The Calcium Kid (2004)
Writers: Raymond Friel, Derek Boyle, Alex De Rakoff
Stars: Orlando Bloom, Michael Peña
Viewed: June 8, 2009
Review: I have no idea why this little flick was so mercilessly skewered. It’s actually quite a resounding success in its own small way: quirky, funny, and pretty much the only time that Orlando Bloom doesn’t give the impression that talent is being pulled out of him like eye teeth.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, et al.
Stars: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones
Viewed: November 6, 2011
Review: This felt like speed-flipping through a comic book (maybe several comic books): a slew of good plots racing after a hero who swaps character depth for flashy stunts and steely pecs. But that said, the Cap is a man I would follow.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely, et al.
Stars: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Frank Grillo, Sebastian Stan
Viewed: April 6, 2014
Review: Iron Man is the cleverer character and Avengers is the funner film, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most important superhero flick to date. The movie is patriotism fitly spoken with a goodly amount of rousing Marvel-style party-action, just the right dose of downtime that allows characters to grow and audience to breathe, and snappy dialogue that is a pitch-perfect medley of humor, self-satire, polemic, and Fourth of July. Is the movie flawless? No, but gutsy, relevant, and darn well near it.
The 95-years-young spangled hero is more nuanced than in either previous film, finally letting Chris Evans approach the abilities he’s flexed in tougher movies (Sunshine, Puncture), though I’d like the storytellers to keep digging. Steve Rogers’ refreshing strengths as a superhero are also his weaknesses as a character: he’s noble, but rather unknowable; he’s pure, but never struggles not to be; he’s good, but almost as though he never realizes there’s another option. “For as long as I can remember,” he says, “I’ve just tried to do what’s right.” And we believe him. He’s got the sterling quality we want our sons to have. He’s the leader we would all follow. But it would mean a lot more if the Cap had a knottier, sweatier integrity, if he were given just an occasional fork in the road where choosing the right option was at least difficult. He’s been baptized into death twice now, so how about a bit of a Gethsemane next time?
The Black Widow enjoys more texture and a heartier conscience than before—most notably in the film’s splendid Edward Snowden moment where truth and freedom are put above personal comfort and saving face. The same with Nick Fury, though quoting the fictitious-ish Ezekiel 25:17 passage from Pulp Fiction on his tombstone isn’t cool—not even kinda—and I admit I’ll miss the eye patch. Me not being a comic-book reader and all, the Falcon sort of threw me for a loop (and I just realized that could be a horrible pun), but Anthony Mackie himself is inspiring as a winged Sam Gamgee type who shows us the sort of full-tilt allegiance Captain America invariably kindles (unless you’re a diva like Stark, in which case it takes you longer to suit up).
As for the baddies, Robert Redford is one of the few villains who honestly seems to believe his evil plan—convincing us with every hand wave and facial tic. And I liked what they did with the Winter Soldier (especially the fight at the end…thank you for those goosebumps), although, as the eponymous quasi-villain, Bucky’s tragic backstory could have been developed more. In leaving enough for a sequel, the movie left a bit too much to the imagination.
Now for the really good stuff. The movie is proof that if you want people to listen to what you’re saying, you have to say it well. Truth, just like falsehood, performs best when dressed to kill. And Captain America blows a giant hole in one of liberal America’s biggest lies, shows us a fun time, and looks great doing it.
I’m referring, of course, to the movie’s damning critique of the all-seeing, all-powerful, all-self-righteous nanny state who spies in the name of safety and murders in the name of protection. Project Insight’s scary overreach brings to mind the NSA’s recent domestic spying, the moral mess of preemptive justice, and especially Obama’s kill list, which the directors say is the actual subject of the film. “The question is where do you stop?” says Joe Russo, at the helm with his brother Anthony. “If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there’s 1,000? What if we find out there’s 10,000? What if it’s a million? At what point do you stop?”
These are revolutionary tactics that highlight fallen man’s impatience with the problem of evil. When you lack faith in a just God who has claimed vengeance for Himself and promises to deliver the oppressed, then it’s easy to claim the right to strike evil before it actually raises its head—whether out of a misguided sense of justice or (more likely, today) out of Machiavellian power-lust. But no matter how advanced your spy-technology is, you can never predict for sure. You never know. God is the one who looks on the heart; we see only the outside. Captain America doesn’t draw all these conclusions out as far as it could have, but it does punch home the difference between “freedom and fear,” standing shoulder to shoulder with prophetic films like Enemy of the State (which warns us of the oppression of a Sauron-eyed government) and Minority Report (which exposes the ethical catastrophe of stopping criminals before they crime).
I must say something about the temptation to sentimentality and nostalgia. I grew up on my granddad’s old war songs (“Let’s remember Pearl Harbor, as we go to meet the foe; let’s remember Pearl Harbor, as we did the Alamo…”) and I know the strong pull towards a glorification of the supposed golden age of the 1940s. The movie is obviously a salute to this older America. When the gloves come off, the Captain makes a telling move, swapping his modern, murkier-toned uniform for his WWII battle garb, and we all cheer as one of the last survivors of the Greatest Generation marches off to fix what his country has become… But was it really? The so-called “greatest” generation, the same warriors who defeated Nazi Germany, raised the debauched of the 60s and 70s. Their own children voted in an evil far worse than the Fuhrer. Somewhere, something slipped, and as holy as the Captain’s love for his country is, we need more than raw, old fashioned patriotism to turn things around. America doesn’t need to resurrect the Greatest Generation, she needs resurrection from the dead.
The Russo brothers play the fife and drums and put duty, honor, country on the brain, and if—by some miracle—they have the daring to include the forgotten God of this country next time around, then Captain America 3 will be captain indeed.
Directors: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft
Writers: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft, et al.
Stars: Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy
Viewed: December 3, 2006
Review: A soft story cooked up by sentimental, middle-aged chronological snobs pining for how things used to be. (Though Mater is genius. And worth it.)
Director: Stephen Milburn Anderson
Writers: Stephen Milburn Anderson
Stars: Sean Bean, Chris Hemsworth, Victoria Profeta
Viewed: March 14, 2013
Review: I expected this movie (based on opinions over at Rotten Tomatoes) to be dumb and slow, but those reviews, as it turns out, are out to lunch. Okay, I’ll give them “slow” — slow enough to earn a middling three stars — but CA$H is the opposite of dumb. It’s actually a pretty serious, pretty well-done warning against fleeing the consequences for your actions.
A young couple (Chris Hemsworth and Victoria Profeta) find half a million dollars quite literally dumped in their laps. Instead of figuring out whom it belongs to, they start spending it. A lot of it. Everything’s rosy until the OCD, tight-fisted, yoga-obsessed baddie (Sean Bean), whose incarcerated twin brother stole it from someone else, comes to claim the small fortune. Every penny.
Trouble gets stickier and stickier as the young idiots refuse to go to the police for help because now they’re afraid to fess up — so afraid that they’re willing to rob banks and pistol whip cashiers to avoid paying the price for their initial foolishness. Even at the end, they don’t repent. They return all the stolen cash to the bank and stores and even anonymously pay for hospital bills, but we know that’s not enough. The law requires more than that (something to do with the old biblical command to repay sevenfold). The couple comes clean with the bad guy (only because he winds up dead), but they don’t come clean with the law, so what happens? We see them recounting their Benjamins with some relief — and the last shot of the movie is Sean Bean’s twin (also played by Sean Bean) getting out of jail and making a beeline for his cash. We have just enough time to think “oh no” before the credits roll.
A few other unexpected victories: the characters felt real. The dialogue (oddly criticized as “stiff” by some) was actually quite natural, besides proving that Hemsworth is surprisingly more convincing (and compelling) at chatting over breakfast, freaking out at guns, and stewing in frustration than he is at Shakespeare in the park. But best of all, the movie captures the sins of a typical marriage painfully well. Hemsworth is the abdicating husband who doesn’t steer or protect his wife, and Profeta is the leaderless wife who tries to fill the void and just adds fuel to the fire. I don’t know when I’ve been in more agony waiting for the hero to man up and punch the bad guy.
CA$H isn’t by any means a perfect or even a consistently interesting movie, but it proves a good point and proves it well. The good guys and bad guys think alike: do whatever you want as long as you don’t get caught. And whatever you do, don’t turn yourself in. But that’s the last thing on the audience’s mind. We’ve learned our lesson, even if the characters haven’t.
Casino Royale (2006)
Writers: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, et al.
Stars: Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench
Viewed: January 11, 2008
Review: Daniel Craig’s Bond (“Blond–James Blond”) is such sweet resurrection after Pierce Brosnan’s oily smugishness that it might be easy to overlook Casino’s sins–bedding about and bleeding eyeballs being two of them. Easy, I said–but not recommended. If you want to watch a good Bond movie, skip parts of this, skip Quantum of Solace completely, and go to Skyfall.
Writers: Larry Cohen, Chris Morgan
Stars: Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, William H. Macy, Jason Statham, Jessica Biel
Viewed: April 1, 2005
Review: This could have been smart, like Premium Rush, but instead it’s only half-smart, like Cellular. Watching the (eternally) buff Chris Evans run around with a phone trapped to his ear sometimes makes up for Kim Basinger (at the top of the list of 50-year-olds who need to shed the Barbie haystack and drain the plastic out of their face), but then again, sometimes doesn’t.
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Writer: Colin Welland
Stars: Ben Cross, Ian Charleson, Ian Holm
Viewed: February 7, 2009
Review: Don’t be the chronological snob that I was and think, “Ew, 80s.” Great character study right here (and yes, the running’s awesome), Christianity has a wonderful backbone in Eric Liddell (though I wish they’d quit casting homosexuals as heroes of the faith), and Vangelis’ weird, synthesized magic still works.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Writers: Roald Dahl, John August
Stars: Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore
Viewed: November 14, 2005
Review: Another major heist by team Burton & Depp that’s more about them and their bizarre whims than the story they’re actually adapting. If you’re a Depp fan, or if you’re a dentist in love with teeth that could only come from the new heavens and the new earth, then you’ll enjoy it.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Writers: Aaron Sorkin, George Crile
Stars: Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman
Viewed: February 10, 2012
Review: I’m really disappointed that I don’t know enough about politics and political history to be able to judge this more intelligently. One thing I do know: Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue and character work are, as always, bulls-eye lovely.
Cheaper by the Dozen (2003)
Director: Shawn Levy
Writers: Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., et al.
Stars: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hilary Duff
Viewed: December 28, 2009
Review: Schlocky. Vexing. Unfunny. Avoid at all costs and watch Yours, Mine, and Ours instead.
Child 44 (2015)
Writers: Richard Price, Tom Rob Smith
Stars: Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Noomi Rapace, Paddy Considine
Viewed: September 6, 2015
Review: I had four favorite things about this movie.
- It made me simultaneously interested in the USSR and extremely glad I did not live there.
- Compelling storyline with many layers: the Joseph-style rise and fall of a noble man, a broken marriage that becomes beautiful, twisted villains who hate the truth, orphaned children who gain parents. It’s the sort of story that can work in any setting, but becomes especially riveting in a totalitarian society where 2 + 2 = 5 and you can’t trust anyone.
- The plot is sensational, but the movie isn’t. Everything is intelligently understated. You honestly have to work a little to understand the story; they don’t spoon-feed the plot points. Thank you.
- Tom Hardy. He doesn’t show huge emotional range, but then again, he plays a man who can’t. Leo Demidov must think one thing while saying another, be one man while acting another. Everything Hardy does looks bottled up to the breaking point. Amazing. Also, he had the best Russian accent of the lot.
Children of Men (2006)
Writers: P.D. James, Alfonso Cuarón, et al.
Stars: Clive Owen, Julienne Moore, Michael Caine
Viewed: February 8, 2009
Review: Whatever resonance this movie has (and it does have some) turned to sawdust in my mouth when I read the book and realized just how much was lost in the translation — scratch that — the bewildering, clueless, and incompetent butchering of P. D. James’ point: that the world desperately needs real fathers, and yet is incapable of producing them. Alfonso Cuarón has a nice touch, and Clive Owen and Michael Caine (among others) turn in fine performances, and yes, you’ll gain a couple emotional wows, but nothing like the book’s convicting punch.
Writers: Joanne Harris, Robert Nelson Jacobs
Stars: Juliette Binoche, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench
Viewed: May 27, 2012
Review: This movie lies. In the face of high-strung, bluenosed works-righteousness, a Willy Wonkess (aka, over-sexed Mary Poppins) wouldn’t fix squat.
The Chorus (2004)
Director: Christophe Barratier
Writers: Georges Chaperot, René Wheeler, et al.
Stars: Gérard Jugnot, François Berléand, Jean-Baptiste Maunier
Viewed: May 5, 2006
Review: Orphaned boys gain a father, and music saves the world. Who cares that it’s all in French?
Cinderella Man (2005)
Writer: Cliff Hollingsworth, Akiva Goldsman, et al.
Stars: Russell Crowe, Renée Zellweger, Paul Giamatti, Craig Bierko
Viewed: December 12, 2005
Review: Not just another underdog-in-the-ring flick to boost your emotional high. The fact that it’s a true story takes the movie far, but Russell Crowe (playing one of my favorite cinematic heroes), Renée Zellweger, and the everlastingly resplendent Paul Giamatti take it even further. (Add to that the relief that Ron Howard keeps his sentimental paws off, for the most part.) If you think that this movie is about luck and the power of the human spirit, pay closer attention to that church full of people praying for Braddock’s big win.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Writers: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, et al.
Stars: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, Dorothy Comingore
Viewed: July 17, 2010
Review: There’s a lot to thank this movie for. Yes, it’s slow, ponderous, and wearisome, but so were the first wagons that pioneered out west.
Clear and Present Danger (1994)
Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Tom Clancy, Donald Stewart, et al.
Stars: Harrison Ford, Willem Dafoe, Joaquim de Almedia, Anne Archer
Viewed: March 16, 2013
Review: This one ranks below The Hunt for Red October (almost every movie ranks below The Hunt for Red October), but probably about the same as Patriot Games. Which I liked. It’s possible to do Tom Clancy wrong (see The Sum of All Fears, or so I’ve heard), but watching Clear and Present Danger, I have a hard time believing that. His plots, characters, and dialogue just fit the screen so well. And in an entertainment world with a depressing supply of morally murky anti-heroes, there’s something downright invigorating about a family-man good guy with a moral compass that doesn’t spin like a fan blade. You can always trust Jack Ryan to do the right thing — but not in a you-can-always-trust-Mary-Bennet-to-pontificate sort of way.
The Clearing (2004)
Writers: Pieter Jan Brugge, Justin Haythe, et al.
Stars: Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, Hellen Mirren
Viewed: May 16, 2008
Review: I like understated movies, I really do, but I’m afraid I still insist that they persuade me to give a rip about the characters. (And that they not be played by Willem Dafoe.)
Cold Comfort Farm (1995)
Writers: Malcolm Bradbury, Stella Gibbons
Stars: Kate Beckinsale, Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, Rufus Sewell
Viewed: December 12, 2006
Review: If this eccentric, earthy, lovely little British satire rubs you the wrong way, well then, cat, you’d better turn around.
The Cold Light of Day (2012)
Director: Mabrouk el Mechri
Writers: Scott Wiper, John Petro
Stars: Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver
Viewed: April 2, 2013
Review: The critics really sledgehammered this one. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such soulless, coldhearted, slash-and-burn loathing. And I fully expected to agree with them — which I did by avoiding the movie. Now I want to avoid the critics.
What on earth is wrong with them? They compare the movie to The Bourne Identity, but why? The movie doesn’t even try. It’s just a little 90-minute action flick, and if it’s far from exploding the genre, it’s partly because it frequently doesn’t quite feel like the genre. There were several times I didn’t have a clue what was coming next (and I was able to call every single move in Prince of Persia, Avatar, The Last Samurai…tell me when…). Interesting camerawork, smart scene changes, everyday dialogue, and (thank you, goodness) some actual real-live human beings propelling the action instead of riding it like a surf board are what set this movie apart. My running commentary? Sounded like this: “Oh, that was a cool shot.” “Thank you for not zooming in and being all like, ‘Check out Henry Cavill’s abs!'” “Now that’s how a real guy would react.” “He doesn’t automatically know how to hold a gun. Nice.” “If I were her, I’d be screaming, too.” “Oh, good. He passed out. He’s not Superman yet.”
If you want a hero who downloads impossible super powers out of thin air and survives ridiculous amounts of hellfire, go watch the latest Die Hard and shush up. The Cold Light of Day doesn’t claim to be a prodigy, but at least it doesn’t apishly mimic all its ancestors and spit on their graves to boot.
And no, the title has nothing to do with the plot, except that most of the story takes place at night.
Writer: Stuart Beattie
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo
Viewed: March 3, 2005
Review: Honestly, I need to see this again. It felt fairly dark at the time (no, not just because it’s entirely at night), but I have the feeling (because I know Michael Mann) that there’s more going on here than I remember. If only this didn’t mean enduring Tom Cruise’s powdered wig that is supposed to make him terribly, terribly scary, but is actually just Tom Cruise in a powdered wig.
The Constant Gardener (2005)
Writers: Jeffrey Caine, John le Carré
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz,
Viewed: March 24, 2007
Review: I remember feeling listless and dissatisfied. Dude tries to prove his wife was murdered by some big bad company, and ends up shooting himself in the head before the bad guys get a chance. Love story ends happily never ever.
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Stars: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard
Viewed: September 13, 2011
Review: Not a flick for hypercondriacs. I’ve hardly ever seen a non-horror movie with so much true horror in it. Contagion’s strength is exploring an impressive range of characters as they respond to a world-wide plague — everyone from heroic doctors to ordinary fathers to opportunistic and unscrupulous attention-getters. Its weakness? Same thing. The range is a little too wide, a little too sparsely handled. I left wishing that I’d been allowed as deep into the characters as the virus was.
Writers: Shakespeare, John Logan
Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox, Vanessa Redgrade, Jessica Chastain
Viewed: June 5, 2012
Review: We were partway through this movie when my sister broke our heavy silence and said: “I forgot that Shakespeare wrote tragedies.” Coriolanus is that grim sign pointing out the road to hell. If the hero (anti-hero) doesn’t learn his lesson, it’s only because the audience is supposed to learn it that much more. Ralph Fiennes is brilliant in a disturbing, berserk kind of way, which makes the second time he’s joined the ranks of top villains.
Courage Under Fire (1996)
Writer: Patrick Sheane Duncan
Stars: Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, Matt Damon
Viewed: October 8, 2010
Review: Honestly, try to stir my soul with runny eggs. You’d have a better chance. The only reason to watch about five minutes of this movie is to confirm (in case there was any doubt) how much we prefer Matt Damon with those 40 pounds he shed to play a post-traumatic-stress-disordered junkie.
Crocodile Dundee (1986)
Writers: John Cornell, Paul Hogan, et al.
Stars: Paul Hogan, Linda Koslowski
Viewed: May 24, 2009
Review: Neither Paul Hogan nor his accent nor his knife (one is as sharp as the others) can save this pity-the-80s ball of cheese.
The Crucible (1996)
Writer: Arthur Miller
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder, Paul Scofield, Joan Allen
Viewed: February 8, 2008
Review: One of the most intensely character-driven stories I’ve seen, featuring both an amazing, complex hero and an atrocious-to-the-hilt villain. Pride, envy, lust, lies, slander, hysteria, and real witchcraft duke it out with love, honor, repentance, forgiveness, truth, and redemption — all in a tightly written, beautifully twisty screenplay by Arthur Miller. Watch it if only to see Daniel Day-Lewis go bare knuckles with Winona Ryder.