Friday, October 20, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

rating: ****

the story: Diana enters Man's World during WWI and battles Ares in the hopes of determining its outcome.

what it's all about: I tend to be unsettled, these days, at a consensus of quality.  It's a peculiar predicament, for an amateur film fan, whose formative development was absorbing material with a consensus of quality.  The more experience, maybe, the greater the skepticism.  Or maybe it's just the times.  These days, films seem to be loved, even by critics, for reasons other than their actual worth.  Critics, for instance, love their superheroes if they're brainless.  Critics, in general, seem to love genre material if it doesn't take itself too seriously.  Of course the stuff they love always takes itself too seriously, otherwise.

Well, anyway, in case you've been living under a rock, Wonder Woman has been a massive success, both in making money and making fans, even among critics.  The movie makes some dramatic departures from its DC predecessors, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I happened to like both of those quite a lot, so it was difficult to reconcile changing direction with the fear the end result was a sellout.  My first viewing of Wonder Woman was geared in that direction.  I saw things that I wanted to see, and thought the movie wasn't really worth the hype.  And I also wondered where Wonder Woman fit in with where the character was during Batman v Superman.

But I've turned the corner.  Diana, by the end of Wonder Woman, makes a defiant stand against the cynicism of Ares.  In Batman v Superman she's been operating in the shadows, keeping to herself.  Seemingly, not really be a hero anymore.  But Wonder Woman does explain this.  The death of Steve Trevor rattles her ability to work with others, which Batman assuages.  He gives her a cause again.  In Wonder Woman she opts against trying to actively shape the world in her image, which is the way of tyrants and villains like Ares.  But she is still a hero, and perhaps more a hero than just about any hero out there. 

It's true that Wonder Woman is a lot more lighthearted than Man of Steel or Batman v Superman.  It's also a different story, as Wonder Woman herself represents a different narrative.  Unlike Batman or Superman, Diana isn't a tragic orphan with a path toward the lives that make them heroes.  She's someone who actively yearns to be a hero, in a society full of heroes, whose mother seeks to shelter her from her destiny.  She's as traditional a hero as there's ever been.  Except, she then is thrust into a different world.  That's not a traditional DC narrative (unless you're Green Lantern).  It's a lot more like Marvel's, but Marvel is also more interested in monsters or self-made men, rather than someone merely making a transition. 

So she needs a guide, and Steve Trevor has always been that guide, the stranger totally unknown in her original society, where there are only women, and of course he's a man.  So there's a different element to play with right there, a natural romance, a classic romance archetype (boy meets girl), and humor complements that kind of material nicely. 

Gal Gadot, as Diana, is equally natural.  She's the classic Hollywood outsider, a foreigner with an accent.  Normally this will kind of be used against the actor, but Gadot's been lucky to find two big franchises where she can slide in easily, the Fast and the Furious series, which has always combined cultures, and Diana, who's a superhero.  Traditionally, Wonder Woman hasn't really been depicted as ethnic, even if she comes from a Greek context.  She's looked as American as Superman, and been treated as such.  So Gadot's casting was itself intriguing, and the fact that she hasn't been asked to hide her accent.  In fact, all the Amazons around her, including ones portrayed by Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, adopt accents to match her (I've seen it before, with the Macedonians around Colin Farrell in Alexander syncing up with his Irish tendencies).  It adds authenticity to the role, really, and is one of the reasons why Wonder Woman proves so distinctive. 

As counterpoint, Chris Pine is All-American as Steve Trevor, and it's an ideal match-up.  His charm and her appeal don't compete, and they're able to draw out of each other all the nuances the movie needs to work.  If Pine can seem smug at times (Steve is "above average" for a man), it's all in selling the concept of the wider world being more complicated than superheroes tend to view it, how Diana needs to view it if she's to stand out among them.  And clearly she does.

It doesn't hurt to have an even more smug Danny Huston playing misdirection for David Thewlis, who ends up being the villain of the piece while playing most of it as a stereotypical British fop.  Director Patty Jenkins deserves a tremendous amount of credit for juggling everything in the movie.  She makes the cool action scenes and the goofy romantic scenes and the melodramatic villain scenes part of the same message, which is of course that Diana herself combines all of them.  The funny throwaway bit about how she discovers ice cream is from a 2011 Justice League comic, by the way, which is what these League movies are based on.

The end result is as unique a cinematic debut lead feature for a superhero as there's ever been.  The character debuted in another movie.  But everything's explained here quite nicely.  No wonder she's now being depended on to change the face of the franchise around her.  Diana has once again proven herself uniquely qualified for the job. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

rating: ****

the story: A Union soldiers ends up resting in a house full of Southern belles.

what it's all about: The story began as a book (1966's A Painted Devil by Thomas Cullinan) and then a Clint Eastwood film in 1971.  Sofia Coppola turned it into her sixth feature film in 2017.  It seems befitting for the director of The Virgin Suicides.  And also the star of Miss Julie, Colin Farrell.

Critics seem to have dismissed it as a mostly unnecessary duplication of Eastwood's film.  This is odd, as Eastwood's film really has no lasting cultural legacy.  You can tell when critics can't come up with a better way to dismiss a movie when they start referencing stuff they probably had to research in order to talk about, or otherwise material the general public has never heard of. 

At any rate, I think, as a movie layman, that The Beguiled works quite well, especially in relation to Coppola and Farrell's back catalog.  Coppola's first movie, The Virgin Suicides, was about a brood of sisters who, ah, beguile the neighborhood boys who can't understand what happens to them.  Farrell and Jessica Chastain matched wits in Liv Ullmann's Miss Julie, a 2014 adaptation of the August Strindberg play; it's Chastain who dominates Farrell in that one, although there ends up being a fair amount of blame to go around in how it ends.

Likewise, Farrell is both criminal and victim in The Beguiled.  His Union soldier can't help but exude charm amongst the women he becomes surrounded by, and he leads basically all of them on.  But this ends up backfiring on him when he chooses one of them and by default betrays the rest of them, which leads to...ah, well, nothing good. 

The women are led by a few heavy hitters: Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning, and Coppola veteran (she appeared in Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette) Kirsten Dunst.  Between Kidman's and Dunst's characters, Farrell has the most trouble.  He arrives at their doorstep with an injured leg, and reinjures it when Dunst sends him tumbling down a stairway.  Kidman makes the decision to amputate it, believing she has no other choice.  Farrell interprets it as a spiteful gesture. 

In Miss Julie, it's Chastain who becomes totally unhinged; in Beguiled it's Farrell (I kind of wish it had been Chastain, rather than Kidman, who played the matriarch, for that reason alone).  It occasions his best scenes in the movie, anyway.  Kidman channels her Cold Mountain performance; Dunst is again her classic shrinking violet, a role that thrust her to prominence early in the millennium (the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, where she portrayed Mary Jane Watson), and as in her previous Coppola collaborations, she again finds new ways to present it.

The story itself must be considered fascinating.  Even if you fault Farrell for his fate, you can't say it's justified.  In some ways it seems a rebuke from Coppola for the exaggerated emotions running rampant today.  And it can't be a mistake that it's a Civil War drama, in an age where the United States seems to be teetering on schism once again. 

It's a contemplative drama well worth relishing, and a sobering reflection on the battles of the sexes.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

2016

Viewed/Ranked
  1. Arrival
  2. Silence
  3. The Lobster
  4. A Monster Calls
  5. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice
  6. Hell or High Water
  7. Free State of Jones
  8. Star Trek Beyond
  9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  10. Midnight Special
  11. Snowden
  12. Suicide Squad
  13. Ben-Hur
  14. Jane Got a Gun
  15. X-Men: Apocalypse
  16. Captain America: Civil War
  17. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
  18. Risen
  19. Warcraft
  20. The Magnificent Seven
  21. Independence Day: Resurgence
  22. Ghostbusters
  23. Deadpool
  24. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Other Notable Releases
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • The Accountant
  • Billy Flynn's Long Halftime Walk
  • The Birth of a Nation
  • CafĂ© Society
  • Central Intelligence
  • Collateral Beauty
  • Criminal
  • Doctor Strange
  • Fences
  • Finding Dory
  • The Girl on the Train
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • Hidden Figures
  • The Huntsman: Winter's War
  • Inferno
  • Jason Bourne
  • Knight of Cups
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • London Has Fallen
  • Loving
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moana
  • Moonlight
  • The Nice Guys
  • Now You See Me 2
  • Passengers
  • Patriots Day
  • Rules Don't Apply
  • The Shallows
  • Sully
  • Swiss Army Man
  • The Purge: Election Year
  • War Dogs
  • Zoolander 2
  • Zootopia

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

2004 Capsule Reviews

Alexander
rating: *****
review: This is my favorite all-time movie.  I think it's Oliver Stone's best movie, the one where he stretches the most (and he's released enough versions of it where you know he still can't get it out of his system).  I think it's a fantastic cast all the way around.  I think its score is lovely.  There's nothing I don't love about it.  The fact that so many others don't is Exhibit A in the hall of modern cultural horrors.

Kill Bill Vol. 2
rating: *****
review: The confrontation between the Bride and Bill is the evolution of Tarantino as a filmmaker, in which he stops going for shock and instead focuses on timeless storytelling.

Troy
rating: *****
review: I have a great appreciation for the legacy of Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey.  I think this is a worthy modern retelling.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
rating: ****
review: While this is indeed the best of the series to this point, it got better.

The Passion of the Christ
rating: ****
review: Over the years, I've softened on this film, because becomes hard to justify watching in the face of the all the extreme violence.  Otherwise I think it's as powerful an artistic statement in just about every way that's ever been achieved in film.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
rating: ****
review: As enchanting as it is, it's still weird to see such a subdued Jim Carrey.  Will probably be destined to be his most studied film.

The Manchurian Candidate
rating: ****
review: This is the last time I really liked Meryl Streep, where she does a parody of Hillary Clinton.  I'm also glad it gives Liev Schreiber something interesting to do.  I'm glad Denzel Washington deviates from his increasingly action-oriented trajectory.  Just an overall incredibly fascinating remake, which if you're going to do one this is probably what it ought to look like.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events
rating: ****
review: If Eternal Sunshine is Jim Carrey shrinking into the background, this is his last big character(s) hurrah, and it's a joy to watch on that level alone.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
rating: ****
review: I'd love if Bill Murray did more outright surreal material like this, because when you see him like this, it's the perfect mode, like Groundhog Day scrubbed of its Hollywood sheen.

The Aviator
rating: ****
review: Scorsese was nakedly appealing to Hollywood with this one, but it's entirely worth it.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
rating: ****
review: There's something incredibly wrong with critics who can't understand that movies are inherently a constant balance between style and substance.  They're a visual medium.  By necessity sometimes style comes first.  And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

I, Robot
rating: ****
review: Will Smith brilliantly enters his golden age as an embittered lead actor free from his earlier good cheer.

Shrek 2
rating: ****
review: A successful riff on what made the first one work so well.

Club Dread
rating: ****
review: Broken Lizard's spoof of horror movies is its biggest win for me, thanks to Bill Paxton's zany Coconut Pete.

Shaun of the Dead
rating: ****
review: The textbook definition of cult classic.  "You've got red on you."  The best horror movie years ahead of the surge it helped inspire.

Sideways
rating: ****
review: It may have been Paul Giamatti's best bid at remaining a critical darling, but Thomas Haden Church stole his thunder.  Still, I don't think I'll ever take merlot seriously.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
rating: ****
review: Even though this didn't originate from Saturday Night Live, it's about as perfect a movie as you could get from it.

The Alamo
rating: ****
review: This wasn't the movie as it was supposed to happen, but it's still an incredibly vivid depiction of a classic American tale.

The Village
rating: ****
review: M. Night Shyamalan had begun to cotton to audience expectations, and I think this whole movie was meant to mess with them.  Audiences, I mean.

King Arthur
rating: ****
review: Clive Owen's star rose and fell so quickly it can be easy to forget just how singular his appeal really is, and how he sells this particular of the classic narrative so well.

Million Dollar Baby
rating: ****
review: Hilary Swank backed away from the image of her Boys Don't Cry so successfully that its polar opposite became equally hard to live down.

National Treasure
rating: ****
review: Nicolas Cage found a real winner in this movie, a persona that found a new angle on a Hollywood legend (Indiana Jones) that had seemed to swallow it whole.  The affable nature of the performance gave Cage something new to work with, but it couldn't have come at a worse time.  Because no one takes him seriously anymore.

Garden State
rating: ****
review: For a time it seemed as if Zach Braff was going to be able to make a whole movie career out of this. 

Finding Neverland
rating: ****
review: This is the closest, to date, that Johnny Depp has transitioned from Peter Pan to the man he might have become.

The Terminal
rating: ****
review: Charming riff on Tom Hanks' traditional everyman appeal.

Collateral
rating: ****
review: Tom Cruise in his last universally admired role, in the movie that temporarily elevated Jamie Foxx to superstardom.

Layer Cake
rating: ***
review: Daniel Craig finally established himself in this one, but it's hard to remember what else is going on in it, besides Sienna Miller.  Tom Hardy, I think, is in it in one of his more interesting attempts at career revival, totally against type as we know him today.

Alfie
rating: ***
review: Jude Law in a movie all about his rakish charm.  I suppose it's different when it's Michael Caine in the role, because Law seems like if he's not finding ways to please all these women, it's because of a personality flaw that may not exist in the film.

The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement
rating: ***
review: The same Disney flavor as the first, this time with added Chris Pine pre-stardom!

Dawn of the Dead
rating: ***
review: An effective way for Zach Snyder to get noticed.

EuroTrip
rating: ***
review: Another riff on American Pie, this time with Matt Damon in one of the most unexpected film appearances of all time.

DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story
rating: ***
review: I have no idea what this would've looked like with Ben Stiller's character as the focus of the story, but I would probably prefer that.  But only if this were still in it: "If you can dodge a wrench you can dodge a ball."

The Ladykillers
rating: ***
review: I love Tom Hanks in this.  Reason enough to see it.

Ladder 49
rating: ***
review: John Travolta has been on a failed comeback tour for years.  This was an engaging attempt at winning over fans of thematic drama.

Hellboy
rating: ***
review: Ironically, the Avengers model can be traced back to a Dark Horse Comics adaptation.

Meet the Fockers
rating: ***
review: Kind of distracting to take the focus off Stiller and De Niro.

Saw
rating: ***
review: As enduring as the concept became, the main reason to watch the first one is to marvel at how low Cary Elwes' stock fell after Princess Bride.

Spider-Man 2
rating: ***
review: I love Kirsten Dunst.  But the MJ sequences in this one sunk what many fans consider to be a perfect superhero movie.  It's off-putting to make the love interest a de facto antagonist, no matter how hardluck Peter Parker is supposed to be.

The Incredibles
rating: ***
review: The Pixar model is exposed as not particularly caring whether or not it appeals to its target audience.

Van Helsing
rating: ***
review: I like the concept just fine, but Hugh Jackman goes from iconic Wolverine to a character whose main function is to unite all the monsters against him.

Catwoman
rating: ***
review: Halle Berry had such shit poured on her for making this, but I only ever saw it as an attempt to make an empowering female superhero.  It's somewhat the opposite of the character as depicted in Batman Returns, but I see that as a good thing.

The Chronicles of Riddick
rating: ***
review: The only real problem here is that it attempts to recast Riddick as a hero, when he's really pretty obviously an antihero at best.

Walking Tall
rating: **
review: Disappointingly attempts to take Dwayne Johnson straight.  Turns out to work best when he's hunting the dude from the previous movie (the actor, I mean).

The Big Bounce
rating: **
review: There's nothing particularly wrong with this.  Seems like an ideal Owen Wilson vehicle.  Maybe I just need to actually watch it again.

50 First Dates
rating: **
review: Adam Sandler in a creepy romantic comedy.

Man on Fire
rating: **
review: There's nothing particularly wrong with Denzel Washington in action movies.  But again, it's a huge waste of talent.

Monday, August 14, 2017

2003 Capsule Reviews

Kill Bill Vol. 1
rating: *****
review: Other people have Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction as the reason they became fans of Quentin Tarantino, but this is my origin.

Phone Booth
rating: *****
review: Colin Farrell in a terrifying Twilight Zone experience, delivering one of his most mesmerizing performances. 

Finding Nemo
rating: *****
review: Pixar has a certain story archetype it rarely deviates from, and I think along with Toy Story this is a perfect example of it.

The Matrix Reloaded
rating: *****
review: A lot of fans were severely disappointed that the sequel to The Matrix suggested Neo didn't automatically end the struggle at the end of that first one.  I love the exquisite nuances thrown into the mix in this one.

S.W.A.T.
rating: ****
review: I love the ensemble in this one, including a pre-stardom Jeremy Renner.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
rating: ****
review: Jack Sparrow supersized Johnny Depp's career in a heartbeat, but I'm partial to the immediate sequel, Dead Man's Chest.

The Matrix Revolutions
rating: ****
review: I've always struggled with how much time is spent on the war waged by the rest of humanity, and whether this conflicts with Neo's role in the saga, which otherwise concludes beautifully here.

Daredevil
rating: ****
review: I'm baffled that this one ended up becoming a poster child for how not to do a superhero movie; Jennifer Garner is pretty much perfection, and everything works well around her, including Ben Affleck, who of course was in the midst of a very public backlash at the time.  But why can't it be appreciated now?

Shattered Glass
rating: ****
review: Everyone seems to forget that Hayden Christensen's appeal was explained perfectly in this non-Star Wars performance.

The Rundown
rating: ****
review: Still my favorite Dwayne Johnson vehicle.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
rating: ****
review: As far as I'm concerned, the only thing Peter Jackson got absolutely right in the conclusion to his trilogy was Sam telling Frodo that if he wasn't capable of carrying the ring himself, he could still carry Frodo onward.  But then, that one moment is kind of enough to justify the whole thing.

The Human Stain
rating: ****
review: This is one of those movies that ended up being wildly misinterpreted because someone wanted to make a stink about the casting, a phenomenon that's only been further escalated in recent years.  Anthony Hopkins is cast as a black man whose skin is so light he can pass for white.  How do you do that role with anyone but a white man?  Is there really a point to arguing that?  I also love that Wentworth Miller appears as the young Hopkins, apparently his one and only chance at cinematic glory to date.

American Splendor
rating: ****
review: This is the movie where critics finally discovered Paul Giamatti, and possibly Harvey Pekar.

Elf
rating: ****
review: The movie that launched Will Ferrell's popular film career, and also an early look at Zooey Deschanel.

Cold Mountain
rating: ****
review: One of those truly heartbreaking experiences.  I think if Jude Law had pushed for a more showy performance, this would've helped stem the backlash from all the roles he was in at the time making him seem overexposed.

Lost in Translation
rating: ****
review: I love Sofia Coppola, but I think the hype surrounding this particular movie did it and her a disservice: in the end it really became the start of Bill Murray's melancholy period, and a glorification of Scarlett Johansson's butt.

Seabiscuit
rating: ****
review: I may think Tobey Maguire was miscast as Spider-Man, but he suits a jockey in an inspirational movie just fine.  Sadly, being miscast as Spider-Man pretty much made more movies like this increasingly impossible.

Bruce Almighty
rating: ****
review: This was one of Jim Carrey's biggest hits, but it also made him a sideshow act in his own movie, insofar as he supported the gimmick rather than being the gimmick, which ultimately derailed his career.

Peter Pan
rating: ****
review: This overlooked Harry Potter era update ironically cast Jason Isaacs in a role(s) better than the one he had in those movies.

2 Fast 2 Furious
rating: ****
review: I originally caught this in a college auditorium full of enthusiastic viewers.  It was my first taste of the budding franchise, and I loved it.  I'm not surprised that given a few more chances it finally exploded in popularity.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
rating: ****
review: I don't care if fans consider it superfluous, this one's got the best ending of the whole franchise, the first time someone dared deviate from the basic plot of finding a way to avoid the apocalypse.

X2: X-Men United
rating: ***
review: This is another franchise where I greatly differ with popular opinion: I think the first two, which are highly regarded, are trumped by the less popular third.  X2 needlessly duplicates the invasion-of-the-mansion gimmick from the first one, and spoils the showdown between Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen fans had clamored for on a single sequence.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
rating: ***
review: The best thing about this is also the saddest thing about it: Sean Connery.  Because this was his last movie, and it's not as bad as people like to say, and it's thanks in large part to him.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico
rating: ***
review: The conclusion of Robert Rodriguez's Mariachi trilogy can't really competed with its predecessor, Desperado, but that's okay.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
rating: ***
review: There's nothing particularly wrong here, except like the book series from which it's derived, it's missing the crucial context by focusing on characters elevated mostly because we're watching them.

Intolerable Cruelty
rating: ***
review: The Coens lampoon legal shenanigans with George Clooney forecasting a few years later into a career critics would eventually respect.  You could watch this and Up in the Air as a double-billing, and it would probably make more sense.

Big Fish
rating: ***
review: If there's a problem with Billy Crudup, it's that he seems like the most normal guy to ever become a movie star.  So to see him at the heart of a Tim Burton film is to discover new levels of irony.

Ned Kelly
rating: ***
review: This is another of those movies Heath Ledger made that technically had been done before, but critics forget that audiences are not nearly as aware of that fact as they are.  With all due apologies to Mick Jagger, this is the version of the Aussie hero's life that is going to be remembered.

The Gospel of John
rating: ***
review: Worth watching to see Henry Ian Cusick play Jesus.

Head of State
rating: ***
review: I think we can all agree that Chris Rock would be an excellent president, all things considered.

Open Range
rating: ***
review: As part of his never-ending apology tour for being Kevin Costner, at one time one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Kevin Costner makes another Western and agrees to share the spotlight.

The Recruit
rating: ***
review: Colin Farrell makes a movie with Al Pacino just at the point where no one cared about Al Pacino anymore.

The Last Samurai
rating: ***
review: Tom Cruise does disillusioned here probably better than in Born on the Fourth of July, but he overshadows Ken Watanabe, which in the grand scheme of things is wrong for the movie.

The Missing
rating: ***
review: I kind of think if more people revisited this (including me) it would be more appreciated.  It's basically a John Wayne movie with Tommy Lee Jones as the Duke, but Cate Blanchett as the lead character.  Even Katharine Hepburn didn't get to do that (and Blanchett would certainly know all about her).

Timeline
rating: ***
review: A relatively minor Michael Crichton adventure (but everything seems like that after Jurassic Park), but also another of those early chances to see Gerard Butler in action pre-300.

Beyond Borders
rating: ***
review: I know Angelina Jolie is the lead in this, but I had the stronger impression of Clive Owen, which is similar to the problem with Last Samurai.

Hulk
rating: **
review: Eric Bana is one of my favorite actors, so I'm sorry his popular career all but crashed around this, but also kind of relieved, as it allowed him to move on to the best work of his career, rather than a Hulk movie that ultimately has too many tonal issues, starting with Bana himself, as I now see in hindsight.  Bruce Banner should be mild in comparison to the Hulk, but if you're going to have someone like Bana in the role, you ought to at least have something interesting for him to do.

Underworld
rating: **
review: I remember the first time I saw this thinking what a terrible actor Bill Nighy was.  Now of course he's a favorite actor, and this movie was genius in figuring that out.

Mystic River
rating: **
review: This movie made Dennis Lehane one of the most popular authors in Hollywood thanks to Sean Penn.  But I think Penn was hugely overwrought and overhyped in the role.

Out of Time
rating: **
review: Shame that it led to a string of action roles for an actor (Denzel Washington) who really should have been lighting up showcase roles.

Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life
rating: **
review: The second of Angelina Jolie's overly slick Tomb Raider movies that are in hindsight more interesting for supporting actors destined for breakout performances elsewhere; the first time it was Daniel Craig, this time Gerard Butler.

The Order
rating: **
review: A sort of dark Knight's Tale.  Thank god someone finally let Heath Ledger really stretch himself in a different Dark Knight.

Gigli
rating: **
review: Notoriously considered one of the worst wide release movies ever made, I have a soft spot for it thanks to a mesmerizing performance from Jennifer Lopez.

Basic
rating: **
review: The best scene of the whole movie was hyped as the whole reason for the movie: where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson finally reunite like it was Pulp Fiction all over again.  I mean, how do you make a whole movie and convince yourself that the story dictates leaving this most crucial element to the last possible moment?

Tears of the Sun
rating: **
review: In hindsight, probably a career mistake for Bruce Willis to choose this moment to go back to action movies.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

2002 Capsule Reviews

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones
rating: *****
review: The prequels get such horrible press from fans that it's tough to even suggest a different opinion, but I've always loved them.  Attack of the Clones is solid top to bottom in the kind of wild imagination only hinted at in the original trilogy, in more dynamic ways than Phantom Menace.  And it features the most surprising and delightful lightsaber duel of the saga to date: Yoda vs. Dooku.

Star Trek Nemesis
rating: *****
review: Another franchise entry with a horrible reputation, Nemesis has also long been a personal favorite, for any number of reasons, including Patrick Stewart getting to go truly dark, the kind of emotional range Picard's film appearances had been working on all along, taken to its logical zenith.  But most important of all is the discovery of Tom Hardy, whose career tanked for years after Nemesis bombed at the box office. It's no fault of Hardy's.  He's as compelling and memorable in this movie as could be hoped for, the most magnetic villain in the whole Star Trek canon (some day those Wrath of Khan faithful will either realize this or be replaced by more receptive and enlightened fans).

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
rating: ****
review: The only real problem with the first two Harry Potter films is that they by definition feature child actors, who aren't near ready to truly sell the scope of the series.  So the presence of Kenneth Branagh in an engaging supporting role lifts this one as far as it can.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
rating: ****
review: I've never for a moment believed the second two films in Peter Jackson's trilogy lived up to the potential of Fellowship of the Ring.  The same thing that makes Two Towers noteworthy at all, Gollum, is also its biggest problem, as Jackson's entire creative energy in this entry seems to have been focused on this one element.  That energy previously filled up the entirety of Fellowship.

Chicago
rating: ****
review: This was a movie I fell in love with instantly, but not particularly one I've felt terrifically to revisit.  When a story's all song, either you love musicals and thus want to continue enjoying musicals and the best of them, or you love the story.  If you just love the songs, you don't really need to watch the movie itself again.

Big Trouble
rating: ****
review: This adaptation of Dave Barry's first work of fiction has the same problem as all of Dave's fiction, which isn't really a problem, per say, but it makes the story in his books and/or movies difficult to fully appreciate: he's so madcap and bursting with zany characters, the overall effect can easily be diluted.  But this is the sort of ensemble that will be endlessly rewarding just to see all the moving pieces. 

Gangs of New York
rating: ****
review: Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't yet ready to carry something like this entirely on his shoulders, which is why Daniel Day-Lewis so thoroughly dominates him as Bill the Butcher, a role the actor cribs excessively in the later There Will Be Blood.

Catch Me If You Can
rating: ****
review: Leo has the same problem here.  He's still a youth actor in this movie, and it shows.  Still, inherently fun to watch, which is basically the point.  Includes a standout jazzy score from John Williams.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
rating: ****
review: Sam Rockwell in a role that should've propelled him to stardom, but he's since regressed into character roles, like Paul Giamatti.

Signs
rating: ****
review: M. Night Shyamalan's then-final popular hit was also Mel Gibson's swan song as a fan favorite.  Lots of people try to point out how clever they are by saying the aliens would never knowingly go to a planet full of their hidden weakness.  But really, don't all wars involve weaknesses like the ability of weapons to kill someone?

Insomnia
rating: ****
review: It seems easy to dismiss this early entry in the Christopher Nolan canon as he was adapting someone else's film, but Al Pacino makes it eminently watchable in its own right in one of his last standout performances.  Plus, Robin Williams playing totally against type, in one of his last standout performances.

25th Hour
rating: ****
review: Speaking of swan songs, this seems to have been one of Spike Lee's last notable efforts, which just seems baffling in hindsight.  Also part of the backlash against Edward Norton (I don't care how difficult the guy is to work with; he does brilliant work), which is equally baffling.

Minority Report
rating: ****
review: Spielberg and Cruise make magic out of another Philip K. Dick story.  Also notable as one of several early efforts to translate Colin Farrell to mass audiences, which has proven to be tricky throughout his career.  Probably doesn't help when he's the sap in a story like this.

Road to Perdition
rating: ****
review: Tom Hanks is marvelous in this exquisitely shot mob movie.

Hart's War
rating: ****
review: Farrell had another shot in this one, where the drawback this time is that Bruce Willis has absolutely no respect for him.  Also a shame that Terrence Howard never got any respect (until Hustle & Flow, in which he seems to be more acceptable the more he plays to what a black person is "supposed" to be doing, thus revealing the hypocrisy of critics; his most recent success,TV's Empire, is much the same).

Men in Black II
rating: ****
review: I love this series, and I'm glad the second entry made Tommy Lee Jones essential to the plot, when conventional wisdom might have suggested Will Smith dominate, since he'd become and was in the midst of becoming still more of a bigger movie star.

Whale Rider
rating: ****
review: This New Zealand drama was a breakthrough piece of international cinema for US audiences who typically neglect it.  It was hard to overlook, and thank goodness.

Narc
rating: ****
review: Jason Patric has had so much trouble finding the level of quality his acting demands, but this is a rare opportunity to see both click, in Joe Carnahan's most respected film.

Adaptation
rating: ****
review: Fascinating last chance to see Nicolas Cage in a sensational, serious acting role(s).

Red Dragon
rating: ****
review: For my money, it's difficult to imagine a more perfect Hannibal Lecter experience, starring Anthony Hopkins, Edward Norton, and Ralph Fiennes.

Ice Age
rating: ***
review: Once you realize there are eighteen thousand sequels behind it, your enthusiasm for this first entry kind of wanes. 

The Quiet American
rating: ***
review: Rare acknowledgment that Vietnam became a mess before Americans started fighting there.

Solaris
rating: ***
review: George Clooney in one of his least likely projects.  Difficult to get through, which is the only reason I'm rating it this low.

Punch-Drunk Love
rating: ***
review: Adam Sandler in a dramatic role.  Seems fascinating.  And it is.  But in hindsight you have to wonder if he's really only capable of it because the character spends most of his time with uncontrollable rage (or at least, that's my lasting impression of the movie, anyway).

Die Another Day
rating: ***
review: This isn't the only Pierce Brosnan Bond flick I've seen, but it seems to epitomize them: paralyzingly slick.  Not necessarily a bad thing.  But I prefer the Daniel Craig interpretation.

Sweet Home Alabama
rating: ***
review: The first time I took Reese Witherspoon seriously.

The Four Feathers
rating: ***
review: There's a real problem with the perception of Hollywood when a movie that hadn't been remade since the earliest days of film is deemed redundant.  More accurately, this was Heath Ledger backlash, pure and simple.  The problem is really that Ledger sinks so deeply into his role that it's difficult to remember why you're rooting for him.  But it's more of a testament to his skill rather than his apathy.  The more time passes, hopefully the more his performances will be analyzed accordingly. 

The Sum of All Fears
rating: ***
review: Speaking of backlash (this stuff was positively all over the place at the time, and we're still trying to clean up the mess today), Ben Affleck takes over Jack Ryan in a worthy entry in the cycle.

S1MONE
rating: ***
review: A concept that is frighteningly becoming a reality today, digital performances that take enough of something that's real but ending up with something totally different (watch Rogue One, or don't).

I Spy
rating: ***
review: I suspect Bill Cosby nostalgia has dried up, but this update of one of his signature projects is better than its lack of reputation suggests.

K-19: The Widowmaker
rating: ***
review: If you can't fill your sub with actual Russians, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson ought to be considered adequate replacements.

Spider-Man
rating: ***
review: I know this was a huge, huge hit that helped kickstart Marvel as a viable contender at the box office, but it's just so...dopey.

The Scorpion King
rating: **
review: Horrible initial spotlight for Dwayne Johnson, but it seems so obvious that of course it happened. Later redone in spirit by Hercules.

John Q
rating: **
review: Does nothing particularly unexpected.  I much prefer The Negotiator.

The Good Girl
rating: **
review: Jennifer Aniston in a decent bid to be taken seriously, but it seems paper thin.

Reign of Fire
rating: **
review: Seems like the talent in this movie is swallowed by all the dragon flames.

The Count of Monte Cristo
rating: **
review: Serviceable but doesn't particularly say anything new.

Dog Soldiers
rating: **
review: Established Neil Marshall and helped him move on to more noteworthy things.

Slackers
rating: **
review: An American Pie wannabe that seems more and more creepy.

Equilibrium
rating: **
review: A Matrix wannabe.

Analyze That
rating: **
review: Kind of proves it doesn't always pay to try and capitalize on a surprise success.

One Hour Photo
rating: **
review: Robin Williams does creepy one too many times.

The Mothman Prophecies
rating: **
review: Creepy horror trying to be prestigious.

The Ring
rating: **
review: Creepy horror just trying to be creepy.

Infernal Affairs
rating: **
review: I know this isn't the typical opinion, but once you've seen The Departed, it's hard to consider taking the source material as seriously.

8 Mile
rating: *
review: Eminem attempting to mythologize himself. 

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

rating: ****

the story: British soldiers try to evacuate France.

what it's all about: I've been a huge fan of Christopher Nolan for as long as he's been making movies.  I can say that because I had the pleasure of enjoying Following early on, and that's his first movie, before Memento, which for a time was my favorite movie, or at least very near the top, period.  So I've watched the progress of his career with great interest.  Dunkirk, plain and simple, was a bid to be taken seriously by critics.  It's his Saving Private Ryan, a war movie about risking terrible losses for a noble cause.  Surprisingly, there are few war movies like that.  That's actually all of Nolan's movies, risking terrible loss for a noble cause.  Dunkirk may make that most plain for general audiences who have become more accustomed to his blockbuster material than his nuance as a filmmaking visionary, caught up in his gimmicks and getting lost along the way.  But Nolan never gets lost.

The gimmick of Dunkirk is one of his most straightforward yet, and it's hugely rewarding for the rare unambiguous ending to one of his films, where the British eventually get to leave the hell of a beach under constant siege by the enemy.  He follows three tracks of narratives, neatly laid out with cards explaining what they are, how long they take.  Keeping track of them then becomes the business of the viewer.  Tom Hardy's is shortest.  As one of the few pilots trying to clear the airways of enemy fire, his work is accomplished in an hour.  He's there to provide the muscle of star power.  Everyone watching knows who he is, so his eyes get to do most of the work, while Michael Caine cameos early as the voice helping explain the situation.  Mark Rylance, who has become a late-blooming standout in recent years, spends a day as a civilian bringing his boat, and a couple of callow youths, to the rescue.  Kenneth Branagh leads the evacuating troops over the course of a week. 

By the time Branagh celebrates "home," and one of the soldiers remarks that all they did was survive, and Hardy watches his ship burn, the full impact of the events comes into focus.  This is not a movie that beats you over the head with its significance.  This was an historic event that occurred before the Americans even entered WWII.  Churchill is quoted, calling on the British to keep fighting wherever the need arise, a famous speech, at which point you get a sense of where all this falls, if you'd never heard of Dunkirk before.  The experience itself, which like some of the best historic dramas seeks to immerse you directly into it, becomes the whole point, and because of those three story threads you get a good sense of what it was all about, what it took to reach the ending, without sensationalizing any of it.  Rylance takes on a stowaway at one point, Cillian Murphy, who at one point was to emerge as one of Hollywood's bright new stars, but things change, and Murphy seems fine to weather a different storm, even as he suffers brilliantly in Dunkirk, in the tempered Dunkirk fashion.

I don't think it's Nolan's best movie, but it'll be the favorite of a lot of other viewers, who won't question how it fits in with the rest of his movies, who maybe will never see most of his other movies, who may not even be aware that Christopher Nolan has been a significant name in film for nearly twenty years.  That's fine.  Nolan's been playing by his own rules from the very start, and he's managed to create an unbroken string of success doing it, which is incredibly rare.  He's always looking for that next challenge, that next depiction of the classic Nolan narrative, and he's managed to do it at a high level since 2005, when he did the first of three Batman movies.  He's got an epic vision every time, but it always looks different.  By virtue of its apparent awards conventions, Dunkirk may be among his most unique to date.  By removing the central figure that has previously been so integral to his movies, Nolan offers a new challenge, one that will require time, perhaps, to fully absorb. 

Maybe it is his best movie.  Finally, an enigma wrapped up in straightforward packaging.  So that's what it looks like...