Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1999)

For a movie based on a Robert Cormier novel, this is surprisingly uplifting. I don't remember the book having nearly this positive an ending. Although I'm still not convinced of Elijah Wood's acting abilities, he was fine here for the slightly-off, somewhat-detached Barney Snow. His interactions seemed real and genuine, and the interesting cast of characters surrounding him made me want to know more about his story. I'd forgotten much of the plot - it's been years since I read the book. I found myself intrigued with where it was going and feeling very satisfied by the time the credits rolled. Still a dark essence to it, so it's hardly what I'd call "inspirational," and it's not for everyone (I'm not even sure it's for fans of Cormier's work) but it's very well done and I liked it a lot. 4 stars.

Alfie (2006)

I'm not sure there could be a more perfect actor to fill this role than Jude Law. The man is completely 100% charming - one smile and you believe every terrible thing he says. But he's also a dang good actor, and manages to bring personality and character to what could have been a very bland role. I think it's his acting that takes this movie from just being mediocre to being actually quite good. The story is fairly predictable - the story could only end one of two ways, and the way they chose to end it was consistent with the rest of the film. I enjoyed it quite a lot. 3.5 stars.

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Neil Simon's dialogue is as clever as ever in this filmed version of his play. Someone on one of these movie sites described it as The Odd Couple for octogenarians, and I think they were right. Much of the dialogue is reminiscent of Odd Couple (especially when you have Walter Matthau playing one of them). The ending came as a surprise to me but was still full of heart, as Simon's work generally is. After so much hype about it, "The Doctor Sketch" was every bit as funny in vaudevillian terms as they had claimed it to be. A great retelling of a great story. Definitely one to watch! 4 stars.

Once (2006)

This movie is not about relationships. This movie is not about love. This movie is about music. Everything else comes second to that. We are not looking at how music influences their lives, we're looking at how their lives influence their music. When the girl hears one of the boy's songs that he's written himself, her first question is: "Who is she? The girl who you wrote the song for?" She knows there's a story. Behind every good piece of music there's a story. Later, as the girl plays a song she wrote about her husband, we hear all the pain and despair flowing out of her. Her past has made her music what it is now, for better or worse. (spoiler) When the two reunite with their exes at the end, it leaves us asking the question: Where will their musical journey go next, now that there are different challenges, different steps to climb, different pains to deal with? (/spoilers)

As it must be for this film to work, the music in the movie is superb. I am not a fan of the genre at all, but both musicians play with such passion and such conviction that I wanted to know their story, wanted to know what could have caused this music to pour out of them. And it made me want to write a few songs of my own as well. A must-see for any aspiring songwriter or musician, or even for those, like me, who find it so easy to become immersed in the emotion and stories found in music. 4 stars.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008)

(Lots of spoilers ahead, since the problem I had with it was with the ending.) This movie was nearly one of the very best. The young actor playing the German kid had some great dialogue to work with, but then on top of it just did a very good job acting it as well. The dialogue was intelligent, and it was chilling to see the family and society trying so desperately to poison the boy's mind toward the Jews. So why the low rating? Because the ending made everything fall apart. At the end of the story, the German boy decides it would be a great adventure to help his Jewish friend look for his father in the concentration camp. There's not much sacrifice here - the boy has almost no idea what he's getting into, he just thinks it would a great adventure. In the end, both boys are rounded up along with other men from the same hut, and burned en masse. The problem with this is that the tragedy becomes that of the German boy. The question is "How could something so terrible happen to that little boy?" That shouldn't be the question. The question should be, "How could anything so terrible happen to all those people?" The elevation and emphasis of the tragedy of the German's death made all of the other deaths trivial in comparison. If the boy had been sacrificially making the decision to give his life with or for his friend, that would be one thing - a tale of redemption instead of pointlessness. If the emphasis was on the parents and how their brutality came back on their own heads, it could be a very powerful film. But the story was mostly confined to being told by the young boy and through his eyes, indicating that it was he we should be most empathetic towards, rather than his parents, who were clearly secondary characters.

Overall, a brilliantly shot movie that made one very fatal (literally) error at the end of the story that undercut the entire thing. With just a bit more emphasis on the parents, or a bit more understanding on behalf of the child, it could have been a brilliant movie that I could have praised. But its senseless ending made me angry - not at the fact of injustice, but at the fact that only the German boy's injustice mattered. Very disappointing. That terrible, terrible misstep makes the entire film a disastrous undertaking. 1.5 stars.

The Visitor (2007)

This sort of story has been done before. Many times. The one thing that made this movie stand out from the rest was a small detail of the plot -- the drumming. The drumming part of this movie was magical. It's something I would never have expected to intrigue the main character, a very traditional older man, and yet somehow it did. The scene where he finds himself irresistibly drawn to join the long line of drummers in the midst of the city is superb. That, for me, was what held this movie together.

One other superb scene that is worth mentioning. (Spoilers ahead.) The Syrian boy's mother shows up after his arrest, and soon finds out he has been deported. She and the older man have formed a little bit of a bond, and when she hears this news, she goes to his room and crawls into his bed and begins crying that it is her fault. He holds her, gently, comforting her, just being there for her. The scene ends as we pan back and just see the two of them, not necessarily as sexual beings, just holding each other and trying to comfort each other in their loss. It's a beautiful scene that makes the entire movie come together.

The film moves very slowly and isn't for everyone, but is definitely worth checking out. A few brilliant moments make up for some of the slower ones - look for those and the rest of it makes sense. 3.5 stars.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Kite Runner (2007)

When I read the book, I was impressed with the quiet simplicity with which it told its story - a story that was certainly far from simple. The movie manages to take the feel of the book and translate it beautifully onto the screen. One of the best movie adaptations I've seen in a long time. I like it at least as well as I liked the book, possibly even a bit more. It's a touching story that is served well by the medium of film. 4 stars.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

John Cusack is the best actor I've ever seen play a Woody Allen part who wasn't Woody Allen himself. He was born to play the insecure artsy intellectual, and he's superb in this, one of Allen's lighter comedies. A very funny ensemble comes together to tell the story of a struggling playwright trying to turn his show into a success (with an impossible cast) without compromising his artistic integrity. It's a charming, entertaining movie with some of Allen's best dialogue. Well worth seeing. 4 stars.

Last Holiday (2006)

At the beginning of her career, it looked like Queen Latifah was only capable of playing sassy wisecracking women. But she has expanded her repertoire to show she is quite a versatile actress. Here she convincingly plays a reserved, tentative woman who is pushed to act the way she's always wished she could, without boundaries, when she discovers she's dying. Although the movie itself is not that great, she brings life to a character that could have been bland in anyone else's hands. A thumbs up to her, a "meh, whatever" to the film itself. 3 stars.

Life Is Beautiful (1997)

As the screen faded to credits and I sat alone in my living room, I kept replaying the final few minutes in my mind. The film continued to haunt me throughout my sleep and into the next morning. I don't know what rating to give it. This movie was both somehow *wrong*, that such a horrifying event was given such a rosy color, but at the same time so stunningly beautiful, that a young boy could come out of that event with that image of it in his mind. The story of a father determined at any cost to keep his son alive and happy was charming at the beginning and then almost terrifying at the end. I can understand why people respond both negatively and positively to this. And I am torn between those two poles... which is probably the way it was meant to be. If you go too far one way or the other, you lose the meaning of the movie. The fight between terror and joy, which is fought throughout the entire story. This isn't a movie you should be able to just choose an opinion on. I have a feeling I'll be revamping and reconsidering and reordering my thoughts on this movie for days and weeks and perhaps months and years to come.

I am going to give it an extremely high rating because for a movie to conflict me that much emotionally, it means it was almost certainly made superbly - if I can't just throw it off to the side, it has something worth considering. 4.5 stars.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Defending Your Life (1991)

I've decided I'm not a fan of Meryl Streep. At least not in comedies. She is bizarrely awkward in this movie, as she was in Mamma Mia!, communicating not normal cheerfulness or simply a vivacious personality, but an immature teenage mentality. However, that aside, this is a perfectly capable little romantic comedy. There's nothing to shout about here -- the story's been done before and goes on a little long at 112 minutes. I was ready for it to be done around 90. However, it's not all that bad. Very pleasant, not spectacular. 3 stars.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

ShakespeaRe-Told (2005)

I had mixed reactions to this series of retellings of some of Shakespeare's classics. Macbeth was the strongest - the tale of two people who thought they were ready to kill but find out too late they weren't. There's something very appropriate about making it about a chef. It gave rise to all sorts of interesting imagery.

A Midsummer Night's Dream was charmingly done. The tone of the story was somehow kept, even with the fairies speaking in modern day slang and an odd added plot about Hermia's parents (anything similar in the play? I can't recall). Very enjoyable.

The other two fell victim to the fact that Shakespeare's characters are ridiculously mood swingy. Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice was a bit unbalanced emotionally and I found myself waiting for the moment when she would explode all over her loved one, but oddly enough, it never happened. She's mood swingy but not even consistently. Great acting, though. She managed to make it almost manageable.

The Taming of the Shrew was just ALL over the place emotionally. The 15-20 minutes between the marriage and the "taming" were the best, with some great angry banter back and forth, but everything before it made Katherine so unlikeable that we can't possibly want her to be happy, and afterwards she was so suddenly and creepily docile that the only logical explanation is that he's been slipping tranquilizers into her coffee. Very awkward. Rufus Sewell was superb, however.

Overall, two were quite good, one was quite good given what it had to work with, and one was ... odd but had potential. Probably worth watching - it was interesting to see all the various creative rewrites. 3.5 stars.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Alice (1990)

This film comes and goes in how good it is. The premise is marvelous, the ending is thoroughly satisfying, and the scene where she meets a former lover is very touching. As a whole, however, there are a lot of scenes that don't ontribute much to either the film's plot or the film's tone, and really don't seem to have any purpose at all. Woody Allen's films often meander into discussions of the philosophical, but this seemed not even to have that in mind most of the time. Not one of his better ones, although still worth seeing for a fan. 3 stars.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

This is the most substantial movie Woody Allen's made in a couple of years. Cassandra's Dream (2007) wandered a bit too much and Scoop (2006) was pleasant, but completely fluffy. Match Point back in 2005 was much darker, but was received similarly well.

As with all of Woody Allen's movies, I just enjoyed watching the characters interact. Whatever their circumstances were, as the characters sought to find what they wanted, they were interesting. (By the way - Penelope Cruz for Best Supporting Actress? I highly disagree. Rebecca Hall, who played the more subdued but far more interesting Vicky, would have been the better choice.) Two-thirds of the way through the movie, I was unsure where it was going or how it would end. Most of all, I was worried it wouldn't end in a way that made sense for Woody Allen, a writer/director whose work has come to feel very reassuringly consistent for me. But as the last scene faded to black, it was a satisfying one. It ended in such a way that I had to go back and rethink the characters and everything they'd been through, and how it all connected.

Although there were moments that dragged on a little bit long, it was overall an excellent film, and Allen's best in three years. I'm excited to see where his next one goes. 4 stars.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Purple Noon (1960)

I liked this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel just a bit better than 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley," although that was good as well. This is smoother and classier, and Alain Delon is chilling as Tom Ripley. The two movies vary significantly in how they end. I haven't read Highsmith's novel, so I'm not sure which one is closer to the original. I liked both endings almost equally well, although my sense of justice was more satisfied with this film. This film is also significantly shorter than the 1999 one, telling the entire story in under two hours, which gives it a tighter, more imperative feel. 4 stars.