I don’t watch much television, but between Netflix and having three theaters in town, I do see a lot of movies. I made an effort to get out and catch more indies and documentaries this summer, since that’s what I love most, but also branched out into mainstream titles based on YA novels (like How I Live Now, which I reviewed in July) that I normally would have avoided. Plus a couple of geek favorites, because fun is good. Here’s my (first of two) quick review of everything I can remember seeing:
- Chef – Might be my favorite fun movie of the summer. The characters were well-conceived and even with a few silly cameos, the whole thing felt solid, with nothing to pull you out of the story. And the soundtrack! Glorious. Will make you want to cook, dance, and love. There were other films that impacted me more, that I’ll carry with me for longer, but if you want entertaining, life affirming (in the sense that life is delicious and you need to go out and taste it), and a happy ending, this is the movie for you.
- Detropia – not the best documentary I’ve seen this summer (too long, a bit too disjointed to tell a coherent story) it’s nonetheless an important look at the failure of the American Dream on a massive scale. Detroit went from being the fastest growing city in the US to one that’s collapsed in on itself, in less than 100 years. Do you know why? The film offers an explanation, and the hope that where commerce has failed, art (and starving artists, and gentrification) might thrive.
- Divergent – (Based on a novel I haven’t read) Up until the end, I thought this was actually a much better film than I’d expected. Fun, quick, not terribly dumb. Reasonable post-apocalyptic society, realistic consequences for those that didn’t fit or couldn’t keep up, and it was solidly YA in that it focused on a main character who acted her age. There was no sex, no magic powers, nothing that threw you out of the story or the character… until the last 1//4 of the movie. Suddenly, logic goes out the window, and the last 120 seconds of the film is a complete 180 from the story so far. Unless there’s a sequel that shows that bit was all a ruse, and – wait, you know what? No. Not even then. The end was wrong for this movie. It breaks the promises the story makes to the reader at the very beginning. Watch it for a fast course in writing a YA story, with the understanding that the finale is what not to do.
- Finding Vivian Maier – Beautifully documented story of holding yourself back. (Resolved: I must stop doing that.) Up there with Jodorowski’s Dune as must-watch documentary of the year. Vivian Maier was a nanny of questionable origins with a deeply private secret – she was also a prolific and talented street photographer. A grad student discovered a box of her photos shortly after she died, and has dedicated himself to researching her, buying up her other work, showing her off to the public, and trying to get her recognized by the art institutions of the world. His journey to uncover the truth of Vivian Maier revealed a woman unknown by those closest to her, one who probably endured abuse and suffering as a child, and who never meant to hide her work for so long… but her own issues got in the way of pursuing a career as a photographer. The images Maier took are deeply moving, and so is this film.
- Godzilla (2014) – I am a sucker for all things Gojira. He’s my first kaiju, the one I grew up watching. I own the Gojira / Godzilla, King of the Monsters box set on DVD. I pine for the 1978 Mattel Shogun Godzilla I had when I was a little girl. So, even though I know that American-made Godzilla movies are embarrassingly bad, I will watch them anyway, if only because the 2 hours of suck is the price I have to pay for the 30 seconds of screaming Godzilla roar when the creature’s finally fully revealed. This one sucked less than the 1998 Matthew Broderick version, by an order of magnitude, but still suffers from being based in a very American PoV. The first 42 minutes of the movie set up the main character – who was nothing more than a minor player til then – as the reluctant hero, the American GI who can save us from the mistakes made by the Japanese scientific community. They quickly bring him up to speed, for no real reason (he doesn’t know anything about Godzilla or Mothra or… science… ) other than we need a white male hero, apparently. And there’s a ridiculous amount of stupid, like sending unshielded planes against a kaiju that they KNOW has EMP blast powers. And must we have the same exact “running from a tidal wave” scene in every disaster movie? (PoV: child looking back over dad’s shoulder, guy in car as feet run over his windshield just before the water hits, etc.) Good points: brief shout-out to the Philippines for being the birthplace of Mothra; couple of cute moments, like our hero’s childhood insect terrarium with “mothra” written on the side; some clear homages to 1950s US “giant radioactive monster” movies; halo drop onto Godzilla that was the best few seconds of the film.
- Guardians of the Galaxy – took my son to see this; (first movie we’d seen together in a theater in years, because he went through a phase where he was too hyper/bored to watch a whole movie at once, which he seems to be over). He liked Groot most of all; I think Drax and Rocket were my faves. By now you’ve probably seen all the tear downs of this movie, and I’d say they’re mostly right. Plus, it really is different from the comic. It’s fun, but you can’t expect too much out of it or think too hard while you’re watching it.
- Jodorowski’s Dune – Started with the documentary, Jodorowski’s Dune, then went back and watched (or rewatched) his films – Fando Y Lis, El Topo, Holy Montain, and Tusk, in that order. I’ll have to do a proper review of all the films together, but for now let me say that this is worth watching, more than once. I adored it, and I am one of those folks who actually knew/read/watched a lot of the work and artists it references. It’s breathtaking to see the expanse of Jodo’s vision, even as you realize how impossible it all was.
- Only Lovers Left Alive – I left the theater feeling that the more interesting story was the one told in between what was happening on screen. The film was beautiful, languid, well-acted, and deliciously slow in that way where it’s almost troubling, and you almost need it to speed up, but never quite slows too much to bear. It’s probably the best Jarmusch has done, and the actors were all perfect. But what makes it so wonderful is that the important bits – who made who, why, what kind of people they are and who’s the one behind it all – is never spoken aloud. We see that Swinton’s Eve is the collector, the one who doesn’t create anything on her own, the one in love with life and experience and beauty, but it’s Hiddleston’s Adam (and Hurt’s Marlowe and who knows how many countless others) who are the real artists, the ones she collects, and the ones who inevitably feel the decline and ennui that losing their mortality brings. By changing them into something she can hold on to, Eve is destroying what makes them fascinating, albeit very slowly. In that way, how is she any different from Ava, who takes what she wants and destroys much more quickly?
- Philomena – A character study that’s primarily interesting because the characters don’t change much at all from the beginning to the end, except that Coogan’s character softens a bit toward Dench’s, once he’s realized that he’s not doing her a favor so much as being allowed into the private revelations of a woman who was terribly wronged. Philomena was wronged, but can’t quit stop blaming herself, and Sixsmith does end up doing exactly what he sets out to do. Without growth, the story is a little boring — I admit I played a few rounds of “Pixel Dungeon” while watching it — but if you look at the movie’s poster and think “This is my sort of film” then it probably is. Most interesting, to me, was how easily everyone ignored or forgot the horrible way that unwed Irish mothers were treated in those days, and would still be, if it weren’t for the Internet and cell phones and other ways that news travels much faster. The Catholic Church systematically stole children from their (often) loving mothers, shamed the girls for the sin of having gotten pregnant, and sold — yes, for money — their babies right out of their arms. That’s how much power the Church has, that most people can say “well, that’s just how it was”. All of the drama in this story is in that erasure, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, then 2 hours watching Philomena isn’t a waste of time.
- The One I Love – How can I review a movie which requires that you don’t spoil any of it? I laughed, I enjoyed myself, I was probably less surprised by the end (because I know the Richard Matheson story this was probably inspired by) but even with that, the movie stuck the landing. It was exactly what it should be. It’s short, it doesn’t try to be more than it is, and if you enjoyed Safety Not Guaranteed, you’ll probably love this.
- Thor, The Dark World – If you’ve watched the rest of the new Marvel movies so far, there’s nothing in this to surprise you. Popcorn cinema: bright, shiny, fun, not deep, but hey, everyone in it is very pretty.
- Veronica Mars – I was a big fan of the tv show (watched it when it aired, plus a dozen rewatches since it hit Netflix) so I was looking forward to this, but still didn’t want to get my hopes up too high. The film didn’t disappoint. It was exactly what you would have expected, with all of the nostalgic moments you’d hoped for, and a huge number of appearances by now-famous actors who got their start as kids on the show. At the same time, it was darker and grittier than the original show, with more noir lighting choices and and overall message that says “you can never really get out”. Good people get hurt. The moments we want to see – resolutions, love, tenderness – come at a price, including disappointing those who wanted better for Veronica. It helps a lot if you’ve seen the show, but I think it’s a decent movie if you haven’t.