Continuing my review of what I screened over last three months…
Interstellar (2014) dir by Christopher Nolan
Count me as a Nolan apologist. To me, his willingness to go big offsets the shaky plotting and often terrible, expositional dialogue of his films. I went into Interstellar with preloaded goodwill that the film used to its advantage. At times, it did its living best to drain it from me, particularly with the contrivance that Matthew McConaughey’s Coop would be living so close to a secret rocket base. Maybe, like Snowpiercer, the film works better when not taken literally, as instead a meditation on parental sacrifice and the distance, both real and emotional, that comes between a father and his child as he or she grows. (Interesting that the critical favorite Boyhood and this movie have such similar emotional beats.) In a way, both Interstellar and Nolan’s Inception are about time travel–or more specifically, the impossibility of going back, of returning to a family no longer exists. Both are about undoing. And if Nolan won’t give them that, he’ll at least give them sort of cheat that allows them a measure of peace.
As for the science, critics nitpicked the realism in a way they never would for a Wes Anderson (who creates living snowglobes) or even for say, Iron Man or Star Trek, which is more fantasy than sci-fi. But that’s because Nolan was so determined to have the film seem plausible, and that, especially these days, ambition makes you a target.
Beyond the dad-daughter stuff which, admittedly, I’m road-kill for, I found real resonance in the kind of inward-turned, anti-science future that Nolan outlines. We live in strange times, when our obsession with portable devices doesn’t translate into widespread interest in the engineering behind them. Steve Jobs is a modern-day hero because he designed tech you don’t have to think about. That Interstellar at least forces the viewer to confront not only the basic tenets of space travel but also the prospect of climatic catastrophe is to the movie’s credit. So, yeah, it’s more 2010 than 2001, but give Nolan credit for trying. I suspect that I’m not nearly done with this film.
The Caine Mutiny (1954) dir by Edward Dmytryk
A bit musty because of its reliance on “Freudian” clues about irrational behavior, it’s largely redeemed because of Fred MacMurray’s scoundrel of a Naval officer. Since MacMurry’s Keefer thinks only of saving his own skin, Bogart’s Queeg ultimately becomes a more sympathetic figure than it would first appear. As a historical document, it presages Vietnam-era films that cast doubt on the legitimacy of hierarchical authority.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001) dir by Steven Soderbergh
Are you in or out? Has bourbon ever looked better onscreen? This is yet another movie that should never have had a sequel, even though I have defended its second installment as a guilty pleasure. What’s that list? Start with Jaws and Rocky, add Raiders of the Lost Ark, and (honestly) The Wrath of Khan. Others? Grease, Saturday Night Fever, The Matrix, 48 Hours, Jurassic Park, The Blues Brothers, Ghostbusters, and many others I’m omitting. Critics say modern Hollywood is obsessed with franchises and sure things, but that’s been the case since the 1970s or even earlier. (There were six Thin Man movies, after all.)
Deep Impact (1998) dir by Mimi Leder
Ah, the anti-Armageddon. We finally meet. What explains the existence of these two parallel Earth-is-doomed films? I can only attribute to fin-de-siecle angst. While this one has the guts to go all the way, I can’t help but prefer the other, even though its premise is certifiably insane. And really, all this trouble to save Elijah Wood?
Contact (1998) dir by Robert Zemeckis
Interstellar before it was cool. This is a film I want my daughter to see when she’s older, if only because of Jodie Foster’s dedicated astronomer. It, sadly, remains notable when women are allowed to be as obsessive as men onscreen (see also, Zero Dark Thirty). And even if we didn’t know Foster’s personal backstory, the romance subplot with McConaughey (him again!) feels unnecessary. This is a film about the conflict between idealism and bureaucracy, the anti-Right Stuff. And unfortunately, the ending feels right. What do Interstellar, Contact, Deep Impact and Armageddon have in common? All posit that when pushed to the task, the U.S. government can rise to the occasion in the fashion of the Apollo program. Our recent politics put that notion sorely to the test.
ACOD (2013) dir by Stuart Zicherman
Adam Scott is a likeable comic actor, even if he is just 100 pounds soaking wet and his shtick mainly consists of looking disconcerted in the face of ridiculousness. This little-seen movie never transcends its terrible title, but the game cast, which includes pros such as Richard Jenkins, Catherine O’Hara, and Amy Poehler, give it their all. (Poehler, in particular, nicely plays against her Parks and Rec type.) There’s something admirable about a modern comedy that prefers to be low-key rather than revolve around assassinating North Korean dictators.
Big Hero 6 (2014) dir by Don Hall, Chris Williams
Disney meets anime. We enjoyed it, but it was almost instantly forgettable in a way the better Pixar films aren’t. At the end of the day, despite a pretty rad view of a Pacific-fusion future, it’s just another superhero film.
Goodfellas (1991) dir by Martin Scorsese
An umpteenth viewing. Before recently, I never knew that Henry Hill was implicated in a point-shaving scandal at Boston College in the late 1970s—that that was a way the feds tried to get Jimmy the Gent for Lufthansa. To me, the movie’s last-act cocaine-addled sequence of Liotta driving around Long Island will always be Scorsese’s signature piece of filmmaking, even beyond Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and the Wolf of Wall Street.
X Men: Days of Future Past (2014) dir by Brian Singer
I’ll give whoever green-lighted this credit for having faith an audience can follow the time-travel premise. This is some pretty hardcore geekery for the summer blockbuster crowd. There’s not a lot of hand-holding here. Hope they keep going with Fassbender and McAvoy; they’re the reason to see these films, although it was very nice to see Patrick Stewart on the screen on more time. (And Hugh Jackman can apparently do these forever? He is a triple-threat!)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) dir by Alain Resnais
So opaque, harrowing, and lovely that there’s little I can say about it that would be useful. It’s an experience more than a story, the kind of elliptical filmmaking that has fallen out of favor. European cinema may never be relevant in the U.S. again (indeed, if anything we look to Asia now for our foreign film fix.) As a nation, the moral case for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been embedded into our history. Seventy years later, it’s still shocking to come across a piece of mass media that would so openly call that into question.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) dir by Steven Spielberg
This was the daughter’s first viewing and she liked it, but didn’t love it. Maybe it’s because it’s 40 years old. Maybe it’s because she isn’t a boy. But she worried for Marion’s fate, cheered Indy, and laughed about the snakes. That’s about all I can ask. (But now I’m worried. See Temple of Doom, below.)
The Bourne Trilogy (2002-2007) dir by Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass
I still don’t like undercutting the emotional power of the first film by offing Marie so quickly in the second one. I understand why Bourne needed to be lone wolf, the avenging angel, etc. She really did slow him down. But the difference between the Liman and Greengrass films is that the first does have a warm dose of humanity, with Marie so clearly in the role of an audience surrogate who is rocked to discover this world of secret government-sponsored killers exists. That allows Bourne’s motivations to go beyond himself. The second and third films are splendid in their own right, but largely through their technical precision. They’re sleek and efficient, like Bourne himself. You marvel at his resourcefulness. (I particularly like the sequence in Ultimatum involving Paddy Considine’s doomed journalist.) I also admire the suggestion that even when bad apples in the government are exposed or eliminated, another inevitably rises to take his place. In that context, I didn’t realize the first time around how Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy assumes the role of a secondary hero, much like Gordon in the Batman films.
Marnie (1964) dir by Alfred Hitchcock
Hoo boy. It’s hard to separate this from the now well-documented tension between Hitchcock and Tippi Hendren as it seems to express itself directly in the text when Sean Connery uses his superior leverage to force Marnie, Hendren’s character, to marry him. (And then forces himself on her during the “honeymoon”) That, combined with the story’s suggestion that once repressed memories are brought to the surface, the person is “fixed” or “cured” makes this film problematic. Typically, I’m not a believer in retroactively imposing modern, evolved social attitudes on films of the past, but in this case, it’s almost unavoidable, and that certainly undercuts the power of work. Hitch, to me, was always at his weakest when he attempted to be too overtly psychological. (Spellbound is another example; as is the coda to Psycho. Vertigo is better because Stewart’s compulsions are expressed through action rather than exposition.) Still, there is something here—and its largely due to Hendren’s layered and coiled performance. The opening sequence as she sheds her fake identity after robbing her employer is as absorbing as it is erotic. Hendren suggests a fixed remove, an unknowability, and inner strength. The question is whether Hitchcock and Connery conspire during the rest of the film to take that away from her. She is that kind of threat.
Psycho (1960) dir by Alfred Hitchcock
Can you believe I had never seen this? It’s one of those films that feels familiar through sheer cultural osmosis. (Confession: I’ve never sat down to watch Schindler’s List for much of the same reasons.) And so much of its narrative power has been diluted by its enshrinement in the filmic pantheon, not to mention its imitators. You know the shower scene. You know about Norman Bates. So why bother?
And in truth, robbed of its ability to startle, Psycho loses quite a bit. The movie lacks the same pleasures of my favorite Hitchcocks—Notorious, Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t an accomplishment. No director will ever again pull a bait-and-switch like Hitchcock does with Janet Leigh’s character. (I’ll let smarter critics than I debate whether Hitch is punishing her for her overt sexuality, but I’d offer that her moral foibles, both sexual and otherwise, make her a more compelling character, not less, and that her loss is felt that much more deeply.) As noted above, I could do without the coda, in which a doctor explains to the audience why Norman is so fucked up. I think we got that one.
The Master (2013) dir by Paul Thomas Anderson
Hey, speaking of cults of personality! Here’s PT Anderson’s film about Scientology But Not Really. This is an odd piece of work. Anderson is becoming a more and more impenetrable filmmaker, and after the big-canvas dynamics of There Will be Blood, it’s more unclear what he’s trying to say with this two-man tale. Yes, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix turn in indelible performances—what exactly is Phoenix doing with his upper lip? And is he wearing an overly tight back brace? Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a hustler and surrogate father in the manner of Jack Horner. And Phoenix’s Freddy Quell is a lost lamb with serious issues, like, you know, Dirk Diggler, TJ Mackey, and Barry Egan.
Anderson seems to be saying that spiritual emptiness brings a hunger for belief systems, regardless of their internal logic. That at the end, it’s the curtain, not the man behind it that matters. (But what do we make of the notion that it’s Dodd’s wife, as played by Amy Adams, who’s really driving the train?) The ending suggests being thrown out of a false paradise—but is noncommittal as to whether that’s good or bad for Freddy. None of this takes away from Anderson’s skill as filmmaker—some of the shots here, particularly at the start of the film—are breathtaking compositions. I’ll see everything he ever makes.
Altman (2014) dir by Ron Mann
A lot of people like to be labeled a maverick. Robert Altman is one of the few artists, particularly in cinema, who largely played by his own set of rules. And more than once, he seemed washed up only to reemerge triumphantly. He kept his values—work, family, love of life—in the forefront. Like many idiosyncratic visionaries, he made plenty of mistakes. But he was never afraid to make them. Hollywood, like many sectors of our society, has become decidedly risk averse. The key story, which may or may not be embellished, lies in Altman, as a young father, taking the last of his savings to the racetrack and winning big. It’s easy to say that we all should be so lucky, but so few of us have to guts to put the money down in the first place.
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) dir by William A. Wellman
A morality play, set in the West, about the dangers of the mob. Henry Fonda would play a similar role a decade later in 12 Angry Men. As for the current state of the mob, see Twitter.
Alien (1979) dir by Ridley Scott
The sequels haven’t diminished the power of the original. (Dislike III, have a soft spot for IV) That’s largely because, like with all good horror movies, the terror lies in the unknown. There are relatively few spasms of violence in the film and even fewer views of the monster. (Scott obviously took some cures from Spielberg’s Jaws; in the direct sequel James Cameron, as is his wont, took the opposite approach. He believes in more, more, more!) Despite the science fiction trappings, this is really a film about claustrophobia, along with a healthy dose of class conflict. It’s the opposite of Star Trek’s utopian future—and unfortunately feels truer. If space ever is conquered and commercialized, it’ll be the blue-collar grunts doing the heavy lifting. The film’s secret weapon is the supporting cast: Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Ian Holm, John Hurt and Tom Skerritt as a not-especially heroic captain. And I’ll add that seeing Sigourney Weaver in those little briefs at the end still titillates my inner 12-year-old–which had to be the point, right?
Watchmen (2009) dir by Zack Snyder
I have only a tangential familiarity with Snyder’s work (see the Man of Steel ref above), but it’s enough to know I don’t like it. The gore and the slow-mo/speed-up violence doesn’t speak of creativity, but a lack of it. He apparently was a huge fanboy of the source material and it shows. It’s adapted with bloated precision. Snyder obviously admires Alan Moore, but he has nothing to say beyond his work.
It would have been interesting to see what someone with a truly subversive soul—like Moore–would have done with the material. I haven’t yet seen PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but that’s what I’m picturing. Hell, even James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy poked at your expectations better than this. And, as much as I’d like to believe the pop music cues are ironic, I can’t. There hasn’t been a film that has been scored with such chalkboard-scratching obviousness since Forrest Gump. “The Times They Are A-Changing?” Really?
The idea of deeply flawed superheroes intertwined with Nixon, Vietnam and the Cold War is fodder for a transcendent film. Sadly, this isn’t it. It’s probably a comment on the work that the film is now largely remembered for its sex scene in a giant floating owl head. Also, I loved writing that sentence.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2012) dir by J.J. Abrams
I’ve been rooting for the reboot. I confess. I want it to work. And the first installment overcame its (significant) weaknesses, largely because it was done with panache and style and the actors, including Pine, Quinto, Saldana, Urban and Pegg are so damn likeable. But I must report the sequel doesn’t improve with repeated viewings. You can feel the studio forces all over it, especially the (pretty awful) third act and its terrible title. The casual destruction of half of San Francisco is gratuitous and unforgiveable—as is Spock’s fistfight and the miracle drug that resurrects Kirk.
What’s frustrating is that the movie’s first 10 minutes are so enjoyable and so close to the heart of the original series. Someone on the creative team obviously knew what they were doing. So why completely give in to by-the-numbers storytelling after that? If the first movie was a blatant nod to Star Wars, why did this have to be some personal revenge film? We have Liam Neeson for that shit. (I know the answer. So that the lead character has a ‘stake” in the outcome. Screenwriting 101.) Moreover, the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense. With all the buzz over the Star Wars trailer, I’d offer this note of caution: It’s still less than clear whether JJ Abrams is here to save movies or destroy them.
Blue Jasmine (2013) dir by Woody Allen
A welcome return to relevance for Woody. And it’s here where I’ll be the skunk at the picnic and say I didn’t care for the magical realism of Midnight in Paris, even as I enjoyed Corey Stoll’s performance as Hemingway. (Owen Wilson, not so much.) This seems like the closest link in recent times to his best work—Hannah and Her Sisters, especially, as well as Crimes and Misdemeanors, and, of course, Manhattan and Annie Hall. Whether it’s due to age, financing issues, boredom, or something else, Allen rarely trains his eye on New York’s social climbers and pretenders like he did in his salad days.
But Blue Jasmine wouldn’t work at all without Cate Blanchett’s performance. She demonstrates an absolute command of her character and absolutely deserved her Oscar. (She’s probably my favorite actress working today.) In truth, she finds a level of sympathy in the character that Allen’s script probably didn’t give her.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940) dir by Ernest Lubitsch
My first time with this—and my daughter stayed with me all the way through. Even better, she recognized Frank Morgan as the Wizard of Oz and Jimmy Stewart from It’s a Wonderful Life. (That’s parenting, folks!) A lovely, if slight, Christmas film and a template for a thousand workplace rom-coms including its direct remake, You’ve Got Mail. (Isn’t is strange that Dave Chappelle is in that film?) I have come around to believe that Stewart is the greatest American actor in history and that he set the stage for the modern era from DeNiro and Pacino to Crowe, DiCaprio, Day-Lewis and the like. I ‘d better write that at some point.
Married to the Mob (1988) dir by Jonathan Demme
Early Demme may be the only good Demme. (I’m neutral on Silence of the Lambs, to be honest.) The sense of place he evokes—Manhattan in the mid 1980s—in both this film and Something Wild is so powerful, so specific. While Pfeiffer shows a daffy side she’d rarely, if ever, show again, the oddball performances of Matthew Modine (his fake-walk down a hallway is a classic) and especially Dean Stockwell make this a perpetually underrated comedy. Always remember, it’s a Burger World town!
Annie (2014) dir by Will Gluck
Suffered through this over the holidays. I won’t begrudge an African-American Annie or placing the film in the modern era, even though I think Quvenzhane Wallis dialed up the mugging for the camera up to 11. She isn’t the problem though. The movie seems to hate its source material and doesn’t particularly seem interested in being a musical. The songs are weirdly truncated, when not changed or eliminated. Cameron Diaz turns in a gruesome, self-lacerating performance; I felt bad for her.
And then there’s the movie’s incoherent politics, starting with a bizarre history lesson Annie gives us about FDR at the beginning, about how he gave the poor “money and jobs” and somehow, the rich got richer too! Talk about a Worker’s Paradise. Then the film does everything it can to canonize Jamie Foxx’s cellphone magnate who’s basically trying to buy his way into running New York City. The movie’s message seems to be: Yeah, it sucks to be a poor. You’d better find yourself a millionaire. Not exactly empowering for little girls.
The Awful Truth (1937) dir by Leo McCarey
Sometimes I think this entire movie exists so Cary Grant can deliver that great line about Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday. Speaking of which….
Big Trouble in Little China (1985) dir by John Carpenter
In which, Kim Cattrall does her best to keep up with Rosalind Russell.
This is the best part:
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) dir by Steven Spielberg
And it’s here where I must report that, sadly, I’ve come down on the side of the haters. I’ll always cherish the opening sequence, the frantic zaniness of the scene at the Club Obi-Wan in Shanghai. But man, the rest of the film is a drag. And it seriously disturbed my daughter, who liked Raiders quite a bit. It was hard for her to believe this was the same Indy, something Spielberg and Lucas should have taken into account with the scene where our hero is transformed into a dark sadist. (We turned it off at that point.) There’s nothing wrong with giving a movie some dark touches, but this is, as the filmmakers have acknowledged, a film suffused with bile.
Inception (2010) dir by Christopher Nolan
Here we go again. All the standard objections (exposition, dialogue) apply, but this feels like the work that comes closes in execution to whatever vision Nolan carried in its head. It’s endlessly fascinating and—in its own way—beautiful. But I can never help but wonder if the James Bond-style sequence deep in the movie represents a failure of imagination. Nobody dreams like this. Moreover, you’ve created a cinematic universe where you have a free hand and this is as original that it gets? I understand that Nolan consciously didn’t want to make this The Matrix; he wanted the fantasy to feel as “real” as the reality. That’s why there are so few flights of fancy in the production design other than the Joseph Gordon-Levitt gravity sequence. But there is a tremendous sense of lost opportunity, that Nolan was somehow inhibited by the very creative freedom he was granting himself. Which is not to say I wanted the film to look like this.
This is The End (2013) dir by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan
Yeah, I laughed. A lot, in fact, during the first half of the movie. But there’s no getting around the fact that it feels like it was made by 16-year-olds horrified by their possible gayness with as much as budget for weed as for the production. I did, however, appreciate the implication that James Franco isn’t a real person. I’ve felt that way for much of his career, no matter how ingratiating he can be. (Also, I much preferred the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg take on this.)
American Hustle (2013) dir by David O. Russell
The perfect note on which to end the year. Liked it even better the second time. This time, I became a believer in Lawrence. (As with Silver Linings, my first impression was that she was too young for the part.) Here, her Rosalyn is a barely veiled sociopath, but you miss her every time she’s off-screen. Russell gets a lot of grief on the boards these days for crafting what some dismiss as “Oscar-bait” but I’m not sure what that means? Crowd-pleasing films filled with showy performances, I guess. What used to be known as studio films. We don’t get very many of these any longer, so I’m not going to complain.