(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.
Django Unchained (2012) (MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has
regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at
very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django
Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a
director in Kill Bill), I was
pleasantly surprised by Inglourious
Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in
its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular
protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic.
As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was
operating at his zenith. Django Unchained
is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his
all-important aesthetic pr…
Schindler’s List (1993) (SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.
Marty (1955) (SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).
Vampire Academy (2014) My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on
the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct
Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire
Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if
you added vampires to Heathers, you
would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately
inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from
Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish
leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to
I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young
Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel
storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation
crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like,
Doctor Sleep (2019) (SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.
Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) (SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.
Paddington 2 (2017)
2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more
money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more
developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally,
crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the
Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.
Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the
universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the
original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on
first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce
a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity
to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.
Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as
uproariously as they migh…
Days of Thunder (1990) (SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.
2 Guns (2013) (SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that
it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in
advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are
generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight;
just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his
Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s
an actor who is more effective the less
he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing
less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever
expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.