Friday, January 17, 2014

A Movie Day For Mr. & Mrs. Monkey: Gravity And American Hustle (Mini Reviews)

Once in a blue moon, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I like to have a movie day, where we go see two or three movies in a single afternoon. That's our idea of decadent fun. And after a particularly crummy week at the office, Katie needed a movie day. So she took annual leave and off we went.

On our to-do list: filet mignon for lunch and for dessert, two highly-touted best picture nominees, Gravity and American Hustle.

Gravity was directed by Alfonso Cuarón and stars Sandra Bullock in the best performance of her career. It's the story of a couple of astronauts (Bullock and George Clooney) who are set adrift alone in Earth orbit after a catastrophic accident destroys their space shuttle. They have very little oxygen and even fewer options for survival and with Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography and some brilliant special effects putting you right in the spacesuit with Bullock, it's just as terrifying as you might imagine.

At just 91-minutes, it's a bracing burst of adrenaline, a rollercoaster thrill ride with an undercurrent of philosophy about life and death, well-made and well-acted. I can't say it's the best picture of the year—all its pleasures are on the surface with no hidden treasure to find on repeat viewings—but it's definitely something you want to see in the theater while it's in re-release during Oscar season.

4 stars out of 5.

After a cup of coffee at a nearby establishment, it was on to American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell who helmed two of my favorites from the 1990s, Flirting with Disaster and Three Kings.

Starring a potbellied Christian Bale and a jiggly, tired-eyed Amy Adams, this is the story of a pair of con artists who make a modest living squeezing the last drop out of desperate middle class people like me and thee. Complications arise in the form of Bale's neurotic, manipulative wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and an FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) who is as dumb as he is ambitious. With Bale and Adams under Cooper's thumb, the three cook up 1978's real-life Abscam scheme using a fake Arab sheik and briefcases full of cash to entrap U.S. congressmen and the Miami mob in a high-level bribery probe.

Since everyone involved is only half as smart as they think they are, everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.

Apparently every critic in America—except me—loves it.

If it were darker, it would be film noir; if it were funnier, it would be screwball comedy. As it is, it's not much of anything at all. Not for me, anyway. Like some other award-winning movies—The English Patient, Remains of the Day, In the Bedroom—it sat there inert on the screen, the charm that seduced everyone else stubbornly eluding me. If I had been wearing a watch, I would have checked it every ten minutes to see that only thirty more seconds had gone by.

But as they say, it's not you, it's me.

I actually lived through the 1970s as a teenager and I can't connect with the tendency of certain filmmakers—Paul Thomas Anderson, Richard Linklater, and now David O. Russell—to have ironic fun with it. Maybe the problem is that I was too young then to indulge in the decade's perverse pleasures, but remember it too well now to romanticize it. For me, the '70s was a ten year long shit sandwich that started with VietNam, ended with the Iran hostage crisis, and in between featured Watergate, Jimmy Carter, stagflation, disco and polyester leisure suits. It wasn't fun, it was long and boring and stupid.

And that's my review of American Hustle. I am, however, very nearly alone in my assessment of it. Pay no attention.

2.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (2013): Really, Really Something (Mini Review)

Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, released last summer, is a low-key, modern-dress take on the funniest of Shakespeare's comedies, the story of a couple of sharp-tongued cynics who haven't discovered yet what everybody else already knows, that they are made for each other.

Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedick are perfectly cast as the ex-lovers who have sworn off love. He's a player, she's a shrew, and neither notices they can't stop talking about how much they detest each other. The scenes where friends and family dupe each into believing that the other is secretly in love are classic examples of physical screwball comedy while remaining completely faithful to the original text.

Also especially good is Nathan Fillion (Castle) as Dogberry, a constable who provides security to the rich and powerful. In Fillion's hands, Dogberry is a hilariously understated nincompoop who murders the English language and wants it on the record that he is "an ass."

Known for TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon shot Ado in twelve days while on a break from directing the comic book blockbuster The Avengers. To save money, Whedon set the action in his own house, cast actors from his old television shows, and filmed in black-and-white with a handheld camera. The result is sublime.

Some may struggle with a dark subplot involving a party guest's bout of Othello-like jealousy—blame Shakespeare—but it's handled about as well as it can be, and besides, no matter. What you'll remember is the screwball rom-com between Beatrice and Benedick. These were roles written for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn three hundred years before they were born, and Acker and Denisof make them their own.

4.5 stars out of 5.

Happy New Year: The Outlook For 2014

Good news. We here at the Monkey are again hosting part of the annual Favorite Classic Movie Actress Tournament—a.k.a. March Madness—this time the 1950s bracket. That means lots of pictures of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, Deborah Kerr and twenty-eight other classic contestants.

After that, I'm thinking it might be time for the Monkey and the Google to part company, maybe for Wordpress or some other platform. People complain about the NSA (without always much knowing what they're talking about, judging from comments on the internet), but Google is a serial invader of its customers' privacy to a degree that would make Big Brother blush—and for reasons a lot less noble than fighting terrorism. I have no doubt that if push came to shove, Google would sell my information to the Russian mob, and for what? To boost the price of their stock by an extra ten cents a share.

So probably come April or May, I'm going to start over elsewhere. What that new start will look like, I can't say at the moment. But I'll be writing it, so it's bound to be full of the usual jibber jabber.

In the meantime, we here at the Monkey wish you the happiest of happy new years!