Flash Reviews, Pt. 14

1 September 2016-27 November 2016

Welcome to another installment of Flash Reviews, where I share brief snapshot reviews of the movies I’ve watched, books I’ve read and occasional other entertainment I’ve consumed since the last time I did this. Usually once every two months or so. WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead, so just watch out. Not super detailed spoilers, since these are just snapshots, but the better you know my tastes, the more likely you’ll be to find something spoiled.

 

FILM

History of the World, Part 1

Clever scenes, but an uneven hodge-podge, smorgasbord as a whole. The Roman Empire and French Revolution sequences seemed to drag on a bit too long. Again, clever sketches in there, but not enough to carry it. Towards the end there seemed to be more continuity between characters and roles that the same actors played than was implied earlier, which seemed to diminish the unity of the film as a whole. Best consumed in small, select pieces probably. Not a terrible movie, just not a very cohesive one.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian

Hilarious. Remarkably clever and a delightful satire of certain tendencies within religious (and other) communities. Profound in its absurd, Monty Python sort of way.

Intolerable Cruelty

A weird, screwball, dark, romantic comedy. It doesn’t quite seem to know what it is and isn’t as well-crafted as many of the Coen Brothers’ other films, but is still quite fun. George Clooney and Catherine Zeta Jones are delightful in quite different ways. Absurd and a bit “whaaaaaa?!?!?!?!” inducing, but if you’re ready for that, worth a watch. I’m conflicted on the ending, but at the moment am not a huge fan of it—perhaps that’ll change with other viewings and thinking through it.

Last Days in the Desert

A great Jesus film. Ewan McGregor delivers what may be my favorite screen Jesus portrayal, which makes this film well-worth watching, even if it feels a bit episodic and disjointed as a film itself. Lots of interesting stuff going on here.

Kafka

An odd film. Perhaps I need to read more Kafka to really get what’s going on. An interesting noir vibe for most of the film before switching to a bizarre, twisted sci-fi, dystopian vibe. Interesting ideas at play.

The Ladykillers (2004)

Rubbish. The Coens’ worst movie by far. Loads of wasted talent. Something feels forced and phoned in about most of the movie. Remarkably unremarkable.

Hell or High Water

Most people seem focused on Jeff Bridges’ (or Chris Pine’s) performance, but for me Ben Foster was the stand-out and emotional core of the film. I liked the film quite a bit, but something didn’t quite resonate with me the way it seemed to for others. It’s well-made and tense and overall, a solid production. Yet, something just didn’t click.

Warcraft

Meh. An entertaining-ish way to spend some time if you want some cool fantasy visuals and world-building. It felt a bit like there was way too much going on and things being crammed into a space that they couldn’t quite fit in.

Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years

LOVED this. Unsurprisingly, given my Beatlemania. Super cool footage and some interesting insights into The Beatles that I didn’t know. A transcendent experience (perhaps because after the doc, they showed the remastered Shea Stadium concert footage in whole, which was glorious).

Godspell

Interesting. Some catchy music and fascinating costume choices. Oddly, still a very somber Jesus.

No Country for Old Men

Wow. A near-perfect film. Acting is phenomenal. The sound is incredible. The cinematography is gorgeous. The editing is pristine. The first time I watched it I was too terrified by Javier Bardem to really appreciate how finely crafted it is, but this time—wow. Not my favorite of the Coens, but it may very well be their best.

Son of God (2014)

A very Mormon-feeling Jesus film. Nothing that special. It was put together from The Bible tv-miniseries.

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The fourth (at least) film version of this story (Kurasowa’s Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and A Bug’s Life (1998) being the first three).

Lots and lots of shooting (like, so much shooting), some of which is admittedly quite cool. Satisfactory performances, though somewhat disappointing and underdeveloped characters around the board (for Ethan Hawke in particular). Denzel Washington owns his performance in true Denzel fashion. Lee Byung-hun is fun to watch. Chris Pratt has some stellar moments. Vincent D’Onofrio’s voice is baffling. Peter Sarsgaard is pretty one-note as the villain. Jokes sprinkled throughout, though they didn’t quite seem to work for me most of the time, there was some weird tone-confusion that they produced. Fairly entertaining, predictable, but entertaining, if entered with low expectations.

Overall, I think I liked it better with bugs.

King of Kings

A silent Jesus film. Interesting, but not quite my cup of tea.

You’ve Got Mail

Entertaining. Some fun book-related banter. Though the deception exercised throughout feels a bit concerning to me to hold up as a romantic ideal.

Burn After Reading

A dark dark humored Coens film. Hilarious. Violent. I enjoyed it. The acting is great (J.K. Simmons is able to redeem himself for The Ladykillers, which is delightful).

Her

A powerful, touching, moving, heartbreaking, hopeful exploration of love and connection. Lots of fascinating stuff here. The design is impeccable—masterfully put together. Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson are stellar. The music works beautifully with the film.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

An Italian Jesus film that is interesting, but again, not quite resonant with me.

Masterminds

A fun, kinda stupid movie. Absolutely absurd.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Fascinating. Lots of interesting ideas at work here and some catchy songs. A fuller emotional range for Jesus here than usual (and he rock-opera screams!).

MacGruber

So so so dumb. But amusing. Plays with action tropes and things.

A Serious Man

One of my favorite Coen films. Powerful exploration of suffering. The acting is great. Writing is stellar. All aspects of design and production are solid. I’ll definitely be revisiting this one.

True Grit (2010)

An enjoyable film. Perhaps played a little straighter than the rest of the Coens’ oeuvre, but I think it largely works here. Matt Damon is great, Jeff Bridges is great, Hailee Steinfeld is great.

Cronos

An early Guillermo del Toro film that is quite interesting. Lots of fairy tale influences at work that seem to be played out a bit more heavy-handed than usual for del Toro. His love of creatures is present. Worth checking out for fans of his other stuff, but not his finest work.

Lost in La Mancha

A documentary about the making of a movie that never materialized. Fascinating. Sad watching so many efforts crumble, but an interesting look at the inside of the film world.

Desierto

SO TENSE. Imagine “The Most Dangerous Game” (that short-story you probably read in high school), but set on the border and about immigration. The sound is incredible and the shots of the first violent shooting sequence create the felt-impact of bullets far more effectively than anything else I’ve seen (the cinematography generally was quite good). The characters are a little thinly drawn (particularly the antagonist, who has a couple moments that I think are meant to humanize him, but didn’t connect with me due to some very fuzzy/absent motivations). A bit heavy-handed at times, but overall, worth checking out.

Inside Llewyn Davis

I liked this quite a bit the first time I watched it and even more this time. Great stuff. The music is gorgeous. The feel of the film (with the lighting, color, cinematography, design, etc.) is perfect. The acting is solid. The writing is on point. The Coens doing great work here.

Swiss Army Man

The weirdest film experience I’ve had all year (and probably longer than that, honestly). Something that needs to be seen to be truly understood. For all its weirdness I was also surprisingly touched by the themes of friendship, acceptance, and finding beauty in life.

The Cabin in the Woods

Still love this one. Quite gory, but so funny. Clever clever clever.

Flowers

A touching film about loss and death and forgiveness and memory. The music and sound occasionally felt a bit jarring and disjointed from the emotions being portrayed, but overall, good.

Hail, Caesar!

I adore this movie. It’s hilarious and about movies and a bit meandering and definitely absurd, but also speaks to my understanding of faith. There’s just something special here. Josh Brolin is excellent. Ralph Fiennes is hilarious. Alden Ehrenreich is great foil to Fiennes. Tilda Swinton is delightful. Clooney is solid. Channing Tatum is a stand-out. All sorts of greatness here. Love love love it. I’ll be writing up some thoughts on my experience watching all the Coens’ films soon. So stay tuned.

Doctor Strange

One of the most visually inventive films I’ve seen. Period. It’s like Inception meets that trippy tunnel sequence from Willy Wonka meets Speed Racer meets Yellow Submarine (on a purely visual level). So that was AWESOME. They open strong with this and keep upping the ante in interesting ways that play with some of the possibilities and leave you hungry for more of what they can do.

Unfortunately, the characters felt a little flat (with the villain having one of the most empathetic moments in the film, which if you know how flat Marvel villains are is quite a statement). They weren’t *bad*, just unremarkable. Motivations were fuzzy, people were inconsistent or underutilized or unexplained. And the general narrative arc for the characters felt well-trodden and unsurprising (it works, but you’ve seen it before). Tilda Swinton is pretty phenomenal in her role (though it’s not without complications of white-washing and other things). Benedict Cumberbatch does a fine job (his American accent is a bit weird and he’s giving a heavily RDJ-inspired performance), but wasn’t the stand-out I was hoping for.

However, it’s still a good movie and one worth watching. The visual inventiveness is definitely worth the ride, even with familiar, unsurprising narrative elements. Also, this is the most overtly spiritual of the Marvel films (in a mystical sort of way) and it explores faith crisis in some interesting ways.

V for Vendetta

Still an enjoyable film. Not amazing, but well put together and entertaining, with some interesting ideas at work.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

I felt tense practically the entire time I was watching this, even though I knew what happened at the end. That’s pretty remarkable. There’s a great sense of anticipation built-up throughout the film and a heavy, melancholy, inevitability to it that sinks into you (partially because of the design, particularly the music, I think).

Arrival

Solid performances anchored by Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, with Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg providing notable assistance. The way sound is used throughout is remarkable. A very well-shot film, with gorgeously framed shots that could be paintings (as they say).

AND it deals with some really cool complex stuff really well (vagueness because the less you know going in, the better). So, go and watch it. It’s very good.

American Hustle

A fun, long, twisted, meandering 70s nostalgia filled romp. Anchored by magnetic performances from Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper.

Clue

So funny. A delightful film.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The MAGIC is back. Wow. It was lovely. So many magical creatures and awesome magic world-building stuff. Awesome. In addition to visual wonder and awe, the performances are solid (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Colin Farrell, and especially Dan Fogler).

Powerful themes (that seem particularly resonant now). A bit darker than I was anticipating. Brought back the magic of the books–that sense of transportation and wonder. (Also, everyone looks incredible–all the long overcoats are classy classy classy.) The jazz riffs in the music work well to build the atmosphere too.

Moonlight

Wow. A powerful, emotional wallup of a film. Reminiscent of Boyhood in its grappling with mortality and the human experience (though this time with a gay black boy/man as the protagonist). Incredible performances all around (Mahershala Ali! Trevante Rhodes! Ashton Sanders! Janelle Monae! Naomie Harris!) with expressive faces that convey incredible nuances of meaning (the subtlety of the acting is remarkable). The cinematography is phenomenal (James Laxton better be nominated at the least for his work here). The sound is masterful, with classical music woven into sequences in a way that provocatively juxtaposes worlds we typically don’t imagine meeting. This is one that I’ll be processing for some time. Watch it.

13th

Woah. Heavy stuff here. I knew some of this on some level, but having it all presented like this was powerful (and an interesting companion to Moonlight). A well-done documentary. Some bits were a bit heavy-handed/forced/overly extreme, but with understandable reason.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

I didn’t really like this. I felt more uncomfortable with what I was watching than I have in a long time—not from a strictly content perspective, but because of the messages I felt were being conveyed. There was some element of satire here, but the film also felt like it didn’t lean into that quite enough and was too earnest/sincere/pleased with some of the elements to really be a piece of satire. Though it could maybe be read sort of compellingly as all inside Billy’s head? Characters just seemed to do weird, inexplicable things sometimes and speak in weird, stilted ways that would make sense if they were imagined. I don’t know. Not a fan.

Moana

Truly delightful. The music is great (“You’re Welcome” and “Shiny” with snatches of “How Far I’ll Go” will be stuck in my head for days), though with Lin-Manual in the mix, what else could you expect? Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson are both stellar. The animation is gorgeous, with some lovely and inventive sequences (the tattoos during “You’re Welcome” and melding of cgi and more traditional animation techniques in particular stand out). A warm, hopeful, human story.

PS Narratively, how they mix in an incredibly rich mythology without feeling overbearing and exposition-heavy, is remarkably impressive.

PPS I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much delight I got from the Kakamora (the coconut pirates).

Sing Street

Truly delightful. 80s. A teen movie. Ireland. The main character is named Conor. Loads of 80s, synth-driven music. A delight.

 

BOOKS

Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map

A useful book that stresses the value of experiences all along the ‘developmental map’. One of the most profound and insightful books about faith crises that I’ve read.

The Woman in White

Excellent. Perhaps a little long, but quite good. Sensation fiction at its finest.

The Sins of the Wolf

Enjoyable. Pretty compelling, with the court sequences fascinating.

A Study in Scarlet

Always an interesting Holmes’ story to revisit for its weird, Mormon stuff. Quite disjointed, but interesting.

Murder on the Orient Express

Christie at her finest. So good. Love this one.

Fairy Tales Transformed?: Twenty-First-Century Adaptation and the Politics of Wonder

Quite dense, but lots of interesting ideas at work here (if you’re into the academic study of fairy tale adaptations).

The Nine Tailors

This was a bit of a slog (which was interesting because I love her Murder Must Advertise), though the ending retroactively redeemed much of the book for me (not for any logical reason per say, it just gave weight and meaning to things that lacked it and felt right).

Let Your Hearts and Minds Expand: Reflections on Faith, Reason, Charity, and Beauty

A fascinating collection of essays. Some are far stronger than others, but a collection worth considering. I found value in all the sections. (Here’s a longer review I wrote.)

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman

Engaging and a quick read.

The Daughter of Time

I liked this quite a bit. A fun twist on the mystery genre, working to solve a historical mystery using research and such.

One Hundred Birds Taught Me to Fly

A beautiful book. The latest in the Maxwell Institute’s Living Faith series. Touching expressions of faith and doubt and love and hope and life. My full review is here.

Once Upon a Time: A Short History of the Fairy Tale

An engaging discussion of fairy tales that has academic rigor, but is far more accessible for a non-academic audience than most books with that rigor. Lots of fascinating stuff at play here for those that have an interest in fairy tales, their history, and thinking about them more critically.

National Dreams: The Remaking of Fairy Tales in Nineteenth-Century England

A fascinating look at four case studies of collections of tales published in 19thC England. Again, pretty dense and for most people not worth even thinking about, but I found it interesting.

Nimona

Charming is the best word to describe this lovely graphic novel, adapted from a web comic. The visuals are inventive and fun, the story is touching and the names are hilarious and perfect and charming.

 

Past Installments here: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven, Part Twelve, and Part Thirteen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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