Sunday, December 31, 2017

Selma (2014)

rating: ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 29, 2017

2018: The Year Ahead

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (2014)

rating: ****

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

rating: ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

rating: ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017


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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

2004 Capsule Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 14, 2017

2003 Capsule Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

2002 Capsule Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rating: **
review: A Matrix wannabe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 31, 2017

Dunkirk (2017)

rating: ****

the story: British soldiers try to evacuate France.

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight in Paris (2011)

rating: ****

the story: A Hollywood screenwriter working on his first book imagines life was idyllic in 1920s Paris, and then somehow ends up there.

what it's all about: Admittedly, my experience with Woody Allen is still shamelessly incomplete, loaded to a generous portion of his recent work while leaving his earlier films mostly unexperienced except for a so-long-ago viewing of Annie Hall that I have no clear memories of it now, but I would have to say Midnight in Paris is one of my favorites, and I think it will stand as one of his signature artistic statements.

Owen Wilson grafts his natural charm to the classic Woody persona of the anxious would-be lover seeking answers to life's questions.  I never really get why critics complain about the Woody persona.  I loved Kenneth Branagh's take in Celebrity.  Technically, Will Ferrell plays it in Melinda and Melinda, although it might be difficult to see as he takes a backseat to Radha Mitchell.  You might even say Colin Farrell plays it, in tortured fashion, for Cassandra's Dream.  Wilson is such an amiable talent it's sometimes easy to take him for granted (apparently about a decade past he struggled with real despair for perhaps that very reason), but Midnight in Paris owes a huge debt to him.  It wouldn't work nearly as well without him accepting the lunatic premise that never really attempts to explain itself, and is all the better for it.  Who else could sell it with such casual acceptance?

The show is stolen, however, by a pair of supporting performances, of diverging length.  Adrien Brody, who ended up being taken for granted after his Pianist breakthrough, is a hugely amusing Salvador Dali (!), who seems to have stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie, maybe.  You can watch the movie for the pleasure of Brody's Dali alone.  You can do that, but you'd be missing Corey Stoll's breakthrough performance as Ernest Hemingway, who is basically the exact opposite of Woody Allen.  The sheer bravado of it is breathtaking.  Stoll, who has continued supporting and television roles since giving us his Hemingway, commands the screen and translates all over again the charm of a writer almost better known for his personality than his prose.  But he'll make you want to read the prose, too.

Together, Brodi and Stoll make mincemeat of Michael Sheen's blowhard intellectual, who's so busy trying to impress everyone, including Wilson's would-be bride Rachel McAdams, cast in the classic Allen archetype of the lover who just doesn't understand and doesn't even care to try, that it's kind of tragic for Sheen, and McAdams, because they continually disappoint through no fault of their own, because they can't possibly hope to contend with them.  Isn't that kind of the point?  Wilson thinks life can't get any better than his romantic notions of the past, and so to have the two most important figures of the present be so utterly charmless in comparison, that's storytelling.

So ironically, Marion Cotillard leads the rest of the cast as the would-be replacement lover Wilson discovers suffers from the same pains he does, only she's from the 1920s and wishes she were some thirty years earlier still...Cotillard is a master of fading into her mysterious beauty (there's a great bit about that and Pablo Picasso in the movie), ethereal, the elusive connective tissue that holds the whole thing together.  Toss in Kathy Bates and a pre-Loki Tom Hiddleston, and you have a cast that's rewarding on every level, that knows exactly what it needs to accomplish, and rewards repeated viewings.  I mean, Hiddleston in 2011 had Midnight and Thor released within weeks of each other.  He plays F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight, the first famous face Wilson meets, handily introducing him to Stoll's Hemingway.  Hiddleston's scenes are also stolen by a crackerjack portrayal of Zelda Fitzgerald, but watching them again, knowing what was about to bloom for Hiddleston, is to love the quirks of fate. 

It's a movie that's ridiculously easy to like, and the more you watch it the more you like it.  And it's got a big statement to make, too, about living in the past, and how it's both not as good for you as you might imagine, and that it is as good for you as you might imagine.  Wilson undeniably benefits from his experiences, even as his personal life crumbles, and he learns there's a limit to the experience.  But then, he also meets a local Parisian, a contemporary who shares the more grounded outlook he cobbles together, or perhaps was always there.  I mean, he remains enchanted by Paris itself throughout the movie.  Ironically it's Steen and McAdams who keep presenting a warped view of Wilson's fixation on the past.  That's another reason Wilson is perfect for this movie, because he's able to let their negativity slide off of him without unneeded drama to further complicate things.

And that's really the spirit of Midnight in Paris, the ability to  enjoy itself, say something profound, and move on.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Lone Ranger (2013)

rating: ****

the story: John Reid becomes the eponymous hero.

what it's all about: Basically this is a movie that flopped at the box office for an incredibly superficial reason, and that was the immense backlash at Johnny Depp playing Tonto.  For the kind of movie Lone Ranger is, the casting makes absolutely perfect sense.  Depp is literally the only actor who could've pulled it off.  It's quintessential Depp.  But he's also not exactly Native American, so there was immense backlash.

If the casting had been accepted, Depp's Tonto would've added to his collection of signature characters.  That was the whole point.  His Jack Sparrow revived Depp's career, and was the first time since Edward Scissorhands where Johnny Depp Being a Character Instead of a Generic Pretty Boy really worked, and that was the whole point.  So casting directors started trying Characters all over the place for him to play.  Robert Rodriguez scored a coup early on in securing Depp for Once Upon a Time in Mexico soon after the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie proved such a phenomenon, and, well, Depp's role and performance in it changed the tone of the Mariachi movies Rodriguez had been making, in such a way that still defines a Rodriguez movie to this day, but didn't really itch the scratch created by Jack Sparrow.  Then Depp appeared in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as an Eccentric Johnny Depp Character.  But it again felt forced.  And so on and so forth.  Really, Depp's career always thanked him most when he was appearing as Jack Sparrow, but eventually...he had to do something else.  He had to become something else. 

So he became Tonto.  This Tonto dominates Lone Ranger.  He's the framing narrator, the unreliable narrator who's, again, perfectly cast for the story Lone Ranger is trying to tell.  Ironically, this Tonto exists at all because in the years since Tonto's creation he's become less accepted as the Native American Sidekick, and now every time "kemosabe" is uttered, someone has to explain what it means.  It can't just be a term of endearment.  It's got to a commentary.  And so when Tonto in Long Ranger explains what it means this time, it's part of a running joke that's at the heart of this version of the story.  It's very much in the vein of Jack Sparrow, the character everyone used to try and explain, why he walked the way he did.  Ah, and the answer's always been, because Johnny Depp created a really, really interesting performance.

So here I am, still talking about Tonto.  Tonto is inescapable in this movie.  Imagine what the character would be, in this context, if someone like Adam Beach had played him.  And no offense to Adam Beach, but I know Adam Beach, and he's no Johnny Depp.  That's part of the problem.  Native Americans aren't allowed to be Johnny Depp in general, even now, decades into redefining their role in stories like this.  We're still stuck in a one dimensional look at them, it just so happens that now it's supposed to be positive.  But they're static, and we like it like that, and so when we say we're complaining about Johnny Depp playing Tonto we're really criticizing our inability to think of Tonto in any other way than Stoic Native American, because the actors we have?  Totally incapable of playing this Tonto. Except, maybe, Graham Greene.  That guy's awesome.  But he's also older than Tonto ought to be.

Anyway, so Tonto's at the heart of understanding this movie.  He's even at the heart of understanding why Johnny Depp's casting is so perfect, despite everything.  Tonto is meant to be "a band apart," as explained, eventually, in his origin story, late in the movie, when it's explained why he became the screwy dude we see throughout the movie, why he becomes such a perfect Johnny Depp Character.  He's been traumatized, and all his quirks have developed from his attempts to cope with what happened to him, what he did, when he was a boy.  He's not weird for the sake of being weird.  There's a honest-to-god, genuine answer for it. 

And that's the rest of the movie, from the framing narration, which tries to explain what happened to Lone Ranger's legacy, both in the fictional and real worlds, and the pathos at the heart of the madness.  That's the story in a nutshell, pathos at the heart of madness.

It's about a corrupt businessman (Tom Wilkinson, doing brilliantly restrained work in extreme contrast to William Fichtner's showy Butch Cavendish, whose look seems to have been the one real concession to Depp and director Gore Verbinski's Pirates past) who tricks the public into believing his lies, even though the one character who most interacts with him (Ruth Wilson, who does wounded beauty so incredibly well) thinks he's scum mostly worth shunning as much as possible, even though it's continually impossible.  To watch Wilkinson at play is to know this movie has a beating heart, and knows exactly what it's doing at all times.  To watch him perform under a heavy beard that makes him unrecognizable is to know that this is a production that takes seriously immersing itself in its own reality.  We don't need to see Fichtner's bloody fingers as he works a loose nail free, but that's detail that rewards the viewer, that authenticates a movie that spends much of its time with, well, Tonto.

Then there's the Lone Ranger himself, Armie Hammer.  Armie's, surprisingly, had it rough since his breakthrough role(s) in The Social Network.  He's an actor who oozes charisma, but it's so hard to quantify, because like Depp he refuses to be just another pretty face.  So it's not surprising to see the two in a movie together.  Where Depp's instinct has always been to bury his looks under a gauzy character, Armie simply rejects expectations.  He looks like the classic leading man, but he's not afraid to make a fool of himself. 

Tonto is constantly complaining that the wrong brother survived.  The other brother is James Badge Dale, another actor who inexplicably finds it difficult to be appreciated.  He embodies the hero as the hero is supposed to be, in Lone Ranger, and makes an early exit.  Dale's biggest problem is that he commits so thoroughly to his roles that he doesn't mind taking the backseat.  His squinty eyes say he's a clever guy, but the rest of his performance says he'll hide the best of his work behind everyone else's.  It's not that he can't command a scene (my first and favorite experience with him to date is a glorified cameo in Flight, where his character is literally named Gaunt Young Man in the credits, where he absolutely dominates a scene with Denzel Washington), but that he never has a role big enough to fit his talent. 

So the brother is so heroically competent that Armie's Lone Ranger is stuffed ideals that are always comically backfiring on him, so that he can never live up to him.  That's this movie's version of the character, a thorough deconstruction calculated for cynical audiences who maybe don't trust Westerns as a source of popular modern entertainment, but somehow ending up rejected...because of that?  Because it didn't take itself seriously enough?

Again, only if you're looking only at the surface, and this is a movie with a lot of moving pieces, that's endlessly rewarding, that throws supporting stars at you without warning (Helena Bonham Carter!  Barry Pepper!  Stephen Root!), seemingly at random and with no regard to their narrative impact.  But it's all calculated.  Brilliantly.  The way Wilkinson's character thinks he's got all the angles figured out.  The way even Tonto believes he's got everything figured out. Certainly the way the Lone Ranger thinks he does.  Before he puts on the mask.

This is a story about why good men must wear masks, why the heroes aren't happy being paraded before the public, why even when the narrator is unreliable he's telling the honest-to-god unvarnished truth (even about that stupid bird on his head).  It contradicts basically every common conclusion about this sort of storytelling.  It's more clever than any of Depp and Verbinski's Pirates movies (even if they could be quite rousing and affecting).  It knows it's retelling a classic Hollywood story, one of the stories that made Hollywood, the Western at its zenith, as myth. 

And yeah, it features a classic Johnny Depp performance.  Don't believe what you've heard.  Watch it for yourself.  You'll feel its magic for yourself.

Friday, July 14, 2017

2001 Capsule Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

2000 Capsule Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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