Blue Jasmine (2013)

Blue Jasmine (2013) movie poster

director Woody Allen
viewed: 04/20/2014

As I’ve noted, overall, Woody Allen doesn’t really do it for me.  But when he films a movie in my town, San Francisco, I’m intrigued enough to queue it up.  I liked the last film of his I saw, Midnight in Paris (2011), had no interest in To Rome with Love (2012).

Allen’s been on a bit of a world tour over the past few years after a career so closely linked with New York City.  Spain, France, Italy, and now San Francisco.  Now I don’t know Barcelona, Paris, or Rome, so I can’t take the sort of critical local’s eye on those films, but in SF, it would be hard not to.

The film is more famous for its A Streetcar Named Desire-like story and its Oscar nominated (and won in the Best Actress case) for Cate Blanchett and Sally Hawkins.  Also, it was known for its controversy around Allen’s alleged child molestation accusations from his ex-wife Mia Farrow and her daughter.  The controversy had nothing to really do with the film, more to do with Allen and who he is and whether his films should be considered for awards because of alleged crimes.  To many’s surprise, Blanchett landed the Best Actress award.  She may well have deserved it.

Blanchett and Hawkins are both good in the film.  Allen has always had a knack for creating good roles for actors and actresses.  “Oscar”had  long liked his movies and the performances they contain.

The movie is good.  It actually felt less like a Woody Allen movie to me than many others of his that I’ve seen.  He’s not in the film and the comedy is a bit more muted overall.  So, it doesn’t even “sound” as much like a Woody Allen movie as others can and do.

As for the San Francisco of the film, it’s nice that it’s not all the obvious locations of the city that show up.  But the real issue is the San Franciscans of the film.  Sally Hawkins’ character hangs with a blue collar crowd, her ex-husband played by Andrew “Dice” Clay and current boyfriend, “Chili” played by Bobby Cannavale are sort of New York stereotypes transposed onto California.  The actors are fine but their characters seem utterly out of place.  And that I found distracting and annoying.

So, it’s a mixed bag, my reaction.  I’ve always liked Blanchett.  She has a lovely, fascinating face and she is a good actress.  So there is always that.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) movie poster

director Jacques Demy
viewed: 04/20/2014

The Young Girls of Rochefort is probably a wonderful companion piece to director Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).  I say “probably” only because it’s now been five years since I saw the earlier film, as much as I liked it, it would be nice to draw more comparative points out than I can.

Both films are musicals, uniquely French, beautifully shot and constructed, both starring Catherine Deneuve.  The Young Girls of Rochefort is perhaps a bit more like a classic musical than the other in that there are songs and dance numbers connected by regular scenes of dialogue that are non-musical.  The Umbrellas of Cherbourg featured a fully “sung” script, but with no specific “songs” per se.  They are both lovely films.

The Young Girls of Rochefort also features Gene Kelly, singing in French and adding a panache to the dance sequences that they would otherwise not have.  It’s an interesting style in which the film is shot, with lots of fluid camera movement and pacing, but filmed in the naturalistic setting of the town in the sunlight.  And while the dance numbers are choreographed, they are not the meticulous perfection that a typical American musical might be.  It made me wonder what Kelly thought of this production while on set.

It’s vibrant, colorful, fun stuff, far from taking itself seriously, and yet full of verve and energy.  I also wondered about how the film appeared in 1960′s France.  Were these songs and scenes considered a truly contemporary thing or some odd throwback of sorts.  Does this film capture a zeitgeist or create its own?

It’s an interesting question to me because watching it now, it’s an artifact from another time and place, a fantasy of charm and dream and whimsy.  It doesn’t necessarily call for context.  It’s fine as it is.  But in the mid to late 1960′s the film is a sort of apolitical splash of joie de vivre.  How did it play in its day?

I think I preferred it to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, though I liked them both.  They seem the apt pairing.  Charming, lovely stuff.

Rio 2 (2014)

Rio 2 (2014) movie poster

director Carlos Saldanha
viewed: 04/19/2014 at Maya Bakersfield 16, Bakersfield, CA

I was feeling bad for Clara because when I dragged her to go see the new Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), the movie that she really wanted to see was Rio 2.

I didn’t see Rio (2011), more because I think the kids wound up seeing it without me and I wasn’t terribly bothered to see the movie featuring Jesse Eisenberg voicing a sort of neurotic blue macaw.  Rio was a hit, though, and spawned a sequel (which is also looking a bit like a hit).  So, I really wasn’t too enticed to see Rio 2.  It didn’t look very amusing in the trailers to either Felix or me.  But to Clara, it looked funny.  So, I decided to indulge her tastes.

It comes from Blue Sky Studios, the company behind the Ice Age movies, and so the animation and design is quite slick.  Digital animation, as I’ve noted before, has set a pretty high bar for production design, and Rio 2 features some gorgeous jungles and lush details of feathers and features throughout.  The film relies pretty heavily on name actors voicing characters, which I tend to think of as lazy.  Mostly the name actors speak in their own voices, so it’s not so much a character as much as it is the character is developed along the voice of the actor.

You’ve got your Anne Hathaway, George Lopez, Andy Garcia, and Bruno Mars.  A little better are, Jamie Foxx, Jermaine Clement, and Kristin Chenoweth, probably the film’s funniest characters.

Frankly, even a little George Lopez is almost enough to put me off any movie.

It’s tolerable.  The film, I mean.  And Clara enjoyed it, which was the point.  Felix wasn’t too interested before or after.  I make it a point not to criticize something like this that she likes that I don’t care for, if it’s in the range of toleration.  Everyone is entitled to their own tastes, and she is still a 10 year old girl who likes animated features that her peers enjoy.  I manage the kids’ movie viewing quite a lot, so I really shouldn’t complain.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) movie poster

directors Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
viewed: 04/15/2014 at Terra Vista 6, Rancho Cucamonga, CA

The kids and I enjoyed the first Captain America movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) more than we expected to and have kept up with the Marvel movie cycle so far.  Oddly enough, the kids aren’t all that bothered about it.  They were ambivalent about Thor: The Dark World (2013) despite having liked the first Thor (2011), and overall don’t seem too excited about either the new The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) or X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this summer’s slew of Marvel superhero movies.

Me, I kind of wanted to see them.  So we did.

The new Captain America film isn’t quite as entertaining as the first one.  It’s set in the present day, taking place after The Avengers (2012) and in preparation for the upcoming The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  The story is primarily about a deep spy infestation of S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency headed by ol’ Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson).  It’s a complex scenario, with roots in the bad guys of the Nazis, and so it’s a big affair, with a villainous Robert Redford at its heart.

I’ve long held the belief (rightly or wrongly) that a good superhero movie tends to rely on a good villain.  I think that this may actually be mostly true.  For Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we have “The Winter Soldier” who is a masked, though sort of not a major character.  It turns out to be Cap’s old buddy Bucky, so not really an arch villain.  The rest are an army of good guys/bad guys agents, sort of nameless and interchangeable.  And while the film is mostly pretty entertaining, it lacks the key antagonist that my little pet theory calls for.

On the positive side, it has a lot more of the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), which is a very good thing.  She hadn’t really been given much to do in most of her appearances in the various films, but here she gets to develop her character as well as kick some ass and look very hot while doing it.  The film benefits from her presence and focus.

Overall, it’s entertaining, as I said.  Captain America is still an odd hero franchise in this day and age, though the narrative with the corrupt government agency unveiling a less black-and-white world of heroism and right and wrong develops well enough through this potential issue.  And Chris Evans is likable as the Captain.  It’s still only a “good” movie, a good as in passable, decent, okay.   Not good as in, “that was a GOOD movie!”  Satisfactory.  Okay.  Reasonable.  The kids felt the same.

The Lego Movie (2014)

The Lego Movie (2014) movie poster

directors Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
viewed: 04/05/2014 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

At first blush, or maybe first, second, and third viewings of trailers for The Lego Movie, it looked completely uninteresting.  The generic “brand” title, the “hero” protagonist a generic “Lego guy” character, the rather limited scope of animation to enliven Lego people characters, and no funny jokes, this movie looked like one to absolutely take a miss on.  Felix and Clara were of the same mind, more or less.

But then came the reviews and some word of mouth.  It’s not just not bad but really “pretty good!”  The buzz has been pretty consistent.  Consistent enough to encourage me to take the kids to see if it was indeed one of this year’s better animated features.

Thing is, I am guessing that this is a bit of a matter of how low your expectations may be.  I guess, if you were in the first wave going to see the film, expectations were probably pretty darn low.  And thus it was surprisingly good.  Maybe as good as the reviews would make one think.  But then, I guess, expectations for me at least had risen above the bottom rung.  I don’t know how high but not zero.

Ironically, the movie is neither terrible nor great.  It’s absolutely okay.  Okay being slightly above mediocre.

The story is about a Lego drone, Emmet, who lives in a Lego world of utter conformity.  He is just like everybody else.  Nobody special.  Until he runs into a huge rebellion and a vaunted “Piece of Resistance”, which embroils him in a multiverse of Lego worlds and an arch villain who wants to make everyone follow the rules to the letter and maybe freeze everyone permanently with Krazy Glue.

Lego animation is a kind of weird modern thing.  I’ve noted how my kids have watched or played Lego video games of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Indiana Jones, which incorporate Lego animated remakes of iconic scenes and sequence.   Lego people don’t have a lot of moving parts.  They are jointed at the neck, shoulder, wrist, and each leg stiffly at the hip.  The facial expressions are in real life limited to one permanent look, but when animated are still fairly simple.

In other words, not compelling design.

The film isn’t just some cheap knock-off thing.  There are some really nice animated sequences, adhering to the “if it was stop-motion animated Legos” aesthetic.  Ironic itself, isn’t it?  If it had been actually done in stop-motion, it might have been mind-blowing.  It’s still good but feature computer animation these days generally has its own high bar of aesthetic beauty to reach.  The Lego Movie is sort of limited in its aesthetics by its limited movement characters.

The upshot is that the film has its moments.  There are some funny bits, some good sequences, and it has a bit of a twist of an ending that gives it a little more than it might have staying within its own digitally-imagined world.

But it’s not a great movie.  It’s also not pure corporate marketing trash like the Disney Planes movies look like.  It’s a decent film.  You really don’t need to go out of your way to see it.  It absolutely can wait for TV.

Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939)

Vassilisa the Beautiful (1939) still

director Alexander Rou
viewed: 04/04/2014

For some time, I’ve been wanting to watch an Alexander Rou film.  Following the writings of Scumbalina on her sadly not so frequently updated blog Atomic Caravan, I read about two Rou films that I have not been able to get a chance to see, Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors (1964) and The Golden Horns (1973).  The only Rou film available from Netflix was a much earlier fantasy film, Vasiissa the Beautiful.

I know very little about Alexander Rou and little about Russian folklore and fairy tales, though that seems to be where he spent most of his career in cinema.  I don’t know where Vasilissa stands in his oeuvre, I also don’t know how long I will have to wait to see the films that Scumbalina wrote about.

But I can say this: Vasilissa the Beautiful is a gorgeous, wonderfully shot fairy tale film, featuring some marvelous effects, make-up, costumes and set design.  To be fair, some of it is less wondrous than others, but the images that Rou evokes that are his richest are brilliant and beautiful.

Apparently, from what I’ve read, the film is actually based on a different Russian fairy tale than that of Vasilissa the Beautiful.  I don’t know.  But the story is about a Russian peasant lad who, following his brothers’ lead,  shoots an arrow into the air randomly to find a wife.  While his brothers snag two rather unworthy lasses, his arrow lands near a frog in a pond, who he brings home just the same.  It turns out that this frog is Vasilissa, a beautiful woman, entrapped in frog form by an evil dragon.  When the dragon finds that she’s escaped, he sends back for her to become his wife.  The lad must go out on a quest to rescue Vasilissa and make everything happy for ever after.

I usually try to find an original movie poster to illustrate my blog posts, but for Vasilissa I settled for a screen still, which is actually quite nice.  It’s a matte painting of a forest and I think a very good example of the beauty of Rou’s sets and designs.  They are luxurious and massively evocative.  It’s not just the sets but the costuming and effects as well.

One of the film’s most impressive effects seems relatively simple in a way.  When the lad gains the sword he needs to fight the dragon, he slices the darkness and it shatters.  I could guess how this was accomplished, but the effect is so striking (see below).

Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939) shatter effect

Not all of the effects live up to this.  The big finale with the three-headed dragon is sort of disappointing by comparison.  It’s nicely designed but its heads flop about as clearly the puppet that it is, lacking the vigor or magic that it really needs.  It does look nice.

I was duly impressed by Alexander Rou’s Vasilissa the Beautiful and I eagerly await a chance to see more of his films.


Alice (1988)

Alice (1988) movie poster

director Jan Švankmajer
viewed: 04/04/2014

Jan Švankmajer’s Alice (1988) is probably one of my favorite movies.  The funny thing is that I hadn’t seen it in more than 15 years, I’m pretty sure.  It is a film that I had been wanting to watch with the kids for a long time, but it had turned out that they had already seen it with their mother, for whom the film is also a favorite.  Clara didn’t remember it, but Felix did.  It was in this vague middleground that held it out of the queue for what turns out to be far too long.

If you are not familiar with Jan Švankmajer, this is certainly the place to start.  It’s his first and best feature film, a loose yet spiritually-aligned version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  It’s actually a fascinating counterpoint to the lush and lovely Disney version of the story that we had watched recently.  Where Disney’s 1951 film is a Technicolor fantasia, Švankmajer’s is an eerie, strangely nightmarish world of pure oddity.

Švankmajer is a stop-motion animator and film-maker who uses puppets and found objects, like food, or other effluvia in his figures.  In his Alice, the White Rabbit is a taxidermied rabbit with its teeth rather prominently poised.  Bones and real, dead animals comprise much of the strange universe that Alice ventures into, starting from her real world room in which these objects exist around her.  Recurring themes of drawers being pulled open (with their knobs always coming off), revealing a litany of various objects: safety pins, scissors, wood-shavings.  It’s a dank, Old World dreamscape that Alice ventures round in.

Švankmajer also employs a rather unusual technique for his voice-over of the story.  Alice speaks the words of the text, often cutting to a close-up of her mouth and she says them.  It punctuates a rhythm throughout, sort of jarring, but relatively musical, through a film with little talking to speak of.

The contrast between this Alice and the Disney Alice in Wonderland, is that many of the same sequences occur, highlighting the films’ extreme difference in approach.  In Švankmajer’s Alice, the caterpillar is a sock with eyeballs, in a room overrun with socks, tunneling like worms through a wooden floor.  Švankmajer’s Alice is full of Freudian images, of dark surrealism and strangenesses that one could hardly conceive of on one’s own.

It’s Švankmajer’s masterpiece.  He has many, many wonderful short films, and some other good or very good features like his Faust (1994) or Little Otik (2000).  But this, the least literal, though most fantastical of Alices, is a film unlike any other.

Sanjuro (1962)

Sanjuro (1962) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 03/31/2014

Sanjuro is Akira Kurosawa’s sequel to his great 1961 movie, Yojimbo, with Toshiro Mifune more or less reprising his role as the masterless but masterful samurai, finding himself in complex political situations and turning things on their heads.  And then splitting some heads of some bad guys.

Sanjuro features a more contrived plot, with Sanjuro showing up amid a group of young would-be samurai who are about to get embroiled in a political fiasco.  They don’t size up their situation right, initially planning to attack the more noble lord, while really getting set up by the villainous one.  By now, Sanjuro can size up a town of characters and easily make out who is good and who deserves to die.  He winds up protecting the young men and leading them in their endeavors.

The film’s tone features perhaps a bit more comedy than in Yojimbo, but lacks the darker seriousness that runs through the 1961 masterpiece.  Some of it is quite good, like the captured bad guy who turns out to be more tuned in and good than some of the original gang.  Some a little less so, in the mother and daughter aristocrats who are naive but naive like a fox, winding up offering wisdom against the violence and killing.

The film does seem to take a different stance on the killings, responding to the advice of the older woman.  Sanjuro reconsiders his use of violence, sparing the aforementioned captive, and ultimately trying to bring about a resolution without the bloodshed.  It’s all for naught in the end, with actually a rather punctuated and gushing moment of bloody violence.  The ending seems to take this pacifist forced again into violence a bit more forcefully.  But since Kurosawa never brought him back himself, one can only speculate what became of him.

The character of Sanjuro was one more highly associated with Mifune, as iconic as any in Japanese cinema.  But the movie Sanjuro is the lesser follow-up to its brilliant predecessor.

American Hustle (2013)

American Hustle (2013) movie poster

director David O. Russell
viewed: 03/30/2014

David O. Russell’s follow up to 2012′s Silver Linings Playbook finds him reteamed with a number of actors who’ve received Oscar nods in movies that he’s been making of late.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams from The Fighter (2010), Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, and Jennifer Lawrence  from Silver Linings Playbook.  It’s not at all uncommon for directors to work with a consistent stable of actors, especially if they are finding success together.  But since The Fighter, Russell has been offering up Oscar bait after Oscar bait and American Hustle was quite that.

A more interesting story that perhaps those other two films, it centers around a complex “true story” of AbScam, in which an FBI agent, Cooper, ensnares two con artists, Bale and Adams, to help him try to ensnare more highly juicy criminals, including a senator from New Jersey.  It has the heft of reality beneath it, a complex, murky, not well understood, perhaps almost forgotten scandal beneath it and has all the period trappings of the 1970′s to slather on the surface.

And slather they do.

You can see how actors would be drawn to this.  The director writes juicy parts, is a perennial Academy Awards figure, and now they get to costume up big time.  It’s the film of bad hairpieces for men and some of the best cleavage for women.  Okay, the women’s hair probably looks pretty sweet too, but it’s hard to get beyond the cleavage.

I usually eschew films that wind up as Oscar bait for their stars.  I find them to be so focused on giving the actors their scenes to chew that they’re not really “cinematic”.  They are vehicles first, movies second.  I don’t think that is really true of Russell’s work.  He’s managed to strike a balance between writing big roles with big scenes and still keeping some overall vision for his movie.

I thought of this a lot while watching this movie.  And the point of contrast that I came to was Martin Scorsese.  With Scorsese, it’s always the movie first.  Actors are in his movie to make the movie (good or bad) the director’s vision, not simply to score points and win Oscars (though his actors have done well over the years, too).  Russell rides a line here, definitely in this film, between a more Scorsese-like film, edited and written with a vision bigger than the stories of its individual characters and then being the stories of his characters.

It’s written with multiple voice-over retrospect, so not from a single perspective.  And it’s pretty good.  But it’s also sort of caught up in itself.  I mean, the film opens with Christian Bale’s fat gut and a detailed sequence on how he manages his rather ornate comb-over.  In some ways this is emblematic of the film.  Bad hair rules the day (and rules the film).  It’s a competition between Bale’s comb-over, Cooper’s home perm, and Jeremy Renner’s pompadour.  You might be able to say that the hair represents the character, delusionally trying to look good, lying to themselves about how tacky and obvious they are, but then the women look hot in their period get-ups.  Their big hair is almost something to luxuriate in, not scorn.

Of the actors, Amy Adams has the most to work with and makes the most of it.  She’s got a character who runs a facade throughout, an inherent duplicity, intelligent and sympathetic but hard to pin down.

Frankly, I liked American Hustle better than Silver Linings Playbook.  I think it’s a far better film than 2012′s Oscar Best Picture Argo, another 1970′s period piece “based on true events” and getting nominations and wins like a champ.  Maybe those are not the best points of comparison out there, but those are the ones that came to mind.

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets Most Wanted (2014) movie poster

director James Bobin
viewed: 03/30/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Ah, The Muppets.

I actually missed seeing The Muppets (2011), Disney’s rebirth of the Muppet franchise.  I guess I still have a soft spot for the Muppets overall.  I remember seeing The Muppet Movie (1979) in the theater as a 10 year old and laughing and laughing and laughing.  I guess that I’ve gotten a bit more cynical over the years, so I don’t know that I enjoy them quite at that level anymore, but like I said, I have a soft spot for them, right about…here.

The kids and I had been wanting to get to a movie for a while, actually missing a couple of movies that we could have seen (this being Little League season and time being at a premium.)  But Muppets Most Wanted was playing in West Portal, “the ‘hood,” if you will and so I pretty much willed us into this one.

This film, a follow-up of sorts to the last film, involves a Russian Kermit the Frog look-alike named Constantine, who is the “world’s most evil frog”.  He’s just like Kermit except for a mole on his lip and a very slow, overly pronounced approach to English.  He breaks out of the gulag and is teamed up with Ricky Gervais (who has become the Muppets’ new manager) to entrap Kermit, take his place, and do a lot of big heists.

Gervais’ character “Dominick Badguy” (“It’s pronounced ‘ba-jee’” he tells them in one of the film’s funnier jokes) is game, as is Tina Fey as a gulag warden.  There are lots of cameos, many truly brief, blink and you miss them.  And the film is pretty fun and entertaining.

The kids seemed to enjoy it.  And I liked it.  It’s well within the tradition that Jim Henson started, very much in the vein and vibe.

Disney has been acquiring assets like nobody’s business lately, promising new Star Wars movies every year, adding to their massive collection of their own characters and movies.  It was kind of strange seeing the Disney logo before the film and a Pixar short as well.  It’s just the promise of more and more and more the like.  A cache of rights to characters and properties that will no doubt be a bounty for decades to come, reinvention after reinvention, in perpetuity and perpetuity and perpetuity.