Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Book of Life

The Book of Life is the fourth Golden Globe nominee for Best Animated Feature Film that I have gotten around to reviewing and, unfortunately, the worst in every way I can think of.

The movie was produced by Gullermo del Toro so I know that I’m supposed to love it. And I’ve read several reviews that praised it for its focus on Mexican culture and characters. Fair point but I couldn’t help wondering on what side of the thin line between celebrating diversity and reinforcing stereotypes this film was falling as I nervously glanced around the theater once or twice to see if anyone else found this offenseive. Maybe I was the only one. I’m curious to hear what the internet has to say. What I could not forigive though were the bad song covers from which no one is safe- even Radiohead.

The book of Life may earn some points for its Just Be Yourself message. I’d be more impressed though if every other nominated animated film (although I haven’t seen the Boxtrolls yet) didn’t also have a Just Be Yourself message . In fact, if it turns out the Boxtrolls has a Don’t Stray From the Pack message, I would probably vote for it just for,ironically straying from the pack.

I may not be the target audience for this movie. Some movies are just for the kids and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. But in the theater where I saw The Book of Life, the kids were as restless as I was, making me wonder who the target audience is supposed to be.

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The Giver

I read this book so enthusiastically, savouring each word, until the last few pages dumped me abruptly at the end feeling like I’d been robbed, liked Lowry simply hadn’t known how to deal with her little utopia, and so hadn’t.

When I saw that a movie was being released based on her novel, I was intrigued (Jeff Bridges! Meryl Streep!) but wary.giver

We follow Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) in his 12fth and 13th years. He lives in a community rebuilt after “the ruins” with a goal toward sameness. People’s memory of the past has been erased. They feel no pain but also no emotion.  Everyone is equal. Their lives are governed by strict rules that dictate everything from mealtime and career to partnership and procreation. When it’s Jonas’ turn to be assigned a role by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep), he is selected to be the Receiver of Memories. Jeff Bridges is the Giver of Memories, and his job is to bear the weight of all mankind’s memories for his community, the good and the bad, and then pass them along to the next generation’s Receiver for safekeeping. The process is intoxicating to young Jonas, who has never felt snow, or known song, or seen joy. The Giver must take things slow, however, because more complex memories like war and vengeance and hatred must also be passed along, and the last time he tried to do this was to his own daughter (stunt-casting goes to: Taylor Swift) and she wasn’t up to the task.

Jonas starts to feel that it isn’t right keeping back all these memories but this is their way of life, and even his own friends and family are not easily convinced.

I find myself attracted to utopian-dystopian fantasy fiction. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood is one of my all-time favourite anythings. The Giver, however, starts out promising only to disappoint, and the movie is no different – well, maybe it’s worse. Meryl Streep seems to be at half strength in this movie, no back story or motivation to give us a clue. Jeff Bridges mumbles through his part. The kids are uninteresting, including the so-called hero. Alexander Skarsgard seems a strange choice as Jonas’ father, doing unspeakable things unquestioningly. Taylor Swift pops up for a minute or two, cringingly, seemingly only as a great white hope to bring tween interest to the movie since it’s unclear who else to market to. Only Katie Holmes is well-cast as an empty, robotic stepford wife

Did I enjoy this movie at all? I apologize. I did not.

 

The Lego Movie

The only thing anyone needs to be special is to believe that you can be. I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true. -Vitruvius

Sometimes movies try too hard. Sometimes the effort to be meaningful or say something important is so obvious that it overwhelms the entertaining parts of the movie. That did not happen here.

This movie is gleefully insane but in the smartest possible way. It strikes a very difficult balance – it makes me laugh at the same silly things as my nieces and nephews. It feels made for all of us at once. And it makes me feel good about watching it with them, not only because it makes them laugh, but also because it has something really good to say. It has a great heart, and I think I want them to grow up to be like Emmet. Except not plastic.

Everything this movie tries, works. I just love this movie. And if you read my Big Hero 6 review, you know how much I loved that movie. But Matt was right. This is the best animated movie of 2014. Hands down. Everything truly is awesome here. You can see the love put into this in every single glorious frame. Everything is little bricks, everything looks like Lego and feels like Lego. It is unique and wonderful. See this movie and you are sure to find something to love too.

The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Avengers for math nerds. As Alan Turing, he assembles a crack team called Hut 8 who will secretly try to break the unbreakable German code machine, Enigma, to win the war, while pretending to be regular schmos putting in time at a radio factory.game

Turns out, pretending to be regular is probably the bigger of the challenges for Turing. He’s a genius, but he’s also probably autistic. He’s horrid with people, often laughably so in the film (Cumberbatch portrays him lovingly, with sensitivity, grace in his gracelessness, and touches of clueless humour). Turing is also gay, and closeted, necessarily. Churchill credited him with the single largest contribution by an individual to the war effort; his work probably shortened the second world war by at least two years. He was an expert in his field, the father of computer science, and a war hero and yet he struggled just to make a friend.

The film flips between different time periods: his boyhood at school where he had his first love, a post-war break-in of his home that leads to him being interrogated by police, and the time he spent at Bletchley Park deciphering Nazi codes. Both book-ending periods paint us, the audience, a picture of the things he’s keeping secret. The film does an excellent job of presenting his world as a series of codes: as a boy he confesses that for him, conversation is a code. People are an enigma. The wallpaper in his home looks like morse code, dashes and dots. The production design is upscale period all the way.

For a movie about math and cryptology, it’s surprisingly gripping. Reels of news footage help give us a sense  of their urgency. They aren’t battling Germans, they’re fighting a clock. Their countrymen are dying in tunnels during air raids (as Keira Knightley already did, in Atonement), or simply wasting away of starvation. The movie isn’t 100% historically accurate, but I think it’s faithful to the time and place and people, and if the computer itself is given the Hollywood treatment, looking much more impressive than it ever did in real life, where’s the harm? Perhaps it will inspire people to go home and look it up.

I think the film’s strength is its moral question. Once the code is cracked, how and when can that information be used? How many civilialns and soldiers would you sacrifice to keep a secret that could win the war? The movie does a great job of personalizing the question and we start to feel that as awful and tense as it was in the not knowing, it was a lot more bearable than the responsibility we’re faced with when we do know. The weakness is in having painted Turing as the unblemished hero. The truth is , he was probably unknowable, and without ever having known him, I’m betting that no one could be as spotless as he’s implied to be in the film. Turing, the actual man, was mistreated by his ungrateful government, who kept his war records sealed while he was prosecuted for simply being a gay man at a time when it was illegal to be so (or at least to act on it – “gross indecency” they called it, hypocritically), and then sentenced him to chemical castration, robbing a nation, and the world, of a great mind.

Into the Woods

woodsBased on the Stephen Sondheim musical, Into the Woods tells the story of a childless baker and his wife, cursed by a wicked witch to be barren forever but granted the chance to reverse the spell, if only they go into the woods to retrieve some special items for her. Their story intersects with the familiar Grimm Brothers’  tales of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel.

Meryl Streep plays the witch and plays her beautifully. Director Rob Marshall knows she’s the linchpin and grants her the most spectacular entrances and exits. But it’s Emily Blunt in the role of the baker’s wife who feels like the heart bakerof the movie and Blunt really shines. She can make any line sound so natural, and her voice can only surprise you in the best way possible. She was nominated for a Golden Globe and deserves to be, possibly even more so that Streep (!). Anna Kendrick as Cinderella is comparatively disappointing. It’s always difficult for this reviewer to see past her donkey dentures, but her voice is up to the challenge, even I can admit that. But Cinderella just isn’t that exciting to watch (this problem was likely compounded by the inclusion of a preview for the new live-action Cinderella movie to be released in 2015 – my sister and I wrongly imagined some of those scenes as scenes from Into the Woods).

chris

“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”

There is a lot to recommend in this movie. The ensemble cast is spectacular. After their opening number, “Into the Woods” I felt like I should applaud.  And if you had doubts that Chris Pine could sing, let me assure you that he’s learned more than just a thing or two from Shatner along the way. Actually, our group quite enjoyed the scene between Pine’s Prince Charming (recycling his smug asshole look from Horrible Bosses 2) and Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen, leatherclad) – the two men are singing about their respective woman-induced “Agony”, splashing about homoerotically in a waterfall, trying to out-macho each other, crotch-thursting, popping buttons to reveal increasingly deep vees of smooth, tanned chests, reminding us more of a duet between George Michael and Freddie Mercury than your typical fairy-tale princes. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek, you almost wished more of the movie could feel this way.

wolf

“Scrumptious carnality”

The sets are gorgeous, and no matter how many times our characters go into the woods, it never feels like they’re passing the same 5 trees, it’s a truly enchanted forest that creates a storybook look that’s fun to get lost in. And the fabulous Colleen Atwood heightens the visual gorging with a stunning array of costumes, including a suit that transforms a man into a mister wolf. Johnny Depp, playing the wolf, is lurking inside those woods, looking lupine and oily, putting out vibes that should warn us away. Although top-billed, Depp’s in the movie for maybe 5 minutes, but that’s more than enough to turn things pretty sour. How do I say this…I felt like I picked up on certain nuances in his song that I was uncomfortable with. As in: sexual innuendo. As in: the wolf would like to “eat” Little Red Riding Hood in more than one way. He’s an absolute creepster with a real pedophile’s mustache and his singing “Hello, Little Girl” will send shivers up your spine. He tells us there’s a “scrumptious carnality” about to be had, and maybe that works in the Broadway production, but it feels grossly inappropriate in this toned-down Disney version where the actress playing Red is indeed a little girl, much too young to be on the receiving end of this lascivious song. And when she starts responding that what they’re doing is new and scary but also kind of exciting, well…I wanted to slam on the brakes.

The characters wrap up their traditional story lines around the 80 minute mark – but wait! These poor schmucks don’t get their happily-ever-afters. The story continues. And I’m glad that the movie doesn’t end on Cinderella’s wedding day because I would have felt cheated. But 80 minutes of singing and skipping through the woods was about as much as I wanted. So the remaining third of the movie, which gets a hell of a lot darker, felt entirely too much. Streep delivers another great song but I was fed up with the inundation of special effects, my patience was waning, and it just felt like filler. My sister felt that since all the characters start (or continue) making selfish, morally ambiguous choices, she didn’t have anyone to pull for. She’s not wrong. My husband felt that the songs were not particularly catchy or memorable, and he’s not wrong either. I enjoyed the movie, enjoyed it quite a bit, it would be impossible not to given the sheer amount of talent (although I am wondering why all of that talent had to be white), but I’m not feeling it for Best Picture this year. Of course, I’m sure I said the same about Rob Marshall’s Chicago and we all know how that went.

Foxcatcher

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of Foxcatcher all year. Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) is doing what few can do better- a film inspired by a true story. But it was Steve Carell, playing millionaire schizophrenic John du Pont, that I was most excited to see. This isn’t the first time he’s tried to surprise us. I was completely caught off guard by the sincerity of his performance in Little Miss Sunshine and even more so in Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. The more risks someone takes, the more I root for them and I knew that pulling off something so dark would be his biggest yet.

On his against-type casting choice, Miller apparently said “I think all comedians are dark”. After the recent passing of Robin Williams, the cliche of the sad clown has been discussed online at length but it’s always been especially on the surface with Carell who, even in some of his most straight-up comedies (The Office and 40 Year-Old Virgin in particular), has never been afraid to let his dark side show. Michael Scott, the boss from hell on The Office, can be obnoxious and selfish but Carell rarely forgets to play the sadness and loneliness that’s behind his less likable traits.

As John du Pont, Steve Carell doesn’t disappoint. I didn’t know much about this story at the start of the film and only knew that all this was supposed to end in tragedy so du Pont’s creepy persona and erratic behaviour unnerved me every time he was on screen. Carell plays him as unpredictable (quite a feat given that his voice rarely raises above a mumble) and nearly impossible to read. It’s a performance that I found impossible to forget as I tried and failed to sleep later that night and I hope Oscar takes as much notice as the Golden Globes have.

As for the film itself, it’s never less than compelling and held my attention long after it was done as I tried to piece it together for the next few hours. Miller uses dialogue only when necessary and seems more interested in telling his story through haunting images and the looks on Channing Tatum and Steve Carell’s faces, resulting in a finished product that is exceptionally well shot and edited and easy to admire. But because both leads (Tatum and Carell) say so little and because Miller keeps his audience at such a distance, there’s not much to get emotionally involved in.

Rudderless

This movie has the production value of a Canadian television show, and you know that ain’t no compliment. It looks terrible. I stuck with it though, mainly on the strength of Luc’s recommendation, and I’m glad I did.

This is William H. Macy’s directorial debut and in it, we see a young college student working on songs, and doing some rough recording in his dorm room. Cut to: a father (Billy Crudup), stood up in a pub, catches news footage on TV of a school shooting. His son is dead. The grief is overwhelming.rudderless

Two years later, Sam\Crudup is hiding from his trouble, he’s lost his home and job and is fairly miserable, but when his ex-wife (Felicity Huffman) drops off a box of CDs, he has a new connection and new insight to the son who is lost to him, and it helps him work through his grief and loneliness and guilt. He starts playing the songs himself, and at an open mic night, he attracts the attention of Quentin (Anton Yelchin), who is needy for creative inspiration and collaboration. He hounds Sam until the two start working together on the music, and soon they have themselves a band, and a following.

The catch? Sam never tells Quentin that these songs belong to his dead son. So they forge a bond that looks and feels an awful lot like father-son but there’s a big, bad secret between them. Crudup does a really good job of showing both the yearning for a lost son and the desire for a new life. His heartache is there in silences and shadows. Yelchin, conversely, is a nervous energy, kinetic and wanting. I end up enjoying him in pretty much everything and I’m surprised he hasn’t really blown up yet. I don’t know if there’s another actor his age with anywhere near the range and depth and subtlety.

The real star of the movie is the music. If this is where the budget went, then it was worth it, and fuck the shitty look of the thing and the glaring anachronisms. The music is really that good. Credited to Simon Steadman, Charlton Steadman and Fink, the songs are ably performed and it makes you wish Macy lingered on the band’s success just a little longer. Crudup’s guitar does the (gentle?)  weeping for him, and it’s beautiful, though maybe not quite enough for the enormity of the grief.

The story bites off more than it can chew and we never get enough context to really appreciate all the layers that are happening here. The movie’s to concerned with the gotcha aspect and not concerned enough with our emotional payoff. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the two actors, I enjoyed that they seem to have done their own singing, I loved the music, and I liked that as the credits rolled I found myself wondering – how much can we really know someone through their art?