Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Locke

Wait, what?  Tom Hardy is an actor?  I mean, sure, he was terrific in Bronson, but his character was so over the top that he seemed kind of easy to play.  Locke, however, is a movie about a concrete engineer driving to London in a car.  That’s it.  We never leave the car.  We never see any other actors.  Hardy barely even moves – he just has one cell phone conversation after another as his life crumbles around his ears.

But oh man, does Hardy sell it.  We come to admire his character’s professionalism, feel aghast at his mistakes, and completely engage in his problems.  No voice over, no scenery, just a guy and a phone and a crisis.  It’s brilliant, masterful stuff (written and directed by Steven Knight), and it puts Hardy in an entirely different league.  This is the kind of movie that lands an action star in prestige pictures.
And that screenplay – wow.  It fills in the story like a painter adding layers, each layer expanding and deepening the picture.  I want to read it.

This is a brilliant film.  I’m so glad I saw it.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Top Five

Chris Rock’s Top Five is heartfelt and funny and a great time at the movies.

Here’s the setup: Rock’s character is a former comedian and comic actor whose attempts at dramatic film have fallen flat.  Now, on the eve of the opening of his latest film (a misconceived epic about the Haitian Slave Revolt of 1791), he’s juggling a ‘New York Times’ interview, promotion duties for his film, and his upcoming celebrity wedding extravaganza.  Oh, and he’s trying to stay sober.

The ‘New York Times’ reporter is Rosario Dawson, which robs the celebrity wedding storyline of much of its urgency, but that’s ok.  This isn’t a film about dramatic tension: it’s a film about one day in a man’s life, a crossroads day in which nothing blows up and nobody gets shot, but in which everything changes.

Watching it, I found myself comparing Top Five to Birdman, another film about an actor in crisis.  Both films feature a style of heightened dialogue in that everyone’s funny in the former and everyone’s overwrought in the latter.  But there’s a key difference: Top Five’s characters feel like real people saying real things, even when they’re clearly speaking for comic effect.  That naturalism draws us into the story, and it makes the jokes land.  This film may have a serious premise, but it’s also very much a laugh – out - loud comedy written by a genius.  It’s just wonderful.

No kidding: I laughed.  I cried.  I loved Top Five.  I look forward to seeing it again.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Catching Up

AMERICAN SNIPER


American Sniper did absolutely everything it set out to do.  While I doubt it meant to remind me that I never want to go back to that part of the world again, it did that, too.

However, it seemed to tread much of the same ground as The Hurt Locker, with its emphasis on the pull of repeated deployments and the toll they take on both servicemembers and families.  The problem, of course, is that I’ve already seen The Hurt Locker.  What does American Sniper bring to the table?

20 FEET FROM STARDOM

Everyone has a story, including backup singers.  20 Feet from Stardom tells this story, and it does so in a way that not only captured me in the moment, but has made me more aware of the contributions of backup singers to my favorite songs.  

BIRDMAN

At no point while watching Birdman did I feel like I was watching actual people say things in the real world.  Consequently, I never suspended my disbelief and never lost myself in the story.

My theater friends, however, seemed universally to love it.  Since it’s set in a theater, perhaps it spoke to them in a way I just didn’t get.  Regardless, I can only report that Birdman never, not for even a moment, worked for me.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS

I’d like to note that I enjoyed The Magnificent Ambersons, but I don’t have time to give it the writeup it deserves.  Consequently, I’ll leave you with this brief Pauline Kael review.

THE GREAT GATSBY

I don’t know, man.  I love Strictly Ballroom, so I support Baz Luhrmann on general principle (that, and a sense that us guys with two “n”s at the end of our names have got to stick together.).  But some stories are better left on the page.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ranks among the most depressing action-adventure films I’ve ever seen.  Here’s a movie whose ending is written into the title, so though we may root for the various “good primate” factions to overcome, we know what’s coming.

Because of this, I couldn’t commit to the story.  Instead, I dwelled on the remarkable special effects.  This way this film bring its apes to life is worth the ticket price alone.

OUR IDIOT BROTHER

I loved Our Idiot Brother.

I don’t think I can do the movie justice, however, so I’ll post a link to the Ebert review that so stuck in my mind that, years after reading it, led me to queue up the film.  I hope it works for you, too, because Our Idiot Brother is funny, touching, and crazy smart.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Snowpiercer

Joon-ho Bong is one of the most interesting directors going right now.  With Memories of Murder, The Host, Mother, and now Snowpiercer, he’s building a filmography of subtle, exciting, and thought provoking films.  This is a name that guarantees a spot on my queue.

Snowpiercer, Bong’s first production with a primarily Western cast, stars Captain America’s Chris Evans as the leader of a rebellion on mankind’s last ark in an apocalyptic snowscape.  Supporting cast members include John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris, and Alison Pill, as well as previous Bong collaborators Ah-sung Ko of The Host and the great Kang-ho Song of The Thirst.

Why throw all those names at you?  To tell you that Joon-ho Bong is a serious cat.  He’s someone with whom people want to work.

Snowpiercer’s a great example of why.  This is a carefully written, fully realized film that works as an action adventure, a social parable, and even something of a whodunit.  It features memorable performances, brilliant setpieces, and dialogue that provokes thought without ever drawing the viewer out of the film.


This is just a terrific movie, and well worth your time.  Fire up Snowpiercer.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Whiplash



There’s a scene in Whiplash, a film about a young man learning just how dedicated to success he actually is, that spoke to me.  In the scene, the protagonist (a young drummer at a prestigious music conservatory) breaks up with his girlfriend.  He tells her something along the lines of, “I’m more dedicated to music than to you.  This will, inevitably, hurt your feelings.  Let’s break up before things get ugly.”

It reminded me of my time at Cal State, grinding out the work so I could get into the Naval Academy.  I was sitting in the Student Union, studying for an exam, when my (then) girlfriend joined me at the table.  

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi.  I’m studying for an exam.  It’s in an hour, so I need to focus.  Let’s talk later.”

“Ok.”  pause.  pause. pause. “What’s the exam on?  Do you like the professor?  What do you want to do this weekend?”

“Now’s not a good time.  I really need to focus.  Let’s talk later.”

“Ok.”  pause.  pause.  pause.  “I was talking to X this morning.  She said Y, so I said …”

I put up a hand.  “Stop.  Go away.”  I dug my headphones out of my bag and huddled over my books.  Shocked, she complied.

The relationship didn’t last much longer, but that’s ok.  That’s the point.  When you’re young and ambitious, monomania is practically required.  Whiplash gets this, telling the story of its protagonist’s monomaniacal devotion to his drumming, even in the face of a monstrously abusive teacher.  He practices until his hands bleed, ices them, wraps them, and practices some more.  He withstands torrents of abuse, breaks, then practices some more.  He gets that success only comes through grinding labor, not a montage.

I respected the heck out of this kid.  Because I respected him, I invested in him even though I don’t care about drumming and don’t care about jazz.  And that’s the magic of this movie.  It draws us into a world about which we may be ignorant or uninterested, and it brings it to life and a compelling way.  You should see it.


That is, unless you have work to do.

Monday, March 16, 2015

My Cousin Vinny

My Cousin Vinny is laugh-out-loud funny, warmhearted, and so carefully constructed that it’s like a master class in storytelling.  My Cousin Vinny is a classic.


The film is a fish-out-of-water comedy in which newly-minted lawyer Vinny Gambini (Joe Pesci) and his fiancĂ©e Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei, in an Academy Award winning performance) travel to deepest Alabama to defend Vinny’s cousin in a murder trial.  The cousin (Ralph Maccio) and a friend had been road-tripping through the South on their way to college when a case of mistaken identity landed them in Jail, so it’s up to Vinny to save the day.

This movie could have gone wrong in so many ways.  It could have portrayed the locals as hicks or thugs or any number of offensive stereotypes one could pin on Southerners.  It could have turned Vinny into a crook or a goomba or any number of offensive stereotypes one could pin on New Yorkers.  Instead, it paints the Southerners as decent, honest professionals who are trying to do the right thing.  It paints the New Yorkers as decent (basically) honest hustlers who are trying to do the right thing.  In fact, there’s so much decency and honesty going around that this film has no villain (other than the real killers, who remain helpfully out of frame). 

This lack of a villain grants the film a certain bonhomie, a sense that everything’s going to be ok, even though we know the stakes are high.  This gives us room to laugh, and My Cousin Vinny capitalizes on that room to deliver one gag after another, each rooted in the characters and situation and not simply pulled from the ether.

The film also benefits from its near-perfect construction.  My Cousin Vinny doesn’t have a one wasted shot or line of dialogue.  Everything we see either lays the foundation for something to come later, tells us something about the characters, or sets up a laugh – often, all at the same time.  It’s one of those rare comedies that rewards repeat viewing, as it gives us the opportunity to enjoy seeing all the pieces move into place.

In short, I love this movie.  I see it every few years and, every few years, it delights me.  My most recent viewing was with my 14-year-old.  I’m pleased to report that it delights the next generation, as well.  Movies just don’t get much better than My Cousin Vinny.

PS  Shoutout to costume designer Carol Wood.  This was her last film, and the things she did with Marisa Tomei are simply magnificent.  Brava!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Loose Ends


Man, this whole "job and family thing really gets in the way of blogging.  Here are some short observations about what's been on my screen.

22 Jump  Street 
Don’t make my mistake.  Do not watch 22 Jump Street in a public, yet quiet, place.  I watched it while riding as a passenger in an airplane, and I spent roughly 90 minutes biting my knuckles to keep from guffawing.
This is my kind of comedy.  It’s clever, it’s packed with gags that hit us in rapid succession, and it even blows up a car.  Really, what more could you possibly want?
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Eh.  I’m getting too old for this $#!^.
Noah
Noah drags through its first act, then turns on the juice once the rain starts falling.  If you can get past the fact that everyone’s Caucasian and has British accents, then it’s easy to accept lava monsters and ancient industrialized civilizations.  Soon, you can immerse yourself in Aronofsky’s tale of justice and mercy, prophecy and insanity.  Just don’t make it the last film you see on a 9.5 hour flight.  This is not a movie to see when you're punchy.
Cats & Dogs
What a delightful film.  I’ve seen it, with my kids, I don’t know how many times.  It just never gets old.