A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 625 – The Wrestler

This is technically a placeholder, since it’s not a full review, but to be honest? I don’t know if I will ever write a full review of this movie. Watching it made me so depressed I don’t think I have the words to describe it. And really, that means it was incredibly well-made. It’s just that it’s a well made movie that did an excellent job of making me feel every bleak and hopeless moment shown on screen. And one scene in particular will haunt my dreams for years to come. Because nothing quite hammers it home for me like scenes of the main character sitting in a mostly empty VFW hall amongst a handful of other old wrestlers sporting the injuries their profession gave them, waiting for a few fans to trickle in and pony up for a signature and a snapshot. Just thinking about it makes me want to pull the covers over my head and not leave bed for days. That sort of thing, with people sitting in an empty room, waiting and hoping for someone to show up and care? That is something that hits my core. Just thinking about it in concept makes me want to cry.

So. Consider this my review of the movie. It was excellently made, well-written, superbly acted and I wish to all I hold dear that I had never ever seen it.

November 15, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 616 – Magnolia

Magnolia – November 6th, 2011

At this point in the project I have seen three movies written and directed by P.T. Anderson. And all three of them have made me tense, anxious and upset. I don’t think I can dismiss that as having to do with one particular movie’s subject or whatever. Three movies, same reaction. I do not like these movies. I do not like his choice of subject. I do not ever want to see another thing he does or has done. Never. The concept here is a good one, but as far as I can tell, Anderson makes movies about unpleasant and miserable people doing unpleasant things to each other and innocent people getting hurt in the process. That is not the sort of movie I want to watch. If I hadn’t been watching this as a part of this project, I would have turned it of 20 minutes in. Because I knew right then and there that it was not a movie I would want to watch. But I watched it. I watched the whole thing and it wasn’t short because apparently Anderson isn’t content with making short movies about misery, he has to make long and agonizing movies instead. And it would be awfully fucking nice to have that three hours of my life back with which to do something far more enjoyable. Like running a belt sander over my face.

This movie is a prime example of why I react as I do to overhype. The problem is, no one movie can be all things to all people. Taste is subjective and personal and individuals will react in individual ways. I knew Andy loved this movie. I knew it had stuck with him and that it was the sole reason we own Punch Drunk Love. Because he was so impressed with this movie, he had to buy Punch Drunk Love on the strength of the writer/director, without knowing anything else about it aside from that the lead role was played by an actor he doesn’t normally enjoy. Think about that for a moment. Andy was so impacted by this movie that he was willing to give an unknown movie starring someone he didn’t like a chance because it was directed by the same guy. Obviously it means something to him. And yet I found this movie painful to watch. I actually had to leave the room at one point lest the tone give me anxiety nightmares. And I feel terrible that I can’t love a movie that’s clearly meant something to Andy. At the same time, I refuse to sit back and pretend I liked it to spare his feelings because it wasn’t just a blah reaction. And I want to be honest when things bother me to this extent. And then I feel bad. This happens whenever someone has talked something up to be the be-all and end-all of movies or shows or music. I want to be honest, and sometimes that means being very clear about a strongly negative reaction, but I don’t want to crush the person who was so eager to share. I’m sorry, Andy. Had I seen this movie earlier I would have known how I’d react to Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood and perhaps spared myself the agita.

I will say that I did like the concept. I don’t have a problem with the conceit of the movie or with the cast or the acting. The writing I do have a problem with, but because of the stories themselves, not because of the quality. The whole idea of the movie is to show a number of different stories, the lives of a wide variety of people, interconnected here and there and touching each other in unexpected ways. And that is a cool concept. It’s an ensemble piece with a few core stories woven together with little threads of other stories peeking out. I like the meandering nature of it, or I would if it didn’t lead to the movie being three hours long (and still with storylines not entirely fleshed out) and full of tension. Because the trouble here is that these stories are not happy ones. Even the stories with positive moments are tense and largely uncomfortable. The most positive story I can really see in the whole thing is Jim and Claudia. Jim is a cop who talks to himself on the way to calls as if he’s being interviewed for a documentary about his job. Claudia is a woman whose door he knocks on when her neighbors complain about her loud music. Jim is immediately attracted to Claudia and despite her nerves over having a cop in her apartment (Claudia is a cocaine addict and had to hastily clean up when Jim knocked) she seems attracted to him as well. By the end of the movie they’ve gone on a date, made some difficult admissions and formed a tentative but hopeful connection. And that’s great! But their entire story is all nervous courting and anxious gestures and awkward moments strung together. Despite its overall positive nature, the telling of it is uncomfortable to watch.

And that’s how it all goes. Claudia is the daughter of Jimmy Gator, a prominent television personality who hosts a trivia show where a team of kids is pitted against a team of adults. Claudia doesn’t want to see or talk to her father. Jimmy tells her he’s dying of cancer. She still doesn’t want to talk to him. Later on we see Jimmy telling colleagues he’s dying before he goes on the air to host the night’s episode. On the show is a boy named Stanley, whose father seems to care more about the money his son wins and the potential television connections he’ll make than his son’s well being. Stanley and his father and Jimmy and the television show are one of the major storylines of the movie in addition to Jim and Claudia. Then connected to them is Donnie, who was a contestant on the show when he was a kid and who is now getting fired from his dead-end job and spends much of the movie getting drunk and flirting (badly) with a bartender. And seemingly disconnected to all of that is Earl Partridge, who is on his deathbed and attended by a nurse named Phil. Earl’s wife is a younger woman who married him for his money and is now wracked by guilt because she finds she actually loves him. Earl’s son is a misogynistic jerk who gives self-help seminars to men, teaching them how to be more aggressive toward women.

Let’s talk about Earl’s son for a moment here. He’s a jackass. And you’re supposed to think so. I will give the movie this much credit: Frank, the son, is not supposed to be much of a sympathetic character. Towards the end, yes, you’re supposed to sympathize a bit due to his background and all, but I think really you’re supposed to feel bad that he’s so broken. That his personality is so horrible. That he’s a liar who encourages men to treat women like shit. I truly believe you’re supposed to pity him and I buy that because it’s done well. And I don’t think he’s ever really redeemed. Maybe he’s on the path to it, but that’s not what this movie is concerned with. This movie is concerned with misery, and through the course of it Frank’s misery gets a nice slow reveal. On the other hand, I didn’t for one moment enjoy having the character on my screen. The most telling moment about him, for me, was after the morning session of his seminar, when he goes to meet a journalist who’s come to interview him during the lunch break. She’s standing near the door in the room full of men attending the seminar and Frank tells her they should leave because “It’s not safe for you in here right now.” Do you know what that is? That is an outright admission that Frank knows that he’s just spent the morning riling up his audience into a place where it’s entirely possible they’ll act violently toward a woman in their midst. That’s sickening. So I can pity him, yes. But I cannot sympathize with him. Ever. And I cannot enjoy his portions of the movie.

There are two people I liked and actively cared about in this movie: Stanley and Phil. Now, Phil comes out okay since he didn’t have a whole lot going on other than getting invested in Earl’s life and his reunion with Frank and all. He did a good thing, getting Frank in touch with Earl before the Earl died. And he’s sad at the end, but he did his job and he went above and beyond and when the movie ends I felt like he was going to walk away knowing he’d done something to make a difference. Stanley, on the other hand? Stanley I have little hope for. His story ends with his assertion to his father that his father needs to be nicer to him. And his father tells him “go to bed” each time Stanley speaks. That is where the movie leaves Stanley. I can see two roads there: Festering resentment such that Stanley snaps, or such that Stanley ends up like Donnie. Those are not good endings for Stanley. And that makes me so sad.

I realize that this movie is about the interconnectedness of the lives of people who might think they’re total strangers. I realize that Stanley gets a bit of an epiphany late in the movie and that might serve him well in the future. I realize that P.T. Anderson apparently likes making movies about miserable people being miserable in the same way that Wes Anderson likes making movies about quirky families and Michael Bay likes making movies about explosions. Put all that together and I understand why this movie is what it is. And I can recognize the skill involved in making it. It’s quite a feat to take all of these stories and fit them together and have them work as a whole. But the fact remains that it’s three hours of people being miserable and making other people miserable and well, no amount of skill is going to make that something I want to watch.

November 6, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

There Will be Blood

November 2, 2011

There Will Be Blood

This movie came out in the same year as No Country for Old Men. Both were nominated for a ton of Oscars. It was just a big year for dark, bleak movies. I bought both before watching them, owned them for ages and didn’t manage to get all the way through them until we reached them in our movie a day project. Both of them are heavy going. My impression when I watched the first half or so of each of them back in 2008 was that No Country had more tension and more bloodshed, but this movie was the more intense. There’s a reason that Daniel Day Lewis wins Oscars – and it’s that he’s a powerful actor who picks challenging films and completely dominates them.

Daniel Plainview – the man that Lewis portrays – is a character made up of loneliness and rage who wants to have the world for himself. This movie follows him from his days as a prospector on his own in the wilderness through his time as a wheeling and dealing oil man with his son searching for that next big strike and his eventual success. He’s a smooth-talking swindler whose only passion is his own legacy. He craves success and power for himself and his son.

A young man comes to him with a tale about oil seeping up out of the ground on his family’s property and Daniel goes out to the little Pentecostal town of New Boston and finds that it’s true – the find of a lifetime presented to him on a silver platter. He only needs to bilk the simple hayseeds out of the deeds to their land so that he can drill there and set up a oil pipeline to the coast.

The actual happenings of the film – the tragedies, disasters, betrayals and deceptions – are incidental because the whole movie is really just about Daniel’s descent. He starts the movie utterly alone, and he ends it even more so. This is a powerful character study of a deeply disturbed man who doesn’t realize that no matter how successful he becomes it will never ease the rage that drives him.

This was Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow up to Punch Drunk Love, which Amanda and I have already reviewed. I remember thinking when I first bought this and watched the beginning of the movie that it was an impressive divergence from Anderson’s earlier work. I was familiar with Boogie Nights and Magnolia, which we haven’t watched yet for the project but which I have watched many times, so I thought of P. T. Anderson as a maker of quirky ensemble pieces. Having since watched Punch Drunk Love I can very clearly see the evolution. Punch Drunk Love was a film meticulously designed to elicit an emotional response (a panic attack) and this film seems a natural extension of that concept. It’s a character study that strongly displays P. T. Anderson’s mastery of the filmic toolkit that he uses to manipulate his audience. The movie is full of intense scenes using atonal music and complex hand-held shots that draw us into Daniel Plainview’s upsetting world.

Of course the center of the whole movie is Daniel Day Lewis. There’s no dialog at all for the first fourteen minutes of the movie as it shows us Daniel working on his first drill sight – and when he finally does start talking his tones are so earthy and engaging that you can easily see how all the people he meets fall under his sway. Every single line that he delivers is deep, rich oil welling up from some magical font of actorly prowess. This movie may be long and intense and at times unpleasant, but it’s also a gift to the world from a pair of amazing craftsmen, and as such I can’t help being drawn to it. It’s not a movie I’ll watch often, but it’s a movie that will haunt me. Which is exactly what I think Anderson and Lewis were going for.

November 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Closer

October 27, 2011

Closer

As we approach the end of our movie a day project Amanda and I find that we have a number of films left over that don’t make for light watching of a weekday afternoon. Films of a more weighty nature that we haven’t had the fortitude to venture upon. Some of them are movies like yesterday’s and today’s which I have seen before, but which do not really fit with the more fantasy and sci-fi themed feel of the vast majority of our collection.

I cannot for the life of me remember why I bought this movie. It is in no way at all like the kind of movie that I would normally buy. It’s a kind of meditation on romances going bad. Cheating, sex, lies. I suppose it was the cast that attracted me to the movie. As often happens I bought it sight unseen, and it’s just kind of been here our apartment gathering dust since I first watched it. Not because it is a bad movie but because it is a little bit depressing and not something I’d really want to subject myself to on a regular basis.

The movie revolves around four people as they meet, fall in love with each other, hurt each other and leave each other. It starts with a young girl who calls herself Alice getting hit by a car while exchanging glances with a dashing young writer named Dan. He falls for her undeniable waifish charm and she falls for his repressed British loneliness. He writes a book inspired by her, but when he goes to get photographed for the cover he ends up for no reason falling completely in love with the photographer – a woman named Anna. Maybe it’s that Anna is more mature and Alice is too needy. He seems to think that there’s some connection between himself and Anna, and she seems to feel something too. Mostly, though, it’s that Dan is a complete jerk. (That’s one of the themes of the movie, really.)

When Anna refuses to see Dan (because she knows he’s seeing Alice) he plays a bitter prank on a random stranger he encounters through the internet – masquerading as Alice and seducing a horny doctor named Larry into a meeting with her. The prank somewhat backfires when Larry turns out to be a pretty descent guy. He’s a pervert, sure, but he ‘fesses up to it, and he has genuine feelings for Anna. So Larry and Anna start seeing each other, Dan is still going out with Alice, but he’s pining for Anna at the same time.

From there things get complicated. There are off-screen clandestine meetings, infidelity, marriage, break-ups, divorce papers, and lots of general angst. Dan is a self-centered jerk who wants to have his cake (a tender relationship with Alice) and eat it too (his affair with Anna.) Larry wields his larger than life sexuality like a weapon, but at the same time is completely open and honest with Anna. Anna wallows in guilt and self loathing and seems almost to enjoy it. And Alice? Alice is pretty much the most sympathetic character in the film – she seems innocent and needy, but in reality is the strongest of the bunch and the most independent. Maybe it’s that she’s better than any of the other characters at protecting herself from lies. She does have a special kind of armor that protects her, as we find out at the end of the film.

This film has some spectacular performances. It requires a degree of intensity since it is pretty much just a simple character study with only four speaking roles (well except the cabbie and the customs man who have one line each.) Natalie Portman and Clive Owen each won Golden Globes for their portrayals of Alice and Larry respectively. Jude Law is heart breaking as the two-timing Dan who can’t seem to get what he wants because he can’t admit to himself that he doesn’t deserve what he wants. Julia Roberts as Anna is similarly broken – it’s hard to figure out if her character is simply easily manipulated or if she truly wants what she gets in the movie.

What really stands out for me in this film though is the writing. It has a strong “adapted from the stage” vibe to it – because it is adapted from a stage production. It’s full of strong characters caught up in their own warring desires and lies. Patrick Marber’s adaptation of his own screenplay is powerful, brutal and savage. People hurt each other in this movie – a lot – which is why I’ve found it so hard to watch again after that first viewing when I bought it six years ago.

he other thing I found fascinating about this movie is the way it handles the act breaks. The events of the film take place over the course of about four years, but it leaps forward in jumps of about six months without warning between acts. It’s a little disorienting because you pick up with the same characters in a new scene and they reveal through the dialog that a huge amount of time has passed in what appeared to be just a cut to a new location, and you have to infer from the action what has passed in the missing months. It creates a sense of mental whiplash but it also acted to keep me engaged in the production because I enjoy having to use my brain and this film challenges you constantly to figure out what is going on and what you have missed.

This movie acts as a pretty good companion piece to Ghost World, which we watched yesterday. Both are films about people doing brutal emotional damage to each other. I’d argue that this movie is less depressing though. After reading the trivia about the ending of the movie and how Marber altered it for the film I have to say that I’m really glad he did make that change, because otherwise this movie would be a lot harder to watch. As it is, although I respect this movie for the writing and the performances and for the strange way it is put together, I suspect I probably won’t watch it again for at least another six years now. It’s just too difficult to get engaged in the lives and loves of characters knowing how much they’re all going to be hurt.

October 27, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 602 – Capote

I’ll come out and admit, this is a late review. By a lot of time. I’m writing this in the fall of 2012, not quite a year since watching this movie for the first time. That’s going to be true of a lot of movies from here on, since I ran out of steam for writing a review every day and haven’t quite worked back up to it yet. For movies that I’ve seen a bunch of times, or things that I hated or things that really worked their ways into my head, well, that won’t matter much. For other movies, things have faded and I can remember bits and pieces, but not fully formed thoughts. I really should have taken notes for some things. Live and learn.

Fortunately, this movie stuck with me. It’s a fictionalized account of a real series of events, which, when you think about it, is a bit of a meta-textual situation, what with the story being about the writing of a novel about a true set of events. This isn’t a movie with pleasant subject matter and it doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s sad and unsettling and slightly disturbing but for some reason it didn’t affect me as viscerally as some other sad movies I’ve watched. I suspect it’s because there’s an aspect of removal here. The main character is unsettled, yes, but he’s also attempting to work with it and through it and use it for his own writing. He’s not an intrinsically unhappy person. He’s simply in a disturbing situation that he is also fascinated by.

The movie follows writer Truman Capote as he is introduced to and drawn in by the murders that eventually formed the basis for his book, In Cold Blood. It’s billed as a biographical movie, and that’s true to an extent, but it’s not telling Capote’s entire life story and it’s not telling much that doesn’t directly relate to the writing of his book. It’s a focused biographical movie, showing the effect the writing of the story and researching of the story has on Capote himself. And that effect is fascinating.

Really, this movie should be double-billed with Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, which, coincidentally, I rewatched the other night. Both movies contain threads of fiction and fact and both stories are addressing the nature of involvement between events and the media reporting them. Here, Capote finds himself having to balance between his role as a writer, recording and reporting the details of the murders and the events and people involved, and his role as a confidant of one of the murderers, Perry Smith. Much of the detail he’s able to get and therefore write about comes from the fact that Smith ends up trusting him enough to speak to him. Becoming close to Smith allows Capote a more in-depth look at what he’s writing about, but it also places him in a position where he comes to care about what happens to Smith. At the same time, he doesn’t want to influence events because that would compromise his neutrality as a reporter. That conflict is the heart of the movie and it’s one that isn’t ever fully resolved. The movie ends on a note questioning that very theme.

It’s a quiet movie, and a somewhat sad one. Part of the sadness comes from the crime that started it all. It’s a terrible crime, or set of crimes, really. These aren’t sad-but-fictional murders. These people were real and these people were killed.

I wish I could think of more to say about this movie. I suspect it’s my own damn fault for not writing this review closer to watching the movie itself, but short of watching it again (which I just plain don’t have time to do right now), I’m not sure how better to get things moving. I also wish I had read Capote’s In Cold Blood prior to watching the movie about its’ writing.

I will say that I thought the acting was superb. Of course Philip Seymour Hoffman was amazing in the title role, but his is not the only fantastic performance. It’s just that he fills the movie in so many ways. After all, it’s a movie about Truman Capote and it’s a movie about his writing and his process and his difficulties and him as a person in this particular situation. So of course Hoffman is all over this movie. And if his performance had been at all lacking, the movie would have suffered for it. Thankfully, that’s not the case. But the movie would also have suffered had the supporting cast, like Catherine Keener as Harper Lee and Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith not been so good.

I often find myself conflicted when it comes to movies presenting a fictionalized account of true events. Not conflicted about liking them – I do tend to enjoy historical pieces – but about how to view them. Obviously this is not a movie in which every word, every emotion, every glance, every moment is true to life. It isn’t a documentary. It was made with intent and bias and is the product of interpretation and fictionalization. Such pieces, be they books or movies, need to be viewed as fiction with a heavy dollop of reality as the base. Which is really quite relevant to this particular piece, given that its subject matter has to do with a nonfiction novel. I mentioned above that this movie should be double-billed with Medium Cool and I stand by that. Both movies are dealing not only with the topics of involvement and detachment in media, sensationalism and truth, but are doing so in a medium which forces questions about fact versus fiction, which is fascinating, to say the least.

October 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 600 – King Kong (2005)

plKing Kong (2003) – October 21st, 2011

While watching this interminable bloat-fest I wondered – several times – why we own it. And the answer is an easy one: Peter Jackson. After all, we both loved all three of the Lord of the Rings movies and they’re super long adaptations of something else, right? Right! So, how bad could this really be? I probably wouldn’t have bothered to actually buy the movie. I would have been content to borrow it from work or something similar that didn’t involve keeping it around the house. Andy, however, as has been shown by the sheer number of things we own that neither of us had seen or knew much of anything about, buys movies like other people buy candy. So okay. Owning it makes sense, given the rules our lives seem to operate under. But that doesn’t mean we should.

I am so sorry, Peter Jackson, but this movie is bad. You made a bad movie, Petey. Even the presence of Adrien Brody on my screen for most of the movie wasn’t enough to save it. And given how much I enjoy watching Adrien Brody, that’s pretty sad. Part of it is that Jack Black was on my screen for about an equal amount of time, and that’s so much more Jack Black than I can handle at once. I’ve now exhausted my reserve of Jack Black Patience for another two years or so. This movie would have needed not just Adrien Brody but every other actor I adore, plus some cute puppies and kittens or maybe some fencing to offset the amount of Jack Black I had to sit through.

I would now like to share a series of messages I posted to twitter while watching this movie (specific responses to friends in regard to the movie excised):

  • 7:23 – I am already well beyond my tolerance limit for Jack Black and I’m only 20 minutes into King Kong. This is going to be difficult.
  • 7:58 – Well, Adrien Brody has his shirt off. Best thing in the movie so far.
  • 8:10 – I’m an hour and ten minutes in and there’s TWO HOURS TO GO.
  • 8:52 – How is this movie NOT OVER YET? What do you mean there’s more than an hour left? I’ve been watching it for a year now, I swear!
  • 9:02 – So much pointless CG action. So much pointless slow motion. WHY ALL THE SLOW MOTION?!
  • 9:09 – It’s over three hours long. Padding is the last thing this movie needed.
  • 9:39 – Says my husband: “You would think he’d go climb a building now. No. They go ice skating first. No, I’m not kidding.” THIS MOVIE, PEOPLE.

Really, why am I writing a review? That all should tell you my impression of the movie right there. It’s pointlessly long and slow and padded for no good reason. Aside from Jack Black, my most enduring memory of this movie is just feeling like it was never going to end. Like it had been so padded full of unnecessary action and chase scenes – done in slow motion – that it had become a huge beanbag pillow of a movie and I’d sunk into it and was never going to be able to get up. The original King Kong from the 1930s was under two hours long, so even if this movie does follow the plot point by point (I admit, I’ve never seen the entire original so I don’t know just how faithful it is in terms of plot points) it’s clearly trying to do more. And not just more, but lots and lots more. Like every scene and every moment and every line had to be bigger and more grand and more impressive. But really what that seems to have done is just made it take up more time. I’ve got no problem with big grand movies, but the big and grand here just feels unnecessary and frustrating. Get on with the story!

If you somehow don’t know the basic story of this movie, it’s not all that complex. A movie director who wants to film an adventure movie on a remote island heads off with his crew and his new lead actress. They arrive at the mysterious Skull Island and soon find it’s full of all sorts of dangers, like a tribe of people native to the island who ritually sacrifice women to a giant gorilla. They latch onto the lead actress and the giant gorilla takes off with her and it’s up to the movie crew to brave the perils of the island to get her back. Which they do, of course. Because the point of the story is more the gorilla than the girl. And they get him too and drag him back to New York where they put him on stage as a curiosity. He breaks free and tries to recapture the actress and it all ends in flattened gorilla when airplanes shoot him down off a skyscraper after he climbed up to be with the actress. And let me tell you, having Jack Black say the “twas beauty killed the beast” line from the classic? Made me so sad.

Now, in this version of the story, the actress falls in love with the movie’s screenwriter, who’s along for the trip because he hasn’t finished the script yet. From what I can tell, the character names are the same (Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll) but Jack’s not a screenwriter in the original. I don’t really give a damn about that. Whatever his purpose is, he’s played by Adrien Brody and therefore my main reason for not tuning out completely for the entirety of this movie. He gets to go all action hero during the island segment of the movie, remaining determined to get Ann back despite giant leeches and vicious dinosaurs and a bunch of the crew getting killed and all. And the movie attempts to create this rivalry between Kong and Jack over Ann, and I’m pretty sure the purpose of that is to humanize Kong so his actions aren’t just animal reaction to Ann. That’s nice and all, but I’ve got a hard time sympathizing with him since he basically wants Ann because she’s the equivalent of one of those mechanical dogs that flips itself over as far as he’s concerned (no, really – she won him over by doing Vaudeville pratfalls). I mean, it’s terrible that he was taken from his home and drugged and paraded around in shackles. I’d be pretty fucking pissed off too. And I know that there’s a lot of talk about how the story can be seen as a metaphor for slavery, so humanizing Kong isn’t a bad idea. It’s just that even with the humanizing stuff in this version of the movie, Kong still wants to keep a woman as a pet and make her do tricks for him. I’m just not feeling that, okay?

Of course, the special effects are impressive. I’ll always give Peter Jackson credit for that. Technology has come a long way from the 1930s and with someone like Andy Serkis – who seems to have made a career of providing incredible motion capture performances – it makes sense to want to show off Kong himself and to show off all the work that went into creating Skull Island and everything on it. I get that. And I get that Peter Jackson loves the original and desperately wanted to make this new version something amazing and spectacular, but I almost wish it had been made by someone a little less in love with it. Or as in love with it but with a little less money at his fingertips. Because the combo of unbridled adoration and an enormous budget just made for an overly long effects bonanza, and while I like Peter Jackson, this movie just isn’t fun to watch.

October 21, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 599 – Persepolis

Persepolis – October 20th, 2011

This is one of those movies I’m sure I would have been somewhat curious about but never curious enough about to actually watch had we not been doing this project. The subject matter combined with the format led to it getting a lot of attention and it looked interesting, but I often shy away from heavier movies and every description I read of this one made me think it would definitely be on the heavy end of things. And it was. It was also well worth watching and I will, at some point, have to get the book(s) and read them. It’s also a great example for when I encounter people who stubbornly insist that animation is, by default, for children. Yes, they are still out there.

Much like there are people who insist that animation is for kids, there are people who refuse to recognize the graphic novel as a potentially deep medium. I find it hard to wrap my own head around at times, considering that memoir like Maus has been around since at least the 1980s and fiction like Sandman has been around since at least the early 1990s. And even before then, the medium was hardly brand spanking new. Perhaps it comes from people who still see anything in the format as a “comic book” and I don’t want to get all pretentious here, but that’s why I use the term “graphic novel” for some things. Even just the “comic” part of “comic book” implies humor, even if people don’t think that through every time they hear it. So this isn’t a comic book movie. It’s an animated movie using the same artwork as the graphics in the graphic novel. And while it has its comedic moments, it isn’t really comical.

I haven’t really done any research into this movie beyond the basics, but I did see some mentions of it being somewhat controversial in terms of how it portrays the country of Iran and its history and culture. The thing is, this is a memoir. It is the story of a personal and familial experience. Not being a part of the culture she’s writing and speaking about, I can’t really make any judgement on that. But I will take it as a given that what she’s presenting is authentic for her. And so long as she’s not fabricating events entirely, that’s really all that matters to me.

Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran during a time of revolution and war and changing regimes with changing ideals and rules. The movie follows her through her young childhood and into her teenage years and then out of Iran and into Switzerland where she went to University, then back to Iran to see her family before deciding to leave for good. There’s narration over the entire movie, from Marjane’s point of view, looking back on her own actions and opinions. Marjane’s family is portrayed as involved in the revolution from the outset. Relatives end up in jail or worse. Marjane herself seems to shift loyalties based on what she hears and from whom, changing her mind as she learns and grows. I think this is really a key point for memoir – an unflinching look at one’s own past.

It’s a brutal story, with friends and relatives hurt, people confused and upset. Marjane visits her uncle, Anoosh, in prison just before he’s executed. Relatives of her friends report being tortured while imprisoned. Marjane herself rebels against the restrictions the government places on the people, listening to bootleg heavy metal cassettes and speaking out against what seem to her to be ridiculous rules about what women can and can’t wear and can and can’t do. And eventually she leaves for Europe, where things seem better but where she is ashamed to be Iranian and denies it when she meets new people. Some of her friends romanticize her background, seeing her as something of a poster child for revolution, but others see her as being from a backwards society. And this is key for me when trying to understand this movie. Marjane doesn’t hate Iran or being Iranian. She doesn’t hate the culture she was raised in. But the movie makes it very clear that she doesn’t equate what she grew up in with what she left. That isn’t a criticism of the culture. That’s a criticism of the government.

I can’t make any claims to expertise in drawing style or artistic technique, but I do think that the art of this movie, both in the style of the original illustrations from the graphic novels and the animation, is excellent. It’s deceptively simple, what with the vast majority of it being black and white with little to no shading or color, but there’s a lot of detail and care put into the visuals. It suits the story and I’m incredibly glad that it was made animated instead of live action. The only way I think this movie could have worked with live action would have been if it had gone a very Sin City type of direction, with the live action mimicking the artistic style. But even that wouldn’t have done the story the sort of justice it deserves. There’s a reason why Satrapi used the format and medium she used for the original story and to take it too far from that would have turned it into something entirely other.

Despite how good this is, I know I won’t be putting this back in unless I’m showing it to someone else who hasn’t seen it yet. It’s not a casual movie and it’s not one I could pause on while flipping channels. But it is an excellent movie and a fascinating story. I’m glad I’ve seen it once, even if I never see it again.

October 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 597 – Fargo

Fargo – October 18th, 2011

Can you believe that up until recently we didn’t have this movie in our collection? Bizarre, isn’t it? The thing is, I know we owned it. We both know we owned it. Andy remembered buying it. Yet when we went through our collection to make our big list full of titles and running times and planned viewing dates and series notes and whatnot, it wasn’t there. No Fargo. We were baffled. Because we both greatly enjoyed this movie and because it seemed unthinkable that we wouldn’t have a copy in our home. My suspicion is that we loaned it to someone and that whoever borrowed it forgot that it was borrowed and we sure as hell don’t remember lending it to someone so I don’t blame whoever we lent it to for forgetting too.

I’ve put this review off a bit (okay, more than a bit) largely because every time I open it to work on it I think to myself “how do I actually describe this movie?” But then again I could just go with saying that it is a Coen Brothers movie. They usually do this odd but fantastic combination of brutal crime, personal tragedy and dark humor. Described flat out, this isn’t a funny story. And yet it has a fair amount of humorous moments in it. The thing is, the humor doesn’t really make this movie a comedy. But it’s also not a mystery and it’s certainly not action. It’s drama, yes, but not, say, in the way A History of Violence was. It’s a unique tone that I have yet to see from anyone else.

Really, this is a pretty bleak movie. It centers around a police investigation into what the audience knows is a staged kidnapping gone horribly wrong. People die in this movie. Innocent people die. And it’s all set during a Minnesota winter, full of snow and raw cold and slush and ice. There’s a lot of quiet thought in this movie as characters contemplate the situation. Car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) has been fudging the numbers at work and is in financial trouble. He has some ideas for how to make some of it back but he needs some money right now. And so he has a plan. He hires a couple of guys to kidnap his wife, assuming that he will then be able to get the ransom money from his penny-pinching father-in-law, pay off the kidnappers with some of it and keep the remainder. Obviously there’s a lot that could go wrong with this plan, and all of it does, leading to the deaths of several people.

When, during the kidnapping, the kidnappers encounter a car full of people who could possibly identify them, they turn around and kill them, which sparks an investigation by local police detective, Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). At first glance, one might dismiss Marge. She’s fairly unassuming and very obviously pregnant and she’s clearly a far cry from the wisecracking hardass cops from action movies. But she is dedicated and she is smart and she is observant and while her detective work isn’t flashy and her actions would hardly inspire Hot Fuzz‘s Danny Butterman, she does indeed find out who’s responsible and she does indeed apprehend one of the kidnappers.

Personally speaking? I love Marge. She is capable and solid and sympathetic without being soft. She does her job and deals with an absolutely horrific situation and she does it while pregnant and sick and hungry all the time. Speaking from a more critical point of view, I still love her, because she is a fantastically written character. You know who she is by the end of her first few scenes and she is a character with depth. Her pregnancy? It isn’t part of the plot. She doesn’t go into labor in the middle of a car chase or a shootout. There’s no question of who the father is, no big dramatic reveal. It doesn’t make her weaker or less able to do her job. But it’s also not ignored. She does get morning sickness. She does spend a good portion of the movie eating. It’s part of her character in the space of the movie and it’s part of what I love about how the Coens treat their characters. They feel like people instead of stereotypes.

I have to admit, the scenes with Jerry Lundegaard make me all sorts of uncomfortable. He is so very pathetic and as soon as you see him talking to the kidnappers he’s hired you know that this will not end well. There is no way this can end well. This is going to be bad or worse. There is no good outcome possible here. And he is so very desperate. He sits in his office, pleading with people and worming his way out of things and making promises he can’t keep. To his credit, William H. Macy does a superb job with the character. Lundegaard is well played and well written. It’s just that what makes him well done also makes him extremely difficult for me to watch. Of course, the whole movie hinges on not just his actions but his ineptitude in all facets of his life, so there’s no real way to avoid it.

The events of the movie unfold in pretty much exactly the way that they have to. There is no other way things could happen here, so there’s a feeling of terrible inevitability to it all. That it was all just waiting to happen. The quiet and rather dark humor of the movie keeps it from being too desperately bleak, which is a good thing because with less humor and less nuance the whole thing could simply be a depressing look at a terrible crime, told at a desolate time of year. And with long stretches of plowed and salted road and plenty of snow and slush, with everyone bundled into shapeless parkas, the visuals are just that. It really is amazing that the movie just doesn’t feel as dark as it actually is, and I credit the Coens and Frances McDormand for that.

October 18, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment

Movie 591 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – October 12th, 2011

One of the benefits of doing this project is that it forces me to watch some things that I’ve meant to watch for ages and ages – classics and cultural touchstones and the sorts of things that get made part of montages of great movies – and just never gotten around to. Not that I’m going to go out of my way to obtain and watch something I have no interest in. I can honestly say I’ve never been the least bit interested in seeing at least half of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. But this one? This one I’d been meaning to see for ages. It’s just not a casual sort of thing you pop in for fun. It’s a long movie and a heavy movie and I knew that. So while I’d seen probably two thirds of it in bits and pieces prior to this project, I’d never seen it all.

I know that this movie is based on a book by Ken Kesey, written about his experiences and things he’d witnessed. The thing is, that sets an immediate bias from the narrator. I honestly don’t know if it’s possible to have a non-biased account of life in a psychiatric hospital. Impartial observers won’t have the experience of being a patient or the perspective of a medical professional. Patients are often in altered mental states either due to their conditions or due to the medications they’re on. Medical professionals are ostensibly doing what they’re doing in the hopes that what they’re doing will help. Indeed, according to the trivia for this movie, Louise Fletcher got the part of Nurse Ratched because she was able to portray the character not as malicious, but as genuinely believing that what she was doing was for the best. Treatments once considered state-of-the-art, things that were assumed to cause more good than harm, are now seen as barbaric. Mental illness and the stigma it carries are such difficult subjects to address that I don’t believe any account of it can be labeled true or false. So this movie is difficult for me to address. I can’t really see it as a thoroughly accurate portrayal of this sort of place and time, but I can’t say it’s inaccurate either. Were we to watch Girl, Interrupted I’d have something similar to say. I think that’s just the nature of it.

I had all of that in mind while watching this movie. I don’t sympathize with Nurse Ratched really, but the nature of her character makes me pity her. She starts out so assured that what she’s doing is best and for the good of her patients. That the things she does are helping them, or at least pacifying them. And that’s just not the case. Not for everyone, obviously, or the movie wouldn’t be what it is. I lose any pity for her, on the other hand, when by the end of the movie, even in the face of how badly her actions and words have affected the patients in her care, she remains firm in her righteousness. Clearly it wasn’t that she did anything wrong. It’s that the patients were just that misguided. That troubled. That, well, insane.

Because this is a classic, I don’t know just how necessary it is for me to go over the plot. Even before I’d seen more than a couple of clips from it, I knew the basic story. An ostensibly sane man is involuntarily committed to a mental institution and forms bonds with the patients before eventually snapping and ending up lobotomized, due to the evil nurse who runs the ward he’s on. That’s how I had heard it described anyhow, so it’s what I was expecting. Now, I should have known a little better, because while that’s quite the story, the actual movie is a good deal more nuanced. Which I was glad of. It makes for a much more interesting movie with a much more interesting main character and a much more interesting villain and a much more interesting story for all the characters involved.

For one, the main character – McMurphy – isn’t just a wrongly-hospitalized sane man. He’s a prisoner claiming to be insane in order to be moved from the nearby jail to what he seems to think will be a far cushier place to do his time. So honestly? I don’t feel all that terrible that he ends up in the hospital. He assumed it would be an easy ride and he’s fairly clear about the crimes he committed. Rape, assault, disorderly conduct, and sure, he has excuses and thinks they weren’t really worth getting locked up for. After all, who wants to get caught and locked up? Up until midway through the movie it’s actually never stated flat out whether or not he is mentally ill or just faking. Only when he learns that as a criminal he can be indefinitely committed for a longer time span than his jail sentence does he make it known that he really was doing it for the easier time. And by then it’s too late. But it does raise the question of just how much he’s faking and how much the hospital administration – particularly Nurse Ratched – are willing to see non-mentally ill behavior as mentally ill simply because the person doing it is in a hospital setting. And if that seems odd, take a look at the Rosenhan Experiment where people pretended to be insane to look into diagnostic habits and institutionalisation. That study was done two years before this movie came out.

Then there is the rest of the cast. McMurphy’s presence seems to have an effect on about half the patients around him. Some of the other men just don’t seem to be aware of much of anyone else around them, or if they’re aware they don’t care to let it be known. The rest, however, are responsive enough for McMurphy to interact with them. And he does, starting card games where he cheats them out of their cigarettes and getting basketball games going. It’s never stated specifically why most of them are at the hospital, though it’s revealed later on that only a couple are there involuntarily, and their various diagnoses aren’t really the point. The point is that fully half the men there don’t really want the ward to be the way it is, but as patients under such a strong personality as Nurse Ratched, have never spoken up about it. Until McMurphy shows up and starts making waves. On one hand, the other patients clearly have a fantastic time with him. He breaks them out to go fishing, he advocates for them on the subject of their cigarettes and the music played on the ward, and he throws them a party with alcohol and a couple of women. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that he’s stepping in and saying he knows best when the villain has been doing much the same thing, just with a different idea of what “best” is. I’m curious about the book largely because I know it’s not told from McMurphy’s point of view and I think the shift in focus might mitigate the “meet the old boss, same as the new boss” feeling I got.

One thing is for certain, and that is that the movie ends with two different tragedies. First one of the patients commits suicide. Nurse Ratched’s hateful use of shame as a means of subduing her patients is definitely part of the impetus for it and it made me terribly sad to watch. Second is what’s done to McMurphy, who might well have been faking and might well have been a criminal, but certainly didn’t deserve to have his entire self permanently altered because of that. The ending definitely does beg for more from Chief Bromden, who is the narrator of the book but who has very few lines in the movie even though he is a key character. Really, given that, I’m impressed that the story comes across as well as it does, though I can’t speak to how it is as a literary adaptation. Much of that, I believe, comes from the cast, who are all fantastic. There are some very familiar faces here, including Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Danny DeVito, but the standout for me was Brad Dourif as the young Billy Bibbit. Apparently this was his official screen debut, and it is quite a part to begin with. I know Jack Nicholson gets all the glory for McMurphy, but for me, Dourif made the movie. If he hadn’t sold me on his part, the emotional impact of the movie would have been so lessened to me that I don’t know if the rest of it would have worked as well. So, cheers to Dourif. I’m sure it was a difficult part to play in a fascinating and weird movie, but he did it well.

October 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment

Movie 589 – A History of Violence

A History of Violence – October 10th, 2011

This is yet another good example of an exceptionally made movie that doesn’t interest me in the least. It’s simply not my taste, no matter how well done it is. Sort of like how I mostly prefer sculptures to paintings. It’s not a question of the skill involved in creating the piece of art in front of me. It’s a question of personal preference and interest. It’s frustrating at times, because technically speaking, I spent this evening watching a good movie. But subjectively speaking, I didn’t enjoy that time. I didn’t actively dislike it either, but when I spend an hour and a half watching something I’m not interested in and not particularly enjoying that feels like time not well spent. And I can’t even really complain about it. So what do I say in a review? This movie didn’t capture my interest but you might want to see it anyhow?

This is actually a problem I have with reviews as a concept. I certainly don’t think that every movie is a great movie just waiting for the right reviewer, but at the same time I think that some genuinely good movies (and books and plays and television shows and so on and so forth) will end up being reviewed poorly by someone who simply didn’t enjoy it because it’s not to their taste. I can’t honestly claim to be a movie snob, what with my adoration of Sharks in Venice, but I can recognize the difference between a good movie and a bad movie (and a good-bad movie and a bad-bad movie). This is a good movie. This is a movie full of impeccable acting and excellent writing and deftly handled direction. I just wasn’t interested.

I’m not sure entirely why this specific movie didn’t interest me. It’s the same thing as No Country for Old Men. Why not that movie? I liked The Limey quite a lot, and I’ve got to say it’s not that far off from this and No Country for Old Men in terms of general tone. There’s a lot of quiet introspective bits and meditation on the nature of violence and its consequences and the lives of the people involved. It’s not just that I liked the lead actor better. I mean, Terrance Stamp is fantastic, but I like Viggo Mortensen too, and he was fantastic here. Perhaps it’s that this was more of a character study than a story. There are story elements involved, but it seems to me that the point of the movie isn’t the specific story and the events that occur in it, but how those events affect the main character and how he relates to the world.

The movie centers around a man named Tom Stall. I would say that it focuses around him and his family except the family focus is all directly related to Tom’s actions near the beginning and the revelations said actions bring. What Tom does and who he is and was affect his wife and his children, but they themselves are not the focus. It’s all Tom and the ripples he causes. Because Tom efficiently and ruthlessly took down two assailants who attacked him and his staff at the diner he owned, as if he knew what we has doing, despite his mild mannered midwestern family man persona. What’s interesting to me about this movie is that until about a third of the way in, or maybe as much as half of the way in, it’s still up in the air exactly what this means. Serious men in a big black car show up when Tom’s face becomes nationally known. They think he’s someone they know. Someone with a different name and a different past. And he tells them he’s not. It’s a case of mistaken identity. And until a point where it’s made clear whether or not he’s telling the truth? It doesn’t really matter.

I almost think I’d have liked it better if the story had left it up in the air. If the point hadn’t been “is he or isn’t he” but rather “whether he is or not, these things happened”. Because once you know, that changes things. It becomes less of a meditation on the nature of violence and its impact on people, which I could find very interesting, and pulls it very much into the specific character study of Tom. Unfortunately, it gives us very little of his actual background. Apparently the source material has a good deal more background for him and I might actually look that up and check it out. As it stands, it hovers a bit between character study and ensemble. I want the ensemble, but it doesn’t give it to me. I want the character background if it’s a study we’re getting and it doesn’t give me that either. It’s a snapshot of a turning point in a man’s life and it just doesn’t do it for me.

In case you care about such things, I’m about to spoil the mystery. Some ways into the movie, after Tom has killed the two assailants in the diner and dealt with numerous threats to his family, we learn that yes indeed, Tom Stall is hiding a very nasty path. He’s from Philadelphia. He has mob ties. His older brother is still in the mob. His real name is Joey Cusack and when he left the mob and left Philly he took a new name and started a new life and tried to leave his violence in the past. Clearly that only worked so long as he never had to defend himself or anyone else. When called on to deal with a dangerous situation he went right back to the violence he’d known for years. And once you know this about him? Once you know that he has this horrible past where he did terrible things it changes the whole scenario. Now he has to go to Philadelphia and confront his brother and make sure no one ever threatens his family again. And this is why I say it isn’t about Tom and his family in the midwest and how violence affects them. It is about him and how he copes with being the violent person he used to be after years and years without it.

Were I writing academically I’d probably spend some time focusing on how the people around Tom – who’ve always known him to be a fairly peaceful and kind person – are affected. Because that’s an important part of the movie’s point. His son, who is routinely picked on by some of the school’s bullies, takes his father’s actions as permission to fight back, breaking another boy’s nose in the process. His wife distances herself but also finds herself drawn to him even as she’s disgusted by him and herself for being drawn. People in town celebrate Tom’s actions while he is understandably worried by them. It’s clearly a major theme. The thing is, because it comes off as more of a character study to me, I’m just not inclined to delve too deeply into the reactions of others because we never really get to know them otherwise. The one person we get a little more depth from is Tom’s wife, Edie, played by Maria Bello. And she is excellent in the role. Still even there we see her not on her own, but always in relation to Tom.

I’m not saying that any of this is bad. I’m just saying that I think it might be part of what kept me from getting invested in the movie, regardless of how well it was made. And that might not hold true for other people. As I said in the beginning, it’s a matter of personal preferences. So while I can watch this and appreciate the acting and the writing and the directing and the cinematography and everything about it that was so well done, that doesn’t mean I’m going to like it. And I maintain that that’s a valid reaction to a movie. A movie doesn’t have to be good for me to enjoy it, but likewise it doesn’t have to be bad for me not to.

October 10, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment