The LEGO Movie

Haven’t seen this one yet?  Definitely should.

The Lego Movie features voice talent from three of the best shows of the last ten years: Arrested Development (Will Arnett), Community (Alison Brie), and Parks and Recreation (Nick Offerman and Chris Pratt). It also stars Liam Neeson. Oh, and Morgan Freeman.

Lots of movies are about the importance of teamwork. Lots of movies are about the importance of individuality. Most of them aren’t even very good. But I don’t think there’s ever been a movie celebrating BOTH teamwork and individuality. And both themes are fully developed! That’s an impressive act of compositional acrobatics right there.

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How Frozen Should Have Ended

For all the hyperbolic praise lavished on it and all the interpretive controversy surrounding it, here’s what I took away from finally seeing Disney’s Frozen last week: it’s very good, and decently thought provoking, but it is neither one to the degree that everyone says it is.

The animation and music are excellent, though not unusually so–Frozen is great in those ways, but it is not a masterpiece. For example, the symbolism of Elsa’s power is muted in vagueness–the simplest explanation of Elsa’s power is that she’s merely an introvert.

And this is where the characterization in the film went off track.  (Warning: spoilers ahead; on the off-chance that you’re even more out-of-the-loop than I and still haven’t seen it, the following may not make much sense, anyway.)

The whole concept of the film is that Elsa is different.  Hardly revolutionary stuff in storytelling, but the plot makes it clear that Elsa doesn’t have anything against people, but her nature makes it hard to be around them.  Her sister, on the other hand, is a social butterfly.

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Reviewed: Days of Heaven

I was interested in the work of Terrence Malick after seeing Tree of Life.  As I started watching his much earlier film Days of Heaven, I was at first reminded of Ron Howard’s Far and Away: young lovers brought together and separated by the the trials of pioneer life in an earlier American era, set against the gorgeous backdrops of that unsullied wilderness.

But where Howard’s movie was a fun bit of pop celluloid, Malick’s is art.

The style is wholly ambitious.  Not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey in this sense, he uses dialogue sparsely, and constructs a deceptively simple plot.  Much of the film’s meaning is communicated symbolically through the physical environment on which the story is imposed.

Days of Heaven begins in fire: the furnaces of a factory and the violence that attends them.  After this prologue, we enter the paradise promised in the title; indeed, the story’s central act is truly a season of heaven on earth, one of those times in life where everything is perfect and you just lose yourself in the rapture of it all.

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2013: My Year in Film

I got out of the habit of keeping track of what I watched last year.  I’m back in it, but for now, here are the first 12 movies I can remember seeing for the first time last year, in alphabetical order:

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

So much swashbuckling fun!  Actually saw this as a little kid, but couldn’t remember much about it; watched this with the fam now, and everybody loved it.  Errol Flynn is the perfect Robin Hood (“You speak treason!” “…Fluently.”)

Strange to contrast this with 1991′s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie so bad I hadn’t bothered to see it again since then, and when I did this year, I thought it was even worse.  From the constant hero shots of Costner’s mullet, to the weird ways they contort their own screenplay to find excuses to use Morgan Freeman’s character, this is a sad, obvious bunch of clichés.  What a joke.  At least Alan Rickman knew enough to ham it up.

10/10 (the 1938 version!)

 

Babette’s Feast (Danish, 1987)

My main train of thought watching this was how different–and how much worse–this would have been as an American production.  In a Hollywood version, Babette would have been a sexy cougar whose metaphorically erotic orgy of food would have “liberated” all the “narrow-minded prudes” around her, freeing them all to “be who they really are.”

As it is, Babette’s Feast is far more subtle, realistic, and, therefore, moving.

8/10

 

Ikiru (Japanese, 1952)

Honestly, I didn’t see what the big deal about this Kurosawa classic was for most of the film.  Sure, it was poignant and beautiful, but not earth-shatteringly so.  Until the final act.  That daring bit of directorial bravado–where tipsy mourners at the protagonist’s wake review his final days, intercut with scenes of the great living in question–profoundly impressed me.  Genuinely insightful and impressive.

Another contrast with a hypothetical American version: in Hollywood, Watanabe would have had a love affair with Toyo in the second act, finding his passion for life in the arms of a young woman.  How sad that we’re so predictable.

10/10

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The Dark Knight Rises

I just got home from seeing a marathon of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, including the new one, and I have to work out some thoughts.  I kept this spoiler free, but most of these ideas will make more sense after you’ve seen it, which (spoiler alert?) I strongly recommend you do.

  • The biggest question, of course, is how good is it?  Does The Dark Knight Rises live up to the other films, especially the second?  Certainly it’s an excellent work, and I’ll be honest that my preference is for the new film (even though I eventually loved The Dark Knight), but I’m fairly confident that most people will say that they thought The Dark Knight was even better.  Most fans of the series will still opt for its darker, more complex vision.  Fair enough.
  • But consider that they are very different movies.  TDK was a dense, episodic thriller.  In fact, watching it again during tonight’s marathon, I was struck by just how much ground Nolan covered.  TDKR, however, is a more linear narrative, with a single focus, albeit one that constantly crescendos to an emotionally explosive climax.  Where TDK packed in as much of everything as possible, TDKR actually goes out of its way to strip down the distractions of excessive characters and subplots so it can develop its primary interests as much as possible.

Best Bond Fight In Best Bond Movie

I say that the best James Bond movie was 1963′s From Russia With Love.  My favorite scene is the fight on the Orient Express.

The trend in film has always been for fights to become more and more stylized, but this fight scene is the perfect balance of choreography and brutal, realistic brawling.  Add to that the fact that the scene is done in a confined space, in the dark, and you’ve really got a classic action achievement here.  Just shy of half a century has passed since this one came out, and it’s still one of the best fight scenes ever shot.

 

Recommended: Jeremiah

Checked this out from the library a while back and really enjoyed it.  This drama not only has better production values than most small, Biblical movies, but it even stars future Grey’s Anatomy lead Patrick Dempsey, to boot.

Jeremiah tells a vivid story of the Old Testament prophet’s reluctant, melancholy rebellion against a corrupt and complacent status quo, and keeps the major narrative very faithful to the Biblical text.  Dempsey shines in this role; his acting strong suit has always been an uncanny ability to convey betrayed surprise–the hurt look on the face of a lost puppy dog.  That woeful innocence comes in handy a lot as he portrays the saddest prophet in Israel’s history.

Latter-day Saints have a special soft spot for Jeremiah, I think, as the Book of Mormon suggests that he was a contemporary of the first patriarch in that sacred text, a man named Lehi, who likewise foretold doom in Jerusalem and was violently rejected for it.  One can easily imagine Lehi preaching just around the corner in most scenes of this film.

The few shots of violence are tasteful and true to the source material, but perhaps a little too intense for the youngest viewers.  Other than that, anyone with an interest in Biblical literature, history, or belief would be better off for seeing Jeremiah.

Cast Away

I watched this a few weeks ago, and it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.  Not too many actors could have sold the scene of mourning for Wilson so authentically, grieving for a lost volleyball.

 

 

Just as impressive is the quiet speech Hanks gives about the inspiring power of endurance.  In the hands of many actors, it would have come off as melodramatic, but Hanks delivers it with majestic understatement.

 

 

Speaking of majestic understatement, I can’t think of another film where the musical score so perfectly complemented the film in style and substance.  This hauntingly hollow track gives me goosebumps; its sparse spaces are full of depth:

 

 

But before this appreciation gets too full of itself, here’s a classic commercial joke based on the film:

 

How Modern Russian Cinema Evolved From Orson Welles

Just saw Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil last month.  This impressive opening scene is the best part of the movie.  A lot of technical wizardry must have gone into making this long tracking shot work–not to mention tons of rehearsal.

Even more impressive, though, is the 2002 film Russian Ark, which I also saw last month.  A hypnotic tour of the Hermitage from the point of view of a ghost who slips around in time with no transition other than moving from room to room of the huge art museum / royal residence, the entire film is composed of a single shot.  It’s the only feature film ever done like this, and it’s fascinating.  Especially great for art lovers–hundreds of masterpieces are lovingly showcased throughout. Below is the first 13 minutes, plus part of a “making of” documentary.

 

2011: My Year In Movies

I watched a lot of movies in 2011.  This was the first year that I kept track, and I was surprised just how many there were.  Of course, a lot of these were for my project of seeing all of the non R-rated movies on AFI’s top 100 American films list.  I’ll give more details and reviews on those next week.  For now, here’s my overall 2011 list.  Notice how my rate drops off when the AFI project finished, and when the fall semester started.  Alas.  Keep in mind, the 1-10 scores are how much I enjoyed watching them, and does not somehow measure any objective quality (which explains #18, I hope).  Perfect tens are in italics.

  1. The Philadelphia Story, 1/8–7

  2. The Great Escape, 1/9–9

  3. Amadeus, 1/12–10 Continue reading

The Dark Knight Reconsidered

Three years ago, I wrote a critical review of The Dark Knight which earned me a thorough beat down from a whole host of readers.  My review was based on my visceral reaction to the psychological torture and moral shades of gray that I saw in the film at the time. 

However, I finally watched it again last week.  A few things made me want to give it another chance:

  • The teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises hints that this third film will be a redemptive story with a more clear-cut victory, perhaps making this a trilogy in the Star Wars-Empire-Jedi format.  I can appreciate that. 
  • Last year I read Frank Miller’s graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, which obviously influenced Christopher Nolan’s movie.  It was excellent. 
  • Anne Hathaway will be in The Dark Knight Rises, so I pretty much have to see it. 

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Reviewed: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Here’s a cute 1927 silent film by the same German director who made Nosferatu.  In it, a young country couple are torn apart as the husband is seduced by a woman from the city, who convinces him to kill his wife.  The young man can’t quite do it, however, and the film traces the path the estranged spouses take to fall in love again. 

Now, this is all fine and good but, despite the film’s undeniable quality, it bothered me and I didn’t buy the story.  This is a romance where a young husband spends the film shyly winning over the heart of his beloved again…after he comes within moments of murdering her with his bare hands.  Is nobody else turned off by this? 

Look, I can understand a woman wanting to give her family a second chance, but if a guy is only inches away from strangling you and throwing your body in a lake, I’ve got to think that it’s a deal breaker.  Any subsequent tomfoolery and lighthearted twitterpation is going to ring a little hollow. 

But if you can get past that, it is a cute movie–the girl looks like Drew Barrymore and there’s a scene where the couple rekindles their affection by watching someone else’s wedding, which reminded me of a similar scene in Independence Day

But, really, the breezy dismissal of some pretty serious domestic violence here kind of weirded me out. 

 

The Best Movie You’ve Never Seen

A project I’m doing this year has required me to watch a lot of old silent movies.  I’ve seen a few Charlie Chaplin movies, as well as two D.W. Griffith epics, and a few others.  They’ve all been worthwhile, but there’s no problem picking the one I’ve most enjoyed.

Buster Keaton’s 1927 film The General is a silent film in black and white, and is one of the funniest, most action-packed movies I’ve ever seen.  I loved every minute of it.  It’s brilliantly fun.

The majority of the film takes place while one train chases another, and then the hunter from the first half becomes the hunted later on.  Buster Keaton performs almost constant slapstick, always with a quiet, deadpan demeanor, and performs more dangerous stunts than I could count.  Since there are no stuntmen or special effects to speak of, I actually had to remind myself that the many stunning visuals in the film were achieved by actually doing them on camera.  Keaton could have died multiple times while pulling off these stunts and jokes.  (Jackie Chan has always said that Buster Keaton was a huge inspiration in his own career.)

This version on YouTube (the movie’s in the public domain) has a jazz soundtrack added, from a German band which apparently often performed along with this film (you know, like The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon).  It perfectly complements the action.  You’re in for a real treat.

Reviewed: Eraserhead

It seems pretty trite in film review circles to say that Eraserhead is surrealist, subjective, and impossible to definitively interpret.  Sure, it has a lot of seeming randomness and bizarre conventions, but the gist of the film is pretty clear: the modern world is confusing and scary, and we are ill-equipped emotionally to deal with it. 

The plot is actually fairly trite (maybe that’s why Lynch had to dress it up so esoterically): a young couple, Henry and Mary, is forced together by a surprise pregnancy, but neither is comfortable with it, and they fall apart.  That’s pretty much it.  Yes, there are plenty of “extra” thoughts, but that’s the main idea. 

The baby, though, is a needy, deformed monster; like much in this film, it doesn’t seem fully human.  Eraserhead is hardly the only movie from the 1970’s to demonize domestic life in general and children in particular: think Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, and The Omen

What really struck me, though, was the pervasive misogyny in the film.  Continue reading