In January, as in most new years, I typically focus on rewatching titles from my collection, either because January isn't the best month for theatrical releases, or because I'm itching to see a title again, or because I'm looking for titles that have outstayed their welcome so I can prune my collection. So, here are the 19 movies I watched in January, and which ones didn't make the cut.
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Having been underwhelmed by The Hobbit, my girlfriend and I decided to reward ourselves with an extended trip to Tolkien's land of epic adventure. I was also reading the Silmarillion at the time, and had a new perspective on perfect-seeming Galadriel.
There are some ways in which the trilogy has suffered over time. In a few cases, effects seem just slightly outdated. As is obvious from my reviews of the Twilight saga, I appreciate a movie that takes itself seriously. Nonetheless, The Lord of the Rings trilogy has suffered a bit from its own success, making it difficult at times to swallow the epic seriousness without cracking a smile. The formal, literary speeches; the pledges of fidelity; the impossibly dauntless courage. But these are minor, minor quibbles. Peter Jackson's trilogy remains one of the greatest cinematic achievements to date. (9th viewing.)
Sense and Sensibility (1995)
I’ve read five of Jane Austen’s books and loved four of them (Northanger Abbey is the outlier, and I haven't read Mansfield Park). Ang Lee's adaptation is faithful to the spirit of Austen's drawing room drama, where every stilted word must be decoded for its romantic intent. But whereas the novels grow richer with repeated reading, the film adaptations do not. Alan Rickman coupling with Kate Winslet is still too bizarre to enjoy. Emma Thompson is fine as Elinor, but Hugh Grant’s awkwardness as the her eventual suitor has lessened in charm after seeing him in so many similar roles. My favorite rediscovery on this viewing was Hugh Laurie as the curmudgeonly friend of the family; I have a soft spot for characters who are rude and seemingly selfish, yet reveal their core character by coming to the aid of our heroes at the critical moment (okay, that's overstating Laurie's role; but I like the archetype nonetheless). (3rd viewing.)
Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 (2012)
Eighteen direct-to-video animated movies later, I've now seen enough DC Comics titles to detect a pattern in my tastes. I most enjoy the ensemble plots, like Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Though I tend to disfavor the solo Batman efforts, Batman: Year One and Batman: Under the Red Hood are both excellent. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns Part 1 isn’t bad, per se, but it strays too far from the formula to be really enjoyable. Batman comes out of retirement to fight a large street gang who talk like they saw Cloud Atlas too many times (i.e., once). I don’t like decaying cities, I don’t like Mad Max-like biker punks, and most importantly, I don’t like an over-the-hill Batman (one of the reasons I’ve found it difficult to watch Batman Beyond). The movie also takes an undesirable cue from the Nolan trilogy by making Batman a bruiser first, detective distant second. Still haven’t made myself watch Part 2, but I will.
Rise of the Guardians (2012)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
Dreamworks hasn't guarded its brand as thoughtfully as has Pixar. Beginning with the standout Antz, and recently delivering How to Train Your Dragon, the animation studio has also deposited Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Shrek Forever After along the way. I snuck off to see Rise of the Guardians on my birthday, not knowing where on the quality spectrum Dreamworks would lead me. I was not disappointed.
The eponymous guardians are Santa Claus, Sandman, Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Jack Frost, a team of mythological superheroes who protect Earth’s children from the Boogeyman. Each hero has powers, an origin story, and a headquarters, and most are backed by an army of minions, making for detail-rich scenery and massive battles. This is easily the best mash-up I’ve seen, both in terms of how much I enjoyed it, and how familiar its characters are. And with the exception of Jude Law as the villain, I didn't recognize the voices of Alec Baldwin, Chris Pine, Hugh Jackman, or Isla Fisher, a sign of good voice acting in my book.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
I love stop-motion animation. Love love love it. I’ve seen 11 feature-length stop-motion animated films, and so far Panique au village is the only title I haven’t liked, followed by Chicken Run which I enjoyed, but find a bit simple. The rest are outstanding, including the bizarre and disturbing $9.99. Digital animation, having won out over cell animation, seems to be so plentiful and easy to churn out that studios can afford to scrimp on the script. Not so with stop-motion movies. Their manufacture is so painstaking (a team of artists can work all day for but a few seconds of footage) that their backers don’t move forward unless they have a rock-solid script. Maybe I just have a soft spot for these movies, having grown up watching 1964's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" TV special on betamax.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, gorgeous and witty in every scene, gets better with each viewing. (3rd viewing.)
Have I mentioned I love stop-motion animation? Although I thought this was Laika’s first feature film (and their website doesn’t suggest otherwise), IMDB also credits them with Corpse Bride. Add the excellent ParaNorman to the mix (the best of the three), and I conclude that Laika has the best track record of any animation studio, including Pixar (blemished by Cars). Laika is also the only animation studio I know to be pro-gay rights. I've fantasized about a movie nonchalantly revealing at the end that one of its characters is gay, and ParaNorman does just that. Even more courageous, in the teaser for the upcoming The Boxtrolls, which will have been seen by millions of people out to see other films, the studio puts same-sex parenting on equal footing with opposite-sex parenting. I have so much respect for these folks.
Coraline is beautiful, grotesque, and thoroughly creepy. I recommend clicking on the poster link above to treat yourself to an entire 26-installment "A is for Adventures" alphabetic series of promotional posters. (2nd viewing.)
Smilla's Sense of Snow (1997)
My best friend’s dad once told me that Smilla's Sense of Snow was his favorite movie of all time. Of all time. Wow, I thought, That’s worth checking out. I finally watched it about nine years ago, and did enjoy it, but was surprised it was his favorite; it didn’t seem compelling or original enough to merit such distinction. I guess every movie is going to be someone's favorite, though. When I asked him about it, he said, “Of all time? No way." Like I had made the whole thing up. He thought about it for a minute. "Maybe it’s in the Top 10 weirdest movies.” So either he downgraded it after a subsequent viewing (like I'm doing), or I completely misremembered the original conversation.
Julia Ormond is captivating. Between this, Legends of the Fall, and Sabrina, I count myself a fan. However, this movie is a bit bland on the second viewing. It portends The X-Files or Outbreak, but ultimately settles for corporate cover-up. And how evil is the corporation? During the timespan of the movie, they are evil enough to kill one of Ormand's allies, yet their cover-up also involves paying the medical expenses of an employee and his son who have been infected with an ancient virus. If the corporation were eeeevil, they would have just killed the infected pair outright. Smilla’s expertise, snow, is unusual enough to be interesting. Her relationships with her father, her father’s new wife (younger than Smilla), her stuttering neighbor (Gabriel Byrne, a corporate plant), and her drunken neighbor whose boy was infected are all compelling. Other thrillers would be well served to paint such a rich backdrop for their central plot. But here, the plot can’t compete and ends up disappointing. I’d rather see Smilla give a lecture about snow. (2nd viewing.)
Okay, so I can't hang Smilla on the neck of my best friend's dad, but what about my best friend's tastes? Brick is one of his favorites. I won’t say much, so as to not earn his ire, other than that I haven't yet connected with this movie. I find the lingo artificial and off-putting, and the characters foreign and undecipherable. Reminds me of Bugsy Malone, where an adult world of mobsters is enacted by a teenaged cast. Director Rian Johnson followed Brick with The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012). The Brothers Bloom is strange; Looper is perfect. (2nd viewing.)
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
Of the nine Hitchcock movies I've seen, The Trouble with Harry is my favorite, yet the IMDB community ranks it 28th, behind all the others I’ve seen. Conclusion: what I like about Hitchcock isn’t his capacity for suspense and paranoia, central to his more revered movies, but his ability to throw colorful characters together in amusing ways. The movie is dated in that one of its core outdoor locations is so clearly a studio set, and its narrative so tightly resembles that of a play that I’d be shocked if it didn’t originate as one (well, I’m shocked: it was originally a novel). Nonetheless, the interaction between John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine, and all the other principals, is just plain fun. I find it a great treat when a movie lets me hang out for a few hours with a bunch of interesting people. (3rd viewing.)
Just Like Heaven (2005)
Simple romantic formula: bring together two people who initially bristle at the other’s personality, but eventually grow fond of each other and fall in love. Cast any two likable actors who haven’t yet headlined a romantic comedy together. And if in the end one of them must return from the dead, make sure it's just from a coma, because although Americans like a double helping of out-of-body experiences, we save our resurrections for the Messiah.
Reese Witherspoon had already established her romcom credentials in Legally Blonde, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Sweet Home Alabama. Mark Ruffalo was newer to the scene, but was perfect in 13 Going on 30. Here they settle into type easily, with Ruffalo as the damaged schlub who requires mending, and Witherspoon as the uptight workaholic in desperate need of a good humping, as Duchovny and Moore would say. The movie hits all the right notes, and is one of the few gimmick romances I’ve enjoyed. Three viewings is probably enough. (3rd viewing.)
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
The extended edition of this trilogy adds two hours of additional footage (11 hours 22 minutes in all) and is such an improvement over the theatrical release that I haven't returned to that shorter version. The extended edition adds more than just immersive time spent in Middle Earth. It takes us on tiny subplots, paying homage to parts of the book that didn't quite make it into the narrative (still missing: how the Hobbits came by their 'swords', gifted to them by Aragorn in the movie, but emerging as treasure from the Barrow-downs in a side adventure in the book). Scenes are fleshed out more, like Galadriel's gift giving that provides more context as to why Frodo's and Sam's cloaks act as camouflage. Supporting characters are given more breathing room. We see Eomer's party find the body of the King's son, and, a true loss for the theatrical version, Eowyn's gorgeous and hollowing dirge for her cousin. In the extended edition, Fangorn Forest migrates to Helm's Deep, explaining how Saruman's Uruk-hai were not just routed, but exterminated. And the third movie fills the noticeable gap between Aragorn's "What say you?" speech to the King of the Dead, in a mountain, to when he emerges from a corsair ship at Osgilliath, the undead army at his back (that transition just doesn't make sense in the theatrical version).
In a pinch, yes I might return to the theatrical version, just to experience Middle Earth in a more compressed timeframe. But what I'd find even more useful would be the ability to following just a single character on their journey. When I'm itching for Middle Earth, but don't have 11 hours to spare, I could just watch the three-hour The Adventures of Aragorn. I recall discussing the movies a few years ago with my dear high school English teacher. With the novels as her point of reference, she was disappointed with Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, saying he was totally wrong for the part; I on the other hand thought him a huge improvement over the rotoscoped version in the 1978 animated version, and when I later read the books, any deviations from Mortensen's kingly performance were the book's shortcomings, not his. (7th viewing.)
Get Carter (2000)
My first viewing of this Sylvester Stallone revenge flick was from a rooftop apartment in Guatemala where I spent several months uncomfortably sick and watching nearly a hundred movies on TV (in English, with Spanish subtitles). Though I don't recall seeing Get Carter a second time, I did, in 2007, probably in response to receiving it from my dad's Christmas giveaway pile. Even after seeing the movie three times, it's still fairly hazy.
Stallone, a Vegas bodyguard, returns home for his brother's funeral, and to avenge his brother's death if it wasn't an accident (his brother was sober, yet died as a result of driving drunk). Simple. The movie doesn't commit to who is most out of their element: Stallone trying to penetrate the seedy underworld of drugs and pornography that encircled his brother, or his brother's secret keepers who treat Stallone like a lightweight thug instead of the heavy he is.
The more I think about this movie, the more I'm deluded that I must have liked it, because it has a great cast and several relationship arcs unusual to the genre. Miranda Richardson is Stallone's not-so-grieving sister-in-law, and Rachael Leigh Cook her daughter looking for a father figure. (A typical action movie would find a way to get Cook kidnapped by the end, but Get Carter is more sinister in how it involves her in the final drama.) Stallone tries to maintain a romance with Gretchen Mol, his boss's wife, and to evade John C. McGinley, his boss's Lieutenant. Beginning with his brother's employer, Michael Caine, Stallone works his way through his brother's contacts looking for a smoking gun. He meets Rhona Mitra, a junkie; and Alan Cumming, giving a great performance as a lolly-sucking above-the-law tech tycoon who ultimately miscalculates the persuasive power of his wealth. But all roads seem to lead to Stallone's old rival, Mickey Rourke, in a particularly dirtbaggish dirtbag role.
All that might sound like this is a good movie. It is not (the original, with Caine in the lead, looks even worse). Take a basic detective story where everyone is a suspect, but muck it up with mobsters, drugs, and fist fights, and we’re left with a boring tangle. (3rd viewing.)
This Is 40 (2012)
@ the New Parkway (to be reviewed at a later date).
In the tradition of such post-wedding movies as The Story of Us and Dinner with Friends, and intent on discouraging wise singletons from ever getting married, everyone in this movie treats each other like dirt, directly proportional to how much they once loved one another. Paul Rudd's father, Albert Brooks, extorts money from him; Leslie Mann's father, John Lithgow, has little use for her; and Rudd and Mann are so convincingly over each other that it's near impossible to imagine a scenario where they would have ever fallen in love. It's not funny to see people be mean to each other in realistic ways, and it's not fun to be asked to root for a relationship so similar to those we're rooting against in most other movies.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Twice I’ve watched the trilogy one disc at a time (there are six), first without the commentary then with it, sort of simultaneously watching two different versions of the epic. There are few movies so mind-blowing or rich in detail that I would want a crew member to pull back the curtain and expose its secrets. But The Lord of the Rings, with its complex world so carefully built upon the ruins of its antecedent ages, is worthy of such scrutiny. Matching the trilogy's eleven-plus hours, the commentary is an epic performance in its own right. The care invested in the films is apparent in every scene, but Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens drive home how belabored was the process of bringing this fantasy to the screen. (The behind-the-scenes featurettes are the gold standard as well.) (6th viewing.)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.
Jeremy Renner has already proven himself as an action star, but Gemma Arterton finally lands a role more substantive than mere damsel in distress. These two kick ass together, but their fun sibling dynamic doesn’t save this movie from being a run-of-the-mill, mildly gross monster fest. The action is so-so, and the mythology would have been more interesting if not interrupted by chase scenes and bloody deaths. The best part (besides Arterton’s dominatrix Gretel costume) is also the worst: in the end, we are treated to a gathering of witches that pulls from an impressive variety of mythologies and cultures, resulting in a visually interesting cast of villains. However, it merely reinforces the movie’s premise that only women are witches, and mostly ugly women at that. All those women in history persecuted for being different? Probably for the best, it turns out. It’s a sickening stereotype that could have been avoided with just a bit of care.
When I first saw this movie, I didn’t think I’d like it. I did. When I began to watch it a second time, I again thought I wouldn’t like it. Again I was surprised. This is a powerful and intense drama. Bruce Willis plays one of his more sedate and impotent roles as a washed up hostage negotiator; Ben Foster is completely psychotic; and the rest of the cast deliver nuanced and authentic performances. This is one of those dramas that is captivating from start to finish. It also features one of the coolest opening sequences I’ve seen. (2nd viewing.)
Good sci-fi is difficult to come by. Recently desperate, I decided to give Event Horizon a chance, even knowing that it was billed as horror, which is my least favorite genre. I want the lore without the gore. Well, the lore was lacking, the gore was forthcoming, and I abandoned it halfway through, opting instead for the spoiler (which saved me from a thoroughly disgusting death scene). During that mostly bland hour, I kept reflecting back to Solaris, a remake of a 1972 Russian film of the same name (which I haven't seen).
Soderbergh’s remake has the same basic plot as Event Horizon. A small crew on a spaceship orbiting a distant planet are confronted by apparitions intent on delaying the crew's departure. (A similar plot is seen in Ghost Ship, also 2002, one of my least favorite movies ever.) Neither film delivers the lore, but whereas Event Horizon follows the horror trope of picking off its characters one by one, Solaris starts mid-attrition, where most of the characters are either already dead, or have entered a stand off with their individual demons. A bit like Yoda's warning to Luke when he wanders off on Dagobah, the astronauts circling the omnipresent, almost sentient planet Solaris are endangered only by that which they brought with them.
I typically like my sci-fi to treat subjects that couldn’t be tackled by other genres (try filming Looper without it being science fiction), a criteria Solaris fails, in that it could have been staged in a psych ward. Nonetheless, it’s one of my favorite Soderbergh movies. It's subdued, patient, eery, disturbing, heart-wrenching, and baffling. (3rd viewing.)
That poster instantly communicates the central premise of every buddy cop movie: "I gotta work with this guy?" (see my review of The Other Guys for my opinion of buddy cop movies in general). Showtime at least manufactures a plausible reason why a police captain would find it advantageous to form such a dysfunctional partnership: entertainment value. De Niro plays De Niro and Murphy plays Murphy (though a slightly less cocky version of himself, who is aware of his acting shortcomings and aims to please). This movie is worth a watch for some chuckles, but it’s mostly garbage. (3rd viewing.)
Starsky & Hutch (2004)
Another buddy cop movie I'm more than happy to purge from my collection (note to self: just because it's free doesn't mean it comes without a cost). This retro film captures the vibe of cop shows I’d see on TV as a kid: boring. Amy Smart as a cheerleader and Ben Stiller’s dance off with a disco king can't elevate this beyond predictable. It's a bad sign when a movie must spike the punch to get its characters into zany situations. (3rd viewing.)
Movies culled from my collection: Sense and Sensibility, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Just Like Heaven, Get Carter, Hostage (excellent, but not a repeater), Showtime, and Starsky & Hutch.