Classic Movie Review Manhunter

Manhunter (1986) 

Directed by Michael Mann

Written by Michael Mann

Starring William Peterson, Dennis Farina, Brian Cox, Kim Greist, Joan Allen 

Release Date August 15th, 1986 

Published July 16th, 2024 

The visual simplicity of the opening images of Michael Mann's Manhunter are sublime. We open on a flashlight falling upon a flight of stairs. It's pitch black other than the flashlight. This could be a home invader or an investigator at this point. Toys are strewn across the stairs in the haphazard way that young children carelessly like to play. The visual signs of life in a typical American home are all present. As the person with the flashlight climbs the stairs, it's light falling on more signifiers of life, we arrive at the top of the stairs. The flashlight pans into what appears to a be a child's room, seemingly empty. 

A few steps further and we arrive in a bedroom where we see our first evidence of people. A woman and a man are in bed and for a moment, it's not clear if they are alive or dead. The flashlight begins to hold steady on the woman who finally moves to signify that she's alive. The flashlight, now unmoving, continues to hold on the woman as it becomes clear that she's waking up. The fog of sleep still in her mind she finally begins to rise and just as she might be about to react to the sight of a stranger with a flashlight, we cut to the opening title of the film, Manhunter. 

The clear indication is that this person with a flashlight is about to commit a horrific murder. That Michael Mann uses a signifier as simple as a flashlight to toy with us, to give us hope that perhaps we are arriving at an investigation and not an invasion is part of the building tension, the rising suspense. The way the flashlight falls on the woman in bed and holds on her becomes the unsettling implication of a terrible crime about to be committed. Mann's direction is simple, the visual storytelling is electrifying and yet it's still just a person with a flashlight and visual context. That's pure film language. 

Over the years, Michael Mann will come to be associated with a style that is more bombastic and far less subtle. No less skilled or polished, but somehow more modern and garish for having a bigger budget, bigger stars, and bigger ambition. I'm not the biggest fan of Michael Mann's blockbuster era. I don't love the kinetic, overwrought style of Heat. I genuinely believe his movie Blackhat is one of the worst blockbusters of the last 10 years, but I still respect Michael Mann. I know that at any moment, Mann can still do what he did in Manhunter and blow my mind with his simple, straight-forward grasp of the language of film. 

Movie Review Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk (2016) 

Directed by Ang Lee

Written by Jean-Christophe Castelli

Starring Joe Alwyn, Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin, Chris Tucker

Release Date November 11th, 2016 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk stars Joe Alwyn as Billy Lynn, an Army Specialist who earned instant fame when his attempt to save a wounded soldier was captured on camera and went viral. Soon after Billy is back in Texas and he and his fellow soldiers on tour like rock stars complete with a Hummer limousine ride to their next gig, appearing at halftime of a Football game alongside Destiny’s Child (the film is set in 2003, before Beyonce left her friends behind).

The surreal nature of this rock star treatment is not lost on the men of Bravo Company. It is both intoxicating and repellent. They are joined by an agent, Chris Tucker, constantly on his phone attempting to sell the rights to their story and get the soldiers well compensated. Yet, they are also weary of the agent and the fame that threatens to rob them of the reality of what they experienced in war and all that they lost.

Surreal is a term that best fits Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Director Ang Lee shot the film at the highest film rate ever used for a mainstream feature film. That said, most of the country will see the movie in standard definition that unquestionably robs the film of the effect Lee is searching for. Lee wants moviegoers to feel how awkward and strange this experience is for the soldiers of Bravo Company by tearing down the cinematic walls to make us feel like we are in these awkward spaces with the soldiers.

You might think, as I first thought, that the high frame rate was intended to make the war scenes more spectacular and realistic but that isn’t the case. The high frame rate actually is combined with the awkward and downright off-putting way that actors address each other by staring directly at the camera to strip away the artifice of film and further put us into the mindset of Billy as he is having these bizarre experiences, going from hand to hand combat in which he killed a man at close quarters to standing behind Beyonce on national television and on to having strangers tell him how his story can be bought and sold.

Forcing us to see Billy so clearly and look directly into the eyes of the people talking to him, as ungodly awkward as that is from the perspective of how movies are traditionally made, unmistakably alters the way in which we experience Billy himself and how we identify with him. From that perspective the casting of newcomer Joe Alwyn also plays a unique role. Alwyn is a blank slate for us to project our own Billy Lynn onto.

Alwyn’s co-stars underline that odd perspective. Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart and Chris Tucker are actors that we in the audience already have opinions of and expectations for. We see these performers in specific ways and having them look directly at the camera while they address Billy furthers the surreal nature of the story being told. Yes, it takes us out of the scene but the effect is very much the same thing that Billy himself is feeling, a feeling being displaced from reality,  a place where 

Vin Diesel isn’t the muscle-headed action star but your inspiring Sgt. Where Kristen Stewart is your sister and not the equally beloved and reviled star of Y/A Vampire blockbusters. And finally, it’s a strange place where Chris Tucker and Steve Martin aren’t trying to make you laugh but instead using their oily charm to try and make a movie of you.

I could be over thinking the room on this movie but my genuine belief is that the very things I found incredibly awkward and off-putting were actually the things intended to be awkward and off-putting because they were awkward and off-putting as much to Billy as to us. Yes, in real life, people are supposed to look you in the eye when they speak to you and you to them but not at the movies. When actors look directly at the camera in a movie it is usually intended as a gag. Here, it’s intended to break us away from our passive observance of what is happening on screen, to what is happening to Billy. It’s forceful and pushy and showy but I cannot deny the effect it had on me.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is weird and surreal and wildly effective in how it connects us to the weird and surreal adventure that the main character is on. Billy Lynn is trapped on a bizarre rollercoaster of emotions from fear to anguish to unwanted celebrity, displacement from his family and deepened connection to his adopted Army family. It’s a never-ending whirlwind of extreme emotions that Billy is forced by duty and training to endure without comment, without overt displays of emotion. That Ang Lee captures that feeling and brings it to us in such a forceful way makes this movie rather brilliant, in an off-putting and uncomfortable sort of way. 

Movie Review Interstellar

Interstellar (2014) 

Directed by Christopher Nolan 

Written by Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Bill Irwin, Ellen Burstyn 

Release Date November 5th 2014 

Aside from episodes of The Big Bang Theory and a viewing of the Errol Morris-Stephen Hawking documentary A Brief History of Time, I have no real concept of physics. That’s not to say I am not curious about how science can assess the origins of the universe, or how time began, but rather to set up a context for what may be the most ignorant or silly piece of writing I have ever attempted.

You see, I am going to attempt to use my less- than-rudimentary knowledge of physics to explain my affinity for Christopher Nolan’s  Interstellar, a movie that I have wrestled with for a decade now. It's a remarkable movie, a towering epic in some ways and an intimate drama about fathers and daughters from a different angle. Much like Nolan's conception of physics, Interstellar is more than what it appears. 

Spoilers ahead: It's been 10 years. See the damn movie!

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is the living embodiment of the concept known as the Singularity. He is a point at which a function takes on an infinite value. Once Cooper enters the black hole he comes to embody the singularity which in this case is a fifth-dimensional space where he can communicate with the past via gravity, thus telling his past self where to find the new NASA that has gone into hiding in the wake of the global blight, a condition that is precipitating a seeming apocalypse in the film’s narrative.

Cooper must discover NASA so that he can travel into space, go through a wormhole and then enter the black hole, where he then sends messages to himself to find NASA. This concept only sounds circular. In fact, when I thought of it, I became depressed. It gave me the impression of a never-ending hamster wheel that essentially amounted to the life of all mankind.

Then I was thunderstruck by a notion: Time is not linear. Cooper is not repeating the same action over and over on an infinite loop. Rather, everything that Cooper is experiencing is happening all at once. Linear time — seconds, hours, minutes, days — are the creation of man. We created the calendar to give ourselves a sense of control; a way of harnessing time. The reality is, however, that time is infinite and every experience you’ve ever had is ongoing from the moment of birth to the moment you read this article. It’s all happening right now.

That sounds kind of hazy, doesn’t it? I feel like I’ve had a contact high sometime recently just trying to grasp this thought. Nevertheless, it’s the only thought that has made sense to me since I saw Interstellar, a decade ago. The movie would be entirely devoid of hope, optimism, and joy if I were not able to convince myself that Cooper wasn’t a hamster; that we are, in fact, not hamsters, simply following the wheel until we die.

The moments of grace and love in Interstellar would be meaningless if they simply existed to inform the next moment and the next, infinitely. The only hopeful understanding of the film is to see time laid out sideways with Cooper drinking a beer with his father-in-law (John Lithgow) happening at exactly the same time that he is nearly dying on a frozen planet after a fight with Matt Damon. Time is not an infinite, linear, explicable loop but rather an oozing morass flowing in all directions, with all of life’s incidents happening all at the same time while we choose how to experience it all.

Yeah, that’s what I learned from Interstellar after a decade of rolling it around in my mind. And you know what, It’s kind of hard not to love a movie when you come away with a personal revelation like that one. Each time I revisit Interstellar I find a new joy in the experience, a new complex thought about time travel, our memories, and the concept of infinity and time. Interstellar invites you to have these thoughts and never dictates to you what is right or wrong in your thought process. And I love that. 

Movie Review Law Abiding Citizen

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) 

Directed by F. Gary Gray

Written by Kurt Wimmer

Starring Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Regina Hall

Release Date October 16th, 2009 

Few genres turn out the kind of mind numbingly dull-witted tripe that the action thriller genre does. It's the most prominent genre among the direct to DVD market because it's easy to script and craft. Take one all knowing baddie. Give him an unending budget. Give him a flawed but honorable adversary with less means but as much wit. Then just add explosions and a predictable ending and you're done.

Director F. Gary Gray sticks close to the formula with Law Abiding Citizen, a film that would be prime for the direct to DVD market if Jamie Foxx hadn't won an Oscar and if Hollywood weren't determined to convince us all how much we love Gerard Butler.

Butler is the ostensible star of Law Abiding Citizen as Clyde Shelton. One night as Clyde is hanging out with his wife and daughter there is a knock at the door. When Clyde answers he's met with a baseball bat to the skull. Two men invade his home, tie him up, stab him and leave him to watch as they do the same and worse to his wife and as he passes into unconsciousness, his daughter is killed.

Months later, the home invaders are under arrest but one arrogant, conviction rate concerned, ADA, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), decides that there isn't enough evidence to convict them both. He takes a deal that will send one man to the death chamber and the other to a stunningly brief sentence. Worst of all, the wrong one is going to his death.

Clyde is devastated and for the next ten years he dedicates himself to revenge. On the day that one of the attackers is to be executed, Clyde makes his move. Soon the other, nastier man, now out of prison, is also dead and Clyde isn't finished. Under arrest for murder, Clyde sets in motion revenge against Nick and anyone else who compromised justice.

There are effective moments in Law Abiding Citizen. One of those moments involves a deadly cellphone. Another is an unexpected use of a T-bone. Both moments are explosively violent, more in the vein of a horror film than your average action thriller. These violent moments are far more interesting than Clyde's exceptionally contrived gambits of revenge.

Let's just say don't piss off a gadget guy with unlimited funds and the muscled physique of Gerard Butler. Speaking of Mr. Butler, why do movies insist on having Butler speak with an American accent? He can't do it. He sounds ridiculous and having his natural accent would do nothing to change the character. If producers somehow think this mumbling American accent makes him more relatable, their very wrong. Indeed, it's quite off-putting.

Jamie Foxx is desperately miscast in Law Abiding Citizen. Restraining every comic instinct he has, Foxx deadens his natural charisma in favor of a stoic arrogance that damn near makes Butler's psycho look appealing in comparison. Much of the plot rides on Foxx's Nick being an egotistical idiotic who simply cannot admit when he's wrong. If that sounds thrilling to you, or at all compelling, maybe you'll like this movie.

I hated much of this movie. Aside from the brief, violent flourishes, Law Abiding Citizen is a slow witted, predictable action thriller that replaces nerve and guts with arrogance and psychosis. That may work for the direct to DVD market but I want more out of my theater ticket.

Documentary Review Good Hair

Good Hair (2009) 

Directed by Jeff Stilson

Written by Lance Crouther, Paul Marchand, Chris Rock, Chuck Sklar, Jeff Stilson

Starring Chris Rock

Release Date October 9th, 2009

Just what is good hair? Some might go with the simple answer that anything that looks good is good hair. However, among African Americans good hair describes hair that is relaxed and or extended. The process, the cost, and the origins, literally and historically, are explored by comedian Chris Rock in the terrific doc Good Hair.

Chris Rock has two daughters and they were the impetus behind Good Hair. Wondering whether or not he would advise his girls to straighten their hair or whether he should discourage them, Rock went out into the community and found something he might never have expected, an anthropological journey into a world of hair, products and styles; the beautiful and the bizarre.

The main setting for Good Hair is the hair salon and the barber shop. Hair for women is not merely a style, it is intricate to how they see themselves and how the feel about themselves. A multi-billion dollar industry has grown almost solely around the need for products related to a black woman's hair. At the Bronner Brothers hair show, a sort of comic-con for the hair obsessed, Rock finds a meeting of business and the bizarre that is something out of a Fellini film. 

At the hair show there is a competition among stylists that is kind of about styling hair and mostly about the fabulous ego-driven spectacles that are the stylists themselves. These scenes are as funny as or funnier than Rock's very funny convos with the denizens of his local salon and barber shops. The interaction with customers and cutters play as buffers between Rock and Director Jeff Stilson's three set pieces: The Bronner Brothers show, the science of hair care products, and the final, and most effecting set piece, a trip to the slums of India where hair is cut in a purifying ceremony and is then collected, sewn and sent to the US to be sold as hair extensions. The scenes in India have a sadness that is leavened well by Rock's sad, humorous commentary.

There are also interviews with famous men and women including Al Sharpton, Maya Angelou and R & B star Eve among others. There is insight and oddity found in these interviews that a more trained interviewer than Chris Rock might have missed. Rock has a way of putting his interview subjects at ease that allows for unexpected moments of humor and truth. If there is one thing missing from these scenes it is Rock breaking it to these women where their hair extensions came from?

If Good Hair lacks punch it is because Rock is trained to go for the laugh and not the jugular. There is an undercurrent of anger buried deep beneath Rock's good nature. He wonders why so many African Americans pay unseemly amounts of money essentially to placate white people. In the barber shop people joke about the product relaxer because it is relaxing to white people to see African Americans with straight hair. Rock is visibly irritated with this line of thinking. He understands it, but it still bothers him.

In moments when he examines the hair care products, exposing their dangers-relaxer can melt a coke can in just over an hour- Rock shakes his head with amused disgust. When he finds that the products are dangerous to make and a danger to the people administering and using them, he again shakes his head but doesn't push the issue.

In the end, Rock is entertaining and his subject is fascinating. The intent was never to be the Michael Moore of the hair care industry. He had an honest question. He explores it with his brand of good natured jabbing. The journey for the audience is fun and fascinating and judging the intent rather than the possibility of Good Hair, it's an easy doc to enjoy and recommend.

Movie Review Amelia

Amelia (2009) 

Directed by Mira Nair 

Written by Ronald Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan

Starring Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston

Release Date October 23rd, 2009

For some the phrase 'old fashioned' has become a pejorative. Somehow it has evolved from a sensibility or way of thinking to be something to reject and rebel against. The biopic Amelia about the life of legendary flyer Amelia Earhart fully embraces being old fashioned and in doing so gains the grace and elegance of old Hollywood.

Hillary Swank takes the lead as Amelia Earhart the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. She didn't fly the plane; she was a passenger or in her words a sack of potatoes along for the ride. It was part of a publicity campaign in 1928 by celebrated showman and publisher George Putnam (Richard Gere).
Just after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic solo Putnam was looking for ways to cash in after having made money publishing Lindbergh's book. He needed a new hook and found it with "Lady Lindy". All he needed was the right woman. He chose Earhart after interviews with several other women.

He wanted a woman pilot and he got one. Her first book was a hit but Amelia wanted to be more than a passenger. Soon she was planning her own Atlantic crossing minus the other pilots. In one magical night filled with stars and the occasional storm cloud, Amelia Earhart made her solo flight. While she was supposed to land in Paris and ended up in a field in Ireland, the flight was a major success.

George, and the need for publicity, pulled her away from the plane for a time but it wasn't long before Amelia was ready to fly again. And while she became the first woman to fly from Los Angeles to Hawaii and from Los Angeles to Mexico City, there was one goal she had in mind. Amelia Earhart wanted to be the first person to fly around the world.

Hillary Swank's performance in Amelia is a true delight. Her Amelia is infectious, unique, spirited and boyish. Like the characters she played in both of her Oscar winning turns in Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby, Amelia is almost asexual. Charming but not inviting in the typical ways of a woman.

It's no wonder then that of the three romances in Amelia the only one that truly resonates is with flying. Swank connects well with both Gere as George Putnam and Ewan McGregor as Gene Vidal, Amelia's flight instructor friend, future head of the FAA and father of Gore Vidal, but when she gets in a plane and looks out at the horizon there is an almost sexual atmosphere.

Director Mira Nair doesn't linger on that nearly orgasmic delight but merely introduces it and moves on. This is, after all, a classic, old fashioned biopic. Nothing too unseemly is welcome here. And that's okay. If you want salaciousness go watch a different movie. Amelia is a charming, engaging old school biopic that gets its juice from great actors delivering strong lines and building characters we come to care about.

There is no need for this film to plod through rumors about Amelia's sexuality. Her only real relationship is with the controls of her plane. The film hints at and wants you to believe that Amelia eventually loved George Putnam after his years of devotion to her. It would like us to believe there was passion in her dalliance with Gene Vidal and we can see the chemistry in each relationship, but watch Swank in the flying scenes and you see true devotion.

That is what makes Amelia Earhart's story so unique. Her love is something that you really cannot understand unless you share her passion for flying. She went for Gene Vidal because he was a flyer, they related on that level. She loved George Putnam because he indulged her flying and through money and publicity, made it all possible. 

That might seem strange or wrong to you but this movie understands it and presents it in a way that allows the audience to come around to it and eventually understand it as well. We all have passions that others may not understand. Amelia's passion was for flight. What a joyous notion that a movie could find a way to understand that so fully.

Movie Review Lemony Snicket's As Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) 

Directed by Brad Silberling 

Written by Robert Gordon 

Starring Jim Carrey, Jude Law, Liam Aiken, Emily Browning, Timothy Spall, Catherine O'Hara, Meryl Streep

Release Date December 17th, 2004 

I am unfamiliar with the books of the Lemony Snicket series written by Daniel Handler. I can however appreciate the wit and nerve it must take to write on the book jacket that your story is very dark and depressing and recommend that readers find something more pleasant to read. Like any one of a curious nature, when someone tells me not to do something I’m even more intrigued to try it.

It is with that same sense that I went into the film version of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which used a similar campaign as the book to entice people into theaters. Simply tell people not to come, and why, and they will come in droves. Unfortunately those appealingly off-putting ads are more prescient than expected. Lemony Snicket is, as they tell you, dark and disturbing and maybe you should take the advice and find another movie.

This is the story of the Beaudelaire children, or rather the Beaudelaire orphans after their parents perish in a fire. Violet (Emily Browning) is the oldest, an inventor with a keen sense of danger. Her younger brother is Klaus (Liam Aiken), an inquisitive child who reads voraciously and retains every piece of information. And finally, their younger sister two year old Sunny (Kara & Shelby Hoffman) who’s preternaturally smart, she has her own language, and loves to bite things. Anything at all.

After being informed of their parents death the children are taken by their court appointed lawyer Mr. Poe to their closest living relative Count Olaf. By closest living relative, Mr. Poe means that he lives only four blocks away which is a hint of the cluelessness to come. Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) is a failed actor living in a rundown mansion that is the sort of place your dared to visit on Halloween.

Violet, ever the inquisitor, immediately senses that Olaf is not taking the children in out of the kindness of his heart. Indeed he even tells them that he has his eye on the fortune they are to inherit. As soon as Olaf takes on legal custody of the children he plans to murder them and run off with the inheritance money.

The story is narrated by the shadowed visage of Lemony Snicket (Jude Law). Glimpsed only in silhouette, Lemony Snicket tells this tale with wit and misdirection. As he says, and the title well states, this is a story of a series of unfortunate events that befall these plucky kids. They must outwit the murderous count and weather a series of wacky parental stand ins that include Billy Connelly and Meryl Streep.

This is not a bad story but as it is presented by Director Brad Silberling it’s disturbing and highly off putting. This is supposed to be a family movie yet we see murders, blatant child abuse, and a Jim Carrey performance that hits more wrong notes than The Cable Guy.

Just because your narrator states in the opening scenes that your movie is unpleasant and recommends that you go see another film while still can does not give you an excuse to make a film as unpleasant and disturbing as this movie is. Maybe a familiarity with the book somehow makes the themes of murder and abuse palatable but as presented here they make me question how a major children’s entertainment company like Nickelodeon Pictures became involved with it.

As in movies like this the children are geniuses the adults are all clueless dolts. Even the great Meryl Streep can’t escape this hackneyed trope, she plays a shrill agoraphobic who inherits the children and must protect them from Olaf. Sadly, and, of course, she’s so clueless that when Olaf arrives in a terrible costume she falls for him. Other clueless adults include Cedric The Entertainer as a clueless cop and Catherine O’Hara as a clueless Judge.

What is good about the film is the set design and cinematography that evokes the best work of Tim Burton and the silent era gothic films. Emmanuel Lubezki handles the Cinematography and delivers Oscar quality visuals. Set Designer Rick Heinrichs is also award worthy especially for his work on Streep’s lake adjacent home on the side of a cliff.

Director Brad Silberling crafts the work of his cinematographer and set designer quite well but could have done a better job reigning in his clowning preening star who does not steal scenes as much as he invades them with a sickening presence. Carrey’s attempts at improv humor are a counter point to his character's malevolent nature and just do not work. I find that a murderer, especially one in a KIDS movie, had better be darn funny to make me laugh otherwise it’s just creepy and out of place.

The only funny moments in the movie go to the baby who speaks in gibberish but has cute funny subtitles. The rest of the film is like an attempt to glom on to the Harry Potter formula but without the magic and without the intelligent appealing and benevolent characters.

For fans of the books, maybe you can find something to like. For fans of technical filmmaking absolutely. But for general family audiences where this film is targeted I suggest you take the films advice and see what’s playing in theater 2.

Classic Movie Review Manhunter

Manhunter (1986)  Directed by Michael Mann Written by Michael Mann Starring William Peterson, Dennis Farina, Brian Cox, Kim Greist, Joan All...