A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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

Ghost World

October 26, 2011

Ghost World

I love absolutely everything about the first two thirds or so of this movie. I bought it for Thora Birch, and she is awesome. I also bought it because it was based on an indie comic book, and it has that strange quality to it, which I also enjoy. It has Steve Buscemi, who is always cool. There are parts of this movie that feel like almost a live action Daria – full of cynicism and angst.

On the other hand, this movie is pretty painful to watch. The character that Thora Birch plays, Enid, is so completely jaded that she ends up being pretty nasty to just about everybody. She’s bitter and mean, often without really meaning to be. Over the course of the movie she befriends an eccentric loser that she starts the movie tormenting and ultimately she proceeds to destroy his life.

At the start of the movie Enid and her best friend Rebecca graduate from high school, with all the social awkwardness that such an event holds for a pair of cynical girls who are too smart to really be dealing with high school peers. They have no plans to go to college, instead they intend to move into an apartment together and live their own quirky life. They spend their time being snarky, following strangers and making fun of them, and generally trying not to be a part of the pathetic suburban lives of everybody around them.

I fully understand that aloof angst, and although Enid is fairly cruel a lot of the time there’s a good amount of humor in seeing the way she dismisses the shallow world she finds herself inhabiting. In general Rebecca is the stable one of the two and Enid is a the instigator who thinks it would be hilarious to follow that strange looking couple or prank call some guy who placed a desperate singles ad.

So Enid calls the guy and pretends to be the woman he saw one day on a bus and watches as he sits sadly waiting for the woman to show up. After that she follows the guy home and eventually discovers that he’s actually kind of cool in his own pathetic and lonely kind of way. He collects all kinds of cool kitchy stuff. Old timey records (he has a collection full of items that are one of only two known remaining copies for example) and pictures and posters – everything in his apartment has a sort of patina of things left over from a lost age.

Enid befriends Seymore because, really, he’s just so awesome. She spends a lot of the movie hanging around with him. Going to his awkward record collector party. Trying to fix him up with women. Throwing him a birthday party. He ends up with a kind of crush on her, which she doesn’t really understand because she’s so caught up in being miserable about her own life.

Amanda found this movie almost physically painful to watch. I fully understand why, too, because it’s all about depression and embarrassment, or at leas appears to be for huge swaths of the movie. I find it hard as well. At the same time, however, I love these characters, and the actors that play them, so much that I can’t stop watching because these are the kind of people I’d like to spend my time with. My best friend in college, Christine, was basically a less depressive version of Enid. She had that same love for kitch and that same inability to say no to the craziest of impulses. I suppose that most of the reason I enjoy this movie is that it reminds me of the adventures Christine would drag me into back in those days. It’s a nostalgia thing.

October 26, 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 601 – Titus

Titus – October 21st, 2011

How better to follow up an enormous long slog of a movie than to watch a movie that’s only slightly shorter, right? Except where Jackson’s King Kong dragged on and on and made me doubt my will to live, I love this movie in all it’s horrifying, bloody, murderous, mixed-up-time-period, Julie Taymore glory. Oh, it’s not an easy one to watch, and some truly nasty things are done not just by the villains but by the heroes, but it is a beautiful movie and I would rather watch it ten times back to back than watch King Kong ever again.

Now, if you saw the name “Julie Taymore” and immediately thought of Spiderman, it’s okay. I understand. We all know about Turn Off the Dark, and I’m sure she’s very sorry. Having not seen her production of The Lion King, I can’t really say if this is any closer to that, but since that got good reviews and is known for being a hugely elaborate adaptation of the story, I’d say it’s a good bet that it is. My point is that Taymore has a somewhat mixed reputation, but I believe this falls on the “good” side of things. She’s also got a penchant for putting things on a grand scale and this certainly is grand. It is huge. It is lush. It is decadent. And that is absolutely perfect for the story being told. It is the story of an empire in decline and if you look up the word “decadent” you will see that its original meaning was a good deal more negative than its current meaning. It does share a root with “decay,” after all. And that right there is the point.

This is one of the few Shakespearean plays I never had to read academically. Having taken a fair deal of Shakespeare in both high school and college (with a few of his plays scattered throughout other classes not focused entirely on his work), I’ve read a lot by now. This isn’t one of them, however, which is a pity. I wish I had read this for a class. I wish I’d read it when I took my college Shakespeare class, which was the semester after I took a Victorian literature class in which we talked about the rotten core of decadence. I’d have written a far different final paper for the Shakespeare class and perhaps had a better time writing it. Ah well, no going back now. It’s just that this is the sort of story (and this version the sort of telling) that I absolutely love digging into. It’s full of horrible actions and questionable morals and unchecked vengeance and terrible consequences. Also, this version has Alan Cumming in a fabulous coat. What more could I ask for?

Okay, so I could ask for less racism. In modern writing I do ask for less racism. In Shakespeare I wish for less racism but I know better than to expect it. What I find fascinating about this story is that so many of the characters are villains. This isn’t really a story with a hero. This isn’t a story with good guys and bad guys. There are, instead, bad guys, badder guys and innocents. Let’s face it: Titus himself starts the story by killing Tamora’s son to make a point even as she pleads for mercy. That’s harsh. That’s not the way you set up an unambiguous hero. That Tamora ends up spending the rest of the movie working out a means to exact vengeance on Titus is fairly understandable at that point. That Titus then exacts revenge upon her for her acts of revenge? Again, understandable. That Aaron, a Moor living in the Emperor’s court, is one of the tools Tamora uses and that he is evil solely because of his race? Not understandable.

Fortunately for this movie, Aaron is played by the absolutely fantastic Harry Lennox. What he does with this part is nothing short of amazing. In this movie, I can begin to buy that Aaron’s motivations aren’t so cheaply explained as “Oh yeah, he’s a Moor, so of course he’s evil.” No. Here? I can believe that his race is involved, but it is because of decades upon decades of mistreatment that he acts as he acts. That he himself is exacting vengeance, not for his own life alone, but for his entire race. That to see an empire that treated his people so badly fall as this one does, is his aim. It is so much grander than the petty villainy of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. I would have to go back and read this play very close to see if I could tease all this out on my own, but without doing that I think I can rely on how this movie plays out to give it to me. And it is excellently done.

The idea of vengeance begetting vengeance begetting vengeance, until everything is in ruin, that is the story of the play. Titus, a Roman general, imprisons Tamora, queen of the Goths. He kills her eldest son and then goes home from war. Titus backs one son of the Emperor, but the other prevails and then weds Tamora, of all people. And it just goes downhill from there. Horrible things happen in this story and the movie doesn’t necessarily show it all on screen, but it certainly doesn’t shy away from showing the consequences. When Tamora’s remaining two sons brutally rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter? We don’t see it happen. But we do see Lavinia after, her hands gone, her tongue gone, clearly in horrible distress. We see her attempt to communicate to her father what has happened. And we know. We can’t help but know. Oh, there’s plenty of blood and gore in this movie, but it’s all stylized. It’s made obvious without this being a horror film.

Granted, the whole movie is stylized. Honestly, I think that’s for the best. Given how horrible some of the subject matter is, I think in order for the movie to have the depth that it has, that subject matter needed to be dealt with in a stylized manner. Otherwise this is just blood and guts and vengeance, not the meaning behind it all. In this, I really appreciate Julie Taymore’s flair for the dramatic. It’s made abundantly clear by the use of enormous sets and huge casts that Saturninus’ empire is dangerously over the top. I absolutely adore Alan Cumming as Saturninus, by the way. He’s not a likeable character, but he plays the horribly unlikeable Saturninus so well. Add that to Taymore’s choices of aesthetics, which blend time periods into bizarre yet effective visuals, and you have a truly beautiful movie to watch. But she’s also got an amazing cast, which makes it a fantastic movie to pay attention to as well. By the end, when nearly everyone is dead and Aaron gives his final speech, we’ve seen a movie full of people making terrible choices that they felt were justified. We’ve seen the effect those choices had not only on the people who made them but on their friends and enemies alike. It’s not a pleasant movie, no, but it is a good movie, and well worth the time spent watching it.

October 22, 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 598 – Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides – October 19th, 2011

When this movie came out in theaters I remember considering going to see it and considering some more and ultimately I just wasn’t excited enough about it to bother making time to go. I heard mixed reviews. Some people said it was pretty good, other people said it was mediocre, and other people said it wasn’t fantastic, but it was better than the third one. And you know, that’s just not the sort of ringing endorsement I need for something I’m not excited for on my own. Don’t get me wrong: I do enjoy the Pirates movies. But it’s pretty obvious that the first one was the best and the rest have struggled a bit to compare.

In the end, I played through the movie’s plot in the LEGO video game version before I actually saw the movie. It’s kind of a funny way to do things. I’ve played a bunch of the LEGO games, but before I played them I’d already seen the movies they were based on. If you’ve never played one of the LEGO games, I highly recommend them. The funny thing about them is that they really do a good job of recreating the settings the key plot points take place in, and they use the movies’ plots for the goals of each level. When playing, you can recognize that. Here, it was the other way around. In particular, I was amused to see that the end really did involve the rather complicated means of using the fountain of youth. And to be honest? Most of my interest in this movie came from that game. I just wasn’t really that invested.

Most of the movie is a bit of a blur to me, and I’m pretty confident that it’s not just that I’m writing this well after watching it. Not that it doesn’t have its moments, but it veers far too close to the trying-too-hard line for me to be drawn into it. I remember far more about the third movie and it’s been a lot longer since I last watched that. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood. Maybe it’s that this doesn’t feel like it needs to involve Jack himself in order to happen. After all, he’s not the only one who finds his way to the fountain of youth by the end of the movie. He feels almost incidental here, despite the crucial map everyone needs starting out in his possession.

On the other hand, I do applaud the choice to move on beyond Will and Elizabeth. Not that I’d have minded another two hours of Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, but their characters had their arc. It would have been possible to go back to them, but it would have felt forced. Better to leave them and move on to someone new. Angelica, a former lover of Jack’s and a fierce pirate in her own right, was a lot of fun to watch. Penelope Cruz did a very nice job with the character, making her feisty and unpredictable, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again, to be honest. And I always have liked Barbossa. It’s fun seeing him play the sort of gray area character. Really, that’s one of the things I like about these movies: The pirates are almost always rooting for themselves. Oh, they’ll help someone else if it suits them (and by “suits them” I include blackmail and the like), but if left to their own devices, they are looking out for number one. And that’s pretty consistent even here.

This movie’s plot centers on the search for the legendary fountain of youth. A number of different people want to find it, so it’s a bit of a race to get to it along with the necessary items one needs in order to use it. Said items are a pair of silver chalices and the tear(s) of a mermaid. It’s a bit like a scavenger hunt. Jack ends up roped into it all for a couple of reasons: 1. He has a map. 2. Barbossa’s dropped his name. 3. He ends up hearing that someone using his name has a ship and is putting a crew together. Turns out it’s not him putting the crew together. Surprise! It’s Angelica, and the ship isn’t the Black Pearl, it’s her father’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge. Angelica’s father is the famed Captain Blackbeard, a pirate with occult powers that let him control every inch of his ship through his own will. Blackbeard’s interested in the fountain because he’s been told he’ll be killed by a one-legged man and he’d like to not be killed at all. The other folks who want the fountain are the British government and the Spanish government. And then it’s a mad dash and the aforementioned scavenger hunt.

I seem to recall some crossing and double crossing and Blackbeard’s kind of a jackass, but his daughter loves him and all. He’s got a missionary on his ship, captured a while back and spared because of Angelica (who had been set to join a convent before meeting Jack). Turns out it’s a good thing they’ve got him, because when they capture a mermaid they totally fall in love and without that she’d never have cried and there wouldn’t have been any magic tears and whoops, there goes the plot. Though to be honest, I found the mermaid storyline far more interesting than anything to do with Jack in this movie.

What this movie does well is to build more of the world it’s set in. I remember being pretty impressed with the ocean-going lore involved in the other movies and this one follows right along. The mermaids are nicely done and I like how that little storyline ends up going. I also like that Blackbeard has actual ships in bottles. These movies have a nicely unreal feel to them, which works for me largely because well, the reality of pirates isn’t nearly as romantic and fun as the fantasy. So taking these bits and pieces of superstition and fantasy and mixing them together is a good way to go. It’s just that what this movie doesn’t do well is engage me in its entirety. Maybe I’m bored with Jack. Maybe the franchise is bored with him. He was a great character to start with and I get that he’s at the center of the series, but I kind of wish he didn’t have to be. Moments like his reaction to Barbossa’s hollow wooden leg just don’t come frequently enough in this movie. I’m not sure where that leaves the franchise, and at least this wasn’t a bad movie, but maybe it’s time to call it a day before a bad movie is what they have to end on.

October 19, 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