Archive for the ‘Reviews’ category

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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.