029: We Are Wizards

I like documentaries that show you sides of pop culture you did not know were there. We Are Wizards is one of those docs. Director Josh Koury invites us to take a look at the world of Harry Potter fandom, but not the fandom where people sit in line for days in anticipation of the release of books or movies.

The focus of We Are Wizards is what people call Wizard Rock, or music based on the stories about Harry Potter. These fans feel the need to get on stage and perform music in bands like Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys and so forth. They perform in libraries and at festivals, and seem to be really popular. They sell dvd’s, t-shirts and some even have groupies. Hmmm, and I was totally unaware of this.

I am a Star Wars fan, but really a pretty solitary one. I hardly go to conventions, I don’t dress up and I certainly don’t think about being in a band based on Star Wars. So I have a hard time understanding the obsession these fans display. It seems Josh Koury feels the same, because he frequently veers off into other territory to fill out his 79 minute documentary.

He gets into the subject of a war the fans waged with Warner Bros because of Warner’s wish to protect their property at the cost of fandom. And he gets into the question whether Harry Potter incites children to take up witchcraft and subsequently ruin their innocent lives. Both of these issues are each deserving of a separate documentary, because frankly the novelty of Wizard Rock wears off pretty quick… and the music itself is really bad.

Koury meanders back and forth between his subjects and delivers a project that obviously has his affection, but isn’t executed very well. Come on, tell us more about the vigilante lady who thinks Harry Potter is witchcraft, now that is interesting (and infuriating).

> IMDb

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028: The Descendants

Not counting the anthology Paris je t’aimes, it has been more than seven years since Alexander Payne delivered the brilliantly bittersweet comedy Sideways. He has been doing other things, just not directing a feature film. I am glad to say that Payne’s new feature, The Descendants, doesn’t betray my anticipation and is a beautiful examination of grief, regret and coming to terms with your own mistakes.

That doesn’t sound very uplifting, but The Descendants will surprise you. Just like in Sideways, Payne manages to perfectly mix hard hitting drama with moments of comic relief, nothing slapsticky, it’s much more subtle than that. Clooney plays a bumbling father who has been more invested in his work as a lawyer and sole trustee of a piece of land, than in his family. When his wife gets into an accident and slips into a coma he must take care of his family, although his two daughters don’t really want him there. When his oldest daughter reveals to him that his wife was having an affair an adventure begins that will make everybody reexamine their life and their decisions.

Payne paces his movie perfectly, dropping hints and taking his story in slightly different directions when you least expect it. He takes his time fleshing out beautiful scenes between the adults and the kids that really cement their relationships for the audience. Clooney plays slightly against character here. He is old and weary and tired of all the nonsense he has to endure when he handles his family in a big real estate deal. He is absolutely out of his depth when dealing with his kids.

The older daughter, Alexandra, appears to hate his guts, but soon turns around when the news about her mother hits her. She becomes his accomplice. The young actrice who plays her, Shailene Woodley, is an eye opener. She reminds me of a young Natalie Portman. She is brilliant and she deserves more work in features. Another revelation is Matthew Lillard, who we all know as the zany actor from Scream. He shows here that he is grown up and able to handle heavy material. Other big names that shine are Beau Bridges, Robert Forster and Judy Greer.

Another element that struck me was the locale. Having been to Hawai’i recently I have to say this is one of the most realistic depictions of Hawai’i. It is wet, windy, beautiful, scruffy, rugged, and all at the same time. I really want to go back sometime and experience more of the islands. I had no doubt that The Descendants would manage to move me and I have to say it did just that. The devil is in the details and Payne is a master of them.

> IMDb

027: The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard

What do you get when you take Ari Gold from Entourage, strip the fine suits and shave and put him in his own feature film… you get The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, a loud mouthed, vulgar comedy that Ari Gold wouldn’t be ashamed of championing. Jeremy Piven is clearly having a ball with this movie and so should you.

In The Goods we arrive at Selleck Motors, a used car lot that is on the brink of bankruptcy. They have to move all the cars or shut the place down. The owners decides to bring in the cavallery, Don Ready and his merry bunch of super salesmen, to save the day. Independence Day weekend will never be the same after these guys leave town.

The Goods is exactly what you should expect. It never strives to be deep or anything remotely deep. It regularly goes for the easiest way out, but it does it with conviction and that comes across. There are a lot of laughs here, just let your guard down a bit.

This is good fun, brought to you by a bunch of very talented people. Look at the list: Jeremy Pivens, Ed Helms, Ving Rhames, James Brolin, David Koechner, Ken Jeong, Rob Riggle, Kathryn Hahn, an uncredited Will Ferrell and the list goes on and on. If you can’t find anything funny in this bunch, than you might as well quit watching comedies.

Thanks to Alison Willmore and Matt Singer for pointing out this was leaving Netflix Instant real soon.

> IMDb

026: Hesher

David Michôd managed to direct a movie last year by the name Animal Kingdom, a gritty Australia crime thriller that ended up on my top 10 list for 2011. Animal Kingdom was a very grounded examination of life in a criminal family and the toll it takes on the life of a young guy. In Hesher – a movie he wrote, but did not direct – there is also a young boy at the center, but this time the movie is a lot less grounded.

T.J. has just lost his mother. He lives with his grieving father and fairly clueless grandmother in a rundown part of town, trying to hold everything together. One day, he hides in an empty house and meets Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a long-haired, tattooed, smoking, porn watching s.o.b. Hesher is mad at T.J. for blowing his cover and proceeds to infiltrate T.J.’s life at the most inappropriate times. He causes all kinds of trouble and tends to ‘help’ T.J. is not so fortunate fashions. Is he imaginary? Is he real? Who knows?

Sometimes a movie tries too hard. Hesher is one of those movies. It tries so hard to be edgy with coarse language, loud music and generally appalling behavior. It is obvious why someone like Joseph Gordon-Levitt would choose a role like this. He has always been a great actor, but he has always played the straight guy. The one who knows what’s best. Hesher is anything but that. He is an animal. When he thinks of doing something he just does it and thinks afterward. He is a person you would not want in your life. Period. Gordon-Levitt needed this role to flesh out his resume.

It is completely beyond me why T.J.’s family lets Hesher come to the house under the guise of being a friend. He just shows up without a backstory (one of the questionable parts of the story) and leaves when the opportunity arrives. T.J.’s father, played admirably by Rainn Wilson, corrects Hesher’s language now and then but never turns him toward the door, something I would have done ages ago, grieving or not. And then there is Natalie Portman, also clearly looking to be contrarian and not really needed here. She is just in the movie to give T.J. someone to stalk and to be Hesher’s subject of his obnoxious behavior.

You can see why Hesher was made. I’m sure on paper it looked really intriguing and edgy, but on the (small) screen it just doesn’t add up. As I’ve said before, Hesher tries way too hard and just doesn’t make much sense.

> IMDb

025: In Time

Can directorial gutsiness diminish over time? That is a question that came to me while watching In Time, the new thriller by Andrew Niccol. With In Time he has made a movie that is very much a companion piece to his 15-year old directorial debut Gattaca. Both movies feature a future in which the focus on one particular part of life is blown way out of proportion. In Gattaca it was DNA and in In Time it is, well, time.

Time has become a currency in this future world where people are put on life’s notice when they turn twenty-five. They have one year to clean up their act or make more money (read: time) to live longer. The result is a highly divided world where the poor live in ghettos scrambling for every second and the rich live in their ivory tower stashing all their time for eternal life. This concept is great, as was the concept of Gattaca, where DNA determined your place in the larger scheme of things.

Gattaca’s concept made the movie personal, because we all have different DNA and we really don’t know to which extent this determines our life. In Time’s concept is much less personal. Everybody has time and everybody can lose it. There is nothing mysterious about that. I admit to not having seen Gattaca in quite a few years, so maybe I remember the movie more fondly then I should, but I believe Niccol displayed a lot more guts in that movie than in In Time.

Gattaca felt edgy with the stark lighting, the beautiful production design and the interesting concept. In Time has some of that, but not nearly enough to get you engaged and caring about the characters, all of whom are terribly flat and uninterestedly played by a cast that is very much inferior to the earlier movie. The whole movie feels like there was definitely a strong idea at the beginning, but that test screenings, focus groups, rewrites, studio notes etc etc derailed it all. Such a shame.

> IMDb

024: Legend

This is the third movie in my Ridley Scott retrospective.

Well, another older Ridley Scott movie passed before my eyes and, dare I say, what a train wreck it was. Legend is Scott’s fourth feature film and was released in 1985, right when a small resurgence of the fantasy film was happening with movies like The Dark Crystal, the Star Wars movies, and later LabyrinthThe Princess Bride and Willow being the closer in 1988. Elements of all these films can be found in Scott’s Legend and not in a good way.

Legend is a criminally uneven film that wants to be everything at once. Scott has a general idea of what he wants to show and of course how to show that, but during most of the movie he is grasping at straws to make ends meet. For example during supposedly dark scenes we are ‘treated’ to some annoying goblins clearly meant as comic relief that feels totally out of place here. Admittedly, the first half of the movie is slow, but there is still a sense of purpose, albeit muddled by terrible dialogue and acting. It is the second half where Legend truly falls apart.

The heroes end up in a spooky dungeon, the heroine is enslaved by the devil and dances like there’s no tomorrow. There is a lot of other stuff going on that is just not interesting and poorly executed. It would have helped a lot to have protagonists to root for. The young actors playing the leads, Tom Cruise (just before he hit it big) and Mia Sara, are not up to the task. Cruise looks confused a lot and Sara just looks afraid and bland. They totally drown in Scott’s lush imagination and have no clue what to make of it all.

It can be said that every successful director has his or her breaking point. A point where hubris and talent don’t perfectly match up anymore. Scott dodged a bullet with Blade Runner, a movie that was quickly embraced by a cult audience, because that is really a good movie. With Legend Scott wasn’t so lucky. He bit off more than he could chew with this one and it put him back on Earth with both his feet. I understand that there is a cult following for this fantasy epic, but that is totally unrealistic and based on people having seen the movie as a kid and still believing that the movie is as good as it was in their young eyes.

Legend is not a good movie. It is slow, boring and just not fun to watch. You can take any of the titles mentioned above (especially Labyrinth) to have a good time with a fantasy story. Let’s leave Legend where it belongs… in Scott’s imagination.

(For the purists: I watched the Director’s Cut with the Jerry Goldsmith score.)

> IMDb

023: Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

I was feeling a little bit under the weather and just needed some comfort food for my eyes. So I popped in Return of the Jedi on blu-ray. When I was young this was always my favorite of the Star Wars movies. Probably because I did not fully grasp the gravity of The Empire Strikes Back, which now by far is my favorite.

I just love everything that is going on in this sixth installment (or third, whichever way you want to look at it) in the series. First the impressive arrival of Darth Vader on the new Death Star, then all the dealings in Jabba’s Palace and the Sarlacc Pit, the demise of Yoda and the subsequent battles on Endor and in space, and the climax between Vader and Luke. Awesome. I remember watching these at a friend’s house and then replaying the scenes with our toys. Great memories.

Back to the movie. I can see the faults with this episode. Sometimes the writing is off and the acting can be stilted, but we are expected to just forgive these in favor of the whole movie. And what do you know? I do exactly that. I even forgive the movie when it kills off Boba Fett way too quickly and that’s saying a lot.

It is of course impossible to not address the changes made to Jedi when I say I watched the blu-ray version. I don’t have a problem with the giant door at Jabba’s Palace, the added Dug, Wicket’s blinking or Han’s thawing. I have on the other hand a huge problem with Darth Vader yelling “Noooooooo.” like he did in Revenge of the Sith. It sounds fake, it feels terribly out of place and it is downright awful. I dislike this so much that I turn off the sound to not hear it. Yes, it is that bad.

With that said, I can conclude that I still love Return of the Jedi after all these years, and I can not think of a set of movies I have seen more times in my life than the original Star Wars movies. I can’t wait to (hopefully) see it in the theaters again in 2017, whether in 3D or otherwise.

> IMDb