The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

If Robert Redford is the best model of the American Dream in all its smiling, handsome glory (and I think he is), then he must also be its most effective destroyer. Through characters like the Sundance Kid (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) and Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby) who turn themselves into legends, and Bob Woodward (All the President’s Men) who turns politicians into criminals, Redford has made his career a mission to demystify the neatly packaged illusion of American exceptionalism. Yet I don’t think either of those crushes The Dream as brutally as The Great Waldo Pepper does, leaving it burning in the wreckage of a monoplane. And that’s saying something for a movie as lighthearted as this one.

It’s 1926 in down-home Nebraska, and all that’s left of World War I are the daredevil pilots who duke it out in barnstorming competitions right over our heads. Simple Midwesterners search the skies at the sound of a biplane engine while J.P. Sousa-style marches signal the arrival of our hero, Waldo Pepper. There’s only one problem–Pepper is a liar and a cheat. He never fought against the notorious Ernst Kessler in the war (he didn’t fight at all on account of his being a flight instructor), but he’ll say he did if it gets him an easy buck (on account of his being poor and desperate). But despite being a great storyteller and showman, Pepper is actually the real deal. He’s “Great,” not because he’s got money like Gatsby, but because his flying skills are (nearly) unmatched (that pesky Kessler is still alive after all). In this day and age, though, where almost every man and his grand-pappy seems to have a plane, Pepper’s gotta find a way to stand out. Continue reading The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)

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The Interview (2014)

By now it’s clear that the magnitude of the turmoil surrounding The Interview is vastly disproportionate to the actual strength of the film itself. It’s frustrating, certainly, that this is the movie at the center of everything. Still, the American film industry is a weird beast. In nearly every form — be it Jaws or Sharknado — it’s been a cultural behemoth that reaches pretty much every corner of the globe. Here’s Commentary‘s Abe Greenwald on the current state of all of that in the wake of the movie getting yanked from theaters:

Hollywood movies are a monolithic U.S. export that have served to plant American notions of freedom and unbridled possibility in the minds of untold millions. From now on, filmmakers will think twice before crossing the next paranoid despot. That’s tragic.

That’s no doubt an important point, and probably the point of greatest significance that will ever be associated with a movie starring Seth Rogen. Is that a completely credible fear, though? Amidst the larger concerns of global politics, should we be worried about the “tragic” future of our movies? This piece will wrap up briefly with more thoughts on this. For now, though, let’s shelve the real-life cyberwar fallout discussion and just talk about The Interview.

Continue reading The Interview (2014)

The Affair 1.3

Are the accents of Ruth Wilson and Dominic West beginning to bother anyone else? There’s no doubt that this is a great actress and a great actor cast nearly-perfectly as a woman and a man who are naïve and innocent in one moment and devilishly devious in the next. Plenty of Brits can handle the American accent with aplomb, and West in particular has had more than enough practice with The Wire’s McNulty and a few other American characters. Wilson is the more frequent offender in this third hour of The Affair, allowing her English English to show itself in her American English, especially in the framing scenes in the interrogation room.

She’s still perfect for Alison, though, as West is perfect for Noah, and though the third episode isn’t as good as the first or second it still moves the story forward into the promise of next week. That’s really the main reason why this show is working so far – the promise of next week. That’s not to say that the individual episodes aren’t doing enough, because they’re certainly far better than most of the drivel on television today. But the story and structure is so twisty-turny that the extended period of theorizing in between episodes is nearly as exciting as the episodes themselves, and that’s a mark of a solid and lasting series.

Continue reading The Affair 1.3

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The holiday season is filled with food, family, presents, and, of course, movies. Most of the movies people routinely watch during the holiday season include such classics as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Santa Clause, and even Elf. These Christmas movies are exactly that: novelty movies made just for the 25 days leading up to the holiday. Hardly any of these movies hold any weight as great films outside of the holiday season. However, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life does what these other movies could not by transcending the Christmas movie genre and becoming a classic film in its own right.

The 1946 movie, which is based on the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift”, tells the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) which takes place in the form of flashbacks at the beginning of the film so that his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) can understand the man he has been called on to help. It is clear from the beginning that the only thing that outweighs George’s lofty ambitions is his true care for everyone around him. At a young age, he saves his younger brother Harry from drowning and keeps his boss, pharmacist Mr. Gower — who is distraught after receiving news that his son had died in World War I — from accidentally delivering poison pills.

Continue reading It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Grand Theft Auto (1977)

It’s easy to see how Ron Howard made Grand Theft Auto. He was 23 years old in 1977 and already had a few years of Happy Days under his belt, not to mention enough TV credits to satisfy the entire career of most actors. He had connections, and those connections included his family of actors as well. Grand Theft Auto, frankly, is nothing phenomenally special, at least not in terms of script or directing. The hasty editing and funky bow chicka wow wow soundtrack do, at times, make the thing seem like it’s about to throw the hyuk hyuk Days of Happy out the window and become a low-budget adult film. But it’s Howard’s first film! He was 23! We can give him a break on quality here, for sure, and in fact I’m surprised most debut features from eventually-famous directors don’t look more like Grand Theft Auto.

Howard plays Sam Freeman, nice young lad from a modest family woefully in love with the beautiful Paula Powers. Paula’s played by Nancy Morgan, and she’s a great reminder that every desirable teenage girl in the ’70s had alliterative given and surnames. Paula’s also rich, and so her proposed engagement to Sam is not received well by her parents. They call him a fortune hunter and kick him out of the house before locking the door and blasting Kanye’s “Gold Digger”. Love, however, is not so easily swayed. Paula steals her father’s Rolls Royce and picks up Sam, and they hit the road to Vegas to get married and inspire an inexplicable epidemic of carjacking in their wake.

Continue reading Grand Theft Auto (1977)

Stay (2005)

It’s impossible to properly discuss Stay without discussing the ending. The movie depends on the last five minutes if it stands any chance of holding together. This, right off the bat, should be a bad sign. The Sixth Sense is a strong film even without the iconic (now cliché) twist, and 21 Grams (hell, any Iñárritu pic) features enough compelling drama to keep us interested until it all ties together at the end.  But Stay feels more like an exercise than a fully fleshed out story, and as anyone who doesn’t love getting high and watching Waking Life knows, that just won’t cut it. Nonetheless, Stay is a movie worthy of analysis. It’s just that you gotta get through the first sitting first. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably experience five steps of emotion that are not unlike going on a hot date. Allow me to explain.

Continue reading Stay (2005)

The Affair 1.2

The second hour of The Affair expands on the first episode not only by advancing the story with additional plot complications but, more importantly, by delving deeper into Noah and Alison and their present-day perceptions of the ill-fated affair. The biggest plot-point revelation is the purpose of the investigation that frames The Affair, that being tied to a murder case, and we already know a few bits and pieces of that crime. “Just trying to figure out if anyone might have had a motive to kill this fella,” the detective states, while Alison later mentions something about “whoever ran him down”. This is, of course, only the second episode of the show, so it’s tough to say how much of this is actually truth. Still, The Affair isn’t giving us these pieces for no reason.

And so we begin speculation early, using what we’ve been given so far. An obvious choice of victim would be Joshua Jackson’s Cole, Alison’s husband. If Noah and Alison engage in an affair that becomes increasingly involved, it’s only a matter of time before Cole finds out. This early in the game, that possibility could easily be a red herring. Could it be someone more minor, like Oscar the diner owner? Noah’s father-in-law, perhaps, using the discovery of the affair as blackmail material? The person who ends up being this “victim” might not even have been introduced yet, but it’s a fair bet that they crop up somewhere in season one.

Continue reading The Affair 1.2

Rampage (1987)

Did you finish listening to Serial yet? No? If not, never fear — as beautifully maniacal as it would be to just insert Serial spoilers into random film reviews, there is in fact a higher purpose to my evoking the super-popular This American Life spinoff podcast. That purpose is twofold, and the first is to highly recommend Wesley Morris’s piece “Wrestling With the Truth: The True Crime of Foxcatcher and Serial” over at Grantland. Morris is about as good as it gets these days in film criticism. Also, here is our own, lesser review of Foxcatcher from the New York Film Festival.

The second purpose in bringing up Serial is to talk about movies like William Friedkin’s Rampage. There are a thousand movies like this. There’s a twisted, blood-drinking serial killer named Charles Reece on the loose at Christmas who breaks into people’s homes and kills entire families. He’s caught, eventually, and put on trial to receive the death penalty. The prosecutor, played by Michael Biehn, is a man of high morals. His fight to convict the killer is a fairly personal one, because flashes of his own wife and son keep cropping up in his mind every time he reviews the case at hand. If this sounds a lot like Manhunter, well, that’s because it’s a lot like Manhunter.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

So I missed the first ten minutes of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The theater I go to is called Legacy, and — wouldn’t you know it! — there’s a similarly-named theater in Indiana, a state in which I do not live. The online purchasing mix-up was doubtless part of a North Korean ploy. After considering flying to Indiana to catch a movie I barely wanted to see, I opted instead to just jump into a showing that was already underway. It’s ten minutes, I thought, and this is a Peter Jackson movie.

So I’m waiting for Smaug to come out and breathe his fiery breath onto the poor Laketownians, but first it seems there’s a weepy scene between Luke Evans’s Bard and some other Laketownians. I try to ease into my seat and into the flow of the movie, but it’s instantly confusing. Is this a flashback? It’s only been ten minutes, so what could these people have to be weepy about so soon?

Continue reading The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

The Affair 1.1

Showtime has always been between Starz and HBO with regards to original series programming, creating a great many more memorable series than the former but never quite reaching the consistent quality heights of the latter. Dexter, Weeds, and Californication are arguably Showtime’s most successful efforts alongside the historical dramas Tudors and Borgias, all of which are good shows worth watching. The premium channel’s sudden jettisoning of all of their “adult programming” series by 2010 might further evidence their desire to be seen more like an HBO than just a cheap knockoff, or maybe they just realized that nobody watches scripted softcore porn shows.

While The Affair might not exactly herald an Age of Showtime, it’s certainly a step in the right direction. The first hour is split down the middle in order to separately follow both Noah and Alison, both recounting the day they first met at a summertime getaway. We meet Noah, played by Dominic West, as he and his family get ready for their summer. They fight, as any family does, but they’re happy. Noah and his wife roll their eyes as their kids do kid things. They reach their destination and meet Ruth Wilson’s Alison, a waitress at the little diner, and when Noah’s daughter starts choking Alison stands by helplessly and later bursts into tears as Noah thanks her for the lunch. One thing leads to another and it’s clear that Alison is a whole lot more reckless than Noah.

Continue reading The Affair 1.1