Tag Archives: Movie Review

Movie Review: The Great Gatsby

When you go see The Great Gatsby, make sure you stick around after the ending. Once the credits finish rolling, spoiler alert, the camera cuts to Thanos, the purple guy from the very end of The Avengers. He’s still smiling and laughing and getting his evil plans all in order for The Avengers 2.

That was a funny joke, right? Yeah, it’s just that, I’m not really sure how to write up a review for a movie like The Great Gatsby. It’s easy when I really like something, when I really don’t like something, or even when I think something is just really boring. That’s something to say, and I can say it, and I can try to make little jokes here and there.

But did I like The Great Gatsby? I don’t know. I didn’t hate it. It wasn’t totally boring. It’s kind of hard to make heads or tails of what’s going on, mostly because everybody that went through any sort of high school in the US, even if they didn’t do any homework or study for a single test, just by sitting in English class we’ve all sort of absorbed The Great Gatsby, the lighthouses, those big eyes on the billboard.


It was the symbolism of the novel, those little things that I forgot about, that after I had seen them on the screen, I was like, oh yeah, I remember my teacher from junior year going on and on about this scene or that scene. And the movie had about the same subtleties of a high school English teacher saying, “Remember that billboard. Remember those eyes. It’s going to be on the test,” every time they’d zoom in on an image, trying to distill what worked for the novel into wide-angle camera shots.

The movie was very cartoony. It reminded me of 300, the same kind of all-CGI background. This isn’t a critique, just an observation. Because, like I said, the story is so familiar, any Gatsby movie is going to wind up being an interpretation of sorts, and I guess I’d have to say that it was kind of cool, seeing the whole over-the-top 1920s depicted in over-the-top big studio movie special effects. If only I had gone for the 3D.

The acting was fine, with one exception being Tobey Maguire. For some reason, whenever I see this guy in any film, I can’t shake the jazz flute emo scene from Spider-Man 3 out of my head. Also, one time I saw this video clip totally out of context, Maguire was being harassed by some fan who wanted a picture, but he totally overreacted, slapped this guy’s camera out of his hands onto the ground. Maybe that guy deserved it, but I don’t know, you’re a celebrity, you’ve got to learn how to keep those impulses a little more in check.

Which really has nothing to do with The Great Gatsby, but like I said, I really don’t know what else to say. It was big. Everything was loud. There were some weird hip-hop music scenes in the beginning of the movie which didn’t exactly add to the whole 1920s feel. I thought the score got better as the movie progressed, they’d take modern songs and have them peppered throughout the movies as if they had been performed by bands of that era.

And again, it wasn’t a bad movie. The story made more sense to me than it did in high school. Maybe I should have been paying better attention in class. Maybe the director of this adaptation really dumbed down the plot. Or maybe it really was a faithful adaptation of a great American novel.

It’s not a love story, not really. It’s about wealth, power, life, how the drive of ambition, the American dream on steroids, it’s about wanting something, getting it, not feeling fulfilled, and wanting it even more knowing that the closer you get, the further it eludes your grasp. That’s the whole lighthouse thing, right?

I kept wondering as I watched the movie, are high schools still going to be able to teach The Great Gatsby? Are the teachers going to tell the kids not to watch the movie, “Trust us, kids, don’t think you can just watch the movie and be prepared for the test.” Because I think you totally could have just watched the movie and aced any Gatsby test. If I had a time machine, and I sent a copy of this movie back into the past, to when I was in the eleventh grade, would it have worked? I can’t be positive, but I want to say yes. Also, I’d send back a copy of this review with a note to my English teacher. It would say:

Dear Mr. Anselmo. Look at this whole eight hundred word document that I’ll eventually write about The Great Gatsby. Come on, you’d be lucky to get eight hundred words about anything from any one of your students. Just the fact that I’ll eventually think about all of the stuff you’re teaching right now means that sooner or later you’re going to get through to me. And so please consider upping my grade. I’m looking at my high school report card right now, and I’m really hoping that the letter grade is going to change in front of my eyes. Please. See you in the future, Rob G.

Movie Review: At Any Price

I really didn’t feel like seeing Pain & Gain this weekend, but the theater by my house wasn’t showing any other new movies. So I rode my bike downtown to one of those places where they show independent movies. I think they call them film houses or something. I’m glad I went out of my way – even though the concession stand only sold espresso and biscotti when I really wanted an extra large Cherry Coke – because Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price opened this weekend, a pretty powerful story about family, about business, about the American dream.


Dennis Quaid stars as Henry Whipple, the current patriarch of the Whipple family farm. It’s the same family farm, but this isn’t the same farming business that Henry’s father or grandfather ever had to deal with. “Expand or Die” we are shown on an overhead projector at a local farmer’s meeting. Big Agro is only getting bigger, and Big Agro’s advice to Whipple and all of the other local Iowa farmers is, “Get big, or get out.”

It’s against this backdrop that the family drama plays out. Whipple has two sons. Grant, the likely scion to the throne, leaves for college but winds up retreating to South America after graduating rather than return home to inherit the family business. Standing next to an actual red carpet that Henry has laid out for his firstborn, realizing that he’s not coming back, his attention turns to his second son Dean, played by Zac Efron.

But Dean is a racecar driver and wants nothing to do with farming. He’s reckless and impulsive, tinged with a more-than-mild criminal streak that manifests strongly in the beginning of the movie and overwhelms toward the end. Henry tries to get closer to Dean. In an effort to lure him to the family business? To be a father and actually support his fledgling racing career?

We never really find out the specifics of Henry’s intentions – he doesn’t even really know what he wants in life himself – but his motives are painted by very broad brushstrokes of a desire to have an unconditional support for his son. How that desire translates to action, how it sometimes fails to live up to the ideal, how it ultimately costs him … everything?

Because we never really find out what everything is. Henry has the farm, but he doesn’t. It’s a family business. It’s his but it’s not, as we kind of glimpse with Henry’s elderly dad’s occasional intervention. He has an idyllic wife and family, and yet it’s plain to everybody that for Henry this isn’t enough. We’re given a taste of Henry’s past as a high school football champion. Similar trophies decorate Grant’s empty bedroom. When Dean wins one at a local race, Henry is shocked that his son is an actual driver. But Dean dismisses his father’s praise, telling him that he wins one every week.

At Any Price is about what motivates us, as members of a family, as parts of the economy, as human beings. Do we chase our dreams or do we succumb to the duties and responsibilities life has preordained for us to shoulder? In an era of “expand or die” how can we be happy with what we have in front of us?

Nobody really gets anything, and nobody gets off clean. There’s aggression, there are consequences, and the only people who aren’t screwing over anybody else are the ones at the bottom, the ones getting screwed so badly they don’t have any power or leverage to inflict harm upon somebody else.

At one point, as Henry laments to his father, wondering why things couldn’t be simple like they were when he was a kid, the old man interrupts, reminding him that farming was backbreaking work, that chemicals and GPS driven trucks and genetically modified seeds are better. And it all made me think of us, as a society, about progress. We have so much, everything’s getting bigger, constantly bigger, and better, there’s no doubt that quality of life has gone up. But at what price are we paying for such comfort? Who’s in charge now? What are they exacting for such luxury? Are we raising kids to chase dreams or to push the status quo, to deny their true natures in favor of the ever-climbing bottom line? Is our exponential rise heading us in the right direction? Is it possible for this giant, hurtling machine to change course even slightly? Or are we merely cogs, playing out our individual dramas, pointlessly, unable to right any wrongs? To expand or to die. Or like the prodigal son, to get big or to get out.

Movie Review: Oblivion

Didn’t Tom Cruise just make a movie called Jack Reacher? It came out a few months ago, right? I mean, this doesn’t have anything to do with Oblivion, not really, except that Tom Cruise’s character’s name here is Jack Harper, which is almost comically similar. In his old age, is Tom Cruise suffering from a classic case of Tony Danza Syndrome, having trouble embodying characters with different names?


Whatever. It’s the future. The moon is partially blown up. There’s a big giant triangle in the sky. Jack Harper tells us that the aliens came, that we won, but the planet got destroyed in the process. So everybody moved to one of Saturn’s moons. Harper is part of a two-person operation, the only ones left behind, the cleanup crew.

I hesitate to say too much more about the plot, because it’s actually a pretty cool story, one that almost necessitates the viewer not knowing anything about it beforehand. If I had to describe it like something else, I’d say it’s about one cup Vanilla Sky, sifted with several heaping teaspoons of The Matrix, with a pinch of Star Wars fight scenes mixed in. After all of these dry ingredients are blended thoroughly, the whole mass is then combined with fifty percent … well, I’m not going to tell you which movie, because again, that would reveal way, way too much. But once you see what they’re doing in Oblivion, it’s obvious. (If you want to be spoiled, just read the New York Times review.) In fact, if Oblivion weren’t actually a decent film, I’d kind of want to call it a rip-off, not entirely, but yeah, fifty percent.

But Oblivion is a pretty good film, which kind of took me by surprise. I guess it’s Tom Cruise’s fault really. The man isn’t even a man anymore, he’s something post-human. He doesn’t age, he’s done like a million huge blockbusters, and he’s sitting in the cockpit of Scientology Inc. When I see Tom Cruise in a movie, I don’t see Jack Harper, or whatever role he’s trying to play, I just see Tom Cruise, jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch, scolding Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants.

And so before the plot really gets going, before we start to figure out exactly what’s going on, Oblivion doesn’t feel like a real movie at all. You know when you’re watching a TV show, and the characters are watching some over the top sci-fi movie on their TV? That’s what this feels like. It feels like you’re watching Ted, but instead of just showing five seconds or so of that Flash Gordon movie, you wind up having to watch the entire thing.

But, and again, I felt the same way watching Vanilla Sky, once you get past Tom Cruise, once you start to look at what’s going on, why the characters are doing what they’re doing, why Jack Harper wears an old Yankees cap every time he descends to the planet, why Morgan Freeman gets prime billing even though his Morpheus-lite character only plays a somewhat minor role, what you’re left with is a nice little film.

It’s everything that I love about sci-fi as a genre. You’re treated to visions of how tomorrow may or may not look. You’re presented with themes and concepts that at once incorporate while at the same time transcend the futuristic technology that paints the backdrop of the story. You’re constantly questioning everything, motives, relationships, the very essence of reality.

Which isn’t to say it’s a perfect movie. There’s a fair share of cheesy one-liners. Like a lot of non-franchised sci-fi, the costumes and settings have a hard time trying not to evoke Star Wars and Star Trek, and as a result, sometimes the future winds up looking a little too boring, a whole quart of plain nonfat yogurt, and not even the trendy Greek kind, just regular Dannon.

My advice: don’t read anything about the movie, you know, aside from this review which, if you’ve made it to this last paragraph, you’ve already read all of it. But that’s fine, because I didn’t tell you to abstain from reviews until right now. Self-serving? A little, yeah. But seriously, just go watch the movie. Don’t question anything until the end. It’s actually kind of cool.

Movie Review: 42

42 is a hard movie to review. I feel bad saying anything negative because the subject matter, the real life struggle of the first black Major League Baseball player, it’s so important. Seeing in film where we’ve come from as a nation, where we’re at right now, how we got here, how much further we have to go, it’s everything you think it would be: inspiring, uplifting, motivational. But at the same time it’s big Hollywood making a huge big Hollywood biopic (I don’t even know how you pronounce biopic. Is it bio-pic? Bi-opic?) And Hollywood gives us everything you’d think it would give us.


You get a big star, not in the guy who played Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman,) but in Harrison Ford, playing the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, a guy named Branch Rickey. It took me a good fifteen minutes to even recognize that it was Harrison Ford, and when I finally did, all I could think was, Jesus, Star Wars VII is going be terrible. In preparation for this role, I imagine Ford went to the public library and checked out a book titled, How to Act as a No-Nonsense 1940s Cigar-Chomping Baseball Team Owner for Dummies. You could do this yourself. Say something in your normal voice right now. Now make it two octaves lower. Now add a little rasp. Bingo.

You get the sweeping score. The music was like the themes from Superman, Jurassic Park, and ET all rolled into one epic soundtrack, then made just slightly more generic, and finally added way too liberally throughout the course of the film. Yeah, I get it, a huge orchestra overlay felt right as Robinson walked onto Ebbets Field for the first time, but that grand music lost a little of its luster used on top of Robinson taking his first integrated shower in the locker room.

You get a real life story that’s kind of flattened out somewhat. Everything’s just a little too much and not enough all at the same time. The dialogue felt forced; I can’t imagine anyone talking the way that these characters speak. And I’m not referring to the vitriol, the large doses of racist hate, always accentuated with heavy usage of those hard n-words. It’s the conversations that the main characters have amongst themselves. Every sentence sounded like it was written as a potential one-liner for a commercial. Cheesy stuff like, “The world’s not so simple anymore. Maybe it never was,” “The world is waiting for us,” or, “It doesn’t matter what I believe, only what I do.”

And then there’s the tricky subject of race, of our country’s racial history, of its continuing impact on society. Even in this seemingly innocent tale of clearly good vs. blatantly evil, the way that this story is told is still somebody’s point of view of American history. The movie opens up with Mr. Rickey shocking a bunch of midlevel managers, telling them that he’s going to bring a black baseball player to the big leagues.

I felt similar pangs of discomfort when I saw Lincoln a few months ago. It just feels like Hollywood, in trying to reach out to audiences both black and white, in trying to portray certain real struggles in our history, it can’t help but come off as patronizing. In a way, this movie isn’t just about what Jackie Robinson did for baseball, for America, but it’s about what a bunch of white guys allowed Jackie Robinson to do for baseball, for America.

There’s a scene after Jackie and Rachel Robinson have their baby where the title character gives this monologue standing in front of the newborn. He talks about how his dad left him when he was six months old, how this time it’s going to be different, how this baby is going to know who his dad is. I couldn’t help but imagine Hollywood as this big predominantly white institution almost giving a public service announcement to the black community about parenting. Which … is it OK? I have no idea. I don’t claim any authority on race relations. President Obama has made similar remarks; so why do his sound more genuine?

Ultimately this movie is fine for what it is, which is something pretty much readymade to be shown in high schools across the country whenever teachers feel like phoning it in for the day. It’s a movie aimed at general audiences on the widest level imaginable. It’s an important subject, almost impossible to believe that this stuff happened not even a hundred years ago. Despite all of its big-budget flaws, it made me think, about America, about race, about how far we’ve come since segregation, about how, as a white person, how many black people do I really know?

Are we really an integrated society? I kept thinking about Jim Crow, about Civil Rights, about how during World War II, black and white men served together, died together. All of that must have forged connections, real human connections that served as some sort of a foundation for the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. But what do we have now? Why does it feel like so much is still separate? Maybe this generation is lacking in a huge event bigger than race, something like a World War or a national protest movement to really break down racial barriers.

Or maybe we’ll never really get there, maybe it’s always going to be this continuing conversation, people making movies, always reintroducing our history to the present day. In this regard, any movie that makes these questions relevant, important, I think it’s a success, not to mention a tribute to an incredible man and his inspiring story.

Movie Review: Evil Dead

Right away you know that everything is definitely not going to be OK. There’s a girl running through the woods. What’s she running from? Two guys with a shotgun. They catch her. They knock her unconscious. They bring her back to the cabin. Yeah, that cabin. In the basement. Yeah, that basement. The one with all of the dead cats hung from the rafters. With all of these deformed looking relatives standing around, some crazy witch lady reading out of a serious looking spell book in some unrecognizable tongue. There’s cursing. There’s a twist. Lots and lots of fire.

And that’s all even before the title, Evil Dead, is slammed on the screen, right in your face, big nasty red letters on an all black background, the last A in Dead, it’s got that cabin built right into the font. We’re not wasting any time here folks, we’ve only been in the theater for about five minutes now, and the pace isn’t about to slow down any time soon.

Now we’ve got the cast pulling up to the cabin. That cabin. It’s like the cabin from Cabin in the Woods, but not pretending to be a horror movie. This is the real deal. Every square inch of this dump looks like it’s one footstep shy of a rot-induced implosion. Why would anybody want to spend any time here at all, let alone five young, good-looking guys and girls?

Unlike the 1980s B-movie franchise from which this new release was derived, this plot is at least slightly more believable. Whereas thirty years ago Bruce Campbell and the gang thought digs like this would make a nice spot for a weekend party getaway, our contemporary crew is here on more serious business: helping their junkie friend swear off hard drugs and make it through the ensuing withdrawal in total isolation from the outside world. Don’t worry, one of the women is a registered nurse.

Again, this was a novel plot twist on a very played out genre. When that spell book from earlier is found, despite barbed wire wrapping, with total disregard to the written-in-blood warning to, whatever you do, do not read from this book, the nerd of the group cannot let his curiosity lie. He doesn’t know it right away, but he summons an old demon, it infects the addict, and everybody mistakes her possession for classic dope-sickness.

Even when she beats the dog to death with a hammer. Even when she scalds herself with boiling water. Even after she starts stabbing people with a box cutter, proclaiming, “You will all die here tonight,” in a clearly demon-possessed voice. And yes, even after the nerdy guy figures out what he’s done and tries to burn the spell book, only to realize that it simply will not burn. “I don’t know,” the non-nerdy guy protests, “Maybe she’s just really, really sick.”

I’m partial to cheesy horror movies. I spent the summer in between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college driving to various Blockbusters on Long Island in hopes of finding all three parts of the Evil Dead trilogy. Back in the eighties, Sam Raimi had little to no money to instill fear upon an audience. He made up for it by making his movies as over-the-top as you could imagine. Think buckets of blood everywhere.

The new movie is obviously a big budget production, but they stay true to form, squeezing every possible ounce of gore and violence out of every dollar in the budget. There’s not a second of down time. It’s scene after scene of squirming in your seat, not knowing from which way what horror is going to come at you this time. There’s a chainsaw. There’s a nail gun with a never ending supply of nails. There’s a jury-rigged defibrillator made out of a car battery and some leftover syringes. In homage to Sam Raimi’s buckets of blood, the sky literally cracks open and pours torrents of red.

My pulse is still racing. As an adult, when I see new horror movies I’m either left overly disgusted by torture-porn or terribly underwhelmed by bad writing and unconvincing stories. Evil Dead didn’t give me a second to feel anything at all. I sat down, the words Evil Dead pounded on the screen, my body locked up all tense for an hour and a half or so, and the words Evil Dead were stamped once again. Go see this movie. Wait for it to come out on Netflix months from now. Find an old VHS player and somehow record it onto a blank tape. When you have kids, wait until they turn seventeen and set it up so that they find it lying around on their own. Baton passed.