Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Grade: B | 1st Viewing
If it weren’t for the fact that J.J. Abrams is a master structuralist, I might have had a lot less fun with Star Trek Into Darkness. The character threads and world-building goes only slightly deeper than in Abrams’ 2009 reboot to the franchise and both films end at virtually the same place. Spock and Kirk once again hash out their logic versus emotion approach to conflict, Uhura and Spock’s relationship remains essentially stagnant, and minor characters like Scotty, Bones, and Sulu pretty much serve the same purposes they always have. However, the film is saved by Abrams’ excellent talent for shooting action scenes with a constant sense of genuine danger and stakes that couldn’t be higher.
Benedict Cumberbatch takes the early lead in the Movie Villain of the Year contest with a fantastic turn as the ominous John Harrison. His deep voice and deliberate line-readings make him a character the audience (and the members of Star Fleet) want to trust, but feel hesitant to do so. His presence also allows for some interesting, if under-explored, commentary on American apathy towards military aggression and foreign conflict.
For more on Star Trek Into Darkness stay tuned for this week’s podcast. In the meantime, check out Justin’s review.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Grade: B- | 1st Viewing
I tend to be a lot more forgiving of Baz Luhrmann’s films than others simply because I love the hyper-stylized worlds he creates. These are places where every time a character looks up to the night sky a shooting star appears. Every time a large group is gathered and music is playing somewhere people will be dancing a perfectly choreographed routine. I’m fine with that and I had no issue that he elevated F. Scott Fitzgerald’s setting to an glamorous, empty spectacle to depict characters’ whose lives can be described as glamorous and empty.
The problem with Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby is that he tries to have it both ways. He is too faithful to Fitzgerald’s text, which is more subtle with its metaphors, while simultaneously creating a world where characters tend to say exactly what they mean. The dichotomy doesn’t exactly adhere like it should, despite wonderfully earnest performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and especially Carey Mulligan.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Grade: C- | 1st Viewing
Seeing Star Trek Into Darkness really helped clear up the reasons why I struggled with Iron Man 3. Both films are big, noisy spectacles without a whole lot to say. Both require some bit of caring, or at least respect, for the franchises from which they come. Both recycle plots that were mostly explored by their predecessors.
Where Star Trek succeeds and Iron Man 3 fails, however, is in the way their respective directors shoot the action scenes. Star Trek relies more on an ensemble setting with a climax where one character puts himself in harm’s way to save the others. Iron Man 3 features a final conflict that is essentially two rich guys fighting each other’s action figures. One has monumental stakes, the other doesn’t. Both movies could have ended better, but I found it a lot easier to care about J.J. Abrams’ universe than Shane Black’s. Also, to confess my own biases, I have a lot easier time with complete fantasy worlds than stories that try to marry fantasy with our own reality.
Check out episode 64 of the Film Misery Podcast for more thoughts and dissenting opinions on Iron Man 3.
The Angels’ Share (2013)
Grade: B | 1st Viewing
In my interview with Paul Laverty, screenwriter of The Angels’ Share, he mentioned that one of his goals for writing the movie was to raise awareness for the youth unemployment crisis in Europe. Knowledge of that motivation changed the way I looked at the movie slightly and had me mainly wondering if he was successful. For my part, I believe he was thanks to director Ken Loach’s delicate touch and a standout performance by newcomer Paul Brannigan.
Unfortunately the touching character study is diminished slightly by the fact that many of the attempts at humor are at the expense of a dimwitted character named Albert, who misses so many obvious social cues that he clearly has some sort of mental disorder. This doesn’t prevent the other characters from mocking his inability to recognize common landmarks. If Albert was excised from the story and more attention was paid to Robbie’s dark past, I might like this film a lot more.
Grade: C | 1st Viewing
This futuristic Tom Cruise vehicle from TRON: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski looks beautiful, but doesn’t seem to fully know what it’s trying to say. It’s sort of environmentalist (Cruise’s character has a green sanctuary that seems Eden-like), sort of anti-capitalist (or at least afraid of the innovations that capitalism may produce), and sort of pro-terrorism (I imagine that Al Qaeda might sympathize with plight of the film’s underground movement). There is very little plot ambiguity, but the film has moral ambiguity in droves.
Part of the problem is that the film is derivative of so many better science fiction films that came before it. It borrows ideas from The Matrix, Wall-E, Moon, 2001, and Inception without fully developing any of them. When you get past the glisten of the technology, there is little of interest to stay engaged.
Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing
It is clear from the first few shots that Trance is very much a Danny Boyle movie. The candy-colored set pieces and canted angles courtesy of brilliant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle all contribute to the kinetic energy that runs throughout the film. For the most part, this works to create an ambiguous world where not every character fully understands their place. I just wish this visually motif wasn’t decimated by a script that seems intent on tying every little plot thread up into a neat bow.
The characters in Trance seem to live in an out-of-the-box world where their futuristic apartments have barely been lived in. Even when one character’s home gets trashed it still looks like everything was neatly placed about, rather than carelessly thrown. I’m not sure if this helps or hinders the notion that each character thinks they know what they are doing, but clearly does not.
To the Wonder (2013)
Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing
I love that Terence Malick is back to making feature films on a somewhat regular basis because few filmmakers today are willing to tackle such monumentally important questions about love and God with such grace and tenacity. Even when his films don’t succeed in storytelling or spend too much time with a less interesting character, they always manage to provoke thought and discussion about the “big questions” and I love him for that.
In episode 63 of the Film Misery Podcast, I offer my take on the film’s approach to love and how I feel like Malick is presenting the Biblical types – agape, eros, phileo – and how each character yearns for one or more of them. There is also some interesting ideas about the beginning of life with “newborn” being the first line of dialogue uttered and the frequent shots of a woman’s stomach. There is too much going on to cover in a brief quick take, but I hope people see this one and have the same existential thoughts that I did.
The Earrings of Madame De… (1953)
Grade: A | 1st Viewing
This melodic film was my first exposure to the much lauded Max Ophuls and after witnessing his delicate use of the camera, I hope to see more of his work very soon. Just about every shot employs a crane or tracking and Ophuls challenges our perceptions by moving the camera in a unique way that often contradicts with our perception of how it should be used in certain scenes. This mirrors the main theme that the title character is breaking the aristocratic rules by falling in love with someone who is not her husband.
Ophuls gives us one of the best “falling in love” sequences ever with a wonderfully poetic series of long takes that simply depict a couple dancing. He shoots this series with the same grace as he does the more simple or comic scenes, contributing to the many contradictions that run throughout the film (i.e. two very different train send-offs, two very different reasons for Madame De to pray). It’s a masterful depiction of people trying to have a life that is different than the one chosen for them.
Grade: A | 2nd Viewing
Woody Allen’s sensibilities are particularly suited to my tastes as an audience member, which is probably why I am more favorable towards his great films and more forgiving of his bad films than other critics. The first time I saw Manhattan I remember admiring it with the exception of his character’s sexual relationship with a 17-year old girl. I felt like whether or not it was used to make a point, its portrayal crossed a line that was hard for me to look past. This time, however, it didn’t bother me thanks in large part to Mariel Hemingway’s performance. Hemingway is a formidable mate who can match wits with Allen’s Isaac Davis, yet he never takes her seriously because of her age. She exists to reinforce the notion that people do not always know what they want and this is a falling out of love movie more than anything else.
Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Michael Murphy are each just fantastic in this film, which also may be Woody’s most elegantly photographed. I love that he simultaneously pays tribute to art and acknowledges its pretentiousness. No other filmmaker can tackle such serious questions with the same wit as Allen and I love him for it.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Grade: A- | 2nd Viewing
With all the buzz surrounding Sofia Coppola’s new film The Bling Ring at the Cannes Film Festival, I have been unfairly critical of her because I had mixed feelings about both Marie Antoinette and Somewhere. I was glad to revisit her second feature and remember that she is most definitely capable of greatness.
Lost in Translation is an incredibly moving portrait of extinguished ambition depicting two people at very different points in life personally and professionally. Films like these become more interesting and meaningful to me on a personal level as I find myself gradually relating more to the older character. Murray’s performance is definitely one his career finest as he manages to portray a deep sadness while never losing his dry sense of humor.
What movies have you seen recently?