Review: The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story (1984)
Noah Hathaway, Barret Oliver, Tami Stronach. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Petersen and Herman Weigel.

tns1The Neverending Story was on one night when I was at a party in college. Not the best situation for experiencing a film, but there were in the room a few fans of the film who watched it attentively. I let it kind of drop into and out of my awareness as I conversed with others. The only other experience I’ve had with it was at a bar in Honolulu, when one of my former students set up a projector to show the film without sound on the wall next to the stage, while he and his excellent band played.

tns2I know people who adore this film. My frosh year of college, I was with some online friends at the ice skating rink, and eavesdropped on two geeky girls as they explained to someone why the story is “neverending,” but I didn’t pay very close attention to the details, as I was trying to decide which of the girls to put moves on.  I put moves on neither, but I was drawn to their obvious fondness for the movie.

When friends invited me last month to see it at the movie theater, I was totally game, thinking it was about time I filled this hole in my cultural awareness. And I can totally see why so many people are in love with it. My own response was slightly cooler, but I was seeing it as a man in his mid-forties, and I just had too much else to compare it to.

tns3Bastian is a young boy who loves to read. He’s dealing with daily bullying by schoolmates and the recent loss of a family member, so his life is both lonely and sad. He is encouraged by grownups in his life to “wake up” and get his head out of his fantasies. Real life expects him to be there for his math tests, for fleeing down alleys from boys who would take his lunch money, and for confronting the reality of life after grief.

As he runs from the boys, he discovers a book. “A dangerous book,” warns the bookseller who advises against his reading it. They are exactly the words to inspire his borrowing it without permission, and then his hiding in a school attic to read it.

The story within the story is of a land called Fantasia, where a kingdom is being devoured by an evil called the Nothing. A young warrior named Atreyu is called upon by the Childlike Empress to save them all, and as Bastian reads the story, he doesn’t just get into the story; he gets INTO the story.

The setup is pretty great, but the details are mildly disappointing. In presenting this world’s creatures and perils, the filmmakers don’t spend enough time developing its characters. We don’t know anything about Atreyu or the Empress to be sufficiently invested, and the film asks for emotional responses it never earns, except at the very end.

The film is scored with a techno-infused symphonic sound that’s a really good idea; however, the way it’s used, in wide, sweeping shots over open landscapes, is kind of cheesy.  The well-known theme song performed by Limahl is enjoyable.

The film is saved not only by its cool premise, but by a strange connection between three characters who share almost no screen time. It’s difficult to figure out how this is accomplished, although I suspect sympathy for Bastian plays the biggest part. We sympathize with him, and he sympathizes with the characters in the book he reads. This works somehow, and it’s probably why so many people are in love with this movie. I’m not in love with it, but I could definitely love someone who is.

7/10
72/100

Review: Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy (1997)
Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee, Dwight Ewell, Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith. Written and directed by Kevin Smith.

It’s been nineteen years since Chasing Amy was in theaters, a realization that makes me ponder my mortality, but then everything makes me ponder my mortality nowadays. I wonder what it does to Smith, for whom this was the breakout film. In 1997, Smith was a known entity with a couple of well-received indie pictures under his belt, again operating on a tiny budget, again casting his childhood friends. But this film received a few meaningful recognitions, including a Golden Globe nomination for Joey Lauren Adams and awards-season nods from critics’ associations.

I look forward to revisiting Smith’s early work, now that I realize how long it’s been since I’ve seen most of his movies. He’s one of my favorite directors, greatly flawed in predictable ways but still fresh and creative in multiple other ways.

I watched Chasing Amy two weeks ago and again last week, and my biggest takeaway from these repeat viewings is that the stuff that was bad in the late Nineties is worse now, and the stuff that was good is even better.

I don’t think there are spoilers here, but if you haven’t seen it and would rather know very little going in, skip this bulleted section.
I was looking to see a few things with fresher eyes, here’s what I came up with.

  • Holden McNeil, the main character played by Affleck, is as tone deaf as I remembered, a doofus who gets unreasonably upset about something he learns about his lover’s past. Not only does he overreact to the initial discovery, but he confronts her about it in the most juvenile way, and then his proposed solution to the mess he creates is bizarre at best. It’s idiotic and implausible at worst. It is the film’s greatest flaw, and one I have difficulty getting past. Main characters are allowed to make mistakes, but when they’re just idiots, mistakes just look like idiocy.
  • I had reservations about Alyssa’s getting together with Holden, the premise on which the film is constructed. This time around, I like it a lot more. Alyssa explains that she’s come to this point where she makes her own decisions about love and sex, and she’s going to love whoever she wants. This character doesn’t just need a Ben Affleck to come along and make her see the error of her lesbian ways. This is a strong, smart statement she makes (more than once) about owning her sex and articulating this ownership in clear, multi-layered arguments.
  • The Jay and Silent Bob scene is still the best part of the film, and some of Smith’s best writing in any of his movies. Smith, Affleck, and Jason Mewes deliver the lines so well that when the film was over this most recent time I saw it, I went back and watched the scene five more times.
  • I’d forgotten about Dwight Ewell as comic book artist Hooper X. He’s a great character, and I wish he’d returned in later Smith films.

Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones gets props for some good acting, but she quickly gets the emoting up to ten, so that there’s nowhere for her to go in her extended scenes. It makes Affleck look low-energy in some of the film’s most critical scenes.

Chasing Amy has always been the most normal of the Askewniverse pictures, and it’s easy to see why it received more mainstream praise than its predecessors. Smith deserves it: he puts his funny, talky characters in normal settings with normal circumstances, and the translation works a lot better than one might predict. The problem is that his main characters, played by Ben Affleck and Jason Lee, are morons who never really redeem themselves, making them difficult to like.

Some of this normalcy is also a problem. There are at least two music video scenes to show the passing of time and the developing of relationships, and there are at least two scenes on playground swings, a device that was old and tired even in 1997. These bad clichés of normality are especially notable because Smith gives us some of the good, creative stuff we don’t see in fifteen other movies, like conversation in a comic book convention, or a group of friends stuffing envelopes while they accuse Alyssa of being scarce lately, or the (common now but fresh then) front shot of two guys talking while they play a video game against each other, both staring straight ahead as they focus on the television.

Smith includes one of his signature moves: the low-angle shot of someone animatedly telling a long, crude story. It’s another highlight for me, the kind of thing that almost excuses an extremely heavy-handed pivotal scene in an ice rink, where the action in a hockey game is meant to illustrate the dialogue between Holden and Alyssa in the stands. It’s awful, but at least it’s creative.

Put that all together, and it’s a likeable but not loveable movie, one with great scenes you want to look at on repeat, and scenes you kind of hope you never have to see again.

7/10
71/100

Review: Paris, je t’aime

Paris, je t’aime (2006)
Margo Martindale, Nick Nolte, Steve Buscemi, Juliet Binoche, Willem Dafoe, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bob Hoskins, Elijah Wood, Olga Kurylenko, Emily Mortimer, Alexander Payne, Natalie Portman, Ben Gazzara, Gena Rowlands, Gérard Depardieu. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, Alexander Payne, Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón, and others. (English and French, with English subtitles)

parisA tourist in Paris unintentionally gets involved in a young couple’s spat when he makes eye contact in the metro station. An EMT tends to a bleeding man whom she doesn’t realize she’s met before. An American man escorts a much younger woman down the street, begging her to trust him. These are three of the eighteen very short films that make up Paris, je t’aime. Each short is set in a different Parisian arrondissement (a word I just learned), each written and directed by a different team.

jeFilms like this miss more often than they hit, but here is one that mostly gets it right. When you only have five minutes to tell a story, it seems you rely more on situation and pacing than on characters, dialogue, or plot, but characters, dialogue, and plot can make the difference between interesting and moving. Taken individually, not every short is moving, but most of them contribute to an overall stirring of feelings about (and feelings of) love. I especially like the sections directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Oliver Schmitz, Alexander Payne, and Paul Mayeda Berges with Gurinder Chadha (who directed Bend it Like Beckham together).

t'aimeThe acting is solid all around, but I was especially taken with Margo Martindale as a middle-aged American woman narrating her visit to Paris in an American’s schoolbook French. Martindale is an actor I’ve only recently discovered, and in this film, she is the best I’ve seen her.

Although I have mixed feelings about his chapter, Bob Hoskins is another standout: I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything except Who Framed Roger Rabbit, so his dignified English accent and bearing were a really nice surprise.

pjtIn Wes Craven’s scene, Emily Mortimer and Rufus Sewell do a nice job with a lovers’ argument in the cemetery where Oscar Wilde is buried, when Wilde’s grave inspires one to break up with the other, and Wilde himself seems to inspire the other to make it work. The scene is maybe the best put-together in the film, where everything seems to work together to shine on its own and contribute to the bigger picture.

If you like the film, see it twice. It’s a movie that rewards a second viewing, and if you see it on a DVD which includes the making-of featurette, see that too.

8/10
83/100

Review: The Last Waltz

The Last Waltz (1978)
The Band, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers, Neil Diamond, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton. Directed by Martin Scorsese.

tlw2“One is always a victim of the anthologizers,” mused my American literature professor in college. This went through my mind several times as I enjoyed the incredible music in The Last Waltz, the recorded document of The Band’s farewell concert in San Francisco. I enjoy The Band but always kind of kept it at armslength because I’ve never been a fan of Robbie Robertson, the group’s lead guitarist. Robertson is a friend of Martin Scorsese, and he worked with the director in producing the film. I’m not exactly blaming anyone, but the result is a film that often feels like it’s about Robertson and a bunch of guys he once performed with. As a member of Team Levon, I find this annoying.

tlw1Questionable editing decisions aside, this concert movie is a celebration of some terrific rock and roll. It’s just about impossible to pick a favorite performance, but two numbers that really moved me were Rick Danko’s heartbreaking “Stage Fright” and the group’s killer “The Weight” with the Staple Singers. That performance of “The Weight” is actually a studio version, not a rendition performed at the concert supposedly being documented. Knowing that a lot of the music was re-recorded in post-production in order to correct off-key notes and mistakes in playing takes a lot of the wind out of my sails, but pushing that out of my mind, the songs are great however they finally arrived on this piece of celluloid.

Taking it for what it is, as it is presented, it’s one of the best concert films I’ve ever seen. It’s awakened a long-dormant admiration of The Band, and given me a desire to explore their deeper cuts.

8/10
82/100

Review: The Secret of Kells

The Secret of Kells (2009)
Voices of Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Christen Mooney, and Mick Lally. Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey. Written by Fabrice Ziolkowski.

secret3“I have seen the book that turns darkness to light,” whispers a voice as The Secret of Kells opens. It’s a mysterious introduction to an eerie story about the origins of an awesome, beautiful book of the Gospels, illustrated (or “illuminated”) by the ninth century monks of the Abbey of Kells. The characters are people of faith, but they are worried about invasions by Vikings, so their Abbot is singularly focused on building a wall to protect his people and their holy work.

secret2The artwork in this myth-like tale is gorgeous, bringing to life the creative spirit of the Book of Kells, and the movie is worth seeing just for that. Told from a young boy’s point of view, the story is decidedly targeted at children: simple and linear in plot, with just enough mystery and darkness to impart the highest-stakes feeling appropriate a book that turns darkness to light.

secret4A couple more drafts of this script could have made it really something, if the writers had wished to make this also a story for grown-ups. Without proselytizing, the film doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s a story about a religious text, or that its characters have dedicated their lives to a religious cause. Here’s where some thoughtful, between-the-lines dialogue could have given grownup audiences more to chew on, particularly those with a casual interest in the book and its content. This is a selfish complaint, because I appreciate a recent wave of animated children’s movies that has made an effort to do something similar. As a movie for children, though, it’s more than adequate.

secret1While the art is its greatest strength, the film’s animation is only fair to middling. One gets the sense that the budget was restrictive, especially compared to the ridiculous costs of films put out by Pixar and Disney. It’s possible that this was a conscious decision, a rougher animation employed to emulate the feeling of the turning of pages, for example, because when the motion needs more fluidity, as when the book’s beautiful illuminations come to life, it’s much more elegant.

Voice acting by most of the principal cast, especially Brendan Gleeson as the Abbot, is quite good, but the decision to cast a very young actor as the voice of the main character is a misstep. Very few young actors can deliver the dramatic nuance animated films require, so young Evan McGuire does about what you’d expect from a competent young actor: two or three notes that work okay, but very little in between.

Still, give it plus points for good music, great art, and subject matter that stretches far beyond the content of most children’s films. Younger viewers will appreciate a rebellious but serious-minded protagonist with a mysterious friendship and a misunderstanding father figure. Older viewers will love the art, which really is unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie.  I kind of want to get several tattoos of scenes from the film.

7/10
77/100

I Got Numbers Comin’ Outta My Ears

I haven't seen Eat, Pray, Love yet, but there is something about Julia and polka-dots.
I haven’t seen Eat, Pray, Love yet, but there is something about Julia and polka-dots.

And now, an impromptu ranking of the Julia Roberts movies I’ve seen, from best to least-best. We’ll call this Draft 1, because I’m super super super tired and don’t have a lot of time to think about this with the kind of rigor it requires.

  1. Notting Hill
  2. Pretty Woman
  3. Mystic Pizza
  4. The Mexican
  5. Charlie Wilson’s War
  6. The Pelican Brief
  7. Erin Brockovich
  8. Mirror, Mirror
  9. August: Osage County
  10. Flatliners
  11. Ocean’s Eleven
  12. Ocean’s Twelve
  13. Mona Lisa Smile
  14. Steel Magnolias
  15. Larry Crowne
  16. Charlotte’s Web
  17. Something to Talk About
  18. Stepmom
  19. Money Monster
  20. Runaway Bride
  21. America’s Sweethearts
  22. Duplicity
  23. The Ant Bully
  24. Everyone Says I Love You
  25. My Best Friend’s Wedding
  26. Valentine’s Day
  27. Sleeping with the Enemy

Review: Rocket Science

Rocket Science (2007)
Reece Thompson, Anna Kendrick. Written and directed by Jeffrey Blitz.

rocket6“It’s one of those two, love or revenge,” says ninth-grader Hal Hefner in explaining his motivation. It’s the kind of rationale that can turn a nice, lightly absurd teen comedy into something dark or cynical, but Rocket Science tiptoes on the tipping point, does a couple of those oh-no-I’m-losing-my-balance arm-waving things, then floats gently back to earth, its parasol of earnestness setting it down right where it should, in the land of hope and optimism.

rocket4Hal is a stammerer. It’s not fair: his mother, father, and brother have all kinds of problems, but their problems don’t cause them ridicule or loneliness. Hal can’t speak up in class even when he’s the only one who knows the answer his teacher is trying incompetently to wring out of her students. His counselor doesn’t know what to do with him, saying, “It’s really a shame you’re not hyperactive, because that I know well.” When he’s presented in the lunch line with the choice of pizza or fish, he can’t spit the word “pizza” out, and is stuck with an unidentifiable piece of fish.

But then Ginny Ryerson recruits him for the debate team. She’s won every award in high-school policy debate except the state championship, and she wants him to be her partner in her final chance at that last trophy. She’s a senior, and she’s smart and pretty, and she convinces him that his brains and insight are exactly what she needs in a debate partner. That stammering stuff will work itself out.

rocket7That’s a heck of a premise. Add excellent acting, smart direction, a silly but realistic presentation of high-school campus life, and a script that remembers how bizarre any fifteen-year-old’s existence feels to the fifteen-year-old and to everyone around him, and you get a pretty good teen movie. If you can look at this film and feel the slightest compassion for its characters – all of them – you can understand why I loved teaching ninth-graders for sixteen years. Director Jeffrey Blitz also directed one of my top-five documentary films of all time, Spellbound, about the National Spelling Bee, and it’s clear he gets this weird place young people occupy, crammed somewhere between their upbringings, their environments, and their emerging, independently thinking selves. Figuring out where their places are and finding their voices shouldn’t be rocket science, Hal suggests, but Hal doesn’t know yet that rocket science is a piece of cake compared to “all this, you know? Everything.”

8/10
88/100

Review: The Lobster

The Lobster (2015)
Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, John C. Reilly.  Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos.  Written by Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou.

lobster1The world can be unkind to romantically unattached singles, many of whom spend their whole lives searching for someone who will connect with them in some deeply meaningful way.  Or, barring that, someone who will at least agree that life spent with just about anyone at all is better than spending it with nobody.  This is not a new theme in film or in any other realm exploring the miserable stuff of life.

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster takes our preoccupation with love (or at least couplehood) to absurd extremes in a way that’s supposed to be funny but leans so far over into terrible that I found it difficult to laugh even when I knew I was supposed to, although most of the time I wasn’t sure whether scenes were meant to make me laugh, cry, or recoil in utter horror, which I suppose is the point.  Characters go to ridiculous lengths to establish connections with potential lovers, one of them arriving at the baffling conclusion that it’s easier to act like you don’t care about someone who doesn’t like you than it is to act like you do care about someone who does like you.

lobster2Considering what’s at stake, it’s difficult exactly to judge any of them, for in this dystopian Ireland, newly single people check into hotels and are given forty-five days to find new partners.  If they don’t, they are turned into the animals of their choice.  When David, the film’s main character, is abandoned by his wife, he brings his dog to the hotel, because the dog is his brother.  The hotel has strict rules, all of them designed to encourage partnering up before the grace period is over, and although everyone is there for the same reason as David, connecting with someone just isn’t easy.  That woman is very pretty, and this woman is sweet and friendly, and that sexually uninhibited one over there keeps inviting you to her room, but…but…but…

Lanthimos does interesting work in framing the love-obsessed world, but then he rotates the image, skewering and condemning unapologetic singles who pass judgment on couples. This next-leveling turns what would have been a creative but rather shallow black comedy into something much more interesting in a kind of not-so-fast-you-in-the-condescension-corner-yeah-I’m-talking-to-you way.  If I like this movie at all, it’s because I found myself tsk-tsking in the first half and dodging the finger of accusation in the second.  What a neat, amusing, and embarrassing experience.

lobster5Everything about this film is cold.  The lighting is cold.  The acting is cold.  The dialogue is cold.  Even the score, mostly chamber-type classical music, is cold.  It’s tempting to call the acting flat and inhibited, but there’s something stirring down there, beneath the surfaces of these characters who seem so insipidly conceived.  They don’t have names, and only one or two have backstories.  I don’t know what the rationale was here, but this approach makes the film more challenging than seems necessary.  Still, flashes of warmth and realness by Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly, and a few of the others give the impression that there’s some real acting going on, and I may need another viewing to get a better idea of what the actors are doing.

The Lobster is easily a movie about love, but I wonder if it’s not also about faith, or politics, or education, or anything else with a dominant culture, a defiant counterculture, and people who can’t seem to find their place in the tiny space between.  Either way, I find it an inspiring film despite this weird feeling that I’m not supposed to be inspired by it.

8/10
83/100

Review: Sicario

Sicario (2015)
Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

siSicario is technically a well put-together movie, with lighting, sound, and camera work providing enough imagery to show what’s going on while they build suspense in a convincing, real-life way. When FBI agents burst into the safe house of a Mexican a drug cartel, we get the tension of not knowing what’s down a dark hallway, who’s going to be cooperative when a rifle is pointed at his face, or what’s behind a closed bedroom door. And when the agents gradually realize the horrible stuff they’re dealing with, we’re carried along like reporters embedded with the team—not directly involved, but present enough not to be objective.

Too many thrillers force suspense upon us, with unrealistic sounds (such as knives that make metallic sounds just by being brandished in the air) or things that pop out of nowhere just to be startling. I don’t know what it’s actually like to be in a drug cartel’s safe house, but this film makes me believe in the reality of the situation, which is more than tense enough, just given the details as they exist.

caDespite its technical excellence and fine acting, Sicario tells an intriguing but unsatisfying story. It defines Emily Blunt’s character as the protagonist, gives us something to admire about her, and never really gives her any agency. As the FBI’s Kate Macer, she’s focused, dedicated, and tough, but this film isn’t really telling her story; she’s being brought along in service to a larger plot that has no protagonist. It works on the micro level: we get to feel as confused by strange developments as our supposed heroine, but on the macro level, when it’s all over, we’re left feeling kind of empty.

rioMuch of the buzz around this movie had to do with Blunt’s emergence as a new action star, with Entertainment Weekly including her on its shortlist for possible Daniel Craig replacements as James Bond (tangent: I still think Jack Black should be given a shot). I don’t have any doubt she would be excellent in that role, but my confidence in her is not based at all on this film. Her performance is solid, but her character is never given the chance to carry her own movie.

To call it a dark film is probably understating things, and while I do like darkness in my cinema, I want it to emerge from characters we root for, so my own tortured soul has something to relate to. Sicario’s darkness is all in its story. That can work. Yet without a main character to take us through it, it works only as a downer, and this is a downer as a movie and as a filmgoing experience.

5/10
50/100

Review: Café Lumière

Café Lumière (2003)
Yo Hitoto, Tadanobu Asano. Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Ho. Japanese with English subtitles.

cafe lWhen the credits rolled at the conclusion of Café Lumière, I wasn’t sure what I’d been watching for an hour and forty-three minutes, but I knew I liked it. Most of the film is absent any music; its soundtrack is the ambient sounds of Tokyo’s trains, train stations, street traffic, and background conversation. Interior scenes are in small spaces where camera angles seem not to be chosen for the way they frame the characters, but for available space the camera operator can squeeze into, and if that means seeing the backs of everyone’s heads and no faces, that’s okay. Exterior shots follow Yoko through streets and across train platforms, but from a distance, allowing passing traffic to obscure our view for half a minute in some places. There are very few jump-cuts within scenes, there is very little camera movement, and there are no point-of-view shots. Film-making the way our prehistoric forebears did it while living in caves.

cafe lThere’s kind of a plot, and there are themes, but director Hsiao-Hsien Ho does his best to lead you to them gently, without exposition or voiceover. It’s a film that encourages repeat viewings, and your takeaway could be different the first couple of times you watch it. I saw it on a DVD whose special features included interviews with Yo Hitoto, a Japanese pop singer in her first acting role, and Tadanobu Asano, a notable Japanese action movie star who plays that Asian-looking, butt-kicking warrior in the Thor films. They are asked to share their favorite scene from the film, and they both say their favorite scenes never made the final cut. One gets the feeling that if a scene was too memorable, it was left out for fear of taking over the film’s overall impression. What we’re left with are quiet scenes of characters in small spaces where it seems impossible for characters not to connect, and large spaces where there is always something physical separating them.

cafe lThe main character is Yoko Inoue, a young writer researching a 1930s Taiwanese composer who worked most of his life in Japan and married a Japanese woman. She lives in a tiny apartment some distance from her parents, and spends a lot of her time on trains. Whether trains are merely a mode of transportation or something else isn’t clear, but trains are a dominant motif throughout the film. A young man who may be merely a friend or possibly a romantic interest works in a used bookstore, spending his free time recording ambient train station sounds on his mini-disc player.

cafe lThe film is probably best left for each viewer to examine for him- or herself, so I’ll leave it there, with the advice to see it more than once, and to look at the supplemental material if you have access to it. And then message me so we can talk about it, because I’d love to know what others think.

While it has certain sensibilities in common with American mumblecore films, Café Lumière lacks the low-fi approach those movies embrace—there is nothing low-fi or DIY about the deliberate way it is put together. It’s a quiet film that takes its time and refuses to hammer its ideas into your skull, and it’s rather a terrific movie.

9/10
90/100