In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Home Video Roundup: March 2013

In March, and shamed by having not yet visited my local library since moving to Alameda, I began a short-lived project to scour the library’s video section, from A-Z, looking for anything old. My one rule: I would check out films as I discovered them, in alphabetical order. I was filled with excitement at the prospect of so many great films awaiting my attention (using just the Best Picture nominees from the 1930s and 1940s as my barometer, I have a huge backlog to look forward to). But there was one major problem: disc quality. Remember those original ads for CDs that showed off how indestructible they were? Lies. The library's movie collection is well worn, and the discs are often unwatcheable. For every movie I finished, another I had to abandon, or skip over what could have been a crucial scene.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Released just one year after the end of World War II, the film follows three veterans from different branches of the military who meet and befriend each other while enroute to their shared hometown. Each has trouble acclimating. Dana Andrews’s wife has moved on and doesn’t have much use for him. Harold Russell has returned with prosthetic hooks in place of his hands; his fiance loves him regardless, but he's ashamed on her behalf. Fredric March's family (wife Myrna Loy and daughter Teresa Wright) are swell, but he has nightmares each night, and begins drinking heavily.

On the one hand, the film is pure propaganda, reassuring the troops and public alike that returning soldiers will successfully re-assimilate, resuming their happy, productive lives. Watching this nearly seven decades later, I appreciate the movie for that very reason: it is a contemporary account of how one entity (in this case the movie studio) wanted people to feel about veterans. Though we might best remember 1946 for giving us It's a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives was the year's second highest grossing film (behind Song of the South, source), and it dominated the subsequent Academy Awards. History aside, all three leads are fun to watch, and I fell in love with each of their love interests. I'm also impressed to read on IMDB that Harold Russell really had lost his hands (probably assumed by the contemporary audience, but nothing is given nowadays), and only two year's prior to the film's release. I imagine his character's struggles to adapt to prosthetic hands must have been a challenge he had only just conquered in real life.

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

@ United Artists Emery Bay Stadium 10.

Someday I might grow tired of melodramatic teeny-bopper sci-fi/fantasy, but not this day. Alice Englert is destined to become a witch on her 16th birthday. Various members of her family (including Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Emmy Rossum) vie to sway her to their side of the magical rift: the dark or the light. As we might expect of a teen, she rejects the pre-fabricated choices presented to her, instead falling in love with her charmingly cheerful classmate, Alden Ehrenreich. The chemistry between the leads is fun to watch, as is all the magical mumbo-jumbo.

Quartet (2013)

@ the Alameda Theatre and Cineplex.

A retirement home for operatic royalty. The same premise, if applied to any number of perrenial Hollywood professions, would yield a good script: retirement home for secret agents; retirement home for detectives; retirement home for adventurers, or superheroes, or hostage negotiators. But opera singers? If their lives were very interesting, we’d already have scores of movies about them in their prime, rather than waiting until their retirement. On the other hand, starting this late in the singers’ life means the movie has a wealth of backstory to draw upon: old friendships, old flames, and old rivalries.

Maggie Smith is the diva whom everyone resents. Tom Courtenay is the perfect gentleman, though he can't stand to be near Smith, his ex-wife (she cheated on him the day they got married). Pauline Collins, whom I've not seen since Shirley Valentine (1989), is ever cheerful, but frightened as she begins to lose her memory. Billy Connolly is a randy old ladies man powered entirely by Viagra and a refusal to let his best years be behind him. Everyone does a good job, though Connolly overplays his one-note role. The movie is both touching and boring.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Sincere fairy tale movies are on the uptick. Red Riding Hood (2011), Mirror Mirror (2012), Snow White & the Huntsman (2012), Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013), and now Jack the Giant Slayer. In principle I don’t mind, as it allows me to enjoy an old story with a fresh coat of paint, and with more attention toward an adult audience. The problem is that not one of these movies is particularly good (I haven’t seen Mirror Mirror). As Bilbo would say, their plots are spread thin like butter on too much toast.

However, I did enjoy Jack the Giant Slayer more than the rest. The three principal sets (ground level, the beanstalk itself, and the land of the giants) are each fun in their own way, and rich with visuals. Nicholas Hoult has swallowed some magic beans himself, transforming from the dopey kid in About a Boy (2002) to this hunk. The film allows its romantic leads, Hoult and princess Eleanor Tomlinson, more latitude than I expected: he's not fooled by her initial disguise, and she doesn't treat him like scum just because he's not of royal blood.  Passable performances by Ewan McGregor (shining hero), Stanley Tucci (conniving slime ball), Ian McShane (honorable king), and Bill Nighy (gravely voice of the giant general).

Dames (1934)

The early days of sound fascinate me. The long-form narrative had already matured during the preceding decade, but with staid dialog inserts no longer needed, fast-paced talking exploded. The Thin Man and It Happened One Night have some of the best dialog I’ve ever heard, and how could any silent era star compete on appearance alone when facing off against Errol Flynn’s smooth voice? Then there’s the fashion. William Powell looks more formal going to bed than I look going out. Everyone dresses up, even the schlubs.

I had never heard of Dames prior to renting it. An aging man, Uncle Ezra, whose wealth is matched only by his prudishness comes to stay with Mathilda and Horace, his last living relatives and whom he’s never before met, to audition them for an inheritance. The parents are capable enough of impressing him with their upstanding ways. Their daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) and her boyfriend Jimmy (Dick Powell) are less concerned, however. Jimmy is writing a musical, with Barbara in the lead, and they’re happy enough to struggle and love each other without trying to impress an old fogy. Because the rich relative considers theater a sin, the youngsters try to hide it from him. Meanwhile, they accidentally get him drunk on a high-alcohol substitute for his favorite all-purpose medicinal tonic.

The film follows the now familiar trope of trying to conceal a secret, with hilarious (or in this case amusing) consequences. The movie did well in theaters, perhaps suggesting that what’s old hat to me now wasn’t necessarily to audiences then. Plot-wise, I cannot recommend the film; it is dully written and cartoonishly acted. I was bored much of the time. But its final sequence, in which we get to watch the couple’s musical in its entirely, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. What begins as fantastically costumed dance numbers in clever sets soon expands into impossibly large sets, with hundreds of uniform dancers, swirling around in a fantastic kaleidoscope of shapes. At one point the camera pulls back so far that the entire stage of dancers becomes just the pupil in Keeler’s eye, and the camera keeps pulling back, to reveal Keeler dancing with an even larger ensemble. I don’t know how they did it, but it’s amazing.

Citizen Kane (1941)

People who laud Citizen Kane as the greatest film of all time are just plain wrong; that title belongs to Clue, and don't you forget it. Citizen Kane's shots often have good composition, but so do those in Jack the Giant Slayer. Perhaps Citizen Kane was the first movie to do much of what it did, but we don’t call the Model T the best car just because it was the first car.

Okay, now I'm just picking on it because it's so well regarded. When I first saw this movie, in college, I did indeed think it was excellent. Now, having doubled both my age and the number of films I've seen, I find the movie boring, and its main character a jerk. Though it doesn't quite reward me for the entire viewing, I did enjoy the mansion full of treasures, and the revelation of his sled Rosebud. Does his dying word signify that he yearned for the innocence of his youth, and perhaps that had he not inherited money he might have lived a happier life? Or does he fixate on that lost sled ride, the singular thing in life that eluded him? (2nd viewing.)

Easter Parade (1948)

Fred Astaire, bitter over his breakup with long time dance partner and lover Ann Miller, discovers Judy Garland in a small club and decides to train her to be his replacement partner. When they dance together, they are good. Their chemistry, though, is so lacking that not until he professes his love and the credits role did I believe that I was actually supposed to root for the romance. I enjoy musicals, but this movie feels like a caricature of a musical, with the song "A Fella with an Umbrella" meant in its sappy literal banality to suggest the essence of a musical. It was the sixth highest grossing movie of the year (source), and I have to wonder if audiences at that time were just resigned to boredom.

Baby Face (1933)

Barbara Stanwyck starts out as a factory town waitress, but has ambitions to make more of herself. She unscrupulously sleeps her way up the corporate ladder until finally setting her sights on the company’s young president. Where this film takes her character I did not expect, and her ultimate fate is both tragic and satisfying. Look for a very young John Wayne.

Game Change (2012)

If you’re a fan of Sarah Palin, don’t watch this movie. When John McCain (Ed Harris) chooses Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) as his running mate, he has met her just once, during what began as a vetting interview but ended in a confirmation. Palin is young and charismatic; both assertive and flattering; speaking as a country everywoman but with national talking points; she is the real deal. McCain and most of his staff are infatuated with the idea of her.

Unfortunately (and I’m speaking just of the character, not the actual person), she is unfit for the job. This movie plays out about as I’d expect if by some bad luck (on everyone’s part) a presidential nominee named me the running mate. I’m not entirely ignorant, but neither am I particularly well versed on current events, past events, education, the economy, national defense, world affairs, or any other topic I might in that office be called upon to understand. I would be a terrible running mate. Palin finds herself in such a situation, but she doesn’t understand that she’s in over her head. As her ignorance bubbles to the surface, and nervous McCain staffers try to prep her, she first tries to cope by recording on flash cards everything they say. When that doesn’t help her, and the staffers press harder, she begins to mentally shut down, refusing to talk to the staffers, insisting on returning home to campaign in Alaska (whose residents are sure to vote the McCain Palin ticket no matter what).

I pitied her. Her central flaw is that, when McCain asked her to join him, she lacked the wisdom to say no.

Tai Chi 0 (2012)

The trailer, one of the most exhilarating of the year, promised a steampunk kung-fu throwdown. And indeed that is what we got. With superpowers. With those credentials in mind, and doubting my own words as I write them, I confess it just wasn't very entertaining. It's missing something, but I don't know what.

V for Vendetta (2006)

An outstanding film. It has lost a bit of its sheen after this handful of viewings, with the Evey/V scenes becoming a bit stale. But I'm still loving Stephen Rea's detective Finch, and Tim Pigott-Smith's diabolical Creedy. Couple this with The Matrix to cement the Wachowski siblings' claim to greatness, and just forget all about Cloud Atlas. (4th viewing.)

Push (2009)

The typical arc of a super power plot marches our protagonist from ignorance, to learning about nascent powers, and finally to becoming the most-powerful-ever chosen one. I take my super power plots wherever I can get them, so I don't complain even if the plot is well worn. But Push bucks the trend in most regards. First, Chris Evans isn’t ignorant about the world of powers. He knows he has them (though his are limited), and that others do too. Second, the plot adheres to the reluctant hero model, focusing more on Evans stepping up to the challenge than on his wide-eyed discovery of his own potential. And third, everyone in this movie is bad-ass. Evans is full-fledged by the end, but he’s not the chosen one (if anyone is, it’s his girlfriend, Camilla Belle, or Dakota Fanning’s offscreen mom), and he’s no more powerful than the other mover. There are eight other types of super power, and they are each awesome in their own way. There are factions. There are rivalries. This movie comes closer than any other to showing a world full of super heroes. (3rd viewing.)

Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

I stick up for Fantastic Four. I name it as one of my Top 10 Superhero Teams. And I still enjoy it. After this fourth viewing of the sequel, though, my disappointment is only growing. The power-swap plotline is fun to explore for an issue of a comic or episode of a show, but not for the first sequel. (Spider-Man 2 makes the same mistake, compounded by Spider-Man 3’s costume plot.) Dr. Doom, already lacking the majesty of his comic counterpart, is further degraded by the sequel’s plot. Sue Storm’s irrational disapproval of Reed helping to save the world when he should be focusing on their wedding is annoying before she even starts doing it, and paints her as some anti-feminist status monger. Silver Surfer is awesome; I’m still impressed with how well such an odd character translated to the screen. The whole thing feels like a very simple three-act plot with no surprises, and not enough superhero action. (4th viewing.)

The Dark Knight (2008)

For the first three decades of my life, I liked Batman. I watched his goofy, crisp-voiced likeness on SuperFriends. A cousin of mine once had a Batman birthday cake, and I was envious (she also had pictures of Captain Marvel all over her bedroom). I read a few Batman comics here and there, and enjoyed Burton's two Batman films, especially Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne. Yet none of these portrayals governed my idea of Gotham's hero. The animated series Justice League (and its precursor Batman: The Animated Series), however, have now trumped all other incarnations of the Dark Knight. The Bruce Timm Batman, voiced by Kevin Conroy, is the Batman. Period. He is a detective. An intellectual. A friend. An obsessed, morally-incorruptible, hero.

In contrast, Christopher Nolan's Batman, voiced by the incomprehensible Christian Bale, is a thug. He thinks with his fists, and leaves the creative work to sidekick Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). Sure, they play detective by firing a bullet into a brick a lot like the bullet and brick at the crime scene so they can magically reconstruct a fingerprint on the bullet. That's not Batman. That's not even Zatanna. So Nolan's Batman can't compete in the same league as Timm's Batman.

Nolan's villains are a different story. Skipping over Liam Neeson's stoic Ra's Al Ghul, Cillian Murphy's Scarecrow is creepy and menancing, Heath Ledger's Joker is psychotically perfect, and Tom Hardy's Bane is mysterious and with an emotional depth not seen in any other Batman villain except Catwoman. Nolan does villains well. Period. (2nd viewing.)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Every time I think about Black Hawk Down, I want to watch Black Hawk Down.

Let's say for argument's sake that you need to neutralize some terrorists in a third world country. They're protected by roughly 1000 armed men. Those men aren't terribly good shots, but there's a lot of them, and they have RPGs and stuff. Time is of the essence, so you basically have to cobble together a team from a random assortment of nearby fellas. And here's who you get.

1. That cold-blooded assassin from Sin City. He can kill with his lips. Give the man a gun, and make him the centerpiece of your outfit.

2. Bane. Incredibly strong. Can defeat a fortress with his fingernails. He won't need it, but give the man a gun anyway.

3. This guy, from Saving Private Ryan. Give him a gun. But he can keep the bazooka as well.

4. Wizard, elf-hater, Death Eater. Gun time.

5. That blind guy from Contact. He knows math and alien languages and can smell you before you walk in the room. Gun.

6. Another blind guy, this one from Armageddon. He saved the entire planet once. Gun. And a helicopter.

7. Legolas. Immortal. He sees death in the sunrise. Bow + Gun.

8. Mr. Fantastic. Smartest guy in the universe. The ultimate nullifier is a gun.

9. Obi-Wan Kenobi. In his prime. Light-saber, telekinesis, telepathy, super speed, gun.

10. The Hulk. Give the man a gun, a sharp pinch, and turn him loose.

11. But who to lead this ragtag band of misfits? How about this man, for no other reason than that he has actually touched Rachel McAdams.

(4th viewing.)

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