29 October - Freeheld
(2015): It’s a horrible thing to report that this picture is cliché, because as I understand it the film very closely follows the real story of its subjects, and it’s not easy picturing myself in front of a real person who has endured terrible suffering and saying to them “don’t you think that your agony was rather ‘by-the-numbers’ and formulaic?”. It’s a little short and agree with other criticism out there that the love story with which the film starts isn’t sufficiently developed; the picture could stand to be slightly longer and significantly kissier. It’s a didactic message picture and at the time that I saw it my reaction to it was that it had incubated too long and finally appeared only after there was no one left who needed to hear its message, but then days later https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/11/12/utah-judge-removes-foster-child-from-lesbian-couple-saying-shell-be-better-off-with-heterosexuals/
happened. So it’s still relevant, sadly, and you should see it if you’re at all unclear on the issue.
07 November - On The Beach
(1959): I’m glad I finally saw this classic by an exalted director that I’d somehow missed until now, but it’s a bit too plain and calm for the imminent end of human civilization. Maybe during the Cold War they didn’t want to show society completely losing its poop? Among the characters there’s mostly dignity and restraint with modest regret and only a little maudlin gallows humor, and no despair or fury at all. I suppose that that matches the scenery; parts of the world in which everyone has been killed are depicted and there are neither bodies to be seen nor objects out of place. It’s all too much a “bang bang; lie down, you’re dead” illustration of thermonuclear armageddon.
09 November - The Diary Of A Teenage Girl
(2015): Really well-done, and I enjoyed watching it, but what keeps it from being a great film is that I don’t feel like a better person for having seen it and I don’t find myself thinking about it in the days and weeks after having seen it. A teenager discovers, accepts, and enjoys her sexuality, making a few bad decisions and a few good decisions in the process. That’s an important story, certainly to the teenager, and it’s entertaining to us as viewers today but it’s not particularly revolutionary or compelling, I don’t think. The severity of her bad decisions is what makes the film a drama with comic elements rather than a comedy with dramatic elements, but that feels more incidental than central to the film. I don’t care how cute he is or how willing to date you he is; don’t date your mother’s boyfriend
09 November - Love & Mercy
(2014): There are a lot of rock star biographies out there and this is one of the better ones. There are a lot of memoirs of mental illness out there too and this is one of the better ones. I’m happy to have learned a little more about some of the music that I know and I found the love story sweet and affecting.
09 November - Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
(2015): I’d heard about this being reviewed as a really well-done action movie. Well it was a really well-done action movie… but I found myself out of rhythm with it. Instead of action-suspense-comedy-repeat, I found myself in action-intrigue-comedy-oh come on now do they actually expect me to believe that’s how international espionage works?-repeat. And when I lost my suspension of disbelief, it disrupted the pacing of the storytelling, because when everything, even the just-revealed man behind the curtain, is subject to another man behind another curtain ten minutes later, there’s nothing on which to build up suspense, and the individual plot elements lose their relationship to one another. I honestly have a hard time remembering how this one ends, because is it really an ending or will everything just be invalidated in the first ten minutes of the next one? Tom Cruise’s character lives, I’m pretty sure.
09 November - Man Up
(2015): By actually being both romantic and comic this romantic comedy outdoes its genre peers. It’s not a perfect film; there’s one subplot that misfires and spoils the mood for a while, but the picture does come together at the end. It takes place in London, so I was glad that it was the last movie I watched on my flight to London.
20 November - The Homesman
(2014): This film is beautifully shot and ably acted but I have big problems with the story. For the homesman himself, I didn’t like him, but no viewer is supposed to like him, so that’s okay. However, I couldn’t buy the change in Cuddy’s attitude over the course of the film; her experiences for me just didn’t add up to her choices. I really didn’t like the way that I barely got to know the three women being transported - they seemed interesting and I would have liked to have gotten to know them, especially through their interaction with one another, and I’m worried that this film, with Mad Max: Fury Road
coming so soon after it, leads an emerging “women as cargo” subgenre in cinema. In the weeks since seeing it I’ve found myself meditating and reflecting on this film, so that’s better than otherwise, but if you want to see a tonally similar also-beautifully-photographed western that has a story that holds together treat yourself to The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
22 November - Before Midnight
(2013): Marital conflict is hard, it’s wrenching and it’s exhausting, and as much as this might be the most frankly and most thoroughly I’ve ever seen it portrayed in a film. There’s some interesting trickery that goes on so that the viewer still likes these two characters when they’re screaming at (and, sadly, past) each other. I think my biggest disappointment was when the credits rolled - why aren’t the two stars equally billed? Could it be… patriarchy?
25 November - Super 8
(2011): You may not be aware that there is a “kids being resilient while their world is in physical crisis” genre of films, but there is, and it’s been one of my favorites since I was the age of the children in them. It’s impossible to watch Super 8
and not remember E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
, The Goonies
, and Small Soldiers
. As opposed to the nearly-adult teenagers in standard alien invasion summer blockbusters, the kids in these movies are recognizably kids - they still think like kids with fuzzy logic, they’re still afraid of their parents, and they still believe in comic books. And wouldn’t you know it, in film after film, it’s the adults who have it all wrong and the kids who save the day? It’s fantasy, sure, but what makes the strong entries in the genre good is its understatement - everyone’s too busy fleeing from the army or rescuing the misunderstood endangered species to pause to say “y’know, you little sprouts sure taught us grown-ups some things today” as never fails to happen in the made-for-basic-cable dreck at the genre’s other end of the quality spectrum.
28 November - Sicario
(2015): I already don’t like the War On Drugs, the illicit international drug trade, and drug prohibition, so at least I got to glow with smug self-satisfaction while watching this picture. Narrow in time and space (as opposed to the soup-to-nuts Traffic
also starring Benicio Del Toro), I’m not sure what there is to take from the film other than “the people who move drugs across the border aren’t very nice so sometimes the people who oppose them need to be not nice too”. The international drug trade isn’t just about drugs, it’s also about racketeering, kidnapping, human trafficking, and a lot of other bad news - but it’s actually at some remove, through several levels of indirection, from drug abuse. It doesn’t seem necessary to couple solving the problem of drugs coming into our nation to the much larger and much harder problem of drugs being enjoyed. Why don’t we grow our own drugs in this country? If we think drugs are a problem, why don’t we at least keep the problem within our own home, rather than inflict it on our neighbors? It certainly mucks up our diplomacy and trade, doesn’t it?
28 November - Spotlight
(2015): This is a well-produced movie with mostly A-list talent, but as I watched it I kept feeling bothered by how it didn’t feel the way that a major American movie usually feels. After viewing I thought back to what I ostensibly learned in film school about conflict being what drives a story forward and realized: there’s no conflict here. The film feels one-sided because it is one-sided. Yet that’s as it has to be - there is only one side to this story. What could the other side of the story possibly be? “Okay, we raped some children, but not that many, relative to like, the number of children in the world.”? (Actually it was that many.) But without conflict at the center of the story the viewing experience just feels flat. Maybe this should have been a documentary? (Maybe this film is doing well enough that perhaps a documentary will be produced?) My viewing experience was also weird because of the audience around me - everyone except myself in the screening room was over fifty and not at all shy about making nonvocal-but-audible sounds of assent - “hmmph” and the like - but as well as that a significant number of viewers (at least ten, maybe twenty) walked out during the show, so I wonder what that was about. One more reaction: with this picture I think I might finally forgive Mark Ruffalo for You Can Count On Me
28 November - The Good Dinosaur
(2015): Family movies, by which I mean movies that are enjoyable by all members of a family, from the young to the very old, are hard, and the hardest are those that reach to the youngest viewers. In making The Good Dinosaur
a movie that four-year-olds will love they’ve made a movie that adults can miss. It’s not bad and I think I even chuckled a few times but it’s nowhere near what we’ve come to expect from Pixar. If there’s a five-year-old in your life with whom you want to share a great film, take them to see Inside Out
again. Or if they’re really, really, super into dinosaurs, which is totally cool for that age, maybe take them to see The Good Dinosaur
28 November - The Peanuts Movie
(2015): After witnessing the desecration of Dr. Seuss in the early aughts (Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas
, Dr. Seuss’ The Cat In The Hat
) I had some trepidation about this movie being made. As it turns out it’s unfailingly faithful to its comic strip source, from the in-no-way-photorealistic 3-D computer animation to the children having to learn to negotiate the world for themselves. Certainly many seven-year-olds will lack an awareness of who the Red Baron was and what it means for a pet dog to duel with him from atop his flying doghouse in the skies above France, but the film’s principal themes of friendship, relationship, and social courage are probably accessible to all viewers. The film is all too real in at least one respect, though: to some of us, all adults still sound like muffled trombones.
28 November - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
(2015): Is this a good movie? I’m no longer even sure by what measure I’d make such an evaluation. It certainly is what it is - good versus evil in a very specific and particular possible future. It’s superbly acted and superbly set but the pacing to me felt entirely off - an entire national revolution that takes place over three (three, right?) years, and there’s so much going on that everything onscreen is always important all the time and the pacing never feels less than hurried. Why are Katniss and Effie Trinket on good terms? Why doesn’t Katniss view Trinket as part of the Capitol’s apparatus of terror? There was probably a good reason, rushed through in ninety seconds two films ago and not reflected on or even mentioned since. I think there’s just too much story for ten hours of cineplay; I think I would have enjoyed the production more if it were twenty hours of a single season of television (or forty hours of two seasons or sixty hours of three seasons). If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last three films, you already know whether or not this is a movie you’ll enjoy.
28 November - The Night Before
(2015): Eleven years ago we enjoyed Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle
, the Homer’s Odyssey
of drug-sex-poop comedies. The Night Before
, I’m delighted to say, is the combination It’s A Wonderful Life
/A Christmas Carol
of drug-sex-poop comedies. I laughed so hard it hurt, and I laughed straight through this film as I’ve laughed at only two other films this year (What We Do In The Shadows
and The To Do List
). If you’re of the persuasion that drugs, sex, and/or poop are not legitimate foundations for comedy, by all means stay away, but also recognize that you are at a loss. If you’re of the persuasion that drug-sex-poop comedies are necessarily stupid (and it must be acknowledged that many are), consider taking a look. This is a film with endearing characters who may be deflated by drugs, sex, and poop, but are never humiliated or degraded. This is a film with a complex, intricate plot that plays out at a perfect pace, never presenting in any moment too much poop or too little drug. This is a comedy that by setting up jokes long before their punch lines arrive has the courage to challenge its audience not to be too high while viewing.
29 November - Legend
(2015): When I think of really great gangster movies, I think of The Godfather
, The Godfather Part II
, and Cidade De Deus
is a pretty good gangster film just a notch or two below those greats and Tom Hardy gives thrilling performances in the twin lead roles.
30 November - American Hustle
(2013): Those seventies fashions have got to make a comeback. At least the revealing cuts if not the fabrics, but the fabrics seem appealing too. I enjoyed this movie because I let myself be taken along for the ride - with all those characters trying to put one over on one another again and again, I didn’t have a chance of actually working out who was actually winning. With a mystery or whodunnit it can be fun to try to stay one step ahead of the story and work out all the answers before the end, but for me, with a movie as convoluted as this one is, it’s more fun just to take in the film as it is given by its authors and process it after the fact. And to enjoy the revealing fashions.