The Movie Snob takes a little trip on the mighty Mississip.
Mud (B). When a movie gets a 98% favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes, I figure there must be something to it. This is writer-director Jeff Nichols’s third film, but the first I have seen, and I was duly impressed. It’s about a couple of 14-year-old boys living in a small Arkansas town on the Mississippi River. They’ve heard a rumor about a boat stuck up in a tree on some small island in the River, but when they go to claim it they discover that somebody is actually living in it—a scruffy vagabond who identifies himself only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Bernie). Mud tells them some of his story, and they agree to help him lie low and carry out some other plans he has. Is he telling them the truth? Is he dangerous? Who’s looking for him and why? Part suspense movie, part coming-of-age tale, this is a solid film featuring outstanding performances by McConaughey and the two youngsters. Reese Witherspoon (Four Christmases) plays a decidedly unglamorous gal by the name of Juniper. None other than Joe Don Baker of Mitchell fame also shows up in a small role. I thought the final act got a little unbelievable, but all in all I enjoyed this movie.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s Apocalyptic offering is profane, narcissistic, campy, and yes, funny. For me, it succeeded best as a campy horror flick. The premise is simple: James Baruchel visits his buddy Rogen in Hollywood and the two attend a party hosted by James Franco. All the actors play themselves. Also attending the party are: Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, Michael Cera, Jason Segel, Mindy Kaling, Paul Rudd, David Krumholtz, Aziz Ansari, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kevin Hart, Martin Starr and Emma Watson. The Apocalypse happens during the party. Some people are immediately sucked up to Heaven in a tunnel of blue light; others fall into a crevice that opens up in front of Franco’s house. The rest (all male with the exception of Emma Watson for a short time in a funny ax wielding performance) are left to navigate the post-Apocalyptic world complete with strange anatomically (enhanced) correct monsters as well as limited food, water and resources. The actors make fun of themselves but primarily the humor is pure frat boy (read: pot jokes, sex jokes, flatulence jokes, masturbation jokes) and the movie drags a bit. Confession: I suspect you will find this movie more funny than I did if you are up on all the roles these actors have played. The ending is bizarre–in a “we-didn’t-know-how-to-end-the-movie” kind of way. The suspense is well timed. This movie deserves its hard R rating. Don’t take your mom or your children!
This buddy movie proves that Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson have a certain chemistry on-screen that was not a fluke (Wedding Crashers). Billy and Nick (Vaughn and Wilson) are forty-something salesmen out of a job because no one wears wrist watches anymore a la Willy Loman. They enroll in the University of Phoenix to qualify as “students” for an internship at Google (which is portrayed as Nirvana). Despite their hilarious interview via Skype, Billy and Nick secure spots as Nooglers. The movie is predictable — the youngsters eschew Billy and Nick, but in the end, the old geezers have something to share with their younger counterparts and are not obsolete after all; the team comes together–Kum-bay-ya. For those of a certain age, Billy and Nick’s ’80s cultural references that fly over the heads of the co-eds are pretty funny. Rose Byrne plays Wilson’s alluring love interest. Will Farrell has a cameo as a mattress salesman that is uncharacteristically flat. Go with low expectations and you will enjoy it.
Fill the Void (B-). This Israeli movie is a domestic drama set among the ultra-orthodox Haredi community in Israel. The set-up takes only a few minutes: an 18-year-old girl named Shira is looking forward to having her marriage arranged when her older sister Esther dies suddenly giving birth to her first child. Esther’s husband Yochay cannot care for an infant alone, and pretty soon a potential match is found for him. But his prospective bride lives in Belgium, and Shira’s mother cannot bear the thought of having her grandson move so far away. So she proposes that Shira should marry Yochay. Yikes! Yochay makes his peace with the idea pretty quickly, so the rest of the movie is basically will-she-or-won’t-she. It’s certainly an interesting look inside a community most people don’t know anything about, and I thought the actress who played Shira did a nice job. But, as my grade suggests, I was left wanting more. The bottom line, I think, is that I wanted more explanation as to why Shira makes the decisions that she does. That said, the movie has a high score on Metacritic, and maybe most people are more tolerant of ambiguity than I am.
I am not a fan of scary movies, and I absolutely loathe zombie movies. So, I’m not sure what possessed me to see World War Z. This movie centers on a United Nations employee (Brad Pitt) who is traveling the world trying to find a cure for a pandemic of unknown origins that is causing people to turn into zombies. One bite, and you’re a zombie seconds later. The movie wastes no time getting straight into the action and it’s a roller coaster ride all the way to the end. I was constantly on the edge of my seat (or, under it sometimes) and engaged with the film. The movie has its fair share of scares and, thankfully, is not gory. The camera work, especially in the action sequences, is too shaky for my taste, making it hard to see what is actually taking place at times. I also heard some people grumbling outside the theater about the movie being different from the book upon which the film is based. So, I guess if you’ve read the book, be open to differences. Overall, though, this movie is a fun night out.
Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch, by Yair Zakovitch (2012). This is a very interesting book in which a scholar at Hebrew University of Jerusalem engages in a close reading of the biblical story of Jacob. He tries to see where various influences were brought to bear on the story at various stages of the story’s editing—sometimes the editors were willing to show Jacobs warts and all, and at other times it is pretty clear the editors were trying to shape the narrative a little bit to put the patriarch in a more positive light. And he also detects tension between the editors who were supporters of the northern kingdom of Israel versus those who favored the southern kingdom of Judah. But he doesn’t really seem to doubt that there actually was a real person behind all the stories. Anyway, I thought it was a really interesting read.
Man of Steel (B-). I was reluctant to see this film. I’ve seen all of the Superman movies and did not really want to see the same story yet again. I was pleasantly surprised. Although many of the key aspects of the Superman story are in this film, the story is changed significantly. You can go see this film without knowing exactly how everything is going to play out or what is going to happen next. Although Amy Adams (Enchanted) is not exactly what I have in mind for Lois Lane (and still don’t), I really enjoyed Henry Cavill (TV’s The Tudors) as Superman. I thought he did a fantastic job and look forward to see him in future films. The move is long (2 hours, 23 minutes) but it keeps moving generally (though there are a couple of lulls). The special effects are also generally very good, although there are a few moments (though brief) where the animation was almost comical. Overall, this movie is certainly worth the price of admission, but I doubt seeing it in 3D adds much.
*** No real spoilers, but this review does assume familiarity with the two previous movies about these characters, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. ***
It’s time to catch up again with those chatterbox lovers Jesse and Celine. Nine years after their reunion in Before Sunset, we find them still together, winding up a vacation in beautiful southern Greece. American Jesse (Ethan Hawke, Great Expectations) has divorced his wife and moved to Paris, but the separation from his son is getting harder for him to take. French Celine (Julie Delpy, Three Colors: White) is agonizing over some sort of job change. These issues — and pretty much every other thought that crosses Jesse’s and Celine’s minds — get thoroughly hashed out over the course of this movie. I rather liked the first two movies in this intermittent series, but the microscopic navel-gazing that seemed natural in a couple of 23-year-olds gets a little tiresome with this pair of 41-year-olds. Still, I didn’t mind the first half of this movie, especially the long lunch conversation with a bunch of their friends. But I thought the wheels kind of fell off in the second half, as the conversations got less and less believable. Also, I think Celine is a little crazy. Maybe they’ll get their act together, and stop living quite so much in their brains, by the time we get to Before Noon in around 2022.
Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays From the Classics to Pop Culture, by Daniel Mendelsohn (2012). I had never heard of Mendelsohn before recently seeing a favorable review of this essay collection. My ignorance is not surprising, because it turns out Mendelsohn publishes frequently in The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, which I don’t read. Anyway, the book’s subtitle is accurate; this volume contains essays on all sorts of subjects: the Titanic, the television show Mad Men, James Cameron’s movie Avatar, new translations of the Iliad and Herodotus’ History, some modern novels that were unfamiliar to me, and some recent memoirs. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even the essays about subjects I was totally unfamiliar with. If you were a liberal-arts major, I bet you will like this book. And if you do, I strongly urge you to check out a periodical that publishes essays and reviews in a similar vein, The New Criterion.
Frances Ha (B). I wasn’t sure about this movie. It’s gotten pretty good reviews from the critics, but on the other hand it was directed and co-written Noah Baumbach, whose previous movie The Squid and the Whale pretty much left me cold. But on the other hand, it stars Greta Gerwig, whom I liked in Damsels in Distress, so I held out some hope. Gerwig stars as Frances, a 27-year-old gal living in New York and barely squeaking by as an apprentice dancer with a professional dance company. She is more or less stuck in college mode, sharing an apartment with her college friend Sophie, whose company she prefers to any mere boyfriend. But reality is starting to make its inevitable demands. Sophie has a serious boyfriend and is less available. Frances’s career as a dancer appears to be going nowhere, and her finances are precarious. She has no romantic prospects, and one of her few guy friends frequently refers to her as “undatable.” Still, Frances seems like a basically decent person, and something about Gerwig’s portrayal made me want to root for her. Plus, it’s only 86 minutes long, so it’s not a huge time investment.
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers (1940). I was looking for a small paperback to take on a trip, and this one fit the bill; otherwise, I didn’t know a thing about it. It turned out to be much better and more engrossing than I had dared to hope. It’s about a small group of misfits in a medium-sized Southern town in the late 1930s. The hub of the group is John Singer, a gentle, lip-reading deaf-mute who becomes the confidante of the other misfits, and apparently others in the town besides. The other misfits are dissatisfied with their lives, or the state of the world, or both, and they pour their hearts and yearnings out to Singer–who has a secret sorrow of his own. For me, the most compelling character is Mick Kelly, a 12 or 13 year-old girl who has a love of music and a dream of becoming a composer himself, but whose poor family is not a promising launching pad for such a career. You can’t help but root for the kid. Amazingly, McCullers published the book when she was only 23.
I’d recommend the book to anyone, but it will probably hold special appeal for folks who like Southern lit. It reminds me a little of Thomas Wolfe and a little more of Flannery O’Connor. Apparently there was a 1968 movie based on the book starring Alan Arkin as Singer and Sondra Locke (who was several years too old for the role) as Mick.