Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Monster Calls (2016)

rating: ****

the story: A boy struggles to handle his mother's battle with cancer, and finds an unlikely ally in a monster.

what it's all about: Full disclosure: my mother died of cancer two years ago.  Therefore, it's incredibly difficult to separate A Monster Calls from what is still an incredibly painful recent personal experience. 

That being said, this is powerful storytelling.  I'd read the book upon which it's based, and though the movie streamlines the narrative, omitting a key character and thus subplot, it packs the same wallop.  The marriage of reality and fantasy is uniquely executed, if anything comparable to the comic strip Calvin + Hobbes, where the two exist side-by-side, so that both are equally true.  The monster is ostensibly the big draw of the movie, but he exists in shadows and so almost completely in the vocal performance of Liam Neeson (admittedly a huge selling point), and so viewers who anticipate a more visceral presentation there will probably end up disappointed, and as such is probably the reason the movie didn't land as successfully upon initial release as critics had anticipated.

And it's a tough emotional experience, too.  It comes on so unexpectedly, Felicity Jones as the mother a supporting character, leaving all the weight on a boy whose journey becomes more apparent as the movie progresses, his need to be "punished" for his reaction to the idea of battling cancer.  Sigourney Weaver is equally subdued as the grandmother, while Toby Kebbell (this is the movie I finally noticed that he's been in quite a few of the movies I've seen lately) as the father who lives a new life in America, a scenario that in another story might have dragged the proceedings down in maudlin fashion, strikes the right tone as the one character most capable of addressing the boy's distress. 

It's the completeness of the portrait (ironic, given the prior acknowledgment that the movie leaves out a crucial element from the book) that helps everything build.  I think it works, I think it's powerful stuff, some truly classic filmmaking, but...

Doubt must linger.  I don't know what it's like to watch A Monster Calls without it being a personal experience.  Is everything truly earned, or am I reading myself into it?  True, this is a problem with every movie, but this one, it seems far more obvious.  So I leave the final review as an open subject.

But I absolutely recommend you check it out to see for yourself.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Silence (2016)

rating: *****

the story: Two Jesuit priests investigate the disappearance of their mentor in 17th century Japan.

what it's all about: I almost regretted having read the book before watching the movie, this time.  Usually, I can't abide people who suggest such things, because the two mediums are two very different creative expressions, and there's no reason to split hairs between them.  They have their different strengths.  But Silence is a particular story, in both prose and film form, where the same thing seems so similar in both forms, you begin to wonder what's lost in translation.  In the book, it's very important what Andrew Garfield's character thinks, and not so much only what he does or says.  Martin Scorsese, surely now and forever a master of filmmaking, knows this, and so there are a few voiceovers meant to fill the void a little, but he also knows that the story means the same thing, in the end, regardless of what is lost along the way.

That's what's truly remarkable about Silence, that it tells such an unexpected story, one that seems totally contrary to established narratives.  It seems to be a rebuke of criticisms on two scores, both in the context of the story, and what commentators today have attempted to say about the Christian faith, too.  It runs counter to everything Hollywood has been attempting to do in recent years.  Scorsese is a famously pragmatic Catholic, and that makes him the ideal adapter of such material.  It abhors mindless reverence, but it also embraces a level of faith totally unknown to most adherents.  How's that for a paradox?

Garfield, whom I know from a few movies (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the two Amazing Spider-Man films), emerges as a new breed of lead actor in it.  At first he seems like the last actor capable of pulling off the "Jesus look," the long hair and beard.  He's made a career of looking young, right?  He doesn't seem to possess the right amount of gravitas.  Yet he and Scorsese use these apparent limitations to their advantage.  His character is meant to be totally self-assured and yet na├»ve at the same time.  After watching Silence, you'll be convinced that Garfield has found a new archetype.  He seems to have played something similar in Hacksaw Ridge, also released last year, but the results couldn't seem to be more different.  Mel Gibson's movie (it's funny, Garfield starring in the films of two Catholics) is pretty straightforward, when it comes down to it.  Silence is anything but.

Adam Driver continues to be a fascinating discovery in his own right.  My personal experience with him had previously been limited to The Force Awakens and Midnight Special.  Almost more than Garfield, he manages to bring a mature presence to his role, so effortlessly that again you aren't surprised in the least that he and Garfield are leading a new generation of actors.  Liam Neeson, meanwhile, in a supporting role again confirms that he's capable of anything.  Here he seems to contradict everything you might have seen him do previously, in a long series of mentor roles he's done over the years, and no doubt that was a deliberate casting effect. 

Even if you don't care for the religious elements, Scorsese still presents a look at life in Japan in the century before the world had finished expanding.  Japan, in fact, was in the midst of shrinking back, headed toward a period of isolation that would have a perilous effect not just on itself but many other countries besides.  Silence becomes a story of self-justification, the things we tell ourselves to try and make sense of the irreconcilable.  If you find yourself siding with the Japanese over the priests, which is valid, you may still end up wondering if you were right, knowing what was to come.  This doesn't even mean the priests were right, either, but that this was an untenable situation, which Scorsese no doubt meant to parallel secular matters in today's world, too, of Muslims and the West and where things continue to stand between them.

I chose Arrival as my favorite movie of 2016 before having seen Silence, but I'll still stand by that now.  The two movies, however, stand together as among the smartest filmmaking I've ever seen, and that's extremely good company.  Both came from books.  What does that matter?  The story resonates.  That is all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ben-Hur (1959)

rating: ***

the story: Ben-Hur witnesses the rebellion against an empire begin.

what it's all about: After watching the 2016 version recently, I felt compelled to watch Charlton Heston's 1959 Ben-Hur, which I suppose I must have seen when I was a kid, since watching the famed chariot race sent vague memories firing through my head, memories that had rattled there since I first saw it, actually.  I just didn't remember watching the movie itself  Like a lot of people, I grew up watching Heston in the later Ten Commandments, thanks to an annual Easter broadcast.  Ten Commandments, although clearly filmed thanks to the success of Ben-Hur, ended up supplanting it in the popular culture.  Today, both Ben-Hur and the 19th century book upon which it was based have been somewhat lost to history.  Again, the massive failure of the 2016 version is evidence enough of that.  Critics will claim it's because the new one simply can't match up with the old one.  Having seen it (again), I will venture to say the new one doesn't have that much competition.

The 1959 version is long, like Ten Commandments.  It actually skips out on the kind of context storytelling the 2016 version explores, the full history of the foster brothers who end up competing in the chariot race.  Heston skips right to his Roman rival returning home and slowly realizing the old adage, you can't go home again.  It's almost funny to watch Heston in it, because he carries none of the gravity he brought to Ten Commandments, which I suppose is testament enough to his acting and his ability to bring different approaches to different characters (and also his increased profile).  Still, he and the movie equate well of themselves.

The gravity, actually, comes from a Star Wars connection, much as I'd read into the 2016 version, where I thought I saw a new version of source material George Lucas seemed to draw on for the prequels.  Yet the 1959 version reads a lot like a rebellion against an empire (as I noted above), full of Romans who sound English saying "rebellion" and "emperor" exactly as Star Wars characters would in the later original Star Wars trilogy.  It can't be coincidence, right?  Lucas was born in 1944,and so that would've made him fifteen in 1959, plenty impressionable enough for a big hit movie coming into his imagination.  Everyone knows Hidden Fortress helped form the basis of Star Wars in the 1977 first film of the saga, but it seems to me that Lucas borrowed heavily from Ben-Hur as he conceived the rest of it.

This is a movie that is what it is, and watching it again, I'm still inclined to consider the 2016 version better worth a rewatch, but that doesn't make the Heston film less memorable. Watching it I can even see little musical cues John Williams likely borrowed for Star Wars, too.  For these associations alone, it will remain fascinating, worth revisiting in the future.  The chariot race, which critics insisted looked far more realistic than its 2016 counterpart, doesn't hugely hold up, by the way. You can tell where parts were filmed separately and then spliced together.  It kind of takes you out of the moment.  But that's okay.  There are other things to love about it.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

5 Word Movie Reviews

Posting here what I compiled for a comment on Stacy's blog.

50 First Dates (2004) Adam Sandler is somehow charming.
(500) Days of Summer (2009) This whole movie is charming.
A Home at the End of the World (2009) Colin Farrell earns indy cred.
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) A truly hilarious Western satire.
Touch of Evil (1958) Heston competes admirably with Welles.
American Hustle (2012) Bad '80s hair steals movie.
Argo (2013) Alan Arkin steals the show.
Avatar (2008) Sam Worthington proves he's worthy.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Tom Hardy outsmarts a gag.
Black Swan (2010) Natalie Portman drives herself crazy.
Blades of Glory (2007) Makes figure skating less glorious.
Bridesmaids (2011) Depressing but incredibly funny, too.
Clash of the Titans (2010) I discovered Gemma Arterton here.
Couples Retreat (2009) Will make you retreat, too.
Cowboys and Aliens (2011) Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.
Dead Poets Society (1989) O captain, my captain.  Indeed.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) Watch it again. And again.
Epic (2013) Poor crazy dad finds redemption.
Everybody's Fine (2009) Even grumpy dads need love.
Flight (2012) Watch for James Badge Dale.
Freedom Writers (2007) Patrick Dempsey will depress you.
Frozen (2013) Let it go; just enjoy.
Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Hugely enjoyable romp; that's all.
Gravity (2013) Sandra Bullock's day really sucked.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (2010) Emma Watson, audio book reader.
Horrible Bosses (2011) But really fun to watch.
I Love You, Man (2009) Had poster on my wall.
Ice Age (2002) Caution: will spawn endless sequels.
Inception (2010) Welcome to the show, Tom.
Interstellar (2014) It's all related, you'll find.
Iron Man 2 (2010) Sam Rockwell really rocks, baby.
Iron Man 3 (2013) The Mandarin is a rip-off.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) Rollicking nonsense, but please enjoy.
Knight & Day (2010) Cruise and Diaz: poor showing.
Larry Crowne (2011) Everyone's charming, but also low-key.
Law Abiding Citizen (2009) But you'll wish he weren't.
Les Miserables (2012) Damn, Anne Hathaway can sing!
Looper (2012) Look for the other gimmick.
Man of Steel (2013) Superman's dads are Robin Hood.
Manhunter (1986) Unsatisfying once you see Hopkins.
Midnight in Paris (2011) The best of times, too.
Primary Colors (1998) Wait, Clinton is the hero?
Puss in Boots (2011) Antonio Banderas as Zorro, III.
Ratatouille (2007) A truly exquisite dish, darling.
Red (2010) Better off retired after all.
Red Eye (2005) A thrilling flying experience, unfortunately.
Salt (2010) Angelina is an action hero.
Serenity (2005) Makes you suffer their pain.
Sherlock Holmes (2009) I liked Watson better, alas.
Shrek 2 (2004) Fiona is an ogre, okay?
Shutter Island (2010) Leo is crazy, right?  Right???
Silver Linings Playbook (2012) Jennifer Lawrence is crazy, right?
Skyfall (2011) This one was too slick.
Star Trek (2009) Old Spock was the cherry.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) His name is Khan, okay?
State of Play (2009) Politics as usual, poor guy.
Step Brothers (2008) Ridiculous and yet still affecting.
The A-Team (2010) Over the top, wobbly landing.
The Avengers (2012) Good for quips, at least.
The Big Lebowski (1998) The Dude abides, still loses.
The Blindside (2009) Don't mess with Sandra Bullock.
The Book of Eli (2010) He's blind; it still works.
The Bounty Hunter (2010) His charm is his weapon.
The Expendables (2010) They all are, turns out.
The Fighter (2010) Christian Bale falls in trash.
The Hangover (2009) Good friends form memories together.
The Hangover 2 (2011) They do it again, somehow.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) Singing dwarves save the day.
The Hunger Games (2012) Jennifer Lawrence is really grim.
The Island (2005) Pleasurable but you'll forget why.
The King's Speech (2010) It's not really worth it.
The Hurt Locker (2008) Elegiac and heartbreaking, a must-watch.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) Did this really happen, dude?
The Number 23 (2007) Jim Carrey: his own warm-up act.
The Right Stuff (1983) You'll believe astronauts can fly.
The Shining (1980) All work and no play.
The Soloist (2009) Actually there's two of them.
The Town (2010) Ben Affleck regains his credibility.
This Means War (2012) Pine and Hardy are excellent.
A Thousand Words (2011) Eddie Murphy: words can't describe.
Trouble with the Curve (2012) A heart-warmer with Clint Eastwood.
Twilight (2008) Making sparkly vampires cool, obviously.
Two Lovers (2008) Joaquin Phoenix was really depressed.
Unknown (2011) Liam Neeson is a problem.
Up in the Air (2009) George Clooney unloads his backpack.
Valkyrie (2010) Tom Cruise seeks new credibility.
Wall-E (2008) A pantomime with a message.
Winter's Bone (2010) It ain't easy being poor.
Winter's Tale (2014) Colin Farrell: kind of magical.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Note to Jessica Chastain: dark.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ben-Hur (2016)

rating: ***

the story: A contemporary of Jesus has a major problem with his adopted brother.

what it's all about: Hard to believe that Ben-Hur, in general, has traditionally been one of America's favorite stories.  A Civil War general wrote the original book, which was one of the most successful books in American history, and Charlton Heston starred in the famous 1959 movie adaptation, which was one of the most successful movies in American history.  Then someone decided to make another movie of it, and that was released in 2016, was not one of the most successful movies in American history.  It was kind of a massive flop.  In hindsight it's really easy to tell why: you may have noticed the massive cultural gap that's developed in the last few decades, that's only gotten wider in recent years.  No doubt Hollywood saw the modest success of religious films like God's Not Dead, and thought they could get another Passion of the Christ blockbuster hit with another Ben-Hur, because after all, the massive success of two previous iterations...But that just wasn't the case.  The God crowd is leery of blockbusters, and the art crowd is leery of God.  So: a massive flop.

Does the movie really deserve it?  Hardly.  I mean, the biggest star in the movie is Morgan Freeman, who puts in a supporting role, which means the lead goes to relative unknown Jack Huston, the latest spinoff of the Huston family that's been featured in Hollywood throughout its history.  This is his big break; he has nothing much to compare his work in Ben-Hur against.  The guy playing his brother has no shot at all of being or becoming a name from a movie like this, and so it's really completely on the movie itself to sell its merits, and you don't realize how often you judge movies on the talent involved rather than on the movie itself until you contend with a movie like this, which seems like it should be a big deal but already doesn't have much to go by.  So there's that.

But again, the story itself, which demonstrably has considerable pedigree.  The most famous element of the story is the showdown between Ben-Hur and his adopted brother in a chariot race.  Critics who bashed the movie claimed the 2016 version doesn't measure up in this regard, that the race looks fake and therefore makes the whole endeavor pointless.  But the thing is, it really is pretty cool.  I have yet to see the 1959 version.  I somehow doubt it really measures up to 2017 standards, much less 2016 (standards always advance in an evolving craft like filmmaking).  The thing is, the chariot race is clearly what inspired the podrace in Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace.  And the thing is, George Lucas seems to have been inspired by Ben-Hur with the whole Star Wars prequel trilogy.

Think about it.  At one point, Ben-Hur tracks down his mother, whom he was forced to leave behind years ago.  This same element can be found in Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones, when Anakin Skywalker memorably seeks his mother, whom he finds tortured near to death by the Sand People.  The trilogy rounds out with Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, as Anakin clashes with his metaphorical brother, Obi-Wan Kenobi, just as Ben-Hur must clash with his metaphorical brother.  This is no coincidence.  Hollywood picked up on Lucas's allusion right away; the year after The Phantom Menace was released, the so-called "sword and sandal" genre was memorably resurrected with Gladiator, another ode to the days of the Roman Empire. 

So in a lot of ways, Ben-Hur in 2016 was bringing things full circle, finally giving modern audiences another look at rich source material.  Actually, the God elements are the least convincing of the movie, and seem to have been written with one particular audience in mind anyway.  Depending on your ability to look past them, you don't even have to worry about them.  The rest of the material stands up on its own, even if today it feels more like a curiosity than a vital piece of the culture.

But the thing is, you don't even have to look at it as a Star Wars thing or a God thing, but as a Civil War general's attempt to reconcile, well, the Civil War, and the America that existed at that time, a period of social strife, when slaves were being freed and struggling to find their place in society again.  Slavery is key to the imagery of Ben-Hur in any context; the galley sequences are clearly evocative of slave ships, since they're an image the author conjured out of thin air, as he presented them.  The 2016 movie is actually less about the God elements and more about attempting to unite diverging segments of the population, which makes it all the more ironic that the filmmakers decided to include divisive God elements and not particularly artfully, because they were only going to make the intended results impossible.

But all this still means this movie is fascinating, something worth thinking about, watching to see how well it really succeeds, how well it speaks to the past, present, and future.  It's ambitious, and usually ambitious these days means superheroes or aliens, not a chariot race.  It's certainly a movie I'll be returning to in the years ahead.  I'm still not sure what to think about it myself, whether it succeeds on its own merits or merely the rich thoughts it provokes, and everything it evokes.  I think it's pretty good.  But, I'll have plenty of opportunities to find out for sure.  I think it deserves that much.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Top Picks from 2017 Sundance film festival

One of my dream jobs would absolutely be to watch movies all day (and, I guess, write about them), so I'd love to attend something like Sundance (1/19-1/29).  Here're some films from this year's festival I'd love to catch, ideally at Sundance.  Any omissions are strictly an indication of the extent to what I miss by not being able to live that particular dream...

A Ghost Story
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara always intrigue me, and the premise of this particular movie is beyond intriguing.
The Discovery
Rooney Mara, plus Jason Segel in a dramatic performance?  Heck ya!

The Hero
Sam Elliott's Crazy Heart might finally be his worthy spotlight.

I Don't Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Mostly because Melanie Lynskey is a screamingly underrated talent and this is one of several films she appears in at Sundance this year.

The Little Hours

This pick is mostly for how ridiculously natural Alison Brie and Aubrey Plaza look as nuns.  Plus I'd love to see them act as nuns...

Are you kidding me?  This is another Cate Blanchett tour-de-force.  Only cinephobes would hate seeing this.
Wind River
The latest from Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water).

The Yellow Birds
The forthcoming Young Han Solo stars in this, plus Jason Patric, who's the longest-working brilliant actor who critics have yet to really discover, or possibly has yet to appear in a film to truly spotlight him (besides Narc).

Friday, December 30, 2016

1998 Capsule Reviews

The Truman Show
rating: *****
review: My pick for Jim Carrey's best movie, his first big stab at being dramatic while retaining his crucial whimsical appeal in a story that takes an immersive look at the human condition.

American History X
rating: *****
review: Edward Norton's best movie is a deep look at race relations, at their worst, and how to make things better.  Continually relevant, alas.

The Mask of Zorro
rating: *****
review: A perfect escapist adventure with a perfect cast.

What Dreams May Come
rating: *****
review: A truly awe-inspiring journey into the afterlife with Robin Williams.

Out of Sight
rating: *****
review: George Clooney's effortless cool in its best spotlight.

Shakespeare in Love
rating: ****
review: Very nearly worthy of the Bard himself.

Star Trek: Insurrection
rating: ****
review: A movie that rises above its shortcomings with some fascinating insights into franchise lore.

There's Something About Mary
rating: ****
review: This would be perfect, except for the fact that it kind of ages.

The Avengers
rating: ****
review: An excellent sendup of stuffy British spy stories.

The Negotiator
rating: ****
review: A great cast makes up for the fact that the reason Samuel L. Jackson is besieged takes a backseat to thrill of watching him get out of it.

Patch Adams
rating: ****
review: Robin Williams almost seems lost trying to inhabit a real person, but it's still an inspiring story.

Lethal Weapon 4
rating: ****
review: From my experience with this franchise, it's my favorite entry, with Mel Gibson obviously having the time of his life.

Rush Hour
rating: ****
review: Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker are a classic combination.

Saving Private Ryan
rating: ****
review: Sprawling but mesmerizing look at American soldiers in WWII Europe.

Meet Joe Black
rating: ****
review: Hugely underrated Brad Pitt drama that explores the ramifications of death.

Snake Eyes
rating: ****
review: My personal favorite Crazy Nicholas Cage Movie.

rating: ****
review: Thanks to my sister, this sort of became my favorite '90s Disney animated flick.

rating: ****
review: A first taste of Cate Blanchett at epic scale.

rating: ****
review: Kenneth Branagh as Woody Allen is a natural fit.

The Thin Red Line
rating: ****
review: Terrence Malick's poetic meditation of WWII is a brooding revelation.

Lost in Space
rating: ***
review: Fun family stab at sci-fi storytelling.

The Odd Couple II
rating: ***
review: The last Lemmon/Matthieu goes for broke with extremely broad strokes but is still well worth watching.

The Big Lebowski
rating: ***
review: The Dude abides, but he also kind of meanders through a madcap landscape.

Primary Colors
rating: ***
review: It was probably a mistake to recalibrate this Clinton satire into Clinton hero worship.

Wide Awake
rating: ***
review: M. Night Shyamalan's first movie plays with kid gloves pretty literally.

rating: ***
review: The contrast between the past and present is pretty on-the-nose but looks really pretty.

Blues Brothers 2000
rating: ***
review: Hey, if it's just an excuse to pump out some extra great blues tunes, I think it was worth it.

rating: ***
review: Maybe doesn't break any new ground in the gambling genre, but the cast makes up for it.

rating: ***
review: An excellent look at the birth of Pakistan, but otherwise doesn't really distinguish itself.

Apt Pupil
rating: **
review: A serviceable Stephen King adaptation, but kind of doesn't live up to the standards of his dramas.

Species II
rating: **
review: enjoyable for what it is, but it's still what it is.

Return to Paradise
rating: **
review: A somewhat overwrought attempt to introduce a new generation of serious actors.

rating: **
review: In hindsight this looks like it wanted to recapture the magic of the Mission: Impossible reboot from two years earlier, but couldn't.

A Night at the Roxbury
rating: **
review: Idiot fun, but not nearly to the standards of Will Ferrell's later film career.

Simon Birch
rating: **
review: If Jim Carrey had served as anything but narrator, this could have been something other than melodrama.

 The Big Hit
rating: **
review: Harmless action fun.

A Bug's Life
rating: *
review: To my mind, instantly revealed the extent to the Pixar formula.

The Waterboy
rating: *
review: To my mind, instantly revealed the extent of Adam Sandler's ability to create distinctive character personas.