It’s interesting the way movies can grow on you. The same can be true for actors, actresses, directors or just about anything, but I especially like it when a movie surprises me in ways I didn’t get the first time around. A good, recent case-in-point would be Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. I saw it in theaters in 2010. I liked it a lot, the movie had a wonderful, crazed energy, a great cast and a steady sense of humor that never became obnoxious, but it wasn’t the best thing I had seen all year. I enjoyed it, moved on with my life and didn’t plan on seeing it again.
As it turns out it’s my current girlfriend’s favorite movie. Like a lot of people (including myself), she tends to lean on favorites when depression sets in for whatever reason. She was fairly depressed recently, so, over the course of a single twenty-four-hour period, we watched Scott Pilgrim three times from start to finish.
It cheered her up, and that’s always a good thing, but what I got out of it personally was a much greater appreciation for just how clever, well-made and humorous Scott Pilgrim really is. Every viewing revealed details I hadn’t noticed before, lines that amused me more and more, opinions that were set even deeper in stone (Scott Pilgrim is kind of a whiny dick) and characters that offered more than they had shown me the first time around. Kieran Culkin was my favorite actor the first time I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. By the third screening that was even more so. A movie like Scott Pilgrim always has at least one actor who completely knocks the main star off the stage, every single time they’re on the screen. In this case it’s Kieran Culkin. Even on that third viewing, I found myself eagerly anticipating one of his great, deadpan deliveries.
Watching a movie this many times in such a short span of time generally isn’t feasible for most people, but it reminded of something very important. It’s great to watch favorites on a dull stretch of hours, but it can be even better to take something a little lower on the totem pole out for a second or even third spin. If you’re lucky your perspective can completely change.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was a wonderful reminder. It’s even better because you can’t really predict which movies will do all this for you. Call it pure chance, and I love that kind of thing. It’s one of the reasons why I still watch movies.
The Muppets (2011): A+
It would be really easy to just call The Muppets huge 2011 comeback as just a case of nostalgia. The success of the upcoming sequel will probably tell us a little more about it. With The Muppets though, it’s much more than longing for a simpler time. It happens to be incredibly funny, extremely aware and in love with its source material (a perfect script by Nicholas Stoller and star Jason Segel), packed with clever, memorable music (one of the songs won an Oscar), practically (as is the tradition with the films) overflowing with cameos and sweet without drowning your blood in sugar. The story, in which Jason Segel, his Muppet brother, Walter, and Amy Adams (who I actually did like in this) travel to Los Angeles, visit old Muppet studio and leap into action, upon learning it’s to be torn down, is as loose a concept as it gets. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s largely just a structure for everything else to happen. With a movie like this that’s hardly a bad thing. We’re not really here to deconstruct the story (well, I’m not). It’s just nice when it actually works out that the story is genuinely touching and succeeds as a way of servicing the characters and material. It helps The Muppets a lot that Segel and Stoller are clearly Muppet fans, Segel in particular. That enthusiasm, admiration and respect hooks you about a minute in. The past is given great love and attention, but The Muppets also stands on its own. It’s far from a rehash, and it has no interest in being appealing based solely on the past. Between Segel’s eager, easily likable performance (I would give anything to be as happy with anything in life as Jason Segel clearly is at being in this movie), some of the best music in the long history of the Muppets, and an overall sense of fun that never runs out of gas. Even if The Muppets was disappointing on every possible level it would still be worth watching. Just to see Chris Cooper, in what may well be my favorite villainous performance of his ever, bursting into a rap out of nowhere. Surprises of the best cinematic kind show up so often here that you might miss a couple. That’s a trademark of the very best of anything to do with the Muppets. It’s one of the biggest reasons why The Muppets easily stands with the greatest examples of its franchise.
Water for Elephants (2011): C-
To date, I have only ever seen Robert Pattinson in movies to do with either Twilight or Harry Potter. The love a lot of people have for this guy is perhaps equal only to how many people would like to see him set on fire and thrown from a moving car. I generally don’t devote my life to hating someone I’ve never met that much, but I’ll freely admit that until I saw Water for Elephants, adapted from Sara Gruen’s very, very good novel, I thought Pattinson was an absolutely wretched actor in every possible way. Water for Elephants proved me wrong, but only somewhat. At the very least, Pattinson’s portrayal of a college drop-out joining a Depression-era circus, and falling in love with the sadistic owner’s beautiful wife (Reese Witherspoon), suggests he may in fact be a better actor than the Twilight saga had previously indicated to me. It’s true that I didn’t see a whole lot of chemistry between him and Witherspoon. It’s also true that Christopher Waltz as the sadistic, crazed circus owner is a much more enjoyable performance. As is Hal Holbrook as the older version of Pattinson’s character. However it would be unfair to say that Pattinson doesn’t contribute something or displays an actual talent for things like emoting. He wasn’t great, but he was good enough that I’m willing to try him in another non-Twilight role. It’s actually possible in my mind that he could do something truly impressive with the right part.
The Future: B-
Miranda July’s follow-up to her 2005 indie crowd-pleaser, Me and You and Everyone We Know is one of the most dismal films I’ve seen in a good while, and it occasionally smacks of painful pretentiousness, but it’s also full of interesting observations, good performances (particularly by the underrated Hamish Linklater) and moments of humor so random that you almost forget how many layers of failure and despair July piles on. For those who have seen Me and You and Everyone We Know, the story of a couple deciding to make dramatic changes to their lives after deciding to adopt an injured cat, will probably make enough sense to at least get you started. Whether you actually like the movie depends on your mindset at the time. One can only take so much philosophy and eccentricity moving in unison over the course of ninety minutes. I mostly enjoyed The Future, but that might just be due to the fact that it caught me in the right mood.
I’ve always liked Joseph Gordon-Levitt, so it’s been great to see him picking up more and more momentum with each role. Hesher may suffer in some eyes for not really going anywhere, but I had way too much fun with Levitt as the title character to worry about it. Several great performances highlight Hesher, especially Devin Brochu as the troubled young boy who stumbles into the anarchic Hesher’s line of vision, but there’s no doubt Levitt is the star here. He’s a wonder to watch here, and he gets the most out of the film’s chaotic, unfocused story, centered largely on the decidedly cynical friendship that develops between himself and Brochu. Fans of his work will have a lot of fun with Hesher. Those who are indifferent to him may not enjoy it as much.
13 Assassins: A+
The beauty of legendary director-writer-producer Takashi Miike is that his filmography is so ridiculously diverse that I really couldn’t tell the uninitiated where to begin. Some of his films are better than others, but the spectrum is so wide that it just depends on taste. 13 Assassins, a remake of a 1963 film, is the kind of thing that I could recommend to anyone. It certainly qualifies as a samurai epic in the tradition of Kurosawa and others, detailing thirteen samurai (Takayuki Yamada may be my favorite, if only in terms of how much his character changes) banding together to defeat a brutal lord and his seemingly endless army of soldiers and bodyguards, but there’s also Miike’s signature visual flair to make it even better. There are Takashi Miike films I actually do like even more than this one, but as far as suggesting a gateway drug to newcomers, 13 Assassins will do the job nicely.
Tokyo Story: A+
Yasujirō Ozu is not for every taste. His films are very slow, very minimalist in terms of camera work, often have dramatic events occur off-screen and tend to lack the Western touches that make certain Japanese filmmakers more accessible to American audiences. That isn’t meant to scare anyone away. Tokyo Story is one of Ozu’s masterpieces, in its depiction of the consequences that meet a group of siblings who coldly, selfishly neglect their visiting parents. It’s just going to be a little different in its execution of that story than what you might be used to. If you do give it a shot you’re in for a complex, fascinating depiction of Japanese life in post-World War II Japan, with quiet, profoundly affecting performances. Most notably from Ozu regular Chishu Ryu (upon whom the film Millennium Actress is supposedly inspired by). The films of Yasujirō Ozu are likely going to be different from anything you’ve ever seen. If you find yourself quietly floored by Tokyo Story you’ll probably be in good shape for the rest of his works.
Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party: B+
On Groundhog Day alone, Stephen Tobolowsky has been one of my favorite character actors for as long as I can remember. Before Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party I knew him as a multi-faceted character actor capable of elevating even the worst films and TV shows. What I didn’t know is that the man has about a thousand and one stories, and also has a knack for telling them with great intelligence, finesse and passion. Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party is simply a documentary that stands back and lets him tell a few of those stories. That’s really all there is to it. My own experiences with meeting actors has told me that the guys who typically only get a few minutes of screen time per role often have the best anecdotes. Tobolowsky is a prime example of that opinion. If you didn’t know his name before seeing this you’ll know it after, and you’ll start to notice the impressive volume of work he’s accumulated over the years.