Yes, Virginia, I do see new films

One of the things I get asked a lot is this: “Don’t you ever watch NEW movies, you know, color, sound, made in the last ten years?”  Well, yes, I do.  You’ll note I have an aversion to superhero movies, so you won’t see any here.  Since I get this question a lot, here are some of my cranky opinions on movies made in the last 10 years:

The Star Wars Sequel Trilogy:

The Force Awakens: an uncredited remake of A New Hope.

The Last Jedi: A truly brave attempt to do something different with the franchise, with nice peppy writing and something less predictable than we are used to.  Naturally, everyone hated it but me.  Rian Johnson is someone to watch out for: talented.

The Rise of Skywalker: an uncredited remake of Return of the Jedi.

I was afraid that Disney would wimp out and do only easy stuff for mass audiences, shying away from real storytelling.  I was right.  They cloned the Emperor?  Gimme a break.

The Star Wars spinoff films:

Solo: A decent script, it’s too slow, and it’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen that I thought had lousy cinematography, so bad that it distracted from the film.  There, I said it.  Cancel me.

Rogue One: Well, I suppose it was OK, but I wouldn’t say it was fantastic or anything.  One wonders why the Death Star plans are stored in some crystal citadel and this universe has no technology to copy any files electronically.  Amazingly, they can send holograms, but they can’t send data.  Oh, and a huge thumbs down for rubber-plastic Peter Cushing, who looks nothing like Peter Cushing and sounds even less like him.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: I really wanted to like this.  I didn’t, but I really wanted to.  The problem isn’t that it’s bad.  The problem is that I liked it better when they called it Brazil, to paraphrase David Spade.  It’s the old “unreliable narrator” thing that Gilliam does so well, except he’s done it too much now.  Of note: Adam Driver should be in every film that’s poorly written (like this or the Star Wars films).  Driver has that ability, like Harrison Ford, to get some deep meaning out of ill-conceived dialogue.  He’s great in this.  The cast is actually almost all very good.  It’s just that the movie isn’t.  It’s beautiful, there’s a lot to look at and see, but in the end, it doesn’t do enough with the characters and it just doesn’t hold water.

In a World…  I get tagged on Facebook as the most racist, sexist, misogynist person who ever lived.  It’s not true, but it’s funny, so I go with it.  One of the reasons that I can prove it’s not true is that I loved this film.  Lake Bell directs and stars, and she does a masterful job.  It’s a cheap little indie film, but boy does it work.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle in that it simply presents its own reality and lets us draw our own conclusions.  It doesn’t try to drive home a message and instead gives the audience enough credit to think on its own (please note this Spike Lee.)  This film delves into the world of professional narrators, but it’s also Bell’s commentary on her own life.  This is an excellent picture.  I’m looking for Bell’s other film, but apparently it tanked and it’s not widely available.

Knives Out: This was a welcome break for me, because I’ve never been too keen on Daniel Craig as James Bond.  Craig doesn’t match the physicality of Bond in my opinion, so I always think I’m watching a James Bond knockoff.  In this film, I loved his performance.  He’s perfect.  This is a modern riff on “who killed the cranky old guy in the old spooky house.”  These have been done to death and they’re hard to do in a fresh way.  Director/writer Rian Johnson (hey, I just mentioned him earlier!) does a fantastic job with a wonderful cast.  This is one of my favorites of the last few years.

1917: I’m supposed to love this film.  Everyone complains about long-take subjective films like Lady in the Lake (which I loved) and Rope (which I liked).  This film doesn’t work for me.  It moves too fast and unflinchingly and the whole thing feels like a protracted gimmick.

Yesterday: I know a lot of people hated this one, but I liked it.  The central idea is that a guy wakes up after an accident to find that he’s the only one who remembers all of the songs by The Beatles.  The criticism is that a world without The Beatles would be even more different than it’s projected here, but that’s overthinking the premise.  They give no time at all as to why this event happens, because they want to focus on the events.  It’s funny, it’s poignant.  There’s a heartbreaking scene in which we see an elderly John Lennon painting by the seashore.  I was drawn to this because I am a longtime fan of Richard Curtis, the screenwriter (you’ll find I often watch a film more because of the screenwriter than the cast).  

The Farewell: Again, this was a wonderful story just giving us “here is my reality, here is what I am experiencing… you make your judgment.”  Wow.  This is ostensibly about a grandmother with end-stage lung cancer, but it’s really a story about clash between Chinese culture and American culture, about traditional Chinese culture and what it’s becoming, and it ends up being so thought-provoking that I can’t recommend it enough.  We think we understand China and what they’re doing.  We don’t.  Things are changing so fast there that I’m not even sure the Chinese understand it themselves.  The grandmother is not told about her condition because the family doesn’t want to upset her and cause her to give up the fight.  The American wing of the family thinks this is stupid and the Chinese wing wants to maintain tradition.  A coda: the real-life grandmother is still alive at this writing, but she now knows the story.

The Incredibles 2: A loving riff on 1960s films that works well.  Michael Giacchino’s “almost-John-Barry” score is a highlight.  He clearly loved Barry’s work, and I loved hearing the tribute.  The premise is a blast, the execution fun, and even though it’s a by-the-books “Save the Cat” sort of screenplay, I’ll give it a pass.  I liked the first one, too, but it’s a little older than 10 years.

Anomalisa: I’m a big fan of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.  This is a bizarre story, told in stop-motion with a sort of puppet.  Kaufman breaks screenwriting rules constantly, and I love him for it.  We’re never sure we actually like the protagonist and he never gets the “Save the Cat” standard “Howdy” moment.  But the cold alienation of being alone in a slick urban hotel… that’s portrayed so elegantly here.  The basic premise is that this guy is so out of it that everyone sounds and even looks mostly the same to him.  Then he meets Lisa, who has her own voice, different from all others. 

Bill and Ted Face the Music: OK, I have to admit that I loved the first two Bill and Ted movies and particularly the second film.  Any movie in which the heroes have to play a game against Death and they choose Twister is automatically three stars.  This sequel, almost 30 years after the last one, is welcome.  Again, this all comes down to screenwriting, and with Chris (son of Richard) Matheson and Ed Solomon at the helm, we’ve got a good one.  This hits all the right notes; it moves a little too fast because they want to squeeze all the old characters in it, but it’s not predictable, and seeing Death (William Sadler) return is worth the price of admission alone.  Sadler is one of those actors who should have been and still should be a bigger star than he is.  I could see him in some action films a la Liam Neeson.

Stan and Ollie: This is a movie with bad history, some questionable writing, and I’m still recommending it because the performances in it are so good that you just have to love it.  OK, maybe they didn’t nail the offscreen Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but they sure nailed the onscreen versions of them.  Biopics are hard to do well, and this one is only partly a success, but enough of one that I say you should have fun with it.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Well, I really wanted to like this film, too.  Tarantino is kind of hit-and-miss for me.  There are a lot of things about this that I liked.  The performances are great.  The scenery looks and feels just like 1960s LA.  I’ll even take the fantasy that “this is the way I wish the Manson family and Sharon Tate had turned out.”  But this movie is too long.  I mean, it’s really, really, really, really too long.  And there’s some history in it that I just don’t go for, namely that “badass” Brad Pitt was able to hold his own against or even beat Bruce Lee.  Amazingly, Lee’s character is spot-on in looks and dialect, but asking us to believe he’d be challenged into a fight with the likes of Pitt’s character is just goofy.  (Lee wasn’t the kind of guy who would pick a fight or respond to the kind of bullying Pitt gave him.) Then there’s the 45-minute scene at the Manson ranch that seems to go on FOREVER, only to culminate with “Oh, hey, that’s Bruce Dern.”  Well, OK, it’s Bruce Dern.  As much as this is a lot of fun, it’s like ordering a slice of cake and getting the whole cake.  “Well, OK, it’s good, but I didn’t really WANT all that.”   I liked the way that Tarantino milked the scenes at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, but this goes too far.  I felt like I was watching the Director’s Cut and I desperately wanted to see the official release version.

John Carter: Everyone said this was a bad picture.  It’s not.  I don’t know why it got so roundly panned.  It moves too fast.  Like so many modern films, it’s desperately allergic to its own plot and moves to get past it as quickly as it can.  That said, it’s fun, it feels Edgar-Rice-Burroughs-ish, the effects are good, the acting is good.  I guess Disney wanted to kill it!

The Lone Ranger: Again, I don’t understand the negative reaction from this one.  Johnny Depp in a strange, overwrought performance?  Did you guys not see the Pirates of the Caribbean movies?  Isn’t that what you expect?  Johnny Depp “culturally appropriating” Native American culture?  That’s what actors do.  It’s their job.  Harrison Ford is not Han Solo or Indiana Jones.  Part of the reason we go see Star Wars Part Xxviii is that we hope someone has bribed Harrison Ford to be in a cameo.  Same with Depp.  We go see him to see what he’s doing with a part.  Lone Ranger isn’t the greatest picture ever made, but it’s fun, and it’s got a great joke.  It’s made of up little parts of other movies as cute references.  If you’re a film geek (sign me up), it’s fun to watch this picture just for the jokes.

The Last of Robin Hood: Gee, Errol Flynn being played by Kevin Kline?  What’s not to love?  A lot.  I am second to none when it comes to loving Kline’s work, but he doesn’t really get Flynn.  He seems to be playing someone playing Flynn.  He’s not haggard and flabby enough for Flynn at that time, and Kline never gets the voice quite right.  He’s not bad, just not great.  The movie kind of plods along with not much of an idea on how it’s supposed to go.  Susan Sarandon is fine as the mother of Flynn’s underage paramour, and delivers an interesting performance, being confused and complicit all at once.  I wanted to like this a lot more than I did.

The Rules Don’t Apply: Plays well with Last of Robin Hood as a movie that doesn’t quite work. Warren Beatty isn’t a bad director, but the screenplay here is rambling and kinda lifeless.  Beatty seems to have called in lots of favors for people to do this film, and so there are cameos galore, but the whole thing seems rushed to get all the cameos in.  I mostly liked the picture (the attention to detail is marvelous) but it’s not as good as it should have been especially with all the talent involved.