Spoiler Level: Low
"A story must be exceptional enough to justify its telling," Thomas Hardy once wrote. "We story-tellers are all Ancient Mariners, and none of us is justified in stopping Wedding Guests (in other words, the hurrying public) unless he has something more unusual to relate than the ordinary experience of every average man and woman."
We can take issue, of course, with Hardy's aphorism: many storytellers before and since have spun magic from the ordinary experiences of average men and women. Still, at this point in what has been, to date, a fairly unremarkable year for movies, it is a joy to encounter a truly exceptional tale, one that can make us believe extraordinary things and demonstrate to us that we still have the capacity for wonder.
Spoiler Level: Low
Early in Skyfall, the 23rd of the "official" James Bond films from Eon Productions, Bond (Daniel Craig) is undergoing a series of tests at MI6 to determine whether he is fit for duty. In one sequence, he is made to take part in a word-association game, which he treats with his trademark irony and disdain. To the word "day," Bond responds with "wasted." With the word "murder," Bond associates "occupation." To the name of his superior, M. (Judi Dench), Bond—who knows damn well she's watching—shoots back "bitch."
In all of this, only one word seems to draw a genuine, irony-free response from Bond. Offered the provocation "country," Bond quickly, and firmly, responds with "England." It's a fleeting moment, but a nice one: after all, to what else has James Bond ever exhibited any loyalty? Bond has always been rather amoral, not terribly concerned with justice and only rarely (and briefly) exhibiting any belief in friendship or love: what Bond believes in, what he has given over his life to, is Great Britain. He is a Hand of the Empire, or, as creator Ian Fleming once described him, "an anonymous blunt instrument wielded by a Government Department." Continue reading
Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
There is a difference between visually arresting and narratively shallow. There is a difference between intriguingly ambiguous and thematically under-developed. There is a difference—and it is all the difference—between films that succeed, despite their weaknesses, and films that do not, no matter their strengths. And it is in those maddening, frustrating, nearly imperceptible gaps that Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master resides. It is a movie in which nearly everything works, and yet, at the end of its 150 minutes, one feels that all of this excellence—the careful direction, the lovely cinematography, the fine performances—has been in the service of something vague and forgettable. It is a film that aims for importance, but fails to find meaning. It is a film that demonstrates mastery, but falls far short of beauty. Continue reading
Directed by Rian Johnson
Spoiler Level: Low
In Looper, a mob-boss named Abe (a scene-stealing Jeff Daniels), living in the year 2044, chastises his young protegé Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) for his retro, 20th century-style fashion sense. "Those movies you're dressing like are just copying other movies," he says. It's a self-aware line, a sly recognition that Looper, itself, is breaking little new ground in its science fiction tropes, in its dramatic set pieces, or in the redemptive arc of its cynical, tough-guy hero. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick) is a movie-lover's movie maker: he's neither as flashy nor as shameless a postmodern film geek as—for example—Quentin Tarantino, but Johnson is every bit as happy to be playing in the cinematic toybox, and perfectly content to make exciting new stories from the trusty old action figures and playsets he finds there.
This kind of referential, reverential filmmaking is no sin, and to do it this well is no small accomplishment: there is little we haven't seen before in Looper, but the skill and care Johnson brings to it makes it all feel fresh and original. Appropriate for a time-travel movie, Johnson makes the old seem new again. Continue reading
Written and Directed by Craig Zobel
The very first thing you see in Craig Zobel's Compliance is a huge title card reading "INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS." This turns out to be necessary information, because this story—of an 18-year-old fast-food worker who is detained, strip-searched, and sexually assaulted by her co-workers—almost completely strains credibility. Watching Compliance, one wants to assume that writer-director Zobel has invented certain elements for dramatic purposes, if only because one is hesitant to believe that real human beings could be naive, gullible, or craven enough to make the decisions the characters in this movie make. Continue reading
Directed by William Friedkin
In a cautionary tale about the dangers of stage-to-screen adaptations, Killer Joe, the first play by Pulitizer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), becomes a lurid, overwrought hicksploitation flick in director William Friedkin's new NC-17-rated adaptation. Assaultively disturbing without the justification of depth, and the kind of "funny" that will make the raucous laughter of your fellow audience members creep you out, Killer Joe is a fascinatingly ugly misfire only partially redeemed by a pair of very strong performances. Flawed, fatalistic, and foul, Killer Joe is not a film I can endorse. However—if you have a strong stomach and a prurient curiosity—it is definitely a film you will remember. Continue reading
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Spoiler Level: Safe, but contains some spoilers for the earlier films in the trilogy.
I should probably start by confessing that I went into Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises with an agenda. While I consider it part of my sacred responsibility as an unlicensed internet hack to approach every film with an open mind, I consider it another of my responsibilities to poke holes in undeservedly hyped critical and fanboy darlings to let a little hot air out. The first two entries in Nolan's Batman trilogy—Batman Begins and The Dark Knight—had struck me as good movies, and worlds above all the previous on-screen representations of the character. But they had also seemed to me overblown, overlong, overpraised, and unrelentingly joyless. (As Heath Ledger's Joker had asked in The Dark Knight, "Why so serious?") Since I'd never written about any of them, I was looking forward to this third film in the trilogy, which would provide me with my first opportunity to present a counter-argument to the legions of sycophantic critics and slavering fans.
So I went into my screening of The Dark Knight Rises cranky, critical, and slightly vindictive, with my proverbial poisoned pen poised with purpose.
And then, goddammit, I really, really liked it.
Directed by Marc Webb
Spoiler Level: Low
In my brief career as a lay critic, I've discovered that there's nothing harder to discuss than mediocrity. It's a delight to describe the heights of cinematic achievement, and it's a sadistic pleasure to plumb the depths, but there are few joys to be had down the wide, dull middle of the road.
Which is to say that I'm going to keep this review short, since that flat, featureless expanse is where we find ourselves for The Amazing Spider-Man, director Marc Webb's new reboot of the wallcrawler's franchise. Boasting a top-notch cast, and state-of-the-art production values, there's nothing particularly wrong with this film: there's just nothing particularly right about it. Uninspired, underwhelming, and—most of all—unnecessary, The Amazing Spider-Man has little fun to offer and nothing at all to say. Continue reading
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Spoiler Level: Low
"Legends are lessons: they ring with truth." The Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) says these words towards the end of Pixar's enchanting new film Brave, and of course she's right. Stories are important—especially the stories we encounter as children—and we take away many more lessons from their worlds than we ever learn in any other classroom. As a piece of filmmaking, one could argue whether the gorgeous and entertaining Brave deserves to be counted among the very best of Pixar's reliably wonderful work. (I think it does, but I also think ranking a catalog of movies this good would be an exercise in nitpickery.) As a new legend offered to the world, however, I'd argue that Brave is Pixar's most subversive work, and perhaps its most important. Continue reading
Directed by Ridley Scott
Spoiler Level: Low
I'm on record as saying that I think Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien is more or less a flawless movie of its kind, and so it has not been hard to understand the incredible anticipation and hype surrounding Prometheus, Scott's return to the universe of that earlier film (and his first science-fiction film since 1982's equally seminal Blade Runner). Sir Ridley had cautioned viewers that they should not expect Alien 5: The Beginning—this is not, he insists, a prequel—but that was just fine with me. The Alien franchise is pretty played out at this point, so I was actually more excited when I heard he was simply using this shared universe to tell a new story and explore new themes. Continue reading
Spoiler Level: Safe
The expectations for Joss Whedon's The Avengers have been so high—and the early critical reception so generally positive—that I almost feel like I'm pissing on the parade if I qualify my praise in the slightest. But the buzz around The Avengers has been so good that I feel both free and obligated to temper expectations ever so slightly. So, before I get to the unbridled enthusiasm—which is coming, rest assured—let me get my very mild qualifying remarks out of the way. Continue reading