Les Miserables

December 31, 2012 at 8:09 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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Okay, look.  I have to admit, right at the outset, that I am not a musical fan.  With very, very few exceptions, I tend to find them to be varying degrees of insufferable.  This is because  1) singing in the middle of a film tends to break the 3rd wall for me   2) the songs are usually saccharin   3) and the sappy stories are one-dimensional and obvious.  That said, a musical can work for me if the plot is realistic or dark enough and it finds a way to fit the singing into the story in a realistic way (“Once”) or is so over-the-top ridiculous that I don’t mind the singing (“Moulin Rouge” or “Romance and Cigarettes”).  While, “Les Miserables” could never be accused of being an Oscar and Hammerstein, rainbows and unicorns sing-a-long, it is still a musical in the worst sense.  In fact, it’s really opera-lite; there is no spoken dialogue and every bit of dialogue is sung.  For two hundred and thirty-seven minutes.  I was done at ninety.  For many people, the singing has a way of drawing them into the emotions being portrayed (there were plenty of sniffles in the theater) but I find my emotions shut down by the singing, instead of engaging with the characters and becoming invested in their plight, I am reminded that none of it is real (we just don’t break into song in real life).  It’s a shame; the story of young people rising up against injustice, facing impossible odds, but standing together despite the cost is a powerful one and I wish I had been more moved than I was.  The sets were beautiful and the cast is a strong one.  Some critics have attacked the quality of the singing but I am wholly unqualified to comment.  The little boy who had a bit too large a part for me sounded a bit whiny when he sang and Russel Crowe sounded more like he was yelling his lines than singing them but everyone else sounded good to me.  If you are a musical kind of person and like to get weepy at the cinema, I think this has your name all over it.

The Impossible

December 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Posted in 2012 | 2 Comments
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As a lesson in the film making truism that less is more, I would suggest comparing the use of blood and gore in this film vs “Django Unchained.”  The graphic explosions of blood in that film were too comical to take too seriously (as was the intention).  This film was so much more harrowing because it seemed so much more real.  From about 15 minutes into the movie until about that far from the end, “The Impossible” is an emotionally exhausting ride of constant fear, sadness and horror.  It is loosely based on the story of a Spanish family who survived the 2004 tsunami in Thailand, where they were vacationing.  In the film, the family is British and, beyond having two parents and three boys, I wonder how much else in the movie is factual.  Apparently, the family did get separated, the mother was badly injured and they were reunited.  Was the reunion as dramatic as in the film?  How could it possibly be?  That scene was Hollywood at it’s finest.  But, for all that, I was still in tears, as I was for most of the film.  Whether the details are true or not, the film has an emotional truth that resonates deeply.  This is in no small part to the virtually unknown British actor, Tom Holland, who played the 12 year old son.  Most of the film was focused on his face and he had to carry off a complex range of emotions, including fear, anxiety, grief, hope.  These are not easy to generate on demand (even for an adult professional) and yet he really shined.  He was the audience’s window into that world and the film had the weight it had in large part because of his performance.  It was the best child performance I have seen this year.  This is in no way a light movie and you should not see it if you go to the movies to relax or escape.  I was exhausted when it was over but I also felt a catharsis that comes from that sort of emotional release.  This is a beautifully made and deeply touching film.  If you want to be moved by a film, you won’t see anything better this year.

Django Unchained

December 30, 2012 at 11:23 am | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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My rating is somewhat provocative  but perhaps I will get to that later.  Much has been said in the press about Spike Lee’s refusal to see this film; so much, in fact, that one could almost think that Lee was on Quentin Tarantino’s payroll.  Lee, himself, is very familiar with the way moral outrage can help sell a movie and has commented on the mileage he got out of David Denby’s near hysterical race-baiting rant in the New Yorker against “Do The Right Thing.”  While Lee’s disapproval is nowhere near the irrationality of Denby’s, there is something ironic about his criticism of Tarantino’s portrayals of racial tension and his obvious infatuation with the word which dare not speak it’s name (that would be n*****, ending “a” or “er” as you choose).  It was Lee’s own seminal work that paved the way for Tarantino and so many others.  “Django Unchained” stands firmly on Lee’s shoulders, whether he wants it to or not.  Having said that, I acknowledge that I come to this film through my own racial experiences, which are radically different than Lee’s (as my site name might suggest), and I cannot know what it feels like for him to witness how easily Tarantino co-opts  Black rage.  From my perspective, Tarantino is simply a provocateur, who has done with “Django Unchained” exactly what he did with “Inglourious Basterds.”  The question is, is there more to recommend than just provocation here?  I think so.  Much like his acolyte, RZA, did early this year with “The Man With The Iron Fists,” Tarantino fuses blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns to great effect.  His brilliant sound track sounds much like RZA’s, blending contemporary Black artists (including one song written by lead actor Jamie Foxx) with the likes of Ennio Morricone, Pat Methany and Jim Croce.  The resulting film scarcely touches ground in the real world; it is more allegory than history and, in fact, makes this point abundantly clear when Christoph Waltz’s character presents the German fable of Broomhilda to Django (but really to us) as the story arc of the movie.  This film is the classic movie trope: the hero rescues the girl and punishes evil, as run through Tarantino’s meat grinder.  And it resembles nothing so much as Melvin Van Peebles’s “Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”  Through my eyes, Tarantino has made the film Van Peebles would have if he could 40 years ago; it justifies the angry Black man in a way few films ever have (Lee’s works being the most notable exceptions).  That this film comes from a White man is part of what makes it so provocative.  But, do you care about any of this if you are going to see the movie?  Or, does it only matter if you are entertained?  The film is all Tarantino aesthetic.   It flows with so much blood as to be ludicrous at times; more blood comes from some gunshots than would be humanly possible; they sometimes look like fat men hitting a swimming pool.  The mix of music, camera styles, and the careful arrangement of scenes all speak to his love of blending the modern and the classic, sometimes to make us laugh, sometimes to disturb us.  Tarantino’s name can get great acting talent and it shows here  as even small, non-speaking roles are played by known talent (though I will say that I wish he would learn from Hitchcock and be silent and brief when he himself appears on screen).  Foxx’s Django smolders with a raw power that White audiences wouldn’t have known how to tolerate a couple of decades ago.  Waltz is hardly the scene stealer he was in “Basterds” (that honor goes to DiCaprio for relentless portrayal of Calvin Candie) but his congenial bounty-hunter gave Django balance.  Don Johnson could easily breathe new life into his career after this turn as a plantation owner (perhaps, he could be Tarantino’s next John Travolta).  The real star of the film, though, is Samuel L. Jackson.  If anyone could be Tarantino’s muse (his “Johnny Depp,” if you will), it would be Jackson, whose love of provocation rivals Tarantino’s.   With a gusto that I was unprepared for, he embraces the character of Stephen (Candie’s “Stepin’ Fetchit” head slave) and turns him into something so over the top that he manages to shock the audience, even in a Tarantino film.  He will undoubtedly be a polarizing figure for audiences but that is precisely what Tarantino is trying to accomplish.  Twenty years ago, Tarantino transformed American cinema with two films and, as with many ground-breaking artists, he has been living in his own shadow ever since.  After floundering around for a few films, he seems to have settled into a new role, using the camp excess of his films to pick at our most painful cultural scabs.  Is there value in that?  Yes, I definitely think there can be.  Is there value in how Tarantino chooses to do it?  I think I’ll leave that question open.  Ultimately, it may depend on who you are and through which eyes you are looking.  So, why four lozenges?  I suppose, to be provocative in my own way.  I felt this film was better than most of my three and a halves and not as good as most of my fours.  So, I decided to keep with the spirit of the movie and push some buttons, as I have done with this entire review.

 

The Central Park Five

December 16, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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The great tv documentarian, Ken Burns (“The Civil War,” “Jazz,” “Baseball,” “Prohibition,” etc.), has turned his eyes to the failures of the criminal justice system with this powerful documentary.  In 1989, a young white woman jogging in Central Park was brutally raped.  A precinct full of cops with a reputation of success to protect and a young prosecutor with career advancement plans (aided by a DA, a mayor, and a host of others) doggedly pursued the case with a blindness bordering on malpractice.  The end result was that five African American boys (ages 14 to 16) were convicted and spent between 6 and 12 1/2 years in prison.  Oh, in case you hadn’t guessed, they did not commit the crime.  This story is hardly new (in fact, this very case is a famous one) and we have heard its like before.  Think, The West Memphis 3.  Think, Leonard Peltier.  Think “Hurricane” Carter.  In the past 40 years, more than 140 people in the United States have been exonerated of capital convictions alone.  In this case, the boys were questioned for hours and hours without sleep or their parents present; they were lied to and told that the others were all writing statements naming them; they were told if they gave a statement they could go home and then they were spoonfed exactly what to say.  Their “confessions” were then used against them in court.  Even though their statements contradicted each other, even though witnesses placed them in another part of the park while the rape was occurring, and even though DNA evidence suggested a different perpetrator, those confessions were all that counted.  The newspapers had labelled them “The Wolf Pack” in a clear example of race baiting not unlike when Arkansas prosecutors called the West Memphis 3 satanists, playing off of fears in that rural community about gothic teens.  While the West Memphis teens were white, what they shared with these boys was that they were poor and under-educated and, thus, perfect patsies for a lazy criminal justice system.  But, then, the criminal justice system isn’t really about protection, nor is it even really about punishment; it is a pay-to-play system that is about social control.  Those who can only get public defenders spend years in prison for the same crimes that the wealthy walk free on.  Those who are middle class and can afford your average attorney, pay a middling price for their defense and get a middling “punishment” for the same crime.  But that’s okay, because the goal of the system is to manage social unrest.  “How do we restore order?”  “How do we send a message?” etc.  And it does that very well.

Ted

December 16, 2012 at 6:33 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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DVD. I think this film may just give me an example of the adage that has always mystified me, “the exception that proves the rule.”  At an hour and twenty minutes into the film, I laughed out loud at a gag where Mark Wahlberg wants to sing a love song to impress his girlfriend and chooses the theme song from “Octopussy.”  It’s a clever moment with just the right amount of randomness.  Unfortunately, it is also the first time I laughed, which is never a good sign in a comedy.  My one laugh only served to point out that I hadn’t laughed at anything else.  “Why am I still here,” I wondered.  Ten minutes later, as the film descended into creepy-not-in-a-good-way, I turned it off.    The first film I have not bothered to sit all the way through this year and, thus, my first goose egg of the year, as well.  As it turns out, Seth MacFarlane’s humor, which works only about half the time on “Family Guy,” worked virtually not at all on the big screen.  His mix of more-shocking-than-the-next-guy gags and barrage of random cultural references felt more tired than anything else.  Honestly, I wish I had been offended by some of this schtick; at least that would have given me something to talk about.  Worse than being offended, I was just bored.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

December 16, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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I know I am already parsing out my ratings enough (one friend does not even like the 1/2 ratings) but I would put this on the lower side of 3 1/2 lozenges; I definitely enjoyed it more than my threes this year but not as much as many of my three and a halves.  But I refuse to do 3 1/4, so do with that info what you will.  I had a thoroughly good time from start to finish with this film, with one action scene quickly leading into another.  It was also hard not to get caught up in audience enthusiasm and we had that in our theater in droves.  However, this is no “Lord Of The Rings” by any stretch of the imagination.  “The Hobbit” was written for kids and is much more innocent and silly and lacks the classic tropes that make LOTR the best film trilogy yet made, in my opinion (argue, if you dare).  Not that Jackson didn’t try to beef up the darkness by drawing heavily upon the appendixes to the LOTR book series, introducing scenes, plot lines and whole characters that were nowhere to be found in “The Hobbit.”  This also, rather conveniently  serves the purpose of providing enough material for a third movie.  So now, instead of two films (“An Unexpected Journey” and “There and Back Again” — both titles coming from the names of the two halves of Tolkien’s book), there will be a third film (“The Desolation of Smaug”) stuck in the middle.  Unlike the book, that focuses on trolls and goblins, the film adds orcs and introduces an orc villain clearly meant to take the Nazgûl king’s role in LOTR.  It also has a mysterious necromancer, who will likely be a Sauron substitute (or else Sauron, himself).  These deviations upset the poor gentleman behind me but I only care if they fit within the film and I think they both do.  I preferred these additions far more than I did all the slapstick silliness of the dwarves that, while in keeping with the book, made the film seem childish and trivialized the story.  Much has been made of the 48 fps (frames-per-second); I eschewed the theater down the road showing it in that format to see it on a grander screen.  I don’t think I made a bad choice.  Critics have complained that the 48 fps made them nauseous in the action scenes and was a bit too HD for them and the regular 24 fps was already plenty HD-ish for me.   I found the actions scenes to be crisper than in most CGI movies.  However, I will say that I think the crispness did not serve the film in other ways.  I could see clearly the pores on actors’ faces, which only made the pore-less faces of CGI characters like Golum and the orcs look plastic by comparison.  There were moments when what I was seeing looked more like a video game than a film.  That said, motion-capture technology has improved significantly in the past 10 years and the range of emotions on the CGI faces (especially Golum’s) was noticeably improved.  A cavalcade of familiar faces appeared for moments at a time (Elijah Wood, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee) while others remained conspicuously absent (notably Orlando Bloom).  I was most disappointed not to see Stephen Colbert, after the recent hinting he has done, and am holding out hope for a future appearance.  Likewise, we can expect to see (& hear) the currently red-hot Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s “Sherlock,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) in both future films as he is both the voice of Smaug and the necromancer.  So, while this film was certainly fun in spades, it lacked the sense of foreboding and of heroic forces against overwhelming evil that made the LOTR films such classics.  I cannot see this series being considered a classic, though it will almost certainly be a far cry better than any other prequels to classic special effects trilogies that I can think of.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower

December 11, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Posted in 2012 | 1 Comment
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Originally, I passed on this film because it had not looked that interesting to me.  But, after seeing “North Sea Texas,” I decided that I wanted to see it to compare an American and a European coming-of-age film with a gay character.  I was not surprised by what I found but it did evoke some pondering in me.  Where I felt that “Texas” was striving for “truth,” albeit a well-worn dose of it, “Perks” was happy to trade truth for sentiment, which seems true to me of Hollywood films in general.  Truth is more nuanced and is made in small moments on screen and can even be difficult to recognize and is often difficult to digest.  On the other hand, sentiment is big and loud and usually highly palatable.  To this end, “Perks” is full of actors 5 years older than their characters spouting all the lines in the moment that real people wish they had said in retrospect.  They exist in their own mixed tape version of “The Eighties” (in caps) where every poignant alternative song has come out around the same time.  That was my era and I have to tell you that the bullies in my school were never that bad, the alternative kids were not that impossibly cool and none of my visits to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” ever looked like that.  But, I have to admit something; I was not unaffected by that strange world where only one set of parents apparently existed and every kid had just as much time alone with a peer as he/she needed.  It would be disingenuous of me to say I was unmoved by several scenes and by the amazingly wise things that these kids said or did.  Which had me pondering about ¾ of the way through the film: when is sentiment art?  Is there a place in film for telling not the true story but the story of who we wish we are or were when we were sixteen?  There were times when, despite myself, I felt transported back to moments of my own vulnerability and brokenness, when I would have wanted the sort of healing those kids offered each other.  There is no insight to be had in a film like this but there is something cathartic that happens.  I honestly don’t know if that is good enough.

North Sea Texas

December 9, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Posted in 2012 | 1 Comment
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There was only one woman in the entire theater and my friend and I were clearly 15 years younger than every other person present.  This gave a strange edge to this film of coming-of-age gay love.  In particular, the man behind us was the single noisiest eater of popcorn I can remember and his lip smacking gave an additional lasciviousness to the scenes of kissing teenage boys.  Once his popcorn was done, he promptly fell asleep and snored for the rest of the movie.  None of this has anything to do with the film itself but informs my experience of the movie; so, take my review with the appropriate grain of popcorn salt.  “North Sea Texas” (“Noordzee, Texas” in Flemish) is a Belgian film that probably takes place in the late 60s or 70s (judging by clothes and cars).  It tells the story of Pim from almost 15 years old to around 17 years old and his passionate love for Gino, his 3-years-older neighbor.  The story is that story.  We all know that story and all the details beyond that are almost irrelevant.  After having seen dozens of gay coming-of-age films, this presents nothing new.  There is love and lust and heartbreak and growing older and blah, blah, blah… you get the idea.  Don’t see this film because you want to learn something new about the human experience.  There is a certain truth here, it just isn’t a very novel one.  What is slightly more interesting is the film’s color palette.  I’m very visual and was almost distracted by the colors of this film.  It has a gorgeous golden sheen that is present in hair color, clothing choices, curtains and furniture, blades of grass, the sandy beaches and the use of light.  It is everywhere, especially in the first half of the film and imbues it with a deep warmth.  At first, Pim wears only bright golden shirts and his boyfriend is in browns and tans.  Then the film saddens and Pim’s shirts all become various shades of blue and they mirror the blue-grey tones that Gino’s sickly mother wore throughout the movie.  Later he returns briefly to gold shirts again, when he has another crush.   He wears nothing but blue and/or gold at all until the last 5 minutes, when he suddenly wears a green shirt (a blend of the two, get it?) for the final scene (a scene that strikes me as at odds with the direction the film had been taking).   The only other shock of color is the crimson that represents Pim’s mother and her lascivious ways.  Some people might find that use of color heavy handed but it made the film interesting to me; I could almost predict the next scene based on what shirt Pim was wearing.  The boys themselves are both very pretty and there is a tenderness in most of their scenes together.  This film reminded me of how much more comfortable Europeans are with sexuality in general and with adolescent sexuality specifically.  It does not shy away from lust as brother and sister compete for the same boy and mother and son compete for the same man.   Unfortunately, most of the acting was almost universally flat.  This was especially problematic as the film went on and more and more traumatic events occurred, requiring Pim and others to actually do something close to emoting.  Similarly, I had problems with some of the metaphors/symbolism of the film.  Texas was the name of a bar in their small town.  Other than being a beautiful old and slightly dilapidated deco-style building (truly a wonderful image in the film), it served almost no purpose.  Likewise, though the sea appears in the background of a couple of scenes it is only referenced once when Pim runs into it.  So, I am not sure how “North Sea, Texas” becomes the title.  Pim also has an odd obsession with reciting the alphabet naked.  Why?  One might reasonably ask.  I have no idea and I challenge anyone who watches the film to tell me.  This is far from a great film and I’m not sure it’s even a good one, though it isn’t a bad one, either.  If you love the color and look a film can have, or if you just love pretty boys making out, see this film.  Otherwise, don’t.

 

Hitchcock

December 3, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment
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“Hitch,” as he is called throughout this film, is embodied with a lively sort of impishness by Anthony Hopkins that belies his rather immense girth.  Credit is fully deserved for the rather convincing fat suit he wore and for the way Hopkins managed to so thoroughly erase any signs of Hannibal Lecter, despite the shared Ed Gein connection between these two films.  Hopkins got all the melodrama right– the emphatic cadence when he talked, the gestures– while not quite capturing the facial expressions.  There was a sort of sad sack, hound-doggedness to Hitchcock’s expressions that was replaced (by both Hopkins and latex) with a somewhat distracting bug-eyed stare.  All of that said, the rest of the cast manages admirably enough  in Hitch’s shadow.  Scarlett Johansson is an amiable if forgettable Janet Leigh.  Toni Collette (“Muriel’s Wedding,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Little Miss Sunshine”) is wasted as Hitch’s patient and one-dimensional secretary.   Jessica Biel (tv’s “7th Heaven,” “Total Recall”) looks good as Vera Miles, but I can hardly say much else about her.  A couple of cameos are so brief they raise eyebrows as to their intentions; seeing Wallace Langham (tv’s “CSI”) briefly in the background of one scene or having Ralph Macchio (yes, that one) on screen for 3 minutes as a writer served only to pull the audience out of the story.  Even the brilliant Helen Mirren (“The Queen”) can’t climb out from underneath Hopkins’s rather weighty shadow, though not for want of trying.  None of these actors are to blame for a script that diminishes all of them to serving the caricature that is Hitch.  The film was at its best when it was at its funniest; the script sometimes got Hitchcock’s morbid and dry humor just right.  I found this most evident during the filming of “Psycho.”  During those scenes, I thought “Hitchcock” was most alive.  When it strayed into his relationship with his wife, it felt like so many cliche’s I’ve seen: the genius but insecure husband, the long suffering and almost saintly wife, he takes her for granted, he suspects her of an affair while looking at every blonde who comes along, blah, blah, blah.  At those times, the movie was, as Hitchcock feared of “Psycho,” stillborn.

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