Monthly Archives: August 2015

Irrational Man Review

Alright, children, sit down and shut up – it’s story time.

After watching Magic in the Moonlight, it occurred to me that Woody Allen (since he makes one new movie each year) would have a movie coming out soon for 2015 – if it wasn’t out already – and this would be one of my last chances to see a film of his in theaters.  Since I had never seen a Woody Allen film in a theater, I knew I had to arrange to see it, but after looking online, I found that his 2015 film – Irrational Man – was not showing anywhere in my area, and I started to lose hope.  However, it just so happened that, on the one and only day that the film was getting released across the country, I was up in New York for a family reunion, and I was able to drive from our campsite a half hour north to a Regal that was showing it.  Based on the mostly negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, I wasn’t sure that it would be worth all the effort, especially since I didn’t have my own car to drive, but I went for it anyway, only to find that I was the only person at the screening.  Having the theater to myself made for a movie-watching experience like no other, which was fitting since it was a movie like no other … and yet somehow it still managed to be mediocre.

I should preface my harsh criticism of this movie by saying that I didn’t hate it.  I was having a good time for the most part, largely because I got to spend time in the company of some neat characters and, in a different way, of a neat director.  The Ramsey Lewis score set a great tone for the picture that kept me in a good mood for most of the film, and even though “The ‘In’ Crowd” was overplayed to the point that I got a little tired of it, I was still pleased by the way that Woody used such a fantastic song to move the film along.  The plot had a lot of cleverness to it, and it was very fun watching the mystery unravel and the drama intensify.  This means that the movie kept me entertained, so I must say that I enjoyed it.

Since I’m apparently the only person who has ever displayed interest in seeing this movie, I trust that no one will mind if I spoil it.  A very bright college student named Jill (Emma Stone) is very excited to be taking classes from a famous philosopher and writer, Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix), but he turns out to be washed up, worn out, and in an existential crisis.  As he becomes closer and closer friends will Jill, he starts to feel a little better about life, but her boring boyfriend is concerned that the two are falling for each other – and rightfully so, since she has become more romantically interested in Abe than in Boring Boyfriend.  Then, Abe overhears a story about a corrupt judge who’s been ruining the lives of a family, and he decides to just kill the guy.

Seriously.  Just go with it.

So, he stalks the judge, figures out his morning routine, and then concocts a clever way to kill the man without getting caught.  While the friendship (and then some) with Jill may have brought some new meaning to his life, it is oddly the plotting of the murder that makes him feel really, really alive like he hasn’t felt in ages.  This takes away much of his humanity, making it harder for the common audience member to relate to him, but it does make the story more interesting.  Eventually, Jill figures out that Abe was behind the murder, and she simply must report him to the authorities, primarily because another man – an innocent man – has been convicted of the murder Abe committed.  Naturally, he decides to just kill his friend Jill.

No, really.  That’s what happens.  And he acts like it’s merely another chore on his to-do list.

By this point, we don’t feel for him at all, and we’d be okay if he died … so, sure enough, he ends up dying.  When he attempts to throw her in an elevator shaft, he slips on a flashlight that he got her at a fair – dramatic irony at its random-est – he falls into the shaft himself, leaving her to report him to the police without his opposition.  What’s worst is that, in spite of the fact that she stated repeatedly that she loved Abe more than she loved her boring boyfriend, she is now happy to return to her boyfriend, whom she randomly realizes is her true love.  The disastrous problem with this is the same problem I’ve had with Allen’s writing since the day I first watched one of his films, but this is the film in which it’s most blatant: if a story very clearly states that x is not the solution, then it cannot be suddenly decided that x is the solution unless the value of x is completely redefined.  To make the solution to the conflict exactly what we all know cannot be the solution to the conflict is not a smart twist, but rather laziness, and it is this type of laziness that bugged me a little in Play It Again, Sam, that bothered me even more in Manhattan, and that nearly made me punch a hole in the wall after watching The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Another part of the problem is that, given the film’s simplicity, it didn’t need to be as long as it is.  It’s not that this movie is very long – its running time is only 95 minutes – but rather that there isn’t sufficient content to fill the running time.  The result is redundancy; the same concepts are restated and restated: the boyfriend is really worried that she’s into Abe, she says they’re just friends, then she flirts with Abe, he turns down her advances, rinse and repeat.  Either the movie’s concept did not have enough places to go, or Woody didn’t think of any more.  This too makes him seem lazy, but perhaps what looks to my youthful eyes as laziness is actually the 80-year-old filmmaker’s tiredness.  Because the man has reached his limits, I fear that this is one of the last films we’ll ever see from Woody Allen … so maybe it was worth the effort to see it after all.

71 Irrational Man

The National Treasure series: Upon Further Consideration…

(MINOR SPOILERS)

I’d always thought of the National Treasure series as a franchise that was decent for what it was, but wasn’t anything all that special. For this reason, I was surprised to find out that the screenwriters behind it were Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, whose website I’ve relied on greatly to learn about screenwriting. So, when my mother wanted to watch the series during a long car ride, I was interested in giving them another chance to see if they were any better than I remembered. I was not disappointed.

The first film is very cleverly written, and much like The Road to El Dorado (from the same screenwriters) it is very much a “correct” screenplay. It handles everything exactly the way it’s supposed to be handled, constantly upping the stakes and setting up solutions that the audience won’t see coming. I was very impressed not just by the knowledge of history and conspiracy theories National Treasure displays, but in how they were interwoven with a smart, original, interesting story. The movie actually makes good use of Nicolas Cage, so his performance almost seems believably human. All in all, the movie just works well, and while it may be a tiny bit cliché here and there, it’s still a good one for any screenwriter to study.

The second film was sadly weaker, which is to be expected since Rossio and Elliot were not quite as involved. It felt a little forced and redundant, in spite of the fact that it had much of the cleverness and humor of the first. Part of the problem is that the villain isn’t as strong or believable, which is a necessity in a movie like this, if it needed a villain at all (although I’m not sure it did). Still, it’s certainly not a bad film, and it contains some of the most interesting and memorable moments in the franchise – particularly when they all have to balance each other’s weight to avoid falling off the trap inside Mount Rushmore. In the end, I’m glad this sequel was made, and I’m happy to say that I’m a bigger fan of the franchise than I thought.

The Ten Commandments (1956) Review

It’s hard to keep a long movie interesting.  After all, some movies that are only 90 minutes long struggle to hold my attention, so when a movie goes over two and a half hours, that’s risky.  (It is, however, understandable in many cases, because the length must be determined by what the story requires.)  While I’ve never been able to make it all the way through any of the Lord of the Rings movies, I did enjoy the 1996 Hamlet, which has a running time of 242 minutes – about four hours.   Little did I know when I picked up The Ten Commandments that it was almost as long, or that the experience I had yet to face would take days to complete.

Was it worth sitting through the whole thing?  Yes.  Unlike some movies I know, this film actually filled its long running time with many interesting characters expressing very intriguing drama, so it’s easy to get through a lot of the film in one sitting.  Based on what I knew of DeMille’s work before I watched the film, I was already expecting the gorgeous visuals to keep my eyes glued to the screen, but I had no idea that my ears would be enticed as well by the absolutely excellent dialogue throughout.  This is the kind of writing that inspires me.  (I should mention that my ears were also listening for the epic score by Elmer Bernstein.)

So, in the end, while I’m not sure the story itself is my kind of story, and the film may suffer a little from a lack of focus, it is an excellent masterpiece that I cannot help but respect.  While I think of Egypt and the dessert to be visually bland settings for a movie (since I like colorful, theatrical visuals, rather than tan, brown, or sandy visuals) this movie has some of the best and most cinematic shots I have ever seen.  It finds a way to make a nearly-four-hour biography into a dramatic experience that I could never forget.

70 The Ten Commandments (1956)

Underrated Songs of the Week – 8/9/2015

Anyone else in the mood to boogie?  Well, here are some of my favorite disco songs, and I bet you’ve never heard of them.

1.  “I Thought It Was You” – Herbie Hancock

I’ve been dying to post this song for weeks now because it always gets stuck in my head.  It’s one of the best disco songs ever recorded, which is exactly what I would expect from a music legend with the status of Herbie Hancock.  It manages to remain entertaining for its whole nine-minute run-time, and I wish more people knew about it.

2.  “Aranjuez (Mon Amour)” – Herb Alpert

Woah.  This is such an amazing version of the classical piece “Concerto de Aranjuez” that it wows me every time.  To get a piece like “Aranjuez” to be so fun and “groovy” while still keeping it artistic and classy is no small feat, but I would expect no less from Herb Alpert.  While it’s hard for me to narrow down what my favorite songs are, I think this would have to be in the top 20.  It’s a fantastic track from one of the best albums of all time.

3.  “Night and Day” – Johnny Mathis

Okay, so we all know the song.  It’s a jazz standard, and I think it’s brilliantly written.  That being said, I’ve never found a version that sounds like the way I would most want to hear it, which would be far more intense and dramatic.  This cover, however, is the best I’ve heard so far… but I can’t buy it.  It’s not available anywhere as a digital download, so I have to go on a little expedition to find it on CD.  Eventually, I will be very proud to be one of the few people with this track in the music collection.

4.  “Fallen Angel” – The Bee Gees

In the early ’90s, the Bee Gees were having a hard time getting onto the charts.  This song, sitting at the back of their overlooked Size Isn’t Everything album, attracted me a few years ago, and I can’t put my finger on why.  It’s very much a return to the fun feel of their late ’70s disco tunes, but it clearly relies on technology and stylistic choices that only became options by the end of the ’80s.  I’ve honestly never paid much attention to what the lyrics are about, but I’ve certainly enjoyed the infectious beat and fun synth riffs.

5.  “Knights in White Satin” – Giorgio Moroder

I freely admit that this track is creepy.  It’s almost terrifying, but I think that’s what I like about it.  It has this off-putting, eerie feeling that perfectly captures the feeling of miserably longing for someone.  It keeps the drama of the original Moody Blues classic, but adds the “I love you” section to the chorus, which I can never get out of my head no matter which version of the song I’m listening to at the time.  (I suppose I should mention that the particular version I’ve posted here is the whole first side of an album, and it happens to include an original song in the middle of it before getting back to the 1967 classic, which I find rather clever.)  Perhaps I like it because of how cinematic it is, creating the perfectly uneasy scene to suggest that something is awry… but at the same time it’s fun for dancing.  Still, something tells me I’m the only one who likes this track, so I’ll just go hide myself in shame now.

Zoolander Review

It’s a happy coincidence that I happened to come across Zoolander right around the time that the news of the sequel started spreading, and I’m hopeful that the coincidence could hand me an extra slice of attention for this review.  What’s important for that to work, however, is that I have something new and interesting to say about this film.  The problem is that I oddly have very little to say about it.  It’s simple, passable, and done correctly.

If I may be honest, I generally don’t go for the brand(s) of humor developed by Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, and Owen Wilson, which generally involve(s) idiots shouting, or just over-the-top awkwardness.  This film, however, seems to play its cards right, and it knows how to make a “correct” film.  Its jokes are based on the interactions of its strong characters, with very appropriate cameos, and its moron protagonists are innocent enough to be likable.  The biggest laugh for me is the nod to 2001, which is strangely perfect.  The overall plot is clever, the visuals are appealing, and the soundtrack is a delight.  While I may have my little gripes about a couple of things I’d have done differently, I can’t dis a film that makes the smart choices and strives to be “technically correct,” even if it has a deliberately incorrect comedy style.

I must wonder, however, if it could have been better had it worked out a clever way to be successfully incorrect.  Perhaps this is what’s required for a good movie to be more than just a good movie.

69 Zoolander

Paper Towns Review

Alright, I think it’s time for us to have “the talk.”

As a proud cinema snob, this is tough for me to talk about openly, but we need to discuss the true implications of “the C word” – cliché.  We critics have always assumed that it’s a Cinema Sin for a story to be cliché and/or stereotypical.  Obviously, a film would ideally be entirely original, and would set itself apart from even its best imitators.  On the other hand, while it might be disheartening to think that one of our favorite critiques to use against the mediocre could be a moot point, we may have to admit that rejecting the unoriginal can cheat a film that would be absolutely brilliant… had it only come out a few years earlier.  Let’s really think about this: can an otherwise good movie be condemned solely for its inappropriate chronological placement?

Sometimes we do appreciate a film that reuses old ideas in better ways, and I think Doug and Rob Walker have extinguished Inside Out criticisms definitively on multiple occasions.  The problem arises when a story is pleasant enough to be enjoyable, but it uses a stereotypical formula for its genre – without adding enough originality or twists to give it significance.  For the “based on a book all the teenage girls and their mothers have read” genre, there is a trick to dodge this, namely built-in fill-in-the-blanks for unique character details, but is that enough to keep the audience from feeling like they’re watching the genre rather than a movie?  In the case of Paper Towns, that is exactly the problem, and to drive the point home, I counted the number of clichés responsible for this effect that appear throughout the film.

It’s thirty five.  That is scary.

To clarify the kind of clichés I’m talking about, I will further explain the concept of built-in fill-in-the-blanks.  Please refer to the now infamous Tumblr post entitled “John Green’s writing process” by clicking here.  This writing style, which seems rather common today, uses a Mad Lib formula to add bizarre little details and fun idiosyncrasies to each character, usually consisting of a curious mismatched adjective/noun pairing.  This adds flavor to the story, but it can quickly grow stale, because one can only see so many combinations in the vein of Patrick’s cancerous balls in TFioS or Margo’s random capitalization in Paper Towns before it’s all the same.  The most prominent combo of this nature in the film is the “black Santas,” which sounds so, so, so much like it comes from a Mad Lib that I’m starting to think John Green really does employ a dartboard in his writing process.

That being said, I’m limited in the extent to which I can criticize the film due to the other tricky dilemma that makes critics uncomfortable – adaptations have to stick to their source material, for better or for worse.  Any problems I have with the film from a writing standpoint can really only take up about half of my review, and my problem with clichés should take up only a small portion of that, because I really don’t like shaming a film purely for its similarity to others in its genre (especially since the book came out a few years before all these clichés became so established).  So, I guess the real question to ask about this movie is: did I have a good time experiencing it?  I’d say I did.  It’s a pleasant film that never fails to entertain with its lovable cast (particularly Jaz Sinclair, whose charm will take her far, I suspect) and its interesting plot, which was paced and stylized appropriately.  The dynamic of the characters, particularly during the Pokémon scene, is enough to make the film quite pleasant to watch, and it leaves me wanting more… unless maybe I wanted more because the ending was anticlimactic, but let’s not think about that.

68 Paper Towns

Underrated Songs of the Week – 8/2/2015

This week, let’s take a look at some underrated songs from movie soundtracks!  These movies may not all be superb, but they’ve got great music.

1.  “The Gremlin Rag” – Jerry Goldsmith

The makers of this film themselves have still been scratching their heads as to why this soundtrack didn’t get any big release other than “as a specially priced mini-album,” although in recent years it has been released in full on CD for those willing to pay $50 for it.  Even when this song was released as a single back in the day, it was actually just the B-side to “Gremlins…Mega Madness” by Michael Sembello of “Maniac” fame.  It unfortunately is not available as a digital download anywhere because the folks at Warner Bros. seem to be content with keeping this song’s release limited to those in the franchise’s little cult of extremely devoted fans.  ‘Tis a shame since this song is, in my book, among the ranks of “Power of Love,” “Ghostbusters,” and other classic ’80s movie themes.

2.  “Paradise” – Pheobe Cates

I will never think of this woman as a singer.  (I’ll forever think of her as the girl from Gremlins.)  That being said, this song turned out to be great.  From what I’ve heard, the movie was terrible, and interest in the song was really the main thing that got people interested in the film.  I don’t know how well the song did on the charts, but now it’s not available as a digital download either.  It’s rather rare as I understand it, and that’s just not right.  However, the mildly awkward cover by ’90s teen pop star Kaci Battaglia is easy to find since it charted pretty well in its day.

3.  “Theme from Firepower” – Gato Barbieri

I know virtually nothing about this 1979 film.  All I know is that Gato Barbieri is one of the greatest things to happen to music, and he’s really underrated as an artist.  This song is one of his finest works, certainly on par with “Europa” and “Speak Low,” but it doesn’t seem to have the same recognition.  The song has such a fiery passion that it clearly deserves to be featured in more films, in bigger scenes, and on more significant soundtracks.  It builds and builds until it becomes an experience that everyone ought to hear.

4.  Deep in the Dark – Debbie Reynolds/The Sherman Brothers

Everyone loves the Sherman Brothers, but who knows about their non-Disney works?  Their most underrated soundtrack is probably that of Charlotte’s Web, a film I grew up watching regularly.  What I missed when I watched it as a child was the beauty of this song.  I found it slow and boring as a youngster, but now I hear the magic and mystery in it.  It has an eerie quality that’s just perfect for a story about a spider, and the organ riff is one of the most enchanting sounds I have ever heard.  Yet another reason to thank the Sherman Brothers, and yet another song I’d sign a petition to see put in the iTunes store.

5.  Dancin’ – Olivia Newton-John/The Tubes

What’s to say about this weird, weird, weird piece?  At first, I found it choppy and off-putting, but then I got used to it.  After I had it in my music library for about a month, I determined that it must have been one of the best songs I’d ever heard.  It rivals the fantastic songs of Electric Light Orchestra that also inhabit the album, and for me to say that a song is comparable to the works of my favorite band is nothing at which to sneeze.  (Grammar, right?)  This is one of the few songs that actually turned out to be a good scene in the movie, and I will always be impressed by the goosebumps its climax induces.