April 9th, 2013
|09:21 pm - Like a Modern Man|
Previously, I said, "Coming up: lots of classics! Unless I keep pushing modern movies ahead of them in the queue."
...Ha. Heh. Um. At least this was the best batch of movies I've had in quite a while!
Safety Not Guaranteed: This movie was on my radar for months because it featured two of my favorite things: Aubrey Plaza and time travel. I missed it in theaters somehow, and then I was not immediately notified when it came out on DVD, what is wrong with everyone. Everyone who saw it raved about it. This was a movie I really wanted to like, is what I'm saying. It's based on an old classified ad seeking someone to join a man on his time travel adventure. You must bring your own weapons, safety not guaranteed. Jeff, a sorta-douchey magazine writer, seizes upon the ad and decides to write a story about whatever weirdo placed it. He takes along a couple interns, Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a cynic, and Arnau, a socially awkward Indian nerd. Darius takes on the task of investigating the man behind the ad, Kenneth, who may or may not actually be building a time travel machine. Early on, I thought Aubrey Plaza was basically playing April (she does have experience humoring someone's delusions, after all), but at some point I totally forgot that I thought that and was just swept away by her performance. Darius and Kenneth grow closer as he tries to determine whether she will be a suitable partner for him and she tries to determine whether he's for real. Why does he want to go back in time anyway? Why does she? Meanwhile, Jeff has a time-travel adventure of his own as he tries to rekindle an old flame. Jeff and Arnau's subplot subtlely complements Darius and Kenneth's story by presenting the kind of time travel we do on our own as we latch onto our pasts in order to fight the future. I'm not really explaining this all well, but trust me when I say that this movie is completely engaging and charming and lovely, and it rather brilliantly uses time travel as a metaphor. There's just something about it that transfixed me. Does it explain everything and tie up every loose thread? No. Did it leave me with a big honking smile on my face? Yes. A-
Lockout: From the producers of Taken comes Taken 1.5: Taken in Spaaaaaaaace! Yes, this time, Maggie Grace is trapped in a space prison full of 500 psychopaths (puh, 7), and Guy Pearce is the only man that can get her out. For some reason. One of the major flaws of the movie is that Guy Pearce's character is so undefined that he's hard to really care about besides the fact that he's fairly entertaining. Guy Pearce does have fun doing a Bruce Willis impersonation, at least. A lot of the action sequences are incoherent, but sometimes things blow up and it's cool? There is an Irish nutjob who's barely intelligible and kind of terrifying because he's so unpredictable, but he's also annoying because just die already. Pearce and Grace are good together, though (again, with the caveat that his character isn't really a character). All in all, the movie is kind of fun, but it's not actually good. B
A Separation: This 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner from Iran received universal acclaim, so I had to see what all the fuss was about. Simin wants to leave the country for a better life for her daughter, so she files for divorce from Nader, who wants to stay and care for his father, who has Alzheimer's. The divorce is not granted, so they have...a separation! Now, you may think that the movie then examines their relationship and how each of them gets on without the other, and maybe we learn things about them. Well, you would be wrong, because for the next forty-five minutes, the story focuses on the caretaker Nader hires to take care of his father. This seems completely random until something happens and you realize that this is what the movie is actually about. The latter half of the movie is a courtroom drama full of truth and lies and lots of having the exact same arguments over and over and over, and it's...incredibly mundane. Now, I just watched Zero Dark Thirty this morning, and one of the things I liked about it was that it didn't overdramatize things that in any other movie would have more punch to them. That same technique doesn't work for me here. The performances are great, and there are some nice payoffs in the story, but I never really got into it after all the tension deflated from the wonderful opening scene. I did really like seeing Iranian life depicted, however. B
Men in Black 3: I loved the first movie, but the second one was...not good, and I like everything. This third film received mostly scathing reviews, but there were some people who did like it, most recently Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach. I do enjoy time travel mayhem, so I was willing to give it a shot. The first half hour of the movie, however, is lazy and irritating, a parade of HEY ALIENS ARE WEIRD jokes that aren't funny and gratuitous CGI that at least looks good. Finally, however, the time travel plot kicks in: K has to go back in time to save the world with a younger version of J. Much was made of Josh Brolin's performance, and good goddamn, let me award him the Enver Gjokaj Award for Best Tommy Lee Jones Impersonation. At first, I thought maybe he was dubbed. Really, he almost makes the movie worth watching on his own. But there's also a fun character who can see all possible futures, and even given that I knew what had to happen to give the movie a happy ending, I wasn't entirely sure what was going to happen in the climax, and that was neat. The movie is entertaining fluff with a tiny bit of emotional resonance. Plus pie. B/B+
El Mariachi: Oh my God, this movie looks like shit! Because it was Robert Rodriguez's first movie and it was made for under $10,000. And although there are some weird shots and edits here and there, the movie itself doesn't suffer from its low budget. An unnamed mariachi heads into a new town hoping for good luck. Instead, he gets mistaken for a criminal with a vendetta against the local drug lord and before he knows it, people are trying to kill him and he's killing people and he just wanted to play some songs, man. The mistaken-identity plot is basically all there is to the movie, besides the obligatory love story, but it's a simple story told well, without extraneous frills. It's also a nice character transformation piece. Carlos Gallardo is very likable as El Mariachi, and the movie shows us how he changes into Antonio Banderas for the next movie. B+
Desperado: In this big-budget sequel to El Mariachi—$7 million instead of $7,000!—everything is bigger and better, starting with Antonio Banderas, who takes over the role of El Mariachi from Carlos Gallardo (who is a producer on this film and has an awesome cameo). He gives an intense, soulful performance as a man consumed by revenge, hellbent on killing the man who ruined his life (the backstory is handily explained in a reshot flashback for those who didn't see the first movie). Good thing he's graduated from decent mariachi to incredible fucking badass. El Mariachi has become a mythic figure by this time, and it's easy to see why: the man leaves bloodshed and destruction in his wake. Once again, however, he falls into the arms of a beautiful woman (Salma Hayek) on his quest to kill a drug lord. The action sequences are fantastic and exhilarating, stylized and rife with iconic imagery, and Robert Rodriguez injects a healthy dose of humor into the proceedings as well. You'll never look at a guy carrying a guitar case the same way again. B+/A-
Once Upon a Time in Mexico: In this bigger-budget follow-up to Desperado—$29 million instead of $7 million!—everything is bigger but not better. El Mariachi is enlisted in a mission to stop a coup d'etat that conveniently gives him a chance for revenge. Unfortunately, the man who enlists him is Johnny Depp, and as the poster makes clear, apparently he is the actual star of this movie. The movie puts way more focus on Depp and a whole host of supporting characters than El Mariachi; in this 102-minute movie, I think Antonio Banderas is in it for maybe half an hour. This is not actually a case of Depp Sparrowing it up with a showy performance; in fact, his character is quirky but fairly low-key. No, this was entirely intentional: Robert Rodriguez said he wanted this to be like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which had a much larger scope than the previous movies in the Dollars Trilogy. It was also really good, which this movie is not. The plot is incredibly convoluted and hard to follow, and I stopped caring who was on whose side and what anyone was even trying to do after a while. There are some good action sequences, as expected, although they're not quite as exhilarating as those in Desperado; in fact, they sometimes feel a bit gratuitous. That doesn't mean there isn't some badass physics-defying shit about, though. Rodriguez has recently expressed interest in making a fourth Mariachi film, and if he does, I hope he puts the focus back on El. B-/B
Seven Psychopaths: Martin McDonagh teams up with Colin Farrell once again in this Tarantino-esque screwball crime-noir meta-satire. Colin Farrell is trying to write a movie called Seven Psychopaths, but that is a lot of psychopaths to think up. Thankfully, his friend, Sam Rockwell, is happy to give him inspiration, both intentionally—when he points him toward a serial killer in the news—and unintentionally—when he gets him wrapped up in his kidnapping the dog of a psychopathic gangster. There is plenty of McDonagh's trademark bloody violence, often unexpected, but he also uses the movie-within-a-movie to poke fun at the whole genre in a deft way that's not too eye-rolly and cheeky and doesn't get so caught up in the meta of it all that that's all there is to it. (Of course, the fact that Farrell is given shit for the treatment of women in his screenplay doesn't completely excuse the same treatment in the actual movie.) The movie is laugh-out-loud funny, and it's especially mesmerizing during the various vignettes about the psychopaths in Seven Psychopaths. McDonagh takes our obsession with these killers and finds a sort of dark beauty. Honestly, it's really impressive how well the movie manages to mash up so many ideas and tones into a cohesive bit of entertainment. Plus, Christopher Walken gets to play an interesting character instead of just "Christopher Walken." B+/A-
Resident Evil: Retribution: So I've been enjoying this franchise since I marathonned the first three movies in preparation for the fourth. It was pretty solid and entertaining, and though the first two were clearly the best, every movie had enough badassery to merit a B+. And then this movie comes along and actually spends several minutes recapping The Story So Far and then basically nothing happens for twenty minutes. Oh, Alice fights zombies and shit, but those are just isolated action sequences that spit on physics and don't tell a story. Finally, finally the plot kicks into gear, and we find that Alice has been captured by the Umbrella Corporation (which has cloned, like, every previously dead character whose actor was available, I guess), but some resistance fighters are coming to rescue her, and then the movie literally turns into a video game where she has to fight her way through simulation sectors to reach a checkpoint. The writing is terrible and the acting is awful and the action scenes are slow-motion nonsense. Most of the first half of this movie is an affront to filmmaking, but, thankfully—or unfortunately, as I was kind of enjoying this new experience of seeing almost nothing but flaws in a movie—the movie improves as it goes along. There are some bits of badassery here and there, but the movie feels sort of empty and lifeless, though the climax attempts to bring a spark into the world. In the end, there is basically half an hour of story in this ninety-minute movie, and it's all just a prelude to the grand finale, which I have low-to-medium hopes for now. B-
ParaNorman: It's no secret that I loved the shit out of Wreck-It Ralph and want it to win ALL THE THINGS, but I had heard pretty good things about ParaNorman from the few people who saw it. Norman Babcock sees dead people. He also talks to dead people. This makes him a freak. This also makes him the perfect person to save the town when a witch's curse unleashes zombies. From the trailers, I thought the movie was a silly, fun romp about a kid fighting zombies, but what it actually is is the best Tim Burton animated film not made by Tim Burton. It's a powerful story about outsiders and how people treat them, about the dangers of judging—and condemning—people for being different. I was surprised to find myself tearing up at an emotional moment, and when the climax rolled around, I was basically crying for the rest of the movie. It's very funny with great performances, and the stop-motion looks as fluid as CGI (the character's faces were made with a 3D color printer). Although it tells a fairly familiar tale of outsider acceptance, it does it in a fresh, soul-destroying way, and for that, I commend it. A-
Dredd: In Mega-City One, everything is mega! And the city is ruled by Judges, who are judge, jury, and executioner. Karl Urban is Judge Dredd, who...I don't know, I guess he's supposed to be really awesome or something, but he doesn't have a personality trait besides...determined. Olivia Thirlby has more of a personality as a psychic named Cassandra (HOW CLEVER), who is going off with Dredd on her rookie assessment. Of course, she just happens to take the worst call ever, and they end up at a high-rise ruled by Lena Headey, who doesn't really get much to do as a villain, sadly. So basically everyone tries to kill them, and they try to kill everyone back. The movie is ultraviolent to the point of excess, reveling in the ability to show explicit gore, often in extreme slow-motion courtesy of a narcotic effect that is actually quite pretty for a few seconds...but then those seconds turn into moooooooore seconds. There isn't much of a plot, there isn't much character development, there isn't much to think about at all. There is some decent action and some explosions, which is the minimal requirement for an action movie. It held my attention! So that's something. Plus, hey, it's Avon Barksdale! B
Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman's first movie in thirteen years was an Event for many people. And, despite the fact that the fans of his previous films would be much older now, he focuses on the sort of college girls who would grow into the characters in the yuppie trilogy. Violet (Greta Gerwig, who takes a condescending, arrogant character and makes her kind of likeable by the end) is the head of the Suicide Prevention Center at Seven Oaks University and gets one of the greatest lines in anything ever: "Have you ever heard the expression, prevention is nine-tenths the cure? Well, in the case of suicide, it's ten-tenths the cure." Heather (Carrie MacLemore, who is supercute and whom I could not stop looking at) has the "dumb blonde" role even though she's a brunette, always commenting from a point of extreme naiveté. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke, from The 4400) has a posh British accent. For no apparent reason, this trio decides to befriend Lily (Analeigh Tipton, from the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love), whom I clung to as an audience viewpoint character because I could not figure out whether I was supposed to find the main characters annoying or endearing. As Lily points out later, their intentions are good, in that they do seem to truly want to help people, but...they're incredibly high-and-mighty about it. I was a little disappointed that a movie with four main female characters focused almost entirely on their relationships with men; I thought that there was a good story in the way that Lily's outsider perspective seemed to be having a positive effect on Violet. But I did enjoy that the credits listed the women as "Damsels" and the men as "Their Distress." Anyway, the movie has lots of laugh-out-loud moments typical of Stillman and some nice dance numbers. I definitely enjoyed it more than The Last Days of Disco or Metropolitan, but little things bugged me here and there (like the title cards that I normally enjoy when they make sense and are used consistently and appropriately rather than as a stylistic quirk). Overall, it's fun. Plus, hey, it's Dukie! B/B+
Ruby Sparks: In this indie take on Pygmalion, a brilliant novelist—who wrote the Great American Novel when he was a teenager but has only written short stories since—works through his writer's block by writing about the girl of his dreams...who then shows up in his house. At first, of course, Calvin thinks he's crazy, but when he realizes he's not, it's the greatest thing ever. He has literally found the girl of his dreams. Ruby Sparks, played by the film's writer, Zoe Kazan, is his Manic Pixie Dream Girl come to life. Except for the fact that when you write a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, you're not writing a person. And it turns out that Ruby is actually a person with her own thoughts and feelings. Or is she? Calvin created her, after all. Although the movie isn't wholly successful in making Ruby feel like a fully-fledged character, I liked the way it examined the story of a man falling in love with an idealized version of a woman (and the MPDG is the ideal woman in an indie comedy) and took it to some dark, uncomfortable places that touched on the metafictional relationship between a writer and his characters. Kazan also compares and contrasts their relationship to those of his brother and his wife, his mother and her boyfriend, and Calvin and his ex-girlfriend. The movie is funny and sweet, a bit twisted, and ultimately thought-provoking. No one from The Wire is in this movie, but, hey, it's Antonio Banderas! B+
The Perks of Being a Wallflower: Although this is a high school book, I read and loved it in college, which was also a very angsty time in my life. It is not surprising that this is a terrific adaptation given that it's written and directed by author Stephen Chbosky, but it is a little because it was the first big movie he directed (having written and directed an indie comedy 17 years prior). Perks is not a movie with a straightforward plot: "depressed teenage boy starts high school and makes some friends" sounds pretty dull. But the core cast of Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, and Ezra Miller are compulsively watchable, and Chbosky has a very good handle on keeping a consistent wistful, haunting tone throughout the movie so you feel like you're being wrapped up in a comforting blanket by a friend who loves you. Like the main character says, it is both happy and sad and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be. I don't even want to talk about the characters or the plot because I don't really have the words. It's a lovely, emotionally honest film. Also, I could watch Emma Watson dance for hours. A-
End of Watch: End of Watch got a lot of buzz last year, and I had been intrigued, but once I found out Anna Kendrick was in it, I made actual plans to watch it. And, Jesus, I'm glad I did. At first, it seems like Just Another Cop Drama, so who needs it? Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña are street cops in South Central. It's not a glamorous position; they're not solving murders or anything. They drive around and respond to calls and help people and get shot at. It's a shit job, but they believe in it. From Gyllenhaal's opening monologue, you know these are good cops, not the usual corrupt ones you always see. The movie is presented as a combination of found footage (Gyllenhaal is shooting a project for film class, and we also see footage from others) and traditional film, which allows writer/director David Ayer to get the intimacy of the found-footage format without being completely restricted by its POV. The heart of the movie is the relationship between the two partners (and their relationships with their significant others). There is a plot that slowly builds throughout the movie as they look into gang wars and drug trafficking, but, surprisingly, the plot was not what kept me going. I became so engrossed in their lives that about halfway through the movie, I just didn't want it to end. I wanted to watch them do anything. Go to the store, attend a quinceañara, joke about sex. It wasn't narrative momentum; it was character momentum. At a certain point, I realized that if either one of them—or both, for fuck's sake—died, I would be in tears, that's how attached I had become to them after such a short time. I applaud any film that can draw me into its world so strongly, even when that world is our own. A-
Coming up: maybe some classics? I've had some Vince Gilligan-inspired selections in my queue for months now, and it's time to get to them!
Current Mood: sleepy
Current Music: Flyleaf - Fire Fire
We had a streak going there for a while... alas, I have seen zero of these movies. I'll have to work on that.
You should! A lot of these are worth watching!
Steven Chbosky's first film, The Four Corners of Nowhere, is really enjoyable as well (I haven't seen Perks yet) - sadly, it's not released anywhere, but I still have a copy from when I recorded it off the Sundance channel back in 1996 or something. It captures that Gen-X mix of self-importance and total cluelessness in a delightful way. So not surprising to me that Perks is also a wonderful, atmospheric film without much plot :)
You could watch Emma Watson dance for hours; I could watch Mae Whitman be quirky for hours. :)
End of Watch was fucking awesome. You're absolutely right about the character momentum -- drew me in and blew me away.
I don't know how the hell he did it. It's one of those intangible bits of movie magic.
Edited at 2013-04-10 11:57 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen a lot of these this time.
I completely agree with you re Safety Not Guaranteed and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. For the former, it may not be a time-travel movie in the sense that, say, Primer was (in the sense you could tell the story of Safety in almost any setting, whereas you could not tell the story of Primer without time travel), but I liked the relationships and the characters. And I haven't really registered Aubrey Plaza in anything (I couldn't get through Funny People, so I don't remember her in that), but I'll definitely keep her on my radar, as she was very good, as was Mark Duplass in what could have been a stereotypical role. Speaking of stereotypes, I was afraid the Indian intern would be a stereotype as well, but I was glad to see him become more three-dimensional as the film went on.
As for the latter, while I wish the father had been as well developed in the movie as he was in the novel, and I also wish the movie had included the subplot involving the sister getting pregnant (though I understand why, in today's climate, they cut that out), I agree it was otherwise very well done. I was especially impressed by Ezra Miller, considering I loathed him in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Sorry, but I hated Damsels in Distress. As I mentioned on Facebook, I think Whit Stillman must be one of my blind spots, and I'm normally a sucker for anyone who writes good dialogue (which admittedly this has in spots). But I found the whole thing irritating beyond belief. I think I feel about Stillman what many feel about Wes Anderson; precious beyond belief.
Did you ever see Rashomon? That's what I thought of when I saw A Separation, even though it's a totally different film (Kurosawa's film being from a philosophical context, while this is from a socio-political one). I found the whole thing fascinating in that everyone was at fault yet no one was, like you, I found it an insightful look at Iranian like, and unlike you, I wasn't bothered by the style; I thought it fit the picture.
As for Rodriguez's trilogy, you may remember my feelings on him; I think he's undeniably talented, but he just piles on too much. El Mariachi, given the budget, is the only film where I think he's restrained, but the other two, though they each have their good points (Salma Hayek in both, Johnny Depp in the latter), are just too over-the-top for my taste.
Edited at 2013-04-11 12:35 am (UTC)
I think I feel about Stillman what many feel about Wes Anderson; precious beyond belief.
Yeah, I feel like I should like Wes Anderson, but I'm not super into him.
Hm, interesting comparison to Rashomon. I did watch it when I was in college. I'll have to chew on that and see if it makes me like A Separation more. It's a movie I should have liked since I do like stories like that (cf. "A Trip to the Dentist"), but the way it was presented didn't work for me.