Ren’s Reviews

My Week in Movies

Over the course of the last week I managed to see four films in the cinema and one outdoor screening of an 80s classic. And I also managed to lose a considerable amount of dough. But that’s ok, because I was only dissatisfied with one of the five films, and I’m guessing you’ll be surprised at which one.

First Stop: ROCK OF AGES

For me, this was a silly but ultimately entertaining romp. The irony is that this is the furthest thing from being rock ‘n’ roll – it’s musical pop to the extreme. In fact, watching the film made me think how the story would be more fun on stage…too bad I just missed my opportunity to see it in London. The two leads, Julianne Hough and  Diego Boneta, are pretty to look at, but it’s mostly the awkward and campy performances of Alec Baldwin and Russell Brand and the anti-archetypical role of Tom Cruise that lure you into this strange bubble of rock in 1987 Los Angeles. And then Mary J. Blige pops up. Randomly. It’s no Singin’ in the Rain or Chicago, but I did enjoy some of the mash-ups of songs and it made me buy some classic 80s big hair rock songs on iTunes afterwards. So I guess the long con of the aging rockers worked. But I’m okay with that.

Second Stop: BRAVE

Sighhhh. All I can really say that this was a disappointment. I would have said it was a huge disappointment, but I can’t honestly say that it looked that appealing in the first place, certainly not as much as all the other Pixar films (with the exception of Cars 2). And that’s the problem. Once you attach Pixar to a film, you expect a certain quality, a certain flare, a certain je ne sais quoi. To me, with Brave being a princess story, it felt like a conventional Disney animated movie, even though, yes, it’s ‘unconventional’ in some ways. And that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy (or did enjoy) all those Disney ‘princess movies’…I love them. But they feel more appropriate for the times they were made, and I understand that Brave is trying to be different, but the overall storyline felt like a copout since it was simply a weird story about a curse gone wrong. Plus, as was discussed with friends after seeing it, we all agreed that there was no clear antagonist and no real comic relief (two consistent features of Pixar films). Ultimately, I never connected with the characters and felt bored. I’m guessing that the multiple directors of the film have some reason to do with the underdeveloped story. I did, however, enjoy the opening short, La Luna. I’m hoping next year’s Monsters Inc. University will be a redeeming sequel after the last two misadventures.

Third Stop: SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED

Well, I can safely guarantee that this was my favorite of the films seen this week, and possibly my favorite of the year so far. Firstly, it stars Aubrey Plaza and Jake Johnson from Parks & Recreation and New Girl, respectively, which in my opinion are two of the best comedies on TV right now. So it’s already got that going for it.  More importantly, this indie film is so understated, yet it involves time travel. What more do I need to say? It’s sweet, melancholic, and is about people finding their niche. Sounds cheesy, but it succeeds through its quiet and honest nature and its subtle humor. Check it out:

Fourth Stop: TOP GUN

This wasn’t Tom Cruise’s week. But it was a week of Tom Cruise for me. A local boutique hotel held a ‘dive-in’ screening of Top Gun by their pool, just in time for a patriotic showing before the holiday. This is a fun one to watch with a crowd – a crowd that is drinking, that is! I mean, there are so many iconic moments in this film, and at every one of them people cheered and/or sang along. The Danger Zone. Singing in the bar. Tighty whities. The need for speed. Volleyball in ill-fitted jeans. Taking people’s breath away. The list goes on…

Last Stop: MAGIC MIKE

Yes, I saw Magic Mike and I’m not ashamed. Some people were not fans, but I enjoyed it…and not only for the reasons you may think. Yes, there’s plenty of eye-candy onscreen, but at the end of the day it was an interesting film directed by Steven Soderbergh. I had completely forgotten that fact until his name came up on the credits at the end, and then it made perfect sense how he chose to construct the film. I immediately realized how similar in tone and aesthetics this was to his Erin Brockovich, and even somewhat similar in plot. There still could have been much more character development (for instance, why did we never actually see Mike making his custom furniture that he raved on about?) and the film does drag on in the second hour. I feel like some people were disappointed with the movie since it ended up being different than what they were wanting (aka a lighthearted stripper movie with minimal clothing…aka The Full Monty, but this time with a hottie, aka Channing Tatum). The movie certainly delivered the minimal clothing part, but was a lot darker than advertised. I think that made it a better story and it juxtaposed the fun atmosphere of the onstage performances with the seedy backstage reality. At the end of the day, we reconfirmed that Tatum has got some serious dance chops (Acting chops? Still up for grabs) and we were all disturbed by Matthew McConaughey’s tasselled thong.

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Favorite Films of 2011

I respect the Oscars’ selection of Best Picture nominees (I’ve seen seven of the nine films), but here are the films that I would have included if I were a member of the Academy:

My Favorite Films of 2011

1. Midnight in Paris

I think why this film resonates with me so much is for two reasons: Gil’s (Owen Wilson) fascination with the past and his Woody Allen-inspired neuroticism. With a degree in History, I have a soft spot for nostalgic tendencies, so I found a great sense of commonality between Gil and myself and his yearning for this particular moment in time, full of his artistic idols (Hemingway! Buñuel! Dali!). And Owen Wilson so perfectly executed Allen’s notorious neurotic behavior, which is also another trait of mine, even if that’s one I’m not so proud of. Beyond feeling a connection to the main character, I found the film so delightfully entertaining and original, not to mention really funny. I liked that the trailers for the film gave you little to go off of – I seriously knew nothing more about the film than Owen Wilson was a writer suffering from writer’s block while in Paris. So it was such a pleasant surprise to find that the story took an abrupt left turn at the stroke of midnight, incorporating what we can only assume was time travel – or was it all a dream? Did Gil have too much wine? Or did he really just imagine everything, what with his suspicion of the brain tumor and all? We don’t really know, but that’s why I loved it. The story was simple and straight-forward, yet conceptually it was executed on a whole separate level from anything else this year. Plus, the soundtrack and shots of Paris also swooned me into falling in love with this film.

2. Bridesmaids

There was a lot of talk about how this movie helped prove that women can be funny too (or at least funny enough to be deemed a box office success), but I think that’s a moot point, as anyone who has a brain and a sense of humor knows that there have been funny women since the beginning of time (I’m sure Eve was a riot!), let alone the beginning of the movie industry who have been very successful (the two Hepburns, anyone?). But that being said, this movie was really really funny. So funny in fact, that I saw it three times in the theatre. Kristen Wiig has been stellar on SNL, even if a lot of the material given to her is subpar, but add in her screenwriting and acting skills, plus one of the greatest ensembles of today’s comediennes, plus a few great supporting men, plus director Paul Fieg of Freaks & Geeks fame, and then you’ve got an original, poignant, and hysterically honest film.

3 & 4. The Artist & Hugo

In line with Midnight in Paris, The Artist and Hugo tug upon the nostalgic strings of any film fan’s heart. I liked that this year saw a small trend in light-hearted stories that deal with life’s struggles and conundrums, yet find a happy medium in the process through the magic of art. In these two films, that artistic medium is film, and boy do I have a bias there. I felt like The Artist knew how to draw on an adult’s relationship to the classic movies of yore with a great tongue and cheek approach, while Hugo reminded me of those magical moments when you’re a kid and you first see those fantastical images on the giant screen in front of you.

5. Super 8

Okay, now I can see I might have a problem with really liking movies about movies. Oh well, I can’t help what I like! I was bummed to see that Super 8 got no love from any of the award shows, but this was definitely a summer highlight for me in terms of “popcorn movies.” Although I would argue it is much more than your typical summer fare, higher and above any other action movie that came out this year, with strong character development and an emotional core that gave it so much more depth than just being an alien/monster movie. That being said, it was also good suspenseful fun. And it had perennial favorite of mine Kyle Chandler in it and an impressive group of teenage actors. So it wins on multiple levels.

Honorable Mention: The Descendants (George Clooney and Hawaiian scenery showcase), Moneyball (simple and subtle), Shame (two words: Michael. Fassbender.), The Help (Viola Davis is superb), Cedar Rapids (a fun overlooked ensemble comedy), Friends With Benefits (a raunchy affair, but also sincere), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (a beautifully constructed finale to an exceptional series – but let’s try to forget how they all look 19 years later…)

Ren’s Reviews: The Descendants

I so appreciate Alexander Payne’s films for their non-apologetic approach to character studies and his subtle way of infusing comedy into mostly serious narratives. Like in Sideways, where Paul Giamatti’s character is a bit of a slob, has some bad habits, and has low self-esteem. The film doesn’t transform him, he grows up a bit when he finds a lady he likes, but for the most part he’s the same guy, just now he has someone in his life who isn’t completely put off by him. Similarly in The Descendants, George Clooney isn’t the most lovable guy. Although I would argue that George Clooney being George Clooney, anyone watching isn’t going to be turned off too much (Honestly, how can you not like the guy?). Still, he plays an average guy, Matt King, who finds himself at a standstill in all aspects of life: in his marriage, in raising two rebellious daughters, and in his job as a lawyer where he has to decide on an important family matter regarding the inheritance of a large sum of land as the descendants of Hawaiian royalty (we have a title!). Of course, the film starts right away with the accident that puts King’s wife in a coma, making all matters much more complicated. Even though the film centers on the hardships that befall the family with this new situation, particularly as King learns his wife had been having an affair, the story really focuses on King’s realizations that he has been an absent father and husband, always somewhat complacent toward everything in his life. And with his wife’s condition he continues to struggle to find the right course of action of how to deal with what life has thrown at his family. He lets his father-in-law criticize him, makes no real effort to stop his daughters (great performances by Shailene Woodley & Amara Miller) from acting out in inappropriate ways, and wants to leave the decision about the inheritance to everyone else. I found Clooney’s performance a refreshing change from what we’ve seen from him before. Yes, he always tends to look exactly the same in every film, but I saw this as a standout performance. Plus, this is one of the few films that he has ever played a parent (One Fine Day is the only other movie that comes to mind) and I think he played the role convincingly as he tries to remain grounded with his “head above water,” as King says in the film, all while trying hard not to allow any grief to surface. As much of the movie is about trying to reconstruct a family that was already broken, the film is really about a man who doesn’t know how to confront life.  This is of course reflected in the film’s beautiful Hawaiian locales. Yes, King says through narration that just because he lives in Hawaii it doesn’t mean he lives in paradise and we are aware that tropical islands deal with tragedy too. But the melancholic ukulele and slack-string melodies, the translucent coastal waters, and the lush greenery that accompany the film in what almost seems to be recycled shots, mirror King’s actions in pretending that everything is fine and will be resolved. By film’s end he has to learn how to let go of things that he cannot control and learn from his daughters’ audacious personalities. And in the true spirit of the film, these are not big realizations, they are subtle lessons that King learns even as he struggles to execute them, dealing with life’s unfairness one day at a time.

Ren’s Reviews: The Artist & Shame

Last week I finally was able to see The Artist (Dir. Michel Hazanavicius) and Shame (Dir. Steve McQueen…No, not THAT Steve McQueen). Due to the different UK film release schedule, I have had to patiently endure the holiday season without the usual movie award season films. As an avid Oscar fan, it has been driving me crazy to see friends and family commenting on the films they’ve seen…four months ago. Well, now it’s my turn.

At first thought, one would think that The Artist and Shame are two completely different, unrelated films about very different subject matters. True, they are distinct in many ways, yet they have some striking resemblances. The first is about a man addicted to fame and a steady job, the second is addicted to sex and a steady, um, screw, so to speak. Both male protagonists are pros in the self-loathing department, and both have female counterparts that look up to them for guidance, in their own distorted ways. And both films are very theatrical. The Artist, being a silent film, relies on the highly expressive qualities of the actors to essentially portray their lines through miming. Likewise, Shame has a slow-moving pace that makes it a perfect piece to be staged, with grand performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, which ultimately overshadow the film as a whole. That being said, I was mesmerized by both films; one captivating me by the nostalgia for classic Hollywood, the other purposely making me feel so uncomfortable that I couldn’t help but stare and admire its raw honesty. Plus, Michael Fassbender ain’t bad to look at.

What I appreciate about The Artist, which I consider to be a close second for my favorite film of the year, is its tongue and cheek approach to the silent film era. It plays with the genre, pokes a bit of fun at it, but at the same time captures this great moment in film history – the transition to Talkies. As I’m sure it did with others who have seen it, this aspect of the plot brings Singin’ in the Rain (Dir. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1952) to mind (A personal favorite of mine). Not only through plot points, in which the movie studios realize that the current silent film actress has a nauseating voice for talking films, but The Artist’s Jean Dujardin is almost eerily identical to Gene Kelly by looks and charm. Kelly being a personal idol of mine growing up (I’m a tap dancer, you see), this association was actually a delight. The stars of The Artist are beautiful French people, but they also exude a ridiculous amount of charisma. While there are some brief dark moments in the film, the story is mostly a happy song and dance feature like the films of yore. But I do wonder how happy the ending really is. The lead character, George Valentin, is forced into early retirement due to his obstinate refusal to buy into the new trend of talking pictures and due to the ephemeral cycle of Hollywood stardom – out with the old, in with the new. Yes, he has a comeback, but the cynic in me wonders how long that wave will last. But I really shouldn’t wonder, because that last scene of the film is absolute joy, and sometimes that’s the best feeling to leave the theatre with.

Watch the trailer for The Artist:

 

Watch the trailer for Shame:

To also feed my Michael Fassbender obsession (have loved him since the under-appreciated Inglourious Basterds), here is a fun clip with David Letterman:

And a somewhat more serious exploration of his crazy busy past year in film, by NPR:

NPR’s Fresh Air: Interview with Michael Fassbender