After a couple of dead movie weekends, I finally had a chance to spend a weekend doing nothing else. Granted, napping away a nasty cold robbed me of some movie time, but there was still ample opportunity. The weekend brought me a sports drama, two big budget efforts from 1976, a very unique documentary, a recent Oscar nominee, and a continuation of my struggle with Brian DePalma. This is the movie weekend that was.
Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the legendary typface is an effective one. If you’ve ever done any design, then you know that Helvetica- the typeface- is clean, simple, versatile, and highly functional. Hustwit puts those facts on full display. But he also presents the other side. Specifically, Helvetica is lacking in character and individuality. In fact, that’s more or less the point of the typeface- to let the words stand on their own by removing as much character as possible from them, a modernist concept if ever there was one. I enjoyed this film immensely and I highly recommend it. It’s the perfect film for anyone who has ever thought of graphic design as simply putting pictures and words together. There’s a great deal of thought and attention to detail that goes into good design and Helvetica offers a spectacular view of the effort.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Philomena works on nearly every possible level. It’s brilliantly acted by Judy Dench and Steve Coogan, who make quite a pair. It pulls at the heartstrings without any sort of ham-fisted effort. And it makes a bold statement about religious injustice, specifically pertaining to the forced adoption practices of the Catholic church in the mid-20th century. But it’s certainly no rambling, anti-religious film. Rather, the two protagonists balance it well, with Coogan playing the role of the atheist and Dench giving Philomena a pious, forgiving nature. For all of the injustice, the film posits a rather sunny outlook on human nature, which is quite a feat.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Higher Learning (1995)
John Singleton’s film about the trials and tribulations of 1990s college life has not aged well. Nor does it especially stand out amid a sea of 1990s movies that feature racism and cultural differences on college campuses. To his credit, Singleton’s film has the most focused effort of any of them. But it’s easy to see why it has faded into the woodwork. If you could condense the entirety of 1990s movie tropes into a single slushy form, Higher Learning is what would come out.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Marathon Man (1976)
If you like espionage, evil Nazis hiding in plain sight decades after the end of World War II, and hate dentists, do I ever have the film for you. Marathon Man is an effective thriller playing on the echoes of World War II crimes. The one and only scene that you’ll remember from this film revolves around some nefarious dentistry, executed by a Nazi butcher. It’s guaranteed to make you squirm, and it even comes with its own highly memorable line. “Is it safe?” (teeth drilled, screaming ensues) “Is it safe?” (more drilling and screaming) “Is it safe?” I guess all of this is my way of saying that this movie is certainly NOT safe if you’re really uncomfortable at the dentist’s office.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Blow Out (1981)
There was a point in the very recent past where I would have told you that Brian DePalma is one of my least favorite directors. Mostly, I couldn’t stand just how much he lifted from Hitchcock in movies like Carrie (and others- see The Untouchables and the Odessa Steps sequence). But then I saw Phantom of the Paradise and went bananas for it. After that was Dressed to Kill, which felt much more like Hitchcock homage than Hitchcock ripoff. Slowly but surely, DePalma was winning me back. Or at least finding his way off of my shit list. Blow Out firmly moved him out of my doghouse. I believe it’s his best work, all at once a deconstruction of film, a tip of the cap to the New Wave, and yes, a tip of the cap to Hitchcock. And while it’s certainly derivative of all of those things, it’s not shameless theft. It’s also uniquely American, riddled with media and political misdeeds, with a climax wrapped up in fireworks. Well done, Mr. DePalma.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The Last Tycoon (1976)
Elia Kazan swung for the fences with his tale of early Hollywood. The cast is gigantic, featuring Robert DeNiro, Ray Milland, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, John Carradine, Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau, a very young Anjelica Huston, and Donald Pleasence. With that much talent, you’d think the film couldn’t go wrong. But it meanders aimlessly, taking lots of positive elements (nostalgia, the feel of a Hollywood epic, the cast) and doing nothing worthwhile with them. The story doesn’t mesh well with the nostalgia and vice versa. So instead, we get mediocrity and the feeling that there should have been so much more.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Draft Day (2014)
Apparently one movie with copious split screen wasn’t enough for me this weekend, so I went to the theater to see Draft Day. I’m a sucker for Kevin Costner and sports movies. I’ll always have a soft spot for the guy because of his roles in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, and For the Love of the Game. This film is quite bland and the plausibility of most of what happens is laughable, but it does the trick if you’re a football fan. Believe it or not, I’ve always thought that the various drafts in professional sports were ripe for a treatment like this simply because there’s a built-in tension to the event. It works here… just barely.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars