Three short movie reviews

The Thinker by Rodin

Dunno how, but on my recent vacation out west among all the site seeing and visiting friends, I also managed to sit through three movies, one in an actual theater. Capsule reviews follow.

Inception

I was quite surprised to find our theater nearly full to capacity when we arrived to see the movie Inception, even though it was three weeks old by the time we got around to seeing it in the theater. Moreover, the movie was playing on three screens in the same theater. This is a sign that a movie is popular, but would it be good as well? Inception is one of those rare movies that buck the sequel and tried formulas trends. Here we have a movie that is not a sequel and breaks virgin Hollywood plot ground. Moreover, it requires you to pay close attention and to have above average intelligence to get it.

The movie explores the hopefully hypothetical practice of surreptitiously manipulating people’s subconscious while they are in a dream state so they will make choices affecting the real world they would not otherwise make. (It’s already being done when we are awake. It’s called advertising.) That is Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) job: dream manipulator, except I guess working for the NSA or CIA doesn’t pay well enough. Here Cobb has the daunting task of manipulating the heir of an energy baron through his dreams so he retains a false memory which in turn means that he will make the wrong decision, allowing his competitor to control a 21st century energy market. To do it he needs someone more agile than he is to help, but fortunately he gets an up and coming pupil (played by Ellen Page). This apparently involves getting to dreams inside of dreams inside of dreams, which makes for a complicated plot and thus requires the cinemagoer to keep it all straight in their minds too. Surprisingly, I succeeded but even if you cannot the movie is so well directed (Christopher Nolan directs, who did the recent Batman movie), acted (DiCaprio is terrific, but so is all the cast) and the CGI minimal but effectively done that you may not care; you will still feel you got your money’s worth. That probably explains the packed theater. Speaking of sequels, the money that Inception is making should spawn a few, but it’s hard to think they could top the first movie.

In short, it’s great, so go see it. It sort of feels like The Matrix for the 21st century. It’s my pick for best movie of the year so far. 3.5 on my four-point scale.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Cate Blanchett is a great actress, seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance. She’s been great to excellent in every movie I have seen her in. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is no exception and, as usual, it is her role (in this case as a supporting actor) that makes this weird movie work.

In case you missed a synopsis of the plot, Benjamin (largely played as an adult by Brad Pitt) has a backwards life. He was born as a baby in the 1920s but with the face and body of someone dying of old age. He goes through life backwards, moving toward youth while everyone else ages. Strangely, the people around him seem to accept his condition readily enough, as does Daisy (Blanchett), who ends up with a lifelong relationship with him that begins as a fraternal one and closes as an intimate one.

At first, the movie seems principally about exploring the permutations of their odd relationship. In my opinion, the movie instead attempts to provide a better understanding the nature of intimacy, love and individuality. The story’s frame provides a unique lens to help explore these deeper aspects of us.

Benjamin and Daisy’s relationship is the primary lens, but there are a host of interesting ancillary characters to enjoy including Jared Harris as the tugboat Captain Mike and Taraji Henson as Queenie, Benjamin’s foster mother. There is also a plot that spans much of the 20th century. Julia Ormond plays Caroline, a continuing character watching her mother die while she tells him about Benjamin, her great love.

While the movie provides a unique frame to view aspects of human relationships and is exceptionally well directed by David Fincher, there is less meat to this movie than you might expect. At the end, the movie becomes very explicit about what we should take away from it: we each have unique talents, each can live passionate lives and then we die. Not to be too sarcastic, but duh! In some ways, the movie is more an exploration of our feelings around mortality and how we manifest them (such as infidelity, or in a relationship with a man who’s life is lived backwards) than it is an expose of the human soul. It’s still a good movie, but perhaps a different plot would have better plumbed this topic. It strives for four stars and feels like it should be a four star movie, but it isn’t really, although it is engaging, well acted, poignant and long. The score by Alexandre Desplat is particularly memorable.

In any event, I pretty much have to see anything with Cate Blanchett in it. I like being under her acting spell. 3.3 on my four-point scale.

The Blind Side (2009)

In The Blind Side, Sandra Bullock proves she can succeed brilliantly at something other than comedy. Hollywood agreed and last year gave her an Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the slim but surprising Supermom of the well off Tuohy family. The movie traces the improbable but true story of football star Michael Oher and his remarkable relationship with the Tuohy family. Without the Tuohys, and Leigh Anne in particular, Oher clearly would have never risen from obscurity or out of the drug and gang fueled life on the other side of Memphis’s railroad tracks.

A coach of a local private Christian Academy notices Oher. If he can get this academic underperformer admitted to the academy, he hopes to use Oher to make their football team shine. Once in the academy, Oher predictably has trouble keeping up with his classes and homework. No one notices when he becomes homeless. However, Leigh Anne notices him walking the streets of Memphis at night all alone. Her son S.J. (Jay Head) remarks that he is “Big Mike” and he goes to the academy. Somewhat impulsively, Leigh Anne offers Big Mike a room for the night in their gloriously upscale McMansion.

Most women who have a big black guy like Big Mike boarding down the hall will automatically lock their bedroom doors, but Michael settles in to what seems a surreal life with the upper crust. Eventually the Tuohys warm to him, and he to them. Their bond becomes cemented when the Tuohys become his legal guardian. Thanks largely to Leigh Anne’s perseverance and fearlessness, Michael finds his confidence, slowly pulls up his grades and learns to succeed in high school football. His success in football quickly gets him noticed by college football coaches. Soon they are queued up outside the Tuohy’s door to try to convince him to take a football scholarship. It’s all for naught though unless Michael can raise his GPA to 2.5. So the Tuohy’s dig into their well moneyed pockets and hire a private tutor for Michael played by Kathy Bates. Between the tutor and Leigh Anne’s moral support, how could Michael not fail to rise? Of course, he somehow rises to the occasion.

Unless you are unfamiliar with Oher’s story, the plot contains little suspense, but even if you aren’t it’s an easy plot to figure out. Tim McGraw’s portrayal of Oher is competent and necessarily one-dimensional. Most of the Tuohys come across this way as well, although they are a fun sort of football-crazed family. The boy S.J. is the most fun of the lot, just a young but spirited kid but with boundless enthusiasm for football, honest affection for Michael, and who proves he has the makings of a fine agent.

While purporting to be a movie about Oher’s rise, this is really a movie about Leigh Anne. There is nothing to dislike about Bullock’s portrayal of Leigh Anne. While she has all the attributes of a remarkable woman, she is also skinny and very attractive. Even as a Supermom, Michael is still quite a stretch for Leigh Anne. In putting her largely unused Christian values into action for Michael, she has to estrange herself from her one-dimensional set of Christian academy wives. She also has to associate with Michael’s tutor, Miss Sue a (gasp) Democrat.

Strip out Bullock’s remarkable performance and this movie would have little to recommend it. Oher’s story is remarkable but what makes the movie successful is Leigh Anne Tuohy’s refinement of an already remarkable character. She is not quite Sally Field in Norma Rae, whose acting of a woman blossoming beyond expectations is even more memorable, but investing 129 minutes to watch Bullock in action is still an excellent use of your time. Too bad the other aspects of the movie don’t much complement Bullock’s remarkable performance.

3.1 on my 4-point scale.

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