In Ready Player One, in order to fit all the pop culture references, you’re gonna need a bigger boat. Steven Spielberg hovers over a mountain of movies, television shows, video games, and other ephemera of pop culture like so many mashed potatoes, obsessively sculpting them into something that only he can see (a good movie). Like Indiana Jones with snakes, in Ready Player One, it always has to be pop culture references. The film simply isn’t much to phone home about. Schindler’s List.
Based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel of the same name, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express disappoints by relegating the key elements of the mystery genre to mere mundane repetition. All of the hard-boiled fun of Christie’s source material ends up feeling like a bland paint-by-numbers. The movie contains a star-studded cast, with practically every character involved in the whodunit represented through an admirable performance. But for a film that is ostensibly subtle, intriguing, and mysterious, too little respect is paid to the details. The result is a lukewarm mystery where each blasé piece of detection by the legendary Hercule Poirot only makes the ultimate reveal more tired and disappointing.
The eighth entry in my series, Stanley Kubrick – A Year of Masterpieces.
Barry Lyndon is one of Stanley Kubrick’s most overlooked films. Cinephiles and casual fans alike are quick to list a dozen other Kubrick films as a favorite before even considering this film – if they even care for it at all. But, if one is to judge by the magnitude of the artistry, Barry Lyndon may be Kubrick’s greatest triumph. His intention with the film is crystal clear: to approach the “period piece” with the respect that it deserves, both in terms of accurate storytelling and through aesthetically appropriate cinematographic techniques. The result is a resounding expression of the power of cinema, as Kubrick positively transports us into the world of Mr. Redmond Barry.
When remaking a classic, withstanding the inevitable comparisons requires either flawless execution or inspired novelty. Disney’s latest live-action adaptation has an even greater challenge, as it must compete with two masterpieces: the studio’s own animated feature from 1991, and Jean Cocteau’s magnificent romantic fantasy La Belle et la Bête (1946). And though this iteration of the story pays ample homage to both of these predecessors, minor blemishes and stylistic issues prevent the remake from reaching the same heights. Still, a film should not be judged worthless if it fails to equal titans. Beauty and the Beast does a great deal right; it simply doesn’t replicate the Earth-shattering experience of its ancestors.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
-Thomas Grey, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,1751
Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is often celebrated as the director’s first true masterwork. Adapting a novel of the same name by Humphrey Cobb, Kubrick’s film contemplates power struggles, justice, and the wastefulness of war. The crux of the story involves three French soldiers who are court-martialed for cowardice after retreating from an impossible attack, but Kubrick’s story is not a mere anti-war film. The trite idea that “war is bad” is taken as a given, and augmented by multiple impressive cinematic and storytelling techniques into an even more powerful statement: there is an utter absurdity to war, one that incentivizes an habitual abuse of power and a routine miscarriage of justice.
In 1991, dozens of happy accidents converged into one of the greatest thrillers of all time: The Silence of the Lambs. It is the most recent film to win Academy Awards in all five of the major categories (both leading actors, screenplay, director, and best picture). As that distinction may suggest, practically every aspect of the film boasts superlatives. The performances are exceptional. Ted Tally’s adaption of the screenplay structures the film with the familiar beats of the hero’s journey, but provides enough twists to keep us on edge. Jonathan Demme’s direction shows restraint and courage, and produces moments rife with tension, many of which do not exist on the page. The characters, technical work, and writing all cooperate towards a single goal: championing a theme of female strength and intellect in a world dominated by men, and the courage that it takes to confront true evil.
Silence is vintage Martin Scorsese. The master’s techniques are evident in practically every frame, and his return to a religious subject matter is both fascinating and complex. Nearly three decades ago, The Last Temptation of Christ showed that Scorsese was capable of delivering a nuanced treatise on spirituality, and he has done the same with Silence. These topics are seldom tackled by Scorsese, so we should count ourselves lucky when the director is inspired by a story such as Silence, which has been in pre-production in some form for the last 25 years or so.
Shakespeare’s story of the Scottish king Macbeth is over 400 years old, and the story it is based upon dates back a further six centuries. Thus, it is important for storytellers to bring something new to the familiar tale of corruption, power, and guilt. Fortunately, Justin Kurzel’s version starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the titular characters is up to the task of providing a fresh take. Three major departures from the bard’s text are crucial for informing this discussion: the presence of the Baby Macbeth, the characterization of the Witches and the mystical forces in general, and a re-interpretation of the famous conclusion. With these tweaks in mind, we will see how Kurzel offers a much darker and more cynical view of Macbeth than most film-makers.
The Revenant is a gorgeous slog. From the opening panorama to the final close-up, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s frontier survivalist epic confronts the viewer with this discord. This tension colors the film completely, elbowing out more nuanced analyses of character arcs or thematic material upon first glance. But to claim, as some critics have, that The Revenant is a pretty film devoid of meaning is an absurdity. The harrowing cinematic experience certainly offers visual splendor up front and is heavily fettered in a masochistic cloak, but underneath it all, the insights into the human condition are many and varied. Besides marveling at the strength of the human spirit or the futility of revenge, themes of spiritual rebirth, everlasting love, betrayal, racism, and even the importance of friendship and connection with another human being in this vast, cold world.