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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Catching Up

As often happens in August and September, thoughts of school take away my blogging time.  Here are thoughts on some end of summer and beginning of fall movies, ranked in my order of admiration/recommendation.  As Oscar season heats up soon, I hope to be blogging more regularly!

Short Term 12

This tale of a group home, its troubled teen residents, and its sometimes equally troubled staff, is an uncommonly assured debut for director Destin Daniel Cretton.  It looks at its characters with great compassion but also with honesty, not glossing over the real pain they have gone through and the questionable decision they make.  In another director's hands, the material could have been manipulative, but the movie has a loose, observational feel and honestly earns all its tears and smiles and laughs.  The entire cast is remarkably good, and Brie Larson is a revelation as Grace, a supervisor with major boundary issues and unexamined issues in her own life.  This movie was so engaging, I wanted it to be a bit longer to flesh out the stories of a few more of the kids.  Easily one of the best of the year.

Grade: A-

Fruitvale Station

The story of the last day of Oscar Grant, this is another astonishingly powerful debut, this time from director Ryan Coogler..  While the last moments are almost unbearably heartbreaking, he brings a looseness and lightness to much of the film that allows us to live in the tension of life and death.  He definitely makes some young director mistakes with two scenes that irritatingly hit the nail on the head, but these only take away a small part of the movie's power.  Michael B. Jordan (from The Wire and Friday Night Lights, two great TV dramas) gives a remarkable performance, as does Octavia Spencer as the moral center of Oscar's life, and the film.

Grade: A-

The Act of Killing

A shocking, troubling, and paradigm-shifting movie unlike any I've ever seen.  In the 1960s, genocide occurred in Indonesia, and the perpetrators are still looked at as heroes in much of the society.  In the film, documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer films then recreating scenes of their past.  Their moral code is so warped and bizarre, it's like watching scenes from an alternate reality.  I can't say I enjoyed every moment of the film, but I've thought about it just about every day since I've seen it, and the ending scene is among the most powerful things I've ever seen put on film.

Grade: A-

Blue Jasmine
Sometimes a performance is so powerful it is a force of nature, and that's what Cate Blanchett is in Blue Jasmine.  Every second she's on screen (which is just about the whole time), you can't take your eyes off her Blanche Dubois by way of Park Avenue character.  She's so good that I almost want to forgive the movie it's weaker moments, mostly involving Woody's out-of-touch view of modern life in general and San Francisco in particular (what waitress could afford that large apartment Jasmine's sister Ginger lives in?).  Nevertheless, it's well-cast and well-acted by the whole cast (Sally Hawkins and Andrew Dice Clay in particular) and the Blanchett gives a performance for the ages.

Grade: B+

The Spectacular Now
A "teen movie" that portrays teens that feel real.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are completely engaging as Sutter, a gregarious alcoholic and Aimee, the more reserved young woman with whom he begins a relationship.  While billed as a romance, the movie really becomes more about Sutter and his struggles to find his way out of some difficult situations.  My major quibble with the movie is that it doesn't give Aimee, an equally if not more engaging character, the same attention it gives to Sutter.  Woodley, who I liked a lot in the overrated The Descendants, outdoes her previous role here.  

Grade: B+

What Maisie Knew

A modern adaptation of a Henry James novel, this movie is about selfish parents (played by Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan) who damage their emotionally astute young daughter, played beautifully by young Onata Aprile.  If the movie is familiar in parts, its unique for completely committing to the child's point of view.

Grade: B

To The Wonder

I've seen all 5 of Terrence Malick's features, and have been either ecstatic (The Tree of Life, The New World, Badlands), or greatly admiring (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) towards all of them.  I love his dreamy aesthetic, his obsession with nature, and his elliptical voiceovers.  And yet, here comes the movie that almost seems like a parody of his work, with too many shots of the central couple (Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko) looking longingly at one another.  The Tree of Life was so amazing because it presented a young boy's story of growing up and family dynamics as somehow universal and connected to the universe.  To the Wonder also reaches for religious or transcendent themes, yet it comes across as a little banal.  Still, there is always much beauty to admire from Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and I don't regret seeing it.

Grade: C+