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1. Filmography - The strength of the films they have directed, or in certain cases, written or produced. Their creative properties.
2. Style - The director's filmmaking technique. The way that they shoot, compose, and manage the multiple facets of their films. The director's personal signature, and my preference for it.
3. Personality - The aura the director gives off. Their work ethic, their specific identities and how much I personally admire them.
4. Output - The amount of movies the director is responsible for, and the diversity of their stories.
Gods of Egypt (2016)
An Original Work of Mad, Wacky Brilliance. Gods Yes!
There's simply no justice in this world. This world where safe, sanitary entertainment is king. This world where audacity is roundly mocked and true vision garners sneers of contempt. Alex Proyas has made something ridiculous with his ancient Egyptian VFX extravaganza, Gods of Egypt. He's also made a visionary piece of summer blockbustasia. Weighed against the sterile ephemera slipping into and out of theaters today, Gods of Egypt proves its worth.
It is not Egypt-the geographic region in Northern Africa-that is represented in Gods of Egypt. Maybe this is an important point to consider for those puritanical air wasters who successfully raised a fuss over this film's racial demographics. It is a mythical Egypt where ten-foot-tall humanoid gods live among their creations. The fuss is moot. One of these gods is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Horus, the heir to Egypt. Another is Set (Gerard Butler) the jealous uncle who wants what any jealous movie uncle wants; power over the kingdom. The very basic adventure outline even makes room for a thieving street rat and his puppy dog romance. This story isn't going to surprise, move, or enlighten anybody. But you know what? Neither will Captain America 5.
Coster-Waldau is a serviceable hero; Brenton Thwaites is a serviceable sidekick. But Gerard Butler is the most entertaining of the cast. Butler has softened into one of our most lovable movie rogues in recent years, but we forget that his break out role was as 300's King Leonidas; a hyper-masculine icon. With Set, Butler gets another go at straight savagery, and he's as committed to the character as any he's played. There are other fine actors present; all of whom get a chance to look or sound patently preposterous. To give you an idea, Geoffrey Rush shows up with a white ponytail and a flaming headdress to shoot sun bombs at a cloud with teeth. But who cares about the actors? This ain't 12 Angry Men.
A movie like this, without imagination, is Avengers: Infinity War. Bland, weightless, flat, grey, tepid, digital runoff. It's true that Gods of Egypt is stuffed with computer generated effects, digital backgrounds, lots of action, and wall to wall green screen. But there is a vision behind all the effects, and that is an all-important distinction. Alex Proyas has a passion for image-making. It's a through line in his career. In Gods of Egypt, he uses special effects not to expedite or enhance, but to create. There is a tendency to think of all CGI, all action, as the same. That's not true. Gods of Egypt uses CGI to CGI's best cinematic potential; to create worlds, wonders, images that spring right from the imagination of the filmmaker. You can see in the crowds of thousands, in the surrealist landscapes, and in the striking ancient-Egypt-on-LSD architecture, that there is a real filmmaker at work here. There is creativity on display. Wild unhinged visions of a world that only exists within Gods of Egypt's two hours.
I don't want to be carried away by hyperbole. Just because Gods of Egypt is visionary, doesn't mean it's great. In the end, this is still a modern VFX blockbuster, complete with many of the smaller problems that entails. There is ample room for bathroom breaks when the action stops and the dutiful business of humor, exposition, and "true love" is addressed. But it is hard not to go to the mat for a VFX blockbuster that actually amazed and delighted me. Gods of Egypt debunks the theory that huge CGI summer spectaculars are inherently stale. With a director that doesn't care about looking silly, blockbusters can still be astonishing. Gods of Egypt is a great blockbuster. I had genuine fun. Not a manufactured, conglomerate approved good time, but an actual imagination high you can only get by experiencing a work of passion and artistry.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
British Rom-Com 101
The British romantic comedy has become a favorite genre of mine in recent years. Hugh Grant has become a favorite actor. Andie MacDowell has become a favorite actress. This movie, the one that kicked off the craze that led to About a Boy, Love Actually, and Bend It Like Beckham- a couple favorites and a soccer movie I like well-enough- is a perfectly charming template for the genre of dry English wit and light romance, but it's not quite a favorite.
Charles' (Hugh Grant) friends are getting married. Each wedding seems to bring another couple together, while he stays put in relationship limbo. Complicating matters is a vexing American, Carrie (Andie MacDowell) who somehow shows up to... Four Weddings and a Funeral. The rest follows the basic When Harry Met Sally outline, two acquaintances slowly learning that they love each other.
The difference, and what sets Mike Newell's film apart, is its very British sensibilities. That's the real charm of Four Weddings. Hugh Grant is in his nascent stage as the bumbling toff, and while his performance doesn't have quite the complexity of later roles, where he was funnier and more believably vulnerable, it's still quintessential Hugh Grant. I'm a fan of that. The supporting roles, as in other Richard Curtis-written films, are quite rich. Solid British character actors, as always, in some funny, quirky roles. It's always a delight to see Rowan Atkinson pop up in a movie and his big scene may be the best in the whole film. As a palette cleanser to all the tea and crumpets, Andie MacDowell does her job, although the character is a weak spot. There is so little in the way of background for Carrie, that you can almost imagine Charles' friends simply taking her out of storage just to attend weddings. Andie MacDowell is a special actress though, so effortlessly sparkling it's like she doesn't realize she's an actress at all. She salvages a lot from Carrie.
The film hits every emotional beat you expect a well-made rom-com to hit: humor, romance, melancholy, sadness, inspiration, and finally joy, but Four Weddings and a Funeral is only basically moving. I like Hugh Grant. I like Andie MacDowell. I want to see them get together. They get together. By that measure, the movie is a success. I don't discount that it's also a real chuckle-inducer and tear-conjurer. But it's just on that first level that the movie works. I don't believe Four Weddings and a Funeral has much real to say about love and relationships. It tells us that you should only marry someone you're fully, completely in love with. On that I agree, but let's be real, this is not a profound observation. Four Weddings and a Funeral gets by on charm. Lots of 90s, British, jolly-good charm.
Henry V (1989)
Straight Shakespeare Has Never Gone Done So Smooth.
In America, and probably most of the Western world, we are all introduced to the works of William Shakespeare by force. For reasons unknown to us at the time, we're made to read (or follow along with) these ancient plays as some kind of obligatory checkmark in our school careers. Whether Shakespeare was taught to us by teachers who are passionate fans of the material or, more likely, dutiful nannies, it seems we have all started into the world of Shakespeare from the same point. We take for granted why Shakespeare is considered essential. It always begins, for all of us, as boring, incomprehensible Ye Olde English homework, and nothing more.
And then you see something that convinces you otherwise. For me, it was a field trip to the American Players Theatre for AP English class when I was 16. The play was The Taming of the Shrew. I couldn't tell you what the play was about, I couldn't name to you a single character from memory, but what I do remember is the excitement of watching actors take Shakespeare seriously. Even in a comedy, I could see passion in the performances. This wasn't 14-year-olds reciting "What light through yonder window breaks" in apathetic monotone, this was professionals who made Shakespeare's words sing, almost literally. It was an honest-to-God compelling show, and the first time I remember actually wanting to enjoy Shakespeare. I was with a crowd of people who seemed to get it. They laughed at the right times and they seemed to follow along with the story. If The Taming of the Shrew didn't spark in me a love for Shakespeare, it at least sparked a real interest.
But onto my main point; Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Henry V is the type of thing to spark even more than an interest in Shakespeare for those who were like me. All that business I encountered 9 years ago, the taking it seriously, the passion, the elaborate staging and electricity of a crowd who loved Shakespeare; all those feelings are magnified in Henry V. Here is a movie, Branagh's first ever, that so confidently "gets" Shakespeare, that it ends up an unconditional triumph.
The major achievement of Henry V, the story of the young English King's valiant attempt to lead an outnumbered force into the Battle of Agincourt, is that word; 'unconditional'. Here we have Shakespeare's prose, his setting, his characters. The movie is without modern punch-ups or any attempts to orient us by re-figuring the story. Barring modern-set narration by Derek Jacobi, Henry V is Straight 'Speare. And somehow, there are no excuses you have to make for Henry V. You don't have to put on the qualifiers, "Shakespeare's language is tough to understand", "Knowing English history would make things clearer", "You need to know the context of the era". No, Branagh overcomes these obstacles with three huge elements: knowledge, passion and artistry.
Firstly, his understanding of Henry V does wonders. I've never seen or read the play, I don't know what I'm talking about, but still, I can see that Branagh the actor and Branagh the director believe in what they are saying and showing. Maybe it's just a trick of the performance, but when King Henry bellows out the St. Crispin's Day speech, and Patrick Doyle's music swells, it's an ecstatic moment. I don't need someone to explain to me what every word means because Branagh knows it for me. You follow his performance through the film almost like an emotional translator. That's the passion I mentioned. Kenneth Branagh is wildly excited to share his love for Shakespeare with the audience and the same goes for the supporting cast. The memo got to Emma Thompson, Ian Holm, Brian Blessed and the rest; "This is fun, this is exciting. Play it so."
Then, most importantly, there is Branagh's direction. This is no filmed stage play, and that's a shameful understatement. In fact, Henry V is a stunning piece of cinematic Cin-E-ma. Robust, bold, and gorgeously mounted, Henry V's visual style is in the same league as the very best historical epics. We're talking Braveheart-level artistry from Branagh, who opens the movie on a One Perfect Shot stunner and barely lets up until the final battle. And what a battle his Agincourt is. One does not expect this kind of scope, brutality, and muddy, bloody catharsis out of a Shakespeare adaptation. Doyle's aforementioned music is incredible, marrying so perfectly to the rousing action.
This Henry V is a Movie movie. Not a quiet and respectful "film adaptation" but an engrossing, stand-up-and-cheer prestige action adventure. That it does this with all the Shakespearian elements intact is its greatest feat. No need for samurai stand-ins or translated dialogue or a modern day setting, this is Shakespeare, straight-up, and it rocks! Seeing Kenneth Branagh's enthusiastic debut film is enough to make you rethink those old high school prejudices. How can a movie with so many 'wherefore's and 'thou's be so badass?
Up in the Air (2009)
Up in the Air Gives Modern Hollywood a Good Name.
Think about the fabled "Golden Age of Hollywood". A time gone by when The Movies had dignity, distinction, class. When actors and actresses were revered stars. When honest-to-God adults could schedule a trip to the theater and be treated to a robust, well-rounded good time. That feeling; of refined, professional, mainstream entertainment is all over Up in the Air. Starring actors and actresses with vintage charm and grace, in an intelligent, funny, touching screenplay, Jason Reitman's film reminds us that the joys of the golden age didn't quite end with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.
George Clooney is the star of the show as corporate downsizing expert Ryan Bingham. His role, a frequent flyer by day, high flying playboy by night, represents a miraculously natural fit for Clooney's once-in-a-generation movie star charisma. The script, based on a novel by Walter Kirn, introduces Bingham's occasional lover, played by the similarly vivacious Vera Farmiga. Her character, every bit Bingham's romantic equal, sets the playboy on a journey of self-discovery (pardon the cliche) that actually works. Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner's script is sharp as a tack about a number of topics. Family, romance, personal responsibility, and corporate America are among the subjects considered, dissected, and explored in a story that makes no entertainment sacrifices in sending out its themes. Up in the Air is just as lightly comic as it is thoughtful. Just as emotionally stimulating as it is intellectual. That's a real accomplishment from both Turner and director Reitman. So rare it is for something as slick and big-budgeted as this mainstream Tinseltown dramedy is, to feel so insightful about our real world.
The acting on display in Up in the Air is unusually fine. Let me bury the lead by first mentioning a string of winning supporting performances by Anna Kendrick (an adorable, star making turn that lights up the screen) Jason Bateman, and Amy Morton, and one brilliant scene with J.K. Simmons that expertly captures a very real, very poignant reality of life circa 2009 that holds just as true circa 2020. The exchange is really incredible.
But let's face it, Clooney and Farmiga are the lifeblood of this film. Vera Farmiga is as strong a female presence as I've seen in the movies. Few actresses her age seem as adult onscreen. Controlled, reserved and coolly playful opposite Clooney, she's a knockout all the way through this film. A grown woman in an ocean of girls.
Clooney is sparkling. I don't hesitate to call him our generation's finest movie star. He's a lovable stud; an approachable charmer. Handsome, funny, with hair salt-and-peppered enough to betray a certain level of endearment as well as distinguished confidence. He's a star to root for. His performance in Up in the Air is sublime. Sublime in the sense that it zeros in on and amplifies his built-in persona. Clooney gets to be Clooney, fully and without reservation. He's a specialist fulfilling his speciality, like Brett Favre throwing nothing but 50 yard bombs... and putting every one of them on the money. The role is great; detailed and complicated, but only George Clooney could have infused it with this sense of warmth, charm, and Clooney-branded scoundrel wit.
Critics come up with their "very best of the year" lists, and normally one has to trudge through a half dozen foreign indie "films with ideas" before one gets to the real movies. The studio entertainments palatable to the plebs, but less nourishing to the mind and/or heart. There's no compromise with Up in the Air. It fulfills that old school Hollywood ideal: Classy stars giving great performances in a grown-up entertainment that masters gentle humor and touching drama to carry audiences along for a couple hours and give them plenty to think about after they leave. Up in the Air is George Clooney's best movie; the one we will remember him by 50 years from now. It's an old adage, but actors, even the greatest of them, truly can go an entire career without finding their perfect fit. How lucky are we then to have seen the planets align so precisely for this film? Up in the Air is a movie to cherish.
News of the World (2020)
Extra, Extra... Superior Talent Turns in Pedestrian Effort
It wasn't unreasonable for me to be properly excited for News of the World. The newest Hollywood western, and the first new theatrical release in about five months that felt worth taking a trip to the cinema to see, News of the World had two big talents on board: star Tom Hanks and director Paul Greengrass. If there were anyone to put a little blind faith in, it would be two men behind some of the great films of the last three decades. The Greengrass-Hanks pairing, so fruitful in Captain Phillips, is, however, pretty barren in their second outing. News of the World is a considerable disappointment from these two great artists.
Based on the novel by Paulette Jiles, News of the World is simplistic to a fault. Tom Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran who currently makes a living reading newspapers to busy townspeople in a sort of theatrical storytime across the country. Kidd stumbles one day upon an orphaned German girl named Johanna (Helena Zengel). Johanna was taken in by Kiowa Indians as a youngin' and has completely assimilated to their ways. Kidd figures out that she needs to be transported to her surviving German relatives, and Kidd... takes her there. That's the story for ya. Cross country road trips are not new to the Western genre, but Jiles' story strikes me as unusually thin. The attempts to create tension along the way are woeful. At two separate points along the trail, two separate groups of men show up out of nowhere just to announce to Kidd, in so many words, that they will be the bad guys for the next bit. Obviously, these characters aren't the important ones. Kidd and Johanna are.
Their relationship is the centerpiece, and I can't really fault it. Hanks, the ever-reliable professional, rolls up his sleeves and says his lines with conviction as he always does. Zengel has an appropriate look; she isn't an annoying little cutie or smug growler as so many movie kids are these days, and she gives a good performance. I might even call it impressive. A scene or two or three of their growing bond hits home. These are the moments when you can see that director Greengrass kind of knows what he's doing.
Elsewhere, things aren't as pretty. Greengrass' reputation is with visceral shaky cameras and documentary-style filmmaking. That's not what News of the World needs, and it's not exactly what the movie is. But Greengrass is no hack. He's also one of the preeminent masters of immediacy and excitement. Those qualities are what I miss. That is what is glaringly lacking with the approach he brings to News of the World. This isn't a United 93-esque docudrama, brimming with that sort of intensity. News of the World is a traditional story and it is shot like a traditional "movie". Just not as painterly or carefully composed as some. However, the only thing that directorial restraint creates is a limp, boring visual look. I think I would have respected a full lean into documentary authenticity here, or conversely, a full lean into John Ford-ian grandeur, but what we get instead is a hesitant attempt to be a little (but not too much) different from Greengrass' other works. For the most part, it's soft-focused, claustrophobic and close-up heavy, with only the occasional drone shot to highlight some dull Texan exteriors. Weaksauce. There's a way to envelope an audience in verisimilitude that Greengrass has perfected in his oeuvre (make it tight, immediate, suspenseful), and there's a way to do it on a giant canvas (look at the pictorial magnificence of something like Dances with Wolves). Greengrass and his cinematographer do neither with News of the World. You can't just point a camera at a beautiful landscape and have it transport the viewer there.
Nothing grabs in News of the World. Tom Hanks is out there doing his thing, but is Captain Kidd really an interesting character? Is Hanks' performance anything special? No. The story is blah, the filmmaking is blah. It's very strange to see Paul Greengrass so lackadaisical. He seems uninterested in the material, and why shouldn't he be? The material is uninteresting. But still, there was something to salvage here. I mentioned that father-daughter relationship. It works on its own, in those individual scenes. But I trusted these filmmakers to come at it with a considered point of view. To put some kind of spin on it. To find something worthwhile in there. That didn't happen. What a shame.
George of the Jungle (1997)
Exceptionally Dopey, Unusually Delightful
George of the Jungle is a seriously goofy film. A slapstick live-action summertime cartoon aimed directly at young kids. One might be tempted to review it with bumpers; because it's for kids, give it a break. But George of the Jungle is better than that. It's a smart, witty family comedy, bursting with charm and good cheer. It may be silly, but it's a real film, with real filmmaking qualities, and a real heart.
The movie is based on the short-lived 1960s Jay Ward cartoon of the same name, but the words 'based on' are misleading. George of the Jungle takes the basic vibe (and banging theme song) from the show for use in an original comedic tale of a meathead Tarzan knockoff (Brendan Fraser) and the wholesome romance that sparks between he and Leslie Mann's big city heiress, Ursula. In the way is her slime ball fiancé Lyle (Thomas Haden Church) and the requisite 90s goon partners who want to capture the swinging white ape. The premise is excellent comedic fodder. Early jungle shenanigans are great fun, showcasing a confident, free-wheeling slapstick spirit. Writers Dana Olsen and Audrey Wells are unbound to the lazy conventions of the family comedy, instead having an obvious blast with inside jokes, fourth wall breaking narration, and knowing winks to the parents, before that became cliche unto itself. And of course there's the pratfalls too.
But better than that is the fish-out-of-water turn the film takes when George is taken to San Francisco. George of the Jungle separates itself from its contemporary self aware live-action cartoons (a big craze in the late 90s and early aughts) with a downright charming love story at its center. Brendan Fraser and Leslie Mann are doing deceptively impressive work as the puppy lovers. Fraser gives a role broader than a barn door an amazingly lovable sweetness. Almost any other actor on the planet would be an abrasive embarrassment as the sculpted dork. Fraser is adorable. His goofy naïveté is more naturally enchanting than maybe any rom com lead I've seen. Mann, on the other end, is equal to Fraser's masterful clown act. She's a winsome presence as the uncommonly cute city girl who falls for George. Here's another tricky acting challenge, trying to straddle the line between cartoon character and real girl. She might have been a disaster if she pushed too far in either direction, but she turns out wonderful.
Wonderful. Apply the word to everything about George of the Jungle. It's a movie I have cherished since the days watching it religiously with my cousin and brother on my Grandma's ancient VCR. Some of my most beloved memories are attached to Sam Weisman's innocent little kid's flick (I'll proudly admit to tightly lacing up a pair of Nikes and running shirtless through the middle school football practice field like George through the African savanna). Nostalgia is a powerful drug. It's the primary reason for George of the Jungle's spot among my top 10 all-time favorites. But nostalgia is not all this delightful film has going for it. Squint your eyes, and between all the hilarious absurdities, the apes named "Ape" that sound like John Cleese, the elephants that play fetch, the "Oo oo, ee ee, tookie tookie"s, you'll find genuine sweetness. A real air of good-humored joy. I'm always surprised that such a goofy, screwball adventure picture would end up feeling so impressive, but George of the Jungle is really that good at what it does. I could call it "a very funny live-action comedy, with a playful stupidity that delighted the kid in me, and a core of clever wit that tickled my adult sensibilities too", but that wouldn't tell the whole story. I see a more special quality in this colorful entertainment. A sense of truthfully felt innocence. Most childhood favorites don't stand up to adult scrutiny. George of the Jungle does one better. It keeps growing in my appreciation as the years pass.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
A Movie as Important and Profound as Everyday Life.
We are so used to movies feeling fantastic and fake, that a modest, real movie like Terms of Endearment is revolutionary. There isn't a thing flashy about James L. Brooks' debut film. It's not much more than a collection of ordinary moments in the lives of one Texas family. And yet, the compiled effect of those moments, of fun, love, and profound sadness, is mesmerizing.
Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger are our anchors in the story, playing a mother and daughter who navigate various romantic, financial, and familial troubles over the course of several decades. And in all honesty, that short description covers most of the question, "what is Terms of Endearment about". Of course, there is color in the form of the supporting players in the women's lives. Jack Nicholson plays a former astronaut who woos the aging mother, and Jeff Daniels is very good as Winger's husband, a college professor and impatient father. The film lacks narrative drive. It is uncommonly patient, carefully sculpting an authentic, living world around its characters. But that relaxed composure may be its biggest strength. Based on the novel by Larry McMurtry, Terms of Endearment sweeps you away into the lives of these fictional strangers.
While there is infidelity, resentment, and other tensions, the characters' relationships and conflicts are never punched up for manipulative effect, but played assiduously and naturally, creating a deeply felt connection between us and them. This is a story we can feel in our bones, because the characters feel like people we know. Even if I don't see myself in Shirley MacLaine's Aurora Greenway, or Debra Winger's Emma Horton, I recognize them as personalities. They could be my mother, my aunt, my grandma. Danny Devito could be my neighbor, Jeff Daniels could be my professor, Troy Bishop could have been my childhood friend, John Lithgow could be someone I said hello to in the hardware store. They feel real. With that accomplished, the emotions are real. From the joys, the laughs, to the heart-shattering lows there is no disconnect between what we are seeing and what we feel. This thing culminates with an emotional thunderbolt. One we see coming, but convince ourselves every step of the way can't possibly come to pass until it inevitably does. In other words, a lot like real life.
Terms of Endearment is the rare film that inspires introspection on your own life; on your own family. It puts into perspective how important familial relationships are. To finish this movie and not be inspired to forge a stronger bond with your loved ones is impossible. The grand feat of Terms of Endearment is not that it makes you cry, but that it makes you think about why you cry. Few films have hit me harder.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2020)
A Strained, Tired Embarrassment to All but the Most Left Inclined. Very Nice...Not!
Right, you've seen my rating, and you think you know what my problems with Borat 2 are. You think I'm one of those right wingers who badmouths any lefty circle jerk on principle alone. You're mistaken. I love Borat. The original film was a daring, unique, and crucially, uproariously funny mockumentary. I suppose the political aims of both the 2006 film and this new Borat picture are about the same; to shine a mocking light on those fat, backwards Americans by way of a really backwards Kazakhstani TV reporter. There was a sparkle of genius to Borat's first big screen outing; a satirical sharpness to compliment one of the funniest characters I had ever seen.
The sequel... it's embarrassing. And not just because it regurgitates the same hackneyed Trumps jokes that induced groans three years ago. Borat 2 is also shockingly unfunny in the traditional sense. Its worst offense is the introduction of Borat's daughter, and by extension, a sappy father daughter bonding storyline that neutralizes the risqué edge the first Borat carried so well. Maria Bakalova is a terrible comedic actress; annoying, shrill, and obviously floundering in her attempts to curb Cohen's off the cuff improv style. She can't hack it, but the entire character is a huge dud. Borat's daughter comes across as some kind of focus-grouped feminine appeal token from the Cousin Oliver Writing School for Hacks Trying to Mix Things Up. She's so overwritten and obvious, there's just no joy in watching her up there on the screen. And the story suffers heartily in her wake. This film feels so much more scripted than its predecessor, unfolding into a tidy, predictable three-act road movie with some mockumentary interludes in between.
And perhaps most disappointing of all is Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat. He doesn't seem to have it anymore. The voice doesn't sound right, the well-meaning enthusiasm is gone, and those quiet, subtle bits of brilliance are flatly abandoned. He's louder and broader than ever. It doesn't work.
The spark of inspiration that first brought us Borat is long dead. This Subsequent Moviefilm is a straining, tired ordeal. It dutifully checks off each and every cardinal sin of a comedy sequel: clumsily trudging up jokes that worked before, introducing "fresh" new characters, playing bigger, going more obvious. Not only is Borat 2 stale, it's rotten. The idealogues will clap and nod along, and pretend that this is just as funny as ever. I thank God I am not one of those people. I don't have the energy to twist myself in knots defending this sub-SNL level piece of shieet.
There's More Than Meets the Eye in Robert Zemeckis' Plane Crash Drama.
From the outside, Robert Zemeckis' 2012 return to live-action filmmaking after over a decade of experimentation in motion capture, Flight, is a straightforward Hollywood drama. The story of an alcoholic airline pilot, Whip Whitaker, played by Denzel Washington, who survives a harrowing plane crash to which he may bear responsibility. But that's only the setup, the basic outline of this remarkably effective film. Underneath the hood is a character study of real emotional truth.
The plane crash is not so much the centerpiece of the film as its inciting incident. What happens after that terrifically exciting sequence has almost nothing to do with airplanes. Flight is about people. One person in particular, and that is Denzel Washington's Whip. Washington creates an extraordinarily lived-in character, part Jimmy Stewart-esque everyman, part aging party animal, who can be a charming rooting interest one moment and a frustrating pain in the ass the next. The script by John Gatins, along with Washington's performance, suggests an entire history and background to Whip Whitaker. He's a character we want to "figure out". Why does a family man take to drugs? What makes him drink? Here is a figure that exudes that mantra, "Give your characters a life outside the story." The supporting characters are just as well drawn and acted, creating a mosaic of lives affected by addiction. To drugs, alcohol, or an ever-elusive thrill.
I compared Flight to Sully, a movie so similar in structure it might've garnered a lawsuit if not for the fact that it was based on a real incident. Both films revolve around a spectacular airplane crash and the effects it has on the hero pilot. And somehow, Flight worked on me, on my emotions, much more successfully. For all the technical craft of Sully: the acting, directing, and the especially good score, the film was generally about the plane crash. So much of the story devoted to the technical investigation, with a climax that resolved finally what happened in the crash. Flight keeps the crash itself in the distance, on the periphery of the important story. The film's real narrative focus is firmly on Whip, and it digs deep inward. Flight isn't about airplanes or the FAA, it's about addiction and it's one of the great screen depictions of addiction I've seen.
Flight is a drug film expertly disguised as a film about a plane crash. Part of what made Zemeckis' previous live action film, Cast Away, such a special landmark for me, was its metaphorical undercurrent. The island was not meant to be taken literally as a location but rather as an emotional setting. A representation of loneliness. The same goes for the plane in Flight. It is not an aircraft, but a personification of a life gone out of control. And like in Cast Away, the movie is always operating on the level of metaphor. Not to the extent perhaps of the fablistic man-trapped-alone-on-an-island movie, but in a smart, subtle way. You come away from Flight knowing much more about drugs, and the affects addiction has on the addicted as well as those around them, than you do about 747s.
What surprised and frankly refreshed me about Flight is how unassuming Robert Zemeckis' direction is. It did not take me long to latch onto the uncomplicated sincerity powering the movie. Words like 'mainstream' and 'audience-friendly' can carry bad connotations, but only when the material doesn't match up. In Flight, we have a script that treats its characters realistically and intelligently, two very important descriptors. And so, the earnest drama works. The movie is very palatable, on a screenplay level and in the kind of humble way Zemeckis goes about filming the story. It's that clean, crisp professional filmmaking that gives the actors room to breathe and gives us a chance to settle in and invest ourselves in the characters. All very "Mainstream Hollywood" yes, but somehow that easy-going style becomes a major contributor to the success of the picture. Again, it's humble. Not showy or aloof or pretentious, but rock solid. Thoughtful, clear-eyed storytelling for grown-ups.
Films this entertaining, sharp, and emotionally fulfilling are exceedingly scarce because they require an expert act of balance. To explore subjects of tragedy, addiction, and personal collapse in an approachable, even humorous way, is a trick that not every director can pull. At least not as successfully as Robert Zemeckis does in Flight. With Denzel Washington hammering home a complex lead performance with honed veteran skill, and John Gatins providing an inspired screenplay that teeters on the very edge of sentiment while maintaining its strong ideas, Zemeckis lands the figurative plane safely in the harbor of great drama.
Guy Ritchie's Bizarre King Arthur is an Ungainly Disaster
I don't see enough bad movies. I'm not a paid film critic. I'm not forced to see everything that comes out, so I generally seek out things I think I might enjoy. With this strategy, I see plenty of mediocre films, some disappointing movies, but very few outright terrible cinematic garbage fires. In a sense, I'm grateful for a film like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. This is pretty much the bottom of the barrel for a big-budget blockbuster helmed by a well-known director. Genuine Hollywood productions don't come much more incomprehensibly imagined, designed, and assembled.
Guy Ritchie's take on the legend of King Arthur is directionless. The bonkers opening scene goes the route of complete high fantasy. 500 foot tall war elephants, equally gigantic crumbling CGI castles, flaming demon monsters, and the like. It's the best part of the film, delivering baseline Medieval action and CG destruction. After that first 5 minute sequence, however, Ritchie loses the thread. The rest of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a hideous mishmash of whatever type of filmmaking Ritchie feels like doing in the moment. Mostly though, he grafts on his signature hyperactive editing junk onto a standard fantasy adventure story that benefits nothing from having a dozen inserts flash across the screen in two seconds. I stress, this movie looks, moves, and sounds revolting. Legend of the Sword insults the very word 'cinematography'. Not only is 80% of the film grey digital sludge, but the other 20% is computer generated particle effects. Has anyone ever been impressed by digital fire or lightning or smoke effects? This is an After Effects demo reel, not a movie. Or perhaps more apt, a video game. A crappy, third-party Lord of the Rings ripoff developed by a British frat house.
In a cast that includes talented actors like Eric Bana, Jude Law, and Djimon Hounsou, nobody acts well. Bana gets lost in the mix, Law doesn't know how to play his character, and Hounsou phones in a boring supporting performance. Charlie Hunnam is King Arthur, and as long as I'm taking the piss out of the director, I might as well do the same for this film's "star". Charlie Hunnam is a black hole of charisma. He is a faceless personality void. A male, British placeholder. Just good-looking enough, just as flatly accented as he needs to be to completely disappear from your consciousness.
No decision in Legend of the Sword comes with a purpose. Maybe you can call Guy Ritchie an auteur. He does things that are unique to him. But have those stylistic flourishes ever really worked? I mean in anything. I'm starting to doubt it. I guess it's neither here nor there in this case. In King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, nothing Ritchie does works. He plays around with strange slow motion, misplaced humor, and those terrible visual effects, with reckless aimlessness. There is no effort made to tie together the Snatch-Lite bro talk sequences with the squid creatures, soccer player cameos, and boss battle cutscenes. What a lumbering catastrophe this King Arthur movie is.
The King's Speech (2010)
Timeless True-Life Inspiration.
"I have a voice!"
The climax of The King's Speech is not the final culminating speech that Colin Firth's King George VI delivers to an anxious British public over the vital new tool called radio. No, it's before that, in one profound line of dialogue that crystallizes this extraordinary film's ultimate message. King George and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) are discussing the king's anxieties over his place in the history of the monarchy when Logue casually sits in Saint Edward's coronation chair. George is upset at his trivialization of the history of that chair and of his own position as king. Logue presses the man whom he's been helping, asking him why he has to listen to what the reluctant king has to say, and George reflexively answers "because I have a voice!" What follows is a hush of immediate recognition. We see right away that this is what the entire film has been building to. The way the line is expertly embedded within the narrative, echoing through the hallowed halls of Westminster Abbey, is one of the most brilliant storytelling moments I have ever seen. It surprises us. King George doesn't shout the film's moral to us, but in a moment of profound discovery, he unknowingly finds it within himself. We see, clearly and powerfully, that the ability to climb out of that abyss, whatever it may be to us, is within ourselves. That one line makes for one of the great moments in movie history.
To fully express the impact this film has had on me, I must get personal. I am someone who has suffered through and ultimately overcame a debilitating speech impediment. This movie, by Tom Hooper, understands the deep fear and humiliation such a thing has on a person. It is tuned directly into what is going on in its character's head. It is one of the most inspirational movies I have ever seen. One that understands hopelessness, fear, embarrassment, and also the literal life-giving power that personal strength has to overcome the worst of what life gives us.
A huge part of the miracle of The King's Speech is the remarkable true story at its heart. King George VI was a stutterer. He had been gracefully hidden from the British public, speaking very seldom for fear that his condition would make him an object of jest or pity. When war with Germany became an unavoidable certainty in 1936, the need for leadership from the nation's most prominent figure was vital. And so, an unorthodox speech therapist was brought in to help fix his stutter.
Had there not been an actual stammering king of England struggling to lead his country into war in the late 1930s, I would have championed this story as a piece of divine inspiration. It works like an ancient fable; the king who learned to lead. It's a universal moralistic myth that just so happens to have actually occurred. One gets the feeling that this story is so strong, it could be modified to fit any time, culture, or person. Where the credit goes is to writer David Seidler for recognizing the drama of the true tale and amplifying its lessons to overwhelming proportions. The King's Speech's status as a true-life event is not insignificant. Our knowledge that this actually happened, in this specific moment in history, adds an entire layer of dramatic significance to an already affecting story. It's not enough that we see the personal triumph, but that it happened at a moment in time when it must have happened. Who knows how history might have differed if King George had stammered his way through the "In this grave hour" speech? Maybe the English people would have still gotten the gist, and still found the courage to fight off the enemies at their door. But the success of Seidler's script and Hooper's direction is in convincing us that the country needed King George to deliver the speech he did. The concurrence of one man's emotional journey and an entire nation's crossroads is as incredible a marriage as can happen in a true story.
Getting past the abstract brilliance of The King's Speech, we see the traditional cinematic craft on display. First from Colin Firth in the lead role. His performance is an amazing piece of acting. Every facet of brining King George to life is a stunning display of talent. The internalized fear is the trickiest element to bring truth to, and Firth never stumbles once. Then there is the outward frustrations and the physical challenge of portraying a stammer. Again, Firth is perfect. Finally, in the general, Firth has to inhabit an actual person. He imitates the king with aplomb and then takes the critical next step in fashioning a human character out of that imitation. What to call this performance but one of the all-time greats? It's every challenge an actor can face, nailed precisely in every moment. And nobody else disappoints. Geoffrey Rush is an invaluable presence as King George's speech therapist and eventual friend. He provides most of the movie's humor, and much of its wisdom. Helena Bonham Carter is a standout as Firth's anxious wife, and she leads a supporting cast of many of the best character actors working today.
Tom Hooper displays a unique confidence, turning the potentially stodgy material into something fresh and invigorating. You can point to his signature asymmetrical compositions, but that's only the most outward filmmaking decision Hooper makes. Elsewhere, he gives the film a sharp energy. A character-focused drama about a period in time that most people are quite familiar with is in real trouble of becoming boring unless the director commits to a special point of view. Hooper's film is light on its feet, with a natural humorous streak. Even with the intelligence radiating from the movie, and the heavy themes it explores, this is an entertaining film. Exciting, fabulously shot, and pleasing to listen to.
I know there are many who just can't help but scoff at sincerity. They're the types who will never surrender themselves to art that isn't detached from its central emotions. They feel comfortable giving in completely to cynical, bemused, sardonic, or subtle films, but not to ones that proudly and passionately show us their hearts. The King's Speech is such a film. It settles all the way into its characters and setting, painting a vivid picture of not just a man, not just a historical moment, but of a universal feeling and message. There's no doubt that because of my personal history, I am able to recognize and embrace the feelings it studies. I've had a speech problem that stunted my life for years and sent me spiraling into a hopeless pit of depression, and I overcame it with the help of a therapist. I relate specifically to this story in a deeply powerful way. But The King's Speech is so perceptive about the foundational emotions at its core, that anyone can be inspired by it. What sends a perfect cinematic exercise into the esteemed air of timeless classic is that ability to affect your life beyond the runtime. That is what The King's Speech has done.
New-Fashioned Epic with a Touch of the Radical, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus is a Textured, Intelligent, Sword and Sandals Experience
I've become a bona fide connoisseur of classic sword-and-sandals...and-hooves-and-guns epics in my twenties, and after years of making my way through the hallowed likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Braveheart, Gladiator, and a handful of other roadshow giants, I've finally come around to seeing my number one most anticipated movie. Spartacus, the Stanley Kubrick directed, Kirk Douglas produced story of slave revolt in ancient Rome, is a special experience; a classic epic with a distinctly modern sensibility. It's a sharp, subtly risqué piece of work, in line with what I expect from Kubrick. The notion that this is somehow "not an actual Kubrick film" is absurd to me. I don't know enough about the behind the scenes story to make an educated comment about what Kubrick's vision was or how it clashed with Douglas', but the final film feels of a piece with Kubrick's other work.
My own expectations for Spartacus were altogether too high to be met completely. I love ancient Rome, I love large-scale battles, I love overtures and intermissions, and Stanley Kubrick is one of my very favorite directors. I could only hope for Spartacus to not disappoint. There was no way it could surpass the masterpiece I had in my head. The good news is, it didn't disappoint. My first impression is one of massive appreciation. Here is an epic a class above even the best examples of the genre in many ways. It boasts a smart, poetic screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, a strong heroic narrative, mature, artful direction, and best of all, characters and acting of the highest caliber. And that is where Spartacus captivated me most. The character work is the best thing about the film. There are at least 6 performances worthy of Oscars in a veritable Mount Rushmore of rich, fascinating characters. The rundown: Kirk Douglas as the mythic hero, in a performance of physical power and gentle, boyish charm, Jean Simmons as his slave lover, a paradigm of beauty and grace, Peter Ustinov, sophisticated and fantastically natural as the impish slave trader Batiatus, the impossibly handsome John Gavin as Julius Caesar, Charles Laughton as the veteran Roman Senator Gracchus, with a world-weary understatement that feels as authentic as any ancient Roman I've ever seen in the movies, and finally, the best character and performance of the film, Laurence Olivier as the villainous Roman General Crassus. Crassus is every bit the equal to Spartacus, simultaneously leading his own campaign to crush the gladiator's revolt and restore order to Rome. It's Olivier who ultimately outshines the rest of the players. With a cold, confident strength behind evermore frightening and frightened eyes, he is absolutely riveting to watch. The great pleasures of Spartacus are the character interactions. Where other Roman epics can tend to gloss over political dealings, gladiatorial training, and the daily minutia of life in the ancient world, Kubrick's film revels in its time and place. Just the act of being in the environment, in the detailed sets or lush Italian exteriors photographed by Russell Metty, and listening to the characters talk to each other, is electrifying. You put that feeling together with Trumbo and Howard Fast's momentous story, and it is impossible not to be moved.
If there is a tangible let down in Spartacus, and there really isn't (it's more of a byproduct of inflated hype), I'd point to the battle scene(s). This is a story, a la Patton, that is very much focused on battle strategy. There is lots of marching of armies to and fro, preparing transport ships, training legions, basically moving the pieces of the Risk board around the map. And yet, unlike Patton, which showcased many breathtaking scenes of war, we are not privy to much of Spartacus' exploits. A number of battles happen either completely offscreen or we only catch the tail end. The one centerpiece battle is gigantic in scope and surprisingly violent, but even it doesn't last quite long enough to make a strong impact. Narratively, it all works. I have no complaints about what ended up on the screen, but I do get the sense that there was more to show, more spectacle to take in. In any case, the film is not short on action. Gladiatorial fights pick up the slack, and while significantly smaller in scope, these fights are thrilling. I mean genuinely, actually thrilling. Sword fights on film, especially during this time period, can make even the classiest of actors look like kids stick-fighting on a playground. Not the case at all in Spartacus. Here the gladiatorial combat is treated realistically. Early scenes carefully establish the consequences of combat, and once the gladiators enter the ring, the fight choreography is fast, aggressive, and suitably brutal. There is suspense to these sequences, real feeling that these men's lives hang in the balance. I've never seen anything quite as effective, even 40 years later in a movie called Gladiator.
Maybe my perfect Roman epic won't come around until I make it myself, but in the meantime, Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus may be as close as I can get. Free of the stodgy, Sunday school aftertaste of some biblical epics, and loaded with more drama and flavor than any of its contemporaries, Spartacus carves out its own niche in this tremendous, extinct genre. Forget what you might have heard, Spartacus is a clear Stanley Kubrick epic. You feel his influence all throughout what is a daring, artfully constructed, thinking man's film. The movie came out in 1960. It has all the hallmarks of the sword-and-sandals picture: the widescreen Technicolor majesty, the heroes, the romance, the sweeping Alex North score. But with Kubrick, what stands out most is the characters, so vivid against the hyper-detailed world of ancient Rome. Like all great epics, this is a picture to savor. Unlike most, however, the feast doesn't end with the scenery.
Inside Out (2015)
A Modern Pixar Movie To Stand With The Classics, Even When Its Manipulation Starts To Wear.
Inside Out is the best Pixar has been in years. Exciting, original, and pretty funny, with a thoughtful core to the idea of the secret world of emotions, Inside Out is the first and only Pixar movie of the 2010s worthy of standing alongside the studio's classics. In comparison to Monsters University or Finding Dory, which seemed so small, tv-like, and insignificant, Inside Out feels like the real deal. A big, theatrical, Pixar event. The movie is not up there in the upper tier of the catalogue, but it comes from approximately the same creative place.
I have a theory about Pixar movies. At their core, they are "secret life of _______ movies". The secret life of toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, cars, rats and robots. That's why Up and Brave have always felt like slight outliers in the canon to me. Inside Out is about the secret life of emotions. Colorful personifications of Joy, Fear, Sadness, Anger, and Disgust, voiced by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black and Mindy Kaling, run the mind of young Riley. On a Star Trek-ian bridge, the emotions squabble over the controls, each thinking they know what is best for their host. The world-building goes much deeper, however, with the writers, led by Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen, constantly exploring new, creative visualizations for how our minds work. This is the best part of Inside Out. The level of ambition in the screenplay is impressive. Every aspect of thought, memory, anxiety, or nostalgia is given a surprising place in this animated world. There's a strong sense of discovery along the emotions' journey. The parade of truly entertaining gags are always operating on multiple levels, almost like a satire of the brain. It's kind of genius.
Although, I did say that Inside Out doesn't reach the height of early 2000s Pixar. Enter Pixar Theory Number 2: Since Toy Story 3, the animation studio has shifted their approach to storytelling. In short, Pixar has become self-aware. The filmmakers recognize that their films are known for bringing up tears from every man, woman, and child who sees them. And so, they have bought into the meme. Inside Out has been designed from the ground up around making people cry. That's not how the great Pixar movies operated. Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monster's Inc. and the rest were built around an entertaining story first. The emotional appeal of those films was hidden within the entertainment. The trend with the newer Pixar movies is to do the opposite. To turn the storytelling "inside out". Start with an idea that will make people cry, and try to build something entertaining around it. Inside out is the perfect example of how powerful and also uncomfortable this method can be. You are always aware that you are being played; that the filmmakers are more interested in getting a rise out of your softer sensibilities than they are in telling you a story.
That's not to say the approach doesn't technically work. The movie did its job. It made me emotional. I just wish I didn't notice quite as much. Still, the level of quality, entertainment value, and importantly, passion in Inside Out is so much higher than its contemporaries. Here is a movie that lives up to the Pixar standard of original, stimulating, fun.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Provocative, Explosive Greatness Wrapped in a Muddy, Hateful Cloak
Spike Lee's celebrated magnum opus, Do the Right Thing, is too interesting and too thought-provoking to be bad. It's also too muddled, confused, and hateful to be worthy of my praise.
The story of boiling racial tension on a hot summer day in New York is exceptional in the way it visualizes how a normal day can turn explosive when hidden prejudices bubble to the surface, and a perfect storm of grievances click in at once. The structure, the writing, the deft direction (for most of the runtime) is as expertly done as you've heard. So much so that I can clearly see how this film can be considered one of the very best of the 1980s. A film so provocative and unique (in its visual style and hip-hop rhythm) can't be dismissed entirely. Yet, I can't bring myself to champion Do the Right Thing.
It's a movie that forces you to chew on its ideas. However, what to make of the movie when those ideas are kind of stupid? First, let's clear up what Do the Right Thing is trying to say about race relations. The plot goes: several ethnic groups peacefully cohabitate a lower-class New York neighborhood until a small perceived grievance (No black people's pictures hanging on the wall of the Italian Pizzeria) grows and grows into an eventual race riot, perpetrated by the film's protagonist (Spike Lee himself as Mookie). Then, in a final title card, Spike Lee shows quotes from both Martin Luthor King Jr. and Malcom X. Peace vs righteous violence. The last image is meant, I believe, to force us to confront whether Mookie did... the Right Thing. Here is where my problems with Do the Right Thing begin. The way Spike Lee sets up this conflict, he makes it too clear that, no, Mookie did NOT do the right thing by throwing a trash can through the window of an innocent pizza shop owner. His Italian characters, the supposed instigators, are innocent of everything but being fed up with black people in general because they are fed up with the individual black people harassing them at work. But Sal, played by Danny Aiello in the movie's best performance, is actually a friend to the community, a helper, a mentor. And yet, we're supposed the question whether burning his shop down was okay by the end? The black characters, however, are just kind of bums overall; making demands about how Sal decorates his shop, sitting at home ignoring a girlfriend while on the clock at work. and getting violent once their precious boombox is destroyed. There is nothing wrong with these characterizations, but they run contrary to the message we are supposed to get in the final 15 minutes.
Once the tensions actually do explode, I find it difficult to believe that anyone, black, white, or other, can be on the side of Mookie and his pals. They are portrayed so unsympathetically that it completely muddles Lee's own message. If not for the sudden deus ex machina death of Radio Raheem at the hands of police, there would not be a single counterpoint to balance the obvious moral high ground of Sal. So, ultimately, the movie doesn't work. Mookie was in the wrong. I don't feel bad for him and I don't feel bad for the other rioters. Spike Lee fails. The message does not register.
Because, you see, the whole argument, if you can call a shrugging, "I guess we're all just hateful and will always be hateful" an argument, only works if we believe Malcolm X had a point; if we question whether Mookie was justified in starting a riot. If that were the case, we would look at that final title card and question whether we should stand stoically against hatred or fight back. But Mookie is an chump. He's a lazy bum who destroys the livelihood of his community's strongest father figure. Spike, what on earth were you thinking with this character? Those last 15 minutes don't make me question whether Malcolm X was right, they confirmed to me that he was wrong.
A Colorful and Fun, Messy and Limp Ending to a Flawed Trilogy.
No, I will not join in on the chorus of jeers. I saw this capper to what Disney now calls "The Skywalker Saga" (a slimy way to ensure more fan fiction is on the way) with expectations for new Star Wars movies pretty well dead. I came away quite content. I don't know for certain, but Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise if Skywalker could be the most purely entertaining of all the Disney Star Wars films. It's fun and adventurous, and not so smug, so already it's a far superior replica of the real Star Wars than The Last Jedi was. The dreadful dourness and awkwardly small structure of that film are replaced with a globe-hopping adventure story that feels in line with what a Star Wars movie ought to do. The Rise of Skywalker is also an unruly mess, but give me that over a cleverly written bore any time.
Rise's reputation suggests it is a course-correction from The Lat Jedi, picking up where The Force Awakens left off and mitigating any consequences of Rian Johnson's story. While part of that is true; the film does gloss over major plot points of its predecessor, it actually functions most like a self-enclosed one-off story. Now, Emperor Palpatine is back, there are a couple new threats to go along with him (The Final Order and the Knights of Ren), and our heroes continue their spunky fight for good. It feels as if very little is being carried over from the other sequels. Instead, brand new characters, situations, and McGuffins are introduced throughout. Unsurprisingly, this gives most of the movie a terribly rushed feeling, where even the action beats don't seem to last long enough before it's on to something else. The young quartet of actors are exactly as you would expect at this point, lively and enthusiastic, bordering on overbearing. Adam Driver is once again the most interesting of the bunch, and the decision to put him back in the mask is a good one (what can I say, he looks cool). Unfortunately, old heroes Leia and Lando are forced into hurried cameos. Carrie Fisher being long dead is quite the hurdle, but at least she gets a dignified sendoff.
The story, all the chasing after different mystical items and relaying information to and through spies, is neither here nor there. What matters most in The Rise of Skywalker is the entertainment value. On that front, it's great. Most impressive is the movie's eye-popping visuals. Rise is incredibly satisfying to look at. Brilliant, filmic color, exciting pace with the camerawork (something J.J. Abrams is exceptionally good at), and gorgeous set design and special effects make Episode IX a candy-colored dream. What the movie lacks in imagination, it makes up for with craft. Sets, puppets, animatronics, and CGI abound. I have called The Force Awakens the most polished movie ever made. Rise may have it beat.
Although it may feel like the action scenes come hot and heavy in this film, there aren't really that many set-pieces. The pace comes more from Abrams' style and the fact that some of the chases and fights go by so quickly that it seems to be more action packed than it actually is. That said, the midway lightsaber duel is visually exciting and the final space and ground battle is fantastic fun. If you can give into the zany spirit, you can have a real good time.
The Rise of Skywalker was never going to have much impact as a conclusion to the series because the whole sequel trilogy has been no more than the deformed tumor growing off the side of Lucas' actual saga from the beginning. This finale is more of a salvage job than a true conclusion. The trilogy has not been building to anything, so whatever Rise closes has only been opened along its own runtime. It's impossible not to look at how Revenge of the Sith handled the task of ending the saga. Sith took compounding story threads, both political and personal, from both its previous films, and brought them to their logical climax. All the while, connecting old threads in a way that closes the circle of all six movies. It was a movie that felt, in every moment, like an epic finale. It even ended on a shot so emotionally perfect and thematically resonant that The Rise of Skywalker had no choice but to ape it. But Rise has none of that feeling of finality. It's another colorful distraction, albeit one where characters die and wars are won.
Looking back on the whole Sequel Trilogy project makes one really appreciate the cyclical storytelling brilliance of episodes I-VI. The way they thematically weave together, all the while being unique, daring, visionary, and unafraid to be silly. But that's with George Lucas, an artist, at the helm. With Disney, Star Wars has smoothed out the quirks and beefed up the effects. As far as fan fiction goes, I'm happy with that approach. As long as you can recognize that these are bald-faced corporate cash grabs, you'll find that they are relatively enjoyable as bald-faced corporate cash grabs go (I'm not sure that applies to The Last Jedi, but nevertheless). I look for these non-Lucas movies to entertain me, and this one did. That is all I require anymore.
This is Where the Fun Begins.
Where do I stand on Star Wars? Well, all 6 of George Lucas' films are strong, iconic, and technologically brilliant displays of childhood imagination writ large. Youthful space adventures bound together by universal themes. Fan Fiction entries aside, Star Wars is great. That said, the official end of Lucas' saga, Return of the Jedi, may be my favorite of the whole bunch. With a mix of the jubilant excitement of A New Hope, the sophisticated themes of Empire Strikes Back, and a surplus of new wonders from the mind of George Lucas, Return of the Jedi is the ultimate realization of the Original Trilogy.
Coming off the to-be-continued ending of Empire, Episode VI opens with guns a-blazing, as it were. Luke is a Jedi, Han is frozen in carbonite, and the rest of the gang have descended on Tatooine to set him free. Right from the start, Jedi exudes confidence. It's Richard Marquand as the credited director this time, but the film is 100% George Lucas' DNA. The quirky world-builder he is, Lucas' imagination is freed in Jedi. Just as his first Star Wars sequel exponentially expanded the world of A New Hope, so does Return of the Jedi expand on Empire. One might have assumed that there was nowhere else to go after the previous film. No new characters or locations to match up with the icons that had come before. Enter Jabba the Hut, the giant gangster slug and his opulent palace, The Emperor, lord of all evil, Ewoks and the forest moon of Endor, and loads more aliens, creatures, and technology than Star Wars had seen previously. Even the places Return of the Jedi revisits, like the deserts of Tatooine or the halls of the Death Star, are given vivid life. Bigger, brighter, and more detailed in every respect.
There is confidence in the special effects and action too. No longer can I describe any of the chases, battles, or duels as "clunky". They're all first-rate. Return of the Jedi is where technology and budget finally caught up with Lucas' vision. If the prequels would take his untamed subconscious into the digital infinitude, Jedi represents the most he could do within the confines of the practical world. The armies are big, the speeder bikes are fast, the space battles are sprawling and intricate, and the creatures have that particular silly Lucas-ian charm. For me, Return of the Jedi is clearly the most fun of the Original Trilogy and maybe the entire saga.
Return of the Jedi is everything I love about Star Wars, all at once. It's the spirit of adventure, the childlike innocence, the serious themes, and the mythic grandiosity. It's the greatest example of the promise of George Lucas' world; of the brilliant colors and the strange worlds that A New Hope suggested. It's all here to experience. If one film had to stand for the entirety of the Star Wars saga, for the fableistic storytelling of the Original Trilogy and the liberating grandeur of the Prequel Trilogy, it would be that film in between both worlds.
The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
A Different Kind of Matrix-Flavored Action Spectacular.
With expectations significantly lowered by The Matrix Reloaded's ridiculous pseudo-philosophical hogwash, the trilogy closer, The Matrix Revolutions, came as a bloody, brutal, action-packed surprise. No one can expect a Matrix sequel to compete with the Wachowski's visionary original, but even by dumb summer action standards, The Matrix Reloaded was too pompous for its britches. The half-baked (in every sense) ramblings came at the expense of pace and fun. Revolutions rectifies this with a story that is easier to follow, and a greater embrace of The Matrix' inherent goofiness.
I won't pretend to remember what exactly Reloaded was about. At this point in the trilogy, the rules for what can and can't happen, who is jacked in and who is a program, where anybody is at any given time, and why anybody is fighting anybody else in The Matrix, were, at best, muddled. Inheriting this mess from themselves, the Wachowski's decided to slim down the exposition for Revolutions. In essence, all you need to know about Matrix 3 is that the real-life humans are fighting a war against real-life machines, and Neo is trying to save the Matrix from Agent Smith. Any questions of "why" can be answered with one word: "love". Sure, it's simple minded, borderline stupid, but it gives orientation that Reloaded lacked. I will even admit to feeling rather struck by a character death or two. The unwieldy strings are tied together more or less satisfactorily by the finale.
Like the original Matrix or its first sequel, Revolutions is a huge science-fiction action spectacular. But where Reloaded came across as re-heated leftovers of the Gun-Fu Matrix style, Revolutions takes a different direction: massive, CGI, robot battle overkill. Those who scoff immediately whenever special effects begin to fill the screen, miss out on how exciting these sequences can be, especially when the effects work as well as they do here. There is real invention to the action of The Matrix Revolutions. You get the sense that the Wachowskis are having a blast visualizing the giant drills crashing through the human's fortified dome city, the swarms of flying octopus robots, or the mech-suits as they fire unending streams of bullets at the invaders. There are a couple bullet-timey shootouts and fight scenes that recall the first film, but they aren't given the spotlight. Rather, Revolutions biggest and best scenes are its most overblown. The centerpiece Siege of Zion clocks in at a happily indulgent half hour plus, and the climactic fight is the rainiest, punchiest, most epic super-powered brawl you're likely to ever see (And boy does it make me wish we'd get a Superman movie with that kind of energy).
I, for one, don't find the Wachowski's world-building in the Matrix to be all that interesting. The high-concept premise of the first movie was a bolt of creative genius, but the attempts to bolster that premise generally fall flat. That said, in a movie that prioritizes action spectacle over dour philosophy, I can buy into it. I was rooting for those scrappy humans in The Matrix Revolutions, as dull as they may seem. I was thrilled by the battle scenes and over-the-top fights. Plus, I was interested in finding out what was going to happen by the end. Because things do happen by the end. There are resolutions, denouements, and grandiose, epic music from Don Davis which fits the images much better than the early 2000s techno-crud from Reloaded. This is a very good movie when accepted on its own terms. A screamy, sweaty, slam-bang great time at the cineplex.
Few phenomena are more fascinating than dreams. The untamed subconscious liberated from societal barriers, images of distorted reality filtered through personal fears and hopes, dreams are rich with cinematic and storytelling potential. And yet very few movies have been able to actualize their power on film. By their nature, dreams, their images and feeling, are nearly impossible to replicate in a place outside our own minds. Some geniuses have done it. Fritz Lang did it with Metropolis. Stanley Kubrick did it with Eyes Wide Shut. Alex Proyas did it with Dark City. David Lynch did it with Blue Velvet. None of those films are consciously about dreams, and yet they give, through mood and twisted imagination, the impression of experiencing a dream. Enter Christopher Nolan's Inception, a movie 100% about dreams, that is woefully inept at imagining them. Nolan takes the nebulous psycho-analytical concept of dreams in his usual literal way, presenting a vision of the untamed subconscious as boring as an international action movie.
The hook of Inception is too juicy to ignore. A group of mind thieves, led by Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb, infiltrate the subconscious of a C.E.O in order to implant an idea, in an act of corporate espionage. The story is original and high-concept, two welcome adjectives for a big-budget blockbuster. A journey into dreams structured like a heist movie. It's cool. Sadly, the fabulous premise of Inception is almost completely wasted in what amounts to an unflavored Bourne-style diversion.
A filmmaker with imagination could have a field day with the skeleton of Nolan's screenplay. More to the point actually, Nolan's screenplay needs a filmmaker with imagination. Christopher Nolan, for all his stellar skills as a director of giant, prestigious, filmic blockbusters, is hopelessly devoid of imagination. To promise us an entirely new cinematic world, only to end up showing the same boring cityscapes, offices and ski resorts we've seen hundreds if not thousands of times over, is unjustifiably lazy. Whatever "dream-like" sequences Nolan tosses out are so frivolous they might as well be ignored, because they do nothing to further the impression of experiencing a dream. So there's a train going through a city. If this is as crazy as your dreams get, I pity you. With respect, the image of the folding city carries with it some power (Hans Zimmer's "Bwwwaaah!" must get some of the credit for this) and the hotel sequence remains a clever and well-done special effects moment. But they are outliers in what is ostensibly a collection of grey shootouts. And I'm sorry if the gun nuts come for me, but scenes of two groups shooting machine guns at each other from behind cover are such boring ways to visualize action. Movement and surprise are the pillars of great action. A static shootout has neither. Take a risk for Christ's sake. Do something new.
There is a clinical precision to everything in Inception. The movie is clenched tight, completely driven by plot and storytelling efficiency. There is not a second dedicated to artistic freedom. It is rigid, don't-break-the-rules conformity to realism. Not even in a dream, where literally anything imaginable can happen, does Nolan allow himself to go a little nuts. To show us an image that might be taken as, I don't know, weird. No, everything in Inception must be buttoned-up, dignified. No setting can be too extravagant. No performance can be too nutty. It's bad enough that Nolan turned a place called Gotham City into a glass and concrete eyesore with the visual flair of a corporate stock photo, but to turn the infinite realm of the mindscape into the same turgid grey void is borderline unacceptable. Nolan has gotten better as an artist since The Dark Knight and Inception. And I won't pretend that the films that made him a superstar are without their qualities (The Dark Knight is very good, I should mention). The left side of Christopher Nolan's brain is like an F1 engine. He is a powerhouse when it comes to the mastery of intricacies in storytelling, the managing of time, science, and plot. The right side, however, is underdeveloped to an extreme for a man of his talent. Inception is the movie where that creative part is missed most. The opportunity for transcendence was too clear for us to have been saddled with an end product so generic. Inception is safe enough to not upset the legions of film bros who worship it, but that safety comes at the expense of a vision that could actually be considered "bold".
Star Wars' Perfectly Great Sequel Deserves a Little Less Praise.
Public opinion on popular movies has a way of snowballing towards one of two directions. A disappointing movie becomes an unholy dumpster fire and a solid sequel becomes an undisputed masterpiece. The Empire Strikes Back is certainly overrated. It's a great film, as are all the Star Wars movies (the six that count anyway), but Episode V is not a dramatic step up from A New Hope or any of the other films in the saga. The movie has become so overrated that many say it's not just the best Star Wars movie, but the only Star Wars movie that is any good at all. People are dumb. And I want to take the contrarian stance, but let's face facts, The Empire Strikes Back is a perfect sequel to the landmark movie event that was Star Wars. It deepens the mythology, lending George Lucas' world a gravity and psychological weight not seen in the buoyant original. It's also just as quirky and clunky as any other Star Wars film, so let us not rewrite history. TESB is a great film, a great Star Wars film, possibly the best of the six, but not the overwhelming triumph of the series that SO many people claim it to be.
A change in director for a Star Wars film is not the world-shifting event many like to portray it as. George Lucas remained the architect of The Empire Strikes Back. Exhausted by the trials of shooting A New Hope, he hired Irvin Kershner to get his vision onto the screen. The result works, contrary to popular sentiment, because the style of the film doesn't deviate too harshly from Lucas' original. There is a movement in the fan community to credit Kershner as some kind of auteur that wrangled the saga's reigns from Lucas and envisioned it in his own way. That's hyperbolic nonsense. Kershner does a good, nay, great job with Lucas' material. He is a reliable professional, but not a genius that saved the series from its creator. It was Lucas, after all, who envisioned this story.
The darkness of Empire is also a fan favorite element. There have been volumes of words written on the film's approach to the second-act trope of going darker and more weighty before an eventual triumphal finale. Empire adheres to this structure very well, eschewing a Hero's Journey for a cliffhanger, to-be-continued bummer of an ending. For some reason, this is really profound to lot of fans. Like a revolutionary idea that elevates the film to stratospheric levels. I've never gathered why darker, bad-guy-wins endings are considered any better than heroes-save-the-day endings. Just because they don't happen as often? Darkness is valued more than almost anything when it comes to blockbuster film buffs. Maybe it comes from some deep-seated embarrassment that you like a silly thing like Star Wars in the first place, and a darker film validates your love. "See, it's dark, like a grown-up movie!" I'm comfortable admitting that I prefer Star Wars as the kid-friendly space adventure it is, and while I can appreciate, and actually welcome the darker chapters, I feel no obligation to elevate them as worth "more" as films.
That's all to say that Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back is a great movie. A perfect sequel, a terrific middle chapter in a terrific trilogy. However, the push to declare it as the undisputed pinnacle of the entire Star Wars project is frustrating. A New Hope is always going to be the most iconic, the most cherished, the film that will last forever. Revenge of the Sith still bests Empire for dramatic intensity and darkness. And personal tastes must dictate that any of the other movies in the saga could hold favor over it. Yet, The Empire Strikes Back still has some kind of stranglehold on the top spot of Star Wars films. It's the easy consensus pick. You can point to the fact that pesky Gorge is not credited as writer nor director (even though his influence superseded everyone else's), you can identify it's clear "dark" elements as evidence that the movie is "more mature", and you can also just go along with the herd and proclaim it as the best because that's what everyone says. The movie's reception really shouldn't bug me the way it does. I really love The Empire Strikes Back. I think I take issue with its overinflated sense of greatness because it comes at the expense of the other five films. Each one of George Lucas' six movies has a claim as someone's favorite. They are all of a very high level of blockbuster filmmaking. I want to give the others the praise they also deserve.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
The Fall of the Roman Empire Gives Rise to a Glorious, Spectacular, If Dramatically Limp Epic.
Considering my taste for giant sword-and-sandals epics, huge battle scenes, ancient Roman iconography, Alec Guiness, Christopher Plummer, and sumptuous 1960s widescreen cinematography, it's crazy that The Fall of the Roman Empire is not solidly among my all-time favorite films. It really has everything going for it. Anthony Mann's preposterously huge story of the downfall of the Roman Empire is a technical marvel, an amazing showcase of locations, sets, and cinematography. What holds it back, what keeps it from the gold-tier of historical epics, is its drama.
The fall in The Fall of the Roman Empire concerns the transfer of power from Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness) to his son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer). Stephen Boyd plays the movie's hero Livius, a Roman general and eventual rival to Commodus, who follows the scheming Caesar through his rise to the highest points of the Empire. Sophia Loren and James Mason highlight a romantic and political subplot respectively, but the clearest and most effective through line in this many-pronged plot is Commodus' rise to power. The same basic historical story was used in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, although to much better dramatic effect.
The Fall of the Roman Empire lack's the intimacy and character dynamics of Gladiator, or even contemporaries like Ben-Hur. The reasons for this are many. For one, Stephen Boyd makes a pretty bland hero. In a similar role, he's a long way off from Russell Crowe's muscular stoicism and worse yet, he doesn't have much interesting to do. The revenge story in Gladiator is simplistic, but personal. Even the most personal moments in The Fall are played at arm's length. There is an admirable attempt to deconstruct the reasons for mighty Rome's eventual demise, and the film sticks to its thesis, but it comes at the expense of real emotional power. There are two great performances by Alec Guinness and Christopher Plummer, but even they are kept distant. The movie operates more intellectually than it probably should, considering its political arguments are pretty dull (essentially "war is bad" and "we should find a way to live in peace"). The story doesn't quite sweep you away like you'd expect a three-hour epic to.
And yet, almost everything else in The Fall is appropriately sweeping. When you talk about production design miracles, The Fall of the Roman Empire has to be near the top of the list. This is a stunning achievement, maybe the most jaw-dropping of all the Golden Age Hollywood epics. Particularly because of its seamless blending of sets and locations. While most other sword-and-sandals pictures spend a majority of their time on elaborate but fake-looking sound stages, The Fall's locations are a fabulous mix of real Spanish exteriors and sets so enormous, so detailed, that you cannot believe them as anything but actual historical monuments. The snow-capped mountains are all real, the wide open desert plains where thousands of soldiers sprawl out for miles are not effects, and the gigantic Roman Forum is, believe it or not, actually there. The realism of the film's look cannot be overstated. It's absolutely staggering, and it separates the movie from other epics of the time. Here is an extinct brand of spectacle more amazing than a dozen King of Kings and a hundred 300s.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is well worth a three-hour investment, and to be frank, that's only for the movie's incredible spectacle. You won't be tremendously moved by The Fall's story, you won't connect with most of its characters, and you won't have many ideas to chew on afterward. But I can say definitively that you will be floored by the vistas, the battles, the pageantry, and the sheer logistical magnificence of The Fall of the Roman Empire.
Into the Woods (2014)
A Good Sondheim Adaptation Makes for a Great Modern Musical.
A Stephen Sondheim musical provides completely different pleasures from most other musicals. They aren't about jaunty tunes and family fun. They're intimate, dense with growing meaning, and more than a little sinister. The music functions not as separate parts of the story but as story amplifiers. And so, despite the surface level entertainment in Rob Marshall's Into the Woods, the film is always working at least one level deeper. Sondheim's influence is that strong, and the film is that pleasurable.
Into the Woods, which began life as a broadway play in 1987, is branded as a mashup of mature takes on famous fairy tales. Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and others are tied together in a sprawling, interconnected fable on childhood, parenting, repression and fidelity. It's such rich material to start with, both as a lighter family friendly remix on old staples and as a more sophisticated allegory. Rob Marshall competently directs, moving the story along, hitting beats, and indulging in the occasional flourish. However, he does not ring everything he could from Sondheim's ingredients. The movie never goes as dark as it suggests it could. Without spoiling anything, there is a through line of death and sexuality in Into the Woods. To lean hard into these elements could be absolutely fascinating, especially juxtaposed with the childhood icons the story centers on. Unfortunately, Marshall sanitizes a lot of the edgier stuff. He seems to be a director in love with the crowd-pleasing classic musical, a love he utilized to extraordinary heights in his Oscar-winning Chicago, but seems occasionally at odds with the story here. A perfect adaptation of Into the Woods needs a director who isn't afraid to alienate a segment of the audience looking for an unchallenging romp. Marshall challenges no one, but keeps Sondheim's ideas, all the same.
I don't see it necessary to recall the best musical numbers, because the songs don't function as "numbers" per se. Sondheim songs melt into the story rather than stand out from it. To the point where, when the movie is running at its best, you almost don't notice where song ends and dialogue begins. That's not a knock on the melodies, which emerge nicely in the opening mega-ballad, Giants in the Sky, and Agony. Otherwise, the lyrics and mood of the music is what is most appreciated. The songs grow and build and meld together in interesting ways. You listen closely to the words, and enjoy the rhythms on a more subtle level.
The performers may be the most roaringly successful aspect of the film. From what I can tell, this is a musically inclined cast, full of great classical singers. James Corden is oddly impressive in a major role, Johnny Depp has a memorable cameo, and Chris Pine does fine work as Prince Charming, although the female leads, Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and a luminous Emily Blunt, excel best. Kendrick is the best singer of the bunch, Streep has one or two great scenes and one show-stopping song (Stay With Me), but Emily Blunt is the best of both worlds. She gives a superb, run-the-gamut performance, going from funny, to heartfelt, to warm, and motherly. As charismatic a turn as I've ever seen from her. The child actors who play Jack and Red are also really impressive singers, who carry tough roles extremely well.
Into the Woods is one of Stephen Sondheim's three best plays, and with the talent involved, my expectations for this adaptation were enormous. In the end, it's not perfect. Rob Marshall shies away from the unsavory cynicism of the play, crafting a more palpable middlebrow entertainer at the expense of something really daring. But every technical department is doing solid work here. The film looks and sounds like a million bucks. It's staged well, acted with enthusiasm, and directed handsomely. Even if it's not a revelation, a good solid adaptation of Stephen Sondheim is still a much appreciated treasure.
The Great Mexican Classic
Roma might fool you into thinking it is one of the dozens of small, pretentious, art house awards baiters that critics dutifully praise to the heavens every year. I myself braced for the worst, expecting a slow, pointless, slice-of-life bore set in 1970s Mexico. In actuality, Alfonso Cuarón's autobiographical cinematic love letter is a grand, sure-handed classic. It forgoes gritty realism and sociological posturing (As if often the case for such awards contenders) in favor of beautiful black-and-white cinematography, exquisitely drawn characters, and masterful direction from one of the great living minds in Hollywood.
Roma is based loosely on Alfonso Cuarón's real life upbringing in middle-class Mexico City. But the movie is not about young Alfonso. It serves as a portrait of a side character in Cuarón's life, his family's loyal housekeeper, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio). Cuarón finds in her story, a sweeping odyssey. No, she isn't commanding armies or leading a revolution, but her journey through life's familiar stresses feels just as harrowing. Credit for this feeling of grandeur has to go to Cuarón, who projects immense emotional power onto recognizable facets of everyday life.
A lot of Roma is dedicated to small, intimate moments: the cleaning of a driveway, a family outing gone awry, a stop at the furniture store. Such scenes can be insufferable in the hands of a director without a strong artistic point of view. But Alfonso Cuarón has a strong artistic sense, and he makes Roma feel big by putting us in Cleo's shoes. We experience the journey through her eyes, meaning that we recognize the importance the small moments contain, and we're floored by the heart-rending drama of moments that are relatively huge. Add to this the political turmoil always bubbling on the outside, and you have a movie that brilliantly translates the enormity of a common life to the big screen.
The genius of Roma is in how it captures the towering emotional power intrinsic even in an unassuming, "normal" life. The real-life Cleo was simply part of Alfonso Cuarón's background. She was no Great Man of History, but behind her modest facade, portrayed excellently by first time actress Aparicio, she endured trials deserving of reverence. Roma knows that every extra in our lives has a story. We all careen through this world on thrilling, profound, beautiful journeys, whether they look that way from the outside or not. For all Roma's technical brilliance, its cinematic beauty, the film's greatest contribution is in how it reframes our ideas of heroism. It helps us appreciate the Cleos in our own lives, the Great Men and Women we see every day.
Tom Jones (1963)
Tom Jones: The Low Energy, High-Energy Comedic Drama
Watching Tom Jones, the 1963 Best Picture winner, for the first time, I was struck by how confused my reaction actually was. I'm a known sucker for a good period ensemble, but this Tony Richardson comedy has me at a bit of a loss. I really liked the film, but I also didn't really care for it. I found it entertaining, but it bored me. It's gross and sweaty, but also classy, sexy and alluring.
Its story concerns, who else, but Tom Jones (Albert Finney), the adopted son of one Squire Allworthy (George Devine), who goes on a series of lusty adventures in 1700s England. Based on the classic Henry Fielding novel, Tom Jones sacrifices narrative drive for a relaxed sprawl concerning a collection of interesting (more or less) characters. John Osborne's script ties things together fairly neatly, but it stands out more for its comedic smatterings. More on those later.
Tom Jones works best as a travelogue of the deliciously beautiful 18th Century English countryside, not to mention the deliciously beautiful conquests of our pal Tommy. On that front, it's fantastic. The cinematography is of that wonderful 1960s quality, filmic and colorful, contributing mightily to the sense of place. Tony Richardson's direction is also quite good throughout, confident and playful without being cloying. The hunting scene is a particularly sumptuous sequence, although the whole film has a kind of hyper-detailed warmth.
On the other hand, this is billed as an irreverent comedy, and it is not very funny. The "energy" comes only from a sprinkling of little humorous asides and scenes in what is mostly a ponderous familial drama, complete with powdered wigs, suitors and all the period piece fixings. Much of Tom Jones is dull. It seems to dole out its comedic bits begrudgingly, rather than saturating itself in a wholly comic tone.
But again, I really liked the movie. I liked the cast. Notably, Finney, Joyce Redman, and Hugh Griffith who are having a lot of fun being very "naughty", but also Joan Greenwood, who is mesmerizingly attractive here as the sultry Lady Bellaston. I liked being in this world for a couple hours, and I even liked some of the clever moments and fourth wall breaks. I don't know, I'm a sucker for assured middlebrow 60s period productions like this. I'll always like spending time with this sort of film, but if nothing else, Tom Jones has piqued my curiosity at the Fielding book. In it, I might find the key to greater informing how I actually feel about the movie based off of it.
The Terminal (2004)
The Art of Sincerity, Craft, and Optimism. The Terminal is a Delightful Grown-Up Crowdpleaser.
Around film buff circles, the question of the best filmmakers alive seems to invariably lead to names like Nolan, Scorsese, Fincher. My answer is the same it's been since I was 8 years old. The "corny", "obvious", "uncultured" pick; Steven Spielberg. When I posit Steven Spielberg as the greatest living director, there are plenty of films I could use for example. Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, E.T. But the one film I would choose for my thesis is 2004's The Terminal. Why does Spielberg's frothiest comedy prove him as the greatest filmmaker working? Because it illuminates pure directorial talent. When the subject is as inherently powerful as the horrors of warfare or the tolls of human suffering, you may not notice the quality of movie direction. If you really want to see why Spielberg is uncommonly skilled, you have to strip away the extra storytelling weapons. Take the mundanity of, say, an airport terminal, and watch how he makes it appear so magical, sparkling, and alive.
The Terminal stars Tom Hanks as Viktor Navorski, a common traveler from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia, who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The place happens to be New York's JFK airport. The time? Smack dab in the middle of his country's civil war. Krakozhia is no longer, and little does Navorski know, he's legally trapped in the airport until the war ends. It's hard to describe the elevator pitch for The Terminal. It is based partially on a real life figure, but Spielberg takes the bones of that story to indulge in a Carpra-esque Hollywood entertainer. The Terminal is a lot of things, all of them delightful: a fish-out-of-water comedy, a crowd-pleasing romance, and a tear-jerking character piece. The dramatic pull of the film takes shape, we realize, in the form of Viktor Navorski's mission to get the autograph of a famous New York jazz musician. But that's not exactly what the movie is about.
The story serves as an outlet for a collection of aforementioned fish-out-of-water scenes. Now would be a good time to highlight Hanks, who contributes heartily to the value of these scenes. Considering his talent as a dramatic actor, we tend to forget that he is one of the very best light comedians. Here he gets to go full Hanks ahead on the comedy. With his endearingly dorky Eastern European accent, Hanks delivers a winning one-man-show performance, pitched at just the right angle for the tone Spielberg is working with. Tom Hanks is someone who knows how to play broad without sacrificing sweetness.
But more impressive than Hanks, or any of the other great supporting performances (Catherine Zeta-Jones reminds one of the classy Hollywood starlets of the 40s and 50s, and Stanley Tucci is an endlessly watchable baddie.) is Steven Spielberg's direction. He had an entire airport terminal set built specifically for this movie, and the way he populates, stages, and moves his camera around it, is deceptively virtuosic. Because again, nothing incredibly special happens within the terminal's confines. No more than a series of routines that we see through the puppy dog eyes of Hanks' character. And yet, every moment of The Terminal is invigorating. It's just light entertainment, but the way Spielberg carries us through it visually, it feels life-giving. There are shots here, of tiles on a bathroom wall, of tv monitors, or common bookstore facades that are as exciting as anything in Blade Runner 2049, Interstellar, or any other "most beautiful movie ever". There is a sequence where Navorski figures out how to acquire change to buy fast food, and it's electrifying. Others can try, but no one else can make that claim. Steven Spielberg could literally direct Hanks making a sandwich and I would be on the edge of my seat.
The film is quite long. It would be unforgivably tedious and indulgent had it been directed by anyone else. But the greatest living director deserves to indulge. I could watch The Terminal for days. In all it's cheesy, earnest glory. It's a real delight. An old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that most people are scared to take a swing at in this century. Maybe that's because no one else has the directorial swagger of Steven Spielberg. Stripped of everything except a couple of great movie stars and a professional comedic screenplay, he shows how invaluable his cinematic instincts are. Airport Burger King has never looked so good.
The Irishman (2019)
The Resurrection of Classic Cinema.
In the year 2000, Martin Scorsese appeared alongside Roger Ebert to discuss his picks for the top ten best movies of the 1990s. At number four, Scorsese chose Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, Eyes Wide Shut. He said of it, "I cherish the film because it puts you in the authoritative hands of an old master, with a style that flies in the face of every modern convention." Those words hold truth. It seems the very best movies are the auteur pictures. The ones with a guiding hand that shakes you in your seat, directs you through the story, and pummels you with images of power and grace. And that is how I would describe Scorsese's own film, 2019's The Irishman. This sprawling mob epic/ intimate character examination/ eulogy to a lost film era, is a gift. Through all three and a half hours of The Irishman, I was awash in a kind of deep gratitude. I had the surreal sensation of witnessing an all-time classic reveal itself before my eyes. It was like discovering The Godfather in 1972 or Goodfellas in 1990. I felt the warm truth the actors brought, and the ultra-confident hands of a filmmaker who may one day be recognized as the greatest artist of the medium. The Irishman is Scorsese's Eyes Wide Shut; a master director 's masterpiece, a towering beacon from another era, somehow, gloriously existing in this one.
The most apt descriptor of the Irishman may not be the first thing to come to mind when you look at the pieces involved. For all its small time thugs, cozy interiors, and countless scenes of meetings, phone conversations and casual dinners, The Irishman is an epic. Epics seem to come to Hollywood in waves. For every boom time (1920s, 1960s, 2000s), there are long droughts where nary a single movie is made that can rightfully claim the title. We are in the middle of such a drought. Many movies are overblown and overlong, but none truly epic. The Irishman, which has gotten plenty of ire for its daunting three and half hour runtime, is one of the only true epics if its decade. And not just because of its length. The story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a supposed mob hitman and crucial cog in the rise and fall of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) seems very much of a piece with Scorsese's other, smaller mob movies, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. Those films teem with energy, but they don't match The Irishman for scope. Here is an adapted screenplay by Steve Zaillian that traces the breadth of the Golden years of American crime and filters it through the eyes of a handful of characters. Following Frank from the end of World War II to the beginning of the 21st century, Zaillian and Scorsese create a story that feels enormous. The script somehow manages to weave together a slew of major world events into Frank's story a la Forrest Gump, but in a way that feels real and inevitable. This movie is huge. Scorsese holds nothing back; no idea, no bit of color, no set piece or character moment. It's all in there. Yes, The Irishman is very long, and it feels long. It should. This is a journey. The film sweeps you along for its entirety. The sumptuous technical craft and storytelling involvement make it next to impossible to tear yourself away from its embrace. You savor every single moment of The Irishman. It's a feast. The canvas is enormous and every inch of it is painted with exquisite detail.
The Irishman is cast like a film lover's ultimate fantasy. The epic crime drama is populated with many of the finest character actors working, as well as a few inspired outsiders, and it stars three of the all-time titans of the industry. But fantasy this is not. What's better is not just that this film exists, for real, in our time, but that everyone is at the very top of their games. Robert De Niro as Frank Sheeran roars back into the world of acting after a long hiatus as a human cartoon character. His Sheeran is an extremely tricky challenge for an actor. He is asked to play a man who is a bit of a dolt, but is still racked with unrecognized guilt. It's an internalized performance if ever there was one. DeNiro plays it absolutely right. He doesn't command the screen like we know he can, but instead wisely chooses a weak, almost bashful, but kind of charming naïveté. The heavy lifting comes from the supporting players. Specifically, the two other legends brought back from the cinematic grave, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci. Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa in a towering performance worthy to stand alongside the very best of his legendary career. His entrance in the film brings a thunderbolt of classic acting energy. If any living actor understands the power of commanding theatricality on screen, it must be Pacino. His Hoffa is a shining example of the tremendous power of acting joie de vivre. The beating heart of The Irishman is, however, Joe Pesci. His very appearance is a shock, having been retired from acting for 20 years, but almost more shocking is his unprecedentedly subtle brilliance as Frank Sheehan's mob mentor, Russell Bufalino. He is far away from the volatile goons on which he made his name. Here Pesci is relaxed, sagely, and world weary. His presence onscreen is awesome in an almost religious sense. It's literally like watching someone rise from the dead, wiser and more ethereal than before.
Who knew this was possible? Who knew these legends who seemed to have faded away into history long ago, still had this intensity, this sensitivity, this skill? Maybe they never lost it. How lucky are we, then, to have gotten this showcase script for them to shine in? The Irishman's detractors have hid behind certain "controversial" elements, such as the CGI de-aging used to assist the actors in portraying their younger selves, the film's length, or its distribution on Netflix. None of these trivial hang ups negate what Martin Scorsese and his collaborators have done with The Irishman. This is a classic that will hang in the annals of film history. A film to stand alongside The Godfather, Goodfellas, and the other greats of the genre. The simple fact that it exists brings me immense joy. The fact that it is a perfectly crafted piece of art, overflowing with meaning and themes and personal connections to its auteur brings me something else entirely. This is why I watch movies, why I never allow myself to get too discouraged by modern sensibilities. Because the masters are always a spark of inspiration away from returning to glory. Don't lose hope, there is still room for new classics.