Movies Worth Watching
by Ari Armstrong, June 8, 2006
Recently I've seen a string of movies that, while not glorious, are nevertheless quite good. Because of movie prices these days, my wife and I are seeing more movies on video, but I have caught a couple of films on the big screen. (We definitely plan to see Superman Returns in the theater.)
X-Men: The Last Stand
True, the latest X-Men movie is not as good as the previous two. But it's still pretty good. The main conflict is between humans who want to "cure" mutants by removing their powers and mutants who want to prevent that by killing humans. The X-Men are mutants in the middle trying to achieve peace.
While various critics have made fun of Kelsey Grammer's hairy blue monster look, I loved his character. The main problem is that there are so many characters and sub-plots to the movie that it's hard to connect with any of the figures.
However, one new character, while underdeveloped, provides the most important theme for the movie. Angel is a mutant who sprouts wings, enabling him to fly. His father believes mutants are freaks of nature who need to be cured. The poor boy is so distraught by his natural gifts that he tries to hack off his own wings.
The Da Vinci Code
I don't get the low reviewer ratings (23 percent at Rotten Tomatoes) for Da Vinci Code. Sure, the central story is silly. Sure, the movie manages to offend the religious even as it carefully avoids actual criticism of religion. But it's a fun, intelligent thriller that actually has a theme (support of the Divine Feminine). I think part of the reason for the low ratings is that the current vogue is to make fun of Dan Brown's literary talents. I imagine this has something to do with the fact that Brown is better-known among readers than are all of his pretentious critics, combined.
In its basic premise, the movie seems to follow in the path of many before it: a complex robbery is not what it seems. But this Spike Lee movie rises above its genre, thanks to good writing, sharp directing and an excellent cast. With Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, Jodie Foster, Willem Dafoe, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, it's hard to go wrong. Washington plays a strong-willed and intelligent detective; Foster plays a political handler with few scruples.
A small band seizes a bank and takes hostages. Obviously, they're after money -- they're in a bank -- right? Of course not. What they are after is far more interesting. But what makes this more than just another robbery movie are all the cultural tensions: a police officer who resorts to racist language until reprimanded by Washington's character, a Sikh mistaken for an Arab and harassed, a child informed by a violent video game, a wealthy banker with a dark past. But Lee doesn't beat you over the head with this; it plays naturally in the movie (set in New York).
The story does have an important and central error. At the end, the characters seem to forget that the robbers took hostages, subjected innocent people to severe psychological and physical trauma, and put their lives in grave danger. This completely undermines the ending unless the viewer joins the characters in their convenient amnesia.
Failure to Launch
Okay, it's damned silly, and I'm not much of a fan of Sarah Jessica Parker's often-stilted performances. (On the other hand, I love Matthew McConaughey and Zooey Deschanel.) You've seen the story a million times. A couple forms a relationship on false pretenses. The deceit is discovered, leading to a period of alienation, followed by reconciliation. Still, I found it to be a very enjoyable film, mostly because of the bright and benevolent characters.
On a cultural note, one scene respectfully treats a gun salesman. He chuckles as Deschanel's character asks for bullets for a shotgun. He ultimately refuses to sell the gun to her (as she wants to use it to shoot an endangered bird), so she demands her Sixth Amendment rights. "Your right to a speedy and public trial?" he mocks.
Previously I predicted that I wouldn't think much of Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy movie. What I did not anticipate was Heath Ledger's hauntingly sorrowful performance. Yes, the movie is beautifully directed and the rest of the cast is very good, but it is Ledger who makes it a memorable movie. I've always enjoyed Ledger's movies, but his performance in Brokeback is amazing. Yet, as for the writing, I found myself wondering whether the two central characters would have been better off moving to a part of the country that would have accepted their partnership, rather than marrying and subjecting their wives to years of suffering.
An aside. It occurred to me that, if somebody wanted to spend a lot of money and make even more, they'd hire a competent writer to turn Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead into a full season of television (roughly 22 episodes each 45 minutes in length), then hire Ledger to play Howard Roark, if Ledger at all admires and understands the character of Roark. It would cost a boatload of money for such a long, movie-quality production, but I think that length would allow the director to capture the nuances of Rand's story, and I think the DVD set would fly off the shelves (assuming the production did justice to the novel). A nine-hour trilogy would also have potential.
I also enjoyed Ledger's Casanova, even though the story of the movie spins a bit out of control. The idea is that Casanova, pursued by the religious authorities, falls for a feminist who despises him.
Cypher is a small but fun science-fiction movie that features a quirky performance by Jeremy Northam. The story doesn't make a lot of sense, but it involves the brainwashing of Northam's character so that he can serve as a corporate spy. He falls for the character of Lucy Liu, but he doesn't know if he can trust her.
Memoirs of a Geisha follows a poor girl sold to a geisha house by her father. It's a beautifully filmed and fairly interesting story. Unfortunately, it portrays the men of the U.S. occupation force as louts. I know better: my grandfather served in that occupation force, so I've heard some of the real stories of occupation.
We've also started the first season of Smallville, the television show that follows the life of a young Clark Kent as he develops the powers and character that will eventually lead him to the life of Superman. It's a fine show (currently entering its sixth season). I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the adoptive father of Superman is none other than Bo Duke, known in real life as John Schneider.
Michael Rosenbaum nearly steals the show as Lex Luthor, who befriends Kent after Kent saves him from drowning. In the first season, Luthor is a pretty good but troubled guy who goes out of his way to help his friends. I am not looking forward to his inevitable fall.
What's great about the show is that the problems and villains faced by Kent are meaningful to real life. It's not just super bad guys threatening to blow stuff up. For example, in one episode Lana Lang's boyfriend loses his football scholarship, starts to feel sorry for himself, and gets mixed up in a gang that at first seems cool but actually commits crimes.
What I don't like about the show is that it seems to consistently paint big businessmen as bad guys. In reality, most of the goods that we take for granted and that immeasurably improve our lives are created by large corporations able to take advantage of economies of scale.