Monthly Archives: January 2016

Brazil Review

SPOILER ALERT

I think I finally understand what happened here!  Not what happens in the movie Brazil – I could never understand that – but what happened to Labyrinth and Time Bandits.  Some movie buffs and comedy lovers may know that the Monty Python approach to writing movies was generally to come up with different scenes/sketches that would be funny all centered around a general theme, and then a loose story would be created out of stringing the pieces of the movie together.  Naturally, when someone who approaches screenwriting this way has the challenge of writing a more traditional narrative story (that’s focused on likable characters dealing with a dramatic plot, even if that drama is not meant to be taken seriously) we can expect issues to arise with the flow of the story.  For Labyrinth, Terry Jones’ screenplay had to be doctored in secret by other writers because it needed a lot of work before it could be made into the film Jim wanted (which still had leftover story problems in the end).  For Time Bandits, fellow Pythoner Terry Gilliam made a bizarre family film that makes no sense whatsoever, and is often more awkward and convoluted than entertaining.  For Brazil, Gilliam made an iconic ’80s movie masterpiece, but it had similar flaws.

Before going any further, I must recognize that this is, in some ways, a brilliant film.  As satire, it’s practically perfect in every way, and makes the human race seem hilariously absurd.  At some moments, its comedic criticism of war is better than Stanley Kubrick’s.  Much of the film is good fun, and the performances are perfect.  The world Gilliam created is brilliantly clever, and the visuals are absolutely outstanding.  This truly is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever laid eyes upon, as far as visual art is concerned, because the lighting, the colors, the set designs, and the cinematography are all spot-on.  It’s a masterful work of art that raises the bar for the genre of comedy films, and I can respect it if people love this movie a heck of a lot more than I do.

I, however, just don’t get it.  Every now and again, I encounter a movie that has me saying to myself, “What the heck IS this movie?!” more and more as the film progresses.  It’s a very memorable experience, and it usually means that the movie is going to mean a lot to me for a long time, regardless of whether I think of it positively or negatively.  This film had that special quality to it like no movie I’ve seen in a long time, if ever, and I can’t help but be reminded of the first time I saw Gremlins 2, one of my favorite films, and the first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my least favorite.  As blown away as I was with just how perfect certain elements of the film are, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that the story didn’t make enough sense.  Some of that special feeling I mentioned above was coming from a sense of being immensely impressed, but some was coming from being annoyingly confused.  I now understand why Roger Ebert only gave Brazil just two stars saying, “This is a confused and unsatisfying film in which the magnitude of the special effects, and the chaotic implications of the plot, make the movie hard work for any audience to follow, let alone appreciate.”

So, my first criticism is that the movie doesn’t make enough sense.  What starts off seeming like it offers too little with its minimalist plot (which consists of a man trying to meet the woman he’s seen in his dreams) eventually unravels into a psychedelic acid rock song that’s sad about the loss of friendships and angry with society’s constraints.  There is very little correlation between what happens in Sam’s dreams and what he deals with in real life, and this gives the audience too big of a chore when they have to try to find the patterns and the meaning in all this.  Heck, even the movie’s title, and its titular song of the same name, don’t seem to be very connected to the film at all.  There are just too many things that Gilliam did not communicate as efficiently as one would hope.

My second big criticism is directly tied into the first, as it pertains to the lack of satisfaction.  I’m not against a movie that doesn’t end with the characters living happily ever after, but I am against endings that don’t feel “correct.”  I may have written a bit too much about this before, but screenwriter Terry Rossio’s rules about how an ending must be set up, inevitable, and yet unexpected are a good way to figure out why one might feel unsatisfied by a movie.  If the simplistic plot consists of navigating through a dystopian future to marry a dream-girl, there had better be a good reason for missing the one goal we’re rooting for Sam to achieve, but this Gilliam’s only reason seems to be that he wanted to blow one last raspberry at western governments before he had to step down from his soap box.

I think it’s plain to see that I have mixed feelings about this unique work of art.  The various trains of thought that I’ve boarded because of this film are so numerous and labyrinthine that I can reach no final verdict.  I can completely respect the opinion that this is one of the greatest motion pictures of all time, and I can equally respect the opinion that this movie is whiny, bitter rubbish.  Any efforts to unveil what exactly I feel because of Brazil seem to be disappointingly futile, but perhaps the important thing is that it made me feel, and it did so profusely.  When it comes to rating the visuals, however, my feelings are clear: it’s in the 99.9th percentile, A++.

91 Brazil

Anastasia Review

It’s not a documentary.  With this type of film, the old saying from Mystery Science Theater 3000 rings true: “Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show; I should really just relax.'”  This is the kind of movie that will mean very, very different things to different people, since a historian would be disgusted, but an art student would be impressed, while a composer would be disappointed.  Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t mean very much to me, which makes it rather hard to review.  I suspect that I feel this way purely because the movie is so normal and ordinary for its genre.

The visuals and animation are, as one would expect from Gary Goldman and Don Bluth, really quite impressive, particularly during the more villainous scenes.  However, the visual style still has that feeling of imitating the ’90s Disney look, even right down to copying the shade of green that tends to appear around Disney villains for the scenes with Rasputin.  Also, one can expect to find an all-star cast in these films, with an iconic voice for the villain, and Christopher Lloyd provides more than one could ever wish for in a villain.  The music is outstandingly standard and ordinary that I can hardly remember any of it now.  There are also some aspects of the storyline that have been done to death in family films, and they need to be put to rest – I’m looking at you, “character who leaves the person who cares about him/her because he/she feels unwanted and unworthy in the end.”

That being said, it’s not an unpleasant movie.  The characters and story kept me entertained, and some of the artwork kept me entranced.  I do wish the soundtrack could have been better, but Rasputin’s big musical number is actually a pretty strong (and unique) villain song, with many thanks to the work of Jim Cummings.  The premise alone is one with built-in comedy, and it feels very reminiscent of Mel Brook’s original Producers film.  In short, it’s not quite on the same level as many of the Disney pictures from the time, or the same level as many of Bluth’s best works, but I do think it’s a good enough film for the family to have a good time.

90 Anastasia

American Hustle Review

I love my local library.  Its one problem is that I like it too much, so whenever I go in for just a short stop, I end up spending at least half an hour there.  Once I’m lost in the DVD section, there is only but one escape, and it is very rare: I have to find the movie that calls my name.  I need to hear the triumphant sound of the movie that is exactly what I need to watch that night, and it can take ages to succeed at such a quest.  One night, however, I found it – the movie that I had been longing to see for ages, and I could sense that it was finally time.  American Hustle had Jeff Lynne’s music all over it, which already gives it a leg up in the race to my top 50 favorite movies.  On top of that, the film stars actors that I like, and it’s written and directed by David O. Russell, whose film Silver Linings Playbook holds a very special place in my heart.  However, I had just heard that his new release, Joy, is a disappointment, so I hoped and prayed that this movie would be reminiscent of the previous film and not the latter.  Alas, it would seem God woke up on the wrong side of the bed that day, because American Hustle completely fell flat for me – and I’m starting to think I must not be in on the secret to enjoying it.

At this time of year, everyone’s talking about awards ceremonies that I don’t like.  We’ve seen time after time that the elite overlords behind such ceremonies, particularly the Academy, tend to embarrass themselves by making obviously nonsensical decisions.  The Oscars are being frowned upon right now for their lack of diversity among nominees, but they’ve been dropping the ball ever since they neglected to award Citizen Kane for Best Picture in favor of some flick called How Green Was My Valley.  They were mocked in 1979 for giving Best Original Song to “It Goes Like It Goes” – a song that was considered forgettable even at the time, let alone decades in the future – instead of the more obvious choice: “The Rainbow Connection.”  Don’t even get me started on The Lego Movie.  With my disdain for such inane awards as the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the Grammy Awards, I have been greatly pleased by an excellent joke of Conan O’Brien’s that’s been trending: “At last night’s Golden Globes, the movie ‘The Martian’ won for Best Comedy or Musical.  In a related story, the Golden Globes won the prize for ‘Best Cop Drama or Best Latin Gospel Album.'”  The nominations have really never made much sense, but the most mind-boggling of them all is the notion that American Hustle is a great comedy.  I don’t see how it can be considered a great comedy when I honestly was unaware that it was a comedy until well after I’d finished watching it.

It’s no surprise that I had to look up the movie online to learn that it was a comedy (and learn why people found it enjoyable) if I consider the brutally realistic style.  The comedy of the film fluctuates between muted colors of humor that offer no punches, or harshness that goes far over the top in all the wrong directions.  I’ll address the hard-hitting humor first, and then I’ll spend a little longer on the weak humor.  There is a scene between Bradlee Cooper and Not Funny Louis C- nope.  I can’t finish typing it; it’s just too depressing to think of Louis C. K. as unfunny.  In short, he savagely beats Louis over the head with a telephone, and the scene uses awkward editing in an attempt to make the unwarranted violent abuse comical.  The problem, of course, is that it’s not over-the-top enough to be funny – there is no indication in the scene, to my memory at least, that this is not meant to be taken seriously.  I was watching an ugly beating, so I felt bad for the victim – and empathetic investment is the enemy of comedy.

In my searches through the inter-webs for why people got a laugh out of this film, I found very, very few reasons given, even though its description on Rotten Tomatoes starts with the words “Riotously funny….”  One of the few jokes cited as a source of enjoyability was Cooper’s silly haircut.  Because this film is a period piece about the ’70s, a stupid haircut is merely an inevitable part of making the movie feel realistic, so I’ll need something better than that to come even close to a smile.  As I thought back on it, I recalled another scene that was an attempt at humor.  It’s pretty simple: Unattractive Jennifer La- no, I can’t bring myself to say that either, so let’s just say “the wife” swears in front of her little boy, and the little boy repeats the profanity in a way that’s accidentally quite offensive.  Ladies and gentlemen, prepare to read the words that I, J. D. Hansel, never imagined would be written about an iconic Oscar winner, but here they are: Anchorman 2 did this joke better.  That, my friends, is a travesty.

Let’s take another look at Jennifer Lawrence’s character.  She reminds me of “the pen squeaker.”  Yes, I’m talking about that guy in high school who had that pen which happened to make an annoying squeaking sound when it was twisted, and he would twist it frequently just to bug people.  If the intent was to annoy the girls sitting directly in front of the squeaker, I really enjoyed watching the pen squeaker make them squirm and yell for no good reason, but if the intent was to annoy me, it was not enjoyable in the least.  So I suspect that, if the audience understands that how much of an annoyance Lawrence is to everyone else is supposed to be funny , then the audience enjoys her, but personally, I felt like I was the victim of her excruciating irritability.  While Lawrence did play the character perfectly, the character will always stand out to me as a horrible reminder of how annoying my little siblings are when they scream and fuss all day.  I spent the last third of the film hoping that someone would just punch her out to end it all, but no such consolation was offered.

This is, in my view, one of the most overrated films of all time, right alongside Cabaret, but there are elements of it that I like.  The soundtrack is, as I expected, quite excellent.  Jeff Lynne’s contributions are naturally strong, but the other songs are really fun too.  The actors are clearly giving these performances their all, and they succeed at making me believe in their characters.  As far as cinematography goes, it would seem as through Russell found an Instagram filter for “Oscar bait” and used it for the entirety of the film, but within the constraints of the Oscar bait look, it is shot and edited well.  The best part, however, is the ending.  While I will not reveal all of the details, it’s nice to see that there was, in fact, an interesting and clever hustle being set up this whole time that makes the movie feel more purposeful.

However, for me it always boils down to the characters, the world, and the story.  If those three elements work together just right, it’s a great movie; if one of those elements is off, particularly the first, then we have a problem.  This movie did not work for me because the world felt too real for anything to pop, the story felt too unfocused and messy for it to hold my attention, and the characters made me want to run over the DVD with my car.  In the few days since I watched it, I’ve already forgotten much of the story, and I really don’t know how matters of such little importance took up so much screen time.  This movie is not so much about telling a good story as it is about showing off impressive directorial skills and a brilliant cast, making it such a narcissistic piece that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes even if they were sewn in place.   I am not surprised if people who appreciate films very differently than I do find themselves enjoying American Hustle, but for a film of this nature, one can only look at what it offers to each individual, and for me, it didn’t offer nearly enough.

89 American Hustle

Insurgent Review

SPOILER ALERT

With a bad Italian accent a la The Amanda Show, say it with me: “This is better – much better!”

As we all should know because I’m super important, I have my issues with Divergent.  This world and its people are entirely nonsensical, and I had such a hard time taking it all halfway seriously.  Fortunately, this film is just the game-changer that the franchise required.  Never in a million years could I believe that these “founding fathers” thought it would be wise to separate the people into factions like this.  However, I’d totally buy that a bunch of people who’ve been driven to insanity by a terrible war decided to throw a bunch of people in a pen, separate them by their primary skills, and see who gets killed.  Furthermore, the experiment shows that Divergents can arise even in a world of just singularly skilled people.  The only way they could improve on this to clear up any other logical issues is if they explain that the premise of Divergent was actually just a table top game, but the experimenters got drunk and decided to make a government out of it.

With the structural mess out of the way, I can finally address everything else in this movie.  The score and soundtrack are drab as usual, and much of the screenplay is regrettably predictable, but aside from that, it’s a pretty decent flick.  Apparently, most critics thought this was a step back for the franchise, and the reviews for this film are much worse than those of the first.  I disagree, in part because I just like stories that serve as a bridge from the first story in the franchise to the climax (meaning there’s less exposition and more mystery and hype), but also because the plot simply gets more interesting.  One of the best things a story can do to add hype is make sure its characters on the run from a ticking time bomb of sorts, and they have to beat the clock.  While the Hunger Games films have an element of this, the games themselves don’t start until at least halfway through the movies, whereas Insurgent (knowing its characters aren’t quite compelling enough to pull off an hour of characters just hanging out, shooting promo videos, impressing sponsors, resting on trains, etc.) puts Tris on the run right from the get-go, and it’s only a matter of time until the powers that be track her down.

This movie also plays around with character dynamics a lot, which adds a touch more dimension to the characters that have been largely flat thus far.  Can Four’s mother be trusted, or is he right to suspect her of evil intentions?  Is Tris going to be able to keep from revealing that she killed her best friend’s brother?  Is Peter a good guy, a bad guy, or still figuring it out?  How much can Caleb trust that Jeanine won’t be too inhumane to his sister?  Can Four bring himself to shoot Eric?  And what do the founding fathers have to tell the people of the future?  Regardless of how predictable many parts of this movie may be, the lives of these characters get wonderfully messier, and things do take bigger and better turns and twists that make sure the audience is having a heck of a time.

88 Insurgent

Let’s Talk Whatever – “Put on a Jedi Robe, Ken!”

UPDATE: Outtakes and bloopers from this episode are now online:

Scroll down for the full episode.


This episode: LET’S TALK STAR WARS!

Obviously there will be spoilers.  You have been warned.

Please send your feedback on this experiment to contact@jdhansel.com.

LTW #1 01