201-203: Sister, Moonrise, Flynn

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201: Your Sister’s Sister

Mark Duplass is on a roll lately. After directing the excellent drama Jeff, Who Lives at Home and starring in Safety Not Guaranteed he also played one of the leads in Your Sister’s Sister, Lynn Shelton’s newest feature. Duplass again creates a very likable guy, Jack, who has some serious issues to deal with. He decides to retreat to a cabin in the woods owned by his best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt). What he doesn’t know is that the sister of his friend, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is also there to work out her own problems. Hannah and Jack strike up a relationship that culminates in a situation that is extremely uncomfortable for all involved. Your Sister’s Sister is, however, a sweet drama about recognizing each other’s flaws and forgiving them for it, however selfish their behavior might be. Highly recommended if you want a small drama about real people with real feelings.

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202: Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson is a very divisive director. Ever since his first feature, Bottle Rocket, people have been debating whether his movies are works of art of just exercises in art direction. Anderson’s movies are often clinical manifestations of a very exacting brain. They present delightful worlds in which the characters are allowed to play to their heart’s content. His newest entry, Moonrise Kingdom, is no different and this time Anderson invented an entire island for his characters to play in. Everything revolves around two kids who run away from home to start a new life elsewhere. This puts the entire island on high alert, which results in funny situations and poignant drama. I liked Moonrise Kingdom a lot, but I also felt that it was really hard to get through the highly polished look of the film. Anderson is always a meticulous filmmaker, but this time he has taken his control of, in particular, camera movements to another level and that made the movie feel very artificial in many places. I didn’t get that feeling at all while watching his, in my opinion, best movies The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited. I still recommend people seeing Moonrise Kingdom, if only for the top-notch performances of the cast.

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203: Being Flynn

Robert De Niro’s career has in the last decade not been what it once was, but you don’t need me to tell you that. So it is nice to see that once in a while he wants to step outside his safety zone and take on a role that takes a little more effort than Meet the Parents or Analyze This. In Being Flynn he plays Jonathan Flynn, a self-proclaimed genius writer, but in reality nothing more than a con man who has neglected his family. The real main character, however, is Nick Flynn (played by Paul Dano), his son, who he has not seen in years. Nick also wants to be a writer, but struggles with the notion that he is not cut out for the job. One day Jonathan reaches out to Nick, which throws Nick for a loop. Does he want his father in his life, or does he want him to leave him alone. This predicament only worsens when Jonathan shows up at the homeless shelter where Nick works sometimes. Being Flynn is a movie about a very dysfunctional relationship between a father and a son with De Niro playing one of the biggest assholes in his career. Being Flynn could have been a very powerful movie, but it lacks the drive to make us connect more with the main character. Dano is fin as Nick, but the problem is that Nick is not somebody you want to root for. You want to give him a swift kick in the butt to get him to pick up his life and stop whining. While the performances are fine all-round, this casts such a large shadow over it all that just can’t be overcome.

178-180: Safety Not Guaranteed, Innkeepers, Fear and Loathing

178: Safety Not Guaranteed

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Quirky indie movies are a dime a dozen, most of them self-important exercises in low-budget moping. But sometimes an indie surfaces that manages to find the strength to raise itself above the crowd and find something interesting to say. One of these is Safety Not Guaranteed, a great science fiction fantasy drama about people searching for meaning. Once again Mark Duplass manages to give us an engaging performance (earlier this year also in Your Sister’s Sister). He plays Kenneth, a man who thinks he has built a time machine. Young journalist Darius finds a classified by Kenneth asking for a companion on his experiments. Darius (Aubrey Plaza) convinces her editor to investigate further. Under the ‘supervision’ of Jeff (New Girl’s Jake Johnson), Darius and researcher Arnau (Karan Soni) go to find the mysterious man who must be out of his mind. Once arrived things start to take a turn for the absurd as everybody starts to take the opportunity to work out their own problems. The heart of the story is the relationship between Kenneth and Darius. Plaza and Duplass really hit it off and sparks fly every second they spent together. It is an endearing look at the lives of two people searching for more. On the side there are the adventures of Jeff and Arnau, both of which are funny, but ultimately not very important to the central storyline. The whole, however, is a beautiful mix of science fiction, drama and comedy. I totally recommend watching Safety Not Guaranteed, even if you don’t like independent cinema.

179: The Innkeepers

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Deconstructionist horror movies are nothing new. Earlier this year I reviewed the excellent The Cabin in the Woods and last year I loved Tucker and Dale vs. Evil. Now I can add The Innkeepers to that list, while this last addition to the genre does the deconstruction a little more subtle.  Everything in The Innkeepers revolves around the Yankee Pedlar Inn, which is about to close for good. Two custodians (Claire and Luke) are charged with taking care of the inn during its final weekend. Legend has it that the inn is haunted, or so Luke tells Claire. He is supposedly interested in the inn’s sordid history and has even devoted a website to it. During the weekend, however, strange things start to happen and old guests turn up to stay for one more night. Claire and Luke go looking for signs of the haunting, but in the end may be getting more than they bargained for. Director Ti West ramps up the tension from the beginning and doesn’t let up until the end when things start to really get out of hand. Along the way he inserts a surprising amount of humor into his screenplay which alleviates some of the more standard tropes of the haunted house genre. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to The Innkeepers that isn’t overtly visible. I was often glued to the edge of my seat. Not because the movie was so scary or something like that, but because West paints a great picture that will stick with you. I recommend searching out The Innkeepers.

180: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

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Terry Gilliam adapting a Hunter S. Thompson novel is a match made in heaven. Gilliam’s movies always feel like fever dream with all its wild imagery and brilliant production design. Thompson’s famous novel about a weekend in Vegas at the end of the carefree hippy era filled with drugs, alcohol and other such debauchery fits perfectly with Gilliam’s visual exuberance. From the very first moment we know we are in for quite a ride. We see Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro speeding down a deserted highway on their way to Vegas. They are clearly operating under the influence of several types of drug a normal person wouldn’t think of taking, let alone combining. Once in Vegas the shenanigans don’t stop. Soon the drug use starts to take its toll and the situation turns more grim by the minute. This change is reinforced when we are witness to Del Toro intimidating the waitress (Ellen Barkin) at a diner on the wrong side of Vegas. It is an incredibly uncomfortable scene in an already uncomfortable movie. While the movie is more concerned with the drug use than the political underpinnings of Thompson’s novel I admire Gilliam’s courage to take on a project like this. I love Fear and Loathing for what it is: a crazy ride hopefully none of us will ever have to endure.

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.

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

135: Big Miracle

In 1988 three whales got stuck in the ice just off the coast of Point Barrow, the most northern point of Alaska. The media got hold of this heartbreaking story, which is rather common by the way, and a campaign was started to rescue the whales. In the end people from various nationalities, backgrounds and religions combined their strengths to aid the campaign. The new movie from director Ken Kwapis, Big Miracle, is based loosely on this story and I must say it isn’t as horrible as some people make it out to be.

The real power of Big Miracle is the fact that it takes itself serious. The screenplay never resorts to cheap comedy in order to get more people to like it. There is no needless slipping around on the ice or other slapstick. The dialogue may be not of the highest quality, but it never veers from its target and that target is getting these whales out to the open seas. I love that about Big Miracle. Does that mean I loved the movie as a whole? No, not really. When I watched the trailer over and over in the theater I was in tears every single time. I did not have that sensation when watching the complete movie. It just didn’t grab me like I thought it would. And I think that is largely because of the characters.

While the screenplay wants to be sincere in telling its story it forgets that it is humans who are supposed to make us care for a story. The whales are helpless creatures who, with all respect, just hang there. It comes down to the human player to take us on this journey and I was disappointed to see that most of the characters represent very stereotypical parts of society. The lady from Greenpeace has a blinding dedication to the whales. The press is deliciously opportunistic, only wanting to get the best story. The oil company is greedy. The natives are stubborn. Politicians are just looking to be reelected. Big Miracle is filled with stereotypes and it hurts the movie to some degree.

I don’t really mind the licenses the writers have taken with the story. There is a lot that doesn’t really add up when compared to the original story, but an exact portrayal would probably have been less cinematic. We see that all the time, but I think Kwapis has captured some of the essence of this heartwarming story. It may not be perfect, but it surely doesn’t put the origin to shame. You could do much worse than Big Miracle.

> IMDb

130: 17 Again

Sometimes you have to poke through the obvious exterior of a movie and keep an open mind. Recently I decided to dig up 17 Again, a Zac Efron vehicle from 2009 that got panned  by many critics, but which got a fairly positive buzz nonetheless. I always planned on getting back to it, but never got around to it, until now… and I must say that the critics had it wrong this time. This is a largely enjoyable feature about what it means to grow old and the responsibilities that brings with it.

In 17 Again we return to a Big-like story (except in reverse) about a guy who has doubts about the choices he made when he was young. During an important basketball game he chooses to go for the girl instead of the winning play. The ramifications of this choice have kept him occupied all his life. And one night he asks the powers that be to be seventeen again. His wish is granted, the only problem is that he did not specify the time in which he wanted to be seventeen again. See, even asking for a wish he can’t do very well. He becomes seventeen in the present day and that is anything but ideal.

Zac Efron never really showed up on my radar before. It is that dreaded cute-guy-syndrome Leonardo DiCarpio and a score of other guys have been struggling with in their career. Efron shows in 17 Again that he can handle himself beyond being the cute guy who brings the teenage girls into the theaters. His performance is believable and that is all we were asking for in this fantasy-tale of redemption and getting that coveted second chance. His older self is played by Matthew Perry and he is excellent. He has that quality to him a lot of guys can relate to. He is a little chubby, you see he wonders about what could have been, he is insecure and he just doesn’t want to commit to a life that entails having less fun and having more responsibility.

Everything in 17 Again hinges on the performances, because the story we have seen a million times before. Efron and Perry are excellent as the main lead, Leslie Mann plays his wife and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911!) is hilarious as the guy who was the nerd in high school and now has a house that resembles the ultimate man-cave. And Melora Hardin (The Office) plays the hard-nosed principal of the school who takes an interest in Lennon’s character. Their dinner together is one of the true highlights of 17 Again.

Director Burr Steers made Igby Goes Down in 2002, a movie I didn’t feel much for and which I thought was too heavy-handed for its own sake. In 17 Again he seems to have found a more pleasant balance between drama and comedy. He went on to make another movie with Efron called Charlie St. Cloud, which I have yet to see. That flick got panned as well by the critics, so maybe I’ll just have to check that one out as well.

> IMDb

118: Perfect Sense

Perfect Sense tells us a story of the senses or rather the lack there of. Eating a bar of soap becomes nice, licking shaving cream off somebody’s face, eating a raw fish at a market, it all doesn’t matter one bit when you don’t have the senses to, well, make sense of it all. Without all this sensory input you get a new lease on life. At least, that is what director David MacKenzie (Young Adam) would want you to believe.

It is on a normal day that people start turning up at their doctor with the shocking story that they were suddenly overwhelmed with a terrible sense of grief and after that they lost their ability to smell anything. At first the doctors, among them the young Susan, played by Eva Green (Casino Royale), think this is merely a coincidence, but it doesn’t take long before everybody suffers from this mysterious disease. She meets chef Michael, Ewan McGregor (Beginners) from the restaurant across the street and in him she finds a beacon of hope in these trying times. Then matters get worse and everybody starts losing their other senses as well.

In a lot of these apocalyptic fantasies the world goes to hell in no time. Sure, people panic, but that is not what director MacKenzie focuses on for the most time. He uses archival footage and footage shot on location to give his story a global feel while then he returns to the small story that plays in front of the camera in Glasgow, Scotland. An ingenious way of making his movie larger than it actually is. The result is an intimate story about two people weathering a dreadful episode in mankind’s history. A story that is more frightening than believable.

MacKenzie beliefs that when the whole world falls to pieces there will be a predominant portion of mankind that will still be there for each other instead of society disintegrating into a free-for-all like Mad Max or The Road. While I don’t subscribe to this notion (I do think mankind is doomed to destroy itself one day, sorry) it is admirable that MacKenzie dares to take this approach to a story that could have easily gone the other way. There is hope in his vision, even after the whole world clearly goes to the brink of disaster when people start to lose more of their senses.

Every time people start to lose one of their senses it is preceded by a harrowing sequence. With smell it is intense grief, with taste it is sickening eating, with hearing it is a devastating rage and with vision it is excruciating joy. These scenes are perhaps the most intense part of the whole movie. Green and MacGregor throw their everything into these scenes, which make them all the more heartbreaking. The same, however, can’t be said about the love story part of the Perfect Sense. It takes a lot out of the audience to buy into MacKenzie’s belief that everything will be alright in the end just because you love somebody. It is a beautiful idea, but one that is ultimately unsatisfying.

> IMDb