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.

Steve’s First Rankings of 2013: Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Mud, and Place Beyond the Pines

trekIt took me until the end of April to see my first 2013 movie, but now I’ve seen four in two weeks. That’s enough to start my 2013 Rankings page. Check out what I have to say about Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Mud, and The Place Beyond the Pines.

Sins of the Fathers: Steve Recommends The Place Beyond the Pines

The sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. That Biblical theme is at the heart of director and co-writer Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. Befitting that theme, it is a dark, difficult, and thought-provoking film. It is also a gorgeous movie, beautifully shot and filled with strong pinesimages. It boasts solid acting throughout, especially from Ryan Gosling. It has all that and yet it falls short of being a truly great movie. However, it comes so close that it is well worth seeing. Even if it doesn’t quite work as a whole, many of the individual pieces are exquisite and Cianfrance should be applauded for his bold filmmaking.

The movie tells three inter-related stories, each taking about a third of the 140 minute runtime. The first segment, which is the strongest, features Gosling as Handsome Luke, a motorcycle daredevil working the carnival circuit. While making the annual stop in Schenectady, New York, he discovers that there is something new in town, his own infant son. He decides to quit the carnival and stay in town to care for his son, Jason, and the child’s mother, Romina (Eva Mendes). There are two problems: he has no job and Romina has a new man  in her life. The first problem is resolved when he meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who is impressed with Luke’s motorcycle skills and offers to train him as a mechanic. There is another problem: Robin lives outside of town and has little business at his repair shop. But he already has another kind of training in mind. He is a former bank robber and he is convinced that with Luke’s special skill set they can take up that trade together. He says that the key to being a successful bank robber is knowing to quit before things get too hot. He knows when this is, but Luke does not, and that leads to a load of trouble for Luke and lots of other folks. Luke is a complex character. He wants to do right by his son, after being abandoned by his own father, but he doesn’t know how. His paternal need to provide ultimately traps him in a life of crime, an activity that both excites and frightens him. That moral struggle is what makes this portion the richest viewing experience of the three stories.

The second story focuses on Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop who becomes a hero by being in the right place at the right time after Luke’s final heist goes awry. That encounter is a stark reminder of the dangers of his chosen profession. His wife and father would like to see him change careers, which he considers only because of the fear that his own young son could lose his father. However, he doesn’t want to give up on the nobility that he sees in police work. That sense of nobility is shaken when he discovers corruption in the police department. He has the opportunity to be a party to that corruption, but he refuses to take the path. Instead, taking the advice of his father, a former judge, he exposes the corruption and uses the occasion to advance his own political aspirations, first as assistant district attorney, and eventually in a run for attorney general of New York. In his case, choosing the right path and doing good becomes self-centered and possibly even sinful. The cost of his choices is revealed when the story jumps ahead fifteen years for the final segment. He is now divorced and barely has a relationship with his son. So, the son did lose his father, not to the dangers of police work, but to abandonment through ambition. The problem with this second act is that at times it feels like just another police corruption movie and so the tightly woven film begins to unravel just a bit. Case in point: casting Ray Liotta as one of the primary corrupt cops. Sure, Liotta can play such a role in his sleep, but that is the problem. I thoroughly enjoy him as an actor, and he is good here, but it feels too much like been there, done that.

In the conclusion, the two sons, Jason and A.J. cross paths in high school. We see the effects of the sins of the fathers visited on the sons. It is no surprise that they have both become drug users. Yet, while it fits, it also feels forced and clichéd. That feeling pervades this segment, making it the weakest of the three, which is not a good way to end a movie! Some of the writing here borders on the ridiculous. It causes you to wonder: are these people thinking at all? That could apply to either the characters or the writers. Another case in point: what father, especially one running for attorney general and whose son had just been arrested for drug possession, would leave that son unsupervised for the weekend so that he could host a party with underage drinking, rampant drug use, and unfettered sexual activity? I’ll tell you this, I wouldn’t want that guy as my attorney general. Such scenes cheapened the overall impact of the movie. However, I still found myself nearly on the edge of my seat wondering how the movie would end. It is well worth seeing.

A few final thoughts on the actors. Gosling gives a strong performance. It is fair to compare it to his work in Drive, but this is not a simple rehashing of that character. He gives Luke a dark and intriguing persona all his own. Cooper has the difficult task of following the smoldering performance of Gosling. I didn’t find him as mesmerizing as Ryan, and his role here isn’t as interesting as in Silver Linings Playbook, but it is still quite good. (A word of warning to those who are excited about seeing Gosling and Cooper together in a movie: they share about ten seconds of screen time!) If following Gosling is hard, the two sons have to follow both Gosling and Cooper! They do a commendable job. I especially liked Dane DeHaan who played Jason. This is a nice follow-up to last year’s Chronicle. He is a young actor to keep an eye on. Mendelsohn deserves special attention. As good as Gosling and the other actors are, I was most impressed with Mendelsohn. He gave a strong performance as the brother in charge of the criminal family in Animal Kingdom and he is even better here. Unfortunately, his appearances are relatively brief. The bulk of his screen time is with Luke in the first third of the movie, along with a reprise in the third act when Jason comes searching for the truth about his father. Mendelsohn makes the most of his time (and ours) by giving Robin more depth and nuance than any other character in the movie.

And a final thought on the director. Again I applaud his desire to make a great movie. Too few directors even try. There are so many wonderful elements in this film. I trust that he will one day make his masterpiece. I liked this better than his Blue Valentine. He is gifted at revealing the brokenness of his characters, but they seem to have precious few redeeming qualities. I like to be left with at least a sense of hope. Here the ongoing power of sin is evident, but, what do you think, is there hope in the ending of The Place Beyond the Pines?

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.

Batman Over Spider-man?: Steve’s Reflection on The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-man

The question in this post’s title (Batman over Spider-man?) has two meanings. The first has to do with why I thought The Dark Knight Rises was a better movie than The Amazing Spider-man. The second has to do with why James Holmes chose to commit his horrendous crime at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises rather than the opening of the The Amazing Spider-man. As it turns out, the answers to those two questions are related. I would prefer to ignore the second sense of the question, but that seems impossible at this time. Eventually, the connection of that crime to the movie will fade somewhat, but, at the moment they are too intertwined to avoid some reflection on the events in Aurora.

A little background on my Dark Knight experience: At the time that Holmes was opening fire upon the theater patrons in Aurora, I was at the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises here in Montana. I do not regularly attend midnight showings, but at the urging of my son I decided to give it a try. During the first twenty minutes or so of the movie I was thinking that it was a big mistake. There were a few guys (and, yes, they were all males) yelling out comments. I think their actions had more to do with it being the midnight hour and quite possibly alcohol consumption than with the fact that it was The Dark Knight Rises being shown. These selfish boors were clearly reveling in their attention-seeking activities. Interestingly, there has been much pondering in the last week about the role that attention-seeking played in Holmes’ actions. As I became increasingly irritated, another guy decided to take matters into his own hands. (Again, it is interesting that at a Batman movie someone should decide to play the role of the vigilante.) He approached the guy making the loudest and most frequent comments and requested that he cease and desist. A scuffle broke out. An usher quickly moved the offending parties to the lobby where the disturbance continued. A surprisingly large number of folks rushed out to the lobby to see what was happening. I guess they thought the drama there would be more intriguing than what was being offered on the screen. Before long things settled down and we were able to enjoy the rest of the movie in relative peace.

Given that experience, it felt quite strange to hear about the events in Aurora. As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t believe that the events in our theater had much to do with the particular movie being shown. However, I do think that Holmes purposefully chose The Dark Knight Rises, although his actions were clearly based on the second movie in the trilogy because he could not have seen the new movie yet and he refered to himself as the Joker. Why this movie rather than, for instance, The Amazing Spider-man that opened just a couple of weeks before DK Rises? As many have noted, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is darker than most superhero movies, but I think there is more to it than that. Spider-man, along with most, if not all, other superhero movies, comes from the realm of fantasy. Heroes in the real world simply do not take on the properties of spiders and villans do not become large and vicious lizards. Batman’s gadgets aside, the Dark Knight movies come much closer to reality. Batman’s mask, the Joker’s makeup and whatever it was that Bane was wearing are the thin veneer that separates these characters from the real world. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker was a particularly powerful evocation of the evil that we face in the world. We need not live in fear of someone becoming a rampaging giant lizard, but someone could be as twisted as the Joker. James Holmes was speaking the truth when he said that he is the Joker. I do not mean to imply that these movies made him do what he did. Without these movies his inclination to evil would have found another context in which to be manifested. Nonetheless, I am not at all surprised that he chose The Dark Knight Rises over The Amazing Spider-man.

Getting back to my reactions to the movies themselves, all of this does play into why I thought The Dark Knight Rises was a better movie than The Amazing Spider-man. It is not just that DK Rises was more realistic than Spider-man. There is certainly a place for fantasy in the movies. In fact, sometimes fantasy can help us more clearly see the truth of our reality, but I didn’t feel that was the case with Spider-man. Movies are works of art and art serves two basic purposes: to entertain us and to enlighten us. A work of art may lean more in one direction than the other, but they are both generally there to some degree. Marc Webb, the director of Spider-man, leaned more towards entertainment, and Christopher Nolan more towards enlightenment, but they both had protagonists that were seeking answers to a fundamental existential question. It was put this way in Spider-man. Towards the end of the movie, Peter Parker’s English teacher says that a professor once told her that there were only ten plotlines in all of literature. She says that is wrong and claims there is only one plotline: who am I? Both Batman and Spider-man struggle with that question. That struggle included wondering about the degree of responsibility that they owed to others. However, the struggle seemed more superficial in Spider-man. Maybe because the story was set during the time that Peter Parker was in high school, Spider-man felt like a coming of age story that happened to feature a superhero, while DK Rises felt like it was attempting to dig deeper into the human condition.

I’ll soon post my first rankings for 2012 movies. When I do, I’ll include a few particular likes and dislikes for these movies. But, to wrap things up here, I’ll simply say that Spider-man  had two big drawbacks for me. As much as I enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Spidey, I felt over all the characters were stock types and that the movie did have a number of plotlines that were clichéd. The movie had a been there, done that feel to it. I guess I would side with those who wonder if we really needed this reboot. The second problem was that there were too many inconsistencies within the movie. Even a fantasy movie needs to have internal logic. Two examples: when Dr. Conner converts back into human form in the sewer he is wearing a robe; much is made of the fact that Peter’s hands are sticky when he turns into Spider-man, but he is shown looking through his father’s papers and they don’t stick, while moments later the keys from his computer keypad do stick. On the other hand, in The Dark Knight Rises I found many of the characters intriguing and my engagement with the film wasn’t disrupted by inconsistencies. It’s not an all-time classic, but it’s darn good. Despite its flaws, The Amazing Spider-man is fairly entertaining. Bottom line: I recommend both of them, but if you can only see one, make it The Dark Knight Rises.

Steve’s Look at Upcoming Movies

So far I’ve only seen one movie released in 2012 (The Hunger Games), but that’s about to change. With the release of The Avengers this weekend, the floodgates will be opened. I’ve added a new page to my blog on which I rank 44 movies coming out between now and the end of the year. Take a look to see what I’m most looking forward to and then leave a comment to let me know which movies you are most anticipating. For each movie I’ve included the release date and reasons why and why not to see it. See you at the movies!