Life has kept me busy and away from my blog recently, but I’m pleased to be back and I come bearing a few short movie reviews.
Steven Spielberg’s World War I epic following the experience of a war horse, Joey, through his experience on the Western Front does not, unfortunately, live up to the power of such predecessors such as Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List. I’m afraid Spielberg may have been resting on his laurels a bit. Beautifully filmed it may be, but this alone does not a war epic make. I’d be curious to see this played out in its original form on the stage, as I’d love to see how you do an epic with horses in that medium at all. Unfortunately, too much of the stage play lingered around the film: Awkward asides to the audience, actors projecting to the back row, scenes of French and German characters all spoken in English with stereotypical accents. These tropes are necessary for the stage, and acceptable and believable there, but Spielberg should know better by now. Especially notable is the fact that Spielberg, who is quite familiar with family-friendly film making, made a far less compelling family movie this year than Martin Scorsese, of all people. Different ventures, I know, but I think Steve dropped the ball on this one. Why War Horse was nominated for Best Picture this year, when so many worthy films were not, leaves me baffled. It was, IMHO, over-sentimental and pretty tedious. But maybe that’s what people like. I don’t know.
I don’t want to plagiarize, but I can’t say anything better about Thor than was said in another review I read which I am now having trouble finding. Disclaimer: I cannot take credit for this bit of snarky wit! If anyone finds the reference let me know. The gist was that “Thor operates under the mistaken premise that Thor is cool.” Now, let me just say that I have absolutely zero knowledge of the comics on which this movie was based, so I have no history of favorable opinion or otherwise which would influence my viewing experience. Maybe Thor is the coolest thing ever if you grew up with it. Maybe. What I do know a bit about is Norse mythology, and I have to say it’s hard to perceive what Lewis and Tolkien described as the clear hardness of great Northern expanses of sky (or varying statements to that effect) in Kenneth Branagh’s cheesy comic book movie. The back-story is, as far as I can tell, pretty shoddily-conceived. If the Norse gods are aliens that came down from the planet Asgard to save humanity from the Frost Giants in medieval times, and Thor and Loki were only kids at the time, exactly why do we have legends of them in our mythologies? Since when is Sif (Sif of the, ahem, golden hair, mind you) a goddess of war? Why didn’t they just use Skadi? And why invent three random “warriors three” when you have lots of perfectly good Norse gods sitting around not being used? (Not to mention the burly red-bearded one looks a lot more like Thor should actually look, the second popped out of the Three Musketeers, and the third is, I’m pretty sure, from the wrong mythology). And oh, Loki. Even the most intriguing of the Norse gods is more the god of Emo than mischief. I guess the movie had a few chuckles and it wasn’t a total bore to watch, but I just couldn’t get past the silliness. The most positive outcome: I’ve been driven back to proper Norse myths (I recently read and enjoyed Roger Lancelyn Green’s retelling) and more thoughtful adaptations (currently working my way through Runelight, the sequel to Joanne Harris’s excellent Runemarks).
This is quickly devolving into a griping-session, so let’s talk about a movie I actually liked! David Cronenberg’s fascinating snapshot of the twisted dynamics between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and Carl Jung and his patient Sabina Spielrein, and Sabina Spielrein and Sigmund Freud, and all three together…you get the point. I confess to knowing little about the lives of these people so I can’t speak to historical accuracy. The movie, however, was fascinating in its exploration of this strange moment in world history, and the dichotomy of the very repressed late Victorian/Edwardians in their stiff, high colors, straight corsettes, finery and good manners on the one hand, and this explosion in the public consciousness of the Freudian concepts of psychoanalysis, sexual development, and the interpretation of dreams. In fact, this movie is all about dualities: Not only repression versus freedom (or morality versus promiscuity, depending on how you look at it), but men versus women, Aryans versus Jews, religion versus atheism, eastern versus western. This was a historical time of transition and this story is about the characters having to choose between the mutually exclusive polarities. The acting was excellent and though the faint hint of the stage version remains it does not distract from the the movie as a movie. All in all, a well-done and intriguing period piece.
I don’t want to say much, because this is one of those movies to which it is better to go unprepared. Suffice it to say that if you want the pants scared off you, watch it.
I’ve heard Quentin Tarantino say that the biopic is primarily an actor’s medium rather than a writer/director’s, and there is a lot of truth in this statement. My Week With Marilyn is The Michelle Williams show, and she deserves the accolades she received this past year. The supporting cast, including Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, and Emma Watson, were solid. As an overall movie, the story was a little dull. Lessons learned: 1. You know what to expect when you have an affair with Marilyn Monroe (making the sympathy factor for the lead character perilously close to zero). 2. I wouldn’t wish celebrity on my worst enemy. The good table in restaurants just isn’t worth it, guys.
Finally we come to the only movie I’ve seen in theaters in a long while, The Hunger Games. The movie was generally solid – a good and mostly faithful adaptation of a good and culturally important book. A few quibbles, such as Jennifer Lawrence’s well-nourished figure (though no complaints about her acting) and the loss of some exposition such as the nature of the Mutts and the origin of the Mockingjay pin. For profound and controversial insights I recommend John Granger’s posts over at Hogwarts Professor in which he argues nothing less than the fact that the Hollywood Gamesmakers have hijacked the movie, stripped it of its transformative meaning, and replaced it with a glorification of the Capitol/Hollywood/Politicians/Film Directors, basically The Powers That Be. Try this epic post for starters. Fascinating and provocative stuff, and well worth thinking about lest we stop watching movies with a critical eye and careful attention.