Film Brief: Best of Enemies

Best of Enemies - poster

Best of Enemies is a good documentary, but not a great one.  Based on the production values alone, I might render a thumbs-down, but the content lifts it, and, by the end of the film, we realize it was all something of a sad affair, as both men pass on in bitterness.  I’m not sure exactly how to have made the film better, but showing more of Buckley and Vidal duking it out might be a good start.  Still though, if you like the trailer, you’ll find this worthwhile — and good for a few hearty laughs.  7/10

Comparison Note: Frost/Nixon

The Great Expectations of an Irrational Man

Irrational Man - poster med

Sometimes critics just don’t get fun films.  With a lame title — that I’ve now warmed to, equally lame poster art, and a Tomatometer score of 39%, I was expecting to be bored or annoyed with Irrational Man.  But Joaquin Phoenix intrigues me, and so does Woody Allen, and Emma Stone doesn’t hurt the cause — so I decided to give it a shot.

The Rotten Tomatoes consensus could not be more wrong:

Irrational Man may prove rewarding for the most ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans or Woody Allen apologists, but all others most likely need not apply

Malarkey!  Irrational Man is not Woody Allen’s best effort, but this is a delightful, fun film.  A little clunkiness hampers the early going, and throughout there is a light air of contrivance that encumbers even his better films of late, such as Blue Jasmine.  That didn’t prevent Blue Jasmine from being one of the best films of 2013; Irrational Man is not up to Blue Jasmine’s level, but it is still quite entertaining, and Woody Allen deserves credit for making a very different movie here.  He may not knock it out of the park every time, but his pictures prove fresh and inventive from one to the next.  7/10  Irrational Man - text block

Cinematic Greats: Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love - poster

Every once in a while the Academy gets it right: Shakespeare in Love is one of the most beautiful and lovely pictures ever made.  It’s also one of the most thoroughly vetted, so there’s little I can add to existing comment.  Joe Morgenstern of the WSJ nails it:

As “Shakespeare in Love” unfolds, though, we see beyond the performances to how ambitious the whole undertaking really is, and how marvelously well the writers and director have pulled it off. Through the medium of movies they’ve reconnected us to the magic of theater. Scene after scene engages us as cheerful groundlings, tosses us jokes, toys with our expectations, then sweeps away the boundaries between film and stage, comedy and tragedy — a death scene, for instance, played almost simultaneously for laughs and tears — so we’re open to the power of language and the feelings behind it. I wasn’t just open, I was swept off my seat.

The only thing I’ll add is that the ending is among the greatest, most beautiful and emotionally urgent endings in the history of cinema.

Availability: iTunes, Netflix

Netflix link

Film Brief: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl - poster

There is a tremendous amount I liked about The Diary of a Teenage Girl, but it left me wanting more.  It was like a train ride — or more appropriately a passage on BART — with 14 stops.  But it takes 16 stops to get me home.

Early in the film, her mother tells Minnie that she has a power she doesn’t realize.  My biggest problem was that this promise is left unfulfilled.  Still, Diary is very fresh, and very good — I just wasn’t over the moon with the product as a whole.  A solid recommendation; 7/10.

Comparison Notes: Welcome to the Dollhouse, Nymphomaniac, Ghost World

UPDATE on MI V: I think I was a little too harsh.  Upon reflection, there were enough good things thrown in to yield a 4/10.  Still thumbs-down, but I didn’t hate it or anything.

MI No Likee [u]

I wanted to like Mission: Impossible V, I really did.  I’ve been a long time fan of Tom Cruise, and feel he got a bum rap.  Yes, he’s a Scientologist.  What can I say, it’s a Hollywood cult that works for some actors, John Travolta being the other big example.  As long as you’re not obnoxious — or dangerous — with your cult, what do I care?  You want to believe that aliens rule the world, more power to you.

And he had a couple rants, like the one about psychologists — where he wasn’t completely wrong.  And he jumped on Oprah’s couch.  So what.  Compared to what a lot of big stars do, that’s nothing.  It does not negate his excellent performances in Born on the Fourth of July, Eyes Wide Shut, A Few Good Men, and The Firm, nor does the public now feel repulsed by early favorites Risky Business or Top Gun.

But people just can’t forgive couch-jumping.  I was dismayed that last year’s superb sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow didn’t do better at the box office, so when MI V came out and received universal praise, I was pulling for it.  When the widely panned Fantastic Four was released on MI V’s second weekend, I was rooting for MI V to come out on top — and it barely did.  I figured reviews and word of mouth had won — this one time at least — over marketing.  It was almost as good as the Yankees losing.

Then I had the sad misfortune to watch the movie.

* * *

MI V - text blockA Most Wanted Man, for its myriad of issues, struck a sober tone, one of melancholy; an atmosphere which allows one to believe, and thereby be absorbed, into the story — if only it hadn’t been so mangled.  MI V doesn’t go that route, rather choosing a James Bond tack.  A tack which often worked for 007, but sure doesn’t here.

MI V fails because the silly approach undermines the movie’s attempts to present a serious, or at least exciting, spy thriller.  When Tom Cruise is delivering nominally serious lines, I felt completely numb to them — indeed I had a hard time believing anything other than the comic relief.

Mission Impossible 5 - poster medIf you can’t be deft enough to skirt your spy flick between sober and comic — in other words, if you can’t find that Bond film balance, then choose one side or the other.  Go the way of A Most Wanted Man, or for a more fun but still serious approach, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Decide you’re an exciting thriller.  Or decide you’re a comedy, like Spy.  Though Spy sets out no more than to make you laugh, the dramatic storyline works a helluva lot better than MI V — or Skyfall, for that matter.

So all this makes MI V an incredible bore; if I didn’t have a blog I would almost have walked out.  I mean Mr. Holmess bees generated unencumbered enthrallment compared to this clunker.  An abundance of blatant ripoff Microsoft product placement didn’t help.  On the positive side: a night at the opera, one good vinyl self-destruct scene, two good action sequences, a small handful of “cute” moments, and cool beginning and ending credits.  3/10

UPDATE: Now 4/10

Cinematic Greats: Donnie Brasco

Donnie Brasco - still

I’m a spoke on a wheel.  And so was he.  And so are you.

What a fantastic movie this is; a blessing.  Just about perfect.

* * *

Prior to The Gift, a trailer was shown for the upcoming Johnny Depp portrayal of Whitey Bulger, Black Mass.  I was instantly reminded of Depp’s other mob film, Donnie Brasco (lest anyone has remembered, let’s all forget about Public Enemies).

Which gets one thinking about the career of Johnny Depp, one of the biggest talents in Hollywood.  He was on the Letterman show talking about his first stint as Captain Jack Sparrow in the mega-blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean series; speaking of the Disney execs:

They didn’t know what I was doing, exactly.  They were concerned that I was, uh, I think in their words ‘ruining the movie.’  Something subtle like that.

A wonderful little interview.  You’ll have to excuse the quality; if you can find better let me know.

Being Johnny Depp, we may take it that he assured the producers to the effect, “I’m Johnny Depp.  I know what I’m doing.”  Boy did he.  From Edward Scissorhands on, there has never been any doubt about Depp’s “out there” roles — he always nails them.  He dons the full costume and makeup better than just about anyone.  He’s great at that, often brilliant.  Though occasionally a movie will fall short, as The Lone Ranger or Sweeney Todd, his performance is not to blame for those failures.  He always adds a quirky element to his portrayals that — as the Pirates anecdote proves — is entirely his invention.

But there’s this whole other side of Johnny Depp that is seen much less frequently — the “serious actor” who plays “straight” roles — roles without the fancy costume, without the panoply.  Donnie Brasco is the best example of this, and makes me wish he would do more “straight” roles.

Donnie Brasco excels because of Depp, and a great true story, and — most of all — because Al Pacino puts in probably the best performance of his career.

A terrific movie, maybe not as “essential” as Goodfellas, but every bit as good.  My highest recommendation.

Availability: iTunes