Sunday, May 19, 2013

Many Movie Reviews II

This is my next round of mass movie reviews. We'll start with The Adjustment Bureau, a tale about a Democratic [1] presidential candidate who discovers that there is a secret (and supernatural) organization trying to put him in office. After that is The Big Year, a film about competing birders that is loosely based on the real Big Year competition of 1998.[2] This is followed by my thoughts on Captain America: The First Avenger. Then we have The Conspirator, a film by Robert Redford about a woman, Mary Surratt, accused of involvement in the plot to assassiante Abraham Lincoln because the conspirators assembled at her hotel. Next up is Dante's Peak, a thriller about a man whose dire predictions of an impending volcano are ignored. This is followed by my thoughts on Jeremiah Johnson, a film loosely based on the real-life mountain man, Liver-Eating Johnson. Then I review Legend, a fantay film from the early 1980s, which draws a lot of imagery from the Bible (Garden of Eden, Fall, Redemption). Following this is Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Rear Window. After that is Return to Oz, an attempt by Disney to start an Oz film franchise. Next up is Season of the Witch, about a woman accused of causing the Black Death. And I wrap things up with a review of Star Trek, the recent reboot of the series by J. J. Abram.

My verdict for The Adjustment Bureau: Even though there were some things I disliked (like the excessive profanity), I overall liked this movie. I appreciated that the hats and the blinding effect of water for adjustors (the secretive, supernatural beings behind David's rise to power) became crucial plot points, as did a couple other "rules" of this world. David wants to reunite with a woman from his past (Elise), but the adjustors oppose him. When he finally reaches her, she decides to go with him even though he can't give her any useful explanation. This was a little hard to swallow. But even though it challenged my suspension of disbelief, I found myself rooting for them to get together. Nevertheless, the film was too timid; it didn't dare explore its deepest implications (i.e. what the origin of their relationship really means). For those who are intrigued by the statement at the end that David and Elise have already met the Chairman of the adjustors and that sometimes he takes the form of a woman (the director originally cast a woman for the part, which is why all the adjustors were men [3]), let me say this: the prevailing opinion on the internet is that this was either the bartender or the girl who is with Elise at the courthouse, but it appears that the Chairman was played by Shohreh Aghdashloo who doesn't appear at all in the final cut of the film. So it's neither of them.

My verdict for The Big Year: From the trailer [4] I thought they were all friends from the beginning and that they were all going birding together. As it turns out none of them knew each other before the year started and they were all in heated competition. Even though the film is lighthearted, I wouldn't really call it a comedy. So that makes the casting of three comedians—Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin (who finally looks old)—an interesting decision. None of them were obnoxious (which Jack Black and Owen Wilson are certainly capable of). The character development for Stu and Brad was satisfying. Bostick's character development was not, but it served its purpose: to counterpoint the growth that Stu and Brad were experiencing. A few of the bird names were made up. With hundreds of species of birds in North America, I'm not sure why they thought they needed to do that. Despite that, I quite enjoyed this film and would recommend it to anyone.

My verdict for Captain America: The First Avenger: Overall the Captain America just wasn't sympathetic. I didn't care that he never ran away from a fight—even a fight he knew he would lose; I didn't care that he abhorred killing; I didn't care that he was intimidated by women; I didn't care that he was patriotic; I didn't care that he lost his best friend. These details were meant to flesh out the character, but I felt like they never coalesced around him; they were more like a character checklist than character traits. But I did like that Captain America breaks from the standard superhero mold and uses weapons, like guns. The digital "plastic surgery" to make Chris Evans look scrawny in the first part of the movie was pretty good, but still noticeable. Most of the acting is pretty cheesy. Hugo Weaving, however, does a good job. I got the impression that the movie wanted you to think it was being artistic and edgy, but didn't actually want to be artistic and edgy. Also, every scene that tried to invoke emotion (e.g. when Steve jumps on the grenade or when Captain America is about to crash into the Arctic and says goodbye to Peggy) failed to do so. Don't get me wrong: the movie is okay, just not better than okay.

My verdict for The Conspirator: The movie was kind of plodding, but in some ways educational. There were things about the Lincoln assassination that I wasn't aware of until watching this movie: that the plan was originally only to kidnap the President, that Booth jumped from the twelve-foot balcony and broke his leg, or that there were also attempts on the Secretary of State and the Vice President. The depiction of the public reaction immediately following the assassination was very well done. I almost felt shocked and bereft with them. The film portrays Mary Surratt's trial as a kangaroo court. While there is some evidence that this was true (and War Secretary Stanton definitely overstepped his bounds), the case against Mary Surratt was a lot murkier than the movie makes it seem. But even in those days it was controversial. I suspect that Robert Redfort painted it the way he did to express his opinion about the political atmosphere in America, post-9/11 (in this respect I didn't find the film very educational at all). If you don't agree, consider that the movie premeired on September 11, 2010.

My verdict for Dante's Peak: This movie is kind of cheesy. It's a combination of a comedy of errors and the myth of Cassandra—(Pierce Brosnan) is right, but no one believes him because he has no evidence; so they do as many things wrong as they possibly can so that when the volcano eruption inevitably happens, things will be as terrible as possible. Consequent to this, the filmmakers went overboard making the movie suspenseful: rock slides, lava flows, acid lakes, floods wiping out bridges, crashing helicopters, collapsing mines—it was just too much. In spite of that, the special effects were, for the most part, pretty good. The dam breaking and the subsequent flood looked more convincing than did the corresponding scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. But the constant lightning during the initial eruption was so frequent as to be annoying. The thing I disliked the most about this movie was how worried everyone was about the dog—let the ugly, mangy thing die!

My verdict for Jeremiah Johnson: The film was shot in Utah, including the area on the back of Mount Timpanogos, where Sundance was established. It takes many of the potential aspects of life as a mountain man (finding a frozen fellow mountain man; finding a woman driven insane by the slaughter of her family; finding a boy driven mute by the slaughter of his family; marrying an Indian woman to escape death; finding a man buried in the sand up to his head; fighting a live bear inside a cabin; an encounter with a wolf pack) and tries to cram them all into one movie. It gets them all in, but it's so much that it isn't believable. Based on that description, you would think this film was action-packed. Not so. Too much of the movie is Robert Redford wandering around by himself, which makes it feel too long. Besides being overlong, it wasn't a very good character study. His decision to spare one of the Indians that killed his wife and adopted son didn't make any sense—especially since he then goes on a murderous rampage of revenge. The soundtrack was lamentable; the three songs detracted from, rather than enhancing the film.

My verdict for Legend: My Uncle Derek showed me this the first time I watched it (but he fast-forwarded past the part where the witch gets beheaded). The storytelling was often surrealist, things often happened without exposition or else were non sequitur. This could be because the film was repeatedly edited before its theatrical release (a longer director's cut is now available).[5] Even though segments viewed separately did not always make sense the flow of images made an interesting and intelligible tapestry. However, I'm not sure why the Lord of Darkness had so many fires burning in his realm—not very dark. I'm also not sure why being cast into black space was a bad thing for him. The filmmakers did a very good job at set design (except one spot where they obviously spray painted some rocks blue). Most of the acting was fatuous, but Tim Curry's costume and acting were fabulous; the other masks (and the unicorns' horns) don't hold up to modern standards.[6]

My verdict for Rear Window: The film prefigures modern obsession with reality TV and highlights the pseudo-voyeuristic nature of television and film.[7] In the opening scenes I thought that we were looking at a miniature set. Then people began walking around. But the place still looked artificial; it must've been a giant set created just for the film. That's impressive, though, since the apartment buildings were four or five stories tall. I'm surprised how (suggestive) Mrs. Torso's part was for the 1950s. I'm also surprised that Lisa came to sleep over. It seems like both of those would've been violations of the Hays Code. Jeff's nurse was a great character. Despite the seemingly boring premise (a man confined to his room turns to spying on his neighbors), the film does a pretty good job of creating suspense. The part where Lisa goes into Thorwald's apartment was a lot more intense than the part where Thorwald comes over to Jeff's.[8] The scene where Thorwald sits in his apartment smoking a cigar in the dark was also appropriately creepy. This version (1954) is worth seeing, but don't waste your time with the 1998 television remake. Disturbia and "Neighborhood Watch", an episode of season 3 of White Collar [9], are much better derivative works.

My verdict for Return to Oz: When I was a kid, I had a comic book treatment of Return to Oz. But I've never read the books it's based on (The Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz). And I can't recall seeing more than little snatches of the movie. But when I watched it this time it seemed very familiar. So I don't know whether that means that the comic book was a pretty faithful adaptation of the movie or that I've seen this once before and just don't remember it. One improvement over the classic The Wizard of Oz [10] is that Dorothy is actually a little girl, not a woman pretending to be a little girl. But that's just about it. It's a pretty terrifying movie for kids. Sometimes the special effects are impressive (e.g. the nomes/talking rocks and some of the sets); other times they're laughable (e.g. the animatronic talking chicken and the gump head). A few miscellaneous observations:
  • The mental hospital is simultaneously dreary and creepy.
  • The "petrified" people jiggle when Dorothy touches them—like they're made out of styrofoam.
  • The Nome King's voice reminded me of Tim Curry's fabulous portrayal of the Lord of Darkness in Legend (see above).
  • Jean Marsh plays her character quite similar to her portrayal of the evil queen Bavmorda in Willow.
  • Tik Tok looks like the Pringles logo.
My verdict for Season of the Witch: The footage of the Austrian Alps was beautiful. And they handle the question of the woman's guilt pretty well. Other than that, I don't have much to say that is positive. Just about every movie Nicolas Cage has ever been in became somewhat corny by association. There's really no other way to describe his acting style. However, Ron Perlman was enjoyable as the sidekick. For the most part the climax and resolution of the film were disappointing.

My verdict for Star Trek: The scene at the beginning where Kirk runs his step-dad's car off a cliff was mostly gratuitous, but I liked the cityscapes of future Earth. And I'm glad they updated the appearance of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) instead of trying to be loyal to the appearance of the 1960s television show, but the constant lens flares get old fast.[11] The soundtrack manages to be both original, rousing, and loyal. Karl Urban does a fantastic job at McCoy; Chris Pine does a pretty good job at Kirk without becoming a parody of William Shatner (it's hilarious that he based his acting in part on Harrison Ford's portrayal of Han Solo [12]). The development of some of the other characters (Uhura, Scotty, Chekov, and Sulu) was fun. Zachary Quinto was doomed to fail from the beginning; Leonard Nimoy's shoes were too big. When Spock's mom dies, I suspect they CGed Zachary Quinto's face to look like the actor for young Spock. I didn't like how obvious it was that Kirk cheated during his third attempt at the Kobayashi Maru. Additionally, the coincidences are a little overwhelming, particularly: Kirk is marooned on a class M planet in the Vulcan system, he just happens to find Spock Prime, and Montgomery Scott also just happens to be on that same planet. Even Charles Dickens would've hesitated. I also have a complaint about the ending:


[1] They never say that he's a Democrat, but by this time the Red State/Blue State paradigm had been established, so when the television screen behind him shows New York bathed in red they're implying that he's a Democratic candidate (which suits Matt Damon, who is rabidly and blindly liberal in his politics). I find it uncomfortable that things got locked in that way since red is historically associated with socialism and communism, which the Democratic Party is more in tune with, while blue is historically associated with conservatism.

[2] See year.

[3] See

[4] You can watch it here.

[5] See (film)#Post-production.

[6] My opinion notwithstanding, this film garnered an Oscar nomination for best makeup.

[7] See Window#Analysis for some intriguing interpretations of the artistic aspects of the film.

[8] Read my review here.

[9] It's kind of ridiculous that Thorwald didn't figure out to close his eyes when Jeff was going to flash the camera.

[10] Incidentally, the ruby slippers are the same ones from the 1939 movie. The ending (an egg poisons the Nome King) is just as nonsensical as water melting the Wicked Witch in the first movie.

[11] See the HISHE treatment here.

[12] Also, see this screenshot (if you look closely, you'll see R2D2 floating in front of the Enterprise).

Image attributions:

The Blue Grosbeak is by Dan Pancamo, available at

The 1863 daguerrotype of Abraham Lincoln was taken by Alexander Gardner (1821–1882) and exists in the public domain. It is available at Lincoln November 1863.jpg.

Messier 2 (a globular cluster) is by the Hubble Space Telescope (NASA) and exists in the public domain. It is available at 2 Hubble WikiSky.jpg.

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