Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Up in the Air

First, a note to Onvoy employees.  You will get an inadvertent laugh - a giggle, really - over the name of one of the characters.  It happens early on and is repeated a few times.  Don't worry about it, just have your little chuckle, try not to annoy anyone sitting nearby and get your head back in the movie.  Consider it a little extra bang for your ticket buck.

Up in the Air is a wonderful, intimate actor's movie.  George Clooney is wonderful as a consultant who travels around the country firing people.  He takes his work very seriously and his always-on-the-move lifestyle even more so.  Vera Farmiga is a kindred spirit he meets on the road (you'll recognize her when you see her -she's been in several things you've seen in the last decade), while Anna Kendrick plays a recent college grad who shadows Clooney's character to learn the ropes.

I wanted the first half of the movie to continue forever.  Getting to know the characters, hearing the Gilmore Girls-caliber dialogue (although delivered much more leisurely), seeing the different sights around the country was all wonderful.  But movies are about change and a couple of big changes are thrown at the characters.  Even so, the personal turmoil that results was fascinating to observe.

The ending of Up in the Air is about as perfect as you can get.  Director Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno) is proving his mettle as a guy who sets his characters in motion and just lets them live.  If this is what he can do on his third movie, I can't wait to see his 20th.

Unless you're a 14-year-old girl, you won't recognize Anna Kendrick.  She was in the two Twilight movies and not much else.  Think of her as a brunette Kristen Bell, which is a high compliment from me.  Bell's Veronica Mars was a great anti-hero and could have been a cartoon in lesser hands.  Kendrick both looks and acts like Bell.  Let's hope she picks more movies like Up in the Air and fewer like Twilight in the future.

The Blind Side and Invictus

I'm a little tardy with these two reviews - I'll have to refund half of your subscription price.  With The Blind Side and Invictus, we have two of the best sports movies in recent memory and they couldn't be more different.

The Blind Side is the more-or-less true story about an NFL player's down-and-out beginnings and his luck to be taken in by a wealthy football-loving family.  What I liked most is that it wasn't about the game but about how the connection between the teenage boy and the materfamilias formed.

This is Sandra Bullock's third movie of the year and easily her best. She plays a southern society wife to a T and it would have been worth the price of admission just to see her performance. Fortunately, the other main characters was also perfectly cast, so we are treated to a top-notch film.

Do I have to say how wonderful Sandra Bullock looks? She has the skin of a porcelain doll, the body of a college girl and a smile that turns this middle-aged cynic into a gushing fanboy.  Need I say more?

Finally, be it known that The Blind Side becomes an almost-perfect movie because it doesn't have a come-from-behind win at the end.  No clock counting down, no Hail Mary catches, no game-winner interceptions.  In not using the cliché of a last-second win, The Blind Side puts itself in a rare place where the sport is less important that the characters we've grown to appreciate over the past two hours.

Invictus is poem by Robert Frost or somebody and appears to be somewhat inspiring.  That's all you need to know about the title.  Rugby is a game somewhere between futbol with the use of hands and football without helmets or pads.  Rugby makes no sense to me and that's all you need to know about the game.  

takes place in South Africa just after the end of apartheid and (no spoiler) how Nelson Mandela used the national rugby team to help unite South Africans.  Matt Damon plays the relatively unknown captain of the SA rugby team while Morgan Freeman plays the iconic Nelson Mandela.  Both do an outstanding job.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, Invictus displays the typical Eastwood touch - a great story, told patiently and without cheap gimmicks.  That we don't understand rugby or SA politics doesn't matter.  I don't think the politics is as simple as black and white or that Mandela was the benevolent grandfather-type.  It's a great story nonetheless, fact or fiction.

Unlike The Blind Side, there is a big game at the end and a countdown clock, but it's secondary to the struggle to get to the big game.  In fact, I thought the big game was actually just a semi-final match.  Eastwood didn't over-explain rugby nor give the World Cup too much due.  It was just another game for the players but a healing ritual for a country that had never been united.  Invictus is a great sports movie in particular and a great movie in general.

Interestingly, at the beginning of 2009, would you have believed that not only would we see two mainstream movies set in South Africa (Invictus and District 9) but that both would be pretty darn good?


postscript January 2, 2010

I should also have mentioned that for both of these movies, when the lights came up at the end, nobody moved.  It's not uncommon for people to stay in their seats long enough to read the cast credits but not the entire audience.  Most of your average crowd jumps up as soon as the movie ends and shuffles towards the door.  For both of these movies, I sensed that all the other patrons, like me, wanted to savor, reflect or have some other emotional experience but NOT leave.  I consider the lingering behavior to be another sign of a well-received movie.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Everybody's Fine

Everybody's Fine is a character study about a retiree who is being protected by his kids. When he finds out, he is terribly disappointed in both his children and himself. The movie uses an interesting way to show covert communication - as the man spent his career making telephone cables, we saw pictures of telephone poles while we heard his children talking to each other. Maybe you had to be there but it worked.

Everybody's Fine is a good actor's movie, with Robert DeNiro in fine form playing against three of the younger generation's best, Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. I usually hate Rockwell, as he frequently plays slimeballs and is very good at it. Here, I liked his character a lot - that's good acting.

Beckinsale is always one of my favorites and doesn't disappoint. The movie used another technique, showing all of the children in flashback as 10-12 year-olds. Beckinsale as a 10-year-old was played by Beckinsale's daughter, Lily Sheen. I saw her name in the credits so I was looking for her. It was quite amazing - Lily has her mother's smile and eyes (Kate's big brown eyes - see my posts for Whiteout).  Having someone with a resemblance that strong was another nice touch in a move full of them.

All in all, I recommend Everybody's Fine as a good drama.


Ninja Assassin

I had a miss-impression about Ninja Assassin. I thought it was going to be a Hong Kong-style chop-socky film, which it kind of is, but get this: it is a movie about Japanese ninja, set in Germany, with an English and Korean cast, some playing Americans. Strange accents and unfamiliar actors aside, Ninja Assassin is exactly what you'd expect it to be.

Having seen many Hong Kong action pictures lately, I expected a whole lot of gravity-defying, slow motion CGI shots. There weren't that many. Both in visual style and story, this movie was much like the old-fashioned dubbed Japanese karate movies we watched on Saturday afternoons growing up. The CGI didn't really dominate and the story was your basic invincible hero tale where he finally has a showdown with his old master. Recommended for a time when you want a modern old fashioned karate movie.


Fantastic Mr Fox

This movie bugged me. It was stop-action or claymation or something and the animals were plain old creepy. Mr Fox was voiced by George Clooney, who is so familiar I could visualize him reading the lines. You really don't want the voice actors to overshadow the graphics. I'd skip the movie entirely, and that includes for children unless you want to encourage nightmares.


A Serious Man

I just didn't get A Serious Man. It's a Coen brothers movie so it's quirky, that's a given, but I never figured out the point of view. It's about a Jewish college professor whose life starts falling apart.

I wasn't sure if they were making fun of Jews or promoting them, but I didn't like any of them. I wasn't laughing with them and I certainly wasn't laughing at them. Religion aside, they were all nut-jobs and not the fun kind of nut-jobs.

I thought it just might have been me, but the theater was about a third full and no one else was laughing, either. You know you're in trouble when the second biggest laugh was when the guy who plays Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory makes an appearance. He didn't have to say anything - he merely stuck his head out a door and we all laughed. Oh, the biggest laugh? It was when the professor was given a recommendation for an attorney - Ron Meshbesher. For non-Minnesotans, Meshbesher is a Minnesota institution and the mere mention of his name caused the theater to go wild. That's a bad thing to say about a comedy.

Don't even get me started on the ending. I advise skipping A Serious Man because it is seriously not funny.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Back to the Future

Willow Creek Theater is running retro movies every weekend; see my post about Jurassic Park. Today was Back to the Future; last week was The Christmas Story ("You'll shoot your eye out, kid"). Back to the Future is pretty much a perfect adventure story. It told a novel story - still novel today, really, and is so visually interesting, it begs to be viewed on the big screen.

Alas, where Willow Creek showed a film print of Jurassic Park, Back to the Future was digital. Maybe the source was a DVD, maybe some special theater-type of file, but digital nonetheless. It wasn't pretty. There was pixelation around the edges of objects and the colors were a bit washed out. Same thing goes for The Christmas Story last week.

I've seen many a modern digital movie and I can no longer tell the difference between film and digital. I consider this progress and don't consider myself a purist, so show me modern digital all you want. But the differences between film and home digital are still staggering. I imagine that whatever the source is that Willow Creek uses, it is more like home quality than modern digital. If you used a digital projector like we have at work and shot it on a wall 10-15 feet high, you'd see the same issues.

While I was watching Back to the Future, I did a little math. The screen at Willow Creek auditorium 7 is about 32 feet wide, which makes it 18 feet high. Let's assume they're showing us a Blu-Ray quality source. Blu-Ray is digital the same way your computer screen is, where your computer screen might be 1024x768 pixels, Blu-Ray is 1920x1080. A Blu-Ray DVD is 1080 pixels high. An 18-foot tall screen is 216 inches. Dividing it through (1080/216), you get five pixels per inch. That's a huge pixel and you'd notice if the building blocks of your film experience were a fifth of an inch high, even if you're sitting 20-30 feet away. I suspect Willow Creek's source is a little higher quality but still nowhere near modern digital projection quality. If you're going to go to the trouble to go to a theater, you might as well watch film, not TV.

Next weekend is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Jurassic Park, Raiders must be on film or I won't bother. The following weekend is Christmas Vacation, which I'm going to skip no matter what.

The guy at the theater said they may not be able to get Raiders next weekend. If so, they'll substitute The Goonies. I saw The Goonies when it came out in 1985. I wasn't impressed. After seeing how many people raved about it over the years, I was curious and watched it on DVD in October, 2005. I was even less impressed than I remembered after seeing it 20 years earlier. If they substitute The Goonies for Raiders of the Lost Ark, I'm skipping it, film or not.

Finally, in Back to the Future, Marty's girlfriend was played by Claudia Wells, a then 19-year-old ingenue. Seeing the movie today reminds me just how pretty that girl was but, alas, she got out of the business shortly after Back to the Future. Her character was played by Elisabeth Shue in the two sequels. It's too bad. Claudia was quite the cutie.