Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Most Violent Year (USA, 2014)

Nine Things About the Movie A Most Violent Year

1. Despite the title, this movie is not that violent. And it all takes place in 33 days. The title just means "New York City, 1981" because that's when the movie takes place, and it was one of the most violent years in New York History.

2. You could kind of call this movie "The Anti-Godfather".

3. It's about an immigrant, Abel, running an energy fuel company, slowly building his American Dream. Abel is trying to expand his dream honestly, even though he knows that he has to bend the rules sometimes. Unfortunately, his competitors are willing to bend more rules than he is.

4. When an ambitious district attorney comes after him for suspected illegal activities, Abel finds himself feeling pressure from every imaginable direction. He is forced into a series of decisions that will either chip away at his dream... or his ability to remain uncorrupted.

5. Abel, (played by Oscar Isaac, from "Inside Llewin Davis"), is one of the most interesting characters I've seen in films for quite awhile. He's not a hero, nor is he an anti-hero. He can't commit enough to one side or the other. You never quite know if you're supposed to root for him or not.

6. Jessica Chastain is wonderful as Abel's wife, who provides more support to him than he wants to acknowledge. David Oyelowo (who will forever be known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in "Selma") is excellent as the district attorney whose loyalty to justice serves his own ambition.

7. Even though this movie is over two hours long, and isn't focused on action, the script and the pacing is strong enough that things don't get boring.

8. There is also a constant, low-boil atmospheric tension throughout the film. As soon as Abel seems to have a plan for the current problem, others pop up. You can almost physically feel Abel's optimism and energy fade away.

9. This is a smart, well-told story. It's a gangster movie about not being a gangster. And it illustrates the idea that sometimes there are no right choices in life, so you have to go with your next-best choice.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blackhat (USA, 2015)

Nine Things About the Movie Blackhat

1. This was directed by Michael Mann, who is probably most famous for his 1995 crime classic "Heat". And "Blackhat" definitely has Mann's trademark cool look and feel. But something went very wrong somewhere. The movie seems like it was made by someone pretending to be Michael Mann.

2.  It's about a mysterious computer hacker attacking various places around the world for unknown reasons. The Chinese and American governments get together to catch the bad guy. In order to do that, they must release a buff, hunky computer hacker named Nicholas Hathaway from jail,

3. This film is great proof that a movie can be complicated without actually being smart.

4. There is a lot of cyber-jargon used in this movie. Computer experts say it's pretty accurate. They're the only ones that will know, because the movie doesn't really try to explain anything.

5. Every 20 minutes or so, the movie slows down because the heroes have run out of leads.  So Hathaway will look confused for a minute, get the "light bulb" look, and then tell everybody of an idea he just had that will lead the heroes down a new path. This path will last for about 20 more minutes. Repeat this step for about two hours, and the movie is over.

6. There's also a completely predictable and unnecessary romance that develops between Hathaway and a teammate. It's supposed to add some emotional tension to the group, but all it really does is bring the movie to a grinding stop, wasting any momentum that the movie had built up.

7. As the movie progresses, it gets more action-packed but less believable. And for an MIT computer hacker spending years in jail, Hathaway is surprisingly good in gunfights and knife battles.

8. This movie was not only the first box-office flop of 2015, it's one of the biggest box-office flops in history. A week after being released in US theaters, its scheduled release in Australia was canceled - which is where the star, Chris Hemsworth, is from.

9. This could have been a good movie. I don't know what happened. But in the end, it's just a way to give computer geeks to a fantasy where they get to be an action hero, and also get a girlfriend.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Cut and Run (Italy, 1985)

Nine Things About the Movie Cut and Run

1. This is the final movie of Ruggero Deodato's so-called Amazonia Trilogy (after "Jungle Holocaust" and "Cannibal Holocaust").

2. "Cannibal Holocaust", which is about a group of Western journalists being tortured and killed by savage natives of the Amazon, was so infamous that there was demand for a sequel. But Deodato didn't want to make "Cannibal Holocaust 2". So he made "Cut and Run", which is about a group of Western journalists filming drug runners being tortured and killed by savage natives of the Amazon. See the difference there?

3. The plot consists of about three different stories that are as lost and confused as the journalists in the jungle. One of the stories is about a father and his missing son. One of the stories is about the cocaine trade. And one of the stories is a cheap rip-off of "Apocalypse Now". None of the stories are complete, nor do they mix well.

4. 80's teen idol Willie Aames is in this movie. In clean-cut America, his good looks may have distracted everybody from his acting ability. But in Venezuela (where the movie was filmed), his terrible overacting made me laugh out loud.

5.  Actually, a lot of this movie made me laugh out loud. All the acting is bad, the story is ludicrous, and the gore is everywhere.

6.  Speaking of gore, this is Deodato we're talking about here. The only reason you watch one of his movies is to watch blood and guts and spears and knives. What's awesome is how elaborate all the decapitation and mutilation gore is, but when someone gets shot, they just fall over with no bullet holes.

7. The movie is perhaps most notable for having the best depiction of a man being ripped in half by a jungle rope trap.

8.  A young Eriq La Salle has a small role as a pimp, dressed all in purple. He later became the well-known and respected actor in the series "ER".  And the guy that plays the mutant Pluto in "The Hills Have Eyes" is here, too. He just pops up out of the water every now and then and kills someone.

9. Make no mistake, this is a bad movie. But for fans of bad movies, it's worth checking out. And while it doesn't have the kick of "Cannibal Holocaust", followers of Deodato's career need to put this on their shelf.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Foxcatcher (USA, 2014)

Nine Things About the Movie Foxcatcher

[NOTE: I tried very hard not to give away spoilers in this review. If you want to see this movie, see it before you learn the actual story.]

1. Most people (including myself) thought the trailer to this film was kind of vague and hard to remember; you couldn't really tell what it was about. People would say, "'Foxcatcher'? That's that weird movie about wrestling, right? And Steve Carell sure looks strange." But now I understand why. It's almost impossible to summarize the movie.

2. The actual plot is easy to explain - two brothers, Dave and Mark Schultz, are Olympic gold medalists in wrestling. The younger one, Mark, is trying to get out of his brother's shadow and become his own person. Mark meets this really strange millionaire, John du Pont, who invites Mark to start a wrestling team on his ranch, and train for the next Olympics. Things don't go as planned.

3. The plot is not what the movie is actually about, though. This is a subtle movie where some key points are shown through long, non-verbal scenes, or through short, almost throw-away lines of dialogue. Some people think this movie is too long, quiet, and boring. This means they have not been paying attention, and missed all the important stuff.

4. The plot of the movie is basically a true story, but they changed quite a few things to make it fit, and to make the story more complex (there is a lot of controversy over some of the points in the film). The real Mark Schultz has a cameo, as a wrestling official weighing in the movie version of himself.

5. I have only one thing to say about Steve Carell. He deserves Best Actor of the Year. And Mark Ruffalo deserves his Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

6. Now let me say something about Channing Tatum. The fact that he was not nominated for an Oscar is one of the most mysterious and outrageous snubs I've ever seen. Tatum gives a performance that rivals Carell's. He inhabits his character physically and emotionally. Together, Tatum and Carell turn what could have been a weird little melodrama into a genuine piece of American tragedy.

7. There is a constant thread of awkwardness and pain through the movie. It's perfectly matched with the muted, sorrowful colors of the film, the minimalist soundtrack, and the cinematography.

8. The movie also sets up a constant, vague sense of unease. You get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that something is going to go very wrong, but you don't know what or when.

9. This movie is a quiet, peaceful, psychological car crash, where morals clash with money, "yes" clashes with "no", family will both support and destroy you, and crushed dreams are painted onto other people. It's open to more than one interpretation, and I don't guarantee that you will like this movie. But I do guarantee that if you can stick with it, it will stick with you.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

American Sniper (USA, 2014)

Nine Things About the Movie American Sniper

1. This movie knocked me speechless.

2. Directed by 84-year-old Clint Eastwood, it's based (kind of) on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, who has the reputation of being the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. In the book, Kyle portrays himself as a stone-cold badass killer. The movie softens that up a great deal. In fact, after the first 30 minutes, the movie has very little to do with the real Chris Kyle. He's a convenient symbol from which Eastwood constructs a rather complicated metaphor, to show that war is both necessary and self-defeating.

3. The movie starts by setting up Kyle's simple, patriotic, God-country-family loyalty. It's a world of black and white, good and evil. Kyle becomes a Navy SEAL to fight evil. But as the movie progresses, Kyle starts to be confronted with situations and ideas that don't mesh with his view of reality. This makes him angry and confused, and he deals with it by suppressing it and focusing on his job of defending America against evil; he returns to Iraq again and again.

4. Kyle does four tours in Iraq, separated by periods back at home with his family. The random violence and constant paranoia in Kyle's military life suddenly switches to the carefree American oblivious family life. This is somewhat disorienting, which helps you to understand what Kyle is experiencing. The movie is an excellent depiction of the development of PTSD without ever mentioning that term.

5. Bradley Cooper is astounding in his portrayal of Kyle. You can tell a great actor by what he does when he's not talking. Cooper nails the body language of a man who feels at home while he's at war, and at war while he's at home. It's not only in his body, it's even in his eyes.

6. A LOT of people miss the entire point of the movie because they immediately move into their respective corners and watch it only through their lens. The hyper patriots that expect the movie to call him a saint are just as lost as the ones that expect the movie to call him a racist sociopath.

7. The movie is pretty violent. And since it is almost entirely urban combat, the violence is more intimate, more intense, than in conventional war movies. There are no epic battle scenes. Every shot, every killed soldier, is shown individually.

8. There is an unwritten rule of filmmaking that if you are going to torture or kill a child, you don't actually show it; the act is committed offscreen. This movie breaks that rule. Twice.

9. The movie embraces the paradoxes of war by showing them through the eyes of a man that doesn't understand paradox. What makes the movie so polarizing (and so impressive to me) is the fact that Clint Eastwood turned the movie itself into a bullet, shooting straight for a deep nerve in American culture. Love it or loathe it, this is something we need to pay attention to

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Trouble Every Day (France, 2001)

      Nine Things About the Movie Trouble Every Day

1. Finally, we get a film that dares to explore the question we all have: How do you handle it when you marry someone who happens to be a cannibal?

2. This movie is advertised as an erotic horror film, and is associated with the New French Extremity movement. It does definitely mix the erotic with the horrible, in pretty intimate ways.

3. It starts out with a guy named Leo that keeps having to go find his wife Core, who continually wanders off to have sex with strange men, killing them, and start chewing on their faces.

4. After awhile, we meet Shane and June, an American couple flying to France. Shane is trying to find Leo to ask for help with some mysterious ailment that, among other things, makes him afraid to have sex with June.

5. Given the lurid plot, it's weird that the movie is more like a series of moving paintings than an actual film. It's slow, and beautifully shot, but kind of aimless. Not a whole lot really happens in the movie.

6. This movie does have the distinction of containing two of the most traumatic and horrifying sex scenes I've ever witnessed. I actually did the classic "gasp and cover my mouth with my hand" move.

7. It was directed by Claire Denis. She usually makes movies with a historical or political theme. So this is kind of a departure for her.

8. I'm not sure if the movie is supposed to be a metaphor for bad relationships, the horrors of sex, the hungers of love, the cannibalization of modern society, an existential statement about freedom and bondage, or if it really is literally about people who love people who eat people.

9. This is small art film for a small audience with an open mind and a strong stomach. A dedicated cult following will watch this multiple times. A large number of others will move on, feeling both bored and repulsed at the same time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Selma (USA, 2014)

                Nine Things About the Movie Selma

1. This movie is called "Selma", not "King". While Dr. Martin Luther King is the main character in this movie, it's really about the 1965 protest march to overcome restrictions on allowing blacks to vote. So it covers a lot more than just him.

2. I'm not an expert on this area of history; but from what I do know, the movie stays fairly close to the facts. The biggest problem with historical accuracy is the movie's negative portrayal of President Johnson. He wasn't obstructing King's movement, and he didn't assign the FBI to spy on MLK (the previous president did that). They got along a lot better than the movie claims.

3. In 2009, the King estate sold the rights to MLK's speeches to another Hollywood studio for a movie to be made by Steven Spielberg. So this movie wasn't allowed to use MLK's actual speeches. They had to invent new ones that said basically the same things, but without violating copyright.

4. Reportedly, some white people hired as extras in the movie found out that they were supposed to play racists. They politely asked to switch roles, and were changed to marchers.

5. The movie does a great job of showing the nuances of the situation - the black civil rights movement was not a unified front. There were turf issues, competing tactics, and even disagreement on exactly what they were trying to accomplish. It's also honest enough to show the sometimes cynical side of activism - the cold calculations of how and when to do things, in order to maximize media coverage and sympathy from other people.

6. There are a few scenes that are overly dramatic and sanctimonious, but that's to be expected in a movie like this. And they really didn't distract from the bigger picture.

7. It's ironic that in this film of such an iconic piece of American history, the roles of Dr. King, his wife, the president, and governor George Wallace are all played by British actors.

8. If you think this movie makes white people look bad, or if it makes you angry at white people, you have missed the point. And you also aren't really paying attention.

9. As far as historical dramas go, this one is better than most. It's smart, interesting, confrontational when it needs to be, and much more nuanced than you might expect. It's a great addition to cinematic portrayals of American history and the struggle for justice.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Annie (USA,1982)

Nine Things About the Movie "Annie" (1982)

[After watching the 2014 version of "Annie" I decided tonight to go back and watch the original 1982 version again. I hadn't seen it since I was a kid, and I remember loving it when I was little. This review reflects my adult perspective on the revisiting. I realize that this review will make a lot of die-hard fans very angry with me.]

1. What did I just watch? OK, the songs are just as catchy as they were. And fine, Carol Burnett still rules.

2. But the movie itself? The movie is utterly ridiculous. And weird. And there is entirely too much dancing. Most kids today wouldn't have it.

I realize that this movie is based in the Depression, and is based on the original comic, which had different social standards. But I still find the movie disturbing in ways that were completely over my head when I was 11.

4. This movie is blatant capitalist propaganda. It openly worships money and power, and demonizes the poor. It even manages to make fun of communism.

5. I was horrified to now understand the context in which the song "Tomorrow" was used - to encourage the President of the United States to distract poor people from paying attention to their situation.

6. In this movie, money is always the solution, and people are essentially property.

7. Besides being classist, the movie is sexist and racist.

The character of Punjab is a car crash of gasp-inducing stereotypes.

But they all smile and sing about it, so that counts for something, I guess.