I haven’t done a movie review post lately, so this list covers a couple of months of watching. These should all still be available to watch streaming on Netflix and other services. As always, my reviews are mainly about the writing; though of course a film with a great script can still be shot poorly, the writing shines through, while a poorly-written script will still be obvious no matter how much money is thrown into the production. (See below, World War Z.)
Starting with the best:
HOW I LIVE NOW, 2013. Saorse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay. Director: Kevin MacDonald
Originally a novel by Meg Rosoff, published 2004 (winner: British Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the American Printz Award for young-adult literature). I haven’t read the novel but from what I can tell, the movie doesn’t diverge from it much, only cutting out scenes/people to get it down to a 1h41m runtime.
This is a beautiful, haunting, and — most importantly — organically logical story of a teenage girl who naively chooses to stay in England on the eve of a war rather than go home to her American father and stepmother, who’d sent her away in the first place. It’s the story of kids who are left stranded when their mom gets called away and isn’t able to return, who are separated, conscripted, and ultimately have to fight their way back to each other. It’s about making a family, making choices, taking risks, and doing so while the adults around them either ignore what they need or actively try to hurt them.
The kids can’t possibly make all of the right choices, even though for a moment it seems they’ll be okay in their country home, away from the mess of the world. That summer paradise is ripped away by the advancing army, and serves as a dreamlike reminder of the innocent joy they’ll never have again. Truly, they never will: some of the kids are killed, and the rest are changed forever. Daisy, the MC, isn’t nice or likeable to begin with, but neither is she cruel. She’s an unhappy teenager, simple as that. She grows over the course of the film, becoming a mother and protector, but the change isn’t capricious. She fails in a lot of ways as she learns to get the important things right.
There are consequences to everyone’s actions. The characters have motivation and agency and needs, and while displayed subtly, they’re also obvious in the context of the story. The director manages to keep the pace moving without rushing too fast or dragging behind. There are no montages; there is nothing shown outside of the Daisy’s experience, yet the story is complete and bursting with detail. It’s tight 3rd person, excellently scripted, and I highly recommend it as an example of how YA storytelling should be done. I normally avoid anything with teenage main characters because it doesn’t speak to my life now, and I don’t get terribly nostalgic for my own past since what I have now is so much better. But I’ve seen this twice now, and would watch it again, because it’s not about “teenagers”. It’s about real, textured, people who just happen to be kids.
IT’S A DISASTER, 2012. Rachel Boston, David Cross, America Ferrera, Jeff Grace, Erinn Hayes, Kevin M. Brennan, Blaise Miller, Julia Stiles, and Todd Berger (who wrote and directed).
Four couples stuck in a house deal with their relationship issues while the world ends around them. Points for clever dialogue, excellent use of an indie budget and limited space to tell a complete story. (Tiny thrill when they only person they can reach on the phone is a call center operator in Manila, who finds out what’s happening while on the phone and appropriately freaks out.)
This is a theatrical presentation, staged like a play, and it’s very much for a white, middle-class, late 30s, educated, audience. It succeeds at everything it should, and falls down in the ways you’d expect: the characters are a bit flat, the plot a bit too circular, neatly wrapping everything up for a punch line. The archetypes are all represented, too: the seemingly happy couple who secretly isn’t; the seemingly loser couple who secretly have a happy, honest, marriage; the uptight doctor who lets lose, the woman unlucky in love who’s proven right.
Why watch it? The writing is good, but the dialogue is great, and delivered perfectly by the actors. It’s a study in how to do big end of the world stuff in a small space, with very tight 3rd person (multiple PoVs), and yet reveal everything you need to keep the story going.
ODD THOMAS, 2013. Anton Yelchin, Addison Timlin, Wilem Dafoe.
I recommend this movie for anyone looking for a fun, quick-tongued romp about murder, demons, ghosts, and a lot more murder. It’s flawed — particularly in the character of Odd’s girlfriend, Stormy, who’s one of those “too good to be true” girls who exist to prove the weird protagonist isn’t creepy weird but sexy weird, and also to be in mortal danger when necessary to advance the plot/character. She’s there for most of the scenes and yet manages to do little more than be adorable at all the right moments. She’s a smart and sassy version of the Typical Girlfriend, but you know, still no agency.
It’s nice to see Yelchin in this role, which is a bit less nervous than his Star Trek character, though not by much. The supporting cast are all one-note performances by actors who are largely capable of more. It’s entertaining if you don’t think about it too much, which sometimes is the movie you’re looking for. Plus, the dialogue is crisp and witty, which (like IT’S A DISASTER) saves the film.
WORLD WAR Z. Brad Pitt and a bunch of other actors who aren’t given anything important to do at all, ever. Not once.
No. Just no. Don’t waste your time. There’s nothing redeeming about this film, which manages to be so dissimilar from the amazing Max Brooks novel that Brad Pitt basically just bought the name. The plot is entirely different, and remarkably stupid, making Pitt’s character the only useful person in the entire world. Plus, he wears a stupid scarf that he didn’t have with him at the beginning of the movie but somehow acquired and then wore for absolutely no reason all the way through, even when zombies are chasing him, he’s being blown up, his plane crashes, and he nearly (but sadly, never does) dies multiple times. It’s basically a vehicle for Pitt to show off his ability to keep the same face on for two hours regardless of the scene, and to give him a family man happy ending. Given what he’s done to this movie, I’d say Pitt has Michael Bay levels of tragic insecurity, and a similarly-sized checkbook to play with.
And they don’t even let Peter Capaldi swear. What the fuck is that about?