To Kill a Mockingbird

Rapid Response: To Kill a Mockingbird

Some film classics are time tested for their greatness, if not more beloved and significant now than upon their release; others are great by association.

The film adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” may just fall into the latter category, the book that everyone read in high school, followed immediately by the movie everyone saw in high school. Maybe it gets some holiday TV time, and the book is so indisputably a classic that it’s hard to see the movie as anything else.

It’s possible then that Robert Mulligan’s film gets a few passes it perhaps doesn’t deserve. The average, casual movie watcher can lump “To Kill a Mockingbird” in on their lists of black and white movies they’ve actually seen along with “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the first part of “The Wizard of Oz”. It was nominated for Best Picture in 1962, losing to a real classic, “Lawrence of Arabia”. And Gregory Peck won the Oscar for Best Actor, years later also taking the American Film Institute’s title for the greatest American movie hero.

But does it actually do anything especially great? An easy analysis might say no. This is Old Hollywood through and through, full of toothless, folksy charm and Hays Code-friendly gestures of racism and violence. “To Kill a Mockingbird” only achieves the social and racial poignancy by riding the coattails of its richer source material, and even then it’s very much rooted to its times.

To play along the racial language, the touches of greatness in “To Kill a Mockingbird” are more than skin deep. Continue reading


‘Snowpiercer’ is bleak, violent, surreal caricature of human condition

To paraphrase Jon Stewart, the end of humanity won’t come because of an asteroid or the apocalypse but because of the moment when a brilliant scientist declares, “It works!”

In the dystopian, sci-fi action movie “Snowpiercer,” humanity has agreed to release an experimental gas into the air to scale back the effects of global warming. The process works too well, and the world is plunged into an ice age unfit for life on Earth. 17 years later, the only remaining humans on Earth live on a perpetually moving train, one that circles the Earth each year.

Given these conditions, how quickly would you imagine humanity would slip back to its basest nature? How soon would the world start devouring itself? When would martial law be declared? When would society deteriorate?

“Snowpiercer” is a bleak, violent and surreal look at the broad, caricature of the human condition. Director Joon-ho Bong’s film makes a bold and blunt allegory about the way the world works, and amid the beautifully photographed action sequences and garish, even humorous depictions of the human class system, he finds little worth liking. Continue reading

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

‘Dawn’ falls short of ‘Rise’, apes the style of others

Apes; they’re so much like us. They start off as promising, cute, smart and full of life, and it isn’t long before they’re dropped into the grim reality of the real world.

And so it goes with ape franchises. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was an unexpected gem, a film that served as a prequel on a technicality but was entirely its own story. The use of unrivaled motion capture visual effects was enhanced tenfold by the film’s careful knack for suspense, its crafty long takes and tracking shots, its creative action scenes, the wordless expressions of pathos and so much more.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” could no longer be the somewhat whimsical and fantastical story and still be the dark and serious, world-impacting epic the blockbuster crowd expects. The apes have learned much from man, modeling even their most conventional stories in every way. Continue reading

Chasing Ice

Rapid Response: Chasing Ice

The debate over climate change is an issue of perception, not of facts and figures. This is the argument made by James Balog, a climate scientist and longtime nature photographer. There’s a flawed sense that climate change simply doesn’t exist because you can’t see it, he explains.

“Chasing Ice” is a documentary about perception and about images. It’s a gorgeous looking overview of nature at the top of the world and a new, practical way of viewing science and global warming threats that skeptics for years have dared to ignore.

Two years since this film has been released, Balog may view the climate change debate as less of one of perception and more of sheer insolence and extreme partisan politics, but this film holds up as very hard to argue with.  Continue reading

How to Train Your Dragon 2

‘How to Train Your Dragon 2′ soars again

How does the saying go? You can’t teach an old dragon new tricks? That’s the actuality behind “How to Train Your Dragon 2”, which models off the original “How to Train Your Dragon” in many ways and yet does so without losing any of the original’s surprising quality.

Dreamworks’s film was the first since “Shrek” that had both real humor and heart. It was a gorgeous example of what 3-D could do, it captured some of the breathtaking spectacle behind “Avatar” and put it into a kids’ film and it even included an adorable wordless montage that could plausibly be talked about in the same breath as the one from “Up.” Those more tranquil moments made the epic dragon battle in its finale more significant and tolerable.

“HTTYD 2” is a bit more action heavy and a bit lighter on the charm that made the first film a hit. All the training has been done, and now a bigger fight is about to begin. And yet Dean DeBlois’s film (he co-directed the original) uses the same structure that slowly brought out the original’s best qualities. Continue reading

Entertainment Weekly Logo

Criticism as a Cost Center: More on the Economics of Movie Reviews

More than anything else, the best and most frequent word of advice for young writers looking to become film critics is don’t.

The point here is not, “give up,” but the sad realization that being a film critic is not actually a career and just about no one in the 21st Century makes a living just watching and reviewing movies. David Bordwell actually put this advice best:

Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films.

Some critics go the route of grad school and being a professor or author for a living. Some find passions in programming for festivals or art house theaters. And others take up journalism and learn how to edit or report as well as write. Although the other sad realization is that becoming a journalist is not that much more lucrative a backup plan.

That’s why it hurts to see great, versatile writers and critics lose their jobs seemingly every week. Just this past April it was one of the legends, Owen Gleiberman over at Entertainment Weekly. You wonder how anyone can get into the game if even the people you admire can’t make it work.

The conclusion for why its so bad out there for the movie critic is predictable: the Internet pits criticism in a losing battle against cat videos, Justin Bieber and listicles, and it’s a damn shame that the world just doesn’t respect or value film criticism as much as the rest of us. Continue reading


Rapid Response: Zelig

What really works about Woody Allen’s “Zelig” and makes it brilliant is that no matter how outlandish, ludicrous and fantastical Leonard Zelig’s scandal or condition gets, you still kind of buy it. Allen’s got Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow giving plausible sounding and descriptive diagnoses of Zelig’s mental state, all of it following a sense of empathy and dramatic arc, and it’s all total nonsense.

“Zelig” is Woody Allen’s mockumentary, although to call it that conjures up ideas of “This is Spinal Tap” and “Best In Show” in which the subject being mocked is someone other than the director himself. “Zelig” is more accurately a real documentary on a fake person, and not just that, but a proto-Woody Allen, a version of himself we see in many of his films. It uses Leonard Zelig’s condition as a human chameleon to get inside the mind of a person always begging to fit in and be liked, even going as far as to say there’s really not much wrong with that. Changing our personality and even our appearance is something just about anyone does, and the movie acknowledges that this could be anything from lying about having read “Moby Dick” to pretending you’re an experienced psychologist so you can go to bed with your doctor. Continue reading

Johnny Guitar

Johnny Guitar: A Feminist Western with a dark twist

In a time when women are as vocal as ever about the hypocrisy of being shamed for their sexuality by both men and other women and when women become the villains and not the victims of abuse or even rape in relationships, a movie like “Johnny Guitar” in a genre historically associated with men, the Western, is surprisingly and strangely relevant.

Nicholas Ray’s film is a classic Old Hollywood Western, but at times it may as well be “The Scarlet Letter.” Joan Crawford plays Vienna, a saloon owner in a small town that for some reason wants nothing to do with her. The railroad is on its way and Vienna has scooped up the rights to the train depot, so the value of her land is about to skyrocket. But on a particularly quiet and stormy night when a mysterious man named Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has arrived to serve Vienna, a posse of men and the town marshall show up to harass Vienna and demand she leave town in 24 hours. The posse’s leader Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge) suspects Vienna’s involvement with a local gang led by The Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady), and she viciously wants all of them hung, believing them to be responsible for the death of her brother in a recent stagecoach robbery.

The story turns out to be intricately layered. Love triangles abound, no character is remotely trusting of the others, and some like Emma harbor deep seeded hatred of Vienna and the local gang. Emma is in fact so vindictive and spiteful of Vienna that she gets sadistic pleasure out of burning down Vienna’s saloon and calling for her hanging. She’s a coldly brilliant villain in the hands of McCambridge, and her performance is so good that she makes puddles into these hardened male gunslingers.

But Emma’s spite of Vienna runs so deep that she’s been labeled a tramp for no good reason, assumed to be involved with these bad men and harboring worse intentions. Emma also secretly loves the Dancin’ Kid, despite his own unreturned fancy for Vienna, and this only amplifies the sexual tension. In an early scene, Vienna speaks of this dilemma in a way that might still seem relatable to all women of today. “A man can lie, steal… and even kill. But as long as he hangs on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip – once. And she’s a “tramp!” Must be a great comfort to you to be a man.”

That kind of nuanced feminist plea feels mighty rare in a genre like this, and it carries all the way through to the showdown at the end between Vienna and Emma. Having two women face off in the spots where John Wayne and Clint Eastwood have stood so many times before may just be unprecedented.  Continue reading

22 Jump Street

’22 Jump Street’ is a self aware sequel, falls short of original

Nick Offerman delivers a monologue at the start of “22 Jump Street” about the surprise success of the 21 Jump Street case, i.e. the plot at the center of 2012’s “21 Jump Street,” obviously. He explains that no one cared about it the first time around, but now they’re going to throw more money at, as though that would produce better results, do the same thing and keep everyone happy.

It’s a wickedly self aware moment, and Offerman is talking about this original film, but he may as well be talking about “The Hangover” or any action sequel ever made.

Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller proved earlier this year that they can be transparently self-aware and still be innovative with “The LEGO Movie.” So they more than anyone know that for “22 Jump Street” to be good and even better than the original, it would have to be more than a sequel about bad sequels.

And yet here Jonah Hill is, doing slam poetry that isn’t as funny as his Peter Pan song. Here’s a drug tripping sequence involving split screen dream worlds for both Hill and Channing Tatum that isn’t as funny as Tatum diving through a gong or Rob Riggle trying to put Hill’s tongue back in his mouth. And here’s Tatum stupidly saying Cate Blanchett when he means “carte blanche,” and the movie not following up on getting that cameo the way they did with Johnny Depp the first time around.

“22 Jump Street” is literally the same movie as the first one with more money thrown at it, and that might be the point, but that doesn’t make it a stronger or equal film. Continue reading

The Fault in Our Stars

‘The Fault in Our Stars’ is a modest tearjerker without nuance

The blockbuster YA novel of today has become so closely aligned with all the Hollywood clichés of the last decade: dystopian futures, chosen one teenagers, dark overtones, epic CGI battles for the fate of all mankind and one book needlessly split into two films.

“The Fault In Our Stars” by John Green is as big as they come but has been adapted into a single, trim, two-hour love story and tearjerker, and a modest one at that. Both the success of the book and the movie is that they can take big, melodramatic themes of death, disease, heartbreak and even oblivion and make them feel intimate and personal.

Green’s novel is the story of a 17-year-old cancer patient named Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) who meets 18-year-old and now cancer-free Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort) at her cancer support group. He’s forward, strangely eloquent and a bit awkward, and she’s sarcastic and pessimistic with a slight frump and eye roll to send his way. Gus dubs his crush with the new identity of Hazel Grace and they soon fall in love, but she fears the damage she’ll do to both Gus and her parents when she inevitably passes away.

The screenplay by pair Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber (“500 Days of Summer”, “The Spectacular Now”) follows the source material as well as any major YA adaptation, even lifting full passages out of the book, but it’s missing the punchy, brash and flippant energy to Green’s novel. Continue reading