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🎥 ESJ's Movie Project: Casablanca, Catch Me If You Can, Chicken Run and more

I had a "productive" week — seven movies in eight days, including an accidental Tom Hanks double-feat

ESJ's Movie Project

October 28 · Issue #16 · View online
I'm reviewing every movie I watch, and watching every movie I own. Settle in, this is going to take a while.

I had a “productive” week — seven movies in eight days, including an accidental Tom Hanks double-feature. Also had time for a haircut, hence the new headshot 👆

CASABLANCA (1942) is a classic for a reason. A parable about broken hearts and a warning about the stakes of cynical isolationism, it tells a tale that is both deeply personal and historically significant. It’s also a great Hollywood story: According to film legend, at least, the actors all thought they were working on a dud — a perception that encouraged Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman to commiserate together, forging a chemistry that carried over to their on-screen relationship. It’s harder to see today why they had cause for pessimism; several scenes here have been so culturally significant as to endure for decades, including the airport finale, the Paris montage and — my favorite — the “play La Marseillaise” scene, which always makes me emotional. Maybe you have to be a “rank sentimentalist” to see Casablanca as often as I have, but the story still feels fresh to me as time goes by.
CASINO ROYALE (2006) is a solidly entertaining reboot of the James Bond franchise and a darker origin story for the character than audiences might have expected, which I appreciated. The action is cleanly shot, the villain is scary and the chemistry between Bond and the MI6 accountant Vesper Lynd is strong… and yet. Even though I really like Daniel Craig’s interpretation of Bond, I did find myself missing some of the series’ weirdness and whimsy in this very grounded installment; the best quip in this movie comes not during an exciting action set piece, but a twisted torture scene that makes every man instinctively close his legs. Overall, though, Casino Royale is one of the top “Bond movies as good movies,” and its more acidic tone was a necessary correction for the time.
CAST AWAY (2000)
CAST AWAY (2000) proves that you don’t need trickery or giant leaps of logic to have a surprising ending. I won’t spoil anything here, but I think the final act of this movie is just fantastic, and the two hours preceding it are pretty great, too! Tom Hanks is so perfect for the role of Chuck Noland that I can’t imagine any other actor in the part, and director Robert Zemeckis finds so many unique, clever — and, at times, horrific — ways to shoot Noland’s island life that the film feels like neither a farce nor torture porn. Unlike other movies that trade on a person’s suffering (looking at you, The Revenant), Cast Away keeps the stakes and the survivor’s mental state within reach. My biggest complaint with Cast Away is the vague taste of product placement (although incredibly, the filmmakers claim FedEx did not sponsor this film). But the rest of this movie is so strong that by the end, I always forget about that stuff.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) is just a joyful ride from start to finish, and in my unrefined opinion the best performance to date of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career. As the teenage runaway-turned-criminal-mastermind Frank Abagnale, Jr., he jogs the line between giddily getting away with something and desperately trying to avoid the insecurities that compel him to keep running. I knew from past viewings that this was a star-studded Spielberg production featuring the likes of Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Amy Adams, but I had totally forgotten that Jennifer Garner and Elizabeth Banks both pop up as Abagnale’s earlier love interests, and I probably would have recognized his first fling Ellen Pompeo if I had ever watched Grey’s Anatomy. Of course, no review of Catch Me If You Can can omit a mention of Tom Hanks as the dogged FBI detective Carl Hanratty, or John Williams’ cool but exciting insta-earworm score. It’s a happy accident that I watched this so soon after Cast Away; while still looking and sounding like one of the most famous actors on the planet, Tom Hanks totally disappears into the role of Carl. And that score! “The Float” is one of Williams’ most underrated compositions and I will be humming it for the next week.
(P.S.: Three days since this review, can confirm, “The Float” is still stuck in my head. Bum-bum-BUM budubudubaduh…)
I have some thoughts on CHASING AMY (1997). Although it would be unfair to lose sight of when this movie was released — just weeks before Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom, way before mass culture had accepted gay people — it approaches sexuality with an immaturity that feels extreme even for the 1990s. Although the queerness of Alyssa, played by Joey Lauren Adams, is initially accepted as “real,” the story seemingly endorses a belief of the homophobic comic relief character Banky, that the right man could turn any lesbian straight. We’re told repeatedly that Alyssa and Holden have a transcendent love, but from what we see, it feels more like a mutual crush. One aspect of the relationship is very much NOT mutual, however: While much of the story’s conflict hinges on who Alyssa has had sex with in the past, Holden’s past partners receive zero interrogation. In one instance, Alyssa tells a story that today we’d recognized as sexual assault, but turns around and tearfully blames it on herself asserting that it couldn’t have happened if she didn’t want it to. Again, times change and this is probably how the story would have been told in the 90s, but I can’t bring myself to empathize with Holden, who seemingly agrees that that incident is something Alyssa did “to” him. Throughout it all, the focus is on his feelings and his sexual gratification, almost never hers. Two monologues near the end of the movie, both delivered to Holden, nudge him toward a different way of seeing things, but his character’s growth only happens in one dimension, learning to process his own hangups and not the harm he inflicts on others. The final scene suggests he ~maybe~ has risen to that challenge, but it’s a vague indicator in a movie that devotes much of its runtime to selfishness, with cruel South Park-style slurs about gays and lesbians peppered throughout. Any redemption of Holden as a “judgmental prick” is heavily overshadowed by the text of the film as a whole.
I have a lot of childhood nostalgia for CHICKEN RUN (2000), one of the first movies I remember watching over and over again on DVD, back when that was a relatively new technology. I still have that DVD, and on this re-viewing of it I did my best to *suppress* that nostalgia and look at it through a critical lens … Either I failed, or it’s just a good movie, because I had a great time. In the tradition of their Wallace and Gromit cartoons, Aardman delivers here a subversive-yet-accessible sendup of The Great Escape and breakout stories in general, with puns galore and some legitimately scary stakes for our chicken protagonists. The fact that these characters had to be made and moved with human hands, not a computer, makes the animation that much more impressive; there are some big narrative leaps in the story, especially in the final act, but I can look the other way on that, given how expensive and time-consuming real stop-motion is to make. The standout scene here is the Indiana Jones-y pie machine escape in the second act, an inspired setpiece that does the most with Ginger and Rocky’s size. But all the way through, this is a cute and witty delight.
CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) may be 12 years old, but it has never felt more relevant than it does in 2018. Unlike some dystopian movies, we are not asked here to root for an exceptional person, but instead a willfully apathetic one, who has buried his conscience under decades of grief and ignorance. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón and often remembered for his signature long shots, Children of Men is also a case study in good world-building. Some of the early exposition is a little repetitive for me, but that’s a nitpick — the whole movie is tethered together with provocative details about how the people of 2027 Britain survive (or, in many cases, how they die). My biggest complaint about the film is one I have about very few: It moves too quickly. Although I respect the commitment to only telling the story from Theo’s perspective, as a fan of both Chewitel Ejiofor and Julianne Moore I wish they were given more to do or say here, which could have been accomplished by slowing down the pace. Overall, however, I really admire this film and wish there were more like it.
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