January 5- 18, 2014
(This time I’ve included what I’ve watched in the past two weeks)
For me, Her succeeds because of the way it imagines what our likely future looks and feels like. From the production design subtly influenced by Asian culture, to how it imagines technology will move forward. But the film is being sold as a love story, and that’s where the film didn’t succeed for me. I did not feel anything for the relationship between Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), and perhaps worst of all, I didn’t feel for Theodore and the fact that the only relationship he could handle was with an artificial intelligence and he kept ignoring something good that was right in front of him. The last 45 minutes or so approach greatness in this regard as it becomes more intellectual and it posses some interesting questions, but there’s a stretch of about an hour towards the middle that drags on and on. Ultimately I liked it, but I want to watch it again to see if my opinion of it changes. As of right now, however, it’s the biggest disappointment of 2013.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen brother’s ode to failure, their way to honor those artists who dared to dream big and failed not because they didn’t have the talent but because life is not kind to everyone. As such, the film is appropriately bleak and brutal despite being filled with the Coens’s typical deadpan humor. I want to say more about it, but I want to watch it again because their films usually get better the more times you watch them, but I’ll say that even after just this one screening, I’m in love with it and it may very well be the best film they have done.
Short Term 12 is about the lives of kids that reside in a temporary living facility for kids that are not wanted by or were taken away from their parents, as well as the secretly painful life Grace (Brie Larson) of one of the guardians of the facility. Given this and some of the events that transpire, the film could have been blatant misery port. However, director Destin Cretton walks this thin line perfectly by choosing to shoot the film in a natural way with almost no intrusive shaky cam, natural and great performances from pretty much everyone in the cast, and by mostly not resorting to histrionics and over-the-top emotional moments. Ultimately, it’s a sad, but uplifting and enlightening film that ranks among the best of 2013.
American Hustle has a few things that I admire: Amy Adam’s great performance in a role she’s never been given the chance to play, Bradley Cooper’s manic energy, Jennifer Lawrence’s fun portrayal of wacko, manipulative wife, the plotty script and sometimes clever script, the costumes, and the hairstyles. All of this makes for a fun diversion, but that’s pretty much it. As a whole, everything feels too calculated for any of the drama or the comedy to be as effective as David O. Russell wanted it to be (I bet he imagined the “science oven” bit as this year’s “Argo fuck yourself”). Also, his constantly-moving camera distracts from the what’s happening on-screen rather than making it into the cool caper he desperately wanted it to be. This last bit is made worse by the fact that it is horribly paced and feels longer than it actually is. All in all, it’s an okay film that will have a long life playing on TBS on Sunday afternoons.
I’m lumping these together because they come from the singular producing mind of Twilight author Stephanie Mayer and they share one of her trademarks: the portrayals of the female leads are actually kind of offensive. For that alone they do deserve the critical derision that they got. They have another thing in common: for reason, a bunch of talented people worked on it on camera and behind the scenes and they try their darnedest to make it work because it shows that they know they are working on something that is going to be a low point in their careers and they try to salvage it. And to be honest, their attempts are not in vain. The Host started to work on me once I embraced the super ridiculous premise, plot devices and the ridiculous conversations Saoirse Ronan’s character(s) have with themselves. As for Austenland, I tried to resist it because it’s the most damaging of the two considering that it’s not a property that Mayer came up with, but in the end, it charmed me with the work of the cast, and what I like to call “The Mr. Darcy” effect. I can’t help but fall for this particular plot device.
This is an Oscar bait drama through and through, so based on that you already know whether or not you are going to like it. It ultimately worked for me emotionally, the story is indeed important to tell, the performances were nice, and it does have some cool, gimmicky editing. But it’s the small moments that made it effective for me, like a guy being turned down because he doesn’t have enough money to join the titular “Dallas Buyers Club” and then later coming back with all the money and being ecstatic about it. I know it’s not particularly good script writing, but it got me. At the same time, it also has some cringe-worthy dialogue, awkward exposition, and some terrible visual metaphors. Also, the BIG Oscar scenes are laughable. In a way, I’m glad this got a Best Picture nomination so that it can be part of the time capsule that are the Oscars so that people in the future know this existed and are exposed to the story because the film is not strong enough, and otherwise would have been forgotten.
I never got the chance to see Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County on the stage because I live in the middle of nowhere. I did, however, read the play, and it’s a wonderful, honest, and twisted take on family and life in the Midwest. Now, cinema is a completely different beast from theatre, and as such I must talk about the film adaptation of this wonderful play, on it’s own merits, so I will.
Tracy Letts’s works have previously been brought to the silver screen in William Friedkin’s Bug and Killer Joe. The former is a sick, creepy, and entertaining horror story about paranoia and and the weakness of the mind. The latter, is a sick, sweaty, sticky, perverted, and hilarious take on how far one can go for something as trivial as money. I expected August to be as good as these considering it’s Letts’s most acclaimed play, and because it had an amazing cast made up of Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, and many more talented actors. However, I could not have forseen how inept John Wells would be at directing this. It’s so completely aimless that every department is working on a completely different level. First, for some reason Letts turned his wonderful characters into mere shells of what they were supposed to be, and are cartoons with less personality than a background “Looney Toons” creation. Every actor then does something completely different with their “characters” which results in some of the worst performances of 2013. Also, the score and every musical choice are grating, the cinematography, as lovely as it is, does not mesh well with what’s happening on screen, and the scenes that take place outside the house seem to be from completely different works. I actually wonder if Wells had any hand in the final product and it wasn’t put together by Harvey Weinstein to increase its Oscar potential. It’s a travesty, and one of the greatest examples of terrible film making you are likely to see.
Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children has been compared to the works of Hayao Miyazaki probably because it combines fantasy and reality to tell a simple story in an extraordinary way. I’d it has more in common with the more contemplative works of Isao Tatakata, but I digress. The point is that this is a wonderful tale about what’s it’s like to be a single mother and the lengths someone is willing to go to protect their children, especially after a tragedy. This just so happens to involve the fact that this woman’s children have the ability to turn into wolves. It is a relatable take on this story none the less. However, this suffers from something that Hosoda’s other films suffer from: a weak climax. In this film the mother is shown to be strong and capable of learning anything to make sure her kids grow up properly, and seems to be open to the idea that they could choose to live their lives as wolves and leave her behind. However, in the climax she becomes this overtly attached and weak individual that can’t seem to do anything right, and, really, the whole situation comes out of nowhere and it’s completely overwhelming considering the strength of the rest of the film.
Having only seen two other films from his oeuvre, which I enjoyed to varying degrees, I have no strong feelings for or against the cinema of Paul W.S. Anderson. However, I can see why people would not like him. The performances that he gets from his actors are sometimes corny or wooden, and he is not the greatest writer. At the same time, how can watch something like The Three Musketeers, and not realize that the plot, dialogue, and performances are not done to honor the works of Alexander Dumas but are mere means to showcase the perfectly choreographed and shot action scenes, the meticulously constructed visual compositions, and the extravagant costumes and production design. Anderson clearly has a reputation, so why does everyone keep expecting anything else but a showcase for some of the best action scenes you are likely to see on the big screen. If this exact same film would have had a “directed by Gore Verbinski” or a “directed by Baz Luhrmann” title card it would have been received more warmly and it would no doubt have gotten a couple of Oscar nominations for its art direction, costumes, and maybe even for its cinematography.
At long last I have finally watched the anime film that introduced the world to the wonders of the preferred Japanese form of animation, and I have absolutely no idea what I watched. It has perfect animation, perfect designs (that motorcycle!), and I get the basic politics of it, but when it comes to the plot, it may very well be the animated love child of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Last Year at Marienbad. I liked it based on the strength of the artistry, but yikes.
A Fish Called Wanda is the perfect comedy caper. The script is twisty and has sharp, hilarious dialogue and characters, as well as a touch of sadism, the direction is energetic, but never over-the-top, and every actor brings forth their very best work.