L.A Confidential (1997, Directed by Curtis Hanson) English 10

Starring Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, Danny Devito, Kim Basinger, David Strathairn, James Cromwell

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Potent. Dazzling. Masterful.

Curtis Hanson’s 1997 film, based on James Ellroy’s novel, has many elements usually found in a bad adaptation: bastardized plot, watered-down themes (especially the racist qualities of the protagonists), and a cast that veers rather strongly from their original character descriptions , including an Australian and a New Zealander playing American cops in key roles. It’s a credit to the filmmakers, or truly everyone involved- the writers, the cinematographer, the stars, composer Jerry Goldsmith, who did the terrific score-that instead of feeling like a hack adaptation, L.A Confidential feels like a perfect movie; perfectly paced, perfectly performed, and perfectly filmed. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce play three disparate cops, at odds mostly, who all get swept up from different angles into a massive crime plot involving prostitution, police corruption, heroin, and Mickey Cohen. Kim Basinger merges two Hollywood clichés (hooker with the heart of gold with the classic femme fatale) in her role as Lynn Bracken, but makes the part vital, and reminds us why we like the clichés.  The plot, as it is, seems as complex and mystifying as any ever portrayed on screen, and remembering that it’s working with maybe a third of the book begs the question of how I ever seemed to understand the book. In any case, those tough choices, the decision to go for Ellroy’s spirit rather than exact faithfullness, were judicious, and the resulting film is a major triumph.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Spectre (2015, Directed by Sam Mendes) English 7

Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Dvae Bautista, Monica Belluci, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw

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Bond (Craig) returns, as promised, following the deceased, former M’s (Judi Dench) orders that leads to an underground criminal enterprise, Spectre, and its enigmatic leader, Blofeld (Waltz). Bond gets help in finding Blofeld from an excommunicated member of Spectre, known as Mr. White, as well as Mr. White’s beautiful daughter, Madeleine Swan (Seydoux), while being tracked by the deadly Mr. Hinx (Bautista). Formulaic to some, Spectre is everything I like in a Bond film. Great locations, imposing villains, beautiful women. Though less inspired and spectacular as the best in the series, Spectre is a beautiful, thrilling diversion. Solid. Elegant. Smooth.

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018, Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath) English 6

Voices of Greg Cripes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch, Kristen Bell, Will Arnett, Nicholas Cage

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Theatrical film given to the cast of the popular cartoon television series, Teen Titans Go! stars Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Starfire, and Cyborg working desperately to be taken seriously and get their own film (like Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Batman). Although no more than an extended episode of the show, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies had the children in the theater in stitches, and I laughed out loud several times, myself. As much meta humor and sly references as a Deadpool movie. Fun. Colorful. Funny.

Spider-Man 2 (2004, Directed by Sam Raimi) English 8

Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, J.K Simmons, Donna Murphy, Rosemary Harris

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“A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me?” The first two Spider-Man films centered around Peter Parker’s burden. The idea that he has to sacrifice his personal desires in order to fulfill his duty as Spider-Man. In Spider-Man 2, everything’s a mess in Parker’s world. He (Maguire) loves M.J (Dunst), but feels that he can’t be with her without putting her life in danger, and spends most of the movie disappointing her in some way or other, as she settles for another man she doesn’t love. Parker’s best friend, Harry (Franco) wants Spider-Man dead for killing his father in the first film. On top of that, Parker can’t pay his rent. Director Sam Raimi gave the character compelling problems, and a sense of humor that didn’t take away from the drama. Actually, this film is largely a melodrama with misunderstandings, unrequited love, twists. Doctor Oc is the main villain in this picture, and there’s a fantastic scene of him and his robotic attachments Wreaking havoc in a hospital wing (a memorable homage to classic monster movies, I feel). The film starts out with one great scene after the other, and by the end, I was happy to find, that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains one of the really good super hero movies. Engaging. Inspired. Fun.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018, Directed by Christopher McQuarrie) English 6

Starring Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Simon Pegg, Angela Bassett, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Michelle Monaghan, Vanessa Kirby, Sean Harris

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Another year, another mission. If that sounds cynical, know that it’s intentional, but know also that I’m tremendously impressed by the Mission Impossible franchise’s proven longevity.  Who, besides Tom Cruise maybe, believed that twenty two years later, he would still be playing Ethan Hunt and topping the box office? When a franchise’s optimistic goal is three films to form a trilogy, I doubt anyone could have predicted six Mission Impossibles. More than this, the truly remarkable thing is that they seem to be getting better.  They keep upping the ante. So I’m impressed on one hand, a little fatigued on the other, which is basically how I felt throughout this 2 and 1/2 hour movie.

In Fallout, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, tireless and most valuable asset for top secret government agency, IMF (Impossible Missions Force), is up against an anarchist terrorist group known as The Apostles. Apparently, risen from the ashes of Mission Impossible 5’s The Syndicate, The Apostles have been growing and plotting underground for two years since Hunt’s capture of Solomon Lane, and now they’re on the verge of a catastrophic attack on the world’s holy cities Mecca, Rome, and Jerusalem. Hunt’s mission (should he choose to accept it): stop The Apostles from acquiring plutonium which they need to power their nuclear weapons. *Spoiler Alert* The Apostles win the first round, and so it’s up to Hunt and his IMF team-Luther (Rhames) and Benji (Pegg)-along with a CIA operative, August Walker (Cavill),  to retrieve the Plutonium before The Apostles start a nuclear holocaust. Making matters more difficult, wild card MI6 agent and Hunt’s reluctant love interest, Ilsa Faust (Ferguson) shows up, and he can’t truly tell whose side she’s on. Then there’s also a little matter of a rat among Hunt and his team. Between the CIA and IMF, someone’s feeding the enemy information. The CIA thinks it’s Hunt.

Mission Impossible: Fallout does a nice job throwing a lot up in the air, and maintaining a level of intrigue, though I’ll admit being confused often. I do think, by the end, the plot comes together, and am sure a second viewing would help. So too would a viewing of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation before seeing this one, which I failed to do. Unlike other Mission Impossible entries, Fallout is a direct follow up to the previous film. Tom Cruise is incredible. Much has been made about him doing his own stunts, and yes it is partly a marketing tool, but he deserves the praise, along with the filmmakers for some truly amazing stunt work and action sequences. Where these films always lose me is the third act, when all of the smoke has cleared, and everything’s understood. It’s partly inevitable: the mystery is always more interesting than the solution, but I find that each film loses steam, even while picking up the action, in the climax. Fallout takes its time getting to the final act, and then takes its time during the final act. It’s too long. At least twenty minutes too long. When you’re ready for a film to be over, just as the climax begins, that’s a problem. A more polarizing problem is the level of believability involved in these films. Many won’t care, and perhaps it’s unfair to bring up when talking about Mission Impossible, but I could not get over the physics of much of the action. Surviving plane crashes. Climbing a rope dangling from a helicopter (twice!), rock climbing after an intense fight. Ethan Hunt is a super hero, and I alternate between being entertained and bemused by him.

Fallout succeeds as an elegant, intelligent action blockbuster, but doesn’t surpass what I see as both enjoyable hallmarks and limitations of the durable franchise.

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Directed by Peter Jackson) English 9

Starring Elijah Wood, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Ian McKellan, Dominic Monaghan, Liv Tyler, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Billy Boyd, Andy Serkis, Cate Blanchett, Bernard King, John Rhys-Davies, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean

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Final chapter in Peter Jackson’s landmark fantasy series finds Frodo (Wood) and Sam (Astin) following Smeagol (Serkis) into a trap on their quest to rid Middle Earth of the One Ring once and for all. Sauron, having suffered a defeat at the end of Two Towers, launches an all out assault on humans in this installment. Aragorn (Mortensen), knows that Gondor, his kingdom, will not stand a chance unless he can muster reinforcements, so he looks for aid from the Dead Men of Dunharrow (an army of undead warriors) with the help of Legolas (Bloom) and Gimli (Rhys-Davies). Gandalf and Pippin fight to defend Gondor stronghold Minas Tirith from a devastating siege from Sauron. Wholly gratifying end to the Lord of the Rings tale, with multiple absorbing story lines, dozens of indelible characters, and a vast array of technical skill. One of the great visual spectacles of modern cinema. Surprisingly, I found The Two Towers superior to The Returns of the King, which ends on at least thirty minutes of unnecessary epilogue. The battle of Minis Tirith also ends frustratingly with the Dead Men of Dunharrow finishing the battle within minutes. While not quite “deus ex machina,” because there is plenty of build up towards it, the conclusion of the battle did make the preceding hour seem like a waste. And then there’s the eagles. They are “deus ex machina,” and a bewildering turn in the plot. Still a great film. Unforgettable. Indulgent. Satisfying.

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002, Directed by Peter Jackson) English 10

Starring Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, Viggo Mortensen, Orlando Bloom, Ian Mckellen, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Hugo Weaving, Liv Tyler, Brad Dourif, Cate Blanchett, Dominic Monaghan, Miranda Otto, John Rhys-Davies

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Continuation of Frodo Baggins’ (Wood) epic journey to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mordor, he’s led by the pitiable, treacherous Gollum (Serkis), and accompanied by brave, loyal Sam (Astin). The rest of Frodo’s former travel mates-Aragorn (Mortensen), Legolas (Bloom), and Gimli (Rhys-Davies)-search for Merry (Monaghan) and Pippin (Boyd), who’ve been captured by Orcs. This leads them to the center of Saruman’s plan to wipe out the remaining humans, and Aragorn fights back with the men of Rohan. The entire Lord of the Rings Saga is top of the line fantasy and world building. This second chapter brings in new great characters, and offers one of the best battle sequences in movie history: the final 40 minutes is dedicated to the extended fight at Helm’s Deep in the rain.