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Before We Go (2014)
Beautiful, thoughtful, quiet, poignant, and true.
This film is excellent. Top-notch writing, entirely driven by strong characterization without contrivances. The acting is excellent, and the dialogue is believable, natural, and honest. This is not your average romcom, and it might not even qualify as a romcom at all, because although it asks many of the kinds of questions that romcoms try to ask, it answers them with far more maturity than most do. This story has themes that resonate and an ending that delivers. There are moments of the transcendent alongside moments of the awkward, and that gives the experience a ring of realism. The personal mysteries are revealed at a good pace, and the story never becomes saccharine, boring, or entirely predictable. I appreciated the good use of silence. I was occasionally annoyed by the unnecessary shakiness of the hand-held camera or the blurry focus of foreground objects, but that only happened a couple of times. This is otherwise a beautiful, thoughtful, quiet, poignant, and true character piece, and it's well worth the watching.
Well-balanced between action and thought
It's well-paced, well-acted, well-written, intelligent, action-packed, emotionally moving, visually gripping, painful, funny, sad, true, real, heightened-beyond-reality, and then brought back down to earth again. The moral weight of Captain America's position has always been one of his strengths and they make excellent use of it here, juxtaposing it very effectively with his sense of being uncertain in his personal life. The villains' position is tempting...and yet still morally wrong. There were some really nice touches with "average" people doing heroic things, too. I didn't expect this movie to be a game-changer in the Avengers universe, but just one more installment in Steve Rogers's tale. Instead, it came away having fundamentally changed the basic assumptions about the world and its structure and it leaves the door open for who-knows-what in the future. Excellent writing and I look forward to where Marvel goes next with this massive (and largely well-executed!) story.
Beautiful and thought-provoking
I liked the narrative structure of this film; by the end, it had me thinking deeply about the nature of Story itself. What started out with the promise of a lush romantic tale eventually both did and did not fulfill that promise, in the most intriguing way. This movie was very well acted, emotionally resonant, and occasionally breathtaking in its cinematic techniques (e.g., a single panning shot against the backdrop of a massive set filled with a couple thousand people and animals, complex in its execution; a lighting change that achieved a powerful emotional effect). The costumes were gorgeous and effective, the settings were a perfect complement to the characters' emotions, and the character interactions were compelling. An experience you'll never forget!
Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)
I liked that the movie's plot didn't go entirely as I expected, in several key ways. We never get any big romantic scenes. That's not to say that there isn't a lovely romance happening quietly within it all, but it's not the win condition. Snow White doesn't resolve the conflict by winning the heart of her Prince Charming.
I also loved the fact that the writers had all the ingredients for a love triangle and they just don't go anywhere near it. Although both male leads are fond of Snow White, they don't let their feelings cloud their judgment. There's never a moment when either has even a single jealous glance. We never have a scene where Snow White agonizes over which one she's in love with. Both men are essential to the plot, but they are ultimately both incidental to Snow White successfully bringing the plot to a close. Again, a pleasant, well-executed surprise.
Charlize Theron chewed the scenery as the Queen, which made the character work. You hated the Queen and yet at the same time ached horribly for her. Her powers were formidable and yet frustratingly limited. She oozed evil but was never campy. Theron adds a level of believability to what otherwise could have been a cardboard villainess. In her hands, it was clear that the Queen wasn't shallow: she had plenty of depth, but the only things she had in those depths were pain, betrayal, fear, and a life without selfless, trustworthy love.
I also liked how the Queen never indicates that she's jealous of Snow White's beauty; the mirror is more of a measure of the strength of her magic than a means of perpetuating vanity. The word "fairest" takes on a different meaning in this movie, referring more to righteousness than to beauty. Snow White's claim to fame is repeatedly established as her moral blamelessness, not her looks. (Yay!) When the Queen asks the mirror if she herself is the fairest one, she's asking whether she still has the moral high ground, compared to the men in her life who have used her. When she encounters Snow White, though, her own sense of righteousness pales in comparison to true righteousness. This is a tale of a woman whose life was twisted around a lie that eventually destroyed her. Her actual death felt more tragic than triumphant and Theron was utterly convincing.
When Chris Hemsworth had a chance to do something other than swing a heavy weapon around and growl at things, which he's great at, he did it well. The Huntsman is almost immediately an interesting, unexpected character: he's a widower. That one fact of his existence drives nearly everything else he does and makes him more than just a thug. After all the physicality of the character throughout the movie, Hemsworth's performance in the pivotal waking scene was a marked contrast and was all the more powerful for it.
Kristin Stewart is believable an orphaned and imprisoned teenager: an old soul in some ways because of the pain she's endured, but a woman-child in so many other ways. Yes, her perpetually-open mouth is a bit tedious, but the fierce fragility she conveys is the right note for Snow White.
The movie is visually gorgeous: the landscapes are beautiful, the fairies looked otherworldly without being cutesy, Sanctuary was breathtaking, the dwarfs were a great mix of comic/tragic, and the Queen's scenes were all worth watching a second time. You never get bored with the visuals.
But the real reasons I liked the movie were all the ways in which it didn't go where I expected, and yet still worked. It was both satisfying and left me wanting more. Excellent.
The Last Song (2010)
Enjoyable for what it aims to do
I subscribe to Ebert's approach to film reviewing: does the film achieve the goals it sets out to accomplish within its own genre? Sure, Nicholas Sparks's plots are never going to wow anyone with their originality and unpredictability, but they're not trying to. He specializes in writing small family dramas with characters that bear some resemblance to real human beings and that endure tearjerker events. Nothing groundbreaking. The question is: does The Last Song work on this level?
Unabashedly, yes. Miley Cyrus does a fine job of making me believe she's a pouty, hurt, self-centered teenager who at least has some sense of self-confidence amidst all her character's immaturity. Sometimes her character does frustratingly immature things, but at least they were in-character. She struck believable notes. There were never any off moments where a lack of acting skill on her part threw me out of the story. Of course, I don't have a history of following her work, so I just took her performance at face value.
Liam Hemsworth did a fine job too. He's got the unfortunate handicap of being so ridiculously good-looking that my first reaction upon seeing him was to laugh in disbelief. Assuming that we can get past that and give him a chance, he made me believe in his character, as well. Again, no off moments that threw me out of the story. (Although there was one scene involving him shirtless and some mutual hosing down that felt utterly gratuitous and annoyed me, but I'm blaming that on the director, not the actors. They did their best not to make that scene seem as barely-plausible as it was.) The scene where Ronnie breaks up with him was particularly well played on his part; his desire to hold her and restore the relationship was so evident and made me ache for his character. His motivations made perfect sense to me. Although I understood Ronnie's motivation and her childish desire to lash out, the breakup unfortunately hit the teen-melodrama button a little too hard and felt a little to mechanical for the plot. Again, the actors did a fine job of trying to make it feel believable and not just formulaic.
Greg Kinnear was excellent, providing a nice, steady, mature background to the teen drama. His performance never felt forced or cloying. He was believable as a slightly out-of-touch, frustrated, but loving father to his two children. His responses felt real and I cared about his character. I ached for his relationship with his daughter to be restored. Nice job on his part.
Bobby Coleman was unexpectedly fantastic! The first time I started to well up was when his character was working on the stained-glass window alone. Phenomenal job from so young a boy! I remember feeling like that as a child and he *nailed* that scene! He was good throughout, but he went from cute younger brother with the usual comedic notes to a real character at that point. He easily stole the scene from the two older actors.
So: for what this movie tried to do, I think it succeeded admirably. Yes, it's not art-house Oscar-bait, but it's not trying to be. If you let yourself settle down, forget your Miley Cyrus baggage, and enjoy this small-family, small-town, everyday-life (except needing to suspend disbelief regarding Hemsworth's appearance :) story, you'll be glad you did.
Charlie St. Cloud (2010)
Engaging and heartfelt, if a bit pretty at times
I enjoyed this movie, for what it tries to do. It's not trying to be an art-house Oscar-bait film. It's basically a story about a good man who loses himself to grief and how he recovers. The core message of letting go and moving on is a good one.
It's not a dumb, roll-your-eyes movie and it's not too clever. It sails the line between those two extremes, but manages to do so without being bland. There's a lot to enjoy here: Efron's excellent performance, Tahan's charm and chemistry with Efron, and Crew's solidity. Prew also has his moments, and although nobody manages to steal any scenes from Efron, they were all believable. I wish we could have seen a lot more of Basinger and Liotta, though, and Logue's relative lack of prettiness was actually a kind of relief.
Although the characters are clean, they still do foolish things, loose their tempers, and make poor choices about how to spend their lives. Personally, I'm not as moved by stories where the main character is a self-absorbed, self-destructive jerk who--no surprise--brings pain on him/herself and others and succumbs to the usual pitfalls: alcohol/drugs, meaningless sex, or general idiotic acting out. That might have made the movie "cooler" or made Efron seem edgier, but the story and character wouldn't have been as resonant for me. I can root for and identify with characters who are trying to do their best, to do the right thing, but it still leads them quite naturally into struggling with personal demons.
There's not much logic or explanation for Charlie's ability to interact with the dead physically. It's the conceit of the film and the whole plot falls apart without it, so if you're going to enjoy the story at all, you have to suspend that bit of disbelief. On the level of pushing emotional buttons, this film hits them pretty hard: everything from raw attraction (a nearly constant undertone) to outright laughing (I loved the running gag with the geese) to embarrassment (one scene shows how even someone as good-looking as Efron can fall completely flat on his face in an awkward blind-date situation) to aching from a sense of loss and separation and loneliness. I never actually got close to crying, but I certainly felt tugged (although more so with the Charlie/Sam relationship than with the Charlie/Tess relationship) more than once.
Clearly the main draw of this film is Efron. If you're going for Efron eye candy you'll get it in spades, but happily (despite the many reviews that sneer to the contrary), he actually spends most of the movie with his shirt on, so you have some hope of focusing on his face. Of course, easily a quarter of the scenes where he's got his shirt on, he's wet for one reason or another, so it doesn't actually help much. And even if you do manage to focus on his face, you again have to get past the "Damn, he's pretty!" reaction and focus on whatever emotions the character has. Happily, once you've invested that much effort, you find yourself caring about Charlie and responding to those emotions. The story is compelling because of Efron's acting, precisely because once you get past the pretty, there really is something there. When he finally does get around to taking off his shirt, it's not without reason, so at least you're not left laughing like you are with most of the embarrassing shirtless moments in the Twilight series.
Let me reiterate the part about the eye candy. There's lots of it. And not just the actors, but the indoor locations, the lighting, the framing, the ocean, the sailboats, the shoreline, even the sculptures in the graveyard. There's a gorgeous sculpture of a desolate angel crying on a gravestone near the end of the film. (Although there's a strange moment in the middle of the movie when the camera focuses on a child-angel gravestone for a little too long and you suddenly wonder if the movie is going to turn into a horror flick with the child-angel coming to life and terrorizing the townspeople. But the sensation passes, and you realize how clean the story is. Despite the fact that the main character talks to dead people, there's never a creepy sense of foreboding. It might have been more interesting if they'd taken it in that direction.) Perhaps the plot is a little bit predictable and the surprise twist isn't a huge surprise, but it does hit Charlie's character hard, and Efron and Crew make it work.
I gave it an 8 out of 10, because it mostly succeeds at what it tries to do. One interesting thing about it is that it tends to defy easy categorization. Is it a romance? A comedy? A tragedy? A star vehicle? A story about depression? A fable? A story about mental illness? A story about loss? A fantasy? A story about grieving? Predictable? Engaging? A thin excuse to watch pretty people standing in front of pretty things? Something with emotional resonance? The answer is yes. One thing I liked about it was the sheer variety of emotions that I experienced while I watched it. Small funny things happen alongside small moments of sadness, and vice versa. In that sense, it has resonance that dips below the pretty surface.
The Last Sin Eater (2007)
This wrung me ten different ways simultaneously
I was expecting an awkward preachy "Christian" movie, but the acting was excellent and the story twisted me around and I practically cried straight through the last half hour of this movie. Every single character was well motivated, and the plot and character development played out at a good pace. Characters that you hate you later come to sympathize with. No one is all good or all bad; they felt real. Their actions made perfect sense, in retrospect, given their experiences and their isolation. Their accents took a little while to become accustomed to, though. We found that we had to use the subtitles to follow everything that was going on. Once we got used to them, though, we were drawn into the story. The flashbacks at the end of the movie were particularly wrenching. You'll be emotionally drained and elated by the time you finish this movie. It's a must-see.
Smart, Powerful, & Funny
This big-screen Firefly episode met all of my expectations and exceeded them spectactularly. It really grew to fill the big screen and surpassed just being another TV episode. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, I whooped with exhilaration and so (it seemed) did everyone else in the theatre with me. The acting and writing were excellent, the story and pacing really kept me engaged: even when I could see a plot point coming, it still came satisfyingly. There are maybe one or two SFX awkwardnesses, but they were by no means enough to take away from my enjoyment of this movie. The characters were well drawn and consistent with the series and the struggles that they went through (not just the fighting, but also the internal battles) were compelling. This movie functions both as a satisfying end to a brilliant TV show and just the beginning of an exciting universe of possibilities (I'm hoping someone picks the show up again!) This movie is well worth your time and money even if you haven't watched the show--you don't need to have seen the show to enjoy this movie--and I encourage you to see it! I'm planning on organizing some friends and going to see it again!
Murder by Death (1976)
an unexpected surprise
Amazon recommended this to us and when we ran across it at the video store and saw the cast list, we just had to pick it up. It had us still laughing over the lines and situations and the actors' performances an hour later. Some really great quips and digs at the mystery genre, and some absolutely wonderful character (and actor!) interactions. For anyone accustomed to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Alec Guinness characterization done here is a hilarious departure from his accustomed seriousness.
My only objection to this film was Peter Sellers as Sydney Wang. Wang tended to ride the fine edge of funny/offensive; more often, he was just offensive. I was put off by the Caucasian-playing-an-Asian stereotyping, and just about every character aside he uttered was either racist or sexist. He did have some hilarious lines ("Putting many detectives on case like making lamb stew: all go to pot!"), but for the most part, I found his presence grating rather than funny. Sellers DID do a good job with the character, but I just plain didn't like the character.
Overall, I prefer the movie "Clue" to this one, but this is definitely a fun time!
The Void (2001)
an intelligent and fun little film
A friend of mine picked this up on a whim in the bargain box at a local video store, upon seeing the two stars' names together. We decided to watch it and skewer it, keeping expectations with the IMDb rating of (at the time) 3.7 that it had. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised at the
a) consistent and correct science mentioned
b) evident chemistry between the two leads
c) several bits of fun dialog (both actors have a talent for understated comedy)
d) redemption of the arch-villians at the end (unexpected!)
e) the refreshing lack of the scientists-turned-superheroes motif usually found in these movies
f) passable SFX
g) the sexual tension despite the fact that it was never unresolved
It's not a stunner of a movie, by any means, but for a fun and refreshingly intelligent little diversion, it's definitely worth watching. I thought the second sex scene was unnecessary to the plot or the characterizations, but that was my only quibble. Otherwise, settle in and have a good time watching two fun actors from two different and strong sci-fi/fantasy shows play together in a new universe. Very enjoyable! :)