The top of the box office draws for 2006 would tell you that it was the year of the sequel (four of the top six earners, including top dog Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead’s Man Chest, which ran away from the rest of the field, were sequels of some variety), but do a little inspecting of your own and you’ll find that though it required a little more digging than usual, there was indeed good film to be had.
In no particular order…
Thank You For Smoking
Good cinematic satire has turned into an endangered species, but the debut effort from Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters and Stripes fame) does quite a bit more than just keep it on life support. Aaron Eckhart plays Nick Naylor, a grinning, wisecracking hired gun for Big Tobacco, a resilient SOB who not only stumps for the cigarette industry, but does it with whip-smart cunning and a remorseless smile. Buoyed sympathetically in his profession by his other “Merchants of Death,” or “MoD” Squad, (David Koechner and Maria Bello, keeping her clothes on here), Naylor balances life as a single father (a single father in the movies?! Get out…) as well as the moral quandary that comes with essentially advocating a person’s right to kill themselves slowly. It’s bleak and funny, but swings much wider towards the funny, thanks to Eckhart and entertaining guest shots by Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott, William H. Macy as the legislation-happy Senator, and the always-fantastic J.K. Simmons playing a close variant of his J. Jonah Jameson character from the Spider-Man movies.
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center may have been the more populist of the year’s two 9/11 pictures, but Paul Greengrass’s United 93 is the one more likely to last as a direct and downright frightening historical document of the worst terror attack ever on the American mainland. Shooting almost entirely on the plane itself, and appropriately using a cast of unknowns, including a remarkable performance by actual FAA director Ben Sliney (who was actually at his first day on the job on 9/11/01), the film doesn’t flinch for an instant. Greengrass (who also directed The Bourne Supremacy as well as Bloody Sunday, a harrowing dramatization of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) ramps up the intensity almost from the opening frame, and while it never lets up, it never feels artificial or sentimental in any way. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film more genuinely tense in which I already knew the ending. Everything here is as it should be. If it leaves you all the more jolted for it, then it has served its purpose.
A Prairie Home Companion
In the year’s most fitting nadir, what turned out to be Robert Altman’s final film had all the signposts of his classic work, and dropped in a beautifully-executed subtext about the prospects of facing death. Altman’s trademark long takes and overlapping dialogue fits the controlled chaos of Garrison Keillor’s live radio program flawlessly, the perfect partner to Keillor’s penchant for low-key Midwestern charm and understated wit. Kevin Kline steals the show as a tweaked version of Keillor’s fictional private detective Guy Noir, filling the role of the radio show’s offstage security manager and the film’s narrator. I’d imagine that Oscar will forget about Kevin once that time comes around, but he manages both the surface slapstick and deeper nuance with equal aplomb. The ensemble cast, with names galore, is clearly having too much fun here, and it’s only right that things wind up as warm and reassuring as they are. Even as it is still a movie about sadness and death.
The Lake House
The Lake House is not a perfect movie. In fact, it’s far from it. Some will be so bothered by the lack of explanation regarding the main plot mechanism that they won’t be able to partake in everything else without a grain of salt. Some others might be utterly consumed with the fact that Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are back on screen together. What it loses in exposition and other peripheral distractions, however, it more than makes up for in charm, a grounded spirit and some tremendously gorgeous visuals. It’s also not often that you find a realistically-framed theme of urban alienation and detachment tacked onto a revivalist romance with an old-school spirit, but The Lake House pulls it off nicely. It’s engrossing, attractive, and oddly convincing, even if it gets there in a very circuitous manner. It’s all proof that artistic achievement and imperfection need not be mutually exclusive.
After casting her as the femme fatale in his big “comeback” picture, Match Point, Woody Allen stumbled upon his most effective muse in decades. Scarlett Johansson, takes what would at first glance appear to be standard later-era Allen fare and elevates it to a film that’s about fourteen times funnier than it has any right to be. Woody himself even seems to be taking a cue from his unlikely protégé, as she one-ups the master of neuroses with a performance that stays safely stowed away on this side of parody. She may be slightly, say, “unbelievable” to some, cast as a bumbling, nerdish foil, but there are those of us who are willing to overlook such a taken liberty and use the same adjective in another context. With an able-bodied apprentice at his side, Woody’s set-’em-up-and-knock-’em-down punchlines are also much more focused and sharp. The result? Something that is closer to classic Woody than we’ve seen in quite a while.
Allen Coulter’s biopic of sorts, about original TV Superman George Reeves (Ben Affleck) and his fall from grace, brings the goods in terms of setting and mood, but it’s what you don’t expect that sets it apart. Most refreshingly, it resists the trappings of the conventional murder mystery by keeping the emphasis squarely on the players, and using an unconventional and uncanny sense of order to spin the story around once it approaches standardist territory. Adrien Brody, after the inevitable post-Oscar lull, gets in a punchy turn as Louis Simo, a fictional private investigator whose moxie and determination clashes with a clear lack of initial instinct. He almost steals the film entirely out from under the likes of Bob Hoskins and Diane Lane, which is no small feat in itself. Don’t go expecting any answers, because you won’t get them. You will, however, find yourself hard-pressed to not get wrapped up in such a compelling group of characters.
Little Miss Sunshine
The year’s most genuinely likable film by a rather wide margin, Little Miss Sunshine was a refreshing breath of humanity in the midst of a year that found filmmakers running away in droves from pictures that weren’t meant to be mere distractions from our horrendously oppressive society. Boasting a weary, melancholic worldview and group of actors who have a wonderful chemistry together (the unlikeliest being Steve Carell in full-on depressive mope mode, and thoroughly convincing at it), Little Miss Sunshine coagulates into the ideal screwball road movie, a pitch-perfect portrayal of a family of deeply-flawed people fighting like hell against themselves and their circumstances just to give one of them a chance at success. Think of it as “The Pursuit of Happyness” for the ever-so-slightly-cynical crowd, a crowd who would never in good conscience bring themselves to go see that movie in the company of other folks who might actually see them.
Stranger Than Fiction
After a handful of halfhearted attempts to play Will Ferrell against his traditional school of generic frat-boy comedy, Stranger Than Fiction is the first film to catch that understated, off-kilter charm in a bottle. He plays it straight as Harold Crick, a mildly (that is to say, completely) reserved auditor for the IRS, who wakes up one day to find his life being narrated by author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson). Call it Kaufman-lite if you want, but it is nonetheless observant and keen to the foibles of everyday modern life, as well as the plight of the struggling artist. It’s a decidedly grown-up comedy-drama in the best sense of both terms, mincing neither themes nor comedic opportunity, keeping the story fully in focus while dolloping out the quirk in fair enough measure. Ferrell’s normal audience will be left baffled (think Adam Sandler with Punch Drunk Love), but anyone who is willing to warm up to a Ferrell movie that features the likes of Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman will enjoy it to the hilt. [Read our review]
It’s hard to say exactly when the Bond movies became irrelevant, but it’s not a stretch to say that the franchise needed a facelift after Pierce Brosnan winked his way through four of them in seven years. After hemming and hawing that seemed far too self-involved for a series seemingly on its deathbed, Daniel Craig was chosen as the new Bond, and boy, did they get it right. Craig (above), along with the best new Bond girl in a couple of eons, Eva Green (oy glaven!), and even a smashing variation on the theme by Chris Cornell represent a return to a more natural, effervescent, even gritty sensibility that had been lacking at least since Sean Connery left the first time. It revels in Bond’s arch Britishness, rather than pointlessly softening it for American audiences. The action setpieces are exquisite, and the icy, understated exchanges (they’re more staredowns, actually) between Bond and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) have a lingering Cold War-ish flavor to them. It’s all more than enough to make one forget the first, “unofficial” version of Casino Royale from 1967 with David Niven and Peter Sellers. Wait, they already did.
Speaking of arch Britishness, hiding inside what would otherwise be a starch-ridden, straight-faced docudrama of British government circa Princess Diana’s death lies a surprisingly funny and compelling portrayal of pride and history clashing with charisma and progress. You’ve heard enough about Helen Mirren’s performance to know that she was more or less born to play Queen Elizabeth, and everyone is right, but she gets inspired help from Michael Sheen as an earnest, newly-elected Tony Blair. Watching the political dynamic between the Queen’s staid, conservative Monarchy and Blair’s aggressively modernist administration is nothing short of fascinating, as is the surprising evolution of attitudes between the two. Forgive yourself the initial trepidation of seeing something that on the surface appears to be dry and humorless, because in the end it very convincingly proves itself to be very much the opposite on both counts.
Election still wins by a landslide
Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.
The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.
Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).
But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.
Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.
A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)
More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.
Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.
Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.
What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.
“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.
“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)
Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.
That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.
Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”
But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.
After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.
While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.
Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.
Whose ego is that?
Election was originally released in April of 1999.
Film Review: It Chapter Two
The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans
The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.
It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.
The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material).
It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.
The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.
As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.
Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.
It Chapter Two is in cinemas now
IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes