“I want you to go to the window, open it, stick your head out and yell: ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ ”
It’s hilarious and a bit eerie when a satire becomes so close to reality that it seems like a documentary, but that’s exactly what happened with 1976’s movie Network. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) and starring Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch in what may be the best performances of their careers, this film shines a light not just on the dark side of the television industry, but of the American psyche as well. Television executives (as well as radio hosts, YouTube celebrities, and many others) will air anything that gets ratings, and Americans will put up with an alarming amount of craziness to hear what they want to hear. This film pokes some fun at testing those boundaries, but the result is uncomfortably close to what we deal with in media (and politics) today. This film is biting, hilarious, and more relevant now than ever.
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“I wish I could live through something.”
Cultural revolutions happen when a generation gets old enough to get their ideas out into the world. The baby boomers had their revolution in the 60s and 70s. Gen-Xers like me had ours in the 90s. Well, guess what? We’re due for a new revolution for the Millennials. Over the next 5-10 years, we’re going to start seeing media through the eyes of Millennials. Leading the charge in this revolution is the brilliant Greta Gerwig with her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, this film neatly encapsulates the gap between Millennials and Generation X, as well as the frustrations that Millennials faced in adolescence. It’s also a sweet, funny, and touching story about a daughter growing up with an overbearing mother. This film works equally well as a coming of age story and a metaphor for the coming of age of an entire generation, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better Millennial anthem than this film.
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“The dream I must have had, I can never recall. But… the sensation that I’ve lost something lingers for a long time after I wake up.”
I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I’m typically not a fan of anime, just like I’m typically not a fan of horror movies. But some movies, like Psycho and The Shining, are so good that they rose above the trappings of the horror genre. Your Name is a movie that rises way, way above the trappings of your typical anime. Directed by Makoto Shinkai (The Place Promised in our Early Days, 5 Centimeters per Second), this is the only anime movie to out-gross Spirited Away, which was a classic I’ve reviewed before. It’s one of the best love stories I think I’ve ever seen. There is a touch of the supernatural in this, but rather than that being the focus, it serves to enhance the drama and romance in the film that remain the focal point. This is a beautiful story beautifully told, and the fact that it’s an anime actually makes it better—that format tells the story better than any other would. Anime skeptics take heart: you will probably like this film.
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“It’s your job, right? The guy who kills me… I hope he does it because he hates my guts, not because it’s his job.”
They say truth is stranger than fiction, but you honestly don’t see that a lot. Most of the time, when I hear someone say truth is stranger than fiction, I just assume they don’t read a lot. Dog Day Afternoon captures that notion brilliantly, though, by telling the real-life story of a bank robbery more absurd than any heist movie I’ve ever seen. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Murder on the Orient Express) and starring Al Pacino and John Cazale, this film captures, almost in real time, a bank robbery as entertaining as they come. You’ll see a crime become a media circus. You’ll see a criminal become a folk hero. You’ll see what could be a very cliched and overdone plot made fresh—more so than most heist movies today—by a string of bizarre details about the culprits and situation. It’s smart, funny, and gripping, and it’s definitely the most entertaining heist movie I’ve ever seen.
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“Uh, well sir, I ain’t a f’real cowboy. But I am one helluva stud!”
The 60s were a time of cultural revolution in America, and most great American films from that decade addressed that. Films like The Graduate and Breakfast at Tiffany’s tried to show the dark side of that emerging culture as well as its better points. But by the end of the 60s, the cultural revolution won out. In 1969, Midnight Cowboy showed a relic of the old culture getting ripped apart in the new America. Directed by John Schlesinger (Marathon Man, Sunday Bloody Sunday) and starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in his first role after The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy is an amazing piece of cinema that excels on all levels: screenplay, acting, soundtrack, cultural significance, and many others. It was extremely edgy for its time; and even today, it’s so much more cynical, biting, and real than the typical Hollywood drivel we see each year. This film is just as sharp and poignant as it was nearly 50 years ago and deserves a spot on the watch-list of any movie buff.
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“When you kill a king, you don’t stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.”
New York City in the mid-19th century was a dark and dangerous place. You wouldn’t know that today from reading Transcendentalist essays, Little Women, or Edgar Allen Poe, all works of that time. We have these romanticized notions of what America was like for the waves of immigrants coming to the new world to seek fortune and a new life, but for most, it was a violent hell. No movie portrays this little corner of American history better than Gangs of New York. Directed by the extremely talented Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Goodfellas) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis, this is a portrait of the volatile culture, the primitive politics, and the shocking violence of this time and place. It’s bloody and raw and almost oppressive in its adversity—but it’s also enthralling and very entertaining.
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“You are tearing me apart, Lisa!”
After some internal debate, I’ve decided to review The Room, written and directed by and starring Tommy Wiseau. Now before you freak out, I know this movie is bad. If you don’t know, it is so, so, so bad that it’s become legendary simply for how bad it is. So what’s it doing on this site of classic, essential, or just plain good movies? It’s so bad that it’s actually extremely entertaining to watch. There is no parody movie in existence that so perfectly parodies basic tropes in major movies as this, and this was done with total sincerity. It’s often said of bad but interesting things that they’re like a train wreck; this is like a train colliding with a submarine in the middle of the jungle. It is just so out there and completely inept that you wonder how any of this got put together in the first place. But it’s all there, and it’s immortalized on film, and there’s really nothing else like it.
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“My father taught me many things here—he taught me in this room. He taught me: keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”
The Godfather was a cultural phenomenon when it came out in 1972 for many reasons. It was extremely well-written, and the cinematography and acting were great. Something that’s lost on modern viewers is how revolutionary the concept was. The Motion Picture Production Code, which was in effect until 1968, prevented things like violence and sex in movies, but it also forbid sympathetic portrayals of criminals. Some movies, like 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde, were quick to make use of this newfound freedom and featured criminals as the protagonists; but none had gone into as much depth as The Godfather. Showing a crime family as a real family, with family dinners and drama, had never been done before.
Two years later, The Godfather: Part II came out and delivered more of the same: fascinating character study and the smallest details of what had become the greatest crime empire in America. Once again directed by Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) and starring Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, and Robert Duvall, this is a sequel that’s every bit as good as its predecessor—some say even better. It’s almost required to draw comparisons between the two, so here’s my take: the story was tighter and the quotes more memorable in the original, but the sequel goes into greater depth with the characters and has more emotion. For what it’s worth, I actually preferred the sequel, although both are amazing movies.
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“I think he knows what Rome is. Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum. He’ll bring them death—and they will love him for it.”
With a few notable exceptions, epic films set in ancient Rome were hard to come by, and good ones even more so. This is surprising—the setting is perfect for an epic film with amazing fight sequences, political intrigue, rich story and lore, and strong characters. In the year 2000, before Lord of the Rings reignited our passion for epics, Gladiator filled that gap with an amazing film. Directed by Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) and starring Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, and Connie Nielsen, this is a film that brings the expansive and powerful Roman Empire to life like never before. I won’t say it’s a perfect film—it has its flaws. It’s stuck in a weird spot between a political drama and an action movie, and there are a few scenes that place dramatic flair above realism. But Gladiator is just so entertaining that it more than makes up for its flaws.
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“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
There are a few things in life that rarely impress me. Biopics, musical performances in movies, and country music are on the list. So you’d think I would hate Walk the Line, a musical biopic about country artist Johnny Cash—but I didn’t. Directed by James Mangold (Logan, Girl Interrupted) and starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, this film does everything right. Its musical performances move the plot forward and aren’t just for decoration. It focuses on real-life characters without relying on nostalgia and idealized, romanticized versions of them. The music is excellent (Phoenix and Witherspoon performed all numbers live and did an amazing job), the characters are deep and fascinating, and the plot, while not wholly original, walks a careful line between dark and sweet. This is a biopic that would work just as well as a work of fiction, and that says a lot about the level of art involved.
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