Below: why you can root for a pagan hero in Gladiator, why I turned off Gangster Squad, and why Gravity is arguably the best film of 2013. Synopses courtesy of IMDb. Reviews are my own and occasionally subjective.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
Director: Dean Parisot
Writers: David Howard, Robert Gordon, et al.
Stars: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman
Viewed: August 3, 2013
Synopsis: The alumni cast of a cult space TV show have to play their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help.
Review: A splendid parody not just of Star Trek but of nearly every movie ever made. Even its faults serve as satire. Intelligent and hilarious.
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir, David Willamson, et al.
Stars: Mel Gibson, Mark Lee
Viewed: June 23, 2010
Synopsis: Two Australian sprinters face the brutal realities of war when they are sent to fight in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey during World War I.
Review: Besides the fact that I liked it quite a lot, I don’t really remember many details about Gallipoli. I do know that it put Peter Weir on my list of directors to keep an eye on, and except for The Way Back (which felt like wandering after a white bunny in a snowstorm) and The Truman Show (not terribly directed, just terrible), he has yet to let me down.
If you’ve seen Master and Commander or Witness, you know what I mean when I say Weir possesses a special touch like Spielberg at his best: so light, you almost don’t notice the director at all. Things don’t feel manipulated, or staged, or even written. The story just seems to happen. And his gift for somewhat meandering plots that follow textured, likable characters is perfect for this film–the story of two Australian sprinters (hello, you very young Mel Gibson, rocking your native accent) who enlist in the army and find themselves in the trenches of the Battle of the Nek, one World War I’s most tragic disasters.
The film is elegiac, not sentimental, and not anti-war like some think. It boasts the best running outside of Chariots of Fire (released just a few months prior). And it’s the most powerful I’ve seen Mel Gibson besides Braveheart and We Were Soldiers. Win.
Gangs of New York (2002)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks, et al.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent
Viewed: August 29, 2008
Synopsis: In 1863, Amsterdam Vallon returns to the Five Points area of New York City seeking revenge against Bill the Butcher, his father’s killer.
Review: Long, dirty, slow, godless, undisciplined, even downright boring despite all the frantic bludgeoning and brain-splattering and bloodbathing with which Scorsese tries to convince us, guys, this is serious. Murder, revenge, lust, and envy are all on proud display, with nary a noble character between them. It’s got a few compelling scenes (and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Bill the Butcher is one of the seven wonders of the cinematic world), but on the whole, skip it.
Gangster Squad (2013)
Director: Reuben Fleischer
Writers: Will Beall, Paul Leiberman
Stars: Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone
Viewed: May 6, 2013 (17 minutes)
Synopsis: Los Angeles, 1949: A secret crew of police officers led by two determined sergeants work together in an effort to take down the ruthless mob king Mickey Cohen who runs the city.
Review: Stories are food. You are what you eat. What you ingest, you will eventually live out. So why would I chew gravel for two hours? I suffered patiently through voyeuristic gore and a general feeling of reprobate griminess for 17 minutes and should have turned it off after the first three.
Garden State (2004)
Director: Zach Braff
Writer: Zach Braff
Stars: Zach Braff, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm, Natalie Portman
Viewed: August 23, 2009
Synopsis: A quietly troubled young man returns home for his mother’s funeral after being estranged from his family for a decade.
Review: Garden State is a baby blanket: flat, fuzzy, and way too easy to cry into for no good reason. Bored the stew out of me.
Director: Andrew Niccol
Writer: Andrew Niccol
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Gore Vidal, Jude Law
Viewed: February 27, 2010
Synopsis: A genetically inferior man assumes the identity of a superior one in order to pursue his lifelong dream of space travel.
Review: This intelligent and beautifully shot futuristic sci-fi is more than a compelling film. It’s an important one. What do you do when society has the power to genetically engineer its children to fit whatever role has been predetermined for them–and gives the cold shoulder (reminiscent of Nazism in its dark beginnings) to those with “defects”?
Andrew Niccols, who also penned The Truman Show, seems to have a thing for the man-versus-the-institution plot. But unlike Truman (which basically turns out to be an ingenious metaphor for a Tower of Babel story where man succeeds–ha, really?), Gattaca’s point isn’t simply that we should defy whichever authority happens to cramp our style. It’s about defying authorities that defy God. Rebellion against tyranny (as they say) is obedience to the One that counts.
The film’s original title was “The Eighth Day,” a name Niccols had to leave behind because another movie snitched it, which is unfortunate because it threw a spotlight on the film’s message: the folly of man coming behind God and tampering with what He created perfect in seven. Niccol’s hero (Ethan Hawke) defies the institution, but not simply because it’s treading on his dreams. He defies it because that’s what heroes are supposed to do: throw down idols. You see a man (or a government, or a nation) standing up and asking you to bow down? Telling you to surrender your life? Commanding you to hand over your kids? Then, it’s time to cheat, sneak, fight, and become a felon if you have to, because the Lord’s work belongs to Him (a jealous God).
Says Gattaca: Know that the Lord, He is God, and we are not.
Get Smart (2008)
Director: Peter Segal
Writers: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember
Stars: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson
Viewed: February 21, 2009
Synopsis: Maxwell Smart, analyst for the secret spy agency CONTROL, alongside the experienced Agent 99, must prevent KAOS, an enemy agency from Russia, from bringing disaster to America.
Review: The old TV show gripped me about as much as a flabby handshake, but I knew that I can be rather curmudgeonly about comedies–as in, I don’t mind being a funny person myself, but I get real seriously ticked off if a movie tries to make me laugh. And so, with that self-knowledge, I decided to give Get Smart a go. Steve Carell actually made me want to not be such a crab. The plot escapes me now, but I remember laughing–and I don’t think any of it was uncomfortable laughter, though please don’t quote me on that. As for Anne Hathaway, she took me further away from hating her than any other movie had at that point. (Limp-wristed applause.)
The Ghost and the Darkness (1996)
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Writers: William Goldman
Stars: Val Kilmer, Michael Douglas, Tom Wilkinson, John Kani, Emily Mortimer
Viewed: November 17, 2007
Synopsis: Set in 1898, this movie is based on the true story of two lions in Africa that killed 35 people over a nine month period, while a bridge engineer and an experienced old hunter tried to kill them.
Review: Why: One of my favorite action-dramas and certainly one of my top five man-vs.-monster movies. While not as define-the-times original as Jaws or Jurassic Park, The Ghost and the Darkness is a solid, powerful, memorable film with strong writing (based on a true story), unforgettable suspense, and an epic, pounding music score from Jerry Goldsmith–even a little too epic at times. I don’t want to spoil one of the best scenes, so let me just say: far too many films have gone for the same effect, and The Ghost and the Darkness puts them all to shame. If that’s too cryptic for you, you’ll just have to watch it. (Hint: the scene concerns lions…)
The Ghost (2010)
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Robert Harris, Roman Polanski, et al.
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Jon Bernthal, Olivia Williams
Viewed: August 8, 2010
Synopsis: A ghostwriter hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister uncovers secrets that put his own life in jeopardy.
Review: Bleak, bleak, bleak. Also, more than somewhat boring, though the acting was raw and the tension (when it happened) very real. Alexandre Desplat, moments of spotty genius in Harry Potter aside, should be fined for his irritating, monotonously xylophoney film score.
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: David Franzoni, et al.
Stars: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Derek Jacobi, Djimon Hounsou
Viewed: November, 2000
Synopsis: When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an emperor’s corrupt son, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.
Review: I’ll say again what I said in defense of awarding Maximus a position on my Best Heroes list. Gladiator tries in some ways to be a revenge story (due to conflicting goals in various drafts of the screenplay), but ultimately, it’s about a noble pagan who gives Christians something to imitate: a man who is masculine without being cheesy; a man who endures hell yet remains true to his family and country, all without taking the descent into bitterness. The story, muscular and compelling on a Ben Hurian scale, also boasts Joaquin Phoenix’s unhinged sadist Commodus (one of Hollywood’s master villains) and a brilliant score which established Hans Zimmer as the new sound of film music (though John Williams will always be Hollywood’s Bach). The movie is just big. Production, big. Violence, big. Impact, big. Awesomeness, big. One of my top ten.
The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
Director: Jamie Uys
Writers: Jamie Uys
Stars: Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo, N!xau
Viewed: January 1, 2008
Synopsis: A comic allegory about a traveling Bushman who encounters modern civilization and its stranger aspects, including a clumsy scientist and a band of revolutionaries.
Review: This dazzlingly drab time-waster is as good an excuse for a real-life delete button as any. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying it made me break out in hives and hate myself. But if giddy, corny humor is your thing, then welcome to your hog heaven.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writers: Max Borenstein Dave Callaham
Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn
Viewed: May 22, 2014
Synopsis: The world’s most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.
Review: This is—not exactly fun. It is a lot better than fun. First off, director Gareth Edwards concentrates on slow suspense (as well he should), giving us time to invest in the characters. After all, the story centers on the question: What would happen to the world if three monsters (one of them an overgrown lizard toting punk Himalayas on his spine) entered a trans-ocean, continent-hopping duel? It is thus essential that we give a rip about the people getting squished. Besides Jurassic Park and Jaws, no movie made me care as much for the individual caught in world-wide collateral damage, and Godzilla is consequently much more worthwhile than your typical “it’s summer–must be time to destroy another major U.S. city” flick. (And for the spoiler/record, this film destroys a lot more than just one.)
Another (related) good thing: Godzilla doesn’t feel like the latest in a long line of monster movies. It feels, in many ways, like the original monster movie. Which takes a ton of ingenuity, not to mention confidence. It takes guts to slow down, to build the mystery (even though we all know what’s going to happen), to resist jumping straight to CGI-bloated action. And even in today’s ultra-talented world of special effects, it also takes crazy magic to depict monsters of such awe-inspiring size. Every single shot–so dangerously close to simply being JUST ANOTHER SHOT OF A BIG BEAST, because we’ve never seen THAT before!–honestly feels new. And overpowering. Edwards realized he had to sell this story to a tough, highly trained audience, and he did it. Bam.
It was a fun entourage of characters. At the helm is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (yes, much younger husband of Sam who is directing Fifty Yucks of Grey), perfectly cast as Navy Lt. Ford Brody, an EOD technician who, sorta like Jack Ryan, finds himself the only man for the job wherever he goes. Bryan Cranston is super–and almost makes me want to give Breaking Bad a try. The dialogue is largely real (and where it isn’t, they give it to Ken Watanabe, who has the power to impress just by standing there looking worried, so it doesn’t matter…much). I don’t remember the music, but that’s okay because Godzilla’s roar drowns it out anyway and makes the T-Rex sound like a kitten.
Just one quibble. Or maybe confession. It could have something to do with the fact that I’ve never read any of the comics or seen the other films, but I felt pretty apathetic about the monster himself. Where did he come from? Why does he care? Who gave him his conscience and weirdly canine loyalty? As soon as the credits rolled, I realized that the big beast had as much personality as the nuke, which felt a bit cold.
But who am I to look a gift leviathan in the mouth?
Gone Baby Gone (2007)
Director: Ben Affleck
Writers: Ben Affleck, Aaron Stockard, et al.
Stars: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Morgan Freeman, Ed Harris, Amy Ryan
Viewed: August 22, 2009
Synopsis: Two Boston area detectives investigate a little girl’s kidnapping, which ultimately turns into a crisis both professionally and personally.
Review: If the film’s conclusion isn’t entirely nihilistic, everything about the story sure feels that way. Dark, cynical, grimy, bloody, horrifying, so much crime, so much cussing, so many unlovable people. But although the content (language and sexual dialogue especially) makes it hard to stomach, I do think there’s a good story at its center: the story of an ordinary man who gives up everything and is forsaken by all in order to do what is right rather than what is easy or emotionally appealing. This was the movie that changed my perception of Casey Affleck from “one of those clowns in Ocean 11” to “the Affleck who can really act.”
A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)
Director: John Moore
Writers: Skip Woods, John Carlin, et al.
Stars: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney
Viewed: February 17, 2013
Synopsis: John McClane travels to Russia to help out his seemingly wayward son, Jack, only to discover that Jack is a CIA operative working undercover, causing the father and son to team up against underworld forces.
Review: Enough with Mother Russia. I want more yippee ki yay. Chief frustrations are listed here.
Good Night and Good Luck (2005)
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Stars: David Strathairn, George Clooney, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels
Viewed: June 1, 2013
Synopsis: Broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow looks to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy.
Review: Ashamed to say that I can’t really vouch for this film’s representation of Joseph McCarthy (though it seems to match up with what I do know). What I can do is applaud Clooney’s signature spare, gripping style–even more intense here than I remember it being in Syriana. Entire scenes feel stripped from real life with little editing or embellishment. There’s no music to help shape the action, no dramatic POV shifts dictating what we pay attention to, no visual commentary from the director at all. It’s like Clooney planted a camera in the midst of these actors (each of them perfectly cast) and just let it roll. The result is sometimes unbearably tense. Indeed, there are times when that tension stretches limp into sheer boredom. (I nearly fell asleep at the climax.) So there are strengths and weaknesses here. But other filmmakers could certainly afford to learn from Clooney’s gifts.
And now? Time to brush up on the Cold War.
The Good Shepherd (2006)
Director: Robert De Niro
Writers: Eric Roth
Stars: Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Eddie Redmayne, Alec Baldwin
Viewed: March 5, 2008
Synopsis: The tumultuous early history of the Central Intelligence Agency is viewed through the prism of one man’s life.
Review: De Niro needed a better editor. The Good Shepherd has a worthy tale skulking beneath the floorboards–a nearly-three-hour proverb warning us not to do anything we’re watching–but it’s buried in scenes too long, too many, too dark, too dirty. The movie squats big and heavy and depressing and nasty.
The Good Son (1993)
Director: Joseph Ruben
Writers: Ian McEwan
Stars: Macaulay Culkin, Elijah Wood, Wendy Crewson, David Morse
Viewed: June 18, 2007
Synopsis: A young boy stays with his aunt and uncle, and befriends his cousin who’s the same age. But his cousin begins showing increasing signs of violent behavior.
Review: A horror movie for parents. Can kids turn into monsters? Obviously. Just look at the juvenile justice system. But do they spring up ex nihilo in perfect little American homes, drown their baby brothers, frame their cousins, and try to murder their mothers with no shadow of a motive? According to The Good Son, sure, but even worse, you can do nothing to explain, anticipate, understand, or stop them.
The movie’s fundamental lie is about the nature of evil itself. In God’s world, behold Satan. (Clearly, evil is real.) But there’s a story behind him. He isn’t just the devil, he is the angel of light with a fall. Evil has a narrative you can trace, a recipe you could have changed. Mccaulay Culkin, on the other hand, is a self-created nightmare that you could never diagnose. Better obliterate such evil while he’s still shorter than you are. (But watch out, because he’s still inexplicably smarter.)
If you’re still interested in this movie, it’s probably because you’re a die-hard Elijah Wood fan, in which case I will say that the 11-year-old’s prowess makes this disaster almost worth it.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writers: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck
Stars: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgård, Casey Affleck, Cole Hauser
Viewed: March 12, 2010
Synopsis: Will Hunting, a janitor at MIT, has a gift for mathematics but needs help from a psychologist to find direction in his life.
Review: Can I recommend a dumpster? The story is interesting with terrific acting and smart, greased-pig-rapid dialogue (it won best original screenplay at the Oscar’s for a reason), but a vile amount of cussing and way too many filthy jokes make it impossible to swallow peaceably.
A Good Year (2006)
Director: Ridley Scott
Writers: Marc Klein, Peter Mayle
Stars: Russell Crowe, Albert Finney, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hollander, Freddie Highmore
Viewed: October 21, 2007
Synopsis: A British investment broker inherits his uncle’s chateau and vineyard in Provence, where he spent much of his childhood. He discovers a new laid-back lifestyle as he tries to renovate the estate to be sold.
Review: Meh. Ridley and Russell ought to stick to strength and honor. Watching this movie is like ingesting weird French food. It may be elegant and served all pretty, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still boudin noir.
The Goonies (1985)
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus
Stars: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman
Viewed: March 28, 2008
Synopsis: A group of kids embark on a wild adventure after finding a pirate treasure map.
Review: From what I remember, this was a lot like J.J. Abrams’ Super 8: a fun group of kids off on a crazy adventure, with cracking chemistry and dialogue being the key attractions. Would like to see it again.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Viewed: October 6, 2013
Synopsis: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.
Review: This was not fun. My stomach hurt, it was so suspenseful. I’m no cinematic wimp, but from the (nearly interminable) opening shot to the last second, all I wanted was for Sandra Bullock to get home. Skip the ride, just get her home.
But I loved it. Gravity, for every reason under the sun–for story, for acting, for cinematography, for technical execution, for artistry, for pure change-your-life power–is probably the best film of 2013.
Without going into nitty-gritty spoilers, the story is about a woman frantically trying to grab anything in sight that is bigger than herself, but the lesson she learns is to let go. She’s been hanging onto her pain, her terrible pain, for so long that she has no idea her real lifeline is somewhere else—and that there is a life worth living.
Yes, Gravity’s faith itself is a little vague. There is definitely an afterlife and there are definitely angels and good men definitely “go up,” but the Cuaróns (father-son writers) are a bit ambiguous with their God. The Russian station has a picture of Jesus; the Chinese station, Buddha. Is it either/or? Maybe a combination? Or perhaps any “higher power” will do? The movie leaves some wiggle room.
Nevertheless (and here comes a spoiler), when Sandra crawls out of the water after her “baptism,” hugs the mud from which we are all made, looks up to the sky, and says, “Thank you”–it’s hard not to conclude she speaks to the triune Creator. This simple thanksgiving might not seem so remarkable unless you realize there are plenty of unbelievable survival stories (such as Touching the Void) where not once do the characters feel the need to thank anyone outside themselves.
On the technical side, Gravity is utterly brilliant. The camera angles make you feel trapped, spinning, weightless, lightheaded—everything the characters suffer. I honestly felt heavy by the end when gravity finally returns. And I know that real astronauts have pointed out several unrealistic plot motifs (like the direction of the debris flying around the earth), but in my mind, these are outweighed by the huge risk Cuarón took in filming everything–everything–the way you would hear it in space: silent. Absolutely, terrifyingly silent. (George Lucas, take note.)
Gravity isn’t inherently an evangelistic movie, but it is a good one. It may not witness explicitly to unbelievers; it does witness to believers. Many Christians need to learn the lesson that Sandra’s character learns: Don’t mistake God’s gifts for God Himself. When He takes them away, He has still given you Himself. Let the right things weigh you down. Choose your tether. Stick to this earth for as long as God calls you to walk on it, and then let Him decide when the silver cord is loosed.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Toby Maguire
Viewed: September 14, 2013
Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor.
Review: This was as good a production of the book as I think you can get; in fact, it was even better than the book deserves because it’s really quite a terrible story with pathetic, godless people with disordered loves and disordered lives. The music, stunning. Acting, good. Narration, too much. Overall, the story reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. Don’t look for heroes, look for warnings pointing out the road to hell.
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Director: Jim Henson
Writers: Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, et al.
Stars: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, David Goelz
Viewed: April 3, 2009
Synopsis: Kermit, Gonzo and Fozzie are reporters who travel to Britain to interview a rich victim of jewel thieves and help her along with her secretary, Miss Piggy.
Review: Trying to think of anything that disturbs me as much as the Muppets and I’m coming up with things like Hitler playing with babies. Ew. A thousand times, ew.
The Great Raid (2005)
Director: John Dahl
Writers: William B. Breuer, Hampton Sides, et al.
Stars: Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, James Franco, Connie Nielsen
Viewed: May 16, 2008
Synopsis: Taking place towards the end of WWII, 500 American Soldiers have been entrapped in a camp for 3 years. Beginning to give up hope they will ever be rescued, a group of Rangers goes on a dangerous mission to try and save them.
Review: It’s a true story that tries very hard to be a powerful movie and fails by more than a little. The plot and cast were capable of much more, but the screenplay and directing fumbled both. James Franco was just waiting to let loose in 127 Hours–you can tell. That said, it’s certainly a decent film and one that WWII buffs should go for.
Director: Bill Paxton
Writer: Mark Frost
Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Stephen Dillane, Elias Koteas
Viewed: May 3, 2006
Synopsis: In the 1913 US Open, 20-year-old Francis Ouimet played against his idol, 1900 US Open champion, Englishman Harry Vardon.
Review: I hate golf, but I actually enjoyed this cozy, feel-good movie thanks to some strong directing by Bill Paxton and more than a few memorable characters–especially Shia LaBeouf and his little caddie and, perhaps even better, Stephen Dillane’s intensely underestimated gentleman-hero. The man delivers some of the best-timed, truly righteous anger I’ve ever seen.
Green Street Hooligans (2005)
Director: Lexi Alexander
Writers: Lexi Alexander, Dougie Brimson, et al.
Stars: Elijah Wood, Charlie Hunnam, Claire Forlani, Marc Warren, Leo Gregory
Viewed: November 7, 2008
Synopsis: A wrongfully expelled Harvard undergrad moves to London, where he is introduced to the violent underworld of football hooliganism.
Review: Besides End of Watch, this indie film about British football probably contains the most language I’ve ever heard, but strangely enough, it sounds (for the most part) rather innocuous, spoken as it is in heavy accents by blokes who drop the F-word rather fondly. So if you can clear that hurdle, then here’s a neat little scrapper of a story with fascinating/depressing insight into a world I never even knew existed. Better than that, it shows the difference between throwing your life away and throwing it down for others, featuring Charlie Hunnam in the role he was born to play (if you watched Pacific Rim and concluded he can’t act, this should fix that), Elijah Wood (the first time he’s successfully stepped out of his own shadow cast by The Lord of the Rings), and a miserable Judas warped by envy and insecurity. It’s a lean story; simple but tough. It throws you down, knocks you out, picks you up.
Green Zone (2010)
Director: Paul Greengrass
Writers: Brian Helgeland, Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Stars: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Jason Isaacs, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan
Viewed: March 16, 2010
Synopsis: Discovering covert and faulty intelligence causes a U.S. Army officer to go rogue as he hunts for Weapons of Mass Destruction in an unstable region.
Review: More delusion than grandeur. Everything about this movie–from the treatment of the Bush-era’s search for WMDs to Jason Isaac’s handlebar mustache of villainy–is insultingly simplistic. I had more respect for Paul Greengrass when I sat down to watch the movie than I did afterwards. Stick to his other stuff. Green Zone sprints along with his typical hand-held-camera realism and contains some cool military action, but that’s about all the movie is worth.
The Guardian (2006)
Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: Ron L. Brinkerhoff
Stars: Kevin Costner, Ashton Kutcher, Sela Ward
Viewed: February 24, 2007
Synopsis: A high school swim champion with a troubled past enrolls in the U.S. Coast Guard’s “A” School, where legendary rescue swimmer Ben Randall teaches him some hard lessons about loss, love, and self-sacrifice.
Review: For a lesson in how classic stories become cliché if you don’t handle them right, watch The Guardian. But to gain more respect for rescue divers, well, watch The Guardian. The swimming scenes are impressive. The love story is weak sauce and everything else is just too heavy-handed and way too Ashton Kutcher.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, et al.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker
Viewed: August 3, 2014
Synopsis: In the far reaches of space, an American pilot named Peter Quill finds himself the object of a manhunt after stealing an orb coveted by the villainous Ronan.
Review: Take it from someone who frequently resents having a good time at the movies: Guardians of the Galaxy is a fantastic ball of fun. By which I mean I was never once bored and never even once wished I were watching Schinder’s List instead.
I knew nothing of the plot or the comics beforehand. Everything I knew (and disliked) came from the trailer, which instantly persuaded me to avoid any movie whatsoever featuring a tree, a raccoon, and a green girl because if there’s anything I avoid besides romantic comedies, it’s bizarro movies featuring trees, raccoons, and green girls. Especially if the raccoon talks. As for Chris Pratt…um, who?
Two loyal, talking-rodent-loving friends and a delighted review from Entertainment Weekly made me do an about-face. Two days after Guardians opened with a massive dollar debut, I settled into my theater seat, demanding to be impressed.
Well, I was impressed. From the very first shot: campy, upbeat 80s music piping into the eardrums of a sad-faced little boy with a black eye, waiting in a hospital for news of his dying mother.
Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t invent anything new so much as tackle old ground with a refreshingly new attitude. James Gunn, bless his heart, doesn’t know how to take himself seriously–and what a relief that is in a world overstuffed with big-budget cheese. Thanks to Gunn’s zany, unabashed enthusiasm, the romping space adventure’s tongue-in-cheekery is what sets it apart from flops like The Fantastic Four and uninspired, lazy stories like Thor: The Dark World.
Every time the movie approaches a cliché, it sidesteps. The hero, for starters, is actually interesting. Chris Pratt’s witty, baffoonishly charismatic mix of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker brings to the team (indeed, the entire film) a giddy esprit de corps. And his sidekicks break almost every mold: a muscle man who talks like Shakespeare (except Shakespeare actually got metaphors), a wisecracking, take-no-prisoners, overgrown rodent who quickly feels like a real human being, and a monosyllabic tree who just about makes us cry. Probably the least inventive protagonist is that of Pratt’s martial artsy love interest, but Zoe Saldana manages to bring just enough nuance to the part that we don’t mind having seen it many times before.
Where the movie could have improved? The bad guy. Or bad guys. There were like…a lot. And none of them were remotely interesting or scary besides Michael Rooker’s southern-twanged, crooked-teethed, flipflopping thief/foster father. It is enough to make one really, truly grateful for Loki, the only good baddie Marvel flicks have produced in probably forever. And we can only hope that Rooker comes back for round two.
Guardians of the Galaxy is what everyone wants to see at least once a summer: a gleeful, thrilling, visually spectacular caper with just enough tough heroism and emotional warmth to go beyond pure entertainment. Now, how can I begrudge that?
Guarding Tess (1994)
Director: Hugh Wilson
Writers: Hugh Wilson, Peter Torokvei
Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Nicolas Cagem Austin Pendleton
Viewed: November 26, 2009
Synopsis: A former First Lady of the US wants a particular Secret Service agent to head her bodyguard detail, even though he can’t stand her.
Review: This quirky comedy-drama did some really fine character work. Leisurely and undemanding, for those who like the mellower stuff. (I do not.)