Movie Round-Up

November 17th, 2015 by Max Allan Collins

Regular readers of this blog/update may recall that Barb and I see a lot of movies – usually one a week, sometimes more than that; when you work at home, you need the occasional escape. And you’ll know that I at times write about movies here, as I did last time with SPECTRE.

Here are a few quick notes on other movies I’ve seen over the last several months.

GOOSEBUMPS – We saw this in 3-D, perhaps proving my son Nate’s point that I will see anything in 3-D. Not true: I didn’t go to THE WALK, about that guy who did a tightrope act between the Twin Towers. But then I have vertigo (probably given to me by the movie of the same name). Back to GOOSEBUMPS. This is a basically kid friendly movie that is a lot of fun for grown-ups who were “monster kids” themselves (monster kids being those of us who grew up on FAMOUS MONSTERS and other such horror-movie mags). This is a very funny flick in the monster rally vein, featuring Jack Black as R.L. Stine, whose imagination is so strong, his creepy creations come to life, and must stay locked in their respective bound manuscripts or else (or else we have a movie). Black, playing a grumpy-father role that is quite different for him, is nonetheless very funny, particularly when he pronounces the name of the evil ventriloquist’s dummy he’s conjured: “Slaaappy!” The kid leads are appealing enough, too, and the monsters just keep coming.

BRIDGE OF SPIES – Tom Hanks plays insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who brokered the trade between the USA and Russia of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel for U-2 pilot Gary Powers (note: U-2 is not a rock band in this instance). While I admittedly have a unique point of view here, I see this as something of a companion piece to ROAD TO PERDITION, with Hanks back in a topcoat and hat, a somber period setting, PERDITION producer Spielberg behind the camera, and influential composer Thomas Newman providing music with its many echoes of that previous score. This first-rate film recalls such ‘60s non-Bond movies as FUNERAL IN BERLIN and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD – the story is essentially a John Le Carre novel in real life – and Hanks quietly carries the equally quiet screenplay (the Coen brothers were involved) on his shoulders.

STEVE JOBS – This apparently bombed at the box office (as did the previous JOBS), but it shouldn’t have. Michael Fassbender is particularly strong in a stellar cast that includes Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, and Seth Rogen, all beautifully cast in a warts-and-all biopic. Danny Boyle’s direction of what is at heart a stage play opens things up with a drifting camera and the occasional daring effect, as when he uses a wall in a hallway to cast a moving image relating to the topic at hand. But the real star is Aaron Sorkin, whose screenplay represents the best post-WEST WING example of his walk-and-talk approach. Perhaps the people in Sorkin’s world are too witty and too articulate, and would that the world itself had the same problem. Sorkin brilliantly structures the film around three key introductions of new product by Jobs, and Boyle gives each section a distinct look, in part via film stock. I have the math skills of a third-grader, and not a top-notch one at that, but I had no trouble following the tech stuff enough to stay in the game. STEVE JOBS plays really well on the big screen, though its life will largely be on video. A pity.

CRIMSON PEAK – Guillermo Del Toro’s haunted house movie is a near masterpiece swaddled in gothic trappings with steampunk seasoning. It’s as if Stephen King was writing DOWNTON ABBEY – actually, the first act, set in 1880s Boston, exceeds the latter in its time-machine feel. Essentially a gothic romance – think JANE EYRE or even REBECCA – CRIMSON PEAK weds a young, talented woman (Mia Wasikowska) with writerly ambitions to a mysterious, handsome, financially strapped aristocrat (Tom Hiddleston) with a tragic background. She soon finds herself in a magnificent but ramshackle mansion where her husband and his spooky sister (Jessica Chastain) share secrets. This is sumptuous filmmaking, filled with haunting images, like the snowy landscape turned red by the brick-fodder clay beneath.

SICARIO – A crime movie with a fine cast, stylish direction and a compelling score has no excuse to be this disappointing. Emily Blunt as an FBI agent is at the center of the action, but despite her T-shirt and sloppy attire, she is painfully girly, whining and deferring to men and even being saved by one, after she makes a bad dating decision. The script is a mess, illogical and poorly structured, with Blunt disappearing from the twenty-minute climax, which suddenly, jarringly puts Benicio Del Toro in charge of the narrative. And the joint CIA/FBI plot to bring down a drug lord is stunningly stupid. Still, the film has a lot going for it, in particular its unsettling look at crime-ridden Juarez. But the failed FX series, THE BRIDGE (reworking the nordic original), mined similar territory much more effectively, particularly in its second season.

THE PEANUTS MOVIE – Okay, it’s in 3-D. You don’t have to see it in 3-D, but why would you not? Do you really want to see Snoopy go after the Red Baron, all two-dimensional? My wife gave me a sideways look when I said I wanted to go to this, but in the theater, she came around quickly when we discovered that the film was a faithful compendium of the great Schulz comic strip, essentially Peanuts’ greatest hits wrapped up in a loose but rewarding narrative. The three-dimensional modeling of the characters is offset by their facial expressions having a drawn-on look.

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Here’s an intelligent review of the first Quarry novel (entitled, as you may recall, QUARRY, recently reprinted with a Robert McGinnis cover). Interestingly, this same reviewer did not like THE WRONG QUARRY, which I consider to be a superior novel. Still, the first book in a series almost always has more integrity than what follows, particularly when that novel wasn’t conceived to be the first in a series.

Check out this brief but interesting look at the forthcoming QUARRY TV series.

Finally, ROAD TO PERDITION gets some decent coverage on this list of worthwhile non-superhero comic-book movies. Scroll down a little and you can vote for your favorite such movie (helpful hint: your favorite such movie is ROAD TO PERDITION).


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4 Responses to “Movie Round-Up”

  1. Bill Crider says:

    Great movie reviews, as always. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Max Allan Collins says:

    Thanks, Bill. I used to be the movie reviewer for MYSTERY SCENE, as maybe you’ll remember, but I stopped after I directed an indie movie myself and learned how very hard it is to make ANY movie. That’s why I mostly review movies I like, and try to find something to admire in any movie I write about. SICARIO made me really mad, for all its missed opportunities and dumb choices, but even there I can find positives…although when a weak movie has strong elements, it’s somehow more frustrating than encountering a just plain terrible one.

  3. Mike Doran says:

    Thanks for your guide to all the movies that I haven’t seen, because I almost never see movies in theaters any more.

    I’d like to address briefly the Great Myth of the Opening Weekend, which is the reason so many movies get tagged as “flops” within moments of their openings.
    Those doing the tagging tend to be “social media” types, often with agendas that need satisfying (usually having little to do with the movies themselves).
    As an example, JOBS was targeted by the Breitbart sites, mainly because of something Seth Rogen said about – something (trying to keep track of the feuds here triggers my acid reflux).
    But this isn’t limited to politics, left or right; if you’ve got a hate on for a celebrity, and a website where you can “organize a boycott”, and the movie isn’t getting a wide release, as opposed to the CGI franchises that regularly get half the screens in the plex …
    … well, you know the story, endlessly repeated: the movie doesn’t draw (partially because it’s so hard to find them) and the haters cheer the failure, and here comes the acid reflux again …

    I actually have seen two (count ’em, two!) theatrical movies in the past couple of weeks.
    I went to both of these in the secure knowledge that neither would be a “hit”.
    TRUTH, with Robert Redford as Dan Rather (somebody explain to me why the real Rather looks so much better than the increasingly decrepit Redford, who I believe is younger).
    TRUMBO, with Bryan Cranston in the title role.
    Two polemics, but I knew that going in, so that’s OK.
    Saturday afternoon discounted matinees, crowds in single figures – everybody else is watching explosions and fart jokes in the other auds.
    Truth to tell, I liked both these pics.
    TRUMBO somewhat more, mainly for Bryan Cranston, who played up Dalton Trumbo’s mordant humor.
    Also, I have sort of a crush on Diane Lane.
    The celebrity impersonations were variable, but mainly fun.
    As to the history – hey, I’ve been a grown-up for quite a while now; I know about composite characters, telescoping time, reordering facts for “dramatic flow” (“They called her Dramatic Flo …”) – I know all that crap.
    Bottom line, I enjoyed TRUMBO as a movie. When it was over, I felt better for having seen it.
    If it’s still playing in a week or so, I might see it again.
    But it likely won’t be. No explosions, no martial arts … I think there might have been a fart joke, but that was probably an oversight …
    I do know that TRUTH was in and out of the plex in about the time it took me to type this sentence.

    Off-topic, sort of:
    I don’t know if you’re familiar with a site called IT’S ABOUT TV, conducted by Mitchell Hadley.
    The title tells you all – Hadley is about the history and sociology of TV, from a conservative Catholic point of view, but pretty much open-minded for all that.
    Each week, Hadley goes to his TV GUIDE collection and examines a past issue for that week in history.
    Hadley’s stash is mainly from Minnesota, where he’s from originally (he’s now based in Texas), but it’s a wide-ranging collection.
    This week’s issue is the Iowa State edition, from November 16-22, 1968, including the Quad Cities.
    This feature is in two parts: on Saturday, Mitch looks at the whole issue, features and programming.
    On Saturday, Mitch examines one day’s programming on each station in the issue, sign-on to sign-off; in this issue, it’s Monday the 18th.
    When I saw the posts this week, I naturally thought of you, out there in Muscatine, and so I passed along your name to Mitch Hadley.
    And now I pass his name along to you.
    The site is called IT’S ABOUT TV. Check it out (and feel free to mention my name).

  4. Max Allan Collins says:

    Mike, once again your comments are probably more entertaining than my update!