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The Object of Beauty (1991)
Worth seeking out
There's a genre I like to call "little English comedy" that really traces its roots back to the Ealing studios in the late 40s. The movies didn't have high budgets (they couldn't afford them), but frequently had clever scripts that made them eminently watchable (Alec Guiness got his start there in movies like The Man in the White Suite and The Horse's Mouth).
The Object of Beauty fits this category nicely. It's a little puzzling that it didn't do better, actually, with two American leads and rave reviews from Siskel and Ebert. Their review, in fact, is the only reason I happened to be on the lookout for this one.
It's an elegant, witty comedy of manners. It's carefully, quietly scripted, and rather subtle. Totally worth seeking out.
Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Long... Weird... Kind of amazing.
Synechdoche, New York is nothing if not ambitious. It's about mortality, love, loss, creativity, and fear. It's a 2 hour comedy that doesn't have a single full-out laugh but countless sly observations, from the mundane to the profound.
This is an art film, and it makes no apologies for it. It's remarkably confident and does little to explain itself. That alone makes it kind of wonderful.
It's challenging. I'd watched the first 20 minutes and had to abandon it because I wasn't "getting" it. Catch it with the right set of expectations, though, and it becomes one of those stories that kind of flows around you like a dream. When I went in for a second attempt, it worked a lot better.
The length works in the movie's favor. You follow secondary characters from the beginning, and the way their lives unfold (and end) are meaningful (SPOILER: The scene with Caden at Olive's deathbed is a brilliant summation of the gaps between parents and children).
It's cinematic absurdism. Pretty accessible as absurdism goes, but it's not going to be for everyone. I "got" it, though, and I'm very grateful.
My favorite of MGM's classics
I adore Brigadoon.
Won't quibble about the authenticity of the story, the sets, or the choreography. However inauthentic the movie may be, it WORKS. For me, it works better than any of MGM's other classics.
The production is beautiful. The sets (however artificial) are beautiful. Kelly's choreography is beautiful. Cyd Charisse is BEAUTIFUL (honestly, my favorite woman in any musical, ever--masterful dance if I've ever seen it).
"Heather on the Hill" is a highlight of musical cinema, period. Lovely song, spectacular dancing and choreography.
The ending, however preposterous, still ranks among my favorites.
First thing to get out of the way about "Looper"; time travel is a plot device, and nothing more. The movie is much more about the characters and the implications of their actions. It's kind of a philosophy treatise wrapped up in an engaging action plot.
There are multiple holes and inconsistencies in the plot. Honestly, they don't matter. This is a character-driven story, and a rather good one.
There's a neat, "noir-ish" tone to the movie. There's some exposition in the first half-hour that helps us understand the rules of this universe. A great many of these rules are explained in an early sequence where a friend of central character Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fails to "close his loop" by killing his future self. The results are gruesome, but not in any way we see explicitly.
Great sci-fi doesn't actually have to be believable. It just has to provide a setting for a story that wouldn't make sense in our own world. "Looper" turns out to be a very interesting contemplation of what makes people "good" and "bad" and does it with some smartly-conceived action and better-than-average writing.
The Descendants (2011)
Alexander Payne has a fantastic eye for characters, and his movies are completely driven by them. "About Schmidt" has been high on my list of favourites for a long time, and it really has almost no story at all, but Jack Nicholson's performance in the title role shows an amazing balance between the ridiculous and the sublime.
"The Descendents" might just rank as Payne's best, because the whole film is populated by characters that are as well-written. Clooney is great in this, showing a vulnerability and at times even an awkwardness that is not what we typically expect in his performances.
I find some of the creative choices here interesting; some of the most important events happen off-camera, leaving the movie to focus not so much on what happens, but on how everyone reacts to it. I found this movie to have some of the most memorable, authentic characters I've seen in years.
...and I love the way Hawaii is filmed in this movie. It isn't any deliberate attempt to show it badly, but you see things like suburbs, and freeways, and skyscrapers that don't normally make it into a "Hawaii" movie. Not to say that there aren't other, more scenic shots, and I liked the balance. In this way, Hawaii itself becomes something of a character.
The Princess Bride (1987)
So many perfect elements... Where to begin?
In '86 I was lucky to find an old paperback copy of William Goldman's "The Princess Bride" at a yard sale. I had already read some of his novels, and while I hadn't heard of this particular one, I quickly consumed it, enjoying it tremendously. It was a very clever, but ultimately affectionate, parody of fairy-tale conventions with an equally clever and complicated narrative. It was a fun, memorable book, and when I heard not long after about a film adaptation, I wondered how much of the book's clever tone would translate to the screen.
Quite a bit, as it turned out. Rob Reiner's movie version is an outstanding movie, and one that I was pleased to see holds up incredibly well, even a quarter-century later.
The brilliance to this movie is in its tone. As I said, it's a parody of fairy-tale conventions. Goldman's characters start out as cardboard-cutout stereotypes, and the events of the story itself are outlandishly improbable (up to and including resurrection), but even as the story gently mocks those conventions, it ultimately still depends on them in the end.
The characters are marvelous. Vizzini and his outbursts of "Inconceivable!!", kind-hearted Fezzik with his rhyming, and Inigo Montoya, with his graciousness, honor, and drive for revenge. Carey Elwes' Wesley is a great balance of clever humor and chivalry, and Robin Wright's Buttercup is a smart, strong fairytale princess. All the performances are note-perfect.
And the script is brilliant (as well it should be, with Goldman adapting his own novel). The dialogue sparkles, with enough memorable lines to fill a book. We get to love these characters, and care what happens to them (when Inigo finally gets the chance to avenge his father's death, it's surprisingly dramatic and emotional).
The story in the film is simpler than that of the book. Among other things, the book goes WAY further into Vizzini's, Fezzik's, and Inigo's backstories, and it's absolutely a worthwhile read, but there was no way it could have all been translated to the screen. As I say, it's an unusually good adaptation.
I enjoyed it even more than I did on its original release. That's an easy definition of "classic".
Cars 2 (2011)
I don't know where to start...
I can't believe I'm saying this about a Pixar film, but "Cars 2" is a monumental waste of talent and technology. And what concerns me most is that what this movie gets wrong is the most important thing Pixar has always gotten right.
The storytelling is a massive letdown, for a few reasons. The first is that I think they tried to stretch the anthropomorphism of the cars too far; in an early suspense scene secret agent Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) sneaks around on an oil platform in ways that make him seem well-nigh invincible, and another character who arrives later is able to sprout wings and fly... Why would a car want to roll when it could fly, anyway? The espionage angle didn't have to fall flat (and I actually really liked the way McMissile was executed as a character), but it took these characters to a place they really didn't seem to belong, a fairly brutal murder just being one instance. We also learn somewhat more about the toilet habits of cars here, which starts to beg the question of how they fulfil other biological needs. In the first movie we didn't even START to go there, and I'm not sure it was a great creative decision here.
The characters are flat, which is an unusual Pixar failing, too. There is a cardboard kind of friendship between Lightning McQueen and sidekick Tow Mater that seems mailed in from a '70s after-school special, and verges on creepy. Poor 'Mater is the subject of a great many jokes, few of which are really terribly funny.
The "new-enviro-fuel-threatened-by-evil-big-oil" is okay, if a little over-simplified, and I "got" the film's notion that it's the "lemons" of the world who hold us back, but I was a bit conflicted over the ending (and, yes, the SPOILER ALERT goes here). Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) is an older Range Rover oil baron who has supposedly seen the light and converted to greener technology, though in the end he turns out to be the mastermind working to discredit his own alternative fuel, as he has since found a massive sub-ocean oil deposit. On one hand, this twist seemed to discredit the notion of alternative fuel entirely, but I also have to admit that such corporate "greenwashing" actually exists. Frankly, "Monsters, Inc." had a similar message, but it was much clearer there.
Story and character are pretty important, and Cars 2 fails miserably on both counts. Technically? Well, that's a brighter side there, as everything LOOKS fantastic. And I'll confess that I enjoyed many, MANY in-jokes. The movie is FILLED with Easter eggs for both car nuts and Pixar fans.
One of the best little "inside baseball" moments came when an American agent who had infiltrated the bad guys disguised as an old Gremlin took off his disguise to reveal himself as a new Dodge Challenger; Chrysler bought AMC back in the 80s, and this scene almost seemed a symbol of its renewal. Unfortunately, this and many other moments suggest that Pixar may have worked fairly closely with Chrysler in a rather subversive form of product placement. A race that takes place in a very Monaco-like locale was actually moved to Italy, I suspect as an excuse to feature many Fiat models; Fiat, of course, now owns Chrysler.
Clever in-jokes can't be the basis for a movie on their own. Particularly when many of them seem to be motivated by marketing. Even that MIGHT have been forgivable with decent characters and story. Lacking these, "Cars 2" is Pixar's first unqualified failure.
Killer Elite (2011)
For what it is, actually pretty good.
I don't recall seeing a movie like this in a good, long time. It's a macho-action-thriller that didn't have an A-list budget, but probably didn't really need it, either. You used to see more of this back in the 70s and 80s; these days this kind of movie usually has a much bigger budget, with the requisite special effects and massive action sequences such a budget buys. Here, though, it's a little different.
Good action, intriguing setup (definitely no good-guy/bad-guy here; nobody is completely innocent by any stretch), and pretty good characters. And a story that's somewhat better than you usually find in this particular kind of film.
Don't know that Jason Statham's a great actor, exactly, but he's definitely a presence and he's got others to do the acting around him, and he performs in a several action scenes that come right up to the edge without getting silly. And I liked the basic plausibility in most of the scenes.
I'm a guy, and Killer Elite is a pretty decent "guy" movie. You could do worse.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Nothing earth-shattering, but cute
"Crazy Stupid Love" is nice. Possibly the perfect date movie, since it explores relationship pitfalls without getting lost in them.
Nice performances. Ryan Gosling plays a great "player" who decides to take Steve Carrell's character Cal under his wing and help him learn to talk to women about something other than his failed marriage. And Emma Stone is her usual delightful self.
Entertaining, funny, and occasionally poignant. Frankly, the level of insight isn't much greater than some sitcoms, but it's still sweet.
Dating? Or, married and on a "date night"? Worth a trip to the theater. Otherwise, perfectly worthwhile as a rental later on.
No. Just, no.
This is an awful movie. Perhaps all the more so because there were the ever-so-slight hints that it might have been good.
Watch the first half-hour. Gosling's (unnamed) character, when spoken to, takes ridiculously long pauses--upwards of 10 seconds--to respond.
>>>Spoilers ahead The story is, um, flimsy. Porn-movie flimsy. There is a central crime to this story that never really IS explained very well (sure, it looked really cool when that other car showed up, but... wwwhy was it there, exactly?), and is really the product of a monumental coincidence. Think about it: Gosling just happens to be the driver for a holdup where his neighbor is robbing cash from a pawn shop in a heist that's really been masterminded by... the guy who's bankrolling his race car? Huh? (and, no, the story makes absolutely NO effort to explain this).
As much as I love Ryan Gosling, he's just plain bad here. Maybe not "just plain" bad; spectacularly, pretentiously bad. I know what the creative intent was, that the character was just something of a "blank canvas" that others project their wants and needs on to. The biggest problem here is that Gosling can't tone down the smart and charming enough for us to believe that he's as socially isolated as his character really should be. And, again, he tends to try to substitute blankness for intensity. It doesn't work.
Carey Mulligan is okay, but her character is pretty one-dimensional as well. I got zero chemistry off of the combo of her and Gosling. The kid is basically a prop. I'm sorry, I got absolutely nothing to say why this guy develops an attachment to these two.
When Mulligan's husband appears, there's actually a little tension for a bit, and I began to hope for some substance (especially since he has considerably more chemistry with Mulligan than Gosling does). Sadly, "Standard" is killed off fairly quickly.
There's no shortage of great performers in this movie, and they're mostly wasted. Ron Perlman is so awesomely menacing! And so completely under-written! And what's there is clichéd! God, what were these people thinking? Bryan Cranston has a supporting role as Gosling's partner/boss. A huge opportunity is wasted when his character's interest in the stolen money is just casually discarded. That might have actually GONE somewhere. As a "Breaking Bad" fan, I know just how good he can be, but the writing here is nowhere near as good, and his character, as well, is left adrift.
And Albert Brooks. Who I've loved since "Lost in America". It breaks my heart, because he's actually awesome in this movie. One of the most compelling cinematic criminals since Brando, I kid you not. Thoughtful, emotional, utterly believable, but since he's the only character that we develop even the remotest sympathy for, he's not quite enough to redeem this mess.
I was hoping for some action, at least. And there really isn't much. For a movie about a driver, there honestly isn't that much driving. The movie opens with a not-bad robbery getaway, but there's only one more serious chase later on, and even IT isn't especially noteworthy. Did none of these people even WATCH "Bullitt"? And, speaking of car action, there's one scene where Gosling's character repeatedly rams another car. Hard. Hard enough to send it rolling off a small cliff. And yet, afterwards, we see the front end of his car, seemingly undamaged. Are mid-70s Chevelle parts really that hard to come by? There are legitimate flashes of creativity in "Drive". There are some genuinely original scenes of violence (and, to be fair, well-executed). Had the story and characters risen to a level where the audience might have cared, well, this might have been a different movie.
This is one of those "emperor's-new-clothes" things the movie industry pulls on the public every once in a while. Don't fall for it.