Elmo holds a grudge

The Raid 2: Berandal (2014)

Immediately after the events of The Raid (2011), Rama is recruited to join an undercover task force.  He resists, but when his brother is killed, he agrees to protect his family.

To earn the trust of Bangun, a local crime lord, Rama is sent to prison to befriend Bangun’s son, Uco, and saves his life during a prison riot.  When he’s released, he’s given a position with Bangun’s organization.

Uco is desperate for his father’s respect, but when he reveals his plan for the organization, his father humiliates him.  Uco murders his father, but Rama escapes and confronts him in a final battle sequence.

Welsh director Gareth Evans has shown a penchant for filming inventing martial arts action sequences, specializing in pencak silat, or Indonesian martial arts.

I didn’t like The Raid: despite several inventive action sequences, the story was bland.  I had low expectations for a sequel, but the movie impressed me.  Evans combined the cool creative action pieces with a compelling story.  By providing us with characters we care about, the action scenes are more impressive.  This is a pretty good action movie, like Bruce Lee filmed a remake of The Departed.

Grudge Match (2013)

This is not a good movie, but it doesn’t deserve the level of scorn and invective hurled its way.

Stallone and DeNiro are aging boxers Henry “Razor” Sharp and Billy “The Kid” McDonnen.  Years earlier they had two epic fights: each winning one against the other.  They were set to fight in a rubber match but at the last-minute Razor dropped out, infuriating Kid.

Now in his twilight years, Razor is in need of money and promoter Dante Slate Jr. (Kevin Hart) convinces him to fight Kid one more time.  This is the best thing I’ve seen Kevin Hart, but since I’ve hated most of them, this is faint praise.

Kim Bassinger is Sally, Razor’s former girlfriend who cheated on him with Kid and got pregnant.  Razor has never forgiven her this indiscretion.  Remember when Kim Bassinger won an Academy Award in for LA Confidential (1997)?  Her career has included several high-profile roles; Vicki Vale in Batman (1989) and Bond girl Domino in Never Say Never Again (1983), but she’s never achieved the kind of success you might have expected.  Her later career has consisted of a lot of supporting roles in B movies like this.

LL Cool J has a small role as the owner of a gym who initially agrees to train Kid for the match, but thinks the aging boxer is a joke.

Jon Berenthal (best known as Shane from The Walking Dead) is the adult child of Sally and Kid.

Alan Arkin is Louis “Lightning” Conlon, Razor’s longtime trainer who’s also broke.  The role is a lighter version of Mickey Goldmill from the Rocky series.  Arkin’s had a long and successful career (winning an Oscar in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine).  He’s a talented actor, but doesn’t get a chance to show it here.

This is the kind of movie we should expect from Sylvester Stallone.  His whole career post Rocky (1976) has been a long attempt to prove he can act.  He cannot; unless you expand the definition of acting to include memorizing and reciting large chunks of dialogue.  He’s won four Razzie Awards for Worst Actor for a reason.  Throughout his career, Stallone has played one character over and over again: Sylvester Stallone.  However, at the end of the day, he’s probably had the most substantial and impressive career of any bad actor.

Robert De Niro’s resume is as impressive as anyone: The Godfather Part II (1974), The King of Comedy (1983), The Untouchables (1987) Goodfellas (1990), but in recent years he’s been in some horrible movies: Little Fockers (2010), Last Vegas (2013) The Big Wedding (2013).  When given good material he’s still a capable actor: see Silver Linings Playbook (2012), but his late career has been mostly paycheck movies.  The body of his work puts him serious in contention for greatest actor of all time; it hurts to see him wasting time in middling movies like this.

Despite a few cringe inducing moments like Kid having sex in the back seat of his car while his young grandson sits in the front seat,  this movie mostly succeeds as light entertainment.

The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland (1999)

Elmo refuses to share his favorite blanket with Zoe.  A tug-of-war ensues, and the blanket ends up in the arms of Telly Monster.  In a scene out of a Marx Brothers film, his blanket winds up with Oscar the Grouch who sneezes on it and throws it in his trash can.

Elmo dives into the trash can and winds up in Grouchland, where the evil Huxley (Mandy Patinkin) steals the blanket.  In order to retrieve it, Elmo has to get past the Queen of Trash (Vanessa Williams) and go to Huxley’s lair on Mount Pickanose.

The gang from Sesame Street tries to help, but are arrested by the Grouch Police.

It’s a sweet movie with a few light chuckles, perfect for a small toddler. Simple enough for them to understand everything; short enough to not lose their attention, and it involves everyone’s favorite resident of Sesame Street: Elmo.

I’m not embarrassed to admit I really liked this.  A lot of children’s films are unwatchable. The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure (2012), which also featured Mandy Patinkin, was an excruciating 87 minutes I wouldn’t wish on anyone, but I watched this with my three-year old and had a great time.

Like Alpha Papa, Like Son

Collateral (2004)

Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) is a Los Angeles cab diver who dreams of his own limousine business.  Vincent (Tom Cruise) offers him $600 to drive him around for the entire night.  Despite some reservations, Max agrees, but soon, realizes Vincent using him to shuttle between his five targets for the evening (all of which are involved in an upcoming trial).

For the rest of the movie, Vincent attempts to complete his assignment while Max tries to thwart him.  At one point, Max throws out the list of targets and is forced to meet with drug lord Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem in a wasted cameo) to obtain a second copy.

Mark Ruffalo is also wasted as a cop investigating the murders.  He comes close to saving Max, but is killed in a crossfire.  His death is used to inject suspense and unpredictability into the film.

Michael Mann has a penchant for lonely outcasts.   The Last of the Mohicans (1992) focuses on Hawkeye, a white man living amongst Native Americans.  In The Insider (1999), Jeffery Wigand is ostracized for exposing corruption at a big tobacco firm.  In Ali (2001), Muhammad Ali  is estranged from his family when he converts to Islam and isolated further when his popularity fades and money disappears as a result of his stand against the Vietnam War.

I wasn’t thrilled by the premise:  Tom Cruise as a bleach blonde assassin (in a clear attempt to reinvigorate his career by playing against type), but this was almost a great movie.

Cruise proves once again he’s more than a generic action star, and Foxx gives one of the best performances of his career.

The first two-thirds are excellent, especially the dialogue between Max and Vincent.  Sharp dialogue from men with opposing viewpoints is a hallmark of Mann’s films: Graham and Lecktor in Manhunter (1986), McCauley and Hanna in Heat (1995).

However, the final third of the film is an uninspired, generic action film.  Vincent’s last target is the district attorney assigned to Reyes’ case (Jada PInkett Smith) who was a passenger in Max’s cab earlier in the evening.  Max recognizes her photo in Vincent’s dossier, and haven fallen in love with her during their brief car ride together, inexplicably decides to take Vincent on himself.  Despite his inexperience with a weapon, cab driver Max outduels professional assassin Vincent.

I wish the movie ended a little earlier with a less cookie cutter ending, but it’s worth watching for the first hour.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

With his career in jeopardy after his radio station is bought by a conglomerate, Alan Partridge convinces his superiors to fire his coworker Pat instead.  Pat returns to the station with a gun, and Alan is sent to negotiate the release of the hostages, but his massive ego and social awkwardness continually get in the way.

The character of Alan Partridge was created in the early 1990s by Steve Coogan, Armando Iannuci, and Patrick Marber for the British radio show On the Hour.   A parody of British television presenters and radio announcers, the character has remained a mainstay in British popular culture for twenty-five years.

Partridge is a conservative, mostly talentless hack.  He’s a shameless self-promoter, whose career seems to perpetually advance despite his inexhaustible capacity for major screw ups.

Coogan rose to prominence in a series of silly comedies, including Hamlet 2 (2008), Tropic Thunder (2008), and the Night at the Museum films, but his recent work has transitioned into more dramatic roles in the excellent What Masie Knew (2012) and Philomena (2012).  I’m excited to see what direction his career will take.

Armando Iannuci’s television programs The Thick Of It and Veep are two of the best political satires in recent memory.  The political aspect of Partridge is clearly influenced by Iannuci’s sensibilities

Patrick Marber’s influence is more puzzling.  He began his career as a comedian, but he’s most well-known as a screenwriter for Closer (2004) (based on his own play) and Notes on a Scandal (2006).  Marber’s work is focused on sexual politics, which doesn’t appear to be a focal point of the Partridge character, although there is an undercurrent of misogyny and homophobia.

Colm Meaney is the desperate Pat Farrell.  Meaney is a sort of nerd shibboleth.  Many will hear his name and instantly recall their favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine because for over a decade, he played Miles O’Brien in the Star Trek universe.  It’s a little jarring to see him in a non Star Trek capacity, but he’s very funny in a thankless role; if he strikes the wrong tone, the movie could become very unfunny in a hurry.

Coogan clearly enjoys playing Partridge; his obvious enthusiasm permeates the film, but the movie is not as fun or witty as it thinks it is.  It’s like a sophisticated, British version of Airheads (1994): a moderately amusing comedy, with only a few genuine laughs.  It’s a funnier idea than a movie.

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

Ryota Nonomiya discovers his biological son was switched at birth; the child he’s raised for six years is not his.

When Ryota learns of  the mistake, he’s not interested in the feelings of his wife or the boy who lives with them, he wants to have “his” son and return the child who sees him as a father to the family to which he “belongs.”

Ryota is so consumed by the idea of a perfect life, he cannot process the messy reality of raising someone else’s child or (even worse) having some else raise his.

By the end of the film, Ryota has reexamined his ideas of family and fatherhood.  What makes a family?   What makes a father?  Is a father a biological fact or a relationship?

Forced to confront his own preconceptions, Ryota is a better father and a better person for the experience.

Hirokazu Koreeda is a talented director who turns what could have been a Lifetime Movie into something more substantial: an exploration of the nature of family.  It’s not a great movie, but it does have a sweet, intelligent center and asks important questions.

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.

Lucky Mary took a Machine with her to the Sun

Mary Poppins (1964)
Mary Poppins (1964)

Mary Poppins (1964)

One of my favorite films as a child is still one of my favorite films.  It’s not exactly a faithful adaptation of the source material, (Mary is more pleasant than in the books) but it gets the essence of P.L. Travers’s stories right.

Julie Andrews won an Oscar for Mary Poppins, and she’s been nominated two other times, but since the mid 1980s, her films have been mostly children’s fare like the Shrek series and The Princess Diaries (2001).   Her most iconic roles, Mary Poppins and Maria Von Trapp, are fifty years old.  I wish she hadn’t been typecast in wholesome, family films because she was great in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and Victor / Victoria (1982), showing promise as a comedienne in slightly racy and provocative comedies.

Why did Dick Van Dyke not have a more substantial film career?  Critics savaged his attempt at a Cockney accent, but Bye Bye Birdie , (1963) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) were excellent films.    However, his work since has been sporadic, like his extended cameos in Night at the Museum(2006).  Of course, his work in The Dick Van Dyke Show assures him a place in Hollywood history, but it seems like his film career was less than it should have been.

David Tomlinson’s career was unremarkable until he starred as Mr. Banks in this movie.  After this film, he had a fruitful association with Disney in The Love Bug (1968) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).  Because these films were massively successful with children, Tomlinson will be remembered decades after his death.

Elsa Lanchester plays the nanny who preceded Mary in the Banks household.  Thirty years earlier, Lanchester played the titular Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  The two movies could not be more different; any excuse to connect them is awesome.

Largely forgotten today, Ed Wynn plays Uncle Albert who keeps laughing himself to the ceiling. Wynn was a vaudeville and early radio pioneer,  but he’s best remembered as the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1958).

Jane Darwell was in almost two hundred movies in her fifty year career, but she’ll be remembered for two: she was Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath (1940) and the Bird Lady in this film.

I’m a huge fan of this picture; it’s a rare movie for children which takes children seriously.  The formula: a thin plot about the importance of family, some cheerful musical numbers, a moment or two of poignancy,  with a dash of cute animation is the template for nearly every child oriented movie since.

The Machinist (2004)
The Machinist (2004)

The Machinist (2004)

Trevor Reznick is a machinist suffering from insomnia, which causes him to question his sanity.  The mysterious cause of his insomnia is the impetus for the plot of this film.

The story is not as well developed as it could have been, and has been done better elsewhere, but Christian Bale’s performance as Reznick is astounding.  He proved his commitment to his craft by drastically losing weight to simulate the look of an emaciated, tortured man.  Occasionally, his intense preparation can lead to trouble, but if anyone doubts his commitment to a role, watch this movie.

His dedication elevates this thin movie, but it’s not enough to save it from fading into obscurity.  Bale’s willingness to punish himself for his art is commendable, but I wish he had done it for a better movie.

Sunshine (2007)
Sunshine (2007)

Sunshine (2007)

It’s 2057 and the sun is dying.  Several scientists are sent on a mission to launch a nuclear bomb into the sun as a sort of cosmic jumpstart.

Of course, there are complications.

Unfortunately, the movie falls apart after the crew of Icarus II finds the Icarus I (their predecessor sent unsuccessfully to accomplish the same task).  Captain Pinkbacker of Icarus I purposefully sabotaged the mission because he believed God wanted humanity to die.  Of course, Pinkbacker is miraculously still alive and manages to sneak on the Icarus II, intending to sabotage it as well.

In the history of movies, has a rescue mission to an unexpected spaceship ever gone well?  Every time a protagonist finds an abandoned spaceship and goes to “explore” what happened, someone or something nefarious manages to sneak back onto their ship.  The lesson: don’t be a good Samaritan in space.

Once Pinkbacker boards Icarus II, the movie devolves into a clichéd action film, which is regrettable because the it didn’t need this unnecessary plot twist.  The dialogue heavy beginning of the movie where the various scientists assigned to the mission express their beliefs and prejudices was fascinating. and asked a lot of provocative questions.

What type of person signs up for a dangerous mission like this?  Some of them wanted adventure, some of them felt a calling to help their fellow man, some of them wanted glory.

What happens to the chain of command when you’re millions of miles from earth with no communication with the outside world?  Why should you listen to your captain?

Cillian Murphy rose to prominence with 28 Days Later (2002), which alongside the Resident Evil series reinvigorated the zombie genre.  He was excellent as The Scarecrow in Batman Begins (2005), helping lay the groundwork for Christopher Nolan’s adaptation of the character by creating a villain which manages to conform to comic book aesthetics and be grounded in real world fears and concerns.  Murphy has developed a niche playing people with questionable ethics in science fiction / comic book adaptations, but this film is the wrong vehicle for him.  His Robert Capa is too much of an outcast, and not enough of a hero.

There’s a reason Chris Evans keeps getting pushed as a superhero; he looks like he walked out of central casting for the genre.  He was The Human Torch in Fantastic Four (2005) and its 2007 sequel, and he’s currently starring as Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Luckily, Evans has shown a desire to be more than just a superhero.  His work in Scott Pilgirm vs. the World (2010) and more importantly Snowpiercer (2013) show real promise, but his work in this film as Mace the ship’s engineer is only mildly interesting.

Troy Garity, the son of Jane Fonda,  is Harvey, the second-in-command of Icarus II.  Garrity was excellent as an idealistic political journalists in the Kelsey Grammer vehicle Boss, but he doesn’t make a large impression in this film.

Mark Strong (Captain Pinkbacker) oozes evil.  Even when his character isn’t the main bad guy in the movie, you instinctively believe he will be.

I can’t decide if I like Danny Boyle’s films or not.  I love Trainspotting (1996); it’s an effective and haunting view of the horror of addiction.  28 Days Later (2002) is a slightly better than average zombie movie.  Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is a fun subversion of the Bollywood genre.  127 Hours (2010) is a decent film about survival and overcoming adversity, but fairly forgettable.  Trance (2013) is a horrible movie; it wants to impress with its labyrinth plot, but unearned surprises and twists do not make a good movie. This movie was a missed opportunity.  It had potential, but the script didn’t trust itself and midway through turned to genre clichés to limp toward its inevitable conclusion.

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)
Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

Lucky Number Slevin (2006)

This is a convoluted story of revenge and unintended consequences.  Twenty years ago, Max got a tip about a fixed horse race.  He bet heavily on the race, but the horse died before he could reach the finish line.   To repay his debt as a warning to others, Max and his family were executed by two mobsters: The Boss (Morgan Freeman) and The Rabbi (Ben Kinglsey).

Josh Hartnett has a difficult task as Kevin Slevera.  Like Willis in The Sixth Sense (1999), he can’t give anything away, but he has to provide enough clues so on a second viewing it becomes obvious what’s happening.  He does his job, but the script lets him down.  Hartnett has intentionally eschewed tent pole films to avoid the trappings of fame and celebrity, but he is a very talented actor.

Mr. Goodkat is a stereotypical Bruce Willis part: slow delivery with way too much self-awareness.  This is not Willis’s best work.  He got his break as a comedic performer on Moonlighting but after Die Hard (1989), he realized he could make a lot of money turning out similar action films with letter effort.  He’s a bankable star, who likes going to the bank.

The difference between Willis and his friends and fellow action stars Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarznegger: he can act.  Stallone has tried, but isn’t capable of being anyone but Stallone, while Schwazrnegger has never tried.  Watch Willis in Pulp Fiction (1994), 12 Monkeys (1995), The Sixth Sense (1999), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and Looper (2012), and it’s obvious with the right material, he can be a really great actor, but because of his action pedigree, he’s underrated.

When I think of Lucy Liu, I think of the Kill Bill  and Charlie’s Angels series: action movies with a martial arts flavor.  She’s a credible love interest in this movie, showing me something I hadn’t seen from her before.

Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley were seemingly hired to be non-Italian mobsters.  Freeman is not menacing enough for the role, although his late career arc is full of bad guy roles trading off his popular image like Wanted (2009) and Now You See Me (2013).  Kingsley, however,  is a menacing presence.  For a guy who started his career playing Mahatma Gandhi and played Itzhak Stern in Schindler’s List (1993), it’s surprising how effective he is as a ruthless SOB.  He proved in Sexy Beast (2000) there aren’t many who can out evil him.

I’ve loved Stanley Tucci since his work as Richard Cross in the inventive (and ahead of its time) cop show Murder One.  He hasn’t had a lot of leading opportunities, but has become an all-star supporting actor.  He’s very good as the cop assigned to investigate The Boss and The Rabbi, but the role is not particularly flashy.

I love Robert Forster and any production which includes him in its cast is a little better as a result.

This movie has a lot going for it: an all-star cast and a fun revenge story, but writer Jason Smilovic gives away too much in the opening sequence in a misguided attempt to plant clues to support his twist ending.  When Goodkat kills someone in the opening sequence, we know this death is intended to throw us off the scent and not trust him.  We instinctively know Goodkat is really a hero,  and we know   Max’s death will be avenged.  The twist ending becomes an inevitable conclusion.  This could have been a fun, Pulp Fiction esque film, but it can’t get out of its own way.

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.