Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

BLUE JASMINE (2013)
Excellent film, but it's very hard to watch. It's Woody Allen sort of reconstituting A Streetcar Named Desire, as we watch Cate Blanchett's Jasmine--reeling from the suicide of her incarcerated husband (a Bernie Madoff type) and the loss of her elegant lifestyle--slowly experience a psychotic break from reality. I think the idea of how we choose to experience reality and how it informs our identity is probably the most interesting question filmmakers really have left to deal with, and it's fascinating watching Jasmine try to build herself back up in the lower class world of her adopted sister (a very sympathetic Sally Hawkins, whose character is in some ways always looking to trade up as well, but who also touched me with her optimism and attempts to be understanding). It's a complex picture, and it's not always a satisfying one, but it was hard to look away from Jasmine as her shock at being rejected by the world she's desperate to inhabit weighs more and more heavily on her mind until it just sort of breaks. Cate Blanchett is remarkable. ****

HER (2013)
Interesting film about a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his operating system, an AI designed to be intuitive, have a personality, and learn (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). I've never really liked a Spike Jonze movie ever before, so I was surprised how much this pulled me in. I think it's because I've seen a very small number of films that really, truly understand loneliness in a profound way. It's also interesting to see a filmmaker dealing with the reality construct in this way. We all talk to our stuff; we imbue them with personalities in our mind. In some ways, an OS you can converse and even carry on a relationship with seems like an inevitable next step; how many of our things are already voice-activated, anyway? The world often seems to be getting more and more insulated; it's easy and even preferable to cut ourselves off from experiencing our lives and our selves as part of a community when we can do it virtually instead. If we stop valuing human contact so much, why not an AI designed to befriend us? It's really fascinating how the film handles these questions with drama and honest emotion, in a sensitive way rather than making a joke out of it. One of my favorite movies of 2013. ****

BAD MILO! (2013)
I thought this was a really interesting idea; it's a monster movie, sort of in the tradition of a Ghoulies type of movie, about a man (Ken Marino) dealing with overwhelming stress at work and home. It turns out there's a monster that lives in his stomach (Milo, a really neat little creature) who comes out and kills when the stress it too much to bear. It's a fun movie, not entirely a comedy, but it's a very interesting symbol to me. It's really about the stress and anxiety of our modern lives, given a physical manifestation that takes the form of extreme gastrointestinal issues. Fascinating. ***

ASS BACKWARDS (2013)
Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael wrote and star in this film about two deluded women traveling back to their hometown to participate in an anniversary version of the beauty pageant they lost when they were kids. These women are poor, basically jobless, have no direction, and are extremely unrealistic about their lives and prospects. Their journey home is episodic, but each episode peels back a layer of the extreme delusion they live in. It's another movie about constructed reality, but it's a fresh perspective (for me), because it's from the point of view of two women who (unusually, I feel, for an American comedy) aren't repeatedly punished by the film for being so inside of themselves. I don't think everything works, exactly, but I like the way the two of them learn something important about themselves and that that's the point, rather than having to change everything about themselves in order to comfortably conform. Wilson and Raphael are very comfortable in the characters; I wonder how long they've been holding on to them. They work both as comedy and as a commentary on entitlement. ***

CARRIE (2013)
I liked this more than I expected to; it's not the retread I was expecting. It's the same story, but it takes a different approach to Stephen King's story. Where the Brian De Palma classic was a horror movie, this one takes on the operatic qualities of a high tragedy. I've read some criticisms where people felt the bullies in the movie were exaggerated in their evil, but honestly, substitute teach at a high school for just one day, and you're going to hear and see a lot of the same things. What really makes this work are the performances of Chloe Moretz as Carrie (very sympathetic and likable) and Julianne Moore as her mother (a kind of uncomfortable mix of menace and delusion). I enjoyed it. It had something to say on bullying, though the third act more or less becomes an action movie. ***1/2

THE INCREDIBLE BURT WUNDERSTONE (2013)
Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi as David Copperfield-type magicians who become jaded with fame and then replaced by Jim Carrey, playing a Criss Angel analogue who represents the new face of popular magic. Not a bad idea for a movie, really, but neither the script nor the director seem very sympathetic to their characters; they don't seem to love magic so much as think it's silly ground to mine for an Austin Powers-type comedy, so it just doesn't work. It's muddled, the characters are mostly unsympathetic, a lot of plot points seem to have gone missing, the big trick at the end that's supposed to be a triumph is just idiotic, and Alan Arkin is criminally underused. And it follows the exact same beats as you would expect from any movie, really--guy is really good at something, then he loses his passion and becomes jaded, then he's replaced by someone new or better, then he finds a mentor who reconnects him with his original passion, he learns humility, and then he wins again. That was basically Roger Ebert's formula for Tom Cruise movies. **

LIZZIE BORDEN TOOK AN AX (2014)
Is it just me, or is that an awkward title? Christina Ricci stars as Lizzie Borden, who did that thing with the forty whacks. This is a Lifetime movie, so I don't know why I expected more, except that I was surprised by how good Flowers in the Attic was last week. This went kind of nowhere. It was just the period piece version of Lifetime's seemingly endless series of films about how someone beautiful is accused of something and it makes everyone angry that she might get away with it because she's so beautiful. There's no real character to Lizzie, there's no motivation, nothing happens for any narrative reason, and there's absolutely no insight. Characters move around and say stuff and it looks pretty, and Christina Ricci is actually pretty compelling as Lizzie, but just imagine how great she'd have been if she'd been given an actual character to play. It's just... there, doing nothing but undeniably existing. **1/2

ROCK OF AGES (2012)
An absolute embarrassment from start to finish. Most of the cast is either sleepwalking or trying too hard as they badly, badly, badly sing pretty much exactly the 80s songs you would expect in a musical about... something or other. It doesn't really have much affection for the era or the scene it thinks it's praising other than fashion and snippets of rock songs. Tom Cruise is particularly awful as a legendary hair metal rocker; it doesn't do much for the movie as stunt casting, and when was the time you ever saw Tom Cruise in something and thought it was amazing how he just lost himself in the role? Even when he's good he's just Tom Cruise. Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta, in the leads, could be replaced halfway through with a hatstand and floor lamp and you'd be hard-pressed to notice. * star, pretty much just for Mary J. Blige's voice.

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