Here’s how I spent the last three months of the year, checking out some celebrated new releases and revisiting some old favorites.
3:10 to Yuma (1957) dir by Delmar Daves
Stark and beautiful in black and white, with a very modern, cunning performance by Glenn Ford, who conveys menace largely without having to prove it. Proof that Elmore Leonard could make villains compelling from the start. It’s a straight line from Ford’s Ben Wade to Ordell Robbie.
The Dark Night Trilogy (2005-2012) dir. by Christopher Nolan
One of the few blockbuster franchises that grows in power with each viewing. Nolan builds a world so absorbing, that you hardly notice that Bale wears the batsuit less and less as the series continues. And it isn’t a stretch to say the true hero of the triptych is Jim Gordon, as played by Gary Oldman as a man of uncertain courage but enormous decency. The Dark Knight hardly needs my praise, but critics were too hard on the third installment. It bites off a lot: It toys with notions of destabilization and revolution. It features terrorist attacks on sacred American institutions like a stock exchange and a football game, but doesn’t do so lightly. Where other summer movies will destroy half a city on a whim just for effect, Nolan makes us feel the stakes.
Romeo and Juliet (2013) dir by Carlo Carlei
Shakespeare gets Twilight-ized, sexed up and dumbed down. But my daughter loved it—and if she grows interested in the Bard as a result, who can complain?
A Place in the Sun (1951) dir by George Stevens
Relevant to me because I’m reading Steve Erickson’s Zeroville. Clift and Taylor are indeed incandescent, but the soap operatics can be tough to push through. And anything with Shelly Winters gets downgraded. I’d probably throw her in the lake too.
Silver Linings Playbook (2013) dir by David O. Russell
On rewatch, better than originally estimated, largely because of Bradley Cooper. It’s a pretty brave and not really showy performance (if you don’t believe running around in a trash bag as showy). He feels organic; J-Law’s character feels constructed. And, to be clear, I, like the rest of humanity, am a fan of Jennifer Lawrence, but she often feels plugged into films. (See also, American Hustle.) It’s a tribute to her skills that she makes her characters work, but am looking forward to seeing her more front-and-center.
Blood Alley (1955) dir by William A. Wellman
John Wayne talking to his invisible girlfriend while spiriting a bunch of Chinese refugees in a paddleboat to Hong Kong? What could go wrong? Plenty. Wayne and Lauren Bacall are mismatched. She needs to be off a boat on somewhere urban and shadowy with Bogart. (Robert Mitchum would have been better too; he was originally cast in Wayne’s role.) He needs someone who can handle herself in a fracas, like Maureen O’Hara. The widescreen scenery is the picture’s biggest asset, even if North California substitutes for China. A product of its time, down to its fierce anti-Communism and the casting of Western actors in Eastern roles.
Payback (1999) dir by Brian Helgeland
This is the original version, not the director’s cut released almost a decade later. And marks the rare time where many fans prefer the studio-meddled one. It’s literally different in tone (shot with some sort of an azure tint), less nihilistic, and a bit more fun. Gibson—remember him?—is effective in the role made more famous by Lee Marvin in Point Blank. Bonus points for Lucy Liu as a wisecracking dominatrix. (There’s another kind?) Purists will go for the later version, but Marvin already staked out that territory.
Berlin Express (1948) dir by Jacques Tournier
Shot by Tournier of Out of the Past fame, Berlin Express is a post-war thriller that’s shot like a noir and that takes full advantage of bombed-out European cities to stark cinematic effect. (Carroll Reed did the same in his classics, The Third Man and The Man Between.) But the plot itself is nothing special and the overbearing narration about international cooperation is almost a deal-killer.
Birdman (2014) dir by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
A critical darling of the year, the film doesn’t quite live up to the hype. Michael Keaton, as always, is eminently watchable, and the hope is that this part leads to a healthy career revival. But the subplot involving Edward Norton and Emma Stone’s characters feels tacked on and overly derivative, although Norton has great fun with his Master Thespian role. Most critically, though, is that director Inarratu seems to lose track of what he’s trying to say. Is it about artistic purity? Artistic narcissism? Social media? I’m all for ambiguous endings, but the one chosen here seems to undercut the entire premise.
Bad Boys (1995) dir by Michael Bay
This is what getting cable TV again has wrought. I was pulled into this Michael Bay actioner almost against my will. It’s a journey back to a time in which Martin Lawrence was as big as Will Smith. It’s a not-as-smart Lethal Weapon, but with a lovely Miami sheen and Tea Leoni before she was turned into Hillary Clinton.
The School of Rock (2003) dir by Richard Linklater
Somehow had never seen this–and it’s wonderful. Linklater has turned into one of America’s best directors, and this was an early demonstration of how he can spin what could have been a cloying disaster into gold. It’s a first-class example of how to make a family film that doesn’t patronize adults or kids. My daughter loved it. All the beats are predictable, right up to the angry parents won over by the big show, but it still feels fresh because Linklater takes the time to make us care about the characters.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) dir by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Like many Marvel films, it’s surprisingly good for two acts (especially the man-out-of-time stuff) and then you just want the big, clanging battle to end. As noted above, it’s remarkable how different these films are from Nolan’s Batman trilogy. (Although Man of Steel, which Nolan produced, seemed to be unholy fusion of the two, where the hero can be morally ambiguous but still level a city.) Reviewers were a bit too generous in allowing the filmmakers to compare this to 70s-style conspiracy thrillers such as Three Days of the Condor, but Chris Evans’ Captain asks all the right questions about the modern security state. His retro-worldview seems sorely needed these days. My biggest question about the ending—how convenient it was for all the damaged helicarriers to fall into the Potomac River and, you know, not destroy Northern Virginia? Have you ever seen the Potomac? It’s a ribbon.
Draft Day (2014) dir by Ivan Reitman
More Cleveland sports snuff porn. If you can buy Jennifer Garner as a lawyer with a passion for football, salary caps, and Kevin Costner, I guess you can buy how Costner’s GM saves his job through a series of increasingly ludicrous transactions. Or how nobody seems to know damaging information about a high draft pick until minutes before the draft. The pleasure, such as it is, all flows from old-pro Costner working the angles like Roy McAvoy.
Edge of Tomorrow (2014) dir by Doug Liman
Not quite as good as its defenders want it to be. Look, as much fun as the film’s Groundhog Day in Spaaace’s premise is, at the end of the day, it’s still about guns, explosions, Transformers-type battles, and CGI everything. Granted, Emily Blunt is an effective (and kick-ass) Obi-wan for Tom Cruise, but I would have liked to have seen more of Cruise’s narcissistic Jerry Maguire-type character at the beginning before he was transformed into the Ultimate Warrior. This film is cousin to every 1980s Cruise movie ever: callow guy gets humbled, finds his way to become a champ. In that way, it’s a nice departure from his modern persona as a superman (see, e.g. Jack Reacher, Mission Impossible.) It’s good to have you back, Cruiser.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) dir by Wes Anderson
I was locked and loaded to hate it. And, honestly, I spent most of the first part of the film hating it. It was so Anderson and the precious little dioramas he constructs. His fans talk about this film as being a confection, but I never have really cared for baked goods. But a funny thing happened on the way to my cynically writing it off—Ralph Fiennes. He turns in a heartfelt, layered and often hilarious performance. He won me over. On my second viewing, I let the film work and it does to a tremendous degree. And there’s real pathos in the multiple time-frame structure. It’s Anderson’s best since his one-two punch of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.
Snowpiercer (2014) dir by Bong Joon Ho
The film works only as an allegory; it’s not realistic in any sense, something that audiences may have had a hard time with. But it’s an achievement on its own terms—a portrait of revolution. (That might be another reason why it didn’t connect.) It’s the rare film that is both intellectually and visually provocative, while hitting all the action beats. Seriously, though, I could do without any more scenes of men with hatchets rushing at each other. Maybe I’m old-fashioned that way. But this is the film whose images will likely stay with me the longest of any I’ve seen of late.
Tombstone (1993) dir by George Cosmatos
The irresistible war-horse, so to speak. I can’t not watch it. I was so shocked to discover that I don’t own this on Blu Ray that I scanned my collection several times to make sure. (Then I recalled that the transfer was panned in the day.) To be clear, it’s not a great movie. There isn’t the subtlety you would find in something like Ford’s My Darling Clementine. But Russell’s performance as a quasi-modern man pulled back into barbarism anchors the film—and I love the supporting cast (Kilmer, Elliott, Paxton, Zane, Delany, Thornton, Boothe, Biehn, and Charlton Heston, for goodness sake.) It’s probably the most re-watchable western of the modern era, likely for its old-fashioned lack of psychological complexity. (3:10 to Yuma has it beat, hands down, in that regard.)