The Dark Knight (2008)

2.5 stars

Director: Christopher Nolan


Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, et al.

Stars: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

Viewed: July 26, 2008

Review: A huge pet peeve of mine (even worse than love triangles) is forced predicaments. Now, take a forced predicament, bloat it with postmodern nonsense, stick it in the fourth act of what should have been a three-act film, and attach it to two of the most unrealistic (though memorable) bad guys you’ve ever seen, and that’s why I’m mad at The Dark Knight. I wish I could enjoy the Joker…but I can’t. I’m too busy thinking, “No such evil ex nihilo exists.” I wish I could feel for Harvey Dent, but I can’t stop laughing at his face and tripping over the fact that in real life, he’d be very, very dead. I wish I could wring my hands for Gordon’s little boy, but I’m industriously counting the number of times this movie should have ended and I’m running out of fingers. I wish I could salute Batman’s assumption of guilt, but I can’t stop yelling: “FORCED PREDICAMENT.”

Watch it for Heath Ledger’s genius. That’s it.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

4.5 stars


Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, et al.

Stars: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Marion Cotillard, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman

Viewed: July 20, 2012

Review: By far the trilogy’s best. Who knows if the Brothers Nolan actually meant to tell an old-fashioned fairytale, but they did — a big, brawling, bombastic fairytale where the good guy actually wins and actually gets the girl. Click here for a fuller review on how they managed to breathe life into The Dark Knight’s dead bones.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

1.5 stars

Director: Ron Howard  Da Vinci 3

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Dan Brown

Stars: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Paul Bettany, Jean Reno

Viewed: January 13, 2007

Review: I must say, the style of the movie gripped me (totally ignoring Tom Hanks’s there-goes-all-his-self-esteem haircut). But I can think of no better way to capture just how ridiculous the story is than to quote this fine review: “The Catholic Church [and Protestant, let me add] has nothing to fear from this film. It is not just tripe. It is self-evident, spirit-lowering tripe that could not conceivably cause a single member of the flock to turn aside from the faith.” I’d put that in all caps if it didn’t make it difficult to read.

And I can still remember snorting when the gorgeous Jesus-descendant tries to walk on water, to see if she has enough “God” in her. Um, Jesus didn’t walk on water because He was God, He walked on water because He had faith. Dubito ergo sink, duckie.

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

2.5 stars

Director: Roland Emmerich gyllenhaal_9

Writers: Roland Emmerich, et al.

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emmy Rossum

Viewed: March 6, 2008

Review: I forgave way too much of this idiotic movie. I just happen to be a sucker for violent weather. Can’t help it. And I’m also a sucker for stories about random strangers who have to survive hell together.

Dear Frankie (2004)

4 stars

Director: Shona Auerbach 600full-dear-frankie-screenshot

Writer: Andrea Gibb

Stars: Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, Gerard Butler

Viewed: December 19, 2008

Review: My favorite Gerard Butler film, which has a lot to do with the fact that he doesn’t run around eight-packing everyone to death. And Emily Mortmer plays one of the toughest mothers I’ve seen. For true masculinity, true fatherhood, true feminine strength, and true love, look no further than Dear Frankie.

Defiance (2008)

4.5 stars


Director: Edward Zwick

Writers: Clayton Frohman, Edward Zwick, Nechama Tec

Stars: Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, Jamie Bell

Viewed: September 13, 2009

Review: I’ve heard that this World War II drama doesn’t live up to the book, and that’s probably true. But at least until I’ve read the book and can judge for myself, I’m recommending this movie.

To give some perspective, I wasn’t smitten with it the first two times I watched it.  I thought it was solid, not terrific — one of those stories that you almost resent for being true because you wish they could have tampered with it to make it more exciting, but then you feel guilty for not going over at the knees for something that really happened! What’s wrong with you?

Well, that would be my fault, not the movie’s. It’s March of 2013 and I just watched it for the third time after a three-year fast, and it was truly a feast. Defiance isn’t something you can shove down in a few gulps and be done. That’s what Twinkies are for. (That’s what Transformers is for.) Defiance deserves to be taken as it  is given: slowly, deliberately, and in layers.

It’s the Exodus story, which is to say, it’s the Gospel story. A persecuted people. A reluctant, imperfect hero. Brother envy. Whining in the wilderness. Traitors in the camp. Bitterness that betrays. Faith that breaks. Sacrifice that saves. God who gives. Miracle after miracle.

And unlike many movies that pack in so much Christian truth, this one happens to be well done. I’ve hardly ever seen a movie that says so many good things without pounding them from a pulpit. Opposing critics simultaneously labeled it “understated” (in a bad way) and “heavy-handed,” which should tell you that Defiance is in just the right spot.

If you aren’t strengthened by this movie, it might be that you just don’t appreciate the subtlety. You might have numbed your heart with too many car chases. Give that a rest. Feed your soul with a story that, though filled with death, affirms life by showing over and over how to live it, how to deny it, how to lay it down, how to give it up. This is the story that will save the world.

Déjà Vu (2006)

3 stars

Director: Tony Scott Movie-review-Deja-Vu

Writers: Bill Marsilii, Terry Rossio

Stars: Denzel Washington, Paula Patton, Jim Caviezel, Val Kilmer

Viewed: December 20, 2007

Review: Charismatic nonsense. Enjoyable if you aren’t hungry for something that will impact the solar system — or if you’re looking for proof that Jim Caviezel really can’t play baddies.

Desperado (1995)

2.5 stars

Director: Robert Rodriguez Picture 1

Writer: Robert Rodriguez

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida

Viewed: February 12, 2012

Review: Robert Rodriguez told Reinol Martinez in El Mariachi that no, he couldn’t have a bed scene with three women because “it’s not that kind of movie.” Well, Desperado is that kind of movie. And on top of the marathon sex, the story simply felt like the rough draft of a good idea. Watching the movie (with edits) won’t be a sin, but it will be a frustration — and maybe an inspiration to do something better with Rodriguez’s scraps.

Despicable Me (2010)

2.5 stars

Directors: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud Picture 2

Writers: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio

Stars: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand

Viewed: December 29, 2010

Review: Gets carried away with salt and pepper and forgets to serve the main dish. This badly needed to be done by Pixar or Dreamworks.

The Devil’s Novice (Season 2, Episode 2 of Mystery!: Cadfael) (1996)

3 stars

Director: Herbert Wise  419qcskxL1L._SX500_

Writers: Christopher Russell, Edith Pargeter

Stars: Derek Jacobi, Terrence Hardiman, Christien Anholt

Viewed: March 13, 2006

Review: Low-budget (not its fault) and based on a story written by a woman who dotes on her handsome adolescent heroes far too much (should have fixed that).

Dial M for Murder (1954)

2 stars

Director: Alfred Hitchcock  Dial-M-for-Murder

Writer: Frederick Knott

Stars: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings

Viewed: May 19, 2007

Review: Didn’t like it. Don’t remember exactly why, but it had something to do with the fact that the hero is trying to murder his wife.

Die Hard (1988)

4 stars

Director: John McTiernan    John McClane

Writers: Roderick Thorp, Jeb Stuart, Steven E. de Souza

Stars: Bruce Willis, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia

Viewed: February 5, 2005

Review: This movie triumphs like a nuke: every last stinking detail works perfectly and blows up right on time. Far inferior cop movies are still succeeding 25 years later because they’re high on the fumes of this violent, macho, cuss-crammed, pumped-up classic.

Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995)


Director: John McTiernan    DieHard31

Writers: Jonathan HensleighRoderick Thorp

Stars: Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Irons

Viewed: June 14, 2014

Review: I hate to say this about what was largely a fun movie, but this overstays its welcome. Too many codas. The plot starts to skid out of control and even yippee ki-yay can’t quite save it. Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson together, though—wow. Put them together in a pinch and the world’s a happy place. But did I mention the language is out of control? Boatloads and boatloads. And baddie Jeremy Irons is quite overshadowed by the scary wench with THAT KNIFE.

Die Hard 4.0: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)



Director: Len Wiseman  Picture 4

Writers: Mark Bomback, et al.

Stars: Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Timothy Olyphant

Viewed: February 12, 2012

Review: Not a total flop, by any means; just a rather weak-kneed effort all around. Honestly, the bad guy needs a bigger butt if John McClane’s gonna be kicking it. We know from Justified that Timothy Olyphant is capable of beautifully subtle, nuanced acting, so it’s frankly pitiful to watch him reduced to all the complexity of a few steely-eyed stares.

The Dish (2000)

3.5 stars

Director: Rob Sitch  Picture 1

Writers:  Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner

Stars: Sam Neill, Billy Mitchell, Roz Hammond

Viewed: November 7, 2010

Review: I am everlastingly grateful to this quiet, solid little Aussie movie for proving that you can tell a true, emotionally-charged story without mawkish wallowing. Some really nice character work here.

Disturbia (2007)

1.5 stars

Director: D.J. Caruso  disturbia_l

Writers: Christopher Landon, Carl Ellsworth, et al.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Carrie-Anne Moss, Sarah Roemer

Viewed: August 19, 2007

Review: Critics appreciated Disturbia for its Hitchcocky slow build and a notable performance from the ever reliable Shia LaBeouf — and so did I, but they are the only two good things (besides the opening car wreck) in this voyeuristic smash-up of cheap teen sex and tawdry evil that would make real devils roll their eyes. It just doesn’t happen that way. My friends were screaming and climbing into my lap and up onto my head, but I was just annoyed (and not at them). If it doesn’t convince me, it doesn’t scare me, no matter how slimy and dismembered the body parts are.

Divergent (2014)

3-stars1Shailene-Woodley-and-Theo-James-in-Divergent 2014-03-24 12-40-27 2014-03-24 12-40-30

Director: Neil Burger

Writers: Evan Daugherty, Vanessa Taylor, Veronica Roth

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Ray Stevenson

Viewed: March 23, 2014

Review: This pleasantly exciting movie more than cleared the low, low standards I’d set for it. I thought it was going to be a bunch of tickling each other’s tattoos and seeing how many new frown wrinkles Theo James could get. And granted, there were the ridiculous, OMG-did-his-hand-really-just-brush-my-tummy moments and the movie could have been 15 minutes shorter by chopping Theo’s dialogue completely because what he said never changed and his scowl expressed his character development (all zilch of it) perfectly: “I’m James Franco’s dagger-faced cousin but I’m cooler because I actually have a British accent—when I’m not being all divergent.” But Shailene Woodley (the heart and soul of the movie) almost made up for him and I won’t be underestimating the young actress again.

Another beef: unlike The Hunger Games, Divergent’s futuristic premise feels too slight and carelessly assembled to really convince. So you’ve got the main virtues neatly organized, but where did you put the vices? Don’t tell me everyone within each personality box is actually that nice. And forbidding any drop-out from rejoining their old faction? Really? I smell a forced predicament, which I’m guessing is Veronica Roth’s fault, but I haven’t read the books and don’t plan to. The training scenes become a bit rote even for me (here’s where more character development from Frowny Face would have been especially nice), and Tris should have died after a few hard rights, and three strong guys could totally have thrown her off that cliff, but on the whole, the movie kept me going.

The thing I liked best about Divergent is what I like best about all dystopian stories: 1984, Brave New World, Equilibrium, Hunger Games. They’re all stories about people who identify (correctly) that human nature is a problem, that humans are dangerous and sinful and diseased; but then they always try to save themselves. They set up a false savior that is supposed to fix the problem but only turns tyrannical…and fails.

theo-james-shailene-woodley-star-in-divergentDivergent does a good job showing the futility of splitting people up into factions based on strengths/personalities. First, the factions are never enough in and of themselves because every strength is a mountain peak: on the other side, there’s always a plunge into a deep valley. Strengths will tip over to weaknesses, every time. Run each “virtue” out and it becomes extreme; it knows no stopping point. The rules of Dauntless (never back down, never refuse a challenge, never quit) are like those of Navy SEALs with none of the brain. They stem from shortsighted bravado and can send you quickly into stupid land. There’s nothing inherently admirable about standing in front of a target in a knife-throwing contest; it’s probably just dumb. What Tris and Four discover (and prove) is that pure dauntlessness can kill good people as well as bad people, it can show up to a fight that it should decline, it can get you killed because in the end, being “dauntless” is all about proving yourself instead of serving others.

The second reason the faction system fails is that the factions will never keep each other in check–nor should they (which is where the movie falls short). Divergent shows that human nature always rebels and the manmade savior that tried so hard to create everlasting peace (always a lie) is simply another part of the problem. What the movie doesn’t provide is the real answer. The film’s message is “be divergent”—be yourself, be whatever the bad guys don’t want you to be, be what they don’t expect. Divergent, in other words, simply advocates a sixth faction–one that still fails to honor any code of ethics higher than itself. Someone a lot less nice than Tris and Four could be “divergent” and it wouldn’t be the answer. Nor can you claim (like Four) that a person should be all five factions rolled together, because when it comes down to making moral choices, especially the really sticky ones (“execute this person or not,” “tell this lie or not,”) one of the factions is still going to have to decide. One of the factions will rule over the others. And peace is out the window.

So what is the answer? It’s not about balance or combo or eeny meeny miney moe. It’s about all the strengths in subjection to God.

Somehow I doubt Insurgent or Allegiant will quite reach the same conclusion, but as long as I keep my standards about two inches off the ground, I can look forward to watching both.

Donnie Brasco (1997)

2.5 stars

Director: Mike Newell  donnie-brasco1

Writers: Joseph D. Pistone, Richard Woodley, et al.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Al Pacino, Michael Madsen

Viewed: August 19, 2011

Review: I begrudgingly endured the first hour, then fast-forwarded through the rest to see if it got any better. It didn’t. The hero was smudgy and the story dragged its sorry butt around, dying for an editor to whip it into shape. Never have I better understood the value of the deleted scene.

Donnie Darko (2001)

2 stars

Director: Richard Kelly  Donnie Darko (2001)

Writers: Richard Kelly

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Viewed: October 4, 2009

Review: Felt like I was staring at a Magic Eye. Magic Eyes never work for me. Was I missing something? Where was the good stuff? I tumbled through this sickly surreal rabbit hole and hated every minute of it.

Double Jeopardy (1999)

3 stars

Director: Bruce Beresford  Picture 2

Writers: David Weisberg, Douglas Cook

Stars: Ashley Judd, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce Greenwood

Viewed: August 11, 2004

Review: Can’t remember much besides wishing I could like this as much as I like Tommy Lee Jones. I’d have a more penetrating review if I watched it again, but then I would have to watch it again.

Drive (2011)

2.5 stars

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn  Drive - Ryan Gosling

Writers: Hossein Amini, James Sallis

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac

Viewed: February 4, 2012

Review: It’s really quite odd. The camera spends most of its time frozen on Ryan Gosling’s face (but it’s Ryan Gosling’s face! — pant, pant — Where’s a paper bag?), the two lead actors refuse to say half their lines, the story ends with the hero bloody and brideless, and people just go over at the knees. “One of the years very best.” (R.L. Shaffer) “Pretty darn perfect!” (Kristal Cooper) “The best movie of 2011.” (Erick Weber)

Please. Drive is minimalist, postmodern bilge with a few salvageable gems hardly worth rooting out. Most people just won’t enjoy the film, and they shouldn’t. The hero is nameless and unknowable, scene after scene crawls at quarter-speed for no good reason, the violence is unbelievable, and the ending is a gosh-awful “vanity of vanities” shrug.

Part of me welcomed the movie’s hyper-stylized, menacing stillness with open arms; it truly is a relief after the over-caffeinated camera jitters of Paul Greengrass (king of the hand-held), and I appreciated it because it should pull us out of our ditch of ADHD. The problem is, Drive lands us straight in the other ditch, which is just as muddy. (“But it’s new! Fresh! Different!” Guys, it’s just another ditch.) Slow is as slow does. If it doesn’t serve a purpose, it’s not cool, it’s just slow.

Drive-Ryan Gosling HammerThen there’s the gore. I’ve got steel for nerves and have stared unflinching at ApocalyptoThe PassionPan’s Labyrinth, and many others, but I looked away from Drive. It isn’t a pints-of-blood problem; drop for drop, it doesn’t even come close to rivaling Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down. It’s a worldview problem. In God’s world, bloodshed (and showing it) has a point. Violence serves the story, not the other way around. But when you don’t believe in the Storyteller, what reason do you have for telling the story at all? What sense does any of it make? Stab a guy in the eye over here, boot another guy’s face into a puddle on the elevator floor over there, so what? Postmodernism seeks to destroy God’s narrative devices, and in the bleak, pointless world it creates, the violence — especially stomach-churning violence like this — hits really, really hard. It’s all just vanity and grasping for the wind…or the girl, but the hero doesn’t get her, either.

Which leads me to the movie’s ending.  Deny the guy his bride and everyone thinks the movie declares something profound, but it doesn’t. It simply says the guy doesn’t get the girl, which says something fundamentally false about God, the world, and where history is going. “New twists and storytelling turns!” enthuses Weber. Yes, indeed: twists and turns that tell a lie. Don’t twist the world into a shape God didn’t make.

Drive is good for someone willing to grapple and come away with a few hard-earned trinkets on tension, cinematography, and lighting. That’s about it. Plunder and fight. It could be worth the bruise on your face.

The Duchess (2008)

2.5 stars

Director: Saul Dibb Picture 6

Writers: Jeffrey Hatcher, Anders Thomas Jensen, et al.

Stars: Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Dominic Cooper

Viewed: March 10, 2010

Review: I didn’t know I could ever feel sorry (or have anything other than gut-level loathing) for Keira Knightley, so the fact that she earned some sympathy is just wild. But I still didn’t feel as sorry as they wanted me to feel. They tried to stack the deck in her favor by giving her an unfeeling, unfaithful brute of a husband so that when she does finally commit adultery with her old high school sweetheart, we all nod sympathetically. Yes, we understand. Go for it, girl. Follow your heart. (Because hearts never led anyone astray!) The only uptick to the story is that the pitiable duchess ends up choosing to stay with her husband for the sake of her children. Eh. Poor wife becomes bad wife becomes good mother. Okay. I’d have more sympathy and admiration if she were a tough girl throughout.

Dumb Witness (Season 6, Episode 4 of Agatha Christie’s Poirot) (1996)

3 stars

Director: Edward Bennett Poirot

Writers: Agatha Christie, Douglas Watkinson

Stars: David Suchet, Hugh Fraser

Viewed: May 29, 2008

Review: Refreshing to step away from American stuff every now and then for some British intelligence.

Duplicity (2009)

3.5 stars

Director: Tony Gilroy  duplicity

Writers: Tony Gilroy

Stars: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson

Viewed: September 25, 2009

Review: Romantic comedy with a brain. Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, State of Play, all the Bournes) works as tight a job as ever, complimenting his audience with smart, lovely clues where other screenwriters slop out plot exposition as into a trough. Indeed, there are almost too many plot twists in this one — which is a fine fault to have for a change.