Review: Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Director: Shekhar Kapur

Writers: William Nicholson and Michael Hirst

When even the DVD sleeve from Netflix makes a comment about a movie’s loose take on history, I go in with low expectations where history is concerned (there’s probably a whole separate post coming on historical accuracy and movies).  But I loved the first Elizabeth film and Clive Owen is always a nice selling point.  So I thought, what the heck, at least this will be fun.

A lot of the things I loved about the first film still held true here: Cate Blanchett is exquisite as Elizabeth and I also love Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis “My what a big rack I have” Walsingham.  On the other hand, it lacked a little of the energy of the first film.

The first shot of the monks had this kind of hand held feel.  It was very disconcerting and I’m still undecided on whether I think that worked or not.

On the other hand, the first council scene with Elizabeth was surprisingly intimate for such a large room.  I really like the inclusion of the celestial pageant before the queen.  It’s something that was super popular at the time, but not necessarily something you see often in film.  On that note: something else very distinctive of the Elizabethan era was emblems, and there were a lot of shot compositions throughout the film that had the look of emblems.  Nice touch.  Speaking of nice touches, I thought it was very sweet how protective Elizabeth was of the Archduke. As a nerd I enjoyed the inclusion of John Dee.  I love what a BAMF Liz was facing down her would-be assassin.  They ripped off the Beacons of Gondor scene, but I’ll allow it because it’s awesome.  The whole armada fight scene is amazingly well done.  A beautiful climax for the plot and for a Elizabeth and all done with no dialog.  Way to use your visual medium.

I felt like the scene of Philip talking with his ambassador where they are shown as shadows on a sail was a little over the top.  The portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots as a little pathetic to be honest.  And again, the symbolism of her looking up at the throne right before having her head cut off was a little heavy handed.  Princess Isabella’s role was a little strange, but I suppose it went with the children theme.  But it didn’t quite work for me.

And, I realize this is purely personal preference, but I would have liked to see Sir Walter Raleigh as a little more of a player.  If you’re going to let go of historical accuracy in the first place  you should at least have fun with it.  He was sexy, but I just didn’t find him quite seductive enough for everything that happened with him to be believable.

Rating: Four out of five jars of peanut butter with a little scoop taken out of the last jar

Movie Review: Being John Malkovich

We’re skipping my usual review format, because I’m finding it impossible to sort out my reactions to this film into categories.
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Charlie Kaufman
I have mixed feelings about the opening sequence; I get it was setting the theme for the whole puppetry idea, but something about it didn’t quite work.
I had a very odd moment when Craig first falls out of Malkovich’s head; he stands up and sees the World Trade Center towers. I realize this had very little meaning at the time, but for me… it was a long time since I’d seen that skyline.
It’s convenient how Craig’s first trip into Malkovich’s head involves a discussion about who John Malkovich is. But I’ll concede that one to exposition.
I remember at the time everyone being gaga over Cameron Diaz’s “transformation” in the film, but I didn’t really see it. Please note, Hollywood: a pretty girl in a bad wig is still a pretty girl. On the other hand, I didn’t even recognize John Cusack for most of the film.
Craig’s conversation with Maxine about his first trip to Malkovich’s head really captures the absurdity of the whole concept.
Looking back now, it’s really funny that the person Malkovich goes to see for help is Charlie Sheen.
Okay, so over all, this movie just made me feel like I needed to take a shower. The Netflix sleeve said something about raising questions about the nature of identity and consciousness. What about the nature of rape? Because I realize there’s probably no case law about it, but I’m fairly certain stealing someone’s body for the expressed purposes of having sex in it would fall under most definitions of rape. And that took me right out of the movie. Yes, I realize it’s all metaphorical and blah, blah, blah. I’m just not comfortable with rape being used as a plot device in this way and never acknowledged as such. It just really disturbed me. And not in the ways I think it was supposed to.
Rating: One and three quarters jars of peanut butter.

Movie Review: American Beauty

Director: Sam Mendes

Writer: Alan Ball

I went into this one with mixed expectations.  The one detailed review I had heard was that it was terrible.  But said review was also from someone who watched Survivor religiously, so I didn’t think I could exactly trust her taste.  So I tried to be open minded.

Things I really liked: The contrast between the hand held shots of Jane at the very beginning and the pretty overhead shot of the town right after the opening titles was striking.  A little obvious, but it still worked.  It’s interesting that Lester censors his own fantasies.  But I kind of like it.  Again, it’s a little overly obvious, but I did think it was nice how Ricky’s voyeurism mimics our own as viewers.  The lighting and the camera work in the scene where Carolyn and Jane talk in her bedroom work to create a really intimate feeling.  I really love Allison Janney and so I kind of want to complain that there wasn’t more of her, but then I feel like I should point out how awesome she is.  Because as much talent as it takes to steal a scene (like she’s totally capable of doing) it may very well take more to just allow yourself to be a minor part in a film like this.  Oh yeah, and Kevin Spacey is awesome.

Things I didn’t really like:  In one scene we learn Carolyn is wearing a crimson slip under a cream colored dress—I don’t for one minute believe she doesn’t color coordinate her undergarments better than that.  I’m guessing they did it so we’d really notice the contrast, but it could have been accomplished more realistically.  I have trouble buying Jane as a cheerleader/dance team member.  It helped a little that she looked awkward and uncomfortable up there, but in a way that made it worse.  The only way I could believe it would be if it was a case of she really loved to dance, but it’s clear that’s not why she’s there.  Jane complaining about her dad to Ricky after what she sees of his father makes her seem extremely self-centered.

All the people who refer to this movie as a cinematic masterpiece is not allowed to make fun of soap operas ever again.  This movie used so many soap opera clichés it’s not even funny.  At least soaps own their cheese.  Starting from the misdirect at the beginning with Jane asking Ricky to kill her father to the OMG, there are so many people who have a reason to kill him!  Who will actually do it?  And then the whole sequence through which Ricky’s dad thinks he’s having a thing with Lester… it was right out of Austin Powers.  Except, again, Austin Power owns that shit.  This movie tried to spin it as some sort of deep look at the way coincidences can have major consequences… I rolled my eyes a bit.  I hope I was not supposed to be surprised to find out Angela was a virgin.

Other observations: The scene in which Lester fantasizes about Angela while watching the dance performance kind of tainted all my memories of my own dance performances.  But at least that gave the film extra relevance.

Overall:  I liked it.  I’m glad I watched it.  Yeah… I think some of the love showered on it by the critics when it came out was hyperbolic.  But it was still good.  I’ll go ahead and give it four out of five jars of peanut butter, but I’m going to eat a big spoonful out of one of the jars first.

Movie Review: The Official Story (La historia oficial)

The Official Story (La historia oficial) (1985)

Director: Luis Puenzo

Writers: Aida Bortnik and Luis Puenzo

As I’m trying to clear out my Netflix queue before I cancel service this week, I’m zipping through the large quantity of foreign films I had added.  With time running out, I no longer slog through a movie that’s not worth it.  If it’s a dud, I kill it when I’ve had enough, ditch it from the queue and move on.

The Official Story?  Very much NOT a dud.

The film–made in 1985–revolves around the aftermath of the Dirty War.  The fairly affluent high school history teacher Alicia begins to suspect that her (adorable) adopted daughter Gaby may have been stolen from one of the thousands of “desaparacidos“–political dissidents who were “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983 by a repressive military junta in Argentina (estimates vary from 9000 to 30,000).  Her suspicions begin with the dissatisfied grumblings of the students she’s teaching, unhappy with the sanitized history in the text books, and only grows when her class reunion brings a long-absent friend, Ana back into her life.  In a wine-soaked evening of girl-talk and catching up, Ana reveals that her disappearance years ago was not at all voluntary.  As Ana recounts the stories of kidnapping, torture and prisoners whose infant children were taken, Alicia begins to wonder exactly what the circumstances were under which her suspiciously well-connected husband obtained their now 5 year old daughter.  She meets Sara, a woman whose daughter was among the disappeared, and who wonders about the whereabouts of Sara’s child.  As Alicia presses to learn more, her husband Roberto’s connections are collapsing and the entire situation blows up in a violent confrontation prompted by Gaby’s absence and Alicia’s accusing question “how does it feel not knowing where your child is?”

It helped that I was familiar with some of the history of the Dirty War, but it’s not necessary.  Alicia–like many Argentinians at the time–didn’t really know the depth of what had happened during those years.  If you walk in ignorant of the history, it’s okay, because the whole movie allows you to learn right along with Alicia.

And even if you want to set aside the value of the subject matter, it’s just a well put together movie.  Norma Aleandro (who, incidentally, I learned was exiled from Argentina during the military junta period for her left wing views, and only returned in 1982 when the junta fell), gives an absolutely fantastic performance as Alicia.  You don’t need any Spanish vocabulary at all to get the weight of what this woman is going through.  And some of the well-played parallels (Ana’s story, followed by what happens on Gaby’s birthday;  the story with which Alicia opens the movie, coupled with the ending with Gaby in the rocker….).

Even the things that initially had me giggling–the painfully 1980s look (honestly, I kept thinking I was going to see Bruce Willis and Cybil Sheppard cruising in the BMW blasting “Beat It” with MacGyver clinging to the roof)–turned to something more sobering.  The kid in question, Gaby, is my age.  The desaparecidos (including ones like Sara’s daughter) are my parents’ age.  It’s not that I didn’t know this logically from reading articles and that one Latin American history class I took, but the nostalgia I felt at seeing the fashion and decor added a whole new level of concreteness to the situation.  It also brings home that this movie was made so incredibly close to what happened.  The junta fell in 1982.  This film came out in 1985.  You can’t tell me that wasn’t a raw wound at the time.

All in all, I give this five full jars of peanut butter.  Highly recommend this one, and I will definitely watch it again (and special note to Kristy and Mary–you should watch this one if you haven’t already).

Movie Review: Being Julia

Being Julia (2004)

Director: István Szabó

Writers: W. Somerset Maugham (novel) Ronald Harwood (screenplay)

 

Things I liked:  Michael Gambon as a ghost/Julia’s conscience.  I also really enjoyed Julia’s assistant (Juliet Stevenson).  The two of them made the movie for me.  At some point when I wasn’t paying attention I started sympathizing with Julia more than I had before; when Avice auditioned I wanted her to be dreadful because I didn’t want her to be a worthy rival any more than Julia did.  The scene where Roger tells his mother how artificial he thinks she is was one of the most moving scenes of the film.  My favorite part of the scene where Julia upstages Avice was the little smile Roger gave when he realized exactly what his mother was doing.  This real enough for you, kid?

 

Things I didn’t like: It’s always problematic when you have stage acting scenes in a film because it’s hard to distinguish the “on stage” acting with the acting that the actors are doing in the movie.  Also, of course, acting styles change.  So having acknowledged that, I’m going to say that based on the scenes of Julia acting, it’s hard to believe that she’s the successful actress she is.  Not that Avice seemed much better.  Shaun Evans’s American accent is very inconsistent.  Not Cary Elwes bad, but close.

 

Over all thoughts:  I was really kinda meh about the whole thing.  It wasn’t a bad movie, I just didn’t care for it that much.  I don’t feel like watching it was a waste of my time, but I don’t feel the inclination to watch it again.

 

Rating: Two and a half jars of peanut butter

Movie Review: Itty Bitty Titty Committee

So Netflix recommended this one to me (presumably because I watched D.E.B.S and But I’m a Cheerleader) and I went ahead and added it to my cue.  Mostly because of the name.  Not gonna lie.  As someone who was an officer in the Itty Bitty Titty Committee until just a few years ago, I was intrigued.  Yeah… seems that recommendation was off base, but we’ll get to that.

Itty Bitty Titty Committee

Director:  Jamie Babbit

Writers:  Jamie Babbit, Andrea Sperling, Tina Mabry, Abigail Shafran

There really wasn’t a whole lot I liked about this movie, so we’re just going the running commentary route.

I didn’t care for the opening credits—they didn’t seem to connect to the rest of the film.  Yes, they used some similar camera work in montages later in the movie, but I didn’t like those either.  It didn’t really harmonize with the film or contrast in any interesting manner.

I really dislike the character of Sadie; to some extent I don’t think we’re supposed to like her.  But we should at least find her appealing in some way so that we get why Anna likes her—I don’t.  Yeah, she’s hot, but not really hot enough to make up for her being an annoying manipulative bitch.

Speaking of Anna, she annoyed the crap out of me.  The whole thing with her sister’s wedding… her family is not unreasonable.  It’s not unreasonable for her sister to want her maid-of-honor at the bridal shower.  Shuli’s annoyance with her was justified.  And I’m not sure if the film wanted me to feel that way or not.

I practically cheered out loud when Anna said she was an idiot.  And yet she still goes chasing after Sadie.  After fucking Aggie and saying it meant nothing right in front of him when he obviously felt differently.  It was hard to feel bad for her when she kept making stupid decisions over and over again.  She did look beautiful with pink in her hair.

The bedroom scene with Sadie and Courtney was surprisingly moving.  Somehow the movie which had not given us any glimpse of Courtney as a rounded character up to that moment made me feel a lot of sympathy for her.  And made me hate Sadie even more, which was probably a bad idea.

The moment where Anna walked out on her job should have been kind of triumphant when instead all I could think was, “Honey, this is really not the thing you need to fix most in your life.” (But hey, Melanie Lynskey cameo!)(Also Jimmi Simpson (of D.E.B.S. and Psych fame) cameo!)

I feel obligated to mention the cameo by Cady Huffman, the least offensive of the three Dr. Paige Millers (One Life to Live).

Damn it, I was so mad that after suddenly growing a backbone Anna took Sadie back at the end.  I know this was supposed to be a happy thing, but I wasn’t feeling it.

This movie is an interesting parallel to Real Women Have Curves.  Both are about recent high school grads named Anna.  Who have successful sisters.  Who are Latina and live in California.  The title of one tells us it’s okay to have curves and the title of the other tells us it’s okay to not have curves (though the protagonist does).  With this in mind it’s interesting to see what the film does differently than RWHC (which I like, but don’t love).  This one never deals explicitly with Anna’s ethnicity—which is fine.  Actually, in some ways it’s kind of nice to have a movie where a character can just be Latina without making a thing of it.  On the other hand, in a film with so many political overtones it might have been nice to acknowledge it.

Rating: One and a half jars of peanut butter

Movie Review: Babel

Babel (2006)

Directed by:  Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by:  Guellermo Arriaga and Alejandro González Iñárritu (idea)

Things I liked:

I love the bilingual communication between Amelia and the children.  Mostly because it’s something you see quite often with kids whose Nanny speak a different language.

Nice transition directly from the two boys in Morocco running into the children playing in the US.

The wordless scene on the bus right before the shooting drags on long enough to make you really uncomfortable which helps put you where Richard and Susan are.  Nicely done.

I love the establishing shots of Mexico, though with the loud musical overlay it borders on stereotypes.  But holy crap can you understand how those two white bread children were so overwhelmed by it.  Especially once the chicken killing started.

The moment when Chieko gets dissed by the guys for being deaf is so mortifying it instantly sort of makes up for her being such a bitchy teenager.  Then she goes around flashing her cooch in restaurants and you realize she really is crazy but there might be good reason for it.

I thought the moments where things went silent so we experienced the world as Chieko were very nice.  You don’t (or at least I don’t) think about things like what a nightclub is like when you can’t hear anything.

There was something really touching about Richard helping Susan pee. It was the kind of moment that makes you think, “This is what love/marriage is really about.  Having that someone you care about so much that you’re willing to let them help you with something that personal.”

I like that the filmmaker doesn’t treat us like we’re stupid and need to have everything explained to us.  They don’t have someone say, “Oh, Chieko is a disturbed girl because she’s a teenage girl with a disability who doesn’t know how to deal with her mother’s suicide.”  We can figure it out on our own, but a lot of films would have had someone say that to us in case we didn’t.

Things I disliked:

In the scene where Richard and Susan rushed into Tezarine the camera work kept me focused on villagers and I needed a little more focus on Richard and Susan.

Okay, the other tourists on the bus seemed a little unrealistic.  I can absolutely believe that in such a situation there would be some people who would demand the bus leave, but I really do think that there would also be at least a couple who would be more understanding.  Perhaps it would have worked if I saw more genuine concern for their own safety on the part of the tourists, but instead, what the film seemed to be showing me was that the large British man was an asshole for no real reason and no one else cared.

It dragged.  By the whole helicopter montage I couldn’t even care that much anymore; I was just ready for it to be over.  And it’s not just the length, because two and a half hours really isn’t that long when you consider I sat through a Lord of the Rings marathon and loved it.  It was just the pacing.

I didn’t make much of an emotional connection with the characters (other than Amelia and to a certain extent the children).  Maybe I wasn’t really supposed to, but for me I really need to care about the characters to care about the movie.

Other observations:

Instantly establish Yussef as the cooler brother, not just because of his ability to shoot, but because of this more Western style clothes and his punk ass spying on his sister.  And it really kind of pisses me off that Ahmed wound up dead all because of his brother.

Starting off with an image of a preteen boy masturbating while watching goats establishes the grittiness of the film.

Overall:  I didn’t care for it.  It was well done and an interesting concept.  I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t have any inclination to see it again and wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.  It’s not bad, just not my cup of tea.

Rating:  Three out of five jars of peanut butter.

Shitty Beer, Shitty Movie — Big Warning

I toddled just over the state line this evening for an evening of Shitty Beer and Shitty Movies with a friend from work, his girlfriend and a few others.  In discussing what beer constituted “shitty” for the purposes of this evening, I was informed that I was not allowed to bring Natty Ice.  Apparently the order of the evening was “Shitty, but not THAT shitty.”

So, Pabst Blue Ribbon became the order of the evening.

I should have gone for the Natty Ice.  Pabst is too good a beer to be paired with a move as shit-tastic as the one we wound up with.

“Crank 2”

Now, I’ve never seen (nor heard) of the original Crank.  This should have been my first clue.  But if your only fear in your moving going life is that you won’t understand a sequel without having first seen the original, rest assured that you basically get all of the plot points of Crank while watching this one.

Theoretically Crank 2 is plotted thus:  dude gets his heart ripped out by a Chinese gang to be sold on the black market.  Dude is implanted with weird mechanical heart which he keeps having to charge up, either by jumper cables, fingers in light sockets or having random sex with a stripper on a horse-track, all while chasing one of the Chinese Gang members, being chased by Mexican gang members and fielding calls to Dwight Yoakum (shit.  you.  not.).  The camera work was almost as sickening as the over-abundance of violence.  And the abundance of sex (this was bordering on porn).  And logic?  Not at all present in this endeavor.  If you make it to the end of the orgy of sex and violence the grand finale involves a shoot out between: The Mexican Gang, the Chinese Gang, a gang of Gay S&M guys, and a gang of Hookers & Strippers.  The dialog blew goats.  In theory it was supposed to part comedy, but, the only part that was funny was how bad the whole thing was–it really shouldn’t take $12 million dollars to achieve “bad.”  You can do that on less, I assure you

Allow me to tell you that it was even shitter than it sounded.   At first I was mostly shocked that someone actually raised money to produce this thing.  But as the parade of fail continued past my not-at-all-drunk-enough eyes, I was more shocked.  The damned thing was packed with faces I knew!  There was fucking Q from Next Generation.  And Tuptim from Anna and the King.  And Pedro from Napolean Dynamite.  And a Spice Girl. And Lauren Holly.  And Corey Haim.  Honestly, these are (or were) all legit actors who’d had parts in successful gigs….had they ALL run out of other options to pay the bills?!?

Do yourselves a favor: avoid this like the plague unless you are hosting your own shitty beer, shitty movie night.  But make sure the beer is Natty Ice, and drink a lot of it before you start,

Review: Just Buried

Written by: Chaz Thorne

Directed by: Chaz Thorne

 

Okay, I watched this one at my friends’ house right after we watched Ahhh!  Zombies! Once again I was not taking notes while watching, so this review might be less detailed than normal.

This movie is a dark romantic comedy about a man who inherits a funeral home in a town where no one seems to be dying, falls for the cute but kinda creepy mortician, and finds some creative solutions to their business problems (read:  they start killing people).

It’s very dark (as one would suspect judging by the subject matter) and yet strangely cute also (as one would not necessarily expect).  Rose Byrne does a particularly good job of making her character attractive despite her whole tendency to kill people.  Jay Baruchel makes his character’s evolution thought out extremely clear, which I liked.

My only minor complaint was that the last scene seemed jarring in a way that didn’t help the film over all for me.  I wouldn’t change the ending narratively, just something about the way that scene unfolds.

Rating:  four out of five jars of peanut butter

Movie Review: Wasting Away (aka Aaah! Zombies!)

I know, I know, I normally do reviews on Wednesday.  Well I watched this today, so lucky you get to read this today.

Wasting Away (Netflix had it listed as Aaah!  Zombies)

Written by:  Matthew Kohnen, Sean Kohnen

Directed by:  Matthew Kohnen

 

Let me start by saying that I didn’t have anything to write on while watching, so this will be a little different, a little more general.

First of all, something about the Netflix description gave me the impression that this is a mockumentary.  It’s not.  What it is is a zombie movie in which the good guys are the zombies.  Generally speaking it succeeds in making them sympathetic.  Mostly we’re following around a group of hapless 20 somethings and their army buddy the encounter.

The movie has plenty of flaws.  I think the directing is a little weak–I know that Michael Grant Terry is a good actor because I’ve seen him on  Bones. But either he’s improved a lot since then or he was badly directed.  The characters are caricatures and lack depth, but I think that’s intentional, so hard to criticize too much.  There are several plot holes, but who cares.  It’s simply not the kind of movie where you really expect the plot to make sense.

But it’s cute.  It’s fun.  It’s a long way from great, but it’s an enjoyable watch.  I would say not worth watching all alone, but in a gathering with friends and alcohol you could do a lot worse.

Fun, but not great.  I give it two and  a==a ah