Archives for posts with tag: cinema

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How soon is too soon? Always when we’re talking about getting back together with your ex, but if we’re discussing superhero reboots, it seems like maybe 5 years is too soon.

So obviously, The Amazing Spiderman was bound to meet with some skepticism coming so soon after the last Spiderman franchise. How could it, in terms of technology, in terms of story, in terms of imaginative consciousness, be different enough to separate itself from its all-to-recent predecessor? Marc Webb and company set out to show that it was possible, despite the odds. And, to be honest, this film has some charming elements. In fact, we can say that this is a really fun, maybe even really good film, at least through the first half. Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker is likeable, nerdy, and yet still cool enough to be believable as a character who steps into a new role as a hero. His interplay with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is awkward, fun, and has real chemistry. If this were a simple teen flick, that first movement would earn it a top rating. We might even say that the Peter & Gwen story has more spark in the beginning than Toby Maguire ever had with Kirsten Dunst. Added bonuses in this film include Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben and Dennis Leary as Captain Stacy, Gwen’s disapproving policeman father. Nice performances from both.

Unfortunately, though, the film doesn’t stay in Midtown Science High School and the story trundles along. I have to be honest that I stopped enjoying it from when Peter Parker fully actualizes his new identity as Spiderman. The special effects are reminiscent, the dialogue becomes very much what we expect from one of Marvel’s “up-beat” products, and well it just feels like more of the same. This is where the movie steps so solidly into the shadow of the last franchise, even if it has some nice nuances at certain points (cell phones exist! and Spidey’s web has a bit more…consistence of concept). The worst of it, though, is that Parker’s character loses its center. We have action, chatter, and battling, but Peter stops being much of a person. Every now and then the story includes a meaningful look, a line of dialogue about fixing what we started, some bits about responsibility, etc. But these things don’t really come together.

The take away is that it doesn’t feel like there was really any good reason to make this reboot, except for the fact that Marvel executives couldn’t dream of letting their cash cow lie dormant for too long, not generating millions in merchandizing revenues as kids around the word clamor for Spiderman underwear and lunch boxes. 

I really did like the first half, though. I preferred it to the last series, even. So even if I wouldn’t urge you to see this, I’ll be crossing my fingers that the second instalment will capitalize on the strengths of the first, and stop slinging the same tropes that we had before.

THE WAY, WAY BACK

This is such a sweet movie, and notably, Steve Carrell finally plays a character who isn’t all that nice.

The Way Way Back is a summer flick about growing up and discovering how to follow your own path. Duncan, played by Liam James, is so awkward and uncomfortable in his own skin that there’s no question  his adventures at the beach house are going to help me come of age. Straight away he has to deal with his mother’s boyfriend (Carrell) trying to forge a new family by sheer will and passive-aggressive bullying, he has to learn how to interact with girls his age, and his father’s absence looms as a mostly unspoken but present hurt. Meanwhile, his mother becomes steadily unrecognizable to him under the influence of her boyfriend and his pack of boozy buddies. None of it seems to be going very well, until Duncan meets Owen, played by Sam Rockwell, the eccentric owner of a water park and the most unlikely of role models.

This sounds like pretty standard stuff. It is. Except it’s really well done. The characters are well-rendered, the dialogue well-written and snappy, the acting nicely-done. Toni Collette, as Duncan’s mother, is spot on, as usual. Steve Carrell really is smarmy and unlikeable (if, from time to time, unbelievable). Rockwell’s character isn’t believable at all, but there’s no denying how endearing he is as an actor, and Rockwell himself remains a gift. Liam James: bravo, I felt awkward just looking at him. Looking back at the writing, you have to acknowledge that the script attempts to keep things complicated, giving characters bits of complexity even when you expect them to be two-dimensional, and a few easy wins are denied to the audience.

Still, this is what it is: a nice movie about coming of age in a troubled family situation at a beach house where reality becomes, momentarily, more than it usually is. So dont’ expect it to be a revelation. It’s as much a genre film as any flick about vampires. It just happens to be pretty damn well-done. Recommended when you want to smile on a Saturday night with a pint of ice cream.

One note: this film tries pretty hard, and does a good job, I think, to portray people with real bodies. For that, I applaud the filmmakers.

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I am sad to report that, despite major advances in artificial intelligence, the Future wears high-waisted trousers.

Spike Jonze has only directed four feature films, but the quality of those features has been outstanding (though I say this without having seen Where the Wild Things Are). He really has a knack for exploring loneliness within a generally comic atmosphere, and even though the worlds he creates are always one to two parts absurd, there’s always a very human heart beating in the center of them. In Her, the seeming gimmick is the idea of a world where the latest advance in artificial intelligence is giving everyone the gift of their own, super-evolved personal assistant. Of course this becomes a vehicle to questions about what it means to open yourself to change, to love and do so without grasping at the loved one in fear, and to move with grace into what comes next. There’s one of Jonze’s signatures: you’re laughing at the novelty bit, but then it leads you right into a fit of cathartic weeping! Damnit, Spike, you got me again.

The script deserved its Golden Globe. One thing that makes it so impressive is the incredibly diversity of voices it accommodates: epistolary voices that come in letter form, the host of characters, the ones among them that we could say inhabit a different mode of being than what we consider to be human being, and they are all distinct and memorable. On voice alone the script would be impressive, but then that’s just part of the narrative. And one thing I’ll say about the narrative is that it’s not exactly surprising, but that’s to its credit. It fits in the category of stories where we have a general feeling of where we are headed, and yet every moment still feels as fresh and worthwhile as if it had been a total revelation.

The acting is superb. I think I already knew it when seeing him in The Master (2012), but it was while watching Her that I thought to myself that Joaquin Phoenix is truly one of the great actors of our time. I know I’m not alone in thinking it, and I know there are people who think he is a buffoon. Whatever he may be in our world, on screen he is a marvel, and this film is just another bright example. Everyone else in the cast was also excellent, though I did at one point imagine someone else being cast in the role of Samantha rather than Scarlett Johansson. She made a good performance, though.

So this film isn’t without its flaws, it isn’t quite as good as Upstream Color and I could critique it if I wanted to. (C’mon Spike, how much simulated sex did we really need to get the point???) But overall, I was so very happy to have seen it. I recommend it without reservation.

But please stop with the high waisted trousers.

upstream-color

Wow. I am knocked out. Upstream Color is one of the most original new films I have seen in years. I am entirely reluctant to say anything about it, for fear of doing it an injustice, and also for fear of ruining the experience for any potential viewers. Please, see this film.

It is beautifully shot, beautifully scored, and beautifully written. The acting is strong. The premise is original. The emotions are bizarre and real.

If you say Carruth’s Primer and enjoyed it, this is one hundred times as good. Please see this film. It’s stunning.

Oh I have nothing good to say. Nothing nothing. Just watch it.

No jokes.

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Bush-era spin doctoring with a tobacco twist! Aaron Eckhart plays a slick tobacco lobbyist who tries to promote a world where people are free to make their own decisions, notably by continuing to make smoking cigarettes a viable option despite public health concerns. The story is clever, free of much fat, and mostly fun. We get enjoyable appearances by Rob Lowe as an eccentric film industry impresario, Adam Brody as his tech-bro assistant, Katie Holmes as an opportunistic journalist, and much more. Perhaps my favorite small roll is played by Robert Duvall, because he’s ROBERT DUVALL, and he can do almost no wrong in my eyes.

The one problem I see with this film is not that Eckhart’s character is an anti-hero of questionable likeability; we’ve seen this before many times, and to much darker degrees. My feeling, though, is that there is a morality claim being made in this film, one that isn’t pro smoking or pro spin, but also isn’t in favor of the righteously moralistic indignation we get from people like Vermont Senator Finistirre, played by William H. Macy. But what that morality is, however, is dubious. That we should think for ourselves? That we ought to remain loyal to the important people in our lives despite their faults? No, none of this seems right. And naturally this film is good enough that it should be more complicated than the moral of a fable. That being said, something doesn’t sit right with me about whatever it is trying to say, and that the film has an argument, I am sure.

Entertaining film, though, and doesn’t seem to have received as much attention as it deserves. Please don’t smoke, however.

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Here’s another film that I heard was bad, and racist, and and and. I didn’t find it to be so bad, myself. The premise is a bit hyperbolic, the script over-extended, and the acting doesn’t leave much room for accolades (yes, it’s true, this is not anything close to Jodie Foster’s best performances, even if it’s always fun to hear her speaking in French). But this isn’t a piece of garbage. It’s simply not the mind-destroying science fiction film that people seem to always crave and, therefore, expect. In the end it’s just a standard dystopian film, but with a little more Matt Damon than weird used to, and that incredible accent that makes Sharlto Copley almost incomprehensible.

As for the racism? Blomkamp was clearly trying to deal with racism in an exaggerated way, à la District 9, and the man is not what we’d call the sultan of subtlety. As it is, I don’t find it immediately unpalatable to think that the Los Angeles of the future is hispanophone. Is it not already? I don’t find the current prevalence of Spanish to be disgusting, so I don’t have any problem seeing it represented as such in the future. That it would play into the class war (which is what it’s really about) in Elysium, well that simply makes sense, even if it could have been done much better.

I will state, for the record, though, that I’m tired of characters named “Spider,” who are inevitably somewhat the same. The best spider remains Henry Rollins in Johnny Mnemonic (a fairly fun dystopian film, I might add, even if purely ridiculous):

*

ps. Alice Braga is a knock-out.

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Yes! I admit that I make up a member of the “generally liking Wes Anderson films” population, but Fantastic Mr. Fox is better than his usual. It has all of Anderson’s quirk, but forces him into a different mode thanks to the animation. The colors and the scenery are still Andersonian, sure, as is the script, but it takes a different weird angle that I can’t really describe. I laughed quite a bit more than normal. Maybe it’s the power of Roald Dahl underneath it? I don’t know. This is one Dahl story I haven’t read. In any case, this was a gem that I was glad to catch up on. George Clooney is pretty damn good. The way they deal with the “animal” side of things is hilarious. And OH OH OH: Meryl Streep! “If what I think is happening…is happening…it better not be.”

gravity

There might not be anything  bleaker than the idea of death in outer space. Alfonso Cuarón decided to make a film that hinges on the fear of exactly that, and about the human ability to struggle for survival in that most inhospitable of realms. Based on premise alone, Gravity is terrifying. But let’s say just a bit more.

Cuarón has set a high standard for himself, having already made such excellent films as Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, and in many ways, Gravity lives up to that standard. The visuals are beyond belief. There is simply a level of imagery that has never been achieved in cinema before. Likewise, I found that this was the first time that it felt like the 3-D format made sense (and added to the film experience). The mix of photography and CGI is just amazing. The soundtrack was also excellent, even if we might not call it cutting edge–prominent use of Shepard tones is perfect for the tension in the film, if not original. And the acting is fairly solid. Both George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do something of their standard performances, but they fit well in this script.

The only real downer about this movie comes in the sentimental parts, where the emotions are fairly crude, the themes are overbearing and obvious, and in general it feels like Cuarón didn’t trust his audience to understand more nuanced fare. Emotionally, this has nothing of the finesse you have in his earlier work.

But if you can get past the sledgehammer thematics, the action and the visuals are worth it. Space, beauty, stress, action, weightlessness, and then so much weight… Now I only hope Cuarón keeps it coming, and that he has a long and fruitful career.

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I hated this film.

It’s just an extended apology for male violence, and would be so even if you took out all the rape. Yes, let’s be clear, Paul rapes Jeanne multiple times, not just in the scene with the butter. But even if we had removed the rape, Paul is a man who uses force to get what he wants, uses his body, and a few scenes of him crying doesn’t redeem him.

There are plenty of films with unredeemed, nasty characters in it, even plenty of films with rape in them, that are able to be stomached, sometimes even liked, because of how they treat the topic. I’m not for cinema that pretends rape doesn’t exist or that men never use force to take what they desire. But I can’t happily sit through an apology for it. Yes, sure, Paul is tortured, but that doesn’t excuse him, or the film that tries to make him its antihero. You can feel it, that Bertolucci loved this character. Not me.

Besides that: Brando speaking French is pure horror. Seventies faux-jazz saxophone. Mostly bad dialogue. And the playful side story of Jeanne’s cineaste fiancé, well it just reminds me of Godard playing with the cinema industry, but it’s not as good. There are some beautiful shots. Bertolucci should have stuck to that. And maybe made Maria Schneider all the film was really about. Maria Schneider walking through Paris, that would have been wonderful. But that’s not what we got. We got saxophone, rape, and a bullshit excuse for a resolution.

On last summary: fake French from Brando; fake jazz saxophone; fake arthouse cinema; fake pornography; real rape. I can’t wait to see another film, even a bad one, to get Last Tango in Paris.

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Before Alfonso Cuarón got all grave on us (tee hee), he was making romantic comedies and they were rather good!

Here, in his first feature film, we have the story of an unlikely lothario, Tomás Tomás, who is careless in his affairs to the point of disregarding his personal safety as well as that of the women he seduces. This leads him into a series of very difficult situations, and as his life gets more complicated, he begins to realize that his lifestyle doesn’t serve him once he falls in love with his beautiful neighbor, Clarissa. Add in a whole bunch of other stuff and you’ve got it!

I imagine this film being made by a French team and starring Romain Duris and not being quite as good. The zany 90s feel of it (I seem to be catching quite a few 90s flicks in the recent months) is fun, and there are so many fine touches, such as jokes repeating like leitmotifs, that it’s endearing even as it ends up slightly predictable. I am regret having just enough Spanish to know that significant wordplay is going on, but without understanding what it might be. Sólo Con Tu Pareja may have the second best dream sequence of all time, though, after Dumbo. Ah wait. That’s a drunk scene, not a dream sequence.

[Cue Inexplicable Mexican Wrestler]

Let’s get serious, though: Cuarón is amazing. Even as this film feels like juvenilia, it’s very good quality for a 90s romantic comedy. If it had been the first of his films that I’d seen, I probably never would have guessed that he’d go on to make Children of Men, for example, and Sólo Con Tu Pareja does not come close to his other work, but I’m still happy to have seen it. I haven’t even had a chance to see Gravity yet and I love this director like Tomás loves Clarisa. I really hope he has a long and fruitful career. (His non-directorial production credits are also awesome…)

I just quickly read A.O. Scott’s NYTimes review of the film and I think he largely agrees with me. Good job, Anthony! Which reminds me, this film features one of the five most tasteless jokes I’ve ever seen in a film. Intriguing? I guess you’ll have to watch it, then, because I’m not going to tell you what it is! (Tee hee!)

Now I need to learn some Spanish. I want to know the exact language when Tomás asks Clarisa, “You feel an abyss between us?” And she answers, “Yes. A very small one.”

Alright, I’m off to look up every Claudia Ramírez film ever made.