Iron Man

Iron Man walks away from an explosion in Iron Man

“Let’s face it—this is not the worst thing you’ve caught me doing.”

It’s hard to imagine this time, but superhero movies used to be, well, pretty terrible. DC Comics franchises had a surprise hit in 2005 with Batman Begins, but Marvel Comics franchises had been mediocre at best. We had the X-Men movies, and the Spider Man movies, and a few oddballs like 2003’s Hulk and Daredevil. Each of these had problems. Lower budgets meant special effects suffered in places where they really shouldn’t have suffered. Characters were often shallow, and the acting matched. The direction of the movies gave them this larger-than-life feeling that felt far removed from what we saw everyday. What we needed was a down-to-earth, relatable hero, played by a charming actor or actress, placed into extraordinary circumstances with a special effects budget to match. In 2008, Iron Man finally delivered.

Directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, The Jungle Book) and starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jeff Bridges, this was a surprise hit for many reasons. Of course the track record for Marvel-franchise movies was bad, but director Jon Favreau hadn’t directed anything like Iron Man before; star Robert Downey Jr. had been in and out of rehab and wasn’t known as a reliable actor; and the character of Tony Stark was very different than the heroes we had seen in film thus far: arrogant and full of vices. But Iron Man worked better than I think any of us were expecting it to, introducing viewers to the now hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, which pulls in hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Comic book movies had, up until this point, been mainly for die-hard comic book fans, but this film opened up the genre to general audiences and opened the door for some of the amazing movies we’re getting today.

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Django Unchained

Calvin Candie wags a cigar in Django's face in Django Unchained

“Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

Revenge stories can be gratifying to watch, but director Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) frequently makes them even more so. Taking a page from his 2009 historical revenge tale, Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino turns his eyes to a dark time in American history: slavery in the American South. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio, this story pulls no punches in its portrayal of how brutal and dehumanizing slavery was, and its portrayal of an escaped slave taking righteous revenge on vicious slavers fits well with the stylized violence and witty dialogue Tarantino is known for. The raw brutality, though necessary to tell this story of slavery, can be hard to watch, but the pay-off at the end is completely worth it.

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It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Eight motorists argue in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

“Look! We’ve figured it seventeen different ways, and every time we figured it, it was no good, because no matter how we figured it, somebody don’t like the way we figured it! So now, there’s only one way to figure it. And that is, every man—including the old bag—for himself!”

It’s not often that the word “epic” is attached to the word “comedy.” Epics are usually found amongst crime dramas or historical or fantasy pieces and are more serious affairs. But 1963’s It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World took that epic formula and effectively brought it to comedy. This was directed by Stanley Kramer (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) and stars virtually every name in comedy in the 60s, including older names like Buster Keaton and the Three Stooges (with many only appearing in cameos). And with a runtime of over three hours, this is the Lord of the Rings of comedy. It spawned a number of ripoff epic race comedies in the 60s, though none were as memorable—or as epic—as the original. Is it funny? I’ll admit, there are times when this film feels tedious; its saving grace is that when it works, it really works. This is a fun watch with some very memorable characters and scenes, which is no small feat considering the scope of the film.

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The Sting

Johnny Hooker and Henry Gondorff put their hands up in The Sting

“What was I supposed to do—call him for cheating better than me, in front of the others?”

I love a good con. Most modern con movies are so obsessed with being intricate and overly complicated that they lose their touch with reality, with mythical characters with superhuman abilities, unrealistic technological devices that are closer to magic than reality, and eleven, twelve, or sometimes thirteen people essential to the plan. In 1973, The Sting brought the con back to its early cinema roots in the 1930s, and it’s everything I wanted to see in a con movie: cleverness, real danger, and humor. Directed by George Roy Hill (Slap Shot, Slaughterhouse Five) and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford—reuniting the three of them for the first time since the hit comedy-Western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969—this movie was a huge hit in its time, winning the Oscar for best picture as well as several others for cast and crew, and it holds up very well today. It’s intriguing, it’s well-constructed, and it’s fun—what more could you ask for in a con movie?

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Elf

Buddy and Jovie in elf clothing in the movie Elf

“SANTA! OH MY GOD! SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM! I KNOW HIM!”

Will Ferrell has always been really hit-or-miss for me; so have Christmas movies. Thankfully, Elf, a 2003 Christmas movie starring Will Ferrell, is a huge hit. Directed by Jon Favreau (About a Boy, Iron Man) and starring Will Ferrell, Zooey Deschanel, and James Caan, this Christmas film is just the right amount of goofiness and sentiment to make it special without making it so sugary sweet that I need to watch Fight Club afterwards. I debated whether it belongs on my list of classic and essential films, but after watching it again this holiday season, I have to admit: this is a great film that’s fun to watch and will be around for decades, much like A Christmas Story. Even after watching this virtually every Christmas for the last ten years or so, it’s still a joy to watch. It’s a fun holiday film that can make any dreary December a little more merry.

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Finding Nemo

Nemo swims toward a boat with a determined look on his face in Finding Nemo

“Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming. What do we do? We swim, swim!”

Most animated feature films are adventures of some sort. We have toys trying to get back to their owner, a lion fleeing his country and then returning to save it, an ogre trying to save the homes of fairytale characters, and even embodiments of emotions trying to get through a brain to set things right emotionally. The adventure formula of having a character or group of characters set out on a quest to accomplish something is well-known and well-loved. In my opinion, though, there’s no better animated adventure than Finding Nemo. Directed by Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, A Bug’s Life) and Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3, Coco), this is a bit unique for an animated feature not only because it’s about fish, but also because there’s not really a villain. Most Disney and Pixar films will be a man-versus-man plot, with a principal character trying to accomplish something and an antagonist trying to stop them. This film sets the principal characters against nature and fate, which prove to be just as cruel and powerful a foe as any villain ever was. I think this helps the adventure formula, which I’ll get into below. But audiences agreed: this film surpassed The Lion King to become the highest grossing animated film of its time. It’s a great adventure film, and truly one that just about anyone in the family can enjoy.

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In the Movies, Nice Girls Finish Last

I just watched Ready Player One for the first time. Here’s a (very) loose synopsis of the plot. A young male player named Parzival competes in games for a fantastic prize. He meets Art3mis, a young female player known for being one of the best in the game, who plays for a more noble cause than Parzival. Art3mis teaches Parzival to play for a higher purpose and helps him succeed. In the end, Parzival is declared the winner and he chooses Art3mis to stand by his side.

This is an odd comparison, but the story reminded me of Harry Potter. Harry knows nothing of the wizarding world when he goes off to Hogwarts, and he meets Hermione, who is probably the smartest girl in school and is pretty much better than Harry at everything. She educates him about magic and the wizarding world and even sets him straight a few times when he begins to stray morally. In the end, Harry wins the battle against the villain Voldemort with Hermione and his friend Ron at his side.

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The Wizard of Oz

The four principle characters stand in awe of the great and powerful Oz in The Wizard of Oz

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. We must be over the rainbow!”

There are a ton of kids movies out there, but there’s just something magical about The Wizard of Oz that’s endured for 80 years—and will for many more. Directed mostly by Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) and starring Judy Garland, this film has sold so many copies and had so many television screenings that it very well might be the most watched film of all time—the Library of Congress seems to think so. I’d seen this film at least ten times, but recently had the chance to watch it with my four-year-old nephew. That’s really how this film should be viewed: as a child, or with a child. The visuals, the plot elements, and the characters all set the imagination into motion, and it’s because every part of this film was meticulously planned and executed. Though the film may be a bit campy for adults, it’s an undeniably classic film that’s not only the best of its time—it may be the best of the medium.

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The Outlaw Josey Wales

Josey Wales looks stoic with two pistols in The Outlaw Josey Wales

“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up, then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

The Western is a genre as old as film, and for a long time it remained the same, with clearly defined good guys and bad guys who fought for good and evil. The 60s brought about a revolution in Westerns by introducing antiheroes and sympathetic villains, as in Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” Westerns. By the 70s, the classic Western was mostly dead and the genre was ready to look at some new interesting characters. Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Clint Eastwood, Chief Dan George, and Sondra Locke, The Outlaw Josey Wales gives us one such interesting character: an outlaw who hates a corrupt government and fights on the wrong side of history. He’s still a very sympathetic and admirable character, but had this plot been used 20 years prior, he would have been the villain. The film also featured sympathetic and respectful portrayals of Native Americans—something very rare for Westerns of the time (and something I very much appreciated, since I’m a Native American). This is far from the classic Westerns, but it’s definitely one of the best Westerns that I’ve seen.

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The Shawshank Redemption

Red and Andy in prison uniforms in The Shawshank Redemption

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: get busy living or get busy dying.”

Redemption is a word, much like many others, that carries multiple meanings. The most common definition is an act of paying for a fault or mistake; the second most common definition is a rescue or deliverance. The Shawshank Redemption focuses on both. Written and directed by Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Majestic) and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, this aptly-named film focuses on the redemption of both of its lead characters, and there’s an amazing emotional payoff in watching this film start to finish. It doesn’t shy away from the harsher realities of prison and what it does to people, and as such it can be heavy and even heartbreaking at times, but this is a powerful story that should be watched by everyone.

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