Sunday, July 27, 2014

Best Actor: Andy Serkis for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


In Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) the skillful agility and facial expressions of Andy Serkis, rendered by means of motion-capture CGI, brought the character of Caesar alive in a re-imagining of the Apes saga.

In this year’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Serkis continues to prove his talent for what is mostly silent acting, further developing the character of Caesar through expressive body language and subtle facial inflections.

At this point in the year, Serkis is my nominee for Best Actor, 2014. The new Apes film is not as taut or compelling as the first installment. Its first half is the better half as it establishes the visuals and atmosphere of the Apes’ colony in Muir Woods. The image of apes riding horses is an immediate reference to Planet of the Apes (1968), and I enjoyed visual touches like that. The film’s latter half, however, subsides into a clichéd battle between apes and men and comes to a climax with a combat between Caesar and his rival, Koba, that reminds you of every last boring fistfight between a long list of boring superheroes and their boring foes. Nevertheless, throughout the film, Serkis as Caesar is a compelling driving force.

For the inevitable sequel, I would like to see the dawn of a lot more imagination as the filmmakers re-imagine what comes next.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Recent Viewings


The Rover, with Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson, makes The Road seem cheerful. Well, not quite, but this bleak post-apocalyptic shoot-'em-up might even depress Cormac McCarthy. Pattinson does a good job of channeling James Dean as Lennie Small.


Excellent performances by Phoenix, Cotillard, and Renner in The Immigrant, the story of a Russian immigrant sacrificing herself to get her sister off Ellis Island. Superb art direction. Very authentic atmosphere that transports you to 1920s New York City.


Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are indeed hilarious together.


Yes, I saw it. And it took my mind off things for nearly all of its epic two hour and forty-five-minute length. Two hours and forty-five minutes! Geez louise! What temerity. But, I have to say, Mark Wahlberg carries you through it with his wide-eyed action movie sincerity, and he invests himself in his role as a father trying to save his daughter - and the world. "It's a transformer!" Who else could have said that with the same geeky passion? Also, there's some nice humor as he objects to his daughter's relationship with an older guy while they are running away from the bad bots. The film downplays the clish-clash cacophony of clattering contraptions constantly crumpling into cars - and we get some very interesting action aboard the huge, gothic alien spacecraft as well as a clever fight between good guy and bad guy in a high-rise slum in Hong Kong. All the action played out in Hong Kong is nicely filmed.



Saturday, June 14, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2


It would be hard to recapture the magic of the original How to Train Your Dragon in a sequel. How to Train Your Dragon 2 contains a few moments that reprise the special feelings of the first film – but then things get overblown with too many Vikings riding too many odd-sized dragons for too long, and it gets too preachy about being kind to the animals. At least in the first installment the Vikings got to be disgusting, dragon-hating savages for most of the time. Toothless is still the best thing about the whole story, but he seems to assume a secondary role here, and there’s none of the whimsy of the developing relationship between boy and dragon that was so great about the original. But Dragon 2 still displays a rich, magical fantasy world that is never boring to look at, and the film’s artwork carries you through the overlong battle with its multiple climaxes.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars


The most irritating thing about the hugely popular teen romance novel The Fault in Our Stars is that just about every sentence uttered by Hazel Grace and Gus – teen protagonists in love and terminally ill – is so cleverly sardonic, ironic, or full of elevated vocabulary and literary allusions. A major advantage of the film is that the dialogue is made more realistic – in keeping with this very realistic treatment of love, death, and dying. But the film’s best asset is the performance of Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace. Woodley’s maturity and poise as an actress suit the maturity and poise of the principal character and, even when the film slips into excessive sentimentality or sheer silliness, Woodley’s invested performance is the driving force that makes this a film worth lining up for with bevies of teenage girls.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow


This depiction of a futuristic Invasion of Normandy (released on June 6th - ooh, ah!) - repeated countless times as Cage (Tom Cruise), a coward, must brave the battle over and over again in order to get a warrior heroine (Emily Blunt) to where she needs to be to end an alien virus - delivers solid entertainment; committed performances by Cruise and Blunt; a fun performance by Bill Paxton, as though he's being directed by James Cameron, as a drill sergeant; a vast battle in which things change every time we revisit it; the inevitable head-scratching time-travel conundrums; and a healthy dose of humor and frenetic action to make up for the film's borrowed premise.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

“So where are your May movie reviews?" or Sometimes the Dragon Gets YOU!


Got a brief e-mail from my friend out in Yuba City, California. A couple of sentences, not much longer than the question in the SUBJECT slot: “So where are your May movie reviews?”

Let me tell you about Yuba City Guy. He and I were in the Peace Corps in Morocco together. I was there for three years. My first year coincided with his last year in a small town in a Pre-Saharan wasteland or rocks and dust. He and I and two other volunteers weathered the isolation and boredom by playing Scrabble. After the Peace Corps, he and I went into fulltime teaching and about the extent of our communication was an exchange of Christmas cards.

For the past four years, however, since he retired from teaching and licked a bout of cancer, we have kept up a consistently regular and often prolific e-mail correspondence which consists mostly of me responding to the items on his numbered list of comments – many of which berate me with mercilessly sardonic diction - because I'm not reading the books he's reading, or because I don't follow Downton Abbey, or because I didn't post on Philomena, or because I didn't like a movie he loved or I loved a movie he thought was trash.

Thus, I had better respond to his question, or I am in trouble.

Why haven’t I written my May movie reviews? I’ve been busy. No, that’s not why. That’s a lame excuse I detest. This is my sixth year writing this blog, and in the past years I have always found time to post, meanwhile being married with two kids to raise, meanwhile teaching full-time, meanwhile pursuing a number of personal creative projects.

Yeah, I’ve been busy with the end of the school year, but I haven’t been too busy to post. It’s just that my soul has felt kind of bruised, and while I’ve mustered the spirit to teach enthusiastically, devote time to family, and even work on my fiction, I’ve relegated the blog to the neglected last item on my list of priorities.

What's caused the bruises? Life. It could be worse. It could always be worse. But it started in February when I flew back to San Mateo, California, to meet my two brothers so that we could get power of attorney and take my mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other sort of dementia, out of a reclusive situation and put her in a “Memory Care Community” in Belmont, California. There, my 92-year-old mother - who immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1925, who lived on a farm on the Canadian plains during the Great Depression, whose father was interned for most of World War II, who visited war-torn Germany in 1946, carrying suitcases full of food, wearing multiple coats to give to her relatives, who traveled all over the world in her days of leisure - gets up in the morning and takes the clothes out of her drawers and packs them in her carry-on every day because - even though she has stubbornly refused to accept this community and refrains from participating in activities and excursions - she wants to be ready just in case she decides to go on the outing to Paris or London.

After being called “Judases,” my older brother flew back to Oregon, and I flew back East. Since then, there have been other blows and bruises within my family and at the work place, but those factors are too complicated to address here.

Amidst all this, I haven’t found the meaning in posting on the movies I’ve seen. I'm just happy to go to the movies. Since my last post, I have seen Captain America (even too much noisy violence for me), Transcendence (a nifty sci-fi premise that goes nowhere), Bears (oh, how they lumber along looking for salmon, and looking for salmon, and looking for salmon, and when they find them, they catch them and eat them, one after the other after the other), Spider Man 2 (dreadful; I do have taste, Yuba City Guy), Neighbors (doesn’t approach the hilarity of Superbad or 40-Year-Old Virgin), Godzilla (weak beginning for a monster movie; not enough Godzilla), X-Men: Days of Future Past (I wish superhero movies would go away, and I'm not a big X-Men fan, but this is a well-constructed movie that stands on its own and doesn’t require pre-knowledge of the mythology), Million Dollar Arm (excellent, touching movie about India and baseball), and Maleficent (enchanting in the beginning; visually stunning at times; Jolie is just okay; falls flat).


Posting on movies is not so important to me anymore. What’s always been important to me is just going to the movies. Most any movie. If you can’t go to Godzilla or a Disney movie and let yourself go, I’m not sure you love movies enough. Yuba Guy berates me for wasting my time on trash. He likes those PBS-esque little English dramas with Judi Dench. But I see indies and foreign films he never sees. In December, I often drive up to Cambridge to the Landmark to see three of them in a day. I finally did see Philomena, just to get the man from Yuba City off my back, and I admitted that I liked it, but I have to admit that I’d rather see an X-Men movie than a quiet, sensitive film with Judi Dench. I was all poised to drive to the Cape Cinema on Friday to see Belle with the usual audience of Dennis intelligensia, but I realized that Maleficent had opened and my daughter wanted to see it, so she and I went, and I was glad for the reprieve. I will probably like Belle well enough when I catch it later on pay-per-view, but I have to say I was looking forward to the big battle and the fire-breathing dragon more than I was to the sentiments of outrage voiced over tea and crumpets in a sprawling English manor. Sorry, Yuba Chap.

My work-week routine includes going to the movies every Friday. Friday night is busy with end-of-year functions at school, so I will take in an advanced showing of Edge of Tomorrow tonight. When I sit in the theater and the lights dim, I breathe a sigh of relief. I feel like I’m taking a hit of opium or something. I am programmed to feel an immediate sense of detachment from my worries whether the film I am going to see is a summer blockbuster or a high-brow art-house film.


Thinking of PBS shows like Downton Abbey and movies like Philomena, I must confess a preference for MOTION pictures. Earlier this week I watched Zulu (1965). It has the elements that first made me love the movies with an indelible passion. It transports you to another time and place; it includes panoramic location shots; it involves gripping drama, action, motion. In an opening shot, a carriage pulls away from the kraal of the Zulu king. It is an exquisite extreme long shot with the village set in the middle of a beautiful landscape. No CGI here. I yearn for films like this. Nowadays, unfortunately, those grand vistas are rendered by means of CGI but, for the most part, they take my mind away from my problems and me. I need movies to get me through.


In regards to posting or not posting, it’s not just that I’m busy or I’m worn out.


In the recent film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), which I enjoyed for how it takes Walter and the viewer on an adventure to memorable outdoor panoramas that are not CGI, Walter (Ben Stiller) pursues famous Life photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) to the Himalayas where he is attempting to locate and photograph a rare snow leopard. O’Connell tells Walter to keep quiet as the leopard reveals itself. But he doesn’t take the shot. When Walter asks why, the photographer explains that sometimes you just have to experience the moment. Sometimes you should just see it and feel it and not record it. When the snow leopard leaves, O'Connell sees more meaning in seizing the moment and joining his Sherpas in an impromptu soccer game.


That's how I feel about going to the movies these days. Like a junkie, I need my fix, but I don't really feel like recording my opinions. Opinions are all over the Internet, and right now I don't really care what anybody thinks. Right now, I just want to watch the movie.