Spring Break Movies Update (and belated top 10 notice)

I saw a lot of movies over spring break. Here are my thoughts.

The Crazies

This film has a surprisingly high mark on rottentomatoes, which I think is more a result of its grim competence than any superlative work in the film. Watching this movie I felt overwhelmed by how gloomy the approach was, and while I enjoyed it as a sturdy genre picture I never felt any scene reached a level of terror or dread necessary to sustain the downbeat tone – though the opening bit with the ex-town-drunk walking onto a baseball field with a rifle was excellent.

It’s always nice to see Timothy Olyphant getting work, I’m a big fan of his. But for me his sort of intense-eye charm works best in more overtly comic roles (a la “The Girl Next Door”) though lately he has played a lot of bland characters. I’m hoping his TV series on FX gives him more meat on the bone character-wise than he has in “The Crazies”.

So for me “The Crazies” was ultimately a bit disappointing, it never really thrilled me except for in its opening scene. It’s one of those movies that is difficult to criticize apart from the thin character work but hard to love.

Shutter Island

I have read the Dennis Lehane novel on which “Shutter Island” is based and was concerned audiences would find the ending implausible. Judging by the general reaction to the film that hasn’t been a problem.

I suppose it isn’t a huge surprise though, because Lehane’s ending isn’t really so dependent on the actual reality of the situation so much as the ideas at play. I enjoyed the novel and the film as well.

But for me “Shutter Island” is sort of like an exquisitely constructed 18th century French door. It’s pretty to look at, sure, but it’s not going to change your life. Scorsese is such a master filmmaker it’s tough to imagine him putting anything together that’s altogether bad, and that certainly isn’t the case here.

But despite the major psychological hurdles going on for the characters and the wowza ending, I found myself disengaging from “Shutter Island” as a viewer. Perhaps it’s just the immaculate polish on that French door.

Valentine’s Day

To me this was surprisingly not the worst movie ever. Admittedly I went in with low expectations.

But to be fair to “Valentine’s Day” it’s a relatively breezy and amusing comedy. If that’s what you want to call it. Obvious attempt at extracting cash from love-struck pockets would be another fair moniker.

A couple stand out thoughts…

-I’m pretty sure Jessica Biel can get a date on Valentine’s Day

-Is Jamie Foxx ever, EVER going to give another performance even in the same zip code as his work in “Ray”?

-SPOILER: hey, Bradley Cooper and Eric Dane have a gay scene. That seems progressive. Oh wait, the movie throws in a cheap gay joke immediately afterward, as if to say “Don’t worry, we still think gay people are weird.” sigh.

-How much money did they pay Julia Roberts to phone this in?

Listen, you know what you are going to get with “Valentine’s Day” but it’s done with just enough wit and pace to prevent you from hating it. It’s actually a decent film.

Crazy Heart

What’s interesting to me about “Crazy Heart” is how it has storytelling errors that wouldn’t make it past first draft workshop at any film school writing program but overcomes them with it’s folksy charm and Jeff Bridges.

These errors include…

-A rambling, often conflict-free narrative

-A midpoint (Bad Blake’s car flips) that seems to happen for no logical reason (Bad Blake gets sleepy and randomly flips the car over when he comes to)

-Characters repeat information the audience is already aware of several times in conversation with other characters, so you essentially re-hear some conversations twice

But all this stuff doesn’t really matter, “Crazy Heart” is not a movie in a hurry. It’s practically a musical, with long scenes of Bridges as “Bad Blake” singing away. There are a few moments of genuine tension and conflict, but that’s not the draw here. The draw is Bridges as Blake, belt perpetually unbuckled, emptying out his pee can when he parks his truck, playing at bowling alley’s drunk as a skunk. And doing all this with such charm, such old dog spunk, that you can’t help but love him.

Bridges carries this movie as much as one actor probably can carry a film, and that’s a big reason why he’s likely to win the Oscar.

Fish Tank

This was one of the more challenging movies I’ve seen in a while, clearly made for not-that-much money, but a film that engaged my attention far more than comparatively lavish productions like “Shutter Island”.

It’s about a 15 year old English girl living on the rough side of town who wants to become a break dancer. But that’s not actually what it’s about. This is why I like the film.

“Fish Tank” is basically your standard coming-of-age story, the difference is, it’s told using very extreme moments. This will not be playing on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie.

The film sort of lulls you into a false sense of security, making you think it will just go through its paces with an uncommon amount of grit but no real danger.

Then late in the game it goes big, taking huge chances and making dark moves. Combine those storytelling risks with an elegantly subdued ending, and this is some excellent work in the story department.

This is exhibit A for me in the case that good movies don’t require a ton of money.

Alice in Wonderland

I don’t get this at all. Why spend a couple hundred million bucks to redo “Alice and Wonderland” and not really change it much at all. I know Alice might be a bit older and some elements here and there are different, but for the most part this is your mother’s “Alice” just dressed up in a fancy 3D coat.

Burton and Co. do put in some fun touches with the animals (I loved the monkey’s holding candles in the Queen’s room, as well as her fish servant who swivels around on his tail).

In general because this doesn’t stray too far from what we all know as the Alice story it’s the small details that elevate it. Alice’s foppish fiance-to-be Hamish taking a second look inside his tissue after blowing his nose, the strangely battle-scarred metallic look of the army of cards employed by the Red Queen. Her heart shaped lipstick application. These little touches are the most the film has to offer.

Mia Wasikowski (hopefully spelled that right!) is regrettably bland in the lead role. She’s exactly how you would imagine Alice, it’s easy to see why she was cast. That holds up for a while but eventually when she has to grow a pair and become a kickass Joan of Arc-character her lack of real fire is a drawback.

Because the film has a been-there feel I think it’s comparable to Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” another pointless remake. Neither really engaged me because I felt I’d seen them before. I would also add that some of the new touches, such as the implausible and highly saccharine epilogue, don’t add much at all.

Depp is perfectly fine as the Mad Hatter, though I think Burton’s reliance on him as a filmmaker has worked to the detriment of both parties here. In his attempts to play wild-and-crazy guys Depp has become somewhat predictable. And his Hatter doesn’t surprise. An unknown actor or someone cast against type might have worked better here.

Special Note

A friend asked me to do a top 10, and I realized I actually have one on the site. If you search along the side or type in “Top 10 of 2009” you should be able to find it. Cheers.