Monday, December 23, 2013

2014 at a glance

All dates are subject to change, but here's a look at what I find worth looking at in the year ahead:

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (1/17)
I have yet to see any of the previous Jack Ryan movies, but that doesn't diminish my appreciation for their considerable cinematic legacy, and this one features a stellar cast (Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner) and a terrific director (Kenneth Branagh).

Ride Along (1/17)
Kevin Hart seems destined to be a huge star, and this will be his biggest test to date, buddying with Ice Cube in a movie directed by Tim Story.

I, Frankenstein (1/24)
Aaron Eckhart finally seems to be making some forward momentum from The Dark Knight.

Labor Day (1/31)
Jason Reitman, Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin...Another dynamo combination right there.

The Monuments Men (2/7)
It kind of seems wrong to speak of WWII in terms of other than the Holocaust or all the fighting, but if there's a worthy story elsewhere this is probably it, the struggle to rescue the culture Hitler was also busily smashing along the way.

Winter's Tale (2/14)
With films like The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Odine under his belt, Colin Farrell is fast locking in a new career as a star of modern fantasy.  This may be the movie where audiences take notice.

Pompeii (2/21)
Paul Anderson's genre credentials seem to be expanding with this effort.  Could be very interesting.

3 Days to Kill (2/21)
Kevin Costner returns to starring roles.  I figure that's a good thing.  And this one's directed by McG, who became widely unappreciated far too quickly.

300: Rise of an Empire (3/7)
We'll see the true appeal of this budding franchise as it forges ahead without Gerard Butler.

Grace of Monaco (3/14)
It only figures that Princess Grace would eventually find herself back in the movies.  And Nicole Kidman is about the right person to make it happen.

Muppets Most Wanted (3/21)
Kind of sad Jason Segel isn't back for this one (on the whole, I think Forgetting Sarah Marshall was still a better Muppets effort than his actual one), but I'm always game for these guys.

Stretch (3/21)
Directed by Joe Carnahan?  Check.  Excellent cast?  Check (Chris Pine, Jessica Alba, Patrick Wilson, Ray Liotta, James Badge Dale, who's still looking for that breakout role he richly deserves; Carnahan could very well help him achieve that).  It's worth noting that one of Pine's most interesting roles to date was in a Carnahan movie already (Smokin' Aces, wildly underappreciated as a whole).

Noah (3/28)
The last time Darren Aronofsky tried something hugely ambitious (The Fountain), he come incredibly close to pulling it off.  This one stars Russell Crowe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (4/4)
One of the Avengers movies I'm most looking forward to, although I'm wondering if they're going to lose the real appeal of the last one trying to make it funnier.  I love the pedigree of Anthony and Joe Russo (Arrested Development, Community), but that's the wrong direction for a premise that seems can't-miss for comic book fans already familiar with the material, arguably the strongest of this character's long history.

Dom Hemingway (4/4)
Ten years ago Jude Law starred in every movie that was released for an entire year.  It seems wrong that he's had to wait so long for a comeback.

St. Vincent De Van Nuys (4/11)
Another actor who hasn't starred in his own movie for a long time (the curiously can't-miss misfire of playing FDR in Hyde Park on the Hudson from last year doesn't seem to count) is Bill Murray.  And this seems like about as classic a Bill Murray movie as you can get.

Transcendence (4/18)
This Johnny Depp movie is getting Inception buzz.  Depp's yet another actor vying for a comeback in 2014.  Was this planned or something?

The Other Woman (4/24)
Cameron Diaz is in on the act, too.  I think it's downright criminal how her career fell off the public radar, after an early millennial bid to become arguably the best actress in the industry.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (5/2)
It's a testament to this rebooted franchise that the buzz surrounding this effort has nothing to do with how it compares to the Raimi/Maguire/Dunst era.

Belle (5/2)
Can we all agree that Gugu Mbatha-Raw deserves to be a star no matter how complicated her name is?  Keep it at Gugu if you have to.  She's awesome.  Make her stardom happen already!

Chef (5/9)
Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. reunite.

Godzilla (5/16)
Will this be the one that makes this franchise actually relevant to American audiences?

X-Men: Days of the Future Past (5/23)
The movie where 20th Century Fox finally realizes it had the Avengers formula before Disney did.

Blended (5/23)
If you're a really big fan of 50 First Dates, you might love this Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore reunion.  Oh, and this also counts as a Barrymore comeback.  The trend continues!

Maleficent (5/30)
This Angelina Jolie project based on Sleeping Beauty has been building buzz for a while now.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (5/30)
His Oscars hosting gig seemed to sabotage Seth MacFarlane's mainstream push.  Can he win it back in a Western?

Edge of Tomorrow (6/6)
Tom Cruise in another opulent sci-fi spectacle.  This one also features Emily Blunt!

22 Jump Street (6/13)
Sequel to the surprise original, and apparently part of Channing Tatum's own bid for a comeback.  Although, seriously, that 2012 track record would be hard for anyone to duplicate.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (6/13)
Loved the first one.  Expect to love the second one.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (6/27)
The fourth in this series has a brand new cast.  Could be very interesting.

Tammy (7/4)
Apparently Melissa McCarthy's passion project, which might go a long way to answering the question of how long she can remain a huge star.

Fast & Furious 7 (7/11)
This was always going to be a hit.  After the passing of Paul Walker, probably expect the franchise's biggest hit yet.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (7/18)
Needs to be leagues better than the last one.  I hated that one.

Sex Tape (7/18)
Jason Segel!  Cameron Diaz!

Jupiter Ascending (7/25)
It's the Wachowskis.  Either they find their popular mojo again, or this will be next summer's After Earth.

Hercules (7/25)
Dwayne Johnson as Hercules.  Or as the Klumps matriarch might put it, "Hercules!  Hercules!"

Guardians of the Galaxy (8/1)
Pound for pound, the ensemble put together for this gamble in the Avengers cycle might be the best yet.  It will need to be.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (8/8)
Could be very interesting!

The Expendables 3 (8/15)
The casts for these movies just keep getting more interesting.

The Giver (8/15)
I've never read the book, but the movie might finally help me correct that.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (8/22)
I'm game for this in a big, big way.

The Loft (8/29)
With a cast boasting the likes of Rhona Mitra, Karl Urban, James Marsden, and Wentworth Miller, I'm salivating.

Search Party (9/12)
The same goes for one with Krysten Ritter and Alison Brie, two brilliant stars of hugely unappreciated sitcoms.

The Equalizer (9/26)
More than a decade after Training Day, Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua finally reunite?  I'm there.

Selfless (9/26)
Directed by Tarsem?  I'm already penciling it in as one of my favorite movies of the year.  The man is a genius.  It also stars Ryan Reynolds, who might be the star capable of finally explaining that to everyone else.

Gone Girl (10/3)
David Fincher previously got me to experience a much buzzed-about book as a movie with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  He's going to be doing it again with this film.

Dracula Untold (10/3)
Could be the movie where Luke Evans finally distinguishes himself.

And as always, there are bound to be a few surprises along the way, too.  But I think 2014 is looking pretty darn good already!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Fugitive


directed by: Andrew Davis

starring: Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, Sela Ward, Joe Pantoliano, Andreas Katsulas, Julianne Moore

Released in 1993.

Based on the classic '60s TV series that famously drew huge ratings to finally catch the "one-armed man" who killed Richard Kimble's wife, The Fugitive is best known today as a classic '90s thriller, one of several such blockbusters to star Harrison Ford.  It also helped launch the popular career of Tommy Lee Jones.  In fact, it's the rare moment where the intended star and in fact title character might be said to have the movie stolen from out of under him.  Jones was so popular (he earned a Supporting Actor Oscar) that he earned a spin-off, U.S. Marshals, which was pointedly far more about his character than another fugitive like Kimble.

The Fugitive, like the Humphrey Bogart Maltese Falcon, is a classic example of Hollywood managing to buck the apparent rule that remakes can't at least match the original (Cecil B. DeMille accomplished this himself with the remake of his own The Ten Commandments, with the later Charlton Heston version becoming the one perennially broadcast at Easter).  If it hasn't already, the movie will eventually replace the legacy of the series.

That's the strength of the basic archetype.  This kind of story is told all the time on TV, usually within a single episode.  The original series was a rare instance of a single plot sustaining a continuing arc, something far more common in the modern era.  It'd be like Prison Break being made into a movie.  The pursuit really is a give-and-take between the sequences, Jones convincing us that his duty is the only thing that matters and Ford helping us believe that he's innocent.

None of it is very deep, but it's iconic.  Now that it's been told twice you can just as easily imagine someone else doing the story again, and maybe finding something a little greater in it.  The strength of this version will always be what it always was, Ford and Jones, but even Jones has since become ubiquitous that The Fugitive alone isn't completely necessary to keep his legacy intact.

But just for the record, it's a heck of a ride while it lasts.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Summer 2013 Picks

These are the movies being released this summer that I intend to some point:

Iron Man 3 (5/3)
Because everyone will be watching it.

The Great Gatsby (5/10)
Because Baz Lurhmann is never boring.

Star Trek Into Darkness (5/17)
Because I'm a huge Star Trek fan.

Before Midnight (5/24)
I haven't caught any of this series, but I will at some point.

Epic (5/24)
Animated flick featuring the voice of Colin Farrell.

Fast & Furious 6 (5/24)
Because it's a classic series at this point.

The Hangover III (5/24)

After Earth (6/7)
Because I'm a huge Shyamalan fan.  And a huge Will Smith fan.

Much Ado About Nothing (6/7)
As much for Shakespeare as Whedon.  Probably more for Shakespeare, though.

The Bling Ring (6/14)
Because I'm a huge Sofia Coppola fan.

Man of Steel (6/14)
Because I'm a huge Superman fan.  And Zack Snyder fan.

Monsters University (6/21)
Because I liked the first one.

World War Z (6/21)
Because I'm a huge Brad Pitt fan.

Byzantium (6/28)
Because it stars Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton.

Despicable Me 2 (7/3)
Because I loved the first one.

The Lone Ranger (7/3)
I wouldn't miss it for anything.

Girl Most Likely (7/19)
Because I'm a huge Kristen Wiig fan.

RED 2 (7/19)
Because I liked the first one.

RIPD (7/19)
Because it's high concept.

The Wolverine (7/26)
Because I'm hoping this one rocks.

300: Rise of an Empire (8/2)
Because I loved the first one.

Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (8/7)
Because I'm a fan of the series.

Kick-Ass 2 (8/16)
Because Jim Carrey's in it.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (8/17)
Because Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck are in it.

The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (8/23)
Because Lily Collins is in it.

The World's End (8/23)
Because it's the conclusion of the Wright/Pegg/Frost "trilogy."

Closed Circuit (8/28)
Because I'm a huge Eric Bana fan.

Don Jon (8/30)
Because it's a film by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Seven Psychopaths


directed by: Martin McDonagh
starring: Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Olga Kurylenko, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek, Harry Dean Stanton, Kevin Corrigan, Gabourey Sidibe

Released in 2012.

Seven Psychopaths could very easily be mistaken for the continuing series of movies that wish very badly they were directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Except, much like Joe Carnahan's movies, this is at worst a variation of a Tarantino flick.  It's a film by Martin McDonagh, and that's becoming a thing now, after this and In Bruges.

Both star Colin Farrell, although aside from gunplay there's very little else that's overtly similar between them, other than confident and spectacular filmmaking on a fairly intimate level.  Bruges was about a hitman who felt great remorse after the accidental murder of a little kid.  Psychopaths is about a writer who's trying to work on a new story, but his subject matter has inadvertently drawn him into the very life he's been trying to evoke.  The writer is Farrell, the friend who causes the latter is Sam Rockwell.  If you know Rockwell at all, and you should, that part should more or less explain itself.

It's the structure that really makes the movie pop.  McDonagh allows us to follow the characters Farrell is writing, and they have terrifically compelling narratives all their own, and even when you think the movie's done with them it surprises you again by bringing them back.  Part of that is because at least one of the characters is drawn from the web Farrell is being drawn into, an acquaintance played by Christopher Walken.  Walken is in top form.  He's got a famously deadpan expression, but he knows how to sell a role because hardly anyone delivers a line like he does.  I'll bet that anyone who just knows the name of the film and that Walken (not to mention Rockwell) appears in it will already think they know everything they need to know.

And yet the true genius of McDonagh is that he subverts every expectation.  He knows and you know because that's one of the themes, what Farrell's writer tries to do and Rockwell's main function is to try and embody the reverse.  Woody Harrelson is another presence that begs the boundaries of these expectations.

It's just this side of brilliant.

One of the things I look for in any movie that is or approaches brilliant is the ability to sneak in actors as good as the ones anyone will know appears in the movie in supporting roles.  Here the list includes Olga Kurylenko (proving once again she's not just a pretty face), Kevin Corrigan, and Harry Dean Stanton, who has made a career of these kinds of roles.  There's also Tom Waits, better known for his music, making another periodic movie appearance.  His most recent role was in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.  His appearance here is as similar as he could get.  It's also worth noting that the late Heath Ledger based his Joker in The Dark Knight on Waits.  Ledger's Joker is the iconic psychopath of modern cinema lore.  It stands to figure that Waits would have to be featured in a movie with that term in its title.

If you're another of those film fans like me who enjoyed the chaos of the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading, this is an experience you'll definitely enjoy.  Farrell is restrained, for the most part, but he loses his kit at least once, and that may be worth seeing right there.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Truman Show


directed by: Peter Weir
starring: Jim Carrey, Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Noah Emmerich, Natascha McElhone, Holland Taylor, Paul Giamatti, Peter Krause, Harry Shearer

Released in 1998.

This was for a while my favorite film, and it easily earned that distinction, and forever set the standard by which my favorite films would be defined.  It stars my favorite actor at the time (who remains a favorite), Jim Carrey, who like everyone else first wowed me as a comedic presence, and yet proved instantly compelling in a dramatic performance, because he is the rare comedian who embodies both sides of that coin, including the tragedy cleverly hidden beneath it.

The Truman Show, in fact, is a tragedy, and maybe that's not such a hard thing to discover.  It's about a man who is living a reality show, and he's the only one who doesn't know it.  He's been its star his whole life, and everything around him, including everyone he knows, has been manufactured in order to keep him happy enough to stay.

Except one day something goes off-script.  At college he meets someone who was only supposed to be a background player.  She instantly fascinates him, and although quickly booted from the production site Truman never forgets her.  He settles into a picture perfect life, but yearns for something more, to explore beyond the scope of his world even though he keeps getting told that everything has already been discovered.  Yet the crucial mistake made against him is that Truman wants to experience the world, not simply inhabit it.  And eventually he finds the courage to do exactly that.

Now, obviously some of this is tailor-made for Carrey's comedic sensibilities.  To a certain extent Truman must be entertaining enough for people to watch him so religiously.  Yet the more his world crumbles around him, the more Truman must be something more, and Carrey is more than up to the task.  He's a revelation in the film, not just in his own career but for any actor's.  That's what set Carrey apart in the first place, that he was capable of inhabiting characters more thoroughly than his peers.  At first it seemed that he was only being shameless, that he was only mugging, and at times in his career that has certainly been the case.  The Truman Show is the mark of distinction.  It's the high-water mark by which all his other performances must be compared (nicely mirroring its effect on my cinematic experiences).

There's more than Truman to The Truman Show, however.  There's a rich cast around him, starting with Laura Linney and Ed Harris.  This was Linney's first big role, and she instantly became a critical darling, someone you'd never really think of as a standout until she stands out, and she holds her own against Carrey (for some reason he tends to attract strong performances from his female co-stars).  Likewise with Harris.  Always one of the most dignified actors in Hollywood, his career reached new heights of respect after his appearance as the director of Truman's life.

One more performance worth singling out is Paul Giamatti's.  It's a minor one, but it's also the one that started getting him noticed, until he finally became a leading man in American Splendor.  Giamatti would reteam with Carrey for Man on the Moon, another highlight for both, in a far bigger role.

The psychology of The Truman Show is tremendous.  It's not just a movie that predicted the reality show craze and its hollowness, but about the strength of the human mind.  Truman seemingly has every reason to be happy, and yet he isn't, and the more those around him try to pacify Truman, the less happy he becomes.  No one understands or cares about his needs.  They're just there to maintain the status quo, and that means keeping Truman safely on the set of his show, a small island enclosed in a massive dome.  Perhaps you think you'd be flattered to have such a life, but you'd probably wish that you were at least in control of it, and it's not even that Truman doesn't have that, but that you're as much aware that he's constantly being manipulated and doesn't even know it that draws you into the movie as that he rebels without even thinking, without even being outraged about this, that all he wants is to break free of what he's just become aware of, and reclaim something that's been stolen, namely the girl (played by Natascha McElhone, whose defining feature is her eyes, fittingly haunting) he was denied.

It's a movie that makes you think, and richly entertains you, and leaves you with a cathartic ending, and yet you keep thinking about The Truman Show well after it's over.  Now, of course, you will probably think that Truman could never have truly escaped his curious hell.  Princess Diana had just been killed in a car accident thanks to hounding paparazzi, and that was only the tip of the continuing media frenzy.  Truman might escape the set, but he could never evade the press.  He wouldn't have the first way of coping with them, especially after his dramatic exit from the show the whole world had watched.  If he sued, the trial too would evoke massive coverage, as the OJ Simpson case proved a few years earlier still.

A massively memorable movie on all accounts.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Just My Luck


directed by: Donald Petrie
starring: Lindsay Lohan, Chris Pine

Released in 2006.

This is a movie that you probably won't know off the bat.  It's Lindsay Lohan at the start of her fall from grace, though at no fault on the part of Just My Luck, and Chris Pine at the start of his ascent.

Lohan was a darling as a child actor, whether in The Parent Trap or Mean Girls.  When she grew up, like all child actors she suddenly realized that she wasn't a kid anymore, and that all the fame she'd had was based on very innocent roles, so she started to become that much less innocent in her real life.  Luck, however, is still very much an innocent kind of movie, not a Disney movie like so many of her previous projects but it might as well have been.  It's also one of her first roles where she was asked to carry the movie on her own merits, rather than depending on a studio or gimmick to do it for her.  Except it's very much a gimmick movie, too, as the title helps explain.

Lohan's character has all the luck in the world.  Pine's has none.  Through a movie magic fluke, they exchange luck, and the results for Lohan are supposed to be charmingly hilarious.  Except they end up being more embarrassing than charming, at least as anyone who expected something a little more adult from here at this point would have wanted.  Like I said, it's not Disney but it's very much Disney, and Lohan hasn't figured out what kind of actor she is outside of the Disney formula that to this point in her career has completely defined her.  This is not to say she's untalented, as people tended to start believing once she started asserting herself (the same thing that happened to Jennifer Lopez once she started a pop music career and dared to continue acting).  It's just, Luck may have been a poor choice.

For Pine, it's much the same kind of performance he had in Princess Diaries 2, the romantic lead who plays second fiddle to his more famous costar.  If people had cared about him at this point in his career, he might have gotten stuck in these roles, and not begun to explore his more edgy side, evidenced in Smokin' Aces and Star Trek (with a transition between the two in Bottle Shock).  So it's almost a good thing, as far as Pine's career goes, that Luck was luckless.

Just My Luck is not a bad film, but it's also not highly recommended, except to see Lohan and Pine in transition.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Absent-Minded Professor


directed by: Robert Stevenson
starring: Fred MacMurray

Released in 1961.

I watched a lot of classic Disney films, both animated and live-action, growing up, movies made well before I was born.  One of the more memorable of the live-action efforts was The Absent-Minded Professor, which is perhaps better known for the odd scientific breakthrough known as Flubber, made more obvious by the title of its sequel, Son of Flubber, and Robin Williams remake, Flubber.

Flubber is flying rubber, something any kid could easily embrace as a concept, but Fred MacMurray, a famous star in his day for movies like Double Indemnity and the TV show My Three Sons, for slightly more sober uses.  (If you're still having a hard time picturing him, MacMurray also served as the visual basis for Captain Marvel, the same superhero who would later inspire Elvis Presley's late career wardrobe.)

"Slightly more sober" in this instance apparently means enabling his vintage Model T to fly and making basketball games far more interesting by sticking Flubber on the bottom of the players' sneakers.  This means that the team bounces all over the place (like Gummi Bears), an incredible display of aerial acrobatics, and easily wins a crucial game.

So, not very sober at all, but far more sophisticated than simply wadding it into a ball and launching it recklessly into the air, which is what a kid would do.

It's harmless Disney fun, memorable and a fine vehicle for MacMurray.  If you can get your kids to acknowledge that the world existed before computer animated films, The Absent-Minded Professor remains reliable family entertainment.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Stranger than Fiction


directed by: Marc Forster
starring: Will Ferrell, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Queen Latifah

Released in 2006.

Will Ferrell is perhaps one of the more unlikely movie stars to emerge in the past ten years.  He's one of many comics to come from TV's Saturday Night Live, known for skits and characters.  Plenty of successful stars have come from SNL, but few of them have been able to sustain movie careers, and fewer still by basically keeping their SNL persona of inhabiting a new bizarre character with each movie appearance.  Ferrell rose to success with Elf and Anchorman, but he's managed to sustain his career by continuing much along the same lines.  When he deviates, he's less successful.  Usually when a comedic actor deviates, it's to try more serious material, as with Robin Williams and Jim Carrey.  Ferrell's Truman Show is called Stranger than Fiction, except it's very much Ferrell's version of the career move.  It's more surreal than real.

Essentially,  the movie is about Ferrell suddenly gaining a narrator in his life.  Now, clearly this is not something that happens in real life, unless someone has developed a psychological disorder.  That would be Ferrell's assumption as well, except he doesn't stop there.  He consults a literary expert (Dustin Hoffman), to figure out what the narration itself may signify given analysis.  Eventually Ferrell actually meets the writer who has been composing the narration (Emma Thompson).

The story also involves a romance for Ferrell (with Maggie Gyllenhaal), which is not something that typically happens in a serious way in a Will Ferrell movie.  Oddly, it is an undercurrent in a lot of his movies, but there it is.

It's Ferrell doing a Ferrell movie but in a completely different way.  Often in some of his smaller roles he's a character who is watching a greater story develop, reacting more than acting, but here it's Ferrell doing exactly that as the main character, and he plays the part to perfection, and it's a complete revelation.

For the other notable actors in the movie, I'll concentrate on Hoffman.  As celebrated as he was early in his career, Hoffman tends to be taken for granted these days, but I always find him fascinating.  He throws himself into all of his roles.  Someone else might have made this one a counterpoint to Ferrell's or even an outright skeptic, but Hoffman keeps the project firmly grounded in reality, where Thompson exists simply to give it the touch of class that people would either not have expected at all in a Will Ferrell movie, or what they would expect from one in which he's trying to be serious.  So it works both ways.

Stranger than Fiction isn't quite the triumph of The Truman Show, but it's certainly far more than a curiosity.  It will remain one of Ferrell's best movies probably for a long time to come, something to point to not just to demonstrate his range but what he can accomplish when he pushes his natural instincts to heir best and most unexpected limits.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


directed by: Andrew Dominik
starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, Zooey Deschanel

Released in 2007.

One of my hallmarks of great storytelling is knowing your characters.  It's not always essential to base the entire story around exploring these characters so much as what happens to them, but it certainly helps.  This is a movie about Robert Ford, not Jesse James.  As the title suggests, Ford killed James, and this is an attempt to explain why.

Actually, that's half the fascination for me about Assassination of Jesse James, that it doesn't feature the more famous of its subjects as the lead.  In this movie, Jesse James is more myth than man.  All his best banditry is in the past.  He's actually just a man, but he's most definitely a myth to Robert Ford, who has grown up reading about Jesse and all but fallen in love with him (although that's more implied than explicit).  The basic plot is Robert signing up to be a part of Jesse's last big job and the gang's efforts to then fade away.

Now, obviously the notoriety of Jesse James works both ways.  He'll have had his admirers.  He'll also have had the authorities gunning for him.  Robert Ford ends up straddling both, once he finally sees behind the curtain he previously held in front of Jesse.  That's how he ends up standing behind the famous outlaw as Jesse stands on a chair to some dusting.  It's a moment that's repeated several times at the back-end of the movie, first as it really happens and later as Robert recreates it for the stage.  Because it's Robert's movie, it continues after the title event, as the so-called coward tries to come to peace with what he's done.

Robert Ford is portrayed by Casey Affleck, the younger brother of Ben Affleck.  Although Casey has cared a pretty respectable career for himself, he's nowhere near the league of his brother.  For one, he has a softer voice that he either can't or won't mask.  It's an ideal feature for a youthful and naive character like Robert Ford, a sycophant who definitely suggests the sickness of such a role.  You have sympathy for him, sometimes, and at others you despise him.

Which is funny, because the man he shoots was not a good man.  Well, maybe some people could construe Jesse James in a positive light.  In this movie he's played by the bigger star, Brad Pitt.  I've long been interested in the career of Pitt.  He's filled it with contradictory roles, mostly because he's terrified of being defined only by his physical appearance.  Jesse James is certainly one of those contradictory roles, and maybe it's exactly right to cast a big star in the role, to signal to the audience in an immediate way that aside from everything else this was a guy who knew how to draw attention to himself.  There would always be a lot more to him than someone like Robert Ford could comprehend, and yet he was also exactly what his historical reputation marks him out to be: a bad apple.

Yet Pitt finds the human in him, enough so that you're forced to remember that in Robert's mind this was a horribly complicated situation.  Jesse was a hero to him, Robert's idol, and yet the man didn't live up to the myth.  Robert quite deliberately shot him in the back.  Pitt doesn't make the role too flashy, which is an underrated specialty of his.  Occasionally he'll take a role like in Twelve Monkeys where he's a spastic attraction, but that speaks more to Pitt's range than any particular style.  In the end he's exactly what he wants to be, and that's not just a pretty face.  Assassination of Jesse James is his best film.

Director Andrew Dominik, who's still only at the start of a brilliant career, hits an unmistakable milestone with this film.  It's divisive, because it's meditative where most viewers prefer action or clever characters, but it's also one of the most gorgeous movies you'll ever see.  It's also got, behind Pitt and Affleck, plenty of supporting actors you'l love to watch navigate the film, including Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, and Zooey Deschanel.

Saturday, January 26, 2013



directed by: George P. Cosmatos, Kevin Jarre
starring: Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, Jason Priestley, Jon Tenney, Stephen Lang, Thomas Haden Church, Dana Delaney, Michael Rooker, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Zane, John Corbett, Terry O'Quinn, Frank Stallone

Released in 1993.

Tombstone is not as good as Wyatt Earp.  Both films were released around the same time, both feature the same characters and the same scenario, but one does it better.  Don't get me wrong.  It's certainly worth watching both.  Tombstone probably has a better overall reputation, mostly because it's not the one starring Kevin Costner in yet another historical epic.

What both films unmistakably are is Hollywood's attempt at the time to keep the Western alive.  The Western was a genre that dominated movies and television for decades.  With the passing of John Wayne, its most iconic star, however, the Western fell out of favor with the general public.  Everyone moved on, and for a while it was a lot easier to pretend it simply no longer existed.  Yet Hollywood loves to revive things, and in the 1990s the Western was the subject of a persistent revival effort.  Clint Eastwood, who had earlier made his name with the "Man with no Name" trilogy, scored with Unforgiven, but then no one seemed to know what to do next.  Instead of a monolithic presence, it had become a specialty genre.  Tombstone represents one way to make this special attraction a real attraction, by amassing a notable cast in the place of a notable star.

Kurt Russell has been a Hollywood project since he was a kid.  He's been a successful star, sure, and has had his share of signature hits, but he's never really been iconic.  As this film's Wyatt Earp it's much the same.  He's not really a Western actor, anymore than he's any given genre actor, just someone who can appear in any given one and be fairly respectable.  He's the main reason why there has to be so many other notable actors in the project, beginning with Val Kilmer, who at this point in his career cuts a more recognizable figure as Doc Holliday than his Wyatt Earp (and in this role, superior) counterpart Dennis Quaid.  Everyone else is far lower on the instant recognition scale, but the cast is packed with talent all the same, even a few (Thomas Haden Church, Billy Bob Thornton) whose subsequent careers make their appearances here more significant to newer audiences than those who saw them originally.

You can certainly enjoy Tombstone for what it is, but it didn't at the time and never will represent anything more than a movie Hollywood made to be a Western, rather than a true contribution to the genre.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Exorcist


directed by: William Friedkin
starring: Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow

Released in 1973.

One of the iconic horror movies of the second age of the genre, when the focus shifted from monsters to the human relationship with these monsters, The Exorcist led to a whole cottage industry of movies about satanic possession.  It shocked audiences by using a little girl as the victim and the extreme depiction of the results.

Actually, the little girl, portrayed by Linda Blair, remains what most people know about it.  For me, it's about the visuals, and the visual I care best about is Max von Sydow, a leader of the sober authoritarian school of acting, blessed with one of the most distinctive voices in film.  There's a famous shot of his approach to the girl's home that is equaled for me only by Road to Perdition, a film ruled as much by great acting as great cinematography.

Otherwise I don't really care too much for The Exorcist.  Clearly it was really all about sensationalism, hinged around the things the little girl does.  Sure, on one level it's about the extreme amount of disrespect possible from true evil, but it ends up being depicted by everything you never thought movies would do with little girls.

Thankfully we later got young actors with actual dignity in horrors films with The Sixth Sense, basically the complete opposite of The Exorcist, something more akin to Max von Sydow.

Friday, January 18, 2013



directed by: Jason Reitman
starring: Ellen Page, Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons, Allison Janney, Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner

Released in 2007.

Juno is known for a couple of things.  One, it's a teenage pregnancy drama.  (Although the funny thing is that anyone who knows about this movie probably doesn't think of it that way.)  Two, it's Ellen Page's big break.  Three, it was written by Diablo Cody.

That last point makes Juno pretty unique.  Usually if anyone knows who wrote a movie, it was the director.  There are exceptions, sure, but for the most part few people think of the writers as an active part of a film's success.  It's either the director or the actors, and anyone else you have to be a real cinephile to care about.  Not so with Diablo Cody.  She became an immediate sensation thanks to Juno.  In fact, even though Jason Reitman as director had his own budding career have a definite mark of distinction with this movie, everyone talked about it as if it was Cody's baby alone.

Yet it's also very much about Ellen Page.  She's the rare young actor who is able to captivate an audience, and the sardonic nature of Juno helps demonstrate her specific appeal and make it palatable to a mass audience.

It certainly doesn't hurt that she has a terrific supporting cast around her.  Michael Cera is probably the opposite of Page as far as mass appeal goes.  He's become a favorite of filmmakers, but he plays a pretty specific role that doesn't always translate to mass audiences, the nebbish loner who somehow is great at making the right connections, or in other words our new Woody Allen.  He's perfect for a movie like Juno, a key element of its success and a perfect complement to Page.  Yet it's not just young people.  J.K. Simmons, who was brought to everyone's attention as J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, begins to assert himself as a much more broad and appealing presence as Page's father, while potential adoptive parents Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner have a chance to present their own charms, which can sometimes be unappreciated.  (It's nice to see Cera and Bateman in a project together outside of Arrested Development, too.)

The whole affair is about as laid back as the main character herself, enjoyable and transformative.

Thursday, January 17, 2013



directed by: Oliver Stone
starring: Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Anthony Hopkins, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Rhys Meyers

Released in 2004.

This is my favorite movie.  Oliver Stone is among my favorite directors and Colin Farrell is my favorite actor.  If a convergence of Stone and Farrell weren't enough, the movie itself exactly fits the parameters for everything I want from a movie.  It has an excellent cast, it knows what to do with that cast, the characters are compelling and relevant in relation to each other, and the scope of the narrative is broad and intimate at the same time.

Some of this, again, is reflected by the talent assembled.  Stone made his name as a director who was interested in exploring big issues on a small (though epic) scale.  Alexander is a movie about Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror who came as close to ruling the known world as anyone.  He died young, his empire was broken back into the pieces he had briefly united, and in 2004 no one seemed to really like the movie Stone made about him.  Tough break.  But nice try!

Stone's vision is all about the motivations that inspired his famous subject, chief among them his parents.  Philip was not only his immediate predecessor in the conquering game, but Alexander's father, who found it remarkably easy to both embrace and reject his son before his assassination.  Olympias surely fascinated Philip at some point, but she became a liability as he continued to formulate his plans. She instead found lasting influence through her son, "my avenger," as she calls Alexander at one point. Kilmer has perhaps his last great role, almost unrecognizable behind woolly hair and a missing eye, portraying Philip, while Jolie's accent as Olympias makes a dubious impression on some but is ideal in distinguishing her unmistakable appeal.  To my mind, it's a defining role for her.

Farrell is always the soulful loner caught in someone else's story.  This is probably not how most historians choose to view Alexander the Great, but as Alexander the man, Farrell is once again firmly in command of the screen, forced to exert himself the more those around him doubt his methods.  He's muted around Jolie, hopeful around Kilmer.  As a warrior, he's every bit the match for Alexander's own inspiration, Achilles, portrayed in Troy by Brad Pitt.

Much of what anyone knows about Alexander is its depiction of homosexuality, as embodied by Farrell's interactions with Jared Leto's Hephaistion, Alexander's own Patroclus (who was Achilles' favorite).  The story here is really about Alexander's reasoned passion.  The less it becomes reasonable, the more he appears to spiral out of control.  So of course Hephaistion dies before the end.

Alexander learns his reasoned passion from Christopher Plummer's Aristotle, the famed philosopher.  It's always a good thing to have Plummer involved, and he's the rare actor who becomes more dignified with age.  Anthony Hopkins is another.  He narrates the film as Ptolemy, who served with Alexander and then later succeeded him as patriarch of Egypt.  Some might find this aspect of the film to be pedantic, but I like perspective.  Stone already provides plenty of that, but Ptolemy exists to ensure that none of it is overlooked, the broad scope, and to remind the viewer that Alexander was indeed great, even if most of what happens in the film is about what undermines his greatness.

In smaller roles are Rosario Dawson as Roxana, the "barbarian" bride Alexander takes on his travels, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Cassander, one of many military advisers who don't share Alexander's vision.

Also significantly adding to the movie is the score from Vangelis, appropriately sweeping in nature and evocative of the momentous life being examined.

There are three cuts of the film: the original theatrical cut, the director's cut, and Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut, which came a few years later.  Each succeeding version seeks to guide the viewer into an easier journey along Stone's central vision, adding and resequencing scenes.