Good Will Hunting (1997)

I would like to start off this review by stating plainly that this is my all-time favorite film. I would never go to such lengths as to suggest that this is the “best” film ever made, but rather that it contains all the things that I truly care about in a movie — simply good writing, good acting, and an enlightening theme. I put a lot of emphasis on a film’s ability to speak to me in an emotional and personal way. Good WIll Hunting brought me to tears; it wrenched my gut with laughter; it inspired me, and it made me want to go out into the world searching for something special to call my own. This film won two Oscars in 1998, one for Best Original Screenplay, accepted by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and one for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, awarded to Robin Williams. I would like to dedicate this review to the memory of this remarkable man, whose passing, even months later, pains me deeply. We love you, Robin.

It is no surprise that this film spends a lot of its run-time focused on Will’s (Matt Damon) therapy sessions with Sean McGuire (Robin Williams), considering that a major theme of the film is about overcoming the obstacles that we make for ourselves within our own minds. Will has serious difficulty with allowing new people into his life in any real and significant way because the first people that were meant to love him, his parents, deserted him. This is why Will hangs up on Skylar (Minnie Driver) after running out into the rain to call her on a payphone; this is why he simply cannot bring himself to say that he loves her, even though he wants to, even though it breaks her heart that he won’t. This is an issue that nearly all of us deal with to some degree or another. The complete desire to do one thing, but to be so inhibited from doing so because of various psychological dilemmas is undeniably a common and quite frustrating problem. Will goes further, masking his issues by adopting the persona of an aloof, no-shit-giving punk. He’s a janitor who evenly divides his time between batting cages and bars.

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Never Say Never Again (1983)

The next Bond movie will be Spectre, which will mark the fourth outing for Daniel Craig’s modernized James Blonde and the second for director Sam Mendes following 2012’s Skyfall. Mendes won’t be the first to return for another helping of 007, and in fact the trend since Dr. No has hewed closer to “we’ll ask you back if your movie doesn’t suck” than anything else. The math, for those of you struggling here: Skyfall doesn’t suck = Mendes returns.

But Spectre will also mark the return of…well, SPECTRE. The evil organization (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion) has been absent from the Bond franchise for the past eleven films, at least according to Bond purists. According to everyone else, the last time SPECTRE plotted against MI6 was in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, the only Bond film not produced (or sanctioned) by Eon Productions, a film that saw the valiant (ahem) return of Sean Connery to the James Bond role. Never Say Never Again pits this 53-year-old version of the spy against SPECTRE as the organization counter-intelligences, terrorizes, revenges and extorts all over everybody’s ass. Math: SPECTRE = evil.

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Ordinary People (1980)

Halfway through Ordinary People, there is a scene in which high schooler Conrad Jarrett’s parents are taking family portraits. His mother and father take turns posing with their only son while his grandparents run the camera. Conrad awkwardly folds his arms, not knowing whether to smile. Father flashes a genuine grin, truly relishing the moment. When it’s Mother’s turn, the two stand together uncomfortably. Father’s trying to take the perfect picture, but Mother doesn’t know how to show Conrad affection, and her fake smile is growing tired. Father takes too long with the camera, Mother gets increasingly frustrated, Grandparents are talking over everyone as usual, and suddenly Conrad explodes. He’s had enough. Not so much with the photo, but with his mother’s inability to stand next to him and smile. Everyone freezes, except Mother. She carries on like nothing happened, hoping to fade back into normality like another ordinary person.

It’s a perfect representation of the family’s dynamic, though not the only one. Ordinary People is made up of small moments like these where characters aren’t saying how they feel, partly to keep up appearances, and partly because they don’t actually understand how they feel. In his directorial debut, Robert Redford proves to be an actor’s director, finding the ticks and gestures that characterize these humans better than any line of dialogue would. This is a movie about a family’s lack of understanding, of each other, yes, but mostly of themselves. They fidget, they pace, they stare blankly, lost in thought. They don’t understand why they feel and act the way they do, so they look to blame each other. After all, Conrad once screams, “It’s gotta be somebody’s fault or there ain’t no goddamn point.”

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Leviathan (2014)

Leviathan is chilling. It’s many things, of course — it’s beautiful, stunningly shot by director Andrey Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; it’s grand and sweeping, ceilingless in theme and character; it’s relevant, despite criticism by the Russian government regarding an “unpatriotic” message. But most of all Leviathan is hauntingly realistic, defiant of many of the plot developments one might expect from such a film. Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars (and arguably the frontrunner alongside Ida), Leviathan is also Russia’s first appearance at the Academy Awards in nearly a decade.

The plot stems from a land dispute between a corrupt town mayor and a family living by the seashore. After having been harassed by the mayor’s men, the short-fused patriarch Kolia brings in his friend Dmitri, now a lawyer in Moscow, to help fight the takeover. Dmitri digs up some dirt on the mayor that he thinks he can use — but in this tiny Northern town it seems everyone is dirty. Kolia’s life begins to unravel as he watches helplessly, and before long it’s not just his home that lies in jeopardy but his job, his wife, his son, his freedom.

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Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982/2007)

This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Theatre Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of Blade Runner: The Final Cut. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.

So: is Deckard a replicant? This is the question that most everyone comes to after seeing Blade Runner, especially if the version in question is Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut. There are seven distinct version of the film — including the U.S. and International Theatrical Cuts (both 1982) and the Director’s Cut (1992) — each of which is evidence of a continued preoccupation with this dystopian vision of our future. Granted, the broad strokes of all seven versions are more or less the same. Harrison Ford plays Rick Deckard, an android-hunting policeman quite different than most other Ford heroes. Regardless of which version you’re watching, Blade Runner is about Deckard’s brush with dehumanization after he’s assigned to track down a band of escaped androids (“replicants”) and terminate them before they discover a way to extend their own lifespans.

But the Final Cut is the only version to place emphasis squarely on that question: is Deckard himself a bioengineered replicant? The original versions certainly leave little reason to doubt the humanity of the protagonist. Deckard and Rachel run away at the end of the theatrical cuts and presumably live happily ever after. Along with a completely restored picture, a restored sound mix, removal of Deckard’s voiceover narration and addition of several improved effects shots that simply weren’t possible in 1982, the Final Cut also subtracts that happy ending and includes a few key scenes that had been cut from the initial releases.

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The Theory of Everything (2014)

Eddie Redmayne becomes Stephen Hawking in a rare and exciting way in The Theory of Everything, giving a performance that extends far beyond simply mimicking Hawking’s look. He’s a young actor — currently 33 — but already has a sizable body of film work under his belt, in addition to a Tony Award and an Olivier Award for his work in the play Red alongside Alfred Molina. In short: it’s a good time to be Eddie Redmayne. His success in this role will doubtless launch him onto the international stage, and judging by his next role (a part in Jupiter Ascending, his first big-budget action film) he’s already there.

And yet it’s all he and co-star Felicity Jones can do to drag The Theory of Everything out of the tired, trodden mud in which the film itself is set. To claim outright that a certain biographical film is “boring” isn’t necessarily the equivalent of deeming the life of the subject to be similarly boring, but it’s close enough to warrant a perfunctory disclaimer: Hawking had a life that was anything but boring. Sure, everyone knows that math and science themselves are really incredibly boring — certainly no one is denying that. But Theory can’t even fall back on that, because there’s surprisingly little math or science in the film.

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Human Nature (2001)

“Good. Eve. Ning. Lay. Dees. And. Gen. Tel. Men.”

Human Nature is without a doubt the overlooked film in writer Charlie Kaufman’s body of work. It’s tough to say why, exactly. Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette, and Rhys Ifans lead a cast that includes appearances by a few other well-known faces, so it’s probably not a fault in the casting. Director Michel Gondry did cut his feature-length teeth with Human Nature, so you could chalk it up to a lack of name recognition in that category. But then again, Kaufman’s first produced screenplay was Being John Malkovich, directed by then-unknown Spike Jonze, and that film remains far more popular today than Human Nature.

Whatever the reason, Human Nature is only slightly less inventive than Malkovich and nearly every bit as humorous. Arquette’s Lila is born with a strange defect that causes her to be excessively hairy all over her body, providing further evidence that Charlie Kaufman was nursing a serious obsession with primates during his early screenwriting days. Rhys Ifans is Puff, a man raised in the wilderness by a father who was driven to monkey-dom by the murder of JFK (“Apes don’t assassinate their Presidents!”). Tim Robbins is the conspicuously well-mannered doctor who brings everything together. Sound zany enough? That’s because it’s really Kaufman and Gondry who bring everything together, and they do it remarkably well.

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French Connection II (1975)

On one hand, a sequel to The French Connection is completely logical. Popeye Doyle sees things through, probably more out of psychosis than out of any loyalty to law and order, and so it does make sense that he’d track the kingpin Alain Charnier all the way to Marseilles after the events of the first film. French Connection II begins right there, not long after the first film left off, and when he pulls up in a cab it’s pretty great to see Popeye again. He pulls his hat onto his head and pays the driver, then glares at him when the driver shakes his head and insists he’s owed more. “I’m taking your number, fella — that’s in case you screwed me,” he snarls. Yes: it’s Popeye.

On the other hand, though, a sequel to the perfectly imperfect conclusion of the first film seems simultaneously illogical. The first Connection ends somewhat suddenly when Popeye accidentally shoots a fellow cop, thinking him to be the evasive Charnier (or “Frog One”). Not only is a wishy-washy ending avoided, but Popeye’s character is further complicated by the brevity of his victory. The smarmy sarcastic wave that Popeye gives Frog One on the bridge is bittersweet, and maybe even a karmic contributor to the ultimate conclusion of Connection (in the same way that Hank’s wave to Walt in Breaking Bad represents his own short-lived supremacy).

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Niko and the Sword of Light 1.1

Much has been written about Amazon’s Pilot Season, particularly its live-action slate–and with good reason, judging from potentially great new shows like The Man in the High Castle. As for the animated fare, critics have been criminally silent–possibly with good reason, judging from titles like The Stinky & Dirty Show. But their first mistake is lumping those shows together with Niko and the Sword of Light. (Their second mistake is probably assuming that animation has nothing new to offer.)

Niko started out as a carefully crafted motion comic. Actually, it started as a labor of love by a group of storyboard artists, concept designers, and animators from several high profile studios. But thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, Niko’s journey can now be purchased and experienced on iPads everywhere. These adventures follow the last human boy as he seeks to rid his savage land of the darkness that’s consumed it. With the help of a sword (of light, naturally) and a strange host of creatures he meets along the way, Niko braves countless enemies and discovers more mysteries about his past. Continue reading Niko and the Sword of Light 1.1

Birdman (2014)

Birdman is not your typical Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu film. Correction: Birdman is not your typical anyone film — which is part of what makes it so good. Iñárritu’s inventive cinematography combined with exceptional dialogue between intriguing, fantastically-acted characters make Birdman a masterpiece, and one that deserves all of the praise it is receiving in terms of Academy Award nominations.

The film follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thomson, a past-his-prime actor who was once famous for playing the titular superhero Birdman (Keaton himself knows a thing or two about formerly playing a superhero). Riggan’s past character haunts him throughout the film as he tries to become relevant as an actor outside of just the superhero role. He attempts to shake loose of Birdman by directing and starring in Raymond Carver’s play “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. Carver’s play provides an appropriate backdrop for Riggan’s attempt at a career revival. Carver, himself, is quoted to start the movie in what reveals a central theme of the movie: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so? I did. And what did you want? To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth”.

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