Unfriended

“I gave myself a week after it’s release to decide if I really did want to see this. Reviews weren’t as painful as I feared (some even positive, as it’s holding at 60% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), and God knows I’d rather see this than Age of Adeline.

I’ve said many times that I love horror, but I’m picky about it. I wrote about that as recent as It Follows a few weeks back. The (admitedly gimmicky) set up for Unfriended is what caught my attention, despite the bad title.

Trying to use some of that currently technology that all the kids are using these days, the whole thing plays out on a high school girl’s computer screen. She’s Skype-ing her friends, getting Facebook messages, playing music, etc. Oh and she (and her friends) are also being cyber haunted by the ghost of a girl who killed herself exactly one year ago, the result of cyber bullying.

I was actually kinda surprised as how well the format worked. I typically don’t care for found footage, and I may not have found the film to be particularly scary, but it was an interesting and different take on a genre that’s been done to death. The limited viewpoints (completely with screens freezing and not loading properly) was effective in creating a sense of fear of the unknown. Where found footage usually falls flat for me, is that there’ll be times when it’s hard to believe that someone was still filming something, or that certain angles just happened to be caught. The kids all on their computers got around that issue (good job, team), but that just meant that the feasibility dropped elsewhere for me. I could completely go with the idea of a ghost in the internet controlling everything. How she was able to then manifest and hurt people IRL, yeeeaah not so much.

Unfortunately, the biggest point against the movie (and the one that I most feared) was that the kids were so annoying. I don’t like high school kids, particularly high school girls. I say this having been one. We’re awful. The way she’d whine if her boy didn’t respond to a message within ten seconds, the catty-ness between the characters, the bitchy self assurance. Ugh. Could not stand. That said, as someone who was a victim of constant bullying in high school, there was some satisfaction gained in seeing the cool clique get their comeuppance. While it was fun to see how the youngun’s use their various apps and devices, I am beyond thankful that such tools weren’t as widely used when I was their age. For me, at least the bullying stopped when the bell rang. It didn’t continue into cyber bullying when I got home. Maybe this movie will be a lesson to those kids who terrorize others? Probably not.

Unfriended – \m/ \m/ \n

Ex Machina

“Sometimes, I wish I didn’t know how good or bad a movie is before I see it. I generally like to know a simple thumbs up or thumbs down, especially if it’s something I’m on the fence about. But I find that when I hear something is really good, it sets my expectations too high, I end up being overly critical, and I don’t enjoy it as much as I feel I may have if I went in blind. That was sorta the case with Ex Machina.

The subject matter, artificial intelligence specifically in the form of a humanoid robot woman, was enough to peak my interest. In a month that was otherwise lacking viable options, this is one that I was anxiously awaiting. As the release came closer, I’d heard more and more positive things, so by the time I was sitting in the theater, I expected to be wowed. I wasn’t really. I’m not saying it wasn’t good, I’m just saying that it wasn’t all I thought it could be.

Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb is a young and talented programmer who is invited to spend a week with the Bill Gates/Steve Jobs-eqsue boss of his company, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who basically created their fictional Google equivalent. Nathan has built an advanced AI robot, and he wants Caleb to administer the Turing test to determine whether or not the bot is truly conscious.

The effects were fantastic, the acting great (I love Oscar Isaac more and more with each movie). I just felt the story was lacking a little direction. It’s like they had the basis of what they wanted to do (AI Turing test), and then had a few different directions in which to take it. They briefly dabbled in each potential storyline before quickly and tentatively choosing the one to end on. And I really mean potential, because any of the directions I thought they were gonna take would have been incredible, had it been committed to. Instead, I felt like the final act was a bit of an incoherent mess. The final ending was pretty cool, I just feel like things could have been cleaned up leading to that point.

Yet I’m apparently in the minority of that opinion, which is fine by me. God knows I end up liking movies that no reasonable person should enjoy, so it’s only fair that it goes the other way sometimes. That isn’t to say Ex Machina was bad. I just felt it wasn’t as good as it could have been.

Ex Machina – \m/ \m/ \m/”

True Story

“By now, most people know that instead of asking me if I have any plans for the weekend, the proper question is what movies am I seeing. One of the times that question arose this week, I said True Story. They hadn’t heard of it, so I began, as I often do, by listing the cast. “”It’s Jonah Hill and James Franco…”” I see a look that indicates they’ve pegged the type of movie. I quickly interject “”This is them being serious this time””. Queue the look of surprise.

I actually really like this idea. James Franco is known for all sorts of crazy things, including his comedic roles. Jonah Hill is also primarily known for comedies. Yet the two have managed (very well deserved) Oscar nominations during their career. You watch some of their typical fare (This Is the End, Superbad, Pineapple Express) and the mind boggles at the thought. But you watch something they were nominated for (Franco 127 Hours, Hill Moneyball and Wolf of Wall Street) and you forget these are typically funny and irreverent dudes. It makes perfect sense in my world that the two would choose to work on a serious film together, and it’s a thought that excited me greatly.

This is the true story (oh I get it now!) of Christian Longo (Franco) and Mike Finkel (Hill). Finkel was once a highly acclaimed writer for the NYT until an article he published with some narrative liberties tarnished his reputation. Longo is a recently captured fugitive, wanted for murdering his wife and children, who had been using Finkel’s name as an alias. Curiosity peaked, Finkel meets with Longo to find out why he’d choose to impersonate him Longo proceeds to exclusively tell Finkel his story while awaiting trial.

My main takeaway is that for a film about two men who ultimately just want to be taken seriously, the film itself tries way too hard to be taken seriously itself. There’s just some movies that have this strange I’m-very-important tone, where you feel like the filmmakers were simply after acclaim, and inevitably fall short. This certainly had that air, but it wasn’t due to the cast. I thought the boys were incredible, giving as good a performance as they ever have. The story itself was incredibly fascinating. I was completely on pins and needles waiting to see what would happen. Did he do it? Will he be convicted? What’s he holding back? That was enough to keep me captivated, even if the film itself was rather flawed.

Among the flaws was a criminally underutilized Felicity Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend Jill. (Sidebar, I’m pretty sure the first trailer I saw listed the boys as academy nominees, but failed to recognize hers. A week later when I saw it, it was either corrected or I was crazy the first time). She’s a fantastic actress and did the best with what little she could, but she seemed to be randomly inserted here and there without much reason or development.

Anyways, for me, I thought it was all worth it. For anyone else, I’d have to give it some thought

True Story – \m/ \m/ \m/”

Selena

“To most of America, Selena is the kinda cheesy biopic that put Jennifer Lopez on the map. Maybe once in a while it comes on Lifetime, and you just can’t turn away. (Jonah Hill, for one, has been known to tweet about such occurrences.) But for a Hispanic girl from a border town in south Texas, this movie is everything. Absolutely everything.

I was in fifth grade when Selena was murdered (just a couple weeks over 20 years ago). Up to that point, I can’t remember anything shaking up my community so completely. Everybody in Laredo, TX (and the rest of south Texas) absolutely loved her. You’d see her picture up everywhere, moreso after her death. Practially every Mexican restaurant you’d go to would have her framed on the walls. Maybe you’d see a mural or a cardboard standee. A good friend at the time named her cat after Selena. And of course, her music was everywhere. I didn’t pay any attention to Tejano music (which was everywhere), but I knew who Selena was. (Bidi Bidi Bom Bom was my favorite, although now I’d prolly go with Como La Flor). To this day, you don’t have to go too far to find something Selena in town.

You have no idea what a big deal the movie was for us, and that’s that Laredo wasn’t even a part of it. The local newspaper had front page updates, including a profile on a local girl that almost got the part of young Selena. The film’s release was an event itself. Everybody went. I still remember going to the current newest movie theater (every few years a new one would open, then the oldest would become a dollar theater and eventuall close) with my entire family. And I mean my entire family. In my whole life, the only time I remember my grandparents going to the movies was to see Selena. There may have also been a cousin involved. A few weeks ago, I shared an article on FB about Selena’s anniversary and my mom quickly commented about how much my grandpa had loved her music.

This movie was mainly a big deal because of how loved she was, but it was also a rare chance to see our people and our culture on film. Corpus Christi, where much of the film takes place, may be 150 miles away from Laredo, but it’s similar enough. I only now fully appreciate what that meant to see Hispanic culture displayed with such wide distribution.

As for the movie itself, some of it gets a little cheesy (particularly the romance), but overall it fit the spirit of Selena beautifully. I don’t think anyone back home was disappointed with the film. It was exactly what we all hoped it would be. The then unknown Jennifer Lopez was perfect, oftentimes indistinguishable from Selena as she recreated so many of her iconic looks. She embodied who we all believed Selena was.

Watching this movie just brings back so many memories. There may be times when I try to distance myself from my home town, but this is one of the few when I’m particularly proud of where I came from.”

Mulholland Dr

“I absolutely love this film and I absolutely don’t understand it, but I come closer with each viewing. Actually no, I do understand some of it, but it’s taken a while and the help of IMDB’s FAQ (Note: don’t go looking at it unless you really give up on solving it all yourself). For me, I categorize this along with Donnie Darko, Birdman, and Stay (among other films) where I understand just enough to be affected by it, but getting a full grasp of what happened and what it means remains and likely will always remain elusive. Like those examples, there’s such a beauty in the film and in the confusion.

I still remember the first time I tried to watch this. I knew the reputation it had, so I was determined to pay the fullest attention possible and understand it. I failed miserably. If you’ve seen this, you know the majority of the film plays out in a chronological order (with some weirdness). Then things get really weird. Then a whole other door is opened and things get scrambled, and even more weird. That first time, it had me until the scramble and then all was lost. I did some internet research (possibly looking at that same FAQ) and still couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

I watched it again some time later, with a little more info, and I could at least buy what the scenarios represented. I still couldn’t put it together to save my life. Tonight, I think it’s become clear, or at least as clear as it will ever be. I knew what to expect going in and what to look for. Reading thru that FAQ afterwards confirmed that I’d figured out most of it. There’s still a lot of detail that eludes me, but I love and appreciate this film even more now.

Confusion aside, there’s a lot of really good stuff here. This is arguably Naomi Watts’ career best performance. People talk about roles that show an actor’s range, but there’s few examples of that that come close to this. It’s the role that first got her noticed her career took off in subsequent years. Seriously, even if all the weird mysterious David Lynch stuff doesn’t do it for you, this is absolutely worth watching simply for her performance.

Now let’s just see how the drama around Lynch’s Twin Peaks revival plays out over the next few weeks!”

The Woman in Gold

“This sounded like a fascinating story. And older woman paired with a young and scrappy lawyer, take on the Austrian government in an attempt to reclaim a famous painting that had been stolen from her family by the Nazis. Add in Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as the characters in question, and you’ve got gold. Except something about it felt sappy and trite, so I didn’t run out as quickly as I otherwise would have. I hedged a little and waited to see how it did.

As it turns out, yes the story is quite fascinating. And yes, the storytelling is a little cliche, but that was mostly forgivable due to the previously mentioned strong cast (which also included Katie Holmes and Daniel Bruhl). Sure Mirren may have been playing another version of the same formidable elder that she does so well (see also, The Hundred Foot Journey) and Reynolds may have been more reigned in than his usual zany self (still doing penance for his last few blockbuster disasters), but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable to watch.

Still the main strength was just the story itself. Even if the direction (or the writing) felt a bit emotionally manipulative at times, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this woman’s story is incredible. And not just her efforts to be reunited with the painting, but also her early life and escape in WWII, which we glimpsed in flashbacks. It different hands, it could have been a tour de force of a film. Yet sometimes it’s nice to have some light fare that’s not too demanding.

Ha, it looks like I wasn’t the only one who noticed the striking similarity in posters between this and Reynold’s Safe House a few years back.

Woman in Black – \m/ \m/ \m/ \n”

While We’re Young

“Bit of a conundrum this week for picking movies. I was expecting Ex Machina, but it turns out its limited release is starting really limited and won’t be here until at least next week. The new wide release was the new Nicholas Sparks and we all know there’s no way in hell I’m seeing that. So I was left to pick from my maybe movies. The cast for While We’re Young put it on my radar, but I wasn’t impressed enough with the trailer to make it a must. However, in the week since it’s been out, I’ve been hearing good things (including a pretty decent Rotten Tomatoes rating). I also know that writer/director Noah Baumbach is rather well respected, even if I’m not too familiar with his work, only his reputation.

Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts are a gen X couple, approaching middle age. The rest of their friends are all having babies, which is not something they’re planning on. Feeling lost and left out, they befriend a young millennial couple Amanda Seyfried and Adam Driver who turn their life as they know it upside down.

As someone who fits right in between the two groups (often subcategorized as gen Y, or being considered among the oldest of the millennials) it left my head in a kinda strange place. I was simultaneously empathizing with both sides. There was a fun montage in the middle showing how each couple approaches the same situation (games, films, communication, etc) and was pretty evenly split between which I identified with. It was trippy. The younger crowd also reminded me of a play I saw recently, OPC (Obsessive Political Correctness) that revolved around a freegan and her relationship with her mother. Amanda and Adam’s Darby and Jamie might not have lived that lifestyle, but they weren’t very far from it.

Just as the whole conceit was starting to wear thin, the film took a turn and was suddenly about something completely different. Although blindsided, I kinda liked where it ended up. It was a much more interesting story, and would have likely made me more interested to see it if I knew that it wasn’t just some middle age bildungsroman. All I’ll say, since it’s likely meant to be a surprise, is that it has to do with the respective documentaries that each of the guys are working on and the motives behind their work.

Some bits dragged and there were a few things we could have done without (starting with that whole Ayahuasca thing), but it was a refreshing and original film anchored by a great cast. Maybe not as deserving of quite the level of praise I’d been hearing, but certainly a choice well made.

While We’re Young – \m/ \m/ \m/

Sneakers

“This movie is very beloved at MIT. I don’t know if it’s still the case (God I hope so), but back in my day, it was kept alive with screenings at LSC (the student group that showed movies every weekend) and various copies roaming the dorm halls. References to the movie were common, especially around Mystery Hunt. One longstanding team was even named Setec Astronomy. Even though the film was rather dated by the time I first saw it (prolly at an LSC screening), it’s not hard to see why my fellow nerds are so drawn to it. Puzzles and computers and intrigue, oh my! Keep in mind, this came out long before the days of geek chic, where the nerds rule the earth and it’s okay (even cool) to be a techie freak. This was one of the rare glimpses where our kind are not only portrayed, but we’re the likeable heroes and not just a punchline. Kinda like what Big Bang Theory has done for us in recent years, but even more genuine.

IMDB summarizes the plot as “”Complex but lighthearted thriller about computers and cryptography, government and espionage, secrets and deception and betrayal.”” It’s kinda hard to give anything more detailed without tail-spinning into a full recap. There’s just too many secrets (not so subtle wink to those who know this movie). It sure as hell is a lotta fun though!”

Sling Blade

Family movie night! We’re watching Sling Blade. This one was written by, directed by, and stars Billy Bob Thornton. I can hear Edward Norton’s voice in my head, quoting Birdman “”That’s ambitious””.

Right so BBT plays Karl. Karl is some ambiguous flavor of mentally ill, and has just been released from the state facility where he spent the majority of his life after murdering his mother and her lover. Now he’s trying to navigate the small home town that has simultaneously changed and stayed the same in the years of his hospitalization. He befriends a young boy and is given a place to stay with him and his single mother. Except mommy is dating a drunken scoundrel of a man, who’s making things rather difficult for Karl and his new friend.

My main takeaway is that this film is incredibly self serving. One of the most self serving films I’ve ever experienced. There are so many slow shots of BBT just standing there. So. Many. IMDB tells me that Harvey Weinstein, producer extraordinaire, bought the film for a rather high sum after only having seen a few minutes. Then he got the final cut and furiously demanded BBT trim it down. I’m not sure if edits were made, but this one runs 2.5 hours, and doesn’t really make good use of all that time. Throughout there’s a constant undertone of BBT thinking “”Look at me, I’m awesome. Love me””

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy parts of it. The film may have been all about BBT, but my favorite character was John Ritter as the mother’s GBF (Gay best friend), Vaughan. It saddens me that I never really appreciated Ritter as an actor until long after he’d passed. Honestly, it’s been pretty recent that I’ve discovered just what a treasure he was to Hollywood. In this movie, he stole the show in a role that was especially written for him. It’s a lot like the characters he’s known for and also a lot different. I guess it’s the heart that’s the same as always. The outer details are what changes.

Speaking of the supporting cast, the little kid looked so familiar, like I knew him in films where he was older. I stared at him for a second. No, it couldn’t be. Could it? And so appropriately timed too? Yes. It was. Lucas Black, better known as the cheaper Paul Walker replacement in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. I had just rewatched part of Drift last week, plus Black’s short appearance in 7.

This movie came out right around when I was transitioning out of my country phase (I lived in Texas, it was obligatory, and only lasted a year) into pop. I wasn’t too in tune with the Hollywood scene at the time, but I did know that country star Dwight Yoakam had a role. I also wasn’t too used to the idea of musicians who could act who weren’t named Will Smith, so I had trouble getting my head around the concept. Maybe it’s just that I didn’t really recognize Yoakam with facial hair instead of a cowboy hat. Watching it now, he ain’t half bad. I just wish the rest of the film weren’t so dang slow.”

Half Nelson

Hey girl, remember that time Ryan Gosling got nominated for an Oscar? Oh what, you forgot (or didn’t know)? Yeah it happened in the 2007 Academy Awards. His Best Actor nod was the sole nomination for Half Nelson, but he lost to Forrest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland (although I still think he shoulda lost to Leo in Blood Diamond, but that’s a whole ‘nother rant for a whole ‘nother day).

Gosling plays a teacher at an inner city middle school, who also happens to be a drug addict. There’s not really a whole lotta plot. It’s mostly just him navigating his life: dealing with his students, battling his inner demons, attempting to make a connection. He ends up befriending one of his students after she catches him using.

The role is very much a departure for the actor, which is probably what drew the support for the nomination. I just can’t really get into the movie. It’s a little too slow and has a kinda bummer feel to it.

IMDB trivia did point out that most of it was done with a handheld camera, and for these last few minutes, that’s all I can focus on. The unsteady camera does kinda throw you off balance, which I suppose is to suggest the state of mind our character is in. It’s effective, but also makes it that much more difficult to go with and enjoy. Maybe you’re not really supposed to enjoy this one. You’re supposed to feel it. Or something.”