It’s the most wonderful time of the year—for film nerds. It’s that season when all the awards contenders roll into theaters and we get to see some of the best stuff of the year from some of the best directors working. Things got off to a big start last month with Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a sprawling, ambitious, emotionally devastating historical drama set in the world of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, in the 1920s. It’s a towering work.
It’s also three and a half hours long! I went to the theater and sat through every minute of it and I’m glad I did; in this day and age it’s a privilege to be able to see anything Scorsese does on the big screen. And yet, it’s hard for me to deny that this thing is overlong by at least thirty minutes, if not a full hour. There’s just too much in it—too many amazing set pieces and period reconstructions and too much painstaking detail.
For Scorsese this is perhaps the flip-side of being among the elite few who can pull off the double whammy of, first, raising money from streamers like Apple, the primary backer of this movie, and second, securing from those streaming-biased companies a theater-first release for the movies he makes for them. Having been previously responsible for a long list of some of the most prominent cultural landmarks of the past four-plus decades, he brings such enormous clout to the table that the streamers apparently give him a free hand. That’s really evident when you watch “Flower Moon,” for good and bad.
To be clear, a Scorsese without limits is still very much a Scorsese in full command of his powers—or almost all of his powers, at least. Scene for scene, minute by minute, the filmmaking in “Flower Moon” is extraordinary. But what fails him is the ability to judge in the aggregate, to know when to make painful, necessary cuts for the good of the whole. You might say that carte blanche is the undoing of this otherwise immensely compelling film; absent a studio willing to battle him over the script or the budget or the runtime, Scorsese seems to be missing some of the creative friction that has made his past works so incredibly vital. Apparently there was no one to tell him that 206 minutes is too many minutes, no one to say “no.” That’s a shame, because for many artists, even singular masters like Scorsese, sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than something to fight against.
Here are all seventeen films I watched back in October.
“Ferrari” (2023) ★★ Michael Mann’s first movie in years broke my heart with its shockingly disappointing averageness.
“To Be or Not to Be” (1942) ★★★★½ Rewatched. This Ernst Lubitsch classic somehow—through magic, maybe—turns a horrific milieu into a brilliant, buoyant comedy.
“Zodiac” (2007) ★★½ Rewatched. I don’t understand why people make a big deal about this term paper-esque, aimless procedural tale. Reveals all of the hollowness in David Fincher’s vaunted precision.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” (2023) ★★★½ An ambitious, expertly executed and heartbreaking noir that, unfortunately, should have been much shorter.
“No Hard Feelings” (2023) ★★ Starts off great! Raunchy and belligerent and thrilling. Then devolves quickly into cheap sentimentality to the point where I was infuriated.
“Frankenstein” (1931) ★★★★ Rewatched. Not particularly frightening but a powerhouse of visual expressiveness, almost painterly in nature, that has obviously left an indelible impression on the public imagination.
“The Adventures of Tintin” (2011) ★★★½ Rewatched. This overwrought, hyperactively CG-animated romp is not a sensical approach to adapting the vividly minimalist source material, but somehow it works better and better with each revisit.
“The Russia House” (1990) ★★★½ A real pleasure for fans of dour, not particularly novelistic spy capers.
“Moonshine” (1918) ★★ Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in a ramshackle, hilarious and unexpectedly modern comedic short from over a century ago.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. I usually try to publish these earlier in the month but it’s a struggle! You can also see what I previously watched in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
September was a rough month. After a bit of travel, I came down with the latest variant of COVID, and it took me weeks to get back up to full strength. The silver lining was having lots of time to watch a lot of movies—twenty-seven in total—but not in theaters. Nearly everything in the list below I saw on video.
Most all of what I watched were back catalog movies, but I did see one recent release: Sam Pollard’s “The League,” a beautifully crafted documentary that widens the aperture on the history of Negro League baseball. This is a fascinating story about a much respected but under-examined chapter of sports lore, and it sheds genuinely new light on stories and figures that many of us thought we knew. Still, given my general lack of enthusiasm for the documentary form, I have to admit I admired it more than I enjoyed it, and to be totally honest, I would have preferred it as a New Yorker feature article rather than a movie.
I did get out of the house to go to the theater once, to catch a repertory screening of Michael Mann’s “Heat” in a 70mm projection at The Paris Theater in midtown Manhattan. The film of course looked great and continues to retain every ounce of its power, but I would be lying if I didn’t find the circumstances of its showing to be almost comedically ironic.
The Paris Theater is an historically notable moviehouse from the old days of single-theater cinemas that was bought by Netflix some years ago as a kind of trophy in the digital media wars. It occasionally shows revival screenings from the service’s streaming catalog but usually hosts limited theatrical runs for some of Netflix’s original movies. Basically the theater functions as a prestige showcase for what you can access more conveniently but less impressively on your smartphone. It’s similar to when an e-commerce business attains a grand enough level of success that it feels compelled to honor itself with a physical storefront, or when a digital-first content publisher decides to commemorate itself with its own analog publication. These kinds of retrograde gestures belie such a funny insecurity on the part of digital businesses, as if their tremendous success in effectively obsolescing physical things can only be truly validated by the rendering of physical things from that success. We live in strange times.
Here’s the full list of twenty-seven movies I watched in September.
“Confessions of a Police Captain” (1971) ★★★½ Very quirky, somewhat seedy Italian policier starring, oddly, the amazing but incurably American Martin Balsam.
“The Seven-Ups” (1973) ★★★½ A diverting but not memorable derivative of “Bullitt” and “The French Connection,” directed by the producer of both.
“The Maltese Falcon” (1941) ★★★★½ Rewatched. An entire world conjured up with just a bunch of tough talk delivered with incredible verve by indelible characters.
“The Hot Spot” (1990) ★★★★ Cracking neo-noir starring Don Johnson at the peak of his generally not particularly remarkable abilities.
“Duel” (1971) ★★★½ This early Steven Spielberg thriller is a thrasher pic on wheels, and an early career high that really could have led to a career in at least a half dozen different directions from the one Spielberg ultimately took.
“The Daytrippers” (1996) ★★★★ Rewatched. Impeccably structured 90s indie road movie posits that leaving Long Island for Manhattan means forgoing domestic bliss for purgatory.
Catching up on my movies log from late summer here. At the end of August I went to see “Bottoms,” the new comedy by Emma Seligman (who also made the scrappy “Shiva Baby”). There’s a lot of funny stuff going on in this madcap, subversive teen comedy, but watching it as a fan of slapstick is also an exercise in frustration. Like so many other films where realism and verisimilitude are distorted for the sake of the jokes, “Bottoms” continually hints at going for broke, truly unleashing a no-holds-barred sensibility that could elevate it into classic status. And time and again, it pulls back from the brink, opting instead for pro forma sentimentality or uninspired moralizing or just unnecessary emotional exposition. As a result the laughs are outweighed by the wasted potential.
What always confounds me about these movies is that we live in a time when it should be easier than ever, technically, to push slapstick comedies to their absolute limit. The kind of sight gags that legends of the form Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker used to produce were incredibly laborious and often difficult to set up in pre-CG Hollywood. Take for example the bar fight in an Old West saloon that was staged under water in their 1984 film “Top Secret!”; it only lasts for a minute or so but it’s a triumph of whatever-it-takes filmmaking.
With the robust CG-fueled toolbox at the disposal of today’s directors, those kinds of gags are infinitely easier to pull off. The onscreen rendering of absurd, surreal, completely unexpected non sequitirs of virtually any scale are now theoretically within the grasp of any comedy director. In fact, we should be living in a golden age of slapstick comedy right now; screens should be overflowing with 21st century riffs on “Airplane!” It’s a mystery—a frustrating mystery to me—why we’re not.
Here are all seventeen movies I watched in August.
“Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985) ★★★½ Not a perfect film, but an ideal vehicle for Madonna, and a lovely time capsule of early 80s New York.
“They Cloned Tyrone” (2023) ★★★½ The first hour of this loopy sci-fi horror comedy is practically on fire. The rest can’t match that, but this is still better than most original streaming productions. Doubly sad then that it just got lost in the shuffle.
“Spaceballs” (1987) ★★ Sadly this is just an amusing slog.
“The Goat” (1921) ★★★★ Buster Keaton takes on the police.
“The Frozen North” (1922) ★★½ Uncharacteristically brutal, even for a Buster Keaton joint.
Like many people I joined in on the Barbenheimer fun last month and saw both films—not quite the same day, but back to back over a weekend. Neither film is perfect though of the two, I think Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” comes closer to fulfilling its own ambitions. It’s generally great fun, especially when romping through the eye-popping absurdity of the “Barbieland” that Gerwig crams with hilarious details. As for the question of whether it really squares the circle when it comes to reconciling its feminist, “destroy the patriarchy” lip service with the fact that, at the end of the day, it’s going to net Mattel hundreds of millions of dollars and displace zero patriarchs? Well, the movie is a lot of fun!
“Oppenheimer” is less fun, though of course by intention. Like many of director Christopher Nolan’s films, you could call it self-important and overwrought, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But that’s not even what I found dissatisfying about it, as Nolan’s bombast has rarely bothered me in the past (I even thought that “Tenet” was a masterpiece!). Rather, I found “Oppenheimer” surprisingly inelegant, even clumsy, and susceptible to the worst traps of the biopic form. For the first third of its three-hour plus runtime, it’s like an object lesson in how not to write naturalistic dialog; characters show up on screen like robots programmed to utter incredibly momentous declarations that barely rise above mechanical exposition, then get deactivated unceremoniously. Like many biopics, nearly every moment is intended to make important points about its subject, and so it never quite manages to feel like anything more than a history lesson, where I had expected an artistic statement. In the end though, it’s still incredible that Nolan managed to get this film made at all—and to turn it into a hit that somehow became regarded as the perfect companion to “Barbie.” The world is a strange place.
Here are all twenty-four movies I saw in July.
“Cattle Annie and Little Britches” (1981) ★★ The great Burt Lancaster is failed by this would-be revisionist Western that passes on every opportunity to dig deeper below the surface.
“Tokyo Sonata” (2008) ★★★½ Achingly rendered, Ozu-like chronicle of family downfall precipitated by a father’s job loss.
“Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” (2023) ★★★★ Rewatched. Enjoyed it even more on its second viewing, when I got to appreciate not just the complexity but also the humor and grace of the many elaborate action pieces.
“Master Gardener” (2022) ★★★½ Classic Paul Schrader: mesmerizing even if a bit rote.
“Command Z” (2023) ★★★ A loosey-goosey, really chatty excursion into sitcom-like sci-fi absurdity from Steven Soderbergh.
“Pale Flower” (1964) ★★★½ Antonioni-esque ennui set in a yakuza underworld of small time hoods.
“It Always Rains on Sunday” (1947) ★★★★ Superb slice-of-life British noir set in a post-War East End of London where the rain never seems to let up for long and everyone seems to have a grudge against everyone else. Superb.
“The Night Porter” (1974) ★★ A trashy, faux-artsy manifestation of an unhealthy fixation on Nazi depravity.
“Barbie” (2023) ★★★ Patchy and inconsistent, and better at comic absurdity than emotional resonance, but still undeniably fun.
“Hell Drivers” (1957) ★★★★ This blue collar British noir about the worst trucking outfit ever is a brilliant, remorseless nail-biter about an ex-con whom everyone treats like dirt.
“The Small Back Room” (1949) ★★★ A quirky, psychologically overwrought examination of a small cadre of scientists who worked on the war effort in the 1940s.
“Pool of London” (1951) ★★★★ Another excellent British noir, this one about merchant marines on shore leave who get in way over their heads. Surprisingly humanity affirming while still emotionally authentic.
“Wham!” (2023) ★★ Typically rudimentary rockumentary fluff, except for the undeniable, over-the-top charm of its two principal characters.
For better or worse, Wes Anderson’s “Asteroid City,” which I got to see at the theater last month, conforms neatly to my two major running theories about his work.
The first is that Anderson is essentially a children’s storyteller. For my money, he’s most at home when he’s telling stories through the lens of child characters, as he did with “Rushmore” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” both terrific movies. And it’s no accident that when he’s flat out making movies for kids, as he did with “Fantastic Mister Fox” and “Isle of Dogs,” they’re not aberrations at all but actually among the very best films of his career.
Anderson is a child at heart, of course, and that shows up countless times in his films, whether it’s in his scripts or his stage dressing or his picture book-like cinematography. However, the flip side of this youthful empathy is that Anderson is essentially lost when it comes to adult characters and, by extension, stories about adults. For me, this is the weakness that sabotages films like “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” and the abysmal “The Darjeeling Limited,” which are populated with nonsensical, schematized characters that talk at one another but never truly interact.
All of this plays out in “Asteroid City,” a preening, highly ornamental story about a random selection of travelers, both children and adults, stranded in a desert town in 1955. When the movie centers the children, it feels like it’s pointing towards true north; the dialogue, the sympathies, the anxieties all feel authentic and engaging. When it turns its attention to the adults, the typically Andersonian deadpan-ness of these often eccentric characters is more than just emotionally muted; the actual logic of their words and actions feels inauthentic and theoretical, remote and alienating. The actors themselves become a kind of set dressing, another kind of quirky detailing that conveys a notion but not an idea, a visual but not a story. There’s little difference between the elaborate set constructed for the film and the elaborate contract and schedule wrangling that managed to gather Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson and a dozen more big name stars together for this star-studded spectacular.
These warring impulses between children’s stories and adult stories essentially tank “Asteroid City,” dooming it to the lower tier of Anderson’s work—at least for me. Which brings me to my second operating thesis: there’s not another director working today who inspires such widespread devotion and yet, among his devotees, so little consensus on what makes his films work, or which of his movies are the triumphs and which are the misfires. Some people revere “The Royal Tenenbaums,” others lionize the “Bottle Rocket” phase of his career. Still others think he hit a high with “Grand Budapest Hotel.” You could gather a roomful of passionate Anderson fans and I’d be shocked if any two of their “best of” lists were identical.
I find this perplexing, fascinating, even kind of admirable. For a certain kind of movie fan, Anderson’s movies are a Rorschach test of how we look at film, not just whether we value story or character or spectacle, but how we even define these core elements of the art form. For example, I find Anderson’s increasingly extreme level of presentational artifice to be a kind of story element in and of itself, an artistic vocabulary that often reveals as much as his character work (which of course might be seen as a backhanded compliment). For others, it might come across as obfuscation or even incompetence. And yet, even with a failure like “Asteroid City,” there’s always something to look at, to consider, to puzzle through and try to make sense of; there’s something for everyone who’s willing to look. The fact that no one can agree on which of Anderson’s films is his masterpiece is actually a feature and not a bug.
Though I’m here to say that his best film is “Fantastic Mister Fox,” definitively, hands down, no question about it. And that settles that.
Here are all nineteen movies I watched in June.
“The Far Country” (1954) ★★★½ Jimmy Stewart in another of the series of psychologically grim westerns he made with Anthony Mann. This one is pleasingly twisty and sprawling throughout, until an ending that’s a bit flat.
“Spider-Man” (2002) ★★½ Rewatched. Still pretty messy, with a hacky love triangle and a ridiculous villain. Why people remember this so fondly is beyond me.
“Lovely & Amazing” (2001) ★★★ Director Nicole Holofcener dissects the anxieties of three sisters and their mother in early 00s Los Angeles. It’s generally incisive, both delicate and bold, but it’s marred by a fatuous soundtrack.
“The Man from Laramie” (1955) ★★★½ An angry, anguished Jimmy Stewart wanders into the middle of a “Giant”-style, ranch family drama, with brutal results.
“Fist of Fury” (1972) ★★½ It’s still bewildering to me how Bruce Lee’s movies were never able to fully unleash Bruce Lee.
“Pleasure” (2021) ★★★ Unflinchingly gross examination of adult filmmaking that’s long on observations but short on insight.
“Fail Safe” (1964) ★★★½ Sidney Lumet spins a stylistically brutalist tale of Cold War geopolitical crisis. Imperfect but riveting.
“Infernal Affairs” (2002) ★★★½ This Hong Kong policier will forever be overshadowed by Martin Scorcese’s remake (“The Departed”) but it’s still worthwhile, especially for Tony Leung’s performance.
“The Flash” (2023) ★★ So hacky, ramshackle, and slapdash it makes Zack Snyder’s DC movies look like the work of a master.
“One Million Years B.C.” (1966) ★½ A numbskull, essentially conservative misapprehension of how white people conquered prehistoric times.
“At the Video Store” (2019) ★★½ A teary ode to mom ’n’ pop video stores that’s as shaggy as mom ’n’ pop video stores themselves.
“Asteroid City” (2023) ★★★ A new release but basically a special edition re-issue of itself, full of multiple layers of obfuscating presentational artifice. Amusing but also frustratingly hollow.
“The Innocent” (2022) ★½ A gentle comedy of suspicions and family relationships with no real trajectory, even after it settles on a rote love story.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) ★½ This reboot is not without a few ideas, though none of them are really very good. Pretty much deserves its reputation as a misfire.
“Confess, Fletch” (2022) ★★★½ Maybe I went in with low expectations but I thought this was a riot. John Hamm’s best role.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in May, in April, in March, in February, in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Here we are on the last day of June and I’m only now squeezing in my roundup of movies I watched back in May. I managed to get to the theaters twice, first for “Sisu,” a highly implausible if very well made riff on “John Wick” that brings us the always welcome opportunity to enjoy mistreating a bunch of Nazi jerks. It’s an enjoyable romp but at the end of its short runtime you may agree with me that it was pretty dumb. But hey, so are Nazis!
More substantively, I also went to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus in director Nicole Holofcener’s “You Hurt My Feelings.” This is the kind of movie that Woody Allen used to get on the cultural radar once a year, but that has become increasingly rare in the super-hero/streaming/post-pandemic age. It’s a comedy of privilege centering around a novelist, a psychologist, an interior decorator and an actor whose cozy, uptown Manhattan lives are ruptured by a single overheard conversation. It sounds like a groaner, I know, but Holofcener directs with real nuance and care, and she affords such extraordinary generosity to her characters that it’s not difficult to find deep sympathy for all of them. This is helped in no small part by Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the lead role; she turns in a performance of such precise, authentic emotional authenticity that’s miles away from her iconic “Seinfeld” role—but that’s almost as hilarious. “You Hurt My Feelings” came and went from theaters quickly, but I hope it finds a new audience on video.
Here are all twenty movies that I watched in May.
“No Bears” (2022) ★★★★ This raw, unsparing Iranian film made in exile is the antithesis of the ongoing crop of auteur-driven “cinema is magic” vanity projects.
“Airplane!” (1980) ★★★ Rewatched. An old favorite, but I’m not sure it’s aging so well.
“Miami Blues” (1990) ★★★½ Rewatched. Frequently overlooked, pitch black noir set in brilliant Floridian sunlight. Alec Baldwin is fully convincing an entitled crazy man, somehow.
“Cure” (1997) ★★★★ Japanese serial killer noir is “Se7en” without the showboating.
“Sisu” (2023) ★★★ “Wick”-style ultra-violence carnival that brings back the fun of terrorizing Nazis.
“Predator” (1987) ★★½ Rewatched. Would’ve been a standard action flick with a horror flick grafted onto it were it not for how extremely cool and exceptionally well conceived the Predator himself is.
“Three Ages” (1923) ★★½ Buster Keaton in an epoch-spanning comedy that never really rises above the conceit. However it does set a template for countless Looney Tunes gags.
“Smoking Causes Coughing” (2022) ★★★ Wonderfully absurdist French satire about a Power Rangers-like superhero team with real issues.
“Rye Lane” (2023) ★★★★ First two acts of this “Before Sunrise”-style comedy are just about perfect.
“The High Sign” (1921) ★★★★ Buster Keaton turns doles out a string of “typically brilliant” stunts and laughs, and then towards the end blows it all out of the water with multi-level prop house that blew my mind.
“To the Ends of the Earth” (2019) ★★ A young Japanese TV personality ponders the remoteness of Uzbekistan, from the director of “Cure.” This one is much more boring though.
“Bull Durham” (1988) ★★★★½ Rewatched. The best baseball movie of all time, if not also the best sports movie of all time.
“The Balloonatic” (1923) ★★★ Another Buster Keaton joint. Starts off in a funhouse, detours to a fishing hole, and ends up in mid-air in a hot air balloon, and somehow it all makes sense.
“Winchester '73” (1950) ★★★½ Jimmy Stewart enters the bitter stage of his career in this sprawling Western.
“Missing” (2023) ★★★ “Screenlife” drama is fairly preposterous while also being highly, highly watchable.
“You Hurt My Feelings” (2023) ★★★★ Navel-gazing but warmly hilarious comedy of mid-life manners, directed by Nicole Holofcener.
“The Electric House” (1922) ★★ Little more than a series of setups for Buster Keaton to do his thing.
“Bend of the River” (1952) ★★★★ Another bitter, dark western in which Jimmy Stewart works out the trauma from his war service.
“Speedy” (1928) ★★★★½ Harold Lloyd goes to Manhattan, where he seems to whip the whole town into a frenzy.
“Enough Said” (2013) ★★★½ Went back for more Holofcener. A romantic comedy that only occasionally stretches credulity is like a gift of character development to her leads, a remarkably precise Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a warmly powerful James Gandolfini, in his last screen role.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in April, in March, in February, in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
What got me out of the house and into a seat at the theater last month? Illumination Entertainment’s incomprehensibly tolerable “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” did. Well, it wasn’t so much the movie itself that spurred me to go as it was my kids, who wanted to see it.
So as you can imagine, I did not expect to like it—the whole production gave me so many reasons to hate it, in fact! But for some reason I was fine with it. Like, I did not find myself actively disliking what was on the screen. It was mostly unremarkably acceptable, even kind of enjoyable! I won’t even attempt to analyze the reasons why. Sometimes we can’t explain how we react to movies, mostly because movies are not inherently logical. Movies make no sense! I’m okay with that.
To balance out my cinematic diet, I also watched a pretty healthy portion of classic silent cinema, which accounts for the unusually high number of movies in my roundup for the month: twenty-eight total, eight of which starred Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton, and all of which are about a hundred years old now.
These are mostly one- or two-reelers, short films that go down incredibly easily. They’re a delight to watch and crackling with invention, and I almost constantly find myself wondering, “How did they do that?!”—not just the mind blowing practical stunt work, but also the hilarious gags that somehow still seem fresh. It’s hard to fathom how, after the subsequent century of filmmaking that followed the silent era, when nearly every trope was repeated endlessly, the works of these two geniuses still pop off the screen with endless, vibrant ingenuity. Watching Lloyd’s “Safety Last!” or Keaton’s “The General,” both monuments of the art form, is almost like seeing movies for the first time, so bright are the laughs and so kinetic is the action.
Here’s everything I watched in April.
“Beetlejuice” (1988) ★★ Rewatched. Mostly okay if you like Tim Burton.
“One Week” (1920) ★★★★ One of seemingly countless Buster Keaton shorts that, pound for pound, contain more excitement and invention than the entirety of most contemporary action franchises.
“Cops” (1922) ★★★½ Keaton lives out his horror of law enforcement.
“The Biggest Bundle of Them All” (1968) ★½ A zany 1960s heist comedy with a slack script and even slacker comedic chops, even if it sports a role for Vitorrio De Sica(!).
“Shin Godzilla” (2016) ★★★★ Beautifully realized, whip smart take on Godzilla shines the spotlight on the technocrats, civil servants and private/public partnerships that grapple with what to do about a monstrous lizard creature that emerges from the sea.
“The Way of the Dragon” (1972) ★★ It’s a tremendous shame that Bruce Lee never got one truly solid, top shelf, legitimately good script to work with.
“Grandma's Boy” (1922) ★★★½ Harold Lloyd in a typical setup: a meek man-child has to rise to the occasion. Even with a short runtime, Lloyd somehow manages to squeeze in a pretty full character arc, including a side trip to the Civil War.
“That's Him” (1918) ★★½ Another Lloyd short film, though this comedy of mistaken identity is pretty slight.
“Dr. Jack” (1922) ★★ Harold Lloyd as a country doctor who has all the answers can be fun, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right.
“EO” (2022) ★★★★ A hauntingly affecting tour of human mendacity seen through the eyes of a heartbreakingly adorable donkey. This film is a real achievement even if it sometimes feels like a pretext for the director’s masterful aesthetic choices.
“Sing 2” (2021) ½ I actually like Bono but this is beyond the pale even for him.
“Shaun of the Dead” (2021) ★★★★ Rewatched. The one time that Edgar Wright truly hit it out of the park.
“Robbery” (1967) ★★★½ This heavily procedural heist film based on the real Great Train Robbery is all dudes all the time, so your mileage may vary.
“The Suspect” (1944) ★★★½ Gleefully polite fin de siècle noir set in London-town-upon-Hollywood puts Charles Laughton in a vice and squeezes tighter and tighter until someone does the sporting thing, cheerio, oi, bob’s yer uncle.
“Freaky Friday” (2003) ★★½ Starts off as a painful slog but when the body switch happens, Jamie Lee Curtis truly owns it.
“The General” (1926) ★★★½ Buster Keaton in an unexpectedly huge Civil War epic—they send a huge locomotive flying off of a bridge! Tons of fun, except for the distasteful romanticizing of the Confederate cause.
“RockNRolla” (2008) ★★ For Guy Ritchie completists only.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in March, in February, in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Last month, despite feeling pretty exhausted by the whole Chad Stahelski/David Leitch/Derek Kolstad creative axis that was launched into prominence by the unexpected success of the original “John Wick” (still the best of the whole lot), I let myself get carried away by the incredibly positive buzz for “John Wick: Chapter 4.” Fool me once, shame on you; fool me with three sequels and a bunch of ancillary projects all with more or less the same idea? Well, shame on me.
The original “John Wick,” released nine years(!) ago, was a thunderclap of action innovation sporting an eloquently appealing premise: a fearsome hitman comes out of retirement to avenge the killing of his dog, and heads roll. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it combined just enough brains, a heavy helping of next-level fight choreography, and a smattering of lore, to create an extremely entertaining assasins’ lair of a world, at least for one movie.
Then, over the course of two subsequent installments, director Chad Stahelski stretched that original premise ever thinner and thinner while simultaneously larding it with an ever-increasing mythology of dubious quality. Wick’s world got more and more complicated and its rules became more and more self-justifying, as the actors spent seemingly all of their screen time reciting their world’s obscure, corny bylaws back and forth to one another. By the end of the third installment, John Wick’s initial motivation was all but lost completely, subsumed by a ridiculously ornate universe of bizarre made-up customs. There was plenty of crazy action too, of course; as a stuntman by training, that is the major constant of Stahelksi’s direction. But the action had become essentially meaningless and frankly boring.
I’m not sure why I was so willing to believe that “Chapter 4” would be able to buck that trend, but it doesn’t. That’s largely because Stahelski’s ability to generate new ideas is apparently quite limited. Here is more or less a complete inventory of everything he’s capable of dreaming up: pubescently elaborate protocols and ceremonies; cheesy nightclubs brimming with bacchanalia; physically underpowered Euro-boys as primary antagonists; retro functionaries administering a sprawling bureaucracy of killers; and doggie companions as proxies for “good” guys. These were all in the first three “Wick” movies and they show up in number four too, with only minimal revision. Even the action, which should be Stahelski’s strong suit, is largely repetitive; for long stretches, I felt like I was watching outtakes of the first three movies. That is, at least until the third act, where Stahelski finds a second wind and delivers a series of genuinely inventive action set pieces. By that time though, there’s a roboticism to his entire approach that’s evocative of video games more than cinema, and the whole things feels like it was incredibly unnecessary.
Most sequels are in fact unnecessary, of course, but I think what kept me coming back to the “John Wick” franchise over and over again was a drug-like yearning for the extreme high of that first outing. In many ways, action moviemaking is still living in the shadow of that movie, and many filmmakers are still even trying to catch up to it. But for me, after a decade of “Wick” derivatives, it feels like we’re ready for something genuinely new. I don’t know what it looks like or where it might come from, but neither could I have guessed in 2014 that a low-budget B-movie starring Keanu Reeves and directed by two stuntmen could rejuvenate the form so wholly. I’m ready to be surprised again, though!
Happy tax day, everyone! Here’s the full list of all twenty movies I watched in March:
“Lost Bullet 2” (2022) ★★★½ Rewatched. Sustained excellence in a sequel.
“The Sword of Doom” (1966) ★★★½ Incredibly dark tale of multiple intersecting lives all marred by their connection to an irretrievably fatalistic samurai.
“Party Girl” (1995) ★★½ Hard nineties: Parker Posey bouncing around Manhattan in crazy outfits, teetering out of control, and somehow learning the library sciences at the same time? Ridiculous but very, very likable.
“Matinee” (1993) ★★★ An endearing nostalgia trip into the lost world of 1950s B-movies, more sentimental than it is remarkable, though it starts to realize its full potential in a manic third act.
“Police Story 3: Super Cop” (1992) ★★½ The only explanation is that everyone—EVERYONE—in the “Police Story” universe is on crack.
“The Heroic Trio” (1993) ★★★½ A crazy, liminal dream world at the intersection of myth and modernity, from one of the masters of Hong Kong action film. Incomprehensible but brilliant.
“John Wick: Chapter 4” (2023) ★★½ Everyone thought this was great except for me! The third act is impressive, but everything else feels like we’ve done this three times before already—oh, we have.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in February, January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Mid-winter is usually a pretty rough time for worthwhile new movies, but all the same I’m surprised that I actually watched zero of them last month. The reason probably is that I had expended so much energy in January trying to get caught up on the best ones from the end of 2022 that when February came along I was just looking to revisit some familiar favorites—and also dig into some older movies that I’d never gotten to see.
To start with, I got a hold of Criterion’s Bruce Lee boxed set and finally, as an adult, tried to digest some of these seminal martial arts pictures that I’d only ever seen in bits and pieces as a kid. As is customary for Criterion, these five films have been heroically repackaged and annotated, and watching Lee’s fiery acrobatics presented so crisply is a thrill. But there’s no getting around the fact that the movies themselves—plot-wise, character-wise, filmmaking-wise—are creaky, to use a word. More often than not, they amount to little more than action footage—volcanic action footage, to be sure—strung together by drearily incoherent plot setups.
It’s all a reminder of how narrowly Western culture once valued Asian stars. Before Lee’s untimely death the film world clearly recognized the sheer spectacle of his screen athletics, but they had such low expectations for his marketability as an actor that they never bothered to write a fully formed part for him, much less put him in a movie with a real plot. Watching these sometimes tiresomely rote potboilers where Lee’s charisma nevertheless pops off the screen, it’s evident that he was bringing so much more than just action. His performances shined with a fierce magnetism and an unmistakable pathos far beyond what was written on the page. He could’ve have been a much, much bigger star than he got to be before he passed.
All of which is sober context for the amazing night that “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” one of countless inheritors of Lee’s legacy, had at the Oscars. I really try to avoid watching the Academy Awards but, despite myself, I felt compelled to tune in this year to see which if any of the Asian nominees would take home statues. I was particularly touched by Ke Huy Quan’s acceptance speech. I find his story so powerfully moving, and not just because, like me, he also immigrated from Vietnam to the States at a very young age. Despite early success, Quan effectively found himself in the professional wilderness for many years and had even been so hard up for work before “Everything” that he’d lost his health insurance. To land that part and then somehow to win and Oscar for it… that really is a fairy tale come true. I’m not the biggest fan of this movie, but its success is nevertheless very gratifying. It’s also a wonderful culmination, in its own way, of a journey that Bruce Lee started many decades ago.
Here’s the full list of twenty films I watched in February.
“The Silence” (1963) ★★ Terrible title! I can never remember which movie this is. Now that I’ve looked it up again I’m reminded that this angsty, shadowy psychodrama is one of Ingmar Bergman’s more skippable works.
“Black Swan” (2010) ★ All the dream sequences, jump scares, titillating innuendoes and body horror effects add up to a prestige flick that apparently very few people other than me recognize for its astonishing silliness.
“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) ★★★★½ Rewatched. A magnificently constructed private world that’s made complete by just three young women, temporarily isolated from patriarchal constraint.
“Witness in the City” (1959) ★★★★ Fantastic, gritty French noir that works like the aftermath to an entirely different crime caper.
“Enter the Dragon” (1973) ★★★½ Before his life was tragically cut short, you could see in this explosive but imperfect martial arts bruiser how Bruce Lee was just starting to tap his full potential as a screen presence..
“Game of Death” (1978) ★½ Gets an extra ½ for the iconic jumpsuit, but overall this cash-in on Bruce Lee’s legacy is a pretty pathetic enterprise.
“What About Bob?” (1991) ★★★½ Rewatched. It’s easy to recognize how Bill Murray is at his off kilter best in this screwball psycho-comedy, but Richard Dreyfus also brings a wonderfully deft game as the straight man.
“See How They Run” (2022) ★★★½ Rewatched. Maybe I’m just a sucker for whodunnits, but this admittedly not-revolutionary murder mystery is loads of fun.
“The Batman” (2022) ★★★★ Rewatched. I do wish the plot were tighter but I like this more and more with each viewing. It’s like a great downer rock album that just nails its vibe.
“The Last of Sheila” (1973) ★★★★ A deliciously snarky whodunnit with plenty of fascinating gay subtext thanks to a take-no-prisoners script from Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. Yes those guys.
“The Big Boss” (1971) ★★½ You’ve got to wade through a lot of brainless plotting and paper-thin characters to get to Bruce Lee’s explosive martial arts here, and even then there’s not a whole lot of that.
“Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★ Rewatched. Loads of Hollywood clichés heaped upon one another—and then executed with sterling, irresistible panache.
“The Favourite” (2018) ★★★★ Rewatched. Maybe the best costume drama for a generation? Certainly the best one that’s also a cutting, contemporary historical allegory. Brilliant.
“Thoroughbreds” (2017) ★★★★ Rewatched. Half a decade later, this early psychological thriller about two horrible young women looks like a classic.
“Air Force One” (1997) ★★ Rewatched. You really need to turn off your brain for this, at which point it’s pretty fun, and afterwards you feel pretty bad. Junk food, I guess.
“Lost Bullet” (2020) ★★★ Rewatched. This is probably the best action franchise going right now (looking Mr. Diesel’s way).
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
After seeing as many of the year-end prestige movies from 2022 as I could in January, I came to the conclusion that overall it was a pretty disappointing slate. Few of the movies I saw, even among the best reviewed of the year, seemed like out and out home runs. And there were, for my tastes, too many entries from a genre that I’ve really grown tired of: auteur directors paying tribute to their childhoods and/or to the magic of film.
To be fair, some pretty decent movies have been made in this mode recently. Alfonzo Cuarón’s “Roma” from 2018 and Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Hand of God” from 2021 come to mind as two particularly terrific examples. But this season alone brought “Armageddon Time” from James Gray, a director whose work has always left me cold; “Empire of Light” from Sam Mendes (same); and “The Fabelmans” from Stephen Spielberg, whose track record with me has always been erratic. I only saw the last of those, which generally got the best notices, and even then I was pretty underwhelmed.
There was actually one more in this batch: Damien Chazelle’s “Babylon” doesn’t qualify as an ode to his own youth at all but, probably moreso even than any of the others I’ve mentioned, it goes hard into that “magic of film” sentiment.
What’s utterly unique about this movie is that, for the first two-thirds of an outrageous three-hour runtime, it’s actually really, really good. Chazelle pulls out all the stops to tell a story of early Hollywood as it makes the transition from silent to talking pictures; the movie is fully uninhibited and even unhinged as it careens from drunken orgy to huge scale outdoor film sets to late night showdowns with poisonous snakes and more. Let me be clear: this part of the movie is fantastic.
The problem is that the last hour of the film becomes something else altogether: a terrible, terrible movie, riddled with clichés and storylines that won’t end and sentimental dribbling that hurts to watch almost as much as what came before was a true joy to experience. I honestly can’t remember another movie that was so, so superb for so long, and then turns out so, so bad in the end. Ultimately, my thoughts on this bizarre, misbegotten film are confusingly mixed: it’s totally worth seeing if you can bear the crashing disappointment at the end; I felt fortunate to see it in theaters but it’s way too long; and I’m so glad that Chazelle got to make this movie but I hope not to see another of its kind for a long, long time.
“Shazam!” (2019) ★★½ Rewatched. Totally, unremarkably, unexceptionally fine movie in the Marvel mode.
“The Illusionist” (2010) ★★★ Lovingly crafted homage to Jacques Tati that also completely misses the mark in capturing his sensibility.
“Theodora Goes Wild” (1936) ★★★ Genial and unrepetantly silly Irene Dunne star vehicle from the golden age of the screwball comedy.
“Kamikaze Hearts” (1986) ★★★½ Sometimes aimless but electric-charged quasi documentary made from the fringes of adult cinema.
“Carol” (2015) ★★★★ Rewatched. Still lovely but honestly a little boring.
“Babylon” (2022) ★★½ Honestly no idea how many stars to give this misbegotten hybrid of directorial masterwork and hacky cliché-fest. First two-thirds are auteur-level great, and then it just falls off a cliff.
“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (2022) ★★½ Beautifully animated and apparently very entertaining—I guess, because as with most animated movies these days, it put me to sleep.
“Fletch” (1985) ★ A shockingly raw time capsule from a decade when the ideal man was supposed to be the biggest asshole in any room. Also called “The Reagan Era.”
“Tár” (2022) ★★★★ Not an Oscar-baiting acting showcase, which is what I feared, but a genuinely great performance in a genuine work of art.
“Breakdown” (1997) ★★★½ Rewatched. Extremely efficient, tautly drawn little B-movie from the late 90s in which Kurt Russell’s wife goes missing. Far exceeds expectations.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” (2010) ★★★ Rewatched. The cleanest distillation of Edgar Wright’s frequently hyper-showy cinematic sensibility.
“Watcher” (2022) ★★★½ Better than average thriller/horror that trades mostly on an extreme sense of dread conjured up by the isolation of being an expatriate.
“Back to the Wall” (1958) ★★★★ Superb, Hollywood-noir French thriller that got left behind with the excitement over the French New Wave. Twisty in a way that’s still surprising even so many decades later, and shot with an exceptionally sharp eye.
“Marnie” (1964) ★½ Late period Hitchcock in which the director tries to bring his usually suppressed pathologies to the fore, with disastrous results all around.
“The Warriors” (1979) ★★★ Rewatched. Sad to say this much beloved classic from the paranoid 70s may be starting to wear thin for me.
“The Bourne Identity” (2002) ★★★★ Rewatched. Now over two decades old but feels like a million years ago! Still, in just about every way, remains a contemporary classic.
“Speaking of Murder” (1957) ★★½ Jean Gabin in a flabby, wholly mundane gangster flick with very few, if any, real surprises.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.