Category Archives: Reviews

Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)

What do you get when you cross magical realism (-ish) with sweeping commentary on the ills of modern society, including but not limited to: race, corporate America, slavery, art, entertainment, and social media? For the sake of argument, I’m going to tell you that you get Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s funny, smart, mind-boggling feature film debut. I watched this movie a week ago and I’ve been trying to let it percolate since in the hopes that I will magically happen upon divine insight that will amaze and convince my readers. That seems unlikely, but here we go.

We meet Cassius Green (say it out loud) at a job interview. On paper, he seems to be a stellar individual – he’s even brought along trophies and plaques to prove it. Turns out they’re fake, but Cassius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself hired by Regalview Telemarketing anyway.  His dreams of making bank seem dashed until an old hand (Danny Glover) suggests to him that he use his “white voice” to make calls – he should sound like he’s “without a care in the world … [a] guy who doesn’t even need this job at all.” He should sound, according to Glover, like the person his potential customers want to sound like themselves.

This theme turns up a lot throughout the movie –  Cassius finds himself in a constant struggle with his identity. Early on a friend suggests that he’s only “sort of” black, and indeed, he finds great success in pretending to be white – his “white voice” (which sounds like David Cross) quickly promotes him to the upper echelons of telemarking. While his friends are attempting to unionize, Cassius becomes a “power caller” and is suddenly rolling in style with a new car, new clothes, and an entree to fancy parties. This identity doesn’t fit quite right either, though. His new-found success alienates him from his friends, including artist/activist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), and he finds his product (WorryFree: a human workforce that looks suspiciously like slavery) a bit off-putting even as he’s making million-dollar deals.

All of this comes to a head when Cassius meets the CEO and Founder of WorryFree, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer). It becomes clear that WorryFree’s agenda is not altruistic and might, in fact, be downright evil. This final of act of Cassius’ struggle to find his identity finds him attempting to make a u-turn and do what is right, even if it might cost him wealth and independence. It’s also where the movie goes from “entertainingly odd” to “entertainingly batshit crazy,” but I’m not going to give anything away here.

Sorry to Bother You is really hard to pigeonhole. The performances are all great, with Lakeith Stanfield leading the way. Cassius is very much a sympathetic, Everyman character. He just wants to get by and basically be a good human being. He wants to be valued and respected and we see how that directs his decisions and causes him confusion when things don’t quite work out the way he expected. The movie is also visually fascinating – there’s a lot of play with lightness and darkness that I don’t even want to try and interpret. The fantastical aspects are used sparingly but to great effect: in addition to  Cassius’ “white voice,” he also finds himself physically dropped into close contact with the people he’s speaking to on the phone, regardless of whether or not they’re on the toilet or in the middle of having sex. At some points it leads the viewer to question whether or not Cassius is an entirely reliable narrator – the “white voice” is real, but the crashing into someone’s living room is imagined? What else, then, is real or imagined? The lines are quite effectively blurred.

There are a lot of ideas to focus on. Initially I wished that Mr. Riley had chosen just one of two to focus on: all of the statements he’s making are good ones that are worthy of more thought, but I found it difficult to keep track of. There’s Cassius’ identity, with what it means to be black (or white, for that matter) front and center. The few white people in the movie are varying levels of awful, and it’s very clear that their understanding of the black experience is based on what entertainment and “the media” would have us believe. A scene in which Lift and a crowd of white party-goers are disappointed when Cassius doesn’t have tales of gang violence and can’t rap is by turns hilarious and cringe-worthy. There’s corporate America, with its new spin on slavery, vs. art and independence. Cassius and his friends want to be self-reliant and to care about their fellow humans, but they’re also on the hook for rent. The issue of unionization figures prominently into that as well – can one’s own self-promotion function alongside a fight for the common good? The role of media and entertainment in the film is particularly interesting. The most popular show on television is apparently something called “I Got the Shit Kicked Out Of Me,” which is literally watching people get beaten up (in addition to other, apparently non-life-threatening? pleasantries). Cassius’ experience crossing a picket line (resulting in physical injury) immediately goes viral, resulting in memes and Halloween costumes, both of which he uses to his advantage later in the film. Its a somewhat damning but not really unfair look at today’s culture.

Ultimately, what I realize is that all of these themes can be tied to the bigger idea of what it means to be a person in today’s world. We are told different things by corporate culture, by entertainment and the media, by social media, by our own hearts. Which lead do we follow? We need to work to live, but we also need validation: we want to be special, to be good at something. Entertainment culture these days would have us all believe we’re just one viral video away from fame and fortune. But of course, what price fame? If we sell our souls for that fancy car, can we also concern ourselves with the good of others? Can we be famous without making other sacrifices? And where does it end? Is there one breaking point or do we all draw our own lines in the sand? While it may not be for everyone, Sorry to Bother You will definitely leave you with more questions than you walked in with, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for the answers.

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Lakeith Stanfield and Armie Hammer in Sorry to Bother You

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

 

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Kate McKinnon & Mila Kunis in The Spy Who Dumped Me

For the second installment of my “Ladies’ Night at the Movies” outing, I got together a group of friends to go see The Spy Who Dumped Me. This was an excellent choice for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s hard to get adults together! We’re busy. Second of all, it’s a little bit of a feminist agenda: Women spending money to watch movies made by women. Beyond that, it was great to see friends and a fun movie at the same time, and The Spy Who Dumped Me is a very fun – and entertaining – movie.

Co-written and directed by Susanna Fogel, The Spy Who Dumped Me opens in true spy-thriller fashion, with a fight and chase sequence through an Eastern European marketplace. We watch a handsome man fight his way through a crowd of enemies, run through bustling streets, leap out of windows, and ultimately blow up a building before coolly walking away. Standard stuff that cuts to a very Bond-ian opening credits sequence. But then we’re introduced to Audrey (Mila Kunis), who is having a lousy birthday. Turns out her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), just dumped her via text. What do these two things have in common? The ex-boyfriend, is, of course, the handsome spy, and when he learns that Audrey is burning his left-behind belongings, he is forced to return in order to retrieve an item which is, naturally, something every intelligence force in the world is after. In short order, Audrey and Morgan find themselves on the run through Europe with a horde of operatives on their tails. These operatives include another handsome individual named Sebastian (Sam Heughan) who may or may not be on their side. Will they blunder their way to safety and save the world in the process? The movie is a comedy, so I’ll just let you figure that one out.

This is a funny movie. I laughed a lot. I’m unable to remember any specific jokes, but I tend to think that’s a good thing; they were neither so clever as to alienate the audience, nor did they resort to easy, gross-out humor for the most part. In structure, Spy… is a true representative of the spy genre, which made it even funnier. There were aborted drop-offs, vehicle commandeerings, disguises, escapes, and double-crosses all right where you’d expect them. There was even torture and, as many reviewers have pointed out, a surprisingly high body count. I found myself wondering a bit about that: What, exactly, made the body count surprising? Was it that the movie was a comedy? Was it that the main characters were women? Having literally just watched Atomic Blonde, I didn’t find the violence surprising or egregious. It may have been a bit more bloody than your average Bond vehicle,  but not shockingly so.

That the main characters were occupying the role of victims rather than people who make a living from killing may have added to the shock value, but that is also what made the movie interesting. We’ve all wondered what we might do if we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of international intrigue, and these two women let us imagine it. They’re just average people, but by virtue of their life experiences, they find a way. Audrey plays a lot of shooter video games, and Morgan is a struggling actress; both traits that come to their aid at crucial moments. Some of their ideas don’t work so well, but ultimately the fact that they are viewed as “stupid Americans” works in their favor, and they are consistently underestimated by their enemies. It’s a clever way to advance the story and again, put the viewer into the adventure in an engaging way.

It helps that both Kunis and McKinnon (maybe less so, in her case) have an air of “everywoman” about them to begin with. A Charlize Theron or an Angelina Jolie could not pull off Audrey, but Mila’s down-to-earth delivery makes her seem like someone we might be friends with. And let me tell you: you want to be friends with these women. Their friendship,  particularly as evidenced by Kate McKinnon’s Morgan, is the best thing about The Spy Who Dumped Me. There’s nothing specifically marking the film’s point in time, but the characterizations of the women definitely suggest the present, post-2016 election, #MeToo movement day. Morgan is all about affirming the women around her, most particularly Audrey. She frequently pauses in the middle of running for their lives to tell Audrey how proud she is of her. Early on, she hilariously attempts to “indoctrinate” a Ukrainian boor in the ways of feminism. She even has praise for the creepy gymnast/assassin Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno) in the midst of being tortured for information. While McKinnon can frequently be over-the-top, here that persona is written into her character and the result is a charmingly zany but real woman who is tough but open to life’s experiences. That openness makes the movie’s few heartfelt moments between Audrey and Morgan something special that we don’t often get to see in cinematic female friendships.

I was initially very skeptical about seeing The Spy Who Dumped Me. While the idea of a female-led action spoof is great on paper, the execution can often be trickier. I’m pleased to say that in this case, the film succeeds. The performances are all excellent, the script is tight, the laughs are genuine, and the story can be forgiven for being a little predictable, simply because that’s what you’re supposed to do when sending up a genre. As with most of Hollywood, there could have been more diversity (a small handful of speaking roles for people of color) but given the film focuses on a loving and supportive friendship between two women, let’s take it one step at a time. If you’ve been on the fence, definitely go see The Spy Who Dumped Me, and bring some women with you.

 

Review: Atomic Blonde (2017)

Happy birthday, Charlize Theron! I got you this review!

I am, generally speaking, a fan of female-led action movies. Admittedly I should probably watch more of them, but I’m a fan in theory, if nothing else. My love for Angelina Jolie has been well-documented, and I’ve enjoyed seeing more and more women show up in the MCU. While we’ve finally gotten our Wonder Woman, we’re still waiting on that Black Widow stand-alone, and there still haven’t been any particularly good action franchises starring a woman. There were high hopes for various Jolie vehicles, but beyond that, women still aren’t kicking ass at the same level as the guys. But, as a surprise to no-one, I’m sure, Charlize Theron is a great addition to the world of women who kick ass.

Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 operative in the midst of the Cold War 80s. She’s sent to Berlin (on the verge of bringing down the Wall) to retrieve the body of another agent and to finish his mission, which was to retrieve a list of all known operatives on all sides. In addition, she is tasked with discovering the identity of Satchel, a double-agent who is also working for the Russians. Her primary contact in Berlin is David Percival (James Mcavoy), an agent who has perhaps gone a bit too far in embedding himself into the culture of the Berlin underground. Naturally, everyone is after this list as well as a Stasi agent named Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) who claims to have fully memorized its contents. Broughton must contend not only with numerous KGB operatives, but also with a French agent (Sofia Boutella) who may or may not be trustworthy. It’s a maze of loyalties and agendas that she must navigate in order to complete her mission and stay alive.

Atomic Blonde is fast and fun. It’s a little sloppy on the details, but those aren’t terribly important when you compare them to a killer 80s soundtrack and intensely stylish set design and cinematography. The movie is based on a graphic novel entitled The Coldest City, and the look and feel truly calls that to mind. While not totally shot in black and white, much of the scenes seem devoid of color except for a pop here and there. Lorraine herself wears an almost entirely black and white wardrobe, and most of the other characters appear in muted colors. The result is something beautiful, sleek, cold. The chill of the Cold War is almost an extra character, enhanced by the lack of warmth from the characters themselves, not to mention Lorraine’s predilection for ice baths and vodka on the rocks.

In addition to the visuals, the film features great performances from Theron and McAvoy. I feel a little ashamed to admit that, despite it being Theron’s movie, McAvoy is actually the standout. He is having a GRAND time as the feral and ambiguous Percival. In contrast, Theron is a little too one-note. While trying to be the standard poker-faced spy, she comes across as being unengaged, and her slipshod accent (which may be purposeful) doesn’t help matters any. Fortunately, she’s fantastic to watch, and the action alone make it all worthwhile. One of the things I particularly appreciated about her fight scenes is that they are not the typical, street/martial arts-style sequences we’re used to. They are brutal. Anything close to hand is used as a deadly weapon (stiletto heel, skateboard, keys, garden hose?). People get their faces beaten into a bloody pulp. Lorraine herself seldom escapes without a scratch – in fact there are more scenes in which opponents are visibly exhausted and barely able to stand, let alone fight, than I think I’ve ever seen before. It’s a welcome (if violent) dose of realism in a genre that often seeks to give its heroes superhuman status.

It’s hard to say too much about the movie without giving away all the twists and turns. I’ve come to realize that I often prefer movies or shows where it is more difficult for me to guess what is going to happen next. In the case of Atomic Blonde, I definitely had a bit of trouble following who was on which side and what was being accomplished as opposed to what had gone wrong. Still, I would say that the audience is ultimately satisfied (if slightly confused) and while we may not root for Lorraine, strictly speaking, we at least have a healthy respect for her methods and abilities. It would be interesting to see how the character of Lorraine Broughton might return to the screen (and actually, according to IMDb a sequel is in development!) and hey: If Tom Cruise is still doing his own stunts well into his fifties, I say we give Theron a shot.

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Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton in Atomic Blonde.

Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

After the dramatic and awesome one-two punch of Black Panther and Infinity War, it was hard not to feel skeptical about Marvel’s decision to release the second Ant-Man movie in the middle of the summer blockbuster season. Do we still care about the little guy? Do we  (okay, I) need a break from all these superhero goings-on?  Maybe. But, as you might expect, it turns out Kevin Feige and the gang knows exactly what they’re doing, and I was wrong, once again, to doubt them.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a perfect summer popcorn flick. If it existed in a world without the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, we’d still be blown away by it. I said of the first Ant-Man (2015) that it was a “surprisingly enjoyable little action flick,” with a stellar cast and solid execution. As such, director Peyton Reed didn’t mess with his formula too much: he added a few more excellent additions to the cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, and Hannah John Kamen, amongst others), kept the winning combo of action, humor, and heart … boom. Box-office gold.

I’ve been asked a couple of times if it is necessary to be caught up on the MCU in order to watch Ant-Man and the Wasp, and by and large the answer is no. The action picks up immediately following the events of Civil War, but those events are not relevant beyond the fact that we find Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) on house arrest for his involvement. Hank Pym and his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly) are on the run from the Feds as well, but are working on a quantum tunnel which will theoretically allow them to find Hope’s mom, Janet (Pfeiffer), who has been lost/presumed dead in the quantum realm for decades.  Naturally, the three are forced to team up again in order to achieve their goal, and of course, a bunch of other people are trying to stop them. They include Randall Park as the FBI agent assigned to Lang, Walton Goggins as a sleazy businessman who wants to get into quantum tech, and Ghost (John-Kamen), who joins the ranks of the new type of Marvel villain who is not so much evil as misunderstood.

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Evangeline Lilly and Paul Rudd as the Wasp and Ant-Man

One of the most impressive aspects of the movie is that it manages to juggle all those people and interweave their various storylines into a cohesive unit. The pace is quick but comfortable, and there’s plenty of time for humor and heartfelt moments. The film almost feels like an homage to Ferris Bueller: Lang’s out having adventures but also has to make sure he doesn’t get caught out of the house.  The jokes strike just the right balance and the running gags, mostly courtesy of Michael Pena, TI Harris, and David Dastmalchian as Scott’s trio of business associates, never get old. The characters and their relationships were so well-defined in the first movie that we can spend more time catching up with the characters, rather than learning more about who they are and where they’re at with each other.

The biggest, and most important, change is that Hope has taken on the mantle of The Wasp. She’s the first female superhero in the MCU to receive title credit! Evangeline Lilly steps into full superhero mode like she was born to it, and matches Paul Rudd beat-for-beat. In a way, The Wasp is a more stereotypical hero than Ant-Man. Part of what makes Rudd so likable in the role (aside from his endless charisma) is his Everyman persona; while he has certain skills, he’s not a genius (which is frequently played to great comedic effect). He’s not supremely noble like Cap or endowed with any superhuman qualities, whereas in addition to being a skilled fighter, Hope is a brilliant scientist in her own right and has a laser-like focus on obtaining her goals. They balance each other wonderfully and make a great team.

One of the things that makes the MCU so compelling is the mix of epic and personal storytelling. After a world-shattering event like Infinity War, scaling things back to the lives and experiences of a few individuals was definitely the right choice. When they’re done well, these small-scale pieces are no less compelling than the grand ensemble films. Other reviewers have pointed to Spiderman: Homecoming as the best example of a stand-alone episode that loses nothing in enjoyment despite its lack of global consequence. Ant-Man and the Wasp is another great instance of this. The stakes are truly confined to Scott Lang, the Pym/van Dyne family, and a few others, and that intimacy allows for more of a connection with the characters and makes their stories more personal.

That Marvel can combine that kind of storytelling with blockbuster action and effects is a testament to what they’ve built in the MCU, and it’s what keeps viewers coming back for more. If you’re caught up, the second Ant-Man installment is a palate-cleanser; you’ll have fun and feel refreshed before we return to more bombast next year (CAPTAIN MARVEL YOU GUYS!!). If you’ve been sporadic in watching the MCU, you’ll still have a blast watching this movie and my only suggestion would be to skip the mid- and post-credit sequences. Either way, Ant-Man and the Wasp is the perfect way to spend a few hours this summer; air-conditioning will feel like a bonus.

 

Review: Ocean’s 8 (2018)

When I came back to the blog recently, it was interesting for me to note that my last post (five years ago) had been about women in movies. These days “women in movies” is a hot topic. Women are coming forward about sexism and sexual harassment in Hollywood, pay disparities are being highlighted (and sometimes corrected), more women are being put behind the camera, and so on. Obviously things have a long way to go before we can declare Hollywood (or anywhere) a truly equitable industry, but the conversations are important in and of themselves. On-screen, too, there’s been movement toward female-led ensemble casts, from Bridesmaids to a Ghostbusters reboot, and now, Ocean’s 8.

I’m not going to go into the premise too much. The original Ocean’s 11 (1960) was a Rat Pack vehicle set in Vegas. The updated Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and its sequels featured an all-star cast led by George Clooney engaging in heists and shenanigans. Nothing too fancy, just solid entertainment. Ocean’s 8 finds us following a complex plan concocted by Danny Ocean (Clooney)’s little sister Debbie (Sandra Bullock) to steal a 6-pound diamond necklace off the neck of a starlet (Anne Hathaway) at the Met Gala. Naturally, she invites a gang of friends along to assist, hijinks ensue, we get a few twists along the way… Nothing too fancy, just solid entertainment. With an all-star, all-FEMALE cast!

Ocean’s 8 is a fun, entertaining movie. The cast (including Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, and Awkwafina) boasts an absurd amount of talent, and everyone delivers. While the script is not quite as zingy as one might like, there are still plenty of great moments and inside jokes. The formula follows that of the earlier Ocean’s movies with a few winks and nods to fans, including cameos by two of the original gang. There are also a number of fun details for fans of both the fashion and film industries; Anna Wintour being interrupted watching a Roger Federer match, Katie Holmes & Zac Posen seated together at the Gala, the requisite cameos of famous Gala attendees, Sandra Bullock getting to employ her fluency in German. And of course, everyone is wearing fabulous clothes (I personally would very much like to have Blanchett’s entire wardrobe). The movie ticks off all the boxes you’d expect from a summer blockbuster, but with a little something extra.

While there may be complaints like “Why do the girls have to rob the Met Gala?” and “How does Sandra Bullock’s hair look so great in prison?”, the movie is really very aware of itself and the different world its characters occupy by virtue of their sex. Anne Hathaway has been rightfully acknowledged as a stand-out for her slyly funny take on a seemingly stereotypically ditzy, self-obsessed starlet. She’s more than she seems, of course, and Hathaway’s portrayal is clearly designed to acknowledge that as an actress, she herself has been viewed through the lens she’s portraying. Bullock delivers a great line at one point about how she wants the team to be women because women are so often ignored, and that’s what is needed for the plan to work. And there’s no love interest! There’s an oily ex (Richard Armitage) in need of comeuppance, but his place in the proceedings is that of a pawn, rather than a prize to be won.

It is often the case that movies with women need to be doubly good to be successful,  and that they are often more harshly criticized when they fail to live up to the standards set by a more conventional (male-dominated) film. When we think about true equality in movies, what we’re really talking about is the ability for women to star in a mediocre film that is nonetheless successful and is viewed as a working formula. Too much time has likely been spent comparing Ocean’s 8 to Ocean’s Eleven, which doesn’t help anyone. But, if we insist on thinking about it in those terms, it is perhaps not as good as Eleven, but is much better than Twelve –  which means, if we can hope that Hollywood will be consistent in how they bankroll projects –  I look forward to seeing Ocean’s 9 in theaters sometime in the next couple of years.

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Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock, Rihanna in Ocean’s 8 (2018)

 

Reviews: Women in film edition

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There’s been a lot of Internet talk lately on the subject of women in film. Rather, there is long-term discussion about how there aren’t enough great roles for women, or there aren’t enough movies starring women, and so on. I had originally planned a long post on this subject, but the more I thought about it and looked into it, I decided I really didn’t have that much to say. Are women underrepresented and undervalued in movies? Very probably. But who is responsible for that? Bigwig producers? Movie moguls? Screenwriters, or directors? Nope. It’s us. Society is at fault, for a variety of reasons. We place more value on a woman’s looks than on her intelligence or strength. We hold women to a very different standard than we do men. Films about women are somehow more demographic-specific as well, which again points to society’s focus. While women will often go and see movies about men, it is less common for men to want to watch movies about women. That seems to me to be the crux of the problem: we don’t pay to see movies that focus on women. There are actually plenty of movies out there that feature and focus on female characters, but I think that if you looked at box office numbers, you’d find that they simply don’t match up with their male-centric counterparts. And so, my bottom line is that we can complain all we want, but if we don’t put our money where our mouths are, we can’t expect change. Am I suggesting we all should have gone to the theater and seen The Heat, this summer’s lone representative of women in movies? Not necessarily, but that’s part of my point. As audiences, we are simply more excited to see a movie in which Bruce Willis beats someone up than one in which Julia Roberts has a mid-life crisis. I’m not excusing myself from that, necessarily (although I did go see Eat Pray Love in the theater); I’m merely pointing it out. Hollywood makes movies that they think will make lots of money. If we, as consumers, are not displaying an interest in a certain type of movie, it will therefore not make money, and ultimately, studios will not want to make more of a similar type of movie.

Having said all that, I’d now like to shift gears, and look at a couple of older, “classic” movies that do feature women. One is perhaps the uber-romantic comedy, in which the heroine stands equal to her hero; in the other, while men are a constant subject of conversation, there is actually not a single one to be found onscreen. I’ll just point out that the latter, The Women, was actually remade a few years ago. It turned a modest profit.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Do you ever sit down to watch a movie that’s wildly successful and worry that you won’t appreciate it? It’s critically acclaimed, say, and it won a bunch of awards, and you’re afraid that you just won’t get it? I’ve felt that way about a lot of things; some of the time I’m right, and sometimes, a movie (or a performer: Chaplin, for instance) is really as great as advertised, and you don’t have to be anyone special to understand. It Happened One Night is such a movie. It’s a screwball, romantic comedy, yet it was the first film to win all four of the major Academy Awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress). [Trivia time: name the other two!] It was directed by Frank Capra, and stars Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. And it is absolutely hilarious.

Ellie Andrews (Colbert) has just married aviator King Westley (Jameson Thomas) against the wishes of her father (Walter Connolly), who in turn essentially kidnaps her and holds her hostage on his yacht in order to talk her out of the marriage. Determined to have her own way, Ellie literally jumps ship somewhere off the coast of Florida and attempts to make the journey back to her husband in New York. Along the way, she encounters out-of-work reporter Peter Warne (Gable), who blackmails her into letting him assist her in return for a scoop. Naturally, they both get more than they bargained for.

As a strictly amateur “student” of film, I found It Happened One Night to be a fascinating, and highly entertaining, movie. It has the smart and snappy dialogue of later comedies like His Girl Friday, but the characters are more developed and nuanced than is often the case. It’s beautifully shot, with wide angles and impeccable detail.

Claudette Colbert plays a real heroine: while Ellie Andrews appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than a clueless rich girl, she is also gutsy, clever, and independent. She’s hounded by her father and by Warne (her husband is pretty much a non-entity), but she gives as good as she gets much of the time, and ultimately she is an equal partner in her life’s story, rather than a passive commodity. Knowing nothing of Clark Gable beyond Gone with the Wind, I was surprised to find him genuinely funny and likeable. He obviously made a career out of playing the gruff type, but Peter Warne is a lot more than he initially seems to be.

In the case of both characters, lesser performers would not have proven to the audience that here are two people worth falling in love with who belong together. That’s often a tall order for a romantic comedy, but It Happened One Night proves itself to be something beyond a standard rom-com, although I’m not sure what we should call it. It’s strong in both the comedic and the romantic aspects, and that’s what makes it a great film, all around.

The Women (1939)

Based upon a successful stage play by Clare Booth Luce, The Women focuses on the lives of various Manhattan socialites. While their relationships with men are a central subject, it is the relationships between the women that are really in the spotlight. Additionally, the story looks at various stereotypes of women, from the homemaker to the homewrecker. It’s a pretty skewering satire of society and relationships that, surprisingly, isn’t all that complimentary to women, despite their being the focus.

George Cukor directs an excellent cast here. Norma Shearer plays Mary, who seemingly has the perfect life but whose husband is actually seeing shopgirl Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford) on the side. Mary’s friend Sylvia (Rosalind Russell) loves to gossip about (and add to) everyone else’s troubles, Peggy (Joan Fontaine) is struggling to find a balance in her relationship, and all of this is under the microscope of the society papers. All of the performances are excellent, with each actress fully committing to her role, even as many of them serve to negatively stereotype women. In terms of the look of the film, I was particularly struck with the opening sequences, which take the viewer through a day spa where the women seem to spend their day in beautifying themselves and gossiping about their neighbors. Naturally, the costuming is excellent, and in fact, there’s a full-on fashion show about halfway through.

Ultimately, I found the film to be somewhat inconsistent, although I can’t pinpoint anything specific that gives that impression. It is less a comedy than one expects, and more a true satire. While there are some “good” characters, it’s really every woman for herself, and it’s fascinating to see how allegiances and relationships change. Despite a somewhat happy ending, The Women doesn’t pull any punches, and that’s a rare thing. For the most part, things are messier at the end than in the beginning, and perhaps that colors one’s overall perception of the film.

2011/2012 Catch-up

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As you might recall (and that’d be awfully sweet of you), I created “wrap-up” posts for both 2011 and 2012. As part of those posts, I listed the five movies released in those years that I most wanted to see. Having watched one of said movies recently, I decided to revisit those lists to see what kind of progress I’d made, and I thought it’d be fun to share that progress with you. These are some pretty good movies, and I’d recommend nearly all of the ones I’ve seen so far; if you missed my reviews, here’s a chance to catch up. Let’s delve!

2011
Beginners: Check.
The Artist: Check.
Hugo: Check.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Check.
Midnight in Paris: Check.

Wow, all five! If you have yet to see Beginners, The Artist, or Midnight in Paris, you could definitely do worse. I was sadly disappointed with both Hugo and TTSS.

2012
Pitch Perfect: Just watched it! Super-funny, with a million great one-liners (hint: listen closely to Lily). I’m really not a fan of the a capella music craze, but most of it is palatable; overall the film is a great, sort of meta-teenage flick. Anna Kendrick seldom fails to disappoint, and if you liked Rebel Wilson’s scene-stealing turn in Bridesmaids, you’ll get more of the same here.
Moonrise Kingdom: Check.
Anna Karenina: Not yet. I have plans for a larger project involving this one, so it might be a while.
Skyfall: CHECK.
Cloud Atlas: Not yet.

Three out of five isn’t bad, I’d say, particularly since we’ve been busier this year and have seen fewer movies (I think) overall. Skyfall is the big winner here, and if you haven’t seen it, I strongly suggest you do, whether or not you’re a fan of the Bond films. I’ll just have to bump Cloud Atlas in the queue, I guess.

How about you? Any movies you’re still meaning to catch up on? I have to say, there are lots of movies due out this year that will find themselves under consideration for a 2013 wrap-up!

Reboot

buds
In case anyone has been concerned, yes, I am still alive. I am even still watching movies, albeit not as many as I used to. I have no excuse for being absent from this blog, really, but I’m going to be making an effort to get back to business. What I’m not going to do is try to backtrack; I’m a little too far out from some things I’ve seen recently, so writing full reviews would be hard. Instead, I’ll recap a bit for you, and we’ll move forward.

Here’s what I’ve been watching lately!

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

This was our next AFI list movie, and we didn’t enjoy it. It seems like sort of standard late sixties fare; bleak, gritty, and so on. I will say, though, that Dustin Hoffman’s performance is incredible, and that the resemblance between Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie (he’s her dad) is kind of disturbing.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Oh, you guys. When RDJ and Jude Law fail to entertain, something is wrong.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

This is more like it. Possibly my new second-favorite superhero movie (right after The Avengers). The script and direction of Shane Black were awesome, and all of the acting was top-notch. RDJ as Tony Stark continues to put in a performance that ought to receive more real recognition. Highly recommended.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I’m really late in seeing this, and I have to say that I was a little disappointed. Seeing this many awesome British actors in one place is great, but the plot was just a little too opaque, and honestly, I can name half a dozen other Gary Oldman performances that he ought to have received Oscar nominations for. It’s a very well-made movie, but it’s really hard to follow, and is ultimately unsatisfying.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Why yes, this does mean that we have seen two films in the theater recently. I know, it’s a miracle. I felt sort of ambivalent about seeing this one; the first one was fun, and I like Eric Bana, but this one didn’t have a favorite actor to recommend it. I’m by no means a novice to the world of Star Trek, but I’m not a die-hard, either, so I could’ve gone either way. However, this was a really fun watch. I was further impressed with the re-characterizations of Spock, Bones, and Kirk (Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Chris Pine), and was happy that a few female characters (Zoe Saldana and Alice Eve) were given a reasonable amount to do. Benedict Cumberbatch was physically impressive but emotively inconsistent as the main baddy, and hey! Peter Weller shows up! The story and plot struck me as fairly solid, although the last 30 minutes or so get a bit bogged down, and could’ve been edited more strenuously. A totally worthwhile addition to summer blockbuster season, though.

I also recently rewatched some favorites, which I don’t get to do all that often. I don’t think I’ve written a love letter to Gosford Park yet, so keep your eyes peeled for that one.

How about you? What’s been on your radar lately?

Review: Up (2009)

up
Let’s just get it out of the way, shall we? I am not a Pixar fan. There are a lot of little reasons, I guess, like the fact that I don’t really care for CGI or computer animation, the standard humor of modern kid’s movies annoys me, stuff like that. In the main, though, I’ve been unable to pinpoint my dislike of Pixar’s films. This is not to say that I hated them all; most of them were mildly entertaining. I enjoyed Monsters, Inc. I really loved The Incredibles. But overall, there’s something lacking for me. Still, I try to keep an open mind, and so we recently watched Up.

Carl (voiced by Ed Asner, but he looks like a cartoon Spencer Tracy) is a crotchety old man, mourning the loss of Ellie, the love of his life. They bonded as children over a love of adventure and exploration, but as adults, they got caught up in the mundane and never chased their dreams. When Carl finds himself in danger of losing his house, he decides to make the grand voyage he and Ellie always planned. Together with an unwitting stowaway, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai), Carl embarks on a wild adventure to Paradise Falls. Along the way he tangles with his boyhood hero, Charles Muntz (voice: Christopher Plummer, look: Kirk Douglas), whose single-minded obsession with proving the existence of an exotic bird has driven him mad. Ultimately, Carl re-discovers himself through his experiences, and learns to let go of the past and look to the future.

Up has all the usual hallmarks of a Pixar production: excellent voice cast, imaginative story, great visuals, funny little additions here and there. It’s hard to argue with the technical aspects, since they are generally flawless. I will say that the Pixar schtick of giving animals voices without anthropomorph-izing (totally a word) them, per se, is funny at first, but grates a little after a while. I know stuff like that is tossed in to make the kiddies laugh, but it doesn’t amuse me, particularly. I love older children’s movies, so it’s something about the newer stuff that bothers me, but that’s another post for another time.

Partway through Up, I realized what it is that I don’t enjoy about Pixar’s ouvre. In most cases (and like most movies), they have a message. A moral, if you will. And that’s fine, but it’s Pixar’s execution that doesn’t sit well. Their films are too finely calibrated. It’s as though someone wrote a computer program with an algorithm designed to search out each and every concept that tugs at a heartstring, and then put that concept into play within the greater context of the film. Hit this mark, move on to the next mark. Charming montage of childhood sweethearts growing old together, check. Lonely boy with absentee dad, check. Appreciation for unspoiled nature, check. And so on.

I know this is not a widely-held viewpoint, but I didn’t feel like there was any heart or humanity to the movie. It was all too slick, too perfect. That perfection may be, for many, the draw of Pixar’s films, but for me, I think that there is a great deal that gets lost. Had actors been portraying those roles, there would have been a thousand little nuances to their performances that showed us their sadness, their need. In the case of an animated film, we are left to understand those concepts without really seeing evidence of them. An illustration can only go so far; it can only show human emotion on a basic level.

The Pixar films that succeed (for me) are the ones that are not attempting to delve deeper into emotion: The Incredibles is a cartoon action flick. Monsters, Inc. has a sweetness to it, but it’s not trying to go too far. Most of the others don’t reach the emotional depths they’re reaching for. I’m not trying to tell anyone not to watch Up, or any other Pixar film. I’m well aware of their success, and it’s cool that people of all ages can enjoy them. I even look forward to sharing them with my daughter when she’s old enough for them. But I’ll still wish that they were a little less perfect, and had just a little bit more heart.

The Snow White Wars, decided

It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally ready to decide who really is the fairest of them all. In this corner, we have Snow White and the Huntsman (henceforward known as SW&TH), a dark and gritty retelling of the fairy tale. In the other, Mirror Mirror, full of saturated colors and quippy one-liners. Who will emerge victorious? Ready? En garde…FENCE.

Starring as Snow White…Lily Collins vs. Kristen Stewart
snows

First things first. There are those among you (Hi, Ben!) who will be disappointed to learn that there will be no K. Stew bashing here. SW&TH is actually the first thing in which I’ve seen the erstwhile Bella Swann, and I have to say that I enjoyed her performance. She wasn’t burning up the screen or anything, but I thought that her bewilderment (perhaps natural) suited the role and that ultimately, the flaws in the character were due to poor writing rather than poor acting. Her “rousing the troops” speech was quite good.

Lily Collins, on the other hand, had more to work with, and capitalized on a great deal of personal charm. Her Snow was spunky, kind-hearted, and mischievous, none of which require a great deal of acting, but which she conveyed well, nonetheless. Like Stewart, she did not employ a great deal of range, nor was much needed. Her chemistry with Armie Hammer was weak, but since their relationship was hardly dynamic, it didn’t matter.

Winner: Lily Collins. Overall, she did a better job of selling the role and carrying the action.

As the Evil Queen…Julia Roberts vs. Charlize Theron

evilqueens
I’m a Julia Roberts fan. I know she’s not the most amazing actor ever, but she’s generally enjoyable to watch, and her turn as the Wicked Stepmother was no exception. I thought she was hilarious. She was snarky and appropriately vain, and clearly not a nice person. Since this version of the Snow White story was obviously meant to be a comedy, I think Roberts was a great choice as an actress willing to laugh at herself.

Here’s something that you may not have known. Ready? Listen up. CHARLIZE THERON IS TERRIFYING. In Mirror, Mirror, Julia Roberts makes the claim early on that it is [her] story, and not Snow White’s. That proves to be false, but in the case of SW&TH, it is Theron’s movie from beginning to end. She is chewing up the scenery like there is no tomorrow. If Roberts was willing to laugh at herself, Theron was willing to go full-on psycho with crazy eyes and snarling delivery. Her Evil Queen was literally the stuff of nightmares.

Winner: Charlize Theron. Girlfriend deserved an award for that performance. Seriously.

The Love Interests…Sam Claflin/Chris Hemsworth
vs. Armie Hammer



When I first realized that SW&TH was including a “prince” (Claflin) in addition to the Huntsman (Hemsworth), I thought it was a ridiculous idea. But, it really worked within the framework of the story. I enjoyed Claflin’s role, William, more than I thought I would as well. Both he and Hemsworth had good chemistry with Stewart (no, really), and William actually was a more developed character in some ways than the other two leads. Hemsworth wasn’t given a lot to do besides grumble and look beefy, which he did perfectly well, although I wish they’d just let him keep his own accent. One of the biggest failings of the movie, for me, was that what he and Stewart had to work with was not great. Theron was given all the good dialogue, or something. Maybe they’ll fix that in the (sigh) sequel?

Armie Hammer’s Prince Alcott is the exact opposite of either William or The Huntsman. Oh, he’s still beefy and heroic, but he’s also really funny. Hammer gets full marks for the scenes in which he is under a “puppy love” spell. Beyond that, he was a competent swordsman and has a fabulous speaking voice, but (as previously mentioned) had next to no chemistry with his Princess.

Winner: TIE. I really wanted either Hemsworth or Hammer to sell me, and they didn’t. The addition of Claflin was more interesting than I’d bargained for, but still doesn’t sway the balance for SW&TH.

The Dwarves



Ah, the dwarves. A necessary part of the Snow White story, but in this case, something of a controversial topic, which I don’t really care to discuss in detail. Briefly, SW&TH chose to use actors of a “regular size” to play the dwarves, whereas Mirror Mirror utilized little people (please note that the Internet says this is the PC term. If that is incorrect, please let me know). I don’t wish to be offensive, but to my mind, the rationale has a lot to do with the role that the dwarves play within the two stories. In SW&TH, the dwarves are reasonably serious characters, very similar to those of Tolkien. They are a proud people who have been cast out, and so they join in Snow White’s fight to free themselves. The dwarves in Mirror Mirror have the same motivation, but it’s a comedy, so they’re mostly there to be funny, and, well, there are notably few “serious” actors of a smaller size. Having said that, both septets are effective and enjoyable to watch. In the case of SW&TH, sadly, they don’t quite live up to potential considering we’re talking actors like Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins*, and Toby Jones. Are you noticing a theme?

*This is Bob Hoskins’ final film, as he has now retired from acting due to a Parkinson’s diagnosis. Very, very sad news.

Winner: TIE. Even if the dwarves of SW&TH didn’t have enough to do, they actually provided a lot of the emotional punch of the film, so they even out with the more-present crew from Mirror Mirror.

Visual Effects



The director of Mirror Mirror, Tarsem Singh, is well-known for his use of super-saturated color to produce striking visuals (see: The Fall). However, I was actually somewhat disappointed by the visuals here. Snow White and the Queen stood out from their surroundings due to brightly colored clothing, but for the most part, color was not a major player. Additionally, special effects were kept to a minimum (which I always appreciate). The Queen’s use of the mirror and a surprisingly creepy fight scene were the only notable exceptions.

On the other hand, the visuals were SW&TH’s strongest point (Theron notwithstanding). Director Rupert Sanders did a fantastic job of creating stark and striking landscapes, and while there were plenty of effects, they were never overdone or obviously computer-generated, which is a pet peeve of mine. All of the effects combined to provide a cohesive vision, from the Forest to the Queen’s magic army, to the magical creatures encountered by Snow White on her journey.

Winner: SW&TH. Visual effects aren’t something that I normally notice (unless they’re bad), and I was really impressed with these. Don’t believe me? Both films were nominated for the Oscar for Costume Design, but Huntsman got the nod for Visual Effects as well.

Script



As has been previously mentioned, SW&TH was seriously lacking in the writing department. The story itself was a great idea, but it fell apart when the characters needed to talk to each other. Dialogue was primarily used for exposition as opposed to character development, and as a result some of the characters were fairly static. This is often the case with regard to heroes and heroines, but they can still be fully-fleshed-out characters, even if they’re a little single-minded.

Mirror Mirror’s dialogue, full of snappy one-liners, was quite entertaining. Having some seasoned professionals like Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane around doesn’t hurt, but everyone acquitted themselves well in this respect. The story itself was rather more straightforward, and I’m not saying that the characters were any more developed than in Huntsman, but it was just more fun to listen to them talk. In a full-on comedy, it’s a bit more palatable for the dwarves to also be funny, and Lily Collins displayed surprisingly effective timing.

Winner: Mirror Mirror. It’s not award-winning dialogue, but it was totally effective within the context of the film.

And the winner is…

If you tally up the categories, you’ll find the two movies have reached a tie. As far as it goes, I do think that they were reasonably equal in terms of “tangibles.” Both entertaining films, solid B pluses. However. Remember that theme I mentioned earlier? Time and again, SW&TH reached for something greater, and fell just a bit short. I have no complaints with the actors. The film was great to look at. The story, with all of its extra interpretation and exposition, was a really fantastic idea. Unfortunately, the script just couldn’t live up to the idea. Snow White and the Huntsman could have been a really great movie, but it misses out on its full potential.

Conversely, Mirror Mirror isn’t trying to do anything fancy. It’s a semi-modernized, light look at the fairy tale. Everyone performs adequately, and it’s a totally entertaining way to spend a couple of hours (give or take). While the visuals may have been a bit disappointing given the film’s director, they weren’t bad, and didn’t detract from anything overall. Lily Collins, despite being a newcomer, manages to carry the film admirably well, and if you’re not a Julia Roberts hater, I think you’ll find her an entertaining, not-too-villainous villain. And so, by the slightest of margins, I declare Mirror Mirror the official winner of the Snow White Wars. Both movies are totally worth watching for the popcorn factor, and have markedly different interpretations to offer, but the lost promise of Snow White and the Huntsman was a sad disappointment.