Mostly newer movies this time. And I will begin by saying that several of these I watched on my 16 hour flight to New York and the 16 hours back to Seoul so perhaps a few deserve a re-watch. Again, in order of what I thought of them.
I’ve not read the book, but by and large the stilted performances and bland feeling trump the best intentions of Ender’s Game (2013) to shine the light on how we dehumanize our enemies and infect our young with the sickness of war. It’s not terrible, but not something I will be seeing again. Some awkward child acting and Harrison Ford looks like he’s asleep. Nothing with Sir Ben Kingsley in it is completely unwatchable though.
What do Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, Shelley Long, and dinosaurs have to do with each other? Nothing and Caveman (1981) proves it. I like those old no-dialogue cheesy cave-people movies with scantily clad females and wonky dinosaurs, alas this spoof never gets its timing right and becomes quite dull, despite some very fun stop-motion creature designs.
Meh and/or Misguided:
Before everyone hates me, let me just say that I love a good many real silent movies and I absolutely love Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and a solid 4/5 of History of the World Part I. That being said, Mel Brooks, in my humble opinion, has a few misfires, but at least they’re daring and gutsy misfires most of the time. Mel Brooks spoofing silent comedies in Silent Movie(1976) with an A-list cast sounds like it couldn’t miss, unfortunately it does. Real silent comedies (the great ones) were never so sluggish and could usually surprise and delight without telegraphing too loudly a yawn-worthy gag during strainingly long setups.
Either Windy City Heat(2003) is the meanest and longest practical joke on the dumbest guy around or it’s the biggest waste of time imaginable. I’m still not sure if any of it was real, but it did have a few laughs at the expense of the dimwitted documentary subject who is made to believe he is being groomed for stardom (and being constantly challenged with the fragility and artifice of it all).
Marty Feldman is a smart guy and a very enjoyable performer. His skewering of American religious corruption with In God We Tru$t (1980) could have been great, instead of merely pleasantly inoffensive. Feldman is an affable innocent, a sheltered monk sent out into the real world. H meets a hooker with a heart of gold (Louise Lasser), a religious snake oil salesman (Peter Boyle), a greedy televangelist (Andy Kaufman), and God himself (Richard Pryor). The satire is obvious and plays it too safe in the end, but Feldman’s performance is charming (he also wrote and directed this one) and the first act is solid.
Disney-Pixar’s Brave (2012) might have been great had it not aimed to be so silly. The best bits of this film’s undercooked story are the dramatic elements and the believable human relationships. Too often it shoots low and goes for cutesy or crass and it doesn’t seem to mesh well in the end. The animation is gorgeous though.
Real Mixed Bags-style over substance:
I re-watched Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula(1992) recently. I remember disliking it when I first saw it. This time I appreciated its manic energy and wild experimentation and its zany, irreverent style a bit more. The film is a sexy visual pleasure with a big-name cast…unfortunately most of which are woefully miscast. It’s other sin might be that it’s a bit messy and unfocused. I enjoyed the imagery and the melodrama and bold atmosphere, but my appreciation may have ended there. Gary Oldman is pretty good in it though. Credit to Coppola for treating the sacred subject matter with such visual innovation.
I’m sad to list Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster(2013) so low on this list, especially after listing In the Mood for Love and Chungking Express in the top two when they appeared on these lists in the past. I liked The Grandmaster‘s impeccably powerful visual sense (Wong Kar Wai is a master) but the story felt muddled and it was difficult to focus on many of the characters. There was a point in the film when I was exhausted with all the closeups. One can only spend so much time that close to a human face. The fight scenes were beautifully choreographed by Woo-ping Wen and elegantly shot (albeit a bit too close) against the most lurid of poetically rich backdrops and I did enjoyed Ziyi Zhang’s performance and her character’s arc was the most compelling. Alas, I found myself pining for a less pretentious kung fu movie…like Ip Man.
So much debate and controversy surrounding Prometheus (2012), Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe. It’s a visual treat with some fun touches and great design, but it will be compared to the first two Alien movies. No getting around it. The big joke was that the movie raises so many more questions than it answers, but I think that was part of the point. I enjoyed it. It’s worth watching. Not fantastic, but it’s smarter and gutsier than a lot of lame and lazy science fiction flicks.
I honestly wasn’t expecting much when I watched Monsters University (2013). I wasn’t the biggest fan of Monsters Inc. It was alright, but I might have enjoyed the prequel even more. The animation pops more and is more colorful, the sight-gags are sharper, and writing feels weirdly mature. It’s a typical college movie of nerds vs. jocks and students vs. faculty—which was familiar but competent and fun—but the film’s message in the end got me: no matter how hard you work for it sometimes you don’t get the thing you want the most. Sully has to learn not to be slacker and work for success but also how to be a friend, which is nice, but Mike’s lesson is much harsher. It hits a nerve most kiddie films never dare to hit.
Yeah, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (2013) is actually weirdly heart-warming and not as mean-spirited as you might expect. It’s weird that it genuinely seems to be all in good fun. Compare it with the piercing barbs of Borat. There’s a story in there too amidst the hidden camera hijinks, and it almost never mocks or belittles the real bystanders. I laughed and was surprised by the balance it set.
Frozen (2013) is a pretty animated music video with some snappy, funny writing. The story subverts the traditional Disney heroine who always needs a man to save her, which was refreshing. It’s good that a film like this tries to focus on family relationships, if only they did a better job of sculpting that dynamic. The rock trolls were unnecessary and weird. Olaf was cute.
Who knew that the serious depiction of a romantic relationship between a grown man with a mustache and a computerized voice would be so compelling and fascinating? Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, is a weird little sci-fi romance featuring a subdued image of the near future and tells us more of humans today than maybe we’d like to admit. We are turning more and more to our artificial things to comfort us and stave away loneliness, but what if these artificial interfaces were more autonomous than we were prepared for? And not in a killer robot Terminator kind of way. It’s a quiet, delicate, and thought-provoking movie.
Life of Pi without the tiger or maybe Gravity without space and less clumsy dialogue and characters. J. C. Chandor’s All is Lost(2013) finds such a majestic poetry in its simplicity. When a man (played by Robert Redford in a near wordless solo performance) wakes to discover a hole in his small yacht, he will stoically put his survival instincts to the test in the middle of the ocean. It’s haunting and mature. A refreshing departure.
Blackfish (2013) is Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary about a killer who happens to be an orca and the possible cover-up and the possibly dark underbelly of amusement parks that utilize wild animals as performers. I may not know much about whales, but I see all animals as intelligent, interesting creatures that deserve far more respect and space than we give them. This documentary reminds us that nature is unpredictable, emotional, and suffering as much if not more than us.
Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale) tackles middle-class privileged aimlessness once again, this time with Greta Gerwig as his muse in Frances Ha (2012). Shot in glorious black and white, this story follows a drifting and foundering New Yorker as she tries to figure out what her life is about. It strikes very close to home for me and I like that. Gerwig gives a wonderful performance.
I finally saw Martin Scorsese’s criminally overlooked The King of Comedy (1982). Robert De Niro is an oblivious weirdo who dreams of being a comedian like his Johnny Carson-esque hero (who he stalks) played by Jerry Lewis. Like After Hours it’s a very dark comedy and like Kundun it seems no one has seen it. The fan’s obsession drives him to ignore crucial details and ultimately causes his destiny to unfold in perhaps an insane or perhaps an insanely calculated way.
Nearing the Summit:
God On Trial (2008) is a British TV drama that takes place in a concentration camp during World War II. In it, the Jewish prisoners awaiting their fates decide to debate whether God is good or not. It is actually a very gripping tale as you see these men wrestle with their faith in one of the most dehumanizing places. It becomes their therapy and it will bring many to seriously question everything they ever knew.
I like the Coen Brothers and I was pleased with Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Beautifully photographed, very well acted, strangely structured, and darkly, delicately humorous. Like Monsters University, this movie deals with what you cannot obtain. It’s a tragically true story with a wonderfully realized setting. It’s bleak but perhaps a needed medicine. The songs were good and several scenes really stick with you. Anyone in the arts has gone through similar trials and can relate.
Another documentary? Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman (2010) is a close examination at some of the problems with America’s public education system. What about it doesn’t work and why? What reforms have been tried? What trends do we see repeating? Who are the faces of the children who are drowning in the broken corners of the system? It’s an important film that ought to be considered by all.
It’s almost fitting I put I’m All Right Jack (1959) right after Waiting for Superman. Both deal with unions and corruption. This British comedy starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas, and Peter Sellers, is an impeccably acerbic satire that skewers all rungs of the social ladder. The sins, hypocrisies, and foibles of all: the upper class, the industry moguls, the labor unions. All are put on display for our amusement.
What a sumptuously atmospheric tale of horror this one is. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) stars Deborah Kerr as a governess (she’s gonna get type-cast if she’s not careful) to two freaky kids in a mysterious mansion in the British country. Something horrible happened before she got the job and something evil still lurks within the house. Spooky hijinks ensue.
Wes Anderson’s latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), combines a stellar cast headed by the great Ralph Fiennes and colorful, whimsical, stagey aesthetics to a caper comedy that unfolds during the troubling onset of World War II. It’s a positive film with good feelings and then twinges of whistfulness and sobriety. It’s glamorous while poking fun at the glamor. The plot is fun and loose, and allows for some fun intrigue and chases, the setting is magical and a fascinatingly nuanced character unto itself, and the frame of a story within a story within story encapsulates the theme of where stories come from and perhaps, why we tell them. Nobody orchestrates this kind of stuff like Anderson. I quite loved it. Incidentally it would make a good double-feature with Cabaret.
Another documentary?! Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) is a bizarre, difficult, sickening, grim, and emotionally arresting film that must be watched. Proud former Indonesian death-squad executioners, torturers, and militia are allowed to stage their proudest atrocities in their favorite film genres. At what point will it click that what these men did was heinous? Will it ever click? Are men so cowardly and evil capable of empathizes with their victims? The results will surprise and disturb you. Humanity is a strange thing. I cannot recommend this movie enough. The final two scenes have lingered with me for weeks.