Movie Musings

by Dalton Boettcher

Witching and Bitching (2013)

…and inducing uproarious laughter and delivering in the horror/creep-out department and not quite pulling it all together with a wholly satisfying conclusion, Spanish filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia’s horror-comedy is certainly worthy of a late night pairing with popcorn, beer and amenable friends. After a knockout first act in which our messianic protagonist (Hugo Silva) haplessly robs a jewelry store and makes a dubious escape with his daft accomplice and fighting-for-joint-custodied son, the film carries its momentum through the second act, where it introduces a not-quite-flawlessly-disguised group of cannibalistic witches, including (wouldn’t you know) a potential love interest. While not abandoning its absurd sense of humor as things take an inevitable turn south, Witching and Bitching nevertheless bogs down as it trudges through its CGI-intensive finale with irresolute ambition and direction. Still, the addition of such thematic ingredients as witching mythology, the clash of the sexes, and gender roles in modern society make this cinematic cauldron boil with fresh toad’s blood and the tears of innocent laughter.

3/4

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Ostensibly uninhibited by technological constraints, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are uses costumed performers, animatronics, puppeteers, and a dash of CGI to seamlessly bring us inside the mind of its nine-year-old protagonist (wonderfully portrayed by Max Records). And while the film seems to exist as the product of pure imagination, the resulting narrative—loose and unrefined—reflects that of a child’s to a fault. Still, a small price to pay for a visionary ride from a director who clearly hasn’t lost his Rosebud (note a tender and evocative framing of Max’s mother, shot from Max’s fortified position under a table. Because who can’t recall lying under the loving presence of their mother?) Based on the Maurice Sendak picture book of the same name, featuring a lovely soundtrack from Karen O, and with Wild Things voiced by Paul Dano, Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, and (most notably) James Gandolfini, Where the Wild Things Are is a film full of internal discoveries for both adults and children alike.

3/4

Top 10 Films of 2013

2013 was quite a year for the movies. I saw 36 new releases, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to write about them all (yes, even Safe Haven). As always, there are a handful I didn’t have the time to see, but I’m fairly confident that the following ten are a good representation of what the year had to offer. (Click through to my full musings if you’d like to read more of my thoughts on any film)

1. Her

For me, Spike Jonze’s Her is the film of 2013. With its barely-futuristic science fiction setting and a plot that presents human interaction in a world of modern technological convenience as its central conflict, it not only captures the zeitgeist of the times, but serves as a reminder for all mankind (past, present, and future) what it means to be human. Perhaps that’s why, while walking out of the theater, I held my significant other a little closer than usual.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis is the most singular film of 2013, with the voice of writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen echoing off every frame. The heavily-featured soundtrack by T-Bone Burnett is really great, so much so that I wondered if my estimation of the film improperly inflated after repeat listens. But a second viewing proved otherwise, as Inside Llewyn Davis is a rich and multifaceted film that for me—much like Llewyn’s description of a folk song (it’s never new and never gets old)—is an instant classic.

3. 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the most important film of 2013, and I’m a little surprised it’s coming in at my number three. But all three of these films are incredible pictures, and my arrangement may be little more than a function of the order in which I saw them. Steve McQueen’s direction here is truly some of the year’s best, and though he may lose the Oscar to Alfonso Cuarón for the sheer achievement that is Gravity, his unflinching work on 12 Years a Slave makes it the powerful experience that it is. Strong enough to make us change the way we see our past and reconsider the world we live in today, 12 Years a Slave is a film that deserves the Best Picture Oscar.

4. Gravity

What an achievement. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a technological feat, a directorial triumph, and a landmark in modern cinema. Though slightly marred by some clunky and sentimental writing, it shook up the box office as a much-needed return of the theatrical event. You can’t go to outer space in your living room, but at an IMAX screening of Gravity, you can come darn close.

5. Dallas Buyers Club

Two of the year’s best performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto combine with a delicate screenplay that juggles a number of difficult themes to make Dallas Buyers Club one of the best films from 2013. Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack’s writing skillfully balances sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, the political morality of the pharmaceutical industry and its regulatory environment, and the sheer act of living and loving in the face of mortality—all difficult, sensitive themes seldom addressed in the movies today, and rarely as pervasive as they are here. But it’s the transformative performances from McConaughey and Leto that most obviously make the film. Dallas Buyers Club is their story, and they carry it with both subtlety and panache, respect, and dignity.

6. Short Term 12

SXSW film fest favorite Short Term 12 is the most emotionally resonate film I’ve seen in quite a long time. In it, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton gives us a number of empathetically-charged moments, many featuring the outstanding Brie Larson. But beyond all the tears of endearment, the real reason I loved this film was due to the well-written characters Cretton gives us. And there are so many of them, all rounded and complex and human in most every way. And when they make progress, it too feels honest—for every two steps forward we see another step back.

7. Philomena

How do you tell a story about two diametrically opposed characters with two completely different backgrounds and beliefs? You treat both sides with respect. That’s exactly what the Steve Coogan and Judi Dench characters do in Philomena, and it’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed the picture. Another is Dench’s title character, who’s so warm and endearing on screen that she makes me want to do away with some of my own bitterness and cynicism and embrace the joyous naiveté she so wondrously exudes.

8. Captain Phillips

This Paul Greengrass thriller is as gripping as any other movie from 2013 (Gravity included), and it concludes with one of the year’s best endings. Tom Hanks turns in what may be the best piece of acting in his career, but it wasn’t enough to garnish an Oscar nomination. That accolade goes to the film’s other captain, played by first-time actor Barkhad Abdi, who imbues his role with such vital humanity that it’s impossible to pin this film down as a simpleminded us-vs-them, get the bad guys and rescue our hero action flick. Captain Phillips is a film with compassion, humanity, and empathy. That it comes in as my number eight speaks to what a great year it was at the movies.

9. Nebraska

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska may be the 2013 film I most want to revisit. Chalk it up to Phedon Papamichael’s gorgeous black-and-white photography and Bob Nelson’s memorable characters, brought to life by such talent as Bruce Dern, June Squibb, Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, and Stacy Keach. It’s a film that, despite possessing obvious first act flaws, has continued to warm up to me after leaving the theater. It’s an essential film in that, much like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show that so clearly influences it, is more concerned with setting and character than plot or narrative progression.

10. Enough Said

Some films are so honest, so universal and true to life that we can’t help but see ourselves in them. Such was my experience with Enough Said. Two truly endearing performances from Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini were enough to keep me glued to the screen, wondering how the story of their two everyday characters would unfold. But it was writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s genuine screenplay and treatment that unexpectedly brought me to tears as Louis-Dreyfus’s character says goodbye to her college-bound daughter. It’s a moment we’ve seen in countless other films, but rarely has it had such emotional resonance. In a cinema where fiction is always masquerading as truth, this film is an unassuming masterpiece.


Honorable Mention: The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese’s still got it), The Spectacular Now (young leads Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are worth keeping an eye on), and Spring Breakers (because James Franco. And that Britney Spears “Everytime” sequence.)

I also saw: Fruitvale Station, The Way Way Back, 42, American Hustle, August: Osage County, Blue is the Warmest Color, Blue Jasmine, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, The Conjuring, Don Jon, Iron Man 3, Last Vegas, Oblivion, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Saving Mr. Banks, Side Effects, Warm Bodies, The Great Gatsby, All Is Lost, Gangster Squad, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Safe Haven.

Short Term 12 (2013)

Grab some Kleenex. It’s gonna get dusty in here. If the movies are a vehicle of empathy, then Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 is some kind of advanced fighter jet, taking us to a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers (careful not to call them “underprivileged” as Rami Malek’s new-guy Nate mistakenly does) and piloted by the formidable Brie Larson. Her performance as Grace, a passionate and committed supervisor who’s hardly buried the ghosts from her own childhood, is one of the year’s best, and it’s a shame she’s only found recognition amongst critics circles and summer film festivals (she is up for an Independent Spirit Award on March 1st, however).

Grace lives and works with her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), but despite their close proximity, she manages to keep her distance, both physically and emotionally. She’s focused on the kids, of course, and so is Cretton’s film. Through their always-open (-by-statutory-requirement) doors, we see Louis (Kevin Hernandez) a young whippersnapper who hasn’t learned when to stop talking; Sammy (Alex Calloway), a brokenhearted youth who, despite Grace’s protest, has his toys and dolls ripped away by a social worker who believes it’s time for a lesson in letting go; and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), a quiet kid with an active mind who’s not ready to leave the facility when he soon turns 18. And in newcomer Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), Grace sees some of herself. Her arrival sets the second act in motion, and while Grace remains the driving force of the film, Jayden soon becomes her fuel.

Read More

Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)

The most alluring quality of Lee Daniels’ The Butler (a convoluted title caused not by its director’s ego, but instead by some studio trifles) is the character-driven story screenwriter Danny Strong gives us. Though loosely based on the real life of Eugene Allen, his fictitious counterpart Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) and eldest son Louis (David Oyelowo) are most fascinating. Their relationship is the true backbone of the film, rising above narrative fumblings and the historical fiction sprinkled throughout. And in a climatic dinner scene at the Gaines’ home, Oprah Winfrey shows us that even her supporting character is rich and dynamic and not easily pinned down.

There are many shades of gray, especially in the relationship between Cecil and Louis. But Daniels’ direction is consistently assertive, and he manages to pull off a number of cross-cutting sequences that should by all means feel forced and out of place. Pacing troubles in the third act keep it from being a better film, but all in all, The Butler proves to be a character-laden picture worth watching.

3/4

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Evoking the injustice of the real-life events, first-time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is one of the year’s most heartbreaking films. It recounts the 2009 New Year’s events at Oakland’s titular BART platform in which Oscar Grant III was fatally shot, but it also spends time with Oscar and his immediate friends and family, letting us see the man for who he was in the final hours of his life. This is the film’s best attribute, as it attaches human life to Oscar’s name in a way no news article can. But it’s also an Achilles’ heel, as questions of fictitious embellishment inevitably creep in. Coogler’s script is marred by occasional contrivance and heavy-handed foreshadowing, but when you consider all the other ways it could have gone wrong, it’s certainly forgivable.

Michael B. Jordan is quite good as Oscar Grant, as are Octavia Spencer and Melonie Diaz as Oscar’s mother and girlfriend. Shot in beautiful 16mm by Rachel Morrison and scored by Ludwig Göransson, Fruitvale Station feels like it was made by all the right people in all the right ways. Here’s hoping Coogler can avoid a sophomore slump.

3.5/4

Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Do not hold its Shakespearean dialog against it. Forsooth, it is a great burden. But beyond this despair is a brave film. One in which Joss Whedon gathers his closest acting friends to recite Shakespeare in his Santa Monica home over the course of a couple weeks. Shot on the sly with natural light and little production design, the film’s black and white aesthetic has an effervescent vitality matched only by leads Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. If you give it a chance, Much Ado About Nothing should open up and provide enough laughs (and perhaps even some tears) to make it worth your time.

3/4

Her (2013)

Her, written and directed by Spike Jonze, takes a what many see as the core of 2001: A Space Odyssey—a story about mankind and technology and the way we interface—and brings it down to Earth, to a world not too distant from our own. Judging by its fashion sense and the way we currently respond to that of the 1980s, we are perhaps no more than 20 to 30 years away from the world of Her. Mustaches and high-waisted pants are in vogue, and Moore’s Law has given us personal-assistant operating systems (think Siri 2.0) so intelligent and well-programmed that it’s easy to forget we’re talking to a computer (their tabula rasa programming makes them so well-adaptable that their human emulation eventually has them taking breaths between sentences).

If you know anything about the film, you already know that Joaquin Phoenix’s Theodore Twombly develops a romantic relationship with his OS, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson—in what may be the best performance of her career—replaces Samantha Morton—who worked from a four-by-four soundproof booth on set and is most responsible for Phoenix’s outstanding performance). But the film waits until its second act to bring that romance to fruition, as Jonze and collaborators spend most of the first act with Theodore simply inhabiting the world they’ve so harmoniously created. He lives in an amalgamation of Los Angeles and Shanghai, a cool sunny metropolis of congested anonymity and urban alienation. His high-rise apartment overlooks the dazzling city lights, but Jonze’s camera (much like his script) blurs them to obscurity by keeping its shallow focus firmly on Theodore.

The whole film has an aesthetic immediacy that serves the story’s theme of human connection—which doubles as its central conflict. For much of the picture, Theodore seems to be actively avoiding human connection like a lying child averting eye contact with his parents. There’s safety in isolation, and for a man who’s been through a painful divorce, it seems to be the preferred alternative to getting hurt again. And so he falls in love with Samantha. But their love, like many, has a honeymoon period of it’s own. Singing Karen O’s Oscar-nominated “The Moon Song,” Samantha and Theodore sum it up well themselves: I’m safe and we’re a million miles away.

Read More

August: Osage County (2013)

Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize winning play makes its way to the screen largely unimpaired. The dense writing (Letts also penned the screenplay) vibrantly shines through a number of charged performances (most obviously Meryl Streep’s, though Julia Roberts does more than hold her own, and the rest of the loaded cast—including Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson, Margo Martindale, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, and Misty Upham—are all quite good). John Wells’s unassuming screen direction lends itself to the material, and while he occasionally struggles bringing a camera into the stage blocking (editor Stephen Mirrione is stuck with some noticeably jarring cuts), the film remains a quite theatrical experience.

Know this, and you’ll likely have yourself an enjoyable night at the movies. Save for two variably compromising characteristics. First, the film is marred by an uncharacteristically timid and uncertain ending. Actually, it has a great one in which, after stripping down to just Streep and Roberts—the two cornerstones of the screenplay—one of the former’s addictions finally drives her daughter away. And I’m not referring to her recreational drug use. Instead, it’s a more pervasive inability to quit, even when her unabated “truth telling” threatens to hurt the ones she loves. It’s here, over a scorchingly ironic “Lay Down Sally,” that the film reaches its climax and—in my opinion—should have ended. Unfortunately, we get two or three lesser endings with awkward resolution tacked on after. When Roberts’s character pulls over to the side of a highway and stares out over the barren Oklahoma landscape, the film’s bold characters are brushed aside as Wells tries to make the setting more of an obvious explanation than the understated influence it had been before.

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the whole film runs the risk of alienating its audience as the dramatic twists and narrative gut-punches just keep on coming. The entire movie is like some sort of dramatic onion in which, after peeling back layer after layer of family secrets, the cinema is filled with a very pungent smell. And while I enjoyed it as a fine appreciation of the theatrical ingredient, your aversion to the aroma will likely be a direct determinant of your reaction to the movie.

3/4

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The movies have often been jazzy (Breathless, Annie Hall), but rarely have they been so folk. Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest creation from Joel and Ethan Coen, is just that. Described by many as an ode to folk music or a love letter to the genre, the film obviously owes much of its success to T-Bone Burnett’s haunting, evocative, and memorable soundtrack. But the Coen’s insistence on filming live performances and letting songs play out also enriches the film’s tone—which is deeper and more nuanced than simply “bleak” or “melancholy” as so many have described it.

Of course, Oscar Isaac is a blessing in the lead role. Finding an actor fit for a part is hard enough, and adding vocal and musical requirements made it damn near impossible. But here he is, with selfish irreverence in his daily interactions and somber tenor vocals in his musical performances, Llewyn Davis.

Read More