Thirties gangsters fascinated audiences for quite some time, and my working thesis this evening posits that the Colombian drug trade now fills that same role. A subject captivating even to its eighties contemporaries (see Miami Vice and Scarface), it’s since left a trail of cinematic breadcrumbs (Clear and Present Danger, Traffic, Blow, Sicario) that today lead squarely to a bounty of thematic navel-gazing: Narcos, The Infiltrator, and now Tom Cruise’s American Made.
Cruise’s installment in this blowcaine canon is a fun period piece and a solid base hit for the genre (as well as a treat for plane buffs), but it lacks the coherence and gravitas of its recent stablemates.
Cruise plays Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in the late 1970s. He’s a bit of a maverick (sorry) in a ho-hum life, getting his jollies jostling sleeping passengers with quick-stab rudder work on his 727. He has a period-correct Firebird, a period-correct blonde wife, and the attendant midlife ennui of the workaday suburban dad.
But while banking a couple bucks smuggling cigars, he’s approached by a CIA handler (Domnhall Gleeson, coming admirably close to nailing the American accent) about ditching his airline routine and flying low and fast for God and country. Cruise’s Seal takes the bait, seduced at least as much by the Piper Aerostar in the government hangar as by the promise of international intrigue. (Remember that Tom Cruise is a commercial-rated pilot himself, and certainly got the av-geek part right – his More >
My Victorian-fiction professor once told me that any work, highbrow or low, can rightly be subjected to serious criticism and review. Of course, he hadn’t seen Kingsman: The Golden Circle. This is a film whose success should be measured not in stiff-collared discourse about heteronormative allegory or in spelunking for meaning in its meandering plot, but on a giant, rainbow-lit wacky-meter.
Put somewhat differently: Citizen Kane it’s not, but The Golden Circle sure aims straight for the rosebud.
The sequel to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Golden Circle returns to its predecessor’s proven formula of swagger, wire stunts, lifestyle branding, and ultra-violence. (If you liked the first one, you ought to like this; but do see it first, as ping-backs come fast here.)
This time around, when the Kingsman HQ, shop, and most of its agents are obliterated in Act One, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) seek the help of “Statesman,” Kingsman’s American equivalent. Cue the cowboy hats, lassos, molasses drawls, and bourbon, and trot out Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Pedro Pascal. Then marvel as do-no-wrong director Matthew Vaughn expertly molds his Savile Row spy tropes around hokey Kentucky charm. The whole thing’s a total hoot.
Before long, Kingsman & Statesman join forces to pursue another wild and hyperbolic villain, this one played not by Academy Award nominee Samuel L. Jackson but by Academy Award Winner Julianne Moore. I’ll leave her character’s More >
Here’s what you’ll hear about Mother! People will say it’s brave. Brilliant. Unlike any film ever made. They will smile, shrug, and say it’s “an Aronofsky.” You’ll hear how it pushes audiences beyond what they can handle. It’s blasphemous. Offensive.
With descriptions like that, the buzz alone will draw people to the theaters by night and have coworkers getting in fistfights over it at the water cooler by day.
You wanna know the truth? It’s a bore. It’s the ultimate in unabashed narcissism at every level, and I cringe to think that even writing this review will contribute to the putrid cloud of commentary that surrounds this film, puffing up writer/director Darren Aronofsky’s insufferable ego (and box office ticket sales) even further. But for you, dear horror readers, I’ll take that risk to make sure you stay far, far away from this waste of talent.
How is it so self-absorbed? Let’s break it down. Level one: the story. Jennifer Lawrence and her husband Javier Bardem live in a house. (Yes, I’m intentionally refusing to use the wretchedly obnoxious titles the characters are burdened with in the actual cast list). He’s a poet. She’s—his wife. Some people show up and refuse to leave. She’s annoyed by it and tries to give them the boot by politely pleading with Bordem. Sorry, Bardem. He doesn’t see any cause for alarm, and basks in the attention the guests shower upon him as their favorite writer. The film escalates, Lawrence’s sacrifices mount, and—without even trying to hold More >
I’ll never forget when I first watched The Exorcist. It was the morning after a bunch of us spent the night at a middle school friend’s house. Her mom had left for work, and our parents wouldn’t be picking us up for another few hours. I sat enveloped by an 80s-style velvet sofa, with my feet grazing the family room’s plush carpet, and the afternoon sun streaming in through the vertical blinds. As we watched the iconic horror film, I knew I’d never forget the pea soup vomit, the obscene anti-religious scenes, or the pingy little theme song.
But I also knew that I’d missed out on something. Raised in the special effects of the 90s, a part of me knew that when my older siblings watched the film just ten years prior, they didn’t notice the mechanical way Regan’s head turned on her body, the awkward sound mixing that made her possessed voice fall far short of believable, or the painfully slow pace. While The Exorcist was the ultimate horror film of a generation, I knew some of its true beauty would be forever lost on me.
I felt the same when I saw the original It, the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s book. Confession: I hadn’t seen it until this year. I’d always skipped over the title simply because I never found clowns to be that scary. But in anticipation of this fall’s full-length feature film, I knew I had to see the original. Let me tell you, watching that film 17 years after its release didn’t help. The plot felt slow, I found the adult storylines annoying, and I More >
Birth of the Dragon weaves a strange, anachronistic, and ultimately limp story around a one-off 1960s fight between young Bruce Lee, who was at the time teaching Kung Fu to locals in San Francisco, and the perfectly-named Wong Jack Man, an unflappable papaya-robed Shaolin master. While this battle of titans, we’re told, actually happened, I’d wager that the rest of this movie most certainly did not.
Which is probably a good thing. Besides struggling under a decidedly direct-to-streaming feel, Birth of the Dragon curiously paints its alleged hero — the legendary Lee, played by Philip Wan-Lung Ng — as a self-important and preening side-note, a two-dimensional braggart whose main contribution is teasing his students and brooding in a just-so little clapboard office about how best to display his greatness. Lee himself may actually have been this way for all I know, but even so he probably deserved to at least play the leading role in what’s ostensibly his own picture.
Alas, he’s relegated to the sidelines in favor of Billy Magnussen — you’ll remember his brief stint as one of the bro-tastic mortgage brokers in The Big Short — who plays Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students. McKee improbably makes friends with Wong Jack Man, the swift-kicking monk who’s visiting Fog City to wash dishes (stay with me), and even more improbably wanders into a Westworld-worthy meet cute with a comely Chinese waitress, Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing). She’s captive, a work-slave to evil Chinatown masters More >
Oh, no thanks, no water for me. This face is purely decoration, really—about as plastered on as Renee Zellweger’s in 2014. That’s a joke. You can laugh, kid.
You know, after starring in two movies, you’d think my third go at this would be easier. But no, the press junket is the hardest part. They set you up in this hotel room—I mean look at this, what is this, polyester? Ugh—and you answer the same questions all day. It’s exhausting. It’s so nice to get a breather between those ridiculous Hollywood reporters who slap on grins that are more artificial than mine, and ask the fluffiest, ditziest of questions—“What’s it like to be the only actor in the film who is also an inanimate object?” or “Do you have elbows?” or “What made you decide to do a nude scene in this film?” Gag.
You wanna know what I really think about Annabelle: Creation? How much time until the next imbecile prances in here? Five minutes? Ok perfect. I’ll tell you. First of all, ask any big star of a horror franchise—from Jamie Lee Curtis to Courteney Cox to Vera Farmiga (who is great to work with, by the way, and who is likely my only competition out there for “best Edwardian high neck collar”)—and they will all tell you that sequels are tough. When my tiny little role in The Conjuring became a starring role in Annabelle, I knew I had to deliver. And deliver I did—that was a great film. Cool 1960s style, great scary scenes, and come on, this creepy face brought it. But still, it was not as scary as its More >
If you were to ask me what defines a horror film, I guess I’d say—of course only after pointing you to my eye-opening scary movie reviews and once I’ve fully extolled the glories of The Parsing Haus—that at its core, it’s a movie designed to scare the crap out of you. And in truth, that’s probably also the only thing that connects all those crazy horror films: fear. As you well know, the movies that frighten me the most are the ones that conjure up my own deepest fears—ghosts and possessed kids and twists on the religious symbols I grew up with. But these don’t terrify everyone. Other moviegoers have their own triggers. For sanguivoriphobes, it’s vampires, and agoraphobes would probably cringe in terror through a documentary film about the Sahara. So I guess in truth, any film could become a scary movie when offered up to the right audience.
At first, I almost dismissed A Ghost Story as a completely horror-less film. In fact, I worried that it would just be some moody romantic drama. And in a lot of ways, I’ll be honest, it is. But when you really dig deep, in its own way, A Ghost Story begs some of the most fundamental questions and triggers some of the darkest fears we humans face during our blip of existence on this big ol’ rock we call home. Let’s dive into this somber, cosmic gem of a film.
My texts are widely known (disparaged?) for their proper capitalization, syntax, and punctuation. Rarely, though, do I allow the words to speak for themselves. In the Simpler Times™️, I might have adorned iMessages with a “;)” or a “:P,” when feeling particularly playful. More elaborate constructs, ASCII emoticons in nerd parlance, never suited me. Why go through the pains of a “Sup Son” when “:-/”communicated the same ennui with fewer thumb strokes? The moment that emoji–yes, everyone, that is the preferred plural form–crossed the delicate threshold separating tween convos from adult dialogue, my reaction was a decided 🤔. Or was it 😐? Either way, I am now smitten. The emoji keyboard is imprinted on my cerebral cortex in a way that its QWERTY forebear never will be. If there were applications to the Unicode Consortium, I would hand mine in yesterday.
Imagine my delight, the ecstatic 😱+😍, with which I greeted the first rumors of “The Emoji Movie.” Now imagine my face as I exited the theater. No emoji face, hand, or symbol alone adequately reflects the feeling. Perhaps this chronology will do:
😏 (light amusement around 2:00) ➡️ 😬 (visible grimace around 5:01 after the first “joke” landed with a theater-shaking thud) ➡️ 😦 (creeping disbelief through 30:00) ➡️ 😒 (unmitigated annoyance by 59:59) ➡️ 🤢 (a well of sickness, aided by rapid ICEE consumption, rising around 1:00:00) ➡️ 😶 (loss of recognizable human emotion, cut to credits)
Through experience, a true aikido master pares his movements to the bare minimum, doing just enough to twist and deflect an assailant. It’s mesmerizing to watch such efficiency in action — the lightest touch deals a devastating result. That’s Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Faithfully depicting a real military event — the stranding and largely extemporaneous civilian-assisted rescue of some 400,000 allied troops from the French shores in the early months of the Second World War — Dunkirk is split into three stories: One, told from the perspective of troops on the beach, unfolds over a week. Another follows the civilian boats that sailed to effect their rescue, and is told over the period of one day. The third takes place in a single hour, featuring a group of Spitfires waging war in the air. These overlapping stories criss-cross, so the same events unfold at different times and from different perspectives. It’s a clever and effective way to draw in the full scope of the events, without cramming the soldiers’ multi-day ordeal into the span, say, of a single tank of fuel.
Dunkirk is a war movie stripped bare of context and politics, focusing from its first frame on the utter immediacy of conflict. Nolan keeps the cameras close in on his characters; we join them on the beach, at sea, and in the air. It’s More >
Second only perhaps to the prestige biopic, every filmmaker, actor, and other Hollywood hanger-on seeking the mantle of “serious artist” has turned his or head to the hellscape that was World War II. That specific trajectory assumes greater importance for those who established their names on popcorn-fueled blockbusters and action heroism. Even cinema’s mainstream iconoclasts have found reservoirs of inspiration in the European theater and “Natzi”-killing. The conflict proving that its predecessor had neither made the world completely safe for democracy nor ended all wars is tailor-made for silver screen appraisal. The villains were worse than any screenwriter could conjure. The settings crisscrossed continental Europe, North African deserts, the great oceans, and the deep blue skies. Is there any wonder that over 1300 movies have used its narrative to extract the best from the business?
Christopher Nolan takes this heritage seriously with his true magnum opus, “Dunkirk.” Very seriously. Just as his spiritual predecessor Steven Spielberg used the Second World War to break free of aliens and dinosaurs, Nolan invites us to witness his directorial prowess unburdened by comic book flash or CGI wizardry. And witness you should. “Dunkirk” is, hands down, the best genre entry since “Saving Private Ryan.” I might even wager that it’s better.
Leaflets raining down upon deserted streets announce that Germany has pushed Allied forces to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. By late May 1940, More >