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Industry reviewers write their reviews as though the only people reading will be arty film buffs. But I'm more of a regular guy. I enjoy an intellectual drama, but only if it's not slow. And I don't care how great the scenery and music is if the plot's bad. So I decided to write my reviews as though recommending them to a friend with a similar personality.
Check out my blog on off-beat Boston events at http://eventsinsider.com and my art project on big life questions at http://soulburners.org
All content by Johnny Monsarrat!
It starts with the ones I feel most strongly about.
The Interview (2014)
The Best Kind of Comedy: Relevant, Uplifting
Mel Brooks said it best. He's the Jewish comedian who wrote The Producers, the movie and Broadway play that features a Hitler impersonator. He said that some topics are so traumatic that they can only be explored through comedy.
In the same way, The Interview takes an important issue of our time and satirizes it without becoming dark. North Korea is essentially a death camp for its millions of citizens, and the main plot focuses on bringing down the dictator a peg or two.
To my delight, I not only laughed out loud, but had prolonged laughter where I could not believe what was happening on the screen. The film is not just a satire, it is genuinely funny.
You have to expect a certain kind of comedy from Seth Rogen: it's enormously intelligent, yet also full of dick jokes. That contradiction is resolved through the personalities of two best friends, ignoble interviewers, who get the chance to visit North Korea, and then are approached by the CIA to do something noble.
There could have been more foreshadowing in the film, for example in the romance subplot and in a build-up to the climax, but otherwise was excellent. The starvation of the North Koreans is satirized but without a dark scene showing the misery, keeping it a comedy. The mission to kill off Kim Jung Il goes awry immediately and the film heads into territory that you will not expect.
It would have been easy to make this a fictional dictator, but keeping it real makes the film relevant and even important. Too many people turn their eyes away from this important topic. Not only is a comedy the best way to discuss such the horrors of totalitarianism in a mainstream way, it may be the only way.
Fascinating premise but a bit too 'soap opera'
Jericho has a fantastic premise: the result of a nuclear Armageddon on a small Kansas town.
Unfortunately, the show can be melodramatic in its romance plots and in after school special moments such as the broken-hearted teenager who always does the right thing, with too soulful and heavy handed music. Being understated is best.
On top of that, the ensemble cast has nearly 20 main characters, so we don't get to know any of them well. The plots are necessarily shallow. For characters to make choices that seem realistic, we need to get to know their motivations and goals. For this reason it is not nearly as interesting as The Walking Dead.
On the positive side, Jericho does not have the trap that Deadwood had, the Old West TV show. Deadwood never seemed to go anywhere. The characters didn't have clear goals and a high-level direction. In Jericho you always know what the town and individuals goals are scene to scene.
It's worth watching, just not the best. My trick? I fast forward through the lingering looks.
The Big Bang Theory (2007)
Dead in the first 100 seconds
Having heard good things about the strength of Big Bang Theory's writing, I am sorry to say that I immediately hated the show.
Rather than having an intelligent plot with character depth, they seem to wander wherever they need to, to drop in one-liners. For example, their friend may have a peanut allergy in Season 1, Episode 2, but they joke about it even though it may be life-threatening. Having a medical receptionist tell them to wait in Season 1, Episode 1 so that she can work on her crossword puzzle is also out of character -- something she'd be fired for -- and was clearly dropped in so that the geeks could solve it and show their intelligence.
The acting and awkward pauses for audience laughter seem forced. All this I get from the first 100 seconds of episodes 1 and 2. It is easy for me to conclude that the show lacks story, and with its laugh track (I don't care whether it's live or recorded) it seems like a throwback compared to shows like Modern Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, and Community. I recommend these shows to you highly.
My intuition is that this is not a show for intelligent people who might playfully call themselves geeks. This is a show for the butt-heads who may lack refinement but like to laugh at what they think a geek is.
The Ledge (2011)
Stunning, intelligent thriller about the dangers of heart vs. head!
It's not hard to put together a monster film. You throw one insane guy together with a hero, and add a car chase. The Ledge is nothing like this, and that's why it's so impressive.
The main struggle is between a Christian with extreme beliefs, and an Atheist who just wants out. Uniquely, it's the only film I can think of that has an openly atheist hero and an A-list cast. And ironically, the few people who have complained about this show exactly what the film is trying to portray: that some people are so intolerant of atheism that even one movie among the thousands in history is too much for them.
To me, the star of this film is Patrick Wilson, who plays the fundamentalist. Instead of becoming a monster, his portrayal links completely normal passions like love and protection and revenge that we can all identify with, but then takes it to the natural conclusion, egged on by his convictions that anything he decides to do must be blessed.
Thus the central thesis of the film -- that belief can go too far -- is played out on a small stage. This is a drama of just 6 people, but the intricate explosions between them pull at the heartstrings far more effectively than a car chase in an action film would. We hear so much about the dangers of religion in big stories like 9-11, gay rights, and abortion rights. Here is a film about the dangerous of religion in the everyday, the dramas so commonplace that everyone who watches can find something in their own lives to compare it with.
Sure, I've never walked out onto The Ledge. But something about the masterful writing and acting in this film creates an authenticity that is undeniable.
Go ahead. Rant against atheism. Show us how intolerant you are. Violent words and deeds are the response of someone backed into a corner, desperate not to lose it all, just like "Joe" is in this film.
The Wicker Man (2006)
Vastly underrated, a terrific intellectual thriller, no need for blood
I'm tired of horror films that shock you with trick camera cuts or lots of blood and gore. To me, the intellectual thrillers are the best, like Silence of the Lambs, or the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.
I'm aware that it's a minority opinion, but I really enjoyed the film and I would urge you to overlook the huge fans of the original. Fans are a strange bunch. They have such nostalgia for the past that they can't see that the quality of movies have improved vastly in 40 years. Instead of celebrating the attention that a remake (of whatever quality) brings to the original, of course they can't help themselves in a frenzy of shredding it because their favorite plot points are gone.
My, my. Aren't we serious.
I've seen both versions and to me the remake is superior. The production quality is higher, as reflected in the costumes and visual and sound quality.
Also, the "Christians as victims" theme has been removed, leaving, to me, a purer, distilled theme: that humans can do unimaginable things to each other. Of course, it's horrific because it's also true. Humans did create the Nazis. We do create cults.
The plot is tighter, with fewer lags for exposition, and the nudity in the original is really unnecessary.
To me it was spookier than The Island of Dr. Moreau. And the original is great too. I think we should support them both and stop being such whiners.
I give The Wicker Man (2006) an 8 out of 10 and if you're looking for just one good review to encourage you to give this film a try, you have found it! :)
Johnny Monsarrat Consulting. All content by Jon Monsarrat!
True Grit (2010)
Every Moment Gripping From Start to End - A Must See
I've just seen a preview of True Grit and could not speak more highly of the film. I'm not much for Westerns because I have no fondness for the prairie or animals, but this one is an exception.
The story focuses on a 14-year-old girl whose father has been murdered. She wants justice and she goes at it with both barrels, drawing in two bounty hunters and several criminals into a scheme that spirals up and out of control. Although the characters showing true grit are deadly serious, the film has laugh-out-loud humor that keeps it from going so over the top as to be unbelievable. The girl performs several heroic deeds that show her mettle but do not swerve into "superhero" territory -- there is nothing goofy or "kids movie" about the film.
Each of the traditional Western themes is given an original twist. There's no face off at 20 paces to the film, and the action scenes if anything add to its veracity instead of being a draw away from it.
Redemption, justice, vengeance, bravery, holy mother of God, with Oscar bait performances by Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld. If you do not see True Grit when it hits the theatres on the big screen, you will regret it.
He's mean. She's brittle. This is a love story?
I'm forced to say I just didn't "get" or enjoy Rebecca at all. I'm sorry.
Our male hero alternates between making his love interest cry and heckling her for trying to please him. He proposes by mentioning it in a flippant and sort of insulting manner from the next room. Our female hero tries so hard to please everyone that she's constantly excusing herself and breaking down.
Sure, people like this exist in the real world. But this is not a Leaving Las Vegas story of crippled people... it's portrayed as a true love story. I find it sickening. These days, we look up to strong women, and we certainly don't want people (of any gender) constantly saying thing that are mean.
To add on top of this, I didn't feel any chemistry between the characters... declaring their love felt quite sudden, I didn't feel any real chemistry about the hero's angst about his dead wife... the whole film just seemed contrived. The scenes where the heroine isn't quite ready for rich living become repetitive, like beating a dead horse. It would feel preachy if only there were some message to preach. Finally, I'm sorry to say it, but cinematography and things like color have been in films for a long time now.
This film left me even more confused than Chasing Amy and I couldn't get all the way through it. I can see from other people's reviews that a murder mystery eventually surfaces. But hey, I did get an hour into the film without a hint of tension so I guess that all happens later. I'm forced to give it a 3 out of 10.
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Drained of tension, preachy, irrelevant to the war, & showing its age
So World War II, the biggest event of the century, just ended and the best film topic they had was a fictional mutiny on an tow ship that does nothing? You couldn't find any compelling real-life stories, eh?
Tsk tsk. This courtroom drama could be interesting if the viewers are kept in doubt as to the guilt or innocence of the accused, for example in 12 Angry Men (1957). But the first half of the film demonstrates it clearly, at a very slow pace. Humphrey Bogart, the subject of the mutiny, doesn't even come onto the ship for 30 minutes.
Then, he's supposed to be crazy but the way it's dramatized and acted just isn't that thrilling. Even the scene where they might lose the ship itself somehow is underdone, lacking the witty dialogue and tension of, for example, the mutinies in Crimson Tide (1995) or Star Trek (2009).
The courtroom scenes are pretty lackluster as well. The actors involved don't seem to get very heated and that communicates. The romantic side plot adds nothing. The side plot with Fred MacMurray is supposed to be a shocker but is both telegraphed beforehand and brushed off as nothing afterwards. Also, I'm sorry to say it, but thrillers and special effects have come a long way in 60 years. The film shows its age.
I would give the film a watchable 5 or 6 if it weren't for the preachy tone at the end. I won't spoil the ending for you, but the verbal sparring about incompetency vs. mental illness vs. duty vs. showing respect for those who sacrificed just didn't move me. (That being said, the high point of the film with Bogart's speech was dead on.)
I'm forced to give The Caine Mutiny an unwatchable 4 out of 10, sort of a bonus 5 for failing to do a WWII story that's in any way relevant or actual.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Showing its age musically and couldn't identify with hero or plot
Yankee Doodle Dandy was made in the last decade before rock and roll and when vaudeville had barely left the stage. I've got no problem with musicals: I love Singing in the Rain and The Sound of Music, for example.
But I just wasn't captivated by the music of Yankee Doodle Dandy. They repeat all the songs two or three times, James Cagney tends to "speak sing" too much, and the production value... well, this isn't Chicago (2002).
That might have been excused. Unfortunately, the main character is egotistical and unlikeable. Of course, that's his character flaw. But I found myself unable to root much for him. I understand that this is a true story of a real person, but the rags to riches concept works so much better when the hero is a good guy. In addition, the story doesn't flow along easily. The story covers twenty years and the plot seems like an excuse to tack together pieces of musical productions the main hero is involved with. There's little character depth, and while there's humor... it's not chock full of humor. It's really showing its age, and even includes whites performing in black face and corporal punishment of children.
It's supposed to be one of the best musicals of all time. But I guess this is one of those classics that only film school or musical theatre majors can love. Even the music isn't fresh, as it is drawn from George Cohan's previous shows.
I'll give Yankee Doodle Dandy a disappointing 5 out of 10.
She's Out of My League (2010)
Better than the trailers... A typical romantic comedy, but solid & with a fantastic ending!
I'm a guy who prefers action movies and not quite the romantic comedy type, so I wasn't expecting much from She's Out of My League from the trailers, and the oddly touched up movie poster that leaves Jay Baruchel looking not quite human. However, I was surprised to find it an enjoyable comedy.
The film centers around Kirk Kettner (Jay Baruchel) a man with self- esteem problems whom a dream girl (Alice Eve) fancies. I never really felt the chemistry between the two leads since the premise -- his anxiety -- kept getting in the way. In fact the premise is sort of beaten to death, making the film a little repetitive. I'm reminder of the film Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which the premise is that a couple breaks up and runs into each other. But after a half hour, the film goes in new directions. She's Out of My League never escapes its premise. That being said, the supporting cast are all given something real to do and characterizations that are mostly real. I was particularly amused by T.J. Miller's performance as the best guy friend.
There's some original toilet humor and plenty of laugh out loud moments, especially those involving Kirk's family. However, plenty of moments flop as well, such as picking a fight in a bowling alley. Alice Eve played her role a little too straight, in my opinion, unlike her best girl friend, played by Krysten Ritter, who was just wacky enough to keep the comedic momentum going. Do you know what I'm talking about? If the pain and conflict that keep plot tension going are a little too real, it's not as comedic. I'm thinking of the films "Meet the Parents" and "Meet the Fockers" in which the characters are all a little batty and we can tell that any conflict is cartoony and not going to lead to real pain.
That being said, the film has a phenomenal ending, and this is why you should go to see it. Everyone's felt the frustration of flying through airport security and the film ends with a power fantasy of circumventing that, in a harmless way that involves the entire cast of supporting characters. It's even better than the airport ending of "Love, Actually."
So yes, if your girlfriend wants to take you to see this, go! It's a solid comedy, not one for the ages, but worth your time.
I'll give She's Out of My League a respectable 7 out of 10.