Movie Reviews - 2014 postsWednesday September 17, 2014
Movie Review: Love Is Strange (2014)
Near the end of “Love Is Strange,” the slice-of-life indie directed by Ira Sachs, George (Alfred Molina), the longtime companion and new husband of Ben (John Lithgow), critiques a student’s classical music performance thus: “When a piece is that romantic, there’s no need to embellish it.”
He could be describing the movie.
Ben and George, a painter and a music instructor, have been living together for decades. As the movie opens (on a stockinged foot at the end of the bed), they are getting ready for another day. Ben slumps into the shower, they dress (necktie for George, bowtie for Ben), Ben can’t find his glasses. They talk to the housekeepers (Two of them? Are they preparing for a party?), then try to flag a cab on the streets of Manhattan. “We’ll have better luck on 6th,” George says. And off they go. To? A wedding. Theirs. It’s both another day and their wedding day. It’s a moment of triumph and celebration. Short-lived, it turns out.
George, you see, is a music instructor at Saint Grace Academy, where most folks, including Father Raymond (John Cullum), know he’s gay, know he lives with Ben, don’t care. But gay marriage? That’s toxic. Or political. And somehow (New York Times wedding page, maybe?) the Bishop finds out and George is fired. As a result, he and Ben can no longer afford to live where they live. As a result, they are forced to live apart.
The dramatist’s dilemma isn’t how to bring the lovers together but how to keep them apart for 90 minutes. Sachs’ approach here is novel. He keeps the lovers apart by marrying them.
Question: Once it becomes apparent that the sale of their apartment won’t net them the income they need, why not just take the Poughkeepsie option? That’s where Ben’s niece, the brassy Mindy (Christina Kirk), lives, and she has room for both of them. But it’s not Manhattan. And the folks we saw at the wedding—friends and family—decide Ben and George need to live in Manhattan. So they divvy them up: George goes with the gay cops downstairs, Ben with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows of “Northern Exposure”), and his family—novelist wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan)—across town. Ben gets the bottom bunk in Joey’s room. Tensions quickly fester.
Joey no longer has space, Kate no longer has space. (Tomei is excellent at being just this side of awful.) At first Ben is oblivious—going on and on in the living room as Kate tries to work on her second novel—and then painfully aware. He walks on metaphoric tiptoes. He paints on the roof of the apartment building, using Joey’s friend, Vlad (Eric Tabach), as a model, but this only makes Joey angry. When he comes home at night, Elliot and Kate are talking quietly (privately) in the living room, so he ducks into the bedroom—where Joey, hanging with Vlad, yells at him for not knocking. He has no place.
Neither does George. He’s with the hunky cops who are always partying, and he’s not a partier. One night he turns up rain-soaked at Elliot and Kate’s. For a moment, everyone’s surprised. Then he falls into Ben’s arms and sobs. It’s a powerful beautiful scene, and, per the above quote, unembellished. It just happens. It reveals, retroactively, all the tension and loneliness he’s feeling.
The movie is full of this kind of humanity. Another scene I loved: Joey and Ben talking at night in the bunkbeds. Joey, a kid without many friends, is still slightly angry at Ben, and possibly feeling guilty, too. Before going to bed, trying better to understand him maybe, Ben asks Joey if he’s ever been in love. Joey talks of seeing this girl on vacation one summer. He never spoke with her, he just saw her. She saw him, too. That seems key for him: being seen. He knows she lives in the city, too. “You should say hello,” Ben says matter-of-factly. That’s it. No resolution, no obvious epiphany. Just an ordinary scene that feels like everything.
Sachs, who co-wrote the movie with Mauricio Zacharias (“Madame Satã”), has a nice habit of transitioning weeks or months ahead without explanation. We figure it out by and by. Oh, they’re going to their wedding. Oh, Ben is living with them. The ending is this way, too.
After George finds them a nice, rent-controlled apartment, he and Ben celebrate at a local bar. They talk, comfortably. They walk down the street, comfortably, until they’re out of sight. You think that might be the end, but no. They talk before Ben takes the subway home. Apparently they haven’t moved in yet. Then we fade to black. Is that the end?
No. We see Joey waiting outside their new apartment, and George takes him upstairs. Joey admires the place, then apologizes for not being at the service. Service? Yes. Ben’s. Joey brings out a painting, Ben’s last, the one with Vlad on the rooftop, and he helps George hang it. Then he leaves. On the stairs down, he breaks down. Is he thinking about how he wasn’t that nice to his Uncle Ben at the end? How he called Vlad “gay” for posing for him? Or maybe he’s just feeling all that he’s lost? After 30 seconds or so, an eternity of screentime, he starts walking again, and one assumes that’s the end. No. The final scenes are Joey riding his skateboard around the more picturesque, treelined streets of Manhattan with a girl. The girl? The vacation girl? Did he finally say hello? Who knows? But at least he’s finally said hello to someone. And maybe he wouldn’t have without Ben’s bunkbed conversation. The things we leave behind.
“Love Is Strange,” despite the title, contains no Mickey and Sylvia on the soundtrack. Chopin piano pieces instead. Played without embellishment.
Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall (2014)
Winning is fun but relentless winning is hardly dramatic. There’s nothing to overcome. There’s no story there.
Neil Hayes’ book, “When the Game Stands Tall,” about the record-shattering 151-game win streak by De La Salle, a private Catholic high school football team in Concord, Cal., is mostly about its 2002 season; but Hayes includes an epilogue about the 2004 team that finally lost a game. (To Bellevue, by the way, at Qwest Field. Represent.)
So that’s what this movie focuses on: losing, and how you recover from it.
There are some natural contradictions to mine here. Winning, for Coach Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), is a byproduct of playing the game right (humility, teamwork, etc.); but glory, humility’s opposite, is a byproduct of winning all the time.So how do you keep egos in check when you never lose? When does the byproduct of playing the game right cause you to play the game wrong?
Sadly, the movie dramatizes all of this with reductive situations and stock characters: the me-first, team-last dude who is cured like that by a trip to a VA hospital; the glory-seeking father in the stands (Clancy Brown, the prison guard in “The Shawshank Redemption,” doomed to play such roles). Neither rabid fans nor the probing media help. And aren’t we, the movie audience, part of the problem, too? We want them to win as much as anyone.
First-half subplots—Ladouceur’s heart attack, a senseless murder—are more-or-less forgotten in the second. Caviezel’s Ladouceur is sourly inscrutable, his talks with his wife (Laura Dern) are dull business, and the grace moment at the end is hardly graceful.
The movie raises religious and philosophical questions (via Luke 6:38 and Matthew 23:12) about whether what we put out in the world is returned to us, but it sticks with the ultimate American answer: There is no problem so great that winning a football game won’t solve it.
Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)
“This rotten town soils everybody,” Nancy (Jessica Alba) says at the end of “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.”
This rotten movie, too.
Is anyone still jazzed by this stuff? Does anyone think writer/co-director/creator Frank Miller isn’t a sad, sad man? Someone channeling Mickey Spillane through the Tobe Hooper grinder? A creepy, morally bankrupt, reactionary idiot?
His male characters still speak in sentence-fragment voiceovers:
Dwight: She’s playing it for all its worth. And it’s worth plenty.
His female characters are still argued about in the most infantile fashion:
Roark: She was a whore and not a very good one.
Johnny: She was an angel.
To recap: Sin City is a corrupt town where, if you’re a good man, you drink hard liquor every night, watch Nancy do her non-strip striptease, then go out and bust heads. Preferably the heads of bad guys. You know: frat boys who light winos on fire or the hired bodyguards of the powerful and corrupt. You get to do what you want with these people because they’re bad. You get to torture people and feel moral about it. It’s like America after 9/11.
If you’re a good woman you’re most likely a prostitute. You wear lingerie and maybe a mask. Maybe it’s a Zorro mask. You tote a machine gun or a crossbow or a samurai blade, and you slice up the bad guys, often with the good guys by your side. And that’s about it for you.
Bad women are the ones who betray good men. Bad men are the ones with money and power. Innocent women are the ones who are killed by the bad men so we get another round of bloodletting by the good men.
Worse than the first
The first “Sin City” (2005) was morally reprehensible but at least it kinda held together. At least the motivations and actions of its cartoonish figures kinda matched.
So Johnny (Joseph Gordon Levitt) is a lucky, coin-flipping son of a gun who decides to play poker with the most powerful man in the state, Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Everyone warns him off. Everyone tells him you don’t beat Roark at poker and get away with it. But he does it anyway. Why? Because he’s one of Roark’s bastard children. Does he think this matters to Roark? It doesn’t. So he doesn’t get away with it. He’s beaten, shot, and his lucky hand is mangled, and his lucky charm, an innocent waitress named Marcie (Julia Garner), is killed. So he plots revenge. What is this revenge? He plays more poker with Roark, loses several hands (on purpose?), then wins big at the end. Then he tells Roark he’s a loser, and he’ll always know in his head that he’s a loser, because he, Johnny, beat him twice. Then Roark shoots Johnny in the head. That’s the end of that. Apparently revenge is a dish best smooshed into your own face.
In our second story, private dick Dwight (previously Clive Owen, now Josh Brolin) is revisited by the Love of his Life, Ava (Eva Green), the dame of the title. She’s watched over by a giant of a chauffeur, Manute (Dennis Haysbert), who is apparently the watchdog of her new, rich husband, Damien Lord (Marton Csokas). Is her husband holding her captive? Does he beat her? She implies as much. So after trying to rescue her and getting pummeled by Manute, Dwight returns with Sin City perennial Marv (Mickey Rourke), who relieves Manute of one of his eyes while Dwight relieves Damien Lord of his life. Except, ha ha, Ava is a femme fatale who is playing Dwight for a sap. She’s now a rich, powerful woman, and she sics the cops on Dwight, who holes up in Old Town with the lingerie-clad, sword-wielding prostitutes. Dwight spends this standoff getting plastic surgery, Ava spends it seducing the cop on the case (Christopher Meloni), who becomes so distraught he kills his friend (Jeremy Piven) and then himself. The point of this subplot? Who knows? Eventually Ava hires a Texas killer who turns out to be Dwight, post-plastic surgery, but everyone recognizes him. Then there’s a final big battle, with the lingerie-clad prostitutes vs. the hired bodyguards, and Ava is finally relieved of her life. And that’s the end of that.
Satisfied? Of course not. And it gets worse.
Worst for last
That’s the thing about “Sin City: A Dame to Die For.” Sex + violence isn’t supposed to equal boring but it does here. The violence is cartoonish, the sex puerile and voyeuristic. The dweebs it’s aimed at will probably find it boring. And Miller and co-director Robert Rodriguez save the worst for last.
So Nancy is the girl who was abducted by Roark’s pedophilic son in the first movie, only to be saved by Det. Hartigan (Bruce Willis), only to grow up to be the best stripper at the best dive bar in Sin City; and she, like Johnny, plots her revenge against Roark. At one point, dancing her cowgirl dance, she has Roark in her sights, but she can’t pull the trigger. Alas. So she has to drink, and emote, and dance some more raw, angry, sexually absurd dances, before she cuts up her own face and tells Marv that it was Roark who did it, which leads she and Marv to attack Roark’s fortress the way Dwight and Marv attacked the Lord fortress, and there’s another final showdown, this time between Nancy and Roark, the stripper and the Senator. But does she have the guts to finally go through with it? Moot point. He shoots first, her gun is inches away, and he’s about to take the final deadly shot when, in the mirror, he sees the ghost of Hartigan, who’s been following after Nancy for most of the movie, giving her bad advice she can’t hear; but his appearance here, in the mirror, gives her the time to grab her gun and blam blam blow away the baddest of the bad guys. After that, she visits Hartigan’s grave and says the last line and the lights come up and we all shuffle out of the theater feeling as soiled as Sin City.
I’d want revenge on Frank Miller if I didn’t feel so sorry for the man. We get to leave Sin City after 100 minutes, but he invented it. He cared enough about it to put it on paper and then film. It will soil itself in his head forever.
Movie Review: Divergent (2014)
So why doesn’t it work? Besides being monumentally stupid, I mean.
“The Hunger Games” (girl, dystopia, contests, remaining empathetic in an environment that fosters ruthlessness) opened in March 2012 and grossed more than $152 million in its first three days on its way to a $400 million domestic box office. Its 2013 sequel did even better: $424 million and the No. 1 movie of the year. This thing? Created on the heels of that? Another sweet/tough girl in a ruthless dystopia? It opened to $54 million and died. Its total domestic gross, $150.9 million, doesn’t even match the first three days of the other. Why? Besides this one being monumentally stupid, I mean.
Is it the lead? Shailene Woodley, bless her heart, is a helluva actress, and her face can crumple in pain like no one’s business, but she seems a little less sturdy than Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss. You buy J Law kicking ass and taking names. Shailene’s Beatrice, shortened to Tris, is all wide eyes and vulnerability. She can’t even punch a bag with any force. She’s no leader of an underground movement that will upset the balance of things.
Is it the balance of things? In the beginning, we’re told there was a terrible war, and that the rest of the world was destroyed, but fortified cities like Chicago remain; and that the remnants of humanity were “divided into five groups, factions, to keep the peace.” Right. Because nothing keeps the peace like dividing humanity into separate groups.
Is it the groups? This is how humanity is divided:
- Erudite: “They know everything”
- Amity: Kind farmers
- Candor: The honest
- Dauntless: The brave and reckless
- Abnegation: Selfless
And who rules this dystopia? Abnegation, of course. You imagine the scene. “All of you dressed in gray? Who don’t care about yourselves? You’re in charge.” Not the thinkers, not the doers, and not the honest, who, here, are kind of like assholes. They’re like lawyers, aren’t they? Their symbol is the scales of justice. No matter. Abnegation rules. Because that’s how you keep the peace: divide the world into five groups and put the weakest people in charge.
Jumping off trains
So Beatrice starts out as Abnegation, like mom and pops (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn), but she’s ... confused. She feels like there’s more to life than being just one thing. Sometimes she doesn’t know where she belongs. So it’s like high school. Or high school.
How do you wind up in a faction? At a certain age (18?), you take a test, which indicates which faction you belong to. But even after that, you still choose your faction at a blood-dripping ceremony. I never got this. What’s the point of the test if you still have to choose? And how many people choose something other than their test? And what does that indicate? And are they tracked by the authorities? Or is that not Abnegation’s way?
Moot point for Tris. When she wakes up from her test her test-taker (Maggie Q) is freaked. She tells her, “Your results were Abnegation ... and Erudite ... and Dauntless.” This is “extremely rare.” It’s called “divergent.” Don’t tell anyone.
So why did you just tell her?
What happens to divergents? They’re killed. To keep the peace. Because who needs someone who can unite factions?
Anyway, Beatrice now has to choose without a proper test, and for some reason—because she’d always admired them?—she drips blood onto Dauntless. And off she goes with Dauntless, who spend their days jumping off and on of el trains. Because Dauntless.
In her training, Beatrice reveals herself to be brave and smart (and selfless and honest), but she’s not that strong. There are contests, and she keeps losing, and is in danger of being drummed out of Dauntless and winding up with the wretched refuse that is the factionless. All of this takes place in Dauntless’ domain, which resembles a prison mixed with an archeological dig. She makes a few friends (Zoë Kravitz, formerly Candor), and a few enemies (Miles Teller, also formerly Candor). The trainers are Eric (Jai Courtney), a total asshole, and Four (Theo James), a kind of asshole but with nicer lips, so he becomes The Love Interest. He takes a subtle/not-so subtle shine to Tris. He’s also—third-act reveal—divergent himself.
Decking Kate Winslet
So what’s the story beyond the training? There’s an attempted coup, of course. Because some idiot put the weakest people in charge. I think that might’ve been author Veronica Roth. Who’s like 6 years old, according to Wikipedia.
After the training and the graduation, Tris and Four, together with mom and pops, work to prevent a coup by the sneakier elements of Erudite (Kate Winslet, working below her pay grade), and Dauntless (Meki Phifer, working at about his). Tris gets to punch Kate Winslet, and the rag-tag elements that prevent the coup take the el out of town and look into a sequel-filled future. That’s the studio’s plan anyway: this one, its sequel, and the final book cut into two movies to double the box office. What studios now call “The usual.” Moviegoers might have other ideas.
Pull back a moment. What does this story remind you of? This story: a few well-trained soldiers protecting the weak from evil, power-hungry thinkers? What is that?
It’s almost every movie ever made.
If Tris, or director Neil Burger, had only chosen Candor.
Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
We know how the roller coaster goes. Our heroes, misfits all, fight more with each other than with the bad guys, but eventually, through a series of adventures and misadventures, they abandon the more pungent aspects of their personalities for the greater good and come together for the final, big battle, with swirling dervishes going pew-pew-pew, and, somehow, against impossible odds ... win!
We know this going in. The roller coaster, being a roller coaster, can’t alter its tracks. So the question becomes: Do they make the ride fun?
Writer-director James Gunn (“The Specials,” “Super”), and writer Nicole Perlman (this), and some very talented cast members, led by Chris Pratt (“Parks and Recreation”), make Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” a lot of fun.
Who's BFF? (Before Fantastic Four)
It’s all about the characters, and these characters are fairly unique. Count ‘em off:
- Peter Quill (Pratt): Terran, outlaw, raconteur, who digs one-hit wonders of the 1970s.
- Drax (Dave Bautista): massively muscled and tattooed like a Maori warrior, he doesn’t understand metaphor; so he’s like the opposite of the Tamarians.
- Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper): a raccoon bounty hunter ready to sink his teeth into any fight.
- Groot (voice of Vin Diesel): his companion, a calm, giant tree, who can only say three words and only in this order: “I am Groot.”
- Gamora (Zoe Saldana): a sexy, ass-kicking bad girl.
OK, so maybe we’ve seen Gamora before. Like all the time. And Quill is a bit like Han Solo with a better taste in girls and a worse one in music. Groot is the vegetation version of Chewbacca, while Rocket is, you know, a pint-sized Wolverine. Sans cigar. Maybe they’re saving it for the sequel.
But they’re unique enough. Most of them came out of the trippy, 1970s-era Marvel comics universe, the long-haired, cosmic-looking, drug-taking wave after Stan and Jack. Jim Starlin gave us both Gamora (in 1975) and, with Mike Friedrich, Drax the Destroyer (in 1973). Rocket was Bill Mantlo and Keith Giffen’s 1976 homage to the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon,” while Steve Engelhart’s interest in astrology led to the creation of Peter Quill in 1976. Only Groot came earlier, pre-Silver Age, 1960. He was one of those “Tales to Astonish” outerspace villains forever imperiling earthlings in the days before the Fantastic Four: Droom and Rommbu and Vandoom and Moomba. Stan was big on the “oo.”
They are, in the comic book world, what they are here: misfits and castoffs and second- or third- or 39th-tier players. But they were put together in 2008 for the second iteration of Guardians, which first failed as a concept in 1969. And boom. Stars. Here, too. Basically they’re a funnier, less superhero-y version of The Avengers. But they’re fighting who the Avengers will soon fight. Spoiler alert.
So one night in 1988, a boy, young Peter Quill, has a bummer of a night: 1) his mother dies, and 2) he’s abducted by a UFO. We next see him 26 years later on the planet Morag. By now he’s a rapscallion bounty hunter, who, like Indiana Jones, enters a cave in search of a precious object, but he doesn’t sweat it in the getting. The opposite. He kicks alien rodents out of the way while dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone, from his AWESOME MIX TAPE, VOL. 1, which is a cassette of great one-hit AM-radio wonders of the ’70s his mom gave him. He even uses one rodent as a mic. It’s a mix of new technology (spaceships) and old (Walkman). Not to mention old tunes. It’s the fear of the unknown subverted. Remember the creepiness of alien worlds in the first season of “Star Trek”? Now it ain’t no big thang. Now squiggly creatures are just props for our pop cultural miasma. We’re humans from Earth.
As soon as Quill holds the orb in his hand, though, armed men, led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou), come to take it from him, and we set the tone for the rest of the movie:
Korath: Who are you?
Quill (in close-up and with gravitas): Star-Lord.
Korath (perplexed): WHO???
Quill (whiny): I’m Star-Lord, man. Legendary outlaw? Forget it.
I love this bit. A lot. He’s a kid playing a game forced to reveal he’s just a kid. He’s an adult with an inflated sense of self-worth forced to own up to the inflation. Quill is a semi-joke here, and we identify; but he’ll soon be, you know, the other thing. The hero. The One. Bummer.
It’s a busy universe he saunters through. There’s a truce between the Kree and Xander, but a Kree faction, led by Ronan (Lee Pace), is outraged and wants to wage war. The orb will help him do this. It’s got an infinity stone in it. Remember the infinity stone? I think it’s what Loki had in “The Avengers.” I think. Either way, it gives the holder incredible powers. What kind of powers? Incredible ones. Quit asking.
On Xander, Quill can’t unload the orb, and is then pursued by bounty hunters Rocket and Groot, even as Gamora, adopted daughter of the evil Thanos, wants him for herself. All four wind up in prison where they meet Drax, who joins their motley crew, such as it is, since he wants revenge on Ronan. They break out in a not-bad scene, then take the orb to The Collector (Benicio del Toro, channeling Karl Lagerfeld), while Quill tries to romance Gamora by getting her to dance. She says she doesn’t. Then this exchange:
Quill: Well, on my planet, we have a legend about people like you. It's called Footloose. And in it, a great hero named Kevin Bacon teaches an entire city full of people with sticks up their butts that, dancing, well, is the greatest thing there is.
Gamora: (thoughtful pause) Who put the sticks up their butts?
This is the reason the movie works for me: lines like these. In prison, for example, after Rocket explains to Quill that Drax takes everything literally, that metaphors go over his head, Drax is quietly affronted. “Nothing goes over my head,” he says. “My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.” Does it help that writer-director Gunn (who also played Minute Man, as in My-NOOT Man, in “The Specials”) started out doing superhero parodies? Is that why they hired him? Either way, it was a smart move. Either way, this is a movie with smart people behind it.
Then it all becomes more roller coastery. Ronan, already powerful, gets the infinity stone and becomes super powerful, and he and his minions attack Xander, and pew-pew-pew! The Guardians try to stop him and save the universe. Face to face, Quill distracts Ronan with “O-O-H Child” by The Five Stairsteps and some decidedly post-1980s dance moves (anachronism alert), then Ronan gets shot and the infinity stone is up for grabs. Quill dives for it in slow motion. It’s his! But it almost destroys him. But on the verge of breaking apart, Gamora, then Drax, then Rocket, grab onto him, and together, as a team, they survive. And win. They also survive (and win) because Peter Quill is only half human. The other half is immortal or something. And in the end, he becomes the hero he always imagined himself to be.
That’s fine, I guess. I just like the whiny adult/kid bit better. I like the popping of his pretentions. Because we’re a culture ready to have a few of its pretensions popped now and again.
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