Mr. Holmes (B+). This movie features an Oscar-bait performance by Ian McKellan (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) as none other than Sherlock Holmes himself. But this Holmes is 93 years old and has long since retired from his work as a P.I. Now he tends bees in a seaside village, looked after by a widowed housekeeper (Laura Linney, The Nanny Diaries) and her son Roger (Milo Parker, Robot Overlords). There’s not a whole lot of plot, but mainly Holmes struggles with his failing memory and tries to recall the details of his last case—the one that spurred him to retire some 30 years earlier, even though he was still in full possession of his faculties. It is a good little movie, anchored by McKellan’s performance, solidly supported by Linney’s and Parker’s. I say check it out.
The Last Five Years (C). If this little musical actually played in any theaters in Dallas, I totally missed it. But I read a rave review in The Weekly Standard, and so when I saw the DVD on sale at Target I snapped it up. It didn’t hurt that it stars Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). It’s based on an off-Broadway show, and it is the story of the romantic journey of Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, TV’s Smash) and Cathy (Kendrick). I’m not giving anything away by revealing that there’s a gimmick: the characters alternate singing songs about their story, but Cathy starts at the end, and Jamie starts at the beginning. So we know from the very first scene how it ends: Jamie takes off, and Cathy is heartbroken. Knowing the destination, how much did I enjoy the ride? Eh, decently well. On the plus side, the performers were good, and Kendrick in particularly gives it her all. A few of the songs are catchy, and the movie moves along briskly, wrapping up in 94 minutes. On the other hand, many of the songs are kind of generic, and the story moves so fast I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters very well. If you like musicals, I say give it a try and see what you think.
Shane (C). I guess this is considered a classic Western—and it got six Academy Award nominations—but I didn’t think it was anything special. Shane (Alan Ladd, The Great Gatsby (1949)) is a wandering gunfighter who accidentally wanders into a Wyoming range war between a big rancher named Ryker and a bunch of homesteaders who want to fence and farm the valley. Shane throws his lot in with the sodbusters, led by stalwart Joe Starrett (Van Heflin, 3:10 to Yuma (1957)), his wife Marian (Jean Arthur, You Can’t Take It With You), and his annoying son Joey (Brandon De Wilde, Hud). A very young Jack Palance (City Slickers) got a supporting-actor nomination for his performance as an evil gunslinger the rancher brings to town to deal with the farmers. Roger Ebert calls it a great movie, but I thought it was only passable.
Best of Enemies (B+). This may be the first documentary I have seen this year. It is about the Republican and Democratic National Conventions of 1968, and more particularly about ABC’s decision not to provide wall-to-wall, gavel-to-gavel coverage of the conventions, but rather to broadcast only selected highlights from the conventions, followed by “debates” between a well-known provocateur from each end of the political spectrum. Those provocateurs were William F. Buckley, Jr. and Gore Vidal. The movie consists in large part of contemporaneous news footage about the conventions, as well as excerpts from the “debates” themselves. I use scare quotes because, as far as I could tell, Buckley and Vidal used the occasion mainly to insult each other, and certainly not to discuss in depth any of the salient issues of the day. As a long-time subscriber to National Review and admirer of Buckley, I winced when the movie finally got to the most famous exchange between the two, when Vidal called Buckley a “pro- or crypto-Nazi,” Buckley lost his temper, called Vidal a “queer,” and threatened to punch him in the face. The film-makers want to trace the shouting style of modern punditry to the Buckley–Vidal debates, but I can’t imagine things would be much different by now even if Buckley and Vidal had been more civil and actually made arguments. Nevertheless, I thought it was an interesting and well-made movie.
Trainwreck (B). Two friends of mine separately went to see this movie without really knowing what it was about, and they both emerged appalled, if not scarred for life. Apparently I have become desensitized to envelope-pushing vulgarity in word and deed on the big screen, because I wasn’t particularly scandalized by this new Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin) comedy. In fact, I kind of enjoyed it. It was written by its star, Amy Schumer (TV’s Inside Amy Schumer), and it fits the Apatow mold of being simultaneously pretty conservative and very vulgar. Schumer plays Amy, a hard-drinking and promiscuous writer for a sleazy men’s magazine. (Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) is unrecognizable as her hard-as-nails boss.) She has absorbed her oafish father’s philosophy that “monogamy isn’t realistic,” and she belittles her little sister (Brie Larson, Short Term 12) for being happily married and happily a step-mother to a nerdy little boy. Then Amy meets a super nice guy, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins), who is a sports surgeon for superstar pro athletes but also volunteers for Doctors Without Borders. She actually likes him, which rocks her world, and he actually likes her, which is kind of mystifying. All I can say is, if you have liked Apatow’s other movies (and I generally have), you’ll probably like this one.
Paper Towns (C-). I did not realize that this movie was based on a book by the same guy who wrote The Fault in Our Stars, a/k/a Cancer Kids in Love. I didn’t realize it until I looked at the movie poster after seeing the movie, even though the movie is preceded by an odd clip of that guy (John Green) saying how excited he is that Paper Towns got made into a movie and how much he hoped that we would like it. Well, John, sorry to say I thought it was sort of a let-down. Our protagonist is a bookish, strait-laced high-school senior named Quentin (Nat Wolff, The Fault in Our Stars). He is hopelessly in love with the Girl Across the Street, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne, Anna Karenina). They were childhood friends, you see, but they grew apart as they approached puberty, and she got cool and beautiful and he didn’t. Suddenly, she recruits him to help her in a night of vandalism and revenge against some of her “friends,” which only makes him love her more, and then she disappears. So Quentin and his buddies try to figure out where she went, so he can be reunited with his Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as I believe the expression goes. Quentin is kind of a dud, and the plot is not terribly believable or engrossing (although I was mildly curious to see if we’d find out where Margo had run off to and why). You have my permission to skip it.
Irrational Man (D+). News flash! Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is an atheistic nihilist! So he continually reminds us in this unpleasant updating of Crime & Punishment. A beer-bellied Joaquin Phoenix (her) stars as a superstar philosophy professor (yeah, right) who gets a teaching gig at some snooty liberal-arts college. He’s a depressed, alcoholic, nihilistic atheist, so of course he’s catnip to female colleagues (Parker Posey, A Mighty Wind) and students (Emma Stone, Magic in the Moonlight) alike. Then he and Emma overhear a sob story told by a woman—a complete stranger—who’s getting tooled around in family court by a bad, if not actually crooked, judge. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, Joaquin muses to Emma, if this judge died? If Emma had ever seen Strangers on a Train, she might have taken this idle chatter as a big hint to RUN AWAY as fast as she could. But hey, if Joaquin’s flabbiness, boozing, depression, and general weirdness aren’t enough to scare her away, I guess a little philosophical small talk about murder isn’t gonna do the trick either. I have liked many of Woody Allen’s recent films (although I always sort of hate myself for going to watch them, since he’s so skeezy), but I did not like this one.
The Glass Menagerie, Theatre Three. This was my first time to see this Tennessee Williams play, which I gather was his first big success. It was also my first trip to Dallas’s Theatre Three, a little theater in the Quadrangle area of Uptown. I enjoyed it. The play is a snapshot of just a few events in the life of the Wingfield family, as remembered years later by Tom Wingfield. During the Depression, Tom and his sister Laura are young adults living with their mother Amanda in a shabby apartment in St. Louis. Amanda’s husband fled the family long ago, and now Amanda reminisces continuously about her youth in the genteel South, when she had so many “gentleman callers” she could hardly keep track of them all. Laura is a basket case, so pathologically shy that she does nothing but take long walks, listen to her father’s old records, and gaze adoringly on her collection of tiny glass animals. Tom keeps the family afloat with a warehouse job that he hates, and he yearns to run away and be a poet. The performances were good, but I got the feeling that Amanda was supposed to be a bit of a monster, and instead she got more than a couple of laughs with her histrionic carrying-on. Allison Pistorius, whom I have seen in a couple of other local productions, was quite good as the fragile Laura. It runs through August 23, so check it out if you’ve never seen it before.
Phoenix (B+), This German film got a great write-up in the Dallas newspaper, so I made a point to check it out. Sure enough, I thought it was very good. WWII has just ended. A concentration-camp survivor, her face wrapped in bandages, is taken to a plastic surgeon for reconstructive surgery. Her name is Nelly, and she is obsessed with finding her husband, Johnny. Her friend Lene tries to warn her off, even suggesting that Johnny might have been the one who betrayed Nelly (an assimilated Jew) to the Nazis, but Nelly will not be deterred. When she finds Johnny, he doesn’t even recognize her. Still, “Esther” (as Nelly calls herself) resembles Nelly enough that a plan occurs to him. Nelly’s whole family is dead, but Johnny can’t inherit Nelly’s family’s estate because he has no proof that Nelly is dead (although he is sure she is). So he will teach Esther to impersonate Nelly, she will claim the inheritance, and they will split the money. Nelly goes along with the scheme, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to find out the truth about Johnny and her arrest. The points of similarity between this film and Vertigo are mentioned in every critic’s review, so, there, I’ve mentioned it. Anyhoo, I thought it was a very good drama, although perhaps not quite as good as last year’s Ida. Well worth a look.
Ant-Man (B). How cool is it to be Paul Rudd? He’s not a megastar or a megahunk like Brad Pitt or Bradley Cooper or Channing Tatum. He generally plays ordinaryish guys in comedies or romantic comedies. And yet, he’s gotten to play opposite quite a few of Hollywood’s loveliest leading ladies. I present my case:
And now he gets to play a Marvel superhero opposite Evangeline Lilly (The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug). Admittedly, their characters spend their scenes together sparring instead of smooching, but still. Anyhoo, this is an entertaining and mostly lighthearted superhero movie in which Rudd’s character gets a suit that lets him shrink to ant size and some other equipment that lets him communicate with and control his ant minions. Michael Douglas (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) also stars as the inventor of the suit. Michael Peña (Fury) steals every scene he’s in as Rudd’s motormouthed sidekick Luis. Watch carefully and you’ll see Captain America’s girlfriend in one scene.
Tomorrowland (C). Well, director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) kind of laid an egg with this one. (Per IMDB, its stateside haul so far is only about half of its $190 million budget.) But it’s not a bad movie. There’s sort of a prologue in which a boy who will grow up to be George Clooney gets to visit a place of technological wonders hidden somewhere beneath the 1964 World’s Fair and, we expect, fall in love with a cute little girl named Athena. Fast forward to today, and a brainy, optimistic gal named Casey (Britt Robertson, TV’s awesome Under the Dome) receives a mysterious pin that gives her visions of Tomorrowland. This gets her caught up in a whirlwind of adventure, about which I will say only that it involves a grown-up and curmudgeonly George Clooney (Gravity). It’s an earnest and optimistic movie, so maybe it just doesn’t fit the national mood right now. And it is too long, 2 hours and 10 minutes. But I still liked it okay.
Inside Out (B+). Pixar has created another winner. First, there’s a cute short about a lonely volcano out in the middle of the ocean who just wants someone to lava. <Ba-dum, ching!> Then there’s the main event. It’s a simple story about a 12-year-old girl named Riley who is unhappy because her loving parents have moved the family from Minnesota to San Francisco. But it’s not so simple at all, because we spend most of the movie inside Riley’s head, where her personified emotions run the Riley show–Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust work at headquarters and do most of the heavy lifting, but in the course of the movie we see that Riley’s psyche is a complex place, with discrete geographic areas for long-term memory, imagination, abstract thought, and her subconscious. The visuals are a treat, but then we have come to expect that from Pixar. Amy Poehler (Blades of Glory) is spot on as somewhat-manic Joy, and Phyllis Smith and Mindy Kaling from TV’s The Office voice Sadness and Disgust, respectively. The liberal-arts major in me wants to critique the film’s psychology–what is the significance of the fact that we have five emotions competing to run Riley’s operating system, with reason nowhere to be seen?–but mostly I was happy to go along for a fun and thought-provoking ride.