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The Princess Bride (1987)
A True Whimsical Fantasy Classic
Charming, witty and beautiful, a short saga which wears its fairy tale inspirations on one sleeve and fantasy inspirations on the other. And, if there were a third sleeve, there we'd see the trace of a swashbuckling influence, too. This one hits all the right notes, from the gently-plucked musical score (provided by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits) to the familiar-yet-surprising twists and turns of the plot to the positively irreplaceable casting decisions.
That last one really stuck with me on this viewing, the realization that every last role was occupied by the perfect actor. Cary Elwes and Robin Wright as the smitten, star-crossed lovers; Mandy Patinkin in a vigorously youthful revenge role, complete with a spectacularly great catchphrase; Andre the Giant as the good natured, softly-spoken mountain of a man; Wallace Shawn as a smooth-talking Sicilian who might be too smart for his own good; Billy Crystal and Carol Kane effortlessly lightening the mood; Christopher Guest as a cowardly enforcer; Peter Falk and Fred Savage as the story's connection to the modern world. Take away any one of those players and the film suffers.
Rob Reiner, working from novelist William Goldman's screenplay, brings an inherently literary tale to life in ways that must have seemed impossible at the onset. Together, they deliver just the right mix of levity and romance, dramatic tension and comic timing. A few seams show here and there, particularly when scenes aren't shot on-location or monsters threaten the key players, but somehow that just adds to the bemusing magic of it all. Tough to think of a better love letter to the not-so-innocent myths of old, or a more timeless rendition of their common themes.
Simple, Spiritually Rich Observations on the Essence(s) of Humanity
While the men are away, the machines will play. Of course, we're talking about the Earth in this case, which has been abandoned by humanity for the better part of seven centuries with mechanized drones left behind to sweep up the mess and maybe, possibly, find love somewhere in the aftermath. Wall-E's opening act is Pixar at its finest, playing with raw pantomime and rich expression during a solid forty minutes' screen time with little or no dialog.
The dire, desolate setting of our planet's future is unnerving, a vast stretch of crumbling skyscrapers and wind-swept fast food wrappers, but we can't get too down in the dumps about it because the one little refuse-collecting bot at the center of it all is so deeply enamored with the place. Amidst evidence of the very worst of human nature, we're also reminded of its most redeeming qualities, and experience many of them through fresh eyes. Wall-E takes the time to appreciate things that our obsessively screen-gazing descendants miss (an uncomfortably prescient prediction, that) and, as we're along for the ride with him this time, we do, too.
Spirited, fantastical sci-fi with an artist's heart and a clear message. It's ten years old, but it looks like it could've been released ten minutes ago.
An Entertaining Concept, Short-Changed by Poor Effects and a Stiff Plot
Your standard "kids find a haunted board game in the attic" jungle adventure. All kidding aside, Jumanji merits points for dreaming up a fun, simple formula that allows for all sorts of unexpected mayhem without completely losing track of reality. A little mysticism never hurt anyone, I suppose, apart from the random lady who was just stung into a coma by a roving band of gigantic, bloodthirsty mosquitoes.
Robin Williams is a good choice for the lead, pairing his rough, burly figure with a boyish charm, which makes him both endearing to his young costars and physically appropriate for the action scenes. He doesn't have a lot of room to improvise, though, which is a drawback, and the ambitious special effects have aged very poorly. Hammy supporting work from David Alan Grier doesn't help the cause, fitting right in with the slow stream of hollow secondary characters, though Jonathan Hyde does deserve positive marks in a limited villainous role. It tries to reach for substance and heart, but in the end this one is just a simple slab of watery, kid-friendly action with an unusually good hook.
Kurenai no buta (1992)
Fast Fame and Fleeting Fortune Amongst Airborne Bounty Hunters
A largely overlooked entry in the Hayao Miyazaki catalog, about a wartime fighter pilot (turned bounty hunter) who's been cursed with the face and body of a pig. I'd skipped this one for years because the director deemed it "foolish" and, to be honest, it just didn't look all that interesting. You'd think I would know better.
As with all prime Studio Ghibli entries, it brims and bustles with life, gladly bearing a joyful appreciation for the small things and an admiration for those who seek adventure. Air force captains, sky pirates, lounge owners, engineers... each pursue excitement in their own characteristic ways, which often overlap unexpectedly. Rosso himself is a tough nut to crack, only vaguely alluding to the curse that transformed his appearance and maintaining an emotional distance for much of the story. In some ways, that's refreshing - one might expect the search for a cure to dominate the plot, when that's far from the case - but it also makes him a tricky, and often underwhelming, lead character. His unwanted, self-appointed sidekick, a spunky young designer named Fio, is much more in the mold of the classic Ghibli protagonist.
Miyazaki and company also take special care to hammer out unique identities for each airship in the story, though these do generally take a back seat to their colorful pilots. The director's lifelong ties to avionics (his father was an aeronautical engineer) and his deep-rooted understanding of their natural, graceful motion are almost as clearly evident here as they would be twenty years later, in the more personal The Wind Rises.
Vibrant and energetic, stimulating and surprising, this has everything one might expect from the famed Japanese animation house. Perhaps a half-step below their very best, largely due to the reticent lead and an abrupt climax, but still an excellent selection for all ages to share and enjoy.
Breathtaking Dream Sequences Compensate for a Tangled Plot
In a distant, familiar future, our dreams can be breached, shared and "hacked" via a specialized piece of hardware. This seems to function as a potent means of psychotherapy, but when a prototype falls into unknown hands, the ramifications are potentially catastrophic. Sure enough, before we've even narrowed down a list of suspects, the line between fantasy and reality grows blurred, smudged beyond all recognition. Surreal, trippy phantoms invade the waking world, drawing fistfuls of unsuspecting day-sleepers happily down the rabbit hole in their hallucinogenic parade through the city. Even more experienced staff members, such as the titular dream agent Paprika, can't always discern tangible from artificial, which makes for some unpredictable twists and a playful relationship with the viewer's perceptions.
The last film of Satoshi Kon's tragically short career, it should go without saying that Paprika is gorgeously animated, with a ridiculous level of detail and a very pronounced, unusually fluid sense of motion. Anime can often lean too much on sudden movements and long, lingering static shots, but Kon's cast is constantly doing something. Their world feels lived-in and awake, even when its contents are a mere illusion. Ferociously creative, proudly odd and unrestrainedly beautiful, my biggest complaints are that the dialog is often smothered by rambling, incoherent victims and, as a result, the plot can be quite difficult to follow. A wonderful experiment, overflowing with ripe ideas and memorable scenes, but a good fifty percent of the subtitles can be ignored and the resolution leaves something to be desired. Would be a fantastic film to experience on psychoactive drugs.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Marvel's Payoff: A Flashy, Risk-Taking, Galaxy-Crawling, All-Hands-On-Deck Melee
A decade's worth of intertwined superhero adventures culminates in one staggering, towering behemoth of a film. It sounds like a tall order - and, clearly, it is - but Marvel's been doing this for quite a while now and seem to have a firm grasp of the essentials. Effectively juggling so many competing stars, flavors, themes and aesthetics was my largest concern, especially ones as disparate as Captain America and the Guardians of the Galaxy, but obviously this was a core focus for Infinity War's producers. Not only does each scene retain the characteristic tone and identity of its unique featured franchise, it also mixes fluidly with those of another, creating a fresh blend that works almost effortlessly and moves in exciting new directions. This is the essence of the Marvel universe, particularly so from a long-term reader's perspective, and it's something I've yet to grow tired of seeing on the big screen. Creating a great cast is step one, but watching them grow and interact with the unfamiliar is where the real magic happens. Each subsequent installment in the Avengers franchise ups that ante just a little bit further.
No doubt, I would've been content to just watch these familiar faces bounce around in the same enclosed space, trading zingers and butting heads, but there's an underlying reason for all this, and the film (somehow) doesn't shortchange that, either. Thanos, the big wrinkle-chinned monster who's been hinted at and referenced for years, has finally come to town with a destructive cause in mind. Well-rounded villains have not been a strength for the MCU thus far, but in this case they make amends. Thanos is quickly and efficiently established as a galactic-level threat, far and away the most powerful creature we've seen so far, and then thoroughly fleshed out as a fully-realized three dimensional character. We may not agree with his means, but his motivation is certainly understandable. That's a new thing, a clearly addressed criticism, and it makes the film far stronger.
So, yes, I enjoyed myself. The new Avengers is a big deal, it takes big risks, and judging from the box office numbers, it's reaped big rewards. There are also several little flaws for those interested in picking. Most glaringly, it falls into the trap of being merely half a movie. After the better part of three hours, I left the theater with the feeling I'd just binge-watched an entire season of an expensive TV series and been left hanging with a "tune in next time." Its story is obviously incomplete, and while that's played for maximum effect in the stunning conclusion (the first time I've ever seen an entire theater sit through a credit roll in complete silence), that stuck in my craw. My other complaints can be largely brushed away as inconsequential - inexplicably missing characters, too many guest spots, a not-insignificant barrier of entry - but that's a relatively big one and something that I keep revisiting. Having cleared my chest of that, though, I'll strongly recommend it as a fundamental bit of summer blockbuster history, even if it isn't quite summer yet. Potential viewers should already know what to expect (Infinity War is just another refinement in the well-worn Marvel formula) and whether or not that's remotely up their alley. If so, by all means, go see it more than once. This is the best entry yet. And maybe, just maybe, it'll shine even more brightly as a Lord of the Rings style all-day anthology. Once the story is actually complete, that is.
A Marvelous Adventure, On Par with "Raiders," That Adds Depth to the Jones Family Mythos
After two successful big-budget starring vehicles, we finally get an origin story for Indiana Jones. Of course, that's largely to facilitate the addition of a new supporting character (Sean Connery in a wonderful casting as Indy's long lost father, who we'll get to in just a moment) but that extra layer of nostalgia, wrapped around a property that's deeply nostalgic in the first place, manages to avoid numerous pitfalls and serve as an effective prologue. River Phoenix performs especially well as the young Jones, expertly wearing Harrison Ford's mannerisms throughout the long callback, and somewhere along the way we get a worthwhile genesis for the grown-up version's affinity for leather jackets and fedoras.
Once the story jumps ahead to a more familiar era (if not precisely the present), it's full speed ahead on the hunt for the mythical holy grail, a lifelong obsession for the father and recent fixation of the third reich. Soon reunited, both Jones boys dance through precarious situations and near-misses in the history books, a full battalion of Nazi soldiers nipping at their heels, before drawing close to the prize. Ford and Connery are dynamic together, boiling down a complicated father-son relationship to a series of glares, grins and grunts. They alternate between bickering testily and slapping each other on the back in camaraderie, and I honestly can't say which makes for a more entertaining watch. There's depth, too, a stinging blend of long-simmering resentment and earnest care for one another, which often bubbles up just in time to enhance the plot's heaviest moments.
Naturally, it simply wouldn't be an Indiana Jones movie without big action sets (in which the series somehow manages to one-up itself yet again) or boatloads of witty retorts and punchy one-liners, and those two essential elements combine to give the film a loose, fun-loving quality without compromising any of the more serious moments. All this without going too far over the top, as we saw more than once in the mildly underwhelming Temple of Doom and borderline-disastrous Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It's well-written and purposeful, successfully intense and humorous, an in-the-wheelhouse serial-styled adventure that spans several continents before confronting superstition and cracking several dusty, life-threatening riddles on the path to a biblical treasure. Indy probably should've left well-enough alone, because this chapter is essentially impossible to top.
Andre the Giant (2018)
For Andre, Life was Both a Blessing and a Curse
An intimate look at one athlete who could be considered truly larger than life, the aptly-named pro wrestling legend Andre the Giant. Not content to simply lean on accrued television footage or the countless tall tales about his epic nights out on the town, this HBO documentary intends to dig deeper, for a closer look at the man behind the myths and exagerrations.
As a means of drawing back the curtain, we catch glimpses of Andre's upbringing, from the double-wide handmade chair that still sits at his childhood kitchen table to countless candid photos and clips from the dawn of his career in the ring. It's not a particularly happy story, laced as it is with the everyday difficulties of a jumbo-sized man in a normal-sized world, disconnected familial relationships and chronic pain as his frame struggled to deal with its own mass, but it does feel honest and (mostly) true. The one notable exception being Andre's big main event with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania III, which seems overly romanticized if not slightly misleading.
A better chance to get to know who the giant was away from cameras, to understand his suffering and recognize that, although his size did reap untold fame and fortune, it also made enjoying those fruits excruciatingly difficult or downright impossible. I feel like we barely skimmed the surface.
This Early Superhero Smash, Which Helped Jump-Start the Modern Craze, is Showing its Age
The webslinger's first foray onto the big screen, and in many ways the grandfather of the big Marvel juggernaut that's been chewing up the box office for the last decade. Sam Raimi's vision of Spidey and his pals is true to the essence of the character, with a vibe that's often reminiscent of his '60s debut, while still feeling modern and serious when needed.
It boasts an extremely effective cast, despite selecting a few actors I don't usually enjoy. Tobey Maguire makes an appropriately awkward, plucky Peter Parker. Kirsten Dunst is sweet and charming as his lifelong next-door crush. James Franco shows range as the troubled best friend. J.K. Simmons was positively born for his bit role as the hot-headed J. Jonah Jameson. And, of course, Willem Dafoe brings a fantastically expressive act in the villainous role of Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin (though he's often, sadly, relegated to mere voice work behind a stiff, metal mask).
It has spirit and humor and character, but it also has a habit of over-reaching and a wince-worth tendency for ridiculously awful dialog. Even in print, it can be tough to keep this character from sounding corny and stilted, and in live action that's doubly difficult. The script constantly trips and stumbles over itself, trying and failing to seem cute and off-the-cuff, and Raimi's direction (itself known to lean on the cheesy side) always has the actors winking at the camera while their puns are falling flat.
The plot is solid, planting handfuls of seeds for future storylines while effectively setting up the current conflict, though it does have a nasty habit of over-indulgence. A double backflip during a schoolyard fistfight, for example, when the leap alone would've been enough. That kind of exaggeration is all over the place, and not only isn't it necessary, it actively ruins the immersion. I remembered really enjoying this upon its release, and it's still entertaining viewing, but much of it hasn't aged well, particularly in light of its modern counterparts.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
A Well-Cast and Well-Crafted Sports Drama That Doesn't Quite Reach its Topical Potential
Emma Stone and Steve Carell tackle the tennis match of a generation, man vs. woman, against the backdrop of a splintering league and a cultural revolution. Carell has some fun with the part of Bobby Riggs, really going over the top with publicity stunts and sound bytes that fit his natural comic timing, while Stone positively disappears into her more serious role as the focused, professional Billie Jean King. I was hoping for more interaction between the two, as they play well together and the promotional tour seems like the most fruitful grounds for an entertaining film, but instead that's an afterthought to both parties' private, separate struggles.
It's well-made, an excellent recreation of the era and the scene, but its message gets muddled in places, particularly in the amount of excuses it gives Riggs for his performance during the big match. A few conveniently-disappearing players in Billie Jean's storyline cause snags during the emotional payoff, too, with their surprisingly limited on-screen reactions echoing our own. A good subject, nicely cast and produced, not to mention appropriately timely, but it doesn't quite achieve everything it probably should have.
Short Circuit (1986)
Cut-Rate, Awkward and Heartstrong... a Good Encapsulation of Mainstream '80s Cinema
A freak lightning storm causes a war automaton to spontaneously go sentient during a military demonstration. If you were sentient yourself in '86, no doubt you remember this one. It's the epitome of an eighties movie in all the wrong ways: bad comedy, forced plot developments, a big dose of cold war overtones, a valley girl accent, Steve Guttenberg... the list is awfully lengthy. We've even got a white man in brown face, though he does nothing terribly egregious or offensive beyond the (surprisingly convincing) makeup.
Short Circuit manages to get by on the power of spirit and enthusiasm alone, which is itself another '80s stereotype. It's got energy to spare, plus absolutely no shame over its shortcomings, which makes it awkwardly endearing. Having said that, and appreciated it, the flick is often eye-roll bad, much worse than I'd remembered. Subtle like a bull on the warpath and cheesier than a Kraft dinner, I felt a little embarrassed for being such a fan back when I could still count my age on two hands. My sons, though, only a few years removed from that age themselves, adored it, so maybe there's something innocent and beautiful about that. I guess some films are best viewed in the memory banks.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Rise and Fall of a Philosophical Warrior
The sandy front of World War I, set amongst the dunes and political turmoil of Syria, Egypt and Jordan, as seen by a cocksure British army officer with maybe a little bit of a messiah complex. A true epic, from the breath-stealing long shots of an unimaginably vast desert to the explosive, well-outfitted battle scenes, it lives up to the billing and then some. I was mesmerized by the photography in particular, which constantly discovers new ways to portray what could have been a rather redundant, flat, boring landscape. Truly beautiful, almost ruminative at times, with an appreciation for the artisanship of film.
As for the plot, well... it's a bit slow. Particularly so in the nearly four-hour director's cut, which feels completely unnecessary. I've never seen the theatrical release, which is noted for being incomprehensible in places due to the awkward cuts, but it seems suspicious that half an hour or more couldn't have been lopped off somewhere to improve the pace. It's an exhausting watch, and not just because of the draining personal transformation we see in Lawrence himself. There's good material, of course, plenty of it. The hopeless inner squabble of an Arab population that's desperately close to the unified independence they seek. The protagonist's progression from philosophical humanist to enraged berzerker to shattered shell. We get plenty to think about, long after the credits have finally, mercifully rolled, but it's a marathon to reach that point.
A Best Picture winner that's technically marvelous, thematically challenging and open-minded, but the ending left me feeling cold and there's really no excuse for it to run for as long as it does.
Thoughtful and Interesting, But Far From Perfect
A joint scientific/military probe explores an unseen alien force that's taken up residence in the Florida swamplands and begun altering the wildlife. As you can probably surmise from the trailers, this is more of a slow, melancholy wander through the unknown than a guns-blazing action thriller, though there are some moments of noisy chaos.
Natalie Portman gets the close-ups, in a downplayed, nigh-emotionless role, but the unseen, undefined foreign creature has the heaviest presence. Fundamentally unfamiliar with our flora and fauna, it's been inspecting local life at a biological level, toying with genetic code and producing circus-mirror amalgamations that are just as confused about their own existence as we are. In many cases, the results are a beautiful sight to behold, but there's always a lingering sense of unease, something off and disturbing about what's unfolding before us. The worst of these experiments manifests when the human invaders are at their most over-stressed, an unsettling evening showdown with a lumbering, wailing behemoth. Not to give anything away, but it's the first time in years I've felt legitimately terrified by a monster on film.
There's a lot to unpack here, some tricky territory to navigate, and for the first hour it feels like we're walking in mud. Hurry isn't a word in Annihilation's vocabulary, even when it's being chased, and I think many viewers will find that off-putting. I'll confess that it does ultimately bear fruit, though the quality depends upon your interpretation. I enjoyed it more than the book, which gradually lost track of what made the concept so interesting in the first place, but it endures different troubles. If anything, I felt numb by the end. Slowly beaten down by the slog, the bland, frank, matter-of-fact leads and the lack of real answers.
Night at the Museum (2006)
Shallow Fun for the Kids, A Drag for Their Parents
Night watchman Ben Stiller takes slapstick abuse from an entourage of famous figures in New York's museum of natural history. There's a superficial subplot about an ancient tablet, responsible for the wax statues and figurines coming to life every night, but the film isn't all that concerned with making sense of it and neither am I. So we're basically left with a hundred minutes of easy sight gags, base caricatures and flashy effects, mixed with overplayed reaction shots and hand-rubbing evil villains. Oh, and there's an empty dash of sappy divorced father / distanced son bonding mush. I get it, this is a broad family comedy and I can't expect much. My six-year-old boys enjoyed it, and have requested it again since, so it hits the target audience. Plus it merits points for making a trip to the museum and a bit of archival fact-finding seem like less of a chore to younger viewers, so, yay education. Robin Williams is enjoyable as a self-conscious Teddy Roosevelt statue, and Mickey Rooney is hilarious in a set of fiery, brief guest spots, but that's about all that merits remembering. I'm in no hurry to sit through it again.
Respectable, Original Sci-Fi From an Unlikely Source
The rare Roland Emmerich film that isn't brainless, effects-over-story mayhem. Well, not completely, anyway. It does carry a lot of the director's favorite themes, from the tortured genius who only needs the chance to prove himself to the war-hungry soldier on a suicide mission, the overbearing government suits and the eccentric, ignored true believers. Those over-simplifications are glaring, of course, but at least there's an effort put in to expand certain characters beyond their stereotype (Kurt Russell's lingering resentment of guns, for example) and the plot itself is rich and interesting enough to paper over most of the holes. I've always had an affinity for science fiction and Egyptian history, so any merger of the two was bound to hit a sweet spot for me, and in this case the marriage works shockingly well. There's a certain other-worldliness about the pyramids, and that particular culture's system of beliefs, which lends itself well to such genre-driven filmmaking. The practical special effects come off wonderfully - gigantic hovering spacecraft and robotic Anubis-helmed enforcers - but it was still a bit early to rely on CG for this type of work and the few instances where they tried don't hold up very well. Despite a phoned-in leading performance by James Spader, Stargate remains a quirky, unexpectedly engaging ride. Still fresh, unique and interesting as it approaches its twenty-fifth anniversary.
The Purge (2013)
A Thrilling Concept, Betrayed by a Generic Plot
In an idealized future version of America, we vent our national frustration on one golden night, in which all crime up to and including murder is legal and the results are somehow televised. Apparently it works, because violence is supposedly down and employment is way up, but there is the tricky issue of surviving that single naughty holiday without passing through the crosshairs of an enemy. As a concept, The Purge is ripe. Especially so today, four years after its release, when the nation seems as politically and culturally divided as ever and violent undercurrents are simmering. There's so much opportunity to toy with the metaphorical overtone (including one or two extra-interesting caveats about the event itself which are left unexplored) that it's amazing they're merely used to prop up a rather generic horror/suspense combo. Family makes a series of poor choices. Bad guys show up on their doorstep to make threats and embrace modern horror stereotypes. Big showdown with a few telegraphed twists. That's the jist. The allure of the Purge, and the nationwide embrace of what it means, is right there, just begging to be further mined, but instead it's relegated to mere background color. An excuse not to call the police, really, and nothing more. Despite an inspired (and, go figure, largely unexplored) take by Rhys Wakefield as the charismatic gang leader, this is some bland, uniform stuff.
American Psycho (2000)
One Part Chilling Character Piece, Two Parts Absurdly-Effective Black Comedy
Psychopathy in the super yuppie 1980s financial district, where a wolf in sheep's clothing runs rampant through the sea of fake grins and phony networking events. Christian Bale really made his name as a leading man in the role of Patrick Bateman, a move that looks bold and prescient in hindsight as many warned it would be career suicide. He's the motor behind this story, on-screen for basically the duration, and able to balance scenes of dark, black humor with later episodes that require him to come completely unhinged. The first hour is unspeakably funny, engulfing us in Bateman's daily ritual and knee-jerk lust for violence, in the masks he wears to pass muster and the hopelessly superficial assholes he hangs around with. It's absolutely loaded with classic scenes and quotable lines, like "Do you like Huey Lewis and the News?", "Don't just stare at it, eat it" and "My god, it's even got a watermark" and I could joyfully revisit any one of those snippets at the drop of a hat. Every time we start to think it's okay to cheer the serial killer, though, he pulls a blood-chilling stunt that makes us question our own judgment. As the film unfolds, he grows increasingly sloppy, desperately chasing the dragon until he's in so deep that there seems to be no escape. The climax is a big tonal swing, and though it flirts with the idea of a wild twist at the very end, a lot is left to the viewer and I don't think it completely arrives where it means to. Still, it's a relentlessly entertaining movie that toys with a broad range of emotions and gives us one of the decade's most memorable performances. I could watch this just about any time.
Phantom Thread (2017)
Under the Veil of a Toxic Long-Term Relationship (or two)
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest is more in the vein of There Will Be Blood than Magnolia or Boogie Nights, meaning it's tighly focused on a very small, richly-developed cast rather than a glut of competing, interwoven storylines. Really, there are only three characters who matter: an intense, controlling dress-maker (Daniel Day-Lewis), his steady, all-business sister (Lesley Manville) and his young, headstrong new muse (Vicky Krieps). Their relationship is complicated, a careful balance of ticks, emotions and triggers that frequently threatens to collapse, but somehow manages to remain upright. They badger and provoke each other, testing for weakness between fleeting moments of warmth and compassion, and this flood of dense, competing emotion fuels their creative output. Like many of Anderson's other films, Phantom Thread is quite slow, breezily coasting through snippets and snapshots of the trio's various liaisons - sibling, professional and romantic - and doesn't always settle on a firm message or meaning. We're merely documenting a small tangle of lives, complete with unsightly quirks and personality-driven hardships, as they learn to coexist and endure/accept one another's shortcomings. It's a film I enjoyed more upon reflection, thinking over the various layers of subtext and character motivation, than I did while I was watching it.
Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)
Still Entertaining, This Franchise is Getting Awfully Crowded
Mike Myers is literally everywhere in his third romp as the super suave (and super dated) gentleman spy, playing four significant parts under hefty amounts of makeup and gear. He's still surprisingly funny, as is the film itself, although the screen often feels terribly crowded and the constant diversions and subplots get carried away. Much more than the two preceding films, Goldmember is a Python-esque collage, a string of skits and strung-out gags with a loose connecting narrative wound in-between. It's joyfully energetic, like a toddler, with an attention span to match. The goofs and send-ups themselves range from hilarious to beaten-to-death (particularly the dumb obsession with one character's absurdly huge mole, which is trotted out in at least three different scenes) and occasionally lean on a weirdly hyper-focused topical humor that's showing its age now. Many of the old bits from preceding films are rolled back out for an encore, but they're matched at least shot-for-shot with new segments that, surprisingly, hold their own. It's particularly important that the jokes land, because the plot is mostly scraps and stabs. Michael Caine is an inspired choice as Austin's long-lost father, but the two don't get much screen time together and it feels like a wasted opportunity. Beyoncé's take on the classic blaxploitation-era heroine type is spirited, if light and inessential. Despite the shortcomings, it's still good for a few big laughs and my wife and I reference it somewhat regularly. I prefer it to The Spy Who Shagged Me, though it can't hope to match the heart, balance or ingenuity of the original.
The Muppets (2011)
Bright and Cheery Overload
A suitably bright, cheerful revival of the old Muppet franchise, stuffed with cameos and furry puppets, old and new. I really loved this upon my first watch, five or six years ago, but much of the shine has worn off since then. It does manage to modernize the show without losing its spirit, no small task in and of itself, but the ceaseless, overwhelming optimism is lathered thick and I didn't find the soundtrack quite so charming on a second pass. Amy Adams and Jason Segel are the worst offenders here, acceptable enough as small-town sweethearts but disturbingly happy and overacted, prone to drop everything for a song like they're in the process of succumbing to a massive Glee overdose.
My boys didn't care for the musical numbers either, but all three of us enjoyed the big, seat-of-their-pants stage production that closes the show. That felt like the most successful interpretation of the old material anyway, a fast-paced variety show that's just as comically chaotic behind the scenes as it is before the audience. Fresh in the sense that they don't make clean, wholesome, feel-good programming like this any more, but it doesn't have a lot of shelf life. One viewing is more than enough.
The Disaster Artist (2017)
A Watery Synopsis and a Thin, Over-Hyped Leading Performance
James Franco takes a swing at the story behind The Room, a film so hopelessly inept it's developed a tenured, loyal cult following. This take has moments, but often seems to merely skim (if not altogether miss) what makes the subject so fascinating. Maybe I'd have better appreciated it if I hadn't read Greg Sestero's tell-all of the same name, which delves much deeper into the production's dysfunction. By comparison, this feels like a watery synopsis that, puzzlingly, leaves out some of the most interesting backstage dishes. It can't have been in the pursuit of a smoother narrative or a more clear-cut relationship between the two leads, because those blessings never arrive. Franco both directs and stars as Tommy Wiseau, the confusingly secretive social outcast at the center of it all, but given the buzz and awards surrounding his performance I was left wondering if I'd missed something. The famous accent doesn't feel quite right, often played with a wink and a grin that belies a soft undercurrent of derision, and his wardrobe may as well have come from a seasonal Halloween shop. His role comes off like an awkward cosplay rather than a serious performance, a gag act that went too far, and the surrounding film isn't fiery, appealing or even interesting enough to compensate. Good for a few laughs at best, maybe more for viewers less familiar with the subject, but as a one-man show it falls flat.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
A Thoughtful, Peaceful Slice of Bittersweet Romance... But Not a Terribly Active One
A smart, talented Italian boy coasts through the summer of 1983, struggling with conflicted romantic feelings, an uncertain personal identity and various social taboos. Beautifully shot, evocative of a lazy, lovestruck summer month in the gorgeous Italian countryside, it's a thoughtful, peaceful slice of bittersweet romance if not a terribly active one. Strangely edited, we'll cut away in the middle of a conversation but linger for long stretches of scenery and minor character actions. That does effectively convey the boy's listlessness, his adolescent ennui within a magnificent family estate, but it also leads to major pacing problems. Though it runs just over two hours, I caught myself glancing at the clock after one. Our two leads, Elio (the boy) and Oliver (the intern), share the flicker of chemistry, but initially flirt with so much nuance and subtext that I thought I'd missed something when it came time for their inevitable heart-to-heart. The climax is excellent, with a charged, open-hearted monologue from Elio's father and an unforgettable close-up during the credits, but by that point I was more than ready to check out. Long, tedious, occasionally rewarding and very, very art house.
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Quaint, Rushed, Awkward... and Terribly Influential
Shipwrecked by an unseen reef, having lost every one of his shipmates and travel companions, a world-renowned hunter turns up on the doorstep of a strangely luxurious estate and is welcomed by its perplexing, eccentric, eastern European owner. Chances are, you already know the rest of the story. This old film has been parodied and name-dropped so many times, it's virtually ubiquitous. Already knowing the twist, it seems pantomimed from the start, and I couldn't help wondering if it was really so telegraphed or if I merely knew what to look for. The production itself is cut-rate, obviously reusing set pieces throughout the jungle, but those shortcuts seem almost quaint given its age. It's technically uncertain, too. One particularly daring long zoom, from the top of a staircase to a lingering close-up, is clunky and awkward enough to draw a laugh, but also admirably ambitious for the period. Rough, bumbling cuts and edits litter the screen, barely covering for (or, in some cases, causing) a flubbed line or weird cadence from the actors. The plot is scrappy and short, though, straight to the point with little ballying about, and the penultimate chase through the jungle works amazingly well. More of a short story than an epic feature, it's a good way to burn an hour and appreciate how far the format has come.
The Post (2017)
Topical Treasure in the Shadow of Watergate
Another journalistic thriller from one of Spotlight's screenwriters, another Oscar nomination. This time we're investigating the pre-Watergate struggle between the government and the free press, a fight that went all the way to the supreme court and drew the personal ire of President Nixon. So loaded with parallels to the current social climate that director Steven Spielberg sprinted it through production, it's well-made but rushed, straightforward and more than a little familiar. Most impressive is Meryl Streep, who conveys vast inner turmoil as Kay Graham, marginalized publisher of the Washington Post, as she labors to balance her writers' integrity with an impending IPO that could potentially sink the paper. Kay's growth is what really drives the chariot, a compelling counterpoint to the journalistic sleuthing and boardroom/courtroom decisions that don't directly involve her. We see her resigned to the sitting room with the other ladies so the boys can talk politics, willingly accepting her preordained role in society, then slowly grow bolder and more outspoken as the waters grow dicier. She's never completely confident, especially in the one pressure-packed phone call that signifies her pivot, but that makes her all the more interesting and sympathetic. Where the antagonistic relationship between President and press signifies an obvious complement to Trump's war on fake news, Graham's battle is an equally appropriate nod to the recent push for women's rights. Rich and pertinent, it's an engaging watch, but the workmanlike, by-the-numbers production and hollow, lackluster climax left me feeling a little flat.
Unlike the Show, Too Funny to Fail Overstays its Welcome
An oral history, with clips and highlights, of one of the 1990s' most notorious flops. Riding high as a celebrated Saturday Night Live alumni, fresh graduate Dana Carvey had his choice of suitors / collaborators / formats. His picks were spot-on for everything but the broadcast partner, as he drafted a staggering cast of pre-fame talent (Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Louis CK, Robert Smigel, even a few episodes with Bob Odenkirk) but then tossed the brilliantly absurd, counter-culture fruits of their labor to primetime ABC. Even before Disney purchased the network, this marriage was doomed. It's a fundamentally simple story, perhaps too scant for a full-length feature, and that leads this documentary to feel somewhat padded. There's lots of fun material - candid footage of the baby-faced soon-to-be superstars auditioning, goofing around in the writer's room, looking back fondly upon the experience - but too often relies on highlights from the show or awkward bits stolen from other, tangentially-related programs and films. As this was produced by Hulu, which just so happens to be the show's online home, you'd think the goal would be prodding unfamiliar viewers to move right on to a binge-watch, to judge the material for themselves. Instead, I felt like I'd already done so.