Sunday, January 3, 2010

Movie Rundown: Week Ending Jan 2, 2010

Here we are, the start of a new year. In fact, the start of the OFFICIAL YEAR OF THE FUTURE, TWENTY TEN. And as such, I'm going to restart the long-running series of movie reviews that used to grace this site on an almost-weekly basis. I'm not going to run down the entire list of things that were missed between the last time I did this and now, because that list is 121 movies long. Instead, I'll give you the last week and change.

Also, as a slight change in format, I probably won't be expounding at too much length on most of these. Mostly because it was the extent I was going on about these movies that caused my burnout in the first place. If anybody wants to hear my opinion on any film, of course, you're free to ask for it. I can probably go on at length.

Anywho, the list!

The Ice Harvest - *****

Neo-noir is a funny thing. The balance between calling back to the classic film tropes and updating the settings and characters for a modern audience is a crazy tightrope to walk, and there are many roads to choose, from the historical recreation of The Good German, the modern absurdist transplant of Brick, or an irreverent take like Fargo. The Ice Harvest strays closest to Fargo in setting and tone, though much of the warmth is sucked out of it by taking away any relatable character and instead giving us John Cusack at his kinda-smarmy, kinda-adorable best.

Thankfully, it's a gloriously understated film, with the violence rather perfunctory and all the characters tired old washouts struggling to steal a paltry 2 million and get out of the icy backwater of Wichita Falls. And the fact that it goes so poorly, and does so with such a dry sense of humor, is what puts this firmly among the neo-noir greats. The film is simply fantastic. I can't recommend it enough. It might actually be my favorite Cusack role to date.

Jules et Jim - ****

My second Truffaut film is his third, and the difference between this and 400 Blows is pretty evident. 400 Blows was a deeply personal film, obviously of great importance to the director. It felt heavy with intimate knowledge of the experience. Jules et Jim, meanwhile, is set up with Truffaut providing narration as he tells a story, adapted from another person's work. And with that distance comes the real appeal of Jules et Jim. It's a movie about friendship and what love can do between friends, but the love triangle is presented with a detachment I found stunning. The characters comment on each other's loves without hesitation, pointing out the problems, but in the end they are all blind to their own problems, and we are left to consider how easy things look from the outside, and how complicated it is when we ourselves are caught up in similar circumstances.

My only problem with the movie stems from the final ten minutes. I won't give anything away, but I feel like the story veers too far into melodrama too fast, when everything has been so beautifully understated for the rest of the run time. It doesn't mar the film that much, but it was sad to see it end on such a sour note.

The Bicycle Thief - ***

My problem with movies about people suffering under unbeatable odds is that it seems kind of ... detrimental to enjoying a movie. There are exceptions, to be sure, but typically around minute 40 you know what kind of movie you're in and you have a pretty good idea of how it'll end up. At that point, watching life shit on the main character stops being engaging on any rational level. Some movies get around this by being just that damn poignant (Grave of the Fireflies is my favorite example) or by presenting problems that are the natural outgrowth of flawed protagonists (Requiem for a Dream, here).

This is not either of those. It's a movie about a good man having horrible things happen to him due to fate, and then it's over. It's sad, but in a detached way due to the general grunginess of it all. Sure, he's starving, but so is everyone else in post-war Italy. The scope is just wrong, and it never connected.

I understand the impact, neorealism and an appraisal of Italy in that period. I just ... don't care. And that's a fatal flaw, if you ask me.

Knife in the Water - ****

Roman Polanski's first feature film, the story of a middle aged couple who picks up a hitchhiker and brings them along on a sailing trip around the lakes of backwoods Poland. Knife in the Water is pretty claustrophobic, taking place almost entirely on the sailboat. It's also pretty good. There's a real sense of menace as all three strangers bounce off each other in interesting ways, and the interloper forced in close confines with a married couple exposes all the underlying tensions of a marriage. It's pretty great.

Blade Runner - ****

Look, it's Blade Runner. Go see it. Seriously. It's one of those movies everyone should probably see, since it informs a pretty broad stretch of pop culture. I thought it was fantastic, though I had reservations that I believe seeing the Final Cut or Director's Cut versions would probably solve. We'll have to see at a later date. However, you should see Blade Runner. I mean it.

The Gay Divorcee - ***

Let me tell you my problem with 40s musicals. You see, they're typically fun, so long as its a bunch of singing and dancing. Astaire and Rogers are fantastic. But in this period of Hollywood, there was this presumption that the song and dance sequences needed to be framed by a plot that has all the grace of a middling studio product from that era (i.e. none).

So while The Gay Divorcee has about a half hour of absolutely amazing singing and dancing (and a huge sequence at the end that had me riveted to the screen) it's hard to justify it for anyone who doesn't enjoy the musical sequences for their own sake. They're stunning, but the film that frames them isn't much to see. So ... move along unless you're already on board.

- **

You know all of my problems with The Bicycle Thief above? Copy and paste them here. But the problem is that Sherrybaby has no excuse. It's not 60 years old, three years old. And the story of a young mother getting out of prison and trying to kick her heroin addiction has all the charm of a bad rash. Instead, it comes across like the big screen version of a Lifetime movie of the week. I won't deny that Maggie Gyllenhall's a good actress, and the story here has an appropriately dim ending, but ... no connection. I don't know. These kind of films really aren't my thing.

It Happened One Night - ****

One of the last movies before the production code was put into effect in 1934, It Happened One Night is a screwball comedy that plays pretty well. I'd never seen a Clark Gable movie before, and was pretty impressed with his comedic timing. The movie hits all the notes really well, in a way I haven't felt from a classic comedy since seeing Bringing Up Baby.

Wet Hot American Summer - **

I get that this is both a send up of summer camp movies and a solid entry in its own right. I get it. But ... well, I hate summer camp films. And the narrative felt like it was just a barely held together series of sketches. I don't know, the only thing I really liked about this movie was the wildly miscast 10-years-too-old set of actors. Otherwise, I was kind of bored. But then, like I said, this genre does little for me.

The Fountain - *****

The Fountain is a story about death and love told in three time periods--the time of the conquistadors, the modern day, and the far-flung future--about the bond between characters played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz. The Fountain is a lyrical, nigh-incoherent movie, but it's really beautiful and heartbreaking and is easily my favorite Aronofsky movie. There's just something to the depictions of scenarios playing out similarly through the ages that gets me. The movie got under my skin the first time I saw it in theaters but lately it's been coming up more and more often, so I revisited it and fell hard for it. Cannot recommend it enough.

Up in the Air - ****

I knew going in I would enjoy Up in the Air. George Clooney is the movie star of our generation, and Jason Reitman is a pretty solid director. I ended up liking this movie far more than Juno, but less than Reitman's debut, Thank You For Smoking. Part of that is due to the subject matter, with Up in the Air being a more clinical, bleaker film. Which was fine, I suppose, though I was left feeling let down by the ending, which seemed intent on building to something and then forsaking it for a throwaway 'look at us isn't this independent!' unresolved moment to close the movie out. Oh well. It's still quite good and feels very of our times.

Avatar - ****

There's been enough words on the internet about Avatar, so I'll be brief: the movie is predictable in the extreme, but is beautiful and well-made and should most definitely be seen on the big screen. I don't think that what it is would translate as well in the home theater. Along with Star Trek, the definitive popcorn movie of 2009.

Following - ***

The first movie by Christopher Nolan, Following in a no-budget, super-small neo noir with Nolan's typical flair for nonlinear storytelling. There's a lot of Memento's pacing in this movie, but the acting really isn't up to snuff and the shooting isn't nearly as refined as his second effort (and all after) would show. It's not a bad movie, but it's more a curiosity than a great time.

Kinsey - ****

I've never been really big into biopics. I feel like standing in the fuzzy line between fact and reality typically ruins most of the good fictional qualities of a movie. Which is why I also don't hold much for 'true stories'. That said, Kinsey is really quite good. Liam Neeson's take on the famous entomologist-turned-sex-researcher really does provide a nuanced take on what has been a pretty controversial figure in contemporary American history. Also of note, is the rampant period ignorance about the subject. Kinsey makes a great case both for exploring the life of the man and exploring through his situation the reality of the need of his work and how much of an impact him and others like him have had on advancing our knowledge as a culture in the past century.

The Jazz Singer - ****

The first full length motion picture to have spoken dialogue, The Jazz Singer is known for a lot of things. It is a seminal film, the bridge between the silent era and the talkies. What's surprising is how modern it feels the moment it does speak, and how out of place it is between the silent beats. Also, The Jazz Singer is the template for 'rise to stardom' films, so far as I can tell. There are beats in it that are repeated endlessly through the history of movies into the present day. It's not only an interesting historical study, but a good film even now. That said, the blackface is, admittedly, kind of hard for me to fit into my 21st century sensibilities.

Ikiru - *****

The story of a government official in postwar Japan who discovers that he has fatal stomach cancer, Ikiru is the story of searching for life's meaning on a deadline. It's a sad, beautiful film, not entirely unrelated to The Fountain in many ways. It's certainly a more muted, understated film, but is a classic for good reason. A must see.

Sherlock Holmes
- ***

Look Sherlock Holmes has more tonally in common with Pirates of the Caribbean and Scooby-Doo than it does the famous detective. Yes, there are plenty of references to the canon, and the film isn't that much of a bastardization, but it feels ... like a misplaced move with the source material. That said, the movie was fun enough, with great chemistry between Jude Law and RDJ. I know this one's probably going to become a franchise on some level, and I think I'm okay with that, but ... I hope that maybe they do a bit more detecting and bit less adventuring in the next one. Also, don't reveal all of Holmes' obvious plot deductions that any fool could figure out all in the last five minutes. It just makes him look smarmy, not on the ball.

Nine - ***

Rob Marshall's film adaptation of the Broadway musical adaptation of Fellini's classic 8 1/2, Nine has all the hallmarks of a Rob Marshall production--beautiful, heavy on color and sex, impressionistic at the sake of coherency at times. Which makes him a good choice to tackle the source (see below). Unfortunately, I felt like the music itself just wasn't quite there on the level it should have been. Too much set piece and not enough exposition, it was beautiful in a train-wreck kind of way. I am tempted to rate this higher, simply because I really ended up sympathizing with Guido as an artist, but really, what mostly happened was that Nine inspired me to finally go ahead and watch...

8 1/2 - ****

I tried early in 2009 to watch this movie and failed rather spectacularly. But coming off of my general interest in Nine I couldn't help but feel the need to fire it up and see what was what. What I got was a movie that even still felt a bit over my head, but in a way I could see the merit of. 8 1/2 is a very personal movie, a movie about a director struggling with the demands of creativity and productivity and what it does to his life and those who are along for the ride. It dabbles in surrealism, with understated exaggerations in design and editing put together to straddle the line between imagination and reality. Guido often enters the realm of his own mind, and with little warning to the audience. It is a tightly wound film, a piece about tension and desperation that looks very confusing to those who have never been through something similar. It isn't an easy movie to approach, but I'm glad I did, and I'm sure that it'll grow on me over time and I'll revisit it more than once in my lifetime.

Love Me if You Dare - ***

A strange romantic French film, the story of a boy and a girl who grow up playing an escalating series of dares as they grow into a turbulent adulthood. This was a recommendation by Elizabeth Ditty based on my professed appreciation for Marion Cotillard in Nine, and I have to say that I am glad I saw it, but ... it's a weirdly dark movie. I don't know what I think of it still, and that score reflects that. We'll see how it grows on me. I suspect well, though probably not enough to warrant a fourth star. Still, if you're into darkly warming and whimsical movies, it's pretty good.

The Proposition - ****

One of the millennial westerns from director John Hillcoat, better known now as having directed The Road, The Proposition is a story of 19th century Australia and an outlaw played by Guy Pearce who is offered freedom for him and his younger brother if he tracks down and kills his psychopathic older brother. The Proposition is like many of the millennial westerns, brutally realistic and violent, but with a sense of poignant loss that runs throughout the film. Like The Road, the movie is shot amazingly well, with the whole backdrop of the vistas of Australia a strangely unfamiliar take on the general southwestern America of most Westerns. If you're a fan of the genre in its most recent incarnations, it's a hell of an example.

Taken - ***

Also known as the Liam Neeson Badass Power Hour, Taken is a single-minded movie almost to the point of hilarity. There's some token stuff about an absent dad trying to connect with his kid, but to put it simply, Neeson's daughter is kidnapped and sold as a prostitute and Liam Neeson is an ex-CIA agent with a lot of paranoia and a lot of skill. The movie would be dumb, but the action is fast and well paced and Neeson is a genius stroke of casting. His general severe gravitas takes what would easily be a straight to DVD Steven Segal affair and makes it something really special. It's dumb, but it's awesome.

Being John Malkovich - *****

This is one that's been on my list for a very long time, but finally broke down and watched. You know what? Sometimes I'm a damn fool. Being John Malkovich is amazing. Simply amazing. I was completely blown away. I can't count how many times I was surprised into genuine laughter. Of all the movies on the list this week, this is the one that I just have to say--go see it, really. It's on Netflix Instant. It's great. Do it. For yourself. For me. For Malkovich.