I Want My Shakespeare!

Romeo + JulietRomeo + Juliet (1996)

Baz Lurhmann’s film is Shakespeare filtered through MTV.

The reason this works while other adaptations of Shakespeare have failed is because they left the Shakespearean dialogue alone, while modernizing the presentation.  By making it like a new MTV video with Shakespearean language, this adaptation highlights the language and forces us to pay even more attention to it.

Released one year before Titanic, this is the beginning of Leonardo DiCapprio’s ascent to superstardom.

The role of Juliet was originally offered to Natalie Portman, but producers were uncomfortable with how young she seemed in her scenes with DiCapprio.  Fortunately, Claire Danes is exactly how I would have imagined Juliet.

The fantastic supporting cast includes Paul Sorvino, M. Emmet Walsh, Paul Rudd, John Leguizamo, Miriam Margoyles, and Pete Postlethwaite.

Watch this just to be reminded how great Shakespeare can be when done well.

24 hour intervals in Paradise

Days of Heaven (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Terrence Malick’s second major film, Days of Heaven contains many of what would become his defining characteristics: it’s slow and plodding, beautifully composed, and filled with Biblical allusions (in this case the story of Abram and Sarai in Egypt).

Richard Gere has never been more understated.

The plot is simple, but has one major hole: why do Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister?.

While the story is easy to describe, the movie manages to create a good deal of suspense.

The film is composed like a series of paintings; the plot is an excuse to move towards the next set piece.

This is a beautiful film, maybe the most beautiful Malick film which makes it a must see.

Get off my Little Crucible

My Little Chickadee (1940)

The thin plot revolves around a masked bandit who robs coaches, but the movie is simply an excuse to bring two aging vaudeville stars (W.C. Fields and Mae West) together on the big screen for the first time.

I like the idea of W.C. Fields; a witty misanthrope who says things we all think but are too polite to say, but, in the few films of his I’ve seen, while he’s amusing in spots, he tries way too hard.  This film was towards the end of his career and released only six years before he died.  It’s entirely possible I’m watching him well past his prime, and I should watch some of his earlier stuff before I pass ultimate judgment, but for now, I’m unimpressed.

I feel the same way about Mae West.  In theory, she sounds hysterical: a woman unafraid to use her sexuality to her advantage and joke about it,  (a precursor to Blanche Devereaux from The Golden Girls); a playfully dirty vixen in the days of straighter than straight lace.  In this film, she’s slightly funnier than Fields, but not as hysterical as advertised.  Much like Fields, her witty quotes will resonate for ages, but her work on film is not as effective as her mystique would indicate.

She has a peculiar delivery and doesn’t perform so much as recite her lines like poetry, with the same rhythm for everything.  This can lead to charming moments, but overall it’s grating.

West only appeared in twelve films, and only three after 1940 until her death in 1980.  Her late career films included notorious bombs Myra Breckridge (1970) and Sextette (1978).

Her name still has cultural cachet as a byword for in your face, confident sexuality, but after watching this, her reputation is shattered.

You’re better off imagining what Fields are West were like as performers than watching this and finding out.

Air Force One (1997)

President James Marshall is a foreshadowing of Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer from 24 ; the point of the movie is to remind us of the dangers of negotiating with terrorists.

To make the 24  comparison way too easy: Xander Berkely (who played George Mason during the program’s first two years) plays a Secret Service agent with a secret agenda; Glenn Morshower (who plays All-Pro Secret Service agent Aaron Pierce on 24) plays a Secret Service agent here as well.  Morshower has had one of the most decorated Hollywood military careers: he’s been in the Secret Service, a sergeant (In the Army Now), an admiral (Pearl Harbor), a lieutenant colonel (Black Hawk Down), a colonel (Good Night, and Good Luck, Transformers, X-Men: and Days of Future Past), a major (Men Who Stare at Goats), and a general (Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen).

In retrospect, this may have been Harrison Ford’s last hurrah.  He was once an interesting actor (in Apocalypse Now, The Conversation, Blade Runner, American Graffiti), but after the unprecedented success of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, his immense fame made it difficult to take smaller, riskier roles.  He started another franchise as Jack Ryan (which doesn’t hold up well), and starred in The Fugitive (1993), but his career has been on autopilot since the early 1990s.  At this point in his career, he plays one character: an older, slightly more cynical version of Hans Solo.

Gary Oldman is the Russian terrorist who commandeers the President’s plane.  Oldman’s career arc is the opposite of Ford’s: despite appearing in countless blockbusters (Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and James Gordon in Nolan’s Batman trilogy), he remains relatively anonymous which enables him to disappear into a role.  As a result, he’s a rare actor with credibility in blockbusters and independent films.

Continuing our 24 theme: in 1991, Oldman was arrested in LA for drunk driving after a night out with …. Kiefer Sutherland!

Glenn Close is good as the Vice President but the role is one-dimensional.  This is not 24  related, although it sounds like it could have been:  Close was raised in a cult and traveled with their musical group, Up with People:

With six nominations, Close is tied with Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter as the most nominated actress to never win an Academy Award.  She’s been Cruella De Vile twice,  a terrifying spurned lover in Fatal Attraction (1987), a hyper manipulative bitch in Dangerous Liaisons (1986) a good-hearted mail-order bride in Sarah, Plain, and Tall, and supported the Guardians of the Galaxy (2014).

Her television work alone makes her beloved in my book.  She voices Mona Simpson (Homer’s mom), and shined as Vic Mackey’s foil / reluctant partner in The Shield.  

Dean Stockwell is the Secretary of Defense.  Stockwell has had the most impressive semi-anonymous Hollywood career.  As a child actor, he was in Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck’s son in the Best Picture winner Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and the son of William Powell and Myrna Loy in Son of the Thin Man (1947).  As a young man, he was in the excellent D.H. Lawrence adaptation, Sons and Lovers (1960), and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) with Jason Robards and Katharine Hepburn.

He was in Wim Wender’s Paris, Texas (1984), and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).

Later in life, he achieved fame as Al, the holographic sidekick in the sci-fi classic Quantum Leap.  Even later, he burnished his sci-fi credentials as Brother Cavil, the evil leader of the Cylons in the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.

He’s one of three actors to win the best Actor award at Cannes twice. The others: Jack Lemmon and Marcello Mastroianni.

Rounding out the cast:  William H. Macy as an aide on Air Force One, and one of my favorite character actors, Phillip Baker Hall as the attorney general.

Wolfgang Peterson directed Das Boot (1981), The NeverEnding Story (1984), In the Line of Fire (1993), The Perfect Storm (2000), Troy (2004) and the ill-advised Poseidon (2006).  Let that sink in for a minute: the guy who directed The NeverEnding Story is also responsible for:

Harrison Ford, Gary Oldman, Glenn Close, William H. Macey, Dean Stockwell; with this roster of all-stars, you expect an amazing experience, and they elevate the material into a fun, thrill ride, but it never manages to escape its B-movie origins.

The Crucible (1996)

I’d read Arthur Miller’s play in high school, so I knew it was an allegory for McCarthyism, but what I didn’t anticipate was the film’s message about love and commitment.  John Proctor and his wife Elizabeth love each other, but his act of infidelity with Abigail Williams causes a rift in their relationship which ends in violence and engulfs the whole town.

Daniel Day-Lewis rarely disappoints and this is no exception.  John Proctor is a man haunted and shamed by his past, torn between protecting his reputation and the well-being of his family.  Ultimately, he chooses to sacrifice his reputation, but in a reenactment of the O’Henry story, The Gift of the Magi, his wife tries to protect him and refuses to confirm his unfaithfulness.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, Joan Allen had a pretty impressive decade long run:  Nixon (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Pleasantville (1998), The Contender (2001) , Plesantville (1998), The Notebook (2004).  In recent years, her career has not been as prolific, but this film was during the peak of her career and she brings a real dignity to Elizabeth Proctor, who knows her husband has been unfaithful, but continues to love him.

With the right material, Winona Ryder is a great actress. She can be goofy: Beetljuice (1988) and Edward Scissorhands (1990).  She can be sarcastic and mean: Heathers (1988).  She can be quietly manipulative: The Age of Innocence (1993).  She’s a capable action movie star: Alien: Resurrection (1997). 

Sadly, her career was derailed after her arrest for shoplifting.  Since then, she’s been relegated in supporting roles in films like Star Trek (2009) and Black Swan (2010).

It seems like she’s been around forever, but she only turns 43 in 2014, so it may be early to give a career assessment of her work, but it seems we’re going to look back on her career and see it as a squandered opportunity.

Paul Scofield focused on his theater career, but the few films he participated in during his fifty year career were memorable: A Man for All Seasons (1966),  Henry V (1989), and Quiz Show (1994).

Jeffrey Jones is fondly remembered as the dad in Beetlejuice (1988) and the principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), but those fond memories were tainted when he was arrested for child pornography in 2003.

This film is a perfect companion piece to The Age of Innocence (1993), which also starred Daniel Day-Lewis and Winona Ryder.  The earlier film shows what sacrifices must be made to maintain fidelity in a relationship.  This film shows the consequences of breaking this vow.


The Lone Force of Evil

Lone Survivor (2013)

We’ve seen this movie before: these young, fun-loving (mostly white) guys will clash with their superiors before being assigned a dangerous mission.  The mission will appear to be going well before an unexpected snafu puts them in danger.  Most of them will die, but not before one of them makes some sort of sacrifice to show how grown up he’s become.  One of them will wax poetically about their families and loved ones at home.  If the movie’s third act is dragging, there will be a flashback to show one of them has a wrecked home life (usually a cheating girlfriend, but sometimes a military father who pressured him into signing up).

The war picture is one of the oldest film genres.  Occasionally, a film will transcend the genre: Grand Illusion(1939); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Saving Private Ryan (1998); this film did not.

The television version of Friday Night Lights proved Peter Berg is capable of creating compelling and original characters, but his style of storytelling needs more than two hours.   With limited time, he forgets the first rule of filmmaking: the audience has to give a shit about what happens to these people.

Friday Night Lights (2004), Battleship (2012) and Lone Survivor (2013) are dazzling, empty films.  I watched them, but I struggle to remember the name of a single character.

Mark Walhberg rose to fame as the younger brother of Donnie from NKOTB, then became a singer in his own right with Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, then became a Calvin Klein underwear model, then became an action move star, and is now a semi-respectable actor.  We live in a world where Marky Mark can get an Oscar nomination (in 2006 for The Departed), but Richard Gere, Jeff Daniels, Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman Donald Sutherland, and Edward G. Robinson cannot.

Taylor Kitsch owes his career to Peter Berg.  First, as Tim Riggins in the Friday Night Lights TV series, then Battleship, and now this. Kitsch is certainly charismatic enough to be a top-level actor, but I’m not sold on his ability to carry a non action oriented film.  Oliver Stone’s Savages (2012) which featured Kitsch was a mess and didn’t help to assuage these concerns.

Emile Hirsch may be a great actor, but he’s not given anything to distinguish himself here.  Maybe his upcoming role as John Belushi will provide him with a chance to prove himself, but excepting Into the Wild (2007), he’s not shown himself to be anything but a pretty face.

This was a decent movie, but boring and unremarkable.

The Raid: Redemption (2011)

A lot of people like this move;  I am not one of them.

It’s ostensibly about a raid on a slum in Jakarta, but it doesn’t matter because the director, Gareth Evans, decided action and elaborate set pieces were more important than character development.

It’s like a high budget Jean Claude Van Dame film, but there are better movies with better fight scenes.

Force of Evil (1948)

Joe Morse (John Garfield) works as a lawyer for a powerful gangster, Tucker.  Tucker wants to grow his empire and control the numbers game, an illegal precursor to the modern lottery.

Joe’s brother, Leo, runs one of the smaller games, so Tucker orders Joe to help him eliminate Leo.

This old-fashioned potboiler is heavy on archetypes and action; it features family rivalry, betrayal, and competing loyalties.

The director, Abraham Polonsky, refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 and was blacklisted for the rest of his career.   Until his death, Polonksy remained bitter: when Elia Kazan (who had testified to the committee) was honored with an Honorary Academy Award in 1999, Polonksy publicly wished someone would shoot him onstage.

The star of the film, John Garfield, also refused to testify to the committee, and he, too, was blacklisted.  Sadly, he died at age 39 from a heart attack, likely exacerbated by the stress of his vanishing career.

Of some note, Beau Bridges made his Hollywood debut in this movie.

It’s a passable movie, but its massive influence on the gangster genre makes it an important film.  There were better gangster movies before and there have been better since, but this movie’s combination of poetical imagery and hints of philosophy, elevated a story of crime and corruption to art, setting the stage for beloved classics like The Godfather (1972) and Goodfellas (1990).

Camille’s Secret Life

Camille (1936)

Marguerite Gautier (Greta Garbo) is born to a poor family, but uses her femininity and good looks to rise to prominence in French society (the movie implies this is through prostitution).  Now known as Dame Camille, she falls in love with a young Frenchma,n Armand (Robert Taylor).

Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) convinces Camille her sordid past will ruin Armand’s future, so she leaves him.  Armand searches for his beloved Camille and finds her just before she dies from tuberculosis, which the film suggests is punishment for her promiscuous past.

Garbo in 1941 at the age of 35.  Her short career consisted of fewer than 40 total films, and less than twenty in the sound era, but she did enough in these  she will be remembered forever.  Almost 25 years after her death, her name has a cultural cache and relevance few achieve.  Her public image as a mysterious, recluse (a beautiful, pleasant version of Howard Hughes) impacts how we view her films; we see sadness behind every smile.

Robert Taylor was one of the brightest lights in Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, but since his death in the late 1960s, the luster has diminished.   In a sort of reverse blacklist, he is purposefully neglected and his career diminished because he identified communists in Hollywood before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

George Cukor is an underrated director.  He excelled at light comedy, such as    The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Born Yesterday (1950), but he was also a capable director of straight dramatic films such as this and the excellent Judy Garland vehicle A Star is Born (1954).  Cukor was great and directing actresses, from Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday to Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964).  He directed his close friend Katharine Hepburn in many of her most iconic roles.  His affinity for female roles is most notable in The Women (1939), a film which featured no male roles.

Clips from this film appear in John Huston’s Annie (1982) when Daddy Warbucks takes his orphan charge to the movies.  My love of Annie makes me reflexively like this film more than I would otherwise.  It’s a good introduction to Garbo, but it’s a little too earnest and melodramatic; it doesn’t hold up as well as other films from the era.  If you want to see Garbo at her absolute height: watch Ninotchka (1939).

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

This movie takes a wildly different approach than the 1947 film adaptation of Walter Thurber’s short story which featured Danny Kaye.

Daydreamer Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) has a steady, but boring, job working with negatives at Life magazine. Over the years, he has developed a correspondence and pseudo-friendship with Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), a renowned photojournalist who has provided the magazine with many of its most iconic photographs.

When the magazine is sold to a conglomerate, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott) is sent by the new owners to inform the employees the magazine will be shutting down its print operation and moving to a digital only edition.  Its last traditional cover will be one last photo by O’Connell.  Unfortunately, because of his persistent daydreaming, Walter loses the negative for this photo.  To prove Hendricks wrong, Walter embarks on a series of out of character adventures to track down O’Connell and retrieve another copy of the photo.

The journey brings Walter out of his life of daydreams; he no longer dreams about what he could do with his life, but acts.

Kristen Wiig plays Mitty’s love interest.  She’s always charismatic, but occasionally tries too hard.  She sells out for the laugh, sometimes at the expense of her character, which is an asset on a live sketch show.  However, in this film, she shows an ability to reign in her performance, becoming more than a comedienne, but an actress.

Shirley Maclaine has a small, but pivotal role as Mitty’s mother.  Maclaine’s output has slowed considerably as she enters her ninth decade, but her recent work in Richard Linklater’s Bernie (2011) and Downton Abbey proves she still can still be an engaging screen presence.  Her scenes in this film, sparkle with energy.

I have trouble accepting Adam Scott in a dramatic role.  He’s great as Ben Wyatt in Parks and Recreation but his role as the asshole new boss at Life is the biggest misstep of this film.

Sean Penn has crafted a public image as a tough guy, which serves him well in films like Dead Man Walking (1995), Mystic River (2003) and Gangster Squad (2013), where he plays Mickey Cohen.  This image adds to his performance as the aloof and taciturn Sean O’Connell.

Patton Oswalt plays an eHarmony technician who accidentally calls Walter during his adventure.  I love Oswalt, but his role feels like unnecessary padding .  It feels like the role was written just so they could justify having Oswalt in the film.

Ben Stiller is at his best as a sort of naive and slightly jaded everyman.  Unlike his pals Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, Stiller needs to be the butt of the joke.  Walter Mitty is a career highlight for him, and the movie instantly became one of my favorite films involving Stiller.  It’s not his funniest film, but it may be the most satisfying.

His directorial career took a major step forward.  Zoolander (2001) and Tropic Thunder (2008) were good movies, but their essence was too silly and inconsequential.  With this movie, Stiller provides something deeper and more substantial.

Some dismissed this as a feature-length “Just Do It” commercial.  They were right in their comparison to Nike’s famous ad campaign, but they were wrong in their dismissive attitude.  Not every movie can be a detached, irony filled statement on the pointlessness of existence.  There is a need for positive, life affirming movies, and Mr. Stiller is seeking to fill the void.

I really liked this film.  It’s a straightforward celebration of the possibilities of life.

Saving Spider-Man from Drowning

Waterworld (1995)

This is a fictional version of An Inconvenient Truth; its premise is predicated on a belief in the dire circumstances surrounding global warming. To drive the point home, the evil hideout is the wreckage of the Exxon Valdez.

In the future, global warming has caused the polar ice caps to melt and the world is underwater.  A mysterious Mariner who’s developed an ability to breathe underwater becomes a protector of Enola and her guardian Helen.  Enola is hunted by a group of outlaws called The Smokers who believe she has a map to the location of the mythical Dryland tattooed on her back.

Dennis Hopper plays Deacon, the leader of The Smokers.  Hopper’s life would make an epic Hollywood biopic.  He was in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Giant (1956) Apocalypse Now (1979) Blue Velvet (1986), and Hoosiers (1986).  He helped create the one of the definitive counter-cultural movies, Easy Rider (1969.  He played Tom Ripley in Wim Wenders adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game, The American Friend (1977).  He played the villain in Speed (1994) one year after playing King Koopa in the 1993 film based on the Super Mario Bros. video game franchise.  He was friends with James Dean, John Wayne, and Vincent Price, and married to Michelle Phillips (from The Mamas and The Papas).  This was probably the last major role in his career, but when I think of Dennis Hopper, I think of this.

This movie is the another example of a Hollywood trend of powerful actors working on passion projects and not being able to contain themselves.  The filming was long, difficult, and expensive.  It would have been better if Costner had to answer to someone else.

After the failure of this film, Costner doubled down; with The Postman (1997), which he wrote, produced, and directed.  It was an even bigger failure.  Few Hollywood careers survive such a massive misfire; Costner survived two in quick succession.

While certainly not a misunderstood masterpiece, this movie is not as bad as the reviews suggested.  It’s a decent action film, but its ideology is overwhelming.  Action adventure and political propaganda don’t usually mix well, and this movie is no exception.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Of course this series will be compared with Sam Rami’s vision of Spider-man; not enough time has passed for it to be otherwise.

This film has its detractors, but I’m enjoying Marc Webb’s take on the character and think it more than holds it own against previous films.


What I liked:

This series treatment of Aunt May.  She’s more active and involved than the character was in the previous series.

The chemistry between Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield.  Their offscreen romance bleeds into the film; their relationship is better than the central one in Sam Raimi’s series.

Chris Cooper as Norman Osborne.

Andrew Garfied gets the humor of Spidey in a way Tobey Maguire never could. Garfield seems giddy and energetic; Maguire always delivered his lines like he was doing the audience a favor.

Some fans are upset at the film’s handling of Spidey’s origin, but I didn’t have a problem with it. I’m happy for them to take risks with the character and give it their own take instead of rehashing the same stuff we’ve seen before.


What I didn’t like:

Electro, Rhino, Green Goblin: with that many characters, it’s difficult to give them enough time.

The Gwen Stacy arc was resolved too quickly.  I wanted her to stick around a little while longer.  Gwen’s death was powerful because her chemistry with Andrew Garfield is so compelling, but it would have been better if it had been delayed until the next film.  Since Gwen’s father died in the first film, I would have preferred to create some distance, so there isn’t a major, personal death for Peter Parker in each film (assuming there will be a third in the series).

Harry became the Green Goblin a little too fast for me.  He wasn’t even in the first film, and within an hour he’s already decided to dedicate his life to evil.

Jamie Foxx is okay, but he plays Electro like a skit from In Living Color; it’s not a believable character.

The movie wastes Paul Giamatti as Rhino.  It’s stunt casting and they don’t give him anything to do.

While I like the film’s treatment of Aunt May: when all hell broke loose and the city was under siege, I was confused why everyone at the hospital turned to a sixty year old nursing student.  May was barking orders like she was in charge of the hospital.


Dane Dehane brings an evil edge to Harry Osborne missing in James Franco’s interpretation of the character, but because he was absent from the first in the series, I never believed in his friendship with Peter.  Dehane has a very pointed style of delivery which makes everything he does seem so purposeful and deliberate.  His Harry is less emotional and more cerebral.

Marc Webb also directed (500) Days of Summer starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.  His experience with a movie about a relationship helped him find an emotional center to the story, essential to a successful superhero film.  At its core this genre is about the balance between responsibility and relationships.  Superman / Lois Lane; Iron Man / Pepper Potts; Spidey / Gwen; Thor / Jane Foster. Even Christopher Nolan’s Batman films had Rachel Dawes.

This is a good movie, but I would have preferred if this iteration of Spider-man had been more patient.  This has historically been part of the problem with the genre.  This is what separates the Marvel Cinematic Universe; their willingness to let things build, counting on a larger payoff later.

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

I love Mary Poppins, both the 1964 movie and the original books by P.L. Travers.  I love Tom Hanks.  I love Emma Thompson.  I love behind the scenes films about Hollywood.  I was destined to love this.

This movie won’t change anyone’s opinion of Tom Hanks, but he does something extremely difficult.  He takes a well-known public figure and manages to create a character out of him without falling into an impression.  It’s a difficult needle to thread, especially with a someone as iconic as Disney, and Hanks deserves credit,

Emma Thompson was a member of the theatrical troupe The Footlights while at Cambridge.  While there she worked with such future luminaries as Stephen Fry and High Laurie.  She came with up with a comedic pedigree, but like Hanks, her talent was so immense she shed this image quickly.  She won her Academy Award for Howards End the year before Hanks won his first.  Her performance as Travers is understated and reserved, but if audiences don’t believe her struggle between monetary need and protecting her beloved creation, the movie would fall flat.

B.J. Novak and Jason Schartzman are good as the Sherman brothers who created the music foDisney’s film.  It’s time for Novak to show he can do more than provide an interesting cameo.  It’s fun seeing him in roles like this and his small role as Alistair Smythe in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but soon, he will have to decide if he is content with a career as a writer and occasional background player.  If he’s going to move to feature billing, it has to happen soon, or he will be relegated to character actor.

This is a fun movie which does a good job of illimunating the filming of an iconic film while also telling its own story.  It has a few “so this is how they did it” moments, but doesn’t rely on them.

This Summer: The Next Karate Kid in the Battle of the Year!

The Next Karate Kid (1994)

If the Karate Kid, Part III was an unnecessary coda to the franchise, this film (released only four years later) is an even worse idea: a reboot with a (gasp) female fighter.

Miyagi travels to Boston and finds himself once again mentoring a troubled youth: the granddaughter of one of his old war buddies, Julie Pierce (Hilary Swank).

He becomes her guardian and takes her to a Buddhist monastery where she learns the true nature of karate and uses it to combat her enemies at school.

There’s a weird subplot involving an injured hawk (which the filmmakers hammer home as a symbol for Julie’s broken spirit).  The film ends with the hawk flying free, symbolizing Julie’s new-found self-confidence.

Pat Morita earned an Academy Award nomination for his work as Mr. Miyagi in the original Karate Kid, but he didn’t know when to walk away, playing Miyagi in three more films (at least two too many).  I’m sure the films provided a comfortable income, which I suppose is the point of any career, but it doesn’t command respect.

The main reason to watch this is to see Hilary Swank before she became a two-time Oscar winner. If she can establish a critically successful career after starring in a glorified TV movie like this, there’s hope for struggling actors everywhere.

The other reason to watch is Michael Ironside, who continues the series tradition of comically evil big bads.  He plays Colonel Dugan who leads the Alpha Elite, an exclusive security fraternity at Julie’s school. Supposedly, Mr. Ironside is a method actor; the thought of him staying in character as Colonel Dugan between takes cracks me up.

What the hell is a security fraternity?  Why is a paramilitary organization allowed to roam the school?

It’s fun to see Walton Goggins in a small role as a member of the Alpha Elite.  I’m a huge fan of his work in The Shield and highly recommend the series if you haven’t seen it.

The first film in the series is a classic.  This film is a classically bad film, a pathetic attempt to extend the life of the franchise.

Battle of the Year (2013)

Speaking of bad movies, this film by Benson Lee is a fictionalized retelling of his earlier documentary, Planet B-Boy.  Both films focus on b-boying, which is apparently the modern equivalent of breakdancing.

Every year since 1990, there has been an annual b-boying tournament known as The Battle of the Year.  In this tournament, teams (or crews) from around the world compete in a choreographed competition.  The United States has not won in fifteen years.

In this film, Jason Blake (Josh Holloway) is recruited to coach a Dream Team of b-boyers to reclaim the title for the US.  Rapper Chris Brown plays one of the members of the team; Brown has charisma, but he’s not a particularly effective actor.

How did Josh Holloway not parlay his success as Sawyer on Lost into more lucrative and respectable work.  Lost went off the air in 2010.  Three years later, he’s playing the lead in a film about b-boying?

This film is a cross between Remember the Titans and Stomp the Yard (which also featured Brown): this is not a compliment.  Perhaps one day, b-boying will become a favorite pastime of millions of Americans.  Perhaps the annual Battle of the Year will one day rival the Super Bowl as a premiere sporting event.  Maybe then, someone can make a decent film about it.

Summer Stock (1950)

In her last MGM musical, Judy Garland plays Jane Falbury, who’s engaged to the stiff Orville (Eddie Bracken) and lives a quiet, idyllic life on her farm in the Midwest, until her sister Abigail arrives with her theater friends looking for a place to rehearse. Abigail is engaged to the director of the troupe, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly).  Reluctantly, Jane agrees to let them use her farm for a rehearsal space and soon finds herself falling in love with Joe, who encourages her to participate in theatrical performances.

It’s a fun, “putting on a show” musical in the tradition of Babes in Arms,which featured Garland and a young Mickey Rooney.

In many ways, this film was a transition for MGM.  Garland was on her way out, while Kelly was on the rise.  In a few short years, Gene Kelly would be headlining the Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951) and starring in the definitive musical from the studio: Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Like most MGM musicals, this film is an excuse to watch the stars perform song and dance numbers.  In that regard this film does not disappoint.  It features a wonderful musical number by Garland: ““Get Happy” and several by Kelly, including one involving a newspaper and a creaky board.

Eddie Bracken was comic perfection in the Preston Sturges films The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).  He’s very funny as Jane’s uptight fiancée Oliver.  To younger audiences, he’s best remembered as the proprietor of Wally World in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) and the owner of a toy store in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).

This is one of the better MGM musicals; it’s a great source of exposure to Judy Garland’s career outside of The Wizard of Oz and a good introduction to Gene Kelly.

The Karate Kid Voyages to a Field in England

A Field in England (2013)

Set during the English Civil War, this beautiful black and white film features alchemists, hidden treasure, and betrayal.  Characters die only to inexplicably reappear.  There’s cowardice, jealousy, and greed.

It does a great job of conveying the chaos of the Renaissance.  Facts are fluid; rumors are currency; allegiances are tenuous.

It’s a fun film, which would be great paired with The Fisher King (1992).  Watching them together would provide a nice view of the emerging modern world.

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

This was the first color film from famed visual effect artist Ray Harryhausen, who pioneered techniques in stop-motion and visual effects which laid the foundation for the special effects wizardry in nearly every blockbuster film of the past half century.

Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Tim Burton, and John Lassester are only a few of the famous directors who have acknowledged a debt to his work.  George Lucas has claimed if it weren’t for Harryhausen, there would be no Star Wars.  His legacy within the film industry is secure.

His films, focused on mythical creatures, have done more to influence the way we think of monsters than perhaps anything else in the twentieth century.  If you close your eyes and imagine a frightening monster, chances are it was first imagined by Ray Harryhausen.

His last major production was Clash of the Titans (1981).  With big stars and impressive visuals, this film has become a beloved touchstone for Generation Xers and continues to resonate in a way few thirty year old films can.

Since then, filmmaking has become more reliant on computers and digital effects, making the practical effects of people like Harryhausen obsolete.

If you’ve new to his work, this is a decent place to start.  The story is a little thin, but the visuals are impressive and miles ahead of most films from the late 1950s.

The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)

Unplanned trilogies usually result in subpar third films (I’m naming this unwritten rule the Vincent Corelone corollary).

At least The Karate Kid Part II tried to expand upon the ideas of the original film, taking us to Okinawa and Mr. Miyagi’s homeland where the relationship between Daniel and Miyagi was reversed and strengthened.

This film fails to cover any new ground; it’s not a sequel so much as a retread of the original.

This film could be subtitled: The Revenge of the Cobra Kais.  The leader of the disgraced dojo from the original film, John Kreese, plots his revenge and recruits an old friend from his days in Vietnam, Terry Silver, to help him enact an elaborate scheme designed to humiliate Daniel in the final of the next karate tournament.

After Daniel’s mother allowed him to travel to Japan with Mr. Miyagi in the sequel, where they survived a typhoon, she is absent from this film.  She doesn’t even bother to tell the returning pair the apartment building where she and Daniel lived and Mr, Miyagi worked was demolished.

This movie is a desperate and unnecessary attempt to milk money from a profitable franchise which tarnishes the legacy of the original.

The only thing worth watching is the over the top evil of Terry Silver.  He feels like an old school comic book villain, slightly more believable than the characters in the Batman television series from the 1960s.

After the Shooting

After Tiller (2013)

In 2009, pro-life activist Scott Roeder assassinated abortionist George Tiller, one of the only doctors in the United States who performed late-term abortions.

This documentary follows the four doctors who continue to perform these controversial procedures following his murder.

It provides insight into the mindset of people willing to do something most everyone in the country finds reprehensible: they view what they are doing as a crusade.

The movie goes to great lengths to show them in a favorable light.  We see a parade of women who are alone and feel they have nowhere else to turn.  The movie wants us to believe LeRoy Carhart, Warren Hern, Susan Robinson, and Shelley Sella are the only people in the world who care for the plight of these women.

However, the movie is not a full portrait.  It does not attempt to reconcile the overwhelming public distaste for the procedures they perform with their status as crusaders.

The movie avoids showing any actual procedures because the filmmakers know this would make it impossible for most people to view them as anything but butchers.

This movie is an attempt to humanize late-term abortion and make it more palatable to the general public.  It equates what most Americans view as a barbaric practice with a struggle for civil rights.

It shows and provides insight into what drives these doctors, but it’s a biased portrait, better viewed as a piece of political propaganda than a documentary.

The Shooting (1966)

When I heard this was an obscure early Jack Nicholson western film, I was excited, but the film was a bit of a disappointment.  The film tries too hard to not tell a story, to remain unresolved.

Bounty hunter Willet Gashade and his slow-witted friend are found by a mysterious young woman who refuses to tell them her name.  She convinces them to help her get to Kingsely.  They’re trailed by Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson), a stranger dressed in black.  All of the group’s horses die of exhaustion, and the slower friend is killed, but the rest of the group reaches their destination, where they find Gashade’s twin brother, Coin.  Coin and the mysterious woman shoot each other dead.  A stunned Gashade lies next to the woman, while Spear stumbles away into the desert.

That’s an overly simplistic version of the story, but the movie isn’t concerned with advancing a narrative.  The plot is a means not an end.  The purpose of this film is to evoke an atmosphere and feeling of what The West was like; it does a passable job, but there are better movies about nameless characters, men in black, and gunslingers: any of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns are better than this.

The Trees are Glowing

Afterglow (1997)

Julie Christie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of former B-movie actress Phyllis Mann, but I can’t understand why.  This is a meandering  mess of a movie.

Lucky Mann (Nick Nolte) discovers his fifteen year old daughter was the result of an affair between his wife and one of co-stars.  He responds violently and their daughter runs away.

Lucky and Phyllis reconcile and move to Montreal where they suspect their daughter is living, but their relationship has changed.  By mutual agreement they pledge to forgo intimacy with each other or anyone else.

Nine years later, they have not found their daughter, and the lack of intimacy is taking a toll.

Lucky is hired by a struggling young couple, Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Jeffrey Byron, to do some repairs.  Marianne desperately wants a child, but Jeffery is too busy with his career.  Marianne is infatuated with Lucky and seduces him.  Echoing the toxicity which ruined the Mann’s relationship, Marianne becomes pregnant with another man’s baby.

Eventually, the Manns reconcile for real and reuinte with their daughter.

The movie has no pulse.  It’s a lifeless morality play about the dangers of cheating on your spouse, unconcerned about developing characters.  I didn’t care about the Manns, or the Byrons, or the state of their respective relationships.  Boring, uninteresting characters plus pointless story equals a dud of a film.

Through the Olive Trees (1994)

This film is the third part of Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy. While Kiarostami has resisted any attempts to label them as a trilogy, it’s hard to see how else he expected audiences to view films so intertwined.

The first film, Where is the Friend’s Home (1987) is about a boy trying to return the notebook of one of his schoolmates.

The second film, And Life Goes On (1992), is about two men looking for the stars of the first film following an earthquake which killed thousands in the area it was filmed.

Through the Olive Trees is a fictionalized account of filming a small part of And Life Goes On.  One of the local actors filming a scene for the movie falls in love with one of the female actresses who does not reciprocate his feelings, complicating the filming of a key scene involving the two of them.  The film becomes an angst ridden contemplation of love and attraction, with a digression about the purpose and nature of art.

I love Kiarostami’s willingness to double down on the fictional nature of his art and make their artificiality a subject, but his films are not for everyone.  They’re often very slow and methodical, almost to the point of inertia.  He does not like action, or movement.  Instead, he enjoys lengthy, philosophical conversations.  A perfect Kiarostami film would be a late night marathon dorm living room discussion, the camera static, the participant coming in and going.

His films are not entertaining, but provocative.  Many critics have focused on his status as an Iranian filmmaker. They treat his work as a modern-day Rosetta Stone, mining it for what it tells about Iranian society and culture, but fail to ask what it tells us about the larger human condition.  As if to combat these misperceptions, Kiarostami’s recent work Certified Copy (2010) and Like Someone in Love (2012) are set in decidedly non-Iranian locales with Japanese, English, French, and Italian dialogue.