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A Stillness at Appomattox.


This settles the fate of all coming time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?” The trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is now online, apparently covering roughly the last month of the president’s life. It definitely looks more than a little Spielberg-y around the edges, but I can’t wait to see Daniel Day-Lewis — love the accurate high-pitched Kentucky voice — and Mr. Lincoln’s army of sterling character actors in this. (Showing Hal Holbrook early on was a touch of class.)

It’s a Sick World Sometimes.


Maybe he’s retiring, maybe it’s just a sabbatical. (And, either way, he still has Haywire in the can and Magic Mike, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and a Liberace biopic on his plate, not to mention second unit work on The Hunger Games.) Still, as the crisp, dark, and intelligent Contagion once again makes clear, Hollywood will lose one of its most interesting working directors when Steven Soderbergh decides to hang up the clapperboard.

Less adventurous and more satisfying in its storytelling than Soderbergh’s last major film, 2009’s The Informant!, Contagion basically applies the Traffic technique of several separate, loosely interweaving tales told around the globe (albeit this time with a more subdued color palette) to spin a harrowing chronicle of a possible pandemic. The main reason the film works so well is because Contagion is actually not the end-of-times pestilence thriller the (spoilerish) trailers make it out to be. Rather, and much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s mainly a smart, well-told procedural, and it’s the grounded, matter-of-factness of Contagion that ultimately makes it so frightening.

Contagion telegraphs its unsentimental, take-no-prisoners approach to the story in the first five minutes, when, after returning home to Minneapolis from a business trip to Macau (and a brief layover in Chicago), Gwyneth Paltrow starts having trouble breathing and [minor spoiler] promptly drops dead. Soon, her family (including a low-key, earnest Matt Damon) are in quarantine, and the CDC Director in Atlanta (Lawrence Fishburne) has dispatched an epidemiologist (Kate Winslet) to coordinate with local officials on plans for a possible outbreak. (FWIW, the Minnesota Department of Health is not amused with the film.) But, unfortunately for the world, the barn door is already open: This new MERS-1 virus — part-bat, part-pig — has already been unleashed, and not just in Minneapolis, but in cities all over. (Turns out, Oceans 14 in Macau was a terrible idea.)

As the situation worsens around the world, we start following more individuals on the frontlines in various locales: A CDC researcher (Jennifer Ehle) working to find a cure for this new plague. An academic biologist (Elliot Gould) trying to isolate the virus in San Francisco. A WHO official (Marion Cotillard) and Chinese doctor (Chin Han) looking to discover who was Patient Zero in Macau. Two homeland security suits (Brian Cranston and Enrico Colatoni) sent to determine if this is the work of the terr’ists. A blogger (Jude Law) firmly convinced of government conspiracies and homeopathic wonders. And all the while, even as secrets pass from person to person and fear mutates into panic, the virus continues to spread. Ain’t no Patrick Dempsey monkey gonna solve this one, I’m afraid.

There’re plenty of stars and recognizable faces flitting about this story — some have more to do than others. (The Cotillard subplot seemed a bit unnecessary to me, to be honest, and the Jude Law one is basically just an extended screw-you to the vaccines-cause-autism crowd.) But, as I said, Contagion‘s killer app is its versimilitude. The movie never talks down to its audience, or has its scientists repeating expository information over and over again. (For example, it explains once what a “R-naught” is and assumes you can keep up from there.) It doesn’t have scientists (or Matt Damon, for that matter) running around trying to catch infected monkeys with helicopters — The excitement mostly comes from watching scientists and bureaucrats do their job well. And I liked the fact that, even though no one is safe here, Contagion doesn’t feature some kind of sci-fi-ish, humanity-obliterating virus. It’s a nasty bug with, iirc, a 25% fatality rate — In other words, a more virulent version of the 1918 influenza epidemic — making the story that much more plausible, and scary.

Speaking of scary, I should say that, back in the real world, I’m a pretty sanguine sort about germs, and so I found Contagion more unsettling than anything else. But if you’re at all of the germophobe persuasion, hoo boy — You’re going to have a tough time at this one. From infecteds hacking up a lung on a public bus, to waiters wiping down bar glasses with a dirty rag, to people endlessly and unconsciously touching rails, bannisters, buttons, and each other, Soderbergh does a great job here of intimating that human beings inadvertently leave a slime trail of germy death wherever we go — not the least in movie theaters, exactly like the one you’re sitting in. Point being, [cough, cough], OCD-ish folks will probably want to Netflix this one, instead.

From Mars to the Arctic (to your hands), Life.

In the trailer bin of late (along with the Bat, the Spider, and the Forelock):

  • Gwyneth Paltrow has more than just a few Coldplay albums to answer for in the scary-impressive trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, also with Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Enrico Colantoni, Bryan Cranston, Sanaa Lathan, John Hawkes, and Elliot Gould. This goes right next to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as one of my most-anticipated films of the fall.

  • Taylor Kitsch braves the deserts of Mars, Peter Gabriel by way of Arcade Fire, and some of the earliest fanboys going in the teaser for Andrew Stanton’s John Carter (formerly of Mars), with Lynn Collins, Samantha Morton, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, Dominic West, James Purefoy, Daryl Sabara, Polly Walker, Bryan Cranston, with Thomas Haden Church and Willem Dafoe. That’s a great cast, and I like the period look on Earth, if nothing else.

  • Real-life couple Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz discover their new family home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the trailer for Jim Sheridan’s Dream House, also with Naomi Watts. With such an A-list director and cast, this film probably deserved a trailer that didn’t give away a key plot point — I suggest not clicking through here if you’re one to avoid spoilage.

  • Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reunite for a second installment of Holmesian shenanigans in the trailer for Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, with Noomi Rapace tagging in for Rachel McAdams and Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. This looks…pretty bad, but the first one turned out better than expected, so who knows?

  • Jude Law also takes time to disappear, and thus set up a grand adventure of magic and self-discovery for his son, in the the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, with Asa Butterfield, Chloe Moretz, Sasha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Michael Stuhlbarg, Christopher Lee, Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour, Helen McCrory, and Emily Mortimer. Like Dream House, I’m more interested in the pedigree than this trailer. But we’ll see.

  • Mary Elizabeth Winstead really never should have gotten involved in this particular Norwegian research project in the trailer for Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing, also with Joel Edgerton, Jonathan Lloyd Walker, Ulrich Thomsen, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Unlike most fan-folk, I’m perfectly fine with a prequel to the 1982 John Carpenter film, just because it’s one of the scarier horror premises going. Let’s hope van Heijningen makes the most of his shot.

Mr. Lincoln’s Army.

Finally setting off on his long-rumored Lincoln biopic — with Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as Abe and Mary Todd respectively — Steven Spielberg fleshes out his cast in impressive fashion. Joining Mr. Lincoln, among others, are Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Todd Lincoln), James Spader, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, Hal Holbrook, and Tim Blake Nelson. A team of rivals, and no mistake.

Gone Daddy Gone.

Well, admittedly, I’m probably much more of a City Mouse these days than I was back during my Carolina youth, so take that for what it’s worth. And I will fess up to having grim flashbacks to the stultifying experience of Sweetgrass in the “realistically”-portrayed opening moments of this film, so that didn’t help either. Still, I have to say, I just did not cotton to Debra Granik’s gritty Ozark noir Winter’s Bone like it seems a majority of critics did. (Some have even called it the “best American film of the year.” I reckon I’d seen a better American film not 24 hours beforehand.)

This “dark as a dungeon” Missouri folk tale is well-made, to be sure, and it includes both impressive, nuanced performances — most notably from the Zellweger-esque lead, Jennifer Lawrence — and some very likable actors (John Hawkes and Garret Dillahunt of Deadwood; Sheryl Lee, nee Laura Palmer, of Twin Peaks) shading in the margins. But, for a couple of reasons, which I’ll get into a moment, I didn’t find the main through-line of the story particularly engaging. And, in its depiction of mountain folk living on the economic razor’s edge, I can’t help feeling that the movie veered dangerously close to stereotype, if not outright Precious or Slumdog Millionaire-style poverty pr0n at times.

First, the story. After a few minutes of soaking in the three R’s of life-as-it-really-happens in an economically marginal Missouri town — ROTC training, ramshackle cabins, and (jus’) regular folk — the young woman we’ve been following around, Ree Dolly (Lawrence), is approached by the local sheriff (Dillahunt) with some very problematic news. Apparently, her daddy — who, like all-too-many men in this poverty-stricken region, is a meth cook of some renown — has skipped bail. (Paging Heisenberg!) And if Pa Dolly doesn’t show up for his scheduled hearing a fortnight or so hence, the bond he posted will be taken by the county — in the form of Ree’s house. There isn’t enough money to go around on a good day, and since Ree is already neck-deep in raising her two little siblings and caring for her ailing mother, who’s not quite right in the head, getting turned out of the only home the Dollys have would basically be tantamount to a death sentence.

And so, with only a quick mind and sheer doggedness at her disposal, Ree starts trying to ascertain the whereabouts of the prodigal father, before this deadly eviction hammer falls. Trouble is, the extended community — who are more often than not related by blood ’round these parts — take none too kindly to Ree’s asking tough questions about a central participant in the local, lucrative criminal enterprise. Even Ree’s uncle Teardrop (Hawkes), her father’s brother, tends towards the unhelpful or abusive whenever she comes by for another round for questioning. But what can she do? Ree’s back is to the wall, and the only thing she can do to save her family from certain starvation is to push forward and find her dad, with all the ugly consequences that’ll entail…

Part of the reason Winter’s Bone didn’t work for me, I think, is I felt like I’d just seen a more engaging version of this movie — a regional neo-noir with a bleached-out aesthetic, involving working-class folks in a tight-knit community dabbling in crime to get by — in Nash Edgerton’s The Square. But even that film aside, and with all due respects to the wanderings of M. Lebowski, I get a bit irritated with noir-offerings that put a puzzle before you (in this case, where is Ree’s Pop?), but then don’t really give you the tools to play along.

Put another way: For all Ree’s gumption, only in the occasional scene here — like, when she’s shown a burned-out meth lab where her dad supposedly died — does she get to put two-and-two together in a way that moves the story forward. Instead, she’s more often relegated to being a passive figure in her own tale, at which point some other character will swing by her endangered home and dole out whatever info is needed to get the plot moving again. Perhaps this is by design — one of the best scenes in the movie is when Ree tries to sign up for the Army for an infusion of much-needed cash, and is very kindly told that her options right now are even more limited than they already seemed. Still, this passive tendency makes Winter’s Bone feel like a movie where this happens, and then that happens, and this happens, rather than an engaging mystery. There’s a sense of urgency, sure — the ticking clock of impending eviction — but there’s still no narrative drive to this story.

At which point a fan of this film might say: You’re missing the point. Winter’s Bone is less about typical noir plotting than it is about character, social realism, and establishing a strong sense of place. Well, convenient straw-man fan, I’m glad you got brought this up, because this actually gets to my bigger problem with the movie. From its Welcome-to-the-Real-America opening moments, Granik’s film goes out of its way to establish its versimilitude — but that’s exactly where the movie increasingly felt off to me. And while I think it’s uncharitable to say of Winter’s Bone that it’s the tale of Cletus (or Brandine) the Slack-Jawed Yokel told as tragedy — at times it really does feel like we’re hunting possum in that same hillbilly-stereotype trailer park.

Now, I won’t profess to be any kind of expert on what a life of grinding poverty in the Ozarks looks and feels like — I’ve never been to that part of the country, although I have spent time in some very broke regions of the Carolinas, West Virginia, and the Deep South. So, maybe I’m wrong, and Winter’s Bone is actually witheringly acute in its depiction of the ways of dirt-poor rural folk here. But when there are more scenes of hootenannies and squirrel-hunting in your movie than there are of people doing “normal” things like, say, watching TV or driving to Wal-Mart, I really start to wonder. And that goes double when your characters tend to speak in a near-Milchian poetic argot about their kin and the ways of menfolk and the like.

To be clear: I wasn’t offended by this Othering of them there Mountain folk, but I didn’t really buy into it either. And so the more the film strived toward versimilitude — look at how poor (and yet noble!) poor can be! — the more Winter’s Bone just felt like a hyper-stylized, and even downright artificial, Ozark requiem by way of Cormac McCarthy to me, and the more I disengaged from it. Call me uncouth (I blame mah upbringin’), but, without feeling much of either the story or the milieu, I basically spent the majority of Winter’s Bone — even its ostensibly shocking culmination — just dutifully waiting for it to end.

The Haint of Harlem.


Superfly, Serpico, The French ConnectionRidley Scott’s American Gangster plays for most of its run like a greatest hits cover-medley of the cop and gangster thrillers of the 1970s. But, while well-made and eminently watchable, Gangster never becomes truly engaging. (EW’s Owen Gleiberman pretty much nailed it when he called the film “a ghost version of a 70’s classic.”) It’s hard to fault the superior production values or the large, impressive cast, which is chock-full of ringers in even the smallest of roles. But for all the quality on display, American Gangster doesn’t come close to matching the mischievous vibrancy of Denzel Washington’s last 70’s homage, Spike Lee’s Inside Man, nor is it even the best attempt at a throwback 70’s cop flick this year — that would be David Fincher’s haunting Zodiac. Gangster hits its beats well enough, which isn’t surprising given that Ridley Scott’s at the helm. But, however gritty and lived-in at times, it’s still missing the pulse that would make it a truly memorable movie. Frank Lucas may be an O.G., but Gangster, frankly, could’ve benefited from more in the way of originality.

As Gangster opens, we witness the aforementioned Frank Lucas (Washington) lighting a bound man on fire and then unloading a clip into him — from the get-go, this guy clearly has a dark side. We then watch him watching his mentor, “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III) doling out Thanksgiving turkeys to the people of Harlem from the back of a truck, driving home, a la Willie Stark in All the King’s Men, the importance of public perception in maintaining a criminal empire. Bumpy lives just long enough in the film to impart some choice lessons in vertical integration before he succumbs to a heart attack, leaving Lucas to take over and consolidate the Harlem drug trade. This Lucas does by bypassing all the usual middlemen — the Italian mafia, crooked cops, etc. — and procuring his heroin supply direct from the source, deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, thus enabling him to sell purer stuff on the streets at a cheaper price. (The product gets into the country by way of U.S. military planes coming back from Vietnam.)

As this new drug empire grows — and stays mostly under the radar, thanks to Lucas’ emphasis on ignoring flash — we also follow the story of one Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). As cops go, Roberts is old-school: He prides himself on his honesty and incorruptability despite his intimate connections with some mid-level mafiosi, his flagrant sleeping around (which has turned his failed marriage to Carla Gugino into an ugly custody battle) and the fact that every other po-lice in his unit — and in NYC, for that matter — seems to be on the take. Eventually, of course, Det. Roberts sets his sights on Lucas, and the game truly begins…

But, game or no, everybody knows the dice are loaded. Part of the problem with American Gangster is that there’s no real mystery about how it’ll all turn out in the end. Even if you don’t know a thing about Lucas going in (and I didn’t), these sorts of movies invariably follow a rather predictable pattern, and all the police procedural work, Harlem vignettes, or heroin house of horror asides throughout here can’t hide the fact that Gangster follows it to the letter. Also, while Washington and Crowe are both among some of the best actors working today, neither is given much to work with here. As a hard-working, quick-witted family man who prizes loyalty and doesn’t take any guff from those around him, the Frank Lucas character is right in Denzel’s usual wheelhouse, even despite the additional sociopathic streak. (His turn in Training Day seemed more of a stretch.) And Crowe’s Roberts is well-played but, frankly, not all that interesting as written. Crowe can definitely do conflicted cops — Exhibit A, L.A. Confidential — but this is the first performance by him that I can remember that doesn’t make much of an impression.

And that doesn’t just go for the top two. American Gangster boasts a veritable Murderer’s Row of quality, likable character actors in its credits — not only Williams and Gugino but Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Josh Brolin, Joe Morton, Jon Polito, John Hawkes, John Ortiz, Ruby Dee, and rappers RZA and Common (as well as Cuba Gooding Jr. and Norman Reedus) — but more often than not they just get lost in the shuffle here. (That being said, Armand Assante, overplaying his genteel mafia don to the hilt, does manage to squeeze in a particularly lousy performance.) Not to be too harsh, Gangster isn’t a terrible film, nor even really a bad one. But, however well-made, it’s more by-the-numbers than it is blue magic.

2006 (Finally) in Film.

Well, there are still a number of flicks I haven’t yet seen — David Lynch’s Inland Empire, for example, which I hope to hit up this weekend. But as the Oscar nods were announced today, and as the few remaining forlorn Christmas trees are finally being picked up off the sidewalk, now seems the last appropriate time to crank out my much belated end-of-2006 film list (originally put off to give me time to make up for my New Zealand sojourn.) To be honest, I might’ve written this list a few weeks earlier, had it not happened that I ended up seeing the best film of 2005 in mid-January of last year, thus rendering the 2005 list almost immediately obsolescent. But, we’ll get to that — As it stands, 2006 was a decent year in movies (in fact a better year in film than it was in life, the midterms notwithstanding), with a crop of memorable genre flicks and a few surprisingly worthy comebacks. And, for what it’s worth, I thought the best film released in 2006 was…

Top 20 Films of 2006

[2000/2001/2002/2003/2004/2005]

1. United 93: A movie I originally had no interest in seeing, Paul Greengrass’s harrowing docudrama of the fourth flight on September 11 captured the visceral shock of that dark day without once veering into exploitation or sentimentality (the latter the curse of Oliver Stone’s much inferior World Trade Center.) While 9/11 films of the future might offer more perspective on the origins and politics of those horrible hours, it’s hard to imagine a more gripping or humane film emerging anytime soon about the day’s immediate events. A tragic triumph, United 93 is an unforgettable piece of filmmaking.

[1.] The New World (2005): A movie which seemed to divide audiences strongly, Terence Malick’s The New World was, to my mind, a masterpiece. I found it transporting in ways films seldom are these days, and Jamestown a much richer canvas for Malick’s unique gifts than, say, Guadalcanal. As the director’s best reimagining yet of the fall of Eden, The New World marvelously captured the stark beauty and sublime strangeness of two worlds — be they empires, enemies, or lovers — colliding, before any middle ground can be established. For its languid images of Virginia woodlands as much as moments like Wes Studi awestruck by the rigid dominion over nature inherent in English gardens, The New World goes down as a much-overlooked cinematic marvel, and (sorry, Syriana) the best film of 2005.

2. Letters from Iwo Jima: Having thought less of Flags of our Fathers and the woeful Million Dollar Baby than most people, I was almost completely thrown by the dismal grandeur and relentless gloom of Eastwood’s work here. To some extent the Unforgiven of war movies, Iwo Jima is a bleakly rendered siege film that trafficks in few of the usual tropes of the genre. (Don’t worry — I suspect we’ll get those in spades in two months in 300.) Instead of glorious Alamo-style platitudes, we’re left only with the sight of young men — all avowed enemies of America, no less — swallowed up and crushed in the maelstrom of modern combat. From Ken Watanabe’s commanding performance as a captain going down with the ship to Eastwood’s melancholy score, Letters works to reveal one fundamental, haunting truth: Tyrants may be toppled, nations may be liberated, and Pvt. Ryans may be saved, but even “good wars” are ultimately Hell on earth for those expected to do the fighting.

3. Children of Men: In the weeks since I first saw this film, my irritation with the last fifteen minutes or so has diminished, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men has emerged for what it is — one of the most resonant “near-future” dystopias to come down the pike in a very long while, perhaps since (the still significantly better) Brazil. Crammed with excellent performances by Clive Owen, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and others, Children is perhaps a loosely-connected grab bag of contemporary anxieties and afflictions (terrorism, detainment camps, pharmaceutical ads, celebrity culture). But it’s assuredly an effective one, with some of the most memorable and naturalistic combat footage seen in several years to boot. I just wished they’d called that ship something else…

4. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: True, the frighteningly talented Sasha Baron Cohen spends a lot of time in this movie shooting fish in a barrel, and I wish he’d spent a little more time eviscerating subtler flaws in the American character than just knuckle-dragging racists and fratboy sexists. Still, the journeys of Borat Sagdiyev through the Bible Buckle and beyond made for far and away the funniest movie of the year. Verry nice.

5. The Prestige: I originally had this in Children of Men‘s spot, as there are few films I enjoyed as much this year as Christopher Nolan’s sinister sleight-of hand. But, even after bouncing Children up for degree of difficulty, that should take nothing away from The Prestige, a seamlessly made genre film about the rivalries and perils of turn-of-the-century prestidigitation. (There seems to be a back-and-forth between fans of this film and The Illusionist, which I sorta saw on a plane in December. Without sound (which, obviously, is no way to see a movie), Illusionist seemed like an implausible love story set to a tempo of anguished Paul Giamatti reaction shots. In any case, I prefer my magic shows dark and with a twist.) Throw in extended cameos by David Bowie and Andy Serkis — both of which help to mitigate the Johansson factor — and The Prestige was the purest cinematic treat this year for the fanboy nation. Christian Bale in particular does top-notch work here, and I’m very much looking forward to he and Nolan’s run-in with Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.

6. The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky’s elegiac ode to mortality and devotion was perhaps the most unfairly maligned movie of the year. (In a perfect world, roughly half of the extravagant praise going to Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth would have been lavished on this film.) Clearly a heartfelt and deeply personal labor of love, The Fountain — admittedly clunky in his first half hour — was a visually memorable tone poem that reminds us that all things — perhaps especially the most beautiful — are finite, so treasure them while you can.

7. The Queen: A movie I shied away from when it first came out, The Queen is a canny look at contemporary politics anchored by Helen Mirren’s sterling performance as the fastidious, reserved, and ever-so-slightly downcast monarch in question. (Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair is no slouch either.) In fact, The Queen is the type of movie I wish we saw more often: a small, tightly focused film about a very specific moment in recent history. Indeed, between this and United 93, 2006 proved to be a good year for smart and affecting depictions of the very recent past — let’s hope the trend continues through the rest of the oughts.

8. Inside Man: The needless Jodie Foster subplot notwithstanding, Spike Lee’s Inside Man was a fun, expertly-made crime procedural, as good in its own way as the much more heavily-touted Departed. It was also, without wearing it on its sleeve, the film Crash should have been — a savvy look at contemporary race relations that showed there are many more varied and interesting interactions between people of different ethnicities than simply “crashing” into each other. (But perhaps that’s how y’all roll over in car-culture LA.) At any rate, Inside Man is a rousing New York-centric cops-and-robbers pic in the manner of Dog Day Afternoon or The Taking of the Pelham One Two Three, and it’s definitely one of the more enjoyable movie experiences of the year.

9. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party: Speaking of enjoyable New York-centric movie experiences, Dave Chappelle and Michel Gondry’s block party last year felt like a breath of pure spring air after a long, cold, lonely winter — time to kick off the sweaters and parkas and get to groovin’ with your neighbors. With performances by some of the most innovative and inspired players in current hip-hop (Kanye, Mos Def, The Roots, The Fugees, Erykah Badu), and presided over by the impish, unsinkable Chappelle, Block Party was one of the best concert films in recent memory, and simply more fun than you can shake a stick at.

10. Casino Royale: Bond is back! Thanks to Daniel Craig’s portrayal of 007 as a blunt, glitched-up human being rather than a Casanova Superspy, and a script that eschewed the UV laser pens and time-release exploding cufflinks of Bonds past for more hard-boiled and gritty fodder, Casino Royale felt straight from the pen of Ian Fleming, and newer and more exciting than any 007 movie in decades.

11. The Departed: A very good movie brimming over with quality acting (notably Damon and Di Caprio) and support work — from Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Vera Farmiga, Ray Winstone, and others — Scorsese’s The Departed also felt a bit too derivative of its splendid source material, Infernal Affairs, to merit the top ten. And then there’s the Jack problem: An egregiously over-the-top Nicholson chews so much scenery here that it’s a wonder there’s any of downtown Boston left standing. But, despite these flaws, The Departed is well worth seeing, and if it finally gets Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (despite Greengrass deserving it), it won’t be too much of an outrage.

[11.] Toto The Hero (1991): Also sidelined out of this top twenty on account of its release date, Jaco Von Dormael’s Toto the Hero — Terry Gilliam’s choice of screening for an IFC Movie Night early in October — is definitely one for the Netflix queue, particularly if you’re a fan of Gilliam’s oeuvre. It’s a bizarre coming-of-age/going-of-age tale that includes thoughts of envy, murder, incest, and despair, all the while remaining somehow whimsical and fantastical at its core. (And, trust me: As with Ary Borroso’s “Brazil“, you’ll be left humming Charles Trenet’s “Boum” to yourself long after the movie is over.)

12. Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story: I guess this is where I should be writing something brief and scintillating about Michael Winterbottom’s metanarrative version of Laurence Sterne’s famous novel, one which gives Steve Coogan — and the less well-known Rob Brydon — a superlative chance to work their unique brand of comedic mojo. But I’m growing distracted and Berk has that pleading “I-want-to-go-out, are-you-done-yet” look and Kevin’s still only on Number 12 of a list that, for all intent and purposes, is three weeks late and will be read by all of eight people anyway. (But don’t tell him that — In fact, I shouldn’t even talk about him behind his back.) So, perhaps we’ll come back to this later…it’s definitely a review worth writing (again), if I could just figure out how to start.

13. Miami Vice: Michael Mann’s moody reimagining of the TV show that made him famous isn’t necessarily his best work, but it was one of the more unique and absorbing movies of the summer, and one that lingers in the memory long after much of the year’s fluffier and more traditional films have evaporated. Dr. Johnson (and Hunter Thompson) once wrote that “He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” I guess that’s what Crockett and Tubbs are going for with the nightclubs and needle boats.

14. CSA: The Confederate States of America: I wish I were in the land of cotton…or have we been there all along? Kevin Wilmott’s alternate history of a victorious Confederate America is a savvy and hilarious send-up of history documentaries and a sharp-witted, sharp-elbowed piece of satire with truths to tell about the shadow of slavery in our past. With any luck, CSA will rise again on the DVD circuit.

15. The Science of Sleep: Not as good or as universally applicable as his Eternal Sunshine (the best film of 2004), Michel Gondry’s dreamlike, unabashedly romantic The Science of Sleep is still a worthy inquiry into matters of the (broken) heart. What is it about new love that is so intoxicating? And why do the significant others in our mind continue to haunt us so, even when they bear such little relation to the people they initially represented? Science doesn’t answer these crucial questions (how can it?), but it does acutely diagnose the condition. When it comes to relationships, Sleep suggests, all we have to do — sometimes all we can do, despite ourselves — is dream.

16. Rocky Balboa: Rocky! Rocky! Rocky! I’m as surprised as anyone that Sly’s sixth outing as Philadelphia’s prized pugilist made the top twenty. But, as formulaic as it is, Rocky Balboa delivered the goods like a Ivan Drago right cross. Ultimately not quite as enjoyable as Bond’s return to the service, Rocky Balboa still made for a commendable final round for the Italian Stallion. And, if nothing else, he went down fighting.

17. Pan’s Labyrinth: A fantasy-horror flick occurring simultaneously within a Spanish Civil War film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth ultimately felt to me like less than the sum of its parts. But if the plaudits it’s receiving help to mainstream other genre movies in critics’ eyes in the future, I’m all for it. It’s an ok movie, no doubt, but if you’re looking for to see one quality supernatural-historical tale of twentieth-century Spain, rent del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone instead.

18. Little Miss Sunshine: Another film which I think is being way overpraised, Little Miss Sunshine is still a moderately enjoyable evening at the movies. It felt overscripted and television-ish to me, and I wish it was as way over yonder in the minor key as it pretends to be, but Sunshine is nevertheless a cute little IFC-style family film, and one that does have a pretty funny payoff at the end.

19. The Last King of Scotland: I just wrote on this one yesterday, so my impressions haven’t changed much. Still, Forrest Whitaker’s jovial and fearsome Idi Amin, and an almost-equally-good performance by James McAvoy as the dissolute young Scot who unwittingly becomes his minion, makes The Last King of Scotland worth seeing, if you can bear its grisly third act.

20. Thank You for Smoking: It showed flashes of promise, and it was all there on paper, in the form of Chris Buckley’s book. But Smoking, alas, never really lives up to its potential. What Smoking needed was the misanthropic jolt and sense of purpose of 2005’s Lord of War, a much more successful muckraking satire, to my mind. But Smoking, like its protagonist, just wants to be liked, and never truly commits to its agenda. Still, pleasant enough, if you don’t consider the opportunity cost.

Most Disappointing: All the King’s Men, X3: The Last Stand — Both, unfortunately, terrible.

Worth a Rental: A Scanner Darkly, Brick, Cache, Cars, Curse of the Golden Flower, Glory Road, The History Boys, Marie Antoinette, Match Point (2005), V for Vendetta, Why We Fight

Don’t Bother: Bobby, Crash (2005), The Da Vinci Code, Flags of our Fathers, The Good German, The Good Shepherd, Mission: Impossible: III, Night Watch (2004), Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Men’s Chest, Poseidon, Scoop, Superman Returns, The Wicker Man, World Trade Center

Best Actor: Clive Owen, Children of Men; Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland; Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen; Q’Orianka Kilcher, The New World
Best Supporting Actor: Mark Wahlberg, The Departed; Michael Caine, Children of Men/The Prestige
Best Supporting Actress: Pam Farris, Children of Men; Vera Farmiga, The Departed; Maribel Verdu, Pan’s Labyrinth

Unseen: Apocalypto, Babel, Blood Diamond, Catch a Fire, Clerks II, The Descent, The Devil Wears Prada, Dreamgirls, Fast Food Nation, Hollywoodland, An Inconvenient Truth, Infamous, Inland Empire, Jackass Number Two, Jet Li’s Fearless, Lassie, Little Children, Notes from a Scandal, The Notorious Betty Page, A Prairie Home Companion, The Pursuit of Happyness, Running With Scissors, Sherrybaby, Shortbus, Stranger than Fiction, Tideland, Venus, Volver, Wordplay

2007: The list isn’t looking all that great, to be honest. But, perhaps we’ll find some gems in here…: 300, 3:10 To Yuma, Beowulf, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, FF2, The Golden Age: Elizabeth II, The Golden Compass, Grindhouse, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hot Fuzz, I Am Legend, Live Free or Die Hard, Ocean’s Thirteen, PotC3, The Simpsons Movie, Smokin’ Aces, Spiderman 3, Stardust, The Transformers, Zodiac.

Sold under Sin.

“The closing shot of last night’s ‘Deadwood’ episode was never meant as a series-ender. But that’s what it was, and for a number of reasons, it was both appropriate and troubling: Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen kneeling on the floor of his office, cleaning up a bloodstain.” Notwithstanding two stopgap two-hour movies (bleah), Deadwood rides off into the sunset, joining Arrested Development, Twin Peaks, Freaks & Geeks, Farscape, and countless others in that graveyard on the hill for shows done in before their time. (I actually haven’t caught the last episode yet, being here in Hawaii, but chose not to avoid the spoilers nonetheless.) “From the odd quirks of its language to the vivid scrappiness of its setting to the undeniable soul at its core, there will never be another place quite like Deadwood.” Happy trails, [expletive deleted].

Miami Heat.

As an atmospheric and consistently engaging police procedural that’s well above the mean of this year’s tepid summer crop, Miami Vice — which I caught several days ago and haven’t had the time to write anything about — is definitely worth a look-see. The plot is wafer-thin — two tough cops go undercover with an impressive arsenal of sleek, speedy vehicles at their disposal — and at times well past implausible, but, much like the first half of Collateral, Michael Mann mostly makes up for it by layering on the captivating high-def ambience thick. If you’re a fan of Mann’s film work — Manhunter, Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, Heat, Ali, Collateral — and don’t go in expecting anything like his ’80s TV show (which I saw exactly never — when it started, I was living overseas, and I was probably too young for it anyway — in any case, this movie feels more like Mann’s short-lived Robbery Homicide Division), I think you’ll definitely find it rewarding. (Indeed, some Manniacs are raving about the film.)

The film begins without credits and in media res, with vice detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell, rocking a grotesquely bad ‘do) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) in da club, dressed to the nines, and apparently looking to break up a prostitution ring. As the scene progresses, we intuit that Messrs. Crockett & Tubbs are the no-nonsense heads of a crack Miami police unit made up of Naomie Harris (of 28 Days Later and POTC 2) and the HBO All-Stars: The Wire‘s Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi), Brenda’s boyfriend Joe on Six Feet Under (Justin Theroux), and — indirectly — Deadwood‘s Sol (John Hawkes) and Blazanov (Pasha Lynchnikoff) and Rome‘s Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds). But before this hardy team of television thespians can capture their quarry, a frantic call from one of Crockett & Tubbs’ regular CIs (Hawkes) eventually sets the squad on a new target: Latin American drug lord Jose Yero (John Ortiz), who appears to be using nasty Aryan Brotherhood types as muscle. Soon, Miami’s dynamic duo find themselves deep undercover without a net in Yero’s organization, only to discover that he may only be a stalking horse for even Bigger Bad Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar), and his beautiful majordomo Isabella (Gong Li), whom Crockett has his eye on…

That’s the setup, but as I said, it’s basically all just an excuse for Farrell and Foxx to wear nice duds, get behind the wheels of some really fancy people-movers, and seethe, flex, canoodle, and ruminate like the typical bevy of manly Mann men. To be honest, I’m more fascinated by gritty, street-level Wire-like depictions of the drug trade than I am this sort of fast-cars-and-million-dollar-tech type stuff. But for the most part, all this ends up being more entertaining than it sounds on paper, drenched as it is in a moody atmosphere of perpetual dusk and lightning flashes on the horizon (and, as in Heat Mann can do quality shootouts like no other.) Only when Farrell and Li lose their heads and fall head over heels in love does the film really slip off the rails — Basically the movie stops cold a few times so Sonny and Isabella, the latter acting particularly out of character, can get mojitos in Havana or go salsa dancing in South Beach. (Foxx’s relationship with Naomie Harris is equally formulaic, but less time is spent on it, until a third-act rescue which feels more than a bit like well-made television.) In sum, Miami Vice isn’t the type of movie that’ll knock your socks off, but it is consistently diverting throughout. And, as a worthwhile reimagining of the TV show, it earns its place among the very few recent television-to-movie remakes worth checking out.

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