Posted tagged ‘Reviews’

Reasons I Hate Movies #4: January-April

February 18, 2010

I like going to the movie theater.  As this blog proves, I don’t always like the actual movies I see there, but the experience of going to a movie theater is pleasant in its own right.  It’s not enough, though, to warrant going if I don’t think there’s at least some chance that the movie I’ll see is at least decent.

Which is why the first four months of every year are so miserable.  There is nothing worth seeing this time of year.  The movie studios save all of their big blockbusters for the summer so that they can cash in on all of the teenagers who are out of school and searching for something to do with themselves.  They save all of their “quality” dramas for the fall so that these films will still be on people’s minds come Oscar season.  So, since making films that don’t fit the blockbuster or Oscar formula is absolutely out of the question, come January there’s nothing left.

Of course, theaters can’t afford to shut down for four months, so they have to show something.  So what do movie studios do?  They run all of the movies that they’ve held onto because they either wouldn’t be a big box office draw or weren’t good enough to get Oscar buzz.  In other words, they release all of their stored up crap.

Take, for instance, last year’s He’s Just Not That Into You.

This was a movie based on a book that Oprah made famous back in 2005.  Trying to capitalize on the popularity of that book, the studios rushed to make a romantic comedy based on its premise.  So they lined up an all-star cast of B-level celebrities, made some references to trendy new pieces of pop culture like Myspace and text messages, and prepared to rake in the cash as masses of people lined up to see the “feel good movie of the year.”  The only problem is that by the time the movie came out, the book that it was based on was yesterday’s news and Facebook had made Myspace obsolete.

So what happened?  Apparently, even the studios seemed to realize that this movie was crap – and that’s saying something.  But, they’d already made the thing so they were stuck with a multi-million dollar dud that wouldn’t make a penny in theaters if it went up against special effects blockbusters or films that were getting Oscar buzz.  So they held onto it and waited for a time when it wouldn’t have to compete against any films that anyone even remotely cared about.  That time was last February.

Sadly, the strategy worked.  He’s Just Not That Into You hit #1 at the box office and went on to make almost $94 million domestically.  Never mind that it wasn’t even a remotely decent film.  Never mind that its references and even its title were completely dated before the film even came out.  Like a college student getting excited to eat a microwaved pizza that’s been in the freezer for several months because it breaks up a steady diet of Ramen noodles, desperate audiences flocked to the theater to see Jennifer Aniston and Drew Berrymore go through the motions and pick up giant pay checks.

And this has become a yearly ritual.  I haven’t been to the theaters in a couple months.  I’d really like to go.  But I just can’t bring myself to see Wolfman or Valentine’s Day no matter how desperate I am.

In fact, the trend of dumping bad movies on audiences this time of year is so pervasive that even movies that I might normally be interested in, like Scorcese’s Shutter Island, make me nervous.  Sure, it’s a Scorcese (I don’t care what anybody says, his name should be pronounced “score-cease”) film, but why is coming out now?  Why would a director whose films usually generate Oscar buzz come out in February?  There can only be one reason – it isn’t good.

So, I’ll do my best to resist.  As much as I miss the theater, going now will only reinforce the movie studio’s bad behavior.  Instead, for the next few months, I’m putting them in time out.  Yes, I’m treating them like I would a naughty child.  And, yes, that is what they deserve.  And yes, that is another reason that I hate movies.

Decade in Review – 5 Best Films of the Aughts

December 28, 2009

Having just vented about the 10 most overrated films of the decade I will now attempt to actually say something positive for a change.  So here goes – my list of the 5 best films of the decade:

#5.  Hot Fuzz (2007)

In a decade full of smirks and chuckles, Hot Fuzz delivered genuine, deep, gasping-for-air laughter.  The beginning is admittedly a bit slow, although it is punctuated by perhaps the funniest single moment of the past ten years.  When the top of a steeple falls down on top of a reporter, not just killing him but obliterating the top half of his body (and yet the bottom half stumbles around a bit before keeling over) the result is so unexpectedly violent and hilarious that I laughed long after the scene had ended.  And then, of course, there are the film’s final forty or so minutes, which are so uproariously funny that my side ached by the time they were over.  Unlike so many comedies of the aughts, Hot Fuzz didn’t try to be clever.  Instead, it tried to be funny, at it succeeded at every turn.

#4.  The Dark Knight (2008)

In an era of crappy comic book movies, this film proved once and for all that the drivel we had come to expect from the genre is inexcusable rather than inevitable.  Heath Ledger’s Joker will go down as one of the iconic performances in film history and deservedly so.  Having said that, it’s too bad that his performance ended up garnering so much attention because it tended to obscure the fact that this film’s excellence went far beyond a single outstanding performance.  Despite entering a crowded and clichéd genre, The Dark Knight was surprising at every turn and every minute of its two-and-a-half hour running time felt both compelling and necessary.

#3.  Wall-E (2008)

In ten years Pixar did more for digital animation than Disney did for traditional animation in the entire 20th century (and that’s no slight to Disney).  Wall-E is Pixar’s crowning achievement.  The first thirty dialog-less minutes give us some of the most elegant filmmaking of the decade.  Sure, the second half feels a bit more like the usual Pixar blend of physical gags and tight storytelling, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Wall-E is such a flawlessly executed film, and is so full of genuine heart, that the keen social commentary lurking under the surface is just a welcome added bonus.

#2.  The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003)

So often directors seem to think that making a movie really long and filling it with special effects is all it takes to make something “epic.”  Fortunately, Peter Jackson remembered that story telling and character development are important, too.  As a result, every minute of the nine hours that this trilogy occupied the screen (and even the twelve hours of its extended DVD versions) felt like a gift.  This is one of the rare cases in which the movie was far better than the book on which it was based since Jackson managed to capture all of the magic of Tolkien’s imagination while replacing the woodenness of his prose with a visual style that was dynamic and compelling.

#1.  Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

It seems that everyone either loved or hated this movie.  I am firmly rooted in the “loved” category.  Everything in this film worked – the visuals, the music, the story-telling.  The narrative style was completely unique and yet easy to follow, and the story stayed true to Maurice Sendak’s book without feeling slavish or derivative. I saw it in the theaters twice and liked it even more the second time.  It’s dark.  It’s melancholy.  It’s moving.  It’s brilliant.

So there we have it – proof that I don’t hate every movie.  In my next post (the last one of this decade) I’ll give a few random awards in a “one-off” format.

Decade in Review – 10 Most Overrated Films of the Aughts

December 26, 2009

It’s that time of the year when all of the “Best/Worst of” lists start to appear and, of course, this year we get the “Best/Worst of the Decade” lists.  Usually, these appear in the format of “10 Best” and “5 Worst,” but, here at The Movie Hater’s Movie Blog I like to focus on my disdain, so I’m flipping it around.

So I’ll start with my “10 Worst” list.  Actually, this first list isn’t about the “10 Worst Films of the Decade” so much as the “10 Most Over-rated Films of the Decade.”  These are movies that achieved high levels of critical acclaim, box-office success, or Academy Award attention, but that didn’t deserve any of it.  I didn’t rank the films in order of their overall awfulness but, instead, ranked them by the gap between the level of adoration for the film and my level of derision.  So, while Slumdog Millionaire is a better movie than Transformers (though just barely), it still ranks #1 on my list because Transformers didn’t achieve quite the same widespread celebration that Slumdog did.

But enough with the explanations – here is the list:

#10.  The 40 Year-Old Virgin (2005)

 

I had heard so much about this movie before I saw it that I couldn’t wait to join the “in” crowd who had seen and loved it.  Turns out, this was a mildly amusing comedy, not the groundbreaking, side-splitting romp that everyone made it out to be.  By the end, I just kept thinking, “okay, I get it, he’s forty and he hasn’t had sex – what else you got?”  The answer, unfortunately, was “not much.”

#9.  Transformers (2007)

Sure, critics were pretty harsh towards this movie and, for once, they got it right (although this one was kind of a no-brainer), but the box-office draw was astounding – and unexplainable.  This movie exemplifies two of the reasons I hate movies – I had very low expectations, and yet it still managed to disappoint.  I expected nothing more than cool scenes of giant robots fighting and transforming with a loose plot holding it together.  Instead, I saw frantic, unintelligible action scenes that didn’t make creative use of the robots ability to transform, and really no plot to speak of.  I left assuming that this movie would be a Van Helsing sized flop but instead it turned into one of the top grossing franchises of the decade.

#8.  Avatar (2009)

This one slipped in right under the wire – too bad for the aughts.  Avatar wanted so badly to be an imaginative epic that would change the way films were made.  Instead, it rehashed a bunch of racist stereotypes from the 18th century, wrapped them up in a CGI Smurf suit, put them through a bunch of clichéd blockbuster narratives, and took three hours to do it to boot.

#7.  Gladiator (2000)

The winner of the decade’s Award for Most Undeserving Academy Award goes to Gladiator.  The whole thing is just a cheap knockoff of Braveheart.  While Braveheart’s battle scenes succeeded in creating excitement through jarring depictions of war’s brutality, Gladiator tried to create excitement through choppy camera work and frantic editing.  While Breaveheart told a moving story of a man who channels his love of his wife into fighting for his country’s freedom, Gladiator used a screaming Russell Crowe to tell a clichéd story of a man seeking revenge.  I could have rented Braveheart, saved a trip to the theater, and had a better time.

#6.  Crash (2004)

This was easily the most heavy-handed, contrived, and poorly made film to ever win Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  I have my theories about why it won, but, regardless, it was undeserving.  The plot lines were manipulative and yet completely predictable, the comments on race felt like they were coming from a college freshman who’s just seen Roots for the first time, and the editing felt like a chaffing two hours of filmic masturbation.

#5.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

I, of course, have my on-going issues with the Coen Brothers, but the bottom line here is that Homer told this story way better.  I can only assume that the legions of fans either never read the original, blindly allow the Coen Brothers to dictate to them what clever film-making is, and/or love bluegrass music.  None of those things applies to me, so I reacted to the movie with what it deserves – a great big “EH.”

#4. Pirates of the Caribbean – Trilogy (2003, 2006, 2007)

If you ever want to get trashed one afternoon, watch the first Pirates movie and take a drink every time there’s an underwater shot showing someone falling from a boat into the ocean.  If you ever don’t want to get trashed one afternoon, take a drink every time Pirates 2 takes a break from elaborate action sequences to actually offer some plot and/or character development.  If you want to watch Pirates 3 one afternoon, make sure you get trashed first.  How these movies became one of the biggest franchises of the decade, and how the first film even garnered critical acclaim, is beyond me.

#3.  Napolean Dynamite (2004)

Before I got around to seeing this movie I often heard its fans reciting various lines from the film and would inevitably think to myself, “I don’t understand why that’s funny but, I haven’t seen the film, so I’m not in on the joke.”  Then I saw the film.  I still don’t understand why it’s funny.  I chuckled briefly a couple of times, but that doesn’t even come close to warranting the kind of cultish devotion that this film ended up achieving.

#2.  The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

As I’ve said before, Wes Anderson puts me in mind of a line from the Simpsons: “the whole thing smacks of effort.”  Anderson’s audacity as a filmmaker works when his characters follow suit (as in Rushmore and Fantastic Mr. Fox), but the painstaking earnestness of his style just felt jarringly out of whack with the detached, morose insincerity that drives the narrative of the this film and its characters.

#1.  Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person in the world who doesn’t like this movie.  Sure, the kids were cute and their Dickensian struggle was charming, but then they grew into bad actors with no chemistry.  Meanwhile the central contrivance of the whole film (the game show) was, well, contrived.  The best thing I can say about the film is that it makes abject poverty cute.  How that translates into an Academy Award for Best Picture is beyond me.

So that’s that.  In my next post, I’ll try to enter the unfamiliar territory of positivity by giving my five favorite films of the decade.

Up in the Air – Review

December 22, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

And Up in the Air is no exception.

One thing that plagues this film is actually not the movie’s fault.  It was while watching this movie that I realized that George Clooney has joined the short list of elite cinema icons who are always immediately larger than their roles.  Like Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep before him, Clooney has now achieved a level of fame that makes it impossible to ever quite achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary to see him as his character rather than as George Clooney.  It’s not his fault – his performance was the lone bright spot in a movie otherwise filled with lackluster performances.  But Clooney has achieved that rarified status of being a star who simply transcends any one film.

I became painfully aware of this during Up in the Air in large part because almost everything else about the movie is so forgettable.

The plot is pretty typical romance fare.  Clooney (his character’s name is irrelevant) lives a lonely life flying around firing people for a living.  He spends so much time “up in the air” that the notion of settling down is unthinkable to him.  Unthinkable, that is, until the dual force of an intriguing woman and a young up-and-comer who wants to conduct business via the internet threatens the lifestyle that he’s used to.  So, he has to start reevaluating things.  It doesn’t help that the young up-and-comer, Natalie (Anna Kendrick), travels with him for a bit to help her learn the business and she, of course, questions his lifestyle at every turn.  At the same time, frequent encounters with his new-found love interest, Alex (Vera Farminga), start to put some new ideas into his head.

Based on that premise, I’m sure most movie-goers can figure out how the next hour and a half unfolds.  At first he’s frustrated about having Natalie tagging along and wants to keep his relationship with Alex purely physical.  As time wears on he comes to form a bond with both women, and cracks start to appear in his emotional armor until, of course, we come to find out that he’s really a big, sensitive, Hugh Grant of a man.

Meanwhile, the film references our country’s current economic troubles in an effort to appear topical.  There were some potentially interesting ideas there for the taking: the ethics of a business that actually booms due to economic collapse or the irony of Clooney making a living out of firing obsolete employees only to then become obsolete himself, for instance.   But instead of going into these issues, we get a predictable story and weak attempts at humor, like when Clooney thinks the flight attendant is asking if he wants “the cancer,” but is actually asking if he wants “the can, sir,” or the moment when he turns the size of his frequent flier account into a euphemism for his penis.  Even as the film seems to beg for an investigation of some of the complexities that arise, the first nine tenths of the movie adamantly refuse to go beyond its laughably predictable surface.

But then, the movie takes an interesting turn.  I won’t say exactly what happens, but I will say that the final fifteen minutes or so were not at all what I was expecting.  They take the romance/date movie genre and turn it on its head – there were still some really predictable aspects to how everything unfolds, but overall it took me by surprise.

Unfortunately, the surprise just wasn’t enough to warrant the previous hour and a half of cliches.  If the director hadn’t held back, if he’d just let on that this film was a deconstruction of the romance genre right from the start, and played with that concept throughout, I might have been interested.  But he didn’t.  Instead, he wasted the film’s potential on over-worn plot devices and bad jokes, while saving all of the film’s interest until the end, at which point it was too late.  In fact, had it not been for Clooney’s undeniable charisma, I might not have even stuck around to see the final twists and turns.  In the end, I did stick around, and the final few scenes were worth the fifteen minutes or so that they were on the screen.  They weren’t, though, even close to being worth the hour and thirty four minutes that I had to invest to get there.

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.

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.

The Premise

October 11, 2009

I am no movie buff.  Let me get that out of the way right up front.  The list of “great” or “classic” movies that I haven’t seen is shocking in its length and diversity.  Casablanca?  Nope.  Citizen Cane?  Uh-uh.  The Breakfast Club?  Never.  The Goonies?  No.  Titanic?  Not a chance.  The list just goes on and on and includes both films that are artistic milestones and those that are icons of pop-culture.

More shocking, though, is the list of “great” or “classic” movies that I have seen and that I hate.  The Godfather?  Boring.  Vertigo?  I fell asleep twice in one viewing.  The Big Lebowski (this one probably causes the most outrage)?  Yawn.

Now, let me make one thing clear: it’s not that I have bad taste in movies, it’s that I don’t really like movies, period.

So what on earth am I doing writing a blog about movies?

I liken it to the serial dater (for proof of knowledge of this subject, see my original blog).  We’ve all known (or been) this person: he goes out on date after date and never meets anyone that he’s interested in.  On the one hand, we all know that he has intimacy issues and that most of the people he goes out with are probably perfectly lovely people, maybe even exceptionally lovely people.  Be that as it may, the serial dater’s critiques are still interesting even in spite of (or perhaps because of) their ridiculousness.  While, on the one hand, we might feel exasperated at comments like “I can’t date her because she holds her wine glass weird,” or “her favorite restaurant is the Olive Garden,” or “she’s really bad at checkers,” on the other hand, such comments are interesting if for no other reason than they make everyone else feel good to know that their lives aren’t so filled with cynicism and disdain.  I feel that my thoughts on movies can provide a similar life affirming purpose for others.

Perhaps more importantly, though, is what happens when the serial dater finally finds someone and gets in a relationship.  The inevitable reaction from all of his friends is “I have gotto meet this person.”  And the real reason we want to meet this person is a morbid curiosity to know what kind of person could successfully traverse the serial dater’s minefield of pettiness and cynicism.

Again, I see my taste in movies in a similar manner.  If I actually like a movie then others should take note.  Not because I have exquisite taste, but because it will, at the very least, be something different and, in this culture of recycled crap in film, “different” is as compelling a reason to see a movie as any.

My disdain for movies does, however, pose one small problem for a blog such as this – I simply don’t watch enough movies to keep it going on a regular basis.  So, here is my solution: for every movie that I see, there are probably two or three beloved movies that I hate.  So, in between posts about movies that I’ve recently seen I’ll also provide occasional commentaries on why beloved movie X is, in fact, an over-rated pile of cinematic dung.  In fact, barring a stroke of creative inspiration, that might even be the title of these posts.  Also, just to prove that I’m not a completely embittered misanthrope who sits around wallowing in bile, I might also occasionally provide commentaries on those rare classic films that I actually do like.  These posts, though, will be necessarily rare since the resource from which they spring is so limited.

So, here we go…