January 22, 2010

Movie Review: The Blind Side

It's hard for me to watch movies based on books that I've read - too easy to nitpick all the plot differences. It's even more difficult when the book is based on a true story, where those plot differences - supposedly essential to making a movie extra movie-like - compromise someone's actual life story. So, it was with skepticism that I went into 'The Blind Side', a movie based on one of the better books I've read in the last 5 years (and it takes quite the compelling storytelling to invest me in football).

While the book weaves a narrative of the modern day NFL, including backstory on teams, coaches and positions, inside tidbits on salary, and explanation of how it all works, the film leaves [most of] that out - really, it should have left out all of it - Sandra Bullock talking about Lawrence Taylor at the beginning was distracting, disparate and totally unnecessary.

The movie's main strength was its entertainment value. If it cut some corners, summarized some character development or oversimplified, it felt at least productive to the overall story. And the overall story is, afterall, a fairy tale: Some kid, poorer than poor, who has been shuffled around the foster care and public school system so much by the time that he's 15 that he hardly knows how to read, much less comprehend high school subjects or regular social interaction, gets befriended, then taken in, then adopted by a wealthy family and winds up as a starter for the NFL? How could you improve on that?

I imagine it's somewhat insulting to the rest of the Tuohy family who gave as much as Sandra Bullock's Leigh Anne to have been so disregarded in the film. The daughter was demoted a grade or two (in reality, she and Michael graduated in the same class), the son was made extra precocious (as if a 10-year old coaching him would actually give him , and Tim McGraw really could have had some more barbeque stain on his white t-shirt: His Sean Tuohy was made a supporting role throughout it all while in the book, he's the first connection to Michael).

That being said, the main problems with the movie came from outside the Tuohy family: the recruitment scenes were plain cheese (It should be a rule for the future of filmmaking that college football coaches never be allowed to play themselves...even though the main recruiter, being played by an actor, was even worse.), and Michael's high school football coach was at times painful to watch. He was played with such over the top facial expressions, I felt like I was in a wax museum. It was as if the actor given the part found out that the coach turns out to be kind of a fame-mongering twat, and, in a bad page from the pre-Eternal Sunshine school of Jim Carrey acting, just decided to use his mouth and cheekbones to convey expressions. "Here, in this shot you're shocked!" "Okay, now, be angry!"

There's not much to discuss aside from the plot; the movie certainly didn't reinvent the filmmaking wheel. But, while it exaggerated some places (Sandra Bullock telling off a housing project thug) and skipped out on some great book moments (Sean Jr. taking a part of scholarship negotiations, it got to the heart of the story and told it with believable, not-entirely-cheesy conviction. 7.5 Twix bars!

January 19, 2010

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker

I get the hype around 'The Hurt Locker.' Totally intense, beautifully shot and well written, it's the first critically and commercially successful film about the war in Iraq.

The movie centers around the final 30 days of service for a 3-man bomb squad in Iraq - they are charged with neutralizing the risk of all reported bombs. A variety of different scenarios - roadside bomb, body bomb, desert ambush - are shown as we learn about these three men and their demons and drivers. As you wait for the bomb to go off, or to see the right wire clipped, each sequence is so tense and harrowing that my neck muscles are now sore.

The ending wasn't great, wrapping things up a little too neatly so that it was bordering on contrived. But I love that this movie was directed by a woman (especially because that woman, Kathryn Bigelow, also directed 'Point Break' - and what's not to love about 'Point Break'?) and that where movies like 'Black Hawk Down' are all A-list stars and flashy special effects, this movie was mostly no names and grittier, down-to-earth cinematography.

I enjoyed the surprise cameos - Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly - among the cast of no names. And those no names were great - the acting was truly one of the high points of the film - once I figured out who the main actor reminded me of:

The OC's Benjamin McKenzie


Kiefer Sutherland


The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner

8 Twix bars!

January 9, 2010

Movie Review: Invictus

I have no one to blame but myself.

For the last 7 or so years - however long it has been that Clint Eastwood has been working way too hard for a 79 year old man - I've been left wholly unimpressed with what he's given us, including 'Mystic River,' 'Million Dollar Baby,' 'Flags of our Fathers' and the preview for 'Gran Torino.' (It's true: I couldn't even endure the preview of 'Gran Torino,' with all that growling and over-the-top-obvious Catholic guilt.) So, I should have trusted my instinct about 'Invictus'; instead, I let all the talk (Sure, Matt Damon helped) convince me that it was an important movie to see and worth $10. It wasn't.

Beyond how incredibly slowly it moved (Seriously, HOW do you make the final match of a rugby World Cup sooooo boring?), the most frustrating thing about the movie was its ridiculously heavy-handed plot, symbolism and soundtrack. How heavy-handed? This song - which would be cheesy in the credits of an animated Disney film - played during the climax:

Because, how else could the audience understand how bad apartheid was, how much adversity Nelson Mandela had overcome, and how important this team was to the country? At another point, Matt Damon's character visits the prison where Mandela was held and - in a totally independent-from-the-rest-of-the-movie moment of surrealism - sees Morgan Freeman cracking rocks and reciting poetry. Just in case we didn't understand what his character was learning, he then tells his wife exactly how moved he is. Later, there's another completely-removed-from-the-plot sequence where the audience is tricked into thinking that a Josh Brolin wannabe is going to attack the stadium with his plane during the all-important game. But - wouldn't you know it? - instead, he just does a fly over so the whole stadium can see the 'Good Luck' on the bottom of the plane. Talk about a complete waste of time.

And that's how I feel about the movie - obvious moment after obvious moment - as a whole. Sure, Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman were fine with what they were given to do - mostly look taken aback and serene, respectively - and I know a little bit more about rugby now than I did before. But I've got nothing else good to say about this movie. So, here's the resolution: I will watch 'Bridges of Madison County' and then Clint and I are done. For good, no matter what the buzz is next Oscar season.

6 Twix bars!

January 3, 2010

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox

It only makes sense that Wes Anderson ('Rushmore,' 'The Royal Tenebaums') would make an animated movie. For years his movies have been both complimented and critiqued for their out-of-this-world characters, surreal plots, colorful backdrops and quirky soundtracks - in an animated world, those features just make sense. You can watch the trailer here.

Fantastic Mr. Fox succeeds at walking a fine line: It is both simple filmmaking at its best (Easy-to-follow plot based on a children's book by Roald Dahl, stop-go animation) and incredibly, incredibly intelligent (Anderson gives viewers a totally seamless jump into a complete - and completely delightful - new universe with quick dialogue, clever jokes and subtle and pitch perfect voice actors.). Of the 5 Oscar contenders Trevor and I saw over the last two weeks, 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' was the best: Heart-warming without being sappy, laugh out loud funny without being pratfall-heavy or gross, smart without being pretentious.

The story is about a foxy Fox (It's true: He's voiced by George Clooney) who gave up the thieving life eleven years ago to start a family with his Meryl Streep-voiced wife. He wants to do one final job (a three-parter) because he's bored, worried about money, having a midlife-fox-crisis about who he is and needs to outsmart some mean farmers. Of course, being a smart movie, none of these reasons are explicit, you just realize them over the course of the quick 90 minutes.

Another reason it's perfect this movie was animated: Jason Schwartzman can finally play a teenager again. He's never better than when he's playing a whiny teenage-maturity-level manchild, but the facial hair can be a distraction. As Mr. & Mrs. Fox's son, jealous of his cousin's arrival, he's all sullen sass, and it's pretty near perfect.

9 Twix bars!

January 2, 2010

Man of the Month: January

We'd only seen 2 movies between September and December (Living 40 miles from the nearest movie theater makes film-going a little more difficult than when there was one half of a mile away.), so, over Christmas, we took advantage of a three week break and civilization to see several movies. 5 in fact. And the two best - 'Up in the Air' & 'Fantastic Mr. Fox' - both starred George Clooney. That made the Man of the Month decision pretty easy.

More than just his relevance this month, I'm realizing that I actually like George Clooney quite a bit. I like how at-ease he always seems, how he embraces his bachelor life and how smart his movie choices have been over the last 10 years. Finally, I love that he survived this:

And became this:

Let's hear it for bad glasses wearers everywhere, and raise our champagne flutes to 2010's inaugural Man of the Month, Mr. George Clooney.

(Oh, and yes: Official reviews of all 5 movies coming soon to a computer screen near you.)