High Noon

Will Kane and Amy ride a wagon together in High Noon

“People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep, they don’t care. They just don’t care.”

When you think of classic Westerns, several things jump to mind: epic gun fights, fast horse chases, and brave heroes with supernatural skills. High Noon, a 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinnemann (A Man for All Seasons, From Here to Eternity) and starring Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly, turns this formula on its head. It spends much more time pontificating and talking about morals than showing us gun fights and chases, and the heroes of the story are (rightly) scared out of their minds and would rather avoid the confrontation altogether. This film takes its time laying out why these characters are the way they are, and exactly what they’re thinking in this hard situation. It was so different that career cowboy and genre poster boy John Wayne said it was “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” In a 1971 interview, 19 years after the film was released, he was still complaining about it. This isn’t exactly a fast-paced Western, and it’s definitely not a traditional classic Western, but the writing and acting in this were phenomenal and captivated me for the relatively short runtime (85 minutes).

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Battle Royale

Shuya and Noriko look frightened in Battle Royale

“Listen, if you hate someone, you take the consequences.”

12 years before The Hunger Games became a worldwide hit, the Japanese film Battle Royale did the same thing, but with a more assertive stance. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Fall Guy, Crest of Betrayal), who turned 70 years old during the production of the low-budget ultra-violent film, this was a story so controversial that the Japanese parliament tried (unsuccessfully) to get both the novel and the film banned, and Germany actually did get the film banned for quite some time. But this film is more than just senseless stylized gore—there’s some intelligent plotting and well-developed characters here, and a great point underneath it all. For one reason or another (it’s actually disputed why), this film didn’t see any sort of release in America until very recently when it hit Netflix, so this film became an underground cult classic among hipsters and film buffs lucky enough to get their hands on a copy. The film is far from perfect, but I really enjoyed the film and what it had to say.

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Rain Man

Charlie and Raymond walk down a street in Rain Man

“He’s capable of a lot more than you know!”

Issues-based movies can be vital for the progress of the causes they portray, but many sacrifice plot and character development to focus on the issue, ironically hurting both the film and the cause. Rain Man is a great issues-based film that sacrificed nothing and was actually made stronger by its issue. Directed by Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Toys) and starring Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman, this film features a major character on the autism spectrum and gives us a good look at the disorder, both good and bad. Seeing as I knew almost nothing about autism until well past college, around 2003, this movie was years ahead of its time when it came out in 1988. If this film came out today, there would still be a majority of viewers who would learn something from it. Whether that’s a comment on how progressive this film was or how abysmal society is at understanding this condition isn’t for me to say. I will say that this is an outstanding drama in addition to being probably the best film about autism spectrum disorder, and it hasn’t lost anything in the 30 years since it came out.

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Close Encounters of the Third Kind

A massive flying saucer lights up the sky in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”

Movies about making contact with aliens ask a lot of different questions. What if they’re hostile? What if we’re hostile? What if they come to warn us? What if we can’t coexist? Close Encounters of the Third Kind asks and answers a much simpler question: wouldn’t it be cool? Director Steven Spielberg (E.T., Jaws) wrote the script to try to capture the mood of a childhood memory of him and his father going to see a meteor shower, and that childlike wonder shines through here. Unlike most sci-fi films, this doesn’t pose ethical dilemmas or ask us to consider the implications of modern society. This is more of a straight-up drama that uses sci-fi elements to elicit deep emotions of curiosity and wonder. It’s admittedly more of a kids film, but this is extremely well-done and can be a happy little escape from the harsh demands of the real world for adults as well.

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Spanglish

Flor hugs Cristina in Spanglish

“When people exist under one roof, a tiny society forms—the stuff of novellas. Masters and servants unconsciously dancing in lockstep. So that when things go wrong, problems converge.”

When someone mentions the American immigrant story, we have lots of examples of Europeans coming to America in the 1800s to start their new life in the new world, but we don’t have a lot of examples of modern immigrants from other places who are trying to do the same thing. Spanglish gives us the perspective of a young girl immigrating to America with her single mother from Mexico. Written and directed by James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets) and starring Paz Vega, Adam Sandler, Téa Leoni, and Shelbie Bruce, this is a film that really captures the beauty of Mexican-American culture and evokes some deep feelings that you don’t often see in film. It’s definitely more of a feeling movie than a thinking movie. The plot feels at times like a sitcom and some of the situations feel a bit forced. But the feelings it stirs up and the ideas it deals with are specific, unique, and very real. How many other films deal with cultural appropriation, white guilt, and gender stereotypes while keeping things light, funny, and watchable? Reviews on this film were very mixed—as of writing this, this is the lowest-ranked film on my list according to review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes with a 52% approval rating. But this is a film I’ve loved for years and enjoy every time I watch it.

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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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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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The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Sam and Charlie share a moment on a staircase in The Perks of Being a Wallflower

“I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive, and you stand up and see the lights on the buildings and everything that makes you wonder. And you’re listening to that song and that drive with the people you love most in this world. And in this moment I swear, we are infinite.”

Teen movies usually paint with a pretty broad brush, trying to capture the feeling of youth for as many people as possible. I look at other films like Say Anything or The Breakfast Club and I feel like most of us can relate to what was going on. The Perks of Being a Wallflower breaks this mold by showing us a very distinct subculture of intellectual misfits trying to figure out life while surviving high school. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote the novel on which this is based, as well as Wonder) and starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, this is a sharp departure from the feel-good teen movies I grew up with in the 80s and 90s. Depression, abuse, and trauma are just a few of the subjects touched on, and these things have marked each of the main characters, although the film makes a great effort to show that hurting people still manage to live mostly normal lives. This is a different kind of teen movie that probably doesn’t have the wide appeal of some of the others, but it’s a beautiful story that hit pretty close to home for me. I absolutely loved this film.

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