Tag Archives: YourChoice

The Lego Batman Movie

Yes, you probably saw this ages ago, but I wasn’t going to go pay for it in theaters. The Lego Movie was amusing, but not brilliant, at least for me. I am mainly writing this up as a measurement of my comedy preferences so you can judge my other recommendations.

My biggest question by the time I got to the end of this latest block adventure was: Why had they trusted such a lucrative franchise to the writer of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith and first-time feature director Chris McKay? Perhaps they thought the series was bullet-proof? It isn’t.

While it has a solid overall structure and story ideas, the result is uneven, at best, when it comes to flow and dialogue. It also lacks the layers that the original Lego had, trying instead to riff off of the absurd Batman character and relying on shots at Marvel and, even more often, DC and the overall history of Batman since the 60s in media. Cause, let’s face it, it has had quite the meandering road starting with Adam West and ending, for now, with Ben Affleck.

But it wasn’t just the execution and editing of the tale that was off, it was also the voices. They just didn’t quite ever feel right. This was especially true for Zach Galifianakis’s (Birdman) Joker for me, though many others didn’t quite fit either. The movie is loaded with voice talent…some surprising, but none brilliant. This really felt like a money grab by the studio and supported by the late night party game of a lot of actors who just did it for a lark. To be fair, Will Arnett, Michael Cera (Sausage Party), Rosario Dawson (Marvel’s Iron Fist), and Ralph Fiennes (A Bigger Splash) all did fine in the main roles, but not memorably so.

Basically, if you need a distraction, you could do worse than this mostly empty confection. But, that also means you could do way better.

The LEGO Batman Movie

3 Generations

This is best thought of as a film about family rather than a story about a young trans man played by Elle Fanning (20th Century Women). It is primarily a tale about how this unique family inter-relates. And, in the end, this movie is really more Naomi Watts (Sea of Trees) story than it is Fanning’s.

But, truth be told, it is Susan Sarandon (The Meddler) and Linda Emond (The Family Fang) who steal this movie. Their characters and interactions are beautifully understated and comfortable. They throw away their lines like the old, partnered couple they are supposed to be but also manage to stay in the background. They take focus because of their quality, not because they are scene stealing.

There was so much controversy over this film as it came to screens. The MPAA tried to saddle it with an R rating due to its subject matter (learn more about the MPAA) and because Fanning was playing the role rather than a trans actor. Fanning (20th Century Women) does try to do her best, but I honestly never really bought her in the role both because the on-screen and script choices didn’t really fully jibe with my own experiences with people in transition.

The movie is simply, fundamentally flawed. Director and co-writer Gaby Dellal worked with Nikole Beckwith, but didn’t quite nail the story either in balance or action. Added to that, there is a forced layer of auteur visuals in the videos created by Fanning’s character that don’t feel at all on point or by him. And there is also a more metaphorical aspect of resampling and recreating music into something by that character. In neither case does the film pursue the threads, leaving them dangling, unfulfilled, and even distracting in some ways. And the men in this film, Tate Donovan (Argo) and Sam Trammell (The Fault in Our Stars), are somewhat pointless, but that is by design, though an odd message given the core focus.

Ultimately, there is entertainment and warm fuzzies to be had here, and a couple of the performances really are worth seeing. But as a movie it is middling in its success.

3 Generations

Road, Movie

The trailer for this film made it look like Cinema Paradiso on wheels… a rather irresistible idea. Instead, it is more like Field of Dreams made by Fellini in India. Not so irresistible (and I like Fellini).

In fact, this movie was ultimately rather unsatisfying, particularly since the main character is such a dick. He starts off a petulant boy in a man-suit and ends up, metaphorically at least, becoming a real, full man. But it wasn’t really sold well enough and we never care about the guy as he is, as I said, such a dick.

The supporting characters don’t add much either, though they aren’t unlikable or unentertaining. But they only exist as guides and bumpers for the main character whose motivations and goals are obtuse, at best, and non-existent at worse.

I will fully admit that perhaps I missed the point or was the wrong audience on this one, so I’m not saying run away unequivocally. There are aspects to this that show ability and intriguing possibility, but for me this never came together and I’d like my time back.

Road, Movie

Taste of Cherry (Ta’m e guilass)

You may recall that  I recently got to see another Iranian film, A Dragon Arrives!, and had mixed reactions. During the introduction to that film, this Palme d’Or co-winner was mentioned, so I decided to continue my understanding and education.

Up front, after watching it, I did look up the critical response to this movie. To say it was divisive is kind. Taste of Cherry is definitely a love it or hate it film. There is a particularly wonderful response by Roger Ebert. I also watched an interview with the director, Kiarostami, who is credited with altering the path and possibility of Iranian cinema with this offering (particularly its subject matter).

So, here’s the thing. Where this film falls apart for me is at the very end. Much like Dragon, it takes a wild left turn to either provide distance or make a point that was utterly lost on me. While I never expected an explicit ending, Kiarostami’s choice was frustrating at best. The lead up to the resolution is either a physical metaphor for the struggle of the main character or a long, drawn out and boring road trip movie on a circular track. Neither is a ringing endorsement, though the first option has a bit more resonance as a manifestation of the rumination involved in the man’s decision (which may be an unintended apologist’s remark).

After listening to the director and seeing the film, I can honestly say I don’t need to see another Kiarostami bit of cinema. From a purely cultural voyeuristic viewpoint, it certainly provides a window on a particular lawn to consider.

Taste of Cherry

The Space Between Us

What could have been a really solid science fiction romance in the vein of The Martian meets (pick any teen romance), ends up as a sweet film with no teeth that leaves adults in the dust. I so wanted this to be more than it was.

Britt Robertson (Tomorrowland) and Asa Butterfield (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) play your typical young couple separated by circumstances and, literally, the world who find each other. Both are strong actors. Both do what they can with the script they are provided, but neither is overly deep or realistic because the story just isn’t. Despite that, they both make their characters feel real, within that limitation.

The two primary adults in the film have their own journeys to navigate, but the movie doesn’t really give them the space they need either. Carla Gugino (San Andreas) delivers what she has to, though she ends up sort of hollow due to a lack of script and screen time. And Gary Oldman (Léon: The Professional) was just off in this role. His reactions were far too broad and obvious for me. He is usually an actor of such great power, and in this he is a fragile and uncontrolled mess as an actor. His performance is within the bounds of the sense of the story, but that is another problem.

Director, Peter Chelsom (Hector and the Search for Happiness) shook what he could from the movie. I think he could have exerted a stronger hand over several moments to keep them from going as large as they did, but he generally kept the main relationship at an even and digestible tenor. The real problem was the script… which you may have picked up on by now.

I wish Space had included some of the craft and complexity that Loeb’s other recent screenplay, Collateral Beauty, had contained.  I could even give Loeb and his co-writers a break on the utterly absurd faster-than-light communication if he hadn’t also blown other major science issues. You’re only allowed one big lie per story. More than that and your audience notices and starts to get annoyed, even if they don’t know why. The story was also massively inconsistent in what Butterfield’s character knows or has been exposed to. This tale had a lot of potential, but little of it was realized because the script writers thought that their audience wouldn’t notice the difference, which was a mistake. Just as I would get engaged with the characters, another silly assertion would arise and I’d have to take a breath and consciously ignore the stupidity. Sort of breaks your rhythm as a viewer.

Ultimately, this is a film that will appeal to a younger audience and, in fact, they may enjoy it a great deal as they tend to be more forgiving as long as the main characters are engaging. But even as a metaphor or allegory, adults will be challenged by some of the logic and lack of depth. At least watching Robertson and Butterfield work is always rewarding. The two are growing up to be very capable actors and will be around a long time if they can negotiate their transitions to fully adult roles. They are certainly on the right track… they just have to get their managers to pick better scripts for them.

The Space Between Us

A Dragon Arrives! (Ejdeha Vared Mishavad!)

To be honest, I haven’t an f’ing clue what this movie is about. But it was fun trying to unpuzzle it, and it is a hypnotic bit of storytelling, except when it wants to slap you in the face.

This is one of the joys and issues with film festivals: you gamble. Based on the description on the site I was expecting a Persian mashup of a film that could have been made by Stephen Chow.

Police Inspector Hafizi wakes up on a desert island and must piece together the puzzle of his abduction while working a murder case in this delightfully unconventional and entertaining Iranian mashup of gumshoe noir and phantasmagorical ghost story.

OK, noir, sort of, unconventional for sure, but entertaining was a poor choice of words and they have the setup considerably wrong. Despite that mismatch, it is captivating, though uneven in its flow. It is also more, I think, a political allegory than it is a ghost story, but I’m making a huge guess. Writer/director Mani Haghighi (Men at Work) has a strong viewpoint as a film maker. He certainly is willing to tackle challenging narrative. Where I think this falters a little is in translation. There are some cultural assumptions that left me in the dust. Either that or there really were bigger gaps in his film making than I realize.

As I said, you gamble at film festivals. This one got my attention and I’m certainly not sorry I went to see it; I wouldn’t have gotten the chance to be exposed to it otherwise. And it certainly has put me on a path to research a number of historical incidents and Iranian culture to see if I’m right in my ultimate parsing of the tale (particularly the ending).  It’s good to bend your brain, particularly these days when we get such an homogenized view of the world through bigger media as they try  package items for everyone rather than have strong points of view or too specific affinities for a region.

A Dragon Arrives! Poster

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L’albero degli zoccoli)

I tucked in for this 3 hour, year-in-the-life of late 19th century Bergamo peasants in Italy thinking it was going to be a story; that wasn’t exactly what I got. It is beautifully filmed and it has moments, but doesn’t really satisfy as a story. Because, if it is a story, the only message is that the Church destroys peoples lives, and I don’t really see that as the intended message. What I believe documentarian Ermanno Olmi, wrote and directed instead is a well-researched and nicely depicted slice of life.

Clogs released in 1978 and gathered up a number of awards. Today, if this film were to be made, it would probably have ended up as a mini- or event-series. There are through-lines, but no investment in a character by the audience is rewarded. People go about their lives, and life goes about its pounding of the peasants.

As an artistic achievement, it is quite the accomplishment. Criterion has also done a beautiful job on the restoration of the print and sound. If I had approached it as a documentary, my response may well have been different. If you are fascinated by, or curious about history, particularly the late 1880s in Italy, it is a must see. It is also disturbingly resonant with today’s world in both politics and economy. But as a movie, as a piece of fictional entertainment, it failed for me.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Beyond the Edge

I will say this for Beyond the Edge, in a large field of movies about this subject, this one remained interesting up till near the end. At that point, it all goes just a bit weird and confusing as it tries to represent the concepts in question. I really think this is a tale that would have fared better as a short story rather than as a movie. Trying to depict quantum/existential concepts in film is like trying to clearly depict a 9 dimensional object on the 2 dimensional plane of a piece of paper. Only Mr. Nobody really succeeded for me in recent memory, but I still give this one props for trying.

First time director and co-writer Zellen probably should have tackled something a bit less complex for his first outing. The result wasn’t unwatchable, just not particularly satisfying. I will say that the effects, design, and some of the moments were impressive for a low-budget indie.

To be fair, when one of your main actors is a massive B-Movie face, Casper Van Dien, and you even have Adrienne Barbeau showing up, you know it is also a little tongue-in-cheek by design. Van Dien knows this and really has some fun with his role. (And, yes, I’m aware that Van Dien also has some solid credits.) So does Sean Maher (Firefly) playing opposite him. Maher has the harder job of the two and manages fairly well. However, since so much is not clarified, it isn’t easy to judge all of his efforts.

Overall, there are some interesting aspects and a good tackle at a challenging subject. For a rainy Saturday, or if you’re totally at loose ends for a choice, go for it. Otherwise, well, I wouldn’t say I want my two hours back, but I probably could have made a stronger selection. I will say that I’d watch for Zellen in the future to see what he has learned and what he comes up with next. It took guts to do this film and do it as well as he did.

Beyond the Edge

Vanya on 42nd Street

If you’re even the least bit interested in this film, it helps if you love live performance, Anton Chekov plays, and/or Louis Malle. This final film of Malle’s captures André Gregory’s (My Dinner with André) run at directing Uncle Vanya with the definitive idea of it being about the human condition. Not about plot, or characters, but solely about the “meaning of life” for lack of a better phrase; basically a discourse with character.

Certainly, I’d agree that Chekov reflects on life. However, where I think this Vanya misses is that Chekov is also funny. Dark funny, but funny. The performance is based on David Mamet’s (Redbelt) adaptation of Chekov’s play. Gregory further adapted it for this screen version. The resulting script is beautifully written and full of wonderful moments and monologues. But even the script seems to have missed some of the poking of fun at the characters and the audience. How much of that is Mamet and how much Gregory’s surgery, I can’t say as I don’t have the source material to compare.

The challenge of filming a play is that the heightened aspect of the script almost always feels forced. In addition, this film captures only one version of the play. It had been work-shopped for 5 years and performed privately only 12 times prior to capturing it on film. Each of these performances was done with the audience very much as the onlookers are in the film itself. And each performance was reportedly markedly different, by design.

Louis Malle chose to tackle this tale and capture it for posterity after seeing several of the very limited live performances that Gregory’s group put together. His direction is practically invisible, allowing us to live in the play/rehearsal the way it was conceived to be performed live, inches from the actors. By the end of the production, it feels real, nearly natural.

The cast are all equally powerful, starting with Wallace Shawn (A Master Builder) in the title role. Along with him, Julianne Moore (Freeheld), Brooke Smith (Bates Motel), and Larry Pine (House of Cards) really drive the bulk of the story.

This isn’t really a play, nor is it a film. It is a hybrid of sorts. The “making of” documentary on the disc can explain that better than I in this short space. It certainly provided some confirmations for me about the interpretations as well. You don’t get to see performances like this often, which makes this a great experience. Whether the play and message will resonate I imagine will depend on many things for each individual watching.

Vanya on 42nd Street