As I go through the movies on my DVR, I found putting them in categories works pretty well. So I did the pre-1960 ones I watched recently, then we have the 1960s and 1970s, and anything after 1980 counts as “recent.” That’s just how I roll! So here are some thoughts on some post-1980 movies I’ve watched in the past few months.
Shakedown (1988). Back when I was but a lad, I saw a lot of movies in the theaters, and this was one of them – I was 17 when this came out, and I guess I didn’t have anything better to do. This is Peter Weller’s follow-up to RoboCop, and it’s just not that great, unfortunately. It’s a sturdy enough action movie, with a few very cool set pieces, but it’s 99 minutes long and it feels too short for what’s stuffed into it. Weller is a public defender who gets a case of a drug dealer shooting a cop, but it turns out the cop was crooked. So Weller and his old buddy detective Sam Elliott, sporting an absolutely gorgeous head of hair (the hair in this movie is on point), decide to take down the crooked cops. Fine. But then we get a romantic subplot that is really stupid – Weller is engaged to Blanche Baker, who will always be best known as Molly Ringwald’s older sister – the one getting married – in 16 Candles, but he finds out the district attorney trying the case is an old flame, and he casually cheats on his fiancée just because … well, it’s unclear – he’s a douchebag? He eventually breaks up with Baker, but the whole subplot is just a waste of time. Meanwhile, the plot holes in this movie are staggering. At no time does anyone in authority in the police question Sam Elliott. He and Weller chase a suspect – who guns down several innocent passersby – through New York before the bad dude gets caught in an explosion and blows the fuck up, but that’s not enough for someone to call Elliott into an office and ask what the hell is going on. Late in the movie, Weller discovers that there’s a key piece of evidence in existence that it seems like the defendant would know about, but he never brought it up. Then Weller gets caught breaking into the evidence lock-up and is about to get shot before Elliott breaks in and kills the two cops. Elliott kills two cops inside the precinct but nobody bats an eye at this! There doesn’t seem to be any evidence against the head crooked cop, but he decides to flee the country anyway with his drug dealer ally, leading to some terrible special effects as Elliott climbs onto the landing gear of their plane and tries to shoot it out of the sky as they’re flying over Manhattan. Man, the effects are terrible. But it’s still not a terrible action movie, just a flawed one. I love watching movies from a certain time period set in that time period, because we get to see late-1980s Manhattan and all its squalor – this was right before Times Square started getting Disneyfied, so it still looks like a shithole. And the clothes are so 1988 it’s amazing, and as I noted, the hair is on point. We get Weller’s dewy, winged look, Elliott’s mane, Patricia Charbonneau’s scalloped black helmet, and Larry Joshua’s incredible mullet, which should have gotten its own credit. I also like watching older movies to see people who became bigger in later years. Jude Ciccolella, who’s never become a big star but is someone you instantly recognize, is the crooked cop who gets killed the beginning, an incredibly young-looking John C. McGinley shows up as Weller’s buddy, Harold Perrineau is supposedly in this movie but I missed him (it’s his film debut, so he gets a name but not much else), and Vondie Curtis-Hall (also in his film debut) has a brief cameo. So it’s not a great movie, but it’s not terrible, either. I know, what a recommendation!
Desperado (1995). I actually like Robert Rodriguez’s first movie, El Mariachi, more than this one, which is sort-of a remake and sort-of a sequel of that one. Rodriguez famously made El Mariachi for $7000, and it shows, sure, but it also feels rawer and more personal. That’s not to say this is a bad movie, because it’s gonzo nuts, with Antonio Banderas, in perhaps his best role, shooting up everyone he meets, practically, and doing a really nice job of showing a guy on the edge without being too obvious about it (the few scenes when he tries to convince the people he’s fighting with to give up are really good, even though we know he’s going to kill them eventually). Salma Hayek has never been hotter, and the movie zips along and ignores its plot holes and everyone has a blast. It’s very funny, too. I mean, Steve Buscemi is always kind of funny, even when he’s being serious, so his few scenes are nice, but poor Joaquim de Almeida, typecast as the vaguely foreign villain in every American movie (I’ve never seen de Almeida in a Portuguese or other foreign movie, but I like to think that vaguely foreign villains in American movies are always suave lovers or action heroes in their native countries and they’re only in American movies to cash a paycheck), is hilarious. He doesn’t know the phone number of his new car and he gets really mad about it, he randomly shoots one of his own men because he can’t believe they can’t find Antonio Banderas, so he demonstrates by saying that if they see a stranger – like one of his goons, “standing in” for a stranger – they should just shoot him. And the gag involving Danny Trejo is superb, as de Almeida sells Bucho’s exasperation with his henchmen perfectly. It’s a goofy movie, but not a bad way to spend a few hours. And we get to see Quentin Tarantino get shot in the head, which is never a bad thing!
Gods and Monsters (1998). Many people don’t think Brendan Fraser is a good actor, but he is, or at least he’s good when he’s surrounded by talent and has good material to work with. Even in the Mummy movies, I would argue, he gets the vibe perfectly, and in stuff like The Quiet American or in recent television shows (the Fraserenaissance?) like Trust and Condor he’s quite good playing completely different kinds of characters. But you play a caveman once, and you get typecast, which is too bad. He’s very good in Gods and Monsters, which tells the story of the final few weeks (months, maybe?) of director James Whale’s life. Fraser plays the bohunk gardener who catches the eye of the very gay Whale, played exquisitely by Ian McKellen. McKellen asks to paint his portrait, and they become friends, even though Fraser is homophobic to start and Whale doesn’t let him get comfortable with that, challenging his perceptions as they get to know each other better. But McKellen never becomes too sympathetic, and the greatness of the movie stems from the fact that Whale is seriously damaged and doesn’t know how to relate to Fraser (or his maid, played beautifully if a bit broadly by Lynn Redgrave), which makes the climax of the movie, in which Fraser and McKellen are stuck in the house during a terrible rainstorm, all the more powerful, haunting, beautiful, and tragic. Fraser holds his own against a legend like McKellen, which is nice to see. Director Bill Condon also makes sure to show how Whale’s life was changed by Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, his most famous movies, in both good ways and bad ways. McKellen never says he was blacklisted because of his homosexuality – in fact, he says that nobody really cared in Hollywood all that much during those days – but it’s implied, even as there were other reasons as well (his sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front was hacked to pieces by studios more interested in placating Nazis than making good movies). McKellen plays Whale as someone lost in time, but also someone who had everything and never learned how to deal with not having everything, which explains his occasional terrible behavior in this movie. I saw this in the theaters when it came out, and hadn’t seen it in 20 years, but it’s still very good, and is an excellent testament to Fraser’s talents. Yes, he starred in some terrible movies. The dude has to pay the bills, right?
Smoke Signals (1998). This movie, if it’s famous for anything, is probably famous for being the first movie to be written, directed, and produced entirely by Native Americans, but it’s more than that – it’s an excellent movie that leans a bit too heavily into standard tropes but is rescued by the acting and the individual moments, which are stellar. Sherman Alexie is tainted goods these days, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a marvelous writer (or at least he was in the 1990s – it’s been a while since I’ve read any of his stuff), and the short story collection on which this is based, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-Fight in Heaven, is brilliant. Some of the moments from those stories are transplanted right into the movie, and usually it’s Thomas Builds-the-Fire, played by Evan Adams, who gives voice to them, and he’s superb. Adams plays Thomas as a total nerd, but someone who connects to people far better than his friend, Victor (played by Adam Beach), does. Beach is magnetic as well – you can see why he’s had a pretty good career – as he plays Victor with all the pain and vulnerability and toughness we’d expect from someone whose father left when he was young and who never learned how to process his emotions. The movie is also very funny, playing against some Indian stereotypes to show how foolish they are, and it’s also nice because Alexie and director Chris Eyre don’t make it about being an Indian in 20th-century America, so it becomes very much about being an Indian in 20th-century America without being preachy. As I noted, in many ways it’s simply a human story – how do boys relate to their fathers, especially if their fathers are absent, and what do we make of people of whom we have formed opinions when their actions don’t conform to those opinions – but because the actors are so good (Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal, and Irene Bedard – the voice of Pocahontas in the Disney movie – are all excellent), the story works well. It would be nice to see more movies made by Indians, but they’re such a small minority it’s difficult for them to break through. This isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s still very powerful.
The Interpreter (2005). I’ve seen this before, but not for a while, so I thought I’d watch it again. Sydney Pollack always made workmanlike movies that got the job done – of his I’ve seen, Three Days of the Condor is probably the best – and this one, his last feature film, is like that. He sets up a scenario – an interpreter at the United Nations overhears a snippet of conversation about an assassination attempt on an African leader – and plays it out pretty much as we would expect, which makes the movie comfort food but nothing spectacular. Nicole Kidman plays the interpreter, and it’s nice to hear anything but an American accent on her – it’s not quite her native accent, which is more Australian, but it’s closer to it than usual, as she’s from the country in question – the fictional Matobo – and therefore effects something of a South African accent. Sean Penn is the Secret Service agent assigned to figure out if she’s credible, and Catherine Keener is his secret-weapon partner, making the movie better just by being there, as she makes everything better just by being there. There’s not a lot, unfortunately, with the actual whispered conspirators – it becomes clear to Penn pretty quickly that Kidman is telling the truth, and then they identify the bad guys by old-fashioned police work, not by Kidman figuring it out from the voices, which is a bit weird as it feels like a deliberate non-usage of Chekov’s Gun (maybe that’s what Pollack was going for). Anyway, Kidman is terrific as the haunted woman who hides her past from Penn, Penn is Penn-like, and everything moves very predictably toward the climax. I don’t recall if casting Kidman caused any issues back in 2004/2005, but they do address her skin color in the movie, and Matobo is obviously supposed to be a South Africa/Zimbabwe analog, so there’s that. It’s a perfectly fine thriller to pass two hours with. Although it’s very weird how much Kidman looks like Charlize Theron in the poster. Spooky!!!
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011). As I just read this novel, I thought I’d watch the movie again, as well. It’s interesting comparing and contrasting books to the movies made from them, and this is no exception. The inciting incident – Jim Prideaux’s shooting in Prague – is moved to Budapest (for financial reasons dealing with filming, not for any in-story reason) and placed at the beginning of the movie, where as in the book it came much later, and we already knew Prideaux survived the shooting (in the movie, it takes a while for us to find out he’s alive). Ricki Tarr is more important in the book, and his story takes up more time, but the filmmakers get the essentials. And the affairs of George Smiley’s wife aren’t quite as important in the book, even though they remain important in the movie, it’s just not as big a plot point. Meanwhile, making Peter Guillam gay in the movie is a stroke of genius, honestly, although it’s interesting that in the book, which was actually written in 1974, Bill Haydon’s dalliance with a man isn’t really that big a deal. The movie has more action than the book, but not by much, and some deaths are made much more explicit than in the book, which Le Carré deliberately left ambiguous. The movie, like the book, moves fairly glacially, and there’s a lot of darkness, but it’s still pretty riveting. Everyone involved does stellar work, from Gary Oldman on down. John Hurt is justifiably grumpy, Benedict Cumberbatch is a perfect representation of the “new blood” in British Intelligence, Toby Jones is smarmy, Colin Firth is more rugged than his compatriots, Ciáran Hinds gets a bit shafted as Roy Bland, as he doesn’t really have much to do except look awesome (because he’s Ciáran Hinds, don’t you know), Dennis Dencik is a great toady, Tom Hardy is a terrific quasi-hippie spy, Mark Strong is great as Prideaux … lots of good performances in this movie. The one thing that the movie can do that the book can’t is show the toll this kind of life takes on the participants, as we see late in the movie when Strong is sitting in his trailer and he yells at one of the students at the school where he’s working. All the actors show this kind of stress, and they make espionage seem like the worst job in the world, which it probably is. It’s not a particularly fun movie, but it’s interesting to watch, because everyone does so much danged acting.
Parker (2013). It’s too bad this movie didn’t do better, because Jason Statham makes a great Parker, and it would have been nice to see him play the role more often. Although, if you think about it, Statham’s been playing the “nominal bad guy with a strong sense of ethics” for most of his career, so just calling him “Parker” doesn’t change that too much. Anyway, the plot is simple: The Stath joins a crew robbing the Ohio State Fair, but when the lead dude (Michael Chiklis) says they need all the money they just stole to set up an even bigger heist, Parker says no thanks, he just wants his cut, so they try to kill him. Of course, Parker is pretty much indestructible, so he recovers and hunts them down, because they’ve offended his sense of justice and fair play (one of the dudes screwed up the job a little, resulting in one death, so that offends Parker as well). He heads to West Palm Beach and gets his revenge … but not until they pull off their big heist, because why not let them steal a lot of jewelry before killing them all? There are plenty of plot holes – Jennifer Lopez’s fingerprints would be all over the house where the bad guys were hanging out, for one – but Statham is so good it just doesn’t matter. Lopez is fine as the struggling real estate agent who can’t pay her bills so she wants to help Parker, and the mean crooks – Chiklis, Wendell Pearce, Clifton Collins Jr., and Micah Hauptman – do a good job even though they have smaller roles. Nick Nolte is Parker’s girlfriend’s dad, and he does very little (in a nice twist, the girlfriend knows all about Parker and his business and has no problem with it), Patti LuPone does very little as Lopez’s mother, and Bobby Cannavale is wasted as a slightly creepy cop who has a crush on Lopez (don’t waste Bobby Cannavale, you guys – come on!). So it could have been streamlined a bit, but for the most part, this is a just a solid action movie. It’s a Stath movie, in other words. If you dig The Stath (and who doesn’t dig The Stath?), you’ll probably dig this.
Baby Driver (2017). Edgar Wright’s movie makes one very curious to see his Ant-Man movie, because Wright is so idiosyncratic that I’m not surprised that Marvel didn’t want him going off on weird tangents with their property but also makes me wish they had. Baby Driver is, after all, simply a heist movie, one where you can see pretty much every twist coming a mile away (well, perhaps the one with Kevin Spacey was a bit surprising, but not too much), but Wright is so damned stylish that the movie just becomes fun as all hell. It almost makes me feel like I’m not cool enough to even watch the movie, because everyone in it is so cool, even Ansel Elgort, the studiously uncool getaway driver of the title. As with a lot of heist movies, there’s an atmosphere of unreality around the entire thing, as if you can’t really believe it because the people in it are so cool that they couldn’t possibly exist in real life. Even Lily James, gorgeous as Elgort’s love interest, is the epitome of the cool waitress. The action, however, is superb, mainly because, not unlike Fury Road, Wright wanted to use real cars as much as possible, and you can tell. And of course, what makes the movie is the soundtrack, which is chockers with amazing music, as Baby (not Elgort’s character’s real name, but it’s what everyone calls him) has an impossibly cool taste in music and tinnitus so that he always needs to be listening to his awesome music or the noise in his ears will drive him insane (how he’s not insane at the end of the movie, for reasons I don’t want to spoil, is a bit confusing). The only problem with the soundtrack is it’s almost too cool, and it’s the kind of music that no one human being would ever compile, especially not someone born in 1994 (we’ll assume Elgort is the same age as his character). It’s not that he’s a young punk and he should stay off my lawn, it’s just that this is obviously a musical selection that someone would compile over many years of careful curation, someone like Edgar Wright himself. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great soundtrack. And this is a very fun movie with good performances all around (with Spacey’s recent ickiness and some of his roles over the past several years, it’s always easy to forget what a damned good actor he is, and he’s quite good here). Anyway, if you can live with Spacey in this movie, check it out.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017). A lot of people kind of slagged on this movie because it wasn’t as good as the first one, but let’s be honest: the first one wasn’t great, either, and while this one isn’t as good as it, it’s not that far off. This is too long, for instance, but Julianne Moore makes a better villain than whatever Samuel L. Jackson was doing in the first movie (although Jackson’s right hand woman, Sofia Boutella, is far cooler than Edward Holcroft, who’s Moore’s flunkie), the schemes in both are about the same level of stupidness (Bruce Greenwood is definitely evil in this movie, but it’s perfectly plausible that a politician would simply say that all drug abusers should die because who needs them), the plot holes in both are gigantic (the U.S. government just happens to have millions of human-sized cages sitting around?), and the action scenes are pretty cool in both. Colin Firth’s attempt to replicate the bar fight in the first one in this one after he is resurrected is very funny, and I honestly loved the fact that Eggsy is still with the Swedish princess he rescued in the first movie and is even planning to spend his life with her. It’s a refreshing change from the Bond trope. This movie wastes Halle Berry and even Mark Strong, which is annoying, and as Sophie Cookson is the coolest character in both movies, I keep hoping it’s revealed she’s not dead if they get around to making a third movie, but otherwise, this is a lesser – but only slightly – version of the first movie. And, you know, Channing Tatum dances around in his underwear, so there’s that. Yes, it’s dumb, but it’s still better than Skyfall and Spectre!
Justice League (2017). So, yeah. I watched Justice League. Why can’t DC get it? I don’t get how hard it is to make these movies better. I read somewhere that it’s easier for Marvel because the DC characters are icons, and sure, that’s part of it, but Wonder Woman’s a damned icon and that was a pretty good movie. Conversely, Aquaman is really not that much of an icon and I don’t know what Jason Momoa was doing, but “stoner surfer dude” is not really what I think of when I think of Aquaman (and Momoa’s actually not a bad actor; he was quite good in The Red Road). DC keeps pushing Cyborg on us, but Cyborg is inherently a dumb character, and Ray Fisher did nothing with the part (they should have made Joe Morton Cyborg – that would have been fun!). Even Ezra Miller isn’t all that good as Flash, despite what people said. He looks good in comparison to the others, but making him quasi-autistic doesn’t really work, either. The CW’s Flash might be an absolute dick (not on purpose, just that everything is his stupid fault because he’s an idiot), but Grant Gustin plays him well, which is hard to do because he’s such a dick. That’s how the Flash should be (well, not the dick part, but the regular guy part), but Miller just comes off as weird. And why does CW’s Flash costume look better than that monstrosity that Warner Bros. cobbled together? And why do the CW special effects when the Flash is running look better than Warner’s? Didn’t the movie have a budget that dwarfs the CW’s? Sheesh, people.
Anyway, this is just a blah movie. Steppenwolf is blah, and I would have preferred seeing Ciarán Hinds rather than just hearing his voice (Hinds is always good – if you haven’t watched The Terror yet, you’re missing out). DC is pinning its hopes on Darkseid as a villain, but everyone will just accuse them of ripping off Thanos, even if Darkseid is older – in today’s world, the movies count, so if DC does bring in Darkseid, it won’t matter if they plaintively bleat, “But Darkseid is two years older than Thanos, so they’re ripping us off!” Nobody cares, DC! Affleck is fine, Cavill is fine (Cavill does suave dickishness so well, so it’s sad that he’s stuck as Superman [Whoops! not any more!] when he could be stuck playing Napoleon Solo in Man from U.N.C.L.E. movies until the end of time, but it’s an unfair world!), Gadot is fine, Diane Lane shows up long enough to remind us that she was once the hottest woman on the planet, J.K. Simmons has the worst hair in the world, and it’s all just kind of … there. I mentioned that I actually liked Suicide Squad in another post, and while that wasn’t a great or even a particularly good movie, it had a personality. This movie just kind of goes through the motions. It’s too bad.
Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017). I wasn’t sure if I’d like this movie, but I figured with such a good cast, I’d probably enjoy, and it’s a lot more fun than I expected. I’ve never seen the original, but you really don’t have to have seen it – this movie begins with a kid finding a game of Jumanji on the beach in 1996, and it magically turns into a video game overnight (which is a sign that you probably shouldn’t play it, but of course the dude does) that sucks the kid into it. Twenty years later, four Breakfast Club teens – the Anthony Michael Hall nerd, the Ally Sheedy weird girl, the Molly Ringwald popular girl, and the Emilio Estevez jock – get sucked into it as well. Spencer, the nerd, was once friends with “Fridge,” the jock, but now he’s been reduced to doing his homework, which is how they both get busted into detention (where they find the old video game). Spencer digs Martha, the weird girl, and it turns out that she digs him too, but of course neither has the confidence to do anything about it. Bethany, the popular girl, gets busted for using her phone in class (Martha insulted the PE teacher, which is why she’s in detention). So inside the game, they turn into the exact opposites of what they are in real life – Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson, “Fridge” becomes Kevin Hart, Martha becomes Karen Gillan, and Bethany becomes Jack Black. They have to win the game, but wait a minute – they also learn life lessons and how to look beyond the surface of people too! Fancy that!
Okay, so the plot isn’t anything great. But the movie is funny. The Rock as a nerd is hilarious, and his powers are superb. Bethany as Jack Black is hilarious, especially when he discovers he has a penis. Most reviews think Gillan is the weak link, but I think she’s excellent as the woman who comes to realize that she’s pretty hot (Morgan Turner, who plays Martha IRL, is obviously attractive as well, in a Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That way). For me, Hart’s the weak link, as he’s pretty much Kevin Hart, but even so, he does get a lot of funny lines, and he sells them (it’s just that he’s Kevin Hart, and a little – yes, that’s a pun – Hart goes a long way). The rest of the cast is great, too. The kids aren’t in it that much, but they do a nice job establishing the characters, Bobby Cannavale makes everything better (see above), and cameos by people like Rhys Darby, Maribeth Monroe (released from the Medium Place!), Missi Pyle, Marc Evan Jackson, and Colin Hanks are fun. The CGI isn’t great but it’s tolerable, which is fine. This is by no means a great movie, but it should make you laugh for two hours, and that ain’t a bad thing at all.
I still have plenty of movies to watch, but that’s enough for now. I know you’ve seen some (if not all) of these, so what’d you think?