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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Jane Got a Gun - A Film Review

I went to see Jane Got a Gun today (directed by Gavin O'Connor), and found it really boring. I was interested because I wanted to support a female-led western movie, and because the trailer made Natalie Portman look like a badass, defending her family against a murderous gang and getting her guns ready. It looked like a different role for her, and it looked exciting.

Instead, the movie was dull as hell.

There were several problems with this movie. I will start with Portman, because she is the star and co-produced the movie. She is nearly 35, but still looks like a young ingénue. She doesn't come off as being tough or having seen hardship in life. I could see other actresses of petite size being more convincing in Westerns: Salma Hayek, Holly Hunter, and Jodie Foster. They are small, but come off as tough and strong and having had more harder life experiences beyond their initial privilege (beauty, wealth). Portman, to me, seems to have had a life without real struggles. She made it big as a kid and successfully transitioned to an adult acting career, she comes from an upper-class family and likely would've made it into Harvard without her fame, and she comes off as fairly sheltered in an elite world. She tried, but she didn't seem gritty enough to be believable as someone who has to fight to survive in the Old West. Jane seemed defined by her relationships to men than by her individual self, whereas it should have been a story about a passive housewife taking control and fighting for her family's survival, discovering her own strength and power in the process.

Joel Edgerton was totally forgettable as Dan, Jane's former fiancé. He just stood around like a blank piece of wood, and he could have been switched out with another dull Aussie actor like Sam Worthington and I wouldn't have known the difference. I barely knew anything about his character, as he had no personality, and seemed like he just blended into the desert background. And it took me nearly a half hour into the movie before I realized that Jane and Dan were supposed to be a formerly engaged couple. They had no chemistry whatsoever, and acted like they were just barely above being strangers in their interactions, they often came off as cold and remote to each other. (I think the only time Portman has had great chemistry with a man onscreen has been with Jean Reno in Leon when she was 12, and that is kind of sad and messed-up).

Ewan McGregor was terrible in this as the villain, Colin. I didn't realize it was him until about a quarter into the movie, and that explained why I thought his Southwest accent sounded weird. McGregor is a great actor, but is terrible at American accents. He did OK with a Southern accent in Big Fish, but otherwise, he sounds strained and flat when trying to sound American. He sounds charming with his real voice, and cute with a British accent, he should just stop accepting roles as American characters. Nothing about his character struck me as interesting, and I'd rather switch him out for Ian McShane as his version of Al Swearengen from Deadwood.

The story felt pointless, and without real stakes. In it, Portman's character Jane has a husband named Bill (Noah Emmerich, who gave a decent performance in the little screentime that he had) who got shot up in a battle with Colin's gang, and are coming in to finish the job. Jane reaches out to Dan for support and manpower. The movie made it seem as if Jane was going to be the lone hero, but her former fiancé did more of the action than she did, with shooting and driving the story forward. It felt more like it was a story about these men fighting with each other and an innocent woman getting caught in the middle, and only getting her hero moment at the very end, which felt anticlimactic. There were often long pauses in conversations between characters, which often came off like dead air, like nobody had any deep connection or history with one another, and just stood around waiting for things to happen. The movie was too quiet, with long stretches of boring conversation set against the desert background (which did look very beautiful and expansive, so the stellar cinematography can be credited for that).

It isn't the worst movie that I've seen, it is just very boring and forgettable. I don't recommend it at all. And the title is weak, and rips off an Aerosmith song title, a song which packed in way more hard drama and heavy emotion in a few minutes than this movie did in 90.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Thoughts on Rob the Mob

I just watched a movie on Netflix called Rob the Mob, and I liked it a lot. It is based on a real story about a young couple from Queens who robbed mobsters' social clubs in 1992, knowing they didn't have guns to protect themselves. Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda were really likable and charming as the dopey and idiotic couple who robbed mobsters for cash and for personal revenge (the guy's dad had been intimidated by the mob for years and they extorted money from his store) a...nd barely got by on minimum-wage jobs in Ozone Park, Queens, living in the same neighborhood as the mobsters.

A John Gotti trial is the backdrop for the story, and heavily influences the mob's reactions and the FBI involvement. There was a really talented cast of character actors who played the mobsters: Michael Rispoli, Andy Garcia, Burt Young, and Yul Vasquez, grounding the film in its 1992 New York setting, and I was also impressed by Ray Romano as a news reporter who has been covering the mob for 30 years and resents them.

I definitely recommend the movie if you like mob comedies or stuff with a mainly character actor cast.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Anomalisa - A Film Review

I saw Anomalisa on Sunday, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, and found it interesting, though I was mixed on it. The stop-motion animation looked great, with a lot of fine detail in the facial expressions and body language, and since the performances were done like if it were a live-action drama, the animation became more lifelike and emotionally touching.

The story is about two lonely people connecting with each other, and the strengths of the film are in their conversation and shared connection. It mostly centers on Michael (David Thewlis), a British author of a self-help book for customer service agents and phone operators. He comes to Cincinnati to give a speech, and, because he is bored with his life, he sees and hears everyone as identical, with Tom Noonan voicing male and female characters with the same needy, soft tone of voice. He goes through the motions of his life, as if in a daze, from taking a cab to checking into his hotel to ordering room service to taking a shower, until hearing a unique female voice jolts him awake.

The voice belongs to Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a nervous and insecure customer service agent who has a dorky charm about her. Their encounter and deeper connection both thrills Michael to meet a true individual and Lisa to be recognized and appreciated for her seemingly ordinary self, singing a Cyndi Lauper song and describing her day trip coming from Akron to Cincinnati. Leigh, known for playing a lot of dark characters (most recently an unrepentant murderer on her way to be hanged in The Hateful Eight), delivers one of my favorite performances I have seen from her, because she plays a character who is both mundane and completely charming at the same time. She is lonely, yet not a pathetic loser. She hasn't been with a man in eight years, yet is happy about being good at her job and singing along to pop songs. Leigh was just fantastic in this role, and it broke away from her usual dark character typecasting.

I thought about the film more after I left, as I did not like Michael. He was emotionally distant and cold to his family, his ex-girlfriend, and service workers. He was happy to speak with Lisa, but treated her as if she was a rare gem because she seemed "different," and the next day's events were heartbreaking to watch. I was concerned that the film fell into the trope of having a lonely man fall for a "quirky" woman who changes his life, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope from Garden State and Elizabethtown. But Kaufman wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where he gave agency to Clementine, who didn't want to exist as men's inspiration or fantasy figure or a muse, and had her own life to handle. And Lisa, while she is romanticized by Michael as being an "anomaly," she is ordinary like him. It is his problem for being down and seeing everyone as identical, and it isn't up to her to change his life for the better. The ending was fitting, and broke conventions of the woman existing as muse for the man, and the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it.

Thoughts on Movies I Have Watched Recently

Europa Report: a 2013 sci-fi found footage movie (directed by Sebastian Cordero and written by Philip Gelatt) about a spaceship crew making a round trip to one of Jupiter's moons to see if there is life there. Their trip is funded by a private company (like SpaceX), and the Europa crew loses contact with Earth during a solar storm. I liked how the found footage came in the form of video diaries and cameras on the ship, and how a low-budget film managed to both make the space scenes large and epic and magnificent, and depict the staleness of traveling in a can through space and feeling totally isolated. I didn't like how the astronauts made really stupid decisions when things got tough (especially since the film had the help of NASA to keep the hard science accurate), and when it turned into a typical slasher-like movie where people die one by one, some by an alien unseen until the very end in a "jump scare" kind of way. It just started out interesting, with solid acting performances, beautiful cinematography on a low budget, and a creative use of the found footage format, but the last third got more boring to watch. I still think it is a good movie, and I would recommend for the filmmaking and acting.

Parallels: I watched a 2015 sci-fi movie (written and directed by Christopher Leone) that I only realized at the end was meant as a TV pilot. It was about a group of travelers who travel through alternate Earths via a building in order to find their missing father. It was a lot like Sliders. It was cool and interesting, but ended with a bunch of cliffhanger moments, like just when the story was starting to get some answers as to the mystery. Since it didn't get picked up, it was a letdown to leave it off at questions that wouldn't get answered. The only name actor I recognized was Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang, the mother on Fresh Off the Boat. She was very good in this, as a seasoned traveler who the crew meets along the way, and it was nice to see her play a very different character (more youthful, in modern dress, more wry).

Everly: a 2014 action movie directed by Joe Lynch and written by  Yale Hannon. Salma Hayek plays a prostitute named Everly fighting back against her pimp and his goons. The pimp had kept her captive in an apartment for four years, forcing her into sex slavery, and she killed a bunch of his goons who beat/raped her, and he puts a price on her head and sends out more hitmen and hookers to kill her, and she tries to save her mother and daughter as well from danger. Much of the movie is in the apartment or the hallway, and it was a pretty good action movie, really dark and bloody, and Hayek did well in it, it was a different kind of movie for her. I didn't like how in the final confrontation, her pimp kept monologuing on and on, it became trite and predictable, and fairly obvious that Everly would find his weak spot the more he kept talking. But besides that, I liked the bleakness of the film, and how ridiculously violent it was.

Filth: a 2013 Scottish dark comedy (written and directed by Jon S. Baird, based on Irvine Welsh's novel of the same name) starring James McAvoy as an amoral detective trying to solve a murder mystery and get promoted at his job. It was really dirty and funny, and since MacAvoy plays a lot of nice guys and seems to be a good guy in real life, he played this antihero with a lot of relish (the guy threatens rape on female suspects, hates his fellow cops, abuses sex and alcohol, and other Bad Lieutenant kind of behavior). As the film continued, it became more clear that McAvoy's character has mental problems, having strange visions, and his vices cannot cover up his delusions and paranoia. It got better once it got past the initial shock humor, after the first 30 minutes. McAvoy delivered a layered and fascinating performance in the film, and was enjoyable to watch even as his character was self-destructing into madness.