I have been calling these “recent movies,” but as people have pointed out, 1990 isn’t all that recent, so fine, I’ll just say movies from the last three decades. Although most of these are recent – that’s just the way it is sometimes!
Grand Canyon (1991). I saw this in the theaters when it came out, and I’ve seen it a few times over the years, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen it all the way through. I absolutely love it – it’s an earnest Lawrence Kasdan movie, so you take some schmaltz with it, but that’s okay (Kasdan doesn’t always make “earnest” movies, but when he does, he veers toward schmaltzy), but I dig Kasdan (well, for the most part), and this is a wonderful movie. Kasdan actually confronts a “white savior” narrative kind of head-on – it’s a bit weird, but at least he tries – as Kevin Kline meddles in Danny Glover’s life for no good reason except he’s rich and white and Glover is black and not on his economic level (Glover isn’t poor by any means, but he’s not rich). Glover, a mechanic, tows Kline’s car when it breaks down in a bad Los Angeles neighborhood, and Kline is getting menaced by young punks but Glover’s calm demeanor helps turn them away. So Kline feels like he owes Glover, and so it’s not like Kasdan is just saying that the white dude knows best. He even lampshades it a bit when Kline sets Glover up on a blind date with Alfre Woodard, whom he’s just met. First, Woodard and Mary-Louise Parker (Kline’s secretary, who’s lovelorn because he cheated on his wife once with her but called it off after that) ask him to describe Glover, and he answers as generically as possible, but makes sure to mention he’s a black man. Parker asks how he would describe Woodard to Glover, and he says the same way, to which Parker responds, “As a black man?” Later, Glover and Woodard discover neither of them knows Kline all that well, and they wonder why he set them up. They speculate that they’re the only two black people he knows, which is of course accurate. Parker, meanwhile, is trying to get over Kline, but Kline is a nice guy, so it’s hard for her. Kline’s wife, played with ethereal quasi-loopiness by Mary McDonnell, is empty-nesting hard when their son (Jeremy Sisto in his film debut) goes off to camp and returns with a girlfriend that he never bothered to tell his parents about (her parents, of course, know all about them). She finds an abandoned baby and is convinced it’s a miracle, but Kline isn’t so sure. Their friend, Steve Martin, is a producer of over-the-top action movies, and he gets shot during a mugging and has an epiphany about his life’s work (there are a lot of moving parts in the movie). It’s a fascinating movie, and while not all of it works, Kasdan is fairly subtle about showing both the ennui that can affect a person when they lose their purpose and how that very ennui is an indulgence of well-off white people. Kline, Martin, and McDonnell have the luxury to worry about what they’re doing with their lives, while Glover, his sister and nephew (Tina Lifford and Patrick Malone), even Parker and Martin’s long-time girlfriend, Sarah Trigger (who’s luminescent in a small role, as she gives a speech when Martin gets out of the hospital that’s devastating, as is Martin’s reaction to it), don’t have that option. It’s still a hopeful movie, as Kasdan shows people caring about each other just because they’re good human beings, and in a world where the Rodney King riots were just on the horizon, it now looks sadly naïve. I still love it!
The Spanish Prisoner (1997). David Mamet has directed some very good movies (he didn’t direct Glengarry Glen Ross, in case you’re wondering), but I think this movie is my favorite one that he directed (State and Main comes close, but not quite!). I just love this movie. I love confidence games and heists, so of course I’m going to be inclined to like it, but Mamet does a superb job of creating a very twisty world but not over-complicating it. All we need to know is that Campbell Scott, who plays the lead as a dude who developed a “process” for a company that will make them millions (they might as well have called it the “MacGuffin Process,” because not only is it never named, we don’t know what it does, we don’t know the name of Scott’s company, we don’t know what kind of company it is, and we don’t even know how much money Scott projects it will make the company!), is innocent, and everything goes from there. Scott wants to get paid, but Ben Gazzara, the man in charge, keeps making vague promises, so it’s easy for everyone in the movie to believe that he’d steal the process, but we know he didn’t, so the fun comes from figuring out who did and how they did it. It’s a fun maze, with plot twists galore, and even at the end, we’re not exactly sure why things went the way they did. Steve Martin plays a rich dude who seems to be Scott’s friend, but we can never really trust him, can we? (Martin supposedly played against type in this movie, but it’s not like he hadn’t done dramatic roles before in movies like Parenthood and Grand Canyon, so of course he was good in this) Ricky Jay is a lawyer for the company who seems to have Scott’s best interests at heart, but can we trust him? Rebecca Pidgeon does her usual thing as the new employee, but who knows if we can trust her, either (it’s a David Mamet movie, so of course Ricky Jay and Rebecca Pidgeon are in it). You might not like Pidgeon’s “I’m-a-sociopath-who-has-studied-humans-and-is-trying-out-social-interactions” acting thing, but I dig it, and she’s in fine form here. There are even smaller roles for Felicity Huffman and Ed O’Neil, and don’t tell me we might not be able to trust them, either? Even Ben Gazzara, who seems to care about the company – might he make more money just selling the “process”? Oh, the mind reels! This is just a fun movie, with a truism at the end that is so brilliant it’s one of those things that seems obvious in retrospect but still took genius to come up with. Fun stuff from Crazy David Mamet, and not a curse word in sight (it’s rated PG, for crying out loud!)!
Haywire (2011). You may ask yourself what a Steven Soderbergh action movie would look like (I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that!), and when you did, the movie you played in your head looked a lot like Haywire, I would reckon. It’s definitely a Steven Soderbergh action movie, with that cut-up technique where he jump cuts between brief moments so that it looks like the film is glitching, the roundabout way of telling the story, the different color palettes, and the brutally realistic fighting. It’s basically Soderbergh’s effort to turn Gina Carano into a movie star, something that really never happened (she was, unfortunately, kind of wasted in Fast and Furious 6, which wasted a lot of actors). Carano works quite well in this movie, though, making her way through a labyrinthine plot that doesn’t really matter – all that matters is that she’s the good guy and she’s being set up to take a fall. Everything else is window dressing. Carano does her own stunts, and the fighting is very well done, and her voice was digitally altered to be deeper and re-dubbed in some places by Laura San Giacomo, which is just weird. I’d be pissed as an actor if that happened to me. Anyway, Soderbergh can get a good cast, and this one is stacked – Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael F. Assbender, and Bill Paxton all show up, doing their things. It’s a pretty cool movie, all things considered.
The Visit (2015). When this movie came out, most people were happy because M. Night Shyamalan was making good movies again, which is always nice. According to some, it was his first good movie in 11 years (since The Village) or possibly even 13 years (since Signs), but I have a soft spot for Lady in the Water, so maybe 9 years? … but whatever, it was a while. I figured I’d see this eventually, and now I have! And … it’s pretty good, but not great. I immediately noticed two giant plot holes, and once the “secret” is revealed, there’s a third giant plot hole, but if you can ignore those, it’s a pretty nifty little scary movie. A friend of mine said he guessed what was going on immediately, but I don’t think too hard about movies I’m watching, so I didn’t, but perhaps if I had thought about it more, I would have. Anyway, two kids whose mother (Kathryn Hahn) is estranged from her parents visit those grandparents in rural Pennsylvania, and strange things start happening. The older kid (Olivia DeJonge) is a budding filmmaker, which allows Shyamalan to make this “found footage” style, which I hate because I can’t get past the fact that when bad things start happening, everyone leaves the cameras rolling in perfect position, but Shyamalan actually does try to mitigate this somewhat, and it’s not too annoying. Both DeJonge and her younger brother, Ed Oxenbould, do a good job, and while the movie isn’t exactly scary, it’s pretty creepy, which is nice. As usual with Shyamalan movies (I think even the ones I haven’t seen veer into this territory), this is about kids with either absent or distant father figures, as the kids’ dad left a few years earlier with another woman and they haven’t quite processed that yet. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a decent return to form for the director. I have Split and Glass on the DVR as well, so I’ll get around to them eventually!
Deadpool 2 (2018). This wasn’t quite as good as the first one, mainly because after the success of the first one, the filmmakers were trying a bit too hard to go further, and that rarely works. That being said, it’s still a very fun movie, with Deadpool trying to save a teenage mutant who might destroy the world if he gets the chance, which is why Cable comes back in time to kill the kid. The first few minutes annoy me, as Morena Baccarin gets killed (it’s annoying because good relationships in superhero movies are so rare, and ones that include pegging are even rarer), and even the filmmakers lampshading it doesn’t help, although it’s possible she can return to the third installment? But it’s more ridiculous violence, more mockery of everything by Deadpool (especially of that guy Ryan Reynolds), more humor that veers into the gross without any build-up, and more Brianna Hildebrand (not enough, though!!!!!), who’s even awesomer because she’s in a relationship with Shioli Kutsuna, and the two of them are totes adorbs. It’s goofy and bloody, but it’s worth it almost for the introduction of X-Force and what happens to them. Oh, and the way Domino’s power works is pretty cool, too.
Tag (2018). This movie is loosely based on an actual game of “Tag” that some friends have played for years and which was the subject of a news article some years back, and at the end of the movie, they show some of the dudes sneaking up on others and tagging them. Needless to say, the dudes are all rather large and many are bald, so none of them look exactly like Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner or even Jake Johnson. However, this is a fun, inconsequential movie, as during every May, the group plays Tag. Ed Helms is desperate this time around to tag Renner, who’s legendary in the group for never being tagged, and it’s clever how the movie drops little clues about why he wants it so badly before hitting us with the big reveal toward the end. Other than that, it’s just a goofy fun time of people plotting to get Renner, and the actors absolutely sell it. Renner is superb as the guy who’s always ten moves ahead, and his internal monologue is so deadly serious that it become hilarious (especially as the few times we get other characters’ internal monologue, they’re very silly), and he’s marrying Leslie Bibb, who always seems to play an alpha female (she’s basically playing the same character she played in Talladega Nights), so she’s perfectly matched with Renner. One of my favorite under-the-radar actors, Isla Fisher, is brilliant as Helms’s wife – Fisher is gorgeous, of course, but she’s almost even more committed to the game than Helms is, and her insane reactions to the events of the game are hilarious. I recently watched Game Night, and Tag reminds me of that movie – a funny movie, very entertaining, but kind of forgettable. However, both this and Game Night should be a double feature on FX or TBS for the next decade, because that would be a fun time!
BlacKkKlansman (2018). I like some of Spike Lee’s movies, and this is kind of the epitome of what I both like and don’t like about them. The first scene is a completely unrelated one in which Alec Baldwin (playing, it seems, a fictional character) rants about the menace of blacks and Jews, flubbing his lines and self-correcting as movies play behind him, full of racist propaganda. It’s not a bad scene, per se, but it shows Lee’s penchant for beating his audience over the head (to be fair, some people need to be beaten over the head). The ending, in which Lee abruptly transitions to scenes from Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, works better, but it’s still Lee preaching a bit to the choir (I can’t imagine anyone who likes the racist, sexist criminal bully in the White House will see this movie). In between, the story of Ron Stallworth randomly calling up the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan and becoming a member (John David Washington – who certainly hasn’t gotten anywhere in life because of who his father is – is Ron, but Adam Driver shows up at the meetings because it would be awkward if Ron did so himself) is pretty compelling, especially as Stallworth is the first black policeman in Colorado Springs, and Driver plays a lapsed Jew, so even though he’s “white,” the Klan still wouldn’t be happy with him if they found out. Lee does good work with the tension of the meetings, he gets good work out of Topher Grace as David Duke, and Laura Harrier, last seen playing Liz Allan in the Spider-Man movie, is terrific as Ron’s love interest and woman who pushes him on his black identity. However, Lee, as usual, is often glib about a great deal, and Ron’s identity issues – is he a black man or a cop, and can he be both? – aren’t really explored all that much, while Patrice forgives him extremely easily for lying to her about who he is. Ryan Eggold and Jasper Pääkkönen do good jobs as the two top Klansmen, but they’re cartoon characters and are weirdly not taken all that seriously by Lee, which is either smart because their politics are so pathetic or dumb because despite how pathetic they are, they’re still dangerous. So there’s a lot of good stuff, and it’s well shot and interesting, because whatever else Lee is, he’s a good filmmaker (Kwame Ture’s speech goes on too long, but the way Lee shoots it is great), but it also feels a bit hollow. Inside Man, which has almost nothing to do with racism, is subtly better at showing how insidious racism is than this movie, for instance. Still, it’s worth a look.
The Meg (2018). The most unbelievable thing about The Meg is that Jason Statham, after dropping out of society to live in a tiny village in Thailand for five years to drink beer, seemingly without eating or drinking anything else, and without access to a gym or personal trainer, is still ripped. I mean, come on, Stath! I demand realism in my “giant-even-for-a-megalodon-that-lives-in-a-hidden-trench-covered-by-a-layer-of-cold-gas-that-keeps-it-there-until-humans-disturb-it” movie!!!!! Other than that, the idea that an apex predator is trapped in a trench and it can’t break through the cold gaseous layer that keeps it away from humans and it really doesn’t have all that much to eat so how did it grow so huge? works pretty well. I mean, Jaws is pretty stupid when you really think about it, but everyone holds that up as a great movie simply because Spielberg got there first and didn’t have any money to show the shark. The Meg is no dumber than Jaws or any other shark movie, and it has the Stath. Jaws only had Roy Scheider, for crying out loud! This is fun, stupid movie with solid effects (not great, just solid) and actors having a blast (including Cliff Curtis getting to use his New Zealander accent for probably the first damned time on screen). The funniest thing about the movie is that it’s PG-13, which means there’s almost no blood, and barely any from humans. You remember when that kid gets killed in Jaws and there’s a mini-fountain of blood? Jaws was rated PG. The 1970s were awesome, man. Anyway, if you’re looking for sheer idiotic entertainment, The Meg has you covered. Nothing wrong with that!
Venom (2018). I’m still stunned, frankly, that they made a movie out of Venom, but this gets by largely on the charm and charisma of Tom Hardy, who’s a really good actor. The special effects are bad in places, Michelle Williams is game but looks a bit weird (I can’t figure out why she looks off, but she does), Riz Ahmed cashes a nice paycheck as the mustache-twirling villain (he really should have grown a big handle-bar mustache just for this movie), and Melora Walters always deserves better roles but doesn’t get them (she must have a terrible agent). But it’s still a fun movie, mainly because Hardy makes his relationship with Venom (which is his voice, it seems) more goofy than it has any right to be. At one point Venom calls them both losers, and that’s true, so it makes his attempts at redemption more interesting (although Michelle Williams is probably better off with Dr. Dan, played by Reid Scott – who killed it on Veep and is hard to see in a role where he’s not a complete asshole). Venom is short (barely over 90 minutes), doesn’t take itself too seriously, and could easily be a standalone movie even though they introduce Cletus Kasaday in it (I won’t spoil who’s playing him, but it’s inspired casting if they do get around to a sequel). That’s not a bad recipe for a “superhero” movie, I tells ya!
Cold Pursuit (2019). I don’t know how to tell you this, but this is a terrific movie. I know, I’m as surprised as you are! I had heard it was somewhat odd, and it is, as it’s far funnier than every other Liam Neeson action movie of the past decade (the Neesonaissance?). Tonally, it’s a bit strange, as Neeson (who, yes, is Mr. Plow) is dealing with the death of his son, who shows up early in the movie, goes to work at the airport in a Colorado resort town, is snatched by some thugs, shot up with heroin to make him look like a junkie, and left at a table in front of a creepy giant sparrow statue in Denver (which is really Vancouver, but whatevs). Neeson believes that his son isn’t a junkie, but he can’t convince his wife, played by Laura Dern, of that, and he’s about to commit suicide in his garage when his son’s friend appears and tells him it was … murder!!!!! So he starts hunting the drug dealers who killed his son, and the movie goes from a tragedy almost to a farce. Neeson’s dad worked with the drug dealer’s dad, so he knows a little about killing and, more importantly, dumping bodies, and he manages to avoid detection for a long time. Director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own Norwegian film (which starred Stellan Skarsgård, because of course it did), creates a weird world that finds the humanity in all of the characters, no matter how despicable they might be. So we get a drug dealing scumbag who really does love his son, gay thugs who talk about running away together (which doesn’t end well), a character who constantly talks back to his boss (which doesn’t end well), Native Americans who use white people’s super-sensitivity against them and employ an Indian from India presumably only so one character can make a joke about it, and philosophical ex-gangsters and policemen who understand the way the world works. Dern, sadly, simply disappears not too long into the movie (she’s pissed that Neeson seemed to know nothing about their son, and she leaves him), but she’s good in a tiny role, and the cast is pretty great. Michael Eklund, who feels like he’s on his way to becoming a bigger star, is always fun to see, Tom Bateman as the main gangster is mesmerizing, Domenick Lombardozzi is great as Bateman’s kid’s surrogate father, William Forsythe is always a pleasure, John Doman and Emmy Rossum as the two cops who see the world differently are a good pair, and Tom Jackson as the head of the Native crime syndicate is excellent. Moland does a lot with father-son relationships – Neeson loses his son, of course, and Jackson loses his when Bateman believes that the Indians are moving into his territory, and Bateman’s own son is far too good for the world in which he lives. It’s a far more elegiac movie than you might expect, and, as I noted, far funnier, too. Sure, it stretches credulity here and there, but Moland and the screenwriters have much more on their minds than just churning through a revenge plot. Give it a look!
I hope you find something you like among these! Have a nice day!