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20 Feet From Stardom

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Checked out this Oscar winner for Best Documentary when Tara said she had heard good things about it.  Definitely worth seeing.  It's a killer idea for a documentary, to examine the careers of backup singers, people as ubiquitous as they are under-recognized.

The first thing that the movie establishes is just how amazingly talented these people are.  They're world-class experts at their craft, people with rich, sonorous tone, incredible tune, and incredible improvisational skills.  They're exactly what you would expect from somebody at the top of their profession.

And once you realize that, the movie goes to the natural follow-up question.  If these people are so good at singing, why aren't they the lead singers instead of the backups?  The answer changes from person-to-person.  Sometimes it's temperament, sometimes it's politics, sometimes it's luck, and sometimes it's still a complete mystery.

The movie is fascinating, and definitely made me think about fame and stardom in a different way.  We're so used to hearing the stories of the stars who made it, or at least the stars who came to dizzying heights only to fall out of favor.  We almost never hear about the near-misses.  Turns out they have fascinating stories to tell.

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Darren Arnofsky is incredibly talented, and I make a point of seeing his movies.  Despite a theme that didn't appeal to me, I made sure to see it in the theater.

Arnofsky's achilles heel is his tendency to get stuck in his head, and Noah is definitely that kind of movie, like The Fountain, or the worst parts of Pi.  Noah is ambitious.  It's got a very healthy special effects budget, and spends a ton of effort on costuming and makeup.  On the squishier parts of the movie, it's got a script that is trying very hard to reinterpret a foundational myth, and a melodramatic acting and directing style that is quite obviously intentional.

The aforementioned melodrama makes it very clear that Arnofsky feels very strongly about...something. But what, exactly, is Noah ambitiously trying for?  The Bible has a lot of cultural cachet and baggage.  Noah could be an unedited retelling, an environmental stewardship parable, a dissertation on myth, or a simple rejection of the story.  Arnofsky refuses to take any of these options, settling on something that's unclear.  

The closest framework is character study.  Noah deals constantly with trying to interpret the metaphors and messages of a distant God; in this way he's reminiscent more of Abraham or Job than the traditional cultural portrayal of outcast-cum-steward.  Perhaps Arnofsky read The Origins of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind and took it a bit over-the-top?

Whatever Arnofsky wanted the movie to be, it ends up a mealy-mouthed mess.  It seems so determined to strike out on its own that it rejects everything that's interesting about Noah as source material.  It's a lot like The Fountain, in fact, and there's really no reason to see either one.

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Tim Burton has this reputation as being incredibly out there, but the rest of the movies that I've seen have nothing on this one.  This seems like a children's movie most of the time, with corny acting and terrible setup lines that are outdone only by the even worse punch lines.  But, the movie is good anyway.  Michael Keaton as the title character is incredibly weird and compelling when he's on screen.  It makes the tedious interim scenes worth waiting for.  The puppetry helps as well.  Even though it's obvious kitch, it's visually compelling because of Burton's aesthetic style.  

How in the world did this movie get made?  It's got incredibly mature themes, including violent death, suicide, statutory rape, and unwanted sexual advances, but the dialogue is mostly simple-bordering-on-corny.  I don't know who would have greenlighted this project -- it feels deeply strange and conflicted.  Nonetheless, it's good.  It's different and fresh.  I can handle a little bit of bad scriptwriting for some freshness.

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Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty is a great real-life thriller.  It reminded me of Jarhead and Black Hawk Down, without the pathos of the first movie or the post 9-11 fervor of the second.  

I remember hearing a kerfuffle when the movie came out that it sanctioned torture.  What struck me most about the movie was the decided lack of editorial position.  There's nothing glamorous about the way torture is depicted.  The lead character is obviously repulsed when she encounters it, though she sees it as a means to an end.  She seems to feel this torture is wrong, but see it as necessary in an ends-justify-the-means mentality.  This is, for better or for worse, exactly the debate we as a nation seem to be having.  Obvious as it might seem to most of us that this is unjustified, there's a significant number of warhawks and security freaks that don't care.  There's Muslims that need to be killed without trials, after all.  This is who we are as a nation now.

The more coherent view of the movie is that it is a mirror.  Here we are.  It's telling us what we did.  We spent more than 10 years, billions of dollars, and much of the resources of the most prosperous nation on earth, all so that we could kill one man.  Whether the movie viewer thinks that the movie portrays a justification for this says a lot more about the viewer than it does about the movie.  I came away with a sad feeling.  All that work, for what?  We still haven't defeated the latest noun we've declared war on, and just as the wars on Poverty and Drugs before it, it seems unlikely that we'll win this one either.  Totalitarian tactics with unclear goals are never going to work.

This is a great movie.  It's emotionally arresting, fascinating, and very worthy of analysis.

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Dallas Buyers' Club

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There's no denying the power of Matthew McConaughey's performance as a homophobic Texan who comes down with AIDS in the 80s when it was still incredibly stigmatized.  He is convincing, and conniving, and brash.

McConaughey is a star reborn.  It's really incredible what he has managed to do with his career.  Remember when he was the guy that just kept playing the burnout surfer dude over and over?  Not the case anymore, and he definitely is rising to the new roles he is being given.  

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30 for 30: The Price of Gold

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Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding's story is somehow now even stranger than it was then.  Not a lot has changed between now and then, other than that both skaters are now retired.  The public conception of both has calcified to such a degree that Kerrigan is the ice princess, and Harding is the trashy, brash challenger.

It does seem, in retrospect, that Harding got railroaded.  She was never found guilty of premeditated crime, though she did plea bargain for a lesser sentence.  She did, however, get banned from the sport for life.  Such a punishment is overly harsh, as there's hardly a smoking gun that links Harding to the crime.  She did, ultimately, suffer the additional punishment of being an outsider.  When push came to shove, she didn't have the friends or connections in the skating world to get her plea reduced, and became just another poor person eaten by the system.

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30 for 30: Youngstown Boys

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Maurice Clarett is fascinating.  Jim Tressel... was his coach?  They were both from Youngstown, which apparently means something to the directors of the film.

Clarett, after a successful freshman year at Ohio State University during which he excelled at running back and led the team to a national title, was crucified for daring, DARING to accept some kind of sanctioned gift from a booster to supplement his lack of income from the enormously profitable college sports complex he was a part of.  He then ended up as a sacrifice to the bureaucratic egoes of the NCAA, serving a two-year school-imposed suspension that was wildly out of line for his behavior.  He then made some poor choices, washed out of the NFL before the end of his first training camp, and eventually went to jail after falling into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse.

Then, he started a blog.  It was assisted by his girlfriend, who took Maurice's notes from prison and put them into WordPress after every visit.  The blog has since been taken down, but Clarett proved himself an erudite, philosphophical writer, a distant cry from the careless thug that he was portrayed as in the media.  Hardly a shocker, I suppose, that a black man who challenges the system is portrayed as an incorrigible self-centered drug addict, but shameful nonetheless.  When Clarett was able to harness the power of the web as a platform, he was able to correct the mistaken impression that the media had given him, and make people realize that hey, maybe he got railroaded.

Youngstown Boys is a triumph, fall-from-grace, redemption story that happens to be true, and it works well.  Then they threw some stuff about Jim Tressel in there, I guess because they needed some filler time.  Anyway, it's a good movie, despite the irrelevant white father figure.


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Her gets AI right in a way that most movies don't.  If you're willing to buy into the movie's premise that an AI that perfectly communicates in human language and has human-like desires is possible, the movie explores the very likely relationships that will form between those AI persons and the humans that associate with them.  It declines to address the specifics, but it relies on early emotional appeal to get the audience on board, and it works.  The few "Hey, wait a minute..." moments that I had were almost all after I left the theater and thought about it.

Which is not to say that I found myself getting resentful after the movie is over.  I am easily able to see past the few omissions that I noted in favor of a tone of the movie that feels very real.  This is ordinary (well, futuristic wealthy Los Angeleno ordinary) people interacting with a wildly new possibility and integrating it into their lives.  This is in marked counterpoint to the breathless malevolence of AIs 2001: A Space Oddyssey or Terminator, or the banal non-personalities of AIs in Star Trek or Moon.  If we truly create a computer personality that mimics a human, then ipso facto it will behave like a human.  Her understands this and get it right.

Spike Jonze has crafted a script that is philosophical and convincing.  It's simultaneously about interpersonal connection and alienation, and there's a lot more to say here than merely a bit of dithering on what AIs will mean, but also what our increasingly information-oriented and automated lifestyle means.  It's the best of sci-fi: it tells us a future that, in turn, tells us about our present.

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The Lego Movie

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The Lego Movie is better than it has any right to be.  I'm not surprised that the built items are cool, but I was surprised that the animation was so slick, the voice acting high-quality, and above all, the writing tight without being overbearing.  Even the soundtrack was ridiculously catchy and perfect.  I'm a notorious grouch when it comes to kids movies, but this really charmed me.  

What's most impressive about it is how it manages to tiptoe a line that is downright subversive to the brand.  The main point of the movie is that it's actually better to build things with extreme creativity, and not follow the boxed sets.  This is, of course, counter to the way that most people purchase Legos, which is to buy those boxed sets, put them together once or twice, and then leave them alone.  It takes the truly dedicated Lego fanatic to buy pieces individually after following their own blueprint, though it is possible.  And because the message is counter to their own sales, what could be a crass cash grab really does feel earnest in its desire to foster creativity.

Kudos, Lego Movie.  You're the best, most polished corporate movie that's still subversive that I've seen in years.  And for that, I love you.

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Cloud Atlas

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The Wachowskis aren't afraid to bring philosophy into science fiction.  Cloud Atlas, following in the footsteps of The Matrix, goes after a philosophical what-if in order to tell a science fiction tale.  And it succeeds.  The topic du jour is reincarnation, and what it would mean to have an soul that kept the same personal essence from body to body to body, and through different time.  Reincarnation doesn't fit my belief system, but I certainly enjoy a what-if movie that's willing to play around with the concept.

The moviemaking is solid, the acting great, and an interleaved, time-traveling storyline is a neat concept, mostly executed well.  It's a playful movie, and one that will make you think after its over.  Recomended.

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