(On DVD, April 2017) Mmm mmm, mmm, delicious crow. I’ve long been an immature know-it-all, but now that I’m undeniably middle-aged, it’s time to atone and repent—part of it being recognizing Forrest Gump’s greatness. For, alas, dear readers, I have been boycotting Forrest Gump since it came out, since I was a mid-nineties neckbeard taking Bruce Sterling’s opinion as gospel. (True story: I was the guy who, while standing in line to see True Lies, sarcastically said “Awww, noooo” when they announced that Forrest Gump was sold-out.) Now, it’s true that I’ve never been a fan of holy fool stories. It’s also a given that I didn’t know enough about recent American history in 1994 to fully appreciate Forrest Gump’s little jokes and subtle inferences. It’s particularly true that my taste in movies has expanded quite a bit since then. All of which to say that while I’m late to the Forrest Gump party (to partly exonerate myself, I have read the novel a decade ago), I’m more than ready to cover it with praise. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the movie is that it’s actually dealing with very clever matters under the guise of telling how a simple-minded man made his way through thirty tumultuous years of American history. At this stage in my life, I’m seeing it as a parable about how being good is better than being smart. But it’s also about the advantages of letting go, the synthesis of different views (Forrest vs Jenny) about life and history, the strengths of expressionist filmmaking and just how good Tom Hanks can be at incarnating the spirit of the United States in its multifaceted quality. Robert Zemeckis pushes the envelope of filmmaking so well that the special effects remain convincing even twenty-some years later—the use of “invisible” special effects to heighten reality remains close to the gold standard even today. Hanks is terrific as the lead character, finding a tricky balance between simple dialogue and complex acting while the film also has good turns for Robin Wright and Gary Sinise. The various nods and jokes at 1950s–1980s American history are hilarious (I’m sure I missed a few) while the film does manage to escape its episodic nature by weaving a few subplots in and out of the episodes. It’s a weirdly compelling film, with short comic bits combining with an overall story to make for sustained watching pleasure. A smart movie about a not-so-smart (but admirable) man, Forrest Gump has since ascended to the status of a modern classic, and I now see why. I may not wholly embrace it as five-star perfection, but I concede happily that I should have seen it earlier.
(Second viewing, On DVD, March 2017) Surprisingly enough, I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting The Princess Bride: I had such good memories of the film that I feared seeing it again would damage the magic. Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried: The good parts of The Princess Bride are still as good today, and I had managed to forget much of the less-quoted second half of the film. Penned by William Goldman (from his own equally hilarious novel), the script manages to be self-aware, witty, clever and warm at once—the pedestrian direction is low on flashy moments, but clearly doesn’t get in the way of the script. It helps that the actors are almost all perfect for their role: André the Giant may not be a gifted thespian, but he’s just right for his character, and the same goes for most of the cast. Cary Elwes is a B-grade actor at best, but he’s fantastic here as the hero. Robin Wright Penn has the advantage of perfectly incarnating how a princess should look and behave, while Wallace Shawn remains forever linked to his distinctive role as Vizzini. If anything, The Princess Bride is even funnier now that the codes and tropes of fantasy and fairy tales have been widely internalized, and as Hollywood is still churning out remakes of known fairy-tales into unremarkable fantasy epics. It’s a light and funny film, but it’s certainly not simple-minded or content with superficiality. It’s still great even now. See it again with a member of a younger generation to pass the fun along.
(On TV, November 2016) What?, you say, Kevin Costner playing an idealized stoic male loner figure designed to make women swoon? Well, yes. Message in a Bottle, predictably adapted from a Nicholas Sparks novel, starts with a mystery (who is the man who would write such a heartbreaking letter and toss it off to sea in a bottle?) and gradually ends on the trail of a sensitive model of masculinity, still grieving over the loss of his wife in a picturesque eastern seaboard town. Cue the waterworks, cue the stirring music, cue the sage old man, cue the lies that lead to rifts, cue just about everything that such Nicholas Sparks-inspired movies have. It’s mechanistic and calculated and cynical and obvious and it still works in some fashion. It helps that the actors are good at what they do: Costner is Costner, obviously, but Robin Wright makes for a suitably bland heroine and Paul Newman shows up as a wizened old man. Throw in Ileana Douglas as spunky comic relief and Robbie Coltrane as a gruff boss and the clichés just write themselves into comforting lines. The audiences for this kind of movie are self-identified—the rest of us might as well not even try to comment.
(On Cable TV, October 2015) I actually wanted to like this film, and for its first half-hour or so, I thought it was leading somewhere interesting. The Congress (very loosely adapted from a Stanislaw Lem story) starts of promisingly by playing games with audiences, as Robin Wright is “Robin Wright”, a difficult actress offered a digitization contract by a Hollywood studio. Accepting means that she will relinquish all rights to her performances while the studio uses her likeness in as many movies as they want. So far so good, with Hollywood in-jokes butting heads against ideas about the future of cinema and the toll taken on actors. But then The Congress jumps twenty years in the future, going from live-action of animation and getting dizzier by the moment. What follows gets wilder, although less interesting as the sense of “anything can happen” almost negates the emotional stakes of the film. After a good start, The Congress loses steam, doubles back on itself, gets more depressing as it advances and makes a mess out of provocative ideas. Wright herself isn’t to blame: the script should have been able to tie up its premise with a great deal more wit and coherence. The Congress, to be fair, isn’t the only recent SF film to start promisingly and end in a bid puddle of nonsense. (Also see: The Zero Theorem) But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.