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

Reviewed by Sean

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 Carrell, 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 Carrell 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 Carrell rarely forgets to play the sadness and loneliness that’s behind his less likeable traits.

As John du Pont, Steve Carrell 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. Carrell 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 Carrell’s faces, resulting in a finished product that is exceptionally well shot and edited and easy to admire. But because both leads (Tatum and Carrell) 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?

Godzilla

This is another movie I took in at the drive-in this summer, and here’s the thing about drive-in movies: it’s never about the movie. You go for the experience. You go because it’s a beautiful night that you don’t want to waste indoors. You go because you can pig out in secret in your car. You go because you can make out with your hunny in the back seat. And you go because it’s a double feature, or a triple feature, so even if the movies are bad (and they often are), at least it’s two bad movies for the price one!

I won’t pretend to have loved this movie. In fact, I was mostly confused by it. From what I godzillaunderstood, 15 years ago, these two pods were found and suddenly they crack open and out come these monsters. At the time, I didn’t fully comprehend there were two, then I failed to adequately distinguish between them, and ultimately I failed to realize that these were NOT Godzilla. Turns out, Godzilla is this whole separate entity that the government has known about and kept secret for years – he lays mostly dormant, but when the world’s really in trouble, like it’s being terrorized by these two MUTOs. Godzilla’s the good guy in this monster movie, and he doesn’t appear until like half way through, which led to my confusion. I weirdly assumed that a movie called Godzilla would be about Godzilla, but it’s kinda  not.

I actually felt like I was watching a mash-up of two other drive-in movies, Pacific Rim, and Transformers: Age of Extinction, but when Godzilla finally did appear, I admit I thought, damn, now that’s a beautiful monster. Really nicely rendered. Different, but not alienating to classic Godzilla. And thank goodness he’s purty, because the humans in the movie weren’t nearly as compelling (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass fame, and Elizabeth Olsen). If this is a reboot, then I say, sure keep the king of the monsters, but replace the humans, or at least let them get eaten.

Boyhood

Boyhood is a really cool concept for a movie. You have to admire the film makers who set out to film a movie over the course of twelve years. Twelve years! That’s a long time to be committed to a project but it really pays off. Ellar Coltrane, who plays the titular boy Mason, was 7 when they started, and 18 when they wrapped. Imagine signing that kind of contract at such a young age. You can’t, because such a thing would be illegal in the US. The producers would have just had to cross boyhoodtheir fingers, but everyone kept showing up, year after year. I’ve heard the kids maybe regretted their involvement at times, and who can blame them – hello, awkward years and teenage rebellion!. I’ve never had the same job that long, and few people of my generation ever will. Amazing. Richard Linklater, the director, was known for making movies that took place all in one day. This one, obviously, blows that right up. He even made a pact with Ethan Hawke that if he died during filming, Hawke would take over.

The time lapse is not the only naturlistic aspect of the movie. The family exchanges feel authentic; some of the footage feels almost home-movie-ish, like when the kids are lined up to get the most recent edition of the Harry Potter series. These kids went through everything that normal kids their age did – they experience Britney Spears, the Bush administration, and skinny jeans. Patricia Arquette really elevates her game as a struggling, single mother who raises her son and daughter and works to make better lives for them. Ethan Hawke, aging visibly o camera, plays the deadbeat father with a lot of growing up to do himself. Their lives feel real, like they could be your neighbours. Their cars and their sneakers are not mysteriously above their station. Real life happens to them, they repeat clothing, grow ill-advised mustaches, date the wrong guy, take up and then discard hobbies.

The script must have had to evolve as they filmed because a family is dynamic. It reacts and is influenced by the world around it. Politics and trends are woven deftly and interestingly into the story. Linklater was directing his own daughter for these twelve years and watching her grow in front of his lens. The kid actors are quite good, fortunately; they’re not hammy or too old for their age. I was beginning to think that for whatever reason only British kids could manage not to be annoying on film, but these two may have turned things around for the Americans, and it must have been difficult to cast someone who’s not just right for the part now, but will continue to be for years to come.

So we know the span is quite large (12 years!) but the scope is actually pretty tiny. We just stay focused on this little family, following this kid during those formative years of his life, all those little things that will eventually add up to the man. There’s not a lot happening. Yes, childhood is tumultuous, but these are pretty normal lives. Nobody adopted a pet dragon, or got adopted by a dog, or took home a giant inflatable robot. He just went to school, watched his mom divorce and remarry, learned to tolerate his sister, tried beer, masturbated to the Sears catalogue. Regular kid stuff that’s only interesting when you add it all up and realize that this is it. This is childhood. And at the end, it spits out an adult that we hope will go off and do well. This movie was the scrapbook of his life, and a running time of nearly three hours doesn’t cover more than an episode or two at each age, but even at that, this movie can feel a bit draggy. It’s not an action-packed movie, but I was moved by it. It’s not depressing by any means, but I guess I felt a bit sentimental about it, probably because I truly felt like I was given the chance to really get to know these people. In fact, it was hard to remember that this is fiction, it feels that much like just watching through someone’s window.

This is an experiment of a movie that needs to be seen. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it. Will anyone attempt it again? The door’s open now, but it’s such an undertaking, and such a risk, that I believe this movie is one of a kind.

The Interview

The only thing you need to know about this movie is that it’s profoundly dumb.

interviewWe rented this movie from Google Play on Christmas Eve with middling expectations and they were not exceeded. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are back at it again, both writing and directing, but not quite pulling off this strange and controversial movie. Had it been released as intended, it would have made some decent coin, maybe cracked the top 5 amid all the stellar Oscar contenders also released on Christmas day, but it would have struggled to find an audience in its second week, or to make much of a lasting impression. So thank you Kim Jong-un for giving this movie a crazy boost and a marketing angle that no other campaign could have touched.christmas

James Franco, doing an impression of his little brother Dave, plays Dave Skylark, celebrity interviewer. His producer, Aaron (Seth Rogen) aspires to more so when they hear that North Korea’s Supreme Leader is a fan of the show, they land an interview with him that they hope will lead to bigger and better fish. Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) intends to use the interview as yet another propaganda piece but the CIA have even loftier ambitions – they draft these two numbskulls to “take out” the tyrant.

Now, why on earth the CIA would entrust such a mission to these buffoons is beyond me. Well, okay, no it isn’t. They just wouldn’t. They couldn’t. So you really have to be willing to overlook the extreme wobbliness of this premise in order to enjoy the movie.

Rogen and Goldberg have proved themselves to be an amazing writing team but The Interview has none of the heart of Superbad or the guile of This is the End. And let’s face it, with the world’s youngest basketball-loving head of state, the jokes should write themselves. I mean, he’s a bad dude with more human rights violations than qualifications to run a country. He’d rather let his peasants resort to cannibalism than alter his hacking budget, but still, he’s a joke.

Rogen and Franco do earn lots of laughs. They’re charismatic guys, they work well together, and off each other, and they’re fun to watch. It’s just that the plot is built loosely around one-liners, and for some reason instead of sticking with what they know (socially awkward teenage boys, and smoking weed), the plot involves the assassination of a reclusive dictator. Weirdly, we’ve seen this before. In fact, I think you could oldkimsummarize Zoolander in nearly the same way: celebrities vs despot.

If you’re in the mood for a hilarious take on foreign policy, rewatch Team America: World Police. It’s more continuously funny and more worthy of the label ‘satire.’ But if you’re just a fan of Seth and James, you won’t find another Pineapple Express here, but you’ll find some shit to laugh at (sometimes literally, unfortunately). And in the name of patriotism and free speech and all that hullabaloo, maybe that’s enough.