father’s attention since he has been extremely strict and aloof since their mother died. She brings joy back to the family’s life but fresh difficulties for them arise as Austria is annexed to Nazi Germany.

I find that older movies don’t hold my attention quite as easily as newer ones do, but I didn’t have that problem at all with The Sound of Music, despite it being over fifty years old and about three hours long. The songs are fabulous and I still have a couple stuck in my head. The pacing is perfect, just as you’re starting to wish a conflict in the movie was solved, it does and the movie throws something else at you. The actors are wonderful, adding both humor and drama without either feeling disingenuous. The whole movie has a cozy warmth to it that I can’t quite describe. I know why everyone loves it so much now!

Other Movies Watched

Sin Nombre (2009)

Sin Nombre follows Sayra, a Honduran teenager, and Willy, a young Mexican gangster. Sayra and her family (including her father that she hasn’t seen since she was very young) are on a perilous journey through Mexico to attempt crossing the border into the United States. Casper is growing disillusioned with gang life and is looking for a way out so that he can keep his girlfriend safe. Both their stories eventually intersect on the train that Sayra is traveling on.

This is a exceptional movie. It is not always easy to watch; it is brutally violent (but in realistic ways) and some bad things happen to people, including children. But it also has moments of beauty and hope. First-time writer/director Cary Fukunaga (later famous for True Detective and Beasts of No Nation) is phenomenal, the writing, the pacing, the atmosphere, the acting, and everything else was outstanding. Everything about the movie seems authentic (I read that Fukunaga spent two years researching the movie by spending time with real gangsters and with people looking to move to the United States), especially the people in it. The cast features several non-professional actors so that helps. The story that the movie tells is a huge part of its success, it offers an unrelentingly realistic view of people whose situations are so hopeless that illegal immigration seems like a good option.

Jumanji (1995)

Alan Parrish finds a mysterious board game named Jumanji on a construction site and starts playing a game with his friend Sarah. Jumanji isn’t just a game, though. It can actually affect the real world and they find this out the hard way when Alan vanishes while Sarah flees from a horde of bats. Decades later, siblings Judy and Peter move into Alan’s old house and inadvertently resume Alan and Sarah’s old game and release a grown-up Alan from 26 years of being alone in the jungle. Now the four of them must finish the game and brave all the dangers that entails so that things can return to normal.

Jumanji is a classic for a good reason. It’s often chaotic and cacophonous and sometimes a little scary but it’s got all the ingredients that make a good story – humor, heart, romance, adventure, and a little bit of the unexpected. Also Robin Williams is a genius and movies like this one where he works with kids are perfect for him to show off his unique skills (see also: Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire). Kirsten Dunst has been a great actor since she was a child (she’s even better in 1994’s Interview with a Vampire) and she’s a hoot in pretty much every scene she’s in. I wish they still made wacky movies like this!

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Narcissistic actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) has always outdone her rival, aspiring writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). She’s prettier, more successful at her chosen profession, and she’s even managed to steal Helen’s fiancé, Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis). That was all in the past, though, and Madeline is aging and being quickly forgotten. When Helen reappears in her life with all the success that Madeline has lost, she decides to one-up her by taking an immortality treatment from the mysterious Lisle (Isabella Rossellini). Things don’t quite go quite as well as she planned, though.

This is one of those horror-comedy campy movies that seemed to exist mostly around the late ’80s and early ’90s (like Beetlejuice and The Frighteners) and it is a lot of fun. Meryl Streep steals pretty much every scene she’s in (the very first scene in the movie is a ridiculous musical number). and I never knew that Bruce Willis could play a mousy and unassertive guy as well as he does here. Isabella Rossellini and Goldie Hawn are no slouches either, they were just as good but I haven’t seen as many movies with them so I wasn’t as amused by them. This movie is right in director Robert Zemeckis’s wheelhouse – he thrives with plenty of humor and special effects, and this is no exception. The ending of the movie was just perfect, too.

Mamma Mia! (2008)

Mamma Mia! is a musical based entirely on ABBA songs. Sophie has grown up on a colorful Greek island helping her mother Donna run a quaint hotel. She’s never known who her father is, but as she’s planning her wedding, she finds her mother’s old journal in which she writes about her romances with three different men at around the same time. Sophie knows that one of them must be her father so she decides to invite them all to the wedding and figure out which one it is so that he can walk her down the aisle. Hilarity and singing ensues.

My husband and I both grew up listening to the same ABBA CD (Gold: Greatest Hits) and after watching Muriel’s Wedding (which features ABBA heavily) and Rock of Ages, an ABBA musical sounded fantastic to us. The cast is terrific, Meryl Streep plays Donna, Amanda Seyfried plays Sophie, the three potential fathers are Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård, and Dominic Cooper, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, are all in it too. They all seem like they’re having so much fun hamming it up (especially Christine Baranski) and it’s infectious – I’m pretty sure both Joseph and I were singing through half of it.

How Do You Know (2010)

Professional softball player Lisa (Reese Witherspoon) has just been cut from the US national team and she has to figure out what to do with her life now that she is too old to be a successful athlete. To make things even more confusing, she ends up caught in a love triangle between her boyfriend, baseball player Matty (Owen Wilson), and corporate executive George (Paul Rudd), who is managing a crisis of his own.

I’ve talked about my love for James L. Brooks before and this movie has a lot of the good things that his other movies do. It’s just not as good, though. I feel like I didn’t get to know any of the characters very well and since it is a character-focused drama, that’s a problem. It also focused too much on the romance aspect, the premise of Lisa needing to figure out her whole life is compelling but other than some vague mentions of graduate school, we only see her decide between the two men in her life. Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson are all great in it and I would not call it a bad movie but it just didn’t meet my expectations.

In & Out (1997)

High school English teacher Howard Brackett (Kevin Kline) is thrilled when his former student, actor Cameron Drake (Matt Dillon), wins an Academy Award for his performance as a gay soldier. However, he’s not prepared for Cameron’s acceptance speech thanking him for being an inspirational gay man in his life. Howard’s wedding (to a woman) is only a few days away and he has never considered the possibility that he is not attracted to women. His life changes drastically and he starts to reevaluate everything.

This movie seemed like it had good intentions but the execution was sloppy. It vacillated between being a drama about an important issue and a light-hearted comedy where nothing had any consequences. Kevin Kline (as always) does his best with the material he’s given and whenever he’s on screen the movie gets more watchable, but even he can’t save it. It’s not like any of the other actors did a bad job though. The movie just needed to decide what it wanted to be and tell a tighter story.

“Paradox Bound” by Peter Clines

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately because I’ve been really busy at work. I hadn’t read anything by Peter Clines before, but when Paradox Bound showed up in the mail one day billed as an “outrageously fun time-travel adventure”, it seemed like the perfect book to get me out of my slump.

Eli Teague lives in the small, dead-end town of Sanders in Maine. He has an uneventful life working as the IT manager for the local bank and he’s fairly content except for one thing – he keeps thinking about Harry, the mysterious stranger he met twice years and years ago. When Harry shows up in Sanders a third time, he wants answers. But that conversation doesn’t go anything like he planned and he finds himself pulled into a whole new world beyond his wildest imaginations – a hidden society of time travelers, faceless (and murderous) men, and the truth behind the American Dream.

This book lived up to its “outrageously fun” marketing; it’s fast paced, it has an interesting world, and the characters are entertaining. I enjoyed the mechanics of how time travel works. Magic systems that are based on deriving power from the identity of objects or places are fascinating (one of my favorite authors, Brandon Sanderson, does this a lot) and pretty much everything magical in this book fits that description. Most fantasy books I read derive their inspiration from ancient or medieval cultures and myths so it was refreshing to see America’s own mythos come to life, complete with folk heroes like John Henry.

I would love to see a movie version of this book, it reads like a sci-fi action movie (one of my favorite genres). I kept imagining how scenes from it would look like, which is pretty rare for me. I’m not sure how to explain why a book felt like a movie – I think part of it was that its structure. It tells a simple story with only a few characters, but it’s tight and cohesive and almost everything you learn becomes relevant later in the book. The characters aren’t too complicated but Eli has a solid and satisfying arc.

I’ll definitely be checking out more of Peter Clines’ work. I’ll also be posting an interview with Peter Clines and giving away two copies of Paradox Bound soon, so keep your eyes out. I’ll link it here once that post is up.

Paradox Bound by Peter Clines
Crown, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 1-7, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

I’ve seen all of John Hughes’ teen movies that’s he’s famous for (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and so on) but I hadn’t seen any of his later movies until I saw this one. We follow New York City executive Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is trying to make it home for Thanksgiving but is plagued by transportation delays and cancellations. He also cannot shake off his traveling companion, garrulous shower curtain ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy).

I haven’t seen Steve Martin in too many things but his reputation as a comedian is well-deserved if his comic timing in this movie is anything to judge by. Neal Page’s frustration throughout the movie is entirely relatable, most of us have been through transportation snafus, been around people who just don’t know when to shut up, and dealt with all the other annoyances he runs into; we just (hopefully) haven’t had to deal with all of them at the same time. There are a bunch of memorable scenes, but my favorite is probably when he’s just had enough when his rental car goes missing (NSFW for profanity). That scene is hilarious on its own but its placement in the movie is extremely cathartic.

One of the things that makes this movie so fantastic is that it does an amazing job of making you feel the way the character does almost viscerally, but for some reason you still enjoy it. Plus it’s got heart!

Other Movies Watched

As Good As It Gets (1997)

Obsessive-compulsive and misanthropic author Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) has a predictable life, he lives alone, he keeps his house neat and precisely organized, and he eats breakfast at the same table at the same restaurant served by the same waitress every day. His life suddenly changes when two things happen – his regular waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) quits to take care of her sick son, and his gay artist neighbor, Simon (Greg Kinnear), gets beaten and robbed, leaving Melvin to take care of his dog. He begins to form an unlikely friendship with both of them but his habitual insensitivity threatens to get in the way.

As Good As It Gets is a wonderful movie. I’m used to thinking about Jack Nicholson as someone who plays powerful and confident characters that are usually in control of whatever situation they are in but this movie made me realize what a good actor he was. He’s simultaneously cantankerous and vulnerable and you can’t help but feel for him even when he says and does the most outrageously rude things. I’m a big fan of Helen Hunt and she’s excellent as usual. This is apparently the most recent movie that has won both the Best Actor and the Best Actress Oscars (Greg Kinnear also got nominated for Best Supporting Actor). And Cuba Gooding Jr. was delightful in his part as Simon’s boyfriend.

I’ve just been focusing on the acting but everything else about it is good too. The acting wouldn’t have mattered if the movie hadn’t been as well-written as it is, the way that the characters grow over the movie is deeply satisfying. I am fond of the trope where two broken people end up fixing themselves through helping the other one with their problems and this is one of the best things I’ve seen with that narrative.

Terms of Endearment (1983)

I was looking forward to watching this movie because after watching Broadcast News, Spanglish, and As Good As It Gets, I think James L Brooks is one of those directors (like Ang Lee) that really knows how to get nuanced and subtle performances from actors. Plus I’ve been tracking how many Oscar Best Picture Winners I’ve watched so far, and this was on the list.

We follow Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) for a few years of their lives, starting with Emma’s wedding. They go through a lot (both separately and together) and their stubbornness means their relationship is often contentious. They have a bond that’s not broken easily though and that keeps them going even when everything around them is falling apart.

This movie reminded me of Steel Magnolias; although Steel Magnolias followed a group of women, two of the main characters are a mother and a daughter and it begins with the daughter’s wedding just as in this one (and Shirley MacLaine is in both). Terms of Endearment just follows the lives of Aurora and Emma without an overarching story, just an emotional arc. It’s often funny and sometimes quite sad, and it makes you feel like you know these people in real life. The actors do a superb job and the chemistry between them is palpable. Although this movie is primarily about the women, Jack Nicholson and Jeff Daniels also stand out in their supporting character roles as well.

Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

Woody Allen directs, writes, and stars in this movie about sportswriter Lenny who is a little bored with his life. When he discovers that his adopted son Max has a genius level intellect, he decides to find Max’s biological parents since he believes that he must have inherited it from them. Instead he finds Linda Ash (Mira Sorvino), a prostitute and occasional porn star who is one of the most empty-headed people he has met, but he still feels inexplicably drawn to her.

Mighty Aphrodite is structured like an ancient Greek play (and named after a Greek goddess too), it has a Greek chorus (led by F. Murray Abraham) who help tell the story by breaking the fourth wall, both talking directly to us and talking to the characters as well. It’s an interesting device and I thought it seemed pretentious at first but it fits the story and the movie well. This is only the second Woody Allen movie I’ve seen (after Annie Hall) and I’m not sure if he plays a similarly neurotic character in all of them, but it works for this one. Mira Sorvino is marvelous in her role as an extremely vacuous but indisputably nice woman, she won a well-deserved Oscar for it. Helena Bonham Carter actually plays it straight as Lenny’s bored wife and she’s good at it. It’s definitely a quirky movie but I’d recommend it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming features the third new movie version of Spider-Man in the last fifteen years, but this time he’s part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and played by someone closer to being an actual teenager (Tom Holland). And thankfully it’s not an origin story; Spider-Man has been fighting crime for a while and has already been noticed by the Avengers (as we saw in Captain America: Civil War last year).

While this movie features the trademark Marvel style (including the constant quips which I used to find funny but seem obnoxious now), it also takes a lot of inspiration from classic teen movies. Yes, Peter Parker is coming to terms with his superhero identity, but he also needs to get his homework done, ask the girl he likes out to homecoming, and try to not let down his school’s science trivia (I think) team competing in the nationals. And it’s a decent teen movie! Apparently the cast and crew were drawing heavily from John Hughes movies so that makes sense.

I’m not sure if it was a great superhero movie or not, but I liked that it wasn’t just a superhero movie and I liked Michael Keaton as the villain (he sure does like his winged super-roles – Batman, Birdman, The Vulture). I do wish Iron Man wasn’t such a big part of the movie, though. As likable as Robert Downey Jr. is as Iron Man, needs to stop invading other superheroes’ movies and making them all about him (see also Captain America: Civil War). It detracted from Spider-Man’s arc, turning his motivations for fighting crime from his idealistic roots to just wanting to be accepted by someone he admires.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) meet when they’re both hired as sheep herders on the remote Brokeback Mountain. They spend months together and as they get to know each other, they end up forming a deeper relationship (I’m not sure how to describe it; “falling in love” seems too extreme and “having sex” seems too cold). They go their separate ways after the season ends but keep being drawn to each other and continue their relationship clandestinely for years afterward.

I’m not sure how I haven’t seen this movie until now, given its acclaim and my love for Ang Lee. It’s a very well-made movie but I did not like it as much as I like most of his movies, primarily because I found it boring. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal did a terrific job, the direction, the writing, and the cinematography was outstanding, and I can’t find any notable flaws with the movie so I’m not sure why I found it boring. Maybe it’s because it’s a romance and I find most romances boring, I didn’t feel close to or invested in either of them and so I couldn’t understand why they were even drawn to each other.

The French Connection (1971)

Two New York City narcotic cops, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo, are trying to intercept a large drug shipment that’s being smuggled in from France by suave businessman Alain Charnier.

That pretty much summarizes the movie, it’s a slow moving thriller that focuses on the characters and the cat-and-mouse game they play. Our primary hero, Popeye (played with his characteristic intensity by Gene Hackman) is an irascible and bigoted alcoholic, but he takes his job extremely seriously. The man he is tracking down, Charnier, seems like a cultured gentleman but he’s also a hardened criminal. The way the movie focuses on their opposing personalities gives it a lot of its character. The chase sequences are tightly executed, giving the movie a sense of real tension that modern action movies don’t have. The movie’s design and cinematography add to the tone it’s established, everything about the movie is dirty and gritty.

The French Connection won the Best Picture Oscar when it came out and it seems like one of those movies that transformed a genre entirely (or maybe created a new one?) I can see its influences in so many movies. But it seems a little unpolished, as pioneering movies often do; it uses a new way of telling a story but which hasn’t been perfected through repetition yet.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 24-30, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Ride with the Devil (1999)

Another Ang Lee movie that I had never really heard of! And one of my favorite genres too – a period drama.

The Civil War has just begun and Missouri natives Jake Roedel (Tobey Maguire) and Jack Bull Chiles (Skeet Ulrich) join the fight out of a desire for revenge after Union soldiers kill Jack Bull’s father. They join the Bushwhackers, a vigilante army that opposes the Union-loyalist Jayhawkers from across the border in Kansas. As the war progresses, however, their sense of purpose grows murkier and their priorities start to change.

Ang Lee is amazing at getting nuanced performances from his actors and this movie is no exception. The characters never seem like they’re in a movie, they sometimes surprise you and other times they’re predictable, just like real people. I liked that the protagonists were Confederate soldiers and their story was told without being moralistic in any way; they are just people trying to do the right thing – protect their community and avenge their losses, not fight to defend political ideals.

Other Movies Watched

20th Century Women (2016)

20th Century Women tells the story of a group of people living in a boarding house in late seventies Southern California. The house is owned by Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening), who is growing increasingly baffled by her teenage son Jamie and enlists the remaining members of the household as well as Jamie’s friend Julie to provide other influences in his life.

This movie is hard to describe, but it’s really good. You could describe it as a standard independent dramedy; it centers on a group of quirky characters that all grow in different ways throughout the movie, but it’s done well enough that it doesn’t feel standard. Annette Bening’s performance as the contradictory and irrepressible Dorothea is excellent. I read that the movie is based on writer/director Mike Mills’ mother so of course the characterization is well done. Parts of 20th Century Women reminded me a lot of another semi-autobiographical movie, Almost Famous, but it also focuses on the women around Jamie rather than just telling one coming of age story (hence the title) and that makes it even more compelling.

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

The Pursuit of Happyness is based on entrepreneur Chris Gardner’s struggle with homelessness as he was raising his young son on his own and trying to start a new career as a stockbroker. It stars real-life father-son duo Will and Jaden Smith (and is thankfully much better than After Earth, the other movie that they play a father and son in).

I didn’t know anything about this movie before going in and I was surprised that it was a fairly serious drama. On the surface it seems just another inspirational story of a person being successful through hard work but the details and the acting make it more than the sum of its parts. I’m a big fan of Will Smith (especially in his more dramatic roles) and he’s as good as ever. He does get to use his signature comic timing even though he goes through a lot of awful things. He also has great chemistry with his son and that’s the emotional heart of the movie.

Romancing the Stone (1984)

Joan Wilder is a successful New York City author who writes adventurous romance novels. She’s absolutely the last person who would get mixed up in any trouble… until her sister is kidnapped in Colombia, anyway. She travels to Colombia to arrange for her sister’s ransom but events soon get out of hand and she must go on the run with roguish soldier of fortune Jack Colton to get away from the corrupt Colonel Zolo.

If I had to use one word to describe Romancing the Stone, it would be “fun”. It is so much fun that if dictionaries had pictures, the entry for “fun” would have a Romancing the Stone poster under it. I enjoy the trope where a creator gets tossed into a situation that relates to their work and this is a great example of it. Michael Douglas hams it up wonderfully as Jack Colton (he reminded me of his character in The Ghost and the Darkness). And who doesn’t love a classic adventure story involving jungles, treasure, a vile villain, drug lords, a crocodile pit, and so on?

As if there weren’t enough reasons to like this movie already, its unexpected success launched director Robert Zemeckis’s career and enabled him to make his next movie (and one of my favorites of all time), Back to the Future.

Falling Down (1993)

Falling Down follows William Foster (Michael Douglas) as he makes his way across Los Angeles to visit his daughter on her birthday. Recent events have left him teetering on the edge of sanity and when his day starts off with a traffic jam and a shopkeeper that refuses to give him the change he needs to make a phone call, he is pushed right off that edge. In parallel we follow retiring police sergeant Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall) who is tracking Foster by the string of crimes committed along his path.

I thought this movie would be comedic but it plays it straight. Foster is clearly mentally ill and treated as such throughout. Michael Douglas does a fantastic job; he’s said it’s his favorite performance of his career and I can see why – he portrays a nuanced character that I both empathized with and was terrified of. The movie also has a great oppressive and uncomfortable atmosphere that pushes you to side with Foster even more. It’s not the most cheerful movie but it has some terrific scenes (this scene at a fast food restaurant is probably the most famous) and is definitely worth watching.

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Muriel’s life isn’t great – she’s constantly berated by her demanding father, she has no real friends, and she’s stuck in her dead end hometown of Porpoise Spit. She spends her days listening to ABBA and dreaming of having a beautiful wedding and a husband that will help her escape her life. She is nowhere near achieving that goal until one day she has an opportunity to steal some money from her family and get away from them.

I wasn’t sure about whether I would like Muriel’s Wedding for the first half of the movie; Muriel is a a fairly pathetic character in the beginning. But this movie has plenty of heart and it eventually completely won me over. Toni Collette is perfect as Muriel (although I barely recognized her, she put on 40 lb for the role). And the movie wasn’t just a quirky comedy, it had realistic character development in some unexpected ways.

Julie & Julia (2009)

This movie is based on two sources – the book My Life in France by Julia Child and a blog by Julie Powell, a woman who decided to cook every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. It follows both women’s lives in parallel as they go from uncertainty about their direction in life to success.

I loved the parts of the movie that focused on Julia Child. Meryl Streep plays her and does as a good job as anyone could, although she is a bit stiffer than the real Julia. Stanley Tucci is also fantastic as Julia’s husband Paul. I didn’t really care for the Julie segments, the character seemed too self-involved and annoyed me. Amy Adams is a great actress and I probably would have disliked her character much more if she hadn’t been the one to play her. The movie is well made but I just found myself wishing that it was a Julia Child biopic instead.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 17-23, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

I love Westerns and I didn’t realize that a Western with a female gunfighter protagonist was missing from my life until I read about this movie. And it’s directed by Sam Raimi and he makes good movies.

A mysterious female gunslinger (Sharon Stone) arrives in Redemption, an Old West town controlled by local outlaw John Herod (Gene Hackman), just in time to sign up for the Herod’s gun-fighting competition. She isn’t just there for the prize money, though – she has an old score to settle. Her simple plan is complicated by the rules of the contest as well as her friendships with fellow competitors the Kid (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cort (Russell Crowe), who she may have to hurt to get to her final target.

The Quick and the Dead follows all the usual Western tropes – mysterious stranger riding into a town that needs saving, a villainous outlaw, plenty of gunslinging, but what it lacks in originality it makes up for in style. I was worried that Sharon Stone’s character would either be too vulnerable or too much like a male character, but she was written and acted perfectly. She is both realistic and terrifyingly good. This was Russell Crowe’s American debut and one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s earliest movies (he’s adorable!) and they were talented actors even back then. And Gene Hackman is delightfully despicable as the villainous Herod.

Other Movies Watched

Starship Troopers (1997)

It is the 23rd century and humans are now a spacefaring species. The government is controlled by the military, citizenship and the right to vote only awarded to people who have chosen to join federal service, and Earth is constantly at war with an alien species (the Bugs). We follow rich kid turned mobile infantryman Johnny Rico as he rises through the ranks of the military.

I did not like this movie when I first saw it because I had recently read Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and this movie is tonally very different from the book despite sharing a few character names and a general plot. I’ve watched it a few more times since and now it’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies. On the surface the movie is about Johnny Rico and his friends finding their place in the world and that’s a satisfactory story on its own, but it’s also a biting look at jingoism and propaganda. Director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall) is at his element here with his trademark action, violence, and satire, and it is marvelous.

Garden State (2004)

Zach Braff writes, directs, and stars in this film about a discontented young man who returns to his New Jersey hometown after nine years of being away to attend his mother’s funeral. He meets up with his old friends, meets a girl, and eventually comes to terms with his life.

This movie reminded me of a better version of Elizabethtown. I’d seen it before but I didn’t remember most of it. It was a lot better than I remember it being, though, and it has clearly influenced a lot of later quirky indie dramas (including Natalie Portman’s “manic pixie dream girl” character that pre-dated the term’s coining). Zach Braff is extremely sympathetic as the over-medicated and withdrawn Andrew, especially once the tragic circumstances about why he hasn’t been home in nine years are revealed. The other characters in the movie are also compelling and I particularly liked Peter Sarsgaard’s role. This is a hard movie to describe because not much happens, the characters make you somewhat viscerally uncomfortable (because they are, too) but by the end it’s brand of earnestness has won you over.

Deep Impact (1998)

Deep Impact follows a group of people over a year as they deal with the impending threat of extinction caused by an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth. There’s high school student Leo Biederman (who helped discover the asteroid), reporter Jenny Lerner who first stumbled upon the story, the six astronauts on the Messiah spacecraft sent to stop the asteroid, the president of the United States, and some of the people around each of them.

This was a re-watch for me so of course I liked it. I’m not sure why Armageddon is so much more famous than Deep Impact given that they both came out at the same time but this is a much better movie. I’m guessing it might be because Armageddon is basically an action movie but Deep Impact is firmly a science-fiction drama. It tries to genuinely take a look at how the world would be affected by a impending disaster of such magnitude: what preparations and countermeasures would be taken, how everyday people would react, how it would affect national priorities and foreign relations, and so on. The characters are diverse enough that we get a lot of different perspectives (although all American, I read that the movie didn’t have enough of a budget to show anything from other countries even though they wanted to) and the cast playing them is fairly well-known, I recognized a lot of the side characters as well.

Cop Land (1997)

I found out about this movie when I was looking up Logan‘s director James Mangold and couldn’t believe I’d never heard of it before. It’s set in suburban New Jersey and follows Freddy Heflin, the sheriff of a town that many NYC police officers have settled in. After a young police officer is believed to have committed suicide, the ensuing events make the underlying tensions in town bubble up to the surface and Freddy can no longer turn a blind eye.

The cast of this movie is almost unbelievable, it has so many people that are famous for their roles in police and/or gangster stories – Sylvester Stallone, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, and Robert Patrick. Stallone plays the protagonist, Freddy, whoe’s half-deaf, lonely, and beaten down (very unlike Stallone’s usual roles). For most of the movie I just wanted to give him a big hug and tell him to cheer up. The movie takes full advantage of its ensemble cast, though and it doesn’t make even who the protagonist is clear until well into the movie. Mangold is great at unlikely heroes (see 3:10 to Yuma and Logan) and this movie is a perfect fit for him. It keeps you at the edge of your seat and it’s emotionally satisfying.

Superman (1978)

Even though I enjoy superhero movies, I’d never seen the original Superman movie series which have been hugely influential in the genre. I probably don’t need to summarize the premise of this movie, it’s an origin story for Superman covering his voyage from Krypton, his youth living on a farm in the country, and his discovery of the Fortress of Solitude/acceptance of his powers.

Although the movie has a few obvious flaws, I enjoyed it a lot better than I thought I would. It’s a fairly straightforward superhero movie of the older style where we don’t really see the hero’s journey – of course Superman is a hero does what he does, we don’t need to know his motivations. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of both Superman is terrific; his constant almost-smirk takes the character from boringly perfect to lovable, especially when he’s clearly hamming up his cluelessness as Clark Kent. I thought Lois Lane was also portrayed very well by Margot Kidder; I thought her character would be the usual screaming damsel of distress and she did do some of that but she also had her own role as a fiercely independent woman who cared deeply about her work. I could have skipped her inner (rhyming!) monologue when she’s flying around with Superman. Lex Luthor could have used some major improvement though, he’s a stereotypical insane, campy, nebulously murderous villain and an absolute waste of Gene Hackman.

St. Elmo’s Fire (1983)

It seems like we’ve been watching a lot of movies about people grappling with their recent adulthood (Reality Bites, Singles, Diner) and St. Elmo’s Fire is more of the same, this time with people who came of age in the ’80s. We follow a group of seven friends (four men and three women) as they come to terms with their lives, careers, and loves.

It took me a long time to take the characters seriously because half the cast of The Breakfast Club is in this movie and they look exactly like the same (both movies came out in the same year) even though they are supposed to be a few years older. The movie explores the usual coming of age themes – emotional maturity, taking responsibility for the consequences of your actions, and making sure your relationships are healthy. I can’t really think of any glaring flaws with the movie and I didn’t dislike it but I also don’t have any desire to watch it ever again. I think it’s because many of the characters seemed entitled (realistically so) and the narrative actually rewards them for it rather than making it something they need to overcome, It didn’t really feel like some of the characters came of age by the end.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 10-16, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

I always feel a little bad when I pick a movie that I’ve already seen as my favorite movie of the week, but most of the movies that we re-watch are exceptional movies so it’s hard to find things that top them. I didn’t remember much about The Hunt for Red October except that I enjoyed it so I was looking forward to seeing it again.

Notorious Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius is given command of the Red October, a prototype submarine with a top-secret silent propulsion system. When he goes against orders and makes his way towards the United States, CIA analyst Jack Ryan must convince his government that Ramius does not mean harm as an international crisis brews.

Most of this movie consists of people talking in enclosed rooms but it somehow manages to maintain significant tension all the way through. There is some action (and it’s well-done; director John McTiernan also made the greatest action movie of all time: Die Hard), but Jack Ryan solves most problems using his brain, not with violence. The cast is amazing. Sean Connery plays Ramius, Alec Baldwin (back when he was young and dashing) plays Jack Ryan, and Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Courtney B. Vance, Tim Curry, and Fred Dalton Thompson are all in it too. It’s hard to single things out as good about this movie – it’s one of those movies that just works and is more than the sum of its parts.

Other Movies Watched

End of Watch (2012)

I first heard of End of Watch while reading about director/writer David Ayer when reading about his upcoming movie, Bright (which is an urban fantasy starring Will Smith and I have high hopes for it). I’m a fan of Ayer’s other work; he wrote Training Day (featuring one of Denzel Washington’s most memorable roles) and wrote and directed the World War II movie Fury.

The movie follows two LAPD cops, Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miguel Zavala (Michael Peña) during their work for almost a year. It’s shot using a combination of traditional camera techniques and the found footage style (explained in-world through Taylor filming their work for a film project). It focuses more on their day-to-day lives rather than an overarching plot, although by the end it tells a coherent story. David Ayer has written a few movies about the LAPD but unlike his previous movies that focus on corruption, this one follows good cops doing their jobs well. The camaraderie between Taylor and Zavala is palpable, but the tropes that go along with the buddy cop genre are nowhere to be seen. The movie is funny, poignant, utterly engrossing, and I highly recommend it.

When Harry Met Sally… (1989)

When Harry Met Sally… Movie Poster (1989)

This is one of those classic movies that I’d just never gotten around to watching although I’d seen it quoted and referenced more times than I could count. I’ve seen other Meg Ryan romantic comedies (You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle) and found her supremely annoying in them, plus I’m not a big fan of romantic comedies; I had low expectations going in. I was delighted to find that When Harry Met Sally… is a great movie.

We follow Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), who cross paths a couple of times over a few years before they finally become friends. When I watch most romantic comedies I need to suspend my belief somewhat, romances in movies don’t follow the same rules as real life. However Harry and Sally seemed like real people who reacted to things like normal people and that made me much more invested in their story. There’s certainly some drama like the (in)famous fake orgasm scene and the very end of the movie, but most of their behavior seemed just like people I knew in real life. I read that Sally was based on screenwriter Nora Ephron’s personality and Harry had a lot in common with director Rob Reiner, so maybe that helped with the realism. It was nice to actually see a relationship evolve naturally and I wish more romantic comedies did that.

The Man in the Moon (1991)

The Man in the Moon is the coming of age story of Dani Trant, a fourteen year old girl growing up in Louisiana during the summer of 1957. There are a number of recent changes to her life – her older sister is about to head off to Duke, her mother is pregnant with a fourth child, and the long-absent Foster family has moved back in to the next farm over, including their handsome 17 year old son, Court. Dani develops feelings for Court but life throws a few complications her way.

Dani is played by a fourteen year old Reese Witherspoon (in her debut role) and she is instrumental in making this movie as good as it is. She imbues Dani with a mix of vitality and vulnerability and has great chemistry with Jason London, who plays Court. The relationships between various members of the Trant family seemed realistic, especially the central relationship between Dani and her older sister. It is relatively rare that movies have characterization as nuanced as this one. This isn’t always a happy movie to watch, but it’s well worth it.

Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report is near-future science fiction about the six-member crew of a privately funded mission to Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons) sent to investigate the possibility of life. It’s a found footage film, ostensibly pieced together from the video cameras in the spacecraft and news and media interviews.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that this movie was hard science fiction and pretty decent to boot. It’s certainly got flaws (the dialogue was sometimes too clichéd) but overall I think it did a fantastic job of exploring both the awe and terror of space exploration. I like stories that focus on the best of humanity and the crew of Europa One certainly qualified (although they would have been even more sympathetic if they had better dialogue). The movie reminded me a little of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, it had the same qualities even though the plots are very different.

Risky Business (1983)

Joel is a straight-laced teenager who studies hard and stays out of trouble. When his parents go on vacation for a week, his friends persuade him to take advantage of his situation and take some risks. One thing leads to another and he soon finds himself in deep trouble with only a couple of days before his parents get back.

I’ve been wanting to see Risky Business for a long time because of the famous Tom-Cruise-dances-around-without-any-pants scene; I didn’t know anything else about the movie though. It’s a decent movie, although it had an inconsistent tone, particularly towards the end. Joel seemed much too naive for his age, he’s adorable but his behavior/reasoning was too childlike and it was uncomfortable to watch when combined with the very sexual plot. But all the actors do a terrific job and the soundtrack is particularly awesome, so it’s still worth watching.

Mr. Mom (1983)

When engineer Jack Butler (Michael Keaton in his very first top-billed role) loses his job and is unable to find a new one, he has to be the stay-at-home parent while his wife becomes the main breadwinner. Taking care of the kids and the house isn’t as easy as he envisioned though, and all sorts of disasters ensue.

This movie is pretty funny at times; Michael Keaton has impeccable comic timing. It definitely shows its age, though. A lot of the “funny” situations like Jack’s domestic incompetence and the open lechery displayed by his wife’s boss end up seeming either over-the-top or sad (or both). I also wish the end of the movie had been a little less clichéd, it didn’t challenge the status quo at all.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Sep 3-9, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Diner (1982)

Diner follows a group of five friends in their early twenties as they struggle with the transition into adulthood. It is set in Baltimore in the late ’50s and stars Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Tim Daly, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser and (an unrecognizable) Mickey Rourke.

I feel like every decade has its own “group of friends dealing with becoming adults” movie (e.g. Singles for the early ’90s) and this is the one for the ’50s. The characters and the issues they’re wrestling with are instantly recognizable, even if the culture around them isn’t as familiar. In one way or another they’re all rebelling against their new responsibilities and the maturity expected of them. It’s nice to see that some of the problems people associate with millennials aren’t unique, other generations faced them too. I read that the cast had some time to get to know each other before filming began and that many of the scenes were improvised. That really comes through in the movie; their camaraderie seems so genuine.

I’m surprised that this Diner isn’t talked about given how good it is (although I did find a great article about how influential it is; if it can turn Nick Hornby into a obsessive fanboy, it has to be pretty good). Apparently this is one of four films written and directed by Barry Levinson based on his time living in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to seeing the other three.

Other Movies Watched

Working Girl (1988)

Secretary Tess McGill has been trying to improve her career prospects with little success. She’s put herself through night school, she’s suggested good ideas to her bosses, and she works very hard, but nothing has worked – in fact her boss Katharine has stolen her idea and passed it off as her own. When Katharine breaks her leg skiing and is out of commission for a few weeks, Tess takes the opportunity to steal her idea back by pretending that she is an executive.

The premise of this movie is similar to the Michael J. Fox movie The Secret of My Success that came out a year prior, but this one is much more of a drama. Tess comes from a blue collar background and she’s struggling to break through the glass ceiling that people that come from a more privileged background don’t seem to realize even exists. Melanie Griffith as Tess annoyed me a little bit because I thought she needed to be more assertive but I realized that that was exactly the point the movie was trying to make. Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver are great as the supporting characters as well.

The Parent Trap (1961)

When lookalikes Sharon and Susan meet at summer camp, they take an instant dislike to each other. Eventually they realize that they are twins – their mother and father divorced when they were young and took one child each. They decide to switch places so that they can get to know their other parent better and hopefully persuade them to get back together. Hijinks ensue.

This movie has a silly premise but it’s actually really good. Hayley Mills does a fantastic job at playing both twins, it’s easy to distinguish which character she’s playing except for when she’s trying to make herself indistinguishable for the plot. I liked the actors playing the parents as well, they have great chemistry and what should have been a clichéd reunion actually seems convincing – you’ve seen them without each other and they just don’t seem fully there until they’re together.

Free State of Jones (2016)

Free State of Jones is based on the true story of Mississippi farmer Newton Knight’s rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War. It follows Knight’s story over a few years, starting with his time as a Confederate soldier and ending a while after the Civil War.

This movie almost felt like a documentary or dramatization, it skipped over most of the dramatic scenes that a movie would ordinarily focus on. Matthew McConaughey does a good job playing Newton but he’s treated more like a heroic archetype than a real person, I can’t think of a single flaw in his character. The movie also intersperses the story of Davis Knight, Newton’s great-grandson who was prosecuted under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1940s, and I didn’t really see the point of that, it took me out of the main story.

The East (2013)

Jane (Brit Marling) is an operative who works for Hiller Brood, a private intelligence firm that caters to wealthy corporate clients. She takes on an assignment to go undercover and join a radical eco-terrorist organization that has been targeting companies they perceive as unethical. She finds herself growing attached to the people she meets and more compelled by their cause than she would like.

I think the best way to describe this movie is “almost great”. There is nothing wrong with it, it’s got a compelling premise, a solid cast who portray three-dimensional characters, it approaches a contentious topic without too much melodrama, but I kept feeling like something was missing. Maybe it’s because we see the movie through Jane’s eyes and she is not very interesting as a character, she mostly just observes what’s happening. I also found the ending rushed and what had been a nuanced movie until then suddenly morphed into a perfectly neat ending.

Greedy (1994)

The McTeague family has been trying to stay in their Uncle Joe’s good books throughout their lives, but even more so now that he is aging and might soon leave money to them. Their hopes are dashed when a young and pretty girl becomes Joe’s “caregiver”, so they hunt down Daniel McTeague, Joe’s estranged grandson. Daniel hasn’t seem his family ever since he was a kid but quickly gets pulled into their games, especially since his career as a professional bowler is ending and he needs money.

This is another one of those comedies where Michael J. Fox where he gets himself into trouble and has to extricate himself from it through a series of antics. Unlike his other movies though, this doesn’t have much heart. There are some funny moments but it’s mostly just an over-the-top comedy that doesn’t really care about characterization. It was entertaining but I’m never going to want to watch it again.

Man of the Year (2006)

When comedian and television talk show host Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) decides to run for President as an independent candidate, he doesn’t expect to actually get elected. Meanwhile programmer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) who works for the company that developed the electronic voting machines used for the election discovers a flaw in the vote counting mechanism – which means that Tom is not actually the legitimate President-elect.

I wanted to like this movie, it’s got a great cast (Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum are in the movie too) and it’s written and directed by Barry Levinson, who did Diner (reviewed above), Rain Man, and Good Morning Vietnam which are all excellent. It just wasn’t very good, though. It tries to be both a comedy and a thriller (with doses of drama and romance) and it’s jarring to switch between Tom making jokes to Eleanor running for her life. Robin Williams does his best with the material and elevates the movie a little but even his jokes aren’t consistently funny.

A tangential note: it was interesting to watch this movie in light of the last presidential election since Robin Williams plays an independent candidate who people vote for because he’s populist and not a career politician. I also wish the media actually gave independent candidates screen time like they showed in the movie.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Aug 27-Sep 2, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Wolf Children (2012)

Wolf Children is Mamoru Hosoda’s third original movie, after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Summer Wars. It follows Hana, a woman who falls in love with a wolf shapeshifter. They marry and have two young children (who are also wolf shapeshifters) but tragedy strikes when Hana’s husband dies suddenly. She must now raise her two children alone without any support while also providing for both their human and wolf needs.

The premise of this movie sounded a little weird to me when I first read about it but I didn’t have to consciously suspend disbelief at all, the movie pulled me right in. Hosoda has said that his movies all revolve around certain themes – The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is about youth, Summer Wars is about family, and Wolf Children is about motherhood. I think it’s one of the best depictions of the challenges and rewards of being a good mother that I’ve seen (disclaimer: I’m not a parent). The two children, Ame and Yuki, are nothing like each other and their reactions to events are often as dissimilar as you can get. They are each demanding in their own way, and Hana manages to be an amazing mother to both and never gives up even when the going is tough.

This movie made me pretty emotional, especially at the end. It even makes me emotional to just think about some of the events while writing this review. Not many movies do that. It’s quiet and thoughtful but the pacing doesn’t bore you and the characters and setting will stay with you for a while after you watch it. I highly recommend it!

Other Movies Watched

The Weather Man (2005)

David Spritz is a down-on-his-luck news station weatherman working for a Chicago TV station. It seems like everything that can go wrong in his life is going wrong; he’s a recent divorcee, his two kids have serious issues, his relationship with his father is stiff, and on top of everything the people who recognize him on the street often throw food at him for some reason. He hopes to make a new life in New York if he gets the job he applied for, but nothing is going right for him.

People often make fun of Nicolas Cage but he is a great dramatic actor (see Adaptation. and Lord of War for examples). He makes this movie succeed as well as it does, his character is constantly doing things that make his situation worse and you might be yelling at the screen in frustration but you still feel a lot of empathy for him. It reminded me a little of American Beauty in that the main character is a somewhat pathetic middle-aged man but finds purpose by the end (although the way it unfolds is quite different). I also liked the ending of this movie because it chose not to be overly sentimental or stereotypical and actually went with the choices that made sense for David’s personality.

Wonder Woman (2017)

Wonder Woman is the fourth film in the DC extended universe and tells the origin story of superhero Wonder Woman a.k.a. Diana Prince (whom we’ve already seen in Batman vs. Superman). It’s set during World War I; an American pilot on the run finds Diana’s hidden island home of Themyscira. He talks to her about the war raging across the world and that horrifies her and makes her determined to help stop it.

People are talking about this movie everywhere and I’m not surprised because it’s fantastic. Gal Gadot is superb as Wonder Woman; I had my doubts about her originally because the only thing I’d seen her in was the Fast and the Furious franchise, but her appearance in Batman vs. Superman dissolved most of them. Diana is naive and wears her heart on her sleeve but she’s also incredibly powerful and confident at the same time; Gadot portrays this nuance beautifully. The supporting cast was outstanding, I particularly liked seeing Robin Wright as Diana’s aunt and martial instructor, and Chris Pine playing the pilot, Steve Trevor. His character is the emotional heart of the movie and he’s the perfect mix of idealistic, lovable, and exasperated.

The movie does have some flaws, I thought that the romance between Diana and Steve was a little contrived and I would have liked for it to develop a little more slowly. I would have also liked Diana to have more agency, it seems like she’s mostly reacting to people and events around her rather than seeking them out herself. That might be an unfair criticism given that this is an origin story, though.

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

Eddy, a card-playing prodigy, and three of his friends band together to raise a hundred thousand pounds so that he can enter a high-stakes card game and make a lot more. The plan doesn’t quite work, and the four of them end up owing five times their original investment to a gangster known for his brutality. Their attempts to raise the money result in a comedy of errors involving the friends, their neighbors, gangsters, weed-growers, loan sharks, thugs, and probably a few other people I’m forgetting.

This is one of those movies that follows a bunch of different characters that seem unrelated at first but the threads come together gradually to tell a single story. It’s funny, clever, violent, and heavily stylized – sort of like Tarantino (it reminded me a little of Pulp Fiction) but the camerawork and direction is very different. I haven’t watched a lot of director Guy Ritchie’s movies, but as I understand it, this style is his trademark. It’s an impressive movie, especially for a debut director. It takes significant skill to intertwine the number of stories in this movie and have them all come together as tightly as it did. The actors are all great as well, I read that a bunch of them had never professionally acted before (including Jason Statham, who was apparently found by the production team as a street vendor) and it gives the movie a sense of authenticity.

Colombiana (2011)

After Cataleya’s parents are killed in front of her by drug lord Don Luis, she manages to escape to her uncle’s house in Chicago. Her uncle and grandmother try to give her a normal life but she continues to be determined to avenge her family. She grows up to be a deadly assassin committing vigilante murders around the country in order to draw Don Luis’s forces out.

This movie has been on our list for years. I’m not sure why it took us so long. It’s written by Luc Besson (apparently it was originally meant as a sequel to Lëon, but Natalie Portman was unavailable) and he’s good at writing kick-ass women. Zoë Saldana has played dangerous women before and she’s terrific in this movie; she manages to make Cataleya seem both tough and vulnerable at the same time. The action sequences are fun and the pacing is good. The movie did have a few glaring flaws, though – I thought the climactic fights felt too much like a video game’s boss fight, Cataleya handles most opponents effortlessly except for the last one or two, it took me out the movie a little bit. Also, Cataleya’s boyfriend Danny was pretty one-dimensional which stood out because none of the other characters seemed that way.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

The Guardians of the Galaxy have been a team for a while now, capitalizing on their fame from saving the galaxy to get mercenary jobs. When their most recent job goes awry, they are saved by Ego, a mysterious being who says he is Star-Lord’s long lost father and wants them to visit his planet. But the family reunion doesn’t work out as planned and the Guardians need to save the galaxy yet again.

I enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie quite a bit and this one offers more of the same. I think I’m getting a little tired of Marvel’s formula though because I got tired of the constant formulaic (and bad) jokes and superficial character arcs. It did keep me entertained the whole way through but at the end I didn’t feel satisfied and I don’t think the movie earned its attempt at emotional payoff, especially given that it retconned the personalities of some characters from the first movie with no explanation. I was looking forward to seeing Kurt Russell as Ego but he was mostly wasted. Also, the soundtrack to this movie (a critical element in Vol. 1) didn’t seem as fun either. The most interesting part of the movie was Karen Gillan’s Nebula, whose intensity actually sells her transition from villain to reluctant hero, but she isn’t in it that much.

Mean Girls (2004)

Mean Girls stars Lindsay Lohan as Cady Heron, a teenager who has spent most of her life being home-schooled in Africa, as she moves back to the United States and starts high school. She joins the “Plastics”, the most popular (and mean) girls in the school so that she can spy on them for her real friends, but slowly starts getting sucked into being one of them herself.

I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for a long time since it get referenced all the time, especially by people of my generation. I didn’t like it much, though. The movie plays it like Cady is an earnest character, but I thought she seemed like a fake person the entire time and couldn’t invest in her story. The love interest, Aaron, doesn’t seem like he has any agency, he spends the whole movie being successfully manipulated by everyone around him to serve the needs of the plot and I was hoping until the end that he wouldn’t turn out to be the actual love interest. The movie just seemed shallow, even compared to other teen dramedies.

Rachel McAdams did an excellent job as the queen bee (and Cady’s nemesis) Regina; she is almost unrecognizable. I saw her name in the credits and I was wondering when she would show up. My husband had to point out that she was playing Regina and had already been in the movie for a while.

“The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin

I’ve been looking forward to the release of The Stone Sky ever since I read the previous books in the series, The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate, (both of which have now won the Best Novel Hugo!) earlier this year. I devoured it as soon as I received it and it’s just as good as I thought it would be.

I don’t want to say too much about the story, it’s the third book of the series so pretty much everything is a spoiler. The Stone Sky does add a new viewpoint and it’s probably the most fascinating one so far. We explore the history of the world and how exactly it ended up being the way it is. We see things from the perspectives of Essun and her daughter Nassun, of course, they are the heart of the book.

The end of The Obelisk Gate had mother and daughter on a collision course (somewhat literally) and I wasn’t sure how the book would wrap up the story in a satisfying way because both characters were equally sympathetic, they’d both been through more than their fair share of horrible things. The conclusion was completely satisfying though, now that I’ve read it, I can’t imagine how else it would have ended.

Like the previous books, this book is sometimes agonizing to read, Much of fantasy focuses on the best things about people (honorable, idealistic, heroic, etc.) but this book does the opposite. It shows people at their worst, but not unrealistically so (I wouldn’t call it “grimdark”), and some of things that Essun and Nassun do and have done to them is quite unpleasant to read about. But there are still uplifting moments, and that’s even more hopeful than always seeing people as good because you see humans do good things even when everything around them is terrible.

N.K. Jemisin’s next project is apparently a contemporary Lovecraftian fantasy series set in New York, and I can’t wait for that to come out.

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin (The Broken Earth, #3)
Orbit Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.