Sunday, March 29. 2015
No Weekend Roundup this week. Got distracted with what follows, and time got away from me. But if I had the time, the thing to focus on this week is Saudi Arabia's intervention in Yemen. This isn't the first time -- Saudi Arabia and Egypt were fighting in Yemen in the mid-1960s -- but they've never been this overt about it (possibly because Egypt seems to be on their side this time). The US should be appalled, expecially since it's being done with US-manufactured armaments. The UN should condemn this blatant aggression, sanction all countries contributing to war in Yemen, and try to arrange a democratic resolution between the eleven distinct armed groups vying for power there. And needless to say, if democracy is the goal, Saudi Arabia and Egypt cannot be the solution.
When I started writing this blog, I would include more or less short notes whenever I saw a movie, along with grades, but at some point I stopped doing so. I still have some rough notes in my scratch file for movies that date back to 2011-12 (Hugo: B+; The Skin I Live In: B+; The Lincoln Lawyer: A-; Source Code: B+). It seems like we see fewer movies each year. Four independent theaters have closed since we moved to Wichita in 1999, leaving us with Bill Warren's monopoly, and Warren got rid of an older theater that he used for relatively arty films -- said he was looking for a "higher use" for the property and wound up selling it to a church. At the time he promised he'd keep showing those films in his other theaters "because his wife liked them," but within a year he divorced her, too. We also haven't rented movies since moving here -- a fairly regular occurrence when we had a store around the corner in Boston. We've been watching more TV series, but not many films on TV.
I wrote a long post about American Sniper the other day, but didn't wrap it up in a capsule review, so I thought I'd do that here, and round it out with the rest of the little we saw from 2014. I also went back and checked for releases in 2012 and 2013. I would have guess that the number of movies I've seen last year was down, but I came up with 20 in 2014, only 18 in 2013, and 20 in 2012. I can remember back in Boston it seems like we must have seen one or more per week, but those days are long gone. These are collected from various annual release lists, so may well be incomplete -- it's also possible that my memory is fading
The Lego Movie (Feb. 1): Animated, got rather amazing hype when it came out. Lots of famous actor-voices, with Will Ferrell as the villain, Lord Business. I suppose there is a lesson there about capitalism, which I might have appreciated more had not everything else been so annoying. C+
300: Rise of an Empire (Mar. 4): Sequel to 2007 film 300 (which I haven't seen), based on ancient Greek war legends as Sparta and/or Athens battles Persia, tied to an unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel which raises everyone and every thing to the level of war porn. Of course, as porn I enjoyed Eva Green (Artemisia) much more than Sullivan Stapleton (Themistocles), even though with the fate of civilization at stake she was consigned to the wrong side. [TV] B-
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Mar. 6): Wes Anderson movie, based on various writings by Stefan Zweig, mostly set before and during WWII, told through flashbacks from much later. The hotel appears to be not in Budapest but somewhere in the Austrian Alps -- at least in some mountains somewhere in Central Europe. Remarkably deep cast; Oscar wins for production design, costume design, makeup and hair. Quite a story too. [Saw it a second time on TV] A-
Noah (Mar. 10): Bible epic from Darren Aronofsky, although it could have come from one of those graphic novels, especially as the "Watchers" take over. God destroys the world, but the decision as to whether mankind should expire seems to be Noah's, and he's in a foul mood. Happy ending, of course. [TV] B-
Ida (May 2): Polish movie, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, about a sheltered orphan girl raised in a convent from WWII seeking insight into her past. Turns out her parents were Jewish, killed by a farmer who hid her in a convent. More interesting is her aunt, a lawyer who joins the search, and pays a terrible price. In black and white, slow and heavy. [TV] B+
Belle (May 2): The story of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, the daughter of a British Captain Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman in the West Indies, adopted in 1765 and raised as a "free gentlewoman" by Linday's uncle, William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice (a perfect role for Tom Wilkinson), who eventually writes a key legal ruling that advances the cause of abolition. A-
Boyhood (June 11): Richard Linklater film, shot over 12 years as its principal subject (played by Ellar Coltrane) grows up from six to eighteen, from first grade to leaving home for college, and less closely follows his sister (a couple years older), mother (Patricia Arquette's Oscar role), estranged father (Ethan Hawke, who was evidently absent for most of the previous six years but takes a consistent interest here). Several ill-chosen stepfathers come and go, which provides most of the stress and strain. It all seems rather eventful and remarkable compared, say, to my own life, but also quite ordinary, which is the charm. I left hoping they had shot enough extra footage to craft a Girlhood starring older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Otherwise this will remain unique. A
Snowpiercer (June 27): Directed by Joon-ho Bong from a French graphic novel, depicts a future dystopia where the class system is rigidly stratified from the back to the front of a train endlessly racing through frozen wastes. The oppressed masses in the back revolt and try to seize the master in the front. The class analysis became more interesting in retrospect once the action subsided. [TV] B
The Hundred-Foot Journey (August 8): Lasse Hallström food film, with Helen Mirren running a Michelin-star restaurant in the south of France, Indian emigre patriarch Om Puri setting up shop across the street, his son (Manish Dayal) developing into a chef good enough for Mirren to poach, and Charlotte Le Bon as intermediary. The food itself is a little over-the-top, and the story is a bit pat, but both are easy to enjoy. B+
A Most Wanted Man (July 25): Film of a John Le Carré novel starring the late Philip Seymour Hofman as a dissheveled German spy chief, who finds and attempts to use a Chechen refugee to trap a Muslim philanthropist into disclosing a financial conduit to a terrorist organization. The CIA gets involved, turning all of Hofman's reassurances into lies. With Le Carré the fiasco may be the point, but one still expects more of the world within movies. B
Magic in the Moonlight (July 25): Woody Allen movie, with Colin Firth as a illusionist/sceptic who's not skeptical enough, and Emma Stone as a charlatan and love interest. Suffers from some of the worst philosophizing of Allen's career -- reminiscent of his earliest movies but less funny. I wouldn't have minded so much, but Laura went beyond hating this and spent the second half heckling. B
Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Aug. 27): Oscar-winning movie by Alejandro Iñárritu, about an actor (Michael Keaton), a big star in Hollywood playing a cartoon superhero ("Birdman") seeking to salvage his acting credentials by staging a Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver story. Problems ensue, including a scene-stealing co-star (Edward Norton) and the vow of a critic (played by Lindsay Duncan) to pan the opening. Many continuous pan shots turn the theater into a labyrinth, adding to the claustrophobia. Even more annoying were the frequent lapses into fantasy or magic -- Keaton levitating, smashing objects, quarrelling with his Birdman alter-ego. At the climax of his opening, Keaton takes a real gun instead of the stage prop and kills himself -- the ending the movie seemed to be aiming at -- but not even that came off right: we find out that he merely shot his nose off, and that the critic came around for the guy willing to spill his own blood for art. Then he jumps out the hospital window and flies away -- I suppose as Birdman repossesses him. Not without its virtues -- Emma Stone's supporting role is one -- but pretty full of shit. B
Nightcrawler (Sept. 5): Jake Gyllenhaal plays a crook and self-help devotee who finds his calling in shooting gory video at car wrecks and crime scenes -- he's advised, "if it bleeds, it leads" -- and selling it to news broadcasters. He then finds that he can get even more sensational footage by orchestrating the events -- in particular, he stages a shootout between cops and home invaders he tracked down. Creepy. B+
The Imitation Game (Sept. 27): Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing (mathematician, cryptanalyst, a major figure in the development of computer science), focusing on his work during WWII in breaking Germany's Enigma encryption codes, but extending from grade school to his arrest for homosexuality in 1952 and death in 1954. The latter events were ghastly by any standards, and they make Turing a martyr, but the film plays this up in all sorts of perverse ways, making Turing appear more dysfunctional and stranger than he actually was, distorting his work, and consigning his colleagues at Bletchley to the sidelines, cheering or (more often) booing as he solves all the problems single-handedly. (See Wikipedia's section on "Accuracy" -- the longest I've ever seen.) Keira Knightley has a nice supporting role, again riddled with inaccuracies but something the movie could have used more of. B-
Gone Girl (Oct. 3): David Fincher film of a bestselling novel which Laura and virtually all of her friends had read. Rosamund Pike plays the wicked wife who frames her husband, played by Ben Afleck, for her murder, and he's guilty enough the charges have some traction. Of course, a body would help, but she loses nerve and doesn't go through with her planned suicide. Instead, she returns to a former boyfriend, finds him a bore, murders him, and passes it off as self-defense. Many times you see a movie and leave wondering what happens next, but with these people it's impossible to care (and probably ridiculous to boot). B+
Inherent Vice (Oct. 4): Paul Thomas Anderson film of a Thomas Pynchon novel, set in southern California in the 1970s, with close to a dozen odd characters improbably interconnected in multiple ways -- all that looping back has a whiff of conspiracy, but my brief familiarity with Pynchon (V. is my all-time favorite novel; I failed to get through Gravity's Rainbow but still intend to finish it some day) suggests that's just the way the world is wired. Doesn't feel like a great movie, but a persistently interesting one. A-
St. Vincent (Oct. 24): Bill Murray plays a surly Vietnam Vet -- smokes, drinks, gambles, has a wife with Alzheimer's in a nursing home he can't afford and a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) in his bed when he can; otherwise he's just a dirtbag and asshole, until he reluctantly befriends a neighbor kid (starting with a scam for babysitting money). The kid goes to Catholic school, and evidently the only thing they teach there is saints, so when he get an assignment to write up "a real-life saint" he does some research and settles on Murray. Probably the best scene is when some mobsters try to shake him down for money he has a stroke and creeps them out. What creeped me out was the sanctimoniousness over his Vietnam "service." B-
American Sniper (Nov. 11): Clint Eastwood's Iraq War film traces the path of Chris Kyle from good-hearted Texas simpleton to serial killer but gets caught up in the action sequences, leaving us with only the sketchiest sense of how he played his "legend" into postwar fame and fortune, or even how he got martyred as an advocate for the therapeutic value of shooting guns for the mentally ill. Sienna Miller reminds us that wives can be forgiving as well as hysterical. Bradley Cooper plays Kyle partly as modest stoic and partly as action junkie, clearly preferring the hunt to his home life, not that he has the critical facilities to question any convention. That any Iraqis emerge with more dimensions than paper targets is due to the scriptwriter's fabrications, but even they turn out to be clichés, and even more absent is any hint of the thinking that made American soldiers arbiters of life and death in that miserable country. I could imagine someone making a mirror movie from the sniper Mustapha's viewpoint, with all that discipline and craft ending as his head explodes from Kyle's distant shot, but who in America would pay to see such a thing? We'd rather be fed the self-adulatory pablum this picture delivers. Still, it's sad that the only pride America can take from this war is the efficacy of its assassins. B-
Selma (Nov. 11): Daniel Oyelowo does a fine job as Martin Luther King as the SCLC moved into Selma, Alabama to campaign for voting rights in 1965, and great care was taken in the casting of the many others who made up the movement, including the tensions between SCLC and SNCC. The white violence against the marchers was also palpable (although several incidents were merely mentioned). On the other hand, I was constantly irritated by how far portrayals of major political figures strayed from my own vivid memories from the day: especially Tom Wilkinson as Lyndon Johnson and Tim Roth as George Wallace. (I was more forgiving of Dylan Baker, who often plays psychotic killers, as J. Edgar Hoover, although the resemblance was equally remote.) One could have made a stronger point that the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which came from demonstrations in Selma, coincides with recent Republican moves to gut the Act and once again to deny poorer Americans the right to vote. B+
I suppose it wouldn't hurt to include 2015 (to date):
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Feb. 26): Two or three storyline threads stretch our favorite Indian hotelier, Sonny Kapoor (played by Dev Patel) way past the breaking point, but this is saved by the same thing that saved its predecessor: it's a marvelous showcase for venerable British actors and actresses -- Bill Nighy and Ronald Pickup have the most to do sorting out their love lives, and Penelope Wilton makes a brief show for a trailer laugh. On the downside, it seems like they spent a lot of time at the end trying to kill Maggie Smith off, then couldn't do it. Ends inevitably with a big Bollywood dance. B
Movies I didn't see but would have liked to:
For a baseline, I went through the 2013 film list. Just wrote down grades (and can't guarantee my memory is perfect there).
Time prevents me from going back further. One last statistical check is for how many A/A- records in each year: 2014: 4; 2013: 6; 2012: 5. Down last year, but not much more than random chance.
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