Archive for the ‘Movies’ category

Avatar – Review

December 19, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

After watching Avatar, I’ve come to hate the form even more – it’s that bad.  This film is so invested in its own originality and grandeur that its complete lack of originality and grandeur become the only epic elements of what is supposed to be an epic film.

To begin with, the script is just awful.  If the worst lines that George Lucas ever wrote were to mate with the worst lines that Michael Bay ever wrote, the Avatar script would be their love-child.  It’s not quite Catwoman bad, but when that’s the best thing you can say for the writing then something’s seriously wrong.

The premise of the film is that humanity has discovered a planet rich in a valuable substance called “unobtainium.”  No, you didn’t read that wrong.  It’s called “unobtainium.”  The only trouble is that the natives, who are apparently one third cat, one third American Indian caricature, and one third giant Smurf, don’t want to let the humans mine for “unobtainium” (seriously, that really is its name – you can’t make this stuff up… unless you’re James Cameron) because doing so would ruin their sacred lands, especially their giant tree/home/temple.  Hoping (sort of) to get the natives to move to the next tree over through diplomacy rather than military force, the corporation sends a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, into their midst in the form of an Avatar – a kind of biological machine that Jake operates through psychic remote-control – that looks like one of the natives.  Jake, though, quickly realizes that he’s on the wrong side of the conflict and eventually wants to protect the noble savages from the imperialistic company that hired him.

As you might have guessed by now, the film itself is nothing more than an avatar of sorts for the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers (although the film ocassionally mixes its metaphors with thinly-veiled references to Africa and Iraq).  And this is where the film starts to fall apart.  As a critique of imperialism the movie is incredibly simplistic, heavy-handed, and insulting to both its audience and its subject matter.

Cameron roots his depiction of the natives in just about every condescending, racist 18th century stereotype of the “noble savage” that he can find.  They are extremely devoted to their tribes, but suspicious of outsiders.  They have elaborate and physically dangerous rituals to mark the passage of young males into adulthood.  And, of course they’re deeply attuned to nature.  Literally.  The natives can actually plug their pony-tails into native species to form a kind of mind-meld.  No, I’m not kidding.  Rather than allowing any sort of cultural complexity in the native civilization, Cameron simply sets them up as a group of wise but simple primitives and, in doing so, demonstrates just how primitive the movie’s racial politics are.

Perhaps wanting to be fair, Cameron grounds his depictions of humans in equally simplistic sets of stereotypes.  The colony basically consists of three distinct groups.  First, there are the corporation’s representatives who worship the bottom line with as much devotion as the natives show for the trees.  Then there are the military types who only pause in their incessant blood-lust long enough to question each others’ manhood (except, of course, for the lone military woman, who realizes the error of her ways and joins the natives).  And, finally, there are the glorious scientists whose beneficent desire for knowledge eventually causes them to join the natives’ cause.  So, corporation/military = the bad guys, scientists/natives = the good guys.  It really is that simple.  Though Jake initially attempts to inhabit all three of these of groups, he eventually joins the scientists and commits himself to rescuing the natives.  Oh, and he mates with Pocahontas (or whatever the Chieftain’s daughter’s name happens to be).

The film’s investment in stereotype is, needless to say, a huge problem, and undermines any pseudo-progressive statements that the film might be trying to make.  But they also undermine the nuts and bolts of the film itself.  The film is, after all, supposed to be a sprawling three-hour-long “epic” full of originality and imagination.  But the stereotypes at its core are anything but original and imaginative so the film ends up feeling mired in a sense of tedious familiarity.

For instance, at one point Pocahontas (or whatever her name is) teaches Jake the ways of her people.  We’ve all seen this story before – he starts out clumsy, eventually learns to swing through the forest with ease, proves himself by mounting a wild beast, then makes out with Poca-what’s-her-name.  That’s it.  Sure, the “horses” have six legs and nostrils in their necks, the trees glow, and the native girl is blue, but ultimately this entire sequence could have been covered in a two-minute montage of familiar tropes.  Instead Cameron turns it into an hour-long repetition of old ideas hiding beneath new CGI techniques.

And so the movie goes.  Over and over again the film uses cutting-edge technology to rehash tired narratives and to put new skins on all-too-familiar stock characters.  The battle sequences are loud and full of giant explosions, but ultimately follow traditional patterns (bad guys attack, good guys retaliate and seem to be doing well, bad guys re-retaliate and all seems lost, some unexpected aid arrives and turns the tide culminating in a one-on-one showdown between the hero and antagonist).  Cameron could have told this entire story in about an hour (heck, I’ve basically told it in less than a thousand words).  Instead, he spreads it out over three of the most tedious hours that I’ve ever had to spend in a theater.

Sure, in the meantime, there are some impressive visuals.  Things glow, and whiz across the screen, and explode and stuff.  There are lots of colors and there’s lots of noise, too.  Sigourney Weaver’s performance is good, and most of the others are passable.  But none of this adds up to “epic.”  In fact, after a three hour movie and a large bottle of water the only epic experience I had at the theater involved a long trip to the bathroom when the movie was finally over.  And the time I spent in front of that urinal was far more satisfying than anything I saw on screen.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Review

December 12, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

That being said, I actually quite enjoyed Fantastic Mr. Fox.  I’m not sure that it’s as “groundbreaking” as some are claiming, but in the end I came away happy to have seen it.  After watching Disney butcher such Dr. Seuss classics as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Cat in the Hat, and Horton Hears a Who, it’s great to see two successful film adaptations of “children’s” literature in one year (the other, of course, being Spike Jonze’s brilliant adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are).

That I liked Fantastic Mr. Fox was surprising because my track record with Wes Anderson is almost as bad as my track record with the Coen Brothers.  I liked (didn’t love, but liked) Rushmore, didn’t like The Royal Tenenbaums, and absolutely detested A Life Aquatic – seriously, it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.

One of the problems I have with Wes Anderson films is his insistence on and obsession with style.  It’s not that I mind stylized film making, but style alone isn’t enough to make me enjoy a film.  For Anderson, though, it seems that style is the top priority – that the characters and the narrative are there only as an excuse to execute a specific visual style.  I find this tedious and uninteresting because, as a Simpsons character whose name I don’t know once said: “the whole thing smacks of effort.”

But that effort worked in Fantastic Mr. Fox, in large part because it uses stop-motion animation – a technique that already wears its effort on its sleeve.  As a viewer, the slight jerkiness of the motion on screen acts as a constant reminder of the artificiality of what we’re seeing – something that a stylish director like Anderson takes full advantage of.  In fact, one of the strengths of the film is the way that Anderson manages to match form to content.

After all, one of the liberties that the film takes with Dahl’s book is to use Mr. Fox’s plight to comment on the increasing artificiality of our world.  At one point, Mr. Fox tears into his dinner with all of the recklessness and fervor of a wild animal (which, of course, he is).  His motions are so fast that the stop-motion animation can’t keep up – the artificiality of the film-making is unable to contain the wildness of Mr. Fox.  But as the story progresses (warning – a few mild spoilers follow), Mr. Fox starts to realize the negative consequences of his wildness and his eventual ability to outwit his nemeses, Boggis, Bunce, and Bean stems from his gradual assimilation into their comfortable, civilized (but less exciting) world.  While this brings with it a palpable sense of loss, Fox’s dance with his family at the end – a dance that seems in perfect step with the 12 frames-per-second of the animation – reflects his acceptance of his new lifestyle and, at the same time, justifies the explicit stylization that bogs down most of Anderson’s other films.

All of this being said, the film is far from perfect.  As I already mentioned, Anderson does take some substantial liberties with his source material on both a narrative and thematic level.  While that isn’t an inherently bad thing, sometimes the deviations felt less original than the parts that followed the book more closely.

The second half of the film begins to rely less on Dahl’s brilliant storytelling and more on some of the conventions of contemporary animation, especially in its raucous final action sequence. By entering into these conventions, Anderson is placing himself in competition with other, more experienced animation teams, especially Pixar – a company that has found a formula for fast paced final action sequences that eludes Anderson.  Instead of a tight blending of action and story, a lot of the last half of Mr. Fox made me feel as though I was watching a kid who had lost track of the story he was trying to tell and was instead just having fun with his toys.  There’s a certain joy to be had in this, but it still weakened the overall impact of what starts off as a very original and compelling re-interpretation of a very original and compelling book.

The result is a film that is never boring (and I’m easily bored), and, at times, is deeply interesting.  Some Roald Dahl fans will hate it for the liberties it takes (after all, the film’s grudging endorsement of modern civilization is almost directly contrary to Dahl’s celebration of Mr. Fox’s refusal to be tamed), but others (like myself) will admire the way Anderson’s version of the story engages the spirit of Dahl’s overall literary daring even if he doesn’t stick to the spirit of this particular book.  In its best moments, Fantastic Mr. Fox shows us that stop-motion animation can do things that computer animation simply cannot, but at others it made me painfully aware of stop-motion’s limitations in the digital age.

Most strikingly, though, the film demonstrates that Anderson’s investment in style doesn’t have to overwhelm the other aspects of his film-making.  Maybe if it had been in stop-motion animation, The Royal Tenenbaums would have been more interesting.  I’m not sure anything could save A Life Aquatic.

Why The Big Lebowski is an Over-rated Pile of Dung

December 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Also, I am aware that The Big Lebowski has a large and passionate following, and that this post might put me in danger of physical mob violence (or would if mobs of people actually read my blog – needless to say, I’ll sleep easy tonight).  As such, I decided to re-watch the movie just to make sure that I wasn’t missing something the first time I saw it.

I wasn’t.

In fact, rather than finding anything new I actually found something entirely and disappointingly familiar.  Lebowski is, when all is said and done, a stoner movie.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I don’t think I realized this the first time I watched it because it’s a stoner movie hidden underneath a pretty thick veneer of faux-wittiness and clever (not the same as funny) film-making.  But in the end, this is simply a stoner movie.

As such, it suffers from the same flawed premise that hinders most stoner movies: while it is often inherently funny to be high, it isn’t inherently funny to be around someone who’s high – in fact, it’s often incredibly dull and/or frustrating.

Now, I realize that there is actually not a lot of pot smoking going on in Lebowski (the White Russians get a lot more camera time), but Lebowski (or “The Dude”) himself is clearly a typical burn-out: he likes to drink/get high, he’s a dead-beat, he’s harmless, he finds everything a little bewildering, and he’d get along with everyone else a lot better if they’d just be as chill as he is.  So, yes, he’s a burn-out.  And, no, that isn’t funny.

I also realize that the rest of the characters don’t fit the burn-out mold.  In fact, they are really anti-burn-outs; characters who are so un-“chill” that their manic intensity (whether it be about bowling, artistic pretensions, or Vietnam) stands in stark contrast to The Dude’s complete lack of ambition.  Their humor lies in their being foils to The Dude and what he represents.  As a result, the film simply wastes their potential for humor since they are meant to highlight the inherent funniness of The Dude – a funniness that isn’t there.

Take, for instance, one of the film’s most beloved characters.  I’ll be the first to admit that the notion of a brightly dressed pedophile who calls himself “The Jesus” and takes his bowling way too seriously is ripe with comedic potential.  In fact, just writing that last sentence made me chuckle.  But, ultimately, the film doesn’t do much more with this notion than my sentence did.  Instead, it uses The Jesus and the absurd passion he has for crushing his bowling opponents to further highlight Lebowki’s nonchalance.  In other words, The Jesus only exists to make us more aware of The Dude as a burn-out.

Which isn’t funny.

And this was, repeatedly, the problem I had with the movie – the humor of each character was dependent on that character’s interaction with The Dude and the The Dude just wasn’t interesting or original enough to bear that burden.

This was even true of the movie’s visual style.  As I’ve said before, the Coen brothers have a special talent for capturing unusual aesthetics and finding beauty in what we would normally consider the mundane.  In Lebowski that aesthetic centers around the bowling alley and I will be the first to admit that this is probably the most beautiful (and yet still genuine) depiction of a bowling alley I’ve ever seen.

But the question remains: why should I care about a representation of a bowling alley?  Again, the answer is the The Dude.  The film’s striking (no pun intended) representation of the bowling alley highlights Lebowski’s desire to be left alone to waste his life rolling a ball at some pins.  Once again, I don’t find that inherently funny and so, once again, the film wastes its own potential on a flawed central character.

I do want to be clear about one thing, though.  I don’t think the failure of The Dude is in any way a comment on Jeff Bridges’ performance, which was outstanding.  In fact, all of the performance were outstanding.  As were so many other aspects of the film.  Everything was well done and cleverly (again, clever and funny aren’t the same thing) put together.  But, in the end, all that this effort accomplished was to very effectively convey what it’s like to be around a burn-out.  Unfortunately, that means that the film left me a little bored, a little frustrated, and intensely aware of wasted potential.

A Serious Man – Review

November 18, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Yet, I was nervous about seeing this film.  What if I liked it?  After all, following years of not understanding what on earth everyone saw in films like The Big Lebowski and Fargo, I actually liked No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading.  So, what if I liked A Serious Man?  What would I do if, so early in my blog’s history, I wrecked its premise by posting as many positive reviews as negative?  Perhaps more importantly, how would I cope on a personal level with the notion that my levels of general disdain might be waning?

Well, crisis averted.  I am thrilled to say that this movie is excrement.

The story is quite simple.  A middle-aged Jewish professor of Physics is dealing with an assortment of various ills.  He has a difficult student who is trying bribe him.  He has a sad-sack brother living with him who keeps hogging the bathroom.  His wife is in love with another man and wants a divorce.  His son is getting chased home from school by a bully who is trying to collect $20 for the pot he sold to him.  In order to cope he tries to see his Rabbi. There are some other things too, I guess.  I don’t know.  I’m bored just writing about it.

To be fair, the Coen Brothers do once again demonstrate their uncanny ability to capture a highly original aesthetic, both visually and in narrative form.  Unfortunately, they have, once again, captured an aesthetic that doesn’t interest me in the least.  More than anything, they seemed to want to capture the frustrating mundane-ness of the protagonist’s life, even in crisis.  And they succeeded.  Unfortunately, that just meant that the film was frustrating and mundane.  Nothing much really happened.  It wasn’t clear what really even could happen.  And I wasn’t sure why I should care.  Everything just felt suffocatingly blah.  Again, I think that was kind of the point.  Again, I’m not interested – I’m not sure that an accurate representation of blah-ness is anything that film-makers should even try to achieve.

Throughout, there were bits of what I guess were supposed to be funny moments, most of them revolving around various aspects of Jewish culture.  So, naturally, my first assumption was that I didn’t get it because I’m not Jewish.  But that explanation doesn’t work.  With the possible exception of African American culture, I could argue that Jewish culture is part of the very foundation of U.S. comedy.  Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Ben Stiller, Woody Allen, I could go on and on with examples of recent comedy stemming from Jewish culture that is simply hilarious.

But instead of making me laugh, this movie just bored me.  I have a terrible habit of falling asleep for about twenty or so minutes during a movie, and sometimes it can be quite frustrating.  But while watching this movie I was thrilled with the brief respite – rather than sit up and try to force myself to wake up I leaned back in my chair, got comfortable, and tried to ride my fatigue as far as it would carry me.  When I woke up I wasn’t disappointed to have missed part of the movie, but was instead disappointed that I hadn’t missed more.

Perhaps I wasn’t able to sleep as much as I wanted to because I was so excited to know that the world makes sense again: my opinion of the Coen Brothers doesn’t have to undergo the radical change that I feared, my distaste for movies is still in full gear, and my capacity for disdain is as healthy as ever.  Maybe in my next post I’ll explain why The Big Lebowski is an over-rated pile of dung as my way of thanking the Coen Brothers for all that they’ve done for me.

Why Halloween is an Over-Rated Pile of Dung

October 31, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Since today marks the greatest day of the year, I thought it only appropriate to celebrate that day by decrying the awfulness of the movie that shares its name.

In many ways, Halloween exemplifies several of the things that I generally don’t like about movies.

As I’ve mentioned before, one reason I hate movies is that they set me up for disappointment, and Halloween was no exception.  In addition to being named after my favorite holiday, the movie also gets off to a tremendous start – we get a first person perspective of a murder, only to eventually learn that we’ve been looking through the eyes of a young boy; a young boy who hacks people to death with knives.  Even I will admit – that’s good cinema.

But after such a promising start, the movie quickly goes downhill.  Of course, after starting with momentum, the movie has to slow down and catch its breath for a while.  However, over the course of the next hour or so the movie manages to catch its breath, lower its heart rate, and eventually take a nap on the couch (which is what I ended up wanting to do).  Cars driving down the street slowly and young women looking nervous and peering over their shoulders doesn’t build tension, it isn’t interesting, and it isn’t scary.  It’s boring.  For most of this movie I had to fight the temptation to grab the remote and just fast forward.

When the movie finally does start to pick up, another of my pet movie peeves rears its ugly head.  When Jamie Lee Curtis is running away from the incredibly slow, plodding psychopath, does she bolt down an open street, looking for crowded places with people who might be able to help her?  No, she runs to her own empty home, goes upstairs, and nullifies her greatest advantage: speed (of course, she does finally do the sensible after she’s fallen down the stairs and hurt her leg, thus nullifying the one thing she had going for her).  Then, when she still somehow manages to survive the attack by Michael Myers, and ends up stabbing him a few times, does she do the sensible thing and make sure he’s dead and take the knife with her as a precaution?  Of course not.  Instead, she walks away and lays the knife down next to the still living body.

When I point these things out to fans of the film, though, I tend to get one of two responses: either “you’re missing the intentional silliness of the film – it’s supposed to be a little ridiculous” or “those things seem stupid now because they’ve become horror movie cliches, but this was the film that started them.”  As I’ve said before, these excuses just don’t fly with me.  I am a huge fan of ridiculousness, but, as I pointed out long ago, there is a big difference between the ridiculous and the inane and Halloween is definitely an example of the latter.  If this movie is supposed to be a little bit awful, then shame on it for accomplishing its goal.

And to claim that we should forgive Halloween for using these inane, contrived devices because it was the first to do so is equally absurd.  After all, the Beatles introduced plenty of musical ideas that have, over the years, become cliches.  But, in those old Beatles recordings, these ideas really work – only after years of repetition in the hands of lesser musicians have these cliches become annoying and tiresome.  And even then, when I go back and listen to those old Beatles recordings, those ideas still feel fresh despite the baggage that now accompanies them.

But after watching Halloween I didn’t feel that I was witnessing the inspired birth of a set of conventions that have devolved as a result of over use by lesser artists.  Instead, I felt that I finally knew who to blame for inflicting a bunch of contrived nonsense on horror audiences for the past few decades.  I think no more highly of the creators of Halloween for introducing these stupid contrivances than I do of early American settlers and slave traders for setting the tone for centuries of racism.

Instead, like racism, I wish this movie had just never existed.

Reasons I Hate Movies: #2 – Low Expectations

October 27, 2009

Perhaps the only thing worse than the tendency of movies to raise my expectations only to then let me down is their tendency to unapologetically create low expectations.  It never ceases to amaze me how willing moviegoers (myself sometimes included) are willing to go see a film that we already know will suck before we shell out our ten dollars and hours of our day to see it.

This is most common during the summer.  When I once commented that this summer’s “blockbuster” X-Men Origins: Wolverine looked terrible, a friend gave the reply “well, it’s not supposed to be good.”  Another friend who was trying to defend Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, responded to my comment that it looked stupid by saying “well, yeah, but it’s supposed to be stupid.”  At various times I’ve heard lines like “I’m not saying it’s good, but you should still see it” or “well, of course it was bad, but I knew it would be bad when I went to see it, so I enjoyed it,” or “yeah, I knew it was going to be terrible, but I went to see it because, you know…”

No, I don’t know.  In what other medium would any of this ever be okay?  If I hear that a book sucks, I don’t read it.  Period.  If reviews of a video game are terrible then I stay away.  And I don’t think I’m alone in this.  But for some reason, when it comes to movies, we are more than willing to hand over our money to see something based purely on the hope that it might not be as bad as we are expecting.

Now I understand the desire to sit in a dark cool place and eat popcorn and candy.  And, sure, it would be weird if we just did that and there was nothing on the screen.  But as long as there is something on the screen, and we’re paying to see it, then it should maintain a certain level of quality.  But instead, we’ve actually come to expect the awfulness and to not only forgive it, but to support it by paying exorbitant ticket prices so that the studios can recoup their hundred million dollar investments on complete drivel.  Forget health care – this might be the most screwed up industry in America.

And this is another reason I hate movies.

Where the Wild Things Are – Review

October 17, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

As I said in my previous blog, part of the reason for this is that on those rare occasions that I let my guard down and actually get excited about a movie, the movie lets me down more often than not.  I likened the experience to Charlie Brown continually letting Lucy convince him that she’ll hold the football for him to kick, only to pull it away at the last second each and every time.  Thus, I was worried about the anticipation that I felt for Where the Wild Things Are – I was running towards that ball at full speed and my leg was swinging with all the power I could muster.

But instead of Lucy, it was Spike Jonze holding the ball, and he didn’t waiver for a second.  With this film he has joined the very short list of directors whose names I not only know (which is already a pretty small list), but whose names will single handedly make me take interest in a movie (George Lucas is probably the only other person on that list, but, given his recent track record, that interest is starting to become the “can’t turn away from the train wreck” variety).

In some ways I find it difficult to even offer a review of the film right now because the impact of seeing it hasn’t fully worn off.  It’s also difficult  because Wild Things (by which I mean Where the Wild Things Are not the late nineties soft-core classic) is so unique that describing any of its strongest qualities would verge on being a spoiler.  The experience of watching this film is very similar to the experience of Max, its main character: it’s an almost constant process of discovery.  However, since I don’t want to spoil what those discoveries are (and, honestly, I’m not even sure that I could put some of them into words), I will instead speak to some of the reservations that I and others held about the film prior to having the privilege of seeing it.

The most common (and obvious) questions were whether or not a short childrens’ book written in 1963 could provide the material for a full-length movie and if it was really necessary to find out.  The answer to both questions is a resounding yes, and this speaks to the subtle skills of both Maurice Sendak (the book’s author) and Jonze.  Jonze does a masterful job of capturing all of the complexity of the book – its sense of fun and adventure; its dark loneliness; its childish magic.  In doing so, he not only demonstrates his own remarkable skills as a director, but also reveals just how complex and sophisticated this short book has been all along.

Another reservation that I’ve come across is that, based on the trailer, it looks as though Max’s need to dream up the “Wild Things” stems from dealing with his parent’s divorce.  This worried me a bit going in as well since part of the beauty of the book stemmed from its ability to capture the turmoil, fear, and excitement of childhood without giving the reader a specific reason that Max is acting out.  However, (very, very minor spoiler alert) while the film’s version of Max is dealing with divorced parents, this is in no way the focus of the film.  This movie operates on far too sophisticated an emotional level to let something as specific as divorce guide its story or tone.

I’ve also read that many reviewers have critiqued the film for not being child friendly enough.  Since I am neither a child nor a parent I might not be able to offer the best response to this, but I will say that this is not typical kiddie movie fare.  However, having just sat through several previews of kid movies, I really don’t see Wild Things‘s departure from the genre as a bad thing.  During the course of the movie I heard several children laugh at the humorous moments (I was usually laughing along with them – and I never laugh at typical kiddie flicks), and didn’t (to my relief) hear much chatter from bored children, so I assume the kids in the audience (and there were a lot of them) enjoyed it.  I did hear one child throwing a terrified, hysterical fit during one particular scene, so be forewarned that this film is dark and could be frightening, but, then again, so is childhood.

Finally, I had my own personal reservations about the use of music in the trailer.  As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a proponent of the recent trend of using a “hip” soundtrack to convince audiences of the imminent “coolness” of a movie.  As such, I worried that the (admittedly wonderful) music that played over the various trailers for Wild Things signaled Jonze’s use of this recent movie cliche.  The music in this film, though, never feels forced or cliched but, instead, blends seamlessly with the visual and narrative elements of the story telling.

And that storytelling is, simply put, breath-taking.  The visuals are stunning and, like every other aspect of the film, do justice to the source without ever feeling merely derivative.

I generally hate movies, but this movie is so unlike anything else that none of my usual critiques apply.  In fact, this film might add a new reason to hate movies to my list since it so clearly demonstrates what film is capable of, thus making the frequent garbage that shows up on the screen absolutely inexcusable.  Who knows, maybe this will be the subject of a future blog.  I’d rather not think about it right now, though, because I’d rather just bask in the glow of the first really great movie that I’ve seen in almost two years.

Reasons I Hate Movies: #1 – Disappointment

October 14, 2009

Since my distaste for most movies is the subject of this blog, I decided that I should probably validate my disdain.  So, I’ve decided to add a feature to my writings in which I give some of the reasons that I generally hate movies, and this is my first installment.  The reasons will appear in no particular order, so it’s not as if what follows is my absolute top reason for disliking movies, it is simply the first one that I chose to write about.

And the reason that I chose to write about disappointment first is that it is particularly topical for me right now due to the upcoming release of Where the Wild Things Are.  When I first heard that someone was making a movie out of this beloved book, my reaction was probably the same as most – how on earth are they going to make a short childrens’ book into a full length movie?  Or at least, how are they going to make it into a good movie (Hollywood has proven that they can make anything into a crappy movie)?  In response, many remarked that Spike Jonze was directing it, so surely he’d figure it out, but, since I am no movie buff, all I heard was the word “director” followed by the sound that adults always made in Peanuts cartoons.

But then something happened: I saw the trailer for the film.  It was, simply put, breathtaking.  Never before had I had actually felt chills just from watching a trailer (with the possible exception of the trailer for the first new Star Wars film, but more on that in a second).  I immediately went from thinking the movie was a stupid idea to counting down the days until its release.  For those who have been living in a cave for the past several months, here is the trailer:

As moving as this trailer is, it also makes one of the reasons that I hate movies very apparent to me.  Every time I think about this film and how excited I am to see it there’s a little voice in my head whispering “but what if it sucks?”  This voice, mind you, is not the product of paranoid delusions on my part (not that those voices aren’t there), they are the voices of experience.  Far too often I let my guard down, let myself get excited about a movie, and then come away with bitter feelings of disappointment.  Sometimes this disappointment stems from nostalgia (Spiderman III, Transformers, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull,  and the new Star Wars films all had me pumped only to kick me in the gut with their badness) and sometimes it stems from a film’s reputation (Vertigo, Fargo, The Godfather, and Silence of the Lambs all made me eager to see what the fuss was about only to leave me wishing I had just taken a nap instead, which, in the case of Vertigo, is actually what I ended up doing).  Regardless, as someone who generally dislikes movies, it takes a lot to get me worked up about a film, so when a film that I’m excited about doesn’t deliver, I end up feeling like Charlie Brown after Lucy pulls the football away as he tries to kick it  – trusting in a film to deliver on its promise just leaves me open to another let-down and mad at myself for not learning from the past (wow, two Peanuts references in one blog, maybe I’ll go for the hat-trick).

And so it is with apprehension that I’ll be heading to the theaters this weekend.  Hopefully Where the Wild Things Are will blow me away. Hopefully, I’ll leave the theater wanting to see it again and counting down the days until it comes out on DVD.  Hopefully, it will spawn the first glowing review I write on this blog and I’ll come away as giddy as Charlie Brown after seeing the little red-headed girl (I did it!).

But every time I watch that trailer, I can’t help but wonder if the incredible music playing throughout is the reason it seems so great.  Or maybe it’s the impact of seeing images from my childhood realized on the screen that gives me the chills.  Or maybe a trailer, in its brevity, is the perfect format for an adaptation of such a short book.  If any of these is the case, then it doesn’t bode well for the film. But, just like Charlie Brown swings his leg at that football with all of the gusto he can muster, I’ll put all of these fears aside and when I see Where the Wild Things Are this weekend I’ll be full of excitement and anticipation.

Spike Jonze better not pull a Lucy.

Julie & Julia – Review

October 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Also be aware, as I was, that I was not the target audience for this film.  However, there were a few reasons that I held out hope that this movie wouldn’t be too bad.  First, it was a movie about a blog writer who made it big – I must admit, there is something appealing about that idea.  Second, it’s a movie about good food – again, I can relate.  Third, well, okay I’m out.

I did, however, go in with some reservations.  First and foremost, it had some of the trappings of a “chick flick.”  It didn’t seem too bad in this regard, though.  It wasn’t about a relationship with a sensitive but wounded man, it wasn’t about a group of girls finding understanding through each other, and it didn’t star Sandra Bullock, so I was still holding out some hope.

Another reservation had to do with what I heard from people who saw the movie.  They all opened their description of the movie with the same basic idea: Meryl Streep’s performance was amazing.  To me, that’s a giant red flag.  It’s the equivalent of someone describing a blind date as having “a great personality.”  Movies like Ray, There Will Be Blood, and anything Jack Nicholson has been in since The Shining have elicited similar descriptions and, in every case, I found myself walking away thinking “yes, that was a great performance, but I still wish I could have the last two hours of my life back.”

Finally, I had reservations about the basic premise of the movie.  I just didn’t understand how they would make an entire film out of one woman struggling to write a cookbook and another woman using that cookbook as a means of confronting her struggles as a writer through blogging, especially since we knew from the very beginning that Julia would publish her cookbook and Julie would find success as a blog writer.  I’m not always averse to movies in which the ending is a foregone conclusion.  Sometimes, the process of getting there is interesting enough to warrant my attention.  But cookbook writing and blog writing (believe me) are not interesting enough in their own right to keep me interested for more than just a few minutes.

Unfortunately, this film went on for a lot more than a few minutes and, as I feared, all of my reservations proved valid.  I knew I was in for some trouble when, at the beginning of the film, Julie sat down to lunch in a Manhattan restaurant with three of her friends and they began exchanging witty dialog while Julie’s inner monologue provided cynical commentary on the proceedings.  I suddenly had flashbacks to every Sex in the City episode that I’ve ever seen (which is basically all of them since that show is really just one episode repeated for five seasons).  But I can handle the occasional “chick flick,” so I hunkered down and tried to keep an open mind.

The trouble is, the film never gave my open mind anything to consider.  Just as I had feared, there simply wasn’t enough interesting material in either of these women’s lives to sustain a whole movie.  Julie spent a year cooking and eventually made it as a writer.  Julia worked for years on a cookbook that eventually got published and became popular.  That’s about it.  Neither story is really worth telling on its own, and putting them together doesn’t change that.

In fact, if anything it made each story more tedious since the movie’s vague attempts at creating parallels between its two main characters made it impossible for it to explore the few interesting moments that arose in the course of the film.  When Julie’s obsession with her blog causes strain in her relationship with her husband I perked up a bit – this could get interesting.  Unfortunately, Julia’s relationship with her husband was still solid.  So, Julie and her husband quickly made up and that was that.  When Julia’s husband comes under investigation because of McCarthy’s witch hunts I suddenly saw potential.  But Julie and her husband had no such struggle in their lives, so the film just kind of dropped it.  The most egregious moment, though, was when Julie learns, after her blog has become a success, that Julia didn’t like it.  When this occurred I finally took real interest – here would be the tension around which an interesting movie could be made; this would be the moment that would explain what the previous two hours of film had really been about; at long last the movie would quit giving us exposition and finally take the narrative in an unexpected direction.  Alas, the director’s need to keep the two narratives in parallel meant that, like all things parallel, they could never really connect – so rather than explore this interesting turn in the plot, the movie just shows a brief scene of Julie coming to terms with it and moves on.

While all of my reservations about the film proved valid, though, it was something that I didn’t anticipate that was perhaps the film’s greatest shortcoming.  The movie is, after all, first and foremost about food.  Unfortunately, taste isn’t one of the sensations that film engages.  Sure, a lot of the dishes looked delicious, but beyond that I had to simply depend on the reactions of the characters to know what the food actually tasted like.  It felt a little bit like having someone try to describe a great work of art, or trying to appreciate a song by watching the video with the mute button on.  It just didn’t work.  Neither did this movie.

I must admit, though, that Meryl Streep’s performance was amazing.  But, I still wish I could have those two hours of my life back.

500 Days of Summer – Review

October 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Somewhere between the release of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno it became apparent that the so-called “indie” film had become a genre of its own, complete with stock characters and cliches. Cute, sassy youngster played by an actress talented beyond her years? Check. Hip soundtrack full of “indie” music? Check. Awkward, misunderstood young man? Check. Occasional unconventional shots that will convince teen-agers and college students that the film is profound? Check. Slightly (but only slightly) rough around the edges production values? Check. Lots of irony? Check. Constant reminders that this isn’t a Holllywood movie? Check. And there you have it – an “indie” film!

And there we have it – 500 Days of Summer.

Which was unfortunate because, underneath the layers of indie film cliches was a potentially interesting movie. Since I imagine most people already know the basics of the plot, I won’t go into to it too much, but, in a nutshell, Tom Hansen (Jason Gordon-Levitt) gets in a sort-of relationship with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) (is “Finn” a clever reference to Huckleberry Finn? How clever! How subtle! How “indie”). The problem is she’s not ready for a relationship so, eventually, they break up and he has to get over it. All of this, of course, takes 500 days.

This film is wildly unconventional in part because it doesn’t tell the story chronologically (chronological narratives are sooooooo Hollywood). It’s also unconventional because they don’t end up together in the end. In fact, not only do they not end up together in the end, but the movie doesn’t even keep us in suspense about it, nor does it follow the Casablanca model of making us lament their final break-up (or so I’ve been told, I’ve never seen Casablanca because I hate movies). Clearly, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. And, just in case we don’t realize this and thus don’t give the film all of its due “indie” cred, the opening voice-over tells us that this is not a love story, which is good because the hip “indie” music that played during the opening credits raised my hopes – I’m feeling more subversive already.

The rest of the film continues down this “indie” road (which I think was also a title of a song on the soundtrack). Tom initially courts Summer via their shared love of The Smiths (did I mention that the film has a hip soundtrack?). When they eventually have sex Tom ends up doing a choreographed dance number down the street (wow, what filmic irony). When he’s mired in depression following the break-up he gets sage advice from his sassy, wise-cracking little sister, Rachel (Chloe Moretz who has acting talent way beyond her years). Throw in cut-aways in which the scene slowly fades into a pencil sketch and the occasional black and white shot in which we briefly see the characters as children and there you have it: an indie masterpiece.

Now to be fair, one of the indie cliches in this film actually does work: the non-choronological story telling. Since we see the break-up before we see Tom and Summer get together, the film never asks us to invest in their relationship. As a result, this film isn’t about the break-up but is about the process of a relationship; it’s an exploration of the struggles that go into trying to make a relationship work, and the heartbreak that follows when a relationship comes so close to working out, but somehow, for some reason, doesn’t.

And when the film stays focused on exploring these emotions, it actually works pretty well. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel have great chemistry and do a good job of showing the audience just how much their characters seem to truly enjoy each other’s company. Summer never comes across as a bitch, nor does Tom come across as pathetic. Instead, they both come across as very sincere and genuine portraits of two people who are almost, but not quite, a perfect match.

And this is the tragedy of this film. As an exploration of the challenges that accompany relationships – the struggles to truly communicate, the heart-break and guilt of a break up, the difficulties of letting go – this film is really quite moving and if that had remained the focus I might have actually liked it. But every time the film executed a superbly sincere moment, it undid itself with a pastel painting of a tree and a number scrolling back and forth to tell us which day we were on, or a slightly scratchy voiced folk singer strumming a guitar would float through the theater’s speakers to remind us just how “cool” and “hip” this movie really was, or the screen would split into concurrent scenes of what Tom hopes will happen when he sees Summer after their break-up and what actually happens. In other words, every time the film became interesting it felt the need to stop and remind us how interesting it was.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the film is supposed to leave us feeling like Tom – and the movie itself is our Summer. After all, he clearly saw a great deal of potential in her, enjoyed the genuine moments that they spent together, and was perpetually frustrated that just when their relationship seemed most sincere she would hide beneath her sarcasm and cleverness. I felt the same way about this film and, in the end I, like Tom, was ready to be done with it and move on.