Movie Watch 2016: Noirish Thrillers

Based on the “see it,” “stream it,” or “skip it” principles as used by reviewers at Just Seen It:

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Bizarre but forward thinking noir featuring a humorously boorish antihero. Stream it!

Night of the Hunter (1955)
Eerie and odd old thriller about a dangerous preacher and two children who get in his way.

Passion (2012) 1.5/5 SKIP (Netflix) (link to review)
In spite of the fascinating first part and wonderful performance by Rachel McAdams, the film devolves into a melodramatic and confusing mess. Read my review here. Skip it!

Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Though beautiful and occasionally thought-provoking, the plot ultimately come across as misogynistic and cliche. Skip it!

Movie Watch 2016: Science Fiction

A REAL short list of some sci-fi films I saw last year:

World of Tomorrow (2015): A short animated film by Don Hertzfeldt about the life of a little girl and her future clones. Recommended. Available on Netflix streaming.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): This Steven Spielberg fairy tale about a robotic boy is sentimental and strange but surprisingly moving and disturbing. Recommended.

Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015): To my surprise, I enjoyed these poorly reviewed films about a rigidly divided utopian dystopia. Though simpler than The Hunger Games, I actually like these more. However, I still haven’t seen the third movie. Recommended.

Star Trek Beyond (2016): The disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) followed the fairly successful reboot Star Trek (2009) and departed even further from the spirit of the original television series. Though well-crafted and spiritedly acted, the third movie in the trilogy is somewhat tired (that’s three out of three vengeful villains driving the plots) and, dare I say it, a tad dull. Not recommended.

Movie Watch (2016): Mind Games, Dystopia, and Abuse

Based on Just Seen It‘s rating system, I’m just going to list several movies along with a recommendation to “see it” (hearty recommendation), “stream it” (good but not for everyone), or “skip it” (I did not enjoy it).

See It

Whiplash (2014): Unfortunately, my top three recommendations all involve the abuse of young people. This tale of an ambitious young drummer and his vicious director is a stylized take on control, abuse, and unholy, destructive musical ambition. The themes recall the tonally different Black Swan.

Blue Car (2002): A heartbreaking take on a young poet who is taken advantage of by her teacher, this time a high school English instructor. (See my post about reviews of the film.)

Brothers of the Head (2005): The title refers to conjoined twins who are molded into punk rockers. Bizarre, atmospheric, darkly funny, and disturbing.

Stream It

Felony (2013): The Australian Felony follows a policeman who hits a child while driving drunk. The movie touches on the abuse of police power and how it is justified, racism, hypocrisy, and justice–or more accurately, injustice. Available on Netflix streaming.

The Double (2013): Based on Dostoevsky’s dystopian novel, this beautifully shot, nightmarish, if brief, movie follows a voyeuristic nobody whose life changes when his doppelgänger appears. Available on Netflix streaming.

Bad Manners (1997): This self-conscious film that betrays its talky theatrical origins is still an interesting portrait of four self-absorbed and even cruel academics who get together for the weekend.

A Good Baby (2000): This is a gentle thriller (if it can be called that) about a young man in rural North Carolina who finds an abandoned baby. It is slow with some unsettling undercurrents.

Skip It

dangerouswoman

A Dangerous Woman (1993): A bizarre melodrama about an odd woman who has difficulties with human interactions and always tells the truth. Includes murder and a sexual liaison that appears to be rape (but the film insists is not). Available on Netflix streaming.

Movie Watch 2016: Shakespeare

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Sorry Shakespeare lovers! Orson Welles’s film about Falstaff has moments of brilliance, including a suitably ambiguous portrayal of Prince Hal by Keith Baxter, but I found myself drifting in and out of consciousness with boredom. Of course, I’ve always thought Falstaff to be overrated.

The Merchant of Venice (1980)

Though this version of The Merchant of Venice is basically a recorded performance, it is a clear and complete (or nearly complete) production of Shakespeare’s most controversial play which manages to illuminate the characters’ complex motivations. If you don’t mind a little dryness and low-budget cinematography, I recommend it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

Tom Stoppard directs a respectable adaptation of his own wonderful play about two interchangeable characters in Hamlet. It’s philosophical and humorous, and it features two of my favorite actors, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, along with a well-cast Richard Dreyfuss as the Player.

Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

This wordy comedy is difficult to adapt (and read), but it can be a joy to watch. Kenneth Branagh and his cast do an admirable job, pairing the original text with songs by Gerswhin, Porter, and the like. The newsreel footage is great fun, but the movie loses steam and feels overly long.

Movie Watch 2016: For kids!

Here’s a quick rundown of the “children’s” movies I saw in 2016:

WALL-E (2008)
I finally saw Pixar’s WALL-E, which features an adorable robot who harbors a love for Hello Dolly. The first half of the film is lovely, but the second half, which introduces round humans (also cute), has an incredibly simplistic take on how humans need challenges to thrive.

Coraline (2009)
Coraline‘s beautiful stop-motion animation and creepy premise set my expectations high. In spite of several amazing set-pieces, the plot is thin (I have not read the book, save one passage–this is criticism of the movie) and not as original as I had hoped.

Peabody & Sherman (2014)
This spinoff film of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series is about the relationship between a father and son, in which the father is a genius time-travelling dog. It is overstimulating and features (intentionally) ridiculous history “lessons,” but it is fairly entertaining.

Cinderella (2015)
The live action version of this fairy-tale is not revolutionary, but it is a sweet ode to kindness, with a charming performance by Lily James as the titular Ella.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Another stop-motion feature with gorgeous animation, Kubo is an epic story about the power of storytelling. However, the script’s attempts at wit are not as impressive as the striking visuals, and the characters feel underdeveloped. It is still worth checking out Regina Spektor’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” arranged by Dario Marianelli.

Movie watch 2016: True stories

Of the documentaries I watched this year, I highly recommend Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Werner Herzog’s magical documentation of some of the oldest cave paintings in the world. I go into more detail in my review.

I also recommend the very different, more flawed, and quite eerie documentary The Imposter (2012) (see my review here) about a missing boy who ostensibly shows up on the other side of the world, seemingly a completely different person.

Trailers for the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015) promised a powerful commentary on sexual abuse and responsibility. This fictional portrayal of The Boston Globe‘s investigations of child abuse in the Catholic Church is well-acted, particularly by Mark Ruffalo, but somehow too brief and light. It depicts community culpability and creates believable characters based on real people, yet its brisk-moving plot and a slick running time, usually positives, do not allow it to be the searing and poignant movie it could have been. I still recommend it, but don’t expect anything life-changing.

All three films are available on Netflix streaming.

Movie watch 2016: Horror

In 2015, I saw The Babadook, an excellent horror film about a widow dealing with a difficult young son. One of his picture books that depicts a terrifying monster known as the Babadook seems to haunt them. The movie is available on Netflix, and I highly recommend it.

I didn’t see a horror movie that matched the suspense or artistry of Babadook this past year, but I did watch several interesting (and not so interesting) horror pieces.

Recommended:

The Witch (2015) follows a Puritan family in 17th century America who descend into paranoia when witchcraft is suspected to cause a tragedy. Though not “the scariest horror film in years,” as Collider says, it is a disturbing and beautifully shot indictment of religious hysteria (though the fervor is apparently warranted, due there being little suspense as to the actual existence of witches) with a script based on authentic old(e) school texts. Almost humorously dramatic at times, Witch features a straightforward plot and a thrilling ending. One disappointment: after hearing that the pet goat deserved an Oscar, I found his appearance to be far too brief.

The awkward, funny, and unsettling Creep (2014) depicts an ill-advised answer to a Craigslist ad. A videographer, the very tall Aaron, travels to an isolated location to meet Josef in order to film him for a day. Josef announces that he is dying of cancer and wants to make a video for his unborn son. His penchant for jump scares and a threatening wolf mask he calls “Peachfuzz” unnerves Aaron, but he feels sorry for the needy Josef. Creep is a found footage film that is sometimes too obviously improvised, but its creepy conclusion makes up for its flaws. Available on Netflix streaming.

In Honeymoon (2014), two newlyweds, Bea and Paul, embark on a honeymoon to a cabin in the woods near a lake, with no cell service or cable. The first half of the film focuses on the couple and their almost annoying giddiness and inside jokes. Their naturalism might not be incredibly gripping, but it is essential to the story’s turn for the worse. The lovers’ believable affection for one another makes their deteriorating relationship all the more effective. Bea starts behaving strangely, but she pretends nothing is wrong, in spite of Paul’s increasing agitation and alarm. Honeymoon is good for what it is, a small, slowly unfolding horror movie. Available on Netflix streaming.

Not recommended:

Fade to Black (1980) is a bizarre and campy story of a cinema-obsessed young man with a Marilyn Monroe fixation and a nasty mother. Unsurprisingly, this loner snaps and turns to violence and full-time escapism as he dresses as monsters from classic films. If this sounds good to you, see it, but it might be too goofy for most.

I had only heard good things about It Follows (2014), but, though atmospheric and beautifully shot, it felt like a let-down. The the rules of a curse in which a sinister “thing” follows its victims are too vague to be particularly suspenseful. The characters are not very well-developed, and the sexual transmission of the curse (suggesting sexual abuse, STDs, fear of sex, etc.) struck me as unoriginal and unimaginative. Available on Netflix streaming, for those who disagree with me.

While Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) is a visually sumptuous gothic romance, it is not particularly scary, shocking, or haunting. Its portrayal of men and women in a horror film is rather refreshing, but the story did not stick with me.

Movie watch 2016: Superhero Problems

Last year was a year for disgruntled superheroes. I already recommended Captain America: Civil War, in which heroes brawl over a UN resolution, and the much hated Suicide Squad, featuring criminals forced to fight a supernatural evil. I had more mixed feelings about Squad‘s precursor Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where one can witness even more battling saviors. In this case, Batman flies off the rails and turns against Superman due to Lex Luthor’s manipulations, and Superman has a very bad day. Wonder Woman also makes a brief but formidable appearance. While fairly entertaining, Dawn of Justice is both slow and convoluted. Jesse Eisenberg’s young Luthor has been criticized for differing wildly from the source material, but I found his twitchy performance to be by far the brightest spot in the film. No longer a calculating old-school businessman, Luthor is now a long-haired, narcissistic genius for the age of Google and Microsoft.

I also reviewed Deadpool, featuring a comic book character who alternates between hero and villain. In his movie, he’s a pop-culture referencing anti-hero, a mercenary turned mad superhuman by a brutal experiment. The sophomoric humor and graphic violence will not work for everyone, but the film’s enthusiasm and tight script generated enough energy to attract large audiences.

 

Movie watch 2016: Musicals

I am neither a musical fanatic nor a hater, but I do not generally seek out musicals. The few music-related films I watched last year were recommended by others.

The French Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) (see my review here) should delight those who love a song a minute, romantic couples, and deliciously shot towns in southern France. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) is not a musical in the same sense, but it includes numerous songs mouthed by its drag queens played by Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp as they travel across the Australian outback. The sometimes poignant story revolves around a gay man traveling to meet his son for the first time. Along the way, he and his companions find themselves in both tense and ludicrous situations. In spite of some misogyny and an egregiously racist series of scenes, this comedy, considered a classic by many and a key moment in MOGAI film history, is for those looking for a fabulous splash of color in the desert and a representation of characters who are unapologetically themselves in the face of a stunned society.

Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) creates a movie musical out of songs by The Beatles. The film is as visually innovative as one would expect from Taymor, but the plot is lacking and the pacing slow. Some may love the kaleidoscopic nature of Universe, while others, like myself, might do little more than appreciate the aesthetic fantasia and familiar tunes, competently sung and adapted.

If you’re tepid about musicals, consider yourself warned, and if you’re a Broadway-head, check out Rochefort, Priscilla (if you haven’t seen either the movie or the theatrical adaptation), and Universe.

Beginning the new year with… Una.

Disclaimer: I have seen neither the movie Una (2016) nor the play Blackbird (2005), on which the film is based. Some described it as Lolita years later fifteen years later, from Lolita’s perspective. I read that Rooney Mara plays Una, a young woman who confronts her abuser Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) years after their “relationship.” The first review that popped up in Google was that by Peter Debruge, chief reviewer with Variety

The article itself disturbs me as much as the film content. The writer refers to pedophilia as “a love that dared not speak its name” and the abuse in Una as “a love affair in which at least one party never stopped caring.” To be clear, a middle-aged man had a sexual relationship with a thirteen year old girl. This is in no way “a love affair” or a pure affection forbidden by society’s cruel mores. Debruge continues:

Her fixation on Ray is so intense that we almost feel sorry for him. He may have ruined her life by promising to take her away to Europe and then abandoning her in a small-town bed and breakfast, but there’s no question that she would ruin his if he only invited this simultaneously brittle and determined femme fatale back into his life.

He refers to a woman suffering from trauma due to child sexual abuse as a “femme fatale” and indicates that we should pity pedophiles who ruin young girls’ lives. The movie and play may show an emotional bond between Ray and Una or depict seemingly genuine remorse from Ray, but I’m confused as to why Una should be content with her lot in life while Ray should be excused from such a fate. Also, did he abandon her a bed and breakfast when she was merely a child? Not only is that extremely dangerous, it also understates the way grooming and raping a young person can ruin one’s life–trips to motels (or rather kidnapping) aside.

The author then notes that the sadism of the situation emerges more on film than in the play: “It’s as if instead of showing ‘Lolita’ from Humbert Humbert’s p.o.v., little Dolores Haze had grown up and taken matters into her own hands.” This statement suggests that it is more twisted and sadistic to turn the tables on a sexual predator than to be a sexual predator, more “comfortable” to watch stories about pedophilia from the pedophile’s perspective.

The only highlight in this shockingly cavalier review was this comment by WandaSes:

we almost feel sorry for him? Is this writer a psychopath? The whole movie is about her confronting him for what he did to her. This writer is a sick, sick person.

I don’t know what I’ll think about the film if I see it. I also don’t know how many more deplorable reviews like this will pop up. Until then, thank you WandaSes!