Pride and Prejudice (2005)

When this film first came out, it was well before I’d begun blogging. So this has not appeared on my site before, a circumstance that I am happy to rectify today. This version of “Pride and Prejudice” starred Kiera Knightly, a rising young star who was blessed with talent and an aphorism that is incredibly sexist, but well remembered by me from my early years reading other people’s blog pages and comments, “The sexiest Tomboy, Beanpole, on the planet.” She plays one of literatures early feminist icons, Elizabeth Bennett, the headstrong and willful woman who will not “settle” for a marriage of convivence.  Her romantic counterpart is the dour Mr. Darcy, who’s demeanor hides a decent man with a soulful desire for love, but one that must be contained by the circumstances of the time and the class to which he was born. 

My youngest daughter is a Jane Austen fanatic, and her sister was a fan as well, so when we saw this film in 2005, both of them were in high school and the perfect age for being enamored of the British literature as a result of English classes they were taking. The whole family enjoyed this film and over the years it was a regular spin on the DVD player. It has however been a decade or so since I have seen the movie, and this was the first time since 2005 that I saw it on a theater screen rather than at home. The experience was revelatory. This film is beautifully constructed as a story adaption and it is shot in a manner that displays the kinds of directorial touches that people admire in the best film makers. Joe Wright made a transition from directing television program in Great Britain to making films with this project. It is truly a showpiece for his skills and artistry.

The best examples to show the creativity and eye that made this film are the ball sequences. In addition to showing a complex choregraphed dance routine, the camera follows our characters through the throng and the focus moves in and out on key figures at well placed moments. This is not a result of editing but of camera movement and placement and it was so much more noticeable on the big screen than the numerous times I’d seen the same sequences on a television. There are also examples of the same eye for a beautiful image in some of the lush countryside shots. Elizabeth walking back from Pemberley after accidentally meeting with Mr. Darcy is somewhat reminiscent of the Julie Andres helicopter shot at the start of “The Sound of Music”, the camera work from an aerial perspective is clever but not quite as flashy as it was in the musical.  The walk and talk sequence at the Bingley’s leased home when Elizabeth is escorted around the atrium room by Bingley’s sister while the two of them verbally joust with Mr. Darcy is also a nice flourish that is assured without being ostentatious. 

The cast of this movie is incredibly talented and effectively convey the attitudes of their characters and the story perspective that Austen set up. Mr. Collins is not an evil presence but he is feckless and uninteresting to Lizzie. The rest of the family sees this except Mrs. Bennett who is primarily interested in securing a reliable marriage for Lizzie. Tom Hollander is an average man in looks compared to the actors playing Wickham and Darcy. His mild deliver of his lines is completely appropriate and his obsequious attempts at impressing his benefactor Lady Katherine are very amusing. The two most valuable players however are Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn as his wife. She provides the desperate facial expressions and shrill worrying voice that make Mrs. Bennett a somewhat comical figure. Sutherland, who has never been nominated by the Academy, although he has received an honorary Oscar, plays Lizzie’s father with the bemused tolerance of a loving husband and the patient but overwhelmed father of five daughters. Watch the scene where Elizabeth explains to her Father that she really does love Darcy, Sutherland’s performance is primarily reacting and his non-verbals in the moment are superb. 

Knightley and her Darcy, Matthew Macfadyen, seem appropriately matched. She is bright and forceful where he is all tense reserve and disdainful looks. They manage the language of the script well and the nuance that they bring to the hesitations and cadence of the deliveries feel romantic in an early 19th Century manner. I know that Colin Firth is a favorite Mr. Darcy among those who love this material, but I thought Macfadyen was a less conventional choice with a bearing that works for the story as it is being told here.Looking back on the Academy Awards for the year 2005, the five films that were nominated, in retrospect seem to be lesser efforts in comparison to this film and some others I could name from that year. Certainly it is a matter of taste and I know that fashion plays a part in the choices that get made. It’s unfortunate that the “tea on the lawn” fashion of film making had fallen out of favor to be replaced by social commentary films that have dominated the awards ever since. I think when it comes to artistry, Wright and his terrific cast stand the test of time, and I would happily repeat a theater screening of this movie anytime. 

The 355

This is exactly the kind of film that opens in January. There is a premise that is easy to grasp, there is plenty of action to try to keep you interested, and the characters are bland enough that you can be okay if they make it or they don’t. This is as disposable an action film as you are likely to come across this year. Liam Neeson and Jason Statham have this territory to themselves usually, but there is a reason that their movies succeed where this one merely exists, charisma. Jessica Chastain is a fine actress and she has been in some excellent films, but she doers not have the persona here to make the movie memorable.

I love the idea of female spies coming together to form a team of badass women to save the world. The problem is that the characters have very little personality and the plot is action driven rather than character driven. Diane Kruger is the one agent who comes closest to having a personality that is not simply a stereotype. Lupita Nyong’o is mostly defined by her costume and the technical skills she has, rather than something about her that would draw us in. Penélope Cruz is playing a part that makes no sense from a story perspective and it saddles her with the responsibility of being the obligatory damsel in distress. Bingbing fan is the most conventional character and she only shows up in the last quarter of the film. Sebastian Stan glowers through his sections of the film, and should have been a stronger presence for Chastain to play against.

Basically this is a movie composed of a series of chases, fistfights and gun battles that all go on far too long. Everything is competently done but nothing feels special about any of it. There is more running in high heels than any movie I can think of, ever, and it is noticeable that this handicap does not seem to effect anyone in any way. Chastain has a training sequence where her fighting bon a fides are established, but she seems to just miss an awful lot in some of the early fights, making us wonder if she really is as good as she is supposed to be. The fight she has in a cloakroom for five minutes while the “heist” elements of their plan plays out makes no sense at all, it seems to simply be there so she can show off those skills in an evening dress.

The McGuffin in the story is a piece of technology that slips from one set of hands to another. It is set up as impossible to replicate or alter. The obvious question becomes how is that possible, and no answer really makes sense. The second question is if it is so dangerous, why not destroy it the first chance you get? Again, that would just have shortened the movie. Her is a third question, why not buy it in the auction, like all the bad actors in the world are trying to do? Again, the answer is that we would not have a movie is you did that. Plotting is not deep at all here, every double cross is not really a surprise, every character will be given a moment to shine.

Plenty of spy films have featured effective women characters that are interesting and sometimes the leads in the film. The idea of this movie seems to be to exclude any men from participating in the team work and pander to a specific audience. What ended up happening is that bland characters become even less interesting when surrounded by other bland characters and a lifeless plot. The action scenes are fine but not especially interesting, and the result is a film that I doubt anyone will remember by February. 

Scream (2022)

There are some things that you just don’t expect when it comes to popular film. First of all, you don’t expect a movie opening in January to be any good. This month is a notorious dumping ground for movies that studios have no confidence in. Another thing that you don’t expect is that the fifth film in a franchise will be able to be as inventive as the original, after all, the ideas are all recycled at this point. In a horror film that is especially true, we are likely to have repeated killings, chases and twists that seem to come out of left field. The difference with the “Scream” franchise is that it as always been about more than the horror. The screenwriters have always used the movies to also comment on the genre, the culture and the overused tropes.

In the first sequel, the very notion of sequels is lampooned by creating a movie based on the incidents in the first film. The geek knowledge of the horror movie tropes referred to in the first film, become satire as the second film plays out those tropes while also pointing out that it is doing so. The phrase “Meta” was rapidly becoming synonymous with the “Scream” franchise. The third film in the series shifts the location but keeps the idea of self reference alive by focusing on the “film making” for the sequel to the fictional film based on the original movie. After a decade off, the original screenwriter updates the film by looking at how technology and social media were making the process even more self aware. The first four films were all directed by horror master Wes Craven, the fourth film being his last movie.

So now, a decade removed, it is time for a reboot of the series. New screen writers and directors are taking over, and the question shifts to figuring out how to continue the meta approach to the storytelling, and the answer is right there, acknowledge that this is a reboot but try to fix the things that all the recent resets have screwed up, and make fun of it at the same time. I’d not heard the term “requel” before, but it may be my favorite invented word from the movies ever. 

This new movie follows the script from the originals by starting with a phone call that turns into an attack on a girl, home alone, but then shifts the outcome, she survives in order to bring other characters into the story. So something is different but still the same. The first half hour moves along and I started to lose interest because it was playing out like a traditional film horror story, but somewhere about a third of the way in, there is a brilliant monologue scene, much like Randy’s from the original, which takes the film makers, the characters but especially the audience to the woodshed and slaps us silly. Fandom becomes the meta subject here, and for the rest of the movie, the best scenes are those which poke at the fans of the films, especially the fans who are so proprietary of their franchises. If you enjoy the prospect of not only horror fans but Star Wars fans, Super hero film fans and others being roasted in delicious snarky dialogue, this movie will appeal to you. This is a horror comedy that gets both genres right and makes fun of them simultaneously. 

Admittedly, there are some plot contrivances that are hard to swallow in retrospect. The reveal is foreshadowed well and it plays out fine while watching the movie, but looking back, some of it makes little sense. On the other hand, there is a delightful moment at the climax of the film that references another film from a couple of years ago, and the ironic self reference  and awareness of that moment was amusing as hell so who cares if it doesn’t necessarily make sense, it does meet our meta-verse requirements for a “Requel”.

The legacy cast is on hand to reassure us that this is not going off the tracks like a gender swapped reboot of a beloved classic, but that the film will remain true to the history that has existed up to this point in Woodsboro. Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox get to play the same characters they have been in the films up to this point, and their roles are not token appearances. but substantial contributions to the movie. The legacy character who comes off the best in the story is David Arquette’s Dewey, who was one of the awkward charms of the earlier films and here gets to finally turn in a performance that is not merely comic relief. Of course how the fandom of the film series reacts will be a big question. 

I smiled at a lot of things in the film, there are Easter eggs for the work of other film makers but especially for Wes Craven himself. Those small moments are nice. Even nicer were the four times that I literally laughed out loud and hard at some of the things being said and a couple of the things being done. If you are a “Scream” fan, this should entertain you while you are watching it. The best review of the movie however is contained in the film itself when that big monologue about horror films is delivered. It judges it self and the film does not come up wanting. 

The usual top ten list for the previous year was split up between theatrical and streaming because theaters were closed and product was sparse. Although everything is still not as it once was, I can say things are better and we return this year to a list of films that were seen for the first time in theaters. There were a number of movies on the list that could be accessed at home, but this site continues to be devoted to an “in-theater” experience for the most part. I may make mention of a couple of streaming products, but most of those were not covered on the site before so there will be no link to a review for them.

Ten Favorite Films of 2021

As I have said in the past, my opinion on the list reflects my reaction to a film, not always it’s aesthetic qualities, although those often line up. 

10. The King’s Man

I have loved all of Matthew Vaughn’s films. Last year I participated in a podcast reviewing his work and discussing with the hosts whether he qualifies as an auteur. You can find that discussion on The Popcorn Auteur at this link: Here. The films in this series have usually been frenetic exercises in action and violence, laced with a heavy dose of humor. “Kingsmen: The Secret Service” is basically an absurdist James Bond fantasy that is well aware that it is exactly that. “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” did what a sequel usually does, expand the universe that it is operating in and adding characters that we will want to see in further entries. “The King’s Man” goes in a different direction. In essence it is an origin story of the organization that we were introduced to in the first two films. It is a clever mix of the fictional with authentic history. There are some absurd concepts here, like the idea that Mati Hari seduced Woodrow Wilson, but it is kind of in keeping with the way U.S. Presidents have been portrayed in the other two movies, so it least Vaughn is consistent. 

The film has not received the same enthusiasm from critics and audiences as the first film did, but I found it to be very entertaining and I was happy it finally got a release. The movie has been ready for two years and it finally escaped Covid jail during the recent holiday season. 

9. Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is gearing up the next phase in their agenda, and that requires new heroes to step in for the departing leads in the Avenger’s films. Captain America, Iron Man, and Black Widow are now off stage. 
The Hulk appears to be semi-retired, but Thor is coming back and the second wave of Marvel Universe heroes are still kicking around. “Shang-Chi” introduces a new character to the films, a sort of magical Bruce Lee character who gets an origin story in this film from the very end of the Summer season. The story is really solid, and we get some characters that will be fun in small does as well as the main lead who is great. The villain in the stury is also excellent, and is played by a respected Asian actor with a long history of good films, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung.
There was a lot of enthusiasm on the Lambcast when we covered this in September. The film also seemed to open the valves a little on the slowly awakening box office. 

8. Nightmare Alley (2021)

I need to include the year of release here because this film is a remake of a noir classic that came out in 1947, and we would not want the two of them to be confused with one another. Admittedly, that is unlikely because the current version is directed by Guillermo del Toro, who has an incredible eye, even though his storytelling skills are sometimes a bit underwhelming. Stanton Carlisle is one of the great Noir figures that actually has crept into the vernacular. Carneys, grifters, psychics and fortunetellers can pick out a fellow traveler when they admit that they are a friend of Stanton Carlisle. In this version, Tyrone Power has been replaced by another handsome face, Bradley Cooper.  

The elaborate production design and incredibly deep cast is used to support a horrifying outcome for a man who we follow and probably root for, but for whom we should have no sympathy. The ambitious huckster manages to think he is the smartest guy in the room, only to discover that there are people even more vile than he and sometimes more clever. I think the film pokes along a little more slowly than is best, but the story still works and the movie looks great. 

7. Nobody

This was a movie that came out of nowhere for me. Prior to seeing a trailer, I had no idea it existed nor any reason to be interested. Once I saw the premise however, I had high hopes that it would be just what the doctor ordered. Theaters around the country were not all open when this film dropped last March. Too many people were still reluctant to go out to a film, but not me. I was ready for this and when it was over I was gassed. This hit every button on my lizard brain and made me so happy, I actually watched it as a rental a few weeks later when I spent an evening back in California with my friends.

Nobody” is a John Wick style action film with a less than likely badass as the central figure. Bob Odenkirk from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” doesn’t look like an intimidating tough guy, and that is part of the pleasure of this film. He is a guy that people underestimate when they look at him, but know to fear when they learn who he was. The fistfights are not kung fu battles but brutal beatdowns using basic force. The gun battles are stylized, but they are not the elegant special effects works of Matrix style action. This movie was simply the most fun I had at a movie next to one other film on this list. 

6. The Sparks Brothers

At the start of the year, the Edgar Wright film that I would have most been looking forward to was “Last Night in Soho” . I was not even aware that Wright was doing a documentary, much less on a band with a cult following in my hometown and in Europe. Sparks was a band that I was a fan of in the 1980s, but they fell off of my radar for 30 years. Apparently, they just kept making the great, odd music that they had always done. There were projects that went nowhere and albums that did not generate sales, but the creativity never faltered and this documentary shows it.

Wright includes the usual talking heads but spices it up with performances, videos and animation to cover the history of the band in a mostly chronological fashion. The movie is not just informative about the bands travails, it is also entertaining as heck and much of that is provided by the two brothers that make up the band. 

5. Spider-Man: No Way Home

This is getting people back out to the movies, it is setting records for box office and the full theaters seem to be a good indicator that people will come out of their covid induced hibernation if a movie is only available in theaters and it is something people want to see. “No Way Home” is the third Spider-Man centric film to star Tom Holland. Although he appears in three other MCU films, the ones with Spider-Man as the main character seem to harken to the early days of comic book movies when the stories were fun and not just grim exercises in creating worldwide threats. 

We were led to the idea of a multiverse by the animated Spider-Man movie “Into the Spiderverse“, just a couple of years ago. This film takes advantage of the concept by dipping into the previous Spider-Man films for stories, villains and some other potential fun. The audience gasp at particular moments in the film, lets you know that this is a movie that is connecting with it’s fans. The term “fan service” is often used to deride elements of a film that are designed to pander to the audience, but when used properly, this “service” represents the connection that a franchise has with it’s fans and that relationship is an important one for most of us who love movies. 

“No Way Home” gives us a chance to reconcile our feelings about plots that were left dangling in the earlier Spidey films and allows us to reassess those movies and somewhat repair them in our memory. This was the movie that was the most fun that I had in a theater this last year and I look forward to catching it again as soon as I am able. 

4. Ghostbusters Afterlife

Everyone who was waiting for a Ghostbusters sequel which did not suck, finally got their wish in November of 2021. “Ghostbusters Afterlife” had been delayed more than a year and a half by the Covid-19 reshuffling that studios had to do to try and save their projects form theatrical disaster. The really unfortunate part of this is that “Afterlife” was a perfect Summer release, and now it will be a fond memory, but not of sunny days and warm nights spent in a theater. 

The young cast that carries this film is impressive, but even more impressive is that this is a true sequel and not a reboot like the 2016 misfire. The original characters are in the story for just a bit, but it is a juicy bit and it does not take away from what the new cast has done to bring us into the story. Down the road, this may get the most rewatches by me of any film on the list, it is fun and when June gets here, I will be looking for this as a companion to the original “Ghostbusters“. 

3. Free Guy

This is an original concept but it feels like a franchise film because it operates in the world of videogames. This is another film that had multiple release dates but finally escaped in the summertime to give all of us a reason to go to the movies. The premise felt convoluted the first time I saw a trailer, but it turns out to be relatively straightforward once you are watching. A video game character becomes self aware in the game he exists in and interacts with a real player to foil a villainous plot. “Free Guy” is an odd name choice, but the character is Guy and it just makes sense. 
Ryan Reynolds proves that he can be his own most valuable player when the material is good. I have not tired of his casual, relaxed vocal style yet. His manner is perfect for a non-playable character in a computer game. This film also has the benefit of the best trailer for a movie this year. See it when you click on the link to the review. 

2. Dune (2021)

A visionary film from a visionary film maker. Denis Villeneuve has made two terrific science fiction films before this, Blade Runner 2049 and Arrival.  The visuals in those two movies were spectacular and they promised a great deal for a revised version of “Dune“. This movie lived up to that promise. This is an ambitious film, that is attempting to do something very difficult, translate a book that is full of ideas, into a movie that is more than just the visuals. 
I’m a big apologist for the David Lynch version of the story, but Villeneuve has something that Lynch was denied back in 1984, time. This movie is only part one of a two part film. It is already longer than the Lynch film, and we still have the second half to look forward to. I am not the biggest fan of  Timothée Chalamet, but he manages to be convincing as Paul Atreides, especially in the early part of the story where Paul is supposed to be young and a bit uncertain. 

There is a great cast in this film and we will certainly see more of them in Part 2 when it arrives in two years although the electric Jason Mamoa will be missed as Duncan Idaho’s part in the story is complete at this point. Baron Harkonnen is barely used and will be more prominent down the road, and some characters from the book have not even been hinted at in the film so far. 

1. Belfast

When I see a film, I always hope to connect with the characters and share the emotional ride that the story takes us on. “Belfast” is a personal reminiscence of  writer/director Kenneth Branagh, harkening to his youth in the violence torn hometown. While “The Troubles” are a part of the story, the real focus is on the family at the center of the picture. A young boy is confronting the confusing world he lives in while being nurtured by a fiercely stubborn mother, an unwillingly absent father and nurturing grandparents.

The emotions and hopefulness are engulfing, just the way I like. Some may see it as sentimental clap trap, they can take a flying leap. This is a wonderfully acted drama that has more heart and cares more about it’s characters than any movie that has come along in a long time. Frankly, it was not even close to being dethroned from my top spot, despite how great some of the other films are. It is small, in black and white and emotionally perfect. The actors are also fantastic. 

American Underdog

There is nothing subtle about this story, nor should there be. While it is not a documentary, it is an accurate docudrama about a real life sports underdog story, the kind that will turn off the cynics in the world but should make sentimentalists everywhere year up in joy. This is a life affirming, dramatic and ultimately inspiring story of a guy who climbed to the highest echelon in his sport, from the lowest point possible. This movie helps explain to people who don’t really care much about sports, why it is about so much more than just the score at the end of the game. 

The actor who plays Kurt Warner, is Zachary Levi, who I know mostly from the movie Shazam!, although he has been in a bunch of stuff that many of you will recognize. He is very well cast, having the facial characteristics of the real Kurt Warner without being a doppelganger. He is also a good actor who manages to convey the weaknesses of Warner while also pushing forward his best characteristics. While I was watching the film, I kept thinking to myself that the actress playing Brenda Meoni, his eventual wife, was really good. I thought it was too bad the Awards season handicapping had not included her in any of their forecasts. Then I realized who it was at the end and thought, well damn, there is a reason she was so good. This is not a newcomer but Anna Paquin, who has been doing great work since she was nine years old. She is terrific in this meaty part and she tears into it with great energy.

Football is a frequent subject of movies, and there are lots of inspiring stories built around the game. People who love Ted Lasso but don’t like football may see some of the positive vibes of that fictional character in this real life player. Look, we know the film is based on Warner’s autobiography and that he and his wife are producers on the film, so it will probably be a lot sunnier than the real experience, except there are some pretty tough experiences in their relationship that are covered by the film. Some people might be put off by the Christian values at the heart of their experience, fearful that they are going to get a sermon rather than a story. Don’t worry, those moments that are spiritual in nature are mostly universal, and it never feels like you are being preached to, only that you are shown how the couple’s faith supplements the decision making process and lives that they lead. 

Dennis Quaid is listed on the poster but his part is largely as a background character with a few inspirational moments. The third lead in the film is a young actor named Hayden Zaller, he plays Zack, Kurt’s special needs stepson who sees thing in Kurt despite the fact that he is blind. Bruce McGill, ia a familiar face who plays the founder of the Arena Football league and the coach/owner of a team that helps nurture Warner to success. For those of you not familiar with arena football, it is a much different set of strategies and there are some significant differences in the two versions of the game. It’s nice as a former season ticketholder of an Arena Football team, to see the sport shown this way, it was not degrading but it certainly feels different.  

The directors Edwin and Jon Erwin, have made several inspirational films for the faith=based market, and that is another reason some people might shy away from the movie, but again you should not hesitate. They do a good job showing us the dramatic moments of Kurt and Brenda’s lives and they competently recreate the football environment. So if you are up for an inspiring drama based in reality, this is what you are looking for to start the year off on a hopeful note. After the last couple of years, we can use it. 

Sing 2

Studios continue to look for reasons to put pop music into movies. The obvious motivator is that those songs provide a presold audience for the film. Many films nowadays are simply an excuse to raid the catalogue available to them through their corporate ownership. I am not tracking down all the tunes used in this film to see if they are part of Universal’s acquisitions, but it would not surprise me. The first film in this series came out five years ago and clearly did well enough to justify another dip into the waters.

The story is set up as if the audience will remember all the characters from the previous film, which may be a safe bet for kids and their parents who have replayed this incessantly over the last five years but that was not me. I saw “Sing” when it originally arrived in theaters and I have not revisited it since. It took a few moments for me to remember or understand who was who in this menagerie of  singing pigs, gorillas, dogs, cats and elephants. Musical performances remind us a little bit of what happened in the first movie, but that history is mostly irrelevant now.

Like Kermit the Frog in “Muppets Take Manhattan” , Buster Moon wants to take his successful local theater production to the big time, a thinly veiled, animated version of Las Vegas. Cirque de Sol has nothing to worry about, because the staging of this extravaganza is even over the top for Vegas. So, the movie is a tale of the little guys trying to prove themselves in the big time while fighting minor tyrants, nepotism, and a reluctant former star who has sunk into his own sorrow so deeply that he has abandoned the music that once brought him to life.

There is no point in getting too technical about the story qualities. It is a simple structure designed to hang musical sequence on and it largely works. The look of the film is top notch with crisp character design and elaborate set production. The actors largely sing themselves [it helps when you just hire singers to do the voice work, but some of the actors who are not recording artists are solid as well]. When there are emotional moments in the film, it is usually a result of the song rather than the drama. There are plenty of funny bits with odd chases and crazy characters going wild, and those will amuse the little children in the audience.

It is the fact that it is a children’s film that I want to finish on. The music and setting help keep this from being cloying, but it is still clearly designed to entertain families with small children. As the credits were rolling and the music was playing out, I saw several little girls, dancing in the aisles in this sold out theater. I was happy about two things: first, a movie theater was full, that is good news, second, the kids dancing reminded me of a couple of parents who took their kids to the movies thirty years ago and could not retrain them from dancing at the front of the theater when a movie was over. How could a movie that accomplish this be something to complain about?

The King’s Man

A few months ago, I was a guest on “The Popcorn Auteur” podcast, and we discussed director Matthew Vaughn. While we all agreed that his style and visual flare are distinctive enough to call him an auteur, not every one of his films was a hit with the hosts. I on the other hand, can safely say I have not been let down by a Matthew Vaughn film yet, and that winning streak continues with this third entry into the “Kingsman” cinema universe. On the Sunday podcast, my colleague James Wilson was not particularly forthcoming with his dislike of the film, maybe to spare my feelings, but I was not worried because I have faith in Vaughn and this time he did something else that pleased me, he surprised me. 

“The King’s Man” does have some of the outlandish action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, we will discuss those in a moment. Although ostensibly the genesis of the Kingsmen franchise, this film has several elements that are clearly different from the other films. To begin with, it focuses on a real conflict, not something invented by the authors. Vaugh and his collaborators do graft on a subplot that suggests that WWI was the result of manipulation by a secret cabal, much like SPECTRE, but masterminded by a shadowy figure referred to by acolytes as “The Shepard”. Historic figures like Mata Hari and Rasputin are then crossbred with the group to accomplish the machinations of the organization and bring the powers of Russia, Germany and Great Britain into conflict with one another. This retconning of history is fun because actual historical incidents and events are mixed with the fantasy of the film to create an interesting story. I hope that young people don’t fall for the idea that Woodrow Wilson was blackmailed as a reason for delaying U.S. entry into the war, that would be too easy an excuse for his behaviors.

Another way that the film feels different is the war context itself. The fight wit Rasputin is entertaining nonsense, but the realities of the battlefield in WWI make this film sometimes feel like an outtake from “1917” and that switch in tone is maybe the hardest element of the film to reconcile. As a drama segment it works well on it’s own but it does feel like a betrayal of the fun the film is trying to have with the outlandish premise that they have created. Tarantino was able to get away with this because the whole plot of “Inglorious Basterds” was at odds with reality.  I will say with a slight warning of a **spoiler**, there is a plot twist that is wholly consistent with the first movie and it changes the direction of the story in a striking moment. 

The fight sequences are the things that distinguish Vaughn’s films from others of his ilk. They are manically choregraphed and filmed in creative ways. The perspective in the battle with Rasputin for instance, changes on the moment of contact and then momentum. The fighters look like ballet dancers twisting in the air but with sudden changes in orientation that alter their strategic advantage moment to moment. In the sword fight at the climax of the film. the villain is revealed and a battle with our main hero takes place. There is an amazing shot of the crossed swords that is technically complicated and extremely beautiful, it lasts just a second but it also reflects the care that goes in to composing the fight scenes in a Vaughn film.  

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Orlando Oxford, adds dignity to the whole enterprise while also showing how he might have been a good choice for Bond back when Daniel Craig took over. His aristocratic air may have handicapped him in that choice but works perfectly in this context. Rhys Ifans plays Rasputin in a role that is really an extended cameo rather than a starring part, but he takes full advantage of the weird combination of mystic and barbarian, to outlandish effect. He has a couple of moments with Fiennes that are truly odd and hilarious at the same time. I am sure that his fighting skills are a combination of stunt work and CGI, but he nevertheless is the face of the character and one of the memorable things about the film. Daniel Brühl appears in a standard villain role as a parallel to Rasputin only in Germany. He is poised to come back if ever there is a continuation of the story as suggested by a mid-closing credits scene. Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Matthew Goode and Charles Dance all do their parts to fill out the cast of the Kingsmen Service in one fashion or another. Tom Hollander gets to play multiple parts and that is fun for reasons that you will see when you watch the film.

I suppose I can understand why some are not enthusiastic about the film. It is highly stylized and the tonal changes are often not very smooth. On the other hand, the clever twisting of history to tie into the conceit of the story is just delicious and you get the signature action scenes that Vaughn is noted for, so I feel no need to apologize for my opinion, it was a great time at the movies. 

Licorice Pizza

I don’t want to say I was disappointed in this movie, because I am not, but I will say that my expectations were so high that it was unlikely to be satisfied with whatever ended up being on screen, and that became my reality. The first time I saw the trailer, I was wondering if Director Paul Thomas Anderson was doing an Inception number on my head. The schools, the clothes the haircuts and the attitudes were right out of my memory. I didn’t live in the valley but at one time I had a girlfriend who did. The next girlfriend I had, (who I eventually married) did not live in the Valley, but the character of Alana reminded me so much of her at times I had to remind myself that Encino was not my stomping grounds. I was set to love this film, and I only liked it a lot.

The strengths of the movie are  largely the result of Anderson being able to evoke the period so well. The houses and production design are easy tipoffs as to the era. Gary, the male lead, is a young actor, aging out of kids parts and moving into other enterprise because he is basically a go-getter. Not yet 16, he has drive, self confidence, and just enough money from his career up to that point that he can invest in the next thing, be it arcades, waterbeds or Alana. Alana Haim, plays a twenty five year old woman who has not grown up and who has not had her ambitions in life stirred up yet. A decade older than Gary, she nonetheless becomes the object of his fixation, and frankly, he intrigues her enough despite their age difference, that she mostly ignores that decade.  The characters are the heart of the film, they complement one another very well. She grounds Gary’s ambitions and helps channel his boundless energy. She also provides an outlet for his maturity that would not be satisficed by a relationship with kids his own age.   Alana get inspired by Gary. She can see possibilities that she either ignored before or was blind to. Even though she is older, Gary offers her a maturity that she has not had in her family life or profession, such as it is.

It is the random episodic nature of the events in the film that make it feel a little pointless at times. There is never a driving force that moves the characters through their lives and ultimately toward one another as more than friends. It may be an accurate depiction of how we really develop as people, but it is nit a satisfying story telling tool. Gary goes through several business opportunities and Alana pushes him away and clings to him simultaneously. Their brushes with random celebrities are interesting but do nothing to advance the story. I have seen “boogie Nights” and “Magnolia”, so I am familiar with Anderson’s style [Boogie Nights is one of my favorite films], but there is an energy in those films that propels the characters though to the resolution. The incidents here just feel random and they never develop much momentum, only the characters do that. 

Some criticism has been made of the age difference and the notion that if the genders were reversed it would certainly be seen as inappropriate. First of all, most of the film does not involve a direct romance between the characters. They are friends but they do develop longings that would go past mere friendship. Second, it is the younger character who has a more mature attitude about life. Alana is sympathetic but she need someone to give her a push to get her life started. This is almost a gender reversal of “Manhattan” , and I know the Woody Allen reference might undermine my argument, but the film does not. The younger character can see things that the older character can’t. This is a story about how two people fill one another’s needs in ways that are not romantic, and how that ultimately leads to romance. 

Telling a story set in Southern California seems to necessitate the inclusion of show business personalities. I am not sure why we get thinly veiled characterizations of Lucille Ball and William Holden, but Jon Peters and Joel Wachs are both portrayed as themselves. The person who steals the movie entirely is Bradley Cooper, who plays the narcissistic film producer Jon Peters. The few minutes he is on screen give the movie the electricity it needed in several other spots. Cooper shows us a manic, sex addict, social climber who demands perfection from everyone except himself. Aside from the young leads, who are making starring debuts, this is the performance that the movie will be remembered for. 

“Licorice Pizza” is a film with all the components of a great movie but somehow manages to only be very good. I suspect it will grow on me as it matures in my memory and I experience it again. I can’t say that anyone praising this as the best film of the year is wrong, I can only say I don’t see ot that way at the moment. 

Nightmare Alley (2021)

I’ve been a big fan of the original “Nightmare Alley” from 1947 since I was a kid. The denouncement of that film is one of the great gut punches in movies. The lead character in that film is a charming heel, but he never seemed outright evil, rather just an opportunist. The Guillermo del Toro version makes Stanton Carlisle a much more malevolent figure and that makes the remakes payoff feel even more potent. The 47 version danced around the edge of crime but was not really a murder mystery. This updated version makes death a key component for all the characters, not just the pitiful mentalist who disappears pretty early in the story. 

The film is a slow burn that picks up speed rapidly in the last act. The set up of Carlisle and his assistant Molly is nice and completely believable. I like the fact that Molly takes things slowly and recognizes the dangers that Stanton is taking as he moves his mentalist act into “spook show” territory. The film may not resonate as much with contemporary audiences because the nature of technology and the media have rendered us cynical about all sorts of things, and we might wonder how anyone could be taken in by Carlisle’s tricks. Although it seems that it is still true that Nigerian Princes requesting money still seem to get a response somewhere on the internet. The main reason I think this sort of thing can continue is that we are all like Stanton, we figure we are smarter than the other guy so no one can fool us. 

The two stories remain faithful up to a point, and then there is a break. I have not read the original novel so it is not clear to me if this is del Toro’s addition or inclusion, but the character of Ezra Grindle played by Richard Jenkins is startlingly ominous, backed as he is by the thug-like but devoted presence of Holt McCallany as his strong right hand. This is not just a mark for the long con, but a potential land mine of a personality that could easily destroy the things Stanton and Molly have accomplished. Cate Blanchett is the seductive and treacherous psychologist who is both manipulated by and manipulating Stanton Carlisle. Her character presents another perspective on the need to be the smartest person in every room, and that motivation conflicts with Carlisle pretty effectively. It was not quite clear to me how she managed to create a chink in Stanton’s armor, but there is a reason that the mentalist should not be drinking. 

The best thing this film has going for it is the production design. I may bot have been a big fan of “The Shape of Water“, but I can’t deny that it was an amazing looking movie. The carnival that is at the center of the opening act is almost as creepy as Willem Dafoe’s character. The wagons and tents and the advertising flys all reek of authenticity and aging utility. The nightclub that Stanton and Molly appear in, is the epitome of the art deco entertainment venues that make me wish I could have lived in that era. Dr. Ritter’s office has the wood inlay walls that scream power and success and there are little pieces of art, furniture and simple background that will draw you in like a magnet. There is a momentary shot of the Spidergirl attraction, and I like the fact that I was personally involved in building a few of those for carnivals and circus use back in the 1970s. 

The film is also populated with some great actors who are doing the kind of work that we expect of them. Toni Collette is sexy but diffident as she ages, David Strathairn is terrific as the pickled former mentalist with the secret Stanton longs for and the wisdom that Carlisle ignores. Roony Mara is earnest as heck as Molly. Mary Steenburgen has two scenes, the first is sympathetic desperation and the second is bone chilling mania, she was great. I would strongly recommend the film as long as you are aware that atmosphere take priority over action in the story. It will be playing in Black and White next month, I plan on going back for that version as well. 

West Side Story (2021)

I’ve been waiting for Steven Spielberg to do a full fledged musical since I saw the opening of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” back in 1984. I think his sensibility and eye are right for musical sequences and that he could stage  some pretty energetic numbers and make them look engaging and not static, well it turns out I was right. I’m not sure why he chose this material, but once he committed to it I think he did a solid job justifying a new version of the award winning classic. I think I still prefer the Robert Wise version of the movie, mostly because everything was fresh but Spielberg found some ways to fill out the story, rearrange to songs and change some of the characters delivering the songs, in a way that is satisfying. 

The screenplay by Tony Kushner, with whom Spielberg collaborated on with “Munich” and “Lincoln“, adds some details to the backgrounds of our characters to flesh them out. Riff has a story that is spelled out rather than implied as it was before, Bernardo has been transformed into a professional boxer, and Tony is provided with some background that adds resonance to his character that maybe wasn’t there before. In some ways, the transition for Bernardo’s character is the most problematic, because he seems less sympathetic as a professional fighter, engaging in a street fight. The character of Chino is also built up and it provides some additional pathos to the final outcome of the plot. 

In moving around the order of the songs and changing the characters who perform them, Spielberg and Kushner help the character of Tony in one case and weaken him in the second. The decision to give the “Cool” number to Tony and Riff, works well giving Ansel Elgort and Mike Faist, an additional chance to show the gap between them, even as friends, and to make a stronger impact on the audience. While I appreciate the desire to include Rita Moreno more in the story, giving her the “Somewhere” moment robs Tony and Maria of a poignant moment that would make their tragedy more emotional at the end. 
So what else has changed? Well, the fight scenes are more brutal from the get go. Baby John doesn’t just get beat up, he is mutilated by a piercing of his ear done with a nail. Bernardo and Tony fight and the punches Bernardo lands when Tony is trying to hold his temper and let things chill, are hard and to the face as well as the gut. You can almost feel them and they look more realistic than most fight scenes, even those you might see in a boxing film. Both groups of opponents are struggling with the idea of losing their territory, not to each other but to the progress of NYC itself. That fuels a bit of the anger so that it does not feel entirely based in ethnic hatred. 

Some people have complained that Spielberg has reimagined the story as a “woke” parable on immigration. There has also been some defensiveness on the part of traditionalists that all the Spanish dialogue in not subtitled. The immigration issue is not any more prevalent than it was in 1961, so that seems foolish to jump on. The Spanish issue is a non issue since almost all those important lines are repeated bak in some form in English, and even a non-Spanish speaker like me could understand most of what is said by context, tone and the few words of Spanish that I know. Maybe the strongest argument against calling this film “woke” is that Officer Krupke, goes from being an overt racist in the 1961 film, to a fairly sympathetic character in this one.   Lieutenant Schrank is also not taking sides in the conflict, but seems more interested in avoiding kids being killed. 

Two great visual moments that clearly show that Spielberg was thinking about how the movie could look different yet still be familiar, come in the Gang confrontation and in the “America” number. The long shadows approaching each other from opposite directions in the salt warehouse, builds the confrontation moment nicely and being shot from above makes it feel more ominous. The girls dancing down the street in the daylight, pursued by the boys, instead of remaining on the rooftop at night, keeps the excitement and cleverness of Sondheim’s lyrics, but transposes it to a setting that feels even more joyful.

The bad news here is that the film has flamed out. It did not live up to expectations at the box office, and the critical hype , while strong, seems unlikely to sustain it for long in the onslaught of so many other films at the end of the year. I think it will mirror another great film that hid similar reviews and expectations but did no business. In 1983, “The Right Stuff” arrived with a thud at the box office. Oscar Nominations gave it a slight boost during awards season, but in the long run, it was passed by too often by too many people. I see the same pattern emerging here. I hope I am wrong and some holiday time results in more people seeing this worthy remake of a great musical.