The Movie Weekend That Was


After a couple of dead movie weekends, I finally had a chance to spend a weekend doing nothing else. Granted, napping away a nasty cold robbed me of some movie time, but there was still ample opportunity. The weekend brought me a sports drama, two big budget efforts from 1976, a very unique documentary, a recent Oscar nominee, and a continuation of my struggle with Brian DePalma. This is the movie weekend that was.

Helvetica (2007)
Gary Hustwit’s documentary about the legendary typface is an effective one. If you’ve ever done any design, then you know that Helvetica- the typeface- is clean, simple, versatile, and highly functional. Hustwit puts those facts on full display. But he also presents the other side. Specifically, Helvetica is lacking in character and individuality. In fact, that’s more or less the point of the typeface- to let the words stand on their own by removing as much character as possible from them, a modernist concept if ever there was one. I enjoyed this film immensely and I highly recommend it. It’s the perfect film for anyone who has ever thought of graphic design as simply putting pictures and words together. There’s a great deal of thought and attention to detail that goes into good design and Helvetica offers a spectacular view of the effort.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

philomena2Philomena (2013)
Philomena works on nearly every possible level. It’s brilliantly acted by Judy Dench and Steve Coogan, who make quite a pair. It pulls at the heartstrings without any sort of ham-fisted effort. And it makes a bold statement about religious injustice, specifically pertaining to the forced adoption practices of the Catholic church in the mid-20th century. But it’s certainly no rambling, anti-religious film. Rather, the two protagonists balance it well, with Coogan playing the role of the atheist and Dench giving Philomena a pious, forgiving nature. For all of the injustice, the film posits a rather sunny outlook on human nature, which is quite a feat.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars 

Higher Learning (1995)
John Singleton’s film about the trials and tribulations of 1990s college life has not aged well. Nor does it especially stand out amid a sea of 1990s movies that feature racism and cultural differences on college campuses. To his credit, Singleton’s film has the most focused effort of any of them. But it’s easy to see why it has faded into the woodwork. If you could condense the entirety of 1990s movie tropes into a single slushy form, Higher Learning is what would come out.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It's definitely not safe

It’s definitely not safe

Marathon Man (1976)
If you like espionage, evil Nazis hiding in plain sight decades after the end of World War II, and hate dentists, do I ever have the film for you. Marathon Man is an effective thriller playing on the echoes of World War II crimes. The one and only scene that you’ll remember from this film revolves around some nefarious dentistry, executed by a Nazi butcher. It’s guaranteed to make you squirm, and it even comes with its own highly memorable line. “Is it safe?” (teeth drilled, screaming ensues) “Is it safe?” (more drilling and screaming) “Is it safe?” I guess all of this is my way of saying that this movie is certainly NOT safe if you’re really uncomfortable at the dentist’s office.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Blow Out (1981)
There was a point in the very recent past where I would have told you that Brian DePalma is one of my least favorite directors. Mostly, I couldn’t stand just how much he lifted from Hitchcock in movies like Carrie (and others- see The Untouchables and the Odessa Steps sequence). But then I saw Phantom of the Paradise and went bananas for it. After that was Dressed to Kill, which felt much more like Hitchcock homage than Hitchcock ripoff. Slowly but surely, DePalma was winning me back. Or at least finding his way off of my shit list. Blow Out firmly moved him out of my doghouse. I believe it’s his best work, all at once a deconstruction of film, a tip of the cap to the New Wave, and yes, a tip of the cap to Hitchcock. And while it’s certainly derivative of all of those things, it’s not shameless theft. It’s also uniquely American, riddled with media and political misdeeds, with a climax wrapped up in fireworks. Well done, Mr. DePalma.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars 

The Last Tycoon (1976)
Elia Kazan swung for the fences with his tale of early Hollywood. The cast is gigantic, featuring Robert DeNiro, Ray Milland, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, John Carradine, Jack Nicholson, Jeanne Moreau, a very young Anjelica Huston, and Donald Pleasence. With that much talent, you’d think the film couldn’t go wrong. But it meanders aimlessly, taking lots of positive elements (nostalgia, the feel of a Hollywood epic, the cast) and doing nothing worthwhile with them. The story doesn’t mesh well with the nostalgia and vice versa. So instead, we get mediocrity and the feeling that there should have been so much more.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

draft-dayDraft Day (2014)
Apparently one movie with copious split screen wasn’t enough for me this weekend, so I went to the theater to see Draft Day. I’m a sucker for Kevin Costner and sports movies. I’ll always have a soft spot for the guy because of his roles in Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, and For the Love of the Game. This film is quite bland and the plausibility of most of what happens is laughable, but it does the trick if you’re a football fan. Believe it or not, I’ve always thought that the various drafts in professional sports were ripe for a treatment like this simply because there’s a built-in tension to the event. It works here… just barely.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Filed under Movies

13 responses to “The Movie Weekend That Was

  1. Love Philomena and I’m intrigued by Helvetica but haven’t seen it yet. Have to say Marathon Man sounds like my worst nightmare and I’m steering clear! Great reviews John.

  2. Actually, there is one other scene I very much remember from Marathon Man, because my dad loved that movie when I was really young and I must have walked in on him watching it. It’s when they go to get Hoffman and he is in the bath tub. Had nightmares about that. Finally watched the full movie when I got to college.

  3. Also, I’m with you on De Palma. He’s an enigma at times. I probably like “The Untouchables” more than you, but I do remember “Blow Out” being pretty good. “The Black Dhalia”? Not so good.

  4. jackdeth72

    Hi, themazman:

    Has Brian DePalma ever had an original thought in his head?

    Though he does have a penchant for selecting strong supporting actors (John Lithgow in ‘Blow Out’ ROCKS!. William Devane in ‘Marathon Man’. Robert Loggia in ‘Scarface’) who help push the films’ less than sturdy message and plot forward.

    • Hmmm….that question’s for me? Are you referring to the way he directs (shots, style, etc.) or has he written anything original? I know his style is highly derivative of Hitchcock, but that’s OK at times. I personally think it worked for the first “Mission Impossible” (which sure was better than John Woo’s MI2!). I can’t say I am a huge follower or have seen everything he has done. And of the later stuff I have seen I have not been impressed at all. I can barely remember “Femme Fatale”.

      I agree wholeheartedly with those actor choices/roles you mentioned (especially Lithgow!), but he had nothing to do with “Marathon Man”. But wow….did he ever misstep with “Raisin Cain” (another Lithgow). I saw that in the theater and it still stands as the only movie I was in where the crowd loudly booed at the end of it. 🙂

  5. jackdeth72

    Hi, themazman:

    My initial question was more hypothetical and ethereal than directed towards you.

    DePalma’s ‘Sisters’ was notable for an eerie twist on a creepy topic and plot. While ‘Blow Out’ was a decent conspiracy film centered around a perfect “Scream Queen” for the film sound man, Travolta was working on within the film.

    Huge William Devane fan. So I mentioned ‘Marathon Man’. Mea culpa. DePalma had nothing to do with the film.

    Lithgow delivers, no matter the film. Even a bad guy with a phony English or Aussie accent in ‘Cliffhanger’. Still think he rocked as Dr. Emilio Lizardo in ‘Buckaroo Banzai’. And put the actor on my radar ages ago.

    ‘Raising Cain’, not so much.

  6. spencerfsu15

    Love movies weekends. This post has inspired me to schedule one soon. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t seen Marathon Man yet since it’s such a classic.

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