Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Win Some, Lose Some

The last batch mixed old and new, but this time I focused almost entirely on movies from 2013. MY REACTIONS WERE MIXED.

Before Midnight: Nine years after Before Sunset (eighteen years after Before Sunrise), we check in with Jesse and Celine, now married with twins and vacationing in Greece. But there's trouble in paradise: Celine's been offered her dream job, and Jesse wants to be closer to his son in America. Unlike the previous two movies, this one does not take place in real-time, though it does unfold over the course of a single day, as does that festering conflict. Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy have perfected their style by now, and listening to Hawke and Delpy simply talk is comforting. Many of their scenes are long, unbroken shots, and although it sounds like they're simply inhabiting their characters and saying what they would say, it's all scripted, making the movie feel much like a play. It's a movie very much in conversation with itself, using the meta of Jesse's having written books about his experiences to examine how realistic this fiction is. Jesse and Celine wonder about other couples who met like them and whether they would last. Will they last? Before Midnight is a love story, not a movie love story, and it shows the messy parts of relationships. It's raw and authentic and painful. What is left of their magic moments? As the title implies, we end the movie before midnight, and as the credits rolled, there were tears in my eyes. A-

Blue Jasmine: The titular Jasmine, played by Cate Blanchett, used to be a rich New Yorker until her husband (Alec Baldwin) was indicted for stealing all that money that made them rich, so she goes to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), to reinvent herself, which is difficult since she has no marketable skills. Blanchett is considered a lock for the Oscar, and it becomes more apparent why as the movie progresses. The movie jumps back and forth between her idyllic New York life and her comparatively slummy San Francisco life, and the stark contrast in her persona is noticeable. Although Cate Blanchett can't help but look goddamn elegant, San Francisco Jasmine is a pill-popping wreck of a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown, self-deluding and, frankly, a bit unsympathetic at times. Woody Allen knows it, too, as both the New York and San Francisco scenes mock her immensely privileged attitudes. The movie largely focuses on romantic relationships—both Jasmine's and Ginger's—and the relationship between the sisters, but there isn't a strong, clear plot, per se. Yet it's always compelling, thanks to the cast (and my personal enjoyment of watching a movie filmed in San Francisco). B+

Short Term 12: Brie Larson works at a foster-care facility. That's the movie. As someone who is very attracted to plot, it's a sign of a good movie (or book, for that matter) if it's been half an hour and I don't quite know what the narrative is and I don't care. From the opening scene, the movie draws you into its world and its characters. You meet the people who work there—each of whom has an individual reason for being there—and the kids who stay there—each of whom has an individual experience. The storytelling and worldbuilding is subtle, allowing the viewer to glean information from a prop, an unexplained reference, a character interaction. A newbie character provides an opportunity for the occasional exposition, but he's not the walking exposition stick I expected him to be. Most of the characters have their own, small stories, but Grace (Brie Larson's character) is the heart of the movie. She's just as troubled as the kids there, and she cares so fucking much about them. She creates a little community, and she's fiercely protective of it. It's an emotional movie, and it crossed the line from "nearly brought me to tears" to "actual tears real tears what is coming out of my eyes why can't I stop." And it wasn't for something sad, either: it was for a beautiful act of goodness and kindness in this fucked-up world. Destin Cretton expanded his short film, and the improvement is astounding. Obviously he had a stronger cast, but the writing is much sharper and more subtle as well. So many times during the movie, I feared a clunker of a line that I would expect from a mainstream movie, and always, the movie trusted me to understand what was going on and let the characters express themselves as they would. It's a lovely film. A-/A

Synecdoche, New York: After Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, I moved this movie up in my queue. I'd loved several Charlie Kaufman movies, and this was his directorial debut. Fittingly, the main character is a director, though of theater. Hoffman plays Caden Cotard, who decides to mount a huge theater project about...himself. It becomes increasingly meta, as actors play people in his life, and then actors play THOSE actors, but the real story is outside the fourth wall in Caden's actual life. And that story is that life sucks and then you die. I HAVE SAVED YOU TWO HOURS. Or however many fucking years this movie actually lasts; it jumps time so often it's hard to keep track, and some actors look older and some don't. It's surreal and slightly absurd and I wasn't sure what was supposed to be real. It's a bleak meditation on mortality that fails to evoke any emotions because it's so incomprehensible and obtuse. C+/B-

In a World...: In a world where movie trailer voiceovers are done almost exclusively by men, Lake Bell tells a story about a woman who dreams of reaching Don LaFontaine-like heights while speaking in the shadow of her legendary father. Hell, in a world where movies are made almost exclusively by men, Lake Bell writes, directs, produces, and stars in said story. And it's a funny, charming story, at that. Bell takes us inside the cutthroat voiceover industry, or at least a satirical version thereof, pitting her character, Carol Solomon, against her father, the legend, and a rising star played by Ken Marino, who is cut. I could not stop staring at his abs. I enjoyed the unusual premise, but Bell also adds some family drama with his father's new squeeze, a cute romance with a co-worker, and a domestic drama with her sister and her husband. Two of those work well in the context of the film, and the third is so disconnected from everything else that it feels like a B-plot in an episode designed to give some of the regulars something to do. I was a bit befuddled by a key scene at the end of the film, which seemed to undercut the message of the movie, but overall, it's an enjoyable flick. B/B+

Now You See Me: Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, Mélanie Laurent, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman participate in the two-hour magic trick of making the audience think this movie is worth their time. The movie takes an awesome premise—magicians robbing banks!—and wraps it up in so much foofaraw that what could have been an amazing thrill ride ends up puzzlingly empty. Four magicians—an illusionist, an escape artist, a mentalist, and a street magician—are assembled by a mysterious benefactor to become the Four Horsemen, a brilliant team of magicians who also play Robin Hood. Or something. Their whole act makes no sense, as they appear to play a different show in each city. In any case, let me note that in the original script, the Four Horsemen were all men, so they changed the escape artist to a woman, which would make me happy except for the fact that SHE NEVER GETS TO USE HER TALENT EVER IN THE MOVIE. Each of the men has an important role to play, but she is, in fact, a sexy magic lamp. None of the Horsemen really have any character or character development, though, since the movie curiously focuses the movie on the FBI's search for them, casting them as the villains, even though they are the coolest people in the movie. So what you get is half an hour of magic tricks followed by half an hour of explaining magic tricks mixed with some doublecrossing revenge gobbledygook and a fucking absurd plot twist at the end. Here's the goddamn thing though: it's still pretty damn fun to watch, just for the magic. I mean, it's magic! It's entertaining! It makes no sense! But whatever! B-/B

Fruitvale Station: On New Year's Day 2009, a BART cop fatally shot Oscar Grant in Fruitvale Station with no provocation. But who was Oscar Grant? Ryan Coogler seeks to answer that question with his feature debut, showing us the last day of Oscar's life. He has no idea it's the last day of his life, though, which makes the movie strangely mundane (but not boring). Now, I know absolutely nothing about the real-life Oscar Grant and how much of this movie is true, but the movie almost goes out of its way to portray him as A Really Good Person, even giving him a tender scene with a dog that has to be made up since there were no witnesses to it. He's flawed and conflicted, though. Since the movie is set at New Year's, it's a time for resolutions, and we see Oscar struggle with the changes he wants to make in his life, the changes he doesn't know he'll never get to make. It's a compelling character study, and it has the effect Coogler intended: you get to like this man and then his death seems all the more senseless and tragic. B+

You're Next: I heard rumblings that this was a self-aware, genre-busting horror-comedy in the vein of Cabin in the Woods, but it is not! It is a self-aware, genre-busting horror-comedy in the vein of itself. It's a home-invasion movie where the home being invaded contains two parents, their three sons and daughter, and all the children's significant others. This means there are a shitload of people to kill in this movie. Like any good horror movie, of course, it allows us some time to get to know all the machete fodder before things go haywire, and it does well at both building up the suspense as well as building the characters fairly minimally, thanks to a dinner scene where we can see how dysfunctional this family is (it's the first time they've all been together in a while). But when the mayhem starts, it's the oldest son's Aussie girlfriend who keeps her head (literally and figuratively), at which point I wanted her to survive so very hard. The family is terrorized by three people in animal masks, and the deaths are brutal and unexpected; if you like watching people get senselessly, creatively murdered, this movie does it well! About halfway through, however, the black humor starts to seep through, and I began to see why it was so lauded. This was not your typical home-invasion movie; it's a clever take on the genre. The first half is good, but the second half is crackerjack. I haven't rooted for a horror movie heroine so hard in a while. B+

Monsters University: Pixar's first prequel tells the story of When Mikey Met Sulley... in college. I remember very little from Monsters, Inc. beyond the basic, but I do love the clever worldbuilding and creative character designs. The college environment allows for a more intellectual look at the art of scaring, as Mike is a big nerd compared to Sulley's laid-back jock-type. Each one gets a clear character arc: Mike is not inherently scary but wants to prove himself, and Sulley is inherently scary but discovers he can't coast on his natural talent. And although they begin as enemies, they grow to become the dream team we see in Monsters, Inc. Even though their story was well written, I realized that it was the story of two dudes, with no female character getting a character arc, the only major female character being the dean of the scare school, imposingly voiced by Helen Mirren. But it wasn't like we were going to see zygote Boo or anything, I guess. It's a solid, if not exceptional, Pixar outing. B+

A Good Day to Die Hard: It's a good day to stop making Die Hard movies, I think. I did enjoy Live Free or Die Hard, but this is without a doubt, uncontestably the weakest movie in the series despite being the first sequel to actually be written as a Die Hard movie. The idea of John McClane blowing up shit with his son has promise, but when his son is completely unlikable and John McClane has been stripped of his McClane-ness (we get it, John, you're on vacation), I don't really give two shits whether they reconcile or not. I also not give a shit-and-a-half about whatever the plot is involving Russian stuff and plot twists and whatever. There are car chases and explosions and John and his son survive everything. I was mostly bored throughout the whole movie. It's not that the action sequences are particularly inept or that the plot doesn't have a few surprises. It's perfectly serviceable, but, goddammit, don't I deserve more than perfectly serviceable? Especially for a Die Hard movie? Give me something different and memorable. Be extremely well-paced. Be kinetically directed. Have a great sense of humor. Have an awesome musical score. Do anything at all to set yourself apart. There's nothing in this movie I've never seen before, done better. B-

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2: I loved the first movie and didn't think a sequel could live up to that awesomeness—especially with a different team of writers and directors—and it doesn't, but that's okay because it's still a lot of fun. Flint recaps the first movie in the first few minutes, and then he's whisked away by his scientist idol to San Franjose to work at Live Corp, which is suspiciously similar to Google. You could do a whole movie set at Live Corp, but it's not long before Flint and his friends are back on the island, now overrun with FOODIMALS. You guys, this movie is basically Jurassic Park with food puns. So. Many. Food puns. I laughed out loud a lot. The story itself is not quite as engrossing as the first movie's; it's the generic "Main character acts like an asshole to his friends and then learns the meaning of friendship" that seems to crop up in animated sequels. But the strength of the movie lies in the fact that its supporting characters are distinct and funny and get moments to shine. Even the sentient strawberry. B+

The Way Way Back: Between The Descendants and this movie, I am really enjoying Jim Rash as a writer. Once again—with co-writer Nat Faxon, this time both of them in the director's chair(s) as well—he tells a lovely, emotional story about complex, layered characters. At first, it sounds like Adventureland all over again: a kid gets a summer job and comes of age. But there's much more to it; like The Descendants, this movie is about family. Duncan's 14 and he's spending the summer with his mom and her terrible boyfriend instead of his dad. It could not be clearer that he doesn't want to be there, as much as his mom wants him to try to enjoy himself (I saw some of myself in Duncan, for sure). But the girl next door is cute! And the guy who manages the water park is pretty cool! And...and those are pretty much the only bright spots in his sad, sad life. It is a coming-of-age story, as working at the water park helps bring him out of his shell, and as far as general plot goes, there's nothing startlingly original here. But it's the execution that makes the movie. Fine performances all around, bits of quirk without being twee, a deft mix of comedy and drama, subtle scenes where characters define themselves through their actions. It's good filmmaking and good storytelling. B+/A-

The Spectacular Now: From the writers of the delightful (500) Days of Summer and the tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars came this indie darling about a smarmy douchecanoe who discovers how self-destructive he is when Brie Larson breaks up with him and he starts falling for cute-as-a-button Shailene Woodley. Yeah, what a cast! Other notable cast members include Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Andre Rojo. Miles Teller is an asshole with a heart of gold! Their burgeoning relationship is sweet, if strange since he initially claims he's just being nice to her to "help her out," even though she's clearly into him, and she's just the most adorable thing. But he's broken and messed-up, and her love will make him a better person, and I'm tired of this story. The movie isn't necessarily predictable and formulaic, and I appreciated that it acknowledges how he's hurt people with his behavior, but I thought Woodley's character was way too forgiving of his bullshit. The movie treats all its characters as complex people with flaws, and it's well made, but I wish it had had a different focus. B/B+

Next up, various movies I've been recommended and I am finally getting around to, plus more new movies! The usual, then.
Tags: making the grade, movies
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