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Some stuff about 2013 movies and awards

5 Feb

Here is an alphabetical list of all the 2013 movies I have seen.
There are 52. That works out to one a week. Amazing! I saw a lot in theaters, I saw some on Netflix or online through some other means. I saw every movie I wanted to see. I didn’t “miss” anything. If your movie isn’t listed, that means I had no interest in it. Sorry. I think I will probably see fewer movies this year. Most movies prove to be bland and formulaic in most regards. I find myself in the theater rooting for unpredictability. That usually leads to a disappointing movie experience. So I think I’ll cut back. I should note that in addition to these 52 I saw probably a couple hundred older movies. Maybe even a few hundred. I like movies. Also there will probably be spoilers in here somewhere.

12 Years a Slave
The Act of Killing
Afternoon Delight
All is Lost
American Hustle
Before Midnight
The Bling Ring
Blue is the Warmest Color
Blue Jasmine
The Brass Teapot
The Canyons
Closed Circuit
Computer Chess
The Counselor
Dallas Buyers Club
Don Jon
Drinking Buddies
The East
Ender’s Game
Enough Said
Frances Ha
Fruitvale Station
Gimme the Loot
The Great Gatsby
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
In a World…
In the House
Inside Llewyn Davis
Like Someone in Love
Much Ado About Nothing
Only God Forgives
The Place Beyond the Pines
Room 237
Short Term 12
Side Effects
The Silence
The Spectacular Now
Spring Breakers
Stories We Tell
To the Wonder
Upstream Color
What Maisie Knew
The Wolf of Wall Street

Movies I especially liked
All is Lost
American Hustle
Blue is the Warmest Color
Drinking Buddies
Frances Ha
The Great Gatsby
Inside Llewyn Davis
Much Ado About Nothing
The Place Beyond the Pines
Spring Breakers
What Maisie Knew

I try not to intellectualize this kind of thing. I just picked movies that stuck with me or that I came out of feeling really good about. Inside Llewyn Davis was a borderline pick. It wasn’t always easy or fun to watch. I don’t know if it was supposed to be. I’ll need to see it again. A lot was made of the circular narrative structure thing. I thought that was great. The kind of thing only the Coens could pull off. I’ve made my love of Spring Breakers and Stoker known. Gatsby kind of got forgotten. Too bad. The Place Beyond the Pines was my favorite movie of the year.

Movies I especially disliked
The Bling Ring
The Canyons
Ender’s Game
Room 237
The Wolf of Wall Street

I don’t have the energy to trash Her and The Wolf of Wall Street. A lot of people liked them. Fine. I emphatically did not. Not for any reasons that are unique. Read Molly Lambert and Richard Brody on Her, and Dana Stevens on Wolf. It was not my decision to see Ender’s Game. I want that on the record. I think I’ve written previously on this site about the others.

How I would have voted for Oscar nominees in the major categories (obligatory note: the Oscars are a joke and are not to be taken seriously)(winners in bold):

Best Picture
All is Lost
American Hustle
Blue is the Warmest Color
The Place Beyond the Pines

Only five movies. More than that is stupid. All is Lost over Gravity. They’re pretty much the same movie. I don’t know what to make of Gravity. That opening scene shot in one take is crazy, but how much credit should Cuarón get for that? How much technology was involved? I don’t know enough about the effects in that movie to really judge. That’s not the basis for my judgment. The dialogue in that scene was so horrifically embarrassingly laughably bad as to disqualify it. Sorry. American Hustle in the Argo slot as a big Hollywood movie that succeeded. Even though I thought it had a kind of glaring script problem at the end. The actors from top to bottom were excellent and the production design was fun and it was funny and was a generally really enjoyable movie to watch. Much more so than I expected. I don’t really have anything to say about any of the various Blue is the Warmest Color debates. I have read enough about them to know that some people think that as a straight white man I shouldn’t be allowed to like it. I think most of the criticisms that have been made are fair, but you know what? I don’t care. I was transfixed by it. I was sad when it was over. I wanted it to be longer. I’d have spent the whole day in the theater watching. Loved it. I’m glad I didn’t know about the prosthetic vaginas beforehand. I think that would have been distracting. That’s a pretty weird thing. I’m disappointed no one has mentioned The Place Beyond the Pines in like eight months. My favorite of the year. I think Bradley Cooper was the weak link. Everything else was near perfect. It’s a pretty complex premise, and I thought Derek Cianfrance nailed it. When a director swings for the fences and hits it might be my favorite thing in movies. And this was the best example this year. I’m looking forward to seeing Stoker again. So many striking small moments/shots/scenes that have stuck with me all year.

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Julie Delpy, Before Midnight
Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Brie Larson, Short Term 12
Robin Weigert, Concussion

Michelle Williams, I missed you this year. This is a stacked category even without her. Tough omissions: Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha, Kathryn Hahn in Afternoon Delight, Amy Adams in American Hustle, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, and Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now. Apparently Cate Blanchett is the lock of all locks to win the real Oscar. Whatever. Concussion is a great movie. It’s on Netflix and everyone should watch it. Robin Weigert out of nowhere carried the whole thing. I love all the Before movies, and Julie Delpy is the best part of them. Short Term 12 wasn’t a very good movie, but it sort of falls into the same category as Her and Wolf. Larson was magnetic whenever she was on screen. She was also magnetic without saying anything in Don Jon. I like her. I thought Adèle Exarchopoulos was incredible. Screen presence etc. I’m not good at describing actors/acting. Note: Some of these performances involve considerable sex appeal. I really try not to think about that. But it’s a part of those movies and it’s complicated and I don’t know. I think this is something that male critics like to pretend doesn’t exist but it does so I’m mentioning it.

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners
Joaquin Phoenix, Her
Robert Redford, All is Lost

As much as I disliked Her and Wolf, it’s hard to deny the quality of the acting involved. DiCaprio and Phoenix are both always good, they should be in good movies. Like The Great Gatsby, which was a better DiCaprio movie, even though I don’t think he did much acting there. He certainly didn’t extend himself like he did in Wolf. I love Gyllenhaal. I think I might be the only one. I truly don’t understand why he isn’t taken more seriously. One of my favorites. There are a lot of reasons I’m not in love with 12 Years a Slave, but Ejiofor was better than I expected, mostly because the role was more complicated than I expected. I’ve seen him in a couple other things, but I don’t remember his performances in them, to be honest. I’ll be on the lookout for more from him. Redford was incredible. The comparison is, again, Sandra Bullock in Gravity. He’s better than Bullock. More peaceful, subdued. And he’s still able to convey desperation within that. I think it’s just age and experience. Maybe they should remake All is Lost with Sandra in 30 years and we can see how she does.

Best Supporting Actress
Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
Léa Seydoux, Blue is the Warmest Color
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

I don’t feel as strongly about this category as I do about Best Actress. Nyong’o had a tough task because there’s not a lot to her character on the page. I wouldn’t presume to know what makes for effectively portraying a slave, but I was affected by her performance. Did you see what I did with effect and affect there? I hope you liked it. I thought about throwing in Selena Gomez from Spring Breakers, but I don’t think she was quite there. Sally Hawkins should be more famous. Happy-Go-Lucky is a good performance of hers to see.

Best Supporting Actor
Dane DeHaan, The Place Beyond the Pines
Nathan Fillion, Much Ado About Nothing
Will Forte, Nebraska
Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street

Ryan Gosling is the best thing going in Hollywood. Pines gets hurt in the acting categories because of the way its set up. I almost put in Ben Mendelsohn too but that seemed like overkill. I hate to keep bringing up Wolf, but Jonah Hill might be a good actor. I didn’t get the fuss over him for Moneyball, but I was impressed with him here. I did not expect Will Forte to be good at playing sad, but he was the best part of Nebraska for me. And good job to Nathan Fillion, who managed to be funny while delivering 400-year-old malapropisms. The overt comedy stuff is always the hardest part of Shakespeare to pull off.

Best Director
Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers
Baz Luhrmann, The Great Gatsby
Chan-wook Park, Stoker

There’s no accounting for taste. That’s mostly what this list is. None of the big name guys is doing anything innovative or unexpected these days. Cuarón is the guy who was most obviously pushing the envelope in terms of camera stuff. I mentioned earlier that I don’t know enough about the details there. I don’t know a lot of the details about directing in general, frankly.

Best Screenplay*
*I’m only doing one screenplay because I can’t keep track of which ones are original or not and I don’t care whether they are or not.
Noah Baumbach/Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Shane Carruth, Upstream Color
Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines
Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Nicole Holofcener, Enough Said

I should probably see Upstream Color again. Based on a first viewing and a reading of the plot summary on Wikipedia afterward I was amazed. This is sort of like the director category. I like what I like and I make no apologies.

So those are my thoughts about movies. I didn’t do a movie-by-movie capsule recap. Too much work. I’ll try to get back into that this year.

Film review quarterly: 2013 Q3

6 Oct

My Q2 review didn’t get as much traction on Google as Q1. Disappointing. But I’m still doing it. I wrote about all of these movies individually when they were released. I’m too lazy to link to all of them here. Search for them in the search box if you’re interested. I also slowed down a bit on seeing movies in the last couple months. A lot of movies are starting to run together. Even the ones that are good. It’s so disappointing to me that small independent movies are starting to get just as boring and formulaic as big blockbusters. Maybe I’ll catch some on Netflix or whatever. If you feel passionate about a movie I missed let me know in the comments jklol no one ever reads these let alone leaves a comment.

Much Ado About Nothing
I still feel great about this movie a couple months later. It’ll be interesting to see if it gets any awards heat. I doubt it.

Fruitvale Station
I was a little disappointed that this one didn’t seem to catch on much with a big audience. Maybe if you’re not from the Bay Area it doesn’t resonate as strongly. Either way, I hope this becomes the template for movies like this. Avoiding moralizing and overreaching. I was impressed with Ryan Coogler. Looking forward to more from him.

Computer Chess
This is the kind of weird movie I wish there were more of. I don’t even know if I would call it good, but it was totally captivating.

Blue Jasmine
I wonder what someone would think of this if they’d never seen a Woody Allen movie before. Would they love it or hate it? What would they think of all the little Woody Allen things? Maybe I’ll try to get my sister to watch it on DVD or something and ask. She’s probably one of millions of twentysomethings who’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie. This horrible younger generation etc.

The Canyons
I’m still amazed at how bad this was.

In a World…
Fine. Entertaining. Some good performances. Etc. This is a pretty good example of the formulaicity I was talking about.

Closed Circuit
Sort of the spy movie version of In a World… .It was good and everything, but what’s memorable or interesting or unexpected about it?

The Spectacular Now
Shailene Woodley is a star. I heard she had to turn down the lead in Fifty Shades of Grey because of a scheduling conflict. That would have been interesting. But that movie will probably be interesting regardless.

Short Term 12
Maybe the best case scenario for this kind of suburban Landmark Theaters-friendly independent movie. Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever were great.

The New Yorker blurb compares this one to Mystic River and Zodiac. Zodiac is a good comparison, in a general feel/tone/Gyllenhaal way. Zodiac is the better movie. I actually watched Zodiac again recently. It was nominated for zero Oscars. That seems dumb to me, especially after the way everyone loved Argo last year for being a big expensive good studio movie. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as Zodiac. Maybe it was as good as Prisoners. I should stop thinking about Argo.


1 Oct

There are spoilers in this. And this is a movie with actual stuff to be spoiled.

I really enjoyed Prisoners. It wasn’t anything spectacular or unusual or especially ambitious, but who cares. It was two and a half hours long, and held my attention for the whole time. Not only that, but it did a very good job of building and releasing tension, staying unpredictable, and doing all the other things that successful thrillers need to be successful.

I don’t have much to say about the plot. I don’t think it was watertight, but I’m not interested in dissecting it. It won’t go in the pantheon of thriller plots, but I don’t think that’s necessary for a successful movie. I think the goal was to have a character-driven rather than a plot-driven movie. That’s generally a good idea, because there’s a lot more room to maneuver with characters than the plot. If you make the plot the centerpiece, it needs to be perfect and memorable and you need some kind of hook etc. Inception is probably the standard-bearer. If you go down that road people start picking it apart, and no one remembers the acting performances, and if your gimmick or big reveal or whatever isn’t totally mind-blowing and amazing, you’re left with Shutter Island and all people remember is the gimmick. So Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are thrust to the forefront. That’s really the focus of the movie, and I have some comments about each of them.

Hugh Jackman doesn’t usually do the kind of movies I like, so I haven’t seen a lot of his work. I’ve only seen two or three of his movies. I hear he does a lot of stage work. Musicals and such. That really isn’t my thing, but I suppose that’s impressive range. I was not impressed with him in this movie. I can’t decide how much was him and how much was the script. His character is wildly unlikeable. For me at least. That kind of Real America white male who knows that all of society’s problems would be solved if everyone were just more like him. Those guys are out there. I’ve known a few. They’re the worst. I don’t know if we’re supposed to relate to or sympathize with this guy, but I definitely didn’t at any point. Mr. Jackman sure didn’t bring any nuance to the role. A lot of aggressive blustering and self-righteousness, but no sign that he’s acting with any kind of thought and never a hint that he stops to consider that he might be wrong about anything or that anyone else might have a better idea of what to do than him. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re supposed to delight in him getting thrown in the pit under the car. But the movie isn’t set up that way. I don’t think that was the intent at all. With a character like that, you’re either dispositionally drawn to him or not. For those of us who aren’t, Mr. Jackman didn’t do anything to get us on his side. Obviously he’s not exactly a hero, and the director, Denis Villeneuve, wants us to stay skeptical of everything, but on some level it has to be the actor’s job to make us understand why his character is doing what he’s doing. The only reason I can think of is that deep down inside, all he is is a jerk.

On the other hand.

I’m a big Jake Gyllenhaal fan. I think he’s great. He doesn’t seem to get a lot of respect from critics or moviegoers, but I don’t understand why he’s not seen as a heavyweight. Maybe he’s still living down Bubble Boy. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, and End of Watch are three big-time Movie Star level performances off the top of my head. I think the reason he’s so good playing cops in End of Watch and Prisoners is that he doesn’t have the same air of impenetrable hardness that Mr. Jackman tried so hard to affect throughout this whole movie. He brings the sense of underlying vulnerability that these men always have. He communicates it so well without needing to say anything. His eyes, the way he carries himself, the considered way he speaks, all the subtle things that don’t draw attention to themselves. That’s where he really separates himself. That he’s able to do all that and simultaneously project the kind of authority that makes him believable is something that not many actors can do. He should be getting better roles and winning awards.

Two smaller roles of note were played by Melissa Leo and Paul Dano. Melissa Leo is another actor who doesn’t get the kind of credit she deserves. And I really like Paul Dano. He didn’t have a lot to work with here, but I think he made it as believable as it could be. And poor Viola Davis. I say Mr. Dano didn’t have a lot to work with–he had far more than Ms. Davis. She deserves better than this. Come to think of it, I would have much rather seen the movie focus on her and Terrence Howard than Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello. Oh well. And one plausibility note. Guys like Hugh Jackman’s character don’t have black friends. That’s all there is to it.

Also of note was the cinematography by Roger Deakins. He’s a treasure. Cinematography is one of those things that I have to consciously focus on and in an absorbing movie like this I miss a lot of it. But this movie looked terrific. The sequence shot from inside the car while Jake G. was driving to the hospital in the rain was amazing. I loved everything about it. That was the highlight of the movie for me.

Short Term 12

17 Sep

I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Short Term 12. I had heard a few good things about it, but I went in with trepidation. A movie about teenagers in an institutional setting has a high probability of feel-good substancelessness. I’m thinking of It’s Kind of a Funny Story from a couple years ago. That one started out with a lot of promise and devolved into trite stupidity. This is a syndrome that afflicts many, maybe even most, indie dramas, regardless of setting, but involving teenagers adds a higher level of risk. Not to say that this movie doesn’t have problems, or even that it escapes the neat ending/every character ends the movie with hope and bright prospects problem, but there were enough things to like that I’m willing to overlook some of the shortcuts and easy answers in the storytelling.

I don’t think I even want to talk more about the plot. Its broad ideas aren’t new or especially interesting. The movie mostly succeeds because of the characters and acting performances. Brie Larson and Kaitlyn Dever were the center of the movie for me. I don’t want to short John Gallagher Jr, but his scenes with Ms. Larson weren’t nearly as compelling as those with Ms. Dever. The two of them recently co-starred in The Spectacular Now, and I think they played friends or classmates maybe? I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize that until I checked imdb after the fact. I didn’t recognize either of them from The Spectacular Now. But they had a kind of easy chemistry that made the two of them together stand out.

Special kudos to the producers for casting Ms. Dever. She’s playing sixteenish, and she looks like she might actually be sixteenish in real life. It’s the kind of role that usually goes to someone in their twenties, which gets more ridiculous every time I go to the theater.

The best performance was definitely Brie Larson as Grace. I thought this was going to be more of an ensemble piece or mostly a romance, but she was the focus, and she was more than able to hold things together. Again, maybe I’m shorting John Gallagher Jr playing her boyfriend, but after several days, it’s her that I remember. Even in the late stages, when the script threatens to go off the rails, she kept things believable. There were a couple of moments where things could have really gone over the top (the confrontation with her boss in particular) and a couple of poor line readings could have made it all seem ridiculous. So, I was impressed with her.

One thing that confused me a little was the specifics of the setting. At the beginning it seems to be a DCFS/foster care kind of situation, but later on it feels like there’s a much heavier psychiatric influence. That was left pretty muddy, and it was kind of distracting.

Another script problem. This character Nate might as well have been named Exposition. I felt sorry for the actor playing him. And again, distracting. It would have been better to open the movie with the staff giving someone a building tour and just explaining everything that way. Get it all out of the way and then let your characters be part of the story.

I don’t know if this was the intent or not, but I felt very nervous about Grace’s baby throughout the whole thing. She schedules an abortion, then after she tells Mason she seems more ambivalent. All the while she’s running around with these wild kids. I thought they were setting it up for her to gradually get excited about the baby and then have a miscarriage. The scene where Grace holds down Jayden’s feet while she’s freaking out? I was positive that was the end of it. A kick, a panicked expression, new direction for the movie. Of course they way it actually did play out was more satisfying and probably a better way to go.

Even though it verged on oversentimentality, I thought the ending was good. The symmetry with the beginning totally worked. That can be gimmicky and it’s something I’d dismiss or make fun of if it didn’t hit the right spots. I don’t have a reason for liking it. It just felt right. A lot of Short Term 12 felt like that.

Closed Circuit

10 Sep

Spoilers, etc.

Political thrillers can be tricky. It has to be a little complicated, because you need plot twists and such, but it can’t get too complicated or the audience gets lost. And Closed Circuit didn’t have big action sequences to cover for its errors. Once it got going, I thought we were in for some pretty heavy-duty plot machinations. In the end it was a bit more simple than I expected, but I think that’s OK.

I don’t want to get too deep into the plot, not least because I saw it a couple weeks ago now and I don’t want to make any mistakes. It was well-paced, there were the requisite betrayals and reversals, but none of it was too unexpected or implausible (at least within the world of the movies). Nothing that’s going to make the movie all that memorable, but it was enjoyable.

The setting is London. I don’t know much about London, but I thought they didn’t take advantage as much as they could have. There were a few aerials of The Shard/Gherkin/etc., Eric Bana rowing in the Thames, and a sequence at Wembley. The way those were shot they could have been any river and stadium. A secret meeting during an England match is such a great idea. I was a little let down at the execution.

Thrillers like this live and die by the quality of the small nuanced moments that turn things. One of those in Closed Circuit deserves a mention. The scene when Claudia first goes to visit Emir. Emir knows that the MI5 guy is in the other room watching them on the security camera. So he turns to the camera and says something like he wants the interview to be over. Then between the time when MI5 guy leaves the monitor and enters the room, he grabs Claudia’s tape recorder and whispers something into it in Turkish. That was a really slick touch.

Running time is a tight 96 minutes. I would have liked more. I could have enjoyed another hour. The cast list is impressive. Ciarán Hinds, Jim Broadbent, and Julia Stiles are around, but none of them have anything to do. Mr. Broadbent and Ms. Stiles almost seemed surplus to requirements, as they’d say in London. More of the reporter, more of the Attorney General, more in general please. I wonder how much of that comes down to editing decisions. It’s hard to believe they’d put the reporter character in there and have her in two scenes and then die. I don’t think she advanced the story much. Same with the AG. At least I get what he was doing there. Although it was almost criminal how much better Mr. Broadbent is than that role. I think he might be my favorite actor (non-Michelle Williams category). Check out his imdb page. He’s 64 now. I don’t think most old-ish actors have anywhere near the range of Mr. Broadbent. Musicals, comedy, drama, he does so much more adventurous stuff than most actors. Anyway. Mr. Hinds had the biggest supporting role. I like him. He has such unexpected subtlety for someone so physically imposing. He looks like he should only play gangsters and, like, Russian generals. He does so much without speaking. Again, wish he’d had more here.

Rebecca Hall and Eric Bana were both in top form. I don’t get why Eric Bana isn’t a huge star. He’s handsome and he’s great in movies like this. Isn’t there some way to put him in a big popular movie? If he were twenty years older maybe he would have been playing Jack Ryan etc. The kinds of movies that Harrison Ford made. Those movies don’t really exist anymore. Hard to imagine The Fugitive being a blockbuster in 2013. Recommended recent Eric Bana movie: Hanna.

I was not expecting a performance like this from Rebecca Hall. A big departure from what I’ve seen from her in the past. Or maybe I haven’t been paying close enough attention. She was totally in control whenever she was the focus of a scene and more than held her own with Eric Bana, which is no small task when it comes to being a bad-ass who takes care of business.

Conclusion: I don’t know. This was a fine movie and everything, but there just wasn’t enough there to make it stand out.

The Spectacular Now

1 Sep

Spoilers follow etc.

I think I might like The Spectacular Now. I need to let it marinate for a while. My feelings are mixed and I am conflicted. The first half of the movie was bad. I did not like it. It hit you hard and fast and often with “this is a high school movie”. I’m really not into that. It had all the high school movie stereotypes and archetypes. The characters and events were neither nuanced or interesting. I’m not the kind of guy who walks out of movies, but if I was, I probably would have left this one.

Things improved once Sutter and Aimee* got together for good. It was like a different movie from that point on. It stopped being mostly about high school and started being about alcoholism, which was unexpected and welcome. The director is James Ponsoldt. I haven’t seen his first two movies, but they’re both also about alcoholism. I guess he’s an expert by now. He definitely seemed more assured in the second half. Although that’s kind of a backhanded compliment and I don’t think the first-half problems were really his fault. More of a script issue. I think a big part of it is that within the confines of a high school it’s impossible to imbue a story with any real stakes. If you’re not in high school it’s all easily recognizable as dumb bullshit. I certainly didn’t care about any of the characters at first. I wasn’t given any reason to. That didn’t change until the movie turned and started being about Sutter and Aimee and their families and drinking problems etc.

*Yes, Aimee. Christ. That is NOT how you spell Amy. When they showed her name on screen my heart sank.

The midpoint tone change also gave Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley a chance to do something other than be obnoxious and high schooly. I thought they both did a good job; Ms. Woodley more so than Mr. Teller. He wasn’t bad or anything, but he seemed less comfortable than his scene partner. Maybe that’s unfair. He had a much more demanding role. Plus Shailene is a lot more experienced and I thought she was almost as good here as she was in The Descendants. She’s been on one of those teen dramas on ABC Family or something for like five years. That was an unexpected discovery. I wouldn’t have thought of that kind of show as a breeding ground for capable actors. Maybe I’m wrong. Michelle Williams did come out of Dawson’s Creek, after all. Maybe I need to rethink that whole genre.

Mr. Teller is at his best in the scenes between Sutter and his family. I thought he seemed a lot more natural there. Plus those scenes were a lot meatier than most of the other stuff. Maybe I’m just too focused on the parts of the movie I didn’t like. Sutter and Aimee visiting Sutter’s dad was uncomfortable and sad in a really believable way. The hesitancy of the kids, the way everyone tried a little too hard to be casual, the way Dad eventually got actually casual and ditched the kids, was affecting without being heavy-handed. The dinner party with Sutter’s sister was also that way. Until they ended it with the dumbass toast. Could have done without that. A lot of the endgame scenes similarly went a bit over the line for me. Some of the dramatics from Sutter got eyerolls from me. I guess that’s a bit subjective though. I bet that worked for a lot of people.

I want to talk about the car accident. There’s nothing like a surprise car accident in a movie. I was totally surprised by this one. And it worked within the context of the movie. Even though the aftermath looked a lot less severe than I would expect. It’s a movie, fine. I can accept that. Shoutout to Meet Joe Black, by the way. The Citizen Kane of the genre.

This is the only part of the movie I’ve seen. Feels like I don’t need to see any more.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is Miles Teller’s mom. She’s probably still most famous for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and now she’s playing the mom. Time flies.

No one as pretty as Shailene Woodley is unpopular in high school. I know it’s a movie and whatever, but this trope is so tiresome that it needs to be pointed out every time until some brave director casts a woman who doesn’t look like a movie star in a movie like this.

In a World…

29 Aug

Spoilers below. I can’t decide if I need to keep saying this every time out. I feel conflicted. But I would hate it if I found a random essay about a movie on Google and then had the movie spoiled. Shrug.

I saw In a World last week. The most “important” or whatever topic raised by the movie is that of women’s voices and how that relates to sex/power/feminism, etc. Since then Miley Cyrus has made all discussions of feminism that don’t involve Miley Cyrus feel old and irrelevant, which is just as well, since I don’t think I’m that qualified to talk seriously about In a World’s serious concerns. Plus I don’t think I have anything particularly new to say about them. There are plenty of places on the internet to read interesting things about this issue. And this is an actually very interesting issue, to me at least. Sexy baby voice, vocal fry, etc. Go read about it!

You might have noticed that I referred to the movie as In a World. Not In a World…, which is the actual title . Hey producers, don’t put an ellipse in your movie title. It’s terrible. I hate it. I’ll be calling it In a World here. Even though I put the ellipse in the post title. That’s just for appearances.

Making a movie about the world of voice-over artists is a great idea. Just the right kind of hyper-specific, small, offbeat little community just begging for someone to skewer. Writing that sentence made me think that a Christopher Guest movie about voice-over artists would be hilarious. I have such great ideas. The whole thing seems to have emanated from Lake Bell, whose name is in the credits at a Spike Lee level. (Writer, director, producer, star.) I recognize Ms. Bell from the couple episodes of Children’s Hospital I’ve seen. That’s an OK show, but watching it mostly makes me wistful for the glory days of Adult Swim. But that’s another topic altogether. Ken Marino and Rob Corddry are also involved here. They’re both steady and reassuring. They’re two of those guys who are always around in movies like this. Not spectacular, not stealing any scenes, but you know they’re pros. Maybe not charismatic enough to carry a movie, but ideal for the kind of supporting roles they have here.

I don’t quite know how to categorize In a World. I liked it. But it didn’t feel especially groundbreaking and I wasn’t making mental notes of stuff that was going on like I do when I’m really engaged in a movie. Apart from the specific issues of women’s voices that I mentioned above, most of the themes were on a kind of general girl power level, which I thought worked, but most of the story didn’t say anything to me that hasn’t been said before.

There was one exception to that. A brief little moment that was perfectly placed, perfectly executed, and left me a little shocked at its inclusion. It was totally unexpected. I’m talking, of course, about the interaction between Ms. Bell’s Carol and the producer played by Geena Davis. I don’t want to mangle her exact quote, but it boiled down to something like, “We both know you weren’t the best person for the job, I picked you because you’re a girl.” That was a devastating takedown, and it totally reframed the way that I thought about “what the movie is trying to say”. I think Ms. Bell has a more nuanced and detailed take on all this stuff than was presented in the movie. And that’s fine. It was a comedy, after all. I thought the Geena Davis moment was a nice subtle jolt to remind the audience that it’s important to think about issues on a deeper level and not accept a feel-good message from a movie as the definitive take on a complex problem. That’s how I took it, at least.

Fred Melamed as Carol’s dad was a 10/10 in the casting department. He nailed it. He has the voice, and his body type and body hair and general physicality brought a dimension that I wouldn’t have expected from an aging voice-over star. This was a character that could have easily swung into over-the-top range, and that would have been too bad. Mr. Melamed brought what I thought was a restrained performance. Credit the writing, too. “Jerk who takes himself too seriously” is a hard character to make believable.

Another thing that worked well was the romance angle with Demetri Martin. That was a well-crafted subplot. For a romantic-comedy kind of story, it was not that eye-rollingly ridiculous. Kudos. You know what? This was just an overall fun movie. Not a home run, but a stand-up double. An enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half. I hope that sounds like a compliment.

The Canyons

23 Aug

The Canyons is a bad movie. A seriously bad movie. That needs to be said up front. It was interesting to me for a few reasons, but none of those reasons had anything to do with the actual product on the screen. If I saw this and I had never heard of any of the people involved and I didn’t know anything about its production history, I would be left kind of baffled at how a movie this bad could get made. I doubt there are any people who actually walked in cold and saw it, but I’d love to hear an opinion from one of them. So I have some thoughts, but a movie this incoherent gets a review that’s just as incoherent. This is kind of scattered.

At this point I’ll post a link to the lengthy and excellent New York Times Magazine piece about the production, with the spectacular title Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.

Here’s the thing though. Lindsay Lohan is not one of this movie’s problems. The only way you could make that case is to say that she’s such a better actor than anyone else in the movie that it highlights how terrible they all are and makes their performances even more distracting. She’s obviously talented. I don’t keep up with her personal life, but one positive to take away from The Canyons is that from a talent perspective, there’s no reason she shouldn’t be a movie star. From a talent perspective. Her face looks pretty goofy now and there’s the aforementioned personal life, which are two strikes against her.

Another positive: it’s a pretty good-looking movie. I think one of the big ideas was to capture a mix between seedy desperate LA and phony glamorous LA. I think that goal was mostly accomplished. Locations, lighting, that kind of thing. Good job guys.

One of the biggest problems with The Canyons is one I didn’t anticipate: it’s boring. Really fucking boring. There’s no real plot. There’s not much character development. I don’t really know how to describe it. Maybe Paul Schrader did a bad job translating the script to film or maybe Bret Easton Ellis’s script is bad. But Christ, if you’re making a movie, you should have some events happen in it. Here’s my plot summary: This guy who’s a movie producer and his girlfriend have sex with random people from the internet, and this other guy, an actor, is cast in one of the producer’s movies, but the girlfriend is having an affair with the actor, and the producer gets jealous and for some reason eventually murders this other girl he’s sleeping with. I couldn’t tell you what the reason is, though. And there’s an orgy scene. It all seemed pointless, and not in a “Wow what an incisive commentary on how meaningless modern life is in our society/how directionless young people are etc.” way but in a “These characters are all boring and why is there a movie about them and furthermore this movie has nothing to say which is extra frustrating because that was obviously the goal since there’s no plot to engage the audience” kind of way.

As mentioned, the director is Paul Schrader. He’s an interesting character. He’s most famous for writing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. That’s notable, I guess, but that’s not what’s interesting about him to me. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan in an apparently very strict Calvinist household. As someone who’s only a generation removed from very strict Calvinist households in Western Michigan, I was very surprised to learn this fact. He never saw a movie as a kid. Not one. This sounds crazy. Really crazy. There are (very old and dead) people in my family who also never saw a movie as a kid. I’ve heard stories of childhoods in which Sunday afternoons were passed sitting quietly on the couch between church services. When I was a kid, the McDonald’s in my parents’ hometown was the only one in America that wasn’t open on Sunday. My parents’ high school didn’t have a prom, they had a “senior banquet” because dancing was frowned upon. Mr. Schrader attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids. I know many graduates of that school, including my sister. You can spend some time on Google researching their retrograde positions on all kinds of issues, but here’s something relevant that I think is telling. The most famous graduates of Calvin are: 1: Businessman and notoriously bad sports team owner Wayne Huizenga, 2 & 3: The guys who founded Amway, and 4: Paul Schrader. My sister, who graduated just last year, had never heard of Paul Schrader until I asked her about this movie last week. Every university in America spends a lot of time bragging about its famous alumni, Calvin College included. But they don’t mention the guy who directed American Gigolo. Wonder why. So that’s where he’s coming from. I don’t know how relevant that is to a discussion of The Canyons, but I don’t care.

I watched The Canyons at home on my laptop. This cost me $7. I wanted to go see it in the theater, but it wasn’t playing anywhere in the East Bay and going to see a movie in SF adds up to like a $20 proposition. No thanks. I think this was a result of a disastrous first-week run in New York and LA. I believe it was supposed to be at a few more theaters locally, but it did so poorly in that first week and was so poorly-reviewed that a bunch of them dropped it. That’s my guess anyway. So it was only at one theater in the whole Bay Area. According to BoxOfficeMojo it’s grossed $43,000 and change. Yikes. I thought it would be impossible to lose money on a $250,000 movie starring Lindsay Lohan, but I guess that’s why I’m not a film executive. I guess that total doesn’t include VOD rentals. I’d be curious to see that number.

I get the novelty appeal of casting a porn star to be in your movie, but I think that’s a lot more appealing on paper than on film. James Deen is not a good actor. I will note that he was markedly better than some of his scene partners. Clearly not up to the standard of Ms. Lohan though. I saw that Steven Soderbergh movie with Sasha Grey a few years ago. I don’t remember it that well, but I do recall that it kind of had the same problem. She was a better actor than Mr. Deen, but she seemed tentative and generally out of her element. I wonder what kind of rehearsals/acting classes/preparation/whatever was involved for both of them. That Mr. Deen sure does have a big dick though.

On that topic, there are more naked men in this movie than I can recall seeing in a movie. That’s not to say that the nudity’s extreme or even especially explicit. Given the reportage about Ms. Lohan and the orgy scene, I thought this was going to lean more heavily to the erotic end of the erotic thriller genre, but I didn’t think that was the case. Ms. Lohan in particular isn’t any more exposed than any other name actress in a typical R-rated movie with “tasteful” nudity.

Recommendation: If you were, like me, very interested in all the behind-the-scenes nonsense of The Canyons, it’s probably still not worth watching. Sorry.

Blue Jasmine

12 Aug

I like Woody Allen. I’ve seen most of his movies. He’s made a movie a year for like 40 years. That’s crazy. There’s something familiar and comforting about going to the theater to see a new Woody Allen movie. The black title cards with the Windsor font pop up and the jazz clarinet blares and it just makes me happy. So that’s where I’m coming from.

I think it’s been very good for Mr. Allen to make films outside of New York. His recent “late period” or whatever has been fun to watch unfold. The movies are definitely more vibrant than his New York movies since the mid-90s or so. In a sense, I think it’s made things easier for him. He’s so New York that every little thing about the city was expected to be pitch perfect. When he’s filming in Europe, or now in San Francisco, I don’t think the audience has that same expectation. Or at least, they don’t have the knowledge of those places that they do of New York, so if things don’t live up to the same standard vis-à-vis the setting people can’t tell as easily.

Now that I’ve said that, I’m going to talk pretty negatively about the use of San Francisco in Blue Jasmine. I didn’t think it was great. Now I have only lived in the Bay Area for a year or so and I don’t even live in SF, but a lot of it just felt a little off to me. The whole concept of this working-class ethnic white community in SF that seems to have been constructed for this movie doesn’t really exist as far as I know. A lot of the filming locations are in neighborhoods populated either by rich hipsters, tech jillionaires, or tourists. That accounts for most of the white people in SF as far as I can tell. And there was that party in Marin County where everyone, including broke-ass Louie CK, was wearing coats and ties. Are you serious? That just feels so East Coast. I don’t get the impression that a lot of rich people here, even old-money types, spend a lot of time in coats and ties. The two locations that really worked for me were the first scene with Andrew Dice Clay in the Outer Sunset and Mr. CK and Sally Hawkins walking at Ocean Beach. Those didn’t feel as much like a tourists idea of “authentic” SF as the rest did. It’s the little things that Mr. Allen can get right in NY that he just kind of missed here. The prodigal son who dropped out of Harvard and works at a music store in Oakland? Perfect. Except he’s supporting a wife and kid. Hipsters in Oakland don’t have wives and kids. Close but not quite there.

It’s unfortunate that this movie came out so soon after Fruitvale Station. Blue Jasmine’s San Francisco can’t match Fruitvale Station’s Oakland. Not even close.

I think Mr. Allen gets pretty much whatever actors he wants, and his casting is sometimes up and down. Mostly up here. Sally Hawkins is underappreciated. I thought she was great in Happy-Go-Lucky. To play such a bubbly character without having it become a caricature is tough, and I thought she pushed it right to the edge without going over. There was some element of that same idea in this role–trying to stay upbeat about a life that didn’t follow the best-case scenario. She was on point. Alec Baldwin also deserves special notice. Although he didn’t seem to need to try very hard. Crooked financier is a perfect role for him. Mr. Clay and Bobby Cannavale were both good, even though they didn’t have a whole lot to do. Plus they were NY characters plopped down in SF. Mr. Cannavale is becoming a favorite of mine. Other recommended performances of his: Win Win and The Station Agent. Cate Blanchett was fine. She didn’t stand out to me, but the whole movie was pretty much on her shoulders and she’s enough of a pro that she never took a misstep. I like Louie CK a lot, but putting him in the mix was a bad idea. He has such a strong individuality and screen persona of his own that it’s almost distracting to drop him into such a small role and expect him to fully inhabit it. To have someone like that in your movie, I think it needs to be a large enough role to let them build something of a fully-developed character. Louie didn’t really get a chance to do that. I think he’d be an interesting choice for Mr. Allen to put in a lead role. Since he stopped playing all of his own main characters, a lot of his male leads (Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, and Larry David off the top of my head) have spent the whole movie doing a Woody Allen impression. I think Louie is so different from that archetype that he could do something new and different for Woody. It could also be something new and different for Louie, who’s developed a pretty recognizable version of himself on his TV show.

I don’t have many notes on plot or story. It’s a variation on A Streetcar Named Desire, as every critic has pointed out. Some critics love it. I don’t really get why. It was a good story and everything, but it didn’t seem especially incisive about income inequality or relationship power-dynamics or whatever. And it certainly wasn’t the definitive take on “how we live now” or “post-recession America” that some people seem to think. I think a lot of film critics are pretty out of touch. The kind of people who think that San Francisco is a good place to find blue collar people. The whole thing didn’t strike me as anything more than standard Woody Allen kind of stuff. The big drawback of making so many movies is that you have to write a new screenplay every year. That must be grueling and results in a lot of stuff that’s kind of light, honestly. I’ve always been curious about how Mr. Allen’s career would have turned out if he decided to take two or three years per production instead of one.

Here’s a list of places that I’d like to see dramatized in a Woody Allen movie in no particular order:
Staten Island
Any college town
Rural anywhere
Los Angeles

Computer Chess

5 Aug

I’m glad that movies like Computer Chess exist. I like them. The director is Andrew Bujalski. According to Wikipedia, he is the “Godfather of mumblecore”. That’s one genre I’m not very familiar with. A lot of those movies are tough to find. That baffles me. It’s 2013. Come on. Computer Chess definitely has a mumblecorey feel at times, but the setting is so different that I don’t know if you could fit this into that category even if you really wanted to. Or maybe you can. I can see some scenes fitting into that kind of movie if you changed the setting. I don’t know. This whole mumblecore section is me talking out of my ass.

The setting is a computer chess tournament in 1980ish. There are a bunch of teams with chess programs: MIT, Caltech, some shadowy defense contractor, a lone-wolf eccentric, etc. There were only a couple really well-developed characters, but the atmosphere of the whole thing was very absorbing. Almost the whole movie is set in the hotel where the tournament is taking place. That could have been a really claustrophobic setting, but that’s not how it played out.

The big hook of Computer Chess is that is was filmed on period video equipment. Read some technical stuff about that from the cinematographer here. I loved this idea. It was perfect. In Fruitvale Station, a lot of critics talked about how the director “made Oakland a character” in the movie or whatever. You could say something similar here. The video equipment was definitely a character. All the little imperfections and distortions–I would not like to watch movies filmed this way regularly, but as a one-time experience it really added to the experience. Plus on a superficial level, it gave everything a very authentic feel. Like, even more than the costumes and moustaches and giant CPUs, the visual signature just made this movie feel like an early-80s computer chess tournament in a way that I don’t think anything else could have.

I’ve been trying to write a thousand-plus words on movie reviews. That isn’t going to happen here. I don’t have anything urgent or unique to say about this one. I’m not going to insult both of us by doing a lot of movie-review summary bullshit or that kind of thing. This was a cool movie and I’d recommend it. If you have an open mind it’ll be interesting even if you don’t like it.