Category: Tearjerkers


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Occasionally, I will watch a large-budget, Hollywood blockbuster that is such an unmitigated failure that I have to wonder how anyone, anywhere possibly thought this was a good idea. These are films that are an appalling mish-mash of over-acting, over-directing, absurd bombast, and melodramatic emoting. And it’s been a long time since I’ve watched a major Hollywood feature (let alone a Best Picture nominee) that was as much of a train-wreck as 2012’s film adaptation of the longest running stage musical of all time, Les Miserables. With a few shining rays of competence to make it even passably bearable, Les Miserables can be politely termed “catastrophic.”

Director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) should have his Best Director Academy Award retroactively revoked for this pompous, unfocused, absurd drivel. Not that he should have won in 2010 (that was clearly either Darren Aranofsky or David Fincher‘s year), but his Les Miserables is such an excruciatingly unwatchable mess that one has to wonder if this was even the same man. In fact, were it not for Tom Hooper’s love of the close-up (which he abuses beyond belief in this film, but more on that shortly), I would find it impossible to believe it was the same man. As a life-long lover of musical theater, Les Miserables was one of the most painful cinematic experiences of my adult life.

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For those unfamiliar with the Broadway musical or Victor Hugo’s excellent source novel, the plot of Les Miserables is almost like something out of Shakespeare (except where characters are even more unbearably archetypal). After serving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is released from prison but his status as an ex-con makes him unemployable in Revolutionary France. After stealing silver from a church, the bishop (the original West End Jean Valjean) refuses to press charges against Jean Valjean and gives him the silver with the charge to turn his life around. And though Valjean keeps his word, that freedom comes with a price.

Jean Valjean breaks his parole and opens a factory though he spends the next eight years on the run from honorable but imperious Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). After one of Valjean’s workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rachel Getting Married‘s Anne Hathaway), is fired by the foreman for having a child she’s kept secret, Fantine is forced into prostitution and destitution and it is only Valjean’s generosity that keeps her child from starving and dying alone. However, by showing Fantine kindness, Valjean awakens the suspicions of Inspector Javert and though Valjean plans on given Fantine’s daughter Corsette (played as a grown-up by Amanda Seyfried) a better life, he must do it knowing that Javert will hunt him for the rest of his life as the backdrop of the French Revolution takes hold.

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I’ll at least by kind enough to this disastrous film to assure you that there are, in fact, occasional bright spots to this otherwise unending torture. Anne Hathaway is only on screen for about 15 minutes, but her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” works very well even though her voice isn’t powerful enough for that iconic number. On one of the few occasions that the film’s over-use of close-ups works for its intended purposes, the song lets Hathaway show off some really impressive facial expressions and she nails the emotional subtext of the number. While I still think Sally Field did a better job in Lincoln, I can at least see why the Academy decided to give the award to Hathaway.

Sacha Baron Cohen (Hugo) and Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women) brought some much needed levity to the film as the two inkeepers who “care” for Corsette and the performance of “Master of the House” was one of my two favorite numbers from the film (of only about three that I even enjoyed). However, the truest joy of the film was Samantha Barks turn as Eponine. It was one of the only unadulterated delights of the picture. Maybe because Eponine is the most compelling character in the musical, “On My Own” is the best song, and Samantha Barks played her in the West End production, but every too short moment that Eponine on the screen reminded me why I loved musicals and why Les Miserables failed to meet the standards of say Chicago or Sweeney Todd.

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But for those small blessings, you had to suffer through three hours of ineptitude. Even an established Broadway star like Hugh Jackman (who won a Tony for his fierce portrayal of Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz) was excruciatingly miscast as Jean Valjean. Jackman’s voice is simply too nasal for the part and it made him sound sharp on all of Jean Valjean’s high notes. Russell Crowe can not sing. That is just a scientific fact, and to quote a friend, “I think it was his singing that caused the French revolution.” Rex Harrison made it work as Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady even though he couldn’t sing. Not even the kindest critique could say the same thing about Russell Crowe.

And, to watch Tom Hooper reduce one of the most beloved Broadway musicals of all time to essentially a three hour long music video was so frustrating. I say that because of the hectic, spastic directing and editing (not just because there is no spoken dialogue in the film. It’s all sung) which is frenetic without being meaningful. The only times Hooper lets the camera stay still for more than a couple seconds is during some of the more emotional musical numbers which are done in long takes, but he so overdoes the long close-up that it just becomes as gimmicky as the rest of the visual aesthetic of the film.

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Understanding that Les Miserables is a brutal and dark tale of fatalism, eternal suffering, tuberculosis, poverty, and the price of redemption, I know that Les Miserables will not be as fun or campy as most of the musicals I actually enjoy. But, the film never earns the emotional core it so desperately seeks and becomes a soulless shell of the epic tale it wishes to present. It also doesn’t help that the narrative structure of having everyone sing all of the lines adds a certain amount of “narm” to the proceedings. Because people singing about poverty and love and the French Revolution is impossible to always take seriously (especially when paired with Hooper’s catastrophic directing).

I don’t know who I can tell to watch this movie. If you’re a fan of the stage show, maybe you’ll like it. I have to question your sanity, but maybe you’d enjoy it. I disliked this movie so much that I almost have trouble believing I could even enjoy a full Broadway production of Les Miserables, and as I’ve said, I’m a lifelong fan of live musical theatre. What I will ultimately remember about Les Miserables is that it may come to define to me a film that is simply an avalanche of bad decisions and incompetence all rolled into one massive blockbuster clufsterf***. Leave this alone and just rewatch Chicago for the millionth time instead.

Final Score: C-

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LoveIsAManySplendoredThing1

I love it when I think I’m going to seriously dislike a movie and I end up enjoying it quite a bit. That happens every now and then on this blog. The pattern seems to involve me watching a romantic drama from the 1950s or 1940s and expecting to find it to be overbearingly melodramatic (which is often the case, though films like Giant and Penny Serenade are very enjoyable films .They’re also both George Stevens films so maybe it’s related). I have a rule about the order I watch films for this blog. Movies that have been nominated for Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards take precedence over everything else (Right now, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty are the only three that have been released on Netflix and the latter two are at the very top of my queue right now) and then films that won any of the major Oscar categories if it’s not a Best Picture nominee (so Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature, etc.). Then, I usually just let my list I’ve created for this blog do the work. However, if a movie is available to watch instantly on Netflix (and in my Instant queue) but is about to be removed from the Watch Instant service, I usually shoot it to the top of my list. And that’s how Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing became the last thing I watched for this blog, and it was a wonderful surprise if not actually a great film.

I’m going to try to keep this review short since I’d like to watch Rebel Without a Cause tonight (it’s one of my all-time favorite films that I haven’t seen in years). Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is the film adaptation of the autobiographical novel, A Many-Splendoured Thing. In 1949, Eurasian widowed doctor Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is dealing with the flood of refugees and injured immigrants entering British Hong Kong in the wake of the Communist uprising in China. While in residency there, she falls in love with married (but separated) charmer Mark Elliott (William Holden), an American journalist on assignment in Hong Kong. Despite Han’s best attempts, she falls fast for the dashing Mark, but the deep-rooted anti-miscegenation traditions of her Chinese heritage threaten to keep the pair apart and they are pressured to keep their love a secret.

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I was kind of overwhelmed by what I thought was the intense sexual chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones in this film, although it turned out that in real life, the pair could hardly stand one another. These two could accomplish more with a lustful glance and a heaving bosom than many modern films could with graphic, explicit sexuality. You have to give old-style romances credit for something .They understand that there is as much pay-off in the wait and the subtle implication as there is in straight Fatal Attraction-style eroticism. I’m not knocking well-done eroticism, but I’m not sure if I can name many moments in cinema that were more sexually charged than the scene on the beach where Han and Mark light each other’s cigarettes by pressing them together (which was symbolic of the consummation of their sexual relationship).

And the film (which won the Best Cinematography – Color Oscar in 1955) is gorgeous to look at in the way that few modern films care about achieving. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is an achievement of cohesive and gorgeous mise-en-scene. From the costume work (which the film also won an Oscar for) to the on-location shooting (which was rare for the time) to just the general visual feel of the film, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing has the grandeur and spectacle that you don’t get enough of any more from people whose names aren’t Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen. Do I wish that they had cast an actual Eurasian as Han instead of just putting Jennifer Jones in (maybe you call it this?) yellow-face? Sure, but for the most part, the film struck a tone of legitimacy except for the scenes set in actual China where Han’s family for some reason spoke English with perfect American accents.

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Unlike other topical race films from the era (Imitation of Life i.e.), this movie rarely felt preachy and it just had a sincerity in its themes of forbidden love (which was ultimately what the film was about more than just being a morality play about the stupidity of anti-miscegenation laws). That’s not to say that the film didn’t slip up on occasion. The beginning sequence, set at a lavish party, felt dull and especially expository. When the film focuses on the sizzling romance between Han and Mark it soars, but virtually any other parts of the film failed to hold my attention. And even parts of Han and Mark’s relationship seemed odd to me, especially how quickly Mark used words like “destiny” to describe his feelings toward Han. If you like classic romances, I highly recommend Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. It’s not perfect, but it’s a deeply enjoyable classic gem.

Final Score: B

Side note. I couldn’t find an actual trailer for this film. This is just stills from the film set to the movie’s now iconic title track.

(Quick side note. Sorry for the long hiatuses between reviews. I had three exams last week and I worked every day of the week but Monday and Wednesday. I’m pretty sure my last review went up Tuesday. You get the picture. I have a lot more free time this week. So expect me to do some catching up. I also have a review to put up for Uncharted 3 so that should be fun. Also, lo and behold, my hot streak of really good films finally came to an end on the film I actually thought I’d enjoy the most out of the movies I was sent.)

How do we cover historical travesties committed by a group of people in the modern day without making a film that comes off as racist? Or is the simple truth that presenting historical facts about something that really happened can be construed as racist a sign of our over-sensitive times? You can’t make a movie about the Holocaust where Germany isn’t going to come off in a bad light, but Schindler’s List was never accused of being anti-the German people. Hotel Rwanda was a brutal look at the Rwandan genocide, but it too hasn’t been accused of being racist against the African people. The “Rape of Nanking” is one of history’s most infamous war crimes, but its presentation in The Flowers of War is so gung-ho in its presentation that one would expect this from a 1950s propaganda film right after the war, not a modern examination of one of the most horrific city sieges of all time.

First things first though, some historical context for those unfamiliar with their Sino-Japanese relations circa World War II. Although the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in Europe get most of the attention, Stalinist Russia and Imperial Japan committed their own fair share of horrors. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of roughly 10 million of his own people, and when the Japanese invaded China, they employed a scorched Earth strategy that would have disgusted William Tecumseh Sherman. Their actions in the Nanking Massacre were especially atrocious as the Japanese army murdered over 300,000 civilians after the Chinese army had already fled and engaged in barbaric acts of rape and pillaging. To this day, the actions of the Japanese military in Nanking (and the rest of China) are a point of extreme tension between the two most powerful Asiatic nations.

The Flowers of War doesn’t falter because it portrays what actually happened in Nanking during that dark page in world history. It falters because of its almost messianic portrayal of the Chinese people struggling to survive against the Japanese who are worse than demonic in this film with absolutely nothing in the way of redeeming qualities. If you can imagine every single war film cliche in terms of cinematography (not necessarily plot which is where the film finds its successes), you have an idea of how The Flowers of War is shot. Gratuitous use of slo-motion? Check. Admittedly gorgeous but often inappropriate lighting? Check. An omnipresent swelling score that would make John Williams proud? Check. Infantrymen capable of remarkable/impossible feats of markmanship? Check. When the film is focused on the battle for the city, it’s hard to find an original storytelling bone in the movie’s body, and the movie is guilty of the most unforgivable war film faux pas of all. It attempts to beautify the horrific.

Thankfully though, that’s not the main story of the film. John Miller (Christian Bale) is an American mortician living in China in 1937 as the Japanese invade the city of Nanking. A drunkard and a selfish louse, Miller takes a job during the invasion itself to bury the Father of a local Catholic cathedral. However, by the time he arrives, the Father has been destroyed by a mortar shell, and Miller is left to look after a group of 12 year old girls that are students at the convent. When a group of local prostitutes show up looking for refuge, John’s initial response is to just look out for himself, but after seeing the Japanese army’s barbarism (which includes attempted rapes of the 12 year old girls), Miller pretends to be the priest of the parish and takes actions to get the little girls and prostitutes to safety away from Nanking.

Usually Christian Bale is one of the better actors of his generation (one need only go back as early as Empire of the Sun to see his talents as a child and then move up to The Fighter or American Psycho for his adult talents), but I wasn’t impressed with his performance in this role. At times you saw hints of the manic charm and explosive energy that is always resting right below the surface of Bale’s otherwise calm demeanor, but a lot of the time I felt as if he was just dialing his performance in. It didn’t help that the dialogue he was reading often felt stiff and unnatural. Chinese actress Ni Ni was more charming as the madam of the group of prostitutes, but even her performance required her to ratchet up the melodrama in a film that was already overflowing with cliche emotion.

Credit must be given for the film’s ability to generate a visceral emotional reaction when it called for it though. Like any film about genocide or mass murder, The Flowers of War is incredibly difficult to watch. I’m not sure how much credit can be given to the film or the filmmakers there though. The subject matter itself is is innately horrifying to anyone who has anything remotely resembling a conscience. There were many moments in the film where I was awestruck with the horror these young girls were facing and reminded yet again of the terrible atrocities that have been committed just in the last 100 years alone. The film does not shy away from graphic depictions of the deaths and murder of soldiers or civilians, and for the faint of heart, it may be too much to take in.

Usually, I’m all about films that embrace cinematographic beauty. A quick scan of the rare films to receive an “A+” on here will show that most of them are visual wonders as much as storytelling wonders. However, there’s a time and place for that kind of poetic flourish, and a war film isn’t it. Although the film takes great pains to set up a dichotomy between the quiet beauty of the small moments with the brutal horror of the wartime realities, it has an unfortunate tendency to blur those lines in ways that I would find highly offensive if I were Chinese and from Nanking. Although maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about since this was one of the biggest films to come out of China last year.

My dad really enjoyed this film, and his recommendation was the reason that I watched it (although I just discovered it was actually on my list [in the 1000’s range order wise] because it was nominated for a Golden Globe). So, perhaps I’m just yet again too cynical and jaded to enjoy this melodramatic of a film. We had similarly differing opinions about the quality of War Horse (which I found to be an overbearing bore but he loved. We both sobbed when watched it though). So, perhaps here’s the best summation of the film. If you’re a jaded, cynical type like myelf, go ahead and give The Flowers of War a pass. But if you’re still capable of genuine and raw emotion, you may find more here to love than I.

Final Score: C+

I’m starting to believe that George Stevens is one of the true unsung heroes of classic Hollywood. His film Giant transcended the simplistic scope of its story (and its seemingly endless run time) through the untapped beauty of the Texas plains and by highlighting the explosive sexual undercurrents running between his young cast. It’s difficult to understate just how impressive Stevens’ accomplishment was in making me thoroughly love a three and a half hour epic about cattle drivers and oil men. Well, Mr. Stevens has done it again. His classic 1941 romance Penny Serenade with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne may not be the exercise in grand film-making that Giant was, but it pushes past the possible roteness of its subject matter by displaying an honesty and sensitivity where too many other films would play up the melodrama.

Told through flashbacks, Penny Serenade is the story of the tribulations (and occasional triumphs) of the romance of Julie Gardiener (Life With Father‘s Irene Dunne) and Roger Adams (My Favorite Wife‘s Cary Grant) over the course of roughly a decade or so. When the film begins, it is apparent that Julie has decided to leave Roger for reasons not yet explained, and the rest of the film explores their courtship, marriage, and eventual troubles. Meeting at the record store where Julie worked, Roger, a newspaper man, immediately falls in love, and it isn’t long before the couple are wed. After Julie has a miscarriage because of an earthquake, Julie and Roger adopt a beautiful baby girl named Trina, but it isn’t long before tragedy threatens to tear their family apart one more time.

Despite persistent rumors concerning his sexuality to the contrary, Cary Grant remains one of Hollywood’s all-time great charmers, and it’s easy to see why. As the very definition of tall, dark, and handsome, it’s easy to see why the fiery and resolute Irene Dunne fell in love with him (not to mention that the pair’s natural chemistry led them to be regularly cast together in romances). However, Grant’s performance (and his character) was a little more substantive than your typical “male lead for the female audience to swoon over” archetype. He had to carry the film’s most emotionally heavy scene where he pleads with a judge to not take away his and Julie’s newly adoptive daughter (because he was facing some momentary unemployment) and I would be a liar if I said that scene didn’t bring a slight tear to my eye.

Irene Dunne is also solidifying her position in my standings as one of classic Hollywood’s most under-appreciated actresses. Her ability to toe the line between resourceful, intelligent, and commanding against her equally compelling sensitive and vulnerable side was a trait often lacking in actresses of the time who could often only deliver on one front. Bette Davis was domineering. I would rarely call her sensitive. Grace Kelly was elegant and beautiful. She didn’t control a scene. Katherine Hepburn was one of the few actresses who could do both, and Irene Dunne is another who seems to be only beloved in the circles of cinephiles. She was able to televise a subtle but smoldering sexuality between her and Cary Grant even when it’s somewhat obvious to modern audiences that he may not have even liked women.

The early moments of the film (before it took a more melodramatic turn although it never become over-bearing) which explored the early courtship and marriage of Roger and Julie are among the strongest moments of the film. Framing the film as Julie listening to old records which recall specific memories, Penny Serenade presents a simple and honest romance which would seem just as realistic (for the most) today as it did back in the 1940s. A lot of love stories and dramas before the 1960s don’t age very well (a point I harp on constantly) but there is something pleasantly timeless about this particular love story. When Roger buys over a dozen records just to have an opportunity to chat with Julie, it connects in a way that a lot of less developed romances never could.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t without it’s fair share of issues. The film becomes almost unendingly tragic as it progresses. One bad thing after another happens to our protagonists, and while that occasionally has the chance to lend a film a more cathartic feel, these character’s hardships often seemingly come out of nowhere and build til they become almost too severe. The film’s best scene is Roger pleading to the judge to keep their adopted daughter Trina, but when the film tries to top those moments, it seems like it’s trying too hard, and the film avoids even showing the most tragic moment of the whole film and instead you read it through a letter. I both appreciate the film’s attempt to show restraint and to not completely traumatize it’s audience, but it seems like that muted much of the potential emotional impact of that shocking and tragic twist.

Despite those shortcomings, Penny Serenade is a delightful film which should reach right to the core of all of the classic romantics out there. When so much of the romance and romantic comedy world is populated by utter garbage, it’s always wonderful to find a love story that rings true, and Penny Serenade passes that test. With arguably one of the three most famous leading men in Hollywood history and one of his most consistent co-stars, Penny Serenade may not rank as one of the greatest romances of all time, but if you love classic love stories, it will warm your heart and most likely move you to tears.

Final Score: B-

(A quick aside before I get into the actual review (because I desperately want to try and sound more professional and like a real film critic on here but there are occasional points that I need to make that don’t fit into my actual reviews). A lot of my personal friends have made fun of me for the way that I compiled the list for this blog. I spent a week or so eating into every last second of my free time to craft a massive list of every film that was ever nominated in specific, major categories at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Independent Spirit Awards. Then I added every movie from my NY Times 1000 greatest movies book. Then I picked movies that somehow didn’t end up on any of that which I enjoy and thought would be fun to review. To top it all off, a year and a half after making the initial list (which I had to make twice because at one point, I lost the original list. Now, it’s saved in the Cloud), I added another 1000 films from the 10001 movies you have to see before you die list. There’s obviously a lot of crossover here and I delete duplicates. Still, there’s thousands of films on my list. They aren’t all winners (*cough* How to Marry a Millionaire *cough*), but there are moments when the hassle of making my list and sitting through the occasionally shitty award-bait film pays off. I would have never heard of Conversations With Other Women let alone watched it had it not been for my list, and the same goes for British indie Nil by Mouth, but they’re now two of the rare films to get perfect scores on this blog. I have another film to add to the list of movies that would have completely escaped my attention had I not started this blog, and it would have been a shame if I had missed Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me because it has one of the strongest scripts I’ve ever seen.)

In a world of Fellinis, Bergmans, and Malicks, it can be too easy to undervalue a film whose strengths rely solely on those old-fashioned concepts of a strong script and human performances. How many times have you heard someone say they liked a movie but they found it to be visually uninteresting. Without coming out and stating it directly, many find a lack of cinematic artifice in modern film-making to be a deficit of character. There’s an easily explainable reason for this. While I refute the naysayers that believe we’ve completely exhausted the well of truly original storytelling (one need look no further than the ouvre of David Lynch or Charlie Kaufman to see that isn’t true), it’s safe to say that the old stream of inspiration has become a trickle of staid reboots, remakes, and sequels. These days, directors have to wow an audience with head-spinning, post-modern mental gymnastics to stand out from the pack because some variation of their story has already been told.

Occasionally though, a film slips through the cracks with such a pure and honest reflection of the world that originality and style be damned. It pierces that great veil of the human experience and exposes truths we’ve kept at bay and begs a solution to questions we didn’t know we had. Gary Oldman’s highly autobiographical Nil by Mouth was British poverty and addiction and abuse rolled into brutal and terrifying package. The overt (and some say distracting) style and haute couture of Tom Ford’s A Single Man couldn’t overwhelm the haunting tragedy of a closeted British professor on the day he’s decided to commit suicide. Kenneth Lonergan’s 2000 family drama You Can Count on Me is as straight forward and direct a film in terms of style that’s ever been made. Yet, Lonergan’s script cuts closer to the truth of family, disappointment, and coming to terms with our own limitations than any film I’ve ever seen. Whether you’re a cinephile or a casual film lover, its power is astonishing.

If there’s ever a genre that’s been beaten to death, it’s the family drama. Watching a dysfunctional family fight and heal is one of the oldest stories there are. However, its themes are so universal that if its done well and given the proper perspective and veracity it deserves, family dramas can transcend their humble origins to be something so much more. Perhaps because Kenneth Lonergan (who also wrote the script) isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel and perhaps because he doesn’t try to use any of the typical cinematic tricks to distract from any potential shortcomings in his script, You Can Count on Me becomes on of those pictures. Focusing his lens on a brother and sister who were bound by the death of their parents and then torn apart by life, it’s an intimate search into forgiveness and understanding but with the honest grasp that sometimes reconciliation is beyond our abilities.

When they were small children, Samantha Prescott (The Savages‘ Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (The Kids Are All Right‘s Mark Ruffalo) lost their parents in a car accident. Samantha decided to stay in their small Catskills town of Scottsdale where she got knocked up and abandoned by the layabout father of her now 8 year old son Rudy (Scott Pilgrim‘s Rory Culkin). She just manages to get by with a dead end job as a loan officer at the local bank where the new boss Brian (Ferris Bueller‘s Matthew Broderick) is forcing her to stop digging into her own lunch hour to take her son to the babysitter after school. She has a loveless sexual relationship with a local man, Bob (Jon Tenney), that satisfies a deep seated need for male approval and distracts her when her son starts asking awkward questions about his disappeared father.

Terry on the other hand walked a more exciting but troubled path. Raging against the conventionality of Scottsdale (and the classic small-town rebel complaint that there isn’t anything to do), Terry left town as soon as he could. He wandered the country, a transient nomad, picking up small-time jobs here and there. Though he seems to love Alaska, he could never stick in one place for long, and eventually, a stint in jail in Florida and an exhaustion of his funds (which were indirectly implied to be supplying a serious drug habit) sends him to his sister’s doorstep to ask for some money. When Terry’s girlfriend tries to kill herself in his absence, Terry decides to stay with Samantha indefinitely. Though the flawed but ultimately lovable Terry instantly bonds with Rudy (who desperately seeks a father figure), his spite and irresponsibility mean its simply a matter of time before he ends up hurting everyone around him yet again.

The phrase “fully realized characters” has rarely meant as much as it does in You Can Count on Me. Terry and Samantha (and to a lesser extent supporting players like Rudy and Brian) are multi-layered, endlessly dynamic creations who never act in the way you expect but always (and I can’t emphasize that enough) follow the logic created for them within the context of the script. While on the surface, the gainfully employed, loving single mother Samantha may seem like the more well-adjusted of the siblings, but you quickly learn throughout the film that she can be just as impetuous and self-destructive as her brother. And despite Terry’s spiteful ways, he’s seemingly more intelligent than his sister and has his own (tragic) philosophy on how to view the world. These characters learn lessons but don’t change. If they have character arcs, they are slow and shift changes that simply strip away to a new layer of these fascinating creations.

The performances are as subtle and powerful as the script. Laura Linney (one of the most under-appreciated actresses of her generation) is flawless as the beleaguered Samantha. She gives Samantha a desperate tenderness. Throughout the film as one criticism after another is laid at her by her boss, by Terry, or by her son, Samantha flashes a nervous smile and her face belies the wounds of harsh words. Despite all of the tragedy that has befallen her (and her constant mishandling of life’s situations), Samantha still exudes a natural warmth. Though she often messes up, it is never done to intentionally hurt someone (the opposite of Terry’s behavior), though she often does. With Linney’s natural and complex performance, Samantha weaves in out as a repressed single mother, a dispassionate lover, a scorned and upset sister, and an angry woman, hurt by the way the world’s treated her.

Mark Ruffalo is no less impressive. In one of the film’s best scenes, a drunk Terry wanders into Rudy’s room (which used to be Terry’s when he was a child), lights up a cigarette, and proceeds to “educate” his nephew on the truths of the world. Shattering his nephew’s illusions about Rudy’s father once and for all, Mark Ruffalo gets right to the heart of Terry. Which is to say, a brutally honest survivor who has internalized his fatalism and deep-rooted suspicions that nothing will ever end well into a cynical shield that protects him from the world around him. That would be sad but fine except he’s hell-bent on converting every other soul around him to his jaded world view. Ruffalo captures Terry’s intellectual spark, his endless reservoir of anger, and his manic energy. As Terry shifts and twitches in his seat, you see the restless soul that will never find a place to call home.

Few films have so successfully realized on scene after scene of great individual moments without sacrificing any unity of the final picture. Still, You Can Count on Me is full to the brim with memorable scenes that all add to the greater portrait of the Prescott family. In one of the climactic moments of the film, Terry (without Samantha’s approval) decides that it would be wise to introduce Rudy to his real father, and although it’s as disastrous as you’d imagine, it nails the dichotomy of Terry’s character where he’s trying to do something good but makes things worse in the end. In Samantha’s most defining scene, she sits down with her priest (played by the film’s director, Kenneth Lonergan) to discuss her angst about cheating on her boyfriend with a married man (whose wife is pregnant), and she seeks punishment and anger for all of the flaws in herself she can’t seem to correct. Whether it’s these moments or Terry taking Rudy out to play pool at a bar or Samantha’s battle of the will’s with her boss, You Can Count on Me is the rare film where every scene is a winner.

The old movie adage, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry,” is overused and meaningless, but Kenneth Lonergan’s script delivers a soul-baring emotional ride. It is a warm and hopeful film (but honest in our human limitations and cognizant that we can only change so much) which is refreshing when so much cinema focuses solely on the negative sides of life. Lonergan has often been called the great American playwright of his generation (where he’s done much of his work), and perhaps it’s his single-minded focus to tell about this family and their pains, but he’s managed to do so much more. He created one of the best American films of the 2000s and one of the most impressive observations of American family life and small town angst that has ever been made.

Final Score: A+

I’m a pretty calm guy. I wasn’t for a really long time. And then at some point in my life, my ability to give a shit just sort of broke. It broke way too much though to the point that I occasionally wander through life in a completely apathetic and detached haze. I’m starting to get better, but that was definitely a period in my life. So, when the existence of a film is enough to piss me off, there’s probably something fundamentally unethical about it. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a supremely infuriating film that it’s safe to characterize as kitschy, sentimental, trite, and exploitative. Even the strength of some of the better scenes in the film and two superb performances couldn’t make me forgive this film for its very nature which offended me on a deep and personal level. I might have only been twelve years old when 9/11 happened and I may not have personally known any one who lost their life in that horrific tragedy, but I’ve got enough brains to know when someone is trying to cash in on a national tragedy. This is one of those moments. Unfortunately for the film, it wouldn’t have even been saved had the story involved some fictional tragedy for all of its cheap and unearned “emotional” overkill.

Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn in his big screen premiere) is a precocious and incredibly intelligent young boy (that may or may not have a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome) whose friendship with his father, Thomas (Tom Hanks) is the only real thing in his life. They create adventures together to help Oskar’s problem-solving skills as well to force him to increase his social skills. When Oskar’s father dies in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Oskar withdraws into a year long state of shock and trauma. However, when Oskar accidentally breaks a vase when he enters his father’s closet for the first time since his death, Oskar finds a key and the only clue is the name “Black” written on the back of the envelope. Oskar believes this key is part of the last adventure his father had planned for him. Getting every person with the last name Black from the NYC phone book, Oskar sets out on a quest to find who the key might have belonged to and what lock it could open so he can finally say goodbye to his father.

Before I get into the ways in which this film is an unmitigated failure/offensive (to anyone who isn’t cheaply manipulated), let me at least point out its good points. For his film debut, Thomas Horn was astounding. Unless that kid actually has Asperger’s syndrome, he did an excellent job of capturing the rage, grief, vulnerability, and terror that Oskar was experiencing every day. Actually, he played Oskar so well that I almost have to wonder how much he was acting or if he was just like that in real life. I was honestly more impressed with him than Brad Pitt in Moneyball (for which Pitt received an Oscar nomination). Along with Asa Butterfield and Chloe Moretz in Hugo, it was  a great year for child actors. Similarly, Max von Sydow more than earned his Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as the renter living with Oskar’s grandmother that may or may not have been Oskar’s biological grandfather. His character was a mute but even without uttering a single spoken word the entire film, he displayed more emotion and characterization in his short time on screen than the wooden and ineffective Sandra Bullock could in the whole film. When Max von Sydow and Thomas Horn were both on the screen at the same time, they were the only moments in the film where I felt truly engaged with the material enough to overlook its structural flaws.

Unfortunately, that only represents a small portion of the film. The rest of it has the film turning what could have been an interesting meditation on loss and tragedy (as well as the reality of mental illness in children since that child definitely has some type of autism) into jingoistic feel good schlock. We’re not still in a “too soon” period from 9/11 to make decent 9/11 related material. Paul Greengrass’ United 93 was an excellent meditation on national tragedy and the small acts of heroism that kept 9/11 from being even worse. That film felt authentic even if we had to guess about much of what was happening on that plane. With the exceptions of the scenes where Oskar was really being forced to deal with the reality of his father’s death, nothing about this film felt real or genuine. It felt manufactured to elicit a very specific set of responses. And the fact that it used such a terrible event in American history to garner these reactions (rather than making us care more about the characters or making them seem more defined and alive) is what makes this film so offensive. This movie doesn’t add anything new to the conversation about 9/11. The characters aren’t engaging enough to justify the setting they’re using. The writing isn’t clear or focused enough to support the muddled and sprawling aspect of the narrative. Also, I enjoy slow films but the two hours (and some change) that I spent watching this movie felt like they dragged on more slowly than the four hours of Lawrence of Arabia.

If you couldn’t tell, I didn’t like this film. It bothered me (and not in that good Todd Solondz kind of way), and I found myself making frustrated sighs the entire film when there another instance where I felt the film was trying to cheaply manipulate my emotions. However, my dad and little sister both enjoyed it, and by the end of the film, my dad was crying pretty profusely (normally, I’m the crier in the family during sad/touching/very happy moments in movies but my eyes were completely dry during this film). So, maybe I’m just a broken human being because I wasn’t affected by this movie whatsoever. So, the way I look at it, is that if you enjoy cheap and emotionally manipulative and insignificant films (i.e. The Help), then maybe you’ll enjoy Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. For everyone who’s a little more cynical and skeptical and knows when movies are deliberately trying to take advantage of you, you should steer clear.

Final Score: C+

My feelings towards the ouevre of Steven Spielberg is slightly complicated. Some of his movies are undeniably brilliant. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial is one of the most beautiful children’s films ever made. On a similar note, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is the most under-rated film of his career and (thanks largely to the contributions of Stanley Kubrick) one of my favorite science fiction films of the 2000s. Munich is the best thing Spielberg has made in years and was a clever deconstruction of the espionage/revenge film. Schindler’s List may have its flaws but I’ll be damned if that film didn’t do more to create a gut, visceral reaction to the Holocaust than any history book ever has. The man is one of the undisputed masters of visual storytelling. Still, when his scripts are crap, his films are going to be a mess, and War Horse is possibly the worst film in the entire Spielberg library, and the only reason it’s not the worst film nominated for Best Picture in 2011 is because The Help beat it to the punch with its incessant self-aggrandizement and racial condescension.

On the eve of World War I in Devon, Englang, a drunk, tenant farmer (Peter Mullan) buys a headstrong and stubborn (but beautiful) horse to plow the fields on his family farm. Ted spends the last of his money on the horse (mainly to show up his land lord), and if this untrained colt can’t learn to plow the fields, the family will lose everything. The son, Albert (Jeremy Irvine in his big-screen premiere), takes it upon himself to train the horse, who he names Joey. The pair form an instant and unbreakable bond, and not only does Albert train Joey to plow the fields and save the family form, they become best friends. When a massive rainstorm destroys all of the family’s crops, Albert’s father is forced to sell Joey to the British cavalry to serve in World War I. Separated by war and the miles between nations, Albert vows to Joey that they’ll be together again one day, but Joey is heading to the frontline of one of the most devastating wars in history. Will the pair be reuinited or will the Great War consume them both?

I must give credit where credit’s due. Spielberg is still one of the great visual directors of all time, and War Horse was just stunning. To lend credence to its nostalgic idealism and (supposed) sincerity, it was shot on film stock, and the film is just a glory to behold. Whether it’s the beautiful shots of the British countryside, the horrors of World War I trench warfare, or a heartbreaking and ill-advised cavalry ride, few people know how to frame a shot for maximum entertainment value as well as maximum beauty. While I take considerable umbrage with this film’s nomination for Best Picture, every single Oscar it was nominated for in technical categories were well-deserved. The score was especially sweeping and majestic but do we expect anything less from John Williams these days. I even respect Spielberg’s decision to tone down the graphic violence of the war scenes (as opposed to what we’d expect from him since Saving Private Ryan) because it’s a children’s film (admittedly one about the horrors of World War I) and that wouldn’t gibe with many parents. He was still able to create a sense of dread, horror, and heartbreak with almost no blood whatsoever in the film.

Unfortunately the script/story at the heart of the film was such melodramatic, sappy, and idealistic drivel that I kept scoffing at some of the film’s most important, dramatic moments because I couldn’t make the suspension of disbelief that the film required. All of the circumstances were too contrived. The endings were too neatly wrapped up. The characters were all as flat as you can imagine with little to no growth throughout (despite my suspicions that this film was also meant to be a tale of growing up). There’s supposed to be an innocent, simplicity to Spielberg’s film, and I respect his intentions. But when you insult the intelligence of your viewers with a plot that is completely implausible, no one’s going to buy your premise. The film was so sickeningly sweet that it should carry a warning that it may give viewers diabetes. Spielberg’s other, most child-like films were such instant classics because they explored child-like innocence while ultimately subverting and acknowledging the truth of youth. Instead, War Horse seems like a story that would come from a book that your elementary school teachers forced you to read because it won the Newberry Medal.

Some people may call me out for accusing the film of being cloyingly optimistic when it still features the deaths of so many people (several of which who are teenagers), but those moments impact less on an emotional level and instead re-inforce the artifice at the heart of the film. I could never fully invest in the never-ending stream of cliches and antiquated tropes at the heart of War Horse, and for that, I find myself severely disappointed in Steven Spielberg for the first time in years. I had to watch this movie because the copy of The Descendants that Netflix sent me was busted, and in a sick karmic joke, I had to sit through this exercise in banality. I only recommend War Horse to serious equestrians (because even I must admit that the film made me cry towards the end but that’s not hard to do) and hardcore Spielberg loyalists only because he is the type of director who has earned your attention even when he makes a subpar film. Everyone else can stay away from this melodramatic mess while I continue to question the Academy’s decision to nominate more than 5 films for Best Picture or how this was a more worthy nominee than The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?

Final Score: C+

Musicals are my ultimate guilty pleasure. Often threadbare plots are orchestrated around giving people the opportunity to sing and dance in often illogical and unrealistic fashion, but I eat it up like it’s going out of style. A lot of this (and so much of my personality) can be attributed to the fact that one of the first movies I can remember watching was Grease, and it’s soundtrack was also one of the first albums I can remember owning (along with Savage Garden’s self-titled LP). The sheer theatricality and enthusiasm of the productions more often than not makes up for stories that don’t particularly work and musical numbers that make no sense in the context of the film’s universe. However, for every musical I love, there are so many I can’t stand like Gypsy as the most recent (in terms of my seeing it) example. Even good music can’t save the humdrum plot or the music simply wasn’t good either. I just finished watching 1979’s The Rose which is a thinly veiled biography of Janis Joplin, and in a rare subversion of most musicals that I dislike, I found myself enthralled with Bette Midler’s fiery performance and the stellar soundtrack while simultaneously loathing practically every second of the cliched and trite story that formed the core of this overly long film.

As mentioned, The Rose is the tragic story of Janis Joplin (for who else could this film possibly be about) although Bette Midler’s character, the titular Rose, is never called Janis and is someone else entirely. The Rose is a rock and roll legend who is on a whirl-wind national tour at the height of her popularity. However, the Rose has grown tired of her life of booze, drugs, and constant work and wants to take a year off. Her manager Rudge (Alan Bates) is a controlling and greedy man who is willing to sacrifice the Rose’s well-being in order to make money and works her to near exhaustion as well as pushing more drugs and booze on her. The Roses’s life is changed for the better when she meets a cab driver named Huston who tries to give her joy in life outside of her work as well as legitimate love and affection which she hasn’t had in years. However, the demands of her career and fame work to drive a wedge in their relationship as well as conspire towards Rose’s ultimate downfall.

Bette Midler was spectacular in this role. I might have hated 75% of this film but when she was putting her performance in all four gears, she was just a sight to behold. Previous to this film, my knowledge of Bette Midler was restricted to Hocus Pocus and her guest role on Seinfeld. I never knew the kind of emotional depths and tragic vulnerability that she was capable of achieving. Also, her voice just blew me away. The film’s only real saving grace outside of Midler was the film’s soundtrack and Bette Midler has a lot to do with the success there. She does a cover of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” that I almost prefer to the original version. Frederic Forest does a good job as the enigmatic Huston who is the anchor holding Rose down to the sane world. There was a natural chemistry between the two stars that added a layer of believability to their romance that was sorely missing from the rest of the film.

Now, here are the problems with the film. With the exception of the Rose (who is still frustratingly ill-defined), every single character in this film is more of a caricature of an established type than a fully formed creation. Her manager Rudge is so villainous and evil that he really becomes camp rather than someone I can believe to have really existed. Huston seems to be the prototypical down-to-earth country boy so completely that I almost expect that they stole an extra off of a John Ford film. There’s only one scene where he really seems to be as fallible as anyone else in the film. Also, the film’s subject matter was handled in such a heavy-handed manner that there was no chance for any subtlety in the production. The way it handled addiction and the pressures of fame often made me think I had accidentally put on a PBS special rather than a feature film. The film came off as so preachy and cliche that I could never lose myself in the story taking place on screen.

This is one of those films that I can only really recommend for academic reasons. For students of film, Bette Midler’s performance is spectacular and it deserves some analysis. However, the film itself manages to drain all of the joy I get from her bravado. This movie’s score is a balance between how much I loved Bette Midler and how much I despised virtually every other aspect of the film. When I first added this movie to my blog, I thought it was a remake of Gypsy because I thought Bette Midler was in a remake of that film. When it turned out to be entirely different subject matter, I became less worried about the film. I honestly think I would have enjoyed sitting through another version of a musical I already don’t like very much. In summation, only serious students of film or those that love Bette Midler should subject themselves to the boring torture that is this bloated and trite feature.

Final Score: C+

I consider myself to be a romantic. I often find myself far more emotionally invested in many of the fictional romances I see on television, books, or movies than I do with my rather non-existent dating life. I was probably more excited when Pam and Jim kissed for the first time on The Office than I was about finally getting my first kiss a month after I graduated from high school. So, a movie spanning a decade about the romance between two people from the opposite end of the political and social spectrum seemed like a sure winner for me. The Way We Were had politics, romance, and even a little social commentary, not to mention Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand at their primes, but unfortunately, it was incredibly slow and boring and with the exception of the chemistry between its leads, there was really nothing keeping me involved in this film, besides wondering what I would say for this review.

The Way We Were is the love story of Katie Marofsky (Barbra Streisand) and Hubbel Gardner (Robert Redford). Katie is the President of the Young Communist League at her college and is pretty much a proto/archetypal liberal activist. She cares about everything and is ferocious in her beliefs. Hubbel is more of a pretty, golden boy who is a talented writer but joins the Navy after he graduates from school. Later in life, Katie and Hubbel meet up, fall in love, and marry yet their marriage is fraught with the tension between Katie’s fierce convictions and Hubbel’s desire to remain employed in the face of the McCarthy era witch hunts.

With the exception of Meet the Fockers, I had never seen a Barbra Streisand picture and all I knew of her was that she had a reputation for being a bit of a diva. Well, her personality aside, I finally understand what the big deal with Babs is. She’s breathtaking. She didn’t age all that well, but when she was younger, she was just a knock-out. Not to mention, she’s an incredibly talented actress. The sizzling chemistry between her and Redford was probably the only thing this movie had going for it. It’s easy to remember why Robert Redford is one of cinema’s most beloved leading men and why he dominated the 1970’s. However, it was pretty hilarious watching him try to play a college student in the early scenes when he was in his late 30’s when this film was made.

This was one of those movies that I really wanted to like, but it really just wasn’t that good. I’ll take it’s surreal 2000 successor Waking the Dead any day. If you’re a Babs fan, I’d recommend this film but I can fairly well assume that you’ve already seen it. If you’re a Robert Redford fan, perhaps you should watch it, but I would just as easily say to leave this one alone and stick with his better pictures like All the President’s Men or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Otherwise, everybody else can go ahead and steer clear of this one.

Final Score: C+

I really hate it when a movie has a lot of things going for it, like great performances, interesting messages, or challenging social themes, and it ruins every last good part of them by the fact that the director didn’t do nearly enough editing and let his film grow to a bloated, unfocused mess. It’s been a while since I’ve watched a movie that so exemplifies this problem as well as Imitation of Life, a 1959 melodrama about a particular aspect of race relations in America in the 1950’s. And while the idea of of exploring the relationship between a light-skinned African-American daughter who grows to resent her dark-skinned mother and the relationship between two single mothers of different races in the 1950’s, this movie was ridiculously way too long and it bounced back and forth between so many different uninteresting plots that I kept begging for the film to be over before it was even half way over.

Imitation of Life is about the relationship that is formed between Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and Annie Johnson (Juanita Jones). They are both struggling single mothers. Lora wants to be an actress but is not having any career success. They both have young daughters. Lora is a widower and Annie’s husband left before her daughter was born. Annie is African-American, but her daughter is so light-skinned that she is able to pass as white. There is a never-ending friction between Annie and her daughter because Annie resents that her mother is black and she wishes to pass herself off as white. That’s actually probably the most interesting aspect of the film. The film also chronicles Lora’s rise to stardom in the world of theater and film, and how her success causes her to ignore her own flesh and blood daughter.

Pretty much the only reason that I was able to finish the film were the strong performances of Juanita Jones as Annie and Susan Kohner as Annie’s grown-up daughter. They both received Best Supporting Actress nominations at the Academy Award and they were well deserved. However, this movie lost me pretty early in and if I weren’t reviewing it for this blog, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I can’t really recommend this one to anyone, and this score isn’t even lower than it is based on the strengths of certain performances alone.

Final Score: C