Weekly Movie Reviews: Nov 5-11, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Whale Rider (2002)

Twelve year old Māori girl Paikea comes from a long line of chiefs and has the ambition to become chief herself. Her traditional grandfather Koro refuses to entertain the idea, believing that the role is reserved for males only. When Paikea’s father makes it clear that he has no interest in fulfilling his duty to move back home and assume leadership, Koro decides to choose a new heir from one of the boys of his community. Paikea refuses to give up, though, no matter how much humiliation she has to go through.

Whale Rider is a fantastic movie. Keisha Castle-Hughes (until recently the youngest nominee for the Best Actress Oscar) does an incredible job as Paikea, conveying both the wisdom, ability, and confidence of a born leader and the vulnerability of a young girl. She steals every scene she is in. I don’t think I’ve seen such an amazing performance by a child actor since Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.

I did not know anything about Māori life or culture and the movie drops you straight into Paikea’s life without much context but I never felt lost. The tone of the movie almost seemed like the telling of an ancient myth, even though it was firmly rooted in reality and most of it is just watching Paikea live her everyday life. It’s definitely a movie I’ll be re-watching multiple times.

Other Movies Watched

Song of the Sea (2014)

Saoirse, a young Irish girl, lives in a lighthouse with her father Conor and older brother Ben, both of whom have been heartbroken since her mother disappeared after giving birth to her. Saoirse is the last of the selkies (mythological women who can transform into seals) but as she comes into her powers, her family worries that she’s not in a safe environment. Eventually her grandmother ends up taking her and Ben to the city to live with her. But the faerie world around them is slowly being destroyed by the witch Macha, and only a selkie can reverse the damage. Ben must put aside his animosity towards Saoirse and help her escape and restore the faeries to their rightful place.

I’d heard great things about this movie (and The Secret of Kells, also by Tomm Moore, the same director, and his studio Cartoon Saloon) for a long time and it absolutely lived up to the hype. The animation is a little basic but has its own interesting style. The story has oodles of heart and emotion, and it avoids being too simplistic or black and white, despite being a children’s story. I will be closely following Cartoon Saloon’s releases and I can’t wait to watch The Secret of Kells.

Brooklyn (2015)

Brooklyn tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who immigrates to the United States in the 1950s. She’s homesick and bewildered at first, but settles in eventually and even falls in love with a local young man. However,  her life gets complicated when she travels back to Ireland for a visit and she must make some hard choices.

As an immigrant who feels much more at home in the United States than my country of birth, I’m partial to stories about immigrants finding their place in American society. However, this would have been a wonderful movie even if I hadn’t been biased in its favor. I loved the characters, especially Eilis who is restrained and shy in a way we don’t often see in film. Saoirse Ronan conveys so much without saying a word, though (she got an Academy Award nomination for her role). Everything else about the movie is superlative as well; I can’t think of anything specific to highlight because it’s all so good: the acting, the writing, the storytelling, the pacing, the worldbuilding, and yeah, just everything.

About Time (2013)

On his 21st birthday, Tim discovers that he shares a secret family gift of being able to time travel spontaneously. He immediately realizes that he can use this ability to go back in time and fix mistakes that he made, erase embarrassing moments, and do better with women, all of which he proceeds to do copiously . Eventually he realizes that even with a reset button, there are still plenty of problems he cannot solve.

About Time is written and directed by Richard Curtis, whose bread and butter is romance (he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill and wrote/directed Love Actually) and this is no exception. It’s cute and heartwarming – Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams have excellent chemistry and are generally a pleasure to watch. Bill Nighy is also great as Tim’s easygoing but wise father.

Jane Eyre (2011)

An adaptation of Charlotte Bronté’s 1847 novel of the same name, Jane Eyre follows the eponymous heroine from her early life as a child living with abusive relatives until she finally finds her place in the world.

I haven’t read Jane Eyre or watched any previous adaptations of the book so I can’t comment on how faithfully it adapted the original material. I thought it was a very well-done movie, though. Director Cary Fukunaga (Sin NombreBeasts of No Nation) is skilled at completely pulling you into the world that the characters live in and in his capable hands, the gloomy Gothic atmosphere of the story is almost a character in itself. Mia Wasikowska brings both quietness and drama to her portayal of Jane Eyre, and Michael Fassbender revels in his brooding and intense role of Mr. Rochester. The only reason that I didn’t entirely love this movie is that I don’t find the source material very interesting; it’s a little bit too melodramatic for my taste.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)

Suave and refined con man Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) has had a comfortable life defrauding wealthy older women in the resort town of Beaumont-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. His luck runs out when Freddy Benson (Steve Martin), arrives in Beaumont-sur-Mer intending to pull the same sort of scams. Freddy is an uncouth and loud American (the polar opposite of Lawrence) and they are quickly at odds with each other. When heiress Janet Colgate (Glenne Headly) comes to town, they decide to settle their differences with a bet on who can scam her out of $50,000 first, and increasingly bizarre hijinks ensue.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is a decent comedy, even for people like me who aren’t the biggest fans of the genre. Steve Martin’s character is extremely obnoxious but he’s treated as such in the movie so that made it bearable. Michael Caine’s understated character is a terrific foil to Steve Martin’s antics; I don’t think I have seen him in a primarily comedic role before but he’s got good comic timing. I wasn’t sure where the movie would go at first but I thought that the ending was perfect.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 29-Nov 4, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Mud (2012)

Ellis and Neckbone are two friends growing up on the banks of the Mississppi in Arkansas. One day, they sneak off to visit an island on the river where Neckbone has seen a boat stuck in a tree (a remnant of a past flood). They soon discover that they are not the only ones to have made that discovery and meet fugitive Mud who is hiding out on the island. They befriend him and resolve to try to help him reunite with his girlfriend and start a new life.

I’ve loved every movie written/directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Midnight Special, Loving), so the fact that I loved this movie should come as no surprise. Matthew McConaughey is an excellent choice for the title role; his character is gritty and stubbornly optimistic; he’s clearly a dangerous man but you also know he won’t hurt the protagonists. The two child actors (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) are very good as well, as is Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s girlfriend Juniper. The Mississppi is almost a character in itself; Ellis comes comes from a dying tradition of families living on the river and making their living through fishing, and Neckbone’s older brother (and guardian) Galen (Michael Shannon, who is in all of Nichols’ movies) makes his living from oyster-diving as well. The river is omnipresent, offering both adventure and sanctuary.

The movie is fundamentally a coming-of-age story for Ellis but it reminded me of two other stories –  the book Great Expectations, if the story had been more about Pip and Abel Magwitch, and the movie Cop Car, which starts off with two boys seeking adventure but goes in an entirely different direction after the first half an hour or so. It instantly became one of my favorite Nichols movies and I highly recommend it.

Other Movies Watched

Labyrinth (1986)

16-year-old Sarah is left to babysit her baby brother Toby when her father and stepmother go out. Frustrated with not being able to do what she wants, she wishes that the Goblin King (from the book she is reading) would come take him away. She doesn’t expect her wish to actually come true, though. Now she has 13 hours to find her way through a labyrinth and rescue her brother before he gets turned into a goblin forever.

I’m not sure what to say about Labyrinth because well, it’s Labyrinth and it’s such a classic. I’ve seen it before but we recently got the 4K UHD blu-ray so we had to re-watch it. It’s imaginative and original; it’s directed by Jim Henson and as such, features a lot of creative puppet characters. David Bowie’s portrayal of Jareth the Goblin King is probably one of the most unique and iconic movie roles ever. Jennifer Connelly is perfect as Sarah; young enough to be believably whimsical but old enough to be a sort-of-love-interest to Jareth. This movie is definitely quirky but it’s fantastic and I expect to re-watch it many times in the future.

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel is Zach Snyder’s reboot of Superman and the film that launched the DC Extended Universe series of films (now including Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Justice League). It is an origin story, showing us Superman’s emergence and battle against his first major foe, fellow Kryptonian General Zod.

I watched Man of Steel a couple of months after it came out and wasn’t that impressed. I’m not sure why; this time around I thought it was very good. Maybe I was still enamored with the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s comedic tone (which has now been feeling stale and boring for a while)? This movie does take itself much more seriously, but that’s a good thing; it respects its characters and doesn’t cheapen the dramatic moments by trying to insert comedy everywhere.

The cast is great as well – Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner play Superman’s two dads, and Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, and Laurence Fishburne are all in it as well. And of course Henry Cavill plays Superman and does a terrific job (although I recently found out that he’s a Wheel of Time and Brandon Sanderson fan so I may be biased). I think having recently seen the original 1978 Superman movie helped me understand the story better; some of the things I didn’t like from the last time I watched Man of Steel seem to be part of the original Superman mythos and therefore unavoidable.

Bridge to Terabithia (2007)

Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) doesn’t fit in at school and is ignored at home. When he meets Leslie Burke (AnnaSophia Robb), the strange new girl at school, they quickly become best friends. Leslie and Jess turn the nearby woods into a whole new fantasy world named Terabithia, a place where they can both thrive as who they are.

I thought that this movie would be a straightforward fantasy adventure movie but it turned out to be more of a drama. Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb are both excellent; a drama with children as protagonists is a risky proposition but these actors really make it work. The characters are nuanced and there is no good or evil. Even the school bullies have heart.

Cars 3 (2017)

Lightning McQueen has been one of the top racers in the world for years. His dominance is threatened when newer, fancier, and faster cars start joining the sport (just as he did in Cars). He’s determined to prove that he can be just as good no matter who the competition is. He starts to train at the new state-of-the-art Rust-eze racing center under personal trainer Cruz Ramirez but grows frustrated with the high-tech methods used there.

Thankfully this movie does not follow up at all on the events of Cars 2. There’s absolutely no espionage and very little Mater, and focus of the story shifts back to Lightning’s character growth. I found Lightning having to come to terms with his own limitations and realizing he can’t race forever to be a compelling story. Cruz brings freshness to the story without seeming like Lightning 2.0. And it was great to see Doc Hudson’s old stomping grounds play such a pivotal role in the story; he was one of my favorite parts of Cars.

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a romantic and has been looking for true love all his life. When he meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new administrative assistant at the greeting card company he works for, he quickly starts to believe that she’s the one. Summer doesn’t quite share his values and their relationship seems doomed from the start but it takes 500 days for Tom to accept that and that’s what this movie is about.

(500) Days of Summer is a painfully honest look at how two people in a relationship can have completely different perspectives on both how they think and feel and what they believe the other person is thinking and feeling. Tom is in love with the idea of love and chooses to interpret Summer’s behavior with that bias, which means he doesn’t really know Summer (and cannot love her for who she is). And worse, he doesn’t even know that that’s what he’s doing. The movie has an outstanding script and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel do a fabulous job at being both frustratingly familiar and sympathetic. I also enjoyed Chloe Grace Moretz as Tom’s young sister who is much wiser than him.

Body of Lies (2008)

CIA operative Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is tasked with hunting down a notorious terrorist in Jordan. He’s instructed by his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to work with the Jordanian Intelligence chief Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) as necessary. However, his efforts and working relationship with Hani are often hindered by Hoffman who interferes with local operations without any warning and often with disastrous outcomes.

This movie was a pretty good action-thriller with great performances by the three leads – Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Mark Strong and tight and atmospheric direction by Ridley Scott. The contrast/chemistry between Crowe’s amoral and “results-oriented” character and DiCaprio’s old-fashioned spy character was especially well-done. I found the story a little generic, though, there are a lot of these Middle East action/espionage movies and I didn’t think Body of Lies really distinguished itself from the rest.

Weekly Movie Reviews: Oct 22-28, 2017

Favorite Movie of the Week

Australia (2008)

Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), an English aristocrat, arrives in Australia to encourage her husband to sell Faraway Downs, their cattle ranch, and return to the U.K. with her. She is escorted to the ranch by boorish stockman Drover (Hugh Jackman) only to find that her husband is murdered in takeover attempt by King Carney, who would enjoy a monopoly on beef if not for Faraway Downs. She becomes determined to finish her husband’s work but she will need the help of Drover as well as the Aboriginal people that work on the ranch to do so.

I absolutely loved Australia. It feels like a sweeping epic, even though it only focuses on a few events; it’s got adventure, war, drama, romance, tragedy, a good sense of humour, heartwarming relationships, reprehensible villains, and tells an enormously satisfying story with it all. I don’t know much about Aboriginal culture and having Aboriginal characters be such a critical part of the movie was both educational and contributed to the epic tone of the movie. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman’s chemistry is undeniable and they’re both very good actors on their own, too. I’m not sure how they found the kid who plays Nullah but he’s the perfect mix of precocious and childlike and you both trust him with adult responsibilities and want to protect him at the same time.

I think the title of this movie is fantastic and conveys a good idea of what the movie aims to do – it’s a paean to Australia – its people, its history, the beautiful landscapes, and a whole lot more. It makes you fall in love with it just as Lady Ashley does. I can see myself wanting to re-watch this movie fairly often and I’m already looking forward to it!

Other Movies Watched

Steamboy (2004)

Steamboy is set in a steampunk versions of the 1860s and follows a young British inventor, James Ray Steam, who comes from a family of inventors working mainly on steam-powered technology. His father and grandfather are off in Alaska working on a new prototype of the “steam ball”, which can pressurize steam and store energy more efficiently than any other technology of the era. One day Ray receives a package containing the steam ball from his grandfather with strict instructions to keep it safe and is thrust into adventure trying to do so.

This is director Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s next movie after the critically acclaimed Akira and is just as spectacular although the tone and style are quite different. It’s a classic adventure story with one of the best depictions of a steampunk world I’ve seen on film. It does a splendid job of showing the wonder and passion experienced by the main characters and inspiring the audience to feel it too. The story has a lot of action and the characters are mostly predictable but that’s okay because you’re so mesmerized by the other elements on the movie. The animation is beautiful too.

The French steampunk animated film April and the Extraordinary World (which I saw and loved in the beginning of this year) is clearly inspired heavily by Steamboy and you should watch that one too.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and Sal Naturale (John Cazale) decide to rob a bank but their plan goes awry and the situation turns into a media circus. The police’s attempts to resolve the situation are complicated by a crowd of onlookers expressing support for the robbers and the hostages’ growing rapport with Sonny.

Dog Day Afternoon is based on a true story, including some of the more seemingly outlandish details like Sonny’s motivation for the robbery. It juggles tones admirably; sometimes it seems like a comedy, especially when we (and the characters themselves) realize that Sonny and Sal are in way over their head, other times it’s a subtle farce of how the media covers stories, but there is an undercurrent of seriousness all the way through. Al Pacino practically oozes charisma and wins over the onlookers, the hostages, and the audience alike and that’s a big part of the charm of this movie. Actually, all the actors speak volumes even when they aren’t saying anything.The storytelling is taut, keeping up the tension without heading into thriller territory. It feels surprisingly modern, especially the treatment of Sonny’s sexuality and personal life.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

A couple of days after the events of John Wick, John heads back home to bury his guns and try and figure out what he’s going to do with his life. But his brief return to the criminal world has not passed unnoticed, and an old acquaintance comes knocking on the door to call in a marker. John is forced to take the job but that sucks him in further and he soon finds himself on the run and surrounded by enemies at every turn.

This is one of those rare sequels that is as good as if not better than the original movie. It takes everything interesting about John Wick and expands on it. The worldbuilding continues to be compelling, we see a lot more of the world as John travels to Italy and has to replenish his stocks heavily. I love the characters too – John’s taciturn professionalism is delightful and Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, and Laurence Fishburne (among others) steal every scene they are in. The action is stylish and fun, which makes sense since these movies are directed by Chad Stahelski, who has had a long career working on stunts (fun fact: he was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in the Matrix series). The ending is fantastic and establishes a cohensive universe with characters that actually change in response to the events around them, which is something action franchises don’t traditionally do; usually it’s just a repetition of the same formula in each sequel. After watching that ending, I can’t wait for John Wick: Chapter 3 in 2019, especially since the same writer and director as the first two movies are working on them.

Beetlejuice (1988)

Young couple Adam and Barbara Maitland die suddenly in a car crash but continue living in their house as ghosts as they adjust to being dead and all the rules that come with it. They are quite happy until their home is sold and the (living) Deetz family moves in and start to redecorate the house. The Maitlands attempt to scare them away but all the things they do just intrigue the Deetzes more, especially their teenage daughter Lydia. In desperation they turn to Betelgeuse, a “bio-exorcist”, but he’s got his own sinister agenda.

This movie is bananas and I mean that as a compliment. It’s got director Tim Burton’s signature bizarre/creepy aesthetic and surreal atmosphere, but from before it started to feel stale. Michael Keaton chews scenery like a pro as Betelgeuse and makes ample use of his terrific comic timing. The other actors seem like they’re having a blast too, especially (a young and handsome) Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis at the Maitlands and Winona Ryder as the goth-ish Lydia Deetz. There a bunch of memorable scenes that are great even without any context, see this scene at a dinner party given by the Deetzes for instance.

Hollywood just doesn’t make movies that are proudly wacky like this anymore; I wish they did!

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Masseuse Beatriz (Salma Hayek) has just finished a session with Kathy, one of her wealthy clients, but her car won’t start as she’s leaving to go home. Kathy is hosting a dinner party for her husband’s clients and invites Beatriz to stay for it. Beatriz considers herself a holistic healer living in harmony with the world around her, but her worldview clashes violently with that of the other dinner guests, especially real estate mogul Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Both Beatriz and Doug are not shy about volunteering their opinions, leaving the other guests caught in the crossfire.

Beatriz at Dinner does an excellent job of showing us the world as Beatriz sees it – uncomfortable, missing obvious truths, and somehow filled with pain – without much judgement or agenda. Whether you find Beatriz sympathetic and the guests around her morally reprehensible, or you think she is going off the deep end and taking things too seriously, the film still works for you. There are a thousand different things under the surface of the characters’ conversations and it all feels almost viscerally awkward to watch because it’s so realistic. The ending was not what I expected of this movie at all but I thought it worked perfectly.

Taken (2008)

Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) has retired from the CIA and moved to California in order to spend more time with his estranged daughter, Kim. When she leaves for a trip around Europe, he finds it hard to let her go and not be over-protective of her. When she reaches Paris, his worst nightmares come true when she is kidnapped by a gang of human traffickers. He must use his “particular set of skills” acquired during his time in the CIA to get her back.

I was skeptical of Liam Neeson as an action star but finding out that this movie was written by Luc Besson made me a little more interested in watching it (especially since I loved 3 Days to Kill, another movie written by Besson about an older CIA agent reuniting with his daughter in Paris, and I just love Besson in general). I’m not sure why this movie got all the hype it did (and two sequels and a TV show). Maybe because Neeson’s character is a soft-spoken and innocuous seeming guy that can quickly switch to being deadly (this was also when Breaking Bad started airing and Walter White was popular for similar reasons)? In my opinion, Taken is a run-of-the-mill action thriller with no real attention to detail and nothing that stood out as particularly special.

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.

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.