Sunday, June 30, 2013

Important Service Announcement!

Follow my blog with Bloglovin

I've been informed that as of tomorrow, Google Reader will no longer be available. I've set up an account at Bloglovin, which you can find through the above link, to help you, dear readers, keep up with my postings. And, though I've been awfully neglectful of it, I do also have a Facebook page which you can follow; I'll keep it more up-to-date from here on out.

I thank you all for your continued support, and look forward to talking movies with you more in the future!

Jason H.
AKA The Entertainment Junkie

Double Take: Before Midnight (2013) and Monsters University (2013)

Film criticism is, at its core, subjective. Different films affect each of us in different ways, based on our experiences and our emotional state at the time. That's why the reviews that critics - both professional and, like myself, amateur - are helpful, but can't be taken as the final word. There are films that the critical community has been nuts about, but I've never loved as much as they have: I'm in the vast minority that doesn't think The Social Network is a bona-fide cinematic masterpiece, for example. And there have been films that the critical community has reviled that I actually rather like (slut-shaming aside, I rather enjoyed What's Your Number?, namely thanks to Anna Faris and her chemistry with Chris Evans).

All of this is to say that reviews are opinions. None of this is anything new, of course, and it doesn't really need to be said; it should be obvious. But I've spent this much space talking about it because two films I've seen recently, Monsters University and Before Midnight, impacted me in ways that were deeply personal. Part of this is because both are parts of franchises that I have a particular fondness for: MU being a prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. (and also being a Pixar film), Midnight being the third entry in the Before series that is, without a doubt, one of the most stirring and heartbreaking franchises ever. But each one of them hit upon some memories in ways that I was not expecting.

Monsters University

College was not an easy time for me. Not that I think it's necessarily easy for anyone (if anyone calls it the easiest years of their lives, they're likely lying), but it was an emotionally turbulent time for me. A part of that was that I was attending a high-stress school: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a school that carries a lot of weight in its reputation. I came from a poor school system in a small rural town, and while there was an impressive amount of diversity on campus, it didn't take long to realize that my socioeconomic background put me in a minority among the other undergraduates. Early in MU, when young Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), fresh-faced and full of excitement to be attending his dream school, is told that he "doesn't belong here," I immediately recognized the sting of those words.

In general, MU doesn't live up to the rich imagination that Monsters, Inc. showed 12 years ago. The plot involves how Mike and Sully (voiced by John Goodman) became friends, and, in the spirit of all college movies, there's a jocks vs. nerds competition, a crusty dean (voiced with menace by Helen Mirren), and the usual collection of odd monsters. However, unlike it's predecessor, the film doesn't present these old motifs in any new way; even the monsters themselves are less imaginative than to be expected from Pixar at this point. There's still humor aplenty (Charlie Day gets a few brilliant non-sequitars in as loosey-goosey Art), but much of the film settles for being merely charming.

At this point, though, we might have to expect that the winning streak Pixar began with Monsters, Inc. and (in my book, at least) ran through Toy Story 3 - with the slight "misstep" of Cars, a film that's really sort-of underrated - has come to an end, and the company is now content to coast on its old glories rather than present truly innovative animation. But with expectations lowered, the film is a charming trip down memory lane. For me, in particular, it tapped into a nostalgia I was not expecting to revisit. Well done, Pixar.

Before Midnight (*mild spoilers ahead*)

The A.V. Club's Scott MacDonald recently asked if Before Midnight, the third film to follow the romance of chatterboxes Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), skipped the most important part of a relationship: how is it that these two, 18 years after they first met, could still have so many new anecdotes to share with each other? And how could they not want to cherish silence when they get the opportunity?  My response is that every relationship is different: it makes sense that Jesse and Celine would still be so talkative, because that's been presented as their personalities (other obvious responses: this is only a part of one day in their relationship, and the age-old "it's a movie, for chrissake").

But this argument doesn't deflate the main purpose of the film: we've twice before spent an extended period of time with these two, when they were first meeting in their twenties (1995's Before Sunrise) and their reconnection in their thirties (2004's Before Sunset), but now, in their forties, we're seeing life take its toll on them. Jesse is struggling with the fact that he is not consistently present in the life of his son from his previous marriage, who still lives in the United States. Celine, meanwhile, gets an offer for her dream job, though she's unsure if she wants to take it. These tensions build until they reach a breaking point, turning the film's second half into a brutal, bruising argument between the two. They clear the air, but at what cost?

As I said above, every relationship is different. But what makes the Before films so magical is that, if you look closely, you can see yourself in them. I was first introduced to the films at the age of 15, when I rented Before Sunrise from a Movie Gallery in town (there's a dated reference for you). I was instantly enthralled; it perfectly tapped into the boundless, hopelessly optimistic romanticism that I was deeply entrenched in at that age. To me, there was nothing more romantic than meeting a stranger, talking endlessly, and falling in love. Jesse and Celine became my benchmark for what true love looks like. Before Sunset, though more melancholic, gave me the same sense: true love lasts, even if you've been separated for years. If you truly love that person, then the chemistry will always be there, ready to be re-invigorated. And nothing's more romantic than conversation.

Before Midnight comes to me now at the age of 23. I have no illusions that that makes me some sort of wise sage on life and relationships; I still have plenty of experience left ahead of me. And I'm certainly not the same age as Jesse and Celine in this film. But what's different between my 16-year-old self and my 23-year-old self is that I've been in serious relationships (I had been in relationships by 16, but those were of the high-school, "I have a crush" variety; I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about). In this film, I recognized the level of comfort that Jesse and Celine have reached with each other. They're no longer discovering (or re-discovering) each other the way they had in the earlier films. And when they began to fight...oh man, I've had that fight. Not that exact fight, mind you, in terms of content, but the knock-down, drag-out, clear-the-air, say-regrettable-things fight that you really can't go back from. It was harrowing on film (director Richard Linklater did a phenomenal job in staging it), but what really made it a knock-out was that recognition, and all the ugly and uncomfortable memories and emotions it brought up (a true sign of how effective it was: in discussing this very sequence last night, the mere thought of it caused those old feelings to resurface just as strongly). Worse still, here I was, watching this couple that was the paragon of True Love, fighting, arguing, and generally being nasty to each other. It would've been shattering to my younger self, but even now, given the experiences I've had, it was still heartbreaking to see these two like this.

There's no indication that this is the last film in the series; just as with the previous two, it could go on, but if this were the last time we dropped in on these two, it would make a plenty compelling and outstanding collection of films. Hawke and Delpy's dynamite performances (especially Delpy's, which, in a just world, would score her an Oscar) have carried this franchise into the ranks of one of cinema's best; I, for one, wouldn't mind seeing them again. As an ending, though, this will more than suffice.

Monsters University: B+
Before Midnight: A+

P.S. I realize I wrote a ton about Midnight and not as much about MU; needless to say the latter inspired much more in me than the former. Not to mention a lot of my college experiences that informed my feelings toward MU were directly related to the relationship experiences that informed my Midnight thoughts. And so it goes.

Friday, June 21, 2013

RIP James Gandolfini (1961-2013)

I, like the rest of the world, was stunned to learn that James Gandolfini passed away Wednesday afternoon of a heart attack while on vacation in Italy. He was 51.

Without a doubt, he is best known for his role as conflicted mobster Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, a role for which he won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. Though he made an indelible mark in his other ventures, which included film, television, and stage, it's his work as Tony that will become his legacy.

These past few months I've been working my way through watching The Sopranos for the first time. Growing up, I didn't have access to HBO, and really I came of age, culturally speaking, at the very end of the show's run (and there was no way I was going to watch A&E's edited-for-content re-runs). Coincidentally, the episode I had queued after learning of Gandolfini's death was "Whitecaps," the much-discussed season four finale. Many of the obituaries and tributes I've read these past few days have singled out that episode, and for good reason: it's a tour de force for both Gandolfini and Edie Falco, who portrayed Tony's put-upon wife Carmela. It's been said that the only reason the two of them won Emmys for that episode instead of Oscars was the size of the screen it played on, and without a doubt it is the strongest-acted episode of the series so far.

I couldn't think of a better testament to Gandolfini's prowess as an actor, as he was consistently surprising audiences and finding new angles for well-worn character types all the way through last year, with his appearances in Zero Dark Thirty, Killing Them Softly, and Not Fade Away. His gift will be missed.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Ang Lee Oscar Dream

Ever have one of those really strange dreams that seem to come out of nowhere? Last night I dreamed that it was Oscar night, and Ang Lee was taking home his second Best Director Oscar....for something called Divergent, which, as my dream presented it, was some sort of Dragonball knockoff that was critically reviled. Even he seemed surprised to win for this, as he said at the podium, "I made Life of Pi. Why am I not winning for that?"

Ang Lee winning his actual second Oscar, not in my dreams

I don't know, guys. Maybe it was because I was watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon last night (by the way - Oscars of the Aughts will be back in July, with a look at the year 2000) and re-watched Argo yesterday afternoon, so these most recent Academy Awards have been on my mind recently. Either way, it was bizarre.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

In J.J. Abrams' hands, the Star Trek films no longer really resemble the Star Trek television series (any of them). Much has been written about this in the weeks since the release of Star Trek Into Darkness, the long-awaited sequel to 2009's absolute blast of a reboot. What it boils down to is this: Abrams revived Star Trek by turning it into the Star Wars prequels we actually wanted George Lucas to make (therefore, it makes sense Abrams would get the Star Wars Episode VII gig). This is true, but also an unfair comparison: though the new films have certainly lacked Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry's philosophical quandaries and optimistic futurism, they have gained a sense of adventure that suits the film as a separate franchise.

This is most evident in the new film: a mostly standalone adventure, the film follows the crew of the USS Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), as they hunt down a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who may not be entirely what he seems (spoiler alerts can be found just by looking at the film's IMDb page). The chase leads them into Klingon territory, and matters soon become even further complicated.

What helps the film succeed - and what all summer blockbusters could stand to learn - is it's zippy running time and plotting. Without having to worry about introducing the characters to the audience or establish the universe of the film, the film focuses solely on laying out this story and quickly moving from epic set piece to epic set piece (and make no doubt about it, those set pieces - especially one high-speed chase through warp speed - are epic in scale and adrenaline). Only the opening scene is not narratively pertinent to the main plot, though it does set up the emotional through-line of the film (which actually has a sweet payoff). From there it's a non-stop thrill ride that doesn't slow down for a minute, which greatly benefits the film. No doubt this is a result of the creative team: Abrams (Alias) directing from a script by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Fringe) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) all have backgrounds in television, and if their first Star Trek film was the "pilot" for the new franchise, this kind of "episodic" narrative storytelling is what to (hopefully) expect in the future.

The film's not without it's faults, though. Cumberbatch's John Harrison (and his admittedly disappointing revelation) proves to be a better villain than Eric Bana's Nero in the first film, but he never feels as intimidating as he should. It also relies on the "villain-planned-the-whole-thing" angle of his capture, a trope that's been done a lot lately - most effectively in The Dark Knight. Also, the snappy running time means that Zoe Saldana's Uhura gets less to do, mostly contained to bickering with Spock, though she gets a nice moment where she speaks Klingon in a high-stakes confrontation.

But the heart of this film - and the franchise so far - has been Kirk and Spock's relationship, and it wisely assumes the emotional core of the film. Despite their myriad differences, these are two men who respect each other, with their strengths making up for the other's weaknesses. It may not provoke much deep thought, but it's a theme that I'm sure a hopeful optimist like Roddenberry would appreciate. B+

The Great Gatsby (2013)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel of wealthy New Yorkers partying through the 1920s with reckless abandon, has been a staple of high school reading lists for decades. On the one hand, that makes sense: it's not a difficult read, written in a vivid language that's easy to understand, and it's thematically rich in a way that fosters classroom discussion (though, believe it or not, I was never assigned the book for any class; I read it on my own time). Yet there is, to me, an inherent flaw here, one that has shaped our understanding of the book's allure and, in turn, subsequent film adaptations of it: the opulent parties and glamorous wealth become the focus, not the biting social commentary that lurks beneath.

Take 1974's Gatsby: with a script by none other than Francis Ford Coppola and starring turns from Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, it was (deservedly) derided for being too stuffy and "prestige-y" (for lack of a better word). There is a stiffness to it all: in getting directly at Fitzgerald's themes, it makes Jazz Age New York look like a slurry of Important Costume Drama tropes, without any of the liveliness in Fitzgerald's prose.

Now, in 2013, we have a new Gatsby: Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular character, a mysterious man who throws massive parties at his mansion in fictional West Egg, New York. Naive Midwesterner Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) - the Fitzgerald and audience stand-in - moves into the cottage next door, and frequently visits his rich cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her husband, Tom Buchanan (best-in-show Joel Edgerton), across the bay in East Egg. Nick grows close to Gatsby, who ropes him in to a plot to reunite him with Daisy, a plan that eventually spirals out of control.

The new film comes from Baz Luhrmann, the Moulin Rouge! director who seems intent on making only one film every seven years. One of the core problems with this film, though, is that Luhrmann is simultaneously the best and worst choice for directing. When it comes to staging the lavish bacchanals, who better than Mr. Spectacular Spectacular himself? And make no mistake, those scenes are magnificently-staged spectacles, champagne-and-chandaliers eye-candy matched with a gloriously anachronistic soundtrack (Lana Del Rey's haunting "Young & Beautiful" being the standout). The film as a whole has a gorgeous sheen to it, much to the credit of cinematographer of Simon Duggan.

However, at the same time, Luhrmann has a tougher go at handling the more human moments. Working again with longtime collaborator Craig Pierce, their script too often hammers home Fitzgerald's themes of old money vs. new money and the recklessness of the rich, who believe themselves to be above the rules that govern the rest of us (certainly relevant today). Worse, though, is the film's tacky framing device, which places Nick in a sanitarium some point after the events of the film, his doctor recommending that he write it all down as a novel. It allows for some of Fitzgerald's original lines to be used, but it feels imported from another, lesser movie, and never gels with everything else in the film.

Luckily, there's a terrific cast here doing mostly great work. The character of Nick Carraway - the passive outsider observing the events and only marginally involved in them - would be daunting challenge for any actor, and though Maguire might seem like an odd choice on paper, he acquits himself well. Mulligan, on the other hand, is a fine and intriguing actress, but never really feels inspired by Daisy: it's a decent performance, but she never quite captures Daisy's bourgeois naiveté. DiCaprio's youthful appearance goes a long way in making his performance as Gatsby riveting, and he carries the film quite well (though it's not among his best performances, it's worthy of discussion in terms of his career). As I mentioned before, it's Edgerton who really shines as Tom, a man of his time who can't handle the idea of losing the power he's acquired over his relationships. Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Elizabeth Debicki (a relative newcomer) also shine in minor roles.

The majority of this review sounds like I'm dumping on the film. I realize that I kind of am; this was, after all, my most anticipated film of the year, so I had high hopes for it. I don't mean for it to sound like I didn't enjoy it; in fact, I greatly enjoyed it, and I think that what does work makes up for what doesn't. But I think the world is still waiting for the truly great Gatsby film that Fitzgerald's novel deserves. Until then, though, this entertaining spectacle will do. B+