Friday, February 14, 2014


What is the nature of a relationship?  How do we connect with those around us?  Is it possible to fall for someone who doesn't even exist on the physical plane?  These questions form the foundation for the movie Her.  Joaquin Phoenix stars as Theodore, a lonely, divorced man who writes commissioned love letters for a living.  When he decides to invest in an Artificial Intelligence operating system (brought to vibrant life through the voice work of Scarlett Johanssen), his life changes in unexpected ways as a romantic relationship begins to flourish.

Refreshingly, the movie does not turn Theodore and Samantha (the O.S.)'s story into a simple joke, the way a lesser film might have done.  Theodore may be met with mixed reactions when he tells people he is dating his O.S., but by and large, he is not seen as a freak or a weirdo for doing so.  In a world where technology isolates perhaps more than it connects, Theodore is lucky to find someone with whom he shares a true partnership.  Even if that someone is a disembodied voice living inside computers.  The film treats their relationship with both humor and gravitas; their story is by turns genuinely funny and genuinely devastating.

Directed by Spike Jonze, Theodore's story takes place in the not-too-distant future.  Clothing and hairstyles evoke familiarity, but don't scream "futuristic" the way a boxy silver aesthetic might.  Technology is advanced, but not outlandish.  The world is recognizable, but not quite our own.  It serves to both engage and isolate the audience from the proceedings, the same way so many characters are alternately engaged and isolated from their surroundings.

Despite a simple title which evokes a running Arrested Development gag ("Her?") and a premise that might seem off-putting to some, Her is a lovely, heartfelt film. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Captain Phillips

In April of 2009, the Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates.  After realizing they could not keep control of the ship, the pirates escaped aboard one of the Alabama's lifeboats, taking Richard Phillips, the ship's captain, as hostage.  After days trapped in the lifeboat with the pirates, Phillips was rescued by Navy SEALs.

In Captain Phillips, his story gets a cinematic treatment--but it's far from the rah rah action/adventure story it could have been.  Under the direction of Paul Greengrass, the film begins by contrasting two captains getting ready for their time at sea: the titular Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks), worrying over the safety mechanisms and keeping strict with is crew, and Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi) selecting the men for his pirating mission.  These scenes are later echoed when we see the U.S. Navy SEALs at work.

The comparisons are no accident.  Greengrass strikes an excellent balance.  The pirates, though the villains of Phillips's story, are not inhuman or broadly drawn.  As everything spins out of Muse's control (leading to even more dangerous situations for Phillips), you can feel for his plight while still knowing that if you was in Phillips's position, you would absolutely want the SEAL cavalry doing everything in their power to rescue you.

And what a harrowing rescue it is.  The movie is based on a true story which the audience is likely to know, at least broadly.  Nonetheless, Greengrass's ability to build tension is frankly, fantastic.  His signature handheld (or shaky cam) approach may be off putting to some viewers, but he has found a way to use it not only to express the "right there in the action" feeling, but to make every incident--as well as the geography of both ships--clear.  The latter sometimes gets missed with this style of filming, but Greengrass uses proximity and close quarters quite well.

Tom Hanks has always been a reliable, likable performer, but it's possible that the last five minutes of Captain Phillips displays the best performance of his career.  Abdi gives a similarly strong performance; the casting directors did well to pull him from obscurity as a Minneapolis chauffeur.   What could have been a forgettable action story is instead a gripping tale of survival in Captain Phillips.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Based on the short story by James Thurber (well, sort of), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is the story of a man whose dull, unextraordinary life leads to a series of complicated, heroic daydreams.  In the original short story, that's as far as it goes.  Walter's life does not change dramatically; he still feels the need to escape into his secret lives.

The film version, directed by and starring Ben Stiller, starts much the same way.  Here, Mitty is a quiet, unassuming Life magazine employee, developing photographs and experiencing the beauty of the world vicariously.  In his dreams, he always has the perfect comeback (or the perfectly placed punch) for his bullying workmate (Adam Scott), he always heroically wins the attention of the object of his affection (Kristen Wiig), his life is always bigger and grander and more beautiful.  In the real world, of course, his life couldn't be duller.  There's even a running storyline with an eHarmony employee (Patton Oswalt) doing his best to build Walter's profile into one interesting enough to garner even the slightest bit of attention.

When Life announces it is ceasing its print editions and laying off most of its employees, freelance photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) requests that his greatest work be featured on the cover of the last issue.  The only problem is, the negative is missing.  Deciding to chase Sean down to recover it, Walter draws inspiration from Life's motto, "To see the world, things dangerous to come, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel.  That is the purpose of life."  And so his own adventure begins.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is at its best, both emotionally and visually, during Walter's early fantasy sequences.  The film sets high expectations for itself that it never quite reaches once Walter steps away from fantasy and into real adventures.  Veering too far into sentimentality and coincidence don't mesh with a story whose origin is so bittersweet.  It's a nice movie that had the potential to be a great movie, but never reaches it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Movies of 2013 -- October through December

Ender's Game
Ender's Game was never going to be an easy book to adapt.  The title character begins as a six-year-old super genius driven to violence to defend himself and eventually called on to save the world.  The film (necessarily) simplifies the story, blunts the edges, and rushes things along.  As a result, Ender's Game has little room to breathe.  Asa Butterfield, with is preternaturally blue eyes, is well-cast as Ender, but the rest of the cast is wasted with side character who have little to no development throughout the story.  It's not a bad film, but it is a disappointment.

Thor 2: The Dark World
Thor 2 makes a smart move in bringing back previous Thor and Avengers baddie Loki, easily the best villain in the new spate of Marvel movies and essentially the only complicated character in the Thor franchise.  The film's best moments (save perhaps one, a beautifully shot funeral and mourning scene) all feature Thor's adopted brother, whether he's acting out in anger, covering his vulnerabilities, or just shooting sarcastic barbs at everyone around him.  It's too bad the rest of the film doesn't match those moments.  The film features an inventive final battle, but its muddled plot and boring characters don't do much else for it.

12 Years a Slave
The true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery in the 1830s, features excellent performances all around--the kind sure to garner awards show attention, especially for Chiwetel Ejiofor and possibly Michael Fassbender.  The film itself is a likely Best Picture winner, and for good reason.  Yes, it hits the important historical and socially conscious notes, but it's also simply a well-made film, with incredibly memorable and brutally filmed scenes.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Improving on its predecessor in just about every way, even as it's retreading the same plot steps, Catching Fire easily escapes the sequel problems plaguing so many films.  While definitely the 'middle' movie (or half of the middle, with Mockingjay's story being needlessly split across two films), it still hits its emotional moments well, introducing fun new characters like Johanna while adding shading to familiars like Gale.  The film transitions from the survival story of The Hunger Games to the story of revolution that will carry the rest of the series, and finds a surprisingly solid balance between its violence and its PG13 rating--both intrinsically necessary to the film itself.  And any story would do well to put Jennifer Lawrence at its center.

Based very loosely on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, Frozen is really the story of two sisters at heart.  Given how many Disney cartoon protagonists are only children, this marks a nice change of pace.  It might have done well to have a stronger central villain, but I'm not sure the film really needs it: its stakes are sufficiently high without one.  It's also effectively funny, using its comedic side characters just enough to flavor the film without overwhelming it.  Some of the songs are a bit clunky, but the gorgeous animation and the story's take on true love are more than enough to make up for its flaws.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Why is this three movies?  Why is this three movies?  There could've been a great Hobbit movie.  Heck, I would even be okay with it split in two and two great Hobbit movies.  But three is unforgivable--especially when the plot points added just stretch the movie out without reason.  I didn't care about Kili and Tauriel.  I didn't care about Tauriel and Legolas.  I didn't care about Laketown politics.  The best scenes in The Hobbit (both the book and the two movies so far) come when Bilbo, pushed well outside his comfort zone, has to reason his way out of danger: the scene with the trolls and the confrontation with Gollum in part one, and now his interaction with Smaug.  Yes, a few of the fight scenes were well done--the barrel scene comes to mind--but the rest of the film felt like very disappointing filler.

Saving Mr. Banks
Saving Mr. Banks, the story of the clash between Walt Disney and P.L. Travers over bringing her beloved character Mary Poppins to the screen, is extremely sentimental--perhaps to a fault.  In fact, film seems to have the same Disney effect on this conflict that Travers feared would happen with her character once she gave over the rights: problems would be given simple solutions, edges would be softened, there would be cheerful singing.  It's likely that Travers wouldn't like this film if she were still alive to see it--but on the other hand, she didn't like the original Mary Poppins film, either.  And if that film weren't the beloved, enduring classic it is, this film wouldn't ever have been made.

American Hustle
David O. Russell's follow-up to last year's success Silver Linings Playbook is another riveting, funny film where the flawed, captivating characters are ultimately much more important than the plot.  A fictionalized take on the 1970s Abscam scandal features a fantastic cast including Christian Bale and Amy Adams as con artists, Jennifer Lawrence as Bale's unbalanced wife, Bradley Cooper as an ambitious but dense FBI agent, Louis C.K. as his long-suffering boss, and Jeremy Renner as a well-meaning but slightly shady mayor.  Each character is marvellously flawed and fascinating to watch.  The film is a blast.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Movies of 2013 -- July through September

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim is pretty much exactly what a fun summer blockbuster should be.  It doesn't require much thought, necessarily, but it also doesn't require its audience to roll its eyes at gratuitous nudity or juvenile potty humor.  Yes, it's about giant robots punching monsters in the face, but it's also about empathy and teamwork.  It may have more flash than substance--a little more character development (or, in fact, character) in its hero would've helped--but in a film peopled with characters named Stacker Pentecost and Hercules Hanson, that's about in line with expectations.  It was never going to be the best film of the year, but it's an original story with original characters and original villains.  That's got to count for something.

The World's End
The third of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Cornetto Trilogy, following Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz.  Each follows the same basic premise: friends in a seemingly normal town surrounded by seemingly normal people when things start to go weird.  Maybe supernaturally weird.  Shaun saw itself populated with listless zombies, Fuzz took off on buddy cop comedies.  The World's End follows five old friends trying to relive one glorious night from their youth by hitting all twelve pubs in the hometown they've all left behind.  Throw in a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and you've got yourself a very fun film.  TWE may not have as many laughs pound for pound as the other two films, but its bittersweet story and a very strong performance by Simon Pegg make it a very strong addition to the trilogy indeed.

The Way, Way Back
This summer coming-of-age story from the Academy Award Winning writing team behind The Descendents isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it doesn't pretend to be.  Its story isn't filled with twists and turns and shocking revelations; instead, it focuses on its smaller, more human moments.  Liam James stars as young Duncan, dragged along for a summer with his mother (an always-excellent Toni Collette) and his mother's boyfriend (Steve Carrell).  He finds refuge from the adults in his life at a local waterpark, where he immediately finds a new idol in slacker Owen (Sam Rockwell).  The Way, Way Back doesn't have anything new to say, but its strong performances and well-written smaller moments make it worth consideration.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Movies of 2013 -- April through June

More flash than substance, Stoker is nonetheless an interesting, stylistic horror/suspense film.  The casting and editing are especially affecting, and where the script lacks, the style persists nicely.  Not great, but certainly good.

Strikingly filmed, Trance relies a little too heavily on its what's-real-and-what's-not (PLUS its who's-playing-who) techniques to come together quite satisfactorily, but it's a fun ride until you get there.

This Jackie Robinson biopic had great potential (and some great moments) but  it falls short of where it could have been.  Characters are introduced and dropped without notice, sentimentality is spread on far too thick, and the story seems to imply that ending segregation ended racism.  It's a safe movie about a man whose story is anything but safe.

The Place Beyond The Pines
Though it's not quite as cohesive as I'd like, The Place Beyond The Pines tells its three interconnected stories (each following a different protagonist) in three artfully shot, beautifully performed acts.  Its themes may be a little too broad and its acts may each be a little too long, but this is a film that absolutely sticks with you.  Director Derek Cianfrance (and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) masterfully build tension in long, tracked shots and beautiful, dialogue-free stretches, and Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper (along with the rest of the cast) turn out remarkable performances.

The Great Gatsby
A surprisingly faithful adaptation, Baz Luhrman's The Great Gatsby still fails to reach the heights of its literary inspiration.  It is flashy, excessive, and over-the-top--and while a great argument could be made that these traits tie in nicely with the themes of the novel, that thread gets lost somewhere.  The oddest decision made in this adaptation is the framing device placing narrator Nick (Tobey Maguire) in a sanitarium, writing the story as a form of therapy.  On one hand, this decision reflects F. Scott Fitzgerald's issues with sanitariums and also gives a cause to include some of his beautiful prose.  On the other, it seems a betrayal of Nick's whole character.

Iron Man 3
As written and directed by Shane Black, Iron Man 3 is almost as reminiscent of his and Robert Downey Jr.'s (excellent) previous film together, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, as it is of the other Iron Man movies.  The cheeky voice-over narration, the witty banter between henchmen, and even the timing all call back to KKBB.  The best decision this film makes is to focus less on the Iron and more on the Man; the suit itself (not unlike girlfriend Pepper Potts and best friends James Rhodes) is relegated mostly to the sidelines of the film, making Iron Man 3 a good exploration of Tony Stark himself.  The weakest decision the film makes is to rely so heavily on the Cute Little Kid as a part of that exploration.  I've never been a fan of that particular trope, and Iron Man 3 has done nothing to change my mind in that regard.  Not as good as the original but certainly better than the first sequel.  Oh, and make sure to stay after the credits.

Star Trek
A fun, fairly light take on the classic series.  The cast remains likeable (if sadly underdeveloped in the minor characters), the effects remain shiny, and the storyline features fun twists and turns.  A good popcorn movie.

Now You See Me
My first true disappointment of the summer movie set.  Fun magic scenes and an admittedly clever ending do not make up for horrendous dialogue, continually stupid police work, and the need to explain every little detail, nuance, and attempt at subtext to the audience.

This Is The End
So dumb.  So funny.

Much Ado About Nothing
Joss Whedon's homemade adaptation of this Shakespeare comedy is full of heart, laughs, and some good old fashioned pratfalls.  Filmed over only a few weeks and all in black and white, Much Ado may not add significantly to the great canon of Shakespeare adaptations, but it's a fun film with some striking performances from Whedon favorites.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Movies of 2013 -- January through March

Zero Dark Thirty
Excellent lead performance by Jessica Chastain.  Raised a lot of questions it didn't answer.  I also agree with Kathryn Bigelow that portrayal is not the same as endorsement and that this wouldn't be a very realistic account if torture wasn't acknowledged at all, given the way it overshadowed the ongoing wars themselves in many ways.

Escape from Planet Earth
Just not very good.

Side Effects
A very intriguing movie that takes an unexpected plot turn about halfway through.  Very good performance by Rooney Mara as a young woman dealing with depression and the titular side effects her drugs have left her with.

Jack the Giant Slayer
The cast had great potential, but ultimately the film falls flat.  A promising female protagonist quickly turns into just a princess in peril who needs rescuing.  The cast does at least seem to be having fun, but the gory (and often just-off-screen) deaths don't match that tone.

Oz the Great and Powerful
Also a story with potential, but James Franco is annoying, smug, and not at all fun to watch as the lead.  Ultimately disappointing.

Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are both likable, affable leads, but it's easier to root for the actors than the characters in this fine but not great romantic comedy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Les Miserables

As a kid, I was obsessed with the musical Les Miserables.  When I finally saw it on stage as a high schooler, I was entranced.  The staging, the music, the passion--I loved it all.

Les Miserables tells the later-in-life story of Jean Valjean, played throughout the years by Hugh Jackman.  A parolee just getting out of prison after nineteen years, Valjean ultimately breaks parole, changing his identity and becoming quite successful.  He owns a factory and becomes mayor of a small town where, years later, the Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is assigned.  Javert recognizes Valjean from his years in prison.  Valjean must go on the run again, but not before he vows to help the daughter of dying former employee-turned-prostitute Fantine (Anne Hathaway).  Valjean runs, goes to get the daughter Cosette (played later by Amanda Seyfried), and raises her.  There are plenty of other story lines and characters to follow, and while the economy of characters leads to some unlikely coincidences and interactions, it's a story rich with emotion and (occasionally over-) dramatics.

When I heard there was a film version coming out of Les Mis, I was at first excited and then almost immediately dismayed, as how could it possibly live up to the stage version?  I braced myself for disappointment, just as I'd done for another widely anticipated December release in The Hobbit.

Ultimately, it was the right choice.  There are some things Les Miserables does quite well, but there are others that severely disappointed me.  To begin with, Tom Hooper was the wrong choice for director.  Hooper, who won the Best Director Academy Award for The King's Speech, fell into the same distracting tics like oddly tilted camera angles without purpose, extreme close-ups pushed to the corners of the screen, and lackluster blocking for songs like Bring Him Home and Stars.

He also encouraged quiet, almost whispered singing in several songs.  For some, like Fantine's I Dreamed A Dream, it works beautifully.  Fantine is a pathetic character at the end of her rope, after all.  At other times, however, it feels that Hooper won't just let his singers really sing.  It's not until halfway through the film when we meet the revolutionaries led by Enjaloras (Aaron Tveit) and Marius (an impressive Eddie Redmayne) that we finally seem to meet the real, grandiose singers this story calls for.

Hugh Jackman does a fine, if not grand, job with Valjean.  Crowe often felt like he was so busy trying to sing right that he forgot to act--but admittedly, the boring, unmotivated blocking Hooper saddles him with doesn't help.  Redmayne and Seyfried do well with their generally less interesting characters.  In fact, as a general rule, the more recognizable the actor, the less impressive the singer.  The exception is Anne Hathaway, who may well be getting a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod out of the film.

It's possible that my purposely lowered expectations led me to be more critical of the film than others, but I couldn't help but feel that while it was pretty good, it could have been a lot better.

And don't get me started on the fact that the film's official soundtrack doesn't even include "Do You Hear The People Sing?"

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Hobbit

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the titular Hobbit, played by Martin Freeman, is invited to join an unusual quest to help a bunch of dwarves regain their home from the dragon that invaded it and drove them away decades ago.  Accompanied by the wizard Gandalf, they encounter friendly elves, not-so-friendly goblins, hungry trolls and plenty of in-fighting.  Based on the popular children's novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and brought to life by Tolkien fanatic Peter Jackson, An Unexpected Journey tells the first third of the Hobbit's story.

The problem is, there is absolutely no reason for The Hobbit to be three movies.  I write this as a person who is a big fan of Peter Jackson's extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and who tries to watch them about once a year.  That story may not have needed twelve hours to tell, but it rarely felt as though it was dragging or stretching out what didn't need to be stretched.

The Hobbit feels like that for most of the film.

Like many, the more successful he becomes, the more impervious Peter Jackson becomes to a judicious editor (see also, J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, others).  And a judicious editor would have helped The Hobbit immensely.

After all, the film has a lot going for it.  Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, the cautious but quietly brave protagonist.  Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis reprise their roles from The Lord of the Rings with aplomb.  The music and production values are simply lovely.  The story is an interesting one, full of twists and humor and action.

It's too bad everything feels so muddled and stretched out.  The film begins in flash-forward, with Ian Holm's Bilbo writing down his story for nephew Frodo, again played by Elijah Wood.  While I liked both of these actors quite a bit in Lord of the Rings, their parts were entirely unnecessary here.  This was a continuing trend throughout the film.  Two films with tighter editing and a few unnecessary pieces cut would have served this story quite well.  Three is doing it a disservice.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell's new film, Silver Linings Playbook, is at times chaotic--but purposely  so.  The chaos helps the audience understand, on some level, the mindset of the main character and those who surround him.  Overlapping dialogue builds a sense of unease in an audience, and the more it builds, the harder it can be to watch.

When Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from the mental hospital following a court-ordered eight month stint, he moves back in with his parents and stays fixated on his one major goal: get back in his estranged wife's good graces so they can be together again.  Those around him know it's not a very realistic goal, but Pat will not be persuaded.  He reconnects with some of the people from his old life, including his psychiatrist and a good friend's sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence)--herself a medicated, depressed young widow--trying to piece his life back together.  Tiffany and Pat share a connection most can't understand and some actively try to disrupt, but while their story doesn't hit the typical notes it seems to work well enough for them.

Unlike most romantic comedies (though there's much more to it than that label would suggest) Silver Linings Playbook feels honest and, for the most part, unforced.  These characters are messy, and not in cute or 'adorkable' ways.  Everyone has issues he or she is dealing with--or pointedly not dealing with--and those considered crazy by most may just be the ones most in touch with themselves.

That's not to say that those crazy people are all that put together, either.  Their problems don't have easy solutions, and while the film holds to that idea for the most part, it falters at its end.  The film ends on a winning, if somewhat false, note--one that seems to solve things and thus doesn't quite feel earned.

It doesn't fit quite as "comedy" or "drama," but does a great job mixing tones and averting typical expectations.