Despite getting a job (one with not many hours, true, but still), I still have time to watch movies, so here are some more “recent” movies (1990-present) that I’ve watched recently!
The Freshman (1990). I love this movie – I saw it in the theater lo those many years ago, and have seen it a few times since. My daughter enjoyed it, too, but she’s never seen The Godfather, so Brando’s performance wasn’t as funny to her as it is to anyone who’s seen him play Don Corleone. Even though many people thought Brando was washed up by this point, he’s excellent in the movie – he has the right mix of self-parody and the tiniest hint of menace and he can still emote with the best of them, and while the rest of the cast is solid, he makes the movie. Plus, it’s a movie in which a Komodo dragon features prominently (although it’s not actually a Komodo, it’s a monitor), and how many movies can you say that about? The thing I never understood is whether Brando and Maximilian Schell (who’s almost unrecognizable as the inscrutable European “doctor”) were scamming the customers the entire time that the “Gourmet Club” was in operation or whether this was the only time. It’s implied that they’ve always been scammers, but if they’re not, they were still breaking the law, just not this one time (even though, technically, they broke the law by simply bringing the Komodo dragon into the country). Still, it’s a very charming and funny movie, and it’s a good way to spend a few hours.
Supercop (1992). Technically, this is Police Story 3: Supercop, but it was released in the U.S. with only the subtitle (and not until 1996), so I’m sticking with it. This is a somewhat goofy movie, but it gets by on the strength of the chemistry between Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, who work really well together (Yeoh was retired before this movie, but she had gotten divorced and, I guess, needed the dough, and the world is a better place because her marriage fell apart). The action scenes are superb, the humor is pretty good, the pace is super-brisk, and it’s just a fun time all around. The English dubbing is awful, as usual, but it’s part of what makes the movie fun, too. When I wrote about my celebrity crushes, I mentioned that I was crushing on both Yeoh and Maggie Cheung, who plays Chan’s girlfriend, and she is indeed as cute as a button, although she’s not in the movie all that much. This isn’t a great movie, but it’s very entertaining, and the fight scenes are just excellent.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993). After his weird break-up with Mia Farrow, Woody Allen got Diane Keaton back to star in this, his first true comedy in several years, and his best movie in a while, as well (I’ve never been a fan of Allen’s “dramedies,” mainly because they usually involve woman far more attractive and younger than he falling in love with him, and while that happens in his comedies as well, it’s usually played for laughs more). Allen and Keaton are married, and Keaton begins to suspect that their neighbor killed his wife. She investigates with their friend, Alan Alda, but eventually Allen begins to believe it too, and they all have to figure out how to trap him (along with Anjelica Huston and, in far lesser roles, Ron Rifkin and Joy Behar). It’s a very funny movie mainly because Allen is very funny (and, given that we know he’s a horrible person, a better actor than we all thought!), and while the murder mystery is fine, the movie is really about a couple reaching a stale point in their relationship and how they get the spark back. Alda digs Keaton, which is why he wants to help her, while both Allen and Alda kind of dig Huston, as she’s the exotic author (they’re all connected to the publishing world) who isn’t domesticated like Keaton is, so Keaton is naturally jealous. Neither Keaton nor Allen cheat on the other, but it’s interesting seeing how they’re both energized by other people and how that influences their own relationship in both good and bad ways. The other interesting thing about the movie is the contrast between the protagonists and the antagonist, played by Jerry Adler. Allen looks like a goofball, sure, but he and Keaton and Alda and Huston and Rifkin and Behar are all upper-middle-class liberal elitists, and you can’t imagine a world where they commit any crimes. Adler is older (he’s only a few years older than Allen and Alda, but he looks older) and looks more lower-class (although he’s living in a high-rise in Manhattan, so he’s not poor), and he’s dressed much less fashionably than the others, so there’s an interesting classist distinction going on between the “good guys” and the “bad guy.” It’s fairly subtle, but still there. It’s even in the women Allen casts – the murdered wife, Lynn Cohen, is only a few years younger than Adler, while Keaton is a decade younger than Allen and Huston is about 15 years younger than both Alda and Allen. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in the movie, and as I mentioned, it’s very funny. I haven’t seen a Woody Allen movie in years, but this is one of the ones I really like.
Secrets & Lies (1996). Sometimes I miss not having children, because the wife and I used to go to a lot of movies, and we just don’t anymore (it’s not only having kids, it’s having less money, being old and tired, and having the ability to watch so much at home). The 1990s, though, were our Golden Age of movies, because we were on our own and living in an awesome city for the arts (Portland, OR) that had a ton of great theaters, so we could see a lot of cool stuff (the 1980s were great for action movies, but I didn’t see a wide variety of genres because I was a male teen, so action movies RULED!!!!). One director who was killing it in the 1990s was Mike Leigh, and we saw all four of his great movies from the decade – Naked (1993), this movie, Career Girls (1997), and Topsy-Turvy (1999). This might be his best movie (despite that the fact that it’s the only one of the four that doesn’t star the magnificent Katrin Cartlidge), as Leigh gives us the story of Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a London optometrist whose adoptive mother is dead at the beginning of the movie and who decides to find her birth mother … who happens to be white. She’s played by Brenda Blethyn, who gives the performance of a lifetime as a single mom (her other daughter is about to turn 21) at the end of her rope, emotionally. If you can get past the fact that Blethyn cries at the drop of a hat, she’s tremendous, a woman who has been chewed up and spit out by life, disappointed in her daughter because she’s disappointed in herself, resenting her brother (an excellent Timothy Spall) and his wife (an also excellent Phyllis Logan) for their success. After the shock of learning that her daughter is black (she gave her up for adoption and never saw her), she latches onto Jean-Baptiste as a chance for redemption as a mother, but she still has to account for her other daughter (Claire Rushbrook) and her feelings about her brother and the secret he has with his wife. This is a marvelous movie, full of raw emotions and tremendous acting – it’s the kind of movie you want to watch more than once just so you can follow each actor through it, because they’re always doing something while others are talking. Blethyn dominates, with her penchant for calling everyone “sweetheart” and her jittery chain-smoking hiding the fear she has that Rushbrook is making the same mistakes she did but unable to talk to her without screaming, while Jean-Baptiste’s success in life seems, to Blethyn, to justify that she’s a “good mother” even though she had nothing to do with it. Spall and Logan love each other, but they don’t need words to convey the gulf between them, something they won’t talk about until it’s forced on them at Rushbrook’s birthday party, where everyone comes together for a tour-de-force of acting. Leigh barely touches on race except to make the subtle point that Jean-Baptiste, the black woman, is far more successful than Blethyn and Rushbrook, the white women (Spall is successful, too, but even that is just slightly tainted, as we find out during the course of the movie), and it’s a nice inversion of the norms. This is a fantastic movie, and I can’t recommend it or the other three movies Leigh made in the ’90s strongly enough.
From Hell (2001). This is one of those so-very-frustrating movies because you can see the good movie inside the mediocre one, and if the Hughes brothers had just done a few things differently, this might be a great movie. But it’s not, unfortunately. Johnny Depp is fine, I suppose, but Heather Graham is really, really miscast, especially when you consider that the other victims – the ones who weren’t supposed to look like Hollywood starlets – do a fine job (led by the aforementioned Katrin Cartlidge, who’s brilliant even in a small role in what turned out, sadly, to be her last feature film role). Really, the movie works in any capacity because of Ian Holm and Jason Flemying as William Gull and Netley, respectively. Holm is terrific, as always, and while the Hughes brothers don’t go into his psychosis as much as Moore did in the comic (they even leave out that panel that’s a candidate for most disturbing ever), when they do, Holm shines. Flemying’s role is far smaller (apparently it was larger before much got cut), but he’s very good as the terrified, unwilling-and-then-willing accomplice to Sir William. Parts of the movie are very good, but overall, it’s disappointing. The Hughes brothers completely miss the point of the comic, which is not the identity of Jack the Ripper at all, and they turn it into a mystery for Depp to solve. Moore didn’t care about the mystery, and it made the book a masterpiece, as he concentrated on the abuse of power, the tragic conditions of the working poor and the women of Victorian England, and the madness brought about by mechanization and technology (among other things). When Holm talks about giving birth to the twentieth century, he sells the line because he’s Ian freakin’ Holm, but it doesn’t really work as well as it does in the comic. Moore’s work tends to defy easy categorization and therefore doesn’t make for great streamlined movies, but people keep trying!
School of Rock (2003). Is this Jack Black’s best movie? Tropic Thunder might be, and the new Jumanji could make a case, and of course you all loved him in Enemy of the State and he was superb in Bob Roberts, but I think this is his best movie (not that I’ve seen them all, of course). Don’t even mention High Fidelity, because I enjoy that movie but want to punch Black so hard in his stupid face. He plays almost the same character as in High Fidelity, but his saving grace is that he’s much nicer in this one, so his music arrogance doesn’t rub me the wrong way. I love this movie, except for one small exchange. When Freddy and Katie are discussing female drummers and Freddy dismisses them, Katie counters with Sheila E and Meg White, which is weak sauce. Jack Black and Richard Linklater couldn’t come up with better drummers that Katie might have known about after doing some research? Jack Black could have told the class about Alice de Buhr, Gina Schock, Demetra Plakas, Torry Castellano, Janet Weiss, or Kate Schellenbach, couldn’t he? Anyway, I don’t know why that bugs me, but it does. Other than that, this is an excellent movie.
Dunkirk (2017). For a Christopher Nolan movie, Dunkirk is surprisingly short and surprisingly taciturn – a good chunk of it has no dialogue, and even some of the parts with dialogue don’t need them, because the ambient noise makes it very hard to hear the dialogue. It’s a terrific movie, focusing on a few characters to show the magnitude of trying to get off the beach. We get a main soldier on the beach who interacts with a few other soldiers, but not too many; we have Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden flying over the Channel to help get the German planes and ships off the evacuees’ backs; we have Kenneth Branagh coordinating things on the beach; we have Mark Rylance piloting his boat to Dunkirk with his son and his son’s friend. A few times, we get the scope of what’s happening, but Nolan still manages to keep it intimate, and the three timelines (a week for the beach plot, a day for the boat plot, an hour for the plane plot) isn’t confusing at all, although I’ve read some comments about people being confused about it and even by Cillian Murphy showing up in two different circumstances (which is annoying; this isn’t a puzzle box movie, and if a dummy like me can follow along, anyone should be able to). The randomness of death is handled pretty well, too, although I didn’t like two of the deaths in the movie – one because it wasn’t clear who died, and the other because it seemed like it was just to make us sad. But I’ll say no more about that! This is a very good war movie, and if Nolan could keep all of his movies under two hours like this one, he might be a better filmmaker!
It (2017). I’ve never read It nor have I seen the cheesy mini-series from 1990 (I’ve actually seen a few minutes of it, including the overwhelmingly cheesy ending), but this movie got such good reviews that I figured it would be a good watch. I’ve never been particularly scared of clowns, and it’s my contention that most people who were older than about 10 when It was published aren’t scared of clowns but those who were younger than that are, because King changed the conversation about clowns so much. It’s just a theory!!!! Anyway, It isn’t a particularly good movie, which is disappointing. The cast is pretty good (for being mostly kids, that is, which can be a crap shoot), the cinematography and attention to detail are excellent, and Bill Skarsgård really enjoys playing Pennywise, but overall, it’s disappointing. It’s not that scary, for one, which is kind of the whole point. It’s also packed with clichés, presented, it feels, without irony whatsoever. The cliché of the small town with lots of secrets was old when King decided to make it his go-to setting, and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. The evil and/or stupid parents don’t add anything to the movie, and there’s no explanation why they’re so blasé about the killer clown roaming the streets. The bullies are stereotypes, the kids are stereotypes, the girl and the black kids are tokens, and the kids are idiots. It begins with Georgie being about the dumbest kid in the history of kid-dom (“Sure, Mr. Clown-Standing-in-the-Goddamned-Sewer, I’ll stick my arm in there!”) and continues with the others, as they even tell each other not to separate yet they do at the earliest opportunities. I guess I should just be glad that they cut the sewer orgy scene, because holy shit would that have been bad. Anyway, there are some really neat sequences – Pennywise in the refrigerator is superb – and while it’s not a terrible movie, it’s just so by-the-numbers that it’s hard to care too much about it. I might watch the sequel when it shows up on cable, but we’ll see. (I do like that Sophia Lillis has been played as an adult by Amy Adams and now Jessica Chastain – she must be living right!)
American Made (2017). Doug Liman has made two great movies, and a bunch of entertaining ones, and American Made veers toward greatness, but doesn’t quite reach it. Part of the problem is its tone, which is comedic even though Liman is dealing with some very serious topics and the main character, after all, gets shot in the head at the end of the movie (I don’t think this should be a spoiler; it happened 30 years ago). Tom Cruise carries the movie, of course, because Cruise rarely shares the screen with anyone (I don’t know if he does this on purpose – apparently people like working with him – but he’s just so magnetic that he kind of takes over the screen), and he has a lot of fun playing Barry Seal, the pilot who ran guns for the CIA and smuggled drugs for the Medellin cartel and basically got really rich before it all came crashing down (as it always does). The movie is breezier than it probably should be, as Cruise is in the middle of some pretty serious operations and violations of law (both sanctioned and unsanctioned by the government), but it does work as a comedy to an extent, because so much of it is so ridiculous and even unbelievable (even though we know a lot of it is true). Cruise is close to being irredeemable, but a few things save him: one, he’s utterly committed to his wife and kids, wanting to provide a good life for them; and two, when the CIA (embodied by a terrific Domhnall Gleeson) first approaches him, he finds out he’s really not going to get paid a lot for what is really dangerous work, so why wouldn’t he try to make some money on the side? Plus, he’s Tom Cruise, so that helps, too. Anyway, this is almost a parody of the 1980s, and it’s enjoyable to watch even though we can spot all the beats coming a mile away (man, Cruise, don’t employ your redneck brother-in-law – that won’t end well!). It’s a bit of a departure for late-era Cruise (he’s decided to become a superhero, so he tends to avoid some of the really brilliant acting stuff he did a bit earlier in his career, as it seems like he’s realized he’s never going to win an Oscar, so why bother trying?), but that’s what makes it fun. And Liman is a great visual stylist, so the movie looks great. But it’s still a bit fluffy, which is too bad.
Game Night (2018). Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams make a fairly adorable couple in this somewhat violent comedy about two very competitive people who host a “game night” every once in a while, and one of those nights goes horribly awry, as you might expect. Kyle Chandler, playing Bateman’s more successful brother, arrives in town and says they’re going to do a “kidnap game” – characters make references to movies, so I’m surprised no one mentioned the Michael Douglas/Sean Penn movie The Game, which is essentially a serious version of this movie – and then, of course, he gets kidnapped for real. It takes a while for the players to figure this out, and the early comedic stuff when they don’t know is probably the best part of the movie (Rachel McAdams dancing around with what she thinks is a prop gun is hilarious and downright damned sexy, because Rachel McAdams can bring it). They find out it’s not a game and it becomes more of a caper movie, but there are some twists at the end that bring it back around to the game. The cast is strong – Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury are fine as one couple, but Billy Magnussen, playing a hot idiot, and the smart woman he brings to the game night (because he’s tired of bringing bimbos who don’t help him win), played by Sharon Horgan, are really good together, as she quickly realizes just how stupid he is. Jesse Plemons steals the movie, though, as the next-door neighbor who was only invited to Game Night because Bateman and McAdams liked his wife, but he’s divorced now, so they try to avoid telling him about it so he won’t come over. Plemons is a cop, and that’s played for laughs occasionally (not really poking fun at him, because he’s apparently an excellent cop, but more that he’s such a straight arrow he would actually write a letter to Frito-Lay to check up on a lie Bateman tells), and he’s so very deadpan that everything he says is hilarious even when it’s not meant to be (e.g., “I can’t say I care for that nomenclature” is a great laugh line when Plemons says it). This is the kind of movie that will play until the end of time on basic cable and only some salty language (rather gratuitous occasionally, but not too much that they can’t censor it) would mess it up. You can watch the entire thing or just plop down literally in the middle of it and not have to do much to catch up. It’s enjoyable that way.
So those are some more recent movies I’ve watched recently. And guess what? I still have plenty to write about, so you can look forward to that!