Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Year at the Movies: 2016

I go to the movies a lot. I started this blog about eight years ago because I wanted to have a place to think out loud about the movies I was seeing--to reflect on the old and the new, on the good and the bad. I called it the Night Editor because I tend to write late and because I like the 1946 noir NIGHT EDITOR  directed by Henry Levin and starring Janis Carter (an overlooked minor gem, btw). A lot has happened for me in years since I started the blog. I've published several books, been to France twice on book tours, participated in several readings at Noir At The Bar functions, and relocated to Chicago. 

But I've also seen a lot of movies. On the side of this blog I keep a running tally of how many movies I've seen at the theater. I don't know why I do this, except that going to the movies is the closest thing I have to a hobby.

This year I saw 85 movies at the theater. That's a lot, I know, (a movie about every four days), but the true measure of my cinephilic tendencies is that I don't feel like I saw enough. I still managed to miss so many interesting-looking new films and great old classics in rerelease.

I'm not someone who generally laments the state of film. Yes, schlock too often rules the box office. Yes, I worry about the reheated nature of our choices, where it seems that almost everything at the box office is a do-over of some pre-existing property. Yes, the culture is ever more infantilized. Yes, it is harder and harder to get movies made for adults.

And yet...

In some ways, things are better than we give them credit for being (and things in previous days were often worse than we give them credit for being). Here's a list of some good things about the current state of movies.

1. Hollywood has perfected the comic book movie and the sci-fi popcorn movie. A case in point: this year I saw DOCTOR STRANGE. Here's a movie that could only exist at this particular moment, the result of Marvel's mastery of the comic book movie. It has a great cast of capable actors slumming it in a labyrinth of good special effects and efficient storytelling, and the result was an entertaining afternoon at the movies. When they make the inevitable sequel, I'll check it out. Of course, I'm not saying that the Hollywood machine always gets it right. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR was fun but overstuffed while BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE was stupid and sluggish, just to take two high profile examples. But overall I think Hollywood is doing this stuff as well as it can be done. The comic book movie is the modern equivalent of the old time spectacular. Will we look back and call DOCTOR STRANGE a masterpiece? Probably not, but I really do think it will hold up better than AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956) and that piece of shit won Best Picture...

2. Great stuff still gets made. This year I saw films as different as MOONLIGHT, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, HAIL CAESAR!, ARRIVAL, CERTAIN WOMEN, and FENCES. If I'd only seen these movies, I still would have been pretty happy at the breadth and accomplishment of the year. Different movies with different tones and intentions, but so much skill and heart.

3. The revival business is going strong. I have to start here by saying that "strong" is a relative term. I'm not trying to suggest that it's 1960s-film-society strong out there, but, when it comes to classic film, I had an incredible year at the movies. Just to name a few: I saw the triumphant restoration of Welles's masterpiece CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (twice), as well as Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL, the Coens' BLOOD SIMPLE and BARTON FINK, Ozu's LATE AUTUMN, Kurosawa's YOJIMBO, von Stroheim's GREED, and Hitchcock's VERTIGO. The movie event of the year for me was the release of Kieslowski's DEKALOG, the ten hours of which comprised my most exciting cinematic experience this year.

I should say a few words about disappointments. In the realm of blockbusters, I think the Star Trek and Bourne franchises are in trouble. STAR TREK BEYOND was more entertaining than its horrible trailer, but the series itself is adrift. And JASON BOURNE feels every bit like a movie that knows it has no reason to exist. On the art side, Terrence Malick was back with KNIGHT OF CUPS, the kind of meandering pose-striking mess someone might make to parody Terrence Malick.

Here's my top ten new releases of the year, in no particular order:

1. MOONLIGHT-A triumph from director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins, this coming of age tale might be the most perfectly achieved new film I saw this year, with vivid camerawork and brilliant acting. Unfolding in three chapters over several years, it creates and maintains an atmosphere of emotional intensity without ever seeming to reach too hard for effect. Devastating and beautiful.  
2. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA-No film I saw this year haunted me as much as this one. Director/screenwriter Kenneth Longeran tells a quietly funny and finely observed story about the ways we live with grief. Casey Affleck is a slow burning flame in the lead role as an emotionally isolated janitor dealing with the death of his older brother, and as his ex-wife Michelle Williams proves once again that she's one of the best actors working. 
3. HAIL, CAESAR!-This movie divided a lot of people, even admirers of the Coen Brothers. All I can say is that it feels like a movie they made just for me, a whacked out comedy about the Hollywood studio system, with singing cowboys, dancing Communists, Jesus-obsessed studio fixers, and a goofball star of biblical epics played by George Clooney in his best comic turn in years.
4. FENCES-A world where Denzel Washington makes adaptations of August Wilson plays is a fine world, indeed. He and Viola Davis do a powerful duet here as a married couple confronting themselves, and each other, for the first time. With exceptional supporting work from Stephen Henderson and Jovan Adepo. There's talk of Washington producing more plays from Wilson's Century Cycle, which goes on the short list of things to be excited about. 
5. CERTAIN WOMEN-An anthology film from director/screenwriter Kelly Reichardt based on the stories of Maile Meloy tells three different tales set in Montana. The first two stories are interesting, but the third story, about the would-be romance between a shy ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) and a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart), is a delicate heartbreaker, among the finest things that Reichardt has done. 
6. ARRIVAL-This was the best sci-fi movie of the year. Sure ROGUE ONE was okay, but in a better world this deeply involving and strikingly achieved film from director Denis Villeneuve would be the one breaking records at the box office.
7. MIDNIGHT SPECIAL-Director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols makes such wonderfully quirky and specific films. This is his most daring to date, a religiously infused bit of sci-fi realism with yet another powerhouse performance from Michael Shannon.
8. WIENER-DOG-Director/screenwriter Todd Solondz is not usually my cup of cinematic tea, but this brutally funny pitch-black comedy hit me where I live. It's grim, unflinching, and hilarious.
9. LA LA LAND-From director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz, this musical comedy is a hell of a lot of fun. Some unfocused storytelling in the middle sections and some vocals-too-low-in-the-mix keep it from being completely successful, but it's carried along by good music and a stellar performance by Emma Stone.
10. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS-The final third of this twisty drama from director/screenwriter Tom Ford (adapting the novel TONY AND SUSAN by Austin Wright) has elements of a conventional (and lesser) thriller, but such is the power of this piece that I don't know what to make of them. I need to see this movie again to unravel the threads of reality and unreality that tie together its main storyline (an art dealer played by Amy Adams is shown a new novel written by her ex-husband) and the story of the novel in which a family man played by Jake Gyllenhaal (who also plays the author of the novel) seeks to avenge the murder of his wife and daughter with the help of a dying detective played by Michael Shannon (in his other great performance of the year).

Other good films I saw this year included the riveting documentary WEINER, the coolly unsettling THE LOBSTER, the effective Blake Lively-versus-Jaws thriller THE SHALLOWS, the fun GHOSTBUSTERS reboot, the happily trashy THE NICE GUYS, the well-acted rural noir HELL OR HIGH WATER and the quirky western IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE featuring a wonderful scene-stealing performance from John Travolta as the morally conflicted, and often laugh out loud funny, bad guy.

In addition to those already mentioned, some of the best revival movie experiences I had this year included seeing my beloved PAPER MOON (1973) on the big screen for the first time; discovering Stephanie Rothman's deeply subversive THE STUDENT NURSES (1970) and Peter Fonda's trippy THE HIRED HAND (1971); and revisiting Billy Wilder's hilarious ONE, TWO, THREE (1961), Bogart's final film THE HARDER THEY FALL (1957) and Scorsese's masterpiece TAXI DRIVER (1976). My best discovery at the revival movies was the Nicholas Ray rodeo drama THE LUSTY MEN (1952) which features the best Robert Mitchum performance that most people haven't seen.

All in all, it was a damn good year at the movies. The year ahead looks foreboding in many ways for our politics and our society. We need the movies more than ever, and here's hoping 2017 will find me (and you) in the dark, staring up at the big screen.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Merry Christmas from the McClanes: DIE HARD 2: DIE HARDER (1990)

When it was released in 1990, DIE HARD 2 was greeted as a rehash of the original 1988 film. Fair enough. The story finds John McClane (Bruce Willis) stuck at Dulles International Airport at Christmas, once again bringing in the Yuletide by saving his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedila) from terrorists. In retrospect, though, DIE HARD 2 is clearly the best of the DIE HARD sequels, the only film in the series to really extend the charm and excitement of the first film.

Before I explain what makes it the only worthy successor to the original, I suppose we should dispense with the rest of the sequels:

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (1995) was seen by many as a return to form for the series, with DIE HARD's director John McTiernan taking back the helm from DIE HARD 2's Renny Harlin. But seen today, VENGEANCE is more dated, a relic of the 90s. It has a gimmicky plot (McClane and a post-PULP FICTION Samuel L. Jackson are forced to solve puzzles by a criminal mastermind like they're facing off against the Riddler), a dull villain (making Jeremy Irons the brother of Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber just draws attention to how much better Rickman was in the first film), some clumsy racial politics (McClane, a NYC cop, teaches Jackson, a middle-aged black man, how not to be such a racist),  and a sloppy third act (reshot almost entirely, it feels rushed and lifeless at the same time). There are some good scenes here and there (the shoot out in the elevator, chief among them), but the film is overlong, tired, and talky. Worse still, it marks the turning point in the series when McClane goes from being a likable everyman to being a grumpy lunkhead.

Things just get worse in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007), a sequel caked with 12 years of dust. This time McClane teams up with a hacker played by Justin Long to rescue McClane's daughter (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from bad guy Timothy Olyphant. In some ways, LIVE FREE is the worst of the series. For one thing, McClane's not really the main character. He's just here to be the grumpy old sage to Long's morally conflicted hacker, the only character in the movie with an actual story arc. For another thing, this is the point in the series where McClane stops being a recognizable human with the capacity to be hurt. He stands on a spinning jet plane, jumps out of a speeding car onto pavement at 80 miles an hour, shoots himself in the chest at point blank range, ect, all without doing more than grimacing. Add in Olyphant's bland villain and a PG-13 rating, and you get a series in freefall.

Last and least is 2013's A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD, which finds McClane traveling to Russia to help his son (Jai Courtney) fight some terrorists. Wheezing and out of ideas, the film dusts off the McClane-reunites-with-his-estranged-family plot for the fourth time to zero emotional effect. We've seen this blood-soaked McClane family reunion before, but the father-son dynamic only encourages the filmmakers to up the macho bullshit, and so we have John and John Jr. dropping off buildings through fifty layers of glass and fire, only to emerge strutting and laughing at the end. A cold and stupid movie, GOOD DAY is a long, long, long way from the first film, the most riveting scene of which involved McClane pulling a single shard of glass from his foot and tearfully confessing his love for his wife. The 2013 McClane, by contrast, is a video game character, endlessly rebooting to the same level of physical invulnerability and emotional obstinacy.

Which brings us back to DIE HARD 2. It's the only sequel that doesn't rehash the family dysfunction plot. Instead, it accepts the happy ending of DIE HARD and builds on it. John and Holly, despite only sharing a single scene at the end, are a likable couple, flirting on the phone at the start, and rising to the challenge in parallel storylines when everything goes wrong.

Speaking of the "going wrong" part: while William Sadler is no Hans Gruber (hey, nobody is), his cold right-wing terrorist Col. Stuart is the only post-Hans villain who seems to pose an actual threat to McClane. The scene where he downs a commercial  jetliner, killing hundreds of people on board, is one of the most effecting scenes of villainy in the series.

Renny Harlin directs the action scenes here with speed and precision, while keeping McClane within the general vicinity of recognizable humanity. Where the first film found him shoeless and shirtless (which rendered him more exposed than the typical action hero), this one finds him gasping for breath and shouldering against the cold as he runs all over the snowbound airport fighting bad guys. The shootout on the conveyor belt is particularly effective because Willis plays it scared. Pinned down under some collapsed scaffolding, he desperately crawls for a gun as a goon charges at him. That moment of fear -- the "if I don't get this gun that guy is going to kick my ass and kill me" -- doesn't really have an analog in the later films in the series. The McClane of  DIE HARD 3, 4, and 5 can be wounded, but he can't be scared because he's lost the ability to die.

DIE HARDER features Willis's lightest turn as McClane. He's flirtatious (with both his wife and a pretty girl at the airport), he's still funny (muttering to himself, "Oh, we are just up to our ass in terrorists again, aren't we, John?"), and he's resilient in the action scenes without being superhuman (I've always loved that in the final fight on the wing of the plane with Sadler, he more or less gets his ass kicked). He's still, well, John McClane, a character you enjoy spending time with, a guy you can root for because you like him.

The original DIE HARD is a masterpiece of its kind, one of the best action movies ever made, going on a shortlist with films like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, and, more recently, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. IF DIE HARDER doesn't quite belong in that elevated company, it still deserves to be seen as a worthy successor to the original. It's a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, a holiday action blockbuster sequel that understands what it is trying to do (i.e. rip off the original) and manages to do so without turning dour or cynical in the process.