155-158: Jeff, Be Kind, Snow White, Short Circuit

Every once in a while I am going to play catch-up. Due to time constraints I am not able to write full-on reviews for every movie I watch. The movies I don’t have the time for I will aggregate in these Catch-Up episodes.

155: Jeff Who Lives At Home

Jeff Who Lives At Home seemed to me to be one of those hipster comedies that are just too clever for their own good, but I came away very surprised that this is actually a very funny and thoughtful movie. Jay and Mark Duplass are mostly known for their meandering ‘mumblecore’ outings, but this is nothing like those movies. Jason Segal plays Jeff and inhabits him completely. His musings on M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs are hilarious. Ed Helms plays his despicable brother Pat and it is nice to see him play up his more evil side for once and not be the corny good guy. While the movie takes some time to get up to steam the wait is well worth it. The characters are fleshed out really well and come together rather nice at the end. This is an excellent unassuming comedy about people stuck in their lives and finding a new way.

156: Be Kind Rewind

Michel Gondry is a gifted artist and his work has fascinated me for years. His beautiful music videos for Björk, Massive Attack and The Chemical Brothers in particular caught my eye early on. He eventually made one of my favorite movies of all time: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but I get the feeling he has lost his way a bit in his own visual style. Nowhere else is that more evident than in Be Kind Rewind. Gondry’s homemade style of film-making is pushed to the brink of being annoying in this fairy tale about the sweding of movies. The conceit is that all the videotapes in a video store have been erased and that our heroes are supposed to figure out a way to fix this. They decide to recreate the movies on their own, which is fun in itself. Be Kind Rewind has no problem convincing us that these sweded movies are fun to watch. That’s where Gondry’s style fits perfectly. The problem is the fact that the rest of the movie just doesn’t add up too well. Be Kind Rewind is the textbook example that an idea can be very funny in short segments, but simply doesn’t add up to a good movie.

157: Snow White and the Huntsman

Can a good enough movie be ruined by a single piece of the puzzle? After seeing Snow White and the Huntsman I believe this to be the case. This is by no means a terrible movie. There are some problems with the pacing and some directorial choices (was the big green monster scene really necessary), but on a whole there is a lot to enjoy here. The movie looks brilliant and Charlize Theron is deliciously evil. Then why did I not enjoy it one bit? I think it’s because of Kristen Stewart as Snow White. I’m sure she is a decent actress in some parallel universe, but this role wasn’t the one to display any skill whatsoever. There is no emotion in her eyes and consequently I could not bring myself to be invested in the adventure she is on. I felt literally nothing and was bored to tears. Such a shame, because I felt there certainly was a lot in Snow White and the Huntsman that could justify it being a good movie.

158: Short Circuit

This is one of those movies that can do no wrong with me. It is up there with The Goonies, WarGames and Gremlins. Even now, nearly thirty-eight years old, I enjoy the hell out Short Circuit and as it so happens… my five-year-old son does as well. He eats it up until he is full and then asks for seconds. Just like I did when I was a kid. I used to watch the aforementioned movies on a loop. But what does the rational, cynical movie review part of my brain tell me about Short Circuit? It tells me the comedy is corny, the logic is non-existent and more of such movie review jargon. Often people say you have to watch movies with the target audience in mind, because it isn’t fair to judge a kids movie by adult standards. So when I see my boy enjoying the hell out of this movie, and I am sure many more to follow, I know enough. This movie works its magic ways and will continue to steal the hearts of a lot of children to come.

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Intermission: Disney buys Lucasfilm

About ninety minutes ago my Twitter-feed exploded. This time the reason wasn’t some gaff Romney made or a hurricane blasting the east coast of the United States (which is obviously terrible). No, it was something completely different… something I had been expecting in some way, shape or form for the last few months. The news was that George Lucas had announced he sold his beloved Lucasfilm and all of its properties to the Walt Disney Company, a move I applaud, but I am getting ahead of myself. Every since the beginning of June I have been waiting for an announcement of this magnitude.

On May 31 George Lucas announced he was planning his retirement from Lucasfilm. I exhaled a sigh of relief when I heard that news. While I love the guy for what he has achieved, I am also of the opinion that George Lucas’ presence and influence on Star Wars was becoming more of a burden than a boon on the development of new Star Wars properties. His sensibilities didn’t seem to grow along with his audience. I know his primary audience would always be kids, but he didn’t seem to grasp the notion that a large part of that same audience are people like me… people who grew up with Star Wars, love it to death and want a little more from it than just cartoons and poop jokes. We begrudgingly accepted everything Lucas threw at us over the years, including the prequels, and stuck with it all because we love the property. So the news that Lucas would be stepping down was good, but also sad news to me.

A day later Lucasfilm issued a press release that none other than Kathleen Kennedy would be joining Lucasfilm to oversee the production of new material in the coming years as a co-chairman. That news made me perform back-flips when I heard it. Red flags went up in my head, because this is the person who was the producer of some of the biggest and most successful blockbusters ever made, most notably her work with Steven Spielberg throughout the years. This told me Lucasfilm was serious about the future of Star Wars and all the other properties they have in their vault. I knew something was up, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to pull this successful movie producer away from her own company. She was going to inject some true blockbuster sensibility into Lucasfilm, a company that has always been extremely proud of its independence.

Come to think of it… her relationship with Steven Spielberg might even make a collaboration with him a possibility for a new Star Wars movie, hmmmm…

I was expecting some sort of announcement about the future of Star Wars in Orlando at Star Wars Celebration VI. But nothing surfaced that could make the entire Convention Center rocks on its very foundation. Maybe that was for the best, because news of this magnitude would have blown the roof off the Orange County Convention Center. Would have been cool, though.

Now, am I happy Disney has bought Lucasfilm? My initial reaction is a huge YES. We have witnessed what Disney did to Marvel. They backed Marvel every step of the way while they were assembling the biggest blockbuster event of 2012 and Disney continued to support Pixar after they acquired John Lassiter’s company (although I must admit Brave was a little too Disney for my Pixar). Both these acquisitions were met with extreme reluctance on the part of the fans. The outcome, however, strengthens my belief that Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm can be a really good thing for us fans.

Fun fact is that Lucasfilm and Pixar are now back together again.

Disney has always been open to their companies operating more or less on an autonomous basis. Sure, there will be some notes exchanged and merchandising will be rampant, but we are used to that. The main thing is that the person who is going to make these new installments is going to have the freedom to create new and hopefully slightly more mature adventures than we have seen so far. Disney has already announced a new movie for 2015 and Bob Iger has stated that the possibilities for television are also very good.

Another factor is of course money. For years we have been hearing that new Star Wars projects weren’t possible because the funding couldn’t be completed. Money is one of Disney’s lesser problems, so that excuse should be off the table now.

The only thing us fans can hope for is that smart people are going to be selected to produce and direct these movies. People who realize that acting and story are just as much a part of making a movie as having brilliant visual effects. Maybe then we can start to put the whole prequel mess behind us. For now, let the rampant speculation commence and let us rejoice that the future of Star Wars seems to be in good hands.

May the Force be with us all

154: Titanic

James Cameron #6

Titanic is a masterpiece, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The sheer visual spectacle James Cameron displays here trumps all of the negative elements of the movie. Cameron’s story behind the sinking of the Titanic may be full of contrivances and romantic blubbery, but it is also full of heart-wrenching honesty about this tragic event. There may be better movies out there, but none of them with the visual splendor Cameron unleashes on his audience. It isn’t hard to understand why this movie went on to become the number one boxoffice success ever… at least until Cameron’s next movie Avatar, but more on that in another piece.

In 1998 I was at an age when one wants to be an individual. I didn’t want to be part of the masses and sought out movies that other ‘normal’ people probably wouldn’t go see. Therefore I was not really looking forward to Titanic, a movie that was hyped so much upon its release. It was probably nearly a month after its release that a friend of mine dragged me to the theater to see it. It is not often that you go to a movie that has been out for a month and still enter a packed theater. It was filled to the brim. That told me this could be something special. In the end I was so glad my friend took me to Titanic, because I was blown away. I didn’t care one bit about the running time, or the slightly stodgy acting, or the contrived romantic story. I was so completely immersed in the experience that everything else seemed to fade away.

I guess that was the experience a lot of people had… over and over again. Cameron created something magical: a movie about one of the biggest tragedies of the modern world that we all know the ending of, but actually know just about nothing about. Cameron filled out his epic with characters with have come to know and love. Rose, played by Kate Winslet, is the perfect mirror for every independent thinking woman out there. Jack, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the guy us men all want to be. The rest of the cast may have been a bit two-dimensional, but with a supporting cast that has the Titanic itself in it you don’t really need much more character than that.

One of the saving graces of Titanic may even be the running time. We get to spend a lot of time with the characters before anything really happens. It takes Cameron approximately one hour and thirty-eight minutes to get to the point where the shit hits the proverbial fan. Cameron’s patience gives us ample time to form a bond with these people who are bound to become victims, but who before this were often just statistics. That’s why the sale of tissues exploded when Titanic was released. We care for these people and we feel terrible when the ship goes down and we see all of them in the freezing arctic waters. And when the shit hits the fan it hits the fan in a spectacular way.

From the moment the Titanic hits the iceberg Cameron pushes his movie into overdrive and we are witness to one of the most horrifying ordeals ever. Cameron built an almost exact replica of the ship (just one side) off the coast of Mexico and added to that set with digital visual effects that were, of course, groundbreaking at the time. You believe every single moment we see the Titanic on the screen, it is majestic. The attention to detail in everything is also what sells the movie. Cameron wanted everything to be exactly like it was. From the china, to the window dressing, from furniture to uniforms. Nothing was left to chance. Titanic is, despite its flaws (Celine Dion), a movie you have to experience and let wash over you. That last shot of everybody standing there at the grand staircase welcoming Rose back to the Titanic gets me every time.

Did it deserve its Oscar for Best Picture? Considering the competition–Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential, As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty–I would have to say no. In my opinion L.A. Confidential is a better movie than Titanic, but I can forgive the Academy for being swept away by the enormous adventure that is Titanic. Other than Best Picture it went on to win ten other Oscars, including just about every technical Oscar given out that year. I think that is completely deserved. Cameron accomplished something here that will baffle people for a long time to come.

After completing Titanic Cameron took a long time off to do other things than directing feature films. He went on to direct three documentaries about the world underwater: Expedition: Bismarck, Ghosts of the Abyss and Aliens of the Deep. Especially Ghosts of the Abyss is remarkable. Cameron went back to the wreck of the Titanic to add to the epic he already had created. It is a beautiful documentary with astonishing photography of the actual Titanic. Highly recommended if you want to see more of the Titanic. Every once in a while I return to Titanic and I urge everybody to do the same.

> IMDb

153: Tyrannosaur

Paddy Considine caught my eye for the first time when I watched Jim Sheridan’s exceptional drama In America. I was very taken with the way he shaped his character in that movie. The next time I saw a movie with Considine was at the International Film Festival in 2005 when I watched Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes, a movie that to this day fills me with dread. His portrayal of ex-soldier Richard who steps up to protect his kid brother was such a tour-de-force that it cemented Considine in my head as one of the biggest talents we have today.

Ever since I have seen him pop up in various productions (including The Bourne Ultimatum), but now he has set his eyes on directing, a prospect I very much welcome. And he doesn’t start lightly. His directorial debut is Tyrannosaur, a hard-hitting drama about violence, redemption and religion, which he also wrote. (For the explanation of the title you will have to watch the movie, it is great.)

Joseph is a man who, after the death of his wife, has become a self-destructive drunk who poisons everything around him. One day he gets into a fight and stumbles into a second-hand store where he meets Hannah. She is scared, but nonetheless approaches Joseph in a loving manner. This gesture sparks something in Joseph. He slowly but surely starts to see meaning in his life again, even if it’s just a little bit. Meanwhile Hannah starts to experience quite different repercussions from their encounter. Her husband is also a drunk bastard, who coincidentally isn’t beyond beating on his wife. What seems to be a blessing for one turns out to be a nightmare for the other.

Considine isn’t prepared to sugarcoat the plights of his characters and his two main actors are totally up for it. Peter Mullan is one of the most intense actors I have seen in a long time. His role in the 2010 drama Neds (which he also directed) was one of the highlights of that movie, albeit a brief one. His portrayal of Joseph is an extension of that role and this time he gets to do it for a whole movie. Yes! It is not a pleasant performance to watch, but it is honest, brutal and compelling. For example, when he suddenly bursts into one of his tirades and he sees for the first time the fear it strikes in someone, you can see the revelation in his eyes. He may not change his life right then and there, but the seed is planted.

Hannah is played by the relatively unknown Olivia Colman. She embodies the meek-spouse-under-siege in a heartbreaking manner. She is fragile as someone in that situation would be. Gradually we are made privy to her life and it is also not pretty. While Joseph ugliness is all outward, the ugliness in Hannah’s life is hidden behind closed doors. There are, however, glimpses of hope. The moment she figures out that she is capable of standing up to her bastard husband is a beautiful one, unfortunately the scene doesn’t end very well for her. Additionally along the way she learns through Joseph that there is more than the prison she has been living in all this time.

Eddie Marsan has the dubious honor of playing the evil husband. He is one those men who will kick you to hell and back and a moment later will apologize and ask for your forgiveness… all under the guise of religion. There is absolutely nothing in him that could be worth redeeming. Some people just seem to be beyond redemption. Not Joseph, though. It looks like he will be able to find that little bit of hope to turn his life around.

People have been saying that Tyrannosaur is a movie about misery and not much else. I don’t agree with that. What Considine is trying to show us in the basest way possible that for everybody there is a way out of the pit of hell they are living in. Your redemption could come from that one chance encounter you have after you drunkenly smash somebody’s window to pieces. You never know when it will hit you. Be on your guard.

> IMDb

152: The Dictator

Sacha Baron Cohen became a household name when he burst onto the global comedic scene with Borat, a brilliant piece of social commentary. It was one of my favorite movies of 2006. He tried to replicate this same formula with Brüno, a look at the fashion industry that was rife with vulgarities and incredibly unfunny comedy. I never even finished watching Brüno, I thought it was that bad. I hoped Cohen would be able to rectify the Brüno debacle with The Dictator, but regrettably it is nothing short of a disappointment.

This time around Cohen dresses himself up as a dictator from a smaller Arabic country modeled after every single stereotype there is to be found based on that region. He has a long beard, shoots people at will and even manages to change certain words in their language, which of course makes no sense at all, but that is besides the point.

Dictator Aladeen (Cohen) is troubled. He is troubled because it seems like democracy is about to be introduced in his country. He flies off to New York to plead his case in front of the United Nations, but once there he is kidnapped and replaced by one of his doubles. Stripped of everything he owns he must find a way to stop democracy from winning. That’s when he meets Zoey (Anna Faris), the ‘manager’ of a coop in Brooklyn, who is under the impression that Saladeen, or Efawadh, is a dissident who is fighting against the Saladeen regime.

There is potential here for some great comedy and don’t get me wrong, there are some really great scenes (the helicopter scene is hilarious), but for the most part Cohen and his writing partners choose to take the easy way out by resorting to gross-out humor and easy puns. It becomes tedious to watch so much comedic potential be wasted on material like this. Faris, especially, deserves a lot better than this.

When I watched Borat for the first time I was amused, repulsed, intrigued and ashamed all at the same time. It was an intelligent criticism of culture and society in general. I hoped The Dictator could shed some comedic light on the issues the world has with the Middle Eastern region (and vice versa of course). Cohen unfortunately went for the low hanging fruit and wasn’t willing to dig a little deeper to find the real comedic gold.

> IMDb

151: Project X

Foul language, sexist behavior, debauchery, drugs abuse… if this is the state of being a teenager these days, I am going to pull my kids out of school and lock them in a closet until they are old enough to know better. Well, that was my reaction after seeing Project X, the ‘found footage’ movie that started sort of a rage. In Holland riots broke out after a girl ‘organized’ a Project X-party that spread like wildfire on various social networks. If anything, Project X shows us the power of social media, regrettably it has nothing else to say that amounts to anything.

Not being popular has never been easy, becoming popular in high school is even harder. Thomas’ parents are out-of-town for a few days and his friends decide to throw their buddy a party for his birthday and not just any party. They employ all sorts of mass and social media to round-up an enormous crowd of party people. It isn’t long before the party turns into a complete disaster. The house is trashed and there is no way they are going to be able to contain the damage.

And then there’s the ‘found footage’ aspect of Project X. Earlier this year I expressed my concerns when I reviewed Chronicle about this way of film making. And again I have to say that it is totally useless here. We are led to believe that all this was filmed by some amateurs on commercial cameras and cell phones. This works to a certain extent when we are watching frantic crowd scenes, but are we really to believe that somebody happened to have an underwater camera on him to film the lovely bottoms of the ladies in the pool? To make matters worse, the footage mostly looks like it was shot by a professional cameraman anyway. If you are trying to pull this off, then make an effort.

The biggest problem I have with Project X is the movie’s inability to hold its main characters accountable for what they have done. The boy whose house was trashed gets sort of a pat on the back from his father and receives notoriety and popularity in school. The other kids just talk about what kind of punishment they could get, but we never see anybody get in trouble over what they have done. Personally, I would have sent my kid off to Siberia for a few years after he’d done something like this. The fact that Project X doesn’t discipline its characters sends a signal to the impressionable minds of young people who these actions are cool and without consequence. Not exactly the type of message you should want to send to your audience.

I guess I am getting old or something, because I couldn’t find anything in Project X to be entertaining. I felt more kinship with the neighbor who called the cops.

To put things into perspective, I am positive my parents didn’t find Bachelor Party the least bit entertaining. Every generation needs its own Bachelor Party. The difference, however, between Project X and Bachelor Party is the fact that Project X isn’t outside the realm of possibility. I never wondered where I could find some hookers and a donkey to throw my own bachelor party. With the push of a button to send a Facebook message one could definitely instigate something like happens in Project X, as the riots in Holland prove once more.

> IMDb

150: Project X

Project X revolves around young air force recruit Jimmy (Matthew Broderick) who is assigned to a facility where he has to take care of a bunch of chimpanzees. Before long he is made aware that the chimps are used in animal testing. One of the chimps is Virgil. He is brought up in a loving environment and taught sign language by Teri (Helen Hunt). That is until funding runs out and Virgil is donated to the facility where Jimmy just started working. Jimmy and Virgil strike up a friendship, but when time comes for Virgil to be up for his experiment, Jimmy starts to have second thoughts.

Project X consists is your standard I-don’t-want-to-be-doing-this-because-it’s-wrong story. There is not a lot more to it. The fact that Project X is as entertaining as it is comes mainly from the charming presence of its leads. Matthew Broderick and Helen Hunt are excellent for their roles because of their wide-eyed innocence that is taken advantage of during the movie. And because the movie takes itself serious this doesn’t come off as exploitative on the part of the movie. This surprised me quite a bit. I was totally ready to skewer this ’80s romp, but it turned out to be a generally pleasant experience. There were some truly intense sequences that make you think twice about animal testing. It is admirable that the people behind Project X didn’t hold back on that material, because it gives the movie a layer of importance that puts it in the vicinity of a movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Of course there were parts of Project X that stretched my ability to suspend my disbelief. Mainly the ending sequence where the apes took flight and escaped was ludicrous and clearly the writer was fighting to find a pay-off that would satisfy ’80s audiences. If Project X were to be remade that sequence would most likely be rewritten somehow. For the most part this is a fine Matthew Broderick flick (you can even see some Ferris Bueler in him in a bar scene). One that actually stands the test of time for the most part.

> IMDb