Filling In the Blanks, by Bob Connally

18 Jan

As a reviewer I obviously watch a lot of films but I really only review a relatively small number of them. Still, I have thoughts on everything I see and I figured I would share some of those here (even this won’t be nearly everything new I watched). I won’t be covering the entire year of 2021. I’ll just be going through the past few months and I won’t be dealing with anything that I wrote full reviews of here already. So as another of Tyler’s friends likes to say, “Let’s get into it, shall we?”

Copshop – I’m not sure how many people even know this movie even exists. I saw it in an otherwise empty theater on a Tuesday night but I had a lot of fun with it. Joe Carnahan’s romp through a tense night in a Nevada police station has a fun story and snappy dialogue delivered by a cast that is committed to the film’s tone. Toby Huss shows up about halfway through as an unhinged contract killer and steals the movie. It’s a scenery chewing performance but it perfectly fits both the character and the film so it’s a blast to watch. The film’s ending is full of entertaining surprises as well and overall it’s just a solid and enjoyable watch.

Dune – Having never read any of Frank Herbert’s novels nor any adaptation of it before, Denis Villenueve’s film is my first experience with this story and boy oh boy is there a lot of story. It’s a movie I’m sure will benefit from repeat viewings and it’s also one I’m happy I saw on the big screen the first time. As for that story, it’s not that it’s confusing, it’s that there is just so much of it and so many characters and factions to keep straight. It doesn’t become frustrating but it’s best to not get yourself bogged down in trying to understand it all on first viewing. The movie also stops abruptly as opposed to really ending and thankfully the film performed well enough financially that Villenueve will get to complete the story in Part II.

Eternals – I liked this more than I expected to. In some ways, Chloe Zhao’s film is quite different from the typical MCU movie, while in others it’s very much the same (particularly in the overstuffed and mind-numbing action finale). It’s full of a lot of interesting ideas and it poses moral questions that are not usually asked in comic book movies. Despite introducing us to so many new characters, Zhao balances them and their stories well. While this is decidedly not the kind of Oscar contender Kevin Feige wanted it to be, nor is it even one of the top tier Marvel movies to date, it’s a good film that didn’t deserve the drubbing it took from many upon its release.

Riders of Justice – This was such a wild and delightful surprise of a movie. I knew right from the start it was going to be great, even though I didn’t know why. It just felt right. Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen plays with audience expectations by taking things we’ve seen many times and turning them on their ear in interesting and continually satisfying ways. This isn’t “subverting expectations” simply for its own sake. Everything is well thought out and each character is three-dimensional, in spite of many of them seeming like stereotypes at first glance. Despite a premise steeped in tragedy, there is a unique sense of humor that runs throughout the film and makes this probably the single most entertaining movie of 2021. Mads Mikkelsen remains on a roll after 2020’s best film, Another Round.

Tick, Tick…Boom – A great lead performance by Andrew Garfield aside, I didn’t connect with this at all, despite having a character and story that I can relate to to a degree. Maybe it’s just that I really disliked most of the songs or that it’s not the least bit interesting from a filmmaking perspective. I’m hard pressed to think of a musical that is more blandly shot. In the end it’s just rather dull.

Spider-Man: No Way Home – What a blast of a movie. There is so much going on here and yet it doesn’t become overstuffed. Even the big action finale works here, unlike in the aforementioned Eternals. The characters don’t get lost in the spectacle of it all, which is an impressive achievement by director Jon Watts. It’s difficult to say much more without giving major details away but suffice it to say that this is an example of how to do mainstream crowd-pleasing entertainment right.

The Power of the Dog – Right now it appears likely that Jane Campion’s latest film will be this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture. Given the history of the Oscars, this isn’t a surprise and this is a beautifully shot and produced film. However, it all feels like it’s behind glass. Stories set in the dying West have an inherent fascination for me for one reason or another. But where a film such as 1963’s Hud pulls me in emotionally and makes me feel the desperation and dust its characters are enveloped by, this keeps me at a distance. The acting is wonderful and it looks great but maybe it looks a little too great for its own good. It’s a good movie that presents itself as a masterpiece, whereas Hud puts in the work to become that masterpiece.

West Side Story – Admittedly I have never seen the play nor the 1961 movie, but I suspect that the general problem here exists there as well. For West Side Story to work fundamentally, you have to be fully invested in its love story. That’s awfully difficult when we get an incredibly brief scene where our romantic leads talk for a moment before being interrupted. This prevents the film from ever really approaching greatness. Still, it’s remarkably well made because Steven Spielberg couldn’t screw that aspect up if he tried. Even his bad movies are still put together exceptionally well. That being said, I could do without Janusz Kaminski’s lighting style. I’ve never been a fan of it and it just seems to get more irritating to deal with over time.

The acting here overall is generally fine but Mike Faist’s performance as Riff is pretty special. It’s easily the single best aspect of this film and when he’s not on screen you really miss him.

Don’t Look Up – Oh, boy. This is going to be the longest of my “brief thoughts.” Look, if you want to watch a satire about the government horrifically mishandling a world threatening event, watch Dr. Strangelove. If you want to watch a satire about corporations owning the media, watch Network. If you want to watch a satire about public institutions being sold to corporations, watch the original RoboCop. If you want to watch a satire about society distracting itself from apocalyptic disaster, watch the original Dawn of the Dead. If you want to watch a satire made in the past five years by a living filmmaker, watch Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin. But whatever you do, watch any of these instead of Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.

The discourse around this movie has been miserable. Many of those championing this film accuse anyone who isn’t impressed by it to be “climate deniers” or blindly devoted Trump fanatics. The truth is though that it’s a movie that just says what the audience is already thinking back to it. There’s nothing “insightful” or “deep” about that, despite those being the words many are using to describe McKay’s film. What makes the movies I mentioned in the previous paragraph great is that those are the result of filmmakers with unique points of view telling creative stories that make the viewer see things in a whole new way. Adam McKay is not on the same level as Stanley Kubrick, Paddy Chayefsky, Sidney Lumet, Paul Verhoeven, George Romero, or Iannucci. There’s nothing wrong with not being on that level until you make a movie that you truly believe is up there with those. 

The experience of being in a packed theater watching McKay’s Anchorman for the first time in 2004 is something I’ll remember forever. I don’t know that I’ve ever been in an audience that laughed that hard at anything and given the direction movies have gone in, I doubt I will ever have an experience like that again. That’s something pretty special but for one reason or another McKay decided he needed to be taken more seriously and seemed to believe that because he has anger about societal problems that it makes him a satirist. It doesn’t. We don’t all have the same talents and that’s okay. Michael Jordan wasn’t a baseball player either.

It’s massively depressing to me that it takes a dumb, blunt movie that thinks it’s smart like Don’t Look Up to get a wide audience to engage with a film that isn’t based on a wildly popular existing property. I so wish that Iannucci had come up with the same general premise just a little bit earlier. That’s a film that would have been so much more clever, laugh out loud funny, shocking and horrifying all at once. It wouldn’t be nearly as widely talked about but it would actually be the movie that Don’t Look Up thinks it is.

Being the Ricardos – Aaron Sorkin is an excellent writer but sometimes he gets in his own way so it’s never a sure bet with him. While being far from his best work, his look into the marriage and working partnership of Lucille Ball (Nicole Kidman) and Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem) is always interesting and quite entertaining. Thankfully, neither Kidman nor Bardem fall into the trap of doing an impression of the very famous people they’re playing. They make the relationship between Lucy and Desi feel real and we believe they’ve been through a lot together. J.K. Simmons and Nina Arianda are excellent as the actors who portray Fred and Ethel, with Simmons in particular proving to be especially good at delivering Sorkin insults.

Lamb – One of the more visually striking movies in recent memory, it’s also not terribly clear with what it’s trying to say beyond simply, don’t mess with nature. Still, it’s always engaging and the characters and story keep your attention. It also isn’t smugly impressed with itself which is a danger with films like this. For Christian viewers, there is a lot to be intrigued by here as well. It’s not a home run but it’s well worth watching and will leave you with plenty to think about and discuss.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Joel Coen’s first movie without his brother Ethan (who seems to just be done with making movies, at least for now) is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s more famous and highly regarded plays. Shot in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, the cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel is fantastic. The lead performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are both outstanding (no surprise) but for whatever reason they never have real chemistry together. Each shines brightest in their scenes either alone or with any of the other stellar actors here. The highlights of the supporting cast are Coen Brothers mainstay Stephen Root and an absolutely extraordinary Kathryn Hunter who gives what may be the best film performance of 2021. While it’s still one of the better movies of the year, real sparks between Washington and McDormand would have raised it from good to great.

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