March movie roundup

March 24th, 2009

You would think that after a short hiatus I’d come back with plenty of stuff to talk about. You would be wrong. I am not touching any of the current events or political topics (not that I have ever been prolific in that area), there is nothing exciting going on at home (only a couple of weeks left before the next excellent travel adventure, though), and I can’t think of a fascinating expat topic to expound upon.

I’m left pretty much with an assortment of my serialized “features”. So, I suppose, I’ll fall back on one, bringing it forward from its usual slot, because (a) there is little chance that I’ll see more movies until the end of the month, and (b) I actually want to talk about movies for a change.

[I heard your collective groan from here. You don’t have to be so obvious. Feel free to not look below the cut – I won’t hold a grudge.]

In the first half of the month, I watched a few of recent award contenders, interspersed with a couple of “guilty pleasures”.

Across The Universe 2007
Hitman 2007
In Bruges 2008
Slumdog Millionaire 2008
Vicky Cristina Barcelona 2008

There be spoilers – I’ll keep them to a minimum, but please be warned.

Before I get to the actual movies, I’d like to ruminate on the subject of rating movies in general a little. [Yeah, I know, way to reward those few trusting souls who decided to look below the fold. Sorry, can’t help it; I tried to fight this bout of verbosity – and I lost.]

My personal formula for assessing the level of enjoyment a movie brings me has several components. I am positive that everyone in the world does something similar – consciously or subconsciously – for anything that they “rate”; the specific criteria, of course, vary from person to person.

For me, first and foremost, it’s the entertainment quotient – that eminently quantifiable feeling of how much I was into the movie while I was watching it. An engaging plot is frequently a big part of pushing EQ up, but I often find myself reflecting on plot lines and turns days after watching a given movie, so I have to accept that the script plays a semi-independent role in my movie-grading. Scenery, visuals, special effects, action sequences, art direction, cinematographic style – all that I expansively and patently pretentiously like to call the artistic impression – is an important variable. Acting counts as well, of course, especially when I can highlight a performance that I absolutely loved or hated.

(We are going to leave aside the considerations of the movie subject and the genre. I use those extensively to filter out movies that I have no interest in watching. If I happen to see such a movie, chances are that the EQ would end up so low that the movie would be rated accordingly.)

A single “out of 5 stars” rating is awfully inadequate in properly expressing the weighted average of these criteria. It would be considerably more accurate to follow an approach similar to that of Alex Exler, a Russian media personality, who separately grades level of entertainment, acting, script and direction, and then gives the supposedly binary advice on whether “you need to watch this movie” (he frequently deviates from the simple yes/no choice, though). But then, Exler is a talented published writer and journalist with the daily audience going into dozens of thousand visitors; he has both the ability and the motivation to be so detailed in his marks. Unlike yours truly.

Instead, I use my 5 stars to mean approximately the following:

  • 5: I’m buying the movie for my collection and plan to watch it again and again (say, Stardust). Or, it had a very deep personal connection to me, in which case I may not plan on watching it again, but I’m glad I did once (an example immediately leaping to my mind – before my blogging days – is The Pianist, or more recently Lions for Lambs or The Counterfeiters).
  • 4: I find something to carp about along at least one of my criteria, but I enjoyed the movie overall and am very likely to watch it again.
  • 3: It is a solid movie, with a lot to be commended and possibly something to be unhappy about; unfortunately, I did not especially enjoy it and it would not be an obvious choice for me to come back to. Or, this movie’s EQ is so high that it compensates for all its many shortcomings.
  • 2: I find a single redeeming quality about this movie, but otherwise it holds no appeal; I am pretty sure I will never watch it again.
  • 1: What a waste of time that was.

Which yields a seemingly incongruous outcome of giving both National Treasure: Book of Secrets and Slumdog Millionaire the same rating.

If you were looking for my reason to start the above discourse, you have it. I needed to build a case for why I do not think I am terminally misguided in giving two such disparate movies three stars each. As noted in the aborted discussion in the comments following the early February article, I felt that NT:BoS’s EQ was quite high, – to say nothing of the superb scenery for its most part – and that pushed the movie into “I enjoyed it a lot, even though I realize that it is not too great for various reasons” bucket. Three stars.

And when it came to Slumdog, I simply did not like it much above recognizing it to be a “solid work”. Three stars, as well.

I suppose that was mainly because the film had been advertized here in the UK ad nauseam as a “feel-good movie of the year”. And it is not a feel-good movie in the least. Yes, there is the sort of a happy ending – sort of, if you consider the fact that one of the main characters gives his life so that the other two can be together; that, after already having saved one of them from a horrible fate years earlier – but the story otherwise is filled with abject poverty, terrible cruelty, crime and violence, and the constant struggle to beat the longest of odds. That the main character, Jamal, emerges from all of that at the age of 18 as a thoughtful, good-natured, gentle and, most importantly, honest person is as uplifting as it is implausible.

Maybe I am too cynical.

I cannot discount how well the movie is crafted, with flashbacks to various points of Jamal’s tumultuous childhood guiding us through his unlikely success at the game show. There are also glimpses of magnificent scenery that I always appreciate, and the enveloping feeling of authenticity of the portrayal of people and circumstance. Dev Patel is not very convincing as a guy driven by desire to find his lost love, but he does an excellent job in projecting the near numbness of a person who seemingly is not in control of anything that happens around him but continues to cling to his one and only hope. Anil Kapoor is quite good as an arrogant asshole of a game-show host, protective of his own legacy as the only winning “slumdog”, with the chameleon-like ability to step into a friendly and cheerful public persona as soon as the lights are on.

And yet, the EQ of the movie was middling at best. I hated the opening scene and the contrived set up of a police interrogation used as a vehicle to unfold Jamal’s life story. I also kept looking for a sign that the movie was truly a slam-dunk Oscar winner and, while I have no baseline for comparison on account of not having seen the other four contenders for the Best Movie this year, I must have been instead looking for reasons to argue that it was not worthy of the accolades it received.

I cannot deny the impact of Slumdog in opening up a side of a foreign culture that I am only cursorily familiar with. I think people who know little-to-nothing about India should definitely see this movie. I realize that, having just explained what my ratings mean, I immediately contradict myself by giving an “impactful” movie that I’m glad I watched less than 5 stars. But the total package was just not there for me, and, since I’m unlikely to watch it again, the most it can get from me is an acknowledgment to be a solid piece of cinematography.

Two other acclaimed movies – by a highly scientific yardstick of having garnered a few major nomination for Oscars, Golden Globes or BAFTA Awards – made my watching programme this month, and they both got three stars as well.

In Bruges takes place on cobblestones and canals of one of my favorite little places in the world, and that itself should have been enough to ensure my enjoyment. Yes, I’m biased that way. Unfortunately, I pretty much hated the plot and the exaggerated violent undertones (the film is actually not very graphic in its violence, except for a couple of occasions). I also mostly missed where the movie was a comedy, – and, since it was nominated for some awards in the “Comedy or Musical” category while obviously not being a musical, it must be laying claims to being a comedy, – even though there are various comical and even grotesque interactions between main characters throughout the movie, especially once Ralph Fiennes’ Harry starts getting screen time.

I loved Colin Farrell in this movie, though. I lately tend to recognize that portrayal of anguish is a determinant factor in my appreciation of an actor’s work. Not anger, not distress, not mental instability, not love or gentleness. Anguish. And Farrell’s Ray was a perfect wreck of an all-consuming anguish, with his not too bright but violent nature always threatening to overwhelm his efforts at staying cool. I thought that was brilliant.

But overall, not so much. And how many times do you have to repeat that Bruges is a s__thole, anyway!?

You don’t need many guesses in regards to what I liked the most in Vicki Cristina Barcelona, do you?

Didn’t think so. Any neurotic love story that mixes in breathtaking locations should be received more or less positively at my place. See, I have many sides: I enjoy action flicks, I am frequently ok with chick movies…

Actually, there is probably too little of definitive Barcelona scenery in this movie to justify my bias towards gorgeous locations. There is some, but not enough to my liking. What makes up for that deficiency, though, is the usually quirky Allen-ian plot and a few of the acting jobs.

And here is something that baffles me quite often. I don’t understand why playing a mentally unstable character is such a direct route to critical acclaim. Playing a mentally unstable person is so much easier than playing a conflicted-but-together character. You blow a gasket once in a while, you channel your inner most petulant and disagreeable child, you constantly exaggerate emotions… Try conveying the depth of feelings when you have to stay unflappable and sane.

Which brings us back to the portrayal of anguish. I enjoyed Penelope Cruz’s performance, I really did, and I am happy to admit liking a portrayal that received critical accolades. She played a brilliant but volatile former wife of Javier Bardem’s character, who comes back into his life just as he starts to find solace with another woman, and eventually wrecks his relationships again. A very strong performance. I just thought that Rebecca Hall’s was light years better, full of anguish, starting out as an uptight upper-class bride-to-be who gets drawn into spending time with Bardem against her better judgement, is seduced by him, and then is ignored by him while he moves on to her best friend. Her almost inevitable slide – with butterflies in her stomach – to nearly giving in to her desires for a man who is wrong for her by any measure except the love itself hits every note perfectly.

I liked Bardem, too, although at first I thought that his somewhat sleepy-eyed appearance was a wrong fit for a Latin lover, portrayed as able to be gentle and caring and romantic but also stereotypically nonchalant about the length and depth of his various relationships. But I cannot imagine who might be better in this role, which likely means that Bardem nailed it.

I loved the soundtrack. I could do without constant narration, though.

Moving on, I am a big fan of ABBA and I have no doubt that I will eventually enjoy Mamma Mia (I did see it on Broadway several years ago, and I loved it). But what I really want is a musical set to the Beatles’ songs.

And what do you know!? There is one! In one of the quickest turnarounds in the history of my PVR queue, I idly read through the movie description, hit the “record” button, and watched Across the Universe in its entirety within 24 hours.

For an avowed Beatles aficionado, a movie that features people with names like Jude, Lucy, Maxwell, Sadie, Jo-Jo, Prudence cannot be a disappointment. (There is also a Dr Robert and a Mr Kite, but, alas, no Martha or Michelle or Rita or Eleanor Rigby, to mention just a few obvious potential characters.) Half an hour into the movie, I was ready to give it unqualified five stars. Great song covers, excellent choreography, a lightweight but reasonable plot. Six people of different backgrounds get thrown together in the 60’s New York City, and the Beatles’ tunes are nicely used to underscore and emphasize their feelings and the events that surround them.

Somewhere near the middle of the movie, the plot becomes secondary to the increasingly hallucinatory production numbers. The movie veers into psychedelics, the progression of events gets a bit simplistic. A number of songs that I expected to hear – most notably, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Get Back, – did not materialize (in fact, of my most favorite thirty or so Beatles songs, less than a half feature in the movie). That diminished my enthusiasm a bit, but nonetheless, I enjoyed the viewing very much. It will be a fun one to revisit again some day. Your mileage will vary according to your enthusiasm for the Beatles music.

The last and unquestionably least of the movies I saw in March was Hitman. A fairly nonsensical adaptation of a video game, it only held appeal to me inasmuch as an action flick set largely in Russia. I had very low expectations and the movie did not disappoint in failing to exceed them, starting with ridiculous quasi-Russian character names and illiterate “Russian” inscriptions all the way to the complete lack of explanation of what moved the main character. There were a couple of nicely staged action sequences, though. On a day where I needed a mindless violent form of entertainment, it was a suitable choice. That, and it being a perfect example of how to screw up local authenticity even when you film at plausibly fitting locales, earned it that second star.

And that was it for March.


  1. March 24th, 2009 at 14:49 | #1

    Sometime ago I reviewed Across the Universe, and you were pretty clear that you did not want to watch the movie with covers of your favorites songs :) Conflicting, aren’t you?

  2. March 24th, 2009 at 16:07 | #2

    Gee, Ilya, if you like movies full of Beatles’ covers and characters named after the songs, you should totally go rent–no, go buy Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

    It’s awesome.

    No, no–I didn’t just burst out with an evil cackle! That must have been a noise outside or something, or maybe you’re hearing things….

  3. March 24th, 2009 at 16:23 | #3

    Kostyan, moody, more like. I had no recollection of your review – in fact, I had no recollection of having prior knowledge about the movie before I came across it on cable – but now it seems to come back to me.

    I still do not recall the particulars of your review or my response, but I do generally dislike covers. When I started watching the movie, I half-expected it to be something accompanied by original Beatles recordings, rather than built entirely of covers.

    In the context of a musical, the covers weren’t half bad, in the end; most of them were pretty faithful to the originals, which helped, even when sung by the likes of Bono or Joe Cocker.

  4. March 24th, 2009 at 16:29 | #4

    Eric, I never even heard of that one. Based on IMDB description and reviews, I actually might attempt it one day – could be fun 😉

    Although, tying it to my exchange with Kisintin, I suppose it is full of the kind of covers that I hate – emphasizing the performer’s own style – or “interpretation” – over the original sound of the song…

    And I’m sure that movie does not have Salma Hayek in a cameo as a sexy nurse…

  5. March 24th, 2009 at 17:00 | #5

    First of all, let me say that these reviews have gotten markedly better (i.e., more interesting and well written) ever since you questioned their value in the first place.

    Now, as to movie reviewing process: I’m totally with you on EQ, but I differ a bit on AI and Acting. Generally speaking, if I notice the soundtrack, scenery, camera work, or even a particular acting performance during the movie, it shatters my EQ. A movie should draw me in – make me forget I’m watching a movie and envelop me entirely in the world it attempts to create. If I’m an outsider looking in at any point, then the walls come crashing down and the distraction costs the movie EQ points. If, on the other hand, I’m totally drawn in throughout the film, and then leave the theater and realize what an amazing job a particular actor/actress did, or how awesome the music was, etc., then I think they’ve done their job.

    Maybe I’m merely parroting what you said, or maybe not. Tough to tell…

    As to the movies themselves, the only one on this list that I’ve seen is Slumdog Millionaire, and I think you hit the nail on the head. I spent much of the movie mentally critiquing the unlikely plot twists and wondering (sometimes aloud to my wife) how this movie had become the greatest movie ever! in the run-up to this year’s Oscars.

    There are some technical things that are excellent about the film, as you mentioned. But it totally failed to immerse me in it’s world, and in that regard, was a disappointment.

    Oh, one last thing: you can’t compare yourself unfavorably to a “talented journalist” and then pull of a line like “I had very low expectations and the movie did not disappoint in failing to exceed them.” That’s just awesome…

  6. March 24th, 2009 at 17:50 | #6

    Thanks for the compliment, Brian. I suppose it is in large part due to being about movies that I’m actually interested talking about. And I like that line myself a lot… :)

    I understand the point about noticing technical details versus being immersed in the movie. I think most of these details crystallize in my head during a post-movie “analysis”. Although I have to admit that, say, a panoramic view of Venice in Casino Royale makes me start thinking about things other than the movie plot in a millisecond…

  7. March 24th, 2009 at 18:22 | #7

    Dev Patel’s character reminded me a lot of Forrest Gump, a lot.

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