Friday, February 2, 2018

2006 Capsule Reviews

The Departed
rating: *****
review: A lot of people consider this inferior to Martin Scorsese's late '70s/early '80s prime (and/or Goodfellas), but for my money, the cast he puts together and the discipline Leonardo DiCaprio shows as the lead, in what I consider his best performance, more than justifies the Best Picture from the Oscars.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
rating: *****
review: In the whole series to date, even more than Curse of the Black Pearl, I think this one best exemplifies what these films have attempted to do, which is to produce a pure adventure.  In a lot of ways, Disney has attempted to duplicate this with its Avengers movies, and never quite succeeded.

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby
rating: *****
review: Will Ferrell's best solo film works as well as it does thanks not only to John C. Reilly but Sacha Baron Cohen.  Oh, and Amy Adams!  It's all the additional layers that aren't usually there in his movies that make it so memorable.

Hollywoodland
rating: *****
review: Here's Ben Affleck in one of his comeback roles, increasingly ironic in hindsight, playing Adventures of Superman actor George Reeves struggling with his career, years before Affleck himself jeopardizes that comeback by agreeing to become Batman.  Also a perfect noir role for technical lead Adrien Brody.

Superman Returns
rating: *****
review: This one doesn't, ah, fly with fans who want a straightforward, fun Superman adventure in the post-Donner/Reeve era, but it's ridiculously poetic, and probably the only time that's ever gonna happen.

World Trade Center
rating: *****
review: Oliver Stone in his most unexpected movie ever, in which he unabashedly embraces patriotic rah-rah, and just lets a couple of firefighters survive a hellacious experience.  An emblem of that fleeting period where the culture hadn't totally disintegrated from the post-9/11 effect.

The Da Vinci Code
rating: *****
review: Most people only mocked Tom Hanks' hairdo as the film version of Dan Brown's hero from the wildly popular book, but...yeah.  The movie is pretty great.  It's a continuation of Ron Howard's filmmaking from A Beautiful Mind, and features a killer turn from Ian McKellen, which in hindsight was basically the last time he got to have one in the post-Lord of the Rings glow.

Children of Men
rating: *****
review: To my mind, this was a truly great year in film, and you can tell by how adventurous filmmakers got to be.  Earlier I described Superman Returns as poetic.  There's little other way to describe this one, too.

The Pink Panther
rating: ****
review: My dad is a devoted fan of the Peter Sellers films.  I think this Steve Martin update is a lovely ode and version of them.

We Are Marshall
rating: ****
review: Sports movies play by a familiar playbook.  This one stands out for me thanks to performances from Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, and Anthony Mackie.

The Break-Up
rating: ****
review: I think the reception of this one comes down to expectations that it should have been a comedy, when it really just wanted to meditate on the painful realities some relationships take.  I think it's damn near a classic, and applaud Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn as deserving far better for having appeared in it.

Lady in the Water
rating: ****
review: Here's another one that's been traditionally buried, as part of M. Night Shyamalan's perceived creative decline, his greatest overreach to that point.  I think it's lovely, and it's Paul Giamatti's last great cinematic showcase.

The Proposition
rating: ****
review: This one's been routinely celebrated as a tragedy of an Australian western, and it deserves it.

The Illusionist
rating: ****
review: Out of this and The Prestige, I've always found it more magical.

16 Blocks
rating: ****
review: Is this another pattern from 2006?  That it was a last chance to shine?  This might have been Bruce Willis's last great performance, at least to date.

Miami Vice
rating: ****
review: This one's been winning greater respect in recent years.  I think the reason it was received poorly originally was that it was seen as a Colin Farrell movie, which for a lot of people means something different than it does for me.  Farrell's performance in it is one of his most understated, and it perfectly works with the tone of the movie around it. 

Stranger Than Fiction
rating: ****
review: It's not hard to see this as Will Ferrell expecting to find his Truman Show, and maybe for other viewers it is, but already having long ago decided Truman Show is one of my all-time favorites, it's hard to compete.

The Prestige
rating: ****
review: It's not that it's hard to appreciate, it's that having Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman compete with each other obscures Christopher Nolan's instincts, so that the ambiguity that usually works so well almost becomes a stumbling block.  It's hard to root for one without feeling you ought to root against the other.  It's just odd.

Brick
rating: ****
review: Rian Johnson's breakthrough was also Joseph Gordon-Levitt's a updated noir that's enjoyable for its novelty alone.

Ask the Dust
rating: ****
review: Colin Farrell again, in his most buoyant performance. 

Stick It
rating: ****
review: The range of movies I've seen from 2006 means I probably found material that I would otherwise not have seen or been able to appreciate.  I think this one is wonderful as a message about empowerment.

Candy
rating: ****
review: Heath Ledger in a harrowing study about addiction.

Marie Antoinette
rating: ****
review: Sofia Coppola does a wonderful job of making a period drama look modern without being false about it, with an increasingly appealing Kirsten Dunst in perhaps her ideal showcase.

Casino Royale
rating: ****
review: The story here is Daniel Craig's sensational debut as James Bond.

Letters from Iwo Jima
rating: ****
review: Clint Eastwood's unexpected companion to Flags of Our Fathers instantly eclipsed it.

X-Men: The Last Stand
rating: ****
review: My favorite single X-Men film, which like a lot of the opinions you'll find here goes against the grain.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
rating: ****
review: A lot of people have a lot more experience with Steve Coogan.  If this remains a fairly isolated one for me, it feels like a pretty ideal one.  And, I've read the book.  This feels like a better way to preserve its story.

Mission: Impossible III
rating: ****
review: After the artistic flourishes of its predecessor, this was really the birth of the rest of the franchise.  Seems about right, given JJ Abrams had perfected spycraft with Alias on TV.

Accepted
rating: ****
review: I never really got into '80s youth comedies, but I imagine that this is probably as close as any update could get.

United 93
rating: ****
review: It can't be considered entertaining.  But it surely must be considered cathartic, in ways World Trade Center couldn't be, as a cinematic vision of 9/11.

A Good Year
rating: ****
review: Russell Crowe in a fairly low-stakes drama, testing the waters for a more human persona.

Idiocracy
rating: ****
review: As Mike Judge's bid to follow up Office Space, which became a cult favorite, it's slowly reaching that status itself.  We'll see how close it gets.

The Fountain
rating: ****
review: Hugely artistic, hugely ambitious.  I personally think Aronofsky achieves this vision better in Noah, having perhaps realized his overreach.

Babel
rating: ****
review: A fascinating tapestry of a world filled with great complication.

The Pursuit of Happyness
rating: Will Smith in one of his most pure spotlights.
review:

Apocalypto
rating: ****
review: Mel Gibson dips back into the past, with another vivid experience.

Over the Hedge
rating: ****
review: Like sports movies, animated flicks can all seem alike.  There's just stuff that speaks to me in this one, including Bruce Willis in one of his many voiceover roles.

The Good German
rating: ****
review: Many observers claim this is a Casablanca wannabe.  It's really not.  Casablanca isn't noir.  Good German is more like Bogart's other signature flick, The Maltese Falcon, as if its stakes were Casablanca's.

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
rating: ***
review: This third entry in the series, which at the time seemed like a last gasp, is best viewed as Han's spotlight and debut, because that's what it became.

Pan's Labyrinth
rating: ***
review: I have no problem with the expansive artistry Guillermo del Toro brought to this, but it just seems as if it's wasted on a dour narrative.  Limits its appeal.

Nacho Libre
rating: ***
review: Jack Black doing his best to emulate the Will Ferrell playbook.

V for Vendetta
rating: ***
review: If there was much more appeal to this than the pleasure of Hugo Weaving's voice, it's be much easier to appreciate.

Snakes on a Plane
rating: ***
review: Instantly a cult sensation thanks to the wise call to amplify the Samuel L. Jackson-ness of its appeal.

Beerfest
rating: ***
review: Loses the goofy appeal of the previous two Broken Lizard films by trying too hard to be liked.

The Devil Wears Prada
rating: ***
review: This is right about the time Meryl Streep, and critics, started loving Meryl Streep too much, for material that really just called for her to be unlikable.

The Good Shepherd
rating: ***
review: As a metaphorical study of Robert De Niro's relationship with his father, this makes a ton of sense.  As a standalone product, it tries too hard.

Tideland
rating: ***
review: Easily the weirdest Terry Gilliam has ever been.  Surely that tells you enough?

Down in the Valley
rating: ***
review: Edward Norton in a low-key attempt to reprise his most familiar act.

Factory Girl
rating: ***
review: Sienna Miller in a fine spotlight and look at the world of Andy Warhol.

Don't Come Knocking
rating: ***
review: Sam Shepard in a looks behind the scenes of a fading western star's career.

Saw III
rating: ***
review: As a culmination point in this series, and probably the point where it was clear the series had a story to its monster, it's rewarding, for a rare horror series I've followed to any extent.

Happy Feet
rating: ***
review: It would probably have been more fun in Robin Williams had voiced the lead character, too.

Little Miss Sunshine
rating: ***
review: As subversive a feel-good movie is ever likely to be.

Blood Diamond
rating: ***
review: DiCaprio's Oscar chances in 2006 were dulled by the belief his performance here seriously competed with what he did in The Departed.

Ultraviolet
rating: **
review: This attempt at another franchise for Milla Jovovich thought it was a comic book movie.  In another two years, this would have been impossible.

Unaccompanied Minors
rating: **
review: This was all but a Tyler James Williams showcase, back when he still had a name for himself as star of Everybody Hates Chris.  In hindsight, if it had been his showcase, it could've helped out both the movie and the sitcom.

A Scanner Darkly
rating: **
review: Fascinating artistic experiment, at least in theory.  In hindsight seems like another of the soft attempts at a Robert Downey, Jr. reboot pre-Iron Man.

The Shaggy Dog
rating: **
review: Tim Allen (and hey! Robert Downey, Jr.!) in an excellent excuse for another voiceover performance.

The Guardian
rating: **
review: Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Costner in a fairly standard drama.

Beowulf and Grendel
rating: **
review: Gerard Butler's calling card for 300.

Poseidon
rating: **
review: Standard catastrophe.

Zoom
rating: **
review: Tim Allen struggling to find a vehicle.

Cars
rating: **
review: There's two audiences for this Pixar flick.  One's the kid set, who'll embrace all the shiny cars.  The other's the adult set who doesn't care how saccharine this particular variation on the Pixar formula is.

Just My Luck
rating: **
review: Early Chris Pine, in the kind of role that made it so hard to discover him, a romantic second lead with no real nuance.

Haven
rating: **
review: Orlando Bloom in the kind of movie that sort of justified his fall from relevance.

American Dreamz
rating: **
review: An attempt to translate American Idol into a standard Hollywood product.

When A Stranger Calls
rating: **
review: A nice little light horror.

John Tucker Must Die
rating: **
review: A nice little young adult comedy.

One Night with the King
rating: *
review: Sort of proof of why religious movies generally aren't taken seriously dramatically.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

2005 Capsule Reviews

Munich
rating: *****
review: This is the quintessential post-9/11 movie. Based on events that occurred after the 1972 Summer Olympics in which Israeli athletes were murdered by agents of the PLO, it is a clear cautionary tale that reflected the response to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  It's also a thriller, and can be enjoyed on that level, too.  It's also Eric Bana's best movie.  It's also Daniel Craig's most significant pre-007 appearance.  And, I would argue, Stephen Spielberg's best.  Either as a summer escape expert or a harrowing chronicler of history, Spielberg had mastered movies that operated on basically one level at a time, and yet, Munich manages to capture two.  Unlike a lot of movies that commented on the wars, however, it doesn't take an overt stance on them.  It's a commentary, most of all, about what happens when a particular response is taken, and what it takes to make that response, and what happens to one participant, Bana's character.  All this is greatly enhanced by being accompanied by perhaps John Williams' last great score.

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith
rating: *****
review: To say that the Star Wars prequels enjoy a poor reputation is to put it mildly.  To say that a lot of fans would love to pretend they never existed is probably the best that can be said about them.  But I've liked them all along.  And I think Revenge of the Sith is the best of them, and maybe even the best Star Wars film, period.  It reaches truly operatic depths, not once but twice.  Once is literally during an opera.  What the prequels managed to do that the original trilogy couldn't was allow the concept of the saga to be examined, and the opera scene between Palpatine and Anakin is the only time in the saga in which a simple conversation, not just a scene but an actual conversation, is allowed to play out.  It works on a number of levels.  It explains backstory.  It gives Anakin the impetus to fall utterly under Palpatine's spell.  And it allows Palpatine to express things he doesn't even need to state explicitly, that reveal everything there is to know about him, too.  And it is successfully presented as an ominous, momentous, truly dramatic moment.  The second such moment is the end of the duel with Anakin and Obi-Wan, who expresses his grief over what has just happened, and illustrates the tragedy of the whole prequel trilogy, what had to happen in order to create Darth Vader, what takes it from mere incident (Anakin turns to the dark side, battles Obi-Wan) and humanizes it.  Obi-Wan is the means by which we realize that the inevitable, as fans saw it, didn't seem that way to people who actually knew Anakin.  The rest of the movie is exactly as the rest of the prequels are, as the rest of the saga has always been, grand sci-fi adventure, filled with wild imagination, heroes and villains, the fate of the universe ever in the balance, or maybe just the relationships caught in the struggle.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
rating: *****
review: Out of the eight movies that resulted from the seven book series, Goblet of Fire, it struck me immediately, most has the ability to convey the true spirit of Harry Potter's story in film.  Which is to say, if you were to watch only one of the movies, this would be it.  From Harry and his friends having fun with magic, or enduring heartache, or experiencing larger pieces of the magical worlds than were typically explored, to merely feeling like a fantasy movie where dragons can be dragons (because there's a sequence for that, too), it's all there.  And the absolute killer aspect of the movie is the absolutely killer last act, in which Ralph Fiennes debuts as Voldemort in the best sequence of the movie series. 

Batman Begins
rating: *****
review: This is not the best Batman movie (that's the sequel), but it's the best Batman origin story to likely ever be committed to film, and that's pure Christopher Nolan, who brings his usual piercing insight to the least likely vehicle possible, allowing Batman to be the boogeyman Tim Burton envisioned while keeping Bruce Wayne the most important element, and reconciling the difference.  How do you adequately explain how Batman is created?  By making Batman himself a tragedy, and a response to a mentor who promises him the world, but only if he agrees to destroy it first.  Liam Neeson had by this point settled in as essential supporting player material, before his career relaunched as an action star.  His arc is actually the one that Nolan draws on to continue the brand of filmmaking he'd been working on at the time, the classic game of misdirection, so there's three levels to the movie.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
rating: *****
review: At the time, I thought that if this one proved to be a massive success, it would've been because fans of the Men in Black movies had found in it a kindred spirit.  And yet even fans of the books/radio programs/Douglas Adams seemed to reject it, thinking that it was a massive sellout basically because it had been made in Hollywood.  I can't work with that kind of logic.  The cast is phenomenal, hugely rewarding in its own right.  And I think it does reflect the source material brilliantly.  And is hugely entertaining as a movie.

The New World
rating: *****
review: Although I have a wider experience of the films of Terrence Malick now, I still consider this one to be his best, and his best shot at a truly enduring legacy.  The classic story of Pocahontas is another of the narratives modern historians are eager to debunk, but at its heart it remains a good one, if nothing else, and this elegiac version is as good a version of it as there is ever likely to be. 

Sin City
rating: ****
review: I'll never understand the impulse critics seem to have of rejecting movies that embrace the art of filmmaking.  To them it's a static experience that is hardly different from the theater.  To directors like Robert Rodriguez, it's bursting with artful potential.  This adaptation of Frank Miller comics transcribes their style while filling the screen with performances from a rich ensemble.  Both the visual flare and the actors make this, to my mind, incredibly difficult to dismiss, unless you're really committed to doing so.  To what point I can't easily imagine. 

Rent
rating: ****
review: This adaptation of the stage musical handily recreates its appeal, this time with added Rosario Dawson.

Kingdom of Heaven
rating: ****
review: Along with Gladiator and Exodus: Gods and Kings, this is part of what to this point is Ridley Scott's historian trilogy of epics, all of which follow the same line of exploring what makes a good leader.  This one's the most ambiguous, which is not surprising, as like Munich it basks in its 9/11 parallels as it attempts to make sense of the Middle East.

Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
rating: ****
review: Ridiculously charming Claymation, with ridiculously adorable rabbits.  Er, were-rabbits.

Fun with Dick and Jane
rating: ****
review: In some ways the climax of Jim Carrey's popular career.  Having transitioned away from playing cartoonish characters, here he's merely in a cartoonish situation, lampooning the financial shenanigans that would a few years later lead to a full-blown Great Recession.

Walk the Line
rating: ****
review: As an admitted fan of Johnny Cash, I was probably predisposed to like this one.

The Constant Gardener
rating: ****
review: An early favorite of mine that year, while I might have found stuff I liked better, I still appreciate this harrowing look at the soul-crushing complexity of how the world works.

The Producers
rating: ****
review: In which Mel Brooks perhaps realizes, as far as wide audiences go, this one probably had longer legs in post-/11 New York City than it did elsewhere.  But it's still hilarious, and this is probably the best way the story, which had already been a film forty years earlier, is going to endure.  Will Ferrell has another of his pre-breakout standout supporting roles, reason enough to give it another chance.

Elizabethtown
rating: ****
review: Like Kingdom of Heaven, this was a chance for Orlando Bloom to see how far his career could go in the wake of appearing in three blockbuster Lord of the Rings and one Pirates of the Caribbean, to that point.  This one's a completely different kind of movie, however, a Cameron Crowe kind of movie, because it is in fact directed by Cameron Crowe, with Kirsten Dunst lending a tremendously appealing turn opposite Bloom.  I'm not an aficionado of Crowe movies, particularly, but I this one works well as an atypically low-key affair.

The Legend of Zorro
rating: ****
review: Missing the magic of its predecessor, The Mask of Zorro, but maintains the heroic flair, that's missing from more contemporary superhero storytelling these days.

Brokeback Mountain
rating: ****
review: Recognized instantly as an iconic, transcendent look at gay romance, and for me personally, a standout movie for Heath Ledger.

Fever Pitch
rating: ***
review: Fairly standard romantic comedy that for me is elevated by being a fan of the Boston Red Sox, whose historic 2004 World Series victory was unexpectedly reflected in it.

The Brothers Grimm
rating: ***
review: As conventional as Terry Gilliam is ever likely to get, but still enjoyable.

Syriana
rating: ***
review: A look at the post-9/11 world at a contemporary level, lacking a true killer center.

Be Cool
rating: ***
review: I've yet to see Get Shorty, but this follow-up is easily comprehensible without it, even if the best bits end up falling to supporting players like Vince Vaughn and Dwayne Johnson.

Lords of Dogtown
rating: ***
review: This kind of follow-up to the youth-in-revolt cinema of the '50s is most notable for Heath Ledger's supporting turn, where he channels Val Kilmer.

Crash
rating: ***
review: The prestige ensemble, ironically downplayed by critics following its initial success with them in favor of Brokeback Mountain, would probably play better today, or at least as well.  Still seems to be missing a true sense of outrage to sell its impact.  Again, an irony.  Outrage is all we see in the world today, when it plays best in movies, when placed in proper context.

Hitch
rating: ***
review: Amazing that Will Smith has so rarely turned his charm to the romantic.  More amazing that Kevin James, thanks to an unremarkable turn here, launched a fairly successful film career.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
rating: ***
review: Critics, and audiences, were initially wowed by this latest adaptation of the classic book, but subsequent installments sort of revealed what had been overlooked in the first place, that the magic wasn't quite there.  In hindsight, a truly new vision of the story might have found something everyone could've enjoyed for longer.

Son of the Mask
rating: ***
review: Any casting limitations are mitigated by this belated follow-up unexpectedly drawing inspiration from the second most notable aspect of the original, the ability of CGI to bring cartoons to life.  And that's really what this one is.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride
rating: ***
review: Artful, but not as inspired as The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Casanova
rating: ***
review: One of Heath Ledger's surprisingly infrequent romantic adventures.

The Dukes of Hazzard
rating: ***
review: This is exactly what an updated version of the TV series ought to look like. 

Serenity
rating: ***
review: This cinematic follow-up to the short-lived TV series Firefly exposes its shortcomings, and also celebrates its strengths.

Into the Blue
rating: ***
review: If ogling Paul Walker and Jessica Alba isn't up your alley, than check out Josh Brolin in a supporting role, a little before he finally emerged as a notable cinematic presence.

The Island
rating: ***
review: Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson star in this lush-looking minor entry in the sci-fi canon.

Fantastic Four
rating: ***
review: By all accounts this is an iteration of the Marvel comic that looks at the very least too small in comparison to the X-Men, Spider-Man, and Avengers franchises around it.  But it still has its charms, notably among them Chris Evans, before Captain America, as an incredibly charming Johnny Storm, the Human Torch.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith
rating: ***
review: The whole point of this is to marvel at the combustible chemistry between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  Ah, in real life it turned out "combustible" was the operative word.

Cinderella Man
rating: ***
review: Russell Crowe in a relative misfire as he attempted to stretch out his early millennium success in a way that proved too calculated.

Chicken Little
rating: **
review: The sky is falling for predictable animated flicks.

A History of Violence
rating: **
review: A grossly overrated movie, except the supporting turn by William Hurt.

Saw II
rating: **
review: Donnie Wahlberg doesn't quite get to relive his Boomtown glory.

Bewitched
rating: **
review: Nothing particularly wrong with it, except Will Ferrell is sort of in Elf mode without an Elf level story around it.

Elektra
rating: **
review: Nothing particularly wrong with this one, either, except that if Jennifer Garner is going to be in action mode, it has to be as interesting as Alias, or have more compelling characters around her. 

Red Eye
rating: **
review: The chilling nature of the drama in the air is sort of sabotaged by Jayma Mays inadvertently stealing the movie at the airport.

Derailed
rating: **
review: Fairly nondescript.  Hard to remember.

Hostage
rating: **
review: Fairly standard Bruce Willis.

Doom
rating: *
review: Dwayne Johnson had yet to figure out how to pick his projects.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Timeline (2003)

rating: ****

the story: Modern archaeologists time travel to the 14th century.

what it's all about: This is the kind of movie that ages well.  I remember watching Timeline on home video soon after its release, and not thinking too much of it.  Like a lot of people I mostly thought of it as a Paul Walker movie, which in 2003 didn't mean as much as it does in 2018.  Not so much because Walker went on to have a brilliant career, but because the Fast & Furious franchise exploded, and that alone increased his significance over time.  2003 also saw his turn as the lead in the second Fast & Furious, 2 Fast 2 Furious, but that was hardly an indication of where Walker, much less the series, was going to go. 

Oh, and by the way, watching Timeline again, Walker isn't really the star of the movie anyway.  That's the biggest irony, right?

Instead, hindsight really helps make obvious that Timeline is a Gerard Butler movie.  What a fascinating career Butler has had.  He made his name in 2006's 300, and his subsequent career has been a tug-of-war with whether or not audiences actually can think of him for anything other than 300.  Which means in a lot of ways, his career hasn't actually changed all that much.  But what always fascinates me about movies is the constant discovery of it.  Movies are a curious medium.  You can follow them any number of ways, and certainly actors are one of them.  To the general public, it's always about the present, or if the past is revisited at all it's mostly to do with movies that are already well-known or random ones that have developed cult followings.  It's rarely about revisiting movies for the sake of revisiting them.  And yet, Butler is as ripe for that as anyone.  Was 300 truly a fluke, or did he have anything that might have helped indicate such a development?

You can guess my answer already.  Timeline would certainly been a strong indication.  The whole point of his character can be summed up by attempting to answer whether or not Butler's type of hypermasculinity can best be acclimated in the past.  Every character in the story struggles with fitting in.  It would've been cheap storytelling to have Butler just slip into it, and maybe because he was still a relatively unknown element, his arc develops the way it does, but precisely because it works out that way, it works extremely well both for the story and to illustrate both where Butler was at this point in his career and where he was headed. 

Bottom line, if I had been paying attention, I would've recognized back then that I had just seen a star be born.

There's a ton of great talent worth relishing around him, beyond Walker.  Billy Connolly, obviously, and also Michael Sheen, another actor years ahead of be "discovered" as a star.  David Thewlis, meanwhile, puts on an American accent, and I assume in 2003 I had no idea who he was, much less that he would become a favorite.  My big draw, back then, was actually Neal McDonough, who never quite found his sweet spot, following the early demise of Boomtown.  Matt Craven is always worth noting.  Anna Friel, meanwhile, plays French and quite convincingly, even though she's clearly British in real life, so when I saw her again (and in 2003 I had no idea I was supposed to care about her, either), I initially wasn't even sure she was someone I knew, just that she looked familiar. 

This is also the penultimate film directed by Richard Donner, which in 2018 sounds ridiculous, especially when his last movie was 2006's 16 Blocks.  Not that 16 Blocks was a bad way to go.  It was an excellent way to go.  It's just sad to see a talent retire, especially when he was still firing on all cylinders.

The story was based on a book by Michael Crichton, whose professional height was in the '90s, when he was riding on the success of the Jurassic Park film and ER, plus his continuing string of blockbuster thrillers.  I've read him off and on for years, and every time I remember all over again how much I appreciate what he brought to the culture.  In a lot of ways, Jurassic Park distorted his appeal to a fairly cartoonish degree.  And in a lot of ways, Timeline is Jurassic Park minus the cartoonish distortion, an attempt to revisit the past in a way that spectacularly backfires.  Crichton more often tried to resolve real world misconceptions than went for sensationalism, which Jurassic Park the movie was at least wildly accepted to be.  I mean, it single-handedly revived popular obsession with dinosaurs.  But it was also about hubris run amok, as Crichton often explored, totally misjudging when a gamble has been miscalculated.  That's Timeline, the role Thewlis plays.  It's a shame Crichton died just at the start of an age when hubris has exploded, when a little perspective is most desperately needed.

But to watch something like Timeline, and to see how effortlessly, finally, it straddles escapist storytelling and the classic cautionary tale, is to see Crichton's genius all over again, and how Donner brought together a rich host of actors to tell it.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Selma (2014)

rating: ***

the story: Martin Luther King Jr. prepares his historic march for voting rights in Alabama.

what it's all about: I think in hindsight, Selma is where the culture truly started to fracture.  Selma is far more about the budding Black Lives Matter movement, the politicization of it, than MLK's march.  It's somewhat clear that that's the whole reason the movie was made at all, and why critics lined up to state how great and timely it was.  To state this is not to say BLM is meritless, but to say that as a matter of civil discourse, such a cultural response to a film, and the cultural divide it helped spark, is far more damaging than anything MLK confronted, and is in fact why BLM exists at all, why MLK's actions seem to have amounted to nothing but an annual holiday.  It doesn't even seem to matter that the march spurred exactly the results MLK wanted.  For committed activists, results don't matter.  For such people, it becomes about social revolt. 

Ironically, there's a moment in Selma where Malcolm X, shortly before his assassination, has finally stepped from out of the shadow of such reasoning, and MLK struggles to believe it. 

No, Selma is not worth the hype.  It's worth a look as a glimpse, of the times it reflects, even as a reflection of the times in which it was made.  But it is not good filmmaking.  MLK himself is not even the central figure.  The central figure of this movie is simmering rage, which again, reflects not the story itself but what director Ava DuVernay is really talking about, in intentionally incendiary ways.  It's a tone poem, of sorts, to further stoke the flames of social division.  And not much more.

The worst thing about it is the second-most lauded thing about it, the performance of David Oyelowo as MLK.  If this had been a movie about Frederick Douglass, there wouldn't be much of a problem with his performance.  Douglass has been lost to history as a person.  As a champion of black rights, he remains as well-known as he ever was, but all we have are photographs.  This was long before the advent of film, of recorded voices.  But the same is not true of MLK.  Everyone who knows MLK knows what he sounded like.  We certainly know what he looked like.  DuVernay chose an actor who looks nothing like MLK, and who chose to sound nothing like MLK.  He may turn in a competent performance, but Oyelowo seems to have chosen to dismiss the source material as much as DuVernay herself.  These are two fundamental strikes against the quality of the production. 

Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth, they both turn in Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth performances, as Lyndon Johnson and George Wallace, respectively.  What I mean is, they look and sound like Tom Wilkinson and Tim Roth.  It's a pattern.  DuVernay has no interest at all in anything but her metaphor.  Wilkinson is Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin, too, in John Adams, but again, it doesn't matter as much in John Adams, because we definitely retain no cultural memory of Benjamin Franklin as a person.  LBJ, meanwhile, was certainly a Texan, and by most accounts a lot like Trump, with a lot more sympathetic coverage, an abrasive personality.  But yeah, with a Texas accent.  Which Wilkinson does not give LBJ. 

And yet, DuVernay, and Oyelowo, and Selma itself were almost uniformly called great.  How again?

There's very little art to it at all.  The movie begins with MLK already declared a cultural hero.  There's token reference to his personal failings, but mostly to represent his struggle with LBJ.  The only real complaints about the film are in fact about LBJ, how DuVernay depicts him almost exclusively as a villain.  Although really, his actions are little different than Lincoln's leading up to the Emancipation Proclamation, even as depicted.  It may be worth noting that Douglass eventually decided Lincoln was less the hero than history has since decided.  The first demagogue lost for perspective in this struggle, perhaps.

Oprah Winfrey appears as a token representative of the struggle MLK is working against, voting rights.  She's depicted saintly, of course, until the movie thinks it can get away with her lashing out.  About the one performance that's just about what it needs to be comes from Cuba Gooding Jr., once (and once) a critical darling.  He appears as a lawyer.  If Selma is so tepid about actually featuring MLK, it could easily have given Gooding an expanded role.

The biggest irony of all this is that none of this, in any other context, would merit such a harsh review.  If this had been made, say, in the early '90s, like Spike Lee's far superior Malcolm X, it might be different.  Although there was considerable civil unrest then, too, it hadn't yet been politicized, turned into a permanent wedge in society.  There was still a chance, even with the once militant figure in Lee's movie, to look for common ground, a positive rallying point.  Films had come a long way from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the tepid Sidney Poitier breakthrough icebreaker in which a black man merely asks to be accepted by a single family.  Now we get a satire like Get Out, in the current climate.  Coincidence? 

Of course, if it had been made then, it would've been for TV, and been little noted.

There are better movies to try and heal old wounds with.  But now we seem to get only ones that want to rub salt into them.  Selma, alas, the first movie to significantly feature MLK, is one of them.  Never really thought I'd see the day.  Much less with Martin Luther King Jr., of all people. 

As a reflection of the times in which it was made, Selma is a useful mirror.  As filmmaking, it's junk.

Friday, December 29, 2017

2018: The Year Ahead

With all dates subject to change, here's a look at what looks interesting, as currently announced, in 2018:

  • The Hurricane Heist (2/9) Featuring Toby Kebbell, fast becoming one of my favorite recent actors, and Maggie Grace.
  • Red Sparrow (3/2) Featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton.
  • Death Wish (3/2) Bruce Willis stars in this reboot from Eli Roth.
  • Gringo (3/9) Another Joel Edgerton, along with Charlize Theron.
  • Tomb Raider (3/16) Came a little late to the Alicia Vikander bandwagon, but glad I made it.
  • Isle of Dogs (3/23) New from Wes Anderson, featuring Scarlett Johansson, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand.
  • Ready Player One (3/30) New from Spielberg.
  • The New Mutants (4/13) The X-Men franchise expands before presumably contracting again thanks to the Disney deal.
  • Super Troopers 2 (4/20) Excited for the Broken Lizards to return.
  • Tully (4/20) Jason Reitman directs Charlize Theron, Ron Livingston.
  • Avengers: Infinity War (5/4) Kind of a big deal in this franchise.
  • A Star Is Born (5/18) Bradley Cooper directs and stars in this latest version of a classic Hollywood story.
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story (5/25) Honestly pretty excited for this.
  • Ocean's 8 (6/8) The all-girls team.
  • Sicario 2: Soldado (6/29) Del Toro and Brolin made a terrific combo in the first one.
  • Ant-Man and the Wasp (7/6) Should be an improvement over the first one.
  • Alita: Battle Angel (7/20) The latest from Robert Rodriguez.
  • M:I 6 - Mission Impossible (7/27) Durable series always worth a look.
  • Christopher Robin (8/3) Latest from Marc Forster, featuring Ewan McGregor.
  • Scarface (8/10) Remake featuring Diego Luna.
  • The Happytime Murders (8/17) Brian Henson is doing a version of the Muppets.
  • Captive State (8/17) Sounds like a fascinating new sci-fi tale.
  • Smallfoot (9/14) Animated flick featuring Bigfoot.
  • Robin Hood (9/21) Always game for this guy.
  • The House with a Clock in its Walls (9/21) Another from Eli Roth, featuring Cate Blanchett.
  • Boy Erased (9/28) More from Joel Edgerton, featuring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman.
  • Venom (10/5) Tom Hardy in another franchise.
  • The Girl in the Spider's Web (10/19) Wish they hadn't rebooted the series.
  • The Jungle Book (10/19) Not Andy Serkis's biggest fan, but he's got Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, and Benedict Cumberbatch in it.
  • X-Men: Dark Phoenix (11/2) Probably the swan song of the franchise before a Disney reboot.
  • Holmes and Watson (11/9) Another pairing of Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.
  • Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (11/16) Always game for further trips into this realm.
  • Widows (11/9) New from Steve McQueen, featuring Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson, Jon Bernthal.
  • Aquaman (12/21) Was a definite highlight of Justice League.
  • Mary Poppins Returns (12/28) Emily Blunt claims the role.

2017 (or at least what I've seen so far, and what I expect to see in the near future)

I've seen significantly fewer movies in the past few years than I have in a decade.  Ten years ago I was at what has so far been my peak, catching more than sixty movies in a year.  I made it to a theater eight times in 2017, and so far caught two additional films on home video.

Here's what that looks like, roughly speaking:
  1. Logan
  2. Dunkirk
  3. The Beguiled
  4. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
  5. Justice League
  6. Star Wars - Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
  7. Wonder Woman
  8. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  9. Thor: Ragnarok
  10. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales
There's a bunch of movies I am already primed to catch up on, and more I fully intend to in the near future:
  • A Ghost Story
  • Atomic Blonde
  • Blade Runner 2049
  • The Dark Tower
  • Good Time
  • Hostiles
  • The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • The Only Living Boy in New York
  • Roman J. Israel, Esq.
  • Split
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
  • The Wall
So that's an additional thirteen movies.  Can't say what I might add to that number, out of the more than seven hundred movies released this year, but I'm sure there'll be some, at some point.  I can't even say for sure I'll catch those thirteen soon, but I'll do my best.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014)

rating: ****

the story: A marriage is interrupted by the death of their child.

what it's all about: I will admit, the thing that originally brought me to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was the fact that there were three versions of the movie: Him, Her, and Them.  Technically, Him is the original incarnation of the movie.  Director Ned Benson conceived of Her when his one-time girlfriend Jessica Chastain asked for her character's backstory to be fleshed out.  Then Them was created by combining the two other versions.  I would submit that Them is the best version of the story, the most artful, but it's certainly worth watching all three, and for different reasons.

The wife, the eponymous character, is played by Chastain, while the husband is James McAvoy.  The three versions of the story are best described this way: Him is by far the most open, viewer-friendly one, while Her is much more of an indy film; Them, by combining both, turns it into an art film.  Him has Bill Hader as its best selling point, broadening the story with his casual irreverence, and making it a fun experience.  Her has Viola Davis and William Hurt (Davis doesn't really appear in Him; clearly she's heard in her classroom mostly thanks to her prominence in Her; Hurt doesn't appear in Him at all), who ground Chastain in challenging conversations, the only way we get a sense of how she views the world.  McAvoy also has Ciaran Hines, in much the same role as Hurt, and in that way we get a sense that what originally brought McAvoy and Chastain together was running away from their lives, so that it's the same problem, in reverse, that they're dealing with throughout the story.  And why that ending is so appropriate.  (Katherine Waterston, later featured in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has a small role in Her.)

It's a poetic, elegiac experience, concerning how we struggle with life, how it sometimes impossible to truly understand someone else, how flippant and rude behavior is sometimes not what it seems, more of a defense mechanism, something we know intrinsically but can rarely admit.  It's a long series of awkward conversations, either happening or being avoided, and the struggle to comprehend either how we grow or that we're still doing it.

So it's fascinating to me on many levels.  Most often, when there are multiple versions of a movie, it's because of studio interference.  Benson chose this risky, deliberate path for his first and to date only film.  No doubt it was asking a lot for audiences to try and choose between them.  Even critics would've had to demonstrate unusual levels of concentration to have understood the scope of his achievement.  I think everyone came out looking good having decided to make this movie, in all its incarnations.