Friday, August 12, 2016

Q2 Review Purge: Volume 3

You saw this coming, didn’t you? Underestimate my backlog once, shame on me. Underestimate my backlog twice, shame on YOU. Here’s the third and final (?) set of mini-mini reviews as I reboot my system and get back on track.

All About My Mother
Year: 1999
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Candela Peña
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

After her son dies, Manuela travels to Barcelona to tell his father, helping an aging actress, a transgender hooker, and a pregnant nun along the way.

You might not be able to tell from that synopsis, but All About My Mother is pure Oscarbait through and through. There was a period in Almodóvar’s career where he was on his hands and knees begging for the Academy to take him seriously, and this film is smack dab in the middle of it. Naturally, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Always the staunch Oscar contrarian, I must contest that All About My Mother is far from the director’s best work (winners are rarely as good as their competitors, as evidenced by the fact that his masterpiece Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown lost to Pelle the Conqueror). Although there is some delightful comic relief from the talented transgender actress Antonia San Juan, the movie takes itself way too seriously.

While Almodóvar admittedly crafts some stunning imagers and weaves in a tapestry of parallels between the film’s wide variety of mothers, trying to find the line between reality and fiction, All About My Mother is one of Almodóvar’s few films that feels typical. It might push the envelope with its depiction of gender and sexuality, but it’s just an Oscar tearjerker, yanking its characters through sad sad situations so they can spout elegant monologues at the drop of a hat. Obviously it’s far from a bad movie (I don’t think Almodóvar has made one of those), but it just doesn’t make an impression, which is usually what he’s best at.

Rating: 6/10

Talk to Her
Year: 2002
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Rosario Flores, Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti
Run Time: 1 hour 52 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Two men become friends at a hospital while caring for their loved ones, who are both in comas.

If you thought All About My Mother was Oscarbaity, wait till you get a load of Talk to Her! A movie so wildly overbearing that even the Oscars were a little put off, shuffling it into the Best Original Screenplay category, it’s by far the least funny Almodóvar movie I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen a lot at this point. What I admire most about the director is his ability to draw comedy from even the most dire of situations, but here he sets all that aside and doubles down on the sincerity, to muted effect.

It lacks the serene beauty of All About My Mother, though if anything its intricate web of metaphor is even more complex. The film is about transition and metamorphosis, two disparate halves coming together to form a whole. It maybe goes without saying that this theme results in the most f**ked-up Almodóvar relationship yet: the friendship between the lover of a female bullfighter and the lonely stalker of a beautiful young dancer. The queer overtones prevalent in his filmography are almost entirely absent, stripping away all veneer to showcase a story about two people bonding.

Unfortunately, Talk to Her trips over itself in the third act, pointlessly extending the plot for some melodramatic waffling. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in Almodóvar’s work, but when it lacks so much of his signature style, it also lacks the charm that allows you to cling to the bull’s back. Talk to Her bucks and you go flying, which is an extremely disappointing outcome.

Rating: 6/10

The Lives of Others
Year: 2006
Director: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
Cast: Ulrich Mühe, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch
Run Time: 2 hour 17 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An East Berlin secret police agent tasked to bug the apartment of a suspected dissident finds himself wrapped up in the man’s life as he listens from the attic.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who make historical movies are almost always talking about the present. It’s no mistake that The Lives of Others came out during the time of the Patriot Act and America’s surveillance controversy. And it’s certainly no mistake that the film is set in 1984.

The Lives of Others is a thriller about sitting down, about the sociopolitical intrigue that can change lives and enact deaths without stepping out from behind a desk. It’s a terrifying snapshot of a bleak reality that has existed, does exist, and will exist. In essence, it’s a very German film.

However, despite its dour setting and even more dour production design, dripping with greys and mottled greens, The Lives of Others is a story of hope. About the flowers that can grow in the cracks of the concrete. This is thanks in large part to Ulrich Mühe, whose stony visage captures every last chink in his armor as he learns that the people he has been victimizing are actual human beings. The Lives of Others is a terrifying film about bureaucracy and a reassuring one about humankind. It’s not often that something like that comes from a film set in historic Germany (unless Spielberg is involved), and The Lives of Others is a powerful break from the mold.

Rating: 8/10

Star Trek
Year: 2009
Director: J. J. Abrams
Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Simon Pegg
Run Time: 2 hours 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The Star Fleet rebel James T. Kirk finds himself on a stranded student vessel facing the alien threat that killed his father.

I know it’s a popular joke to make fun of J. J. Abrams’ use of lens flares, but I’d never until now experienced them for myself. The legends were true. Star Trek 2009 is an ocular freak show. People have counted, there’s literally a lens flare every 12 seconds on average. It’s like standing on the red carpet at the Oscars for two hours. Every single heroic shot is marred by these hideous distractions. They even go off in quiet, indoor scenes with no discernible light source. The lens flares will make your eyes water far more than any of the drama.

But there’s a movie beneath all that digital tampering, so let’s talk about it. As an origin story for a franchise I have not one shred of nostalgia for, it does a decent job of telling its own story. This could be a movie about James T. Bumblefart overcoming great odds as a cadet, and it would still be a coherent, engaging yarn. And there would be even less reason for Zoe Saldana to be there, because Uhura’s extremely discomfiting romance with Commander Spock happens entirely backstage.

As an exercise in J. J. Abrams crashing his CGI action figures into each other, Star Trek is a fun popcorn adventure, if a little beholden to the Star Wars standby of having important battles take place over yawning chasms. There’s only one scene that reaches the dizzy heights of summer fun I was hoping for (Bones follows Kirk, injecting him with a variety of wacky vaccinations to stabilize him as he attempts to deliver an important message) as the film tends toward the over-serious, but it’s never dull.

And Chris Pine is honestly a terrific choice, giving young Kirk a frat boy braggadocio that puts his flaws on his sleeve while retaining his natural charm. Star Trek’s a swing and a hit, even if it’s not a home run. Those lens flares can rot in Hell.

Rating: 6/10

Mamma Mia!
Year: 2008
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A young woman wants to invite her dad to her wedding on a Greek Isle. Only she doesn’t know which of three men it is, so she invites them all. Then they sing a bunch of ABBA songs.

The Mamma Mia! title card appears as a young girl runs screaming through a cloud of sparkles. That should pretty much tell you all you need to know about it. Mamma Mia! is loud, stupid, deranged, and I love it from the bottom of my heart.

While Mamma Mia! attempts to harness the glittery camp of attending a Broadway musical or a disco show, it frequently swings over the top into wholly unintentional bad-good delight, then back around the horn again into genuine fun. It spins around and around again between these two registers like a gymnast on the horizontal bars, afraid to let go and stick the landing. And stick the landing Mamma Mia! doesn’t, backloading about 90 ballads that suck the energy out of the third act, leaving it so ravaged that not even “Take a Chance On Me” (the most perfect pop song of the 70’s) can resuscitate it.

But despite its sputtering denouement, I love both angles from which Mamma Mia! approaches its content. For all the too-bright lighting that makes every location look like a sitcom set and the herky jerky variance in quality between the celebrity singers (Meryl Streep is at the top with a shockingly good belt, and Pierce Brosnan flounders at the bottom, sounding like Fozzie Bear in the middle of getting his tonsils removed) there’s a genuinely good vin running through it all, like the Greek chorus that resurrects an ancient form of theater to great effect, the bubblegum disco magic of “Super Trouper,” or the beach party sizzle that underscores “Lay All Your Love On Me.”

At the end of the day, Mamma Mia! is a movie that makes me sublimely happy. It is great and it is terrible, frequently at the same time, but it never stops being tremendous fun to watch.

Rating: Please don't make me do this. 7/10? 9/10? 5/10? 9/10. Don't hold me to that.

Last Night
Year: 2010
Director: Massy Tadjedin
Cast: Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Eva Mendes
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A wife and husband both find themselves faced with the opportunity to cheat while he’s away on a business trip.

Last Night is one of those ponderous indie dramas that’s so excessively low key it would easily have been a TV movie. Or a commercial. With minimal sets, a tiny cast, and an abundance of agonizing close-ups, there’s nothing that screams “feature film.” To be frank there’s nothing to look at whatsoever.

Much like Looking: The Movie, Last Night is mostly composed of a string of conversations rather than any real incident. This is fine, especially when the conversation is as thought-provoking as it is. But the inhuman frankness and eloquence of these conversations make it screamingly apparent that the dialogue is Written. Luckily the actors that perform this series of treatises are well suited to the job.

Keira Knightley and Guillame Canet are a better match than Sam Worthington and Eva Mendes (though Mendes shades a surprising amount of depth onto a thankless sex symbol role), but for the most part Last Night is well-delivered, if coldly intellectual drama.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1882
Reviews In This Series
Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)
Star Trek Beyond (Lin, 2016)

Mamma Mia! (Lloyd, 2008)
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Parker, 2018)


  1. My girlfriend watched Mamma Mia the other night. I was busy and only listened to it. I have no idea what the movie was about, other than what you and she have told me, but, you know, I do like ABBA. So that wasn't too bad. Kind of distracting, but not bad.

    Star Trek is one that I can never get a handle on: I know it's terrible, and I kind of dig it anyway. It has an energy to it, if nothing else, and it takes a lot of stupid to drown that kind of energy. Thing is, it may well possess a sufficient amount of stupid.

    The sequels range from blargh to BLARGH, of course.

    1. Yeah, I was excited because I'd only heard good things about Star Trek, so imagine my surprise when it kind of reeked.