Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tell No One

This French thriller based on a book follows the trials of Alex Beck, a widowed pediatrician. Eight years earlier, his wife was killed by a serial killer after being abducted while they were on a picnic at a lake on their family property. In present day, two bodies are found buried near that lake. The film does an excellent job of revealing history and developing a present story. The historical reveals do not heavily rely on flashback, so clever police interviews and family discussions enlighten the audience to the fact that Alex was at one time a prime suspect for his wife's murder. The new bodies bring that suspicion back to the forefront, and frame the present story. The slow reveal of details which tie together past and present make this highly enjoyable. There are not crazy, twisting plot u-turns... but as we meander through time there is a progressive sense of discovery. Love it.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Jurassic World

The park reopens 20 years later, the same corporate money making goals lead to crazy safety and environmental decisions in the pursuit of a dollar. In the original, the story didn't really matter. We were enthralled with the idea of humans interacting with dinosaurs and the visualization of this on the big screen was astounding. Today, the visualization is so seamless, that interacting with dinosaurs is the new normal. So the story better be good. And it ... well, let's just say it passes. Corporate interests looking for the next new attraction are genetically breeding bigger/badder dinosaurs. Military interests are pushing genetic modifications that might produce a bigger/badder weapon. People still visit as if this is a petting zoo. Escape, mayhem, human/human connection, human/dinosaur connection, evacuation.

I have seen a bit written about the characterization of Claire, female CEO of the park, and the dismay of the stereotypical/repressive representation of women in films. I went in watching to see if I could identify how the film could have been different in this realm. I don't really have any ideas. I can see that you might want to display a more empowered woman, but in a film like this I would guess that an empowered woman role would simply switch the genders of CEO Claire and rogue Chris Pratt. In fact, you probably wouldn't even need to rewrite the script, just switch the cast. But I am not sure that even this "empowerment" is what we are looking for. Another alternative is to imagine what a truly empowered female CEO of this Jurassic company would look like. My guess is that the result would be that the film is never made since this CEO would never open the park in the first place. I do think that the representation of women in film is a complex cultural issue. Is it enough (for now) to notice and see through the misogyny? What would it take to authentically portray women in film, both in action genres (where the empowered woman is written as a female acting male) and non-action (where empowered women are written as controlling and/or bitchy)?
3 stars (out of 5)

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Transformers: Age of Extinction

I am not a huge Transformers fan. I have seen a couple of the films, but missed the last Dark Side of the Moon. Unfortunately, it seems that this is really a sequel, as in "You just missed a huge backstory that we assume you know". Maybe the studios know what they are doing since happening on this movie opened a gap in my brain that now wants the rest of the story filled in. Do I really need to go back to watch previous installments? Probably...  In this iteration, there is a human effort to destroy all transformers (autobots and decepticons and aliens) at the same time as they use the raw material from destroyed creatures to manufacture their own programmable robots (based in a poor decision on the brain structure of major bad guy Megatron). Some secret government and military dealings here, some naive corporate profit motives, and some ancient alien grudges all make for a series of transformer battles from Chicago to Hong Kong. I am going to put this in the "Excellent as a midnight to 2am viewing diversion" category.
2 stars (out of 5)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Green Hornet

I am mostly tired of Seth Rogen's schtick (e.g. Neighbors and The Interview). However, while he plays basically the same character here, he doesn't overplay. And somehow, it worked for me. Rogen is a spoiled, rich kid, heir to a newspaper magnate. When his father is killed, Rogen takes over the business. Somehow, he stumbles into superhero-dom with the assistance of Kato, his dads former auto mechanic and (we find) engineering genius. His interference with the crime world status quo unveils lots of bad guys and corruption and helps him to find his true purpose while saving the city. You know, typical superhero stuff. It is kinda goofy fun, but don't get me wrong... It is still Rogen.
3 stars (out of 5)

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Great Escape

1963, Steve McQueen & James Garner. The setting is a Nazi POW camp designed as a holding place for all the allied POW's who keep escaping from their POW camps. Of course, the prisoners immediately begin plans for escape. This is more Hogan's Heroes comedy than serious war film, although it is based on actual events. What I find most fascinating is the 1960's portrayal of WWII, compared to any WWII film in the 2000's. It really is very clean and friendly. All the POW's are in their new-looking dress uniforms and are treated with deference and respect as military officers. The housing is suburban bungalow, and the skies are clear and blue. All very proper. A modern telling of this story would be more desperate, more grunge. It would also be a short instead of a full length film since the modern sentiment is that any POW backtalk to a Nazi would result in immediate execution. The 1960's Nazis seemed to be much nicer than the 2000's Nazis. Maybe this difference is the result of the transition to graphic violent and high intensity films in the present, or maybe it is the result of the cultural willingness/ability to confront what that war actually was.
3 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Lego Movie

I liked this. It is the kind of movie where the story doesn't really matter since the enjoyment is in the details of the production. All the right notes were hit in terms of how Lego is actually used as a toy for children, both in the present, and in the past. This means that all ages can find some nostalgic "Oh yeah" while watching. And these are not big, groundbreaking memories, but simple ideas like the fact that the people can bend 90 degrees forward/backward at the waist. So add a little morning stretch routine (simple) and it brings back that little memory. The movie is saturated with these types of small recollections and it probably shows, more than anything else, the creative possibilities of the Lego platform for play.
4 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Black Swan

I suppose I am going to have to apologize in advance to a few friends for this one. I didn't get it. Or rather, I got it completely, but my cultural naiveté prevented me from appreciating it. The story follows a ballet company putting on Swan Lake. Natalie Portman gets the lead, and in this version, she will play both the white swan and the black swan, which requires her to dance two completely different personalities. The plot device is that her own personal life begins to mirror that of the ballet, often blurring the lines between reality and imagination. And even in my ignorance of dance, I could recognize what I guessed to be the Swan Lake soundtrack popping up in the real-life scenes to explicitly show the crossover. Part way through I began to think, this is Fight Club of the dance world (and the fact that I am thinking of Fight Club in the middle of a ballet gives a hint about my engagement).

What I suppose makes this a great film is how closely the displayed intensity and stress and competition of being a lead in a ballet matches that of reality. People who have some experience with the dance world, or probably with any instance of an emotionally intense investment in creating a role, have probably raved about this film (a la the Academy of Motion Pictures). So while I know of these experiences anecdotally, I haven't felt or experienced anything like them, meaning this film felt more like a bio-pic than a psychological thriller. Without the emotional connection, we are left with a rather predictable thriller.

2 stars (out of 5)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are 40 something siblings that haven't seen each other in a decade. When Hader attempts suicide and then moves back to his home town to live with his sister for recovery, old memories surface for the two. This is a serious look at relationship, depression, and the perils of growing up and realizing you are an adult. With these two actors, I hoped for levity. Probably better would have been a biting/cynical take on these real issues in order to get us to look at them in a different way. Instead, this played like Hader/Wiig doing a serious job of being serious actors. So much so that it was uninspired. Maybe these two are just the goofy kinds of comedians and couldn't get to the brutal honesty and commentary you get from a Jon Stewart or Louis CK.
2 stars (out of 5)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Big Hero 6

Heard good things about this film, but knew nothing about it. Turns out, even what I thought I knew was wrong (the big puffy white guy is NOT named Big Hero 6). I fully expected him to be Big Hero and the film to follow the development of a robot through 6 progressively better iterations, with the early iterations leading to hilarious hijinks, and the 6th finally saving the world. That is not what happens. Except that there are hijinks, and there is some world saving.

Instead, the big fluffy guy is a medic robot designed to diagnose and care for your health needs in a non-threatening way (hence the big fluffy-ness). He pairs with Hero, kid hacker extraordinaire, to take down a villian who is really just a grieving husband, and saves the world from being sucked into an inter-dimensional hole. So while technically there are spoilers in this last paragraph, I don't really think they help or hinder your enjoyment of the film. For me, the sign of an excellent animated film is that it as a good story, good enough to forget about the fact that it is animated. This is why many of the Marvel universe films are good, and why some are bad. Story. I liked the comic elements here and development of relationship between a person and a newly "born" AI (same reason I liked Chappie and Ex Machina). And this is very much more kid friendly than either of those.

4 stars (out of 5)


I like Melissa McCarthy and her brand of humor. At least, I like the bursts of it, not a 90 minute monologue. So for me, this was perfect. McCarthy plays a CIA support agent, the voice in the ear of the agent in the field. Her particular agent (Jude Law) is quintessential dapper James Bond type. And she is not so secretly infatuated. The subtle clues she throws his way fall on deaf ears since he is so clearly into himself, he doesn't need anyone else to be. Of course, Law's character gets taken out of the picture to provide space for McCarthy to step in and save the day. She gains confidence in her new role and is an overly self deprecating natural as a field agent. What I appreciate about this film is that all the characters play as a straight up spy thriller, and only the audience is in on the joke. So it is not slapstick send up where even the characters know themselves to be caricatures. I also love (LOVE) Jason Statham in this. He is so over the top that I don't know how he keeps a straight face. Absolutely hilarious.

So the movie made me laugh, and I enjoyed it. But is it good? Does it move McCarthy forward, or is it just a better execution of the same material that got her here. She can definitely carry the film, but in many ways, it still relies on her own body image as a contrast to the hollywood model image. The fact that her character requires the audience to notice her body and explicitly plays it up is telling. While on the surface it is exposing hollywood films and their misogynistic template by offering an "alternative", it somehow doesn't really expose, but utilizes misogyny in a different way. Looking forward to the day when McCarthy carries a film, is hilarious, and body:image:feminism is not even part of the discussion.

4 stars (out of 5)