Tag Archives: PG-13

Way late review: War Horse


The true gritty World War I tale of a horse who takes on Germany and saves the day. War Horse is like Saving Private Ryan mixed with Platoon, except with a horse saving the day. OK, maybe not. Maybe it’s an overtly sentimental tale of a horse who magically makes it through WWI while impacting the lives of those on both sides of the first world war.

Steven Spielberg is a filmmaking genius not without his faults. One of those faults is his tendency to turn the sentimental faucet on full blast even though it may drown the audience. Then again, the story this time around probably justifies the treatment. Saying War Horse is too sentimental is like saying Forrest Gump was too unrealistic. Both are fairy tales and they revolve around main characters who we may find hard to believe in their setting and impact but that’s part of what makes fairy tales what they are. Of course, Forrest Gump had Tom Hanks and War Horse has a ummm…Joey, the horse, as its leading “man”.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) is an English teen whose former war hero dad foolishly bids too much and wins the auction for a thoroughbred horse. The family needs a work horse and dad brings home a racing horse. Dad may have been slightly influenced by the alcohol continually filling his bloodstream and his desire to stick it to his landlord who he was bidding against. From there a familiar story is told where Albert and Joey bond and the impossible happens. Then the war breaks out and Albert’s dad is forced to put Joey up for sale. Despite Albert’s pleas, Joey is sold to an English officer who is heading out to the battlefield. End first act, end Joey, enter War Horse, a horse who endures the worst and keeps clip clopping along.

The cinematography and sweeping soundtrack is what drives War Horse. The story is entertaining enough but the unique shots of war and the sights around it are amazing. The scene of the infantry of men on their horses racing through the tall grass in a sneak attack on their enemies is unlike any I’ve seen before. The colors and look of the film overall is different than Spielberg’s films of the past. They are brighter and more vibrant even though the setting couldn’t be more dreary. Joey races across the battlefield at night and the camera follows the frantic pace from a unique perspective which wouldn’t make sense in a traditional war film centered on the human characters.

Those who complain War Horse is nothing but sentimental drip seem to miss the fact that this is not a tale about war, the people in it, the people impacted by it. It’s about a horse and his incredible journey through a war torn land. Those looking for the second coming of Saving Private Ryan need to look elsewhere. War Horse is a fairy tale driven by beautiful sights and triumphant sounds, and sometimes that’s enough to make a really good film.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

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Way late review: Damsels in Distress


Whit Stillman makes movies you either love or hate. His fascination with telling stories about yuppies tends to have that reaction. I generally enjoy his films. They portray characters and a world very few do. Twelve years later, Stillman makes a new film Damsels in Distress, and while the characters speak the instantly identifiable Stillman dialogue, something has changed. Something funny. Pure satire in a world unlike those the director has created in past films.

Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her two friends, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), at Seven Oaks college are out to save the world. OK, maybe not the world, but definitely their boorish male counterparts and those deemed suicidal risks. Violet immediately targets Lily (Analeigh Tipton) as a new student in need of intervention. Lily isn’t a freshman as Violet guessed. She’s a sophomore transfer. She, unlike Violet’s entourage, doesn’t completely buy into the mission the trio is on. When the new foursome walks around the campus together for the first time the original trio nearly pass out from the supposed stench produced by a group of guys who walk by. Rose looks as though she may regurgitate her last meal. Lily is perplexed. Violet explains that Rose is especially sensitive to odors and the boys from a certain house are particularly odorous. In pity, Violet condescendingly sees it as her duty to reform these boys. No handsome and winsome young men for these young ladies. They’ll take the dufus who has yet learned his primary colors, thank you very much. And they’ll do this all in the name of saving a lower class; pulling them up from the depths to the heights of at least middling acceptably. The exaggerated attitude and actions pokes fun at both liberals doing more harm than good while they save the poor they wouldn’t want near their precious suburban homes or Evangelical Christians who have a disdain for the heathens they attempt to clean up and save from a life of sin.

There is little to no narrative holding Damsels together. Lily’s first year at Seven Oaks is filled with odds and ends. She provides a dose of reality in most scenes lacking everything but reality. Yet even Lily isn’t completely exempt from serving as a prop in Whitman’s satirical take on life at one of the oddest colleges in cinema history. She finds the wrong guys. Instead of dumb brutes she dates men of higher intellect who are anything but honorable. One is an eight year student posing as a successful young professional while another is an international student whose religion supposedly holds to a sexual “purity” that is anything but.

The suicide prevention center Violet heads up gives donuts to those in need of help. Don’t dare take a donut if you are not a candidate though. Donuts are for suicidal risks only. Violet promised the company providing the donuts that all the donations would go to those needing them, not those simply out to get a free pastry. Things get stranger. The preferred method of therapy is dancing. In fact, it’s the only thing resembling therapy of any sort. All other displays of help are in the form of interrogating potential “patients”, ensuring they are worthy of free doughnuts and dance sessions. If this sounds ridiculous and silly, it is. It is also very funny, as long as you don’t completely hate the characters and the world they inhibit. The arrogant, obnoxious girls and the dumb boys they seek to refine require buy-in or else Damsels will feel like a slog.

Debbie: You think I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad?
Violet: I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad.

Title cards split up the movie into sections not unlike a silent film or an episode of Frasier. The technique mostly works until the end when the movie overruns its optimal time and the title cards serve as reminders that the credits should be rolling. All good things must come to an end, some should come a little earlier than others.

Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone’s cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven’t enjoyed Stillman’s past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me.

 ★★★★☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Artist


Ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 Academy Awards best picture, The Artist. Spoiler alert. It won’t make my top 20 movies of 2011. I hesitated watching last year’s best picture for a while because the premise wasn’t all that appealing. I finally decided the time had come. I didn’t view it with drudgery nor with anticipation of seeing the best film of 2011. Enough time had passed since it was released that I felt like I was coming at it fresh. And without further ado, my review.

It's built on a gimmick.

George Valentin and Uggie

But not all gimmicks are created equal.

Movies based on gimmicks

It's full of fun and whimsy.

Bérénice Bejo holding herself

Except when it's not.

Jean Dujardin freaking out

The story is simple. Too simple for a 100 minute movie.

Dr. Seuss ABC, another simple story like The Artist

Kudos for trying something different.

Kudos to The Artist for trying something different.

Still a gimmick. (Like this review)

Wink. Wink. Even the actors know The Artist is built on a gimmick. A modern silent film.

 ★★★☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Hunger Games


Young adult fiction is popular these days, for better or worse. The young adults who read it, obsess over it and turn out in mass for movies based on the source material aren’t always so young. The obsession over and popularity of a series like The Hunger Games makes it difficult to create a good flick. Fans these days tend to demand a faithfulness to the source or they’ll riot, digitally of course, but still. I’m in the envious position of never having read any of the three books. After all, my favorite novel is: I’ll wait for the movie. I consider this a blessing when taking in movies based on modern day popular books. I’m more interested in a good film than allegiance to the author’s writings.

The story behind the film is not completely original. I won’t mention other films which have used similar narratives before because it doesn’t matter. It’s not unlike those who bemoan the cycle of bands whose only purpose seems to be to reinvent what came before. The complaint is one of, why bother? What is missed is that it may have been done before but not for this audience, not by this set of artists. I view The Hunger Games in a similar manner. The story is an interesting one regardless of its originality or lack thereof.

The future is not looking bright. It’s dystopian outside and the select few with wealth and power lord it over the rest. The capitol city is bright, high gloss, wine and dine. The surrounding districts are dark and dingy. In celebration of society’s survival from a nuclear fallout there is a televised competition in which two kids from each district are randomly selected to compete. First prize is you live another day. Second prize is you’re dead. Fairly simple rules, if not the greatest way to commemorate mankind’s continued existence.

Long story short, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her younger sister who was picked. She and Peeta represent their district. They train and put on a show to win support of those watching. Viewers can provide help during the competition, though how this is done is not clear, it simply happens. The games begin and lots of kids are killed. For those disturbed by this tale being for a younger audience I will point out that fairy tales could be pretty gruesome as well. Granted, the deaths didn’t normally involved knives, swords, genetically modified dogs and insects, but there were plenty of children meeting their early demise in stories much older than The Hunger Games.

The vast difference of the world between those in the capitol city and those outside it are interesting. Those on the inside wear garish costumes while those on the outside are perfectly dressed for a Charles Dickens novel. The outside districts are about harvesting raw materials to keep those in the high tech city moving along. The dichotomy is intentional if not a little too on the nose. No matter, it’s made clear there are two classes in this society and one is there to work for the other. One class is so subservient it offers up its children to the world’s worst reality TV show.

Katniss is a teenage girl capable of taking care of herself. Early on we see how she moves fluently through the forest hunting food for family. She is convinced no one is looking out for her good. She probably has a point. Every year she lines up waiting to hear her name called for the honor to battle other kids to the death on television. When she discovers one of the keys to surviving and winning the game is to win the hearts of those in the audience, it’s as if she’s already lost. She is no nonsense; and pretending to enjoy the experience of being thrown into the lion’s den for entertainment purposes tips the nonsense scale. She and Peeta have advisors who guide them through the process. They attempt to make Katniss and Peeta as different and as winsome as any two competitors have ever been.

Once the games begin the excitement is less than one might expect considering the setup. The action set pieces are mostly not there. The moral dilemmas presented by the competition and the way the (mostly) reluctant participants go about it are often side stepped with quick and easy solutions. Since the focus is mostly on Katniss the other characters seem almost inconsequential, even as they die painful deaths. Thankfully there is enough cat and mouse action to hold interest. And while some have made a big deal about the shaky cam technique being awful, I thought it fit in nicely with the tight focus on Katniss’ story. Then again, I liked Cloverfield. Nothing goes too far off the rails until there are, inexplicably, miraculously created obstacles which appear out of nowhere on command from central control. Apparently we’re in a world where there is still a need for coal and other natural materials, but the ability to create fireballs and monster dogs out of thin air is easy peasy.

There is an unevenness to The Hunger Games, which is at least partially due to there being two more books to cover. The story is good and the execution is solid if not spectacular. Our reluctant heroine holds interest throughout, even in those moments when the parts don’t make a cohesive whole. There is enough here to serve as a good launching point for the next films. Of course, if we’re to read the tea leaves set forth by its predecessors (Harry Potter, Twilight), we’ll likely see more than two films follow this one. For better or worse.

 ★★★½☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.

Way late review: The Notebook

Romantic tales of years ago are not ones that I actively seek out. I don’t have to, my wife fills that void. I have seen The Notebook twice now. I think I should have stopped at the first viewing. I recalled it being a harmless and mildly enjoyable romantic drama with a somewhat interesting twist. This time around I was nearly in tears…from boredom.

Duke (James Garner), an elderly man reads a romance novel in the form of a notebook to an elderly woman (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home. The story is about a country boy with a free spirit, Noah (Ryan Gosling) and the rich southern belle, Allie. Boy pursues girl out of his social rank. Girl rejects his advances. Boy doesn’t give up. Girl gives in. They fall madly in love. The girl’s parents disapprove and do their best to ensure the two don’t become anything more than a summer fling. Girl and boy eventually beat the odds and get back together – or do they? My description may seem to short change the emotion, the romance, the setting, the acting, the loving embraces and longing looks, but I only describe it in a way the director Nick Cassavetes portrays it on screen. It’s as if scenes are only there to lead to the rip your heart out and slam it back in final act.

Ryan Gosling is an actor I find maddeningly inconsistent. Here he is supposed to be a charming, ah-shucks southern guy with a sneaky charisma. The role isn’t right, as the melancholy loner seems to fit his onscreen persona much better, like Lars and The Real Girl and Drive. He does his best but the result is uneven at best.

For a film that seems like it can’t wait to get to the end it is dreadfully slow. I’m all for slowly paced films. I’m a big fan of Lost in Translation, a film no one would accuse of being briskly paced. Films that feel slow though? That is a problem and it is a problem The Notebook suffers from. There is little if any memorable dialogue. Romantic scenes feel forced and drawn out. Time passes in the narrative in odd ways. Noah goes to war after Allie leaves him for college in New York City. He loses a best friend on the battlefield and she gains a fiancee. Neither seem of great consequence. It’s as if both events are mere mile markers on the highway to the modern day with the elderly man and woman at the nursing home. Mind you, it’s a highway with a lot of toll booths that turn a speedy drive into a painfully slow trek.

Competently made but dull overall, The Notebook desires to be more than just another romantic drama by mixing past and present story lines with a bit of a curveball. In its exuberance to surprise in the end, the story moves from scene to scene in an almost obligatory manner, devoid of much character and memorable moments.

 ★★☆☆☆ 

This post is part of my Way late reviews. Read more reviews here.