By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist December 24, 2013 at 7:03AM
Underrated: "The Lone Ranger"
One of the joys of being a film journalist is the blissful ignorance with which you can occasionally watch a movie. I saw "The Lone Ranger" (with Johnny Depp as Tonto and Armie Hammer as the titular hero) a while before it came out, in a midtown movie theater with two other journalists (who happen to be a couple of my best buds) and we had a perfectly wonderful time with the movie. I was more outspoken in my appreciation for all of its borderline surrealist pleasures (its wonky tone, its sudden bursts of hyper-violence, the bizarre framing device), but we were in agreement that it was one of the more solid, handsomely produced summertime confections we'd witnessed that year. Flash forward a few weeks and the movie actually opens and critics take a tomahawk to it, scalping it alive. Which is a shame. In a few years, I'll bet there will be a widespread reappraisal of "The Lone Ranger," and the same critics who trashed it initially will bemoan the lack of outspoken acclaim for the movie the first time around. The movie has faults, for sure; it's way too long and too crammed with stuff (ideas, themes, characters) that clog up what could have been a more streamlined and pleasurable narrative. But the movie also has personality, something that was sorely lacking in big studio tent poles this year. Gore Verbinski, the mad genius behind the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies and the Oscar-winning "Rango," fearlessly shifts between tones and genres, offering up a dab of horror movie here, a little bit of historical drama there, all encased in what is literally the biggest western ever made. It leads, of course, to the much-ballyhooed train chase, a mindbogglingly complicated action set piece that remains one of the most peerlessly cinematic sequences all year. When we talked to one of the film's costars, Helena Bonham Carter about it a couple of months ago, she compared the film's reaction to one of her other cult classics that got an initial critical drubbing, "Fight Club." While it will one day undoubtedly reach that status, it's a shame more people didn't get to see it where it was meant to be seen—on the biggest screen you could find.
Overrated: "12 Years a Slave"
On a technical level, "12 Years a Slave" is unimpeachable—it's one of the most rigorously gorgeous, historically meticulous recreations of a specific era that any of us are ever likely to see. (Not that we want to see this kind of thing again, ever.) And yes, the journey of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejofor), who goes from free man to wrongly imprisoned slave, is a harrowing experience for sure. But, ultimately, the movie is more formally impressive than it is emotionally involving. And that's a big problem. Slavery is one of the worst atrocities of humankind and yet director Steve McQueen, with his languid tracking shots and artfully composed brutality, approaches everything with the calculated detachment of a sociologist. In all of his films, McQueen seems interested in humanity, but at a distance, encased in a series of beautiful tableaux. And the filmmaker found his perfect entry point therefore in the character of Northup, since he too is continually kept at arm's length from actually engaging with the senselessness around him. When the movie begins, there is a shot of a paddleboat, with a particular emphasis spent on the paddles as they slam into the water (accompanied by a menacingly grinding Hans Zimmer cue). "Oh," I thought. "This is great. It's like McQueen is focusing on this amazing machine because America is a machine and slavery is a machine." But then that didn't happen at all. There are some thematic concerns that are brought up and dabbled in, stuff about freedom and how we define our own experiences, but nothing all that grand or profound; for the most part it's almost shockingly straightforward. "12 Years a Slave" has had praise heaped upon on it for no apparent reason, other than its unflinching roughness, and even as a likely Best Picture winner it seems a little safe (although its saccharine ending, seemingly airlifted from another movie altogether, should warm voters' hearts). At least "Django Unchained" had the guts to turn slavery into an abstract, blood-splattered comic book. Here, it's like someone reading to you from a stuffy history book. Of all the things I expected a Steve McQueen movie about slavery to be, dry was never one of them.
Underrated: “Gangster Squad”
When Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) announced his latest film was a 1940s gangster movie starring Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone, it was as if the Hollywood heavens opened up and made a movie just for me. According to my friends, that explains why no one else likes it. Really, Fleischer did his homework with “Gangster Squad,” and created a truly legitimate 1940s B-movie. Everything about the movie is true to the time period of the movies referenced; it isn’t a movie about the 1940s or set in that period, it wants to be a movie released during that time period. If you went to the movies during that era, you’d see something similar; more “G-Men” than “White Heat.” As a classic film lover, I applauded Fleischer’s attention to detail. He truly created and attempted to immerse audiences in every facet of Los Angeles during the period, right down to filming on location in places like Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He could have stuck to set design and costume—base elements necessary for creating a period drama—but Fleischer went further. Yes, the dialogue is hokey because the actors aren’t versed in how to make words like “tomato” sound as fluid as in movies past, but you have to applaud them for trying. Yes, other elements like the bare-knuckle brawl finale, and a character’s wife giving birth at home whilst being shot at have an air of camp and ridiculousness exemplified in the more ham-fisted movies of the era it seeks to represent, and the "messages" were less than subtle: a character dies then we cut to a scene of a hamburger being grilled. But the real issue appears to lie in audiences’ belief, at the time, that this would be another “L.A. Confidential” or “The Untouchables,” which it isn’t, or nor does it feel as such. It isn’t a neo-noir, nor is the intention to use a modern lens to look back at noir tropes. It seeks to reinvigorate and recreate the aura of a 1940s movie in tone, characters, and narrative. And then the last-minute reshoots in light of the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting cursed the movie and prevented it from getting a fair shake; it’s far from perfect, but its reverence and adherence to classic film ideals warms the cockles of my heart and makes it worthy of a second look.
Overrated: “Captain Phillips”
The final ten minutes of “Captain Phillips,” particularly the eponymous character’s breakdown at the end showcases an exemplary performance for which Tom Hanks should be applauded. However, the rest of the movie is too basic and uninspiring by comparison. I remember when Phillips’ boat, the Maersk Alabama was hijacked back in 2009, so where’s the desire to see a recreation of events four years later? I could just as easily go back and watch the original story on YouTube. Yes, director Paul Greengrass is well known for rapidly capitalizing on world events; his own “United 93” came out five years after the events of 9/11. On top of that, director Kathryn Bigelow was inserting history as it happened in last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” so I understand the need to produce recreations; however, is this an event which necessitated a movie? The incident happened and people moved on; it never attained the historical significance of Greengrass’ prior work. Greengrass attempts to show balance in his movie, especially humanizing the Somali pirates, but it wears its “America!” heart on its sleeve. It doesn't help that the movie has fallen under attack for authenticity issues, which I’ve heard about since the events happened in 2009. I don’t begrudge either Hanks or Barkhad Abdi’s performances, because they’re phenomenal, but the movie is a victim of its own hype. It’s well-performed, but the impact of the events is negligible and I don’t feel enough time has passed to make me say “Yeah, remember four years ago?”
Underrated: “The Last of Robin Hood”
Full disclosure, I am a big Errol Flynn fan (carry around a swatch of his clothing for good luck; may or may not own a pair of pants he wore in “The Prince and the Pauper,” etc.). So when I walked in to see “The Last of Robin Hood” this past September, I was ready to pounce at anything inaccurate or inauthentic or generally offensive to his memory. Based on Flynn’s last affair with teenage wannabe starlet Beverly Aadland, the film was overshadowed and written off out of the gate when it premiered at TIFF, but that overlooks one of the best performances of 2013—Kevin Kline as Errol Flynn, a role every critic noted he was clearly born to play. Even before Kline’s face appears onscreen (the first shot being of his hands and torso accepting an award), I was taken aback by the voice, a remarkable facsimile of the star’s. And it wasn’t the young, dashing, bounding-for-life Flynn, but the aged-beyond-his-47-years, world-weary Flynn you can see on his “What’s My Line?” appearance, which by the end of the film turns into the even more aged and bloated, bordering on decrepit, Flynn of his last interviews. Then, as the camera revealed Kline regaling the women’s auxiliary league with stories of “Cirrhosis by the Sea” (the Hollywood playboy bungalow he shared with David Niven) and his dear old friend John Barrymore, the waterworks began. I was sold—hook, line and sinker. Kline brought Flynn back to life and for that, I will always be indebted to him and directors/screenwriters Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceanera,” “Fluffer”). Maybe I went in with too subjective and appreciative an eye, but this film deserves to be seen beyond film festival and classic film fan crowds. Although there are many more redeeming qualities to the film, the most pressing is Kline’s jaw-dropping, heart-melting performance that neither mimics nor impersonates but brings my hero back to life for a brief, all-too-fleeting 92 minutes.
Overrated: “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
Knowing full well that this hasn’t been a total critical darling, certainly round these parts (here’s our review), I still believe Ben Stiller’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is, given its generally warm reception, deserving of some balancing out. After its premiere at NYFF, whispers began around Oscar nominations, but I thoroughly hated it, spending two hours hoping for a punchline that never came, with each superficial reflection feeling like an insult to the intellect of not only the average filmgoer but also the general American public. First among its sins: an onslaught of promotional tie-ins and product placement that goes from obnoxious to downright offensive. You’ve probably seen the eHarmony tie-ins during a few of the film’s TV promo spots, but there’s also the deeply crude use of Papa John's. SPOILER, Walter Mitty (Stiller) loses his father as a teenager and has to give up his dream of skateboarding to work at a Papa Johns. With the blunt knife of doltish symbolism already stabbed in, they decide to twist it a bit more and sprinkle some salt on the proceeding wound with his mother (played by an underused Shirley MacLaine, actually come to think of it, all of the women involved—Kristen Wiig, Kathryn Hahn—were woefully underutilized) commenting on that connection and how hard it must have been for him working somewhere with the name Papa in it after losing his father. Presumably meant to be some profound, heart-tugging moment, it was my last straw. It's simply outright manipulative to tie the loss of both father and childhood to a shameless, clumsy plug for a pizza company. I may be too sensitive, but for a film trying so hard to tug at the heartstrings and draw on the notion of making your dreams come true if you will it hard enough (cue Arcade Fire and some “exotic,” but samey locations), the film doesn’t think too hard about the actual hearts and minds of its audience. It’s an insult not only to the original James Thurber-penned short story and the Danny Kaye-starring 1947 escapist delight of a film, but to daydreamers everywhere, especially to those who actually put some serious thought into their daydreams.