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Mid-year movie roundup

With my continuing meager creative output, I figured I could for once fall back on an almost-forgotten recurring feature. After all, we did decide a couple of months ago to trade in cable movie channels – which, in the States, seem to never have the movies I want to watch on the channels that I happen to have – for a Netflix subscription (especially, seeing how Netflix now streams to Wii – although the selection of movies available for streaming leaves a lot… let me repeat that – a lot!… to be desired).

It would appear that I should have watched more than 17 movies since the beginning of the year, but that’s the whole tally. Usual drive-by impressions are below.

Airport 1970
Alice in Wonderland 2010
Amélie 2001
Body of Lies 2008
Book of Eli 2010
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 2008
Inglorious Basterds 2009
Iron Man 2008
Nowhere Boy 2009
Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief 2010
Public Enemies 2009
State of Play 2009
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 2008
The Dark Knight 2008
The Hurt Locker 2009
The Lovely Bones 2010
The Men Who Stare at Goats 2009

I’ve only been to the cinema once this year, and I already briefly described my largely warm feelings regarding Alice in Wonderland. Thanks to one of the perks of transatlantic travel, I also managed to see three other current-year releases to-date.

The Lovely Bones is a rare movie that is not my cup of tea theme-wise, but surprisingly managed to leave a great impression with me. It is a story of a murdered girl, who follows from somewhere above the lives of her family and her killer. Definitely not something that I would have picked up to watch by choice. But forced into it by the simple circumstance of nothing else of interest showing on other flight entertainment channels in one of the time-slots, I found myself engrossed. It is a brilliantly made movie, with creative imagery and several good acting performances. I don’t think I will ever watch it again, but I have no regrets for watching it once.

Book of Eli… Meh. I like Denzel Washington, and Gary Oldman is always one of my favorite villains (his Zorg moment – laying hands on the treasure only to realize it is not what he expected – could have been taken directly from the original), but this post-apocalyptic fantasy rang kind of shallow.

Kimmy wanted me to watch Percy Jackson at the same time with her, so I obliged. She liked it. For this adult’s taste, it is too predictable and low on plot-resolution sophistication.

Finally, a movie that I am sure not one of my reading audience watched or possibly even heard of – Nowhere Boy. It is a British movie following the life of young John Lennon. Birth of the Beatles is a side story in this excellent study of complicated family ties.

Before switching to Netflix, I cleared up my DVR queue from whatever occasional “possibly-want-to-watch” movies I had managed to record.

Body of Lies gave me a welcome fix of an unfamiliar locale specifics, with spy games sprinkled on top. I always enjoy Russell Crowe’s work, and DiCaprio wasn’t too bad either in the leading role.

State of Play was on my list entirely because of Crowe, and it is a rare movie which he could not save for me. I still think he was great in it, but the movie itself bored me, and the plot turned on its head too much, IMHO.

Airport, a token oldie on the list, gets comparatively high marks even though I was greatly disappointed by the complete absence of Keith Bakersfield’s storyline. Arthur Haley’s book used to be a favorite of mine, and the air controller sub-plot used to grip me no less than the main bombing-in-the-air storyline. Too bad it did not find a place in this otherwise well-made movie.

The Dark Knight was the only must-see in the DVR queue. I liked it well enough, although the whole “villain that can set up practically any complicated atrocity while escaping out of jail at the same time” concept violates whatever suspense of disbelief I can muster for a comic-book fare. Also, I am not sure I see late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker as something extraordinary. I feel that it is much easier to play grotesquely over-the-top insane-yet-brilliant villain than any other type of character. Ledger’s is an engaging performance, possibly deserving of the Oscar on the strength (weakness?) of competition (I haven’t seen most of the performances that were also nominated that year in the Supporting Actor category, so I can’t truly opine), but I’ve read and heard so much about the impact of his portrayal, and it just wasn’t there for me.

In my Netflix queue, I first dealt with a number of movies from recent years that I couldn’t get my hands on before. A few of them disappointed.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was just not worth the effort. Inane plot turns, resolution devices that border on ridiculous, fairly indifferent acting. Some locales were gorgeous, but that’s about the only positive.

I could not understand the warm reception some of the people I know gave Iron Man. I think it was plain boring, and special effects did not make up for it. I expect something heroic from my superhero, and all he’s done after escaping from terrorists was to defeat what looked like a more advance version of himself (which, implausibly, a person with knowingly less acute intellect managed to build in less time that had earlier taken an accomplished genius to achieve). There are a few fun moments, but overall not very engaging. Robert Downey Jr is fun to watch in practically any role, but he can’t save this vehicle.

Did anyone who watched Public Enemies also thought it was kind of a re-dux of The Untouchables? Not only because of the obvious parallels with determined lawmen pursuing a hardened household-name criminal, but also because of its sketchiness. I thought more time in the movie was spent on shooting at people (although, interestingly, there was very little graphic violence involved) than on character development. And I possibly cannot judge what may attract a woman to a man, but I fail to see how the way Dillinger courted Billie resulted in such a strong bond between them. It felt to me that she came across as way too independent to be treated like a possession, and I could not reconcile that.

The Men Who Stare at Goats is curious at times and comical enough at others. The premise is kind of wild and outlandish, but there are a couple of poignant moments and pointed commentary on the vagaries of war, performances of Clooney and McGregor are of the solid engaging kind that you can always expect from them, and the supernatural abilities at the heart of proceedings are seemingly hovering right outside of your field of vision while never truly getting a workout (stopping a goat’s heart notwithstanding), which helps to keep the suspense. But in the final stretch the plot unravels unsatisfactorily, and the lasting impression is that of “needed more spice”.

I have mixed feelings about Inglorious Basterds. Burlesque treatment of the Holocaust rubs me the wrong way, and improvisation of facts in such a sensitive period of history does not help. To a degree, I feel the movie borders on blasphemy. Yet, it is marvelously made and acted out. Christoph Waltz deserves the accolades – here is a sane and calculating villain who sounds almost believably human at times…

I liked The Curious Case of Benjamin Button quite a lot, despite it being not exactly my favorite type of fare. Something obviously Forrest Gump-ish about it, albeit on a less grand stage most of the time. Excellent turns by both Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt. In fact, I don’t think I will ever watch Milk, but I have to wonder exactly how Sean Penn beat out Pitt for the Oscar (although, come to think of it, Mickey Rourke was more in the frame to win than Pitt). My only beef with the movie is its final stretch: Even suspending disbelief at the notion of a person being born with an old-man body and progressing to age in reverse throughout his life, I cannot see how he is both born the size of a baby and dies the size of a baby. Old age does not shrink the body to the size of a newborn in normal aging process… I doubt any other outcome would work story-wise, though.

The Hurt Locker is at times a powerful movie and at times plain modern warfare flick filmed with a jerky camera movement. Outstanding acting by Jeremy Renner. I still do not believe it deserved an Oscar over Avatar. Its hefty subject matter pushed it atop, is all.

Finally, a French comedy Amélie, about an oddball of a young woman who wants to change the lives of people around her through random acts of kindness. I must be predisposed to liking these quirky European movies, especially comedies. Ironically, I rarely find an average American-made comedy – which is more likely to be heavy on sophomoric fart humor than on situational or conversational comedy – funny or worth watching.

That’s it for this round.

I chose to write this “review” over expressing my thoughts on the just-concluded World Cup, marking the occasion of my daughter’s return from Tuscany, or making a cultural observation that nearly tempted me into breaking my self-imposed moratorium on political commentary. There is almost no chance that I will return to those topics in the future. I am sure my choice of subject matter turned out insightful. Oh well.