Sunday, January 22, 2012

Atlas Shrugged Part 1

I finally got around to watching Atlas Shrugged Part 1.  I knew I would be sort of disappointed.  There's just no way a movie, or a series of movies, can capture the epic scope and vast ideas of Ayn Rand's classic novel.  The good news is that, first of all, the movie is well made.  It's a solid, quality production.  It also makes a great effort to capture the tone and message of the novel.  Clearly, the writers and producers respect the novel and wanted to bring Rand's message to a broad audience without a lot of editorial alteration.
Taylor Schilling is perfectly cast as Dagny Taggart. 
The end result is a movie that a bit wooden, with a primary appeal to fans of the novel.  It's a decent Cliff's Notes introduction, and hopefully will inspire viewers to pick up the book.  I know I'll be watching when Part 2 comes out.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sucker Punch

I don't think I was the target demographic for Sucker Punch.  However, I'm not exactly sure who this movie was directed at.  It's full of pretty girls in awesome martial arts scenes, so guys into superhero type movies will like the action, but the story itself, well, it's too clever and odd for its own good.
Girls with guns (and swords and kung-fu skills) can't save this movie from stinking.
After Baby Doll's mother dies, her evil stepfather tries to molest Baby Doll's sister.  She tries to defend her sister, but ends up accidentally shooting her instead of Stepdad.  He uses the occasion as an excuse to have Baby Doll committed to an asylum and claim his late wife's fortune for himself.  Baby Doll immediately leaps into a parallel fantasy world, rallying her fellow inmates in a rebellion.  The action flows between fantasy sequences within fantasy sequences.  The action is intense and visually stunning, which is the whole point.  Other than that, this is a bad movie.  Bad, bad, bad.

Bottom line, 1 star

Monday, January 16, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

I have sometimes thought that it would be cool to be a pioneer to a new territory.  The pre-Colonial Europeans who came to America to settle in a new world, the American pioneers who headed west to largely unknown, certainly untamed lands in hopes of establishing a new life, those are heroes in many ways.  Meek's Cutoff might portray some of those heroes, but not in a way that makes me wish I could have followed their path.

Under the leadership of hired guide Stephen Meek, three families heading west to start a new life get seriously lost.  Meek thought he knew a shortcut off the Oregon Trail.  Tensions run high, the men wonder if Meek is lost or just leading them astray, and an Indian they capture doesn't seem to be any more reliable.  Of course, they can't talk to him, since none of them know the Indian's language.  The stark, high-desert landscape is beautiful, but desolate, and very, very dry.  If they don't find water soon, they may perish out there. . . .
It's a long walk to Oregon.
For a sense of what these early pioneers went through to settle the West, Meek's Crossing, which is based on true events, tells a pretty good story.  But it also does something that drives me crazy in a movie: it just stops.  Call me simple-minded, but I prefer a bit of resolution.  However, the acting is good, the slow-building tension is palpable, and the historical and geographical setting draws you in.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Everything Must Go

I'll tell you right now, I hate depressing movies disguised as comedies.  The worst offender ever: Mrs. Doubtfire.  Robin Williams dresses up like an old nanny so he can spend time with his kids.  There's comedy there, but the whole movie is under the dark cloud of the depression of a man who is separated from his children.  How sad.

In a similar vein, Will Farrell, who has been hilarious in several movies and on Saturday Night Live, tries to be funny in a depressing movie.  He plays a somewhat successful businessman whose struggle with a drinking problem gets him into trouble and gets him fired, after some business trip revelry which included a tryst with a female colleague.  So he gets fired, and when he gets home his wife has left, changed the locks on the house, and moved all his things out on the lawn.  He "moves in" to his front yard and contemplates getting his life back together.
OK, there are some funny lines, funny situations, and even some touching moments with the neighbor across the street and the neighbor boy who hangs out with him.  But mostly, it's a bleak, sad picture of a man who has truly hit bottom.  This was painful to watch.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Conspirator

The Conspirator may not be the best movie I've seen this year, although it is very good, but the best thing about it is the faith it restores in me in film as a medium.  I am a self-described movie glutton; I watch a lot of movies.  Many of them don't even make it on this blog.  (Sometimes that's the case because I watch a movie that's so bad, I'm embarrassed even to admit I've watched it.  Like the made-for-TV movie I watched last night.  It's so bad I'm not even going to tell you the name!  Other times, it's just that I fall behind in my posts, and put off blogging until I can barely remember a movie enough to say anything about it.)

Back to The Conspirator.  The story begins with the assassination of President Lincoln and the arrest of the conspirators who worked with John Wilkes Booth to pull it off.  One of the conspirators was John Surratt.  He and his cohorts met at his mother's boarding house for their planning sessions.  John is the only conspirator to slip away; his mother, Mary, is arrested and held less for her complicity in the conspiracy than for her usefulness as bait for John.
Believe it or not, Mary is Buttercup, from The Princess Bride.
I have no idea how historically accurate the movie is.  I think it follows historical events fairly closely.  The main plot surrounds Frederick Aiken's defense of Mary.  He unsuccessfully prevents her from being the first woman executed by the U.S. government.  With the period costumes and sets, the movie draws the viewer into the period, telling a story that is not only historically significant but also gripping.  I'm left thinking about how a nation which suffers a major blow seeks out someone against whom to retaliate.  A nation mourning the death of their president found the conspirators to blame and punish; quick, retributive punishment became more important than truth and justice.  After the attacks of 9/11, I wonder how much retribution was done at the expense of trust and justice. . . .  Just a thought.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


In 1936, Hitler wanted German, and German/Aryan superiority to go on display for the whole world to see.  Hosting the Olympics gave him the stage, and, to the credit of the Germans, they did raise the bar for the Olympics, elevating the games beyond a sporting event to a spectacle.  German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl was there to capture it all on film.
The diving scenes are among the most famous.
The greatest contribution Olympia gives us is the extent to which Riefenstahl documented the events themselves.  The games were broadcast on television, but in a very limited way.  The massive coverage we enjoy of every Olympic event today was unheard of then, of course.  Unlike sports coverage today, Riefenstahl does not emphasize the names, countries, or back stories of the athletes, but the form of their bodies and the mechanics of their feats.  She includes little dialogue or commentary, but focuses on the beauty of motion and athletic skill.  You definitely see more glory than agony of defeat.  Even on decades-old film, Olympia captures the speed and grace of the athletes beautifully.
See how the runners had to dig out their "starting blocks"?
We, of course, have the benefit of historical hindsight watching this today, but I think surely even objective viewers at the time must have been put off by the fawning over Hitler.  Overseeing the games as the grand host, Hitler appears as the almighty game master.  Tens of thousands of citizens in the stands gleefully salute the Fuhrer.  He smugly celebrates the victories of his Aryan subjects.  But--hah!--when that African-American superstar, Jesse Owens, wins medal after medal, beating out Hitler's chosen ones, what did he think then?
The opening ceremonies would have been better without all the goose-stepping and heil-ing.
Riefenstahl's Olympia is considered one of the great sports films and pioneered several filming techniques.  I know nothing about making a movie, or about the technical requirements of certain kinds of filming.  I do know this: most of this movie can be done better today with a low-cost, commercially available, hand-held video camera.  This is not to slight Riefenstahl, but to say that the modern film watcher is spoiled by what we see in theaters and what we're able to film on our own.

As an historical artifact, Olympia is valuable and important both for the Olympics and for the filming of sporting events.  But for purposes of entertainment and enjoyment, you might be left wondering what's the big deal.