Summer of Film, Part One (12 mini reviews)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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?
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.


Movie review: FRANK (2014)


FRANK is a brilliant, introspective, and illuminating film based partially on real events. It follows a bumbling, seemingly talentless, wanna-be musician (Jon) as he gets sucked into the world of a charismatic and mysterious Frank – a man with a paper mache mask for a head. At first, it seems Frank and his pals are the ones with the vision, and Jon is desperate to be someone more than who he is. He craves fame and respect and Frank, he is immediately sure, will help him get there. It quickly becomes obvious to the viewer what John doesn’t realize until later: Frank is severely mentally ill, along with at least a few of his bandmates. His genius isn’t in his wackiness, but is obscured by it; the sad truth is that Frank’s musical talent wasn’t set free by giving in to his illness, but his illness robbed him of the chance to truly express his talent. Outside of the carefully manufactured and strictly guarded world that Frank allows Jon to be a part of, the outside world – let in by John’s tweets and blog posts (part of his desire to connect with others and find his audience) – can clearly see what Jon doesn’t.

John think they’re making avant garde art. The world thinks they’re making a joke.

Warning: vague spoilers ahead (more…)

What I’ve Been Watching: The Everybody Dies Edition

I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)

Starting with the best:



HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald

5/5 stars.

Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.

This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.

The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.

There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.


“Give Me The Banjo” 2011

I like a lot of different kinds of music. Different styles for different moods. In general, though, I like my piano lively instead ponderous, prefer fiddle music to violin classics. And a fine trumpet player has always moved me. While the banjo doesn’t catch my breath in the same way, I always thought of it as a fun instrument. Quick and clever, requiring a lot of skill and dexterity–I appreciate the technique. Plus I grew up with a fair amount of bluegrass; one of my mom’s best friends was, and still is, a bluegrass fiddler (you can watch a video of her band here).

So when I saw that “Give Me The Banjo” was streaming on Netflix, I threw it on. I am a sucker for both documentaries and American music history. Background music, I thought, while I got other things done. It turned out to be too good to half-watch, and I ended up putting everything else aside. 6 minutes into the movie, it was clear that they meant to truly explore the banjo’s history, with this introduction:

You can’t talk about the history of the banjo if you can’t talk about racism, slavery, misogyny, appropriation, exploitation–all of the things that run counter to what we love about the banjo. – Greg Adams, Ethnomusicologist

Then straight into clips from a minstrel show. Blackface. Newspapers proclaiming a “Much-Admired Nigger Melodist” was playing. The white Southerner, Joe Sweeney, who learned the banjo from his black neighbor, and then took both the knowledge of how to build one and his neighbor’s music with him to New York. Turning an African folk instrument into a white American musical staple. “Elevating” the instrument with fancier building designs, reinventing the music into the new “classic” style… purposely reminding audiences that they’d stolen from the people they considered themselves better than, with a style of music they called “Coon Songs”… This look at the past is simultaneously embarrassing and enlightening.

The interviews with experts–historians, musicians, and banjo builders–along with photos, songbooks, and recordings of the popular musicians from different eras, make this a documentary worth watching if you care at all about musical history, or the racial and cultural history of the US. (Even if the banjo itself doesn’t matter to you.) Steve Martin gives excellent narration, and they’ve got an impressive breadth of interviewees. Find the movie here: Give Me the Banjo (83 min.)

Innsmouth, 1939

I am, as I usually am, writing on a couple of different pieces at once. Though I have the plot outlined for my Mythos noir story, “The Night Hours“, I’m taking my time writing it because the research is so important. Noir is about a lot of things*, including a focus on setting. It has to feel gritty, slick, and damp… sexy, and hopeless, all at once. To build that kind of world, I have to combine HP Lovecraft’s Innsmouth with enough real, late 1930s, set dressing to convince you this all could have happened. There’s so much visceral and emotional information you need to buy into for a noir story to work. You can’t relax into it if the little details aren’t right.

I can already tell that this is going to be the start of something bigger, so I don’t mind spending the time. My Innsmouth is economically depressed, as befits Lovecraft’s description, and the years after Black Tuesday. It hasn’t got WWII to really bring the money back in, but the fishing is good, the rent is cheap, and a lot of people who couldn’t make a home somewhere else are starting to settle there. But it’s still a weird place, under the surface.

There’s the expected mix of boarding houses, secretaries, busboys, and messengers; all part of a migrant population which ebbs and flows like the tide, and from whom the occasional missing person isn’t really missed. The weather isn’t great: constant fog, dense rain, snow and sleet and slush in the winters. And too often, the strange things get ignored, because it’s easier than focusing on something you can’t control anyway, when you’re barely getting by yourself. The First Church of Christ (Deluge) teaches that the Flood got interrupted, for example, and will be back again soon to wipe us all of the face of the Earth. How weird is that? But they give out bread on Tuesdays, and host a free fish dinner on Fridays, so their congregation is always full.

It’s Fall in Massachusetts, in 1939…

Music is the biggest source of daily entertainment, with a record player in almost every house. We just lost the great Tommy Ladnier. The Duke Ellington band is popular, and so is Benny Goodman’s, but Count Basie is starting to catch up. Jazz, blues, and swing abound, blend together, and influence each other greatly. The major touring bands are predominantly white-fronted, playing more swing than jazz (timed for the foxtrot and other couples dances), but the smaller clubs are either still in the midst of their jazz uprising or starting to play “jazz revival” style–and more importantly, people of color play in, and front, many of those bands. Wilder Hobson’s American Jazz Music and Frederick Ramsey / Charles Edward Smith’s Jazzmen are published, and both try to convince the world that Dixieland is the true jazz. Dizzy Gillespie has joined Cab Calloway’s band, Charlie Parker is developing Bop, Louis Amstrong is starting to be considered “too commercial”, and Nat “King” Cole is using only a jazz trio–piano, guitar, and double bass–instead of a big band, and though he hasn’t yet given up playing piano to focus on his singing, he is doing the occasional vocal set in between instrumental pieces. John Hammond has arranged the first of two performances of “From Spirituals to Swing” at Carnegie Hall.

Listen to Ladnier’s I’ve Found a New Baby