2015: Part 4

Aloha. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Jesus Christ, this movie is bad. I would be thoroughly shocked if it weren’t a major contender at the upcoming Razzies ceremony; not only is the social/political content (revolving around a convoluted plot related to nuclear weaponry) kept to a dumbed-down minimum in favor of a bland romantic story, but Crowe’s screenplay also has several cringe-worthy lines (“I go hard, I go deep, and sometimes I break things.” “Don’t skin your knees on eternity, brah.” “I was sound-transducing when you were still in a ballerina costume!” “You sold your soul so many times, nobody’s buying anymore.”) that I can’t believe came from the same mind who crafted Say Anything… and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Maybe in an alternate universe I would at least be able to praise Bill Murray for doing a sexy dance with Emma Stone to the tune of “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” or Jaeden Lieberher (Murray’s young co-star from St. Vincent) for being one of the better child actors of his age (as Rachel McAdams’ and John Krasinski’s son), but all I can focus on is the negative: Bradley Cooper’s character as the white savior of Oahu, complete with bright blue eyes and a flawless tan, Emma Stone’s embarrassing role as a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese character (to those who say her casting is necessary because there are no biracial actresses who could be hired – did you ever think that maybe the reason why you think that is because Hollywood systemically refuses to hire them and instead goes with a white actress whose popularity will help the movie sell more tickets?), Rachel McAdams in yet another of her signature boring performances and John Krasinski in a role he appears to sleepwalk through in every element (Cooper’s best friend, McAdams’ husband, father of two children) sink this ship even faster than its captain could have imagined.

P.S. At least half of the songs on the soundtrack are soul-deadening indie pop/rock songs. You know, the kind that sound like Elliott Smith on tranquilizers – in other words, like almost everything from the last ten years. I think I murmured oy gevalt! internally every time I heard one.

Amy. Directed by Asif Kapadia. Even if you already know part or most of the story, you still won’t be fully prepared for how devastating Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Amy Winehouse is, particularly if you experience it in a packed movie theater. Sitting with the MoMA audience last night, there were so many moments of total silence among the moviegoers, caught in the spell of this talented, troubled performer. I found myself thinking about Amy’s trajectory as an artist and as an addict, the way she was used and abused by so many around her, including her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, and her father, Mitch. These family members, friends and other people in managerial positions enabled her substance problems; it’s especially disgusting when Mitch Winehouse says that it was Amy’s responsibility to help herself (even though it is clear to the viewer that she was unable to do so on her own and she desperately needed a firm hand to convince her that she needed treatment) and also when manager Raye Cosbert prioritizes a tour over Amy’s need to go to rehab, claiming that heroin isn’t such a big issue because he knows other artists who are able to function while using it. Amy reminds people (or tells some of them for the first time) of Amy Winehouse’s musical gifts, but it’s much more important and powerful as a harrowing portrait of how addiction can destroy you – the human body can only take so much before it gives out. At the end of the film I heard two women talking about the film and one said that she thought it was “distasteful” that the director showed footage of the aftermath of Amy’s death, with the paramedics carrying the body bag out of the flat; as sad as that image is, it’s necessary. Addiction is an ugly thing, and her death was the final, horrible consequence. I thought a lot during the film about how people have reevaluated Amy’s career after her passing, posting and reblogging photos of her on websites like Tumblr and Pinterest and obsessing over her as a posthumous icon, a member of the 27 Club. Where were those people when Amy was alive? Undoubtedly making fun of her along with the rest of the world, mocking her once she could no longer perform to everyone’s demands and laughing even more as her disintegration (which also included bulimia) continued. Probably the most telling moments in the film are the two scenes showing “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno thanking Amy Winehouse for performing on his program, then, some time later, making jokes about her serious drug addictions in a monologue. (Another key moment: when one of the many paparazzi cornering Amy on the street is bumped/hit into by her, which is a small shock to the cameraman; he was there to do a job, but even though he got physically close to his subject, right in her face, I guess he still thought there was supposed to be distance between them and he hadn’t expected to collide with her.) (Also, since I have mentioned late-night talk show hosts, here’s the other side of the coin: Craig Ferguson’s monologue from 2007 about why he refused to make jokes about Britney Spears and her substance/mental health problems.) Amy is as much an indictment of the unbelievable pressures of celebrity – seen in the constant presence of paparazzi hounding Amy practically to her death, even after death as her corpse was carried out of her home – as it is about the pitfalls of Amy’s dependencies and co-dependencies, even though the film could not exist without all of the footage that was used in it. Art can be a vicious, grotesque cycle.

The Martian. Directed by Ridley Scott. I had the opportunity to finally see The Martian (and in 3D!) at MoMA on the evening of December 9. While nothing about the film (essentially Cast Away in space) is groundbreaking – not even the visuals/use of 3D – it is an entertaining flick with a great soundtrack. It totally makes sense why the film is categorized as a comedy for the Golden Globes; a lot of the dialogue is quite funny, including the use of certain disco songs on the soundtrack. Matt Damon does a very good job in carrying the film, again not surprising or innovative but still solid; few other performances are particularly noteworthy, but I did enjoy Michael Peña (not a shock, he’s probably this year’s film MVP) as a fellow astronaut and Sean Bean as the director of the astronaut training program. Kate Mara seemed ill-cast (and looked too young) as another member of the space team, while Kristen Wiig was poorly used as NASA’s PR woman (why cast such a funny woman in such a bland role? Diane Lane or Ashley Judd could have been cast just as easily, right? … except for the bigger popularity of Wiig, of course) and Donald Glover also has far too little screen time as the tech genius who figures out how the Hermes can save Damon (also, did anyone else notice the awkward switch that the score made into hip-hop-flavored beats in two instances when Glover was the center of a scene?). Even so, The Martian moves at a very nice pace and is constantly fun to watch, so it’s hardly the usual “mindless/soulless popcorn” thing that people assume will be the case with big blockbusters.

Spy. Directed by Paul Feig. I really enjoyed this movie. I have a tendency to shy away from recent comedies because so many of them are painfully unfunny, but I had the feeling I would like this one; how could I not, given that Paul Feig, who purposely works from a feminist perspective, wrote and directed it? The gender-flipping of the traditional James Bond-type secret agent story works well, giving Melissa McCarthy a great leading role with lots of character development over the course of the story and loads of funny lines (and most of them don’t have to do with her body size). She is ably assisted by Jude Law as the dashing, Bond-like spy guy whom she has worked with for years (and quietly lusted after); Jason Statham as the wildly unprepared and pompous hyper-spy Rick Ford; Miranda Hart as McCarthy’s good friend at the agency, who, like McCarthy, gets the opportunity to move from “basement work” into the field; and Allison Janney as the CIA head in charge of the missions. (In smaller roles, it’s also nice to see Michael McDonald as the CIA gadget guy who gives McCarthy the greatest watch imaginable, Steve Bannos as “Alan the Bartender” and Zach Woods as a waiter with nefarious intentions.) I was less impressed with Rose Byrne, who I guess is OK as one of the main villains, but she never outshines McCarthy in any of their scenes together; Bobby Cannavale, another of the baddies, is suitably handsome but underused, not unlike the bland but pretty eye candy that often shows up in female form in James Bond flicks – more of Feig’s intentional gender-flipping, perhaps? The nicest surprise, cast-wise, was Peter Serafinowicz (who I totally forgot was also in Spy until he showed up) as Aldo, a sex-obsessed CIA liaison who casts his amorous eye on McCarthy. Every scene they share is gold, especially the last one at the end of the film. For a film filled with send-ups and spoofs of its genre, all of which could have failed in lesser hands, the screenplay, dialogue, most of the performances and the overall trajectory of Spy succeed, and hilariously so.

Woman in Gold. Directed by Simon Curtis. Contrary to what some critics and moviegoers may have said, Woman in Gold is a well-acted drama. Helen Mirren is, as one would expect, good in the role of Maria Altmann, who fought to get back the paintings that Gustav Klimt gave her family (including the most famous one of her aunt Adele, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I) and which were subsequently stolen by the Nazis in 1938. Ryan Reynolds also does an OK job as Altmann’s lawyer, Randy Schoenberg, not perhaps an Oscar-worthy performance but still fairly good considering that I’ve never thought of Reynolds as much of an actor. All of the most effective actors, however, appear in the Vienna flashbacks: in this order, Allan Corduner as Maria’s father (a beautiful, beautiful performance), Max Irons as Maria’s husband, Tatiana Maslany as young Maria, Nina Kunzendorf as Maria’s mother, Tom Schilling as a Nazi officer assigned to watch the family. I didn’t have any particular opinions about Daniel Brühl‘s boring performance as investigative reporter Hubertus Czernin, while Katie Holmes is wasted in a throwaway role as Randy’s wife, Pam Schoenberg, who has very few facial expressions other than “concerned.” Where the film is weakest is in the overarching feeling of being a Hollywood drama/biopic/Holocaust story, exactly the sort that Harvey Weinstein produces (which he did, in this case) and which is designed to make you feel certain feelings. I am totally sympathetic with Maria Altmann in terms of the art restitution case – would Aunt Adele really have preferred for her portrait to hang in the Belvedere Palace gallery if she had known what would happen to her family, friends and country in WWII? – but perhaps because I remembered the Maria Altmann story (I recall when she died a few years ago, which led me to read all about the case and visit the painting in the Neue Galerie), Woman in Gold did not provide any surprises. But I should not be too shocked; the film was made by the same who directed the problematic My Week with Marilyn.

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2011: Part 9

Crazy, Stupid, Love. Directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. There’s nothing wrong with this film, but I have yet to find anything really engaging in the acting of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. There are certainly a lot of Gosling’s earlier films, like The Notebook, Half Nelson and Lars and the Real Girl, which I have yet to see and in which it looks like he truly does well; all I know is that this comedy, which tries to capitalize on the revitalization of Gosling’s career circa 2010, is best watched for its older stars. Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon are all fun as the adults approaching (or already at) middle age, sometimes unsure of the directions their lives should move in. Altogether you’ll likely forget this film quickly, but at least you can see Ryan Gosling’s abs, which are probably superior to yours. So there’s that, if nothing else.

Hitler’s Children. Directed by Chanoch Zeevi. This disturbing but necessary documentary examines the lives of the progeny of many top Nazi officials. It’s a fairly brief film, clocking in at not much more than an hour if I recall correctly, but the interviews with these descendants are riveting and stay with you long after the film has ended. Perhaps most gripping of all is Bettina Göring (great-niece of Hermann Göring), who made the decision along with her brother to be sterilized and stop the Göring line, and Rainer Höss (grandson of Rudolf Höss), who visits Auschwitz where his grandfather was the commandant. Even more emotional is Rainer Höss’s involvement in a meeting of Holocaust survivors and their family; Höss feels the burden of his lineage, even though he himself did not commit the crimes. The film asks us to consider whether it is possible to reconcile unspeakable horrors from your ancestry and the ability to live your own life after that. There are, of course, no easy answers.

10 Years. Directed by Jamie Linden. The high school reunion is a tough subject for a film unless you do something different, like Grosse Pointe Blank or, in a less conventional format, Peggy Sue Got Married. I didn’t mind 10 Years, however, since it has the kind of bland likeability that makes it decent viewing for an otherwise empty afternoon. Not a lot of character development is on display, but the film remains entertaining enough for you to stick with it. There are a number of actors who making the film worth viewing: Channing Tatum, Oscar Isaac (a precursor to Inside Llewyn Davis, you might say), Ari Graynor, Lynn Collins, Kate Mara, Aubrey Plaza, Brian Geraghty. I was displeased by the casting of Chris Pratt as a goofy galoot, a less personable version of his character from “Parks and Recreation.” Jenna Dewan-Tatum was obviously cast as Channing Tatum’s girlfriend because of their real-life relationship, but she’s not much of an actress. I didn’t really care for the buddy-comedy subplot with Justin Long and Max Minghella either, though the payoff from their infatuation with Lynn Collins makes for an unexpected twist in the plot.

W.E. Directed by Madonna. I know, I know, seeing the Material Girl’s name at the helm seems weird and easily mockable. Nevertheless I think that the film is kind of good, particularly in technical areas. The narrative forms a parallel between two love stories: the tale of England’s Edward VIII (“David”) and Wallis Simpson in the 1930s is intercut with the evolving relationship between a Manhattan housewife and a Russian security guard at Sotheby’s in 1998. (It bothers me that there are a number of details that are clearly a part of the 2010 filming date, like a laptop and the newer New York trains.) The housewife, played well by Abbie Cornish (you should see her performance in Bright Star if you haven’t), is named Wally after Wallis Simpson, leading to a lifelong obsession with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Her relationship with her physically/emotionally abusive husband mirrors Wallis Simpson’s abuse at the hands of her first husband. The subplot with the security guard (another fine role for Oscar Isaac) stretches credibility – naturally he’s only slumming; he’s actually a piano-playing, Rilke-reading intellectual – but I suppose it’s necessary to make the two stories fit. As I mentioned, the technical achievements are impressive, especially the score by Abel Korzeniowski (“Evgeni’s Waltz” and the In the Mood for Love-esque “Satin Birds” are highlights) and the Academy Award-nominated costume design by Arianne Phillips. Even if the film does not rely on historical accuracy, I give credit to Madonna for directing and co-writing an engaging drama. Also: it’s a crime that “Masterpiece” wasn’t eligible for Best Song. Great track right there.

We Bought a Zoo. Directed by Cameron Crowe. I’m not usually drawn to anything marketed as a “family film,” but in this case you get a warm, affable drama starring Matt Damon, whom I have always found a solid cinematic presence. Scarlett Johansson, an actress whom I find more appealing as I see more of her films (and as more time passes since the overrated Lost in Translation), does a good job as Damon’s love interest. I appreciate that the film works hard to establish a realistic friendship between the two, almost making the romance an afterthought since their primary goals revolve around their work and Damon’s kids. Speaking of the kids, Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones are convincing as children in a real family, as opposed to the bratty performances usually given by young actors. Another romantic element of the plot involves Ford and Elle Fanning, a plot point that isn’t necessary, though I guess it doesn’t detract from the main story too greatly. Overall it is a sweet movie, aided by the directing and screenwriting of Cameron Crowe (I have sung the praises of his directorial debut, Say Anything…, which I call a perfect film).