Unforgiven

Bill Bunny and Ned Logan in Unforgiven

“Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”

Even after the classic Western was replaced by the revisionist Western, there were some romantic and, frankly, false notions about the old West floating around in the 90s. Notions that heroes acted with honor, sheriffs were the good guys, and gunslingers were unstoppable bad-asses with superhuman aiming ability. Unforgiven, directed by Western legend Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby) and starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, and Gene Hackman, shattered those notions. Justice was determined by who was willing to pay for it. A hero who wanted to stay alive wouldn’t pass up a chance to shoot an enemy in the back. And, perhaps most strikingly, old gunslingers weren’t these invincible superheroes. This is a very well-written modern Western that’s both a deconstruction of and an homage to the genre and it’s a great watch.

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Carrie

Carrie White stares in horror, covered with blood, in Carrie (1976)

“Telekinesis… thought to be the ability to move… or to cause changes… in objects… by force of the mind…?”

Growing up, I’d been turned off to the horror genre for a few reasons. Horror films in general never really felt deep, emotionally speaking, and were full of stereotypes. They also seemed to revel in misogyny and weak female characters. 42 years after its release, Carrie is still a breath of fresh air. Directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface, Dressed to Kill) and starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, this was a landmark horror film that wasn’t content to stick to simple characters and situations. The character of Carrie White was painfully real and vulnerable, but strong in her own way, and the emotional core of the movie was raw and powerful. And, unlike most horror films, women run the show here—despite a gratuitous opening scene, there are some pretty empowering scenes here, as well as some open discussion of the hardships of being a woman. It honestly feels a bit dated today, but the tension and sense of dread hanging over the whole film is as heavy today as it was in 1976 and this still holds up as a classic and very influential horror film.

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Akira

Kaneda aims a rifle in Akira

“What if there were some mistake and the progression went wrong and something like an amoeba was given power like a human’s?”

I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan. I like some of the better movies and series, but there’s a lot of the genre I don’t particularly enjoy. The few other anime on this list, I’ve described as being different than your typical anime—full of rich drama and characters that will appeal to movie-watchers who wouldn’t normally get into anime. Akira, on the other hand, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from an anime: a psychic guy attacks a futuristic city and it’s up to a teenage boy to stop him. This seminal anime film is written and directed by Katsuhiro Ôtomo (Steamboy, Mushi Shi: The Movie), and the fact that this feels like a lot of other anime is a testament to how influential it was in 1988, before the typical anime really existed. This film was huge in Japan, and it opened the door to the Western world for anime, where the genre had previously gone largely unnoticed. Is it good? Well, yes, it’s very good. It’s got a great sci-fi plot, a gritty dystopian setting, and action that’s entertaining without being so over-the-top that it’s ridiculous. It feels a bit like a cross between an action movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and 1984. Again, I wouldn’t describe myself as an anime fan, but this is one of the best movies the genre has to offer, and it’s endured as a classic for a reason.

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Heat

Heat (1995)

“A guy told me one time, don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.” Heat is close to the perfect crime film, in large part because it gets all the details right. Written and directed by Michael Mann (Ali, The Last of the Mohicans) and starring crime film legends Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, this film spends just as much time developing the antagonist as the protagonist—an idea which influenced the crime genre for at least a decade afterward. But the film got a lot of things right, from police procedures during a bank robbery and mannerisms of actual career criminals to the minutiae of failing marriages and relationships torn apart by reckless spending and substance abuse, and it did it through careful research and attention to detail that you really don’t see in most other films. This isn’t quite the most brilliant crime movie out there, but it’s probably the most detailed and it still makes for a very entertaining watch.

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V for Vendetta

V juggles some knives in V for Vendetta

“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof.”

1984 is one of my favorite novels, but I have to admit: in movie form, V for Vendetta does 1984 better than 1984. Directed by James McTeigue (The Raven, assisted on The Matrix) and starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving, this is a highly political action-thriller based on a comic book written by the legendary Alan Moore. There are a few well-choreographed fight sequences and some good tension throughout, but what this film does best is talk about political ideas in a very down-to-earth manner. This was topical when it came out in 2005, but it’s become even more relevant in light of recent political events. (Fun fact: Trump supporters are leaving negative reviews on this movie every place they can, calling it liberal propaganda. That’s relevance!) It is a comic book film, so, although it’s more mature than most comic book films, it does have some larger-than-life characters and moments. That doesn’t hurt the point the film is making. In fact, it actually helps make the open discussion of these big ideas seem more real.

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Colossal

Gloria and Oscar watch the news in Colossal

“Have you ever noticed how it just keeps destroying everything in its path but it never looks down?”

Mark Twain once said, “If you send a damned fool to St. Louis, and you don’t tell them he’s a damned fool, they’ll never find out.” Now, Mark Twain clearly had something against St. Louis, but that’s not my point. My point is that if you’re ignorant about something and you live in a place where nobody is going to point that out to you, you’re likely to remain ignorant about that your entire life. I lived in small-town Florida for most of my adolescent and young adult life, and let me tell you: in those towns, it is very hard to come by people who will challenge you to think outside of the microcosm of small towns in America.

Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes, Extraterrestrial) and starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, is a high-concept film with a lot to say about life in a small town. It’s very metaphorical, but it’s hard to pin down exactly what it’s trying to say. That’s not a bad thing, because it has a lot to say and it will probably speak differently to different people. It’s kind of a dark comedy, kind of a story of redemption, and kind of a giant monster movie (in a literal sense). It got some bad reviews from people who likely missed the points it was trying to make and saw it as an ill-conceived monster movie, but there’s a lot here for people who are willing to dig into the film a bit more.

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In Bruges

Ken and Ray sit on a bench in In Bruges

“I’m sorry for calling you an inanimate object. I was upset.”

There are many films about hitmen, but In Bruges is different. It doesn’t show a slice of life like similar films do. Instead, it uses light allegory, dark humor, and razor-sharp wit to tell a story of growth and atonement for two distinct characters who both happen to be hitmen. Written and directed by Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Seven Psychopaths) and starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, this film is at times funny and at other times depressing, and it goes way deeper than telling the story of a string of contracted hits. This film hits the deepest parts of the soul for these two flawed protagonists as they struggle emotionally with the lives they live. This film is funny, poignant, and definitely worth a watch.

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Ex Machina

Ava investigates one of her alternate faces in Ex Machina

“Do you have someone who switches you off if you don’t perform as you should? … Then why should I?”

If you mixed together Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein with the 1982 film Blade Runner, you might get something kind of like Ex Machina. Written and directed by Alex Garland (his first effort as a director, writer of 28 Days Later and Annihilation) and starring Alicia Vikander, Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, this philosophical film is one of the best I’ve seen on artificial intelligence. In true sci-fi fashion, this film is not content to simply explain what AI is—it also asks what it means. But it’s also not content to be a boring discussion of ethics. This is a thriller just as much as it is a philosophical film, and I found it gripping.

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The Producers

Leo and Max chat in The Producers

“A flop—that’s putting it mildly! We’ve found a disaster, a catastrophe, an outrage! A guaranteed-to-close-in-one-night beauty! … Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Wow!”

It’s been a long time since World War II ended, so it’s become more acceptable to joke about Hitler. But there was a musical parody of Hitler that hit much earlier. The Producers was released in 1967—a mere 22 years after the war ended—so it’s easy to forget today how audacious this film was in its time. Directed by Mel Brooks (Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles) and starring Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel, this film was made to be vulgar, and it’s the film’s audacity that makes it such an enduring classic. (Brooks’s parents were both Jewish immigrants who had escaped from WWII Europe, so if any director has a right to joke about Nazi Germany, it’s this one.) Honestly, Mel Brooks films are kind of hit or miss for me. I loved Spaceballs, but wasn’t so crazy about Blazing Saddles. The Producers, a movie about a flop, is a certified hit. This is one of Brooks’s finest films, and it’s stood the test of time, even warranting a remake in 2005 (that wasn’t nearly as good).

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Dead Poets Society

John Keating teaches a roomful of teenage boys in Dead Poets Society

“Oh captain, my captain.”

The 80s were a time of great financial growth, but also great greed, and Generation X was getting old enough to have an opinion about it. Gen X started their own cultural movement in the 90s and basically torched everything to the ground, but it started with some general unease in the 90s. Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness) and starring Robin Williams and a host of young talent, makes an interesting statement to the emerging Gen X ideology by showing how their parents dealt with that same problem of greed and success at the detriment of truth and beauty in the 1950s. This is admittedly not a universal movie—it delves deeply into Romantic and Transcendentalist ideologies and definitely appeals to lovers of old books more than the general population. But there’s a lot here that teenagers of any age will relate to. Whether you agree with Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau or not, there’s plenty to think about and plenty to like in this film.

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