Thursday, October 24, 2013

Gravity - 4 stars

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts working on the Hubble space telescope.  Their mission is interrupted when debris from a Russian satellite destroys their shuttle and almost kills them.  With their oxygen running out, the astronauts have to make their way to the nearby International Space Station with only Clooney's thruster pack (almost out of fuel) to get them there.

That's all I'm going to say about the plot.  The less you know, the better.  But this movie looks incredible.  It looks like they actually filmed it in space.  The opening 10 minutes is one continuous shot with Clooney floating around the shuttle, Bullock working on the telescope, and the camera just weaving in and out the entire time. 

The story is simple enough.  Are they going to make it to the space station?  Once they get there, will they be able to make it back to Earth?  The debris is moving through space faster than a bullet, and it will orbit the earth in about an hour and a half.  Which means they need to hurry before they get hit again.

I usually don't like 3D, but in this case it's worth the extra cost.  You should see this on the biggest screen you can and sit close so the screen takes up your entire field of vision.  This movie is a hell of a ride.

Blue Jasmine - 2 1/2 stars

I'm kind of on the fence about this movie.  It bored me a little at times, intrigued me at others, and by the end of it I just felt very indifferent about it.

Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine.  As the movie starts, Jasmine has just landed in San Francisco.  She took a plane and left her old life in New York, and her plan is to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) while she figures out what to do with her life.

In her old life, Jasmine was married to Hal (Alec Baldwin), who was a wealthy businessman.  But Hal was involved in a bunch of illegal activity and he screwed a lot of people out of a lot of money.  Ginger and her husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) were among the victims that Hal screwed over.  Ginger doesn't blame Jasmine, but Augie still resents her.  He doesn't believe that she was as oblivious to Hal's illegal activities as she claims to be.

Jasmine is an interesting character.  After the fraud charges, Jasmine and Hal lost everything.  Jasmine needs to stay with Ginger for a while since she has no money, yet she didn't think twice about flying first class.  She thinks she is going to start a nice career where she doesn't have to get her hands dirty - something like an interior designer - and she can't imagine doing any real work.  When she is told about a dentist who's looking for an assistant, she doesn't even consider it at first because that kind of work would be beneath her.

Rather then tell the story chronologically, almost half the movie is made up of flashbacks.  At times it's hard to tell whether we're seeing a flashback or whether we're back in the present.  Jasmine starts a relationship with a wealthy widower named Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard).  Ginger has divorced Augie and she has a new boyfriend named Chili (Bobby Cannavale).  Ginger also meets a man at a party (Louis C.K.) and has an affair with him. 

All of this doesn't amount to much.  It's basically a story about a rich trophy wife who loses it all and has to go back to her family who she never had time for when she was rich.  But she doesn't really learn anything or get her comeuppance.  Well, maybe she does but she doesn't really change.  It's hard to relate to any of the characters, except maybe Augie.  Clay gives a very good performance here, and I did feel for this guy who worked hard, had a chance to own his own business but he trusted his sister in law and he lost his shot.  He has a good scene near the end where he gets to tell off Jasmine.

I might have liked the movie a little more if there was more of an emotional payoff with any of the characters.  But the movie just felt kind of hollow for me. 

The Act of Killing - 4 stars

We've all seen documentaries about mass murder and genocide.  I can think of any number of movies about the Holocaust, or Rwanda, or the Rape of Nanking.  But usually these movies involve other people talking about the atrocities that were committed.  Usually you don't hear the murderers themselves talk about the things they did, why they did them,and how they felt.  That's what makes this movie unique. 

In 1965, there was an anti-communist purge in Indonesia.  Over 500,000 people were killed, either because they were suspected of being communist, or for simply being Chinese.  Director Joshua Oppenheimer interviews many of the people who carried out the murders, focusing mostly on Anwar Congo. 

In order to get them to open up about the things they did, he invites them to re-create the killings as movies.  They can use whatever genre they prefer.  One sequence is filmed as a gangster movie from the 30s, another looks like a Bollywood musical.  But the murderers themselves are the directors in these scenes.  And this produces something really profound. 

At first, Anwar and his friends brag about the killings.  Anwar is happy to show the place where the executions took place, and he demonstrates how he would strangle people with piano wire.  Later when he is playing the part of a victim himself, he is profoundly disturbed.  It seems like this is the first time he has actually thought about what it was like for his victims.  He asks the director if the horror the he is feeling is simliar to what his victims experienced.  And Oppenheimer says no, what they felt was much worse.  You're only making a movie.  The actual people knew they were going to die.

This is a very powerful movie that stays with you.  It raises some interesting questions about the nature of evil, and how people can live with themselves after committing horrible acts.  One of the killers says that he feels no guilt or shame because he was never prosecuted.  The US supported their anti-communist purge, he says, and no one has ever tried to arrest him or bring him to trial.  Another killer, who is still a military youth leader in Indonesia, casually reminisces about burning villages and raping young girls.  He tells these stories with the same inflection as you would recount your last vacation.  It's really chilling.

When asked whether any of the victims' children have ever wanted to take revenge, Congo and his friends explain that that would never happen because they (the children) would be too afraid to speak up.  They also imply that if they ever tried, those people would be killed also.  The people who run the country are like gangsters.  In one scene, a government agent is walking through a market demanding money from various merchants.  When Congo goes on a talk show to talk about the movie they are making, it is portrayed as a celebration of their anti-communist struggles. 

This movie may help bring attention to what happened in Indonesia.  There have been reports that some of the movie's subjects claim they were tricked and lied to by the filmmakers.  But supposedly Anwar Congo said that the movie is exactly what he expected it to be.  It will be interesting to see if anything happens as a result of this movie.  It would be nice to see the perpetrators finally brought to justice. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Carrie - 2 1/2 stars

I'm sure I've said it before, but there is no reason to remake a bad movie.  If you're going to remake a movie, remake a bad movie if you think you can make it better.  But remaking a good movie just makes people like me point out how much better the original was.

Anyway, Chloe Grace Moretz plays Carrie, a young girl who was raised by a single mother played by Julianne Moore.  Carrie's mom is a religious fanatic who thinks all men are evil, and all women are guilty of sin.  She preaches fire and brimstone and routinely locks Carrie in a closet to pray for forgiveness.

The movie starts with Carrie in the shower after gym class, where she gets her first period.  Since her mother never told her anything about matuation, and she has never had a friend, she freaks out and thinks she's bleeding to death.  The girls in the locker room start teasing her relentlessly, even throwing tampons at her, until the gym teacher comes to her rescue. 

Sue Snell, one of the girls who teased Carrie, feels so bad that she wants to make it up to Carrie.  She talks her boyfriend into taking Carrie to the prom.  Another one of the girls, Chris Hargensen, does not feel bad about it at all.  She has always hated Carrie for being different, and when she is punished and not allowed to go to the prom, she and her boyfriend decide to play a prank on Carrie that will have disastrous effects.

Carrie is also in the process of discovering that she has telekinetic abilities.  They start manifesting when she is really upset, and as the movie progresses, she starts to control them.

Chloe Grace Moretz does a good job as Carrie, but it's a little harder to buy her as an awkward and unattractive teenage girl than when Sissy Spacek played the role in 1976.  Julianne Moore is also good, but not nearly as terrifying as Piper Laurie.  My favorite casting choice was Judy Greer as Miss Desjardin, the gym teacher.  She is the only person to take an interest in Carrie and stick up for her (at least until Sue comes around), and she has some really nice moments.

But as to the rest of the cast, the other classmates all look like they come from a WB teen soap opera.  It's only been one day since I saw the movie, and I can't remember anything specific about any of the characters.  The original had interesting actors like John Travolta, William Katt, Amy Irving, and Nancy Allen.  They each brought something interesting to their roles.  But in this new movie, nothing about these characters stands out except for the way they moved the plot forward.

Overall the movie was enjoyable enough.  It wasn't a bad remake, but an unnecessary one.

Wadjda - 3 stars

Wadjda is a charming movie from Saudi Arabia.  It's about a little girl named Wadjda who wants a bike more than anything.  The problem is in Saudi Arabia, girls don't ride bikes.  But she is determined to save up and buy a bike no matter what her mom or her teachers tell her.

This is the first full-length film made in Saudi Arabia by a female director.  Haifaa al-Mansour wrote and directed the movie, and since women can't be seen working with men, she had to direct many scenes by walkie talkie while sitting in a van. 

Wadjda is played by first time actor Waad Mohammed, and she is just adorable.  She's a very headstrong girl who rarely lets her situation get her down.  She's also very resourceful, and a bit of a scam artist.  When an older girl at her school offers her 10 riyals to deliver a message to her brother, Wadjda demands 20.  When she delivers the message, she says "Your sister told me you'd pay me 20 riyals to give you this message."

We learn a bit about life in Saudi Arabia by observing what she has to deal with.  When she goes to school without her head covered, she is scolded by her teacher.  When the girls are playing in the playground and they notice men are standing on the roof a building across the way, they have to go inside so they won't be seen by the men.  When one isn't reading the Koran, it's best to close the book so the devil won't spit on it.  Also, there are certain times of the month when a woman shouldn't touch the Koran with her bare hands. 

There are things happening around Wadjda which she doesn't understand.  When she and her friend are walking home from school, they see a group of somber looking men walking into a house.  Her friend explains that the man's nephew blew himself up, and he will go to heaven and get 70 brides.  At one point, one of her classmates brings pictures from her wedding.  She explains that she was just married to a man who is 20 years old - and the girl can't be older than 13.

I wasn't entirely certain what was going on with he father, but as near as I could tell Wadjda's parents are still married but her father doesn't live with them.  Her mother can't have any more kids, and her father wants a son, so he is looking to marry a second wife. 

The movie does a great job of showing us what life in Saudi Arabia is like for women, but it's not a depressing movie.  It's about a little girl determined to experience freedom, and nothing symbolizes freedom for a kid like a bicycle. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Romeo and Juliet - 3 stars

Hailee Steinfeld (from True Grit) plays Juliet and Douglas Booth plays Romeo in this latest movie version of Shakespeare's tragedy.  As far as I know, this is the first movie version of Romeo and Juliet since the 1968 Zeffirelli version to set the movie in the traditional setting of Renaissance Verona, unlike the Baz Luhrmann version which set the movie in modern day Los Angeles. 

The dialogue has been dumbed down a little bit, but it still sounds like Shakespeare.  I thought the actors did a good job with the dialogue.  The leads were fine, although Romeo is such a pretty boy he looks like he should be leading a boy band.  The highlight of the movie was Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence, the kindly monk who's plan to help the lovers escape goes horribly wrong. 

I enjoyed the movie, and I'm surprised it's getting such bad reviews from other critics.  I admit I'm not much of a student of Shakespeare.  I haven't read any Shakespeare since I was in high school, and I have no idea how much they actually simplified the language, or how many scenes were taken out.  I thought the movie worked just fine, and now teachers have a new version they can show their class when they are studying Romeo and Juliet.  And unlike the Zeffirelli version, they don't have to worry about fast forwarding a nude scene.

Captain Phillips - 3 stars

Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, captain of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. 

The movie opens with Rich Phillips leaving his house and being driven to the airport by his wife (Catherine Keener).  On the way, they talk about mundane things like their kids and the future.  Once he arrives at the ship, we get to see a bit of what a day in the life of a sea captain is like.  He checks out the ship, checks his email for information about weather and pirate activity, and he meets with his crew to discuss schedules. 

I enjoyed this part of the movie.  It felt authentic, and it was interesting to see what life was like on a ship like that.  It's also impressive that they filmed on an actual cargo ship, and you really get a sense of how big these things are, and how much cargo they carry.

Before long, the pirates arrive.  This was also exciting.  The ship has no weapons but they use fire hoses to try and keep small boats from boarding them.  Captain Phillips also tries a couple things to trick the pirates into leaving them alone, and it seems to work at first. 

Soon enough the pirates board the ship.  I won't reveal what happens, but sooner than I expected the pirates are leaving the ship on a lifeboat with Captain Phillips as their prisoner.  What follows is an hour or so of screen time devoted to the 5 of them in the lifeboat, while the Navy tries to negotiate with them.

I hate to admit it but the movie got kind of boring for a while.  I like that they stuck with the facts and didn't try to invent action sequences that didn't happen, but at the same time I got a little tired of one scene after another of Phillips trying to talk the pirates into letting him go, or the Navy negotiator saying the same stuff over and over.  I think this section of the movie could have been shortened.  The movie is about 2 hours 15 minutes, and there isn't enough story to sustain it for that long a running time.  I would have liked it better if it was 20 - 30 minutes shorter.

I still enjoyed the movie overall.  It was intense in many places, and even though you know how the story ends, you don't know how it gets there.  At least I didn't.  I knew Phillips would be rescued but I didn't pay enough attention to the news story in 2009 to know how the situation was resolved. 

The best scene in the movie is after he has been rescued and brought to the medical bay on the ship.  He's in shock and the Navy's medical personnel are trying to treat him.  When he actually breaks down a bit, it's surprising how emotionally affecting it is.  I found out after that the people in the scene with him were not actors.  They were the actual people working on the Navy ship the film crew was filming on.  It was a last minute decision to have them in the movie, and the director just told them to do what they would normally do for someone in his state.  I thought that was pretty interesting, and the movie definitely ends on a powerful note.