Movies watched in April 2017

Here are the films I watched last month. I mostly keep reviews on my Letterboxd account now, but I suppose I’ll archive them here every month as well. Various reviews may have spoilers.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Visually, this film was fantastic. Amazing special effects, and I loved the costumes, sets, the whole look and feel, it was very unique and awesome.

Unfortunately the story, to me (a non-comic-book reader), felt like the same old cliche sort of Marvel action movie. Cardboard characters, bland dialog, boring conflict, silly magic system, and some of the most groan-inducing pop-culture-reference humor one can find. Doctor Strange’s character didn’t feel consistent to me, as he too quickly jumped between serious and brooding and dramatic to arrogant and sarcastic. (Writers should’ve studied Dr. House more to get that dynamic right. Though, like Laurie, Cumberbatch does do a nice American accent.)

All that said, I’ll still be interested in the sequel. This film had to juggle introducing a world and its magic system, develop characters, and throw in some enemies for some action conflict and set pieces. A lot to balance. I’ll be interested to see what they might do now that there’s a foundation for the characters, the world, and the magic system.

My rating: 2 / 5

A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015)

While set in the 40’s when Israel was founded as a nation, the story (based on the central character’s memoirs) focuses more on the family drama, particularly the relationship between the young boy and his mother, played by Natalie Portman, who suffers from migraines, insomnia, and depression. Though often somber in tone, it manages to avoid brooding with touches of poetry and storytelling. A bit slow at times, but otherwise I thought it was quite good.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

I had seen a lot of bits and pieces through the years, so already knew all the best parts, but finally watched the whole thing. Hilarious stuff!

My rating: 3.5 / 5

Silence (2016)

To me, this film had the spiritual depth of an eleven year old pondering the mysteries of faith for the first time. I suppose a film about a Christian priest who eventually apostatizes is bound to be a bit shallow. I loved the beautiful cinematography, the fine acting, and Scorsese’s wonderful pacing (slow as it may be), but the spiritual conflict here just did not say anything at all interesting.

Why were some of these Japanese willing to die for Jesus? Should they or shouldn’t they step on an image of their Lord to save their own lives? What does faith really mean to them? What does Christianity offer that Buddhism did not? No real arguments or testaments of faith or words of spiritual wisdom are really ever uttered by anyone; it’s all sort of just taken for granted.

When the Japanese torture Christians and turn to the priest and ask, “Why do you allow this to persist?” why does the priest never answer the obvious: “Uh… *you’re* the one doing this.” Why would he feel any guilt or doubt over the persecution? Especially as a Christian? Jesus was tortured and died on the cross. The symbol of the crucifix is everywhere. And yet persecution causes so much anguish? It’s one of the main foundations of Christianity! Didn’t this priest ever read the Bible?! (Is there even a Bible in this movie?) I mean, if all that torture and suffering plagued your faith so much, wouldn’t the image of Christ on the crucifix itself do anything to you?

And then the Japanese point to the image of Christ on the ground and command the priest to step on it, encouraging him by saying, “It’s only a formality.” Why would the priest not then say, “If it’s only a formality, why insist so strongly that I do it?” Or something like that? That is, if the Christian faith is false, why do you think it’s so dangerous? But this priest has no questions or thoughts like that.

So, ultimately, I found the main character’s lack of faith disturbing.

Granted, focusing on the spiritual shallow-ness of the writing might be missing the point of this film. Which might be…… I have no idea. The director says in an interview somewhere: “When [Fr. Rodrigues] does apostatize, he gives up anything he’s proud of and he’s got nothing left except service, except compassion. So, he gives up his religion, he gives up his faith in order to gain his faith.” Uh… OK… not really sure what he means there, but if that’s what he was trying to show with the film, he did a horrible job of it. The priest seems more depressed and apathetic by the film’s end, not compassionate.

A much more interesting film involving faith and persecution would be “A Man for All Seasons” from 1966.

You know what’s funny? This morning I opened to a random page in Saint Augustine’s “City of God”. I’ve kept some Saint Augustine by my bedside for the last few years; read some of his work if you want some real spiritual food for thought! Anyway, I just happened to turn to Book 12, Chapter 7! Isn’t that interesting?! Because, you know, “silence”…? Heh.

My rating: 1 / 5

Rules Don’t Apply (2016)

It’s supposed to be a love story with the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes in the backdrop, but the main characters had no chemistry, no reason to fall in love, and made pretty stupid decisions throughout the film. Ultimately there was just nothing interesting at all here.

My rating: 0.5 / 5

Don’t Hang Up (2016)

Pretty bad movie. A couple of unrealistically-written jerk teenagers make prank calls, but a victim decides to turn the tables and murder not only most of the prankers, but some of their innocent loved ones as well, because… well, you know how revenge is. The man is amazingly able to hack EVERYTHING, laptops and phones and TVs and even the power! And what better way to use such miraculous skills than to emotionally abuse and tease your victims before murdering them? It really made no sense.

My rating: 1 / 5

Lion (2016)

Overall, a good movie based on a fascinating true story. Would’ve given it more stars, but the movie seemed to drag a bit in the second act. It was hard to empathize with Saroo when he acts like a bit of a jerk to his family; I couldn’t quite understand what exactly he was emotionally struggling with. Might be interesting to read the book, because a lot of the “family drama” felt forced, like it was just dramatic filler for the film. (Is their a real Mantosh and does he mind how he is portrayed in the film?) Whatever the case, I didn’t think the second act was written very well. Either they did not dramatize his emotional struggle very well, or they forced in some dramatic filler where they didn’t really need it. Would’ve been interesting to see the second act conflicts revolve more around the actual search instead of the emotional family drama. Still, a good movie overall, very fascinating story!

My rating: 3 / 5

Incarnate (2016)

Fun idea, but rather poorly executed. The main problem was that the stakes never changed much, the outcome of one conflict did not strongly lead to the next, so it got rather boring sometimes. Their “magic system” was also a bit more convoluted than it really needed to be, a lot of the “rules” seemed a bit nonsense.

My rating: 2 / 5

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

If you enjoyed the Harry Potter movies, you’ll probably enjoy this spin-off. Otherwise, it’s a rather average action flick, nothing too special. The way Eddie Redmayne carried himself as a quirky eccentric writer/researcher was really annoying. The quirkiness should’ve come across in his passions and decisions and dialog, not the way he tilts his head, hunches, and fails to comb his hair. (And whoever designed the hairstyles for this film should go to prison.) Actually, Newt’s entire character was pretty bland; all the supporting characters were far more interesting. Meh!

My rating: 2 / 5

Ragnarok (2013)

Fun idea, but it didn’t feel like they did very much with it. Overall, felt rather bland.

My rating: 2.5 / 5

Stand By Me (1986)

Finally saw this film from the 80’s. Seemed even shorter than it was, perhaps because it seemed to flow naturally along, never really a dull moment. Some rather sad moments, and the main characters confessed their inner feelings a little too easily, but overall a very good film.

My rating: 4 / 5

The Duelist (2016)

Fun action sequences, and interesting camera work, but the overall plot was a bit confusing to me. I was perhaps too distracted to catch all of the subtitles, and maybe missing just a few threw me off.

My rating: 2.5 / 5

The Founder (2016)

Very interesting to learn the story of how McDonald’s became the huge franchise it is today. The “founder” himself certainly seemed a bit of a ruthless jerk, a bit like Zuckerberg in The Social Network, but that’s business I guess. I am now inspired to be persistent!

My rating: 3.5 / 5

Mythica: A Quest for Heroes (2014)

So cheesy, no budget, terrible effects, silly writing… about what I expected really. But I enjoy a cheesy fantasy, even though it’s not good. Gives me story ideas.

My rating: 2 / 5

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

I only played the first video game for a dozen or so hours almost a decade ago, so I really don’t know much about the source material.

As a film, I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it was visually beautiful, I highly enjoyed the look and feel, the action sequences, and the balance with the calmer, slower moments. I wish it had spent more time in the past though.

Honestly, I may have been overly-impressed with the visuals and action as I had just watched a very low-budget extremely cheesy fantasy flick before watching this, so watching a film with an actual budget was a nice breath of fresh air.

On the other hand, the overall story / conflict / premise of searching for the secret “genetic code” for free will in the apple from Eden (depicted as some bizarre glowing metallic orb?) was more ridiculous than the silliest nonsense from a Robert Langdon adventure.

Still, despite the laughable premise, I actually quite enjoyed the overall film. Fun action-packed adventure, if you’re willing to not take the outlandish premise too seriously. (Again, I didn’t have much experience with the games, so had no expectations in that regard.) Would definitely watch a sequel if they make one.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

Detour (2016)

Fun movie. Like a Hitchcock suspense, some parts made me feel guilty and paranoid just watching. On the other hand, the editing gimmicks make you think one thing is happening, then do a little twist and reveal something else. These moments felt more comedic to me, making the whole thing feel more lighthearted.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

Man of La Mancha (1972)

Against the musical standards set up by more masterfully made films such as “My Fair Lady”, “The Sound of Music”, and “Oliver!”, this one feels rather low on production value. Very static camera, rather mundane performances, sets that feel over-used quickly. Poor Peter O’Toole, despite being a great actor, feels very miscast in this role. He just does not have the “fool triumphant” look or attitude necessary. Despite all this, I just love this musical too much, so I still give it 4 stars. It should really be remade… but it would probably completely fail these days.

My rating: 4 / 5

Movies watched in March 2017

Here are the films I watched last month. I mostly keep reviews on my Letterboxd account now, but I suppose I’ll archive them here every month as well. Various reviews may have spoilers.

Moana (2016)

Enjoyed the film. Great animation and music, and fun story. But just a bit cliche and predictable at times, felt a bit rushed and under-developed at certain moments. Granted, I’m sure a 30-something-year-old well-versed in animation tropes is not the target audience. Overall, a worthy Disney film.

My rating: 3.5 / 5

Burn After Reading (2008)

Coen brothers’ movies can be a bit hit or miss for me, but this one was enjoyable. Some nice twists and their unique brand of humor. Fun movie.

My rating: 3 / 5

The Accountant (2016)

This one didn’t really work for me. I think it tried to do too much. It had the super-awesome-fighting-and-shooting action sequences, the I-am-autistic-genius-and-write-numbers-on-glass thing, the my-mother-left-me backstory family issues, the mystery of the specific case he was working on, and then the whole (completely unneeded) side-story with the treasury agent and his protege. It was trying to do so much that the main character just came across as rather bland and generic. The fight sequences were fun, but with the rest of the film being as bland as it was, I’m afraid this is one I’ll soon forget in the mountain of generic action thrillers. Fun at moments, but ultimately nothing special. And I kinda guessed the ending with the guy being his brother, as it reminded a bit of Gattaca.

My rating: 2 / 5

American Pastoral (2016)

A man’s daughter becomes a crazy evil anti-war protester (and murderer?!) and vanishes, but her father still loves her. This is very meaningful and artistic because of how eloquent and thought-provoking the narration is. The end.


My rating: 0.5 / 5

Miss Hokusai (2015)

A strange film. Slow paced and episodic, which perhaps reflects the manga it’s based on. While the characters are based on real historical artists, it’s often more fantastical and spiritual than academically autobiographical, though that’s not a bad thing. Some “episodes” were so bizarre that I didn’t quite understand what was going on, but overall I enjoyed it.

My rating: 3 / 5

The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014)

Perhaps a bit longer than it needed to be, and cheesy Chinese CGI always looks a bit silly, but overall it was OK. The ending was funny… just as credits are about to roll, we are treated with an alternative climax with over-the-top action.

My rating: 3 / 5

Boy (2010)

Felt like one of those weird indie films that manages to be funny and depressing at the same time, which are usually hit or miss for me. This one was OK. The immaturity of the father character could be extremely annoying at times, but I suppose that was the point.

My rating: 3 / 5

Passengers (2016)

I like the premise, the idea they were going for, but the execution felt pretty clumsy, with many plot points feeling very forced. How could a gigantic spaceship with such amazing amounts of technology risk critical failure, foretold by a bunch of random systems glitching out? Robots falling out of nowhere? Who designed this crappy system, Dennis Nedry? And it was all caused by… a meteor striking just the right part of the right machine? And the climax was ridiculous and illogical. You have to stand in the path of deadly fire to keep a door control turned? But if it was truly a deadly risk, wouldn’t you… let go of the control? And render the offered sacrifice pointless? And the captain coughing up blood… is there any more cliche way to show you’re dying? Just so much crappy writing that the premise and the talent is completely wasted.

Also, Aurora’s character was really annoying sometimes…

“I’m a journalist, I know people.” HAHAHA

“I’ve never written about myself before. This is the best writing I’ve ever done.” Or something like that. Sounded rather conceited.

“If you live an ordinary life, all you’ll have are ordinary stories.” Or you could, I don’t know, use imagination?

Overall, very disappointing.

My rating: 1.5 / 5

The Way I Spent the End of the World (2006)

Some interesting history, seeing Romania under communist rule, but otherwise I found the characters themselves a bit too boring.

My rating: 2 / 5

Inferno (2016)

Really awful film. I almost hated it instantly when Langdon wakes up with amnesia having a series of really annoying meaningless flashbacks and visions. Characters forgetting the past is such an AWFUL way to plot a story; it creates absolutely no tension at all. I HATE this trope. The only film that ever successfully pulled it off was Momento, and I think even that is a bit overrated. Anyway, the film gets a little more interesting later on, when you begin to realize what the conflict actually is and what’s at stake, though even that is so outlandishly ridiculous that it does nothing to save the film.

My rating: 1 / 5

Evolution (2015)

Very nice cinematography, and I enjoyed the slow eerie pace and creepy atmosphere. But ultimately the whole thing was just a bit too ambiguous for me.

My rating: 2.5 / 5

The Invisible (2007)

An interesting premise ruined by ridiculous plotting and a really stupid ending.

My rating: 2 / 5

The Eyes of My Mother (2016)

The main character’s blank “oops, I killed you” expressions made the whole thing more comic than disturbing. And when it wasn’t being silly, it was boring.

My rating: 1 / 5

iBoy (2017)

Pretty silly.

My rating: 1 / 5

Allied (2016)

While working undercover during WWII, two agents fall in love. But is the woman being honest about her identity? Fun movie, I enjoyed it. The assassination scene was nicely done.

My rating: 3 / 5

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Fun movie. Rather ridiculous in terms of spy technology and such, and they always cheat the fight scenes with tons of cutting and shaky cam, but I guess that’s what the MI movies are all about, right? And as far as MI movies go, I think this is the second best installment, after the first one from 1996.

My rating: 3 / 5

Midnight Special (2016)

Midnight Special

Some short thoughts on the film Midnight Special with maybe some spoilers.

I thought this film had two main faults:

1) The tone was too serious, which made the film feel less serious. With so little humor in the film, its attempt at making you feel something powerful by directorial fiat (the character is teary-eyed and just listen to the brooding score!) falls flat. Some humor would’ve provided contrast.

2) The nature of the child’s powers, which provide the driving force of the entire film, remain ambiguous throughout. Since this is kept ambiguous, character goals remain ambiguous by extension, making the characters and their actions difficult to relate to or care about.

“But!” someone may say, “it makes you think! If you need a plot spelled out for you, you must be stupid! You have to pay attention! I like films that make me think!”

OK… but what does an ambiguous film make you think about? And is it worth thinking about? And why does a certain ambiguity make you think it?

After all, Usually an ambiguity just makes you think about the ambiguous thing. If you’re never going to give the audience answers, is that really what you want?

Also, if I want some thought-provoking ambiguity, I can just think about the bizarro dreams I had last night, daydream my own ambiguous imagary, or read the Book of Revelations.

By which I mean to say: If you find coming up with thought-provoking ambiguity on your own is difficult, then I doubt the ambiguity is provoking very deep thoughts.

Anyway, after Googling a bit, I found the director quoted here as saying:

“Our house was very small, but we were freaked-out first-time parents, so we put a baby monitor in the room — even though we could hear everything he did from our bedroom, because we were right next door,” Nichols said of he and his wife becoming a new parents. “But I sat there listening to everything. Every breath, every movement, every sound. And I realized at that point in his life, here was this person who had no concept that just outside the space of his consciousness, there were these two people who cared so deeply for him and were listening to everything he does. We knew everything about every moment. I was struck by that. And that became the basis for this bigger multiverse idea.”

That actually sounds like an awesome idea, a great theme for a film, especially a sci-fi one. Maybe I’ll steal it for a novel. Because Midnight Special fails completely to relate this theme, unless you’re already looking for it. Otherwise your interests will likely have more to do with trying to understand the kid’s powers and goals, only to be disappointed when you find they remain ambiguous. If the director had really wanted to explore this parenthood theme, a little less ambiguity would’ve gone a long way.

The Hustler (1961)


Link: The Hustler

Summary: Small time pool hustler Eddie wants to become a major-league pool hustler, and to prove himself he sets out to defeat Minnesota Fats, the current reigning champion. After being defeated, poor Eddie must do some soul searching, figuring out what his passion really means to him before trying once more.

Thoughts: The film is considered a classic, but perhaps seemed more riveting fifty years ago. Today it feels more like a cliche of better films that came after it, as convoluted as that may seem. I found the pacing way too slow, the characters a bit flat, and some plot points rather a bit forced. The themes, dealing with talent and passion vs character and personal sacrifice, are handled with more beauty, depth, and intrigue in films like RockyAmadeus, or even the more recent Whiplash. Still, it’s a decent film, but I think its weaknesses only lend a shovel to the more modern films slowly digging its grave in the annals of film history. But, hey, it got a blu-ray release, so its thematic strengths will ensure that one foot will dance outside the grave for some time yet.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster (2013)

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster

Link: Drew: The Man Behind The Poster

Summary: A documentary looking at the work of illustrator Drew Struzan and the iconic film posters he created over the decades before his retirement.

Thoughts: It’s easy to take film poster art for granted, but almost every film lover has Drew Struzan’s work permanently etched somewhere in their memories; his style of highlighted “mountain of faces” portraiture alone conjures up the magic of the movies, perhaps along with a bit of nostalgia nowadays, as illustrative poster art has been on the decline.

While the documentary provides some fascinating insights into Struzan’s work, it was light on both biographical details of the man himself (understandable if he’d rather keep his personal life personal) and on how he actually works (which may not be of interest to general audiences anyway). Instead, we’re mostly presented with the talking heads of celebrities in the industry who’ve worked with or been influenced by Struzan’s work. The film provides a sort of overview of Struzan’s most iconic work through the decades, with a bit of backstory regarding how they came about. Fascinating material, but it personally left me hungry for more. Fun movie; definitely worth checking out.

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

Fort Apache, The Bronx

Link: Fort Apache, The Bronx

Summary: A veteran cop struggles to work in the worst crime zone in the big city, especially when a new boss shows up with a by-the-book no-nonsense philosophy about cracking down to find a recent cop killer.

Thoughts: Somewhat based on a true story, or at least on a true precinct, the film reminds one that racial tensions between cops and citizens, whether justified or not, are nothing new. The film suggests an interesting conflict between two different methods of doing police work. Do you play things completely by the book, putting the law above everything, and giving citizens the hard, sometimes violent and painful, discipline the law calls for, for their own good (“tough love” as a parent might call it)? Or is it more effective to try to understand a criminal’s background and the societal forces at work in a struggling community, perhaps ignoring what standard procedures call for, for better or worse?

Midway through the film, things get ugly when (spoiler alert) a not-so-good cop throws an innocent man off a building while trying to help subdue a riot. The main character, having witnessed this horrible deed, spends much of the rest of the film debating whether or not to turn in this friend-turned-enemy. These sort of internal conflicts in stories annoy me because the right moral answer is so obvious; it’s difficult for me to feel the weight of any moral conundrum. If a character has an internal conflict, the moral weight of both sides should be more balanced. As it is, we just sit their waiting for the main character to come to his senses, which can be agony.

Along with that, the dirty gritty poverty-stricken 70’s city feel really annoyed me. I really hate these sorts of movies that feature dirty poor people who have no motivation to do anything besides sit around and drink and do drugs, etc. It just makes me feel sad. Do something people! At least clean your rooms, for goodness sake! Doesn’t have to be perfect, but these run-down apartments and offices make me feel sad and dirty just seeing them. Of course, I know the conditions of these people was part of the movie; you couldn’t really make the movie any other way. It just makes me uncomfortable for some reason. A bit like watching Hoarders. (But at least on that show they actively try to change things.) Not that any of the film’s characters were hoarders, it was just the dirtiness of everything. I feel like I need to clean my room now.

Overall, an average film; not horrible, but I didn’t find anything particularly special here either.

Feb 8, 2015: Movies watched this week

Here are the movies I watched this past week:

The Cold Lands (2013)


Link: The Cold Lands

Summary: After his mother dies, a young teenager runs away in an attempt to keep his independence.

Thoughts: I’m not sure what they were aiming to create with this film. It felt meandering and pointless. The film begins with a mother and son, living in poor conditions in the boonies. While the mother is strict to the point of unbelievable ridiculousness (“You want a TV? No, haha! A violent video game? Of course not!” Wow, what believable writing!) and obviously has some issues, it’s also clear she means well and is trying her best. When she dies, so does all semblance of a story. The remainder of the film features little more than the kid wandering around the forest before meeting up with an older rogue-mentor who arbitrarily takes the kid under his wing, attempting to train him in the ways of the rogue-mentality, but the relationship has very little story substance, so no nuggets of wisdom are ever really offered between the two of them. And with some pointless nudity in the mix, we have a pretty waste-of-time movie here.

Clandestine Childhood (2011)


Link: Clandestine Childhood

Summary: A child attempts to have a normal childhood despite his parents being secret guerrilla soldiers who are attempting to battle Argentine’s military government.

Thoughts: Since the film is from the child’s point-of-view, we never really get much of the politics his parents are fighting for. (One familiar with Argentina’s history in the late 70’s and early 80’s would probably understand the conflict better, but I’m not one of them.) But one need not understand the political conflict to understand the child’s struggle to find and keep friends while never being allowed to reveal his real name at school, or use the phone at home, etc. Much of his story begins to revolve around his relationship with a girlfriend whom he realizes he can’t be completely honest with. The film does its best with the elements it includes, but by the film’s end, it unfortunately doesn’t feel like much. Overall, it’s an OK film, but I don’t think it stands out; there’s no strong theme to glue all the elements together, at least not one I saw.

Annabelle (2014)


Link: Annabelle

Summary: A member of the occult dies with an ugly creepy doll in her hands, which then becomes possessed and haunts its owner’s family.

Thoughts: A red crayon rolls out of a room; upon entering, the words “her soul” and random scribbles are written in red crayon all over the ceiling. It’s that kind of cheesy ridiculous laughable horror film cliche that this entire movie is made of. It’s not scary or even thematically interesting. The attempted jump scares don’t even make you jump. And yet this film had a budget of $6 million and made $256 million. That’s the most horrific thing about this film. Clearly the horror movie business is the business to be in.

Lucy (2013)


Link: Lucy

Summary: A woman is drugged with a drug that allows her to use ever-increasing percentages of her brain! As a result, she gains various super powers, which she uses to… do action movie stuff!

Thoughts: If one can forgive the ridiculous science of the premise, there’s not really much of a story besides action film action with super powers. Or at least I couldn’t understand what the story was supposed to be. Lucy sets out to stop the bad guys, who were injecting people with the drug for what purpose again? The film also tries to be profound about the profound truths about nature, but none of it really seems to make any sense, as far as I can tell. For example, after becoming super-smart (supposedly), Lucy says: “Humans consider themselves unique so they’ve rooted their whole theory of existence on their uniqueness. One is their unit of measure, but it’s not. All social systems we’ve put into place are a mere sketch. One plus one equals two. That’s all we’ve learned, but one plus one has never equaled two. There are, in fact, no numbers and no letters. We’ve codified our existence to bring it down to human size to make it comprehensible. We’ve created a scale so that we can forget its unfathomable scale.” Ah! How profound! Um… what the hell are you talking about?! And how do your profound insights make your super-powers possible? Eh, maybe I can’t forgive the ridiculousness of the premise; in trying to think about how I would fix it, I think I’d have to change the premise. It just doesn’t fundamentally make sense for these super-powers to be naturally inherent in every human brain, just needing drugs (or profound understanding?) to unlock them. Not that I don’t believe the human brain doesn’t have abilities humans have not yet unlocked (we do not yet understand how intelligence works); I just don’t believe these abilities include teleportation, time-travel, telekinesis, etc. The film does have some fun action sequences and some humor (wish there had been more), but not much else. And the Samsung product placement is really subtle, you probably won’t notice it, especially with what little portion of your brain you’re using.

Feb 1, 2015: Movies watched this week

Here are the movies I watched this past week:

The Return (2003)


Link: The Return

Summary: After their father, who’s been absent for 12 years, returns home, he takes his two sons on a fishing trip. But he does little to form a positive relationship with his children, treating them horribly, leaving one to wonder what exactly is going on with him.

Thoughts: A rather bizarre and sad film, with a touch of strange creepiness. Perhaps the father has PTSD? While the film shows him honestly trying to make a connection with his children, he’s far too easy to anger, and punishes too severely. He also seems to be on a mission having nothing to do with fishing that he doesn’t want to tell his children about. The tensions between the characters heat up and eventually lead to tragedy that just leave you bummed out. Depressing film. And there’s something really creepy about the way the camera moves at the very end.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011)


Link: Monsieur Lazhar

Summary: After their teacher commits suicide, a class of young students get a new teacher to help them cope with the tragedy. Drama ensues.

Thoughts: While the subject matter is certainly a tragic one, the direct and honest way the film faces the subject works very well. There’s not a lot of explosion of unrealistic melodrama, but the emotions are still palpable. It has the sort of subtle grace American films hardly ever seem to have. I thought it was a great movie. Certainly a sad film, but not depressing like The Return. There’s some hope in this one.

The Retrieval (2013)


Link: The Retrieval

Summary: Bounty hunters are forced to retrieve a wanted man, but the young 13 year old bounty hunter begins to form a friendship with the man he’s leading to his death. Inner turmoil ensues.

Thoughts: While the premise isn’t bad (though perhaps nothing new), I think the film had one big flaw that kind of made it boring: the emotional conflict is settled far too early. The main character (the 13 year old) clearly knows it’s wrong to lead the wanted man to his death. So watching him know this and struggle to confess for pretty much the entire film just doesn’t work, and the external conflicts are almost meaningless in the face of this problem. It would have been more interesting if the main character had definitively decided to turn in the wanted man from the beginning, and then correct his moral compass from their instead of having his heart in the right place from the very beginning. Also, parts of the story didn’t make sense. The bounty hunters trick the wanted man into following them by telling him that his brother is dying and wants to see him. You would think this would make them want to hurry their journey along. But they journey too slowly and even have time for a lost-love subplot, making it feel way too forced.

John Wick (2014)


Link: John Wick

Summary: After his car is stolen and his dead wife’s dog is murdered, a man sets out for revenge.

Thoughts: While the action is fun, there’s absolutely nothing at stake for John Wick, so the whole thing is emotionally bland. It’s like Taken except nothing worthwhile is actually taken. Wick is just angry and wants revenge. If he fails, who cares? No stakes.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)


Link: Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

Summary: A man who has the world’s best sense of scent sets out to learn the secrets of creating perfume, determined to capture the scent of beautiful women.

Thoughts: Very bizarre movie. Pretty disturbing movie. I really didn’t need to see a lot of the images in this film. People are cooked into meat pies in Sweeney Todd, and in this film, women are murdered to be turned into perfume. Yeah, that’s gross. And the climax of the film is just pure ugliness. But… if one can get past the disturbing premises and images, this is actually a very beautifully made film. The slow and patient way the filmmakers try to create the emotions that various scents give the main character is masterful. So I ended up really enjoying this movie, despite its more disturbing aspects.

Galavant: Season 1 (2015)


Link: Galavant Season 1

Summary: I brave and noble knight sets out to rescue his girlfriend from the evil king who kidnapped her, though he slowly finds himself falling in love with someone else on the journey. On top of that, characters enjoy breaking out into Alan Menken songs now and then!

Thoughts: It was very refreshing to see a live-action musical, especially one that featured actual original music and not just covers of already popular songs, and especially one that featured the music of Alan Menken, whom you’re already a fan of if you grew up enjoying Disney’s animated features of the 90’s. (He wrote the music for The Little MermaidBeauty and the BeastAladdinPocahontasHercules, and more.) That said, the show is almost completely ruined by the childish not-funny potty-humor-filled anything-goes writing. Though I admit some parts were funny, most of the attempted humor was just agonizing. (I did enjoy a number of the songs, though. Overall, the musical numbers are not on par with Menken’s film work, but some songs are quite good.) A fun idea, ruined. And what really stinks is that the season ends with big cliffhangers! But the writing was so bad, there’s a strong possibility there won’t be a season two! And even if there is, it will be torture to sit through another 8 episodes of agonizingly terrible humor just to get closure. Grrr! I hate when TV producers pull these kind of shenanigans. And for what? For a little bit of money. While we, the commoners, must grovel.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)


Link: The Man Who Would Be King [Blu-ray Book]

Summary: A man pretends to be a god so that he can steal a small foreign isolated community’s treasures. But of course being a god goes to his head, and drama ensues!

Thoughts: The pacing was all messed up in this film; the setup was far too slow, the second act too rushed. I found myself really bored for much of it, until the tensions started to rise in the final act. Not bad, but not great. I think it’s snuggled in the “meh” area.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (2014)


Link: The Internet’s Own Boy

Summary: A biographical look at the life of the young influential programmer and computer-political activist Aaron Swartz, with a focus on the court case that threatened him with prison time and led him to commit suicide at the age of 26.

Thoughts: I had never actually heard of Aaron Swartz until his death was all over the news. This documentary does a great job of showing who he was, what he did, what he believed in and fought for, and just what the infamous case against him was all about. Although I don’t quite agree with all his viewpoints or methods of activism, it’s hard not to find his death tragic and to be angry with the governmental forces that sought to persecute him. Very good documentary.

Boyhood (2014)


Link: Boyhood

Summary: A boy ages from six to eighteen, dealing with various life stuff.

Thoughts: (Might contain spoilers.)

I thought I’d have to wait until this film came out on DVD to watch it; it seems to be getting a pretty limited release with a slow roll-out (only some 300 theaters across the nation at the moment), and my city wasn’t listed on the film’s official site as a city that would be getting the film.  I thought I was out of luck, but continually checked anyway, and fortunately it just popped up one day on our local showtimes.

I’ll admit that what interested me in this film was purely its gimmick: filming it over a decade so that we get to watch the characters age before our eyes.  There’s something about trying to review a whole lot of life in a short amount of time that just seems naturally profound to me, though I’m not sure I could ever really say why.  This is also why I enjoy The Up Series.  So, I was biased in favor of the film even before watching it just because I thought the ambitious premise of filming something for twelve years with aging actors was awesome.  Just watching a character/actor age from six or seven to eighteen I found interesting.  It’s weird the stuff you might notice.  Like the way he moves his arms when he walks is the same as a young boy to a teen.  But the way he talks seems to suddenly change somewhere in his teen years.  His voice deepens and, not long afterwards, he begins speaking with that sort of awkward teen upward inflection.  Where did that come from?  Weird.

Anyway, I’ll start with my critiques.  The bad:

There are some really poorly-written contrived scenes that really stand out with their bland premises and horrible acting from young actors.  Particularly the scene in which Mason, our main character, hangs out with some other high-schoolers and is peer-pressured into having a beer.  I guess it seems like an obligatory scene for a “coming-of-age” drama, but that’s its problem; it feels too forced and unnatural, like it was stuck in there because someone thought that sort of thing was part of the “teenage experience.”  There were a few scenes like this throughout the teenage years; ones that seemed “obligatory” and forced.  But I don’t know; perhaps viewers with different teenage experiences will get something different out of those scenes.  Another scene features a character reappearing to thank Mason’s mother for changing his life with a few simple words of encouragement years ago.  Although I liked the contrast it offered in terms of what the mother’s character was going through at the time, it just seemed ridiculously unrealistic.  (Finally, not so much a complaint of the scene itself, but of its content: the democrat-father’s version of a safe-sex talk exemplifies part of why this country has such a problem with marriage and single parenthood; they tell their kids to “use protection”, basically directly encouraging and pressuring their children to risk getting pregnant and implying that if they don’t engage in this sort of behavior, they’re weird and unfortunate.)

About half-way through the film, as Mason’s teenage years begin, a glaring problem emerges: Mason has almost no personality.  This was probably intentional, as it allows Mason to almost be an “everyman”; it allows us, the audience, to step into his shoes much more easily, filling out his blank slate with aspects of ourselves.  But the trade-off is that he can become a bit boring, and, if you can’t relate to what decisions he does make (like to be so easily pressured into having a beer or doing drugs, or to get an earring), he can seem like a moron.  At the very least, it may become harder to empathize with him.

The good:

What makes a lot of the film very effective is its sort of “observatory” nature, the kind you usually only get with foreign films.  This is a bit hard to explain, but I’ll try.  While we watch the world through Mason’s eyes, we are not provoked into judging what we see.  That doesn’t mean we don’t naturally judge what we see (you’re not going to love watching an abusive alcoholic step-dad continuously torment his family).  What I mean is that your judgment of the situation comes about naturally from your experience of watching it and empathizing with the characters.  The film doesn’t try to “manipulate” you into emotions with things like music, cinematography, editing, etc.  It simply records what happens, and the judgment you bring to it is your own.  Not that being “manipulated” into an emotion is necessarily a bad thing; it’s what most films do.  Also, it’s more of a “spectrum.”  I’m not saying this film never tries to manipulate your emotions at all, only that it does so far less and more subtly than a typical American film, giving the film a sort of natural honesty you wouldn’t find otherwise.

The film had a nice flow to it; it was almost three hours, but it passes amazingly fast when you find yourself engaged in scenes that don’t even seem that significant by themselves.  Like a game of charades.  Or getting kicked off a school computer while playing The Oregon Trail.  Or being told: “That’s the last piece of candy for you today, OK?”  (When you’re a kid, things that are insignificant to adults, like being refused candy, can feel really significant.  I don’t think it’s about the candy; it’s feeling disrespected by adults.  It’s strange what you can remember.)

I also enjoyed the references to pop culture that sort of dated the years, though feeling that many references didn’t seem like that long ago made recognizing them a bit sad.  These things really came out that long ago?  Maybe being in your late 20’s is just sad because of how quickly time collapses.  For example, Mason goes out to buy Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince when it comes out.  I remember doing the same when it came out (though I certainly didn’t dress up as anyone; I was in college.  OK, I might have worn one of the free plastic Harry Potter glasses they were handing out.)  I had to go look up when it came out: 2005.  9 years ago.  NINE.  Ugh.

There’s a particular scene that stood out to me.  Near the end of the film, when Mason’s moving out, he decides he doesn’t want to keep an old photograph he took.  (Because of course Mason would become a photographer.)  “It’s your first photograph,” his mother says.  “All the more reason not to keep it,” Mason replies.  He takes it out of his box and puts it back somewhere and when he returns, his mother’s in tears.  I don’t even remember exactly what she said, but it was kind of heart-breaking.  Something like, “This is it for me.  All this stuff happened, we went through our milestones.  The only thing left is my funeral.”  “I think you’re skipping ahead like 40 years,” Mason replies.  She wipes her eyes and continues: “I just… I thought there’d be more.”  Ouch.  Bit of a downer.  And that comes after Mason spent several scenes of his teenage years looking forward, wondering what he wanted to do with his life, and wondering what the point of life is in the first place.  Some of his teacher characters made me cringe, realistic as they are, when they kept trying to inspire Mason, asking him what he wanted to “be” or assuring him he’d do well.  And then his mother’s experience almost seems to crush his bright-eyed outlook.  Yet her dilemma was probably brought about by sharing Mason’s attitude in her teenage years; Mason could easily end up like her, all the more bitter if his first photograph meant as much to him.  It’s the idea that people seem to want and expect certain things from life, and judge their lives externally by them: a constant flow of worldly success, a collection of trips and achievements and milestones with happy photographs to remember them by.  (And, in the meanwhile, debt and employment and some occasion or trip coming up soon to be stressed about.)  But it’s all just vacuous crap we humans invented for ourselves, because we really have no idea what we’re supposed to be doing here.  So let’s decide what “progress” is, and then make it!  Let’s move or buy new stuff or take a vacation or find a new job or hobby.  And then when we still feel unfulfilled, let’s make some more “progress”!  But somewhere inside, we’ll only be Mason’s mother, crying that we thought there’d be more.

Not that the film ends on that bitter note; that scene just stood out to me.  The film ends on a sort of more ambiguous note that doesn’t necessarily try to cheesily inspire you, but doesn’t try to upset or embitter you either.  And it sort of sums up what the whole film’s about, in a sense.  But you’ll have to watch the film yourself to see it…

When I left the theater, I couldn’t stop thinking of the film.  I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I experienced watching it.  I feel it’s the sort of film I could watch again and again and find something new each time, get something new out of each experience.

So, despite my critiques about certain aspects of it, overall I thought it was a profound film.  I hesitate to call it “great” or “amazing” or some positive adjective, because it didn’t leave me smiling; it’s not the sort of film that tries to manipulate you into feeling temporarily happy.  Rather, if you can get into it, it makes you think, perhaps like no other film possibly could.

Boyhood trailer


I’ve been waiting for this one for a while.  This Richard Linklater movie was filmed over the course of twelve years so we get to actually watch the main character age before our eyes, from a child to a young adult.  That’s such an awesome concept, and it seems to provide the main inspiration for the trailer, which is otherwise thin on plot details.  Looks very interesting, I’ll definitely be looking forward to it.

Noises Off (1992)


Link: Noises Off

Summary: A theater director tries to direct a low-brow slapstick comedy play, but personal feuds between the actors and actresses prevent things from going very smoothly.

Thoughts: Based on a 1982 play of the same name, I thought this film was hilarious.  It’s very slapstick, people stumbling, running around slamming doors, taking swings at each other.  Similar to Clue, the humor is very corny.  But I enjoy this sort of stuff if it’s done right, and the premise for this story is perfect for the sort of slapstick that ensues: People trying to put on a play, while trying to sabotage each other’s performances, or not giving a care to how their own lousy performances might ruin someone else’s.  The first part of the film features the actors just trying to get through the first act of the play, so you can see how things are supposed to go.  In the second part, affairs have been revealed and the performers are all angry with each other, so they set out to pettily destroy each other’s performances by, for instances, tying someone’s shoelaces together so he’ll fall down on stage, or changing a prop so the actor will have to adlib something.  In the third part, the performers are so fed up with each other that they stop trying to even put on a good performance, and it’s a complete hilarious disaster.

My only complaint is that something is a bit off about the pacing of the film, and some comedic sequences are so intricate and long-winded that you lose the energy to laugh, even if what they’re doing is clever in and of itself.  It’s just too much for too long.

That said, the hilarity of the sequences that work are so stupidly hilarious that they make up for the pacing issues.  Hilarious film.  I’d love to see the play one day, if I ever get the chance.

In Fear (2013)


Link: In Fear

Summary: On their way to a hotel, a young couple get lost on winding roads and spooky things begin happening to them.  Will they get out alive?

Thoughts: I really don’t understand any positive reviews for this film, or how it even got the distribution it got.  I call shenanigans.  It’s bland and boring.  It was as if someone got a few friends together and they just made the story up as they went along.  The characters aren’t interesting at all; in fact, when scary things happen, the girl just throws a screaming fit, and the guy gets angry at her for no reason.  By the time the guy dies (oh, sorry, did I spoil it for you?) you’re only sad that it didn’t happen sooner.  One of the dumbest films I’ve ever seen.

In Darkness (2011)


Link: In Darkness

Summary: This film tells the true story of Leopold Socha, a Polish sewage worker who helped several Jewish families survive the German occupation of Poland during World War II by helping them hide in the sewers for fourteen months.

Thoughts: Overall, I thought this was a great film.  It doesn’t try to be didactic.  The Jewish people hiding in the sewers sometimes fight with each other, dealing with their horrible situation in different ways; they’re not portrayed as being innocent little persecuted angels, but humans with their own fears and flaws.  Meanwhile, Leopold, the sewage worker helping them, is not a saint; he only goes out of his way to help them begrudgingly at first, but his relationship with them grows to the point where he doesn’t mind not being paid for his help.  In one powerful scene, he tries to cheer a young girl up by giving her a piggy back ride and taking her up to the streets to peer out of a manhole, just to remind her of the real world above and give her some hope.  It’s a beautiful scene, because you know inside he’s scared to death too.

My only complaint, and what sort of ruined the otherwise beautiful film for me, was the dirtiness.  In a movie about people struggling to survive, love scenes just don’t fit.  In the bonus features, the director mentions that a survivor had told her that they, you know, quite a lot while in hiding.  There wasn’t much else to do, it kept couples close, and it relieved some of the otherwise unbearable tension.  Still, I don’t think it adds anything to the film; it only distracts.  People also relieve themselves everyday, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in a film that’s otherwise about survival and hope.

The blu-ray’s bonus features included an interview with the only living survivor of the story, Krystyna Chiger.  In the interview she mentions that her younger brother was only four or five years old when they were finally able to leave the sewers.  Having lived in the sewers for over a year, the openness and brightness and crowdedness of the real world was scary for him, and he really wanted to go back to the sewers; they had become home to him.  It’s only one line in the film, something like: “Momma, I want to go back.”  But that’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to include if it were a fiction film, yet it makes perfect sense.  And it’s so tragic.  He was forced to live in the sewers for long enough that he wanted to stay there.  Can you imagine?  For some reason, that really got to me.

Overall, very good film.  I just wish it wasn’t so dirty.

Trivia: Director Agnieszka Holland also directed the 1993 classic family film, The Secret Garden, based on my great aunt’s novel.  Yay, The Secret Garden!  Go Aunt Fran!  Woohoo!  Fame and glory!