Friday, December 30, 2016

1998 Capsule Reviews

The Truman Show
rating: *****
review: My pick for Jim Carrey's best movie, his first big stab at being dramatic while retaining his crucial whimsical appeal in a story that takes an immersive look at the human condition.

American History X
rating: *****
review: Edward Norton's best movie is a deep look at race relations, at their worst, and how to make things better.  Continually relevant, alas.

The Mask of Zorro
rating: *****
review: A perfect escapist adventure with a perfect cast.

What Dreams May Come
rating: *****
review: A truly awe-inspiring journey into the afterlife with Robin Williams.

Out of Sight
rating: *****
review: George Clooney's effortless cool in its best spotlight.

Shakespeare in Love
rating: ****
review: Very nearly worthy of the Bard himself.

Star Trek: Insurrection
rating: ****
review: A movie that rises above its shortcomings with some fascinating insights into franchise lore.

There's Something About Mary
rating: ****
review: This would be perfect, except for the fact that it kind of ages.

The Avengers
rating: ****
review: An excellent sendup of stuffy British spy stories.

The Negotiator
rating: ****
review: A great cast makes up for the fact that the reason Samuel L. Jackson is besieged takes a backseat to thrill of watching him get out of it.

Patch Adams
rating: ****
review: Robin Williams almost seems lost trying to inhabit a real person, but it's still an inspiring story.

Lethal Weapon 4
rating: ****
review: From my experience with this franchise, it's my favorite entry, with Mel Gibson obviously having the time of his life.

Rush Hour
rating: ****
review: Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker are a classic combination.

Saving Private Ryan
rating: ****
review: Sprawling but mesmerizing look at American soldiers in WWII Europe.

Meet Joe Black
rating: ****
review: Hugely underrated Brad Pitt drama that explores the ramifications of death.

Snake Eyes
rating: ****
review: My personal favorite Crazy Nicholas Cage Movie.

Mulan
rating: ****
review: Thanks to my sister, this sort of became my favorite '90s Disney animated flick.

Elizabeth
rating: ****
review: A first taste of Cate Blanchett at epic scale.

Celebrity
rating: ****
review: Kenneth Branagh as Woody Allen is a natural fit.

The Thin Red Line
rating: ****
review: Terrence Malick's poetic meditation of WWII is a brooding revelation.

Lost in Space
rating: ***
review: Fun family stab at sci-fi storytelling.

The Odd Couple II
rating: ***
review: The last Lemmon/Matthieu goes for broke with extremely broad strokes but is still well worth watching.

The Big Lebowski
rating: ***
review: The Dude abides, but he also kind of meanders through a madcap landscape.

Primary Colors
rating: ***
review: It was probably a mistake to recalibrate this Clinton satire into Clinton hero worship.

Wide Awake
rating: ***
review: M. Night Shyamalan's first movie plays with kid gloves pretty literally.

Pleasantville
rating: ***
review: The contrast between the past and present is pretty on-the-nose but looks really pretty.

Blues Brothers 2000
rating: ***
review: Hey, if it's just an excuse to pump out some extra great blues tunes, I think it was worth it.

Rounders
rating: ***
review: Maybe doesn't break any new ground in the gambling genre, but the cast makes up for it.

Earth
rating: ***
review: An excellent look at the birth of Pakistan, but otherwise doesn't really distinguish itself.

Apt Pupil
rating: **
review: A serviceable Stephen King adaptation, but kind of doesn't live up to the standards of his dramas.

Species II
rating: **
review: enjoyable for what it is, but it's still what it is.

Return to Paradise
rating: **
review: A somewhat overwrought attempt to introduce a new generation of serious actors.

Ronin
rating: **
review: In hindsight this looks like it wanted to recapture the magic of the Mission: Impossible reboot from two years earlier, but couldn't.

A Night at the Roxbury
rating: **
review: Idiot fun, but not nearly to the standards of Will Ferrell's later film career.

Simon Birch
rating: **
review: If Jim Carrey had served as anything but narrator, this could have been something other than melodrama.

 The Big Hit
rating: **
review: Harmless action fun.

A Bug's Life
rating: *
review: To my mind, instantly revealed the extent to the Pixar formula.

The Waterboy
rating: *
review: To my mind, instantly revealed the extent of Adam Sandler's ability to create distinctive character personas.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

2016 Movies I've Seen to Date


RISEN (***)
This look at the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the perspective of a Roman Tribune (Joseph Fiennes) was a pretty fascinating experience up until, actually, we spend half the movie revisiting biblical material.  Tom Felton was pretty good in this.


DEADPOOL (***)
Neatly irreverent take on superheroes (if you know the character, this is exactly what you should've expected) but wobbles into irrelevance by following the typical Marvel model of building its story around a weak villain. 


BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (*****)
I think critics, and Marvel fans, had such a huge problem with this because it dared take superhero moviemaking seriously, and completely nailed it.  Pretty certain this will be a touchstone of the genre in years to come.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (****)
Ironically, the best parts of this movie really have nothing to do with Steve Rogers but rather the growing cast of Avengers from throughout the franchise, the second time that's happened in this sub-series.


X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (****)
The villain of the piece is almost beside the point, but everything that happens around him is pretty brilliant, a nice bowtie to a six-film saga.


THE LOBSTER (*****)
Brilliant satire of romance and alienation, instantly becomes one of my favorite Colin Farrell movies.


WARCRAFT (****)
Duncan Jones succeeds in breathing life into this fantasy landscape and its intricate views of good and evil; the only thing it lacks is a compelling lead actor.


INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (****)
Plenty worth the wait and nicely builds on the mythology, but lacks the charisma of Will Smith that helped make the first one so memorable.


FREE STATE OF JONES (*****)
Fascinating little-known element of the American Civil War brought back to life.


STAR TREK BEYOND (*****)
The most ambitious of the reboot films to date with an ending that underscores the whole thing nicely.


SUICIDE SQUAD (****)
This sendup of the Marvel moviemaking method blows it out of the water with pizzazz to spare as well as a more genuine feeling for what being an outcast means.


SNOWDEN (****)
Oliver Stone's latest is a wakeup call for a wakeup call.


MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (**)
Surprisingly by-the-numbers movie with too many good actors used inadequately.


FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (****)
A pretty fantastic return to the world of Harry Potter.


ARRIVAL (*****)
My vote for the best movie of the year, with an astonishing vision and a grounding lead performance from the always-reliable Amy Adams.


ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (*)
The way most fans view the prequels is how I viewed this, as quite simply atrocious.


JANE GOT A GUN (****)
This mini-reunion of Star Wars prequels actors was a fine addition to the Western genre.


MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (****)
Compelling vision from the always interesting Jeff Nichols.


GHOSTBUSTERS (***)
Oddly feels like most of the actors thought they were going to be animated.


HELL OR HIGH WATER (****)
Gritty meditation on outlaws of the 21st century.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

rating: ****

the story: New Scamander travels to New York with a briefcase full of magical creatures, and things kind of spiral out of control from there.

what it's all about: In a lot of ways, judging the Harry Potter movies (all eight of them) was always going to be a tough proposition.  There's a diehard subculture that believes movie adaptations by definition are inferior to their book counterparts.  Actually, let me reword that: the prevailing opinion is that the book is always better than the movie.  It's a persistent prejudice, one that never really takes into account the unique benefits of both mediums.  To anyone who goes along with this line of reasoning, try to watch a movie based on a play.  If it's not a musical, and particularly if it was done years ago, you'll find "staginess" in the movie that would otherwise not be there.  That's the result of being excessively faithful to one version of a story at the expense of a different and wholly unique experience.  What works on the stage works that way because of the particular confines of the stage, which do not exist in movies. 

My point being, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them may in fact be the first real chance we get at how well the world of Harry Potter works in movies.  It's only too appropriate that the movie is set in America, which is where the majority of moviegoers around the world expect blockbuster movies to be set.  That's just one of the things it kind of automatically have going for it.  But there's also the threat of franchise fatigue.  Fans don't like to admit such a thing exists.  But you only have to look at the muted reception of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy to see it in action.  If these movies had been released right after his highly acclaimed and enthusiastically received Lord of the Rings trilogy, fans would have reacted to them very differently.  Franchise fatigue is a thing that happens mostly when fans have...moved on to something else.  It's no surprise that the Star Wars prequels were relative failures when Star Wars-scale blockbusters suddenly happened all the time (including Jackson's Lord of the Rings, and yes, the Harry Potter series).  But fans will attribute it to declining quality.

And actually, no matter how much lenience fans gave J.K. Rowling when she started to vastly increase the page-count of her books (the strain most showed in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the second giant-size entry, and also the first one in the series directed by David Yates in the film adaptations, which will be important later in this review), this blind love has declined in recent years, as she's begun a career writing books specifically for adults, none of which (there have been four, including three detective stories, which will also be important later in this review).  This is relevant, because of course Rowling wrote the screenplay for Fantastic Beasts, the first full-length story she's written in this series since 2007's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the book).

So there's no telling how enthusiastic fans, or critics, will be with this movie.  But they should be pretty ecstatic, because it's a brilliant success, like the stage play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which debuted this past summer, an unexpected continuation as well as restatement of everything that worked so well about Harry Potter the first time.

The story revolves on a vaguely familiar character, the author of a textbook Rowling released in the real world, for charity, but more importantly, the lone Brit in the story, who's an instant connection to Hogwarts lore even though he's technically off entirely on his own.  In a lot of ways, though, Rowling takes great pains to paint a portrait of the intrepid Newt Scamander very much in the mold of the beloved Rubeus Hagrid, the beloved groundskeeper portrayed by Robbie Coltrane in the movies, an outsider befriended by Dumbledore with a great love for magical creatures.  But make no mistake: Newt is no Hagrid.  In a lot of ways, he's what Harry Potter would have become if he hadn't found such stolid friends in Hermione and Ron, a sensitive soul with a fierce devotion to what he believes in, and an unwillingness to open up easily to others, fearing they just won't understand.

But the movie quickly pushes Newt in the direction of two helpful people, one being an American witch and the other a No-Maj, which is the American term for muggles.  (Some critics have suggested that "No-Maj" is a clumsy term, but anyone who grew up with the Magi of the Bible, or heard a similar term in the Mummy movies featuring Brendan Fraser shouldn't have any problem accepting it.)  Both of these characters add a wealth of inspiration to the movie, and help represent the uniquely American aspects of the movie.  In their own ways, they represent Newt's Hermione (someone who knows what's the what) and Ron (a charming bumbler) without consciously evoking them.  If I hadn't just pointed it out, I doubt you'd make the connections (not to insult you or anything).

And actually, Katherine Waterston's Tina Goldstein is more like Rowling's Robin from her Cormoran Strike mysteries, a woman who enjoys the thrill of the chase, even if it sometimes gets her into trouble.  Dan Fogler's Jacob Kowalski is so protoptypically American he's also fat, which is what most people around the world (and quite a few Americans) have assumed is the standard model for years, even though American movies rarely reflect that (Paul Blart, Mall Cop not withstanding).  His most interesting arc in the movie actually has nothing to do with Newt or Tina, but rather Tina's sister Queenie, played by Fine Frenzy, who would be a dead ringer for Idina Menzel.  Queenie is mesmerized by Jacob, the first No-Maj she's ever known.  The movie is actually about breaking through old modes of thought, and this is the easiest way it's demonstrated, and ends up finishing out the movie, too, so that you could very easily watch Fantastic Beasts as a completely standalone experience, whether or not subsequent sequels (there are four projected) picks up their story.

But these are all supporting players; Eddie Redmayne is, well, the main event.  He's developed a reputation lately of being a mercurial performer, able to slip into the unlikeliest roles, whether Stephen Hawking in 2014's Theory of Everything or a transgendered woman in 2015's The Danish Girl.  In Fantastic Beasts he brings almost lyrical physicality to the role of Newt Scamander, especially in a sequence where he coaxes a particularly troublesome creature back under control.  He brings effortless charm to Newt, which is the crux of the movie's appeal, and how it sells further exploits into the world of Harry Potter as something that doesn't actually need Harry.  In other words, he achieves the unthinkable.

There are other notable performances: Ezra Miller as the conflicted Credence (more on this later), Jon Voight as Henry Shaw Sr., Ron Perlman as Gnarlak, and Samantha Morton as Mary Lou, each of whom make indelible marks on fleshing out the American nature of the story.  (The whole concept of the Second-Salemers is brilliant, addressing something that was missing in Harry Potter previously, a tangible connection to the past.)  They have limited parts to play, so I won't spend too much time talking about them.

More notable is Colin Farrell as Percival Graves.  I would've watched this movie even if I wasn't already a fan of Harry Potter (and Rowling), because I've been a fan of Farrell's for nearly a decade now.  The Irish actor ironically plays an American in this one, as he has for the vast majority of his roles.  Critics have been silent about his appearance, if not dismissive, but he brings to Fantastic Beasts what he brings to all his movies: a distinct, brooding presence.  It's not just the eyebrows.  Farrell tends to inhabit all his characters will three dimensions.  This is not the first time he's spent the majority of his screen-time more or less silent (Dead Man Down, or even Miami Vice, or the most artistic example, The New World).  His role as Graves is the most direct reflection of the deeper ramifications running through Fantastic Beasts, and by the time the movie ends it's easy enough to understand why (I'm not going to spoil that, but I would give those who know reason enough to keep an open mind; this is hardly the first time we've been asked to ignore the personal life of someone making movies, and not even the hardest one to stomach, which I would say is the career of Roman Polanski).  Graves is almost Snape done all in one movie, but in the way fans expected rather than what Rowling eventually gave them.  His relationship with Credence is a dark reflection of Newt's with Jacob, and the film greatly benefits from the contrast.  I think Farrell is a powerful asset to the movie, and one of the few actors who could've pulled off such a tricky role.

Yates proves a deft hand as director once again.  By the time he started directing Harry Potter movies, the material had existed so long it almost didn't matter who was at the helm anymore, but this is an assumption he calmly busts with Fantastic Beasts.  Like the new look at Harry Potter in general, he proves that he really is as competent, and imaginative, as the movies might have only had fans think.  Matching him is Rowling, who proves she wasn't just doing this to further cash-in on her biggest success to date (now that there's been a lot of other stuff, too).  Some critics have said Fantastic Beasts reveals the debt she owes Roald Dahl, which is true, but there's also L. Frank Baum, too, anyone who's done truly imaginative work in the grand tradition Rowling continues, really.  There's even some Jumanji in there!

Where Yates proves that he was capable adapting even questionable material (his streamlined and incredibly effective improvement on Order of the Phoenix), Rowling demonstrates what she's learned since leaving behind the comforts of telling epic adventures one school year at a time.  If there are those who begin to suspect a lot of Harry Potter storytelling was somewhat convenient, fans can watch Fantastic Beasts and finally see for themselves that Rowling needs no such crutches.  This is a lot like the free-form nature of Deathly Hallows (both the book and movies) taken to its next logical extension.

In short (!), Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is pretty fantastic.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

rating: ****

the story: FDR develops a relationship with his fifth-cousin while entertaining British monarchs struggling with public relations problems.

what it's all about: It's a terrible shame that Hyde Park on Hudson was allowed to slip out of general awareness so easily.  Bill Murray gives one of his few non-Bill Murray performances, which is to say he builds a performance, a character, other than Bill Murray.  Now, Bill Murray being Bill Murray is usually a reliable source of entertainment, but it also creates a situation where the actor becomes highly underrated as a performer.  This is what happened after his '80s boom, which stretched into the early '90s: like Robin Williams, it wasn't until he underwent a dramatic twist in the '00s that critics started taking Murray seriously again.  You can pinpoint Lost in Translation, his melancholic study of jaded celebrity, as the turning point, and yet, all it really meant was that audiences continued to not really care about him anymore, and that critics did.  (It was the same with Williams, who at least had been alternating serious and comedic roles all along, culminating in Good Will Hunting, at which point it seemed okay to forget he existed.)

What's ironic about all of this, in relation to Hyde Park, is that Murray's take on FDR is a complete revelation for reasons beyond Murray's performance.  In a lot of ways, Hyde Park is a better version of the Oscar-winning The King's Speech, from a mere two years earlier.  This was a fawning, unconvincing attempt to dramatize how poor King George got over his speech impediment and rallied the British against the Nazis.  This was incredible for any number of reasons, not the least because history records Churchill as the lion of that cause, with nothing in King's Speech remotely contradicting it.  Really, it was one long piece of propaganda, trying to justify continuing fascination with an increasingly irrelevant monarchy.

Where Hyde Park gets it right is making George and Elizabeth human rather than a bunch of movie stars gamely trying to hoodwink the audience.  The fact that neither of the actors playing them are household names, where the ones playing Roosevelt and the two women in the spotlight around him (Murray, Laura Linney as the fifth-cousin, and Olivia Williams as Eleanor), none of whom resort to caricatures (the best thing about King's Speech is Geoffrey Rush being Geoffrey Rush, which is always a winning formula), are, goes to sort of prove the point.  This is an intimate piece of history.

Granted, there's much dispute as to how factual it is.  The fifth-cousin wrote about this affair in letters that didn't circulate for decades, and the characterization of Eleanor is called suspect, too, but the effect is itself a revelation: whether or not it's true, it still humanizes Roosevelt.  There's this popular image of the polio-stricken president as superman, both for his New Deal and the way he handled WWII, along the way serving a historic three terms and being elected to four.  Yet for all that, it's uncanny that he's all but dominated by his mother in this movie.  Who knew?

It's that kind of insight that makes Hyde Park a truly winning experience, its leisurely pace, the way it not only contradicts everything we know about Murray, but also makes him almost incidental to the movie itself, which is narrated by Linney, who for whatever reason has fallen out of favor in Hollywood and with critics.  Both of them further strong cases for already-stellar careers in this movie.

Right now there's a big struggle about the importance of seeming important in movies.  I guess it mostly depends on whether or not it strikes the right note, whatever that means.  I think most of why Hyde Park had to be downplayed was because King's Speech had already covered some of this territory and had gotten plenty of awards glitz for it.  Critics couldn't very well admit that just a few years later someone did it better, and quite handily.  They like to say bombast kills subtlety, but when it comes to which is bombastic and which is subtle, I think of the two, Hyde Park makes a good case for what truly merits applause. 

Reduce it only to Murray's revelatory performance if you must.  But on that score alone, Hyde Park on Hudson deserves much more attention than it's gotten.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Hell or High Water: a cultural inquiry


Hell or High Water has become one of the surprise hits of 2016 in limited release, one of the movies being touted as everything the year's big blockbusters have gotten completely wrong.  I knew the minute I saw the trailer the first time that I wanted to watch this movie.  I'm extremely glad that Chris Pine has finally managed to find something that has unabashedly pleased everyone.  Outside of Star Trek, he's continued to flounder despite natural talent and charisma, leaving many to wonder whatever happened to him.  Except he's kind of like Tom Hardy (whom he costarred with in This Means War) or Colin Farrell, a go-to talent no matter how big a box office draw he fails to be, or critics magnet.

The problem I now face, however, is how much I want to support something that may be succeeding mostly because it continues a disturbing trend from the turn of the millennium of popular culture unabashedly embracing antiheroes, most of whom are far less redeemable than Pine and Ben Foster's characters in Hell or High Water happen to be (a couple of Merry Men).  I know Americans tend to have sympathy for this type, from Depression-era gangsters to their post-Civil War hellion predecessors, and maybe it's just shocking to see first-hand just how much they really are embraced in the culture.  The thing is, these are fictional characters this time.  Walter White never existed.  The heroes of this era are actively flouting the laws of society, actively trying to reshape it.  I mean, I know Prohibition proved to be a horrible idea, but there's no reason we should hero-worship the folks who kept serving up alcohol anyway, much less their descendants. 

Pine and Foster seem to be a sort of Jesse James gang.  One of my favorite movies is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which kind of takes for granted Jesse's mystique and inherent worth to the culture.  Among everything else it most certainly is hero-worship.  Hell or High Water is also kind of like No Country for Old Men, with Jeff Bridges taking over for Tommy Lee Jones, and Pine and Foster being less hapless than Josh Brolin.  Because Pine and Foster are easier to root for, there will probably be few comparisons between them, but the idea is basically the same.  Both are about moral ambiguity, new-style Westerns, and the shifting landscape of the country.

I love that Pine went minimalist for the movie, which is what he did in Star Trek Beyond, too, although fewer people noticed because of all the action happening around him.  His versatility has always been considerable (just watch him in Smokin' Aces...if you can spot him!), and thanks to his breakthrough in Hell or High Water, other people are noticing him, too.  It only figures that he finally had to play an antihero to prove it, because he's so consistently played heroes over the past few years, it's no wonder he was considered one-note.

Maybe I don't have to worry too much about it.  I mean, I love Batman, too, don't I?  The Dark Knight was basically one long argument for finally seeing him for the lawbreaker he is, and why that may not be as bad a thing as it might seem.  When done right, antiheroes are heroes.  When done wrong, they're not nearly as worth supporting as it can sometimes seem.  But Hell or High Water seems to have done its job in finding the distinction.  It just might be one of the most important movies of the year.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Fantasy films 1982-2008

Today we're going to talk a little about these movies:

The Dark Crystal (1982)
 
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
 
Return to Oz (1985)
 
Legend (1985)
 
Labyrinth (1986)
 
The Princess Bride (1987)
 
Willow (1988)
 
Hellboy (2004)
 
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
 
The Fall (2008)
 
 
Today's discussion is about fantasy movies.  Obviously, it's a subject today that involves the Harry Potter films and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, but for my purposes these will be omitted so we can concentrate on the '80s push that helped make them possible, as well as a few other more recent entries.
 
Jim Henson's production offices got the ball rolling back during the first season of Saturday Night Live, where the concepts behind The Dark Crystal were first explored.  The same company later developed Labyrinth, which has been the standard memory of the '80s fantasy push, thanks in part to the participation of David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly.  Younger fantasy fans had The NeverEnding Story and its sequel, while Return to Oz was an attempt to follow-up the iconic Wizard of Oz
 
Legend proved to be a bomb, and only took on cult status when Ridley Scott later released a director's cut.  It can be argued that Legend has the longest creative legacy.  Besides the look of Hellboy (which evokes Tim Curry's character in the movie), it can also be said to have inspired Pan's Labyrinth, the breakthrough critical success of Guillermo del Toro.  Willow might be said to be the first attempt at correcting the perceived mistakes of Legend.
 
Following the mixed fortunes of these early efforts, The Princess Bride went in an entirely different direction, downplaying the fantasy elements and instead focusing on the comedic potential of the humans involved.  The Fall later went further and made the whole thing dramatic.
 
It's interesting to think of these movies in relation to each other, whether or not the filmmakers did at the time they were being made.  Genre fans will no doubt have spent some time comparing them, or simply making preferences (that's the business of being a genre fan right there).  Some of them will no doubt have fallen through the cracks, so that unless you know they exist you might think the ones you do know are all you need to know.  Hollywood has never embraced fantasy as fully as other genres, which makes the '80s explosion all the more notable.  Yet, with the genre's fanciful elements, these films are often the source of remarkable creativity, and as such are capable of being among the most breathtaking movies you'll ever experience.




Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ryan Reynolds' identity crisis: Smokin' Aces, Self/Less, Deadpool, and Criminal

Smokin' Aces (2006)

Self/Less (2015)
 
Deadpool (2016)
 
Criminal (2016)
 
 
In 2006's Smokin' Aces, Joe Carnahan's ensemble action flick, Ryan Reynolds plays FBI agent Richard Messner, who is assigned to protect federal witness Buddy Israel.  By the end of the movie, we learn what's so special about Buddy (nicknamed "Aces," and so the name of the movie literally translates to the act of assassinating him, not the cast of characters who attempt to do so), and it leads Reynolds as the most important figure in the story, as he alone gets to decide what's to become of Buddy.
 
The theme of identity, which is what Smokin' Aces is all about, ends up playing a big role in Reynolds' later career.  Aside his first shot at playing Deadpool in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which becomes its own meta identity crisis, Reynolds would later explore this idea in 2015's Self/Less as well as in 2016's Deadpool and Criminal.  And somehow, no one really seems to have noticed, least of all critics who wrote unfavorably about Criminal, when the trend had become blazingly obvious.
 
I was always a fan of Smokin' Aces.  It has a killer cast (including Chris Pine's best performance to-date), and was the first time I took notice of Reynolds (which turned out to be somewhat ironic, given his part's later significance).  I was also a fan of director Tarsem going into Self/Less, which may be why I liked it better than most fans (including critics, who didn't even notice that this whole movie is literally about the second life dilemma, to the point where hardly a scene goes by without an additional layer of second life material being added to the story's rich tapestry).  Everyone knew how passionate Reynolds was to get Deadpool made, but few could have guessed that its resulting shape would look so much like Self/Less (much less Smokin' Aces).  so when he popped up as the prior life Kevin Costner assumes in Criminal, I kind of had to assume that at this point, it can't possibly be coincidence.
 
In fact, knowing Deadpool would be covering familiar territory, that was how I found most of my enjoyment from the breakout superhero flick, which has otherwise been hailed as a breath of fresh air in that genre.  I thought its noisiness wasn't all that noteworthy, but found it fun to see all the points where it lines right up with Self/Less.  While I haven't seen Criminal yet, I imagine there's plenty to enjoy about it in that regard, too.
 
There are so many people today who take this sort of thing as an insult to storytelling, that if plot points are at all similar, you have to automatically reject the newer story's creative value.  I don't agree at all.  Every story is different, particularly in movies, where casting so often dictates the results.  It's funny that Reynolds is at the center of a convergence like this, but it only makes it that much easier to appreciate how the theme varies in each iteration, how different it looks each time.  I mean, who else would even have compared Deadpool with Self/Less, which was a box office bust? 
 
This is how I approach movies, and storytelling in general.  Yeah, it's cool to like the popular stuff, whether with audiences or critics, but it takes some greater conviction to look beyond what other people are saying, and simply judge the material for yourself.  There's a lot to say about creative vision, no matter how it represents itself, and the ability to appreciate the subtle things that make it resonate.
 
You could take two or three of these movies, and still enjoy their comparisons.  Take all four, and you start to see how far this way of looking at movies, at storytelling, really goes.  


Friday, April 29, 2016

2015

Viewed/Ranked
  1. Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens
  2. The Hateful Eight
  3. Self/Less
  4. Aloha
  5. The Martian
  6. The Revenant
  7. Legend
  8. Jupiter Ascending
  9. Sicario
  10. Home
  11. The Visit
  12. Furious 7
  13. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
  14. Fantastic Four
  15. Strange Magic
  16. Minions
  17. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  18. War Room
Other Notable Releases
  1. The Age of Adaline
  2. Anomalisa
  3. Ant-Man
  4. The Big Short
  5. Bridge of Spies
  6. Carol
  7. Cinderalla
  8. Concussion
  9. Creed
  10. The Divergent Series: Insurgent
  11. Ex Machina
  12. Fifty Shades of Grey
  13. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2
  14. In the Heart of the Sea
  15. Inside Out
  16. Joy
  17. Jurassic World
  18. Mad Max: Fury Road
  19. Pan
  20. The Peanuts Movie
  21. Room
  22. Spectre
  23. Spotlight
  24. Spy
  25. Straight Outta Compton
  26. Taken 3
  27. Ted 2
  28. Terminator: Genisys
  29. Tomorrowland
  30. Trainwreck

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Best Films 2005-2015

1. The Dark Knight (2008)
2. The Fall (2008)
3. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
4. Munich (2005)
5. Warrior (2011)
6. Django Unchained (2012)
7. The Departed (2006)
8. Interstellar (2014)
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
10. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Friday, April 1, 2016

One to watch: Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols's Midnight Special is now in theaters.  The more I saw the trailers on TV the more I knew that name.  I haven't seen any of his movies yet, but he's consistently been working on buzz-worthy projects.  First was Take Shelter, the 2011 film that helped create buzz around Michael Shannon.  Then there was 2012's Mud, which was an integral part of Matthew McConnaughey's comeback.  He also directed Shannon in 2007's Shotgun Stories, and is working on Loving with Joel Edgerton, who has been a favorite of mine since Warrior (which is in fact one of my all-time favorite movies).

So I'm making a note about Nichols here, and for anyone else who happens to stumble by...



Friday, March 4, 2016

1997 Capsule Reviews

Amistad
rating: *****
review: Spielberg comes close to matching the impact of Schindler's List with this drama about an African who commandeers the ship make to bring him to slavery in America (he again reaches these heights with Munich, by the way) with powerful advocates portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Matthew McConaughey once he finds himself in the trial of his life (literally) as a result.  This is a movie that kind of symbolizes the whole year, which was a transition one for Hollywood in general, everyone trying to figure out what the new norm is supposed to be.

Out to Sea
rating: ****
review: If there's a better movie than the Lemmon/Matthau Grumpy Old Men series with them in it, it's this one, which also features a breakout comedic performance from Brent Spiner (Data in Star Trek).

The Fifth Element
rating: ****
review: Bruce Willis begins a new chapter in his career with this outlandish sci-fi parody that plays equally well in its dramatic elements, and as a parody of his action career, which clearly doesn't interest him as much as it does his fans.

Men in Black
rating: ****
review: An equally gonzo sci-fi flick, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones deconstruct everything The X-Files had been trying to make suitably dramatic on TV.

Liar Liar
rating: ****
review: Jim Carrey had waited so long for his big break that soon after he was already playing fathers in his movies.  He twists himself into hilarious knots when his son makes a wish that he can't lie.  Cary Elwes is equally great in a subdued supporting role, in which he gamely offers an imitation of what Jim Carrey might look like as a normal person.

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
rating: ****
review: So unexpected a belated hit with fans that later films couldn't possibly duplicate its appeal, with or without Mini-Me tossed in.

Conspiracy Theory
rating: ****
review: Mel Gibson's manic energy gives perfect voice to a guy driven off the deep end by finding out everything he hallucinated about the world may actually be true.  And anyway, if you can't bring yourself to like him, there's also Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart, in his greatest non-franchise Hollywood role.

Good Will Hunting
rating: ****
review: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are game boy wonders, but Robin Williams easily steals the movie from them in one of his best dramatic performances.

Jackie Brown
rating: ****
review: Quentin Tarantino comes his closest to subdued in this movie, which posits a charismatic Robert Forster as the only person capable of taming Pam Grier.  This is also your chance to see Robert De Niro and Chris Tucker in a Tarantino flick.

Grosse Pointe Blank
rating: ****
review: Easily the most unique high school reunion movie I've seen, with John Cusack as a hitman trying to reconcile his life even as Dan Ackroyd comes gunning for him.

Titanic
rating: ****
review: The gushingly romantic James Cameron hit you may have heard about.

Rosewood
rating: ****
review: Ving Rhames in his best starring role in a kind of black Western.

U Turn
rating: ****
review: Oliver Stone, oddly, does a more authentic Quentin Tarantino without Tarantino providing the script.

Batman & Robin
rating: ***
review: Oddly, I kind of like this much-despised entry in the franchise better than its predecessor, as it betters integrates all the elements the studio thought would make Batman more family-friendly.  Despite the camp, it has more heart than any Dark Knight movie.

L.A. Confidential
rating: ***
review: A kind of retro take on Tarantino, with Russell Crowe and Kevin Spacey leading an excellent cast.

Gattaca
rating: ***
review: Fun little original sci-fi parable with Ethan Hawke and Jude Law.

Anastasia
rating: ***
review: With Disney apparently uninterested in making its signature movies, someone else did.

Flubber
rating: ***
review: Robin Williams in this effects-happy update of The Absent-Minded Professor before viewers were as interested as Hollywood in living in a digital world.

Cop Land
rating: ***
review: Admirable attempt by Sylvester Stallone to reinsert himself into serious dramas.

Hercules
rating: ***
review: Disney again skewing tradition with a male lead.  The Gospel music is an inspired choice.

In & Out
rating: ***
review: A movie inspired by an Oscar speech, with Kevin Kline desperately trying to prove he's not gay.  This movie would not be made today.

Scream 2
rating: ***
review: Inexplicably, the horror satire becomes a part of horror tradition.

The Postman
rating: ***
review: The Kevin Costner backlash continues, this time with an epic he derived from a David Brin sci-fi book.

Donnie Brasco
rating: ***
review: A minor gangster entry featuring solid work from Johnny Depp and Al Pacino.

G.I. Jane
rating: ***
review: Demi Moore seeing how far she can push her career.

Face/Off
rating: **
review: John Travolta and Nicholas Cage see how far they can push their careers.

Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
rating: **
review: Brian Thompson tries to keep this unfortunate sequel afloat.

Princess Mononoke
rating: **
review: One of the first animes of the modern era to test whether American audiences are willing to enjoy something that was clearly never intended for them.

The Butcher Boy
rating: **
review: Youths misbehave, but with Irish accents.

Masterminds
rating: **
review: Patrick Stewart in a misguided effort to define his Hollywood role outside of franchises.

Dante's Peak
rating: **
review: Volcano movie.  For some reason this was a competition that year.

Starship Troopers
rating: **
review: Hollywood's desperation to find the next Star Wars kind of reaches the bottom of the barrel.  So naturally it was time for Star Wars itself to return.

Kull the Conqueror
rating: **
review: Basically Kevin Sorbo making a big screen Hercules.  But "not" as Hercules.

Steel
rating: *
review: Not horrid.  But clearly not budgeted sufficiently.

Spawn
rating: *
review: Clearly intended to be the Deadpool of 1997.  Failed miserably.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

1996 Capsule Reviews

Star Trek: First Contact
rating: *****
review: Maybe I sound like I'm being less than objective when I heap this much praise on a Star Trek movie and admit that I'm an unabashed Star Trek fan.  But one of the things critics always used against the franchise in their reviews is that while it had Patrick Stewart, it never gave him material worthy of him.  Which is exactly what this movie does.  It builds to a truly great moment in which Captain Picard realizes that he's let revenge get the better of him, with Stewart delivering some truly exceptional work to drive it home.

Looking for Richard
rating: *****
review: Al Pacino's examination of Richard III should be required viewing for anyone who still has yet to understand the appeal of Shakespeare.

Mission: Impossible
rating: ****
review: There's a reason why Tom Cruise keeps making these movies, and it's not just because they're his most reliable source for box office success.  It's because he legitimately made this franchise his own, starting with a classic to kick it all off.

Independence Day
rating: ****
review: Where Jurassic Park left off, this is the blockbuster that ended up reviving Hollywood's efforts to crack open the box office with an idea that just blossomed all on its own, and solidly connected with audiences.  Finally seeing a much-anticipated sequel twenty years later.  Hopefully fans will appreciate this opportunity.

The Island of Dr. Moreau
rating: ****
review: Famously heckled as Marlon Brando's late career farce, I prefer to think of it as his direct criticism of the state of mankind, so that it is a farce, deliberately so.  Also along for the ride are a game Val Kilmer and David Thewlis a few years before he became a known commodity.

From Dusk Till Dawn
rating: ****
review: Superfriends Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino collaborate directly on a film for the first and so far only time in their careers, and in the process give George Clooney an unlikely but thrilling start to his film career.

Jerry Maguire
rating: ****
review: For me, this is what an Oliver Stone romance would look like, a movie with a conscience as well as heart.  Another of Tom Cruise's best.

The Cable Guy
rating: ****
review: Where Dumb and Dumber was deliriously unfocused, this famous Jim Carrey misfire was more like biting satire, and is arguably one of his best.

Trainspotting
rating: ****
review: One of the great '90s cult sensations has kind of been forgotten over the years, but stands toe-to-toe with similar movies from other decades, like A Clockwork Orange, and is probably better.

Happy Gilmore
rating: **8
review: The Adam Sandler phenomenon a few years later is justified by this earlier effort, in which he somehow turns Bob Barker into a legitimate scene-stealing star.

Primal Fear
rating: ***
review: Edward Norton, for far too many critics, could never live up to his career-making performance.  But he's done better since, and in better movies.

Romeo + Juliet
rating: ***
review: In hindsight a snapshot of greatness-in-the-making, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the famous doomed lovers.

The English Patient
rating: ***
review: You have to be very patient indeed to appreciate this one.

The Nutty Professor
rating: ***
review: Eddie Murphy revives his career but the biggest problem, or perhaps only problem, is that he has nothing to work against but himself.

Scream
rating: ***
review: Ingenious meta reconstruction of '80s horror tropes.

Hamlet
rating: ***
review: Thorough presentation of Shakespeare's famous tragedy.

Mars Attacks!
rating: ***
review: Madcap parody of Independence Day featuring Jack Nicholson in various roles.

That Thing You Do!
rating: ***
review: Tom Hanks directs the story of a fictional '60s band with everything but a Tom Hanks playing the lead.

Mary Reilly
rating: ***
review: Famously sunk Julia Roberts' career (briefly) but is otherwise a fun variation on Jekyll and Hyde.

The Fan
rating: **
review: Variation on the obsessed fan story featuring Robert De Niro.

The Rock
rating: **
review: Created the Nicholas Cage action genre.

The Phantom
rating: **
review: A preview of The Mask of Zorro, complete with Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Kingpin
rating: **
review: The best thing about this is Bill Murray's ridiculous hair.

Courage Under Fire
rating: **
review: Not exactly A Few Good Men.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
rating: **
review: Disney nobly trying something completely different.

The Quest
rating: **
review: Jean Claude Van Damme makes his own Bruce Lee movie.

Rumble in the Bronx
rating: **
review: Jackie Chan's breakout hit is not as entertaining as you'd think.

Crash
rating: Rubbish based on a rubbish book.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

1995 Capsule Reviews

Toy Story
rating: *****
review: Pixar becomes an instant phenomenon with this animated pairing of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen and the pleasures of childhood reinterpreted.

Grumpier Old Men
rating: ****
review: The second one is as good as the first, maybe even better, with everyone relaxing comfortably into their roles.

The Quick and the Dead
rating: ****
review: Sharon Stone plays the atypically typical Western lead with superb supporting help from up-and-coming talents Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Don Juan DeMarco
rating: ****
review: Impossibly romantic fantasy, basically a more adult Princess Bride, featuring Johnny Depp and Marlon Brando, the first great movie for one, and possibly the last great for the other.

Higher Learning
rating: ****
review: The great black drama from this era not directed by Spike Lee.

Desperado
rating: ****
review: You know Puss in Boots from the Shrek movies?  It was the latterday version of movies like this, in which Antonio Banderas briefly looked like the second coming of Errol Flynn.

The Usual Suspects
rating: ****
review: Hollywood figures out Quentin Tarantino by unleashing the secret weapon known as Kevin Spacey.

Braveheart
rating: ****
review: Mel Gibson gives birth to the post-Kevin Costner historic epic with this portrait of the Scottish savior (ah, pun intended).

Mortal Kombat
rating: ****
review: Seems like an outrageously inflated rating, but then, it's also an outrageously entertaining video game movie, kind of an early preview of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Apollo 13
rating: ****
review: This is where Gravity/Interstellar/The Martian came from, the beginning of the popular perception that NASA only breeds tragedy, and great movies, these days.

Nixon
rating: ****
review: Oliver Stone presents a nuanced portrait of the controversial president.

Waterworld
rating: ***
review: Kevin Costner famously stumbles in his effort to create an entirely new epic vision.  But it's not nearly as bad as legend suggests.

Batman Forever
rating: ***
review: As much as I love Jim Carrey, I think he's what ultimately tipped the balance in this iteration of the franchise, even though he was only logically following the tradition set by Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito before him.

12 Monkeys
rating: ***
review: Terry Gilliam and Bruce Willis attempt to keep up with Brad Pitt's efforts to distance himself from expectations.

Seven
rating: ***
review: In the tradition of Silence of the Lambs, the good guys have a hard time keeping up with the bad guy, this time Kevin Spacey (famously unbilled, but unlike in Usual Suspects a secret that been kept all these years).  Brad Pitt again attempts to subvert expectations, this time with his classic freakout at the end of the movie.

Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls
rating: ***
review: The follow-up to his first big hit finds Jim Carrey struggling mightily to find something else to say about the character.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It
rating: ***
review: Not quite Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but this Mel Brooks parody of Bram Stoker's Dracula still provides some classic moments.

Dead Man Walking
rating: ***
review: Sean Penn successfully transforms his image into a dramatic actor, but the movie around him is so leaden that it's hard to remember why we should feel sorry for him.

Casino
rating: ***
review: Martin Scorsese returns to the gangster well without a compelling central lead.  I guess this is what Goodfellas would be like without Ray Liotta's narration.

Bad Boys
rating: ***
review: Will Smith's first big movie is memorable enough for me to remember the name Mike Lowry, but he's got better things in the future.

Mr. Holland's Opus
rating: ***
review: Feel-good story, but ultimately about as iconic as the eponymous score.

Othello
rating: ***
review: Notable for being one of Laurence Fishburne's early lead performances.

Wild Bill
rating: ***
review: This Jeff Bridges Western is like a preview of the much greater artistic achievement The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Four Rooms
rating: **
review: Unique collaborative effort that eventually led to the more successful Grindhouse, and as much as viewers tend to rag on Quentin Tarantino for doing it and thus spoiling his momentum, his segment is undeniably the best one and worthy of inclusion into his canon.

GoldenEye
rating: **
review: Pierce Brosnan's debut as Bond is a very good, though as far as I can tell, formulaic spin on the franchise.

Judge Dredd
rating: **
review: Sylvester Stallone attempts to make a movie out of an impossible proposition: basically a Western set in the future, with no awareness that this is exactly what it is.

Tommy Boy
rating: **
review: Chris Farley achieved stardom with this movie, but it's not exactly Blues Brothers.

Species
rating: **
review: These movies actually aren't terrible, but it's hard to make that argument seriously when they seem to go out of their way to be known first and foremost for nudity.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

1994 Capsule Reviews

Pulp Fiction
rating: *****
review: Quentin Tarantino's ambitious tour de force leaves us with Samuel L. Jackson's iconic performance as the philosophic hitman Jules, but John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and Bruce Willis are eager contenders in the mix.

The Shawshank Redemption
rating: *****
review: Often dismissed by critics as a chick flick for guys, it's also Stephen King at his most elegiac and may in fact by his best lasting contribution to the culture, and had, like Pulp Fiction, an iconic performance in Morgan Freeman's narrator, which has rightly influenced the course of his career as a vocal institution.

Forrest Gump
rating: *****
review: Often skewered for having beaten the above two for the Best Picture Oscar, few observers tend to analyze exactly what it accomplishes as a film, delivering a textbook portrait of America as it evolves over the course of Gump's lifetime.  In a lot of ways, does exactly what Oliver Stone was attempting for years, but with the benefit of Tom Hanks in the lead.

Star Trek Generations
rating: ****
review: Given the thankless task of inventing the modern obsession with inclusive mythology by having Captain Kirk and his Next Generation counterpart Picard meet, plus usher in Picard's movie adventures after what some fans saw as the premature end of his TV run...See how much rode on this one?  Yet it succeeds by subverting all expectations, uniquely winking at the whole concept's origins as a Western analogy when it has the two leads share a horse riding sequence, and sends Kirk off in an old-fashioned showdown.  It also sets up the Next Generation movie dynamic between Picard and Data, a more concise answer to Kirk and Spock that more wisely crescendos with one of them dying rather than begin with it...

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective
rating: ****
review: Jim Carrey finally finds his breakout vehicle and ushers in the modern comedic id.

Wyatt Earp
rating: ****
review: The uncelebrated end to Kevin Costner's incredible hot streak sees him tackle one last cultural touchstone, the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, with a game Dennis Quaid turning in an equally overlooked career performance as Doc Holliday.

The Mask
rating: ****
review: Hollywood very quickly realized what it had in Jim Carrey, and had this even more outrageous movie waiting in the wings.

The Santa Clause
rating: ****
review: Tim Allen, for a brief period, topped the box office, TV ratings, and the bestsellers charts simultaneously, something he absolutely earned with his spoof on the male ego.  Here he subverts it by becoming Santa.

Stargate
rating: ***
review: Fans kind of ruined everything by embracing the later, mediocre TV version, but the franchise kicked off in fine fashion.

Natural Born Killers
rating: ***
review: Oliver Stone switches gears and does his best version of Quentin Tarantino (aided by a Quentin Tarantino script) in this livid portrait of tabloid television. 

Legends of the Fall
rating: ***
review: Tries gamely to make Brad Pitt a kind of mythic American.

Maverick
rating: ***
review: Mel Gibson does his best James Garner, who comes along for the ride!  This was just before Hollywood knew what to do with Gibson on a permanent basis.  And of course now...

The Lion King
rating: ***
review: This was Disney's big creative statement after the big success of its creative comeback.  Rightly has an earnest following, but it's also missing that central spark and ends up being kind of the movie that happens around it, the supporting cast of any other effort.

Street Fighter
rating: **
review: A game adaptation of a fighter video game, which ends up working better as Mortal Kombat.

True Lies
rating: **
review: Arnold Schwarzenegger does a fun little movie that's the rare combination of his comedy and action efforts.

Dumb and Dumber
rating: **
review: At this point, Jim Carrey could do no wrong in the eyes of the public.  Except this really is, basically, dumb.

Clerks
rating: **
review: On the opposite side of the Quentin Tarantino phenomenon, the outsider who improbably made it into Hollywood, is Kevin Smith.  I'll never understand this one.

Monday, February 29, 2016

1993 Capsule Reviews

Schindler's List
rating: *****
review: This is Spielberg at the height of his powers, telling a story that speaks for itself in terms of significance, but also subverts a lot of expectations by casting its hero as anything but a superhero.  Liam Neeson has never again had a role like this.  Ralph Fiennes, meanwhile, is good enough to have parlayed his bad guy into a very good career in which he's rarely played the bad guy again.  Except, y'know, as Voldemort.

Groundhog Day
rating: ****
review: For a generation, embodied the concept of the repeating day narrative, and easily served up Bill Murray's most endearing performance.

Grumpy Old Men
rating: ****
review: I've never understood why critics tend to be so grumpy about this one.  It's classic comedy at its finest, improbably reuniting a classic comedy pairing (Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, the original Odd Couple) for the best comedy of their careers.

True Romance
rating: ****
review: In the rush to capitalize on Quentin Tarantino's sensational debut, Hollywood turned to...Quentin Tarantino for some help.  His script helped make this arguably better than Tarantino's own Reservoir Dogs.  It's a preview, at the very least, for the kind of filmmaker Tarantino would become.

Heaven and Earth
rating: ****
review: Oliver Stone returns to Vietnam to explore the native experience in this little-known drama.

Philadelphia
rating: ****
review: Tom Hanks' first great drama is also the one that netted him his first Best Actor Oscar.

Much Ado About Nothing
rating: ****
review: Guaranteed to make anyone leery to embrace Shakespeare to in fact love the Bard.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights
rating: ****
review: Mel Brooks directly parodies Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and despite what history tends to say, ends up with another classic.

The Snapper
rating: ***
review: Colm Meaney, the Irish actor who for years plied his trade in Star Trek TV shows, had a series of movies in which he got to stretch a little, and this was his first direct spotlight in them.

Mrs. Doubtfire
rating: ***
review: Robin Williams finds all but the perfect role post-Aladdin, and most of it works perfectly, until you look back at it in hindsight.  Jim Carrey made this kind of movie better in Liar, Liar.

The Fugitive
rating: ***
review: Classic retelling of a cult TV series features Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in one of their signature movies, but spends so much time in the chase that neither one, upon further examination, has too much to do, as made all too clear in how each of them followed it up.  Jones made the quasi-sequel U.S. Marshalls, which made it all too clear how little his character really had to work with, and Ford made more action movies with more clearly-defined roles.  But it's still a milestone.

Kalifornia
rating: ***
review: This is the movie Juliette Lewis made before Natural Born Killers and is every bit its spiritual predecessor.  The problem is, it's not as good.  It's a Hollywood version of Quentin Tarantino without Quentin Tarantino.  This time it just doesn't work.  But the good news is that it's also got Brad Pitt, so it's worth watching anyway.

The Thing Called Love
rating: ***
review: In the eternal search to discover what kind of actor the mature River Phoenix would have been, fans will always examine what he left behind to find out.  This otherwise standard drama also has a young Sandra Bullock going for it, so it's not a bad place to start.

Gettysburg
rating: ***
review: In many ways, as full of romanticism as Gone with the Wind.

Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story
rating: ***
review: It's sad that the greatest martial artist ever to appear in the movies didn't live long enough to be in a movie truly worthy of his talents.  This is close enough.

The Man Without a Face
rating: ***
review: In the wake of Mel Gibson's sensational The Passion of the Christ, well-meaning but horribly misinformed fans thought this was some kind of biopic.  It's a good movie, but it's...definitely not Gibson's life story.

Dave
rating: ***
review: Is Kevin Kline really the president?  No.  Is this still a fun movie?  Yes!  Of course, it's also just the tip of the iceberg in the emerging Hollywood obsession with presidential movies, which still sees no end in sight.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas
rating: ***
review: I can think of fewer movies that have impacted the culture more with less memory with what actually happened in the movie.  Less a holiday classic and more Burton's, perhaps, ideal movie.

Jurassic Park
rating: ***
review: A whole cultural phenomenon in its own right (and last year spawned a sequel that again rehashed a plot that really has nowhere to go), part of the dinosaur obsession of that time, that helped define the '90s blockbuster.

Romper Stomper
rating: **
review: Russell Crowe's breakout film is probably not what you'd expect.  His subsequent Hollywood career really doesn't reflect it at all, which is kind of weird.

El Mariachi
rating: **
review: Robert Rodriguez's breakout film is more recognizable, meanwhile, because it was basically remade, better, as Desperado.

It's All True
rating: **
review: Fascinating attempt to reconstruct, as a documentary about a documentary, a lost Orson Welles film, which curiously falls apart when it unwisely presents an extended sequence that for its lack of completeness, fails miserably to provide the coda that would have sealed the deal.  More successful is the credits music featuring Welles boisterously detailing his observations on Brazilian music as we listen to it.

Cool Runnings
rating: **
review: An odd mix of a comedy attempting to simultaneously provide a feel-good message.

Tombstone
rating: **
review: I continue to contend that it's outclassed in every regard by Wyatt Earp.

Hocus Pocus
rating: **
review: Odd comedy that attempts to make witches sympathetic by making them as pathetic as possible.

Free Willy
rating: **
review: The most famous example of that era's push to make people care about whales as an endangered species. 

Friday, February 26, 2016

1992 Capsule Reviews

Malcolm X
rating: *****
review: Spike Lee's masterpiece, a biopic of the '60s black leader not named Martin Luther King, Jr.  Denzel Washington has his first great starring role as the eponymous icon.

Reservoir Dogs
rating: ****
review: Quentin Tarantino's explosive debut features a complete revision of the hoodlum genre and career-making performances for every member of the cast.

Aladdin
rating: ****
review: Disney's third exceptional animated film in as many efforts brings the quality level back down to earth, although finds a real phenomenon in giving Robin Williams perhaps his greatest role as the Genie.

A Few Good Men
rating: ****
review: The only thing wrong with this movie is that Jack Nicholson ultimately steals the show right from under lead Tom Cruise, who proves overmatched on this occasion.

The Cutting Edge
rating: ****
review: For a nation that was at that time obsessed with figure skating, it's good that someone made a really good movie out of it at the same time.

Sister Act
rating: ****
review: Whoopi Goldberg's greatest role fires on all cylinders except in the plot that is kind of shoehorned in to make it happen in the first place.  But it's nice to see Maggie Smith and Harvey Keitel try to redeem thankless roles around her.

Batman Returns
rating: ****
review: Tim Burton's second dance with the Dark Knight takes all of its notes from the Burton playbook, and succeeds as everything, basically, except a Batman movie.  Which is just weird.

A River Runs Through It
rating: ****
review: Robert Redford delivers one of the two ridiculously earnest movies Brad Pitt made in this period (along with Legends of the Fall).  You can swap the term "earnest" with "elegiac," depending on how much you go along with it.  This was like a movie version of The Waltons

A League of Their Own
rating: ****
review: This was an era in which supporting performances could very easily upstage the main event.  Hence why I still love quoting Tom Hanks' immortal: "There's no crying in baseball!"

Bram Stoker's Dracula
rating: ****
review: This sensational revision of the character back to its roots is perfectly in-line with the rest of Hollywood in this era.

Chaplin
rating: ****
review: Robert Downey, Jr. matures as an actor in this portrait of an early Hollywood favorite.

Wayne's World
rating: ***
review: Like Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth are two comedy icons from this period that kind of became period specific.

Noises Off
rating: ***
review: A fine adaptation of classic live theater farce.

Brain Donors
rating: ***
review: An attempt to revive classic Hollywood farce.  (Previously I pointed out how Hollywood seemed to so eagerly try and bury this period.  I think it's because it tried so hard to reinvent the wheel.)

Unforgiven
rating: ***
review: Almost like an update of The Shootist, John Wayne's classic final film, Clint Eastwood introduces the new normal of the Hollywood Western, in which something big (an aging cowboy played by an iconic actor returning to form) is necessary for anyone to care again about the genre.

Scent of a Woman
rating: ***
review: Ironically, another emerging actor (this time Chris O'Donnell) unwittingly duplicates Tom Cruise's experience in A Few Good Men, this time with Al Pacino, and far too early in his career.

The Muppet Christmas Carol
rating: ***
review: The Muppets concede that they need to do something drastic to be relevant again, and turn to adapting classic novels.  My dad swears by this version.  Doesn't hurt to feature Michael Caine.

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York
rating: **
review: Exactly like the first one, only not as fresh.

The Mighty Ducks
rating: **
review: Kicked off the young actors craze.  Ended up inspiring a real NHL team.  About what you'd expect, otherwise, from a sports film.

Honey, I Blew Up the Kids
rating: **
review: Yeah, somehow this happened.  No doubt fun to watch, but...

Toys
rating: **
review: Not bad, Robin Williams, but also a waste of your potential.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

1991 Capsule Reviews

JFK
rating: *****
review: Oliver Stone's perfect movie, whether you believe his conclusions or not, in which he deconstructs Kennedy's assassination and a version of the popular conspiracy theory narrative that has built up around it over the years. 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
rating: ****
review: Fans still consider Wrath of Khan to be the perfect Star Trek film, but it's hard to contend, at least for a film featuring the original cast, with this nuanced portrait of Starfleet/Klingon relations that also covers real-world political events from the Cold War that inspired it.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day
rating: ****
review: The movie that officially launched James Cameron's blockbuster career is nearly perfect, and helped Hollywood finally begin to deconstruct the Star Wars phenomenon once and for all, so that in another decade, this kind of movie is released all the time.

Hook
rating: ****
review: Routinely listed as one of Spielberg's rare misses, this is another 1991 deconstruction (I guess that was the running theme) that probably asked audiences to think too much about Peter Pan to succeed on its own merit.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
rating: ****
review: Kevin Costner in this period was absolutely untouchable, although this movie also stands as the starting point of audiences questioning whether the lead actor was in fact ethnically miscast.  In truth, it doesn't matter.  Despite the ongoing love for the romanticism of Errol Flynn, this is by far the better movie.  This was a whole era in which moviemaking started to grow up.

The Doors
rating: ****
review: Honestly, I think this second Stone flick from the years has just gotten lost in the shuffle.  It's an excellent portrait of Jim Morrison, and Val Kilmer absolutely nails his performance.  Probably a victim of the emerging Stone backlash.

The Fisher King
rating: ****
review: Terry Gilliam begins to mature as a filmmaker, pulling all his best impulses together, which doesn't hurt when he's got Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams to work with.

Beauty and the Beast
rating: ****
review: Famously the first animated feature to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, this was Disney maturing along with the rest of Hollywood plain and simple.

What About Bob?
rating: ***
review: A minor Bill Murray classic, in which he drives Richard Dreyfuss crazy.  Kicked off a Dreyfuss renaissance that culminated in Mr. Holland's Opus.

The Commitments
rating: ***
review: Classic rock drama that happens to feature an Irish cast.

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
rating: ***
review: These were excellent (heh) movies, but another case where this whole period in film history was somewhat hastily pasted over for later '90s developments.  Basically Bill & Ted's Divine Comedy.

White Fang
rating: ***
review: This was my introduction to both Jack London and Ethan Hawke.

My Girl
rating: ***
review: More so than the young stars, including an oddly supporting turn from sudden megastar Macaulay Culkin, it's actually the unusually melancholy performance from Dan Ackroyd as the father that sticks with me.

Thelma and Louise
rating: ***
review: Don't tell the girls, but this female Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is better known, to me and possibly to a lot of other fans, as the movie stolen by a young Brad Pitt.

Point Break
rating: ***
review: The juxtaposition between Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves is even more excellent than Bill and Ted, but it's a movie that juggles the line between cheese and awesome even more uncomfortably.  Eventually gave birth to an excellent film series: The Fast and the Furious.

Shipwrecked
rating: ***
review: This was a childhood favorite, and paved the way for my Pirates of the Caribbean obsession.

The Rocketeer
rating: ***
review: Like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, its wonderful nostalgic anachronism is fun to watch, but doesn't quite duplicate, say, Indiana Jones.

Life Stinks
rating: **
review: Mel Brooks in an original movie that set the tone for a lot of '90s cynicism that eventually coalesced around Seinfeld.

Fried Green Tomatoes
rating: **
review: One of those archetypal chick flicks that you would probably have to be specifically geared toward to rate higher.  But then, you can probably guess some of my own biases.  So at least I'm being honest.

The Silence of the Lambs
rating: **
review: Source for our ongoing obsession with police procedurals on TV, made iconic in the few minutes Anthony Hopkins appears as Hannibal Lecter.

King Ralph
rating: **
review: I vaguely remember this John Goodman movie, but the similar Dave with Kevin Kline ages better in my memory.

Jungle Fever
rating: **
review: It's kind of funny.  Spike Lee came around at a time when there was considerable racial unrest.  It's a little odd that there isn't someone like him right now.  This was one of the movies in his string of studies on the subject, that isn't quite up to par.

Highlander 2: The Quickening
rating: **
review: There are actually two cuts of this movie available, one that completely excises the apparently controversial origin element of the alien origin for the immortals running around in this series.  I kind of like both.

Hudson Hawk
rating: **
review: One of the poster children for vanity projects from this period and their incredibly poor reputations, I actually like it.  Bruce Willis clearly just wanted to have fun, but he became pigeon-holed as someone who instead had to be grim all the time.  Now he has no fun at all.  See what happened, folks?

The Neverending Story II
rating: **
review: It's definitely one of those historical ironies that a movie with this title had a sequel that didn't not beg for another sequel.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II
rating: **
review: Pegged in history as part of the Vanilla Ice phenomenon.