Opinions

Inception

You’ve probably already spotted the Esquire UK post called “Films Stupid People Think Are Clever” where the likes of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher are given the shortest end of the stick. It’s a worthless article that represents the easiest kind of contrarianism: People like these things? Let’s say we don’t like them, but not really explain why. Now, I’m a reasonable un-stupid person by all the traditional rubrics. My IQ is three digits, my SAT score was four, and I’m probably one (maybe two) practice sessions away from being able to walk and chew gum simultaneously. I’ve read books like “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and I think I’ve understood them. They’re about girls, right? Just kidding. I’m also smart enough to recognize that Esquire’s trolling traffic-magnet doesn’t deserve a response. Or at least not an angry one. The thing is, I’m dumb enough to take any opportunity to rethink why I see films like The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty as fantastically intelligent (even clever). Contrarianism, even the lazy kind, can be good if we use it to challenge ourselves in the right way. If it’s a chance to examine why I’m stupid enough to appreciate these movies, count me in.

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Wes Craven

“Every kid knows who Freddy is. He’s like Santa Claus or King Kong.” – Heather Langenkamp in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. In a film full of truthful observations, that line always struck me as the truest, or at least the most relevant to my own relationship with Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare on Elm Street film series. I was four when the original came out in 1984, so I was too young to experience that film or most of the first few sequels on their first release. As I grew up, my awareness of Freddy came from what seeped into popular culture. As best as I can remember, my introduction was either a kid in my 4th grade class wearing a Freddy mask for Halloween, or possibly an ad for the costume in a comic book. So “my” Freddy was less the disturbing child murderer whom Wes Craven created for what probably felt like a standalone film, and more the watered-down pop icon. Less a psychological threat, and more of a catchphrase-spewing gimmick killer. It’s the difference between how the shark from Jaws plays on screen, and experiencing him on the Universal Studios tram tour. As a result, Freddy never scared me as a kid, nor did I have any desire to see the movies. I knew that they came out every year or two and I assumed all of the movies were stupid slasher films, in which, I saw no appeal. I remember seeing a trailer for Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare in 1991 and thinking it looked incredibly awful. Good riddance. Then came 1994 and […]

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The Awful Truth Movie

Gone Girl is a cynical movie. No doubt. It features two sociopaths working out their deeply troubled marital issues in the public eye with just the right amount of bloodshed. Yet in more than a few ways, it could be an unofficial remake of The Awful Truth, Leo McCarey’s 1937 screwball comedy where two assholes realize that they want to stay married. The movie opens with Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant, naturally) lying to his wife about a trip to Florida (complete with sunlamp sessions at the gym and fake letters). When his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) returns home later than expected, and with her debonair singing instructor in tow, Jerry can’t believe her story of a broken down vehicle. He’s furious. She finds out he was lying about visiting the Sunshine State, and mutual divorce proceedings commence. They both want to keep the dog. The rest of the film involves Lucy’s engagement to the folksy Dan (Ralph Bellamy, naturally), more lies, insinuations of social impropriety, Jerry’s engagement to the high class Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont), the intentional destruction of relationships and an automobile, and a metric ton of snide conversations spat between Jerry and Lucy’s smiling faces.

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Miles Teller and JK Simmons in Whiplash

Who would have thought the most brutal film of the year would be about jazz? Andrew (Miles Teller), the protagonist of Whiplash, is a first-year jazz drumming prodigy who possesses the talent to be one of the greats but not the work ethic. When he finally meets someone who can train him to be the best, it is both a blessing and a curse. He makes it into the elite “studio” band led by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a legendary teacher and conductor, and Andrew’s confidence at having made the group is immediately and brutally ripped apart. Fletcher abuses him in every way imaginable: he slaps him repeatedly, screams ethnic slurs, and even throws a cymbal at his head. Why are such stringent teaching methods necessary? It’s all part of Fletcher’s teaching philosophy: “The two most destructive words in the English language,” he tells Andrew late in the film, “are ‘good job’.” Still, Fletcher’s abuse is nothing compared to what Andrew does to himself: practicing until his hands bleed, pushing his muscles to the brink of collapse, and running away from a violent car crash in order to be on time for an important band competition. This is not a simple case of a teacher abusing his student; Andrew wants to be great just as badly as Fletcher wants him to be, and both of them have bought into a system of physical punishment to achieve that goal. Does any of this sound familiar? Many films have utilized the dynamic of a […]

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The Diamond Arm

Nobody loves Russian movies, even Russians themselves. Their films are very long, very slow, black & white or monochromatic. They are crowded by intellectual talk and lack plot, characters or any kind of entertainment. This is common knowledge and, of course, it’s not true. We, the Russians, love our cinema – although the majority of us don’t know about Tarkovsky of Zviagintsev. Moreover, we – surprise! – love movies with an intense plot, powerful characters and funny jokes as much as any audience. So, I would like to introduce you to fifteen great Russian movies you don’t know (if you are not Russian film fans or a Slavic Studies professor). To shake things up, there are no films on this list from the most well-known Russian film directors: Sergey Eizenshtein (Battleship Potemkin, 1925), Andrei Tarkovsky (Stalker, 1979) or Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt by the Sun, 1994). I also tried to avoid very slow and very long monochromatic films – although there are a few great movies of this type. I chose the Russian Westerns, the war flicks, the comedies and the criminal films – the movies you would like even if you find Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wordy and boring.

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Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl

Spoilers for Gone Girl follow. Yes, I get the irony of that. Why do I need a spoiler warning when I’m about to argue that we’re currently enjoying an age without twists? Because I’ve been a ghost this whole time. But, seriously, that’s the kind of twist I want to examine for a moment. The Shyamalan Twist. The Turns-Out-It-Was-Man Twist. The kind of twist that makes you rethink everything that came before it. This is exactly the kind of plot twist that Gone Girl and a handful of other recent movies don’t have. That’s not a qualitatively good or bad thing, but it’s fascinating to see cinema toy — or in some cases move beyond — what has become an overly familiar formula. Executing a thrilling twist is near impossible (just ask Shyamalan, whose batting average has dropped over the years as a direct result of becoming known for twists), and it became even harder as we became savvier to the patterns. We’d watch the signposts and think, “They’re all in that guy’s mind,” or “They’re the real ghosts,” or “Ape-raham Lincoln is probably gonna show up later.”

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Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks is returning. After years of teasing, and vague hints like “that gum you like is going to come back in style” being tweeted at the same time that Kyle Maclachlan’s Agent Dale Cooper first entered Twin Peaks long ago, show creators David Lynch and Mark Frost confirmed that the acclaimed series will return for a 9-episode limited run on Showtime in 2016. The announcement was met with a cacophony of excitement. This is the news diehard fans have been anticipating for years, and it comes on the heels of a Blu-ray release that finally sates desires for the long-awaited but never released deleted scenes rumored about for over a decade. But like any news of this nature, the bulletin was also met with a healthy dose of snark. Most people would love a return to Twin Peaks at its best. It’s one of the most influential shows of all time, one that hasn’t aged into oblivion. But can it measure up? There are tons of reasons to be cautious. The show became a big old mess in its second season before being cancelled. David Lynch has a terrible track record when it comes to the TV Powers That Be embracing his vision (see: Mulholland Drive). Hollywood is thoroughly entrenched in a remake culture that misses more often than it hits the mark. Finally, servicing fervent fan bases has proven to be a tedious exercise in the familiar this year, between the fan-funded Veronica Mars and Wish You Were Here. We […]

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x2-classroom

Marvel didn’t create the first expanded universe. That very term was earlier most associated with Star Wars, for instance, although now that stuff is no longer canon so it barely counts. Way before that were the Universal Monsters, which were initially independent of one another but then wound up mashed into a shared continuity with various team-ups in the 1940s (which is why it’s strange the new Universal Monsters mega-franchise is often talked about as if it’s copying the MCU). And there was (and still is) the Star Trek franchise. There have been no simultaneous parallel series going on in movie form the way Marvel has, but like the MCU, Star Trek has had continuity between movies and TV series. The original series begat the first movies, then The Next Generation spun off and eventually begat more movies that were linked to the prior movies, and now there are the rebooted movies, which also link back to the original series and movies. Now rumor has it that the X-Men franchise is expanding out further than its spin-offs and uncanny looping prequel/sequel/sidequel installments to include a new TV series for Fox. One would be quick to compare the move to what Marvel has done with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (and other forthcoming titles on ABC and Netflix), but that would be a huge shame if the idea was similarly to just follow lesser (maybe non-super) characters in the franchise universe — though it would be neat to see a Morlocks series, or better yet a Mojoverse show.

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Michelle Yeoh in Crouching Tiger 2

“These are two different experiences, like going to a football game and watching a football game on TV.” Nope. There is no analogy that’s more annoying than the one above, this time spoken by Netflix‘s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. Watching a movie at home is slightly like watching a live sporting event on TV, but going to the movies is nothing like going to a live sporting event, whatsoever. Not even the most lively, infectious, communally synched audience at a movie theater is a fraction of that of a football stadium crowd. And there’s nothing relating moviegoing to the excitement of being there on game day and being part of a unique moment that isn’t replicable. I can say this as someone who loves the theatrical movie experience and pretty much never goes to football games. If there is anything remotely close, it’d be the difference between attending the world premiere of Veronica Mars at SXSW, with the cast and director present on stage, and seeing the movie at home via VOD. Sarandos was of course making the analogy, as it’s often made, in defense of day-and-date releases, claiming that a video-on-demand option of a movie simultaneous to its theatrical opening isn’t any more of an issue than a TV network broadcasting NFL games as they’re happening. This time it’s because Netflix itself has announced its first day-and-date release, for the sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend. The movie will be available for subscribers to stream on its release […]

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Neil Armstrong Portrayed in Transformers 3

Among the criticisms I’ve seen of Gotham, the new Fox series set in a pre-Batman Gotham City, is that it opens with an event we’ve already seen too many times on TV and in movies — the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, complete with pearls flying about in slow motion. But it’s an iconic scene, isn’t it? That starting point to the origin of the Caped Crusader is almost as much a part of pop culture as the Apollo 11 Moon landing. And the latter has been been replicated on screen a lot more times. I guess the fictional event could be reworked, though, even if it might upset some fans. The Moon landing, though it’s often shown to be a hoax of some kind or another, is for the most part an unchangeable scene. That’s why it’s more remarkable that nobody seems to get tired of it. “They could make a thousand movies about the Apollo space missions and I would be right there on opening night for every single one of them,” wrote FSR publisher Neil Miller more than six years ago, when a Neil Armstrong biopic was announced at Universal with Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) scripting the film based on James R. Hansen’s book “First Man.” Now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the project has resurfaced at the studio with Whiplash filmmaker Damien Chazelle likely to helm from an adapted screenplay by Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate). In the time between our first hearing about the biopic and now, Armstrong […]

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Batmobile in Batman vs Superman

The movies of director Zack Snyder are about as polarizing as any studio filmmaker’s, so when he tweeted out a picture of the new Batmobile from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we can assume he was prepared for some criticism. Fans complained about a particular aspect of the vehicle that does not conform to the version seen in the comics: the guns. This new Batmobile is front-loaded with weapons that would not look out of place in an American military vehicle. It’s a concerning decision, especially since Batman’s code of ethics precludes him from intentionally killing people. But the real problem is that it shows how little Snyder has learned from the mistakes of Man of Steel. We all remember the outcry from fans when Snyder had Superman kill General Zod in that movie’s climax, and it appears that Snyder is doubling down on the violence, despite that criticism. But it is unfair to lay all this at Snyder’s feet. There has been an increasing militarization of our superheroes afoot for decades, and Snyder is only continuing that tradition. In the Marvel world, superheroes perpetually exist in a military milieu. Tony Stark is a reformed defense contractor, while The Avengers was essentially about a Special Forces unit that prevented another 9/11.

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Vanilla Sky empty

Picture yourself in a New York City movie theater. It’s December 14, 2001. The film you’re watching is Vanilla Sky, a sci-fi fantasy from director Cameron Crowe and Tom Cruise, who delighted the world with Jerry Maguire a few years earlier. You are probably not enjoying yourself (it received a D- on Cinemascore) and as the film nears its twisty, trippy conclusion, your mind might be drifting towards more actionable realities, like which subway line to take home or what to eat for dinner. But then you come to the final scene, and you immediately snap to attention. You watch Cruise stand atop the tallest building in New York at dawn and willfully leap. He falls past endless office windows, braces for impact and hits the pavement. It’s hard to imagine any New Yorker watching this scene and not immediately flashing back to the events that occurred just three months prior, when as many as 200 Americans either jumped or fell to their deaths to escape the inferno raging inside some of the tallest buildings in New York. It would have been easy to read the film as a shameless ploy by Crowe to cash in on one of the most traumatic events in American history. Or maybe, if we were feeling generous, we could have seen it as an attempt to help the nation heal by forcing us to re-live the trauma in a safe space, much like Paul Greengrass’s United 93 did. But then you realize that, while Vanilla Sky was released in December 2001, it actually began […]

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Capitalism Michael Moore

In our review for Fed Up, a documentary on the American obesity epidemic, I recommend that it be distributed free, at least to the poor. “Who wants to pay $10 or more to watch a bunch of talking heads make claims about how the food industry and government have made the problem even worse over the years?” I wondered. “This shouldn’t be the content of a theatrical release.” Now the film is on DVD and Blu-ray and through digital outlets, and we do think it’s worth seeing. But like many issue films of today, this is not a movie so much as it’s a necessary news report — the kind of thing that the networks would air to large audiences (albeit ones with much fewer choices in TV channels and other media options) in the ’60s and ’70s. Presumably, Michael Moore would agree with the stance on such a doc. He has long been arguing the case for more cinematic nonfiction films in theaters and on Oscar ballots. This week, while being honored at the Toronto International Film Festival with a 25th anniversary screening of Roger & Me, Moore spoke out on the need for docs to be more entertaining. The Guardian quotes him as saying, “People want to go home and have sex after your movie. Don’t make them feel ‘Urggggghhhh’.” In his speech, a keynote for the TIFF doc conference, he urged the filmmakers who are primarily lecturing viewers with their docs to quit the business and become teachers, because […]

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Raiders of the Lost Ark Throne Room

Steven Zeitchik recently recognized Guardians of the Galaxy as the most recent in a string of modern blockbusters that are essentially plot-free films. Citing a respect for witty banter over storytelling, he also offered the criticism that several studio movies had motivations that were murky and details that were intentionally blurry. I love Zeitchik’s work, but this assessment is confusing for two reasons. One, his argument is a misunderstanding (or at least a misappropriation) of what “plot” — the cause and effect-based sequence of events — actually is. It would be difficult to make a movie without a plot that isn’t raw abstract experimentation. On the other hand, “post-plot” is a catchy, succinct phrase, so I get it. Two, within his argument, Zeitchik remarks offhandedly that, “[t]here is a strange, perhaps super-meta irony in [Guardians] making frequent reference to cinematic classics like The Maltese Falcon, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, all movies in which storytelling matters very much,” but Raiders is certainly no more plot-tastic than Guardians. If you’re going to grouse about a talking raccoon and an Infinity Stone, then you’ve got to roll your eyes at a Nazi monkey and a face-melting God Box.

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Inherent Vice Movie

In 2012, Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece for Entertainment Weekly explaining why he had fallen out of love with the films of Paul Thomas Anderson. In the article, Gleiberman shares his own thrill of discovering Boogie Nights at the 1997 Toronto Film Festival and the impact it had on him as a film critic; he then goes on to discuss his perceived problems with There Will Be Blood and why Anderson’s films no longer affect him the same way. I came across Gleiberman’s article recently during my struggle to detail my own relationship to Anderson’s films. Like Gleiberman, my first Anderson film was a revelation. As a manager for an independent theater in a small town, it was my job to assemble a 35mm print of Punch-Drunk Love during my Thursday shift and sit by myself through a midnight technical screening. I was tired after a long day and annoyed that I hadn’t been able to pawn what I assumed to be another Adam Sandler comedy off on any of my coworkers. Naturally, I spent the rest of my evening in a state of shock at what I had seen. In that empty theater at two in the morning, I watched a movie that could have been made just for me; Anderson and Sandler overclocked my sense of empathy and made Barry Egan the most heartbreaking character I had seen on screen. And so began five years of obsessing over Anderson’s previous films – Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia – […]

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Lucky Bastard Movie 2014

You may have heard NC-17 called the “rating of death” for the way it kills a movie’s commercial success. Is this true? As a producer of one of the handful of NC-17 films ever made, Lucky Bastard, I can tell you it’s like the guys on Jackass finding out what happens when you get kicked in the nuts: Yes, it hurts like hell. Does the spectacle itself attract attention? Maybe—but you’ve still been kicked in the nuts. Lucky Bastard is a thriller about an adult website that pairs average Joes with porn stars (there really are such sites). When one troubled young man fails to perform, he is driven by shame and humiliation to enact bloody revenge on the porn crew. For us, this was a great micro-budget premise that let us comment upon America’s obsessions with sex, violence and “humiliation entertainment.”For artistic reasons, we wanted the movie to be as raunchy and disturbing as possible. Mission accomplished! But when it came time to find a distributor, everybody balked. Although there’s no actual sex in the movie, we were told no sales agent would represent the movie, no distributor would buy the movie, no theater would show the movie — no, no, no. “How come?” we asked one sales agent. “Because this is pornography,” she said. “No, it’s not,” we said. “There’s nothing here you wouldn’t see on Cinemax at 11PM. And we’ve got a great plan to market it through churches.” End of meeting. So we had a bright […]

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Love Is Strange

Love Is Strange is a movie about, well, love. It’s about the love shared by its central couple, George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), but there’s more to it than that. It’s about all of its varieties and inflections, and the way that it’s expressed by husbands, nieces-in-law and friends. Beautifully lit spaces, subtly crafted dialogue and open, naturalistic performances from the whole cast help director Ira Sachs play with the manifestations of this title concept. The MPAA ratings board, meanwhile, didn’t pay attention to any of this. Love Is Strange was given an R rating. There’s no sex in the film, nor any notable violence. The reason this family drama wasn’t considered family-friendly was “language,” that ever-vague, often ironically meaningless word. What exactly does that mean? Sometimes it means too many “fucks,” or some similar breach of the arbitrary mathematics of swear-word policing. Here, though, it seems to be something else. An entire script in which the humanity of gay people is taken for granted may have been too linguistically salacious for the MPAA.

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Iron Man Original Suit

Not only is Doctor Strange not going to tell us how Stephen Strange became the Sorcerer Supreme, but starting with that movie, Marvel Studios is done with origin stories altogether. That’s a scoop revealed by Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci while a guest on Meet the Movie Press last week. It’s an unconfirmed piece of information, particularly the broader point about the whole franchise, and of course it doesn’t apply to Ant-Man, which goes into production today, way ahead of the Dr. Strange vehicle. Still, whether true or not, there’s a certain excitement spreading around in fanboy and movie geek circles as a result of the possibility. Origin story movies are apparently a much-hated part of superhero cinema. But why? Because it’s the expected start of any series to set up the character, especially for audiences who aren’t as familiar ahead of time as the geeks are? Too bad, because Hollywood wants to cater to the moviegoers who aren’t also comic book readers, and those moviegoers want to see movies about superheroes, including ones they don’t know a lot about already. What I find odd about the hate thrown at origin story movies is how many of the best and most popular superhero movies are first installments focused on the beginnings of their respective characters. Look at Superman: The Movie, Iron Man, The Avengers (as a team) and I’ll throw in Unbreakable. Sure, there are a lot of number-twos favorited over their first films, including Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter […]

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The Leftovers

No, it wasn’t easy. My personal viewing experience of the first two episodes of HBO’s The Leftovers has stuck with me throughout the entire summer, and I have zero problem with telling people that watching two hours of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta‘s series actually made me feel physically ill, it was just that heavy. The Leftovers may still not be binge-watch television, but it has finally become must-watch television. With just two episodes left, it was about time that some kind of tide turned. The HBO series, inspired by Perrotta’s novel of the same name, was never intended to be feel-good television, just by virtue of the fact that it’s entirely centered on a global-scale tragedy. The series picks up three years after some kind of “event” has whisked away 2% of the world’s population, enough time to sort of get things back to normal, but not long enough to really heal wounds. The lingering sense that something else is about to happen — and soon! — doesn’t help. Set primarily in the small town of Mapleton, New York, the series follows a medium-sized cast of characters as they (continue to) deal with the fallout from said event. Some people lost everyone that day, some people just lost one person, some people lost their loved ones later to outside forces. Still, the entire program is about loss. It’s hard to feel good about that.

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Ben Affleck Batman

Warners has hired competing screenwriters for their post-Dawn of Justice Aquaman movie. That’s super crappy for the writers (and really all writers), but it’s also another sign that the studio hasn’t planned out their break-neck push into connected superhero universes beyond cameo (and subplot) introductions for a shotgun blast of potential Justice League members in a movie supposedly focused on Batman and Superman. Drew McWeeny compared the process to a reality show (picture an anthropomorphic script doing a rose-less walk of shame), and I agree 100%. While far from conclusive, the method points to another shaky element of Warners’ planning. Specifically, that they have no firm planning. Meanwhile, they’re pointing their bat to the bleachers.

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published: 10.30.2014
B-
published: 10.29.2014
D+
published: 10.27.2014
C-
published: 10.24.2014
C-


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