Don’t Think Twice

December 28, 2016 at 10:56 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The little movie that could. This very small, limited release film appeared at my local theater some time last summer and then just stayed. Originally slated for just one week, it was there for almost 6 months, steadily selling tickets on word-of-mouth and excellent reviews. It’s hard to imagine that a film about improv comedians failing to succeed (made up almost entirely of little-known comedians) could succeed. Until you’ve seen it. Any story told with this much honestly deserves your time. The six central characters are all so real and vulnerable that it’s hard to imagine these actors are not playing some version of themselves. The old adage that comedy comes from pain is no truer than in this film, where each player is basically doing therapy through comedy. The real revelation here is how, as each person’s ugliness starts to leak out, we still manage to feel closer to them. These people are us– vulnerable, needy, self-doubting, and also generous, loyal and hopeful. They were an amazing, dysfunctional family going through a period of upheaval and doing it in a way that was enlightening, funny, touching and deeply bittersweet. We need more movies that tell stories like this one– simple, true stories about the various ways human beings find meaning and connection in the world.

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Moana

December 22, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

“I give Moana a three and a half because it gets repetitive and boring but it is still funny and adventurous. It is a good movie for a 7 or 8 year old.” So says my 11 year old niece and she seems to be a more appropriate judge of this film than I could be. In fact, I completely agree on the rating. Since the Disney/Pixar merger, most of the films have more closely hewed to the Pixar aesthetic, while this one is decidedly more Disney in its story and structure, even while looking like a Pixar film. I think I would have preferred a little more Pixar and a little less Disney, overall. Female-centered stories have been the Disney standard since 1937’s “Snow White” and fortunately their heroines have gotten stronger and more independent over time. I also give Disney kudos for telling stories from around the world and this Polynesian adventure (with a vocal cast almost entirely from New Zealand and Hawai’i) is a worthy addition to the canon. That said, I missed the clever adult humor, nuanced characters and complex emotions that are so often on display in a Pixar piece. These characters were more archetypal and have more in common with Ariel and Aladdin than they do with Woody or Wall-E. And then there is also Disney’s annoying habit of having characters break into song. We now know that an animated film can be successful without singing; this isn’t the 80s, when they might have been excused for wondering that. There was no point in this movie where I thought, “Gosh. What they need right now is some singing.” But, that distraction aside, the film was visually beautiful and the story was action-packed and entertaining enough for its 107 minute run time. I actually enjoyed it a fair amount. I just think that, with a few tweaks, I might have enjoyed it that much more.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

December 18, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment

◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I’ve heard that George Lucas had a hard time giving over control of his baby but, now that he has, there appears to be a whole gaggle of directors and writers interested in putting their imprint on the franchise. More and more that’s looking like a good thing. This time it was Gareth Edwards’s turn (he directed the most recent “Godzilla”) to take a go at it by giving us this backstory that takes place just before the first movie, now called “A New Hope.” With all of the jumping around these films have done, a person could be forgiven if they were confused about where any one film fits in the timeline. This one ends moments before the first film starts. Like the most recent film, “The Force Awakens,” this one was a great improvement over the previous three. In fact, I think it is better that “Force,” which I think had some real flaws, not the least of which is how derivative it was (you can see my review here). Edwards seems more interested in reinventing the franchise than Abrams was and has created a tone and pacing that feels quite different from the original. Also, I found myself enjoying these characters more than many of the ones from “Force.” Cassian Andor and K2SO, in particular, were characters I would have loved to see again. This was a more diverse cast than in any previous film in the franchise, with the core team being made up of people who were Mexican, Chinese and Middle Eastern, all led by a woman. The action was fast moving and the dialogue was often fun, with most of the good lines going to the robot. I also want to give a nod to some nifty CGI that brought Grand Moff Tarkin back from the dead. He didn’t quite look as real as the actors around him but he was pretty damn close. Overall, this was a fun way to spend a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon.

La La Land

December 18, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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I’m not sure if I can explain why I liked a movie that I should have so thoroughly disliked. I have never been a fan of musicals. Everything about them irritates me; they look and feel completely phony. People do not break into choreographed dance numbers in real life. I have always said that the only musicals I have like are those that are dark (“Moulin Rouge”) or where the singing can fit naturally into the story (“Once”). However, neither is true here and I still really liked this film. It is both a loving homage and a winking parody of classic mid-century musicals. In bold, brighter-than-real-life primary colors, the audience is taken on a whirlwind tour of both classic and modern hot spots in LA (at least one of the meanings of the LA in “La La Land,” I’m sure). Even Ryan Gosling’s character, Sebastian, is an ode to another era; his clothing, his car, even his name are reminiscent of an earlier time. Judging by director Damien Chazelle’s (“Whiplash”) two feature films thus far, he appears to love and have a deep ambivalence about the arts. Here an actor and a musician struggle with loving each other and loving their art and loving/hating the city that makes all those things possible. And it’s that complexity that gives this film more depth than one might expect from a Hollywood musical. To Chazelle’s great credit, he has made a film that can be both boldly optimistic and bittersweet at the same time. Both Gosling and Emma Stone were superb as the two leads. They were capable of bringing gravity to difficult scenes and then suddenly bursting weightlessly into the air in beautifully choreographed dance numbers. And I have to say that the opening sequence was stunning to watch, set the perfect tone for the film and must have been a logistical nightmare. So, I loved this film. I genuinely loved this film, despite myself. And, perhaps after the year that we have had, Americans are ready for a strong dose of bright colors, singing and hope.

Don’t Give Up The Ghost

December 17, 2016 at 12:57 pm | Posted in 2016 | 2 Comments
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I was not going to write a review for this movie. It is a very small, independent film that has not found a distributor and may never show up in the theaters. I was invited to the screening at my local Berkeley theater by a friend of the director because my back has the tiniest of cameos in one scene. And of my acting debut, I will only say this– I should have dressed better. Oh well. So, while it is entirely possible that none of you will ever get a chance to see this film, I found it charming enough that I wanted to write a review. I did this partly so that I can record my thoughts now in case it is ever released and partly because this blog is how I remember the films I have seen and I don’t want to forget this one. Director Jean Louis Milesi is an established French screenwriter who moved to the U.S. years ago and is now making his full length directorial debut. The film focuses on three French boys (played by his sons) who visit Berkeley with their American mother and get involved in a murder/ghost story. This is a very small budget affair and most of the actors are not professionals. The acting is awkward, stilted and melodramatic at times, though the Milesi boys themselves are honesty some of the better actors in the film. There is a light, sweet humor and playfulness in the film’s tone and those boys are responsible for creating that. It helps that they are already siblings and the depth of that relationship is obvious but they also show a natural gift for the film’s rhythms; its humor is their own. While the dialogue really stumbles in places (there are lines and, in fact, whole scenes that sound completely false), it can also be genuinely engaging and clever at times. And, perhaps more importantly, the overall story is a lovely one. This is a delightful example of magical realism, where the audience is never quite sure if there really is something supernatural going on or perhaps it is just the boys’ imaginations. The title has multiple means, alluding both to the concept of death (as in “giving up the ghost”) and also the idea of continuing to believe in ghosts and all things intangible. The film starts with a statement to the effect that you cannot see either ghosts or love and many people do not believe in them but they are both true. On a deeper level, this film is about both of those concepts. It is really the story of the middle son, who perhaps believes in ghosts because he is carrying some of his own. It is about how his brothers learn to believe in him and, through their love, give him the strength to confront those ghosts. As rough as the film was in some ways, this silly, goofy comedy became a really touching family story and that’s quite an accomplishment for any director.

Elle

December 5, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Ø

For about 30 years (from the 70s through the 90s), director Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall”) made a film every 18 months, on average.  In that last 20 years, he has made 4.  The critically beloved thriller, “Elle,” is his first in four years. As I said, the critics are almost universally in love with it. I am not. Much has been said about Isabelle Huppert’s performance and, indeed, she is a fantastic actress, who has been called France’s Meryl Streep. She brings a cold nervyness to her character that is disarming and only adds to the tension that pervades the film. Verhoeven certainly knows how to make a a thriller and this film is terrific at maintaining a constant sense of dread. In fact, this film is technically well made. It is also cheap exploitation, no matter what anyone else says. An artist can make a reasonable argument that art should lie outside of politics and, fair enough, but any piece of art is commentary, in some form. When you wade into emotionally charged waters, you have some responsibility for the message you are sending and the clearest message I got from this film is the trivializing of sexual assault. Huppert plays a woman who is raped brutally in the first scene of the film and again several more times by the same assailant. She chooses to empower herself in this situation by learning to enjoy the rape. I understand that there are multiple other layers in the story and that her character is a complex one. I get that she is self-loathing and self-destructive and why. And I do see how this film is trying to explore that trauma. But I am left most resonantly with the fact that rape is horrifyingly traumatic and this film sent a message about how to handle it that I found disturbing. In fact, I was bothered by the fact that virtually every single man in the film seemed to objectify women in one way or another. Huppert’s character owns a video game company where they are making a game that involves physical and sexual assault of women. It was all just too much for me. It felt like Verhoeven was exploiting sexual violence for cheap thrills. He certainly has the right but I would be delighted if I never had to sit through a film like that one again.

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