Friday, October 12, 2007

Summer Movie Splendor

I won't bother making excuses (although there are plenty of good ones — moonlighting, for example) for the lack of updates over the summer. Here's a rundown, roughly in chronological order, of every movie I watched from mid-June to late September.

Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) | rating: 4.0
Chinese actresses playing Japanese geishas. Strange that. Except for the hot Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Ziyi Zhang, this movie is rather forgettable. I just wanted to mention the hotness of the actresses. Especially Gong Li.

American Splendor (2003) | rating: 9.0
I forgot how incredibly good this movie was. In fact, I liked it better on this my second viewing. Aside from Harvey's insistence that R. Crumb's depiction of him doesn't have stink lines ("No, those are motion lines. I'm an active guy!"), my favorite thing about the movie is its layers: There's the fictionalized true story which is narrated and commented upon by the real Harvey. There's the documentary-like portions with the real people--which, while good, are staged more than most documentaries and therefore aren't quite as “real.” There's the bits of TV footage of Harvey, Toby, David Letterman, etc. There’s the stage version of the story, which is represented in the movie. There’s the movie’s depiction of the creation of the comics, and, outside the movie, there’s the American Splendor comic book about the movie (Our Movie Year). Beyond telling this story of an existential everyman, the movie seems to make a general point about storytelling itself: it’s real and illusory and relative all at the same time.
Also great: Hope Davis as Joyce, and Judah Friedlander who played Toby the "nyerd."

The Graduate (1967) | rating: 10.0
One of my all-time favorites. The first time I saw it was in my 11th grade English class. My teacher Mr. Wallach used it as both a demonstration of existentialism and as a lesson in basic cinematography. That was my introduction to concepts like the rule of thirds, two-shots, etc., and how those things can convey meaning beyond the dialogue – i.e. how-to-read-a-film stuff. So not only is The Graduate a great movie, but it represents sort of a cornerstone for my appreciation of film. Anyway, Anne Bancroft is amazing, as is the soundtrack, which I bought recently.

Return of the Jedi (1983) | rating: 9.0
When it came out, it was my favorite Star Wars movie and therefore my favorite movie, period. It has since fallen from that perch (Episodes IV & V are better, Star Wars-wise), but I still have a great time watching it. For me, the whole Luke-Vader confrontation and reconciliation story makes the film, and makes up for its shortcomings (which I won’t get into here – a Star Wars discussion will have to happen eventually). I still get chills when Vader picks up the Emperor and tosses him down the pit. (Oops, spoiler alert!)

Live Free or Die Hard (2007) | rating: 8.5
Surprisingly excellent. Introducing a youthful, geeky sidekick (Justin “I’m a Mac” Long) was a good idea, as was the incorporation of John McLane’s estranged daughter Lucy, who turns out to be a lot like her dad. (Spin-off idea starring the daughter: Princess Die Hard). It maybe would have surpassed the first Die Hard had the villain been charismatic. Don’t get me wrong, I like Timothy Olyphant—his voice and intensity remind me of Clint Eastwood, and he was great on Deadwood—but he is no Alan Rickman. Of course, few actors are as good at being villainous as Alan Rickman.
btw - here are some other suggestions for future titles in the Die Hard franchise:

Die? Hardly!
20-sided Die Hard: Half-elf with a Vengeance
Get Rich or Die Hard Tryin’
Live and Let Die Hard

Hostile Waters (1997) | rating: 6.5
Once upon a time I hosted a submarine movie marathon. We watched Das Boot (the long-ass director’s cut), Run Silent, Run Deep, Crimson Tide and The Hunt for Red October. Hostile Waters, which turned out to be a made-for-HBO movie was decent, but would not have made the cut for the marathon, partly because of its made-for-TV-inherent-lack-of-epicness. Worth renting if you’re a fan of the genre, though.

Knocked Up (2007) | rating: 7.5
The feel-good movie of the summer! No, really, it was fun, if a bit far-fetched. Judd Apatow and his gang have a pretty good thing going.

Breach (2007) | rating: 7.0
Ryan Phillippe is wooden. The real-life FBI agent upon whom the story was based provides commentary on the DVD and he is way, way more interesting and lively than Phillippe is in the film. The plot and the other actors (mainly Chris Cooper) make it a decent spy thriller overall, though.

Transformers (2007) | rating: 8.0
Michael Bay and co. failed to develop Megatron or any of the Decepticons (except maybe Frenzy) as characters, but this was an appropriately action-packed, intense summer blockbuster. I especially liked how the transformers seemed much more alien than they ever did in the original cartoons, which mostly seemed to gloss over the fact that humans live on Earth.

Beerfest (2006) | rating: 4.5
As bad as this movie is, it is still somehow watchable in a 1980s midnight movie kind of way. I mean: it’s the 1980s, you’re a kid, you’re up way past your bedtime watching TV (either at a slumber party or at home while your parents are sound asleep), and this is the type of movie that’s on. And you watch it and somehow don’t regret wasting the time. By bizarre coincidence, Beerfest is the “movie of the day” on as I write this. Go figure.

Night at the Museum (2006) | rating 6.5
A mostly pointless movie with nice special effects. I love the American Museum of Natural History, so the setting and concept are kind of cool, too. A better story would have been nice, though – something like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which, apparently, was made into a movie -- twice.)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) | rating 6.5
Comments: The longest of the books was made into the shortest (so far) of the movies. Mistake. Too much character development was lost (for Harry and Snape in particular), and the glass prophecy orbs would have been completely inexplicable to viewers who hadn’t read the book. I was entertained by the action scenes, though, and the movie was mostly engaging.

The Simpsons Movie (2007) | rating 8.5
Not as good as the all-time classic episodes (circa seasons 4-6), but better than the recent vintage, and on par with some of the early years. In fact, the film’s writers were mostly the originals, so I guess it wasn’t surprising to see the plot focus primarily on the nuclear Simpsons family. Therefore, it was also not a surprise that it tried to warm our hearts like those early season episodes did. Still, assuming there’s a sequel, I hope it will feature more supporting characters, especially Krusty and Apu. And Mr. Burns.

Conga conga conga!
We love Monty Burns more!
Conga like you mean it.
Please don’t make me shock you!

Little Miss Sunshine (2006) | rating 7.0
I’ve said to several people that this was the Sideways of 2006: a good little indie movie that was overrated by critics and especially by the Oscar attention.

Dial M for Murder (1954) | rating 7.5
It’s hard to go wrong with a Hitchcock movie starring Grace Kelly. Too stagey to be a classic, but the trademark Hitcockian suspense is there. Also, a twist on the usual Hitchcock “wrong man” theme: this one has a “wrong woman.”

High Anxiety (1977) | rating 6.5
A fitting follow-up to a Hitchcock movie: Mel Brooks’s spoof of Hitchcock movies. It seemed to be based mostly on Spellbound, but mocked many of the others, too. While there are some laughs, I didn’t think it was among the better Mel Brooks movies.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) | rating 8.0
There were critics using the term “America’s James Bond” to describe the Bourne movies. I think that’s pretty apt. Americans like lone-wolf bad-asses who fight for freedom, so it follows that our version of a James Bond-superspy would be such a character. And while Bond is working for the bureaucracy, even if he rebels in certain situations, Bourne fights it. The plot can be difficult to follow if you haven’t seen The Bourne Supremacy recently (the time period of Ultimatum overlaps with Supremacy), but on the other hand there is so much action, the plot is not always important. All you really need to know is: “Jason Bourne” is not the character’s real name; he doesn’t know who he really is, and certain government elements want to keep it that way.

The Osterman Weekend (1983) | rating 6.0
The quickest way to describe this is: suburban Cold War spy thriller. In other words, it mixes family relationships and friendships with a conspiracy plot, which is about as weird as it sounds. It’s very dated and not terribly action-packed until the wacko, frenetic ending. Not bad, but not quite good either.

Zodiac (2006) | rating 7.0
Chop 20 minutes from the movie – or repurpose them in a much more productive way – and it would be much better. I guess David Fincher wanted to be very thorough in documenting the Zodiac killer story (without actually making a documentary), but the neverending search for the killer gets tedious after two hours. Also, Jake Gyllenhaal was maybe a bit too young for the role of the cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who independently investigated the case. Or maybe the writing could have done more to explore his obsessive need to crack the case. I don’t know, but the rest of the ensemble cast is good, and the facts of the case alone were enough to hold my interest.

Sunshine (2007) | rating 7.5
This may have slipped passed notice with all the commotion of the other summer blockbusters, but Sunshine is one of the more interesting sci-fi movies to come along in a while. A couple of big caveats, though: First, it is scientifically implausible. The space mission has a real feel, but doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. The crew is Earth’s last hope for re-igniting the dying sun. To do this, they must fly a spacecraft almost suicidally close to the sun so that they can detonate a super-nuke. Um, yeah. Anyway, the point really isn’t the science, though; it’s about species survival and the tremendous psychological weight that puts on the crew members. That aspect of the film is quite good, and though it sounds similar to the plot of Armageddon (which I haven’t seen), this is about as far from a Michael Bay movie as can be. It has much more in common with 2001, right down to the old-fashioned gold colored space-suits.
The second caveat is still a sore point with me. In fact it made me angry at the time. I was really loving this movie until it got to the last half hour, when a deus ex machina element was needlessly introduced. I’d rather not spoil the movie by explaining the ending because I think the film is worth seeing, but my criticism has to do with a “villain” who pops up from nowhere and turns the story into a generic horror movie. Until that point, a very nice psychological drama had been built up, which arguably could have produced some of the same consequences as the villain. The ending felt like it was hijacked by a focus group full of teenagers. While the movie basically ends up in the same logical place regardless, it’s annoying that it took the detour.

Superbad (2007) | rating 8.0
Pretty much the same creative team behind Knocked Up was responsible for Superbad. I look at it as the Porky's of the 2000's because of all the gross-out humor and the senselessness of the plot. Although, Superbad is more than a zany teen exploitation flick. It ultimately has a genuine respect for teens and, the trademark of Apatow Productions, male friendships.

Unknown (2006) | rating 4.5
A weird movie I’d never heard of (so the title was right-on) about a group of guys who wake up in a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and can’t remember who they are or why they’re there. It’s sort of a neo-noir, and had the potential to make some interesting points about identity, but it mostly falls flat. It actually had the feel of a straight-to-video release: some known, but not big-time, actors (James Caviezel, Greg Kinnear), a low-budget soundtrack, a very low budget set, and uneven pacing.

Mobsters (1991) | rating 4.5
A silly biopic about Lucky Luciano (played by Christian Slater of all people) and his rise to prominence with Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. The set design is good, the writing is mediocre, but the casting is just unbelievably wrong. Michael Gambon as an old Sicilian? Anthony Quinn plays another old Sicilian, and is a little more believable, but he also seems to be doing an impression of Marlon Brando in the Godfather. I already mentioned Christian Slater, who seemed too twerpy to play one of the all time bad guys. Patrick Dempsey as Meyer Lansky was probably the worst casting error, though. His generic, stereotypical New York Jew accent / Hyman Roth impersonation felt very forced, and just… lame. It’s almost an intentionally campy take on mob movies, though, so I couldn’t hate it too much.

On the Town (1949) | rating 7.0
Now I know that when Bart and Millhouse go on a Squishee bender and “go crazy Broadway-style,” their number is a direct reference to On the Town.
    Bart: OK, we're young, rich, and full of sugar.  What do we do?
Milhouse: [yelling] Let's go crazy, Broadway style!
[singing together]
Springfield, Springfield, it's a hell of a town:
the schoolyard's up and the shopping mall's down.
The stray dogs go to the animal pound,
Bart: Springfield, Springfield!
Milhouse: Springfield, Springfield!
Sailor: New York, New York!
Bart: New York is that-a-way, man!
Sailor: Thanks, kid!
Together: [singing] It's a hell of a...toooown!
Nothing much more to add to that, other than this was a good, yet below-average Gene Kelly musical (see Singin’ in the Rain or An American in Paris instead), that happened to feature Frank Sinatra, who I think cannot be overrated as one of the top three entertainers of the 20th Century.

The Exorcist (1973) | rating 9.5
I watched this at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery with a friend and thousands of other people. Compeletely awesome and scary -- both the setting and the movie. They really crank up the bass on the speakers, too, so the whole ground was rumbling, almost enough to wake the dead. But no, we were not sitting on gravestones. There’s a big field off to the side and the movies they show there are projected onto the side of a large building.

Shoot 'Em Up (2007) | rating 6.5
The title about sums it up: All shooting, all the time. There’s some pretty insane, fantastical shooting action that’s worth a look, but otherwise this is a throwaway action movie.

We Are Marshall (2006) | rating 6.0
Pretty much your typical underdog sports story, this just happened to be based on true events. Still, it felt like events and emotions were sensationalized and Disneyfied in order to appeal to a broad audience. That’s not surprising, but a better, albeit sadder, movie could’ve been made if it focused more on the loss of several dozen people (almost the whole football team and its coaching staff) from a small college community, and the grief of those left behind. I just got the impression that the recovery process would’ve been a lot tougher than the movie made it look.

3:10 to Yuma (2007) | rating 7.5
Not a classic, but thoroughly entertaining. Russell Crowe and Christian Bale are great actors, who, despite not being Americans, seem well-suited to Westerns, at least based on their performances. The movie, like most good Westerns, is a nice morality play, so it’s more of a mythical tale rather than something that would have happened in real life. Crowe plays a notorious train robber Ben Wade who is captured and must be escorted to the prison train to Yuma. The problem is, Wade is charming, devious, and powerful, and has a gang of loyal minions riding to his rescue. Dan Evans (Bale) takes the dangerous job of joining the escort posse because he’s almost penniless and the gig will save his ranch. As the story goes on, though, the odds stack up against Evans to the point where it would be safer and more lucrative if Evans were to let Wade go. So the story boils down to the contrast between Wade’s way of cheating and bullying to get ahead vs. Evans’s devotion to the principle that people should earn what they get.

Into the Wild (2007) | rating 7.0
Spectacular nature footage and some great supporting acting (especially from Katherine Keener) make this worth watching. However, I thought it could have been 20 minutes shorter, particularly the drawn-out, tragic ending. I also felt that I still didn’t quite get what made the main character abandon civilization like he did. And maybe that’s the point, we can’t know. But I guess what I would have liked the movie to better illustrate is whether he was simply in need of therapy from the whammy his parents put on him with their sham marriage, or... I don’t know… he was chemically imbalanced? Or maybe too stubborn/prideful/naïve. (Maybe the book does this and I should read it. But why read when you can watch movies?)


Anonymous said...

so glad you're back, and damn! that's a lot of movie reviews all at once.

Anonymous said...

lol this is random, but did u go to whs? u mentioned that mr wallach introduced u to the rule of thirds. im currently a junior there and i am it for my final tomorrow. :]

Thomas said...

Transformers was alot better than alot of other reviews gave it credit. Good to see that someone recognized it was all it needed to be: a summer blockbuster!