Friday, August 05, 2016

Movie Reviews: Jason Bourne, Me Before You, Cafe Society, Sing Street, Ruby Sparks, What If

See all of my movie reviews.

Jason Bourne: I liked the original Bourne trilogy, even though I'm not a fan of Matt Damon. It certainly beats the Bond reboot movies, and it is close to the MI movies. I didn't see the Bourne reboot movie from a few years ago.

I went back and forth while watching this movie. Was it really necessary? Not really. It's a retread, the way that the new Star Wars movie is a retread, but the new Star Wars movie is at least setting up something new and different. This movie's only excuse for newness is to have Bourne unable to remember yet one more thing - his father's death and how he died - so as to set up the same sequences - and give us an excuse for continuing the manhunt. We liked the tense scurrying around in public places in the first three movies, so we get an even larger percent of them in this movie. It turns out that the first three had just the right percent of them; the extra percent of them in this movie kind of drags on.

The camera is even shakier here, but the acting and directing are steady.  Although, Alicia Vikander as the maybe-good girl seems to have walked right off of the Ex Machina set on to this one.

The car chase sequence at the end is ridiculous: a swat car, whose frame is higher off the ground than a typical sedan, literally plows through rows and rows of cars, tossing them off the front hood out of its path; uh, that can't happen, physically. And anyway, come on. At some point these cars and their occupants can't take all of this damage and keep driving.

As usual, anyone who knows anything about computers will find some of the computer sequences laughable. I don't know how Jason has the money to live or travel like he does, or where he gets his weapons, or how he smuggles them across borders, or why he is never stopped by immigration (even with fake passports), but whatever.

You won't be missing out on much if you skip this one, but you also won't feel cheated. It's the least of the four, but it's still Bourne. There's a lot of shooting, crashing, fist fights, and tossing about the word "asset". Politics are a thin smear in the background.

Me Before You: Yet another book based on a Nicholas Sparks book ... excuse me, a John Greene novel ... no wait, someone named Jojo Moyes. Whatever. A happy-go-lucky down-on-her-luck young British woman from a working class family lands a job with a ridiculously wealthy family to be the social companion to a ridiculously wealthy young man who is quadriplegic (due to an accident), surly, and depressed. The young man looks like he is heading toward suicide. Will they fall in love? Can she stop him?

Do surly, pampered people in books/movies suddenly stop being surly when, approximately a quarter of the way through the book/movie, the unhappy, recently introduced, fetching opposite sex protagonist yells at them for being spoiled, surly, and pampered?

I'm assuming the book was better. The movie was very shallow. It's okay to have a predictable movie, if the acting is deep and engaging, the characters smart and poignant and emotional (c.f. The Age of Adeline). It's okay to have a shallow movie if it's entirely original, very funny, or has something else going for it. This movie has a few things going for it - Emilia Clark has a big smile or a perky pout and is fun to look at, Sam Claflin is totally in that wheelchair, and the scenery is adequate - but it's less original, and about as deep, as Fifty Shades of Grey. Speaking of 50SoG, what's with the lazy storytelling of romance movies with a shlub of a woman and a super-rich man? I know it's a Big Fantasy for women to be desired by rich men who can fly them on private jets, but it makes for a very small story when it involves rich people who can do whatever they want with no limits. Part of the enjoyment of movies is struggling with limitations, and when all but the single, central conflict of the story is removed - and the rest is fairy tale perfection - it makes for dull story-telling.

The characters, including the supporting characters, are weak. The story is perfunctory. I guess the resolution will take some people by surprise (I guessed it when the girl's token, unsuitable jock boyfriend was unceremoniously given his predictable exit), and the movie contains some moments of pathos in its second half, due to the strength of the directing in a few key moments. It's fun to watch Emilia smile and pout. But that's about it.

Cafe Society:  I'm a little wary of supporting a Woody Allen film, and anyway I'm not exactly a big fan. I find his earlier period a little juvenile, I love Annie Hall and Manhattan, and I like some of his eighties films. Most of his films since then have been passable, at best. Still, this one seemed like it might be ok, and the alternative was seeing Jason Bourne, which I already saw.

This is another passable, not great, movie. Slightly better than To Rome with Love. with a few storytelling and character flaws - I expected character flaws, but I was surprised by the writing flaws. In short, it's the 1930s, and a Jewish boy Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is sent to get a job at his uncle Phil's (Steve Carell) in Hollywood. The uncle is a big time producer. The boy's family in New York includes his nebish parents, his uncle who is a gangster, and his aunt who is married to a communist. The uncle doesn't know what to do with him, so he passes him off to one of his secretaries Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show him around. Boby eventually hobnobs with big society, moves back east and manages his gangster uncle's nighclub. Before that, Bobby falls for Vonnie.

Spoilers: Unfortunately, Vonnie is having an affair with Phil. Phil won't break up with his wife, so she eventually is sympathetic to Bobby's entreaties (but not apparently in love with him). Phil finally ditches his wife, and Vonnie chooses Phil over Bobby. Bobby married a different Vonnie (2) in New York (Blake Lively), and has a child, but some emotions are stirred up when Phil and Vonnie 1 visit New York for a short time.

End spoilers.

The movie has a talented cast and director (of course). I have always admired Kristen and here she gives a good show. I fell in love with Blake in The Age of Adeline, and she's fine here, too. Steve and Jesse handle themselves fine. Cinematography is top notch. The music is lovely. Most scenes - except when the gangster uncle is around - flow well, and you feel some sympathy for Bobby.

Bobby is the Woody Allen here - I think I speak for most of humanity when I say that I'm tired of Woody Allen stand-ins in his movies. Allen is a tired comedy writer; comedy has evolved past the one line zingers and shallow philosophical quotes that he espoused in the late 1970s, but Allen is stuck there. Writing the same character into every damn film is lazy writing. Furthermore, his situation comedy is fine, but his punchlines are boring. When he quotes philosophy, and then follows the quote with a twist ("Life is a comedy ... written by a sadistic comedy writer", or "Socrates said 'The unexamined life is not worth living' ... but the examined one is no bargain."), I wonder: really? That's the tired quote you're going to use? That's the best you can do for a punchline? Worse, these lines don't even fit in with the conversations happening in the movie; it's like he collected a bunch of them and really wanted to use them, so he threw them out of context in the movie (and then they end up out of context in the movie trailer).

The gangster and the (to a lesser degree) the communist uncles are pitifully flat and one-dimensional. Every line that comes out of their mouth screams "gangster" or "communist". The nebish father is nearly as bad; at least the nebish mother has some funny lines. The other characters are better.

The main problem is that the central plot conflict is badly written.

Spoilers: The end of the movie has Bobby and Vonnie 1 staring off into space, apparently wistful for the love they gave up because she married his uncle instead. But  - apparently - still loves Bobby? Loves Bobby more? That seems to be the only conclusion that one can draw from those looks, but Woody never showed us that she loved Bobby at all: she felt sympathetic to him and was - maybe - willing to marry him, since Phil wasn't available, but she never said she loved him, and she never showed or looked like she loved him. So what's with the wistful staring? Where does she have any conflict? Maybe that got dropped from the script.

End spoilers.

All in all, the movie doesn't fit together, but it's often passable entertainment with some funny moments and pretty outfits.

Sing Street: By John Carney, the same guy who made Once and Begin Again, two of my favorite movies about a girl and a guy, each in their own lapsed or near-lapsed relationships, making a record together, comes a story about a much younger guy making a record, who finds a girl in a quasi-relationship to star in the music videos for it. The girl is 16 or 17, the guy is 15. The decade is the 80s and we're back in Dublin.

This is a very good movie, though not quite so good as the first two. But I may feel that way only because a) it's the third movie with a similar theme, and b) I didn't like the music as much. Still, it's very good. The boy is a writer and a bit of a guitar player and vocalist, and he recruits the usual suspects of friends to create the band. He suffers from parents who fight with each other and are likely headed to a separation and from in an Irish Catholic boy's school, where both the head priest and some other students are bullies. He takes a chance and befriends the girl, who lives across from the school in a home for girls with dead or absent parents.

Ireland is always so pretty on film, even if everyone in the movie who lives there thinks it's a hellhole because "somewhere else", such as London, has more opportunities. The boys learn about music through MTV and his brother's records. With each new band they see on MTV, the boys imitate the musical style of that band, down to the musical beats, the clothes, and the ridiculous hair and makeup. Meanwhile, the girl is a model who may or may not head off to London with her boyfriend before our hero can get her.

A nice movie, sweet characters and connections, and a good date movie. It goes about where it should go in the end, which is fine. One element of the story bugged me: the boy is supposedly too poor to buy the black shoes that are required for school (his parents took him out of private school to send him to this free Catholic school), but every time he changes his band's image he shows up at school with an entirely new outfit, including overcoat, sunglasses, and a new hair style. Similarly, the girl is in an orphanage, yet she always dresses top notch-Madonna (or Duran Duran babe) style with perfect hair, perfect makeup, and pounds of trashy jewelry; that was a bit hard to swallow. But you can ignore that little detail and enjoy the movie anyway.

Ruby Sparks:  An odd romantic comedy somewhere in the same ballpark as Stranger Than Fiction. Calvin is having trouble writing his second book, so he writes about a girl haunting his dreams who suddenly manifests into a live girl who is his girlfriend. This takes some getting used to. He tries hard not to write anything else about her, but when things go sour and he becomes afraid of losing her, he resorts to writing changes to her personality. Unfortunately, this takes her into the uncanny valley where she no longer seems human. After a final, horrible confrontation, he is forced to do the responsible thing.

It starts out as a male wish-fulfillment. He is supposed to learn that you can't dictate your desires onto someone else who has their own life; you have to deal with him or her as he or she is. The screenplay was written by the girl who plays Ruby, who is the granddaughter of Eli Kazan.

When we got to the point where things began to go sour and I knew - I just knew - that Calvin was going to start trying to change her, I stopped the video and didn't want to see the rest. I hate slavery, especially mental slavery, and I knew where the movie had to go. But I forced myself to continue, gritting my teeth, until the end. The Scene goes on a tad too long, and there were a number of other ways it could have gone, but thankfully it ended okay.

The magic behind the main theme is never explained, which is fine. Some rather odd ex nihilo objects and events don't bear the weight of analysis, so I tried not to go there. The main characters are sweet and have a nice chemistry, but the supporting characters - his brother, mother, other friends and relations, his agent and fans - are even better. They were complete characters, and I would have been happy if they had their own stories in play. California provides a pretty backdrop to the action. The director creates some beautiful camerawork with heads poking over staircases and bodies positioned for just the right effect.

The movie provides fruit for some interesting questions and discussions, though it's a bit lightweight.

What If: This is a pretty standard romcom, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Wallace and Zoe Kazan as Chantry. Chantry is in love with Ben, Wallace meets her at a party, and they agree to just be friends. Ben spends most of the movie working abroad, and obvious things happen. Wallace's friend and his wife tease and taunt Wallace about his secret pining; Wallace almost sleeps with Chantry's sister.

The strength of a good formula romcom is in exceptional dialog or exceptional scenes or acting, but this movie doesn't have that. Really bad romcoms have stupid characters, slapstick, or people you couldn't care less about, but this movie doesn't have that either. It's just unexceptional, that's all.

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