Back to Blogging: Reflections on the Movies of 2013 (plus a few from 2012 and 2011)

I’m back! After nine months I’m finally adding another post. Did I stop watching movies for nine months? Certainly not! Here’s the hustlescoop: none of the movies over the summer inspired me to write anything. When the good movies started rolling out in the fall, I was out of the blogging habit. I fell behind, but slowly added reflections on my 2013 rankings page. I finally have those rankings up to date. I’ve also added films to the 2011 and 2012 rankings, but not all of those gravityhave comments yet. In total, I added 32 movies from 2013, including American Hustle, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street, Fruitvale Station, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, August: Osage County, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I added 14 movies from 2012 and 5 from 2011, including Cloud Atlas, Killing Them Softly, A Late Quartet, and Incendies. Check out my rankings pages and be looking for my annual Oscar predictions coming soon.

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The Metaphysical Mayhem of Seven Psychopaths: a Reflection from Steve

What the heck was that? That was Seven Psychopaths and it is one strange movie! As I watched the film, I found myself thinking over and over that it just didn’t work. I was certainly enjoying the pieces, but the pieces just didn’t seem to fit together in a way that justified what writer/director Martin McDonagh seemed to be trying to do. Why would McDonagh’s work need to be justified? In this case it needs to be justified because he’s crafted a violent movie with a central character who happens to be a screenwriter and this screenwriter claims that he wants to move away from violent movies and work on stories that focus on world peace. How can one not make a connection between the character Marty, an Irish screenwriter played by Colin Farrell, and Martin himself? If Marty represents Martin then one must ask whether Martin is playing fair. Can you make an extremely violent movie while claiming you’d prefer to ponder world peace? Then the ending came and the movie made a strange sort of sense. The questions weren’t all answered, but that didn’t seem to matter. There seemed to be something deeper going on here.

Before we get to those deeper things, be forewarned that this movie has plenty of both violence and pondering. That is why I’m calling this a reflection rather than a recommendation. Although in the end I loved the movie, I’m not sure who I would recommend it to. On the one hand, if you have a problem with graphic images of violence, I can not state strongly enough that you should avoid this movie. The violence is quite, well, violent and, yes, graphic. It is violent in many and various ways. It will make you cringe. (Actually, some of the humor is likely to make you cringe, too.) On the other hand, if you like your movies to be filled with action, if you desire the mayhem to be nearly non-stop, only taking a breather for the occasional joke, and if you are not even sure what metaphysics are, then this movie may not be for you either. If pausing to listen to characters ponder such things as the existence of God and the afterlife doesn’t sound like a good time to you, then you may want to skip this film. Yes, it’s a bit like what Tarantino does in movies such as Pulp Fiction, but it feels both more spiritual and more disruptive here and you might not like it. If, on the other hand, you like your metaphysics mixed with mayhem, then, by all means, give Seven Psychopaths a try.

That brings us back to the key question: is writer/director McDonagh playing fair? Can you make an ultraviolent movie with a central character who claims he wants to focus on peace, especially if that character is based in some way on you, the writer/director? Many reviewers have made that connection between Marty and Martin, but I think the key to understanding the movie (and seeing that McDonagh is playing fair) is found in the realization that not only Marty, but also Billy, and possibly even Hans, are representations of particular aspects of McDonagh’s persona. Billy (in a typically delightful and off kilter performance by Sam Rockwell) is Marty’s best friend. Billy decides to help Marty with his screenplay by putting an ad in the paper so that Marty can meet some actual psychopaths (which begs the question: would an actual psychopath answer such an ad?) and by causing some psychotic mayhem of his own. Even as Marty desires to scrap the project and work on something more peaceful, Billy envisions a movie filled with gore and, of course, a grand Hollywood final confrontation with a bloody shoot-out. I think that Marty and Billy represent not just two sides of McDonagh, but the opposing forces that are found in each of us. Like Marty, we desire something better for the world. Like Billy, we are also drawn to something darker. At least in part, it is the Billy in me that is drawn to movies like this, including the works of Tarantino. (If you would like a Biblical example of this side of ourselves, check out Romans 7.)

However, I do not like movies that are simply filled with gratuitous violence. There has to be a sense of deeper meaning. I need the metaphysics, as well as the mayhem. That is where Hans enters the picture. Hans (played brilliantly by Christopher Walken) is Billy’s partner in a dognapping scheme. (Yes, the plot does take many strange turns!) As the movie unfolds, we find out that Hans has experienced some extremely difficult events in his life. He now faces everything, including grief and threats to his life, in a calm, controlled manner. You might be tempted to call him cold-blooded, but there is more going on with him than that. He is at the center of much of the philosophical pondering. He makes it clear that the only way to make any sense of the chaotic reality we live in is to have faith that there is something more. His explanation of the actions of the Vietnamese psychopath points to Christ-like self-sacrifice.

I wrote at the beginning of this piece that the ending brought with it a kind of resolution, but one must ask, which ending? Billy’s shoot-out with its strange sense of justice? Hans’ explanation? Marty’s acceptance of his fate in his conversation with the bunny-holding psychopath (in a small, but weirdly entertaining turn by Tom Waits)? Interestingly, each of these involves some form of self-sacrifice. Clearly, here and in his previous film, In Bruges, McDonagh is striving to make some sense of his upbringing in the faith, but such striving is difficult. Sometimes it leads to metaphysical mayhem. Marty, Billy, and Hans provide three ways to view the world, three ways to see ourselves. Does one come closer to the truth? Let me get back to you on that.

Be Thrown for a Loop: Steve Highly Recommends Looper

Time travel is tricky, but tripping through the twists of Looper is time well spent. The trouble with time travel is that there is always the nagging question of how the time traveler will change history and what rippling effects that will have. It can be enough to make your head spin, or, as Abe, a mob boss played with delightful, quiet creepiness by Jeff Daniels, says, “This time travel crap just fries your brain like an egg.” My advice is don’t think too much, just enjoy the journey, and incredibly enjoyable it is. The movie itself offers similar advice as Old Joe tells Young Joe that they are not going to talk about time travel because, if they do, they will end up spending the whole day making diagrams with straws. Writer/director Rian Johnson clearly did his homework with those diagrams in order to craft a movie that tells us enough, but not too much, about the implications of time travel within the scheme of the film’s world. Any movie, but especially a sci-fi movie involving time travel, needs a clearly defined set of rules and it needs to play fair within those rules. Looper does. Numerous folks seem obsessed with the mechanisms of the time travel, but I think they are missing the point. The movie is not about time travel. The time travel is there to serve a story and a compelling story it is. At the heart of the story we find an ethical question well worth pondering.

I’m not going to say much about the story itself, because its twists and turns are what make the story such a delight. Mentioning even a few plot points would give too much away. I’ve re-watched the trailer and I’m impressed with how, again, they were able to reveal enough, but not too much. In fact, a key character isn’t even hinted at in the trailer, even though the movie turns on the fate of this character. The trailer does reveal the basic premise of the movie. Loopers are hit men in 2042 who execute people sent back in time by the mob after time travel is invented in 2072. Occasionally, the mob sends the hit man back from the future to be executed by his younger self. This is called closing the loop. Obviously, this creates a moral dilemma. Would you kill your future self? The movie shows that the consequences for letting your future self run are severe, indeed. This dilemma is played out in the story of Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis), but it actually serves to point to a deeper ethical issue. Without giving too much away, the issue is this: is it morally defensible to kill innocent people in order to stop someone who is truly evil? Beyond being a marvelous viewing experience, the presentation of this question make Looper a valuable movie. That question plays into many justice issues, including, of course, just war theory. When is war justified? How dangerous must the enemy be and dangerous to whom? How many innocent lives can be lost before an action is no longer justifiable? Does it depend on how many lives will be saved? Does the end justify the means? (These issues were also presented in The Bourne Legacy earlier this year, in which Edward Norton’s character says that their actions are morally indefensible, but that they lead to a greater good.) The movie also gives us one, two, maybe three, instances of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Jesus said there is no greater love than laying down your life. That, too, is well worth thinking about. As is the whole notion of playing God. If we had the ability to travel back in time to change things, wouldn’t there be the temptation to make things right and in that sense to play God? Notice, too, that I said temptation and not desire to make things right. Who determines, finally, what is right? Such questions are swirling in this intriguing film, but it is to Johnson’s credit that he doesn’t hit us over the head with them, turning this into a lecture or diatribe. He simply lets them swirl.

Time travel is tricky, but creating an entertaining movie set in a complex system with deep questions at its heart is trickier still. For instance, I am not a big fan of Inception. Christopher Nolan certainly created a complex system with his dream world and he clearly had deep questions in mind, but I felt the movie lacked heart. I never cared about the characters. In Looper, I did care about Joe and Old Joe. The bottom line is always the story and here the story is riveting and well told. Then the story must be brought to life and that is done with solid directing and acting. The cast is stellar, led by knockout performances by Gordon-Levitt and Willis. When I saw the prosthetics used to make Gordon-Levitt look more like Willis, I thought they looked strange in the trailer, but they work well in the movie. However, I’m not sure they were even needed because JGL does an incredible job of capturing Willis’ mannerisms and voice inflections. I’ve already mentioned the creepy cool performance by Jeff Daniels. Emily Blunt brings a nice blend of vulnerability and strength to her role as Sara, a women dealing with a number of issues (although, her character did occasionally act in ways that were remarkably stupid…one of the few weaknesses in the script). Speaking of issues, can anyone play a tortured soul better than Paul Dano? Unfortunately, he was only actively involved in a few scenes and his role got progressively smaller as time went on. (If you have seen the movie, you may realize that is a joke deserving a Sheldonesque snicker, if not a bazinga.)  The movie is certainly violent, but Johnson shows restraint in presenting that violence. In the hands of many other directors (Tarantino!), this would have been much bloodier. A prostitute is shown topless, there is drug use and some “language” (again, more restrained than many R-rated films), but if those things don’t bother you, I highly recommend Looper, a highly entertaining film, as well as an opportunity to ponder some important questions. Do yourself a favor and see Looper. It will be time well spent. Personally, I plan to live through it again and again, with or without the aid of time travel.

Bourne Again or Total Rehash?: Steve Recommends The Bourne Legacy over Total Recall

How many times can you ride a roller coaster before the thrill begins to diminish? Is there a point at which the thrills become so redundant that a switch to the merry-go-round begins to sound like a good idea? My family will soon be heading to an amusement park, so those questions will come into play, but they are also pertinent to my movie viewing over the past two weekends. I saw two of this summer’s high-profile reboots, Total Recall and The Bourne Legacy. They both happen to be action thrillers, so the roller coaster metaphor seems appropriate. Although I have never seen the original Total Recall, this summer’s version still  felt like a ride I had been on before. I’ve seen the three prior Bourne movies multiple times, so The Bourne Legacy felt that way, too. However, there was a big difference between the two experiences. Strangely enough, it was Total Recall that had the been there-done that feel to it, whereas The Bourne Legacy felt like a series that had been born anew. As much as I like Matt Damon, it may have turned out to be good fortune that he decided to opt out of the Bourne series (at least for the time being). So, cutting to the chase (as these movies certainly do), I highly recommend Legacy. As for Total Recall, I’m tempted to say wait for the DVD release, but on the other hand, this is a movie built on action designed for the big screen, so I guess I will lowly recommend it. Even though it’s thrills didn’t feel particularly fresh, I’m still glad I took this roller coaster ride rather than going to the Ice Age merry-go-round!

I nearly skipped seeing The Bourne Legacy. I had seen the lukewarm reviews that said it didn’t live up to its predecessors, in part because Jeremy Renner doesn’t possess Matt Damon’s star quality and that it is lacking in action. Actually, going into this film, I wasn’t a big Jeremy Renner fan. I wasn’t that impressed by The Hurt Locker, although now I think I need to see it again to reevaluate his performance. He was good in The Town, but that was mostly as a counterpoint to Ben Afflect’s part. I thought his Hawkeye was the weakest link in The Avengers, but I don’t think that was really his fault. I had totally forgotten that he was in MI: Ghost Protocol, even though I have seen it. Obviously, I didn’t go to Bourne to see Renner. I went to see Edward Norton and he was delightful as always. (He’s showing his acting range this summer with this and Moonrise Kingdom.) His precise position in the CIA (if he is in the CIA) is cloaked in secrecy, but it is definitely a position of great power. I found the mystery surrounding his position, along with mysteries surrounding Renner’s character, Aaron Cross, and other aspects of the story to be a great strength. Even when the action didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, the slowly unfolding story did. Some complain that the movie moves too slowly, especially at the beginning, but I prefered this movie’s thoughtfulness over The Bourne Ultimatum’s frenetic nature. In fact, I was quite impressed by Tony Gilroy’s directing. His action pieces maintained the intensity of those by Paul Greengrass, but he did so without the use of the shaky-cam that Greengrass relied on and that I don’t particularly like. The action pieces weren’t anything that we haven’t seen before, but Gilroy’s style infused them with thrills that made me glad to be on that roller coaster.  But, getting back to Renner, I have a new respect for him now. He may not have the same star power as Damon, but his performance here was powerful in its own way. He revealed just enough to draw us in and to make us care about Aaron Cross. I want to see more of Cross, possibly with a return by Damon as Bourne, but also, hopefully, in some dynamic scenes where Cross and Norton’s Byer confront one another. In addition to all this, the opening scenes gave us the breathtaking scenery of the mountains of Alberta.

I loved this movie much more than I thought I would and it also offered some questions to grapple with, especially in regard to how we make ethical decisions. This theme arises in regard to the genetic manipulation that is at the center of the film’s story, but also in important ways in regard to military action. This is most clear in the flashback where Byer describes their work as being sin-eaters. He says that their actions are morally indefensible, but that they lead to a greater good. Cross accepts this at the time, but it clearly weighs on him. It’s an important question for us all to consider. Are all actions acceptable if they lead to a desired outcome? Who gets to make those decisions?

If Edward Norton drew me into the theater for Bourne, it is even truer to say that I saw Total Recall because of Colin Farrell. He’s a current favorite of mine. He did what he could here, but wasn’t given enough to work with. The movie did provide plenty of action, but I greeted much of it with a ho-hum. There was potential here as Farrell character struggled with making sense of who he was, who he could trust, and how we know what is real, but there was only one scene that really dug into the potential of those questions. I thought that the characters of the two female leads, Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel, offered some interesting potential, also. I would have prefered a bit less action and a few more meaty scenes among the three leads. The movie was mildly entertaining, but could have been so much more.

Mission Acceptable: a (Tepid) Recommendation from Steve

Your mission, movie-goer, should you choose to accept it, is to watch Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the fourth movie in the series. Should you accept the mission? Sure, why not, go ahead. The movie is, well, it is acceptable. Notice, though, that I said acceptable, not exceptional. It is fairly enjoyable. There is nothing really terrible about it, but, on the other hand, there isn’t really anything all that special about it, either. I can say that it is the best Mission: Impossible movie that I have seen, but I should also let you know that it is the only one I’ve seen. I’m not sure how I’ve missed all the others. I remember almost going to see MI3 because it had Philip Seymour Hoffman in it. I do enjoy seeing action movies now and again and generally I’m a pretty big fan of Tom Cruise (even if he is a bit of a wingnut), but let’s face it, his acting here is hardly in a league with his role in Magnolia (which I do highly recommend if you haven’t seen it). In fact, it’s almost hard to say that he is acting. What he’s really doing is movie-starring and I guess that’s alright. He does have a nice smile! Which is more than can be said about Jeremy Renner for most of the movie. His talents were woefully misused. His strength is his intensity, but here he just looked unhappy most of the time. I know he had that deep, dark secret to brood about, but I thought he looked constipated. Paula Patton as Jane was certainly gorgeous, but her role was as original as her character’s name. Thank goodness for Simon Pegg. He saved the acting side of things. It’s amazing how funny he can be just using facial expressions. I know, I know, action movies aren’t about the characters anyway. I’ve read many reviews raving about the action sequences. I found them to be good, but, again, far from fresh and original. Sure, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself climbing on the world’s tallest building, but we’ve seen plenty of action sequences in high places before. Does it really matter if you are 130 stories above the ground rather than just 30? Either way it’s going to be ugly if you fall! That sequence is a good example, though, of why this is only a good movie and not a great one. Ethan is climbing the building so he can break into the building’s computer room. Really? That’s the best reason they could find for this breathtaking scene? Sure, they had to hack the computers so they could control the buildings elevators and security cameras, but I still think it’s a pretty lame excuse as a setup for one of the action centerpieces of the movie. The truth is that none of the action had me on the edge of my seat, but none of it was truly boring, either. So, I guess the bottom line is: if you are looking for light entertainment, go see it. It is certainly not the worst of this year’s popcorn flicks.