April 2018’s Feature Filmery


Darkest Hour (2017)

My neighbor who is in the Academy? This was her favorite movie of last year. And while more people voted for something else, her opinion is totally valid. Great movie! And I love that it came out the same year as Dunkirk. Watching them in conjunction really helps me feel fully that I was there. Both feel so ... present. In the case of Darkest Hour, this is a combination of granularly precise cinematography, natural lighting, and perfect sets and costumes, the film makes no excuse about being British. I felt in a foreign country at every moment.

And, of course, the acting. Much has been said of Gary Oldman, and rightly so. Some people feel obliged to talk about scenery chewing with this sort of role shows up on award lists, but I think that is grotesquely in error. If Oldman is showing off, it is only by disappearing. Churchill is fully human, not denied moments of silence and conflict, as well as loud speechifying. It is his vulnerability and the film's ability to make clear that these people do not know how the story---which feels authored by the Nazis---will end. That's some feat, to make us not know how this war ends, but the power of the drama pulls us into orbit and will not let us go.

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983)

This was, perhaps, the pivotal film of my childhood. Now, I can recognize that it has its flaws (example, example), but it still gives me joy. I give it, now ... fourth best Star Wars film? Current rankings: 4, 5, 8, 6, 7, 3, whatever. And no, I do not stand by those.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

This was the first Ghibli film Lady Steed and I watched together, sometime between August 2000 and April 2002. It was not an easy film to watch. Rarely have I had so clearly demonstrated my illiteracy. I simply did not have the tools to read this film. Sure, some things like the celebrity voices were merely distracting, but Princess Mononoke's real challenge was presenting me an epic fantasy saturated in moral ambiguity. My personal film history did not prepare me for this film.

Since then, I've watched a lot of Ghibli movies, some of which I count among my absolute favorite films. But it was only tonight that we finally revisited this one.

I appreciated it much more this time. The complex ethical questions the film poses are still difficult and left unanswered, but now I understand that the lack of clear hero or villain is part of its pleasure.

The fact that this is one of the highest-grossing films in Japan's history (briefly it was the top-grosser) says a lot about what the Japanese want from a movie and how different that is from an American movie. I guess you could say Marvel's flirted with this kind of ambiguity (Civil War, Black Panther), but even in those films, where there are heroes in conflict or a well-justified villain, there are still outright badguys to hate, so you can always keep one foot on solid ground. I just don't think America can put a movie this morally complex into our top ten. (If there's an exception, please let me know.)

I suspect this is, in part, due to Japan's grapple with its twentieth-century history. If that's the only way to make Princess Mononoke strike a nation's core, I hope we stay our simple selves. Oh how I hope.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

I saw this when it was fairly fresh, and I don't remember much about it. My only real memory isn't directly related to the film---I just remember when it came out there was some controversy about being rated PG-13 instead of R. That's it. A very Mormon memory, one might argue.

Anyway, great acting from the leads in particular, Christian Bale and Russell Crowe, although there is something about a Welshman (technically Englishman) and an Aussie (technically a Kiwi) running out solid American accents in a western, isn't there? Gee whiz. Also, this was when Gretchen Mol looked like she might be hanging around, remember her? (Fun fact: she's a year older than Bale, who played her husband.)

The reason I revisited this film is because my ward's elders quorum is starting up a film club and this is the first entry. Chosen "because it’s a great western that asks questions about fatherhood, manhood, and the weight of proving ourselves to those we love." It meets that billing. I would call it an open question as to whether or not Bale is a victim of so-called toxic masculinity, but certainly the weight of being a man is a motivating force in this film.

The only flaws I would call out in the film are related to Crowe's character. He's a good enough actor to make them fly, but he also might be a good enough actor that he's the reason they come up in the first place. He's a cold-blooded, casual killer, but the conclusion, as in Rerturn of the Jedi, relies on there being some good left in him.

Is there?

I dunno. It's ... complex.

If the club initiators get their way, we'll probably talk more about the Bale character---and frankly that likely has better applicability to our lives---but it's Crowe's character I find most difficult to crack.

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

I had no great drive to see this movie and it was about what I'd expected. Some good laughs, some good action set-pieces, some adequate lead characters, some great side characters, a boring villain. And forgettable. Utterly forgettable.

3:10 to Yuma (1957)

One thing about watching two versions of the same story back to back is that the differences become so stark that they become about the only thing seen. So I watched this, cataloguing this difference and that difference and trying to judge the relative merits of the divergent choices.

The first half of the 2017 film is much stronger. The two leads are better developed, and prioritizing the father-son relationship over the husband-wife relationship just makes more sense. The older film rushes right to what is, in the remake, the very end of the film. But spending so much more time in the hotel room is a terrific choice. It's a little boiler room and the building pressure is terrific.

The disbelief-stretching decisions at the end are similar in both films, and the older film makes more effort to throw some clear symbolism at the audience as it closes---it also gets a more pleasant ending, for better or worse.

In short, both are good films. But they don't excel at the same parts. If you're planning on watching both, however, watch the original first, I think. After all, the newer one's a half-hour longer and mostly because it adds stuff. There will be more surprises watching them in that direction.

Cinderella (1950)

It's funny how a movie that was a frequent visit in childhood never really leaves you, even if you haven't really watched it in twenty years. These are still songs I sing and characters I love even if I've forgotten, until the pictures remind me, that Gus is new and town or that there is a dog.

This is a perfectly satisfying bonbon of a movie. Just a one more observation:

It's clear that Alice in Wonderland is on her way. Whoever animated Lucifer is predicting character design choices left and right, and a couple other bits of funny business will recur there as well. I don't think I ever noticed these echoes before.

Muppets from Space (1999)

Ignore this film's reputation for a second. Okay.

I love the Muppets. And so I'm speaking from a position of some knowledge and authority when I tell you that Muppets from Space has some of the best lines for inside jokes in their entire repertoire. Granted, the editing could be tighter in the otherwise terrific first two acts and, granted, notwithstanding one or two good lines in the third act, it is terrible. Like Elf, you're fine just watching the first hour then turning it off and going to bed. Most of the celebrity cameos are subpar too, although Jeffrey Tambor is a treasure and Ray Liotta is great in a bit role.

If you've never seen it based on reputation alone, give it a shot.

The only other thing to say is that although the funk soundtrack is great and at times very effective, it was the wrong choice. Original music could become a path through some of the movie's problems. Alas.

Coriolanus (2011) x2

I've only just finished my first-ever read of the play and my opinions are still in flux as here comes this movie to try and sway me. Largely I think it's good. Some curious choices (were they afraid audiences would eschew a Shakespearean tragedy without suicide?), some good (playing up the homoerotic and oedipal elements) if reeelly deliberate. Ralph Fiennes is terrifying (I get why he was chosen as Voldemort), Vanessa Redgraves is terrific (as is Jessica Chastain, if she's as underused by the director as she is by her husband), Brian Cox is a wonderful as always. No real complaints as to the bit roles, either. The film could have used an occasional light touch---the lack of humor meant humor was found by my students where it should not have been (eg the homoerotic violence), but overall, good film. Probably the second-best Shakespeare's-language-today film I've seen (#1).

Moonstruck (1987)

Yes, parts of it were troubling and it did touch a couple romcom cliches I'm over, but really: those caveats don't matter. Largely because the world and culture these characters inhabit it so rich and full that the characters themselves are able to transcend any genre trappings. They live in a real place with real people (and dogs).

It's a much more satisfying look at Italian-American culture than any mobster flick I've seen.

It's also interesting how this grounded reality is happy to reject the laws of nature and have a full moon three nights in a row. And that we'll allow it. Remarkable.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Although the schoolyear chronology is bonkers (this was all fall?), this is still, overall, a darn good high-school movie. But my favorite parts of the film are Vulture (especially now that I knew his secret all along) and May (I only wish there were more of her).

I guess this means I am a grownup....

The Red Turtle (2016)

This felt allegorical, but without the special features, I may not have arrived where the filmmaker intended. But that doesn't matter.

Here's what I took from this simple, quiet, beautiful film:

I ask too much of life. Strip life down to its barest essentials, and, with deep breaths, I could be happy. I could be satisfied. (I hope.)

Although this is largely a French movie, it has that Ghibli flair and generosity. For example, the crabs are sootsprite-like in their joy and quiet companionship.

This is such a kind movie. I feel so wistful and happy having seen it.

Watching the special features, I learn that its peaceful perfection is the result of months and months and years of patient exploration. It takes time and exploration to make a movie like this. Let that be a lesson to us all.

(I could say more about the colors and the character design and the light and the passage of time and, especially, the sound, but at some point you should just see it for yourself.)

Don't Think Twice (2016)

This was a fine movie, but I have to admit I'm disappointed. I have high expectations when names like Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass are attached to preproduction, but this movie, though good, did not fly for me.

A film like this should fill me with regret that I didn't pursue improv as a life choice. It did not.

None of this is to push you away from the movie. The characters have moments of real transcendence and growth. That's what matters the most and what, thus, might make the movie grow and improve on further viewings. Now that I know what it is, I may be ready to like it.

Not that I expect to watch it again.....

Adam's Apples (2005)

Wow. Even though I watched it because a friend praised it as one of his favorites, it didn't start off that persuasive. Which is great, because that put me in the same place as the neoNazi and able to be caught utterly offguard.

First, it's funny. Hilarious for brief moments. And it uses violence to comic effect as well as any Coen brothers' movie. Which is a good comparison, maybe, because it is modeled after the Book of Job. So, like, A Serious Man with moments of horrifying violence.

And every downturn the plot took made me more and more convinced this would not end with redemption.

And thus I cried at the end.

Beautiful, beautiful film.

Note: Every time I see Mads Mikkelsen he is someone entirely different. Yet his performance are all in the same scale. Pretty cool

Tangled (2010)

I haven't seen this in yeeeaars, but it holds up. The tear thing is still a stretch, but overall? This is a terrific Disney princess film, well worthy of the tradition. And funny. We got it from the library because the kids loved the sequel short that appeared on the Cinderella dvd. None of them remember having seen it before. That's how long it's been.

I don't have a real problem with the character design, but there are moments where those giant eyes push me out of my suspension of disbelief. I guess that makes me an old. It was bound to happen.

Avengers: Infinity War ()

I hate that I saw this in theaters instead of movies I wanted to see much more such as Isle of Dogs or The Quiet Place. But that's what society's pushed me into. Gah.

Anyway, this is a good movie. Not a great movie, but a very good movie. A movie that successfully pulled of a difficult task---even if it took 2:40 to do it.

But while it may not be great, it is bold. Maybe the boldest movie in cinematic history, depending on your metrics.

I want to chat more, but, grrrmph, no spoilers....

Previous films watched

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