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.

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.

Big Questions: Steve’s Reflection on Prometheus

Don’t you want to know? That is a recurring question in Prometheus, a movie filled with big questions. If you had the opportunity to talk to your creator, wouldn’t you want to participate in that conversation? Don’t you want to know who created us? Don’t you want to know why we were created? My favorite movie in 2011, The Tree of Life, asked big questions about the meaning of life, and since Prometheus promised to do the same, I listed it as my most anticipated movie in 2012. As it turns out, it won’t be my number 1 movie for the year, it had too many weaknesses to achieve that lofty position, but it was nonetheless lots of fun to watch and its big questions do provide plenty of food for thought.

Whereas The Tree of Life presented its questions in the context of family drama, Prometheus does so as a sci-fi/thriller/horror film hybrid. It certainly makes for an interesting experience to be pondering big questions while waiting for monsters to fill the screen with their gory exploits. Since this movie is a prequel to Alien (whether director Ridley Scott cares to call it that or not), the gore is expected, but the violent destructiveness of the aliens is not there simply for its shock value. It provides an important subtext to the questions that are being asked. What role does evil play, not only in the destruction of that which is created, but in creation itself. To put it in Biblical terms, where did that snake in the Garden of Eden come from anyway? Or, as David, the android played so well by Michael Fassbender, says, “Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” This may sound counter to the Christian understanding of God as Creator, but it made me think of the story of the flood, and verses such as Isaiah 45:7 (I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.) and Ezekiel 17:24 (All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.).

If God is potentially destructive, why do we trust God to care for us? We trust that God is a loving God because that is what we choose to believe. The notion of choosing to believe is a recurring theme of the movie. This is especially true of the character Elizabeth Shaw, played by Noomi Rapace. Shaw chooses to believe that the alien beings that left evidence of their time on earth through cave drawings and other artifacts had something to do with our creation, thus giving them the name Engineers. This seems like quite a jump to make given the lack of evidence, but that is part of the big question about faith and why we believe what we believe. Faith does indeed seem to involve a leap. Shaw also chooses to believe that these beings have not simply left a map of their place in the universe, but that this map is more importantly an invitation. When Shaw (and the others) discover that these beings are not what they were expecting, she must face the challenge of altering her beliefs to fit the facts at hand. There is much to ponder here: why do you believe what you believe?; how have the facts of life altered your beliefs?

I appreciated the fact that the movie did not pit science against religion. Yes, there was one scientist who claimed to have no belief in a divine being because of the evidence of Darwinian evolution, but Shaw was both a scientist and a Christian believer, showing that these two things can go hand in hand. I would argue that they must go hand in hand. Religion that disregards science quickly becomes idolatry and science without faith will never be able to enter into the mystery of the big questions. That truth is handled wonderfully in the movie when David asks Shaw if finding out that the Engineers actually did create the human race would end her faith in God. She responds that the question of who created them would still remain.

Another Biblical allusion that caught my attention was a scene in which David has a drop of liquid which presumably has the alien DNA in it on the tip of his finger. He says something along the lines of “big things have small beginnings.” Having preached on the parable of the mustard seed that very morning, this line jumped out at me. As my co-blogger, Bill, has pointed out in a number of his posts, the theme of self-sacrifice is important throughout the Biblical narrative, including, of course, Christ himself, and that theme appears in a couple of interesting ways in Prometheus. I don’t want to include any huge spoilers here, so I won’t mention the sacrifice that comes late in the film, but I think its safe to point out the one that comes at the very beginning. The opening scene shows an Engineer who drinks a black liquid that seems to break down his body so that his DNA can mix with Earth’s water. It this where human life began? The movie doesn’t say so for sure, but it does seem that the Engineer is sacrificing his life in order to create life. What do you think?

Since seeing the movie a couple of days ago, I find myself thinking about the implications of many of the scenes. So much so, that I look forward to seeing it again to see how things strike me the second time around. As I said earlier, I don’t believe that this will be my top ranked movie for the year. At the moment, I rank it just a bit below The Hunger Games, another movie that gives us questions to ponder and one that I found to be more purely entertaining than Prometheus. Prometheus is well worth seeing, but it does contain those horror elements, so be prepared for that. Although, I actually didn’t find it to be all that scary or suspenseful. I didn’t find anything that happened to be all that surprising, which is part of what works against the movie’s impact. There has been much discussion about the weak writing of the movie and I would agree, but only in a certain sense. I’m not concerned that the movie left so many things unanswered. The movie was clearly designed with a sequel in mind, so the fact that the big questions are left hanging is not a big surprise. My chief concern was that too much of the dialogue was dumbed down. It was as if the screenwriters weren’t content with merely obvious, but had to push things to the point of being painfully obvious. I found myself snickering too many times at lines that weren’t meant to be funny. I also felt that the actions of the characters were too often ridiculous. Much of the crew was composed of scientists, but one wonders how these scientists made it onto the crew of this trillion-dollar endeavor. They paid so little regard to proper scientific methods. Now I know that in horror thrillers folks have to do foolish things in order to set up the consequences that follow, and that certainly happens here, but beyond that too many of the actions of the characters seemed simply ludicrous. Despite that, though, I enjoyed most of the characters and thought the acting was mostly quite strong, especially Fassbender. I wasn’t sure about Rapace early on, but her performance as Shaw grew on me. Charlize Theron’s performance as Vickers and Idris Elba as the ship’s captain, Janek, should also be mentioned. Not surprisingly, Scott has given the film a marvelous look and feel, which makes it a worthwhile place to spend a couple of hours pondering those big questions.

Group Effort: Steve Recommends The Avengers

There are folks proclaiming that The Avengers is an incredibly awesome movie. If they mean that it is awesome in its ability to make money, they are certainly correct. After all, it did shatter the opening weekend money record. However, if they mean that it is a great movie, they are wrong. It is not a great movie. There are others lamenting that it is terminally boring. I understand where they are coming from since I found last year’s Captain America to be as dull as its muted color scheme and Thor to be, well, terminally boring. They are currently ranked at 56 and 62 on my list of 2011 movies. Given that they were both lead-ins to The Avengers, I did not have huge expectations as I walked into the theater, despite the fact that the trailers looked fairly good. I was pleasantly surprised. No, it’s not a great movie, but it is quite good. I found it to be fun and entertaining. I know that won’t be near enough to earn it a spot in my top ten for the year (or most likely even my top 20), but in this case it was enough for a satisfying movie experience.

So, what worked here that didn’t in Captain America and Thor? As it turns out the difference was the group effort. When I heard that they were making this movie, even before CA/Thor nearly turned me off of superhero movies for good, I thought that it could never work. There were just too many characters to give them all their due. I figured the story could only turn out to be a jumbled mess. I knew Joss Whedon had good credibility as a writer, but his resume didn’t seem impressive enough to make me think he could pull off writing and directing something of this magnitude. Although the overall story that Whedon and Zak Penn came up with is hardly special in any way, there is enough good writing here to keep things moving along quite nicely. In fact, even at two and a half hours, the movie did not feel too long. The writing provided some good humor and even attempted to add some depth by pondering such things as the nature of freedom versus the human need to feel connected to (and protected by) a greater power; the irony of attempting to achieve peace and security through war and violence; and self-centeredness versus self-sacrifice. True, none of this was deeply profound, but at least they made an effort. Where the writing was at its best was in giving each of the Avengers (with one exception), along with the villain Loki, an adequate amount of screen time to establish some sense of character. Again, there was no deep character development, but what I thought would be the movie’s downfall turned out to be its strength.

Although there will be no Oscar nominations, the group effort of the cast saved the day. I know I was not in the minority in thinking that having Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man brought this movie its greatest hope of success and he did not disappoint. I’m not tired of his Tony Stark schtick yet. Actually, he was better here than in Iron Man 2. I was underwhelmed by Chris Evans’ performance in the movie that introduced Captain America. On his own, the noble nature of Captain America was bland, but here it worked well as a counterpoint to Tony Stark’s self-centeredness. Samuel L. Jackson provided a Nick Fury who showed strength with an undercurrent of mystery. (Sidenote: Jackson threw a twitter hissy fit over a lukewarm review. Sam, I love most of your work and you do a good job here, but do you really want to put your professional record on the line for this movie? I don’t think so.) I was one of those who was bummed when Edward Norton got bumped as the Hulk, but I must admit that Mark Ruffalo did a fine job as Dr. Bruce Banner. He gave the movie a much needed grounding in human compassion, along with his struggle with the other one living in him. I’m still not sold on Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Maybe it is just hard to play a god. (Although, are Thor and Loki really gods or is that just the human perception? Hmmm. My son also raised an interesting point, why does Thor have that strange accent, but Loki does not? I know Loki was adopted, but he was raised in the same family.) Speaking of Loki, Tom Hiddleston was one of the few highpoints of Thor and he is up to the task again in this one. I especially like Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Her fighting style is fun to watch and her cleverness was captivating, but is she a superhero? That question applies to Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, also. He is the one that the script is not kind to. Renner gets little chance to do much more than brood. He’s good at that, but hopefully he’ll do more than that in The Bourne Legacy.

The strength of the movie is the group effort, but it is certainly no surprise that there is conflict when this wide range of personalities first comes together. The verbal sparring between Stark and Captain America is especially fun, much more so than the various physical fights between the characters. It is also no surprise that when push comes to shove and the Avengers are needed to save the world, they come together as a team. Sure, it is expected, even inevitable, but, if done right, even what we expect can be nearly as satisfying as a cinematic surprise. I was satisfied. The group effort here can teach us something. My co-blogger, Bill, has written a piece on The Avengers and the Church that can be found below. If you haven’t read it yet, by all means do so. Also, use this movie to ponder why we are drawn to superheros and what that might say about the human need for God, especially a God who comes as a savior. I may write a few thoughts on that later this summer as we anticipate the arrival of both Batman and Spiderman.

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!

Five Quick Reviews and Rankings by Steve

What are you in the mood for? A good old fashioned, but bloody, samurai movie? A family film starring friends from the past? An historical drama filled with sexual tension? A heart-felt comedy? A sci-fi thriller? I’ve added five films to my 2011 rankings. (Check my Ranking page to see where they landed.) None of them are high on my list, although two are currently in the top 25. However, even the lower ranked ones are worth seeing. Here are short reviews of the five.

13 Assassins

A classic samurai movie. A classic good versus evil movie. After a violent beginning that establishes the cruelty of an evil lord, the movie settles into a quiet middle section in which the thirteen assassins are assembled for a suicide mission against the lord and his army. The final third of the movie is an epic battle scene. The fighting here is realistic (and bloody) with none of the floating warriors that became all the rage with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This is a movie about honor, tradition, and sacrifice. Unless you speak Japanese, you will need to read subtitles, but it is well worth it!

The Muppets

What is better than a reunion with a friend? A reunion with a group of friends! I’ve been humming the Muppet theme for a couple of days now. I actually never was a huge Muppet fan, but I have long enjoyed their unique brand of humor and heart. While this reboot of the Muppet franchise doesn’t bring much of anything new to the table, it is delightful nonetheless. In addition to the theme song, there is a reprise of “The Rainbow Connection” and a batch of new songs. None of the songs are overly memorable, they all work well in the movie. In fact, everything works well. Simply put, see it!

A Dangerous Method

An interesting look at the beginning of psychotherapy. Michael Fassbinder and Viggo Mortensen give solid performances as Jung and Freud. My favorite performance was by Vincent Cassel as Otto Gross, who has an “if it feels good, do it” attitude towards life. Jung tries to get him to see how destructive such an attitude can be, but then ends up in affair himself with Sabina Spielrein. She is played by Keira Knightley in a performance that received mixed reviews. Some love her dramatic portrayal of Spielrein’s struggle with inner demons, others cringe at her jaw-jutting histrionics. I agree with those who feel her performance would have benefited from a more subtle approach.

Cedar Rapids

I liked this more than I thought I would. The trailers made it look like a Judd Apatow kind of movie, long on sex and alcohol/drug jokes, short on much of anything else. The crass jokes are certainly there, but they serve a story that actually has a lot of heart. John C. Reilly is responsible for much of the rude humor, but his character also has a tender side. I’m not a big Ed Helms fan, but he was believable as the small town insurance salesman at his first convention in the big city. Yes, in this case the big city is Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

In Time

An interesting premise that results in a fairly entertaining movie. It is a story set in the future when time is literally money. If you run out of time, your life is over. The poor face that threat every day, always living on the edge. Meanwhile, the rich can accumulate enough time to live forever. In this day and age when the gap between rich and poor grows ever wider, the story strikes a chord, but the writing could have been a little less obvious. Also, the way in which time was transferred from one person to another was a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, Justin Timberlake, as a man accused of stealing time, and Cillian Murphy, as the time cop sent to hunt him down, make the movie worth watching.