A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 568 – The Taste of Tea

The Taste of Tea – September 19th, 2011

Several months back when we hosted a member of Loading Ready Run before PAX East, we got to talking about movies with her. Now, this is not unusual for us. Even before this project we enjoyed talking about movies. We like movies. That’s why we own over 600. We explained the project to her and she gave us a couple of suggestions to add to the list. This was one. And I forget her precise description of it, but I know she said it was bizarre and slow. And that’s pretty spot on. Bizarre and slow. But also sweet and thoughtful at the same time. Long, too. So we decided to put it in for a night when we had time, but not a whole lot of energy. We were up to reading subtitles but not up to following a complex plot. This seemed perfect.

And oh, it was perfect indeed. I need to remember to thank Kathleen if she attends next PAX East. It’s a very dreamy movie, taking place over the course of several weeks in the life of a family living in the countryside in Japan. There’s no huge overarching plot that sweeps up the entire family. No real action or massive drama. Instead there are a number of smaller dramas, little stories in the lives of the family members in the time span of the movie. And for the most part their stories don’t really connect directly with each other. They touch on each other, but it’s more that it’s the story of a family living together and interacting. So when young Sachiko becomes convinced she has to complete a back flip over a bar in a playground, her grandfather sees and it impacts his own actions. But the back flip isn’t his story. When Sachiko’s father, Nobuo, plays Go with his son it’s not because he’s trying to help his son find something in common with the girl he likes, it’s just that father and son play Go together. And that’s how the movie goes, with each story involving the other, but not intentionally.

There are six members in the family, five of whom are living together in the house in the country when the movie begins. There’s Sachiko; her parents, father Nobuo and mother Yoshiko; her older brother, Hajime; her grandfather, Akira; and finally her uncle, Ayano. Uncle Ayano is only visiting, there to take a break after some undisclosed difficult times in Tokyo. And off in the city is another uncle, Ikki, who draws manga and produces what is likely the oddest thing in the movie: The Mountain Song. But we’ll come back to that. I promise. Uncle Ikki is very much a side note to the rest of the family. His story involves Uncle Ayano and Grandfather Akira, but none of it takes place at the family home and once his music video is done he’s not really touched on again. The focus is definitely on the family home and the people who live there or have lived there.

We begin with Hajime watching the girl he had a crush on leave by train. Right from the outset the movie makes it clear that it’s veering towards the magical realism side of things by showing the train exit from Hajime’s forehead. Now, I’m fully willing to accept that many of the magical realism type things that are shown on the screen here are the visual representations of the imaginations and thought processes of the characters. I think that’s probably a good way to interpret them. But the fact remains that there’s little division between imagination and reality in this movie. We don’t see every single bit of thought in the characters’ heads and we don’t even see any from some characters. But there are things we do see, such as the train and the giant version of Sachiko that appears (but only to her) from time to time. It’s not fantasy, but it’s not all reality either.

Hajime’s trouble with girls is his story. He finds it hard to talk to girls and is scared of relationships. But his Go playing ends up being they key, getting the attention of a couple of older students at school who invite him to join the Go club, which a new girl whom he’s been interested in but too intimidated to talk to has also joined. They play together, they talk, he gives her his umbrella and things seem to be looking up. On the other side of things, Sachiko has decided that to get rid of the giant phantom Sachiko who’s following her around she needs to complete a backflip over a horizontal bar. This is because of a story Uncle Ayano told her about how when he was a boy a phantom Yakuza followed him around until he did a backflip. Meanwhile, Yoshiko is busily working on a hand-drawn animation project with the aid of Grandfather Akira and Nobuo is spending his time going back and forth between his hypnotherapist job in the city and his private life at home. Elsewhere in the countryside a group of what seem to be gangsters are running around and a couple of cosplaying anime fans are working on a photo shoot. And yes, it all does work together. It’s all woven in with little scenes between the various characters. Hajime and Nobuo see the guys in costume doing a photo shook on the train home, then Sachiko asks for their help when she finds one of the gangsters buried in the mud near where she’s practicing her backflip. And Uncle Ayano hits one of the gangsters in the head with a rock – totally by accident.

If I had to pick one storyline in here as my favorite, it would be Ayano’s. I don’t recall it ever being explained exactly what happened in Tokyo that led to him needing to take some time off in the country. It just happened. He hangs out with his niece and nephew and wanders around town, watching people, talking to an old girlfriend, then befriending a dancer who’s practicing at a camp site near the river. He observes a lot, and tells stories. And eventually he goes back to work as a sound engineer for his brother-in-law Ikki’s “birthday song.” His reaction is pretty much precisely what I think everyone’s reaction is: “Listen to it long enough and your brain will melt.” Don’t believe me? Take a look: Oh, My Mountain. Let me make it clear, I love that song and the video. The guy with the gray hair is the grandfather, and he is a marvelous part of the movie. Easily my second favorite character after Ayano. He also observes everything, but injects bizarre comments into his observations. Things like asking why his granddaughter is a triangle. Apparently most of his lines come from things the director said while drunk. Of course.

It all sounds like such a busy movie, with music videos being made and anime showings and the Yakuza fighting in town and Hajime’s girl troubles and Sachiko’s phantom troubles and everything else, but it comes across as a slow and peaceful, meandering through the stories as they naturally flow into each other. Even the ending, which is sad in its way, feels like a natural part of where the movie is going. I suppose the movie could be shorter, but shortening any of the scenes in it feels like it would force the movie to sacrifice much of its tone and mood. And that would really be a pity, because the tone and mood are much of why it works as well as it does. It’s certainly on my short list of favorites now and I don’t think I’d change a thing about it.

September 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 564 – Orlando

Orlando – September 15th, 2011

I don’t recall when I first saw this movie. I have the impression of having seen it in college, but whenever I think back through my classes I can’t really pinpoint which class I would have seen it in. I was an English major and I took a lot of classes that featured films. I went to a women’s college and so a lot of the classes ended up touching on gender roles even if that wasn’t the focus. And I do not remember what class I saw this for. I’m fairly sure it wasn’t something I picked up on my own and I have a vague memory of being told something about the history of the time periods. But regardless of why I saw it and when, as soon as I did see it I fell in love with it. It’s stuck in my head, probably forever. I bought the soundtrack and listened to it on endless loop for a while. And I became convinced that Tilda Swinton is one of the most amazing actresses I have ever seen or will ever see.

The movie is based on a novel by Virginia Woolf. I’ve never read it and I really should, though from what I read while watching the movie, there are some rather substantial differences between the two. But I do like that the movie’s director, Sally Potter, was very cognizant of the fact that there were differences and that the changes were quite deliberate. It is as I have said before (such as in yesterday’s review): The page and the screen are different mediums and you have to use them differently to tell a story. Having not read the original book, I can’t speak to how good an adaptation this is. But I can speak to whether or not I think the movie itself has a clear vision and does a solid job with it. And I think it does. I also think it’s a beautiful bit of film regardless.

The story follows Orlando, who begins as a young man living with his parents in a manor in the British countryside near the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. When the queen visits she becomes fixated on him and eventually bestows upon him a house and lands of his own, provided that he never grow old. And so he doesn’t. Years go by. Decades. And Orlando remains the same, just with new fashions and new politics and new people surrounding him. Until one night, after a battle in Turkey where he is serving as an ambassador, Orlando falls asleep and wakes up as a woman. And as she says at the time “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.” Being accustomed to two hundred years of rights, respect and privileges accorded to men, Orlando finds being a woman to be rather different. For one, she cannot own property in her own name as a woman and besides, legally she’s considered dead. And so she lives in the house Queen Elizabeth gave her while the courts wrestle over the issue of her existence and some time later she finds that unless she has a son she will lose everything. But she doesn’t have a son. She has a very short affair with a man she meets in a field and he won’t stay. So instead we move on, watching Orlando move through time until the modern day. And she is still as young as she always was. She is slightly androgynous and seems to have embraced it. She has a child, a daughter, and she goes back to her house which she no longer owns and she publishes her story, that took her centuries to write. And that is the story. Just a little meta, there at the end.

There are two moments in this movie that make me tear up. One is the end, with Orlando and her daughter. And one is earlier in, when Orlando runs off into a hedge maze after being told she’s going to lose everything. It’s worth mentioning here that the soundtrack for this movie is absolutely beautiful and that the track playing during the labyrinth scene is key to its emotional impact. But really, I can’t watch it without feeling something. There’s no dialogue and no plot points, just Orlando running in the maze. And it is sad and beautiful at the same time. Were I to be writing about this for a class I’d have things to say about metaphors and the like, but I leave you to draw your own conclusions. All I can say is that it is one of my favorite moments in the movie.

And really, it’s saying something that I put that moment above all others since I love this whole movie. The earlier scenes are difficult, with Orlando a privileged young man of means. He’s never had to face much criticism and he’s always had money and he’s never been denied. The movie does an excellent job mirroring many moments from his early life into his later life, showing Orlando the opposite side of his previous actions and words. He tells a young woman, a Russian princess, that she belongs to him because he adores her. When the tables are turned, Orlando of course is appalled by the very idea. I have no idea how much of an impression this sort of thing might make on a man watching it, but as a woman watching it I can’t help but sigh a little. Because really, some of what Orlando learns feels obvious to me. And much of it is, by its nature, dated. It is taking place well in the past, after all. At the same time, having it set out there, that a person was (and is) judged not on merit but on gender, and that the same person with the same qualities and the same intellect and the same physical fitness and the same everything but gender might suddenly be disqualified for all manner of things? That’s an important point to make, regardless of the time period.

It is impossible to truly capture the spirit of this movie in a review and I suspect that reading the book would be an entirely different experience. A good one, I hope, but different. Because so much of what makes this movie magical to me is in the music and in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I truly enjoy what Sally Potter put on the screen, regardless of its changes to the original work it’s based on. And the concept of it is sound. It doesn’t need a boat load of back story or explanation. What does it matter why Orlando doesn’t age or by what mechanism he becomes she? It doesn’t. And the movie doesn’t really invite you to wonder. It is simply stated: This happened. This happened and this is the life that was led as a result.

September 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

September 13, 2011

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I really have fun watching this movie, but I have to admit that I’m conflicted about it. When it first came out in theaters I refused to go see it because I didn’t want to watch a movie that lionised s notorious rule-breaker. My sister saw it and loved it, but the marketing campaign, which concentrated on how Ferris was so well liked by all the various groups in his high-school (“They think he’s a righteous dude” says Grace) and how he could get away with things that other kids could not really turned me off.

It’s important to recall that I have a deep-seated disdain for rule breakers and cheaters. I don’t even like to use cheat codes in video games. So this movie about a high school student who flaunts the rules at every opportunity just didn’t appeal to me.

Eventually, of course, I saw the movie and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s by far my favorite movie that John Hughes ever directed (although my favorite movie he was involved in is still Some Kind of Wonderful.) I fully understand the appeal of a movie that is about a guy pulling a fast one on the somewhat dim adults who try to tell him what he can or should do. I certainly don’t go so far as to root for the nasty vice-principal Ed Rooney. I do, however very much sympathise with Ferris’ sister Jeanie and his friend Cameron.

The plot here is simple, really. Ferris Beuller is a high school student without fear who decides one gorgeous spring day not to go to school. He feigns illness, badgers his best friend Cameron (who is also out sick, but actually does feel unwell) into coming and getting him, springs his girlfriend out of school with a fake death in the family, and goes out for an exiting day on the town in Chicago. Meanwhile his nemesis, the self-important and petty Ed Rooney, does everything in his power to find and trap Ferris.

The charm in this movie lies in the slick presentation. So charming and witty is Ferris that I can almost root for him and his rule-breaking ways. The fourth wall is not so much broken as almost completely ignored for large portions of the movie as Ferris addresses the audience directly through much of the start of the movie. There’s a magical feel to many of the events in the movie. We see Ferris outwit not just Rooney, but the snooty maitre’d at an upscale restaurant. His sickness becomes the stuff of legend within the single day he’s out of school. He catches a foul ball at a baseball game, visits a museum and rides on a parade float. So iconic and well written is Ferris that poor Matthew Broderick has been largely unable to escape from the role in all the years since this movie came out.

Like I said, this is a fun film to watch. You can’t help wanting to see just how Ferris is going to pull off his latest scam. The soundtrack is full of great songs. Ferris’ outrageous adventures are wonderfully entertaining. Even so, I still find that there are parts of this movie I have trouble watching. Most especially I feel awful for Cameron. The movie tries hard to say that it’s ultimately a good thing that Cameron learn to break out of his shell and stand up to his dad, but I can’t help feeling that Ferris spends practically the whole film ruining Cameron’s life. Maybe if we got to see Cameron’s father and build some sort of enmity towards him i could feel better about the end of the film, but mostly it just makes me sad for the poor lug.

I guess what I’m saying is that I enjoy this movie, but I feel bad for it. It’s an entertaining, funny romp of a film about a charming guy having adventures on a day when he should be trapped in school getting an economics lecture from Ben Stein. I just wish I didn’t find Ferris Beuller himself so reprehensible, and I wish that Cameron got a happier ending.

September 13, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 561 – Up

Up – September 12th, 2011

Andy and I went to see this one in the theater when it came out. And I had been warned. I was told beforehand, by multiple people that not only would it make me cry, it would make me cry within the first twenty minutes. And they were right. This movie is explicitly built to tug – hard – at your heartstrings. And unlike, say, the Toy Story movies, it doesn’t wait for the climax or the ending to do it. Nope. It starts out with a gut punch before it lets you start enjoying yourself. I was warned. I brought tissues. And I needed them. The thing is, the nature of the story makes it more likely to make an impact on adults than children. I can see kids getting that it’s sad, but really, it’s adults who’ll feel like the movie is out to get their delicious salty tears. I swear, Pixar runs on them. Like Tyra Banks.

There are two stories in this movie, telling a larger story. There’s the majority of the movie, which is the story of an elderly man named Carl and a young boy named Russell and their adventure together in South America, where they find a rare bird and meet an adventurer who wants to capture it. And then there’s the story of Carl and his wife, Ellie, and their life together. Really, the story is all Carl’s. He’s the link between the two. And to be honest, I love that. I love that this movie spends so much time on his character. The grumpy old man is a movie staple but rarely do you get to see where that grumpy old man came from. It’s like they’re hatched, full grown, dug up from the earth like Uruk-hai with walkers and dentures and gout.

I remember when we saw the notes Andy’s uncles sent us about working on the Ewok movie they mentioned that George Lucas had just watched Heidi with his daughter and liked the idea of a gruff old man with a child, so that’s what they went with for the movie. The thing about those movies is that they focus on the kid. They leave out the question of why the old man is so grouchy and consequently they leave out the answer too. But those old folks are people who were young once. And while I know plenty of grumpy young people, there are always reasons. In Carl’s case, he’s lost his wife. The entire first quarter of the movie is devoted to showing how Carl and Ellie met as kids, discovered their mutual love of adventure, got married, worked near each other, bought a house and made a life together. They wanted children, but Ellie found she couldn’t have any, and even as a happily childless woman, that’s a heartrending scene. But they forge on, making their lives full in other ways. They try to save up for a trip, but the money always seems to be needed elsewhere. Until Carl realizes they’ve grown old and purchases two tours of South America. Which they never use, because Ellie falls ill and dies. And Carl retreats, the tickets unused and left on the mantle with his and Ellie’s collected treasures. And that is the beginning of the movie.

See what I mean? Punch in the gut! And the thing is, if you paid any attention whatsoever to the ads and marketing for the movie, you know Carl is in the rest but Ellie is nowhere to be seen. When they couldn’t have kids? When they grew old together? I knew where it was headed. It makes it all the worse, knowing. Just writing the summary made me choke up, and I was writing it on a bus, in public, without the movie actually playing. It’s a good thing Pixar is making kids movies. If they turned their hands towards world domination through emotional manipulation they’d be ruling us all in as long as it takes to put a movie like this together. It’s not terribly hard to make me cry, granted, but Pixar seems to be able to turn on the tears for almost everyone I know. Interestingly, this movie gets the tears out of the way before the main plot starts. There are some emotional moments later, but it’s not on the same level as the beginning and there’s plenty of fun to be had in the main plot too.

To escape having to move into a nursing home, Carl lifts his house up off its foundation with a huge bunch of helium balloons and takes off for South America. It’s a wonderfully fantastical scene, with the balloons popping up out of the chimney and Carl blowing a raspberry at the two nursing home attendants who’d come to get him. And if this were only Carl’s story, then he’d be on his way. But it turns out that a local Wilderness Explorer, Russell, has accidentally joined him. Russell had only wanted to help Carl out and earn his Assisting the Elderly badge. Now he’s in a flying house on his way to South America. And when they get there, it’s Russell’s enthusiasm that gets them in trouble, but also what gives Carl more purpose than he’s had in years.

While trying to float the house from one end of a gorge to another Russell and Carl encounter a large bird and a talking dog. And let me say, I am unashamedly in love with Doug the dog. He has a special collar, made for him by his owner, that lets him talk. And he loves Russell and Carl. He loves them so much. Turns out his owner is Charles Muntz, a famous explorer who was disgraced when he claimed he’d found a previously unknown bird but had no proof. And he’s been in South America ever since, camped out in his zeppelin with his dogs, looking for the bird. The same breed of bird who is now following Carl and Russell. From there you can likely figure out the basic plot. Carl and Russell have to protect the bird from Muntz. Carl has to deal with his childhood hero being a total evil jackass. Russell goes off on his own to try and save the bird and Carl has to follow them. And in doing so he has to say goodbye to his house and, at the same time, Ellie.

Now, I’m not really one for “a child teaches a grouchy old person the true meaning of life” type plots, because really? You have to spend time around kids to lead a meaningful life? But in this case I think it works and it works for a couple of reasons. First, Carl isn’t just some old coot. He’s got a character and he’s got a background. This is a man who did enjoy life. He enjoyed life for decades and he did so without a child. It’s not the age of the person that matters here, it’s the attitude of wanting adventure and seeing new things. And that is certainly not a quality that’s limited to kids. It also works because we can see that Carl isn’t necessarily changing as a person. Instead he’s coming out of a long depression. And finally, it’s not Russell on his own. Sure, he’s a great character and he’s instrumental in it all, but it’s also Doug and the bird and the realization that Carl’s childhood hero isn’t who he thought he was. It’s the adventure that gives Carl the true meaning of things. And since this is Carl’s story and Carl’s adventure (and you can’t convince me otherwise) that’s the way it should be.

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

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

July 20, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I’m not quite sure how to start out this review. This movie is one that leaves a lasting impression – I’d even say that it is a major accomplishment in film making – but it feels uneven and disjointed. I’ve never been sure if that’s an intentional choice or if it is an inevitable result of attempting to adapt this source material. I mean, did Gilliam make a disjointed film deliberately because that was his vision or did his adherence to the book force him to make a film that didn’t flow in the way most of his movies do? I suppose it doesn’t make much difference.

I’m a huge fan of Terry Gilliam, as anybody who’s been reading this blog could easily tell, and Johnny Depp is astonishing in this as he is in everything he does, but this isn’t their movie, really. This is Hunter’s movie through and through. It’s a movie full of great quotable voice-overs, but they’re all quotes from the book. Depp’s amazing performance channels the mad energy of the famous gonzo reporter as he brings to life this tale of a drug addled rebel assigned to report on a motorcycle race in the Nevada desert outside of Las Vegas.

I enjoy this movie, in spite of its episodic and uneven feel, but it’s difficult to review it for a couple reasons. For one, this is a movie that is all about dealing with a chemically altered perception of the world. In the story Hunter S. Thompson’s mis-adventures in Las Vegas there is a truly implausible amount of drug use. Acid, cocaine, ether, marijuana, mescaline… just about every hallucinogen known to man and some not invented yet is consumed in mass quantities by Hunter and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo. I wouldn’t say that the movie glorifies drug use, but it attempts to show how deranged a man can become if drug use becomes commonplace. My personal experience with illegal narcotics is virtually non-existent, so although I’m fascinated by the twisted world depicted here I don’t have anything to really compare it to in my own life.

My other problem in writing this review is that although I’ve read excepts from the book this movie is based on (most of which are quoted word for word here) I haven’t read the whole thing. That makes it really hard to talk about the things I’d really like to explore. I’m curious about how accurately Gilliam captures the book, and about how much of the movie is directly from the page, but I don’t really have any answers there.

What I can say is that this movie has a wistful, desperate, slightly sad quality to it. My favorite parts of the movie are the more introspective bits where Depp-as-Thompson reflects on the sad fate of the naive movement of the sixties and the ultimate futility of the San Francisco drug culture. That’s part of the problem with the movie, really. It has this this really touching moment about two thirds of the way through the film that feels like it should be the climax, but then Hunter finds himself returning to Las Vegas to cover a district attorney conference on narcotics and the movie limps on for another drug addled forty five minutes or so. Not only does it feel somewhat repetitive, with Hunter trashing another car and hotel room, but it loses that introspective air and gets more and more crazy and desperate. Much of the final act is told in flashback as Thompson attempts to piece together scattered memories of the past weekend, and it just doesn’t feel as honest as the first half of the movie. I strongly suspect that this is exactly the nature of the source material – but I have no way to tell until I’ve read the book itself.

Johnny Depp as Hunter (as Raoul Duke) is absolutely spellbinding. He’s all profound wisdom and spastic insanity and drug fueled paranoia. I love the way that Hunter has written himself into the story as a character in his own drama. (It makes me want to watch Adaptation.) I suspect that there is probably some root of truth in much of this tale but that it is heavily exaggerated for effect, but that’s part of the fun of it. Gilliam does a great job giving life to the ravings of a drug addled mind. There are only a couple actual special effects shots done in post-production as almost all the madness is captured life and in camera. That’s very Gilliam. Then there’s Benicio Del Torro as the nefarious Dr. Gonzo. His performance is even more impressive than Depp’s in many ways because his character is so much less sympathetic. Dr. Gonzo is an instigator, a trouble maker, given to violence and rudeness. Del Torro commits himself to this character with unreserved dedication and provides most of the fuel that drives the plot, such as it is. He works absolutely perfectly with Depp to bring these characters to life.

There is so much about this movie that I really enjoy. It’s a brave film that does a good job of making something unflattering and pretty scary feel real and important. It’s full of wit and dry humor as well as laugh out loud moments. Even so, it is such an uneven and oddly paced movie that it doesn’t completely work for me. I’m going to try reading the book now to see if it helps me to appreciate this movie more.

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

I Heart Huckabees

July 14, 2011

I Heart Huckabees

Back when this movie first came out on DVD I was still working at Suncoast in the South Shore Plaza. About a week after it came out Mark Wahlberg came in to the store to buy some DVDs. I wish now that I had just grabbed a copy of this movie and asked him to sign it for me but I was too busy being cool and treating him like any other customer. It turns out, now that I’ve finally gotten around to watching this movie that it’s exactly my kind of weird nonsense, and I would really have liked to have been able to tell Mark how much I enjoyed watching him in this.

This is, basically, an existential comedy about the futility of modern life. Or something like that. Jason Schwartzman plays Albert Markovski, an environmental crusader who runs the local chapter of Open Spaces, a group that aims to preserve natural beauty from urban sprawl. He writes simply dreadful poetry and has lately been feeling that his efforts are futile. A smarmy smooth talking businessman from Huckabees, the vast retail chain, has been trying to get him booted out of the group he founded. He feels powerless and lost. And he keeps coincidentally running in to this tall, striking African. In an attempt to find answers (even though he doesn’t really know what the questions are) he turns to an “existential detective” agency he stumbles upon.

It is these detectives, a husband and wife team played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, that are the real heart of this movie. They offer answers, of a sort, to their clients. Not always the answers they were seeking, but answers nonetheless. Vivian (Lily Tomlin) is more of a traditional investigator: observing her clients in their day-to-day lives and searching for hidden clues to unlock their perceptions of reality. Her husband Bernard (Hoffman) on the other hand takes a much more metaphysical and holistic approach, using various techniques to try and help his clients understand the interconnectedness of all things and the contradictory nature of infinity.

These two are fascinated by the problems in Albert’s life and quickly insinuate themselves into it, bringing their investigation to his workplace, offering their services to his smarmy rival Brad, and generally sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Things get stranger when they introduce Albert to another existentially lost individual on a similar course – a fireman named Tommy Corn who has a problem with the whole “petroleum issue” that plagues modern life. Tommy is very badly lost, not just because his girlfriend has left him and taken his daughter but because he has deviated from the treatment provided by Vivian and Bernard. He has been sucked into a darker and more nihilistic philosophy espoused by a very angst ridden French woman named Caterine.

Very soon Albert and Tommy try to take their cases into their own hands, with predictably disastrous results. Albert goes out to meet the African, who seems like a genuinely pleasant person although his foster parents turn out to be fairly antithetical to Albert and Tommy’s more liberal agendas. (It’s a fairly difficult scene to watch I thought.) Then Caterine shows up and things really begin to fall apart, because rather than stressing the interconnectedness of all things she concentrates on the futility and isolation of human passions. (It turns out, of course, that she used to be a pupil of Vivian and Bernard until she turned to nihilism.)

The whole conclusion of the movie is a bit of a mess. There’s this big clash of pop psychology and of course Albert needs to figure out his own connection to Brad and there’s a lot of nonsense when Brad’s model girlfriend becomes “corrupted” by the existential detectives and stops trying to be beautiful. At times it feels like writer/director David O. Russell is just throwing everything at us at once to see what works. It doesn’t really matter though, because the movie has a genuinely kind heart and is just so much fun to watch. Mark Wahlberg as Tommy is a kind of lost child and a plaything for all these forces, and you feel genuine sympathy for him. Jude Law as Brad is one of the slimiest corporate bastards ever filmed, while at the same time actually being a little vulnerable when his own desperation begins to become apparent. It’s really Lily and Dustin’s movie though. She’s simply hilarious, particularly with her physical comedy when Vivian is “inconspicuously” investigating Albert’s life. He’s all profound wisdom and mind tricks. Together they work wonderfully as actors and as characters they effortlessly drive the movie forward and simply make it enjoyable to experience.

I just wish I had seen it earlier so I could have gotten Mark’s autograph, because I know if I had seen this when I had him in my store I would have gushed about it at him. Less fun for him, probably, but more fun for me.

July 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Big Fish

June 18, 2011

Big Fish

I told Amanda that we should watch this sentimental tall tale for Father’s Day, and we had planned to do that for a while. A couple days ago, however, we made different plans for Sunday that involved a different movie, so we moved this up a day to watch it on Father’s Day Eve.

This movie is probably the most transparent emotional manipulation I have ever witnessed. I chose it for Father’s Day because it is a story about a son learning about his father as his father is on his death bed. Will Bloom hasn’t spoken to his father in years because he’s a practical man who has become fed up with the ridiculous tall tales his father Ed always tells. When his father’s cancer worsens and it becomes apparent that there’s not much time left for him Will returns home to make one last attempt to find out the truth about his father behind all the fibs, fables and fairy tales.

That’s one way to look at the movie. The tired, mundane, rational way. Most of the movie, however is Ed Bloom’s life as told in his own words. It’s a tale with witches, giants, siamese twins, a werewolf, a hidden perfect town, and of course a big fish. It’s the flights of fancy that really bring the film to life as all the tall tales that Ed tells are brought to life in a magical, soft focus, wondrous way. Ed is not a man overly concerned with things like facts and reality. His life is bigger than that. Will, on the other hand, cannot stand the stories he was raised on, and despairs of ever actually knowing a single true thing about his father’s life. It’s in the reconciliation of these two world views that the movie finds its real magic.

The thing that delights me most in this movie are the fantasy aspects. The stories that Ed tells all have such a familiar feel to them. They have aspects of tall tales, or urban legend, of Greek mythology. Sure they’re impossible, but they have an internal logic that sort of works. I may have to pick up Daniel Wallace’s book, on which the movie is based. Certainly the adaptation for the screen by John August is wonderfully done. We get to see a lot of the stories produced in bizarro Burton style, but even better for me are the hints of other stories that suggest just how many other tales there are that we don’t get to see. Ed starts to talk about seeing an iceberg, for example, which was carried down to Texas to be used for drinking water. He is stopped when he tries to describe the time the family car was carried away by flies.

Also delightful are all the familiar faces throughout the movie. I chuckled to see Missi Pyle and Deep Roy so soon after seeing them in the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory movie. Steve Buscemi and Danny Devito play supporting roles. Burton of course has Helena Bonham Carter in his movie (playing a couple different roles here.) I always enjoy seeing Robert Guillaume (have I mentioned I once saw him on stage as the Phantom of the Opera?) Then there are the great performances of Billy Crudup as Will, Ewan McGregor as young Ed Bloom in all his stories and an absolutely mesmerizing performance by Albert Finney as the elderly and ailing Ed Bloom who tells us all his wonderful stories.

Tonight was only the second time I watched this film, and I think I actually liked it even more on the second go ‘round. Yes, it’s corny and manipulative. Yes I sob at the end. But it’s also charming and fun, and even has something to say about the importance of fantasy and the nature of truth. Besides which, it’s just a pretty movie to watch. Sometimes that’s enough for me.

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

Movie 472 – The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist – June 15th, 2011

I’m feeling a great deal better tonight than I was last night and so we opted for something neither of us had seen. Something we would likely need to pay rather close attention to, given that the conceit involves stage magic and illusion and a mystery. And I did want to pay rather close attention to it, though it wasn’t as intricate as it appears to be on the surface. Which was good, because I’m feeling better but not that much better. Still, this was the perfect sort of “new” movie for me to watch this evening.

One thing I’d like to lay to rest right away is the comparison of this movie to The Prestige. Yes, they’re both period pieces focused around a stage magician performing impossible tricks. Yes, there is a romance involved. But they’re not telling the same story and they’re not telling their stories in quite the same way. The lead characters aren’t the same sort of person and neither are the villains. I can see why comparisons are made, but I really don’t think they’re entirely fair because the movies themselves are doing different things. And with different mechanisms. And I greatly enjoyed The Prestige, but I also greatly enjoyed this movie and I don’t want to spend this review poking one in favor of the other or vice versa. So I won’t be.

And besides, this movie deserves a solo review. It is a gorgeously filmed movie with an excellent cast. The plot is somewhat predictable, but given how it’s executed, that didn’t seem to matter to me. The twist here isn’t the point so much as how the main character pulls it off. This is the story of the son of a cabinetmaker and the daughter of an aristocrat and how they fell in love and were parted. And it is the story of how the two managed to come together again, despite obstacles in their ways. It is the story of determination and cleverness and ruthlessness, which I thought was far better done than I expected.

It helps that I love Edward Norton and feel that he’s got a Gene Wilder quality to him in that he’s normally composed and contained but with an intensity that could erupt at any moment. And he never does here. As Eisenheim the Illusionist he is thoroughly under control the entire time. Even when he appears to be broken, he is under control. He is the master in this movie. Eisenheim shows up in Vienna, playing his show to mostly full houses. He performs illusions and stage magic along with a bit of mysticism and talk about the soul and the nature of time and the like. It infuses his show with a dream-like quality that clearly helps build his audience. When he gains the notice of the Crown Prince, he also re-meets his childhood sweetheart, Sophie. But Sophie is set to be engaged to the Prince. And the Prince has a nasty reputation with women.

I hesitate to explain the specifics of what happens next because telling too much reveals the trick to the plot. But the trick isn’t really that tricky. So look away if you hate spoilers please. Because I’m going to go into a little bit of detail.

The thing here is that Eisenheim knows straight away that the Prince will never allow Sophie to go and certainly not with him. It’s obvious. And the movie begins in the middle of the story, with all of these things having happened already. Sophie is apparently dead and Eisenheim is apparently raising her spirit. The Prince is already out to get Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl is already stuck in the middle of it all. And what the movie tells you is how they all got to this point. It seems clear to me right away that Eisenheim is using some form of illusion trickery to present Sophie’s “ghost” to the audience. And it is equally clear to me that he’s out to break the Prince. It’s the emotional build-up that’s important here.

Now, while I love Edward Norton and I loved him as the determined and enigmatic Eisenheim, two other stand-outs are Rufus Sewell as the Prince and Paul Gaimatti as Inspector Uhl. The Prince is the obvious villain from the first moment he appears on screen and Sewell has that gaunt and empty-eyed look that lends itself so well to either desperation or cruelty (and I’ll likely mention this again when we do the Harry Potter movies but much as I love Gary Oldman, I still think Sewell could have played an amazing Sirius Black). Inspector Uhl, on the other hand, is a man caught between what he knows is right and what he is bound to by law. He has to obey the Prince, but he admires Eisenheim and knows full well that the Prince is a dangerous man. And Giamatti plays him excellently, going between the two and trying to find a way to both help Eisenheim and stay true to the Prince, which is impossible. In the end he has to realize that it isn’t the Prince he must be true to, but the Emperor. By the time the reveal has happened and Uhl has realized the scale of the sleight of hand Eisenheim has managed to pull off, well, he can’t help but admire the skill. The Prince, after all, was a nasty piece of work and plotting to overthrow his father. So the orchestration of his downfall is hardly something to regret. And Uhl is shown from the start to be a man who appreciates a good trick, even when he’s the one who’s been tricked. And that’s when you (and Uhl) realize just how in control Eisenheim was the whole time. Like any good magician, he was misdirecting onto something flashy while the trick was performed in plain sight.

What really completes the movie for me is the cinematography and soundtrack. It would have been a lovely movie anyhow, but there’s a sepia-tone quality to many of the shots that puts it right in the time period for me. There’s a blurring and darkening around the edges in some shots, as if the film itself is old. A bit of a conceit, but it suits the feel of the film so well. The lighting is soft and warm and the music is haunting, which only makes the mood later on, when Eisenheim is performing his spirit routine, that much eerier. It’s very recognizably Philip Glass, but not in a bad way. My one complaint here would be that the film clearly prefers the stylized look of the illusions to making it clear that they are illusions, leaving it unclear as to how Eisenheim was performing the tricks. But I like it better to believe that it was all tricks. Done with mirrors and smoke. Because it makes it that much more interesting to have it all be for real and for Eisenheim to be that talented. That skilled. That clever and determined. It makes him a fascinating character and an equally fascinating center for the movie.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Neverland

May 19, 2011

Finding Neverland

I love a movie about the power of imagination. Which is very much what this movie is. In the spirit of Shakespeare in Love this is a fictionalization of the creation of a well known popular work. In this case it is a slightly more modern tale from the turn of the 19th century with the subject being the writing of Peter Pan.

Who better to play the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, than that eternal man-child himself Johnny Depp? It seems to be the role he was born to play. Barrie is portrayed as a man who takes great delight in childhood games and wild adventures of the imagination. When his latest play is a colossal flop and critical failure he finds solace in the companionship of a group of young brothers who have not lost the ability to dream. He spends more and more time with the Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother and finds in playing with them the inspiration for his next play – a mad fantasy about a boy who doesn’t ever want to grow up.

Much of the charm in this movie comes from the deft direction of Marc Forster. He wonderfully blends the world of imagination and play with the real world and shows us how these fantasies have a reality of their own. I would say that it has a very Gilliamesque feel to it, and that’s high praise coming from me. For the most part the magic in the film comes from simple tricks like inter-cutting between two viewpoints of the same dialog, or flying out parts of the set to show us the land of fantasy behind and around the mundane world. At one point in the fantasy world there are some gorgeous waves done in a sort of cut-out style which I assume to be the only CGI effects in the film. There are also a couple wonderfully creative camera tricks (like the kite POV shot) and one particular sweeping, soaring, absolutely impossible camera move that flies around the theater during the opening night of the play Peter Pan which completely blew my mind.

I was also mightily impressed by the very, very young Freddie Highmore who here plays the second youngest of the brothers, the practical Peter. It’s a great character – acting as a sort of foil to Barrie’s man who wants to play like a boy there’s Peter as the boy who doesn’t want to believe in childish things. It’s a demanding role, and many of the movie’s most emotional moments hinge on him, and Freddie is more than able to give it the power it deserves.

I do not, as a rule, spend time with children. Maybe it’s that I have too many bad memories of how awkward and painful it was to be one. Maybe it’s that I don’t like being cast in the role of an adult. As such it is difficult for me to sympathise with a character who chooses to spend most of his time playing with this brood. On the other hand, I do have wonderful memories of playing with my friend Randy in Narnia and Middle Earth and Xanth (all of which were somehow encompassed by a small stretch of fence and a rope swing in his back yard.) So I know what it is to see entire other worlds in this one.

I knew going into it that this movie would make me cry, and I was right. But it’s okay because there’s a hopefulness to the film. There’s a (very heavily beaten home) message to the movie about the wonder of dreams and the power they have to bring us hope in times of trouble. No matter how blatant the point may be I still find it to be a valid one. Me, I always wanted to escape to the 100 Acre Wood as a child and not to Neverland, but the gist is the same. This world we live in is only one aspect of our lives, and the worlds we imagine and play in are no less valid. I firmly believe that.

Now back to my video games.

May 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 400 – Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams – April 4th, 2011

A few things before I really get to the movie: One, we are now on movie 400. That’s pretty amazing to me. 400 movies in 400 days. We’ve watched through conventions, holidays and hospital visits. We’ve seen new movies, old movies, movies we liked, movies we hated. And we have a little under 200 more to go. I look at our list now and what’s left feels so small in comparison with when we started. Two, I had no idea this movie was based on a book. I often read through the IMDB trivia while we watch, because I like having a head full of pointless facts, and quite a lot of it had to do with the adaptation. Tomorrow I think I’m going to track down a copy of the book and check it out, because while I enjoy the movie, tidbits about the book intrigue me.

Now, on to the movie itself. This is one of those movies that everyone’s seen. It’s become a bit of a cultural icon, with the “If you build it…” line being quoted and spoofed all over the place. As is common with such things, it’s sort of reached the point where it’s inevitable that for every person who loves it and maintains that it’s a well made and meaningful movie, there’s someone else who thinks it’s overrated and maudlin. I fall somewhere in between. Because while I can see some of the criticism, I can’t deny that the movie makes me tear up every time I watch it. It has an emotional impact I appreciate.

The thing is, baseball is a vehicle here. Much as it is in The Natural. There’s a story to be told and baseball is used to carry it. I guess I just find this particular story more interesting. It’s a story about redemption and choices and family and growing up and growing old. We meet our main character, Ray Kinsella, and get a quick review of his life. He grew up in New York, rooted for the team opposing his father’s favorite. Resented his father’s push towards baseball. Headed to California for college and immersed himself in the 60s counter culture. He ended up marrying and starting a family, buying a corn farm in Iowa. His father died before they could make amends. They argued about baseball and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson and the Black Sox scandal and that sets the stage for the movie.

Ray hears a voice out in the corn one day. It tells him to build something and later he sees a baseball diamond out in his field. So he builds it. He sinks his family’s entire savings into it. And his wife is skeptical, but she helps him because he is utterly passionate about it. He has to build it. And after he does, “Shoeless” Joe shows up in the diamond. Young and in the prime of his career. Other players soon join him but he’s not done. Soon he’s tracking down an author named Terrence Mann, who heavily influenced his young adulthood. Then they go to find a man who played only a single game in the majors before retiring. Yes, it’s about baseball, but it’s a quest too. Complete with a road trip.

What I love about the movie is that it isn’t just about baseball. Yes, the sport is a keystone in the plot, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s a whole literary theme going on, with Mann and his works being a major point in Ray’s character. And there’s a strong theme of family, with Ray and his wife working as a team, with Ray and his daughter talking baseball and watching the ghosts of old greats play on their field. Ray’s wife Annie’s brother Mark shows up to threaten the farm, which is going bankrupt thanks to the space the baseball field takes up. And the spectre of Ray’s father, John, hovers through the entire story. And my favorite character (aside from Mann, who is played wonderfully by the fantastic James Earl Jones) is one who barely plays at all.

My absolute favorite character arc in this movie is Archie “Moonlight” Graham, or Doc Graham. He played a single game and retired, going back to school to become a doctor. Ray and Terrence learn that he took care of the whole town he lived in, devoting his life to making sure kids had the care they needed and the town held together. In a bit of time travel, Ray meets the late doctor, who corrects him when Ray says it was a tragedy that he only played for five minutes. Graham tells him no, if he’d only been a doctor for five minutes, that would be the tragedy. Graham doesn’t go with Ray, but then his younger self shows up, plays, and makes the same exact choice. To give it up and be a doctor. And there is something there that touches me. If I was going to get truly sentimental, I would say that it not only makes this movie for me, but it informed me as a person. That sometimes, some people just have to go down the path of service, not the path of glory. That those decisions will always be impossible to make any other way when we’re faced with them. I love Graham’s character. I love Burt Lancaster as his older self and Frank Whaley as his younger self. It sets this movie aside for me.

There are plenty of good performances in this movie, notably Ray Liotta as Jackson and Kevin Costner as Ray. I really like Amy Madigan as Annie and I always enjoyed her funky attitude towards the whole situation, questioning and accepting at the same time. Because it’s all fantastic. They build this field and then a dead ball player shows up in the middle of it before walking off into their cornfield. They have the same dream featuring Fenway Park and an author they hadn’t talked about before a PTA meeting discussing banning his books (and I love this movie for being so vehemently anti-censorship, by the way). And that’s ridiculous! But she stands firm because she knows it’s important and she’s a strong woman in the face of pressure. I love that.

So it’s heavy-handed. It’s heavy-handed in interesting ways for a movie that’s ostensibly about sports. It’s got a lot of thought in it, and a lot of care. And it’s got an Action Research! scene. It’s a movie that takes the time to make you want to care about the main character as well as the people around him. You care about Terrence Mann through him before you meet him. You care about the ball players and Doc Graham and you care about Ray’s father. It’s a fantasy movie. It’s got ghosts and magical voices and time travel, so there’s all of that going for it for me too. And it comes together. It all plays out in a well-paced movie that never feels uneven to me. It feels balanced and really, it feels literary. Which I know now is likely because it’s based on a book and I think that speaks well to it as an adaptation. We’ll see how I feel after I actually read the book itself.

April 4, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment