Thursday, December 27, 2012

December 2012 Rundown

Jane Eyre (2012) – Mark it 6.

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska are pretty great in everything I’ve seen them in.  And Jane Eyre, the novel, was a required reading assignment in high school that I expected to hate, but ended up loving.  The combination of the two got me very excited to see Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation.  Atmosphere is definitely the film’s strength with Thornfield Hall as dark and ominous as it should be.  However, there is a lot of story to pack into Jane Eyre’s two hours, and a lot of crucial plot points feel rushed.  This helps to keep the pace quick (for those of you who assume long 19th century novels mean long and dull 21st century movies) but I was hoping for more room to breath.  As Jane and Rochester, Wasikowska and Fassbender are quite good in their roles but the film’s crucial central love story that connects the two feels rushed and the story loses some of its power in the end.

Baby Mama (2008) – Mark it 4.

On TV, there are few things better right now than Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, so Amy Poehler and Tina Fey being together in a movie caught my interest.  Unfortunately, the material that makes up Baby Mama is nowhere near as strong as their other projects.  A stereotypical Type-A business woman (Tina Fey) must match up a sterotypical Type-B party girl (Amy Poehler) in order to have a baby (Type B is the surrogate mother for Type A), and the two women learn clich├ęd lessons from each other in the process.  With two funny women like Fey and Poehler in the lead, and some funny men in supporting roles, you’ll definitely laugh here and there, but not nearly enough to make up for this weak script.  It’d be nice to see these two women work on a movie where all the film's character development, conflict, and resolution, are not summed up in cheesy montages set to crappy pop songs.

The Lord of the Rings:  The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) – Mark it 10.

The Lord of the Rings:  The Two Towers (2002) – Mark it 10.

The Lord of the Rings:  The Return of the King (2003) – Mark it 10.

With The Hobbit coming out, I had to revisit my three all-time favorite films.  I’ve seen each of these more times than I care to share, and every viewing is just as good as the last.  There may be a day when I write further on each of these, but it is not this day.  This day, I’ll just say they are the best.

Annie Hall (1977) – Mark it 10.

(Yes, it’s obvious but...) In a career filled with many highlights, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall stands above the rest.  It is the greatest romantic comedy ever made, and the genius of Woody is that his crowning achievement in the genre is about a romance that doesn’t work out in the end (you are told this in the film’s first five minutes, so that is no spoiler).  Annie Hall shows us how one can love and lose with no bitterness, and how you can learn great life lessons in the process (sure, that makes Diane Keaton the mother of all “Manic Pixie Dream Girls”, but what a dream girl!).  Plus, it still has moments of belly laughs for those of you who miss Woody's slapstick days of Sleeper and Bananas.   Watching the Woody’s filmmaking talent is also a joy as he employs so many different storytelling techniques, but they never feel gimmicky.  It is timeless; it is perfect.   When Annie Hall upset Star Wars in 1977 for Best Picture, the Oscars never had a finer moment (and I love Star Wars... see my list to the right).

Tiny Furniture (2010) – Mark it 5.

Watching writer, director, and star Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, I couldn’t help but think, “I bet I went to college with a lot of people on the Lena Dunham bandwagon.”  Tiny Furniture’s plot is mostly about Aura (Dunham) leaving the comfort of college for the comfort of home, not ready to face the real world.  It’s something I think many college grads can relate to (though I like to think I got my shit together quicker... thanks Public Allies).  However, nothing really happens during the film.  She reconnects with an old friend, develops little crushes on a couple of jerks, and pretty much ends up exactly where she began the film.  There’s talent on display, but not much plot or character growth to get me on her bandwagon too.  I think Dunham can do good things (I’m interested in checking out Girls on HBO), but the good is not quite yet there in her debut.

Brave (2012) – Mark it 6.

There’s no doubt that Brave is a good film, but being merely good is somewhat underwhelming when the name “Pixar” hangs over the project.  It is visually gorgeous, the redheaded Princess Merida is memorable (the same cannot be said about its boring songs), and the plot takes some unexpected turns, but once Brave is over there’s not a lot there that I was dying to revisit.   In the end, Brave is a well-made kids’ adventure that teaches some nice mother-daughter lessons and nothing more.  Compared to everything else Pixar has made (except the Cars franchise), that story feels slight.  If you’re looking for a nice family feature you can find it with Brave.  However, with Pixar’s track record of incredible success, I expected more.  Having “just good” equal disappointing is an unfortunate consequence that the filmmakers at Pixar just have to deal with now.

Sleepwalk With Me (2012) – Mark it 6.

Listening to This American Life (which also produced this film), I have become a big fan of Mike Birbiglia, who often contributes to the show and wrote, stars, and directs Sleepwalk With Me.  Despite my familiarity with the autobiographical story about his dangerous bouts of sleepwalking, I enjoyed seeing it brought to life visually.   This isn’t quite as polished of a debut as Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, but the relatable feeling of being lost in adulthood (and the not-so-relatable feeling of jumping out a second story window while asleep) actually goes somewhere in Sleepwalk With Me.  We see a struggling comedian, Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), neglect his relationship and health to figure out what he truly wants in life, with the end result optimistically leaving everyone involved happier.  This is a nice, light film from a very funny person.  There is nothing here that blew me away but I really, really enjoyed spending some time with it.

**After New Year’s, the holidays will be over and I hope to have some time to write more full-length reviews.  I recently saw Wreck-It Ralph and The Hobbit (twice) in theaters and am looking forward to putting together my thoughts on the two.  I've also been playing along with another Filmspotting marathon, so look for reviews of six Blaxploitation films:  Shaft, SuperflyCoffyCooley High, Black Caesar, and Ganja & Hess.  Hopefully, I get around to writing these soon**

Friday, November 30, 2012

November 2012 Rundown

Broadway Danny Rose (1984) – Mark it 7.

“Broadway” Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a legend, New York’s most devoted talent agent, to the semi-retired entertainers sharing stories in a diner throughout the film.  A series of Danny’s acts open the film, each with marginal talents at best (but Danny will work harder than anyone else to convince you of otherwise), told the men in the circle until one guy has “the best Danny Rose story” of them all.  Flashbacks show Danny getting mixed up with his star client’s tough Jersey girlfriend, Tina (Mia Farrow).  However, classic Woody antics ensue when Tina’s mob boss ex pins poor Danny as her new beau.  On par with Woody’s best comedies, I laughed hard at every joke, like the storytelling men in the diner.  Broadway Danny Rose stacks up well against his other work, with a healthy mix of both the zany Woody Allen and the experimental Woody Allen that I love so much.

Inglorious Basterds (2009) – Mark it 9.

Quentin Tarantino’s epic WW2 film, Inglorious Basterds, showcases of one of our finest filmmakers in his absolute prime.  Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Rain leads his brutal band of bastards into the heart of Germany on a mission for “Nazi scalps.”  With bloody glee, watch the world’s most evil men get their vicious comeuppance.  But Inglorious Basterds is much richer than the Nazi-torture porn film a one-sentence summary would make it out to be.  As what might be cinema’s most charismatic villain, Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz) practically steals the movie while delivering some of QT’s best dialogue ever; you sit on the edge of your seat one moment and laugh hysterically the next.  The magic of movies also finds a rare home in the WW2 genre as propaganda film, movie houses, entertainers, and acting (by soldiers whose talent level vary) weigh heavily on the plot.  It takes a twisted and brilliant mind to make a film this good, and we are lucky that this twisted and brilliant filmmaker is going strong.

The Thin Red Line (1998) – Mark it 9.

Terrence Malick’s take on WW2 could not be further from Tarantino’s, but it in no way diminishes The Thin Red Line’s brilliance.  His films are clearly an acquired taste (many call it slow/boring), and it is a taste I find beautiful.  From the opening scenes on when shots of tropical wildlife are cut with scenes of Polynesian natives enjoying life, where an AWOL soldier seeks shelter, we know this will ne unlike any war movie seen before.  Soon, the soldier reunites with the Marines and the grueling attack on Guadalcanal begins.  From there, unknown actors and recognizable superstars share the spotlight as we hear what these men are feeling internally while the world goes to hell on the outside.  Throughout its 3-hour runtime, many long conversations and incongruous nature scenes may scare off some viewers despite its well-executed and exciting battle scenes.  I did not scare and thought every moment was incredible.  The Thin Red Line easily ranks among one of my favorite war films.

Wanderlust (2012) – Mark it 5.

When some of the funniest people on the planet get involved in a project (of The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer fame), I get excited.  With Paul Rudd starring, a collection of great comics in quirky supporting roles, and then Jennifer Aniston, Wanderlust had the making to be a great one.  As Rudd and Aniston’s big city marriage hits a rut and they seek refuge in a hippie commune, at Ken Marino’s suburban McMansion, and back to the commune (or cult?), the gags always work.  However, Wanderlust lacked something to transcend it from a good collection of jokes to a good comedic film.  The decisions made by Aniston and Rudd’s characters were void of logical reasoning and the plot amounts to nothing more than device after device to bring on more jokes.  I laughed too often to call Wanderlust a bad movie, but I cared little about what happened to these characters making me laugh and that’s a problem.  In the end, Wanderlust’s wasted potential outshines its many jokes.

Lolita (1962) – Mark it 6.

How Stanley Kubrick could adapt the controversial Lolita (in 1962!), a story of an older man marrying his landlord to creep on her 14-year-old daughter, is an intriguing question.  With every intimate moment between Prof. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Lolita (Sue Lyon) only hinted at, Lolita is not as uncomfortable to watch as I imagined.  In fact, it is mostly a black comedy, especially when Mason brushes aside the mother figure (Shelly Winters), who desperately throws herself at him, or anytime Peter Sellers is on screen.  Sellers’ Clare Quilty, the odd man who plans to ruin Humbert’s pedophilic schemes (for less than virtuous reason), was my favorite part of Lolita.  But during the film’s long road trip, I was left confused about who we are meant to sympathize with.  I felt pushed toward feeling sorry for Humbert, who lets sexual obsession ruin his life, even though I liked him less and less each scene.  I am left wondering if the characters are presented similarly in the novel; Lolita moves from my “need to see” list to my “need to read” list. 

Ken Burns’ Mark Twain (2000) – Mark it 8.

History and movies are two of my favorite things, so if a good documentarian finds a subject worth exploring, I will be on board.  When it comes to immersing myself in a subject (at the movies), Ken Burns’ long and meticulous films are my favorite.  Basically, all of Ken Burns’ films are kind of the same – if you love that style and want to devote some time to learning, you’ll be satisfied.  His Mark Twain is no different as my appreciation of Twain’s genius grew with every turn in this 3.5 hour biography.  Before this, Twain was an icon but I knew little beyond the superficial.   With his progressive ideals, biting satire, devotion to family, staunch independence, celebrated storytelling, biting satire, and (of course) impressive writing talents, Mark Twain was an American hero.  This film even inspired me to start Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which is a fitting testament to both the filmmaker and his subject.

Ken Burns’ Prohibition (2011) – Mark it 8.

With his new film, The Dust Bowl, hitting PBS in November (ironically, which I haven’t yet watched), I clearly got on a big Ken Burns kick (the 6 hour Prohibition paired with the aforementioned Mark Twain).  The Civil War, Baseball, and Mark Twain already covered subjects in which I had a high level of interest and some level of knowledge.  Beyond being a ridiculous encroachment of individual freedom, the prohibition era is one segment of American history in which I was pretty much a blank slate.  Prohibition tells the tale of America’s legitimate alcohol problem, the powerful political movement to fight it, and the collective disregard of the law that inspired the prohibition backlash.  Fascinating stories of bootleggers, gangsters, speakeasies, teetotalers, and the average American who enjoyed a drink now and then, fill the film.  The facts I learned about prohibition were great, but the many dangers of enforcing one’s moral belief on a whole country are Prohibition’s greatest lesson.

Special When Lit:  A Pinball Documentary (2009) – Mark it 3.

Pick any topic in pop culture and you’re bound to find enough eccentric characters to film a documentary.  Special When Lit has countless odd individuals who devout their lives to a dying form of entertainment:  the pinball machine.  We meet pinball enthusiasts who are collectors, designers, historians, arcade owners, and competitive players.  To the outsider, these men (almost exclusively men) appear to be lonely weirdoes who consume their lives with pinball.  Sadly, Brett Sullivan’s film only plays up on these assumptions with editing that amps up their awkwardness; it approaches exploitative levels.  Does the film wants me to celebrate pinball and the people who love it, or just remember pinball and laugh at “geeks” who still play it?  There were some effective parts involving the physics of the game design and psychology of the game.  Good parts and bad parts are scattered throughout the film without any real narrative thread holding it together.  Pinball could be the subject of a good documentary, but Special When Lit is not the one.