Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous (1937): United States – directed by Victor Fleming

Not rated by the MPAA – contains some mild mature themes and brief mild violence

Captains Courageous is a film like many others, whose popularity decreased after perhaps the late 1950’s, when cliches had become so rooted in film culture that the only way to move an audience was to shock them, mildly at first then rather strongly as the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s.  But Captains Courageous is a gentle reminder that there used to be a different kind of movie, one that told a solid story with interesting characters.  Some of it may be dated now, and some of it may be cliche today, but it still works, and rather well at that.

The first half hour of the film is occupied with the setup of Harvey Cheyne’s (Freddie Bartholonew) life.  He is a young boy, and his father (Melvyn Douglas) is fabulously wealthy.  A tower in downtown New York City has the Cheyne name on it.  Harvey’s mother died some years past, and his father does the best he can.  His best, unfortunately, is not very good, as he caters to Harvey’s every whim.  Or, if he’s not present to cater to each whim personally (which he often isn’t) there are numerous servants ordered to dote on him.

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Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (2010): United States – directed by Derek Cianfrance

Rated R by the MPAA – contains language, a scene of violence, and strong sexuality

They don’t make a great deal of movies like this anymore.  Truth is, they rarely did, even back in the day.  Perhaps Ingmar Bergman was the last to tackle subjects like these, in ways like this.  Blue Valentine details a marriage through the course of a couple days, with flashbacks to how it used to be.  One storyline is decidedly more cheerful than the other.

American culture is so intensely trained on how to fall in love, but there are few paragons in life or culture that teach how love changes and how couples can stay in love.  Love at first sight is a popular element of many romantic comedies, and much literature.  But what happens next?  Why does it go so wrongly for so many couples?  Blue Valentine does not answer these questions, and perhaps it shouldn’t.  Instead it observes, quietly, the beauty and joy and love experienced as Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams) first meet, and the bitterness, anger, and hardship they endure after six years of marriage.

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The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008): United Kingdom/United States – directed by Mark Herman

Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some mature themes

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas has an immediate obstacle to overcome.  While it might not have been practical to film in German, many other World War II films have at least attempted German accents.  Judgment at Nuremberg even utilizes an effective technique to allow characters to speak in English and the audience to believe they’re speaking German.  Here there is not even an attempt; all the Germans speak British English, very properly.  This is a small complaint, but one that taints the entire film.

At the beginning it is difficult to tell if this is London or Berlin, with small children running around the streets, and fancy state dinners replete with silver and china.  But then the father of the primary family announces a transfer to another post, in the country, and it becomes clear that this is the German side of the war.

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For Colored Girls

For Colored Girls (2010): United States – directed by Tyler Perry

Rated R by the MPAA – contains strong language, domestic violence, sexual content, sexual violence

Tyler Perry’s first foray into straight drama is an interesting mix.  I’m not familiar with “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Ntozake Shange’s seminal choreo-poem often considered a cultural marker.  I do know many African American communities were up in arms when it was announced Perry would be adapting it, and Oprah and other influential people were brought in to consult.  The play, an assortment of poetry expressing the lives of seven African American women, is fluid and impressionistic, I’m told.  It lacks the hard details necessary for a successful translation into film, but this very characteristic made it so powerful on stage.

Perry has worked many of the themes from the poem into a screenplay, adding characters and settings in an attempt to make it real.  His version has nine women whose lives are all interconnected, like a facile version of Magnolia [review here].

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The Kids Are All Right

The Kids Are All Right (2010): United States – directed by Lisa Cholodenko

Rated R by the MPAA – contains sexual content, some nudity, strong language, mature themes, California

The Kids Are All Right appears, on the surface, to be a conventional family drama/comedy about an unconventional family.  Normally, if one were to praise a film, he or she might comment with something like, “but it goes so much deeper,” or “but if you look really closely.”  Unfortunately, The Kids Are All Right barely manages to successfully be a conventional film about an unconventional family.

Nick (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) have been together for many years.  They have two kids, but not together, obviously.  They used the same sperm donor, so the “father” is the same, but Joni (Mia Wasikowska) and Laser (Josh Hutcherson) have always grown up having two moms.  And they are a perfectly normal, happy family.  Joni has graduated from high school and is about to move on to college.  Laser has a troublesome friend named Clay (Eddie Hassell), but is really more interested in something else.

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Top 10 of 2010

(Update 1/31/10: Having just seen Blue Valentine it was necessary to include it on my Top 10 of 2010 list.  As a 2010 film, it deserves to be showcased here and not forgotten until next year’s list.  It enters the list at #7, bumping Babies into Honorable Mention territory.)

There have been a number of very good, or even great, films in 2010, even if the overall picture has been rather bleak.  Fortunately, I am not a proper film critic, and do not have to sit through the mediocre dreck studios produce every year.  2010 has seen a new film from each of the decade’s three greatest American directors; Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan (he’s been making American films long enough to be included, even if he’s British), and David Fincher.  Their three films take my top three positions.

I have, unfortunately, not been able to catch every good or great film in 2010.  As a result, the following is a list of my ten favorite films from 2010, limited, naturally, to those I have seen.  I missed many of the foreign releases that are quite possibly amazing, so my list is rather limited in scope.  Nevertheless, please enjoy, and debate, my top 10 films of 2010.

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Waiting for “Superman”

Waiting for “Superman” (2010): United States – directed by Davis Guggenheim

Rated PG by the MPAA – contains some mature themes

An initial fear when hearing about Davis Guggenheim’s documentary on public education might be that it is one-sided, heavy-handedly liberal, unabashedly Democratic.  It is to the director’s credit that it remains centered, objective, and incisive, as it dissects a system that has evolved nearly to a point of no return.  It is clear something must be done with public schools, but he offers few solutions short of moving entirely to charter schools.  And maybe that’s what’s necessary.

I’m not an expert on public education, and neither is Guggenheim.  What he does is examine the system, and follow five families whose children are directly influenced by their public schools.  The premise is simple, but it rests upon the notion that these children will fail if left in public schools.  They will fail at school, fail at life, and be condemned to an incomplete, unsuccessful life.  To support this assumption he looks at a lot of statistics, using cute, old-school graphics to display pertinent data.

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Winter’s Bone

Winter’s Bone (2010): United States – directed by Debra Granik

Rated R by the MPAA – contains some language, mature themes, some violent content

There’s a sparseness to Winter’s Bone, and a tone reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre [review here].  Winter’s Bone, like certain scenes in Chain Saw, is also very cluttered.  People live in run down homes, surrounded by stuff.  Stuff is scattered across their yards, into the hills and trees surrounding their property.  The inside of each home is even more cluttered with stuff.  The grown-ups stuff consists of disused cars and school buses, and they, too, clutter the earth.

This is the world of Winter’s Bone, one in which there can be silence as the wind whistles through the trees, or gunshots echoing through the hills.  Neither is strange.  It just is.  There’s a code, too, among the people who live in these Ozark hills.  Kin means something, and so does keeping your mouth shut.  Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) understands both of these concepts, and attempts to make the most of one while adhering to the other.

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The Fighter

The Fighter (2010): United States – directed by David O. Russell

Rated R by the MPAA – contains boxing violence, strong language, some sexual content

The Fighter is a passion project, on a number of levels.  Mark Wahlberg stuck with it for years, training on the sets of his other films until financing and a director could be finalized.  Darren Aronofsky, granted an executive producer credit, was attached to direct before moving on to complete Black Swan [review here].  David O. Russell stepped in, and managed to make Wahlberg’s passion project into a worthy film.  And, even if it is simple in its approach and execution, it is rousing, moving, and engaging.

Wahlberg plays Mickey Ward, a boxer with a host of problems.  His recent bouts have been used as stepping stones for other up and coming boxers, and he’s still waiting for his chance.  His brother, Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale), and mother, Alice (Melissa Leo), have been his trainer and manager respectively.  They’ve been responsible for all his success, and all his failure.

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Priority update

You may have noticed that new reviews have been in somewhat shorter supply the past few weeks.  This is a direct result of a recent trip back to Pakistan, where I grew up, and to India.  The experience altered my priorities in a number of ways, and further involvement in and study of the subcontinent has consumed much of the time I used to spend writing and posting reviews.  As a result, I have only been managing between one and three reviews a week.

I do not wish to cease reviewing films, and will continue doing so as time allows.  My revised goal is to post two or three new reviews each week, a continued mixture of new releases and old films.  There have been over 265 reviews in the 16 months since I started the site, a number I hope is not insignificant.  I doubt I will manage as many reviews in the next 16 months, but I hope each new review will be of higher quality than the last.

The About page has been slightly re-worded as a result of my new priorities, so please check it out.  Also, I hope to post my list of the year’s top 10 films (of those I’ve seen) in the next couple days, so please stay tuned!