This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of The Sting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
In many instances a film is like a con: it wants to hook you, it wants to make you personally invested in the outcome, and it wants you to walk away with a smile on your face and slightly less in your wallet. If the endeavor is a success, there will always be enough to suggest that the artist — the film artist or the con artist — knows a truth that you do not. If the endeavor is unsuccessful, the feeling of being cheated will linger and frustrate.
If we apply this analogy to today’s film industry, of course, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be considered the most ambitious long con in Hollywood history. But things weren’t as complicated in 1973, and that year produced arguably the least-complicated Best Picture winner ever in George Roy Hill’s The Sting. A complex plot, high stakes for hardnosed characters, themes of friendship and honor amongst thieves — these elements are all there, but they’re intentionally deployed to the background of a filmgoing experience that’s less concerned with a moral message than a good time.
Continue reading The Sting (1973)
In Big, 13-year-old Josh Baskin wishes his way into a 30-something-year-old grownup version of himself. The trope of a mind-body mismatch was certainly nothing new in 1988, and in fact the late ’80s had a whole slew of movies featuring this exact same plot. These are heedfully chronicled by Mike Ryan here and include the likes of Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, 18 Again! and Dream a Little Dream, all released within the approximate span of a single year; the other point of commonality those films share, of course, is that they’re all pretty crappy. Big is the outlier in that regard. I was about the same age as Teen Josh when I first saw the movie, and I found myself enamored with the possibilities of instant adulthood, getting a job with a toymaker and renting a sweet NYC penthouse and flirting with someone who would eventually and inexplicably agree to become my girlfriend. Teen Me was most likely motivated by this last point.
Today I’m closer in age to Adult Josh, and now Big almost seems like an entirely different movie. From a kid’s point of view, looking forward to finally attaining that brand of independence reserved for grownups, Penny Marshall’s sophomore directorial effort rings true in almost every frame. It has the wide-eyed wonder and the sentimental disillusionment that all kids experience to some degree. In a sense all movies are accelerated versions of life experiences, condensed down to two hours and designed in an arc so as to bring the viewer along for the ride with the characters on the screen. From a kid’s point of view, Big works because that acceleration is literally a part of Josh’s experience: he goes from kid to grownup and back again in a short amount of time, and so do we.
Continue reading Big (1988)
One of the things that soured Age of Ultron, the second Avengers outing, was all of the hard work apparent in the film. Pretty much every movie you watch is the result of hard work, of course, but in Ultron all of the moving and shaking afoot in the past and future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe severely impacted the present, i.e. the actual movie you’re watching right now. Excepting the occasional moment of levity (the Mjolnir party game) or well-drawn action scene (Hulk vs. Hulkbuster), it felt like hard work just to get to the end of Ultron as a viewer. Director Joss Whedon never struck the same natural flow he found in his original Avengers movie, and he seemingly left the MCU because he’d rather work from a place of inspiration than from a blueprint strategy designed to perpetuate a larger narrative. In our original review we posited this as no coincidence when the Avengers themselves begin referring to their superheroism with workplace terminology, to their “jobs,” to the “endgame;” Ultron even has an absent-husband subplot featuring Mrs. Hawkeye that seems a better fit in Death of a Salesman than a Marvel flick.
But Ultron‘s in the past, right? We’re here for the new one, Infinity War, featuring everyone who was in Ultron and everyone who’s had a solo Marvel outing since then, plus a few new characters, plus an occasional cameo from the MCU’s ever-expanding backlog. As such, the first order of business (more workplace terminology!) is to issue a SPOILER WARNING to anyone who has not yet seen Infinity War. Motion State assumes no liability in your reading past this paragraph!
Continue reading Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Our Take Two column offers second opinions and alternative angles on films and TV series reviewed elsewhere on Motion State. Head here for our original review of Casino Royale.
We’ve done a fair bit of writing about James Bond here at Motion State. From the wonky “continuity” to an increasing need to indulge a wider audience to shitty henchmen to the way writers get away with writing the same damn movie all over again, 007’s bases are more or less covered. Heck, we even spun a conspiracy theory about Bond and Star Wars that only broke recently, now that the tables are turned and Star Wars is suddenly the more prolific franchise of the two. Double heck: we even wrote about Never Say Never Again, the “unofficial” Bond adventure featuring a plot primarily involving deep tissue massage and jazzercise. Despite the advice of the title, I’m supremely confident saying never again on that one.
The thing we’ve somehow avoided discussing is the music of the Bond franchise. Excluding franchise themes written by John Williams — Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, etc. — Bond is arguably the film series in which the theme music is most inextricable from the mere notion of the franchise itself. You pick the theme out in an instant and you wouldn’t mistake it for anything else. When I hear the words “James Bond” the first thing I think of is this:
Continue reading Casino Royale (2006): You Know My Name
There were a number of factors that prevented me from rushing out to see You Were Never Really Here on opening night. First was the weather, which is not really an excuse at all if you’re a New Englander like me. The second factor was the review snippet plastered on the poster that referred to the film as “Taxi Driver for a new century.” Do I enjoy Taxi Driver? I do. Do I enjoy “modern updates” to ’70s classics like Westworld, for example? Occasionally, yes, I do. But this kind of explicit tailcoat-riding is either lazy marketing or inadequate criticism or, likely, both. I don’t think I saw Interstellar because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!” and I didn’t see Annihilation because people said “it’s 2001 for a new generation!“, but I do know that I enjoyed those movies primarily for how not-2001 they both were.
But this, too, is a weak excuse. Two big preventatives: firstly, in a move most unforgivable and piteously ironic for someone who purports to point out “inadequate criticism” in the first paragraph of this very review, I had never before seen anything directed by Lynne Ramsay. People had gently suggested this oversight as something I should reconcile tout suite. “Start with Ratcatcher,” they said, recommending Ramsay’s feature debut. “Start with We Need to Talk About Kevin,” they said, recommending her 2011 effort. I’m a bit of a completist in this regard, watching one movie by the Coen Brothers and then suddenly finding myself rewatching them all. Maybe my appreciation of You Were Never Really Here would be heightened if I first paid my dues to Ramsay’s previous films, no?
Continue reading You Were Never Really Here (2018)
In the climactic finale of Annihilation, there is a moment in which a shape-shifting alien bioclone with burning arms lovingly embraces a charred corpse in a lighthouse that has been struck by a meteor and overtaken by a mutated blight that threatens all life as we know it. Go ahead and read that sentence again if you have to. I dare you to try to come up with something so outlandish, so unsettling, so straight-up weird, much less deploy it at a crucial moment in a multimillion-dollar motion picture production. We live in a time where pretty much every sci-fi film with a budget this size (about $40 million) ends one way: explosions. The scripts all contain the same line: Big CGI Thing bursts into CGI flame. Heck, explosions probably typify the finale of most Hollywood films, sci-fi or otherwise, and the scripts for their inevitable sequels all contain the same line: Bigger CGI Thing bursts into bigger CGI flame.
But Annihilation goes a long way to assuaging the bitterness now associated with what the Hard Sci-Fi genre has threatened to become, and writer/director Alex Garland might just be the beacon of hope in this regard. It was already clear that Garland’s a formidable painter, but it’s still special to see a wider canvas filled with such vibrant colors. His debut directing gig Ex Machina knocked it out of the park (and is in some senses a superior film), but with Annihilation he gets more characters, more locations, more visual effects and more freedom to tell the story his way.
Continue reading Annihilation (2018)
For better or worse, the most apparent quality of the first season of Jessica Jones was how out-of-place it felt amongst the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity. If you’re accustomed to (or numbed by) Marvel’s breezy stories of superpowered do-gooders quipping their way to a city-leveling, CGI-fueled finale, then the first thing you notice about Jessica Jones has to be how unconcerned this superpowered character seems to be with doing any do-gooding at all. Maybe that’s the second thing you notice. First, you probably notice that the Jessica Jones theme song starts off as a pretty cool slinky-smooth avant-garde noir-jazz piece before veering off inexplicably to become a prog-rock dumpster fire. The thing’s an absolute mess. I happen to like both John Coltrane and Steve Vai, but not in the same span of two minutes.
Anyway, here’s a somewhat interesting quote from our review of the first season of Jessica Jones:
The latest entry in Marvel’s grand scheme has more inherent push/pull to the interconnectedness thing than any other installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that includes the Netflix predecessor Daredevil. On one hand Jessica is about as far away as you’re going to get from Captain America, and maybe that marks trouble for an inevitable crossing-of-paths — either the dark tone of Jones would be compromised to accommodate Cap or the other way around.
Continue reading Jessica Jones – Season 2
Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
“Writing about the Coens — and mining their oeuvre for Big Ideas — is a sure way of looking like an ass” — so says David Edelstein of New York Magazine in his original review of No Country for Old Men. There is duality to these words, a twin truth, that simultaneously drives and stays my critic’s pen at this very moment. One, Edelstein is absolutely right. Two, I am already quite accomplished when it comes to looking like an ass.
Despite the fact that most everything from the Brothers Coen seems intentionally built to endure traditional long-form critical analysis, maybe some bite-sized stream-of-consciousness notes on the relationship between two of their most celebrated films — Fargo and No Country for Old Men — will net more insight into how the Coens evolved (or devolved) as filmmakers in the decade between those efforts. Maybe we’ll stumble on a few of those Big Ideas before choosing to ignore them altogether. Maybe we’ll be responding in kind to scripts that are often episodic, meandering, content to leave ostensibly-vital plot threads hanging. Or maybe we’ll just look like asses.
Continue reading Face Off: Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007)
I arrived late to the party for The Shape of Water, having finally caught the movie a few weeks ago after months and months of dodging reviews online. Guess I’d better add my voice to the fray, huh? Maybe a piece on how writer/director Guillermo del Toro’s creativity allowed him to get away with a smaller budget…but, no, someone’s already written that. How about an article detailing the Creature from the Black Lagoon-inspired genesis of the film? Damn, that one’s been up for three months. Use of color in the film? Been there. Political subtext? Done that. Seems a movie as rich as this should have a surplus of accoutrements on which to festoon my opinions, should have that pliability typical of great films allowing for different readings, interpretations, criticisms, attitudes and judgments.
The irony, in a way, is that explicit analysis of The Shape of Water is sort of counter to the themes of the film. More than that: forcing words onto Shape, which thrives largely on sight and feeling, might actually be detrimental to one’s enjoyment of and identification with the message at hand. Despite having seen the film only recently and only once, I suspect that removing the words entirely — watching it with the volume muted — wouldn’t take anything away from the overall experience. It might even heighten it, highlighting just how different “words” and “communication” actually are.
Continue reading The Shape of Water (2017)
There’s nothing quite like a good movie villain. If we’re talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, maybe you read this statement another way: there’s nothing quite like a good movie villain, anywhere. With the exception of Loki and a few other superbaddies, the MCU’s well-documented track record for weak villains has been the franchise’s persistent shortcoming. In much the same way as the villains of the Bond franchise became less and less interesting with each progressive installment, by this point you basically know what you’re getting in the Antagonist Department. At worst, the MCU gives us a paper-thin doppelgänger for the hero, a bland apocalypse-seeker with vague motivation, or whatever the heck Christopher Eccleston was supposed to be in Thor: The Dark World. At best, the MCU just gives us Loki for like the fifth time.
And then Black Panther came along.
Continue reading Black Panther (2018)