Overly harsh movie reviews: 47 Ronin

Standard warnings about spoilers apply.




I recorded this movie off HBO mostly because I wanted to see the costumes and the special effects. My expectations going in where extremely low. In the end, surprisingly, it was a lot better than I expected. I won’t say it’s a great movie (even saying it was good may be a stretch) but I actually enjoyed it.
Before I get into more specifics, I have two tangents to make about why my expectations were so low.
First, Keanu Reeves. In the past (as my friends and families can attest) I was so vociferous in my criticism of Keanu Reeves that it was occasionally uncomfortable. I just hated his acting, and couldn’t understand why he was in so many movies. (Beyond the “looks good when well-lit” argument.) In recent years I’ve mellowed. First, because I’ve seen multiple accounts that amply demonstrate that Keanu Reeves has had more than his fair share of sadness and misfortune, and that he’s a genuinely considerate guy. There are several stories of him buying gifts for every member of a movie’s crew, or quietly donating significant sums to charities. All of which has made me feel some empathy for him as a person, which easily transfers to the characters he plays. Second is that I’ve grown as a person. I used to resent Keanu Reeves because I considered him to be untalented, and it just felt unfair that he should be living a life I could only dream of. I implicitly discounted the hard work he put in, the dues he paid that I couldn’t be bothered to. It was unfair and immature of me, and I now regret it.
As far as the movie itself goes, I think the marketing for it completely missed the mark. They focussed on the fantastical elements and special effects shots to the exclusion of all else. This movie was well-paced and occasionally contemplative, but you’d never know it from the way it was marketed. From the commercials and previews I saw, I was expecting Suckerpunch, only set in Japan, and not as good. And I did not think Suckerpunch was good. At all. The first preview I saw for 47 Ronin actually kind of made me mad, because the original, historical story of the 47 Ronin is a long-time favorite of mine. (I still think it deserves to have a straight-up period movie made from it.)
Instead 47 Ronin is much more like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, only set in Japan, and not nearly as good. But the story is interesting, if a bit predictable. The villain characters were two-dimensional and devoted most of their time to chewing the scenery. On the other hand, the three main protagonists had more depth and were well portrayed. Plus, all three of them had a real story arc where they grew and changed and sacrificed and struggled. There were some really beautiful landscape shots and sets, and the costumes were really good. The magic elements were well-grounded in actual Japanese folklore. I especially liked the make up for the Tengu. It made them feel otherworldly while maintaining enough human elements to keep them from being shallow CGI boogymen.
One last note about Keanu Reeves’ character. In the story he’s a half-breed (the son of a Japanese peasant woman and an english sailor), and I will give kudos that the producers cast a multi-racial actor. But I think they could have easily made this movie without bringing in a western star. In the end, I think the character’s history and story arc were interesting enough that I’m willing to overlook this. I just get frustrated when Hollywood does this kind of white-washing. (Or similarly, when they cast two Chinese actors as the (Japanese) lead characters of Memoirs of a Geisha.) I understand why they do it. People go to see their favorite actors. But I’d rather see Hollywood focus on telling good stories and casting actors who fit organically into those stories, and less on who has enough name recognition to make their opening weekend projections.

Overly Harsh Movie Reviews: Valhalla Rising

Dang, it’s been a while since I blogged. I’ll try to get back here a bit more often. As should be unsurprising to those who know me, the reason I’m back is I hated something.

Spoiler alert, blah, blah, blah.




A coworker recommended this film, and since I’ve been on a real Norse Mythology kick recently, it seemed right up my alley. And the opening was really promising. It has that slow, methodical indie film feel about it. Nobody speaks for the first five minutes or so and there’s just shot after shot of beautiful scenery and medieval viking squalor. Our hero, a one-eyed slave (gee, I wonder if he’s supposed to be Odin. No, probably not, nothing in this movie is what it seems.) is forced to fight other slaves for the amusement of his captors. Our hero is quickly established to be a bad-ass as he kills challenger after challenger while tethered to a pole.

And I’m thinking, “okay, the violence is unusually graphic, but this might be a kick-ass action film”. Nope. Because the fighting soon stops and we go back to long, slow, methodical shots of One-Eye (no, that’s actually his name) being in a cage and stacking rocks and these weird flashes of red which we find out are visions of the future and Oh My God has it only been ten minutes? There’s a boy who feeds him and there’s some more talk about him being a bad ass, but let’s skip a bunch because none of it matters.

He’s sold. He escapes en-route to his new home. More graphic violence. The boy follows him. He meets up with some Christian Vikings who are going on a crusade. Oh yeah, did I mention that the hero of the story never speaks and the boy speaks for him, or maybe just makes shit up because who can tell? (I will say that Mads Mikkelson does a brilliant job of being a presence on the screen given that he never speaks and has exactly one facial expression for the whole film.) More endless shots of people staring into the distance. Ocean voyage with mist. People die because they’re stupid. They’re in the New World, but it’s also Hell. There’s a weird scene where they take some hallucinogen (with some implied man-on-man rape for those who weren’t yet disgusted).

I could describe the rest of the film, but I’m actually getting bored thinking of it again. There are a couple more fight scenes that are well staged and have a nice visceral feel to them. There’s never any posturing or hollywood fighting. Every encounter is vicious and over in a heart-beat. As gruesome as they are, the fights are by far the best thing about this film.

The trouble with the film? As far as I can tell, there’s no point to the story. I spent the whole film wracking my brain trying to understand the symbolism. Maybe the hero is Odin and he’s leading them towards knowledge or death? Is it a Pagan vs. Christian thing? A meditation on the nature of Faith? A metaphor for European colonization of the New World?

Nope. When the damn thing ended I went online and found an interview with the director.

When asked about the context of the film he says: “Disorientation.” He calls the movie a “fever dream” and compares the effect of it to taking LSD. He then has the unmitigated gall to imply that anyone who hates the movie (Ooh! Ooh! Me! Me!) was so deeply affected by it that they just don’t yet know why it is they liked it. Seriously read that interview. He refuses to believe that it’s possible to not like this movie.

But here’s what bothers me the most. I can stand a movie that I don’t understand as long as I can sense that there’s some point to it. This is why I was dissatisfied with but still appreciated No Country For Old Men. But this movie wasn’t just obscure, it was deliberately obfuscated. The director not only owns up to there not being a discernible point to it, he takes pride in it and then flips the bird to anyone who was expecting … oh I don’t know … a freaking recognizable story.

I’ll say it again. Your movie has to have a story and that story has to have a point. If it doesn’t, don’t call it a movie. Call it a “visual essay” so that I’ll know to avoid it.

Overly Harsh Movie Review: Lars and the Real Girl

Again, spoilers below. Beware.




I first heard about Lars and the Real Girl when a member of the HR department told me about it over lunch in the company cafeteria. I’ve been to the internet once or twice, so I of course had heard about Real Dolls.

(Oh. Hey, Mom. No, I was just kidding. I hadn’t actually heard of Real Dolls. I was just trying to look cool in front of my friends. I just now realized what a Real Doll was and immediately spent ten minutes in the bathroom puking in disgust. What a terrible, terrible thing. I’m going to go now … and volunteer … at a soup kitchen. See ya.)

The conversation with the HR lady was … let us say awkward. I had no idea where the movie landed on the continuum between wholesome comedy and Skinemax “drama”. So I just nodded and smiled and made a few mental notes.

Then I actually saw the movie, and now I understand that there was no reason for me to feel uncomfortable. The movie is actually ridiculously wholesome given that there’s a sex doll on screen so often.

My first thought when the credits rolled was “Ryan Gosling? Shit.” The problem there is that the only movies I’d yet seen Ryan Gosling in, he’d always been the six-pack sporting sensitive dream boat guy. Hollywood loves to cast this guy as the sexy male character who’s about as deep as a half a kleenex. Let me admit right now that I mis-judged him. Ryan Gosling looked like hell in this movie and turned in a stellar performance.

Here’s the part where I make an awkward confession. The tag for these posts is “Overly Harsh Reviews.” You know what bad things I have to say about Lars and the Real Girl?


That’s right. Nothing.

I loved this movie.

I loved this movie right down to the ground.

It’s smart, it’s clever, it has heart. It shows the common, everyday kind of love and decency that gives me faith in humanity.

There’s an awkward, damaged, unhappy character, who finds a powerfully human (albeit bizarre) way to work through his issues. Everyone in his family and his town bend over backwards to help him out. There’s conflict and arguments, but they’re motivated and well-grounded in real, three-dimensional characters. Ryan Gosling and Emily Mortimer give terrific performances.

There’s even a (relatively) happy ending.

I laughed, I cried, I felt happy and uplifted at the end of the movie.

It may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly for me. Lars and the Real Girl is the best movie I’ve seen in 2012. Hands down.

I urge you to watch it.

Overly Harsh Movie Review: Cabin in the Woods

Spoilers below.







I’m kind of amazed I managed to see this so long after its release without having it spoiled for me. I knew that there were spoilers to be had, which meant I knew that there was some kind of twist (though it being a Joss Whedon movie might have clued me in and of itself) but the heart of the matter was not spoiled for me.

And yes, I know that there’s been a scientific study that indicated that having a story/movie/book spoiled for you does not reduce your enjoyment. To which I say: bollocks. The study indicated (at best) that for *most* people that is the case. I maintain (as I will till my dying day) that it is not true for me. I don’t care what one study says (or five studies, or a thousand studies). I prefer to be surprised by stories, and not have them spoiled for me ahead of time.

Oh look, there appears to be a soap box under my feet. I’ll just step down from that.

Now, speaking of awkward segues.

Cabin in the Woods is super-duper clever. It’s a really clever, meta idea about what could explain the counter-intuitive, anti-logic that pervades and rules horror movies. What bizarre set of circumstances could possibly account for the remarkably stupid behavior exhibited by 99.9999% of the characters in all horror movies?

In terms of coming up with said explanation, Cabin in the Woods succeeds admirably. Here’s the problem. Once I understand that premise and spend a few seconds chuckling admiringly at their cleverness and how wickedly meta this movie is, I still have a hell of a lot of movie to watch. And that’s where things fall apart.

As a straight-up horror movie, it sucks, because it’s going to great lengths to show us how stupid horror movies and the characters in them are. As artistic commentary, it’s not much better, because it spends most of its time congratulating itself on how clever and meta it is, and not much time giving me a story I care about.

The real problem is that there are no characters I like. The horror movie stereotypes are never human enough that I bemoan their descent into horror movie stereotypes. The manipulative technicians are funny and human, but enjoy the evil that they do way too much for me to feel sympathy for the fact that they’re forced into it.

In short, I love the idea of this film, but not the execution. It’s a fun movie, but in the end I was left wanting. I enjoyed it once. I will most likely never watch it again.

Overly Harsh Movie Review: Requiem For a Dream

Here’s what I posted on twitter/facebook/google+ after watching Requiem for a Dream for the first time:

“Watched Requiem For a Dream tonight. The lessons I gleaned are: 1) Reality is bad and 2) Escaping reality through drugs is worse.”

But there’s more to say.

First of all, let me say that Darren Aranofsky makes movies that I either love or actively dislike. The basic milieu of his film canon seems to be that reality is a terrible place to be, and his characters do whatever they can to escape it. Occasionally (Pi, Black Swan) that escape is a profound and compelling character study. Other times (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream) I’m left with a random pastiche of unforgettable images but no sympathetic character upon whom I can hang my hat. Which, basically, leaves me with a haunting story that does not uplift me or the characters in any way.

I have to applaud Aranofsky’s film-making. No matter the story, he does a great job visually. And he gets good performances from his actors.

The thing that is both a problem and something to be lauded is that he’s right out there on the edge of film-making. He’s treading the ragged edge between an incredible story and a disturbing amalgamation of pointlessly disturbing indulgences. When he succeeds, he does so brilliantly. When he fails, he tends to fail spectacularly. He leaves me feeling empty, sure. Many films do that. But he also leaves me with a psychic residue of scenes and moments and visuals that hang with me and haunt me for weeks or months.

After I saw The Wrestler, I kept flashing back to scenes from that movie for a long time. And the worst part of it was that didn’t get any of the catharsis that should come with fiction.

I had an acting teacher who once said to me “The job of the actor is to heal the human soul.”

I’ve since expanded that to my own maxim: “The job of the storyteller is to heal the human soul.”

Sometimes taking risks and pushing that boundary is the best way to do that. But sometimes you can push beyond the boundary. I won’t go as far as to say that new wounds are inflicted, but certainly no healing is forthcoming.

Again, I applaud Darren Aranofsky for his brave and ground-breaking work. I just wish I could tell ahead of time if I were going to love or hate the result.

Requiem for a Dream? Sorry. Hate it.

Book Review: You Take it From Here by Pamela Ribon

You Take it From Here by Pamela Ribon.

Warning: There are some minor spoilers in this review (See Disclaimers, Section Three). Review continues after the fold.

TL;DR: Disappointing compared to Ribon’s other books, but still very well written. Recommended for those who enjoy dysfunctional friendships and crying.








I’ve been a fan of Pamela Ribon (aka Pamie.com) for several years. I’ve read her blog religiously since around 2003 or so. I haven’t taken the time to go back through her archives and I wasn’t around in the TWOP or Squishy days. But I feel like my fandom is pretty well established.

I love the way she writes and I love her sense of humor and I kinda have an internet-semi-celebrity crush on her.

I’ve read and really enjoyed Ribon’s three other novels. I can earnestly recommend them to just about anyone who likes to read. All of this explains why I pre-ordered You Take it From Here months in advance and was eager to consume it.

It really bummed me out that I didn’t like it more than I did. Pamie’s writing is, as always, crisp and accessible. She often makes me laugh out loud while reading. (And not in that instant messenger “I’m gonna say ‘lol’ but no sound is coming out of my mouth” kind of way. I mean sitting alone in my house at 11pm laughing. Out loud.)

I wanted very badly to like this book. But in the end I couldn’t.

This book is principally about a relationship. The narrator, Danielle, and Smidge have been best friends since they were fourteen. When Smidge gets terminal cancer, she asks Danielle to take over her life, stepping into the role of mother for her teenage daughter and wife to her widowed husband. The idea at the heart of the book is a good one. It’s a premise that is at once absurd enough to be entertaining and realistic enough to be compelling: that a friendship could be so powerful that it could cause the someone to completely uproot her life. That’s a beautiful idea, and one that resonates with me.

So what went wrong?

It’s Smidge. I didn’t … couldn’t … like her.

I know that Smidge has some real-life inspirations. Pamie has written about her, as she calls them, “bossy friends” enough times, and she’s always done so with good humor and love. They are women who I’ve never met, but from the obvious affection that Pamie puts on the page (err … blog) I would like to. But in You Take it From Here their fictional surrogate, Smidge, is so pushy, needy and demanding that she elicits no sympathy in me. Much of her bad behavior is motivated from a desire to maintain control while her life is, literally, falling apart. I get that. But she has no caring, generous side to counter-balance that behavior, or if she does it never appears on the page. Danielle tells us over and over how lovable Smidge is, but in the face of her behavior I just couldn’t believe it.

What’s worse is that once I realized I didn’t like Smidge, I started to not like Danielle either. Our narrator allows herself to be pushed around in egregious fashion by someone who obviously views friendship as a one-way street. This eventually caused me to lose respect and affection for Danielle.

Secondary characters like Tucker and Smidge’s husband and daughter are more sympathetic and engaging, but they are just that: secondary. Their humanizing influences from the margins were not enough to draw me back into the story.

I hate being so critical about an author who I really like and admire. Don’t imagine for a moment that this (to me) misstep will diminish my love for Ribon’s work. I’m probably going to go back and re-read Why Girls Are Weird for the fourth time, just to rediscover that affection. It is only because my expectations were so high that I was so disappointed.

I hope you’re not mad at me, Pamie. I promise to buy two copies of your next book. 🙂