Friday, July 14, 2017

2001 Capsule Reviews

Memento
rating: *****
review: Christopher Nolan's breakthrough film was instantly a favorite of mine. It's not just the gimmick, but how well it's done and the stellar cast (Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano) doing stellar work in it that make the film so (heh) memorable.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
rating: *****
review: Everything is pitch-perfect in the first installment of Peter Jackson's much-lauded trilogy, from the cast to the music. 

Shrek
rating: ****
review: Still one of my all-time favorite animated movies, subverting in a very clever way expectations in a riff on Beauty and the Beast, something its sequels couldn't really build on.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
rating: ****
review: Charming first film in the series is hampered by the fact that it necessarily stars kids.  This is where the book definitely has an edge, because there's no such problems there.

Training Day
rating: ****
review: Denzel Washington so thoroughly dominates this movie that it's tough for any other element to compete with him, which is its one drawback.

Monsters, Inc.
rating: ****
review: Charming riff on a Pixar formula already set in stone.

Black Hawk Down
rating: ****
review: Where Saving Private Ryan made melodrama out of D-Day, Ridley Scott allows the chaos of Mogadishu wash over the viewer, with an incredible wealth of acting talent generally getting lost in the shuffle.  But watching it again will always prove rewarding to try and find all the faces that would later become much more famous.

The Majestic
rating: ****
review: Frank Darabont attempts to replicate his Stephen King magic without Stephen King, and for my money comes exceptionally close, thanks to a game Jim Carrey in one of his most underrated performances.

A Beautiful Mind
rating: ****
review: It's fascinating to think that even after Gladiator, Russell Crowe was still getting roles where he was asked to display his smarts more than his brawn, so that his ability to channel thoughtful souls was able to shine through.  It's almost more fascinating to see, in retrospect, the skills Ron Howard would later bring to The Da Vinci Code.

The Score
rating: ****
review: Hugely underrated opportunity to see three generations of acting masters (Marlon Brando in his last significant role; Robert De Niro; and Edward Norton) working alongside each other.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
rating: ****
review: So many people got caught up in the fact that Spielberg was "finishing" a Stanley Kubrick project that they missed the fact that Spielberg was actually making his last great attempt at a timeless fable.

Zoolander
rating: ****
review: Ben Stiller in a perfect sendup of all things pretentious.  If the sequel had happened sooner, this would've become another Austin Powers.

15 Minutes
rating: ****
review: I guess I don't really get why Edward Burns got such a terrible reputation.  Here he and Robert De Niro get to comment on the meaning of truth.  Also another great chance to spot Avery Brooks in a movie, during the fleeting moment in time that was still possible, and the same goes for Kelsey Grammer.  Karel Roden is actually the best reason to watch, a role that should've catapulted him into stardom.

A Knight's Tale
rating: ****
review: Paul Bettany kind of steals Heath Ledger's thunder in this one.  So it's a little strange that he never got a role quite like his comedic Geoffrey Chaucer again.

The Fast and the Furious
rating: ****
review: In hindsight it's serendipitous that Vin Diesel followed up Pitch Black with his career-defining role, when it seemed like Riddick was going to be it. 

Ali
rating: ****
review: Will Smith's most blatant attempt to court the critics also found the only role where the guy he's playing has an equal level of personal charisma; the part he was born to play.

American Outlaws
rating: ****
review: This one was instantly an afterthought, the wrong way of translating Colin Farrell's Tigerland appeal to mass audiences, but it's a personal favorite.

Planet of the Apes
rating: ****
review: I'm going way against the grain in wishing Tim Burton's vision had become the definitive one.

The Mummy Returns
rating: ****
review: Every bit as charming as its predecessor.

Gosford Park
rating: ****
review: In hindsight, it's kind of the origin of Downton Abbey.

Rat Race
rating: ****
review: A classic comedic cast.

K-PAX
rating: ****
review: Critics fell all over themselves pointing out that the plot had been done before (even by Jeff Bridges, who appears in this and its spiritual predecessor, Starman, but not in, say, Harvey), but then they were also looking for excuses to bury Kevin Spacey for whatever reason.  I still loved it.

Rush Hour 2
rating: ***
review: Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker reteam.  You're either wildly excited about that (there was a third one, too), or wonder if there's a point.

Moulin Rouge!
rating: ***
review: My feelings on it may be influenced by the fact that a relationship ended, basically, because we had different reactions.

Super Troopers
rating: ***
review: I think Broken Lizard hit its stride with Club Dread (Beerfest is also pretty nutty), but this first effort is the one everyone remembers.

Monster's Ball
rating: ***
review: I wish Halle Berry had been given a better Oscar spotlight.

Wet Hot American Summer
rating: ***
review: Cult classic that's kind of nutty.

Enemy at the Gates
rating: ***
review: If this had worked better, Joseph Fiennes and Jude Law would have solidified their places in Hollywood at much higher levels.

Buffalo Soldiers
rating: ***
review: I still think this Joaquin Phoenix army outsider flick is a cult movie in the making.

The Princess Diaries
rating: ***
review: It's still baffling to think that this is how Anne Hathaway made her name, and was basically the last old school Disney hit.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
rating: ***
review: Angelina Jolie was born for the role, but the movie around it is too inevitable, and is one of the early wastes of Daniel Craig (!).  (Gerard Butler is equally wasted in the sequel!)

The Musketeer
rating: ***
review: Fans of Grey's Anatomy will want to check out this early Justin Chambers performance.

American Pie 2
rating: ***
review: The first movie couldn't really be duplicated; thank goodness by the later movies they were interested in advancing the plot, but by then I was no longer interested, so I still haven't seen American Wedding or American Reunion.

The Others
rating: ***
review: There was a moment where every major star was expected to appear in a horror movie; this was Nicole Kidman's.  I still love quoting, "But ma'am, I am your daughter."

Evoluation
rating: ***
review: I remember critics thinking this was inferior to Harold Ramis's Ghostbusters, but I also remember enjoying it.

Bridget Jones's Diary
rating: ***
review: This modern riff on Jane Austen was for a time wildly popular, and became both Renee Zellweger's signature role and the reason her career completely derailed.

Kate & Leopold
rating: ***
review: Charming early attempt to figure out what Hugh Jackman does when he isn't Wolverine.

The Animal
rating: **
review: The only movie to star a Survivor alum; ironically Colleen Haskell also ended up giving up fame entirely after making it.

The One
rating: **
review: A Matrix rip-off starring Jet Li.

Shallow Hal
rating: **
review: The Farrelly brothers discover that their formula has limits.

Scary Movie 2
rating: **
review: Mel Brooks these parodies are not.

The Glass House
rating: **
review: I was making an effort to watch horror movies for a time.  I don't really do that anymore.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

2000 Capsule Reviews

Gladiator
rating: *****
review: Caused a huge sensation but then met critical backlash calling it historic junk, but it set the bar so high that nearly twenty years later no one's even come close to its success.  And gave the perfect context to Russell Crowe.  And redefined Ridley Scott's career as the only guy capable of competing with his own success.

Tigerland
rating: *****
review: This is where Colin Farrell came from, and I guess where the influence of critics to define classics really completely slipped away, because in any other era, this wouldn't even be a question.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
rating: *****
review: The Coens tend to get critical love if they rehash their serious farce gimmick (Fargo, No Country for Old Men), but not if they do straight-up farce.  They did it brilliantly here, giving George Clooney the role that settled what Hollywood thought of him, even if audiences still balk.

Unbreakable
rating: *****
review: This was the year the modern superhero boom began, and ironically the rare original story, by M. Night Shyamalan, was the best out of the gate.

The Patriot
rating: *****
review: This is pretty much exactly America's self-image of the founding of the nation, minus all the politicians.  It's easy to forget that it was the fighting that most people cared about, not declarations. 

Cast Away
rating: *****
review: Instantly iconic Tom Hanks one-hander (Wilson!) that had the balls to serve up a complicated ending, which screwed up its chances at wide acceptance.

The Perfect Storm
rating: ****
review: If only because George Clooney doesn't quite nail the lead role, or the movie doesn't quite know what to do with him, this otherwise evocative drama sets a new archetype Hollywood would seek to exploit in later years, but never quite duplicate.

Thirteen Days
rating: ****
review: Thrilling attempt by Kevin Costner at a dramatic comeback, exploring JFK's moment of truth.

The Cell
rating: ****
review: Tarsem basically remakes Silence of the Lambs from inside Buffalo Bill's head, and displays his remarkable visual storytelling ability.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas
rating: ****
review: Basically the apex of '90s Hollywood, Jim Carrey getting to strut his stuff in the most outrageous way possible.  I think everyone who didn't like him before simply decided he really was grossly overrated, because this is his highest-grossing movie (three years later Bruce Almighty is nearly as big a hit, but he becomes the accessory to the gimmick in it, rather than the driving force).

X-Men
rating: ****
review: The biggest thrill of this initial installment of the franchise wasn't the showdown between classically trained actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, but the sensational debut of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine.

Almost Famous
rating: ****
review: Cameron Crowe's classic coming-of-age tale is arguably more about the music than the perfomances.

The Way of the Gun
rating: ****
review: Seems like it's still waiting to be rediscovered as the would-be vehicle launching Ryan Phillippe and Benicio del Toro into Hollywood icons.

All the Pretty Horses
rating: ****
review: For all of Cormac McCarthy's reputation as being a literary hardcase, it's this romantic modern Western that's actually kind of his most distinctive storytelling, and incredibly Hollywood at that.

28 Days
rating: ****
review: Sandra Bullock ended up becoming the big star she always seemed like she was going to be in the wake of Speed, but I still think this is her most charming performance.

Pitch Black
rating: ****
review: This Alien knockoff accidentally created an icon in Vin Diesel's Riddick.

Me, Myself & Irene
rating: ****
review: In hindsight, I don't think anyone expected this to be Jim Carrey's last wild child comedy (outside of Dumb and Dumber To), but it seems kind of appropriate, since half the performance is rejecting the old Jim as too out of control.

The Family Man
rating: ****
review: Nicolas Cage inadvertently proves that Frank Capra really is dead.

Dude, Where's My Car?
rating: ****
review: A perfect idiot comedy.

The Emperor's New Groove
rating: ****
review: Disney's attempt to send up its own '90s movies is fascinating, and arguably the only effort in that era you'll actually want to watch again without kids.

Screwed
rating: ****
review: For a brief moment, Norm Macdonald seemed like his career was going to explode.

Road Trip
rating: ****
review: I could care less about the rest of the movie, which is kind of American Pie: Road Trip Edition; this is the only time I ever cared about Tom Green, because he's absolutely brilliant in it.

The Million Dollar Motel
rating: ****
review: Artful in a soulful kind of way.

The Legend of Bagger Vance
rating: ****
review: Just before Will Smith became virtually untouchable for a huge stretch at the box office, when he attempted in one of many attempts to woo critics, and they just weren't biting, as always.

Gone in 60 Seconds
rating: ****
review: In hindsight it seems like the movie that inspired the Fast & Furious franchise; any chance we could get Nicolas Cage to join it?  I mean, who wouldn't love to see that?

Finding Forrester
rating: ****
review: "You're the man now, dawg!"  Did anyone expect this to be Sean Connery's de facto swan song?

Proof of Life
rating: ****
review: This is kind of, somehow, the movie that wrecked Russell Crowe's reputation, but I think it's not so bad.

Pollock
rating: ****
review: Ed Harris never really seemed to get his due, so it's kind of fitting that this spotlight is the closest he ever got.

Traffic
rating: ****
review: Attempting to present a comprehensive look at the war on drugs, I think it was perhaps too ambitious without the one knockout central piece to the puzzle.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
rating: ****
review: Honestly, I think this was such a sensation because it seemed like the "authentic" version of the kung fu from The Matrix.

Erin Brockovich
rating: ****
review: Julia Roberts proving that she's capable of good drama.

Remember the Titans
rating: ****
review: My sister swears by this movie.

Pay It Forward
rating: ***
review: Frank Capra's legacy had it rough in 2000.

Vertical Limit
rating: ***
review: As if The Perfect Storm had had stars a few notches lower.

Small Time Crooks
rating: ***
review: One of my earliest Woody Allen experiences (I've seen Annie Hall, but it was so long ago I don't really have memories of it) seems pleasant, which I think is what he was actually going for with this one.

Highlander: Endgame
rating: ***
review: One of those low-tier franchises convinced of its cosmic significance that's rarely lived up to it.

Dungeons & Dragons
rating: ***
review: Actually kind of fun.

The Replacements
rating: ***
review: A feel-good movie that kind of proves that Keanu Reeves needs to have the movie rooting for him a little more obviously, because he tends to recede into the background otherwise.

Coyote Ugly
rating: ***
review: Kind of seems years ahead of its time at this point.

The 6th Day
rating: **
review: I'm pretty sure Arnold thought he was recreating Total Recall with this one.

Space Cowboys
rating: **
review: Seems to be the last movie cashing in on the Grumpy Old Men phenomenon in blockbuster mode.

Best in Show
rating: **
review: The problem with producing a satire of something is that the satire might end up being as ridiculous as the thing it's mocking, which here is the totally overblown egos of dog shows.

Red Planet
rating: **
review: This and Mission to Mars didn't seem to realize that the appeal of 2001: A Space Odyssey wasn't so much the space setting but the overblown cosmic significance of a machine going crazy.

Battlefield Earth
rating: **
review: Honestly, the worst sin this movie commits is allowing John Travolta to upstage the good guy.  Otherwise it's kind of a parody of sci-fi storytelling, and may even have been intended to be.  Ironically probably would've been better received if it had starred Kevin Costner as Jonnie Goodboy Tyler.  But after Waterworld and The Postman both tanked with audiences, it was probably extremely unlikely that he would've ever agreed to giving it a third go...

Friday, June 30, 2017

1999 Capsule Reviews

Man on the Moon
rating: *****
review: This was the "two" in Jim Carrey's 1998/1999 one-two punch (following The Truman Show), once and for all demonstrating how unique a performer he really is, pulling off a version of Andy Kaufman that does the myth proud.

The Matrix
rating: *****
review: Became instantly iconic for a reason, because it introduced a bold new cinematic myth (there's that word again) with a bold cast headlined by Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving, and Joe Pantoliano.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace
rating: *****
review: I really don't care what people say about it, this was an instant classic, profoundly expanding the scope of the saga in bold ways, including a phenomenal "Duel of the Fates" sequence with Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn, who belong on a Star Wars Mount Rushmore.

Office Space
rating: *****
review: Such a biting workplace satire, filled with classic characters, all of it hilariously downplayed, impossible to not spend the next decade or so of your life quoting obsessively.

The Sixth Sense
rating *****
review: It was always going to be impossible for M. Night Shyamalan to live up to something like this, and in a lot of ways the same could be said for Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment.

Galaxy Quest
rating: *****
review: In a lot of ways, the Star Trek movie Star Trek itself was never going to be able to make.

Instinct
rating: ****
review: Instantly a personal favorite, but casually dismissed on the whole as a derivative of Silence of the Lambs, simply because Anthony Hopkins plays another disturbed inmate.  How absurd!  The two movies really have nothing in common.  Instinct, rather, is a piercing study of mankind's casual instinct for inhumanity.

The End of the Affair
rating: ****
review: Breathtakingly gorgeous.

The Green Mile
rating: ****
review: This is what happens when Stephen King remakes The Shawshank Redemption on a mythic scale.

Cradle Will Rock
rating: ****
review: A sensational ensemble piece about the power of creativity.

Fight Club
rating: ****
review: A punk classic.

The Virgin Suicides
rating: ****
review: A casual introduction to the lush sensibilities of Sofia Coppola.

The Insider
rating: ****
review: Russell Crowe enters the big time by holding his own against Al Pacino and Christopher Plummer.

The Mummy
rating: ****
review: Surely the most entertaining riff on Indiana Jones ever.

Three Kings
rating: ****
review: George Clooney makes a terrific bid to finally be taken seriously in movies.

The 13th Warrior
rating: A moody Antonio Banderas gamely continues his action hero streak in this riff on Beowulf.

Any Given Sunday
rating: ****
review: Oliver Stone indicts football culture, years before the NFL would truly dominate the popular imagination.

Toy Story 2
rating: ****
review: A perfect sequel that manages to increase the poignancy of the concept.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
rating: ****
review: Ironically, if the TV show had ended at this time, the movie would be remembered as the masterpiece it really is.

American Pie
rating: ****
review: My generation's raunchy answer to the classic teen flicks of the '80s.

10 Things I Hate About You
rating: ****
review: In hindsight, this is the one movie Heath Ledger allowed to be about his charm, and it was at the beginning of his career, which I suppose is kind of ironic.  Most stars would have milked that for years and years.  Makes him what Brad Pitt only ever dreamed of becoming.

Bowfinger
rating: ****
review: Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin are comic gold together. 

Mystery, Alaska
rating: ****
review: Russell Crowe in a movie about hockey, but really a movie about a community.

Liberty Heights
rating: ****
review: A rare movie about anti-Semitism in America.

Topsy-Turvy
rating: ****
review: A rip-roaring movie about Gilbert & Sullivan.

The Talented Mr. Ripley
rating: ****
review: A positive dream cast (Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow) years before anyone could really appreciate it.

The Hurricane
rating: ****
review: Denzel Washington's last great statement on race.

Two Hands
rating: ****
review: Heath Ledger in one of his Australian dramas, playing the quintessential troubled youth role.

The Thomas Crown Affair
rating: ****
review: Another of 1999's absurdly stylish movies.

American Beauty
rating: ****
review: Kevin Spacey in an elegiac ode to the loss of innocence.

Life
rating: ****
review: Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence are an inspired combination, too.

Bringing Out the Dead
rating: ****
review: Kind of evidence that Martin Scorsese should cast Nicholas Cage in more of his movies.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
rating: ****
review: The '90s were a Shakespeare boon period.

The Buena Vista Social Club
rating: ****
review: Heavenly music.

Muppets from Space
rating: ***
review: After years of riffing on literary material, the Muppets tell their own Gonzo story again, and it's a refreshing change of pace.

Wing Commander
rating: ***
review: Given the stiff sci-fi competition in 1999, this one never really gets the kind of love it deserves as a competent execution of a video game concept.

Entrapment
rating: ***
review: Sultry Catherine Zeta-Jones?  Clashing with aging ladies man Sean Connery?  Isn't this basically his last James Bond?  What's not to like?

Dogma
rating: ***
review: Irreverent Kevin Smith at his peak.

Go
rating: ***
review: Sort of the junior edition of Pulp Fiction.

The Limey
rating: ***
review: Terrence Stamp getting a chance to make a quasi-sequel to one of his early films.

Fantasia 2000
rating: ***
review: One of the few nonlinear mainstream films gets an update.

Bicentennial Man
rating: ***
review: Robin Williams remaking himself, or trying to.

Mansfield Park
rating: ***
review: Jane Austen for the casual fan.

The General's Daughter
rating: ***
review: John Travolta doesn't quite make his A Few Good Men.

Sunshine
rating: ***
review: Ralph Fiennes trying to extend his English Patient reputation with an entirely too bleak multigenerational saga.

End of Days
rating: ***
review: Arnold Schwarzenegger seems depressed that he's no longer a big star.

Tarzan
rating: ***
review: Arguably the last classic Disney animated flick.

But I'm a Cheerleader
rating: ***
review: Basically the complete opposite of American Pie.

Stigmata
rating: **
review: Patricia Arquette's quasi-religious horror movie, a would-be Exorcist.

8mm
rating: **
review: Nicholas Cage in probably one of the first movies that demonstrated he was coming down from his incredible high, and his career was not going to thank him for it.

The Blair Witch Project
rating: *
review: I never got the appeal of this "real world" airheaded horror movie.  Except that it made found footage storytelling cool.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Note: An Explosion of Interest in This Blog?

Wow, so apparently a lot of people recently have had a look at what I've been writing here.  I wish I could explain it, but this is just to say, "Thanks," I guess.  And I'll be writing more when I have the time.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Monster Calls (2016)

rating: ****

the story: A boy struggles to handle his mother's battle with cancer, and finds an unlikely ally in a monster.

what it's all about: Full disclosure: my mother died of cancer two years ago.  Therefore, it's incredibly difficult to separate A Monster Calls from what is still an incredibly painful recent personal experience. 

That being said, this is powerful storytelling.  I'd read the book upon which it's based, and though the movie streamlines the narrative, omitting a key character and thus subplot, it packs the same wallop.  The marriage of reality and fantasy is uniquely executed, if anything comparable to the comic strip Calvin + Hobbes, where the two exist side-by-side, so that both are equally true.  The monster is ostensibly the big draw of the movie, but he exists in shadows and so almost completely in the vocal performance of Liam Neeson (admittedly a huge selling point), and so viewers who anticipate a more visceral presentation there will probably end up disappointed, and as such is probably the reason the movie didn't land as successfully upon initial release as critics had anticipated.

And it's a tough emotional experience, too.  It comes on so unexpectedly, Felicity Jones as the mother a supporting character, leaving all the weight on a boy whose journey becomes more apparent as the movie progresses, his need to be "punished" for his reaction to the idea of battling cancer.  Sigourney Weaver is equally subdued as the grandmother, while Toby Kebbell (this is the movie I finally noticed that he's been in quite a few of the movies I've seen lately) as the father who lives a new life in America, a scenario that in another story might have dragged the proceedings down in maudlin fashion, strikes the right tone as the one character most capable of addressing the boy's distress. 

It's the completeness of the portrait (ironic, given the prior acknowledgment that the movie leaves out a crucial element from the book) that helps everything build.  I think it works, I think it's powerful stuff, some truly classic filmmaking, but...

Doubt must linger.  I don't know what it's like to watch A Monster Calls without it being a personal experience.  Is everything truly earned, or am I reading myself into it?  True, this is a problem with every movie, but this one, it seems far more obvious.  So I leave the final review as an open subject.

But I absolutely recommend you check it out to see for yourself.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Silence (2016)

rating: *****

the story: Two Jesuit priests investigate the disappearance of their mentor in 17th century Japan.

what it's all about: I almost regretted having read the book before watching the movie, this time.  Usually, I can't abide people who suggest such things, because the two mediums are two very different creative expressions, and there's no reason to split hairs between them.  They have their different strengths.  But Silence is a particular story, in both prose and film form, where the same thing seems so similar in both forms, you begin to wonder what's lost in translation.  In the book, it's very important what Andrew Garfield's character thinks, and not so much only what he does or says.  Martin Scorsese, surely now and forever a master of filmmaking, knows this, and so there are a few voiceovers meant to fill the void a little, but he also knows that the story means the same thing, in the end, regardless of what is lost along the way.

That's what's truly remarkable about Silence, that it tells such an unexpected story, one that seems totally contrary to established narratives.  It seems to be a rebuke of criticisms on two scores, both in the context of the story, and what commentators today have attempted to say about the Christian faith, too.  It runs counter to everything Hollywood has been attempting to do in recent years.  Scorsese is a famously pragmatic Catholic, and that makes him the ideal adapter of such material.  It abhors mindless reverence, but it also embraces a level of faith totally unknown to most adherents.  How's that for a paradox?

Garfield, whom I know from a few movies (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, the two Amazing Spider-Man films), emerges as a new breed of lead actor in it.  At first he seems like the last actor capable of pulling off the "Jesus look," the long hair and beard.  He's made a career of looking young, right?  He doesn't seem to possess the right amount of gravitas.  Yet he and Scorsese use these apparent limitations to their advantage.  His character is meant to be totally self-assured and yet na├»ve at the same time.  After watching Silence, you'll be convinced that Garfield has found a new archetype.  He seems to have played something similar in Hacksaw Ridge, also released last year, but the results couldn't seem to be more different.  Mel Gibson's movie (it's funny, Garfield starring in the films of two Catholics) is pretty straightforward, when it comes down to it.  Silence is anything but.

Adam Driver continues to be a fascinating discovery in his own right.  My personal experience with him had previously been limited to The Force Awakens and Midnight Special.  Almost more than Garfield, he manages to bring a mature presence to his role, so effortlessly that again you aren't surprised in the least that he and Garfield are leading a new generation of actors.  Liam Neeson, meanwhile, in a supporting role again confirms that he's capable of anything.  Here he seems to contradict everything you might have seen him do previously, in a long series of mentor roles he's done over the years, and no doubt that was a deliberate casting effect. 

Even if you don't care for the religious elements, Scorsese still presents a look at life in Japan in the century before the world had finished expanding.  Japan, in fact, was in the midst of shrinking back, headed toward a period of isolation that would have a perilous effect not just on itself but many other countries besides.  Silence becomes a story of self-justification, the things we tell ourselves to try and make sense of the irreconcilable.  If you find yourself siding with the Japanese over the priests, which is valid, you may still end up wondering if you were right, knowing what was to come.  This doesn't even mean the priests were right, either, but that this was an untenable situation, which Scorsese no doubt meant to parallel secular matters in today's world, too, of Muslims and the West and where things continue to stand between them.

I chose Arrival as my favorite movie of 2016 before having seen Silence, but I'll still stand by that now.  The two movies, however, stand together as among the smartest filmmaking I've ever seen, and that's extremely good company.  Both came from books.  What does that matter?  The story resonates.  That is all.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ben-Hur (1959)

rating: ***

the story: Ben-Hur witnesses the rebellion against an empire begin.

what it's all about: After watching the 2016 version recently, I felt compelled to watch Charlton Heston's 1959 Ben-Hur, which I suppose I must have seen when I was a kid, since watching the famed chariot race sent vague memories firing through my head, memories that had rattled there since I first saw it, actually.  I just didn't remember watching the movie itself  Like a lot of people, I grew up watching Heston in the later Ten Commandments, thanks to an annual Easter broadcast.  Ten Commandments, although clearly filmed thanks to the success of Ben-Hur, ended up supplanting it in the popular culture.  Today, both Ben-Hur and the 19th century book upon which it was based have been somewhat lost to history.  Again, the massive failure of the 2016 version is evidence enough of that.  Critics will claim it's because the new one simply can't match up with the old one.  Having seen it (again), I will venture to say the new one doesn't have that much competition.

The 1959 version is long, like Ten Commandments.  It actually skips out on the kind of context storytelling the 2016 version explores, the full history of the foster brothers who end up competing in the chariot race.  Heston skips right to his Roman rival returning home and slowly realizing the old adage, you can't go home again.  It's almost funny to watch Heston in it, because he carries none of the gravity he brought to Ten Commandments, which I suppose is testament enough to his acting and his ability to bring different approaches to different characters (and also his increased profile).  Still, he and the movie equate well of themselves.

The gravity, actually, comes from a Star Wars connection, much as I'd read into the 2016 version, where I thought I saw a new version of source material George Lucas seemed to draw on for the prequels.  Yet the 1959 version reads a lot like a rebellion against an empire (as I noted above), full of Romans who sound English saying "rebellion" and "emperor" exactly as Star Wars characters would in the later original Star Wars trilogy.  It can't be coincidence, right?  Lucas was born in 1944,and so that would've made him fifteen in 1959, plenty impressionable enough for a big hit movie coming into his imagination.  Everyone knows Hidden Fortress helped form the basis of Star Wars in the 1977 first film of the saga, but it seems to me that Lucas borrowed heavily from Ben-Hur as he conceived the rest of it.

This is a movie that is what it is, and watching it again, I'm still inclined to consider the 2016 version better worth a rewatch, but that doesn't make the Heston film less memorable. Watching it I can even see little musical cues John Williams likely borrowed for Star Wars, too.  For these associations alone, it will remain fascinating, worth revisiting in the future.  The chariot race, which critics insisted looked far more realistic than its 2016 counterpart, doesn't hugely hold up, by the way. You can tell where parts were filmed separately and then spliced together.  It kind of takes you out of the moment.  But that's okay.  There are other things to love about it.