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Midnight in Paris

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***½

Yes. It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that’s what war does to men. And there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it’s not only noble but brave. 

Midnight in Paris has two stories with a collection of messages and themes that connect them.  Some of these are patently clear, while others are pleasantly more challenging.  Some of the acting challenges helped the film, while others felt a bit hokey.  And by hokey, I mean in the somewhat self-indulgent style that gets in the way of some of Woody Allen’s films.

The film begins with an overture.  A nice song plays while the screen shows the famous sites of Paris and the bustling occupants of the City of Light.  The scene stretches on and on, showing Paris in the daylight, night, and in the rain.  The meaning of this scene is not apparent for some time.  Gil Pinder–Owen Wilson–points out that he could make “checkmate” arguments for both Paris during the day and during the night, but that it is most beautiful in the rain.

Gil’s fiancée, Inez–Rachel McAdams, does not want to walk back to the hotel in the rain, when the two of them plus Inez’s mother exit an upper crust furniture store.   Normally, the position of not wanting to walk in the rain would seem to be the more relatable one, but the mother–Mimi Kennedy–says “you get what you pay for,” when Gil balks at paying 18,000€ per chair.  Somehow Gil and Inez seem to be oblivious to the flaws in a relationship that seems doomed from the start.  My mom noticed that Inez probably fell for Gil when he was making a lot of money as a famous screenwriter in LA, but for all of the I love you talk and making out, the relationship had almost nothing going for it.  The lesson is that people need to challenge the assumptions in their relationships to be happy.  That this will be a lesson is clear from about 10 minutes into the film.

After a statement like that the last message I want to cover is that the truth is harder to see in the present, than in hindsight.  Many of the characters in this film are famous artists: Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dali make up the famous 1920’s Paris dwellers.  When Gil travels back through time at midnight—yes, this is a subtle science fiction film, and there is even confirmation that Gil is not crazy since a private eye tailing him somehow winds up in walking in on a French king who screams “découpez sa tête!”—he knows that Fitzgerald and Hemingway are/were great writers, because their careers have finished and their worth determined.  Gil’s had not finished his novel, so no-one, not even he, knows the truth.  That is tied to Gil’s nostalgia.  He feels like he knows the past and would prefer to live in Paris in the 1920’s.

Ironically the best acting comes from Owen Wilson and the past characters, so even the film that addresses the flaws in nostalgia operates under some form of it.  While Gil—through one of his many love interests, Adriana, the beautiful Marion Cotillard—came to a similar realization about the dangers of trying to live in the past. Probably the best choice that Allen made in this film, was putting that message into the words of a “pedant,” obnoxiously played by Michael Sheen.  It took courage to put words of truth, words that criticize his protagonist into the mouth of an asshole.

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Jurassic Park

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****

Jurassic Park made a ton of money and almost everyone liked it.  It’s Stephen Spielberg at the height of his pop power.  When I come to common ground like this, I do not want to bother repeating the same material that you probably already know.  That said, the Tyrannosaurus Rex in this film was amazing—you hear about it and hear about it, you are promised to see it and then…you have to wait!  My favorite Spielberg movie is Jaws and this took the lessons from Jaws and employed them with some slight twists.

Beyond the power of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the movie, Spielberg mustered together a great collection of actors in supporting roles:  Martin Ferrero–Izzy from Miami Vice, Miguel Sandoval–great as the drug lord in Clear and Present Danger, B.D. Wong–Law & Order: SVU, and Samuel L. Jackson–the cabbie from Die Hard: With a Vengeance.  I am surprised that of the main actors in this film, only Jeff Goldblum’s career blew up.  Good supporting roles lead to movies feeling more realistic, even when they are dealing with dinosaurs.

The Lincoln Lawyer

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***½

I checked the list of people I trust and your name ain’t on it. 

What makes a good movie?  Does it depend when you watch it and with whom?  This year I loved Bridesmaids and disliked The Kids Are All Right.  I saw the former in a packed theater while taking a break from bar prep and loved every gross and touching minute of it.  The latter I watched alone in my apartment.  Bridesmaids is—at least to me—is clearly a much better movie than The Kids Are All Right, but I still might have enjoyed it more had there been people around me who liked it.  The opposite can be true, of course too.  With The Lincoln Lawyer, I watched the first 75 minutes with my parents, went out to meet some friends, and then finished it in the morning.  I had already been sucked in by the time that I left, so maybe finishing it in the morning made no difference to my enjoyment.

The movie has a good legal ethics question–what do you do when your current client actually committed a crime that your former client is in jail for?  Unfortunately about five minutes into the movie I asked, has the screenwriter ever seen a court room before?  Did anyone even proofread this script?  My Dad reminded me that he did warn me to stop watching legal programming once I went to law school.  Being mistaken about the law is fine, but not when you draw attention to the details of it.

While the legal aspects and the writing were not well edited, the film as a whole was.  There is a great attention to detail, even if there are legal missteps.  So I anticipate seeing what the director, Brad Furman, does next.  The casting in this film was first notch too.  It’s not the shaggy William H. Macy that’s intuitive, but going for John Leguizamo and Michael Peña. Having a good cast helps make a good movie.  Having preexisting knowledge of the subject matter of a movie is a double edged sword.  I enjoy watching things that conform to “the truth,” and hate falsehoods, so when I watch a legal thriller the potential upside is high, but there’s the potential to bother me as well.  This was a very good movie, but unfortunately not a great one for me.

The General

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**½

There were two loves in his life: his engine and —

This is my first Buster Keaton film.  For those that do not know, he was every bit as famous as Charlie Chaplin in the silent movie industry.  This tells a story set in 1861 of a railroad engineer in those troubling times; his name is Charlie Grey.  Unfortunately his utility as an engineer prevents him from enlisting in the Southern Army.  The classical score is quite interesting and makes me wonder if the editor cut the film to the music, or vice versa.  As a huge Tchaykovsky fan I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it.  The first act ends with Keaton riding the piston of a train—comedy gold for the 1920’s!  His locomotive…that’s the general.

His ex-lady gets kidnapped by Union army saboteurs who steal his locomotive and only he endeavors to rescue the train with her on it.  He lost her because of accusations of cowardice for his failure to enlist. While the plot was pretty interesting, silent storytelling is probably more novel than the story itself.  Thanks to Grinnell College and UChicago I have seen more than my share of silent films, but why would the average Netflix subscriber opt to watch them?  There is a deep prejudice against  such films, as there is against animated films in some groups.  The most interesting thing for me was the danger of the stunts and the ease with which Buster Keaton pulled them off.  He would fit in well with a Jackie Chan movie.  Although he has a Severus Snape look to him, which makes for an interesting protagonist.

A few of the jokes did not sit well with me, but Keaton is so charming he can take an unpleasant bear trap joke and get a chuckle out of me.  The female lead had less to work with, but she did her best.  She was a real sport when it came to the ol’ shove her into a burlap sack gag!  To be totally frank I got bored with this movie pretty quickly.  It’s well shot and the action and jokes just keep coming, but it’s really old.  I will probably have more fun thinking about this movie than I did watching it.  In good conscience I cannot really give it less than 3 stars though.  So I did so in bad conscience because I got tired of the movie so much.

Ip Man 2

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***

Master, you really can fight ten men at once.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ip Man, so I decided to watch this one soon after the first.  Oooh, I like it better when the villains look different from the Chinese.  When it’s stinking Chinese on Chinese crime—like here in Hong Kong—it bothers me on a different level.  Thankfully a foreign devil named “Twister”, played by Darren Shahlavi, shows up to promote the superiority of Western boxing.  His appearance in a film like this is a throwback to an earlier age of kung fu movies.

This was a pleasant movie with two famous Chinese  leading men—Donnie Yen & Sammo Hung—plus the return of the secondary bad guy from the first film Sio-Wong Fan.  While I preferred the first one, the ending to this one was funnier.  I do not know if Ip Man fought any other martial artists, but if he did I hope that they make a third movie where he eats better or it focuses on some romanticized version of him training Bruce Lee.  Only time will tell.

As a post script – there is a scene in this film where Ip Man’s opponents broke the second rule of Eastern Film Society, never draw a weapon against the master unless you want him to use it against you.

Silver City

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***

People want to back a winner. They need to feel a part of something bigger than they are. They used to advertise the quality of a product – – tastes great, whitens your teeth, shaves close, rides like a dream – – Now what do they push? America’s number one soft drink. Best-selling mid-sized utility vehicle. It isn’t “buy the product.” It’s “Join the club.” You make people feel part of a winner, they’ll follow you anywhere. 

I decided to watch this movie because I wanted to see Richard Dreyfus and Thora Birch in something.  It seems like there might be a few laughs, but there is gap between true cleverness and high volume joke cracking—hopefully this movie wind up on the clever side.  But each time someone talks to itself or breaks its own scotch glass, it seems less clever.  I think that I have made it clear how much I enjoy deep casts so here’s the list of people I was glad to see: Dreyfus, Birch, Chris Cooper–in a stretch role as someone who is less than bright, but a “true believer” politician (a bit like W), Danny Huston–his accent pretty well hidden,  Tim Roth–ditto, Maria Bello, Billy Zane–named Chandler Tyson…um, he’s neither Black nor over 7′, and Miguel Ferrer.

From that big list it surprised me that Danny Huston’s character, as a former reporter now private investigator, would be the one driving the story.  The great thing about him is that he has been hired by the politician’s campaign to keep a negative story out of the press, but to do so he has to determine where the proverbial “dead-man-on-a-fishing-line” came from.  It feels like there are so many sketchy characters that anyone could be the antagonist, or the cause of that unfortunate man’s hooking.  The above quote came from one of those potential antagonists, a Pete Coors style millionaire douche portrayed by Kris Kristofferson.  The good thing about Kristofferson’s performance is that he sees himself as the protagonist, even if he is no hero.  He is smart enough to say things that make sense, instead of just being a right wing parody.

Unfortunately we lose a few of the storylines as the movie continues.  Even with those cuts, this movie lasts longer than it probably should.  It’s not great, but it’s an interesting story that addresses several contemporary issues.  This seems like a good movie to have a college class watch for political science or history.

The Color of Money

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***½

You gotta have two things to win: you gotta have brains and you gotta have balls.  Now you have too much of one and not enough of the other.

Martin Scorsese reads opening monologue and it is cheesy pie.  It’s interesting how much Paul Newman’s voice changed from The Hustler until this one.  That said, he can still deliver when he’s got the right material, Mary Mastrantonio and he have a great scene with him outclassing her as a hustler.  I feel like this movie has me saying uh oh a lot.  On the bright side, one time has Tom Cruise getting the crap beaten out of him.

The irony of having actors yelling at each other about acting, and then to have Mastrantonio use the analogy of people acting in movies not going home and sleeping with each other.  The only thing that would have made the scene cooler would be if there were a rumor about Tom Cruise and Paul Newman having an affair with each other during the movie.  The pool/drinking/hanging out montages were very well done in this…well, except for the part where there’s some sped up footage of pool—what the hell was Scorsese thinking?  And what happened to Mary Mastrantonio?  She seemed really good in this.  She deserved her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom.

I went into this film assuming that this would be a let down, that Paul Newman won Best Actor because of his body of work leading up to this film.  He failed to win for The Hustler, Hud, Cool Hand Luke, The Verdict and two other films before this.  Looking back, how could the Academy rationalize Newman’s failure to win at least one Best Actor Oscar in those films!  Newman brought ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson back to life and added in years of life experience.  Having not seen any of the other 4 nominees from 1987, I still believe he actually deserved this one.  If not for the cheesy pie ending, this would easily be a four star movie.

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