J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for April, 2008

Leatherheads

Posted by J on April 27, 2008

If Leatherheads teaches us anything, it’s that George Clooney needs to get out from behind the camera.  He can’t direct.  The shot sequences in this movie are amateurish, as are the camera angles.  Worse, Leatherheads has too many jarring shifts in styles.  It’s obviously a romantic comedy, but it’s also a period sports movie and a farcical homage to silent movies.  There are a few attempts to sentimentalize certain people or events, but it’s not possible to feel any sentiment after the third massive fistfight, in which the barroom piano player hits one of the brawlers in the head with a bottle. (And how many more times have barroom piano players hit people with bottles in movie history than in real life?  500?)

Being a sports movie, Leatherheads is terribly cliched.  Basically there’s a love triangle involving two football players and a newspaper reporter.  Clooney’s character lures Carter Rutherford, a national war hero and college football hotshot, into playing for his pro team.  This is newsworthy in the 1920s because professional football is practically nonexistent.  Anyway, let’s skip describing all of the inbetween plot filler and just say that the movie ends with two characters literally riding off into the sunset.  We have seen everything in Leatherheads a hundred times before.  Maybe two hundred.  Yes, we have wasted that many hours of our lives.  (But we did enjoy a rare date with this one, so in this case our time wasn’t wasted.  Time is never wasted with the dear wife.)

Interestingly, while Clooney is known for his liberal politics, his movie perhaps unintentionally veers toward libertarian messages.  The movie seems to say nothing but good things for the business of pro football.  Yes, there’s a crooked agent who’s a sort-of villain, but Clooney’s character takes a massive entrepreneurial risk and succeeds.  Also, one of the major themes of this movie is the oppressiveness of rules.  In the movie’s early moments, we’re told that pro football has no rules.  But once the business of football succeeds, Congress steps in to appoint an ironfisted commissioner, whose first job is to enforce a new rulebook.  Yet the players and referees immediately shrug their shoulders and ignore the rulebook.  Similarly, Clooney takes a jab at the FCC by making several jokes about radio announcers accidentally broadcasting taboo words.  And the cops in this movie are numbskulls, as they try to break up the speakeasys, while the football commissioner is an oppressive federal appointee.  By exposing these themes, we aren’t suggesting that this movie has any worth, but this does point to the fact that even crummy movies try to moralize about something.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 2

Morality: 3 (a few unnecessary taboo words included to earn a PG-13 rating)

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Posted in Comedy, They Spent Millions on This? | Leave a Comment »

Juno

Posted by J on April 23, 2008

Sorry, we couldn’t make it through half of what Roger Ebert called “the best movie of the year,” as the back of the DVD box tells us. Actually one of us couldn’t, while the other one sympathized with the pregnancy jokes and slugged through the entire flick to see how it all turned out. But we both felt uncomfortable–actually, squirmingly uncomfortable–as the vulgarity and neutral portrayals of flip attitudes towards teen pregnancy and unwholesome language were too much to overcome the pro-adoption, anti-abortion theme.

This is not a pro-life movie. Well, it’s no more a pro-life movie than Patton, and at least George C. Scott’s Patton knew how to swear. The main character, Juno McGraff, can only joke about grape condoms and “pieballs.” Her nonchalant attitude reminds us of the early 1990s Gen. X movies, in which recently graduated slackers ruminated about their dull suburban waste of a life. Juno is an upbeat teenage incarnation of characters from those movies; she lives in pop-culture duldrums and calls her high school girlfriends “dude.” The way she talks to everybody and the way everybody talks to everybody else is hardly what we’d call life-giving, as our speech always ought to be. Once upon a time, scandalous stories used to moralize about fallen noble women who gave into their dark desires and were thus seduced by radical men — real sappy but tragic stuff. Juno isn’t scandalous (not by 2008’s standards) and doesn’t really have a moral, except one: “Get pregnant? No prob. Just keep acting flip and give away your ‘thing’.”

Maybe, you could argue, that the movie is realistic in its portrayals of Juno and her pals in their pathetic high school lives. If realism is your fallback, though, consider Juno’s carefree, relatively painfree pregnancy. She’s a teen who chooses to have sex on a whim. The rest is an emotional breeze: no psychological trauma, no guilt, and no turmoil emotions except for her prom date. Flippant Juno just keeps being flippant Juno. Maybe this movie is supposed to be a pick-me-up for pregnant teenagers and single moms, but it hardly reflects the emotional and spiritual difficulties that most of them face. In that sense, what little moralizing the movie ends up doing feels like a lie.

Posted in Comedy, They Spent Millions on This? | 3 Comments »

The King of Kong

Posted by J on April 11, 2008

One of the words that gives us a little prick of annoyance each time we hear it is “all-time.” Typically it’s used to bestow historical significance on something that isn’t significant at all. As in “The Greatest Pop Songs of All-Time,” whose ranks — so we’re told — include songs by ABBA and the BeeGees. Even the idea of “the greatest movies of all-time” rings hollow, since “all-time” is in this case only a one hundred year span, hardly any time at all.

So what would it mean to have the highest all-time score on Donkey Kong? The pursuit of this record is the subject of The King of Kong, a documentary so amazingly edited that it’s hard to believe that parts of it aren’t scripted. After all, who cares about Donkey Kong? As it turns out, more people than you think.

The two main competitors for the world’s highest Donkey Kong score are Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe. You’ve never heard of them, but the video-game world knows them well. Mitchell, the long-time record holder and the epitome of a slimy hypocrite, is probably the best video-game player in the world. In contrast, Wiebe is a pathetic but likeable suburbanite, who has not succeeded at much until he decides to start playing Donkey Kong. Thus Wiebe spends hours upon hours in his garage, as his poor wife and children look on him forlornly. And then one day Wiebe breaks Mitchell’s record. He becomes a news item briefly, but then “official” video-game referees come along to inspect his Donkey Kong machine. And from there begins a host of unexpected complications.

The King of Kong is, if nothing else, an excellent morality play. Wiebe comes off as a humble protagonist against the antagonistic Mitchell, who is a master manipulator of people and rules. Yet there always lingers the question for Wiebe: why are you doing this? The movie includes Wiebe’s family in interesting ways, including his wife, who tries to be a sympathetic helper at the same time that she doesn’t grasp the Donkey Kong obsession. The other people in this movie are just as intricate to its development. Walter Day is the recognized referee of video-game scores, an oddball and bubbly nice guy who gets wrapped up in the politics of the Donkey Kong score. And then there is Brian Kuh, a man who retired at 30 to play Donkey Kong professionally in an arcade. He’s no good at it, but he’s a Billy Mitchell minion. Mitchell in fact has a number of minions, and while you will constantly ask yourself “Why do they do his bidding?” you’ll then be close to understanding why this is an excellent morality play.

We highly recommend this as one of the best documentaries we’ve ever seen.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 8

Morality: — (see review; though there’s one spot that you’ll want to avert your eyes at. When Roy Awesome is introduced, be prepared to avoid one photograph shown.)

Posted in Documentary, Great | 3 Comments »

3:10 To Yuma (2007)

Posted by J on April 5, 2008

If you’ve ever come across a major piece of crap, you’ve encountered something far more valuable than this version of 3:10 to Yuma. Did we say that’s it’s incomprehensible, moronic, vapid, boring, repulsive, and inane? Pardon us for a moment. We had to vent our spleen a bit.

This is a great example of a movie without a point. (And here comes the ending, but it doesn’t much matter.) There’s a hero, sort of, only he gets killed. There’s a villain, a really bad one, but he inexplicably becomes a good guy in the last five minutes. There’s no scripted reason offered to explain the villain’s conversion — he just gets a sympathetic heart, after spending the first two acts murdering a bunch of people. At least the 1957 version incorporated possible motives for the villain’s conversion and, failing that, could fall back on the Stockholm Syndrome. This 2007 version is nihilistic up until the very end, when it tries to provide a moral, which is: If you’re Russell Crowe, you can kill lots of people, quote the Bible, and still look cool.

The near-absence of any recognizable morality play makes this an utterly pointless movie. What’s worse is the incomprehensibility of a great number of plot points. These include, but are far from limited to:

  • The hero’s wooden leg, which doesn’t keep him from running, stopping and planting to shoot, and then running some more.
  • A few men on horses can overtake a stagecoach equipped with a Gatling gun.
  • An old man can get shot in the gut, and after the bullet is removed, he’s back on his feet and riding a horse.
  • Russell Crowe can sneak up on a group of Apaches, after the Apaches have proved to be sneaky.

Obviously we advocate just one thing: do not watch this movie. Save your money. Spend your free evening in pleasant company, or if you have to watch a flick, stick to the older 3:10 to Yuma.

Entertainment: 1

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 0

Posted in They Spent Millions on This?, Western | Leave a Comment »

I Am Legend

Posted by J on April 4, 2008

I Am Legend has one of the most inexplicable titles we’ve ever seen. To us it signifies a vainglorious boast uttered200px-i_am_legend_teaser.jpg by some modern-day monomaniac — a rapper, a president, a talking head — which runs counter to the ethos the movie’s trying to exude. A better title would’ve been Robinson Crusoe Vs. Rabid Cartoon Vampires.

Yes, that’s a B-movie title, which I Am Legend so desperately wants to be. You can’t be a B-movie when you contain millions of dollars of CGI graphics, but the ultra-fake lions in this movie are just as hokey as the lion in The Wizard of Oz. This story screams for either campy treatment or a visually scaled-down version. Essentially Will Smith — a doctor, a military officer, an athlete, a stunt-car driver (And what can’t he do? He even has Shrek memorized) — is the last man left in New York City after a proposed cure-for-cancer turns into a virus that creates rabid vampires out of almost all human beings. So Smith scours the city during the day, desperate and lonely, and works on viral antidotes in his basement laboratory. He might even be the last person on earth, but if he were, this wouldn’t be an expensive Hollywood production. Anyway, Smith’s plight is vastly overshadowed by the empty NYC landscape, now silent and organic. The movie repeatedly tries to awe us with this emptiness, but after 20 minutes of it you start to get Monty Python’s dictum in your head: “Get on with it!” It might’ve been more interesting to scale back on the millions spent to create this landscape, and just shoot the movie in empty parking garages and apartment buildings, which would just as effectively tell the story but might create a better feel of what it wants to say. But, we suppose, you have to spend millions to make millions.

So at some point Smith has to battle these rabid cartoon vampires, otherwise we wouldn’t have a movie. The problem is that he’s lost his faith. Now we all know that you can’t battle rabid cartoon vampires while being an atheist, of course, so the movie tells a brief backstory about his family. In that backstory, Smith and family pray to the “Lord.” This is later used to effect when Smith realizes he’s on a mission from “God,” seeing a prophetic signal in a scene that badly rips off a host of other movies with prophetic signals. Thus the day is saved, the world is saved, and the rabid cartoon vampires go home with yet another loss. (Give it up, guys. You’re the Washington Generals of Hollywood.)

Now forgive us for a tinge of cynicism, but when movies throw us characters that mention “God” and “Lord,” we get slightly suspicious. Ours is an age of full-blown pluralism and ecumenism. References to God tend to be vague and malleable. What one movie watcher takes as a Christian prayer, another takes as a Hari Krishna utterance. (Remember George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”?) Deists and Mormons can join in with the God talk, and we all end up singing Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” together. That’s what Will Smith basically tells us to do in his Marley-influenced speech about love and peace.

It’s not as if we demand that Jesus Christ’s name be uttered each time for clarity. But short of that, we’re aware that by mentioning the name of “god” once or twice, a movie’s casting as wide a net as possible. Gotta reach all peoples, because the market reaches all peoples, and you can’t alienate many peoples when you’re trying to make a buck. For that reason, expensive movies are as watered-down as campaign speeches. Just consider that before you declare that I Am Legend is the Coolest Christian Movie Ever.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 0

Morality: 8

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Silly but Entertaining | 3 Comments »