“Broadway” Danny Rose (Woody Allen) is a legend, New York’s most devoted talent agent, to the semi-retired entertainers sharing stories in a diner throughout the film. A series of Danny’s acts open the film, each with marginal talents at best (but Danny will work harder than anyone else to convince you of otherwise), told the men in the circle until one guy has “the best Danny Rose story” of them all. Flashbacks show Danny getting mixed up with his star client’s tough Jersey girlfriend, Tina (Mia Farrow). However, classic Woody antics ensue when Tina’s mob boss ex pins poor Danny as her new beau. On par with Woody’s best comedies, I laughed hard at every joke, like the storytelling men in the diner. Broadway Danny Rose stacks up well against his other work, with a healthy mix of both the zany Woody Allen and the experimental Woody Allen that I love so much.
Quentin Tarantino’s epic WW2 film, Inglorious Basterds, showcases of one of our finest filmmakers in his absolute prime. Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Rain leads his brutal band of bastards into the heart of Germany on a mission for “Nazi scalps.” With bloody glee, watch the world’s most evil men get their vicious comeuppance. But Inglorious Basterds is much richer than the Nazi-torture porn film a one-sentence summary would make it out to be. As what might be cinema’s most charismatic villain, Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz) practically steals the movie while delivering some of QT’s best dialogue ever; you sit on the edge of your seat one moment and laugh hysterically the next. The magic of movies also finds a rare home in the WW2 genre as propaganda film, movie houses, entertainers, and acting (by soldiers whose talent level vary) weigh heavily on the plot. It takes a twisted and brilliant mind to make a film this good, and we are lucky that this twisted and brilliant filmmaker is going strong.
The Thin Red Line (1998) – Mark it 9.
Terrence Malick’s take on WW2 could not be further from Tarantino’s, but it in no way diminishes The Thin Red Line’s brilliance. His films are clearly an acquired taste (many call it slow/boring), and it is a taste I find beautiful. From the opening scenes on when shots of tropical wildlife are cut with scenes of Polynesian natives enjoying life, where an AWOL soldier seeks shelter, we know this will ne unlike any war movie seen before. Soon, the soldier reunites with the Marines and the grueling attack on Guadalcanal begins. From there, unknown actors and recognizable superstars share the spotlight as we hear what these men are feeling internally while the world goes to hell on the outside. Throughout its 3-hour runtime, many long conversations and incongruous nature scenes may scare off some viewers despite its well-executed and exciting battle scenes. I did not scare and thought every moment was incredible. The Thin Red Line easily ranks among one of my favorite war films.
Wanderlust (2012) – Mark it 5.
When some of the funniest people on the planet get involved in a project (of The State, Stella, and Wet Hot American Summer fame), I get excited. With Paul Rudd starring, a collection of great comics in quirky supporting roles, and then Jennifer Aniston, Wanderlust had the making to be a great one. As Rudd and Aniston’s big city marriage hits a rut and they seek refuge in a hippie commune, at Ken Marino’s suburban McMansion, and back to the commune (or cult?), the gags always work. However, Wanderlust lacked something to transcend it from a good collection of jokes to a good comedic film. The decisions made by Aniston and Rudd’s characters were void of logical reasoning and the plot amounts to nothing more than device after device to bring on more jokes. I laughed too often to call Wanderlust a bad movie, but I cared little about what happened to these characters making me laugh and that’s a problem. In the end, Wanderlust’s wasted potential outshines its many jokes.
Lolita (1962) – Mark it 6.
How Stanley Kubrick could adapt the controversial Lolita (in 1962!), a story of an older man marrying his landlord to creep on her 14-year-old daughter, is an intriguing question. With every intimate moment between Prof. Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Lolita (Sue Lyon) only hinted at, Lolita is not as uncomfortable to watch as I imagined. In fact, it is mostly a black comedy, especially when Mason brushes aside the mother figure (Shelly Winters), who desperately throws herself at him, or anytime Peter Sellers is on screen. Sellers’ Clare Quilty, the odd man who plans to ruin Humbert’s pedophilic schemes (for less than virtuous reason), was my favorite part of Lolita. But during the film’s long road trip, I was left confused about who we are meant to sympathize with. I felt pushed toward feeling sorry for Humbert, who lets sexual obsession ruin his life, even though I liked him less and less each scene. I am left wondering if the characters are presented similarly in the novel; Lolita moves from my “need to see” list to my “need to read” list.
Ken Burns’ Mark Twain (2000) – Mark it 8.
History and movies are two of my favorite things, so if a good documentarian finds a subject worth exploring, I will be on board. When it comes to immersing myself in a subject (at the movies), Ken Burns’ long and meticulous films are my favorite. Basically, all of Ken Burns’ films are kind of the same – if you love that style and want to devote some time to learning, you’ll be satisfied. His Mark Twain is no different as my appreciation of Twain’s genius grew with every turn in this 3.5 hour biography. Before this, Twain was an icon but I knew little beyond the superficial. With his progressive ideals, biting satire, devotion to family, staunch independence, celebrated storytelling, biting satire, and (of course) impressive writing talents, Mark Twain was an American hero. This film even inspired me to start Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, which is a fitting testament to both the filmmaker and his subject.
Ken Burns’ Prohibition (2011) – Mark it 8.
With his new film, The Dust Bowl, hitting PBS in November (ironically, which I haven’t yet watched), I clearly got on a big Ken Burns kick (the 6 hour Prohibition paired with the aforementioned Mark Twain). The Civil War, Baseball, and Mark Twain already covered subjects in which I had a high level of interest and some level of knowledge. Beyond being a ridiculous encroachment of individual freedom, the prohibition era is one segment of American history in which I was pretty much a blank slate. Prohibition tells the tale of America’s legitimate alcohol problem, the powerful political movement to fight it, and the collective disregard of the law that inspired the prohibition backlash. Fascinating stories of bootleggers, gangsters, speakeasies, teetotalers, and the average American who enjoyed a drink now and then, fill the film. The facts I learned about prohibition were great, but the many dangers of enforcing one’s moral belief on a whole country are Prohibition’s greatest lesson.
Special When Lit: A Pinball Documentary (2009) – Mark it 3.
Pick any topic in pop culture and you’re bound to find enough eccentric characters to film a documentary. Special When Lit has countless odd individuals who devout their lives to a dying form of entertainment: the pinball machine. We meet pinball enthusiasts who are collectors, designers, historians, arcade owners, and competitive players. To the outsider, these men (almost exclusively men) appear to be lonely weirdoes who consume their lives with pinball. Sadly, Brett Sullivan’s film only plays up on these assumptions with editing that amps up their awkwardness; it approaches exploitative levels. Does the film wants me to celebrate pinball and the people who love it, or just remember pinball and laugh at “geeks” who still play it? There were some effective parts involving the physics of the game design and psychology of the game. Good parts and bad parts are scattered throughout the film without any real narrative thread holding it together. Pinball could be the subject of a good documentary, but Special When Lit is not the one.